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bragan's eclectic mishmash, part 3

Club Read 2012

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Edited: Jul 2, 2012, 8:53pm Top

A new thread for the third quarter of 2012! I'm hoping to get a lot of reading done over the next three months, to make up for all the books I've bought already this year.

Anyway, my first book of the quarter is:

78. Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

The second book in Scott Westerfeld's steampunky YA trilogy, which is set in an alternate World War I that pits mechanical against biological technology and features an unlikely friendship -- or is is potentially something more? -- between a fugitive Austrian aristocrat with a secret identity and a young British airman whose own secret is that she's not a man at all.

My reaction to the first volume was a little lukewarm. I remember thinking that the premise was great and the descriptions of the fanciful technology were interesting and imaginative, and that there was nothing really wrong with the story, but somehow it just never quite clicked for me. Well, I'm very pleased to report that a few chapters into this installment, that click finally happened, and I enjoyed it much more than the first one. I think maybe it's that there was a lot of setup to the story, and this is the point where the plot finally starts to get going. Or maybe I was just in more of the right mood this time. Whatever the case, this was fun. There's lots of entertaining action, as well as a strong sense that there's a much bigger picture at stake, one in which our protagonists' actions can have far-reaching effects. And unlike the first one, which took place mainly in the wilderness and aboard an (admittedly very unusual) airship, this one is set mainly in a larger, cosmopolitan city, which makes this world feel like a bigger, richer place. Heck, even the hint of romance not only doesn't annoy me the way most romantic subplots do, but actually leaves me feeling rather eager to know how it's going to work out. So I'm glad I stuck with this one, and am definitely looking forward to reading volume three.

Rating: 4/5

Jul 3, 2012, 5:29pm Top

OK bragan, no comment on Behemoth, but checking in to eclectic mishmash p3

Jul 3, 2012, 5:33pm Top

Welcome to part 3! I'll try to keep on being just as eclectic. :)

Jul 4, 2012, 5:05pm Top

I am sure you will succeed.

Jul 4, 2012, 6:29pm Top

Given the weird, random nature of the stuff on my TBR Pile, it's possible I couldn't fail if I tried.

Jul 6, 2012, 3:29pm Top

79. Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku

Physicist Michio Kaku looks at various ideas and technologies that are staples of science fiction, but are not -- or are not yet -- possible in the real world, from force fields to sentient robots to time travel. He divides these "impossible" things into three categories. Most of the concepts he talks about are "Class I Impossibilities": they're not quite possible with current technology, but there's no reason why they might not be achievable in the future, and we already have at least some vague idea of how that might happen. Laser pistols are a good example of this; the main reason cops aren't carrying ray guns is that they require way too much power. "Class II Impossibilities" are things that aren't necessarily ruled out by the laws of physics, but involve technology and an understanding of the universe so far in advance of our own that it's hard to even imagine. This category includes faster-than-light travel via wormholes. "Class III impossibilities" are things that really do seem to be completely and eternally impossible according to our current understanding of the most basic laws of the universe. Perpetual motion machines are the big example here.

For each "impossibility," of whichever class, Kaku describes a few examples from science fiction TV shows, books, or movies; explains some of the science involved; tells us why it's not possible right now; and discusses what would be necessary to make it possible in the future. This is definitely written for the layman, and he walks a pretty fine line between treating the physics too superficially and getting too technical about the experiments and calculations that provide the basis of our scientific knowledge. For the most part, I think he walks that line fairly well. Some readers will probably start feeling a little confused when the book gets into the more abstruse areas of quantum mechanics, but I think that's just about inevitable. Even when you understand the mathematics behind that stuff, it's still hard to make sense of.

I don't think Michio Kaku is quite as lively and engaging a writer as, say, Laurence Krauss (who wrote The Physics of Star Trek, among other things), but his writing is readable enough, and this book will probably be of at least some interest to science fiction fans, especially ones who've often found themselves wondering, "Could you really do that?"

Rating: A slightly tentative 4/5

Jul 7, 2012, 2:03pm Top

Wormholes, hmm. Maybe something to look up further.

Jul 7, 2012, 3:39pm Top

Wormholes are interesting, and theoretically not impossible, although it is almost impossible to imagine how we could actually use them. Kip Thorne's Black Holes and Time Warps is pretty good if you want a deeper look at the topic, along with a thorough introduction to black holes. (Or so I recall, anyway. It's been about ten years since I read it.)

Jul 7, 2012, 7:57pm Top

Well, a that's a great recommendation. It's on the wishlist.

Edited: Jul 8, 2012, 4:44pm Top

80. Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

This novel opens with a bizarre accident in which five men, including our main character, Joe, rush to help a distressed balloonist. The attempt, alas, ends in tragedy. It also serves as the catalyst for a strange, disturbing obsession that one of the other would-be rescuers develops for Joe, which in turn threatens Joe's heretofore happy relationship.

I really do love McEwan's writing. He has an incredibly keen grasp of human psychology, and especially the unreliability of human perception and memory, and at his best he makes most other fiction feel like a gross oversimplification of human complexity. Which, let's face it, it is. I'm also impressed by how scientifically literate his writing is. The main character here is a science writer with a PhD in physics, and McEwan gets him, and his scientific subject matter, absolutely right. This is a guy who thinks in well-chosen scientific metaphors, who often stops to analyze his experiences in terms of anthropology, neurology, or evolutionary psychology. He thinks, in other words, exactly the way I do, and I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see that done in a believable and nuanced way (as opposed to being presented with yet another clueless version of what most people think a smart, science-y guy is supposed to be like). It's particularly unexpected and wonderful in this kind of mainstream literary writing, where I don't often encounter characters I can identify that fully with, in all their good and bad points.

My one complaint about this book, and the reason it didn't rate another extra half-star from me, is that the climax is a little unsatisfying, somehow, a little... anti-climactic. Although the book does at least end on a rather effective note. (A tip for the reader: don't skip the appendices. They are very much part of the story.)

I should also add that I was a little trepidatious about the subject matter, because this kind of story could have very easily come across as unpleasantly homophobic, whether consciously or unconsciously, but thankfully it never does.

Rating: 4/5

Jul 8, 2012, 8:21am Top

Excellent review of Enduring Love; I'll move it a bit higher on my TBR pile.

Jul 8, 2012, 8:29am Top

It seems to have gotten some mixed reviews on LT, which I can sort of understand, but I certainly found it worthwhile.

Jul 8, 2012, 2:37pm Top

Great review of Enduring Love It really has an attention grabbing beginning that gives no clue as to how the rest of the story will develop. Great fiction I think.

Jul 8, 2012, 4:05pm Top

It really, really does. It occurred to me that McEwan is almost overselling the tension at the beginning there, overdoing the "and if only I'd known what was going to come from this moment" stuff, except for how it totally works.

Edited: Jul 9, 2012, 4:41am Top

Hmm, despite my comments above about keepin' it eclectic, I do seem to have a theme developing this month. One that mostly involves me using the word "science" a lot.

81. The Genesis Machine by James P. Hogan

An SF novel from 1978 set in a future -- well, a version of the mid-2000s -- in which the Cold War never ended and the world is threatened by a perpetual conflict between multiple superpowers. Scientific research is pretty tightly controlled and is supposed to be focused purely on practical military ends, but one scientist, working on the side, comes up with some ground-breaking new basic physics. While he regards it as purely theoretical at first, it turns out to have some powerful and astonishing applications.

This is one of those hard SF novels where science is practically the main character, and scientific discovery is half the plot. In this case, the other half involves attempts to harness that discovery for fighting war or enforcing peace. That part manages to be both predictable and far-fetched at the same time, but there is a certain wish-fulfillment appeal in the way it all comes out.

As these things go, it's not too bad. Not if you're really interested in physics and can deal with paper-thin characters and entire chapters that consist of nothing but info-dumping, anyway. In general, I don't have much patience with that sort of thing these days, so I was a little surprised by the fact that this book, while not the world's most gripping read, didn't actually bore me to death. In fact, it was more interesting when it was all about the science and less so when it was about global conflict. Hogan clearly has a good grasp of the field, and the speculative new physics he proposes here is really quite clever, well-thought-out, and plausible-sounding. He also does a pretty good job of depicting the way science really works, as opposed to the laughably inaccurate Hollywood version. There's a bit of the thrill of scientific discovery here, too; there were moments when I found myself catching the implications of something and going, "Ooh, that's kind of cool!" Unfortunately, Hogan's careful research doesn't change the fact that, well, this was written in the 1970s. There's no getting around the fact that his nifty imaginary physics is missing out on 35 years worth of significant scientific developments, something that will be difficult for even the geekiest readers -- or perhaps especially the geekiest readers -- to ignore.

Rating: 3/5

Jul 9, 2012, 4:26am Top

The Michio Kaku book sounds interesting - I'd appreciate the layman's physics as it has been a long time since I took those classes.

I really enjoyed your review of Enduring Love - that was the first McEwan I read and it got me hooked on his stuff.

Jul 9, 2012, 4:34am Top

My own knowledge of physics is so rusty it's embarrassing, considering that I actually have a degree in the subject. I couldn't handle the math any more at all, so I mostly stick to books aimed at laymen.

The first McEwan I read was Solar, and that one also impressed me with its clueful handling of a scientific point of view, as well as its ability to keep me interested in a character who was thoroughly and irredeemably unlikeable. Counting Enduring Love, I've read three of his books now, and I'm looking forward to increasing that number.

Edited: Jul 9, 2012, 10:22am Top

Loved your thoughts on McEwan's writing in your review of Enduring Love, which I haven't yet read, but I think they apply to many of his books.
I was about to ask if you had read Solar when I first read your review, so glad to see you did. You're absolutely right about the character. I am beginning to think that perhaps one of the attributes of a really good writer is the ability to keep the reader interested in someone with whom they would normally be appalled to be associated.

Jul 9, 2012, 10:31am Top

You're making me curious about those McEwan books with scientists. Of his I've only read Atonement and I liked it. I used to pursue the sort (books with scientist characters) at the university, but, suffering from a surfeit of scientists ever since, largely lost interest.

Do you have a favourite scientist in fiction?

Jul 9, 2012, 11:13am Top

I've never had any desire to read Ian McEwan before (well I think I might have read one or two as a teenager, when he was a bit of a "next big thing"), but what you say about Enduring Love is quite tempting.

Edited: Jul 9, 2012, 7:26pm Top

>18 SassyLassy:: Yes, when I wrote that, I was thinking not just about Enduring Love specifically, about about his writing in general, or at least in the three books of his I've read. Although one thing I neglected to mention is that he also writes very good prose, whatever subject he's dealing with.

>19 LolaWalser:: A favorite scientist in fiction? Man, that's a tough one. I sort of want to say Mr. Spock from Star Trek, which has nothing to do with him being realistic and is probably completely missing the point of the question. But, hey, I imprinted on that guy in childhood. :)

>20 wandering_star:: Enduring Love isn't a flawless book, but I do recommend it, anyway. And McEwan's writing really does stand out to me, if only because of the effortless way he bridges C.P. Snow's two cultures. If that's not too pretentious a way to put it!

