Review: Chasing the Dream

I like golf. I’ve read books about golf, watched movies about golf, watched golf tournaments, even played golf for a while (it’s been a while). I did not like this book about golf. I may have been too harsh, but I did at least say the book was funny. But it was often cringe-funny, not hah-hah funny. Anyway, it was a long time ago, I don’t think it hurt his career.

See what I did there? You will if you read the review.

The title of the review is probably all you need to read. I kind of wish I could take this one back and pretend I never read the book. If you can’t say something nice… I’ll plead youth and inexperience and hope for forgiveness. But I meant every word of it. At least I kept it short.

Chasing the Dream

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Reviewer: ‘A spoiled brat’s midlife crisis in print’

‘Chasing the Dream: A Mid-life Quest for Fame and Fortune on the Pro Golf Circuit’
by Harry Hurt III

(CNN) — Let this be a lesson: if George Plimpton likes it, you probably won’t. That’s the feeling I have now that I’ve finished Harry Hurt’s manifesto on professional golf. Plimpton calls the book ‘A wonderful adventure splendidly told.’ Uh, excuse me, but which book did he read?

This thin volume, ‘Chasing the Dream,’ amounts to not much more than a spoiled brat’s midlife crisis in print. Mr. Hurt — and if you don’t know his name, there’s a good reason — may be a fine writer, but he definitely does not put his best foot forward in this effort.

In ‘Chasing the dream,’ Hurt tells the story of his rebellious desertion of his college golf team, then goes on to detail his experiences while attempting a comeback of sorts some two-plus decades later. 

But it’s hard to feel any sympathy for Hurt when you realize he left the freshman team at Harvard (full scholarship, thank you) over a lousy haircut. It is also difficult to empathize with Hurt’s trials and tribulations during his comeback attempt — unless of course you’re an over-the-hill whiner with a country club background.

But I have to admit; Hurt’s book is funny. His tales of post-round drinking with his extensive network of golf buddies and PGA wannabes is enlightening, to say the least. Ladies, if your husband spends a lot of time playing golf, you should read this book. You’ll probably learn more about him than you want to know.

Does Harry Hurt III make it back into the golfing elite? Does he catch his dream of being a pro on the PGA tour? Like I said, if you don’t know his name, there’s probably a good reason.

Review: Pulse by Edna Buchanan

My second book review for CNN.com, wherein I give my honest opinion about a work of commercial fiction, and manage to miss the point of commercial fiction. Who knew a book about murder and heart transplants is supposed to be light reading? Not me, not then. Now I know. Like I say, learn something new every day.

I really did like the book.

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‘Pulse’

(CNN) — There’s a saying known by virtually every writer on the planet that goes something like, “Write about what you know.” Edna Buchanan has taken that advice to heart, writing novels of crime and suspense set in her home base of Miami, Florida. Her latest installment, “Pulse,” is no exception. 

This newest edition of her Miami chronicles revolves around businessman and heart transplant recipient Frank Douglas’ attempts to ‘pay back’ the family of the heart donor. The novel opens at Frank’s hospital bedside, just hours after his life-saving surgery. By page nine, Frank is back home and well on his way to a new life.

But strange dreams, and a nagging sense that there is something he must do, leave the protagonist sleepless and confused. Frank Douglas becomes a man with a mission, determined to find the family of his donor and help them any way he can. But he gets far more than he bargained for and in no time becomes deeply involved in a twisted tale of murder and deception.

The novel moves at a brisk pace, due largely to the sparse writing style and thinly developed peripheral characters. Buchanan doesn’t waste time with unnecessary details, choosing instead to focus on the steady revelation of clues and the progress of the action towards the (unfortunately predictable) conclusion. As I read “Pulse”, I was reminded of the works of fiction in my junior high school library — written with a clear picture of the audience and designed to keep the reader engaged without over taxing the brain.

But that’s one reason the novel was fun — it’s easy to read. Buchanan’s characters are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, while the tale she weaves is entirely believable. If you are already an Edna Buchanan fan, you’ll have no trouble digesting “Pulse”. If you’ve never read her work, this may be a good place to start — probably not her best effort to date, but good enough for light summer reading.

