Friday, January 11, 2008

Book Reviews! Book Reviews! Book Reviews!

I've been reading instead of blogging for the past few months,and now I am surrounded by huge stacks of books awaiting reviews. Most will get the "quickie" treatment, starting with these:
  • The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures by Louis Theroux - If you ever wondered what it's like to hang out with UFO believers, militia men, a (legal) Nevada prostitute, former Heaven's Gate cult members, a porn star, or a struggling gangsta rapper, this book is for you. The people and their lifestyles are fascinating, and Theroux's writing style is engaging. He discovers that despicable beliefs don't make a person "bad." For example, when Theroux lost his laptop, the white supremacist he had been interviewing went the extra mile to find it for him. Such tales challenge the reader's predisposition toward Theroux's subjects. Although some characters are inherently more interesting than others and his attempt to tie everything together into a tidy conclusion falls flat, The Call of the Weird is an enjoyable read.
  • Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins - As one who keeps abreast of world affairs, I didn't find this book as shocking as some people did. But one thing amazed me: no matter how underhanded and manipulative you think U.S. foreign and economic policy is, the truth is that it's worse. I liked the book, but I was hoping for more details of what Perkins did and less about his personal life. Also, I tired of his repeated assertions that he felt what he was doing was wrong -- they rang hollow, like they were inserted later to assuage his guilt or mitigate his destructive, unethical actions. Remember when author and professor Ward Churchill controversially asserted that the World Trade Center was full of "little Eichmanns"? He was talking about people like Perkins.
  • As Seen on TV by Lou Harry & Sam Stall - This entertaining book is full of stories, facts, and anecdotes about 50 of the most popular products sold directly via television. Ginsu knives, Flowbee, Pocket Fisherman, Mr. Microphone, Garden Weasel, Soloflex, ThighMaster, BluBlockers, The Clapper, Chia Pets, Girls Gone Wild, Time Life Books... They're all here. I learned a lot, though the authors wisely don't take the subject matter too seriously. Anyone who has spent too much time watching late-night TV in the past 20-30 years will love this book.

  • The Plot Against America by Philip Roth - When I first saw the title, I feared this was some post-9/11, right-wing manifesto; I was relieved to learn that it was fiction set 60 years earlier. As a fan of "counter-factuals," I found the premise of a Charles Lindbergh presidency and its ramifications for the U.S. in World War II intriguing. But the story itself is largely a Jewish coming-of-age tale with the alternate history relegated to the background. I essentially tolerated the main story and characters just to get to the sections of macro-level speculation. The historical aspects were not as well developed as most counter-factuals, and aside from some insights about growing up Jewish in the 1930s, the rest didn't offer me much. As such, the book was unsatisfying though not bad.
  • Where Do Nudists Keep Their Hankies? by Mitchell Symons - This book wasn't nearly as interesting or entertaining as it could have been. Symons comes up with a few interesting questions and answers, but much is just filler. He relies too often on friends for answers, which aren't exactly authoritative. At worst, he falls back on his own opinions, which are even weaker. Sometimes he tries to be funny and it just sounds forced. Despite the potentially titillating subject matter, this book was a waste of my time.

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