February 6, 2012

Your micro-review roundup: 6 February 2012

(Because I make my way through so many books and movies for CCLaP, I regularly come across projects that are interesting enough unto themselves but that I simply don't have much to say about, or at least not enough to warrant an entire entry. I thought, then, that on occasional weekends I would gather up such "micro-reviews" and post them all in one large entry; they can also be found on CCLaP's main book and main movie archive pages.)

A Higher Court, by John L. Betcher

The Covert Element, by John L. Betcher

A Higher Court: One Man's Search for the Truth of God's Existence
The Covert Element: A James Becker Thriller
By John L. Betcher
Self-published

I recently received not just one but two new books from author John L. Betcher, so thought I would do a review of both of them at once too; and this is unfortunately easier to do with A Higher Court, a wispy, extra-silly examination of basic theological questions (and by "basic" I mean "teenage") couched as a literal court trial to determine whether or not God actually exists, the kind of eye-rolling exercise that one would normally expect to find as filler at the end of a church newsletter or an issue of Reader's Digest, a waste of time for most that does not come recommended. But this is a tougher call when it comes to the other book, aptly named The Covert Element: A James Becker Thriller because of it being the third book in the series; for while these kinds of tech-heavy military thrillers featuring a former-military bureaucrat-badass as its reluctant central hero are far from my usual cup of tea, I have to admit that I found this to be no better and no worse than the various Tom Clancy novels I've randomly read over the years as well. And so that means either that this really is as good as Tom Clancy, or that I find both it and Tom Clancy to be not very good at all; so as a compromise I'm giving it a middle-of-the-road score, and encouraging you to instead consult online reviewers with a lot more experience with this genre, if you want a better objective idea of how this stacks up against other military technothrillers.

Out of 10, A Higher Court: 4.9
Out of 10, The Covert Element: 7.5

The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, by Barbara Strauch

The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind
By Barbara Strauch
Viking / Penguin

I'm about to turn 43, so I'm particularly interested these days in learning more about how the middle-aged brain works, and especially if there is any proven advice yet about ways to stave off the dementia and Alzheimer's that might come later in life, here now in my forties when I can still do something about it; and now we have this entertaining and informative book, which looks at all the recent developments in this field to show us that just within the last ten years, the scientific world has started profoundly reassessing what it knows about the way the brain actually works. Written as a series of magazine-style profiles of both industry leaders and experimenters, journalist Barbara Strauch shows for example how recent studies have shown that the human body in fact keeps growing new neural cells over the entire course of its life, directly countering the assumption the medical world has had for over a century; that physical exercise is hands-down the number-one way to stimulate brain cells into more and more efficiency; that taking on a challenging new mental activity in one's fifties, like learning a new language, may have an actual physical effect on your chances of getting Alzheimer's; and that our brain literally starts rewiring itself biochemically starting in our early forties, much like going through a second puberty, the negative effects long ago turned into cliches (like the increasing frequency of forgetting names, which actually does have a biological basis), but with this also being the biological cause of a lot of new good things too, most of which we've mistakenly attributed over history to the cultural process of "gaining wisdom" (like being more patient, having the ability to look at the world in a complex new way, and even just a general proclivity for being happier, possibly as a literal chemical response to such typically overwhelming experiences in those years like losing our parents or developing cancer). Not really a quick-fix how-to book, although containing a bit of that kind of advice (for example, fish really does turn out to be "brain food," as do grapes, olive oil, asparagus tips, and many of the other items in the so-called "Mediterranean diet"), this is instead a smart, plain-written look at all the new actual scientific theories being proposed by the medical community these days, neither pollyannish nor cynical but simply presenting the findings for what they are. Balanced and sensible, this is a great read for my fellow middle-agers who are in the mood for a little good news about their rapidly crumbling bodies, and it comes strongly recommended to that particular audience segment.

Out of 10: 9.3

Escaping From Reality Without Really Trying, by Robert Jacoby

Escaping From Reality Without Really Trying: 40 Years of High Seas Travels and Lowbrow Tales
By Robert Jacoby
Cloud Books

This clever book is a good example of what I perhaps like best about what comes from the world of basement presses; for while it's ostensibly the memoirs of a forty-year career sailor, with just as many salty, amazing stories as you would imagine someone in his position would have, it's actually written as a series of direct transcripts of oral conversations conducted with him, giving the whole thing this very idiom-based, Studs-Turkel-like feel. As such, then, some will naturally tire of its Mametesque clipped rhythm and coarse language; but since basement presses are already targeting a small, niche crowd, they can afford to put out books like these with a very specific audience, a title which its fans (like me) will find flabbergasting and delightful in equal turns. It comes recommended in that spirit.

Out of 10: 8.6

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:34 PM, February 6, 2012. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |