On the Bookshelf

American Lightning, by Howard Blum I knew that battles between wealthy industrialists and labor forces during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were fierce. In my high school U.S. history class we talked about little else. But “American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, and the Birth of Hollywood” told a story that I had never heard before.

In 1910, the rabidly anti-labor Los Angeles Times’ building was bombed in a dynamite attack, killing 21 people. The private detective whose agency was given the task of hunting down the bombers was Billy Burns, known at the time as America’s true-life version of Sherlock Holmes. After months of cross-country hunting he discovers similar bombings throughout the nation and is able to uncover the men at the heart of the plot. Two of the men, brothers Jim and J.J. McNamara, are put on trial and defended by Clarence Darrow, a famed defense attorney and friend of labor organizations. The book weaves the stories of Burns and Darrow together to good effect, but Blum also tries to force in a third character: D. W. Griffith, the director and father of Hollywood.

I fully understand the siren song of research and how you can become enthralled by tangential stories. But that’s why you have an editor – to stop you from getting sidetracked from the real subject. The whole D. W. Griffith story arc felt tacked on and beside the point. The further into the book I read, the more irritated I became that the D. W. Griffith material never truly intersected with the stories of Billy Burns and Clarence Darrow.

Oh, Blum tried to force them together. Two movies were made during the time period about the McNamara case, but neither of them was made by D. W. Griffith. Blum’s argument was that the filmmakers had been influenced by Griffith because he was a pivotal director in the industry. He also claims, without any stated proof or examples, that the labor struggles in general and McNamara case in particular inspired Griffith’s KKK paean “Birth of a Nation.” But the only concrete historical moment of intersection comes in the epilogue when the three men ran into each other in a hotel lobby. Color me underwhelmed.

It felt like he was trying to pad out the book, which runs about 335 pages in the paperback edition. He had such a great, captivating story to tell with the dynamite plot that I just don’t understand why he was devoting pages and pages to the creepy relationship Griffith had with actress Mary Pickford. Tell us more about the bombastic owner of the Los Angeles Times, or the weird muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, who declared that it was a justifiable dynamiting. Enough with the laborious attempt to link Griffith to Burns and Darrow.

Verdict: I give “American Lightning” full marks for two-thirds of the book, so I’m going to round up and give it a 7 out of 10.

Shades of Grey by Jasper FfordeIt’s been a long, long time since last we met – and I’ve read many, many books. Let’s start this up again, shall we?

I’d like to start out by writing a little bit about the author of “Shades of Grey” and his prior works. I read Jasper Fforde*’s first book, “The Eyre Affair,” when it came out in 2001.  Set in a world in which literature has the same importance as sports or celebrities have in ours, it follows a Special Operations officer, Thursday Next, as she tries to thwart literary crimes. There are now five books in the Thursday Next series, and the sixth will be published in January 2011. I highly recommend them, but I do advise you to read “Jane Eyre” or the Cliff’s Notes version before reading “The Eyre Affair.”

His second series is about Detective Jack Spratt, head of the Nursery Crime Division in Reading, England. With his sergeant Mary Mary, he investigates crimes committed by (or perpetrated on) nursery characters. In the first book, “The Big Over Easy,” Jack must solve Humpty Dumpty’s murder. (You didn’t think he just fell off that wall all on his own, did you?) In the second book, “The Fourth Bear,” he solves Goldilocks’ disappearance, uncovers a nuclear cucumber conspiracy, hunts down the cakey serial killer The Gingerbread Man, and answers the riddle of the three bears’ porridge-temperature differential. This is my favorite of his series, and I listen to both books on my iPod all the time. I’m eager to read the final installment, “The Last Great Tortoise Race,” which will be published in 2011 or 2012.

In the first book of his new trilogy, “Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron,” Fforde has created another fantastical universe, and it’s the strangest one yet. In a world where all people have color blindness, your caste in society is determined by what colors you can see. Purples are the aristocracy, Yellows are the law enforcers, Greens are higher than Blues, and Blues are higher than Reds. Greys occupy the lowest rung of society and are relegated to menial labor. Artificial colors that can be seen by everyone are available but costly, and must be processed by using scrap color dug up from the ruins of a past civilization (us, presumably).

Every aspect of life is strictly controlled by the state, and there are many rules to define what technology can be used or produced. For example, it is forbidden to manufacture spoons, so spoons are jealously guarded and passed down through generations. “Leapbacks” are scheduled regularly, which means that old knowledge and technologies are removed and banned. Those who run afoul of the system and lose too many merit points are sent to the rebooting facility, and are never heard from again. Like in any restrictive society, people figure out how to get around these strict rules by obeying the letter of the law but not the spirit. “Train tracks” were banned, but not “train track,” so all the trains run on one rail.

