Archive for May, 2009

Matthew Amster-Burton: Hungry Monkey

Monday, May 18th, 2009

(Full disclosure: Matthew is a friend, and I reviewed an early version of the book. A couple of my suggested jokes even got into the final product.)

Every non-fiction book these days needs a colon and a subtitle, and the subtitle of Hungry Monkey is “A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater.” Amster-Burton is a food writer, and a few years ago he had a daughter, and this is the result. It’s a collection of funny anecdotes about his and Iris’s relationship with food, restrained advice, and recipes.

Taking those in turn: the funny anecdotes are really funny. This is because Amster-Burton is a really funny guy, and he and his wife, Laurie, are raising a funny girl. He’s a born storyteller, and there’s generally a chuckle every paragraph and a laugh every page. I’m sure that if I also had child-raising experiences to compare his with, I’d be laughing even more.

The advice, as I said, is restrained, and that’s really nice. There are tons of advice books out there about everything, and they all like to assure the reader that they are providing the one perfect solution to his problems. Amster-Burton’s advice generally consists of two types: 1) “Hey, this works for me, you might want to give it a shot,” and 2) “This other book that claims to know all the answers doesn’t really, so don’t take it too seriously.” These both strike me as laudably moderate.

We’ve only tried one of the recipes so far, but unsurprisingly it was great. The recipes are actually not generally particularly child-centric, because Amster-Burton’s main philosophy is (spoiler alert!) to pretty much cook what you were going to cook anyway (with some restrictions) and let your kid eat as much or as little of it as they want.

Anyway, I enjoyed it a lot, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it, particularly to new parents. The first few chapters are available for free at the book site, OK, enough shilling. But I wouldn’t be shilling for it if it weren’t really good!

Brandon Sanderson: The Hero of Ages

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

This is the third and final book of the Mistborn trilogy, the first two books of which I talked about earlier. It mostly delivers; there are lots of interesting and surprising revelations (both regular plot ones and ones about how the world works) and things come to a suitable climax. One thing Sanderson does really well is to bring his characters up from level 1 to level 30 effectively, in D&D-speak; as the books go on, their powers increase dramatically, and so do the challenges they face, but Sanderson manages to control it all pretty well – you don’t find yourself saying “Why doesn’t she just use her superpowers to vanquish this trivial problem?”

The main thing that prevented me from enjoying this book fully is that much of it is very bleak. Of course epic fantasy is largely about overcoming impossible odds, and it’s natural to feel pessimistic when faced with those impossible odds, but still, the fact that for the first half of the book all the main characters are basically suffering from clinical depression about the oncoming end of the world and their inability to do anything about it is a real downer for the reader. It’s almost made worse by one bright spot of a scene that explicitly calls back to situations from the first book back when they had a brighter outlook on life. Once they actually get their act together, things do pick up, and I enjoyed the second half of the book a lot more.

I liked the series overall, but I liked the first book the best, and it’s pretty standalone; there is obviously more to come, but it doesn’t end in a cliffhanger or anything. My recommendation is to read that first and then decide whether you want 1500 more pages in the same vein.

P. G. Wodehouse: Carry On, Jeeves

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

I needed to kill a couple days before the final volume of Mistborn showed up, so short stories seemed like just the thing. Plus of course Wodehouse is about the most readable author on the planet, so I ended up plowing through all of them quickly. Which is not really the best way to experience Wodehouse, but more about that in a minute.

I should mention at the outset for people not familiar with these books that they are about the funniest things ever. Bertie Wooster is a feckless aristocrat who keeps getting himself in fixes and Jeeves is the super-competent valet who always finds a way to rescue him. Wodehouse has a way with dialogue and with Bertie’s internal monologue that keeps me constantly cracking up. I was not surprised to learn that Jack Vance, another master of funny dialogue, was a big Wodehouse fan.

I had actually read these stories, or most of them, a few years ago when I first discovered Wodehouse and had already read a couple of Jeeves novels. After just reading some novels, getting concentrated Jeeves in short bursts for ten stories straight was sort of an overdose, and I haven’t returned until now.

