Tag Archives: 1980’s

Runnin’ Down a Dream

33 Days:  Touring in a Van.   Sleeping on Floors.   Chasing a Dream.   by Bill See (Lulu; available as a Kindle and Nook Book download)

Bill See’s account of a band on the run has its moments but…  If L.A.’s Divine Weeks was chosen as one of the best bands in the mega city by the hallowed Los Angeles Times in 1987, one has to wonder why its four members (George, Bill, Raj and Dave) decided they needed to make a tour of the Pacific Northwest, Canada and the mid-west to southern United States to prove their worth.   If you believe See’s words, it was not for a lack of ego:  “Sometimes you can tell the crowd wants it…  you have to understand something.   We really do believe we’re operating on a totally different plane than other bands…  we’re completely full of ourselves…”

Well, you can see videos of Divine Weeks on You Tube and judge for yourself.   To my eyes and ears, this was a decent band for the time (the late 80s), but nothing special – not great nor horrible, and on a par with what you’d see in a typical Sacramento club during this era.   Was Divine Weeks on the same plane as, say, Jane’s Addiction?   Absolutely not.   (Personal disclosure:  I was not a fan of Jane’s music, but their musicianship was beyond question.)

What 33 Days does offer is a glimpse of what life is like on the road for a struggling traveling band.   In itself that’s an interesting tale, but See detracts from it by spending a bit more time than is necessary telling us about his off-and-on relationship with quasi-girlfriend Mary.   It proves to be both distracting and tiring.

The best moment in the narrative is when See explains, early on, the power of music.   “Ever since I’ve known music, I’ve felt that my life could be lifted up by it.”   This is admirable but the egocentric prospective winds up making this a band biography that is less than the sum of its parts.   This reader came to feel as if only truly got to know two members of the band – the Paul McCartney-like Bill and the George Harrison-like Raj.   It felt, in the end, as if something was missing.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the author.

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The Mighty Quinn

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber (Henry Holt and Company; $27.00; 296 pages)

On March 30, 1981, I was at the Orange County (California) airport – waiting for my return flight to Sacramento – when it became clear that something had happened back east.   The new president of the U.S., and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan had been shot in an apparent assassination attempt.   Three other persons were shot and it was not known whether Reagan, at his advanced age, would survive.   It appeared that a hundred or so persons jammed into the airport’s pub to watch the 19-inch RCA televisions broadcasting the dramatic events.

On that day, I assumed that a book about the near assassination of an American president would appear within 6 to 18 months, clarifying exactly what happened that day.   Years and decades passed by and it did not appear…  This, finally, is that book.

Del Quentin Wilber takes a micro-level look at the events of 03/30/81 in a style that recalls books like The Day Lincoln Was Shot, The Day Kennedy Was Shot and The Death of a President. It is an immediately engaging narrative which begins by looking at the schedules of Reagan (whose secret service code name was Rawhide), his secret service detail members and of the highly disturbed and bizarre individual who sought to impress a Hollywood actress.   The language and mood become more intense as the hour of the assassination attempt draws near.  

Wilber properly sets the stage by reminding us that this shooting came just three months after the killing of John Lennon, and followed the history-altering assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.   Wilber’s sadness in relating these events is palpable, and informs the reader that this is a non-partisan account – one need not have been a political supporter of Reagan’s to fear for his safety (and for the country’s future) while revisiting that period.

“If Jerry Parr hadn’t decided to redirect the limousine from the White House to the hospital, Reagan would likely have died…”

“(The) doctors had been keeping pace with Reagan’s bleeding by pumping donated blood and fluids into his system.   So far, the tactic was working…  But this compensatory approach couldn’t continue forever.   They would have to stop the bleeding surgically.”

