Sunday, January 31, 2010

ten

Hell's Angels

This was Dr. Hunter S. Thompson's first book, published as he was arriving on the journalistic map in the 60s. I was interested to see how much of his style perfected in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, and The Great Shark Hunt was endemic to his writing. Hell's Angels is a great deal more journalistic and straight than his later writings, but you can absolutely see pieces of his manic existence, sometimes only alluded to in passing. The strange quotations, casual mentions of drug use and alcoholism, the rantish meanderings that begin in confusion and end up on another plane of understanding all the while discussing very real and important things... they're all there. But he also relies more on traditional storytelling techniques, and the mishmash works well.

He became close with some members of the Hell's Angels motorcycle club in San Francisco and Oakland, and decided to write about it. His presentation of the Angels seems schizophrenic. They define themselves as being Against Everything. They have no qualms about escalating conflicts, both imagined and mundane, into raging brawls, massive property destruction, and gang rapes. They just want to be able to ride their choppers (stripped down Harley Davidson motorcycles) wherever they want, drink at any bar serving beer and whiskey, steal what they need, find girls that'll have them, not bathe or shave, dress in leather with their "colors" (patches and insignia designating them as Hell's Angels outlaws), and not get disrespected. In this sense they are compared to Wild West Outlaws and John Dillinger types.

They are also artists in the caretaking of their bikes, retrofitting them, ensuring they run perfectly, and only house what they need on a bike. They do need a big frame though, and HST describes their view of other motorcycles thusly:

"The little bikes may be fun, like the industry people say, but Volkswagens are fun too, and so are BB guns."

He also describes them as descendants of Scots-Irish downtrodden Appalachian fighting people, in the tradition of that book Albion's Seed, Jim Webb's book Born Fighting, Malcolm Gladwell's explanation of its "honor" culture, or this blog post. Thompson follows the group's migration to the west coast, where they found the end of the road. Their descendants, after fighting in WWII, still had places they wanted to explore and things to prove. Going on "runs" to the middle of nowhere to be alone with friends, drink to insanity, and break things seemed to be the only activity that sated those bottled-up needs. As he describes: "There is the same sulking hostility toward 'outsiders,' the same extremes of temper and action, and even the same names, sharp faces and long-boned bodies that never look quite natural unless they are leaning on something."

There's a point when they're lounging on a lake in Inland California on a run, and an expensive platoon of motorboats arrive on the other side of the inlet. The people piloting them are handsome frat boys and gorgeous model type girls, playfully lounging in the sun and clear water. At the same time:

"A hundred feet away, on the other side of the inlet, the Hell's Angels lounged in all their grubby splendor. There were no sun tans, bikinis, or waterproof watches on that side, The outlaws stood on the rocky beach in jockey shorts, wet Levi's and matted beards that made their skin seem pale and moldy. Several were splashing around in the water with their clothes on."

You wonder where this kind of apathetic, negative, mutually destructive, suspicious slice of the population has gone - Hell's Angels aren't the menace they were in the 60's. But it's just changed into another generation, and grown. Here's HST again:

"Their lack of education has not only rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy, but it has also given them the leisure to cultivate a powerful resentment ... and to translate it into a destructive cult..."

Recognize this resentment? Go to any political blog post and read the comments. Turn on Fox News and wait for a "Special Comment" or Glenn Beck's show. Go to a Tea Party protest. It's all there. And some have started to spread an educated veneer onto the resentment, while others have inexplicably tied right-wing religious politics to it, while others have forced a strange marriage of this resentment with the political priorities of the super-rich. Whenever this angry zeitgeist can be harnessed and shoehorned into the voting booth through scare tactics and misrepresentations, anyone can get elected, because there are a lot of people the feel left behind in this country. I wonder if this is a uniquely American thing, or if other countries have similar movements, but in different forms.

Anyhow, Thompson surprised me with the clarity and thoughtful analysis he brought to this book - along with his usual wild ride. Definitely recommended because it manages to jump through the anachronisms and speaks to certain parts of our present sociological existence.

Friday, January 29, 2010

nine

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

The Black Swan - Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I've been digesting this book for a day or two, and I still don't really know what to say about it. Taleb is very intelligent and can write about difficult philosophical and epistemological subjects with ease, and he usually has the courtesy to bring you along with him. You know he understands what he's trying to say, but sometimes it seems like he's trying to say contradictory things. The book is a discussion of how people treat probability, risk, statistics, and prediction incorrectly. He marshals his experiential anecdotes, fictional stories, theories, philosophical ideas, and statistical breakdowns in the main argument that we need to pay more attention to Black Swans. These are events or quirks in existence that are nearly impossible to predict, very important and impactful, and rare. His argument is that usual statistical models (the bell curve, Gaussian statistics) aren't useful because they don't take into account these rare and important events. This causes people to build their lives around safe assumptions of what will happen, ensuring they remain unprepared for Black Swans, which can be positive or negative.


I think it's an interesting argument, and he managed in 2007 to talk about the dangers of Wall Street ignoring the warning signs of a large collapse in the housing market and hedge fund/investment bank over-leveraging. That's an important insight, and I'd like people like him weighing in on how our financial sector should be organized.

My troubles with the book mainly reside in the organization - he meanders a great deal. At times he seems like he wrote it to settle scores and write wrongs by explaining himself to people he feels have slighted him (similar to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion). I found myself noticing increasing instances of not-so-subtle digs at the French, Nobel Prize winners, most philosophers, economists, Wall Street traders, people who think they know anything, and anyone who's looked askance at Taleb's theories. Additionally, he veers between "we don't and can't know anything" and "I'm not saying we don't and can't know anything" as we speed through the book.

