REVIEW: Five Chiefs

Author: John Paul Stevens

2011, Little, Brown and Co.

Filed Under: Nonfiction, Memoir.

Get the book.

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

In case you hadn’t heard, it’s Supreme Court Season again, which means our nation’s top judges are now hearing cases that will affect your life. Holding top billing, we have The State of Florida (and 26 other co-signing states) v. the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which will test the constitutionality of last year’s controversial healthcare overhaul. But this is only one case of many, and, as Atlantic legal correspondent Garrett Epps points out, the majority of the cases the court will hear this session “have huge practical impact but are devoid of drama.”

You might say the same thing about Five Chiefs. Without an ounce of sensationalism or any inflammatory rhetoric, it offers an insider’s perspective on the deliberative processes of our nation’s foremost deliberating body. Stevens presents a historical survey of the Court under each of its seventeen Chief Justices, focusing on the five who sat during the years he was personally associated with the Court, from his clerkship in 1947 until his resignation in 2010.

It’s an eye-opening look at how the Court actually works, from the influence of the Chief’s management style to the long-standing traditions meant to foster cordiality between people who are paid to argue with each other. Five Chiefs won’t keep you up at night, but it will make you think about how we decide some of the most important questions facing the country today… so maybe it will keep a you up at night.
Continue reading »

The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 10-19-11

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]

The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje, reviewed by Liesl Schillinger (New York Times)

Ondaatje’s latest is a semi-autobiographical tale about an 11-year-old boy named Michael who undertakes a three-week ocean voyage from Ceylon (where Ondaatje himself was born) to London to meet his mother. It’s tough to get an idea of this kind of novel just by reading its premise, because it seems the pleasure of it will come from the strength of the characters and its prose. I’ll be giving it a try, though, on the chance that it will be as atmospheric and eloquent as this review. [Get this book]

MetaMaus, by Art Spiegelman, reviewed by Daniel Asa Rose (BN Review)

This extensive Maus retrospective is part making-of documentary and part “graduate-level course in comics semiotics.” It’s also chock full of Spiegelman’s insight and wit. Sounds like a must-have for Maus fans. [Get this book]

The Fear Index, by Robert Harris, reviewed by Mark Lawson (Guardian)

This “financial thriller” actually sounds pretty cool. Its central invention is a stock-market robot that profits by anticipating human fear and selling stocks just before runs start. Lawson gets a little fuzzy on exactly how this goes wrong for the heroes, but a rogue fear-smelling machine has promise as a villain. [Get this book]

And Nothing But the Truthiness, by Lisa Rogak, reviewed by Cathy Lynn Grossman (USA Today)

From the dictionarification of his mascot-word, “truthiness,” to his formation of the Colbert SuperPAC which points out a campaign finance loophole by exploiting to grant Colbert the power to accept unlimited donations from anyone and spend the money however he wants—Stephen Colbert and his right-wing nutjob parody character have had a rare and often hilarious impact on the real world. This biography seems like mostly a collection of Colbert anecdotes, but that might be enough. [Get this book]

In brief: The NYT reviews the shit out of a book about puppies. So that’s weird. But I’m sure their glut of coverage (both a featured review, and a spot on the Book Review podcast) has nothing to do with the fact that the puppy book’s author is the NYT’s current executive editor. … The Guardian rounds up thrillers.Margaret Atwood explores her relationship with science fiction, and the for-some-reason-controversial difference between designating something science fiction and designating it literary fiction. … This Luminous Airplanes book sounds pretty cool, but this reviewer makes the website sound even cooler.

A Quick Word on the Barnes and Noble-DC Comics Kerfuffle

A couple of weeks ago, DC announced that it would sell 100 of its digital graphic novels exclusively through the Kindle Fire. This was breathlessly reported as “another exclusive content deal” for Amazon. In reality, it was more of a PR maneuver by DC—the titles in question are all from DC’s backlist, and the exclusivity agreement lasts only four months. If this news hadn’t had something to do with Amazon’s brand-new buzzed-about minitablet, it would’ve been a non-story.

