Book Review: The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff


Author: Benjamin Hoff
Title: The Tao of Pooh
Narrator: Simon Vance
Publication Info: Tantor Audio, 2012 (originally published in 1982)
Summary/Review:

I read the writings of Lao Tzu and A.A. Milne for the first time when I was in college.  I read this book too, which tied all those things together. And since I loved all of what I read this became one of my favorite books.  As I’m periodically trying to revisit some of my favorite books of all time as audiobook, I listened to this version charmingly narrated by Simon Vance.

My impression is that while it is stil a good book, it really feels like the type of book someone in college would ascribe a lot more value too, if that makes any sense.  Through the characters of the 100 Acres Wood, Hoff ably introduces the basic concepts of Taoist philosophy, and through Taoist philosophy he also introduces the basic characteristics of Winnie the Pooh.  It’s an entertaining portal to these concepts that is worth reading, or listening to, even if just maybe it’s not one of the greatest books of all time.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Around Harvard Square C.J. Farley


Author: C.J. Farley
Title: Around Harvard Square
Publication Info: Brooklyn, NY : Black Sheep / Akashic Books, 2019.
Summary/Review:

I received a free copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

This novel is narrated by Tosh, an African-American Freshman at Harvard who grew up in a small town in rural Upstate New York and is the first person in his family to go away for college.  He forms a friendship of outcasts with his roommate Lao, a student from China with a fear of robots, and Meera, an androgynous Indian student.  He also is attracted to the mysterious Zippa, a Jamaican student squatting in the trash room of his residence hall.

The trio of Tosh, Lao, and Meera take a philosophy course with an eccentric and provocative professor known as “the Chair.” They also get involved in a competition to get spots on the staff of the university humor magazine, the Harvard Harpoon.  The experience is a lot like rushing a fraternal organization with hazing rituals and cruel pranks.  Zippa appears first as something like a Greek chorus on what Tosh is doing and then later joins the action as a provocateur.

Many names in the novel are changed – like the Harpoon, which is substituted for the Lampoon – as are the names of prominent Harvard alumni, although it’s blatantly obvious who they are.  There’s also a book within the narrative called Around Harvard Square which is said to be a famous novel where all the names were changed, so that’s super-meta, I guess. The book is set in the 90s which is emphasized by each chapter being named for a 90s alternative rock  or hip hop song title.  But the dialogue in the book seems more like it’s from the 2010s.  Also, I may be stretching it here, but I see odd parallels between Tosh, Lao, and Meera with the leads in another school-based book set in the 90s, Harry, Ron, and Hermione.   Only 90s kids will understand.

I really want to love this book, because it is witty and the characters and the premise are a good start.  But unfortunately, the plot just jumps around, there are way too many coincidences, and the dialogue is like people practicing dialectics rather than natural speak.  The idea that privileged white people and the academic institutions that support them need to be taken down a peg is a good one (and super relevant reading this just after the college admissions scandal), but there’s no subtlety in this satire.

Recommended books:

Rating: **

Book Review:Help!: The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration by Thomas Brothers


Author: Thomas Brothers
Title: Help!: The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration
Narrator: Keith Sellon-Wright
Publication Info: HighBridge Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

I received a free advance review copy of this audiobook through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

The author of this book is a Duke University musicologist, and I don’t think I will represent the musicology well in this summary, although I did find it interesting to listen to. Brothers uses two popular music acts of the 20th century to illustrate the creative genius of musicians collaborating together to create new tunes: Duke Ellington and The Beatles.  This is basically two books in one with half the book about each group of artists.

Ellington is generally depicted as a lone genius composer, but Brothers states that he was more of an arranger than a composer.  He relied on others – particularly Bubber Miley and later Billy Stayhorn – to write the songs, and his entire band contributed parts as they worked on a tune.  That Ellington frequently gave himself sole writing credit was a recurring source of disgruntlement for Ellington’s band members.

The Beatles are more widely recognized as a collaboration – Lennon-McCartney – although it’s commonly believed that John Lennon and Paul McCartney only composed songs together in The Beatles’ early years.  Brothers breaks down the recordings and shows that not only were Lennon and McCartney were collaborating right up until the Beatles broke up, but a wider group of collaborators contributed to creating the Beatles music including George Harrison, Ringo Starr, producer George Martin, sound engineer Geoff Emerick, guest artists like Eric Clapton and Billy Preston, and yes, even Yoko Ono.

Brothers makes the controversial, but accurate, statement that Strayhorn was musically more talented than Ellington, and that McCartney’s musical talent outclassed Lennon’s.  But Ellington had the ability to listen to various solos by the artists in his band and arrange them tunefully, while Lennon brought a rock & roll edge and lyrical bite to McCartney’s music.  As I noted, there’s an academic level to this book that is perhaps beyond a novice to me, but I still enjoyed reading about these great artists and how they made their most memorable tunes.  But mostly, I want to listen to some Duke Ellington and The Beatles now.

