Archive for February, 2014

Review: The Bully Pulpit

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

I haven’t read a lot of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s work, but she seems to like coming at the interesting periods of American history from interesting angles.  Her Team of Rivals was a fascinating look at Lincoln and his cabinet told in a compelling structure. The Bully Pulpit traces the careers of two of the most interesting personalities of the late 1890’s and early 1900’s looking at their relations to one another and to the expanding popular press.

The Taft/Roosevelt relationship is central to the book, but has been explored before. What Goodwin brings here is an interest in an sympathy for Taft’s position. Most of what I’ve read about these two comes from Roosevelt biographies, and those are necessarily about Teddy’s feelings and motivations.  Taft’s position worth understanding.  He seems such an odd duck in American politics.  He’s a justice who became president to make TR and his wife happy – a strange role indeed.  Having Roosevelt turn on him so harshly, essentially costing the Republicans the 1912 election, confused and saddened Taft.

Though they’ve been dissected at great length, Roosevelt’s motives in the election remain foggy.  There’s some amount of anger at Taft, some amount of concern for the nation, and some amount of sheer egotism in there, for a start. I don’t know that Roosevelt knows what compelled him entirely, but it does make for fascinating reading.  Goodwin relates it all well.

She also brings in the writers at McClure’s magazine as a character.  She argues that Roosevelt made use of reporters in new ways to set the national agenda and advance his plan for the nation when presidents had little power to do so.  Her position is that the top-notch reporting on the excesses of capitalism formed the Bully Pulpit that allowed Roosevelt to make his trust-busting and corporate regulation aspirations into legislation.  Goodwin spends time showing both the people who made that reporting happen and their relation to the White House of the time.  It’s an interesting position and well articulated and defended; it makes Roosevelt’s later turn against the profession – he basically coins the disparaging term “muckraker” – more confusing.

Overall this is a wide-ranging and compelling exploration of an interesting time in American politics and journalism, framed by larger than life characters.  Well worth one’s time.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Si-Cology 101

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

I read this immediately after reading The Lifespan of a Fact, and in many ways they could not be more different books, but they touch in one fun way.  Lifespan is about how many liberties you can take with the truth when making art; Si-Cology makes it clear that Si Robertson (one of the folks on Duck Dynasty) and his co-author Mark Schlabach dealt with the same issues while making this cash-in memoir.  They say (as Si):

At my age, a few of the details are cloudy, but I’ll recollect the coming stories as best I can. Hey, just remember it isn’t a lie if you think it’s true! It’s up to you, the reader to figure out what’s truth and what’s fiction.  Best of luck with that, Jack! May the [F]orce be with you.

So, there it is.  Si Robertson, redneck from Duck Dynasty, and John D’Agata, intellectual from the core of academe, defending the same position in lying to the reader for the sake of a better story.

Si and Mark are creating a pretty straight ahead memoir spiced up with some jokes and some tall tales.  The tale of family and values goes down easy and is a lot of fun.  I laughed at some of the jokes.  It sounds like an interesting life to have lived.  Si seems like the sort of guy it would be fun to shoot the breeze with, and I think that’s what he wanted to communicate.

The bombastic quote about truth and memory captures the style well.  He’s living his life loud, though he does say nice things about his family and friends.

Good fun.

Review: The Lifespan of a Fact

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

John D’Agata and Jim Fingal present The Lifespan of a Fact as an encapsulation of their lengthy struggle between fact-checker and essayist, but it’s quickly clear that most elements of Lifespan are open to interpretation.  On the surface, Lifespan is a version of an essay by D’Agata annotated by the conversation between him and Fingal as Fingal checks his facts.  But that’s not really believable.  Any conversation between author and checker is necessarily iterative, with the checker raising an issue and the author responding; this reads as though Fingal made one pass through the article with D’Agata responding at points.  So what we have is a piece of art that represents that interchange over time, which is about dissecting the same issues in an earlier essay.

That sounds pretty intellectual and abstract, but the pair do a nice job of breathing life into author and checker.  Though both have clear positions about what’s being discussed, to the point of embodying those positions on occasion, there are enough cracks in the symbolism to believe that these are people who hold positions. The interchange is generally snappy and engaging, even when arguing trivia.

