Book Reviews: Non-Fic Be Sick

“Did you just fall in love again?”
“Let’s label this one ‘severe like.’”

{Apologies for the title. My editor insisted.
No, I don’t have an editor.}

A Way of Life: Zen Monastics at Work and at Play
Photographs of a Vietnamese monastery through the eyes of an American.
The shots are often grainy, which lends itself well to the documentary aspect of the book. One of the first shots shows two women in profile walking past a lake, a red bridge before them. The background is foggy. It’s beautiful.
But mostly it’s about the monks. There’s a bald one with glasses, smiling as he/she paddle a rowboat. The masked monk on a riding lawn mower seems a little incongruous. There’s shots of them playing basketball, volleyball, badminton, hopscotch, and some sort of hackey-sack in a parking lot. Not what is expected from a monastery. There’s also a music section, the highlight of which is the little girl watching the cello player.
Some of the photos are complimented by sayings or poems, which does serve to make them a little more special, but even though there’s some beautiful images here, most of the photography looks like stuff taken at a backyard family party. Not all that interesting, unless the point was somewhere in the vein of, “Look, they’re just like us!”
3/5

Directing the Sitcom Joel Zwick
There’s nothing else that could explain this book any better than the title it already has. Mr. Zwick, who’s been doing this for decades, gets asked questions and answers them, period. A big part of this is the questioner, who is also in the business of show, as Tom Hanks puts it in the foreword—Yay for Bosom Buddies!—knows exactly what to ask the experienced director.
But despite the short length, it took forever for me to get through this. Sometimes it became too technical; I know some of the stuff as a professional photographer, and I’ve been on set shooting stills, but at times it just went right over my head. Oddly enough, less than half the book talks about the shoot itself—or as they call it, the film school portion—which I’m guessing is what most people are looking for when they buy this book. The highlights of this section are explanations of camera terms, such as extreme close up and cowboy, along with four camera setups, perfectly illustrated with basic drawings.
In the end, I liked the stories about the actors and other Hollywood people more than the craftwork.
3/5

Big Nate: A Good Old-Fashioned Wedgie
Just in case the title isn’t enough, the cover shows a kid giving another kid a wedgie. Believe it.
I’ve read this comic strip before, and despite the fact the main character is a total butt monkey it’s pretty funny, even hilarious at times. In this edition Nate’s back on the baseball team, though quickly benched for rapping from the outfield, falls in love for the millionth time, sees a past crush return from Seattle, offers to help dad with his manscaping, helps his buddy with a diet, binges on X-Files, and talks like Stewie from Family Guy.
Best lines:
“Historians are still debating that.” Works every time.
“Scooby Doofus!” Wish I’d thought of that.
4/5

If My Dogs Were a Pair of Middle-Aged Men
I can’t tell you anything more concerning what this book is about that isn’t already in the title; I do love it when it’s so on point.
Some of these jokes hit a little too close to home, some are kinda gross, but mostly it’s just taking usual dog behaviors and ramping them up to hilarious heights through rudimentary artwork that somehow makes it even funnier. The pooping and bathtime scenarios go into “I can’t believe he went there but I’m laughing so hard” range.
3.5/5

;o)

Book Reviews: Suns, Violins, Planets, and Song

Sunrise, Sunset
A Florida woman with balcony views shoots the sunrise and sunset. Her boyfriend and then other people add poems or words to the photos. Simple premise, elegantly done.
Enjoyed the story of each sunset being done by a famous painter, trying to figure out which one it looked like. No surprise that one went first.
“I never met a sunset I didn’t like. It means dinner’s almost ready.” Nice.
As expected, there’s a lot of rebirth and “life goes on” with the sunrise, while sunset is an opportunity to reflect. Other themes include gratitude and, of course, religion.
I’m sure most people would find these photographs great. As a professional photographer for over 25 years, I could quibble about that, but what would be the point?
Yet despite the preeeety pictures I found myself getting bored halfway through. Don’t try to read/look at this in one sitting.
3/5

