2017 YITB Review

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This is the smallest update/year in review I have ever done, and I want to take a minute to apologise to loyal readers of the blog.  It would seem that my bloggers have been in a pretty constant state of flux over the past year with lots of changes (some good, some not so good) and we’ve just let reviewing books slide by the wayside.

I am actually ashamed to say that I only managed to read about half a dozen books last year.  But this year seems better.  Things are leveling out.  I’ve made a list of the things that really matter in my life and I’m going to be doing a big push at the blog.

 

Thus, this year’s list is small but mighty.

The top Book in the Bag Books of 2017:

  • Go To Sleep, Little Farm – Mary Lyn Ray
  • Mix It Up – Herve Tullet
  • Owls Don’t Blink – A.A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner)
  • Desert Solitare – Edward Abbey
  • Lexicon – Max Barry
  • Idolators of Cthulhu – H David Blalock

Book Review — Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Title: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
Author: Edward Abbey
Format: Paperback
Published: 1968

arches

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Paxson Woelber. Creative Commons licensed.

A colleague at work was shocked that I’d never heard of Edward Abbey, so she gave me a copy of Desert Solitaire. I read all but the last few pages and wrote most of a draft of this review before I looked him up in Wikipedia and discovered that Desert Solitaire is, “regarded as one of the finest nature narratives in American literature.” So now I feel ignorant, but at least this review is a genuine reaction to the book, not influenced by its reputation.

Desert Solitaire chronicles Abbey’s experiences as a seasonal ranger in Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park) in 1956-1957. “This is the most beautiful place on earth.” That’s the opening sentence of the first chapter, and Abbey spends the rest of the book showing the reader that beauty. His prose is as poetic and vivid as John Muir’s but with more snark and bite. Abbey was a philosopher, an environmental activist, and an anarchist; all three of those identities are on display here. He blends rhapsodic odes to the beauty of Utah’s canyonlands with misanthropic rants about the evils of cities, cars, development, tourists–and especially the Glen Canyon Dam, which was being built during his time at Arches and which he considered an abomination.

Even if you don’t share Abbey’s environmental views, Desert Solitaire is worth reading if you have any interest in the stark, stunning landscape of the Four Corners region (Confession: I live near there, so I’m biased. This region is breathtaking. You need to see it. Start packing.) Whether describing a cattle drive or the Colorado River rushing through narrow red rock canyons, Abbey immerses you in the otherworldly beauty of the canyonlands. He’s also one heck of a storyteller, regaling you with hair-raising tales of him doing extreme (and occasionally really stupid) things like sliding down waterfalls or hiking into The Maze (now part of Canyonlands National Park) with little more than a bottle of water and some trail mix.  My favorite chapter is also the longest: Abbey’s tale of rafting Glen Canyon, which was later flooded after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. I’ll never see Glen Canyon as he did, because much of it is at the bottom of Lake Powell, but at least I got to see it through his eyes and prose.

I’ll leave you with two passages from the book, which, taken together, will give you a sense of Abbey’s writing style. The first is from near the end of the book, as his time at Arches is coming to a close:

October. Rabbitbrush is in full bloom. The tumbleweeds on the move (that longing to be elsewhere, elsewhere), thousands of them rolling across the plains before the wind. Something like a yellow rash has broken out upon the mountainsides–the aspen forests in their autumn splendor. Sunsets each evening that test a man’s credulity–great gory improvisations in scarlet and gold that remind me of nothing so much as God’s own celestial pizza pies.

Now whenever I look at the aspens on the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks in fall, I’ll think of a yellow rash. Thanks, Mr. Abbey.

The second passage is from the end of the introduction:

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.

I disagree with Abbey on at least one point: I think you should hop in your car and get out here, and seeing this area from a car is better than not seeing it at all. But if you can’t get here–or you’ve been here and want to relive the experience–pick up a copy of Desert Solitaire and let Abbey be your cranky, crotchety, yet oh-so poetic guide.

