Here's the list in reverse chronological order if you want to peruse. Let me know what you think...
Friday, December 31, 2010
Here's the list in reverse chronological order if you want to peruse. Let me know what you think...
Ulysses is the kind of book you could read again and again and again and again and always absorb a different narrative or interpretation - but right now it's a book I'd be happy to leave where it is and never look at again. I'll still agree with someone if they tell me it's one of the best books of all time. I still gave it 4 out of 5 stars. I recognize its brilliance, its completeness, its revolutionizing effect on literature and the English language. But boy was it hard to get through.
Ursula K. Leguin is one of those names you see pretty prominently in the sci fi section and she's always been on my to-read list. Starting with the award-winning novel about gender and identity and cold weather and connecting with the outside world seemed like a no-brainer. I'm glad I read The Left Hand of Darkness, but didn't enjoy it as much as I tend to enjoy sci-fi. It was a thought experiment more than a plot-driven novel, as science fiction used to be 40 years ago. What would happen if people didn't have assigned genders, but came into a particular sex for a little while to mate and then reproduce? How would that affect civilization? What would that mean for personal relationships, families, global conquest, and personality? Le Guin's conclusion isn't really one - it's more of a rumination. People would be less aggressive, and would be suspicious of an entity purporting to be a representative of a large conglomeration of human planets. The story was interesting, starting in cities and ranging through tundra, work farms, and continents. I'm glad I read it and I think you should too, if you like sci-fi.
Brandon Sanderson has done it again - mostly. For those who are unfamiliar with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, it's a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy epic that began in the early 90s and still has not come to a conclusion. The books are enormous (regularly pushing 900-1000 pages), the scope has broadened to hundreds of characters, and, this being a fantasy series, the fate of the world is on the protagonists' shoulders. Robert Jordan plugged away for about 6 books of stellar quality, and then he lagged for several volumes that saw main characters forgotten, plotlines stagnate, annoying plotlines introduced, and very little happen. The series started to pick up with the publication of The Knife of Dreams - Things Started Happening - but then the poor guy got sick and died. Fortunately his wife and editor picked a younger author to finish off the "last" volume. That volume turned into three - and thus far it's been a good "final trilogy." There aren't many slow moments so he can be forgiven for expanding it into three books... a lot needed to happen to achieve resolution. We're currently hurtling toward The Last Battle (yes, it's even capitalized in the book), and people are Doing Things and Stuff Is Happening. And it's entertaining and well written. I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it, but I'd highly recommend giving it a shot. My only quibble is the voice of Mat, one of the main characters, who seemed a bit off, though not so much that his long-awaited chapter wasn't mostly fulfilling. Can't wait for the (really) last book!
I'm beginning to love Barbara Kingsolver - after reading The Poisonwood Bible I was happy to have stumbled over Small Wonder: Essays in the library. I'd recommended reading this - she narrates the audiobook version and her drawl and Southern accent makes her sound a bit like Diane Rehm. I got used to it after the first (rather slow) few essays. After that it was great story after great point after excellent argument. This was written shortly after 9/11, so there are some ruminations about war and fear and government, but she shines the most when she writes a simple letter to her 13-year-old daughter, and then one to her mother. She writes about independent bookstores, sustainable living, and TV. I enjoyed nearly all of them, both in terms of her writing and her points. I'm a bit fried right now (just finished Ulysses) and am not reviewing this with enough gusto, but I'd recommend it - I'll be looking for her earlier collection of essays - High Tide in Tucson.
Saturday, December 25, 2010
Monday, December 13, 2010
"There is a wonderful, willful quality to this mix: Mr. Gaiman is one of those adventurous creators who sees no reason why his tales shouldn't embrace slapstick comedy, mystical musings, and the grimmest collection of serial killers this side of Death Row. He makes this combination work because he has a comprehensive knowledge of the medium and knows where his strengths lie. He has also - and this is infinitely more important than being a Comic Brat - a point of view about the world which he uses the anarchic possibilities of the medium to express. After all, where can the glorious, the goofy, and the godlike stand shoulder to shoulder? Where else can the bubble-gum hearts, the dream travelers, the serial killers, and the occasional guest-star from beyond the grave all occupy the same space? If the sheer profusion of these inventions and the apt absurdity of some of the juxtapositions puts you in mind of on of your more heated dreams, then surely that's what Mr. Gaiman intends. Forget what he's written on the title page. Hero and author are here synonymous. For the time you spend in these pages, Mr. Gaiman is the Sandman. And look! He just brought you a dream."
