Tag Archives: Doubleday Books

Shelter From the Storm

Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz (Doubleday; 400 pages; $28.95)

Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America is a top-notch, first-class synopsis of Bob Dylan’s career, contributions to popular music, status as a cultural icon, and – to a lesser extent – his place in the history of American commentators.

A person who is taking their first foray into the legend that is Bob Dylan would do well to start here, but the die-hard Dylan-junkies will have encountered much of this material in other familiar works.   In fact, Wilentz himself references as sources books, essays, and compilations that many Dylan fanatics will have already read such as Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary of the same name, Ratsko Sloman’s On the Road with Bob Dylan, much of Marcus Greil’s work, David Gray’s Song and Dance Man III, John Bauldie’s Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan, and, of course, a truly great book, Dylan’s own Chronicles.

In light of this, the natural question becomes, “What actually separates this book from the many other books about Dylan?”   First, it is extremely well written.   But beyond that, Wilentz only partially succeeds in trying to put Dylan’s work and persona in a historical perspective because he spends a great deal of energy recounting familiar territory, rather than, what a person familiar with Dylan’s work might be  led to expect by the title would be the primary focus of the book – the integration of Dylan’s musical genius into the collective consciousness of our shared American experience.

He succeeds to a vastly greater degree in placing Dylan’s music in the context of how it relates to our American musical heritage and traditions.   Somehow, in the process, he also manages to successfully accomplish an almost impossible task: evoking an understanding of how Dylan expands that very landscape and either consciously or subconsciously defines many of these American musical traditions as well as various poetic and literary movements though his steadfast commitment to performing his music live.   Wilentz’s continued reference to Dylan as the minstrel couldn’t be more appropriate.

Additionally, Wilentz manges to refer to Dylan’s music intellectually in context, without over-analyzing it – a trap that many other biographers fall into.   Another highlight is the unique treatment he gives to Dylan’s respects for his predecessors.

Dylan’s forays into art (painting) is discussed as well as his interest in movies and attempts at acting and producing films.   Dylan typically does not come across well in other mediums, but Wilentz rightfully points out that he is more articulate these days, and his movie Masked and Anonymous is a much stronger effort than many assumed it would be.

The more recent parts of Dylan’s career make up some of the most interesting parts of the book, perhaps because there has been less written of them, but the album Love and Theft is a masterpiece, his recent tours have been exceptionally strong as compared to his down period, and Dylan’s book, Chronicles, was extremely absorbing.

Wilentz addressed all of these in an interesting and enlightened manner.   He also emphasizes what many others have as well: the perplexing mystery of the songs that were left off of the 1983 album Infidels (e.g., “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot of Pride”).

Wilentz also discusses Dylan’s ability to incorporate past, present, and future into one as he creates his stories and musical impressions.   Wilentz’s storytelling mimics this to a degree to accentuate the point rather effectively, but he often comes across as having some type of inner knowledge on a topic; only to leave the point unsubstantiated, which is at times both troubling and confusing.

The best advice is to read the primary source, Chronicles, or better yet, go see Dylan perform live.   Then, for a very interesting read for Dylan fans, music lovers, and pop devotees alike, turn to Wilentz.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of Life and Life Only, a novel about baseball and Bob Dylan.   We interpret this review to be the equivalent of a Well Recommended rating.

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A Room of Our Own

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (Doubleday; $28.95: 448 pages)

Veteran author Bill Bryson delights in skewering the arrogant rich in England and the United States, particularly the folks who lived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in this quirky survey book.   His litany of the vast number of servants, silverware and foodstuffs at meals makes this point.   The premise of the book is that an individual home is an excellent jumping off point to a wide variety of subjects.   Bryson happens to live in a former church rectory that was built in 1851.   While his home is not typical of most, it is clearly an excellent basis for an historical survey.   This is a loosely structured stroll through many centuries and cultures with Bryson as the tour guide.   He was born in the United States and educated here; however, his manner of speaking is clearly influenced by his long-time residence in England.

The notion of inventiveness and progress being a function of opportunity and dedication to an idea is a thread that runs through many chapters, each of which focuses on a particular room or area of his home.   The associations are reminiscent of the Public Broadcast System series, Connections, narrated by James Burke.   The tangents developed within each chapter tend to take the reader a bit far afield from the room being featured.   The basement, for example, correlates to the notion of a sturdy underpinning for the home which evolves into an explanation of the evolution of construction, culminating in the Eiffel Tower.   This is clearly a case of going from the mundane to the sublime in a matter of pages.

