Monday, July 01, 2002

Books Worth a Look VI
These are the books I read in June 2002.

The Al-Anon Family Groups: Classic Edition by Lois W. (2000)
Originally published in 1955, this book details the origin of Al-Anon, its relationship with AA, its purpose and work, and how Al-Anon family groups self-organize and -operate. While its content about the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions is useful in terms of alcoholism-related mutual support, I was particularly interested in the material on starting a group, how meetings can be run, and what members are encouraged to do. An interesting grassroots leadership and social action primer. That said, the historical appendices that track how the book has changed over the years are less than necessary outside of the information on Alateen and how to solve problems within a group.
Days to read: 10. Rating: Good.

Al Azif: The Necronomicon by Abdul Alhazred (1973)
A misleading curiosity of interest and questionable value only to H.P. Lovecraft fans and completists, this volume reputedly reproduces the horrific book written by the Mad Arab. However, other than L. Sprague de Camp's seven-page preface, it's basically the same 16 pages of untranslated "Duriac" text, which calligraphically resembles Arabic, repeated for the bulk of the book. De Camp's preface has, I'm sure, been reprinted elsewhere, and his history doesn't quite keep to Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. But the reproduced, repetitive, illegible Duriac? Ever feel like you've been cheated?
Days to read: 1. Rating: Poor.

Alcohol: How to Give It Up and Be Glad You Did by Philip Tate
Drawing heavily on Albert Ellis' work in rational emotive behavior therapy, Tate's sobriety primer also seems related to the Decision Maker process, est, and learned optimism. As an alternative to AA, Tate's take on REBT involves alcoholics and drug addicts disputing irrational beliefs to develop more effective beliefs and therefore happier consequences. The books takes the reader through this process many, many times and seems overly oriented toward individual work until Tate introduces the concept of recovery groups. Useful, but not overly influenced by the concept of mutual support.
Days to read: 20. Rating: Good.

The Bhagavad Gita trans. by Juan Mascaro (1962)
Originally composed in Sanskrit around 500 B.C., the Bhagavad Gita describes Krishna's philosophies on vision, love, and work. Portrayed as a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna on a battlefield, the Gita espouses selflessness, right action, purity, and other ideals, outlining the elements of a righteous life. While I'm not sure how Mascaro's translation stacks up against others, the Gita's message is clear and often quite poetic -- especially in the tenth chapter. Worth returning to.
Days to read: 21. Rating: Good.

The Day I Turned Uncool: Confessions of a Reluctant Grown-Up by Dan Zevin (2002)
This book hit me at a particularly good time. Dan now has a lot of the things I've started to think I might want -- a house, a yard, a family -- and he's slightly self-conscious about it. Luckily he's not overly apologetic or ironic about his recently discovered maturity. Instead, he's rather surprised and amused by it. "I played golf! I hired a cleaning lady! I went to a wine tasting!" All of these things delight Dan, and he continues to hold onto his past self while wondering whether he's now part of the New Bourgeoisie. Don't worry, Dan; you're not. You're just getting older. My only complaint about this collection is that many pieces build up to a head and them quickly fall off with a dismissive punchline or call back. Regardless, Dan is clever and critical.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
One of several books I've started to read a couple of times but never finished -- among them In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter -- I'm glad I finally made it through this horror classic. Roughly divided into three sections -- gothic horror narrative, medical mystery thriller, and melodramatic heroic adventure -- Stoker's mythos-building novel combines journal entries and letters to propel the story of one of the world's most famous vampires. While I found the final third -- basically a chase scene -- to be unrewarding, the first two thirds are worth a read alone. This 1997 Norton Critical Edition is heavily footnoted and includes an additional 160 pages of commentary and analysis.
Days to read: 16. Rating: Excellent.

