Monday, April 24, 2006

Biography/Correspondence: LOVE, GROUCHO

Title: Love, Groucho: Letters from Groucho Marx to His Daughter Miriam
Editor: Miriam Marx Allen
Publisher: Da Capo
Date of Publication: 1992
Pages: 241
Grade That Means Nothing Coming From Me: C+ (because I’m the big jerk who’s now grading someone’s mail)


Collected letters sent by legendary comedian Groucho Marx to his eldest daughter, ranging from 1938 to 1967. The title’s pretty accurate, in that regard.


Plowing my way through the Christmas presents. This one came from my father. And given the choice between this and a history of the Dutch settlement of Manhattan, this seemed like it would be a little smoother sailing.


I believe the term for a book taking the form of a series of letters is an epistolary novel. (Bravo, Mr. Book Critic, for figuring that out.) It’s a clever approach, because you learn events through a character’s reaction to them, and the author only has to tell you the things that the character might openly express, leaving you to suss out the deeper meanings and the overall arc of the story all by yourself. You get to play detective, reading through someone’s mail to find out what they’ve been up to.

So what if they’re real letters? Well, it’s not a novel, since no one is actively plotting out the twists and turns of their lives. But the effect is much the same, which gives you a unsettling sense of snooping. Yes, we follow Groucho from the depths of writing a Broadway flop to the heights of his successful radio show, You Bet Your Life. Yes, we watch him trying to counsel his daughter as she descends further into alcoholism. Yes, we watch Groucho’s spirits ebb and flow with the end of his first marriage, the beginning and end of his second, and the start of his third. But are we really supposed to know all this?

For a scholar or a biographer, the material is priceless. The character of Groucho is so inscrutable that it is genuinely interesting to find evidence of the man’s mind when dealing with someone like his own daughter, for whom a comedy routine is not necessary. But in the end, he’s exactly what you think he would be: a man, a little insecure, eager for success but uncomfortable with the headaches that accompany that success, and just trying to make himself comfortable and happy.

I shouldn’t complain. I have an understanding with my friend Holly that when I become famous, she will sell all the letters I wrote her, to fund her children’s education. Of course, she has no children and I am decidedly not famous (except amongst the vast readership of this blog, of course), so you won’t need to reserve a seat at Sotheby’s just yet.


That’s a tough call. The fact of the matter is, reading anyone’s mail can be pretty tedious. After all, it’s mail, and even the most salacious elements are usually few and far between. For fans of the Marx Brothers, this is somewhat interesting, but it’s not as though we’re reading Captain Spaulding or Rufus T. Firefly. Again: it’s mail. It’s not meant to be read by anyone but the intended recipient. If you bear that in mind, and you’re still interested in the at-home, everyday voice of a comedic legend who is trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with his teenage daughter, you will probably find it a satisfactory read. But the main lesson is something we should already know: Groucho Marx was only human, if wittier than most. And if you’ve already got that squared away in your head, this isn’t going to prove very enlightening.


I mentioned that the title is accurate as concerns the subject matter. However, I must point out that the salutation – “Love, Groucho” – is one he never uses. Indeed, I was surprised to discover that the Marx Brothers did tend to go by their nicknames. But Groucho actually signs most of his letters “Love, Padre,” although on occasion he does sign off as “Dr. Hackenbush,” his character in A Day at the Races. Just so you know.

Shane Wilson was the editor of the late, lamented Greenroom, and writes the blog Last Wilson Testaments.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Non-fiction, History: American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence


Title: American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence
Author: Pauline Maier
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Date of Publication: 1997
Pages: 304 (but almost 1/3 of that is appendices)
Grade That Means Nothing Coming From Me: B-


How the Declaration of Independence got written, why it used the words it did, where it cribbed the bulk of its material from, and how interpretation has influenced the very nature of America over time.


I’m a big fan of the Declaration of Independence. And, having seen 1776 far too many times, it seemed appropriate to try and get a more scholarly take on the story of its creation. Plus, my mother was happy to lend it out in light of her recent move. (It’s possible she may not want it back for that very reason.)


