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bragan's 2010 reading

Club Read 2010

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Dec 18, 2009, 2:22am Top

I still have a bit more reading to do in 2009 yet. But expect another large, eclectic collection of books here for 2010!

Edited: Jan 2, 2010, 10:29pm Top

All right, here we are with the first book of 2010! And an excellent start to the year it is, too.

1. Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman, edited by Michelle Feynman.

By all accounts, physicist Richard Feynman was a remarkable guy: thoroughly likable, utterly brilliant, modestly plain-spoken, and gifted with a rare ability to explain complicated things clearly. His exploits included winning a Nobel Prize; playing the bongo drums in a ballet; working on the Manhattan Project, where he used to break into his colleagues' safes to highlight problems with security; and serving on the committee investigating the Challenger accident, where he famously dunked one of the shuttle's O-rings into his glass of ice water to prove that it turned brittle in the cold.

I adored Feynman's books Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?, which were collections of anecdotes from his life, as told to and transcribed by a friend of his. So I was interested to read this collection of his letters, compiled by his daughter many years after his death, but I did expect that it might be a bit dry, and likely more of historical interest than human interest. Well, I am delighted to report that I was completely wrong about that. These letters are warm and charming and often laugh-out-loud funny. They're also full of joy -- in physics, in teaching, in learning, and in family -- and contain some beautiful insights into the nature of what it's like to do science, particularly the way in which all scientific knowledge is grounded in doubt. A few of them are also very moving, especially his correspondence with his first wife, who was ill when they married and who died tragically young.

If I am absolutely honest, I have to confess that I am a little bit in love with Richard Feynman. Possibly I have been since I first read Surely You're Joking back in my late teens, but this collection has quite cemented it. Which is perhaps a little embarrassing, but I can at least take consolation in the fact that, based on his affable reply to a woman who wrote to say she'd fallen in love with him after seeing him on Nova, he would have responded with good grace.

Rating: 4.5/5

Jan 2, 2010, 9:39pm Top

Well, that's the first addition to my wishlist this year! Sounds great.

Jan 2, 2010, 10:28pm Top

I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed just reading someone's random correspondence!

If you haven't read the two other Feynman books I mentioned in the post, I heartily recommend them, too. It might even be better to read them first, actually.

Jan 3, 2010, 5:18am Top

Thanks. I have the first ... somewhere ... so I'll have a go at that before splashing out. But I do like reading letters, so that's why I was tempted.

Jan 3, 2010, 8:03am Top

I've been intrigued by Feynman ever since that infamous O-ring demonstration and have wanted to read one of his books. Did you ever see the movie (whose name I unfortunately forget) about the death of hist first wife during the the beginning of his career? Very poignant, that one.

Jan 3, 2010, 8:44am Top

Feynman's an incredibly intriguing guy, and, as is doubtless obvious by now, I wholeheartedly recommend reading his stuff, especially the two anecdote collections. He also wrote several books on physics, ranging from popular science-level to highly technical (including The Feynman Lectures on Physics which is still famous in the field).

I haven't seen the movie, but think I ought to! The book of his letters included a lot of correspondence with his first wife, including one letter he wrote to her after her death, which was beautiful and heartbreaking.

Edited: Jan 3, 2010, 9:20am Top

The movie was Infinity. Couldn't rest until I found it! You can see the trailer here: http://www.videodetective.com/titledetails.aspx?PublishedID=6712

edited to fix link

Jan 3, 2010, 6:47pm Top

Ah, thank you! And I see Netflix has it...

Jan 4, 2010, 4:31pm Top

I'd moved Surely You're Joking... up in my TBRs because I want to read Herman Wouk's upcoming The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion which references Feynman quite a bit. Now your comments make me want to read it next!

Jan 4, 2010, 4:50pm Top

After your great review, I find I must read one of these Feynman books. I know from your introduction somewhere that you're in the sciences--can his books be appreciated by one intimidated by subjects such as physics?

Jan 4, 2010, 5:16pm Top

10: The Language God Talks looks interesting. I may have to check that one out myself when it's available. (Although, come to think of it, I still haven't read a couple of the books on science and religion that I already have.)

11: It depends on which of his books you're looking at. Surely You're Joking... and What Do You Care What Other People Think? are memoirs rather than books about physics. There's naturally a lot of discussion about doing physics, and some wonderfully clear glimpses into how the mind of a first-rate physicist works, but absolutely no technical knowledge is necessary. In fact, I might even recommend them particularly to people intimidated by subjects like physics. You might well come out them feeling less intimidated and more excited about it than when you went in.

(And, oh, dear. I just pulled my one-volume copy of those two books off the shelf to flip through it, and if I don't put it back, I suspect I may be in serious danger of not getting anything else done today!)

Jan 4, 2010, 7:54pm Top

bragan - I enjoyed your review and thoughts on Feynman.

Jan 4, 2010, 8:00pm Top

Thanks! It certainly seems to have excited some interest. Which is gratifying, because I think Feynman deserves it. (Although I should probably add that, much as I enjoyed it, it does occur to me the letter collection probably isn't the best place to start for those totally unfamiliar with the man.)

Jan 4, 2010, 8:34pm Top

I'm added this to wish list with Surely You're Joking after reading your reviews. I've never been into physics, but these sound like so much more and I would love a little insight into great scientists like Feynman.

Jan 4, 2010, 9:45pm Top

Cool! Although, of course, now I'm getting nervous that people who end up reading these books because of me will somehow end up hating them. (I mean, I can't imagine hating them. But then, Feynman has precisely the kind of brain I most envy and admire, and I suppose that others' taste in brains may vary.)

Regardless, I'll be interested to see other people's thoughts!

Jan 7, 2010, 11:51am Top

I can't count the number of times I've picked up Surely You're Joking... at the bookstore, only to reshelve it when I find three or four other books that look only slightly more interesting. Part of the problem is that after reading a lot of popular physics books in my late teens and early twenties, I just grew tired of the genre. Now most of my reading in popular science is either in biology or cognitive psychology. It's good to hear that Surely You're Joking... is more a memoir than a science book; it gives me hope that I may someday enjoy reading it.

Jan 7, 2010, 12:19pm Top

I know what you mean. I've read a lot of popular physics books in my life, and still do, occasionally, but I find they've gotten a bit stale for me, too. Usually they're either telling me things I already know, or things I learned in college but have forgotten, which is just depressing to be reminded of.

But, yes, Surely You're Joking is really just Feynman telling stories about his life and his thoughts on various things. (In fact, in the letter collection I just read, there's a letter in which he expresses unhappiness with a German publishing house for trying to treat it like a popular science book when it's really just meant to amuse.)

Jan 8, 2010, 10:51pm Top

2. The Scar by China Miéville

Miéville is astonishingly good at creating fascinating, fantastic people, places and things. His weird, dreamlike creations often seem as if they ought to feel silly, the stuff of the cheesiest pulp fantasy, and yet somehow they never do. I think this may in large part be due to the way he grounds them so well in the reality of his characters, to whom the most utterly bizarre things are familiar and ordinary. The possible downside of this, though, is that for quite a lot the book, there's almost more setting than story; the plot is interesting and fairly complex, but it's very slow to develop and only really kicks into gear in the last quarter or so of the book. Between the surrealism and the pacing, the overall feel of the book is... odd. But mostly in a good way. And if it's flawed, its flaws are at least interesting. (Come to think of it, all of that describes Perdido Street Station perfectly, too.)

Rating: It's difficult to rate this, because how I feel about this one depends on what aspects I choose to concentrate on the most. But I'm going to go with 4/5.

Jan 9, 2010, 12:14am Top

3. The Traveler by Daren Simkin

A tiny little fable about a boy who packs up his time in a suitcase until he finds something to spend it on. Kind of a cute little book, but it's really just one big, obvious moral-to-the-story. Might be good for kids.

Rating: 3/5 (being a bit generous, maybe)

Jan 9, 2010, 11:42am Top

Oh no, the worst thing for children is "improving" literature. I hold The Berenstain Bears responsible for much of the simplistic moralizing kids are subject to. I think that it's much more important to get them to think for themselves. A children's book can be full of morality and ethics and even religion without hitting them over the head. Except Aesop. I quite like Aesop.

Jan 9, 2010, 12:55pm Top

I actually do kind of agree with that, although I remember being fine with the Berenstain Bears when I was little, even if I suspect I'd cringe at them now. As moral-of-the-story stories go, this particular one isn't too objectionable in my opinion, and kids may be likely to find it less obvious and trite. So when I said "good for kids," I really mean that kids might be happier with it, rather than that it would be morally good for them.

(Actually, my own problem with a lot of preachy stories for kids is that the morals are themselves highly suspect, from my point of view. Things like, "It doesn't matter what you believe in; the important thing is believing in something!" and "You can (and should!) accomplish literally anything if you just have enough self-confidence!" and "Friendship is the only single thing in the world that matters!" I personally find those ideas downright insidious, and would much prefer messages like, well, "Think for yourself!" But I guess that's just not quite as popular.)

Jan 11, 2010, 8:56pm Top

4. Experimental Man: What One Man's Body Reveals about His Future, Your Health, and Our Toxic World by David Ewing Duncan

The author, a healthy 50-year-old, subjected himself to a huge battery of cutting-edge medical tests, including gene sequencing, screening for environmental toxins, and brain and body scans. In this book, he reports on his results and on the current state of the testing technology. Despite Duncan's attempt to personalize and humanize the medical science by tying it into his own life, this is still a bit dry and unsatisfying in places, with long lists of genes, complicated and often contradictory risk statistics, and statements from doctors and scientists along the lines of, "Well, this might mean something, or it might not." But these are also the very things that make the book worthwhile. It doesn't oversimplify or over-hype, but instead provides a clear and balanced look at areas of science and technology that have the potential to be incredibly exciting, but are at the moment still very much in their infancy.

Rating: 3.5/5

Edited: Jan 15, 2010, 9:18pm Top

5. Falls the Shadow by Daniel O'Mahony

This is another of the 1990s Doctor Who tie-in novels I started reading last year. This time, the Doctor and friends find themselves in a house of shifting architecture and insanity, where various non-human entities, some of them deeply evil, are lurking. It's going for a very dark and surreal feel, and my feelings about how well it succeeds at that kept vacillating as I read. Sometimes I found myself thinking of it as imaginative, intriguing, and reasonably creepy, but all too often I just found it kind of murky and dull. Its attempts at psychological depth seemed to be a bit hit-and-miss, too. Part of that might have been me rather than the book, though. I read it in smallish, distracted snatches during an exceptionally stressful week, and while that's fine for most TV tie-in books, it's probably far from ideal for this one. I also think that I probably would have liked it much better if I'd read it when it first came out. Back, then, I remember being impressed by any attempt at all to bring psychological depths or experimental storytelling to Doctor Who in a concentrated and deliberate fashion. Those things seem much less remarkable these days, though. And as with many of these books, I also suspect that I might find it more engaging on the screen, if properly produced, than I did in book form.

Rating: Hard to say. Call it 3/5.

Jan 16, 2010, 10:51am Top

>24 bragan:, I've been catching up on the last season of Dr. Who and mourning the departure of David Tennant. :(

Jan 16, 2010, 10:59am Top

Oh, yes. He will be much missed. I do think that, at this point in the story, it's probably time for a new Doctor and maybe a bit of a change of direction, but even so, seeing him depart is bittersweet. Tennant brought some amazing acting ability and such a great deal of enthusiasm to the part.

Jan 18, 2010, 7:27pm Top

6. Circumference: Eratosthenes and the Ancient Quest to Measure the Globe by Nicholas Nicastro

This is the story of Eratosthenes, the ancient Greek philosopher who calculated the circumference of the Earth to a figure much more accurate than the one used by Columbus seventeen centuries later. Except that it isn't, really, as it turns out that there isn't enough historical data on Eratosthenes' life to fill even the shortest biography. The book does cover those of Eratosthenes' achievements that we know of, including some detailed discussions on subjects like the disagreement between historians about the exact length of the units he used to measure distance. However, it deliberately glosses over some of the math, which is understandable -- they say that for every equation in a book its sales drop by half -- but which I think is kind of a shame. It's very simple math, high school-level geometry at most, but it's worth looking at and appreciating. In fact, the focus here appears to be as much or more on general history as on the science or on Eratosthenes himself. Much of the book consists of descriptions of the city of Alexandria, Greek politics and various historical events, with occasional phrases like "Eratosthenes no doubt knew about..." or "Eratosthenes might have seen..." to keep things ostensibly on topic. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that the book wasn't quite what I was expecting when I started it. Also, even though it's clearly aimed at both historical and scientific laymen, and despite a couple of brief personal interludes, the general tone is very scholarly and not quite as engaging as I might have hoped. All in all, it's definitely worth reading, and it contains a fair amount of interesting information, but do I wish I'd gone into it with a better idea of what to expect. I think I would have found it more satisfying.

Rating: 3.5/5

Jan 19, 2010, 3:36pm Top

>8 theaelizabet:: Theaelizabet, if you're reading, I just wanted to thank you for recommending the movie Infinity. I just finished watching it, and I'm happy to say that I liked it very much. I was amazed by how very truthful it was, both in the details and in spirit. I don't know how it is that I managed to remain unaware of that movie's existence until now, but I'm glad to have rectified that!

Jan 19, 2010, 4:13pm Top

I'm still here and loving the science-themed books that you read! So glad you enjoyed the movie!

Edited: Jan 22, 2010, 1:00am Top

7. The Help by Kathryn Stockett

A very good book about black housemaids and their white employers in early 1960s Mississippi. The characterization is incredibly solid; each of the protagonists is a deeply engaging, sympathetic, very real person. The time and place feel very real too, in both the ugliness of racial segregation and the sense of a hope for change lying in the decency and courage of individuals. It was a complete coincidence, but I started reading this on Martin Luther King Day. The appropriateness of that, like the book itself, pleases me.

Rating: 4.5/5

Jan 25, 2010, 7:52pm Top

8. The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller

Laura Miller first read and loved C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia as a small child, but in her early teens, she became aware of the books' famous Christian symbolism and felt betrayed by that knowledge. She came back to them later in life though -- still as a non-believer -- and found much that was still enchanting and worthwhile along with that now-obvious symbolism. And so she argues that, important as they are, those who focus only on the Christian elements, whether to agree or disagree with them, are missing a great deal.

I'm really quite astounded by how similar her own experiences with these books were to mine. The only difference is that, for her, the Narnia books were defining influences in her childhood. She read over and over again, with an almost mystical conviction that in some sense Narnia was a very real place. And while I certainly felt the magic in the Narnia books, it was other stories -- mainly the Oz books -- that filled that same role in my own life. So her initial sense of betrayal was undoubtedly much stronger than mine. But her descriptions of reading in general and reading the Narnia books in particular, both as a child and as an adult, are so familiar to me and ring so incredibly true that they would have made this book worth reading all by themselves. She also has a great deal of other insightful and informative things to say, however: about C.S. Lewis' life and attitudes and how they shaped his writing, about how critics have approached the Chronicles, and about the place of fantasy in the literary world and in the human imagination.

Her writing is lucid, thoughtful, and entirely unpretentious, and her approach to fantasy is neither disdainful (as many critics are), or undiscriminating (as fans of the genre sometimes can be). I definitely recommend this for people of any religious persuasion who enjoyed the Chronicles of Narnia as children or adults -- genuinely enjoyed, that is, rather than simply approving of them as a proselytizing tool -- and who are interested in interesting in looking at them in a larger literary and biographical context.

Rating: 4.5/5

Jan 25, 2010, 10:45pm Top

31 - Sounds wonderful. I'm planning on re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia this year for the first time since childhood. Sounds like this would be a great companion read.

Jan 25, 2010, 11:24pm Top

I do think it could be worthwhile to read them together. I know Miller's book certainly did make me want to re-read the Chronicles again, although with as many books as I have on my TBR Pile, I doubt I'll do it in the near future.

Jan 26, 2010, 12:25am Top

That sounds fascinating. I loved the Narnia books too, all unknowing of the Christianity, and although I definitely re-read some more than others, I have very vivid memories of them. Another for the wishlist I think. This is such a great thread to follow!

Jan 26, 2010, 2:07am Top

I'm glad you're enjoying this thread! So far it's shaping up to be a mixed, but interesting year for me, book-wise.

Jan 26, 2010, 10:33am Top

I was one of those children who read the Chronicles of Narnia over and over. I thought the Christian symbolism would make them unpalatable when I read them to my own children, but they were still highly readable. Unlike the Madeline L'Engle Wrinkle in Time books, which were unreadable. To me, at least--my SO, who grew up in an aggressively areligious household, was able to finish the chore with no signs of annoyance.

I will have to find a copy of The Magician's Book.

