You Can Draw in 30 Days by Mark Kistler

From the back cover:
Drawing is an acquired skill, not a talent—anyone can learn to draw! All you need is a pencil, a piece of paper, and the willingness to tap into your hidden artistic abilities. You Can Draw in 30 Days will teach you the rest. With Emmy award-winning, longtime public television host Mark Kistler as your guide, you’ll learn the secrets of sophisticated three-dimensional renderings, and have fun along the way.

In just 20 minutes a day for a month, you can learn to draw anything, whether from the world around you or from your own imagination. It’s time to embark on your creative journey. Pick up your pencil and begin today!

Review:
I was somewhat dubious when I set out to complete Mark Kistler’s instructional book, You Can Draw in 30 Days. Despite his claim that drawing is a skill and not a talent, and that anyone can learn to do it, I had no expectation that I would emerge from the experience with the ability to create vividly realistic drawings. And, indeed, that did not happen. I did, however, learn some interesting and useful techniques, and if the goal has been merely to gain confidence and a grasp of some basic fundamentals, then I’d say it’s been achieved.

First, Kistler has students complete a pretest in which they draw a house, an airplane, and a bagel. Here’s mine. Please do not laugh at that pathetic airplane too much.

From there, students progress through a series of lessons designed to introduce and elaborate on nine “foundation elements,” which include concepts like overlapping, shading, and contour lines. These ideas are reiterated frequently throughout the book, and I enjoyed some more than others. For example, I got a little tired of drawing shadows all over everything, but the way that contour lines—here exemplified via figures Kistler has dubbed “contour kids”—can make objects appear to be in motion is extremely cool.

The first seven lessons focus on basic shapes—spheres, cubes, towers—but then Kistler begins tossing in some rather odd things like koalas, roses, scrolls, and rippling flags. Each lesson is still imparting some essential useful idea, but they do reveal that Kistler’s style is essentially cartoony. Here’s my koala, from lesson eight. The bonus challenge for that chapter was to draw some real-world koalas, and while my efforts look better to me now than they did originally, the fact remains that I did not (and still do not) feel well-equipped to actually faithfully reproduce a realistic-looking koala.

Beginning with lesson 22, Kistler focuses on drawing in one- or two-point perspective. I enjoyed these exercises a lot—possibly because I got to draw with a ruler, which made everything nice and crisp. Here’s my tower in two-point perspective, which looks pretty good despite a couple of minor flaws.

The final three chapters introduce drawing anatomy, and Kistler drops the ball here a bit. Instead of really trying to teach someone how to draw a face, he instructs students to trace an example, provides a few basic pointers, and then directs them to other books for more information. (Perhaps that’s why the included illustration of a student’s attempt is far less accomplished than other examples throughout the book.) Lessons on the eye and hand were better, though, and I’m rather proud of my results for the 30th and final lesson, “Your Hand of Creativity.”

On the whole, the progression of the lessons makes sense and I have few complaints. However, I must voice my objection to Kistler’s attempts to foment enthusiasm by asking lame questions throughout the book. “Are you inspired?” “Are you excited?” “Don’t you feel like a collegiate fine arts student?” This invites readers to say, “Um, no?” I get what he’s trying to do, but jeez. Enough is enough.

Ultimately, a better title for this book would have been You Can Draw Certain Things in 30 Days. I still don’t feel like I can draw well in general, but I think I’m a bit better than before. Certainly, I could apply these lessons to drawing everyday objects that fit the shapes covered in the book. So, if you ever need a picture of your loved one, don’t call me, but if it’s an open cardboard box you want, I’m your gal.

Additional reviews of You Can Draw in 30 Days can be found at Triple Take.

Tales of the Gilbreth Family

Mention the title Cheaper by the Dozen and most folks know it refers to a story about a family with twelve children. Before there were completely unrelated movies starring Steve Martin, however, there was the original book about the unique Gilbreth family, written by two of the children. This was followed by Belles on Their Toes, set after the death of the family patriarch, and later by several others, including Time Out for Happiness, a more serious family biography, and Rings Around Us, in which Ernestine writes about her own married life. Three out of the four are quite charming, and those aren’t bad odds!

Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
When I embarked upon reading Cheaper by the Dozen, I figured I was in for a warm-hearted memoir about the clever antics of twelve mischievous kids living in the early 20th century. And I did get that. There are stories here about playing pranks on the psychologist evaluating their intelligence and about young boys saying impertinent things to guests at dinner, about rousting a peeping tom from a tree and manipulating the family council system in order to get a dog.

What I didn’t anticipate, however, was that the real purpose of the book is to lovingly depict the Gilbreth parents, Frank and Lillian. I am a sucker for awesome dads, and have loved quite a few, but Mr. Gilbreth might just take the cake. He’s voluble, loud, and charming, with a zest for life and learning that leads him to devote his career to developing time-saving measures for various industries. He teaches his kids all manner of things, from languages to Morse code to nifty multiplication tricks, and at first it seems like he’s doing this just to satisfy his own curiosity—and, yes, that’s part of it—but in reality, it’s so that they’ll be able to get along without him and not be a burden to their mother when he is gone. For, you see, he hasn’t told them that he’s got a bad heart.

There is much to smile and laugh at in this book, but the end had me sobbing. In a good way. In the way that makes you want to read the book again so that you can love it even more intensely. I feel like fans of this book could meet each other and exchange a single word—mumblety-peg—and understand each other perfectly.

Belles on Their Toes by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
Where Cheaper by the Dozen serves as loving tribute to Frank B. Gilbreth, Sr., Belles on Their Toes is “primarily the story of Mother.” Overshadowed somewhat by her charismatic husband in the previous book, Lillian shines here as a strong and capable mother defying social conventions and attitudes by taking up the reins of her husband’s business in order to secure sufficient income to not only keep the family together but send each child to college, as Frank wanted. There’s a marvelous passage early on that explains how Lillian overcame her timidity that left me sniffling.

There was a time when Mother wept easily, when she was afraid of walking alone at night, when a lightning storm would send her shuddering into a dark closet.

All that ended the day Dad died. It ended because it had to end. It ended because of the realization that what she really feared was that something would separate them.

Well, what she feared had happened, and tears would not wash out a word of it. So she gave his speech in London and presided for him in Prague. And she was not afraid any more.

I get a bit verklempt now, just typing that.

Belles on Their Toes also focuses a lot on the oldest daughters, as they develop into women and eventually bring beaus home to meet the family. I’m particularly fond of sensible Martha, who has no idea she’s become shapely and sought-after and devotes herself to principles of frugality. That’s not to say that pranks and mischief are entirely absent, however! Near the end, the pace of the story picks up a great deal, skipping over some of the middle children to cover the high school graduation of the youngest (Jane), followed by a family reunion in which three of Lillian’s grandchildren are christened in the same church as their parents.

It’s a very satisfying conclusion and most people would probably feel content to stop here. With a little research and a couple of interlibrary loans, however, I’ve unearthed a couple of other books about the family that are less well known.

Time Out for Happiness by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.
Whereas the first two books “stressed the comical aspects of raising a big family by Motion Study methods,” Time Out for Happiness puts the emphasis on Frank and Lillian’s work in the field of “scientific management.” You might think this sounds dull, but actually there are enough amusing anecdotes and big personalities (like “plump and boisterous” Frank) to make for quite an absorbing read.

Time Out for Happiness also dwells more on the family backgrounds for Frank and Lillian, as well as the early days of their courtship and marriage. Some of the material is familiar, but most of it is new. (Interestingly, a few small details are different here, like which child made what remark or what handyman Tom named his cats. Were those embellished the first time around?) I welcomed the insight into what Frank and Lillian were hoping to accomplish with Motion Study, especially the fact that Lillian was very much an equal partner.

Indeed, while gregarious Frank initially captures one’s heart, by the end one realizes how truly remarkable Lillie was. For a woman to get a Master’s degree in 1902 (followed by a PhD in 1914) was no small feat, and she was the first woman to receive honorary membership in several influential engineering societies. After Frank’s death in 1924, Lillie continued to espouse the Gilbreth method for over 40 years, eventually earning the public recognition of their endeavors that she’d long been seeking.