I liked the writing in After Dark enough that I'd want to read something else by Hakuri Murakami, but not enough to actually have enjoyed the book a great deal. It's essentially a literary translation of a typical night spent by the Japanese people the Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson hung out with in Lost in Translation. The characters themselves aren't very important, and neither is the plot - it's the interesting writing. In fact, it has the feel of a screenplay, because he addresses the reader directly - "our viewpoint pans across the room" etc. It does jostle your perspective and expectations in a fun way - you linger over a cell phone sitting on a shelf in a 7-11, or stay looking at a mirror after someone leaves a room. I'd recommend if that's the sort of thing you're looking for, but I'd imagine I'll find I like his other plot-centered stuff a bit more.
Friday, December 3, 2010
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Monday, November 29, 2010
The Elements of Cooking is an interesting almost-narrative glossary of most things you'd need to know to understand what a cook is talking about. I learned the definitions of lots of terms that you see on fancy menus (or hear thrown about on Top Chef or on food blogs), what beurre blanc and beurre rouge are and how to make them, and also how to make stock. We made a great deal of that using the Thanksgiving turkey, which was spectacular. I'd highly recommend this book for the non-cook, the cook, and he experienced, snooty cook.
Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense at a time when essentially all governments in the history of the world had been monarchies, ruled by despotism, or small enough to be totally and functionally nonexistent at a societal level. His articulation of the injustice of hereditary monarchies, military dictatorships, and colonial rule (of white people) is brilliant and ... wait for it... revolutionary.
His reasoning is clear, concise, and absolutely correct. The examples he uses, which range from biblical stories to the political landscape of the 1770s are fitting when one considers that the only information most people had at the time was printed in a bible, printed in small newspapers, read to them from a bible, or told to them by people who had read newspapers. I didn't need the story of the Jews' choice of a king to show me that kings are bad, but when most people learned to read by their bibles, I'm sure it was a smart move.
What is hilarious is that the Glenn Becks of the world use Common Sense as a manifesto for the evils of government. Well yes, he does castigate monarchies pretty thoroughly, and with good reason. And yes, they are governments. Governments that overreach and are fundamentally unstable in a changing world. But Paine speaks with passion, reason, and vigor about the brilliance of an elected representative government. Democracy is good. That is his thesis. We still have a democracy, as do most "socialist" European countries. Therefore it's folly to interpret this brilliant long pamphlet is a conservative treatise that gives you proof that the Founding Fathers wouldn't like liberals.
Highly recommended if you haven't read before.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Well, and I think that a review of The Good Earth needs to start with a "well, and" and end with a "well, now" because literally every other line of dialogue in this classic starts with one of those phrases. I assume it's a translation thing she was trying to get across, and I assume that she knew what she was talking about because she spent a good chunk of her life in rural China after having been born in West Virginia.
Anyhow, it's a classic, won a bunch of awards in the 30s and is seen as an accurate picture of Chinese rural life by much of the world. I'm not sure about that - it was interesting and it seems feasible she got the setting and customs right - but it was really a bildungsroman. For those who had to Google that, that means a coming-of-age story, but she really takes it into almost allegorical form by making it about all people (and by that she means men) and about all lives. Regrets, success, forgetting, making your mark, fear, the tenuousness of happiness, materialism - all of these are a part of Wang Lung's life.
(Spoiler alert.) He goes from poor farmer to happy poor farmer to farmer-ruined-by-drought to city beggar to extremely lucky draft-dodger to extremely lucky thief to wealthy farmer to wealthy landowner and happy old man. There are plenty of twists and turns in there for him, but that's his arc, and I was struck by how different his life would have been had he not lucked out and not come across a scared old rich guy carrying a lot of money. Buck tries to make it a story of success - poor farmer turns into the rich lord he once groveled before - but I just took the point that some people are lucky and some people are not. His hard work had very little to do with his later success.
And let's not get started on the famous misogyny - his wife and mistresses and daughters barely rate a mention, though his wife is one of the more admirable figures in literature. Maybe that's how Buck chose to make a feminist point - I sincerely hope so.
Well, now I really enjoyed it for the most part, I'm glad I read it.
"When we got into Dr. Breed's inner office, I attempted to put my thoughts in order for a sensible interview. I found that my mental health had not improved. And, when I started to ask Dr. Breed questions about the day of the bomb, I found that the public-relations centers of my brain had been suffocated by booze and burning cat fur. Every question I asked implied that the creators of the atomic bomb had been criminal accessories to murder most foul."
