Friday, August 27, 2010

fifty-nine

In a Sunburned Country

I am definitely getting old. I honestly could not tell you, if you put a revolver to my head and asked me politely, if I have ever read In A Sunburned Country before. I just couldn't. I remember several of the vignettes. I remember the general gist of his trip. I remembered that he came and went several times, and that I thought of the expensive airfare. But I marked it "to-read" on Goodreads, and couldn't remember much of the book, and don't remember being anyplace where I read it, don't currently own it, don't remember borrowing it...


I just don't know. It makes me think about the general efficacy of what it means to read a book. Is that what happens to many of the books we read? A decade later you might remember that you've read it? Some general sweeps of plot, an anecdote or two, whether or not you liked it? I remember more from other books. Most of them. Maybe? I'll have to think about this. Have you ever forgotten you've read a book?


Anyhow, it was great, just like whatever echo of my brain misremembers it. Bryson is an awesomely funny and informative writer, and following his trek through Australia is fun, informative, and absolutely makes you want to go there. Fortunately I am in a week, so that's nice for me. I think it's even nice if you're not going there - though he'll make you want to plan a trip. Even if the hoteliers in Darwin are horrible people. He informs you of fun local recent and ancient history - something I wished I found a bit more in The Fatal Shore.


He also, according to my mother-in-law, really gets the Australian people - a great mix of happy-go-lucky, optimistic, fearless, no-worrying relaxation, as well as the sometimes worrying effect this has on their local environment, natives, families, and prospective immigrants. He also talks about an assumption that no one's paying attention to them, of being overlooked. Not sure what I'll find, but it's an interesting thing to ponder. I wonder if someone could do the same for America, or if there isn't really a national identity in a country that large and divided.


His synopsis:

"Australia is mostly empty and a long way away. Its population is small and its role in the world consequently peripheral. It doesn't have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn't need watching, and so we don't. But I will tell you this: the loss is entirely ours."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

fifty-eight

Anansi Boys

After American Gods, I wasn't sure what Anansi Boys would bring. It delves into family, maturation, and tradition the way American Gods explored small-town America, belief, progress, and tradition. You see a lot more of the god world that's only glimpsed in American Gods. It's interesting, and Fat Charlie is a great main character. He's boring and just wants all the craziness to go away. But Gaiman excels at adding an "or does he?" to a situation like that.


Because it's by Neil Gaiman, it's funny and clever, even when small parts of it drag. But I thought Graham Coates was an interesting, annoying villain, who manages to get a lot more accomplished than you first think he's capable of - which is a switch. Spider is a fun, juvenile-but-smooth deity, and of course, Mr. Anancy is all laughs and tricks.


I did finish and think to myself "that's it?" - I was a little disappointed that there was only so much going on. I thought there could be a broader scope, but I suppose he had his story he wanted to tell and he told it. Pretty fun.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

fifty-seven

The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding

The Fatal Shore is not a title that makes you think "warm and fuzzy." Which is good - Australia, despite cute koala bears and kangaroos and adorably childish town names, is not a warm and fuzzy place, especially when white people stumbled ashore. Nor was it so beforehand - it's a hot, poisonous, bitey/toothy, antipodean, riptide-y, terrifying, empty, starvation-inducing continent. The Aborigines seemed to manage fine, though Hughes does portray their existence as a little nasty, brutish, and short - a point I'm not fully willing to grant. The point remains that the shore that the British fell onto after a 6 month journey was indeed, as much as a shore can be, fatal.

The particular brilliance of the Brits lay in making the shore fatal-er. They wanted a place to put their criminally minded people and their desperate poor people through forced exile known as "transportation." These two groups can be visualized with a Venn Diagram that has a decent amount of overlap, but with clear crescents of open space that represent only awful people and only those trying to survive in a pretty awful underclass. The Brits wanted to "sublimate, deter, reform, and colonize." They got tired of Irish people demanding rights, poor people demanding food, swindlers demanding other people's property, and some of the violent characters (murder was usually punishable by death) demanding the ability to hurt others. In the bargain of penalizing lawbreakers, the British government wanted to colonize a continent before the French or Dutch. They managed to create communities where convicts were rehabilitated and became upstanding citizens, as well as hellish prison environments that turned people into animals while torturing and abusing men and women to death. America had some of this through indentured servants and slaves, though the context was different, and revoution and independence changed the historical path.

