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bragan's 2010 reading, pt 2

Club Read 2010

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1bragan
Jul 1, 2010, 5:42pm Top

Since we're now halfway through the month and my old thread was getting decidedly unwieldy, I figured it was time to start another one. The old thread, featuring 78 books read from Jan. to June can be found here. As for book #79...

79. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love by Helen Fisher



This book got off on the wrong foot with me right from the beginning. I found the first two chapters -- on the "symptoms" of romantic love as exemplified by literature and poetry and on behaviors that look like love in animals -- to be shallow, overgeneralized, and far too willing to present anecdotes as if they were evidence. Things got a bit better in chapter three, where Fisher started talking about hormones, brain chemistry, and her own fMRI experiments on people in love. But most of the rest of the book was oversimplified and overly speculative. Particularly problematic were the discussions of gender differences; this is an interesting and valid topic, but more often than not it's impossible to tell whether Fisher's assertions on the subject are based on science or stereotype. And to top it all off, she throws in a chapter full of insipid self-help advice at the end.

All in all, a fairly disappointing take on what ought to be a fascinating subject.

Rating: 2.5/5

2dchaikin
Jul 2, 2010, 9:31am Top

sorry, ignore me, I just want this thread to show up on my "Your posts" page.

...ok, one comment, 79 for six months...well done!

3bragan
Jul 2, 2010, 9:35am Top

My total for last year was 157, so at least I'm consistent.

4fannyprice
Jul 2, 2010, 4:47pm Top

Following you again!

5bragan
Jul 2, 2010, 10:07pm Top

80. Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr.



The story of a man who was born with voices in his head that tell him things -- true things -- including the exact date and time of the upcoming end of the world. It's a strange and fascinating novel, well-written, and features some philosophical questions and answers that are thought-provoking without being too heavy-handed.

It's not entirely without flaws, though. For one thing... Well, there's a useful rule of thumb in speculative fiction that says that readers will give you one wildly unbelievable premise for free, assuming you do something interesting with it, but once they've granted you that indulgence it's unwise to ask for too much more. And, maybe two thirds of the way through, this one threw in a couple of additional implausibilities that caused my previously easy suspension of disbelief to snap pretty badly. That wasn't entirely fatal to my enjoyment, and it may be something that's unlikely to bother anybody but me, anyway. But that, along with perhaps some other much harder-to-put-a-finger-on issues, ultimately left me feeling that this book, which seems as if it could have been utterly terrific, is instead only good.

Rating: 4/5

6bragan
Jul 3, 2010, 8:21am Top

81. I'll Mature When I'm Dead: Dave Barry's Amazing Tales of Adulthood by Dave Barry



Dave Barry emerges from retirement with a new collection about such varied topics as fatherhood, colonoscopies, and the death of the newspaper, with parodies of 24 and Twilight thrown in for good measure.

I love Dave Barry. I think he's one of the funniest people in the world. I've actually had to institute a personal policy of not reading his books in public because of the very real danger that I won't be able to keep from laughing and people will look at me funny. I have to say, though, that while this book generated a number of moderately loud chuckles, it didn't have the kind of laugh-till-you-can't-breathe effect on me that a lot of his other books have had. That may be due in part to the fact that I read much of it in a state of such extreme sleep deprivation that it's amazing I had any reading comprehension abilities at all. But I'm also inclined to blame the fact that the first few pieces were very much of the "Ha! Women talk about feelings a lot and buy scented candles, and men watch sports and refuse to ask for directions!" variety of humor. Dave Barry, being Dave Barry, is capable of making that amusing, but the older I get, the less funny and more annoying I find that sort of thing to be, as I continue to never actually encounter any women who are obsessed with shoes or men who speak only in grunts. But never mind. It's great to have Barry back, anyway!

Rating: 4/5

7auntmarge64
Jul 3, 2010, 9:59am Top

>5 bragan:

Hi Bragan, I gave Everything Matters! 4 stars also. Very creative pre-apocalyptic novel.

You might find this one of interest: The End of Science Fiction by Sam Smith. It's available in print via Amazon, although I read an ebook copy via the publisher's website: http://www.bewrite.net/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=B&Product...

8bragan
Jul 3, 2010, 4:30pm Top

Creative it definitely was.

And The End of Science Fiction sounds interesting. I think that one goes on the wishlist.

9bragan
Jul 6, 2010, 2:28am Top

82. Infinite Requiem by Daniel Blythe



Now that Doctor Who is over for the season, I thought I would go back to some of the old "New Adventure" novels from the 90s that have been sitting on my TBR pile forever, in hopes of staving off the withdrawal symptoms. Whether this one has helped to scratch the itch any, though, I can't really say.

The story, which is set largely, though not entirely, on a war-torn human colony world in the 24th century, features a trio of dangerously powerful, amoral telepathic beings that have been scattered to different points in time and space and are seeking to reunite. It's an okay plot, but not a particularly gripping one. I can't say much more for the characterization, either. Bernice, the companion at this point in the series, feels pretty generic, and the minor characters, despite attempts to render them otherwise, are flat at best. The Doctor does have some decently Doctor-ish moments, but there are also far too many moments where the author seems to be attempting to substitute continuity references for characterization. Admittedly, it might have helped if I'd read it in the proper context, as it features the characters in the aftermath of major changes that happened in the previous book, which I read fifteen years ago and scarcely remember. But I'm not sure it would have helped very much.

Bottom line: it's a reasonable enough installment of the Doctor's adventures, but not an especially interesting one.

Rating: 3/5

10wandering_star
Jul 6, 2010, 11:44am Top

Liking your speculative fiction rule-of-thumb...

11bragan
Jul 6, 2010, 11:49am Top

I can't claim to have come up with it, but I think there's a lot of truth to it.

12bragan
Jul 8, 2010, 2:38pm Top

83. The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby



In this book, Susan Jacoby presents an overview of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism in American society. She has some very harsh things to say about modern American politics, and a few harsher things to say about pseudoscience, both of which I believe are fully justified. She also traces the political and religious roots of anti-intellectualism in the past, with a special emphasis on the sixties, and those chapters for the most part strike me as interesting, thoughtful, and fair. Unfortunately, I can't say as much for her discussions of modern media and pop culture, as she all too often wavers from what should be a reasonable examination of the mixed blessings of the Information Age into an only slightly more sophisticated version of, "Stupid rotten-brained kids today with the video games and the YouTube and the inexcusable lack of interest in classical music or listening to me talk about Russian poetry!" I have very little patience with that kind of attitude, and I'm afraid that my annoyance with it colors the entire book in an unfortunate negative light. After all, sometimes "anti-elitism" is a foolish and dangerous belief that just because other people might know more about something than you do, that doesn't make what they have to say about the subject any more valid than your own ignorant opinion. And sometimes, it's a perfectly justifiable dislike of people like Jacoby telling you that if you don't read the same books they do, it means you're stupid. Those two things desperately need to be separated, not conflated more than they already are, and Jacoby is really not helping on that score.

Despite my mixed feelings, I do think this is worth reading. But I recommend doing so with a bit of a critical eye.

Rating: 3.5/5

13bragan
Edited: Jul 8, 2010, 11:50pm Top

84. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare



Somehow I managed to live for 38 years -- okay, nearly 39 years -- without ever reading this. I believe most kids in my high school read it for English class, but I was in the advanced class, and we did King Lear instead. Which, if the goal was to get us to enjoy Shakespeare, was a really bad idea. No group of 15-year-olds, however "advanced," is going to be more interested in an old man going crazy than in bloody Roman assassination plots.

Oh, well. I've rectified the oversight now, and am very glad to have done so. I found it an entirely enjoyable experience. I mean, it's Shakespeare. The guy knew how to write a play. Admittedly, I didn't think it was nearly as good as Hamlet, for which I have a deep and abiding love. But what is?

I don't really have any further comments, though, since I can't imagine that I could possibly have anything to say about the play that hasn't already been said n the last 400 years.

Rating: 4.5/5

14bragan
Jul 9, 2010, 10:44pm Top

85. The Order of the Stick: Don't Split the Party by Rich Burlew



The sixth (or fourth, if you leave out the prequels) print compilation of The Order of the Stick, a stick figure webcomic about a party of Dungeons & Dragons adventurers. Originally it started out as a little more than a series of in-jokes about D&D game mechanics, but over time it's turned into an epic story with a complex and genuinely suspenseful plot, while continuing to be very, very funny, at least to anyone who's ever played any D&D. (I was never a huge fan of the game, myself, but I've played enough of it and other role-playing games to get most of the jokes.)

This volume was a little slow in places, but it features a large amount of character development -- which is pretty impressive for anything featuring stick figures -- and one heck of an exciting climax.

Rating: 4/5

15detailmuse
Jul 10, 2010, 9:41am Top

it features a large amount of character development -- which is pretty impressive for anything featuring stick figures

well that intrigues! I know nothing about D&D but may have to take a look to see how he does that.

Also noticed you snagged Packing for Mars -- me too, should be fun!

16bragan
Jul 10, 2010, 1:58pm Top

You can find the webcomoc here if you're curious about it, although it does take a little while for it to turn into an actual story.

And I am definitely looking forward to reading Packing for Mars! I hope it arrives soon!

17bragan
Jul 12, 2010, 2:57am Top

86. The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British by Sarah Lyall



Lyall, a former New Yorker who married an Englishman and now lives in London, offers up her thoughts and feelings about her adopted country and countrymen. Oddly, this book doesn't seem entirely sure whether it means to be an amusing, subjective account of one American's perceptions of British culture, a useful overview of confusing cultural differences for Americans, or a serious and sometimes harsh critique of British society. As a result, I don't think it succeeds spectacularly well at being any of those things. She does have a few amusing observations and anecdotes and a number of interesting things to say, and much of the book was an entertaining read. But there are times when, intentionally or unintentionally, it feels as if she's inviting her American readers to point and laugh at the poor benighted foreigners, and that's unfortunate. It's even more unfortunate that the most mocking and condemnatory chapters are the first chapters in the book. Later on, a great deal of what seems to be genuine affection also comes through, but it takes a little while to get over the slightly sour taste.

Rating: 3/5

18wandering_star
Jul 12, 2010, 8:58am Top

Well, we are easy to mock...

If you are would like to have something to compare, I highly recommend Watching The English - the author is an (English) anthropologist and her 'research findings' are terrifyingly accurate. I kept finding out that all sorts of things I do are not, after all, because I am an individual, but because I fit into various specific English social niches... very disturbing!

19detailmuse
Edited: Jul 12, 2010, 9:43am Top

The Anglo Files sounds interesting. Your comments are helpful; I'm growing less enamoured of snark (and btw hope that Packing for Mars will be less snarky than Spook).

>16 bragan: you reminded me to catch up on the webcomic xkcd -- and remember how much stick figures can convey.

eta: >18 wandering_star: our posts crossed in the ether; glad to see another recommendation

20bragan
Edited: Jul 12, 2010, 1:40pm Top

>18 wandering_star:: You're so self-mocking, though, that it almost seems unfair for us to do it too! Also, you're better at making it funny.

And I have read Watching the English, actually. I think that may be part of the reason why The Anglo Files worked less well for me than it might have: I kept comparing them. Which may not be entirely fair, as Lyall's book isn't a serious work of anthropology like Fox's is. But at least Fox's book knows what it is. I remember wishing there were something like it for Americans, frightening as it might be to read such a thing. But even the comparisons between English and American behavior (or, uh, behaviour) were enlightening about both my country and yours. (If nothing else, it explained a few mildly frustrating conversations I'd had with English people on the internet, and at least one bit of a British TV show that had puzzled me.)

>19 detailmuse:: Looking over this month's reading, I seem to be doing almost nothing except complaining that I don't like the non-fiction writers' attitudes. I feel like I'm turning into a grumpy old woman. But, really, it's not that I don't like snark. It's that there's snark that is amusing and accurately aimed, and there's snark that is mean-spirited, misplaced, or seems to say more about the author's own ego than about its ostensible target. One of those is a lot more fun to read than the other. And I have not been in a very patient mood lately.

I don't remember being put off by snark in Spook, myself, although I thought it was the weakest of her generally excellent books. But I may have thought she was aiming it at deserving targets. Or I might just not remember it.

Anyway, I don't necessarily recommend The Anglo Files, but I wouldn't warn anyone away from it, either, if it sounds like something they might want to read, snark and all. But make this three recommendations for Watching the English, for sure.

And I read xkcd religiously! They have a compilation book out now, too, xkcd: volume 0.

21charbutton
Edited: Jul 12, 2010, 4:02pm Top

I've put Watching the English on my wishlist. Perhaps it will help me understand my obsessions with a good cup of tea, marmite on toast and ale served at room temperature.

22bragan
Jul 12, 2010, 4:37pm Top

Anglophile that I am, I'm with you on the tea, but I draw the line at marmite and warm beer!

Whether it'll help in understanding your culinary tastes or not, I'm not sure, but it does take a surprisingly in-depth look at lots of different aspects of culture. And every English person I've ever heard talk about it says it is surprisingly accurate.

23charbutton
Jul 12, 2010, 4:45pm Top

Every time a foreigner stays with us they end up having to take the marmite taste test. No one ever likes it :-(

24bragan
Jul 12, 2010, 5:21pm Top

If it helps, I couldn't bring myself to sample the vegemite when I was in Australia, either.

25wandering_star
Jul 12, 2010, 8:19pm Top

I remember when I was at university, a big group of us went away on a camping trip. There were three Americans in the group, and when they saw someone spreading marmite on his toast, they were very curious... Anyway, we warned them that they might not like it, and each one, in turn, took a bite and spat it out, with increasingly louder protests about how disgusting it was!

Personally, I'm a fan. And I didn't grow up eating it, so I'm not sure how that happened.

26bragan
Edited: Jul 14, 2010, 6:07pm Top

87. Feed by Mira Grant



Twenty-six years after the zombie apocalypse, a trio of bloggers hits the road to cover a presidential campaign. From that description, I had some expectations in my mind of what this novel would be like. I expected a certain level of zaniness, some sharp political satire, and a lot of fun zombie-fighting action. What it delivers, though, is something else entirely. To begin with, there's not a lot of zaniness. The whole zombie apocalypse idea is played completely straight. Or almost completely -- there are some elements of humor, and a definite sense that the author is perfectly well aware of zombies as a pop culture cliche and is willing to poke just a little bit of fun at it. (In a detail I find utterly delightful, George Romero is regarded as the savior of the human race because thanks to his movies people knew what to do when the dead actually started walking.) And I'd say there's more political commentary than actual satire. It's not incredibly sophisticated political commentary, perhaps, but it's not annoyingly preachy, either. As for zombie-fighting action, there is rather less than you might think, and it's mostly not fun at all. As would be the case, if zombies were in fact real.

What it does have, though, is an also not terribly sophisticated but nevertheless surprisingly engaging political thriller plot, involving attacks centering on the presidential candidate. It also has some amazingly well thought out world-building. The details of the zombie-making plague are fairly original, even if the end results are perfectly familiar, and Grant displays some refreshing knowledge of how real diseases work. And the extrapolations of how society would evolve under the ever-present threat of a zombie outbreak are plausible, consistent, and interesting.

Overall, I quite enjoyed it. I still wasn't entirely sure how interested I might be in reading the next book -- it's meant to be the first of a series -- but there are just enough unanswered questions at the end of this one that I think I'm going to have to.

Rating: 4/5

27wandering_star
Jul 14, 2010, 7:36pm Top

Just clicked through to the main page to read more about this book - I love the series title, the "Newsflesh" series!! Once again, a very interesting sounding read... how do you do it?

28bragan
Jul 14, 2010, 8:24pm Top

I loved the series title, too. I think that may be one of the main reasons I picked it up. I don't recall exactly where I heard about this one, but I think I read a brief review of it somewhere.

29bragan
Edited: Jul 16, 2010, 6:59am Top

88. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach



Mary Roach takes a look the various factors that go into maintaining human life in space, and in the process delves into areas that most books on the subject -- usually for perfectly understandable reasons -- tend to gloss over. Do astronauts get on each other's nerves when they've been cooped up together for too long? How bad does a guy who's been sitting in a space suit for two weeks smell? What happens when you vomit in your helmet?

It's not all space madness and bodily fluids; Roach looks at the effect of high g-forces and prolonged weightlessness on the human body, for instance, and rides along on a simulated Mars expedition. On the other hand, I now know far, far more about the workings of a zero-gravity toilet than I ever wanted to. Even if I thought I did, it turns out that, no, I really kind of didn't. Even if the subject is strangely fascinating, in a disgusting sort of way.

This approach admittedly takes much of the glamor out of space travel, but compensates for it with a level of human detail that makes the whole enterprise, and the people involved in it, feel somehow more real, and perhaps ultimately even more wonderful. And Roach's writing, as always, is clear, lively, funny, and marvelously readable.

I'm probably biased, since space travel is a subject near to my heart, but I think this is her best book since Stiff.

Rating: 4.5/5

(Note: This was my Early Reviewers book for June.)

30fannyprice
Jul 16, 2010, 10:46pm Top

>17 bragan:, bragan, thanks for that review. I've been intrigued by Anglo Files for a long time and the amazon reviews are mixed at best. It sounds like this one is a pass now.

31fannyprice
Jul 16, 2010, 10:48pm Top

>26 bragan:, Oh I've been so excited to read Feed - glad you liked it!

>88, And I am thrilled to know that Mary Roach has a new book out that's about space travel! I loved Stiff but the response to her follow-up offerings left me cold. This one, however, sounds fantastic.

32bragan
Jul 16, 2010, 11:28pm Top

>30 fannyprice:: Again, I wouldn't necessarily warn people away from The Anglo Files, but I definitely don't recommend rushing out and reading it, either.

>31 fannyprice:: I will admit that it took me a while to decide whether I really liked Feed or not. It's not exactly a brilliant political thriller, and it's not a top-notch zombie novel, either, but somehow the combination of the two just works way better than it seems like it ought to. And if you're into the whole zombie subgenre at all, it's worth reading just for Grant's thoughtful take on the biology and sociology.

As for Mary Roach, I liked both Spook and Bonk well enough, but did find them slightly disappointing in comparison with Stiff, which was just extraordinary. Packing for Mars, though, did not disappoint me even a little.

33bragan
Edited: Jul 19, 2010, 1:22am Top

89. A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold



The second-to-last book -- so far -- in Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series. I've gone on about how much I love this series before, so I won't bother repeating myself now. This particular volume marks the culmination of the series' trend over the last couple of installments away from outer space adventures and towards more purely character-based stories. There is no mission here, no great mystery to solve, and very little in the way of violent mayhem. Instead, there are several developing romances, with attendant setbacks and obstacles; the start of an offbeat business venture; and a lot of small-scale political intrigue.

I do rather miss the covert intelligence/mercenary exploits of Miles' earlier career, but there's more than enough other good stuff here to make up for their absence. For one thing -- and I'm sure I already said this when I read the previous book, Komarr, but I think it bears repeating -- Bujold has the rare ability to write a romance plot that actually works for me, one that genuinely engages me, rather than making me want to roll my eyes and shake my head. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that it's less about over-the-top Grand Romantic Passions and more about mutual respect and genuine compatibility, the kind of romance story for which marriage is a beginning, rather than an ending.

