Jon Ronson books have twice served as good non-fiction offerings for the book club I attend. His journalistic prose engrosses, mixing intriguing subjeJon Ronson books have twice served as good non-fiction offerings for the book club I attend. His journalistic prose engrosses, mixing intriguing subject matter with a dash of empathy via writing that drives to the point. So long as a group of people have come to both talk AND listen, Lost at Sea in particular makes for good discussion.
Our book club leader made a great choice to direct the evening’s conversation by asking a question for each chapter. Since each chapter covers a different story, that enabled us to cover the bulk of the material in a single meeting. Given that some of the stories in this book are troubling, one about pedophilia being the most obvious example, reactions had a cathartic element to them. We were getting our reactions off our chests so to speak. Ronson has a gift for getting people to open up, interviewees and readers alike.
That may be at once the greatest strength and risk in Lost at Sea: depicting people with the appearance of extremist tendencies in a manner that makes them sympathetic or even likable. Some readers may not wish to experience empathy for a pedophile. Ronson, as our book club has noted more than once, risks liking his subjects. This informs his writing, keeping it from becoming detached. Whether contemplating an Alaskan town that relies on the Santa Clause myth as means of denial in the face of violent threats, or robot makers whose lifelike creations beg all sorts of existential fretting, Ronson lets things get personal. His is not the safest form of journalism. For readers like me, that makes his books all the more worth reading.
I recommend Lost at Sea to be read with a friend or group. Read and then talk AND listen, like Ronson does....more
I would recommend How Did You Get This Number to people looking for good non-fiction, essays in particular. If you have a New York City obsession, thiI would recommend How Did You Get This Number to people looking for good non-fiction, essays in particular. If you have a New York City obsession, this is a book by a New Yorker. Most importantly, it is a book I likely would have never tried otherwise. No offense to Ms. Crosley, but she was not on my radar. Nothing personal. Just LOTS of authors out there. The radar is crowded. But my local library set me up with this book on a literary blind date, so...
As with books by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, here I found myself reading long-form reflections by someone who is from my generation. At one point, Crosley says, "I was a child of the '80s but a teenager of the '90s." I have often described myself the exact same way.
This blind date wasn't perfect. At their best, essay books are a fascinating chance to explore someone else's mind, to experience the joy of another person's notions resonating with your own. In such moments, a book makes you feel less alone. At their worst, such books become an excruciating one-sided conversation. At various times in this date, I experienced both extremes.
Crosley is an astute observer of the world--able to encapsulate her experience in meaningful, often playful, prose. Her zingers and witticisms are hit and miss. Her sense of humor did not always jive with my own. Although, perhaps I shouldn't chalk that up to a flaw. She is capable of great twists, sending you in one meaningful direction so she can suddenly yank you in another. That is good essay writing to me.
Still, during her chapter about visiting France, what started out intriguing eventually dragged on too long. Have you ever been at the table with someone very much in to what they are rambling on about? You wish you could be as in to it as are they. But you know what? I have never been to France. I might never go. Keeping with the blind date metaphor, during the Paris chapter I had this inner-dialogue while reading: "Right now this night is all about you. And if it does not become about us pretty soon I probably won't ask you out a second time."
In her last essay, Crosley hits a home run. My notions of New York City have reached toxic levels of dreaminess under the influence of a certain sitcom which for eight full years remained motherless. Crosley took me deep into her New York experience, including a disastrous relationship. I believed in her Big Apple by the end, full of dreams and downfalls, but very much a place where powerful connections can happen.
So the date went well. I don't know that we will see each other again, but the time was not wasted. We should all find ourselves out with someone different, who challenges us more than they charm us. Thank you Sloane. And thank you to my library for fixing me up once again....more
This is definitely a good read for Star Wars fans who want to look back and take stock of the journey we have been on since the late 70s. Author ChrisThis is definitely a good read for Star Wars fans who want to look back and take stock of the journey we have been on since the late 70s. Author Chris Taylor has done a great deal of homework, reaching out to key players, including within the fan community. Still, perhaps as a side effect of the comprehensive nature, the delivery feels either overwhelming or impersonal. Lots of name dropping for instance. I did not have much of an emotional reaction to the material. Was I hoping for blissful nostalgia?