And although they were once again really funny, I still think a book of short stories is not really the best way to experience Jeeves. The novels pile up hilarious crisis upon crisis for a couple of hundred pages, then finally resolve them all; the short stories only really have room for one or two apiece. (Typically, one of Bertie’s chums has a problem, Jeeves comes up with a plan for him, Bertie bungles the execution, and then Jeeves fixes that.) That’s okay – not all plots have to be super complicated – but going through that arc ten times in a short period of time is a little wearying and, unsurprisingly, gets a little samey over time.

Still, they were a lot of fun, and the good news is that most of the Jeeves books are novels. The Code of the Woosters is the one I recommend if you’re starting out.

Frank Zappa: The Early Years

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

I promised a couple of weeks ago to investigate Frank Zappa. Being the completist I am, I started at the beginning, and holy crap. Freak Out! and Absolutely Free are both complete masterpieces, and everything else so far is at least super interesting. Here, very briefly, are my initial impressions of Zappa’s early oeuvre.

Freak Out! (1966): I can’t believe this came out two months before Revolver. It completely deconstructs rock music at a time that most people were still trying to construct it. It’s a 2-LP set (one CD). The first two sides are filled with mostly conventional (but still twisted) pop songs. Then things start falling apart. Side 3 starts with “Trouble Every Day”, a 6-minute electric-Dylan-ish rant, then eventually devolves completely into an assemblage of noise that makes “Revolution 9” look tame. I don’t know if I’d enjoy the end of the album by itself much, but as the culmination of the whole record it’s stunning.

Absolutely Free (1967) has already shot into my short list of best albums of all time. Two suites full of complex yet gloriously sloppy music that ping-pongs back and forth between hard rock, faux-Broadway, faux-Pierrot Lunaire, faux-Vaudeville, you name it. There’s a giddy energy to the whole thing, as if they can hardly believe they’re getting away with recording it, that’s totally infectious. Amazing.

We’re Only In It for the Money (1968) is often recommended as the place to start with Zappa, and that seems reasonable. The cut-and-paste tactics of the previous album continue, made into a coherent whole by the album’s theme of contempt for hippies and fake counterculture in general. I’ve had this album for a long time, as opposed to the others, so maybe I’m too used to it by now, but it certainly is another masterpiece.

Lumpy Gravy (1968) is a total mess that is only really worth procuring if you are interested in Zappa’s history. It’s a bunch of orchestral pieces, largely atonal, that have been cut up and interspersed with old pop recordings and excerpts of seemingly high people rambling about random topics. Save it until you know you’re hooked.

Cruising With Ruben and the Jets (1968) is an album of nothing but doo-wop, including reworks of songs from earlier albums, which I have not gotten yet because apparently Zappa totally ruined it 20 years later during its CD release by overdubbing new bass and drum parts, and I’m holding out hope for a remaster of the old version.

Uncle Meat (1969) starts a new phase with lots of composed instrumental pieces in a modern classical vein mixed with jams, live outtakes, and random conversations. There are some really nice pieces here but you are pretty much guaranteed not to like all of it equally.

Hot Rats (1969) was Zappa’s first solo record (not with the Mothers of Invention) and stands apart from the rest of these; it’s mostly jazz-rock fusion (and one of the first examples of it). I can take or leave the long jams, but the shorter fully composed pieces on it are great.

Zappa then disbanded the Mothers of Invention and released a couple of archival recordings mixing lots of old studio and live performances, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh (both 1970). I need to let these soak in a little more. There’s some great stuff but also some jams and live improv wackiness that don’t grab me yet. Still, the high points are really high.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten. So far I am mostly enthralled; a lot of this music completely surpasses my expectations after hearing a smattering of Zappa’s work. The guy was obviously a total genius, which helps me give him the benefit of the doubt when something doesn’t appeal to me at first. It seems I am about to enter a period of his career (the Flo and Eddie years) that is largely regarded as a relative low point, so it will be interesting to see if I agree.

If any of this sounds interesting, check out We’re Only In It for the Money or Freak Out! first. Absolutely Free is actually my favorite of all of these records, but I have a feeling the other two early records are better for dipping a toe in the water.

One recommendation I do have in general is to listen to these albums one side at a time. They were written to be listened to that way, of course, and they’re dense enough that listening to more than 20 minutes at a time is a good way to tire out your ears and your brain.