I got the point that narrow uses of statistical models are dangerous and panning out in the picture of reality is important. I got that a lot of "experts" are too focused and blinded by their dogma to be safely useful for dictating policy and research. I got that good ideas are often ignored, important events aren't predicted well, and history is often unexplainable. Skepticism is underutilized. But other than vowing to think critically-er, I'm not sure exactly what else I'm supposed to take from the book.

I'll still be ruminating about what I got from this book for some time, and I'm glad I read it. But I think it could have been a better book.

Monday, January 25, 2010

eight

A History of the World in 6 Glasses

This was a lot of fun. Tom Standage is a writer for The Economist, and this book, A History of the World in 6 glasses, reads well. It takes you through 6 chapters dedicated to: beer, wine, distilled spirits, coffee, tea, and Coke.

Beer was a big part of the development of domestication and agriculture, and he goes through how it probably developed and what customs still survive. Beer used to be drunk from one huge jar, and everyone would use a straw, so it was a very communal thing - one of the antecedents of the modern "cheers."

Wine he takes through its discovery and the Greek and Roman preference for it. Did you know that "strong wine" for them was a mixture of 2 parts water to 1 part wine? Only insane cultures and Gods drank unadulterated wine without mixing a lot of water with it.

The distilled spirits chapter followed the exploration of the world, sea voyages, and increasing international trade. Rum became a standard daily ration on British Navy vessels, and because they drank it with sugar and lime juice (called grog), sailors stopped getting scurvy. The French sailors, who still drank brandy every day, were more scurvy prone, and Standage attributes some of the Royal Navy's successes to the disappearance of scurvy.

Coffee is important in terms of the Enlightenment and waking up a population that drank beer, wine, and liquor all the time (water was too unsanitary). Once coffee's popularity took hold, and people could drink something that didn't make them inebriated and actually gave them energy and focus, coffeehouses turned into meccas of discovery, discussion, business and science. Newton was inspired to invent calculus after a friend had made a bet at a coffee house about the elliptical orbits of planets. And the dubious story of Gabriel de Clieu is just funny, true or not.

Tea was another import from Asia (coffee came from the Middle East) that caught on in Britain and followed the development of the colonial system. The British imported their tea from China, not knowing how it was harvested. Once they got their hands on some of the actual plants and began cultivation in India, the British East India Company became a very powerful entity in the region with armies, government-like powers, and a huge influence on Parliament.

And Coke brings you to the present, where corporations, branding, globalization, and the relationship between business and government can be explored in an interesting way through the development of Coca-Cola. I don't drink it myself, but if I did, I'd really be interested in how it came about and how the company has operated for the last century.

It's all fascinating, I'd encourage anyone to read it. The contextual treatment of world history was very easily absorbed. For instance, his explanation of the actual reasons Bostonians held the Boston Tea Party would make certain parts of the conservative movement think twice about their ideological mascot - the Tea Act was actually a move to lower taxes but also gave the British East India Company a monopoly to export tea to the colonies. The Tea Party is more of a lesson in the dangers of ties between government and business than a pat anti-tax catchphrase.

You'll never look at your glass, mug, bottle, or tumbler the same way again.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

seven

The Bluest Eye

I love the way Toni Morrison writes! Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, is a great introduction to the way she puts words together, and the way she comes at the heart of her story from many different angles before finally revealing what she wants you to know about it.

The Bluest Eye's jacket has a review from the New York Times that says: "So charged with pain and wonder the the novel becomes poetry." I really can't put it much better than that. She takes a concept - our perception of racial beauty - and tells a story about a girl that personifies this struggle. But in doing so, she throws into the pot - almost as minute particles of spice - observations about how we say things, see things, think about things, hear things, and relate to one another that cut to the quick of human experience. Which is all any author can ever hope to do in fiction.

As for the story, she tells us about Pecola, this poor, forgotten and abused girl. This could be a depressing sob story that doesn't say very much. But it's absolutely not. It means something. And in telling her story, she tells the story of myriad people around her that affect, observe, promote, ignore, care, or facilitate Pecola's imperturbable, horrifying downward trajectory. And somehow, it's beautiful and terrifying and revolting and profound.

But her words! She doesn't just say that two adults had a conversation that two children couldn't understand. She says:

"Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop. Sometimes their words move in lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm-pulsed laughter - like the throb of a heart made of jelly. The edge, the curl, the thrust of their emotions is always clear to Freida and me. We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all their words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre."

I was totally impressed.

She also manages to push your worldview, in a gentle yet direct manner, to see more of life and how people act. You want to behave better than you did before picking up the book. Pecola could easily be the homeless woman you see on the street and briskly walk past with a pang of guilt, but immediately forgetting. Reminders that everyone has a story and trials and tribulations and reasons for why they are the way they are, like this book, hopefully push us to see the world a little more clearly. And compassionately.

I'd recommend reading this book, and then wading into the deeper pool of Beloved. That is a complex, solid chunk of a book that I dived into headfirst when I was in high school (thank you Ms. Defeo) - reading this book makes me want to read Beloved again. I am sure I'd be able to absorb more.

six

The Sound and the Fury

I'm still not sure what I think about The Sound And The Fury. It helped Faulker win the Nobel Prize, is lauded as one of the greatest American novels, and certainly is a great example of stream-of-consciousness writing. It shows the downfall and disintegration of a Southern family in the 20s, first through the eyes of the developmentally disabled brother Benjy, then through the smart older brother Quentin, then the greedy middle brother Jason, and finally through a third-person omniscient narrator (but mainly through Dilsey, the matriarch of the black family that's served the Compsons for a long time).