Jul 10, 2012, 12:20pm Top

No, Spock's a great choice, and I may have to steal it; I asked because I realised, zounds, I don't have one!

Jul 10, 2012, 4:32pm Top

Everybody should have a favorite scientist! But I think maybe there just aren't that many great fictional ones to choose from.

Edited: Jul 11, 2012, 12:44am Top

82. How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein

This book is precisely what the title says it is: a description of how each of the fifty US states (plus the District of Columbia) ended up with the borders -- and hence the shapes -- that they now have.

I took one look at this and thought to myself, "OK, this has to be more interesting than it sounds!" And it is, just... not very much. I did learn some interesting things, such as the fact that every single one of Maryland's borders is due to an error, and the reason why California is so big. (Congress would have preferred to break it up into smaller states, but weren't willing to make any demands, for fear that it would tell the US to get stuffed and declare itself a separate country.)

Most of these explanations, though, are a lot more dull and prosaic, and the same ideas tend to crop up over and over: Straight-line borders come from treaties with France or Spain, or from Congress slicing up territories to create states of roughly equal size. Borders were often shifted to grant a state access to valuable waterways, or to prevent the creation of small pockets of land cut off from the rest of their states by rivers or mountains. Sometimes a state would want to keep a particularly desirable piece of land, but would cede a different piece to its neighbor in return, creating little dents or protrusions. And borders were often disputed due to bad surveying, or to ambiguous or contradictory land charters.

Now, I find it kind of nice to know all that, in general, but all the fiddly specifics... Well, I'm sure they were of absorbing importance to the people involved at the time, but I have to admit, I had a lot of trouble forcing myself to care. Even significant stuff like the way that the creation of new states was affected by and influenced the debate over slavery is more interesting in the abstract than in detail. Nor does the book make any real effort to bring the history to life with stories or commentary; it's just happy to report the basic facts.

I think you really just have to be much more of a geography nerd than I am to appreciate this stuff. It's not a bad book, by any means, but I think you have to come into it with a prior interest in the subject to get much out of it.

I also think that it suffers a bit from repetition. Most borders get discussed twice, once for each state involved. A certain amount of that is probably inevitable, but I think it might have helped a lot if the states were organized geographically, rather than alphabetically. That way, the discussion of each state's borders could have flowed naturally into a discussion of its neighbors'. Although maybe I'm missing the point there. Maybe the idea is that you should just look up the sections on the states you're particularly interested in, and I wasn't expected to actually read the whole thing.

Rating: 3/5

Jul 11, 2012, 9:06am Top

All the talk about fictional scientist got me thinking that there aren't very many positive portals of scientist in the fictional universe. They are crazy, diabolical, or dangerous; mostly they’re a combination of bad traits. Even in Contact Dr. Arroway made out to have dangerous ideas that lay outside the mainstream and should be inherently distrusted to act as an ambassador for all of human kind. The other extreme is the totally unemotional detachment and seclusion of a Spock or Sheldon.

For me though I always liked Dr. Beakman from the kid’s show, not a very deep I know but he was fun to watch.

Jul 11, 2012, 9:38am Top

How about Victor Frankenstein or Dr Jekyll?

Jul 11, 2012, 10:36am Top

>25 stretch:: Yes, exactly. Those stereotypes are so all-pervasive that even the characters I like tend to conform to them. And it's especially true in TV and movies. I can maybe come up with a handful of exceptions if I think about it hard enough, but they're not terribly high-profile ones. Maybe it's no wonder young people don't want to go into science!

Jul 11, 2012, 7:50pm Top

You may already have seen this story: it's worth looking at the results of the 'draw a scientist' experiment that they link to.

When I first saw this article, I read the first paragraph out to Mr wandering_star (who is a scientist):

To many – too many – science is something like North Korea. Not only is it impossible to read or understand anything that comes out of that place, there are so many cultural differences that it’s barely worth trying. It’s easier just to let them get on with their lives while you get on with yours; as long as they don’t take our jobs or attack our way of life, we’ll leave them in peace.

He responded that it's more or less the same for a scientist from one branch hearing about science from another...

Jul 11, 2012, 8:07pm Top

I hadn't seen that story before; thanks for linking me to it. I had seen the "Draw a scientist" thing before, but it was well worth another look. You can tell many of these kids had never encountered a scientist before in their lives, from all those, "Hey, I found out they're just normal people!" reactions. I find the way the lab coats all disappear particularly entertaining. It is, after all, the standard Hollywood marker of a scientist, worn by scientists in all fields, under all circumstances, whether it makes any sense or not. But except on television, I have never, ever seen an astronomer wearing a lab coat. They're not exactly going to spill the Milky Way on their clothes!

Jul 12, 2012, 7:38pm Top

On the other hand, I remember seeing a news story in the UK a couple of years ago, reporting a poll of the 'most respected professions', and 'scientist' was there in the top ten. My theory is that people picked professions where they thought they could imagine what those people actually did at work. The others were things like 'fireman', 'teacher', etc. - all the sort of jobs that get illustrated in children's books!

Jul 12, 2012, 10:18pm Top

I suspect that science and scientists may be respected for the same reason they're distrusted, and that it all comes back to that perception of scientists as super-smart nerds doing things that most people could never dream of understanding, but which have amazingly powerful consequences, like penicillin and hydrogen bombs.

Jul 13, 2012, 6:16am Top

>24 bragan: - Great review of what sounds like a mixed-bag book.

I remember another story awhile back where people were asked to name a scientist and the majority couldn't name one, the most popular was Darwin and the scientist after that was (I think) Stephen Hawking.

>30 wandering_star: - Did they have the least respected profession also?

Jul 13, 2012, 8:10am Top

>32 DieFledermaus:: Thanks. That book might have been better if it were more of a mixed bag, though! It was really all just too much the same.

And people not being able to name even a single scientist is just depressing. Maybe it shouldn't surprise me. But it's still depressing.

Jul 13, 2012, 9:58am Top

On scientists in fiction, I am having great fun with Van Helsing and company in The New Annotated Dracula, as edited by Leslie Klinger. Van Helsing is often seen as a quintessentially scientific character, with a great amount of knowledge concerning medicine and scientific method (besides knowledge concerning, well, stakes), but Klinger completely explodes this myth. For instance, I couldn't stop laughing when Van Helsing, in his faux Dutch/German/Whatever accent, tells Quincey Morris:

A brave man's blood is the best thing on this earth when a woman is in trouble. You're a man, and no mistake.

Note that this is just before the fourth blood transfusion (from four different people) that Van Helsing gives to Lucy Westenra. So much for complications, or plausibility.

Jul 13, 2012, 10:17am Top

Heh, yeah, I remember that scene breaking my own suspension of disbelief more than a little. Odds are, they would have killed that poor woman several times over! Although I guess they weren't at all clear on the concept of blood typing at the time. I bet it seemed like a really scientifically advanced solution to Stoker and his readers.

Edited: Jul 17, 2012, 7:00pm Top

83. Doc by Mary Doria Russell

A fictional account of the lives of John Henry "Doc" Holliday and Wyatt and Morgan Earp in Dodge City, Kansas, before the OK Corral made them famous. It's very much a character-based novel. There may be a plot of sorts, involving a suspicious (fictional) death and a horse much-coveted by Wyatt, but it's very low-key and leisurely, to the extent that it exists at all. Which is absolutely fine, because the characters carry this story effortlessly, especially Russell's Doc: intelligent, dryly witty, charming, generous, flawed, sickly, and ultimately doomed. It's written in a somewhat odd style, one that hops around from viewpoint to viewpoint and often seems as much like a fictionalized biography as a novel, but it's a style that works surprisingly well. I initially felt like it was keeping me slightly detached from the characters, although not necessarily in a bad way, until at some point I realized that I'd been thoroughly caught up in their lives. By the end, I was feeling anything but detached, as the last few chapters evoked an amazing spectrum of emotions from me and left me more than a little choked up. If I had to pick one word to describe the book as a whole, it's "poignant."

I'm not terribly familiar with this particular area of history, so I can't really comment on the accuracy. What I can say is that it all feels real, that Russell is very much writing about men, not about myths, and that it gives the impression of having been carefully researched by someone who truly cares about her subject.

Rating: 4.5/5

Jul 17, 2012, 9:26am Top

Sounds like an intriguing quirky novel. I will have to get this and Pete Dexter's Deadwood after watching the series of the same name in a very compressed period. Hard to believe, but as you say you get thoroughly caught up in their lives. Definitely one for my next order. Thanks for the great review.

Jul 17, 2012, 10:18am Top

I've seen Deadwood! In somewhat compressed fashion, too: I watched it a season at a time on DVD, and those DVDs went pretty fast. It is kind of amazing to me how well that show worked, given that the dialog was so over-elaborate that half the time it was hard to tell what anybody's saying, and that there wasn't really a story to it, so much as a lot of things randomly happening to people. But I got very caught up in it, too. Doc did remind me a little bit of Deadwood, really, although it doesn't quite have the same "gritty HBO drama" sensibility.

Jul 17, 2012, 6:47pm Top

Enjoyed your review of Doc. It has been well received by other members of club read and your emotional response has added another dimension to it.

Jul 17, 2012, 6:57pm Top

Yes, I'd seen some very good buzz about it here on LT, and that, combined with the fact that I was impressed with Russell's The Sparrow, inspired me to check it out, even though I don't read much that could qualify under the heading of "Westerns." I'm very glad that, in this case, LT definitely did not steer me wrong.

Jul 17, 2012, 7:01pm Top

And, of course, reading over the review now, I've just spotted a typo. Why does that seem to happen to me every single time? :)

Jul 18, 2012, 9:57am Top

#36 Somehow I think the movie Tombstone spoiled my curiosity about Doc Holiday...anyway, another encouraging review of the book.

#41 - This is funny to me, because _every_time_ I re-read a review of mine I find another typo.

Jul 18, 2012, 10:11am Top

I haven't seen Tombstone. I've heard it was good, or at least well-acted, and went and added it to my Netflix queue after I finished the book. I'm get the definitely impression the movie is very much about the larger-than-life versions of the historical characters, though.

And I swear, those typos breed while we're not looking!

Jul 18, 2012, 10:22am Top

You can miss Tombstone, you won't be missing much. It's a 90's slightly-better-than-you-might-expect western shoot-out...like Eastwoods Unforgiven, not but nearly as well done. But Val Kilmer gives a quirky Doc Holiday.