In one of the keenest insights, Taylor discusses how true fans tend to hate on Star Wars the hardest. We've seen the movies so many times and no one can nitpick like we can. Taylor's book makes perhaps its greatest contribution by weaving together the various galaxies of content in the Star Wars universe. How do the novels relate to the movies to the comics to the fan clubs and so on.
One thing I will criticize is the editing. I don't normally harp on punctuation. Typos happen, especially in long form writing. But the number and frequency of typos was noticeable and distracting at times in this hardcover edition, including I am pretty sure some lines or deeds attributed to the wrong characters. Ultimately forgivable. Absolutely NOT a reason to avoid reading the book. But, for example, the famous sound effect heard in multiple films is the "Wilhelm scream" not "screen." Meh. Are you a Star Wars fan? Check this book out....more
As I write this review, American women are spending tens of millions of dollars to see a movie that features a man who, if I have been correctly inforAs I write this review, American women are spending tens of millions of dollars to see a movie that features a man who, if I have been correctly informed, wants them to wear handcuffs in bed. I am a bitter lonely writer this weekend for non-cinematic reasons. Still, the above development gives me one more reason to throw up my gentlemanly bachelor hands and say, “Wuh?!”
Granted, I did spend this Valentine’s Day weekend focused intently on a woman who turns me on. I finished listening to the audio edition of Tina Fey’s non-fiction book Bossypants. Whether engaged in memoir, reflection on gender dynamics in contemporary entertainment, or conventional comedic monologue, Bossypants succeeds wonderfully.
The same lean, apology-free writing that made Ms. Fey such a great writer for SNL appears in Bossypants. Fey takes readers through all the high points of her career thus far, all the stuff she knows fans can’t help wondering about, and she presents it with crisp insight and tangy irony. Furthermore, this is not a glossed-over autobiography. Bossypants is a serious and thoughtful, self-critical yet simultaneously hilarious, one-woman show of a book. I can only fault Fey for relying a bit too often on a gag where her voice trails off to stress the occurrence of a punch line. This bit plays best during an anecdote about the time she sheepishly gave an acting note to Sylvester Stallone. Then it starts to feel belabored.
As I listened to one of my crushes read her book aloud, I thought how fortunate to live at a time in our nation’s history when she is not only allowed to vote, but also to produce mainstream entertainment that meets her high writing standards. Why should such women be encouraged to simultaneously pursue a full-time career and motherhood? Here is a selfish reason: so I can enjoy the top-notch comedy that results at gigs like the Golden Globes as hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
Allow me to be boyish for a moment. I've had a crush on Tina Fey ever since the first time I watched her do Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live. It’s a selfish attraction, replete with what-she-could-offer-me daydreams. No, I don’t mean sexual dreams where I get to put her in handcuffs. This is a holier crush.
Not since Dennis Miller sat in the anchor chair have I so deeply respected and admired a Weekend Update host, a writer so surgically insightful and en pointe witty that he or she need not rely on goofy hijinks to be an SNL cast favorite. I fell for Tina long before she was called upon to lampoon Sarah Palin. I look at a writer like her, physically and intellectually attractive, and I fantasize selfishly about just how awesome of a man I would be if I had what it takes to win such a woman’s affections. This weekend’s box office totals notwithstanding, I am fairly confident it takes something more profound and meritorious than handcuffs....more
Amy Poehler reminds me of the high school theatre girls I pined for…is what someone other than me would say. Since I am currently in love with the shoAmy Poehler reminds me of the high school theatre girls I pined for…is what someone other than me would say. Since I am currently in love with the show Parks and Recreation, I expected I would fall in love with Amy while listening to her book. I did not. Quite the opposite, she reminded me of the strong-headed, take-charge, sometimes overbearing girls in theatre that I never developed crushes on. Have I mentioned yet that I think Yes Please is a great book and highly recommend it?
