qebo's 2011 books

TalkNon-Fiction Challenge / Journal

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qebo's 2011 books

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Edited: Jan 1, 2012, 12:48pm

I've been entering books in the 75 books challenge (http://www.librarything.com/topic/104898), intend to cross-post the non-fiction books through 2011.

Click the # for details.

#01: Japanland by Karin Muller -- (Jan 1)
#02: Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder -- (Jan 3)
#03: The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson -- (Jan 11)
#04: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami -- (Jan 16)
#05: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall -- (Jan 22)
#06: Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer -- (Feb 4)
#07: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin -- (Feb 19)
#08: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick -- (Mar 10)
#09: Pyongyang by Guy Delisle -- (Mar 15)
#10: Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows -- (Mar 28)
#11: The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer Weart -- (Mar 31)
#12: The Koreans by Michael Breen -- (Apr 24)
#13: The Genetic Strand by Edward Ball -- (May 19)
#14: Naturalist by E. O. Wilson -- (May 23)
#15: You Are Here by Colin Ellard -- (May 28)
#16: The Emerald Planet by David Beerling -- (May 29)
#17: Chaos: A Very Short Introduction by Leonard Smith -- (May 31)
#18: The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick -- (Jun 5)
#19: Four Colors Suffice by Robin Wilson -- (Jun 27)
#20: Matrices and Transformations by Anthony Pettofrezzo -- (Jul 3)
#21: 1491 by Charles Mann -- (Jul 9)
#22: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins -- (Jul 16)
#23: Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich -- (Jul 23)
#24: A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer -- (Jul 24)
#25: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot -- (Aug 6)
#26: Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman -- (Aug 13)
#27: Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks -- (Aug 16)
#28: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi -- (Aug 20)
#29: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand -- (Aug 31)
#30: The River of Doubt by Candice Millard -- (Sep 5)
#31: The Man Who Found Time by Jack Repcheck -- (Sep 11)
#32: In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta Ahmed -- (Sep 16)
#33: Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz -- (Oct 5)
#34: The Lost City of Z by David Grann -- (Oct 10)
#35: A Chosen Faith by John Buehrens and Forrest Church -- (Oct 26)
#36: The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee -- (Oct 31)
#37: Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler -- (Nov 13)
#38: Life Ascending by Nick Lane -- (Nov 27)

Edited: May 4, 2011, 8:48pm

#1: Japanland by Karin Muller

I picked this up while shopping for Christmas (one more example of why I should not walk into a book store), noticed because I was in Japan over the summer. The author spent a year in Japan, for a combination of personal seeking and documentary film (http://www.japanlandonline.com/). The book is written in anecdotal style, each chapter a snippet of culture entwined with stories of individual participants: religious ritual, sumo wrestling match, agricultural harvest, a homeless man collecting aluminum cans, a sword craftsman, a geisha. More interesting to me though were the mundane cultural frictions (e.g. months of ultimately unsuccessful efforts to be accepted by her host family, negotiating a landscape of rules spoken and assumed), and the kind gestures of ordinary people (e.g. when the highest ranking among a group of passing businessman gave incorrect directions, the lowest ranking, who could say nothing publicly in opposition, surreptitiously returned to set her right).

May 4, 2011, 8:47pm

#2 Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

I've had this probably for several years, was reminded of it recently as it made the rounds of acquaintances, so I plucked it off the shelf. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners In Health (http://www.pih.org/) occupies, with enormous energy and dedication, a continuum of global ideals and individual care. After a focus on medical anthropology in college, he was drawn to impoverished Haiti, where he established a hospital that eventually became an internationally respected model for community health. Tracy Kidder accompanies Paul Farmer around Haiti and around the world, and traces his life through conversations with family and friends. Along the way we see practical medicine in the context of traditional voodoo, the scientific and political process of developing a protocol for multiple drug resistant tuberculosis and persuading the World Health Organization to accept it, patients who survive and patients who die. And decades of support from Ophelia Dahl, daughter of Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal, who met Paul Farmer in Haiti at age 18, and is now the president of PIH.

Edited: Jul 16, 2011, 3:33pm

#3: The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson

Joseph Priestly entered the upper echelons of science by writing about book about the people investigating electricity, with the goal of informing the public about the current state of knowledge. He was an advocate throughout his life of freely conveying and exchanging information, and there is mention of the concerns this raised as he shifted from being a member of a small group of amateur scientists, to being funded by the emerging industrialists. He gets credit for discovering oxygen, though neither uniquely (it was discovered earlier but published later by someone else) nor definitively (he was confused by his adherence to the phlogiston theory). More emphasis in this book is on his fascination since childhood with placing small critters (bugs and mice) into sealed containers to see what happens. Well, what happens is they die. Unless a plant is there too, a previously unknown phenomenon that quite intrigued his friend Benjamin Franklin. The book detours into the Gaia hypothesis and the Carboniferous period (gigantic animals and gigantic plants correlated with the high percentage of oxygen in the air). The second half of this book is more about politics and religion than science. Joseph Priestly supported the American and French revolutions, and advocated in extensive publications a version of Christianity that quite enamored Thomas Jefferson, but that got him into trouble at home in England, to the extent that he emigrated to Pennsylvania at the age of 61. The author's stated approach was to "cross multiple scales and disciplines", and he did succeed in making connections between disparate scientific and cultural developments of the mid to late 1700s, and in getting me a tad more interested in the all too ubiquitous in my part of the country Benjamin Franklin.

May 4, 2011, 8:50pm

#4: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

This has been vaguely in my mind for awhile, for its combination of running (which I do) and Japan (where I've been). I know nothing about Haruki Murakami as either a novelist or a person, and it's maybe for this reason that the book seems rather peculiar in tone, navel gazing without revealing much interior life. For example, he describes the moment when he decided to become a novelist. And that is it. He describes an event, without discernible connection to anything personal. Perhaps he has revealed elsewhere, and he wanted this book to be different. He mentions his wife, but she is fleshed out in only two places: she is from an entrepreneurial family and provided inspiration and support during his years as owner of a jazz bar, and she recommended her swimming coach when he wanted to compete in a triathlon. Otherwise, she makes sandwiches and meets him at the finish line. The section about the swimming coach was actually rather nice, because he was attentive to details of her teaching style, and describes how she gradually changed his form. He links running to writing with the discipline and ritual of each. Which I found mildly interesting, but the essence of both was that if you trudge long enough you'll eventually achieve a marathon or a book. In sum, meh.

May 4, 2011, 8:51pm

#5: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

I began reading several books simultaneously, then dutifully picked up this one because the author is local and scheduled to speak at the county running club banquet next week. I vaguely knew of it as the barefoot running book, did not expect to get so immediately caught up in a story of adventure and mystery and human character. It's about the Tarahumara people, whose distance running skills are developed through childhood games, of the Copper Canyon in Mexico, accessible by a bus winding along the edges of cliffs, where below lie the mangled vehicles of less skillful drivers, followed by a hike through hot desert mountains, where getting lost can mean a frighteningly rapid descent into dehydration and death. It's about ultramarathoners, for whom marathons are too trivial and mundane, who thrive outside the scope of scientifically designed training plans. It's about a white man with unrevealed origins who has lived among the Tarahumara for a decade, who runs miles along trails to the nearest telephone line to email ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, challenging him to a 50 mile race with the best Tarahumara runners. It's about Chris McDougall's foot, which made running a mere few miles too painful to endure. It's about running shoes and technologically advanced cushioning of the heel, which causes injuries the manufacturers claim to prevent. It's about human evolution, how slower weaker primates with bodies that release heat can endure beyond the capacities of the faster stronger animals they hunt. All neatly and humorously and affectionately woven together.

May 4, 2011, 8:51pm

#6: Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer

I picked up this book because of its author, not because of its subject. I knew the basic outline: affected by 9/11, Pat Tillman exited the NFL, enlisted in the US Army, and was killed by "friendly fire" in Afghanistan. I'm not a particular fan of macho heroics, but I trust Jon Krakauer to tell a good story, and he does. The early chapters switch between Pat Tillman and family, and the history of Afghanistan, interest held and tension sustained because it is known from the beginning that the two will meet in tragedy. The merging of brute force and honor is rather lost on me (Pat Tillman, as a teenager, in a mistaken effort to avenge a friend who was actually instigator not victim, did serious damage to another boy, and spent time in jail the summer before college, after his family managed to get the charges diminished so he wouldn't lose his athletic scholarship), and channeling the inclination into professional football is a tad eye-rolling, but what could be caricature becomes a real fleshed out person with an active mind and strong sentiments, as described by family and friends. Hagiographic is a plausible accusation, but my guess is it's a minor elevation after death, not a major distortion. Regardless, all Pat Tillman all the time would be a dull book, and where I became attentive, frequently flipping back to bookmarked maps, was during the two military incidents described in minute by minute detail (in a style reminiscent of Into Thin Air): the events leading to the capture and rescue of Jessica Lynch, and the events leading to the death of Pat Tillman. Pat Tillman and his brother were opposed to the war with Iraq, but Iraq was their first deployment, and the rescue of Jessica Lynch was their first mission. Both incidents were composed of errors in judgment made under intense pressure, resulting in multiple deaths by "friendly fire", a euphemism for tragic layers of misperception and fear, covered up by military bureaucracy, and converted into propaganda by government and media. Some LT reviews criticize that the book "bogs down" in the detail, and the descriptions are "neutral and inconclusive", but I thought the opposite. Both incidents packed a lot of activity into very little time, and are made more compelling and more chilling by the slow motion unfolding. There is no need for the author to add emotion when the reader is already watching in horror.

