Thunderstruck by Erik Larson: B

From the back cover:
In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the interwoven stories of two men—Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication—whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time.

Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners, scientific advances dazzled the public, and the rich outdid one another with ostentatious displays of wealth. Against this background, Marconi races against incredible odds and relentless skepticism to perfect his invention: the wireless, a prime catalyst for the emergence of the world we know today. Meanwhile, Crippen, “the kindest of men,” nearly commits the perfect crime.

Gripping from the first word and rich with fascinating detail about the time, the people, and the new inventions that connect and divide us, Thunderstruck is splendid narrative history from a master of the form.

As in The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck offers parallel tales of highest achievement and foulest crime. The book begins by showing how the invention of wireless telegraphy will be responsible, in 1910, for the capture of wanted murderer Harvey Crippen who has fled England on a ship bound for Canada. This gives the reader a nice hook to be reading towards as the narrative then cycles back a dozen years or so to show how things all began.

While it’s interesting to follow the progress of wireless telegraphy and the deterioration of Crippen’s marriage, I felt that sometimes the author was a little too proud of including random details his research had unearthed. One particular instance that sticks in my mind is a description of the childhood home of Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the wireless, down to the kind of plants that grew in the tubs that flanked the front door of the residence. He does, however, do a very good job describing the flawed personalities of those involved, particularly Marconi and his seeming inability to understand how his actions might hurt or impact others.

While the history is a little slow going at times—I never really understood the technical and scientific issues—by virtue of its construction, it gets more exciting as it goes along. In fact, I’d venture to say that the final chapters, featuring a Scotland Yard detective who hops a fast steamer in an attempt to intercept Crippen’s vessel before he can reach Canada and the world’s breathless anticipation of the results, are positively riveting.

Too, I liked the epilogue that mentioned what the central players ended up doing with their lives after these exciting events. It’s unfortunate that the whole book ends with an irritatingly unanswered question, though. I’m not sure why the author thought that necessary or desirable.

Sixpence House by Paul Collins: B+

From the book jacket:
Paul Collins and his family abandoned the hills of San Francisco to move to the Welsh countryside—to move, in fact, to the little cobblestone village of Hay-on-Wye, the “Town of Books,” boasting 1,500 inhabitants… and forty bookstores. Antiquarian bookstores, no less.

Inviting readers into a sanctuary for book lovers, and guiding us through the production of the author’s own first book, Sixpence House is a wonderfully engaging meditation on what books mean to us, and how their meaning can resonate long after they have been abandoned by their public.

Books, Britain, and buildings are three of my favorite topics, and when one tosses them together in one book, odds are that I’m going to like it. Even if, as in the case of Sixpence House, there is no real plot to speak of. Seriously, this family moves to Wales, tries to buy a house, fails, then moves back to the United States. Despite the title making one think that they’ll be buying and renovating a particular house, that never actually comes to pass.

I couldn’t really get into the book at first, because the style of writing is incredibly tangential. Collins will be relating a story in which he has just gotten off the Tube in London, and will suddenly switch to a description of a rotunda built in San Francisco in 1915. He never really stops doing things like this, but I got used to the side trips and even came to enjoy them.

On books—Collins very clearly loves them, and delights in quoting passages from obscure publications. I enjoyed all of the excerpts from these forgotten tomes and felt a momentary stirring of desire to hunt for such abandoned treasures myself. He also talks a good deal about the capacity of books to live on far beyond the span of their author, leading to different reflections upon mortality. That’s not a subject I prefer to dwell on, but he handles the topic thoughtfully, and with a practical bent seemingly influenced by the practices of the Brits themselves.

On Britain—More than any other source, Sixpence House has provided me a good idea of what life in Britain can really be like to one coming from an American perspective. Some things are better—television and print media assume a far greater level of consumer intellect than their American equivalents, for example—and some worse, like the lack of right to privacy laws in the UK. My one complaint is that sometimes I couldn’t be sure what was actually true and what was just dry humor. For instance, when I looked up a thoroughly silly-sounding practice called gazumping, I found that it was genuine, but I’m still about 95% sure that a comment about Welsh pronunciation isn’t.

On buildings—now I understand why some people I have known who tried to move to the UK have ended up returning to America! I could never grasp it before; it seemed such a wonderful place! But it turns out there are no agents to look after the buyer during the sale of a property, no contract to keep all of your work from being for naught, and no requirement for the seller to share information about the property, forcing the seller to pay for an expensive survey for any house in which they might be interested. To an American, this seems crazy!

