Friday, June 3, 2005

BOOKS: What I Read - May

Another month is over, and it's time to continue my yearlong project of keeping track of what I read in my so-called "free time." The year-to-date total stands at 34 books (not counting graphic novels, comics, magazines etc. in the figure). (In case you're feeling nostalgic, here's January, February, March, and April.) Here's this month's literary haul --

“Chip Kidd” by Veronique Vienne. They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but I have to tell you, I sometimes do. And the work of Chip Kidd, the only "celebrity book designer" I can think of, has always grabbed me. His covers include "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt, David Sedaris' "Naked," "Jurassic Park" and about a million others, all sharp combinations of art, design, communication and vivid imagery. Anyway, this mini-book features a short essay about Kidd and how he works, and a handsome portfolio of a hundred or so of his best-known covers, as well as his highly interesting design work for comic-related books on "Peanuts," Batman, Plastic Man and more. Found it remaindered and a nice art book to flip through and be dazzled by on occasion.

“Magical Mystery Tours: My Life With The Beatles” by Tony Bramwell. Another Beatles book? Yet this one, by a childhood Liverpool friend of the Fab Four who grew up with them, then became a kind of roadie/gofer/manager within their organization as their fame grew, is quite interesting, a "beetle's eye view" of the Beatles' rise, told in a folksy, friendly tone that manages to include lots of interesting behind-the-scenes gossip without even seeming tawdry. It's also just a nice travelogue of the 60s, and the incredible cultural changes the Beatles rode the wave of. Recommended for any Beatlemaniac. Bramwell definitely doesn't think a lot of Yoko Ono, though!

"Road Fever" by Tim Cahill. (Re-read) Perfect reading during our vacation last month, this romp about Cahill's monthlong-trek with "endurance driver" Garry Sowersby in a GMC Truck from the tip of South America to the shores of the Arctic Sea in Alaska, an attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records feat for speed and long-distance driving. Cahill's one of my favorite travel writers and this book is great fun to return to, as the drivers work their way through the dangers of South and Central American roads. Makes any road trip you took look paltry by comparison.

“Presidential Ambition: Gaining Power At Any Cost" by Richard Shenkman. Yeah, we know Bill Clinton and the Bushes are ambitious people. But this fascinating history shows us that pretty much all the forty-something presidents have been men driven by power, whether for good or bad. Shenkman meanders through the years from Washington to Eisenhower, giving us both a look at how the presidency has evolved and how the country has changed too. I'm a big presidential history buff and was surprised at how much new I learned from this book, which combines a big-picture thesis about the lures and liabilities of power with a layman's eye for detail and character.

"Saturday" by Ian McEwan. A London neurosurgeon wakes up for an ordinary Saturday of leisure and family time in this novel set right before the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. But violence creeps up in the most unexpected fashion. McEwan is one of the great literary thriller writers today, managing to combine elegant, supple prose with tight moral dilemmas, like a combination of John Updike and Patricia Highsmith. This novel is another fine fast read, as his neurosurgeon learns the cost of a casual cruelty. I love the thick medical details Ewan included, which are informative but never go overboard. Great summer reading.

"The Well of Lost Plots" by Jasper Fforde. Book three in the Thursday Next "literary detective" series. Fforde continues to entertain with this series, which imagines a world where fiction and reality can be interchangeable, and a secret police force manages the laws of fiction. Fforde is just a fountain of funny, fascinating ideas that pay homage to books from the past, from "grammasites" that attack fiction to the sprawling, Borges-ian world of the library of fiction, where behind-the-scenes workers handle the process of bringing books to life. This book was particularly rich with concepts (like characters communicating by "footnoterphones" and cameos by characters from Shakespeare to Bronte to Fitzgerald). Eager to read the fourth and final book, which comes out in paperback next month.

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