Sunday, October 27, 2013

When Glamour Was Sexy

Sirens: The Pinup Art of David Wright – Terry Parker (Titan Books)

I don’t want to sound like an old man, especially a dirty old man, but oh how times have changed! I think it’s interesting timing that the release of Terry Parker’s homage to the great, British pinup artist David Wright comes at a time when we can’t turn on the television or look online without being bombarded with images of what some try to pawn off as sexy. Think the in your face, disgusting, tongue lolling, Miley Cyrus thrusting her goods for what little they are worth.

In Sirens: The Pinup Art of David Wright, author Terry Parker brings a collector’s loving touch to assembling the work of one of World War II’s most noted pinup artists. Unlike many of his contemporaries in the pinup game, Wright, who got his start as a fashion artist, brought a sense of style and glamour to his work, at time when style and glamour was in short supply.

Wright’s work was regularly featured in the publications The Sketch and later Men Only and Parker collects many examples from both here. While his contemporaries like Gil Elvgren and Alberto Vargas created inflated images of buxom babes, Wright’s work had a much more subtle approach. The best way I can describe the difference in style is by the difference between a sneak peak of Wright and the bold “hey here I am” of the others.

While I have doubts about our ability to put the genie, let alone the oversized foam finger back into the bottle, it’s nice every once in while to get a reminder that less is more when it comes to sexy.  


Think About It

The Book of Questions (Revised and Updated) – Gregory Stock, PhD. (Workman Publishing)

Think about it. No I mean really THINK about it. In this day and age of screens, from small to large, constantly being in front of us, when was the last time you really thought about answering a question that didn’t involve consulting Siri or Google for the answer?

Back in the dark ages, 1987 to be exact, Gregory Stock put out a wonderful, thought provoking little book entitled The Book of Questions, that as the title suggests, asked a series of questions that are more often than not a mirror into your heart and soul. Stock is back with a revised and updated version of the book that asks the questions, and demands more than a simple yes or no response.

As an introduction, Stock gives a quick recap of some of the changes that the world has gone through in the time since the first edition of the book and the questions here certainly reflect those changing times. With the holidays quickly approaching, this book would not only be a great gift, but certainly would make for interesting conversation with family and friends. It would also be interesting if you had the first edition, how folks answers may have changed over the course of time.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

There’s Something Missing, Doncha Know

Storm Front (A Virgil Flowers Novel) – John Sandford (Putnam Publishing)

Full disclosure upfront; while I am a fan of John Sandford’s, Lucas Davenport series of Prey novels, up to this point I have not read any of his other characters, the technologist/artist Kidd and fellow police investigator Virgil Flowers.

While both Kidd and Flowers have crossed paths with Davenport, Storm Front  is my first foray into a Flowers book. All of Sandford’s characters have a certain wisecracking, whatever it takes attitude that is anchored by a certain Midwestern sturdiness. Flowers is certainly no exception. The story begins at the site of an archeological dig in Israel with an ailing Minnesota minister/college professor making off with what could be a game changing artifact.

Sandford laces the story with the usual band of colorful characters that ooze a certain outdoorsy, down home quirkiness. The hunt is on to try to track down not only the felonious Reverend, but to recover the artifact that could shake the foundations of world religions if it turns out to be legitimate. While I was starting to think that this could end being Sandford’s stab at Minnesota Davinci Code, he avoids the cliché by mixing things up with a few hapless, mis-adventurers trying to track down the ancient stone.

While the storyline continues to move at a leisurely pace, at points it begins to spin it’s wheels, losing traction as it continues to turn and turn in smaller circles.  While it takes some unexpected turns along the way, in the end Storm Front sputters and seems to be missing the same punch as the Davenport, Prey books. Not sure if it’s just a difference in series or if Sandford’s acknowledgement in interviews that he would be utilizing other writers to craft storylines so he could generate more books, that contributed to the shortfall.  

Monday, October 14, 2013

Not Your Usual DeMille

The Quest – Nelson DeMille (Center Street Publishing)

If you are a long time fan of author Nelson DeMille and you grab a copy of his latest literary effort, The Quest expecting his usual wisecracking characters, delivering his standard crackling dialogue, then you may be in for a disappointment.

