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The Unofficial Guide to Washington, D.C. (Unofficial Guides)
The Unofficial Guide to Washington, D.C. (Unofficial Guides)
by Eve Zibart
Edition: Paperback
31 used & new from $0.01

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good basic guide to traveling in the District of Columbia, June 25, 2007
A good basic guide to travel in the District of Columbia, although the author (at least in the 2007 edition I read) seems unnecessarily obsessed with crime in DC (I traveled in DC mostly by myself this past week and felt pretty safe) and gives out some dangerous advice for dealing with crime (such as throwing your wallet at a thief and running in the other direction and shouting at the top of your lungs, which sounds like a great way to get shot or stabbed). Some details are also just inaccurate: a week pass for the Metro costs $32.50, not $11.00. The instructions on using Metro farecard machines are too detailed to do anything but confuse you if you've never used the machines before. There's a little too much space spent on getting oriented and not enough spent on what you can do for fun and excitement and interest once you've gotten oriented.

But the book does have some good descriptions of the basic tourist attractions (not much on attractions in the outer neighborhoods, though), along with some detailed and helpful advice on how to navigate the confusing DC area as a first-time visitor. All stuff you could find in other guidebooks, perhaps, but there are also some surprisingly good maps of the center of DC, and there's even a map of the Convention Center. The informal tone of the book is a nice change from the usual bland tone you find in Frommer's and other guides.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 9, 2007 12:24 PM PDT

James Brown's Live at the Apollo (33 1/3)
James Brown's Live at the Apollo (33 1/3)
by Douglas Wolk
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.77
58 used & new from $5.34

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring, but the detours were heavy-handed, June 5, 2005
A great short read about the live recording sessions that led to the creation of one of the seminal R&B albums. The writing is punchy, respectful, and never overwrought -- except for the glaring and jarring detours into the Cuban missile crisis. The episode is clearly relevant to the story, because the concert in question took place in roughly the same 24-hour time span that the crisis was unfolding, but while everyone in the Apollo that night may have had the crisis on their minds, the digressions into what the fighter planes and the decision makers were doing at exactly the same time that James Brown was wiping sweat off his brow as he switched gears and tore into another song are distracting and ultimately tell us little about why the crisis made the night charged. Wolk should have stuck to the performances and the music or else found a better way of weaving the crisis into the book.

Anger: The Seven Deadly Sins (New York Public Library Lectures in Humanities)
Anger: The Seven Deadly Sins (New York Public Library Lectures in Humanities)
by Robert A. E. Thurman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.95
57 used & new from $0.63

10 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking, but marred by stilted prose, May 25, 2005
This book is worth reading for several reasons, among them which is a succinct treatment of the Buddhist philsophy of anger as an addiction/delusion that keeps humans from achieving transcendence. However, the book gets too frequently bogged down in undistilled prose that seems culled directly from Buddhist texts (particularly Shantideva, a Tibetan thinker, whose verses on anger make up much of the second half of the book), as opposed to broken down into understandable language that a novice learner might gain knowledge from; this is, after all, supposed to be a layman's guide, not a text for a postgraduate seminar. (A sentence as an example of this tendency: "Focusing in particular upon the root anger, we see that the analysis locates it as arising from the base of the self-other-absolute-separation delusion, which is what makes it an emotional addiction rather than a raw emotion.")

The first couple of chapters of the book touch briefly on Western concepts of anger, especially classical thinking on the matter (Aristotle, Plutarch, Seneca, etc.), and seem completely disconnected from the rest of the book, which is strictly an examination of Buddhist thought. The Western side of the matter is dispatched with overquickly, which does not particularly help Thurman's case.

Thurman preaches at the reader about the importance of transcending anger, often in annoyingly detached, dry, high-horse tones, but does very little in the way of making clear to the reader who may not have a grounding in Buddhist thought why overcoming anger is crucial, or, more importantly, how to overcome it (especially in a culture such as ours, in which Thurman comes close to acknowledging that anger is viewed as a normative, even positive, impulse). It is these qualities that make the book seem slapdash and thrown-together, as though Thurman threw together whatever he could in a hurry to meet a publisher's deadline. These flaws detract from the book's otherwise important themes.

Birth Of The Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant Garde
Birth Of The Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant Garde
by Lewis MacAdams
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $41.92
71 used & new from $0.99

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slapdash in details but generally on the money thematically, December 30, 2004
Reviews of this book on this site have characterized it as sloppy, uninformed, and even erroneous in certain historical details. I would have to agree that the book is breezy at times, and at its worst is slapdash in its treatment of what is probably one of the most important cultural phenomena of the past fifty to sixty years, i.e., the development and growth of the idea of "cool" as a form of cultural currency. Despite the misgivings, though, I think this book's themes are right on the money. Read in conjunction with other more attentive books about the phenomenon in question (and/or the historical period), this book can be a door-opener or a good supplement, depending on your point of view.