The one drawback to reading this book is that it makes one feel a serious underachiever. There were so many opportunities to think and do new things in the early 20th century that I don’t know now whether such chances simply don’t exist anymore or if I am just not personally bright enough to see them. Probably it’s a combination of both.

At any rate, this may be a more factual account of the family history, but it’s no less entertaining.

Rings Around Us by Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
Out of the four books on the Gilbreth family that I read, I liked Rings Around Us—the story of Ernestine’s married life—the least. I found it to be lacking the warmth of the earlier books, and I’m not sure whether to attribute that to the lack of Lillian or to the lack of Frank, Jr. as writing partner. Probably it’s a combination of both.

In September 1929, when she is a 21-year-old working girl in New York City, Ernestine Gilbreth meets Charles Carey. They hit it off immediately and are married in 1930. The book recounts their many apartments in the city, the many nurses they hire to take care of their daughter while Ernestine works, and the eventual decision to move to Long Island, where the kids have plenty of friends and room to roam and where the Carey parents experience the joy of tending a garden and the sorrows of home maintenance.

The problem is… Charles (called “Chick” by Ernestine) is a product of his time, in that he is a sexist git. He frequently makes comments about women and though he occasionally condescends to help Ernestine with meals and dishes, his attitudes eventually begin to wear off on his son. Ernestine chafes at his notions, but doesn’t get her dander up as much as I would’ve liked. But no matter, because she herself is sizeist. Many, many times she describes a person by their weight, be it the nurse whose bosoms she compares to watermelons or the dance teacher her daughter adores, “all two hundred pounds of her.” This attitude, too, wears off on the kids, as a later chapter dwells upon a game they invent wherein you score points for spotting fat people on the beach. The game is called “Whale.”

Nice. Really nice. Thanks for leaving me with a sour taste in my mouth, Ernestine.

The Science of Doctor Who by Paul Parsons

From the front flap:
Almost fifty years after the Doctor first crossed the small screen, he remains a science fiction touchstone. His exploits are thrilling, his world is mind-boggling, and that time travel machine—known as the Tardis—is almost certainly an old-fashioned blue police box, once commonly found in London.

Paul Parsons’s plain-English account of the real science behind the fantastic universe portrayed in the television series answers such burning questions as whether a sonic screwdriver is any use for putting up a shelf, how Cybermen make little Cybermen, where the toilets are in the Tardis, and much more.

(Note: This is the 2010 revision of a book originally published in 2006.)

Review:
I am not a science person. In my years of schooling, I never once came up with a non-lame idea for a science project and was positively abysmal at experiments. I did pretty well on tests and homework, but if someone’s test tube was going to spontaneously erupt in a geyser of brown froth (true story!), it would be mine.

Suffice it to say, then, that while I enjoy science fiction entertainment, it’s not because of the science. Still, The Science of Doctor Who promises “a plain-English account of the real science behind the fantastic universe portrayed in the television series,” so I reckoned on being able to follow it. Alas, Paul Parsons’s definition of plain English is a bit different than mine.

I was okay with the majority of the material. Chapter topics include the Doctor’s recurring foes, regeneration, gadgets, weapons, space stations, force fields, parallel universes, and more. In general, Parsons would start by mentioning something that happened in a particular Doctor Who serial and then interview renowned scientists as to whether this is actually possible. Most of the time the answer is “no” or “only with extreme amounts of energy/effort,” but there are a few things that are not so far off. The chapters on alien worlds (Lots of planets really do have a north!) and mirror planets were particular favorites of mine.

Stupidly, however, I hadn’t counted on there being so much physics! I frequently found my eyes glazing over during these sections, which were unfortunately clustered near the beginning (making it hard to get started) and end (causing a strong urge to set the book down with only forty pages to go) of the book.

Take, for example, this quote from page 35:

M-theory’s main thrust is to generalize the one-dimensional objects of string theory into p-dimensional objects known, amusingly enough, as p-branes (where setting p = 0 gives a particle, p = 1 gives a string, p = 2 a “membrane,” and so on).

