Archive for February, 2011

Review: The Downhill Lie

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

The Downhill Lie is Carl Hiaasen’s memoir about returning to golfing after 20 years off.  Now, I’m not much of a golfer, but I do think Hiaasen‘s a very entertaining writer, and when I heard him talking about the book on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, it sounded like a hoot.

Hiaasen’s got the golf bug bad.  If I were going to try to pick up a sport I had not played in two decades, I would ease into it pretty slowly.  Hiaasen tries that, but it’s really not his nature; 20 pages or so in and he’s reading all the golf magazines and buying new clubs and half-baked mojo enhancers.  And hiding them from his wife.

And, as many amateurs have found, none of it is particularly effective.  Golf is hard, and he’s hysterically critical of his game even as he savors the occasional ray of false hope that lures him back to the course.

For a writer who’s normally as inviting as Hiaasen, this is actually somewhat dense with golf jargon.  It’s never enough that a non-golfer will lose the thread of his story, but it is certainly enough to make you raise some eyebrows.

Probably the best thing I can say about the book is that it made me consider taking up golf.  If you’ve already done that, I expect you’ll enjoy it even more.

Strongly recommended.

Review: What We Know About Climate Change

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

A couple weeks ago a was griping to my friends that I could not seem to lay hands on a reasonably objective summary of scientific consensus on climate change.  This is the kind of thing that always ticks me off, because it is clearly an important issue to get hold of, but all the popular books either take the position that we will be up to our neck in melted icecaps and polar bear blood or that even thinking about the changes is to be duped by a cabal of self-serving environmentalists who cook all their data to a light golden brown.

All I want to know is enough to form an opinion, not to be recruited to imaginary team or another.

Imagine my surprise when I found Kerry Emanuel’s What We Know About Climate Change.  It is exactly what I was looking for.  It is  reasoned description of the current state of climate change knowledge, enough history to see how and where the schisms formed that the media has stoked, and enough background to make the information accessible to someone with much less scientific background that I have.

This is apparently one of a series of short books from Boston Books covering essential topics of the day, and if they are all as well done as this is, Boston Books is doing the world a great service.

Strongly recommended.


Review: Fighting the Flying Circus

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Eddie Rickenbacker‘s Fighting The Flying Circus is another book that I cannot pretend to objectively review.  I first read this in 7th grade in study hall, and then again the following year.  It’s Rickenbacker’s story of being a fighter pilot in World War I, and it’s a very thrilling read for a boy who wants to fly, full of comradeship, derring-do, and courage and decency in the face of danger.  Rickenbacker comes across as a responsible, daring guy who wanted to do his best for his country in a war.

I’m older now, and I can see where he’s filling pages, and how there are places where I wish Rickenbacker had written more of a memoir than a briefing.  It was still a thrill to revisit it again, though.

Then there’s the gung-ho side of the book – which is to say most of it.  Rickenbacker is honestly happy to go out strafing German soldiers, which he calls great sport.  He and his men treat shooting down Germans as a game at which they want to be better than anyone else.  There’s an unapologetic jingoism that’s hard to ignore; and of course one shouldn’t ignore it.

I think Rickenbacker wrote honestly, and so I’m sure that these were exactly what he and his men talked about, and probably believed about the war.  And he honestly describes the enormous relief that the Armistice brought them.  One pilot just keeps repeating “we won’t get shot at anymore.”  These men had been in combat less than a year.

To see the losses that they suffer in that year, and coming off reading about how hard this brief, brutal war affected others, it’s easy to wish Rickenbacker had been more thoughtful about the barbarism of what he experienced.  That’s probably a lot to ask of a young patriot six months after the experience, though.

It’s a good book in a lot of ways, and much more readable than von Richthofen‘s autobiography.


So Long Dwayne

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

I found out that Dwayne McDuffie died today. I’ve never met him, and only knew him through his work.  But I’m very sad that the fellow who introduced me to Virgil Hawkins passed away.

