Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Reading

Here are the 75 books I read in 2009:

  1. Heavy Weather by P.G. Wodehouse
  2. The Story of Trains by Jane Bingham
  3. Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows
  4. Markets and Minorities by Thomas Sowell
  5. The Buried Biscuits by Darrel and Sally Odgers
  6. Straight Man by Richard Russo
  7. Race and Economics by Thomas Sowell
  8. Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald
  9. Mortal Syntax by June Casagrande
  10. The Ezekiel Option by Joel C. Rosenberg
  11. The Lying Postman by Darrel and Sally Odgers
  12. Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye by Geronimo Stilton (Elisabetta Dami)
  13. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
  14. A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse
  15. The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
  16. Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary
  17. A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  18. Hotel for Dogs by Lois Duncan
  19. The Economics of Discrimination by Gary S. Becker
  20. Ivy and Bean and the Ghost That Had to Go by Annie Barrows
  21. Bubble and Squeak by Philippa Pearce
  22. Amberville by Tim Davys
  23. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary
  24. The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel
  25. Dog Den Mystery by Darrel and Sally Odgers
  26. You Can't Be President by John R. MacArthur
  27. I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle
  28. Blue Genes by Christopher Lukas
  29. Ramona Forever by Beverly Cleary
  30. Moneyball by Michael Lewis
  31. Brooklyn's Dodgers by Carl E. Prince
  32. The Littles to the Rescue by John Peterson
  33. The Alphabet of Manliness by Maddox
  34. Dare to Prepare by Ronald M. Shapiro
  35. The Borrowers by Mary Norton
  36. The Dodgers Move West by Neil J. Sullivan
  37. Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid by Megan McDonald
  38. The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman
  39. How Children Learn Mathematics by Richard W. Copeland
  40. Veeck as in Wreck by Bill Veeck
  41. Mike and Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse
  42. Laughing Gas by P.G. Wodehouse
  43. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  44. The Adventures of Sally by P.G. Wodehouse
  45. The Case of the Invisible Dog by E.W. Hildick
  46. Freddy the Detective by Walter R. Brooks
  47. The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
  48. Jackie Robinson by Arnold Rampersad
  49. Danger at the Zoo by Kathleen Ernst
  50. Big Money by P.G. Wodehouse
  51. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
  52. Psmith in the City by P.G. Wodehouse
  53. The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
  54. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David S. Landes
  55. Candyfreak by Steve Almond
  56. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
  57. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
  58. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
  59. Vanishing Vapour by Brandon T. Minster
  60. Leave it to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse
  61. The Proper Role and Improper Role of Government by Ezra Taft Benson and H. Verlan Andersen
  62. Herbert Hoover by Joan Hoff Wilson
  63. On the Beaten Path by Robert Alden Rubin
  64. Psmith, Journalist by P.G. Wodehouse
  65. Seeing With an Eye of Faith by Grant Von Harrison
  66. Drawing on the Powers of Heaven by Grant Von Harrison
  67. Latter Days by Coke Newell
  68. Something Fresh by P.G. Wodehouse
  69. The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale
  70. Following the Light of Christ Into His Presence by John M. Pontius
  71. Nicholas by Rene Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempe
  72. Believing History by Richard Lyman Bushman
  73. The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling
  74. Nicholas Again by Rene Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempe
  75. French Leave by P.G. Wodehouse

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Latter Days, by Coke Newell

I found this book at our local library and decided to check it out. I guess I wanted to see how our church was being presented to non-members. Newell is an employee of the church's public relations office, and wrote the book with the intent of presenting the church accurately to someone who is curious about it.

It was a pretty good book. I think a lot of what seems weirdest about Latter-day Saints can be explained by the 1820-1900 persecution, and Newell presents that part of church history well. I don't care what your religion is, there is no excuse for a governor of a state to order a group's extermination, another governor to placate a mob by setting up the group's leaders for murder, and two presidents to say, "That's not my bag, baby."

There was nothing in the book that was untrue, but there were some things that I felt were presented before they'd been set up, leading a non-member reader to say to himself, "That seems crazy of them." If you gave this to your friend to read, you would have some strange questions to answer. Specifically, Newell goes through things chronologically, so the book begins with many things about pre-mortal existence that we only know through modern revelation before the concept of modern revelation is dealt with. This might lead the reader to think, "Mormons believe a lot of crazy crap about creation."

I would say the average member would benefit from reading this book. The member who has done a lot of outside reading probably wouldn't find anything new, but would benefit from knowing the book's contents before sharing it with a friend. A non-member would be adequately served by this book, if he had a member to refer to who could bear testimony of the parts that might seem crazy without proper introduction.

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Psmith, Journalist, by P.G. Wodehouse

My fool-proof plan of using a comma to separate the title from the author in my post titles doesn't work when the title bears commas itself. Bastards.

This book was the third Psmith book Wodehouse wrote, but it seems like one that has fallen into obscurity. Firstly, Wodehouse himself used it as a scrap pile, reworking its contents into no fewer than two other novels. Secondly, it appears to have a lapsed copyright, meaning it's hard to find these days because no one can make much money from selling it. I had to get it from a library two counties away. Thirdly, the elements of the usual Psmith novel are missing. It's the only one set in America, and Mike is virtually absent from the entire book. This is more of a stand-alone story than part of a series, which is why its parts could be mixed and matched with those of The Prince and Betty so easily.

This book was my least-favorite of the Psmith books, but by the end I didn't hate it as much as I did in the middle. There was basically no cricket at all (other than explaining Mike's absence by a cricket tour of America), and Psmith becomes uncharacteristically passionate about the plight of tenement dwellers on the Lower East Side. When Psmith needs some money, he suddenly has a dead rich uncle who left him a legacy, although there was no mention of this in Psmith in the City when he is working at the New Asiatic Bank. All of these things left me feeling like it was just a novel that Wodehouse decided to shoehorn Psmith into.

That being said, it was still funny throughout. Psmith's mannerisms and speech patterns give humor to lines like, "Are you good at riddles, Comrade Parker? How much wood would a wood-chuck chuck, assuming for purposes of argument that it was in the power of a wood-chuck to chuck wood?" (206). And I appreciated the story Psmith tells to describe his abilities as a journalist:

"You may leave it to me, Comrade Windsor. I am no hardened old journalist, I fear, but I have certain qualifications for the post. A young man once called at the office of a certain newspaper, and asked for a job. 'Have you any special line?' asked the editor. 'Yes,' said the bright lad, 'I am rather good at invective.' 'Any special kind of invective?' queried the man up top. 'No,' replied our hero, 'just general invective.' Such is my own case, Comrade Windsor. I am a very fair purveyor of good, general invective." (63)

Still, I would only recommend this book to Wodehouse fans who wished to read everything in the canon.

Rating: 4.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Monday, November 16, 2009

On the Beaten Path, by Robert Alden Rubin

I have always loved geography, and part of that love manifests itself in defacing maps. I have learned to restrict myself so that I only deface cheap or free maps, or I make sure I do a really nice job of it, so the map is not only still usable, but often MORE usable. For instance, I own a Thomas Brothers Guide of Ventura and Los Angeles Counties on which I've marked traffic signals. It shows every signal in Ventura County (as of late 2005), and probably a third of the signals in Los Angeles County. This is helpful when giving directions. If Persephone is driving and I'm navigating, it's more helpful to tell her "turn left at the second signal" than to tell her "turn left on Plummer."