Jan 26, 2010, 6:09pm Top

A Wrinkle in Time was one of the books I read over and over and was profoundly affected by as a child. I've been meaning to re-read it to see how well it holds up, but I'm more than a little afraid to

Jan 27, 2010, 4:14am Top

9. Time Bomb and Zahndry Others by Timothy Zahn.

A collection of science fiction stories from the 1980s. They're mostly very unimpressive, with dull writing and two-dimensional characters who speak largely in exposition. I find that the older I get, the less tolerant I am of this sort of thing in science fiction because, damn it, there's no reason it shouldn't be written with as much care and human feeling as any other genre. Admittedly, sometimes SF can make up for less-than-stellar writing by virtue of having incredibly compelling ideas or nifty intellectual puzzles, but, while Zahn does have some reasonably good ideas, they're generally not quite good enough to carry a story all by themselves.

I will say that the later pieces in this collection are considerably better than the earlier ones, and Zahn does do some interesting (albeit highly implausible) things with time travel in a couple of them. But that doesn't save this book from being just... meh.

Rating: 2.5/5

Jan 27, 2010, 7:49am Top

10. Enemy of Chaos by Leila Johnston

A sort of choose-your-own-adventure for adults, billed as "an adventure in which YOU, ageing nerd, are the hero." Now, I adored Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books as a kid and look back on them with a great deal of nostalgia. Also I am indeed an aging nerd, and this book promised a certain kind of geeky humor that seemed as if it ought to be right up my alley. Unfortunately, though, it turns out that choose-your-own-adventures aren't quite as fun as I remember them being, and the humor, while good for the occasional chuckle, is a little too random and is perhaps trying a little too hard to be clever. Which means that this thing, while mildly diverting, was rather disappointing compared to my expectations.

Rating: 3/5

Jan 27, 2010, 8:58am Top

I'm not a fantasy fan but these comments about childhood books motivate me to get The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and A Wrinkle in Time out of my wishlist and into my TBRs!

Jan 27, 2010, 5:01pm Top

It's always interesting to go back to books you loved during childhood, even if I am always worried that all the magic will be gone.

Edited: Jan 28, 2010, 7:56am Top

11. The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón.

When this book came out, as I recall, a couple of my friends reacted badly to the whole concept, saying that they found it to be in poor taste. This response kind of surprised me, as I thought it was actually a pretty good idea to put this important document into a form that would be accessible to more people, given the sheer amount of misinformation and conspiracy-theory thinking that surrounds the topic of the 9/11 attacks. And if I ever had any sense that presenting real-world horror and tragedy in graphic novel form might somehow trivialize it, reading Maus cured me of that quite effectively. I think, though, that the objection my friends had lay in a perception that this book must surely be sensationalistic or exploitative. I was interested enough to want to check it out and make up my own mind, so I obtained a copy... Which, rather typically for me, then sat on my To-Read Pile for several years.

I have read it now, though, and I can definitely say that it's not sensationalized. If anything, much of it is very dry. I haven't read the original 9/11 Commission report, but I have the impression that this adaptation sticks to it very closely, and it's mostly quite factual and analytical. There is a discussion of the history of Al Qaeda and of US counter-terrorism efforts, an examination of pre-attack intelligence and the issue of how the information we had should have been better coordinated, a brief examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the emergency response at the World Trade Center, and so on, culminating in the Commission's recommendations for the future, and a brief addendum with a report card evaluation of how well the government did at following those recommendations. Nothing's over-dramatized; even the bits of imagined dialog in the speech bubbles are rather stilted and clearly there only to illustrate points being made in the text. And the descriptions of the attacks themselves are presented in a simple, just-the-facts style, although even so they can't help being emotionally affecting.

I can see where my friends' impression might have come from, though, based on the front cover or random samples of the art. I don't find the illustrations tasteless, but they are apparently drawn by an artist whose background is in superhero comics, and there may be a subtle influence there that feels a little incongruous in this context. And things like the occasional use of standard comic book-style sound effects ("BLAM!") probably don't help with that. I think that's very minor, though, and not something that I would have noticed if I hadn't been looking for it;

For my own part, I'm not sorry I read this, but I am kind of wishing I'd gone for the original text version of the report instead. I know many people prefer their information to come with a visual component, but I'm not one of them. I found the pictures more distracting than anything, to be honest. But the content, in whatever form, is well worth reading.

Rating: 3.5/5

Jan 30, 2010, 9:53am Top

12. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

This is a humorous novel featuring the Greek gods, who are currently living in reduced circumstances in a run-down house in London. It's a moderately entertaining and pleasant enough read, but not quite as funny or engaging as I was hoping for, based on what seemed like a really excellent premise. The story was decent enough, I suppose, but none of the characters ever really clicked for me, and the ending was more than a little too pat.

Rating: 3.5/5

Jan 30, 2010, 9:56am Top

Hi there,

I don't want to seem like a stalker, popping up to comment on every book you have read, but I just wanted to say that this review was spot on - I had exactly the same response to the book!

Jan 30, 2010, 11:20am Top

Hey, stalk away!

I'd be surprised, actually, if that wasn't a fairly common reaction. The premise seems so full of promise that I think it'd be hard not to expect more than it actually delivers.

Jan 31, 2010, 8:53pm Top

13. Your Flying Car Awaits: Robot Butlers, Lunar Vacations, and Other Dead-Wrong Predictions of the Twentieth Century by Paul Milo.

The cover copy on this book, not to mention the title, seems to promise a light-hearted, gently mocking look at popular 20th century ideas about the future in which we currently reside. This is somewhat misleading, as it actually deals in a more-or-less thoughtful fashion with carefully considered but ultimately incorrect suggestions made by serious futurists, and often spends more time tracing the ways in which trends and technologies actually did develop than on what people expected to happen.

Opinions on how well it succeeds at this may vary; I know my own opinion varied considerably as I read. The initial section, which covers biology and medicine, didn't impress me very much. Its focus on the reality rather than prediction disappointed me a little, since it covered a lot of ground I was already familiar with. It also seemed to me that the author was dealing with some complex subjects (such as genetic engineering and human cloning) in a rather cursory fashion, and there were even a few statements which were scientifically iffy. The later sections were generally more satisfying, though, with the exception of an oddly out-of-place chapter on religious End Times predictions. Particularly interesting were the parts that focused on domestic and social issues, as those provided some worthwhile (albeit still not terribly deep) discussions comparing the assumptions and expectations of the previous and current generations.

Should you ever happen to find yourself in possession of a time machine and an urge to jump back fifty years or so and mess with the timeline by telling people about what's to come, you could do a lot worse than to bring a few copies of this book with you. The reactions should be highly interesting. Otherwise, it's a decent enough read if you don't go into it expecting either lots of laughs or lots of analysis.

For the record, though, I don't think it ever even mentions robot butlers.

Rating: 3.5/5

Edited: Feb 5, 2010, 5:55pm Top

14. The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter.

This science fiction novel deals with the development of a technological breakthrough that allows the use of microscopic wormholes to instantly view any point on -- or, indeed, off -- the Earth, and eventually even to look backwards in time. This isn't exactly an original premise, being something of a twist on an idea Isaac Asimov came up with in the 1950s, but it is a fantastically promising one. Asimov himself left the full implications of the technology as an exercise for the reader's imagination, and there's room for one hell of a good novel in the full working out of the details.

Unfortunately, this is not it. The story plods along in a dull and strangely unfocused fashion towards a contrived and unexciting climax. The characters are flat, uninteresting, and largely unlikeable. And while the authors make a concentrated attempt at examining the effect a sudden complete lack of privacy would have on society, it's mostly done in a tell-don't-show kind of way that never really gave me a strong personal sense of what life in such a world would be like, and it doesn't ever quite gel together into a coherent whole. On top of that, the authors, for some inexplicable reason, felt the need to throw in a completely unrelated gimmick, in the shape of a giant asteroid that's supposed to hit the Earth in 500 years. The consequences of this are not delved into in any great depth, though, and it seems to exist mainly as an excuse for any character or social development that might not otherwise make sense. "Oh, well, you see," the authors repeatedly seem to say, "a giant asteroid is going to hit the Earth, so nobody cares about anything and everybody acts weird." Except, of course, when they don't.

There are some interesting explorations of what it would mean to have all of history be completely knowable, and a pleasantly sense-of-wonder-inducing scene or two featuring humanity's first glimpses of distant alien planets, and those work pretty well on their own, but in the context of the rest of the book, they mainly just serve to remind me of how much better the whole thing could have been.

Rating: 2.5/5

Feb 6, 2010, 9:02am Top

>46 bragan: I feel a tandem-read coming on, although it may be a skim -- Your Flying Car Awaits and the copy of Future Shock I've had for decades.

Feb 6, 2010, 10:04am Top

Ooh, that sounds like an interesting thing to do! I read Future Shock something like 20 years ago and remember finding it interesting. How it fares now that another couple of decades have gone by, I don't know, although Your Flying Car Awaits does reference it a couple of times.

Edited: Feb 6, 2010, 11:44am Top

15. Genesis by Bernard Beckett

(Touchstoning the title doesn't seem to pull up the correct work.)

This is a very short, rather odd little novel, written in the format of a student from a future society undergoing an oral examination on the life of an important figure from her culture's history. I can't help comparing it to The Light of Other Days, which I finished yesterday, as they're both very much novels of ideas. This one touches on various philosophical issues, including a long discussion on the subject of artificial intelligence. The ideas are far less ambitious and original than those of Other Days, and the artificial intelligence arguments, in particular, were already very familiar to me. And yet this book was so much more engaging and appealing. Even the characters, lightly sketched as they are, felt more real to me than Clarke and Baxter's did, for all their soap opera-ish melodrama. And though there was very little plot, the climax, even though I kind of saw it coming, was decently satisfying.

I don't want to over-praise this book too much. It's good, but not amazingly so, and it's almost certainly not going to make my top ten books of the year list or anything. But it knows exactly what it wants to do and does it, which is downright refreshing after that last book's muddled mess of good ideas buried under stifling layers of mediocrity.

Rating: 4/5

Feb 8, 2010, 3:28pm Top

16. Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy

Co-author William Rathje is the director of the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona, a research group which over the years has investigated all kinds of garbage-related subjects. Now, you might well think that there can't possibly be all that much about garbage that's worth researching, but if so you would be very, very wrong. It turns out that not only is the excavation of ancient garbage heaps an invaluable tool for archeologists investigating ancient civilizations, but that searching through garbage cans and landfills can tell us a surprising amount about our own society, some of it not just academically interesting but of real practical use. And, of course, understanding garbage -- how it's generated, how it's disposed of, and the various factors that influence those things -- is also extremely important when it comes to figuring out the environmental and economic factors involved in areas such as landfill management and recycling. This book talks in some depth about all these things and quite a bit more, and it offers up plenty of genuinely fascinating facts about garbage. (For instance, did you know that so little biodegrading happens in landfills that newspapers can remain perfectly legible for decades after they're buried? Amazingly enough, there was even a court case in which documents that had been consigned to a landfill many years before were dug up and used as evidence.) The authors also engage in a considerable amount of calm and level-headed discussion on the public policy issues surrounding garbage, including taking a thoughtful and interesting look at the surprisingly vast differences between the things that people believe are filling up our landfills and the things that actually are. Admittedly, since the book was first published in 1992 some of that is a bit dated, but it remains very much worth reading. And while the text is full of carefully presented scientific facts and figures, it's also extremely readable and features occasional flashes of very real wit.

Rating: 4/5

Feb 8, 2010, 5:58pm Top

I remember reading this when it was first published. I was covering environmental issues for a publication at the time and I think I may have even interviewed Rathje for an article. I do remember this project as being interesting. Much of what he wrote about technologically-speaking was state-of-the-art and garbage issues were then much in the news. You don't hear so much about them any more. I wonder what's going on with the project now?

Edited: Feb 8, 2010, 6:25pm Top

Yes, the discussions of then-current garbage events really brought back memories for me, as I was in high school in New Jersey in the late 1980s, when the state was having serious garbage problems and various garbage-related issues were getting a lot of discussion. I remember doing a paper for class on the economics of recycling -- very vividly, in fact, because the teacher gave me a low grade I absolutely did not deserve, and I've resented it ever since. Heh. I also remember doing a current-events report on the question of whether a garbage incinerator should be built in our area, and the beginning of curbside recycling where I lived... What's funny is that I'm pretty sure the issues haven't gone away, they're just less talked about now.

And I, too, am curious about what might be going on with the project these days. I assume it's still going. Maybe I'll look it up and see.

Feb 9, 2010, 6:04am Top

For a more recent publication on the subject, there's Elizabeth Royle's Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash which came out in 2005. I find the story of garbage quite fascinating -- more than ever in history, we are generating staggering amounts of garbage everyday encouraged by consumerism, yet the consciousness of where all this go (it has to go somewhere) is something an average city dweller doesn't have. I agree with you that most of these garbage-related issues haven't gone away, there's just less attention on them now. I wonder if it has something to do with the focus recently having shifted from environmental sustainability (waste disposal being an element of it) to climate change -- the latter now being more "fashionable" to talk about.

Feb 9, 2010, 9:04am Top

I actually read Garbage Land, too, shortly after it came out. (It's probably where I first encountered that fact about newspapers in landfills, actually, but I still find it fascinating.) I'd say that Rathje's book covers a lot of ground that Doyle's doesn't and has more scientific weight to it; he brings a lot of personal knowledge to the subject. But Doyle's, as well as being more recent, is a breezier read and takes more of consumer's-eye view. She also talks in great depth about sewage, with is a topic Rubbish! only touches on in passing. So I would recommend them both. Because, yeah, we do an amazing job of just not thinking about the stuff we throw away, and it's good to be reminded at it all has to go somewhere.

And I think there's been a shift in environmental thinking on a lot of fronts, in terms of what gets talked about. Global warming is definitely a biggie, although whether it's simply displaced topics like garbage or whether there are other social factors there, I don't know. Actually, I think from Rathje's perspective, that might not be an entirely bad thing, anyway. One of the points that he makes in the book is that categorizing the situation as a "garbage crisis" -- which is a phrase a lot of people used at the time -- is a really bad idea, because when people perceive a crisis, they tend to panic and institute quick-fix policies that do more harm in the long term. And garbage is very much a long-term problem, not a short-term crisis. He also says that a lot of public clamor at the time he was writing was about entirely the wrong things, because the average person -- for understandable reasons -- has a very skewed and inaccurate idea of exactly what goes into a landfill. What we really need, I guess, is some kind of balance between hysteria and apathy. Which, come to think of it, is probably true of environmental issues across the board. Or maybe all issues, period.

Edited: Feb 10, 2010, 6:47am Top

Just curious -- does Rathje mention anything about garbage (or scavenging) as a means of livelihood for thousands of very poor families in some developing countries, where "garbage cities" even exist (e.g. Philippines, India, Egypt)? Obviously in such places there would be resistance by such communities to more "industrialized" or "scientific" or "environmentally-friendly" handling of trash which would result in their displacement -- I wonder if there has ever been a solution proposed to address this apparent conflict between garbage's "proper" disposal and its social/economic function.

Also, does Rathje touch on dumping of waste (esp. industrial or toxic) offshore or in other countries who are willing to accept them? As with ordinary garbage, this stuff too has to go somewhere!

I totally agree with you about finding the balance between hysteria and apathy on ALL issues. Reminds me of the H1N1 scare...now we're seeing the backlash, here in the EU, at least.

Feb 10, 2010, 11:50am Top

He does indeed mention that. Not at great length, but he does talk about it a few times, particularly the situation in Mexico, where apparently garbage-scavenging is an occupation with a surprising amount of political clout. But while he does talk about the conflict this causes, I don't think he has any particular solution to propose, alas.

The shipping of waste to other countries is something he only touches on very briefly, though, mostly in talking about the infamous "garbage barge" of the 1980s and its quest to drop its load anywhere at all. He does mention that some places export their garbage to other states within the US, but I wonder if the international exportation of US garbage -- and he is largely US-focused when it comes to discussion the specifics of the "garbage crisis"-- is something that's become a lot more common since the book was written.

Feb 11, 2010, 10:36am Top

>46 bragan: forgot that my library pile included Obsolete by Anna Jane Grossman -- 100+ products, practices, and concepts that have become obsolete or are rapidly heading that way. Definitely a book to skim, but there are some interesting nuggets.

Feb 11, 2010, 1:25pm Top

Obsolete sounds interesting, and like a good complement to a book about imagined technologies that never came to pass. I've tossed it onto the wishlist.

Feb 11, 2010, 4:35pm Top

I wonder why it is that Your Flying Car Awaits doesn't tug at me, but I've just put Obsolete on my waiting-for-the-paperback wishlist. On the other hand I might go back to Ticonderoga number 2's if they still made hand cranked pencil sharpeners.


Feb 11, 2010, 8:18pm Top

Wow, I haven't seen a hand-cranked pencil sharpener in over a decade. Now that you've reminded me of them, I think I kind of miss them.

