One-Minute Book Reviews, vol. 2

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Five more books that I have read, or at least attempted to read in the past few months.


  

Rather Outspoken – Dan Ratherdan rather

Why doesn’t Dan Rather get the respect that he deserves for all of his years in the news business?  Why was he chased out of the business way too soon?  I know your likely answer, but I also know you’re wrong.  Dan Rather produced documents to show that Bush 43 had gone AWOL from the Alabama National Guard and received special treatment to avoid going to Vietnam.  The documents were real, and so was the smear campaign claiming that Rather’s evidence was phony.  Karl Rove (no surprise) orchestrated what seemed like a “public outcry” against CBS and Rather when it was actually a Republican-funded phone bank and letter-writing assembly line that flooded the network with complaints.  Interesting how they were all worded exactly the same, except for the made up signatures.  The documents against Bush were real, his dereliction of duty was real, but people only seem to remember the complaints and false accusations against Rather.  It’s a GOP policy – lie often enough and loud enough and eventually people will believe you.

In Rather Outspoken, one of our greatest newsmen ever tells his story with great emphasis on that fiasco as well as other situations that threatened not only his career but his life as well.  It is an excellent account of his career in the news as well as the de-evolution of the news industry when Viacom bought CBS and slowly dictated their own political agenda into was stories were covered and how they were reported.  It also details Rather’s personal and professional experiences with every President from Johnson to Obama, showing both their strengths and weaknesses.  He doesn’t shy away from the differences between Bush 41 and 43, and he doesn’t hold back from revealing his own professional mistakes along the way.

The only part that dragged was his lawsuit against the powers-that-be when CBS removed him from the anchor chair and subsequently the company entirely.  Regardless of that and regardless of your own political affiliation, it is definitely a recommended book.


 

Damned – Chuck Palanuikdamned

Though I and everyone else greatly enjoyed Palanuik’s Fight Club, this journey into Hell is one of the few books on which I have ever bailed.  His random and absurd humor works in the short term, but I eventually was worn out by whatever coin flip of a joke was coming next.  There were no likeable characters except maybe a few of the demons in the underworld.  The narrator was mega-annoying, especially how every chapter included at least one assertion of her intelligence.  For example, someone might use a big word towards her, then attempt to dumb it down.  Then the teen suicide victim would say something like, “I know I’m only 15 (or thereabouts), but I’m not an idiot.  Just because I committed suicide doesn’t mean I know the word ‘farcical’.”  That’s not a great example of her exact statement, but any statement repeated too often will drain your patience, and she drained all of mine.  I know she’s supposed to be unlikable, and I know the second installment explains why she is who she is, but that doesn’t mean I have to put up with her.  She can rot in hell for all I care.

Damned is the first of a trilogy, and I hesitated at first because I feared committing myself to two more books.  Luckily, that won’t be an issue.  I almost want to encourage you to try it just to see if you are equally annoyed, but that wouldn’t be nice.  I’d end up in Hell with everyone else in the book.


 

Calico Joe – John Grishamcalico joe

I love baseball.  I love books about baseball, especially The Big Bam and Long Ball.  I loved the Ken Burns series on baseball.  I did not love Calico Joe.  It’s a whiney tale of a boy, Paul Tracey, whose father Warren was a not-so-great pitcher for the New York Mets and passed around to several other teams when he proved time and again he didn’t have great “stuff.”  Warren’s love of women and alcohol may or may not have dampened his baseball skills, but they definitely dampened his fatherhood skills.

When a beyond promising rookie named Joe Castle, nicknamed “Calico Joe” for the small Arkansas town from which he hails, steps to the plate against has-been Warren, Joe gets the business end of a high-inside fastball that pretty much ends his career.  What ensues is a mild but lifelong battle in which Paul and, according to him, the rest of the baseball world, wonder if Warren beaned Joe intentionally or not.  The book is Paul’s history, growing up, his life with friends and family, and a trip to Calico in order to meet Joe and attempt more than just an apology.

I don’t know why so many writers feel the need to prove they know a thing or two about baseball.  They seem to be yearning for baseball credibility with their ability, at least in one book, about describing a pitching motion, discussing stats, and rattling off players, teams, positions, years played, etc.  Stephen King did it annoyingly in both The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon and “A Face in the Crowd,” one of the most predictable short stories I’ve ever read.

If you want to read a good baseball book, don’t read fiction.  Stick with non-fiction and biographies.  There are great ones about Stan Musial and Babe Ruth as well as The Long Ball, a great book about the 1975 season, a ground-breaking year in baseball that greatly changed the business of baseball and featured one of the best World Series ever.  However, just say “no” to Joe.


  

Mr. Mercedes – Stephen Kingmr. mercedes

SPOILERS INCLUDED – but I’ll warn you ahead of time.  Also, the spoiler is one of the main reasons I did not like this book.

