Six Short Book Reviews from June, 2013

Here are six quick reviews of books I’ve read over the past few weeks. Some were cross-posted in other places, but I want to have them all in one spot. Maybe one of these titles will appeal to you.

Outlaw: Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and the Renegades of NashvilleOutlaw: Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and the Renegades of Nashville by Michael Streissguth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michael Streissguth’s books examine the sweet spots where country music transcends popular trends and redefines itself. His previous books dealing with Johnny Cash’s concerts at Folsom Prison, the life of Jim Reeves, and Rosanne Cash’s The List album explored how these pioneers transformed an old art form, forever changing the way we think about country music. Streissguth’s new book Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville examines how a few iconic figures bucked the system both artistically and financially beginning in the late 1960s. The careers of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson are treated thoroughly in Outlaw, along with interesting discussions of Chet Atkins, Billy Joe Shaver, David Allan Coe, Rodney Crowell and other players. The real “character” of Outlaw though is Nashville itself. Streissguth describes the physical, musical, and business landscapes of the city and takes readers through the changes forced on the country music establishment by television’s “The Johnny Cash Show,” the emergence of Kris Kristofferson as a songwriter, the refusal of Waylon Jennings to play by Nashville’s rules, and Willie Nelson’s ascension to the status of cultural icon. If you’re interested at all in this subject matter, Outlaw is well worth your time.

Dad Is FatDad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I’m in the mood to read something funny, sometimes I choose a book by a comedian who makes me laugh. I fall for it every time. The books are not usually all that funny. This has happened with Ellen DeGeneres, Chelsea Handler, George Carlin, and now Jim Gaffigan. (The only comedian I can think of whose books don’t disappoint is Bill Cosby.)

Jim Gaffigan’s Dad Is Fat focuses on raising five young children in New York. Although Jim Gaffigan’s stand-up routines are hilarious, this book provided just enough chuckles to keep me going, probably less than one per chapter. I wish I’d spent my time reading something else.

If you’re looking for a funny book about parenting, see Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood.

The End of Education: Redefining the Value of SchoolThe End of Education: Redefining the Value of School by Neil Postman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When first approached about helping to facilitate an online discussion of Neil Postman’s The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, I had my doubts. Postman’s book was published in 1995, and the man himself died in 2003. American education has evolved rapidly and dramatically in the intervening years. How could a book so old have any relevance for these turbulent times?

Well, shut my mouth. The End of Education is nothing short of prescient. Writing before No Child Left Behind, Common Core State Standards, ubiquitous testing, and the corporatization of public education, Neil Postman saw it all coming and vividly describes the dangers and opportunities in what has largely come to pass in the years since his book’s publication.

In 197 pages, Postman explains how the absence of a coherent narrative in American school allows a drift toward meaninglessness and creates a void that is being filled by opportunistic “educrats.” He then offers several ways to focus schools that will provide purpose, direction, and “a spiritual and serious intellectual dimension to learning.”

You’re welcome to join the discussion of The End of Education on English Companion Ning.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the overnight bookseller in a strange bookstore, Clay Jannon unravels the secrets of its shelves and customers. His interesting discoveries and sometimes humorous deductions keep the plot lively, but the characters are a little too flat, and I never really found a beating heart at the center of this story. The most fascinating “character” is the company known as Google. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore will appeal to readers interested in any combination of technology, books, antiquity, and mystery.

Assassination VacationAssassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, that was weird—but I liked it! In Assassination Vacation, humorist Sarah Vowell takes us to sites directly or peripherally connected to the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, as well as brief side trips related to the non-fatal shooting of former president Theodore Roosevelt. Sure, some of this is grim and morbid, but I laughed a lot more than I cringed.

As Vowell meanders between museums, plaques, homes, and buildings containing physical artifacts or mere historical significance, she uncovers some surprising connections between the events and people associated with the assassinations. For example, Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln, was not only present when his father was killed, but he was also physically nearby when Garfield and McKinley were murdered. How weird is it that Theodore Roosevelt wore a ring containing bits of Abraham Lincoln’s hair?

Vowell’s wanderings and ponderings rise far above some kind of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not as Assassination Vacation explores America’s character and culture as revealed by some of our darkest moments.

The Yellow BirdsThe Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Private Bartle remembers how canaries brought out from the Virginia mines and freed from their cages continue to return to those cages. Similarly, Bartle returns from the Iraq war but continues to search his war memories in Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds.

The Yellow Birds captures the physical and mental aspects of not only the Iraq war, but also the experience of returning home. Both gritty and poetic, The Yellow Birds explores the nature of memory, and whether war changes a person or simply brings out latent character traits.

I know I’ll be thinking about The Yellow Birds for a long time, and it will permanently color the way I think about the Iraq war.

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3 Responses to Six Short Book Reviews from June, 2013

  1. I had high hopes for Dad Is Fat. You’re right. He’s so funny on stage. Sad that didn’t translate to his writing. Have you read Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants? I really liked it. Laughed a lot, but a lot of the humor is centered on the female experience, so I’m not sure how that transfers to male readers.


  2. jpbohannon says:

    Thanks for the suggestions.


  3. I thought Bossypants was terrific. I think of Tina Fey as a writer first, sketch actress second, and comedian after that. Maybe that’s why her book was so good. I hope she has another one soon.


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