Feb 12, 2010, 1:10am Top

17. In This Way I Was Saved by Brian DeLeeuw

The story of a troubled young man and his imaginary friend. Or of a troublesome imaginary friend and his young man. Or something along those lines.

And, man... This is a perfectly good book. The premise is great, the writing is decent, the characters are sufficiently believable, and the ending works. So I honestly don't know why I never quite got into it the way I wanted to, but I didn't. The only thing I can figure is that perhaps it's because I've read far more speculative fiction than the average member of this book's intended target audience, and something in the back of my head kept expecting things to be, well, stranger.

Rating: a probably unfair 3.5/5.

Edited: Feb 13, 2010, 5:44pm Top

18. Beyond 9 to 5: Your Life in Time by Sarah Norgate

I've been fascinated by the concept of time since I was a kid, and as someone who works rotating shifts, I have a practical personal interest in the human side of timekeeping. So I can never resist a book like this one, which looks at the biological and social aspects of how we relate to time.

Unfortunately, though, the book sort of got off on the wrong foot with me from the beginning. In the first chapter, Norgate puts forward the central idea that people can and do relate to time in a variety of different ways. It's not entirely clear to me until maybe the last chapter exactly what she means by this in concrete terms, but she starts off promisingly with a discussion of different cultural attitudes toward time. She describes two of them ("clock time" and "event time" cultures) in just enough detail to get a reasonable idea of what those descriptions mean, but then goes on to talk about the third ("timeless time") in a couple of brief, inadequate paragraphs, and the fourth ("harmonic time") in a few vague sentences. I found this quite frustrating, and it's a bit of a pattern throughout the book: some subjects are covered in a good amount of depth, while others are skimmed over so quickly that I almost wonder why she bothered bringing them up at all. The book's structure, with each chapter divided up into sub-sections, some as short as a single paragraph, doesn't help. But I think the real problem is that the book is just too short to do its subject matter anything like full justice. And while I'm nitpicking, I also wish the author had thought twice about her attempts at humor; they seem somewhat out of place and mostly fall flat.

Which isn't to say that this is a bad book. It contains quite a bit of interesting information, including lots of figures and statistics, and Norgate has a global perspective that's commendable. But, still, there just have to be more satisfying treatments of this topic.

Rating: 3/5

Feb 13, 2010, 11:10pm Top

Bragan, you might be interested in (or already know about) this RadioLab episode, about time. It got me intrigued enough to put the Jay Griffiths book, A Sideways Look At Time, on my wishlist - have you read that?

Feb 13, 2010, 11:30pm Top

I haven't even heard of it, but just looking at the cover, I find myself drawn to it, so I suspect it will end up on my wishlist as well. And I'm not familiar with the RadioLab episode, either, but I will definitely give it a listen. Thanks for calling my attention to it!

Edited: Feb 14, 2010, 12:11am Top

19. Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriquez

The first book in a new graphic novel series featuring a family trying to start over after their father is murdered, a rambling house where strange keys open doors to strange phenomena, and something not quite human sitting down at the bottom of a well. And, wow, did it hook me in almost from the first page. The plot is interesting, suspenseful, and well-structured, doling out its revelations at a finely tuned pace and making excellent use of the graphic novel format. The characters are instantly believable; even the small child feels like a real small child. The art is excellent. And the story combines multiple varieties of horror -- psychological, supernatural, violent-and-suspenseful -- in a remarkably smooth way.

I already have volume two, which I fully intend to start reading right now, but I'm already bewailing the fact that I'll have to stop there, since volume three isn't out yet. I want to stay with this story until it's over!

Rating: 4.5/5

Edited: Feb 14, 2010, 1:57am Top

20, Lock & Key: Head Games by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriquez

Book 2 of Locke & Key. The story continues ticking along, a clever new plot device is introduced, and there are some terrific flashes of (occasionally pretty dark) humor in among it all. Slightly less gripping than volume one, but still really good stuff.

Rating: 4/5

Feb 21, 2010, 11:10am Top

21. Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures by Walter Moers

Last year I read Moers' The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear and enjoyed it greatly. This book is set in the same fantastical land and has many of the same things going for it: imaginative creatures and places, exciting adventures, and a light, pleasant writing style. But I just never found it quite as engaging as Bluebear. I think it's because Bluebear was a story about voyaging, learning, and discovery, which are not only subjects very much to my taste, but which made me feel deeply nostalgic, reminding me strongly of the kinds of stories I most loved as a kid. Rumo, however, focuses not on a seafarer but on a natural-born warrior, and it's all about fighting, which has less intrinsic appeal to me. In fact, there's a truly astonishing amount of gore and horror here. Which I don't have a problem with per se, but by the end I was kind of wishing that something would happen that didn't involve horrible torture or a blood-soaked massacre, just for a little variety.

Rating: 3.5/5

Feb 22, 2010, 11:30pm Top

22. Stephen Fry in America: Fifty States and the Man Who Set Out to See Them All by Stephen Fry

This is the companion volume to the BBC television series of the same name, which features Stephen Fry visiting every state in the US. I like Stephen Fry a lot, I enjoy this kind of travelogue, and I'm always fascinated to get an outsider's perspective on the United States, so I made a point of seeking out the TV show, and I enjoyed it enough that I ordered the book as soon as it was available in the US. The book, I'm afraid, doesn't add all that much to the TV series, but it did give me the feeling of enjoying it all over again, which was worthwhile.

There are two or three states in which Fry does little more than wave from a car window, but in most of them he stops for a mini-adventure or two: lobster fishing in Maine, inventing a new flavor of Ben & Jerry's ice cream in Vermont, accompanying the US Border Patrol on their rounds in Texas, etc., etc. He also engages in such traditional American pastimes as eating a Thanksgiving dinner, attending a college football game, and shooting a gun. It's fairly entertaining to follow him as he does all these things, largely because his affection for the country is very real and very honestly expressed, although it's never unthinking and he's entirely willing to acknowledge the negatives along with the positives. (He's quite unkind to my original home state of New Jersey, for instance, although he's hardly the first, and I'm not even sure I can argue that it doesn't deserve it.) It's also nice to see an Englishman who understands and appreciates the diversity of the US's landscape and culture, which Fry most certainly does. The diversity of America's people is particularly in evidence; Fry pauses on his travels to interact with farmers, scientists, blues singers, hunters, homeless people, coal miners, Southern gentry, Florida snowbirds, hippies, Native Americans, and just about anybody else you can think of.

The one big flaw is that, as Fry freely acknowledges, it's utterly impossible to do justice to a place as big as the US in this kind of a trip, and so there's really only the tiniest, most superficial taste of each state presented here. But then, that would be true even if the book were four times as long.

Mostly, following Stephen Fry's adventures just makes me feel happy to live in this huge and really quite beautiful country, and lucky to have had the opportunity to see as much of it as I have.

Rating: 4/5

Feb 23, 2010, 12:11am Top

"I was kind of wishing that something would happen that didn't involve horrible torture or a blood-soaked massacre, just for a little variety."

bragan, I'm in awe of your pace. I miss your thread for two weeks and six books appear. Enjoyed your latest reviews, including that line above.

Feb 23, 2010, 10:00am Top

Well, my pace is pretty uneven, really. I think I finished three very short books in one day in there, and then the next one took me a full week. (I have an incredibly boring 12-hour night shift to thank for the first of those. I blame the second on the fact that the drugs they gave me after I had my wisdom teeth out kept making me doze off.)

And thanks!

Feb 24, 2010, 7:21pm Top

23. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Twelve-year old David, finding it difficult to cope with the loss of his mother, the unwanted intrusion of a stepmother and a new baby into his family, and life in a country at war, retreats into books, particularly into beloved stories of folklore and fantasy.... until the stories become unexpectedly real.

This doesn't sound all that original, and maybe it's not, but it's extremely well done, a deft blend of the familiar and the strange, of childhood and adulthood, and of fairy tales and reality (including the darker aspects of both). Just in simple plot terms, it's a good fantasy story, but Connolly really gets both children and fairy tales in a way that elevates this into something more than that. It reminds me a bit of some of Neil Gaiman's work, which is something I consider to be pretty high praise.

Rating: 4.5/5

Feb 24, 2010, 10:15pm Top

#72 bragan - That's now on my wishlist, after reading your review.

Feb 24, 2010, 11:02pm Top

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! Admittedly, it fit my personal tastes in a number of pretty specific ways. (I love books that play around with fairy tale elements, for one thing, and there's something about stories that are partly about the power of story.)

Feb 25, 2010, 1:40pm Top

74 - Nice personal tastes. It went on my wishlist as well.

Feb 25, 2010, 2:56pm Top

#74 - It was the fairytale aspects that caught my attention. I've wanted to check out some books that explore this in a good way.

Feb 25, 2010, 9:15pm Top


Have you seen the movie Pan's Labyrinth. It reminded me a lot of The Book of Lost Things. To one and all, I second, third, and fourth bragan's recommendation of this book. I have reread a couple of times. But then I have a weakness for fairy tales.

Feb 25, 2010, 11:14pm Top

Oh, yes, I have seen and loved Pan's Labyrinth, and The Book of Lost Things reminded me of it, too. Although while Lost Things was a bit dark, Pan's Labyrinth was much darker. Or so I recall.

Feb 28, 2010, 6:53pm Top

>72 bragan:, I loved The Book of Lost Things. It was - for lack of a better word - magical.

Feb 28, 2010, 7:30pm Top

OK -- I'm a sucker for fairy tales -- it's now on my wishlist.

Feb 28, 2010, 7:56pm Top

72, 79, 80 Fairytales? I'm in. This one's actually been on the wishlist for awhile.

Mar 1, 2010, 12:42am Top

Excellent! Lost Things for everyone! It really is very much worth reading, if you have any love for fairy tales at all.

Mar 1, 2010, 12:32pm Top

24. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America by Steven Johnson

The story of Joseph Priestley, Enlightenment-era scientist, controversial clergyman, and supporter of the American revolution, best known for discovering oxygen (although, like many events in the history of science, that one turns out to have been more complicated than it sounds). Priestley was an interesting figure, but Johnson focuses not just on his life but on the broader scientific, political, and religious context in which he lived and worked. Along the way he makes some interesting (if not necessarily terribly surprising) points about the ways in which science and politics were once much less separate than they seem to be in America today, and about how complex the role of great men is in science and how the course of discovery can be influenced both by the details of a single lifetime and by events that play out on timescales as long as millions of years.

Johnson does a particularly good job, I think, of describing Priestley's scientific accomplishments in a way that's not only very clear, but captures the importance and the excitement of scientific discovery very well. His description of a simple series of experiments that Priestley performed with plants in sealed containers, and the far-reaching implications of the discoveries they led to, gave me a genuine thrill. I love it when a writer manages to convey the spirit of science that effectively.

Unfortunately, the longish discussion towards the end about Priestley's role in the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams was rather less lucid and engaging (although it's possible that someone more interested in American history and less interested in the history of science might disagree). That's pretty much the only thing keeping me from giving this four-and-a-half stars instead of four.

Rating: 4/5

Mar 1, 2010, 12:50pm Top

nice review - what a crazy fascinating era in science. This will also go on my wishlist.

I vaguely remember something about this in the NYTimes back when it came out (2008?), but for some reason the review left me ambivalent on it.

Mar 1, 2010, 1:05pm Top

"Crazy fascinating era" really does kind of sum it up.

I like Johnson's writing a lot. His The Ghost Map is also a really interesting book about history and science, and Everything Bad Is Good For You was a fresh and interesting (and rather heartening) take on current popular culture and how TV and video games aren't destroying our intelligence the way it's popular to think.

This particular book could probably have even been a little better than it was, but I still do recommend it for anybody to whom the topic sounds interesting.

(And I seem to have something of a scientist theme going this year, don't I, between Feynman, Eratosthenes and Priestley. Possibly I should embrace this trend and finally get around to reading that biography Einstein I keep putting off.)

Mar 1, 2010, 1:20pm Top

Bragan, everytime I come back to your thread I end up adding two or three books to the various wishlists. Your reviews are fantastic.

I loved Stepehn Fry's take on America (I've seen the show but haven't read the book), his outsider view is kind of refreshing and enlightening. I wish he would undertake a more in depth travelogue.

Mar 1, 2010, 1:34pm Top

Sorry for bloating your wishlist up. :)

And if Stephen Fry ever did do another, more in-depth American travelogue, I would absolutely read and/or watch it, too. I rather got the impression that he'd love to travel more in America, actually, but he is a very busy man...

Mar 7, 2010, 3:37am Top

25. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

A novel about a mute boy from a family of Wisconsin dog breeders. I have such mixed feelings about this book that it's hard to know quite what to say about it. Overall, I did enjoy reading it, but I find that most of the specific things I have to say about it are fairly negative.

First and foremost, it was slow. Very, very slow. Mostly, the writing was good enough that I kept happily turning pages anyway, but by the end, my interest levels were seriously beginning to flag. I suspect that this might have been less of an issue if were more of a dog person, as the book is full of lots of loving details about dogs, which those who feel a connection to them might appreciate. But while I get along fine with dogs, I'm really much more of a cat person, so the dog stuff didn't evoke any particularly strong emotional reaction in me. Though neither did the human characters, come to that. Edgar was kind of interesting, and I had sympathy for him and was willing to follow along with his story, but I never did feel deeply engaged with him.

Then there's the plot, which, is, in broad outline, the plot of Hamlet. That in itself is no bad thing. I love Hamlet, and I find reworkings and remixes of familiar stories fascinating and often highly worthwhile. And Wroblewski gets lots of creativity points for coming up with the idea of recreating Shakespeare in rural Wisconsin, with dogs. But I can't help comparing it to Dead Fathers Club, a book I read quite some time ago which was also a reworking of Hamlet, in a completely different way. As I recall, I felt that familiarity with the play strongly enhanced my appreciation for that book, but in the case of Edgar Sawtelle I kept thinking that I wished I didn't already know Hamlet, because the story would have been much more effective if it had stood entirely on its own, without the distraction of trying to map the characters over or making predictions -- generally accurate ones -- about what was going to happen next. And as for the ending... Well, let's just say that Shakespeare is a hard act to follow when it comes to endings.

The fact that I actually found it a pretty good read despite all that, though, is very much to the author's credit. I even came very close to giving it a four star rating ("a good book" as opposed to the "not bad" of three and a half). But I really do think I have to knock off half a star for how much much mind was wandering by the end. Maybe if it were a couple of hundred pages shorter...

Rating: 3.5/5

Edited: Mar 9, 2010, 4:24pm Top

26. Who Hates Whom: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up: A Woefully Incomplete Guide by Bob Harris

A 200-page tour of the world's trouble spots, outlining the nature of each region's conflicts and their current developments (as of 2007), presented in an informal, conversational style complete with lots of often snarky and occasionally rather bleak humor. This is a idea that's pretty much doomed from the start, a fact of which the author is well aware. How can you possibly do justice to the situation in Afghanistan, say, or Rwanda in a handful of pages? You kind of can't, a fact which leads to parts of this book somehow managing to feel both dense and superficial at the same time. And yet, Harris does about as good a job as it might be possible to do with the idea, and the result is a readable introduction to a depressingly high number of global conflicts. (And, despite the leavening of humor and Harris' attempt to end on a bright and hopeful note, it is very, very depressing.)

Rating: 3.5/5

Mar 9, 2010, 1:28pm Top

#88 on Edgar - "I have such mixed feelings about this book that it's hard to know quite what to say about it" - That was my response too, except that the parts I didn't like I really didn't like.

Who Hates Whom sounds quite interesting.


Mar 9, 2010, 4:29pm Top

It's kind of nice to know that someone else feels that way about Edgar. I've almost gotten the feeling that it's something of a love-it-or-hate-it book, and that I'm an odd exception. I don't even think there was any of it that I had a really strong negative reaction to (although I will say that the dog-POV chapters didn't particularly work for me, and the ending did feel somewhat imposed and artificial). It just... sort of lost me at some point.

Edited: Mar 12, 2010, 9:16am Top

27. Different Seasons by Stephen King

A collection of four novella-length stories, three of which have been made into movies I haven't seen. Specifically:

"Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption": The story of a man unjustly imprisoned for murder. Decently written and interesting enough, if not particularly intense. But even given how short this is, it still illustrates King's tendency to use more words than he really needs; the ending could definitely have used some editing to tighten it up a bit.