Collins does an excellent job in describing all of the quaint old buildings around Hay, as well as the village and its denizens. I appreciated that he and his wife wanted a home with a lot of history, but understood completely when they eventually gave up their search after being stymied by outrageous asking prices, weird stipulations about proceeds from land sales, and daunting renovations. My desire to visit the UK is as strong as it ever was, but I’m also left with the impression that I really wouldn’t want to live there. Even if their TV is awesome.

Collins has written several other works of nonfiction, including one called Banvard’s Folly (subtitled Thirteen Tales of People That Didn’t Change the World) that gets mentioned a good bit in this narrative. It seems he also is instrumental in bringing forth some of the lost gems that he loves so much, like English as She is Spoke, a phrasebook written by men who didn’t actually speak English. I hope to read both of these at some point, if the library is successful in acquiring them on my behalf.

Additional reviews of Sixpence House can be found at Triple Take.

Between Good and Evil by Roger L. Depue and Susan Schindehette: B

From the back cover:
No one gets closer to evil than a criminal profiler, trained to penetrate the hearts and minds of society’s most vicious psychopaths. And no one is a more towering figure in the world of criminal profilers than Roger L. Depue. Chief of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit at a time when its innovative work first came to prominence, he headed a renowned team of mind hunters. In a subbasement sixty feet under the Academy gun vault in Quantico, he broke new ground with analytical techniques and training programs that are still used today. After retiring from the FBI, he founded an elite forensics group that consulted on high-profile cases.

But coming face-to-face with the darkest deeds human beings are capable of took a horrific toll. After suffering a devastating personal loss, Depue, on the brink of despair, walked away from the outside world and joined a seminary. And it was there, while counseling maximum security inmates, that he rediscovered the capacity for goodness in people, and made the decision to return to the world to resume his work.

Here is Depue’s extraordinary personal account, from growing up as a police officer’s son to tracking down some of today’s most brutal murderers. With its harrowing descriptions of human depravity and passionate call to fight against evil, Between Good and Evil is both a riveting dispatch from the front lines of a war against human predators… and the powerful story of one man’s journey between darkness and redemption.

Between Good and Evil was pretty good, but wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. Reading over the back cover blurb again, I see that it’s not at all deceptive; I simply got the wrong impression.

The book chronicled Depue’s professional career, including the development of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit. Depue wrote of the struggle to get profiling accepted as a legitimate investigative technique and how it proved its worth time and time again. Quite a few specific cases were featured as were the research efforts (primarily interviewing the notorious perpetrators of heinous crimes) the agents undertook in order to ensure they could devise the best possible profile. Without a doubt, profiling is useful, but I wanted to see how it is done.

For example, in one case, the Unit concluded that a kidnapper likely drove a conversative family vehicle, a sedan or station wagon, four years of age or older. It turned out they were right, but I wanted to know what about the crime made them come to that conclusion! There was only one such detailed analysis included—of the ransom note in the Jon Benet Ramsey case—and I would’ve liked more examples.

As a memoir, it was pretty interesting, though Depue seemed to take special pride in his high school fighting prowess and was fond of anecdotes wherein he got to say something tough and intimidating to somebody. There were plenty of gruesome crime details, too, including some things that I had never imagined and will probably never forget. The chapter on the death of Depue’s wife was affecting, but a some of the religious stuff near the end was a bit much.

All in all, Between Good and Evil functions better as a life story than it does as an introduction to the actual task of criminal profiling.

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.: B+

From the back cover:
On the morning of December 10, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, a thirty-seven-year-old Harvard-trained brain scientist, experienced a massive stroke when a blood vessel exploded in the left side of her brain. A neuroanatomist by profession, she observed her own mind completely deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life, all within the space of four brief hours. As the damaged left side of her brain—the rational, grounded, detail- and time-oriented side—swung in and out of function, Taylor alternated between two distinct and opposite realities: the euphoric nirvana of the intuitive and kinesthetic right brain, in which she felt a sense of complete well-being and peace, and the logical, sequential left brain, which recognized Jill was having a a stroke and enabled her to seek help before she was lost completely.

A fascinating journey into the mechanics of the human mind, My Stroke of Insight is both a valuable recovery guide for anyone touched by a brain injury and an emotionally stirring testimony that deep internal peace truly is accessible to anyone at any time.

My Stroke of Insight can be divided into three main topics, each of which prompted different reactions from me.