My brain’s response: asdlkjasldkfzzt!

Seriously, is that plain English? I note that Parsons did not bother to define “p-dimensional,” though that probably wouldn’t have been much help to me anyway.

In the end, I did learn some interesting things. In the chapter on Cybermen, for example, I learned that a cybernetic brain implant currently exists that can block the signals that cause Parkinson’s disease. That’s pretty awesome! I also now know that Sontarans reproduce by cloning and it takes only ten minutes for their offspring to reach adulthood. That’s less awesome.

I’m glad I didn’t give up on reading The Science of Doctor Who but now I think I’ll give my brain a rest by actually watching some.

Additional reviews of The Science of Doctor Who can be found at Triple Take.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett: B

From the back cover:
Unrepentant book thief John Charles Gilkey has stolen a fortune in rare books from around the country. Yet unlike most thieves, who steal for profit, Gilkey steals for love—the love of books. Perhaps equally obsessive, though, is Ken Sanders, the self-appointed “bibliodick” driven to catch him. Sanders, a lifelong rare book collector and dealer turned amateur detective, will stop at nothing to catch the thief plaguing his trade.

In following both of these eccentric characters, journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett plunged deep into a world of fanatical book lust and ultimately found herself caught between the many people interested in finding Gilkey’s stolen treasure and the man who wanted to keep it hidden: the thief himself.

With a mixture of suspense, insight, and humor, Bartlett has woven this cat-and-mouse chase into a narrative that not only reveals exactly how Gilkey pulled off his crimes and how Sanders eventually caught him, but also explores the romance of books, the lure to collect them, and the temptation to steal them.

Review:
When a man depicted in a nonfiction narrative is described on the back cover as someone “who will stop at nothing to catch the thief” who has been victimizing members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, a reader might be forgiven for expecting some sort of chase. The clever thief. The details of his crimes. The dogged pursuer. The final, satisfying capture. The end.

But that’s not what one gets with The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. I don’t fault author Bartlett for this—she probably had little to do with the way the book was marketed—but it’s rather disappointing all the same. Instead, the book is more a profile of John Gilkey, a mild-mannered guy who used a combination of identity theft and manipulative politeness to steal vast quantities of rare and valuable books. It’s not as if his methods are ingenious, it’s just that he found one that worked and employed it over and over again until enough booksellers finally pooled their information and got him caught. Until he made bail. Then stole again. And was incarcerated again. Then stole again.

The details of some of his crimes are provided, and the scenes of police investigations and sting operations are genuinely fascinating. I liked, too, that Bartlett began to wonder what her responsibilities were regarding some of the information Gilkey had divulged to her, and how much she herself had become a part of the story. Even the fact that Bartlett is more interested in why Gilkey steals than what or how is fine, but after being told for the fourth time that Gilkey steals because he wants a collection others will envy and feels entitled to have it, regardless of whether he can afford it—and how, but for “his crimes and his narcissistic justification of them,” he’s not that different from law-abiding collectors—I began to grow weary.

I admit to some peevishness over the title, as well. Gilkey is not a man who loves books, but a man who loves the status owning an impressive array of recognizable titles will bestow. Granted, that’s a little long for a book title, but as someone who genuinely loves books—for their content!—I am annoyed that someone who merely desires their sheer presence on a shelf gets to make the same claim.

Ultimately, those looking for a detective-style story with a definitive ending will be disappointed. Gilkey is brought to justice for only a fraction of his crimes and shows no intention of stopping any time soon. As the portrait of an obsessed thief with a grudge against those who would keep him from what he believes he deserves, the book is more successful, though somewhat repetitive.

Additional reviews of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much can be found at Triple Take.

The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson: B

From the front flap:
The world needed a hero, but how would an editor with no off-switch answer the call? For Jeff Deck, the writing was literally on the wall: NO TRESSPASSING. In that moment, his greater purpose became clear. Dark hordes of typos had descended upon civilization… and only he could wield the marker to defeat them.