I admired some of his wordplay, it was lyrical and sometimes provided good imagery, and I imagine the dialect as written was interesting in the 20s. The stream-of-consciousness writing is often clever, when you can follow it. And it really does show the total fall of this family.

But I had some problems with it that the positive attributes don't totally indemnify. In order to see the fall of a "once-great" family, it's absolutely necessary to have some idea of the greatness they once possessed. You get zero picture of this while reading this book. Most of the family members are awful, annoying people. Benjy and Caddy, the sister, are the only ones with redeemable qualities. He is innocent and child-like, she actually cares about him. The rest (who comprise the main focus of the book) are simply terrible people. He does manage to make you feel a little sorry for the fruitlessness of Jason's life, at the same time making it clear he's a contemptible, abusive miser. Quentin's a whiner walking around in a fog, all the while obsessed with family honor (that the reader is unable to understand). Candice, the mother, is a petty, neglectful, selfish hypochondriac. The father, barely there, exists as a fountain of "father knows best" quotes. Additionally, they're all contemptibly racist. This may be accurate for the time, and that might have been the point Faulkner was trying to make, but it's not very fun to read. It's especially awful to see the way the black serving family is treated - more of an unnoticing neglect than abuse - and then not see any real growth or realization or self-awareness of the way race is treated.

I guess I expected more? Maybe it'll grow on me the way On The Road grew on me after I read it, and realized that my disliking it because of the lack of plot was silly because it wasn't supposed to have a plot. The point was the beautiful, manic writing. Faulkner writes well, but I'm still not sure I'll come back to this book because of it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

sapolsky



I love this man. Well, not the man in the video preview above - the one he's introducing, Robert Sapolsky. His first book that I was fortunate enough to read is The Trouble With Testosterone, and others of his I've enjoyed are Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers and A Primate's Memoir. He's a brilliant and compassionate neurologist and primatologist, spending a lot of time in East Africa studying baboons, and in the process he's learned a lot more about his fellow humans than most of us will be capable of doing. I highly recommend reading any of his books, and watching this video - he's the bearded man that comes on after the introduction.

I also just noticed that he wrote another book in 2005 called Monkeyluv, a collection of essays. No doubt that's going straight on my list. Next year I've got to reread The Trouble With Testosterone (another collection of essays), it was life changing for me in high school.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

five

Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability
Green Metropolis, by David Owen.

I think I was expecting a slightly different book than what I got. The synopsis as I understood it was that he'd explain why compact cities are actually the ideal form of ecological living. Manhattan is his heaven - mainly because apartments are thermally efficient and don't take a lot of space, it's easy to live and commute without cars, and lots of people take advantage of things that pollute in efficient ways. The suburbs and rural areas, to him, are terrible because you're required to drive everywhere, houses are inefficient, there is a lot of wasted space and resources, and the infrastructure required to support people so spaced out is very inefficient.


These are all great points, but he ends up ignoring and too easily brushing aside some huge points pertaining to the inherent wastefulness of cities and some of the benefits of quieter, simpler living.

However, his larger point that he makes repeatedly in the book is that the steps we usually take or try to take to reduce our carbon footprint, be less wasteful, increase efficiency, etc, all actually are worse for the environment than not doing so. He starts with the familiar critique of recycling (it doesn't actually do much, the act of recycling is a panacea that makes us feel good, the process requires a lot of energy, and it allows us to consume at high levels) and then applies essentially the same argument to installing solar panels or wind turbines, planting trees, eating local foods, driving hybrid cars, installing high tech efficient windows, hydrogen fuel cells, and dozens of others. Many of these criticisms could be good points, and it makes you truly think about what we're trying to do when we talk about "saving the planet." However, he stays in the gloom by not recommending anything that he'd consider actually useful. He doesn't go much beyond insulation, consuming less (which he acknowledges is useful up to a point but becomes impossible as the asymptote approaches the line), living in apartments, not driving at all, and telling other people not to live outside of cities. Yes, he writes this book and then justifies his own life in northwestern Connecticut in an old house with multiple cars.

He also dislikes DC - apparently when he stayed in a hotel downtown he asked the bellman for walking directions to a building about a mile away. The bellman said he should take a cab, and from that he concluded that everyone in DC must drive cars, never walk, and live in a city with too-short buildings that aren't set up well for walking. Suuure. I walk all the time, see people walking all the time, rarely drive, and see much fewer cars on the streets than I do in Manhattan. Also, we live in an apartment building.

He also goes to Dubai and Beijing and rightfully laments that such new development proceeds in a manner that ignores what will happen when oil becomes prohibitively expensive. It's truly a shame that new development can't be built around more comfortable, sustainable living - that driving seems to be a status symbol and therefore new cities are developed in such a way as to make the drivers' lives easier.

It's not an uplifting book, but it's a great read - he treats the science with respect, and even if I'd guess his politics run a little libertarian, he doesn't get into the nonregulation weeds too badly. I'd love to read an honest book of his recommendations, or if he'd just want us to follow Jimmy Carter's advice and turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

list

Several folks have asked to see the list of books I'm tentatively planning to read. So here it is! You can see from my initial post about organization that I've got my columns with the little x's, and I've added another to keep track of what I've read and am currently reading. Again, this isn't a final list - for instance I might switch my Umberto Eco book from Foucault's Pendulum to The Name of the Rose. Who knows.

If you see anything wrong in here, speak up in the comments - I haven't dutifully inquired about the mortality of 100% of the people on there. I also had China Mieville listed as a nonwhite male for a while, strictly based on a prejudicial glance at his name - silly me.

I also have a few notes about where I know I can get books I don't own. I'm going to stay vague here for now, I'll talk more about my thinking on where to acquire books in a future post.