Early in the book, it is suggested that this was originally intended as a brief text for younger readers. This might explain why so many students dislike their American history classes. This is dry, dry, dry. Very well researched, meticulously explained, but very slow going. And perhaps the greatest crime of the book is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Maier demonstrates that she is a skilled storyteller, and the book’s first section flies along at a brisk pace. And then it runs into the quicksand of literary analysis, and although the story does pick up again, it never quite recovers from a deadly-dull midsection.

This is almost certainly because of the way Maier has chosen to break down her story into distinct sections. Part I is the days leading up to the Second Continental Congress, and it’s as thrilling as this book gets. Following the debates in each colony, we see what each group of delegates is bringing to the table, and chart the unlikely path to independence. In the aforementioned 1776, Benjamin Franklin describes revolutions as being like bastard children: half-improvised and half-compromised. Maier does a stellar job of plotting out the mix of improvisation and compromise that results in passage of the historic resolution. With this in mind, we can now turn to the document itself.

This is where we immediately get into trouble. Part II concerns the many resolutions, declarations, and announcements of independence that occurred alongside that of the delegates in Philadelphia. And although it is essential for establishing the mood of the country, it becomes hard to care what was in the minds of specific groups of tradesmen or individual communities in Massachusetts. Interesting, perhaps, but far from essential to the story at hand. With so many excerpts from so many declarations, it becomes a wearying series of “variations on a theme.” By the time we enter Part III, a line by line review of Thomas Jefferson’s original draft and the edits made by Congress, it’s easy to feel a little shell-shocked by the whole thing. Part IV returns to the sweep of history, following the falling and rising esteem in which the Declaration is held, and is compelling in its own right. But the damage is done. Essentially, Maier is a great storyteller, but a boring analyst.


The answer “yes” presumes a great interest in either the history of America’s independence or the deconstruction of public documents. Maier is not particularly welcoming to those who don’t bring that previous commitment with them. If you can clear that hurdle, American Scripture is a worth addition to the list of books that interpret history through the important speeches and proclamations of the day.

Shane Wilson used to edit The Greenroom, and writes the blog Last Wilson Testaments.

Fantasy / Graphic Novel: WATCHMEN


Title: Watchmen
Author: Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
Publisher: DC
Date of Publication: 1985
Pages: 424
Grade That Means Nothing Coming From Me: B


In a world where costumed vigilantes are no longer permitted to fight crime, a government-sponsored superhero is found murdered. When former colleagues investigate the case, they uncover a larger plot threatening the whole world.


You hang out with enough geeky, comic-reading people, and this book’s going to come up in the conversation. But when Time calls it one of the best American novels, and Entertainment Weekly says it’s a landmark cultural touchstone, you start paying attention. (Although the fact that Time, Entertainment Weekly, and DC Comics are all owned by the same conglomerate has not escaped me.) When I mentioned a casual interest to Jason Chin, he did not hesitate to put the book in my hands.


It almost seems unfair to judge a work in a genre with which I don’t even have a passing familiarity. I never read comic books as a kid. They didn’t feel fluid. Rather than flowing smoothly from paragraph to paragraph, they broke up their story into snapshots, little bites that made the story stutter. And, of course, they were for kids, and I was absolutely determined to be a grownup.

But Watchmen is the Don Quixote of graphic novels. It’s the book that takes the form to another level, and demands to be judged apart from its peers. Moore and Gibbons have meticulously planned the book, using new methods of achieving foreshadowing, metaphor, and counterpoint. So I’m willing to give it a go.

I’ve thrown a lot of reservations out there about why I wouldn’t like the book, so I should begin by saying that I found Watchmen quite readable. Considering the need to set up an alternate universe in very short order, the authors map out a very compelling story right from the outset. Using the helpful device of a murder mystery (a true MacGuffin), Moore & Gibbons bring together a large cast and a variety of plot threads to form a cohesive whole.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Watchmen is a vivid palette of characters with rich emotional histories. To choose just one, the story of Doctor Manhattan rises far above the basic plot of a man turned immortal by a freak accident. We actually learn how a person’s altered existence might cause him to turn his back on humanity. One of the hallmarks of great science fiction is to allow a reader to experience an unthinkable set of circumstances as though it is reality. The realistic characters of Watchmen earn such a comparison.

