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 January 2009 Book Reviews:



A Great Idea at the Time:  The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books

by Alex Beam

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale


Beam has written a breezy (and surprisingly gossipy) little book about the 54-volume Great Books collection published by the University of Chicago and the Encyclopedia Britannica. What started as a curriculum centering on the classics of the western canon—Homer to Freud—at the University in the 1930s became a night class for the rich ("fat men" reading "fat books"). Soon the less well-to-do were forming Great Books reading groups of their own. In the words of one contemporary Chicago Tribune columnist, the city had "embraced the Great Books so eagerly that bookstores can't keep a Great Book in stock long enough for the salesgirl to learn to pronounce the author's name." Since some of the titles were hard to find or out of print, U.C. decided to print its own set. 

Though beautifully-bound, the tiny, two-column type was difficult to read and lacked footnotes or explanatory material. Initial sales were not promising, prompting the editors to shift their advertising tactics from education to self-improvement (read Herodotus; get that big promotion). Coinciding as it did with a booming middle class and the arrival of "middlebrow" culture, sales skyrocketed from 138 sets in 1953 to 50,000 in 1961. But the changing times soon brought an end to America's fascination with this collection of what some called "dead, white males." Still, the Books live on at the two St. John's Colleges in Annapolis and Santa Fe where students spend four years reading nothing but the old U.C. program (graduates going on to medical school must first spend another year and a half at another school learning modern biology). There are also Great Book weekends where small groups meet in hotel ballrooms to discuss a handful of titles.  Though at times Beam's point seems to be that the collection served no true intellectual purpose, over three million sets were sold.  Someone must have benefited.




The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II

by Gregory A. Freeman

reviewed by Scott Pearson


During World War II hundreds upon hundreds of American airmen bailed out of their burning bombers into Yugoslavia, which was both occupied by the Nazis and in the middle of a civil war between the Communist Tito and a staunch supporter of the Allies, General Mihailovich. The Forgotten 500 tells how Mihailovich risked the Nazis’ wrath to protect American airmen and yet was abandoned by the Allies for political expediency—after all, the Soviet Union was on America’s side at the time. Through extensive research as well as interviews with the veteran airmen who escaped Yugoslavia thanks to a daring rescue, Freeman sheds light on the efforts of all those involved. Along the way he finds turf wars between British and American intelligence, Soviet spies, and edge-of-your-seat escapes. Although there is a certain repetition to some of the veterans’ recollections, it’s hard to tire of stories of young airmen being given the hero’s welcome by Serbian villagers grateful for the Allies’ fight against the Nazis. Freeman tells the story from two main viewpoints: the soldiers desperate for rescue and the determined OSS officers trying to cut through bureaucratic red tape to help Mihailovich and rescue the airmen. After the war, the two sides tried to help Mihailovich, who went through a Communist show trial, accused of collaborating with the enemy . . . although it was Mihailovich who kept over 500 Allied personnel safe until their rescue. A gripping true story well worth reading.





Street Gang:  The Complete History of Sesame Street

by Michael Davis

reviewed by A.B. Mead



Davis’ lively and detailed history reveals that the origins of Sesame Street were much more complex than its “Hey, Kermie, let’s put on a show” demeanor might suggest. Backed by such luminaries as former Kennedy administration national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, the Old Boy Net was exploited to an unprecedented level as the U.S. Office of Education joined with the Carnegie and Ford Foundations to help disadvantaged children with the creation of the Children’s Television Workshop, which subsequently launched the show. The biographies of nearly everyone involved with Sesame Street, both in front of the camera and behind, are detailed—in one instance reaching back to the Civil War. Jim Henson, of course, gets the most press, and the book progresses forward to Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo. The unexpected abounds. In the late 1960s, Bob (McGrath) was Sinatra-level singing celebrity in Japan, releasing dozens of singles and LPs as well as starring in television commercials. He gave it up to be at home with his family—fortunately in New York, where a friend told him about a new children’s show that was casting. Willy Lee (Mr. Hooper) had worked for decades on the stage, frequently in socially-relevant dramas. When he refused to name names during the McCarthy communist witch hunt of the 1950s he was blacklisted. Show producer Matt Robinson played Gordon for the first few years because he had been unable to find an actor who projected what he wanted the character to be. Robinson also created Roosevelt Franklin, the decidedly Black (well, Magenta) Muppet who caused some minor controversy.  Anyone who grew up watching Sesame Street will enjoy this.



