Bragan's 2011 Reading, Part 2

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Bragan's 2011 Reading, Part 2

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1bragan
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 3, 2011, 8:03 pm

My previous thread was up over 200 posts, and since we're now 1/3 of the way through the year and I'd read a nice, even 50 books, this seemed like a good place to split off a new one. And I've got a good first book to launch it off with, too:

51. A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin



Andrew Chaikin's detailed account of the Apollo space program focuses as much or more on the experiences, thoughts and reactions of the people involved than on the technical details, drawing on extensive interviews with astronauts and others to bring those experiences to life. At 600+ pages, it might be a little slow in places, but the descriptions of the missions themselves, which make up the bulk of the book, are vivid and exciting, at least to a lifelong space enthusiast like me. The sheer, marvelous audacity of the whole enterprise comes across very well, leading me several times to look up from the book, lean back and shake my head thinking, "This is surely the craziest, most improbable, most wonderful thing we human beings have ever done!" But more than that, Chaikin manages to effectively convey the simple reality of it all. These astronauts, we are reminded, were just ordinary guys -- well, all right, perhaps slightly extraordinary guys -- walking around a real and solid landscape cracking jokes, getting excited about interesting rocks, cursing at uncooperative equipment, and falling victim to that "so much to do, so little time!" feeling familiar to anyone who's ever over-scheduled a vacation. The you-are-there feeling of real people doing real things is sometimes almost overwhelming. Unfortunately, so is the sense of sadness at the thought that it's been a terribly long time since anyone's done anything at all on the moon, however optimistic Chaikin might try to be about the possible future of space exploration.

I've read quite a few books on this period in the American space program, from the excellent to the terrible; this is one of the ones I would most highly recommend.

Rating: 4.5/5. I actually came very close to giving it a 5/5, but I admit that's probably mainly because I'm unbelievably sentimental about this particular subject.

2janemarieprice
toukokuu 3, 2011, 9:41 pm

I don't know that I'm up for any space stuff. Wanted so badly to work for NASA when I was young (until I found I was highly sensitive to motion sickness and mostly blind). Too depressed about the future of exploration these days:

3bragan
toukokuu 3, 2011, 10:44 pm

I saw that the other day, too. Which I thought was a heck of a coincidence, considering that, in the course of reading the above book, I was just thinking pretty much this exact same thing. I actually considered posting it here myself, given the context, but thought it was almost too depressing. But I do love xkcd, not least because there are times when it knows how to hit home. The alt-text is well worth repeating, too: "The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there's no good reason to go into space--each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision." Sigh.

4dukedom_enough
toukokuu 4, 2011, 7:24 am

To approach that cartoon from a different angle, Arthur C. Clarke said somewhere that Apollo was a 21st century endeavor that happened in the mid-20th century for political reasons, the idea being that it happened before its natural moment and so was not sustainable.

5bragan
toukokuu 4, 2011, 8:12 am

Chaikin quotes that in the book, too, and I think there is something to it. Going to the moon with 1960s technology was... Well, did I use the word "improbable" in my review? But I'd find the thought a lot more reassuring if the actual 21st century were showing any real signs of getting there.

6bragan
toukokuu 6, 2011, 1:31 pm

52. The Ask by Sam Lipsyte



Washed-up would-be painter Milo Burke works as a fundraiser for the art department of a mediocre university, going home every night to a long-sparkless marriage and a child on whom he practices the latest parenting techniques but for whom he feels little real emotion. Then he loses his job after making some intemperate remarks but is offered to the chance to get it back by coaxing a large donation out of an old college buddy. Or something like that. The plot details honestly don't seem that important. Mainly, it's a satire on modern American life, specifically the lives of artsy middle-class liberal Americans. Unfortunately, I found it only intermittently humorous at best. There are flashes of an impressively acerbic wit, but mostly it's a mishmash of the crude, the pretentious and the pathetic. In fairness, all three of those are quite deliberate, I'm sure, but on the whole it just didn't do much for me. No doubt part of the problem is that I felt no sense of connection with the main character whatsoever. At one point in the novel, he actually says that if he were a character in a novel, no one would like or identify with him. He's not wrong, but pointing it out doesn't do anything to help. It's possible the book might have worked better for me if I lived in or came from the kind of world it depicts -- I went to a college that didn't even offer a liberal arts program -- but I'm not at all sure about that. Ultimately, I'm left feeling as if Lipsyte has simultaneously laid his satire on far too thick and failed to make any coherent point with it.

Rating: A possibly ungenerous 2.5/5

7stretch
toukokuu 7, 2011, 9:30 am

Excellent review! I've always wanted a better education in the world art, just to understand what others see in paintings and such.

8bragan
toukokuu 7, 2011, 10:27 am

The novel doesn't really deal with art very much at all, more with, I don't know, a certain pretentious personality type that's kind of alien to me. I will admit, though, that my ignorance of the art world in general is profound, and what artistic tastes I have tend to be narrow and nerdy. M. C. Escher, now that I get.

9bragan
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 15, 2011, 10:40 am

53. I Don't Want to Kill You by Dan Wells



Book three in Dan Wells' series about John Cleaver, a teenage sociopath who attempts to divert his violent tendencies into protecting the people of his small town from creatures worse than he is. I've seen this described as a young adult series before, despite the high levels of gore and disturbing content, but this is the first one that's actually had something of a YA vibe for me, possibly just because John spends much more of the story interacting with other teenagers. That's not really a complaint, though, just an observation.

The plot this time out is perhaps not quite as suspenseful as in the first one or as intense as the second, and I was able to figure out a fair amount of what was going on well before the main character did. The details were interesting enough to keep my attention, though, and there were one or two surprising moments and a sufficiently exciting ending. As usual, however, it's the character of John himself that really makes this worth reading. I am genuinely impressed by Wells' ability to pull off a fairly delicate balancing act with this character. He's very clearly the good guy here, and it's possible he even has the potential to be a good person, but he's also really freaking creepy. The combination is oddly compelling.

I'm not sure if there are going to be any more books in this series -- I have the impression it was conceived as a trilogy -- but if there are, I will definitely be there.

Rating: 4/5

10bragan
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 9, 2011, 7:25 am

54. Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card



This is story of young Alvin Miller, the powerful seventh son of a seventh son, who lives in an alternate-history version of early America where folk magic and religion exist, often uneasily, side by side. There's not really a great deal to the plot, and this is clearly only the opening chapter in Alvin's story, so there's not a neatly satisfying ending. But for all that, I enjoyed it. The magic and history of this world were interesting enough in themselves to keep me reading, and the characters and their lives are grounded in enough detail to feel real. It's also quite well written, with a touch of rustic dialect that's handled deftly enough to create just the right atmosphere, but never laid on thickly enough to become annoying. Like some of Card's other works, this one is clearly influenced by his religious background -- there are prophets and angels, apparently, and perhaps some theological points to be made -- but those elements fit the fantasy world of the book well, and various religious attitudes are handled in a fairly thoughtful and nuanced way. It's certainly a far cry from Card's dire and tedious Mormons in Space books (or, as he calls it, the Homecoming series).

I think I'm probably going to have to seek out the rest of these.

Rating: 4/5

11bragan
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 11, 2011, 1:10 am

55. God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist by Victor J. Stenger



The subtitle to this -- or is that the sub-subtitle? -- very nearly put me off. After all, one cannot absolutely prove a negative such as "God does not exist." Nor is it necessary, since the burden of proof is logically put on the the one making the claim, and a lack of evidence for a claim, particularly a highly extraordinary one, is reason enough not to accept it, scientifically speaking.

Well, I needn't have worried on that score, as Stenger demonstrates an extremely solid grasp of the scientific method. Basically, he treats "the God hypothesis" as a scientific hypothesis, just as if it concerned any other subject a scientist might want to investigate. He contends that, despite frequent claims that science and religion are completely separate domains with one having nothing to say about the other, we can test even supernatural claims scientifically. He argues that if God exists -- or at least the particular kind of hands-on creator God widely worshipped by Christians, Muslims and Jews -- there ought to be observable, testable evidence of this in the material world. For example, studies have been done on the efficacy of prayer in speeding the medical recovery of hospital patients. and Stenger points out that the best-designed studies, even those performed by the devoutly religious, show no clear effect. (Although somehow it's the more dubious studies that always seem to get the media attention.) He then repeatedly makes the point that, whatever our intuition might tell us to the contrary, the universe and its contents actually look pretty much as one ought to expect them to look if there were no Grand Designer, meaning that God as an explanatory hypothesis is simply unnecessary.

Stenger's writing is rather workmanlike, without the engaging liveliness of great science writing, but it's clear and readable without being too dry. Overall I find his take on things reasonable, although some of his arguments are much better than others. Some of them are much more detailed than others, too. The sections involving physics tend to have the most depth, but in other cases, such as the chapter on evolution, his treatment seems somewhat cursory. Frequently he refers readers to presumably more detailed discussions in his previous books. But while his desire not to repeat himself is perfectly understandable, and I'm sure people who've actually read his previous books will be grateful, that does make this particular volume less satisfying than it might be. And I say that as someone who's read enough other books on relevant topics to be able to at least make educated guesses about what he might have had to say in his.

Still, if you're interested in this kind of approach to the eternal science-vs-religion debate, this book is at least a pretty good starting point. Like so many works written from an atheistic point of view, I suspect that it's mostly preaching to the choir (uh, so to speak), but religious fence-sitters might find it useful in helping to frame their thoughts on the subject, whether they agree with Stenger's take or not. Believers, being believers, are unlikely to find it convincing -- there is simply no provision here for a faith-based worldview -- but some might find it worthwhile if they're interested in gaining insight into what the concept of God looks like to those who try to approach it from a scientific perspective.

Rating: 3.5/5

12JanetinLondon
toukokuu 11, 2011, 4:54 am

Hi, delurking to say thanks for that interesting and helpful review. It's a subject I'm interested in, but don't have a lot of time to read around, and this review gave me some good information without making me need to read the book (although it does sound good).

13bragan
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 11, 2011, 10:08 am

Thanks! I'm glad if it was helpful at all! There are a lot of books that deal with this kind of topic these days, and I wouldn't say this one is one of the very best, but it does approach things from an interesting perspective.

14dchaikin
toukokuu 11, 2011, 10:17 am

Saw this one at the library and thought about checking it out, then set it back. I have had some interesting debates about the existence of some form of God here on LT - unfortunately, I've also had many many non-interesting tiresome debates too. Now, I tend to avoid the topic. I think the science is clear. So, the pro-God arguments tend to work around the science to find a window. Somewhere mixed in the debate is an interesting (to me) point that belief in God can be of value - it changes the debate from "prove this" to something else. It's interesting enough to at least give my atheism...maybe a slight pause.

15bragan
toukokuu 11, 2011, 10:33 am

Yeah, it can get very tiresome very quickly. It can also be a really, really touchy and difficult subject to debate, since people invest so much of themselves and their emotions in their religious worldviews and can get very defensive very quickly. Heck, I get slightly nervous sometimes even writing a review like that, dry and unconfrontational as I think it was.

My feeling is that belief has its pros and its cons, but I'm personally very happy without it.

16dchaikin
toukokuu 11, 2011, 10:37 am

I understand why it would make you nervous. Your review seems carefully composed, very tactful.

17bragan
toukokuu 11, 2011, 10:47 am

Thank you. I try. :)

18bragan
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 13, 2011, 2:58 pm

56. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu



Charles Yu -- the fact that the character's name is the same as the author's is appropriate in ways that are hard to explain -- lives in a universe that's not entirely real, a fact he seems strangely comfortable with. When he was young, his father invented a time machine and subsequently disappeared somewhere into space and time. Now Charles Yu travels around in his own self-contained little box of a time machine repairing others' time-travel devices (which have a tendency to break when their operators try to alter the worst moments of their lives), hoping one day to find his father again.

Well, OK, that's sort of what the book is about, but that summary doesn't really describe it properly at all. A more accurate description, I suppose, is that it's a bizarre kaleidoscope of time travel tropes and melancholy memories, metafiction and metaphysics. It's weird and it's poignant, and having used those two adjectives, I honestly don't know what else to say about it, but it was certainly an interesting read.

Rating: a bemused 4/5

19dchaikin
toukokuu 13, 2011, 3:56 pm

It's weird and it's poignant, and having used those two adjectives, I honestly don't know what else to say about it

:) I like your way of putting that.

20bragan
toukokuu 13, 2011, 6:30 pm

It is very, very true. :)

21bragan
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 15, 2011, 1:28 am

OK, I really only barely skimmed this one, but I'm counting it, anyway:

57. The Top Ten of Everything 2001 by Russell Ash



A big collection of Top Ten Lists. You know the kind of thing: highest-grossing movies, most endangered animals, countries with the highest life expectancy... Only there are lots and lots of them, and some of them are weirdly specific: "Fastest X-15 Flights", "Most Points Scored by Michael Jordan in a Game." And so on. It seems kind of interesting to browse through at first, but the entertainment value of all these big, indigestible chunks of contextless information wears off pretty quickly. It might at least be useful as a study aid if I ever go on Jeopardy!, I guess, although that would call for a more up-to-date edition.

Rating: 2/5

22bonniebooks
toukokuu 15, 2011, 1:07 pm

11: Nice review! I didn't pick up that book when I saw it in the bookstore, because it would have been "preaching to the choir" for me as well, but now you make me want to take another look at it.

23bragan
toukokuu 15, 2011, 4:15 pm

It wasn't the best book on atheism I've ever read, but I did at least find the author's approach interesting, and a little different from the usual.

24bragan
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 20, 2011, 12:07 am

58. My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales edited by Kate Bernheimer



A collection of forty short stories inspired by a variety of fairy tales from around the world. Some are easily recognizable reworkings or retellings, many of them in modern settings. Others appear to bear little or no resemblance to their progenitors, at least not outside their authors' heads. Most are somewhere in-between, featuring a few familiar points of contact with the traditional tales. Almost all of them have at least a touch of the surreal, which seems appropriate enough for fairy tales, but a surprising number of them are more literary experiments than stories. For me, there was only one real standout in the anthology: Neil Gaiman's clever, delightful "Orange." Otherwise, my reaction to these stories ranged from, "Hey, I quite liked that!" to "What the hell did I just read?!" By about halfway through the book, I was thinking that, while I wished there were more of the former, the anthology as a whole did have an oddly compelling, more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts quality about it. By about two-thirds of the way through, though, I was mostly thinking that while one story that sucks the enchantment out of a fairy tale and turns it into a story about drug addiction or the marital problems of middle-class couples may seem creative and interesting, reading five or six of them close together just reminds me of why I used to think I didn't like "literary" writing. In the end, I'm not at all sorry I read it, but I do have to say that it's not quite what I was hoping for.

Rating: 3.5/5

25bragan
toukokuu 23, 2011, 1:50 am

59. Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell



Sarah Vowell presents a short history of Hawaii, with specific emphasis on the early 1800s, when missionaries from New England landed on the islands and Hawaiian culture and government underwent a series of massive, rapid changes.

Unfortunately, this didn't work for me quite as well as some of her previous books. For one thing, she tends to jump around in time a little bit, interspersing her discussion of history with mentions of her present-day researches or allusions to things that happened decades after the time period she's concentrating on. (In particular she talks quite a bit about the 1893 overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani well before the point where said queen actually shows up in the chronology.) In her books about mainland US history, I had no problem with that kind of structure, even found it charming and insightful, but when dealing with a corner of history about which I knew practically nothing going in, it's a little disorienting. Wait, what date are we up to here?, I kept stopping to ask myself. And how is Liliuokalani related to these people I've been reading about again? It didn't help matters any that I also had trouble keeping track of many of the other people involved. I'd like to be able to blame that on the long and often very similar-sounding Hawaiian names, but the truth is, I couldn't keep the missionaries straight, either. And while I found the details of native Hawaiian culture and government fascinating, those were never really delved into in nearly as much depth as I would have liked. Honestly, I'd have preferred to read a lot more about the Hawaiians and a lot less about the missionaries. (I must admit, I've never been particularly fond of missionaries.)

I don't want to be too negative, though, because it's really not a bad book. The subject matter genuinely is interesting, even if it only whetted my appetite on certain topics. And I'm particularly glad to have read it now, since I'm planning a trip to Hawaii later this year, and it's nice to have relieved at least some of my profound ignorance about the place before visiting. In particular, the somewhat shocking story of how Hawaii came to be annexed by the US deserves to be better remembered. Also, Vowell can be quite witty and insightful, and there are certainly moments when she displays those qualities here. And, as always, I very much appreciate her nuanced approach to her subject matter, her ability to see everyone's point of view, as displayed, for instance, in the way she expresses genuine admiration for the missionaries' bravery, dedication and sense of community, while also acknowledging their ingrained racism and their disturbing role in the history of American imperialism.

Rating: 3.5/5

26baswood
toukokuu 23, 2011, 4:25 am

Enjoying your reviews as ever. Hope you have a good trip to Hawaii and you manage to avoid those pesky missionaries.

27bragan
toukokuu 23, 2011, 12:37 pm

Thanks! :)

28dchaikin
toukokuu 23, 2011, 1:13 pm

Bragan - this one is on my Hawaii list. I'm still sifting through trying to understand how this all fits together. I would say the history itself is quite confusing - between what we don't know about Hawaiin history, and all the strange mixed imperialist efforts, the whaling and missionaries...etc.

29bragan
toukokuu 23, 2011, 3:52 pm

Yeah, it's clearly a really complicated history, and I feel like Vowell only just scratched the surface. I'm thinking I'd like to read more about it eventually. Maybe a slightly more comprehensive and linear account.

