Category Archives: Book Reviews

Reviews of bound printed texts, as opposed to downloaded or electronic publications.

Book Review: “The Dog Says How” by Kevin Kling

The Dog Says How color book cover

2007, Borealis Books, 180 pages, hardbound, $22.95.

If you listen to National Public Radio, you probably already have some acquaintance with Kevin Kling, as he has been a commentator on NPR for a number of years.  He is perhaps less widely known as an actor and playwright, although he has made an extensive career for himself in this field in his home state of Minnesota.

Kevin Kling
Kevin Kling

The book is a collection of short essays on all manner of topics ranging from the author’s own congenital disability from birth, to the injuries he suffered later in his life due to a motorcycle accident, to his near-death experience, all the way to his recollections of trips, travel, people, places and things that may all be generously lumped under the heading of “the human experience.”

Through it all, Mr. Kling gazes unflinchingly at Reality while simultaneously filtering it through his own gentle yet profound sense of ironic humor.  The resulting collection is a series of essays that will make you ponder and grin (and even giggle) as you do so.

Kevin Kling BW waist shot with quote

 An ideal length for reading while traveling, or at the beach, or on the bus or at lunch, this is an ideal summertime read, as it can be picked up and put down (unwillingly) whenever circumstances demand. Here’s a short passage from the book’s final essay which gives the collection its title:

“Several years ago I was in a motorcycle accident that made typing difficult, so I invested in voice-activated software for my computer. The voiceware has to get to know my vocal patterns and inflections so there is a series of sentences I read into the computer and it learns my vocal nuances. I remember when the movie Fargo came out people kept calling my local radio station saying, “Hey, what’s the deal? We don’t sound like that.”

“So I’m reading away when my dog and cat get in a fight. Bark, bark. Meow, meow, meow. Bark, bark. I look at the computer and it has written: “How how why why why how how.” I think that explains a lot.

I think when it comes to the underworld most people are either dogs or cats. It’s either “How?” or “Why?” For me the underworld is like a good haircut in that it probably falls somewhere between something I have and something I wanted. But you don’t know. You do know whenever you take a trip there’s the trip you plan and the trip you take. You get out your maps, pack just right…but at some point you just have to give in to the ride, give in to the journey. Face it, the only place that looks like its map…is Nebraska.”

To sum up, “The Dog Says How” is a wonderful selection for anyone who enjoys a gentle and unassuming experience that is light-hearted enough to be a delightful gift, while at the same time not so vapid or vaccuous that it has no further redeeming value.

Highly Recommended! (4.5 out of 5 stars)

Book Review: “Superman” by Larry Tye

Or “The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero

2012, Random House, 409 pages, with photos, appendix, notes, bibliography and index, US $27.00

'Superman' Comic Book Cover
Cover art for the ‘Superman’ comic book, 1930s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A scholarly work examining the two men who created the “Man of Tomorrow”, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, their own life stories and cultural backgrounds and how these factors influenced the mythos behind the character who became the first and foremost superhero of them all.

In the hands of New York Times bestselling author Larry Tye, Siegel and Shuster’s story is nearly as thrilling as the icon they created. Tye finds the bonds they had in common as immigrants from Eastern Europe, as adolescents and Depression-era nerds.

With equal deftness, Tye also examines the ways in which these two men differed and the cultural forces that shaped their sensibilities.

Superman Comic Early Summer Issue

Here are a few of the opening lines taken from the book’s Preface:

“The most enduring American hero of the last century is someone who lived half his life in disguise and the other half as the world’s most recognizable man. He is not Jack Kennedy or Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, Batman or Jerry Seinfeld, although all of them were inspired by him. It was on his muscle-bound back that the iconic comic book took flight and the very idea of the superhero was born. He appeared on more radio broadcasts than Ellery Queen and in more movies than Marlon Brando, who once pretended to be his father.”

From the crucible of Seigel and Shuster’s personalities and their commonality of time, place and culture, sprang a character who set a genuine precedent. The “Man of Steel” became a mega-industry at a time when such were hard to find.

Furthermore, Krypton’s most famous son has successfully transitioned from newspaper comic strip to comic book to literary novel to radio adventure series to the television series that helped nurture that medium’s popularity to the motion picture franchise that continues to the present day.

Does Tye read too much into all of this?

Maybe, but there can be no disputing the longevity of Kal-El / Clark Kent / Superman, all of whom are swiftly (“faster than a speeding bullet…”) approaching the 80th anniversary of the saga’s origin.

