One-Minute Book Reviews, vol. 3

I don’t read.  I listen to books on CD.  Then I tell you what I think.  Simple enough.

I Am Legend  (1954)

By Richard Mathesoni am legend

I had seen more than one film version of this classic, but it wasn’t until reading it that I can say I enjoyed it.  Greatly enjoyed it.  It also wasn’t until reading that I understood how the title played into the story, which you won’t learn until the very last sentence but is worth the wait.

The backstory is that a virus, or maybe bacterium, but whatever it was, the bugger slowly affected people by diminishing their brain activity to that of a mere animal with some vampiric characteristics and not the zombie things that the movies have shown.  These things sleep during the day and feast at night, at attempt to feast, as they don’t harm or desire each other.  They aren’t idiots, still able to speak and recognize others, but their strength and abilities are far less than when they were human.

Robert Neville is one of very few people who are immune to the plague that has affected millions.  They can be killed by having their brains beaten, but they can also die another way.  Their bodies must be burned so as to not spread the illness and ensure their demise.  By day, Neville works on finding the cause and a solution while also disposing of the bodies.  By night, he drinks and stews in solitude while the creatures are just beyond his front door.

Then one day a woman walks by, and she’s not one of the creatures.  That changes things.

It’s not so much about killing the monsters as it is one man’s turmoil in his isolation and taunting thrown at him by the creatures of the night, especially the womenfolk.  Don’t write it off by telling yourself you’ve seen the movie.  It’s not nearly the same story, and a great deal is lost outside the pages.  This one is highly recommended, especially to those who like to write horror stories.

Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong  (2013)evil eye

By Joyce Carol Oates

To some authors, good writing is a collection of well-crafted sentences and paragraphs.  To others, it’s more about entertaining readers with life-like characters.  Still others look for a gripping conflict that takes you from start to finish without letting go.  I’m not sure if any of those were in Evil Eye, but I am sure I felt like someone waiting for a bus that never showed up.  Actually, four buses.

  1. The title track, “Evil Eye,” is about a young woman, and fourth wife, of a very successful businessman. His success, however, does not spill over into his personal life, as one might guess by four marriages.  There’s a brief introduction to the couple, then a whoooole lotta backstory, then we catch up to a strange dynamic when one of the husband’s ex-wives arrives for an annual overnight visit.  During the course of the evening, the ex warns the current wife about the husband’s unfriendly tendencies.  It’s a relationship that makes zero sense and contains no characters to care about.  If you actually knew any of them, you’d do your best to avoid them or even a discussion about them.
  2. “So Near, Anytime, Always” is about a teenage stalker who preys upon a vulnerable girl. The dialogue is not even close to realistic for kids of their age which makes it hard to buy into the story.  It’s clearly evident from the start that the boy is nothing but a con artist.  When I watched the gullible girl fall for every line he delivered, I lost sympathy and only wanted to slap her into reality.  And before you call me “abusive” or something, I’m not serious about slapping her.  It’s just an expression.
  3. “The Execution” is about a spoiled college brat who, when no longer spoiled by his idiot parents, attempts to murder his entire family. Not until the court proceedings does it get interesting, but there’s too much to cram into a short story/novella.  Thus it seems more like a synopsis than a story.
  4. In “The Flatbed,” an untold abusive childhood situation leaves a woman with a sexual dysfunction which leaves both her and her husband greatly frustrated. Her husband wants to solve the problem but finds it difficult, until he finally convinces her to reveal the abuse.  Then comes the struggle of whether or not to confront the man who abused her.  Of course they eventually confront the man.  If not, there wouldn’t be much of a story.  It’s what happens during and after the confrontation that is interesting, but it’s not so greatly interesting that it’s worth all the pages it takes to get to it.

I’ve read a great deal of praise for this collection, but I have to question whether those people are just big fans who will adore anything Oates writes.  The stories all had potential, but there was something missing from the delivery and the route each story took to get to each intended goal.  These stories are about some messed up people, but I disagree with the book’s subtitle, “Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong.”  These stories are not at all about love.  They’re about selfish wants, criminal acts, and violent obsessions.

I can enjoy stories like that, but these were not well written.  They seemed to follow a formula of introduction, backstory, and conclusion.  However, little was ever concluded and the backstories were more like a writing exercise in which Oates was making character profiles that were inconsequential to the story.

Johnny Carson  (2013)johnny carson

By Henry Bushkin

When my mother was in the hospital awaiting my arrival, she started watching a television show that was just barely a week old – The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  She grew to like, then love the guy and his show.  Maybe through osmosis I somehow absorbed that same like and love for Carson.  It was one of the few shows I went out of my way to see, especially back during a time without VCRs and DVRs, when you had to actually watch a show when it was on.

You don’t need me to tell you how great a performer and host Carson was, but you might need me to tell you that this is one heck of a book.  I greatly enjoy learning about the backgrounds and “rise to the top” stories of great people.  Though this book delves into that arena, it spends more time on Carson’s life after having become successful because that’s when the author entered Johnny’s life.

