Tag Archives: poorly edited book

The Unexplained

A Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman (Henry Holt and Co., $28.00, 288 pages)

an unexplained death

Author Mikita Brottman lives at the Belvedere Hotel, a Baltimore landmark with a long history of strange occurrences, suicides, and mysterious deaths.  Brottman here professes her fascination with the occult, tarot cards, and suicide so the examination of the apparent 2006 suicide of Rey Rivera – a once-fellow resident of the Belvedere, would seem to be a perfect topic for her writing.

Brottman’s account of events, An Uexplained Death, provides numerous details surrounding Rivera’s death as well as a tremendous amount of conjecture on her part.  What it fails to do is to provide clarity or new information beyond what was already known or presumed. (The authorities found the death to be a suicide.)  Brottman goes on – in what seems like a stretch – to explore cultural attitudes about suicide from around the world, and she provides her personal views on various matters whether related or not.

Rey Rivera was a tall and attractive aspiring film maker who moved to Baltimore from Los Angeles with his new wife, Allison.  He joined with Porter Stansberry of Agora, publishing newsletters offering financial advice.  His death happened to come at the time when he had borrowed money to produce his own film, was getting ready to quit Agora – which was engulfed in an SEC investigation – and was about to move back to L.A.

Did Rivera jump from the roof of the Belvedere, falling through a skylight at the top of a space which once housed the hotel’s swimming pool, or was he running from someone intending to do him harm?  Brottman investigates various alternatives to suicide possibilities, but none of them seem either likely or probable.  She wonders aloud whether Rivera was depressed about the Agora investigation or whether he became entangled in a homosexual affair.  It’s all so much smoke and mirrors because each such alternate explanation is discarded shortly after being raised.  And Brottman’s conclusion of this strange, quasi-fictional investigation of a real-life death provides nothing of substance.

The story is slightly compelling during the few periods in which Brottman sticks to the subject matter at hand.  But she spends far too much time writing about herself, her life, and her obsessions.  Oh, but for an editor!

The typical reader is unlikely to find Brottman’s affinity for rats very endearing.  The same is true concerning her fascination with strangely committed murders, and the time she spends imagining herself in another person’s shoes (such as Allison Reyes’s).  All in all, this is a book of rambling distractions, which is as generally uninteresting as it is undisciplined.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Notes:

The Beaux Arts style Belvedere Hotel was opened as Baltimore’s first luxury hotel in 1903 and was converted to residential condos in 1991.

I read the book and wondered why the writer spent an obsessive amount of time attempting to solve a crime which the local authorities had already solved, resolved and literally closed the book on.  – Joseph Arellano

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We’re All Alone

delta lady amazon

Delta Lady: A Memoir by Rita Coolidge with Michael Walker (Harper, $25.99, 225 pages)

In the Acknowledgments, Rita Coolidge states that from the age of four she “dreamed of writing a book.” Sadly, this memoir does not read as if it was written. It reads as if it was dictated onto audio cassettes and transcribed by the writer whose name is found beneath hers in small letters. There’s simply no voice, no style present that gives it personality; thus, one never feels like time has been spent with the singer-musician.

Coolidge concedes that people usually think of her as the woman who was once married to Kris Kristofferson. Those wishing to find out something about that marriage may be satisfied with what they read in these 219 pages. But those wishing to learn more about her life in or out of the music trade may be left wanting.

One frustrating thing is that Coolidge makes bold statements before walking them back. For example, she’ll state that musician Joe Blow used too much cocaine, and then retract that by saying it’s not for her to say what too much is. Tentativeness in a “tell all” is so unsatisfying.

It seems like Coolidge waited decades to tell her story and then hedged in the telling.

Delta Lady back cover

Note:

Delta Lady could have used assistance from a strong editor. There are awkward statements and content throughout. For example, at one point we read this about Janis Joplin: “She drank too much than was good for her…” And Coolidge tells us that after her mother died, “I had a gig on the eighteenth and knew she wouldn’t want me to not do that gig.” Ouch!

There’s also noticeable repetition in the account. For example, one particular background singer did some work with the Rolling Stones. So every time her name is mentioned, we’re told – with but one exception – that this woman once sang with the Rolling Stones. These may seem like small points, but they’re not so small when you’ve shelled out $26.00 for a finished work.

Finally, there may be some issues with factual accuracy. Coolidge states that the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour left Joe Cocker physically and financially impoverished. Other accounts note that Cocker’s poor physical state was due to alcoholism. And the Mad Dogs and Englishmen double-album made Cocker rich. It was the second-best selling album in the U.S. when it was released, and was very likely the best selling recording on college campuses. A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss stated, “‘The Letter’ (from the Mad Dogs album) was the first hit for Joe… The record went (Top 10) platinum and sold well… That whole group was incredible, and it was an amazing experience – what they did live and on record was magnificent. After that success, we were able to get Joe back in the studio to make more great records.”

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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38 Species x 9 Lives

Wild cats

Wild Cats of the World by Luke Hunter, Illustrated by Priscilla Barrett (Bloomsbury, $40.00, 240 pages)

Wild Cats of the World is a coffee table sized book that at first glance looks like it would be the perfect gift for any feline lover. The book examines 38 species of small and big cats, augmented with beautiful photos and sketches. It also imparts interesting information, like the fact that female cats are actually more efficient hunters than males – since they don’t stalk things they can’t kill, and that wildcats can live a full 19 years in captivity. It’s also repeatedly stated that wildcats can and do interbreed with domestic cats.