Review: Last Days of Summer

I wrote this review for CNN.com in 2000, I believe, right before I left to go to work at a tech startup. It was one of the last book reviews I wrote, for CNN or anyone. I loved this little book. The author, Steve Kluger, has quite a few books published and occasionally Tweets. He also has a cool picture of Fenway Park on his homepage.

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Last Days of Summer

Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger

Buy it, read it, give it to a friend

(CNN) — As a kid, did you keep a scrapbook filled with letters, ticket stubs, clippings, and assorted other memorabilia of your youth? If so, you will readily identify with the style of Steve Kluger’s latest literary endeavor. If not, you’ll wish you had after reading “Last Days of Summer,” a novel in the form of a teen-age boy’s collection of quirky letters, matchbook covers, and assorted other bits and pieces of a childhood lived on the edge of disaster.

Kluger’s protagonist, Joey Margolis, is the most unlikely of heroes. A child of 13 — abandoned by his wealthy father and moved into a tough Brooklyn neighborhood by his indulgent mother — Joey lives life reeling from one mishap to another. He is a child lost without a father and desperate to fill the tremendous void in his life.

But Joey is never at a loss for words. He is intelligent and stubborn — a combination that just as often leads a kid to jail as it does to runaway success. In Joey’s case, you can never really be sure where he’s going, but you always know he’s on the move — or more precisely, on the make.

A constant schemer, Joey manages, through a series of antagonistic letters, to win over an initially stand-offish professional baseball player (who happens to be dating a famous singer). The book is set in 1940-41, and the athlete who would become the object of Joey’s unwanted attention is the hard-hitting and hard-living Charlie Banks.

Their initial correspondence amounts to little more than hate mail, but over time Joey and Charlie come to realize that they are more like the other than either wants to admit. Their story is told through their letters, but much of what the reader comes to know is more implied than expressed. Theirs is a relationship built on hard won mutual trust — and it is that trust that saves Joey Margolis, despite the painful price he must ultimately pay.

This book is captivating. I simply could not put it down, and found myself wishing it had just one more chapter, one more letter, one more moment of youthful exuberance before the carefully constructed world of Joey Margolis came crashing down around him. The lessons Joey learns from Charlie are lessons for us all, and they carry him through what is perhaps his greatest challenge. Buy it, read it, give it to a friend — they’ll be glad you did.

Review: Consilience

My first-ever book review for CNN.com and this is what I drew from the options I had. It was not assigned to me, I chose it. It looked interesting, so I dove in head first.

Some notes on this one: I received a prepublication copy of the book to review, Edward O. Wilson has a couple of Pulitzers to his name, a National Medal of Science, and this book was on the New York Times Best Seller list when it was published (helped no doubt by the write-up in Newsweek).

If you want to know how I really felt, skip to the last paragraph. If you’d like a more academic review of the book, check out H. Allen Orr’s write-up for Boston Review (a shining example of what you can accomplish with a high word limit).

One more thing – someone was kind enough (or foolish enough) to add a link to my review to the Wikipedia page for this book. I did not do it, but I thank the person who did. Now I have to scour the web for other references to me.

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Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Consilience by Edward O. Wilson

When you were a kid, did you wander through the woods near your home, observing all the flora and fauna, all the while reviewing their respective Linnaean classifications? If so, you have the foundation for an understanding of “Consilience”. Published by Knopf, this latest work from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson is nothing short of an attempt to form a single, unified theory designed to bind together all forms of intellectual pursuit.

Wilson draws heavily on the natural sciences and philosophy to support his approach, reaching as far back as the golden age of Greece, drawing examples from work by the likes of Einstein and Freud. If you understand the meaning of the title without reaching automatically for your dictionary, you have a head start on the rest of us. In Wilson’s own words, consilience is “a jumping together of knowledge.” Wilson borrows the word from The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, written by William Whewell in 1840. Whewell spoke of a linking together of “facts and fact based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.” 