"Apt Pupil": A fourteen-year-old boy develops an unhealthy obsession with his neighbor, a Nazi war criminal living under an assumed name. I thought the early parts of this were effectively disturbing, subtly touching an uncomfortable place that exists in all of us -- certainly all of us willing to pick up a Stephen King book -- that can't help but find a sort of fascination in the horrific. Then, as the plot begins to involve violence in the present as well as the past, the whole thing turns into a more ordinary banality-of-evil story, eventually wrapping up in a conveniently timed series of coincidences. King also strikes a few odd, false notes through the course of the story. For instance, he's clearly setting up a contrast between the young main character's wholesome, all-American exterior and the festering corruption inside, which is fine, but in his attempt to convey the former, he often has the kid sounding as if he's just walked off the set of Leave it to Beaver. Final verdict: worth reading, good premise, but ultimately not as satisfying as it should be. I'm kind of wondering now if the movie might have improved it any. Given that it starred Ian McKellen, I think the odds are good.

"The Body": Four preteen boys take a trek through the woods to look at a dead body. Now, this one is excellent. It's a subtle rite-of-passage story, simple on the surface, but with lots of layers. The depiction of childhood here feels incredibly real and somehow manages to be both utterly unsentimental and yet tinged with a rather poignant nostalgia. The entire collection is easily worth it for this one alone.

"The Breathing Method": An odd little story-within-a-story about a strange gentlemen's club in New York City and a doctor's bizarre experience with a pregnant patient. There's kind of an interesting Twilight Zone-ish idea here, but the execution falls a little bit flat.

Rating: I'm going to call it 4/5, but that's really just on the strength of "The Body." By itself, that story might even be a five-star candidate, but the rest of it merits a three-and-a-half at best.

Mar 12, 2010, 1:30pm Top

Wow, makes me want to fit "The Body" in during read-a-novella-month.

If "Shawshank Redemption" is one of the movies you haven't seen, get it! I don't know what the novella focused on but the movie takes a buddy-film approach, not horror, and is excellent!

Mar 12, 2010, 4:37pm Top

The film made from "The Body" is the truly excellent STAND BY ME: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092005/ -- even better than the film of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. And I'm not much of a SK fan -- it was actually STAND BY ME that even tempted me to read SK at all. And I think his short works far surpass the novels.

Mar 12, 2010, 5:10pm Top

I guess that does count for read-a-novella month, huh?

And I haven't seen either The Shawshank Redemption or Stand by Me. I'm thinking perhaps I should. It seems to me that "The Body" would be an easy story to get very, very wrong in movie form, but if done with exactly the right touch could be extraordinary. And since it seems to have made a big impression on a lot of people -- it's one of those movies you're inevitably aware of even if you've never seen it -- it does sound as if perhaps they pulled it off.

As for "Shawshank," the novella definitely isn't horror, but I don't think I'd quite call it a buddy story, either. It'd think it might need a good bit of adapting to make it work as a screenplay; I'm a little curious now as to how they went about it.

Man. Now Club Read is adding not just to my book wishlist, but to my Netflix queue, too!

Mar 12, 2010, 6:07pm Top

I found The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me are actually pretty literal in how they were translated into film. Both are truly fantastic films and are the top my list of all-time favorites.

I think the film adaptation of "Shawshank" is much better then the story itself. Or at least I found it to be more enjoyable. In fact it took me a long time to realize that the story and the film were even related to one another.

Edited: Mar 13, 2010, 10:18am Top

Now Club Read is adding not just to my book wishlist, but to my Netflix queue, too!

lol; and thanks to Jane and stretch, I see a little books-to-film weekend developing.

Mar 14, 2010, 2:04pm Top

28. The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by Kevin Roose.

I mentioned recently on the "topics you just can't read about anymore" thread that I actually have some fondness for the "stunt journalism" genre, when it's done well and has a point, and also that I've recently found myself getting tired of reading about religion, especially the secular vs. Christian clash-of-the-worldviews kind of book (although I can't seem to stop buying them). Well, here's one that, in a way, combines the two... and does so well enough to possibly change my feelings about that second thing.

Roose -- an undergraduate with liberal politics, a Quaker heritage, and more-or-less agnostic beliefs -- accompanied his journalistic mentor on assignment to a mega-church run by Jerry Falwell, where he discovered, to his dismay, that he didn't seem to have a common language with which to talk to the people he met there. He decided to do something about that, and transferred for a semester from Brown to Falwell's ultra-religious, ultra-conservative Liberty University, attempting while he was there to blend into and experience evangelical culture as much as he could.

I have to say, this premise disturbed me a little bit. Undercover journalism is one thing, but spending months living, studying, and socializing with people under false pretenses strikes me as, if not unethical, at least a little, well, dickish. It does, however, seem that the Liberty students he befriended were remarkably understanding about the whole thing once he came clean, and that all involved have remained on good terms. And, to Roose's credit, he does struggle with the issue. He also makes a good attempt to be as honest as possible without breaking cover, and commits himself to fully accept and participate in the school's culture, its code of conduct, and its spiritual life.

More importantly, he never mocks. He never views Liberty, the evangelical subculture, or the people he meets as curiosities to be gawped at by secular readers, but instead approaches everyone with open-mindedness and respect. And while he may disagree strongly with Liberty's politics, he also finds much to admire in its lifestyle. In short, he genuinely does try to understand, and not in a "know your enemy" kind of way, but in a "know your fellow human being" way. The result is a deeply humanizing book, and in a time when both sides of the "culture wars" show a distressing tendency towards demonizing their opponents, I think we need as much of that as we can possibly get.

It's also an extremely readable and very thoughtful book. Roose talks as much about his own experiences and feelings as he does about the university itself, and the insights he gives into his changing perspectives are fascinating.

Rating: 4.5/5

Mar 14, 2010, 3:02pm Top

Great review. I've been curious about this one for a little while and will be on the lookout for it now.

Edited: Mar 14, 2010, 4:17pm Top

Sounds like a book that might open some dialogues. I was struck today by my favorite Republican (that might be an oxymoron), David Brooks's editorial today on how so few of us listen to or even encounter opinions opposing our own: "Getting Obama Right" -- http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/12/opinion/12brooks.html

Mar 14, 2010, 5:52pm Top

I heard about the Unlikely Disciple a few months back, along with another book along the same vein (This on involved a report and Falwell's church) I felt a little uneasy about both sense I fundamental disagree with this kind of journalism, it's one thing to embed yourself with your subject about doing so under false pretense just doesn't sit right with me. But from your review it sounds as tough Roose was fair and objective in his treatment of the fine people of Liberty University. I'll have to take a second look at this one.

Mar 14, 2010, 9:41pm Top

>99 janemarieprice:: I definitely do recommend it.

>100 janeajones:: I think it's the sort of book that might very well provoke some dialog -- hopefully reasoned and respectful dialog -- which is something I am all in favor of.

And thanks for the article link. It's interesting, and I think I largely agree with it, especially with its basic premise. We do tend more and more to live in those kinds of information cocoons, and the effects of that can warp our perceptions in ways that are incredibly problematic. I know I'm not immune to that, myself, and it always distresses me when I catch it happening. We really need people to pop those bubbles for us once in a while.

>101 stretch:: Yes, as I mentioned, I went into the book with a fair amount of uneasiness on that score, myself. But if Roose is at all to be believed -- and he certainly comes across as a sincere and well-meaning guy -- none of the people involved came away from it with any hard feelings. (How the administration of Liberty felt, I don't know, but I personally find that less of a concern, especially as he seems never to have actually lied to the university.) There were a few moments that made me wince, thinking, "this is going to go very badly when this guy is found out," but -- as much to Roose's surprise as to mine -- it never happened. So even if his methods were dubious, they seem not to have done any real harm, and the end result is a worthy one.

And he was incredibly fair, much more so than I think I could have brought myself to be under the circumstances. If he lacked objectivity, it was only to err on the side of sympathy. Which isn't to say that there wasn't plenty he was critical about, but he was pretty consistent about criticizing ideas, not people, and doing so in a thoughtful way.

Edited: Mar 16, 2010, 10:00pm Top

29. Parasite by Jim Mortimore

This is another of the Doctor Who "New Adventure" novels from the 1990s. In this one the Doctor and companions Benny and Ace encounter a huge spaceborne habitat, the interior of which contains a bizarre zero-gravity jungle.

The book is quite a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, the writing, while hardly scintillating literary prose, lacks the clunky, amateur quality you often get in TV tie-in books. Benny and Ace are mostly well done, with each of them getting to put her expertise to use. And there's a real attempt at solid science fictional world-building, as well as a use of the written format to do things that, even now, would never work on the small screen. On the other hand, I just didn't find the story very compelling at all. There's lots of exposition about the culture and history of this particular solar system, none of which really goes anywhere; lots of encounters with hostile lifeforms and parasites that cause people to mutate in weird ways; and a scientifically dubious plot involving odd (and yet somehow largely unsurprising) revelations about the true nature of the habitat. None of it really excited me, and by about halfway through I was having trouble keeping my attention on it. I almost think that it might have been better to have taken this imaginative setting and used it as the basis for an original story, rather than trying to write a Doctor Who novel around it, as I actually found the book much more interesting in the first few pages, before the Doctor and friends showed up. Also, while I'm not generally keen on long passages of visual description, I do wish the author had been a little bit more specific and vivid in describing the alien plants and animals. I have no idea, for example, what the heck a monkey with seven radially located arms looks like. How is it possible for something with that body plan to even resemble a monkey? No doubt the author had some picture in his head, but there's just not enough detail there on the page to convey it to the reader. (There is a picture of one on the cover -- I think -- but the artist doesn't seem to have been able to figure it out, either, and appears instead to have given up and just drawn his own interpretation of an alien monkey. Which is okay, because, in keeping with the grand tradition of this series, he was also drawing his own interpretation of the most godawful cover known to man, which makes it difficult to spend much time looking at it, anyway.)

Rating: 3/5

Mar 16, 2010, 10:46pm Top

I've never read Stephen King, and he didn't hold any appeal until I found out the movie "Shawshank Redemption" was based on one of his stories. The movie is of those dangerous ones that, if I come across it on TV, I can't it turn off. Too bad the written story doesn't seem to be as good. (maybe it needs Morgan Freeman's voice) Thanks for your review. I might still check out the book in order to read "The Body." Also, The Unlikely Disciple sounds fascinating.

Mar 16, 2010, 11:08pm Top

The written version of "Shawshank" isn't bad, even if it didn't knock my socks off, and apparently there are people who like it much better than I do. So you might find it worth checking out, anyway. (Then again, really, what isn't improved by adding Morgan Freeman?)

Edited: Mar 19, 2010, 7:22pm Top

30. Carl Sagan's Universe, edited by Yervant Terzian and Elizabeth Bilson

A collection of essays originally presented as speeches at a symposium held in honor of Carl Sagan's 60th birthday in 1994 and published in book form in 1997, the year after his death. They're divided up into three sections, reflecting the main areas of Sagan's interest: "Planetary Exploration", "Life in the Cosmos", "Science Education" and "Science, Environment, and Public Policy."

Some of these essays are much better than others. All of them are pretty short, so there's not necessarily room to treat the broader subjects in more than a fairly superficial way. And, of course, many of them are now very dated. However, the first two sections do at least give a decent overview of the state of planetary exploration and the SETI program in the mid-90s, and there are a few interestingly provocative opinions in the second half. Given the nature of the event they were written for, they all feel the need to pause in order to heap words of praise on Sagan's head, which gets a little tiring after a while, but I can't begrudge it. Heck, I'm willing to heap a few words of praise on him, myself; I freely admit that if it weren't for Cosmos I very likely would not be where I am today.

Rating: 3.5/5

Edited: Mar 21, 2010, 5:24pm Top

31. Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold

Book 12 of Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series. I'm a couple of books from the end of this now -- although I have heard that she's finally writing another one -- and I will be very sorry to finish it, as I'm enjoying it immensely. It's a highly entertaining science fiction series featuring a delightful mix of action/adventure, politics, mystery, and romance, with a well-thought-out setting, a sardonic sense of humor, and well-drawn, deeply appealing characters.

In this one, Miles is sent to the planet Komarr to investigate a high-profile accident which may in fact be sabotage and finds himself drawn into not only a thickening plot, but also some interesting interpersonal chemistry with his unhappily married hostess.

As usual, the story itself is good. But, also as usual, it's the characters who really make this novel shine. Miles is as likable and charming as ever, but I'm impressed by the fact that he's allowed to change and mature in realistic ways as he ages. And the aforementioned unhappily married hostess, who unambiguously shares the main character billing with Miles, is equally engaging. Watching her realizing her own independent strengths after a lifetime of submission in a male-dominated culture is marvelously uplifting, and unlike many such characters she never feels like an authorial statement instead of a person, but is instead thoroughly believable as a product of her own changing times. The not-quite-a-romance between her and Miles is deftly handled, too, and never undermines either character's integrity.

I can hardly wait to go on to the next volume, even if it does mean that I'll run out that much sooner.

Rating: 4.5/5

Mar 27, 2010, 6:21am Top

32. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

Pollan investigates industrial agriculture (which turns out to be very industrial, indeed), spends a week on an almost entirely self-sufficient alternative farm, and engages in bouts of hunting and gathering, topping each experience off with the eating of an appropriate meal. Along the way he takes a close look at the biological, economical, sociological and ethical aspects of food production. I think this book suffered a bit for me from being mildly over-hyped, but all-in-all it is an informative, thoughtful and enlightening exploration of where the food we eat comes from and what it might mean.

Rating: 4/5

Edited: Mar 28, 2010, 12:01am Top

33. The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

Colin and Mary are lovers on holiday in a foreign city, where they encounter a strange man who is perhaps just a little too eager to be hospitable. What follows is a disturbing little story of dark and twisted sexuality, and I'm honestly not entirely sure what to make of it except to say that McEwan's writing makes it all much, much more effective than it seems like it ought to be.

Rating: 4/5

Mar 28, 2010, 2:22am Top

>2 bragan:: bragan

Hello from a fellow fan of Richard Feynman :)

Thanks for the review on Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From The Beaten Track. I read part of it last year and liked it. Thanks for the reminder to finish the book. Have you read No Ordinary Genius or Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman?

>108 bragan:: bragan,

I read Pollan's In Defense of Food, which he wrote after Omnivore's Dilemma. That book was also entertaining, informative and thoughtful, but it seemed to me he stretched an essay into a full-length book. I wonder if he did the same with this one.

Mar 28, 2010, 2:31am Top

Glad to inspire you to finish Perfectly Reasonable Deviations. :) I did read Genius, many years ago, but I haven't read No Ordinary Genius. Have you? If so, do you recommend it?

The Omnivore's Dilemma definitely did have a full book's worth of content. There may have been a few points where he got a little bit repetitive, but I didn't feel as if he were stretching out too little material over too many pages in that one at all.

Mar 28, 2010, 2:53am Top

>111 bragan:: bragan,

I do recommend No Ordinary Genius. It includes interviews with Feynman, his family, friends and colleagues, and gives you a more complete picture of the "crazy character". :)

What do you think about Genius?

Mar 28, 2010, 3:04am Top

It's been so long since I read Genius that I honestly remember very little about it... I have the vague memory that it got a little technical in its discussion of his work, and that I found it rather a slow read, but that's about it.

I will definitely add No Ordinary Genius to my wishlist!

Edited: Mar 28, 2010, 4:42am Top

34. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papdimitriou

A lightly fictionalized biography of mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell, in graphic novel format. It's surprisingly charming, thanks in part to the self-referential framing story in which the comic's creators debate its contents and argue about how to present them. It also does a nice job of portraying the human side of abstruse intellectual pursuits, including a disturbing apparent link between logicians and insanity, and it gives a pretty good layman's account of Russell's work and its significance.

Rating: 4/5

Mar 28, 2010, 1:15pm Top

The Omnivore's Dilemma is in my all-time favorite nonfiction -- deep, exploratory, informative. Almost literary -- Pollan is a terrific science/nature writer, primarily botany. I was very disappointed by In Defense of Food (booksontrial: yes, bloated) and have avoided the two more books he's squeezed from the concepts in Omnivore's Dilemma -- they're making his message progressively more accessible/digestible but they're completely different from the food-industry history, science, and politics covered in his original volume.

Mar 28, 2010, 2:28pm Top

>115 detailmuse:: detailmuse,

Thanks for the review, I'll add The Omnivore's Dilemma to my To Read list.

Just out of curiosity, what do you think of Malcolm Gladwell's books, Blink and Outliers, if you've read them? (I saw your review of The Tipping Point)

Gladwell and Pollan are both journalists and their books seem to share a similar formula of success. :)

Mar 28, 2010, 5:52pm Top

>115 detailmuse:: I've been vaguely wondering whether I should pick up In Defense of Food, but I don't think it's something I'm going to rush out and get, especially if "bloated" seems to be the general consensus. To be honest, I suspect I might find it kind of frustrating to read... The thing is, to eat the way Pollan seems to encourage -- which I admit has great deal to recommend it -- requires a lot of time and effort, which is fine if cooking and gardening are things you enjoy. Me, I have a black thumb, and I've found that cooking is a tremendously unsatisfying experience when you live alone, which I do. Feeling connected to your food is one thing, but I don't want to trade off other things I could be doing in order to devote large chunks my life just to feeding myself. Sigh.

