Mouldering on the Shelves

These are capsules of books I read in 1997 and earlier. Comments? Mail me.

Mouldering on the Shelves (1997 and earlier):

Dirty Jokes and Beer, Drew Carey

I've never seen the Drew Carey show, nor really heard any of Drew Carey's stand up material. I received Dirty Jokes and Beer as a gift, and I'm glad I did. Carey describes the book as his attempt to translate a late night conversation with him in a bar into prose, and he delivers pretty well on that attempt. And I've had a lot of late night bar conversations.

The short essays are interesting, well-written and at times quite moving. I didn't agree with everything he says, but drinking buddies can overlook things like that. The high point of the book is probably his short stories at the end. Carey's not Henry James, but his stories are quite entertaining, which is all he's shooting at. ``Tackling Jim Brown'' is probably my favorite of the bunch.

Recommended as light reading.

My Land And My People, The Dalai Lama of Tibet

This is the story of the Dalai Lama's experiences from birth until shortly after his entry into exile in India. It's a candid account of his life and Tibet's problems, primarily with China. His prose is simple and moving, in fact, I found it surprisingly so.

I strongly recommend the book as a starting point for anyone interested in the Tibet situation.

As Francesca, Martha Baer

The hook for Martha Baer's erotic novel As Francesca is that the protagonist, Elaine is involved with an S&M relationship on a computer bulletin board under a pseudonym, Francesca. Elaine's world unravels when her electronic paramour finds her real identity and disappears. It seems that the only way for her to put things right is to find the lover's identity and get her back. A scenario with real potential, but Baer seems to want to write about submissive and aggressive behavior as two sides of the same coin, and how it relates to the forces of history and modern business environments.

I don't really agree with her assessment of those forces, and wasn't excited by her exploration of them. Her characters were overly stylized, because they were too busy acting as symbols. I never wound up feeling for them at all, or for Elaine/Francesca, the protagonist. Some of this is certainly my bias; excessively submissive people bore me, and after a couple chapters of hearing how Elaine was helpless before the wash of socio-economic forces oppressing her without her fantasy lover to abuse her at night, I had ceased to care who her lover was, and if she'd ever find another.

The book's not for me, but that may be because Baer writes a good submissive. Incidentally, she's done her homework, the computer stuff had all the right feel to it for me.

Eyewitness To America, edited by David Colbert

David Colbert's compilation of eyewitness accounts of American events engrossed me with its variety and breadth. The work is a collection of short excerpts and essays from those present at, and often making, great events in American history. As I read, I found myself interested both by what Colbert included and by the content of the individual pieces. In many cases, the content of the eyewitness account convinced me that the event it related was more significant than I had believed before reading the bit, like . Some were included that I found important, but was surprised that the author did, e.g., the unveiling of ENIAC. Some shed new light on events I thought I knew all about, for example Rosa Parks' famous stand on the bus, Malcom X's scathing critique of the march on Washington including Dr. Martin Luther King's famous ``I Have A Dream'' speech.

Of course, with this many selections, some are less gripping, less moving, less thought-provoking than others. Dolley Madison's account of the evacuation of art from the White House in the War of 1812 didn't hold my attention, nor did Warhol's descriptions of Studio 54.

For me the gems were the accounts of events I think of as modern events, but that are simply ongoing: raids on abortion clinics (an account of one from 1929, well before I thought it was an active issue in the American mind), and celebrity trials (the Lindbergh trial account could be changed to the Simpson trial with minimal editing) and riots in US cities (the Haymarket Riot in 1886 was as incendiary an event as any in LA in 1992).

On this level, the book served me as both a reminder that many of the issues we grapple with today, we've grappled with before. But maybe more importantly, it crystallized the idea that we're living in history. Many of the accounts mirrored accounts I see every day in my local papers on or the 'net. It's renewed an excitement in me to think that someday these same accounts may be history to someone like me in 50 years.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 2B, edited by Ben Bova

A wonderful collection of late-50's early-60's science fiction that was remarkably fun to read. There are undeniably good stories here, all of whose authors escape me, and I've returned the book. ``Rogue Moon,'' ``E for Effort,'' and ``The Machine Stops'' all struck different strong chords. There were few bad stories, and none I remember by name. The anachronisms were half the fun: the idea that one of Blish's spindizzies could have been built from vacuum tubes is delightfully retro, although the generally short shrift given to female characters is less amusing.

Strongly recommended to science fiction fans.

Six Easy Pieces, Richard Feynman

This collection from The Feyman Lectures on Physics saves the best for last. It's a collection of six of those celebrated lectures intended, presumably, to whet your appetite for the whole set. It certainly did that for me, but may not for the average reader.

The Feyman Lectures are the lectures from Feyman's years teaching Freshman Physics at CalTech, and are widely regarded as great examples of the simple and beautiful way Feyman's remarkable mind worked. From what I see here, that's true, although the lectures suffer from being only six of many; I'm sure six of my lectures chosen at random would leave bigger holes than these. The exception that proves the rule is the final lecture in the book an quantum physics. For me it was a brilliantly clear description of the key experiment in quantum physics, and I came away with the issues significantly clarified.


A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace seems to be getting a lot of notoriety as a good comic writer these days, so this book of essays seemed a good way to sample his work. From the text, I gather that he's an East coast intellectual who writes well when he has something to say, and has the most annoying footnoting style ever conceived. This primarily comes out when he's got nothing to write about, like in his essay on taking one of those Megacruises, but it's more exasperating than if he'd just written something banal.

