Saturday, February 09, 2008

Boy, this looks familiar

Where am I? Oh, yeah. Way behind on my book reviews, no wonder I recognise the scenery.

Partly this is because I'm starting the year with quite a string of new books. 14 of the first 15 have been books I've never read before. And, to be fair, I've reviewed a few of them already.

My Grandfather's Son is a memoir of Clarence Thomas. I didn't know much about him before reading this book, other than that I liked his judicial philosophy (from what I know of it, not being a legal scholar) and thought he generally did a good job being a Supreme Court Justice. The book gives a lot of information about his childhood and what shaped his views on life. He gives a lot of credit to his grandfather, and rightfully so. His grandfather sounds like a very impressive man who did marvellously well with very few resources. It's not a long book (a bit over 200 pages, if I recall aright) and it's an easy, engaging read. You should check it out. The man was so maligned in the popular press when he was nominated to the Supreme Court, and his reputation has never really been rehabilitated in the mind of the general public. Do your part for honest inquiry and read his memoir.

Alan Moore's Watchmen is talked up all over the internet wherever they talk about comics. So I decided to see what the fuss was about and read it for myself. And it was okay. I think part of my lack of enthusiasm was the fact that so many other people have said that it was utterly fantastic and it had been built up too big. It's a mildly interesting meditation about the nature of power and the question of quis custodiet ipsos custodes: "who watches the watchmen?" Ultimately, however, I find myself out of sympathy with the characters with which I am supposed to sympathise (I presume) and the book fails to deliver on being a serious inquiry into a serious topic. The problem with trying to tackle a serious topic in a way that is generally not considered appropriate (a comic book, in this case) is that often then the author comes across as pretentious; and Alan Moore does. A warning for those not familiar with the trend of modern comics: this is not a Superman tale of your youth. It's pretty dark and deals with some very bad people and others who had very bad things happen to them. Not a kids comic book.

I finished Paul Johnson's A History of the American People, and the trend of disappointment in his books continues. This one borrowed very heavily from Modern Times, to the point where whole paragraphs seemed to have been lifted verbatim from one into the other. The first half was pretty good and it was an instructive look at the origins of America to the time before British colonies were well-established, but the latter half was less engaging. Still, for anyone looking for a solid overview of all of American history, you could do a lot worse.

I finally read one of Ian Fleming's James Bond books. Probably not the best one to begin with since it's left hanging whether or not Bond dies at the end. (I found this confusing to no end. Did Fleming really intend to kill him off at that point?) From Russia With Love isn't too bad, and the movie wasn't that different from the book. I think. I've only seen the movie once, and it was some time ago. The book itself was rather forgettable. I haven't started on the other two (I got an anthology of three from the library) and I don't know that I will. They're pulp thrillers, for certain; no redeeming literary value here, thank you very much. Beautiful women, evil communist villains, and lots of violence and implied sex. No wonder JFK liked them.

Lastly, Top of the Heap, by Erle Stanley Gardner (of Perry Mason fame) but published under a psuedonym. It was pretty good, a bit better than Fleming, without as much sex and gratuitous violence (also a plus), and I'm more fond of private detective mystery stories than I am of spy thrillers. Gardner's skill seems to have been not writing magnificent prose and composing compelling plots, but rather thinking up new and interesting mysteries and writing engaging dialogue. And I'll take that.

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Listening to: Cowboy Junkies - The Trinity Sessions - 02 - Misguided Angel
via FoxyTunes