May 4, 2011, 8:52pm

#7: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Greg Mortenson tried and failed to reach the summit of K2, got lost on the way down, and stumbled into the village of Korphe, Pakistan, where the residents cared for him as he recuperated from exposure to the elements. Wanting to reciprocate, and seeing that his expertise as a nurse could go only so far in conditions of poverty and isolation, he asked to see the school, with the idea of sending appropriate supplies from the US. The school, however, was a bare patch of ground. Before there could be books, there had to be a building. He vowed to construct it. Home in the US, he continued to work as a nurse while sleeping in his car and similarly frugal shelters, and dedicated his spare time to to raising funds. When he returned to Pakistan with money in hand, he expected to be on the verge of mission accomplished, but instead he was entangled in unfamiliar local customs and politics. And before there could be a school, there had to be a bridge to transport construction materials across the river. The story is compelling: one person transforms a patch of the world (not to mention his own life), navigating through episodes that convey the complexity and concerns of people about whom we haven't heard a lot that is good in recent years. IMO the book eventually fizzles into too much anecdote and too little direction, but this could be more me than it. I remain interested enough that I want to read the sequel Stones Into Schools, which shifts the focus from Pakistan to Afghanistan. My primary complaint is the paucity of photos, which are all black and white, and mostly of people without context of village or landscape.

May 4, 2011, 8:52pm

#8: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Oh my. This is an affecting book precisely because it is about the mundane lives of six people, with mention of but without dwelling upon history or statistics (a section at the end recommends books and other sources of such information). The author is a journalist who was in South Korea for several years, with limited access to North Korea, so instead she interviewed people who had defected. You might think such people were exceptionally aware and political and enterprising, but some had been true believers, and defection seems more a response to loss, of family and social position, exacerbated by the exhaustion of famine and economic collapse. Far more compelling than statistics are descriptions of people foraging for bark and grass, salvaging grains of corn from sewage, grinding corn husks to make them barely digestible. The teacher watched her students starve. The doctor watched her patients starve. Parents fed their children first, but then the parents died first, and the orphaned children wandered the train station. How belief that there is "nothing to envy" in the outside world can be sustained under these conditions is nearly incomprehensible, but radios and TVs are crippled to receive only state programming, work includes daily ideological sessions and authority is tied to ideological adherence, travelers must carry documents granting official permission, and every neighborhood has assigned monitors who report suspicious activity. North Koreans have difficulty adjusting to South Korea in part because of an aversion to the casual chitchat that signals friendliness and maintains social connections. In North Korea, a slip that implies criticism is dangerous. A family who owned a TV, a rare luxury, kept the apartment door open so neighbors could drop in to watch. During an upbeat segment about a boot factory, the father commented that if it is producing so many boots, why can't he get any for his children. A neighbor must have reported him, the family never discovered who, because he was hauled in for interrogation, and only his reputation saved him from prison. Safer not to talk at all, and maybe not to think either. On an encouraging note, however, as the central distribution system of food, and electricity, ceased to function, entrepreneurial activity arose. People stopped tending the communal farms, but they began tending personal plots of vegetables to barter or sell, and to a limited extent the markets that appeared in and around abandoned industrial buildings were tolerated in order to prevent outright revolt. Of interest, and maybe obvious but I hadn't known, South Korea has a procedure for integrating defectors into society, which includes money and training in modern technology. This is possible because the numbers are not (yet) overwhelming, but concern exists, and South Korea has been studying examples such as Germany in preparation.

May 4, 2011, 8:53pm

#9: Pyongyang by Guy Delisle

This is the first graphic format book I've ever read, and I zipped through the text in an evening, but I expect to revisit the drawings. After I lend it to my 13 year old nephew, who has developed a fascination with North Korea. I'm not really sure how to go about reading/viewing such a book, suspect that I've missed things. I think some of the episodes registered in my mind only because I so recently read Nothing to Envy, which details the "real" background behind the Pyongyang presentation to foreigners, and makes this book seem so much more creepy.

May 4, 2011, 8:53pm

#10: Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows

I picked up this book after several mentions by James Fallows (the author's husband) on his blog. I suspect it is more meaningful to someone who has spent time in China. To me, it was scattered snippets, loosely tied together by a common theme of linguistic oddities that illuminate the culture. Each brief chapter was a bit amusing and a bit intriguing... and then it ended. I wished, maybe, for a different sort of book, more of a memoir, more depth, more continuity. The snippets suggest a rare level of immersion and access, an affection for the country and difficulties adjusting, that could have made for compelling reading.

Edited: May 4, 2011, 8:55pm

#11: The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer Weart

This is a useful book, not exactly a compelling page-turner, but maybe better for its straightforward unemotive style. As the author describes it: "The future actions we might take are not my subject. This book is a history of how we came to understand our present situation." He traces strands of inquiry that go back to the 1800s: why did ice ages occur? how is the industrial revolution affecting the atmosphere? There are things that cause warming and things that cause cooling and complex interactions and feedback loops that don't make for a one-size-fits-all description of the future. Components of a global system have been gradually discovered, understood from data collection and experimentation, and incorporated into increasingly complex computer models that go back to the 1950s. A handy time line notes the significant developments. The political prominence of the issue arose after much wrangling among scientists about what was too murky and uncertain for presentation, or too alarmingly plausible to remain confined to technical journals. This is not a book for computer geekery about the models. It is about the major players, the broad trends, the difficulties of individuals in a small slice of time struggling to comprehend eons on a global scale. I am, after reading this book, more appreciative of the effort involved.

May 4, 2011, 8:54pm

#12: The Koreans by Michael Breen

Nothing to Envy got me interested in learning more about Korea, and this book was recommend by the author, so I got it despite the subtitle (Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies), which has an offputting tinge of The Aliens have Landed! It was, actually, quite interesting to read. The author is a journalist who lived in Seoul for fifteen years. The book has four major sections: society, history, economy, politics, all of which are interspersed with personal anecdotes conveyed with mingled exasperation and humor and affection, in a style that is not exactly PC, and that sometimes compares Korean people and institutions unfavorably with ideals rather than realities of British counterparts. And yet, this can be a useful perspective on another culture, with one model of how things should be encountering another. Maybe I noticed this aspect more because as an American I might not have seen things in quite the author's way. So, grain of salt, not the definitive last word, and a tad sketchy in the history section, but still well worth reading.

May 5, 2011, 8:58am

*waves* Thank you for setting up this group! You've got a very mixed bag of goodies here. Can't wait to see what else you'll read this year!

May 6, 2011, 8:41am

The book closest to completion is non-non-fiction: Anthill by E.O. Wilson, which I'm reading out of curiosity. It may inspire me to read other books of his that have been languishing on my shelves.

May 14, 2011, 9:20am

Finally, I have some time to catch up with threads in this group. Your review of Japanland makes it very attractive. And, wow, you do like to read biographical stuff which is one of my favorite corners of the library (figuratively speaking). I doubt I will read the Krakauer book but I share with you admiration for his writing. I was sorry to see that Greg Mortenson's story has been revealed to be not all about a hero by Jon, but truth is always more interesting than fiction, is it not?

The book about South Korea Nothing to Envy sounds fascinating. What a concept that a people is convinced "their way" is working when all the evidence is right in front of their eyes that it is not working. I can't imagine parents watching their children die, but the other with the parents dying doesn't seem tolerable either. How horrible.

You do read very interesting books and, if I let myself, every book would be picked up and sitting on my shelves of TBR tomes. My budget is restraining me right now but I will star your thread and wait to see what comes next.

May 15, 2011, 11:13am

16: The revelations about Greg Mortenson make a sad epilogue. Now it's unclear what is and is not true, and the good he has done (which his critics acknowledge) will become a casualty of the fabrications. This is a useful perspective: http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/2011/04/19/two-cups-short-of-a-full-service/.

May 18, 2011, 7:26pm


I think you meant NORTH Korea, in your post above. North Korea is Communist, while South Korea is a Democratic Republic. I know I am splitting hairs, but my in-laws are South Koreans (I met and married my wife while stationed in South Korea). It is a shame to lump all Koreans in the same pot, as they do not have the same governments, or standards of living.

North Korea is a communist hell hole. South Korea is a thriving, modern, energetic country, with a standard of living almost equal to Western countries.

Bill Masom

Edited: May 18, 2011, 7:41pm

I think maybe, Bill, you misread my post in #16. I probably did a poor job of explaining what I was thinking. The book is about North Korea and my comment was that I could not imagine living in such a society where you are expected to act as if all is fine, when so very obviously, it is not fine. People starving to death does not provide proof of a society which works.

I am not mistaken in knowing N. Korea has Nothing to Envy.

May 18, 2011, 9:13pm

18,19: I assumed "The book about South Korea Nothing to Envy" was a slip, not a misconception. I've now read books about both N and S, though neither is pure, because until recently the history was shared, and to an extent it still is, though the governments have diverged drastically.

May 18, 2011, 10:48pm

OK, my bad. I misstated it, and then miss read it. You are right. Obviously the book is about North Korea. And it is where the starvation occurs.

Sorry about that. Sometimes these aging eyes and brain plays really nasty tricks on me.

May 20, 2011, 9:53am

#13: The Genetic Strand by Edward Ball

I read author's earlier book Slaves in the Family several years ago, and had high hopes for this one as a continuation of the genealogical detective story entwined with history. And indeed the style is similar, but on the whole this book was a disappointment. The strength of Slaves in the Family, as I recall, was the moral difficulty of coming to terms with the underbelly of a prominent plantation family. This book has no such core. The author acquired a desk that had been in ancestral home from the early 1800s onward. In a hidden drawer, he discovered packets of hair, labeled with names a dates, that had come from scattered members of the family, during the era before photography when locks of hair were a common memento. He set about getting the DNA tested. (A bit of information: hair contains only mitochondrial DNA.) The story meanders through family anecdotes, conversations with living relatives who contributed DNA to the project, and conversations with scientists involved in various aspects of DNA testing. What he discovered was... not so much. And I thought not worth an entire book, though the book could be considered more about the process and the sometimes exaggerated claims of DNA testing companies. Some of the earlier results were later shown to be dubious or false. The author blames science. Or he blames the cultural glorification of science and the equation of science with truth. But he met actual scientists! And they were like real people! They were emotional and humorous! They even had arguments with each other! The combination of mild antagonism and stereotypes isn't central, but it runs all through the book, and it irritated me enough that I was occasionally more eye-rolling than sympathetic.