One technique Moore uses to enhance his story is the use of endpieces, little chapter appendices that shed light on the history, motivations, and machinations of the characters. The first thing they remind me of is the Griffin & Sabine books, which used elaborate artwork and clever packaging to enhance a wafer-thin dialogue of seduction. Watchmen goes a lot further, making the extras essential to appreciating the whole story. At least one person told me they did not read the endpieces until after they had completed the main story. I find this utterly baffling, like trying to read a book written in slang without the glossary. The story and the extra materials intertwine, by design and to the benefit of the book.

The first sign that Moore & Gibbons are going for something bigger comes in the opening pages, with the introduction of uniquely cinematic techniques like zoom-outs and separate angles intercut together in a sort of static montage. The use of mirrored images recurs frequently (reaching a peak with an entire chapter the turns out to be a visual palindrome). It does become a bit heavy-handed, constantly striving to provide ironic counterpoint. But it’s fascinating to see how a medium that combines text and visuals strives to find its own brand of literary technique.

I’m afraid the book’s biggest shortcoming is in the story’s climax, which did not hit me as quite the “shattering” event that was promised. I considered the possibility that I’m just hardened to the kind of cataclysmic event depicted here, or that my unfamiliarity with the format didn’t set me up properly for the events to come. But I think it’s just confusing. Late in the story, it becomes clear that the mystery we think we’ve been following is a ruse to cover the real machinations. But the clues are so subtle as to be almost invisible, leaving a faint sense of being cheated. And the revelation comes so late in the story, I think it’s impossible to grasp the extent of the calamity as Moore and Gibbons intend. It’s supposed to be a life-changing, history-altering moment. And the authors do portray it terribly tragic. But not monumental. To be blunt, it should feel like September 11. And maybe it did in 1985. Maybe it did to readers who didn’t think that such a thing could be portrayed in a comic book. But to me, it felt smaller than it had to be. I admit, that’s a lot to be piling on any book, let alone a graphic novel. But in a way, it’s inexcusable, because Moore and Gibbons have free rein to tell their story on a universal scale. Given all that precedes it, the ultimate potential of the story seems unrealized.


Ya like comic books? Let’s face it, if you’re used to paging through Jane Austen, Watchmen is going to be a shock to the system. It makes no apologies for being a comic book, and proudly flaunts the baggage that comes with it. It’s a different kind of reading. But it’s not an inferior kind of reading. Watchmen has characters as rich as you will find in any Pulitzer Prize winner, and tells its story deftly and with an economy of words and images. The flaw, I think, is that the small stories are more interesting and better expressed than the overall story arc, which I find rushed and anticlimactic. I’m not sure it’s the masterpiece it’s been made out to be. But it’s a book of great worth, and if you’re up for it, it’s a pretty involving universe.

Shane Wilson is a writer and contributing editor to The Greenroom (which will return soon, he swears), and writes the weblog Last Wilson Testaments.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Non-fiction: SPOOK


Title: Spook, Science Tackles The Afterlife
Authors: Mary Roach
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Date of Publication: 2005
Pages: 311
Grade That Means Nothing Coming From Me: B+

One female journalist’s quest to prove what happens after you die.

I was originally interested in her other book, Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, because it freaked me out. Somehow, this one wound up on my wishlist and I got it for my birthday.

Well. It was a really enjoyable read. She introduces the book by explaining her Catholic background and her inability to take the afterlife on faith. She believes in science, but recognizes its fallibility.

Roach then glides right into her adventure that took her all over the world to find out the truth about the afterlife. She realized that the closer you are to someone, the more likely you are to believe in his side of things. The same goes for culture.

In Kamalpur, where the villages are small and the belief in reincarnation is big, it’s completely acceptable and almost the norm to have children speak of past lives and their parents to connect these lives with villagers already living them. In places where reincarnation is not what’s taught from an early age, children don’t speak of the after/beforelife in the same way.

If you were Duncan Macdougall you’d see death as an “opportunity” and weigh the soul at the moment of death (Roach goes into a very amusing explanation on how he accomplished this) to prove its existence. According to his published work, the soul is 21 grams. The Journal of American Medicine (circa 1907) believed him, but Roach isn’t so sure-- she and many others found him to be a possible “nutter.”

