::Literate Blather::
Friday, June 13, 2008
Cracked Back Book Reviews: June 2008

(Machine-gun quick reviews of the tomes that have occupied our time during the last few weeks. A “cracked-back” is what happens to the spine of a new book once you’ve thoroughly devoured it. Please feel free to add your own list of recommendations in our comments section.)

Severance Package
By Duane Swierczynski

I read “Severance Package” on a high-speed train to New York City. The train couldn’t keep up. The novel is one of those vicious, high-octane thrillers that are high on concept, packed with nail-biting action, and a damn pleasure to read. Is it literature? Hell, no and it doesn’t want to be. Here’s the gist: a group of corporate suits are forced by their boss to work on a grueling hot Saturday in August. When they get there, the boss tells them that he’s going to kill them all. Then, of course, all hell breaks loose. It turns out the “financial services” company is a front for a top-secret, anti-terrorist government agency. There are lots of blood, twists and turns, and some plot devices about undercover agents and rivalries within the network of lettered law-enforcement agencies in the United States. None of this really matters. What matters is the smart language, the mile a minute thrills and chills, and some dialog and situations that will make you laugh out loud (try not to be drinking milk at the time). It’s like buying a sack of buttered popcorn and a wastebasket size Coke and settling down for B-movie action on a Saturday night at the drive-in. Fun, fun, fun.

Grade: A-

The History of Love

By Nicole Krauss

“The History of Love” is beautiful. It’s a work of fiction so elegantly written, so fully realized and executed that it has quickly landed on my heap of books that I declare my favorites of all time. Reading Nicole Krauss, one can only marvel at her talent – writing with such detail and precision that it is as if you are living the story. On the surface “The History of Love” is about a 14-year-old girl, Alma, mourning her dead father and trying to connect with her devastated mother, who has retreated to her work as a book editor. When her mother begins to translate an obscure novel called “The History of Love,” Alma sets out to find the author. Meanwhile, an elderly Polish Jew named Leo Gursky is at the end of his life living in a tenement and pining for all of the missed opportunities of his life – including the biggest – losing his true love. The story brings these two people together as they struggle to make sense of the lives they have built. The story is terribly sad, hilariously funny, and a reminder of why we read great fiction: to connect with that part of ourselves that touches other people. “The History of Love” should not be missed.

Grade: A+

The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)
By Mark Bauerlein

The title is an unfortunate mistake. Blame the publishers because Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, has written a fascinating book about the cause and effects of our dumbed-down popular culture. It’s packed with facts (how test scores, reading comprehension, and writing skills have plummeted in the last two decades) – but it turns into a cautionary essay about the death of culture in a society that has turned its back on the notion of its young people growing up into adults. Bauerlein makes some compelling connections with society’s embracing of adolescence and rejection of adulthood with the rise of technology, especially the Web. He pulls the rug from under the notion that the Internet was supposed to be the dawn of a renaissance in learning and knowledge. In fact, Bauerlein paints a gloomy picture of how kids have used the Web to amp up the volume on youth culture – and tighten the circle and increase the pressure of their own peers. Kids aren’t using the Web to download images from the museums of the world or to read the classics in literature – they’re updating Facebook pages, skimming Hollywood gossip blogs, and bitching about each other on Twitter. “The Dumbest Generation” is a book every parent – every young person – should read, but won’t.

Grade: A-

Stuart Little

By E.B. White

Written in 1945, “Stuart Little” is a children’s book about a mouse born to human parents. Stuart is adventurous, gentlemanly, polite, helpful, and, at times, a bit arrogant. But one can forgive the little fellow for his faults because of his resourcefulness and forbearance. Readers get to join Stuart in all kinds of adventures – getting caught in a window shade, sailing toy boats at Central Park, getting tossed out with the garbage, and saving the life of a pretty young songbird. All of it written in the delightful, matter-of-fact style of E.B. White. This a throwback book that will immediately transport adults back to their childhood – when kid’s books weren’t about lessons and learning. Instead, E.B. White focused on telling a grand tale with the nuance and detail of a classic. I read this a chapter at a time with my daughter and she loved it – but not as much as her father. Tough to go wrong with revisiting “Stuart Little.”

Grade: B+

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