Mouldering on the Shelves

These are capsules of books I read in 2003. Comments? Mail me.

Mouldering on the Shelves:

Kingdom of Fear, Hunter S. Thompson

Ah, Hunter. He's so strong a personality that readers often forget that he can write as well as he can. There's never been a question in my mind that he can craft out sharp, dynamic, poetic prose, but sometimes his big picture has seemed muddy to me. Kingdom struck me as having a particularly impressive organization. There's plenty of chaos here, but it is all in service of what Hunter might style The Point.

It's a remarkable look at past craziness and current stupidity that ties the two together meaningfully. Disturbingly, the chaos and stupidity are rarely Hunter's, but humanity's. It's sobering stuff, but written as only Hunter can.

Strongly Recommended.

Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident, Eoin Colfer
Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code, Eoin Colfer

I actually read the second Artemis Fowl book a while ago, but I don't seem to have reviewed it. Whoops. The review that follows is just of Eternity Code, but I did want a placeholder for Arctic Incident somewhere. Like the other Artemis Fowl books, Incident is recommended.

I started reading Artemis primarily as a goofy reaction to the mad popularity of Harry Potter. When I was that age I probably would have been drawn to the more underdoggy Artemis Fowl series. And any children's book where the protagonist is a master criminal is fine with me.

The books are fast moving and fun, and I've been enjoying watching young Fowl and his supernatural antagonists/allies interact and grow. He does change at a reasonable pace, and that's nice to see in any book, especially a kids' book.

The book ended on kind of a downer, though, and after just finishing the 20th Century, that didn't make me very happy. Still, I think it's a pretty bold decision for Colfer, and I'm hoping there'll be another book to put things right. See, these darn kids' characters have grown on me.


A History of the Twentieth Century Volume 3: 1952-1999, Martin Gilbert

The end of the 20th Century is quite a thing to see all laid out like this. Gilbert presents a fine, conventional, enlightening view of some interesting times. Of course these are some challenging times for humanity, and the narrative is rarely dull.

This overview of the century is a fine thing to read and have in the memory banks. In and of itself, it's most effective in putting the events in relation to each other and seeing the players evolve, not a deep study of any given event. Still for a sense of perspective, it's hard to beat. Of course, that perspective involves quite a bit of pointless human slaughter, so be prepared.


Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, Al Franken

Reading Lies is a lot like turning the stereo all the way up and playing R.E.M.'s "Ignoreland" until the windows rattle. It's a concentrated blast of protest against the folks running the place into the ground and the sorry state of affairs that lets them.

Franken's done his homework, as usual, and the results are enlightening. Now, I'm not a big reader of right wing demagogues, primarily because I like my blood pressure somewhat contained, but if Franken's to be believed, that's just as well. He's also brutally, rudely honest about how shoddy he thinks these guys are. The book is written humorously, but the clear impression is that he's being funny as a slight smokescreen to just rail on these guys. He's "kidding on the square" to use his own phrase.

He occasionally goes too far for me. Some chapters read a like an SNL sketch that goes on a little too long, but there's enough good stuff in there to work you over the rough spots.


The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell

I really wish that my country was full of people like Sarah Vowell. She cares about the place, she's done enough reading to be aware of how fallible our leaders have been in the past and somehow still keeps an ember of grouchy, cynical optimism alive. She also writes delightfully.

Patriot is a collection of personal essays in her unique voice. I like that voice, which comes from a fairly nerdy woman who thinks more than she should and can't quite convince herself that all those civics classes were wasted time. The essays fly by and are a welcome peek at a world where more people care about understanding the country.


Interface, Neal Stephenson and Frederick George

This was a hoot. The conceit here is that a wildly rich set of backers decide to create the perfect candidate, using real time polling and some not-quite plausible direct-to-brain communications systems. From there, things can either go poorly or well, depending on how well the authors sell the world. Fortunately, Stephenson and George do a fantastic job. We get brilliant political manipulators, mad scientists, solid Midwestern citizens, and lone nuts who are all believable and entertaining. The character interactions are so good that it's easy to miss when they pull a fast one on the technology. I was having too good a time to care, and it worked for the plot.

It's a fun fast ride, with plenty of room for commentary on both the society and people who make it up. I laughed out loud several times, which is rare for me. And, though much of the commentary is cynical, I think that at the bottom of it all, Stephenson and George think that the average guy is a little underestimated in the world today.

Hard to put down, fun to read, and thought-provoking.

A Must.

The Year's Best Science Fiction (2002), edited by Gardner Dozios

Not a bad collection. It's interesting to take a quick survey of the SF landscape now and then. This collection contains several short works of interest to me, notably Sterling's "In Paradise," Stross's "Halo," and Ryman's "V.A.O." There weren't any real klunkers, but I was surprised at how many of these were really essays or works I normally wouldn't characterize as SF. I suppose that either says something about the genre.

In any case the collection is interesting.


