Tag Archives: non-fiction

It’s Only a Paper Moon

Paper: An Elegy (A Celebration of the Age of Paper) by Ian Sansom (Fourth Estate, $24.99, 230 pages)

Paper

Since paper books seem so clearly to embody knowledge it’s hardly surprising that we have come to believe that the possession of books is in itself sufficient to possess knowledge.

A copy of Paper: An Elegy in e-reader format is unthinkable! From the deeply embossed dust jacket to the creamy off-white thick pages resplendent in their crisp dark type font, the reader needs to experience the physicality of the hard cover original. Inside, the text is supplemented with illustrations and pithy quotes appropriate for the focus of each chapter. It’s not often that tactile, visual and auditory experiences are bound up together so neatly.

At first glance, Paper might be taken for a garden variety survey of the title subject. Author Ian Sansom quickly adjusts the reader’s perspective to his own, wherein he offers an approach that is thoroughly different from the routine of every day non-fiction. Sansom details in depth the notion of paper as a receptacle for knowledge (book), a communication tool (advertising handbill), an object conveying authority (warrant or judicial decree), a stand-in for value (currency), and therapy (origami). His is a style of indulgence that teaches and distracts while ultimately engaging the reader’s imagination. Oddly, the book provides feelings of coziness, charm and intellectual expansiveness — quite a combination for a single-subject non-fiction topic.

Detail oriented readers will delight in the depth of information provided. Book collectors may be willing to lend their volume to a trusted friend.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on October 24, 2013.

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Positively 4th Street

Who Is That Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan by David Dalton (Hyperion, $26.99, 383 pages)

“Hibbing, Minnesota, is the site of the biggest man-made hole in the world, an existential allegory if there ever was one…  Hibbing cannibalized itself…  If the biggest hole in the world had an effect on (Dylan), why hadn’t it shown up in any of his songs?   Or has it?   Is that what he’s been doing, filling it up?”  

David Dalton’s overly-psychedelic look at Bob Dylan never comes close to telling the reader who “the real” Dylan is.   There are a number of problems with this account, the chief one being that, instead of de-mythologizing the legend and presenting a human being, Dalton regurgitates every myth in circulation and then proceeds to create additional ones.   The all-too-clever Gonzo-journalism style, 45 years or so out-of-date, is often painful to read, as when Dalton writes about “…the hallucinatory negativity of Blonde on Blonde.”   Really?   (What album was he listening to?)

It gets worse, as when Dalton refers to Hank Williams, one of young Bob’s first idols, as “the hillbilly Shakespeare” (groan).   Although Dalton may now and then redeem himself (like when he notes that Dylan looks at America with an immigrant’s eye), the sometimes-fascinating portions of this work are fully overwhelmed by its dreadful aspects.   It may appeal to some – such as those who love middle-school style humor – but the writer tries much too hard to be as hip as Dylan’s old album liner notes.   Not recommended for hardcore Dylan fans, although some quirky readers who like humor and sarcasm presented in the guise of serious musical criticism may be inexplicably drawn to it.

All in all, this is Positively 4th Street.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Note:  As an example of Dalton’s excessively strange style of covering Dylan’s recording career, he comes up with eight so-called reasons why Dylan’s two-record set Self-Portrait was relatively unsuccessful.   He cites as reason 5 the fact that someone failed to tell the Byrds that they were scheduled to play on the album, and so they “flew home.”   This is not factual nor is it funny.

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I Ain’t Living Long Like This

Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir by Rodney Crowell (Knopf; $24.95; 256 pages)

“To be well-loved is to be free of the evil lurking around the next darkened corner.   Every child should know that feeling.”

The country music artist Rodney Crowell is known for his singing and songwriting skills.   His singing voice, often compared to that of Kris Kristofferson (but higher pitched), may leave something to be desired.   But the artist who has written songs like Shame on the Moon, I Ain’t Living Long Like This and (The Way You Burn Me I Should Be) Ashes by Now, has shown himself to be a bright star in this category.   Crowell is also known as being the ex-husband of Rosanne Cash, which has presented other issues, such as coming off second in comparison to her singing, songwriting and writing skills.

It proves to be true again.   For while Chinaberry Sidewalks is interesting in some places, it does not hold the reader’s imagination and interest the way that Rosanne Cash’s brilliantly written memoir Composed does.   Cash displayed a skill for always finding the right interesting words to describe the happenings in her life; and her voice was just as unique as Bob Dylan’s in Chronicles.