There's also a lot of terrific humor, including what surely has to be the most painfully hilarious -- or hilariously painful -- dinner party scene in the history of literature. The political intrigue is interesting, too, especially in that it deals with some of the effects of a society with a basically medieval structure abruptly finding itself in possession of biotechnology. The question of what happens to laws of succession once you introduce human cloning into the equation is only the beginning... It's a fascinating idea, and I'd love to see it explored at even greater length.

Rating: 4.5/5

34bragan
Jul 20, 2010, 7:18am Top

90. True Names... and Other Dangers by Vernor Vinge



A collection containing the novella-length title story and four shorter works. Specifically:

"Bookworm, Run!": An intellectually augmented chimpanzee accidentally gains direct brain-to-computer access to a database full of military secrets, then makes a break for freedom. In his author's note on this one, Vinge mentions that he wrote it when he was a teenager. Unfortunately, it shows. The nerdy chimp has the potential to be an appealing, even rather droll character if he were developed more, but that's about all I can say for it.

"True Names": Proto-cyberpunk story about computer hackers who operate in a virtual reality fantasy setting in which they literally become computer wizards. Features a couple of vaguely cute ideas, but while it might have seemed fresh and original in 1980, when it was written, it feels pretty passé now.

"The Peddler's Apprentice": In what appears to be a distant, post-technological future, a strange peddler appears with some indistinguishable-from-magic tricks. The author's note on this one says that Vinge originally stalled out on it, unable to think of an ending, and his then-wife and co-author Joan D. Vinge finished it for him. Unfortunately, that kind of shows, too. The setup is decent, and the idea behind the peddler is an interesting one, but I found the climax unsatisfying.

"The Ungoverned": In a future in which the United States has become fragmented, the Republic of New Mexico attempts to invade the "ungoverned land" of Kansas, a place in which not just law enforcement but laws themselves are privately contracted. It sounds like yet another example of the kind of libertarian wish-fulfillment story that's surprisingly common in SF, and I guess it more or less is, but it's a non-obnoxious one, with a bit of clever world-building and a reasonable plot. Not an amazing story or anything, but it's probably the best in the collection. (It's also set in the same universe as a couple of Vinge's novels, which I read a zillion years ago and don't remember much about.)

"Long Shot": Short piece about an interstellar space probe sent to escape Earth's destruction by solar flares, told from the point of view of the probe's computer. Rather dry, but believably written.

Rating: 3/5

35avaland
Jul 20, 2010, 3:28pm Top

Always interesting reading here, bragan. The Jacoby sounded mildly interesting, and her name familiar. Seems I might have one of her books from the 70s, though I remember almost nothing about it.

Hmm. I never got into Vinge or Bujold, to be truthful, I never tried them (I suppose, for whatever reason, I wasn't attracted to them); but, I certainly know a lot of people who have enjoyed them, now including you.

36bragan
Jul 20, 2010, 5:07pm Top

The only other of Jacoby's books I've read is Freethinkers, which I frankly thought was a much better book. It's more recent than the 70s, though.

And Bujold's Vorkosigan series is one of those things that nearly everybody who's at all interested in science fiction seems to have read already. I don't know why it's taken me this long to get to it. I definitely recommend it, though. It's great fun, and the characters are... memorable.

As for Vinge, as I recall I did quite like A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, if only because they were filled with lots of interesting ideas. But from what little else of his I've read, his older/shorter stuff seems very skippable.

37bragan
Edited: Jul 20, 2010, 10:19pm Top

91. What Bothers Me Most About Christianity: Honest Reflections from an Open-Minded Christ Follower by Ed Gungor



Ed Gungor, a Christian pastor, raises a number of issues that often disturb believers and non-believers alike about Christianity -- such as the question of why, if God exists, he provides no direct evidence for that existence, or the infamous problem of why a benevolent god would permit the existence of evil -- and attempts to answer them from a Christian perspective.

I'm finding this something of a difficult book to review, but I'll give it my best shot. The first thing that needs to be said is: I am an atheist. I am, however, an atheist who is interested in understanding others' worldviews and in productive, honest dialog between people of differencing beliefs and mindsets. Which is why I requested this book from the Early Reviewers program in the first place; it looked like it might be an interesting attempt to open such a dialog.

Now, Gungor strikes me as an honest, thoughtful, well-meaning guy. He's willing to put some thought into these disturbing issues, and he is often willing to admit when he doesn't fully understand something or doesn't have an answer, both of which are things that I respect. He has a few reasonable things to say, and I even found myself agreeing with him on a surprising number of practical and philosophical points. And I do believe that if more Christians held some of his attitudes, the world would probably be a much better place. Moreover, the questions that he's addressing here are good, real questions. These are, indeed, some of the reasons why I personally do not believe in Christianity, in either the factual or the moral sense of the phrase. These are not straw men he's setting up here.

All that having been said, though, I find most of his answers to these questions to be deeply unsatisfying. Some of his assertions are impossible to argue with, because they are based on emotions, or on faith (which by definition does not involve reasoning and proof), or on Christian scriptures and doctrines, which of course have no value as evidence for anything unless you believe in them already. When he does use logic and argument, though, his reasoning is often greatly flawed, or even completely illogical. Much of it, for instance, seems to buy into the the maddening (and maddeningly common) fallacious assumption that as long as elements of Christianity cannot be proven false, the only natural and reasonable response is to accept all of it as true.

Gungor also displays a painful, even cringe-inducing mischaracterization and misunderstanding of atheists and their beliefs, attitudes, personal characteristics, and feelings. I will admit, however, that atheists themselves likely bear some degree of fault on this point. I fear that we are are not, as a group, all that good at self-presentation.

In the end... Well, I guess I don't entirely mind agreeing to disagree with a guy like Gungor, and if nothing else it's good once in a while to get a little look into the mind of someone who thinks very differently than you do, so I can't exactly call reading this book a complete waste of my time. It seems quite clear to me, however, that whatever the great Early Reviewers algorithm might have thought, I was not part of the target audience for this. I can imagine Christian believers wrestling with these bothersome questions might take some comfort in Gungor's answers, whatever my own opinions of them might be, or even just find reassurance in the fact that other believers have wrestled with them too. But there's really not much here that speaks to non-Christian readers at all.

Rating: 2.5/5

(Note: This was my Early Reviewers book for May of '09, which only just finally arrived this month.)

38bragan
Edited: Jul 22, 2010, 1:28pm Top

92. Borderland edited by Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold



Four stories by four different authors, all set in the same shared universe: a seedy borderland between the ordinary human world and an inexplicably returned fairy realm. The stories are all decent and readable enough, although I didn't find any of them particularly memorable or compelling. And unfortunately the setting, while it has a certain amount of potential, never feels terribly well fleshed out and, at least in this collection, never really rises above the level of vaguely interesting gimmick.

I have no idea what the actual genesis of this shared world is, but I can't help imagining a group of fantasy authors getting drunk together somewhere when one of them suddenly comes out with, "You know what would be awesome? Rock and roll elves!" At which point they spend the rest of the night discussing how you could go about building a setting that would let you have lots of rock and roll elves. And then someone still thought it was a good idea in the morning and talked the rest into participating. The thing is, I strongly suspect that "rock and roll elves" is one of those ideas that really needs to be done absolutely brilliantly or not at all. I seem to remember Emma Bull doing it surprisingly effectively in War for the Oaks, so it is possible, but whatever that book had, this one somehow lacks.

I also think that part of the problem is that the elves here are just not alien enough. They're not even as much so as your generic Tolkien-clone elves. Mostly, they're just normal people with pointed ears and random magical abilities.

Rating: 3.5/5

39bragan
Jul 22, 2010, 7:10pm Top

93. WTF?: How to Survive 101 of Life's Worst F*#!-ing Situations by Gregory Bergman and Anthony W. Haddad



Humorous advice, ranging from the halfway decent to the apocalyptically bad, on dealing with annoying everyday situations, such as being stood up on a date, suffering a computer crash, or finding out you're adopted. It's a raunchy, insult-laden kind of humor that ranges from extremely funny to just plain obnoxious. Personally, I got a fair few laughs out of it, but I would have enjoyed it a lot more if 95% of it didn't assume the reader is a heterosexual male. Jokes about avoiding ugly chicks? Much less entertaining if you happen to be a woman.

Rating: 3/5

40bragan
Edited: Jul 24, 2010, 4:04pm Top

94. Solar by Ian McEwan



A novel about the train wreckishly messy personal and professional life of Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist currently working on renewable energy and the struggle to halt global warming. Beard is easily the most unlikeable protagonist I've encountered in ages... and not in a fascinating-but-flawed or fun character-you-love-to-hate kind of way, either. He's a rotten husband, a piss-poor excuse for a human being and, despite the accomplishments of his youth, kind of a crappy scientist, to boot. He's not the sort of person whose company I'd enjoy spending time at all in, never mind spending an entire novel's worth of time in his head, and every time I started to feel any sympathy for him, he'd prove to me all over again just what a colossal schmuck he was. And yet, somehow, McEwan kept me turning pages, interested to see more of this man's story. I find this quite impressive.

I think it helps a great deal that Beard, in all his faults, feels very much like a real person. There was a danger here that he might have come across as a simplistic stereotype: the cold, detached, egotistical scientist with no capacity for human feeling. But even if that description fits him well enough, he doesn't feel like a stereotype. He's far too three-dimensional a character for that. And McEwan, far from displaying the hostility or ignorance towards science that usually goes with that particular stereotype, appears to have an amazingly good grasp of the philosophy of science and of how real physicists think. He also displays an excellent understanding of human psychology, and of the ways in which even those who value and strive for objectivity are subject to denial, irrationality, and the ability to remember only what we want to remember and believe what we wish to believe. (The relevance of this to global warming, pleasingly, is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Rating: 4/5

41bragan
Edited: Jul 24, 2010, 7:51pm Top

95. Bizarre Books: A Compendium of Classic Oddities by Russell Ash & Brian Lake



Lists of books with strange titles, bizarre subjects, unfortunate author/title combinations, or all of the above. It's fun to browse through, and the entries range from mildly bemusing to pleasantly chuckle-inducing. A lot of them are perfectly innocent titles which, approached by those with dirty minds in our less-than-innocent age, sound as if they're about much more, um, interesting subjects -- including rather a lot of books about guys named Dick. Yes, this is pretty juvenile, but I have to admit that many of those are the ones that made me laugh the loudest.

Rating: 3.5/5

42bragan
Edited: Jul 29, 2010, 8:27pm Top

96. Iron Council by China Miéville



The third book set in Miéville's bizarre world of Bas-Lag, which sees the city of New Cobruzon experiencing a difficult time of war, unrest, and insurrection. It's a good story, but as always it's the world itself that truly captures the imagination, with its casual strangeness, its horrors and wonders. I think Miéville is as good at this particular kind of slightly surreal world-building as anyone ever has been. He seems to have an excellent instinctive sense of how much to explain and how much to leave mysterious, and he blends the familiar and the uncanny together as seamlessly as a recurring dream.

I suspect this may be a minority opinion, but I think I may like this book the best of the three. Unlike Perdido Street Station or The Scar, it never dragged for me, even for a moment. And while I can imagine that some might find the ending unsatisfying, I thought it felt very, very right.

Raint: 4.5/5

43bonniebooks
Jul 30, 2010, 8:38am Top

Still catching up on threads. I so agree with you re: H. Fisher's book! I was disappointed, because she's an interesting person to listen to, and (I hope I'm not just imagining this!) but she was a very interesting, popular but credible lecturer in my undergraduate years at the University of Washington.

44bragan
Jul 30, 2010, 1:12pm Top

I think I can believe that, because I almost got the impression that she was deliberately dumbing the book down, or trying too hard for something that would have popular appeal. Which really, really didn't work well.

I seem to remember one of the other reviews of that book mentioning that she'd given a talk at TED. Maybe I'll look that up sometime and see if she does strike me as a better lecturer than a writer.

45avaland
Aug 1, 2010, 7:38pm Top

>42 bragan: I don't think that's a minority opinion at all (at least from what I've heard). I still have to finish this one, I stopped about halfway for some reason and didn't get back to it. Which is weird, because I've read everything since. btw, Iron Council is considered to be his most political book.

46bragan
Aug 1, 2010, 8:02pm Top

Most of the reviews on LT, including the positive ones, seem to name it as their least favorite of the three, although I did notice, reading them after I wrote my own review, that few people complained about the ending. Instead the biggest complaint was that the characters were pretty flat, which I find that I can't actually argue with. But for me, I think the main character in this series, honestly, is the world itself, and Iron Council really shows that world off very well.

And it is very political, which also seems to have put some people off, but I found the politics interesting, nuanced and not at all preachy. (Well, not preachy on the part of the author, anyway. Some of the characters might have gotten preachy if given the chance, but they never gave me the impression of speaking for anyone but themselves.)

47bragan
Edited: Aug 3, 2010, 12:40am Top

97. Time and Relative Dissertations in Space: Critical Perspectives on Doctor Who edited by David Butler



As the title suggests, this is a collection of essays on various aspects of Doctor Who, from recurring themes to production details to audience reception. They range in style from dryly academic to somewhat more casual and fan-oriented, but despite one or two unfortunate lapses into obscure lit-crit pretentiousness, they're mostly pretty accessible to anyone with a good knowledge of the show. I found them to be something of a mixed bag, though. Several of them seem to talk quite a lot without saying anything particularly insightful, and a few -- notably the two essays on music and sound design -- may appeal primarily to those with fairly specialized interests. But I did find it worth reading for such offerings as Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens' interesting examination of humans who collaborate with the Daleks or Dale Smith's discussion of the genesis of the New Adventures books. And Paul Magrs' wonderful, personal afterword, in which he talks about living and writing Doctor Who in a sort of love letter to fannish creativity, might almost be worth the cover price by itself.

I should probably note that this collection was published in 2007, but was apparently in the works for several years before that, so while there are a few brief mentions of the new series, it's almost entirely focused on the classic episodes. In fact, there's a very strong emphasis, specifically, on the early days of the show in the 1960s.

Rating: 3.5/5

48bragan
Edited: Aug 3, 2010, 10:42pm Top

98. Sailing to Byzantium/Seven American Nights by Robert Silverberg and Gene Wolfe



This is a "Tor double," featuring two novellas by two different writers, published back-to-front and upside-down relative to each other, I guess so that they each get to have a "front" cover. I can see why these two pieces were chosen to share a volume; they make a very well-matched pair.

"Sailing to Byzantium" by Robert Silverberg depicts a lonely 20th century man in a distant future whose inhabitants create and destroy replicas of past cities, through which they constantly travel. If there's meant to be a particular point to it, I'm afraid it's a bit too subtle for me. But it's well-written, with the protagonist's slightly melancholy alienation coming through well, and the setting is fascinating and original. There's something about the idea of the characters' perpetual, strangely incurious, utterly artificial tourism that I find interestingly awful.

And "Seven American Nights," by Gene Wolfe features an Iranian tourist -- if that's truly what he is -- visiting a decaying, genetically poisoned future America and becoming obsessed with an actress in what remains of Washington DC. It's a strange story, full of ambiguities and almost completely lacking in resolutions. It's hard to know quite what to make of it, but it's oddly compelling somehow.

Rating: 4/5

49bragan
Aug 6, 2010, 9:56pm Top

99. The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen



Depression-era bank robbers Jason and Whit Fireson (aka the Firefly brothers) are shot to death, but inexplicably find themselves returning to life in a police morgue hours later, with no memory of the events that lead to their deaths. It's an incredibly intriguing beginning, but unfortunately the rest of the book doesn't really live up to it. The story spends remarkably little time on the mysteries of what happened that night (which is eventually explained) and why they keep resurrecting (which really isn't). And there's very little forward momentum to the story at all for much of the novel. Instead, there's a near-endless series of flashbacks showcasing the brothers' family history, why they turned to a life of crime, how they met their girlfriends, etc. It's not entirely uninteresting, and eventually it pretty much all does tie in to the current-day plot, but it just doesn't meet the expectations set up by the premise; the characters simply aren't compelling enough for that. Indeed, I occasionally got the impression that Mullen might perhaps have been happier just writing a non-fiction book about the Great Depression's hard times and gangster legends and dispensing with the story altogether.

Which isn't to say that it's a bad book. It's quite readable. There's some decent action, and some moderately interesting revelations. But I just couldn't help feeling disappointed with it.

Rating: 3.5/5

50bragan
Edited: Aug 11, 2010, 5:07am Top

100. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar



A biography of the brilliant, eccentric mathematician John Nash, whose career was cut short by a descent into schizophrenia, but who experienced a rare, astonishingly dramatic remission in time to accept the Nobel Prize in economics in 1994. Nasar's writing is simple, with no personal interjections about her research for the book and no gimmicks, but it's effective. She invokes a great sense of understanding and sympathy for Nash without sentimentalizing him or downplaying his character flaws or his sometimes reprehensible treatment of others. Her depiction of Nash's illness and recovery is poignantly bittersweet, and her examination of the arc of his life raises a lot of thought-provoking questions about the possible connections between genius, mental illness, and personality.

This is, by the way, the basis of the movie of the same name. I saw that long enough ago that I don't remember much about it, but I understand that the movie did fudge a number of details and leave quite a few things out. I'm thinking perhaps I ought to watch it again to compare.

Rating: 4/5

51bragan
Edited: Aug 11, 2010, 5:20am Top

101. How to Survive a Robot Uprising by Daniel H. Wilson



A fun, amusing little book that offers tips for keeping yourself alive after your Roomba and its kin finally turn on humanity, as we all know they inevitably will. The humor doesn't really induce any belly laughs, but I got more than a few chuckles out of it. And since the author is an actual roboticist, there's quite a bit of information about real-life robots currently under development and simple descriptions of how various robot systems work. Nothing remotely in-depth, of course, but some of it is interesting. The survival tips themselves may get a little bit repetitive in places, but they seem pretty useful, and I'll be sure to keep them in mind the next time I'm being targeted by a bloodthirsty metal horde.

Rating: 3.5/5, although it edges close to a 4.

52detailmuse
Aug 11, 2010, 10:05am Top

>50 bragan: loved the movie. If you do watch it again, please consider posting some of the discrepancies here. Did you know John Nash had a cameo in the film?

53janemarieprice
Edited: Aug 11, 2010, 2:03pm Top

50 - A lot of the movie focused on the love story with his wife, which - although I haven't read the book - I have been given to undersand was not a romance for the ages.

54bragan
Aug 11, 2010, 5:54pm Top

>52 detailmuse:: I might do that! Although considering the size of my Netflix queue, I have no idea when I'll get to it.

If I ever knew about the cameo, I'd long since forgotten it.

By the way, on an only slightly related note... I noticed when I was posting my review, etc., that half the covers on LibraryThing for this have a picture of Russell Crowe on the front. Does this sort of thing bother anybody but me? Sure, movie stills on the cover of books sell copies, and I don't normally begrudge it, but there's something about the idea of having another man's picture on the front of your biography that seems just plain insulting.

>53 janemarieprice:: It was an interesting relationship, and people with a different idea of romance from me might regard its beginning as quite romantic, but it was very, very far from ideal. Actually, reading the book, my heart kind of broke for all the women in his life. He was not good at relationships even before he got sick. To put it mildly.

55detailmuse
Aug 11, 2010, 8:03pm Top

If I remember, Nash is one of those who give (Russell Crowe) their pens near the end of the film. Neat -- him giving "himself" a sign of respect.