But Barnes & Noble, quite unwisely, didn’t treat it as a non-story. They felt retribution was needed, so they decided to yank all the paper versions of the pertinent DC titles from shelves in their stores, decreeing that the Kindle-exclusive comics “will not be allowed on Barnes & Noble premises.”

This is crazy. Not just because the deal only lasts four months, or because it’s bad business for a company to act like a petulant child. This is crazy because Barnes & Noble doesn’t sell any digital titles on DC’s backlist. The Kindle exclusivity agreement has no effect on B&N whatsoever, in the same way that the NFL’s exclusive deal with DirecTV has no effect on them. Barnes & Noble is not in the business of broadcasting football games and they are not in the business of selling digital DC comics. In fact, they barely sell digital comics at all, from any publisher.

This was one of my chief complaints with the Nook Color when it debuted almost a year ago. The device seems ideal for comic books, but it took six months for B&N to allow a pitiful handful of old titles to limp onto the Nook Color as individual apps—a purchasing system that manages to be really irritating as well as entirely impractical.

If the new, overhyped “exclusivity deal” was going to affect Barnes & Noble at all, they should’ve taken it as a shot across their bow instead of a declaration of war. They’ve now had almost a year to develop a woefully unrobust platform (and I’m a big fan of the Nook Color), and they’ve done next to nothing for it. You still can’t get The New Yorker on the Nook Color, and I still can’t find the cookbook from the commercial with the embedded videos.

In fact, of the things on my Nook Color wishlist from ten months ago, they have added, legitimately, three features: Goodreads, Evernote, and a note-taking app. That’s well and good, but rolling out those feature without, say, comic books points toward a misunderstanding of the Nook Color’s priorities. Those priorities should be:

1. Content
2. Ease of use
3. Extras (like Goodreads, Evernote, etc.)

The fact that B&N reacted to DC-Kindle deal with such anger suggests to me some very serious problems lurking just out of public view. Barnes & Noble should be building relationships with eager content providers like DC, not burning them down. I have to imagine this reaction is misdirected frustration because the Nook Color isn’t doing as well as they’d hoped (cf. misordered priorities, lack of content).

It should be interesting to see how it plays out, but I’ll be surprised if B&N isn’t already doomed.

C4 Recommends: Fall 2011

[Every so often on on our Twitter feed we’ll point to something other than books that caught our attention. In this occasional series, we highlight a few of those things, and a few others. Follow it here. The recommenders (Aaron, Sean, Eric, and Nico) are denoted by first initial.]


Billy’s Balloon – From the twisted mind of Don Hertzfeldt who brought you Rejected, the heartwarming story of a boy and his balloon. [E]

The Guard – Surprisingly hilarious movie about an Irish Cop working with (sort of) the FBI. [E]

Official Ojai Valley Taxidermy TV Commercial - Is this for real. Nope, Chuck Testa. Actually yeah, it’s real.  [S]

Homeland – The new Showtime series puts a new spin on the Manchurian Candidate story of an American soldier turned sleeper agent by questioning the sanity of not just the soldier, but the CIA analyst, played by Claire Danes, who insists he’s a walking time bomb. It’s not fun by any means, but it’s compulsive viewing nonetheless. [A]

The Walking Dead webisodes – AMC’s Walking Dead series started good then sorta fell off. But these 6 short (free) webisodes have got me excited for the second season. [S]


The Pod F.  Tompkast – Every episode of comedian Paul F. Tompkins’s podcast features the host’s improvised, meandering (in a good way) monologues, a skit from Tompkins’s live variety show at Largo in Los Angeles, a chat with fellow-comedian Jen Kirkman, and a new installment of the long-running, impression-fueled radio drama, “The Great Undiscovered Project”, all of it hilarious. Season two just started this month, but new listeners will want to stream all of season to fill the excruciating month-long gap between new episodes. [A]

Stuff to Blow Your Mind –  Semi-weekly podcast episodes cast a wide net of nerdery. Start with the Tyrannosaurus Sex installment (#49) and go from there. [S]