The Wicked Wit of the West

by Irving Brecher as told to Hank Rosenfeld

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale




When Brecher died late last year, he left behind a legacy of decades of film, television, and radio writing. Fortunately for posterity he also had just completed his memoirs. Largely told through anecdotes of three or four pages, Brecher takes us from the 1930s through the 60s. He got his start writing for notorious joke-appropriator Milton Berle by advertising himself as a provider of "Berle-Proof Gags.  Jokes so bad, not even Milton will steal them." This drew the comic's attention, and Brecher became one of vaudeville's hottest writers. He went to Hollywood and was soon hanging out with, as well as writing for, the Marx Brothers. His adventures with Groucho, professional and personal, fill a delightful chunk of the book. When he's not quoting notables from Hollywood’s "Golden Age," Brecher is dropping one-liners about the actors he worked with ("She was no star.  She wasn't even an asterisk.") and befriended (At 101, George Burns had "not one single enemy. They all died."), as well as life in general (Interviewer: "If you had a robot, what would you want it to do for you?" Irv: "Go to my proctologist."). It's only January, but the odds on any other book coming out this year being funnier than this are very slim. Brecher was a script doctor on The Wizard of Oz, adapted a series of New Yorker short stories by Sally Benson into the Judy Garland classic Meet Me in St. Louis, and created The Life of Riley, a hit radio show that became the first televised sit-com. We are fortunate to live in an era where most of Brecher's work is readily available. Many of his movies are on DVD, and the radio shows are available on CD and in MP3 compilations. If, looking at the book's cover, you recognize only Judy Garland and Groucho Marx, you owe it yourself to complete your comedy education. Let this book be your guide.



The Pluto Files:  The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet

by Neil deGrasse Tyson

reviewed by A.B. Mead



At first glance, this pop history of the once-ninth planet in our solar system looks like a lengthy magazine article from, say, Smithsonian. But despite the newspaper cartoons (Pluto on the street corner selling pencils and holding a “Victim of Downsizing” sign) and letters from third-graders (“Pluto is my faveret planet!!!”), this slim volume balances plenty of the scientific with the accessible. Tyson is a noted astrophysicist, PBS host, and the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City; a man perfectly suited to explain the origin and checkered past of Pluto’s status. He guides us from its discovery in 1930 and subsequent naming (not after the Disney dog—several pages are devoted to this) to the discussions, both public and private, that eventually forced the International Astronomical Union to define “planet” in such a way as to make Pluto a “dwarf planet.” As we learned more about Pluto, it became clear that it was a unique object in our system. In the 1990s moons were discovered around asteroids, robbing Pluto of one of its best claims to planethood (that only planets had moons), leaving it in “a class of one.” Tyson follows the protests and bickering throughout the media over first the threat of reclassification and then the aftermath that resulted in street demonstrations, protest songs, and resolutions by two state legislatures that—over their skies at least—Pluto is still the ninth planet. In the end, perhaps the best solution came from a writer who suggested scientists “rename Uranus Pluto and get rid of all that grade school snickering.”