In these pages, Ronald Reagan is a likeable and courageous man who was able to joke with his emergency room physicians.   (He wondered what the gunman had against the Irish as all those shot on this day happened to be of Irish heritage.)   But he was also a man who wondered if he was about to meet his maker.   It was an open question because, as we now know, Reagan lost fully half of his blood volume as surgeons sought to remove the bullet that lodged just one inch from his heart.   Those of us glued to the TVs in early 1981 had no idea that the president came this close to dying.

Once the danger period passed, the president was advised to convalesce for several months.   But he was a uniquely physically fit and strong elderly man.   Twelve days later he was back at the White House, and a mere month later a visibly thinner president addressed a joint session of the Congress.

There’s more, much more, in this telling that disappoints only in that it seems to conclude too soon.   The courage of the secret service agents who saved the president’s life on this day is close to being incomprehensible.   “(Agent) Parr’s training had taught him one thing above all:  when faced with an actual threat, he could never freeze.   Not for three seconds, not for one second.   Without fail, he had to respond instantly.”

This is a fascinating and unique account, and constitutes a worthwhile addition to the historical record.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Our Book Ratings System

As you may notice in visiting this site, we do not rank or score books with letter grades or numbers or stars – either white or gold ones.   We simply recommend books, of whatever genre, or do not recommend them.   The most precious resource we have in life is time, and so we attempt to make a determination here as to whether a particular book is worth your time.

If you don’t see a recommendation at the end of the review, the book in question is not recommended.   When we do recommend a book it will fall into one of three categories, as follows.

Recommended – This is a book, fiction or non-fiction, which may contain up to four or five writing flaws which were not corrected in the editing process.   However, it is clear on the whole (and by a margin that clearly exceeds 51%) that this is a book that will justify the time you devote to it.

Well Recommended – A book in this category may contain two or three flaws or editing omissions, but it’s exemplary and likely to rank in the top quartile (top 25%) of books on the market.

Highly Recommended – Books like these are likely in the top 10% of those released in the current and prior calendar year.   They may contain one or two errors but are nevertheless close to perfection in both content and presentation.

Some books will fall into the Recommended or Well Recommended category because they are well written, but Highly Recommended books tend to require a junction of great writing with a great theme and near-flawless execution.   Finally, we are considering adding a new category, Essential.   Essential books are novels or non-fiction books released in prior years that should be a part of any well-rounded reader’s experience.   Two examples that immediately come to mind are In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Independence Day by Richard Ford.   The latter was the winner of both The Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award.   (“It is difficult to imagine a better American novel appearing this year.”   Publishers Weekly, 1995)

Independence Day was reviewed on this site on October 30, 2009 (“American Tune”).

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The Yugo

The Yugo by Jason Vuic (Hill and Wang, March 2010)

“Yugoslavia should be proud of this small car.   Everyone will be talking about it in the United States.”   Malcolm Bricklin

Everyone did wind up talking about the Yugo in the United States in the 1980s, if not for the reason intended by the shifty entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin.   In writing this nonfiction tale of the Yugo’s introduction into the U.S., Jason Vuic had the opportunity to appeal to two audiences.   One audience consists of car buffs, people who cannot acquire enough knowledge of automobiles of the past or present – and who buy the major automobile magazines each month to take sneak peeks at the cars coming down the line.

The second audience is the group that loves human interest stories.   In this case, the book might have consisted of stories of people who actually purchased Yugos and what that meant in their lives.   Did they enjoy them?   Did they love or hate them?   Did they have near-death experiences in them?

Unfortunately, Vuic’s account reaches neither audience in a way that will prove satisfactory.   There’s not a whole lot of detail in terms of the design, engineering or manufacturing of the ill-fated car (other than descriptions of it as a modified Fiat).   More surprisingly, there is not a single account in The Yugo that puts the reader in the place of someone who owned the car.   But this is not the biggest fault with this account.

The story of the Yugo, even more than the story of the Chevrolet Corvair so well detailed by a then-young Ralph Nader, is a story of danger.   The Yugo was a car that produced 3.6 deaths for every 10,000 cars sold.   It was an extremely lightweight tin can that weighed just 1,832 pounds.   Even though it did not share the road with today’s SUVs and light trucks, it nevertheless was clearly too light to be safe.