I feel kind of exposed right now, so be gentle with me.

four

The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory

David Plouffe's The Audacity To Win is a well-written book, and I believe Plouffe actually wrote most of it, so kudos to him. Also, kudos to him for running a campaign that approached the realm of flawlessness.

He keeps the book interesting throughout, but at times there was a focus on the mechanics of campaigns that got a little boring. Those parts were few and far between, however - usually my internal monologue was more along the lines of "Well, what about this? You forgot about that!" He didn't talk about some of the sillier parts of the primary (I'd love to hear Plouffe's take on Obama Girl and celebrity endorsements for instance), and he barely talked about Palin after her nomination. I suppose that could reflect where his head was throughout the campaign, but it was still a little jarring when interesting parts of the race got brief mentions. Still, I learned a lot about his general electoral strategy.

The main reason it doesn't get five stars is the fact that he engages in a little bit of whitewashing of the rough-and-tumble of the 2008 campaign. He deals with campaign research a few times, and always professes that the Obama campaign dealt with opposition research much less than other campaigns. I have reason to suspect this isn't the full story. He also talks about "research" that was done on the electorate, accompanying a section extolling the utility of focus groups. What he means by research in this context is actually polling - something all campaigns do. This is fine - call it polling or focus groups. His impetus to call it research seems to come from the way the campaign talked about itself as practicing a Politics of Hope - I would have liked a clearer picture of the rubber meeting the road. The Obama campaign had six pollsters (Hillary's campaign had one - which was a huge mistake - and infrequently had another). A fuller story would talk about how they were used to run such an amazing campaign.

I suppose this blunt honesty is too much to ask - but he was bluntly honest at times about the kind of language used inside a campaign (it's not PG like the press releases). In some sections he writes verbal exchanges that absolutely sound like press releases though - they stand out like sore thumbs in the context of a good old-fashioned Rahm Emanuel "fuck you." (That, he says, is how Rahm says "see ya.")

I also appreciated the honesty he conveys of how raw everyone's emotions got during the primary. It got pretty heated, and he writes that the pacifying speech he was going to give to staff the night of the South Dakota and Montana primaries turned into more of a barnburner after he saw Hillary's speech that was more celebratory than conciliatory.

All in all, a great book that gives valuable insight into how the greatest campaign I've ever witnessed achieved the impossible, without re-hashing the conventional wisdom of political journalists.

I did need to put it down from time to time due to flashbacks, however!

three

Ringworld (Ringworld series, Book 1)

Larry Niven's Ringworld won the Hugo, Nebula, and Focus awards for Best Novel when it came out in 1970, and I can see why. It's a great traditional science fiction book that explores some interesting concepts in harder science (think the opposite of midichlorians or the Vulcan Death Grip). It's almost the year 3000, and in a pretty boring, pseudo-utopian Earth world society made uniform by teleportation booths, Louie Wu, a bored explorer, turns 200. He's bored with being able to teleport anywhere on Earth, especially because people and information spread so fast due to the teleportation that there remain few distinct cultures.

He gets recruited by an alien species relatively unfamiliar to humans to go explore an anomalous ringworld. I'm pretty sure the description and invention of the ringworld are what got him the awards - they must have been quite revolutionary. Essentially picture the Earth's orbit around the sun, and fill the path of that orbit with a million-mile-wide metal floor, filled toward the sun with earth and water and plants and animals and people and air. The floor (the ring) rotates with enough spin to provide gravity, and there is a faster series of clear and night-time occluded panels that serve as a day/night cycle. Walls on either side hold in the air.

Something this big was built by a very advanced civilization with a great need for a heck of a lot of space, so a lot of the novel consists of Louie and his party explore the Ringworld and try to find out who built it, why, and what the super-advanced technologies that helped operate the fallen civilization actually do. And yes, he has a party - him, two aliens, and a woman - funny how sci-fi and fantasy novels always pull together a ragtag group of heterogeneous characters to go essplorin' with the main character. Perhaps it's a way for the author to imagine his own group of insta-friends.

I thought it was enjoyable - the logic and thinking they use to try to figure out problems and purposes are often interesting and innovative. The writing style was too jumpy and paternalistic for my taste, however. When Niven had to deal with a sticky ploy point, he often just jumps ahead and smooths over what must have happened. Overall an enjoyable read, though. Perhaps I'll follow up with the series at a later point in time, but probably not this year.

This was my first try with an audiobook this year, and it was really easy - reading books this way will be how I'm able to approach 100 this year. I think I'll do a bigger audiobook post some time soon.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Review: Outliers

Outliers

Yet another spectacular book by Mr. Gladwell. I think three authors I'd love to have dinner with would be him, Douglas Adams, and Robert Sapolsky. I do enjoy some of the criticism of his work however, most notably spoofs of his writing style. There's some truth that he just kind of recycles points others have made, but I always enjoy when someone can explain science (which includes psychology) in a way that's understandable to someone who doesn't read journal articles for a living, yet also smart enough to not lose too much of the intellectual rigor behind the research.

Anyhow, the book is great - a well-aimed arrow in the heart of the theory that we all succeed by talent and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, or fail by not doing so. It makes the case, very compellingly, that we're much more affected by cultural legacies, luck, dedication, and broader societal values and movements than individual talent. Not everyone can just create success. Which seems obvious when you say it, but so often we think of success in different, more meritorious terms.

It's also very fun and interesting to read - the third book of his I've taken less than two days to speed through. I'd rank Tipping Point first, this second and Blink third.

