Sunday Book Reviews – 1/17/21

Bookshelf books, photo by Alien Motives

Imponderables by David Feldman (1986, William Morrow)

The success of this book from the mid-1980s spawned a subgenre of reference work in which questions are presented and subsequently explained. While such works had existed prior to Imponderables, the returns from this title encouraged publishers to purchase and promote similar books… resulting in titles like Freakanomics, How To and recently Who Ate the First Oyster?  

Imponderables is the work of David Feldman, a pop culture professor and former NBC staffer. In it, he performs the task of investigative reporter, hunting down the answers to questions which were not readily available… everything from why Wendy’s has square hamburgers to why root beer tastes flatter than cola.

In the simplest of terms, this book, influential and deeply fascinating at its time of publication, now reads like a better-researched version of a trip through Wikipedia’s rabbit hole. When it was produced, the value lay in the answers provided; today, the questions are more important. Anyone can find the answers, but many people have forgotten how to speculate about things or been trained away from critical thinking.

Objectively, the book and its sequels – many of which were published, up through the early 2000s – are inferior to those which followed. The modern incarnation of these books call upon people with expertise in a particular field to provide explanations beyond that which can be readily understood in an online summary. Imponderables titles can be found fairly cheaply, though, and make for great short-burst reading… bus, bathroom, bedside… that can provide insight into some constants (like why penguin feet don’t become frostbitten) and a glance at historical issues (like why theater concessions often limited themselves to popcorn, candy and soda.)

Other Sandboxes by F. Paul Wilson (2020, Gauntlet / Borderlands Press)

This book, recently released as a 500 copy limited edition, produces the complete pastiche work of best-selling thriller novelist F. Paul Wilson.

Confession time: this book displaced another title which was going to be reviewed this week because it arrived in the mail on Wednesday. This was the Christmas present from my wife, freshly released by the publishers. It jumped to the top of the list because Paul is an old associate (I would not be so presumptuous as to call him a friend, although we would recognize each other on sight) and because he’s a damned fine writer.

He proves it here. The book kicks off with his sole Lovecraftean work, The Barrens, which was nominated for awards, and follows that with Definitive Therapy, a story originally presented in The Further Adventures of The Joker that has been suggested formed the basis for the more calculating and evil interpretations of the Batman villain which followed. Along the way the book provides Wilson’s take on Fu Manchu, Dick Tracy, Sherlock Holmes and other characters… and then shifts gears to present sequels to stories of Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson.

He is abnormally adept at recreating the feeling of a particular writer’s storytelling while maintaining his own storytelling style. The result is a collection which stands on its own and simultaneously provides an introduction to a host of famed authors, should the reader be unfamiliar with any of them.

Wilson got his start writing science fiction in the 1970s, shifted to horror in the 1980s and shifted again to thrillers in the 1990s, each time incorporating elements from his previous focus into his current work. This tends to result in some fairly dark tones in the stories here, but as most of them involve some level of confrontation between society and evil, those tones seem appropriate.

The great failing of the book is that all of the works are reprints; if one already possesses many of the anthologies in which they originally appeared (like, say, a book dealer who does occasional casual reviews) the only real draw for the book is the convenience of having them bound together and a smile-inducing introduction by Joe R. Lansdale.

On the other hand… while a $60 limited edition may seem expensive, the Joker anthology alone will cost $25-$50, depending on the condition, and that’s just a paperback. If you’re looking for a new author to try, this is an ideal launching point for Lovecraft, Bradbury, Rohmer and others, as well as the obvious F. Paul Wilson.

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.