Thursday, December 15, 2011

Winesburg, Ohio -- Sherwood Anderson ------------------------------ 2.5 Stars

Sometimes there is just not a lot to say about certain books. Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio falls into that category for me. It was a sort of a good book...yeah.

Let's see. I was reading something that included Winesburg, Ohio as a sort of unsung hero of not so famous but should be American novels. It's about 300 pages and includes 15 or so short stories all revolving around people, or 'grotesques' as Anderson calls them, living in Winesburg. It kind of reminded me of Canterbury Tales. Obviously much easier to read, but both were about characters that sort of stood out compared to others in life/the town.

The stories are all pretty good. They are told very simply and are very straight forward. Because they are just short stories, you don't get a whole bunch of character development and it's more of snapshots of their lives than anything else. The genius of the book, and I think why many critics loved it (and still do), is that so nicely illustrates and describes life in small town America around the turn of the twentieth century.

If you like period pieces, short story fiction, or tales about just 'real' life, this would be a good book for you. It's an easy read and you can get through the stories quickly. The drawback for me, and why it only earned 2.5 stars, was that it just was not entertaining. As most stories had nothing to do with others, it never drew me back into the book to keep reading. Being about 100 years old, the stories are also a bit old in topic and although risque at the time and pushed social norms, compared to modern day 'drama' it does not compare.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Consider the Lobster -- David Foster Wallace ------------------------------ 4 Stars

Very recently I became aware of a wonderful author, who up until a month ago, I absolutely had never heard of. (btw, he would have hated that I just ended this sentence with a preposition, though he would have loved this footnote like parenthetical note). It was through a cool website called that posted a gigantic (5,ooo word?) essay Wallace wrote about Roger Federer. Needless to say, it was fantastic. I asked my sister about him and she had heard of him, had a book of his, and recommended a graduation speech he gave, which I ended up also enjoying (read here). She then passed on a book of essays from Wallace titled Consider the Lobster which has led to this review.

This book includes about 10 different non-fictions essays from Wallace that were collected from a variety of magazines and on a variety of subjects. Some are only a few pages, while others go on (and on) into the 70 or 80 page range. I liked them all; well, I guess I should say I like they way they are written. First, Wallace is just plain cool. He understands things very well and his writing style is a joy to read and pleasure to digest. Second, he is unbelievably bright. The most confusing and frustrating essay is a review of a recent dictionary that was released that includes Wallace's views on literary criticism and correct writing techniques and terms. It was about 40 pages long, I was lost for about 37 pages of it yet I still found it enjoyable...that's David Foster Wallace. Third, he is incredibly funny. From being ironic to obvious with jokes to just plain crude, his essays can't help but make you laugh. Fourth, and probably what he is most famous for, he is the master, I say MASTER, of the footnote. He uses them all the time and his footnotes have footnotes. It's almost his claim to fame. They're awesome. Fifth, his insights and conclusions about ideas, events, things, are just so well thoughtful you can't help but keep on reading and smiling.

More about the stories. The title of the book is also the title of a 20 page essay about lobsters, and specifically, should we consider the ethical and moral standards of how lobsters are killed... it was good. Other essays included a biography of a late night radio host, musings about Updike and Kafka (I'm telling you, the guy is wicked smart), and Tracy Austin (fantastic tennis player from the 80's who won a US Open before 18, got hit with the injury bug and never made it back -- great story with great insights). Do be aware that the book starts with a 50 page essay on porn which takes some work to get through but the book is smooth sailing after that.

My favorite essay is called "Up, Simba" taken from a Rolling Stone piece Wallace did during the '00 election as he followed McCain around the campaign trail for 7 days. Being a political guy, I found this essay absolutely captivating and enjoyed reading the 70 pages (which must have included huge amounts that were cut for RS mag). Besides coming away with much more respect for McCain, I came away questioning the intents and reasons why politicians do what they do. It is an excellent, excellent essay.

Overall, the book is very good. Some essays go on too long and some, as I said earlier, are hard to understand. Some subjects are more interesting than others, and some words he uses I don't understand. But, for the most part, the essays are incredibly entertaining. They are smart, funny, clearly written, and incredibly informative.

After finishing the book, I looked to see what other non-fiction stuff he has written. Apparently, he has done a lot of very good fiction and many consider him one of the best writers in the past decade. There is not a lot of other non-fiction stuff he has done. And, perhaps most unfortunately, there will no more writings at all from Wallace; he committed suicide in 2008.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

To Heal a Fractured World -- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ------------------------ 4 Stars

As Thanksgiving begins tomorrow, I find no more fitting a time to reflect upon a very enjoyable book I recently finished titled To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility by Jonathan Sacks. My sister gave this book to me for my birthday and though it's some pretty heavy reading, it's well worth the venture.