Review:
After a college reunion spurs the realization that he hasn’t done anything to change the world, unlike some of his impressive former classmates, Jeff Deck decides to play to his strengths—editorial skills—and embark on a cross-country trip to correct typos. A few friends join the initiative and TEAL (Typo Eradication Advancement League) is born. With his trusty vehicular steed, Callie, and stalwart companion, Benjamin (and armed with a kit full of markers and correction fluid), Deck sets out on his quest.

The Great Typo Hunt chronicles his journey, both physically and figuratively. In simplest terms, he and Benjamin travel from town to town, spotting typos and attempting to fix them, aiming for a correction rate of 50 percent or higher. Sometimes they correct typos on the sly and sometimes request permission to do so. It’s pretty satisfying when a fix has been achieved, especially when pictoral evidence is furnished. Alas, many of the people they talk to are apathetic—one actually says “I would rather have a sign spelled incorrectly than a tacky-looking sign”—while a few are downright hostile. Happily, some also prove receptive and appreciative of TEAL’s efforts.

Meanwhile, Deck has much cause during the trip to consider the real purpose of his mission. In an early interview he states, “It’s not about making anyone feel bad or… look stupid or something, it’s just really about going after the errors themselves.” And that’s pretty much where he ends up at the end, though it takes time for his thoughts to coalesce into a mission statement that has more to do with clarity in communication than in adherence to specific rules. After a setback involving federal charges for vandalizing a historic sign in a national park, TEAL seems poised to embark on future endeavors that revolve more around education than correction.

It’s a worthy goal and one with which I can sympathize, as a some-time editor myself. Still, I will admit that reading encounter after encounter in which willful ignorance rules the day becomes extremely depressing after a while. I, too, lay the blame at an education system that has failed to provide people with the tools they need to make sense of writing in English. This shaky foundation has made people feel insecure about writing, which in turn makes them feel stupid—or like they’re being called stupid—when an error is pointed out to them, when that was never anyone’s intent. Thankfully, Deck and crew do not feel as hopeless about the situation as I do!

To conclude, I shall share a personal story of typo correction:

Back around 2002 or so, my husband and I went out for subs at a place with a sign shop for a neighbor. On their street-side sign, the sign place was advertising a “Crazzy Eddie” sale. Hubby penned a note and slipped it in the door. A few days later, I was driving by and happened to spot this. A return trip with a camera was clearly called for.

I suppose this could have been done in the spirit of fun, but to me it seems to say, “Screw you, buddy.”

Additional reviews of The Great Typo Hunt can be found here.

Causing a Scene by Charlie Todd and Alex Scordelis: B-

From the back cover:
From the infamous No Pants! Subway Ride to the legendary Grand Central Freeze, Improv Everywhere has been responsible for some of the most original and subversive pranks of the Internet age. In Causing a Scene, the group’s agents provide a hilarious firsthand account of their mischievous antics. Learn how they created a time loop in a Starbucks and gave Best Buy eighty extra employees. Join in on the fun with this irreverent, behind-the-scenes look at Improv Everywhere’s world-famous missions, and get inspired to create your own memorable mayhem.

Review:
I only discovered Improv Everywhere fairly recently, after an interview with its founder Charlie Todd was a featured video on CNN.com, and spent a couple of weeks devouring the entertaining mission reports on their website. I’ve never been a fan of pranks in which some unfortunate person is made to feel like an idiot, but Improv Everywhere isn’t like that at all. In Charlie Todd’s words,

We realized we had stumbled onto a new idea: pranks that didn’t need a victim… It was much more challenging to come up with ideas that actually gave the people we encountered a good experience—an amazing story they could tell for the rest of their lives.

After reading the various missions, I found myself recounting them to my friends and loved ones. I like best the ones where they make whole crowds of people extremely happy, like when a subway car full of strangers participates in a surprise birthday party for someone who’s about to get on or when seemingly unacquainted shoppers in the produce section of a grocery store suddenly burst into a choregraphed musical number about the lonely, segregated lives of fruit. Random acts of good-natured absurdity, in other words.

