Thursday, February 25, 2010

Wake Up, Sir!, by Jonathan Ames

If this is what passes for a Wodehouse novel these days, the estate of P.G. Wodehouse has little to fear. The second half had more laughs in it than the first, and there were even times I laughed out loud (two times, I believe). But the 20-page sex scene was a little over-the-top (total number of Wodehouse sex-scene pages I've come across: zero), and the ending of the book was completely unsatisfying. Who ends a "comedy" book like that? Only someone who belongs to the Borat-school of comedy, where laughing at someone is indistinguishable from laughing with them.

Rating: 3 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Nicholas and the Gang, by René Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempé

We skipped Book 3 because our branch library doesn't have it and because I read online it doesn't impact the continuity. Our kids love these stories and I like to read them. Maybe it's because I picked them out of the library to start with, so every time I read them it's like I get to say, "I'm a good book-picker-outer." I think the first two books were a little better, though. The ironic endings of these stories seem less satisfying than those of the previous stories, which felt more thought-out.

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Petropolis, by Anya Ulinich

I found this book while bored in the library. Based on the title I convinced myself it involved pets and would be like Amberville. It didn't, and it was not. What it was was a book about a Soviet teen in an after-school arts program who gets pregnant and emigrates to America. Yeah, not really like Amberville at all. But I enjoyed it enough to finish. I liked Ulinich's writing style; it was very poetic without any pretension. If I had known ahead of time what it was about, I probably would have thought, "Oh, that's not for me," but having read it and enjoyed it, I'd tell others to give it a shot.

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Grateful Fred, by Greg Trine

My kids seem to like the Melvin Beederman books. I'm always the one who has to remind them about the books, but when I get one, they are eager to listen. I once got the second book for my daughter to read to my son, but she just read it to herself, and finding the second book in our library system is difficult, so we skipped ahead to Book 3. My kids liked it a lot, and I didn't mind reading it, so how bad of a review can I give it?

Rating: 5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Never Mind the Pollacks, by Neal Pollack

Not until I started this book review blog, where I had to start explaining what led me to read each book I read, did I realize how much of a reading hobo I am. Most of my book reviews start with "While bored in the library...." This is no exception.

I went to the library to do some problems on general equilibrium. Lo and behold, I was quickly bored. (Said boredom came before even actually sitting down and getting out the problems.) I looked at the shelf next to me and saw a book entitled Never Mind the Pollacks, which I took to be a culturally-insensitive version of the title Never Mind the Poles. Then I saw it was written by Neal Pollack, who wrote The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, wherein he creates a fictional giant of American prose named Neal Pollack, combining all the excesses of Hemingway, Salinger, and Mailer. I love that book.

In this book he creates a fictional giant of American rock criticism named Neal Pollack. The device allows for hilarious lines, such as:

On the morning of the day he died, Neal Pollack woke with a burning pain in his ass unlike any he'd experienced in weeks.
or:
Neal Pollack yowled into the darkness. He scrambled from the sleeping bag, mad with heartbreak and shattered ego. Plunging naked into the woods, he tore at his cheek flesh with long nails.
or:
Neal Pollack was naked on the filthiest futon that I'd ever seen.

Character-Pollack's life follows the progression of American rock, from Memphis to New York to Detroit to New York to Los Angeles to Seattle. He discovers, creates, or leaches from Elvis, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Bruce Springsteen, the Sex Pistols, and Nirvana, among others. Writer-Pollack pushes the frontiers of fictionalization of real people with such lines as:

Neal Pollack punched Michael Stipe in the face. It was an action, Stipe later said, that prompted him to take Pollack's name out of "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)".
Evidently, most people were cool with it; only one person from rock history cannot be directly named, instead going by "The Widow" and "She Who Shall Not Be Named for Fear of Lawsuit." It seems fitting to me that the person from rock history who's place seems most attributable to accident is the one most humorless about her place in rock history.

The book makes the argument that black people invent a new music genre and then white people steal it and ruin it. When Character-Pollack first hears rap, he wonders if it is "yet another form of African-American musical expression, this time one that was so unique to the black experience that white people would never be able to co-opt it," and after trying to rap himself, he concludes, "He sounded like Tim Conway! This form of music was simply beyond him. Black people had done it, at last."

This book is hilarious. And I don't throw that word around as loosely as all the critics who wrote blurbs for Wake Up, Sir!, which is yet to make me laugh out loud. This book made me laugh out loud at least once every 20 pages. If you have a problem with sex, drugs, and, well, rock and roll, you should expect quite a lot of each in a book like this.

