Book Reviews: Death, Science, Military Bases, and Sophie Tucker

Still a lot of free time, though it turns out I won’t need knee surgery. So I’m reading happier.
On with the show. . .


Lover Man

This is a first person mystery set in Noo Yawk, where a man with far too much time on his hands hears about his ex-lover’s death and wants to solve it before the police. Fair warning if you’re reading this in 2015: it is not set in the present; either this is written about the past, or more likely was written in the past and is being republished now. Don’t know much about baseball, but I’m pretty sure Gooden and Strawberry played quite a while ago.

The writing style is showcased from the very first sentence, which I enjoyed a lot. Not that the rest was bad, but it was such a good start there was no way it could stay at such a level. It’s always a good sign when a dog is a main character, and is quite the character. This book will particularly be enjoyed by jazz fans, which the main character is.

What he isn’t is very smart; over and over I had to keep from shouting at him for making the stupid move, particularly when it came to keeping things from the cops and going it alone, where he was much more likely to get beat up or killed. His motivation for doing so didn’t strike me as all that smart to begin with, and after dangerous people mess with him he doesn’t get the message, his ego taking over. Considering all he does for a living is manage his famous dog, I eventually grew to dislike him, wondering if he would end up in the hospital—can’t kill a first-person narrator, after all, unless you’re Richard Matheson—and I wasn’t bothered by the idea.

The ending in particular was confusing; the plot had taken so many turns, there’d been so many revelations and character twists, that even when I was told who was who and did what, I wasn’t sure what had happened. Ordinarily I would give this a 2, but the writing style warrants bumping it up to 3.



A Taste for Death

What starts as a typical murder mystery set in the Finger Lakes area is really something much deeper psychologically, with just about every character damaged in some way. Even the lead detective, born in France, suffers from amnesia that keeps him from remembering most of his childhood, possibly caused by alcoholism at an incredibly young age; his actions with his superior/psychologist/former lover show he’s self-destructive too, but that’s just the tip of this mentally abnormal iceberg.

The main plot involves the killing of a wine critic, with just about everyone a suspect, including his wife and teenaged son. As one would expect in this genre, there’s plenty of revelations about other characters that turn out to be red herrings, otherwise this would be a much shorter book. Some of the rhapsodic depictions of the vineyards brought memories of that movie A Walk in the Clouds to my mind, but the description of the lakes, particularly the hilarious sailing trip that makes the detective sick, were my favorite.

In the end the killer is not as expected, though there might have been enough bread crumbs if you were really paying attention. To my mind the book was too long, with large chunks taken up by insights into the detective’s past, his dreams/flashbacks; made me think it was setting up for sequels.



I am Sophie Tucker

Billed as “Forrest Gump of the first half of the 1900s,” Sophie Tucker is the huge star of the past you’ve never heard of. I certainly had no idea—even while reading this, till near the end—that Sophie Tucker had been real; since it was labeled a “fictional autobiography,” I had no reason to expect the protagonist wasn’t made up either. Later, looking at their website, I realized exactly what they meant: “This volume is 85% fact. The other 15% …who knows?”

This is one of the most hilarious books I’ve ever read. Some of the jokes are obvious, but a lot of them come after a little bit of thinking, which makes it all the more fun when you do get it, a sense of accomplishment. Somehow the lady could make a funny about any topic, and was immensely self-deprecating, which of course helps to like her. There’s a chapter where the family had to stay in Great Britain a few weeks, and the famous person she meets there—who gets her mom out of jail by proving she didn’t kill the victim—is Arthur Conan Doyle. As much as I laughed at this reveal, I was mildly annoyed for not guessing it myself.

A look at the website shows there’s a documentary that goes along with this book making the rounds of film festivals right now, and I have to admit I’m intrigued to see it. . .



The Science of TV’s The Big Bang Theory: Explanations Even Penny Would Understand

I’m no scientist, but I did get surprisingly passable grades in those courses in high school and college. . . except biology (PLANT biology—don’t ask). I also know I’m way smarter than Penny, which I mention because of the subtitle, but some of these concepts were still too much, not as easy to grasp as the writer no doubt envisioned.

The great Isaac Asimov used to have a column where he would explain scientific ideas in a way that the general public could understand. Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene (as seen on the show) had books like this too, but they don’t have the writing elegance of Asimov. Neither does this guy, but he comes the closest, especially with his sense of humor. Even then, whereas Asimov comes off as a funny professor teaching a class, Dave Zobel (not to be confused with the tattoo artist if you google the name) is more of a guy chatting at a party, a geek trying to impress a girl perhaps. The style is therefore much more conversational, which probably helps in keeping the reader’s attention. For instance, Isaac Asimov would never have said “As for Raj, he also has a pair [of noise-cancelling headphones]. Despite what some people say.” Literally a low blow.

Like Asimov, who did columns on Shakespeare and Milton, this book includes not just science but also philosophy and psychology. I found the chapter on dimensions the easiest to follow, even before he got to Flatland, as I knew he ultimately would. There’s plenty of asides for interviews and slight tangents of the main topic, with recurring themes like “In what universe?” “,” “Ask an icon,” and “Out to lands beyond,” though it does seem silly to call up an “icon” like Tom Lehrer and only ask him how he feels about Sheldon singing his song “The Elements.” {Yes, I’m sure there was more to the interview, but that’s all we get.}

One of the points he repeatedly brings up concerns the building where Leonard and Sheldon live, not just its location but its architecture. Since I’ve been on Los Robles plenty of times I was certainly curious about this too. And because I live close by, it occurred to me I might take a shot at it, go over to Pasadena and look for the place where you can see City Hall and the mountains from that exact angle, though considering they live on the fourth floor, it would be tough so match from ground level. Then I got to the last chapter and found someone had already done that; I was secretly relieved.

Your mileage will of course vary on how much you learn from this, but I will say the writer makes it easy with his writing style, even if his explanations don’t quite light the bulb in my head. It’s particularly fun when he calls Sheldon on his mistakes, making me wish the fictional character could read this and I could watch his head explode. . .



Base Nation

This upcoming book about the vagrancies and ills of America’s overseas military bases starts in Guantanamo, where much has been heard about the prison, but not many know it’s also a regular base, so much like others that it has McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell, Subway, etc. I remember a base in Qatar some years ago that reminded me of a Midwest American small town, but you don’t expect it in Cuba!

There are chapters on the environment, families living on base, profiteering, local workers—which as expected includes prostitution and slavery—and rape of fellow soldiers, both male and female, but mostly female. It’s shocking to hear how some women serving in Iraq died from dehydration because they were too scared to drink water and have to go to the latrine, where they knew they’d be raped.

It gets depressing quickly and doesn’t get any easier. (I’m speaking about the information, not the writing.) Toward the end I was lagging, hoping it would be over soon; if I had not been reading this for review I would not have finished it, and I certainly didn’t bother with the last 50 pages of notes. As concerning as it all is, as damning as all the evidence he includes is, there’s really only so much a reader can take. I realize there’s no other way to write/publish this—certainly not expecting him to throw in some jokes—but I do believe it’s a concern from a reader’s point of view.



One thought on “Book Reviews: Death, Science, Military Bases, and Sophie Tucker

  1. Pingback: 15 Fave Books of 2015 | LoganBruin–An Unauthorized Autobiography

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