Monday, September 29, 2008


The Customer Is Always Wrong is a collection of essays on retail life. The book is edited by Jeff Martin, manager of a Tulsa Barnes and Noble, and features 21 anecdotes by writers you most likely will never have heard of about their own personal experiences working at a wide selection of retail jobs. Obviously I picked up this book because of its flagrant similarity to my own. And let me tell you, mine compares rather favorably to this one. For one thing, it’s funnier. And it’s less fussy.

For the most part, the essays range in quality from slightly boring to fairly amusing. A highlight is Victor Gischler’s tale of his time spent selling hearing aids, which made me laugh for two solid minutes.

Anybody who’s worked in or shopped retail (that is, everybody) can relate to something in this book, and it’s an entertaining enough read.


Monday, September 22, 2008


The Phantom Tollbooth is a children’s fantasy novel written by Norton Juster and Illustrated by Jules Feiffer. The story is about a bored child named Milo, who travels to the fantastical Kingdom of Wisdom, where he makes friends, goes on quests, and learns valuable life lessons.

The moral of the story is overt: Milo goes in apathetic toward everything and gradually acquires a healthy appreciation for reading, math, thinking, and learning in general. There are obvious parallels between The Phantom Tollbooth and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Tollbooth is, in a way, a Pilgrim’s Progress for thought and learning.

Juster’s story is based on wordplay, and is heavily pun-driven. But Juster’s writing is so clever that this nearly always works without becoming tiresome, and the book is so humorous and entertaining that even adults should not get bored.

Feiffer’s illustrations are sloppy-looking pen scratchings. They aren’t great, but they get the job done. Ultimately, though, in the almost fifty years since The Phantom Tollbooth was published, Fieffer’s art has been indelibly intertwined with what this book is. In other words, The Phantom Tollbooth is not a book that could ever be re-released with a different set of illustrations.

The Phantom Tollbooth is a classic of children’s literature, a book that has held up well over time, and one that can be enjoyed by adults as well.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

THE CRUSADES by Anthony West

The Crusades, written by Anthony West and illustrated by Carl Rose, provides a brief overview of the First through Fourth Crusades. This volume is just under 200 pages, which barely enough space for West to cover the who, what, why, where and when of things (most everything but the "what" is often glossed over).

West focuses on the people he sees as the key figures of each Crusade: Peter the Hermit, Saladin, Richard I, and Louis IX. Most other people are mentioned by name and title only, and without background they tend to run together. 

West does a good job of presenting the Crusades fairly, as there isn't room for much editorializing (all there is one egregious instance where West describes those crusaders who fled a hopeless, lost battle resulting from ambush as "cowards). He depicts the disorganization, incompetence, squabbling, and terrible acts of the crusaders, and some of the nobility and mercy of the Saracens. 

It is important to note that while the Crusades are often described as Christians versus Saracens, "Christians" is used in a cultural-political rather than spiritual sense. Certainly in hindsight the Crusades were a black eye for Christianity, and they involved large numbers of ignorant and hateful "Christians". The Crusades, by and large, couldn't have less to do with true Christianity. But nobody wants to re-label it along the lines of Europeans versus Saracens, because the objectives were religious in nature. 

Taking West's The Crusades for what it is, an introduction to the first four crusades, it is certainly not without value. 


Sunday, September 7, 2008


All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat is a little illustrated book by Suzy Becker. Each page has some piece of wisdom like “Be curious” and “Don’t always come when you’re called,” and a corresponding illustration involving a fat white cat.

The whole thing is very cutesy, and if you aren’t a cat lover, this isn’t for you. But if you are a cat lover/owner, you can relate to a lot of what’s in here, and you’ll get some enjoyment out of the book.

Ultimately, All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat, while containing nothing particularly hilarious or classic, is what it sets out to be: cute.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows is a children’s novel by Kenneth Grahame, and was originally published in 1908. It concerns the doings of four anthropomorphized creatures: Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad. Most of the book involves their day-to-day activities, and there is very little plot to speak of.

The book is quite often tediously slow. No character other than Toad does anything remotely interesting or anything approximating an “adventure”. Most of the book involves Mole and Rat puttering around their happy but excruciatingly mundane lives. Those chapters that involve Toad are slightly more interesting. The last chapter of the book has the makings of a full-blown action scene, but Grahame breezes through it in astonishingly short order. The characters are moderately interesting, but three out of the four protagonists are irritatingly melodramatic in their behavior.

Something Grahame has done well is vividly depict the charms of nature and the English countryside. But sometimes he does this too vividly, particularly at the beginnings of chapters, where the reader is often faced with page after page of nothing but description.

The Wind in the Willows is not without its charms, but it isn’t particularly interesting.