His essays about the relationship between Television and Metafiction and about David Lynch's work were both interesting, but the rest were standard fare, except for the annoying footnotes. For a comic author, I though he made a fine serious essayist. Chance it if your sense of humor is less weird than mine, and your ability to switch conversational contexts is better than mine.

The White Boy Shuffle, Paul Beatty

Beatty's comic novel about a young black poet growing up in L.A. is wonderfully multifaceted. Its characters are bizarre enough to be real and they linger long after you close the book. We follow Gunnar Kaufman from the bright childhood of Santa Monica to the dark adolescence of South Central LA, and on into the flawed and pointless world of adulthood. Gunnar, it turns out, is a gifted athlete and poet destined to become a Black messiah. His terrible and comic road to the pulpit is the plot of the book, and Beatty's sparkling prose makes the trip worthwhile. It's full of Dickensian coincidence, Springsteen rhythms, and Japanese death poems. Pick this book up, scan the prologue, and you'll have to read the rest.

A must.

The Civil War, A Narrative, Shelby Foote

Three volumes of fascinating American history. If, like me, your education on the Civil War consisted of a unit in Social Studies in High School, you've missed an important and interesting chapter in our national history. Foote does a good job bringing it all alive. His great strength and weakness is that he keeps strictly to the war itself, i.e., the maneuvers and the battles, and the personalities of those involved. He resolutely avoids examining the question of which side was morally right in the questions that led to the conflict, which has the benefit of making the work accessible despite whatever moral biases the reader brings to the work.

There's no question that 3000+ pages is a long haul, but Foote makes it continually engaging. I was sorry to see the end of the third book.

Very interesting and balanced narrative. Recommended.

Braindroppings, George Carlin

Carlin, who I find to be a man with a unique point of view and ability to articulate it when he's doing stand-up, fails miserably in print. Braindroppings is a disorganized wander through text that is unified only by its misanthropy. Granted, in the introduction Carlin pretty much declares that's what he's written and that he doesn't care what I think of it. Still, with his clearly articulated views that Americans are amoral capitalists who can't correctly use the English language, it's remarkable that his book is composed of text that has either been culled from or that could be used in stand-up with no structure imposed above the paragraph level. He does have some interesting insights, but they're fired at you shotgun style, unrelated to each other. This is effective in the two "Short Takes" sections, which consist mostly of single unrelated sentences - little idea pellets from his mental shotgun blast. Some hit and are funny and thought-provoking, but the hits are too infrequent. As a whole, the book looks like something he dashed out to make a few quick bucks, and I'm sorry that he got some of mine.

Depth Takes a Holiday, Sandra Tsing Loh

I wanted to like this book of short essays on Los Angeles life much more than I did. The reason for my lukewarm reception is depth's titular departure. The essays are all well-crafted, light, and served with a sprinkle of irony. They're also based on life as an LA, and not having grown up here, I seem to miss the cultural resonances, and there isn't enough else to sustain my interest. For example, her conclusion in "Christians Reconsidered" is that "the mystery of religion continues to intrigue." I was sort of hoping to hear her opinion about religion that was less generic, rather than her brushes with Godspell as a kid. One exception to this is her first-rate essay on the balkanization of arts funding. Here she has a point to make, and she does so spectacularly well. Having an issue to supply some meat to go with the admittedly tasty sauce of her writing style makes the essay work.

Overall, you'll probably enjoy it if you're an LA native, especially a Valley native. Otherwise my rating is "doesn't suck." But read "Is This Ethnic Enough for You?" in the lobby of Borders in any case.

A Mapmaker's Dream: The Meditations of Fra Mauro, Cartographer to the Court of Venice, James Cowan

This is a fictional journal of a monk who spent his life cloistered outside Venice making maps, in which he reflects on the stories brought to him by travelers who contribute to his work. The premise of Cowan's story, a holy man who explores the world without leaving his cell growing richer and more spiritual as he does so, is a tantalizing one. For me, though, it fell flat. His fictional Fra Mauro feels a bit too much the clichéd New Ager, opening his mind far too easily to the divergent world views that stroll through his door. His protestations of how difficult it is to believe such wonders display none of the conflict that would accompany such a radical shift of perception. The ideas he embraces are certainly interesting; Cowan chooses stories that bring divergent viewpoints into perspective. However, ultimately his fictional mapmaker is too one-dimensional to hold my attention.

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace is a historical fiction set around a pair of 1843 murders in Canada, near Toronto. The titular protagonist is Grace Marks, the woman convicted of the killings. The plot concerns a young psychiatrist summoned from America by a group trying to secure Grace's release to examine her nearly 20 years after the murders. Grace claims to have no memory of the murders, and has been alternately in prison and the asylum.

What follows is a delightful double narrative as Grace relates the events of her life in flashback while our young psychiatrist has his own entanglements. Atwood's descriptions are wonderful, and her observations on both the modern and 19th century world are witty and accurate. More importantly, for all the enjoyable side trips, the main plot holds the reader's attention and offers enough twists to make it worth while. The ending is not perfectly to my taste, but everything else about the book is so strong that I recommend it whole heartedly.

Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut

If Vonnegut is an acquired taste, then I have certainly picked it up. Not that Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection of Vonnegut's short stories from the 50's and 60's, is flawless. Some of the stories have not aged well, and some are heavy handed enough to seem contrived even when first written. But the majority are of such quality that a few misses are small price to pay. For me, the thing that makes the great stories memorable is that no matter how fantastic the setting, or unusual the setting, Vonnegut's characters ring perfectly true as human beings. They have the faults we're ashamed of, and the simple values we aspire to. Too many people and characters these days have too much of either. Enjoy these.

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