May 20, 2011, 9:44pm

Slaves in the Family sounds interesting, at any rate... too bad this one didn't live up to it.

Edited: May 29, 2011, 11:57am

#14: Naturalist by E. O. Wilson

I've had this book for ages, seem to have picked it up while browsing in the discount section of B&N, but never got around to reading it. I recently read Anthill, and though I wasn't wild about the book as a whole, the embedded section about ants made it worthwhile, and I was curious how much of the story came from the Wilson's life. The answer is a fair amount -- it's set in the Alabama / Florida region of his childhood and in universities he's familiar with, he too was involved in the Boy Scouts, and then there are the ants. Naturalist however, is more detailed and less contrived -- there is no need to manufacture a dramatic story, because reality is quite interesting enough. This is a person who is infinitely curious and interactive. He describes how, as a kid, he learned to catch different types of animals by observing their behavior -- lizards, poisonous snakes, flies. ("My most memorable accomplishment in my freshman year (of high school) was to capture twenty houseflies during one hour of class, a personal record, and lay them in rows for the next student to find. The teacher found these trophies instead, and had the grace to compliment me on my feat next day in front of the class. I had developed a new technique for catching flies, and I now pass it on to you." A half page of instruction and explanation follows.) He describes the process of removing ant organs using needles and watchmaker tools, crushing and smearing each into a chemical trail, in order to understand how ants communicate the location of food. When Wilson decided to become a world expert on ants in the 1940s, biology was focused on organisms (botany, entomology, zoology). By 1960, it had changed, "sliced crosswise, according to levels of biological organization" (molecule, cell, organism, population, ecosystem). In the mid 1950s, James Watson arrived at Harvard, and a battle for the future ensued. ("When he was a young man, in the 1950s and 1960s, I found him the most unpleasant human being I had ever met. ... Watson, having risen to historic fame at an early age, became the Caligula of biology. He was given license to say anything that came to his mind and expect to be taken seriously. And unfortunately, he did so, with a casual and brutal offhandedness.") Watson and Wilson were on opposite ends of the spectrum, and Watson was not one to suppose that other people too might be doing necessary and important work. This episode occupies a mere chapter, so may pervade the book far less than it did the dozen years in the Harvard biology department. A controversy that gets more attention is sociobiology. I only vaguely recall the uproar at the time, the mid to late 1970s, and I'm now interested in reading Wilson's book Sociobiology, which I suspect will seem more dated than disturbing. As he describes it here, his error was to speculatively extend his observations and theories about the evolution of animal social systems into a single chapter on humans, oblivious to political implications, which evoked strenuous opposition from Stephen Jay Gould among others. There's not much about his personal life. He was an only child, his parents divorced when he was in elementary school and he was shuffled around as they reconstructed their lives, and about as much as he says about his immediate family is that he promised his wife to avoid airplanes until their daughter was grown, so on his frequent trips from MA to FL he took the train instead. I'm not doing justice to the tone of the book, which is more gracious than my excerpts suggest, and much more about nature and experiments and people he has collaborated with and admires. Highly recommended.

May 28, 2011, 7:32pm

Your reviews are excellent. Since several of these titles have no reviews, would you consider adding them to the review field. You've already done the hard part in the writing.

May 28, 2011, 7:44pm

25: Thanks. Yeah, I'm working up to posting reviews in the official location. I'm an excruciatingly slow writer, feel that much more should be said than I'm able to articulate, or able to remember even if I begin writing immediately after reading. But, I appreciate when other people post reviews, however idiosyncratic.

May 28, 2011, 8:01pm

#26 And remember that you can edit reviews so they can be works in progress. I sometimes put a review in word processing and revise over a period of days, then cut and paste it into the review box. Actually this is a good idea when the review is lengthy; strange things happen to computers and connections.

May 28, 2011, 8:23pm

27: I don't compose anything beyond brief messages in LT directly. Yes, I realize that I can edit and delete etc. It's a psychological step more than a practical one.

Jun 4, 2011, 1:38pm

#15: You Are Here by Colin Ellard

Brief summary: meh.

This book was recommended by one of my running companions when we were disoriented on a trail. It's nicely organized, one section with chapters on increasingly sophisticated methods of navigation (targets, landmarks, routes, maps), another section with chapters on decreasingly personal/familiar space (home, work, city, cyberspace), a pleasant book to read, but never rises to a level of significance. My sole takeaway is that our minds map space as nodes and connections more than geometrically. The final chapters heavily reference Christopher Alexander, Bill Hillier, Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch, whose books are classics for a reason.

Jun 4, 2011, 2:22pm

#16 The Emerald Planet by David Beerling

This book was recommended by Steven Johnson in The Invention of Air. I was not as drawn into it as I'd expected to be, but part of the trouble is that I'd set myself a deadline. A chart maps each chapter onto the time frame it covers, and it's a handy thing that I kept marked for reference. I have not memorized the geologic eras. Each chapter begins with a paragraph summary, and covers a major issue, such as why were plants and animals so big 300 million years ago, or how did the polar forests of 150 million years ago cope with extreme durations of sunlight and darkness, supported by lots of detail about explorers and scientists who made progress in answering the question. A continuous theme is that understanding climate, and the contributions and reactions of plants to it, at any time in the past, helps with understanding how to model it in the present. This is all useful and interesting, and impressive even, to see how many people over how many decades are involved in chipping away at a problem, and yet... I found it to be rather tedious going -- too many names and dates and bits and pieces that detracted from essentials.

Edited: Jun 6, 2011, 10:55pm

#17: Chaos: A Very Short Introduction by Leonard Smith

I'm not sure this one truly counts as read. If read is each sentence from cover to cover, then yes. I read is comprehended well enough to pass a test, then no. The trouble isn't with the book itself, but that it didn't quite suit my purposes, which is why it languished for several months. Though my attention was caught on occasion, so maybe when I scan section headings for a review I'll realize that I got more than I'm aware of now. This is a placeholder...

Jun 6, 2011, 10:50pm

#18: The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick

This book was a gift from my boss, so it moved to the top of the queue. It's an entertaining description of London in the 1660s, with plague and fire and the founding of the Royal Society, and a sketch of scientific developments leading to Newton. So: Kepler and elliptical orbits, Galileo and falling objects, Descartes and the coordinate system, Leibniz and calculus, Newton and calculus and gravity. The math is minimal, basic, and presented mostly in diagrams. The story is more about the conceptual barriers and breakthroughs, the essential observations and experiments, the historical context, and the personalities. It's nicely told and a useful overview.

Jun 29, 2011, 8:41am

#19: Four Colors Suffice by Robin Wilson

This is a relatively brief (228 pages with lots of illustrations) and coherent history of the 4-color map problem. A map is what you think it is, a surface with boundaries between regions. Other rules: the map may be on a sphere but it may not be on a torus (donut) or other 3D form with a hole, each region is independent (so not a map of the world in which some countries are split into parts that must be the same color), and the boundary is defined as more than a single point (n regions that meet in the center of a pie do not require n colors to be distinct). The problem made its appearance in 1852, when a student asked a professor, who asked a friend... and remained unsolved until 1976. It rose to notoriety because it's a simple question that was difficult to answer, and it was worth tackling because effort on any one problem can yield results that apply to other problems. One strategy was to prove the impossibility of a "minimal criminal": a minimal counterexample with a configuration of regions such that (a) the configuration _cannot_ be colored with 4 colors, but (b) any sub-configuration (the same configuration with one or more regions removed) _can_ be colored with 4 colors. A configuration might be a square (a region surrounded by four others), or a cluster of three pentagons (three regions each surrounded by five others), etc. Various mathematicians over decades contributed proofs regarding specific configurations of increasing complexity, and different methods of determining their properties. The strategy that eventually led to a proof was to find an "unavoidable set" (a set of regions one or more of which _must_ be in any map) of "reducible configurations" (configurations that may not be in a minimal criminal). The proof, by Kenneth Appel and Wolfgang Haken, consisted of nearly 2000 such configurations verified by a computer program, and was disturbing for its inelegance and non-transparency, to the extent that one math department deemed Appel and Haken a bad influence and barred them from meeting students. The proof has since been streamlined, but not fundamentally changed. The book is nicely presented in chronological order, with concepts succinctly explained and helpfully illustrated, especially in the earlier stages when things were still relatively straightforward. It becomes less clear in the later stages, but this is not the fault of the author, as the details are far too numerous for this sort of publication.

Jul 3, 2011, 3:40pm

#20: Matrices and Transformations by Anthony Pettofrezzo

I don't recall where, when, or why I acquired this book, but I now feel vindication for my reference library, because this book was exactly what I needed when I was perusing my shelves in hopes of an uncluttered answer to a question in my job (what's the question? um, well, my boss is a tad paranoid about even remotely proprietary information). The relevant section is near the end of the book, but linear algebra was awhile ago, so I began at the beginning. I did just a smattering of the exercises as reassurance that I more or less got the gist, and I won't claim full understanding of every theorem, and a test would be alarming, but I read through to the end without skipping, and I am applying what I learned to an actual legitimate real life problem, so dammit I'm going to count this as a "read" book. It's quite a nice book, 111 pages coherently and concisely focused on exactly what the title says. What is a transformation? It is a rule for getting an object from here to there. Examples: rotation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotation_%28geometry%29), reflection (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reflection_%28mathematics%29), translation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Translation_%28geometry%29, scaling (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scaling_%28geometry%29).

Jul 4, 2011, 12:20am

So, in a theoretical way, how is a transformation different from a function? Is it, perhaps, a special kind of function? Can there be more than one there for any here? I mean to tell you that I have no idea what I might do with the answers; I am just curious.