The book is really 1 part philosophy, 1 part religious teachings, and 1 part self help. It's divided into three parts which were 'the call to responsibility', 'the theology or responsibility', and 'the responsible life'. The book is very well organized and Sacks has almost a lawyers ability to lay out his arguments in a very logical and straightforward way for the reader to understand.

The major questions this book addresses are what is a persons place in the world? What should we be doing in our lives and what responsibilities do we have as moral human beings? Needless to say, I really enjoyed the book. Although a bit challenging to get through, Sacks does an incredible job of breaking down somewhat archaic religious writings and Bible passages while also including wonderful real life examples to clarify his positions and points. I found the first half of the book, in which he sort of sets up his arguments for why people should be responsible, to be the most enjoyable part. As a Rabbi, he includes a litany of Bible verses and stories, which having not read in many, many years, I found particularly interesting and enjoyable. He even included many a midrash which reminds me of my high school Religion class with Mr. Dependahl. These interepretations and analysis were laid out so clearly and so beautifully thus painting a portrait of what he passionately believes the various passages are trying to say.

As I said, these early parts of the book were my favorite parts. As the text goes on, it turns from making the argument for 'why' we should be responsible and moral people to the specific 'how tos'. While I find that part just as important, I also found it personally less interesting and entertaining. Toward the end, the book gets very 'sefl-helpy' though not in a fake way. By that point in the text, I had been completely sold on his arguments that I definitely supported his suggestions on how to live responsibly.

Much of the book includes many of the suggestions that you would expect from a Rabbi and text on how to live properly. Ideas like giving to others, supporting those in need, believing in a higher power, giving second chances, providing charity and love for others, are prevalent and focused on significantly. Although I believed in these virtues prior to reading this, I found so much enjoyment in reading the Biblical reasoning why these ideas are important. Though I don't consider myself the most religious of people, this book can't help but make a reader reexamine their own belief in the world and faith in general.

I highly recommend this book to any reader looking for insight into their own life, looking to reconnect with the Bible, or would like to read a good book explaining what another person's viewpoint is about responsibility in one's life. Be aware, however, that this book is pretty heavy in the depth of thought/ideas per page. Although less than 300 pages, don't go in thinking you can fly through this text in a weekend. Please, take your time with it. The ideas, thoughts, and viewpoints will probably have you analyzing your own thoughts... which probably is a good thing. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

ESPN: These Guys Have All the Fun -- James Andrew MIller and Tom Shales --------------- 3.5 Stars

LinkWell it's been a while since I blogged, but that's because I was working through the monstrous ESPN: These Guys Have all the Fun . If you are not familiar with this book, it's basically a massive biography about the total history of the ESPN corporation from it's inception in Connecticut in the late 70's through last week (no joke). Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is how it's told. Much like the previous collaboration between Miller and Shales, Live from New York (click here for that review), nearly the whole book is told through interviews. This can be both awesome and off -putting. For the most part it's very enjoyable and entertaining. The people speaking are very candid and their free opinions are very interesting. The only problem is that it goes on for 750 pages and can become a bit repetitive stylistically after a while.

Overall, the book is very good. It certainly has sections that are far more interesting than others but the details and insights about the background politics and the 'real' operation of a world wide corporation were illuminating. The beginning of the book was also great as I had no idea how ESPN truly started as a sort of 'mom and pop' operation trying to just show some local sports in the Northeast and growing into the behemoth that it is now.

Obviously, reading about the viewpoints of the various ESPN personalities is cool. More or less, everyone who has been or is on ESPN was interviewed. Some of the most interesting stories and opinions are about the TV people who caused the most controversy/issues. Keith Olbermann, for example, was famous for both his intellect and ego. Tony Kornheiser and Bill Simmons fall into a similar category.

There were some definite drawbacks that limited the book to 3.5 stars. Most significant is the fact that its soooooooooo long. Really, they needed a good editor. While I certainly get and appreciate that they are trying to be totally inclusive, there are many parts that I pretty much glossed over because it was like 10 interviews and 20 pages about the same idea/issue. I mean, I don't need to hear from 8 people from ESPN why getting the World Cup was such a big deal for the network.

The other annoying thing related to the length was their obsession with covering seemingly EVERYTHING. I mean the book was just released and it had things that were going on from like 2 months ago (i.e.30 for 30). They also seemed to feel the need to address and discuss every show (failed or otherwise) that was ever shown on ESPN and it's affiliated networks.

