From Books

Books 2019: 1st Quarter

The ten books brilliantly reviewed below were read in January, February, and March of this year. Color-coded indicators of placements on my  Great Novels ,  Great Sci-fi and Fantasy Novels  and  Great Crime Novels  lists are provided free of charge. Bachblog’s most devoted readers will find links to these very lists at the bottom of this post.
 

  • Stickeen: The Story of a DogJohn MuirStickeen: The Story of a Dog (1909)
       A dramatic story of the dog who adopted John Muir in Alaska, included in The Alaska Account. I first met the plucky little dog Stickeen in Kim Heacox’s delightful The Ice that Started a Fire (see Books 2018: #31 – #37) and had an appetite to read more about him. This story told by the great conservationist himself hit the spot. A heroic little foolhardy dog, and the epitome of man’s best friend.

  • How Brains ThinkWilliam H. CalvinHow Brains Think (1996)
       Another in the Science Masters series (see Dawkins here). I found this interesting, but more difficult and less satisfying than the author’s earlier Cerebral Symphony (1990). How our minds arise from chemical and other physical processes in our brains (and central nervous system, as described in Damasio’s Decartes’ Error (1994)–see here) is a difficult question to answer. Which isn’t to say that science has concluded or should conclude that the question is unanswerable. Nor does it justify creationists’ unscientific and incurious claim that the process is, essentially, “magic” and inaccessible to us. If a god created our universe and everything in it; he, she, or it used physical processes that are only “magic” until human science advances sufficiently to understand them–if sometimes just barely.[1]

  • Player PianoKurt VonnegutPlayer Piano (1952)
       This slice of life under what readers in the 1950s must have assumed was a scary “utopia” just around the corner was Vonnegut’s first novel. Industrialization picked up its pace in post-WWII America, and skilled laborers must have assumed their jobs would soon be lost to machines. Some were, of course, but not (yet?) to the degree feared. Capitalist exploitation of the cheap labor abroad, on the other hand…
     
    I expect to learn that this debut sold poorly and was panned by critics of its day. In retrospect, it is easy see that Vonnegut had not quite found his voice, but had already staked out the political and moral point of view we recognize as Vonnegutian today. Not a bad novel, but not (today) the place for the uninitiated to begin an exploration his works.

  • The Life and Death of Classical MusicNorman LebrechtThe Life and Death of Classical Music (2007)
       This book’s title is misleading. The author traces the life and death of the classical music recording industry, not of classical music itself. It is true that orchestras–American ones at least–are struggling, but that’s not his focus. Is he right about the recording industry? I don’t really know, but sales figures he cites would suggest he is, and while Spotify and the like probably don’t hurt classical music sales to the extent they do pop, I would imagine a generation that doesn’t care to own the music it enjoys will not later “discover” classical music and become collectors of it.[2]
     
    Whatever the truth of his thesis, the book is entertaining for its anecdotes. Big names such as Bernstein, von Karajan, Gould, Solti and others, along with a host of relatively anonymous record executives, producers and other figures are covered. Lebrecht skewers them all, or most anyway. His lists of best 100 and worst 20 recordings are of interest for the context he provides, not because they are in any way definitive. (I own one of his worst, Von Karajan’s recording of Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” with three star soloists who evidently agreed with the author’s evaluation of it.)

  • The Friends of Eddie Coyle 24   George V. HigginsThe Friends of Eddie Coyle (1970)
       A story of a New England crime syndicate for which Eddie Coyle is a gun runner. Eddie is also an informant when necessary to save his own skin. He is careful and selective about whom he betrays, but it is a dangerous game he plays. A page-turner.

  • 31 SongsNick Hornby31 Songs (2002)
       Hornby is one of a very few contemporary writers whose novels I generally read as soon as they are available in softcover editions, or, in recent years, as soon as I can get them in epub format. During lean years I’ve read his nonfiction, such as this.
     
    Hornby is or was a pop music critic, and this book, written or compiled as a fund raiser for an UK autism non-profit, sees him in that role. He covers an idiosyncratic list of songs–not a “top 31″ list in any way–and does his best to dispel the notion that he is a music snob. Methinks he doth protest too much, and that he throweth unnecessary shade at a few of my sacred cows. The first of the 31 songs covered is one from Nelly Furtado. Whoever that is. Nevertheless, he does have interesting things to say. The following quote from his discussion of Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” made me laugh (because I feel I probably know the guy):

    I have a friend who stays logged on to the Dylan website Expecting Rain most of the day at work – as if the website were CNN and Dylan’s career were the Middle East – and who owns 130 Dylan albums, including a fourteen-CD box of every single thing Dylan recorded during 1965 apart from – get this – Highway 61 Revisited, the only thing he recorded during 1965 that sane people would want to own. He’s pretty keen.


  • A is for Alibi 24   Sue GraftonA is for Alibi (1992)
       Grafton’s first novel and the debut of her detective Kinsey Millhone. It is a well-plotted and compelling mystery. I enjoyed the story and its hard-boiled female sleuth and will, given the time, be happy to pickup B is for Burglar. Unless I pretty much dedicate my remaining time to reading the series, though, I won’t exhaust the supply. Grafton wrote 25 Millhone mysteries! She died just last year before writing Z is for Zyzzyva.[3]
     
    Both this and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (above) were literary debuts. Higgins and Grafton are celebrated mystery novelists and yet their first novels, and only their first novels, make lists of great crime novels. Honorary awards for “lifetime achievement” or was it really all downhill for both writers after their debuts?
     
