Phil Rambles

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    Sun, 01 Jan 2006

    Book purge, end of 2005
    Another year, another cleanout of the bookshelves. (Actually, I posted something earlier in 2005, so this isn't a full year's list). Here's a partial list of what I'm getting rid of this time. Some of these, I read a long time ago and am only now getting around to eliminating; others, I just read this year. Once again, the whole experience makes me think I should use the library more...but then, I've gotta do my part to support the publishing industry, don't I?

    These are the books I'm discarding, not the ones I'm keeping, so this isn't a list of the best stuff I've read recently, or anything like that.

    Let's start with nonfiction:

    Mr. Personality, by Mark Singer. Essays and profiles from The New Yorker. Good.
    Powering Civilization, by James Ridgeway. An old book about the future of U.S. power consumption and production. Fair.
    The Big Con, by David Maurer. A history of cons, a la "The Sting." Very interesting.
    Shadow Box, by George Plimpton. Ali and all that. Good.
    Lies my Teacher Told Me, by James Lowen. The American History that you didn't learn in school. Interesting and perhaps important.
    Inside Iraq (assorted authors). Informative.
    Portrait in Motion, by Arthur Ashe and Frank DeFord. Sort of "Ball Four" for tennis. Good.
    The Long Ball, by Tom Adelman. 1975, "The Greatest World Series Ever Played". OK.
    Neither Here Nor There, by Bill Bryson. Bryson is uncharacteristically ill-tempered. Fair.
    The Informant, by Eric Eichenwald. Corporate malfeasance revealed, sorta like A Civil Action. Good.
    Blue Latitudes, by Tony Horwitz. Following the journey of Captain Cook. Good.
    Full House, by Stephen J. Gould. Interesting thoughts about evolution and "excellence."
    Various books on the history of the Middle East, not worth discussing separately.

    And fiction:

    Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem. I really like this author. Good book.
    Lies, Inc., by Philip K. Dick. Also titled "The Un-Teleported Man." Starts well, but not good.
    Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. One of the books my book club read. We all liked it.
    The Periodic Table, by Primo Levy. I can't believe Levy killed himself. Pretty good book.
    Underworld, by Don DeLillo. Everybody loves DeLillo. Except me.
    Players, by Don DeLillo. See Underworld.
    Independence Day, by Richard Ford. Sequel to The Sportswriter, and I liked it more.
    Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Short stories, some good, some fair.
    The Continental Op, by Dashiel Hammett. I like Hammett.
    Harry Potter, and other light fiction books too numerous to mention.

    [/Books] permanent link

    Sat, 30 Apr 2005

    Some discards in 2005

    OK, so, this isn't much of a blog. Months go by without anything new, and then the new stuff isn't that interesting. Mostly this just serves as my personal repository of stuff I might want to be able to remember someday, that would otherwise get lost. And here's another post like that. So sue me.

    We hired some house-cleaners to come today to do a spring cleaning, which we needed anyway, but even more so because our recently completed renovation project generated a lot of dust. The impending arrival of the cleaners meant that I needed to do a few things in preparation, one of which was to clear out some space on my bookshelves so that I could get some stacks of books off the floor. Clearing out space means identifying books to get rid of, so I hurriedly scanned my shelves and grabbed the following. This isn't a representative cross-section of books that I read, or books that I read but don't like, or anything else in particular, it's just a semi-random sample of books that added up to a space about the right physical size to make room for the ones that I needed to fit in place.

    Five-Finger Discount, by Helene Stapinski
    Curious World, by Philip Hamburger
    The Choking Doberman, by Jan Brunvand
    The Vanishing Hitchhiker, by Jan Brunvand
    The Road Ahead, by Bill Gates
    Return of the Straight Dope, by Cecil Adams
    Notable American Women, by Ben Marcus
    The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by Jose Saramago
    Dr. Broth and Ollie's Brain-Boggling Search for the Lost Luggage, by Michael Abrams and Jeffrey Winters.