Eddie Carmine, a Red from a Green sector, travels with his father to the town Vermillion, on the outer fringes of Red Sector West. He is eager to return home because he hopes to marry Constance Oxblood and run the string factory owned by her powerful Red family, but is thwarted at every turn. He falls in love with a violently disagreeable Grey named Jane, who at the beginning of the narration has just shoved Eddie headfirst into a carnivorous plant. Together they begin to solve the mystery behind a swatchman’s death, the ancient civilization’s end, a ghost town named High Saffron, the deadly mildew and what goes on at Reboot. While some of these mysteries become clearer, there’s plenty left to explain in his next “Shades of Grey” book, to be published in 2012.

Verdict: 7.5 out of 10. It’s not my favorite Fforde book, but it’s an excellent debut for a series that promises to be mind-bending and highly intelligent.

*Full Disclosure: I met Fforde at a book signing in Chicago during the publicity tour for his second Thursday Next book, “Lost in a Good Book.” He was lovely, and he helped me to coerce a friend into reading “The Eyre Affair” by writing “Now you have to read this book. – Jasper Fforde” on the inside cover. So I’m quite fond of him.

American GodsThere’s nothing more delightful than a book that makes me feel smart while I’m reading it.

I don’t mean in a “Oh my God, this is such simplistic writing” kind of way. More like “Hey, I totally recognize that obscure cultural/literary reference!” It’s why I like reading Jasper Fforde. It’s a reward for the vast amounts of usually useless trivia that’s taking up shelf room in my brain.

The premise of “American Gods” is that all the immigrants who came to America brought their gods with them. The people who crossed the Bering Strait brought their animal deities, the Vikings brought Odin, the Irish brought the Morrighan and leprechauns – and here the gods languish, as the people who once worshiped them die out or stop believing.

But here in the New World, we created our own gods to worship: Highways, Cell Phone, Internet and Credit Cards. And the new gods are ready to make war on the old gods.

Into this steps Shadow, a recently released ex-con whose wife has just been killed in car with another man. A mysterious stranger named Wednesday offers him a job as a bodyguard, and suddenly he is caught up in the schemes of a god.

As a kid, I was very into mythologies. Greek, Norse, Egyptian, you name it. Neil Gaiman drops hints and references to hundreds of different mythologies, and figuring out all the clues awoke the 8-year-old nerd in me. (To be honest, that little girl is never sleeping very heavily.)

That’s not to say that I would let an 8-year-old read this book. It is adult and it is dark.

Verdict: 8.5 out of 10. As a bonus, I got to break out my rusty Russian skills! Such as they are.

Seeing Me NakedMy family is crazy – just like everyone else’s family. But there are books that remind me why I’m so grateful to have them. And this is one of them.

Seeing Me Naked” is undoubtedly chick lit, but hey, I’m not a snob. I like chick lit, and this is a good example of when it works.

Elisabeth Page is the daughter of a W.A.S.P. socialite and a celebrated Kerouac-like writer. (Let that combo roll around in your mind for a little while. In the words of Ralph Wiggum, it tastes like burning.)

She and her brother, Raskolnikov or “Rascal,” have always lived under their father’s shadow. Rascal responded by setting out on a literary path of his own. Elisabeth responded by becoming a pastry chef. Neither of these choices is respected by their father.

One of the things that really works in this book is the way Elisabeth’s job completely consumes her life. I have a friend who is a chef in a Chicago restaurant, and I only get to talk to him every 10 months or so. He is always working. Elisabeth’s social life is pretty much restricted to semi-annual hookups with her childhood sweetheart Will, a foreign correspondent to war-torn countries. And that particular relationship is far from healthy.

Now, the inevitable love interest: Elisabeth donates a cooking lesson for one of her mother’s charity auctions, and regular-guy Daniel is the top bidder. He’s a basketball coach at UCLA. They hit it off, and slowly and painstakingly try to build a normal relationship. You know, the hard kind, with compromises, disappointments and insecurities.

So, you know, heartwarming. But my favorite part of the book was the Page family dynamics – and again, they make me super happy to be a member of the Rawles family.

Verdict: 7 out of 10. Light and fluffy, but with a bite.

No Shortcuts to the Top

I feel about extreme mountain climbing the way I feel about the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. It’s fascinating as a spectator, but there’s no way I’m climbing into that steel cage with a bucket of chum.

One of my favorite books is Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” an account of a disastrous 1996 Everest expedition. When I was browsing through an airport bookstore and saw that Ed Viesturs had been on Everest at the same time, I bought this to hear a different side of the story.

No Shortcuts to the Top” is Viesturs’ memoir about climbing all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks. It’s an incredible (and incredibly dangerous) feat which has been equaled by fewer than 20 other people.