I've been thinking of tie-in editions of books because Eat Pray Love is coming out in film. I only made it through Eat before abandoning the narrator and now the only thing worse would be to have the Julia Roberts cover! And actually, I do like the original pasta/bead/flower cover very much.

56bragan
Aug 11, 2010, 10:03pm Top

I've moved the movie up towards the top of the Netflix queue. I definitely am curious to see it again.

As for Eat Pray Love, it never sounded very appealing to me, so I've avoided it, whatever the cover.

I will admit that my copy of Moby-Dick has Patrick Stewart on the cover, which seems kind of tacky, but at least that was a good adaptation. And was actually what prompted me to finally get around to reading the book, so it's tackiness that I came by honestly.

57wandering_star
Aug 12, 2010, 1:08am Top

I recently heard someone - I think it was Elizabeth Pisani - refer to it as "Eat, Pray, Make Money"...

58bragan
Aug 13, 2010, 9:24am Top

102. The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman



Jane Hudson returns to teach Latin at the private girls' school she attended as a teenager. The place has some painful memories for her, though: while she was a student, both of her roommates, apparently suicidal, drowned in the nearby lake. Except Jane knew more about those deaths than she ever told, and now pages of her old journal, in which she recorded her secrets, are mysteriously turning up and past events are beginning to repeat themselves.

First the good: The wintry lake upon which everything in the novel centers creates a very nice sense of atmosphere. And the slow unfolding of the truth about what really happened to the narrator's old roommates is interesting and entertaining, if a bit melodramatic. Unfortunately, the present-day part of the story is much less successful, featuring details and plot points that seem awfully contrived and artificial, some characterization so sketchy as to be practically non-existent, and a big surprise revelation that was obvious a mile away. Not to mention -- and this applies to both parts of the story -- a main character so oblivious that she seems to be incapable of recognizing anything that's happening directly in front of her, ever.

All that being said, I did find it a very quick read, and at times a fairly engaging one, but mostly it just leaves me thinking somewhat wistfully about what a good book it could have been, if written by someone with a defter feel for character and story.

Rating: 3/5

(This, by the way, was my book for the "adventurous reader" challenge. I may have more to say about it on that thread.)

59bragan
Edited: Aug 16, 2010, 8:49pm Top

103. Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell



A collection of personal essays, most of which originally appeared as radio segments on This American Life, in which Sarah Vowell, among other things, fires a cannon with her gunsmith father, traces her Cherokee ancestors' path along the Trail of Tears, reflects on a childhood spent waiting for the Apocalypse, fails to get into the spirit of rock 'n' roll fantasy camp, and compulsively rewatches The Godfather.

I didn't find this quite as consistently engaging as Assassination Vacation or The Wordy Shipmates -- I think I may just like Vowell better when she's writing at greater length -- but it's still full of offbeat charm, often very funny, and occasionally insightful.

Rating: 4/5

60charbutton
Aug 15, 2010, 10:01am Top

I'm catching up with about a month's worth of LT comments! Interesting reading as always, bragan. Your review of Solar almost tempts me to try another McEwan, something I swore I'd never do after reading Atonement!

61bragan
Edited: Aug 15, 2010, 4:19pm Top

Well, fair warning: a lot of people, including a lot of McEwan's fans, seem to have hated Solar, thanks to the sheer unlikeability of its protagonist, and I can't remotely blame them. I think coming from a scientific background helped for me, because the scientific perspectives rang so true, in ways that you don't see much in fiction, that I felt a connection there almost despite myself.

62bragan
Edited: Aug 20, 2010, 7:58am Top

104. Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin



The first book in a young adult trilogy, this novel is set among a culture of farmers and herders whose ruling families each have a single, often terrifyingly lethal, psychic gift. It tells the story of a young man who appears unable to control his own ability and thus has to deal with the horribly literal implications of the phrase "if looks could kill." It's a very simple story, but nicely written, with an intriguing setting, and it provokes some interesting thoughts about the nature and use of power without ever getting preachy on the subject. It's not remotely Le Guin's best -- it lacks the brilliance of the Earthsea books, for sure -- but it's a solid, decent YA tale.

Rating: 4/5

63avaland
Aug 16, 2010, 9:13am Top

>love Sarah Vowell! I did try to read LeGuin's "Gifts" - not because I read much YA but because I am a longtime LeGuin fan. I never got very far into it, I suppose, it felt too light to me and too much like another superhero story. People with special powers who must learn to use them for good, not evil...etc.

64bragan
Aug 16, 2010, 3:03pm Top

Hmm. I'd say Gifts certainly has some of the themes of a superhero story, but it didn't feel much like one to me, possibly because I was more focused on the worldbuilding, which was certainly different from your average superhero story's. She does put a bit of a different twist on it at the end, too. But I agree that it was pretty light. I didn't mind that much; I found it a very quick, agreeable read. But I am kind of hoping the sequels might have a little bit more heft.

65bragan
Edited: Aug 20, 2010, 7:58am Top

105. The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain by Barbara Strauch



Barbara Strauch, examining the scientific research currently being done on understanding human brains as they age, concludes that the news is, in general, surprisingly good. Middle-aged brains may be a little slower than younger ones, she says, and subject to problems such as lapses of memory, but in other areas we actually improve with age, becoming calmer, more competent, more optimistic, and better at big-picture thinking. Better still, the psychological difficulties of middle age, such as the infamous mid-life crisis or the empty nest syndrome, are more myth than science. And while the possibility of dementia always haunts us as we age, there may well be things we can do to help keep our brains young and fit.

The science she cites here, it should be noted, is mostly very preliminary and speculative. After all, as Strauch points out, it hasn't been very long that we've even thought of middle age as a separate stage of life, let alone made a special study of it. So I'm inclined to take her optimistic thoughts on the subject with a small grain of salt. But it is interesting, and some of it sounds very promising.

As someone currently hovering on the cusp of 40 -- roughly the age at which the middle years are said to begin -- I'm not sure I really find it all quite as reassuring as she means it to be, though. The examples she offers of people who feel better and smarter and happier in middle age than they did in their youth all seem to be the kind of ambitious, successful folks with challenging jobs and busy social lives who already make me feel slightly inferior. The niggling thought that just possibly their lifestyle also makes their brains fitter and less likely to deteriorate with age than mine isn't helping my mild fear of facing the big four-oh. And as for the kind of lapses that she describes as hallmarks of normal middle age -- distractibility, a tendency to drift off into daydreaming, forgetting names on the tip of your tongue or what you came into a room to do -- well, those are all things I've been subject to my entire life. The thought that I can expect them to get worse is somewhat alarming.

Still, that's probably just me. And maybe next year when that middle-aged optimism kicks in, I'll feel differently about it, anyway.

Rating: 3.5/5

66wandering_star
Aug 17, 2010, 5:01am Top

I remember reading reviews and commentary when this book first came out. I was pretty surprised by the coverage, because (unlike the body) it had never ever occurred to me to think that my brain might function less well as I got older!

It just seemed fairly obvious to me that as a person has more general life experience, and more experience of being in different situations or having to deal with different problems, your cognitive functions would get better.

Still, obviously I was out on my own on that one...

67bragan
Aug 17, 2010, 5:15am Top

Well, according to Strauch, at least, you have it absolutely right. And the fact that there are lots of middle-aged people out there basically running the world does kind of back that up. But I do think there's also a general cultural message out there that says that Aging is Bad and it's all downhill in every respect once you hit forty. I have to admit, even at 39 I'm unhappily discovering that I just don't learn complicated things as fast as I did in college, which has had me worried a bit about my brain going soft as I age. But then, I'm out of practice at it, compared to what I was doing in college.

68avaland
Aug 17, 2010, 8:34am Top

Great review of the book! and I very much enjoyed the younger viewpoint. I suppose it is meant to comfort those of my age...I certainly found it so.

69bragan
Aug 17, 2010, 8:56am Top

Thanks! I definitely get the impression her main goal was to reassure the middle-aged a bit.

70RidgewayGirl
Aug 17, 2010, 1:41pm Top

I think that we do get out of practice with the habit of serious learning, but mature students often do better than their younger classmates. Part of that is surely a bit more discipline and keeping up instead of cramming at the last minute, but I don't think we're less able to learn.

71bragan
Aug 17, 2010, 5:28pm Top

I'm probably just less motivated now when it comes to learning certain things, is part of the problem. Less motivated, and more distracted by shiny objects on the internet, which wasn't a factor back when I was in college. I guess it's probably not surprising if that translates to a slower learning curve.

72bragan
Edited: Aug 20, 2010, 7:59am Top

106. Voices by Ursula K. Le Guin



The first sequel to Gifts, this takes place something like twenty years later. The main characters from the first book do play a part in the story, but the main character this time is Memer, a seventeen-year-old girl who has grown up in a once-democratic city now cruelly occupied by a foreign force. The occupiers regard writing as demonic and do not tolerate the keeping of books within the city, but in the grand, half-ruined house in which Memer lives, there is a secret room which contains a hidden library... as well as something much stranger, something important to both the city's past and its future.

If Gifts was a good, but rather simple little YA tale, this installment is something else again. Memer and her world feel incredibly real and well-developed to me, sucking me into their story right from the beginning. And how can I resist a book that's partly about the power of words and the importance of books? But more than that, it features Le Guin demonstrating her amazing ability to take familiar fantasy ideas, leach all the facile black-and-while simplicity out of them, and give them back to us as something different and human and true.

Recommended, with or without reading the first book.

Rating: 4.5/5 (And it comes within a hairsbreadth of the seldom-granted 5/5, too.)

73bragan
Edited: Aug 20, 2010, 7:59am Top

107. Mars: Uncovering the Secrets of the Red Planet by Paul Raeburn



One of the more... interesting... things about having a few hundred books on your to-read pile is that sometimes you find yourself thinking things like, "Hmm, this big coffee table book on Mars has been sitting here for a while. Maybe I should pull it off and give it a read," only to realize in shock that "for a while" actually means something more like "since 1998." Well, better late than never, I guess.

Needless to say, a lot has happened on Mars since 1998, so this book is at least incomplete and, in a few places, pretty dated. But it's a decent overview of the Mars missions prior to that point, featuring detailed but relatively non-technical descriptions of the Mariner and Viking probes and especially the Mars Pathfinder mission, which featured the first Mars Rover, Sojourner. There may not be quite as many pictures as I'd usually expect from this kind of a book, but there are a fair number, including a few in 3D. (Red/blue glasses are included.)

Rating: 3.5/5

74detailmuse
Aug 18, 2010, 8:41am Top

This brought a smile, I've had Passages and Future Shock sitting mostly unread for decades. I wonder how they've held up -- Future Shock might be especially interesting to read as anthropology.

75bragan
Aug 18, 2010, 8:53am Top

I read Future Shock maybe 15 or 20 years ago, and as I recall, it already seemed kind of dated. I think it might be very interesting to see how it holds up now.

76bragan
Edited: Aug 20, 2010, 8:07am Top

108. Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin



The third book in the Annals of the Western Shore series, after Gifts and Voices. This one tells the story of a slave boy who, well-treated and educated, grows up content with his lot until tragedy forces him to confront the injustice of his life. It's a good book, much longer and more complex than Gifts, but while it is sometimes rather moving and occasionally suspenseful, I didn't find it quite as compelling as Voices.

It occurs to me, by the way, that "Powers" might have made an equally good title for the series as a whole, as he trilogy really is an extended exploration of various kinds of power, although never a simplistic or didactic one. I do love Le Guin's ability to blend deep themes and plain good storytelling so perfectly.

Rating: 4.5/5

77bragan
Edited: Aug 21, 2010, 8:50am Top

109. Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis by Lisa Sanders



Dr. Lisa Sanders discusses the art and science of medical diagnosis, with lots of examples of puzzling medical problems and lots of analysis of how doctors figure out what's happening in a human body and why they sometimes get it wrong. Sanders is a technical advisor for the TV series House, and many of the medical stories she tells here would be right at home on an episode of the show, but in many ways Dr. Sanders is the exact opposite of Dr. House. She puts a lot of stress on the importance of clear communication between doctors and patients and on not losing sight of the patient's humanity. Most particularly, she emphasizes the importance of hands-on physical examinations, which she claims is something of a dying art thanks to the modern tendency to rely -- or over-rely -- on high-tech medical tests and to the fact that it's not taught effectively in medical schools.

The case studies she presents here are often fascinating in themselves, as medical detective stories, but what makes this book really worth reading is its eye-opening look at the difficulties of diagnosis, the all too many ways in which doctors can fail, and the potential ways in which doctors, patients and teachers can work to improve things.

It is, however, also mildly terrifying, especially for someone with occasional hypochondriac tendencies, to be so vividly reminded of all the strange, hard-to-figure-out things that can go badly wrong in the human body. And it may be very useful and important to be reminded that doctors are fallible human beings like the rest of us, but damn it, I still desperately want them to magically know what's wrong with me when I ask.

Rating: 4/5

78bragan
Aug 21, 2010, 10:04am Top

110. Star Trek Speaks by Susan Sackett, Fred Goldstein and Stan Goldstein



A 1979 compilation of quotations from the original Star Trek. There are a few classics in here, but mostly these were selected not for being memorable or pithy, but for being "philosophical," or for fitting vague themes like "love" and "humanity." Out of context, many of them come across as pretentious. Or pointless. Or possibly both. Not really worth seeking out, even for serious Trek fans, except maybe as a completist collector's item.

Rating: 2/5

79kidzdoc
Aug 21, 2010, 12:51pm Top

Nice review of Every Patient Tells a Story. Dr. Sanders also writes a monthly column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine about interesting patients and puzzling medical cases, called Diagnosis.

80bragan
Aug 21, 2010, 1:04pm Top

Yes, she mentions that in the book. I didn't realize they were available online, though, so thanks for the link!

81bragan
Aug 22, 2010, 10:21am Top

111. Ring for Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse



The dust jacket informs me that this is "the only Jeeves story in which Bertie Wooster makes no appearance." Which immediately had me wondering whether such a thing could ever possibly work. But, no, it's still as wonderfully witty and as full of delightful silliness as ever. I might have missed Bertie a little, but that didn't stop me from enjoying it thoroughly.

Rating: 4.5/5

82urania1
Aug 22, 2010, 10:58am Top

Bragan,

Ring for Jeeves is great. Have you read any of Wodehouse's Blandings Castle novels. They are wonderful as well. And if you're a fan of Wodehouse and like gardens, then I would suggest one of Beverley Nichols garden memoirs. Thus far my favorite is Merry Hall. Joe Keenan's three novels - Blue Heaven, Putting on the Ritz (my favorite), and My Lucky Star - are Wodehouse gone gay camp. Keenan is a former writer for the sitcom Frasier.

83bragan
Aug 22, 2010, 11:14am Top

I notice many of the LT reviews on Ring for Jeeves were bad ones. A lot of people seem to dislike the lack of Bertie and the 1950s setting and various other things. Which I can understand, I suppose, but, man, the writing is hilarious!

I haven't read any of the Blandings Castle books, but it's nice to know I'll have them to turn to when I finally finish Jeeves & Wooster. As for gardens, well, I'm afraid I have something of a black thumb, myself, but I suppose that doesn't necessarily mean it can't be entertaining to read about someone else doing it. And "Wodehouse gone gay camp" certainly sounds like fun!

84bragan
Edited: Aug 25, 2010, 12:25am Top

112. What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained by Robert L. Wolke



Author Robert Wolke answers questions about the chemistry and physics of what goes on in our kitchens, such as "What exactly is in artificial sweeteners?", "Why do we add salt when boiling water for pasta?", "What causes freezer burn?" and "Why is it bad to put metal in a microwave?" The explanations are very simple and clear for non-scientific audiences without being too dumbed down, and while some address matters of mere idle curiosity, others may actually help you to become a better cook or a smarter consumer as well as learning some basic scientific principles along the way. There are also a number of recipes which illustrate various points discussed in the book, and in general they look easy and rather appealing. There are a couple I'm decidedly interested in trying, and that's pretty rare for me.

Rating: 4/5

85avaland
Aug 25, 2010, 8:23am Top

What an eclectic mix of books!

86bragan
Aug 25, 2010, 9:27am Top

Eclectic is the way I like 'em. :)

87janemarieprice
Aug 25, 2010, 11:08am Top

84 - "Why do we add salt when boiling water for pasta?" - Ooh, ooh, I know this one. Sounds like an interesting read.

88bragan
Aug 25, 2010, 1:03pm Top

Ah, but do you know that one? Because I thought I did, but I was wrong! The usual assumption is that the salt raises the boiling point of the water to make it cook faster... Which it does, except that a pinch of salt in that much water makes a negligible difference to the boiling point. The real reason, apparently, is simply that salt makes it taste better.

I can't help finding this sort of thing fascinating.

89janemarieprice
Edited: Aug 25, 2010, 1:27pm Top

"salt makes it taste better" - I would have included this as well as the boiling point bit. I remember dreading as a child visiting my maternal grandfather because he couldn't have any salt. We would go every few months and my mother would bring ice chests full of individual sized tupperwares of food for him. In 23 years as a widower, I don't think he ever cooked anything except rice and Crown on the rocks.

The other questions, however, I don't know the answers to - except that metal starts fires in a microwave...that one I learned from observation. :)

ETA: There is also a thing with olive oil in pasta - people think it keeps it from clumping, but I suspect that this is similarly negligible.

90bragan
Edited: Aug 25, 2010, 2:06pm Top

I remember a moderately unpleasant dinner or two with my dad when he was on a low-salt diet. Because not only could he not eat any, he could get a bit snippy if anybody else wanted some, which greatly irritated my salt-loving sister.

As for the answers... Well, there are various different chemicals that are used as artificial sweeteners; Wolke covers them in a fair amount of detail. Freezer burn is due to water leaching out of the food, thus leaving it dehydrated. That's where the frost comes from in non-self-defrosting freezers; it's stolen from your food. As for metal in the microwave, the problem is that it creates electrical sparks, and just how dangerous it is depends in part on the shape of the metal. Long and pointy metal is the worst, and while I've never started a fire myself, I can testify from experience that metal twist ties can put on quite a light show if you forget to remove them.

91bragan
Aug 25, 2010, 8:25pm Top

113. The Incident Report by Martha Baille



The "incident report" of the title is a form to be filled out by library employees in the case of a disturbance involving patrons, but the reports that make up this novel are more like short diary entries in which a librarian describes not only the strange, often disturbing behavior of various people, many of them clearly mentally ill, who visit the library, but also snippets of her own history and feelings, including a budding romance and conflicting feelings about her dead father. But while there is a plot, of sorts, it really is more a collection of incidents than a story.

I'm not entirely sure how well it works. On one hand, the writing is occasionally nicely evocative, conjuring up the main character's distant, stifled thoughts and feelings with an apt turn of phrase. But much of it, particularly the romance, feels... I don't know. A little too artificial? A little too self-consciously literary, in a sparse sort of way? Ultimately, it's interesting, but just not very satisfying. It feels, perhaps, as if the author tried to pare the novel down to its emotional bare bones and ended up cutting it down a little too far.