Miles from Nowhere

by Nami Mun

reviewed by Judy Bryant



I loved this book. It is the story of Joon-Mee, a 14-year-old runaway from her home in the Bronx, where her father has left and her mother is slowly leaving as her mind collapses. Rather than a chronological narrative describing her life, each chapter is a perfect little short story, which could easily stand alone, about some event or some relationship in her life. There is the chapter about a junkie she lives with; her life on the streets; her jobs as Avon Lady, dance hall hostess, nursing home assistant, hooker; her friendship and adventures with Knowledge; and her acquaintance with Frank at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. But through all this runs Joon-Mee’s tilt toward home and her mother. Nami Mun accurately depicts the horrors and dangers of the street life, but without ever trying to manipulate the reader’s emotions. The writing is spare and clean and never sentimental, but with a shimmer that is occasionally electrifying. Joon-Mee is a heroine you will care about. She is as clear and straightforward as the writing, but with a heart of sweetness and poetry and hope.



Extraordinary Engines

by Nick Gevers

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



Back in May we reviewed a retrospective anthology of steampunk fiction. Now Nick Gevers edits an anthology of a dozen all-new tales. Automatons appear several times. In Margo Lanagan's "Machine Maid," we have a female domestic / sexbot on the Australian outback and her frigid and jealous mistress of the house. Robert Reed's "American Cheetah" gives us Lincoln automatons originally created to help deliver election stump speeches. They later go their own ways, and one ends up as a sheriff in the Old West. James Morrow's "Lady Witherspoon's Solution" combines a ladies' croquet society with de-evolution. "Hannah" uses cloning to solve a murder. If there is any tale that's likely to appear in a future retrospective anthology it's Adam Roberts' comedy "Petrolpunk," in which agents from an alternate universe (one where petroleum "is not some footnote . . . some curio, but the basis of a whole world-spanning technology") come to a "steamy" one in order to buy the rights to their gas. Ah, but an immortal Queen Victoria has banned drilling and mining of any sort . . .  Fans of the subgenre should bring this along on their airship voyage.




edited by Lawrence M. Schoen and Arthur Dorrance


reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale


Testing the theory that the novella (under 40,000 words) is the "ideal length for speculative fiction," Schoen and Dorrance present tales by four of today's most talented genre writers. Jay Lake's “America, Such as She Is” takes place in an alternate 1940s where the Axis powers have defeated the United States by developing The Bomb first. Far from concerning itself with political machinations, Lake's story concentrates on a repatriated American soldier-scientist looking for redemption and a prostitute living in Japanese-occupied Portugal. Even jaded alt hist fans will find this compelling and evocative. “13 Miles to Paradise” by Bruce Taylor is the story of a family on the road for a vacation. Except for a brief magical realism sequence that takes place during a discussion of magical realism, this isn't really a genre story. But it does contain elements of interest to genre readers, and even its "mundane" parts touch on various human truths quite powerfully. In "Harvest" by James Van Pelt, three high school friends try to figure out why another student killed his parents and where he has disappeared to. Despite the seriousness of the situation, touches of warmth and humor run through it providing balance. Ray Vukcevich's "Now You See Us" is a truly odd—but absolutely captivating—tale of a reporter who stumbles upon a sort of Norwegian Brigadoon (or does he?). His story is paralleled by that of a young lady who meets a cloister of Finnish monks who claim that they can travel through time (or are they just using that line to score with the ladies?). Four good stories you can read in two bus trips each.



The Charlemagne Pursuit

by Steve Berry

reviewed by A.B. Mead



Dan Brown’s The Solomon Key is now a couple of years late. But while we’re waiting, Berry’s latest makes for a fine placeholder. While Brown produces undeniable page-turners, Berry is the better stylist. His characters have interior lives independent of the plot, and Berry follows Hemingway’s dictum to show rather than tell. Furthermore, where Brown takes as his launch point some rather dubious religious matters, Berry spins his from elements of historical fact:  an undecipherable manuscript that really exists at Yale and documented Nazi visits to Antarctica in the 1930s. The Charlemagne Pursuit’s only flaw is that it runs a bit long. 