30bragan
toukokuu 24, 2011, 4:07 am

60. Destination: Void by Frank Herbert



A 1966 novel about colonists on their way to the star Tau Ceti. For reasons that I'm still not remotely clear on (despite the fact that it's the main focus of the book), their ship needs to be controlled directly by a conscious mind, so it's equipped with disembodied human brains trained since birth to do the job. As the story begins, though, all three brains have apparently gone insane and died, and the crew realize that if their mission is to continue they must do the supposedly impossible and create a conscious computer.

Despite the hefty dose of suspension-of-disbelief all this requires, there is a lot of potential in this premise. If the mystery of what drove the brains crazy and the suspense of whether the mission will succeed or fail isn't enough, there's also the fact that some of the crewmembers are clearly keeping secrets from the others, not to mention the distinct possibility that the people behind the mission have some hidden agenda and that all is not as it seems. Unfortunately, rather than anything that takes advantage of those pretty good plot hooks, we mostly get lots of tedious technobabble and pretentious discussions about the nature of consciousness.... which, actually, I would have found interesting, if they weren't completely incoherent and nonsensical. In the end, the whole thing gives the distinct impression of having been inspired by a bunch of ill-informed dorm room stoners deep in the heart of the sixties sitting around talking about, like, really cosmic things, man!

I already have the sequels to this novel. I think I might just ditch them.

Rating: 2/5

31bragan
toukokuu 25, 2011, 6:20 am

61. My Lobotomy by Howard Dully & Charles Fleming



A few months ago, I read The Lobotomist, Jack El-Hai's excellent biography of Walter Freeman, the doctor who popularized lobotomies in the United States and performed the procedure thousands of times on people suffering from pretty much every mental or emotional problem imaginable. It was a fascinating and disturbing book, and it left me very interested to see what things might look like from the other side -- that is, from the point of view of one of Freeman's patients. Although maybe "victims" might be a better word. The patient/victim in this case is Howard Dully, who was only twelve when he was taken to Freeman and given a transorbital (aka ice pick) lobotomy for "symptoms" that seem to be a combination of normal boyhood rambunctiousness and an understandable inability to cope with an abusive home environment.

Dully's book isn't quite what I was expecting. It isn't entirely or even mostly about the lobotomy, which was very far from his only problem. Instead, it's a depressing memoir about a boy with (initially pretty mild) delinquent tendencies whose family -- primarily his stepmother -- were willing to try just about anything to render him less annoying except for actual loving attention. After the lobotomy failed to "fix," him, he spent much of the rest of his childhood locked up in a series of mental wards and juvenile detention centers, despite the fact that most of the people involved were well aware that he didn't belong there. Unsurprisingly, between the horrible childhood and the deliberately inflicted brain damage, Dully had serious problems as an adult -- arrests, drug use, periods of homelessness, dysfunctional relationships -- before finally managing to pull his life together, at which point he began to look for answers to his questions about exactly what was done to him and why. Eventually he met some NPR reporters interested in doing a story on Freeman, which metamorphosed into a story about Dully, which led to this book.

It's written in a very simple, rather flat style, which while not exactly compelling prose is somehow a lot more effective than you might expect it to be. It's impossible not to feel sympathy for the poor kid, and the final chapters, in which Dully describes what it's like to finally confront his past and share his experiences with others, are really very moving. His story also touches (albeit very lightly) on some troubling and thought-provoking questions about how we treat "difficult" children, not just in the era of the lobotomy but today.

Rating: 4/5

32dukedom_enough
toukokuu 25, 2011, 7:22 am

bragan,

What a terribly sad story. I'm reminded of Henry Darger, whose similarly mild problems as a boy led to institutionalization and possibly to lifelong emotional difficulties.

33dukedom_enough
toukokuu 25, 2011, 7:28 am

As for the Herbert, I have a copy of the first edition mass-market paperback from 1966. I remember skimming around in it but being deterred from going further. I think the incoherence and nonsense must have seemed like really deep thinking that my 15-yo self wasn't ready for yet.

34bragan
toukokuu 25, 2011, 7:34 am

I'd never heard of Darger. It does sound like a depressingly similar story.

I think my 15-yo self probably would have struggled through Destination: Void in the belief that there was something really profound there even if I didn't understand what it was and hoping to absorb some of it through osmosis. Goodness knows, I did that with enough other pretentious and nonsensical SF novels. Some of them probably were also by Herbert, come to think of it.

35avaland
toukokuu 25, 2011, 8:00 am

>25 bragan: Sounds like one I can avoid.

36bragan
toukokuu 25, 2011, 8:09 am

I did find it worth reading, but it feels more like a starting place than a satisfying exploration.

37bragan
toukokuu 28, 2011, 2:40 am

62. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart



This romance/satire is set in a near future whose elements read like a catalog of America's worst domestic fears from the past decade or so: economic collapse, unemployment, progression from governmental security-mania to a full-blown police state, a complete lack of privacy, a near lack of literacy, social media gone mad, corporations gone mad, rampant militarism, shameful failure to Support Our Troops, problems with immigrants, problems for immigrants, political unrest, owing our souls to the Chinese, and, of course, the ever-present, neurosis-inducing possibility of each of us growing old and fat.

I have terribly mixed feelings about this book. On the negative side -- and it's a pretty hard-to-ignore negative -- are the main characters, Lenny and Eunice. She's shallow, he's a born loser, and their love story is less "super sad" and more just plain pathetic, based as it is almost entirely on mutual neediness and low self-esteem. I know complaining about this may seem like missing the point, as I'm sure we're meant to identify with their human weaknesses and to long for them to grow to the point where they're capable of something more mature. But that's a bit difficult when when you find yourself actively disinclined to extend the characters any sympathy. This really shouldn't have happened, as Lenny, at least, is a character I ought to be able to relate to. He's a bookish, thoughtful person in a world where those things aren't valued, and that's a pretty good description of my life back in junior high. Unfortunately, though, when we first meet him, he's cultivating a creepy, vaguely stalkerish obsession with Eunice in the wake of a tawdry and unsatisfying one-night stand, making a conscious and concentrated effort to refocus his entire life around a self-serving fantasy version of a woman he barely knows. Then he badgers her to come to him, despite her obvious lack of interest, until she finally gives in just because she needs a place to stay. And, yeah... I don't care how common this sort of thing is in literature, for me it's disturbing and unpleasant in a way that there's just really no recovering from. Ever. It doesn't matter how much Shteyngart later tries to portray Lenny as really rather romantic and sweet, in his own dorkish way. As far as I'm concerned it falls on deaf ears, and any possible connection or empathy I might have felt for the guy is dead before it's begun.

Remarkably enough, though, Shteyngart actually makes a pretty good run at writing a book I'm capable of truly enjoying despite my principled distaste for the main characters. From the very first page, I was delighted by the liveliness and intelligence of the writing and impressed by the deftness of the satire, which manages to blend a little bit of the pleasantly ridiculous with a whole lot of the frighteningly plausible. The novel almost managed to support itself on the strength of that alone for about a hundred pages or so, but, alas, eventually it reached the point where the freshness started to wear off and I began to feel impatient with it. It did get better towards the end, when the plot gains some unexpected heft, but sadly it never did quite recapture that initial charm. Which is somewhat frustrating, because I can easily imagine a version of this story that I would have loved unreservedly.

Rating: Unsurprisingly, this is tough to rate. Call it a 3.5/5.

38baswood
toukokuu 28, 2011, 4:22 am

Bragan, excellent review of Super Sad True Love Story. You have an emotional response to the story which comes across brilliantly in your review. I am tempted to get the book just to see if I agree with your review.

39bragan
toukokuu 28, 2011, 4:31 am

Thanks. There seem to be a lot of divergent opinions on the book, and I can easily understand how others might feel differently about it than I do, especially if they're not getting hung up on the same things I am.

40stretch
toukokuu 28, 2011, 7:14 am

Great Review Bragan. I heard about Super Sad True Love Story on NPR the other day, and have been on the fence about it ever since. THe outcast scenario of Lenny sounded appealing but even in the interview it sounded more like a super pathetic crush than an actual romance between to people. I'll have to give it some more thought after reading your review.

41bragan
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 28, 2011, 7:50 am

"Pathetic" really is the only word for it. And although the characters do grow a little during the course of the novel, it's never remotely as much as you might hope.

If you do read it, I'll be curious to know what you think.

42bragan
Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 4, 2011, 11:28 am

63. Lost Civilizations: Rediscovering Ancient Sites Through New Technology by Austen Atkinson



A coffee table-style book showcasing the ruins of great, vanished civilizations from Machu Picchu to Pompeii to Angkor Wat. For each site there are a few pages describing the culture and history of the people who lived there, sometimes along with a discussion of how the ruins where discovered and excavated. These generally convey little more than a broad overview, of course, and the writing style sometimes makes me feel as if I'm reading text off a museum exhibit, but they do feature some interesting details. The color pictures, which include photos of ruins and artifacts as well as a few computer-aided artists' reconstructions of what the sites might have looked like in their heyday, are generally much more effective at exciting the imagination, though. Oddly enough, despite the title, there isn't really all that much about the use of new technologies in archeology. There are a few pages in the introduction about remote sensing, and a few more mentions in the sidebars featuring quotes from archaeologists that accompany each chapter, but generally there's at most a short concluding paragraph or two saying something like, "and today we're using new techniques to learn more."

I did have to roll my eyes a little at the inclusion of a section on Atlantis, although at least the discussion of it is sane. Mostly it boils down to something like, "If Plato didn't just make the whole thing up -- which it's fairly likely he did -- then maybe it was inspired by the island of Thera. Or maybe not." Yeah, OK, whatever.

Considerably more bothersome is the fact that there's some kind of formatting or editing problem affecting a couple of paragraphs in the first section, on the Anasazi culture of the American southwest. At least several lines of the text appear to be missing and/or garbled, making a fair chunk of it effectively unreadable. I find this particularly irritating, because the Anasazi ruins are the only ones in the book that I've actually visited, and I was hoping to see a good writeup on them.

Rating: 3/5

43bragan
Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 4, 2011, 11:28 am

64. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters



Susan, a young thief living in Victorian London, is recruited by a con man acquaintance to assist in a plot that involves him seducing and marrying an heiress, dumping her in an asylum and absconding with her money. It's a simple-seeming plan, but of course, things turn out to be a just a bit more complicated than that...

I was really impressed by the period feel of this novel. It's written in a distinctly Victorian style, although perhaps less dry and wordy than many Victorian authors tended to be. (I was reminded more of Wilkie Collins' writing than anything; I found the one book of his that I've read so far to be much more lively than, say, Dickens.) Indeed, I might almost have been able to believe it to be an actual Victorian novel, if it weren't for the fact that it deals with certain sex-related subjects (and, occasionally, certain foul language) that no respectable Victorian writer would dare acknowledge the existence of. Although it is inevitably influenced by 21st century attitudes: there's a definite sense that the reader is being invited to sit back and pass well-deserved judgment on the Victorian era's treatment of women, among other things. But if there's ultimately a feminist sensibility to the book -- and I'd say there is -- it's one that's inherent in the story, not one that involves the author climbing onto a soap box.

The plot features a number of improbable-but-entertaining twists and turns that also feel very Victorian, as well as a touch of refreshingly unconventional romance, and the characters are generally well-rendered. It's certainly not a perfect book -- it loses some of its momentum in the middle, as we revisit earlier events from a different POV, and I do have a niggle or two with some of the character motivations -- but overall I quite enjoyed it. I may have to look for other books by this author.

Rating: 4/5

44Cait86
kesäkuu 4, 2011, 2:45 pm

Great review of Fingersmith, a book I have been meaning to read for ages. Both of Waters' novels that I have read, The Little Stranger and The Night Watch, were very good.

45bragan
kesäkuu 4, 2011, 3:08 pm

I've already put The Little Stranger on my wishlist. I do like a good ghost story.

46wandering_star
kesäkuu 5, 2011, 2:31 am

Fingersmith is my least favourite of Sarah Waters' novels, so do try the others!

47bragan
kesäkuu 8, 2011, 1:15 am

65. The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer



I've read and enjoyed several of Michael Shermer's other books, and I was already familiar with most of the subject matter he covers in this one, but something about it had me feeling a bit off-balance much of the time while I was reading it, and it took me a while to figure out why. It's that the subtitle, which bills this as an examination of "how we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths" and his statement that, having written a book called Why People Believe Weird Things, he now wished to turn to the question of why people believe anything at all, led me to expect a very different sort of book. This isn't really a systematic exploration and explanation of how we form our beliefs about the world. It's something rather less focused than that.

Here's what we actually get:

First, there's a whole section relating the stories of three people who changed their religious/spiritual beliefs: a friend of the author's who had some kind of mystical experience in the middle of the night, a scientist who converted to Christianity, and the author himself, who became a Christian fundamentalist as a teenager, then lost his belief again as an adult. They're moderately interesting stories, and they do testify to the reassuring fact -- not necessarily always obvious elsewhere in the book -- that Shermer is quite capable of respecting the intelligence and sanity of people we might call "believers," but there seems to be no particular point he's making with any of them.

He then devotes another section plus a couple of chapters of the next one to discussing (often in considerable technical detail) various odd things that happen in the human brain that people tend to interpret as having spiritual, religious, or supernatural significance, such as the phenomenon of near-death experiences. He does try to tie this in to some more general points about the human ability to see patterns everywhere and our tendency to impart deliberate agency to the random and the inanimate, but while he does a reasonably good job with the former, his examples of the latter are surprisingly poor. He refers to these two ideas as being main theses of the book, but these chapters, at least, seem to be much more focused on the idea that the mind and the "soul"' can be explained materialistically as functions of the brain, and on making a case for atheism.

This is followed by a chapter on conspiracy theories and how to tell a crazy conspiracy theory from a non-crazy one, and one on the question of whether we should believe in aliens. Both of these are a bit superficial, but fine as far as they go. They're followed by a chapter on political beliefs, which is simultaneously the most irritating and one of the most interesting parts of the book. It's irritating because Shermer has his own very definite political beliefs -- he's a zealous libertarian -- and he can't resist defending them. It's interesting partly because he includes some thought-provoking statistics about political beliefs and where they come from, but also because I was able to note some of the author's own political biases and to observe myself beautifully illustrating one of the very points he was making by experiencing the impulse to impatiently dismiss ideological points I didn't agree with without examining them too closely. It is, I think, worthwhile to be prodded once in a while to notice when you're doing that.

Next, there's a very good chapter on the cognitive biases that influence our thinking and our beliefs, which seems like it really should have come much earlier in the book. Then there are two chapters discussing the history of astronomy, which do a fairly nice job of illustrating both how scientists, too, have biases and preconceptions that color their work and how science slowly manages to advance anyway by treating empirical evidence as the final arbiter of truth. Finally, he wraps it all up with an epilogue that talks a bit about how to evaluate claims scientifically.

All in all, it's not a bad book. He makes some interesting points, and I agree with him on pretty much everything but the politics. I do wish it had been a little bit less of a mish-mash, though.

Rating: 3.5/5

(Note: This was my Early Reviewers book from April.)

48baswood
kesäkuu 8, 2011, 3:16 am

Excellent review Bragan. I think I know just what to expect from the book.

49bragan
kesäkuu 8, 2011, 10:33 am

Thanks. I think knowing what to expect from it might have really helped me!

50bragan
kesäkuu 8, 2011, 1:53 pm

66. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Volume 8: Last Gleaming by Joss Whedon, et al.



This is the final volume in the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's graphic novel afterlife. I was pretty into this series up until the previous installment, which shattered my suspension of disbelief into a surprising number of pieces and left me laughing at things that were clearly meant to be dramatic and/or romantic. This volume, alas, really doesn't manage to recover from that, which is a pity, as it meant things that should have had a certain amount of impact on me didn't. Still, there is some fun dialog, which is always one of the great joys of Buffy, and they've left things set up to go in hopefully rather less over-the-top directions in "season 9."

Rating: 3/5

51dchaikin
kesäkuu 8, 2011, 2:26 pm

That was a really thoughtful and thought-provoking review of Fingersmith. I've enjoyed the several other new-to-me reviews here too, as I catch up.

52bragan
kesäkuu 8, 2011, 2:56 pm

Thanks! I actually found Fingersmith a little difficult to review, because it's hard to say all that much about it without spoilers, and I definitely don't want to spoil it.

53bragan
kesäkuu 12, 2011, 4:01 am

67. Flux by Stephen Baxter



A science fiction novel about humans -- or rather, micron-scale beings patterned closely after humans -- living in the mantle of a neutron star. As an imaginative thought experiment, it's kind of a clever idea, as it explores the question of whether life could exist in such an environment, how it might work, and what things would look like if you could enter this kind of weird-physics realm with the right senses to perceive it. Unfortunately, clever or not, it's really not enough to carry a 400 page novel all by itself, and there's just not a whole lot else here. The characters are pretty thin, as is the plot (even if it does widen its scope significantly at the end), and in true hard SF tradition the writing style is at least 85% exposition. I will say that I found it more readable than some other stuff at the extreme end of the hard SF spectrum, where characterization is often not so much thin as painfully bad. Still, it ended up being a bit of a slog for me, and I can't help thinking that it would have worked considerably better as a short story.

Rating: 2.5/5

54bragan
kesäkuu 12, 2011, 5:27 am

68. The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger



A short graphic novel about a woman who, wandering the streets of Chicago at night, encounters a battered Winnebago inside which is a library containing everything she's ever read. I find this idea utterly irresistible, largely because for many, many years I've repeatedly imagined just such a library of my own, with all the books of my life shelved in order, and wistfully longed to be able to visit it and see my life's reading spread out in front of me: the well-remembered classics and the forgotten volumes, the picture books giving way to kids' books to the books that shaped me in my teenage years and on through the slow progression of my changing adult tastes...