Recommended books: How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll by Elijah Wald, Dreaming the Beatles by Rob Sheffield, Duke Ellington by James Lincoln Collier

Rating: ***

Book Review: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn


Author: Howard Zinn
Title: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train
Narrator: David Strathairn
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc, 2017 (originally published in 1994)
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I received an advanced review copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

This book serves as an autobiography of the historian and activist Howard Zinn, and intersects with America’s history of inequality and imperialism, as well as the work of activists towards justice and equality.  Zinn grew up poor in Brooklyn and worked at the Brooklyn Naval Yard where he formed bonds with the other laborers.  He signed up with the Army Air Force during World War II in order to fight fascism, but was also exposed to segregation in the armed forces and participated in a napalm bombing raid in France that he felt was more of a show of American military might than a strategical necessity.

Zinn began his academic career at Spellman College in Atlanta in 1956 where he served as a mentor to Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman.  He also became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, serving as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  Zinn was fired for insubordination in 1963, and accepted a professorship at Boston University in 1964.  Zinn’s arrival BU coincided with the movement against the war in Vietnam of which he became an active leader.  Zinn’s courses were extremely popular but he also had to contend with prickly and conservative BU president, John Silber.

Despite the dominance of inequality and opression in the world, Zinn remains optomistic.  He sees the changes made in people in the various movements as a net positive.  He notes that while tyranny is a danger in a short term it also will be defeated by the people in the long term.

Recommended books: This is an Uprising by Mark Engler
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Hidden History of Boston by Dina Vargo


Author: Dina Vargo
Title: Hidden History of Boston
Publication Info: Charleston, SC : The History Press, 2018.
Previously Read by the Same Author: Wild Women of Boston
Summary/Review:

Historian and fellow Boston By Foot Guide Dina Vargo writes about overlooked in moments in Boston history in her second book. This book includes dark moments in Boston history like anti-Catholic Pope’s Night riots, the boy serial killer Jesse Pomeroy, and the Tyler Street Massacre in Chinatown.  It also covers disasters like the Summer Street Trolley Disaster, the Pickwick Club collapse, and the Zoo Shipwreck.  All is not grim in Boston history, though, as this book also cover civil rights activists William Monroe Trotter activism that went straight up to President Woodrow Wilson and the settlement house social worker who became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, Amelia Earhart.  If you like Boston history, this book is a quick and fun read from which you might learn a thing or two.

Recommended books: The Fever of 1721 by Stephen Coss, The Wilderness of Ruin by Roseanne Montillo, Boston Riots by Jack Tager, and The Boston Irish: A Political History by Thomas H. O’Connor
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Designing Disney by John Hench


Author: John Hench
Title: Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show 
Publication Info: Disney Editions (2009)
Summary/Review:

John Hench joined the Walt Disney Studios animation department in 1939, became an Imagineer in 1954, and continued working up until a few days before his death in 2004.  So there’s no one better to write about how Disney Parks are designed with an emphasis on detail and drawing the viewer in as an active participant.  I particularly like how he talked about a three-dimensional cross-disolve, using a film term to describe the ways in Disney Imagineers design transitions between different lands and attractions.  Hench also goes into great detail about how different colors are used, and how he gave a lot of thought to the color of the sky in Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong.  This is a nice, richly illustrated dive into the world of imagineering, although I admit I’m still looking for the book that will really get into the nitty-gritty.

Recommended books: Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look At Making the Magic Real by The Imagineers and The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream by Sam Gennawey
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Woolly by Ben Mezrich


Author: Ben Mezrich
Title: Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures 
Narrator: Ben Mezrich with epilogue read by George Church and afterward by Stewart Brand
Publication Info: New York : Atria Books, 2017.
Summary/Review:

This book at heart is a biography of George M. Church, a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, who was a key part of the Human Genome Project.  The every curious and somewhat eccentric Church is currently working on a project to clone and de-extinct the wooly mammoth.  Besides being awesome, there’s good reason to do this as the effect megafauna have on their habit can actually combat climate change by helping to lock in the permafrost.

Mezrich details Church’s childhood and rise to prominence in scientific research.  A long section of the book details his romance with molecular biologist Ting Wu and how their marriage caused a Harvard administrator to discriminate against her getting a tenured position (its odd after this story that Ting doesn’t play much of a role in the rest of the book).

The bulk of the book focuses on the effort to create a mammoth, which seems oddly possible and unlikely at the same time. There arehumorous stories like the one where one of Church’s team attempting to get an elephant placenta in order to find elephant stem cells. Unrelated to Church’s story there’s a Russian scientist seeking mammoth remains in the Siberian tundra and a Korean scientist seeking redemption who are also interested in cloning a mammoth.

All in all, this book is incomplete, because mammoths have not been successfully cloned and it may be decades, if ever, before it happens.  The science of genetics and the biology of mammoths – and there surviving relatives, the elephants – are all very interesting.  Did you know that elephants don’t get cancer?  But it feels like Mezrich is adding lots of details to the narrative to fill it out and give it some drama that’s just not there.
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Recommended books: Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators by William Stolzenburg
Rating: ***

Book Review: Happy Endings by Paul Cornell


Author: Paul Cornell
Title: Happy Endings
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1996.
Previously Read by the Same AuthorTimewyrm: Revelation, Love and War, Human Nature and Doctor Who: Four Doctors.
Summary/Review:

This is the 50th book in the Virgin New Adventures and after five years of publishing books instead of producing Doctor Who tv shows, it’s time to celebrate. In traditional Doctor Who style, anniversary celebrations mean bringing back past characters.  In this case, Cornell writes in connections to all 49 previous books in the series. If you’re like me and only read select few of the books in the series it means I don’t know who a lot of these people are, but it doesn’t prove to much of a problem.

