Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fall Quick Takes

The War of the Roses – The Fall of the Plantagnets and the Rise of the Tudors– Dan Jones (Viking Books)

Old-school storytelling that posits a terrible blood feud, great heroes, sadistic villains, mixed with a heavy dose of bloody carnage and single battles that leave astounding body counts; the latest from Game of Thrones author George R R Martin? No…it’s history! At least as history is penned by British historian and I would certainly declare, STORYTELLER, Dan Jones.

If the mere thought of reading history sends chills up your spine, and I don’t mean the good kind, then might I recommend The War of the Roses – The Fall of the Plantagnets and the Rise of the Tudors. Jones uses a masterful touch and really makes history sing with not only a great tale, but a real flair for keeping a page-turning pace, something not regularly associated with the form.

Dr. Mutter’s Marvels – A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine– Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz (Gotham Books)

It seems almost amazing that there was a point at which medical practitioners didn’t believe in hand washing, sterilizing surgical instruments and performed surgical procedures without the benefit of anesthesia! It is against that backdrop that author Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz pens the story of Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter, a talented, innovative surgeon who was literally on the cutting edge of the evolution of modern medicine.

In Dr. Mutter’s Marvels – A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, Aptowicz details not only the interesting dynamics that were at play, as Mutter tried to spur change in the medical field and the often virulent backlash that he faced from his fellow practitioners. interestingly Aptowicz, a poet by trade, delves into a bit of poetic license to set the scenes in which Mutter brings innovation to the front lines of medicine in the form of direct patient care.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up – Life-Changing Lessons From Heaven - Theresa Caputo (Atria Books)

Theresa Caputo, the so-called Long Island Medium, from the TLC cable TV show of the same name, is out with her second book where she collects some of her “experiences” communicating with the spirit world and what she labels “lessons” that she has learned and tries to impart to the family members she “helps.” While I don’t necessarily buy what Caputo is selling in You Can’t Make This Stuff Up – Life-Changing Lessons From Heaven, there clearly is a group of folks who buy into it hook, line and sinker; my attitude is whatever floats your boat.
Unlike many other who work this vein, Caputo does two things that are different; one- she shows a clear sense of humor that make her seem more human and not full of herself and her “special gift” and two she does seem to display a clear sense of spirituality. While some may dub her a charlatan or a fraud, I think that if people gain a sense of peace from there interactions with her, more power to them.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Worship at the Alter of Robert Plant

Robert Plant – A Life – Paul Rees (Dey St./Harper Collins Books)

To be clear upfront…I approach Led Zeppelin from a different direction then most; having spent over a decade working as a disc jockey at a variety of rock radio stations I reached the let me up I’ve had enough point when it came to Zeppelin. The thought of playing or even hearing those magical opening chords of Stairway to Heaven can set my gag reflex to shuddering.

That being said I was curious what longtime Brit music journalist Paul Rees might have uncovered and had to say about the band’s front man in Robert Plant – A Life. Rees has plied his trade as a writer and journalist for over twenty years for publications ranging from rock mags like Q and Kerang! And newspapers like the Evening Standard, the Telegraph and the Independent, so I was interested to read a firmly British perspective on the singer/band who are beloved by fans and bemused by critics.

Unfortunately, Plant continues to be an elusive figure when it comes to granting fresh interviews to writers and apparently was a non-participant in the process of the writing this book. That left Rees, who had interviewed Plant on prior occasions to recycle much of the material that went into this tome. While that is clearly a disappointment for fans of the band hungry for new insights, Rees does have a flair for imaginative prose and he writes of Plant with distinctive style. He also captures the not only the tales of the evolution of the singer/band, he sets up well against the backdrop of what was taking place in the world and in music in the era that the band rose to the heights of their success.

I am always amazed at the level of infighting that takes place when bands reach new levels of fame and fortune. Some of the things that deliver them to the success that they fought so hard to achieve end up becoming a proverbial albatross around their necks. There is a certain level of satisfaction that I take away from Plant’s apparent distain for the all consuming success of Stairway to Heaven.  