Interesting Monsters by Aldo Alvarez (2001)
This is one of the best collections of interconnected short stories I have ever read. Throughout the 16 stories compiled here, Alvarez follows the relationship of Dean and Mark, as well as Dean's decline in health and the effects it has on his family and friends. While Alvarez specializes in gay fiction, he emphasizes the fiction, and the homosexual themes are foundations and undercurrents. The result is a heartfelt assortment of smart stories that occasionally evoke Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Lethem, and Franz Kafka.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Point It: Traveller's Language Kit and Picture Dictionary by Dieter Graf (1992)
To be appreciated by active world travellers and fans of global design journalism a la Colors magazine, this pocket-sized tool is aimed at people who "may be fluent in four languages but sometimes ... find yourself 'off the beaten track.'" Featuring pictures of about 1,200 different items, places, and activities, Point It can help you seek assistance eating, finding lodging, arranging transportation, shopping, and going about daily life anywhere in the world. While the images are somewhat dated, the 70-page booklet is equal parts postmodern eye candy and indispensable travel aid.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Preacher Book 7: Salvation by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (1999)
It's been a couple of months since I've read Preacher, and this 10-issue collection redeems the series in my mind. The bulk of the book compiles a multi-issue run about Jesse's stint as the sheriff of Salvation, Texas. He reconnects with a long-lost family member and takes on a corrupt, racist businessman whose employees walk over the town and its townspeople. Ennis also introduces an interesting character, Miss Outlash, a frigid attorney whose tastes run toward S&M and Nazism. Jesse learns more about his mission and his past, and I get a sense of acceleration from this edition.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Preacher Book 8: All Hell's A-Coming by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (2000)
Collecting issues #51-58, this trade paperback does more than redeem the previous failings of the series. Jesse is reunited with Tulip -- which actually brought a tear to my eye. Arseface separates with his evil, manipulative manager. Jesse learns about Cassidy's true self from a dying homeless woman. And All-Father Starr gets his -- although not so much that he's out of the picture. Ennis is done with the vamping and space filling, and the series is barreling along to the end.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Preacher Book 9: Alamo by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (2001)
An admirable conclusion to the 66-issue comic series, this edition ties up all of the loose ends. It also returns to the book's early concentration on religion and mythology. Starr goes off the deep end in order to seek revenge. Custer makes a deal with the Saint of All Killers. And Custer and Cassidy confront each other -- emerging in the end as friends. I was slightly irritated by Custer's abandoning of Tulip, Ennis treated the Starr-Featherstone-Hoover love triangle a little too lightly, and the final conversation with John Wayne was drawn out too long. But otherwise, a satisfying ending -- particularly in the case of the Arseface plot line.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman (1921)
How wonderful that Applewood Books has reissued this historic children's book. While the controversial book has been challenged as racist because of its portrayal of African Americans, it holds a cherished place in my heart -- partly because of the cleverness shown by the young hero Sambo, and partly because of its past. I vaguely remember a Little Black Sambo restaurant; the menu retold the tale -- which in the end involved pancakes and butter. Applewood's edition is a tidy size and passably reproduces the original color illustrations.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castenada (1968)
I can't believe I read this. The fact that Castenada built a career on this work -- and that it's the underpinnings of modern shamanism -- flabbergasts me. While his experiences in the early '60s may have been very real and his academic analysis seems well structured, this book leaves little to build on. Too heavily focused on the preparation processes of two consciousness-expanding drugs, the book does offer some wisdom, particularly his comments on nonordinary reality, the goal of learning, and the validity of the paths we choose, but otherwise, Castenada's a waste of time. Less process, more philosophy, please!
Days to read: 4. Rating: Poor.

3rd Bed Vol. 6 ed. by Vincent Standley (2002)
My introduction to this biannual journal published in Rhode Island was somewhat of a letdown. While I wasn't that impressed by most of the poetry, though most of the prose ran long, and was disappointed by the comics, there were still several delightful selections included in this edition. For the most part, I was struck by the Kafka-esque fiction of Ben Miller, Brian Evenson, and David Ohle -- with Evenson's "House Rules" standing out. Jeffrey M. Bockman's "Speculations on the Gateau Impossible," while a bit wordy, offers a nice pseudo-historical analysis of alchemy and baking. And Mark Laliberte's "Brick Poems" reconstructs brick walls using source material from several cartoonists, including Mignola, Griffith, and Schulz. Worth watching.
Days to read: 2. Rating: Good.

Why do some books get a link while other books do not? If a publishing company or author sends me review copies for consideration -- and if I review the book in Media Diet -- they get a link as well as a review. I don't review every review copy or galley I receive, and I don't always have time to track down author, publisher, and other book-related links in general.

Most of the books I review should be relatively easy to find via the Harvard Book Store and Powell's Books online ordering services. If something's out of print, check the Advanced Book Exchange first.

And if you'd like to send me a book to consider for review, Media Diet's address is P.O. Box 390205, Cambridge, MA 02139. Thank you very much.

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