Violin
Rather than a history of the violin, this is ten essays on various subjects, some a lot more fun than others.
Starts right off with how the violin was widely considered an instrument of the devil; now we know where Charlie Daniels got that idea. Another chapter talks about the violin in fiction—Sherlock Holmes made the list!—but probably because I was looking forward to it so much it didn’t live up to expectations.
Then the real problems start, with chapter 4. To understand anything that’s been said here you need a ton of knowledge about violin playing, or even music in general, particularly notation. Is this really intended for a general audience? Because I’d say there are a lot more people interested in music who don’t know anything about playing it than those who do. Because of this, entire chapters are of absolutely no interest at all. I’d just seen one of Mozart’s concertos the day before I read about it, and still had no idea what this was talking about. What should have been informative became only boring.
So there’s some interesting tidbits here, but so much of it talks in musical terms that leave us non-musicians in the metaphorical dust.
2.5/5

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do… But You Could’ve Done Better
Stories about how people broke up or were broken up with, obviously not edited, with the author including drawings to punctuate the story. That’s it. It’s like one of those Facebook links that take you to Reddit or some such.
The funniest parts were before and after the main event, like the dedication: “To that one dude, for being such an inspirational dick.” And in the blurbs, “Oh my god, you have a book!” – Hilary’s Mom.
But does she really? Other than some drawings that only highlighted the story—without adding anything original—this was all stuff sent to her. But even the stories weren’t that great. The author states in the forward that she drew a doodle in response to her own breakup, and it made her laugh and feel better; great thought, but I didn’t find much that was funny here. Sure, there were a few laughable instances, but most were either sad or simply mean.
2/5

Planet Song
An advanced long-lived race of fish base their entire civilization and economy on music, particularly sounds made by living beings. Having found the ultimate song—humpback whales—they come to Earth to take some home, in a story obviously inspired by the fourth Star Trek movie. (With a small touch of Harlan Ellison’s original draft of City on the Edge of Forever, where sound could be addicting.)
This is written on a huge scale, taking place over hundreds of years and having around thirty points of view. The main character seems to be one of the very few females of the Fahr species, who manages to work her way into a position of power and then just as quickly loses it. There’s a lot of political wrangling, both within the alien ship and the humans who finally figure out there’s trouble out there. Telescope technology is a fun running theme.
But for such a huge scope there isn’t all the much that takes place; most of it is talking. Thankfully there’s a lot of small touches of humor, and while it never gets boring I wish there could have been more to it. There’s an appendix that explains some of the aspects of the Fahr race that seemed incomprehensible while reading this book, so it might have been more helpful at the beginning.
There’s no actual ending, but since at the start it tells you this is the first of a trilogy, I didn’t mind.
3.5/5

Improper Conduct
The rich daughter of a Chicago politician runs to her first love to help her find her runaway sister. He cons her into having sex with him, not that she’s at all reluctant. In addition to that he makes her live the life of the homeless people she’s encountering—well, he cheats a bit—rather than go right out and find the sister, who’s in danger. He’s a bit of an ass, but then she’s no prize either. By the end they understand each other better, show they regret the times they acted like jerks, and come together. . . and oh yeah, remember about the sister in danger.
This was kinda bland. Can’t think of much to say about it. Actually a good story frame for the silly romance, but they spent so much time denying their feelings I got exasperated.
3/5

;o)

Book Reviews: Art and Oddities

The tattoo sealed the no-deal.