Edited: Jul 18, 2012, 8:17pm Top

And, getting right back to the earlier theme for this thread:

84. Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives by Michael Specter

Denialism, as author Michael Specter defines it, is "denial writ large -- when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie." He deals with several kinds of denialism in this book, mostly involving medicine in some form or another. The premiere example is the anti-vaccine movement, whose adherents cling firmly to the belief that a heartbreaking medical condition has a simple cause and thus a simple solution that can and will save a generation of children, just as soon as anti-vaccine crusaders win their fight against the bad guys. It's a very compelling thing to believe, especially if it's an issue in which you have a personal stake, but the problem is, it's just not true. Those who engage in denialism, though, are not easily swayed by scientific evidence, and often reject science entirely, especially when it's telling them things they don't want to hear. Science is dismissed as too impersonal, too authoritarian, too much to blame for everything that's wrong in the world. Specter, of course disagrees, arguing that what we need to solve the problems that face us, from disease to world hunger, is more scientific reasoning and scientific progress, not less, although we should always proceed with our eyes open to the dangers that go along with progress.

I've seen some reviews of this book suggesting that Specter is basically preaching to the choir here, and there's probably some truth in that. Certainly if you're a die-hard believer in alternative medicine or the evils of biotechnology, you're not likely to be convinced by his arguments on those subjects, just upset by them. And those who merely tend to lean in that direction are unlikely to pick up a book whose subtitle seems to be calling them irrational and dangerous (something that strikes me as kind of an unfortunate marketing strategy). Probably most of the people reading this book already consider themselves scientifically-minded skeptics, and the last couple of chapters may appeal most to people who are particularly interested in learning about discoveries in the field of genetics and what's likely to come from them. But I do think there's an in-between audience that may find this book both interesting and useful, people who are not anti-science, but who simply don't know quite who to believe on these subjects, because they don't fully trust Big Pharma or agribusinesses or conventional medicine practices. If you feel that way, Specter gets where you're coming from, and he doesn't think you're entirely wrong. While he's extremely positive about science in general, he is anything but an uncritical rah-rah defender of unethical corporations or irresponsible research. In fact, he devotes most of the first chapter of the book to a case study of a pharmaceutical company that lived down to the very worst of public expectations, deliberately refusing to acknowledge the existence of dangerous side effects that almost certainly resulted in lost lives. But he goes on to use this as the starting point for a demonstration of how to separate baby from bathwater, put stories and statistics into a useful risk-vs-benefit perspective, and distinguish evidence from wishful thinking, an approach that he then carries through all the other topics in the book. So if you're feeling a little confused and uncertain, as so many people are, about questions like "Is it really safe to vaccinate my baby?", "How worried should I be about Frankenfoods?" or "Do I really need to take all the herbs and vitamins that this website I found recommends?", you could do a lot worse than this book as a place to start sorting through it all.

Rating: 4/5

Jul 18, 2012, 10:12pm Top

Thoughtful review, bragan. As a member of a family of nurses, I've always been in the pro-vaccination camp -- but there are a lot of pharmaceutical claims (and advertisements) that I simply disregard. Somewhere there needs to be a middle ground.

Jul 18, 2012, 10:43pm Top

It's always so much easier to take up an extreme position and avoid the complicated middle ground altogether though. Alas. But I do like the fact that this guy points out that, hey, you can believe the truth about vaccinations being good things without it meaning that you're wholeheartedly accepting and endorsing everything any pharmaceutical company has ever done.

Jul 19, 2012, 1:04am Top

>34 dmsteyn:, 35 - Going back to the bad science in 19th c literature discussion - I read the complete Sherlock Holmes stories several years back and there was one story involving a scientist who injected himself with monkey serum and then started displaying monkey-like behavior. All very horrible science but also hilarious.

A great review of Denialism - thumbed. Liked the analysis on the audience for the book. There are areas around Seattle with very low percentages of vaccinated children - often the areas where the residents have high levels of education/wealth. Very frustrating.

Jul 19, 2012, 1:20am Top

I've read all the Sherlock Holmes stories, but I seem to have blocked that out of my memory somehow. Which is a pity, because it is kind of a hilarious concept. Although I suppose for all anyone knew at the time, it might have worked!

Glad you liked the review of Denialism! Of course, now I can't help kind of second-guessing my comments about the audience, because I haven't always been good at predicting how certain audiences will take certain things in the past. But I think that particular book does take seriously some legitimate concerns that often get brushed off in these kinds of skeptical analyses. Plus, the idea that the only people who'll ever read stuff like this are people who don't need to is just too sad to contemplate.

I think Specter does specifically mention Seattle as an area with low vaccination rates. It's not just frustrating, it's kind of scary. Especially since when epidemics break out, it's infants too young to be vaccinated who are at the most risk from other people's bad decision. But in a way, the mindset is understandable. If you've never seen a case of measles, it's hard to convince yourself at it's a real threat.

Jul 19, 2012, 9:34am Top

When I had my first child I thought a lot about vaccinations because I know SO MANY highly educated people whose parenting I trust who at least did a delayed vaccination schedule. I also know a couple who refused all vaccinations and a couple who refused all but a few. After doing my own research, my husband and I decided to use the advised CDC vaccination schedule. What is scary to me is that the families that I know that didn't vaccinate are highly educated and believe they have found real scientific studies that support their views. There are a lot of books and websites out there that use "science" to back up their claims and they really can be very convincing. I just truly hope none of their kids get sick or get any other kids sick. To me it's a scary trend.

Jul 19, 2012, 12:20pm Top

#45 - Wondering how deeply Specter goes into analyzing the nature of the denialism itself (as opposed to apparent case studies).

Edited: Jul 19, 2012, 12:25pm Top

>50 japaul22:: Yeah, it's extremely scary. Who wants to go back to a world where otherwise healthy infants regularly die of whooping cough, when we know he have a solution that works? But we may well be headed in that direction.

Unfortunately, it can be incredibly hard for even very educated people to tell good science from stuff that sounds like good science but isn't, especially when the people presenting it are trying very hard to sound convincing. With the vaccine-autism link, I think there are coincidental factors that make it even harder, too Like, kids begin to show signs of autism at just about exactly the same age they're usually given their first vaccinations. That's true whether they're actually vaccinated or not, but when you hear a bunch of people saying, "I got my kid the shots and just after that he became autistic!" -- or it, god forbid, it happens to your kid -- it's hard not to jump to the conclusion that that confirms the connection. It's a logical fallacy, but it's a very natural one. Or, the anti-vaccine websites will show you a graph that shows autism rates going up at the same time a preservative was added to the vaccines, and that looks pretty damning, if you don't have the additional knowledge to take into account the facts that a) after the preservative was removed from the vaccine, autism diagnoses kept going up at the exact same rate, and b) in that same period of time, diagnosis criteria have gotten a lot broader, and there's a lot more awareness of autism spectrum disorders, meaning more kids are being brought in for an official diagnosis and thus getting counted in those numbers. Actually, a lot of Specter's point in the book is that looking at half the story leads to wrong conclusions, and that's a classic example.

Jul 19, 2012, 12:30pm Top

>51 dchaikin:: Probably not as much as you'd think, given the title. He seems to generally be more interested in the particular cases he's talking about and in the real science behind the denialist smokescreen and doesn't go too deeply into things like the psychology of denialism or the patterns it usually follows, at least not in any systematic way. I'm pretty sure there are other books out there that cover that stuff better.

Jul 19, 2012, 2:37pm Top

Great review of Denialism which has engendered a great discussion. I think many of us engage in Denialism as the truth can be so unappetising. I think Denialism is OK as long as the only person who suffers is the person in denial.

Jul 19, 2012, 3:03pm Top

I think denial is sort of a human universal, really. And, yeah, maybe it's not always such a horrible thing to believe a few comforting untruths in our day to day lives, but when it happens on large scales, it can sure cause large problems.

Edited: Jul 19, 2012, 5:14pm Top

That was an excellent, useful and very timely review of Denialism. Speaking of Seattle, this week's issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a CDC publication, includes an article about the pertussis outbreak in Washington State, which began in the middle of last year. There have been over 2500 cases of pertussis in the state in the first 5-1/2 months of 2012, a 1300% increase as compared to this time last year. Most of the cases have occurred in infants and in teenagers, and there have been eight deaths reported this year so far.

Pertussis Epidemic — Washington, 2012

I admitted a 9 week old infant to the hospital yesterday afternoon who was diagnosed with pertussis last week. She received a 5 day course of azithromycin, per the ACIP (Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices) recommendations, but she continued to have severe coughing paroxysms at home, which caused her to have facial cyanosis and made her mother worry that she would stop breathing. I've taken care of at least six or seven babies with pertussis in the hospital so far this year, which I suspect is more than I did all of last year. Most of them did well, but one baby was infected with pertussis and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) at the same time, and nearly died as a result. She was on a ventilator in the PICU (pediatric intensive care unit) for nearly two months, and she spent several weeks in our CIRU (comprehensive inpatient rehabilitation unit) to regain the basic skills that she had lost during her prolonged PICU stay, such as eating by mouth and her fine motor skills. I didn't see her at that time, so I don't know if she'll have any long term deficits.

There are two reasons why pertussis is making a comeback. First, many parents are deciding to forego or delay vaccination of their young children against pertussis, mainly because of the side effects associated with the cellular (or whole cell) pertussis vaccine, particularly febrile seizures (seizures with fever), which was well documented and widely reported in the lay press. However, the current vaccine, DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis), has been shown to be much safer that the vaccine that contained the cell wall of the Bordetella pertussis bacterium, with a very low incidence of side effects except for a self limited fever. The second reason is that the pertussis vaccine wears off after ~10 years, so children who didn't receive a DTaP booster at 11-12 years of age and those adults who did can contract the infection, and pass it on to others. (BTW, I was one of those people. I contracted pertussis in 2000, and true to its name in Chinese, which translates in English to "100 day cough", I was sick from January to April or May of that year with this horrid illness.) The baby I saw yesterday was just under 2 months of age when her mother took her to visit relatives, and she probably picked up the bacterium from her aunt, who had a bad cough at that time. Babies receive their first vaccine at 2 months of age, so those under that age are unprotected, and those under 4 months of age who did get the first dose are still susceptible.

The CDC now recommends that adults receive a booster vaccine, Tdap, on or after 19 years of age. Pregnant women who have not received a booster shot in adulthood should be vaccinated as well.

More information: http://www.cdc.gov/pertussis

Jul 19, 2012, 4:56pm Top

That is a huge increase in Pertussis in Washington. Are you expecting something similar in Atlanta.l

Edited: Jul 19, 2012, 5:03pm Top

>57 baswood: No, I don't expect that we'll have as severe an outbreak in Atlanta, as there are fewer parents who are opposed to vaccinating their children here as there are in Washington State. I'll have to look at The Georgia Epidemiology Report and the weekly reports published by the healthcare system I work for, to see if there has been an increased incidence of pertussis in metropolitan Atlanta and the state of Georgia.

Jul 19, 2012, 5:14pm Top

>56 kidzdoc:: Thanks, kidzdoc! It's good to hear from somebody who has some expert knowledge on this, complete with facts and figures. Although, man, that's all incredibly depressing.