I would recommend this book to any sports fans however. It really is an awesome story, that is, for the most part, very well edited that gives you a real glimpse into the backroom of ESPN and all that they do. Some of the background on how things end up being on your TV is really cool. It's also a good read for anyone interested in hearing the business side of a billion dollar corporation. It makes you realize and appreciate how much decisions and items on TV are decided by people we don't even know.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Friday Night LIghts -- H.G. Bissinger ------------- 3.5 Stars

Well, this is a somewhat noteworthy blog. You see, it is my first book I have ever read on this new fangled device called a Kindle. On a side note, I enjoyed the Kindle, though, like many, I didn't think I would. It's so nice, easy, and simple, and as an added bonus, I have the Kindle app on my phone so I actually read much of this book on my phone...very cool.

Anyway, for those who don't know, Friday Night Lights is not just a movie and a TV show. In fact, most only know FNL from those two places, but well before the movie and show it was a pretty awesome book. As most already know, the story is about a year in the life in West Texas (Odeass specifically) and the story of high school football. I had been familiar with the movie and show (though I'm one of the few who apparently did not love the show).

Some things I learned:
1. They really, really, really love football in Texas. Like, to the point where people's priorities are significantly skewed in life (not to judge, but let's just say education is way, way behind football in importance).
2. The story took place in 1989...I had no idea it was this old.
3. The book is really a story about American culture and life. Sure, it's based around football but for much of the book I almost felt like I was reading an essay on sociology. This to me really was the most enjoyable part and interesting part of the book. Although I loved the football stories (it basically takes you through a whole season of a high school team) and biography's of the best players and coaches, the stories about life in Texas is what made this book great. Learning about the skewed priorities, the obsession with football in people's lives, the lack of time/interest put into education, the danger that is living in Odessa (one of highest murder rates in the country), and the waxing and waning of the economy based on oil prices.

So, you might be asking, how could this book get only 3.5 stars? It sounds awesome. Well, a few reasons. First, the author is a newspaper journalist and the books lacks some of the eloquence of prose that is usually found in other books that I read. It was told well, and straightforwardly, but it never really painted the great picture that you might hope in a book. Second, although I thoroughly enjoyed the non-football parts of the book, sometimes they would go on way too long. I'd be reading about a play in some big game, that flash forwarded to the stands, where the author than stars talking about some guy, and his life, and history, and some random stories about how his interest in football has affected his life. It just became a bit much after a while.

Overall, it was a very good story and a must read if you were into the FNL movie and TV show. For a casual sports/football fan, also a highly suggested read, but just be aware that you are getting a book about life in West Texas...and also, secondary to it, a book about football. Just be prepared that it occasionally drolls on, but it's still worth it, thanks to the great football stories.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Corrections -- Jonathan Franzen ------------------------ 4 Stars

I think this is going to be a short blog. Yesterday was the wedding of my brother-in-law (which was great) and tomorrow is the first day of school, so I need some rest but first I had to share my thoughts on a very entertaining and enjoyable read The Corrections.

Recently I was looking for a good book to read and this came up in a few places as one of the best novels of the past decade; it did not disappoint. It's what I would call 'modern literature'. I say modern because this book is very much about the current world and all of it's bizarreness. The themes in the book are definitely grown up: sex, drugs, a little violence but this book is really about family. An incredibly dysfunctional, sad, and modern family. The other reason it's 'modern' is because of both the adult themes but also how it's written, which is very informal. It is still very much 'literature' though as the writing is wonderful and creative. The plot has a ton of conflict and there is a lot to it. By that I mean the themes and depictions of the family are superb and so real. You can't help but read this book and feel like you know these people and you know this family. And though the novel never overtly states what anyone is thinking, and dialogue is not hugely insightful, you can't help finishing this book and truly understanding the desires and issues that every person in the story is dealing with it.

I strongly suggest checking out the book. Although a bit long, it moves crisply and the dialogue throughout is incredibly entertaining. The story is told in about 6 month time period and it's basically about 2 older parents and their 3 siblings and then their issues. God almighty each person has their own issues. If your ever thinking "what is a typical dysfunctional Midwestern family like?", this book will answer it but it's great to be there along the way. I promise you'll be entertained.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Life of Pi -- Yann Martel ---------------------------- 1.5 Stars

So, I am not sure if this has ever happened to you reading a book or watching a movie, but it did for me with Life of Pi. What I am talking about is this rather odd phenomenon of expecting that you will like something, and by all reasonable expectations you should, but you just don't. To go ever further, after finishing reading/watching said book/movie, there is even more evidence to suggest that you should have immensely enjoyed what you just finished. However, it just did not happen. Well, that was my experience with Life of Pi.

By all indications, I should have really enjoyed this novel. Great reviews, wonderful word of mouth following, a well-written novel with an interesting plot that included numerous twists and turns, and ending that truly made me re-read various parts and have a conversation with others about it's meaning. Sounds pretty awesome, right? Well I suppose it is, but I just didn't get it. I mean, I really disliked the book. Often, it was a struggle to just pick it up and get through it. That's not what I am shooting for when reading a book.