Apparently the Australians referred to their convict past as "The Stain" - something to be put away in a trunk and thrown into the Pacific. It was both a source of embarrassment and a source of quiet pride - either you're upset that your forebears were thieves, or you're proud that they did what they had to do to survive the awful English or stood up for what was right and got shipped to New South Wales. Hughes does a great job of dealing with both ends of the stick honestly, without broad generalizations.

The book does manage to give you a very good idea of how European civilization was introduced into Australia, from its discovery, founding, development, and the final abolition of transportation. You get to know the governors, the failed reformers, the overseers, some of the convicts, a bit of the Aborigines, and some of the British that tried to manage the whole thing. It goes over some of the development beyond Sydney, of the road over the Blue Mountains, and some of the societal structures set up to this day. It goes into a LOT of detail about Tasmania (called Van Dieman's Land for most of the beginning of Australia, just as Australia was New South Wales or, more narrowly, Botany Bay) and Norfolk Island. These islands became the main receptacle of the truly criminal criminals. Most people shipped to Australia were "assigned" to farmers and settlers to work the land and build things, when the government didn't need them to build infrastructure. The convict labor served as a form of slavery and indentured servitude that allowed the country to be transformed into European-approved civilization on the cheap.

I was a little surprised the book stayed so focused on the convicts and penology (yes, it's a word). However, prior to this book, there weren't many scholarly explorations of Australia's history as a penal colony - and due to the huge effect it had on subsequent Aussie culture, it's an important gap. That Hughes makes the book so readable (mostly) is glittery frosting.

fifty-six

The Way of the World

I hadn't heard of The Way of the World, but found it to be a fairly comprehensive picture of the current national security status, specifically regarding weapons of mass destruction. He jumps between George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Benazir Bhutto, an Afghani exchange student, a Pakistani professional emigre, a Blackwater expert on loose nukes, a lawyer for a detainee in Guantanamo, intelligence officials, and lots of anonymous sources. All of their stories, together, make up a compelling picture of what extremists are trying to do to blow up the Western world, what the West is trying to do to stop them, and the very grey middle ground. From private undercover teams that try to test our detection systems in buying weapons grade nuclear material and trying to get it into the country to what the detainees at Guantanamo were doing before they were captured, from conservative Islamic family culture to modern Islamic family culture, from George Bush's approach to fighting terrorism to the rest of the world's, from the willingness of the globe to help stop terrorism before we invaded Iraq to the difficulty and loss of moral leadership we encounter now - it's a very sweeping book. I was impressed - and not just because I found out a lot more about a friend of mine who I had no idea was a big focus of such a sweeping book (hint: it's not George W. Bush).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

fifty-five

Invisible Monsters

Invisible Monsters was Chuck Palahniuk's first real novel, though it didn't get published until Fight Club and Survivor were out. It truly is his style, and his exploration of voyeurism, gender, and vanity is bracing. You can also see his literary path from this, through Fight Club, Survivor, Choke, Lullabye, Diary, Haunted, Rant, and probably the rest that I haven't read yet. I can definitely see how the publishers weren't interested. Apparently they're fine with violence and anarchism, but gender issues and mutilation - that's too much. Awesome, gripping story that picks you up, drops you, picks you up again, drags you a bit, and then deposits you behind the hazy lines of the traditional Palahniuk mind-warp. Definitely recommended, and more than just "Fight Club for models."


What?

So how's it going?


Yeah, I went with a lolcats. Deal.

Well, this blog has become a bit more of a book review site than I had initially intended - my apologies for that to the two of you who are actually reading this. I really wanted to get more into the experience of reading than I have, but unfortunately, life has gotten in the way of giving me enough time to read at the pace I need to in order to get to 100 this year, while also attending to the things I need to (as well as see friends, family, travel, home renovate, start a new job, and be a husband). I'm going to try to intersperse reviews of the books I read with a bit more of the qualia of reading.