Crowell never seems to find his voice or his style here, although he has stated that he felt freed from the strict rules of song writing in putting together – over a decade – this autobiographical account.

With my grandmother and Charlie (the shoe shine man)…  I experienced love as something tangible between myself and another human being.”

This is a tough read because much of it covers the sad scenes of a childhood filled with bickering parents and domestic violence.   No doubt Crowell is being brutally honest, but it is often difficult to wish to read about a childhood described as filled with nothing “but a primal instinct for survival, theirs and mine.”   In one of the hard-to-concentrate on scenes, Crowell’s inebriated mother hits his father whereupon his very drunk dad responds by punching his mother in the face.   The young Crowell intervenes by breaking a Coke bottle over his own head, requiring a trip to the hospital for stitches.   Yes, a few stories like this go a long way.

It must be noted that this memoir contains some near-charming stories of growing up as a boomer child (Crowell was born in August of 1950).   But the reader interested in tales of playing soldier, or cowboys and Indians, etc. will find better written accounts in the memoirs of Bob Greene (When We Get to Surf City).

“…my parents’ deaths were unique to their personalities.”

At the end of Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell’s parents have found a sense of normalcy in their lives before they depart the earth.   And love in a marriage that somehow lasted for decades.   It is a comforting message but one that arrives only after a narrative that might have benefited from tighter editing.   Crowell’s narrative never equates to the level of his songwriting skills in this account.

This is not a bad first effort, but the Rodney Crowell that’s found in Cash’s Composed – such as in the classic scene where a nervous young Crowell meets his legendary future father-in-law for the first time – is a far more interesting person than the one found here.

Joseph Arellano  

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Chinaberry Sidewalks was released on January 18, 2011.  

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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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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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I Hope You Don’t Mind

The Real Alice in Wonderland – A Role Model for the Ages by C. M. Rubin with Gabriella Rubin (AuthorHouse)

What better way to celebrate the real Alice of Lewis Carroll’s super-famous story than with a gloriously lush picture book?   C. M. Rubin and her daughter, Gabriella, possess the gracious and well-mannered charm of their ancestor, Alice Liddell Hargreaves.   Together, they have created a book worthy of serious consideration, especially by adults who cherish their memories of Alice in Wonderland.

Regardless of whether the reader was introduced to Alice, Dinah, the Red Queen and the Mad Hatter in the Walt Disney movie or a traditional printed book, the magic of Alice’s adventures easily captured the imagination of legions of children.   The quotes and illustrations from the story trigger memories of a time when this reviewer would turn the pages of an abbreviated, illustrated Disney version of the story while listening to the accompanying 78 RPM records on a portable phonograph.   It was a time for fantasy and make-believe!

The format is very well thought out.   The large pages provide an ample surface on which to arrange the many graphic examples of Victorian ephemera, family photographs and letters that flowed throughout Alice’s life.   The careful attention to detail and the artful layout are consistent with the talent Alice displayed in her watercolor paintings.

The account of Alice’s adult life is poignant and at the same time life-affirming.   After having been the focus of so much attention and curiosity as a child, Alice Liddell might have easily become a self-absorbed woman.   Instead, she honored the place that she holds in the hearts of both the young and the not-so-young.   As the authors note, she was a role model and an exemplary woman of her time.

It would have been easy for the Rubins to use the story of the real Alice to further their own link to fame.   Fortunately, they resisted the urge and have created a lovely homage to a woman who needed to have the written versions of the stories told to her by her friend Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll.   The book would make an elegant gift regardless of the occasion.

This book is highly recommended for the quality of the writing, layout and execution.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the authors.

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Between Me and the River

Between Me and the River: Living Beyond Cancer by Carrie Host (Harlequin; $22.95; 304 pages)

Carrie Host’s book Between Me and the River is a moving memoir that chronicles her journey and struggles to survive an incurable form of cancer.   In the book, Carries shares all the pain, physical and emotional, she went through after her diagnosis.   She also relates the guilt she felt and anger at her new life.   But more than that, she provides a story of hope, love and self-awareness that many of us have never felt in our lives.

Host compares her trial in dealing with cancer to falling in a river.   Whether sinking into the deep water, rushing toward a waterfall, or resting in an eddy, it’s easy to identify with her as she explains where in the river she feels on any particular day.   It is heart wrenching to read of her account (being a mother of five) of how she delivered the news of her fate to her children, to follow along as she struggles to do the simplest tasks a mother must do, and to see her relationship with her husband flourish under the strain of what they have to deal with.