King calls Mr. Mercedes a “hard-boiled detective” story, and it’s a decent one, except there are two elements included that might bother you.  I’ll explain later.  First, the story:

In an economically depressed section of Cleveland (I think, can’t remember and don’t feel like looking it up), an under-educated and under-employed loser lives with his mother.  Why Brady is a loser is easily and boringly blamed on his mother, father, stepfather, and any other form of dysfunction you want to include.  It’s all background noise so that you don’t hate him too much but enough to want him caught.  He’s an electronics genius.  In a stolen car, he barrels into a line of unemployed hopefuls waiting outside a local arena for a job fair.  He kills and maims, then manages to get away.  Little douche.

Hodges is a stereotypical retired detective who keeps a gun next to his recliner and considers offing himself about once a day.  His one career regret is never having caught “The Mercedes Killer,” who we know is Brady.  Now bored to hell and back due to having no life, Brady decides to get himself a little fun and attention with some anonymous communication with Hodges.  Thus begins a decent game of “cat and mouse” as Brady tries not to give too many clues but enough to lead Hodges on a merry chase.

Hodges, rather old and computer illiterate, seeks the help of a local friend, a high school senior who earns money doing chores for the ex-cop.  There are a handful of other characters who come and go, some die, some nearly, but all have their place and are used effectively.  Eventually, Brady has a plan for some high-explosive hijinks with a suicide bombing mission, unless Hodges and Co. can stop him in time.  The story itself is worth the read, unless you might be bothered by the following significant complaints.

The story is told with a floating point of view.  We leap to every possible person at any given time.  In the opening murder scene, we are in the heads of several of the many people eventually killed or maimed.  We are constantly going back and forth from Hodges to Brady, knowing what each is thinking at any given time but usually full chapters at a time.  I didn’t mind it, but it didn’t add anything to the story.  In fact, for this kind of pressure-filled crime story, I’d say it was a good choice.  However, it isn’t for those who prefer a more traditional narrative.

STOP NOW TO AVOID SPOILER!

I don’t quite know how to explain this without spoiling anything, so I’m just going to lay it all out there.  Obviously, there are two possibilities – either a suicide bomber “succeeds” or doesn’t.  Either he obliterates himself and others or he doesn’t.  Here’s the problem:  as we get closer to the climax, we are told several times that Brady will succeed.  How we are told is odd.  These examples may not be exact, but they are perfectly in the spirit of how things are written but possibly not exactly what is written.

For example, as Brady approaches the location of the bombing, we are told that he has only a few hours left to live.  He shaves his head, and it looks awkward, but we are told it won’t matter because he won’t live long enough for it to grow back.  The bombing is at a concert.  Kids are taking pictures with their cell phones.  It may have been mentioned that they won’t live long enough to show their friends the pictures.  With a handful of sentences that specifically tell us that the bomb WILL go off and Brady WILL die – it turns out he doesn’t.  The bomb does NOT go off, and Brady does not blast everyone apart.  All of those references to Brady’s plot succeeding are lies, and it very much pissed me off.


 

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collinsthe hunger games

I didn’t really want to read The Hunger Games.  However, a smart reader I know recommended it.  Also, and this may be unique, I don’t like to criticize books that I have not actually read.  So I read it.  Meh.

I went through school in the 60’s and 70’s and have already read enough dystopian crap, but it was GOOD dystopian crap.  What separates Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and others from the current string of dissed dystopian stories is quite simple – a point.  Those books had a point.  There were taking aspects from their present day, aspects that seemed in jeopardy, and they used those things to say, “Hey, if we don’t wise up, this is where we are headed.”  That isn’t what’s happening in Divergent or The Hunger Games.  The threats in the predecessors were that one could argue they were making justifiable predictions.  Today’s “dys” feels more about a combination of teen romance and shock value than social commentary.

On a technical note, I don’t like present tense/first person narration.  It’s illogical.  Nobody can tell you their story as it is happening, especially when they’re running, fighting, killing, hiding, and nearly dying.  Present tense/third person is more logical, such as if told by an observer, but not first person.  I also didn’t like the names.  Katniss?  Really?  Not very creative.  It’s obvious Collins took Cat-ness and played with it.  Her sister is Prim, and she is.  Duh.  Reading the first book was enough.  I will not read the second or third, and I probably won’t see any of the movies unless my kids asks me to watch it with her.  Could happen.

One could argue that I’m being picky because the book is aimed at kids.  If so, then there’s no reason to have a book full of kids killing, maiming, and disemboweling kids.  Oh, yes, there is a reason:  the aforementioned shock value.  Keep in mind that shock value and literary value are not the same thing.  Shock value and monetary value is a different story.  I highly congratulate Collins for cashing in on creating a strong franchise, but I do not congratulate her on her writing ability.


 

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