"Forty years ago I first linked up with Unguentine and we made love on twin-hulled catamarans, sails a-billow, bless the seas... So begins the courtship of a certain Unguentine to the woman we know only as Mrs. Unguentine, the chronicler of their sad, fantastical tale. For forty years, they sail the seas together, alone on a giant land-covered barge of their own devising. They tend their gardens, raise a child, invent an artificial forest--all the while steering clear of civilization. Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine is a masterpiece of modern domestic life, a comic novel of closeness and difficulty, miscommunication and stubborn resolve. Rarely has a book so perfectly registered the secret solitude of marriage, how shared loneliness can result in a powerful bond."
"When Albert Schweitzer walked into the jungle, bless his hear, he carried antibacterials and a potent, altogether new conviction that no one should die young. He meant to save every child, thinking Africa would then learn how to have fewer children. But when families have spent a million years making nine in the hope of saving one, they cannot stop making nine. Culture is a slingshot moved by the force of its past. When the strap lets go, what flies forward will not be family planning, it will be the small, hard head of a child. ... For every life saved by vaccination or food relief, one is lost to starvation and war. Poor Africa. No other continent has endured such an unspeakably bizarre combination of foreign thievery and foreign goodwill."
Monday, November 22, 2010
Meh. I love me some Jon Stewart and Daily Show, and I love how his work over the last decade has become timeless. The Daily Show has a long shelf life. This book does not. I bought it in a bargain bin maybe eight years ago, and forgot about it. After the Rally To Restore Sanity, I thought I'd give this a try.
It's a bunch of short essays about pop culture of the late 90s, where Hanson Christmas cards detailing their decline, a Martha Stewart sendoff, and Princess Diana's immature letters to Mother Teresa all seem very dated. Somewhat "heh" but not enjoyable. The other pieces that are older (the secret Gerald Ford tapes, Hitler's Larry King Live interview, JFK's Jewish schoolboy chum's trip to the Kennedy Compound) should have more staying power but somehow don't.
I'm glad Jon Stewart is doing what he's doing now. We're all better off this way.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Once again, Malcolm Gladwell releases a book, I read it, I like it a lot, and tell people about it. This one isn't even new material - just a collection of his New Yorker articles in book form. They're still fascinating. He looks into infomercials and Ron Popeil to explain sales and selling. Ketchup to explain taste and marketing. The Dog Whisperer to explain what animals see when they look at us. Birth control methods to explain reproductive cycles, historical change, and religion's effect on private matters. Mammograms and spy satellites to give context to supposedly foolproof methods of observation. Etc etc.
It doesn't have a central thesis like Tipping Point or Outliers did, but it's still fun and informative and challenges your brain. What more can you ask for?
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
I read A.J. Jacobs’ “A Year Of Living Biblically” last year, and judging by my review of it, it’s hard to imagine why I tried his other famous book. I thought his attempt to chronicle living by the words of the bible was a little juvenile and disappointing in its lack of historical analysis. I wanted to hear more about why things made their way into the bible, how people have interpreted it over the years, what it meant to him and people in our age. It ended up being a scattershot personal journey that was more about the importance of family than his intended subject matter.
This was also a lot more pop-psych than I would have hoped for. His “investigation” into what intelligence actually is amounts to various gestures toward common clichés, rather than his opinion about what being smart means. As he reports on interesting bits from the encyclopedia, he goes for the quick yuk-yuk joke rather than absorb the info or tell you what he thinks it means. “Apparently, there’s a whole group of people – and by people I mean losers – who also comb the Britannica looking for mistakes.” Ha, ha! Ha! Sigh.
All this said, it borders on informative, and it sounds like a fun way to increase your understanding of the world. A survey course of existence, forcing you to know about things you’d never read about.
I did find the entry on Thomas Paine interesting enough to want to read more of his stuff, if only to have ammunition in a theoretical fight with a Tea Partier: “His ideas were solid – relief for the poor, pensions for the aged, public works for the unemployed, a progressive income tax. But in England, where he was living at the time, it got him charged with treason. Things worsened with he wrote another pamphlet attacking organized religion. Though he made clear in the pamphlet that he was a deist and believed in the Supreme Being, he still got charged with being an atheist.” Sounds like Glenn Beck hasn’t read Paine.
I did have to identify with Jacobs in this respect:
“I’m wondering if – to continue Ezekiel’s metaphor – I bit off more than I could chew when I announced this Britannica project to the world. Because I have to tell you, I’m not sure I can go on. I’m not sure I can hear another one of those tissue-thin pages crinkle while turning. Or see another black-and-white picture of an old man with elaborate facial hair. Or learn about the average cubic meters of water discharged by another African river. Or crack open another volume with a spine emblazoned with the Scottish thistle – a plant with sharp thorns that serves as Britannica’s weird-looking and aggressive logo. Why exactly did I think this was a good idea again?”