    [/Books] permanent link

    Tue, 01 Mar 2005

    Some more books
    Well, I've been very lax about updating this page...especially considering it takes very little effort! And it takes especially little effort to just mention some more books that I've read, so that's what I'll do here.

    Five-Finger Discount, by Helene Stapinski This is a memoir by a 40-year-old woman who grew up in Jersey City, in a family of small-time crooks. She's just about my age, and it's interesting to think about the differences in our vs suburbs, poor vs relatively affluent, parents uneducated vs educated. So the book wasn't bad. But it wasn't great, either. It's not really _about_ anything, and its writing style gets the job done but doesn't elevate the book. The book was OK, but I can't think of who I would recommend it to.

    Conned Again, Watson, by Colin Bruce This is an excellent book that explains a slew of logic and statistical puzzles and problems using the format of Sherlock Holmes stories. The stories are just vehicles for the puzzles and problems, but most of them do a decent job at that, providing a sort of conversational way to explain problems that would otherwise by very dry (and in truth, some of them remain dry). The good thing about the book is that it manages to make a lot of non-trivial problems understandable without introducing any mathematical formalism whatsoever. There's even a simple introduction to game theory.

    [/Books/Nonfiction] permanent link

    Fri, 31 Dec 2004

    Miscellaneous Non-Fiction, 2004
    I see I haven't been posting much on here about what I've been reading. Here's what I can see on my shelf, from where I'm sitting, that I read this year but haven't posted about:

    Hiding the Elephant, by Jim Steinmeyer. A nicely written book about the golden age of magic (about 1880-1930), and the inventions---"it's all done with mirrors"---that baffled audiences for two generations. The book spills the secrets of a few tricks, which is interesting, but also discusses the businesses and personalities. I liked it.

    Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser. If you don't know about this book already, welcome back from your round-the-world submarine voyage. Like everyone else, I think this is a very good, informative, thought-provoking, sometimes horrifying book. I recommend it.

    Krakatoa, by Simon Winchester. The author of "The Professor and the Madman" (about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and one of the odd people who contributed to it) brings us another easy read about a historical event. This time, it's the eruption of the volcanic island of Krakatoa, off Sumatra, in the late 1800s... the first catastrophe (Winchester says) whose news rapidly spread around the world, thanks to the international telegraph. The explosion and subsequent tsunami killed about 36,000 people. This is a good book, and unfortunately is rather timely since it is relevant to the tragic Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.

    Blue Latitudes, by Tony Horwitz. The author visits (by plane, mostly) most of the Pacific Ocean islands that were visited by Captain Cook, writing about equally about Cook's experiences and his own a couple hundred years later. Sometimes amusing, sometimes depressing, usually interesting. This isn't a great book, but it's a good book, and if you're going to be traveling in the Pacific or have an interest in Cook, it's definitely worth reading.

    [/Books/Nonfiction] permanent link

    Fri, 03 Dec 2004

    Nonfiction: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
    This is another "microhistory" book by the author of "Isaac's Storm", which was about an enormously deadly and destructive hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900. In "The Devil in the White City", Larson has chosen another macabre subject from around the same time, as one of the two true contemporaneous stories in the book, both of which take place in Chicago in 1893: the story of a man named Mudgett (a.k.a. "H.H. Holmes") who was one of the worst known serial killers in U.S. history, who owned his own hotel outfitted with gas valves so he could knock out his victims in their beds before dragging them to his soundproofed dissection chamber. The other story is of the conception, building, and execution of the World Columbian Exhibition --- basically a World's Fair --- whose attendees provided some of Mudgett's victims.

    Although Mudgett's story is certainly the more sensational, I found the story of the Columbian Exhibition more interesting. On a nearly barren patch of sandy lakeshore, the country's foremost architects and landscape architects built an entire city -- known as the White City for the uniformly white color of its romanesque buildings -- in just two years. The buildings were some of the largest built up to that time, and the city was so beautiful, and in such contrast to the "black", garbage-strewn, smelly, crowded, unsanitary cities of the day (including the host city of Chicago) that some visitors were literally moved to tears just by the sight.