I'd heard something about pertussis boosters being recommended for adults. I was wondering if I should ask about it next time I see a doctor, although I'm not, as far as I know, in an area that's experiencing an outbreak. But -- and this is where I get irrational -- it feels a little weird to me to ask a doctor out of the blue about a shot that's usually given to kids.

Edited: Jul 19, 2012, 5:30pm Top

>58 kidzdoc: Yes, I would ask about the Tdap vaccine during your next health check. According to the ACIP, all adults should receive the Td (tetanus and diphtheria vaccine) every 10 years, and one of those should be the Tdap vaccine. Given the increasing incidence of pertussis cases in the US this decade, the vastly larger prevalence of undiagnosed pertussis in adults, and my own personal experience with having pertussis a dozen years ago, I would definitely recommend getting a booster pertussis vaccine sooner rather than later.

The Tdap vaccine is only given to adolescents and adults. The DTaP vaccine is given to children completing their primary vaccine series in five doses, starting at 2 months of age and ending at 11-12 years of age. So, the vaccine adults receive is different than the one that is given to kids.

ETA: BTW, having the actual infection does not provide long lasting immunity either. So, even though I had pertussis in 2000, I received the Tdap vaccine in 2010.

Jul 19, 2012, 5:32pm Top

Here's the VIS (Vaccine Information Statement) about the Tdap vaccine for adolescent and adults:


Jul 19, 2012, 7:21pm Top

Thanks! I really should get a check-up fairly soon -- I've been terrible about doing that regularly for most of my life and am trying to do better now that I've hit my 40s -- and I can ask the doctor about it then. Although now I'm wondering... I did get a tetanus booster a few years ago after being bitten by a cat. I thought it was just for tetanus, but presumably it was either the Td or Tdap. So maybe I'm protected against pertussis and don't even know it! I should definitely check on that.

Jul 20, 2012, 2:27am Top

85. The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit

The 1904 sequel to Nesbit's classic Five Children and It. Unsurprisingly, in this one the children make the acquaintance of a phoenix and a magic carpet. The phoenix is extremely vain and perhaps a little too fond of naps, but is often surprisingly useful. And the carpet can take you anywhere you wish to go, no matter how vague and abstract or how complicated and demanding your wish, although it can only do so three times per day. Needless to say, the kids have lots of little adventures and find interesting ways to get in and out of trouble.

Like the previous book, this one has a lot of charm and a wonderful, sly sense of humor. I have to say, though, that I didn't find it quite as constantly delightful as Five Children and It. Perhaps that's partly due to the fact that with the first one I had all the trepidation of revisiting a childhood favorite, followed by that marvelously pleasant feeling when it turns out to live up to your memories, but this time my expectations were higher going in. Still, it's a fun book, and and well worth an adult re-read.

(I do feel that I should probably point out, though, that these books suffer very slightly from changing social sensibilities. The first one features some unpleasantly stereotyped "red Indians," although arguably they're meant to represent the unrealistic figures that existed in young British children's imaginations. And this one features some scenes involving cartoony black "savages" that, while really not bad by product-of-the-time standards, may leave modern readers shaking their heads a bit.)

Rating: 4/5

Edited: Jul 22, 2012, 10:13pm Top

86. Giving Up the Ghost: A Story about Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means to Be Haunted by Eric Nuzum

Eric Nuzum had an unhappy, drug-addled, alienated adolescence. He had a strange friendship with a vibrant but rather cryptic girl who died young. And he also had bizarre recurring dreams about a little girl speaking gibberish at him, a persistent conviction that there were times he could feel her presence while awake, and a lifelong fear of ghosts. This book, apparently, is his attempt to get a handle on it all. It's part messed-up teenage memoir, part genuinely creepy ghost story, part ghost-hunting first-person journalism, and part one man's personal attempt at understanding his past. The result is an odd, non-linear narrative that consists largely of questions with no answers and arrives at no clear destination. But, of course, life is like that. It certainly reminded me of the ways in which my own life is like that, anyway. And Nuzum's writing is candid and very readable and sometimes surprisingly funny. In the end, though, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it. It's interesting, but not necessarily satisfying, and there's something about it that makes it simultaneously relateable and uncomfortably personal.

I should point out, by the way, that the reader is not required to actually believe in ghosts in order to get something out of this book. Well, not in literal hauntings, anyway. Despite his experiences, Nuzum himself ultimately believes much more in the metaphorical kind, and I was pleased to note that on his ghost-hunting travels he's quick to call bullshit when he finds it, which is often.

Rating: It's hard to rate this one, but let's call it 4/5, if only because I kind of admire Nuzum for even being willing to write it.

Note: this was an ER book from the June batch.

Jul 23, 2012, 12:16am Top

That one sounds like an eclectic mishmash all on its own!

Jul 23, 2012, 1:31am Top

You know, that may not be a bad way to describe it!

Edited: Jul 23, 2012, 4:08am Top

87. Locke & Key Volume 5: Clockworks by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez

This is graphic novel collection number five of the amazing Locke & Key series, about a house full of magical keys and the wonderful and terrible things the three kids living there manage to unlock. This installment, thanks to a little look-but-don't-touch time travel, fills in lots and lots of backstory, and it does so extremely well. Everything is explained and everything fits together: the origin of the keys, the origin of the series' villain, why only the kids are aware of and able to use the keys, all kinds of things. And yet, it never feels like tedious exposition, but is instead an effective and very sad story in its own right. I was already thinking that when this series is finally finished I might like to go back and read it again, without the annoying waits between volumes. Reading this one has just cemented that intention, because I think there are a lot of things that will feel interestingly different on a second read.

Oh, and as usual, the artwork is absolutely gorgeous.

Rating: 4.5/5

Edited: Jul 26, 2012, 7:52pm Top

88. The Night Eternal by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

This is book three of the Strain trilogy, in which humanity is faced with subjugation and death at the hands of a horde of murderous vampiric creatures. I really enjoyed the first book, in a cheesy, turn-your-brain-off, popcorn-movie kind of way, but found the second highly disappointing. Objectively, the writing wasn't really any worse than the first one, but where The Strain sucked me in from the beginning with a wonderfully creepy opening scene, The Fall started with reams of tedious exposition that put me into entirely the wrong mood and turned the whole book into something of a slog. Book three... Well, book three was somewhere in-between. It starts promisingly enough: things have gone full-scale apocalyptic, which is always interesting, and we open with some slightly purple, but rather entertaining prose. And, then, bam!, we're right back into annoying exposition-land again for the next hundred pages or so. It's not that I mind getting a recap of the story thus far... In fact, I usually appreciate it, since my memory for stuff I read many months ago is not great. But, geez, there are limits. Sometimes we're given the exact same information three or four times here, and while my memory may be bad, it's not that bad. We're also treated to endless commentary on the main character's mental state in a dull tell-instead-of-show way that would have failed to pass muster in my junior high school creative writing class.

Fortunately after a while the infodumping peters out and things actually get moving, and the book gets a lot more readable -- definitely more so than the second one was. The story isn't bad, in its own action-flick kind of way, if you can get past its many, many implausibilities (which, admittedly, takes some doing). The characters are pretty one-note, though, and a lot of the action just isn't very exciting. The ending's reasonably engaging, but I'm not at all sure it was worth plowing through all three of these books to get to it.

Rating: A somewhat generous 3/5. Hey, at least it was better than the last one.

Jul 26, 2012, 3:33pm Top

#68 - I'll definitely pass on this one.

Jul 26, 2012, 7:47pm Top

>69 dchaikin:: Yeah, I really can't say I recommend it. Which is a pity, because the first book was kind of fun, if approached in the right spirit.

Jul 31, 2012, 9:29pm Top

89. Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins

Michael Collins' 1974 memoir of his career as a test pilot and astronaut, including, of course, his historic journey aboard Apollo 11. I've read a zillion different accounts of this period in the American space program now, and somehow I never, ever get tired of them. Each one seems to offer some new perspective or to tell me a few things I didn't already know, and this book is emphatically no exception. Collins' account is very detailed, with day-by-day and sometimes even hour-by-hour descriptions of his activities on his Gemini and Apollo flights, including his own thoughts and reflections and opinions. Turns out, in addition to all his other accomplishments, he's also a pretty good writer. He manages to be very specific and clear about the more technical aspects of the job without either dumbing things down or making the readers' eyes glaze over with facts and figures and acronyms. (Well, except when he's deliberately demonstrating how this stuff can make your eyes glaze over, anyway!) He also possesses a terrific sense of humor, with lots of self-deprecating jokes and amusing asides and entertainingly forthright commentary making this a surprisingly fun read. And his description of his trip to the moon is downright thrilling. Mind you, I always find this particular subject thrilling, but there's nothing quite like a firsthand account. Although ironically, unlike the rest of the species, Collins didn't get to experience humanity's first steps on the moon as they happened; he was on the far side of the moon at the time, and out of communications range.

I think I'd call this one a must-read for the true space enthusiast. Hell, it's unforgivable that it's taken me this long to get around to reading it, especially considering how long it's been sitting on my shelves.

Rating: 4.5/5

Aug 3, 2012, 11:54pm Top

>71 bragan: Nice review. I don't know if I would consider myself a "true space enthusiast" but Carrying the Fire is definitely on my wishlist now!

Aug 4, 2012, 12:44am Top

>72 avidmom:: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Aug 4, 2012, 8:52am Top

90. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Two young people are bound together in a strange magical competition whose playing field is a traveling circus. An impossible, beautiful black-and-white circus that appears without warning and opens only at night. But as time goes on, they find they would much rather join together than compete, if only they had the choice...

I definitely liked this book, although maybe not quite as much as I expected to. The plot is less substantial and compelling than it seemed it was going to be at first, the competition itself is almost a little too subtle to be satisfying. And the interweaving timelines of the novel could be slightly confusing, especially at the beginning. But basic premise is good, and the circus itself is fantastic, in every sense of the word. There's a real feeling of magic and mystery and endless, wondrous possibility here, and that all by itself makes this well worth reading.

Rating: 4/5

Aug 6, 2012, 8:38pm Top

i think I was a bit blinded by the whole circus to see how lackluster the whole competition really was and how it wasn't really developed all that well. I still think it was one of the highlights this year but it is a nice to see a more sober view of the novels weaknesses.

Edited: Aug 6, 2012, 11:41pm Top

I think the fact that I'd seen quite a lot of hype about the book, combined with the way the beginning of it seemed to promise something pretty extraordinary in terms of the competition plot may have raised my expectations about that aspect of things higher than they should have been. If the circus itself weren't so amazing, and so beautifully rendered, I think the book would have been a pretty big disappointment. As it is, I think it says something about just how good that stuff is that it almost manages to carry the whole novel, anyway.

Aug 8, 2012, 4:59am Top

>71 bragan: - I'm not a space enthusiast, but your review was fun to read!