But back when I was young and uncontrollable, I defaced any map I could. This usually was a road atlas of my mother's. I would trace highways (adding some I thought should be built), trace counties (adding some I thought should be created), and trace rivers (adding dams where I thought a lake would be nice). In tracing county lines, I discovered two trails which spend much of their courses lying along county boundaries: the Pacific Crest and Appalachian national scenic trails. This was before the Internet, so they were shrouded in mystery. What were they, how did one hike them, and what would a hike be like? I couldn't say, but I could tell you which counties they visited.

After the Internet came along, I found out more. Much more. And since I've become an adult with a job in cartography, I've even taken to mapping the various long-distance hiking trails of the United States. There are some trail improvements happening in Alabama right now that, when completed, will make it possible to hike from the Florida Keys to the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula. Just typing that sentence makes my pants fit funny.

Of all the long-distance trails in America, the Appalachian Trail is probably the most well-known. As such, there is a bit of a cottage industry revolving around hiking it and retelling your story. That was how I came to read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, which left me thoroughly disappointed. I wanted a book about hiking the trail, a way to imagine I was doing it when my life was in no position (financially, physically, or familially) to allow for its attempt. Instead, I got a book that was more about Bill Bryson writing a book than about anything to do with hiking. It was a lot like a Jack Nicholson movie: instead of seeing a movie, you see Jack Nicholson acting in a movie. It's a completely different thing. Garrison Keillor's writing became like this. I don't like it.

A recent trip to our local library ended with me checking out On the Beaten Path, and it has left me very satisfied. This was what I wanted from the Bryson book, a retelling of one man's thruhike without the winking self-congratulations for writing a book about one man's thruhike. It was interesting and entertaining. What's more, Rubin waits until page 108 to use the word "scrotum," which I thought showed sensitivity to his readers.

The funniest part of the book requires a little explanation. Thruhikers mail stuff to themselves care of small town post offices they will pass. When Rubin came into one small New England town he stopped at a Dunkin' Donuts next to the post office and bought a dozen doughnuts, then ate all 12 right there in the store. He writes: "I noticed a couple of people staring at me. They hurriedly looked away. Well, what did they expect, putting a donut shop next to the post office?" (203)

Now that I live only an hour from the trail, instead of across the country from it, my desire to hike it is more pressing. The way I see things now, I can somehow shoehorn it in to my life between finishing and defending my dissertation. That probably won't happen, but it's nice to think it might. Persephone is not on board with me leaving for six months (neither was Rubin's wife, and they don't even have kids), so she says maybe she and the kids will follow along in an RV or something. That's possible since we homeschool, but unlikely for a while, given the discrepancy between the cost of an RV and my penchant for keeping my family in abject poverty. Maybe it will never happen. But if that's the case, at least Rubin's book was a way to glimpse what a hike would be like.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Herbert Hoover, by Joan Hoff Wilson

Herbert Hoover is one of my favorite presidents. Hoover often is blamed for a depression that was caused by international monetary valuations, widespread equities speculation, and punitive war reparations. Meanwhile, his successor often is created with ending the depression, even though he took over a decade to do it, and only accomplished it by starting a war with Japan.

The subtitle of this book is "Forgotten Progressive," and Wilson's point in writing it is to show what aspects of Hoover's politics were progressive. Because of the Depression he is (wrongly) remembered as a reactionary, but in fact he was at the cutting-edge of progressive economic thought. In his tenure at Commerce he pioneered government intervention in capitalist markets, and much of the New Deal was really just Hooverism without Hoover's regard for the Constitution. Hoover is often said to have done nothing, but the argument is sometimes made that he did too much, that the Depression would have played itself out more quickly without the economic recovery schemes. What recovery there was by late 1932 was destroyed by Roosevelt who wanted the advantage of taking office at the bottom of the trough. The opening chapter of The Roosevelt Myth shows an unbelievably heartless man who somehow has made it through history as the champion of the little guy.

I don't know that I would read this book again. It didn't tell me much I didn't already know from my other readings on Hoover and the Depression. But for someone unfamiliar with the subject, it might be worthwhile. I have read Hoover's memoirs, and Wilson is pretty critical of the favorable treatment Hoover gives himself therein. One thing I did learn from Wilson, though, is that Hoover wrote an unpublished manuscript entitled Freedom Betrayed detailing the way in which the Reds ran circles around American foreign policy in the first decade after World War II, but the book is so highly libelous that it has never been published. It is the property of the Hoover Institute at Stanford, and I now have a new goal in my life: I have to read that manuscript.

I'll end this review with my favorite Hoover story, which comes from his memoirs, and which Wilson doesn't mention at all. During his summers at Stanford, Hoover was an assistant on geology expeditions in the Sierra Nevadas. On one expedition he was quartermaster, having to account to government overseers in Washington for the use of funds and materials. One night a tied-up mule tried to scratch its nose with its hind leg, but got the leg tangled in its tied-up reins. Trying to yank its leg free, it broke its own neck and died. When Hoover wrote East to tell of it, he was told in reply that mules don't ever do that, and he was personally responsible for the cost of the mule. (The expedition's leader, who knew the truth of it, covered the mule's cost.) But this instance led to Hoover taking a life-long interest in artwork that showed mules scratching their noses with their hind legs. He even once bought a small statuette of a mule doing just that.

Rating: 3 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Proper Role and Improper Role of Government, by Ezra Taft Benson and H. Verlan Andersen

My brother-in-law knows I'm an insufferable crank (my e-mail signature states my title as "Amateur Hothead"), so he offered to let me borrow this book from him. I finally got around to reading it because I want to give it back to him the next time we see him, which will be Thanksgiving.

You might think to yourself, "I've heard of Ezra Taft Benson, but who's Verlan?" As best I can tell, he's a guy from Provo, Utah, who dislikes socialism. You might think you're in for a brief journey through the incoherent ramblings of a crackpot, but Andersen limits himself to some textual analysis of The Communist Manifesto, followed by some economic statistics and his take on how they show the blossoming of socialism in America. Pretty tame, actually, compared to the commodity-based monetary system Benson puts forth in his half of the book.

I was pleasantly surprised by which author played which role in the "sensible analysis/crackpot banter" setup. (Not that I think the 15 points Benson advocates are crackpot, but most people in modern America probably do.) It made the book much stronger than it otherwise would be. If Benson was the sensible one and Andersen the wacko, it would be easy to say, "Well, that guy's a conspiracy nut from out west," but the more strident political statements and more radical economic recommendations come from the former Secretary of Agriculture and 14th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That makes it a little more difficult, at least for a Mormon, to explain it away. Good reading for anyone concerned about the run-away growth of government spending and government involvement in what used to be known as "private life," but probably a little inconvenient reading for someone who thinks the best solution to every problem is to get Congress and the president involved.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Leave It to Psmith, by P.G. Wodehouse

Because my local libraries don't have copies of Psmith, Journalist, I skipped it for now and read the last of the Psmith books, Leave It to Psmith. I have to say that I found it the most enjoyable of the three I've read so far.

It was interesting to read a story with characters from Wodehouse's earlier, more realistic works, in a setting from his later, more fantastic works. Blandings Castle turns out to be a fantasy of mistaken identity, stolen household items, and courtships gone awry, and all of those elements are here, but they are more subdued. The characters are not caricatures as they will nearly be in later Blandings novels.