Let's figure out why. First, in general, I like non-fiction books better. When I do read fiction, which I do almost 50% of my reading , it needs to be a book with some basis in reality. Thus, my first major issue with the book. As you might be able to tell from the picture on the cover, the book is about a teenage boy living on a life raft with a gigantic tiger. Yeah, there goes reality. I mean, I guess the book is possible (though he did live with a hyena and orangutan for a while too), but it was a bit too far for my realist mind to bend. Second, I love dialogue. Guess what, this book had little. I suppose this should not sound so surprising since, as I just said, the novel is about a teenage boy and tiger on a boat; I should have figured that pairing doesn't lead to much back and forth. Third, I didn't like the writing style/organization of the text. I felt like the writing didn't flow like other books I read, and it was more of a task to get through then other books. It was a bit too choppy for me. The organization was also a bit weird. The novel starts with an author explaining that this is a true story and sets the stage to show how 'real' it is, though the reader is fully aware that it's a novel. It then goes through the long sea story and fairly cool last part that takes about the aftermath. Again, no great flow. Fourth, the whole book is an allegory. It's all about god and spirituality. This too would be something that I would normally be in to (I like spiritual stuff...see this review), but when something is presented in an allegory, I don't buy in. It seems kind of hokey. Additionally, in the beginning of the book they say that this story will 'make you believe in god'. That was a pretty bold statement that I really feel was not backed up. The whole spiritual/god piece of the book especially turned me off.

Perhaps I was just not in the mood for this type of book as I read it or perhaps it really is just an awful book (though most disagree with me on that). I don't know what to say besides I give my ratings based on how exciting, entertaining, and captivating each book is, and this book failed miserably to hold my attention. I suppose if you don't mind giving up reality almost totally and want to read a fairly deep book, this would be the one for you. Just remember it's still a book about a kid on boat for 7 months with some animals... good luck with that.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Atonement -- Ian McEwan ------------------------ 4.5 Stars

It was incredibly strange to read a great novel with a twist for an ending after already having seen the movie, but, in an unexpected but certainly welcome surprise, it ended up making the book ever better.

I saw the movie Atonement a couple of years ago. I was going in not expecting much, I mean it didn't sound like my type of flavor: English, love story, set 60 years ago... sounds like a recipe for disaster but, alas, it was pretty good. I mean not bad. Then on a whim last week, I thought I should maybe read the book Atonement as I had heard it was a pretty good novel, and I was fairly familiar with the story. Well, I was absolutely shocked by how good it was and how much I enjoyed it.

I really couldn't put it down and read it in a week, which is the most critical element when I review a it captivating?. It was a truly remarkable and probably a perfect novel. The only thing that took a way a .5 star was that I personally just didn't like the ending (bad reason to lose a .5 star, but I write the blog).

I don't feel like there is any need to go through the plot as most people have seen the movie or know in general what it's about so I'd rather just continue to gush about how much I liked the novel. First, I love the way McEwan writes. His prose is just phenomenal and a joy to read. It's almost like poetry how well it flows. He also has a knack for using some fairly obtuse vocabulary, but it seemed liked every word he used actually fit the sentence or paragraph and was never forced. Second, the characters he created seemed so real. Perhaps it was because I had seen the movie and could better picture them but they were so cleanly and fully developed it added so much to the novel to really feel like I 'knew' these people. Third, the story is so intricately and delicately developed that it really is quite genius... truly nothing is overlooked. Fourth, and though I hate to say it, it's a really nice love story. Normally not something I really find that exciting, this one was told so well that but you can't help but love it.

Overall, it really is a perfect novel and one I would recommend wholeheartedly to anyone who has not yet read it (I am a little behind as it came out like 10 years ago). For me, what added to it's enjoyability was the fact that I quasi-remembered parts of it from seeing the movie a few years ago. I remembered just enough to know who the characters were and the basic novel twists but not enough detail where I found it repetitive. Quite the opposite, because I remembered just enough of the story, I better appreciated and enjoyed seeing how it was developed through the written word.

So, if you have the choice, I would say definitely read the book right now if you saw the movie a while ago. Or you could go the route of watching the movie right now and then waiting like 3 years to read it but that takes some real patience.... the choice is yours.

" I Heard You Paint Houses" -- Charles Brandt -------------------- 4 Stars

Before I begin the review of "I Heard you Paint Houses", I have to recognize the accomplishment that is this review: #50! Much like Derek Jeter's 3,000 hit, I have reached a milestone; this is my 50th review of a book on my blog. Who would have thunk that in a short 2.5 years I would have notched 50 book reviews? Not I.... Anyway, let's get started and find out who killed Jimmy Hoffa.