I haven’t read a lot of memoirs, so maybe this is standard fare. But he came across as kind of a jerk in some places, like when he dishes about a booty call with a French climber. Dude, don’t kiss and tell, particularly when the woman was killed while climbing and can’t contradict you.

There was also a passive-aggressive section about calling his wife on a satellite phone while in the Himalayas. She was six months pregnant with their second child, and he didn’t call her for four days while on Annapurna, the deadliest mountain on earth.

A sat phone can be a blessing, but it’s also a pain. Paula and I never had an explicit agreement about how often I should call. But sometimes she expected that I would call more often than I did. When I’m on a mountain, I need to be focused, in the moment. There are times when the last thing I want to think is, Oh, I’ve got to make a call back to the States. Yet once you have a family and kids, the importance of staying connected increases.

Some people might have thought Paula was being unreasonable, but I took full blame for not calling. It’s just my nature. When other people get upset, I feel as if it’s my fault.

Jerk. “Some people might have though Paula was being unreasonable…” I hope she writes her own book someday.

But aside from those moments of douchery, it was an informative and interesting book. I still prefer “Into Thin Air” because of Krakauer’s journalistic style of writing. I don’t think that memoirs are my thing.

The lasting impression I’ll take away from this book is the same one I take away from Shark Week: Those guys are crazy. In the acknowledgments, Viesturs names nine friends who have died while climbing. Nine. I’m staying at sea level, thank you very much.

Verdict: 6.5 out of 10. It gets an extra half point because it has a very thorough index, which I think is an absolute must for non-fiction books.

Being a fast reader definitely has its advantages. But a big disadvantage is that I run through books like crazy, and to be honest, I can’t afford the bookstore tab.

I’m on vacation right now, and since Monday night I’ve read the following books, in order:

Garnethill, by Denise Mina Denise Mina’s “Garnethill“ isn’t just dark. It’s a black hole that sucks you in and consumes you.

I’ve gone on record saying that I don’t like movies and books that deal extensively with mental illness. For the most part, I think that this is still true; I have no intention of running off to buy “The Bell Jar.” But even though a hefty percentage of this book takes place in a psychiatric hospital and the heroine is forever teetering on the brink of a complete breakdown, I found it really enthralling.

“Garnethill” is the first of a trilogy of books (”Garnethill,” “Exile” and “Resolution“) set in Glasgow. The heroine, Maureen O’Donnell, is a young alcoholic who is mere months out of a psychiatric hospital and is dealing with the aftermath of childhood abuse at the hands of her father. One morning after another bender, she awakes to find her married psychologist boyfriend slaughtered in her apartment. In her efforts to clear herself, she uncovers a series of abuses against mentally ill women in the same hospital in which she herself was confined. More murder and mayhem ensues.

I know, right? The very description makes you want to slit your wrists to get it over with, doesn’t it?

Well, I can’t really explain it, but even though it’s an incredibly dark series, it never gets bogged down beneath the giant weight of its own pathos. I mean, the most sympathetic member of her family is her drug-dealing brother Liam – that should be almost cartoonishly pathetic. Maureen is barely able to cling to the remnants of her own sanity, and her actions consistently made me say, “Oh Maureen, what in God’s name are you doing?” But she does cling on, and her actions are believable given her circumstances.

If you do read “Garnethill,” I’d highly suggest reading the entire trilogy. Even though it seems kind of impossible, “Resolution” does resolve all the plot threads in a satisfying and really unexpected way.

Verdict: 8 out of 10 for the whole trilogy. It won a bunch of literary prizes, and it’s not hard to see why.

The Oxford MurdersOkay, I didn’t like this one. But I think that part of the failing is mine, not the book’s.

The Oxford Murders” was originally written in Spanish, and I’m ashamed to say that I could not get past that. The entire time I was reading it I kept thinking, “That’s kind of a strange way to phrase that. Was that Martinez or the translator Sonia Soto?”

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read translated books before – I can’t exactly read “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” in its original Czech. (Side note on T.U.L.O.B.: What was with the bowler hat?) I don’t know why I couldn’t let it drop this time.

But even aside from that, “The Oxford Murders” won’t get a permanent place on my over-stressed bookcase. At 197 pages, it’s a short mystery. The unnamed narrator (pretentious!) is an Argentinian graduate student in mathematics studying for a year at Oxford University. His landlady ends up dead in the first of what appears to be a string of murders based on the beliefs of an ancient mathematical society. Unnamed Narrator works with one of his personal heroes, a famous Oxford logician, to try to anticipate the next murder in the series.