And that, in a nutshell, is what Wilson aims to establish in “Consilience”. That all knowledge and understanding is bound together by some as yet unknown common theory. There is one grand scheme to explain and unite all that we know and can know. The real problem here is that Wilson himself admits it can’t be done. He states unequivocally that consilience “cannot be proved with logic from first principles or grounded in any definitive set of empirical tests.” He states further that “the strongest appeal of “Consilience” is in the prospect of intellectual adventure.” Which is an apt description of the book. It is nothing less than an intellectual journey through time and space. 

Theories dealing with everything from quantum mechanics to incest taboos are brought together, dissected and compared, all in an effort to find some common thread linking all of it together. Wilson draws on so many philosophers, from such divergent periods and places as ancient Greece and Victorian Europe, that at times one feels compelled to rush out and buy the thickest compendium of western cultural knowledge available. “Consilience” is as much a lesson in the history western philosophy as it is a treatise on ontological unification. Reading the book, I was reminded of what it felt like to be hopelessly lost in my philosophy 310 course in college. When he finally makes his point, it is clear and straightforward. But along the way it’s easy to get distracted by the references to unfamiliar figures in history and their obscure (to the casual reader) theories. 

If you are a scientist, a teacher, or a student of philosophy, you may find the book engaging and enlightening. As for the rest of us – don’t read it in bed unless you’re having trouble sleeping.

Interview: Rosamond Purcell

An interview with the author/photographer Rosamond Purcell for CNN.com in August 1999. Unfortunately a lot of the interview was cut and the editor focused on the description of the book to support the photo gallery – their choice, not mine, but that’s what editors are supposed to do, make choices. This interview was in the top ten on CNN.com (for page views) for several days, largely due to the photo gallery. I’d say the editor made the right choice.

NOTE: The link to the photo gallery no longer functions, but the book is still available on Amazon.com.

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“Swift as a Shadow: Extinct and Endangered Animals.”

‘Swift as a Shadow’

A Glimpse at the Past

(CNN) — How do you breathe new life into a bag of bones? Or bring beauty to a stuffed bird lying in a box?

If you’re Rosamond Purcell, you do it with light and texture and an eye for composition. These are the essential elements in her new book, “Swift as a Shadow: Extinct and Endangered Animals.” 

What started as an invitation to photograph an unparalleled collection of specimens locked away in a European museum has itself become a thing of beauty. Until recently, the National Natural History Museum in Leiden, the Netherlands, had none of its 11-million-strong collection on public display. 

The museum serves as a repository for specimens from all over the planet. Contained within its closets, drawers and boxes are samples of species as exotic as the Pig-footed bandicoot and as seemingly familiar as Burchell’s zebra. The specimens at the museum are, in many cases, the last and only examples left to us of these once thriving species.

Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by Purcell was how to bring life to something dead, stuffed and essentially artificial. Her approach was dictated by her goal, which, she says, was to “get people to focus on the creature.'”

Her methods may be as unique as her subjects. “I use backgrounds and natural light found right in the museum,” she says. Occasionally, she adds some cloth, bark or paper for texture, but more often than not the image contains only the objects and the minimal light available within the immediate vicinity of the actual specimen. 

In some cases that meant juxtaposing the extinct creature with the harbinger of its doom. The Guam flycatcher, one of nine island bird species wiped off the face of the earth by the invading brown tree snake, is posed before a jar filled with specimens of the snake. “I do arrange everything,” Purcell says, “and I wanted to show what it was that made this bird vanish.” The snakes are believed to have arrived as stowaways on military ships or planes returning from World War II in the Pacific, and in a twist of fate may now be approaching endangered status as well.

Coupled with the images are brief passages, written by the curators of the museum in Leiden, which provide insight into the lives and deaths of these creatures. The Falkland dog, for example, was so tame that in 1690 the captain of a ship visiting the islands took one as his ship’s pet. The animal became so frightened by the firing of the ship’s cannon that it leaped overboard and drowned. A booming market in dog fur in the mid-1800s, combined with increased human habitation and farming in the Falklands, spelled the end of this gentle creature by 1876.