Jul 4, 2011, 8:47am

Hmm, I'm just a computer programmer trying to get something to work and more or less understand why, not up on the niceties of mathematical terminology, but... a transformation is a type of function. So only one there for any here, and for my purposes it's also only one here for any there, i.e. transformations and inverse transformations. The scope of this book is transformations that are linear and geometrical, the general idea being that each point (x, y) is mapped onto another point (x', y') in such a way that the original shape is preserved (e.g. an ellipse remains an ellipse though it may be stretched and tilted).

Jul 4, 2011, 4:19pm

I think that transformations have come up in my reading from time to time (would discussions of symmetry refer to them? it seems to me they should), and I'm sitting on my back porch wondering why.

Thank you for your answer,


Jul 4, 2011, 4:42pm

37: Yes, discussions of symmetry would refer to transformations: rotation, reflection, translation.

Jul 5, 2011, 11:26am

oh! my! a small peak into a world about which I know less than nothing.

Jul 16, 2011, 4:49pm

I finished 1491 last weekend and The God Delusion today, need to write reviews for both. I copied the reviews above, and fiction for 2011, and books read in 2009, to the official LT review field.

39: I enjoy reading threads about subjects I know little about for exactly this reason, a peek into another world.

Jul 16, 2011, 8:44pm

I'm really looking forward to reading your reviews for both books, qebo!

Edited: Aug 21, 2011, 4:04pm

#21: 1491 by Charles Mann

Placeholder. It's engaging and detailed. I didn't take notes, so I need to skim and organize before I can produce a review.

Grrr, a month later...

I read this book over a month ago, and writing a review has become more difficult with the passage of time, especially as the initial hesitation was my inability to do it justice without refreshing my memory. The bibliography for this book runs to nearly 60 pages, which suggests the detail it encompasses. The author is a journalist, not anthropologist or archaeologist, but he talked and traveled with many of their ilk. His interest was sparked by a chance trip to Mayan ruins while researching a science article, and he got serious about writing a book after comparing what he'd learned in the years since to the cursory descriptions in his son's school textbooks. The thesis is American Indians (the choice of terminology is explained) as agents of their own destinies, with technological, cultural, and political successes and errors -- interacting with the land, each other, and European explorers and colonists. Not exactly revolutionary, but an effort to counter romanticized notions. Also, as the title implies, an effort to reconstruct conditions before Europeans arrived. The trouble is that by time Indian societies were documented by Europeans, things had already changed significantly. The book is divided into three sections, thematic rather than chronological or geographical, which can be a bit confusing, but maps appear as needed, at the appropriate scale for orientation. The first section is about the numbers. How many people were in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus? Early explorers described large villages on the shores of rivers, but later attempts to find these villages failed. Imagined? Exaggerated? Quite possibly not, and population estimates, while still in dispute, have been rising. Smallpox was devastating, and traveled faster than the explorers. The second section is about duration. When did people arrive in the Americas? 15,000ish years ago across Beringia (Bering Strait land bridge) remains plausible, but specifics require geological and paleontological support, which isn't simple, and there is scattered evidence of earlier occupation that doesn't fit but can't be dismissed. The third section is about gardening, and is, in my opinion, the most enlightening. What was seen by Europeans as pristine wilderness, was often actually managed: irrigated, burned, and farmed. It was not only maize (whose development from wild teosinte to domesticated crop is not obvious). A chapter about the Amazon transforms the region from sparse hunter/gathers in a jungle to dense villages surrounded by fertilized soil and orchards. (Incidentally, Theodore Roosevelt's great-granddaughter Anna Roosevelt is an archeologist whose work is contributing to the revision: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/03/AR2010090302302.....) The writing is engaging and informative, thorough and honorable about what is known, what is speculation, what is controversial. Sadly, every detailed description is a reminder of how much was lost inadvertently or destroyed deliberately.

Jul 17, 2011, 1:56pm

#22: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins wants me to declare myself "atheist" rather than "agnostic". And he wants me to stop using the word "god" in an abstract god-doesn't-play-dice manner. Because he wants religion to go away. I think religion has been changing since the dawn of humanity, and maybe before, and will continue to change, and if I don't get to make up my very own personal definitions of words, I do get to choose among words with imprecise definitions. So. I am agnostic, not in the sense of straddling the fence at the halfway point of a continuum between disbelief and belief (in a magical entity that cares about me), but in the sense that in any effort to think about things rationally, at some depth I hit a murkiness that makes my head hurt. Will science reveal all? Maybe. It's got a pretty good track record. Or maybe not. I don't know. And "god" is a rather nice shorthand for the complexity and mystery and vastness of a universe in which I am a mere transient speck. Though I may also refer to "gods", because the world often seems more compatible with a bunch of flawed squabbling entities who are messing with us. But this book was not written for me. It was written primarily for people who want to extricate themselves from the more ubiquitous forms of religion in western society. With this narrow scope kept in mind, I found the book more entertaining than I'd expected, because I do actually share many of his views, I just don't share so much his aversion to the entire enterprise. (I never had to extricate myself from anything. The closest my family got to organized religion was a brief stint with the Unitarians when I was in elementary school.) And I enjoy his sense of humor. So 100 pages in, after ranting about appeasers (who would seem to include me), he gets into specifics about what he opposes. The core of it is that god is not scientifically necessary. Darwin's insight was profound. Complexity can arise from simplicity. There is no need for an infinite regress with god as prime cause or external creator. (His refutation of Intelligent Design is relatively brief. It's done better elsewhere. Why Intelligent Design Fails gets at the pseudo-science without bashing religion. Finding Darwin's God reconceptualizes god in a manner compatible with biological evolution, though it takes liberties with physics.) As for god the elegant unifying One behind it all, such a god must be internally complex and is therefore an "explanation" that requires further explanation. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, and concepts from his profession not surprisingly contribute significantly his model of the universe as a whole. It's a fine and important and deeply satisfying model. I like it too. Any religion that outright clashes with this model is in trouble in the modern world, and its adherents will have to reconcile themselves somehow. I think that the result may be more interesting religions. Dawkins thinks that with this feature of religion discarded, nothing remains. He seems genuinely baffled why anyone with a sophisticated understanding of science would retain ties to a religious congregation, sees this as politeness or nostalgia. OK, so now I'm two pages into my five pages of notes... A chapter is dedicated to the origins of religion from an evolutionary perspective. In essence, we are naturally dualistic and teleological; we distinguish between matter and mind, we confuse cause and purpose. Quick intuitive thinking about different aspects of the environment has survival value. From this, we manufactured other stuff. There's more, but I'm skipping ahead. Are people good because of religion? Mark Hauser presents a series of scenarios (a runaway train is headed toward five people but it could be diverted onto a track that has only one person in its way... a runaway train is headed toward five people but one person thrown onto the track would stop it...) and asks people to choose the morally acceptable course of action. With an internet survey, modification of the questions to suit a South American tribe, and a formal study comparing atheists and theists, there is no statistically significant difference between the moral intuitions of each group (most of us will divert the train and accept the collateral damage, but won't deliberately throw someone onto the track). And these are intuitions; people have trouble justifying their actions logically. "Studies show..." may not be a terribly compelling argument for an aspiring extricant. More to the point is a chapter on The "Good" Book, the supposed source of Christian morality. Dawkins begins it with mention of theologians whose views are "unrecognizable" as standard Christianity. He's OK with these people. He finds discussions with them interesting and productive. (See for example: http://notsofriendlyhumanist.wordpress.com/2008/04/02/dawkins-and-holloway/, http://www.stcuthbertscolinton.org.uk/wordweb/conversation.htm) Then he launches into amusing versions of apalling bible stories, whose characters, whether regarded literally or metaphorically, are no way no how good role models for modern society. Or any society. So, he concludes, modern morality does not come from the bible. And it is true that the bible encountered cold, without context, is not a complete guide. But to people who care about it (and admittedly I'm not one of them), it is not encountered cold; it is encountered through centuries and layers of interpretations. Some of which are more nuanced than others. We did, somehow, manage to get here from there, in all our bumbling messy humanity. I have problems with exactly the same people that Dawkins has problems with. I'm less convinced that the solution is to ditch Christianity, or Islam, or whatever, in their various entireties. (And I quite like Judaism in its liberal manifestations.) However, again, I can afford an anthropological perspective because nobody in my personal or professional life has ever much cared about my beliefs, so I am not writhing in guilt or fearful of being shunned. Dawkins is concerned about people who don't have this luxury. If my opinion about religion wasn't significantly changed by this book, my opinion about Dawkins rose.

Jul 17, 2011, 2:15pm

41: Well, here's one... Religion's always a fine topic for pleasant conversation...

Jul 18, 2011, 1:12am

I had to narrow my browser to read your review, but it was worth it, temperate and smart. Thank you.


Jul 18, 2011, 8:11am

45: Thanks. I'll want to slash it down to a reasonable size before posting an official review, but I'm tired of thinking. The upshot is that I think Dawkins is a decent guy with some blind spots. The same could be said about most of us.

Jul 18, 2011, 8:17am

Agreed. Loved the review.