Rating: 3.5/5

92bragan
Aug 26, 2010, 11:03pm Top

114. SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner



If you've read the first Freakonomics book, you can expect this to be basically more of the same: odd applications of "economic thinking" to various unexpected aspects of society. In this case, as the subtitle indicates, those include discussions of the economics of prostitution, profiling terrorist suspects based on (among other things) their financial activity, and the possibility of cheap and simple means of reversing global warming.

As is probably obvious from that list of subjects, the authors deliberately aim to be a little controversial and provocative. They even say in the introduction that they expect readers to find things in the book to argue about and would feel disappointed if they didn't. Well, in that respect, they are successful, as there were several things I certainly wanted to argue with, most notably a few instances which left me wanting to shout, "Look, just because something makes sense in terms of economic statistics, that doesn't automatically make it ethically acceptable!" Which isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's thought-provoking, which no doubt is the desired result. And the writing is very breezy and readable. Almost a bit too breezy in places, perhaps, as its treatment of some topics feels rather slight, but entertaining enough.

Rating: 3.5/5

93bragan
Edited: Aug 30, 2010, 8:27pm Top

115. Zamper by Gareth Roberts



Another of the Doctor Who "New Adventures" series from the 1990s. In this installment, the Doctor and friends find themselves on the planet Zamper, where fearsome warships are constructed for anyone who can pay. But the planet holds a mysterious secret, and, of course, our heroes arrive just as things are beginning to go wrong. It's a very traditional sort of Doctor Who story. It's easy to imagine it being filmed, scene for scene, as an episode of the TV series. Which is not necessarily a good thing; often a story that might make for a perfectly good TV script becomes tedious when forced into book form. In this case, I think it works reasonably well, though. I rather like the nasty, turtle-like aliens who play a large role in the book. They're the usual amusingly cheesy Doctor Who villains, but they do have a few interesting quirks, and they turn out not to be entirely black-and-white. (They're also not necessarily always as alien as they perhaps should be, but I'm willing to leave that aside.) There's some nice, somewhat sly humor, too, which I appreciated.

However, I have come to the conclusion that these books -- not just the New Adventures books, but all Who novels and possibly all TV tie-in novels -- really have to be much better than the average episode in order to be as entertaining. And this one is no exception. There are a number of characters who might be made memorable by a good performance, but who just lie flat on the printed page. Sadly, this includes the still-new-at-this-point companions, Forrester and Cwej. And the plot didn't exactly have me in excited agonies of suspense wondering how it was going to play out, either. So while it may be a pleasant enough read, in the end it's probably a forgettable one.

Rating: 3.5/5

94bragan
Edited: Aug 31, 2010, 6:25pm Top

116. Skellig by David Almond



Michael's new baby sister is very sick, and his new house isn't in much better shape. But there's an interesting girl living across the street, and in his new home's falling-down old garage there's a man who isn't quite a man at all, but something much stranger and more wonderful. It's a pretty standard little fantasy story, on the face of it. And it's written very much in a YA style, with short, simple sentences. But what Almond does with it makes it all rather beautiful.

Rating: 4/5

95bragan
Edited: Sep 3, 2010, 12:59am Top

117. Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err is Human by Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan



Authors Kaplan and Kaplan look at the various ways in which we fallible human beings are prone to errors of perception, memory, thought, and more.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this book. To begin with, the authors have an inordinate fondness for allusions and quotations of varying degrees of relevance and obscurity, to the point where it sits right on the borderline between entertaining and annoying. And the first couple of chapters, while interesting enough, felt a bit disorganized to me. Discussions of different points tend to blur together slightly, with some ideas explored in detail complete with scientific evidence, others asserted without offering real support, and still others only mentioned in passing, leaving the reader to wonder what the full story behind them is. Then there's the penultimate chapter, which deals with how our evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers affects our current lives in such areas as romance, food, and child-rearing. These are relevant topics, but they seem a little too tangential to the main thrust of the book to receive such detailed treatment, and while I don't really disagree with most of it, I do think that particular chapter blends science, speculation, and the authors' personal views about modern society just a little too freely. (You could probably say the same, to a lesser extent, about the final chapter, which deals with morality, altruism, emotions, power, and how to get along with other people in human society. But I do think it also contains much that is worthwhile, and even somewhat inspiring.)

So, that's the (mildly) negative. On the positive side, the book is very readable, quote-happy tendencies aside. It contains a lot of interesting scientific information, some thought-provoking ideas, and a few really insightful thoughts. Those looking for a more focused take on the subject of how and why the brains that evolved to help us get laid and keep us from getting eaten by tigers aren't necessarily the most reliable tools for discovering the objective truth of the world might prefer something like Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational. But Bozo Sapiens, with its broad view, its readable style, and its interest in social issues, does provide a worthwhile introduction to the topic. Which, by the way, is a topic that I firmly believe everyone should be introduced to. How can you possibly begin to understand the universe, after all, without understanding the limits of the brain with which you perceive and analyze the universe?

Rating: This one's hard to rate. I'm calling it 3.5/5, although I feel a bit stingy.

(Note: This was my Early Reviewers book for June.)

96dchaikin
Sep 3, 2010, 8:15am Top

Those looking for a more focused take on the subject of how and why the brains that evolved to help us get laid and keep us from getting eaten by tigers aren't necessarily the most reliable tools for discovering the objective truth of the world

:)

Nice review. I've added Ariely's book to my wishlist.

97bragan
Sep 3, 2010, 10:49am Top

I definitely do recommend Predictably Irrational. It has less of the evolutionary psychology stuff, as I recall, and probably also talks less about perception, but it's a very good and very readable discussion about how the quirks and flexibilities of the human brain lead us to get certain things entirely wrong and to make irrational decisions.

There are quite a few other interesting books out there recently that touch on these subject, too.

98bragan
Edited: Sep 3, 2010, 1:10pm Top

118. Locke & Key: Crown of Shadows by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez



I really should learn not to start series like this while they're still in progress. When I have to wait between installments, I tend to lose the momentum of the story and it takes me far too long to really get back into it, in part because I get distracted trying to remember everything that's already happened.

Which was a bit of an issue for me here, but that's my problem, not the series'. This, like the earlier two volumes, is both well written and beautifully drawn, with supernatural elements both wonderful and horrible, and characters who are so believable that it's sometimes painful.

Unless the remaining volumes turn out to be almost unimaginably disappointing, I recommend this series wholeheartedly. But you might be better off waiting for it to finish first, unless you're far less distractable and impatient than I am.

Rating: 4/5

99stretch
Sep 3, 2010, 1:49pm Top

I know what you mean about being lost. I had to glance through the last two volumes just to make sure I wasn't misremebering something from the story. I've thought of keeping up with the series with each new trade paper comic that comes out monthly. But then I would still end up buying the book.

Now with the Keys to Kingdom stand alone spinoff, I'm going to be indebted to Joe Hill and IDW for sometime to come. They even have replica keys from the books now! Which has me thinking that they would make great bookmarks.

Yeah it's safe to say I've become a little too absorbed in this franchise for my own good.

100bragan
Sep 3, 2010, 2:03pm Top

I did flip through the last volume a bit, but I think I'd really have had to reread everything properly to really get it all back in my head, and if I reread previous volumes every time I started the latest book in a series, I'd be even further behind on the TBR Pile than I already am.

I was a little amused by the forward to this volume, which basically says, "Why on earth are you only reading this now? You need to get the comics as soon as they come out!" The answer, for me, is that then I'd have a wait after each little section, and that would be even worse, even if it wouldn't be as long.

I hadn't even heard of the Keys to the Kindgom spinoff! Oh, dear. Still more to read... Well, I do at least think it's a franchise well worth becoming absorbed in.

101bragan
Edited: Sep 3, 2010, 2:31pm Top

On this same topic... It occurs to me that I probably gave Crown of Shadows four stars instead of four and a half mostly for the admittedly unfair reason that there just wasn't enough of it. The first two collections, read back-to-back, provided a meaty enough dose of storytelling to be somewhat satisfying, even though they left me very much wanting to know what would happen next. Just this one on its own, though... By the time I got completely wrapped up in the story, it was over. Very frustrating for me, and, of course, that effect would be several times worse if I were reading it as it comes out.

I really am just not the right kind of reader for monthly comics.

102stretch
Sep 3, 2010, 5:22pm Top

I totally know what you mean. I really don't have the patience for the shorter monthly issues. There's no good solution to being stuck in the middle of series. It's a frustrating place to be.

I was more generous with my rating. Originally four stars for the story being a bit shorter than normal, but then I gave it 1/2 star extra because Tyler is a 49er fan. Yeah I'm a total homer.

103bragan
Sep 3, 2010, 6:00pm Top

I need a time machine, so I can pop into the future and pick up yet-to-be-written books when I want to read them. Clearly, it's the only reasonable solution.

104bragan
Sep 6, 2010, 6:21am Top

119. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens



A while back, I decided that I really ought to read some more Dickens. So last year I picked up Great Expectations, which had a good enough story, but which kept reminding me far too much of a friend's comment that he never liked Dickens because it was too obvious they were paying him by the word. But while Oliver Twist might also be legitimately accused of wordiness, in this case that struck me as more charming than tedious, and overall I found it a much more engaging read.

The plot has enough interesting elements, certainly. There's crime and punishment, kindness and cruelty, long-held secrets, and sudden reversals of fortune. Also huge honking coincidences, but at least Dickens introduces them gradually enough to give you time to shore up your suspension of disbelief. Oliver himself, though, really isn't much of a character. He's someone to whom things happen, not one who makes things happen, and his only defining traits are innocence, piteousness, and a vague, generic sort of sweetness. But this isn't necessarily a problem; he seems to me to be filling the role of a slightly sentimentalized everychild, and on that level he works well enough.

But what really makes this worth reading isn't the characters or the plot. It's the surprising little moments of human insight, the wonderfully sly and dark satiric humor, and the sharply pointed social commentary. And, unfortunately, while there may be no more workhouses in England, the attitudes towards the poor that Dickens targets here are still too familiar and relevant even now. It's brilliant writing, and if it occasionally brings a little bit of mawkishness or melodrama along with it, I find that entirely forgivable.

Somewhat less forgivable, though, is the portrayal of Fagin as an unpleasantly stereotypical villainous Jew. Interestingly enough, despite everything about this book that I already knew through cultural osmosis, I had never even realized that he was Jewish. Dickens, however, never lets you forget it for an instant. Every other sentence, he's referred to as "the Jew." My impression is that, for whatever it's worth, at least this is more thoughtless stereotyping than active maliciousness. A brief bit of research on the internet reveals that Dickens, having had the offensiveness of this pointed out to him, later revised the last fifteen chapters or so to tone it down. Which is something, I guess, but I don't know that it helps all that much. And it really is very unfortunate, both for the obvious reasons and because without the uncomfortable overtones of anti-Semitism, Fagin really could have been quite an entertainingly smarmy character. And he actually does get some surprisingly poignant moments at the end.

Rating: 4/5

105bragan
Sep 7, 2010, 11:38am Top

120. The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb



The text of the first book of the Bible in graphic novel format, with beautifully vivid black-and-white illustrations by R. Crumb. This is completely unabridged, which means it contains not just the familiar Sunday School stories, but all the parts that usually get left out of the familiar Sunday School stories, all the bits that repeat or seem to contradict other bits, and all the tedious genealogies of "begots."

I had never read Genesis straight through before, and in general I found it very worthwhile, in part because some of the stories are entertaining, but mainly for the fascinating look it provides at an important ancient culture. This is a great format for that, too, because R. Crumb's illustrations really do make the stories and the people seem to come alive even during those endless genealogies. But, at the risk of offending the religious, I have to say that I have emerged from my reading feeling even more befuddled by the idea that inhabitants of the 21st century can comfortably regard it as a literal, sacred text, or find much of anything in it that's morally praiseworthy.

The book also contains a few interesting notes on the contents of various chapters, many of which argue for a somewhat feminist interpretation of the text that, although I am no Biblical scholar and can't say for sure, certainly seems like wishful thinking to me, since I'm reasonably sure this is the least feminist text I have read in my entire life.

Rating: 4/5

106bragan
Sep 9, 2010, 5:16pm Top

121. I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells



Fifteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver, despite his inauspicious name, is not a serial killer. But he could be. He has all the hallmarks, up to and including a semi-official diagnosis as a sociopath, and he's pretty sure he'd really, really enjoy it. But even though his understanding that killing is wrong is only an intellectual one, he has decided that a killer is not who he wants to be. So he has rules -- quite reasonable and effective ones -- for diverting his thoughts and behaviors away from dangerously obsessive and violent channels. Until, that is, someone -- or something -- else starts killing people in the sleepy little town where lives, and he has to face the possibility of letting out his inner demons in order to fight an external one.

This is one of those books that I strongly suspect is, objectively, not nearly as good as I think it is. Because, yes, John's discussions of his internal states sometimes have something of a tell-don't-show quality to them, and, yes, it never quite reaches the intense heights of disturbing creepiness that it might have aspired to. But I really don't care, because the premise hooked me in very effectively, and I found John's psychology, his rules, and his choices genuinely fascinating. I also quite enjoyed the plot. It does feature some supernatural elements that, at first, felt very out of place to me, but I think what the author does with them ultimately works extremely well.

Apparently there are sequels forthcoming, which I will definitely be interested in reading.

Rating: 4/5

107bragan
Sep 11, 2010, 10:34am Top

There's been some discussion, here and in my previous thread for this year, about movies based on some of these books, and since I've been catching up on some DVD-watching after a tiring week, I can report back on a couple of them.

First of all, thanks to everyone who suggested I should watch Stand by Me, which I somehow managed to grow this old without ever seeing. I am really astounded by it. I think that is the single most faithful book-to-movie adaptation I have ever seen in my entire life. And it works extremely well, although I think I am still glad I read the written version first.

A Beautiful Mind, on the other hand... Well, as far as I can tell, they got John Nash's personality right, and quite a few of the specific details are about right. But the basic narrative of the movie is pure Hollywood. The love story in the movie is highly romanticized and extremely pat. And also much less interesting than the messy, messy reality. It fails to mention, for instance, that they actually divorced, although the relationship did continue after that. Or that when they met -- not the way depicted in the movie, incidentally -- Nash already sort of had a girlfriend. Also a boyfriend. And a child. (Indeed, the movie sort of gives the impression that he was an awkward virgin before meeting the one girl who could appreciate his nerdy directness. Very far from the truth.)

The nature of his illness was also jazzed up for the movie. Admittedly, the way the movie presented it did at least capture the sense you get with schizophrenia of delusions that may feel perfectly real and sensible to the sufferer, but lead to actions that seem crazy from the outside. And they did use the hallucinations to pull off a rather nice little plot twist for those who don't know anything about the real person the story is based on. (So I'm sorry if I ruined the movie for anybody by reviewing the book!) But the real delusions were never quite that coherent, and they took a rather different form -- specifically an obsession with the development of a world government, and various conspiracies thereon. And the hallucinations were never visual, let alone of fully formed imaginary people.

Honestly, the more I think about A Beautiful Mind, the more amazed I am that "The Body" made it into movie form with, as far as I can tell, nothing changed except the title. How does that even happen in Hollywood?

108bragan
Sep 14, 2010, 10:18pm Top

122. Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois



Thirteen SF novellas published between the early 60s and the early 90s. I don't know how many of these I would necessarily consider "classics," but the authors' names will, for the most part, be very familiar to anyone conversant with the genre, and they're all good, well-written stories. I think the only one I'm not sure I actually liked was Cordwainer Smith's "On the Storm Planet," which -- and there is no better way to put it -- I found a bit too WTF-ish in some of the wrong ways for my personal taste. And even that one had some wonderfully imaginative details and a writing style with a certain elusive something that left me interested in reading more Cordwainer Smith stories, just as I was when I started.

Editor Dozois insists in his preface that there is no particular theme to the stories and that he simply picked ones he happened to like and which had not been anthologized too often or too recently. But his tastes, I think, are pretty clear. There's a definite lack of nuts 'n' bolts hard SF, in favor of stories with a more social or psychological focus. Many of them have a touch of strangeness about them, occasionally bordering on surreality. And they often give the reader a strong sense of having glimpsed only one small corner of a world or a galaxy that is much larger, more complicated, and more alien than any one story can convey. Fortunately that last, in particular, is a characteristic I happen to quite enjoy, myself.

I think my favorite of the bunch was Samuel R. Delany's "The Star Pit," which starts with the image of a terrarium, then extends the metaphor out to encompass the entire galaxy, and then beyond. And if a few of the details don't rate terribly highly for plausibility, well, that's entirely beside the point.

Rating: 4/5

109bragan
Sep 15, 2010, 9:21pm Top

123. Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson



There's not necessarily a whole lot of biography in this short biography of William Shakespeare, simply because it tends to stick as close as possible to the known facts about the man, and there are precious few of those. But the mystery that surrounds Shakespeare's life is itself interesting, and so are the attempts of scholars to tease tidbits of knowledge and vast realms of speculation out of small scraps of historical information. Bryson also does a good job of giving the reader a vivid sense of what Shakespeare's time was really like, in all its vibrancy and squalor. And, as always, his writing is lively and readable. It's not laugh-out-loud funny as many of his books are; with the possible exception of the amusing final chapter in which he wittily slams conspiracy theories about who really wrote Shakespeare's plays, that's not the effect it's going for. But it is definitely entertaining, as well as educational.

Rating: 4/5

110bragan
Sep 16, 2010, 11:44pm Top

124. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa



A single mother with a ten-year-old son comes to work for an elderly mathematician who, having suffered a head injury in 1975, cannot remember anything past that time for more than eighty minutes. The three of them form a bond, and the mathematician teaches them lots of nifty facts about numbers, which, honestly, is much more interesting than it sounds.

Having seen this book praised highly by a lot of people, I think I was expecting something a bit more, I don't know, emotionally intense. But really it's just a sweet, very low-key book about friendship and math, with a nice, very subtle thematic undertone involving the fragility of memory and the unchanging eternity of numbers.

Rating: 4/5

111dchaikin
Sep 18, 2010, 12:10am Top

"But, at the risk of offending the religious, I have to say that I have emerged from my reading feeling even more befuddled by the idea that inhabitants of the 21st century can comfortably regard it as a literal, sacred text, or find much of anything in it that's morally praiseworthy."

Ha! Well said.

You have posted some great stuff here. Love your review of Oliver Twist! It certainly makes me want to pick-up Dickens...although the antisemitism is quite an unpleasant surprise.

112bragan
Sep 18, 2010, 12:55am Top

It really is just confusing to me, but I appear somehow to lack the believer's gene. :)

And the anti-semitism was an unpleasant surprise to me, too. Again, I don't think Dickens was deliberately trying to make any kind of racist statement, but rather simply reflecting unconscious attitudes of his times. But it's still highly unfortunate, to say the least. I do still recommend Oliver Twist, though, regardless, because the social statements Dickens is deliberately making are very well-made, indeed.

113bragan
Edited: Sep 19, 2010, 2:04am Top

125. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner



The subtitle says it all, really. Journalist and self-described grump Eric Weiner travels the world searching for happiness, or at least investigating how the inhabitants of different cultures quantify their own happiness and what the concept means to them. Among other places, he visits Switzerland, where the inhabitants may or may not be entirely joking when they attribute their happiness to clean public bathrooms; Iceland, where people somehow manage to be happy in the dark; Bhutan, where the government is actively trying to prove that happiness does not reside in material goods; and Qatar, where the attitude seems to be that if money can't buy happiness, they'll just have to rent it. Also the former Soviet republic of Moldova, which, according to sociological research, is the unhappiest place on Earth.