Anyhow, how's it going? I'd say pretty well. I reached 50 on the last day of June - perfectly on schedule, and then took the month off of intensive reading. I installed some bamboo floors and focused on some other things for the month of July. As it stands right now, I'll essentially have to keep to a ten books per month pace, which is what I managed for the first few months. I still have leviathans like Team of Rivals and Infinite Jest on my list, and I'm trying to finish The Fatal Shore soon, but I'm finding that it's not the length of the book that dictates how long it takes to finish. Salt and The Climate War were loooooong reads, but I inhaled Snow Crash, Game of Thrones, and True Compass.

How am I liking this increased pace? I love the fact that I get to crack open a new book 100 times this year. There really is nothing quite like starting a book. You generally have little idea what you're in for - it could be something that will change the way you see the world, or something you'll complain about and be sad you spent your time on. I've tried to select books I'll probably enjoy, so over the last 7 1/2 months I've been pretty happy with what I've found inside. I don't like how some books drag, and cracking them open to the bookmark can sometimes be a chore. I don't like how there are plenty of other fun, social things I could and possibly should be doing with my time other than reading. But generally, I'm very happy with how things have been going. I'm learning a lot, my mind gets blown a lot more often than blogs usually manage, I'd like to think I'm a slightly more interesting conversationalist, and I'm able to ask better questions when people bring up things I don't know much about.

I think I'll make it - with a trip involving a 14 hour plan flight coming up soon, as well as some downtime at the end of the year, I should be able to reach 100 without too much trouble.

How is your reading going this year? I'd love to hear from... both of you.

fifty-four

Everything That Rises Must Converge

The name Flannery O'Connor comes with accolades and gravitas and sad trombones of wonder - and Jacob is reading this book of short stories while he waits for John Locke to be pushed out of his father's high rise condominium. So I had to try her out. What I found was some excellent writing craft, some piercing looks into how our minds work, and a whole lotta loathing.

Each story is a thoughtful stare from a different angle at the worst and possibly most fun trait we've got as a species: self-absorbed loathing. Whether that loathing is directed at: your uneducated, needy, Southern mother's racism; everyone you feel has done you wrong from the help to your good-for-nothing sons; your lack of artistic talent and the inability of the world you know to appreciate it; black people; women; your useless son who just wants to mourn your dead wife for some odd reason; the city; your wife's reserved religiousity; God; your in-laws.

This loathing at first is unrecognizable, but then it comes to you: we all feel it. From the guy who cuts you off and the daggers you stare into his rearview mirror to politicians to Glenn Beck to Keith Olbermann to the uncaring responses pedestrians have to the homeless to something your spouse does without thinking to... your in-laws. It's not always loathing of the first degree, but sometimes it's background noise that flares up out of nowhere and you find yourself deleting an angry email or staring too hard at people who don't deserve it or apologizing to a friend. Or you blog about how stupid and evil that pundit or this Senator is.

We all feel it - it's part of living in this world that we don't control. O'Connor's world is a little different than ours, and certain words and ideas come more easily to her than they do to us (just ask Dr. Laura). But though her characters can seem archaic and ignorant, there are more similarities than you first think. We're all the richer for her piercing, funny, horrible, depressing, and amazing view of how we try to get through the trials of life.

fifty-three

The Challenge for Africa

Wow. I'm still absorbing this book and the many, many, many ideas it casually contains. To start off, here's Publishers Weekly's review:

"Africa's moral and cultural dysfunctions loom as large as its material problems in this wide-ranging jeremiad. Maathai (Unbowed), a Kenyan biologist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for organizing the tree-planting Green Belt Movement, surveys Africa's struggle with poverty and disease, political violence, climate change, the legacy of colonialism and a global economy that's stacked against it. But the deeper problem she sees is the selfishness, opportunism and shortsightedness of Africans themselves, from leaders who exploit their countrymen and loot their nations' resources to poor farmers who ruin the land for short-term gain. Maathai means this as an empowering message aimed at a mindset of dependency that would rather wait for someone to magically make development happen; she urges Africans to recover indigenous traditions of community solidarity and self-help, along with the virtues of honesty, fairness and hard work. Maathai shrewdly analyzes the links between environmental degradation and underdevelopment, and floats intriguing proposals, like banning plastic bags as a malaria-abatement measure. But the challenges she addresses are vast and intractable—and sadly, many of the development and environmental initiatives she extols seem to have already fizzled."