Rating: 5/5 for people who enjoy nature writing; 3/5 for everyone else.

Book Review – The Other Side Of Oz

TITLE: The Other Side of Oz: An Autobiography
AUTHOR: Buddy Ebsen
FORMAT: Hardback
PUBLISHED: 1994

This book lets Buddy tell the story of his acting career.  I picked it up at the dollar store brand new a couple weeks ago  (who the heck is stockpliling quantities of Hardback books for twenty years?!), and it was a fairly quick read.

Fundamentally, I had a few issues with this – first of all, Buddy Ebsen was cast as the Tin Man and acted for just a couple weeks before the costume tried to kill him and he ended up hospitalized while his lung re-inflated.  So titling your book after the most famous role you never had seems weird.  Clearly he was trying to cash in on that fame, even though he never got to have any of it.  (I don’t think it’s much of an argument to say that The Wizard of Oz has way more staying power than any of the roles he ever had.  A lot of them are very dated to the time period they came out of.  TWoO seems to have a little bit better longevity as far as that sort of thing is concerned.)

Second of all, this book is not an autobiography.  An autobiography is supposed to cover your entire life up to that point.  A memoir, otoh, covers a specific aspect of your life.  So a book that barely says anything about his childhood, overlooks any aspect of his family life except for a few random mentions of things (“By this time I was divorced and had a new wife.  She suggested I take this role..”)  and doesn’t cover the duration, is certainly not an autobiography.  Honestly, I lose a little faith any time a publisher can’t manage to get those details right.  Then again, they couldn’t manage to sell this volume for 20 years so maybe that explains a lot.

With that said, the book is pretty much Mr. Ebsen telling stories.  Each chapter has a different focus (Shirley Temple, Vaudeville with his sister, acting without his sister, The Beverly Hillbillies, etc).  Unfortunately for a book about somebody that spent his time on the screen, there’s very little content about any of his shows.  “Walt Disney put a show on and there I was…”  isn’t really a description about Daniel Boone.  And if you’re covering fifty years in a career, maybe you *should* explain something or other about the shows because there’s a good chance your fans haven’t been around for all of it, and it’d be cool to get a better understanding of the show anyway.

The book suffers horribly from lack of content and organization.  At first it’s in order, then it skips around.  One chapter pretty much just exists to say that he worked with a famous but now dead actress.  I feel like somebody took a bun, added lettuce and ketchup, and then gave it to us before they put the burger patty there.  In other words, they forgot t he meat of the book.  Plus, don’t let the binding deceive you – the pages are thick and glossy, there are a ton of photos, and the font is large and much bolder than it needs to be.  In a more standard book format, this book would have been half the thickness.

I guess it’s not totally bad.  Some of the stories were entertaining.  It’s just not what I expected when I grabbed it at the store.

Over all, I’m only going to give it 2/5 stars.  If you like Hollywood or were a fan of Buddy, go ahead and give this a read if you come across it.  But just be aware that there’s a lot of fluff and it’s not as it appears.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review – Nanotecture

TITLE: Nanotecture: Tiny Built Things
AUTHOR: Rebecca Roke
PUBLISHED: 2016
FORMAT: Hardcover

Nanotecture is supposed to be, according to the book’s own description, a book about architecture/small houses  (including bird/dog/cathouses).  I got it because I thought it would be a really interesting book about tiny houses, which I would never on any planet live in (where would you put books?!), but which I think are fascinating.

The book is small – slightly smaller than a traditional hardback – and each page features a full color photo and then a description and block info that includes who made it, where, when, why, etc…  It’s arranged in five categories from smallest to largest, and features icons that tell what materials were used in the building project.

