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HARLEY HAHN'S WORLD OF READING

What is Harley Reading?


Mrs. Underdunk the bookworm
Harley Hahn's World of Reading
Start here: Introduction
Why should you read? Your Key to Mental Fitness
Resources: Reading Resources on the Internet
Book reviews (fun to read): What is Harley Reading?
List of books reviewed...From Newest to Oldest
...Alphabetical by Title
...Alphabetical by Author

Jump to the reviews

In order to read well, it is important to read widely. This is easy for me to say, but how do you know which books to choose for yourself? In the earlier parts of this guide, I made two suggestions.

First, if you do not already have a library card, please get one. Then spend some time browsing the shelves. Be curious. Pick up books that are strange to you and read a bit to see what you think. Looking for ideas that pique your interest is a wonderful way to find new and exciting books to read.

The second suggestion is to identify authors and books that have proven to be of enduring value, and sample what they have to offer. There are, of course, many such authors and many such books, and no one is smart enough to make a definitive list. Still, it's nice to have some suggestions, and if you look in the resource section I mentioned above, you will find two short lists that can get you started.

A third idea, which I want to talk about now, is to get ideas by looking at what other people are reading.

One of the most interesting things about reading is that it is an intensely personal experience. In fact, it may be the most personal human experience there is. Certainly, there are no two people who have the exact same taste in books. Even between longtime spouses, it is common to find that the husband and wife have vastly different reading preferences. For this reason, it is particularly unsatisfying to have someone else choose books for you to read. (Think back to your high school English classes.)

However, this does not mean that you should never ask other people to recommend books. I remember one day in the ninth grade, being in the library talking to a friend of mine named Joe Halpern. Joe was widely considered to be The Smartest Guy in the School. (I'm sure you know the type.)

"Joe," I said, "can you recommend anything good to read?"

Joe looked at the bookshelf in front of us, reached up, and pulled down a book by P.G. Wodehouse. To this day, I consider Joe's suggestion to be one of the most important favors anyone has ever done for me.

So in the same spirit, I offer you my personal reading list: the books I am reading now or have read in the recent past. My hope is that this list will give you ideas for your own reading. Perhaps, if you are lucky, one of these books will open a new and satisfying world for you, just as Joe's suggestion did for me so many years ago.

I have arranged the list below so that the books I have read most recently are at the top. I did this so that when you visit again, you can see what's new by looking at the top of the list.

As you look at the list, you will see my opinion of the writing (excellent, good, fair, or poor), and whether or not the book is worth reading. I will also tell you where I got the book: from my personal collection, from a friend, or from the library. (You will notice that the library is an important place for me.)

By the way, would you like to find out what happened to Joe?

— the reviews —

*new*
The Door Into Summer
borrowed
from the
library

Author: Robert Heinlein

Writing: Excellent

Worth reading? Yes

In the spring of 2011, I went to a small San Diego science fiction convention with a friend Al Sladek. At the convention, I introduced Al to an acquaintance of mine, David Brin. David and I were in the same department in graduate school and, after graduation, he became, not only a scientist, but a successful science fiction writer.

David introduced us to a friend of his, another well-known science fiction writer Larry Niven, and the four of us started to chat. The talk turned to our favorite science fiction novels. I volunteered that my favorite is a time-travel novel The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov, a book I have read more times than I can remember.

Larry then began to talk about his favorite science fiction novel. It was, he explained, also a time-travel story, a novel called The Door Into Summer. He said the book, written by Robert Heinlein, was his very favorite, and he explained the meaning of the title.

If time travel were possible,
would you want to do it?

The narrator of the book, Daniel Boone Davis, is a fierce individualist who lives in an old farmhouse in Connecticut. Davis' only companion — in fact, his only friend — is a cat named Pete. The house is so large and rambling that it contains eleven doors to the outside. Pete, however, has his own small cat-sized door, which he uses every day to go outside.

In the winter, when there is snow on the ground, Pete, who hates snow, refuses to go out the cat door. Nevertheless, Pete is convinced that one of the eleven human doors must lead to warmth and sunshine. So every winter day, after Pete looks out his cat door and finds cold and snow, he makes Davis open each the eleven doors, one after the other. Although Pete always disappointed, he never gives up. In his own cat-like way he is convinced that, somewhere in the house, there is a Door into Summer.

After hearing Larry talk about The Door Into Summer, I wanted to read it myself. As soon as I returned home, I requested it via inter-library loan and, a week later, the book was in my hands. I started to read and, within 10 minutes, I was engrossed and delighted, so much so that, from time to time, I had to force myself to stop reading in order to eat and sleep.

The novel, which was written in 1956, starts on December 3, 1970, which means that Heinlein was imagining life 14 years in the future. As Davis the narrator describes 1970, life is troublesome, not only for the human race in general, but to him personally. Davis, it seems, has just gone through a horrible experience of betrayal and loss and, like Pete the cat, he longs for his own personal Door into Summer.

The story involves romance, money, relationships, and the sort of futuristic technology you would expect from science fiction. Since 1970 is so disappointing to Davis, he arranges to have himself put into a type of suspended animation called "cold sleep". He wakes up in the year 2000 (without Pete, alas) and sets about rebuilding his life.

He soon finds out what happened to the people who betrayed him 30 years earlier, which inspires him to set about changing things. Against all odds, Davis finds a way to go back to 1970, where he modifies the past (and the future) in a way that will both astonish and satisfy you. Eventually, he returns to 2000, where his love interest now awaits him along with, believe it or not, Pete the cat.

The Door Into Summer is a wonderful novel, especially if, like me, you enjoy the logical twists involved in a good time-travel story. The characterization and plotting are excellent and will draw you in quickly. So quickly, in fact, that it is my guess you will want to read the book as fast as you possibly can, just to find out what happens.

If I didn't like The End of Eternity so much, I'd say this was the best time-travel novel ever written.

*new*
The Linux Command Line
sent to
me by the
publisher

Author: William E. Shotts

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes (if you use Linux)

Over the years, I have written six Unix and Linux books — three college textbooks and three for the general public — and I am familiar with many of the books in this genre. Having said that, I can tell you that The Linux Command Line is a valuable, well-written book that belongs on the bookshelf of every serious Linux user.

The author William Shotts is almost as old as me, which means that he has been using computers a very long time. When I first read started to read this book, I could see that Shotts is a rarity: a Linux expert who knows how to pass on his expertise.

William E. Shotts Jr.,
demonstrating the serene,
self-composure that comes
from mastering the Linux
command line interface.

Linux and Unix — like Windows and MacOS — are "operating systems", master control programs that provide services to both users (people) and to programs (software). All operating systems are very complex, so much so that no single human being can ever master them completely. Nevertheless, if you are so inclined, you can learn a great deal about an operating system and, once you do, a whole new world opens for you. That, put simply, is Shott's goal: to teach you how to use Linux so well, with so much skill and creativity, that it becomes an extension of your mind when you are called upon to use your computer to solve problems and build tools.

If you have ever used Linux or even read about it, you will have heard that it is "free software", which means that Linux can be used, modified, and distributed by anyone. As such, the programs that comprise Linux are available to everyone in the world, which means that anyone, anywhere, can look inside the programs and see how they work. However, there is more here than sharing or being able to read the actual code (programs): free software has the potential to bring real power to you and me, if we choose to accept it. In the introduction to his book, Shotts explains this very important idea.

He writes: "Many people speak of 'freedom' with regard to Linux, but I don't think most people know what this freedom really means. Freedom is the power to decide what your computer does, and the only way to have this freedom is to know what your computer is doing. Freedom is a computer that is without secrets, one where everything can be known if you care enough to find out." By this, Shotts refers to learning how to use the powerful tools that are part of every Linux system, but that few people ever master. Indeed, many people do not even know such tools exist.

Most people, most of the time, interact with their computers using what is called a "graphical user interface" (GUI): using windows, a mouse, menus, and so on. However, a much more powerful way to use a computer is via the "command line interface" (CLI), that is, by typing actual commands, one after another. The program that reads and interprets such commands is called the "shell".

From the very beginning, Unix (and then Linux) has always had a powerful command line interface, based upon one shell or another. Linux comes with a huge number of different commands with many different options, and once you learn the basics, you will have more power than you have ever had before with a computer.

All of which underscores the importance of The Linux Command Line, a superb reference and teaching book that will introduce you to the shell and the Unix/Linux command line interface: what it is; how to use it; and how to solve problems creatively. The book works well because Shotts is more than someone who knows what he is doing; he is an skilled writer and organizer who has crafted a complicated book, carefully and deliberately.

Most of the serious Linux users I know have a personal library containing every good Linux and Unix book they can find. (I myself have many such books.) If you consider yourself to be in this category, you will want your own copy of The Linux Command Line.

If you are new to Linux or Unix, you may find that, before reading Shotts' book, you need a firm grounding in the basic principles behind understanding and using Linux. If so, I suggest that you also buy a copy of my book Harley Hahn's Guide to Unix and Linux, published by McGraw-Hill Higher Education. I know it seems self-serving, but the combination of these two books works well.


Pioneer, Go Home
borrowed
from the
library

Author: Richard Powell

Writing: Excellent

Worth reading? Yes

When I notice that a movie was adapted from a novel or short story, I find it interesting to look up the original source. So when I was watching the Elvis Presley film Follow That Dream (1962) and saw that it was based on a novel named Pioneer, Go Home, I requested the book from my local library. Unexpectedly, I found a real gem.

The movie version of Pioneer, Go
Home
features Elvis Presley as
Toby Kwimper. Here he is fishing.

Pioneer, Go Home was written by the American writer Richard Pitts Powell (1908-1999). It was his 12th novel, published in 1959. His previous novel, The Philadelphian, was a serious, dramatic best-seller, so Pioneer, Go Home, a humorous satire, was an unexpected change of pace.

The story is narrated by an naive, happy-go-lucky, uneducated young man named Toby Kwimper. Toby relates the adventures of his family, who become squatters on an unoccupied piece of land in the state of "Columbiana" (a thinly disguised Florida). The story begins as follows:

"None of this would have happened if Pop had minded what the sign told him. The sign was on a barrier across a new road that angled off the one we was driving on, and it said 'Positively Closed to the Public.' But after all his years of being on relief, or getting Unemployment Compensation and Aid to Dependent Children and things like that, Pop didn't think of himself as The Public..."

"The five of us — Pop, and the twins, and the babysitter, and me — had been taking a vacation trip down south during March and some of April. Pop had needed a rest. Back in February, after he had finished a spell of Compensation, Pop had wore himself to a nub trying to figure should he go on relief or should he work long enough to take another crack to Compensation..."

What follows as a charming story of a guileless family as they settle in, build a shelter, and start a business — all on land that is, at least at first, ignored by the state of Columbiana. Once they start to become successful, however, the government — which used to be their friend — begins to turn against them.

Pioneer, Go Home is a funny and gentle story, well worth reading. I suggest that, after you read the book, you see the Elvis movie. I think you'll enjoy both of them, but be sure to read the book first.

  


Fame Junkies
borrowed
from the
library

Author: Jake Halpern

Writing: Good

Worth reading? No

The theme of this book is that fame is important to our culture. Toward that end, the author shows us how fame is so important to some people that they will put in enormous effort and spend large amounts of money to become famous, to have their children become famous, to worship celebrities who are already famous, or to hang around or work for celebrities.