But fairly quickly it becomes clear that checker and author inhabit completely different worlds.  It’s also clear that they are exemplars of their fields.   Fingal is often pointing out errors in the second or third significant figure and D’Agata is rejecting the correction of any but the most egregious errors.  Eventually there is a breaking point (conveniently at a point that makes a climax for the book) where the two have it out in a passionate and intellectual argument about relating objective facts and creating art about events that is well worth the reading.

And then we get a nice elegiac ending from Fingal, our fact-based proponent that is haunting and honest.

Underlying all this is the clear point that everything said about the essay in the book is true about the book itself.  It’s obvious that this is an interpretation of a struggle, but exactly what struggle is unclear.  Is it the struggle with a particular fact-checker? With publishing in general? A completely internal struggle in the author’s mind – or authors’ minds? No questions are answered on that front, but the point is to trust the reader to chew on it.  If you like to chew on such things, this is a powerful gateway to the issues.


Review: The Jennifer Morgue

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

I first began reading Stross when a friend literally jammed a copy of Halting State into my hands and told me not to return it until I was done. Halting State was great stuff, and I liked the sequel at least as well.  I recently read one of his Laundry Files short stories, and though I liked it, I wasn’t blown away. I decided to give the Laundry another chance with The Jennifer Morgue.

This time I was blown away.

First the book is just plain fun to read.  There are lots of funny and exciting bits for everyone.  Then there’s all the techie and sci-fi in-references that seem like they’re just for me, but clearly reach a bunch of folks.  If that was all there is, it’s all done so well it would be worth reading.

But second, this book is a perfect critique and deconstruction of the James Bond series of novels, movies, etc. The Bond archetype and exploiting it is a plot point – which is already cool – but the extent to which Stross has thought about and worked through this deconstruction is a lot of fun.  There’s more to it than the characters seem to notice, and catching those points as they go by – as they go by in this witty thriller with a sense of humor – only enhances the fun.

But then the head of that thriller bites into its own tail and becomes an exemplar of the same genre it’s deconstructing while continuing the deconstruction and staying fun.  This is clearly the best thing ever.  And I won’t even mention the gender reversals.

Overall this is a fun thinking man’s thriller told with good humor and heart.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Furious Cool

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

David and Joe Henry are Richard Pryor fans of the first order, and even they can’t make his life into a happy story. Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, tells the well researched and sad story of Pryor’s rise to become one of the most popular and respected comedians of the late 70’s and early 80’s and his subsequent decline. Though that long title promises some inquiry into the state of the world, Pryor holds center stage throughout.

The Henrys do a good job of describing the depth and honesty that made Pryor, briefly, one of the most dynamic and deep comedians in the world.  I am not a Richard Pryor superfan, but I remember seeing his concert films and realizing that his honesty and comedic chops made him something special.  With a reference or a few words from a bit, the Henrys bring those moments to life and reawaken the possibility of those clear, raw, moments.

Then they have to talk about the relentless drug abuse and lure of big money and bad films that turned Pryor into a has been too soon. It’s hard to decide which is sadder, the personal self-destructive urge to light himself on fire in mid-binge or presenting a shadow of himself in awful film after awful film just to get the money.

Through it all the Henrys keep the narrative moving though the tone can be grim.  There are a few spots than could stand to see more aggressive editing, but overall the book holds your attention keenly and pulls you along.


Review: Cosmic Laughter

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

What a strange and beautiful world it is in which I get to reread Cosmic Laughter. Laughter is a collection, edited by Joe Haldeman, of light hearted science fiction and fantasy that I first happened on when I was 10 or 12 years old.  I borrowed it on more than one occasion from the Steele Memorial Library in Elmira and read it back to back. Rereading it was more polishing the memories than reading a book.

So, it’s not like this will be unbiased.

Each of the stories has a nice twist to it, or a great setup.  For instance, “Gallagher Plus,” by Henry Kuttner remains one of the great set-ups of all time – man who is a brilliant inventor only when drunk wakes from a bender with a strange machine humming, no money, and a few clues to indicate he’s taken more than one commission – some of whom are already angry.  The execution doesn’t live up to the possibilities, but oh the possibility of it.  Andrew J. Offut’s “The Black Sorcerer of the Black Castle” hits the perfect spot between send-up and homage to R. E. Howard, and Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man” is everything it’s known for.  The best of the lot is Haldeman’s own “Eye of Newton” in which a mathematician summons a demon and uses logic to get out of it.  It’s breezy and just long enough to build up some suspense without overstaying its welcome.

All fun stuff.