Five Short Book Reviews

Here are a few recent reviews that were scattered in various places.  I’m interested in your opinions on any of these titles.  As always, thanks for reading.

1. Headhunters on My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story by J. Maarten Troost

Headhunters on My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost StoryJ. Maarten Troost’s first two travel books—The Sex Lives of Cannibals and Getting Stoned with Savages—are hilarious, unforgettable forays into remote South Pacific islands. Although his third book, Lost on Planet China, was not as appealing, Troost returns to form with Headhunters on My Doorstep, an entertaining account of his return to wandering the South Seas, loosely based on re-creating Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th Century voyages.

Headhunters includes plenty of Troost pondering his battles with alcoholism and his own writing career, but even when his tone is serious, the introspection is lightened with self-deprecation and humor. Laugh-out-loud funny, Troost’s new book provides memorable episodes involving his first tattoo, swimming with sharks, and re-visiting Kiribati, the primary setting of those first two books. Troost’s stories and observations always include colorful, sometimes wacky characters, including an island inhabitant who attempts to explain cannibalism as a valid human activity. Troost also delves into history to provide portrayals of island inhabitants based on the writing of Stevenson and others. For example, artist Paul Gaugin is shown menacing Tahiti as a pedophile miscreant while simultaneously painting idyllic island scenes.

I liked Headhunters on My Doorstep for its humor, insights, and satisfying vicarious tropical adventure. I hope Troost doesn’t wait too long before sharing another journey. Meanwhile, he may have inspired me to bide my time with Treasure Island and Mutiny on the Bounty.

2. The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story by Vivek Tiwary

The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein StoryThe Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story tries too hard to glorify Epstein’s contributions to The Beatles. No doubt about it, Brian Epstein guided The Beatles in ways that positioned them for greatness, but The Fifth Beatle would have us accept that Epstein was a martyr for that cause. We’ve seen the label “The Fifth Beatle” applied to many figures—for example, Billy Preston, Eric Clapton, George Martin, even Yoko Ono–but suggesting that any other individual’s contributions is equal to what was created by the four actual Beatles is just silly.

The Fifth Beatle mixes history with histrionics and ends up as an uneven mish-mash. While Vivek Tiwary successfully delivers the story of Brian Epstein’s challenges as a gay man in an intolerant time and place, The Beatles are mostly used as props to tell that story. John Lennon’s character is explored a little bit, but the other Beatles are not treated with any depth. They are distinguishable from one another through Andrew C. Robinson’s visually stylish drawings, but not through their words or actions. The most interesting character in The Fifth Beatle is Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s long-time manager, who turns demonic in a romanticized version of a meeting between the two impresarios.

Many Beatles-related characters and angles remain to be explored and explained for a new generation of fans. As time passes and The Beatles become even more mythical, I hope we see their story continue to be told through graphic novels and other literary forms. (A more successful Beatles graphic novel is Arne Bellstorf’s Baby’s In Black.)

3. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

I usually lLet's Explore Diabetes with Owlsike the work of David Sedaris. He’s at his best when talking about his family or childhood memories, or wryly observing society’s foibles. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls has moments of that trademark understated irony, but it’s more self-absorbed than his earlier collections. This book’s primary theme seems to be the travails of a successful author as he fulfills his tiresome obligations to accept invitations to read his work out loud in exotic locations like China, Rotterdam, and Costco. But travel wearies Sedaris, as do most other people. It’s no surprise that he doesn’t allow those who stand in line to purchase an autographed book to take pictures with him. Then he retires to one of his homes in England or France or Japan or New York and writes about how awful it is to be anywhere.

Although this book gave me a few chuckles, some topics are inherently unfunny, although Sedaris uses them as punch lines: teen suicide, cancer, ingestion of human feces, eye socket sex. Yuck. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is a disappointment because it is so much meaner and cruder–not to mention less funny–than earlier Sedaris books.

4. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & ParkI think this one might transcend the YA category. All of the 80s references were cool. (I hadn’t thought about Hugh Downs or the Solid Gold Dancers for a while.) I wonder if younger readers will be turned off by that. A surprising number of them listen to 80s music as oldies, so the musical allusions might translate better than the television or news bits.

Every character and every scene in this book came across as true. I admired how Eleanor and Park tried to create a relationship out of their own selves rather than trying to build something based on the expectations and definitions of others.

The ending might not be satisfying for some, but I kind of liked it. Because it takes place 27 years ago, Eleanor and Park are now in their 40s. It’s easy to wonder how their lives turned out. If they were not so real, and so appealing, I wouldn’t spend five seconds thinking about that. But because I cared about them, I still think about them, out there in the world, or not, with each other, or not.

5. October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard

I can’t do justice to the power of this book. It’s a masterpiece. Give this to young readers who are Ellen Hopkins fans.


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One Response to Five Short Book Reviews

  1. Marilyn J. Hollman says:

    Have not read any of these books. I recall a revu of the Beatles guy one, however.
    These are yours, right? We read different things, mostly.
    I have been thinking off and on a/b the summer reading issue. One thing I thought this morning: what if a list was compiled among faculty members — all departments — with the recommending faculty writing a short blurb, or a longer one, for each. Each person could designate one or two days before Aug. 1 to be on campus for small group or individual conferences/discussions. Say, 20 mins max; a parent could come, also. Well, maybe. If a reader did not come in, a standard reading exam would be administered. Students who had come in could – read another book while the exam went on.
    This has holes, I know. Who would make up the test. Would it be multiple choice of matching or what? All those questions. What if someone(s) didn’t think the recommendations were “worthy?” (I think that criticism is not worth answering, but it would come up.)
    As I think you agree — the real goal should be reading, connection, modeling, and the like. Not — did he really read it? did she put it off? And th other usual suspects.


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