Rating: 6.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Fair Play, by Steven E. Landsburg

When I first started this book, I had many thoughts. First, I remembered the quote from John Hodgman's Area of My Expertise* about becoming a first-time dad: "I am now required to devote my creative life solely to writing about my daughter--how brilliant and beautiful she is, and how her naive wisdom and amusing antics have changed the way I look at life. Everyone, I am sure, will find this fascinating." Then I thought, "Landsburg's displaying the type of hyper-affection typical of newly-divorced parents for their children; they take all the emotion they'd been spending on their spouses and shower it on their kids." But then I thought, "I wonder if he's dying. This reads more like Randy Pausch's Last Lecture* than even The Last Lecture did. I better hold back in my criticism, in case Landsburg ends up dead and I look like an ass."

But this book is from 1997 and as of today Landsburg is still alive, so criticisms aweigh!

What's interesting is that, even with all the weird sappy sentimentality and strange parenting skills on display, I really, really like this book. It's as if he's decided he doesn't care which of his neighbors he offends, he's going to tell you exactly why nearly every aspect of American government is rotten to the core. And I can't get enough of it.

The basic idea, as I understand it, is that people explain fairness to their kids differently from how they expect it to operate in government. In that sense, kids understand the world better than adults do. He points out that he's never heard a parent tell a child that the proper response to a kid owning a bunch more toys is to take them away, but the same parents think a tax code that does the same thing to other people's money is "fair."

There isn't as much economics-for-the-sake-of-economics in this book as in The Armchair Economist, which probably makes it more accessible to the average reader. However, in his previous book Landsburg presented libertarian views as a plausible alternative that might be attractive, whereas in this book he presents them as the only views that make sense. I think readers might not like that when they see that he's right and they cannot continue to entertain their old political ideas without deciding to be logically inconsistent.

Rating: 6.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

* - I was once taught by a grammar book (and this rule makes sense, so I follow it), that when making a book with a title beginning in "The," "A," or "An" the possession of the author, to drop the article. Thus Randy Pausch wrote The Last Lecture, but it is Randy Pausch's Last Lecture. While the alternative is more stilted, this method changes the title of the book, which isn't supposed to happen. But then most people drop the article for alphabetizing purposes, so I'm going to keep doing things this way.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Armchair Economist, by Steven E. Landsburg

This is a required book for one of my classes this semester. We are supposed to focus on a few particular chapters, but I read the whole thing for two reasons: 1) I enjoy economics (which is still true, a little more than one semester into my program), and 2) I wanted credit for reading the pages this year. I expect my reading is going to drop off a lot this year, so I need to take pages where I can get them.

I enjoyed the book. Because it is written to be accessible to someone with little to no economic background, large parts of it were things I already knew. This isn't to say, "I'm as smart as Landsburg!" I'm just saying why my response to it is somewhat muted, but I would bet a person with little to no economic background would enjoy the book much more.

Even so, there were some things that were new to me, and those were great to discover. His argument that, when a fixed resource is owned by no one, the economic gains of that resource are discarded was enlightening. I think the main point my professor wanted us to learn was the proper way to conduct cost-benefit analysis, particularly in answering Landsburg's question, "Do we have too much or too little illiteracy?"

Landsburg can be quite humorous and self-deprecating, as when he writes:

Economic theory predicts that you are not enjoying this book as much as you thought you would.... [Y]ou chose it because it was one of the few available books that you expected to be among the very best. Unfortunately, that makes it one of the few available books whose quality you are most likely to have overestimated. Under the circumstances, to read it is to court disappointment. (174)
Maybe that analysis doesn't apply to me since I had to read it and bought it online for four or five dollars.

Landsburg can overdo the humor, though, when he uses it to criticize the logical shortcomings of others. His critique of an article in the Atlantic Monthly just comes off as mean-spirited. He partially explains the invective when he later writes of the New York Times "the Times recognizes that assertions about chemistry or physics should be disciplined by some fundamental understanding of the subject, but it fails to recognize that the same is true of economics" (122). To me, the Times has a policy to print any crackpot economic theory it can get its hands on (fake cough--Paul Krugman--fake cough). Landsburg is merciless in his critique of crackpot economic theory. He's not a dick; he's just passionate about economics. Unfortunately, sometimes they read the same.

But the book was worth the read (at least to me) for the following idea:

When Republican and Democratic legislators meet to "hammer out a compromise," they are engaging in an activity that could land any of their private-sector counterparts in jail. We do not allow the presidents of United and American Airlines to hammer out compromises regarding airfares. Why do we allow the majority and minority leaders of the Congress to hammer out compromises regarding tax policy? (147)
As hard as I thought it would be, I think I just found someone who hates the government even more than I do, but somehow doesn't live in a shack in the woods with survival manuals.

I guess I do the book a disservice by saying it's for people with little background in economics. For those who have an extensive background based on NPR and Paul Krugman, this book is an indispensible antidote.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.