Jimmy Hoffa. When you hear the name, what do you think? Probably, like most, you think about how he was never found. Well, you don't need to worry about that anymore if you read this book. It's got the answers; all of them. What happened to him, how he was killed, where his body went... this book's spills it all.

First, a little background on the title; "I Heard you Paint Houses" is not really about painting houses (you already guessed that?) If you paint houses, you kill people... see, the blood splatters on the wall and that's the paint (yeah, there's some solid violence in this one). Basically, this book is about a mobster named Frank Sheeran. He died some years ago and prior to passing, told most of his life story to the author. Included in this story is what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.

Although you find out much about Sheeran's life, this book's major focus if Jimmy Hoffa. If you don't know alot of about Jimmy Hoffa's life, this book is worth the read just for that. His influence on unions in this country and rivalry with Bobby Kennedy is historic. This book goes into a great deal about his life and Frank Sheeran's close relationship to Hoffa and other major mobsters during the 60s and 70s.

I am not sure what it is about mob and gangster things that make the same interesting. From the Godfather to Sopranos, I consistently fall in love with gangster stories. This one was no different. Although a bit slow in spots and not as excitingly written as other books (which is why it only garners 4 stars), this gangster tale is as good as any others. It's got it all, blood, violence, trickery, deception... all the fun stuff.

If nothing else, it's worth reading the book just for the chapter that explains Hoffa's demise. If you've seen the movie Hoffa, they depict his death at the end of that film.... that movie was made before the book and they got it wrong. There is no doubt in my mind what is described in this book is how Hoffa was really killed. And frankly, the chapter and pages that intimately describe how it went down were memorable. I was actually becoming nervous and sweating as it was going down while I was reading; it's rare for a book to do that to me but the buildup had been coming.

If you like gangster stories, are interested in Hoffa, or just want to read a great true crime novel, do check out "I Heard You Paint Houses" but do me a favor and don't actually paint any houses (you know what I mean).

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Moviegoer -- Walker Percy --------- 3 Stars

Rare is it that one can get through a novel, save the last twenty pages, really not enjoy it, finish the last twenty pages, and then have a totally different view; somehow that's what happened as I finished Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. Bizarrely, I really disliked this book for much of my reading of it, but a final flurry of fascinating writing and a great final chapter elevated this book from a persumptive 1 or 2 stars to a solid 3 star novel.

The Moviegoer, written in the 1960s, was not on my book radar at all, but it was recently recommended as a favorite of someone so I thought I'd give it a whirl. As I began reading it, it reminded me so much of another recent book I read, American Pastoral. There were some distinct similarities: both books are incredibly well written with great prose, both books revolve around a central male character who is a bit 'lost', and in both books nothing really happens. As I explained in my Pastoral review, I like things to happen. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate a novel about philosophy of life and metaphysics but those things need to be overt. Those concepts were not in the Moviegoer until the end; but alas that saved the novel.

The book is really about a guy who is living in New Orleans after World War II. He is about 30, successful, wealthy, no real problems yet there is a 'malaise' as he would like to say about his life and his world. Think Holden Caulfield without the craziness. Then he just talks about his daily life. The key to all of his seemingly innocuous stories doesn't dawn on me until the end of the novel; each story is a look into his existence and outlook upon the world. It's one of those few books where I really would enjoy, and would probably get a lot more out, of with a second reading.

Basically, I found most of the main character's stories incredibly boring until the last twenty pages. Really, the book went from 'poor' to 'good' in a matter of two pages. I won't spoil it for you but there is a tirade from his aunt that is truly one of the best speeches I have ever read in a book... where was this passion and writing the whole book (I guess that lack of passion was the point!)?

Overall, it's an interesting book. It's very odd but as I was reading it, I really didn't enjoy it. I didn't look forward to the next chapter or picking it up later during the day. As some may recall, my rating system is based purely on the 'entertainment' value the book provides to me; and this book struggled to entertain me through 95% of it. However, now that it's finished, and I reflect upon the story and major themes, it's gotten better and better. So, if you want to read a book that will keep you interested but not blow you away but THEN, when you are done, really start making you think about what the book was really about (and of course what life is really about), than this is the novel for you.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Switch -- Chip and Dan Heath --------------------- 4 Stars

I have a fixed mindset. That was one of the things I learned in Chip and Dan Heath's fantastic book Switch. That is not a good thing. It means that I think people are static and can not change; which I really do believe. Apparently, this is bad and wrong.

I was recommended this book by a colleague and would have to say it's about half, fun "Outliers" type of book and half, academic type of text. Basically, its a book about how you make changes. Changes in your daily life, changes in the work place, changes in a family, getting other people to change...pretty much any change that is hard to do.