The Fantasy Football Guys – A podcast made by two regular dudes, who know their football and are pretty funny to boot. This is my first choice in fantasy football podcasts (second is Fantasy Freakin Football). [N]

Games - Most recent Radiolab about games of all kinds, inventing the rules and breaking them. [E]

The NPR Music iPhone app – Most everything NPR does about music, in one handy place. The killer feature is the ability to stream full albums of new, unreleased music, from a great selection curated by NPR. You can also find most of this content at their website. [N]

Yuck: Deluxe Edition, by Yuck – I missed this album when it was first released in February, but after seeing the band live I’m an ardent fan. Skipping the awful synth-splashed 80s revival that’s infected much contemporary music, the lads and lass of Yuck instead take 90s indie rock stalwarts like Yo La Tengo, Teenage Fanclub, and Dinosaur Jr. as inspiration. The songs on Yuck are too catchy to be melancholy, but too dark to be happy, which makes it exactly my kind of record. [A]


Partners – New Yorker profile from a couple of months back about Clarence Thomas, who holds the record for consecutive cases without asking a single question in argument. [E]

Flip Flop Fly Ball, by Craig Robinson – Awesome book full of infographics on all kinds of obscure and quirky baseball stats, most nontraditional. Check out the accompanying blog here. [S]

Cake vs. Pie – From the previously C4 Recommended Hyperbole and a Half, this post settles the age old question “What’s better, cake or pie?” using science, even charts and graphs. [E]


Bookshelf Porn – Blog featuring pictures of bookshelves. Usually large, unique ones, and often complimented with spiral staircases. [S]

Kim Jon Il Looking at Things – Exactly as the title describes, this blog has pictures of Kim Jong Il looking at things. [S]

Daily Dose of Imagery- One of my favorite photography blogs. [N]


Swipe Four – iPhone game sort of like Boggle crossed with TextTwist. Free in-browser version here. [S]

Gemcraft – A ridiculously addictive tower defense flash game. Free. [N]

One Chance – Clever freebie flash game. Your actions can save or end the world, and you only get one try—unless you clear your cookies cache. [S]


Microwave nachos – Seriously, they’re easy and good. Cheese, chips, and whatever else you like (I go for onions, peppers and baked beans). Takes about ten minutes, start to finish. [N]

REVIEW: Show Up, Look Good

Author: Mark Wisniewski

2011, Gival Press

Filed Under: Literary.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 8

At first when I started reading Show Up, Look Good, I wanted to compare it to Bright Lights, Big City, the Jay McInerney tour de force from the 1980’s, partly because of the similarity of the cadence of the titles but also because of the hip sensibility and the dark sense of humor common to both; both stories take place in New York City, as well – glamorous Manhattan, specifically.  But once I got further into the story I started to think of the protagonist, Michelle, a girl in her mid-thirties from Kankakee, Illinois, come to “make it” in New York, in terms of Holden Caulfield, the runaway of The Catcher in the Rye.  Both characters have a personal sense of honor and both see through phonies.

Even Michelle’s language sometimes sounds like Holden’s:  “…but what really killed me about this whole ‘Have you read so-and-so’ game,” she tells the reader while describing the so-called literary workshops of a pretentious roommate she has in the Village, “…if everyone there read every book they said they’d read, none of them could have written a word.”  Things were always “killing” Holden, too, with their absurdity or hypocrisy. (“Sensitive.  That killed me.  That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat,” Holden observes about a prep school classmate ).  Elsewhere Michelle makes the similar Holden-like observation:

…it killed me how many times in my thirty-four years I’d gotten along with people but kept cruising toward being alone.

But all this searching for somebody to whom to compare Wisniewski’s work amounts to a reviewer’s way of introducing him to readers.  Who is he “like,” and will readers be warned or welcomed by the comparison?   The blurbs compare his work to Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Elmore Leonard, Ruth McKenney (My Sister Eileen).  One even does compare Michelle’s picaresque adventures in New York to Holden Caulfield’s.   In the end, though, we might just as well take Wisniewski on his own terms because the story and characters don’t necessarily fall into these neat comparisons.
Continue reading »

REVIEW: Reamde

[This globe-trotting technothriller is a C4 Great Read. Find it and other C4 Great Reads on our Great Reads shelf at Powell’s.]