It's an entertaining travelogue, written with a lot of humor and a pleasant human touch. Weiner does, admittedly, generalize a lot about the places and cultures he visits, but that's sort of in the nature of the exercise. And his musings, both personal and scientifically based, about the nature of happiness are interesting. If, in the end, his conclusions aren't terribly surprising, they're also not nearly as glib or facile as they might have been, either.

Rating: 4/5

114bragan
Sep 19, 2010, 2:48pm Top

126. Simon's Cat by Simon Tofield



If you've seen the wonderful "Simon's Cat" animated cartoons on YouTube -- and if you haven't, you should -- then you know pretty much what to expect here, as it's mostly more of the same, in non-moving form. That is, wordless cartoons featuring the adventures of, well... a cat. And while slightly anthropomorphized for humorous effect -- he dons disguises to attempt to fool birds and employs a baseball bat when he really, really wants to get his human's attention -- in his attitude, motivation, and frustratingly, endearingly perverse personality, this critter is pure cat. Indeed, the funniest cartoons here are the ones that best show off Simon Tofield's intimate familiarity with real cat behavior and will feel hilariously, painfully familiar to anyone who's ever shared living space with a cat. My favorite is a sequence involving the poor, poor human's attempt to get the reluctant feline into a cat carrier. Yeah, been there, done that, got the scratches to prove it. Ow.

I do think it all works slightly better in animated form, but I recommend this collection, anyway. It certainly made me laugh often enough to be worthwhile.

Rating: 4/5

115bragan
Edited: Sep 23, 2010, 9:26am Top

127. Forge of Heaven by C.J. Cherryh



The sequel to Hammerfall, set many, many centuries later. (Although it does feature of few of the same characters, effectively immortal as they are.) It's a much more interesting book than Hammerfall, and much more typical of a Cherryh novel. Lots of plotting and politics, high stakes and ambiguous motivations, with everything happening at the worst possible time and at least one poor innocent chump caught up in the middle of it all. And yet, I have to admit, I had some trouble getting into it. I think the problem is that the universe, backstory, and world-building details just never felt entirely comprehensible or convincing to me. There are a few reasons for that, but I think it's mostly that Hammerfall provided such a poor and cryptic introduction to it all, and it was hard to get past that.

Rating: 3.5/5

116bragan
Edited: Sep 25, 2010, 4:46am Top

128. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson



Most of the points Johnson makes here don't seem terribly surprising or original: Ideas build on other ideas. Rather then coming from nowhere in a flash of insight, ideas usually start as a vague hunch and build up over long periods of time. And innovation happens more easily in open environments where lots of different ideas have the opportunity to come together and cross-fertilize. His final conclusion, that for-profit companies obsessed with keeping their ideas proprietary are now a somewhat less prolific source of innovation than the public sector, may be a little bit more controversial, but even that thought doesn't seem especially, well, innovative.

Original or not, though, it is well-presented. He explores all these points in his usual clear and engaging style, with lots of good, concrete examples. And he makes a number of interesting and relevant connections between different subjects, most particularly between human innovation and the biology of ecosystems and evolution.

How useful or appealing this may be to entrepreneurs whose primary interest is in cultivating innovation, I can't really say, but as someone who simply enjoys well-written non-fiction, I certainly found it worth reading.

Rating: 4/5

(Note: This was my Early Reviewers book from the August batch.)

117bragan
Edited: Sep 27, 2010, 2:32am Top

129. John Dies at the End by David Wong



I've been trying to think how best to describe this book. It's a little bit like a goofy version of Lovecraft for Generation Y. Or maybe like the TV show Supernatural, with less competent protagonists and the wackiness levels turned up to 11. Or a Clive Barker story as reinterpreted by the writers of South Park. Or not quite any of those things, but something vaguely along those lines, anyway. It's slightly surreal, more than a little silly, often gory, sometimes crass, frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and full of a lot of nonsense. But, surprisingly, it's also quite a good horror story, with a suspenseful (if not necessarily coherent) plot and some genuine creepiness.

Yeah, honestly, I have no idea what it is, exactly. But whatever it may be, it's entertaining.

Rating: 4/5

118bragan
Edited: Sep 28, 2010, 11:53pm Top

130. Why Sh*t Happens: The Science of a Really Bad Day by Peter J. Bentley, PhD



Author Peter J. Bentley takes the reader through a hypothetical day in which just about everything imaginable goes wrong, using each unfortunate incident as a springboard from which to launch into a discussion of some aspect of science or technology. Thus, snoozing through your alarm clock results in an explanation of human sleep cycles, accidentally sending your mp3 player through the wash prompts a chapter about batteries and why it's a bad idea to dunk electronics in water, dropping your keys into a drain leads to into a lecture about gravity, and so on. Some of the chapters simply provide very basic lessons in physics or biology, where others digress into odd little corners of human knowledge. (A look at what happens when milk goes sour, for instance, leads into a brief discourse on cheese-making.)

It's a clever conceit, and it's executed pretty well. The science content is clear and to the point, and should be quite comprehensible to those with no background in the subject. The second person narrative is occasionally a little problematic, though. I can imagine myself into the persona of this hapless victim well enough most of the time, but honestly, book, you can't accuse me of things like drinking instant coffee and not expect me to rebel a little!

I do have to say that I found this a little less engaging than the other science-of-the-ordinary book I read recently, Robert L. Wolke's What Einstein Told His Cook. I'm not sure whether that's because more of the kitchen science presented in that book was unfamiliar to me than the topics covered this one, or whether I just really shouldn't have read two of these so close together. Whichever it is, I think that's more my problem than this book's. It's certainly a pleasant and informative enough read, if you're the sort of person who's interested in short, scientific explanations of the world around you.

Rating: 4/5

119detailmuse
Sep 30, 2010, 3:47pm Top

> Simon's Cat and Why Sh*t Happens
Thanks Santa bragan, gift ideas :)

120bragan
Sep 30, 2010, 5:31pm Top

Glad to be of service.

Ho, ho, ho!

121wandering_star
Sep 30, 2010, 7:10pm Top

Wow. I'm away for a month and come back to a dozen really excellently-written reviews. This thread is always a pleasure!

122bragan
Oct 1, 2010, 4:19am Top

Aww, thank you!

123bragan
Edited: Oct 2, 2010, 9:11pm Top

131. Toy Soldiers by Paul Leonard



This is the last of the Doctor Who New Adventures books that have been sitting on my TBR Pile for who knows how long.

The year is 1919, and aliens who look like oversized teddy bears are using actual teddy bears in a plot to kidnap human children to serve as soldiers in a mysterious, surprisingly low-tech war. It sounds like a ludicrous premise, even for Doctor Who, but it's played absolutely straight, and there's nothing laughable about it at all. Ultimately, it's something of a commentary on the pointless loss of young life in WWI, and it doesn't stint on the brutality.

It does work better than you'd expect. Watching the plot unfold isn't quite as exciting as it might have been, though, and I think it would be nice to have a little more of the Doctor in a series of which he is ostensibly the main character. But it's not bad. I think I liked it better than most of the Who novels I've read lately.

Rating: 3.5/5

124bragan
Edited: Oct 3, 2010, 5:17pm Top

132. The Socorro Blast by Pari Noskin Taichert



This is the third book in a mystery series. Ordinarily I try to avoid coming in in the middle of series, even when the individual volumes are pretty self-contained, as this one is. But this book happens to be set in the town where I live, so I couldn't resist.

The story features Sasha Solomon, a PR consultant who is hired to implement a plan -- one far too ambitious for a town this size, in my opinion -- for building a huge new visitors' center aimed at attracting tourism to Socorro County. But her stay becomes more complicated when her niece, a graduate student, is injured by a bomb in her mailbox. It seems to be a hate crime -- the niece is an Iranian-American Jew -- but it turns out there's more going on than that.

I did enjoy reading this, but it wasn't for the plot. Socorro, New Mexico isn't the kind of place that usually has books written about it, so seeing it as the main setting for a novel was was a lot of fun for me. And the author is clearly reasonably familiar with the town. A few of the tiny details are wrong or out of date, and the characters and events are very fictional, but the locales are generally captured very well and showcased with a level of detail I might even find annoying if it weren't a place I was personally interested in. And it's impossible not to get a kick out of the realization that you and the protagonist of the book you're reading both had lunch in the same restaurant.

Otherwise, though, I have to say that this was only just okay. I read it very quickly, but even so the mystery plot seemed to go slowly, and never it developed much in the way of tension. Quite a bit of the book is devoted not so much to the whodunnit aspects, but to dealing with the main character's relationships with her dysfunctional family, whose main occupation seems to be disparaging each other over their religious differences. Which would be fine, except for the fact that I didn't find any of them particularly interesting. Also, there's a weird New Age/supernatural element -- clearly part of an ongoing storyline -- that didn't fit well with this story at all, and had me rolling my eyes every time it came up.

So, yeah, I do recommend this book... but only if you happen to live in Socorro.

Rating: 3/5

125janemarieprice
Oct 5, 2010, 5:14pm Top

128 - I got this one as well, but haven't gotten to it yet. Looking forward to it after your review.

126bragan
Oct 5, 2010, 5:20pm Top

Hope you enjoy it, too! I always like Johnson's books. I figure that's probably why I won that one.

127bonniebooks
Oct 7, 2010, 12:18pm Top

Christmas? Yikes! But you're right, MJ, Why Shit Happens would make a good Christmas present. I can't figure out why LT won't let me add it, since it's already in the system. Thanks, Bragan!

128bragan
Oct 7, 2010, 1:09pm Top

The title actually uses the asterisk for the "i" in "shit"; if you're not searching for it like that, that might be why you're having trouble finding it. Personally, I've never seen the point of the asterisk. I mean, it's not like it's not obvious what the word is, anyway, or like there's a desperate need to protect people from OMG VOWELS! But whatever...

129RidgewayGirl
Oct 7, 2010, 1:14pm Top

My son, who's in second grade, very much does not believe in vowels. He writes notes to me with maybe a random e for effect, but that's it. I think he may have been in on that particular decision, although he does not yet know that word. (His favorite bad word is weiner).

130bragan
Edited: Oct 9, 2010, 5:10am Top

133. Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht



Jennifer Michael Hecht presents a comprehensive look at the world history of religious doubt, particularly doubt about the nature and existence of gods. Which, in a way, also makes it a history of religion and philosophy, from an enlightening alternate point of view. I found it thoroughly compelling, full of fascinating information, intelligent insights, and useful perspectives. As an ardent unbeliever myself, I also felt genuine delight at discovering so many thinkers, from so many different times, places, and traditions, whose words and ideas resonate so well with my own thoughts.

It's worth pointing out, though, that although the book is extremely positive about doubt, it is definitely not an anti-religious screed. It deals with doubt that exists within religious traditions as well as doubt that attacks them, and even includes atheistic religions, such as Theravada Buddhism, under its doubters' umbrella. And even as I've come away from my reading feeling a bit of Atheist Pride, I also feel I've gained a better understanding of, and even a greater sympathy for, many aspects of religion.

I'm giving this one the coveted five stars. I won't say that it's flawless, and it did take me a while to get through it, but, man, what a remarkable read!

Rating: 5/5

131stretch
Oct 9, 2010, 8:36am Top

I read about Doubt: A History in Greg Epstein's book Good without God and almost purchased outright, but then I figured I would gain very little from a history on unbelief. Now I'm going to have read it.

132bragan
Oct 9, 2010, 3:06pm Top

I definitely recommend it. Well, I'm sure it's not for everybody -- it's a pretty dense book, and you doubtless have to be interested in the subject for it to be worthwhile -- but I certainly got a lot out of it.

133Mr.Durick
Oct 9, 2010, 4:05pm Top

I think Doubt: a History is far from perfect but is still pretty solid. I believe in a God that the glib atheists of today cannot accommodate, it seems, in their reckoning, and I dislike them for it. Jennifer Michael Hecht goes to the trouble of looking seriously at doubt and at what is being doubted. Her book shows why Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins are not up to snuff just by being so much better than theirs.

Robert

134bragan
Oct 9, 2010, 5:08pm Top

Personally, I largely agree with Dawkins and company's opinions on God, but not necessarily always their approach to discussions on the matter. I do very much like Hecht's approach, and the fact that she takes everyone involved seriously.

135bragan
Edited: Oct 10, 2010, 9:06am Top

134. Diplomatic Immunity by Lois McMaster Bujold



Book 14 in the Miles Vorkosigan series, which I'm now finally all caught up with, just in time for the latest, long-awaited installment to come out. In this one, a disappearance that might be murder and might be desertion leads to a series of over-reactions and miscommunications that threaten to create a full-blown interstellar incident, and our hero is dispatched to clean up the mess. Which, of course, turns out to be even messier than expected.

It's definitely not one of the best of the series, but it's a good, solid read with a fairly exciting climax. And it's always fun to spend time with Miles. I'm going to be really sorry when I have none of this series left to read.

Rating: 4/5

136auntmarge64
Oct 10, 2010, 9:44am Top

>133 Mr.Durick: Robert, I'm stuck at wondering what a "glib atheist" is.....generally I find doubters and non-believers to be people who have at least considered their beliefs, unlike some (many?) believers who have no idea why they believe what they do other than that's what their priest/parents/church/rabbi/fill-in-the-blank told them to.

137bragan
Oct 11, 2010, 1:00am Top

135. The Deep Space Log Book: A Second Season Companion by Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross



I have to say that while the original Star Trek holds a primary place in my heart, if only for sheer, campy nostalgia value, I think that Deep Space Nine, objectively, is far and away the best of the Trek series. Certainly it's the most sophisticated, and often the best written. In my view, it deserved a lot more attention than it ever really got.

This book is an unofficial guide to the second season of DS9. I think I picked it up back when the show was still on the air, along with the first season version. I vaguely remember being unimpressed with the first one, though, and never did get around to volume two... Until now, some 15 years later, when I've started re-watching the show on DVD and it suddenly became relevant again.

The first half of the book consists of a sort of episode guide, featuring short recaps, a page or two of quoted comments from various people involved in making the show, and a very brief personal review by each of the editors. The second half contains a longish article about the history and making of the show, as well as, for some reason, a slightly shorter one about Voyager. It's a very amateurish production, cheaply made and not very well edited, but I did find it moderately entertaining to read, especially the episode comments. I feel like it mades up a little bit for the lack of commentaries on the DVDs.

Rating: 3/5

138bragan
Edited: Oct 11, 2010, 8:15am Top

136. Bite Me: A Love Story by Christopher Moore



The third book in Christopher Moore's comic vampire series, after Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story and You Suck: A Love Story. (Personally, I think the first one had one of the most irresistible titles ever, but the subtitle's effect has, alas, been greatly diminished by the repetition. Never mind that, though.)

This one features teenage Valley Girl goth chick "Abby Normal," her nerdy boyfriend "Foo Dog" (aka Steve), and a plague of vampire cats. It has pretty much everything Christopher Moore novels usually have: quirky characters, wacky situations, and a witty, offbeat sense of humor. But while it is often quite funny, somehow I just had trouble getting into it. Maybe it's that it was a little too light and frothy. Or that, despite the extensive recap, I didn't remember the previous two books well enough to feel much investment in this one. Or that Abby's narrative voice is kind of annoying (albeit deliberately so). Mostly, I think I just wasn't in the right kind of mood; I suspect reading John Dies at the End may have satisfied my appetite for this kind of thing for quite a while yet.

Rating: A possibly ungenerous 3.5/5

139bragan
Oct 13, 2010, 12:59am Top

137. The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow



Hawking and Mlodinow attempt to explain the entire universe in 180 pages. They start out with a couple of philosophical chapters addressing the question of what we can understand about the nature of reality and where science fits in. Then they quickly cover basic quantum mechanics, relativity, gravity, electromagnetism, and attempts to formulate a Grand Unified Theory before getting to the somewhat controversial notion that there may be many, many more universes than ours, an idea they believe could ultimately provide the answers to the biggest questions we have.

Most of the subject matter here was not at all new to me, which left me feeling a little disappointed. I was hoping for a little less Intro to Modern Physics and a little more string theory, perhaps. The topics they do cover are presented very non-technically; there are no equations in the book, and most of the diagrams seem to be intended more to look pretty than to convey anything complicated. But while it's difficult for me to say for sure, I strongly suspect that a reader coming into this with no prior knowledge of the subject matter is likely to find the explanations a little too concise. Based on my own experience, this is stuff that you need a bit of hand-holding to process properly the first time you encounter it, and they really don't do much of that.

Rating: 3.5/5

140bragan
Oct 15, 2010, 8:06pm Top

138. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger



Elspeth Noblin, on her deathbed, wills her London flat to her estranged twin sister's daughters -- also twins -- on the stipulation that they live in it for a year. She then fails to entirely vacate the flat after her death. What follows is a story about ghosts, family secrets, various kinds of relationships, and many fun facts about London's Highgate Cemetery.

It's hard to know quite what to say about this one. I read the first two thirds of it while feeling very low-energy and mildly unwell, and, despite a few minor flaws, it was actually a really good book for that: interesting enough to absorb my attention (which was nice, because it gave me an excuse not to get up off the couch), but not terribly demanding. So that was fairly enjoyable. But as the novel went on, the characters increasingly started doing things that tried my patience and lost my sympathy, culminating in an ending that annoyed me on a surprising number of levels and leaving me with an urge to throw my hands up in disgust and be done with most of them well before the author was.

I'm giving it three stars, but I honestly can't decide whether that's overly generous or mildly unfair. Which attitude I take depends on which part of the book I happen to be thinking about at the time.

Rating: 3/5

141dchaikin
Oct 15, 2010, 10:07pm Top

Catching up with your thread. Doubt is now on the wishlist. Her Fearful Symmetry is on my IPad, but I've been nervous about starting it...still nervous.

142bragan
Oct 15, 2010, 10:21pm Top

Well, I'll be interested to hear what you think about Her Fearful Symmetry when you do get to it. With any luck, maybe you'll be happier with it than I was.

143solla
Oct 16, 2010, 7:40pm Top

#13 I had a similar response to one of Hawking's books - A brief history of time, I think. I had some introductory knowledge and wanted to get into it a bit more. I felt like the book talked down to me, as if the writer didn't want to bother to give me an explanation. It just skimmed over the surface.

144bragan
Oct 16, 2010, 8:59pm Top

I read A Brief History of Time way back when -- I think I was still high school, actually -- and vaguely remember finding it a bit too dense for me. Having studied a lot of physics since then, I'm not sure I'd still feel that way about it now. But "it just skimmed over the surface" describes The Grand Design very well. I know it can be really difficult to find the right kind of balance in a science popularization, and I've certainly read worse attempts. But it wasn't very satisfying for someone coming into it with a background in the subject, and I strongly suspect that it's likely to be a little confusing for someone coming into it with no such background. I do have to wonder exactly who they think their audience is.

145fannyprice
Oct 17, 2010, 10:43am Top

>133 Mr.Durick:, Doubt: A History sounds excellent! You've given me a great holiday gift idea for all the atheists and thoughtful believers on my list!

146bragan
Oct 17, 2010, 2:03pm Top

Yay! I hope they enjoy it!