Normally, I am not big into organizational change/self-help type of books but this book was excellent. First, it was well written. Short and easy to read chapters and sentences. Second, it had great stories and anecdotes; they were very well told and applicable. Third, it was easy to understand and broken down into three specific things to do. Fourth, it included great suggestions and links to other books that are related including Nudge and Outliers.

And now, for the million dollar question, I will tell you how you can easily create change and save you from reading the whole book. You ready for it? Here it is:
1. Direct the Rider
2. Motivate the Elephant
3. Shape the Path
Uh, You're Welcome! I just took the whole book and explained it to you. Well, maybe not, but if you would like to read a very interesting and worthwhile book about change (and really understand what those three things are) , do check out Switch.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Amerian Pastoral -- Philip Roth ------------- 2.5 Stars

If you are not familiar with Philip Roth, he is a fairly prolific, modern day novelist who has a huge following and has written dozens of books. Many argue that the best of these books is the Pulitzer Prize winning American Pastoral (it's listed as one of the best novels in the past 25 years). Because of those reasons, and the very positive reviews of this book (not to mention the Roth name), I thought I should check it out. Lo and behold, I was pretty disappointed.

Let's get a few things straight. Roth is an incredible writer. I mean his actual prose. It's perhaps the most spectacular aspect of the book. There are points where I don't think he even changes paragraphs yet I have found myself having turned page after page as it's so engaging. His writing is so eloquent that I often find myself re-reading sentences to fully understand the meaning of the text. Here's the thing about really amazing writing... to me, it's super overrated. I have the same view with song lyrics. Who cares? If you are listening to music for deep meaning in songs, you need to look elsewhere. I mean, about 1 song out of 100 has cool/great lyrics. The rest are about dancing in clubs and straight cash. Listen to music for the sound. The rhythm, the beat; that's what matters. I have the same view of books. I can certainly appreciate great prose but I read books for a great story that includes a cool plot and recognizable characters. This is the crux of the reason why this book won the Pulitzer Prize and I gave it 2.5 stars.

But here's the weirdest thing about this novel: It gets worst the more you read it. It's weird. I don't know if I have ever read a book quite like this. I mean it started out really interesting. It pulled me in, I got excited about the story and characters. Then it just sort of started to drag. It left the interesting characters on the wayside and spent pretty much the rest of the novel focusing on the minutiae. Now, I know that's what makes novels like this great 'literature' but it bored me. It was also super frustrating to get so excited about a book and to keep reading, assuming it will get better, and it just keeps getting worst and worst. I mean, after 25% read it was like 4.5 stars, 3.5 by 50%, 3 stars by 75% and it finished with a 2.5. Err.

Overall, you have to decide what you are looking for in a book if deciding to read this. I read purely for my own entertainment value and this book did not entertain me like others. If you love great writing and a fairly decent story about the unpredictability of life, this books may be for you....just make sure you are prepared to grind it out to finish it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

In the Pit with Piper - "Rowdy" Roddy Piper -- 1 Star

I need to make a confession to explain how I could have possibly finished and reviewed a book that only received (a generous) 1 star... I used to be obsessed with wrestling (or wrastlin' as some might say). Really, I used to love it. As a kid between about ages 7 and 11, I was super into it. I watched it all the time, had my own championship belt, used the figure four leg lock on my sister and even had the Hulk Hogan/Iron the Shiek sheets.. I was nuts about it.

So, when I was recently at a soon to be defunct Books-A-Million and saw Rowdy Piper's In the Pit with Piper, a book on my "Books to Read Eventually" on the right, for only $2.17, I felt obligated to buy it and check it out. I figured, Piper was a pretty awesome wrestler when I was a kid so why shouldn't those skills translate to being a great writer as well? How wrong I was.

So, the book is pretty much awful. I mean, it's really quite bad. Perhaps what was so bad about it was that it was actually kind of long. I mean, it's only 230 pages but it took me weeks to go through as it's kind of a lot of text and so INCREDIBLY boring. I really though it might be interesting. Perhaps talking about some of the famous matches, some insight into the tricks of the trade, maybe some secrets about the famous wrestlers. Nah, none of that. What I did get was the incredible amount of arrogance and ego Piper has. I also got, about 230 pages of the most unbelievably, poorly written sentences and paragraphs ever to grace the pages of an actual book. Seriously, there are grammar mistakes, a complete lack of a theme, and stories that are so disparate and unrelated you wonder how an editor or publishing house sent this out. One thing you know for sure after reading this, there was NO ghost writer. I really was hoping the stories would be better, but so many of them were the same: I wrestled hard one night, I got drunk, me and some buddy's thought it would be funny to _________, I woke up the next morning in a parking lot. Ridiculous.