>116 booksontrial:: If you're interested in my own opinions of Gladwell, as well as detailmuse's, I liked Blink, but found Outliers a little disappointing. He makes lots of assertions in that one without supporting them well at all.

Mar 28, 2010, 8:24pm Top

>116 booksontrial:, 117
I read Blink first but liked The Tipping Point better, 4 and 5 stars, respectively. I didn't make notes about Blink but "casual" comes to mind (your (bragon's) comment about Outliers' unsupported assertions rings familiar). I bought Outliers right away but kept "saving" it ... now it's one among sooooo many tbrs!

Pollan has said that In Defense of Food is his answer to the many Omnivore's Dilemma readers who asked, "Okay, then exactly how/what are we supposed to eat?" The book's takeaway is its subtitle ("Eat food, not too much, mostly plants") and it's worthwhile and memorable; it just seemed derivative, overwritten ... even snarky at the time, coming right after my experience with O.D. But yay for library copies!

Mar 28, 2010, 9:04pm Top

Hmm. Well, maybe I will take a look at In Defense of Food at some point, just to see exactly what he has to say on the subject. But probably not anytime soon...

Mar 29, 2010, 12:24am Top

117: bragan,

Cooking and gardening are two things I very much admire in other people, because they're creative activities just like writing, IMO. I just don' have the talent or patience for them.

>117 bragan:, 118

I read The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers in the order that they were published, and it seemed like a downhill slide. The first one is insightful and well structured, the second mildly interesting but a bit loose, and the third, Outliers, is another example of an essay stretched into a book.

Based on what detailmuse said about Pollan's books, there seem to be a similar trend there. Maybe they're just running out creative juice.

Mar 29, 2010, 5:53pm Top

Ominvore's Dilemma has been on my to buy list for far too long. I just need to break down and buy it. I love cooking and do a minor amount of herb growing which I'm hesitant to call gardening.

114 - Logicomix looked interesting.

Mar 29, 2010, 7:25pm Top

That's much more like gardening than anything I've ever managed! Unless you count keeping potted African violet, which I eventually killed.

And I found Logicomix quite interesting, but then logic is a subject I've always had some interest in, and I was already at least roughly familiar with most of the concepts it talked about. I'm really kind of surprised that it seems to have as much mainstream appeal as it does, but that probably says something for how clearly and engagingly it's written.

Edited: Mar 29, 2010, 10:47pm Top

35. Fool by Christopher Moore

This is, essentially, King Lear re-imagined as a bawdy comedy with the Fool as the main character. Looking at that sentence, I have to admit that it sounds like the stupidest idea for a novel ever, but damned if Christopher Moore doesn't pull it off beautifully, playing grand Shakespearean storytelling and irreverent modern humor off each other to great comedic effect. There's a combination of vulgarity, black humor, savage wit and sheer silliness here that reminds me more than a little of Blackadder, a show I unabashedly adore. This is certainly not accidental, as Moore basically says in his author's note that the book is his attempt at writing British comedy. Attempt successful, I'd say! (Although, as someone who has watched a lot of British comedy, I did find the footnotes explaining common British slang terms got very annoying after a while.)

I do think it might have enhanced the experience a little if I'd been more familiar with Lear... I read the play twenty-plus years ago, in high school, where it was so badly taught that it came depressingly close to putting me off Shakespeare for life. Fortunately, though, my vague memories of the play were more than adequate to enjoy it.

Rating: 4/5

Mar 31, 2010, 11:12am Top

36. The Jupiter Plague by Harry Harrison

A science fiction novel from the early 80s about doctors fighting a plague brought back on a ship from Jupiter.

I remember reading and quite enjoying some of Harry Harrison's novels in the past, notably his Stainless Steel Rat series. But either my memory for the quality of Harrison's writing is extremely fallible, or he really ought to stick to the goofy action-adventure stuff and leave attempts at more serious stories to other people. This one does have a couple of moments with a nice, old-fashioned, classic science fiction feel towards the end, but mostly it's pretty terrible. The medical details are unconvincing, as are various other elements of the plot. The scenes of rioting and looting as the plague progresses feel like stock-footage cliches. The dialog sometimes approaches B-movie levels of badness. There are smatterings of bad grammar, including a number of awkward comma splices and a complete failure to grasp the correct typography used for ship names. And there's an infuriating element of sexism that I might have been able to shrug off in a book published ten years earlier, but which should damned well have been on its way out by 1982. (Yes, this was based on a story originally published in the 1960s. No, that doesn't excuse it.) Honestly, I am not easily given to fits of feminist rage, but there's something about the particular condescending "There, there honey, you're a good little doctor, all cute in your short little lab coat, all you need is a man to help you with those squishy female emotions" attitude that makes me want to hit things. Starting with the characters, and moving on to the author. In fact, that alone is enough to downgrade it from two stars (which I translate as "Not a Good Book") down into one-star territory. On the whole, it's more amusing than painful, and at least it's quick to get through, but, man, did it manage to actively piss me off every time the only important female character appeared in a scene.

Rating: 1.5/5

Apr 4, 2010, 1:18pm Top

37. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan

Cro-Magnon tells the story of the first anatomically modern humans in Europe and (to a lesser extent) that of the Neanderthals they replaced. Fagan aims to give a layman's overview of the subject, without too much technical detail. I'd say his success at this is variable. Many passages were dry, with perhaps a bit more specific information than I really wanted. And these are interspersed with speculative imagined scenes of Cro-Magnon life, which I often found somewhat unsatisfying, in that it wasn't always clear how much was based on actual archeological knowledge and how much was sheer assumption. Fagan's writing also tends to be a bit rambly and repetitive; he likes to make the same basic points over and over, often in exactly the same words.

However, although I would have preferred it if the writing were a bit livelier and more concise, I did find this worth reading. The subject is interesting, and Fagan does offer interesting information about it. If nothing else, he successfully dispels some popular misconceptions, such as the stereotype of Neanderthals as ugly, clumsily brutish cavemen, and the notion of the Ice Age as one long, unbroken, icy winter. He also repeatedly invites the reader to imagine what it might have been like to live in those distant times and to walk among these vanished people. I found that mental exercise both exciting and rewarding, and it's Fagan's ability to evoke that response that is the book's real strength.

Rating: 3.5/5

(This was my ER book from the February batch.)

Apr 4, 2010, 8:37pm Top

>125 bragan:. I have the very same thoughts about the book. There's absolutely no clear boundary between the factual and the speculative. And I have found his writing to be uneven yet I find it an informative and enjoyable read.

Excellent review.

Apr 4, 2010, 11:36pm Top

Thanks! In retrospect, I'm a little surprised that I wasn't more annoyed at the lack of a clear line between fact and speculation, as that sort of thing tends to really bug me. I guess it's because I felt capable of distinguishing the two reasonably well myself, pretty much assuming that anything cultural was simply speculation based on knowledge of historical hunter-gatherer societies unless it was clearly stated otherwise. Still, I really, really wish he'd drawn more of a distinction.

Apr 5, 2010, 8:11pm Top

38. The Magic Goes Away by Larry Niven

A short late-70s fantasy novel featuring several wizards and a warrior on a mission to replenish the world's dwindling reserves of magical energy. I'm not a huge sword 'n' sorcery fan, personally, but this one was a pleasant enough read as such things go. It features a few nice little wrinkles that make the usual fantasy cliches feel slightly less cliched, takes itself seriously but not too seriously, and completely avoids the bloat that is endemic to fantasy these days. In fact, it's even shorter than the 200 or so pages it appears to be; the edition I have devotes almost as much space to illustrations as to text. (The illustrations, by the way, are competent enough, but, unsurprisingly, they seem to exist largely to showcase a nearly naked woman, who is not, it should be noted, described as nearly naked anywhere in the story.)

Rating: 3.5/5

Apr 7, 2010, 11:26am Top

39. The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead by David Shields

Shields takes us through the stages of life, from birth to death (with a special emphasis on death), throwing out facts and statistics about human biology and quotations from everyone from Shakespeare to Seinfeld, interspersing them with reminiscences from his own life and thoughts about his 97-year-old father, with whom he has a complicated relationship. It's an odd book, and it should come across as a self-indulgent mishmash, but it's strangely compelling, and the whole is somehow more profound than the sum of its parts.

Rating: 4/5

Apr 11, 2010, 1:13am Top

40. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

A Victorian mystery novel, centered on the disappearance from an English country home of a valuable Indian diamond, which is rumored to have a curse on it. It's rather slow at the start, even for a Victorian novel, but once it got going I found it hard to put down. In fact, I spent most of the day today finishing it, and I do not regard it as time wasted. The mystery plot is engrossing, with some bizarre and fascinating twists, and although the hints and revelations are fairly drawn out, I never found it remotely boring. The characters are vivid, with solid motivations that drive the plot in interestingly complicated ways. And there are some brilliant flashes of humor.

I got this as part of the SantaThing exchange last Christmas, and I feel a bit ashamed at not having gotten to it before now, but it was certainly worth waiting for. I salute my Santa's good taste!

Rating: 4.5/5

Apr 12, 2010, 9:50pm Top

41. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben

In the first part of this book, McKibben makes the case that global climate change has now essentially passed the point of no return. The climate has already been altered, he claims, in dangerous, chaotic ways that few of us are fully aware of, and that is still only the tip of the rapidly-melting iceberg. Even measures such as emission reductions and the development of green energy technologies, he says, worthy and laudable as they are, are not remotely enough to counter the chain reaction of warming that is occurring, and the alteration of the planet into a much more hostile environment is now inevitable. I honestly have no idea whether McKibben is right about this -- although I sincerely hope he isn't -- but he does at the very least make it sound plausible. Terrifying, but plausible.

In the second part, he offers up the idea that the only way to survive in this future is by paring back, choosing sustainability over growth, and shifting the emphasis of our government, agriculture, and energy production onto the local level. Again, I'm not convinced by all of it, but he makes some serious and reasonable points on the subject; we're not talking about a back-to-nature hippie pipe dream here.

What I do know is that, whether McKibben is right or not, I definitely found this worth reading. It's an interesting and thought-provoking contribution to the current environmental discussion and debate.

Rating: 4/5

(This was my Early Reviewer book from the March batch.)

Apr 12, 2010, 11:02pm Top

42. Garfield Minus Garfield by Jim Davis

A collection of Garfield comics with Garfield erased from them. Which sounds dumb and pointless, but when you've seen a few, you understand. Suddenly it's not a moderately entertaining Sunday funny about a lasagna-loving cat anymore, but is instead a portrait of a lonely, depressed, pathetically insane man standing around talking to himself. Which, as Dan Walsh, who came up with the idea, points out, is exactly what it always was. It's just that without the distraction of a kitty-cat thought-ballooning sarcastic comments, its true nature stands starkly revealed, and it's surreal, hilarious, and often astonishingly poignant.

Unlike on the website -- where the phenomenon originated and still continues -- this book includes the original, with-cat strips underneath the doctored ones. Which is great for satisfying one's curiosity, but in my opinion kind of ruins the effect. I went through and read all the "minus" versions first, then flipped back to look at the originals, which worked much better.

Rating: 4/5. (And it honestly might have been higher if there were more strips in the book.)

Apr 14, 2010, 10:21am Top

>132 bragan: very interesting twist of perspective. I'm getting this from my library -- where it's shelved in the children's section (not even YA); seems odd, would kids really "get" it?

Apr 14, 2010, 10:37am Top

No, I don't think it's the sort of thing that's aimed at kids at all. I think some libraries may tend to automatically assume that anything with pictures in it is for kids... which is a bad assumption in all kinds of ways.

Apr 14, 2010, 2:47pm Top

You should read the biography "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman" by James Gleick. Excellent!

Apr 14, 2010, 3:36pm Top

>131 bragan: Bragan, I've read several books now that make a good case that we are on the brink of catastrophic climate alterations. Reading between the lines, I'd say most of the authors think we are already past the point of no return because, let's face it, humans aren't going to change the way they approach life when there's a choice between serious sacrifice and maintaining the status quo. The authors don't seem to want to make everyone so defeatist that we give up altogether, just "in case" there's a slim chance we might actually organize. The large number of factors affecting the climate are so complex and intertwined that, once unbalanced, they can take thousands (or tens of thousands) of years to swing back. Personally, I think there are so many problems with imbalance now that even a complete change in how we do things would ensure the survival of only small groups of humans. Whole societies and cultures, no. And since I don't see us as a species trusting each other enough to make even small changes, I think we are truly near the end of dominance in the world. Some humans may eke out an existence, but I don't know that any of us would enjoy it.

And now that I've bummed you out, here are a few other titles you might find of interest. I think I continue to read them because (a) I keep hoping I'll see a flaw in the argument and (b) I'm mesmerized by how bad it really is.
With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change by Fred Pearce
Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate by William F. Ruddiman
Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley by Stephan Faris

and two which I've downloaded from NetGalley to review and am reading now:
Climate Change Science and Policy by Stephen H. Schneider
and, for an interesting if mad-sounding theory:
How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate by Jeff Goodell

Edited: Apr 14, 2010, 3:59pm Top

> 135: I have read that, many years ago.

> 136: McKibben certainly thinks we're well past "on the brink," and is very open about wanting to encourage efforts at reversing climate change to continue (because it's better than doing nothing), while at the same time being honest about the fact that he doesn't think there's any change that will actually fix things at this point. His facts and figures aren't really hard enough to completely convince me of that, especially given how incredibly complex and difficult to predict something like a planetary climate is, but if he is right about how extreme the situation is, he's probably more optimistic about our ability to deal with it than I am. I wouldn't predict the end of the human race, myself -- hell, reading Cro-Magnon a little while before this made it clear to me that our species has survived some pretty significant climate changes in the past -- but our current civilization is another matter. Civilizations are much, much more fragile than they look when you're living at their height, and history does teach that when conditions change, the most successful civilizations are all too vulnerable to collapse. Or so Jared Diamond has convinced me, anyway.

It probably is a subject I should read more about, and read something with more hard science than McKibben's book actually has. But I think there may be only so much of it that I can take at once. It does get very depressing very quickly.

Edited: Apr 15, 2010, 10:04pm Top

43. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This is the story of Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up poor in early 20th-century Brooklyn, and my first five-star book for the year. It's simply written but incredibly affecting, a deeply truthful story full of sadness and strength and a vivid sense of time, place, and humanity. Francie's childhood is worlds away from my own middle-class suburban upbringing 70 years later, but I identified with her immensely and immediately.

Rating: 5/5

Apr 15, 2010, 11:28pm Top

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a wonder, isn't it? I waited until last year to read it after first hearing about it in sixth grade.

I'm glad you enjoyed it.


Apr 16, 2010, 12:04am Top

It really was a wonderful book. I was amazed at just how much it felt like I was entering Francie's world and living there while I was reading, and at how much I loved being there despite the hardship and sadness the characters experienced.

I remember my mother mentioning when I was young that she'd read the book as a girl. I don't remember in what context, but it was clear it had made an impression on her, and so the title stuck in my head for thirty years or so until I actually bothered to pick it up for myself.

Apr 16, 2010, 6:10pm Top

>131 bragan:, I just heard about McKibben's book on NPR the other day - sounded fascinating and your review makes me even more interested in reading it.

>132 bragan:, Love that you read the Garfield Minus Garfield book - I've read that online and it is truly the only time that Garfield is funny. Garfield's owner just comes off insane!

Apr 16, 2010, 6:52pm Top

Again, I'm not sure how much I believe McKibben, but his book is well-written and interesting, and I do regard it as worth reading. If you do take a look at it, let us know what you think!

And I thought Garfield was funny when I was a kid, but no longer found it particularly amusing as an adult until I came across that website. Some of those strips had me laughing so hard I could I could scarcely breathe, and others were weirdly moving. It's kind of amazing.

Apr 18, 2010, 9:13pm Top

44. The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman

We've all had bad experiences with technology, from pulling fruitlessly on a door that we're actually meant to push, to being late for work because we hit the wrong button on the clock radio and accidentally unset the alarm, to spending a frustrating half-hour trying to figure out how to get a word processing program to format our paragraphs the way we want them. When things like that happen, most of us tend to blame ourselves first: "My brain just isn't working today", "I'm so mechanically inept," "I'm not good with computers." But Donald Norman suggests that we should be blaming ourselves less and the designers of these everyday technologies more. Good design, according to Norman, means usability, and that means working with the strengths and weaknesses of human psychology. Well-designed technologies, from doorknobs to computers, should follow certain basic principles. They should operate in ways that make sense to users and not give false impressions about how they work. They should provide feedback to make it clear what they are doing and what effect the user's actions have had. They should be easy to use correctly and difficult to use in ways that don't work. They shouldn't require the user to memorize tons of arbitrary information in order to do simple things. And they should be forgiving of mistakes; accidentally hitting the wrong switch should not lead to nuclear meltdown.