Jul 23, 2011, 5:14pm

#23: Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich

This book could be described as Japanland meets Dreaming in Chinese, two books I read earlier this year, and it is a category of book that I really enjoy -- a loose memoir of immersion in (rather than traveling through) a foreign culture, with its awkward and often misinterpreted personal interactions and language struggles. The author, at age 45, after surviving breast cancer (about which she wrote a previous book that I now want to read) and losing her job as a magazine editor, decided to learn Hindi. She began with instructors in the US, then applied to a school in India that required a prior two years of study, a qualification that she didn't remotely possess. She was accepted. (She learned later that the school was desperate for students.) This book is about her year in Udaipur, Rajastan, the teachers and other students at the school, the host family ("Though I continued to draw some lines, as on the evening I came home to find the Jains debating how much money I had in the bank. 'No, you misunderstand.' Dad 2 said when I refused to answer. 'We don't want to take your money. We just really, really, really want to know.' he said, as all ten family members nodded emphatically, in unison."), an assortment of other people in the city who became friends, and the language. The language is what ties the book together, though it is not itself presented (Hindi portions of dialogue are translated into English and italicized). The approximately chronological tale is interspersed with linguistic tidbits, as second language acquisition has become quite the topic of study (there's a bibliography). I'd guess the level to be closer to popular magazine than scholarly journal, but that's about where I'm at and not my primary reason for reading the book anyway, so that's OK. A unexpected twist: The author, whose home was New York, arrived in India the first week of September 2001. In October, she was invited to a performance at a school for deaf children. After her impromptu and embarrassingly incongruous talk about her childhood experience with troublesome adenoids ("These are kids who've had to leave their families. I said 'What?' on the playground."), the kids surrounded her with questions, sign language and mime: "Are you OK?" and flying hand airplanes crashing into vertical hand walls. Emotionally stirred ("Because this is the first time in all this time anyone's asked."), she volunteered to help at the school, and although help wasn't necessarily needed, supplies were, so the teacher ("greedy" for his students) found a place for her. Thus sign language, or rather sign languages (not only mutually unintelligible formal languages, but also the pidgins that the kids arrive with, and the version they have created for communication among themselves), enters into the mix, along with Hindi, official language of India but not what everyone speaks, conversations that switch between Hindi and English in an effort to find a balance of mutual miscommunication, the politics of this word from Sanskrit versus that word from Persian. Regarding politics, be prepared for harrowing violence, though mostly described from a distance rather than witnessed directly. A little more clarity in the timeline would've been nice, and there's a mundane incident in the acknowledgements of a type that I wish had been more prominent elsewhere, but these are minor quibbles about an absorbing book.

Edited: Jul 24, 2011, 3:00pm

#24: A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer

This is a book of essays, each about a specific virus or type of virus. It was funded by the NIH for the World of Viruses project, intended to educate the public about virus research. There is, of course, an associated web site: http://www.worldofviruses.unl.edu/, which has a pretty cool set of images, including some diagrams explaining infection and replication that I wish had been included in this book. The essays are relatively self contained (though occasionally information in an earlier one is helpful in a later one), and brief (10 essays in less than 100 pages). Each is an introductory overview without the usual depth and detail of Carl Zimmer, but still worthwhile, in part because I would trust him to focus on the stuff that matters: here's what you need to know to make sense of news reports. And it's not as if I knew everything already. For example, news to me, though discovered in 1992: the mimivirus, which has the structure of a virus, and the genes of a virus, but it is 100 times too large, the size of bacteria, and disturbed the prior clear-ish distinction between life and not-life. (A quibble: there are lots of typos, and once I began to notice, they became distracting, and contribute to the impression that this book was a side project.)

Jul 26, 2011, 4:14pm

#43 - Good review, I think you hit it pretty well. I'm interested in the idea of the invention of religion from an evolutionary aspect. Is there an evolutionary benefit? It's been awhile since I read The God Delusion so I don't remember how much Dawkins talked about it. Seems like something I should investigate more fully, but where do I find the time.

Jul 30, 2011, 9:48pm

50: Thanks. I've thought of more since then, but I'm not enamored enough of the issue in general to spend time composing paragraphs.

Dawkins sees religion as a by-product of evolutionarily advantageous traits. Most significantly, humans survive by accumulated experience, so instead of learning everything from scratch through individual experience, children believe what they are told, which makes them "vulnerable to infection by mind viruses", and random assorted ideas, some objectively important (e.g. don't eat the poisonous plant) and some "nonsense", get introduced and transmitted as cultural memes. I'd mentioned his statement that humans are naturally teleological and dualistic. Why? He cites Daniel Dennett, who has proposed three "stances" or perspectives for understanding behavior of entities in the world: physical, design, intentional. The physical stance is accurate but slow, requiring analysis of components and interactions. The design stance eliminates the details and goes straight to the consequences (it bites). The intentional stance regards entities as agents with minds (it wants to eat me). In this model, religion is an explanatory error, attributing intention or design to natural physical processes. Then there is the "built-in irrationality mechanism" of falling in love, and in the stability of attachment to ideas rather than the fickleness of continuously revising. And wishful thinking reduces anxiety. This isn't everything he mentions, but covers most of it.

IMO, all of this has plausibility to a degree, but seems to go considerably beyond the question of God vs not-God, and to be more about human foibles generally than religion specifically. Unless religion is defined as all the counterproductive by-products of eons of evolution, it would seem necessary to distinguish which manifestations of these by-products are religion and which are not-religion. Although religion is rather less clearly defined than one might hope from a scientist, it is described as "irrational" belief and "wasteful" and "extravagant" ritual, and appears to include nothing whatsoever of merit. As I said previously, I share many of Dawkins' attitudes, but I am wary when a significant cultural phenomenon essentially becomes a label for "the stuff I don't like".

Edited: Aug 7, 2011, 2:08pm

#25: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I bought this book because so many other LTers were recommending it, and set it aside for later because I was reading another book. Which happened to mention HeLa cells. So I picked up this book, thinking to skim a bit as an informative digression... and it grabbed my entire reading attention for three days. Henrietta Lacks arrived at Johns Hopkins University hospital in 1951 with a tumor in her cervix. Her arrival happened to coincide with an effort to create a viable line of human cells that could be used for research. A JHU scientist was taking samples of tissue from every patient, and placing pieces in tubes of nutrients. Most cells died immediately. Some cells survived briefly then died. Henrietta Lacks' cells kept going. (A few decades later, the reason for this was discovered.) In an instant, the cells and the person were separated, and took divergent paths. The cells were in hot demand. A cell factory was created to store, reproduce, package, and ship cells to scientists. Though the cells were cancerous, they were human, and could be used to study virus behavior and drug reactions. Many intentions were noble, and many experiments were revealing. (Other experiments were at best cavalier and at times outright despicable, raising ethical issues of informed consent -- e.g. people have a right to refuse to be injected with cancerous cells.) Henrietta Lacks died, horribly painfully. After an initially encouraging response to the standard treatment of the time, the cancer spread and wreaked havoc on her body. Her death wreaked havoc on her family, for whom she had been a social and moral center. The family was uneducated and impoverished. Some had remained on a small plot carved from a Virginia plantation where Lacks ancestors had been slaves (Henrietta's great-grandfather was the son of a former slaveholder) eking out an arduous living as tobacco farmers, others had migrated to a town near Baltimore for jobs in a steel mill. The family was completely unaware that the cells had been taken. By the 1960s, other human cell lines had been created, but a scientist discovered that many had been contaminated, and the suspect (because of a genetic marker) was HeLa. In order to distinguish HeLa cells from other cells, a JHU scientist, who had access to Lacks family medical records, approached the family for blood samples. They supposed that his assistant was testing them for cancer, and awaited the results, which of course never appeared. The scientist and assistant were completely oblivious to their anxieties. By the 1970s, HeLa cells were ubiquitous and famous enough to seep into public consciousness, and a journalist contacted the family for an article. This is when the family became aware that a photograph of, and medical information about, Henrietta Lacks had been published without their permission. The story is told from both sides, scientists and family. It is not a story of perpetrator vs victim, but of mutually incomprehensible worlds. To the scientists, a snip of cancerous tissue was harmless, and meaningless on a personal level. To the family, living reproducing cells were their mother / sister / wife / cousin. They saw the price of a vial of cells, and assumed that the cells had been stolen for profit, of which they had received nothing. They saw the word "clone", sensationalized in headlines, and imagined multiple copies of Henrietta Lacks walking around in the city. They heard about space missions and atomic bombs, and wondered whether she could feel what was happening to her cells. Suspicion and fears were entangled with sometimes bizarre confusions, but were based in such realities as the Tuskegee syphilis study. Some of the family attempted to contact JHU to ask questions, but didn't know who to ask, didn't know how to ask, and felt too intimidated to persist when rebuffed by the bureaucracy of a large institution. Henrietta Lacks' daughter Deborah had been a baby in 1951. She deeply missed her mother, she had many many questions, partially about family history, partially about biology (despite a less than stellar high school education during a period of personal turmoil, she was gradually reading textbooks to understand cells), but a bad experience (a distant relative had nearly conned the family into hiring him to file a lawsuit against JHU) had turned her against outside inquiries, and she refused to speak to the author for a year. When she came around, she came around as a full force participant in the investigation, traipsing hither and yon with "my reporter" to interview family members and access medical records. After a buildup that switches between episodes of the 1950s and the 1970s and the 1990s (each chapter begins with a pointer on a timeline), the chapters with Deborah are the most emotionally compelling. There is an episode in which Deborah and her reporter arrive at the former Hospital for the Negro Insane, where Deborah's sister died as a teenager, and amazingly the records still exist, along with a harrowing photograph. There is an episode in which a JHU scientist, a random scientist 50 years after the fact, who has no connection to the original event but believes that wrongs should be remedied, invites the Lacks family into his laboratory to see HeLa cells under a microscope. I might've preferred a bit more science along with the human story, but there's enough science here for the gist, details are surely available elsewhere, and the human story is gripping.