Unfortunately, while seeing that dream brought to life on pages in front of me was wonderful, the main character's unhealthy obsession with her own Night Bookmobile library was less so, and the ending rather put me off. Ah, well, at least I can dream of my own Bookmobile in the full confidence that I'd handle the experience much more sensibly. And if the moral Niffenegger is trying to convey here is that too much love of books is unhealthy, she can bite me.

Rating: 3.5/5 (although it would have been 4.5 if the ending hadn't annoyed me)

55bragan
kesäkuu 13, 2011, 2:47 am

69. Firefly: The Official Companion, Volume One by Joss Whedon, et al.



This slick-looking volume contains the uncut shooting scripts for six episodes interspersed with interviews, short articles on the props and costuming, and lots of pretty pictures. The scripts turned out to be a lot of fun to read, not just because the episodes themselves are fun, but also because the scripts, particularly Joss Whedon's, feature some entertainingly colorful descriptions.

Recommended for Firefly fans.

Rating: 4/5

56bragan
kesäkuu 13, 2011, 6:00 pm

70. Ravens by George Dawes Green



Stopping for gas in a small town in Georgia, two guys in the middle of a road trip hear about a local family having just won a staggeringly large lotto jackpot and hatch a plan to extort a share of the cash out of them by threatening their loved ones. It's good premise for a thriller, and the writing is decent, in a vaguely literary sort of way. But this book really didn't work for me, mainly because the characters didn't work for me. The victim family and their friends are mostly cliched, unlikeable, and flat, except maybe for the grandmother, who has a sort of forced, artificial quirkiness that's just as bad. Meanwhile, the criminals are stupid enough that you have to wonder how they manage to get very far with this plan at all, and their supposed psychological motivations are mushy and unconvincing. I think they're all meant to be sort of darkly humorous, but on the whole I just found them irritating. Which meant that I didn't particularly care what might happen to any of them. Which in turn meant that I never felt much in the way of suspense. And, oh, yeah, there's also a bizarre religious motif that crops up throughout the novel, but if there's any actual point to that I have no idea what it is.

Rating: 2.5/5

57RidgewayGirl
kesäkuu 13, 2011, 9:55 pm

I'm enjoying your thoughtful reviews, Bragan, even as they add to the slow sinking of the foundations of my house.

58bragan
kesäkuu 13, 2011, 10:54 pm

Thanks! My foundation is having the same problem. :)

59bragan
kesäkuu 14, 2011, 11:29 pm

71. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey



Author Elisabeth Tova Baily suffers from a debilitating illness, and during a period when she was bedridden a friend brought her a pot of wild violets and, for some reason, a snail. Bailey made a sort of pet out of the snail, observing it with attentive interest and finding in its slow, patient movements some inspiration for coping with her own condition. This slim volume, in which she relates her experiences with her snail and shares what she's learned about snails in general, is thoughtful, charmingly written, and surprisingly educational. I had no idea how much I didn't know about snails, but I came away convinced that they are remarkable, beautiful creatures. I kind of want to find some snails of my own to watch now.

Rating: 4.5/5

60bragan
kesäkuu 17, 2011, 7:22 pm

72. Mind of My Mind by Octavia E. Butler



Doro is an immortal, mind-controlling, body-snatching mutant who has spent 4,000 years on a human breeding program in an attempt to produce more creatures like him. Mary, a telepath with powerful new abilities, is his most promising result yet, but she also may be proof that he's succeeded a little too well.

I should mention that this is the third book in a series. I read the first one so long ago that I remember little of it, and I managed to miss the second one, but it didn't really matter. This one stands on its own well enough.

I'm really not sure quite what to think about it, though. It's reasonably well written, if a little talky. It's also disturbing, as it features incest, domestic violence, eugenics, murder, and various kinds of mental coercion from the violently forceful to the insidiously subtle. None of which I necessarily have a problem reading about, but there's something about the casual, matter-of-fact way the characters generally accept all this as just the way things are, even when they're the victims, that gets to me. (The book never spells it out explicitly, but I can only imagine that to some extent they're programmed to accept their place in the grand plan, with all that entails. They may baulk at specific things, but you never see them questioning the basic assumptions.) I felt vaguely unclean while reading it, but the book never develops enough emotional intensity for that disturbed feeling to lead to any kind of catharsis. Unfortunately, this also robs the story of any real sense of investment I might have felt. The only ending that seemed remotely worth caring about or hoping for would be one where the slaves rebel not just against their puppetmaster but against the whole premise of their lives. And that seemed to be almost literally unthinkable.

Rating: 3.5/5

61bragan
kesäkuu 22, 2011, 12:27 am

73. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick



This sprawling volume explores of the idea of information: how we encode and transmit it, how we think about it, and what we do with it. Gleick starts out talking about African drum signals, the invention of writing, and the advent of the telegraph, then moves on through Charles Babbage and his early anticipation of the computer age and into discussions of mathematics, computer science, cryptography, biology, and physics, exploring the ways in which the concept of "information" has evolved in and influenced all of these various fields. Some of this stuff gets a bit technical, but I think Gleick does a good job of presenting it all without making it either too simplistic or too dry. He finishes it all up with a couple of relatively light chapters about the deluge of information we're all now exposed to, thanks to the internet, and how we are or aren't handling it.

I was already familiar with a lot of the scientific and mathematical ideas here, so the parts I found most interesting involved the ways in which our worldviews and our ways of thinking about knowledge and information have changed over the centuries. I might almost have preferred more of an emphasis on that, actually, but I'm not really complaining. Overall this was well-written, thought-provoking, and definitely worth reading.

Rating: 4/5

62baswood
kesäkuu 22, 2011, 8:27 am

Thanks for reviewing the Jamea Gleick book Bragan. It sounds interesting. If only I had time to read all the interesting books I come across on LT. The flood of information no less.

63bragan
kesäkuu 22, 2011, 10:36 am

Yeah, Gleick seems fully aware of the irony of writing yet another book talking about how there are now far too many books (and too much of everything else) for anyone to keep up with. :)

64bragan
kesäkuu 24, 2011, 3:52 am

74. Among Others by Jo Walton



I'm finding it surprisingly hard to describe the premise of this novel, so I'll just say that it's the story of Morwenna (aka Mori), a bright 15-year-old girl who reads a lot of science fiction and occasionally talks to fairies.

As a fantasy novel, it's kind of interesting, partly in the way it portrays a magic so low-key and ambiguous that I sometimes found myself wondering whether it really existed at all, but mostly because in terms of the plot structure it's almost the exact inverse of a traditional fantasy story. The dramatic, world-saving adventures, while important, exist largely as alluded-to backstory or take place on the peripheries of Morwenna's life, while it's her tentative journey into that strange, enchanted realm known as real life that's the true focus. And it works surprisingly well; the more I think about it, the more subtitles I think there are to be found here.

But the real appeal of the book is that it was very clearly and very deliberately written for people just like me. People, that is, who have had the experience of being bookish, SF-loving teenagers. Mori litters her narration with references to writers like Tolkien, Vonnegut, Heinlein, and Le Guin... which is to say, she speaks my language. There's a wonderful kind of nostalgia here for me as I found myself reliving memories of what it was like to read these books for the first time, losing myself in their worlds, pondering their ideas with a fresh teenage brain, and longing for other people to talk to about it all. I think that anybody for whom that resonates, anybody who read more or less these books at more or less this age, will find this one very much worth reading. What anybody else might make of it, I honestly can't imagine.

Rating: I've given it 4/5 stars, but I suspect this may be one of those books that improves the longer you let it simmer in your brain.

65dukedom_enough
kesäkuu 24, 2011, 7:10 am

bragan,

Jo Walton is about a decade and a half younger than I am (IICBW*). Reading her reviews at tor.com, it's clear that she has a somewhat different list of books to be nostalgic about, having had a different set available when she was a teen. I'm a little surprised sometimes that some of my era's authors still spoke to her. The authors you name are all from that earlier period. Are there any specifically mid-to-late-70s books that figure prominently? It's set in (an alternate) 1979 or so, right?

*If I Can Believe Wikipedia.

66bragan
Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 24, 2011, 11:34 am

Yes, it's set in 1979 and 1980, so of course all the books the protagonist reads came out before then, but some of them were published recently, from her perspective, such as Anne McCaffrey's Dragonrider books and Roger Zelazny's Amber series. At one point, she gets very excited to find a brand new Heinlein novel on the shelves -- The Number of the Beast -- although she doesn't seem entirely certain what to make of it when she reads it.

I was born in 1971, myself, so I'm a few years younger than the character (and apparently Walton, as well), but that's close enough for a huge overlap in reading.

67avaland
kesäkuu 24, 2011, 3:49 pm

Just catching up on your reading (and enjoying it).

68bragan
kesäkuu 24, 2011, 4:14 pm

Thanks! I think it's been an interesting (if decidedly uneven) month for me.

69wandering_star
kesäkuu 24, 2011, 10:43 pm

Ooh, Jo Walton of the Small Change series? I've really been enjoying that - the first two are basically classic 'country house mysteries' set in a counterfactual world where the UK became a fascist regime after WWII. I've been meaning to look for some of her more science fiction-y stuff, maybe this would be a good place to start.

70bragan
kesäkuu 24, 2011, 10:51 pm

I haven't read those, but that would be her, yes.

Actually, I haven't read anything else by her except for the occasional blog post, but I do have a copy of The King's Peace, about which I've heard good things.

71bragan
kesäkuu 27, 2011, 3:51 am

75. Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi



New York mobster Henry Hill started his criminal career in 1955, at the tender age of eleven, running errands for the local mafia. He continued on with a rather impressive variety of illegal activities until 1980, when he realized that two remaining options were to cooperate with the FBI and enter the Witness Protection Program, or to get whacked by his supposed friends for knowing too much about a multimillion-dollar robbery. (He chose the FBI.)

This biography of Hill -- although perhaps it's at least partly an autobiography, as much of it is in his own words -- was the basis for the movie Goodfellas. I haven't seen that particular film, but I will say that I was a little surprised by just how much the people described here resembled some of the gangsters I have seen in movies and TV. I'm not sure whether I find that fact entertaining, disappointing, or kind of scary.

I did learn some things about the structure and day-to-day business of organized crime that I failed to pick up from watching The Sopranos, though. And the book also offers some insights into the psychology of career criminals, although it turns out not to be too terribly profound. Mostly it boils down to a few simple things: 1) Whatever everybody else around you is doing seems perfectly normal. 2) Money and power are nice! And 3) nobody really expects to be caught. (This belief is apparently far less irrational than it sounds, or at least it was in Hill's day.)

There are some hair-curling stories in here, but on the whole I didn't find it quite as engrossing as it seemed like it ought to be. More than anything, the staggering levels of corruption depicted here left me feeling kind of depressed.

Rating: 3.5/5

72bragan
kesäkuu 29, 2011, 10:25 pm

76. Engine Summer by John Crowley



In a long-post-apocalyptic future, a young man sets out on a journey, as young men in such stories do, and has some strange experiences.

I started this one with a fair amount of interest in learning more about the protagonist's society, in piecing together hints about what happened in this world's past, and in puzzling out the slightly cryptic framing story. As it went on, though, it became less obviously about any of these things and more oblique and metaphorical. There's something about stories, something about the passing of time, something about men and women... I don't entirely know.

It is quite well written, and there are a couple of revelations at the end that I thought worked nicely, but I must confess that my attention kept wandering away from it. I think maybe I just wasn't in the right kind of mood.

Rating: 3.5/5

73bragan
heinäkuu 1, 2011, 8:43 am

77. The Human Genome: The Book of Essential Knowledge by John Quackenbush, Ph.D.



This book wasn't quite what I was expecting, in that it actually doesn't go into the details of the Human Genome Project in a great deal of depth, giving mostly just a broad overview of the project's history while barely touching on the technology involved. Instead, it focuses on the implications and uses of our growing knowledge of human genetics, primarily in the understanding and treatment of disease, including an entire chapter about the genetic and environmental causes of cancer.

Quackenbush's prose isn't exactly riveting, but it is generally pretty clear, and he provides some basic lessons in genetics for those completely unfamiliar with the field. He does use a lot of technical terminology, though, which can sometimes be a little difficult to keep straight.

At 183 pages, foreword and afterword included, it's not really long enough for a thorough exploration of the topic, but it does provide a pretty good sense of where we are in terms of understanding human genetics and what the promising developments and the complications are.

Rating: 3.5/5

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

74dmsteyn
Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 1, 2011, 9:43 am

I have a friend who always warns me against writers who add their qualifications on the front page, but this book doesn't sound too bad.

75janemarieprice
heinäkuu 1, 2011, 12:23 pm

Dr. Quackenbush has to be the funniest PhD name ever. When I saw it on ER I sent it to my friend who just got his PhD and is now Dr. Pepper to let him know it could be worse. :)

76bragan
heinäkuu 1, 2011, 3:49 pm

>74 dmsteyn:: I think including the letters after your name, as an author, generally means one of two things: either you've got some academic heft and your publisher really wants to make sure everybody knows about it, or you're a borderline crackpot trying to convince people you can't possibly be one, because you have a degree, doggone it. Quackenbush is definitely the former, though. His scientific bio is kind of impressive, and he did actually work on the Human Genome Project.

>75 janemarieprice:: I have a friend whose last name is Stange, and who married a guy whose last name is Love. We begged her to get her doctorate and hyphenate her name, so she could be Dr. Stange-Love, but she didn't go for it.

I'm not sure if that'd be better or worse than Dr. Pepper, though.

77bragan
Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 9, 2011, 7:56 pm

78. Five Complete Hercule Poirot Novels by Agatha Christie



An omnibus collection containing Thirteen at Dinner (aka Lord Edgware Dies), Murder on the Orient Express, The ABC Murders, Cards on the Table and Death on the Nile.

This wasn't quite the first Agatha Christie I've ever read -- I vaguely recall reading And Then There Were None many years ago -- but it was pretty close. Having had something of a crash course in her writing now, I find that my feelings on the subject are a little mixed.

On the negative side, I didn't care much for the character of Poirot at first. His accent is strangely annoying, his character not quite as well-defined as I might prefer, and his "psychological" methods considerably variable when it comes to how convincing I find them. He did grow on me over the course of these novels, though, mainly by displaying entertaining flashes of humor. As for the plots, I'm afraid none of these did the thing I most love for a detective or mystery novel to do, which is to induce that wonderful little feeling of epiphany when, the moment before the murderer is finally revealed, all the pieces suddenly fit together with a snap, and I find myself exclaiming, "Aha! Of course!" The clues were generally a little too obscure for that, I think, the situations a little too improbable, and important bits of information withheld perhaps just a little too long. (Although I should probably add that it's a little unfair to say that about Murder on the Orient Express, just because I was already spoiled for whodunnit, but I'm pretty sure I would have had the same experience with that one, regardless.)

On the other hand, whether I was able to figure any of them out or not, the solutions, once revealed, were always clever and complicated and interesting in ways that somehow still feel remarkably fresh many decades later, and I think that by itself made this collection worthwhile for me. So, while I feel like maybe I've now read about as much Christie as I want to, I am at least glad to have read this much.

Rating: 3.5/5

78bragan
Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 10, 2011, 9:12 pm

79. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls



A memoir of a childhood spent growing up in difficult circumstances, with parents who, if one were feeling exceptionally charitable, might be called "free spirits," and otherwise might be called a number of far stronger and less complimentary things, starting with "criminally irresponsible." It's a strangely compelling read, although frequently in a train wreck sort of way. Walls' parents are certainly interesting people in any sense of the word, including the "ancient Chinese curse" sense. What makes it so fascinating, I think, is that they're really not bad people, just... really not people who should have ever had children. Occasionally, Walls will describe some incident or other and I'll find myself oddly charmed by them, even entertaining the notion that they might have a point or two with their lifestyle and child-rearing choices, and then they'll go and do something utterly and completely appalling. (Me being the person I am, I actually found a couple of incidents involving cats among the most upsetting in the book, which I suppose I should possibly feel bad about, considering that it starts out with a story about allowing a toddler to set herself on fire.)

I'm probably making it sound bleaker than it is. It's not a happy story, by any means, but the author never gives the impression that she's whining about her lot, or even really condemning her parents for being what they were. And at least it does end well for her, on the whole.

Rating: 4/5

79bragan
heinäkuu 15, 2011, 10:25 pm

80. Alternities by Michael P. Kube-McDowell



Sometime around 1951, for some unknown reason, the history of the world split off into multiple timelines. Now one of those realities, a world in which the Cold War has not gone at all well for America, has discovered the secret to accessing those other worlds, and a deeply amoral politician is hatching an appalling plan to exploit their existence.

Despite a few plot improbabilities, this isn't a bad story. Kube-McDowell has clearly put some good thought into developing the little details of the different timelines, giving them very plausible similarities and differences. And he's done a couple of fairly unusual and rather nice things with the old multiple-timelines premise. I'm particularly pleased by the fact that he has everyone conceived before the split existing in multiple realities, but no one conceived afterward; that's a concession to logic and probability that few science fiction writers have made. And despite the fact that this was written in 1988 and is very much a Cold War novel, it's less dated then you might expect. One or two plot elements might actually seem even more relevant now than they did then.

All that having been said, though, I have to say that it just never really gripped me. The imminent global danger faced by the protagonists' "home alternity" felt entirely abstract to me, and never generated any real sense of suspense. And none of the characters are interesting, mostly coming across as stock types rather than real people: the warmongering president, the senator who is so powerful he can literally get away with murder (as well as even worse things I really would have been just as happy not reading about), the working schlub whose wife just doesn't understand him, the love interest whose only function is to be the love interest... By the end, I have to admit I was getting a little tired of it all. But then, it's really a political thriller at heart, and I've never been a particularly big fan of political thrillers. I suspect those who are are likely to enjoy it a lot more than I did.

