Ryan’s Books: Months Four and Five

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February 9, 2013 by jiejie768

So it’s been quite a while since I checked in with my book posts. During the end of December and beginning of January, we had guests and were traveling around Peru, so I didn’t have much time to read. Additionally, I ran into a couple of books that, though enjoyable, did not lend themselves to quick reads. As such, at the time I would have done my January post, I had only read one and a half books since the December post.

Thankfully, being back in Ayacucho has given me more time to read, and I’ve zipped through a few books in the past three weeks. So it is I am back on track for the 52 book challenge and have a few more reviews to share with you.

"Live From New York," by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller

“Live From New York,” by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller

17. “Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by its Stars, Writers, and Guests,” by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller – 6.5/10

This book was the first one that really bogged down my pace. It was a very interesting oral history of Saturday Night Live, but it was also very long. The behind the scenes stories were fun to read, and learning about the history of SNL was pretty enlightening. The biggest flaw, and what made it hardest to stay focused though, was that I am actually pretty unfamiliar with all but the past 10 or so years of SNL. I love Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd thanks to “Ghostbusters” and “Groundhog Day” and the like. However, reading about their sketches and time on SNL wasn’t as fun as I’d hoped, given I was not familiar with most of their more famous work on the show (such as Murray’s Nick the Lounge Singer)

The 6.5 rating I’ve attached to this is a reflection more of how much I enjoyed it, than how good it was. If you have watched SNL since it’s inception, and enjoy oral histories, I’d imagine you could tack another 2-3 points onto that rating. Andrews and Shales do an excellent job of mostly staying out of the way and letting the principals in the story tell the tale in their own words. I am currently reading another Shales/Miller oral history called “Those Guys Have all the Fun,” about ESPN and, given that I am a big sports nut, have enjoyed it quite a bit more than the SNL tome.

"Lost City of the Incas," by Hiram Bingham

“Lost City of the Incas,” by Hiram Bingham

18. “The Lost City of the Incas,” by Hiram Bingham – 5/10

This book was a Christmas gift from my not-so-secret Santa Bill Collins. Hiram Bingham was an American professor and explorer credited with “discovering” Machu Picchu in 1912. This book tells of the Yale Expeditions led by Bingham (the dean and founder of the South American studies at Yale — the first-ever such department in the U.S.). It is split into three parts. The first part offers a history of the Inca civilization, which built and occupied the now-famous mountain sanctuary of Machu Picchu. The second part details Bingham’s search for Vitcos, a lost Inca capital. The third part details the excavation and chronicling of Machu Picchu.

At times, this book was very, very interesting and dovetailed nicely with our Christmas vacation trip to Machu Picchu. It was particularly fascinating to learn that Bingham essentially found Machu Picchu by accident. On a whim, while searching for Vitcos, his primary goal, he basically followed a farmer up a mountain and was shown Machu Picchu. Bingham’s crew did not even accompany him, as Machu Picchu was off the path that they were following, and they chose to rest at the foot of the mountain instead of make the grueling climb 1,500-feet up to the lost city. On his first visit, Bingham spent just a few hours in the city before returning to his crew and the quest for Vitcos.

Over time, he came to realize what he’d found and returned several times to Machu Picchu for excavations and to document and research the society that had lived there in the 16th century. I would say the 5/10 rating I’ve given this book comes with a qualifier. If you’re rating it as a reference book, probably give it about an 8, but as a reading-for-fun option, it tends to drag quite a bit in the third section when Bingham painstakingly describes the layout and discoveries of Machu Picchu.

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future," by Michael J. Fox

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future,” by Michael J. Fox

19. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future,” by Michael J. Fox – 7/10

Following the two previous books on my list, I was searching for some quick reads to get me back on my 52-book pace. This autobiography/extended graduation speech by Michael J. Fox hit the spot in that regard. I think I read this book in literally four hours or so, but I really enjoyed it. It’s basically just Fox talking about his life as he went from Canadian high school dropout to struggling actor in L.A. to sitcom star to Marty McFly to raging alcoholic to recovered alcoholic to the face and voice of Parkinson’s research.

Throughout it all, the star is as charming and charismatic as he is on screen, with self-deprecating stories and an obvious pride in his “Back to the Future” days. There’s a particularly funny bit about how, more than anything else in his life, fans always come up to him and ask him about hoverboards. This book was just what I needed after a couple of heavier reads, and I would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Michael J. Fox.

"Blockade Billy," by Stephen King

“Blockade Billy,” by Stephen King

20. “Blockade Billy,” by Stephen King – 6/10

This was the second book I chose to get me back on pace. It’s probably best categorized as a novella as it’s only 132 pages and, again, took me only about 3 or 4 hours to read. The story is told from the first-person perspective of a 1950s baseball coach who is living in a retirement home in modern times. The coach (not manager, he was the third base coach) recalls the season when his fictional team acquired the greatest baseball player ever to suit up. The titular character, shows up just a day before the season starts after the team loses both of their catchers and proceeds to wow the nation with a series of spectacular defensive plays and red-hot hitting. Of course, this being a Stephen King book, Billy has a dark secret that is hinted at throughout the book but not unveiled until the very end.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say I thought this was just OK. It’s probably best suited for baseball fans. In my opinion, there is a better book in there. King, who is obviously very prolific, simply wanted to tell a baseball story, and I certainly can’t blame him for going light with all the other work he does. That said, if he’d just taken the bones of the story he wrote, and fleshed it out into a 400-page novel with a bit more development and intrigue, I think this could have been a lot better. Of course, King’s short stories and novellas have a way of becoming phenomenal motion pictures (“Shawshank Redemption”; “The Body” — which became the movie “Stand by Me”), so maybe one day “Blockade Billy” will be a cinematic classic. I’d watch it.