Psmith becomes more human, as well, when he finally gets something in his life which excites him. When I finished reading Psmith in the City I thought I wouldn't like to know Psmith in real life, but his character here, while still pompous and egotistical, is much easier to like. When I read the previous Psmith books, I liked Jackson much more than Psmith. Jackson barely makes an appearance in this book, but I didn't mind being alone with Psmith so much.

Many Blandings and Jeeves books involve the possibility of engagements, but usually it is either a minor character getting engaged, so I don't really care too much if it works out, or it's Bertie Wooster trying to get unengaged. This book was different because it is a main character trying to get engaged, and it made it much more enjoyable.

Also, often when the engaged parties are secondary characters, the girl is nothing more than sweet and pretty. Wodehouse writes good women, though, like Sally Nichols, and he does so again here with Eve Halliday. She has enough of an independent spirit about her to not just be overwhelmed by Psmith's eccentricities.

The hardest part of reviewing this book is deciding if I would recommend reading the other Psmith books first. While I think I enjoyed this book more because I did read the others, I still think that, without an adequate handle on the rules of cricket, large sections of the other books' climaxes will be unintelligible. This book features no cricket at all, and the backstory between Psmith and Jackson is recounted in the first few chapters to get an unaccustomed reader through. Although it's also a Blandings novel, it's only the second, so it is also forgiving on that score. I'd say a reader can just jump into this one without any other Wodehouse books under his belt first.

Rating: 6.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Vanishing Vapour, by Brandon T. Minster

I don't know how I feel about this book. Originally I thought it was a good story that suffered from the ability (or lack thereof) of the storyteller. Then I started to think, "But actually, I'm not sure the story is so good." But by the time I got to the last third, I wanted to see what happened next, so I guess the story can't be all that bad.

The main character is a middle-aged office worker who kills himself. (I didn't include a "spoiler alert" warning because that's not a surprise; he (as the narrator) tells you himself in the first sentence.) The book deals with what he thought he'd find in the afterlife, how that differs from what he actually finds, and what that means for him.

Again, I don't know how to rate the book. Sometimes I think, "This is crap," and other times I think, "I've read much worse." Sometimes I think, "The lack of stage direction during the dialog shows spartan economy," and other times I think, "It's because he left out the little details that a better writer would have remembered." But I find the story compelling, the type that makes me think about it long after I've finished reading.

Rating: 5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman

I know two people who read this book, and they both said it was pretty interesting, so two weekends ago, when I was supposed to be studying at the local library, I checked this book out instead.

I've hated books more than this, but none were as infuriating to read. Hardly a page goes by that Weisman doesn't take the opportunity to remind us that humans are unstoppable killing machines. In one spot he mentions the relatively scant species we've driven to extinction, but in another he calls our heritage the worst episode of extinction since the Permian. It might be the case that both are true, except it's not. The extinction of megafauna when humans first reached the Americas was much worse. However, it's not as cool to castigate neolithic ancestors as it is to wag the beseeching finger at those fellow modern men who aren't as enlightened as yourself.

I wanted to read about the science of entropy, basically, and how it would play out in modern society. We get very little of that. Instead we get a healthy dose of industrial criticism, or the idea that foolish man has doomed himself and the rest of nature with us.

One thing that seemed strange to me: the record of earth's history shows just how varied climate and life have been, yet every dire prediction for the future is couched in the argument that global warming is a threat to the world. The process by which carbon would once again be locked beneath the earth's surface is presented here. Times when climate has changed more dramatically are presented here. Natural extinctions of nearly all life are presented here. So nothing we can do can really destroy all life. Even nuclear war would decimate it and alter it, but it wouldn't annihilate it. The second thing that seemed strange to me: if man is just another animal, why is his animal behavior sound roundly criticized? Elephants knock over trees just to scratch themselves, with no thought to the animals living in the trees or the trees themselves. They're just doing what comes naturally to elephants. Why do they get a free pass when man, just doing what comes naturally to man, gets hauled to the woodshed? I guess one would say it's because we should "know better," but why should we expect that of an animal?

Also, the science seems to be very poorly presented in some places. Sometimes we're told that thousands of years of living with man wasn't enough time for the American megafauna to evolve survival mechanisms, while elsewhere we're told that African animals have now adapted to 20th-century human technology. How much time does it take to adapt to a man with a spear? More than it takes to adapt to a man with a truck, evidently.

And remember when acknowledgements were limited to the dedication of the book? An author got to thank one person per book, and often it was only done by including the person's name. Now even fiction books have a acknowledgements page, and this has even grown to defining the page as "front and back." Well, Weisman has 11 pages of acknowledgements, so large a number that the demands of good journalism style require me to use numerals instead of spelling it out. Nearly all of the pages could have been summed up by one sentence: "I want to thank everyone who helped with the book." I mean, I read the whole book; I know who you interviewed and where. You don't have to recount it all for me at the end.

What I hate more than anything, though, is when Evolution (with a capital E) is presented as a sentient entity, as Weisman does here:

Back in China, this formerly cold-weather species coated its seeds with harvestable quantities of wax to guard against winter. Once it was brought to the balmy American South as an agricultural crop, it noticed there was no need to do that. In a textbook display of sudden evolutionary adaptation, it stopped making weatherproof wax and put its energy into producing more seeds.(140-1)
Seriously. The Chinese tallow tree "noticed" something, then "stopped" doing one thing so as to "put its energy" into doing something else. A legitimate scientist would have explained it more like this: "The American environment did not select against the genetically-mutated trees that failed to produce wax on their seeds. These trees then survived to pass along their mutation. Because these trees put less effort into seed coating, they thrived in other areas, such as seed production. Possibly even the wax coatings were a detriment in America, so the un-mutated trees were selected against. Eventually, only mutant trees remained." There's some good science behind that explanation. Evolutionists lose their effort to win over creationists when they assign rational decision-making processes to trees.

Finally, the book ends with this pearl of wisdom:

The intelligent solution would require the courage and the wisdom to put our knowledge to the test. It would be poignant and distressing in ways, but not fatal. It would henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one.(272)
Weisman enjoys the intellectual's freedom to recommend policy without commenting on its implementation, so I'll ask the question he avoids: does he advocate forced abortion, or just forced sterilization? He doesn't even recognize that he must choose between one of these two options because in his mind, once everyone is sufficiently enlightened, they will all do this voluntarily. Notice how he thinks it requires "courage" and "wisdom," but somehow doesn't require "policing" and "oppression." Of course not.

Weisman wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Whence comes this "intelligent solution," if not from the intellectual explosion that has accompanied our increased numbers? If someone like Newton is a one-in-a-billion, our ancestors had to wait millennia for their first; we now have six alive right now. Weisman argues that following his draconian policy (which he kindly assures us would be "fairly applied," because he somehow knows the inner thoughts of elected officials yet determined) would thin our ranks to under one billion within 150 years. He's basically saying, "Thanks for the modern technology; now everyone else die so we can enjoy it," and advocating for the freezing of technological progress for the remainder of time.

I hold that technology will provide the solution to the problems of today. If no one currently alive knows how to clean up spilled nuclear radiation, we need to make more people to figure it out. Man has always been one step ahead of his cleaning strategy. We'll solve the pollution problems of today and have new problems to solve in the future. It comes from the basic laws of economics, that until there is a problem you don't divert resources to its solving, and that decisions are based on opportunity costs. The first person to decide to pour his engine oil down the storm drain didn't create a crisis by himself. The conservation movement has made giant strides in winning the public consciousness. We now take the welfare of other animals into consideration when making many of our decisions. The solution to man's problems isn't fewer of us; it very well may be more.