After exhausting the web content, this book seemed like the next logical place to turn. Alas, while I did learn some new things from reading it—I didn’t know, for example, that the Frozen Grand Central mission had inspired an episode of Law & Order—and while the mission reports have been wholly rewritten from posts on the site, I didn’t really take away anything new. The suggested agent assignments don’t offer anything of use; they basically tell you how to recreate the prank you’ve just read about, which you can pretty much figure out from having just read about it. The book has a number of editorial and printings errors, too.

Causing a Scene will probably be best enjoyed by those who have not explored the website, but honestly, I’d just advise everyone to go there instead. It offers a lot of fun feedback, as participating agents frequently leave comments, plus many color photos and videos. Todd promises that one can easily “procrastinate an entire week’s worth of work” there and I’m inclined to agree. Despite finding the book somewhat of a disappointment, I definitely remain a fan.

Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs: B

From the front flap:
Poignant, funny, and utterly original, Ethel & Ernest is Raymond Briggs’s loving depiction of his parents’ lives from their chance first encounter in the 1920s until their deaths in the 1970s.

Ethel and Ernest were solid members of the English working class, part of the generation that lived through the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century. Briggs’s portrayal of how his parents succeeded, or failed, in coming to terms with the events of their rapidly shifting world is irresistibly engaging, full of sympathy and affection, yet clear-eyed and unsentimental.

Review:
I’m pretty sure Ethel & Ernest is the first nonfiction comic I’ve read, but it’s definitely a nice medium for telling a story like this one, which depicts the evolving relationship between Ethel and Ernest, the parents of creator Raymond Briggs, as they meet, marry, encounter newfangled gadgets, digest political prognostications, have a son, grow old, and pass away.

Briggs never outright tells us much about his parents, but rather shows it through their interactions. His mother is older than his father, for one thing, votes for a different party and considers herself to be middle class and proper. Ernest votes Labour and is inclined to think of himself as working class, and is occasionally chastised by his wife for the uncouth things he says. Still, they clearly get on well, and Briggs paints their eccentricities lovingly.

My main complaint about Ethel & Ernest is that it seems to move too quickly. It focuses on acknowledging historically significant moments and inventions, with a few personal milestones thrown in, and doesn’t really focus much on their day-to-day life or feature scenes that last any longer than a couple of pages. It works as a quick retrospective of their life, but not as deep and moving a one as it could have been.

I liked what was there, but I wanted more. Perhaps that’s the American in me, and even this is far more than a Brit from that era would’ve dreamed of sharing, but it seems I could’ve loved these characters if given the chance, but instead I only sort of mildly enjoyed them.

The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir: B+

princesintowerFrom the front flap:
Despite five centuries of investigation by historians, the sinister deaths of the boy king Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, remain one of the most fascinating murder mysteries in English history. Did Richard III really kill “the Princes in the Tower,” as is commonly believed, or was the murderer someone else entirely? In this utterly absorbing and meticulously researched book, English writer Alison Weir, an authority on the history of the British royal family, at last provides a conclusive solution to this age-old puzzle.

Review:
There are two schools of thought on Richard III. One group, dubbed “revisionists,” believes that Richard’s unsavory reputation is undeserved and that he did not do the awful things attributed to him. The second, “traditionalists,” hold that Richard was tyrannical and ambitious and certainly did commit many terrible acts. Alison Weir is firmly in the traditionalist camp and, after reading her work, I must (reluctantly) conclude that Richard probably was behind the deaths of his nephews.

The way Weir organizes her information is interesting. After devoting the entire first chapter to an introduction and evaluation of her sources, especially contemporary ones, she proceeds to tell the story by citing many of the sources in turn. These do not always agree, and when they don’t, she points it out and explains which, in her opinion, is likely the most accurate account. The result is a narrative that feels thorough and yet not unnecessarily bogged down by detours into conjecture. While I lament the passing of my romanticized view of Richard III, Weir ultimately did compile enough irrefutable evidence to convince me of his villainy.