So, for starters, the book isn’t quite what it’s billed to be.  A lot of the book (like half of the book) is sculpture and the like and not anything useful in any way, meaningful or not.  “This sculpture was done for an art show and lasted forty-seven hours before we took it down!” (Okay, I’m exaggerating.  But barely.)  The reason I wanted the book was to see DWELLINGS – their word – and not just plain artwork.  Nothing wrong with artwork, but that wasn’t what I was going for.

Also the photo was nicely in full color, but it was a single, exterior shot for each thing.  When the outside of the space is a square and the inside is supposed to hold an entire house, the almost windowless square is the most boring camera area possible.  I’m sure they were going for the small format to keep in theme (oh, a tiny book about tiny houses!), but it lost a lot of potential with only the one image.  I know that not everything could have multiple photos – there was a bird house that could be installed as a roof tile, for instance – but a lot of them had designs that were *about* the inside of the piece.

The book was thorough, but it wasn’t what it said it was, and it lacked a few things that would have made it stellar.  I’ll give it 3/5.  Look at it for what it is – an art book – and not at all a book about tiny houses.

Book Review – I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla By Marguerite A. Wright

Title: I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla
Author: Marguerite A. Wright
Format: Hardcover
Published: 1998

Dr. Marguerite A. Wright draws on years of research (her own and others) and experience as a child psychologist to discuss the different phases of racial awareness in children from the preschool to teen years and give guidance and practical advice to parents and educators on how to help children develop healthy attitudes about race and themselves.

Overall this book is brilliant and an important piece of literature which I’d strongly encourage anyone working with children of any race to read. The focus is on black and biracial students, and it’s important to keep in mind that there have been ongoing social changes in the past fifteen years since the books release (so the statistics and details may not all be current). However, I feel that most of it is still extremely relevant to current day. Children are essentially the same even as culture shifts.

I don’t agree with every single thing Wright said. For instance, she is completely anti-spanking, and I think that it can be a healthy disciplinary tool when used consistently and within limits. However, she does suggest several alternative discipline options which are equally if not more effective and should compliment if not replace physical discipline. There’s a few odd places where her advice almost seems contradictory, but I believe that’s mainly a call for balance. Racism can be a broad and complex topic, and often there is a balancing act between pride in one’s own culture and respect for others’. But Wright does a good job making her case on most points with living examples and research statistics.

While part of what I love about the book is its focus on psychological development, the language is very accessible. It avoids the extremes of being too technical or too dumbed down, and Wright talks to her readers as though they are intelligent adults capable of adult conversation.

Because I want most everyone to give this book a read for its tasteful and productive handling of the subject matter, I do declare it a 5-out of-5 read. However, I think it’s equally important to understand the examples and legal details are often 20 years old. I have no idea if an updated edition is planned, but I would love to see one.

Book Review – On Immunity (An Inoculation)

Book Review – The Mildenhall Treasure

TITLE: The Mildenhall Treasure
AUTHOR: Roald Dahl
ILLUSTRATOR: Ralph Steadman
FORMAT: Hardback
PUBLISHED: 2000
NOTE: This was originally done as a story for the New Yorker just after WWII. It was redone into a children’s book in 1977.

The Mildenhall Treasure is the true story about a man named Gordon who is asked to plow a field because a man named Ford is too busy to do it himself. When plowing, Gordon finds a treasure trove of Roman silver. Unfortunately, Ford is a greedy crook and he cons Gordon out of it.

There’s not much to say about the story, and since it’s true I can’t really comment about much of the content. I will say that I was aware of the story beforehand, though, and I liked the presentation of this. I would, however, have liked to have actuall names of people and not just “a man named Ford” for the characters at play, but that was the writing style at the time.

Again, not illustrated by Quentin Blake, who did most of Dahl’s stuff, but the illustrations for this are in some cases actual oil painting, and they’re awaesome. I actually sat there wondering which ones I’d want on my wall if I were given a choice.

Still, it’s slightly short of perfect, so 4/5.