Norman expresses these principles in a clear and readable style that's as user-friendly as the designs he advocates. He seems to have aimed this primarily at designers and businesspeople, but the writing is completely accessible and free from jargon -- he carefully defines the few specialized terms that he uses -- and is as appropriate and relevant to consumers as it is to producers. The book was originally published in 1988 (under the title The Psychology of Everyday Things), so the examples he uses are pretty dated, but the basic concepts are as valid now as they have ever been. If anything, it adds an extra dimension to the book to be able to look back after two decades of progress and consider which of Norman's design suggestions have become standard and which bad designs are still unhappily commonplace.

One word of warning, though. I read one of Norman's later, follow-up books many years ago, in which he touches on some of the same basic ideas, and ever since I have been much less tolerant of the examples of bad design I encounter in my daily life. I'm also much more appreciative of the examples of good design, admittedly, but somehow there seem to be a lot fewer of those.

Rating: 4/5

Apr 19, 2010, 8:51am Top

Onto the wishlist! I especially like this from your review: Norman expresses these principles in a clear and readable style that's as user-friendly as the designs he advocates.

I've gotten very interested in design lately and completely agree with your comment about now noticing good and bad design.

Apr 19, 2010, 2:13pm Top

Thanks! I admit to kind of liking that sentence, myself.

Design isn't something I'm deeply interested in for its own sake, but I am definitely interested in the way it impacts my own life, in good ways and bad.

Edited: Apr 21, 2010, 7:30am Top

45. Changes by Jim Butcher

Book number 12 in Butcher's Dresden Files series, featuring wizard/private eye Harry Dresden. In this one, Harry is informed, much to his shock, that one of his many enemies has kidnapped the daughter he never knew he had. Needless to say, he sets out to rescue her, and in typical fashion things get more complicated from there. I do think that perhaps this series is starting to creak a bit under the weight of its own continuity. There are places where Butcher almost seems to spend as much time recapping relevant events from previous books as he does telling the story in this one. (Quite legitimately, I might add; fallible as my memory is, I know I needed the reminders.) Still, once it really gets going, it's got pretty much everything I've come to expect from this series: exciting action, a smart-assed sense of humor, and a few surprising (and occasionally ouchy) twists. True to its title, it also features some substantial and interesting changes in Harry's life, and as for the ending... Well, all I'll say is that it certainly left me impatient for the next volume.

Rating: 4/5

Edited: Apr 22, 2010, 7:20am Top

46. Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin by Stephen Jay Gould

Gould's main point in this book is that evolution has no intrinsic drive towards "progress" or increasing complexity, and that the fact that there are organisms which have gotten more complex over time is mainly down to the fact that there's more freedom of variation in that direction; whereas there's a lower limit to how simple anything can be. This seems to me to be so incredibly obvious that I'm slightly surprised that anyone thought it necessary to devote an entire book to arguing it. But I guess I could be wrong about that; certainly Gould seems to think he's saying something terribly controversial here.

I must admit that I did feel a bit impatient with what seemed to me to be a lot of belaboring of fairly simple concepts, but Gould's discussion of how statistics can mean very different things than they first appear to once considered from a different perspective is clear, worthwhile and interesting. Unfortunately for me, he also devotes a full quarter of the book to examining baseball statistics in order to answer the question of why nobody manages a .400 batting average anymore, a problem that he sees as very similar, conceptually, to the evolution issue. I say "unfortunately," because, while the mathematics was interesting enough, baseball is one subject pretty much guaranteed to make my eyes glaze over and my brain shut down from sheer apathy.

Rating: 3/5

Edited: Apr 22, 2010, 8:34am Top

47. Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

A short kids' book featuring a boy who goes to the aid of the Norse gods. It's a pretty simple story, but smoothly and charmingly written. Of course, I would expect nothing less of Neil Gaiman. And it's nicely illustrated, too.

Rating 4/5

Edited: Apr 22, 2010, 9:30pm Top

48. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight Volume 6: Retreat by Jane Espenson et al.

Volume six in the graphic novel continuation of the TV series. In this installment, Buffy and company, who have been getting their butts pretty thoroughly kicked, decide to retreat, lie low, and go to some remarkable lengths to stay off their enemy's magical radar.

I've been really enjoying this series overall, but I found this one less engaging than previous volumes. I'm not entirely sure, though, whether that's more due to the fact that I wasn't thrilled with the premise, or the fact that, after reading the first five volumes in practically one sitting, my wait for volume six robbed the story of its momentum.

I did quite like the two short pieces at the end, both of which made me laugh out loud.

Rating: 3.5/5

Edited: Apr 26, 2010, 3:27am Top

49. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

The life story of Cal (formerly Calliope) Stephanides, who, due to a rare genetic condition, was apparently female at birth but began to exhibit male characteristics at puberty, and of the complicated family history that led to him (or her) inheriting a double copy of the recessive gene. It's extremely well-written, and if the details of said family history sometimes seem a bit contrived or soap opera-ish, there's nevertheless a sense of emotional reality to it that makes the whole thing work.

I've also noticed something kind of interesting... Gender identity issues aside, this novel, which I very much liked, is a coming-of-age story about a third-generation immigrant from an interestingly messed-up family, on which the story focuses almost as much as it does on the protagonist. Which is also a reasonable description of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, my favorite book so far this year, and of I Know This Much Is True, which easily won that distinction last year. Possibly I have discovered a new, surprising, and oddly specific literary taste I never knew I had. Or maybe it's just coincidence. But, what the heck; if anybody knows any more good books that fit that description, point me at them.

Rating: 4.5/5

Edited: Apr 26, 2010, 3:24am Top

50. Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World by Sidney Perkowitz

A look at the depiction of science and scientists in the movies, comparing fiction to reality. This is a great subject, but I found the execution extremely disappointing. The discussions of real science were all right, if a bit superficial and somewhat flatly written, but the sections discussing portrayals of scientists and the question of what makes a good vs. a bad movie in scientific terms lacked much in the way of content. And I think the author goes far too easy on movies like Armageddon, which may have some reasonable scientific principle at their core, but which then proceed to get all of the details wrong.

What really bugged me about this book, though, is that so much of it consists simply of recaps of various movies, complete with descriptions of romantic subplots and revelations about which characters die in the end. These are completely unnecessary if you've seen the movie in question, and irritatingly spoiler-laden if you haven't. Worse than that, most of them are completely pointless, as you seldom need to know much more than the basic premises of these films to understand what Perkowitz has to say about them. I mean, I do not need a full-page point-by-point plot summary of Waterworld in order to prepare me for the one paragraph later in the chapter that actually addresses the movie, and which basically can be summed up as, "Waterworld shows the entire Earth covered by water from melting ice caps, but that's actually impossible, because there's just not that much ice." I sat through that movie once already, damn it. Why must I be punished again?! It wouldn't be so bad if the recaps included some commentary, or humor, or something. But, no. They're just recaps.

Honestly, I feel a little bit ripped off here. I bought and paid for a two hundred-and-some-page book about Hollywood's treatment of science, but what I got is more like a hundred (so-so) pages of that, and a hundred pages of The Book of Dull Plot Summaries You Could Easily Look Up on Wikipedia.

I finally ended up skimming or even skipping large pieces of the book, and I never do that.

Rating: 2/5

Edited: Apr 27, 2010, 2:11pm Top

51. Blue Champagne by John Varley

A collection of John Varley's science fiction stories, published in 1986.

On the whole, I really like Varley. Not all of his stuff is equally good -- his Gaia trilogy, for instance, didn't do a lot for me -- but I very much enjoy his (somewhat loose and disconnected) Eight Worlds universe, which several of the stories in this collection are affiliated with. It's clearly and unashamedly influenced by Robert Heinlein, particularly the often-maligned "late Heinlein" period. But while Heinlein at the height of his free-love-and-libertarianism years could often come across as preachy, obsessive, and even a little skeevy, Varley's depiction of a society completely (and, even by 21st century standards, shockingly) free of sexual restriction or inhibition seems anthropologically interesting, pleasantly matter-of-fact, and blissfully free of any obvious political agenda. His characters are always real people, living a world that's real to them, not mouthpieces for an ideology, and the world-building details of his stories always feel fresh and imaginative. In other words, at least as far as entertainment value goes, he does late Heinlein better than Heinlein ever did.

Those are general comments, though, not necessarily specific to this collection, even if they do apply to at least some of the stories. But I don't have a whole lot else to say about it, other than that it's pretty good. A couple of the stories deal with computer technology and are thus a little bit dated -- the humorous piece about the author's resistance to using a word processor seems downright quaint -- but for the most part, Varley's fiction seems to be aging remarkably well.

Rating: 4/5

Apr 27, 2010, 4:39pm Top

#150 - bragan - Middlesex is one of my favorites, and I loved how he put in so many historical aspects of Turkey and especially of Detroit (and of Cadillacs).

(I think I'll pass on Hollywood Science.)

Apr 27, 2010, 6:10pm Top

I agree; one of the things that makes Middlesex work well is that strong, detailed sense of time and place and culture.

And I remember a friend of mine mentioning having a different book about science and movies, although I can't remember what the title was. Whatever it was, I'm thinking I should have bought that one instead.

Apr 30, 2010, 5:36pm Top

52. The Man Who Walked Through Time by Colin Fletcher

Colin Fletcher's account of walking the length of the Grand Canyon (or at least that part of it that lies in the National Park) is less about the physical details of his journey and more about his quest for a change of perspective among the Canyon's solitude, and in particular his attempt to understand, fully and viscerally, the immense age of the Canyon's rocks. At times his philosophical musings may seem a bit repetitive or unoriginal, but they are appealingly honest and, I believe, quite valid. And some passages are highly evocative, vividly painting a mental picture of the vast evolutionary web of life, or recalling strongly to my mind the sensations and emotions of my own, infinitely less ambitious, desert hiking experiences.

One thing that is a bit disappointing, though, is the lack of pictures. Fletcher correctly points out that relying only on sight gives one a woefully incomplete feel for a landscape like the Grand Canyon's, and that taking pictures can be a bad distraction from actually living your experiences. But he does mention taking photos during the course of his trip, so the reason why they fail to appear in this 1967 paperback is almost certainly economic rather than philosophical. And it's a shame, as I think they would have helped to enhance the reader's sense of making that journey with him.

Rating: 3.5/5

May 4, 2010, 10:25am Top

53. Hammerfall by C.J. Cherryh

On an isolated desert planet, certain people find themselves experiencing strange voices and visions, along with a compulsion to go towards the east. But when an expedition of these "madmen" sets off in that direction to find the source of their affliction, the answer they find proves to be bad news for their entire world.

The basic set-up here has a lot of promise, as well as intriguing hints of a bigger picture that I'm sure is explored more in the sequel. And Cherryh does an effective job of conveying the hardship of multiple desert crossings realistically. Unfortunately, like those desert treks, this book is slow. Now, Cherryh in general is not exactly known for prioritizing a fast pace in her novels, but at her best, her stories are so packed with political and psychological intricacy that it's impossible not to get caught up in them, regardless. But this, sadly, is not her best. It really needed to be shorter, or deeper; either one would do.

I was also bothered by many of the plot details, which never quite came together in a way that made coherent sense to me. That includes a particular pet peeve of mine, which is all too common in science fiction: powerful and knowledgeable characters who for some reason, despite their own best interests, choose the most annoyingly cryptic and inefficient means possible of communicating and acting, together with less-powerful and less-knowledgeable characters who don't ask enough questions and don't push hard enough for answers.

It's not, I suppose, a bad book, but it is frustrating, because there is the core of something interesting here, and I know that Cherryh is capable of doing so much better.

Rating: 3/5 (and I honestly can't decide whether that's being generous or not)

Edited: May 5, 2010, 12:32am Top

54. Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (And Jokes) To Explore Life, Death, The Afterlife, and Everything in Between by Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein

A follow-up to Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar, which was something like a combination of a Philosophy 101 text and a joke book. This one is much the same sort of thing, except it focuses specifically on what philosophers of various kinds have said about death, the afterlife, and how to live with the fact of our own mortality. I didn't find this quite as enjoyable as the first volume; some of the humor seems pretty forced, and I don't think the jokes are nearly as funny. It's not bad as a simplified, breezily readable overview of the philosophical ideas it addresses, though.

Rating: 3/5

May 7, 2010, 2:49am Top

55. Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison

A collection of short stories, originally published in the mid-70s and loosely organized around the theme of "gods" -- literal and metaphorical, ancient and modern. They range from fairly simple stories which use SF or horror elements as obvious metaphors for modern problems, to strange, surreal pieces full of obscure, dreamlike imagery. With perhaps one or two exceptions, I don't think I'd place these among Ellison's best, but "not Ellison's best," really, only means that they're merely good, as opposed to leaving you feeling as if you've just been punched in the brain.

Rating: 4/5

Edited: May 9, 2010, 8:42pm Top

56. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Young Daniel, a bookseller's son living in Barcelona in the 1950s, comes into possession of a rare book and finds himself caught up in investigating the mystery-shrouded life of its author, as well as attracting the attention of an enigmatic man who seems determined to locate and burn every copy of that author's books. I've seen words of praise heaped on this book all over the place, but I'm pleased to report that, despite the difficult-to-live-up-to hype, it didn't disappoint. It's well written and full of lots of terrific stuff: mysteries, secrets, drama, tragedy, romance, twists and turns, odd gothic elements, moments of suspense, a nasty bad guy, a strong sense of history, and a great love of books. I guessed a couple of the novel's biggest revelations very easily, I must admit, but that didn't remotely render it unenjoyable.

Rating: 4.5/5

May 9, 2010, 10:18pm Top

#159 - What a great book! Glad you enjoyed. Was it a guilty pleasure kind of book or a serious work which, among other things, captured a fascinating era in the history of Barcelona and Spain? Either way, this is another favorite of mine.

May 9, 2010, 10:41pm Top

I think I'd call it a little of each, if it weren't for the fact that I don't feel at all guilty about enjoying it. What I will say is that it was much more fun than I'd expected, while also being all the more serious things I'm sure I've heard it being praised for.

Edited: May 10, 2010, 12:27am Top

57. The Simpsons Futurama Crossover Crisis by Matt Groening, Ian Boothby, et al.

I haven't really watched The Simpsons in years, but I used to enjoy it a lot, and I'm a huge fan of Futurama, so I found this comic crossover story difficult to resist. And I'm glad I didn't! Writer Ian Boothby cleverly turns the awkward fact that The Simpsons is fictional in Futurama's universe (and vice versa) from a potential problem into a storytelling asset, and the plot is full of wacky hijinks of exactly the kind you'd hope for. Watching these characters meeting each other is fun, and the humor is hilarious. I found myself laughing out loud on almost every page.

This book also features an impressive gallery of additional artwork, some rough sketches for those interested in the making-of stuff, an extra-crossovery cardboard slipcover, and a bonus copy of Simpsons Comics #1 stuck into a pouch in the back cover.

Rating: 4.5/5

Edited: May 10, 2010, 6:48am Top

Man, what a weekend of reading this has been!

58. The World Inside by Robert Silverberg

A novel -- or a set of interlocking short stories in the shape of a novel -- set in a future where the human population has reached 75 billion, people live in tightly packed skyscraper-cities, promiscuity is compulsory, fertility is a religious obligation, and the populace is uneasily unclear on whether they are living in a utopia or a dystopia. It sounds like any one of a zillion science fiction works from the 70s, the kind of story where the main point is to showcase current trends and issues taken to ultimate extremes and in which characters tend to stand around a lot explaining to one another the detailed working of their own societies. Which it sort of is, but Silverberg is an incredibly talented writer, and he manages to take this subgenre, which often tends to be emotionally shallow and likely to date rapidly, to an entirely new level. This is a deep, nuanced, and in the end a very human story, and even if science fiction has long since stopped predicting this particular future, it still feels impactful and relevant.

Back when I first read Silverberg's amazing Dying Inside, it occurred to me that he really is the science fiction writer to introduce to literary-type folks who don't believe they like science fiction. This book has only reinforced that opinion.

Rating: 4.5/5

May 11, 2010, 9:30pm Top

>162 bragan:, bragan, how cool! I too am a huge fan of Futurama - so excited its coming back this summer!

May 11, 2010, 9:52pm Top

Yes, I'm looking forward to it with immense excitement! And very relieved that they did, indeed, get the original cast back for it.

May 12, 2010, 9:22pm Top

I'm a big fan as well, of most adult animated series in fact. Added to the wishlist.