Author: Neal Stephenson

2011, William Morrow

Filed under: Literary, Thriller

Get this book.

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

A few weeks after Reamde came out, there was a bit of a kerfuffle about the ebook edition being full of typos. This is not surprising. The paper version has more than its share of typos, too. Not an overwhelming amount, perhaps two dozen mistakes over a thousand pages. But more than you see in most professionally published books.

I can entirely understand these errors. Reamde runs a thousand pages, roughly 400,000 words, and it was published just three years after Stephenson’s last novel. In addition, it’s a globe-trotting thriller, steeped in real-world facts and places, technology and tactics. And it has its own built-from-the-ground-up online virtual world.

It took me three weeks just to read this thing, let alone proofread it. I can’t even imagine editing or writing it. So a few mistakes are certainly forgivable. But they tell of Stephenson’s attitude toward writing, which has emphasized, in the past decade, length above all, moreso than ensuring the highest sentence-to-sentence quality possible.

This is not to say that Reamde feels rushed or shoddily produced. On the contrary, it’s very very good—entertaining, immersive, thrilling, fun, educational and full of great characters. But it’s not Stephenson’s best work. His best, in my mind, is still Snow Crash, the revolutionary information-disease cyberpunk epic that made his name. Snow Crash is also a hefty read at well over 100,000 words—I’d guess 150K—but it’s less than half the size of Reamde, and it shows a different Stephenson than the one from 2011.
Continue reading »

REVIEW: Jacob T. Marley

Author: R. William Bennett

2011, Shadow Mountain

Filed Under: Literary, Historical.

Get the book.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 5

I’ve been reading a bunch of Halloweenish books lately (you’ll notice werewolves and cemeteries in my upcoming reviews), and while Bennett’s retelling of A Christmas Carol does feature ghosts, it’s (somewhat obviously) a full-on Christmas story, probably even more so than its inspiration.

The story begins just a little before the events of Dickens’s classic. Marley is alive and a ruthless business man. He forsook any sort of interpersonal relationship for the almighty buck. He takes on a young financial prodigy as a partner (Scrooge audaciously refuses to apprentice), teaches him all he knows about being ruthless, then dies with only Scrooge begrudgingly by his side, waiting with impatience to sieze his mentor’s assets. But just before dying, Marley has an ephiphany, and he regrets his avaricious life.

Because of this final moment, Marley finds forgiveness in the afterlife. He does penance by wandering the world as a shade, dragging heavy, chest-laden chains that rattle behind him. Marley blames himself for Scrooge being and even crueler, more miserly dick, so he petitions the spirits of the afterlife to allow him to help Scrooge. If he fails, Marley will have to continue to drag his chains–and Scrooge’s–for eternity. From there the book is a faithful retelling of A Christmas Carol, written from the perspective of Marley, who, Bennett tells us, was always there, just invisible to Dickens’s protagonist.

Despite it occurring on a Christian holiday, I’ve always read A Christmas Carol as largely, like much of Dickens’s work, more about social contract and free will than any sort of lesson in piety. But Marley, and through him this book, seems more concerned with Scrooge’s eternal salvation. Scrooge’s redemption as Dickens wrote it was not a Christian repentance. He reforms his ways for the betterment of man, and finds personal reward in that offering. Bennett’s tale offers more of a trickle-down morality scheme, a golden-rule, pay-it-forward kind of thing. In the end, of course, the resulting message is the same: as Abe Lincoln once put it, “Be excellent to each other–and party on, dudes.”
Continue reading »

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 10/11/11

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]


Wire to Wire, by Scott Sparling. Reviewed by Anonymous (HTMLgiant).