Wildcat 2

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Unfortunately, this book has several weaknesses. Hunter is far too concerned with what each type of cat kills and eats; there are too many photos of cats with their prey – which deems it unsuitable to be kept around children; and the book over-emphasizes the issue of extinction of species. What could have been a joyful celebration of the world’s most successful mammal – one that exists in both large and small forms – becomes a depressing, dragged-out, textbook-like read.

There’s not enough attention paid to the 43 breeds of domestic cats, which are far from extinct with 500 million of them serving as beloved pets, and an additional 500 million living as feral creatures. (500 million feral versions of Felis catus/Felis silvestris definitely equals a very successful type of wild cat!) And the high-priced book is poorly edited (“[a] survey must… continue for a long enough to sample…”).

Overall, a miss instead of a hit.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on October 13, 2015.

Note: There’s another book titled Wild Cats of the World, authored by Mel Sunquist and Fiona Sunquist (Chicago University Press).

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For Whom The Bell Tolls

The Bee Gees: The Biography by David N. Meyer (Da Capo, $27.50)

Bee Gees Meyer 2

An attempt to de-mythologize the best-selling brothers Gibb that doesn’t even get the song titles right.

It’s hard to understand why David Meyer wrote this book. Moreover, who is the audience for it? The biography is not a tribute to the Bee Gees, which means that fans will have no reason to read it. It does its best to present the brothers Gibb as a strange band of brothers, but that will hardly be enough to convince non-fans to purchase the book.

The band bio is perhaps best described as an attempt to de-mythologize/bring down the musical group described on the jacket as, “[O]ne of the bestselling bands on the planet….” Meyer puts his cards on the table in the introduction (one as unnecessary as most introductions are). Here he tells readers that, while the Bee Gees “made hits for forty years, they sold a quarter of a billion albums, (and) everyone on earth knows their music… they still seem like they don’t really belong.” Really? Well, that’s one person’s foolish opinion.

Early on the book tries to dwell on things that might make the brothers appear to be unlikeable. For example, within the first 50 pages we’re informed that Maurice Gibb might have spent “an aggregate of $100 million on automobiles.” Except that Meyer is not reporting this as factual. Instead, he relates that, “It’s rumored he spent… $100 million on automobiles.” So it is not necessarily factual, and it has nothing to do with the group’s music.

Meyer proceeds in this realm by telling us that a young Barry Gibb once parked six expensive cars in front of his London flat. And if we haven’t got the point, there’s a photo of Barry standing in front of his Lotus, circa 1969. The relevance of this is what, exactly?

Since this is a book about an esteemed musical group, Meyer does try to provide some pseudo-analysis of the band’s music. But his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. As an example, he refers multiple times to a song called “Marley Putt Drive” recorded for the Odessa double album. He refers to “Marley Putt Drive” as a track with lyrics that are “beyond idiocy.” This might be a tad interesting, except for the fact that the song in question is actually “Marley Purt Drive.” How is it that one would set to write about a band’s music and not get the song titles right? (If one were to write about the Beatles and refer to one of their songs as “Nobody Man,” how much credibility would such a writer have?) And how is it that neither the writer nor an editor caught this error in the hardbound release?

The writer’s negative bias is glaring when he refers to the group’s mega-successful songs on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack as “mediocre songs.” This is pretty tactless, pointless criticism, as when he writes of the song “Stayin’ Alive” that it is “a mechanistic artifact from a mechanistic genre, and tragically, soulless at its core.” Not only is this over the top, it reads like something written for a high school newspaper, overdramatic to its core.

As an illustration of how weak Meyer’s point is, he tells us that “Stayin’ Alive” “spent less time at #1 (in sales) than any other #1 (song) on the album.” Shocking and almost shameful! The group had multiple number one songs on this album, and this song was the least successful of the ultra-successful tracks. This must be the opposite of damning with faint praise.

When Brian Wilson inducted the Bee Gees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he called them, “One of the greatest vocal groups ever assembled.” Consider the source in terms of praiseworthiness. Wilson went on to state: “There’s nothing more important than spiritual love in music. And the Bee Gees have given us this love in music.” Beautiful words which reflect the way the Bee Gees might properly be remembered.

The late Robin Gibb once wrote a bestselling song called “Saved by the Bell.” The bell may have already rung for David Meyer’s account; tragically, it did not ring timely in order to save us from it.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy of the finished book was received from the publisher.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site:

Book Review: ‘The Bee Gees: The Biography’ by David N. Meyer

The review was also used by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-The-Bee-Gees-The-Biography-by-4826973.php

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Bad Habits, Good Habits

Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick by Jeremy Dean (Da Capo Lifelong Books, $26.00, 272 pages)

Making Habits (prev.)

“…habits are both savior and curse.”

Making Habits, Breaking Habits by Jeremy Dean is an interesting collection of 13 article-chapters. Each chapter would make for an engaging airline magazine article, but the whole simply doesn’t deliver on the promise of telling us how to “make any change (in habits) stick.” Most of what Dean tells us is common sense, such as the notion that bad habits lead to depression and good — what he calls happy — habits lead to self-satisfaction and happiness. Naturally, Dean offers the advice of replacing bad habits with happy habits, something much easier said than done; especially as even good habits tend to become boring and less than enjoyable with repetition.

“One reason habits are so hard to change is that we start performing them without conscious deliberation.”

The notion of what constitutes happiness in our lives just about overtakes the topic of human habits, and it’s no accident that Dean often cites Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert. Gilbert wrote the satisfying survey book, Stumbling on Happiness, which for most people would likely make a better choice than Making Habits.

It doesn’t help that Dean’s an Englishman who writes in a style that’s awkward for Americans to read, and poor editing results in words having been left out: “…Twitter, Facebook… and the rest reward us with little bits information…”.

Joseph Arellano

Happiness Gilbert

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