Review: Journals 1952-2000, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

Journals

Interesting central view of national Democratic politics in the last 50 years. Also funny ruminations on speechwriting, political figures, foreign policy, history, authorship, media, dinner parties, Lauren Bacall, and Henry Kissinger. The man was at the front of a lot of history and talked to a lot of important figures, and also went to a lot of parties. He also has an old world view of women. But he sounded like a fun guy to hang out with, drink bourbon, and chat politics. It's a long book so you can skim around if you want, but I found myself reading the whole thing.

Review: The Forever War

The Forever War

Whew. What a book. Dexter Filkins is a NYT war correspondent: he was in Afghanistan from 1998-2000 (until the Taliban kicked him out), then covered Ground Zero right after the attacks on 9/11, then covered the invasion of Afghanistan, then without being embedded with the military he DROVE OVER THE BORDER IN HIS CAR RIGHT BEHIND THE TANKS AS THEY WENT FROM KUWAIT TO BAGHDAD and covered the Iraq war from Baghdad from 2003-2008 which included embedding himself with a group of Marines during the assault on Falluja.

First off, he's a badass.

Second off, he's seen everything: from public Taliban executions, to burned out and long-looted luxury hotels in Kabul, to NYC firefighters pretending to try on Brooks Brothers sweaters in a blown out downtown Manhattan, to sneaking over the border during the invasion of Iraq, to going out and running 5 miles a day through downtown Baghdad, to nearly getting executed by various insurgent groups, to covering Ahmed Chalabi's campaigning (that included flying to Tehran to meet Ahmadinejad and then walking through an empty western contemporary art gallery that somehow remains in Tehran), to visiting with the families of fallen soldiers in Middle America, to seeing explosions, abductions, IEDs, senseless murder, warm hospitality, fierce loyalty, and the US military trying their darndest to figure out what the hell they're supposed to be doing.

Third off, he's able to tell this crazy story in an episodic manner that somehow makes sense. He throws in a bit of contextual narrative here and there so you know a bit of what things might mean.

At first I was frustrated that there wasn't more context. Here, Dexter's meeting with his source and finding this out about the death squads. Now here he's trying to cover X politician. Now here he's describing how this platoon commander can handle stress but this one really can't (and what it does to the men he's leading). Now here he's talking about the packs of feral dogs and how they're dealt with in Baghdad, or what makes a family in Anbar decide to finally flee Iraq, or how crazy it is to go through security to get into the Green Zone, or how the Shiites use electric drills and Sunnis just behead people, or how the CIA folks look just like regular people, only very still.

It's a frustrating narrative choice, until you realize that's what it was like to experience it. It was an insane inferno, and no one can really make sense of it. He just told his story, and he somehow got a decent slice of what it must have been like, and what it must be like, for people over there. Kudos.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Review: The Road

The Road

Grabbed this from the library, took it on the plane to Tucson, and finished before we landed. I wasn't expecting to love it - didn't even know if I'd finish, but it pulls you in. You're expecting something big to happen, or be explained, but it comes at you slower than that, and then all of a sudden they've survived something terrible, and it's time to move on. I thought the roving cannibalistic groups would play a bigger part, but the main thing was the relationship of the father and the son, and keeping on despite absolutely no hope of anything good.

It definitely shatters you emotionally, and I understand why some have called it one of the best environmental books ever (despite no explanation for the cause of the apocalypse). Really makes you think.

And after reading a Rolling Stone profile of Cormac McCarthy, I'm even more fascinated by him. He hangs out at the Santa Fe Institute, which is this educational think tank where scientific and philosophical geniuses hang out and shoot the shit. He is just this author guy that likes hanging out and engaging in conversation with these brilliant people.

It makes me want to read his books, meet him, and join the Santa Fe Institute at some point in my life.

Review: Haunted

Haunted

I marked this on my "thriller" shelf on Goodreads.com but it's really just an everyday horror story. Or a horror story about the everyday.

I raced through it because of my love for Chuck's writing, the way he keeps you fascinated with amazing nonfiction detail acting as horrible little oases in a dark desert of terror, guilt, shame, and gore. The way that each page has a point and a larger purpose in a philosophical take on modern society and existence in general. The way that his imagery is truly, deeply, nauseatingly visceral - how he finds the best way, with as few words possible, to describe the mind-numbingly horrifying thing that just happens to be occurring right in front of you.

He's said that he doesn't like any of his characters. It's true, they are on the whole really bad people with very few redeeming qualities. That on the whole do really bad things. Not just bad, but stupid, narrow-minded, small, shameful, awful, pretending-to-be-normal-but-not, deceitful, and bizarre. But there's a bit of that badness in the rest of us, along with the sparkles of not-badness, that makes Chuck's take on it all cut to the quick of what makes our species what it is, and what it hopes to be.

But it is really, really, really bloody. As an FYI.

Review: Diary

Diary

The worst book I've read by Chuck, but that means it's still pretty good. I don't know, I just didn't find it that compelling. His other stuff is so great that perhaps this just could only fall short. Still original and interesting, but I couldn't get that excited about it. First of his I didn't race through and I actually lost interest in the middle.I'm used to scarfing down his books in a day and a half. The story's about this island of old money New England bozos, a prophecy, artistic talent manifesting itself in a newly-arrived spouse, and then catastrophe which turns into financial windfall for the bozos, who then go back to being useless. It's an interesting cycle, but not a very interesting story. Sorry if I ruined it for you.

Review: Rant

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey

Almost gave this 4 stars because of a few plot holes and confusion, but I've read there will be 1 or 2 more books about Rant, so I'm giving Chuck the benefit of the doubt, which he's earned. Great novel about a lot of crazy things that don't seem interesting at first, but then spiral into a rather satisfying maelstrom of events that you have to piece together. Also includes one of his traditional mind benders at the end which causes you to go back through and re-read the book in an hour to notice all the things that slipped by when you thought you were bored/confused.

