New York, NY, United States
Nowhere near the lofty status of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, the full length novel to which this short story/novella serves as a prequel. This story of how young Ajax Penumbra came to San Francisco 35 years earlier and ended up in his bookstore proved interesting enough to me as a fan of 24-Hour Bookstore, but it could not have stood on its own and doesn't rank with its predecessor, which at or near the top my all-time list of audiobooks.
The big difference between the original Sloan novel and this prequel is the point of view. 24-Hour Bookstore is narrated in the first person by young Clay Jannon in the present day. His charisma and exuberance and ingenuity really carries the novel. 1969 is in the third person, relating the story of Penumbra's early years, filling in an important part of the story, but without that same sense of wonder and discovery.
Then there is the collision of the old world and new technology, which is the central theme of both stories. For Clay, the limitless capabilities of modern computing open up doors to relearning "old knowledge" contained in legacy technology like print and literature, marrying the widsom of the ages with the promise of the future.
In 1969, microcomputing is in its infancy and it does provide a backdrop to Penumbra's journey. But he makes different choices in his youth than Clay makes three decades later. In fact, as likeable of a character as Penumbra is, his one big flaw is his timidity, and 1969 proves that it was indeed his starting point. If Penumbra's world was the real world, it would be amazing to imagine how it might have turned out if he had been as bold and resourceful in 1969 as Clay was in 24-Hour Bookstore.
Having read 24-Hour Bookstore in print as well as listening to it as an audiobook, I knew already that Ari Fliakos augmented the experience by adding a lively voice to the narrative and good characterizations. He does no less in 1969.
Deflated me was more like it. Avoiding spoilers, I was disappointed when Penumbra made his ultimate choice, which sets the stage for what we see later in 24-Hour Bookstore. I guess if young Penumbra was more like Clay, there would never have been a pretext for 24-Hour Bookstore, so in that meta-post-modern manner, I should be happy.
Any fan of 24-Hour Bookstore MUST read/listen to this prequel. Chances are I'm being too picky in my critique and most fans will love it as much as the novel. For those who haven't read 24-Hour Bookstore, I would of course recommend reading/listening to that first and then doubling back to 1969. However, I have seen reviews where people read this first and liked it well enough to continue on to 24-Hour Bookstore, so either way, I guess.
The world of plastic surgery is the background for another sampling of Florida anthropology by Carl Hiaasen, one of the foremost practitioners of comic Florida crime fiction. Someone is trying to kill former investigator Mick Stranahan after he starts to revisit a cold case involving a botched nose job by a crooked and incompetent plastic surgeon.
This being Hiaasen, there is a lot more going on here than Stranahan going after the quack. As usual, there is a broad range of characters from various walks of life (most of them low) in the great state of Florida. And the world of plastic surgery is hardly Hiassen's sole target -- tabloid TV journalism, Geraldo Rivera style, is sent up, along with frequent targets like shyster lawyers, corrupt police and politicians, arrogant party boys, vindictive divorcees, and vain celebrities.
There is also a singularly memorable foe for Stranahan to go up against and some truly gruesome deaths, including one that was copied some years later by the makers of the movie Fargo (which one could argue is like Hiaasen in Minnesota). On the sympathetic side, there are friendly conch fishermen, loveable waitresses, and a sharp-toothed barracuda.
So what we have here is off-the-shelf Carl Hiaassen, not necessarily a standout among his oeuvre, but perfectly entertaining entry for established fans of his style of Floridian farce to enjoy. George Wilson narrates it well, familiar enough with this genre from having performed a healthy percentage of books by Hiaasen and another writer in the same vein, Tim Dorsey.
Set in the 1930s in the interior of New Guinea, a landscape almost as wild today as it was then, Euphoria tells the tale of a love triangle between three anthropologists as they study native culture. The story is a thinly veiled fictionalization of how Margaret Mead transitioned from her second husband to her third husband while the three of them were working in New Guinea, although the novel ends quite differently than Mead's real-life story.