If you’re a cardiologist, you may have seen near-death experiences first hand—according to Roach, cardiologists’ papers are among the most widely read. And, if you’re Professor Bruce Greyson of the University of Virginia’s Department of Psychiatric Medicine and spent the last 29 years hearing about death, you’d be intrigued by patients’ almost universal near-death experiences and set up a camera in an operating room to prove what people are saying. He learned from the cardiologists that interviews can be fabricated and is trying to rely on a computer but is facing bureaucratic hurdles with his work. So, the jury’s still out on that one.

Roach goes to great lengths in the name of science. She attempts to communicate with the dead directly by going to medium school. She signs up as a human lab rat and goes inside an electromagnetic field box in the middle of the night. (The theory is that electromagnetic fields cause some people to see spirit-like apparitions, not true in Roach’s case.) And she dives into the law books to examine the case of Lester’s North Carolina family battle over a will: the deceased came back and told the family of its secret location.

Roach struggles in the end to answer her own questions, but that’s not really why you’re reading Spook. It’s for her well-written descriptions, her funny wit, and her adventure and embarrassment of pulling out archived ectoplasm in the middle of an otherwise serene Cambridge University library reading room.


If you’re interested in the afterlife and are a person who enjoys the ride more than the destination, this is the book for you.

Brandi Larsen is the editor of BookADay.



Title: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Author: Philip K. Dick
Publisher: Del Rey
Date of Publication: 1968
Pages: 216
Grade That Means Nothing Coming From Me: B+


A bounty hunter who tracks down renegade androids on an abandoned Earth is forced to consider the implications of an increasingly blurry line between natural and artificial life.


Clair had a copy lying around the house, and I’ve been putting off reading the second of the three books about New York City that I got for Christmas. Plus, it’s been several years since I last saw Blade Runner, the cinematic version of the book, Blade Runner. And finally, reading Philip K. Dick is always an excellent way to take your brain and use it as a jai-alai ball.


It’s always tricky to read a book after you’ve seen the movie it inspired. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? differs from Blade Runner in several important respects, particularly as regards the perception of what is real. But the book is a snappy read, and as long as you can put Harrison Ford out of your mind, it stands on its own.

Dick is a difficult writer, in no small part because the things he’s writing about are…well, oblique. He is remembered for saying, “Reality is the only thing that, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” His works are obsessed with the nature of reality, the great difficulty in telling the difference between what is real and what is not real, and the struggle to cope either way. So it becomes terribly hard to take anything you read at face value. Everything becomes subtext. There was a spate of movies a short while back which all played with the audience’s expectation of reality, and that made for a dizzying time at the cinema. Well, Dick was way ahead of the curve on blowing reality to kingdom come. So that’s good information to have, going in.

This does add a whole new layer to the reading experience because you can never be sure what things are intentional holes in the fabric of reality and what things are just lazy or bad writing. Consider that a character in this book, a man who is poisoned by the radioactive atmosphere on earth and, as a result, is so brain-damaged that he is often tagged with the unflattering sobriquet of “chickenhead,” goes on to utter what must be one of the most extraordinary sentences in the whole of American literature: “If I hadn’t failed that IQ test I wouldn’t be reduced to this ignominious task with its attendant emotional by-products.” If meant as foreshadowing or subtext, the potential is unrealized. And as irony, the expectations are muddled. Instead, it just sits there, reminding you that you can’t trust anything anybody says about anybody in this book, least of all the omniscient narrator.

And yet, I can’t escape the unsettling (and possibly heretical) notion that some of the writing in this book is really sloppy. Dick often seems in a hurry to get out the next idea, and the plot rolls on in a hurry. The core idea – that there is something inherently human about being able to feel empathy for something or someone else – is a fascinating one, and fits neatly with one of Dick’s central themes, the nature of inhumanity. But the story races through the hero’s encounters with every character, human and android, tossing them aside when through in a mad race to get to the next one. The theme just hangs on for dear life.


This is not a happy book. Everyone’s motives are subject to question, the future is decidedly bleak, and it is hard to imagine a more beleaguered hero than Rick Deckard. But everything you read doesn’t have to be happy, does it? That’s what sitcoms are for. No, you read a book like this because it is a classic of the genre, and because it illustrates how vital a sense of decency and humanity is to survival in a cruel and uncertain universe. So if you’re up for it, it’s a very interesting journey.

