To ensure objectivity, no compensation, referral fees, etc. are received for reviews published on Journeys to the Edge of Reality.

Can You Spot A Con Man? (A review of The Man In The Rockefeller Suit, The Astonishing Rise And Spectacular Fall Of A Serial Imposter, by Mark Seal)
Fascinating nonfiction, conversationally written and well-paced with a near-thriller feel, with some twists and surprises along the way. The Man In The Rockefeller Suit vividly portrays how even the most intelligent and accomplished among us can be easily duped by a skilled con man, adept at hiding his lies and deceit (and worse) behind an audacious facade of charm, wealth, and privilege.

The Man In The Rockefeller Suit is highly recommended, and available at Amazon here.

Now For Something Really Strange
(A Review of The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer)

theweirdDo you enjoy stories that are darkly offbeat, quirky, strange, fantastical, and/or have a touch of the Twilight Zone? If so, have I got a book for you: The Weird, a Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.

This is a large book (110 stories, 1152 pages, available at Amazon here (hardcover) or here (paperback)) that delivers many hours of wondrous reading, a great investment. Arranged chronologically from 1907 to 2010, each story is preceded by a brief and interesting bio of the author, included mentions of other notable works; very useful roadmaps for future reading.

For my tastes, a surprisingly high percentage of the stories in this anthology were very enjoyable, making The Weird a particularly good value.

An observation: The older stories, even though they were wordier, tended to embody a higher literary standard than some of the newer tales, reflecting a culture that was more refined then than today. I have observed this cultural downward trend in other anthologies; perhaps some day we will see the trend reverse.

The Weird is highly recommended.

Can You Trust Amazon’s Book Reviews?

Am I being overly pessimistic? It seems that our culture is decaying at an ever-increasing rate. Too many of us cheat our way through college (or purchase fake diplomas), lie on our resumes or to our spouses or to our colleagues, and generally do whatever we want to further our own interests, regardless of the dishonesty required.

This shameful behavior has, predictably, seeped its oily way into the Internet, adversely affecting purchasers who expect to be reading honest product reviews, but who may instead be reading cleverly disguised advertising.

For example, prize-winning mystery writer R.J. Ellory, using false names, has posted numerous flattering reviews of his own books on Amazon, while posting unflattering criticisms of competitors’ works:

“…Although the story broke over the Labor Day weekend, it spread quickly to the ranks of American crime writers and beyond. Dozens of authors signed a joint letter condemning the practice…The letter reads, in part, “More and more books are bought, sold, and recommended online, and the health of this exciting ecosystem depends on free and honest conversation among readers. But some writers are misusing these channels in ways that are fraudulent and damaging to publishing at large….few in publishing believe [these cases] are unique. It is likely that other authors are pursuing these underhand tactics as well.”

The furor over ‘sock puppet’ Amazon book reviews” by Carolyn Kellogg, 4 Sep 2012 Los Angeles Times

Some related commentary:

“…Consumer reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth. They purport to be testimonials of real people, even though some are bought and sold just like everything else on the commercial Internet…”

“Mr. Liu estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers (or by the authors themselves under pseudonyms), by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service.”

The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy” by By David Streitfeld, 25 Aug 2012 New York Times

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Why I Like Celebrity Memoirs: A Review of Dropped Names by Frank Langella

Although I don’t read celebrity magazines, or follow celebrities via social media, I do enjoy reading celebrity memoirs. Why? Because — as evidenced by my fiction writing — I find human psychology fascinating, particularly at its farthest edge where abnormalcy is the norm, and I have found that the far edge is the home of the psyches of many celebrities. Because of the nature of their work, celebrities inhabit an alternate universe, one that would be the worthy creation of an imaginative science fiction author, if that universe did not already exist in reality.

Celebrity memoirs, in my rather large sampling, are often me-me-me-moirs, providing a glimpse of a narcissistic world view beyond the farthest reaches explored by the Starship Enterprise. This squinty-eyed vista, however, is typically widened by the inclusion of stories about other celebrities that the memoirist has encountered. These vignettes can range from crude to elegant, angry to funny, ponderous to witty, myopic to insightful, tedious to riveting, and — on rare occasion — humble and achingly honest.

Memoirs often surprise. William Shatner’s Up Till Now is the overall funniest memoir with the most laugh-out-loud passages that I’ve ever read. At the other end of the spectrum, Bruce Dern’s Things I’ve Said, But Probably Shouldn’t Have is a memoir I’ve read, but probably shouldn’t have. Apart from raising me-me-me to record-breaking heights, it also assaults the reader with a vocabulary surprisingly restricted to numerous unnecessary and tedious recitations of a common four-letter expletive.

And now we come to a memoir that is really unique: Dropped Names by Frank Langella. Although Mr. Langella has played leading roles (e.g., Richard Nixon in the play and film versions of Frost/Nixon (highly recommended)) and is an established and respected stage actor, Langella is probably best known to the general public as a character actor in movies and television.

There are several reasons to use the over-hyped word “unique” to describe Mr. Langella’s memoir. First, it is not a me-me-me-moir. Indeed, it is hardly a traditional memoir at all. Mr. Langella is certainly present throughout, but only within the strict context of the stories he relates about “Famous Men And Women As I Knew Them” (the book’s subtitle), and the reader is left to understand Mr. Langella only by induction. For example, there is mention of past wives and children, but few specifics. Also, a thread of bisexual ambiguity runs throughout, evidenced by Langella’s expressed interest in (and empathy for) gay colleagues. In the end, however, this thread is not unraveled.

Second, these stories are not presented linearly, but are stand-alone vignettes of famous people with whom Mr. Langella interacted either briefly or at length, but always with enough depth to allow him to absorb engaging insights. You may not recognize every “dropped name,” (I had only hazy recollections of some) but that did not detract from the enjoyment of each story.

And finally, we reach one of the strongest features of Mr. Langella’s memoir: it is beautifully written, of literary quality, carefully composed with wit and style. The stories evoke pathos (Mr. Langella expresses deep empathy for the neglected children of certain celebrities), disdain (he is definitely not a supporter of the Stanislavsky school of “method acting”), and humor (laughter eruptions are induced throughout: caution, do not read Dropped Names in a quiet zone).

Rating: Highly Recommended

Caution: Although not presented gratuitously, expletives are contained in many instances of recounted dialog.

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