Book Review – Simplify Your Household

Simplify Your Household
Tara Aronson
Hardback (inside spiral bound)
Published 1998

I’m going to say right off the bat that I didn’t just sit down and read this one cover to cover.  IMO, it’s not that kind of book anyway.  You need a tip on saving time, you flip to that point.  You have clutter, go to that section.  So I flipped around for several days after I got this until I had looked at everything.

And I wasn’t going to review it, but I was so annoyed by it that, yeah, yeah, I am.

So the book has that now-common format where there is text and then a bunch of text boxes with icon coded tips.  Some of them are okay, I guess.  Others are the type of tips you’ve read in a magazine a thousand times or heard half your friends mention or are just downright dumb.

For instance, I understand the concept of “every time you buy anything, make sure you get rid of something else.”  But my problem with it is that it’s the type of blanket statement that I can come up with 10000 reasons not to.  Get new running shoes because the other ones are wearing out?  Yeah, get rid of the old ones.  Get new running shoes because you just took up running, then what do you get rid of?  Work shoes?  Dress shoes?  Get a job that requires dress clothes and you don’t have any, what do you get rid of then?  Pajamas?  Or what if you just actually want more of something?

And, yes, I’m the type of person who likes to keep things.  Someday, I’ll have a house with a dedicated library.  Does that mean that I can’t have any books in the meantime?  Or does it just mean I don’t have enough shelves…

Anyway, back to the book.

The tip that finally got me mad enough to nit-pick this book was the shower tip.  It’s a “time-saver” ladies and gentlemen.  They want you to “sprinkle” your tub cleaner (which implies you’re using a chemical powder like Ajax) in your tub when you get in to shower, so that when you’re “waiting for your conditioner to do its thing” you can “use your foot to move around a wash cloth and clean the tub” – um.  No?  First of all, any powdered chemical is going to irritate skin.  So while you’re standing there and your feet are all pruney and the normally harder skin is softened up a little, the author literally wants you to stand in chemicals and move them around the tub.  Dafuq?  Second of all, if you’re really in such a hurry that the sixty seconds you’re supposed to let conditioner sit on your hair is too much, here’s what you do…  shampoo your hair, apply your conditioner, use your shower gel while you’re waiting, then rinse hair and body at the same time.  It makes a hell of a lot more sense than showering with harsh cleaning stuff.

Another tip that was just bizarre.  “If you’re allergic to your pets… dust regularly, lock them out of your bedroom…”  Okay.  I don’t know anyone who keeps their pets when they’re such an allergy problem that they have to lock them out of certain rooms of the house.  If you’re so bad off that you can’t have them in your bedroom, you also can’t have them in your living room, dining room, kitchen or the like.  And I don’t know a single person who would bring in a pet he or she was allergic to.  My friend Monica is allergic to cats.  She doesn’t have a cat.  She also won’t come over to my house because I do have a cat.  If the allergy is so bad that she won’t visit, it means that keeping a cat in her living room but closing her bedroom door isn’t going to do anything.  Clearly the author doesn’t have allergies of her own.

While I think some of the tips in here (again, albeit common sense stuff) could potentially be useful, most of them are just weird.  When childproofing your house, the author would like you to install plexiglass along your stair rails.  She would also like you to keep all your shoes stacked in plastic bins (because when you get to time saving, it’ll be sooooo easy to get to them when you need them – how about a shoe rack?!), turn all of your clothing inside out to wash them (which then means right side out after you dry them, but she doesn’t bother talking about that), and a plethora of other things that are just weird.

Bottom line.  This is yet another book combining common sense and a bunch of “tips” that nobody I have ever met has used or heard of anyone using.  Do you squeegee your tub daily?  The author thinks you should.  I’ll give it a 2/5 for the layout and not much else, but as for buying it… what book do you have sitting around worth less than this one?  Remember, if you get something, you have to get rid of something else.

I’m going to get rid of this one.