It begins by focusing on the science of the brain—how it works, what the hemispheres do, the types of stroke. Although this section proved to be essential later on, I found it pretty difficiult to slog through initially. I think my own brain has pretty much rejected the idea of learning facts and terms by lecture now that I am so many years out of school.

I felt I learned much more in the section where Dr. Taylor recounts her own personal story, which is the second main topic of the book. She recreates the morning of the stroke in vivid detail and it’s quite fascinating. Additionally, she chronicles the steps of her recovery and informs readers of things they should and should not do when caring for someone recovering from stroke.

* Be calm. Tone of voice and body language can still be interpreted by someone whose left brain is damaged, even if the words themselves aren’t understood.
* Make eye contact.
* Be patient. This person is not deaf nor stupid; they’re wounded.
* Be optimistic. Your faith in this person’s ability to recover will help them to believe it, too.
* Correct the person if they make a mistake.

* Evince trepidation at approaching this person.
* Become exasperated when repetition of tasks is necessary.
* Finish sentences or prompt when this person hesitates to search their brain for the right word. If their brain is to heal, it must be challenged and reforge new connections to the information hidden within.
* Ask simple yes/no questions. Providing a variety of options instead will force the brain to attempt to identify the potential choices.

My only real complaint about this middle section is that it is often repetitive, dwelling beyond the point of necessity on the differences between the brain hemispheres and how she lost the sense of her body’s physical boundaries and felt “at one with the universe.”

The last section is kind of like a self-help book, again talking about the differences between the hemispheres and how one may choose to overcome negativity and find the “deep inner peace” afforded by the right hemisphere. Sometimes, this section recommends actions I deem silly, like when Dr. Taylor talks about her nightly ritual for verbally congratulating her cells for doing their job (“You go, girls!”) or advises readers to meditate with the mantra “I am an innocent and peaceful child of the universe,” but she does actually have some interesting ideas about diverting one’s brain’s attention when it threatens to get caught in an unwanted loop of stress or worry.

Ultimately, the most useful and interesting section of the book is the story of the stroke and the recovery. Not only can it help readers distinguish what’s happening if they find themselves experiencing similar symptoms, but it’s an excellent resource for the caregiver of a stroke victim who wishes to provide their loved one with the best support possible.

Interior Desecrations by James Lileks: B+

From the back cover:
Warning! This book is not to be used in any way, shape, or form as a design manual. Rather, like the documentary about youth crime Scared Straight, it is meant as a caution of sorts, a warning against any lingering nostalgia we may have for the 1970s, a breathtakingly ugly period when even the rats parted their hair down the middle.

What does this have to do with furniture? Nothing. Everything. The kind of interior design you’ll see in these pages is what happens when an entire culture becomes so besotted with the New, the Hip, the With-It Styles that they cannot object to orange wallpaper—because they fear they’ll look square.

Please not that the author and publisher are not responsible for the results of viewing these pictures.

Lileks is the brains behind The Gallery of Regrettable Food and his site, The Institute of Official Cheer, hosts several other regular features that “humiliate the defenseless past.” I don’t always find his stuff funny, but sometimes it does amuse me, so when I found this book for $1.98, I knew it had to be mine.

The contents of the book are organized by type of room and follow the general format of a full-page color photo on one side and a few paragraphs of snark on the opposite page. It’s an easy read, and would probably be ideal bathroom material for those who like that sort of thing. As usual, I didn’t find everything funny. There were lots of drug references and some occasional crude humor that didn’t appeal to me. Every now and then, though, some particular turn of phrase or visual fancy would strike me in the right way and crack me up.

The designs were indeed genuinely horrible—inducing numerous headshakes, “wows,” and “holy craps”—and Lileks has a knack for picking out something one missed on first glance and finding something amusing to say about it. Probably the most insane room in the entire collection is the bathroom straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It has silver lamé bolster pillows and two toilets.

There was one, though, that I quite liked. The furnishings were crap, but the architecture of the room was really neat. It was high-ceilinged and had an entertainment unit along a wall (boasting a state-of-the-art reel-to-reel player!) and then a ladder built into the adjoining wall that one could climb to access a library loft above. How cool is that?! I want one! Then again, I actually like the wall o’ walnut paneling in my living room, so perhaps my taste is suspect, too.

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer: B

From the back cover:
In Under the Banner of Heaven, John Krakauer shift his focus from extremes of physical adventure to extremes of religious belief within our own borders. At the core of his book is an appalling double murder committed by a pair of brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they were commanded to kill by God.