147bragan
Edited: Oct 19, 2010, 8:29pm Top

139. Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals by Jay Kirk



A biography of Carl Akeley, a late 19th/early 20th century taxidermist whose accomplishments, among other things, included helping to stuff Jumbo the elephant, inventing a new kind of camera for wilderness filming, and making multiple trips to Africa in a rather painfully ironic attempt to preserve the continent's rapidly vanishing animals for posterity by killing lots of them.

Akeley's life story is an interesting one (even if I do find his vocation a little creepy and am in general inclined to root for the animal over the hunter), and he lived in undeniably interesting times. Despite which I found this book a little hard to get into, largely due to the writing style. Much of it is written more like a novel than a biography, with descriptions of details, thoughts and emotions that, assuming the author isn't a mind-reading time traveler, are inevitably speculative and embellished. Whether or not this sort of thing works for a reader may be largely a matter of taste, but I do think there are some ways in which it's objectively problematic. For one thing, it blurs the boundary between fact and fiction just enough to make it unclear how much any of it can be trusted. The author does discuss where he gets his assumptions about his subjects' emotional states from and the extent to which various passages are or aren't supported by evidence in the endnotes, but I didn't find that a particularly satisfying solution to the problem. And this approach also makes for some awkwardness in the writing any time the author wants to take a step back from the personal accounts to put things in a broader context, as well as in the places where information about specific events simply isn't available. All of which might be forgivable if it made for a truly compelling read, but the writing in the more novelistic sections is often kind of overdone, full of emotional outbursts, exclamation points, and slightly overwrought turns of phrase, as if he didn't quite trust the subject matter to be exciting enough in itself. Which, honestly, it could have been.

I will add that there is one respect in which this choice of writing style does work very nicely, which is that it lets the more disturbing attitudes of the times -- colonialism, racism, a deeply conflicted and often destructive approach to nature -- speak for themselves. Very effectively so, in fact, with no excuses offered and no 21st century moralizing necessary. But, even so, I would have much preferred a more traditional non-fiction approach. As it is, I did find it worth reading, but just not as engaging as it should have been.

Rating: 3.5/5

(Note: This was an ER book from the September batch.)

148bragan
Oct 20, 2010, 1:53am Top

140. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse



Ah, Wodehouse! Good for what ails you! After a run of less-than-satisfying reading, this really hit the spot. I started grinning like a fool on the very first page, and didn't really stop grinning or turning pages until the end. Jeeves and Wooster are always delightful, and they are on top form in this one. Definitely among the series' best.

Rating: Taking this one as representative of the series as a whole, I'm giving it 5/5.

149bragan
Oct 21, 2010, 3:34am Top

141. Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich



A portrait of the deeply dysfunctional relationship between Irene, an intellectually inclined Native American woman and her volatile, often abusive artist husband, with their three gifted children caught in the middle.

I didn't think at first that I was going to like this book, as I had difficulty relating to the characters' marital problems and found their little cruelties towards each other off-putting. But the writing was so good -- full of depth, subtlety and insight, written in a sparse, effective style -- that I quickly found myself swept up and drawn into these peoples' lives, almost against my will. I simply couldn't stop turning pages until I'd finished.

Rating: 4.5/5

150RidgewayGirl
Oct 21, 2010, 11:49am Top

Shadow Tag is a book that has stayed in my mind. I thought it was underwritten, but powerful and as much as we would like to think that adults are always able to keep their marital difficulties away from their children, they probably get drawn in, in some way, most of the time.

151bragan
Oct 21, 2010, 1:03pm Top

I think it may have been powerful because it was underwritten. I don't know. All I know is that I found it surprisingly compelling. And I really felt for those kids.

152bragan
Oct 22, 2010, 2:20am Top

142. Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings by Gary L. Wenk



This book could have been more accurately titled Your Brain on Drugs, although I suppose that phrase might already have been trademarked, and, as the author points out, the line between foods and drugs is really quite a blurry one, anyway. Basically, it's an overview of how various chemicals we humans put into our bodies -- whether medicinally, recreationally, or as food -- affect the working of our brains. This involves lots of discussions of neurotransmitters with long, unwieldy names and complicated descriptions of the intricate ways in which they interact inside our skulls. But Wenk generally writes very clearly, keeps things reasonably simple without dumbing them down, and breaks up the difficult subject matter a bit by occasionally providing interesting facts about the cultural history of various substances and personal anecdotes about ill-advised ways his students have experimented with drugs. All in all, I'd say it's a pretty good introduction to the subject, if you're interested in something that's short, but reasonably detailed.

Rating: 4/5

153janeajones
Edited: Oct 22, 2010, 9:58pm Top

149> I've not yet read Shadow Tag -- but I love Louise Erdrich. Her novels go off into so many interesting directions.

154bragan
Oct 22, 2010, 10:07pm Top

That was the first thing I've read by her, but I immediately went and added Plague of Doves to the wishlist afterward.

155bragan
Oct 26, 2010, 5:20am Top

143. Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King



A collection of twenty short stories, one miniature screenplay, one long essay, and one poem. I have to confess that I didn't finish the essay. It's about little league baseball, and I'm sure it's fine if that's something you're interested in, but I personally have trouble imagining a subject I'd find more tedious. As for the stories, with the exception of one or two clunkers they were readable enough, falling somewhere in the okay to pretty good range, but as a whole they lack the polished creepiness that generally marks King's best work. They certainly lack the surprising, insightful poignancy of "The Body," which I'm fully prepared to call the best thing he's ever written, never mind the fact that I haven't actually read everything he's ever written. There's a story or two in here where he might be attempting something similar, but those are infinitely less successful. Quite a few of the stories do feature some interesting, imaginative central conceit -- a pair of wind-up novelty teeth with a will of their own, a human finger poking inexplicably out of a bathroom drain, a small town populated by dead rock stars -- that make them quite entertaining, anyway. Others... really don't.

Overall, I'm not sorry to have read it, and, at 700 pages, it went surprisingly fast. But it never quite delivered the pleasant pre-Halloween chills I was hoping for.

Rating: 3.5/5

156bonniebooks
Oct 26, 2010, 4:35pm Top

I want to read Your Brain on Food but it's the kind of book that I know I'll read only once or skim, so will wait to borrow it from the library. Same with The Grand Design. Thanks for reviewing them!

157bragan
Oct 26, 2010, 5:13pm Top

Glad to be of service!

158bragan
Edited: Oct 26, 2010, 6:55pm Top

144. The 2004 Rhysling Anthology, compiled by the Science Fiction Poetry Association



A collection of science fiction, fantasy and horror-themed poems, all of which were first published in 2003 and nominated for the Science Fiction Poetry Association's annual awards. I read a lot of speculative fiction but not nearly enough poetry, so I found this combination of the two quite welcome. There's a nice variety of poems, some humorous, some serious, some telling a complete story, others capturing a simple image. Some of the longer poems tended to go in for an obscure, oblique kind of storytelling that didn't necessarily work for me, but others I liked very much.

I'm not entirely sure whether I can even reasonably consider this a book -- it's held together with staples -- but, hey, it was on the TBR Pile with all the other books, so I'm counting it in this year's total.

Rating: 4/5

159bragan
Oct 29, 2010, 6:19am Top

145. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde



This is a weird, weird book. It's set sometime many centuries after an unspecified apocalypse -- they call it the Something That Happened -- in a world of strict, ridiculous rules where every aspect of society is based on colors in ways that don't make a whole lot of objective sense, but are nevertheless surprisingly well-thought-out. There's more than a hint of satire; a few sly, somewhat silly allusions; and a lot of playfulness of a kind that's often distinctly reminiscent of Lewis Carroll. But the plot itself is serious enough, at least to the characters caught up in it, and the humor is generally very, very deadpan, since the narrator doesn't seen any more or less absurdity in the world he's used to than any of the rest of us do. The effect is sometimes a bit unsettling, as for a good chunk of the book I couldn't quite escape the feeling that there was some sort of joke here that I was only half getting. But despite that -- or perhaps in part because of it -- it's a highly engaging read. I started off primarily interested in trying to figure out how the heck things worked in this strange place, but while it's debatable how much I actually succeeded, by the end I was pretty well caught up in the story.

Rating: 4/5

160Mr.Durick
Oct 29, 2010, 3:52pm Top

This is the beginning of a new series, I see. I liked but wasn't really taken by his The Big Over Easy and didn't know whether I would read on. You, however, have made this sound intriguing enough that I have put it on my waiting-for-the-paperback wishlist.

Thanks,

Robert

161bragan
Oct 29, 2010, 7:17pm Top

I enjoyed The Big Over Easy and sequels, but mostly found them to be cute, forgettable entertainment. This one is on a whole new level of weird imagination, though.

And I didn't realize, myself, that is was the first in a series until I finished it and got to the "coming soon!" announcement in the back, but I am definitely interested in the sequels.

162bragan
Oct 30, 2010, 7:42am Top

146. The Fall by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan



Book Two of the Strain trilogy, in which a particularly vile, decidedly non-sparkly variety of vampire is threatening to overrun humanity. I thought book one was pretty much the written equivalent of a popcorn movie: long on cliches and short on anything remotely resembling literary merit, but highly entertaining, anyway. This installment isn't really any different at all in terms of writing quality or storytelling sensibility, and yet somehow I never managed to get my brain to click into the right mode for it, never quite achieved that necessary state of turning my critical facilities off and just enjoying the ride. And, boy did that make a difference.

I think I know why the first book worked for me but this one didn't, too. The Strain started out with a terrific, genuinely creepy and suspenseful sequence involving a dead airplane, which hooked me in so quickly and so thoroughly that I never looked back. Whereas this one starts out with a slow, uninteresting recap of the previous book, thus missing its window of opportunity for really drawing me in.

So, now I have to deal with the question of whether I should bother with part three when it comes out. Having come this far, I'm vaguely inclined to see the story through to the end, and to give the series a chance to regain my interest. But I'm not entirely sure how much enthusiasm I can work up for it.

Rating: 2.5/5

163dukedom_enough
Edited: Oct 30, 2010, 7:06pm Top

bragan@147,

In the Akeley biography, was there any mention of the presence of Alice Bradley, then 6 years old, on Akeley's 1921 expedition? That trip was so important according to Julie Phillips' Tiptree biography, it'd be interesting to know more about it.

164bragan
Oct 30, 2010, 8:21pm Top

Not exactly. In one of the endnotes, Kirk does mention it and says that that he wanted to include it, but it didn't fit neatly into his narrative, so felt compelled to leave it out. Which, frankly, is an example of the sort of thing that kind of bugged me about the book.

165bragan
Nov 1, 2010, 4:00am Top

147. Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism by Temple Grandin



Autistic livestock expert and stockyard designer Temple Grandin talks about what thinking and feeling are like for her and for many other autistic people, including both the difficulties the condition causes and the advantages that her extremely vivid and concrete visual memory have provided in her professional life. She also gives an overview of the current (as of 2005, in this updated edition) medical and scientific understanding of autism, incomplete as it is, and offers a considerable amount of advice on autism treatments and the education of autistic children. I think this is likely to be an extremely worthwhile book for those with autistic people in their lives, especially parents, but it's also an enlightening read for those of us who are simply interested in how human minds, both "normal" and otherwise, work.

Rating: 4/5

166C4RO
Nov 1, 2010, 3:30pm Top

She did a TED talk that I saw and came across as a very interesting character- I'd love to read her autobiography, especially based on your review!

167bonniebooks
Nov 1, 2010, 3:37pm Top

Oliver Sacks's essay about her in one of his books (can't remember which one) is really good too, and almost more informative, even though it's only a chapter long.

168bragan
Nov 1, 2010, 6:02pm Top

>166 C4RO:: I've seen and enjoyed her TED talk, too. She really is surprisingly articulate and she comes across as very passionate about the things she cares about. As I recall, the talk was mostly about education and tailoring it for kids' individual strengths and weaknesses, and that's a major subject of the book, too. I don't know that it can be properly called an autobiography. She talks a lot about how her mind works, and there are a couple of chapters about her childhood as well as examples of her personal experience scattered through the whole thing, but it really is more about autism in general than about her life story. I think it's very much worth reading, but judging from the LT reviews, people who went into it expecting a straightforward autobiography tended to be disappointed.

>167 bonniebooks:: The book is An Anthropologist on Mars -- the title comes from a description Temple had for her herself -- and that's where I first heard of her. I love Oliver Sacks' books.

169bonniebooks
Nov 1, 2010, 6:54pm Top

I just saw Oliver Sack's on Charlie Rose (brain series, creativity) and did you know that he has "face blindness"? That is such a difficult disability to understand, but somebody else said that every view of a face (with every move of one's head) is a different face--they can never put all those images into one whole. So interesting!

170bragan
Nov 1, 2010, 7:13pm Top

I can't now remember whether I knew that about him or not. He may have mentioned it in one of his books. It is an amazing condition, and I'm sure it says something really, really interesting about how perception works in the brain. I don't actually find it all that difficult to imagine, though, as I'm kind of bad with faces, myself. Not face-blind, definitely, but perhaps a little short-sighted. It can be annoying when watching movies, as I often find myself sitting there thinking, "Wait, is this supposed to be the same guy from earlier? I can't tell!" I really shouldn't complain, though, as it's much more of an everyday problem for people with real, complete face-blindness. Magician Penn Jillette has the same condition, and he once told an anecdote about how he was signing autographs after a show. A woman came up to him, and he looked at her and said, "Who should I make it out to?" And she said, "Penn, it's your mother!" He hadn't expected her to be there that night, so he wasn't looking for the cues that would help him recognize her. Fascinating stuff.

171wandering_star
Nov 1, 2010, 8:24pm Top

I remember reading once that our brains are wired to pick out faces, which is why we also have a tendency to 'see' faces in inanimate objects, eg the fronts of cars. I guess it's that bit of the brain which is inactive in people who have face-blindness.

172detailmuse
Nov 1, 2010, 8:41pm Top

Heather Sellers has a new memoir out, You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know -- about her face blindness combined with a bizarre childhood.

It’s getting mixed reader reviews but Mary Roach’s review for the NY Times is very interesting to read.

173bragan
Edited: Nov 1, 2010, 10:55pm Top

>171 wandering_star:: Yeah, I've read a bit on this subject, and humans really do seem to be hardwired to recognize faces in ways that we aren't for other kinds of objects. Which is a weird and interesting thing to know about your brain.

>172 detailmuse:: Hmm. Roach's description makes that sound like something that is either going to be awful or fascinating. :) I may have to throw it on the wishlist, in the interest of seeing for myself.

174bragan
Nov 2, 2010, 5:21am Top

148. Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall



Zombies are on the loose, and they're attacking a Star Trek convention. But fortunately, Trekkies do not believe in the no-win scenario... Oddly enough, my one complaint about this book is that it's not quite nerdy enough for my admittedly extremely nerdy tastes. There are lots of Star Trek references and in-jokes, but the writers apparently felt the need to make things more accessible by frequently having the characters explain this stuff to each other even when it really shouldn't have been necessary. Plus almost no work of fiction I've ever seen that's involved a science fiction convention has gotten it quite right, and this is no exception. (Yes, I have been to a few. And, honestly, not everybody is in costume all the time, and if you insist on being called by a character's name for the whole weekend, even the other fanboys might look at you funny.) But never mind that. It's great fun, anyway, and by the end, I was laughing out loud quite frequently. It's not all humor, though; there's also lots of the exact kind of slightly cheesy horror action I've been in the mood for lately.

Rating: How the heck do you even rate something like this? I'm going to call it 4/5 for pretty successfully hitting the entertainment target it's aiming for.

175wandering_star
Nov 2, 2010, 8:39am Top

#172, 173, I had a look at the Mary Roach review and was interested to see that there is also a condition of voice blindness.

I've recently been thinking about how we recognise voices: I work in Taiwan and most of my colleagues are Taiwanese. I generally speak English with them, but have discovered that I can recognise them by voice even when they are speaking Chinese to each other. How does that work?

Obviously it's something to do with the bit of your brain which recognises voices...

176bragan
Nov 2, 2010, 9:21am Top

It is a really interesting question. I know I'm much better with recognizing voices than I am faces, but that's about all I know.

177dukedom_enough
Nov 2, 2010, 7:21pm Top

Bragan@174,

Are you aware of the book trailer for that book? 3 minutes long, well produced, very funny.

178bragan
Nov 2, 2010, 7:24pm Top

I have seen it, yes, and I think it's even more entertaining than the book itself. Kind of makes me want to see a movie version. I think it'd work well!

179bragan
Nov 2, 2010, 7:31pm Top

...and having just watched it again, I feel the need to point out that pretty much nothing in the trailer is actually in the book, but it does capture the spirit of things reasonably well.

180bragan
Nov 3, 2010, 6:11pm Top

149. Eat the Rich by P. J. O'Rourke



This "treatise on economics" by political humorist P.J. O'Rourke was written in 1998, which makes it quite a blast from the economic past. In it, O'Rourke asks the question of why some societies are prosperous and wealthy while others aren't. In the interests of finding out, he first makes a half-hearted attempt at learning economic theory, then travels around to various countries, capitalist and socialist, functional and dysfunctional. O'Rourke's political opinions, economic and otherwise, differ significantly from my own -- I believe he considers himself a libertarian, whereas I tend to vote Democrat. So, needless to say, I don't quite share his perspective on a lot of this stuff, and I definitely don't share his conclusions. I also found his attitude towards many of the places he visits faintly irritating, in a vague but persistent kind of way. But even so, by 2010 standards of political discourse -- especially discourse in which the word "socialism" features prominently -- he almost comes across low-key and moderate, if decidedly snarky. This by itself is enough to make me nostalgic for 1998. I don't think I ever properly appreciated the 90s when they were here.

O'Rourke does have the capacity to be very, very funny, though. Just skimming through the acknowledgments at the beginning of the book had me laughing several times. But, alas, the chuckles were much fewer and further between in the text itself. I guess maybe even O'Rourke can't make this subject very funny, at least not to those who don't share his biases.

Rating: 3/5

181bragan
Edited: Nov 3, 2010, 7:49pm Top

150. The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean



Lucy is certain she hears wolves in the walls of her house, but her family tell her that can't be true. Besides, everyone knows that when the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over. This graphic novel for kids is beautifully and creatively illustrated, and it somehow manages to be pleasantly creepy while also being cute and silly and fun. I'm rating it four stars, but I suspect that if it somehow fell through a time machine, giving me the chance to read it as a kid, it would have been a five-star childhood favorite.

Rating: 4/5

182charbutton
Nov 4, 2010, 9:56am Top

I'm about 100 pages into Shades of Grey. I agree that it's a bit weird!

183bragan
Nov 4, 2010, 1:32pm Top

You've just got to take it on its own terms and roll with it, I think. :)

184RidgewayGirl
Nov 4, 2010, 3:56pm Top

My children both loved The Wolves in the Walls. I had been worried that it might be just on the wrong side of creepy, but they're big Roald Dahl fans (Crocky Wocky anyone?).

P.J. O'Rourke seems so moderate today, doesn't he? He wrote a chapter in Holidays in Hell about a Christian-themed amusement park that had me laughing so hard it hurt. Of course, not yet living in the South, I thought it was exaggerated.

185bonniebooks
Nov 4, 2010, 3:59pm Top

P. J. O'Rourke is often on the radio show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," and is totally hilarious, so I'll have to check out his book.

