Saturday, December 18, 2010

Flaming Zeppelins: The Adventures of Ned the SealFlaming Zeppelins: The Adventures of Ned the Seal by Joe R. Lansdale

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ever have a six year old tell you a story? ("We got in my fire engine, which was a space ship, and went to the moon and a gorilla fought a dragon and then we had cookies!") Well, these two related novellas seem to have been written with the same principle in mind. In the first one, "Zeppelins West", Buffalo Bill (or rather his disembodied head -- long story) takes his Wild West show to Japan as part of an undercover mission to rescue Frankenstein's monster and ends up on the Island of Doctor Moreau, while in the second, "Flaming London", Mark Twain and Jules Verne find themselves fleeing from an invasion by H.G. Wells' Martians. Oh, yeah, and the connecting character in both pieces is a superintelligent seal. Now I won't deny that these stories have a certain ADD-addled charm, due to their author's insistence on throwing in every steampunk trope he can think of, but at the same time, I'd be hard pressed to say they ultimately added up to much beyond their rather feverish name-checking.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic CityBoardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Admittedly, I picked this book up because of the tv show, since I was curious to find out just how much of it was based on actual fact. After reading it, I can say that the producers have generally stuck to the spirit, if not the letter, of the historical record, and although they've taken a fair bit of dramatic license with the material, it's not because Atlantic City's history lacks drama. From its early days, when it was planned as an upper-crust health resort (something that went by the boards pretty quickly after speculators realized they could make more money catering to the desires -- legal and otherwise -- of day-tripping blue-collar workers from Philadelphia and New York) to its boom years (roughly from the Gilded Age until the Second World War) as America's Vice Capital to its near death during the 60s to its recent resurgence since the legalization of gambling there in the late 70s, it's not a place that has ever lacked for colorful characters, certainly not as Nelson Johnson tells it (special bonus: Johnson really, really, REALLY doesn't think much of Donald Trump), and while the show's decision to concentrate on the years of Nucky Johnson's (fictionalized as Nucky Thompson in the series) reign as Atlantic City's political and criminal boss in the Roaring 20s makes for some great drama, this book proves that there are plenty more stories here to tell.

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Edible StoriesEdible Stories by Mark Kurlansky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kurlansky is famous for his "micro-histories" like Cod and Salt that take a seemingly mundane subject and expand on it to reveal its pivotal place in human history. Here he attempts the same approach to fiction with somewhat more mixed results. A novel in the form of sixteen separate short stories about a loose collection of people linked by coincidence or consanguinity, it ranges from Anne Beattie-like minimalism to borderline magical realism, held together by a persistent tone of low-key wistfulness, with food -- unsurprisingly, given the author's previous work -- serving as a running focus of or link between its characters (for instance, the bag of "red Hawaiian sea salt" that gets passed from person to person like Stevenson's Bottle Imp). Not bad for what it is, but it made me hungry for more of Kurlansky's nonfiction.

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