    It's a good, interesting book, and I recommend it.

    [/Books/Nonfiction] permanent link

    Sat, 31 Jan 2004

    Nonfiction: The Next Hundred Years: The Unfinished Business of Science, by C.C. Furnas.
    This book was written in 1936 by a Yale professor of chemical engineering. I picked it up at a yard sale, and thought it might prove entertaining. We're 70 percent of the way through the hundred years Furnas was writing about, so we should be able to check some of his predictions. I thought a lot of them might be laughable---weekend trips to the moon, that sort of thing. And indeed, starting the book with a chapter on eugenics seemed like a good indication that the book might be pretty wacky. Instead, it's remarkable how well he did (even in the eugenics discussion). Would I do as well at predicting the course of the next hundred (or seventy) years?

    Here are a few selected quotes from the book, arranged by chapter title.


    Infectious Diseases

    The proper way to choose a remedy for a cold is to write down all known methods, each on a separate slip, mix well and while heavily blindfolded, withdraw one from a hat. One has the satisfaction of knowing that the remedy thus prescribed will be just as good as any other.


    ...The childhood diseases will have disappeared, the common cold will have gone the way of the dodo, smallpox will only be a matter of record of the past generations. But these curses will still be lingering in some forgotten spot and there will be an old-time epidemic of smallpox around the corner just waiting for us to cease vaccinating for a few years.



    The expert practicing dietitian cannot recommend a perfect diet but she can suggest a very good one. The general plan seems to be to call on the old shotgun recipe and thus include a little of everything partly to please your taste and partly to be certain that you get all the essentials. Everyone must have all the vitamins and he must have minerals. ... The perfect diet is not yet and will not be for a long time to come, but until it gets here it will be best to rely on the experimental information already gathered than the harangue of the food faddist.


    What of Death?

    ...Inherited life-span might be defined as the length of life of the average person if everyone died of old age instead of dying by accident or from some specific disease...We do not know what this theoretical life-span is, for so very few people die of true old age that we cannot strike an average; but if we could, the figure would probably creep up towards the century and would surely be more than 70 years. [Note: at the time that the book was written, life expectancy in the U.S. was a bit less than 60 years.--Phil].


    Poor Plants and Ailing Animals

    Twenty-five years ago the New England hills were covered with a growth of chestnut trees that made a magnificent showing. Today there is probably not a full-fledged native chestnut in the entire area. Someone unwittingly introduced the chestnut blight from Europe or perhaps indirectly from Japan and that was the last of the chestnut. This devastation was due to a fungus that is parasitic on the chestnut but one that was so unwise as to kill its host. (The spreading chestnut under which the Village smithy stood did not share this fate. It had previously fallen in the march of progress, being cut down in 1879 to widen Brattle St. in Cambridge).



    There is a real need for vest-pocket receiving sets weighing not more than half a pound, which a man can carry conveniently anywhere he may go and pick up the ether waves at will....Vest-pocket transmitters might be very desirable but they offer far greater difficulties than a small size receiver....Housewives should not anticipate their wholesale use for calling up the husband in his car and telling him to bring home a loaf of bread. The ether is already so cluttered up with a little bit of everything that a few million additional messages along towards dinner time would prove fatal. [Failing to anticipate the invention of cellular technology, this is one that Furnas got wrong.--Phil]


    Leisure Without Lethargy

    We may look forward to the day when the average struggle for existence will be relegated to a minor problem. Only those who have endowed lives are in that fortunate position now, and they are not certain how long it will last. Every man is not a king nor is everyone in the future going to be rich nor is he going to be able to lead a workless life, but the working obligation for an average scale of living will decrease to the dimensions of a chore, leaving ample time for leisure. The balance of power in American life will then shift from the job to the hobby...(snip)...There will be more golf courses, if the game survives, more tennis courts and bathing pools, almost anything might turn up. Archery might become as important as in the days of Robin Hood. Unheard of games might arise [Like Ultimate Frisbee--Phil]. It does not make much difference what they are. It is only necessary that they shall be enjoyable.

    There shall be more fishing, be assured of that. It will be a national problem to shorten the time between bites....

    ...The average man will have the means to travel considerably in modest style and he will have the time. Why shouldn't he go?

    [/Books/Nonfiction] permanent link

    Mon, 19 Jan 2004

    Fiction: Notable American Women, by Ben Marcus
    This is the worst book I ever read. Previously, if I started to read any book remotely close to this bad, I would toss it aside without a second thought. Unfortunately, this was the selection of my book discussion group, so I felt obligated to read it...especially since I recently chided people for being too picky about the book selection, saying "I'll read anything. I'm going to read several thousand more books in my life, I don't really care if this one is in the top 10." So, I read the whole thing, every pretentious, ridiculous, irritating word.

    The plot, such as it is, concerns a boy raised by a sort of cult that believes that silence is blessed, that depriving the kid of emotional sustenance will make him stronger, and a bunch of other claptrap. The kid grows up completely screwed up, of course, but since he doesn't know what "normal" is, he doesn't know this. To the extent that the book has "characters", they're all hateful and unsympathetic. The book's language is at times nonsensical, at times pretentious, at times opaque, but is always irritating. Here's a sample:

    "It would be foolish to simplify the role of the skin in reading, thinking, and eating. Nearly everything that can be said about the skin can be disproved or at least convincingly denied. For the purposes of this book, once the fast is completed, the arm should be wrapped in the cloth you had stashed in your mouth."

    If you would like to read 240 pages of stuff like that, this is the book for you!

    It is only fair to acknowledge, I suppose, that lots of people absolutely love this book, and the web is strewn with reviews that claim that this book is insightful, life-changing, yada yada. This is, of course, utter nonsense.

    [/Books/Fiction] permanent link

    Mon, 08 Dec 2003

    Fiction: The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt
    A teenage girl thinks she's figured out who killed her brother years ago, and decides to take her own revenge. In the mean time, she has to deal with a non-functioning mom who never recovered from her son's death, and the departure of a valued (but mistreated) nanny/maid. The protagonist is clever and self-assured, and the book is always interesting, and sometimes touching or funny. It's a bit lightweight: like "The Rotters Club," "The Little Friend" is pleasant to read but isn't great literature.

    [/Books/Fiction] permanent link

    Mon, 25 Aug 2003

    Fiction: "The Rotter's Club," by Jonathan Coe
    This was the first book that we read in my book club at work. It follows the prep school years of a group of chums in Birmingham, England in the mid-70's. At a superficial level, the book is about the standard problems faced by the protagonists (although some of the peripheral characters run into some very heavy problems indeed). There was plenty to keep me entertained, as the kids struggled through adolescence, dealing with irritating brothers and sisters, uncertainty about girls, and so on. The kids seemed unrealistically precocious at times, but actually that's probably just as well: reading about actual adolescents might be pretty irritating, or just boring.

    Beyond the day-to-day activities of our heroes, there are some deeper themes; notably, inter-class rivalries are apparent at school and at the jobs of the kids' parents. It's possible that the author intended these themes to be central to the book, given how many pages feature some kind of class conflict, but in fact this theme is more of a backdrop than a central element.

    On the whole, Iiked the book pretty well: I thought that a few nonstandard narrative tools worked well---like giving some news items from the school newspaper---and I liked the characters and wanted to know what was going to happen to them. Although not exactly a page-turner, I certainly had no problem maintaining my interest in the book.

    Unfortunately my liking of the book put me in the minority in the book club: Emily didn't think it was good at all, Mark didn't read it, and Buvana finished most of it but only by pushing herself at the very end of the four-week reading period. Only Jean and I seemed to enjoy it appreciably.