The subtitle for this book is "The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction". However, it is misleading on two counts. First, the "truths" aren't at all hidden. Read the last paragraph again. Didn't you already know that a lot of people go crazy when it comes to wanting to be famous or be near famous people?

Andy Warhol — 1968

Second, an obsession with fame hardly qualifies as "America's favorite addiction". (That award, I imagine, would go to alcohol.) Thus, right on the front cover, before you even start reading, the book starts out by being dishonest. But, wait, as they say on TV, there's more.

The book is divided into three parts: Aspiring Child Celebrities, Celebrity Entourages (including personal assistants), and Celebrity Worshipers. Throughout the book, Halpern relates many, many stories of people he interviewed. Most of the stories are mildly boring. However, you will get some pleasure out of being able to say to yourself, over and over, "Boy, I'm glad that's not me. These people must be crazy."

Perhaps they are. And yet, the thought may occur to you that it would be interesting to look up some of these aspiring celebrities to see what they have achieved, especially the many young children who wanted nothing more than to be famous. For example, on pages 10-13, we read about several girls from Buffalo, New York: Sarah Hormbrick (20 years old), Lucinda Wells (14), and Amy Lumber (16), all of whom attend a special school that promises to help them become famous. I looked for traces of all three girls, as well as many of the other people mentioned in the book, but I couldn't find any information about any them. Could it be the case, I asked myself, that no one the author talked about actually managed to become famous?

This seemed strange but then, at the very end of the book, I found out why. After the last page of text (on page 199), there is a short note from the author explaining that he had changed the names and hometowns of all the aspiring celebrities as well as many of the other people in the book. His goal was to "protect" their identity. The reason I couldn't find up-to-date information about Sarah, Lucinda, or Amy is they don't really exist: at least, not under those names.

I understand his reasoning, although I wonder why it was necessary, as all of these people desperately wanted nothing more than to become well known. Regardless, announcing that one has changed of names and details is an admission that usually is — and ought to be — made at the beginning of a book. Reading this disclaimer at the very end, after I had read all the stories, created a sense of betrayal. Throughout the book, I had come to know these people, albeit briefly, and reading Halpern's belated admission made me wonder: How many other "facts" had he changed?

Halpern's writing is serviceable, and I got the feeling that he really tried. However, he is a magazine writer and a radio commentator, not a book author. What we have here is a mildly interesting work — one that would have been better as a series of well-edited magazine articles — a book that, unfortunately, begins and ends with literary dishonesty.

I wonder if Jake Halpern is famous?

(If you really must.)


Designing Interfaces, Second Edition
sent to
me by the
publisher

Author: Jenifer Tidwell

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes (if you are a Web designer)

There is no doubt that Jenifer Tidwell knows what she is talking about. She has a keen artistic eye (as you can see from the photographs on her Web site), and she has been in the Web interface business a long time: since 1991, in fact, which, in this business is almost forever. Her book is full of useful information and makes an excellent reference for Web designers. Obviously, Tidwell worked hard. And yet... I feel wistful about this book.

Perhaps I can explain why by telling you about Mr. Price and Mr. Rutherford.

When I was in junior high school, I took a music class with two teachers, Mr. Price and Mr. Rutherford. Mr. Price taught most of the classes; Mr. Rutherford taught us only occasionally. Mr. Price was competent and knowledgeable. Mr. Rutherford, however, was fun. Mr. Price was boring. Mr. Rutherford had spirit.

Mr. Rutherford not only enjoyed teaching us, he made learning enjoyable, and I was always happy when I walked into the music room to find that, today, Mr. Rutherford would be teaching the class. To this day, whenever I go to a lecture, to a class, or start to read a non­fiction book, I wonder to myself: who is going to show up, Mr. Price or Mr. Rutherford?

Jenifer Tidwell's son, born
Nov 7, 2006; a master of
the tactile interface.

Returning to Designing Interfaces (which should really be called Designing Web Interfaces), I must admit that the author is competent and knowledgeable. She has collected every Web interface you have ever seen — and many you haven't — and has created a comprehensive reference of over 125 different "patterns". Each pattern is illustrated, explained, and discussed. The book itself is rendered in a beautiful full-color design that works well. (The book designer, Ron Bilodeau did an excellent job.)

Without question, this is a valuable reference for any Web designer who needs to work with user interfaces. As such, it would be an excellent supplementary text for a college Web design class. Are you searching for just the right user interface for a Web page you are designing? My guess is that what you need is in this book somewhere.

And yet, as I read the book and thought about it, I had a nagging sense that there was something more that I wanted. The writing is serviceable, but I it did not engage me. Finally I figured it out.

When it comes to discussing structure and concrete ideas, Tidwell is fine. For example (from page 287):

"If the whole data display won't fit on-screen at once, you could put it in a scrolled window, giving the user easy and familiar access to the off-screen portions. Scrollbars are familiar to almost everyone and are easy to use..."

Straightforward prose, easy to understand. No problem.

But when it comes to explaining abstract ideas, it's (literally) a different story. Consider, for example, the explanation (page xviii) of the technical term "pattern", one of the most important ideas in the entire book:

"In essence, patterns are structural and behavioral features that improve the 'habitability' of something — a user interface, a website, an object-oriented program, or a building. They make things easier to understand or more beautiful; they make tools more useful and usable. As such, patterns can be a description of best practices within a given design domain..."

Can you see why I feel wistful? Designing Interfaces is a beautiful, well-executed book with a great deal of valuable reference material. However, I kept hoping for Mr. Rutherford, and Mr. Price showed up.

Ice Brothers borrowed
from the
library

Author: Sloan Wilson

Writing: Excellent

Worth reading? Yes

This book surprised me. Or perhaps I should say, I surprised myself while reading this book.

Ice Brothers takes place aboard a U.S. Coast Guard ice trawler during World War II. The story begins on Sunday, December 7, 1941 — the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States found itself at war. The narrative follows the trials of a Paul Schuman, a 22-year-old inexperienced and unsure young man who, upon hearing the news of the attack, impulsively volunteers for the Coast Guard. Schuman becomes a junior officer on the trawler Arluk, which is sent from East Boston to patrol the coast of Greenland. (The name "Ice Brothers" refers to the Arluk and it's sister ship the Nanmak.)

The USS Aklak, a converted Boston Trawler,
used in the Greenland Patrol, 1942.

The reason I say I surprised myself is that — in spite of the fact that I am not a World War II buff, and I do not generally like action novels or sea stories — I found myself drawn into the narrative from page one.

Although few people were aware of it, the coasts of Greenland during World War II were a small but significant theatre of war. This was because, during the war, weather prediction was crucial, and it is usually the case that the weather in Greenland moves east, warms up, and two days later is visited upon the rest of Europe. Since there were no satellites or computers, and radar was still in its infancy, maintaining radio-equipped weather stations in Greenland was a crucial objective for both the Germans and the Allies. Hence, the importance of military vessels along the coast.

Ice Brothers follows Schuman and the crew of the Arluk as they mature from untrained tyros into a highly skilled naval team. As I watched Schuman confront the rigors and unexpected problems of wartime Greenland — including a caption who was an end-stage alcoholic — I felt inspired in a way that only a great novelist can engender. As such, I found myself learning about life and, at the same time, gaining insight into my own mental and emotional processes.

I found this book while browsing in the library, looking for anything written by Sloan Wilson, because I had greatly enjoyed his earlier novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (also reviewed on this site). I consider myself lucky, because Ice Brothers is a rare pleasure: a captivating book that, unexpectedly, both informs and entertains.

Interesting trivia: Perhaps you remember reading about the "Unibomber" who, from 1978 to 1995, created 16 bombs, most of which were sent through the mail to unsuspecting persons. On June 10, 1980, the president of United Airlines opened such a bomb. It had been mailed to him concealed within a copy of the book "Ice Brothers".


Read the review of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, also by Sloan Wilson.

Harry S. Truman borrowed
from the
library

Author: Robert Dallek

Writing: Excellent

Worth reading? Yes

This short (153 pages of text) book about Harry Truman, the President of the United States from 1945 to 1953, was written by Robert Dallek, a man who knows how to write about presidents. This is Dallek's 14th book about U.S. presidents and his 17th book overall.

Many people think of Truman as an ordinary man, a plain-spoken country boy who made good in the big city. Actually, Truman was an extremely determined, ambitious, and savvy politician, who deliberately entered politics after serving as an Army Captain in World War I and, later, as a Colonel in the Army Reserve. Slowly but surely, he became a successful local and then state politician at a time when Missouri politics was characterized by cronyism, tough in-fighting, and survival of the fittest.

From 1935 to 1945, Truman served as U.S. Senator from Missouri. In January 1945, he became Franklin Roosevelt's Vice President. Less than three months later, when Roosevelt died of a stroke, Harry Truman became the 33rd President of the United States. In 1948, he was unexpectedly elected President in his own right in a tough, uphill campaign against New York Governor Thomas Dewey.

U.S. President Harry Truman at his
desk in the White House, late 1945.

In the popular culture, Truman is fondly remembered by Americans as an ordinary man: a straightforward politician from the small town of Independence, Missouri, celebrated for having a sign on his desk that read "The Buck Stops Here". The reality, as Dallek explains superbly, is far more interesting and surprising. Under the pen of a master, Truman's life takes shape in a way that shows him to be both man and super-man.

Harry Truman was the president who led America into the atomic age, the Cold War, and the Korean War, and who initiated the modern civil rights movement. The post-war period over which Truman presided was one of the most difficult and significant times in American history and, by the time you finish reading this book, you will understand why Harry Truman is considered to be one of only four great U.S. presidents of the Twentieth Century (the others being Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt).

This book is both inspiring and informative, a rare combination, well worth reading.

The Graduate,
Home School
(2 books)
personal collection
 
borrowed from the library

Author: Charles Webb

The Graduate (1963)
Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes

Home School (2007)
Writing: Poor

Worth reading? No

It is seldom that one encounters a sequel to a novel that is published 44 years after the original book, but that is the case here. The original book, The Graduate, was published in 1963 by American author Charles Webb, shortly after he graduated from Williams College, a Massachusetts liberal arts college. The sequel, Home School, was not published until 2007.

The Graduate tells the story of Benjamin Braddock, a recent graduate from a small Eastern college (perhaps Williams College). A short time after returning home to Pasadena, California, Benjamin is seduced by Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father's business partner. The affair lasts for most of the summer, and ends only when Benjamin falls in love with Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine.

As you might expect, Mrs. Robinson becomes very upset and forbids Benjamin from seeing Elaine. To ensure that Elaine will have nothing more to do with him, Mrs. Robinson tells Elaine that Benjamin raped her. (The book is different from the movie.) As you would expect, Elaine is appalled. She cuts Benjamin out of her life and returns to school in Berkeley. Benjamin then follows her in order to convince her to marry him.

Not long afterwards, Elaine's father finds about the affair. He too wants to protect his daughter, so he forces her to drop out of the university and become engaged to Carl, a more suitable suitor.

The book ends in Santa Barbara, where Elaine is just about to marry Carl. Benjamin breaks up the wedding before the ceremony can take place and runs away with Elaine. The last scene in the book finds them on a local bus, Elaine still in her wedding dress, riding into their new life together.

The reason I am relating so many details is to contrast the original novel with the sequel. As you may remember, The Graduate was made into a movie (in 1967) that became one of the iconic films of the sixties. If you enjoyed the movie, you'll like the book even more: the characters are better developed, and there are a lot of details that were left out of the film.