I haven’t read a lot of McDuffie’s other work, but Static was enough to convince me that he was a man who remembered what it was like to be a kid and could communicate how comics made that fun.  Static had that great mix between fantasy and reality, childhood and adulthood that makes you remember your own childhood more fondly.  The stories were short, intelligent, and fun with the best parts of late 70’s Marvel to them.  They were the kinds of stories you could both admire and lose yourself in.

I’m sorry to hear the man who gave me the chance to read those is gone.

So it goes.

Review: Trouble Is My Business

Friday, February 18th, 2011

Even though the fine folks at Amazon listed Trouble Is My Business as a novel, it is really a collection of 4 longish short stories from Raymond Chandler.  I kind of like Chandler, so my disappointment was bounded.  And really, the title alone is so excellent that it’s tough to imagine dissatisfaction.

The stories are all good fun.  Chandler’s voice, skillful plotting, and tough guy poetry are all displayed proudly, and the stories have enough literary meat to be thoroughly enjoyable.  Marlowe remains his own worst enemy, though he gets the usual run for the money in the person of manipulative clients, corrupt cops, and random lowlives.  These are all something of Chandler in a microcosm.

Still, I prefer the novels.

There are a fair number of writers who can sustain a story with Chandler’s strengths for the length of these stories, but watching him hold a taut mystery and interesting novel together over 4 times the length represents a difference of kind.  And rather than just being the same thing longer, the novels get deeper and richer.

That said, these are all worthwhile stories in their own right.

Strongly recommended.

Small Victories

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Evidently Sarah Sharp is regularly updating Small Victories again.  Worth a look, IMHO.

Review: Colonel Roosevelt

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

When I read Edmund Morris’s Theodore Rex, I found his treatment of Roosevelt’s presidency and the times surrounding them captivating.  I was happy to pick up where he left off with this final volume of Roosevelt biography.

Morris’s research and writing continue to be exemplary, finding the key facts and recollections that put the reader into the picture with Roosevelt.  It is difficult to imagine a better framing of a historical figure.

If the Roosevelt of Theodore Rex is puzzling collection of mismatched convictions that combine to be greater than their parts, the Roosevelt in Colonel Roosevelt shows how those internal contradictions take their toll.  This is the story of Roosevelt out of power, but not out of influence.  He remains a source of fascination to the country and the world, but with each turning page history seems to get further out in front of him.

History usually passes someone by because they ossify, but that’s not really Roosevelt’s problem.  He remains a source of dynamic shifting motivations.  He’s a man who knows that Presidents should step down before they become addicted to power, but cannot recognize the withdrawal symptoms in himself.  And even that simplifies the situation in that there are elements of a real desire to advance the progressive agenda that his successors are less aggressive in pushing.

Similarly one must respect his connection to the active life and principles of patriotism, but he seems to have no self-awareness of when to apply them.  It’s inspiring and amazing that he helped map a river in the Amazon between the 1912 and 1916 election cycles, putting himself at genuine risk of his life.  In fact, astonishing is probably a better word.  It’s a manly act in the best sense of that word; it’s balanced by how hard he pushes to get his sons fighting in World War I.  He works almost monomaniacly to get them into battle and basically all of them are badly injured or killed.  He’s consistent in that he did the same thing himself in the Spanish American War, but one has to wonder if the kind of fighting in WWI was the same test of individual mettle.

Virtually every major decision TR makes in this book invites the kind of searching questions that I allude to above, and Morris does an excellent job putting the reader into the situation and laying out Roosevelt’s thinking.  It invites thought, discussion, and argument at every turn.

The central character of all this – who is so much larger than life it is difficult to remember that he is not fictional – emerges as a brilliant, flawed, and perhaps tragic figure who shaped our times as much as his own.  He is an amazing individual and Morris’s presentation is everything he deserves.

Strongly recommended.

Review: The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

I love how the Kindle encourages reading classics.  In the abstract.  This is Sir James Knowles’s translation and packaging of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, and while one can’t argue with the stories pedigree, they’re a little dull to modern ears.

There are some classic tales in here, but overall the stories seem to run together a bit, and few of the knights come across as individuals.  There’s also little overall dramatic structure to the stories as a group.  If you’ve heard some of the Arthur legends it is interesting to see the source material, but I cannot imagine anyone falling in love with the mythos from this.