Rating: 3.5/5

80bragan
heinäkuu 16, 2011, 2:40 am

81. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris



David Sedaris captures a variety human foibles and hypocrisies in this collection of odd little animal fables. Many of them are quite sharp and bitter and some are downright uncomfortable, but all of them are amusing.

Rating: 4/5

81zenomax
heinäkuu 16, 2011, 4:29 am

bragan - enjoying your thread - well constructed reviews and a number of books that would otherwise have been off my radar...

82dmsteyn
heinäkuu 16, 2011, 7:31 am

Agreeing with zenomax - I really enjoy your reviews, even when the books aren't really my cup of tea.

83baswood
heinäkuu 16, 2011, 7:45 am

Here here

84bragan
heinäkuu 16, 2011, 2:49 pm

Aww, thank you all! I've been rather enjoying the process of figuring out what I have to say about these books, myself.

85bragan
heinäkuu 18, 2011, 4:18 am

82. The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan



Sitting here in the middle of the worst drought this part of the country has experienced since record-keeping began, waiting to see whether our entire economy is about to be repossessed by the Chinese, it somehow made sense to me to pick up this book about farmers of the Great Plains trying desperately to survive the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. After all, there's nothing that can make you feel better like the realization that things could always be much worse, right? Well, reading this certainly did put my own problems in perspective, but I can hardly say that it cheered me up. It is a very depressing read, and a sobering illustration of how the environment and the economy can both turn vicious when they're handled badly.

Egan mixes historical facts with semi-dramatizations of the lives of those who lived through these times, based mostly on interviews with now-elderly men and women who were young then. He can be a little long-winded at times, and occasionally the style seems to be trying just a bit too hard to feel literary or dramatic, but on the whole, it works. I do feel much better informed about a corner of American history I previously knew little about, as well as emotionally moved by the human suffering involved. But, man, now I really need to read something happy.

Rating: 4/5

86bragan
heinäkuu 18, 2011, 5:12 am

Fortunately, I did have something happier on hand...

83. Simon's Cat: Beyond the Fence by Simon Tofield



This is the second book featuring the cartoon cat made famous by YouTube. This one mostly involves said feline roaming the countryside in the company of various animal friends and enemies, which is pleasantly silly, but not, I think, quite as entertaining as anything in the first one. The cartoons I liked best were the more domestic ones at the beginning, which did a great job of eliciting that sense of amused recognition -- Oh god, my cats do that exactly! -- that is often the best thing about Simon's Cat.

Rating: 3.5/5

87baswood
heinäkuu 18, 2011, 5:28 am

The Worst Hard Time has gone on to my to buy list. My interest in the period stems from my admiration of the photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration. Dorothea Lang, Walker Evans, Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein, who took brilliant black and white photographs of the period. I am therefore interested to read a book that provides more context to those wonderful photographs.

Hope it rains soon

88bragan
heinäkuu 18, 2011, 5:36 am

The book talks a little bit about a few Dust Bowl photographers, actually, and has made me curious to see more of the photographs. (There are some included in the book, but not nearly as many as I would have liked.)

And thanks! The monsoon rains should be be here any time now. Yep... any time...

89RidgewayGirl
heinäkuu 18, 2011, 11:23 am

Bad Land by Jonathan Raban is a good companion book to The Worst Hard Time and mentions photographers working further north during that time period. Amazing to think that that was a better life than the one they'd left.

90GCPLreader
heinäkuu 18, 2011, 11:55 am

Bragan, now may be the time for your Grapes of Wrath reread. :o)

91bragan
Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 18, 2011, 3:46 pm

>89 RidgewayGirl:: Thanks, I may have to check out Bad Land!

>90 GCPLreader:: I'm ashamed to admit that it would actually be a first-time read for me.

92bragan
Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 19, 2011, 3:22 pm

84. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem



This classic science fiction novel from 1961 features a mysterious planet-spanning ocean that's probably alive and very possibly sentient, where a small team of scientists have unexplained encounters with the dead (and perhaps other things as well). It's a strange, ambiguous, intellectual novel that seems to be about humanity's poor and faltering attempts to understand the truly alien while distracted by the projections of our own minds. It's not really my favorite of Lem's works -- I'm a big fan of The Cyberiad -- but it's a mildly fascinating one.

I haven't seen either of the two movie adaptations of this. I'm thinking now that maybe I should, as I'm curious as to how one could possibly go about adapting something like this for film.

Rating: 4/5

93dmsteyn
heinäkuu 20, 2011, 6:17 am

I saw the Soderbergh/Clooney version of the movie last year, and I wasn't impressed, but I still want to read the novel.

BTW which translation did you read? I hear there is some controversy over the different versions, with Lem himself having disliked the original English translation.

94bragan
heinäkuu 20, 2011, 10:13 am

The translation I read is by Jonna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, and apparently it was translated from French, so what I believe happened is it was originally translated from Polish to French and then from French to English. Which sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it doesn't read badly.

95bragan
heinäkuu 21, 2011, 10:02 pm

85. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente



This wonderful fairytale reminded me in places of L. Frank Baum, of Roald Dahl, of Lewis Carroll and of Neil Gaiman, but while it partakes of all kinds of fantasy patterns and fairytale traditions, it feels very fresh and original, too. It's whimsical without being cutesy and warm-hearted without being treacly, the kind of fairytale that doesn't lie about the harshness and complexity of the world but doesn't downplay its simple wonders, either. Also, it's well-written and entertaining. Recommended for all ages!

Rating: I'm calling this one 4.5/5, but it comes surprisingly close to making the seldom-bestowed 5/5.

96bragan
heinäkuu 22, 2011, 12:04 am

86. Locke & Key: Keys to the Kingdom by Joe Hilly and Gabriel Rodriguez



As with the previous volumes in this series, this one features vivid characters; a nice blend of humor, horror, and drama; an interesting continuing storyline; and some truly impressive artwork. It also features some fairly clever storytelling choices and a thread of suspense that builds slowly to one heck of a cliffhanger. In other words, it continues to be excellent stuff. I do still wish I'd waited until the whole thing was out to read it, rather than constantly losing momentum and my memories of the story thus far with every wait between releases, but I did find this one easier to pick up with than the last one, despite the publication delays.

Rating: 4.5/5

97dchaikin
heinäkuu 22, 2011, 1:11 pm

Bragan - catching up. I might check out that Valente book.

Am I sensing interest in a Grapes of Wrath group read? Just a thought. Haven't read it, would like to read more Steinbeck.

98bragan
heinäkuu 22, 2011, 1:23 pm

I've never been much for group reads, but I might possibly be tempted by that.

99stretch
heinäkuu 22, 2011, 5:22 pm

>96 bragan:. Glad to hear that you still enjoyed Keys to the Kingdom even in spite of IDW's publishing delays. I just hope that the next installment doesn't take a step backward from this edition. I hate the not knowing what to expect from the next in the series. I know what you mean by losing momentum. I forgot the whole backstory behind Duncan's boyfriend being laid up in the hospital. It's rough that there is such a long lag between collected edition to collected edition nevermind complicating that with publishing delays.

100bragan
heinäkuu 22, 2011, 6:27 pm

I will admit to being a little bit nervous on the "Wow, is there any possible way it can follow through with this level of quality to the end?" front, but I am optimistic. These guys certainly seem to know how to tell a story.

And even though I found this one easier to get back into than the last volume, I am still constantly reminded why I much prefer to read series like this all in a lump. I had, for instance, kind of forgotten about Sam, which was a bit of a problem. I suppose the really sensible thing would be to re-read the previous installments first, but, you know, so many books, so little time! Or the other alternative is to read them as monthly comics, but that just compounds the problem of forgetting what happens between installments with the problem of not having enough story per installment to satisfy.

101bragan
heinäkuu 24, 2011, 5:03 pm

87. The Science of Doctor Who by Paul Parsons



The title of this book almost seems like a bit of an oxymoron, given that we're talking about a TV show whose iconic technobabble catchphrase is "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow," in cheerful denial of the fact that neutrons don't have a polarity, and whose technology largely tends to be of the "indistinguishable from magic" kind. But while you could doubtless write a whole book on the bad science of Doctor Who, this one takes an entirely different approach. Instead, it focuses on tying various ideas used by the TV series into real-world scientific concepts (although often very speculative ones) and technologies that are at least being considered as future possibilities by real-world scientists. So we get answers to questions like, "What use would it be to have two hearts?" and "Is time travel theoretically possible?" and "Could you make a screwdriver a little more sonic?" Alien death rays and stun weapons lead to descriptions of cutting-edge military technology, the Cybermen serve as a jumping-off point to talk about cybernetic implants, a chapter on the Daleks features a discussion about genetic engineering, and so on. There's even an odd bit about what happens in your brain when you get scared of the monsters on your TV set and hide behind the sofa.

Unsurprisingly, it's all pretty simplified and superficial. And I don't think it's nearly as good a book as, say, The Physics of Star Trek, perhaps partly because Star Trek at least pretends to take its science seriously, even if it fudges a lot of things and gets a lot wrong, so there's more to sink your teeth into there. But it is fairly pleasant, and it may be a fun read for Who fans who have some curiosity about real-world science but not a lot of knowledge.

Rating: 3.5/5

102baswood
heinäkuu 24, 2011, 5:17 pm

Bragan. I am always interested in anything relating to Doctor Who. I have been addicted to the programme ever since it was first broadcast in November 1963. Of course it has a huge cult following in the UK, but I was wondering if it has the same sort of following in the USA.

I am extremely disappointed that you Americans have pinched Torchwood.

103bragan
heinäkuu 24, 2011, 5:59 pm

It's not remotely as widely known here as it is in the UK; the average person has quite likely never heard of it. But it does have a large and extremely devoted following among American science fiction fans, and has since we started getting Tom Baker episodes on our public television stations back in the 80s. And it's gained a lot of new American viewers since the new series started, to the extent that it's actually starting to get some mainstream attention now.

I haven't watched the American version of Torchwood yet. To be honest, I think I'm a little afraid to.

104bragan
heinäkuu 26, 2011, 2:54 am

88. The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell



Fifteen-year-old Temple grew up in a world overrun by the dead, which has made her tough and dangerous, but somehow not diminished her sense of wonder. Now she wanders through what's left of the deep South, trying to survive and see something of the world while a man bent on vengeance dogs her steps.

The plot and the background aren't anything terribly remarkable, and there's one incident that seems as if it could have come straight out of a B-movie (something that's not actually a given in a zombie story). But the main character is satisfyingly well-rendered and the writing is excellent, intelligent and contemplative. This, apparently, is what happens when a zombie apocalypse story grows up and decides to embark on a career as a literary novel, while trying to stay in touch with its roots. I think the novelty value of that alone would be enough to make it worth reading.

Rating: I can't quite decide what to rate this, so I'm going to be generous and call it 4.5/5.

105bragan
heinäkuu 28, 2011, 4:18 pm

89. No Life for a Lady by Agnes Morley Cleaveland



A memoir about growing up on a New Mexico cattle ranch in the late 1800s and then watching that land and its way of life slowly changing in the early 20th century.

I wasn't too sure about this book at first; the writing struck me as unpolished and a little disjointed. But there is a certain simple, good-humored honesty about it that grew on me very quickly and left me utterly charmed. It's full of terrific anecdotes, too. Agnes Morley Cleaveland did not particularly like the romantic mythologizing of the cowboy, but her life story nevertheless displays a lot of the exciting Wild West color that has made them such an icon in popular culture, including tales of cattle rustling, outlaws and gunfights. Just as interesting, though, are the glimpses of ordinary, day-to-day life on the range, even if much of that life does seem to have consisted of wandering around on foot looking for horses followed by wandering around on horses looking for cows.

Adding to the attraction of this book for me is the fact that the ranchland in question was about sixty miles west of where I am right now, and the town I live in gets a number of mentions. So the experience of reading it is a little like having echoes of the past brought to life right around me.

Rating: An admittedly biased 4.5/5

106bragan
heinäkuu 31, 2011, 11:49 pm

90. Blue Heaven by Joe Keenan



When Philip's friend Gilbert announces that he's getting married, he finds himself surprised by the news, since the groom is extremely gay and the bride is extremely... difficult. Life begins to make a little more sense when the happy couple confesses that it's all a scam to secure gifts from their rich relatives -- something that is apparently much more in character -- and Philip soon finds himself becoming an accomplice in the ever-more-complicated scheme. Needless to say, hilarity and hijinks ensue.

And "hilarity" is really not too strong a word. Both the back cover blurb and the person who recommended this book to me made comparisons to P.G. Wodehouse. I figured this must be an exaggeration, because, come, on, who can possibly compare to Wodehouse? But having read it now, I have to say it's a fair comparison. Gay 1980s New York may be a far cry from the world of Jeeves & Wooster, but the madcap plot is very, well, Wodehousian. So is the wonderfully witty writing, which sometimes had me laughing out loud multiple times per page. Basically, it's damned funny stuff. I must check out more of Keenan's work.

Rating: 4.5/5

107avaland
elokuu 1, 2011, 9:59 am

As always, Bragan, you've been reading an interesting variety of books. I wanted to comment on the Crowley, but it has been a long time since I read it. I have a dear friend who considers the book sacred though:-)

And with regards to your comments about adaptation and Solaris, but being a more general response, I 'm rather fascinated with exactly that - how one decides to adapt a literary work. Dukedom & recently watched both Doctor Zhivago adaptations back to back and the differences were fascinating. Both deviated from the book, of course (OMG, the David Lean adaptation in HD is stunning in places!) I would love to see the long adaptation the Russians have made!

108bragan
elokuu 1, 2011, 12:58 pm

It's nice to know Engine Summer does something for someone, anyway! I absolutely loved Crowley's Little, Big but so far nothing else of his that I've read has quite lived up to it in my mind.

As for movie adaptations, it seems to me to be such a weird and difficult thing to manage that I'm almost surprised that it ever goes well. On the one hand, if you change too much, you can completely lose the essence of the book, not to mention annoying everyone who loves it. But movies and books are very different storytelling media, and just throwing the book up onto the screen as faithfully and as literally as possible doesn't necessarily work, either. And it's got to be particularly tricky with a book that's less about plot and more about intellectual themes and human psychology, as Solaris is.

109bragan
Muokkaaja: elokuu 3, 2011, 3:51 pm

91. The Most Human Human: What Talking With Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive by Brian Christian



Brian Christian was a (human) participant in the 2009 Loebner Prize Turing test competition, in which chatbots are pitted against each other and against actual people in an attempt to convince judges of their humanity. As well as an award for Most Human Computer, which honors the chatbot that is able to fool the most judges, there's also a Most Human Human award, for the real person who was least often confused with a machine. Christian decided he was going to win that Most Human Human prize and, despite repeated advice to just be his incontestably human self, he set about putting some real thought and preparation into how to be the most human conversationalist he could possibly be.

Honestly, it sounds kind of like a joke: "Yo momma so stupid, she had to study for the Turing test!" But Christian takes it all very seriously, using the competition and his role in it as a starting point for a discussion, both scientific and philosophical, about all the things that make us similar to and different from computers. How much of human activity, including conversation, is essentially mechanical? Where does the essence of human creativity lie? How can contrasting ourselves with computers help us to be more human?

Some of his thoughts on the subject are more insightful and original than others, but the book as a whole is thoughtful, engagingly written, mildly provocative, and generally worth a read.

Rating: 4/5

110bragan
elokuu 3, 2011, 8:57 am

92. Cable & Deadpool: If Looks Could Kill by Fabian Nicieza



I vaguely remember having a conversation with a friend, ages ago, in which I mentioned that I'd never really gotten into superhero comics, despite having lots of friends who've been devotees of the genre since childhood. She suggested that maybe I should check out this particular series, as the characters are the kind of wisecracking anti-heroes that frequently appeal to me. I said something along the lines of, "OK, sounds interesting," stuck volume one on my ever-growing wishlist, and thought no more about it. Fast-forward to the present day, when said wishlist is now so long that I can no longer keep track of what's on it and have resorted to writing a computer program to randomly pick stuff off of it to buy next. Which has been kind of fun, as it keeps surprising me with things I'd forgotten I ever wanted. Like, say, this.

Unfortunately, this particular graphic novel experience has still not converted me into a fan of the superhero genre in general, or of Cable & Deadpool specifically. I did quite like the amoral mercenary Deadpool, who turns out to be exactly the sort of wisecracking anti-hero character I was promised. Overpowered mutant blowhard Cable, on the other hand, is just annoying. And the plot, which involves a virus that can alter people's appearances and a group of religious fanatics who want to turn everyone blue (yes, really) was not terribly interesting. I also found it hard to follow, although a lot of that might be down to me not having enough background knowledge of the characters and the universe.

I also have to say that this kind of reminded me why superhero comics have always seemed a little too silly to me. It's not the goofy bad guys and the implausible storylines -- I am a Doctor Who fan -- but more the way people tend to stand around spouting expository soliloquizes about what their superpowers are doing. Well, that and, um, is it just me, or does the whole superpower thing often just seem to boil down to some kind of cosmic-scale dick-measuring contest? If I may use the phrase.

Anyway. I'm not sorry I read it. It was a mildly interesting dip into the world of superhero comics, and I feel somewhat pleased at least to have made the acquaintance of Mr. Deadpool. But I think I'll be stopping here.

Rating: 2.5/5

111dchaikin
elokuu 3, 2011, 11:48 am

#110 Yes, you may use the phrase...and it makes me think of the Mel Brookes movie Spaceballs...