Rating: 0 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome

If James Brown is the Godfather of Soul, this book is the James Brown of humor writing. Amazingly, it was originally written as an earnest travelogue of a boat trip up the Thames, and looking for it, you can see the places where Jerome (we're on a first name basis--or are we?) gives helpful tips about which towns to see and which to avoid. But it success has always been a result of the comic scenes and the humorous writing style.

As I read this book, I was struck with how, much like history, comedy has an arrow. Old comedy usually doesn't work well, because what still works has been appropriated by everyone and is now commonplace. The topics identified by Wikipedia as "hack" comedy (I've had some very boring jobs in my life, and as a result I have probably read 75-80% of Wikipedia) were once fresh and new. The first guy to end a joke about a promiscuous woman by saying, "And I said to her, 'Mom,...'" was probably slaying them in the aisles. Do it now, though, and they tell you to go back to the Poconos. (Do any serious comics still play the Poconos, or is it too much of an embarrassment now?) Well, the same holds true for comic writing. This book is over 120 years old now, so all the bits that work have been stolen, and now that I read this book, the funny jokes aren't so funny because I've heard them all before. But it helps to remember that, in this book, they were original. There's no way to go back in time and read this book when it was first published, but I can appreciate that, as funny as it was for me, it would have been much funny back then.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell

Imagine what A Tale of Two Cities would be like if it had been written by Debbie Downer. That's sort of what this book is like. The main character teeters on the edge of existence in Paris as a dishwasher, then in England as a tramp. The amount of work involved in being out of work is startling. The narrator makes the point that tramping is only a belittled profession because it doesn't pay well. "If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately" (174). Or is it Orwell making the point? It's hard to tell how much of this book is fiction and how much non-fiction. The back of the book tells booksellers to stock it in the fiction section, but some summations of Orwell's work includes this book as a work of non-fiction. Orwell did spend some time as a dishwasher, but was that the basis for the story, or research for the essay?

Given that confusion, the narrator's tendency to blame Jews for many things makes the modern reader uneasy. Is this a narrator, or the author? Part of the unease comes from subsequent history. It's not Orwell's fault that the Holocaust happened. Poor white people are always the most racist because they are always the most threatened by advancing minorities. A borderline-subsistence dishwasher and tramp would easily be anti-semitic, but the blurring between author and narrator leaves the reader uncomfortable with all the hatred of Jewish pawn brokers and landlords.

One chapter is all about tramp slang and tramp swearing. However, the publisher bowlderized the entire section, leaving paragraphs such as this:

A word becomes an oath because it means a certain thing, and, because it has become an oath, it ceases to mean that thing. For example, -------. The Londoners do not now use, or very seldom use, this word in its original meaning; it is on their lips from morning till night, but it is a mere expletive and means nothing. Similarly with -------, which is rapidly losing its original sense. One can think of similar instances in French, for example, ------, which is now a quite meaningless expletive. The word -----, also, is still used occasionally in Paris, but the people who use it, or most of them, have no idea of what it once meant. (177)

One word that made it past the sensors, is when the narrator tells us that two tramps fought because of "one saying to the other, 'Bull shit,' which was taken for Bolshevik--a deadly insult" (192). This fits with the way the English tramps are paradoxically anti-socialist. In one bunkhouse for tramps the narrator works an afternoon in the kitchen of the neighboring poor house, where he throws away five pailfuls of leftover food. He mentions to another tramp that the food could have been given to the bunkhouse, but "I saw that I had awakened the pew-renter who sleeps in every English workman. Though he had been famished along with the others, he at once saw reasons why the food should have been thrown away rather than given to the tramps" (198). The homeless French were affected with a lazy socialism that came more from the expectation of their station in life than from conviction, but the British tramps were rabid loyalists.

Ultimately, I liked this book. Maybe I liked it because it's about being poor, and I'm becoming poorer and poorer.

And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs--and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety. (20-1)

For a while I thought I might give it my first 7-monkey rating. I'm not sure about that, though. It's good, but it wasn't the Nadia Comăneci of books. But it was better than the two books I've rated at 6.5 monkeys, so I guess my rating should reflect that. After all, there is only one Nadia Comăneci of books, and it's Moby-Dick.

Rating: 7 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Candyfreak, by Steve Almond

True story: one evening I was downstairs and I had to poop. I don't like to poop without having something to do; it seems like such a waste of time. All the books I was reading were upstairs, so I went to the bookshelf and started looking for something to read. Our books are alphabetized by the authors' last names, so the first book I came across that I hadn't already read, that wasn't a giant work of political science or history, was Candyfreak, and that's how I came to read this book.

This is one of my wife's favorite books. In fact, she just asked me, "Are you going to give it a good review because I love it so much?" I might be tempted to do that, if this were her book review blog. However, she writes book reviews for a different website, and she can post all her pro-Candyfreak opinions there. Here I will post my Candyfreak opinions, which are less glowing.

Firstly, there was way too much pretentious food writing. I understand that Almond can't describe every candy bar he eats as, "Crunchy, sweet, really sugary," but he also doesn't need to write things like, "The interplay of tastes and textures was remarkable: the teeth broke through the milky chocolate shell, sailed through the mild caramel, only to encounter the smoky crunch of the almonds, and finally, the rich tumescence of the dark chocolate" (101). Please. What's most remarkable about this overblown navel-gazing is the fact that, not four pages later, Almond writes of fine chocolate critics, "This movement has, alas, spawned its own insufferable rhetoric.... (Those familiar with other luxury foods--wine and coffee, for instance--are no doubt familiar with this process: the curdling of expertise into hauteur.) The new chocolate specialty products are equally pretentious." (105-6). He could have just as easily included, "And so is the burgeoning field of candy literature." But he didn't. Because Shakespeare gotta get paid, son.

The second most annoying thing is Almond's need to tell me that George W. Bush is a horrible president. Why, because of something involving candy? No, just because. In case you wanted to know how Almond felt about the 2002 midterm elections, he tells you on pages 203-4. He then veers from respectability into the realm of the complete hack by claiming Bush stole the election of 2000, which is such a contemptible, outright damnable lie that I'm surprised I didn't just stop reading right there. For the record: requiring a state to have ONE election standard for the entire state is not illegal. In fact, 7 of 9 supreme court justices found it a necessary requirement of our Constitution. Perhaps Gore won Florida, but since ballots were treated differently and counted differently (at Gore's team's bequest), no one will ever know. Saying Bush stole the election, and saying the Supreme Court decision was 5 to 4 are sure signs of liberal worthlessness. Almond covers himself with this stench, all while ostensibly writing a book about candy.

Since my wife read this book several years ago, I've already eaten many of the rarer candies featured here. We saw Palmer's in Sioux City when we visited friends there. I didn't particularly like the Twin Bing, but I bet I'd get used to it if I lived there. Living in Kansas with a compliant local grocery store, I ate my fair share of Valomilks. I like them a lot, but I'm disappointed when I open a pack to find they've leaked. I like eating Idaho Spuds when we visit Utah, and I grew up in California, where I loved eating Rocky Roads. The second half of the book features Almond's visits to all these factories. If you can ignore the strident claptrap, the book can be somewhat enjoyable.