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Story of the Man

I’m the Man – The Story of That Guy From Anthrax – Scott Ian (DaCapo Press)

Scott Ian…typical New York guy; hard working, Yankees fan, and average Joe, who just happens to be a rock star. Other than the shaved head and interesting choice of facial hair you might not give this guy a second look. Ian was a founding member of the thrash metal band Anthrax; one of the genre’s so-called Big-Four along with Metalica, Slayer and Megadeth.

It is his average Joe-ness that makes his story of struggle, determination and persistence, told in the new bio, I’m the Man – The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, so interesting. While admittedly I’m not an Anthrax fan, Ian’s story is at once a familiar rock star tale is engaging because he worked so hard to overcome so many obstacles that you can’t help but root for the guy. The fact that he didn’t go out of his way to screw things up like so many rockers do also tends to make the story unique.

You got to give this guy credit, he’s built a 30 plus year career that has seen a virtual revolving door of record labels, band members, managers, industry changes and has managed to avoid becoming a drug addled moron, a victim or a total douche bag. In a sense the book’s title says it all; he is the man, all the while remaining just that guy from Anthrax.

His stories about a dream come true playing Yankee Stadium, the birth of his first child and the description of the love of his life, rocker Pearl Aday, daughter of legendary rocker Meatloaf may not score him any cred with thrash fans, but it truly says something about The Man. I think being among the Big Four probably has him covered on the thrash cred front. This one is a great read whether you’re a fan or not.

The Stones – Start Me Up

Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones – Paul Trynka (Viking Books)

For the casual Rolling Stones fan the band will forever be known by the dynamic duo of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The so-called Glimmer Twins have been synonymous with success of the Rolling Stones, dubbed by many as the World’s Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll band; but the truth is the band got its start when blues fan, guitarist Brian Jones began to cobble together a group of like minded musicians that would evolve into the Stones.

In Brian Jones – The Making of the Rolling Stones, author Paul Trynka draws a sharp dividing line between the two camps; those that support the status of Brian Jones as the founding force and those who fall into the Jagger/Richards camp as the spark of the band’s ultimate greatness.

Trynka truly highlights, but doesn’t necessarily clear up the mystery that shrouds much of the mystery that surrounds the band; the strained relationships, the seemingly endless parade of women (who often added fuel to the fiery relationships) the drugs, the mis-management and the super-sized personalities and egos that are part and parcel of the band.

Trynka focuses a lot of attention on Jones’ troubled early life and the impact that it had on his personality, his apparent obsessions and his ultimate demise. While there has been much speculation surrounding the death of Brian Jones, Trynka doesn’t really wade into the conspiracy debate; instead choosing to touch on many of the theories that have been espoused and investigated by both the police and the media.

What is made clear in the pages of Brain Jones is that despite 50 years of music and media including countless articles and books there remains a staggering amount that is unknown or unclear about the band’s history. That may stem from the passage of time, the clearly divided camps and conflicting allegiances, the deep dives into drug abuse and the desire to keep things all a part of the mythology of the Stones.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Good Read…Just Not Parker Good

Robert B. Parker’s Blind Spot – Reed Farrell Coleman (Putnam Books)

Robert B. Parker’s Blind Spot penned by veteran author Reed Farrell Coleman is a really good read…it is however, not a Robert B. Parker, Jesse Stone book. Parker’s one time major league prospect shortstop turned Paradise Massachusetts police chief, Jesse Stone gets an invite to a reunion of his former Triple-A team; pulled together by a teammate who made it to the Show. Thus starts a tale of twisted and intersecting pasts and paths.

The late Robert B. Parker who created the Stone character along with the likes of his stalwart P I, Spenser, was a master of dialog; the interactions of his memorable characters and their comfortable as an old shoe banter was what made the stories he wove truly shine. Based on this outing, I can’t say the same holds true for Mr. Coleman.