Some things about the way the information is presented rankle a bit, however. It’s clear from pretty early on that Weir, despite claiming that she approached the question of Richard’s guilt with an open mind, is completely dismissive of the revisionist view, saying “the majority of serious historians have rejected it.” Too, she often seems to base her arguments on behavioral assumptions like (paraphrased) “Surely a man of such integrity would verify his facts” or “This was published during a time when many people who knew Richard III were still alive and would spot inaccuracies.” Okay, sure, but in a political climate where beheadings occur frequently—and when the monarch (Henry VII) in power wants to avoid attention being called to the House of York, as Weir points out herself—are these people really going to feel free to defend him? It’s not that I dispute her conclusions based on the evidence, and I’m by no means a historian myself, but I do have to wonder whether this is how research is normally conducted and presented.

In any case, Weir’s account of Richard’s life, deeds, and legacy is a fascinating and, ultimately, convincing read, even to someone like me who has enjoyed (and likely will continue to enjoy) reading historical fiction in which Richard is presented in a positive light.

Memories of the Future 1 by Wil Wheaton: B

memfuture1From the back cover:
The away team returns from the planet with some very good news: it’s clean, it’s beautiful, it’s populated with friendly humanoids… and they really like to do the nasty.

“At the drop of a hat,” according to Geordi.

“Any hat,” Tasha says knowingly.

Picard sends a second, larger team down to the planet to see exactly how many hats they’re going to need.

From “Encounter at Farpoint” to “Datalore,” relive the first half of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s unintentionally hilarious first season through the eyes, ears, and memories of cast member and fan, Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher) as he shares his unique perspective in the episode guide you didn’t even know you were dying to read.

Review:
I came a little late to Star Trek: The Next Generation. I don’t come from a family of Trekkies and didn’t know anyone who watched the original show, so I was not glued to my set for TNG‘s 1987 debut (like I’d later be for Deep Space Nine‘s). Instead, I got into it in 1992, when my brother was watching the episodes in syndication every afternoon and hanging TNG action figures (still in the package, of course) on his walls. I began watching with him and was soon hooked, acquiring Larry Nemecek’s The Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion so that I could read all about the making of the episodes and keep track of the ones I’d seen. (Side note: I still haven’t seen 1.5 of them, but I kind of like it that way. It makes it seem like it’s not quite over.)

Although I eventually came to prefer DS9, TNG still holds a place in my heart. Like many people, I never did much care for the character of Wesley Crusher, but when I spotted Wil Wheaton’s episode reviews on TV Squad, I did read a few of them. In his introduction to Memories of the Future, Wheaton explains how the site lost a chunk of its funding and, therefore, the ability to pay him, but that he wanted to at least complete reviews for the first season, and so this book was born.

If you’re looking for a tawdry tell-all book, you’re not going to find it here. Wheaton doesn’t talk specifically about his castmates much, but when he does, he has nothing but positive things to say about them. Instead, his vitriol is reserved for the writers; he critiques the way various characters are written (Wesley, primarily, but also Worf and Troi, who are particularly one-dimensional during the first season) and points out many logic flaws and other problems with episode construction. I found his arguments to be compelling—especially how, contrary to many fans’ beliefs, Wheaton himself was in no way responsible for Wesley’s tendencies to save the day and be smug about it—and insightful.

There’s a chapter for each episode including a synopsis, quotable dialogue, obligatory technobabble, behind-the-scenes memory, bottom line, and final grade. The synopses are very snarky, though occasionally he’ll break from that mold to praise a particularly nice piece of acting. Many, many pop culture references abound—Strong Bad, Pulp Fiction, Animal Farm, et cetera—which is okay when I get them but rather annoying when I don’t. I have a feeling I was supposed to find some of the snark funny, but I never did, though I think there was a pretty clever/esoteric shabu shabu joke in there.

Memories of the Future is published by Monolith Press, which was founded by Wheaton “on the idea that publication should not be limited by opportunity.” I’m not sure, therefore, whether anyone else ever read and edited the book before its release. There are a few instances where an incorrect but not misspelled word is used—“marshal arts” or “when Picard apologies or something”—and a lot of inconsistency in the treatment of words that come after colons (don’t capitalize them unless they’re proper nouns!). Also, the header for each episode is accompanied by some grey bars with a lot of random numbers on them. I could never figure out whether they have any significance; perhaps they’re supposed to look like an Enterprise computer display or something? In any case, some tighter editorial controls would’ve provided a bit more polish.