Edited: May 13, 2010, 10:54pm Top

59. Fall Out: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to The Prisoner by Alan Stevens & Fiona Moore

I'd seen several episodes of the classic 60s TV series The Prisoner in the past, and had formed a vague impression of it as interesting, but sort of pointlessly weird. A recent, much more attentive viewing of the whole series quickly convinced me that it's nothing of the sort. It's intelligent and subtle, strange and surreal, and at times maddeningly obscure, but "pointless" is the one thing it clearly isn't. After I finished, I was immediately curious as to what other people might have to say about the show and its meaning(s), and this book proved to be exactly what I was looking for. It goes through the show episode by episode (including episodes that were never filmed and even spinoff books), analyzing its recurring themes and motifs. It does so without using any lit-crit jargon, and -- very wisely in my opinion -- without ever attempting to push any specific theories or to claim any particular interpretation as the obvious "truth." The authors have quite a few very insightful things to say, and even when I happen to think that they're stretching a point or dwelling too much on a detail, their analysis is always thought-provoking. Definitely recommended for those with an interest in the show.

Rating: 4/5

May 18, 2010, 6:29am Top

60. The Dogs of Rome by Conor Fitzgerald

The publisher accidentally me sent this book, which I didn't request, along with an Early Reviewers book that I actually won. But a free book is a free book, and I figured it would be nice to read it and review it anyway. It should be noted, though, that I don't read much in the way of straight detective stories, so I'm far from an ideal reviewer on this one.

The novel begins with a murder, which turns out to have implications involving politics, dog fighting, and organized crime. Whodunit isn't actually much of a mystery; the first chapter describes the murder being committed in great detail. Instead, the focus is more on the investigation, which is complicated by the fact that the police themselves have what you might call conflicts of interest, and also on slowly revealing the way in which the various bad guys and suspects fit together. I didn't find the plot terribly gripping, although it did have its moments. And for a while I was having some trouble keeping track of the plot details, although in fairness that might have less to do with the book itself and more to do with the circumstances under which I read much of it, which featured too many interruptions and too little sleep. I will say that the Italian setting added a nice, fresh note, helping to distinguish it a bit from all the generic American detective stuff I'm familiar with from TV. And while the writing, on the individual sentence level, isn't exactly brilliant, it is quite readable, and there are some very nice flashes of humor.

Bottom line: Not something I'd ever have read on my own initiative and nothing I felt remotely excited about, but not bad. May be the sort of thing you'll like if you like this sort of thing.

Rating: 3/5

Edited: May 18, 2010, 9:24pm Top

And now, an actual ER book:

61. On Deception by Harry Houdini

A collection of short essays by Harry Houdini, reissued by Hesperus Press with an introduction by Darren Brown. Specifically, it contains the following: "Houdini on Houdini," a brief (and somewhat disjointed) account of Houdini's career; "Thieves and Their Tricks," a look at various forms of theft and fraud, some of which today seem rather quaint and others of which are depressingly familiar; "Light on the Subject of Jailbreaking," in which he discusses methods of picking locks and escaping from handcuffs and straitjackets while disparaging his imitators; and "Miracle-Mongers and Their Methods," which offers detailed, fascinating, and somewhat horrifying descriptions of how fire-eating, sword-swallowing and snake-handling acts are done. (I'm highly dubious about his discussion of cures for snakebites, by the way, but the rest of that article seems well-researched and believable.)

The entire book, at well under 100 pages, is slight enough that it's debatable whether the contents are worth the cover price, but I certainly found it worth reading, and it might make a nice little addition to the bookshelves of anyone with an interest in magic or skepticism.

Rating: 3.5/5

Edited: May 19, 2010, 9:22pm Top

And an ER bonus book. (The Mighty Algorithm has been very generous to me of late!)

62. The Gnoll Credo by J. Stanton

Starts out as an interesting, if decidedly flawed, anthropological look at a race of hyena-people. Ends up as some sort of preachy rant in favor of red-blooded, meat-eating, back-to-nature libertarianism.

Yeah. Not impressed.

Rating: 1.5/5

May 19, 2010, 9:39pm Top

169 - I love that Hesperus Press is doing ER now. They have a lot of quirky little bits that intrigue me.

170 - I went back and forth deciding whether or not to request that one. Guess I'm glad I didn't.

Edited: May 19, 2010, 9:48pm Top

I think I requested a few of Hesperus' books from the last batch. They're offering some interesting stuff, and I hope we'll see more from them!

And, man, the cover blurb/ER description on The Gnoll Credo made it sound highly intriguing and very much to my taste, but as soon as I started it, I had this sinking feeling that it might be one of those books. You know, the kind that exist solely to elaborate the author's pet philosophy by putting it into the mouths of fictional characters. I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt, and there were aspects of it that weren't at all bad, but by the time I got to the epilogue, where it abandoned all pretense at being anything else, I was downright angry. So, yeah, good judgment on your part.

Edited: May 22, 2010, 2:08am Top

63. Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs and Other Fascinating Facts About the English Language by Katherine Barber

This is one of the better fun-with-etymology books I've come across. The style is light, readable, and good-humored, and the fact that the structure is thematic rather than alphabetical gives it a more coherent feeling than it might otherwise have had. (Apparently the chapters of the book originated as radio show segments, and there was a desire to make them sort of topical, so they're loosely organized around seasons and seasonal events.) It also does an excellent job of conveying the sense that English is an evolving, growing language, one that's become what it is because of generations of people making choices, deliberate or otherwise, about what to call things.

I recommend dipping in and out , though, rather than reading it straight through, as otherwise it can feel a bit repetitive at times.

Rating: 4/5

May 22, 2010, 5:08am Top

I have a feeling that 'porcelain' has something to do with pigs. No idea what the other five might be...

Edited: May 22, 2010, 10:02am Top

You are correct! It seems obvious in retrospect, although why it's called that is an odd story. It comes from the French word for a cowrie shell, which has something of the texture of porcelain. But the name of the shell itself comes from an Italian word meaning a female pig. Apparently the shape of the shell reminded someone of some portion of a sow's anatomy.

The others, for the record, are "screw," "soil" (in the sense of making something dirty), "porpoise", "root" (in the sense of rummaging around), and "swain." Although a couple of those clearly can be relevant to pigs, I certainly had no idea they were etymologically related. I like a book that tells me things I don't know!

May 26, 2010, 2:39pm Top

64. The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

A combination medical disease-outbreak thriller and vampire horror story, this book combines cliches and formulas from both, but it does it in a way that reminds me that cliches and formulas get to be that way for a reason. It's pretty much the furthest thing from great literature imaginable, but it is quite successfully suspenseful and engaging. It's also got an extraordinarily cinematic feel to it, which I can only assume is del Toro's doing. Reading it is so much like watching a movie that it almost cries out for a tub of popcorn to sit on your lap while you read. (Although, depending on how strong your stomach is, there are parts where you may very well not want to be eating anything at all.)

It's also kind of refreshing these days to come across a story like this, where the vampires are simply, unambiguously monstrous. Vampirism here isn't a romantic curse, it's a vile parasitic disease. And it's one whose medical details are interesting, fairly original, and have had enough thought put into them that I found it remarkably easy to willingly suspend disbelief for all the (admittedly very many) ways in which they were implausible.

Since this is the first book in a trilogy, the ending escalates things rather than concluding them, but at least it's very up front about the fact. (Few things are more annoying than a book that looks like a stand-alone but isn't.) I will definitely be on board for book 2.

Rating: 4/5

May 28, 2010, 2:07pm Top

65. The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin

The sixth and final book in Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle. Despite an interesting and reasonably effective conclusion, this volume feels kind of slight, and I'd say this is the weakest of the novels in the series. But that's only to say that it's simply good, rather than being one of the finest works of fantasy ever published, which is a description I'm fairly comfortable applying to the original trilogy.

Le Guin is a writer of many strengths, and I think the Earthsea books showcase them all wonderfully. Her writing is lovely, compellingly readable, and scattered through with apt turns of phrase and with imagery that that seems to tap directly into a deep place in your brain. Her world-building is thoughtful and skillfully presented. This particular volume doesn't showcase her ability to weave together plot and theme so well, as it's a bit short on the former. But it does beautifully demonstrate her ability to take large, abstract ideas -- relationships between kingdoms, origin myths, an exploration of the boundaries between life and death -- and ground them beautifully in small, poignant, human details.

If this final installment comes across as something of an afterthought -- and I think it does -- it's at least one that's worth reading.

Rating: 4/5

Edited: May 30, 2010, 4:12am Top

66. Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms by Ethan Gilsdorf

As a teenager, Ethan Gilsdorf turned to Dungeons & Dragons to escape from the difficulties of life with a mother who'd suffered serious brain damage in the wake of an aneurysm. In later years, he deliberately recoiled from pursuits he regarded as geeky in favor of attempting to be "cool," until, at the age of 41, a building midlife crisis and a sudden uncontrollable obsession with the Lord of the Rings movies sent him back for a second look at games and fantasy and at the people who never gave them up. As an unrepentant geek and sometime gamer myself, I had rather conflicted feelings about the author at first. Part of me cannot help a certain attitude of disdainful pity towards anyone willing to give up things they enjoy in order to fit in, while another part of me simply wanted to pat the guy on the head and say, "There, there, it's all right. Come on over to the Geeky Side. We have snacks!"

It quickly became clear, however, that Gilsdorf regards his initial self-conscious discomfort among the fans and gamers as his problem, not theirs, and his description of his sojourns at gaming conventions and SCA events demonstrates a real understanding of and even affection for the people involved. There is absolutely no pointing and laughing here, just the tale of one man on a sincere quest for a way to come to terms with his inner geek.

In the process, he does a lot of thinking about the appeal of fantasy and the nature of escapism. Most of it's valid to some degree, I think, and it involves what feels like some very honest personal reflection, but it's not necessarily terribly original or insightful. Neither are his conclusions about the people he encounters, really. Folks who frequent Renaissance fairs or join Tolkien fan clubs are mostly sane, happy people doing things they enjoy? Gosh, really? Sometimes people do play more World of Warcraft than is good for them? You don't say!

Not that it isn't nice to see a book that gets it right. I do wonder, though, exactly who the audience for this is. It seems to me that the people mostly likely to pick it up are those of us who are already interested in this stuff, and it's not telling us anything we don't already know. (Indeed, it's actually kind of odd for me to read a book delving into the strange world of things that are in fact perfectly ordinary among people in my social circles.) On the other hand, I like reading about subcultures different from my own, so maybe some people who pick this up will need that explanation of what Dungeons & Dragons is. And if they do, it's nice to think that they'll at least get a decent representation of the kinds of people who play it.

Rating: 3.5/5

May 30, 2010, 8:26am Top

Excellent review! It's nice to see someone take a serious look into a "geeky" subculture. It's too bad that it wasn't more insightful, but I imagine it would be hard to really come up with something folks involved in that subculture wouldn't already know. Preaching to the choir and all that.

May 30, 2010, 11:33am Top

Maybe it would be most helpful to someone with a friend or relative interested in gaming or historical recreation?

You know, I didn't know that LeGuin had continued the Earthsea story beyond the original trilogy. I think that I'll keep it that way, those three books being so good just on their own.

May 30, 2010, 11:41am Top

Mind you, his musings weren't bad. He does, I think, put a particular emphasis on escapism that might say more about his own issues than about anybody else's, but in the end all his conclusions are quite fair and reasonable. Just, yeah, not terribly profound.

Some of his adventures were fun to read about, though.

May 30, 2010, 11:58am Top

>180 RidgewayGirl:: It might, at that. I could give a copy to my dad, who apparently still thinks D&D is Satanic, but I think I'll just continue avoiding the subject with him entirely...

And, yeah, Le Guin came back to that series a couple of decades later. Actually, it's more reasonable to regard the last two novels as a sequel of sorts to the original rather than a continuation of it. (She also did a collection of short stories set in the same universe, which I don't think really added much.)

They're very different from the original trilogy in a lot of ways. Tehanu, in particular, is a book a lot of people dislike, because it's partly about what happens after the happily-ever-after, and, like life, some of it's good and some of it's tragic, and some of it's just plain ordinary. It's also a very feminist book, in a fashion, and a lot of people regard Le Guin as preachy when she starts writing from a feminist perspective. Personally, I find that she's one of the few writers who can pull it off without coming across as preachy, because for her it's always about the characters and their real, lived experiences, not about delivering speeches to the reader or creating characters just to be stand-ins for ideas.

Anyway, I found Tehanu, at least, to be quite powerful and very much worth reading, but mileage varies wildly. I will say that I think it's best approached the way both Le Guin and I approached it: years after the original trilogy, not when it's still fresh and immediate in your mind.

In any case, I can definitely understand just stopping with the original three. Taken on their own, they are pretty much perfect.

Edited: Jun 5, 2010, 8:26pm Top

67. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, translated into modern English by Burton Raffel

I know I read a couple of excerpts from this back in high school, but I remember absolutely nothing about it except for the fact that we were strictly forbidden from reading the dirtier parts. I was convinced this was a cunning bit of reverse psychology to trick us into reading more of it, and I refused to fall for it, having plenty of other things I was much more interested in reading at the time. But now that I'm grown up, I thought it might be nice to read it all the way through in the interest of expanding my cultural literacy.

I did cheat a bit, though, and go with a modern English version. I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about the translation. It struck me as very odd at the beginning, a strange and uneasy combination of language that sometimes felt almost too modern with rhythms that felt very old. It seemed rather clunky to me in places, too, but the more I read, the better it seemed to flow, so maybe I just needed the chance to get used to it. In any case, the translation meant that I could concentrate on the stories themselves, rather than on puzzling out vocabulary and grammar, so it did seem like a good idea.

I have to say, though, that while some of the tales were entertaining, the fact many of them were more sermon than story made parts of this something of a slog. On the whole, I found it mainly only of historical interest, but there's a lot to be said for historical interest, so that's not really a complaint. What I found really interesting was that, on the one hand, these tales provide a wonderful illustration of the fact that human nature really doesn't change; the characters and many of their actions feel remarkably familiar. But on the other hand, aspects of this work clearly come from a decidedly alien culture and a distinctly medieval worldview. In particular, Chaucer presents a whole spectrum of views on the subjects of love, marriage, and women, and almost all of them, to modern sensibilities, are appalling.

One thing I was a little surprised and rather pleased by was the amount of humor to be found in some of these stories. It ranges from sly satire to bawdy slapstick, featuring lots of insults and a smattering of fart jokes, and I find it both tickling and oddly reassuring that the British sense of humor doesn't seem to have changed in six or seven hundred years.

Rating: 3.5/5

Jun 5, 2010, 8:25pm Top

68. Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin by Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent spent a few days in a psychiatric ward during a bad bout of depression. She hated the experience, but decided afterward that it would be a worthwhile journalistic endeavor to check herself into a few different facilities and report on the results... a plan that mutated slightly when she found herself in genuine need of help.

It's hard to know quite what to say about this book. Something about Vincent's style rubbed me the wrong way occasionally. There are lots of rambling, disjointed philosophical questions without answers, for instance, in passages that seem designed to evoke a sense of her mental state, but which are only partially successful. And her responses and assessments are very far from objective, though to her credit she does realize and acknowledge this.

On the other hand, it's clear that this book took some degree of genuine emotional courage to write, which I do have to respect. And if many of her thoughts and insights are too personal to judge, the glimpses she gives into both the positives and the negatives of various corners of the US psychiatric system are worth paying attention to.

Rating: 3.5/5

Jun 5, 2010, 9:54pm Top

>184 bragan: - I wonder if this whole trend of stunt journalism memoirs is getting a bit out of control. I haven't read this book, so I can't speak to it, but these things always bother me because the authors have the choice to stop being in whatever situation they have placed themselves in at any time so I wonder how much they can truly understand the situation as it is lived by people who cannot stop.

I had the same issues with Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed, in which she "goes undercover" at a variety of low-wage jobs to demonstrate the impossibility of living on these salaries. Even though I really liked it, I could never escape the feeling that Ehrenreich was somehow "performing" at being poor in a way that made me deeply uncomfortable. I suppose it is less strange in the case of the book you read because while Ehrenreich could completely stop being "poor", Vincent cannot just stop being depressed.

Jun 5, 2010, 10:19pm Top

This is definitely an issue. I don't think that means you can't get anything useful or interesting out of the experience, but a good journalist definitely needs to acknowledge that what they're doing is not the same as living whatever kind of life they're immersing themselves in.

This book was sort of an odd example, because Vincent admits that she went into the exercise with something of an "I'm not really one of these people" attitude only to have to deal with the fact that it wasn't exactly true. Despite that, though, there was still something of an outsider vibe to her perspective on things that occasionally manifested itself in ways that bugged me a bit. But she was at least honest about it.

Jun 6, 2010, 1:13pm Top

>185 fannyprice:
Though I learned some new things in Nickel and Dimed, the undercover facade is tricky and is exactly where Ehrenreich lost credibility for me in her next book -- she was consistently un-hire-able in Bait and Switch, but blamed it on the system rather than on her lack of experience and qualifications. I haven't read her since.