Edited: Oct 2, 2011, 10:04pm

#26: Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman

I read The God Delusion, and grumped that Richard Dawkins has a limited concept of God (which he actually kind of realizes, but that's not his point, or something). Then I read A Planet of Viruses, which is so-so for a production by Carl Zimmer, but its final chapter raises the question of whether not-life and life are neatly separated, or belong on a continuum of increasing complexity. What better way to get at both these issues, simultaneously, which is exactly how I think they ought to be gotten at, than to read Stuart Kauffman, who conveniently had been languishing on a shelf for some time. Well, that was two months ago, but the book has been difficult to review, because it is a both dense and rambling, scientifically grounded and philosophically speculative. A glossary would've been nice, both for scientific terminology and for concepts that are discussed around and about and continuously, but not succinctly defined for reference. Kauffman refutes a reductionist perspective, of "fundamental entities and their interactions" or "particles in motion", with "only facts" and "no place for value". Yet humans "are agents, able to act in our own behalf", and this applies not only to humans but to all of life. Biology cannot be reduced to physics. (He mentions Robert Laughlin, who argues in A Different Universe that physics can't be reduced to physics either.) So, how did the universe get from there to here? In a chapter on the origin of life, Kauffman describes (with diagrams!) his theory of "collectively autocatalytic sets", which is not reducible to physics because it "is organizational, ...it rests on mathematics and general properties of molecules, and not on the specific molecular embodiment." In essence, toss the right combination of molecules together, and from a haphazard pool, they will cluster into sets in which each molecule in the set is formed by reactions of other molecules in the set. (The right combination is not an easy matter, and a quick search yields examples of current research:
http://indico.cern.ch/conferenceDisplay.py?confId=137302 and
http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/exobiology/projects/a-self-assembling-collectively-....) Here the concept of "adjacent possible" appears. Some of the molecules may react to form other molecules that were not in the original pool. That's it, and no more is necessary, because the new molecules extend the possibilities, etc, ad infinitum. From such a beginning can emerge a "minimal molecular autonomous agent", "the simplest system to which we might be willing to apply teleological language". What are the properties of such a system? A bacterium is far too complex. Alas, a simple system is beyond my comprehension at the moment, but it is presented in a diagram (I like diagrams, and books with diagrams make me happy), and includes "exergonic breakdowns" and "endergonic synthesis" and many arrows and symbols, and is followed by a chapter on work cycles. Next is the question of how different cell types can arise from the same set of chromosomes. Fran├žois Jacob and Jaques Monod proposed in 1963 that regulatory genes could be the key. A diagram demonstrates an idealized network (which can be simulated on a computer) of "genes" with on/off states, and a table of state transitions and state cycles or attractors. A hypothesis, supported by experimental evidence, is that attractors correspond to a cell types. Phew -- halfway through the book, and the tough stuff is done. Well, not done, but it departs from decades of research and expertise, and enters a fuzzier realm of ideas: the economy, and consciousness. The universe is "non-ergodic", it does not visit all possible states, but rather "is on a trajectory that will never repeat". This entirely natural process is creative, and it is God. Kauffman is maybe a tad too optimistic that science & religion conflicts are thus resolved. I've skipped, um, a lot. I recommend this book to anyone who is drawn to this sort of thing, as I am.

Edited: Sep 5, 2011, 6:46pm

#27: Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks, before she became a novelist, was a journalist, assigned to the Middle East in the late 1980s to early 1990s (this book was published in 1995). Her husband Tony Horowitz accompanied her, fashioned himself as a freelance journalist, and immediately jumped into adventures: tracking smugglers with the camel corps in Egypt, crewing on a supply boat in the Persian Gulf. She was forbidden. Eventually, she realized that the one thing she could do that he could not was talk to women. This book is anecdotes from those years, encounters and observations and conversations, wherever she happened to be. The result is scattered and impressionistic, informative in a general sense because of the variety within a region that we tend to lump together. She begins with the veil. "At first, I had naively assumed that hijab would at least free women from the tyranny of the beauty industry." she writes, but this is not the case, because a distinction is made between public and private, and, as one woman tells her, "Islam encourages us to be beautiful for our husbands." She watches an Eritrean doctor perform a gruesome operation to repair consequences of genital mutilation, a cultural practice that was there before Christianity and Islam, and was tolerated by both; a key to eradication is education, so women can read the Koran and see that it commands no such thing. She accompanies a western educated Saudi friend to visit his uncle, a Wahhabi imam who meets with the men of his village every Friday after prayers. He has never before spoken to a woman outside his family. How can he counsel the women then? "They put their problems to him through their husbands, of course." says her friend. "But what if their husband is their problem?" she asks. This possibility had not occurred to either man. She wrangles and invitation to the Islamic Women's Games, where a father is allowed to see his daughter run in competition for the first time, thanks to "the world's first track suit-hijab". She learns to belly dance in Egypt, and in protest of fundamentalist calls for a ban on this ancient tradition, searches for "a venue modest enough to match my talents", where the manager accepts her into the show for an evening. These are revealing glimpses, with no single simple conclusion. Some women renounce their former lives and take on the veil. Some women negotiate space for themselves within the constraints. Some women press for political and social changes. Now several weeks after reading, I do not retain any especially profound or pronounced memories, but I am appreciative of the reminder to look below the surface.

Edited: Sep 4, 2011, 7:31pm

#28: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I was immediately hooked on the first page of this graphic memoir, with a frame of little girls in the schoolyard playing with the veils they were suddenly directed to wear: jumping a veil-rope, playing horse and rider with veil-reins, becoming the "monster of darkness" with veil draped over head. Marjane Satrapi was 10 years old in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah of Iran. Her parents were politically engaged, opposed to the Shah, and equally opposed to an Islamic republic. Sheltered from participation in dangerous demonstrations, confused by what she was told at school versus what she heard at home, Marji was disappointed that her father had not been heroically imprisoned. Other kids had heroes in their families. Then her uncle appeared, released from prison after 30 years. Then her uncle disappeared again. Then Iraq invaded Iran... Marji's parents are in fact amazing, and it must've taken enormous dedication to provide a buffer of sanity and safety and normalcy for their only child. The story is told through the eyes of a child, observing incomprehensible and frightening events, and the graphic format is appropriate -- imagery replaces explanation. An episode: Borders were reopened, and Marji's parents rushed to get passports and arrange a trip to Turkey sans child. The child, oblivious, requested gifts, strictly forbidden gifts, artifacts of secular decadance: posters of Kim Wilde and Iron Maiden. Four pages go by, as the parents stroll through Istanbul carrying the rolled-up posters, discuss how to smuggle them through customs, return to the hotel where some options are rejected (hide them in the suitcase lining? they'll be ruined by fold marks), as the mother removes the lining of the father's overcoat and sews it back on with the posters pressed between layers, as the parents return to Iran and produce a denim jacket and sneakers and the child demands "what about my posters?", as the posters are revealed. With a family like this, it is not surprising that Marji was too outspoken for school, and she was expelled. Her parents were simultaneously proud and afraid. In 1984, they sent her to Austria, to live with her mother's friend. Thus begins the next section, where Marji is a teenager, finding her way between cultures with little guidance or support, reassuring her parents on the phone that everything is fine. Marji is flawed: brave and selfish, principled and petty, real. The pictures are scenes, into which you can place yourself and wonder: under the same circumstances, would I be any better?

Edited: Sep 4, 2011, 2:25pm

#29: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Louis Zamperini was a wild boy, tamed by his older brother Pete, who channeled his energy into running with focus on the mile. Well before the age at which distance runners reach their peak, Zamperini made it to the 1936 Olympics, where he stole a "Do Not Disturb" sign from Jesse Owens, and was summoned to meet Hitler. He was considered a prime candidate to achieve a sub-4 minute mile. World War II intervened. Zamperini was sent to Hawaii, and assigned as a bombardier on a B-24. A specific B-24, because each plane had its own idiosyncrasies . The crew and the machine had to work together. The pilot was Russell Allen Phillips, a contrasting personality, quiet and calm and steady, who became a close friend. Intense and hazardous training occupied months, and then... the plane was destroyed in battle. The crew was shifted to another B-24, which had technically passed inspection but exhibited worrying behavior, and sent to search for another plane that had gone missing over the Pacific Ocean. The worrying was justified. The plane developed mechanical difficulties and crashed. Zamperini and Phillips and the only other survivor emerged to consciousness somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, with no land in sight, and pitiful emergency supplies. They had string and hooks but no bait until they learned to wring the necks of the occasional passing albatross. The sharks stole the bait and bit through the strings. The sharks circled, round and round and round, and the men supposed an implicit deal: the sharks were waiting in the water, but the men were safe as long as they remained in the raft. Until a shark broke the rules: it leapt out of the water and across the raft and attacked. The third survivor faded and eventually died. As concerned about mental sanity as physical endurance, Zamperini and Phillips quizzed each other, and described recipes when they could not eat. They signaled to planes overhead, but the only one that noticed was Japanese, and it responded by firing bullets that punctured the raft. The presence of planes suggested their location, so they calculated where and when their raft would reach land. They were correct. But they were not rescued. They became prisoners of war, in a system designed to break spirits. The story is told in spare detail, gathered from interviews and newspapers and government documents, step by excruciating step, with minimal foreshadowing, always in the painful pageturning present. The resilience and improvisation of the men are inspiring of awe. Too inspiring? I share the reservation of some other reviewers that the contrast between American nobility and Japanese depravity is too extreme. War tales are not known for their strict adherence to the messy and unheroic facts, and it's surely not the most savory members of society who end up as prison guards. (I am also reading Embracing Defeat, which is vastly more nuanced.) Louis Zamperini returned from the war a damaged man, and descended into alcoholic flailing, with no clear or sustained direction. The woman he met and married nearly divorced him. And then he encountered Billy Graham, became a committed Christian, and made a career of inspirational speaking. For anyone put off by this, it is not not not a major part of the book, and by the time it occurs you will not begrudge this man anything, but also it is not irrelevant to the presentation of events. There are glimpses of kind actions by Japanese guards, and glimpses of honorable actions by Japanese citizens, but understandably what the POWs most remember was the horror, and what they most wanted was home. So sprinkle some grains of salt, and read other perspectives for balance, but don't dismiss this one.

Sep 1, 2011, 5:09pm

It is some years since I read Reinventing the Sacred. I am looking forward to your take on it.


Sep 4, 2011, 2:17pm

57: My plan has been to dedicate this holiday weekend to writing reviews, but midway through the tally is 1 of 4... I will get there, eventually.