186bragan
Nov 4, 2010, 5:00pm Top

>184 RidgewayGirl:: It's probably a bit too easy for me to say, since I don't have kids, but I think adults often underestimate the amount of creepiness they're able to handle and enjoy. I remember Gaiman saying of Coraline that the most common reaction he got from adults was that they thought it was too scary, and the most common reaction he got from kids was that they loved it.

Me, I was a big Roald Dahl fan as a kid, too. Still am, for that matter!

>186 bragan:: O'Rourke wrote a number of books in the late 80s and 90s that I remember enjoying because they were sharp and funny, despite my differences of opinion with the author. (Which may have been less back then, anyway, as, in defiance of the usual pattern, I seem to have gotten more liberal rather than more conservative with age.) I think he's written more since, too, but I haven't read anything recent from him. Anyway, it's hard to say because it's been so long since I read most of them, but I might recommend some of his other books from the 90s over the economics one.

187bragan
Nov 6, 2010, 6:41pm Top

151. White Apples by Jonathan Carroll



Vincent Ettrich thinks he's just living his normal life, until he realizes that he's already died. And that the woman he's seeing may be something other than human. Then he finds out his other girlfriend -- the one who really matters to him -- is pregnant. With a baby who talks to her. And from there things get really strange.

Jonathan Carroll's writing has this amazing dream-like sensibility to it, a feeling of being based in dream logic, that is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. It's imaginative, well written, and full of rich symbolism, and yet, I have to admit, halfway through I found myself muttering, "Could you just explain what the heck is going on now, please?" But then, of course, whatever explanations and resolutions we're given are also mystical and dreamlike. I appreciate what Carroll's doing here, I think, but it's hard to say for sure whether it really works for me or not. I think I may be a little too attached to real-world logic to appreciate it completely.

Also complicating matters is the fact that I never could quite decide whether I liked any of the characters or not, particularly the main character. His attitudes towards women range from disgusting to oddly touching, and, disturbingly, it was sometimes difficult for me to decide which was which. Which is not actually a bad thing; it makes for complex and human characterization. But it certainly did not help me feel any less conflicted about the novel as a whole.

Rating: 3.5/5

188bragan
Nov 6, 2010, 8:59pm Top

152. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight Volume 7: Twilight by Brad Meltzer



So, this volume has some really fun scenes, and some decent character stuff, and lots and lots of that wonderfully entertaining, pop culture-savvy Buffy dialog, and it made me suddenly realize just how much I missed all these people between volumes. But as for the plot... I think the writers were smoking some bad, bad drugs.

Rating: 3/5

189bragan
Edited: Nov 7, 2010, 10:39pm Top

152. Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy! by Bob Harris



Bob Harris was a multiple winner on Jeopardy! and participated in several of their champions' tournaments, scoring some very big wins as well as suffering some embarrassing losses. In this book, he talks about his experiences of playing the game, his experiences of obsessively cramming for the game, how his performance on the show affected his personal life, how his personal life affected his performance on the show, and the lasting and rather wonderful effects that opening himself up to that much sheer random knowledge had on him.

I haven't watched Jeopardy! in ages, but through my teens and early twenties I was a dedicated viewer. To say that I'm not a fan of game shows in general would be an understatement, but Jeopardy! was the one glorious exception; there were times when it honestly seemed to be the only thing on TV that actually respected my intelligence. For a long time, I even had dreams of trying out for it myself.

So, I expected this book to give me me a vicarious sense of what it would be like to be a contestant on the show, which it did, and I expected that to be fun, which it was. And since Harris is a professional comedian, I expected it to be funny, which it very much was. What I wasn't expecting was all the things it also was: exciting, suspenseful, thoughtful, intelligent, humble, genuinely moving, and full of warmth, humanity, and even a surprising amount of insight. And did I mention funny?

It also kind of made me want to rekindle that old dream of trying out for the show. Which, I admit, I probably will not ever actually do. But if I do, well, I'll know where to turn for experienced advice, because there's some of that in here, too.

Rating: 4.5/5

190bonniebooks
Edited: Nov 12, 2010, 11:43am Top

That show is way too smart for me, so I'm respecting your intelligence, for sure, Bragan. You ought to try out--what's to lose? My favorite children's librarian was on it 20+ years ago and she said she often knew the answers--the hardest part was timing when she punched the button.

191bragan
Nov 10, 2010, 12:36am Top

The problem is, the nearest place they've ever had tryouts is something like an 8-hour drive for me, so there's at least a lot of travel time to lose, if nothing else. They encourage you not to make a special trip for it, either, because the odds of actually qualifying are so low. I think I did try to do some kind of online contestant search thing once, but my browser crashed and I never got to actually take the thing.

And Harris says exactly the same thing about the timing. His phrase was that you have to develop "Jedi skills" with that thing.

192bragan
Nov 10, 2010, 12:54am Top

153. The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman



A reservation cop looking for a fugitive and an anthropologist doing research on Navajo beliefs about witchcraft find their two investigations converging when the man's body turns up in mysterious circumstances and the locals suspect supernatural foul play. To start off with, this book has a few things going for it. The mysterious murder is sufficiently mysterious. The desert southwest setting is well rendered. And the glimpses it gives of Navajo culture are interesting and nicely handled. (Well, nicely handled in the sense that Hillerman takes the culture on its own terms, rather than exoticisizing or idealizing it for white readers. I don't have enough personal experience to say whether it's completely accurate or not, but I get the impression he knows what he's talking about.)

Unfortunately, the story itself failed to grab me. The plot just wasn't all that interesting, and the characters felt very, very generic. Especially the weak, damsel-in-need-of-protection female character. Bleh.

I'm not sorry I read it, but I'm not feeling any great need, at this point, to continue with the rest of the series.

Rating: 3.5/5

193bragan
Edited: Nov 13, 2010, 5:30pm Top

154. 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot by Richard Wiseman



I don't have a lot of respect for self-help books in general. My feeling is that they tend to be based around platitudes, wishful thinking, and a desire on the author's part to make a quick buck, often with a generous helping of psuedoscience in the mix. Richard Wiseman doesn't talk about them in terms anywhere near that strong, but he does point out that, according to scientific research, a lot of the most beloved ideas embraced by self-help gurus are incorrect. So in this book, he looks what the experimental evidence says about how human psychology actually works and offers some quick and simple self-help tips and exercises based on that.

Which sounds like a great idea to me, but I did have some mixed feelings about the execution. Wiseman does has some decent bits of advice for dealing with certain specific situations and for altering your general approach to achieving your goals. (Examples: If you need help, ask people one at a time rather than appealing to a big group, because people in crowds tend to mill around waiting for someone else to step forward. And if you want your kids to be successful, praise them for trying hard when they do well, rather than telling them that doing well means they're smart. They'll be more likely to try hard and do well next time, too.) A lot of the self-help exercises seemed a bit contrived and gimmicky to me, though. And while altering your behavior based on ideas with some scientific support is obviously better than doing so based on ideas that are clearly wrong, a lot of the experimental conclusions here seem to be a bit iffy, offering interesting suggestive indications rather than concrete proof. The human mind, after all, is extremely complex, and altering tiny details in how you conduct experiments on it can lead to big differences in results. Wiseman does acknowledge that, but not quite as much as I'd like.

If you're interested in learning where lots of self-help books go wrong, though, or in reading about interesting, quirky little psychology experiments, this one is worth a look.

Rating: 3.5/5

194bragan
Edited: Nov 15, 2010, 4:08am Top

155. I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett



Volume umpty-zillion in the Discworld series, and the fourth to feature young witch Tiffany Aching, who this time out has to deal with a wedding, a funeral, and an all-too-literal witch hunt, on top of all the truly important everyday responsibilities that make a witch a witch.

I thought Pratchett's last book, Unseen Academicals, was okay, but far from the series' best. So it's nice, with this one, to see proof positive that he's still got it. The plot is perhaps a bit thin, but it says a great deal about the book's other strengths that I barely realized this fact until very near the end. It's not trying to be laugh-out-loud funny, the way some of his books are, but in classic Pratchett style, it's witty, cleverly written, insightful, and populated with interesting and memorable characters. Tiffany Aching, in particular, is one of those characters whom Pratchett is so good at writing, and whom I find so wonderfully admirable: a woman who turns sheer, forceful practicality into something magic.

Rating: 4.5/5

195dchaikin
Nov 15, 2010, 8:58am Top

bragan - nice to know the Pratchett. I had this grand idea that I would slowly read them in order, but it's been too long since I picked one up.

196bragan
Nov 15, 2010, 9:26am Top

Pratchett is pretty much the only writer whose books I insist on reading as soon as they come out. (Well, I think I was a few weeks late on this one, but close enough.)

197bragan
Edited: Nov 20, 2010, 12:30am Top

Hmm, I appear to have gotten the count wrong somewhere in here. This is book #157 for the year.

157. Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life by Carl Zimmer



Carl Zimmer takes readers in for a close look at the humble, much studied, surprisingly diverse microbe known as E. coli, huge populations of which are living happily inside your gut right now. Which really doesn't sound like an exciting or entirely pleasant subject for a book, but Zimmer truly does portray E. coli as a microcosm of biology as a whole, using it as a central point from which to explore the amazing complexity of cells, the intricacies of evolution, the controversies of genetic engineering, and even (briefly) the possibility of life on other worlds. He does it very well and very clearly, too, which is no mean feat. I took a college class in molecular biology once, and by about the third day I felt like that kid in the Far Side cartoon, the one raising his hand and asking, "May I be excused? My brain is full." But here the reader is given just the right amount of information at just the right times to make it all sufficiently comprehensible.

Don't think of it as just a book about E. coli, though. This really is a book about life.

Rating: 4/5

198dchaikin
Nov 19, 2010, 10:45pm Top

You have #152 twice, in case you hadn't noticed yet. :)

199bragan
Nov 20, 2010, 12:27am Top

Yes, after a bit of staring in confusion, I realized that's what happened. But I'm slightly too lazy to go back and edit all the ones that are wrong. :)

200bragan
Edited: Nov 21, 2010, 3:47pm Top

158. Jeeves in the Offing by P.G. Wodehouse



I've been feeling a lot of stress and strain lately -- not because of anything too awful, really, just a lot of stuff with really inconvenient timing -- and, in such situations, Wodehouse is just what the doctor ordered. It's simply impossible not to feel happier while reading about the exploits of Wooster & Jeeves. Mind you, I wouldn't call this one of the best books in the series, but all that means is that this time I was able to control my laughter while reading it in public. Mostly.

Rating: 4/5

201avaland
Nov 21, 2010, 8:48pm Top

>187 bragan: Enjoyed your comments on White Apples, it's a Carroll I haven't read. I've read most of his work and enjoyed it, don't know how I skipped that one, as I've read the more recent Ghost in Love.

202bragan
Nov 21, 2010, 8:57pm Top

I've also read Bones of the Moon and The Wooden Sea, and I remember feeling much the same about them as I did about White Apples. He really does that dream-like storytelling very well, I'm just never entirely sure how to respond to it.

203bragan
Edited: Nov 25, 2010, 10:54am Top

Finished this one a few days ago, but I'm on vacation, with limited internet access.

159. Mr. Monster by Dan Wells



Sequel to Wells' I Am Not a Serial Killer, featuring teenage sociopath who wants to be a good guy, John Wayne Cleaver. The plot here isn't as substantial as in the first one, although it does feature at least one interesting twist. The real antagonist here is John's dark side, "Mr. Monster", which it turns out is not exactly easy for him to put away after being forced to let it out for the events of the previous book. I found this installment a lot darker and more disturbing than that one -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The fact that Wells somehow manages to make John simultaneously sickening and sympathetic is really kind of impressive.

Rating: 4/5

204bonniebooks
Nov 26, 2010, 5:40pm Top

Ooh, shiver! Sounds like the beginnings of Dexter.

205bragan
Nov 27, 2010, 11:37am Top

I haven't seen Dexter, although I keep meaning to. But it sounds like there is a definite similarity.

206bragan
Nov 29, 2010, 7:25pm Top

160. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson



This book tries very, very hard to live up to its name, covering such topics as the origin of the universe, the geologic processes that have shaped the Earth, this history of life, and the evolution of humanity. Needless to say, since this is only one 500 page book, none of this is presented in huge amounts of depth, but it does feature lots of interesting specifics, including glimpses at the sometimes highly colorful personalities involved in various scientific discoveries, as well as a pleasant sense of wonder at how much we've learned just in the last century or so and how much we still don't know. Admittedly, it's not as witty as some of Bryson's other books, and since I was already familiar with most of the topics he covers, it got a little bit tedious for me from time to time. I should probably point out that there are a few topics on which it's already a bit out of date, as well. But if you're someone with an interest in what we know about the world around us and how we know it but no real background in science and are looking for an intelligent, engaging, very broad overview, you could do a heck of a lot worse.

Rating: 4/5

207avaland
Nov 29, 2010, 9:44pm Top

>202 bragan: I remember Marriage of Sticks and The Wooden Sea were connected - a continuing male character, me thinks (so long ago to remember!) Oh, and the dog, of course, shows up in all of them.

208bragan
Edited: Dec 2, 2010, 9:05am Top

161. Cities in Flight, Vol. 1 by James Blish



This volume contains two short science fiction novels, both set in the same universe, originally published in 1957 and 1962.

The first, "They Shall Have Stars," takes place in 2018 and involves a secret project aimed at launching humanity -- or at least the minor subset of it that hasn't become mired in religious fundamentalism and paranoid Cold War politics -- to the stars. It's very much a product of its particular time and genre; both the science and the social aspects are dated, and the characters and plot are pretty thin, with the focus more on scientific speculation and abstract ideas than on storytelling. Which doesn't make for a very compelling read, but such things go, it's not too bad. If nothing else, it's interesting to compare Blish's imagined future, which was of course very much shaped by his own present, to our current reality. (The story opens, by the way, with a character lamenting that space travel has become stagnant and unambitious. This, in a world with manned bases on the moons of Jupiter. Oh, that Space Age optimism... ) Ultimately, I think what this really is, in a somewhat low-key way, is a type of story that has always been popular with SF fans in one way or another and was particularly so back then: a story that assures us, however implausibly, that people with enough vision and open-mindedness -- you know, people like SF fans -- can, with a bit of grit and determination, overcome the stifling pettiness of Earthly politics, defeat death, and conquer the stars. Which may be naive and simplistic, not to mention self-indulgent, but I'll admit that I do understand the appeal, having indulged in it from time to time myself.

The second story, "A Life for the Stars," is set something like 1,000 years later. Earth has become deeply impoverished, and its desperate cities have begun encasing themselves in antigravity bubbles and setting out for an nomadic, interplanetary existence. It starts out much more readable than the first one, I think, but it, too, gets a bit bogged down in exposition somewhere in the middle. And the plot, which follows the adventures of a teenager who unwillingly accompanies Scranton, PA on its exodus, was rather unimaginative and ultimately failed to hold my interest. But the central idea, that image of whole cities tearing themselves free of the Earth to roam the stars, is wonderfully appealing, a truly classic science fictional invention. I just wish Blish had done something more interesting with it, as there's a lot of opportunity for terrific world-building that's never remotely realized here. Oh, well... Maybe in volume 2?

Rating: 3/5

209dukedom_enough
Dec 2, 2010, 8:42am Top

The core of Cities is the early work, which will be at the front of Vol. 2: New York's story. A transposition of the Depression era in the US to the future. I don't think it is convincing - there a a lot of logical holes. But I loved the image of steering a flying city from a bridge in the Empire State building.

210bragan
Dec 2, 2010, 9:03am Top

I don't think anything in the stories I've read so far is remotely convincing, either, but for a really cool story about flying cities, I'd be more than willing to fully engage the suspension of disbelief. Here's hoping vol. 2 is more rewarding for me than vol. 1.

211bragan
Edited: Dec 3, 2010, 4:12am Top

162. Eat This, Not That! 2011 by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding



I don't believe in diets. From what I understand, the scientific evidence indicates that they just don't work in the long term for the majority of people, and I know myself and my own lack of self-discipline well enough to know that I'd be both miserable and doomed trying to stick to a diet that strictly forbade me to eat anything that I actually like. I've had some gradual but real weight loss success in the past, though, with an approach that emphasizes eating mindfully and constantly trying to choose wisely between attractive options: a grilled chicken sandwich instead of a burger, pretzels instead of chips, that sort of thing. (Admittedly, I've backslid horribly on even that modest and sensible plan, but I'm still quite convinced it's the only approach with any remote possibility of lasting success.)

The big problem with this, though, is that it's often damned hard to know just what the better choice is. Nutrition information is confusing, and in restaurants it's often unavailable. Manufacturer's labels can be highly misleading -- "lower in fat" compared to what, exactly? -- and often what looks like the healthier option isn't. So I really like the basic idea behind this book, which is to tell you precisely what the better and worse options are between various similar items available in restaurants and grocery stores. I wasn't sure about the execution when I first flipped through it, as the big, glossy pictures of food that take up much of the book make it look kind of gimmicky and content-light. But it's actually not bad. It's not very in-depth, obviously, and I could have done without the rah-rah, "These books are so great!" self-congratulations of the first couple of sections (complete with full-color testimonials!), but there's more content than I expected. As well as specifics on what the better food choices are and why, it also offers overall healthiness ratings for various eateries and a fair amount general nutrition advice. It is focused more on proper nutrition than on calorie-counting for weight loss, too, which is good to see.

Unfortunately, though, it's of limited usefulness to me personally, because the majority of it involves products I'm unlikely to want to buy and restaurants I seldom or never eat in. And, despite the authors' apparent expectations, I can't really see myself carrying the book around with me just in case I happen to end up in one of these places. It's not exactly like me to prefer some other medium over the good, old-fashioned book, and maybe I'm biased because I just got my first smartphone last week and the shininess hasn't worn off yet, but I can't help feeling that this would be a lot more useful in the form of a mobile phone app, where you could discreetly whip out your personal electronic device in the supermarket aisle or while standing in line at Wendy's, and quickly find out what your best and worst available options are on the spot.

Anyway, I got this book for free in some sort of buy-two-get-one book club deal, so it was certainly worth what I paid for it. If I'd coughed up the full cover price, I think I might feel a bit annoyed. But for someone who eats at a large number of popular chain restaurants, I could see it being a lot more worthwhile.

Rating: 3.5/5

212RidgewayGirl
Dec 3, 2010, 10:50am Top

I've seen those books and really, they're only useful if you eat out all the time, generally at fast food-type places. It serves a niche. I tend to not eat out often, and when I do, I prefer non-chain restaurants. But it is interesting to look through.

If you want to make a salad your meal of choice for some time to come visit

http://www.thisiswhyyourefat.com/

213bragan
Edited: Dec 3, 2010, 7:09pm Top

I eat out quite a bit, but I don't do fast food very often, except maybe for Subway. (I did learn some pleasantly reassuring things about their breakfast menu, at least.) And I don't do chain restaurants much, either, not because I have anything against them, but because I live in a small town, and my options, most of the time, are limited and don't include much in the way of big chains except for fast food. I don't think I realized quite how true that was until reading the book.