112bragan
elokuu 3, 2011, 3:49 pm

It's been ages since I've seen that!

113wandering_star
elokuu 3, 2011, 7:13 pm

"writing a computer program to randomly pick stuff off (wishlist) to buy next..." - brilliant!

I've heard stuff on Radiolab before about The Most Human Human and the Turing test, but the book sounds very interesting - worth a follow up.

114bragan
elokuu 3, 2011, 8:27 pm

I've been studying a bit of programming to fill some of my downtime at work, so doing the random book chooser was a nice little practice exercise, as well as a fun way to surprise myself with books.

I do think The Most Human Human is worth reading if it sounds like something you're interested in.

115bragan
elokuu 6, 2011, 10:53 pm

93. Ghost Story by Jim Butcher



Book number 13 (or 14, if you count the short story collection) in the Dresden Files series, featuring Harry Dresden, wizard for hire. After the ending of the previous book -- which, as the author points out, wasn't technically a cliffhanger, but might as well have been -- I was incredibly eager to see what happens next. Enough so that I think my expectations led me to be mildly disappointed at first, as the story was enjoyable but not really blowing me away the way I'd hoped. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that in the beginning the main character has been, ah, out of the loop for a while and is in a situation where he can't exert too much influence on things, so it starts out a bit slow and exposition-y. It took me until maybe 2/3 of the way through before I got truly caught up in it, but once I did, wow. Suddenly everything started clicking together, and I was fully immersed in all the stuff I love about this series: exciting action, wisecracking humor (one particular chapter had me laughing out loud in public), a compelling mystery with a surprisingly twisty but very believable solution, and a few moments of real emotion. The ending, too, is satisfying and intriguing. It might have been nice if it had picked up the pace a little earlier, and I would have liked more of Murphy, but in the end I feel quite happy with it.

It's worth pointing out, by the way, that a lot of characters and situations from the previous books play a part in this one, to the extent that I often found myself wishing that certain things were fresher in my mind. So if you're contemplating a re-read of the rest of the series before starting this one, it's probably not a bad idea.

Rating: 4/5

116bragan
elokuu 9, 2011, 12:59 pm

94. By Hook or By Crook by David Crystal



Linguist David Crystal travels through England and Wales, delving into whatever language- or history-related subjects happen to occur to him along the way. Among other things, these include the origins of phrases and place names (lots and lots of place names), the differences between various regional accents and dialects, the works of writers like Shakespeare and J.R.R. Tolkien, the history of pub signs, and the communication methods of bees. All of which sounds very much like the sort of thing I enjoy, and the potential appeal is only enhanced by the discovery that Crystal and I have a few fun things in common, including a love for the 1960s TV show The Prisoner. (He makes a point of paying a visit to the village where it was filmed.)

Unfortunately, the stream-of-consciousness structure he uses just doesn't work very well. He'll ramble on for pages and pages of random linguistic digression only to suddenly dump the reader back in the middle of a conversation or a highway we'd long since forgotten about, landing us there with a jarring thud. His writing also often tends toward a somewhat dry, let-me-tell-you-way-more-than-you-really-wanted-to-know kind of style that may work all right in his more academic writing but is a little out of place in something this informal.

There are lots of interesting tidbits of information, and it did give me some insight into British language and culture, but it really just wasn't nearly as good as it ought to have been. I'm giving it three and a half stars, but if I'm honest, that extra half star might just reflect my appreciation for his good taste in television.

Rating: 3.5/5

117RidgewayGirl
elokuu 9, 2011, 1:15 pm

Portmeirion is a wacky place. Who is Number One?

118bragan
elokuu 9, 2011, 1:24 pm

I would love to be able to visit Portmeirion sometime. Although according to Crystal, Number Two's big green dome isn't green anymore. That's a little disappointing.

119bragan
elokuu 11, 2011, 12:22 am

95. Callahan's Secret by Spider Robinson



A collection of four stories set in Callahan's Place, where the bad puns flow as freely as the booze, where the regulars include such colorful personalities as a seven-foot-tall alien cyborg and a talking dog, and where everybody not only knows your name, they're also capable of solving all your problems before Last Call.

This is actually the third collection in the series. I read the first one so long ago as to barely remember it and missed the second one, but as the author himself assures us in the introduction, they're all meant to stand on their own, anyway. I gather this series as a whole is regarded as something of a light classic in science fiction circles, and I can kind of see why. The basic premise is fantastic, and Robinson's writing is pleasant and fairly lively, at least when his characters aren't delivering philosophical speeches. But, I don't know... It's all just silly enough to induce a bit of eye-rolling, but not sufficiently silly to pass through into being pure goofy fun, and that level of silliness combines oddly with a certain strain of science-fictional earnestness that I'm no longer quite as fond of as when I was ten years old and devotedly watching the original Star Trek. In other words, it's mildly entertaining, but to me the execution really just doesn't quite live up to the concept.

Rating: 3.5/5

120bragan
Muokkaaja: elokuu 14, 2011, 7:36 pm

96. Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad



Mattias is a Norwegian gardener who spends his whole life not wanting to be noticed, not wanting to be anybody special. Mostly, he succeeds. Stuff happens to him: his girlfriend leaves him; he gets depressed; he travels to the tiny, windswept Faroe islands; he meets some people, he eats some hot dogs and plants some trees and listens to some CDs; he goes back to Norway; he comes back to the Faroes; he talks to people with slightly more interesting stories than him; he meets another girl, who gets no actual character development; he goes somewhere else... Through it all, he tries very hard to convince me that he's an extremely boring person and, unfortunately, he succeeds at that, too. And, man, for a guy who desperately wants not to be noticed, he's awfully zealous about telling me all the incredibly mundane details of his incredibly boring life. All right, I'll admit, he does eventually do some vaguely interesting things. He just mostly manages to make those boring as well. And there might actually be a poignant moment or two in here, maybe an insightful meditation somewhere, but they do kind of get buried under all the layers of I-don't-give-a-crap. I'm also not thrilled with the prose style, which alternates massive run-on sentences with choppy little fragments, but if it were used to do something more interesting, it could have worked okay.

Rating: 2/5

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

121stretch
elokuu 14, 2011, 9:29 pm

Glad I didn't win that one from the last batch. Thanks for the heads up on the boring read of the boring life.

122bragan
elokuu 14, 2011, 11:18 pm

It does seem to have gotten a number of good reviews, though. Which I don't really understand. I mean, I'm perfectly capable of appreciating an introspective literary novel, or so I like to think, but I just didn't see much real content there.

123bragan
Muokkaaja: elokuu 18, 2011, 1:20 pm

97. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis



I have a confession to make: I really do not understand money. Oh, I can handle my own household finances just fine. I know how to balance a checkbook, and all my bills get paid on time. But once you get into the abstract realms of money as a business and start talking about stocks and bonds and other, more esoteric financial doings, my mind tends to seize up and my eyes to glaze over. It's not that I'm stupid -- I did manage to earn a degree in astrophysics -- but somehow whatever part of the brain is necessary to understanding Wall Street, mine appears to be missing. (Or, as I like to put it: "I know this isn't rocket science. I understand rocket science!")

Nevertheless, being someone who lives on the planet Earth, and thus being affected by the latest economic debacle, I do want to at least try to understand what happened. I eventually managed to glean at least a sketchy and basic idea about the origins of the subprime mortgage crisis, largely thanks to a couple of well-produced segments on NPR's This American Life, and I was hoping that reading this book might illuminate things a little further for me.

Well, the answer to that is yes and no. Lewis' description of the events leading up to the crisis and the people who saw it coming doesn't assume any expertise or Wall Street insider knowledge on the part of the reader, but it's not exactly the "...for Dummies" version, either. A lot of the details went over my head, and I'm still not sure I could adequately define some of the basic concepts. But if it hasn't exactly given me a clear understanding of what happened, it's at least made my murky understanding a lot broader and deeper, which is something. And Lewis' writing is good. The portraits he paints of some of the personalities involved are interesting, and the sheer insanity of the whole thing does come through loud and clear.

Rating: I'm rating this one 3.5/5, but I feel I should note that that's an extremely personal assessment, based on how much I got out of it. I'm pretty sure that anyone with even slightly more of a head for this stuff will find it more rewarding than I did.

124baswood
elokuu 18, 2011, 5:06 pm

Loved your review of The Big Short. I have never wanted to understand the way money works, but feel I ought to and so I keep reading the reviews of these sorts of books, hoping that one will cry out "Read me".

125Mr.Durick
elokuu 18, 2011, 5:35 pm

Actually, I thought that The Big Short might be a good place to start on the mess we've had since the middle of the first decade of this century. It is an entertaining view of the characters who played the game. But I had read fairly widely in the area including another book about betting against the market.

The whole mess of bad mortgages packaged and repackaged into high rated securities and then insured is tough going. From the viewpoint of the characters who played the game and saw through it we can get a handle on the import of these things without having to master mezzanine tranches and the like. Both sides could be construed as evil-doing profiteers, but I kinda like that the crooks who were bailed out were outsmarted by marginal players.

I just wish that we hadn't bailed out AIG and that capitalism had been allowed to do its work.

Robert

126bragan
elokuu 18, 2011, 7:59 pm

>124 baswood:: I feel as if I ought to, too. It seems like part of being an informed citizen, as well as potentially being useful when it comes to planning my own financial future, but, man, it is amazing how quickly the subject makes my brain shut down. The fact that I was able to get anything out of The Big Short at all is probably a recommendation for it, all by itself.

>125 Mr.Durick:: I'd imagine it's probably a great place to start for someone with even a small knowledge of how Wall Street works. The fact that it focuses on individuals and translates some of the complexities through them did help keep my eyes from glazing over, even if a lot of it still went past me. I probably should have started with something with "for dummies" on the cover, though.

127bragan
elokuu 22, 2011, 4:05 am

98. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr.



A classic collection of stories by James Tiptree, Jr. (real name: Alice Sheldon), one of the more enigmatic and interesting figures in the history of science fiction. These stories feature such recurring themes as sex and gender, power and violence, and the poignant inevitability of death, and range from the vaguely unsettling to the deeply disturbing. Not all of them are created equal; one or two are a bit overlong for what they're trying to do, and the shock value of the first and oldest piece is significantly diminished by the fact that the ideas at the heart of it have become a little too familiar since it was written. But even the weakest of them are well-written, intelligent, and provocative, while the best are powerful enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

I'm giving this one five out of five stars, not something I do very often. Even if not everything in here is entirely perfect, cumulatively... Wow. This is writing that does strange, memorable things to your brain, and it represents some of the best of what the SF genre has to offer.

Rating: 5/5

128baswood
elokuu 22, 2011, 5:26 am

I have never read any of James Tiptree jnr's stuff and these short stories look a good place to start. Highly rated by other LT folk. Thanks for the review.

129bragan
elokuu 22, 2011, 5:47 am

It's a very well-selected best-of collection, so it's an excellent place to start. Definitely the good stuff!

130bragan
elokuu 23, 2011, 1:20 pm

99. The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks



It's hard to know how to categorize this book. It's marketed as humor, but really the only joke here is in how deadpan serious it is. This is a guide from a world in which zombies are a real and documented (if often covered-up) threat, and as far as it's concerned, they are no laughing matter. If anything, it's actually somewhat scary; while reading it you sort of tend to forget that zombies don't in fact exist. (Or do they?) You could probably make an argument for it being fiction, as it presents a single, consistent zombies-are-real scenario, complete with lots of examples of "historical" zombie attacks. Me, I'm inclined to tag it "non-fiction" and put it with the other survival books, such as The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. After all, it does really teach you how to handle a zombie attack, and you never know when that's going to be useful.

Whatever it is, it's a surprisingly compelling read, especially when you consider that most of the tips and survival scenarios are things that are already familiar from any number of zombie movies, novels, TV series, etc., etc. Although it does also include a few points that your average movie character usually gets wrong or fails to think of. Why does nobody ever seem to use a bicycle to flee from the undead?

It's fun enough that I sort of want to give it four stars, except that the "recorded attacks" section at the end, which takes up a good chunk of the book, kind of lost my interest after a while. It's not bad, but it's less involving than the actual survival guide part (which, by its very nature, pretty much demands that you imagine yourself as part of the action), and it's just similar enough to Brooks' World War Z to suffer by the comparison.

Rating: 3.5/5

131RidgewayGirl
elokuu 23, 2011, 3:49 pm

Do you now have, somewhere in the back of your mind, a zombie survival plan? Personally, I like to use the upcoming zombie apocalypse as a solid reason for stockpiling a few more books.

132bragan
Muokkaaja: elokuu 23, 2011, 7:14 pm

Well, sort of. Mostly, my zombie survival plan is pretty much the same as what it was before: arm myself with my giant pipe wrench -- very useful for smashing zombie skulls, if rather too heavy for someone as wimpy as me to use more than once or twice -- and go find my friend who's been waiting for the zombie apocalypse forever so he can finally realize his true calling as a zombie hunter. I figure he's bound to have a better plan than I do. (Everybody should have at least one friend like that.)

I think Brooks' most useful piece of advice for if you're going to attempt to defend your home is to retreat to the second floor and destroy the staircase so the zombies cannot follow you up. Sadly, I live in a one-story house. But there's always the roof.

And I like that as an excuse for stockpiling books! Actually, Brooks recommends that, too. Kind of. It is very important to keep yourself entertained while you wait out the zombie siege.

133janemarieprice
elokuu 23, 2011, 8:07 pm

I've always felt I would be ok in my 5th Floor apartment. I still maintain that zombies lack both the physical dexterity and emotional drive to climb that many stairs.

134bragan
elokuu 23, 2011, 8:27 pm

I don't know, those things will get everywhere if you leave them long enough. Like cockroaches.

Brooks does recommend apartment buildings as one of the better places to be during a small- to moderate-scale zombie outbreak, though.

135avaland
elokuu 23, 2011, 9:01 pm

>127 bragan: Oh, I'm tempted to reread...

136bragan
elokuu 23, 2011, 9:46 pm

It's very rereadable stuff. I had read at least a couple of 'em before, and they were just as effective, or more so, this time. Certainly no less disturbing.

137bragan
Muokkaaja: elokuu 26, 2011, 3:20 pm

100. The Giver by Lois Lowry



A YA novel about a placidly conformist future society and one boy who is given memories of the infinitely freer, more colorful, more painful past. Unfortunately, I don't think this is one of those YA books that works equally well for kids and adults. The writing is a little too simplistic for my adult tastes and the themes a little over-familiar, plus I found it difficult to keep myself from over-analyzing elements that are probably best not taken too literally. But if I'd read it at eleven or twelve -- a physical impossibility, alas, since I was about 22 when it was published -- I suspect I would have found it quite powerful.

Rating: This one gets a 3.5/5 from my adult brain, but I would definitely recommend it to kids old enough to handle some slightly dark material.

138bragan
elokuu 31, 2011, 1:30 pm

101. Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain



Mark Twain describes his youth as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, then takes readers along on a return trip up the river he made twenty-one years later, after a great deal had changed. The narrative meanders almost as much as the river itself, offering snippets of biography, glimpses of history, colorful character sketches, thoughtful reflections, tall tales, travelogues, and anecdotes ranging from the tragic to the hilarious. The early chapters did go into the specifics of steamboat piloting in more detail than I really cared to know, but given that it's an occupation that was already dying out when the book was published, it's hard to fault his desire to preserve it for posterity.

It's not difficult to see why Twain is still popular today. His writing is highly readable, and his characteristic wit is very much in evidence here. It doesn't exactly sparkle out from every page, though; instead, it sort of lies in wait and sneaks up on you.

I'm sad to say that my own first-hand experience of the Mississippi consists entirely having crossed it once, without stopping, in a car. Reading this has made me very much regret that fact. I'm now feeling a strangely powerful urge to pack up and head out for a river cruise.

Rating: 4/5

139bragan
Muokkaaja: syyskuu 1, 2011, 1:40 pm

102. Push by Sapphire



Precious Jones has suffered a life of horrible abuse and poverty until, sixteen and pregnant for the second time with her father's child, she is enrolled in a special school where she learns how to tell her own story through reading and writing and finds the courage to live her own life.

I was impressed by the way in which the author manages to make her protagonist's dialect-heavy, semi-literate voice not only readable but individual and strong. On other aspects of the book, my feelings were much more mixed. Different parts of my brain seemed to have widely differing attitudes towards it, which culminated in an odd sort of internal dialog. I think the best thing I can do as far as reviewing the book goes is to reproduce that dialog here. So:

BRAIN SEGMENT ONE: Oh, god, that poor kid! What horrible things to read about. But it is all pretty moving. When she started standing up for herself, I wanted to cheer! Also I really like the way the story recognizes the value of knowledge and learning and the importance of education to society. It was sort of heart-warming.

BRAIN SEGMENT TWO: The book definitely has some strengths. But, eh... Don't you think it's all a little overdone? The girl isn't just abused and poor. She's subject to every horror the author could think of, every worst-case consequence... It felt emotionally manipulative.

ONE: Oh, come on! You know that, horrible as it is to think about, there are plenty of real children who've suffered that much and worse. Isn't calling the bad stuff that happens in this book too much to believe kind of an insult to them?

TWO: Hey, do not try to guilt-trip me here! Of course I know that. But a work of literature, as we both know, has to do more than just describe things that really happen or say something socially important to be successful. It has to make the reader feel it, make them believe it. And I'm not sure this book is quite artful enough to pull that off completely.

ONE: I don't know. I think you may be letting your own biases about this particular kind of literature affect your judgment.