Rating: 3 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, by David S. Landes

I don't know what to say about this book. I read it and I enjoyed it, but when I start to think about why, I can't really come up with anything. Landes appears to have written a book explaining why rich countries are rich and poor countries aren't, which is fine, but also easy. No one can argue with the results, because they are what they are, and no one can really argue with the causes, because who really knows what the crucial difference is between America and Nigeria? If we evacuated both countries and repopulated each with citizens from Turkey, say, or if we just switched Americans for Nigerians, what would happen? It's impossible to say with certainty, and so that means any answer is plausible.

Landes's writing style takes some getting used to. He likes to end his paragraphs with biting bons mots, which means the book feels like it was written by a sitcom "gay best friend" character. But, like anything else in life, you get used to it, and by the end of the book the ironic asides even had me smiling.

This book was a school assignment, as was Guns, Germs, and Steel. Of the two, Jared Diamond seemed to do a better job explaining the reasons for economic disparity. Landes points out where it exists, and documents the historic events that resulted from it, but he doesn't give much of a reason beyond, "Some people work harder than others." Sure, that's true, but it shouldn't have taken 650 pages to spit it out.

In some respects, though, Landes's book is more intellectually honest. Diamond appears to go out of his way to avoid pinning the reasons for economic failure on people themselves. It was history, or geography, or biology; anything but humanity itself. This is an understandable reaction to centuries of racial justification. While there's no real arguing that white people are richer than others, modern decency requires an explanation that ignores who's white and who isn't. Landes's book reads like the work of a man who is now old enough to call political correctness the hogwash that it is. Plenty of times he blames poor societies for many of their own problems. He holds up Japan as an example of a poor society that pulled itself up by its sandle-straps, as it were. He seems to say to the modern Arabic world, "The Japanese proved it can be done, so why aren't you doing it?" He writes off the loud excuses of many Latin Americans, Chinese, and Arabians (in Arabia and elsewhere), and calls out their fellow travelers for their intellectual dishonesty. Which is all refreshing to read, but probably not very academically kosher these days.

The top blurb on the book's back is from renowned Stalin apologist Eric Hobsbawm, which made me leery of the political bent I'd be reading, but Landes appears pretty on-board with much more conservative economic thinking than Hobsbawm. Still, though, I never really understood where Landes stood on the idea of comparative advantage. He seemed to feel nations who forwent industrialization in pursuit of their comparative advantage had been sold a defective bill of goods from English economic thinkers, but then he acknowledges the role it played in Japan's advancement. You can't industrialize from the top down; the money for the new equipment has to come from somewhere, and usually that "somewhere" is in less-industrial pursuits. He also seems to be in favor of the idea of using tariffs to protect infant industries, which all my trade textbooks have said is unjustified and hurts the protectionist nation. Landes says only nations who have grown large enough to not need tariffs then tell other nations to get rid of theirs, and points out (correctly) that many modern industrial giants went through a period in their nascent industrialization that involved heavy tariffs.

Because I'm a fan of history as well as economics, this book kept me entertained, even when it seemed to be saying nothing new in the answering of global economic disparity. I didn't like how this brand-new paperback book began falling apart on me within weeks of purchase, though. The glossy layer of the cover began peeling back from the edges. Maybe he should have thrown in a few pages about shoddy workmanship of American-printed books.

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown

Like every other sentient being in our galaxy, I had read The Da Vinci Code, and all affected superiority aside, I enjoyed it. It was fun, exciting, and easy to read, and left me with something mildly interesting to think about. One woman I know, however, thought the book was evil and threw it away. Which of us do you think Dan Brown likes more, the one who checked his book out of the library, or the one who paid full price for it before trashing it?

Well, Dan Brown is sure to hate me even more now, because this time I borrowed my mother's copy, and after my wife reads it, we're giving it to my sister. If I were a liberal hack, I'd site "The Great Recession" as my reason, but the truth is I'm just a cheap bastard.

Before my mother's book arrived in the mail, I read reviews on Maybe it's the jaded economist in me, but I can't read online reviews without assuming the good ones are written by people who benefit financially from the product and the bad ones are written by their competitors. I see five one-star reviews and I think, "Wow, their competition must have spent a whole afternoon working on this one." So some of the Dan Brown reviews were legitimate and some were just the work of bitter wannabe thriller writers, and I have no idea which were which. But one of the criticisms that seemed true was that there are flaws in Brown's writing style. Brown's publisher's relatives who wanted to include mild criticisms to appear unbiased said the style was a little strained, while competitors' relatives said it read like a junior-high-schooler wrote it.

To be sure, I opened the book randomly and was amazed by the number of two-word paragraphs I found.

Then silence.

Dead silence.

p. 261

Most writers' editors would probably balk at a preponderance of two-word sentences, but when you're Dan Brown and you're the only reason Doubleday hasn't shuttered the doors for good, you can turn in a manuscript comprised entirely of two-word paragraphs and everything will be fine.

The style criticism, though, is overdone. Sure, turning to page 261 and reading those two paragraphs made them seem foolish, but when I was reading from page 260 to 262, those paragraphs didn't jar me out of the story. And that's the thing about Dan Brown that his critics get wrong. There's more to writing than style. There's also story. Successful writers have both, in varying combinations. What Brown lacks in style he makes up for in story. So reading The Lost Symbol wasn't the exercise in taxing prose that the critics made it seem. The book went quickly (partly thanks to two-sentence paragraphs) and was enjoyable.

The dust jacket promised "Brown's most terrifying villain to date." I'll say. The guy has a thing for looking at himself naked in front of mirrors (pp. 11-12, pp. 268-269), and the narrator has a thing for describing the villain's "massive sex organ" as a "heavy shaft of flesh" (p. 268). Come on, man. There's "terrifying" and then there's just "creepy."

Like every good "thriller," this one has a plot-twist which the dust jacket describes as "an unthinkable finale." I wouldn't call it that, since earlier in the book the idea of the finale came to me as a fleeting notion. But it wasn't the result of the author having given it away, and ultimately, it made the finale less far-fetched because, I mean, if I had thought of it, how crazy could it have been, right?

Rating: 5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Psmith in the City, by P.G. Wodehouse

I can't decide if, meeting Psmith in real life, I'd like him or not. He's kind of a dick. All his interactions seem to result from his boredom, not from any desire to actually interact. His conversations seem to convey his condescension to his counterparts, like he's only deigning to talk to someone so stupid because he finds it humorous that people so stupid actually exist. Reading about it is funny, but thinking about trading places with Jackson makes me wonder if my first order of business wouldn't be punching Psmith right in the mouth.

But, like I said, reading about it is funny, so this book was good reading. Again, there was quite a bit of cricket. If I had read this without having first read Cricket Explained, the cricket bits would have been a chore, but because I could understand what was happening, they were exciting and dramatic. I was nervous for Mike in the final cricket match because I was certain someone would ruin his century the way the bank manager did at the beginning of the book, but it didn't happen. Psmith's (and Wodehouse's) dislike for meaningless office work found a doting acolyte with me, having once worked in a bureaucracy nearly as bloated and worthless as the fictional New Asiatic Bank.

All in all, it was another enjoyable read, but it lost a bit of its luster when I stopped to think about meeting Psmith in read life.

Rating: 5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

I read this book for a macroeconomics class. Although it is an interesting book, as far as I can tell, it has nearly nothing to do with macroeconomics. The only reason I can see for requiring us to read this is to disabuse us of any notion we have of racial superiority before we start looking at economically less-developed countries.