In this updated version of The Quest, DeMille re-visits, revises and extends on a story that he first published way back in 1975 in paperback. Not sure what lead DeMille and his publishing house to offer up this re-do; the fact that most DeMille fans had never seen or heard of the original book, which was a limited release and hard to track down or if 38 years after the fact they thought there might be some life left in the saga of the ultimate quest, the hunt for the holy grail.

Hey it worked for Dan Brown and countless others and let’s face it DeMille was ahead of the curve back in 1975. Having never read the original version of the story, I don’t have any way of drawing a comparison between the two, so I have to work with what I have at hand. While DeMille won me over with his John Corey character a true master at cracking wise, I can’t say that I found any of the characters involved here has offering something I’d like to hear from again and again.

At times early in the book I found myself backtracking to try to grasp characters, settings and time periods which seemed overly difficult to track. Again not knowing where the old left off and the new began, I can’t pinpoint where the new story got on track. In interviews DeMille has stated that as he approached the project he expected it to be a quick project and even he was surprised that his writing style had changed dramatically, so there was some time needed to revisit his earlier style and technique. It is that process that may throw some fans for a loop.

Over all the story and the book hang together well, even with some segments being a tougher slog. Put up against the backdrop of DeMille’s standard fare, this would rate somewhere in the 2.5 out of 5 range; taken as a standalone it might benefit from a bump up to a 3.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

John Lange Revisited

Odds On (1966) Scratch One (1967) Easy Go (1968) Zero Cool (1969) The Venom Business (1970) Drug of Choice (1970) Grave Descend (1970) Binary (1972) Michael Crichton writing as John Lange (Hard Case Crime)

Much has been written, filmed and said about the grind of medical school over the years; it is hard work and hours of study to a medical degree. Now kick things up a notch and add to that backdrop that you are studying at Harvard Medical School, one of the world’s premier medical education facilities. It was in that setting that an honors student at the school created the secret pen-name “John Lange” and began authoring a series of eight top-notch entertaining thrillers.

The legend of “Lange” grew to epic proportions, when he suddenly vanished from the literary scene. Collectors began the pursuit of out of print copies found in nooks and crannies of second hand stores, paying premium prices, never knowing the author was alive and well and cranking out bestsellers under his given name; Michael Crichton.

Crichton, the medical school student in question, went on to author some of the best loved books of his generation and create the hit television series ER and an even larger legion of fans. Before his untimely passing in 2008, Crichton began a project with the custom publishing imprint Hard Case Crime to resurrect the Lange books for a new generation. Crichton began the process by re-editing a couple of the books, going as far as adding new chapters to one with an eye toward eventually releasing the entire Lange series.

While that process was slowed by the author’s death, Hard Case has now followed through by delivery all eight books in a lovingly restored set featuring updated cover art painted by Gregory Manchess and Glen Orbik. The covers, clearly different from the original cover art, feature the distinctive Hard Case Crime, hardboiled look.

While the Lange books are different from his later works, they clearly foreshadow what Crichton would perfect with his elegant style thrillers. Brilliant is a word that is often misplaced and overused, but is clearly fitting in the case of Crichton/Lange. He is a masters of drawing memorable characters, delving into interesting settings and making complexities of science within the reach of the average reader.

While I vividly remember the thrill of finding a crisp clean original copy of Binary for a reasonable price, in a dusty used book shop, having Lange/Crichton in easy reach with this beautiful set is a win for long time and soon to be fans.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

The King of Sports – Football’s Impact on America – Gregg Easterbrook (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press)

The concept of this book is a critical examination of the societal impact of professional and college football on the United States, conceived and penned by a global warming alarmist, scholar who toils as a fellow for the Fulbright Foundation and Brooking Institution think tanks and lays claim to watching
“too much football.” What could possibly go wrong?

Easterbrook who has been dubbed “the thinking man’s John Madden” authored the “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” column for the uber-liberal, and; that was noted for its snarky takedowns of football honchos and every level. Easterbrook’s more recent endeavors could lead you to wonder if Easterbrook would prefer the NFL become the professional flag football league.

The King of Sports – Football’s Impact on America, starts out with a shocking love note to all things Virginia Tech football and coach Frank Beamer. Easterbrook opines on all that is holy about the Hokies program. If that was a way to set the tone for the rest of the book, it derails quickly.