Okay, it sounds a little bit DaVinci-Code. What can I say, there was a 2-for-3 book sale at Barnes & Noble. However, instead of being brain candy, it kept whipping out passages like this:

My hypothesis is that it is profoundly linked to the aesthetic that has been promulgated down the ages and has been, essentially, unchanging. There is no Kantian forcing, but an aesthetic of simplicity and elegance which also guides the formulation of conjectures; mathematicians believe that the beauty of a theorem requires certain divine proportions between the simplicity of the axioms at the starting point, and the simplicity of the thesis at the point of arrival. The awkward, tricky part has always been the path between the two – the proof. And as long as that aesthetic is maintained there is no reason for undecidable propositions to appear “naturally.”

The eventual solution to this mystery was not cool enough to justify making me read 197 pages of this.

Verdict: 4 out of 10. Much like with Dan Brown, I enjoyed a few of the researched tidbits about ancient math brotherhoods, but that was about it.

Thanks, stock.xchng!Aside from Disney’s read-along books and cassettes (Oh, The Fox and the Hound! How you made me cry!), I was never that into audiobooks as a kid. I think it was mostly that I can read in my head a lot faster than anyone can read aloud, and I have attention-span issues. I remember a long car trip where we brought an audiobook of The Jungle Book along, and my opinion of Rudyard Kipling has suffered as a consequence.

But in 2002 I got into them, and Harry Potter was my gateway drug. The Potter series was perfect for long drives in the car, because I already knew the stories and if I zoned out in the middle, it was no big deal.

Pre-iPod, this meant carrying around the 26-CD box set (which I did when I lived in Prague) and it was a tad cumbersome. But my darling iPod set me free.

So, here are my top 10 audiobook picks, in alphabetical order:

  • America (The Audiobook) – The Daily Show’s hilarious civics “textbook” on the American political system. Narrated by John Stewart and the Daily Show cast. Bonus: Unlike the printed edition, there are no nude depictions of Supreme Court justices.
  • Assassination Vacation – Sarah Vowell travels to sites connected to the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, offering a humerous but informative history lesson. You have to hear her voice, she sounds like a three-year-old with a head cold. But in a good way.
  • The Demon Under the Microscope – The subtitle is “From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug,” and it’s awesome non-fiction.
  • Don’t Get too Comfortable – Another author with a unique and nasal voice, David Rakoff talks about Log Cabin Republicans, becoming a U.S. citizen, and midnight scavenger hunts in NYC.
  • Half Moon Investigations – This is a children’s book written in the style of 1950s detective-noir, and it’s hysterical. Kids’ books make for great audiobooks because it’s easy to follow the plot.
  • The Horse and His Boy – One of my favorite C. S. Lewis books.
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris’ essays are best enjoyed aloud. Another unique and very nasal voice.
  • The Partly Cloudy Patriot – Collection of Sarah Vowell’s essays on ‘pop-a-shot’ basketball, how the Dallas Cowboys introduced her to existentialism, the ethos of the modern nerd, etc.
  • The Secret Garden – One of the few classic kids books where the children are difficult and ill-behaved. This is essentially pleasant background noise.
  • Size 14 is Not Fat Either – Fun chick lit by Meg Cabot. A former pop star now working as a college RA becomes embroiled in the investigation into the murder of one of the college’s cheerleaders.

Safe Area GorazdeI’m a newcomer to graphic novels. Before three months ago, the closest I had come to reading a graphic novel was reading “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” while on vacation at my aunt’s house when I was 9. Sad, huh?

I associated graphic novels with my goth friends who had fixations on Trent Reznor and painted their fingernails black. I know. It was really snotty of me. It wasn’t Neil Gaiman’s fault that they wore too much eyeliner; they made those fashion choices on their own.

The watershed moment for me came after reading a free PDF of Bill Willingham’s series “Fables,” which I now love and adore and recommend highly. Amazon.com’s Recommended for You feature – with which I have a tempestuous relationship – then pointed me to Joe Sacco’s work.

Sacco is a journalist whose medium is comics. He has covered the Palestinian conflict and the Bosnian War, in drawings reminiscent of R. Crumb. ”Safe Area Gorazde” chronicles the time he spent in a beseiged Bosnian village, Gorazde (gor-AHJZ-duh).

There’s something very poignant about Sacco’s combination of story and artwork. I loved details like the clothing they were wearing, the ugly patterned sweaters native to the Eastern Bloc (and appropriated by Bill Cosby). Most importantly, he was able to coherently explain the major events that tore Yugoslavia apart - in a comic, no less.

The Serbians suffered horribly during WWII, and you’ll never hear me say different. But they committed terrible atrocities against the Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s. Sacco’s book reminds me why I found it so trying to copy-edit stories from the Balkans. The more you learn, the more you detest everything about the situation and everyone involved in it. The human misery is bottomless.

I still think that I could offer a pretty solid solution to the Balkan Problem, but I’ll need some nuclear weapons, the Ebola virus and a lot of salt. Carthago delenda est!

Verdict: 8 out of 10. It’s an important work of journalism and pretty heart-rending stuff. I recommend it, but it’s not a light read.

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