    [/Books/Fiction] permanent link

    Mon, 19 May 2003

    More books
    The list of books that I got rid of last weekend was just enough to eliminate the need to have books stacked horizontally above the books on my shelves, or squeezed in on the narrow front of the shelf. So I took another pass and came up with another twenty-five books or so.


    Pet Aerobics, by Warren and Fay Eckstein
    "When your pet has acquired the sense of self-esteem that comes with slimnastics..." --- this unintentionally funny book was the base of Juliet's "worst act" at Andrew Gelman's Gong Show in 1995 or so.
    Shackleton's Forgotten Men, by Lennard Bickel
    Probably most people know the story of Shackleton's half of the Endurance expedition; the other half was even more star-crossed in a way. It's a pity this heroic story hasn't gotten more attention.
    Jackie Robinson, by Arnold Rampersand
    Very good biography of a remarkable person. Doesn't dish dirt, but plenty interesting.
    Only in California, by Janet Hearne
    Reasonably good bathroom reading: entertaining trivia poking gentle fun at California.
    If you can't say something nice, by Calvin Trillin
    Typical Trillin: amusing, light-weight short esssays. Not bad.
    Sex and Death to the Age 14, by Spalding Gray
    Funny, somewhat thought provoking, probably exaggerated stories/monologues in which Gray stumbles through life.
    The Muse in the Machine, by David Gelernter
    Gelernter is supposedly a brilliant thinker with deep insights into computer intelligence, but you can't prove it by this book. Still, the speculations about thought and intelligence are interesting if not profound.


    The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
    Imaginative science fiction novel about a world in which nano-machines are everywhere, and we follow the entertwined lives of some interesting characters. The last quarter disappoints, but it's still a good book.
    Zero db, by Madison Smartt Bell
    Small collection of good short stories.
    The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas
    Eh, entertaining enough, but it's hard to see what all the fuss is about. Lightweight, fairly fun, but pretty stupid.
    The Chosen, by Chaim Potok
    Probably most people read this in high school, or maybe college. One-dimensional but still a very good book, about two Jewish boys growing up.
    The Complete Poems of Robert Service
    About 100 poems, of which 2 are good. Still, The Cremation of Sam McGee alone makes the book worthwhile.
    Billy Bathgate, by E.L. Doctorow
    An excellent read, this is the story of young Billy Bathgate, a boy who is taken under the wing of the gangster Dutch Schultz. By the author of "Ragtime."
    Primary Colors, by Anonymous
    Roman a clef about Clinton's first campaign, this is a fun look at a presidential campaign.
    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, by B. Traven
    Unexpectedly reflective book about some rough men who fall in together to try to make their fortune in gold.
    Flaubert's Parrot, by Julian Barnes
    Very odd story about Flaubert, about the study of Flaubert, and about the search for a stuffed parrot that used to belong to Flaubert. Feels like an inside joke that I never caught onto, but I still liked it. I think.
    The Moor's Last Sigh, by Salman Rushdie
    Inventive, clever, surreal story of the last member of an old, once-important family. Odd but good.
    Time's Arrow, by Martin Amis
    A boy grows up, becomes a doctor, works in the medical section at Auschwitz killing Jews, flees to America after the war, and becomes a "normal" doctor. Fine. But we see his life through the eyes of a "passenger", who experiences his life backwards in time. (Reminds me of Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.") Didn't quite work for me, but it deserves full marks for originality.
    The Information, by Martin Amis
    Mark Bertin described this as "just English people being horrible to each other," and it is that. I found myself pulling for the totally awful protagonist, but otherwise found this an unpleasant book that was still oddly compelling.
    Brazil, by John Updike.
    Poor black boy meets rich white girl; they fall in love, flee to the countryside, work their butts off...and suffer an odd fate. Not Updike's best.
    The Cider House Rules, by John Irving
    Now a major motion picture, so you probably already know the story. An orphan grows up dreaming of bigger and better things, but eventually is content to be "of use" on a smaller, human scale. Very good.
    The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
    I doubt I need to describe this one. The Hobbit wasn't as good as I remembered, the trilogy was a bit better than I remembered.
    Flashman and the Mountain of Light, by George MacDonald Fraser
    Another story about the dastardly Flashman and his misadventures. Lightweight but funny, and even slightly informative of events from the British Empire in the mid 1800's.