Amy’s debut book is not a masterpiece, though it is full of humorous and insightful gems. It delivers. It also exudes worthy charm in the form of Amy bringing in other showbiz talents to read certain passages. Patrick Stewart reciting Amy’s haiku is delicious literature. Being of the same generation, I also loved how Amy took me down memory lane with regard to the 80s.
Yes Please feels overly discombobulated at times. I believe, based on some of her introspection, that Amy intentionally lets this book wander and feel chaotic. In doing so she may be trying to capture something that resonates with her life experience. She succeeds, but goes a bit too far. At times I felt disoriented to the point of distraction. In books that are grippingly personal, that is counterproductive.
Perhaps the best chapter involves Amy discussing why she does not want to read your (my) damn script--why I should never plop my unpublished manuscript in her lap, hoping for a shortcut to success. Her insights are keen. In a world teeming with self-publishing “indie” writers who inflate their relevance by acquiring scores of fake Twitter followers, Amy’s unapologetic take on what it takes to truly succeed is invaluable. Hard work. Trial and error, etc. As further evidence of her philosophical merit, Amy demonstrates an awareness that not everyone who succeeds deserves to, and not everyone who deserves to will succeed.
Forgive me for bookending my review with boyish observations about the nature of attraction. (I’m writing this review on Valentine’s Frickin-day). Amy reminds me of the girls in high school theatre whom I did not develop a crush on, but whom I came to respect because I could trust them onstage. Like that girl who co-starred with me junior year in Little Shop of Horrors, who I found a bit overbearing off-stage, but who I was so grateful to have as my scene partner. Would I like more writing from Amy Poehler? Yes, please....more
Three things you never want to tell people how they're made: laws, sausages, and classic monster novels. That sums up my experience with Andrew McConnThree things you never want to tell people how they're made: laws, sausages, and classic monster novels. That sums up my experience with Andrew McConnell Stott's book The Poet and the Vampyre. I suspect many of us interested in this topic like to imagine Lord Byron et al gathered in a gothic castle on the coast of Lake Geneva during a midnight storm. The snowy Alps tower over them. Bathed in candlelight the Romantics sit rapt as, if by revelation, the thrilling character of Frankenstein's Monster is born. Oh, and there is probably a crackling fireplace reflecting bloodlike off glasses of red wine. The images in my mind are all delightfully spooky and sexy.
Yet, as Stott's rigorously logistical account demonstrates, the summer of 1816 saw a group of talented yet chronically privileged and self-interested young adults make poor life choices and almost, or in some cases actually, ruin themselves. Frankly, with all of the personal melodrama, financial headaches, and illnesses enveloping the writers, it is a miracle that works like Frankenstein and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage were ever written.
The genesis of Mary Shelley's monster novel is almost a footnote in The Poet and the Vampyre. Stott focuses a great deal on timeline and itinerary for Byron, Shelley, and two of their entourage who failed to achieve historical prominance. As such this book offers much reference value for Byron enthusiasts such as myself. Yet when it comes to pondering the emotional ramifications for the Romantic ensemble, this book generally maintains academic detachment. Top priority remains imparting the facts in a straightforward, even workaday, fashion.
Choices were made on such and such a date. Reputations were ruined during such and such a time period. Innocent children were dragged along at the expense of their health and well-being according to various documents. And yes, great literature was written and shipped back to England for publication. All of this is recounted carefully and clearly with dates and places cited. If it all feels impersonal, that is no accident. Stott dutifully recounts the areas and people of the Romantics' lives that were neglected or cast off outright while they focused on their creativity. The classic literature they created is not the focus here. This choice, while dry, is not without merit.
