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Rick

Urcuquí, Ecuador
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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-18-18

Things You Never Knew

Bill Bryson makes any subject fascinating. And this book has subjects beyond counting, all illustrated by his own home, a drafty old Victorian parsonage in England: Architecture, etymology, inventions, household pests, locust plagues, snooty nobility, the misery of servants, famines, poisonous wallpaper, the history of cement, the evolution of the dinner fork.

If the mischievous Bryson cooked up this book idea just so he could work at home, it makes no difference. And if I’d ever had a history teacher this captivating, my grades would have been transformed.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-05-18

Bones of the Old West

William Johnson is a freshman at Yale in 1876, a patrician rich kid who goes West for the summer on a bet. He promptly becomes a pawn in the lifelong feud between two paleontologists—actual historical figures—and is in for the adventure of a lifetime, if he survives it. The frontier is a vast and dangerous place, as evidenced by the massacre of Gen. Custer at the Little Bighorn when the bone-hunters’ expedition is barely underway.

Michael Crichton had a screenwriter’s flair for pacing and surprise, and while the novel he began in 1974 is not his finest blockbuster, it was a welcome addition to the oeuvre when published posthumously in 2017.

He regularly sneaks in ominous portents, such as “He would have reason to ponder this statement later.” (pregnant pause) It gives the feel of a melodrama of the Victorian Era, which it was. It's a fun, engaging listen.

Masterfully read by Scott Brick.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-02-18

Like Poetry

The abridged version is an ethereal meditation upon a time long gone, when European colonists preserved a genteel existence in Africa, sometimes overwhelmed by the forces of nature, and in a kind of fragile coexistence with the natives. It was a time when Kenya was called British East Africa, and the British Empire was waning.

It’s a sad epitaph for a lost world, but one that couldn’t last. Beautifully written, and sensitively, at times passionately read by the late Julie Harris.

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3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-30-18

Doh!

This is much more an autobiography of Mike Reiss, a longtime writer for The Simpsons, than an insider’s view of the series itself that its title implies. As such, it’s somewhat less interesting than it might be. Too much name-dropping, for one thing.

Still, there’s a wealth of history and trivia for diehard fans, of which I am one.

Reiss is a legitimately major player in this 30-year record-breaking hit, and a very funny guy. But you get the feeling he’s at his best when speaking through the show, with his writing. As someone once said when recruiting a presidential speechwriter—I think in the Eisenhower administration—“We’re looking for someone who passionately seeks anonymity.”

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0 of 1 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-29-18

Malice on the Mexican Border

A precociously malicious teenaged boy known only as “The Kid” is the thread that runs through McCarthy’s monumental and bloodthirsty Western, though the boy disappears for long periods of time between beginning and end. The specter of Judge Holden gradually emerges—a massive man, described as being hairless from head to toe, habitually naked, given to long soliloquies and near-magical powers, often terrifying, and sometimes merely a treacherous windbag. He is surely evil, and possibly even immortal.

Nearly every paragraph is a masterpiece of writing:

“The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die, but in the affairs of men there is no waning, and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement; his meridian is at once his darkening, and the evening of his day.”

It is a disturbing story of destructive, malignant human aggression. Critics have often argued that violence in the works of McCarthy is just that, and not a metaphor for something else. Its brutality has thwarted multiple attempts to make a movie from the book.

The book defies interpretation, or at least any definitive one. Many have tried. The famously inconclusive conclusion that reunites Judge and Kid could mean anything—or nothing. The listener will have plenty of time to think it over, because it is haunting literature of the most indelible kind.

Richard Poe is a powerfully expressive narrator. His Spanish is not the best, but comprehensible. It must be difficult for non-Spanish speakers—print or audio—to navigate the considerable use of untranslated Spanish.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-22-18

Utopia Meets the Arctic

I read the book ten or more years ago, but in audio form it takes on refreshed life.