These stories, and the afterword by Ross MacPhee, lend context to the images and take the reader on a virtual journey through a lost world, reminding us that our world was and is a beautiful and fragile place.

Review: The Best Little Boy in the World Grows Up, by Andrew Tobias

Another book review for CNN.com, from November 1998. We’ve come a long way since then.

Interesting note – I had a very nice email exchange with the author after this was published. He was especially amused by the fact that I bought the predecessor to this book for ten cents. Best money I ever spent, that book changed my life. You can read it on the legacy CNN.com or below.

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‘The Best Little Boy in the World Grows Up’

(CNN) — Several years ago while rummaging through the dusty back rooms of an indoor flea market I came upon a bookcase filled with yellowed paperbacks. There in the middle of the third shelf sat an unread copy of “The Best Little Boy in the World.”

The author’s name, John Reid, initially caught my attention, since I knew of another author by a similar name. Though I realized the names were spelled differently, I picked up the book and read few pages.

Based on that brief introduction, I paid the nominal price of ten cents and took the book home. That night I read the entire book. It was captivating, enlightening, and unlike any book on the subject I had ever read before. 

It was a personal account of one man’s coming to terms with his homosexuality. I was stunned that it did not end with a suicide, a murder or some other grizzly and depressing conclusion. This was a departure from the norm. Other books on the subject, such as “The City and the Pillar” or “Cruising” invariably acquiesced to the demands of the market place and presented their protagonists as disturbed, psychotic and murderous outcasts, incapable of functioning in any but the most bizarre of ways.

This book was different; no one died, no one went insane, and the protagonist navigated the minefield of personal acceptance and societal rejection with hope and humor. And yet, despite its inspiring message, one could not overlook the fact that the author felt compelled by the time in which he was writing to publish his work under the protection of a pseudonym. 

Over the years, I found myself buying new copies of the book (it has never gone out of print) to give to friends who found themselves in the midst of similar struggles, facing their own challenges. Along the way I had heard rumors of the author’s true identity, but these went unconfirmed for years.

Now, 25 years after the publication of “The Best Little Boy in the World,” the veil has been lifted and the author has laid claim to his work. Andrew Tobias, author of such captivating works as “The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need,” has written a sequel. 

With the publication of “The Best Little Boy in the World Grows Up,” Tobias has acknowledged what so many have already come to know. No more pseudonym, and no more hiding.

And yet, as with so many sequels, this follow-up falls short of the standard set by its predecessor. It is a fine book in its own right, but it lacks the innocence and zeal of the original. Of course, so do most of its readers. We’ve grown up, and times have changed. This new volume reflects the changes experienced by both the author and his audience. And in that sense, it is an excellent update. 

Though I enjoyed this book, it lacked the impact of the first. I could identify with the “The Best Little Boy in the World,” and I felt on some level that I shared his struggle. Which meant that I could share his hope.

But this new book describes a way of life far removed from my own. For the first twenty chapters or so, it is more informative than insightful. While the author’s experiences rubbing elbows with the rich and famous are interesting, and do make for good reading, I was hoping for something more.

When he ultimately turns his attention to the moral and social struggles of our time, I felt as though I was finally getting more of what I had seen in the first book. A man not unlike myself, facing the same issues every day of his life and struggling to make sense of it all. Of course, if this were the sum total of the book, it wouldn’t be working its way to the top of numerous best-seller lists (a feat never even considered possible for the first book).

Maybe I’m just jaded. Maybe I shouldn’t expect so much from a sequel. Here’s the bottom line: if you’ve read the first book, this one is practically required reading (you must know how his life has turned out since college). And if you haven’t read “The Best Little Boy in the World,” you may not care that he grew up and made it out of the mountains.

Review: Walker Evans: Signs

A book review I wrote for CNN.com in 1998. I was fortunate to have attended an exhibit of his work at the High Museum in Atlanta prior to writing the review. The place was packed and you could hardly see the photographs. It helped me appreciate the book and the quality of the printing.