Henry Bushkin was just another New York attorney until Carson, strongly suspecting his wife of cheating on him, needed the help of an attorney to investigate the situation.  Due to the situation, Carson did not want someone with any notoriety.  He just wanted a “nobody,” and that’s what he got when a mutual friend recommended Bushkin.  What resulted were several decades of a very close kinship but with a little careful distance.  Although Bushkin was clearly Carson’s closest friend and most trusted advisor, the arm’s length at which he kept Bushkin was not at all the writer’s fault.

The book details many of Carson’s strengths and weaknesses, especially his infidelities, but is careful to leave out the names of the not-so-innocent.  Most names.  Also revealed is how gullible and fragile Carson was while still able to command an audience at will.  Though Carson was one of the highest paid television performers in history in relative dollars, he was never as wealthy as you’d expect.  He suffered horrible business deals from less-than-trustworthy advisors, including New York agent and entertainment figure Sonny Werblin.

Though I can’t help but praise the book, I have to take a little bit away from it not because of the book itself but because I will always hesitate to go for something written by an inner circle member who waits until the subject’s death before penning what amounts to an exposé.  I can see the argument about respect for the man by not releasing such personal and private details while someone is alive.  However, it always feels a little sketchy when the person does not have the chance to rebut anything.

In further fairness, there wasn’t much to rebut other than the cheating, childish complaining when it came to being treated like a star, an incident with a mob boss, his own naiveté for business, his incessant need – and failure – to please his mother, and his dislike for certain big-name celebrities.  It’s a must read for all Carson fans.

The Secret Life of Houdini  (2006)harry houdini

By William Kalush and Larry Sloman

If you think of Houdini as just a great magician, you’re mistaken.  Maybe you saw that 1953 film with Tony Curtis.  It was mildly entertaining, but it was created far too soon for anyone to have investigated and learned about the man by the name of Erik Weisz.

This book is a comprehensive documentation of his life from beginning to end leaving very few stones unturned.  There’s a great deal to learn about him and his entire family, including his parents and an older brother who also delved into a career as a magician when he and Harry attempted but failed at a brother act.  It also explains how he borrowed his stage name from magician whom he greatly admired.

Beyond his life in magic, Houdini was also very involved in a battle against mediums and their claims of contacting the deceased.  He was greatly disturbed by their ability to swindle people out of money with an illusion of actually communicating with the dead.  I know most everyone knows someone who claims to speak with or at least see spirits.  I have a close relative who makes such claims, and I have sat in her presence while she spoke words allegedly from the beyond.  Did I believe it?  No.  Could I have been wrong?  Possible, I guess.

Houdini didn’t just oppose mediums.  After reading a book that explained how to be a medium and cheat people out of money, Houdini attended their readings in disguise and exposed their methods and deceptions.  He challenged and pursued them.  He invited authorities to watch his work and arrest those responsible.  He also received, and may have been victim of, their death threats.  There was a time when Houdini was close friends with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.  The two stalwarts butted heads quite often, creating more than just a disagreement between the two and eventually leading to a lawsuit.

The greatest surprise in the magic man’s life was his involvement with the US government and military during World War II.  He carefully taught American soldiers how to hold their breath underwater for long periods of time and to escape from ropes and other restraining devices.  He also spent nearly $50,000 buying ambulances and other emergency medical equipment for the war effort in Europe.

Not the greatest biography in the world, but worth reading if you have any affinity for Houdini.

Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir  (2011) justice john paul stevens

By Justice John Paul Stevens

If you have any interest in not just law but the history of law, you’ll probably enjoy this account from our Supreme Court from its inception to the present.  Stevens outlines a brief history of SCOTUS before launching into a detailed look at the five Chief Justices under which he served.

He does not hesitate to roll up his sleeves and grapple with some very significant decisions in his time, paying special attention to Bush v. Gore and Florida’s hanging chads from the election of 2000 and the infamous Citizens United decision.  He details very clearly how and why these matters were mishandled, but he stops short of opening any partisan doors, leaving us in the hallway but with a pretty good guess at what’s on the other side.

Stevens also provides many interesting details about other justices with whom he served, the inner workings of the building in which they work, and many of the procedures involved in what they do.  He explains how difficult it is for any individual case to make it so far as to be heard by the court but how recent years have seen an increasing number of cases put before them.

There are far too many details for most readers to retain, but it is enlightening, educational, and entertaining, as long as you’re someone who likes to be enlightened and educated because entertainment is not the primary goal of this book that is more of a history lesson than it is an autobiography or memoir.

6 thoughts on “One-Minute Book Reviews, vol. 3

  1. Great reviews, and what an eclectic selection!

    Not that it matters, but I cannot listen to books on tape. They always make me fall asleep, no matter how animator the narrator is. So, hats off to you for staying awake through all these books!

    • thanks very much. i used to write film reviews, but it cut into my fiction writing time. thanks for stopping by. i’ll have more after my next read, which might be “orange is the new black.”

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