Tag Archives: United States

Strawberry Fields Forever

The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz, read by Alfred Molina (Simon & Schuster Audio, $39.95, 9 CDs – running time: 10 hours and 13 minutes)

Be careful what you wish for…  Or, in this case, the fellows who would eventually become the iconic rock group, The Beatles, were in for a shock when they got what they worked so hard to achieve – being the Toppermost of the Poppermost.   According to Bob Spitz, the author of this band biography, attempting to perform before an audience of hysterically screaming teenage girls is very tiring and puts one’s best musical efforts aside for the mere fact of being there in person on stage.

The usual biographical story line follows the lads from their early efforts at becoming popular and famous.   It’s well known that diligent practice, some songwriting and struggles to get gigs led them from Liverpool, England to Hamburg, Germany and back to Liverpool.   Eventually, they played to the USA audience via television on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Well, as an ancient radio show host would say, “Now, you’re gonna hear the rest of the story.”   Spitz invested countless hours of research and sleuthing to come up with a more in-depth and, in some situations, gut-wrenching back story of The Beatles life cycle, from unknowns to way-too-famous performers.   This reviewer listened to the audio version of the book narrated by Alfred Molina, who is himself a well-known actor in films and on stage.   Molina’s confident depiction of the various voices and accents is a real listening pleasure.   It also helps to have a well-written narrative which Spitz delivers chapter after chapter.

The saga comes to life with frequent quotes from the people who populated The Beatles’ world (e.g., Brian Epstein, Sir George Martin, Stuart Sutcliffe and his wife, etc.).   To his credit, Spitz did not include any of the band’s music in the audio book.   Whether this was due to the cost of the needle-drop or a conscious choice, it kept this listener focused on the interactions and emotions felt by all involved.

Honestly, it’s easy to jump on one’s laptop, go to You Tube and enjoy their  music.   It’s more of a challenge to stay with the biography and learn that these adorable fellows had plenty of emotional baggage and personal interactions that did not always bode well for the group.   Also, the rock scene in England and the USA was fueled by a wide array of illegal drug use.   The Beatles enjoyed their share of drugs, girls and fame.   Donovan was a pal as were other famous British rockers.   In the end it all fell apart and they were a group – a band – for less than a decade.

As the final track of  the CD closed out, this reviewer felt the enormous loss of something magical, something heard for the first time over a Ford Falcon station wagon radio as Martha drove the carpool group to our northern California high school.   It was love at first listen and it still is…

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

This audiobook was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.   It is available via Audible.com .

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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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Wait, There’s More…

Fever Dream by Preston & Child (Hachette Audio Unabridged)

The writing team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (Preston & Child) have a winning franchise that stars Aloysius Pendergast, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent with a distinctive southern drawl.   Fever Dream, their tenth in the series, is a mesmerizing story with an international twist.   Actor Rene’ Auberjonois’ narration heightens the atmospheric tension with a nimble voice that shifts easily from character to character.

The audio book was this reviewer’s first experience with the series and it will not be the last.   The story opens with the hideous death suffered by Pendergast’s wife, Helen, in the jaws of a lion during an African visit.   Fast forward 12 years to when Pendergast comes across evidence that leads him to the unavoidable conclusion that his soul mate was murdered and was not the victim of a natural occurrence.   The story shifts back to the United States and thus begins the obsessive hunt for Helen’s killer or killers.

The languid, lush atmosphere of the southern U.S. replete with wily characters and roadside diners makes it as much a character as is Pendergast, his brother-in-law Judson Esterhazy or sidekick, Vincent D’Agosta of the New York City police department.   This is a story of the obsession that is part of every character’s makeup.   There are meticulous details, vivid descriptions and a rather sweet ‘n salty taste to the language used by the characters.   Along the way, the listener is treated to fascinating historical information about John James Audubon who painted some of the most beautiful bird and animal pictures ever created.

This novel reminds this reviewer of the short story, “The Most Dangerous Game.”   Both are highly entertaining attention grabbers.

Recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by Hachette Audio.