Patriarch, Richard Norton Smith

I always enjoy reading about early American history, and I've been trying to find out more about Washington, so I was looking forward to getting some illumination from Smith. To be fair, I did find out a bunch of things about the period and the man, but he still seems a distant.

To be fair, this may not be Smith's fault. He's clearly knowledgeable and writes clearly and with insight, but his quarry never becomes vibrant to me. Of course, Washington was known for his reserve. Furthermore, this work only covers his years as President, so by inclination and his responsibility as a trailblazer his reserve was strengthened.

Overall, an interesting enough read.

Unlocking The Sky, Seth Shulman

Shulman has a wonderful way of making history come grippingly alive by picking dramatic moments well and depicting them sharply. He's picked a great topic for that technique, too: early development and commercialization of the airplane. If you've ever wondered what went on in those years between Kitty Hawk and World War I, and why aircraft development proceeded at the pace it did, this book will tell you. If you're a Wright brothers booster, you might not like some of what you hear, though.

It's tough to pick a more interesting protagonist than Curtiss. A motorcycle designer, builder, and racer who was already known as the fastest man in the world for his motorcycle exploits, he became sucked into aviation development as other developers became aware of his excellent light engine designs. During his career he performed the first public flight of an airplane, and invented (among other things) the seaplane, the tricycle landing gear, and held a patent on the aileron. His story alone is reason to pick up the book.

Besides being a story of personal triumph and conflict between the Wrights and Glenn Curtiss, there's a lot to learn about open development and how broad patents are used to enrich and stifle innovation. It's an interesting cautionary tale even if you don't care about airplanes.

If you're interested in an exciting story of an aviation pioneer, a history of early airplane development, or a look at the ongoing open development vs. closed development ideas that are especially at issue in software development these days, this book is for you.

A must.

Star-Spangled Manners, Judith Martin

It's only fair to warn you: I adore Miss Manners. This book really says a lot about why, too. She's writing seriously about the role that manners play in our society and how American manners are qualitatively different from the etiquette of previous societies in a fairly playful and light tone. In the process she defines etiquette in the way that people should, defends its use, and makes a case that American etiquette is particularly reasonable.

Both in her columns and here, Martin does a fine job of explaining complex issues in such a reasonable way that you feel bad that you didn't immediately see the situation that way, but in such a way as to also make you believe that you had done so, and she just saved you the trouble of expressing it. As you may have heard, she's pretty good at this human interaction stuff.

Her analysis is deep and worthwhile, and expressed charmingly. Enjoy and think.


Take The Cannoli, Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell's writing is tough to sum up. She brings a background that's universal, only more so, to a set of interests that are fairly unusual. She's got a keen eye for what's interesting in the past and present, and intellectual and ephemeral. And she writes beautifully.

That sounds like a recipe for a dry boring book, but that's not at all the case. Take The Cannoli is a fun quick read where Disney is seen through Huckleberry Finn's eyes and an earnest plea for My Way to be omitted from Sinatra eulogies have similar gravity and are expressed as eloquently. She thinks hard and writes well, but never puts on airs about it. Come think hard with Sarah.

Highly Recommended.

The Middle East A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, Bernard Lewis

Lewis's overview of the region and the culture of the Middle East is readable and enlightening. Of course, covering this complex region over a period of this length in any kind of detail in a few hundred pages is not going to be possible. Lewis doesn't try, rather he paints a useful big picture.

The Middle East is a proud society in decline, and though Lewis may not say that explicitly, it is fairly clear that this is the case. What he does do is to show how the region has come to that juncture. The analysis has implications for everything from current US policy to the Open Source software movement.

Another remarkable facet is how little we know about the region. Although there are extensive records, for later parts of the Empire, much has been lost in sweeping purges. I've always thought that I just hadn't looked for information on the area, but it also turns out that there is also a lack of things to find.

Overall an interesting introduction to a fascinating area and set of cultures.


Prize Stories 2002 The O. Henry Awards, edited by Larry Dark

I always get something out of the O. Henry Awards collection, so I'm back to look these over again. No "Rose" this year, but I think there will be a lot of years where that's true. Still, I felt that this year's stories were all fairly enjoyable, and many were excellent. "Memento Mori," Jonathan Nolan's short story from which the popular movie was made is interesting to read for comparison. Alice Munro's "Family Furnishings" was powerful and sharp. I really enjoyed all of them, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was probably the one I liked the least, David Foster Wallace's "Good Old Neon."

I dislike Wallace's writing style. I disliked it here. I find it exhausting to read, and frustrating. But, I have to admit that "Good Old Neon" is brilliantly structured and executed. It's successful on many levels, and if you don't have my dislike of his style, probably close to flawless. It's a strange experience to have such good things to say about a story that I disliked reading so much. Worth a look.


The Pilots, James Spencer

Spencer says in his introduction that these are lightly fictionalized stories inspired from his experiences in WWII. That captures the tone of the stories very well. There are no literary fireworks here, no metaphorical forced perspective or unnecessary romanticization of the people or events, but there is an underlying core of truth to the stories that makes them very enjoyable.