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 Let’s look at a few examples of the nuggets Tye mines from the facts at hand and a dollop of imagination:  In the previous paragraph there’s a mention of Kal-El, Clark Kent and Superman all in one phrase.

Now do we see a representation of three identities into one persona anywhere else in Western thinking? Oh yes, Tye says, and points to the psychological concepts of the Id, the Ego and the Super-ego (Coincidence?)

And then there’s the Trinity…

Tye also dips into the Hebrew language with which Seigel and Shuster were familiar to discover that the names of Superman’s father (“Jor-El”) and the infant Superman (“Kal-El”) have translated equivalents in English. I’ll be content to let you discover them for yourself.

Tye even stretches his imagination enough to postulate that since both of Superman’s creators were Jewish, it therefore follows that Supes himself must be regarded as a Member of the Tribe.

Superman-Shiurv4

Then there are all the other lives that were touched and radically altered by this epic figure.

George Reeves as Superman

George Reeves became one of the earliest actors to achieve major star status in the televised “Adventures of Superman” TV show. Prior to donning the tights and cape, his most high-profile work was a brief supporting role in “Gone With the Wind”.

Actress Noell Neal became so identified with the role of Lois Lane in the 1950s she merited a non-speaking cameo role more than 20 years later in the late-1970s theatrical motion picture “Superman: The Movie.”

Christopher Reeve, a one-time classmate of Robin Williams at Julliard Academy, accomplished his breakout performance in that film, as did Margot Kidder.

margot kidder and christopher reeve

And as I write these words, the passing of Jack Larson was less than six months previously.  He accomplished a wide range of achievements in the field of Entertainment, but what was the nearly unanimous choice of headline or lead sentence?

George Reeves and Jack Larson

That almost 70 years earlier he had portrayed cub reporter Jimmy Olsen of “The Daily Planet” on “The Adventures of Superman”. He even had his own featured line of comic books, billed as “Superman’s Best Friend”.

And that brings us to another point: Superman spun off supporting characters into their own lines of comic books like some sort of literary centrifuge.  Jimmy Olson, Lois Lane, Superboy, Supergirl…

superman-jerry-lewis

And so we come to another point: Superman, as his name implied, was an absolutely unprecedented sales juggernaut for his publishers, but not for his creators…

They sold the rights to their creation, either wittingly or unwittingly, (it depends on whose version you choose to believe) for a relatively paltry sum, even by the economically distressed standards of the 1938 American economy: $130 US.

Superman 10th Anniversary Cover

And this is where the “Bad Guys” come in… Many may be incensed to learn that Superman’s first publisher was in fact a hustling, corner-cutting, hard-nosed businessman with a background in many fields, including pornography (“Man of Steel” indeed!)

Action Comics Super Maid

This book is almost Herculean in its size, range, scope and the sheer effort that obviously went into it. Most books of this variety normally lack a bibliography and notes; Tye has obviously done his homework.

The closest thing I could find to a drawback in this effort is, ironically, a consequence of its subject’s continuing popularity: it’s publication four years previously means that the most recent iterations of the mythos are necessarily absent from its pages. A revised edition, one assumes, will be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future.

Action Comics The Lady & The Lion

Meanwhile, the book makes for remarkably enjoyable reading, whether you are into Superman as a form of escapism or a subject for serious study.

Super-recommended! (4.85 out of 5 stars)

Here are a few “fun facts” gleaned from the book…

  • Early editors and publishers were concerned Superman’s rear end was too big.

  • Superman’s origin backstory wasn’t wasn’t fully sketched out from the beginning, rather it was published only after the character had been in print for almost a decade.

  • Same thing with Kryptonite: the idea of some alien mineral that could deprive Supes of his powers and invulnerability came only after sales of his stories began to level off after WWII.

  • Did you know that at one point there were about a dozen different varieties of Kryptonite? Depending on the color, it could rob Superman of selected powers or all but one or all of them altogether. Writers and editors eventually abandoned this part of the story because it sometimes made the stories too complicated and many devoted readers found it too convenient as a plot device.

  • The phrase “Up, up and away!” didn’t come into use until actor Bud Collyer portrayed the title role in the Superman radio series; it helped the audience “see” the action in their imaginations when Superman took flight.

  • Collyer spoke as a tenor when he was in character as Clark Kent, but dropped into his baritone range as Superman, thereby nailing the job for himself by saving the producers from having to hire two different actors for the role(s).

  • Similarly, the familiar litany of Superman’s attributes (Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…) was another wrinkle that was added when the character made the transition to Radio.  It allowed for the addition of sound effects that heightened the experience for the imaginative audience.