 

Book Review – Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Title: Outliers
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Format: Paperback
Written: 2008
Published: 2009

Outliers is a nonfiction book that examines the people we consider to be outside the range of normal, and the qualities that separated them out. These outliers range from sporting stars and prodigies through to groups, businesses and entire cultures. This examination is done against a background of success and failure, and Gladwell uses surprising case studies to illustrate what he dubs the story of success.

The first section of the book examines individual and small group outliers, and details the journeys that took these people to their enviable positions of heightened ability and results. Key concepts are introduced at a gradual pace, allowing the reader to keep up and easily absorb the information. Some of the early examples are presented as mysteries that the reader has a chance to solve before Gladwell provides an obscure yet obvious solution.

With a strong thesis for success in the individual, the second and final part of the book examines broader cultural outliers and phenomena that can arise due to cultural differences. Moving from the micro to the macro shows the same mechanisms at work, and Gladwell introduces case studies that have used this awareness with impressive results.

The primary goal of the book is to demonstrate that success is not restricted to talented people receiving lucky breaks. While being in the right place at the right time has undoubtedly assisted many famous success stories, the point that Gladwell carefully develops and reiterates is that talent and luck are the result of factors that can be controlled. Being in the right place at the right time is important, but learning how to identify the timing and place is critical. Unless you have a way to capitalise on your opportunities, they will not be realised.

On the down side, this book approximately 300 pages long, so it will give you a really bad headache if you read it in a single sitting. I would strongly advise against reading it before doing a task that requires you to concentrate. It will be very unhelpful if you try to read this book as a way to relax your mind before going to sleep.

Criticisms aside, this book is brilliantly researched, engagingly written, and will challenge you to see the world in a new way. For these reasons, I am giving it 5 out of 5 pages.

Book Review – 101 Ways to Have a Business and a Life by Andrew Griffiths

Title: 101 Ways to Have a Business and a Life
Author: Andrew Griffiths
Format: Paperback
Written & Published: 2007

This book comes from the 101 Ways series of business books by Andrew Griffiths, and focuses on ways to bring balance, harmony and fulfilment to your business life. It is targeted at people who either have a small business or are in the process of building one. The tips are grouped into themes, such as fun and relationships, and there are 20 bonus tips in the back of the book.

Some of the tips in this book offer sound advice, such as #7 (Develop your plan of attack and put it where you can see it) and #71 (Get rid of unfinished business). They are clearly written, concise and actionable. By completing these suggested actions, which are simple to understand and implement, the reader should either feel an immediate improvement or see how the improvement will occur over time.

Small business is the focus of the book, but there are a lot of tips that I cannot work out how to adapt as a sole trader. I can see how #29 (Fun uses every sense – sight, sound, touch, smell and taste) could work in an office, but I really can’t see myself developing a Fun Committee where I am the only member, having a pin-up board with baby pictures of myself, or having a ‘something you didn’t know about me’ day. My main problem with fun is that I work alone most of the day, and following through on that tip would make me feel so alone that I’d probably take up drinking, regardless of #62.

Many of the tips in this book are repetitive. They either build off previous tips, so cannot be completed in isolation, or they are a previous tip rewritten to fit into the next section. Initially I forgave the book for this, assuming that 101 tips would be a big ask but, once I realised there were 20 bonus tips at the back, it is very easy to see where the book could have been easily improved. I appreciate that all of the books in the series contain 20 bonus tips, but that just annoys me more.

Several classic tips are absent from this book, which surprised me. It has been written for a general audience, which means there is not a specific type of small business in mind, but tips to streamline efficiency are almost absent. Some strategies are universal, such as batching, but they are missing. I would expect that learning how to work more efficiently would be a necessary counterpoint to some of the tips in this book that require a greater outlay of time.

While this book would offer valuable insights to the small business owner who has never read this type of book before, I struggle to imagine that this book would be the first one they would pick up. For this reason, I am rating the book 2 out of 5 pages.

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