He's still got it!

two

From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (Oxford History of the United States)

This book is exactly what I had hoped it would be. I had initially anticipated that an Oxford history of American Foreign Relations would be the straight man to Howard Zinn's American history rapscallion. The author's name is George C. Herring, a professor at the University of Kentucky, for crying out loud.

But I was pleasantly surprised at how forward-looking this hulking tome was. It treated Native American nations as actual countries that the USA had dealings with, was critically honest about the intentions of US leaders and their various levels of preparedness and competence, and usually did a pretty amazing job of highlighting areas America ignored around the world - for better or for worse. This was not a textbook, to say the least. It's what everyone should read to give context to our place in the world.

Reading this has made me want to read in more detail about several periods of our history, such as our dealings in Central America and Cold War divided Europe. I'd also like to find out more about certain prominent individuals, such as FDR (and his cabinet) and General Winfield Scott. Scott, also known as Old Fuss and Futhers, fought in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Aroostook War. What is the Aroostook War? It was a border dispute between Maine and Canada, which essentially amounted to a barroom brawl. Scott was dispatched, alone on horseback, to settle the dispute, end the "war," and presumably sober up the participants.

The book really makes the point that the United States' natural state is interventionist - and only has had periods of isolationism. For instance, the Marine Corps hymn that goes "From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli" is something we tend to just hear and then not think about very hard. But it comes from the war with the Barbary Pirates against the nation of Tripoli in 1805 - the first land battle the United States fought on foreign soil. The "Halls of Montezuma" refer to the Battle of Chapultepec, in the Mexican-American war, where Marines landed in southern Mexico and marched straight to Mexico city, fighting insurgent warfare along the way (and in Chapultepec Castle - the Halls of Montezuma). Again and again you see that the mood that kept FDR from taking the USA to war against Nazi Germany was more anomalous than the natural state of the country. The book also describes how this is not always a good thing.

Highly recommended, if you don't mind a dense book that takes a while to finish.

PS (do people do PS's on blogs?): I did not read this book entirely in 2010. Almost half was, but more of it was read toward the end of last year. I'm going to try for an extra book to make up for it, but since I read 400+ pages this year, I won't feel too bad to include this on the list.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Review: Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History

Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History

Really interesting for the first 600 pages. Har har.

Exactly what I was looking for in terms of a book on a religion - it's essentially a narrative encyclopedia about Judaism. Goes through the Bible, religious texts, historical periods, and then contemporary practice and custom (the last bit I skimmed through). It picks out events, people, ideas, and places that you should know about to have some sort of literacy when thinking about Judaism (and by extension, good parts of Christianity, Islam, and world history). Really interesting. Each entry is anywhere from a few paragraphs to a few pages, usually brief and well written.

I almost gave it 4 stars because at times he tries to paint Judiasm as logically the best choice of religions, but then I realized he's a Rabbi, writing a book called Jewish Literacy, and my goyim self should be more surprised at how even-handed and restrained it really was.

Review: The Church: The Evolution of Catholocism

The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism

I thought this would be a little more historical and devote less pages to a religious vocabulary than I am not used to absorbing (liturgy, ecclesiology, monastic, eucharine, etc etc). Also, apparently Marionology (Mary) and Christology (Jesus) are words. And disciplines. Yes, religious scholars have taken scientific terminology and used it on characters in the bible, and have devoted whole areas of study to them. I just don't get it.

I skimmed through pretty quickly over the parts that had constant biblical citations or paragraph after paragraph of the aforementioned language. But the parts I did read were a slightly interesting summation of the history of the church, albeit one-sided. I will give McBrien credit for acknowledging some of the seedier sides and epochs of the Catholic church, and celebrating the small steps forward (he particularly loves Vactican II, and he wrote warmly about Pope John Paul II genuflecting at the Wailing Wall and writing some apologetic things about the Holocaust. So that's nice. Bu the rest of the book either bored me to death, or insulted my intelligence. I just don't understand a life, be it layman or scholarly, devoted to these amorphous formulations, theories, terminologies, and artifices of faith. I'd understand if it was historical (in fact, that's exactly what I was hoping this book would be), but it's pseudohistory. It's scattered too-brief sketches of what the people behind the bible might have done, plus the bible itself, and then an examination of church behavior since its founding colored through esoteric and artificial terms like eucharist, body of Christ, Holy Ghost, and Church (evidently I still don't understand what they mean that word to mean).

So I gave it a shot! Now when I read my Dawkins, I have something to compare it to.

Review: What Happened

What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception

Oh, Scotty boy.

The book he wrote was ABOUT interesting things, and that's why it's got three stars. I also appreciated his general handling of Iraq - it made me think about the whole long-term implications of the region slightly differently. The writing style was mediocre. He tries to be a somewhat dispassionate narrator, but ends up just being mostly boring. I listened to it on audiobook, and Scott himself narrated it. His vocal style is very George W. Bush-esque, and that got a little grating.

But I think the main issue I had was the content. Scott tries to paint Bush as this bipartisan, honest Texas governor who got to the White House pledging to root out the political way DC runs, and was taken down by his advisers, some personality quirks, and the 'permanent campaign' of the Bush White House, Congress, and the press, who likes to 'pick on people.'

First - I'll trust Molly Ivans' interpretation of Governor Dubya over your wool-covered eyes, Scott. Bush was a horrible governor, who didn't have to do much, and what he did do, he made worse. Trying to whitewash him as this great leader is a convenient trope that allows you to set yourself up as a betrayed non-prodigal son later in the book. There's a reason more people voted for (then) boring old Al Gore than your amazing boss - he was awful then, and he was awful as President.