‘Walker Evans: Signs’

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Photographer Exposes the Layers of Truth

‘Walker Evans: Signs’

‘With an essay by Andrei Codrescu’

(CNN) — Not long ago the High Museum in Atlanta hosted an exhibit of photographs by Walker Evans. As a collector of archival photographs, I was excited to have an opportunity to see such a large collection in one place. But I went on the last day of the exhibit and had to fight the crowd for even a brief glimpse of Evans’ work.

Now the J. Paul Getty Museum — holder of over 1,300 works by Evans — has published ‘Walker Evans: Signs’, featuring 50 photographs created primarily in the 1930s. It is a wonderful sample of Evans’ work — and far easier to peruse than a traveling exhibit.

Evans grew up surrounded by popular culture and imagery, his father worked in advertising, and his photography reflects this upbringing.

The images in ‘Signs’ are built around Evans’ fascination with things that, on their surface, seem almost mundane. And to the casual observer, these photographs might not have much to offer. For those with eyes to see, however, these works reveal America at a time when the people were only just beginning to become self-aware. What on the surface appears nothing more than advertising becomes, with Evans’ careful composition, nothing less than social commentary.

As Andrei Codrescu points out in his near-poetic essay; “The ‘masses,’ that ideology-laden, bottom-heavy notion of the thirties, underwent a thorough examination by Evans’ camera.” Evans had a knack for spotting the details in a scene that revealed more than a casual glance could ever catch. And it is the details that reveal the subtle truths about a moment in time.

From the streets of Cuba to the crowds of Times Square, Evans captures the essence of time and place, exposing the layers of truth hidden beneath the veneer of popular imagery. Take time to see what at first glance is not obvious, and the experience will be different every time you open the cover.

Review: W. Eugene Smith, Photographs, 1934-1975

A book review I wrote for CNN.com in 1999. One of the best photo-books I’ve ever seen, but it’s a lot more than that.

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‘W. Eugene Smith, Photographs, 1934-1975’

Unforgettable book combines art, artifact

(CNN) — “My station in life is to capture the action of life; the life of the world, its humor, its tragedy. In other words, life as it is. A true picture, unposed and real.”

These words, written by photographer Eugene Smith in a letter to his mother in 1936, represent both the high ideals of a young photographer, and the paradox that would threaten to undo him.

Smith, called by one essayist ‘The Arrogant Martyr,’ is perhaps one of the greatest photojournalist America has ever produced. In the years before his death in 1978, Smith chronicled 50 years of life and everything in it. 

From death to Bob Dylan, from the hell that was the war in the Pacific to the human tragedy of environmental disaster, and from the desperation of poverty to the style and beauty of celebrity, Smith’s camera eye captured the human experience one moment at a time. 

These moments have been gathered together into a new compendium, “W. Eugene Smith, Photographs, 1934-1975”. This new volume, published with the cooperation of Smith’s son and the Center for Creative Photography, in Tucson, Arizona, (where his work is archived) represents nothing less than a chronicle of America, and much of the world, in the middle years of this century.

As a war correspondent and pacifist, Smith chronicled the immense tragedy and human cost of the campaign in the South Pacific. He dared to photograph what the censors would never allow to be published during the war — images of the dead, in particular civilian casualties. 

This experience would mark the start of a long battle for editorial control over his work that Smith would not begin to win until his second stint with Life magazine — a battle which would ultimately change the very nature and process of photojournalism.

Smith traveled the world to find his subjects, all the while focused on his goal of capturing “the action of life.” This collection, published by Abrams, retrieves long-forgotten and never-published images from the obscurity of the past, blending images from his Life magazine photo essays with the shocking realities of a war with which many Americans were only partly familiar.

And yet the book is more than a mere collection of images. It is filled with essays detailing his life, his influences, his work, and his endless search for the truth. It is a combination of art and artifacts, well rendered and completely unforgettable. The essays will inform you, and the images will stay with you long after the pages are turned and the cover is closed.

This volume will be cherished not only by those with a passion for photography, but by anyone with a love of history and a need for truth — a truth that carries an emotional impact that transcends the time and space between the viewer and the viewed.