    [/Books] permanent link

    Sat, 10 May 2003

    Assorted books
    I try to give away books after I finish reading them, but I still end up accumulating them over time. So every year, I go through my bookshelves, and the stack of books beside the bed, and get rid of every book that I think I'm unlikely to read again in the next several years. I try to be ruthless about it: there are so many good books that I haven't read even once, there's little point keeping a book--even a good book--that I've already read. This year's "spring cleaning" netted 21 nonfiction and 27 fiction books, some of which I read some time ago but have been hanging onto until now.


    In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made, by Norman Cantor
    Interesting but rather thin look at the effects of the Plague in the middle ages.
    Behind Deep Blue, by Feng-Hsiung Hsu
    Interesting non-technical discussion of the successful project to build a computer to beat the world chess champion. Not as good as "The Soul of a New Machine," by Kidder.
    The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300--1850, by Brian Fagan
    Excellent book, interesting, readable, and full of remarkable facts and some insights.
    Performing Without a Stage: The Art of Literary Translation, by Robert Wechsler
    Pretty good book about the difficulties of translation. Somewhat repetitive.
    Good Fat, Bad Fat, by William Castelli and Glen Griffin
    HDL is good, LDL is bad, eat right and exercise.
    The Evolution of Useful Things, by Henry Petroski
    If you've ever designed and built anything yourself, you know that you can always do better the second time...and the third...and the fourth. Even simple things (paper clips, forks, etc.) "evolve" with time; this pretty good book explains why.
    Give War a Chance, by PJ O'Rourke
    The gonzo conservative journalist gives us another entertaining right-wing view of the world. It's a fun read.
    Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich
    A journalist goes "undercover," trying to subsist on jobs near the bottom: waitress, hotel maid, etc. It ain't easy. Short book, worth reading.
    Blinded by the Right, by David Brock
    A former right-wing "journalist" says there really was a vast right-wing conspiracy.
    The Road to Ubar, by Nicholas Clapp
    Reminiscent of the search for Troy: an enthusiast searches for, and finds, the long-lost, ancient city of Ubar in the Arabian sands. Very interesting.
    The Making of a Conservative Environmentalist, by Gordon Durnil
    A die-hard Republican is appointed by Reagan to a do-nothing environmental commission, and becomes a committed environmentalist (of sorts). Slightly interesting.
    Savages, by Joe Kane
    Fascinating and depressing story about the destruction of an Amazonian tribe by the forces of development.
    The Size of Thoughts, by Nicholson Baker
    Hit-and-miss collection of essays about punctuation, library cards, and other esoterica. Some good, some not so good.
    The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester
    Unusual true story of how an insane American doctor, while confined for insanity in England following the US Civil War, became the greatest contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary.
    Black Hawk Down, by Mark Bowden
    An instant classic: this riveting story is simply a minute-by-minute account of a single, minor battle between U.S. soldiers and a warlord's militia. Gripping.
    Out of my League, by George Plimpton
    An old book that tells about Plimpton's effort in pitching in a sort of pre-game exhibition at a baseball all-star game. Not very good.
    Paper Lion, by George Plimpton
    A well-known and pleasant report on Plimpton's training as quarterback for the Detroit Lions of yesteryear.
    Wry Martinis, by Christopher Buckley
    Short, generally somewhat amusing light pieces about taking a flight in a fighter jet, taking a trip with Malcolm Forbes, etc. Fair.
    The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell
    Gladwell discusses "critical mass" phenomena in marketing, politics, etc. Somewhat interesting, but too data-poor to be really good.
    The Climb, by Anatoli Boukreev
    Boukreev's version of the climb featured in Krakauer's "Into Thin Air." Compelling in its own right, though not superb.


    Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks
    Fairly good story about life in a plague-ridden town in 1666.
    Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, by Allan Gurganus
    A look back to roughly 1865--1910, from a southern woman's persective. Good but not great.
    The High Window, by Raymond Chandler
    Excellent crime fiction by a master.
    The Humorous Verse of Lewis Carroll, by Lewis Carroll
    "The Hunting of the Snark" is great, the rest are not so hot.
    Cowboys are my Weakness, by Pam Houston
    Short stories about self-reliant men and the women who love them. Not as bad as it sounds.
    The Cunning Man, by Robertson Davies
    A typical Davies effort: entertaining, readable, and rather preachy. Read "Fifth Business" instead.
    Fletch's Moxie, by Gregory McDonald.
    "Fletch," "Confess, Fletch," and "Flynn" are really good. The rest of the Fletch series are readable but forgettable.
    Dark Star, by Alan Furst
    An atmospheric espionage story, rich and well-written and yet somehow not gripping. I'll read more Furst, though.
    Total Recall, by Sara Paretsky
    I've grown Paretsky's recurring theme: nobody trusts the protagonist, not even her friends. More o' the same.
    Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner
    Pulitzer-winning book, a gripping and haunting story, definitely worth reading.
    The Eye in the Door, by Pat Barker
    Third in the "Regeneration" trilogy, it's early 1918 and domestic British Intelligence agent Billy Prior wrestles with personal demons. Good.
    The Judgment, by D.W. Buffa
    Read-and-forget psychological police thriller. About as good as any other.
    Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan
    This darkly humorous novel about two unprincipled acquaintances got good reviews, but I was disappointed.
    Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll
    Great stories, of course, and I'll give them another read in ten years.
    The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins
    Before Sherlock Holmes, there was Sergeant Cuff. This story, from 1868, is good in its own right, and also of historical interest as one of the foundations of the detective novel.
    Flashman, by George MacDonald Fraser
    Humorous (mis)-adventures of "Flashman", the anti-hero's anti-hero, in Her Majesty's army in the 19th century. I'll read more of the series.
    Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey
    Very good in spite of its manipulative and "unfair" ending.
    The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde, by Erle Stanley Gardner
    A forgettable Perry Mason mystery.
    The Tracks of Angels, by Kelly Dwyer
    A nice coming-of-age novel by a former Oberlin classmate. Good.
    Self-Portrait with Ghosts, by Kelly Dwyer
    Dysfunctional family seeks answers...not as good as "Tracks of Angels," but worth reading.
    About a Boy, by Nick Hornby
    Yet another entertaining effort by Hornby.
    Bridget Jones--The Edge of Reason, by Helen Fielding
    Yet another entertaining effort by Fielding.
    A Surfeit of Guns, by P.F. Chisolm
    Crime novel set in 1595 on the Scottish border; unusual setting makes it interesting.
    A Conspiracy of Paper, by David Liss
    Excellent detective story of sorts, notable for its setting in squalid 18th-century London.
    The Organ Grinders, by Bill Fitzhugh
    This is a fun (but maybe slightly over-zany) story reminiscent of Carl Hiassen.
    Shiloh, by Shelby Foote
    The story of the civil war battle, told from several different points of view. Good if you like this kind of thing.
    Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem
    Yet another innovative crime novel from the man who brought us the marvelous "Gun, With Occasional Music."

    [/Books] permanent link

    Sun, 04 May 2003

    Nonfiction: Salt, by Mark Kurlansky
    One of my favorite genres is sometimes called "nano-history" or "micro-history"; books in this genre take an apparently small or insignificant invention, event, or phenomenon, and by telling its story they touch on much broader aspects of history. One example is "Longitude", by Dava Sobel; another is Mark Kurlansky's excellent book "Cod." "Salt" is a worthy addition to the growing library of books of this type. Although not as good as "Cod," "Salt" is nonetheless chock full of interesting facts.