The film version of The Graduate was extremely popular, so it only makes sense that the sequel to the novel was a long-awaited event. After all, wouldn't you want to know what happened to Benjamin, Elaine, and Mrs. Robinson?

Sad to say, the sequel, entitled Home School, is terrible. In fact, it is so bad, I won't summarize it for you or even tell you anything about it. The writing is awful. The characters are poorly drawn and nothing at all like their namesakes from the first book. The plot is so silly and unbelievable that it's difficult to believe it was created by a sentient adult.

So, although I think you'll enjoy The Graduate, don't bother reading even a page of Home School. I read it all the way through so I could review it, and it was a total waste of my time.

Interestingly enough, in 2005, Rob Reiner directed a movie called Rumor Has It, a film sequel to the original Graduate. If you are a fan of the movie, this sequel is worth seeing, if only for its cuteness.

Walt, Mickey and Me borrowed
from the
library

Author: Paul Petersen

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes

If you are old enough, you may remember The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966). The son on the show was played by Paul Petersen, a child actor who, in his time, became a well-known teenage heartthrob. When the show was over, however, Petersen's career, like that of most child actors, ended with a large thump. In a Hollywood instant, Petersen changed from "child-actor" to "didn't-you-used-to-be-someone-famous?".

It took years for Peterson to pick up the pieces; in fact, he never managed to do so completely. Years later, however, endowed with the maturity and wisdom that comes with age, Petersen was able to look back on his hectic, very unnatural life as a child actor — and he didn't like what he saw. Inspired by his experience and the plights of many other child actors — most of whose lives turned out horribly — Petersen became an activist. Eventually, in 1990, he founded a child-actor support group called "A Minor Consideration".

However, long before becoming an activist, Petersen became a writer. In 1977, at the age of 32, he published a charming, little-noticed book called Walt, Mickey and Me in which he discussed what it was like for him, at age 9, to be a Mouseketeer on the original Mickey Mouse Club (1955-1959).

Being a Mouseketeer was Petersen's first major acting job, and it lasted only three weeks. (He was fired after calling the casting director "Fatso" and punching him in the stomach.) However, those three weeks provided Petersen with enough material to fill many pages of reminiscences annotated with devastating commentary.

Along with his own story, Petersen tracked down and interviewed many of the old Mouseketeers. The result is an entertaining, inside look at a very specific part of the Disney empire, along with Petersen's take on what the experience did to the children involved with the show.

I came across a reference to this book while looking at Petersen's Web site, and my curiosity got the better of me. Although this is a hard book to find, the magical inter-library loan elves at my local library managed to track down a copy for me. I was astonished: there was a lot more to The Mickey Mouse Club than I ever realized, and Petersen was a much better writer than I expected.

For another look at the same show, see the book Forever Hold Your Banner High by Jerry Bowles (also reviewed on this site).

Paul Petersen's Web Site

A Minor Consideration

Forever Hold Your Banner High borrowed
from the
library

Author: Jerry Bowles

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes (if you care about the original Mickey Mouse Club)

If you are old enough to have grown up in the 1950s, you will remember the original Mickey Mouse Club, a daily, kid-centric variety show produced by Walt Disney. Every weekday after school, the children of America would watch a mixture of performances (mostly musical) with a cartoon, an episode of a serial, and a newsreel. For a few years, The Mickey Mouse Club was extremely popular, providing the country's children with good, wholesome, Walt Disney-approved entertainment.

The stars of the show were two adults (Jimmie Dodd and Roy Williams) and a gaggle of very talented "Mouseketeers": child actors, dancers and singers. If you watched the show, you will probably remember at least some of them: Annette (by far, the most popular), Tommy, Darlene, Cheryl, Bobby, Doreen, Cubby, Karen, Lonnie and Sharon.

So far, so good, but what about the inside story? Jerry Bowles, an entertainment writer, has researched and related a fund of interesting stories as to what went on behind the scenes (although I can't help but think the best stories have never really been told). As part of his research, Bowles tracked down and interviewed as many of the original Mousketeers as he could find, so there's a lot of "What ever happened to so-and-so?" in the book. If you care about questions such as What ever happened to Annette? — or Sharon or Karen or Cubby? — this is the book for you.

By the way, the name of the book comes from a line in the Mickey Mouse Club theme song: "Forever let us hold our banners high!" (whatever that means).

For another look at the same show, see the book Walt, Mickey and Me by Paul Petersen (also reviewed on this site).

The Guest of Honor borrowed
from the
library

Author: Irving Wallace

Writing: Poor

Worth reading? No

Irving Wallace (1916-1990) was a celebrated author who, over a long career, wrote 18 novels and an equal number of non-fiction books. I remember reading two of his earlier novels — The Man, and The Word — and finding them intriguing, so when I came across The Guest of Honor in the library I thought I'd give it a try.

It was only after I finished reading The Guest of Honor that I found out it was Wallace's last book, published only a year before he died at the age of 74. Unfortunately, by that time, the vitality and careful plotting for which Wallace was known had attenuated to the point of non-existence.

The characters in this book are less than one-dimensional: they are not even developed to the point of being caricatures. The protagonist is the President of the United States, Matt Underwood, who is unhappily married to a beautiful but unsatisfying former Miss America. As president, Underwood is a lazy lightweight, having been elected solely because of his extreme popularity. (At one time, he was the beloved anchorman for a national cable news network.)

The female protagonist is Noy Sang, the president of the small country of Lampang. Sang inherited her high office a year earlier when her husband, who had been elected president, was assassinated. She is unexpectedly attractive: small, delicate and beautiful; charming and graceful with "flawless" brown skin. Noy is also extremely intelligent: she was educated in the U.S. at Wellesley College. Just as important, as we find out later in the book, she looks extremely fetching in a wet sari.

If the main characters are unlikely, the plot of the novel is even more so, being so unbelievable and preposterous as to defy the reader to summon up even the modicum of "willing suspension of disbelief" necessary to enjoy a bad novel.

The previous expression comes from the work of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), an English poet and philosopher who, in discussing how he wrote the epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, explained that his goal was:

"...to transfer from our inward nature, a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."

In other words, if a writer is sufficiently skillful, he can cause the reader to forget that a narrative is unbelievable and preposterous, at least long enough to enjoy the story. Although Coleridge was able to do so, Wallace, sadly, was not. The plot of The Guest of Honor is as undeveloped as its characters, making for a thoroughly valueless book.

By now, you may be wondering, could the plot really be that bad?

Here is the setup: The (fictional) country of Lampang consists of three islands — one large, two small — in the South China Sea, not far from China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The large island is the seat of the government, nominally a democracy. However, the future of democracy in Lampang is in doubt, because the two smaller islands are controlled by communist insurgents whose goal is to take over the government. The communists are supplied with weapons and support from the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

The United States has three major air bases in the region: in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Because of the strong communist presence in the region, it is strategically important for the United States to establish one more very large air base in Lampang. Lampang, however, is a poor country that is in dire need of a very large loan.

If this sounds to you like a perfect opportunity for the U.S. and Lampang to make a deal, you are correct. Towards that end, President Noy Sang goes to Washington to meet with President Underwood. Madame Noy is beautiful, graceful and intelligent. President Underwood is charming, handsome and, at first, not the least bit interested in Lampang, air bases, or global strategy. But then, President meets President and— it's love at first sight.

From there, the book goes downhill.

Me and a Guy Named Elvis borrowed
from the
library

Author: Jerry Schilling (written by Chuck Crisafulli)

Writing: Fair

Worth reading? Yes (if you care about Elvis)

Elvis Presley (1935-1977) was one of those rare people who is larger in death than he was in life. As a consequence, there is no danger of the world running short of Elvis books and — as if to prove the point — here is another one.

This books relates the memories of Jerry Schilling, a longtime friend of Elvis, who tells us what it was like to know and hang out with the man. If you care about Elvis, even a bit, this book is worth reading for the insight you into Elvis' habits and thought processes.

If you were to guess that any friend of Elvis' is probably not going to be a professional writer, you would be right: the book is actually written by ghostwriter Chuck Crisafulli. The writing is — as they say in Elvis Presley-land — only fair to middlin', but somehow, that seems appropriate given the subject matter.

A Thousand Sundays borrowed
from the
library

Author: Jerry Bowles

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes (if you remember The Ed Sullivan Show)

From 1948 to 1971, the Ed Sullivan variety show was a perennial favorite in the Sunday evening lineup on the CBS television network. The show was, actually, not so much a "variety show" as a full-fledged, weekly vaudeville show. Indeed, Ed Sullivan can rightly be looked upon as the last, great vaudeville impresario.

Vaudeville was a type of stage entertainment, popular in the U.S. and Canada from the 1880s to the 1930s. Each performance consisted of a long series of unrelated acts, a perfect description of the Sullivan show.

This book traces the roots of the show and tells the story of Ed Sullivan, its host. If you are old enough to remember the Beatles first U.S. TV appearance (on this show), you will enjoy reliving the memories of youth. As you do, you will find it more than a bit interesting to learn about the man behind the show: Ed Sullivan was one of the greatest producers in the history of American entertainment.

Ed Sullivan trivia: At the time, most musical groups (and many singers) did not perform live on TV; instead they lip-synched. Sullivan required his acts to actually sing and play.

The Man [James Bond] Who Saved Britain borrowed
from the
library

Author: Simon Winder

Writing: Poor

Worth reading? No

For many years now, I have enjoyed reading the original James Bond novels, the ones written by Ian Fleming. In fact, every now and then I'll reread one of Fleming's books just for relaxation. My favorite scenes are always the ones in the beginning, where Bond is briefed on his new mission by his boss M. (I guess I'm more of a thinking guy than an action guy.)

So when I found this book in the library I thought to myself, "Wow, a book by another James Bond lover," and I couldn't wait to get home to start reading.

What a disappointment! This book has some of the most turgid, wandering, boring, and unfathomable prose I have ever seen in a published book. This is a work that is so idiosyncratic and, well, personal, as to be intolerable. I suppose I should have been warned by the subtitle of the book: A Personal Journey Into the Disturbing World of James Bond.

Sad to say, this is one journey worth avoiding, no matter how much you like James Bond.

(If you really must.)

The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman borrowed
from the
library

Author: Bruce Jay Friedman

Writing: Fair

Worth reading? No

I looked for this book because it contained a short story I wanted to read, "A Change of Plan". This was the story, found by Elaine May, that was used as the basis for her 1972 movie, "The Heartbreak Kid".

At the time, May prevailed upon Neil Simon to write the screenplay. The result is a light but intriguing black-humor film about Lenny Cantrow, a young, self-absorbed Jewish store owner from New York. Lenny travels to Florida on his honeymoon with his inadvertently uncharming, Jewish bride Lila. On the beach, Lenny encounters a young, beautiful, very un-Jewish blond girl, Kelly Corcoan, with whom he falls in love. Lenny decides, impulsively, to divorce his bride and to devote himself to winning the heart of his newly found Gentile siren.

I found the move so fetching that I hunted down the book by Bruce Jay Friedman, so I could read the short story that inspired Elaine May to make this movie. I read a number of the stories, which I found to be nothing special. When it came to "A Change of Plan", I was surprised to find that it was only 6 pages long.

I was even more surprised to find that, in spite of the shortness of the story, I couldn't understand the ending, and neither did any of the people to whom I showed it.