I applaud Carrie for having the courage to write so openly and honestly about her disease.   Reading this book has changed my life in a profound way.   It has made me more patient and loving with my children and more thankful of my husband.   While Host’s book at first is a heavy read, as you turn more pages you start to see the positive impact this devastation has on her family, her friends and her own consciousness.   Overall I found this book very easy to read, though I had to put it down at times to wipe the tears away.   I would definitely keep a tissue handy.

This review was written by Denna Gibbons and is used with her permission.   You can see more of her reviews at http://www.thebookwormblog.com/ .   Between Me and the River is also available in a low-cost Kindle Edition version and as an Unabridged Audio Edition.

 

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Clothes Make the Man

Proust’s Overcoat by Lorenza Foschini, Translated by Eric Karpeles (Ecco; $19.99; 144 pages)

“A rare and wonderfully written book.”   Michael Ondaatje

“Proust had also been measured for an overcoat in plaid with a bright purple lining.   He said he was going to leave it in the cloakroom…”   William C. Carter (Proust: A Life)

A confession is in order here at the beginning of the review.   I have never read the writings of Marcel Proust.   The only sense I have of him comes from the charming line drawing made by his friend Jean Cocteau.   The drawing is indicative of the clique of quirky artists who lived in France at the end of the 19th century.   It is the drawing and collage-like cover of Lorenza Foschini’s petite volume that drew me to this book.  

Don’t let the size of the book influence a purchase decision.   This is not a casual account of the artifacts of a world-famous writer’s life.   Rather, Proust’s Overcoat reveals the power of the collecting urge that can take hold of a person.  

Jacques Guerin was the collector whose passion for everything Proust led him to stalk the belongings that remained after Proust’s death.   Guerin’s perfume business afforded him the funds necessary to purchase the desk, bed, pictures and, of course, the iconic overcoat.   The surviving Proust family members and a junk dealer named Werner made these and many other acquisitions into sequential victories that were celebrated by Guerin over the course of many years.

Just as a curator arranges the items of the museum’s collection into a catalogue, author Foschini has done the same with the written and pictorial history of the items from Marcel Proust’s life.   The way in which his surviving family members treated the belongings revealed the mixed feelings they felt for him.   Isn’t that always the way with families?

Highly recommended.   A knowledge of literature or museums is not a prerequisite for enjoying this book.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Loneliness Is Just A Word

Lonely: A Memoir by Emily White

“…the lonely were more likely to have died than the nonlonely.”

Emily White’s Lonely succeeds as a survey book, specifically when she examines the surprising lack of research on what would appear to be a nearly essential topic for study – human loneliness.   She finds, for example, one study which demonstrated that post heart surgery patients were twice as likely to die if they experienced the effects of loneliness.   She also describes the  more standard physical impacts that plague the person who is determined to be lonely, and to her credit she had “to find the papers…  myself.”

The book is much less effective when it attempts to serve as a self-proclaimed memoir.   To be explicit, the book would have been far more engaging if it had begun with a review of the research on the matter of loneliness, and then finished with White describing its impact on her own life.   This is because much of what she stated in the opening seems either odd or contradictory.

This reviewer suspects that most readers will approach the topic with an understanding of loneliness as isolation.   We are lonely when we must be away from the people who are close to us; as when, for example, someone leaves the family nest to go to a faraway college.   But such loneliness is temporary and others come in to fill the empty spots in our existence.

White, however, is the person who is lonely in crowds; she states that, “I just feel a lack of connection around people, even when I’m around people.”   Thus, she responds to this by spending more time alone and, “The more time I spent alone, the more difficult I found it to be around others.”   This seems desperately confusing, especially when we read about how she chose to live way across town from friends and relatives:  “…odd…that I should have chosen a place so far removed (to live).”

White also appears to display a knack for making lemons out of lemonade.   Of cherished car drives with her father she complains that they “always ended.”   And although in law school she was surrounded by smart people, it seemed to signal the start of her era of self-isolation.

This reviewer must disclose that my life and the author’s appear to be considerably parallel as to our experiences, and yet, the very ones that she found limiting were for me empowering.   Thus, we may have a clash of perspectives here.   So, I will re-emphasize that White presents some valuable information when one views this work as a review of a little-developed field.   To her credit, she raises some questions that do call out for an answer – such as whether or not loneliness is inherited.

White might have been served by having the assistance of a professional writer who could have toned down her tendency to look at life through somber dark-colored glasses.   A second set of eyes in the person of an editor might have added a bit of needed joy to this look at our lives and the need we have to share it with others.

A review copy was provided by Harper.

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