Set in Pittsburgh over the course of a long weekend, Wonder Boys is a hilarious, kind-hearted book about a frustrated pothead writer and literature pr...moreSet in Pittsburgh over the course of a long weekend, Wonder Boys is a hilarious, kind-hearted book about a frustrated pothead writer and literature professor who is inexorably drawn to bad decisions. For some reason I saw the movie first and actually liked it. As it turns out the movie is very much in keeping with the spirit of the book, which is built more around characters and moments in time. Every Michael Chabon book I've read suffers from a handful of overwrought lines, but these oversteps are forgivable in a writer who has such profound ability to write lively and unexpected sentences. (less)
A well-crafted mystery with vivid characters, written with searing wit. Everyone who tried to claim J.K. Rowling can't write can suck it. This book is...moreA well-crafted mystery with vivid characters, written with searing wit. Everyone who tried to claim J.K. Rowling can't write can suck it. This book is fucking great. I love the author's sensibility, and it's a pleasure to get a version of her worldview that's intended for adults. (less)
I loved Christopher Moore's first five books, and then he started to lose me. I kept reading, but was on the verge of giving up. And then this. This b...moreI loved Christopher Moore's first five books, and then he started to lose me. I kept reading, but was on the verge of giving up. And then this. This book is bloody amazing. The raunchy comedy here feels less gratuitous yet no less hilarious, and the plot is intricately crafted and mesmerizing. In my opinion, it's his masterwork, though I must give a nod to my old favorite Island of the Sequined Love Nun.
Moore set the story in nineteenth century Paris, among the impressionists and post-impressionists and their attendant whores and bartenders. The book is obviously well-researched, and Moore's obvious love for the characters comes through. The writing is beautiful--a couple of passages about Toulouse Lautrec and the demimonde actually moved me to tears.
I feel it's worth mentioning that the book is beautifully printed, with color prints and a gorgeous design--really reminds you why actual books are still worth your time and money. (less)
As far as history goes, nothing is as murky as the history of specific types of foods and beverages. Consider, for example, the chili cheese dog or th...moreAs far as history goes, nothing is as murky as the history of specific types of foods and beverages. Consider, for example, the chili cheese dog or the margarita. Most mixed drinks have about eighteen different people who claim to have invented them. Bullshit origin stories abound on the web, and some of these tall tales are printed with gravitas in actual reference books. I guess it makes sense. I mean who wouldn't want to lay claim on inventing the margarita?
Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to "Professor" Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar soothes my soul by reconciling the two parts of my character, the bon vivant and the extreme nerd. Not only is this book all about booze, but it's also packed with arcane information. Better yet, Wondrich actually explains how he came by the arcane information. In other words, he doesn't just state facts, he also debunks all the stories he sifted through in order to get to them. Sometimes Wondrich falls into the trap of taking the whole mixology business a little too seriously, but he also has a great eye for the idiosyncrasies of history, and most of the text is quite funny. Also, it's loaded with good drink recipes. And if Wondrich is a little too serious about the art of the cocktail sometimes, I can forgive him. Drinking is a serious business, is it not?(less)
I loved this book, all 800 pages of it. The author, Peter Acroyd, succeeded in his mission, which is hinted at in the book's subtitle. London, A biogr...moreI loved this book, all 800 pages of it. The author, Peter Acroyd, succeeded in his mission, which is hinted at in the book's subtitle. London, A biography is not about the political history of London or the people that shaped the political history of London. The book is somewhat chronological, but Acroyd doesn't seem overly concerned with adhering to a clear timeline. Aside from paragraph-long sketches of interesting London characters, the author barely focuses on individuals at all. Instead he attempts to capture the heaving, mysterious soul of London in a giant compilation of essays arranged by subject matter. He writes about Roman walls, ancient tunnels, bickering fishwives, ice carnivals on the Thames, unlikely murders, the city's bars and eateries throughout its immense history...This can feel haphazard, but in the end it works--I got the impression he just focused on the interesting bits and left out all the rest. Occasionally the rhythm of the writing gets a bit dirgelike, but in general this is a fantastic book--amusing and enlightening and absorbing. (less)
T.S. Eliot described The Moonstone as 'the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels', but for some reason I was still surpri...moreT.S. Eliot described The Moonstone as 'the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels', but for some reason I was still surprised by the brilliance of this book. For a Victorian, Collins' writing is remarkably clear, and the story reflects his unconventional sense of morality and his wicked sense of humor. Highly recommended, especially if you are the sort of person who likes to cozy up with the sort of classic mystery that is set in an English manor house and involves diamonds and 'oriental intrigue'.