TWO: It's true, I generally tend to be leery of "inspirational" stories. In my mind, "inspirational" tends to equate to "over-earnest, over-sentimental, and over-simplistic." And the "troubled teenager turns life around with the loving attention of a good teacher" plot is definitely a subtype of those. Going in with that in my head may well mean that I kept myself a little too distanced from the story and failed to give it quite as much of a chance as it deserves.

ONE: Which makes me wonder why you decided to read the thing in the first place. I mean, you knew what it was about when you bought it. I don't think it's hype from the movie; you're not usually easily influenced by that sort of thing.

TWO: Yeah, I don't know, either. There was just something about the description that was weirdly compelling.

ONE: I think there's also something about the book that's compelling.

TWO: I don't know. Maybe.

Rating: Call it 3.5/5

140dchaikin
elokuu 31, 2011, 10:26 pm

#138 - It doesn't exactly sparkle out from every page, though; instead, it sort of lies in wait and sneaks up on you. That is this book exactly. I read Life on the Mississippi years ago and forgot almost everything except how much I enjoyed it...well, I also have vague memories of his fascinating descriptions of the flooding.

#139 - love, love your review of Push.

141bragan
elokuu 31, 2011, 10:48 pm

Thanks!

Speaking of his descriptions of flooding, I think the one image that's really sticking with me is when he describes floating past New Orleans and being able to look in people's upper windows as if you were on an elevated train, since the water is higher than the actual city. He notes, rather soberly, that the levees you sail past are the only things standing between the people and destruction. It's very "the more things change" in a rather chilling way.

142baswood
syyskuu 1, 2011, 4:23 am

Great review of Push Bragan. I had similar thoughts going round my head when I read The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. You put it very well in your review.

143janemarieprice
syyskuu 1, 2011, 11:02 am

Great review of Push.

Interesting comments on the Mississippi. It's been sinking in as I get older how different people's experiences are. I've crossed the river hundreds of times, been on it in any number of boats, stuck my feet in. It's hard for me to conceive of a world that doesn't include it. Whereas snow is still a huge novelty for me. :)

144bragan
syyskuu 1, 2011, 1:38 pm

>142 baswood:: I still have Henrietta Lacks on the TBR Pile. We'll see if I have a similar response to that.

Honestly, I have such weird mixed reactions to the idea that I'm being emotionally manipulated by a book. If it's successful, that is if it genuinely does make me feel what it's trying to make me feel, I figure it's actually a good thing. If I notice it trying and feel manipulated, it's a bad thing and greatly annoys me. When it's both at once, I just don't know how to feel.

>143 janemarieprice:: To me, the Mississippi is almost more a myth than a real place. Which seems like a shame, given that it is a real place, and there's not actually anything stopping me from visiting it.

145Mr.Durick
Muokkaaja: syyskuu 1, 2011, 5:34 pm

I was very moved by the movie Precious that was based on Push, and I recommend strongly. I believe that the book is also available under the movie title (it doesn't come up as a touchstone, but at the work page for Push at least one of the covers is for Precious).

Robert

146bragan
syyskuu 1, 2011, 6:37 pm

Yes, it looks like it was reissued under the new name after the movie came out. (Which is rather a pity, as I think Push is a somewhat better title, but I guess it had already been used for a different movie.)

I am rather interested in seeing the film now, however mixed my feelings about the book were.

147bragan
syyskuu 2, 2011, 11:11 pm

103. Terraforming Earth by Jack Williamson



When the Earth is devastated by an asteroid, a handful of survivors escape to a moonbase dedicated to preserving life and humanity. Watched over by robots, they are cloned again and again over the course of millions of years, with each new generation finding a wildly changed planet below them.

It's a terrific concept. There's just something about the idea of getting a time-lapse view of the Earth as it suffers and recovers and evolves and grows stranger that really compels the imagination. Unfortunately, very little else about this book does. The writing is flat and pointlessly repetitive. The characterization ranges from cardboard to cartoony. And the story -- I don't think it's really coherent enough to be called a plot -- is thinly sketched and full of stupidities. Actually, that might not be a strong enough statement. To some extent, it seems to be based on stupidities, since, despite the supposed all-importance of their mission, generation after widely spaced generation makes only the most ill-prepared and half-assed attempts at understanding, exploring, or affecting the planet. To the extent that they ever succeed at anything, it appears to be pure, dumb luck.

The ending is at least kind of interesting, I guess. But all in all, man, what a waste of a premise.

Rating: 2/5

148stretch
syyskuu 3, 2011, 7:57 am

I'm just catching up to your thread, great reviews.

Also, wanted to post a link to The Messenger Series lectures. Microsoft has posted some video of the 1964 lecture series Feynman gave at Cornell. You've probably already seen them.

149bragan
syyskuu 3, 2011, 1:39 pm

Believe it or not, I haven't seen them. Or maybe only parts of them. Will watch those when I get the chance. Thanks!

150bragan
Muokkaaja: syyskuu 4, 2011, 8:57 pm

104. Masters of Deception: Escher, Dali & the Artists of Optical Illusion by Al Seckel



When I was a kid, we had a set of books from Childcraft, each volume of which focused on a different topic in the sciences or the humanities in a kid-friendly fashion. I loved those books immensely, but the one on art and art history I found less interesting than most of the others, with one notable exception: the chapter featuring M. C. Escher and Salvador Dali. I remember starting at those pictures for what seemed like hours, then coming back repeatedly and staring at them again. And the longer I looked, the more I seemed to see, and the more fascinated I was. Well, my tastes in art might possibly have matured slightly since I was eight, but they really don't seem to have changed that much. Unsurprisingly, then, I really enjoyed this book showcasing the work of Escher, Dali, and eighteen other artists. They vary quite widely in technique, style, and medium, but all of them enjoy playing with human perceptions in various clever ways, so it's full of visual paradoxes and ambiguities. There are illusions, impossible perspectives, images that look different from different angles or at different scales, shapes that morph and change their meaning , and all manner of other trickery, ranging from the purely technical to the indisputably artistic. Some of the illusions employed here were familiar enough to me that I no longer find them terribly interesting, but other images made me laugh or gasp as their hidden secrets suddenly popped out at me, which is rather wonderful. I think I've also discovered an instant new favorite artist in Rob Gonsalves, whose work can be seen gracing the front cover.

As well as lots and lots of pictures, the book also features a few pages of text on each artist, including a brief biography and description of their work, usually along with a few quotes from them. These are generally well done, I think, telling us just enough to enhance the experience of viewing the pictures, but not enough that it becomes tedious. Unfortunately, there seems to have been some kind of formatting or editing issue, at least with the copy I have, and a few pages scattered through the book are missing a line of text at the bottom, which is an annoying blemish on an otherwise extremely well-produced book.

Rating: 4/5

151bragan
syyskuu 4, 2011, 8:57 pm

105. Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton



Wil Wheaton is best known for playing Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation during his teenage years, a fact which has caused him a lot of difficulties and mixed feelings, from bearing the brunt of fans' hatred of his character to spending most of his adult life second-guessing his decision to leave the show to pursue a film career that never materialized. These days, he has successfully reinvented himself as a writer, largely thanks to his blog, wilwheaton.net, which has gained quite a following among the geekier sections of the internet population, not all of whom are reading because they're interested in Star Trek.

This book is about that personal journey, and about his lifelong, love-hate attempts to come to terms with Star Trek and his with his child-actor past. It's very honest-feeling, often very funny, and sometimes surprisingly moving. A fair amount of the book does consist of material originally posted on his blog, most of which I'd seen before, but I found I didn't at all mind reading it again, and there's also a lot of new material, much of which helps put the blog posts in context.

All in all, an enjoyable read by a sympathetic and likeable guy.

Rating: 4/5

152avaland
syyskuu 6, 2011, 8:13 pm

>104 bragan: Looks interesting, especially after consuming the Designing Tessalations volume I read and wrestled with recently. I now know all the Escher secrets:-)

Well, now I know what happened to Wil Wheaton after STNG...

153bragan
syyskuu 6, 2011, 8:40 pm

It's definitely an interesting book. It does feature some of Escher's tessellations, as well as various other work.

And Wheaton is also still acting, too -- probably more so now than he was in 2004 when the book was published. I know he's done some TV guest spots in the past few years.

154bragan
syyskuu 7, 2011, 3:34 am

106. Lovecraft Unbound edited by Ellen Datlow



The stories in this anthology are not Lovecraft pastiches. Most of them don't reference his mythology much or at all, and the ones that do tend to do so indirectly or in unusual ways. Instead, they try in various ways to capture something of the spirit of Lovecraft's writing, specifically that sense that there are older, stranger, more horrifying things lying behind the world we know, of which we can sometimes catch brief and disturbing glimpses.

While these stories lack Lovecraft's overwrought prose, most of them also lack the weirdly compelling quality of his best work. They are generally solidly crafted, though, ranging from the slight-but-interesting to the engagingly creative. One or two of them left me feeling a bit lukewarm, but I didn't actively dislike or feel bored by any of them, which is rare enough in a collection like this. I was a little surprised by the fact that none of them produced any truly visceral feelings of creepiness, but a number of them did things that I can intellectually appreciate as creepy, anyway.

On the whole, I'd say this is worth a look if you enjoy Lovecraft or, perhaps especially, if you like Lovecraft's themes but aren't exactly thrilled with his prose or the more problematic aspects of his writing.

Rating: 4/5

155dmsteyn
syyskuu 7, 2011, 3:42 am

Sounds like an interesting collection, and nice review. Other than the overwrought prose, what do you see as other problematic aspects of his writing? I remember that he couldn't write dialogue worth a dime...

156bragan
Muokkaaja: syyskuu 7, 2011, 4:07 am

There are sometimes uncomfortable undercurrents of racism in his writing, as well, ranging from the relatively subtle (particularly with themes involving "impure" and "corrupted" bloodlines) to the cringe-inducingly obvious. I know he's been criticized a lot on that basis by modern readers.

157stretch
syyskuu 7, 2011, 9:59 am

Nice review of Lovecraft Unbound. Datlow is one of my favorite horror editors ever. But I have noticed that her collected editions while full of quality work and good writing tend lack that creepiness that make horror well horror. I still have her collections Inferno and Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. I'll have to keep {lovecraft Unbound in mind when I'm looking for a new collection of hers.

158bragan
syyskuu 7, 2011, 5:16 pm

I have some of the fairy tale/fantasy anthologies she did with Terri Windling, which I seem to recall as being high quality, as well as an interestingly themed one called Alien Sex, but I haven't read any of her other horror collections.

159bragan
syyskuu 8, 2011, 6:36 am

107. How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown



Mike Brown is the discoverer of several smallish icy bodies out on the edge of the solar system, including three that have received a fair amount of attention: Quaoar, Sedna, and Eris (originally nicknamed Xena). That third one turned out to be slightly bigger than Pluto, thus precipitating the debate over astronomical definitions that eventually led to Pluto being downgraded from a planet to a mere "dwarf planet." Brown himself was a big advocate of "killing Pluto," despite the fact that it also meant losing the chance to be heralded as the only living discoverer of a planet. In this book he explains why, puts the concept of "planet" in scientific and historical context, and talks at length about his own discoveries and how they were made. The case he makes for the reclassification of Pluto is excellent, and he explains all the science involved in very clear, easy-to-understand terms, often with a dash of humor. His descriptions of his own research are also engaging and give the reader a good sense of how science is really done, complete with months of horrible tedium, moments of incredible excitement, and the occasional annoying controversy over who gets credit. And the way he ties together his professional and his personal life -- he proposed to his wife the same week Quaoar was discovered, and the existence of Eris was announced only three weeks after the birth of his daughter -- provides a nice touch of human interest. Definitely recommended to anyone interested in the subject.

Rating: 4/5

160detailmuse
syyskuu 9, 2011, 9:16 am

>151 bragan: I only know Wil Wheaton through Sheldon's fan-hatred of him on The Big Bang Theory :) I bet his appearances there have improved his fan-standing and maybe his mood? Did he post about that show on his blog?

Knowing your interest in Jeopardy and maybe Ken Jennings -- have you seen that Jennings has a new book coming out this month, Maphead, about geography and maps? Looks fun.

161bragan
syyskuu 9, 2011, 9:22 am

I do seem to remember him mentioning The Big Bang Theory occasionally on his blog. I don't think I paid much attention at the time, though, since I wasn't watching the show then. I'm only just catching up with it on DVD now, actually, a little bit at a time.

I haven't read anything by Ken Jennings, other than looking at his blog a time or two. Possibly I should rectify that at some point.

162bragan
syyskuu 11, 2011, 5:50 am

108. The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart



This novel tells the life story of the legendary Merlin, from his early childhood up until the conception of King Arthur.

It's hard to know exactly what to say about this book. It's quick, decent, unobjectionable read, and it fleshes out the legends in some moderately interesting ways, but somehow I just never found it nearly as engaging as I wanted it to be. Part of that may be due to the fact that there are longish chunks of narrative that are mostly about the movements of armies, and that's not exactly my favorite thing in the world to read about. But I think it has more to do with Merlin himself. There are two things about the character of Merlin, as he's traditionally presented, that are interesting: his wisdom, and his magic. Well, the youngster of this novel may have a lot of knowledge, but he's not really old enough yet to have that kind of iconic wisdom. And the magic is portrayed as something vague, limited, and surprisingly passive. Mostly it consists of visions provided at useful moments and a tendency to find himself drawn toward certain people and places exactly at the right times, which Merlin attributes to the patronage of some god. (Or all gods, or the only God... This book really does want to have its paganism and eat its Christianity, too.) I can't help but feel vaguely disappointed by this, somehow, though it's not because I was hoping for sparkly magical fireworks and didn't get any. I think the idea here is to undercut the mythology a bit and create a more human Merlin, and I actually think that's an approach with some terrific potential. I do, in fact, rather like the way Stewart shows how some of the legends start growing up around him based on stories that are exaggerated or just not true to begin with; there's a nice realism about that. But in general, I just don't think it succeeds very well, because I never did get a strong sense of Merlin as a real person. After spending 380 pages with him -- 380 pages of first-person narration, even! -- if you were to ask me to describe his personality, the best I could manage is, "Well, he's quite intelligent. And, um, he mentions sometimes really liking to be alone, so I guess he's kind of an introvert?" And that's it, because ultimately he comes across less as a fully fleshed human being and more as a passive tool of fate. Unfortunately, passive tools of fate are a lot less interesting.

Rating: 3.5/5

163Cait86
Muokkaaja: syyskuu 11, 2011, 10:50 am

I agree with your comments on Merlin, and on Stewart's book in general. I remember liking it (certainly more than Bernard Cornwell's take on the Arthur story, The Winter King), but I never continued with the trilogy, so I can't have enjoyed it that much! A better take on making Merlin a real, human character is Jack Whyte's series, which starts with The Skystone. It is far more rooted in history, and less in magic, though there is quite of bit about the "movement of armies", as you mentioned, battle tactics and such. However, it is probably the most complex retelling of the Arthur tale I've read. Merlin doesn't come in until the third book, The Eagle's Brood, and Arthur doesn't make an appearance until much later. The books are more about the founding of Camelot, and the transition in Britain from the Romans to the Britons. They are quite adult, but if you are looking for another version of Merlin et. al, I highly recommend them!

164bragan
syyskuu 11, 2011, 7:04 pm

Thanks, I might check that out! I think the long passages about battle tactics, etc. are almost a given in this sort of thing, and I don't really mind them too much if the writing is good and the story is keeping me interested.

Although I didn't exactly dislike The Crystal Cave, I really didn't like it enough to have any particular desire to continue on with the rest of the series, either.

165bragan
syyskuu 11, 2011, 11:03 pm

109. My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor



Jill Bolte Taylor is a scientist who studies the anatomy of the brain. In 1996, at the age of 37, she suffered a massive stroke that took much of her left hemisphere offline and required eight years to completely recover from. During that time she got a remarkable firsthand informed-observer's view of her own brain as it partially shut down and then began slowly regaining function.

Her descriptions of the stroke itself and the days following it are deeply interesting, and her attempts to inform readers about the symptoms of stroke and to offer advice for caregivers of stroke victims are laudable. But the insights she's taken from the experience are heavily tinged with a mushy, New Age-y quality that I have major issues with, and this shows up even in the chapters where she's supposedly just simply explaining the basic brain science, which I find annoying. (No doubt the author would say that I'm being far too left-brained. But, hell, I like my left brain. It's good at analyzing things to see if they make actual logical sense.)

While reading this, I couldn't help wishing that a more skeptically minded brain scientist might have the same kind of stroke and write their impressions of it, because comparing the same general experiences filtered through two very different ways of interpreting things would be absolutely fascinating. And then, of course, I mentally smacked myself, because that's a horrible thing to wish for. Still...

Rating: 2.5/5

166dchaikin
syyskuu 11, 2011, 11:54 pm

Very entertained by that last paragraph. I think I'll pass on the book.

167Mr.Durick
syyskuu 11, 2011, 11:55 pm

My Stroke of Insight was so well received and written by a scientist at that that I had high hopes for it, and god fearing though I am I found it mush.

Robert

168bragan
syyskuu 12, 2011, 12:11 am

I almost feel bad complaining about it, because who am I to criticize this woman's very personal experiences with brain damage? But, well, that doesn't change the fact that it is mush. Or a lot of it is, anyway. And it does bug me that people who go into it not knowing anything about brain science are going to come away thinking that everything in it is on an equal scientific footing, because she's not remotely clear about where the science leaves off and the mysticism starts. That's not doing anybody a service.

I probably should have rated it lower just because of that, to be honest.

169bragan
syyskuu 13, 2011, 7:47 am

110. Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson



An experimental artificial intelligence kills its creator and escapes from its laboratory. Next thing you know, robots and computerized machines of all kinds are rising up in a war against humanity. It's all very familiar. And kind of cheesy. And none of it is remotely believable, including the dialog. But it does manage to be reasonably entertaining, in a popcorn movie kind of way.

