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REVIEW: Path of Valor: A Marine’s Story

Author: George Derryberrypath-of-valor-a-marines-story

2013, CreateSpace Independent Publishing

Filed Under: Short-Run, Nonfiction

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 10

Like every other American born around the time Hitler was invading Poland, I have some very concrete memories of World War II. Rationing. Victory Gardens. Kneading a button of yellow dye into a bagful of grease to create “butter.” Rebecca Tansil, my parents’ good friend, looking perky in the uniform of a high-ranking WAVE officer. My uncle John Hammond, Army Air Force, flying 18 missions over Europe. But my only specific memory of the Marines was howling “From halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli” while my elementary school’s vice principal thumped a tiny upright piano during weekly assemblies. (He made every student of Margaret Brent  School #53 learn all the words to all the armed forces’ songs–“shell-shocked,” some whispered.) I even remember how we stumbled, singing the Marine song, when suddenly “in the land and on the sea” morphed into “in air, on land, on sea.”

What a person remembers first and finally about huge global events is probably always made up of details like that, come to think about it. That’s what makes Path of Valor so rich an account.  Every page bears the stamp, the fingerprint, of one individual, H. C. Ayres, and how “Ayresie” experienced the war.  
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REVIEW: Saguaro: The Life and Adventures of Bobby Allen Bird

Author: Carson Mellsaguaro-store

2013, Electric Literature

Filed under: Literary

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 7

After failing to find a publisher for Saguaro, the life story of a washed-up rock star named Bobby Bird who embodies every rock and roll cliché, Carson Mell released the novel himself. Electric Literature featured a chapter as part of their Recommended Reading series before they released a digital version. You can read the chapter here. The rest reads like the most depraved moments from VH1’s “Behind the Music” mashed into one musician (plus an adventure on a satanic cult cruise ship and a fist-fight with Bob Dylan).

If Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison had a love child raised by Barry Hannah he would sound something like Bobby Bird.
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REVIEW: The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti

[This coffee-table/Christmas-gift-ready overview and history of street art is the latest C4 Great Read.]

world-atlas-of-street-artAuthor: Rafael Schacter

2013, Yale University Press

Filed under: Nonfiction, Other

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 8
Art.... 10

I’m an amiable fan of street art, not quite an enthusiast, and certainly not a scholar of it. As such, the aptly named World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti fits me quite well. It’s first and foremost a coffee table book and it features a wealth of beautifully presented images, but it also links them together with a unique and quite informative organizational strategy: it’s literally an atlas, organized by geography and grouped into continents and cities. In addition to profiles of artists, Rafael Schacter details specific places and gives site-specific mini-histories of localized street art movements.

He starts in New York, in the 1960s, when the first taggers competed to make their names stand out in a sea of graffiti, and moves on to anti-dictatorship pixação in São Paulo, the heavy historical politics of graffiti in Berlin, the painting brigades of late-’70s Stockholm, and many more cities and street art cultures. It’s simultaneously a light and browse-able format (each city profile is only two pages), and a quite thorough introduction to the fascinating history behind a street art movement that has been gathering steam for decades, though it has only recently come into the public zeitgeist.
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REVIEW: You Are Now Less Dumb

[This medium-difficulty layperson’s guide to cognitive biases is a C4 Great Read.]

you-are-now-less-dumbSubtitle: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself

Author: David McRaney

2013, Gotham Books

Filed under: Nonfiction

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 9

McRaney’s last book (also his first), You Are Not So Smart, was an accessible everyman’s guide to a wide-ranging assortment of neurological quirks and biases, from humans’ tendency to skew results to fit expectations to our inclination to think our own beliefs are logical and sound while those we disagree with are lazily researched and obviously wrong. Its 48 short chapters, and McRaney’s entertaining voice made Smart a perfect Christmas present or coffee table book. Just about anybody could pick it up and amuse themselves for a few minutes, with more satisfying results than the average novelty book.