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto 3, may be my favorite work of poetry ever. The Poet and the Vampyre gave me a much better understanding of the goings on in Byron's circle at the time he wrote it. I was left feeling more disenchanted with Byron the man, as well as Percy Shelley, and Mary for that matter. When one considers the cataclysmic effect their volatile lifestyles had on lesser known family and associates, all three seem dangerous to know. Their works, for me at least, become something to read with a bit more sobriety instead of unbridled adoration.
I recommend The Poet and the Vampyre to people who have already experienced the major works of Byron and the Shelleys. Rather than a handy introduction, this book becomes a means to delve into the minutia of their time together. If the resulting account feels less entrancing than the famed literature in question, that may be one of the great, if disillusioning, lessons of Romanticism....more
Here is a book that tickles both my love of the universe and my love of English. Dr. Roberto Trotta's choice to tell the story of the universe using oHere is a book that tickles both my love of the universe and my love of English. Dr. Roberto Trotta's choice to tell the story of the universe using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in English is a great writing and pedagogy exercise. The literary merits of the finished product are secondary to me. One of the things I have learned as a trained writer/actor is that occasionally giving yourself a limiting set of rules can have great benefits. Though arbitrary, doing so takes you out of habits and can enable you to create in innovative ways.
The author is a professional astrophysicist. By hobbling himself linguistically at the outset, he forced himself to come up with new ways of explaining the universe to lay people like myself. It's a wonderful idea and I hope similar pedagogy experiments happen throughout the sciences.
In terms of literary results, The Edge of the Sky achieves a folkish allegorical flavor. The oldness of our cosmos comes out bright and clear. The charm and color of astrology occurs without the attendant superstition. This is science, but it is science as a campfire story meant to intrigue children of the human tribe. For me, the strongest passages dealt with Dark Matter which, as one of the great current mysteries of science, seems ideally suited for dramatization with symbolic language.
Thanks to previous non-fiction reading, documentary viewing, and a college education, I am highly conversant in the subject material. I am not an expert, but I know the scientific story of the universe pretty well. So I can only guess at how effective this book might be for someone not conversant in science. Perhaps it will read with even more delightful mystery. Perhaps it will just seem cryptic.
I think the greatest benefit could be derived by the academy of physicists. I recommend this book to the scientists whose deep knowledge of the universe allows them to take the sensibility of science for granted. If they wish to connect with taxpayers like me, they need to find effective ways of explaining the more esoteric of their mathematical doctrines. Roberta Trotta seems to have caught the spirit of finding ways to do that....more
I don't have a very long commute. Still, when the misery that is American broadcast news gets to be too much, I take a break from my car radio to listI don't have a very long commute. Still, when the misery that is American broadcast news gets to be too much, I take a break from my car radio to listen to an audio book. This is why I decided to listen to Billy Crystal's memoir/exploration of aging. And let me just say, I cannot imagine reading this book. Experiencing it as an audio book seems both obvious and mandatory. Only listening in 15 minute commute segments proved too slow. A couple of CDs in I yanked the case out of my car and gorged on 2 CDs at a time in my apartment.
Billy Crystal has been a welcome guest in my family's entertainment circle since he appeared in the sitcom Soap. We have loved his standup, his impersonations, and many of his films. When Harry Met Sally is one of my all-time favorite films and certainly my favorite romantic comedy. It was a pleasure to revisit all of these cherished memories through Billy's perspective, humor, and voice. The chapters he reads before a live audience are riveting in their hilarity.