Beginning with a meticulously researched account of this “divinely inspired” crime, Krakauer constructs a multi-layered, bone-chilling narrative of polygamy, savage violence, and unyielding faith. Weaving the story of the Lafferty brothers and their fanatical brethren with a clear-eyed look at Mormonism’s violent past, Krakauer examines the underbelly of the United States’ most successful homegrown faith, and finds a distinctly American brand of religious extremism.

I hadn’t realized I was going to get so much information about Mormonism in this book, and I now know more than I ever wanted to about it. Most of the included history was contextually important for understanding the background of the Lafferty brothers (who were actually the focus only about 1/4 of the time), but sometimes it wore on interminably.

Krakauer’s writing was clear and easy to understand and fulfilled the promise of remaining “clear-eyed.” The portrait of Mormonism that was presented may’ve been unflattering, but it wasn’t malicious. Events were recounted and allowed to stand on their own without being made to serve one opinion or another.

I particularly found interesting the hearing to determine whether Ron Lafferty could be deemed delusional (and thusly incompetent to stand trial) because of his extreme religious beliefs, or whether that would mean that everyone who believes in irrational things (an example given was transubstantiation) as part of their religion must also be considered insane.

All in all, Under the Banner of Heaven was informative and accessible. I learned a great deal and was prompted to ponder a great deal. That said, as I neared the end I was really ready for it to be over.

Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris: A-

From the inside flap:
This is the story of a working-class guy from Ohio with little real knowledge of Ambidextrous Presidents, Things Made of Rubber, and hundreds of other categories, but who nonetheless plunges so far into cramming for Jeopardy! that it changes his relationships, bends his worldview, and literally leads him to the ends of the earth, trying to understand it all.

Prisoner of Trebekistan is more than just a memoir of some guy who played on Jeopardy! It’s a book about memory, and what is required for loads of random information to become stuck in one’s brain. It’s about how to and also how not to prepare for the game, and how the relationships around one might suffer if one dwells too long in “Trebekistan,” the realm of learning where the myriad connections between seemingly random things suddenly come into focus. And it’s also a pretty sweet love story.

Harris’ writing is generally amusing and he uses lots of colorful examples to demonstrate how the brain prioritizes memories. My only gripe about this is that when, in the first real biographical chapter, he mentions a mystery receipt he found and begans to insert all the random items he could’ve bought into his tale, I thought it was a memory exercise and tried to remember them all. I also disliked that he implied that his girlfriend (the awesome Jane) had died of cancer, when I know she hasn’t. He later explained he’d done this so the reader would experience jubilation equal to his own at learning she’d be fine. It still annoyed me.

Details of Harris’ games and strategy are included, and he’s candid about admitting his mistakes. One could read the book purely as a how-to guide and come away with valuable insight. There’s also an appendix of recommended reading for anyone who might be considering giving it a go. This book itself, however, isn’t where one should go to find a list of stuff to memorize, though I did pick up a few random bits of trivia along the way.

As Harris learns to relax more and simply have fun playing the game, he makes many good friends as he keeps getting asked back to play in various tournaments. One of these friendships results in Harris officiating at a marriage ceremony held on the Jeopardy! set. It’s completely awesome. Alex Trebek signed off on the marriage certificate as the official witness and everything.

I was initially interested in this book because of the Buffy connection, and it’s actually pretty neat. Harris is a friend of Danny Strong, who played the character of Jonathan. When the episode “Superstar,” which focused on Jonathan, aired, Strong invited friends over to watch it. Harris, who had gone through a series of chicks who assuaged his insecurities but weren’t a good match, admired the writer’s cleverness, and was soon set up on a blind date with her. Jane, as described in the book, sounds every bit as goofy and wonderful as she’s seemed to me in episode commentary or on her website. Their love story is a great (if sometimes a little skittish) one, and provides an excellent ending, as well. She totally needs to show up on my doorstep so we can hang out. Maybe go bowling or something.

I recommend Prisoner of Trebekistan on several fronts, therefore. Harris has another book out now about world conflicts that I hope to be reading eventually, as well.

Identical Strangers by Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein: A

From the back cover:
This is the astonishing true story of Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, who shared a personal history for more than three decades—and didn’t know it. In her mid-30s, Schein finally decided to call an adoption agency to learn about her biological mother. Not expecting much, she instead got the surprise of her life. Her identical twin sister, Bernstein, lived just minutes away.