(Maybe you can do better.)

Dean and Me: A Love Story borrowed
from the
library

Author: Jerry Lewis (written by ghostwriter James Kaplan)

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes

In the early 1950s, Jerry Lewis (1926-) and Dean Martin (1917-1995) were the hottest act in American show business. For 10 years (1946-1956) Martin & Lewis, as they were known, were the most famous partners in the country. They performed in nightclubs, on the radio and in the movies. Their success was legendary and their appeal universal. Then, in 1956, to the disbelief of the entire country, Martin & Lewis broke up.

This book tells the story of Martin & Lewis from the point of view of Jerry Lewis. The writing, by veteran ghostwriter James Kaplan, is in the first person, as if the book was written by Jerry Lewis himself. It, obviously, was not. However, just as obviously, Kaplan spent many, many hours talking to Lewis and has managed to weave a long series of show business and personal anecdotes into a fascinating narrative.

The theme of the book is Lewis' love for Martin and the surprising amount of heartbreak Lewis felt for years after the breakup.


The Omnivore's Dilemma
borrowed
from the
library

Author: Michael Pollan

Writing: Fair

Worth reading? Yes

What is the "omnivore's dilemma"? Put simply, as human beings we can eat a wide variety of food. How do we choose well?

The theme of this book is that it is good to understand where your food comes from, as well as how and why. The book is divided into several discrete parts. It starts with a long, detailed, and fascinating explanation of why corn is important to the modern food supply.

Very little of the corn we grow is actually eaten by people. Most of it is used to feed animals, including cows, pigs, chickens, and pets. A lot of corn is turned into the substances we used to process and preserve food. And some of it is used to create ethanol for fuel. However, these few statements don't even begin to explain the importance that corn has to our lives, to what we eat, and to our economy. This section of the book ends with a description of a typical fast food meal the author shared with his family.

The next part of the book discusses grass and the farms and animals it supports. The life and ultimate disposition of grass-fed animals on a small farm run by a highly dedicated farmer is contrasted with the life and ultimate disposition of the vast number of corn-fed animals raised within huge industrial meat, egg and milk factories.

The third part of the book relates the author's experiences, thoughts and feelings as he goes hunting for wild pig and foraging for wild mushrooms. The book ends with a description of a dinner, prepared by the author for his family and friends, for which he has used only food that (mostly) he himself has killed, gathered or grown. The contrast with the fast food meal described earlier in the book is, as you would guess, striking.

I am sure by now you are thinking, "This is a thought-provoking, fascinating book. Maybe I should read it." You are correct. However, you are in for some disappointment, for two reasons. First, for a book like this, the writing should be a lot better. There were many times I found myself re-writing sentences in my head, and commenting silently on the poor choice of allusions and metaphors.

Second — and this is subtle — the author is infatuated with the idea that he is writing a book. This leads to a certain type of style that, ultimately, undermines the ability of the author to connect to his readers. Too bad, as the book was worth writing and is — regardless of its flaws — worth reading.


Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar
borrowed
from the
library

Authors: Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

Writing: Fair

Worth reading? Yes

The subtitle of this book is Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. The concept is that the authors, both of whom majored in philosophy at Harvard, will explain a lot of basic philosophical concepts, illustrating them with jokes. The idea is that, by laughing at the jokes and seeing how closely they relate to the philosophy under discussion, you will, by a pleasant, effortless process, absorb the type of knowledge that normally takes a great deal of concentrated effort.

It works about as well as you would think, which is to say, poorly. This is a small book that gives short shrift to real philosophy. They main goal, page after page, is to set up one joke after another. However, there is a redeeming feature: some of the jokes are good so in that sense the book is worth reading. If your goal is to find a some good jokes, you are in the right place. If your goal is to actually find out something about philosophy, you're out of luck. Try The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton instead.

From Earth to Heaven,
Is Anyone There?,
Quasar, Quasar Burning Bright,
The Planet That Wasn't,
The Sun Shines Bright,
The Tragedy of the Moon,
The Tyrannosaurus Prescription
(7 books)
 
personal
collection (6)
 
borrowed
from the
library (1)

Author: Isaac Asimov

Writing: Excellent

Worth reading? Yes

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was one of the most prolific and eclectic American writers of all time. Asimov wrote about 400-500 books (depending on how you count). He is best-known for his science fiction and for his "explaining" books, although he wrote in other genres, such as mysteries.

Of all his writing, Asimov's own favorites were the 399 essays he wrote for Fantasy and Science Fiction over the course of 14 years. Here is the story of how it came to be.

Since 1949, the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (usually referred to as F&SF) has been one of the most popular American science fiction magazines. In January 1957, the F&SF publishers started a companion magazine called Venture. Near the end of its first year, the editor, Bob Mills, asked Asimov if he would be willing to write a regular, nonfiction science column for them. As long as Asimov met the deadline, he could write about anything he wanted.

Asimov accepted with alacrity, writing essays for the 7th (January 1958), 8th, 9th and 10th issues. Unfortunately, Venture was not able to attract much of an audience and, after the 10th issue, the magazine folded. Mills, however, was not out of business. He took over the editorship of the venerable F&SF and, on August 12, 1958, he invited Asimov to move his science column to F&SF under the same terms. ("Meet your deadline, and you can write about anything you want".)

Again, Asimov accepted and, in November 1959, he published his first F&SF essay. From that point, Asimov continued to write an essay every month for over 32 years, never once missing a deadline. Asimov's essays were so good and so beloved that, in 1963, after only 4 years, he was given a special Hugo (science fiction) award for his F&SF essays. The citation honored him for "adding science to science fiction".

Asimov's last essay for F&SF, the 399th, appeared in the February 1992 issue, not long before his death (April 6, 1992). 399, of course, is so close to a round number, that one can almost hear Asimov typing in his grave, valiantly trying to turn out one last essay. Not to worry: in 1994, Asimov's wife Janet compiled an essay which was published by F&SF, in December 1994, as number 400.

Of course, quantity is not the same as quality, and it is only fair to wonder, how good are Asimov's essays? The answer is, they are very good. So good, in fact, that I use them as examples when I want to show people what good expository prose looks like. So good, that many of them are worth reading and rereading, even years later. Fortunately, for those of us who like Asimov's non-fiction, many of the F&SF essays have been collected, over the years, and you can find many such books (a few of which are listed above), each of which contains 17-18 wonderful essays.

The 399 F&SF essays were all about 4,000 words long (11-12 pages in a book). However, Asimov wrote many more non-F&SF essays, about 1,200 in all. Most of these essays were much shorter (1-2 pages). In general they were not as good as the F&SF essays (perhaps because they are so short), but they are still a lot of fun to read (perhaps because they are so short). The last book listed above, The Tyrannosaurus Prescription, contains 101 such essays making it the book to keep beside your bed and to take with you on vacation.


For definitive information about the essays of Issac Asimov, take a look at the following comprehensive Web site:

Guide to the essays of Isaac Asimov

Advanced Sex Tips for Girls borrowed
from the
library

Author: Cynthia Heimel

Writing: Good

Worth reading? No

First off, this book has nothing to do with advanced sex tips for girls. What he have here is a collection of personal articles by Cynthia Heimel, a California freelance writer who lives with "her boyfriend, his son and too many dogs".

Put simply, Heimel is a screwed-up woman, who had a screwed-up childhood, a screwed-up adolescence, a screwed-up adulthood, and far too many screwed-up relationships. Now, she invites you to be privy to her deepest secrets, fears, ideas, advice and witticisms. Don't. Although the writing is engaging (for about 20 minutes), and the insights are entertaining (for about 10 minutes), what Heimel has to say isn't worth saying, much less worth saying for 221 pages.

This book is a graphic demonstration of what happens to a mal-adjusted young woman with an above-average flair for writing, who spends decades engaged in one neurotic relationship after another, punctuated by far too much drug-taking.

It's sad. Although Heimel's writing is nothing more than a poor imitation Of Fran Libowitz or Hunter Thompson, her natural talent is obvious. It's too bad she made so many stupid choices. She could have been a contender.

(If you really must.)

Anthem borrowed
from the
library

Author: Ayn Rand

Writing: Excellent

Worth reading? Yes

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) is the creator of the philosophy of Objectivism and the author of two large, well-known novels based on her philosophy: The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). However, long before she published those two novels, Rand wrote a much smaller story called Anthem, in which she began to work out the ideas that, later, were to form the core of Objectivism.

Anthem is in the form of a diary, written by an inhabitant of a mythical collectivist state, called Anthem, some time in the future. Almost all technology has been lost and people live like sheep, working only for the common good in a highly regulated society. Indeed, the concept of individualism is so deprecated that the word "I", literally, does not exist in the language.

The storyteller, who name is Equality 7-2521, was raised — like all inhabitants of Anthem — away from his parents, in the Home of Infants. From there, he went to the Home of Students to be educated. Unlike his peers, however, Equality 7-2521 is blessed with exceptional intelligence and curiosity. However, when it is time to begin working, the Council of Vocations ignore his desire to be a "Scholar" and assign him to the Home of the Street Sweepers. Thus, as the story begins, we find Equality spending his life cleaning streets, while secretly dreaming of a better, more useful and more interesting life.

It is Rand's belief that Man lives best "with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life". That is, a successful life comes from "enlightened self interest", not from living primarily for other people. Anthem dramatizes Rand's contention that any society that does not fully respect the rights of the individual — such as a collectivist society — stifles its citizens to the point of devaluing their lives.

Rand was born in 1905, in St. Petersburg, Russia, and grew up in the days of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the formation of the Soviet Union. In 1926, at the age of 21, she moved to America. In the summer of 1937, drawing on her antipathies to life in Russia, Rand wrote Anthem. However, it was until 1945 that she was able to find a publisher, a small conservative organization that printed the short novel as a pamphlet.

In 1953, Anthem was published for the first time as a regular hardcover book and, in 1961 — a quarter century after being written — as a mass-market paperback, eventually selling over 2 million copies.


Some years ago, the copyright to this book was allowed to lapse, making Anthem the only one of Ayn Rand's novels to be in the public domain. If you want, you can read it for free on the Internet:

Anthem

(Personally, I find it much more pleasant to read it in book form.)

The Colonel borrowed
from the
library

Author: Alanna Nash

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes (if you are an Elvis fanatic)

If you like reading highly detailed biographies of well-known entertainers (I don't), and you are a diehard Elvis Presley fan (which I am not), you'll like this book. The Colonel is an immaculately researched biography of Elvis' longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker (who is not a real Colonel, of course). Although Elvis was the more famous of the two, Parker was quite a guy, and this book is filled with story after story that will either make you fall asleep or understand Elvis all the more, depending on your point of view.

The Lost Artwork of Hollywood borrowed
from the
library

Author: Fred E. Basten

Writing: Fair

Worth reading? No

Fred Basten is the writer of many books covering a wide swath of popular culture. This particular book is a collection of artwork created to promote American films in the 1930s and 1940s. Unlike the ads that were shown to the general public, these illustrations were created by studio staff artists for use within the movie industry itself: primarily to encourge exhibitors to distribute a studio's films.

For this reason, the quality of the artwork is not nearly as good as the old movie posters you may have seen. In fact, the art is so unrewarding that, unless you are a fanatical movie buff, this book is not worth your time. Moreover, the writing is insipid and uninspiring: a double whammy.

(If you really must.)

