Books books books

Might just start doing a weekly round-up.

19. Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock (Crown/RH, just came out).  I read this on the advice of the head buyer at my store, and good advice it was.  This is ostensibly a biography of John R. Brinkley, an incredible medical con man who changed the country in numerous ways.  The gross-out factor is that he basically made his name implanting goat testicles into random body parts to improve virility, although he added to his medical cons over time.  But in addition to that, he arguably introduced blues and country to much of the country, made the AMA more powerful by giving them a direct target, and most interestingly at this point in the election cycle, invented many of the annoying electoral tactics still in use today (while running for governor of Kansas, which he only lost through some creative ballot tampering).  Not definitively an evil genius, persay, but definitely a twisted one.  Brock’s writing is appropriate to his subject: a little over-blown and dramatic, but convincing and gripping.  Good for most people, I think, even those who prefer fiction, because this story is a good case of “you couldn’t write something this crazy.”

20. Trophy Kid: or How I Was Adopted by the Rich and Famous by Steve Atinsky (Delacorte/RH, August 2008).  Hm.  I definitely liked this, even though I found it all a bit pat.  It’s the story of a kid who is adopted by a celebrity couple after receiving media attention as a war orphan, 10 years after the adoption.  He and a ghostwriter start work on a autobiography meant to fit into the family’s general feel-good story, but Joe has other plans, as your average slighted 13-yo boy will do.  It’s well-done satire, which I appreciate, especially because it’s rare for a younger audience.  But I feel it was just too short.  I have nothing against short books, but this book really could have used more development in several places that would have improved the story and characters.  (Also, if there’s still time and anybody at Delacorte is reading, PLEASE re-think the cover, which is way too cutesy for the contents.)

21. The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts by Tom Farley Jr. and Tanner Colby (Viking/Penguin, May 2008).  This book was profoundly depressing, but good.  So depressing that I walked around in a funk for a few hours after I finished it and couldn’t figure out why I was so upset, and then realized it was because of the book.  Interestingly, this is an oral biography; that is, it’s almost entirely made up of interview snippets that cut in and out of each other, all from different friends and family over the course of Farley’s life.  This works especially well for the chronicling of a life that 1. was made famous by TV, which is all about the snippet, and 2. not everybody agrees on.  It’s sad not just because of the inevitable ending, but also because I wasn’t aware how well he had been doing up to that point.  I would definitely recommend it, but not if you have anything else to get done the day you start it.

22. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (Tor, May 2008). Even though I have a few small quibbles with this book, overall I loved it enough that I will probably read it with my YA book group some time over the summer.  A great fast-paced tale about a smart 17-yo hacker who gets serious about taking down the Department of Homeland Security after a terrorist scare turns San Francisco into a police state and puts him in jail briefly.  Teachers and librarians: this book will definitely appeal to reluctant readers, no matter how much I loathe that phrase.  On the one hand, I found the constant interludes to explain finer points of technology and hacking a bit much (and felt they were out of voice), but on the other hand, they were so interesting that I didn’t care too much.  A great book for discussion and a great book for waking up smart but apathetic minds.  I often judge YA fiction by how much I wish I could be friends with the characters and hang out in their world, and by that standard, the book rules.  O, one last kudos: very well done sex scenes, for YA and in general (although though they do put the book squarely in “mature teens” range).

23. Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Rebecca Copeland (Vintage/RH, PB February 2008).   I really loved this novel and found it hard to put down, even though I was reading it while battling through a nasty cold and all the fatigue that came with that.  I’m not sure summing up the plot is the best idea.  I hate to say it’s Rashomon-like, especially as it’s Japanese, but it really is.  As several other reviewers have noted, Kirino captured the nastier side of women’s cruelty to women, especially that of teens, very very well.  I also found it to be a great representation of the current uncomfortable position of the average Japanese woman, without being the cloying voyeuristic “now-ain’t-that-AWFUL!” tone I tend to see in books about women in Eastern cultures.  Kirino is clearly a great writer, but I think Copeland also deserves credit for a great translation.  Of all the blurbs on the book, this is the one I like best, and the one that convinced me to pick up the book: “Kirino helps us aficionados of crime fiction imagine the kind of novels James M. Cain might have written if he had been a Japanese feminist” (Maureen Corrigan).

Alright, I saved the best for last.

24. Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (Harper, out last week).  I read this article last week, and then had to find the book it came from, and I was more than pleasantly surprised by it.  There is NOBODY who can’t learn something from this book.  If I ran a business, I would make everybody who worked for me read it.  Teachers, spouses, car owners, doctors–okay, let me be more clear.  If you eat on a regular basis, and occasionally wonder about why you want certain things to eat and not others, then this book has something for you.  The structure of the book is such that you can read a chapter at a time and put the book down, but I guarantee you won’t want to.  Ariely’s writing is incredibly charming and readable, so that his conclusions (all well-backed by research, by the way) are simultaneously obvious and earth-shattering.  But the book goes beyond being interesting; at the end of every chapter, he offers realistic ways in which his findings are applicable to the reader’s everyday life.  In other words, it’s not just incredibly cool, it’s helpful on a grander scale.  It’s the kind of book I wish Oprah would pick so that we could have a national conversation about some of the things he brings up (especially how easily people will bend their morality to be dishonest when cash substitutes, rather than cash, are being used, as well as the difference between a decision made in a cold state and one made in a hot state).  Just go read it already, for heaven’s sake.

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2 comments so far

  1. dan cullen on

    Hi,

    Just started LITTLE BROTHER — thanks for the extra encouragement. Also, I, too, really loved the Ariely. (And another booksellers who enjoyed it has pointed me to NUDGE: Improving Decisions Through the Science of Choice [9780300122237], by Richard H. Thaler, and Cass Sunstein — have you read?

  2. bookavore on

    I have not read that, but I will definitely bring it into the store to take a look. Thanks!


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