The paperback edition I read was actually retitled Blade Runner, to tie-in more obviously with the motion picture adaptation (the original title lives on in parentheses). I mention this only because it is possible that if you go looking for a copy of this book, this might be the title under which it will appear. Nevertheless, Dick went to a lot of trouble to come up with a title, and it served just fine for the first fourteen years of publication, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s what the book is called. So there.

Shane Wilson is a writer and contributing editor to The Greenroom, and writes the blog Last Wilson Testaments.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Psychology & Sociology: BLINK


Title: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Publisher: Little, Brown
Date of Publication: 2005
Pages: 277
Grade That Means Nothing Coming From Me: A -


The decisions and judgments you make within the first two seconds of encountering a situation or problem, the reasons to trust in that split-second assessment, and the ways to train your brain to use that snap judgment judiciously and effectively.


First, my fiancée Clair spotted a mention of the book in some airline magazine, and the fuse was lit. Then reviews started popping up everywhere, and the spark traveled quickly from Bugs Bunny’s fort to Yosemite Sam’s. Finally, I followed a link to an archive of New Yorker pieces written by the author and was highly entertained, thus setting off the large cache of TNT stored in the basement.


Quite well, to begin. Gladwell is kind of like the guy you hope to meet at a party; he’s got lots of very fascinating stories which are short but surprising, and you walk out the door thinking, “That was really interesting.” Blink is filled with little anecdotes that don’t necessarily connect with the way we think the world works: art experts identify an antique statue as a fake after scientists have vouched for its authenticity. Radio marketers reject a pop singer who drives audiences wild and makes experienced musicians say he’s the next big thing. An orchestra tries to fire a musician who the conductor once proclaimed as “exactly what we’re looking for.” Gladwell works to tie all this and more together to analyze the information that informs our split-second decisions, and tries to figure out why some of those decisions are good and others are quite bad.

Gladwell is something of a buzzed-about author at the moment. This is due, in part, to the intriguing nature of the subjects he chooses to write about. Also, the tremendous success of his previous book, The Tipping Point, has made him into a bit of a touchstone for popular writing on human behavior. But I think the biggest reason for his success is that he is a darn good writer. His work is immediately compelling, and draws you into subjects that would not, on face value, appear to be terribly interesting.

My one qualm would be that I’m not sure he ever proves his point. Gladwell wants us to reject our long-held belief that a decision that is not very carefully thought through is a poor one. Fair enough. But in almost every example of someone acting quickly – those art curators and historians who spotted the fake, a tennis pro who can identify double faults before they happen, a protocol for doctors to identify potential heart attacks – a certain level of expertise is required to make that decision. It stands to reason that when you have extensive training and experience in your field, your brain will become hard-wired to act appropriately without thinking. Even a critical chapter concerning the infamous incident in which New York police officers pumped 41 bullets into an unarmed man reinforces this point. The officers’ lack of experience is a major factor in their inability to interpret a highly-stressful situation correctly. So in the end, I’m not sure if Gladwell’s contention that our brains can be trained to react quickly tells the whole story. But it’s also possible that I’m thinking about this way too hard. My first impression told me that he’s got a point. Let’s go with that.


This book spent most of the summer atop the bestsellers list, so the chances are good that you already have. If nothing else, Blink is a series of intriguing stories told very well. But it is something else. It’s a defense of gut instinct, of an initial reaction. And it’s nice to know that when you have an immediate response to something, you’re not necessarily crazy to be listening.

Shane Wilson is a writer and contributing editor to The Greenroom and writes Last Wilson Testaments.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Travel: The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World

Title: The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2005
Author: Bob Sehlinger
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons
Date of Publication: 2004 (the dirty sneaks)
Pages: 798
Grade That Means Nothing Coming From Me: B+

SO BASICALLY, IT’S ABOUT…Every ride, hotel, restaurant, nightclub, water slide, parking lot and restroom in the immediate vicinity of the biggest and most popular vacation spot on the continent. Located, described, and reviewed for your edification.