Second - DC takes many queues from how the White House is run. And how the people who work there interact with the press and the national constituency. You were part of that, and while you take some responsibility, there was nothing keeping you from speaking up at the meetings you say you felt you had to remain silent at, or going to the press back then.

Also - the national press's major fault is trying to find conflict in issues where there might not actually be conflict, because they want interesting stories. They weren't just trying to 'pick on' you - your actions, and the actions of the White House you took flak for, were actually that bad. It wasn't unfair bullying. There was just so much the WH had to answer for, and the press was treated with such disdain, that I'm sure it started to feel one sided. Most of the time I would wonder why they weren't hitting you more often.

But you get three stars because it was an interesting peek partially behind the curtain of the west wing and because it was novel to get your perspectives on White House machinations in a somewhat honest fashion. Most Bush aides never seem to tire of repeating their same old talking points, and while you were guilty of this as press secretary, you at least seem to try to come to terms with the Bush years with something approaching honestly and self-reflection.

Review: The Invention Of Air

The Invention of Air

This was fascinating, and more technical/scientific/philosophical than books I've grown used to reading. Provides a decent mental workout of following the arguments he makes, but not difficult at all. It's interesting to hear Priestley's experiments explained, but I was expecting him to have a little more influence on American Founding Fathers. Definitely interesting he had influence at all, but the contact was essentially a bunch of letters between him and Franklin, and a few between him and Jefferson. After the blurb talked it up so much, Johnson almost skips past it. Interesting to hear of his ideas about Christianity, which truly seems to have helped berth the Jefferson Bible. He definitely got stuck on this stupid theory of "phlogiston" which I think is totally silly and possesses an absurd name.

I don't often read biographies, but this made me glad I watched HBO's John Adams, and made me want to read a good biography about Ben Franklin (and not Priestley)! The book wandered a bit, but I'm glad he did his research and wrote about religion and progressive politics.

Review: Traffic

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)

Interesting synthesis of sociology, cognitive psychology and social psychology studies on traffic and vehicles. Pretty fun and it zips along for bits, but gets bogged down in some repetitive traffic safety sections. Very interesting especially when listened to as an audiobook in the car!

Review: Too Far From Home

Too Far From Home: A Story of Life and Death in Space

Really interesting ride. It's a history of the two astronauts and one cosmonaut who were stuck on the International Space Station after the space shuttle Columbia burned up on re-entry in 2003. Because all shuttles were grounded for a couple years, their ride home had to be jury-rigged (via Russian space capsule) a few months longer than they'd planned.

If the premise doesn't seem interesting, the way that Jones writes about space, being in space, and what it means should make you pick up the book - hearing the details of day-to-day life "on station" makes you want to try it out (but not for too long). He also gives it a sense of scope that often gets lost in more clinical/historical versions. He also slips in bits of space travel history without making it seem overt.

It lost the fifth star in my review because his tactic of telling and the re-telling portions of the story of the station's travails got confusing, especially with the frequent trips to more distant space history. Overall, I'd highly recommend.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Rules

So I've started. One book down (Gilgamesh) and about to polish off my second. In case you're wondering, the last few reviews are of books I read prior to starting this 100 books in 1 year journey that I talked about in this post. I'll continue to post a few here and there to keep things colorful, and to solicit opinions on my reviews, of course. They won't count toward my 100 this year.

Anyhow, it's time I go over my thinking on the confines of this absurd challenge. After all, as a friend pointed out on New Year's Eve, I could just read a bunch of Goosebumps books and be done with it all. So a brief Q&A on how I see the rules:

Do essays count?

I'm not going to have much, if I have any at all. I've been looking askance at my copy of Civil Disobedience, realizing I only read a couple excerpts from it in high school. It's short, but I'd like to read it, and it's an important work. I think I'll err toward collections of essays, but if something's important I will make exceptions. The rule is traditional books, however.

What about plays?

Similar to essays - depends, but edging toward no. A few recommended works of the Bard, yes. Reading 50 plays... not so much.

Graphic novels?

Once again, not reading comic books here. However, Maus I is on my list, I've been meaning to read it for a while, it brings diversity to the list, and it seems like it defines critically acclaimed.

Can I skim, or do I have to absorb every word?

I'm not going to skim through these books, though I imagine I'll end up in some technical writing in some of these books that I won't be able to absorb, and I might skim here and there. No more than I usually do, and that's not in the spirit of this challenge.

What if I've already read it?

Cover to cover: disqualified. It'd be cheating, and there's no benefit. If I've read part of it, I'm making an exception, where I'd skim through parts I know in order to get to the unread parts. There are only a few I can think of that fit this category, however (Red Mars, and Bloodchild and other Stories where I've read one story but not the rest). Again, exceptions but not the rule.

As a corollary, I'm about to finish The Oxford History of U.S. Foreign Relations. Four days beyond my goal (an inauspicious start to 2010), but I'm hooked and there's no way I wasn't finishing all 1030 pages. I've got less than 100 pages to go, and because I've read 300-400 pages since New year's Eve, I'm going to provisionally count it toward my 100. Of course I'll try to read another to make up for it having been partially read in 2009, but I feel comfortable including it, given my investment. It'll also be interesting to talk about.


What if I don't want to finish?

I can't think of the last time I decided not to finish a book. I usually don't pick up just anything, so I'll usually power through to the end to see how bad it was, or if the author fixes it in the end, or where things end up. I suppose I might come across this situation with 100 books though, and I'm going to say right now I'll at least try to skim to the end. If I absolutely can't finish, I should at least have enough interesting things to say that it'll make a good blog post about the experience. More than halfway through, I'll count it. Less, I have to try again.