And that's for the link! That's hilarious and frightening. :)

214bragan
Edited: Dec 5, 2010, 11:47am Top

163. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie



A collection of linked short stories -- some of them more brief character studies or bits of commentary than stories, really -- set on a Spokane Indian reservation, among characters suffering from poverty, alcoholism, and the dull ache of being crushed under the weight of someone else's history while slowly losing your own. I had somewhat mixed feelings about the writing; there are places where it feels almost a little too aggressively literary for my tastes, if that makes any sense. But at its best, it has a kind of bitter poetry, with a wry sense of humor underneath it, and a bleak sense of despair under that.

Also, Alexie is a genius at titles.

Rating: 4/5

215bonniebooks
Dec 5, 2010, 1:50pm Top

Also, Alexie is a genius at titles.

Yeah, and I readily admit that I'm one of the schmucks for which that makes a difference--and that goes for covers too!

That Eat This, not That! book would totally backfire on me, because when I see pictures of a specific type of food, it just makes me want to eat--even when it's food I don't normally eat.

216bragan
Dec 5, 2010, 3:06pm Top

I'm kind of a sucker for a good title, myself. It made that particular collection kind of irresistible to me!

And I will admit, the Eat This, Not That! book did make me kind of hungry. The pictures of some of the "not" foods, especially so. Sigh.

217bragan
Edited: Dec 11, 2010, 5:40pm Top

164. The Rough Guide to the Future by Jon Turney



This volume starts with a look at of how humanity's conception of the future has changed throughout history, a brief glimpse of earlier eras' attempts at making predictions, and a discussion of the immense difficulties involved in guessing what's going to happen. It then launches in to the main meat of the book, in which the author considers the opinions of various experts, think-tanks, and commissions and tries to give us a general sense of where things seem to be headed for the next few decades in a variety of different areas. It then concludes with an imaginative chapter about possibilities for the very, very distant future.

Turney is a bit dismissive of attempts at futurism which focus on "consumer gadgets," instead choosing to concentrate mostly on some very basic questions. Where will our food, water, and energy come from (or fail to come from) in the next fifty years? What impact will global warming and other environmental factors have? How are the world's population demographics shifting, and what changes are those shifts likely to bring? While the book does showcase a few individuals' or groups' speculative flights of fancy, it's generally very firmly grounded in current trends, to the point where it's almost as much about the present as the past -- our current journey, rather than our ultimate destination.

Despite a fairly casual style, sprinkled with occasional joking asides, the writing does often feel a bit dry. And, especially in the early chapters, the level of detail sometimes seems too much for a broad overview, but too little to thoroughly satisfy. Overall, though, I think it mostly achieves its rather modest aims, and it's well worth a look if you're interested in an extended look at where the world seems to be taking us.

Rating: 4/5

(Note: This was my Early Reviewers book from the October batch.)

218bragan
Edited: Dec 11, 2010, 3:01pm Top

165. Zombie Haiku by Ryan Mecum



The zombie apocalypse, narrated in haiku by a bad poet. He gets bitten early on, so mostly it's all about eating people. It's a potentially entertaining gimmick, and there are a few flashes of dark and gory -- very, very gory -- comic brilliance, but mostly it just doesn't work quite well enough to pull the whole thing off.

A sample of one of the more horribly entertaining passages:
I loved my momma.
I eat her with my mouth closed,
how she would want it.

Rating: 3/5

219fannyprice
Dec 11, 2010, 5:04pm Top

>218 bragan:, This doesn't sound like my cup of tea, but my boss, who is obsessed with zombies, would LOVE this!

220bragan
Dec 11, 2010, 5:29pm Top

It is the sort of thing that if you actually like zombies -- and I confess to not being tired of them yet myself, however overused they are lately -- it's kind of irresistible. I really do wish it had been more consistently funny, but I can't quite bring myself to regret buying it. :)

221bragan
Edited: Dec 17, 2010, 3:23pm Top

166. The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón



Novelist David Martin, chronically cheated of the recognition he's earned and facing an untimely death, makes a deal with a mysterious, possibly non-existent publisher and finds himself drawn into a dark web of... something. It's not quite as engrossing as The Shadow of the Wind (to which it's related and might be considered a kind of prequel). The more melodramatic elements aren't handled as deftly, and in the end it's all a little too ambiguous and not quite coherent enough to be a hundred percent satisfying. But I still found it an entertaining read, and it does feature many of the things that made The Shadow of the Wind such a pleasure: an engaging and readable style, three-dimensional characters, interesting Gothic elements, a well-rendered early 20th century Barcelona setting, and a palpable love for books and the written word. My predominant thought while reading it was that I wanted nothing so much as to make myself a large mug of cocoa, hole up somewhere, and just let it wash over me, possibly without stopping to think about it all too much. Unfortunately, life kept intervening in annoying ways that prevented me from ever doing that, but I'm pleased to report that I managed to enjoy it, anyway.

Rating: 4/5

222bragan
Dec 21, 2010, 1:16pm Top

167. The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness by Jack El-Hai



A biography of the physician Walter Freeman, who pioneered and popularized the practice of lobotomy, eventually performing the procedure on thousands of people suffering from conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, and even chronic pain.

There's something about the very idea of a lobotomy that is deeply, viscerally, and legitimately horrifying. It is, after all, a deliberate mutilation of the human brain, the very seat of the self. Some of the descriptions here of lobotomies being performed actually made me feel slightly nauseated, not because they are gory or lurid, but because they involve such a profound and disturbing act being carried out in such a shockingly cavalier fashion.

However, as El-Hai points out without downplaying the disturbing nature of the procedure, our pop culture-based ideas about lobotomy -- mainly that it served as a means to turn difficult and uncooperative patients into drooling, docile idiots -- are significantly oversimplified. The results of the operation were highly variable, and while the outcome was sometimes disastrous, many who received the procedure went on to live reasonably normal and productive lives, which was generally (if, sadly, not always) the goal. The book also avoids oversimplification in the portrayal of Freeman, who comes across as fame-seeking, self-assured almost to the point of hubris, and more than a little reckless, but also as a fairly gifted doctor who was genuinely interested in making people better and who displayed a remarkable amount of concern for his patients long after they left his office. El-Hai seldom editorializes, instead showing us how things looked from Freeman's point of view, along with contemporaries' criticisms of his methods and occasional quotes from medical historians to put it all into perspective. It's an approach that works very well, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions and to pose for themselves the thought-provoking questions raised by this bizarre bit of medical history. And there are a great many such questions, involving ethics, philosophy, psychology, and the practice of medicine in general.

I think the strongest reaction that I came away with is an unsettling realization of just how much of the history of medicine has involved well-meaning doctors flailing around almost blindly, doing radical things to human bodies based on semi-formed hypotheses and hoping for the best. It has also reinforced my belief in the massive importance of scientific method in medicine. It may be a flawed and difficult approach, but the alternative leaves us open to possibilities such as doctors mangling patients' brains with ice picks based on little more than "it seems like it might be a good idea" and then convincing themselves with a bit of wishful thinking that they've found some kind of mental illness panacea.

Rating: 4/5

223janeajones
Dec 21, 2010, 5:39pm Top

When I first heard about lobotomies (probably when I was a teenager) I remember being absolutely horrified. But medicine has a rather checkered history. You might be interested in For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English -- it's a bit dated now, but certainly blew the clarion call for women to reclaim their bodies and health from an intensely patriarchal medical system.

224bragan
Dec 21, 2010, 6:47pm Top

I haven't heard of that one, but I have generally liked Ehrenreich's books, so maybe I'll check it out sometime. The history of medicine really is such a fascinating and rather disturbing combination of fantastic, life-saving advances and "how the hell did anyone ever think that was a good idea?"

225wandering_star
Dec 21, 2010, 7:12pm Top

I don't think I'll be reading that one, but it's a fantastic review.

226bragan
Dec 21, 2010, 8:46pm Top

Thanks! I can see where it wouldn't be everybody's choice of subject matter, but it's definitely an interesting book.

227fannyprice
Dec 22, 2010, 6:25pm Top

>222 bragan:, Great review.

>223 janeajones:, I might be wrong on this, but I think that Ehrenreich recently-ish released a new edition of For Her Own Good.

228janeajones
Dec 22, 2010, 8:03pm Top

227> I'd be really interested to see how it was updated -- I guess I'm off to Amazon to check it out.

229kidzdoc
Dec 22, 2010, 8:49pm Top

Great review of The Lobotomist, bragan!

230bragan
Dec 22, 2010, 9:45pm Top

Thanks to all who enjoyed that review! I'm a little astonished by the sudden flurry of thumbs that it's gotten. :)

231bragan
Dec 24, 2010, 1:14pm Top

168. Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold



The latest book in Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series, which, conveniently, came out just as I finally managed to catch up with the rest of the series. In this one, our irrepressible pint-sized hero deals with politics, corporate corruption, and kidnappings on a planet obsessed with cryogenics. It's not quite up there with the best of the series, perhaps, but it's a fun, solidly entertaining installment. Even though it'd only been a couple of months since the last book for me, it's been several years for the characters and for most readers, so there's a pleasant feeling here of catching up with old friends, and Bujold does a great, very smooth job of letting us know what various characters have been up to, even when they don't play much of a part in this particular story. I have the impression from somewhere that this is may be the final volume, and I'm a bit torn as to how I feel about that possibility. It ends on a note that may possibly mark a natural stopping place for the series, but I still really, really want to know what will happen to Miles next. Whether it's forever, or just until the next installment, I'm going to miss that crazy little guy.

Rating: 4/5

232bragan
Dec 26, 2010, 1:37am Top

169. Elf Love edited by Josie Brown, Rose Membert & Bill Racicot



I was a little uncertain about requesting this book from Early Reviewers. I enjoy a good fantasy story, and themed anthologies can be fun, but the title and the rather lurid cover did make me wonder whether the contents were likely to consist of schmoopy supernatural romance, or possibly softcore elf-fetish porn, neither of which holds much appeal for me. I felt greatly reassured, though, when I read the introduction, in which one of the editors writes, "A talented author sees a theme like that and says, 'That will be terrible unless...'" Which seems to me to be exactly the right attitude to take towards this kind of topic; that "unless" holds the possibility for generating all kinds of creative and worthwhile ideas. And the authors represented here do mostly seem to have taken that kind of approach and gone looking for non-traditional angles on the subjects of elves and love. There's lots of modern-day settings here, lots of alternative sexuality, lots of little idea-based stories...

However, most of the contributors seem to be first-time or relatively inexperienced writers, and I'm afraid it does show. Generally, the stories aren't bad, and a several of them are quite pleasant reads, but almost none of them feels truly, completely satisfying. There are stories with interesting ideas that aren't fleshed out fully, and, conversely, ones with ideas too slight to sustain a whole story without some extra spark that just isn't there. There are decent premises executed in adequate but unengaging prose, and one piece that has lovely prose but is so obscurely written that it's impossible to tell what it's actually about. There are stories that are trying a little too hard to be dark and gritty, or attempting to do social commentary with too heavy a hand, or both at once. One of the best-written stories seems to exist mainly to lead up to a surprise ending that contains no surprise whatsoever. Another is a noir-ish detective pastiche that's rather delightful, until the realization sets in that it really just inelegantly and rather pointlessly grafts elves onto a hardboiled detective tale that would have been better off without them. (And according to the author's note, in which he confesses to essentially lifting the plot from someone else's novel, probably was.) And so on.

Bottom line: It's better than it looks, but not nearly as good as it could be.

Rating: 3/5

233bragan
Dec 27, 2010, 11:37pm Top

170. Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles



Bennie Ford, stranded in O'Hare airport and about to miss his estranged daughter's wedding, writes what begins as a letter of complaint to the airline and quickly becomes, essentially, his entire life story. That life story is pretty standard for this kind of literary novel, really -- a washed-up alcoholic writer with a lifetime of dysfunctional relationships does a lot of navel-gazing -- but the writing is terrific, with a vivid narrative voice and an undercurrent of bitter humor that hit exactly the right notes for me. Even the letter-to-an-airline premise, which seems gimmicky and implausible, worked much better than I expected, largely due to the fact that being stranded in the limbo of an airport is such an incredibly familiar, relatable experience. I enjoyed it a lot, and read it almost in one sitting.

Rating: 4.5/5

234bragan
Dec 28, 2010, 11:28pm Top

171. Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It edited by Lynne M. Thomas & Tara O'Shea



A collection of short essays by female fans of Doctor Who. There are a few pieces that analyze the show or its fandom in terms of gender and related issues, and a handful of interviews with actresses from the TV or audio play series, but the majority of them are personal histories, in which women talk about how they became interested in Doctor Who, their friendships with other enthusiasts, their preferred fan activities, and which things they love best about the show. Most of which isn't really very deep, but is nevertheless rather pleasant to read. When you have a deep enthusiasm and love for something -- as I unabashedly do for Doctor Who -- it's always a wonderful, warming experience when other people share that, too.

I wouldn't call this a must-read for Who fans -- it's a bit light on content for that, despite a few very good pieces -- but if you happen to be a chick who digs Time Lords, it's worth a look. It's definitely written for people who are tapped in to the social aspects of fandom, though, rather than the enthusiastic but largely solitary viewer.

Rating: 3.5/5

235dukedom_enough
Dec 29, 2010, 8:14am Top

So, will there ever be a female Doctor? Avaland and I might start watching again if there were.

236fannyprice
Dec 29, 2010, 10:08am Top

>235 dukedom_enough:, The world is just not ready, dukedom. Maybe when they "reboot" the series 20 years from now they can pull a Starbuck...

237bragan
Dec 29, 2010, 12:18pm Top

Well, Joanna Lumley did an excellent job of it, very briefly, in the "Curse of Fatal Death" spoof. I always thought it would work perfectly well if she came back and did it for real. But, hey, that one was written by Steven Moffat, who is now in charge of the show, so you never know... :)

238charbutton
Dec 29, 2010, 12:32pm Top

>235 dukedom_enough:, unfortunately I don't think that will ever happen while people like my brother are in the popular audience. He refuses to watch the revisited Battlestar Gallactica because Starbuck is a woman. People don't like change!

239bragan
Dec 29, 2010, 12:48pm Top

But Doctor Who is all about change! Which is probably why, at any given time, half its fans seem to be horribly angry about something.

240fannyprice
Dec 29, 2010, 12:54pm Top

>239 bragan:, Not to hijack the thread, but it is an amazing model for a television show. It never fails to surprise me that the show succeeds despite the fact that the actor playing the Doctor changes every once in a while. Though to be fair, I haven't watched since David Tennant left and I can't imagine someone other than him in that role, though I hear the new guy is quite good. {Note all thoughts on Dr Who are limited to the recentish incarnations, as I am not familiar with the old shows...}

241bragan
Dec 29, 2010, 2:28pm Top

Oh, you can hijack my thread to talk about Doctor Who any time. It's one of my favorite subjects!

And yes, it really is amazing. Actually, it's amazing to me that anything about Doctor Who works as a TV show, let alone such an enduring and successful one, but to be able to pull off a complete change of actors every few years, and changing details about the main character's personality with it... Who would have ever thought that was a good idea, act of desperation that it originally was? And yet, it's one of the things that I love best about the show, that it's constantly changing, growing, evolving, trying different things, even while, at its core, it remains fundamentally the same. (Um, yes. I can wax rhapsodic about that for hours. I'll stop now. Sort of.)

And I love the new guy. I love the new guy so much. I liked Tennant's Doctor, although I had some issues with him as well and was never quite as head-over-heels in love with him as most people seem to be. But Matt Smith... Well, from almost the first moment he appeared on the screen, I had that "Oooh! This is my Doctor!" reaction, and that hasn't faded yet. For such a young guy, he does an absolutely amazing job of playing someone very, very old. It never ceases to impress me.

242charbutton
Dec 29, 2010, 3:25pm Top

It is about change but that change takes place within certain parameters - the doctor is always male, he will always be a bit 'wacky', he will always inspire others to be heroic or great etc. Having said that writers of the newer series have introduced new elements in terms of companions not always being young woman, with Donna being older and not at all in love with the doctor and a married couple as the current companions.

And I also am in love with Matt Smith. He is divine!

243bragan
Dec 29, 2010, 3:50pm Top

There are definitely parameters, but they are at least a little bit variable, and the new series has been willing to make some pretty serious changes to things, the destruction of Gallifrey being the big one. I seriously doubt we ever will get a female Doctor, but it doesn't strike me as completely impossible. Nor would it bother me, as long as the character's basic personality remained essentially the same and they didn't start producing very special episodes about the Doctor Learning How to Be a Girl.

And I do like it when they break away from the usual mold as far as companions go. I'd love to see him travel with a much older person, which is very unlikely, or someone not from Earth, which has happened in the past. But I also loved Donna, and am looking forward to seeing much more of the Amy & Rory married couple dynamic, which is genuinely fresh and new.

244fannyprice
Dec 29, 2010, 5:53pm Top

>241 bragan:-242, See that's what I mean, people LOVE Matt Smith. I need to get over David Tennant, methinks. But he's so adorable!

>242 charbutton:, Char, it's interesting what you say about Donna. At first I really disliked her, but then I grew to love her, in part because she was the first companion I'd seen who wasn't in love with the Doctor. That was so refreshing. I felt like she was much more her own person because of that fact, though I did love Martha Jones. I was sad to see her go.

245bragan
Dec 29, 2010, 7:08pm Top

I thought I was going to have great difficulty getting over Eccleston, but Tennant soon took over the role quite thoroughly in my mind. It happens like that. :)

And as I recall there was a lot of dislike for Donna after her debut in "The Runaway Bride," but I thought she was great even then... and when she came back as a regular and everyone else seem to change their minds about her, I was happily walking around saying, "See? I told you!"

I also loved Martha (although not the "in love with the Doctor" part, alas). And now I love Amy, too!

246dukedom_enough
Dec 29, 2010, 7:31pm Top

Charbutton@238,
He's still a Starbuck holdout after Katee Sackhoff's great performance? Sad.

247avaland
Dec 29, 2010, 7:53pm Top

Dukedom and I haven't watched Doctor Who since the guy before David Tennant; however my daughter and her boyfriend were here for 10 days over the holidays and our house was Doctor Who central for that time. They were "catching up". I think we just find it too campy these days (well, it's always been campy).

248bragan
Dec 29, 2010, 7:57pm Top

Yes, if you can't handle campy, Doctor Who is definitely not the show for you. :)

249fannyprice
Dec 29, 2010, 8:33pm Top

>247 avaland:, That's so funny. I started watching it because I needed some light sci-fi to accompany BSG!

250charbutton
Dec 30, 2010, 4:33am Top

We Brits do love our camp-ness.

>243 bragan:, we had high hopes that Wilf would become the first elderly companion - Bernard Cribbins is great!

>244 fannyprice: & 245, I enjoyed Donna's character too. I felt that she had real empathy with the suffering of others - perhaps because her own life was a bit sad and lonely.

>246 dukedom_enough:, yep, really sad. It's caused a few rows between us!

251bragan
Dec 30, 2010, 11:16am Top

Wilf was wonderful! For ages, my highest hope was that he would get a ride on the TARDIS and an adventure of his own. Fortunately, the show actually came through to my satisfaction on that point. Eventually.

252bragan
Jan 1, 2011, 12:53am Top

And that's it for this year! Join me on my 2011 thread, where my first book of the year should be Cities in Flight, Vol. 2 by James Blish.

Group: Club Read 2010

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