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 November 2009 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

Andy Warhol


by Arthur C. Danto

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

Andy  Warhol would have loved the fact that Meghan McCain posed with this book in her infamous busty Twitter pic. The democratization of fame (“In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.”) goes hand-in-hand with the democratization of art. Part of Yale University Press's Icons of America series, this slim volume goes a long way towards explaining not only Warhol's seminal place in American art, but answering the question “What Is Art?”. By employing what Danto calls “the vernacular”—things everyone already recognized and understood (movie star publicity photos, cans of soup)—Warhol opened up art in the same manner as writers centuries ago when they moved beyond classical languages. By painting “what we are,” Warhol reflected society just as accurately as anyone before him. We all drink Coke, and we all use Brillo pads, so paintings of the bottles and reproductions of the boxes are universal referents. That these—just as limited as the most perfectly-rendered portrait—look like the objects that inspired them yet are not them, is Art. Similarly, his eight-hour-long film of the Empire State Building, Empire, which could be described as the camera merely filming the building, and derided as a movie in which “nothing moves,” begs the question of what a moving picture is. As Danto says with crystal insight  ...“it would only be in a moving picture that something would actually stand still. No one looking at a snapshot of the Empire State Building would ask:  Why is this not moving?” Not just an artistic biography, but a study of Warhol the icon, the book examines how Warhol also created “an entirely new kind of life for an artist to lead, involving music, style, sex, language, film, and drugs, as well as art.”  Required reading for anyone interested in the aesthetics of the Twentieth Century, this volume includes a handful of images (in black and white) and very useful index.

 

         
 

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession


by Allison Hoover Bartlett

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

This is the fascinating story of John Gilkey, who can’t see why it’s wrong to steal books for his collection. Childlishly bemoaning that it’s not fair that he can’t afford all the books he wants, Gilkey rationalizes that booksellers deserve to be robbed for charging too much, among other creative excuses. And yet, there’s a part of him any book lover can relate to: “With books, it looks beautiful, you can read it if you want, and it’s part of the ambience of a house, isn’t it?” (I've often said much the same  about my houseful of books. For the record, however, I've paid for them.) 

Gilkey’s arch-nemesis is rare book dealer Ken Sanders, who stumbles into becoming security chair for the Antiquarian Booksellers of America Association and then jumps into the job with both feet. He institutes a stolen-book database and an email alert system, allowing ABAA members to immediately report stolen books for other members to watch out for. These measures, plus some quickly organized sting operations, nab Gilkey, but he's (pardon the expression) a textbook repeat offender. 

Bartlett interviews both men as well as other booksellers, but it's her awkward relationship with Gilkey that drives the tale, as the boundaries between covering a story and becoming a part of the story are blurred by the oddly personable book thief who knows a book is being written about him. Highly recommended for all readers who have coveted a book they can't afford.

 
         
 

On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery


by Robert M. Poole

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

The story of Arlington begins as the story of Robert E. Lee's private estate. Scarcely had he and his family abandoned it to flee to Richmond at the start of the Civil War, when the U.S. Government annexed it. The property was too strategically located to allow if to fall into enemy hands. The War caused so many deaths that President Lincoln and congress had to create America's first military cemeteries, and, after ironically serving as a camp for freed slaves, Arlington slowly began to fill up with corpses. The war ended, but, in order to discourage the Lee family from trying to reclaim it, over 2,000 unknown soldiers were buried in a huge pit near Mrs. Lee's garden. The Lee family fought long and hard to recover Arlington, eventually ending up in the Supreme Court, where they won, but were bought out by the government for a small fortune. When victims of the sinking of the Maine were buried there, Arlington became not merely a Civil War cemetery, but a national one. It soon became the place to remember those who assisted the nation. Revolutionary War and Confederate soldiers were disinterred and reburied there. Pierre L'Enfant, the architect behind much of Washington, D.C. was exhumed in Maryland and reburied where he would have “the best view of Washington at his feet.” The Pentagon was originally supposed to be built on the grounds, but some said it would have ruined the aesthetic flow, and Franklin D. Roosevelt had to settle the matter personally. But it was the burial of John F. Kennedy that seared the cemetery into the world's consciousness.  The number of visitors more than tripled after his internment was televised. Today, Arlington continues its duty, housing the remains of those who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq in the newly-opened Section 60, called “the saddest acre in America.”