Me and the little lady found ourselves with a chance to spend a weekend in sunny Orlando. A little study seemed in order.

Anywhere you go, a travel book is going to offer suggestions on sights to see, and lovely places to spend your downtime. But Walt Disney World isn’t a vacation; you are locked in mortal combat, pitted against your fellow tourists in a battle to see who can get the maximum enjoyment out of their trip. To aid you in your quest, there are many books telling you how to do Disney right, but none embraces the concept of vacation-as-amphibious-landing quite as whole-heartedly as does this one. Through the use of computer analysis, Sehlinger and his team have devised a number of carefully organized, rigidly-timed touring plans for all of your potential destinations. It’s an imposing display, and I was certainly impressed at the work that went into this effort. Naturally, we completely ignored the touring plans.

This is, of course, not the kind of book you read straight through. You hone in on the parts you need, and bypass the rest. But there is useful information to be gleaned from the material you skipped. You may not be a family of five, but you can learn a lot about the mindset of all the families of five around you. For one thing, you can discover the startlingly high number of rides that have terrified children at one time or another. Who knew that the 3-D films at Epcot and Animal Kingdom could be so traumatizing to children? I mean, scarred-for-life trauma. Really? Are you kidding? The bug movie? Sounds like there are a lot of pansy-ass children out there, if you ask me.

The use of outside voices is what gives this book a leg up on the competition. The authors wear the “unofficial” moniker proudly, and take full advantage of the opportunity to be blunt. They have visited every hotel and every restaurant several times, so their opinions have the weight of informed thought. But they happily include reader comments, which sometimes utterly contradict the book’s evaluations. This is refreshing, in that it feels like asking a group of friends for an opinion, assessing their comments, and proceeding as best you can. It can be frustrating, though, to realize how far the width and breadth of human opinion can run. There’s always somebody who likes or hates something. In the end, you have to do what’s best for you.

A bonus for me was the inclusion of tiny bits of trivia from Jim Hill, whose website is a treasure trove of interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the Walt Disney Company. He’s totally at home in the “Unofficial” environment. And at least once, he gave me something to look for on a ride that I never knew before. (Hint: members of the Hall of Presidents appear in very different guises in Spaceship Earth. So if you ever wondered what William Howard Taft would look like if he shaved the mustache and put on eye makeup…)

There are a lot of guides out there. Each one offers something different. Birnbaum’s, for example, has the official Disney imprimatur, which means lots of helpful pictures, the best maps, and full descriptions of attractions, but no critique at all. The DK guide is visually attractive, but doesn’t have much in the way of detail. You kind of have to sit in the bookstore and decide what information you need to get out of a tour book, and buy appropriately. If a text-heavy guide with a wide range of opinions and carefully-planned trip itineraries is what you need to get the job done, then this is your book.

And if you try one of the touring plans, let me know how that works out for you.

Shane Wilson is a writer and contributing editor to The Greenroom .

Non-Fiction: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy

The Bare Facts
Title: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
Authors:Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas, Thom Felicia, Carson Kressley, Jai
Publisher:Clarkson Potter
Date of Publication: December, 2004
Pages: 256
Grade that means nothing coming from me: C+

So Basically, It's About...
Five gay guys telling you how you should cook, dress, decorate, groom,
and act. Maybe not in such a regimented fashion as a drill instructor,
but still the idea is there that you need help, and they're here for
you. In each section, the resident 'expert' of the
group gives his advice on how to handle that particular facet of life,
from the kitchen to the dance floor, and the bathroom to the bedroom.
(*Decorating* the bedroom. *DECORATING*)

Why'd You Wanna Read That?
I was quite a fan of the show for a long, long time. The guys have good
advice to give. It's highly amusing to see how the 'Fab Five' relate to
and work with their victim volunteer, and heartwarming to
watch him go through his transformation. It's also occasionally a train
wreck, which is amusing in it's own schadenfreude-esque way.

And How'd That Work Out For You?
Sadly, a great deal of this is lost in the book, since there's no target
straight man, and much of the interplay that makes the show amusing is
simply not there. It felt more like a lecture from a gay man on how to
live my life. I've had a couple of those before. Didn't really go for
them then, and still don't.