I was very impressed by her argument, her intellect, and both her optimism and skepticism. My thoughts, as a white American who has never been to Africa and has taken a college class focused largely on the effects of colonialism, run naturally to a guilt of the developed world taking advantage of a resource-rich undeveloped world. If the continent didn't have to deal with this, I think, then things would be different.

Maathai says that yes - while the developed world needs to cancel the debts incurred by African leaders who plainly could not pay them back, and while the mining companies headquartered in rich countries should be mindful of the terrible effect that their resource extraction has on the local populace, and while foreign governments and companies prolong and enable warfare and suffering by selling weapons to warlords, and while Russian fishing trawlers fish the waters off Angola, bring the fish back to Russia, and ship them frozen back to Angola to sell in the market - the real palpable fault lies with African leaders. These leaders, she says, have the benefit of education and influence, money and power, yet largely choose to squander it all on self-aggrandizement, short-term thinking, uneducated decisions, and ignoring the lessons learned by other countries. She has a long list and a comprehensive plan that these leaders should follow in order to: strengthen democratic institutions and revive trust in the government; respect and preserve natural resources so that all may benefit for centuries to come; and foster a culture of peace so that societies and families exist to be able to implement and take advantage of the other two "legs of the stool."

You could make the argument that she is arguing for utopia, but because her recommendations and observations are so attainable, and so logical, and so easy, this argument is unfair. Africa deserves even some tiny steps toward utopia, doesn't it?

Her writing is clear, very intelligent, thoughtful, and powerful. I sincerely hope people listen to her - both here and in Africa.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

fifty-two

Stardust

I saw Stardust the film last year, and liked it, though I thought Robert De Niro's cameo was pretty ridiculous, and Michelle Pfeiffer (when she's not Catwoman) is... Michelle Pfeiffer. Otherwise I quite enjoyed the movie, and I will echo that I quite enjoyed the book. Reviews of the book on Goodreads etc have warned against it because it's weird and not a children's book - to that I say... it's Neil Gaiman. Google him. Get over it.

As I said, I quite enjoyed the book, even though I knew the plot from the movie. It's Gaiman's take on a fantasy novel, and he throws enough curves that it rises a bit above boy-saves-girl-and-becomes-king story. Even when it's predictable, his prose and hilarious metaphors and similes and devices bring you through. The dead princes were great, and if you haven't seen the movie and don't know the story, the double-take in the first chapter is refreshing.

fifty-one

The Kite Runner

It's not often that I like a movie more than I liked the book. But I actually enjoyed the flim version of The Kite Runner more than I liked the book. I didn't expect to - not in the least. I thought the book would be a more detailed story that delves into the characters, their backgrounds, the history of Afghanistan, while maintaining the interesting, gripping story of redemption and compassion I admired in the film. It did flesh out the characters more, and you definitely get more of the motivations of the usually pathetic main character. The whole sweeping story is there, from Kabul to California, back to Kabul and then Redemptive Adoption With Kites.

The movie relied on the amazingly realistic performances of the Afghni child actors, who, Google tells me, aren't exactly movie stars back in Afghanistan. The book relies on Hosseini's prose, which I found lacking enough to get in the way of the story he wanted to tell. I also found it hard to root for Amir. I know you're not supposed to like him in the beginning, and the revelation about his family is supposed to make you understand his horrible arrogant and insecure behavior as a child, but I found it hard to root for him as an adult as well. And it wasn't just the phrasing that grated at times - some of the plot developments, especially later in the novel, just seemed too predictable (even ones that I didn't know about from the movie). Additionally, you get the feeling that this story is what Hosseini wished had happened to him - his father really escaped Afghanistan as a rich emigre to Iran, and then escaped the Iranian Revolution to Paris, and then to America, where they were well off and his son became a doctor - who then wrote a book. I get the feeling that this book was written to assauge the guilt that bubbled up after emigrating from Afghanistan due to his high standing.

I think I would have found this more compelling if this were nonfiction - if the writer had actually gone through it all and saw all of the horrors firsthand. Still I valued the glimpse of what has happened to Afghanistan since the 70s enough to enjoy the read.