What I found most fascinating about this absorbing book was the interplay between what can nominally be termed civilized and primitive culture, a doubly Heisenbergian exercise in which the very act of observation changes not only the observed but the observers as well. Throughout, as we are drawn deep into the psyche of the three "Western" scientists (one American, one British, one Australian) and learn about the villagers they study, we come to question which culture is the civilized one and which is primitive.
Adding to the cultural symmetry is Margaret Mead's work in real life. Though not explicitly dealt with in Euphoria, you are now drawn to re-examine her ideas and wonder how much influence these "primitive" cultures had on our own way of life, given Mead's impact on the evolution of sexual mores in "civilized" western culture in the latter half of the 20th century. But what makes Euphoria so good as a work of literary fiction transcends these grand ideas -- it also works on a personal level, as a character study of three individuals caught up in their own lives.
On my own personal level, I am so glad to have listened to Euphoria. I was ready to give up on audio editions of literary novels, my favorite form of literature. They just haven't worked for me in this format. Given their focus on character and mood, they often lack the requisite forward momentum. And if you don't follow along carefully, which can be difficult given the distractions of driving or walking a dog, you can easily lose all sense of a work. It seemed to be the one major genre where my own interior narration was better than even the best audio performances.
Indeed, I was two hours into Euphoria and it was not grabbing me. Then the narration shifts for a short period of time from the point of view of the Englishman Bankson, the first person narrator, to the voice of Mead's alter ego through journal entries, and I was hooked. I went back and re-listened to the first two hours with fresh enthusiasm and then raced through the remainder of the relatively short novel. Certainly helping the proceedings along is the expert narration of Simon Vance and his customary nailing of the various accents.
Who was the first black major league baseball player? Which iconic child hero grew up to be a radical socialist communist feminist? Which president lionized for his prescient foreign policy and progressive domestic initiatives ordered some half dozen foreign invasions, even sending troops into Soviet Russia, and re-institutionalized racism? Which great American hero, one of only two honored by name with a national holiday, launched genocide and slavery in the western hemisphere? Was Lincoln actually racist?
Why don't we know these things? Because, according to author James Loewen, a professor of sociology, our high school history textbooks omit, distort, or outright misstate some facts of our history, striving to tell a nationalistic story based on pride, patriotism, rationalization, and self-congratulation rather than the truth of the matter. Our history was, as the saying goes, written by the winners.
But, warns Loewen, if you elevate that cliche from explanation to excuse, you risk falling into another cliche: those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Twenty years after Loewen wrote his cautionary tale, recent history demonstrate his point -- the fictional rationale for invading Iraq, ongoing debates that sometimes devolve into turmoil over social justice, racial inequality, and environmental disaster, and (on the more specific issue of how these things are taught), the introduction of controversial textbooks in some states that exacerbate the distortions Loewen wrote about two decades earlier to further a particular political agenda.
How you react to this book, to its premise, to its highly detailed decimation of history texts, will depend on how willing you are to re-examine what you were taught in high school, how you feel about the truth behind myths taught as history. It will likely also depend on whether your personal opinion tacks to starboard, because this book decidedly leans to port. Loewen has an unmistakable point of view -- I believe his case would pack more punch if he took an objective approach, even though I align with him almost 100% ideologically.
As a one-time history major back in my long-ago college days, I always prefer truth over mythology. So I ate up Oliver Stone's TV documentary and companion book, The Untold History of the United States, and I devoured this book in audio format. I already knew many of these things, but I was still capable of being surprised by other revelations. I would heartily recommend this to others willing to re-examine the truth behind some of our beliefs. If you're not comfortable with that, I suspect you don't need me to tell you stay away, you'll get that from the title and description.
My only criticism is that the last three chapters are no longer about the distortions in our history texts, but about how these texts are created and adopted, how they affects people's perceptions, and what can be done to rectify the situation. The context of how history is taught in high school is perfect for unmasking the truth of our history, but for me personally, the subject of the textbooks themselves is less interesting. So this ultimately cost the book one star in the story category (I would really like to rate it 4 1/2 stars, so I go with 4 for story and 5 overall to get a 4 1/2 average -- the narration gets only a 4 because it sometimes borders on strident).