  • Originally, Supes didn’t fly, he lept, hence the bit about leaping over tall buildings.

  • On the “Adventures of Superman” television series, actor George Reeves took flight by jumping on a trampoline or springboard and the film editors took matters from there.  So he did leap.

  • By a similar process, he “landed” by swinging into the camera shot from a trapeze or suspended swing.

  • Clark Kent may have started as a mild-mannered newspaper reporter for “The Daily Planet”, but he has since been employed as a cable television news anchorman and, more recently, as a reporter for an online streaming news website. (See what you miss if you don’t keep up with the latest issue?)

 

Book Review: Montaro Caine by Sidney Poitier

First of all, yes, he is THAT Sidney Poitier, the actor whose films include “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lillies of the Field,” “To Sir With Love” and “Uptown Saturday Night.”
And he’s only writing his debut fiction novel now?  Yes.
Is he any good?  Yes.

Does he have the same mastery as a writer that he has had as an actor?  No.
Sorry, Sid, but close isn’t good enough.  Horseshoes and hand grenades, you understand…
The concept behind the plot is stellar and an immediate grabber: two children, a boy and a girl, in separate locations and at slightly different times are born, each one grasping a coin in their fist.
The coins are composed of other-worldly elements that defy scientific analysis and resist all manner of explanation.
At the center of this mystery stands the title character, Montaro Caine, a CEO under fire in both his business and personal life.
Poitier weaves a convincing protagonist out of these bizarre circumstances and keeps the suspense factor nice and taut.
Then he starts adding more and more characters and pretty soon the erstwhile reader is wondering whether he needs to start keeping some sort of scorecard.  Even so, one roots for Montaro Caine, a testimony to Poitier’s talent at fleshing out his principal character.
Poitier’s concept is great, his prose – although occasionally awkward – is actually much better than one would expect from a debut effort.
The problem is, in theatrical terms, he has no Third Act.
Poitier keeps the reader interested for more than 300 pages and then cops out.  Rather than an awe-inspiring scene or message, the reader is left with the kind of resolution that feels like less of a science-fiction thriller and more of a latter-day morality play along the lines of the earlier version of David Wise’s “The Day The Earth Stood Still.”

day-the-earth-stood-still-title-still

Over the course of the novel, the two children bearing the mysterious coins meet, fall in love, marry, and fulfilling some unspecified prophesy, become pregnant.  What will their child be like?  Will he or she be born bearing another coin?  Will the world survive?  What happens next?  Are we getting sufficiently Messianic yet?
As any good writer would, Poitier’s fictitious world bears imprints of this one: there are characters who are fashionably autistic, there are several characters with Asperger’s Syndrome who prove vital to the plot, there are references to Sexual Addiction and drug dealing.
The man imagines and writes well.  He just needs a Third Act.
Recommended, with allowances…  (Three-and-three-quarters stars out of a possible five.)

Book Review: “Pieces of Light” by Charles Fernyhough

“When you have a memory, you don’t retrieve something that already exists, fully formed — you create something new. Memory is about the present as much as it is about the past. A memory is made in the moment, and collapses back into its constituent elements as soon as it is no longer required. Remembering happens in the present tense.  —  Charles Fernyhough in “Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts”

This is an absolutely fascinating book that explores the phenomenon of human memory and makes an incredible effort to explain to the reader just what memory is and how (we believe) it functions. The author shows us that the human power of memory is not nearly so straightforward as we generally assume it is.

author and psychologist charles fernyhough

Along the way, author and psychologist Charles Fernyhough strikes an impressively delicate balance between storytelling and clinical explanation. The result is a book that educates and illuminates without lapsing into prolonged stretches of dry medical terminology.

That this is a labor of love is obvious from the care the author lavishes in his attention to detail and the effort he has invested in getting the descriptive prose just right.

Although the subject is certainly absorbing in its own right, this book will be of particular interest to anyone who must deal with an aging relative or anyone suffering from trauma to the brain, such as concussion or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  But the arena in which these issues play out is in fact much broader and deeper, embracing  development of the mind at the very earliest stages of childhood as well as those episodes more commonly associated with the closing acts of life’s drama.

Hands Holding Model of a Brain

The case histories are as compelling as any fiction you may have encountered.

This book is written with heart and passion as much as anything.  At just under 300 pages, it’s a good choice if you’re looking for a selection you can polish off over an extended weekend.

And like all the best literature, it will start you thinking … and questioning what you remember.

Very Highly Recommended. (4.65 out of a possible 5 stars.)