The story is as follows: Cotton Malone’s father died in 1971 while aboard a classified mission deep in the Antarctic Ocean. Because it occurred during the Cold War, the loss of the experimental submarine was covered-up, but slowly the truth is coming to Malone. The U.S., relying on confiscated Nazi documents, was searching for something that the Germans had found there in 1938. Evidence of a First Civilization, a now-vanished, technologically-superior culture that predated any known to us—and that may still exist. To find it, Malone must tap into the history of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor who in the 700s essentially founded Europe. He must also solve the mystery of the Voynich Manuscript, a document from the 1400s written in a seemingly alien script and illuminated with illustrations of an almost scientific nature.



Sleepwalking Daylight

by Elizabeth Flock

reviewed by Judy Bryant


At first I loved this book. It is the story of Samantha and Bob Friedman, a 40-something upwardly mobile couple living in Chicago with their 17-year-old adopted daughter Cammy and their twin sons Jamie and Andrew. It is a life with the usual cracks – their sex life is not what it used to be, their daughter Cammy is retreating to her room in a new- found Goth stage, Samantha is stressed with trying to run her home and her children’s multiple pursuits and problems, and Bob seems constantly stressed and distant.  The chapters flip back and forth between Samantha and Cammy and a pattern begins to emerge. Cammy is not just some grumpy teenager indulging in the latest fad; she is deeply and seriously troubled. And Samantha, caught in her own feelings of wasted opportunities and drowning in a family that seems to be falling apart, can’t or won’t hear her. Bob seems to have checked out, and Samantha checks out in her own way – a chance meeting with an unhappy, handsome stranger on a train, an escape from her life. Elizabeth Flock is a skillful storyteller, and the suspense is genuine as we watch Cammy sink deeper and deeper into her pain. Samantha is indeed “sleepwalking in daylight” and the reader wants to scream at her to wake up. My problem is with the catastrophic ending and too quick denouement. It was like watching a runaway train for 330 pages. You don’t recover from that in 22 pages. It would have been interesting to read about surviving and overcoming and moving on – if possible. What happens to the twins, what happens to Samantha, what happens to the marriage, what happens to Bob? I wanted so much more.




My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor






I’m a huge fan of David Letterman and I even attended a taping of his show a couple of years ago.  So I was looking forward to his latest “work of literature,” Late Show Fun Facts.  (Hyperion, $19.95).  Culled from the files of the Federal Bureau of Miscellaneous Information, the archives of their “factual” discoveries prove to be fun and entertaining.  For example: 

        No one named Gary has ever been Pope.
        Pat Sajak can’t read.
        Despite using seltzer bottles, clowns often become dehydrated.



Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson have done it again with their latest endeavor, their first outside the Peter Pan prequels.  Science Fair (Disney Editions, $18.99) puts eighth grader Toby Harbinger into a mess of trouble.  He learns of a conspiracy to disrupt the school’s annual science fair, but no one believes him.  To make things worse, someone dressed as Darth Vader is trying to steal his parent’s Star Wars memorabilia.  Can Toby save the collectibles and possibly the world?  Laugh out loud funny that deserves a sequel. 




It’s Star Trek comic month.  IDW has been publishing new Star Trek storylines and have been faithful to fans and incorporated excellent stories to appeal to a new generation.  Originally published in five issues, Star Trek: Assignment: Earth (IDW, $19.99) puts them together in trade paperback form.  Agent Gary Seven and his assistant, Roberta, try to maintain the proper timeline while living in the 1960s.  The stories are surprisingly touching and resonate with today’s values, even though the time is forty years in the past.  Gary Seven came from the original series episode, Assignment: Earth.  (Probably why the same title).




In a direct sequel to an original series episode, The Enterprise Incident, Star Trek: The Enterprise Experiment (IDW, $19.99) is even written by the woman who wrote the original teleplay, D.C. Fontana.  Now that the Federation has obtained a cloaking device from the Romulans, what happens next?  The storyline also introduces a character only seen in the animated version of the show.  Lots of fun and a worthy sequel.  (Though you don’t need to be familiar with it to enjoy the story).






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