>74 bragan: - I had heard good things about The Night Circus despite all the hype. Glad to see you thought it was worthwhile even with reservations.

Aug 8, 2012, 1:56pm Top

>77 DieFledermaus:: Well, why not? Space is cool! ;)

Anyway, thank you!

Aug 9, 2012, 5:08am Top

91. White Queen by Gwyneth Jones

It's 2038. and aliens have mysteriously appeared among us. Among those trying to figure out what they want and what their presence means are a cynical reporter and a guy who may or may not be infected with a virus that can damage the organic components used in computer technology.

The world-building here is is interesting and pretty well done, and the aliens are gratifyingly alien (in their mindset, if not necessarily in their appearance). But I just could not get into this one anywhere near as much as I'd hoped to. It's a little too dense, a little too indirect and cryptic, a little too full of dialog that seems carefully crafted to sound profound, but not carefully crafted to sound like dialog. When that sort of thing works, it can work very well, but in this case it just never really came together for me into anything that felt coherent. It's an interesting book, most certainly, but also a slightly frustrating one. Ultimately not at all sure quite what to make of it.

Rating: 3/5

(And even though I can't say I liked this one as much as I wanted to, I still want to say thanks very much to Lois for the book. As I said above, it was, at the very least, interesting.)

Aug 11, 2012, 6:37pm Top

>78 bragan: - I probably should be more interested in space but just don't have the space bug!

>79 bragan: - Too bad about the White Queen.

Aug 13, 2012, 3:12am Top

92. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert. M. Sapolsky

An in-depth look at the nature of stress and the effects that it has on our bodies. The main idea here is that our reaction to stress evolved to be useful in a particular kind of acute, fight-or-flight situation, but the biological responses that are very helpful when you're spending ten minutes running away from a lion can be anything but helpful when you're sitting around all day fretting about how you're going to pay your mortgage. Actually, just reading this book can be pretty stressful, with its endless litany of horrible things that your worrying is probably doing to your body right this minute, although the author does at least try to end things on a comforting and hopeful note.

This is definitely for people who are interested in the biological details of what happens in our bodies under stress: which hormones are released when, what they do, how they interact with each other, and how they have the effects they have. It was, perhaps, sometimes a little more detail than I really wanted, but Sapolsky leavens it all with humor and a pleasantly informal style, and does a good job of not insulting the reader's intelligence while being entertainingly sympathetic about how confusing some of it is.

The version I have is the third edition, published in 2004, which apparently is significantly revised and contains a couple of new chapters, including one on sleep and stress, a topic that is particularly relevant to me as a shift-worker.

Rating: 4/5

Edited: Aug 13, 2012, 5:20am Top

93. Comic Book Guy's Book of Pop Culture by Matt Groening, et al.

The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy welcomes us to his world with tips for running a comic shop, lists of his favorite comics and albums, a tour of his apartment, dating advice, etc. It's more moderately amusing than side-splittingly funny, but I did laugh out loud a few times, so it was definitely worth the $3.98 I paid for it. Ordinarily, I'd probably complain a little about fat jokes and the stereotypical portrayal of geeks/nerds as virginal losers (not to mention inevitably male). But, y'know, it's Comic Book Guy. You know what you're getting into. And the humor itself is geeky enough that it's clearly self-mockery.

Rating: 3.5/5

Aug 15, 2012, 12:19pm Top

94. Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World by Sabina Berman

Karen (or, as she thinks of herself, Me) was an abused, almost feral child, but when she is taken in by her aunt, who owns a tuna fishery, she learns to speak, to read, to love the ocean, and eventually to join the family business. As an adult, she is a high-functioning autistic, a condition that gives her a unique perspective on both people and fish, and helps her to design a more humane and dolphin-safe method of tuna fishing.

Karen's career and her way of thinking have some notable similarities to those of Temple Grandin, the real-life autistic designer of humane slaughterhouses, and I was a little worried that this novel might end up being just something of a warmed-over version of reality. But while aspects of it were clearly inspired by Grandin, Karen's story is very much her own, and she has a strong, unique voice that is well-rendered even in translation. (The book was originally written in Spanish.) Her perspectives on humans and animals, on thought and perception are interesting and rather thought-provoking, too. Definitely a worthwhile read.

Rating: 4/5

Note: this was an ER book from the July batch.

Aug 15, 2012, 12:42pm Top

Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World will definitely go on my wish list not only for myself but for my best friend, a nurse who works with autistic patients. She was telling me last week about Temple Grandin.

Aug 15, 2012, 1:07pm Top

I do recommend Grandin's Thinking in Pictures, too. (She also has a newer book, Animals in Translation, but I haven't read that one yet.)

Aug 15, 2012, 2:07pm Top

83> Glad you liked Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World as I received an ER copy too -- it's close to the top of my TBR pile.

Aug 15, 2012, 2:31pm Top

I hope you like it as much as I did! I don't think it was a perfect book, but definitely a good one.

Aug 17, 2012, 10:35am Top


I'm surprised at the title of the book, does Sapolsky mention anything about it? It perpetuates the myth about stress causing stomach ulcers, when we have known for quite a long time (I was taught about it in the early nineties at the uni) that most ulcers of the gastric system are caused by bacterial infection. The discoverers got a Nobel for it since too, although I don't remember offhand when exactly, within last decade I'd say...

Aug 17, 2012, 11:32am Top

>88 LolaWalser:: I was wondering about that, too, when I started the book, but Sapolsky does talk about this, and as with a lot of things involving stress, it turns out to be not quite that simple. Ulcers are definitely caused by bacteria, but stress can make you much more vulnerable to the bacteria, so, while it's not the direct cause, stress is still very much associated with ulcers and greatly increases your risk of developing them. (This is presumably the precise reason why it was initially thought they were simply caused by stress; there is a definite correlation there.) Actually, this is a point he makes a point of stressing -- er, emphasizing -- throughout the book, that stress doesn't so much harm you directly as contribute to conditions that are harmful, or leave you vulnerable to diseases.

Aug 17, 2012, 11:43am Top

True, stress as a general weakener certainly can play a role in genesis of any number of conditions, but nobody gets ulcers from stress alone, and that, apart from being a pretty major discovery, is also just the opposite of what the title suggests. Zebras don't get ulcers because they aren't people infected with H. pylori, not because they don't get "stressed".

Don't mind me, if I didn't have pop science to vent about, I'd probably develop an ulcer or two! :)

Aug 17, 2012, 12:29pm Top

Apparently most people infected with H. pylori don't get ulcers, though. And it seems sometimes zebras do, if they're subjected to really unusual sustained levels of stress (although it was only after he came up with the title that he consulted a zebra expert about this to make sure). Sapolsky does cover this pretty well in the actual text of the book, I think, and doesn't downplay the fact that the bacteria is the actual cause or the significance of that discovery. He does, however, disapprove a little of the medical perspective that says, "Hey, we've found a bacterium or a gene or whatever that causes this!" and then just stops there like that's the end of the story, when there are other factors that come into play in deciding whether the bacterium or the gene or whatever-it-is actually causes illness. So, while the title is probably really designed mostly to be cute and catchy, and while it does have the unfortunate effect of maybe making people who know a little about ulcers go "Wait a minute, is that title a clue that this guy doesn't know what he's talking about?" (which it did to me, too, a little bit, although I'd encountered enough about Sapolsky elsewhere to be pretty sure he did know what he's talking about), it does at least kind of get at a valid point that he wants to make.

It's worth pointing out that Sapolsky is a scientist who's done extensive research in this area, himself, not a journalist, so, the possibly misleading title aside, he actually does quite a good job of not making the kind of mistake that sometimes make me cringe in the more clueless works of pop science.

Aug 17, 2012, 4:40pm Top

Apparently most people infected with H. pylori don't get ulcers, though

I never said they did; the important thing here is the etiology of the gastric ulcers, and those are in (again, rushing, no time to check) in some HUGE proportion due to H. pylori--like 80 or 90%, if memory serves.

Yeah, I know Sapolsky's a scientist (if he's the Sapolsky I'm thinking of--dude did some research on diet and cognitive responses in mice?), which is why it's even more surprising, even knowing the publisher probably had the last say. Scientists write a whole rot about science too, especially (probably most often) when they write for the great unwashed, alas, and have to simplify, synthesize and prophesy.

Aug 17, 2012, 5:32pm Top

I think he did some work with mice, but he's better known for having done a lot of research on stress in baboons.

Aug 18, 2012, 9:59pm Top

95. Reunion on Neverend by John E. Stith

A guy heads home -- to Neverend, an airless planet where everyone lives in tunnels -- for a school reunion. When he gets there, he finds out that his old girlfriend's father has been murdered, and she's being harassed by strange people who turn out to be interstellar artifact thieves. Good thing he's picked up all those secret agent skills since high school!

This started out sort of OK. The plot wasn't exactly gripping or very well paced, and the characters seemed kind of shallow, but it was readable enough. A painless and not entirely unpleasant way of killing some time, at least. Then, about halfway through, a weird plot device was introduced, the story got kind of ridiculous, and I rapidly found myself losing patience with it. Definitely not what you'd call a must-read of the SF genre.

Rating: 2.5/5

Aug 18, 2012, 11:47pm Top

96. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

I hadn't read this since I was a kid, and it was delightful coming back to it as an adult. I'd forgotten how good the illustrations are.

Rating: 4/5

Aug 19, 2012, 2:04pm Top

95 - Did you see the film? I was pretty enthralled by it even though I was not expecting to be.

Aug 19, 2012, 3:47pm Top

I didn't. I'm always very leery of seeing classic stuff like this adapted to film, especially when it involves expanding out a very short, simple, subtle story like this one out to a standard movie length. So I avoided it. But from your reaction, maybe I shouldn't have.

Aug 19, 2012, 3:58pm Top

97 - I was pretty wary as well, but I think they did an excellent job keeping it about the atmosphere of the place and not trying to add tons of plot.

Aug 19, 2012, 3:58pm Top

And it was visually stunning.

Aug 19, 2012, 5:32pm Top

>96 janemarieprice: - this is one of my 2 year old's favorite books right now and I love reading it to him!

Aug 19, 2012, 7:24pm Top

>98 janemarieprice:, 99: Maybe I should give it a chance then!

>100 japaul22:: The one and only thing that occasionally makes me briefly feel sorry I don't have kids is not being able to read books to them. :)

Aug 19, 2012, 8:29pm Top

Catching up with three weeks of posts and about 8 books...Michael Collins sounds fascinating. Wonder if my son will let me read him Where the Wild Things Are tonight.

Aug 19, 2012, 10:55pm Top

>102 dchaikin:: Welcome back! I hope your son does, in fact, display good taste in books and lets you read him Sendak. :)

Edited: Aug 19, 2012, 11:11pm Top

Well...he's apparently not quite back on Houston time yet. He fell asleep at about 6 pm...and didn't get up again. I'll try again tomorrow.