Blind Spot is a much more story driven approach to things with the familiar characters coming of as much more stilted and forced and not near as they were originally drawn. Stone’s battle with the bottle comes off like it came straight from a How to Identify an Alcoholic Handbook; does Stone have a problem? Probably, but Coleman gives Stones taste for and pursuit of Johnnie Walker Black Label come off a bit like a caricature of a lush.

While it may not measure up for Parker fans, I did find Coleman’s story to be a good one; more than a few former Major Leaguers having checkered post retirement careers in the financial services industry and ending up in the gray bar hotel. This outing intrigued me enough to have me track down a few of 20 books Coleman has authored.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Abortion Barbie: The Story of the Empty Pink Suit

Forgetting To Be Afraid - Wendy Davis (Blue Rider Books)

For someone thrust headlong into the national spotlight based solely on her hours long pro-abortion filibuster in the Texas legislature, the Lone Star State Democrat gubernatorial candid seems almost blisteringly not self-aware of the contradictions she presents to the public.

For someone so famously pro-abortion; who admits she partook in the Liberal sacrament twice herself in Forgetting To Be Afraid and her campaign team clumsily Tweeted; “As governor, I’ll always make investing in our Texas children my first priority #TeamWendy.”  Seems hard to believe that someone who is lauded for being so self-aware that she has been hailed as the new face of the Democrat party; she comes off as strikingly unaware of the impact of the words she uses.

Forgetting To Be Afraid reads like a pretty typical campaign tome; plenty of overcoming of difficult situations, larded with a healthy dose of self-aggrandizing and a dollop of “wow isn’t she something!” The fact that Davis choose to not address things like the fact that she famously divorced her second husband, who footed the bill for her final years at Texas Christian and Harvard Law, shortly after he made the final payments on the loans. Guess it makes for a much more admirable story to fabricate a tale of a single Mom overcoming.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ponder This...

The Betrayers –A Novel – David Bezmozgis (Little Brown Books)

As a general rule of thumb; I don’t read novels to be motivated to think. There are plenty of non-fiction books that have motivated me to ponder a wide range of things; in The Betrayers, author David Bezmozgis delivers an elegantly written, thought provoking effort that will leave you contemplating a wide range of moral and social consequences.

Bezmozgis wraps his well crafted storyline, some say loosely based on the real life events surrounding famed Soviet/Jewish dissident Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, around a set of creatively drawn, but clearly flawed characters. Along the way he attempts to tackle questions of morality, right vs. wrong, and character.

This would likely have been a much more difficult book to read if it weren’t for Bezmozgis’s tremendous ability to craft winning prose and vivid characters that you can almost literally wrap your arms around. He delivers a stunningly good book that will no doubt find its way on to many best of 2014 lists.    

All the Ships at Sea

Ninety Percent of Everything – Inside Shipping, The Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas In Your Car, and Food on Your Plate – Rose George

That cheap big screen TV that hangs on your family room wall, the workout togs and Nike sneakers you lounge in while enjoying some fresh guacamole while taking in the football game; not many folks would be bothered with the second thought of how it all got there. Much of what we buy, own and consume arrived on store shelves via the seemingly seamless shipping industry.

It is that closely guarded industry the author Rose George scratches the surface of in her new book, Ninety Percent of Everything – Inside Shipping, The Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas In Your Car, and Food on Your Plate. Maritime shipping is a surprising insular industry; tightly held, almost secretive in nature and shrouded in intriguing set of rules and standards that would leave the average person scratching their heads in wonder.

George manages to just barely break the surface of this huge, global industry, but not for a lack of trying. She spent 39 days aboard the Maersk owned ship, Kendal; along the way hitting six ports, two oceans, five seas and while living in what can only be described as a hostile environment with a tight-lipped Captain and crew offering little in the way of real insight into the industry.