The sections themselves do hold a few interesting tidbits of
information and are good primers into the five areas that they do
cover individually. I'll touch each one briefly.

Cooking: This easily comprises about a third of the book. Ted gives
some great ideas about wine (apparently his specialty) and about the
tools you need in the kitchen; however, there was little to nothing in
there about kitchen and food safety, which is an area I think the
average straight guy could use a little help on. Also, most of this
section is filled with recipes. I like recipe books, but that's not
what I came here for. I came for guidance, not instructions. At this
point I'm wondering if they're just padding the book.

Grooming: This was the shortest section of the book. If you've seen the
show, there's nothing in here that should surprise you, albeit there is
a little more detail than they can usually present within the timeframe
of the show. A good checklist of the things you should be using and
advice on taking care of your appearance is always good. In the show,
however, Kyan goes into more detail with many of their charges on how
fitness and exercise play an important part in looking and feeling good.
This was missing from the book as well. I have started working on the
checklist in there, and most recently, bought myself some facial
cleanser. I'm sure Kyan would be proud. I still shave against the
grain, though. Bad Dave.

Decorating: Arguably the best, if second shortest, section of the book.
Instead of going on about color palette and where to find good stuff,
Thom takes the 'know thyself' approach: asking you to examine what
you have, where you want to go, and giving an example of one of his
more brilliant successes. Thom makes good use of inexpensive and
practical solutions to common decorating issues, and talks about goals
rather than steps. If I were rating this section of the book alone, I'd
give it an A.

Clothing: The second largest section of the book. One thing this
section gets right is Carson's self-assuredness. One thing I really
disliked about this section was his tendency to give examples of very
non-conformist wardrobe and dressing choices, only to tell you not to
try them. An example would be the 'belt OVER the belt loops' trick he
is so fond of. He explains it, then says, "Don't do it." I'm left with
the feeling that they're padding the book again. He does do a good job
of covering different clothing styles and staples, and illustrating the
KISS principle. (Keep It Simple, Sister.)

Culture: This is a mixed bag for any person, and is a difficult area to
get or give advice on. What you enjoy is not going to be the same as
what someone else enjoys. Jai gives much good advice on how to relate
to other people, and his tips on cell phone and email etiquette are
solid common sense. However, this part of the book had the only piece
of advice I strongly disagreed with. I'm heavily paraphrasing here, but
the advice basically is: "Read chick magazines, like Cosmo, to get to know
what women really think and want!" Any woman whose life is in any way
remotely based on or influenced by Cosmo is not a woman I'd be
interested in. The advice to read something interesting is dead on, though, and strongly endorsed. The best advice he gives, though, is to be open to trying new things, to get out of the rut. Experiences make a person interesting.

Should I Read This?
This book has two target audiences. 1, Fans of the show: If you just
can't get enough of the Fab Five, then this is the book you want. 2,
Guys who want the help. The book itself is a good primer into the five
areas described above and offers some genuinely good advice on how to be
a well-rounded person. Chances are, though, if you're open to
receiving advice from 5 gay guys on grooming, cooking, decorating,
dressing, and culture appreciation, you're probably already beyond this
book. It's entertaining in its own way, but often comes off preachy,
which I'm sure they didn't intend. Again, the content is marred by the
delivery mechanism. It's an OK book, but a much better TV show. A+ for
the show, C+ on the book for omissions, padding and the occasional bit
of preaching.

Reviewed by: Maxwell.
Maxwell writes the blog Maxwell's Alley.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Memoir / Science & Engineering: ASTRO TURF

Memoir / Science & Engineering: ASTRO TURF

Title:     Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science
Author:  M. G. Lord
Publisher:  Walker
Date of Publication:  2005
Pages:  259
Grade That Means Nothing Coming From Me:  B

A social history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a look at the people who build and launch rockets and satellites, dovetailed with the author’s attempt to learn more about her late father, who worked on several JPL projects.

I do find the subject matter intriguing. And an interview with the author in Salon was so instantly interesting, I went right out and bought the book. So, kudos to the press agent, there.