The only slightly redeeming part that came out of these random thoughts we'll call a 'book' is Piper's chapter on what he dubs "The Sickness". Basically, "The Sickness" is his word to describe the addiction and passion that these wrestler's have to this sport that they love. Now, don't get me wrong, I know, as do you, that wrestling is not real; BUT, it's not totally fake either (another quick annoyance of the book, Piper would never actually say wresting is fake and tells more than few stories about beating guys up who questions wrestling's authenticity...ah, classy). What I mean by not totally fake is that these guys do take a beating. They are still hitting a mat or the ground and getting bounced around night after night (see The Wrestler if you don't know what I'm talking about). Anyway, Piper's point is that wrestlers will do anything to themselves to make sure they can wrestle. They are addicted and literal 'sick' to the point that they HAVE TO WRESTLE. This includes an incredible amount of self-medication. Specifically, alcohol and drugs. It's actually incredibly sad. There are an unbelievable number of wrestlers who have died well before they should have (Google search it) because of heart attacks, drug overdoses and suicides. Piper would argue that's all because of "The Sickness".

Overall, I can't possible recommend you read this book. However, I would recommend you watch or re-watch Wrestlemania I through V... that's some good stuff. And, if you are like me, you might even get to watch a little bit of your childhood with it (tear).

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Unbroken -- Laura Hillenbrand ------------- 4 Stars

When picking out a gift for another person, it's always an added bonus when that gift can also be a gift to yourself (i.e. giving someone two tickets to a game they will take you to or an household appliance that everyone gets to use). So it is with Unbroken, a Christmas gift to my wife, who after finishing the book, passed it on to me. (Side note: my wife enjoyed it far more than me and quickly told me that it must be 'at least' 4 stars after I contemplated out loud giving it a 3.5 star rating...which it probably should be). Unbroken has been the #1 non-fiction book on the New York Times for the last few weeks so one must assume it is good, and I suppose it is good, just not great.

I was drawn to the book because: a) my wife raved about it and kept telling me how incredible it was and b) Hillendbrand's last book (a while ago) Seabiscuit, was awesome...Seabiscuit this is not. The book is the true story of a WWII POW Louie Zamperini. It basically is the story of his life from birth, to world class runner, to fighter in the Pacific, to eventual Japanese POW.

The story is without a doubt unbelievable. No, literally, I sometimes wonder if all of what is described actually happened. Much of the story can only be substantiated by 2 people, but if it is true, it's one of the most incredible stories of survival and perseverance ever told.

Other good things: Hillenbrand crafts a very nice story and does a superb job of only including the most pertinent and useful information. Using crisp, easy to follow language, the tale is remarkable and she pointedly creates a 'good' vs. 'bad' mentality. Also included are some nice pictures in the book. Normally, not something that is included or important in adult level books, these photographs make the story come to life even more and vividly show the characters told in the book at different parts of their life thus making the story even more full and real.

The story didn't receive a higher rating simply because the entertainment value was not there. Although it was a good read, I never felt like I couldn't put it down and I didn't think that the reader's interest was held at the end of each chapter. I also didn't like how the actual story worked out. Obviously, as it was non-fiction, there was not much that could be done about that, but it still took away from the overall book for me. Also bothersome, and again there is nothing that can be changed about it, the story is quite sad and depressing. If you didn't already know, living in a POW camp is pretty much awful and good chunk of the book is describing and retelling that experience. Obviously critical to the plot and story, I nonetheless found this difficult reading.

In the end, even though I didn't love the book, I would highly recommend it. I believe the story would interest most readers, and it must have some sort of mass appeal if it's number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list as many weeks as it has been. There is no doubt that Louie is an American hero, and there may be no better time to read and remember this greatest generation as right now as this generation of heroes will be all but gone by the end of the decade. Unbroken will assure that Louie and others never fade away.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Live from New York -- Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller -------------------------- 3 Stars

I don't feel like I have a ton to say about Live from New York. It started out as a really great book and finished as an okay book (hence, 3 stars). I'm a pretty big Saturday Night Live fan and I thought that it would be an incredible read but, in the end, it ended up just being okay.

The book basically tells the history of SNL from its inception to about 2001. Interestingly (though only at times), it's told only through interviews. No, really. The whole book is just people talking about the show. Very, very occasionally the author's will add a short note mid chapter to signal a change of subject but other than that, it's all just the actors, writers, producers and hosts talking about the show.

Positives -- The interview format works on some occasions. When they talk about 'inside stuff' or 'gossip' about people and aspects of the show it's very good. (see: parts of the book about Norm McDonald being fired). Interview format also is great when you want to hear what the famous people think of one another and Lorne Michaels (the genius behind the show). This was great, for example, to hear Chevy Chase, Akyrod and Bill Murray talk about one another and others. It's fun to just hear what random hosts have thought about working at SNL. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin sort of stand out.