Aug 19, 2012, 11:41pm Top

Ah, jet lag I can entirely understand. (Being a shift worker, I seem to live my life in a perpetual state of jet lag.)

Aug 23, 2012, 8:51pm Top

97. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz

Published in 1998, this is Tony Horwitz's account of his travels through the southern US in an attempt to better understand the Civil War, his own childhood fascination with that conflict, and its impact on the modern South. In pursuit of which he visits battlefields and museums, takes up with a dauntingly hardcore Civil War reenactor, meets a Scarlett O'Hara look-alike, and accidentally stumbles into a community where a recent shooting by a black youth of a guy with a confederate flag on his truck has inflamed racial tensions in a truly depressing fashion.

It's an interesting book, and a thoughtful one. Horwitz makes a careful point of not oversimplifying anything and letting the various people he meets state their cases without judging anyone too harshly. I cannot say, even after reading this, that I remotely understand the attitude that many white southerners have towards the Civil War (or the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression, or whatever they might like to call it). I can't imagine having the kind of strong ties to the past that some of these folks do, nor am I capable of making the kind of cognitive leap that leads to the conclusion that the war was not actually about slavery at all. But I do now feel like I have a better understanding of what it is I don't understand, if that makes any sense. And some of the divisions and discontents that he observed in the South in the 90s seem to be very much the same ones that are now surfacing all over the US, here in the 2010s, so perhaps any understanding at all is a useful thing.

Rating: 4/5

Aug 23, 2012, 9:28pm Top

I went through a Civil War reading phase a few years ago. Confederates in the Attic sounds like a very interesting book. I'll keep it in mind.

Aug 23, 2012, 9:33pm Top

I don't think I know nearly as much about the Civil War as I probably ought to. More reading might be indicated at some point.

Aug 24, 2012, 9:01am Top

It's an interesting book, and a thoughtful one. Horwitz makes a careful point of not oversimplifying anything and letting the various people he meets state their cases without judging anyone too harshly.

Nice review. I read Confederates in the Attic several years ago and found it fascinating and kept asking myself "Do they really think that?" only to find that the obvious answer again and again was "Yes".

Aug 24, 2012, 9:08am Top

#106 - that's been on the wishlist a long time. Wondering if it has lost anything with age...I mean if I'm now too late to read it. Sounds like it's still relevant.

Aug 24, 2012, 10:19am Top

Confederates... was great. What bizarre life forms we have here on this planet. After that I read Horwitz's Baghdad without a map and other misadventures in Arabia (although I'm generally leery of Westerners writing about the East); highly recommended. I admire his ability to be funny without becoming shallow.

Aug 24, 2012, 12:10pm Top

>109 SassyLassy:: Yeah, I had a very similar reaction. Funnily enough, I just mentioned to a friend who, like me, is originally from New Jersey but now lives in Tennessee that I'd just finished reading a book about the Civil War and modern Southernerns' attitudes towards it, without going into details, and his immediate response was, "In my experience, many of them wish they could've lived in that time. I am so sick of people who talk about it." Which sure fits with the impression Horwitz gives, although clearly he wasn't sick of hearing people talk about it.

>110 dchaikin:: It's definitely a product of the 90s, but, yeah, I was really struck by how relevant a lot of it seemed, even outside the South. A lot of the rhetoric he was hearing from Southerners sounds exactly like the kind of thing you hear from Tea Party types today.

>111 LolaWalser:: I'll keep that one in mind! I picked up Confederates mainly because I enjoyed Horwitz's Blue Latitudes, about the voyages of Captain Cook, and I am still interested in reading more of his writing.

Aug 25, 2012, 1:00am Top

98. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

This is an interestingly structured novel. Each chapter focuses on a different character, often one only just introduced or mentioned in the previous chapter. We never wander too far away from the two people at the heart of it all, though: Bennie, a music producer, and Sasha, who, when we first meet her, is his assistant. With those two as our anchor points, we wander backwards and forwards in time, getting little glimpses of intertwined lives as characters who were previously only a name or an idea suddenly blossom into people, full of regrets and insecurities and inner lives that aren't necessarily visible from the outside. Towards the end of the book, Egan starts playing around with format: one chapter tells its story in the form of an article about a celebrity interview, another is in second person, and a third (which everyone who ever reviews or discusses this book seems contractually obligated to mention) is in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, something that works better than it ought to.

There is one overarching, rather melancholy theme that pervades the whole novel: time. Time, which sneaks up on us, which turns us into different people, which takes so much from us (and perhaps leaves other things in its place). I think it's a theme I am particularly attuned to at this point in my life, as I slide on down into middle age. The other day, I found myself standing stock-still in my kitchen, thinking, "Wait, I'm forty-one? How can I be forty-one? How is that possible?" Which is a cliched thought, maybe one common to the point of banality, but just for that moment, I found that I really, truly, could not understand quite where the time went, or how I got here, or how this person who is me could ever have gotten to be this old. So this book definitely resonated with me, maybe a little more than I might like.

Rating: 4/5

Aug 25, 2012, 8:33am Top

I haven't read Confederates in the Attic, but I did live that life for over a decade, visiting battlefields, attending reenactments, etc. I even took graduate courses, wrote articles for magazines, and became a speaker at seminars. But that meant associating more and more with those make the observance of history an outlet for their reactionary ideas and racist prejudices. It got to be so bad that I became disgusted with the subject of the war itself, threw away two cabinets of research note, sold my collection of over two thousand books, and turned to literature instead.

Interesting thoughts on A Visit from the Goon Squad, a book I definitely want to read. Enjoy being forty-one while you can. Sixty-one is a hell of a lot worse. :-)

Aug 25, 2012, 12:23pm Top

Yow, that's a depressing story. But maybe not a surprising one, after having read the book, because even in just his short travels, Horwitz seems to have met a disturbing number of those people, too. He manages a lot more restraint and patience with them than I would have.

And sixty-one! Oh, man, I don't even want to think about sixty-one. I'll probably spend it wondering what happened to forty-one. :)

Aug 25, 2012, 5:58pm Top

I didn't like A visit from the Goon Squad so much, I thought it was too smart for it's own good. I read it as a book club choice and was a little surprised to find that the majority of my fellow members did not like it either, but maybe it was too "American" for us.

I do enjoy being 62 though.

Edited: Aug 25, 2012, 9:18pm Top

>106 bragan: - Another good review. It reminded me of this review in the NY Times


of Better off Without 'Em which imagines a visit to the Confederate States of America and sounds considerably less evenhanded.

>114 StevenTX: - How unfortunate, steven - I agree, a very depressing story.

>116 baswood: - I have heard so many mixed reviews of A Visit to the Good Squad that I think I'll have to avoid it.

Aug 26, 2012, 1:15am Top

>116 baswood:: I'd heard some criticisms along those lines of Goon Squad... Which I think was actually a good thing, because it tempered some of the hype I'd also heard about it, and left me with more neutral expectations. But for me, at least, it definitely worked.

>117 DieFledermaus:: That's an interesting review. Not quite sure what to make of it, but I think I'll skip the book in question, anyway.

Aug 26, 2012, 5:32pm Top

Interesting review of Confederates in the Attic. I find the culture surrounds the Civil War fascinating as well, particularly because I don't find it to be that big of a thing in Louisiana. I don't know if it's because we still felt more tied to the French or what.

Aug 26, 2012, 6:56pm Top

>118 bragan: - Yes, the review did have me scratching my head a bit but it was a memorable review so I thought of it when I read yours.

Aug 26, 2012, 10:44pm Top

>119 janemarieprice:: Horwitz didn't include Louisiana in his travels. Maybe he felt it was less relevant there, too.

Aug 29, 2012, 8:42am Top

99. Working in a Very Small Place: The Making of a Neurosurgeon by Mark Shelton

Trigeminal neuralgia is a neurological condition that causes suffers excruciating bouts of pain in their faces, sometimes dozens of times a day. Peter Jannetta, a neurosurgeon, pioneered a technique for treating this often debilitating condition. It's a very delicate and somewhat risky surgical procedure, and it generated a certain amount of controversy, but by 1989, when this book was published, it was becoming fairly well accepted. Working in a Very Small Place focuses on Jannetta and his procedure, and much of the book basically just basically follows him around as he goes about his daily routine over the course of several days.

The descriptions of the surgery are interesting, particularly the blow-by-blow accounts of what goes on in the OR, and it's also interesting to get a glimpse of what a brain surgeon's work is actually like, day to day. (Although it is a dated glimpse, now, taking place as it does in a strange world almost entirely lacking in computers.) I'm not entirely sure a 300-page book on this subject was necessary, though; I can't help but think that most of the interesting details and a lot of the flavor could have been conveyed just as well in a long magazine article. And Shelton's portrait of Jannetta is almost a little too hero-worshippy. It's not over the top or anything, but still, I did find myself looking through the acknowledgements and the author bio on the dust jacket flap to see if maybe Shelton had a job doing PR for the hospital. He didn't, as far as I can tell, but he is definitely playing into the myth of the brilliant hero doctor, and his portrait of Jannetta feels oddly stereotyped, despite the little personality quirks we're shown.

Rating: 3.5/5

Aug 30, 2012, 10:47am Top

Nice review of Working in a Very Small Place, bragan. Your comments of the hero worshipping in this book remind me of my view of Walk on Water, whose author was also overly enamored of the pediatric cardiothoracic surgeons that he encountered.

Aug 30, 2012, 6:24pm Top

Thanks. It's interesting, this apparent desire to reinforce the image of surgeons as some kind of lab-coat-wearing gods.

Aug 31, 2012, 5:38am Top

100. Goliath by Scott Westerfeld

Book three in Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy, a YA saga set in an alternate version of WWI in which steampunk technology squares off against fantastically engineered creatures, with a young Austrian prince and a girl-disguised-as-a-boy British airship crewman finding themselves in the middle of it all. I suppose I didn't find this one quite as consistently engaging as volume two, but it's still a lot of fun, thanks in part to some colorful historical characters and a little bit of mad science, and the climax had me turning pages very quickly. I'm definitely glad I kept on with this series, despite a slightly lukewarm reaction to the first book. Overall, it's just a really entertaining story, with good characters, an interesting setting, and some pretty exciting action.

Rating: 4/5

Sep 1, 2012, 5:58pm Top

I'm adding Denialism to my list. Even though I'm already in the choir, I like reading what an "expert" has to say about a topic that I'm interested in. It's been awhile since I finished Night Circus. It made me stop to think about why I read books.

Sep 1, 2012, 8:37pm Top

Yeah, I'm very much in the choir, myself, but I'm always interested in reading books like that. If nothing else, it's useful when it comes to having productive conversations without people who aren't part of the choir.