On the Road borrowed
from the
library

Author: Jack Kerouac

Writing: Superb

Worth reading? Yes

This is the story Holden Caulfield would write after staying up all night watching the movie Easy Rider: the defining book in the genre of beat literature.

Neal Cassidy, an aspiring writer, travels restlessly across post-World War II America. Along the way, he meets a large assortment of people and learns to see them, himself, and his culture with the newly opened eyes of young adulthood, all of which is rendered into fascinating entertainment and insight by Kerouac's superb writing skill.

If you have ever wondered seriously why you don't fit in, this is the place to start searching for answers.

Should I Be Tested for Cancer? borrowed
from the
library

Author: H. Gilbert Welch

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes

H. Gilbert Welch, M.D., M.P.H, is a professor of medicine and a doctor who specializes in family practice and public health. In this well-written book, Welch tackles a tough and mostly ignored question: Does trying to find early cancer actually help people?

Your first thought, I am sure, will be: of course it helps. After all, if you had a cancer, wouldn't you want to find out about it when it was small and, presumably, less lethal and easier to treat?

Actually, there's a lot more to it. According to Welch, a lot of cancer testing is unnecessary, inaccurate, and of dubious value. In Part I of the book, he explains what we should know about the problems with cancer screening. In Part II, he discusses the medical culture, ending with a detailed, thoughtful chapter on how to develop a strategy that works for you.

So what are the problems with cancer screening you should know about? Consider the chapter titles for Part I of the book, entitled "Problems You Should Know About":

  1. It is unlikely you will benefit.
  2. You may have a "cancer scare" and face an endless cycle of testing.
  3. You may receive unnecessary treatment.
  4. You may find a cancer you would rather not know about.
  5. Your pathologist may say it's cancer, while others say it's not.
  6. Your doctor may get distracted from other issues that are more important to you.

Having a medical background (I studied medicine at the University of Toronto Medical School), I find that many "medical" books are based on junk science and narrow points of view. Welch, however, has escaped these traps. He is not only a good writer (for which he thanks his mother and father in the acknowledgments), but a thorough researcher and an experienced clinician. His discussion is intelligent, fair and thought-provoking. This is a book worth reading, and H. Gilbert Welch is a person who deserves to get a shot at changing how you think.

Simpsons Comics Belly Buster borrowed
from the
library

Author:

Writing: Excellent / Good / Fair

Worth reading? Yes (if you are a Simpsons fan)

This book contains reprints of 14 different stories that were originally published in Simpsons Comics (numbers 49, 51, 53, 54, 55 and 56). Each story is written and illustrated by its own team of writers and artists, so the quality varies. However, if you like the Simpsons, you'll like most of the stories. If you are looking for a gift for a Simpson fan, buying him or her this book is an excellent way to fulfill your social obligation. (And the best part is, you can read the book yourself before you wrap it.)

Stay Tuned borrowed
from the
library

Author: Joe Garner

Writing: Poor

Worth reading? No

I haven't watched television since the mid-1970s but, as a young lad, I did spend a lot of time staring at the tube and, even to this day, I find the medium fascinating. So when I saw a book whose raison d'être is to recall "television's unforgettable moments", I jumped at it like a politician accepting a back-alley contribution from a union leader.

This book is what the publishing business calls a "package": a hardcover, four-color, lavishly illustrated, coffee-table-sized product, bundled with a DVD and two CDs ("hosted" by three well-known TV personalities).

Stay Tuned is just the sort of thing that can't miss: except that it does. The writing is alternatively turgid and overly simplistic, the text is meager and unsatisfying, and the page layout is surprisingly amateurish. It's enough to send you back to video store, looking for reruns of I Love Lucy.

(If you really must.)

To Walk Among the Stones  
personal
collection

Author: Arlene Graham

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes

Arlene Graham is a skillful storyteller with an obvious gift for unraveling the human condition. Her writing is uncommonly good, especially considering that this is her first novel.

To Walk Among the Stones is a gripping novel that leads you through a world of faith, courage, pride, lust, greed, humility, anger, envy, hope, justice, and ultimately, redemption. As George Gershwin put it, after finishing the book, "Who could ask for anything more?"

The Wisdom of Crowds borrowed
from the
library

Author: James Surowiecki

Writing: Fair

Worth reading? Yes

James Surowiecki is a business writer at The New Yorker magazine. The theme of his book is that a group of people will often have better judgement than an individual, even an individual who is particularly skilled and knowledgeable.

How can this be? Surowiecki's thesis is that a large, decentralized group of people has three key traits. They have (in his words) diversity, local knowledge, and independence. The diversity ensures that many points of view will be considered. The "local knowledge" means that each person has his own idiosyncratic way of looking at the situation and his own personal knowledge upon which to base his opinion. Finally, the independence guarantees that individual opinions are not influenced by the crowd.

Under such conditions, we can expect that serious errors will cancel out in such a way that the truth — or, at least, a wise way of viewing the situation — will predominate naturally.

The first example Surowiecki gives concerns a livestock exhibition in England in 1906. A fat ox was exhibited and many people lined up to make guesses as to how many pounds of meat the ox would yield after it had been slaughtered and dressed. (There were prizes for the closest guesses.) After the contest, a scientist whose curiosity had been piqued collected the guesses and averaged them. Overall, the average guess (there were 787 people) was 1,197 pounds of meat. The actual amount was 1,198 pounds.

So you get the idea. Although no one person was smart enough to guess the correct weight with authority, the collective wisdom of the crowd was smart enough to guess the exact value with an error of only 0.083 percent.

The notion that collective wisdom is often better than individual wisdom is a fascinating idea and, for that reason, I think you will be glad to read the book. There are many interesting examples and ideas, and I guarantee you will do a lot of thinking by the time you finish. This is why I say the book is worth reading.

Unfortunately, the book lacks substance in two important ways.

First, Surowiecki has one main idea, and he sticks with it no matter where it leads him, even into the Land of Questionable Conclusions. Many of his examples are irrelevant, even bordering on the ludicrous. If you read critically, you will find a lot to question. This is often the case with authors who believe that great swaths of life can be explained by one, easy-to-understand idea.

Second, Surowiecki is a magazine writer who is used to cranking out a few hundred words at time. When it comes to full-length books, his skills fail him: overall, the writing is only fair. Still, the book is somewhat entertaining and will, as I mentioned, give you cause to think.

Although this book ends with 22 pages of notes documenting Surowiecki's citations, there is no index. This is a major omission for which there is no excuse. Even if Surowiecki didn't know better, his editor at Doubleday should have.

Here's Johnny borrowed
from the
library

Author: Ed McMahon (written by uncredited ghostwriter)

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes (if you were a Johnny Carson fan)

From October 1962 to May 1992, Johnny Carson was the host of The Tonight Show, America's most popular late-night talk show. For over thirty years, while Carson told jokes, interviewed guests and did his best to entertain late-night viewers, his announcer and sidekick, Ed McMahon laughed at the jokes, no matter how bad, and did whatever was necessary to make Carson look good. The book relates the story of Carson and his career as seen by McMahon.

Of course, Ed McMahon didn't write this book. Entertainers are not writers, and the style is obviously that of a seasoned Hollywood freelancer. Since McMahon does not name the ghostwriter, I can't either. However, the writing is good and, like Johnny himself, the writer seems to have discovered that, sometimes, the secret to entertaining people is knowing what to leave out.

If you remember Carson and the show, you'll enjoy reading this book. Most of the time, the show was pretty boring, but this book recalls the best parts — and some of the worst parts — and presents them as short stories that are informative, pleasant to read, and often funny. By the end of the book the charm had worn thin, but it was a quick read and there were times when I found myself laughing out loud.


The Real Frank Zappa Book
borrowed
from the
library

Authors: Frank Zappa (written by ghostwriter Peter Occhiogrosso)

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes (if you care about Frank Zappa)

Frank Zappa (1940-1993) was a one-of-a-kind creator: an extremely talented, hard-working musician, composer, and performer, whose decades of work introduced millions of curious open-minded people to the idea of iconoclasm as a way of life.

Over the years, Zappa wrote and performed a vast amount of original music, most of which is an acquired taste. However, for those who acquired the taste, Zappa's lyrics and approach to life made him far more than an entertainer. He was a restless genius and spiritual provocateur, an innovative composer who lived out loud in way that forced people to reevaluate how they lived and what they thought.

The Real Frank Zappa Book was written by Peter Occhiogrosso, a talented writer who worked with audio tapes created by Zappa. Occhiogrosso took Zappa's brain dumps and skillfully wove them into a compelling, fascinating book, which Zappa then edited.

Roughly speaking, the book can be divided into three sections. In Chapters 1-5, Zappa describes his childhood and his early adulthood. In Chapters 6-14, he talks at length about the music business, about composing, and about just plain being Frank Zappa. These parts of the book are wonderful and, if you care at all about Frank Zappa, you will be fascinated by what you read.

The last part of the book, however, Chapters 15-19, is political ranting that is worse than boring. Although Zappa was a great musician, as a social philosopher he was a lightweight.

Still, I can tell you now, The Real Frank Zappa Book is unlike anything you have ever read. If you are a Frank Zappa fan, this book is required reading.


Important Frank Zappa trivia: Zappa and I share the same birthday, December 21.


Pour Your Heart Into It
borrowed
from the
library

Authors: Howard Schultz (written by ghostwriter Dori Jones Yang)

Writing: Good

Worth reading? No

This is a vanity book, ghost-written by an experienced business writer (Dori Yang) for Howard Schultz, the Chairman and CEO of Starbucks Coffee Company.

Nominally, the book is the story of the Starbucks Company. Indeed, the subtitle of the book is "How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time". In reality, Pour Your Heart Into It is a panegyric to Schultz, a egotistical narcissist, whose obsession with himself, his thoughts, his goals, and his achievements must set some kind of record, even in the world of corporate-CEOs-with-too-much- money-who-hire-a-professional-ghost-writer-to-write-a-self- serving-autobiography.

Am I exaggerating? Consider this statistic: In the first chapter, which is 12.5 pages, Schultz uses the words "I", "me" and "my" 250 times, an average of 20 times a page. Now consider that the book has 340 pages of text. (Pause.)

Schultz's massive egotism aside, could the book is worth reading for its own sake? After all, might not the insight of the CEO of a very successful company be valuable simply because he is the CEO of a very successful company? The answer is yes, but only if you value such observations like, "Processes and systems, discipline and efficiency are needed to create a foundation before creative ideas can be implemented and entrepreneurial visions can be realized."

Or how about this exhortation on the value of teamwork: "When you run a race as a team, you'll discover that much of the reward comes from hitting the tape together. You want to be surrounded, not just by cheering onlookers, but by a crowd of winners celebrating as one."

Oh well, we can't all be Jack Welch.

(If you really must.)

Tender at the Bone,
Comfort Me With Apples,
Garlic and Sapphires
(3 books)
borrowed
from the
library

Author: Ruth Reichl

Writing: Poor

Worth reading? No (but read them anyway)

Ruth Reichl's books are poorly written and not worth reading, so why do I say you should read them anyway? All three books revolve around food, so let me answer the question in a roundabout way by sharing a food memory of my own.

As a young man, I spent time traveling in Europe, and I particularly remember what it was like to eat in restaurants in Athens. Regardless of whatever I would order or how large the portions might be, as the food was being brought to the table, I would say to myself, "This smells so good and I am so hungry, I wish there were more." By the end of the meal, however, I realized that the ultimate value of my experience was not nearly as good as I thought it would be, and I was sorry I ate so much.