Sep 17, 2011, 8:53am

So I managed to review 3 of the 4 books read in August, and now I have 3 more books read in September. 4 - 3 + 3 = 4. Sigh. This weekend, I hope, since next weekend I'll be here: http://www.librarything.com/topic/123744.

Edited: Oct 9, 2011, 1:49pm

#30: The River of Doubt by Candice Millard

Theodore Roosevelt formed the Progressive ("Bull Moose") party in 1912, after the Republican nomination went to incumbent president William Howard Taft. In a four-way election, Democrat Woodrow Wilson won. Roosevelt, not one to lounge around the house brooding, accepted an invitation to lecture in Argentina, and appended an excursion in the Amazon River basin with his son Kermit, employed as a bank manager in Buenos Aires. The route was planned, several tons of supplies were collected and shipped, the team was recruited, Roosevelt completed the lecture circuit and arrived in Brazil to meet the minister of foreign affairs. A guide had been promised: Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, commander of the Strategic Telegraph Commission, who accepted the assignment on the condition that it was sufficiently scientific. Roosevelt was of similar mind, and the American Museum of Natural History was already providing funding and two naturalists, but maybe the proposed excursion along beaten paths was too tame. A suggestion was made, sufficiently scientific and sufficiently challenging to engage the enthusiasm of both Rondon and Roosevelt: how about exploring the River of Doubt from its recently discovered source, to determine where it merged with the Amazon? Thus begins a harrowing adventure in a tropical rainforest, with all the creepy crawly (and swimmy and fliey) critters one might wish for (while home on a comfortable chair with a purring cat and a cup of coffee), the requisite relentless rain, despair and defiance and disease, and an anguished dash toward some semblance of civilization to save the former president from death. The men who had planned the original route and selected the equipment and food were not up to the demands of the revised trip, and were cut in its early stages. The provisions were not intended for brutal conditions. Starvation was a real possibility; sections on the flora and fauna and evolution of a seemingly abundant rainforest explain why. Candido Rondon emerges as quite the interesting and admirable character, a member of the Positivist Church of Brazil, founder of the Indian Protection Bureau, whose primary commandment was "Die if you must, but never kill." "Rondon's success in the Amazon had depended on this dictum. It was the only reason the Indians had ever dared to trust him." And it was not necessarily compatible with the attitude of Roosevelt, veteran of the Dakota Territories. Rondon wanted to pause for careful surveying. Roosevelt wanted to keep moving. Kermit worked well with the camaradas, but was moody and disinclined to obey instructions. Both Roosevelts brought books, but they didn't care for each other's books. All the makings of a compelling tale of human flaws and heroism and the elements of nature. This book rises to the occasion.

Two peeves:
* Had: "had been", "had had", the things are everywhere, 1000s of them. Distracting.
* Was it not possible to provide a decent map? Locations and geographical features are mentioned in text but not marked on the map of South America that shows the full route including lecture circuit, and the drawing that Roosevelt made has print so tiny that I needed to peer through a magnifying glass.

An excerpt: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4986859.

(read 5 Sep 2011)

Edited: Sep 18, 2011, 6:53pm

#31: The Man Who Found Time by Jack Repcheck

This is a short book, not much over 200 pages, whose purpose is to make James Hutton (1726-1797) known to the general public. In this it is successful; I had not previously heard of the man. The author is an editor, not a geologist, and it shows; the book reads very much as a secondary source, with information from here and there pieced together. It includes exactly one map, of the UK, with most of the mentioned locations marked, enough to get by, but it is utterly lacking in illustrations of geological features (though it does have a glossary), so the interested but ignorant layperson such as myself must resort to google, which is annoying. The personal information is extracted primarily from a biography of James Hutton by his friend John Playfair, and alas not a great deal is known. Also alas, James Hutton wrote his magnum opus as he was dying and in significant pain, and it is apparently less coherent than he was in real life, and fell into obscurity. His work was rediscovered decades later by Charles Lyell, who gave him credit, but who became the famous one, an influence on Charles Darwin. This book is not profound, but it is useful. It presents a sketch of political and intellectual developments during the Scottish Enlightenment. James Hutton lived in and near Edinburgh, and overlapped with David Hume and Adam Smith and James Watt, and Joseph Black, an unfamiliar name to me, but he was a physician and scientist, and social liaison for the others. James Hutton was up against two forces: biblical chronologies, and Abraham Werner's theory of earth formation. A chapter is dedicated to biblical chronologies. At the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, the emperor Constantine was so impressed by the systematic chronology of Eusebius, who had compiled it from multiple sources, that he ordered it to be published and circulated. This served as the basis for subsequent chronologies, all of which predicted the Second Coming of Jesus Christ not too far in the future when the earth would be 6000 years old. Bishop Ussher, whose chronology got into the King James Bible, was toward the end of a long line. Geology then, was a matter of fitting reality into this chronology, and where there was conflict, traditional interpretation of scripture won. Abraham Werner was a generation younger than James Hutton, but a published mineralogist and professor, so in a position of influence. His theory was a synthesis of others, essentially a hot earth gradually cooled by a universal ocean that had evaporated to reveal land; he deliberately did not specify age. Succinctly, James Hutton entered the University of Edinburgh at age 14 (not unusual), studied medicine there and elsewhere, partnered in a chemical factory that generated an income for the rest of his life, inherited land not far from Edinburgh and became a farmer, returned to Edinburgh and joined a committee to construct a canal. At the university, he was influenced by professor Colin Maclaurin, who had worked with Isaac Newton and was intent on spreading the scientific method. As a farmer, he was technologically inventive, and had ample opportunity to observe and extrapolate from natural processes, notably that erosion of surfaces and composition of rocks form a cycle. John Playfair wrote: "They were neither of them, even at that time, entirely new propositions, though in the conduct of the investigation, and in the use made of them, a great deal of originality was displayed." With this as the essential insight, James Hutton searched for supporting evidence, refined his theory, and presented it to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785. He realized that the earth must be far older than generally supposed, but had no means of determining how old. This is the gist, fleshed out with investigative excursions around Scotland and England and Wales, other prominent theories, subsequent discoveries, and current status. I am insufficiently educated in the basics to absorb many details, so for me the relative brevity of the book was just about right, and despite the flaws I would recommend it.

Edited: Dec 18, 2011, 2:18pm

#32: In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta Ahmed

An LTer had recommended this as a companion to The Nine Parts of Desire. It's a usefully overlapping perspective, about a decade later and focused on a single country, Saudi Arabia.

Qanta Ahmed, after several years in New York studying and practicing medicine, was denied a visa to remain. Lacking an alternative plan, she accepted a temporary position in a Saudi Arabian hospital, expecting adventure but also familiarity; her parents had immigrated from Pakistan to the UK, and she had been raised Muslim. The time frame is notable; she arrived a year or two before 9/11, and departed shortly after.

The hospital is under the auspices of the government, and sheltered from the Men in Brown, the Muttaween of the League of Promotion of Virtue and Eradication of Vice, who patrol the streets and are empowered to arrest anyone who disobeys or disregards rigid religious rules. (The Muttaween arose in the late 1970s after the Iranian revolution, but continue an historical pattern of collusion between "clerical forces and an impotent monarchy".) Not fully sheltered though. The CEO gets harassed for hiring women. There is a frightening episode in a restaurant, where hospital staff and visiting doctors have gathered in a carefully arranged private room, and the Muttaween, probably tipped off by a hospital assistant, barge in to discover men and unveiled women, shockingly eating together, and what if they also discover that one of the visiting doctors is Jewish but had been advised to declare himself Christian in order to enter the country. And the Muttaween are an extreme case of pervasive attitudes that are not absent within the hospital. After 9/11 especially, Qanta is appalled at the animosity toward the US and Jews that had been occasional seepage but now burst forth, prompting an admonishing memo from the CEO.

Much is made of the strict separation of men and women, and the power imbalance. This may be the most glaring and troubling aspect of the culture to a foreigner, and it is exhaustingly difficult for a woman to navigate. Examples appear throughout the book. The "visceral misogyny" is "juxtaposed with the intensely tender relations between the men themselves", who kiss and intertwine hands in greeting. Homosexuality, however, is punishable by death. Women are described, by other women, as manipulative, a necessity when direct assertion is forbidden. Women with careers often have supportive fathers or husbands, who must grant official permission for education and travel, but family honor requires that such lenience be hidden. Wealthy women take trips to London for hymen reconstruction. The most common reason for breast implants is a husband who wants a second wife. Women blossom where they can. At a wedding, with women in a closed room, jewelry abounded and "the amount of exposed flesh was unbelievable". A woman with nail polish can't cleanse properly for prayer, but can't pray while menstruating, so that's when the nail polish appears. The ubiquity of electronic communication has breached traditional barriers. On the minus side, car windows are tinted to protect women from the gaze of men, but predatory or desperate men send messages to random women via Bluetooth connections. On the plus side, men and woman who cannot be seen together in public can meet online. Muttaween raid florists on Valentine's day. In the comparatively progressive hospital, Qanta and a senior administrator, one of the relatively few men who treated her as an equal, interacted in a purely professional manner, though she was smitten (oddly noting his designer shirts years after the fact) and he may have been similarly inclined. There could be absolutely no hint, even in private conversation. The imbalance affects men too. Car accidents are alarmingly common, a consequence of "lost boys" drunk and speeding. The object of her affections is not entirely devoid of this behavior.

Qanta stresses repeatedly that such cultural distortions are not inherent to Islam, but misinterpretation of a more egalitarian spirit, and she backs this claim with bits of historical context. She embraces opportunities for immersion, and though her medical practice becomes aware of complexities and sees much to admire. She had not planned a Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, but was encouraged by colleagues because an employer cannot turn down the request. A modernized process of reserving tickets is amusingly tacked onto an ancient tradition, remarkably well organized considering the number of participants, an intense microcosm of international variety. She is horrified and protests when a boy who was stabbed by a knife is kept alive artificially, but comprehends when another doctor explains that the family of the boy who attacked has appealed to the king for leniency, negotiations with the family of the victim are occurring behind the scenes, and efforts will be in vain if the boy dies and a harsh legal process is triggered before a decision has been made. She is impressed by the calmness and acceptance of patients and their families, who appreciate her care even when it is not successful, and attributes this to an Islamic emphasis on patient endurance of ordeals. I would've been interested in more medical tales, suppose that with a continuous flurry of activity and issues of confidentiality, few incidents are notable and most cannot be published.