    One nit to pick. Millhone is said to be a crossword enthusiast, and yet she says, “I got stuck on ‘double helix,’ three letters, ‘DNA,’ a cheat if you ask me.” Huh!?

  • BrainiacKen JenningsBrainiac (2006)
       Ken Jennings won 74 consecutive regular-season Jeopardy! games in 2004. No one has come close to matching his record since. But the most formidable player since Jennings is, as of my writing this, on an impressive run of his own. I don’t expect this upstart to win 75 straight games, but he has probably already stimulated sales of this thirteen-year-old book.[4]
     
    Jennings frames his narrative as a look at the world of competitive trivia, from “college bowl” competitions, to pub trivia, to early television quiz shows (i.e. the disgraced The $64,000 Question), to “the game of answers and questions,” Jeopardy! itself. The book is also a memoir covering the author’s remarkable run, as well as a running trivia challenge–trivia nuggets throughout the book are marked and answered in footnotes that follow each chapter. It is not a “how to” manual, though prospective players may pick up a few tips despite that.
     
    An entertaining book that will please fans of Jeopardy! and trivianauts everywhere.

  • 2001 A Space OdysseyArthur C. Clarke2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)
       Clarke and the film director Stanley Kubrick collaborated on this novel and on the movie of the same name. (Richard Strauss contributed music for the film. Posthumously.) Several of Clarke’s previously-published short stories were cannibalized in the process. Unlike in Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, the cobbling together of loosely-related short stories to make a novel works well here. I believe Clarke drew from his stories, while Bradbury merely stitched his together. (To be fair, most sci-fi aficionados seem to like the Martin Chronicles quite well as it is.)
     
    This is a fine novel, and Clarke keeps the fiction as well-grounded in 1968 scientific reality as possible. Fifty years later, the threat to humankind from artificial intelligence run amok looms still.

  • A Short History of the VikingsJonathan ClementsA Short History of the Vikings (2005)
       Clements has written an accessible, not overlong, but also not inadequate history of the Vikings. I found it captivating. It is a book I believe might well appeal to readers who are not necessarily obsessed with all things medieval (as I am). This prospective audience might include Game of Thrones fans cut adrift–with no immediate help coming from George R R Martin–by the conclusion of the television show. Those recently surprised by DNA test results indicating their great-great-etc-etc grandmothers may well have welcomed (or not) Viking invasions of their own will certainly be interested.
     
    I am sure to forget many details of the Vikings’ battle-scarred and bloody history, but I will retain a vivid impression of “Europe’s last pagans” for a while, at least. I will also remember some evocative names: Svein Forkbeard and his sometimes wife, Sigrid the Haughty. Edmund the Old, Einar Paunch-shaker, and Ingvar Wide-farer. Thorfinn Skull-cleaver, who married the daughter of Erik Bloodaxe (of course he did). Harald Fairhair, Harald Bluetooth[5], and Harald the Ruthless. Svyatopolk the Accursed and his brother Jaroslav the Wise. Eystein the Noisy, Aud the Deep-minded, Erik the Red, and his son (Ericsson) Leif the Lucky. I definitely won’t forget Hakon the Great or Hakon the Good![6]

Notes

  1. One of Clarke’s Three Laws is relevant here. It states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
     
    I have to note here that the three popular (as opposed to scholarly) books on the subject of the human brain I cite here–the only book-length treatments of the subject I have read–were published in 1990, 1994, and 1996. Popular books on currently-developing science are apt to lag behind the “bleeding edge” of their subjects. So, a quarter of a century on, this fascinating science has advanced significantly I’m sure. Nevertheless, it is unlikely to fully explain Donald Trump’s brain, let alone human intelligence, anytime soon. [^]
  2. It just occurred to me that Spotify and its competitors weren’t really a thing when Lebrecht wrote this book. The situation hasn’t improved for the recording industry. [^]
  3. Z is for Zyzzyva is not as far as I know the title Grafton had in mind for her next book. If it were, however, The Last Word in Murder would make a killer subtitle. [^]
  4. As of today, April 23, James Holzhauer has won a shade under $1 million over his 13-game run. Unbelievably, he has topped the old record for the highest single-game payoff (which was $77,000 by Roger Craig) an astounding six times! It’s worth writing again: six times in 13 games he has earned more than anyone else has managed to earn in a single game over the course of the nearly 8,000 games of Alex Trebek’s 35-season run as host. Wow! [^]
  5. Yes, the wireless communication technology, developed in Sweden by Ericsson Mobile, was named after Harald Bluetooth. Clements points out, spoil-sportingly, that the sobriquet should probably be translated “Blacktooth.” [^]
  6. My grandson is named Haaken, one of several variations of the name, after a Swedish great-great-great grandfather. We sure love our Haaken the Smiler, aka Haaken the Beefy! [^]