(Update: After realizing that the numbers never go above 26, I tried my hand at cryptanalysis. All I could figure out is that the letters for the Introduction spell “Wesley.” Beyond that, it’s either gibberish or a code too complex for a lazy person like me to bother with.)

Ultimately, while I had some complaints I still wished I had volume two immediately on hand after finishing this one and I wish, too, that Wheaton will continue beyond the first season. While he is occasionally (and rightly) critical of some aspects of the show, his perspective is undeniably interesting and, above all, affectionate.

Additional reviews of the first volume of Memories of the Future can be found at Triple Take.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris: B-

holidaysFrom the front flap:
Holidays on Ice collects six of David Sedaris’s most profound Christmas stories into one slender volume perfect for use as an emergency coaster or ice scraper. This drinking man’s companion can be enjoyed by the warmth of a raging fire, in the glow of a brilliantly decorated tree, or even in the backseat of a van or police car. It should be read with your eyes, felt with your heart, and heard only when spoken to. It should, in short, behave much like a book. And oh, what a book it is!

Review:
I’m not usually one for holiday-themed entertainment: I don’t voluntarily listen to Christmas music and, beloved classic or not, the thought of watching Ralphie pine yet again for his Red Ryder BB gun fills me with despair. And yet, who could resist the allure of a piece entitled “Dinah, the Christmas Whore”? Not me, surely!

Holidays on Ice collects six short works, three of which ( “SantaLand Diaries,” “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” and “Dinah, the Christmas Whore”) have been published before and three of which ( “Based Upon a True Story,” “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol,” and “Christmas Means Giving”) have not. Both “SantaLand” and “Dinah” take the form of nonfiction (see note) essays while the others are clearly fiction.

I’ve never actually read anything by Sedaris before, though I’ve heard him on NPR a time or two. Perhaps, then, it was a newbie’s mistake that I expected that these stories would be funny. Instead, most feature unpleasant people doing unpleasant things. I realize that sort of humor is popular with many, but it’s not something I personally find amusing. The worst offenders in this regard are the fiction works, like “Season’s Greetings,” in which the shrill narrator’s shrieking at her slutty new Vietnamese stepdaughter goes on interminably, or “Christmas Means Giving,” in which competitive and outrageously rich neighbors attempt to outdo each other in extravagant generosity. Some unpleasant types turn up in “SantaLand” and “Dinah,” though their stays are brief and much more tolerable.

That isn’t to say there are no laughs to be had at all. At his best, Sedaris possesses a talent for noting absurdity that jives nicely with my own sense of humor. I particularly like his self-deprecating account of his own youthful pretensions in “Dinah,” like how he thought that by wearing black in protest of others’ holiday consumption he could somehow cause them to rethink their ways.

My very avoidance would set me apart and cause these people to question themselves in ways that would surely pain them. “Who are we?” they’d ask, plucking the ornaments off their trees. “What have we become? And why can’t we be more like that somber fellow who washes dishes down at the Piccadilly Cafeteria?”

Of the fiction works, my favorite is “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol,” in which a theatre critic savagely reviews several elementary school Christmas pageants. Here, rather than feeling like the extended rant of an unlikable person, it feels like the joke is on Thaddeus, who clearly is missing the point of these performances. This impression is aided by Sedaris’ expert imitation of a know-it-all columnist’s style; if this story were excerpted and anonymously posted somewhere I bet it’d fool many into believing it genuine.

While these six stories were hit or miss with me, I’m given to understand that this collection is not considered to be Sedaris’ best. I own a few more of his books, and will surely read them eventually. I’m sure I’ll encounter a few things to make me smile and a few observations to make me nod in recognition of a truth well stated, but I’m also confident there’ll be more of those unpleasant people whom I just simply don’t enjoy reading about. And that rather puts a damper on my enthusiasm.

Note: While I’m in partial agreement with the argument that Sedaris exaggerates too much for his essays to be rightly classified as nonfiction, I nonetheless think they’re nonfiction enough to merit inclusion in that category here. I only hope that the made-up bits are obvious enough that I never embarrassingly ascribe too much significance to them.