 

 
         
 

The Great Depression: A Diary


by Benjamin Roth, edited by James Ledbetter and Daniel B. Roth

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 
 

Youngstown, Ohio lawyer Roth kept a diary for most of his life. This volume contains many of his entries from 1931 until December 1941. There could not be a more appropriate read for our time. Much has already been written about those who became truly destitute during the Great Depression, but this is a diary of the middle class, what editor Ledbetter calls, “the Depression's dramatically affected, but not its thoroughly trampled.” In other words, a point of view to which most of us today can more readily relate. The parallels between then and today are eerie. “Magazines and newspapers are full of articles telling people to buy stocks, real estate, etc. at  present bargain prices,” Roth wrote in 1931. “The trouble is that nobody has any money.” The diary is mostly concerned with economics, written by Roth as a way of teaching himself about what was happening and what he might learn from it. Because Roth was starting from scratch, the book doesn't require any previous knowledge of economics as the reader follows the creation of the author's personal investment strategy based on the what he saw with his own eyes:  bank closings, the New Deal, and the fortunes and misfortunes of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company. Depression is peppered with enlightening historical notes from the editors and, better still, annotations by Roth himself who revisited his journals over the decades and noted where he had been right or wrong. Although this book concentrates on monetary matters, it is by no means dry, and, since the market is all that some of us can think about these days, Depression makes for even more fascinating reading that it might have even only a few years ago.

 
 
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

Misconception: a memoir novel


Ryan Boudinot

reviewed by Neal Swain

 

 

The launching point of Misconception, Ryan Boudinot’s first novel, is a microscope slide bearing a fateful load of semen, teenager Cedar Rivers’ contribution to science and an offering to his high school crush. Decades later, he reunites with Kat Daniels to read the memoir that she, a literary up-and-comer, wrote using his perspective for half the narrative. He’s shown up at the hotel to satisfy his curiosity; she’s there because her publisher wants to avoid a lawsuit. 

Boudinot’s prose is refreshing and will carry you through a story that will make you grateful you are no longer a teenager, or at least that you are (hopefully) not one of these teenagers. He writes unflinchingly about puerile embarrassments and stupid, stupid, stupid mistakes, giving the ‘memoir’ elements of the novel a painful appeal and a certain charm even when the unfolding events stretch believability. But the set-up that allows these reflections to occur is underwritten: we know almost nothing about these grown-up kids beyond their professions and that Cedar has a girlfriend so one-dimensional that she carries only an initial for a name, yet we are left with a baffling hint that he and Kat reconnect romantically through the sharing of her memoir. The intervening past feels more like linked short stories than the bulk of a novel, and it works. This book will leave readers still curious, but not entirely discontent.

 

 

 

         
 

Rainwater


by Sandra Brown

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

“Habits die hard,” the title of character of Rainwater says early on.  “But I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known it would make you angry.” 

Fitting words to describe Sandra Brown’s latest effort, since the modern master of thrillers steamy enough to fog up the windows departs from convention with a slight but equally masterful tale.  This beautifully written period piece transports us to 1934 Depression-era Texas and a rooming house operated by one Ella Barron.  Ella lives there along with her autistic son and a number of borders soon to include one David Rainwater who comes with numerous secrets packed into his suitcase, including the fact that he’s dying of inoperable cancer and just wants to live out his days in peace. 

Nonetheless, Ella finds her sleepy life changed forever with Rainwater’s arrival on the scene.  First, he finds ways to reach her son Solly where all else has failed.  Then Rainwater begins to involve himself in the politics of the era, specifically the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation’s efforts to “aid” indigent farmers by siphoning off and/or murdering their herds.  His resolve at helping those rocked by financial ruin eerily mirror the plight of so many in today’s similarly hard-hit times, making Rainwater a parable perfect to showcase Sandra Brown’s newly displayed brilliance as a skilled lyricist as well as storyteller. This departure from her norm is almost mystical in its elegance, resulting in a tale sure to stay with you long after you’ve flipped the last page.