Diamond's contention is that Eurasian society was more advanced, and so dominated the American, African, and Australian societies it met, because of advantages of Eurasia's positioning, flora, and fauna, instead of because of something superior in Eurasians themselves. In fact, one of Diamond's stranger side-tracks is when he argues that modern New Guineans are on average smarter than modern Americans. Despite our supposed stupidity, we still hand their asses to them in a GDP contest, and he says it's entirely a result of having heavy grains and large mammals to domesticate.

Diamond does a good job presenting his case. And then, because this is modern America, he does a good job restating his case for 400+ pages (sort of like The World is Flat, only not so self-congratulatory) and turning his case into a cottage industry. He also includes about 40 pictures of people from around the world with very little connection to the text. It was like he found out his publisher would let him have up to 40 pictures and he used the first 40 he could find. While the pictures show the wide range of human faces found on Earth, the text does nothing to set up the pictures or explain their connection to his theories.

My favorite thing about the book, though, was probably the following quote: "It may come as a surprise to learn that plant seeds can resist digestion by your gut and nonetheless germinate out of your feces. But any adventurous readers who are not too squeamish can make the test and prove it for themselves" (116). In preparation for accepting this challenge, I kept the seed of a plum and am waiting until I have some free time so I can root through my poop looking for a seed. Plus, I need to find out if a plum stone is going to get stuck in my intestines. I don't really want to have to explain this to a doctor.

Rating: 5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Big Money, by P.G. Wodehouse

I was pleasantly surprised to find the closest branch library of the county next to us (which could end up being our county, if things go the way I'd like) has a huge selection of books from the Collector's Wodehouse edition. The first of the group I selected was Big Money.

The cash-strapped Lord Biskerton (known to friends as The Biscuit) and an equally-poor friend of his from school are trying to figure out how to get some money. The friend, Berry Conway, works for an American financier whose niece, Ann Moon, is coming to visit. Berry recommends The Biscuit's aunt to be the girl's chaperone, an arrangement which leads to Ann's engagement to The Biscuit. However, Ann soon meets Berry, who wows her with the tale of being a secret service agent, and The Biscuit flees London to avoid his creditors, meeting an American girl who came over on the boat with Ann. While both The Biscuit and Ann want out of their engagement, Berry is trying to sell a copper mine in Arizona he inherited, believing it worthless. His boss owns the mine next door and knows Berry's mine is extremely valuable, so he tries to buy the mine cheap through a proxy.

Of course everything turns up all right in the end. There are some hilarious scenes in this book, like when The Biscuit decides to avoid his creditors by wearing a false beard, or when his father visits the suburbs, or when Berry crashes a dance to see Ann again. All in all, the book accomplished what I wanted: it made me laugh.

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Danger at the Zoo, by Kathleen Ernst

My daughter loves Nancy Drew mysteries, except for the whole suspense part. When listening to them read aloud she will plug her ears if things get too scary (and "too scary" includes any character experiencing the disappointment of another character), and when reading them to herself, she'll just skip ahead. When we were leaving Kansas, a friend of our gave my daughter three American Girl mystery books featuring Kit Kittredge. My daughter took a look at the first one, entitled Danger at the Zoo, and declared they were too scary, reasoning, "It has the word 'danger' in the title."

To help ease her past this, I decided to read one of them with her. This was the first time we'd read a book together. Previously when "we" were reading a book, I was reading aloud and she was doing eight other things while she was supposedly listening, and then she would infuriate me by being able to tell me exactly what was going on. (This from the man who reads books while singing sacrament hymns. I guess getting bored and entertaining ourselves runs in the family.) For this book, however, we took turns reading a page at a time.

I was expecting to dislike this book because it is tied to a product line. In my experience, these types of books are nothing more than 70-page long advertisements, sort of like most Saturday-morning cartoons; product placement comes first and story comes second (or, as Austin Powers would say, sometimes not at all!). I was pleasantly surprised that this book didn't read that way at all. The book was about a girl, and aside from the postcard stuck in the back that advertised the American Girl catalog (which postcard was quickly discarded, since I don't need to spend $80 on a doll that's lost in the Uncanny Valley), there was no shilling associated with this book.

What's more, the story was actually pretty good. It was the right amount of mystery for the target age group (ages nine and above); no one was going to die, but instead Kit was investigating a possible band of "unscrupulous black-market monkey thieves." (I told our kids, "If I were in a band, I'd call us The Unscrupulous Black-Market Monkey Thieves." They said, "What would your song be called?" I said, "Kit Kittredge." They said, "How would it go?" I sang, "Kit Kittredge! Yea!")

Yet another nice thing about this book is the fact that it's set in the Depression, and instead of sitting around being bitter about what they don't have, the Kittredges are focused on trying to help other people who have even less. How did a modern American toy manufacturer finance a book like this? Is someone asleep at the wheel over at American Girl?

Anyway, by the middle of the book my daughter was excited when it was time to read together. She dealt with her fear by skipping ahead and reading the last chapter, so she'd know that everything turned out okay. She might even read the other two books on her own (although she says one of them has a cover that's too scary).

One of the characters is a young hobo Kit's family knows named Will. I was very glad I paid strict attention during the hobo chapters (yes, more than one) of The Areas of My Expertise, as it was good preparation for all the hobo-ocity that takes place in this book.

I'm glad we read this book together, and I would read more Kit Kittredge books with my daughter.

Rating: 6.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Jackie Robinson, by Arnold Rampersad

The last of the baseball books I read for my senior research paper turned out to be the best. While I completed the paper in May, I kept many of the books to read. When it came time for us to leave Kansas, I was about a third of the way through this book. The last time I moved while reading a library book, The States Rights Debate by Alpheus Thomas Mason, I just took it with me, and when my mother came to visit three months later I gave it to her to return. (I wonder how large my fine is for that one.) Since I wasn't expecting any of our Kansas family members to come visit soon, I knew I couldn't do that with this one.

Once we got here, though, I checked the book out of the local library and picked up right where I left off. I'm glad I did, because this book was very enjoyable. My wife said to me, "That looks like it would be a hard book because it's huge and non-fiction." (She's not a fan of non-fiction, reading them only when she gets suckered into it by novelized memoirs.) The truth is, though, that it wasn't hard to read at all.

I'd always thought of Jackie Robinson a lot like Neil Armstrong: he was the first man on the moon, but he was just an astronaut, not a champion of moon-people rights. This book taught me how wrong I was to think of Robinson like that. He was very much concerned with civil rights, not just with playing baseball. He agreed to integrate baseball, and suffer with the difficulties that would bring, because he wanted to advance the civil rights fight and his skills were such that he could best do that through baseball.

I've previously read a concise biography of Martin Luther King, written by Martin Marty (seriously), so I knew a little about the split in the civil rights movement towards the late sixties, and the way King was being marginalized at the time of his death. Robinson experienced much of the same, as militant groups like Nation of Islam belittled him and pressed him aside. This book made me more interested in reading a biography of Malcolm X, but I'm not sure I'd get the complete story if I read his autobiography he wrote with Alex Haley.

I also was interested to learn about Robinson's political views. He supported Nixon in 1960 but by 1968 he thought Nixon's election was a threat to American blacks. Robinson was consistent on the issues, but as the parties and politicians shifted around him, he went from Republican to Democrat and back a few times.