Photographs from the Edge
Travels To The Edge is most likely my favorite travel show, in no small part due to the awesome theme song (still waiting for it to be released. . . someday. . . just sayin’). More importantly, as a travel photographer this show gives me ideas where to shoot next, as well as fond memories of previous shoots. But this book is even better at that, as most of these shots are from places not visited by the TV show. Art Wolfe’s philosophy is that he wants to shoot places that haven’t been photographically exploited before, which is hard to do nowadays, considering it doesn’t take long to reach any spot on Earth in this modern world.
Each photo comes with a description of how it came about: camera and lens, f/stop, exposure, ISO. The fact he took the time to document all that while shooting, especially back in the film days, makes my head hurt. Each page also has a photo tip, which in a book this large is an astonishing number of tips. One of these says his workhorse lens is an 80-200; that’s the one I use the most too, so I had a momentary geek-out. (But I’m feeling much better now.)
On to the important stuff. The first image is of an arctic fox, and it’s beautiful, a perfect opener. Another shot that stayed with me was of a small house and some trees looking amazingly tiny as a mountain looms straight up behind them. I also learned more about hyenas than I ever expected. And as much as I know I shouldn’t laugh at his scare on Easter Island. . . I laughed. There are hundreds more, and while it’s impossible for all of them to be awesome, considering everyone’s taste is different, this is a stunning and fitting document to what I consider an underappreciated modern photographer.
For fans of his show, think of this as a “best of” episode, told chronologically. I read this with his voice in my head.
4.5/5

Circles of Delight: Classic Carousels of San Francisco
In this photo book three vintage carousels in San Francisco are photographed, with a format of a general photo on one page, followed by a close-up. Each merry-go-round gets its own chapter, with the figures further divided into jumping, standing, and chariot.
Of the first carousel my favorite was the tiger, the sculpture and color so beautiful. I don’t know much about these devices, so I have no idea if giraffes, ostriches, pigs, deer, and even bunnies are common, but these made me smile.
The second carousel is housed in a glass building, which makes it so much brighter, especially for photographs. Unfortunately its pieces weren’t as lovely as the first one’s, so that was a bit of a letdown.
The third has the most dramatic drawings on the horses, and even features a unicorn and a sea dragon, plus a tiger with a mermaid on it. The camel looks amused.
There’s no doubt both the craftsmanship and the photography is gorgeous, but it takes a serious merry-go-round buff to make it through the whole volume in one sitting without losing focus.
3.5/5

Anatomy of a Song
Interviews with the people involved in the writing and recording of many hit songs. This is by no means encyclopedic, as there were quite a few tunes I thought merited attention, but perhaps it’s as simple as not being able to get interviews. One of the artists mentions their 2015 tour, so this is definitely up to date.
Most of the articles were pretty standard, which made one in particular stand out: not only was Joni Mitchell interviewed, so was the guy she wrote “Carey” about, a trip down memory lane that takes us all the way to the Greek Islands.
The thing is, not being a musician or a sound tech meant there was a lot here I didn’t understand. But what I did understand, I liked. Too bad there were so few songs I got excited about, but of course that’s in the ear of the beholder.
3.5/5

Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders
I have a friend on Facebook who constantly posts articles from this website, and since I usually found them interesting enough to click through, I felt the same about this book, though from the times I checked it out on the internet it felt like a tonier international version of Roadside America.
As expected, each page contains a strange destination, with some filler blurbs of other interesting places that didn’t make the cut for their own article. Interspersed with the locations are a few articles on the places, or the science—or bogus—of the contraptions that make the place interesting, and so on. I found “Constructed Languages,” playing off the Esperanto museum in Vienna, the most interesting of the articles, along with “Everything’s bigger in Australia.”
While I was reading I was anxious to find places I’d been to, but to my chagrin I topped out at about three dozen (a surprising number of them in Austria, Munich, New Zealand, Mexico, and Scandinavia). In the London extras there was a mention of the Temple of Mithras, which I’d been hoping would get a page, so that was disillusioning. I was simultaneously disappointed and relieved when there was no photo of Archie the Giant Squid, though from the drawing it may be too big to capture in one shot. One of the nicer photographed entries is Skellig Michael, though I have to wonder if this book was in the planning before the new Star Wars movie, as that would seem like an automatic mention. Another highlight for me was that John Frum, Tom Navy, and Prince Phillip—all our favorite cargo cults—are mentioned near the end.
There’s not much else to say. If you like to travel and visit weird museums and locations, this is exactly what you’ve been wanting.
4/5

;o)

Book Reviews: Redheads, Barbarians, Photography, and Spies

“100 years of solitary love in the labyrinth,” she sighed.
“While suffering from cholera,” I added, which despite the downer nature seemed to break the ice nicely.