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30 Days in the Hole

Texas Tough by Robert Perkinson (Henry Holt and Company)

It’s doubtful that anyone would wish to take the position that modern American prisons serve as the perfect example of rehabilitative environments.   Yet Professor Robert Perkinson takes approximately 500 pages to argue the case that they are not the best representation of a “forgiving society.”   That’s fine but this reviewer wishes that at least half of this large tome had dealt with solutions rather than simple issue spotting.   Finding problems is the easy part, finding solutions – applying innovative social engineering – is the tough part and is missing from this quasi-legal brief.

Texas Tough is highly documented with source materials and yet academic knowledge is not the same as practical experience.   At one point in his Conclusion, for example, Perkinson disparages “high-tech uberprisons like Pelican Bay in California,” as not being socially friendly (prisons like this are “regimented lockups” in his view).   I saw no indication in the Notes that Mr. Perkinson has visited Pelican Bay; this is an end-of-the-line facility for the most violent of hard-core repeat offenders.   It is not meant to serve as either a Club Fed or a cozy community college.

What would Mr. Perkinson do as the administrator of such a facility?

One of the most interesting aspects of this book (and the first half is much harder reading than the second half due to some obtuse language) is the application of  The Law of Unintended Consequences, popularized by the sociologist Robert K. Merton.   This principle is often referenced in law schools as litigation and legislation-based reforms may produce results that surprise their sponsors.   Due to court-ordered reforms in the state of Texas, for example, the author notes that inmates are now “as plagued by tedium as toil.”   Their death rates are also much lower.   These two points don’t seem to support his case very well.

The professor also spends a great portion of this work arguing that northern prisons have become more punitive (and “southern”), while southern prisons have become more “northern” and less harsh.   Perkinson ties this to race but it seems a bit tenuous.   Let’s just say that it may remain as an interesting issue for further research for sociologists.

If one has never read a book about the U.S. correctional system, then this might make for an interesting, if sometimes overdone, introduction to the subject.   It is hardly light reading.   In fact, it is sometimes a slog through a muddy field.

This reviewer is hopeful that someone follows up this survey work with a constructive and solution-based approach to what Professor Perkinson somewhat dramatically labels as “America’s Prison Empire.”

A pre-release review copy was received from the publisher.

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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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Another Book Giveaway!

Thanks to Anna at Hachette Audio, we’re giving away three (3) audio book sets of On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System by Henry M. (Hank) Paulson, Jr.   This is the unabridged version, on 13 CDs, that contains a special conversation with the author not found in the printed book version.   Each audio book is valued at $34.98 U.S.; $41.98 Canadian.

Here is a synopsis of On the Brink, followed by two excerpts from recent reviews:

When Hank Paulson, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, was appointed in 2006 to become the nation’s next Secretary of the Treasury, he knew that his move from Wall Street to Washington would be daunting and challenging.   But Paulson had no idea that a year later, he would find himself at the the very epicenter of the world’s most cataclysmic financial crisis since the Great Depression.   Major institutions literally teetered at the edge of collapse.   Worst of all, the credit crisis spread to all parts of the U.S. economy and grew more ominous with each passing day.

This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime economic nightmare.   Events no one had thought possible were happening in quick succession.   All eyes turned to the United States Treasury Secretary to avert the disaster.  

This, then, is Hank Paulson’s first-person account.   From the man who was in the very middle of this perfect economic storm, On the Brink is Paulson’s fast-paced account of the key decisions that had to be made with lightning speed.   On the Brink is an extraordinary story about people and politics – all brought together during the world’s impending financial Armageddon.

Paulson’s first-person account of the epic financial collapse is just that – straightforward and direct.   Shorn of anonymous, unsourced dish, it nonetheless offers plenty of excellent color and detail.   Daniel Gross, The Washington Post

Provides a palpable sense of the nearly moment-to-moment developments and obstacles…   Ted Sturtz, New York Journal of Books

This contest is easy to enter.   Just post a comment here or send an e-mail to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as one entry.   For a second entry, just tell us why you like to listen to audio book versions of best sellers.  

You must be a resident of the U.S. or Canada and have a valid residential address.   Audio books cannot be mailed to P.O. boxes.   

The On the Brink contest will be open until midnight PST on Sunday, April 18, 2010.   Good luck and good listening!

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