The setting is the English village of Cheldon Bonniface, the same place featured in Cornell’s Timewyrm: Revelation, and the occasion is Bernice Summerfield’s marriage to Jason Kane.  Berenice’s main plot is basically sitcom hijinks about getting into fights with Jason over his perceived infidelity and then having makeup sex.  It’s so embarrassing it’s unbearable.  Luckily, there’s a lot more going on.  Ace, now going by the name Dorothee, is there as a bridesmaid and boasting about her sexual conquests, hoping to add Jason to the list (the books are VERY different from the tv show, no?). Both UNIT and a some Ice Warriors are there as an honor guard (they end up brawling in a village pub). Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson enlist Roz to aid them in solving a mystery.  The Doctor gets the Isley Brothers as the wedding band. And there’s a very long cricket match where the wedding guests challenge the villagers.

It’s all rather cornball and daft.  It’s not much as a book, but it’s a fun celebration of the continuity the Virgin New Adventures had created in keeping Doctor Who alive at a time when the show returning seemed unlikely.  Obviously, this one is for fan’s only.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Alcatraz Versus the Dark Talent by Brandon Sanderson


Author: Brandon Sanderson
TitleAlcatraz Versus the Dark Talent
Narrator: Ramon de Ocampo
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2016)

Previously Read By the Same Author:  Alcatraz Versus the Evil LibrariansAlcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones, Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia and Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens
Summary/Review:

The fifth and possibly final Alcatraz book picks up where the previous one ended with Alcatraz having destroyed all of his family’s talents.  Now he must ally with his mother – an evil librarian – to stop his father, a Free Kingdomer whose desire to give every one on Earth a Smedry Talent which could have disastrous consequences.  Smedry and his team go to the Evil Librarian’s Highbrary – a.k.a The Library of Congress in an alternate universe version of Washington, DC.  Unfortunately, Smedry’s friend and defender, Bastille remains in stasis for the better part of the book.  Smedry and Bastille’s love/hate chemistry when they are together is one of the best part of the series and this book suffers from its absence (although when Bastille finally makes her entrance, it’s spectacular).  The book has the usual clever wordplay – including a chapter of delicious puns – but it feels like Sanderson’s heart is not really in it anymore, and it is the weakest book in the series.  Or it could be Alcatraz, who obstinately states this is the last part of his biography after an uncharacteristically dark ending to the book.  But Alcatraz is an unreliable narrator who has lied to us before, and there are clues that this is all just a big cliffhanger leading to yet another book.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Dylan Goes Electric! by Elijah Wald


Author: Elijah Wald
Title: Dylan Goes Electric! Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties
Narrator: Sean Runnette
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2017)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues and How the Beatles destroyed rock ‘n’ roll : an alternative history of American popular music
Summary/Review:

Elijah Wald is one of my favorite music writers for his ability to break down commonly held beliefs about popular music and show the reality of musicians and their music in the context of their time.  Dylan Goes Electric! does the same for the notorious moment at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan played amplified rock music, the crowd was outraged, and Pete Seeger tried to cut the cables to his amplifier with an ax.  Pretty much everything told about that night is incorrect, or at least incomplete.

Dylan’s performance, significant as it was, could not provide enough material to fill an entire book.  What this book is instead a history of the Folk Revival in the 1950s and 1960s with a focus on key figures like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie among others.  Wald also traces the history of the Newport Folk Festival and how it grew and changed in the years from its origin in 1959 to 1965.  Finally, Wald also details the early career of Bob Dylan, from his early influences in blues and R&B, to his quick rise to becoming a widely-renown folk musician, and his discomfort with fame and being the “voice of his generation.”

At the heart of all three stories – the Folk Revival, the Newport Folk Festival, and Bob Dylan – is a conflict between the ideas of authenticity and music for music’s sake, and the lowbrow ideas of pop music and commercial success.  Wald details that the Newport Folk Festival welcomed performances of electric blues and R&B bands while being uncomfortable the collegiate pop-style folk music of the Kingston Trio.  And while the festival promoted workshops that presented the music of rural folk performers, it was the young, urban and pop-oriented folk musicians drew the largest crowds.  As a result of the conflict over the meaning of folk music, new genres such as folk rock and singer/songwriter emerged.

Bob Dylan’s electric performance turns out not just to be a defining moment in Dylan’s career but part of a bigger story within American folk music, and a conflict that in many ways continues to this day. The stories of what actually happened that night are so disjointed, because the meaning of what happened is different to many of the people involved (and those who hear about in later retellings).

Recommended books: Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years by Eric Von Schmidt, Where Have All the Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger
Rating: ****