The answers to the questions in the opening paragraph: a) not Jackie Robinson, b) Helen Keller, c) Woodrow Wilson, d) Columbus, and e) other than being against slavery, yes, in his early days, as was almost everyone in his era, but he evolved rapidly once he became president.
Bad joke, that headline. Needs explanation. On the spaceship Red Dwarf, three million years in the future and untold light years from home, one may very well be better off dead (and subsequently restored as a hologram with one's personality fully intact), as is the case with the annoying Rimmer, than still alive, as is his roommate and subordinate Lister, the last living human, a slacker supreme.
I start off this review of Red Dwarf with a bad joke of my own creation because that, in sum, is my reaction to the novelization of the popular and successful British TV series -- the jokes in this comic science fiction novel, drawn from a sitcom, are just not funny. Just. Not. Funny. Example: a state of confusion is analogized to being like an Alsatian (i.e. German shepherd) after a head-change operation -- not only unfunny, but not even remotely comprehensible.
Maybe it's just me. Maybe I don't get the English sense of humor. Although I have no issue with Monty Python, the original Ricky Gervais version of The Office, Ali G, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, to name just a handful of English TV comdeies that come immediately to mind. The Hitchhiker's Guide is a particularly apt corollary, as I arrived at it through the novels rather than the original radio series, and it remains the gold standard for comic sci-fi in multimedia formats, and is clearly the role model for Red Dwarf.
But who am I to argue with success? Red Dwarf is widely praised and much loved in its various formats, although the books seem to be the least prolific of those formats, perhaps because it doesn't work as well as a sitcom. The novel benefits from a more complete back story than the TV show, and the audio version benefits from being narrated by the actor who played one of the main characters on TV (Rimmer). Overall, I wouldn't say it was bad. I just didn't get more than an occasional snort from what is supposed to be a comedy.
Two college kids go deep into the Ocala Forest of central Florida to release rare butterflies at the same time an ex-con goes in to dig for Ma Barker's long-buried loot. When the kids turn up dead, the ex-con is the obvious suspect. But former homicide detective Sean O'Brien doesn't think so and, as is often true of him, his sixth sense leads him to uncover a deeper mystery.
Although this is the third of six Sean O'Brien books by Tom Rowe, it is the only one available through Audible. I found it to be a good, concise, straight-ahead mystery thriller in the rich tradition of Florida crime fiction, of which I am a fan (particularly Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey, although Rowe does not share their subversive sense of humor -- and in a minor note, one of the major characters in Dorsey's first book is Sean Breen, who if memory serves is a cop).
This was a solid three and a half star listen from start to finish. Through the first five hours, I was leaning strongly toward giving it four stars, since half-star ratings are not an option. But the final quarter of the book knocked me down to three. One problem is that the ultimate reveal is never analyzed as a moral issue -- why on god's green earth should anyone have to die for this reason in this day and age? (I don't want to give it away.) I wanted Rowe to take a stand on the matter.
But that's just me. More importantly to the readership at large, the mystery is over and done with two-thirds the way in, yet there is still two hours to go. That section has been done too many times before, with Rowe adding nothing new. This story is catalyzed by a series of coincidences, never uses its butterfly metaphor for much effect, and ends with a talking villain -- three strikes = three stars.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of best known physicists working today because of his ability to explain mind-blowingly complex science to civilians. In this short lecture series, he attempts to apply his unique ability to explain things to things he himself calls inexplicable -- atomic and sub-atomic particles, black holes, dark matter and dark energy, the multiverse, genesis, the origin of the universe, et. al.
And he largely succeeds. In such a short course, he does not have the luxury of giving us background on every building block of science, so it certainly helps to come into this already knowing something about the periodic table, for example, or the general theory of relativity -- not at the Ph.D. level, just at the high school level. Even so, there is something here for everyone who has ever been curious about our origins and how we've come to know what we do know about it and how we are attempting to expand our knowledge into areas that remain mysterious and seem unsolvable.