Conversely, the study, a room which might easily provide a scenario related to reading, education and leisure time, instead becomes the scene of mice and extermination.   The chapter is clearly the most disconcerting as it focuses on the vermin and critters with which we share our homes.   Bryson seems to delight in the mind-numbing and chilling statistics for mouse and rat populations of the past and present.   He concludes the chapter with the smallest living creatures in our homes and on our persons, namely insects and microbes.

Underlying the premise is a charming and unexpected feature.   Many of the chapters draw attention to the unsung heroes who were the real inventors as opposed to the persons who made vast sums of money and achieved fame.   Included for good measure are the names of men who almost got it right but for a twist or turn in their path have not even made it to footnote status in history.

At Home is worth the reader’s effort, but the author may remind the reader of an entertaining college professor who expects a fair amount of retention of his lecture points.   It is a safe choice for history buffs along with the reminder that the accuracy of any non-fiction book is subject to a point-in-time qualifier.   Some conclusions by the author appear to be made to the advantage of his effort to make clever connections.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.   At Home will be released by Doubleday on Tuesday, October 5, 2010.

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A 4 Book Giveaway!

We’re giving 4 different books away.   The first, courtesy of St. Martin’s Press, is The Vaults by Toby Ball ($24.99).   Here is a synopsis:   “The City,” your typical 1930s metropolis full of corruption and sleaze, is home to a host of crooked cops, businessmen, and everyday citizens.   However, for the few who don’t adhere to the shady rules of this society, there is a mystery unfolding.   When Arthur Puskis, the reclusive archivist for “The City,” finds duplicate files for one criminal in his flawless archiving system, he can’t help but try to find out why the fraudulent one exists.   Meanwhile Ethan Poole is a private detective and top-notch blackmail artist who is going after the mayor’s right-hand man while trying to track down a woman’s son who disappeared seven years ago.   Frank Frings is a well-known investigative journalist who, between printing attacks on the mayor of “The City,” is dating its most notorious jazz singer.   Eventually all three men are lead to evidence of “The Navajo Project,” something the mayor and his associates are desperate to keep under wraps – by any means necessary.

We also, thanks to Doubleday Books, have two (2) hardbound copies to give away of the novel The False Friend by Myla Goldberg, which will be released on October 5, 2010 ($25.95).   We posted a copy of the book’s cover on September 25, 2010 (“Second Hand News”).   Here is a brief synopsis:   Leaders of a mercurial clique, Celia and Djuna subjected each other and their three followers to an endless cycle of reward and punishment that peaked one afternoon when all five girls walked home along a forbidden road.   Djuna disappeared that day; Celia blocked out what happened.   It was assumed that Djuna was abducted, though neither she nor her abductor was never found.

We’re also, at the suggestion of one of our readers, going to give away a grade “A” condition advance reading copy (ARC) of the thrilling ride On the Line by S. J. Rozan, which was reviewed on this site on September 19, 2010 (“Hold the Line”).   It’s a recommended book, the hardbound copy of which is selling for $24.99.   Why not just win the ARC instead?

Before giving you the giveaway contest rules, we have one brief announcement.   We’re moving up the closing date for our contest to give away a copy of the novel The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier.   This novel was reviewed here on September 3, 2010 and the hardbound copy has a value of $25.00.   If you want to enter this contest, you will need to do it now.   The rules (“Win a Second Chance!”) were posted on September 4, 2010, and your entry must be in by tomorrow – Tuesday, September 28, 2010 – at midnight PST.

As for the four books being given away, in order to enter this contest just post a comment below with your name and e-mail address or send an e-mail with this information to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.  For a second entry, indicate which book/ARC you are most interested in and why.   In order to keep this interesting, Munchy the cat may decide to give all four books to one person, two books to two persons, or one book to four persons.   It’s his call, so you may offer to bribe him with cat treats.   Yeowk!   (OK, just kidding)

Your entries must be received by midnight on Friday, October 15, 2010 because we want to move these books fast.  In order to enter, you must be a resident of the continental U. S. and you must supply, if you are contacted, a residential mailing address.   No books will be shipped to a P. O. box or a business-related address. 

This is it for the rules.   All rules are subject to be changed at any time by Munchy.   Good luck and good reading!