Rating: 3.5/5

170bonniebooks
Muokkaaja: syyskuu 13, 2011, 11:27 pm

I felt the same way about Stroke of Insight. I don't think JB Taylor would have the following she has if she hadn't gone all "new-agey". And while I respect her right to go any direction she wants with her new-found insights, I think people give way too much weight to doctors and scientists who may be credible in their field of study, but shouldn't be listened to any more than a person off the street when they start talking about subjects that can't be supported by the scientific process. Unfortunately, people do tend to give their opinions more weight.

Lots of books discussed here that I want to read. I picked up The Most Human Human, but put it back down because I thought it was going to be more about computers, and what they can do, but after reading your review, I'm going to pick it up again.

171bragan
syyskuu 14, 2011, 1:25 pm

Sadly, you're probably right and the book would have been a lot less popular if it had been less full of that kind of mysticism. It got a lot of buzz, and probably a lot of extra respect from people, precisely because it was written by a brain scientist, and in this case it certainly sounds reasonable that she would have some extra insight based on her own knowledge and training. In some ways, I'd say that's even true, but so much of what she has to say is so very unscientific that her credentials just don't mean as much as readers might assume.

I'd say The Most Human Human is about computers and what they can do, but it's just as much about human beings.

172bragan
Muokkaaja: syyskuu 17, 2011, 11:49 pm

111. The House of Doors by Brian Lumley



As part of some kind of alien test, several people are sucked into a series of artificially created worlds, some of which are based around their worst personal fears. They are accompanied by one of the aliens in disguise as a fellow human, but unfortunately for them he's determined to make sure they fail.

It's a potentially fun premise, if not a particularly original one. Alas, in pretty much every other possible respect the book ranges from mediocre to (in the case of its treatment of the lone female character) offensively bad, which I think averages it out to "moderately terrible." Strangely enough, that doesn't mean it's entirely devoid of entertainment value. I think a review on Amazon compared it to a B movie, and I think that's a very apt description. Heck, in my mind, even the special effects were pretty bad. Unfortunately, I don't think it ever quite reaches "so bad it's good" levels. More like "so bad it's readable." And sadly, after nearly 500 pages, even whatever B-movie amusement value it possesses starts to get old.

Rating: 2/5

173bragan
syyskuu 17, 2011, 11:49 pm

And you can tell I've started in on my mindless vacation reading now, can't you? Off to Hawaii in the morning! Hopefully I will get some reading done on the trip. What else are long plane flights good for?

174RidgewayGirl
syyskuu 18, 2011, 11:52 am

Enjoy Hawaii!

175bragan
lokakuu 1, 2011, 10:24 pm

Thanks!

And here I am, back again after a great (but extremely tiring) trip, and trying to catch up with the books I read while I was on vacation. Which, sadly, is less than the number of books I bought wile on vacation.

112. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling



I re-read this now mainly because I have a friend who keeps wanting to discuss the series with me, and I find that I don't actually remember the details well enough to hold up my end of the conversation.

I remember not being terribly impressed with this first book, to the point that I might not have gone on to the second one if I hadn't already had a copy. It just seemed a little too silly in many respects, a bit too much of a little-kid wish-fulfillment story. Which I still think it is, and as such it didn't always hold my attention very well, but it is a lot more interesting to read this now, knowing the full backstory and how everything works out. (Although one or two plot points do seem a little odd in light of later revelations.) There's also a nice, gentle sense of humor that I'd nearly forgotten.

I'm still disappointed, though, to discover that even on re-reading, Harry is still the main character and that it hasn't magically changed into the Adventures of Severus Snape. Ah, well. I guess you can't have everything.

Rating: 3.5/5

176bragan
lokakuu 1, 2011, 10:45 pm

113. My Life as an Experiment by A.J. Jacobs



A.J. Jacobs engages in a series of little social experiments, including adopting a set of etiquette instructions favored by George Washington, attempting to follow a philosophy called "radical honesty" in which you're supposed to tell people exactly what you think of them at all times, and posing as a woman for an online dating service in an attempt to find a date for a female friend. Generally, Jacobs' writing is light, humorous, and fun, and while there may not exactly be lots of heavy-hitting insights here, he does try to find something useful and interesting to take away from each experiment.

My only complaint is that for some reason, the chapters are not in chronological order, which leads to the bizarre effect of the author appearing to have a weirdly fluctuating number of children.

Rating: 4/5

177bragan
Muokkaaja: lokakuu 8, 2011, 4:14 pm

114. Tropical Trees of Hawaii by Paul Wood



This is one of those little guidebooks you might pick up at a hotel or visitor center while on vacation, which is what I did. As such things go, it's pretty good. There's lots of color pictures of the trees, and the text is decent and gives you a little history with your botany, as it explains which non-native trees were introduced when and what people have used them for. Mostly, it did its job of answering the question "What tree is that?" well enough, at least when I remembered to bring it with me.

Rating: 3.5/5

178bragan
lokakuu 3, 2011, 1:44 am

115. Timeline by Michael Crichton



A group of historians is recruited by an eccentric billionaire to retrieve the person his company's secret time travel project has left trapped in the fourteenth century.

In fairness, I'm probably not in the best position to pass judgment on this one, as I read most of it in small, exhausted moments during a particularly action-packed vacation. But, well, I have read books while on vacation that distracted me from the sightseeing and kept me up later than practical for getting that good early-morning start on the next day's activities, and I can say without hesitation that Timeline was not one of them.

The physics behind the time travel is actually kind of interesting and reflects some real research on the author's part, but unfortunately he doesn't seem to have fully grasped the concepts behind said research, and the logic of it all becomes muddled and fuzzy very quickly. Also, I find that I'm losing patience with the dumb cliche of corporations secretly developing fantastic technologies based on dozens of decades-ahead-of-their-time discoveries that for some inexplicable reason they completely fail to exploit in any sensible way. And while I can't speak to the accuracy of the history, as that's not remotely my field, I do have the strong suspicion that actual historians are likely to roll their eyes a bit at the way their profession is depicted.

Nor are the time travel hijinks all that interesting, as they mostly seem to consist of the main characters getting captured, escaping, being chased, being captured again, escaping again, and so on, punctuated with bouts of various kinds of fighting and, of course, contrived catastrophes in the present that conveniently prevent them from being retrieved too soon. Crichton does seem to want to go for a kind of you-are-there vibe for the historical period, but his attempt to do that consists mostly of throwing in lots of gore and architecture, and it doesn't work particularly well. If anything, he almost gives me the impression that he's just going down a checklist of what readers expect from this kind of story -- Jousting, check! Castles with secret passages, check! -- while failing to weave those elements into much of a plot. The writing isn't that great, either, being full of "As you know, Bob" dialog, among other things.

As I recall, Crichton did write some decently entertaining airplane novels. I know Jurassic Park passed the time very nicely for me on a flight to Philadelphia back in nineteen-ninety-something. But either he rapidly lost his cheesy-but-fun touch, or else I've gotten a lot pickier in the intervening years. Possibly both.

Rating: 2.5/5

179bragan
lokakuu 4, 2011, 11:43 pm

116. Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us by Joe Palca & Flora Lichtman



A scientific look at all the little things that drive us crazy, from strangers on cell phones to that guy at work who just won't shut up about how great he is. As the authors are careful to point out, this isn't actually an area into which a lot of research has been done; in fact, many scientists who study human brains and behavior don't even recognize annoyance as a separate emotion. So there are times when it feels like this book is stretching a bit for subject matter, and it's much more about questions than it is about conclusions. But the little experiments and scientific insights it describes are interesting, and the style is pleasantly breezy. I'd say it's well worth reading for the chapter about fingernails on a chalkboard alone.

Rating: 4/5

180dchaikin
lokakuu 5, 2011, 9:35 am

#179 the first that comes to mind with that title are other drivers... :)

181bragan
lokakuu 5, 2011, 11:56 am

Oh, yeah, they definitely mention things like getting cut off on the highway as prime examples of things that annoy you. And, of course, it always annoys you worse when you're in a hurry...

182bragan
Muokkaaja: lokakuu 5, 2011, 11:38 pm

117. Why New Yorkers Smoke edited by Luis Ortiz



An anthology of short stories inspired by the theme "What is there to fear in New York City?" Several of them have science fiction or fantasy elements, and, unsurprisingly, many touch directly or indirectly on the memory of 9/11.

I really wanted to like this book. The theme sounded great. But while a few of the stories have an interesting central metaphor or idea, they never really do much with them, and none of them left me feeling satisfied, emotionally or otherwise. The SF elements were generally weak and unoriginal, too, and ultimately the whole thing feels like an exercise in style over substance.

It's possible that I might have been a little bit more affected by some of it if I had more of a personal connection to NYC, but I really don't think that's the deciding factor in forming my opinion.

Rating: 2.5/5

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

183bragan
lokakuu 7, 2011, 1:23 pm

118. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy



Llewelyn Moss is hunting in the desert one day when he comes across the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. He comes away from the encounter with a suitcase full of money and the realization that now both parties involved are after him, as well as the local sheriff. This initially seems like a completely standard action thriller plot, although McCarthy's sparse, literary writing elevates it many notches above standard thriller quality without sacrificing any of the tension. Among other things, I have to admire the way he manages to effectively portray the main bad guy as really, really scary using just a few very simple brushstrokes.

Ultimately, though, the plot isn't what the novel is about at all, and in the end it all but abandons it in order to become what it really is: a meditation about the deterioration of American society. Which is a little disconcerting, perhaps, but it works better than you might expect. I am particularly impressed by the fact that the perspective it's told from, a conservative point of view I normally have very little sympathy for, elicited very real feelings of empathy and understanding in me.

The one thing about MCarthy's writing that doesn't thrill me is his apparent hatred for any form of punctuation other than the period. I think this sort of worked in The Road. I remember commenting after reading that one that it gave the impression that all the apostrophes had been destroyed in the apocalypse, and it's possible I wasn't entirely joking; perhaps it did help to enhance that novel's particular sense of bleakness. In this one, though it mainly struck me as irritating and a little pretentious. (Not that this one isn't also bleak, mind you, but it's bleak in a different way.) Worse, there were a couple of places where the lack of a comma or an appropriate set of italics led to enough ambiguity that I found myself confused for a paragraph or several. And this, folks, is the reason why these conventions exist in the first place! Fortunately, it's a good enough book in all other respects that I was able to get past that. Mostly.

Rating: 4/5

184bragan
lokakuu 8, 2011, 4:11 pm

119. Farewell, My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local Living by Doug Fine



Former New York suburbanite Doug Fine recounts the triumphs and tribulations that ensue when he moves to a ranch in New Mexico in an attempt to reduce his environmental footprint as much as possible, while not entirely giving up such modern luxuries as iPods and ice cream. Which may not be the world's most compelling personal adventure, but it's interesting enough and often very amusing. Fine is serious and enthusiastic about green living without coming across as a zealot, and his style is more self-deprecating than self-righteous. (Although his, "Oh, gosh, I'm a crunchy liberal partly surrounded by people who voted for Bush!"-type jokes sometimes feel a little self-consciously awkward.) It's an entertaining read for those who simply enjoy anecdotes about, say, a guy running out of his house naked in a (largely futile) attempt to chase off a coyote, but I imagine it's likely to be particularly appealing and perhaps even useful to those contemplating adopting this sort of lifestyle themselves, as Fine is extremely candid about the difficulties and compromises involved, as well as the rewards. Although he also makes me wonder how the heck anybody manages to afford the initial outlay.

My one real complaint is that the little enviro-fact boxes scattered randomly throughout the text are annoyingly distracting. I think I'll choose to believe those were insisted on by the editor.

Rating: a slightly generous 4/5

185Cait86
lokakuu 9, 2011, 3:48 pm

I love Cormac McCarthy, but I agree that sometimes I find his lack of punctuation frustrating. I get it - worlds with no order = words with no order, but sometimes it is a bit difficult to follow. All the Pretty Horses is another of his that is wonderful, if you haven't read it yet.

186bragan
lokakuu 9, 2011, 5:08 pm

Yeah, I get it too, but I don't think it's exactly necessary to convey the atmosphere he's going for, and in this one I'd say it actually does more harm than good.

No Country for Old Men and The Road are the only McCarthy I've read so far, but, despite my desire to drive a dump truck full of punctuation up to his house, I am interested in reading more of his stuff. I know I already have Blood Meridian on my wishlist, but not All the Pretty Horses.

187bragan
lokakuu 12, 2011, 7:34 am

120. A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay



A guy named Maskull travels, through some mysterious means, to a planet of the star Arcturus. As he wanders around, he finds his body and his perceptions changing with his surroundings. He first comes to a place whose inhabitants are full of empathy, self-sacrifice and pacifism, then a land of selfishness, impulsiveness and violence. From there things get stranger and more complicated, as he encounters surreal landscapes, random characters who show up to offer cryptic bits of philosophy, and visions of something that might or might not be God. Taken on a literal level, none of it makes the slightest bit of sense, but it's clearly not intended to be taken literally, but rather as some sort of extended, obscure philosophical/theological meditation.

There's obviously a lot of thought and imagination that's gone into this novel, and it does have its moments: a vivid metaphor here and a bit of interesting commentary there, as well as an intriguingly dreamlike atmosphere and a bizarre yet weirdly compelling ending. On the whole, though, I found it not so much profound as tedious and overly abstract, and to the extent that I actually understand the concepts and viewpoints it's exploring, I don't personally see a lot of truth or value in them. There's also a persistent obsession with gender stereotypes through the whole thing that I find deeply annoying. By halfway through the book, I was already tired of it all. I really just am not sufficiently mystically-minded to find this sort of thing appealing.

Rating: 2.5/5

188bragan
Muokkaaja: lokakuu 12, 2011, 9:12 am

121. Full Moon by Michael Light



A collection of photographs from various Apollo moon missions (and one slightly out-of-place Gemini mission) strung together to create a wordless composite narrative including liftoff, looking back at the Earth, taking a spacewalk, exploring the moon, and returning to the Earth. The images include both sweeping panoramic landscapes and small, strangely mundane close-ups of tools and equipment. Many of them are extremely striking, and editor Michael Light deliberately chose some of the more obscure images from the NASA archives, so a lot of them were unfamiliar to me, as well.

I wasn't entirely sure, as I paged through the photographs, just how well the central conceit worked, as I found myself wishing for a little more context and maybe a little less of an art project vibe, but then I realized that the back of the book included captions for everything, as well as an essay about the photographs and the conditions under which they were taken, which satisfied my desire pretty well. It also includes a slightly longer essay by Andrew Chaikin. This perhaps suffers a little by trying to describe all the Apollo missions all at once, as if he were trying to condense his excellent A Man on the Moon down to less than a dozen pages. But the quotes he includes from the astronauts about what they saw and felt on their journeys are marvelous.

Rating: I'm not entirely sure quite how to rate this, but I think I have to give it at least 4/5, if just for the breathtaking lunar panoramas alone.

189avaland
lokakuu 12, 2011, 9:21 am

Just poppin' in to browse your latest reads:-)

190bragan
lokakuu 12, 2011, 9:25 am

Hello, then! :)

191dmsteyn
lokakuu 12, 2011, 9:57 am

I tend to agree with all your criticisms of A Voyage to Arcturus, but for all that, I quite liked the book. Maybe it's because I also quite enjoy William Blake, and so forth.

192detailmuse
lokakuu 12, 2011, 10:00 am

Full Moon -- onto the wishlist!

fyi previews show Wil Wheaton on Big Bang Theory this week.

193bragan
Muokkaaja: lokakuu 12, 2011, 3:52 pm

>191 dmsteyn:: I can sort of see why some might like it. I just simply cannot manage to put myself into the right mindset.

>192 detailmuse:: I really need to catch up with Big Bang Theory. I've still only seen the first two seasons.

194bragan
lokakuu 13, 2011, 4:47 am

122. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie



Young Haroun's father is a gifted storyteller, but when that gift dries up, Haroun takes an unexpected opportunity to get it back for him and soon finds himself traveling to the source of all stories, which is itself facing a terrible danger. It's a charming and highly amusing kids' story of the kind that can be enjoyed equally well by adults, and the concept of the Sea of Stories, where narrative constantly flows and changes and renews itself, is absolutely inspired.

Rating: 4/5

195bragan
lokakuu 15, 2011, 5:37 am

123. The Course of Irish History edited by T. W. Moody & F. X. Martin



The history of Ireland in 23 chapters, each written by a different historian or scholar. Some of the earlier chapters cover a lot of time in a very short amount of space -- as much as two centuries per chapter -- so needless to say much of it is very broad, and there are undoubtedly some fairly arbitrary choices about what to concentrate on and what to leave out. By the time we got to the 18th century, though, the time frames were getting smaller and the focus sharper, and I began to find it considerably more engaging. Which is unusual for me, as I generally think ancient civilizations are much more interesting than recent politics. The chapters covering the 19th century, in particular, were truly compelling. Other sections could be a little dry, however; parts of the Middle Ages involved such an assault of names, places, and dates that I sometimes felt my eyes start to glaze. Still, on the whole, it's a pretty good overview of a troubled and interesting history.

Rating: It's hard to know how to rate this, since it ranges from the mildly tedious to the utterly fascinating. Averaging it out, I guess I'll call it 3.5/5.