You Are Now Less Dumb carves out a different identity for itself. Instead of dozens of short chapters, it’s comprised of 17 much longer ones, each of which delves more deeply into a specific bias and the way it interacts with the web of other biases that form the human thinking process. Along the way, McRaney speculates about how these biases might have once been evolutionarily beneficial, how they can be detrimental in modern society, and, most interestingly to me, how you can hijack these biases to make yourself happier, smarter, and generally better.

This book doesn’t have as wide an audience as McRaney’s first, but if you were intrigued by Smart and found yourself wanting more, you should read Dumb
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REVIEW: Eating the Dinosaur

Author: Chuck Klosterman

2010, Scribner

Filed Under: Nonfiction

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 9

It had been a while since I’d read any nonfiction, so when a friend asked if I wanted to read this I said yes. I don’t really know much about Klosterman (except that he’s known for his music/pop culture writing in magazines like Spin and Esquire), but given the titles of his books (like Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs) I expected loose, even gonzo essays from this collection. That would have been fun I guess, but I’m so much happier with what I found instead.


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REVIEW: My Planet

Author: Mary Roach

2013, Reader’s Digest

Filed Under: Nonfiction, Humor

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 3
Entertainment..... 4
Depth..... 6

Mary Roach recently released a book that has received rave reviews, has been called both hilarious and informative, and has even earned her a guest spot on The Daily Show.

Mary Roach also has a new book called My Planet, which is a collection of columns she wrote for Reader’s Digest. Despite the promise on the flap copy that Roach will bring to these “essays” the same, “uncanny wit and amazingly analytical eye,” that makes her other books so popular, My Planet, falls far short of being informative, or funny, or even interesting.

Roach’s other books—her well received and well read books—are in-depth and thoroughly researched. Roach’s writing is accessible and witty. Roach’s curiosity is a catalyst for those books, and her subjects are worth being curious about.
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REVIEW: Songs That Saved Your Life: The Art of the Smiths 1982-1987

 Author: Simon Goddard

2013, Titan Books

Filed Under: Nonfiction, Other

Find it at Titan Books

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 9

Any Smiths fan will be thrilled at what Simon Goddard has accomplished here. Within this attractively-packaged 350-page tome – an update to the author’s original 2002 version – resides passionately researched exhaustive appendices about the bands catalogue, as well as comprehensive annotated histories of Smiths shows, radio and TV appearances. It’s all here, and the author is to be commended in the diligence of his research.

But is Songs fun to read for, at best, a casual Smiths fan? Well, as the rating above suggests, kind of? To explain: this isn’t so much a retrospective of a body of work as it is an effort from the author to explain how brilliant his favorite band is… over and over. When I wrote that the material was passionately researched, I mean Goddard is the most passionate person about the Smiths, except for maybe Seymour Stein (more on him below) and probably Morrissey.
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REVIEW: Gravity’s Engines

Author: Caleb Scharf

2012, Scientific American

Filed Under: Nonfiction

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 10

I really enjoyed reading this book. That said, having finished it about a week and a half ago, I’ve already forgotten most of what I read. That’s not an indictment of the book–Scharf does a great job in putting astrophysics into palatable bites for laymen–so much as it’s indicative of how difficult to really fathom so much of the subject matter is at its roots.

This is a book all about black holes, and how they work. I’d always thought of black holes as weird anomalies littered throughout space that suck things into some great unknown, perhaps other dimensions. While the latter part of that may be true, the black holes Scharf describes are far from anomalies. Black holes, it seems, are fundamental components of the universe: engines (hence the title) producing and consuming enormous amounts of energy that power a universe and possibly even multiverses of immeasurable complexity.

Ever wondered why so many galaxies, including ours, form giant spirals? Well, it’s because there are super massive black holes at the center, gobbling up infinite amounts of matter and cramming them into a near-infinitely small space. Woah.

The sheer scales of Scharf’s subject matter is astounding. He’ll show a picture of a blob, and explain it’s billions of galaxies, each larger than our own. He does a great job of breaking the information down into entertaining, easy enough to understand ideas. If you want the info to stick with you more than superficially, though, you should probably read the book a little slower than I did.