Sep 3, 2012, 7:47am Top

101. The Living Dead 2 edited by John Joseph Adams

I remember being quite impressed by the first Living Dead anthology. The stories were highly literate, and it did some creative and interesting things with the zombie theme, featuring less straightforward horror stuff than you might expect and more zombies-as-metaphor and other kinds of nuanced explorations. By and large, I'd say this follow-up volume is more of the same. I do think maybe there's a slightly higher proportion of standard horror elements and zombie apocalypse survival (or lack-of-survival) stories than in the first one, although it's hard to say for sure, since it's likely that the more unusual stories are the ones that have stuck in my mind the longest Even if that's true, though, it's not a bad thing if those elements are handled well, and the best stories in this anthology handle them very well, indeed. While there are one or two pure action pieces -- which I found among the weakest in the book, although that's doubtless a matter of personal preference -- there are many more that pack a significant emotional punch. And there are a number of stories that provide interesting new perspectives on the zombie concept. (Adam-Troy Castro's "The Anteroom," which features former zombies waking up in the afterlife, once again possessed of reason, and remembering everything they did, is a brilliant and horrible example.)

I'd say the quality of the stories ranges from okay all the way up to great, which is not a bad target for an anthology to hit. And there's a wide variety of themes, settings, and approaches, so there should be something here for just about anybody. Well, anybody who's willing to read about zombies, anyway. The one thing you won't find much of here, though, is cheesiness or self-parody. Generally speaking, these are stories that take their zombies seriously, and most of them are all too well aware just how awful and depressing a real zombie apocalypse would be.

Rating: 4/5

Sep 9, 2012, 1:11pm Top

102. The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

As the title of this book might suggest, Steven Pinker, following in the footsteps of Noam Chomsky, contends that humans are born with an innate instinct for language. Not with language itself, obviously, but with mechanisms in our brains that make it easy for us to learn language and that account for commonalities of structure that exist across all languages, despite their obvious variability. Some of Pinker's arguments and conclusions are stronger than others, but the general idea seems pretty sound to me, although I know there's still some controversy over it, two decades later.

Pinker goes into a lot of detail about how languages are structured and how our brains process that structure. I found this detail quite interesting, but rather slow going, despite the fact that Pinker's prose is very accessible to the layman and is broken up here and there with moments of humor or the occasional whimsical quotation. Those who are just looking for a general overview of the subject might find those chapters, which make up about half the book, to be a bit much, but if you're at all interested in the nitty-gritty details of how the human brain constructs sentences, it's well worth reading.

Rating: 4/5

Sep 9, 2012, 2:17pm Top

Good review. I read this last year, and also gave it 4/5 stars. What did you think about his chapters on prescriptive grammar?

Sep 9, 2012, 2:47pm Top

I found his well-expressed vehemence on the subject very amusing. And I do generally agree with him, although I don't get nearly as worked up about it, and I will admit that there are certain usages that do just bug me, irrationally or not. I did find it rather gratifying, though, that there is at least one other person on earth besides me who thinks that "I could care less" is obviously sarcastic, rather than stupid.

Sep 10, 2012, 6:11pm Top

Good review of The language Instinct

Sep 10, 2012, 7:34pm Top

>132 baswood:: Thanks!

Edited: Sep 11, 2012, 6:51pm Top

The Language Instinct sounds like a book I might like to read. Nice review.

ETA: By the way, am really enjoying Carrying the Fire!

Sep 11, 2012, 8:08pm Top

>134 avidmom:: Oh, I'm very glad to hear that you're enjoying it!

Edited: Sep 11, 2012, 11:23pm Top

103. The 13th Hour by Richard Doetsch

When Nick Quinn's wife is murdered and he's arrested for the deed, a strange man shows up at the police station and gives him a pocket watch that somehow sends Quinn back in time two hours, leaves him there an hour, then repeats the process eleven more times. Meaning, basically, that Quinn gets to live twelve hours of his life over, in reverse order. And in those backwards hours, he needs to figure out who killed his wife and why, and find a way to prevent it from happening.

If you can manage the necessary suspension of disbelief, which I was entirely happy to do, this is an incredibly cool premise, promising a clever, unique story structure and the potential for an intricate puzzle of a plot. Unfortunately, the execution is disappointing. Mostly, it's just not very well written. The prose is flat and often repetitive, and far too often uses exposition as a substitute for characterization and drama. And Quinn's life and his relationship with his wife are presented as so schmoopily perfect that I found myself struggling against an impulse to hate both of them. Worse, most of what's going on is revealed by about halfway through the story -- again, via large amounts of infodumping -- thus leaving too little mystery to sustain the second half, especially as the backstory behind the murder turns out to be complicated but not terribly interesting. The suspense also got less as the story went on and I realized that as long as Quinn is able to hang on to his magic watch and not get killed, whatever situation he's managed to get himself into will automatically resolve itself at the end of the hour when he disappears back in time. And, of course, anything that he manages to accomplish, other than information-gathering or occasionally picking up small objects, is also pointless, since it's immediately undone as soon as he jumps back and starts messing with the timeline of the previous hour -- something it seems to take him entirely too long to fully realize. At some point in the novel you just know that absolutely nothing he does is going to have any lasting consequences at all until he hits that final hour, so that until then it mostly becomes a matter of marking time, so to speak.

I have no doubt that a really skilled writer could make this structure work very well, using it to keep the reader guessing right up until the last (or, as the case may be, the first) minute, but Doetsch doesn't really pull it off. There are some moments of excitement here, and the plot certainly starts off promisingly enough, but after the first few chapters my excitement had waned, and by the end, I had mostly lost interest. What a waste of a wonderfully nifty idea!

Rating: 2.5/5

Sep 11, 2012, 8:20pm Top

We should agree a tag for 'great idea, disappointing execution'... far too many books like that...

Sep 11, 2012, 8:37pm Top

Yeah, I've read a depressing number of those this year.

Sep 12, 2012, 7:40pm Top

Have you read Replay by Ken Grimwood? Its premise is similar, but not exactly the same ( no murder mystery element). A man is forced to live his life over and over again, each time beginning at a slightly later time period. I highly recommend it.

Sep 12, 2012, 8:14pm Top

>139 arubabookwoman:: I have read that, although it was a very long time ago, and I don't remember too much about it, except that I liked it a lot.

Sep 12, 2012, 8:27pm Top

And, speaking of time...

104. The ABC of Relativity by Bertrand Russell

In this book, first published in 1925 (although the edition I have was revised in 1959), Bertrand Russell attempts to explicate both special and general relativity. With the exception of a couple of very short sections that he advises non-mathematical readers to skip, he uses little or no math. This means that reading this book will not, in fact, allow you to completely understand relativity, as you pretty much need a good grasp of the math for that. But he does give a decent accounting of the reasons, both experimental and theoretical, why we believe these theories to be sound ones, explains the important ideas involved, and gives the reader a sense of the often strange and counter-intuitive implications that result from them. The style is perhaps a little old-fashioned by today's standards, and the subject matter a bit difficult -- I majored in physics in college, and I don't even pretend to fully understand all of it -- but Russell uses a lot of examples and analogies that are helpful. In the last few chapters (and, to a certain extent throughout the book), he also delves into some philosophical and epistemological territory, which gets a little abstruse, even by the standards of a book on relativity. I'm not entirely sure what to make of some of that, but I did find all of it interesting.

I'm not sure I'd recommend this as a first introduction to the subject; there are doubtless more recent books that do a better job of that. But for those who know just a little bit about relativity, are still trying to get a handle on what it all means in terms of our conception of space and time, and are interested in reading a few deep thoughts, I'd say it's still worth a look.

Rating: 4/5

Sep 13, 2012, 8:24am Top

What a cool book to have read. I'm impressed, but also completely intimidated.

Sep 13, 2012, 10:31am Top

Well, I've always been something of a physics geek. Less so now then when I was younger, really. I read Einstein's original Relativity when I was in high school. I really didn't understand a lot of the math then, but I recall it being a surprisingly clear read, otherwise.

Sep 14, 2012, 2:19pm Top

105. Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

This is a novel written entirely in free verse. About werewolves. Seriously, absolutely nothing about this should work, and yet, somehow, absolutely everything does. The writing flows beautifully and effortlessly,and features some terrific imagery and some real emotional insight, so that what at first seems a faintly ridiculous gimmick quickly comes to feel like the most natural and fitting style of storytelling imaginable. And the story it's telling is a good one, a surprising page-turner with a satisfying plot and well-rendered characters. How the heck it ever occurred to someone to write this thing, let alone taking a chance on publishing it, I have no idea, but it makes me happy that they did.

Rating: 4.5/5

Sep 14, 2012, 3:13pm Top

Dammit, I saw Sharp Teeth in the shops, and decided to pass on it because of aforesaid fact that it shouldn't work. Maybe I should try to get it. Thanks for the review.

Sep 14, 2012, 3:42pm Top

It's sort of the exact opposite of the "great idea, bad execution" problem noted above. It seems like a ridiculous idea, but, boy, does the execution justify it. I do recommend it, at least for those who don't have problems with violence or verse.

Sep 15, 2012, 3:46pm Top

Sharp Teeth sounds fun and it would be quite entertaining to answer the "What are you reading?" question with - "A novel written entirely in free verse about werewolves."

Sep 15, 2012, 8:07pm Top

I read Sharp Teeth a couple of years ago and quite enjoyed it -- I absolutely second your review!

Sep 15, 2012, 9:13pm Top

>147 DieFledermaus:. Heh. Often when people randomly ask me what I'm reading, the answer seems to flummox them. But that one, I think, would really do it. :)

Sep 16, 2012, 3:02pm Top

Hmm...Sharp Teeth sounds interesting. Onto the wish list it goes.

Sep 17, 2012, 12:47am Top

106. Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality by Jonathan Weiner

Jonathan Weiner looks at the question of why we age, how aging might ultimately be "cured," and whether that would be a good thing. Or, rather, he mostly looks at the ideas that iconoclastic scientist and fanatical pro-immortality advocate Aubrey de Grey has on the subject. Now, this is topic that is deeply relevant to all of us, and de Grey is a colorful and provocative figure, so this seems like it should be a fascinating book. But there's something about Weiner's writing that I find frustrating. The guy can turn a phrase all right, but that's actually part of the problem. He seems way more interested in coming up with poetic metaphors and literary references, or with detailing his not-as-interesting-as-he-thinks-they-are personal encounters with de Grey than he is in digging into the science. He does manage to cover some interesting ground, but for too much of the book, I was left with an unsatisfying sense that he was talking a lot without really saying very much.

Rating: 3/5

Sep 17, 2012, 1:22am Top

Long for This World sounds like it would make for great reading. Too bad about the "talking a lot without really saying much" author. Nice review ... and now I'm off to look up Aubrey de Grey.

Sep 17, 2012, 1:35am Top

I will say that other people do seem to like Weiner's writing better than I do. Apparently he's won a Pulitzer, although not for that book.