Overall there is a disjointed, unconnected feel to the way this book is put together. Instead of coming off as a coherent, well balanced examination of the sport, ends up reading like a mixed bag of random columns that just don’t quite hang together. Can’t say I had high expectations going into this based on accolades from the likes of MS-LSD’s Chuck Todd.

Arrested Development: A Hippie Who Never Grew Up

Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life – Graham Nash (Crown Archetype)

As I worked my way through Graham Nash’s autobiography Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life I was struck by the almost childlike naiveté with which he approaches life. In everything from his take on politics, to money, to drugs and to business, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was about Nash that drove me crazy.

Then it finally struck me; despite the fact that Nash is in his 60s, he truly suffers from the arrested development of a 1960s hippie, that never grew up!

His references to drug use is a legion of clichés! In typical stoner fashion he talks about how various chemicals he ingested opened his mind. His slam against fellow bandmates in the Hollies, who didn’t do drugs and weren’t on his higher plane, takes on an, I’m better than you cause I do drugs tone. He relishes the memory of the recording of the first album with Stephen Stills and David Crosby because they were in such a good place, because they started every session by smoking a joint and doing a line of coke. This fond remembrance flies in the face of the utter destruction that drugs played in the life of David Crosby, but fits perfectly with Nash’s childlike approach to life.

While so many biographies, notably those in the rock ‘n’ roll realm, tend to be a fiesta of name dropping, Nash is a gold medalist at it. At times it seems that everyone who crossed paths with Nash ends up bearing the mantle of “my dear friend” or “my very good friend” or “my lifelong friend” or some such tag.

Nash solidifies his stunted status when talking politics. His causes du jour have included the Viet Nam War, the no nukes movement and stereotypical environmental blah blah, among many others. His thoughts on the “mistreatment” of the traitorous Bradley Manning, the person responsible for leaking top secret information to Wikileaks, shows his lack of ability to comprehend the life or death consequences involved in Manning’s actions.

Sorry, but I find it down right LAUGHABLE, when a multi-millionaire, solidly in the so-called 1%, takes to the streets of New York City to play an impromptu CSN show at an Occupy Wall Street rally. Nash’s arrested development wouldn’t allow him to see the irony or the stupidity of it.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Chronicle of Toppling the Taliban

The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior Who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime – Brian Glyn Williams, PhD (Chicago Review Press)

Tales of military victory often center around public displays of heavy machinery and legends surrounding high technology. In reality it is more often than not it is the warrior that gets the short end of the story, while playing the major role.

Such is the case in the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan; where a relatively small number of U.S. Special Forces soldiers, somewhere around three or four hundred, played an instrumental role in toppling the hard line regime. Those highly trained forces were aided, guided and abetted by powerful Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum and his band of warriors.

It is the tale of the strongman Dostum (pronounced dohs-tuum) that is detailed in Brian Glyn Williams, PhD, latest book The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior Who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime. Williams, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, had an amazing level of access to Dostum, his family and those that work and travel in the same circles with him.

It is from that insider point of view that Williams delivers a chillingly detailed chronicle of the role Dostum played in the 2001 defeat of the Taliban. This story often runs contrary to that espoused by the mainstream media who often portray Dostum as a brutal, murderous thug, they claim is responsible for the senseless slaughter of Taliban prisoners.

Williams portrait is one of a very hard man, who grew into power in a desperate time and location, with Soviet military forces battling for control of Afghanistan.  By the mid-1980s the forces under Dostum’s command had grown to a militia of 20,000 strong. The strongman’s forces would play a critical role in defeating the forces arrayed against them in the north on numerous occasions; not only the Soviets, but also the Mujahadeen and later the Taliban.

Instead of understanding the role Dostum and his men played in defeating the Taliban, the U.S. chose to marginalize him due to the public perception of his brutality. This approach seems to once again underestimate the role that these often brutal warlords play in a land that is the equivalent to the wild west on steroids. As the U.S. forces continue to downsize and withdraw, Williams makes it clear that Dostum and his Northern Alliance allies are gearing up for battle with a resurgent Taliban force.

Williams offers an intimate portrait not only of the warrior, but of the Afghan nation that so many have tried and failed to get their arms around.