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 November 2008 Book Reviews:



Harry S. Truman

by Robert Dallek

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



The American Presidents series of short biographies continues with this fine entry on the man from Independence, Missouri who succeeded Franklin Roosevelt and helped shape the modern world.  True to the series' format, this book centers on Truman's time as president.  The first 33 years of his life are covered in a couple of paragraphs, and he takes office by the end of chapter one.  And it is there that this failed farmer and haberdasher shines.   

As symbolized by his "The buck stops here" sign, Truman applied the responsibility that came with the office to making not just America, but the world, a better place.  By rebuilding Europe after World War II with the Marshall Plan, he ensured that it would become a capitalist powerhouse, too well-off to turn communist.  America's entry into NATO put an end to any remaining American isolationism.  He fired General Douglas MacArthur, who was not only publically disagreeing with his Commander in Chief, but was pushing to invade China as part of a second front in the Korean Conflict . . . something that almost certainly would have triggered Soviet involvement and escalated into World War III.  Dropping the atomic bomb on Japan ended World War II, but five years later, a draw in Korea was all anyone could hope for.  Truman began the civil rights legislation that would be finished by President Johnson 20 years later.  And yet, at its lowest point, Truman's approval rating was only 23%.  In some things, America was not yet ready for the logical extensions of his simple, small-town decency.






Disneyland: An Imagineer’s-Eye Tour

by Alex Wright

reviewed by Jeff Ayers


This fourth book in the series of explorations of the various Disney theme parks, from the perspective of the folks who designed them, continues a quality series.  This time, the Imagineers take the reader on a journey through the park that started it all.  Since the book is designed primarily for the engineer or architect market and not the casual traveler, don’t expect a lot of photos of the rides and buildings or recommendations of which rides are better than the others.  Instead, the book focuses on how the park and the various lands were created, with lots of creative and conceptual drawings that give you a backstage history of the park.  Each land is detailed with rarely seen artwork and historical facts. 

Reading this and the others in the series will give you a greater appreciation for the care and meticulous detail the Imagineers used to craft the world of the Disney Theme Park.  It’s a zip-a-dee-doo-dah read.







The Sun and the Moon

by Matthew Goodman

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale


In 1835, New York's Sun newspaper announced that scientists had discovered bipedal beavers, unicorns, and people with wings living on the moon. Before it was over, the now-infamous "Moon Hoax" would launch America's tabloid press; spawn parodies, plays, and art; and appear in papers all over the world. The first half of the book concentrates on the Sun's history. Here people without any interest in the hoax will still find themselves captivated. Goodman brings to life the world of nineteenth-century New York—especially the sights, sounds, and smells of the battles among almost a dozen daily papers. We are present at the creation of the "penny press," smaller, cheaper newspapers that carried news of interest to the common man, as opposed to the six-penny papers read by merchants and the political class. Goodman cheerfully provides excerpts from several of the Sun's more popular (read: salacious) stories. The second half encompasses the writing of the circulation-boosting hoax and its aftermath. Side trips into the life stories of P.T. Barnum and Edgar Allan Poe might at first seem like digressions, but ultimately they provide a filter through which we can better understand the stunt. Some scientists challenged the reports, but the explosion in scientific knowledge at the time made many people more than willing to believe. If the previously-unknown dinosaurs had existed, then why not moon-men? This book is as much about the times and culture that accepted the hoax as it is the event itself. 





The Man Who Invented Christmas:  How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits

by Les Standiford

reviewed by A.B . Mead


In 1843 Charles Dickens was in dire straights. At the age of 31, it looked like his career was over. After the astounding successes of The Pickwick Papers and The Old Curiosity Shop (read by probably one fourth of all literate Britons at the time), practically nobody was buying Martin Chuzzlewit. His career was so damaged that his publisher agreed to print A Christmas Carol only if Dickens paid all of the production costs up front. The first printing of 6,000 sold out in four days. Within a year, 16 different theatrical versions had been staged throughout England—all unauthorized, but nonetheless a sign of the book's popularity. 

This compact volume traces Dickens' life through the prism of A Christmas Carol. Standiford takes us from his youthful poverty that partially inspired the book, to the unexpectedly-interesting copyright piracy lawsuits Dickens waged against bootlegs of Carol, through his later successes (David Copperfield, Great Expectations) made possible only because the book had restored his reputation. 

As Standiford admits, Dickens' Carol didn't so much invent Christmas as "reinvented" it. The holiday, at that time, was a minor event that still smacked of paganism. Carol secularized, and therefore significantly popularized, the holiday (along with the contributions of Prince Albert who brought, among other things, the Christmas tree into British—and so world-wide—consciousness). Fezziwig and Nephew Fred's celebrations revived nearly-forgotten traditions. The turkey sent to the Cratchits at the book's end set such a standard for what made a proper Christmas that it near ruined Britain's goose industry.




Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar

by Paul Theroux

reviewed by Paige Byerly


Thirty years ago Paul Theroux wrote The Great Railway Bazaar, and changed the nature of travel writing forever. In his latest book he opts to revisit old ground; tracing the steps of his earlier journey (Europe to Asia and back around through Russia) in the same fashion (by train for as much of the journey as will allow). Read side by side, the books provide a fascinating glimpse of the sometimes extreme changes in the world in the last thirty years. Some of the itinerary has been altered—Theroux is forced this time around to skip Afghanistan and Pakistan, but is able to enter Cambodia, which was under the rule of Pol Pot and closed to outsiders when he last passed by. He’s devastated by the state of Cambodia, but is pleased to find that Vietnam, which he last saw during its war with the U.S, is recovering. He’s delighted with Turkey, which he finds flourishing, while he claims that India, despite its recent industrial growth spurt, has barely changed at all. One of the greatest things about Theroux’s travel writing has always been Theroux himself. Although he builds a theme of himself as a ghost-like figure in this book (based on the idea that he is haunting the past, and that as an older man he is little noticed) Theroux remains much the same as ever. His opinions may be more tempered with wisdom, and he may be more experienced in the way of the world, but he is still the nosy, observant, critical figure he has always presented himself as, paying prostitutes for their conversation, shamelessly name-dropping, and sitting in judgment of the world as it flickers by his consciousness, like the window of a train.





Get Known before the Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform

by Christina Katz

reviewed by Jeff Ayers



The scary world of publishing continues to be a hard mountain to climb for a lot of people, and Christina Katz breaks down the little details and supplies the equipment necessary to reach the peak.  Agents want to know your “platform,” or the ways you are visible to readers interested in what you are writing about. More and more, fledgling writers need to have developed a successful platform before they even approach someone to represent them.  How is that possible?  

Katz lifts the curtain of the publishing world and shows you how to develop your platform and achieve your dream of becoming a published author.  Some of it is common sense, but other suggestions will prepare you to improve your writing and get ready for the harsh environment of the publishing industry. She examines publicity opportunities that don’t have to bankrupt you, and discusses finding readers who are interested in your topic.  This book and her previous offering, Writer Mama, are mandatory for the reference shelf of any beginning writer, especially if you are getting ready to approach agents about your work.







The New Annotated Dracula

by Bram Stoker,
edited by Leslie S. Klinger

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale


Leslie Klinger, who set the standard for literary annotations with his New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, now turns attention to Victorian literature's second most-famous creation, Dracula. 

Along with scholarly explanations (a note on laudanum sites Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management before noting contemporary medical ignorance and Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”) Klinger does something out of the ordinary. As with his Holmes, he plays what Sherlockians call "the great game” of pretending that all this really happened and therefore tries to rectify the novel’s apparent inconsistencies with reality. To begin with, Klinger proposes that Harker plagiarized contemporary travel guides when describing Transylvania because he didn’t actually go to—nor is Dracula from—Transylvania.    

My preferred edition of Dracula had been the Norton Critical Edition edited by Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal. While Klinger's version (also published by Norton) surpasses that in number of notes and issues tackled, the earlier edition retains the virtue of portability:  it will fit in your book bag. Klinger's—like his Holmes—is a doorstop. (Clive Leatherdale's Dracula Unearthed has twice as many notes as Klinger's, but Klinger’s are more useful and varied). Filled with hundreds of maps, vintage illustrations and advertisements, movie posters, photos of mentioned locations (as well as a recipe and an ocean tide table), the New Annotated weighs slightly less than the Los Angeles phonebook. But don’t let the Holmesian metafiction and article on Dracula on screen and stage (Jack Palance as Dracula! George Hamilton as Dracula!) fool you. This is no mere coffee table book. It's serious scholarship in a gorgeous package. 




Cretaceous Dawn

by L. M. Graziano and M. S. A. Graziano

reviewed by Scott Pearson


A handful of people are accidentally transported to the Cretaceous, the time of tyrannosaurus and triceratops, in this entertaining yarn full of accurate details and intelligent extrapolations about prehistoric life. The subplot of official investigations of the scientists’ disappearance from their lab adds to the suspense of the one slim chance the scientists have of getting back. The book has some minor stumbles along the way. A few missing scene breaks are jarring or confusing as the story leaps ahead from one line to the next. The danger of changing the future, a central tenet of the time-travel genre, is completely ignored as the scientists kill a variety of animals for food (apparently none of them have read Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”). When the paleontologist stumbles across Purgatorious, considered the earliest primate, and muses that it could be his direct ancestor, it surely suggests that any of the animals killed (or plants eaten) could have been the direct ancestor of some modern species that has now been eliminated—but none of these scientists, even the paleontologist, consider the concept. Time-travel geekery aside, the story draws the reader in, adds some surprising plot twists that I won’t ruin by mentioning, including a unique take on a T. rex, and builds to an edge-of-your-seat ending. A fun read, especially if you love dinosaurs.