Negatives -- Too often the interviews were simply not interesting and, since it's just people talking, not as concise and well thoughtful as the written word. A lot of people interviewed were writers or producers that I've never heard of. Although they were interesting it wasn't as cool as hearing from Tin Fey or Will Ferrell.

Things I learned that I didn't know before:
  • The show has had very distinct 'stages'. Basically every 5 years they have totally retooled the cast (less so know)
  • After the first 5 years, around 1980, Lorne Michael left for 5 years, a whole new cast came in, and the show was quite different
  • Garrett Morris is crazy ... most people working there were a bit crazy
  • Chris Farley was obsessed with Belushi (like a lot)... I guess I did know this from my past book I reviewed about Chris Farley but I forgot.
  • Eddie Murphy was the biggest mainstream movie star to come from the show
  • I would still love to be on SNL (probably would have to learn to be an actor/funny at some point). No, seriously. The one common theme is that this is basically the greatest show to work on in entertainment.
There's other stuff that I can't remember but that's the type of things you pick up in the book.

Overall, the book is highly recommended to any serious SNL fan. To an avid watcher, it is still probably interesting and to the rare viewer, this book probably is not worth your time.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Lonesome Dove -- Larry McMurtry ------------------------ 4 Stars

Well, as the winter storm, nice, snow (and thundersnow!) dissipate outside, my mind is in the West after recently finishing Larry McMurtry's classic Lonesome Dove. Like many books I have read, it's been a classic for decades but was new to me. Perhaps more famous for the fantastic miniseries of the same name that was done in the mid-80's, the book is quite good and won the Pulitzer. (On a side note, the mini-series is absolutely fantastic and is probably the best movie adaptation of a book I have ever seen. The characters end up being much as I imagined, and because of the miniseries time allotted, nothing critical from the novel is missed).
Anyway, I am quite proud of myself for finishing as quickly as I did since this book came in at nearly 1,000 pages, I don't like the cowboy genre, and my little 3 month old boy takes up some of the time.

Overall, Lonesome Dove is a very good book. Telling the story of a group of men and a few women (most interesting: the two main characters, who are Texas Rangers), it tells the story of a cattle drive from the city of Lonesome Dove in Texas to Montana. The story is a classic cowboy novel in every sense of the word. It has Indians, gunfights, whores, drinking, etc... all the stuff that you think of when you think of a Western.

Great parts about the book: it's a good story (not great) and it is told nicely, if not straightforward by the author. Perhaps the part I enjoyed the most was the dialogue between people. I thought McMurtry did an incredible job nailing the language of an 19th century cowboy and how they spoke. In fact, whenever there were major chapters without dialogue, I found myself getting restless for the next conversation.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the novel, and what pushed it to 4 stars, are the themes of story. The novel has so many wonderful questions about life, love and living that the reader can't help but picture himself as a cowboy on the ride and wonder about the choices that came up and what one would do. If nothing else, I have a full and comprehensive appreciation for the difficulty and vacuousness of life at this time. One second your on a cattle drive, and the next a bullet from an Indian hits you in the leg and your dead. The story really makes its mark by making the reader question the purpose of life at that time and really what love is and how does one define it (is love people or could it be nature? could the love of a friend be more than a woman's? etc). Almost nothing profound is ever specifically said by the characters but their actions and amazingly limited words give you a wonderful glimpse into each of the lives, mind and hearts.

What kept it from getting 5 stars: First, if I am going to invest 1,000 pages you better knock the novel out of the park; this was closer to a double. Second, the ending was not great. The book puts so much emphasis on one event, and because you are only glimpsing at one small part in the life of these characters, it made it impossible to have an ending that answered my biggest question: what happened to all these characters (alas, that will be for me to decide I guess)? Third, and this is really my own issue and won't take away from the novel for the rest of you, but I really don't like nor find interesting the cowboy/Western genre. I have stayed away from this book and all others because I just find that lifestyle boring (to me, in the present; probably not the same view if I lived back then). However, so many people recommend this book and 'loved it' (plus it won the Pulitzer), I felt it was worth the time.

Overall, like I said, it is a very good novel; I am not sure it's great though (hence 4 stars). I do recommend it to any readers with sometime and strongly recommend it to anyone who likes cowboy stuff. Additionally, I would highly recommend watching the miniseries AFTER (I think with most book/movie combos it's better to start with the book because it just makes the experience better usually and it's fun to sound smart and say "oh that movie, it was nothing like the book. The characters were so much more developed and interesting in the book. No way did that move live up to how good the book is"). Anyway, check it out if you like. The characters, dialogue, and story are all very good and you may even learn something about yourself and they way you live from the novel.