If you’re interested in space, watch shows like The Universe avidly, and enjoy the popular science Malcolm Gladwell-style of book, give this one a go. It’s fascinating.

Similar Reads: Remarkable Creatures (Carroll), Into the Silent Land (Broks), How We Decide (Lehrer)

REVIEW: The Ecstasy of Influence

Author: Jonathan Lethem

2011, Doubleday

Filed Under: Literary, Nonfiction, Memoir, Short Stories, Sci-Fi

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 8

In case you missed it last year, Jonathan Lethem’s essay collection, The Ecstasy of Influence, is out in paperback this month. It’s easy to recommend for any fan of Lethem’s work, offering a broad look at his development as a writer and some of his most cherished influences.

But it’s easy to recommend for a few different kinds of readers as well. There’s some interesting music writing in here about Bob Dylan and Rick James, essays about comic books and “Wall Art,” not to mention the Harper’s essay that lends its name to the collection, a surprising meditation on plagarism, copyright, reuse, and creativity. There’s also–and being a fan of Lethem’s fiction, I had not anticipated this–a set of pretty funny stories all featuring Drew Barrymore.

So there’re a lot of reasons you might decide to give this little collection a try, while not forgetting its self-referential structure and its circular conception of itself. Reading the whole thing straight through could be a worthwhile project for the dedicated enthusiast, but cherry picking the bits you find most intriguing is fine too, and probably equally in keeping with the book’s madcap sensibility.

At the very least, you should check out the Harper’s essay, available here or in the heart of this strange survey of the preoccupations of a writer named Jonathan Lethem.

Similar reads: The Disappointment Artist by Jonathan Lethem, Advertisements for Myself by Norman Mailer, and The Gift by Lewis Hyde.

REVIEW: Dinosaur Art

Editor: Steve White

2012, Titan

Filed Under: Nonfiction

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 8
Dinosaur Bonus... 10

Look, there’s not much of a bush to beat around here. Let’s start with a simple question, are you in favor of coffee table books? No? Very well, carry on, friend; we’re done for today. If yes, a follow up question: dinosaurs are fucking awesome, true or false? A second follow-up: dinosaurs were real, true or false? If you answered false to either, hit the road you crazy creationist weirdo. (Perhaps this creepy Amish romance novel is more to your liking.)

Okay for all the sane people  still here: boy, do I have the book for you. This has the distinction of being the last piece of mail I received at my former address, an apartment I was all too happy to be rid of. What a pleasant surprise to open the box and find this cover rawring up at me; what a fine send-off from the book review gods. I read it cover to cover twice in one sitting, nestled in a throne/fort I crafted out of packed-up boxes of books (seriously). It was an amazingly great way to unwind after a very long day.

This book compiles the paleoart of a number of different artists. It’s full of interviews with them talking about their craft, as well as explanations of the paintings and the creatures they bring to life. I don’t know what else there is to say. It’s pretty interesting stuff, how they take paleontological data and interpolate into into huge, life-like scenes of dinosaurs being awesome.

CRUNCH! Tell me this doen’t make you squee like a little kid being offered a ride in the firetruck with the separate steering wheel for the back wheels. Pardon the image quality, my new apartment doesn’t have many lights yet.

I’ve actually read a good number of dinosaur books in my day, and I’ve got to say, this is right up there with some of the best I’ve seen. The pictures are lush and colorful (there’s even a page that pulls out into a giant panorama scene) and the range of creatures covered is varied–and described to satisfying detail in the accompanying text. But that’s just icing on the Jurassic cake of badass dinosaur paintings.

The very first thing I did when I opened this book was flip through the pages quickly to see how many different pictures of stegosauruses there were. If you’re a manchild like me, or perhaps even a real child, and you already know which dinosaur you would look for, you should probably go out and pick up this book when it comes out next week.

I hope next time I move someone sends me a copy of a book full of drawings of giant robots fighting in space.

[A review was requested and a review copy provided.]