 Young Adult  

The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories

by Joan Aiken

reviewed by A.B. Mead


Probably best remembered as the author of the children's classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Aiken also published 20 short stories over the course of her career dealing with the Armitage family. Mother, Father, and children Mark and Harriet are blessed with having "unusual things" happen every Monday (and sometimes on Tuesdays). This collection brings together for the first time all of their adventures, which were published over 50 years, as well as four previously unpublished stories Aiken had just finished before her death in 2004. Cutouts from a cereal box lead to a magic land and a waiting princess. A unicorn in the garden results in all sorts of problems—starting with a hefty unicorn license fee. An offer to exchange a room in town for a room the country for a few months results in actual rooms—complete with their respective views—being swapped while their houses remain in place. When a new neighbor turns out to be a witch and transforms the children's cat into a wolf, can a carnival magician change it back? Each of the tales brims with old-fashioned adventure and charm. An excellent way to show Harry Potter fans that magic can come in small doses too.







The Spectacular Now

by Tim Tharp

reviewed by Hayden Bass 


High school senior Sutter Keely loves life.  In fact, his joie de vivre is his guiding moral principle: Life is meant to be enjoyed, and it's up to you to enjoy it if you possibly can. When things get weird, embrace the weird.   All of this embracing is made easier for Sutter by drinking vast quantities of whiskey—in the morning, during the school day (whether or not he actually makes it to school), and at his after school job.  For Sutter, whiskey is a way of life, and the medium through which he relates to the world.

Though Sutter’s drinking is excessive by just about any measure, The Spectacular Now isn't a standard “problem novel” about a teen who either overcomes or is destroyed by an addiction. The plot, such as it is, focuses on Sutter’s romance with a wallflower named Aimee, and his slowly evolving ability to put the needs of others before his own. Tharpe perfectly captures that feeling of pure exhilaration at being alive that is more or less particular to 18-year-olds, as well as the valleys of despair that so often follow. Sutter himself is kind, funny, very likeable, and very flawed.  You can’t help but cheer for him. 

The Spectacular Now is a finalist for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature, and deservedly so.  Though the portrait it paints of American high school life may be upsetting to some adults, it’s sure to ring true with many of the older teens who are its main audience. 





My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor



How do you cope with grief?  Arleen Williams, with harsh and brutal honesty, talks about her younger sister, Maureen, who was the thirty-ninth victim of Charles Ridgway, the Green River Killer.  Twenty-five years after her death, she still can’t forget.  In The Thirty-Ninth Victim, she seeks answers to the unknowable and exposes a chilling and haunting world that is hard to face. (The Thirty-Ninth Victim, Blue Feather Books, $14.99)







Following the love I have of the comic strip form, I discovered a new one that everyone who enjoys this form of entertainment should check out.  Richard Thompson chronicles the lives of four-year old Alice, her clueless parents, and her neurotic older brother, Petey in the comic strip Cul de Sac.  Alice goes to the Blisshaven Preschool where her friends are also exploring the world as only a four-year old can see it.  Keenly insightful and very funny, particularly if you are the parent of a younger child.  (Cul De Sac: This Exit, Andrews McMeel, $12.99)






Guy and Rodd are two guys with an extremely warped sense of humor, similar to the old Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons.  The new collection, Brevity 3, continues their string of funny and twisted collections.  (Brevity 3, Andrews McMeel, $12.99)






Morbid and sometimes dark humor accentuates the splendid strip, Sherman’s Lagoon.  The latest collection, Sharks Just Wanna Have Fun,  explores the goings-on in the ocean where Sherman, the shark, lives with his wife, son, and his various friends, including a turtle who thinks he is a poet, and a crab who will do anything to get your money.  (Sharks Just Wanna Have Fun, Andrews McMeel, $12.99)






The latest thriller from David Baldacci brings back the Camel Club to help one of their own.  Oliver Stone is on the run, and a nationwide manhunt forces him to lay low in a small mining town in Virginia.  Of course, he can’t stop himself from helping a young man, putting him in the spotlight of the town’s sheriff and a nosy newspaper reporter.  Meanwhile, Oliver’s friends are trying to find him.  Another solid entry in this series, and the four Camel Club books are some of the best that Baldacci has created.  (Divine Justice, Grand Central, $27.99)







Finally, one of my favorite podcasts is Ask A Ninja.  An “actual ninja” takes the time to answer stupid questions by his viewers.  Now he has put all of his “wisdom and training” in a handbook that explores the history of the ninja and how you can also learn the ways to become a true ninja.  What don’t you buy the ninja who can kill everything?  Now you will know.  (The Ninja Handbook, Three Rivers Press, $14.95)








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