It’s kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Lord is a charming storyteller, and the book is a quick, breezy read. But on the other hand, there is an essential confusion that lies at the heart of the book: Lord begins her investigation of JPL to try and learn more about why her father was cool and distant, but she discovers that her relationship to her father has origins far beyond the world of rocket science, and while we’re at it, the world of rocket science is not what you think it is. That confusion carried over to this reader. Not a literal “I don’t know what’s going on” confusion, but merely a sense that there is no one central thesis holding everything together. A sense that the center cannot hold.

Lord’s investigations have the feel of web-surfing. You know how you’ll be looking for one thing, and you’ll link to something else that turns out to be far more compelling. This is how we find ourselves in an investigation of gender roles in the science and engineering communities, or taking a side trip into the conflict between Cold War politics and homosexuality. In the most intriguing diversion, Lord provides a mini-biography of Frank Malina, one of JPL’s founders and a man who endures absurd persecution at the height of the Communist witch hunt, only to achieve redemption in a twist of delicious irony. Malina’s story, Lord seems to be saying, is the true archetype of the engineer: complex, deeper and more creative than the Dilbert-like stereotype.

There is a through-line, and it’s Lord’s own story. In essence, she’s trying to figure out how she got to be the way she is. (Her previous book was a cultural history of the Barbie doll, and she seems to be asking herself how one person could be interested in both dolls and the space program.) The stories she uncovers on the way to answering that question are fascinating. So maybe it’s quibbling too much to say that this makes her an extremely compelling storyteller, but not necessarily a great chronicler.

Lord is a charming storyteller, and time spent with her is not wasted. She has provided a prism to look anew at the history of world of rocket science, and the people who are compelled to be in that world. She sees the fascinating people behind all the equations. I was glad to meet them, and to value their contributions in a whole new way.

Shane Wilson is a writer and contributing editor to The Greenroom).

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Nonfiction: Television/Memoir: ”THE TROUBLE WITH TRIBBLES”

Title: The Trouble With Tribbles
Author: David Gerrold
Publisher: Ballantine
Date of Publication: 1973
Pages: 273
Grade That Means Nothing Coming From Me: A

It’s hard to imagine that the opening paragraphs of a book could more accurately depict the contents to follow than do those Mr. Gerrold has penned for this volume. Therefore, I shall quote directly:

“This book is the story of a television script: where it came from, how it was written, how it was eventually filmed and finally got onto the air as an episode of Star Trek.

It’s a peek into the techniques of writing for television, and it’s a piece of lore about a popular TV show. But more than that, it’s the story of how I began my career as a writer.”

I remember this book being on my mother’s shelf when I was but a wee tyke. Of course, most of her books are now in boxes in North Carolina, so when I recalled this book and decided I wanted to see it again, I turned instead to Amazon, which found me a used copy for the low, low price of one cent (not including shipping and handling).

Quite well. Gerrold is an engaging storyteller, which is helpful when you consider how much of his tale involves a staggering amount of luck going his way. It’s easy to begrudge his success in finding an agent, coming up with a successful pitch, persuading the higher-ups to let him write the script, and getting the thing produced without anyone else’s name on the cover. However, Gerrold walks you through each step of the process, shows you all the missteps he makes, credits the people who help him dig himself out of various holes, and maintains a humble perspective that still has you rooting for him, even though his eventual success is never in question.

This particular episode – the one in the title – probably ranks as one of the best- chronicled shows in the history of television. That’s because Gerrold kept copious notes, which he turned in to get the final college credit he needed to claim his diploma. As a result, we get to read his original pitch for the story (along with two others), the subsequent treatment, and the final shooting script, all in their entirety. We also get extensive script notes from the show’s producer, Gene Coon, and the associate producer, Bob Justman. It’s a master class in television writing, complete with commentary from the men who actually make the show, and have very good reasons why one idea will work and another will not.

If you’re even remotely interested in the construction of episodic television, this is a fascinating read. Although the TV landscape has changed significantly in the almost 40 years (!) since this episode first aired, the essential rules of dramatic construction - as well as the basics of supply and demand - still apply. It’s a breezy, fun read that has a lot to say about the business of making television. And if you like Star Trek, it’s a welcome departure from world of crazed fandom that the franchise is associated with today, returning to a time when it was just an ongoing story that a group of actors, writers, and technicians were trying to tell.

Shane Wilson is a writer and contributing editor for The Greenroom .