American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation
American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation
by Jonah Raskin
Edition: Hardcover
36 used & new from $5.50

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worthwhile introduction to the poem and the era, October 12, 2004
A worthwhile treatment of the history of the writing of an important American poem. However, this book is not a history of the Beat Generation. It covers Cassady, Kerouac, and Burroughs, but only insofar as they intersected with Ginsberg. This is mostly a literary biography of Ginsberg. That doesn't diminish its value, but it does point to the book's main focus.

The book is best in its focus on Ginsberg's formative years and the themes of alienation and fear that went into the creation of "Howl." The book has less to say about the poem's aftermath: the infamous reading in San Francisco, the seizure of the book by customs officials, and the susequent obscenity trial are dispensed with in a chapter, and Ginsberg's subsequent life is summarized in a few pages.

The book is also written in what is frequently a bloodless, dry style that fails to do justice to the feverishness of the times and the people involved. You never get away from the fact that you are reading a book written by an academic, albeit a thoughtful and sympathetic one. There are other books out there that capture the times more passionately. However, if you are intrigued by the era and are looking for a jumping-off point to explore other work about the Beats, you could do a lot worse than using this book as an introduction.

The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America
The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America
by John Micklethwait
Edition: Hardcover
142 used & new from $0.01

53 of 57 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading ... but frustrating, October 2, 2004
This book is fascinating, but it's also frustrating in many ways. Micklethwaite and Wooldridge are two Oxford-educated Brits who have done a lot of traveling and work (they are writers for The Economist) in the States. The book bills itself as a primer for explaining the conservative movement and its ascendancy to a European audience, so the criticisms from some reviews here that the book doesn't seem to know what it wants to be or that it will seem simplistic to Americans are off-base: the book is not structured as an in-depth scholarly treatment of the history of US conservative politics.

The main political and historical points that the authors make, including a concise and informative summary of the movement's history and several well-considered theories about why conservatism has become the winning argument in the US, are strong, although they tend toward an overreliance on already-established work done by the likes of Seymour Martin Lipset. On the other hand, culturally, the authors tend to be somewhat typically British in their condescension. They profess to love the friendliness and bonhomie of the fly-over states, but they never hesitate to poke fun at the "fact" that there are so many fat people living in them (and so many thin ones in the blue states). The final section of the book starts out with a grandiose contrast between "Hastertland" -- the Speaker of the House's Congressional district in northern Illinois -- and "Pelosiland" -- basically all of San Francisco -- that is so stereotypical and inaccurate that it borders on the asinine. All told, the book is well worth reading, because it has a lot of value to say about why conservatism, contrary to the views of numerous mainstream poitical pundits, is not a passing fad, but it's also got some significant flaws.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 28, 2009 2:40 AM PST

Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction
Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction
by Dale Peck
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.95
53 used & new from $0.01

15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Better than I expected, September 30, 2004
It's interesting to me that most of the reader reviews on this book dismiss Peck for tearing apart the writers that they like -- although that is Peck's point.

Peck is a gifted writer, no doubt. However, I find it ironic that Peck considers himself first and foremost a Novelist with a Capital N. This "review" stuff is just a sideline. It's ironic because Peck's novels, for the most part, suck. (To use one of Peck's favorite words.) Has anybody ever actually gotten through one of Peck's doorstops and felt fulfilled at the end? Given that reality, who is Peck to skewer the likes of James Joyce? And to let us know that his "hands [were] literally shaking" while he tore Joyce apart?

On the other hand, Peck's reviews, to my surprise, are on the whole incisive, thoughtful, and yes, iconoclastic (despite being suffused with a maddening self-importance). I expected (given the overwhelmingly negative press this book got when it came out, and the general media perception that Peck is much too full of himself) to dislike these reviews, and there were points in some of them that left me scratching my head and wondering what Peck was thinking when he wrote them.

Peck selects some easy targets (Sven Birkerts? Ethan Mordden?). His characteristically melodramatic announcement at the beginning of the book that he "will no longer write negative book reviews" sounds disingenuous. His claim that he is "by no means convinced of the hallowedness of my own ideas" is belied by the evidence in his own reviews.

But some writers, especially middlebrow tasteful ones, richly deserve being taken down a few pegs, and that's exactly what Peck does, devastatingly, with the likes of Philip Roth ("'American Pastoral' is like watery oatmeal"), Julian Barnes ("seems motivated by nothing more than boredom, decadence, or hubris"), David Foster Wallace ("I resent the five weeks of my life I gave over to reading the thing," i.e., "Infinite Jest"), and, of course, Rick Moody ("a writer of one terrible book after another, but a writer nonetheless").