"The Warlock," by Michael Scott

“The Warlock,” by Michael Scott

21. “The Warlock,” by Michael Scott – 6.5/10

“The Warlock” is the fifth book in the six-book young adult fantasy series “The Secrets of the Immortal Nicolas Flamel.” As far as YA series go, I’d say this has been my favorite among those I’ve read in the past few years. Required caveat: It doesn’t approach, in any way, shape or form, the genius and awesomeness of “Harry Potter,” but what does? It does, in my opinion significantly outshine the “Percy Jackson” and “Carter Twins” series by Rick Riordan. Riordan’s books have sold more copies and gained more notoriety, but his teenagers lack the realism (within a fantastical world) that I think Scott is able to achieve.

Riordan, on the other hand, does do a better job of keeping his stories in check and following a single linear path. Scott is possibly weighed down, especially at this point in the series, by the sheer number of characters and story lines he is juggling. I needed to spend about 20 minutes on Wikipedia reviewing the previous four books just to remember what was happening at the start of “The Warlock.” That, however, is probably partially due to the fact that I’d been reading these books as they were released, with about a year-long gap between entries. Thus, by the fourth book, I tired out and didn’t bother picking up the fifth book for another year after it was released. Now, all six books are available and fans of young adult fiction could easily read all six consecutively, which, I think, would significantly decrease some of the confusion I’ve experienced while making my way through the series.

The series starts with “The Alchemist” and follows the adventures of twins Sophie and Josh Newman as they meet the immortal Nicolas Flamel, a 14th-Century Frenchman, in 21st-Century San Francisco and ultimately follow him around the globe on various missions. Nearly all of the characters in the book are real historical figures (John Dee, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Billy the Kid, etc.), that unbeknownst to “normal” humans have obtained immortality and are still pulling the strings behind the curtain of modern society. There are plenty of magical elements and, as I said, would serve as a quick read for any adult fan of YA books, and is highly recommended for any actual young readers who have enjoyed Harry Potter or Percy Jackson.

"The Power of the Dog," by Don Winslow

“The Power of the Dog,” by Don Winslow

22. “The Power of the Dog,” by Don Winslow – 9/10

In early December, I read “Savages,” and “The Kings of Cool,” a pair of books by Don Winslow about the marijuana end of the Mexican drug trade that focused on a pair of So-Cal stoners and their mutual girlfriend. I really enjoyed those books, and got through them pretty quickly. Looking for some more “popcorn literature” I went back to the Winslow well. What I found did not necessarily fit the popcorn mold, but was fantastic nonetheless.

“The Power of the Dog,” is an epic, Mario Puzo-esque look at the evolution of the Mexican drug trade from the early days of the War on Drugs in the 1970s all the way through the late 1990s. It follows, at various times, a DEA agent living in Mexico, a young Mexican who goes from foot-soldier to Patron in the Sinaloa Cartel, a young Irish teen in Hell’s Kitchen that transforms from street tough to hardened hitman for the Mob and, eventually, the drug cartel, a high-end California call girl, and a Sinaloan priest who eventually becomes Archbishop of Mexico. Winslow masterfully interweaves the stories of these characters as the story winds through the years.

The story touches on several important, and real, points in the actual War on Drugs. I don’t know how accurate or sensationalized it is, but it always feels very real in the way the Puzo’s “Godfather” felt like an actual history of the mob. In a way, it also reminded me a bit of David Simon (“The Wire”), as well, since the lines of good and bad are blurred and you find yourself at times rooting for what seems like the bad guys and disgusted at the actions of the supposed good guys. For whatever reason, “Savages,” is Winslow’s best-reviewed book, and the one that Oliver Stone chose to turn into a movie, but in my opinion “Power of the Dog” blows it out of the water in almost every respect. “Savages” had flashes of depth, and glimpses at the more serious issues behind the otherwise fun-loving lives of a couple of California (genius) stoners, but “The Power of the Dog” leaves the weed and plunges you into the depths of the real money and truly savage nature of the drug trade fueled by heroin and crack cocaine. I cannot recommend this book enough.

"Nemesis," By Jo Nesbo

“Nemesis,” By Jo Nesbo

23. “Nemesis,” by Jo Nesbo — 7/10

This is the second of Jo Nesbo’s “Harry Hole” novels that I have read. The stories follow the flawed, but brilliant, Hole as he works to solve murders and expose corruption in Oslo, Norway. As I said in my review of “Redbreast” a few months ago, they are reminiscent of Stieg Larson’s “Millennium” (or “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) books, but aren’t quite as compelling or intense.

“Nemesis” finds Harry working to unscramble the mystery behind a series of bank robberies in Oslo. As a murder police, he’s on the case because the first in the string of robberies ended with the murder of bank clerk. The mystery unravels itself in several layers, and the reader is kept guessing right until the end. I don’t think these books are classics in the way Larson’s were, but for fans of intrigue and compelling recurring characters, they are certainly worth the time. They are well written and have enough twists, turns and secondary story lines to keep readers interested to the last page of one book and onto the first of the next Harry Hole adventure.

Ryan’s Reviews:

 

Meg’s Reviews:

 

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