This book was also the last one I read on a Kindle - I'll post about my thoughts on e-readers soon.
Monday, November 15, 2010
This was recommended on a few lists that contained mostly grown-up books, and I understand why - but I wasn't expecting such a short book when I ordered it online. In Me Own Words isn't in any library system I belong to, so I had to try Amazon. It's supposed to be Bigfoot's tell-all autobiography. It's more of a short graphic novel with a lot more words than you'd think. "Me have opinion. What happen world me ask? Me once believe in good. Now, no. World go shit, just like bigfoot screenwriting career." It gets better and better, and the illustrations are funny and graphic and weird and not what you'd expect. Definitely recommended.
So far this year in books written by comedians, I've read Craig Ferguson's book "American on Purpose" and Bill Maher's book "New Rules." Steve Martin's "Born Standing Up" is much more Ferguson's than Maher's. I truly enjoyed a thoughtful, sincere, and funny novel-length biographical essay on comedy. Martin's book doesn't try for laugh-out-loud moments, but manages to make you chuckle to yourself here and there, smile, and furrow your brow with "ahhhhhh" moments. His take on what comedy means is refreshing. He begins with a brief childhood sketch and then gets right into his career, education, and stand-up failure through success through departure to movies. I think this quote will illustrate what I liked best about the book:
"I recently viewed a musty video of an appearance on The Virginia Graham Show, circa 1970, unseen since its airing. I looked grotesque. I had a hairdo like a helmet, which I blow-dried to a puffy bouffant, for reasons I no longer understand. I wore a frock coat and a silk shirt, and my delivery was mannered, slow, and self-aware. I had absolutely no authority. After viewing the show, I was - especially since I was writing an autobiography documenting my success - depressed for a week. But later, searching my mind for at least one redeeming quality in the performance. I became aware that not one joke was normal, that even though I was the one who said the lines, I did not know what was coming next. The audience might have thought what I am thinking now: "Was that terrible? Or was it good?"
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
I was not expecting to like Hunger Games - young adult books rarely satisfy me. But Collins' voice was intelligent and interesting, the story pulls you along from about page ten, you want to know exactly how far things will go, and what it all means. The meaning of this book has more to do with just how far voyeurism, reality entertainment, and exploitation will go. With these subjects it manages it does well. The larger political meaning I'm told will have to wait until books two and three - which makes me want to read them. I want to know what a post-second-civil-war-brought-on-by-resource-battles-and-regional-infighting United States looks like from another perspective than its cruel sacrificial exploitainment game system. Collins seems like she's got more to say and I'm willing to give it a shot.
Sarah Vowell’s most recent book is The Wordy Shipmates, and I wanted to like it more than I did. It’s the story of the second wave of pilgrims/immigrants to Massachusetts in the 1600s. After the Mayflower landed, John Winthrop showed up with a dozen ships and became the first Governor of Massachusetts. I grew up playing the town of Winthrop in track and lacrosse, so I always find it fun to learn about the origins of Massachusetts names. Newton was a new town, Swampscott was… a swamp?
Anyhow, Vowell’s contention is that the pilgrims were nerdy religious types. When talking about how few books they were able to bring over, she says: “Winthrop and his shipmates and their children and their children’s children just wrote their own books and pretty much kept their noses in them up until the day God created the Red Sox.” Perfect.
She takes us through the voyage over from England, and this passage jumped out at me:
“To see a ship similar to the Arbella, you can go to Plymouth, Mass., and climb aboard the replica Mayflower II, which to me is a claustrophobic floating vomitorium I couldn’t stand to be on for more than nine minutes, much less nine weeks. (A replica Arbella was built for Massachusetts’ 300th anniversary in 1930; but, according to Francis Bremer, it ended up beached at Salem’s Pioneer Village and the city of Salem tore the thing down after it “became a haunt for youths indulging in various questionable activities.”