The year is 1970 or so, and a Northern California hippie commune is in danger of eviction by a local government that doesn’t care for a constant diet of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. What do they do? Head for Alaska, of course. Their rattletrap caravan takes them north, where their tragicomic story merges with that of a harsh frontier town that will test their greenhorn innocence in the bitter Arctic winter. It is a place where barnstorming bush pilots don’t paint their airplanes, because paint would add a few pounds better suited to hauling cargo at usurious prices.

T. C. Boyle is an unpredictable virtuoso of historical fiction, and this is among his best. Richard Poe doesn’t really do voices much, but he’s an expressive reader who reminds me of my father, reading Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” to my brothers and me when we were small. Together, author and narrator team up for a laugh-out-loud yet harrowing account, when a cult of peace and love comes up against the bleak reality of racism, jealousy and betrayal—not to mention survival—in the long northern darkness.

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2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-13-18

No thanks

Saunders has been described as “inventive,” and he certainly is that, though mostly not in a good way. Others say, “He writes the way people talk.” Perhaps that is the reason that most people aren’t writers.

I know he is considered by many to be a modern master of the short story, and I’m glad he strikes a chord in so many. But not me.

Finally, he’s a careless and choppy narrator. Sorry.

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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-11-18

An Icy Horror

It was 1845 when two British sailing ships, the HMS Erebus and Terror, set out in search of the Northwest Passage. They were soon trapped in the Arctic ice with crews of 129 men between them. The remains of the ships were found more than 150 years later, but apart from a handful of graves, no trace of the men or explanation of their fate was ever discovered.

In Dan Simmons’ fictionalized account, their story stretches over 28-1/2 hours of spellbinding storytelling. The first 15 minutes provide as visceral a description of Artic cold as one would ever want to hear. With temperatures approaching 100 below zero, there is the constant sound of the ice: groaning, grinding, exploding, snapping, shrieking. There are violent lightning storms, and the months of unending darkness.

A murderous monster preys on the men in the Arctic night, lurking among pressure ridges 80 feet tall, ice boulders, growlers, and séracs—pinnacles of ice like a frozen forest. Add to all this a mute and mysterious young Eskimo woman—a witch?—along with scurvy, starvation, lead poisoning, cannibalism, and mutiny.

There’s a lot to work with here. Endless twists of plot, each unexpected, drive this saga through its great length, with no time for boredom, to a brilliant conclusion. A NY Times review complained that the book was much too long. I disagree, especially with the narrative skills of Tom Sellwood, who at his best produces a resonant, bone-chilling growl worthy of Jeremy Irons.

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0 of 7 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-27-18

Magical Times

It’s the spring of 1964, and Cory Meckenson is turning 12 in the idyllic small town of Zephyr, Alabama. In a story woven with fantasy and more than a touch of the supernatural, there are adventurous boyhood pals, bullies, cranky teachers, doting parents, moonshiners and Klansmen, all accompanied by the soundtrack of the Beach Boys. And the haunting presence of a dead man in the blackness of the town’s bottomless lake. Not to mention real live dinosaur.

The plot is festooned with surprises, both complex and satisfying as it unfolds to a dramatic conclusion. George Newbern’s narration gives exactly the right voice to young Cory’s first-person narration, with a youthful and genuine Alabama drawl.

McCammon, in my contrarian view, is more a master of plot than language. I was especially irritated by his relentless barrage of overwrought similes, such as, “January was champing at its bit like an eager horse,” or, “(the tires) shrieked like constipated banshees.” Ick. It probably didn’t help that I’d just finished “Bonfire of the Vanities,” and it may be unfair to compare most writers to Tom Wolfe.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-15-18

Uproariously Serious

The latest collection of essays from David Sedaris has an undertone of mortality and advancing age. Not gloomy, by any means, but his stories—while side-splittingly hilarious—are also just slightly more pointed and often poignant. As in “Theft by Finding,” Sedaris has accumulated more hindsight, context, and confidence. The deaths of his mother and a sister are part of what shapes his thinking as he enters his 60s. And his writing just gets better and better.

But very, very funny. Who else would have a benign tumor excised, just so he could feed it to a turtle?

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