Jun 6, 2010, 1:31pm Top

>bragan you might also be interested in Gracefully Insane by Alex Beam (about Harvard's upper-crust McLean Hospital; alas it's still in my tbrs) and Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals by Christopher Payne (melancholy, respectful and informative about the history of asylums).

Jun 6, 2010, 2:11pm Top

Thanks, maybe I'll check those out!

Edited: Jun 7, 2010, 10:15pm Top

69. Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling

In the year 2095, 94-year-old Mia undergoes an experimental youth-restoring treatment. She emerges from the procedure a very different person and quickly ditches her medical monitoring and runs off to Europe.

Life-prolongation techniques and their possible consequences to society are venerable old SF subjects, but Sterling somehow manages to make them feel surprisingly fresh. His world-building is top-notch: detailed, well-thought-out, imaginative and original. And he touches on a great many weighty topics -- age, youth, creativity, identity, technology, rebellion -- in ways that may not be extremely cohesive, but are nevertheless fascinating. There's not really all that much the story itself, and some of the most significant plot points seem to happen off-screen, so to speak, and are only lightly sketched in. Plus most of the characters are hip, pretentious, arty types, which is something that normally puts me off. So I think it really says something about Sterling's writing that I found this extremely absorbing, anyway.

Rating: 4/5

Edited: Jun 8, 2010, 10:38pm Top

70, Serendipities: Language and Lunacy by Umberto Eco

A collection of essays about various historical ideas on the subject of language. The first essay, "The Force of Falsity" is actually about false ideas which have had significant impacts on history and culture in general, but that certainly applies to a lot of the language-related concepts he talks about in the rest of the book. The second, "Languages in Paradise," is mostly about the search for the language supposedly spoken by Adam in the Garden of Eden, with particular attention to what Dante had to say on the subject. Number three, "From Marco Polo to Leibniz," is about European misconceptions about Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese pictograms. Number four, "The Language of the Austral Land," looks at the idea of artificial languages constructed so as to be self-evidently based on the logic of reality, mainly by means of examining a parody version. And the last, "The Linguistics of Joseph de Maistre" is a detailed takedown of one particular person's mystical view of the origin and evolution of language.

It's kind of an odd little book, really. Eco doesn't seem especially interested in giving a broad overview of his topic, but rather on poking into the specific little corners of it that interest him. It is, on the whole, probably a bit more detailed, dense and scholarly than I'd have preferred. I found that whenever his topic was something I already had some familiarity with, I got a fair bit out of it and appreciated Eco's thoughts and insights, and whenever he touched on subjects I had little knowledge of, I got a little lost.

Rating: 3.5/5

Jun 9, 2010, 12:00am Top

LibraryThing says with high certainty that I will like this book, so I put it on my wish list.



Jun 9, 2010, 12:29am Top

I hope the recommendation program is correct!

If it is, we both have my Santa from the last SantaThing exchange to thank. It was one of three books I got in the exchange last Christmas... which makes it kind of inexcusable that it took me this long to get to it. So many books, so little time...

Jun 9, 2010, 11:21pm Top

The one good thing about 100-plus degree weather is that I get a lot of reading done, because it's simply too hot to do anything else. So...

71. The Gates by John Connolly

The unfortunate combination of a group of bored friends playing at demon-summoning in someone's basement and an unforeseen side effect of particle collisions in the Large Hadron Collider opens up a portal into hell, through which an army of rampaging demons is about to pour. Unfortunately, the only one to witness this event is 11-year-old Samuel, and it's very difficult to get adults to take you seriously when you try to tell them about something like that, especially if you have a reputation as kind of an odd kid.

It's possibly not the world's most original premise, but it makes for an entertaining, funny YA novel that at times reminded me pleasantly of Terry Pratchett.

Rating: 4/5

Jun 10, 2010, 7:42am Top

Great, another Terry Pratchett comparision. Now it has to go on the wishlist!

Jun 10, 2010, 9:29am Top

He uses very funny, strangely informative footnotes, which makes it difficult not to make the comparison! I don't think his humor is quite as effortlessly sophisticated as Pratchett's -- the book has more of a YA feel than even Pratchett's YA novels -- but there's definitely a similarity, and it's a good thing.

Jun 11, 2010, 7:29pm Top

72. The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World by Tim Harford

This book's central premise is that people generally make rational choices about everything from which car to buy to whether or not to practice safe sex. Author Tim Harford defines the word "rational" in this context very carefully: it means that people respond to perceived incentives and disincentives in ways that ought to work to their personal benefit. For example, if Toyotas become more expensive (or, I suppose, less safe!), people become more likely to buy Hondas instead. And people who personally know someone with AIDS are more likely to avoid risky sexual practices. Harford's claim is that this kind of decision-making -- lots and lots of people making sensible choices in their own personal interests based on what they see in the world around them -- can lead to large-scale consequences that don't seem good or rational at all -- things like racially segregated neighborhoods or ridiculously high bonuses for corporate CEOs.

I find some of Harford's specific arguments fairly persuasive and others much less so. In at least one case, I have to question whether it's even appropriate to frame the issue in economic terms. All of the book's discussions are interesting, though, and they're provocative in what I think is mostly a good way. And I did appreciate the fact that he is careful not to overestimate human rationality -- he stresses the fact that the assumption that people are rational is only a useful approximation. He also, thank goodness, never mistakes explaining the negative aspects of society with excusing them.

Rating: 3.5/5

Jun 12, 2010, 9:02pm Top

73. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

I'm not entirely sure whether to consider this a novel or a collection of short stories; I suppose it's somewhere in between. Each story/chapter focuses on the lives of different people in the same small town on the Maine coast, but they are linked together in multiple ways, most strongly by the presence of the prickly-but-sympathetic retired schoolteacher Olive Kitteridge, who sometimes appears as the main character and sometimes only in a brief cameo. It's difficult to imagine these pieces standing on their own, though, even if they sometimes appear to be deliberately written to make that possible. They're far too intertwined, and they work together extremely well to create a whole that's something more than the sum of its parts. It's a beautifully written, quietly emotional book full of everyday hope and heartbreak, and in the end it left a tiny, perfect lump of feeling in my chest.

I can't help thinking, oddly enough, that it's exactly the kind of book that I would have hated if I'd been forced to read it in high school. I can imagine my teenage self complaining bitterly that nothing happens in it, or even that it's nothing but gossip about boringly ordinary people. Thoughts like that make me devoutly glad that I am no longer in high school, both because it's wonderful to encounter books like this when you've actually lived enough to appreciate them, and because it's terrible to have lovely, moving work of this kind ruined by having it taught at you. (Needless to say, I skipped the obnoxious "questions and topics for discussion" section at the back. More and more books seem to have those nowadays -- or maybe I'm just reading more of the kind of books likely to be used in classrooms or book clubs -- and I am growing increasingly irritated with them.)

Rating: 4.5/5

Jun 14, 2010, 10:04pm Top

74. The Walls of the Universe by Paul Melko

High school senior John Rayburn is reasonably happy living on his parents' farm, until one day his duplicate from an alternate universe shows up, tricks him into embarking on a one-way trip through the multiverse, and steals his life. It's a nifty premise, but what Melko does with isn't really quite what I would have hoped for. Less universe-hopping adventure or interesting compare-and-contrast examinations of two near-identical people leading different lives, more details about going into business "inventing" technology from other universes, lukewarm teenage romance, and familiar-feeling action movie stuff.

Really, the only word to describe this book this book is "okay." It's readable enough -- in fact, it's a pretty quick read -- and not unpleasant, but I guarantee you, a month from now I'm not going to remember a thing about it.

Rating: 3/5

Jun 14, 2010, 10:48pm Top

Now that I am consistently caught up on my "starred" threads in the 75-group, I'm expanding my perusing new (to me) threads in the Club Read group. Enjoyed all your musings, added a few to my wish list, and found myself agreeing with you on all the books we've both read. I would have added even more books to my wish list, but I'm trying to resist adding books until I've heard at least a few LT friends seriously raving about them.

Jun 14, 2010, 10:50pm Top

Glad you found it worth reading! Feel free to drop in anytime.

Jun 15, 2010, 8:49am Top

Is it really possible to catch-up with the 75-group?

Jun 15, 2010, 8:51am Top

bragan - The Logic of Life seems like and odd, but not uninteresting, take on the world.

I was ambivalent on Olive Kitteridge, it just has such a light touch sometimes. Great review, very fair take, IMHO.

Jun 15, 2010, 10:30am Top

What The Logic of Life has is very much an economist's take on the world, which I suspect may be odd by definition. But it is interesting, and I think it's largely valid, as far as it goes.

And Olive Kitteridge's light touch may possibly be part of what I liked about it. It seemed to me to have exactly the right tone and depth to deliver whatever it is my reading brain wanted from it.

Jun 15, 2010, 2:00pm Top

I have to agree about the general worthlessness of the discussion questions at the back of certain books. They read like someone lowly in the editing department was assigned to come up with something for book groups unwilling to think for themselves.

Jun 15, 2010, 2:19pm Top

Yeah. I could see the point of a section like that for book groups, if it just had a few provocative conversation-starters. But, ugh. Most of those questions really do sound like horrible junior high essay topics, the kind that are aimed more at making you prove you've read the book and forcing you to come up with something to say about it than at enriching your experience of the book or helping you connect to other people about it.

Edited: Jun 15, 2010, 2:50pm Top

>202 dchaikin:: *Laughing guiltily* That's why I said with my *starred* threads. ;-) Even then, sometimes I just *hate* the color blue!

>206 bragan:: I know, I can have loved a book and have so much to say about it, but get stopped dead by those questions--and not be able to (or want to) answer any of them. I totally avoid them. In high school during those times, I kept wanting to shout out to all the non-readers in my class, I hate this too! This is not what reading is all about!

eta: True confession: I was one of those obnoxious students who always had my hand up in the air in spite of what I just said.

Jun 15, 2010, 3:00pm Top

It's really sad, because it seems to me that the way books are usually taught in school may well be the most effective way to turn kids off of reading for life. It certainly turned me off of a lot of classic literature for a long time.

Probably most kids resented having to read at all, but, oh, I so bitterly resented having to put down the books I actually wanted to read and pick up the ones that someone who knew nothing about me thought I should read.

Jun 20, 2010, 5:46pm Top

75. The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins

Dawkins takes his readers on an imagined journey back through time, tracing our evolutionary history by visiting the milestones that mark our common ancestry with other modern species as they make their own backwards voyages. At each such meeting, he focuses on one or more of these fellow evolutionary pilgrims as a jumping off point to discuss some aspect of evolution.

It's a terrific premise for a book, though in practice I think it ends up being a little bit of a mixed bag, as this structure inevitably makes the whole thing a little bit disjointed. We jump around from topic to topic, with the subject of any particular "tale" often only very tangentially related to the animal that has supposedly inspired it. Sections describing very basic tenets of evolutionary theory are interspersed with others that are possibly more fiddly and technical that the average reader really needs, and concepts alluded to in early chapters may sometimes not be properly introduced until late in the book.

However, all that being said, it's also true that any time I started to find things a little bit tedious, Dawkins would suddenly wow me with an absolutely fascinating set of discussions, ideas or facts, written with great enthusiasm and clarity, and get me all excited again.

I also have to praise Dawkins' thoughtful precision here. He's always very, very careful to make sure that readers are not confused or misled by scientific jargon or by figures of speech, and he is also conscientious about acknowledging what the various alternative hypotheses are when some fact or concept is subject to scientific dispute. Less praise-worthy is his occasional jarring indulgence in political snark in contexts where it really doesn't belong, but fortunately there are only a few small examples of that.

It's a little hard to know how to rate this one, but I'm calling it 4/5.

Edited: Jun 21, 2010, 11:03pm Top

76. Horns by Joe Hill

After a drunken night during which he did some bad things he can't entirely remember, Ignatius Perrish wakes up with a pair of horns erupting from his head and discovers that people are suddenly compelled to tell him all their worst secrets, darkest impulses and most negative thoughts... and all it takes is a word encouragement to make them act on them. This would probably be disturbing enough for anybody, but to make matters worse, Ig's girlfriend was raped and murdered a year ago, and almost everybody, up to and including his parents, honestly believes he did it, although he was never charged with the crime. So, needless to say, they have a lot of dark and negative thoughts around him. At least Ig's new-found powers lead him to discover the identity of the real killer, but it's not an answer he likes when he finds it.

I find it hard to know quite what to say about this book. It's a very uncomfortable read. There's some really ugly subject matter, the bad guy is a disturbingly believable sociopath, and there's something about the idea of suddenly being able to see into all the dark little corners of the people close to you and to hear all the bad things they think about you that's utterly, viscerally awful in a way that no murderer or monster can touch. Not that that's a complaint. If a horror story isn't making your readers at least a bit uncomfortable on some level, I think you're probably doing it wrong. But whether that discomfort ultimately comes together into the shape of something satisfying, I don't know. I kept going back and forth on the question as I was reading. It is an interesting, readable book, in its own definitely-not-for-everybody way, with an original premise and a decent plot, but I didn't find it remotely as compelling as Heart-Shaped Box. That may have something to do with my own preconceptions, though. Based on the premise, I was sort of expecting something darkly humorous, but the turning-into-a-demon plot, on the whole, is played remarkably straight. It may also have to do with the fact that, while I had some sympathy for Ig, I never felt a great deal of empathy for him, if that distinction makes any sense. It also seems like the book is trying to be more thought-provoking than it actually is.

This is another one that's really hard to rate, but after much vacillation, I think I'm going to give it a 3.5/5.

Edited: Jun 22, 2010, 2:00pm Top

I've been vacillating over whether I should get Horns or Heart Shaped box first. I'm starting to think that Heart Shped Box is the better of the two to start with. Although the concept of Horns sounds so intriguing it's been hard to decide.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Jun 22, 2010, 1:59pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

Jun 22, 2010, 3:23pm Top

I really would recommend Heart-Shaped Box as the better story. Although I'm almost wondering whether I would have liked Horns better if I hadn't read Heart-Shaped Box first and developed such high expectations.

Edited: Jun 24, 2010, 7:18pm Top

77. How Did You Get This Number by Sloane Crosley

A collection of humorous personal essays about the author's life in New York City and her travels to other parts of the world, including a genuine spin-the-globe-and-go-where-you-land vacation. (She ended up in Portugal.) Some of Crosley's observations or turns of phrase are rather odd... "Quirky" doesn't quite describe it, really. The best I can do is "idiosyncratic." It was sometimes hard to know exactly what to make of her, especially as we seem to have very different life experiences. But overall, I found the book quite enjoyable. Multiple times I found myself laughing out loud, and there are some genuinely insightful moments. The first essay, in particular -- the random global vacation one -- provoked the strong feeling that, yes, she had managed to capture exactly what it's like to be an adult.

I have not read her previous book, I Was Told There'd Be Cake, but I'm definitely interested in doing so now.

Rating: 4/5

(Note: This was my ER book for May.)

Jun 27, 2010, 12:10pm Top

>199 bragan:, sounds like an interesting premise that wasn't well executed?

Jun 27, 2010, 12:27pm Top

I think it wasn't so much that the execution was bad... Although the writing was a bit bland, I think it was really more that the author and I had very different ideas of what it would be interesting to do with that premise.

Jun 29, 2010, 4:56pm Top

78. Escape Velocity by Christopher Stasheff

A couple of people set out from a prison planet that's reformed itself into a democracy into a galaxy teetering on the brink of dictatorship in order to deliver some important documents. But they run into trouble along the way when they're accused of being members of a conspiracy of evil telepaths. Or something like that. To be honest, the details of the story tended to slide off my brain as if they were coated in Teflon. It's primarily a humorous novel, anyway, but its sense of humor is kind of uneven and strange, ranging from intellectual quips to groan-worthy puns to broad political satire to sheer silliness. I might have gotten a chuckle or two out of some of it, especially early in the book, but mostly it didn't do anything for me. The fact that much of it consists of people standing around expositing at each other probably didn't help much, either. I can sort of see how some might find it entertaining, and some of the political commentary is still all too relevant, but it just completely failed to click with me at all.

I vaguely recall reading The Warlock in Spite of Himself, to which this is a prequel, many years ago, but I remembered nothing about it whatsoever. My conclusion now is that that's probably because it was thoroughly forgettable. I think that's enough of this series for me.

Rating: 2.5/5

Jun 30, 2010, 9:44am Top

re Horns - great review. I agree with stretch, "the concept of Horns sounds so intriguing"

Jun 30, 2010, 12:57pm Top


It's definitely a premise that hooks you in. I wish I'd liked it more unreservedly than I did, but there's no denying that it's a nifty idea.

Jul 1, 2010, 5:43pm Top

New thread for the second half of 2010! You can now find the rest of my reading here.

Group: Club Read 2010

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