WARNING: Do not read the introduction to this particular edition. It is full of the worst spoilers. (less)
Bill Buford quits his job as an editor at The New Yorker to become a kitchen slave in one of Mario Batali's restaurants. Although the premise sounds l...moreBill Buford quits his job as an editor at The New Yorker to become a kitchen slave in one of Mario Batali's restaurants. Although the premise sounds like a potentially annoying addition to the recent fad for contrived "my year of doing something weird so I have something to write about" memoirs, Buford's growing obsession with cooking is plausible and fascinating. He is an excellent writer and Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany is an excellent book. I admire Buford's ability to describe people objectively--some of his remarks are scathing, but he is always fair. I loved the cooking tips and the historical digressions. Recommended to anyone who has more than a passing interest in cooking, and everyone who has ever worked in a restaurant. (less)
I had never heard of the author when I found "The Americans: A Social History of the United States, 1587-1914" tucked away on a bookshelf at the Goodw...moreI had never heard of the author when I found "The Americans: A Social History of the United States, 1587-1914" tucked away on a bookshelf at the Goodwill in Florence, Oregon. This book contains 920 thin pages covered in small print. It was published in 1969. When I finished reading it, I was tempted to start back at the beginning and read it again. Furnas, who was born in 1906, writes sentences so tart and exquisitely elaborate that his writing is somehow reminiscent of Emily Post, though etiquette is but one of thousands of topics he revisits in this comprehensive and fascinating cultural history of the United States. To whit:
Furnas on early 20th C. journalism:
"Ambrose Bierce, a longtime fixture in Hearst's papers who combined high writing skill with the disposition of a molting rattlesnake, presently contributed to Hearst's current war on President McKinley some grimly tasteless verses..."
Furnas on 19th C. fashion:
"Changes in women's fashion were not so benign...The bizarre successor of the hoop was the bustle--a horsehair pad or wire frame tied on behind under the dress to make a lady's rear look like the rear view of a horse and rider. This not only gave the illusion of a really monstrous streatopygia but also prevented sitting comfortably on anything but a stool. In that era of jigsawed verandas and rococo hatstands, fashionable gowns were naturally more elaborate than they have ever been before or since--amazing complexes of overskirts, capes, flounces, trains, ruchings, jabots, cravats, frogs, pointless buttons, lace insertions--often in dark, heavy-rich materials dragging in the dirt unless the wearer confined herself to house and carriage."
On the history of refrigeration: "But every plus implies a minus somewhere. Mechanical refrigeration also greatly heightened the breweries' capacity to age beer. Ensuing overproduction led to the consolidation of breweries into savagely competing giant concerns. Desperate for outlets, they set up chains of captive saloons owned outright or controlled by mortgages on building or fixtures and forced to sell only Brand X beer. Too many saloons per capita in large cities meant lowering what standards of decent operation there were and an increasingly blackened reputation for the enemies of the saloon to exploit. That had much to do with the success of the Anti-Saloon League's strategy of "The Saloon Must Go," which, embarked on in the late 1890s, led to the Eighteenth Amendment."
A trio of college students ruminate on the meaning of life, love and literature. For a book with the word plot in the title, The Marriage Plot is ligh...moreA trio of college students ruminate on the meaning of life, love and literature. For a book with the word plot in the title, The Marriage Plot is light on plot. The story meanders and you get the feeling that Eugenides didn't know quite where he was going. That said, the writing is excellent. There's scarcely a false note in the entire book, and the characters are vivid and always believable. The author has a talent for creating characters that are amusingly obnoxious but never entirely unsympathetic. His sketches of semiotics students and college feminists are hilarious. Just as academics and pretentious college students are likely to alienate people in real life, this book's abundance of literary references might make it somewhat obtuse for the non-pretentious reader. Sadly, that's not me. (less)
David McCullough is a lion of a historian and a brilliant writer. He's at his best when he writes biography, as clearly demonstrated by Truman. At 992...moreDavid McCullough is a lion of a historian and a brilliant writer. He's at his best when he writes biography, as clearly demonstrated by Truman. At 992 pages, the book is a bit of a beast itself, but fascinating to the very end. McCullough's clear, direct style is admirable, and he has a talent for bringing his subjects to life and making you love them.
I originally picked up the book because I was curious how a man who seemed essentially good could have decided to hundreds of thousands of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As I read, it became clear to dropping the bombs were not Truman's only foreign policy mistakes. (Though mistake hardly seems strong enough a word.) McCullough's examination of Truman's record is unflinching, yet the portrait that emerges is of a good, bright, incredibly kind man who made decisions based on his morals, even when he knew that he was hurting himself politically. It's amazing and scary to see how Truman's decisions, many of which seem sensible when taken in context, laid the groundwork for the the arms race and Vietnam, among other atrocities that have shadowed the world I grew up in. But Truman was multifaceted: he has a deep desire to help the common man, as manifested in his surprisingly progressive domestic policies and his loyalty, and even tenderness, as a friend and employer. He was also funny and genuinely interested in just about everything, and McCullough is adept at choosing the details and anecdotes that make Truman both accessible and remarkable.
Highly recommended to anyone who wants a deeper understanding of modern American history.(less)
Remarkably well written for a local history, Pioneering in Oregon's Coast Range is the memoir of Ione Reed's years living on a homestead above Mapleto...moreRemarkably well written for a local history, Pioneering in Oregon's Coast Range is the memoir of Ione Reed's years living on a homestead above Mapleton, Oregon (a town 20 miles or so from where I grew up)during the depression. Reed was only 19 when she began homesteading on her father-in-law's property, and the book, while generally light and funny in tone, also includes some good descriptions of nature and thoughtful reflections on the people she meets in the area. (less)