Red Sonja/Conan
An herbalist wizard comes up with a potion that will allow him to rule the world, though we don’t find out how for a while in this graphic novel with a blind seer, a king, a few armies, and of course the two title characters. If you’re at all familiar with the genre, be it comics, books, or movies, there’s nothing all that surprising here: the heroes get into a lot of tight scrapes only to be saved at the last moment. Turns out this is a sequel, as the events of the previous story are mentioned often.
It truly is a sobering sight to see a beautiful almost-naked redhead amidst the carnage of battle, dead bodies piled around her. But on the other hand there’s more humor than expected, like when Conan is taking two wenches to bed only to find Sonja waiting for him; they are not happy, but then neither is she.
The artwork is a bit rough, which might be expected in this kind of story, but damn, when you’ve got such an iconic character, known for both her fierce warriorness and exceptional beauty, you really can’t go wrong. . . oh yeah, Conan’s in it too, if you go for the Barbarian thing.
Extras include variant and exclusive covers.
3.5/5

There’s a Little Black Spot on the Sun Today
Taken right from The Police song, this is the story of a small boy with a disease, with the treatment hurting worse, so he identifies with the song King of Pain. From there his father drew this small book.
The artwork is graphic in the modern sense of the word, composed of simple triangles that oddly yet emotionally bring the words to life. It’s mostly the lyrics that are rendered, some literal, others abstract; particularly happy not to see how the beached whale ended up. Though simple to the point of minimalism, there’s one particular drawing of tears that’s heartbreaking. . .
4/5

Ariel Bradley, Spy for General Washington
First and foremost, considering the modern usage of the name, Ariel is a boy, not a girl. At nine years old, he’s hungering for some cobbler, but Mom is saving it for his brothers, who are coming home on leave from fighting the Revolutionary War. But instead of resting they’re visiting to fetch their little brother so he can carry out a secret mission.
Said to be based on a true story, and in a general sense it is plausible; the best spy is the one who doesn’t know he’s a spy. Since it’s a children’s book, it’s relatively simplistic. For example, for German soldiers those Hessians were really polite, or maybe because they were only in it for the money they just didn’t care, because the British were a lot more suspicious. To me the most sympathetic character was the poor old horse, though his love of cobbler does humanize Ariel to the point where I was rooting for him, American or not.
There’s some drawings, though there’s no intent to make the figures lifelike; in fact they kinda reminded me of the caricatures artists draw at fairs, except for the horse, who is as realistic as can be right down to the giant teeth; long of tooth indeed. . .
3.5/5

George Eastman
I have to admit that despite being a history lover, not to mention a professional photographer for 25 years, it never occurred to me to wonder about the most important man in the history of the field.
Being a short tome, this book highlights only the most important moments of his life, both the ups and down of business as well as family, which mostly consists of his mother. There’s an interesting note about him being a fan of Stoic philosophy, which as you read on you realize explains a lot about him. Again and again he says wealth and fame are not important to him, and it turns out he was one of the major donors to places like MIT, though of course anonymously, as well as education and healthcare.
He was far better at getting people—chemists, carpenters, etc.—to make his products than dealing with the business side of things, especially when up against the government. As expected if you bother to think about it, the emulsion was the hardest part (and right on cue there goes Tom Petty in my head) of the photo-taking process, but once that was solved he showed he was a master at publicity and advertising as well.
As for the book itself, it’s a very easy read, possibly written with high school students in mind. I love the little sketches that crown each chapter; though some look like clip art, they’re cute in their simplicity, especially the historical ones, like the box camera.
All in all, this is a wonderful introductory—i.e. short—biography of a man who really should be more celebrated today.
4/5

;o)

Book Reviews: Photos and More Ellison

“If she was lost in a forest, she’d talk to the trees.”
“But it would have to be about her.”