Fledgling novelist Bombo Dawson and insufferable literary critic Alistair Foley are enlisted by the ghosts of famous novelists of the past to save the Legendarium, a library where literary worlds come to life. Great premise, good characters, decent result, but ultimately disappointing.
So what went wrong (for me)? The literary worlds Michael Bunker and Kevin Summers chose as backdrops for Dawson and Foley just did not do it for me. Two are among my least favorite classics, books I consider wildly overrated. The other two I never heard of -- they are likely fictitious, but I'm not sufficiently motivated to look it up. If they were made up, that would actually be better than if they were real books, but I am nevertheless underwhelmed.
This novella is a follow-up to Bunker's wonderful "Hugh Howey Must Die", also a riff on writers, novels, and publishing, with the title character hardly the only real life novelist in the story (that book is not available in audio -- I read it in print). This book starts out with a prologue titled "Hugh Howey must live!" that reprises Bunker's fictional version of Howey (although that is the last we hear about him).
I found myself wondering, as I plodded through the literary landscapes, real and imagined, that are part of this book, what would Hugh Howey do? Which books would he choose? I know which ones Jasper Fforde has used in his Thursday Next series, which has the virtue of quantity, if nothing else, since they are full length novels. And I'm thinking about these things because I'm just not enthused about the ones Bunker and Summers chose. Sigh!
Guy Noir is a popular segment on Garrison Keillor's weekly radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. He even appeared in the movie adaptation, played by Kevin Kline. He is a satirical version of the hard-boiled detective who appears throughout the pulp fiction and film noir canon of the mid-20th century. He makes for a great skit.
He cannot, unfortunately, carry a novel. Certainly not an audiobook in which the entire length of the proceedings is backed by cheesy organ music. Who's idea was this? It is truly awful, unlistenable. It's worth a chuckle or two in a skit measured in minutes, but it's an annoyance of epic proportions when stretched out over a span of hours (even if four hours is short by audiobook standards).
That's too bad, because otherwise, Keillor has written some good riffs and, as is his way, expertly narrated his own writing (though aided here by two actors doing the voices of other characters, which are OK). Some readers have been turned off by the bathroom humor and stomach turning premise. I agree that Keillor could have made some better choices in those areas, even in the vein of satire and parody.
What we're left with: a) distracting soundtrack, b) distasteful plot elements, and worst of all c) Keillor allowing some good rants and observations and narration to be swamped by items a) and b). There are better alternatives available within Keillor's Audible library as well as the well-filled racks of pulp fiction by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and dozens of others, including plenty of satire and self-parody.
Legion had a couple of great ideas that were, for me, not fleshed out enough, too quickly resolved, too many missed opportunities. Skin Deep, the second installment in the series, is more than twice as long, but it is still no more than a novella that reads as an afterthought rather than a concept that has been fully thought out.
There is still the excellent central idea of an investigator with multiple personalities -- fully realized characters with areas of specialization that help solve the mystery. That remains an engaging premise. But it still goes anywhere (fast) because the short form is too restrictive. The secondary idea of human cells being used as high capacity flash drives is not as good a springboard for speculation and plot development as the history camera in Legion.
So despite the brevity of the novella, I quickly lost interest, perking up only when the inner personalities took center stage. I stuck it out to the end because of them, but I was patently underwhelmed by the meager plot. No problem, on the other hand, with Oliver Wyman's narration, which as good as it was in Legion, and helps us appreciate the characters.
There are two really great ideas in Legion. 1) A freelance investigator aided by his multiple personalities, each with specific talents and knowledge. And 2) a camera that can take still photos of any moment in history. Fun stuff, especially with the imaginary characters being so fully drawn. Problem is, in this brief two-hour novella, there is a very short, straight line from start to finish. There are no plot complications.
There is so much potential for fleshing this out, especially via the still moments from history and their ramifications. Unfortunately, the author wrote this quickly (on a flight home from France) and despite recognizing the possibilities of expanding the story, felt that he didn't have the time due to his other ongoing (prolific) writing. That's a shame, as this could have been a marvelous full length novel.
Oliver Wyman's narration gets full marks. He does the voices of the imaginary characters well, and consistently.
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