Classic Baseball Stories, edited by Jeff Silverman

The only bad thing about Classic Baseball Stories is that it really means classic. That is to say that none of the stories are less than 80 years old. That's a testimony to the enduring values of the game, but I was actually hoping for more modern stories as well.

Still, the stories and articles are all solid, and if you enjoy baseball, you'll find something to like in here.

Issola, Steven Brust

Always nice to check in with Vlad Taltos. Brust's wise-ass hero returns for another world-changing crisis. He may be mellowing a bit with age, but it's always good to hear from him.

Recommended, if you're into Vlad. Otherwise look for Jhereg and get hooked.

The Roald Dahl OmnibusPerfect Bedtime Stories For Sleepless Nights, Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is a God of short story writing. Even though many people are impressed by his twist endings, it's the craftsmanship of the rest of the short stories that make those work. Of course, as with any collection, some work better than others, but there are really no clunkers in here.


Understanding Power The Essential Chomsky, Noam Chomsky, Edited by Peter R. Mitchell, and John Schoeffel

Chomsky's quite a case. He's clearly intelligent and well informed and interested in tracking the bias of the media. He's got a clear and compelling view of the world as it is, but also is honest enough to tell you to be skeptical about what he says. He's also what most people would call a socialist at heart, but doesn't really think that anyone with a revolutionary "praxis" is worth listening to. Interesting guy. I think it's unwise to not read some of his work and make up your own mind.

This work is a collection of transcripts of question and answer sessions from the last few years. That's good and bad. It prevents Chomsky from really developing a thesis, but lets the reader sample his ideas on a broad range of topics.

The really annoying thing about the book is that all the footnotes are online. Which is sort of hugely bogus.

Other than that highly recommended.

Round Ireland With A Fridge, Tony Hawks

No, he's not the skater.

He is an English comedian who took a remarkable trip hitchhiking around Ireland with a refrigerator. This was the result of a bar bet and a bit of adventurousness gone astray. In any case he has a good time bouncing from pub to pub, and due to some wise publicity has a warm reception most places. In general he has as much fun as one would hope to have hitchhiking around Ireland with only the oddest and vaguest of goals, but he writes about it better than most people.


The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene

Brian Green sets himself a pretty high goal in trying to write a description of superstring theory that is suitable for the interested layman. What's remarkable is how well he succeeds. Superstring theory is a new idea in physics that is trying to reconcile incompatibilities between general relativity and quantum physics by using sophisticated multi-dimensional mathematics and the idea that particles are, at the smallest level, extended in space. Specifically that they are strings (or really membranes) vibrating in an eleven-dimensional space.

Now, put right out like that, this sounds inherently implausible. That's why (among other reasons) I wasn't asked to write this book. In Greene's capable hands, the whole idea is presented in such a way that it actually sounds like it might be possible, or even likely.

Now, it's not clear yet what the truth is, or more precisely how useful a theory superstring theory is. Greene himself is quick to mention the potential problems with the theory, not the least of which being the difficulty of testing it experimentally or solving any of its complex equations exactly. What is clear is Greene's writing and his choices of examples and analogies that wrap the reader's minds around difficult ideas. As an introduction to these it's tough to imagine better.


Mountain Flying, Sparky Imeson

Although it's advertised as a primer for mountain flying, there's a lot of good terrain-independent information in here. There's good weather advice, lots of fine operating tips and planning strategies, and some excellent information on flying in the mountains, too.

Probably the worst thing about the book is that it seems a little disorganized. Things don't seem to flow from chapter to chapter very well, and it seems like some topics are covered a couple of times. You can't hear good advice too many times, but still, once in the right place is usually sufficient.

Lightplace Maintenance Aircraft Engine Operating Guide, Belvoir Publications and Kas Thomas

Another pilot book. This is an accessible, well-written guide to running a light plane engine. It's a well organized, concise, clear description of the interesting parts of operating an engine. I learned a considerable amount from it, and suspect I'll be looking back through it from time to time.

It covers basic operation of a light plane engine, including fuel injected and high performance engines. Well, actually mostly fuel injected and high performance engines, but there's plenty to learn even for folks with fixed pitch propellers and little engines, too. The only criticism I have is that it seems to either pre-date the GAMIjector arguments or decided not to comment.

An excellent investment if you're a pilot.

Airplane Talk, Glenn E. Carlson

This is a competently written and factually accurate guide to ATC interactions for pilots. If you're not a pilot, this book is unlikely to be of interest to you. Despite it being pretty much everything advertised on the cover, it really wasn't what I was looking for either. I was specifically looking for a couple very practical nuggets about what to select for a readback and things like that. This is more comprehensive, but less detailed. Because I fly in the LAX airspace, I had to know most of this stuff just to survive. If you fly in less crowded spaces and want a good broad intro, this is a good place to start.

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