    For almost the entire history of mankind, until about 150 years ago, salting and pickling--which is preservation in brine---were almost the only ways of preserving food for a long period (except for smoking, which worked for some meats; and a very few foods, like potatoes, could keep for a long time without special measures). Salt was therefore critically important, to a degree that is almost impossible to imagine today: lack of salt could make it impossible to preserve enough food for winter, and could prevent armies from stocking sufficient rations.

    In this book, Kurlansky outlines the political, military, social, and economic importance of salt, and gives many examples of cases in which the need for salt affected the course of history. The book is also full of interesting trivia. For instance, the old English word for a salt-works was "wich", and every "wich" town in England is the site of a former salt-works: Greenwich, Norwich, and so on.

    The book is very readable and very interesting...put it on your list.

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    Mon, 28 Apr 2003

    Nonfiction: In the Wake of the Plague---The Black Death and the World it Made, by Norman Cantor
    This repetitive and narrow book discusses the effects, and to some extent the causes, of the Black Death that swept through Europe in the 14th century and recurred many times over the succeeding centuries. At its best, the book discusses some noteworthy effects of the plague: examples include the creation of a labor shortage in some areas and the social changes that this led to, and the alteration of the ratio of men to women (since the plague killed both sexes about equally, while the other main cause of mortality, death during childbirth, took only women). At its worst, the book is repetitious on some main points while failing to delve into others.

    If you know as little about the Black Death as I did, and are somewhat interested in it, this book is sufficiently informative to be worth reading. If you already know the subject, or don't care to know it, then give it a miss.

    By the way, the fictional "Year of Wonders", by Geraldine Brooks, is a pretty good book about the effect of the plague on a small English town in 1666.

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    Fiction: Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks.
    This very readable novel tells the story of a woman living in a plague-ridden village in central England in 1666. The village in the novel, like the real-life village of Eyam, voluntarily quarantined itself to avoid endangering its neighbors, a heroic act that was apparently unprecedented and unrepeated. The novel follows the spread of the epidemic, the townspeople's fear, anger, and search for scapegoats, and the trials and loves of the protagonist. The protagonist is perhaps unrealistically liberal and sophisticated for her era, but the book is still entertaining and, given the reasonably good research on which it appears to be based, also provides a good look at life in those times.

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    Thu, 24 Apr 2003

    Book: Blinded by the Right, by David Brock
    David Brock is the former conservative "hit man" who wrote the books "The Real Anita Hill", "The Seduction of Hillary Rodham," penned dozens of right-wing hate pieces about the Clintons and about liberals in general, and was the toast of the conservative establishment in Washington for most of the 1990's. In his book "Blinded by the Right," Brock reveals that virtually everything he wrote was a lie.

    Brock says he was motivated by unreasoning hatred of liberals in general, and by the fact that the more vitriolic he became the more he was lauded by the conservatives. More importantly, he says that many conservative leaders such as Newt Gingrich were equally unreasoning and hateful. Conservative media such as the American Spectator and the Washington Times frequently published unsubstantiated rumor as fact, which didn't bother him at the time...but his conscience was eventually tweaked when he found that the problem went beyond publishing rumors, to publishing "facts" that were known to be false. Once he started to critically examine his own work, and that of others, even his admittedly atrophied conscience recoiled, and he renounced the innuendo and outright lying in which he had previously participated.

    Having read the two paragraphs above, you've got the gist of the book. The details are somewhat interesting---who said what to whom, which conservative columnists were liars and which were hypocrites, and so on---but the book is really much longer than it needs to be. It's still worth reading, though. For one thing, it shatters the illusion that all of the major media outlets check the facts before publication: Brock says that in fifteen years of writing, the only time true fact-checking was performed was for the Esquire article that became the basis of "Blinded by the Right."

    There are important messages here for anyone, conservative or liberal, who bases his or her opinions on editorials, opinion pieces, and even "in-depth reviews" of "the facts." If Brock is to be believed, the problem is bigger on the right than on the left, but no one is immune.

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