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.