This is the idea to remember as you read the books of Ruth Reichl.

Reichl (pronounced "Rye'-shel") is, arguably, the most well-known foodie in America. (A foodie being a person who seeks out and appreciates fine food and wine.) In her time, Reichl has been a waitress, a cook, a magazine writer, a cook book writer, a food critic (L.A. Times), a restaurant reviewer (L.A. Times, New York Times), a magazine editor (Gourmet), and a book author.

The three books we are discussing are autobiographical, covering Reichl's life chronologically from childhood, through early adulthood, and into middle age. The first two books discuss the details of Reichl's life: her problems, her mistakes, her marriages, her love affairs, her adventures, and her long, frustrating quest for a child. The third book has a different theme: What happens when a famous food writer for the New York Times disguises herself, so she will not be recognized when she visits restaurants? (The answer will surprise you.)

In all three books, Reichl starts a chapter in one of two ways. Either she will introduce a thought or feeling and then move quickly into a related story; or she will plunge right into the story, pull back briefly to explain the background, and then return to the action.

To break up the flow, Reichl punctuates her narratives with recipes that are related to the story at hand. For example, after telling us how a waiter in a French restaurant where she once worked taught her how to entertain customers by creating a salad at the table, she gives us the recipe for "Show-off Salad".

In her third book, Reichl augments the recipes by including a few of the restaurant reviews she wrote while working at the New York Times. For instance, after discussing her unpleasant experiences at a particularly snooty restaurant, Reichl tells us she has decided to demote the restaurant from four stars to three (a very big deal in New York). She then includes the actual review in which she does the deed, sort of like an executioner showing you the video of how he carried out a particularly difficult job.

All three books are filled with tantalizing tidbits of gossip that pull you along, one page at a time, until you are so absorbed you find yourself reading impatiently to see how the current situation will resolve. Reichl has a lot of good material on which to draw, and the conception of her books has great promise.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work — not because Reichl didn't try hard enough — but because her work is ill-structured and poorly executed. For example, because Reichl is not able to write dialogue well, the transitions between prose and speech are awkward and unnatural. It's a shame because Reichl has a lot to offer. Nevertheless, in spite of her excellent education and years of experience, Reichl's writing skills are disturbingly inadequate. Ultimately, her books lack insight and lasting value.

I have often noticed this to be the case when newspaper/magazine writers write books. The truth is, writing short pieces is a completely different profession than writing full-length books. What is odd about Reichl, however, is that the writing in her restaurant reviews is actually worse than her book writing. Go figure.

Regardless, as you read these books, you will become engaged. However, it will be an involuntarily seduction, such as you might experience when you visit a friend who insists on watching a TV soap opera: before you know what is happening, you find yourself caught up in the pathos of the story; at the same time, you ask yourself, why am I doing this?

This happened to me the first time I read the books, and my guess is it will happen to you, at least at the beginning: you will be so engrossed in the stories, that you will ignore the poor writing. "What is wrong with Harley," you will say to yourself, "that he is so critical of Reichl and her writing? It seems fine to me."

On a second reading, however, I knew how the stories were going to end, so I was able to pull myself out of the cloying, gossipy prose. If, every now and then, you can manage to do this yourself, you will make some interesting observations (just as if, while watching a soap opera, you are able to pull back and really notice the quality of the acting and the story line).

First, Reichl is someone who will do almost anything to eat what we might call "extreme food". As she puts it in one of her interviews, "I want to eat food. I want to be around good food." This sounds simple, even admirable, but there is much more to it, and thinking carefully about why Reichl does what she does can give us insight into ourselves.

Reichl, like many other people, is obsessed with feeding her senses: so much so, that she has devoted much of her life to "getting enormous blocks of flavor sensations". In doing so, she has developed her ability to enjoy taste, smell and texture in a way that most people can't even imagine.

Like many other foodies, Reichl will, literally, eat anything organic that is non-toxic, as long as she thinks it will help her chase the "flavor sensations" she needs to feel good. For my part, I long to ask her, "I understand that certain foods taste good to you, but how much goose liver (fois gras), stomach lining (tripe), or calf brains do you really want to eat?" Reichl never considers that the primary reason we eat is for sustenance. Nowhere in any of her writing does she acknowledge that all the strange substances her obsession lead her to put in her mouth will eventually end up in her body.

This is especially true for the recipes she offers. Almost all of them depend on large amounts of animal fat (butter, cream, fatty meat), sugar, and refined carbohydrates. In fact, of all the recipes in all three books, I couldn't find one that describes a dish I would be willing to eat.

Why is Reichl so obsessed with sensation? One reason may be that she has been affected by her considerable hostility towards her late mother, who was manic-depressive. Throughout the first two books, and intermittently in the third, she uses her mother as spiritual whipping-boy. In the first book, for example, it is obvious (by page two, in fact), that Reichl has a lot to say about her mother and, by gum, she is going to say it. (Indeed, one might describe the first book as Mommy Dearest with recipes.)

I wonder if, in seeking to solve the problems of her childhood, Reichl has been led into sensual obsession. Look carefully, and you will see a darker side to her life. In several of her stories, she relates how she suffers from panic attacks and, less often, from depression. She also indulges in inebriants (marijuana and alcohol) repeatedly, well past the point of prudence. Indeed, if you read closely, you will see that Ruth Reichl spends a lot of time being anxious, worried, stoned, and drunk. From what is she hiding?

Although Reichl writes about people realistically, she fabricates many of the details. She is frank about this, telling us at the very beginning of the first book, "Everything here is true, but it may not be entirely factual... I have compressed events... I have made two people into one. I have occasionally embroidered".

Think about what she is saying here. What does it mean when a writer of non-fiction starts off by telling us she will not stick to the facts? Again we must ask, from what is she hiding?

At the end of the third book, she writes, "I have taken many liberties that do not follow journalistic principles and would surely horrify [a fact checker]". When I saw this, it was difficult to not feel betrayed. I had spent hours reading her books and letting Reichl manipulate my emotions. Now I wondered, how much of what I read was really true?

Still, nothing is perfect, and we must take what life has to offer as we can. This is why I say that, although Ruth Reichl's books are not worth reading, you might want to read them anyway.

So what if you don't have a peak experience and you won't be reading good writing? Everything in life doesn't have to pay off: there are times when all we want is to be distracted.

I suspect that reading such books is like many of the things we do in life. They seem like a good idea at the time, but they give us very little of lasting value. Still — like eating at a restaurant in Athens — at least, while we are doing it, we think we are having a good time.


Ruth Reichl gave her three books odd titles: Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples, and Garlic and Sapphires? Do you wonder what the names mean?

"Tender at the bone" is a cooking term indicating that meat should be cooked long enough that the part near the bone is tender, but neither underdone nor overdone. For example, when you cook ribs, they are done when they are slightly pink, crisp on the outside, and tender at the bone.

"Comfort me with apples" is from the Song of Solomon, part of the Old Testament (Song 2:5). The Song of Solomon is an erotic love poem, attributed to King Solomon (who did not actually write it). The poem seems to have been written celebrate a wedding. At the beginning of the second verse, the bride describes how strong an effect her beloved has upon her. "Stay me with flagons," she says, "comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love." (In modern English this would mean, "Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples: for I am faint with love.")

Finally, the expression "garlic and sapphires" is taken from the T.S. Eliot poem, Burnt Norton, in which Eliot writes about our spiritual existence, our consciousness, and our relationship to time. The second section of the poem begins:

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars...


Want to hear what Reichl has to say about herself? Here are links to a print interview she did before her first book, and to an audio interview she did after she finished her third book.

Print interview with Ruth Reichl, November 1996

Audio interview with Ruth Reichl, October 2004

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit borrowed
from the
library

Author: Sloan Wilson

Writing: Excellent

Worth reading? Yes

During World War II, Thomas R. Rath was a paratrooper, trained to jump into the middle of a battle with only his weapons, his wits, and the ability to kill. For several years, he was sent on parachute drops behind German lines, managing to fight and survive, and ultimately rising to the rank of captain. At the end of the European war, Rath was not discharged. Instead, he and his company were sent to the South Pacific where, once again, he was dropped behind enemy lines, fighting and killing until the very end of the war.

It is now June 1953, a bit less than 8 years later, and Tom Rath has become the man in the gray flannel suit. He lives in Westport, Connecticut, with his wife Betsy and his three young children. Five days a week, Tom takes the train to New York City where he has a decent, but low-paying, white-collar job. At the end of every day he takes the train back to Connecticut, returning to his family and his small suburban home. If war is hell, at least peace is peaceful.

But for Tom and Betsy something is missing. "I don't know what's the matter with us," Betsy says one night. "Your job is plenty good enough. We've got three nice kids, and lots of people would be glad to have a house like this. We shouldn't be so discontented all the time."

But Tom, the man in the gray flannel suit, is discontented and no matter how hard he tries, he can't figure out why.

In this way, Tom's life continues, week after week, month after month, until one day, while he is lunching with some friends, one of them mentions that a new job has opened up in the public-relations department of the large broadcasting company for which he works. "I think any of you would be crazy to take it, mind you, but if you're interested, there it is."

Tom says nothing, but he thinks to himself, "Maybe I could get ten thousand a year. If I could do that, Betsy and I might be able to buy a better house..."

Once in a while, we are lucky enough to find a novel that is so well-written and so insightful, that it will pull us along from one page to the next — showing us, on every page, that we are reading something that well repays our attention. Such a book is The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.


Read the review of Ice Brothers, also by Sloan Wilson.

The Painted Word borrowed
from a
friend

Author: Tom Wolfe

Writing: Good

Worth reading? No

Two friends, very different from one another, each recommended that I read this book. One friend even went so far as to loan me the book from her personal collection. Why? Because I am an artist and I have written about abstract art, and The Painted Word is, supposedly, Tom Wolfe's exposé of Modern Art.

The essay, written in the mid-1970s is indeed a scathing work of social criticism. However, far from being a legitimate exposé or even a worthwhile critique, The Painted Word is actually nothing more than an extended in-joke, aimed at the large handful of New Yorkers who, in the 1970s, were slavishly following the dictates of a small handful of art critics.

Wolfe's thesis is that, over time, the critics' discovery and subsequent hype of one artist after another came to overshadow everything else in the world of modern art. Eventually, writing about art became more important than the art itself: hence, the title, "The Painted Word".

Unfortunately, Wolfe can't pull it off — probably because he is wrong.

(If you really must.)


For more information about abstract art, see my essay:

Understanding Abstract Art

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry borrowed
from the
library

Author: Dean Edell (written by ghostwriter David Schrieberg)

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes

Dean Edell M.D. is the host of a popular U.S. radio talk show, on which he discusses medical topics and answers questions from callers. Edell has an affable personality and he knows his stuff, two traits that have been captured well by David Schrieberg.

It is Edell's belief that, although we should pay attention to our health, we should also avoid worrying so much that we take the fun out of life — hence the title: Eat, Drink, and Be Merry. You'll love the way Edell covers important topics with charm and insight, and you'll enjoy how the many facts and opinions are skillfully illustrated with personal anecdotes from Edell's life. (What a blessing it is to have a great ghostwriter.)