Let’s put this in context.   The Yugo’s 1,800-plus pounds compares quite unfavorably to today’s smallest vehicles.   A Toyota Yaris weighs 2,400 pounds, a Mini Cooper between 2,550 and 2,750 pounds, and a Volkswagen New Beetle weighs between 2,900 and 3,000 pounds.   But these are cars with steel safety cages and crumple zones that were not even dreamt of back in the days of the Yugo.

Vuic is correct when he writes that, “people have come to expect so much more than the Yugo deliver(ed),” especially in terms of safety.   How badly built was the Yugo?   When the impacts of a collision in a Yugo at just 5 miles-an-hour were tested, the car suffered $2,197 worth of damage; over half the car’s original value of $3,990!

Sadly, it is only when the reader is nine-tenths of the way through Vuic’s account that he/she finds an account of the tragic death of Leslie Ann Phulac.   Phulac died when she drove her Yugo off the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan – a 199-foot high bridge.   She was in the air a full 6 seconds before she hit the water.   Sixty-four million drivers had passed over the bridge without incident.

The account of Phulac’s death is where this book should have begun not ended.   The Yugo was not a funny or silly car despite the author’s light-hearted tone; it was a poorly designed and manufactured death trap.   Yugo, in fact, was sued by the “Yugos” litigation group of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America because the car was unsafe.

The Yugo met its demise in 1988, when dealers in the U.S. had a 133-day backlog of unsold cars.   This substantiated Abraham Lincoln’s claim that you can fool some of the people some of the time, but in the end the public proves wise to the game.

It’s worth restating that the lack of stories from Yugo owners in The Yugo is a major deficiency.   These might have been funny or sad (especially in the instances involving relatives of the almost 4 deaths per 10,000 owners), but would surely have been engaging.   Real people lost money on these things and had their lives endangered.   Their safety was very significantly compromised.

Vuic’s telling of the quick rise and predictable fall of the Yugo might have made – if very sharply edited – for a quite fascinating airline magazine article.   But it veers off course far too often in its 213 pages of actual content, especially when comparisons are made to the Ford Edsel.   The Edsel may have been unattractive, but it was a safe and well-built vehicle.   The Yugo was far from being “The Edsel of the Eighties.”

Vuic does get it right at one point, the point at which he writes that, “…the Yugo is the worst car in history.”   Enough said.

Reprinted courtesy of the New York Journal of Books.

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Glory Days

If there’s one thing you learn as an undergraduate, it’s that trouble can always be found on a college campus.   More than a few of us will recognize facets of our own schools in Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost by Richard Rushfield.   Rushfield here writes of his years at Hampshire College “in the twilight of the 80’s.”

Hampshire, in Massachusetts, comes off as the east coast version of U.C. Santa Cruz.   At this college in the woods there  were no grades, students could design their own learning program and attending classes was – well – optional.Don't Follow MeRushfield majored in drugs, alcohol and trouble.   He found his way into the major trouble-making group on campus, the Supreme D—s.   The Supremes sound a bit like the Yellow Turban Alliance from my own first college – a legendary group whose exploits may have been real or fictional.   (Very real or highly fictional.)

The first few dozen pages of Don’t Follow can irritate the reader due to the fact that the young Rushfield is not easy to relate to.   But whether you wish to or not, you’ll soon be laughing at the exploits of Richard and his friends.   At one point in the memoir, they’re already in trouble (with administrators and their fellow students) when they decide to form a 3-member fraternity.   Oh, they decide to do this since it will make them eligible for the social activity funds (party money) distributed by the student council.   Never mind that they don’t seek recognition from the national fraternity’s headquarters.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?   And you can probably see why it took Rushfield two years to learn that he could no longer “try anything” on the Hampshire College campus, and a full five years to graduate.

Once you get a good start on this truly hilarious read, you’ll find it hard to put down!   Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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