Book Review Roundup

I’ve read tons of books lately, including three over the long weekend, as I’ve been taking great advantage of the half-price new books by order at the Strand in New York. A quick roundup:

“The K Street Gang,” by Matthew Continetti. A great book, probably the definitive account of the Jack Abramoff scandals, and how they contributed to the rotting of the soul of the current Republican Party in Congress, leading to their likely downfall. Every great story is here, and it’s told in a page-turning and often humorous way. The twist: Continetti is himself a conservative Republican, and a staff writer at the Weekly Standard. It’s a better book coming from him, and not anti-Bush lefty with an axe to grind. Continetti should take it as the ultimate compliment that Hugh Hewitt criticized the book for not showing sufficient fealty to the Republican cause. Grade: A.

“An Army of Davids,” by Glenn Reynolds. An excellent look at where we stand today in terms of markets and technology, one that does not overstate the importance of blogs to the world, and does not seem to believe that right-wing politics is the most important logical use for blogs there is.. Reynolds uses his vast knowledge about various subjects, from the blogosphere to economics to nanotechnology, although at times it appears he’s throwing things in just because he knows about them, regardless of whether they have to do with the subject at hand. Still, Reynolds is well able to translate from his usual single-paragraph blog posts to book-length form. Grade: B+

“The Schreiber Theory” by David Kipen. A very interesting yet very flawed look at American cinematic history, told from the viewpoint that it is screenwriters, not directors, who are the ultimate authors of films. It’s certainly worth listening to, and of course it’s true that writers’ contributions to cinema have always been historically underrated by director-worshipping auteurists. But Kipen makes the same mistake as Andrew Sarris and the rest of the auteur movement: he fails to acknowledge that film is an inherently collaborative medium, and how much power and influence individual contributors have is vastly different from film to film. I should mention though, that Kipen’s book is very entertaining and readable; it’s the first book in several years that I’ve read in a single sitting. Grade: B-

“On Michael Jackson,” by Margo Jefferson. This is a fascinating collection of essays, about Jacko, by Pulitzer Prize-winning NYT cultural critic Jefferson. In it, she looks at every aspect of the Jackson persona, from his family history to his musical career to his ever-changing racial and gender identities, to his recent trial and acquittal on molestation charges. The book doesn’t answer every question about elusive former King of Pop, but sheds considerably more light on him than any other writer that I’ve read. Grade: A-.

“The Mind of Bill James,” by Scott Gray. This biography of the legendary baseball statisician James is fascinating throughout, though it devotes much more time and energy to the subject’s various ideosyncracies than to straight biography, which may have been more interesting. The narrative skips around chronologically, and James at one point riffs for four pages about, of all things, the Jan-Benet Ramsey case. It’s a fine book, but a straight autobiography by James may have been more interesting. Grade: B

“The Areas of My Expertise,” by John Hodgman. I didn’t realize this until I started the book, but Hodgman is that guy who used to show up at McSweeneys readings in New York, and talk endlessly about how he’s a “former literary agent.” This, his first book, is a series of bizarre asides and weird lists, only a tiny bit of which I actually understood and appreciated. (The best part is unquestionably a list of 700 Hobo Names.) However, for most of the book I had the unfortunate feeling that the humor therein was operating on some wavelength half a world -or more- away from mine. Grade: C

“Republican Like Me,” by Harmon Leon. A truly pointless and unfunny exercise in self-indulgent hackery, which isn’t even what it promises on its own back cover. Leon gives the impression that he’s going to be “infiltrating” Republican and conservative organizations throughout the 2004 campaign, and thus “exposing” what horrible monsters these people really are. But in vignette after vignette, all Leon does is act like an idiot, while the Republicans around him play the straight man. It’s an apparent attempt to fuse “Daily Show” humor with the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson, but the book utterly fails on both accounts. I’m just wondering how Leon got Howard Stern to blurb it. Grade: F.

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