Edited: Sep 17, 2012, 8:45am Top

107. The Future of Us by Jay Asher & Carolyn Mackler

High school student Emma Nelson gets a new computer, boots it up, and logs on to Facebook. Which is interesting, because it's 1996 and Facebook doesn't exist yet. How and why this happens is never explored, but what it means is that she and her friend Josh are able to catch a glimpse of their lives fifteen years in the future. Josh is pleased to discover that he's destined to marry the richest and prettiest girl in the school, even if he'd rather have Emma, but Emma is less than thrilled with her future self's apparent inability to maintain a happy relationship and becomes determined to do something about it. Which might be easier if she were a little less shallow about guys.

I think this is one of those YA novels that really is likely to appeal more to actual teenagers than to adult folks like me, and it's a little bit too predictable. But it's a fast and a pleasant enough read, with a premise that provokes some interesting thoughts about what our own past or future selves might make of our present lives. And I do like the fact that it handles the idea of changing the future in a believable chaos-theory kind of way, even if it never actually examines the dynamics of it at all.

Rating: 3.5/5

Edited: Sep 24, 2012, 2:31pm Top

108. The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must by Robert Zubrin, with Richard Wagner

Robert Zubrin outlines, in great detail, how a manned mission to Mars could be achieved within a decade, for less money than is generally assumed, if only we were willing to thoroughly commit to doing it. His plan involves a launch directly from Earth to Mars (with no expensive orbital construction or stepping-stone bases on the moon), using Mars' natural resources to synthesize fuel and other necessities, and an extended stay on the surface to get some real science done. He's put lot of thought into every aspect of the endeavor, from launch vehicles to orbital trajectories to crew habitats to scientific objectives, and his scheme seems extremely plausible.

Zubrin also looks a bit further afield, talking about a plan for permanent Martian settlements and even the prospect of terraforming Mars. These chapters are a lot more speculative and rather less convincing, but they are interesting possibilities, and also feature lots of carefully thought-out specifics. In fact, some of the details here can get pretty dry -- I admit to sort of skimming some of the bits about the chemistry of fuel and plastics manufacturing on Mars -- but you don't necessarily have to be a rocket scientist to understand the basics of his arguments.

Of course, that "if only we were willing to thoroughly commit" is one great big "if," and I can't say I'm feeling much in the way of optimism. If anything, the goal seems further away now than it did in 1996, when the first edition of this books was published. Alas.

Rating: I hesitated a little about rating this one... It really is a bit of a dry read in places, but it's pretty effective at what it sets out to do, so I'll call it 4/5.

Edited: Sep 24, 2012, 7:31pm Top

109. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Florence and Edward are newly married and very much in love. They are also both virgins, and both nervous about their wedding night. Edward is merely suffering a bit of performance anxiety, but Florence's problems go much deeper; she finds the whole idea of sex frightening and repellent. Unfortunately, this is the early 60s, in a world trembling on the cusp of a sexual revolution that hasn't quite happened yet, and neither of them have any sense of how to even begin talking about their difficulties or desires.

It's a very simple story, really, one which shows us a few hours of the wedding night interspersed with the history of their lives and their relationship, as well as a certain amount of self-aware commentary on the differences between their era and the one that was soon to replace it -- all of which works much better than you might expect it to. It's also a short, surprisingly quick read, I think mostly because there's a horrible fascination to it that keeps you -- or at least kept me -- helplessly turning pages. Like watching a slow-motion trainwreck that you know should be entirely preventable, but is probably going to happen anyway. It all feels quite painfully believable, in a thoughtful, melancholy sort of way.

Rating: 4/5

Sep 25, 2012, 6:53am Top

Nice review of On Chesil Beach. As you said, it was a painfully believable tragedy.

Sep 25, 2012, 3:19pm Top

Thanks. I see that it has gotten some fairly mixed reviews here on LT, with a lot of people complaining that it's too short. Personally, I think it's exactly the right length for what it's doing, and any attempt to pad it out more would only have hurt it. So, far, I haven't read anything my McEwan I haven't liked.

Sep 25, 2012, 6:20pm Top

Nice review of The Case for Mars. I admit to sort of skimming some of the bits about the chemistry of fuel and plastics manufacturing on Mars . Manufacturing plastics.... on Mars? Interesting stuff.

Sep 25, 2012, 7:25pm Top

>158 bragan: I agree; On Chesil Beach was the right length, and anything more would have diluted the impact of the story.

I've liked nearly everything I've read by McEwan, particularly Saturday, The Cement Garden and Black Dogs. I still haven't read Atonement, and based on its mediocre reviews, I haven't purchased Sweet Tooth yet.

Edited: Sep 25, 2012, 7:28pm Top

> 159: Yep, one of Zubrin's big theses is that you can make just about anything with native Martian resources, up to and including plastics. Although whether that's just as practical as he thinks it is, I can't really judge.

Edited: Sep 25, 2012, 7:33pm Top

>160 kidzdoc:: So far, of McEwan's stuff I've read Enduring Love, The Comfort of Strangers and Solar, as well as On Chesil Beach. I have Atonement still on the TBR, and am definitely interested in reading the ones you've named, except for Sweet Tooth, about which I've heard nothing at all.

Sep 25, 2012, 9:38pm Top

>161 bragan: I can just see it now. Go out shopping and buy something stamped "Made On Mars" on the bottom. That'll be the day! LOL!

Edited: Sep 26, 2012, 10:25pm Top

I wasn't aware a new McEwan had come out. I will pick up Sweet Tooth as soon as it is available here.

Sep 27, 2012, 1:08pm Top

Great review of On Chesil Beach. I've only read Saturday, ages ago (ok, like 7 years ago). Anyway, it didn't lead to me to read more McEwan, but I do own Atonement.

Sep 27, 2012, 7:13pm Top

I really like McEwan's writing. I think his insight into how the human psyche really works, as opposed to the ways we like to pretend it works in fiction, is almost painfully keen, and Solar and Enduring Love displayed a scientific literacy that my geeky side was astonished and delighted to see showing up in literary fiction.

Sep 28, 2012, 4:22am Top

110. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know About Them) by Bart D. Ehrman

I think the subtitle of this book is a little misleading. There's really only one chapter that focuses primarily on "revealing the hidden contradictions in the Bible, "and that one only offers up a smattering of examples, all of them from the New Testament. (In fact, the book as a whole focuses almost exclusively on the New Testament, that being the author's area of expertise.) What it really is, rather than a list of contradictions, is an introductory overview of the historical-critical approach to the Bible, in which the texts are examined in an analytical fashion, in their proper historical context. So, we do get a chapter that talks about how the various accounts of the life and death of Jesus contradict each other and how those contradictions reflect the individual authors' own theological concerns. But there are also discussions about who wrote the various books of the Bible (which often turns out not to be who they're attributed to), how some writings were accepted as part of the biblical canon while others were left out, what we can conclude (or reasonably speculate) about the historical Jesus based on the writings we have, how Christian theology changed in the centuries after Jesus and affected the biblical texts, and so on.

I imagine a lot of this is likely to be quite eye-opening for those raised in a tradition of Biblical literalism (assuming they're willing to hear it out). For heathen unbeliever me, though, some of the basic points have a certain "well, duh!" quality to them. Of course reports of events written by different people decades after the fact are going to differ significantly, and all the more so if differing religious agendas are involved. Many of the historical details are quite interesting, though, especially when you consider the incredible, massive influence the Christian Bible has had on all of western civilization. And Ehrman's writing is very clear and readable, covering the subject matter well without getting too bogged down in fiddly academic disputes, and providing just enough examples to make his points without letting things get too tedious. He also doesn't make any unwarranted assumptions about his readers' personal beliefs, or expect more than a basic, general familiarity with the Bible going in.

Rating: 4/5

Sep 28, 2012, 10:35am Top

Great review of Jesus, Interrupted. It's a subject I've always wanted to read on but the considerable number of books that deal with it (for a layman's understanding anyway) hasn't made it easy to choose. Your last sentence tells me this may be the book I'm looking for.

Sep 28, 2012, 5:37pm Top

>168 deebee1:: It may very well be. It's definitely designed to be an easy first introduction to the subject, and it's aimed at believers and nonbelievers alike. (He makes the point that the Bible is culturally important enough that everybody ought to have some historical interest in it, whatever their beliefs, and also that he personally does not think that knowing this stuff should be a threat to anybody's faith.)

Sep 29, 2012, 7:09am Top

111. Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

Seventeen-year-old Marcelo, who is somewhere on the autism spectrum, has led a fairly sheltered life, attending a school for special-needs kids. His father, a high-powered Boston lawyer, believes that it's time for Marcelo to learn to get along in "the real world" and insists that the boy take a job in his law firm's mail room, where he meets a nice young woman, is forced to deal with his father's partner's smarmy son, and eventually finds himself facing a significant ethical dilemma.

Marcelo is an interesting and likeable enough character, and the story here isn't bad at all. It's got decent writing, some thoughtful bits of philosophy, and a fairly nice ending. So I mostly enjoyed it well enough, but there's something about it that I found very vaguely unsatisfying. Maybe it's that Marcelo's ability to understand the nuances of what other people are saying varies just a little too much with the needs of the story, or that aforementioned ethical dilemma seems just a little too contrived, or that the smarmy character is a little too over-the-top in his smarminess... Or maybe it's just that it was over-hyped to me a bit, and I read it too soon after Sabina Berman's Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World, which also features a high-functioning autistic main character, but one whose voice worked slightly better for me. Whatever the case, I can't help feeling I should have liked it more thoroughly than I actually did.

Rating: a slightly stingy 3.5/5

Sep 29, 2012, 10:14am Top

>170 bragan: I think you got the rating right -- I felt slightly generous with my 4 stars :) I thought it a good coming-of-age story but didn't think the author nailed the mind of an autistic teen.

Sep 29, 2012, 3:38pm Top

Based on your review I have added Jesus, Interrupted to my wishlist. Eventually I will finishe the OT, and get to the NT. And this book sounds like a nice intro.

Marcelo in the Real World sure sounds contrived, just by the title. Interesting review.

Sep 29, 2012, 3:42pm Top

>170 bragan:: Yes, that. I think that actually sums it up quite nicely.

In fairness, Stork is careful to say that Marcelo is atypical, and maybe has something like autism, or Asperger's, but not quite as it normally manifests. But even taking that into account, well... The character is interesting, but he somehow doesn't quite ring completely true.

Sep 29, 2012, 3:46pm Top

>172 dchaikin:: I do admire your Bible-reading project. You know, one of the things Ehrman says, although he's certainly not the first one to make the observation, is that very few people who think they know the Bible, or have opinions about the Bible, have actually read very much of it. I'm afraid I'm counted among that group, too.

I don't want to diss Marcelo too much. It's just that it was almost-but-not-quite the book I wanted it to be.

Oct 1, 2012, 2:27pm Top

And I have now set up a new thread for the last quarter of 2012: http://www.librarything.com/topic/142910. Not much there yet, but stay tuned for another three months of eclectic reading!

Group: Club Read 2012

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