196bragan
Muokkaaja: lokakuu 17, 2011, 2:31 pm

124. Every Thing on It by Shel Silverstein



I don't remember how old I was when I first read Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends (other than very young indeed), but I do remember the incredible delight I felt, because I've never stopped feeling it. Every time I pick one of his books up, the feeling instantly comes flooding back. Silverstein was one of the best things about my childhood, and, no, I don't think I'm exaggerating there. His poems are silly and clever, deliciously evil, laugh-out-loud funny, strangely insightful, and wonderfully subversive in ways that even little kids who've never heard the word "subversive" in their lives can instantly relate to. I adored them then, and I still do now.

I wasn't holding out lots of hope for this new collection, though. After all, books published years after the death of their author often turn out to be second-rate, unedited rejects scraped from the bottom of their desk drawers, right? Besides, encountering something like this for the first time can't possibly be the same when you're forty. Right?

Except, whaddaya know, it turns out it can be. And if this came out of the bottom of Silverstein's desk drawer, I can only hope there's a lot more down there where it came from. I swear, reading this made me feel like a little kid again, complete with all the delight I felt when I first read A Light in the Attic. Which isn't quite the same delight I felt when I first encountered Where the Sidewalk ends, since Silverstein was a brand new surprise then, and that only happens once. But it's more than enough.

A few pages in, I was thinking, in that wistful way I sometimes do when reading good kids' books, that I wished I could hop into a time machine and send this back to me-as-a-child, knowing she would have been absolutely over the moon. By halfway through, I was thinking, "Screw little-kid me! She can't have this one! It's mine!"

So, thank you, Mr. Silverstein. I'm sorry I ever doubted you.

Rating: 5/5

197bragan
Muokkaaja: lokakuu 19, 2011, 2:01 am

125. Deadline by Mira Grant



This is book two of Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy, featuring bloggers, zombies, and big old conspiracies.

I spent a fair bit of last month looking for a good "airplane book." You know, something fast-paced and fun, something engaging but not too demanding. You wouldn't think that would be difficult to find, but somehow I kept ending up with tedious, poorly-written stuff that just seemed calculated to make a long plane flight seem even longer. The best of them was Robopocalypse, and even that was a little too generic and cheesy to be entirely satisfying. Clearly, I should have just grabbed this one off the to-read stacks instead, because it's got pretty much everything I was looking for: action, humor, suspense, an interesting premise, a zippy pace, even a bit of intelligent subtext involving things like the trade-off between freedom and security. Also, dialog that doesn't read like the author has somehow never heard actual humans speaking, something that is by no means a given.

But, while I did like the first book in the series, I just didn't expect this one to be quite as enjoyable, mainly because I thought the most appealing aspect of Feed was in the thoughtful, surprisingly believable way that it explained the zombie plague and explored the social consequences of living in a post-zombie-apocalypse world. And I didn't figure there was a whole lot more to say about that. But if anything, I actually I liked this one better. It does, in fact, explore the zombie-animating disease and its implications a little more, but mostly it's just a fun read.

It's certainly not a perfect or flawless book. Among other things, the conspiracy plot may require more suspension of disbelief than the zombies. But, boy, did it scratch the itch. Or, at least, it would have if it hadn't ended on a huge, WTF-ish cliffhanger. When the heck is book three coming out?

Rating: 4/5

198bragan
lokakuu 22, 2011, 4:17 am

126. Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy's Journey to Becoming a Big Kid by Simon Pegg



Simon Pegg, star of such nerdy classics as Shaun of the Dead and Spaced, gives us a rambling memoir full of youthful anecdotes (an astonishing number of which seem to feature girls he had crushes on), thoughtful digressions about the craft of comedy and the current state of pop culture, deeply silly humor, and a constant sense of gleeful, fanboyish amazement at how many childhood heroes he's been able to meet and work with in the course of his career. Also lots of talk about Star Wars. It all feels a little self-conscious, perhaps, but there's a certain charm in that, and on the whole I found it very entertaining.

Rating: 4/5

199detailmuse
lokakuu 22, 2011, 3:25 pm

>197 bragan: a good "airplane book." You know, something fast-paced and fun, something engaging but not too demanding

"engaging" feels most important to me these days, something to completely distract from all the waits and delays. For my trip last week, I even auditioned books (first ~50 pages) to ensure I'd have a couple of good choices. Abraham Verghese's memoir of treating early AIDS cases in Tennessee, My Own Country, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's short storytelling novel, One Amazing Thing, stood up admirably and I ended my trip in the middle of both.

200bragan
lokakuu 22, 2011, 5:40 pm

"Engaging" is, indeed, the key word. Man, I have been stuck on airplanes with some truly awful books in my time. Or with non-awful, but otherwise unsuitable (e.g. very dryly academic) books.

You don't want something too all-consuming, either, though, if you're going to have to put it down and spend most of your time doing something else as soon as you get where you're going. And I, at least, don't usually want something too intellectually demanding, especially if it's a long or a late flight, because my brain is likely to be tired by the time I'm done. (I cannot for the life of me fall asleep on a plane.)

Choosing books to take on planes is a surprisingly difficult process, really.

(My Own Country sounds interesting, by the way. I really liked Cutting for Stone.)

201bragan
lokakuu 23, 2011, 4:19 am

127. Albuquerque: Then and Now by Mo Palmer



A collection of old photographs of historical sites in the city of Albuquerque, presented side-by-side with photos of the same locations today, sometimes with the old buildings (or remnants thereof) still in place, and sometimes not. Each photo is accompanied by a paragraph-long caption, so while there's not a lot of information on any given page, the book as a whole adds up to a nice little local history lesson. The then-and-now photographs are generally interesting, although sometimes a little depressing, as I often can't help thinking that the older scenes have more character than the modern ones. Though that might just be misplaced nostalgia. I do have one big criticism, though, which is that none of the photos comes with a date attached. The text may explain when the buildings went up and came down, but I'd really like to know when the specific pictures were taken, even if it's only an educated guess at the year.

Rating: 3.5/5

202RidgewayGirl
lokakuu 23, 2011, 3:34 pm

The local free newspaper does that each week. Two photos side by side with a short history of what was going on at that address. It does include dates and is one of the best parts of that paper.

203bragan
lokakuu 23, 2011, 5:50 pm

That sort of thing can be utterly fascinating. I'm really wishing there was something like that for my own home town, now, because it's even more fascinating when done for a place you know well. (I live about 80 miles south of Albuquerque, so I know it moderately well, but I wasn't familiar with all the places pictured in the book. )

204bragan
lokakuu 26, 2011, 4:26 am

128. John Brunner: Three Complete Novels by John Brunner



This omnibus volume contains three unrelated science fiction novels by Hugo winner John Brunner:

Children of the Thunder: A journalist and a social scientist get together to investigate the existence of a group of exceptionally bright children with powerful mind-control abilities and psychopathically amoral attitudes. The "evil mutant children among us" trope is an old and somewhat tired one, and while some of what Brunner does with it is interesting, it's a decidedly flawed effort. The story is a little too slight to really be worth 280 pages, for one thing, and even if you're willing to buy the basic kids-with-superpowers premise, a lot of the specifics of the plot seem vaguely ridiculous. Still, despite a few odd quirks -- including an unfortunate attempt at some made-up swear words -- Brunner's writing is quite readable. And his world-building is interesting. This was originally published in 1988, and its then-near-future setting reflects pretty much every issue that a late-80s Englishman would have found worrying: AIDS, holes in the ozone, racial tensions, Thatcherism, etc., etc., etc. Toward the end, he may be laying on the doomsday scenarios a little thick, but for the most part it feels like a perfectly plausible alternative to the world we actually got. Indeed, in a few disturbing respects, it's not all that different from the world we got. And ultimately I think it ends on a rather effective note, even if you do have to deal with a plot twist that's equal parts obvious and silly to get there.

The Tides of Time: Gene and Stacy, having returned from a journey, uh, somewhere and on the run from, well, someone, come to a small Greek island, where they enter a cave and sleep. Then, in each subsequent chapter, we see them living lives that are different from one another yet all essentially the same, each set at a time further back in the past. Constantly, they are visited by travelers from beyond the island, and occasionally there are hints that things, unsurprisingly, are not what they seem. And at the end of each chapter comes a story-within-a-story about people who found worlds that were just what they were looking for only to eventually become disillusioned with them. What does it all mean? That is a damned good question, and the answer, when it comes, is rich in metaphor, but short on logical sense. But despite that, and despite the repetitive nature of the story, which really seems like it should get old quickly, the novel does seem to work. It's odd -- very odd -- but also oddly compelling. I have no idea what to make of it in the end, but it certainly didn't bore me.

The Crucible of Time: The centuries-long, multi-generational story of an alien planet and its scientific and technological progress -- progress it badly needs, since it's headed slowly but surely for cosmic destruction, with a lot of smaller disasters to tide it over along the way. The idea of a species (ours or someone else's) desperately needing to develop a space program in order to avoid extinction is a venerable SF trope, and the "Hey, let's watch an alien civilization make the scientific breakthroughs we've already discovered" plot is also fairly familiar. (Although at least neither is remotely as much of a cliche as evil mutant children.) Brunner does a pretty good job with it, though, largely by avoiding the usual flaws found in these kinds of stories. For one thing, he doesn't go the implausible route of imagining some single alien genius who invents everything from the telescope to the interplanetary rocket, instead portraying science as the slow and faltering process it really is. And while this book does have the usual superstition vs. rationality theme, it's a bit more nuanced and less relentlessly heavy-handed with it than some other examples I've seen. And, most importantly, his aliens aren't just humans in ill-fitting alien costumes. They do have fairly humanlike thought processes and motivations, certainly enough to make them easily comprehensible, and some of their scientific discoveries parallel our own, mostly in ways that make sense, since the laws of physics are the same for all of us. But Brunner's put some real effort into giving them consistently alien biology, technology, and culture. He also manages to remember, as far too many works of science fiction fail to, that planets are big, and thus can be expected to be home to many different climates and cultures. Some of the science, or at least some of the biology, does seem a bit iffy to me, but he captures the spirit of scientific discovery pretty well. The end result of all this Doing It Right isn't exactly a wow-inducing page-turner or anything, but it is a solid, well-done example of the kind of thing it is.

Rating: It's a bit hard to rate this one, because the individual novels in it are a little hard to rate. If pressed, I guess I'd give them a 3/5, 3.5/5 and 4/5, respectively. Which I guess averages out to a 3.5. Or would if my rating scale were linear, which it's kind of not. But let's call it 3.5/5, anyway.

205baswood
lokakuu 26, 2011, 7:02 am

Enjoyed your reviews of the John Brunner novels. He always writes well and I am always on the look out for his stuff in the second hand book shops

206bragan
lokakuu 26, 2011, 11:59 am

I think some of Brunner's novels are a lot better than others, but even when he's doing subpar stuff, it still generally manages to be a cut above what most other people would do with the same idea. And his writing is always readable. I've read enough crappy stuff lately to truly appreciate that. :)

207bragan
lokakuu 28, 2011, 4:04 am

129. Who's Been Sleeping in Your Head?: The Secret World of Sexual Fantasies by Brett Kahr, Ph.D.



Brett Kahr is a psychotherapist and a couples' counselor. During the course of his practice he became interested in things his clients had to say about their (sometimes troubling) sexual fantasies. and curious as to how normal such fantasies are and what kind of effect they have on people's lives. So he did a study on the subject, surveying many thousands of English and American adults via the internet and conducting extensive interviews with a small subset of individuals.

This is, I maintain, an intriguing and worthwhile topic. I'm always interested in the question of what makes human beings tick, and sex is, after all, a remarkably large part of our psychologies. And the way in which our sexual imaginations can incorporate so many odd elements that have little or nothing to do with the basic reproductive act is wonderfully bizarre. I also think there are some genuinely important questions in this area that it would be great if psychology could answer. For instance, are sexual fantasies which incorporate violent elements generally harmless, or do they indicate an increased likelihood of violent sexual behavior? And is it better. when attempting to treat someone with pedophilac tendencies, to encourage them to channel their impulses into fantasy scenarios in which no actual children are harmed, or is indulging those kinds of thoughts just more likely to result in them being acted on?

So I did find a lot of what this book as to say interesting. However, Kahr is a Freudian psychotherapist, a school of thought I am, to say the least, highly skeptical of, and his results are very much filtered through a Freudian lens. Which means that even his most reasonable and believable-sounding conclusions are almost all speculation, rather than science. Most particularly, his attempts to discover the origins and meaning of specific fantasies provided by his interviewees, while thoughtful and well-meaning, often display a logic that is extremely tenuous, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness. It does provide a very useful look at the Freudian mindset, though, and has given me a much clearer understanding of how it works and what people see in it.

And, yes, OK, I will admit to a certain amount of prurient as well as scientific interest. Come on, who isn't at least a little curious about the contents of other people's private sexual imaginations? It turns out, though, that reading other people's sexual fantasies can get boring surprisingly quickly. Well, except for the really disturbing and/or depressing ones, anyway. And speaking of surprising, I am deeply bemused by the fact that so many British people seem to have sexual fantasies about the Royal Family. I truly had no idea.

Rating: 3/5

208baswood
lokakuu 28, 2011, 8:53 am

I have never had a sexual fantasy about the Royal Family. Just thought that I would say that.

209wandering_star
lokakuu 28, 2011, 10:40 am

Me neither!

210bragan
lokakuu 28, 2011, 2:23 pm

I am glad to hear it. :)

211bragan
lokakuu 30, 2011, 8:07 am

130. Snuff by Terry Pratchett



Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld novel sends Commander Sam Vimes of the City Watch off on an enforced holiday in the country. Where, of course, he quickly finds some crime to fight, starting with a murder and ending with the rectification of a great injustice. I always greatly look forward to a new Discworld novel, although these days I look forward to them with a little bit of trepidation, ever since the announcement of Pratchett's diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's. Clearly he's still not doing too badly, though, because this one did not disappoint. The trademark Pratchett wit may be a little uneven here, but it's still very much in evidence. The plot is good, with some genuinely exciting action scenes. And Commander Vimes is still one of his best characters. I wouldn't rank this one among the very best of the series, but it is a good, entertaining installment.

Rating: 4/5

212bragan
Muokkaaja: lokakuu 31, 2011, 9:04 am

131. Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King



A collection of four stories, mostly somewhere in the novella range, plus a short bonus one tacked on at the end, for some reason I'm not entirely clear on. "1922" is about a man who enlists his teenage son to help murder his wife, then suffers for it forever after despite having technically gotten away with it. "Big Driver" features a detective story writer who, after being beaten and raped, goes looking for revenge on her assailant. "Fair Extension" shows us a man dying of cancer who makes a deal for a little more time, at a price he's entirely too willing to pay. "A Good Marriage" is about a couple who have precisely that, until the wife finds evidence of her husband's deep, dark secret in the garage. And the bonus story, "Under the Weather" is about a man whose wife is just a little sick, really... no matter how much his nightmares are telling him otherwise.

Holy crap, is this book aptly titled. This stuff is dark. We're not talking about pleasantly scary little horror stories for Halloween here. With the exception of "Under the Weather," which is a little creepy but mostly just horribly sad, these stories are brutal. And I use that word deliberately, because they really are mostly about human beings being incredibly brutal and callous and horrible to other human beings, and most particularly men being brutal and callous and horrible towards women. They're really good stories, mind you. Well-written, strangely compelling, and populated with characters who often feel painfully real even when they're doing terrible and unlikely things. But, man, they're depressing. Which is clearly exactly what they're meant to be.

Rating: 4/5 stars. It might even deserve 4.5/5, except that I just can't manage to be quite that happy about what it did to my brain.

213baswood
lokakuu 31, 2011, 1:50 pm

Interesting review. I have always avoided Stephen King, thinking I would probably not enjoy his pulp fiction stuff, but you make these stories sound interesting.

214bragan
lokakuu 31, 2011, 3:44 pm

King is actually a remarkably good writer, even when he's doing considerably more pulpy stuff, which is less often than you'd probably think. He does have some flaws, mainly an increasing inability to edit his novels down to an appropriate length and a frequent difficulty with endings. But neither of those things are in evidence in this collection. I can find a couple of things to criticize, mainly in the story "Big Driver," in which the villains are far less realistic than the protagonist. But that's about it, except for them generally being very disturbing and difficult to read in exactly the ways they're trying to be.

If you're looking for good, non-pulpy King, though, I wholeheartedly recommend "The Body" in the collection Different Seasons, which was the basis of the movie Stand by Me. I was immensely impressed by that one.

215baswood
lokakuu 31, 2011, 6:02 pm

Thanks for the recommendation, its now on my to buy list.

216bragan
lokakuu 31, 2011, 10:30 pm

132. This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation by Barbara Ehrenreich



This book was published in 2008, but with the Occupy Wall Street movement garnering national attention, now seemed like the ideal time for me to finally get around to reading it. Ehrenreich has a lot to say about the widening gap between the ultra-rich and the rest of us, the difficulties involved in being poor in America (including the problem of health care), and the abuses corporations get away with heaping on their employees. She also talks a bit, towards the end, about issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and the cultural mindset that gives us such self-deluding self-help principles as "the Secret."

Each chapter here is only three or four pages long, delivering a small, pointed little nugget of social criticism. I believe all or most of these were originally published elsewhere, although it would have been good for that to have been stated in the introduction, since it feels oddly structured if you try to approach it as a unified work: a little disjointed, occasionally slightly repetitive, and prone to rely more on anecdote than on deep analysis. Ehrenreich's often-satirical writing is very sharp, though, sometimes blisteringly so, and the problems she's addressing are important and very real. In the end, it isn't terribly cohesive, but it does manage to be simultaneously entertaining and rather depressing to read.

Rating: 3.5/5

217bragan
marraskuu 2, 2011, 1:41 pm

This one was starting to get a little unwieldy, so I've moved on to a new thread to finish out the year. Come and look for me here!