Ultimate Fitness borrowed
from the
library

Author: Gina Kolata

Writing: Poor

Worth reading? No

Gina Kolata is a science reporter for the New York Times, a position that, one might think, would qualify her to write book on fitness. Unfortunately, Kolata's prose is terrible, and the book's organization is extremely flawed.

This is often the case with journalists who try to expand their work into full-length books and find, much to the chagrin of the reading public, that the skills needed to write books are much different than those needed to write articles. For instance, Kolata affects an irritating form of expression, in which she switches back and forth from first person to third person, seemingly at random. Such lapses in writing skill which would be forgivable — or at least worth ignoring — if the book had enough useful or interesting information to make the effort of reading it worthwhile. Sadly, this is not the case.

(If you really must.)

Tales of Space and Time borrowed
from the
library

Author: H.G. Wells

Writing: Excellent

Worth reading? Yes

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) was one of the most beloved writers of the late 19th/early 20th century. This book is a collection of five of Well's science fiction stories. My favorite is "A Story of the Days to Come", a long story that takes place far in the future, in which Wells relates the romantic and social adventures of a young couple, Denton and Elizabeth, whose marriage is opposed by Elizabeth's father. Wells has an uncanny knack for writing about the unknown in a way that seems completely plausible, while entertaining us with wonderful characters, intriguing plots, and wry social commentary


The following link will lead you to a section of Harley Hahn's Internet Yellow Pages, where you will find more information about Wells:

Information about H.G. Wells

Who's Who in Wodehouse borrowed
from the
library

Author: Daniel Garrison

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes (if you are a P.G. Wodehouse fan)

As I have mentioned elsewhere in this list of books, one of my favorite authors is P.G. Wodehouse. Anything by Wodehouse is worth reading, and his 236 stories and 72 novels are a wonderful escape from what Freud calls the "pain, disappointments, and impossible tasks" of life. Thus, it is no surprise that there are a great many Wodehouse fanatics throughout the world.

Who's Who in Wodehouse is a reference work, created by one such fanatic for others of his kind. You will find a comprehensive list of over 2,100 characters, minor and major, all created by Wodehouse; ranging (literally) from Lady Alice Abbott to I.J. Zizzbaum. 2,100 characters is more than twice as many as were used by Shakespeare and more than one and a half times as many as were used by Dickens. Each character is described, often in Wodehouse's own words, and carefully cross- referenced with the stories or novels in which he or she appears.

Although this might sound boring, if you are a Wodehouse fan, it is anything but. In browsing through the names, you are visiting old friends. Moreover, as you go, you will encounter names of stories or books that are new to you, providing ample fresh Wodehouse material for you to explore. (If you can't find what you want, try your library's interlibrary loan service.)


For more information, the following link will take you to a section of Harley Hahn's Internet Yellow Pages, where you will find more information about Wodehouse:

Information about P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse trivia: P.G. stands for Pelham Grenville; Wodehouse is pronounced "Woodhouse".

Freud Trivia: The quotation I used in the first paragraph of this review — that life contains "pain, disappointments, and impossible tasks" — comes from one of Freud's most insightful books:

Civilization and Its Discontents

Getting Rich Your Own Way,
The Corporate Steeplechase,
Ambitious Men,
Otherwise Engaged
(4 books)
 
personal
collection (3)
 
borrowed
from the
library (1)

Author: Srully Blotnick

Writing: Excellent

Worth reading? Yes

Everything I have ever read by Srully Blotnick Ph.D. is worth reading, particularly the four books mentioned here. Blotnick is a business psychologist who conducted a long (20 year) study that followed several thousand people. Using data from the study, Blotnick wrote four different books that discuss, respectively, how middle class people become rich (Getting Rich Your Own Way); common patterns in business careers (The Corporate Steeplechase); men and their careers (Ambitious Men); and women and their careers (Otherwise Engaged).

Blotnick's books are wonderfully well written — easy to read, inspirational, and thought-provoking — and packed with enormous insight. Reading a Srully Blotnick book will teach you a great deal about life, about the people around you, and — most important — about yourself.

However, in spite of the value of Blotnick's books and his obvious flair for engaging his readers, there is one important problem with his work: Srully Blotnick is a fraud.

As best as I can determine, Blotnick's Ph.D. isn't real. Moreover, the vast, long-term study that forms the basis for his books never really took place. Indeed, if you read the books with a critical eye, and you pay attention to the many examples and comments Blotnick quotes from his study, it's obvious that it would be impossible for him to have gathered all the data and interviewed all the people he claims to have done.

Still, it doesn't matter. Blotnick's insight into human behavior and his ability to refine common sense into uncommon wisdom is unique. Obviously, it was dishonest and misleading for Blotnick to lie about himself and his work. However, as you read the books, and you realize that a lot of what Blotnick is telling you was invented and not discovered, you can see that he is nothing less than a genius.

Over the years, I have received a lot of help from Blotnick's writing, and I have to say that Getting Rich Your Own Way is one of the few books that has changed my life. True, I might not trust Blotnick with the key to my safety deposit box, but in a world where wisdom and long-term thinking seem to be in short supply, a genius who writes well can have a lot to offer, even if he does need to make up his facts.

Tales of the Black Widowers,
More Tales of the Black Widowers,
Casebook of the Black Widowers,
Banquets of the Black Widowers,
Puzzles of the Black Widowers,
Return of the Black Widowers
(6 books)
borrowed
from the
library

Author: Isaac Asimov

Writing: Poor

Worth reading? Yes

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was one of the most prolific and eclectic American writers of all time. Asimov wrote about 400-500 books (depending on how you count). He is best-known for his science fiction and for his "explaining" books. However, he enjoyed experimenting with other genres, one of which was mystery stories.

The stories in these six books are tales about a men-only dinner club, The Black Widowers. All the stories have the same format: a group of six men (see below) meet regularly for dinner at the same restaurant, where they are served in a private banquet room by a waiter named Henry. Each dinner is hosted by one member, who brings a guest. After dinner, the guest is "grilled" by the members, who begin the discussion by asking the guest, "How do you justify your existence?" The conversation invariably leads to some type of mystery, which the six Black Widowers try to solve by sheer logic. In every case, they are unsuccessful, and the mystery is finally solved by the waiter Henry (an honorary member of the club).

Although Asimov loved reading mystery stories, he was a terrible mystery writer. His goal with the Black Widowers was to combine the rational thinking of Sherlock Holmes with the freshness of a group of P.G. Wodehouse characters, but he was able to do neither. True, by the time Asimov wrote these stories, he was an experienced, professional writer, but he adamantly refused to rewrite more than once (if that), and the quality of his prose shows it. The writing is poor, the characterizations are one-dimensional, and the plots are ridiculous.

So why are the stories worth reading? Because, after decades of writing, Asimov had become a wonderful storyteller, a raconteur who could entertain effortlessly, much as a master comedian might make you laugh even though his jokes are bad. As strange is it seems, the awfulness of the Black Widower stories has a way of engaging you. After only a few stories, you get to know the characters and, unexpectedly, you begin to feel as if you, yourself, are a guest at the dinners.

There are very few authors who can write poorly and still come up with something worth reading. But then, Isaac Asimov was always in a class of his own.


Asimovian trivia... The fictional Black Widowers club was loosely modeled after a real-life club called the Trap Door Spiders, started in 1944, in New York, by a fellow named Fletcher Pratt. At the time, Pratt had a friend named Doc Clark who was about to marry a women whom none of his friends liked. Pratt got the idea of forming a men-only club, so Pratt's friends could spend time with him without having to put up with his wife. Asimov, who lived in Boston, was invited as a guest whenever he was in the area. In 1970, when Asimov moved to New York, he became a permanent member of the club. The six fictional Black Widowers were loosely based on six of the real-life Trap Door Spiders.

Black Widower Trap Door Spider
Geoffrey Avalon L. Sprague de Camp
Emmanuel Rubin Lester del Rey
James Drake Doc Clark
Thomas Trumball Gilbert Cant
Mario Gonzalo Lin Carter
Roger Halsted Don Bensen

The waiter Henry is fictional, and is based on P.G. Wodehouse's famous character, Reginald Jeeves (Bertie Wooster's valet). For more information, see:

List of all the Black Widower stories

Air Force One borrowed
from the
library

Author: Von Hardesty

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes

The book is a surprise: a fascinating discussion of the history of U.S. presidential transportation, with an emphasis on airplanes. (By convention, the President's airplane is always known as Air Force One.) The book starts with President Washington, explaining how the early presidents traveled, and continues throughout American history, all the way to George W. Bush. You'll find wonderful diversions, along with wonderful illustrations, photos, and intriguing political insights. You will enjoy this book a lot more than you might think: the author has done his research and he skillfully makes the material come alive.

The Negotiator  
personal
collection

Author: Frederick Forsyth

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes

Here is a diverting, well-written thriller set in Europe in the late 1980s. In order to stop the President of the United States from signing a comprehensive peace treaty with the Soviet Union, someone kidnaps the President's son, who is studying at Oxford University. The idea is to block the treaty, which will then allow the U.S. to gain control of Saudi Arabia and, hence, have permanent access to gobs of oil. The only man who can find the President's son before it is too late is Quinn... The Negotiator.

The plot is obviously artificial but, for the genre, that's no problem at all and the details are fascinating. If you like this book, you should also read Day of the Jackal, by the same author. It's even better.

Close to the Machine borrowed
from the
library

Author: Ellen Ullman

Writing: Excellent

Worth reading? Yes

What does it do to a person's thinking and socialization when she spends her life creating abstractions for money? Ellen Ullman answers these questions by effortlessly tunneling into the psyche of an almost-middle-age, bisexual, introspective, sensitive, San Francisco programmer-consultant — that is, herself. Although you are probably not an almost-middle-age, bisexual, introspective, sensitive, San Francisco programmer-consultant, don't think for a moment that you will have difficulty identifying with Ullman. If you have ever been a programmer, or you have ever lived with a programmer, or you have ever worked with a programmer, you will see someone you recognize in this book, and it will probably be you.

The Green Heart (Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Scare You Stiff) borrowed
from the
library

Author: Jack Ritchie

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes

The Green Heart is a short story about a man who has inherited money, lived the high life, and now must come to terms with his pending impoverishment. Rather than work, Henry Graham forms a plan that he is sure will lead to a life of leisure. All he has to do is find a suitable woman (wealthy, naive, single, etc,), get married, and make sure that she doesn't live happily ever after. But in Henrietta Lowell, Henry encounters more than he expected, and his plan takes a detour. The Green Heart (1963) was written by Jack Ritchie (real name, John George Reitci), a prolific mystery/crime writer.

In 1971, a film version of the story was released under the name "A New Leaf". The movie, which is a wonderful black comedy, was made by Elaine May, who plays the part of Henrietta. Henry is played Walter Matthau who does an outstanding job. After watching the movie, I searched for the story, which I found in a collection called Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Scare You Stiff (edited by Eleanor Sullivan). Once I knew the name of the book, I was able to get it via interlibrary loan. My suggestion is to find the story, read it, then rent the movie and enjoy Elaine May's delightful interpretation.