Do I have to actually read it or can I listen to an audiobook, or be driving and have a passenger read aloud to me?

I think both of these are perfectly valid ways of reading a book. They require different ways of focusing attention, but it's how a big chunk of the reading public experiences how authors tell stories, and I'd be doing myself a disservice if I didn't try them out. On this note, I'll be trying out a family member's Kindle at some point this year, to see how different mediums affect the way you read things.

Any questions of how I'm handling this whole idea? I'm sure there are things I haven't even thought of yet. The goal is to add to my "read" pile and learn a heck of a lot in the process about the books' subject matter, new vocabulary, my literary proclivities, and literacy in general. I'm trying to make the rules enable those goals as much as I can.

I'm also trying to make them in such a way as to preserve my sanity, and my wife's.

Review: Status Anxiety

Status Anxiety


Really interesting. I don't tend to read this kind of thing, but I saw his TED talk about status, and despite status being something I don't think about a lot, his delivery was interesting and he had some solid ideas.

The book's a short philosophical exercise that goes through causes, and then solutions, of anxiety we feel about status. Both run the gamut from religion, politics, lovelessness, history, and other ways of looking at how we've looked at life over the last couple millennia. Do we put up with gargantuan divides between the high status folks and low status folks because we think people get what they deserve? Because we think that after we die people get to "live" in the way they should have in life? Because there's a constant struggle to right the system (the arc of justice is long but bends toward justice)? Because the world's mean, and mean people can get what they want by taking it (and give their high status to their kids who are equally undeserving)? And why do we feel the need to compare ourselves to each other?

He answers some of these questions, but the value is in raising the questions in interesting and well-thought-out manners.

Most importantly, his writing is superb, and clear. It's a book I'll end up buying some time soon so as to have an example of clear writing when I'm feeling unclear (just as I'll read a bit of Bill Bryson to get in the witty/funny mood for an email I've been meaning to write).

Review: The World Without Us

The World Without Us


This had the potential to be dry, boring, and repetitive. It was none of those things.

What an amazing book, stemming from a really simple, smack-your-forehead-why-didn't-I-think-of-that premise. He could have slacked off and just wrote conjecture, and interviewed a few "experts" and then did some armchair philosophizing about why we need to curtail our evil ways (or conversely, why we shouldn't bother), but he shines.

For starters, he actually goes to these places. An atoll in the middle of the Pacific that hasn't seen humans (to see what coral reefs without human damage look like), pristine old world forest in Eastern Europe, the DMZ between North and South Korea (because, due to the land mines, no one goes there), the NYC subway system, Texas oil refineries, Arizona nuclear plants, Mount Rushmore, amazon rainforest.... his travels are fascinating.

And if it was just that, it'd be a slightly interesting enviro-travelogue. But he tackles the science behind all the causes and effects he talks about with Bill Bryson-like aplomb. When was the last time you read about how a nuclear power plant works and actually really understood it? Or the breakdown of plastics and heavy metals, atmospheric processes, cloud effects, sewer systems, water cycles, animal behavior, bird navigation, evolution....

I really can't describe well enough how perfectly he puts together all of this. He jumps around enough that he keeps it interesting, and still holds together a direction.

I can't recommend this enough.

Review: New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer

New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer


I love Bill Maher.

I love him enough that, despite its flaws, I still managed to enjoy this book.

It came out a few years ago and is therefore a bit dated, so a lot of the pop culture references are outdated (as is the contention that Democrats can't win elections). But whereas recently, Bill has been a fighter for an honest kind of truth about our society and its problems, here he more complains and kvetches for 200 pages. He's also a little high on the bitter/sexist/intolerant meter. I can understand bitterness after losing the presidential election in 2004, and I'd imagine it'd be worse if you lost your job moderating "Politically Incorrect" on ABC because of a mild terrorism joke. But the rest of it just came across as grating.

That would only bring it down to 4 stars for me, but then came the half-assed jokes with easy punchlines. I'm not sure, maybe this'd be true even with his current amazing monologues (if you were to transcribe them), but he too often went for the easy "take my wife, please" kind of stupid joke more often than I expected, given how smart his observations are.

But recommended for a flip-through, he's usually pretty spot-on on most of his observations. (Except, in my humble opinion, his view on monogamous, respectful behavior.)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

one



Gilgamesh

I figured I'd start with the first recorded story. I guess when I thought about Gilgamesh as an epic, my usual understanding of epics caused me to think that it'd be... longer and more convoluted.


It's the age-old story of demigod-tyrant-meets-nature-demigod, they discover they're similar, they try to kill each other, they decide to become best friends, the tyrant decides to kill some evil monster while the nature guy doesn't want to but goes along with it anyway, they kill it, the nature guy dies of his injuries, and the tyrant goes on an epic quest to bring nature guy back to life. He fails, and the story ends.


The series of events has some big logical gaps that, to be charitable, are likely because they discovered the cuneiform tablets and had to piece together parts of the story. What was most interesting to me is the modern metaphors that still reverberate 5000 years later.


"I have seen death as a total stranger sees another person's world or as a freak sees whom the gods created when they were drunk on too much wine"

"Like those old people who forget their listeners have not lived through their past with them mentioning names that no one knows"


It's somehow comforting to know that writers (or oral storytellers) that long ago had a sense of humor about religion, and that younger people still thought old folks rambled on.

The bits about the scorpion people, prostitutes ruining nature men for their animal friends, evil gods, Bulls of Heaven... I suppose they haven't stood the test of time as well. But they were interesting.