Seven Continents: Photography of Mohan Bhasker
As expected from the title, the chapters are divided by continents; as a geography major oh so long ago, I approve of including both North and South as simply America. And as a photographer who’s been all over the world, it’s a joy to find there are still places I haven’t visited and shot. I even smiled in commiseration as he talked about crying when he finally got the perfect shot after four days of waiting for the weather to clear.
Like many people, I’ve taken that iconic Catalina sunset shot, but never with a purple sky. Same with Acapulco. The shot of the desert sunset in Brazil is prob my fave. But when he talks about his encounter with the hunters going after bears. . . um, did you forget about the BEAR part? Get out of there!
Some of the shots are very colorful but otherwise no big deal, technique-wise. What I particularly couldn’t stand is how casually he broke the law at Iguazu and Masai Mara, and repeating it in his book like he’s trying to show himself as some kind of badass. That kind of thing gives photographers a bad name, and will make it harder for the next guy who visits there and has no intention of breaking the law. Not cool; I can only hope you’re not an American dentist, dude.
As a vanity project, it’s not bad. There are some fabulous shots, others are pedestrian, most are in the middle.
3.5/5

Timeless
This book is about an organization named Kamoinge—which means “people working together” in a Kenyan language—celebrating their 50th anniversary. This appears to be a collective of socially conscious photographers from several places in the world showing off their work.
In the forward it’s argued that photography can be thought of and enjoyed as music, which certainly has never occurred to me. One shot that stood out for me was of a little girl smirking into the camera, in a fancy lace dress, with sneakers marked “left” and “right.” On the other side of the world, there’s a photo in Dakar of a strangely shaped tree and a woman walking past it with the wind billowing her dress that seems very musical indeed.
After those shots comes a section of posters from gallery shows, featuring a history of the organization, followed by Founders’ Portfolios, most of which were difficult to understand; more like modern art painting than photography. Very few of them made any impression on me.
With its social aspect, you can’t expect huge technical prowess. Maybe I’ve been a photographer too long and I can’t get out of the way of that, but there were few photos here I liked.
2.5/5

The Paderborn Connection
Cop in England investigates murder, finds conspiracy involving smuggling, the military, and Germany.
This book contains excellent plotting and characters, especially the addition of the military cop who aids the investigation. To my surprise I enjoyed the subplot about the dying father; along with the wife, it humanizes the cop very well. There’s also a lot of great operational skill, as though this author was part of that world. The piece about what the victim had as his last meal was particularly brilliant.
Now for the bad news. From the very first sentence I could see this was written by someone with very little experience. The matter-of-fact style-less prose quickly grew boring; even the lack of commas and not knowing when to use or not use quotations became irritating in a big hurry. And this is not a case of an early uncorrected proof; this goes far beyond that. I don’t think this was edited at all; it has the feel of someone who only reads random postings on internet sites and hasn’t learned anything from actual books that go through a long process to be published.
So the gist of it is: 4/5 for plot and inner workings of the police; 1/5 for amateurish writing and lack of style, grammatical and punctuation errors. So 2.5/5

Can & Can’tankerous
Harlan Ellison. You either love him or hate him. The same goes for his stories: it’s gonna be something you remember till your dying day or dismiss as soon as you finish it. This pattern continues here.
The plots are inventive as always: an extremely tiny man persecuted, an incredibly curious man receiving a weird fortune cookie, featuring the most humanlike alien ever, and so on. Not saying outright that the cop in the film-noir type store was female was brilliant, though that story had a weird and gruesome twist I wish I could forget. My favorite was either the modern take on Egyptian gods or the source of all those fantastical maps in adventure stories. The one set on Mars was appropriately strange, yet classic science fiction, but the last one, despite having an amazing title, went right over my head; oh well.
Between the stories and their intros are small pieces of how Ellison suffered a stroke, and at the end there’s some original typewritten versions of some of these stories, first done about 50 years or so ago. Too bad they’re too small to read in digital format.
3.5/5

;o)