Jack Ritchie was a wonderfully prolific author, whose life and work are worth exploring. In all, he wrote hundreds of short stories in the crime and mystery genres, many of which are still worth reading. For more information:

Jack Ritchie biography and bibliography

A Hollywood Education  
personal
collection

Author: David Freeman

Writing: Excellent

Worth reading? Yes

I found this book by accident, and what a wonderful accident it was. This is the first work of fiction (dated 1984) by David Freeman, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter and New York journalist. The book consists of 17 somewhat related stories featuring an eclectic group of characters, inhabitants of the movie capital of the world, where everyone wants either money, power or fame (or all three), and most people are equipped with the sort of adjustable consciences that make such aspirations possible.

Freeman is the type of writer who makes you want to read and read, and by the time you have finished the last story, you'll close your eyes and think back over the wonderfully corrupt, foolish and lucky people to whom Freeman has introduced you, and you'll run to your library (or your computer) looking for anything else written by the same author.

Call of the Mall borrowed
from the
library

Author: Paco Underhill

Writing: Poor

Worth reading? No

I really wanted to like this book for two reasons. First, it was recommended to me by a good friend; second, the book describes people's shopping habits and how they are exploited in malls, a topic I find particularly interesting.

Unfortunately, the writing is so self-indulgent and poorly structured that the ideas, which could be interesting, get lost in a morass of boredom and attempted cuteness, sort of like spending Saturday afternoon at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant celebrating Britney Spears' birthday.

(If you really must.)

Industrial Light & Magic: Into the Digital Realm borrowed
from the
library

Author: Mark Cotta Vaz

Writing: Excellent

Worth reading? Yes

This is a large, magnificent book, put together with a great deal of skill, thought and enthusiasm. The author takes you inside Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) — the company started by George Lucas to create special effects for movies — to show you just how ILM works their magic. The recipe, it seems, is to couple enormous artistic talent with hard work, ample preparation, hard work, superb technical knowledge, hard work, advanced computerized tools, and even more hard work.

The book is lavishly illustrated, and the writing is excellent, with just the right mix of quotations and text. From one page to the next, I was continually astonished at the technical expertise and motivation that ILM artists devote to their work. What also astonished me was the very long list of movies on which ILM has worked, both good movies (such as the Star Wars series, the Indiana Jones series, Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park) as well as horrible movies (such as Howard the Duck, The Flintstones). Evidentially, it takes as much work and devotion to create special effects for a stinker as it does for a work of art.

Basic Economics borrowed
from the
library

Author: Thomas Sowell

Writing: Fair

Worth reading? Yes

This book was a total disappointment, but is still worth reading. The author describes the book as "A Citizen's Guide to the Economy". He then promises to explain basic economic principles to the layman.

I find economics fascinating, and I am mostly self- taught, so I couldn't wait to fill in some of the missing pieces. What I found, however, was a strongly biased discourse, polluted with unreasonable and illogical assumptions. In fact, the book is one long diatribe, pushing what I might call the ignorant, uncompassionate conservative view of money and government (as opposed to the knowledgeable, compassionate conservative view of money and government).

Having said that, the book is worth reading because, if you pick holes in the author's dogma as you read, it will sharpen your critical sense. Too many people think the same way as this author, and if you are a thoughtful, intelligent person, it is important to be able to refute such arguments.

How to Read a Book borrowed
from the
library

Authors: Mortimer Adler, Charles van Doren

Writing: Good (but pompous)

Worth reading? Yes

If you are serious about reading, this is the book to read, one that you will come back to many times over the years. You'll learn how to approach the art of reading, how to read different types of books, and how to think about them. Unfortunately, the writing is overly didactic and far too pompous. (Imagine your elderly Uncle Benjamin, the retired literature professor, lecturing at the Thanksgiving dinner table.)

Still, this is a book you need to read.

Geek Love borrowed
from the
library

Authors: Katherine Dunn

Writing:

Worth reading?

A strange twisted novel about a family of geeks (circus freaks). I haven't read the book, but I'm including it because two very different female friends of mine both love it.

If these two women can agree on anything cultural, there must be something to it.

Prelude to Foundation,
Forward the Foundation
(2 books)
 
personal
collection

Author: Isaac Asimov

Writing: Excellent

Worth reading? Yes

Isaac Asimov began his career in the 1940s, writing for the early science fiction magazines. Asimov's writing style developed for about 10 years, and then slowed down to a crawl, settling into a comfortable, never-changing 1950s sci-fi paradigm. In the early 1950s, Asimov published the Foundation trilogy, ultimately, his most successful books. These three novels told the story of the fall and rebirth of a vast, galaxy-wide empire (borrowing themes from Edward Gibbon's classic work The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire ).

In the early 1980s, after a gap of 25 years, Asimov returned to the series, publishing two sequels and then two prequels (these two books). These books are Asimov at his best, his 1950s style married to a lifetime of knowledge and wisdom. The Asimov universe is both preposterous and delightful. His characters live in a galaxy controlled by intellectuals, not warriors, a place in which the fate of mankind is decided at every step by reasoned discourse, rather than by war and economics.

Great Hollywood Wit borrowed
from the
library

Editor/commentator: Gene Shalit

Writing: Poor

Worth reading? No

A mostly throwaway collection of quotations from movie stars. A few pearls among pages and pages of swill.

(If you really must.)

Winnie-the-Pooh,
The House at Pooh Corner
(2 books)
borrowed
from the
library

Author: A.A. Milne

Writing: Superb

Worth reading? Yes

Wonderful stories about Edward Bear (Winnie the Pooh) and his silly adventures. Great books to read out loud to young children. Also great books to read to yourself when you are lying in bed feeling sick.

Hint from Harley: Look for the older editions. The original illustrations have infinitely more charm than the newer Disney-era drawings.

Facts and Mysteries in Elementary Particle Physics borrowed
from the
library

Author: Martinus Veltman

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes

A readable, highly technical book about particle physics (the branch of science that deals with sub-atomic particles: quarks, neutrinos, and so on.) This book requires a lot of thinking; it is not a popularization.

California Crazy and Beyond borrowed
from the
library

Author: Jim Heimann

Writing: Poor

Worth reading? No (but look at the pictures)

A pictorial history of the strange buildings and apparitions that could be found along the Southern California roadside during the first half of the Twentieth Century. The pictures are delightfully engaging, worth looking at once. The writing is atrocious, literally unreadable.

The Tipping Point borrowed
from the
library

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Writing: Fair

Worth reading? No

This book was recommended to me by one of my readers. The premise is intriguing: that small ideas and behaviors can sometimes "spread like infectious diseases", creating large, significant changes in the culture.

Unfortunately, the book is filled with poorly thought-out ideas and unproved, unlikely assertions. Not a book for the scientific, critical thinker.

(If you really must.)

Matthau: A Life borrowed
from the
library

Authors: Rob Edelman, Audrey Kupferberg

Writing: Poor

Worth reading? No (unless you really like Walter Matthau)

A biography of Walter Matthau, stuffed with way too many mindless quotations from friends and family. A fact- and opinion-filled book, suitable only for readers who are willing to do the work of drawing their own conclusions.

(If you really must.)

The Complete Works of Aristotle
(two volumes)
borrowed
from the
library

Editor: Jonathan Barnes

Writing: Excellent

Worth reading? Yes

I had a friend, Heda Segvic, who was a brilliant professor of philosophy. Unfortunately, Heda died at the age of 45, in March, 2004. I once asked her how I could best approach the study of classical philosophy. She advised me to read the original works, not the secondary commentary. Her suggestion for Aristotle was to start with this particular edition, which she said was the standard work.

I find it fascinating to read the thoughts of such a very smart man who lived so long ago: to see what he wondered about and how he went about answering questions. Aristotle's writing can be hard to understand, and there are long passages that have little relevance to modern life. Still this book is worth reading, even in bits and pieces.

The World of Jeeves,
The World of Mulliner
(2 books)
 
personal
collection

Author: P.G. Wodehouse

Writing: Superb

Worth reading? Yes

If there ever was a perfect writer of English prose, it was P.G. Wodehouse [1881-1975]. (The name, by the way, is pronounced "Woodhouse".) Anything you can find by Wodehouse is worth reading. His novels and stories are pleasant and charming, his characters are unique and idiosyncratic, and his world never stales.

I have collected Wodehouse for years, and I have many of his books in my personal collection. The two titles I cited above are collections of short stories. The Jeeves stories feature Wodehouse's most well-known characters, Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves; the Mulliner stories are amusing tales told by Mr. Mulliner about his various relations. Did I say that anything written by P.G. Wodehouse is worth reading? Perhaps I should say that everything written by Wodehouse is worth reading.


The World of Jeeves


The World of Mulliner

A Primer of Freudian Psychology  
personal
collection

Author: Calvin Hall

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes

A short, well-written, eminently understandable introduction to Freud's basic theories about the human psyche: how it works and why. Read this and you will gain a vast amount of insight into yourself and the people around you. This book is an excellent introduction to the study of Freud's work.

Development Through Life borrowed
from a
friend

Authors: Barbara Newman, Philip Newman

Writing: Fair

Worth reading? Yes

I told my friend Hal that I wanted to learn about the predictable stages of life, so he loaned me this book: a university-level textbook in developmental psychology, (Hal is a psychology professor.) The information in this book is wonderfully useful. The writing, however, as with so many other textbooks, is stilted, low quality, and drenches itself far too often in the perfume of political correctness.

Hal's Web site

Thinking Makes It So sent to
me by
a friend

Author: James Brady

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes

This is an, as yet, unproduced screenplay by California writer/actor James Brady. The story explores the relationships between estranged relatives when one of them, a 13-year-old girl, is found to be in need of a kidney transplant. The script is engaging and well-paced, reflecting Brady's experience as an actor and drama critic. Someone should produce this screenplay and bring this talented, sensitive writer's work to the mass market.

Bowling, Beatniks and Bell-Bottoms borrowed
from the
library

Editors: Sara Pendergast, Tom Pendergast

Writing: Poor

Worth reading? Yes

This is a multi-volume work detailing Twentieth Century popular culture in the U.S. I generally like reading such books, reveling in a swamp of long-forgotten persons, places and things.

These particular volumes are crammed from cover to cover with such facts, so if you like this sort of stuff, the books are worth at least a passing glance. However, the editing is insipid, the writing is uninspired and distinctively uncharming, and the organization and presentation of the actual facts are as heavy handed as a muscle-bound piano mover passing out the cucumber sandwiches at a Buckingham Palace tea party.

Exploring the Matrix borrowed
from the
library

Editor: Karen Haber

Writing: Poor

Worth reading? No

A collection of original essays by 17 different science-fiction authors and "digital artists", commenting on the significance of the film The Matrix (1999). These essays are so bad and so devoid of insight, I literally couldn't finish the book.

This is not a book for reading; this is a book for laying down and avoiding.

(If you really must.)

Remembering America borrowed
from the
library

Author: Richard N. Goodwin

Writing: Good

Worth reading? Yes

Have you see the movie Quiz Show (1994)? It takes place in the late 1950s and dramatizes what happens when a young U.S. congressional investigator, Richard (Dick) Goodwin, discovers that several of the nation's most popular TV quiz shows are rigged. I found the film engaging and, while looking at the credits, noticed that the screenplay was based on a book called Remembering America, written by Goodwin.

I borrowed the book from the library, and found Goodwin's work to be unexpectedly rewarding. The quiz show investigations are covered in a single chapter. The bulk of the book covers Goodwin's distinguished career as a presidential advisor and speech writer (for both Kennedy and Johnson). Goodwin shows us what he saw from the front row during the 1960s, and what it means to him now — as an old man — looking back thoughtfully and intelligently at the days of his youth.