Book Review: Hellraiser by Robert Sellers


Author: Robert Sellers
TitleHellraiser
Illustrator: JAKe
Publication Info: London : SelfMadeHero, 2011.
Summary/Review:

This graphic biography tells the exploits of the Irish & British actors Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, and Peter O’Toole.  I’ve long admired the work of Harris and O’Toole, and familiar with Burton by reputation, but Reed was new to me.  What they have in common is that they were part of new class of post World War II actors who were gritty and real, and lived a wild and hardscabble life off the screen and stage.  The book focuses on the legendary exploits of the quartet’s drinking and partying but also their feelings of inadequacy and failed relationships.  It’s common to romanticize their wild lives, but the book does not shy away from the harm they caused, the violence, the sexual harrasment, and general arrogance. Cleverly, the author ties their stories together by having the Burton, Harris, Reed, and O’Toole appear as ghosts to a character named Martin who is drinking his life away. The four hellraiser actors are able to help Martin to focus on his life and family. Oddly, when I checked this book out, the librarian told me he’d read the book and said it was “good, clean fun.” I’d say it’s anything but, a cautionary tale more than anything else.  Burton, Harris, Reed, and O’Toole lived lives of reckless abandon so that you don’t have to.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella


Author: W.P. Kinsella
Title: Shoeless Joe
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Publication Info: Blackstone Publishing, 2011 (originally published 1982)
Other Books Read By the Same Author:

    • The Iowa Baseball Confederacy
    • Box Socials
    • The Thrill of the Grass
    • The Mocassin Telegraph and Other Stories
    • The Dixon Cornbelt League, and Other Baseball Stories
    • Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa: Stories
    • The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt: Baseball Stories
    • Red Wolf, Red Wolf: Stories
    • Magic Time

Summary/Review:

W.P. Kinsella was one of my favorite authors growin up and this is one of his classic books. Most people will be familiar with this novel as the source for the movie Field of Dreams.  The basic gist is that a baseball crazy man named Ray Kinsella marries a woman from Iowa and together they purchase a farm.  Ray gets a mystical message “If you build it, he will come” and knows that it refers to disgraced baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson.  He builds a baseball field on his farm, and Shoeless Joe appears, followed by the rest of the 1919 Chicago White Sox players banned from baseball for throwing the World Series.

Ray gets more missions from the mysterious voice: to take reclusive author J.D. Salinger to a game at Fenway Park, find the curiously named Moonlight Graham who played in one baseball game and never came to bat, and the Oldest Living Chicago Cub player.  Bringing this odd group together, Ray is also able to reunite with his (dead) father who played baseball in his youth, and his (living) identical twin brother who ran away from the circus.

What I forgot about this book is that it is largely a series of conversations focusing on philosophy, dreams, American identity, and fatherhood.  It’s a great blend of magic and the quotidian.  And the fictional version of J.D. Salinger is a hoot, and one can only hope the real Salinger was something like that.  The book holds up and perhaps even better than I remembered from an adult perspective.

Favorite Passages:

“You don’t have any witnesses.  What if it was all a hallucination? Religous fanatics are known to have delirious visions.  You’re obviously a baseball fanatic.”

Recommended books:
Rating: *****

Book Review: Christmas on a Rational Planet by Lawrence Miles


Author: Lawrence Miles
Title: Christmas on a Rational Planet
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1996.
Summary/Review:

This is the first Doctor Who novel by Lawrence Miles, who would later go on to be one of the leading writers of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, introduce the Faction Paradox, and co-wrote the history of Doctor Who series About Time.  But in this first novel, Roz is trapped in a town in New York in 1799, Chris is trapped in the TARDIS with someone trying to kill him, and secret socities are worshipping Satan and the like.  The book is interesting at parts, but also just weird in ways that makes it hard to follow.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: 1999 Listening Library
Summary/Review:

My daughter is working her way through the Harry Potter ouevre, and I decided I should revisit the books myself, and have someone read them to me (Jim Dale does a charming job).  I am impressed at how much of the full story is established in the first book.  I mean Sirius Black is mentioned on the first page, for starters.  But the basics details of Hogwarts and the Wizarding World are all very well established in this book.  This novel is also a good stand-alone story (IIRC, so are the 2nd and 3rd books, while 4 through 7 are more of an ongoing story).  It’s hard to remember what I thought when I first read this book around 15 years ago, but I have to say it holds up well.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson


Author: Neal Stephenson
Title: Cryptonomicon
Publication Info: New York : Avon Press, 1999.
Previously Read by the Same AuthorQuicksilver, King of the Vagabonds, Odalisque, Bonanza, The Juncto, Solomon’s Gold, Currency, and The System of the World
Summary/Review:

A decade or so ago I read and enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s 8-book series, The Baroque Cycle.  I’ve finally followed up on reading this single-volume tome that has connections to that series, albeit set in a different time.  All of these books are historical novels that incorporate Stephenson’s interests in cryptography, mathematics, currency, banking, and philosophy.  They also include characters from the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families and the mysterious Enoch Root.  Cryptonomicon was published prior to The Baroque Cycle, but the latter is set in the 17th and 18th centuries, while Cryptonomicon is a 20th century story.

Cryptonomicon features two interweaving plot lines.  The first story is set during World War II and focuses the Allies’ effort to win the war by breaking Germany’s enigma code.  Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is an American mathmetician who works with the historical figure Alan Turing at Bletchley Park and is put in charge of a detachment that stages events behind enemy lines to deceive the Germans on how the Allies are gathering intelligence, when in actuality they’ve broken Enigma.  Bobby Shaftoe is an experienced Marine Raider drafted into the detachment who has various adventures around the world – many of them ludicrous.  Goto Dengo is a Japanese officer and engineer who suffers some of the worst effects of the Allies cryptographic knowledge in some of the most gruesome descriptions of war in the book, and then is put in charge of Japan’s efforts to bury gold in caverns in the Phillipines.

The other storyline is set in the 1990s and tells the story of a tech startup company co-lead by Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence’s grandson).  His company sets up a data haven on fictional island sultanate near the Phillipines.  He hires Vietnam veteran Doug Shaftoe (Bobby’s son) and his daughter Amy to do the underwater surveying for laying cables.  Complications arise when the discover gold under the sea. The ageless Enoch Root plays a part in both stories.

I found the World War II story more interesting than the 1990s story.  There just isn’t much that grabbed me aboutthe tech-bros and the nerd culture only faintly hides a toxic masculinity.  In fact, this book is a sausage fest, with Amy Shaftoe the only promiment female character, and her major role is as Randy’s love interest.  The Baroque Cycle was also tilted heavily toward male characters but it least it had Eliza who had agency as a spy and financier and was a major driver of the plot.

So I guess this is a half-good novel? Albeit the signifigance of the WWII story would be less apparent without the 1990s story.

Favorite Passages:

Arguing with anonymous strangers on the Internet is a sucker’s game because they almost always turn out to be—or to be indistinguishable from—self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time.


“You know what this is? It’s one of those men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus things.” “I have not heard of this phrase but I understand immediately what you are saying.” “It’s one of those American books where once you’ve heard the title you don’t even need to read it,” Randy says. “Then I won’t.”


“Some complain that e-mail is impersonal—that your contact with me, during the e-mail phase of our relationship, was mediated by wires and screens and cables. Some would say that’s not as good as conversing face-to-face. And yet our seeing of things is always mediated by corneas, retinas, optic nerves, and some neural machinery that takes the information from the optic nerve and propagates it into our minds. So, is looking at words on a screen so very much inferior? I think not; at least then you are conscious of the distortions. Whereas, when you see someone with your eyes, you forget about the distortions and imagine you are experiencing them purely and immediately.”


“But before this war, all of this gold was out here, in the sunlight. In the world. Yet look what happened.” Goto Dengo shudders. “Wealth that is stored up in gold is dead. It rots and stinks. True wealth is made every day by men getting up out of bed and going to work. By schoolchildren doing their lessons, improving their minds. Tell those men that if they want wealth, they should come to Nippon with me after the war. We will start businesses and build buildings.”

Rating: ***

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