Having grown up in Los Angeles, I'm a bit of a Dodgers fan, and I always loved to remind Giants fans that, when faced with a trade to the Giants, Robinson had preferred to retire. The truth, though, is that Robinson had decided to retire from baseball no matter if he was traded or not, and only didn't tell the Dodgers about it before the trade because he had a lucrative deal with a magazine for exclusive rights to the news of his retirement. Today when a ballplayer retires he has to worry about whether to burn his pile of money on the lawn of his Florida mansion or his Arizona mansion, but when Robinson retired, he spent the next 15 years worrying about income.

Rampersad goes a little light on the baseball, treating it like just a job that his subject happened to have, which I actually didn't mind too much. Having already read Brooklyn's Dodgers and The Dodgers Move West this summer, I already knew about a lot of the teammates and important Dodgers events that happened during Robinson's tenure, like the 1950 collapse to Philadelphia, the 1951 collapse to the Giants, winning the 1955 World Series, and losing the 1956 series in seven games. A reader not as familiar with the 1950s Dodgers might need to make occasional reference to a baseball almanac or Wikipedia.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss

About a month ago I thought, "You know what book I could read to my kids that they would love? The Swiss Family Robinson, that's what! Plus, since it's in the public domain, it'll be super cheap!" Yes, I consider things like that. And that's why I have no friends.

The problem with old-timey books, though, is that they've often been edited and translated a billion different times in a billion different ways, so who's to say what actually constitutes reading The Swiss Family Robinson? I especially hate the children's editions or even the abridged adult editions that don't bother to tell you that they're not the complete text. At the bookstore I looked at two different versions of The Swiss Family Robinson; one started with "Already the tempest had continued six days," while the other began, "When the family awoke the storm still raged." Those are quite different sentences. Did the original German contain the word "sechs" or didn't it? How much of what is offered as the work of Johann Wyss is really his book and how much is the "work" of a copyhouse underling who knows some German?

Anyway, I got a copy of the book from the local library and started reading it to my kids. More than any other old-timey book we've read together, this one was completely inaccessible to them because of vocabulary. After a chapter or two I gave them leave, and I finished the book on my own.

For being a classic, there's a lot about this book to not like. Firstly, the title is horrible. It seems like the family name is Robinson, which isn't a Swiss name at all. The idea is that they are a Swiss family in the role of Robinson Crusoe. There has to be a better way to convey that. And don't tell me, "Well, it's been 200 years and they can't change the title now." They feel free to change everything else about this book with no warning; why not change the title while they're at it? Secondly, I was surprised by how often the family's response to seeing a new animal is to try to kill it. They start their stay by killing some attacking jackals, and who can't support that? But later they kill buffalo, kangaroo, lion, tiger, crocodile, boar, shark, and a thousand different types of small birds. Thirdly, it got a little tiresome how every chapter ended with, "And then we said our prayers and had a good night's sleep," and how the father happened to know a little something about every possible trade. Wheelwright needed? No problem, I happened to pass the time in my youth tinkering with the tools of the trade. I understand that without the plot device many of the chapters would read, "Then my family thought of something else we'd like to have, but since I didn't know how to make it, we just ate some more fish," but still. Couldn't one of the books they took from the shipwreck have been an instruction manual for various trades? Fourthly, with the preeminent image in most people's minds being the treehouse, they actually only live in it for about one year of the 10 they spend deserted. They spend most of their time in a salt cave. Not quite as romantic.

Speaking of romance, at the end of the book they discover a shipwrecked girl in her late teens. With four boys over the age of 18, you might figure there'd be some interest in the girl, but instead she's adopted by the family as a sister. Because, hey, you can find a hot European babe any time you want to around those parts. The place is lousy with them. To use a Wodehousism, you can't heave a brick without hitting one.

Lastly, either Wyss did a poor job making sure he's identified all his characters or the phantom copyeditor of a public domain novel has struck again, for there are many times that the narrator refers to an animal by name as if that name had been introduced previously. As much as I'd like to say, "I read The Swiss Family Robinson," who knows if I did or not?

Rating: 3 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Freddy the Detective, by Walter R. Brooks

Back when we thought we were rich and we were spending money like the US Treasury (zing!), I belonged to several mail-order book clubs. For those of you who have never experienced book club membership, it's a convenience provided by book publishers when you want to waste your money like a loyal American, but your American fat-assedness makes you too lazy to actually go anywhere. In that case, they mail a catalog to you and you can spend your money without endangering your hard-fought sedentary lifestyle. Redneck fat-asses have Lillian Vernon, pack-rat fat-asses have Oriental Trading Company, and faux-intellectual fat-asses have mail order book clubs.

In one of my mailers I found a review of Freddy the Detective, which was billed as wholesome family reading from Days Gone By. We had one child at the time, and I made a note of the title and author for when she would be old enough to read. When I decided to get out of the book club, I wanted to cash out the club points I'd amassed, so we became the proud owners of Freddy the Detective. At the time all I knew was that the mailer editor had been paid to tell me that it was a good book and he'd managed not to tip his hand in his product description. Since then, I've learned a little more about Walter Brooks and his Freddy the Pig series. Brooks lived in New York, has been dead for over 50 years, and maintained a bit of a cottage industry producing Freddy books, reaching 26 in all.

Our kids enjoyed this book. There were plenty of silly parts that made them laugh out loud. Freddy is a pig who knows how to read, and after some recent exposure to Sherlock Holmes stories, decides to become a detective. He has several small cases throughout the book, while one larger case, involving rats who've come to live in the barn, spans the story. My daughter was especially interested in a bit of backstory relating how Freddy and his friends had gone on a journey north and come home with two orphan children. When we finished this book and I asked them if they liked it enough to read more, she said she would want to read the one that dealt with the expedition. Later that week I went to the library and checked out Freddy Goes to the North Pole, which she has been reading on her own since then. She just reported, however, that she's "sort of given up on it," because, "the Freddy books are better for you to read than for me." I take that to mean that the reading level is probably for kids 10 and above.

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Case of the Invisible Dog, by E.W. Hildick

When I was in third and fourth grades, I loved McGurk mysteries. My fourth grade teacher, so appreciative of their ability to keep me quiet, gave me her personal copy of The Case of the Invisible Dog. Now that my daughter likes mysteries, I thought this might be a good series for her to read.

Jack McGurk runs a neighborhood detective agency with three other kids: Joey is in charge of forensics, Willy is in charge of smelling, and Wanda is in charge of, well, being a girl, I guess. According to Snakes in Suits, McGurk is a sociopath, in that he uses the people around him for his own benefit, often telling them conflicting stories that are what they want to hear. (Although that book counsels against using it to diagnose others, I figure I'm okay because McGurk is a fictional character.) A neighborhood kid whose feelings have been hurt by being left out of the organization, exhibits all the traits of a budding comic book villain, creating an invisible dog to get even with McGurk and his yes-men. In the end McGurk figures out the truth about the invisible dog and invites the super villain to join them.

Reading this book as an adult, it's hard to say what it was I liked about McGurk. The fact is McGurk is a jerk. The narrator, Joey, is a good guy, and is pretty smart, but he discounts his own abilities because Hildick decided that McGurk should be the genius who solves all the mysteries. The rest of McGurk's organization is only there to tell McGurk how smart he is when he figures out the mystery, which he only does because Hildick gives him the answer. I once worked at a company with an owner like McGurk, who got everyone around him to think his insufferability was just a manifestation of his genius. Really he was just a dick.