Identical Strangers chronicled not only the meeting of a pair of twins who were adopted by different families, but also their search to understand the secret study they and other separated twins were part of and their efforts to locate information on their birth mother. Elyse and Paula told their story together, alternating sections of the narrative in a way that occasionally overlapped—showing different perspectives on the same events—but was never confusing.

The story, as one might imagine, was a very interesting one. The investigation into both the study and their origins was engrossing, but what I liked best was the honest evaluation of their efforts to get to know one another. Paula admitted to initially wishing that she had never been found by Elyse, since her life was settled and she hadn’t been looking for anything else. Elyse, who’d always keenly felt something was missing in her life, couldn’t understand this perspective at all. Though they did eventually become close, I appreciated that the moments of tension and awkwardness were left intact.

Rounding out the story of the dual investigations were a series of anecdotes about other separated twins and the remarkable similarities they discovered when meeting up for the first time as adults. Some relevant statistics on genetics and inherited traits were also included. These, combined with Elyse and Paula’s own discoveries, made a sound argument for the ability of nature to trump nurture in a child’s development.

Identical Strangers was a great read, and is duly recommended.

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl: B

From the back cover:
Ruth Reichl knows that to be a good restaurant critic you have to be anonymous, but when she signs up to be the most important restaurant critic in the country, her picture is posted in every four-star, low-star, and no-star kitchen in town. What’s a critic in search of the truth to do?

And so begin Reichl’s “adventures in deception.” She dons a frumpy blonde wig and an off-season beige Armani suit, and on the advice of a friend—an acting coach with a Pygmalion complex—she starts to assemble her new character’s backstory. She takes to the assignment with astonishing ardor, and thus Molly Hollis, the retired high school teacher from Birmingham, Michigan, nouveau riche from her husband’s real estate speculation, is born. Molly is duly ignored, mishandled, and condescended to by the high-power staff at Le Cirque. The result: Reichl’s famous double review, first as she ate there as Molly and then as she was coddled and pampered on her visit there as Ruth, New York Times food critic.

As Reichl metes out her critical stars, she gives a remarkable account of how one’s outer appearance can influence one’s inner character, expectations, and appetites. She writes, “Every restaurant is a theater… even the modest restaurants offer the opportunity to become someone else, at least for a little while.”

Garlic and Sapphires was at its best when skewering the conceits of smug food snobs or championing the merits of overlooked ethnic cuisine. At its worst, however, it could be pretentious, the author claiming that after she took a bite of a dessert that she was “in a wild garden, with the wind blowing through my hair” or that a certain soup tasted “as if the chef were dreaming of the sea.”

Most of the time, though, the book was enjoyable, and I think I managed to absorb a little bit of knowledge about gourmet cuisine. Not that I’m really too keen to try most of the stuff mentioned—about 60% of it was seafood (clams in black bean sauce, anyone?) and most of the rest was stuff like squab or duck that really doesn’t appeal to me. In fact, at one point as she was describing an intricate Chinese dish involving shrimp, I was sitting in the drive-thru line of a local chicken finger place.

I liked that, after the story was told of a visit to a restaurant, the full text of Ruth’s review as it appeared in The New York Times was included. I had fun guessing, from the narration of her experience, how many stars a particular establishment would ultimately end up earning. Would I try any of them if I were ever in New York? The steak places, certainly, and Kurumazushi, the fabulous sushi place. The rest, not so much.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin: A-

From the inside flap:
In the midseventies, Steve Martin exploded onto the comedy scene. By 1978 he was the biggest concert draw in the history of stand-up. In 1981 he quit forever. This book is, in his own words, the story of “why I did stand-up and why I walked away.”

Having heard that Steve Martin is somewhat of a difficult person, I had some trepidations going into this book. I really needn’t have worried. This memoir of his stand-up years is affectionate above all else, with liberal sprinklings of self-mockery scattered throughout.

There are some personal details in the book, about his family or certain romantic milestones (never sordid), but the majority of the book deals with the influences on and refinement of his stand-up act. I thought he did a really great job in chronicling its evolution from the early days, when it was just magic tricks cobbled together with one-liners gleaned from various sources, through the middle period, by which time he wrote all his own material and had completely eschewed the traditional “jokes must have punchlines” approach, until its final days, where the ability to experiment was lost and everything felt like it was on automatic pilot.

It probably wouldn’t even be necessary to be a fan of his stand-up act to find this description of the process fascinating. And, for what it’s worth, if I had experienced some of the instances where he was treated more like a product than a person, I’d probably be rather difficult myself.