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Second Hand News

On Book Reviewing – Plausibility is the Thing

One of the key items that a book reviewer of a novel needs to consider is plausibility.   Does the basis of the tale told in the book ring true?   Are the characters like people one would encounter in real life, or are they either too perfect, too flawed or strange?   Sad to say but if the story’s premise and/or its characters are not plausible then reading the novel becomes an exercise in futility.   Oh, the story may have some positive features but lacking plausibility, it’s like saying that someone’s done a good job of putting lipstick on a pig.   Great makeup job but it’s still a pig.

What does the reviewer do when in this situation?   Focus on the writing itself while reminding the potential reader that this may be a talented writer but he/she has not met his/her potential this time around.   In other words, offer hope for the future.

Now here’s the funny thing…   If a reviewer questions the plausibility of a novel the author is never going to concur with this finding.   Never, ever, ever.   His or her response will be something like, “I based this on something that actually happened and I know (or knew) people like the characters in this book!”   Fine but that’s the author’s perspective not the reviewer’s view.   What it translates into is a case where a plausible story – supposedly based on real-life – was botched in the writing.

A U.S. Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, “I cannot define it but I know it when I see it.”   The same is and should be true for a reviewer – either he or she “sees” the plausibility in a fictional setting or he/she doesn’t.   Either way, it is critical for the reviewer’s credibility to call it as he sees it.   Play it as it lays.

There’s another famous quote, one attributed to an actor, “Once you’ve learned to fake sincerity, you can fake anything.”   But a writer of a fictional work can’t fake plausibility – its either on the written page (“on all fours,” as law professors say) or it’s absent.   And if a reviewer makes the call that it’s absent the writer should remember that it’s nothing personal – your next book may become one of the reviewer’s favorites.

Joseph Arellano

This article is one in a continuing series.   Pictured: The False Friend: A Novel by Mya Goldberg (author of Bee Season) which will be released by Doubleday on October 5, 2010.   This is one of those books that we look forward to reading and reviewing.

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Win Blind Man’s Alley

Thanks to Judy at Doubleday, we have a copy to give away of Blind Man’s Alley: A Novel by Justin Peacock, the author of A Cure for Night.   This book has a retail value of $26.95 and this is a first-run hardbound copy.   The novel is said to be “an ambitious and compulsively readable novel set in the cutthroat world of New York real estate.”   Here is the official synopsis:

A concrete floor three hundred feet up in the Aurora Tower condo development in SoHo has collapsed, hurling three workers to their deaths.   The developer, Roth Properties (owned by the famously abrasive Simon Roth), faces a vast tangle of legal problems, including accusations of mob connections.   Roth’s longtime lawyers, the elite midtown law firm of Blake and Wolcott, is assigned the task of cleaning up the mess.   Much of the work lands on the plate of smart, cynical, and seasoned associate Duncan Riley; as a result, he falls into the powerful orbit of Leah Roth, the beautiful daughter of Simon Roth and the designated inheritor of his real estate empire.

Meanwhile, Riley pursues a seemingly small pro bono case in which he attempts to forestall the eviction of Rafael Nazario and his grandmother from public housing in the wake of a pot bust.   One night Rafael is picked up and charged with the murder of the private security cop who caught him, a murder that took place in another controversial “mixed income” housing development being built by…  Roth Properties.   Duncan Riley is now walking the knife-edge of legal ethics and personal morality.

Blind Man’s Alley is a suspenseful and kaleidoscopic journey through a world where the only rule is self-preservation.   The New York Times Book Review said of A Cure for Night that “(Peacock) heads toward Scott Turow country…  he’s got a good chance to make partner.”

In order to enter this book giveaway contest just post a comment here, with your name and e-mail address, or send that information via e-mail to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will be considered to be your first entry.   For a second entry, tell us who your favorite crime or courtroom drama author is – Scott Turow, John Grisham, Steve Martini, Julie Compton, Jonathan Kellerman, Robert Rotenberg of Canada (City Hall), John Verdon (Think of a Number), David Baldacci or someone else?

You have until midnight PST on Sunday, October 10, 2010 to submit your entry or entries.   The winner will be drawn by Munchy the cat and will be contacted via e-mail.   In order to enter this contest you must live in the continental U.S. and have a residential mailing address.   Books will not be shipped to a P.O. box or a business-related address.

This is it for the “complex” contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!    

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