 

 
         
 

Pilgrims: A Wobegon Romance


by Garrison Keillor

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

A group of Lake Wobegon regulars travel to Rome in order to honor the tomb of August “Gussie” Norlander, a Wobegonian who died there during World War II while liberating the city. The story is largely told through the eyes of Margie Krebsbach, English teacher, who is accompanied by her sister  Mayor Eloise Krebsbach along with Father Wilmer of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility; Wally and Evelyn, owners of the Sidetrack Tap bar; and a host of others including Keillor himself. “Gary Keillor,” the host of A Prairie Home Companion had accidentally volunteered to pay for all of it. His presence allows for some of the self-deprecating humor his Midwesterners are famous for. “Don't sing,” a fellow traveler tells Keillor about his show. “Someone should have told you this years ago.” And upon learning that four million people listen to him every week, Margie muses that “of course there are millions in nursing homes, unable to reach the OFF knob.” It turns out that Gussie fathered a daughter, now in her sixties, who is anxious to learn about her roots:  “A Roman woman half Minnesotan. A sort of mermaid.” Fans of the radio show will hear Keillor's voice in every line as the pilgrims explore the Eternal City and Margie reflects on what really brought her there. She, like so many of Keillor's women, wants a chance to be free from Midwestern constraints just once—to live la dolce vita. Yearnings and freedoms, warmth and laughter. Keillor never disappoints.


 

 
         
 

Blood’s a Rover


by James Ellroy

reviewed by Neal Swain

 

 

Raymond Chandler once wrote that crime writers need to give “murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons.” James Ellroy does this with aplomb in his hard-boiled novels (most notably L.A. Confidential,) but in the closing book of his Underground USA trilogy, Blood’s a Rover, murder is committed for the racist agenda of a doddering and grotesque J. Edgar Hoover who wants to agitate and permanently discredit America’s leftwing radicals. Not even his sycophants believe in his schemes anymore: they prefer to climb in bed with revolutionary women and incorporate some voodoo into their drug habits. The plot swivels around an armed robbery and the pursuit of an elusive communist named Joan Klein. 

This book has its flaws –at the least, the politics of the very political characters are often glossed over, and the ratio of slang and slurs to story slows down the story- but the trail of backstabbing, carnage, and Ellroy’s punchy writing will keep pages turning. Bargains are made and broken and guns and schemes go off. The casualty rate is high and once things are in motion, the reader can only watch the fallout.

 

 

 


 

 
         
 

Quarry in the Middle


by Max Allan Collins

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Collins' hit man Quarry just can't stop making final appearances. After The Last Quarry he returned in the prequel The First Quarry. So it's only natural that we now find Quarry in the middle. This adventure is set in the 1980s, and, in order to blend in, the sardonic contract killer is reduced to dressing like Don Johnson in Miami Vice. He no longer takes assignments from the mysterious Broker.  Instead, he finds people who are the targets of other assassins and offers to kill their would-be assailants first—for a price. He needs just one more score before he can fulfill his dream of buying a roadhouse in Wisconsin and retiring. Unfortunately what starts out as a connection on an illegal riverboat casino soon escalates. The owners of The Paddlewheel (one of them a sexy chanteuse) have rivals ashore. Rivals with mob connections who are running more than just tourists and card games upriver and down. Guess who ends up in the middle? These short novels are long on hard-boiled noir style, with a smattering of sex and tough-guy violence. But what makes the Quarry books special is Collins' blend of criminal-minded procedure and slyness:  “A big-hair hooker in a pink spandex minidress was a leading a biker like a lamb to the slaughter (or maybe to the slattern)”. The town in question is named Haydee's Port, but everyone just calls it by its first name (Say it aloud.). And the local hotel is “a dump used for sleeping it off or getting it on.” We can only hope that Quarry returns at least two more times: A Fifth of Quarry is an irresistible prospect.

 

 

 

 
         
   
   
Young Adult

 

 
 

Liar


by Justine Larbalestier

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

 

Micah is the ultimate unreliable narrator—right off the bat, she tells the reader that she is a liar. Her story, at least initially, is that her secret boyfriend Zach (who also has a not-so-secret girlfriend, Sarah) has been killed. But was he really her boyfriend? Did she have anything to do with his death? And what exactly is going on with her family and their mysterious “family illness”?  There's a hairpin plot turn in the middle of the book, which—“true” or not—may put some readers off.   The ending, too, is unlikely to satisfy everyone, but this provocative page-turner will be sure to spur lively discussions among high school readers.

Incidentally, the cover of the American edition of Liar initially featured a young Asian woman.  However, this caused a huge dust-up for Bloomsbury, since despite Micah’s myriad lies she gives the reader no reason to believe that she isn’t telling the truth about her racial identity (African American and white).  Under pressure from various corners, including, eventually, the author herself, Bloomsbury agreed to change the cover art to its current photograph of a half-hidden biracial girl.