The writing can be awkward, maybe trying too hard with strings of evocative adjectives, but either she eventually settled into comfort or I got used to it and ceased to notice. This is not necessarily the definitive experience, but it is one worth reading.

Oct 2, 2011, 10:10pm

57: Done. Phew. I didn't do justice, but this book been sitting on my desk nagging for a month and a half, so I dedicated a few hours to the cause this evening.

Nov 7, 2011, 4:12pm

I have not abandoned this thread, I'm just waaaaay behind in reviewing.

Edited: Dec 29, 2011, 8:48pm

#33: Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

In 1965, at age 6, Tony Horwitz was introduced to the Civil War by his great-grandfather, an immigrant from Russia. Fascinated by photographs and exotic names, he painted murals on his bedroom walls, tending to side in adolescence with the "anarchic James Dean-ish" rebels. Leaping forward 35 years, he had become a journalist, traveled around the world, returned to the US with his wife, bought a house in Virginia. Where, one day, he found himself on the periphery of a Civil War battle being filmed for TV. Offering coffee, he got to talking with the soldiers, who were not professional actors, but amateur reenactors. Thus begins this quirky serious anecdotal insightful entertaining disturbing trek through southern states, where he chats with Shelby Foote, guardians of battlefields, directors of heritage organizations, proprieters of artifact museums, residents of a tiny town in the aftermath of a racially charged murder, eliciting attitudes of grievance and pride, polarization and reconciliation, legends, facts, "selective versions of events". The "hardcore" reenactors value authenticity in clothing, food, dirt, and discomfort, in contrast to the despised "farbs" who apply fake blood. I maybe could've done with less of them, and less of the Civil Wargasm buddy-travel compressing many sites into few days, but the continuous strand of obsession with an unfinished war ties the episodes together.

Edited: Dec 31, 2011, 5:42pm

#34: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

British explorer Percy Fawcett disappeared in the Amazon jungle in 1925 while searching for Z, his cryptic reference to a city of lore; he believed that it existed, and he believed that he had determined its location. American journalist David Grann came across references to Perry Fawcett and Z while researching a magazine article nearly 80 years later, and was intrigued. Chapters alternate between explorer and decidedly-not-explorer as each approaches his destination.

The story begins with the Royal Geographical Society, founded in 1830 to fill blank spaces on maps, key to conquering the world advancing science. As an RGS member put it: "Explorers are not, perhaps, the most promising people with whom to build a society. Indeed, some might say that explorers become explorers precisely because they have a streak of unsociability and need to remove themselves at regular intervals as far as possible from their fellow men." The RGS took in such people, and trained them. Fawcett graduated from explorer school in 1901. Several years later, after stints in relatively comfortable conditions, he was sent to the Amazon, where several countries were engaged in boundary disputes over access to rubber trees, and had asked the RGS to map and mediate. Multiple expeditions followed as Fawcett proved more resilient than most, and more relentless, returning home to his wife and children in between but remaining only briefly. Taught to view the Amazon natives as inferior savages, he was impressed by their health and ample supply of food, in contrast to his diseased and hungry crew. He recorded snippets of language in his journal, collected legends of densely populated and complex cities, studied reports of early explorers, and focused on one lost city that he called Z. And then World War I intervened, the rubber boom in the Amazon collapsed with the creation of plantations in Asia, and funding dwindled. In 1925, he finally arranged a source of funding and set out toward Z with his son, leaving instructions that he should not be rescued if he did not reappear. If he couldn't do it, then nobody could.

Grann was far from the first to go after Fawcett. Others had tried and failed. Some had lived to tell the tale, and some had not. Gann read RGS records and Exploration Fawcett, the other son's compilation of Fawcett's reports. He researched previous efforts to trace Fawcett's route. He found a granddaughter, and asked her about Dead Horse Camp, end point of a previously explored route, plausible entry point to Z, and specified by coordinates in Exploration Fawcett. "Well you must be careful with those," she said. "He wrote them to throw people off the trail. They were a blind." And with this crucial bit of caution, Gann went forth into the Amazon.

The Amazon is, IMO, best explored vicariously, in a cozy chair with a purring cat and a cup of coffee. I have no wish whatsoever to set foot in it. But it is a place that can't be beat by fiction. This is a page turner of unearthed history and intense curiosity and phenomenal people. Also, unusually, the maps are pretty good.

Edited: Dec 29, 2011, 9:01pm

#35: A Chosen Faith by John Buehrens and Forrest Church

In triage mode now... two months later... Have decided not to review this one.

Nov 21, 2011, 7:49pm

Edited: Nov 27, 2011, 7:23pm

#37: Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler

I read this book because the author is local, and I know rather less about the Amish than maybe I should.

The memoir is written in sparse style: I did this, I felt that, in chronological order, from the author's birth into an Old Order Amish community in Ontario, through his multiple departures from this and other Amish communities in Iowa and Indiana, during his mid teens to mid twenties. As one might expect from a defector, it is not a particularly flattering portrait; the often romanticized simplicity and austerity and stoicism are molded by constant criticism for the slightest deviation from the rules. And there are lots of rules, about dress and hair and transportation and dating, rules devised by the bishop of each community so somewhat variant (e.g. whether or not a buggy may have rubber wheels, whether a bicycle is an acceptable means of transportation, whether dating couples may meet every four weeks or every two weeks). Not much is said about religion in a spiritual sense until a transformative episode toward the end; again what is emphasized is its role in enforcing the rules. It is of course difficult to know how much of one person's experience and perception are unique to him, or his family, or his small part of the world, and the author makes no pretense of providing historical or sociological context. Still, the matter-of-fact description gives glimpses of mundane life, with unexpected details such as technological improvements in buggies, or the procedure for choosing preachers by lottery. Rules can be a prison, and rules can be a comfort. Freedom can be lonely, and excommunication and eternal damnation are not easily shrugged off. The yo-yo of exits and returns are a bit exasperating to watch, but there was no middle ground. Ira Wagler is now about 50, and this memoir ends at age 26, when he officially left the Amish forever. So I'm curious how he ended up in Lancaster PA, home of the "blueblood" Amish.

An excerpt:
The Amish have one of the strongest and most efficient support structures in existence. When tragedy strikes, the community rallies around and provides whatever physical and financial support is needed, as it did for us. But the system is also lacking in at least one very important aspect. It offers no real way to cope with the emotional aftereffects of tragic events, especially unexpected ones. This is not a criticism, merely an observation. It's just the way it is. Communication is sparse or nonexistent. Feelings are quashed. One is expected to accept and bear one's burdens in silence. And one does.

Nov 21, 2011, 9:11pm

I have A Chosen Faith somewhere, and, if I can't find it, I can steal another copy from church. I'll be looking forward to your comments on it.


Nov 21, 2011, 10:09pm

70: I probably won't have too many comments. It was about what I'd expected. I could elaborate on this statement, maybe.

Dec 28, 2011, 11:38am

Thanks for the holiday greetings on my thread! May you also have a truly wonderful 2012.

I've enjoyed following your thread and will definitely star it again next year.

Edited: Dec 28, 2011, 6:32pm

Katherine- I love your NF book choices! And I'm looking forward to following your reads in '12. The Lost City of Z & Confederates in the Attic were 2 of my favorites from last year!

Dec 28, 2011, 6:47pm

73: I quite enjoyed both. I'll complete #74 and #75, which I'm reading concurrently, tomorrow, then dedicate a couple days to the cause of filling those placeholders with brief reviews.

Edited: Jan 1, 2012, 6:42pm

#38: Life Ascending by Nick Lane

This is a fascinating account of ten crucial developments of evolution, from the perspective of a biochemist, beginning with the origin of life and ending with death. It is information dense but chatty, nicely organized with a succinct 25 or so pages per chapter. I can't really do justice in a review. A decent summary would occupy pages, and I'd need to reread and research to be sure I got it right. Don't let this deter you. My background is possibly at the level of biology 101, awhile ago, and the explanations were perfectly coherent. It is not necessary to grasp and remember every biochemical detail; it is enough to realize that micro biochemical reactions and changes underlie macro features of organisms. Each of the ten developments, including some that would appear to be oddly out of place, such as consciousness, is traced back to molecules that appeared early in evolution. Alas, one criticism, my frequent complaint: Oh why why why don't books include more diagrams?

Because the origin of life is, well, completely cool, and because the first chapter is about disequilibrium at the interface between hydrothermal vents and the ocean, a Wikipedia link, with diagrams: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrothermal_vent.

An excerpt:
"Thermodynamics is one of those words best avoided in a book with any pretense to be popular, but it's more engaging if seen for what it is: the science of 'desire'. The existence of atoms and molecules is dominated by 'attractions', 'repulsions', 'wants' and 'discharges', to the point that it becomes virtually impossible to write about chemisty without giving in to some sort of randy anthopomorphism. Molecules 'want' to lose or gain electrons; attract opposite charges; repulse similar charges; or cohabit with molecules of similar character. A chemical reaction happens spontaneously if all the molecular partners desire to participate; or they can be pressed to react unwillingly through greater force. And of course some molecules want to react but find it hard to overcome their innate shyness. A little flirtation might prompt a massive release of lust, a discharge of pure energy. But perhaps I should stop there. My point is that thermodynamics makes the world go round."

Jan 1, 2012, 12:48pm

I'm leaving 2011 two reviews in the hole. I'll fill in this thread when I write them... eventually...

Jan 1, 2012, 6:43pm

One review to go...