While some with a deep interest in the shipping industry may be disappointed with George’s treatise, I think the average person, myself included, will be fascinated and staggered by some the sheer numbers she details throughout the book. She rightly points out that by in large most people give nary a thought to this massive enterprise. She cites the very true example early in the book of the world’s and media’s fascination with 39 Chilean miners being trapped underground and the heroic efforts to rescue them; while two dozen sailors aboard the MV Iceberg were held hostage by pirates for over 1000 days and received little if any notice.

George certainly raise the question, but I am not certain she managed to find the answer, what would drive these men and women to work in the very necessary jobs in some of the most inhospitable working conditions, up against, often hostile leadership, the risk of pirates and the natural dangers of life at sea. It will and should get you to give consideration to that opening question; How did this all get here?

Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Beast of a Life

Easy Street (The Hard Way) – Ron Perlman – (DaCapo Books)

The craggy visage giving the hard stare off the book’s cover is at once familiar yet somehow not; a quick glance at Ron Perlman’s IMDB listing demonstrates an almost obsessive need to work. The fact that a huge number of the entries are for Perlman’s rusty tin can, raspy, voice and a good number find his face hidden or altered under layers of disguise may explain why Perlman may be a mystery to many.

Perlman’s new autobiography Easy Street (The Hard Way) may be one of the most open, honest accounting of an actor’s life I have ever read. He at times seems to be opening a vein to pour out his trials, tribulations and self-doubts. At other points he writes with a laugh out loud sense of humor and the nearly absurd.

His intimate recounting of meeting Marlon Brando during the shooting of The Island of Dr. Moreau is revealing for it’s personal nature and yet somehow strikingly funny as he describes the initial interaction with the legend. While Perlman has molded an everyman career, he has managed to rub elbows and form relationships with some of the legends of the industry that he describes with a winning mix of awe and humor.

While Perlman describes in great detail his personal struggles both growing up and while working in Hollywood, he provides inspiration; yes it’s a bio, but it’s hard not to be inspired by his drive and determination.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

So Close and Yet…

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – David Shafer (Mulholland Books)

The literary comparisons that have been fired over the bow of David Shafre’s debut novel reads like a cornucopia of hipster critical favorites including the likes of Don Delillo, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy.

So how does Whiskey Tango Foxtrot stack up in the real reader world? Shafer delivers an intriguing concept and well-drawn characters that are crafted with a nuanced style. The book is so full of promise that it elevates the level of disappointment that is attendant to the simple fact that Shafer fails to deliver a satisfying ending.

Murder 101 – Faye Kellerman (William Morrow)

There is something comforting about familiar character that inhabit an ongoing book series. Like a well-worn shoe or a worked in pair of gloves, it’s easy for readers to overlook a few scuffs or tears in the storyline.

Murder 101 bestselling author Faye Kellerman’s latest installment in the Peter Decker/Rina Lazerus series finds the duo pulling up roots and relocating from Los Angeles to upstate New York; looking to enjoy a more relaxed, picturesque lifestyle. Like the best laid plans…things go quickly off the tracks, and Decker is plunged into investigating a brutal murder.

While the story is prime Kellerman, the number of logistical and editing errors, quickly topple the tale. Perhaps the setting relocation from the familiar confines of Southern California to the bucolic region of New York may have been the authors undoing.

Haunted – A Hannah Smith Novel – Randy Wayne White (Putnam Books)

With over 20 books to his credit, Randy Wayne White brings a steady, consistent hand and is reliable in delivering not only solid stories and memorable characters set in authentic locales, in and around Florida’s Everglades. His Doc Ford series has always been among my favorites.

Recently White has served up a couple of books featuring Hannah Smith; the latest is Haunted, which features his take on a familiar theme, the attempt to stop developers from destroying a historic property in the name of “progress” in the form of new condos. Set against the backdrop of her family’s history and the Civil War, Hannah gets placed squarely in the middle of this ages old battle. While the story chugs along a steady clip, it runs out a gas, leaving things with a disappointing conclusion. Perhaps a return visit to the land of Doc is in order.