Friday, August 13, 2010

fifty

Climate War

Started reading the Climate War after seeing Eric Pooley interview a few Environmental Defense Fund senior staff at an event recently, and he signed a book for me. After recently starting a job in the climate science world, I thought a book that covers the recent history of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be very useful. It absolutely was - there's been scientific consensus for decades that we're making the planet warmer, but scientists don't make policy. Therefore the main difficulty with responding to a natural problem like this is that scientists, and those who think science should trump regional factionalism, have to convince supporters of the fossil fuel industry and regional factionalists to fix a long-term problem. This is very difficult, I can now say from personal experience.

However, there has been a great deal of progress in convincing the world that there's a problem, we need to deal with it, and we can. There's also been some progress in starting to move on solving that problem. There is so much more that needs to be done in order to head off a self-sustaining warming reaction that will dramatically alter our world and more importantly to the human race: our existence. The more the ice caps melt into the sea, the less light is bounced back into space and the more is absorbed into a warming ocean. Which makes other things warmer. The more CO2 there is in the air, the more makes it into the water, which causes the salt water to acidify, which kills phytoplankton, the things that eat phytoplankton, coral, etc. The warmer it is, the more moisture gets moved around, so in certain places, there are record droughts, and in others, there are record rainstorms, floods, and blizzards. Species experience extinction more frequently, mosquitoes can survive winters longer in more temperate clients (and can bring dengue fever to the U.S., let's say). Not to mention the pollution brought by burning all the fossil fuels we can get our hands on as fast as we can. As a friend once told me - when it comes down to it, we're burning stuff to make turbines spin. It's messy.

We can start to turn down the knob on this process by using less fuel, creating cleaner energy, creating markets that have incentives to develop clean energy technology, and saving the carbon that exists in forests from being clear cut for little economic and social benefit. If someone can convince me that the free market will do this on its own - if the invisible hand can manage externalities - then awesome, we don't need government. Unfortunately, we haven't seen a largely unregulated energy industry clean itself up, and no one's convinced me that it'll manage to do so without government, so for our own sakes, bring on the regulation. The globe will be fine no matter what, and most species will be fine, but we'll be looking at a much different world in 100 years than the one we know. And it'll be super duper sweaty.

Now all we need is 60 Senators to realize we're cooking ourselves beyond any ability to forestall massive effects on the world we know...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

forty-nine

Fragile Things

All in all, Fragile Things is a fun set of stories. I really like Gaiman's turn of phrase, and his imagination is truly unique. You range from fun poems to dystopian Sherlock Holmes London, a modern Beowulf story to scary childhood memories re-imagined, and anthropomorphic months of the year telling each other short stories around a bonfire to what happens when you meet alien girls at a party.

His voice narrating the book on tape was quite fun - he truly enjoys telling stories and I think it added a lot to the experience.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

forty-eight

The Prophet

I liked The Prophet much more than I was expecting to like it. It's a classic and I'm not sure I could analyze it any further than it already has been. Essentially it's a collection of pretty good advice, of how to live your life. There were only a few areas where I rolled my eyes or shook my head in liberal, secular disapproval. He goes from birth to death, work to leisure, love to loneliness. You've heard a chunk of his marriage advice plenty of times at weddings. It's well written, once you're past the odd device he uses to get the wise man to impart his wisdom. Flowy language that almost makes you want to read the bible.

It's something you might want to have on your shelf throughout your life, kind of like a sequel to a holy book, without the holy part. I'm sure that if this were written today, the advice wouldn't have to change a whole lot - it's that timeless.

forty-seven

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

This book was recommended because it takes place in DC and deals honestly with the African immigrant's experience in America. I liked the descriptions of slowly gentrifying Logan Circle, and the lives of the characters who immigrated from Ethiopia were interesting snapshots of what I assume is the immigrant's experience. We just assume that people get up every day and are either happy to be here, just get along, or have tragic lives - but lives that come with massive changes are also presented with depression, ennui, and other psychological problems that the drug companies love to talk about in commercials. I thought the scope of the book could have been a bit larger - as I said, I thought the characters were more snapshots than fully developed people. But I'd recommend it if you want a quick read that gives a picture of DC gentrification and a modern African immigration story.