Here’s an excellent example of how to write a concise book review. In three paragraphs whoever wrote this review for HTMLgiant fully convinced me I want to read this book (put out by Tin House, which has a knack for finding good writing). In a nutshell, he calls it “a smart and beautiful book about losers—aimless, glue sniffing, speed freak, train hopping, mostly rural, accidentally homicidal losers.” If, like for me, this kind of book isn’t your usual cup of tea, take 30 seconds to read this review and see if you are similarly persuaded.

Get the book.


The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst. Reviewed by Michael Dirda (Washington Post).

I really like sprawling books that manage to intricately and subtly insert cause-and-effect relationships across long spans of time. See Jeffery Eugenides’s Middlesex. This book looks to do just that. A surreptitious poem sets things in motion for 100 years in the future. And Hollinghurst succeeds in “preserving the dramatic unities of place, time and action. He effortlessly juggles several points of view (including a 6-year-old’s), slowly revealing people’s true characters while keeping the reader guessing.” If Michael Dirda bemoans a book not being listed for the Man Booker (which Hollinghirst already has won, for The Line of Beauty), odds are it’s a very good book.

Get the book.


The Apothecary, by Maile Meloy. Reviewed by Susan Carpenter (Los Angeles Times).

Not sure how I feel about Meloy writing for the YA set. I really liked Liars and Saints (and her last book was likable enough), so if she can keep up that kind of quality while aiming for a younger audience, then I suppose that’s a good thing. After all, Markus Zusak wrote an excellent World War II young adult book just a few years back. But this has me scratching my head a bit:

A gem of historical fiction for the middle-school set, Meloy’s children’s debut is a pitch-perfect melding of postwar intrigue and ancient medicinal arts told from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl.

Hmm. The story, as Carpenter goes on to describe, does sound interesting, with an international cast of young characters playing out a microcosmic analogue of the events surrounding WWII. I’m going to hang back on this one a bit to see how it’s received, but I think I’ll probably end up reading it.

Get the book.


Briefly: A little more Michael Dirda: Arabian Sands. A little more Eugenides: The Marriage Plot. And Nico already brought it up, but this looks good: Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.

Bonus Book Trailer: A well made one for once.

Book Radar: October 2011

[This feature is a brief monthly summary of interesting books coming out this month. Follow it here. Click the pictures or the title links to find these books at Powell’s.]

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami (out 10/25)

When this book came out in Japan, more than two years ago, its plot was a closely guarded secret and it sold a million copies in a month. Here and now in the West, details have necessarily leaked out, and they bring a familiar Murakamian bizarreness: a young woman commits several murders in a parallel world, and a struggling writer agrees to rewrite a manuscript by a teenager, only to find out it doesn’t exist. I’m just finishing a 1000-page novel now, and I’m not too eager to start another one, but this looks pretty good (same goes for Parallel Stories).

Voyage of the Rose City, by John Moynihan (out now)

I spent a formative year of my early 20s working on tall ships in various capacities and locales, and I vividly remember what Dwight Garner, in this review of Rose City, calls a “kind of squirming wanderlust,” the force that sent John Moynihan, the comfortably wealthy son of a senator, on a 4-month trip in the merchant marines. Moynihan never meant this memoir to get published, which could free it from the contrived feeling you get reading about the adventures of journalists who just went looking for material, but that honesty might also rob it of the polish given a work created for public view.
Continue reading »

reviews in haiku: September 2011

Welcome to autumn. Here’re some bite-sized reviews.


Ready Player One

big old dork opus

nerd stuff flows like Mountain Dew

but it’s not that great


Victory Chimp

chimpanzee blow jobs!

this book is really insane

audiobook rocks


Wildflower Hill

grandma’s boring farm

more like Forgettable Hill

story good, write bad



excellent poems

space and time seemingly cease

topical and smart


The Book of Life

prose: simple, direct

longer than most short stories

great complexity


The Earth Chronicles Expeditions

Bible aliens?

paunchy Indiana Jones?

pretend it’s fiction


The Thin Man

great gumshoe noir

tons of style, also booze

Asta is the dog


The Keeper of Lost Causes

Danish crime novel

features hapless detective

Laarson wannabe


The Revisionists

muted time travel

just the right splash of sci-fi

excellent thriller