BOOKS: What I Read, November
The year, it draws slowly to a close. Great Scott, it's nearly 2006. And we have two more installments of Books I Read to come, starting with this one for November. Read 8 books for the month, bringing the year's total to an even 80 to date.* Onwards! With pictures, even, now that I'm getting nearly to the proficiency level of an 8-year-old computer whiz with this coding stuff.
"Never Have Your Dog Stuffed And Other Things I've Learned,” by Alan Alda. I was a big fan of "M*A*S*H" back in the day and have always liked Alda as an actor, and ended up picking up his biography at the library on a whim to read. It's several notches above your typical celebrity autobio -- for one thing, it's clearly written by Alda alone, in a friendly, philosophical voice. He's led a most interesting life entirely apart from "M*A*S*H," raised by a family of quirky vaudevillian actors traveling about the country in burlesque shows. The vagabond life and his actor father led Alda into acting himself, and he also dealt with a mentally ill mother. I really enjoyed this breezy book, even if it didn't end up being much about "M*A*S*H" it just gives you an inside perspective into a likable actor and his life.
“Anansi Boys,” by Neil Gaiman. An engaging but somehow minor novel by Gaiman, combining the magic and mystery he excels at into a fun yarn about competing brothers who happen to be the sons of an ancient trickster god. It's a quick read, as one bumbling, loser brother gets upstaged by his cocky sibling, and searches for revenge among the myths. Quite enjoyable, but it never kicked into first gear for me like some of Gaiman's other books or his epic, mesmerizing "Sandman" graphic novels. "Anansi Boys" ambles along at a fine simmer with Gaiman's snappy characters and grand imagination, though, and that's probably enough.
“David Bowie's Low (33 1/3)” by Hugo Wicken. Reviewed back here.
“A Crack in the Edge of the World : America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906” by Simon Winchester. The giant San Francisco earthquake 99 years ago woke Americans up to the dangers of earthquakes, and with the centennial nearing, lots of authors are giving us their takes on it. Winchester, who's written entertaining histories such as "Krakatoa" and "The Professor and the Madman," gives us a good but rather meandering account of the ’06 quake that bogs down a little in geological lectures. I like that he doesn't just tell us what happened in 1906, but a good 2/3 of this book is about matters like plate tectonics and global earthquake theory, informative but a bit on the dry side. I learned a fair amount, but felt like it was a little too much lecture and not quite as entertaining as Winchester's other works.
"Guided by Voices: A Brief History : Twenty-One Years of Hunting Accidents in the Forests of Rock and Roll," by Jim Greer. If you don't know anything about Guided By Voices, that cult indie pop band that blazed like a comet through the 1990s until their breakup last year, then you aren't the target audience for this intensely fanboy, enjoyably adoring book. It purports to be a "history" of GBV, which it is, but it's history as seen through a fan's eyes, not a truly objective historian. Writer Greer - who was a member of GBV himself for a brief period - gives us a boozy, witty and semi-serious account of the rise of frontman and main "Voice" Bob Pollard and his rotating cast of bandmates. It's a great look at life as a "sort of" famous cult star, Pollard, the former schoolteacher who didn't become "famous" until his mid-30s and who still lives in humble Dayton. GBV released an astounding number of albums over the years, many of them gems of gorgeous pop songs that shoulda been hits — and the book includes an amazing 80-PAGE discography tracking every one of them. For the fans, by a fan, but if you're one of them you'll love this book.
“Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith," by Jon Krakauer. Man, religion can be scary. That's my main thought taken away from this nonfiction account of a brutal, horrible double murder by two fundamentalist Mormons in Utah, which Krakauer wraps into a stirring, fascinating account of Mormonism in general. I've known a lot of Mormons but never really knew anything about their history, and it's strange, tragic and blood-soaked stuff. Krakauer tracks the schisms in the movement that led to Mormon Fundamentalist wack-jobs like the murdering Laffertys, who preach polygamy, absolute obedience and disdain for non-heavenly authority. It's amazing and scary to realize there's people like this out there (and Krakauer does a decent job at not bashing the entire Mormon Church over a splinter group of freaks). A must-read, showing that extreme religious fundamentalism isn't confined just to the Middle East.
"The Beatles' Let It Be (33 1/3)," by Steve Matteo. Another one of these bite-size "33 1/3" books I've written about before, this one takes on the Beatles' most grueling album to record. Matteo takes the interesting tactic of writing about "Let It Be" from the eyes of peripheral players like recording engineers and studio sideman, which gives a different view of the Beatles' gradual break-up than what I've read. While it bogs down in techie details sometimes (you want to know what instruments were played where? here you go), it's a short, interesting dissection of the Beatles' most troubled record.
"Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson, 1960-1973," by Robert Dallek. I sped through last year reading all three mammoth books in Robert A. Caro's Pulitzer Prize-winning LBJ biography series, and found them an incredibly readable, detailed portrayal of a man who was half megalomaniac, half incredibly gifted politician, a complex American Shakespearean character whose presidency crumbled into self-induced tragedy. Caro hasn't written the final book in his series yet concentrating on LBJ's presidency, so I decided to check out a competing LBJ biography by Dallek focusing on those years. And it's solid history, with great insight into LBJ's character and the disastrous decisions he made in Vietnam that undermined all the powerful social changes he achieved in civil rights and Medicare. Yet "Flawed Giant" is also kind of a slog, which Caro's books weren't. I can't quite put my finger on it, but Dallek lacks the fluid prose, deft research into place and era, and storytelling talent that Caro brought to LBJ — I was able to read hundreds of pages about dry as toast subjects like congressional redistricting and vote tallies and found them compelling reading under Caro. Yet here, I ended up getting bored silly by Dallek's bland recitation of the ups and downs of Vietnam, which you think would be interesting stuff. Dallek is a bit more even-handed in his appreciation of LBJ than Caro, but it just all felt a little too much like work. Guess it goes to show that it's as much in the storyteller as it is in the story. I'll be eagerly awaiting Caro's take on this same era, whenever it comes out.
*[Fine print: The year to date posts: January, February, March, April, May , June, July, August, September. and finally, oh finally, October.]