I had better memories of McGurk than the material actually supports. If my daughter wants to read more books from this series on her own, that will be fine, but I doubt I'll read another with her.

Rating: 3.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Adventures of Sally, by P.G. Wodehouse

This Wodehouse book was unlike any other I've read. Like Mike and Psmith, the tone was more serious, with the comedy taking a back seat to the story, but while Mike and Psmith has the lightheartedness that comes from schoolboys whose only concern is cricket, The Adventures of Sally is about a lighthearted girl who nearly has that crushed out of her by life. Not typical Wodehouse fare, though I did say "nearly."

Sally Nicholas is an American girl working at a fancy nightclub, where rich men come to dance with ladies. She lives at a boarding house and is engaged to a man who has written a play and is trying to get it produced. A distant relative dies and leaves her a small sum of money; not enough to make her very rich, but enough that she doesn't have to worry about money for a while. She takes a vacation to France where she meets a British man named Lancelot, but who everyone save his stuffed-shirt relatives calls Ginger. She learns that Ginger recently angered the stuffed-shirts who pay the bills and now must make his own way in the world. Sally returns to America and is soon followed by Ginger and his cousin, who also has met Sally and is captivated by her. Sally's fiancé's play is in trouble because his financial backer is trying to use it as a star vehicle for a chorus girl he loves. Sally offers to back the play with what remains of her inheritance. The plays a success, which changes the fortunes of everyone involved.

In many respects, I liked this book a lot. Instead of targeting farce and coming up with a story that helps with the comedy, this time it is the story that is the focus, with the comedy playing a supporting role. The way in which Wodehouse wrote Ginger's cousin's proposal to Sally and her refusal was skillful and unique. Also, Sally is written in such a way as to seem quite like the perfect girl, and although she'd be about 115 if she were alive today, she'd cause a serious strain to my marriage were I to meet her on the street.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery

When I pick a new book to read to my daughter, she often fights me for the first several chapters. She hates reading about conflict, and since that's the central premise of literature, she's hard pressed to find anything beyond a picture book that doesn't make her uncomfortable. When she reads on her own, she just skips the parts that make her nervous, but when I read I won't skip and she spends lots of time burying her head under pillows, plugging her ears, and muttering to herself, "Okay, okay, okay."

We had just finished the book we were reading together and I suggested Anne of Green Gables as our next one. She wanted to know what it was about, so I read the back of the book to her. When she realized that there might be conflict associated with being an unwanted orphan, she refused to listen. Since my best parenting skill is my steadfast refusal to do what my kids want, I made her listen to the first chapter. By the end of it, she was a great fan of Anne Shirley and wanted to hear the rest of the story.

It was a hard book to read to a kid because of the vocabulary. The problem is, if we wait until she's in high school and knows what words like "queer" and "presently" and "rapturously" mean, she won't be interested in the story anymore. This especially sucks because she ended up loving the book so much and wants to read the other 12 books about Anne that Montgomery wrote. With Ivy and Bean she could move on and read the books on her own, but with Anne, if she's reading the other books it's because I'm reading them to her. Sure, I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would, but asking an adult man to read the entire Anne Shirley cannon is a bit much, I think.

I was surprised that the story moved so quickly. Laura Ingalls Wilder took eight books to get from her childhood to her marriage, and with 13 books in the Anne series, I figured L.M. Montgomery would do the same. However, this one book covers the entire time from Anne coming to Green Gables to her graduating from school and getting a teaching position. I wonder if Lucy Maud used up all the good stuff in the first book and the subsequent ones will have a major drop in quality.

One aspect of the story that has been useful to us is how Anne and Diana tell themselves stories about the Haunted Wood and get themselves too scared to go there anymore. They get in trouble for it and are ashamed. Since both of our older kids are "too scared" to be on a floor of the house without at least one other awake person on the same floor, we now have plenty of chances to say, "Remember about Anne and the Haunted Wood?"

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Laughing Gas, by P.G. Wodehouse

Before my Vacation From HellTM I had a presentiment of its awfulness, so the day before we left I got two P.G. Wodehouse books from the library to see me through. One was Mike and Psmith, the first of the Psmith books, and the other was Laughing Gas. I knew I had to get it when even the back cover made me laugh out loud. That's not even something Wodehouse wrote, but a synopsis penned by a publishing house underling. If the material is funny enough that it can pass through such as filter and still elicit a laugh, it's got to be, as a Wodehouse character would say, ripping stuff.

And the material definitely is ripping stuff. Wodehouse spent a great deal of his career in show business, beginning in the theatre before making his move across the Atlantic to the theater. According to a biography of him I read a few years ago, Wodehouse by Robert McCrum, he was quite successful in both places, writing the book for many musicals I never heard of but which McCrum assures me were well-received in their day. Even back then, Hollywood was in the habit of stealing everything they could from the stage, so Wodehouse was hired as a studio writer and moved west. Neither side was satisfied with the deal and it wasn't too long before he was back in New York. But because of this long involvement with the stage, and especially the disappointment of the movie industry, Wodehouse writes excellent actor characters, and movie actors best of all.

Reginald John Peter “Reggie” Swithin, third Earl of Havershot, is in his late 20s and has a face like a gorilla. As titular head of the family, it befalls him to travel to Hollywood and rescue an alcoholic cousin, Egremont “Eggy” Mannering, from an engagement the family is sure to be undesirable, seeing how it is probably with an actress. On the train west from Chicago, Reggie meets a screen starlet, April June, with whom he promptly falls in love as she charms the pants off of him, obviously (to everyone save Reggie) trying to become the wife of an earl. Reaching California, Reggie learns that Eggy isn't engaged to an actress, but to a press secretary, Ann Bannister, who Reggie met once on holiday in France and to whom he was briefly engaged until he accidentally put a cigar out on the back of her neck (moving in for a kiss while forgetting he was smoking). Ann is the press secretary for April June's current co-star, a child actor named Joey Cooley, subtitled the Idol of American Motherhood.

Reggie and Joey meet at the dentist office the next day, and while both are under gas for tooth extractions, their souls are switched. Joey is ecstatic to find out that Reggie had a boxing Blue from Oxford, for he's been keeping a notebook of all the actors, directors, agents, and writers in Hollywood that he wants to “poke in the snoot” when he's big enough. He sets off on a terrorizing rampage of Hollywood, punching all and sundry in the nose, while Reggie is stuck in the highly-regimented life of a valuable child actor. Nearly a prisoner in the house of a studio executive, Reggie is constantly shocked when every domestic he meets is really an aspiring actor wanting to audition. The English butler and the Filipino manservant are both just Americans in character, awaiting the moment to open up a monologue before the studio chief. The driver makes Reggie sit through a recitation of “Gunga Din.” Eventually he's kidnapped as a publicity stunt for April June to rescue him, and his kidnappers pitch a story idea to him.

Like all Wodehouse books, everything ends up all right in the end. Eggy is scared off the drink and becomes engaged to a woman he meets. Reggie and Joey switch bodies back, and Reggie ends up engaged to Ann while Joey gets run out of Hollywood and gets to go home to Chillicothe, Ohio. There was so much comic material in the premise, however, that it seemed a waste to have most of the action take place in the executive's house. I kept looking forward to the scene where Reggie-cum-Joey goes to the studio lot to work on his picture, but it never came. I guess the 260-280 page length of the standard Wodehouse novel put the cabosh on that. All told, though, another fine work by Wodehouse, and some of the best stage-based characters of his I've read yet.

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.