 

 

 

 
         
 

An Off Year


by Claire Zulkey

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

 

Like many upper-middle class high school graduates, Cicely has never given much thought to what she would do after high school.  It was assumed that she would go to college, so she applied to one and showed up on the first day to unpack her belongings.  But somehow she finds she can’t go through with it, and informs her father in no uncertain terms that she wants to go home.

Cecily begins her “off year” not doing much besides catching up on daytime television and walking the family dog.  Gradually, she begins seeing a therapist, working, and even taking a class at the college where her father teaches.  Teens who read for plot will not be drawn to this book, but Cecily is a likeable, entertaining narrator (if slightly spoiled, as she herself admits).  Many teens struggling to discover their adult identities will relate to her internal struggle.  Though not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as John Green’s books, this title may appeal to some of his fans.

 
         
 

Going Bovine


by Libba Bray

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

 

Like Don Quixote on steroids—make that on crack—Bray gives readers one wild and insane road trip. High-schooler Cameron Smith and his fellow student Paul Ignacio Gonzales (“Gonzo” for short. And since he's a dwarf, there's a lot of short to go around.) are on a quest to save the world. A punk-rock angel  (“Awesome! You think God's a metal head?”) has told Cameron that only he can prevent Dr. X from from releasing antimatter that will destroy the world. Of course, since Cameron has just been diagnosed with Mad Cow Disease, and is on some highly experimental medication, there's some doubt in his mind if any of what he is seeing and hearing are real. Nonetheless, Cameron and Gonzo hit the road from Texas to Florida, soon accompanied by Balder, a living garden gnome who claims to be the Norse god of wisdom and a son of Odin. The parallels to Don Quixote are many, from our possibly crazy hero and his diminutive side-kicks to the Fire Giants Cameron jousts with everywhere they go. There are “clues” taken from the most random of signs. There is lady-love who barely knows he exists, and then there is . . . everything else. This novel juggles half a dozen pop science concepts along with snow globes, MTV-style game shows, and the mysterious disappearance of an Inuit rock band (“Were they the victims of foul play? Were they aliens visiting from musically advanced planet?”). As the characters frequently observe:  “It's all connected.”

 

 

 
         
 
My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor
 
 

 

 
 

Andrews McMeel continues the tradition of a beautifully bound collection that encompasses the history of a particular comic strip.  (Far Side, Calvin & Hobbes, etc).  The latest one is Celebrating Peanuts: 60 Years (Andrews McMeel, $75).   Broken down by decade, and filled with words of wisdom from Charles Schulz, this book is a must have for the Peanuts fan.

 

 

 

 

 
 

While I was laid out with the flu, I discovered a wonderful show that airs Monday nights on ABC called Castle.  A mystery writer teams up with a homicide detective to help her solve crimes.  She becomes his muse and his first novel with her inspired character, Nikki Heat, was published on the show and has also been published in the real world: Heat Wave by Richard Castle (Hyperion, $19.95).  The show references actual parts of the novel and the storyline is a terrific mystery plus a wonderful tribute to the show it sprang from.  Castle should be a regular part of your television and the book should be on your shelf.  Here’s hoping “Richard Castle” writes more books.

 

 

 

 

 
 

I just discovered the comic strip Tundra, and loved the wonderful treasury showcasing the best of the bunch in Tundra: Nature’s Favorite Comic Strip by Chad Carpenter (Andrews McMeel, $16.99).  The gags are laugh-out loud funny and the creator has a bizarre fetish involving snowmen.  Hunt this one down. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

I try to avoid books that could be considered political, but I ran across End The Fed by Ron Paul (Grand Central, $21.99) and was blown away.  The congressman does an admirable job unveiling the history of the mysterious institution that is essentially the cornerstone of the U.S. economy.  Ron Paul also discusses various economic policies in a way that informs instead of bores. 

 

 

 

 
  Hagar the Horrible: The Epic Chronicles: The Dailies 1973-1974 by Dik Browne (Titan, $19.95) Hagar will always have a place in my heart since I wore a giant Hagar costume for a special library event years ago.  (It was hot and hard to see.  I don’t know how the folks at the Disney parks do it on a regular basis).  The history major in me was also fascinated to see the beginning of a strip that still remains popular.  While other retrospectives can sometimes feel dated, these strips could have easily been from today.  I look forward to the next volume.

 

 

 
     
 

See you next month.

Jeff

  

 
     

 

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