Sounds like the north-of-Boston suburbs I grew up getting to know. The book is interesting, and well-researched, but I found it dragged here and there. I liked Assassination Vacation better, which I absolutely did not expect. There’s a lot about the religious philosophy behind what drives these people, and though the colonists’ interactions with the Native Americans looms large in the narrative of the book, for some reason I thought those parts weren’t as interesting as they should have been. Though you can see the importance of these relationships and, knowing bits of the history that unfolds through the next few centuries, you have a sense of dread as alliances are made and broken. Your mind runs through possible alternative futures – how could America have developed in peace with the people who’d lived there for millennia? Would it have been possible? It must have been. What could they have done? Something. The book doesn’t talk about this at all (it’s not its bailiwick, so that’s fine), but I was hoping for a little more. My disappointment is only a 4 out of 5 kind – I did enjoy the book and learned a lot, and her voice is very enjoyable. Definitely recommended.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Utterly fascinating history of the invention, development, spread, ubiquitous use, and decline of the telegraph. The Victorian Internet is a very important global read - this invention was truly one of the most important our species has ever created. The phone, fax, internet, and satellite systems were all just continuations of this idea. A connected planet, exchanging information in real-time. Standage, just as in his "A History of the World in Six Glasses," manages to communicate a subject that could be convoluted, dry, and inaccessible in an extremely clear and entertaining fashion. Couldn't put it down.
Quick notes - because an in-depth summary would be silly for a book of this nature:
Samuel Morse essentially invents the electric telegraph (after the French and the British try to make use of the optical telegraph - which is essentially an elaborate windmill whose arms you can manipulate). He manages to invent Morse Code at the same time.
He has the darndest time getting anyone to think it's anything more useful than a funny trick.
Thomas Edison not only invented the lightbulb, but he got his start running messages back and forth in complex telegraph stations (as did Andrew Carnegie), became an excellent Morse Code operator, and then revolutionized the existing technology behind the telegraph. Smart guy.
It took a lot of false starts to lay down the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable, but the process essentially involved dumping miles and miles of reinforced cable out of a boat and chugging to the other side.
Because you paid by the word, people developed elaborate code systems to communicate by long nonsense words that required a codebook to translate.
This is easily one of the better books I've read all year. "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time" is funny, intelligent, and gripping. Somehow Christopher, the autistic narrator who hates metaphors, can make you feel the emotions of the serious things happening to him despite not being able to feel them himself.
His father ended up becoming the main character in the emotional realm to me. Because Chris doesn't like to be touched, his father, despite losing his wife, is only able to express his love and devotion to his son by holding up his hand and spreading his fingers, and then joining their fingertips. Anything else will set Chris off, and though it seems like a consolation Christopher makes to the odd emotional needs of the people he's forced to share a planet with, his boiler-repairman father clings to the gesture like a life preserver.
I loved the diagrams, pictures, and sketches he includes in the book to better communicate imagery. Christopher doesn't like metaphors, though he'll try out similes.
I love how he has to wrap his head around one of his father's friends' odd habit of socializing with his father:
"When I got home Rhodri was there. Rhodri is the man who works for father, helping him to do heating maintenance and boiler repair. And he sometimes comes round to the house in the evening to drink beer with Father and watch the television and have a conversation."
If you don't like this paragraph, you probably won't like the book:
"Eventually scientists will discover something that explains ghosts, just like they discovered electricity, which explained lightning, and it might be something about people's brains, or something about the Earth's magnetic field, or it might be some new force altogether. And then ghosts won't be mysteries. They will be like electricity and rainbows and nonstick frying pans."
Seems like everyone I know has read this, but if you haven't, it's a quick read and I predict you'll enjoy it.
I really enjoyed Assassination Vacation. I've seen Sarah Vowell on the Daily Show, and her incredibly subtle, dry sense of humor practically forces you to read her books.
This is about three presidential assassinations - Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Lincoln's murder, being slightly more well-known than the other two, requires more digging, and Vowell really goes the distance. She goes from historical landmarks, monuments, graveyards, seashore dying places (Garfield was shot in DC and after months of not healing, went to the Jersey Shore to escape the summer humidity), assassin enablers' prisons and, for instance, the store John Wilkes Booth bought his gun. She drags along her sister and young nephew for many of these treks because she doesn't drive. Her sister tries gamely to humor the morbid nature of these trips, but the nephew loves it all - he calls cemeteries "Halloween Parks."
You learn a lot about all three presidents, their VPs, the history of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and America's peculiar fascination with guns. You learn that though Lincoln freed the slaves, his memorial service was segregated. Garfield's assassin was much more than "a disappointed presidential appointment-seeker: he wanted to be appointed Ambassador to France, was crazy, hilarious, homeless, and a product of an Upstate NY Bible Communist Sex Cult. Also, the guy who sheltered John Wilkes Booth after he fled DC apparently knew more about Booth than he let on to authorities: "Which is why, when authorities questioned Mudd, Mudd played dumb, claiming that he didn't recognize Booth because Booth was wearing a fake beard - lame."
Lame. Awesome. More than the history and the factoids that she imparts to her readers, I love her voice. She really does show herself in the narrative, and she's a sarcastic, nosy, lovable, dark, know-it-all. For this book, that voice really works perfectly.