The appeal of this memoir may come down to whether or not you are already a Billy Crystal fan. The approach he takes is inevitably an extension of his lifelong comedic style and wit. I think it is safe to say his recent Emmy Awards tribute to the late Robin Williams counts as something of a supplement, and a good sense of how this book comes across: candid, sentimental, bright. Thank you, Billy....more
The Description calls Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test an "exploration" of the "madness industry". At times it felt more like a sampling. I am not surThe Description calls Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test an "exploration" of the "madness industry". At times it felt more like a sampling. I am not sure why I was expecting something more academic and objective. Ronson's journey reads more casual and conversational, even zealously subjective. However, the book is quite effective, thought-provoking, and at times emotional (in a way meant to reassure me the reader I am not a psychopath).
This is not a book that will ground you firmly in a clinical understanding of psychopathy. This is a driving tour through the suspicion, fear, horror, and outright paranoia we may experience when contemplating psychopathy from a non-expert standpoint. At its best, Ronson's work shows just how fanatically anyone and everyone clings to beliefs they have a vested interest in, especially a professional interest. Though the book was not what I expected, I found it effective and worthwhile. Highly recommended. Lastly, kudos to the fearless leader of the book club I attend for throwing some non-fiction into the mix. ...more
Around the time of Shakespeare there were two views of the solar system: the older view was Earth-centered (Ptolemaic), and the newer view was Sun-cenAround the time of Shakespeare there were two views of the solar system: the older view was Earth-centered (Ptolemaic), and the newer view was Sun-centered (Copernican). In The Science of Shakespeare, Dan Falk provides a wonderfully accessible history lesson explaining these two astronomical systems--how the Ptolemaic view dominated for so long and then was overtaken by the Copernican theory (roughly around the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet). If Mr. Falk’s book had been solely, or even mostly, about this crucial history lesson, I would probably be writing a four-star review. I am not.
At the heart of Falk’s book is a vein of wishful-thinking that borders on conspiracy theory. What begins as an informative interdisciplinary discussion--examining the intersection of Elizabethan drama and modern science—by Chapter 7 diverts in to a scholastic pipedream with Shakespeare being a closeted devotee of Copernican astronomy. Perhaps, the author and his chief source suggest, Hamlet is more than just a great play. Perhaps it is also a clever and elaborate allegory exploring the revolutionary discoveries of Galileo et al. What if the characters in Hamlet are actually symbolic stand-ins for the leading thinkers of Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomies?
As Falk grants by way of academic integrity, prevailing literary theory finds this hypothesis flimsy. Shakespeare’s plays have clear, unmistakable, and fully-developed themes. Science-flattering allegory is not one of them. It smacks of the same contrived, cherry-picking investigation that lies at the core of conspiracy theories--like the one about Shakespeare not being the author of any or all of those plays. This does not stop Falk from devoting a lot of ink and credulity to the idea. It is as if Falk wants to be the Copernicus of Shakespearean scholarship--establishing a new unifying truth of what the Bard's plays really mean, a revelation that has eluded centuries of previous thinkers.
To his credit, Falk makes clear the highly speculative nature of suggesting Shakespeare had his finger on the pulse of the Scientific Revolution. Furthermore, I am not offended that Falk addressed the notion of Hamlet as science allegory. I am annoyed at how hard he worked to make it look compelling. I come at this as a Shakespeare fan with a humanities degree. I feel like Falk might feel if he had to read multiple chapters of me saying, “The Academy may have dismissed Velikovsky’s ideas about the solar system, but clearly he was on to something. Scholars should revisit him.”
The truth is Hamlet does not want for a science tie-in to be one of the greatest achievements of human expression.
Late in The Science of Shakespeare, Falk makes a compelling exploration of King Lear. The author hits his stride juxtaposing the Bard with the fledgling modern science of his day. He also does justice to what makes King Lear great--its humanity. For this chapter above all others, I am glad I stuck this book out to the end. Falk even got me in the mood to reread King Lear. And that is great, because Shakespeare’s plays deserve to be read. They do for English literature what Copernicus and Galileo did for science--they give us a lasting foundation for worthy exploration....more
Just now, I listened to the morning news while wolfing down breakfast at a local cafe. 100 percent of the coveraUnderstatement: It is a violent world.
Just now, I listened to the morning news while wolfing down breakfast at a local cafe. 100 percent of the coverage I heard was about recent violence, violence in progress, and the prospect of violence in the future. To say the least, we are a violent species.
Yet, as Walter Kirn points out in his new non-fiction work, Blood Will Out, we humans are also capable of great tolerance and cooperation. That is not a wonderful thing. Kirn explores how these traits--in concert with our desire for acceptance--make us easy pickins for psycopaths.
In Blood Will Out, Kirn casts himself as the thoughtful dupe of a murdering con man. The premise is so oddly touching it borders on hard to believe. Kirn agrees to drive an ailing dog across country and deliver it to a member of the Rockefeller family. Sounds like a great start to a novel. However this is a true story. Or at least it is the recounting of a great deal of lying.
The book flips back and forth between a murder trial in the present and a rocky friendship in the past. This dual plotline allows the author to draw parallels between con artist and mark. In every chapter, the implicit question being begged is "Kirn, how did you fall for this guy's claims?" Therefore, the book's greatest accomplishment is its candid rendering of how Kirn, or any of us, can be grandly duped.
Blood Will Out is a fairly quick read. This is not an in-depth exploration of forensics and crime investigation. It is a memoir about the bond between two men: the deceiver and the deceived. Doubtless, some will be cynical of Kirn's choice to convert his unflattering experience into a moneymaking bestseller. Still, he seems candid about his personal shortcomings and offers up a tale with plenty of healthy caution for the reader. I highly recommend Blood Will Out....more
At a panel discussion in Salt Lake City, I once heard a BYU Philosophy professor suggest that the Adam-God Doctrine may have been something Brigham YoAt a panel discussion in Salt Lake City, I once heard a BYU Philosophy professor suggest that the Adam-God Doctrine may have been something Brigham Young used for the purpose of trying to drive Orson Pratt out of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. My brow furrowed. I had never before heard that notion, nor for that matter was I aware that a serious conflict had occurred between the two men. I left the matter unexplored until I found Gary James Bergera's book Conflict in the Quorum.
Orson Pratt, one of the great theological voices of early Mormonism, had run-ins with both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. His rift with Joseph occurred over the practice of polygamy and claims that Joseph attempted to take Pratt's wife in plural marriage. His conflicts with Brigham Young covered a great deal of ground, including questions of authority--should Church rulings be made by a First Presidency or a majority of the Twelve--and issues of theology, such as the nature of the Godhead.
This work is a magnifying glass held up to two men who were fiercely devoted to Mormonism in excruciatingly different ways. Young was a manager. Pratt was a theologian. Bergera's book is not for the beginner. This book is not a primer. It is a close examination of original records. It moves fast and is laden with footnotes.
One of the great values of Conflict in the Quorum is in providing the reader extended excerpts taken from meeting transcripts. At times, the reader has the chance to picture being in a closed-door meeting of the Twelve. Bergera provides enough depth and breadth of material so that, whether one is partial to Young or Pratt, it is possible to appreciate the perspective each man had.
For me personally, I strongly valued the candid discussion of Brigham Young's Adam-God Doctrine--in which Young taught that Adam was a resurrected polygamist when he entered the Garden of Eden, and also the Father of our spirits. Pratt became an outspoken critic of this odd doctrine that did not stand the test of time. Pratt and Young also repeatedly butted heads over the question of how God's omniscience omnipresence should be understood in light of Mormon belief that God has a physical body. In these matters, Bergera lets Pratt and Young speak for themselves.
As Young and Pratt grapple with each other and deep doctrines, the reader has a chance to learn a lot about human nature and also 19th Century Mormonism. The goal of this book is not to disprove Mormonism, nor does it come down unequivocally in favor of Young or Pratt. I recommend it for people engaged in a serious study of Mormon history, and who are interested in examining source material not as often examined....more