John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography By The Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best (Publicaffairs Reports)
John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography By The Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best (Publicaffairs Reports)
by Michael Kranish
Edition: Paperback
112 used & new from $0.01

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting for its accounts of previous Kerry campaigns, September 29, 2004
This book is valuable as a sketch of John Kerry's life, although the later chapters on Kerry's post 9/11 votes in the Senate and his early presidential candidacy will not be unfamiliar to anybody who has read a newspaper regularly since 2002.

The most valuable portions of the book, in my opinion, are the sections about Kerry's other political campaigns: his losing run against Republican Paul Cronin for a House seat in 1972, his first political rout; his run against James Shannon, a very similar candidate ideologically, in 1984; and his run against William Weld in 1996. These sections speak volumes about the strengths and especially about the limitations of the man in his current race against George W. Bush. The section about Kerry's Vietnam experience is useful, but if the book had been written after the enormous Swift Boat controversy and the publication of "Unfit for Command," it would have benefited from expansion.

All in all, well worth reading, although, as others have noted, the book is dry and somewhat bloodless, and it spends a little too much time trotting out the standard stereotypes about Kerry, which may or may not be accurate, as most stereotypes tend to be.

What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
by Thomas Frank
Edition: Hardcover
333 used & new from $0.01

38 of 78 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointingly strident book on an important subject, September 18, 2004
Speaking as someone who got a lot out of Thomas Frank's ''One Market under God,'' I was somewhat disappointed by his latest.

Most of the scathing indictments that Frank hands down against the ''conservative'' movement could just as validly be made about a good percentage of the ''liberals'' that Frank implicitly sides with: they don't brook dissent, they look down on their opposition, and most of all, they view themselves and their place in political history and culture only through the prism of victimhood.

To make claims like this while turning a blind eye to mirror-image tendencies on the left (in fact, Frank smugly winks at and nudges the reader, whom he expects to join in his smugness, as if to say, ''Isn't it fantastic that you and I are so well-informed about what the American people need?'') is the surest indication that this is another in the long march of 2004 books that are published not as much to inform as to cudgel, and the tendency is no more attractive in Thomas Frank than it is in Ann Coulter.

The points that Frank makes -- and he makes many important points about the state of American politics and life, including the disconnect between the facts of life on the ground in much of the United States and continued fervent support by voters for a party that, according to Frank, is doing everything in its power to dismantle their way of life -- are frequently all but smothered by the self-satisfied rhetoric, which extends to the invention of smarmy, unilluminating neologisms like "plen-T-plaint."

This book may comfort those left- (and right-) coasters who already have made up their minds about the ''flyover states,'' and that's clearly the book's intended audience, but it's highly unlikely to convert anyone who hasn't (nor is it likely to win many fans in Kansas itself). Nor will it contribute to bringing the camps of the so-called blue and red states closer together, although that seems to be Frank's avowed purpose.

Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me
Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me
by Craig Seligman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.00
66 used & new from $0.01

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well-written and affectionate, but not sycophantic, July 17, 2004
A lively, argumentative, and engaging piece of critical writing about two of the major "celebrity" aesthetic figures of the past fifty years.
Kael made her name writing acerbic, witty, urbane movie reviews; Sontag made hers writing cerebral, careful essays about culture and ideas. Kael and Sontag share some surface similarities, but Seligman's book is mostly about their differences: how beautiful Sontag's writing is, yet also how impenetrable, how aloof Sontag can be from anyone who is not "in the know," how contemptuous she is of what is not High Art, yet how crucial her voice is, even if that voice has trailed off in recent years in the pursuit of the fictional muse. (The only difficulty with Seligman's adulation of Sontag is that it is sometimes hard to understand what earns it, although he spends much of the book trying to make the case for her.)
Kael, on the other hand, is more of a populist, almost to a fault sometimes, according to Seligman, who nonetheless has little bad to say about her, about her feistiness, about her professed inability to care what others thought of her judgments (although ultimately she did care a great deal, as Seligman points out in an extended section on the ludicrous assertion some of her enemies made that Kael was anti-gay, which, as Seligman demonstrates, is about the furthest thing from the truth imaginable).
Seligman has a lot of interest to say not only about the two women but about the blurring of the division between high art and "pop culture," as well as the absurdity of the in-fighting that goes on in American intellectual circles. He comes to no real conclusions about which of the two writers is likely to be remembered most 100 years from now, although that's not really his purpose.

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