Mouldering on the Shelves

These are capsules of books I read in 2006. Comments? Mail me.

Mouldering on the Shelves:

Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, Jimmy Carter

I always get something out of reading Jimmy Carter; he's a very thoughtful guy who's spent his life digging into some of the trickiest policy and moral issues of the day. He always has the courage of his convictions, and even if you disagree with him it's difficult to imagine that he has an ulterior motive. He's so much a gentleman that the most biting criticism of US policy is a backhanded footnote.

Carter's particularly interesting to me because his strong religious convictions structure his thinking so explicitly and so powerfully. I'm not religious at all, but he and I agree on a lot. It's fascinating to see such a differently structured mind think through these difficult issues.

I've often wondered aloud how one can disagree with Carter and been surprised by the cottage industry of character assassins that crank out books criticizing him. Well, I'm sure this book has earned him some enemies; I'm not one of them. Still taking such a clear stand that Israel is in the wrong in the Middle East isn't going to make him a lot of new friends.

I treasure Carter's first-person, thoughtful analyses of these sorts of trouble spots. I hope I'm not the only one listening to him.

Recommended, but have coffee at hand; Jimmy's thoughtful, not dynamic.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson

This is Bryson's fond look back at his childhood in 1950's Iowa. He manages to be sweet but not saccharine, to talk like a kid without being bland, and to create the same larger-than-life and close-to-home world that Bill Cosby can when talking about childhood. Bryson clearly remembers being a kid, and can share it.

It's Bill Bryson writing, so it's meticulously researched, evocatively described, thoughtful and diverting. His In a Sunburned Country made me want to visit Australia to see if it was as interesting as he described it; I suspect it is, because I've been to childhood and Bryson's descriptions of that capture that world perfectly.

As much as I enjoyed Thunderbolt Kid, it is a pretty lightweight piece. There's not much deep and abiding to take from here, but as with any trip with Bryson it's an enjoyable ride.


The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, Sean Wilentz

This is 800 pages of detailed history stretching from Jefferson's first inaugural to Lincoln's election, and I was delighted by all of it. I should point out that though the coverage is broad, it is also focused. Wilentz is specifically interested in how broad-based democracy is in the country and how it got to be that way. This is a rich time period for investigating those ideas as the country evolves from one where only landed white males can vote to one on the verge of offering that privilege to former slaves and women.

Along the way we get a look at the beginnings of the labor movement, some of the more repressive and backward states with respect to giving a voice to someone other than the elites, and a look at the line between democracy and demagoguery. In addition we get a fairly detailed look at the workings of political campaigns; there aren't as many new tricks in politics as one might expect.

While Wilentz writes clearly and comprehensively on the topics, this isn't exactly a light bit of reading. It is fascinating, but there is a tremendous amount of interconnected action transpiring. This is the sort of book that needs some digestion in addition to just cruising along and taking it all in.

Recommended, but dense.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Boy this is a nice piece of work. It's a very different book than the one portrayed in the movies; there's no rumbling, slow-moving, slow-witted monster here. Shelley's got a good eye for how scientists and engineers become hypnotized by their quests to prove they understand something and that power draws the reader through the first third of the book. Anyone who's ever pulled an accidental all-nighter will sympathize as Frankenstein creates his monster. The second half is full of interesting ideas about what a creator owes his creation and about the demons that can haunt us.

You'll note that there's a sixth missing. That's the part that drags. It drags a little more than a sixth, but overall the novel's well worth it.


The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomberg

I'm sure Lomberg gets his fair share of criticism for this book, but for my money there's a lot to like. He's taken a look at the statistics used in the environmental debate, and asserts that with some minimal fact checking he's laid out some very different conclusions from the ones often heard. He's certainly documented his position extensively, and it's a good place to start in assessing the arguments less often heard on many issues of the environment today.

He's perhaps a little optimistic about economics solving everything, but overall an interesting, well documented perspective.

The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman

Looking back over this trilogy, some things become clear. I like Philip Pullman's writing better when he's writing taut action set pieces than when he's trying for slow, careful character development. When things are exciting in this set, things are exciting; that's a significant asset in storytelling.

Unfortunately, when the drama comes from character interaction, I notice as many inconsistencies and fuzzy depictions as I do well developed traits and original aspects. Surprisingly the most interesting and memorable depictions of his characters lie not in the slower paced tugs at heart strings, but in the crisp, short asides in the middle of the action. Sadly the two often seem to be about different characters.

I may be being a bit hard on these. As SF for younger readers go, you could do a ton worse. They have some excellent action sequences, some big ideas, and some really great depictions of other worlds – especially in Compass. I do wish that the characters were more clearly painted and three-dimensional, though. I do like that he tries for a range of pacing and focus.

The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman

I liked this a lot less than I liked The Golden Compass, the first book in the trilogy. Like Compass it takes a while to get the plot in motion and warm us up to the characters again. It doesn't help that our perceptions of Lyra, Compass's protagonist, change in ways that are somewhat inconsistent. We know from the first book that she's always been something of a street kid and that she's been on the lam for weeks, but we're expected to believe that she can't feed herself in what's essentially a city where she has the run of the place?

Some of the sense of wonder at the new world Pullman's created also must disappear as we move to our world (or one remarkably like it), and it's tough to maintain the mystery as that happens.

More important than the disappearing mystery of the world is the slow resolution of the larger mysteries set up in Compass. Knife is beginning to look much more like a roman à clef for Milton's Paradise Lost, which again removes some wonder and excitement.

I'm probably being too harsh on this – it is intended for a much younger audience than I am, and there remains much to like about it. Pullman's action may be slow out of the gate, but once it gets up to speed, his set pieces are thrilling and engaging. I probably was hoping for too much after I enjoyed Compass, but this is not bad.

There aren't any armored bears, though, and that may be my problem.

The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman

This is listed as a “young adults” book, but I'd characterize it more as an all-ages read. That's because I liked it, I suppose.

It did take me a little while to warm to the protagonist, and the overarching plot hasn't yet really grabbed me, but the protagonist has. She's a likable, real enough kid in an interesting world having tightly paced adventures. A very enjoyable read with a few cool things to think about along the way.

And you really have to like any book that includes armored bears.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Yes, it's another Mark Twain classic revisited as an adult. I had a flight out to Canada to get through and had forgotten the deadly dull Anti-Federalist Papers I've been trying to read. I'd been meaning to revisit Huck, and there he was in the airport bookstore.

Just because I'm thinking of it, San Francisco (SFO), is really a pretty civilized little airport. Mass transit accessible, good restaurants, and the bookstores are great. I'd almost rather shop at the bookstore in the United terminal at SFO than at most of the shops I know in LA. Now, SFO's not my favorite place for actually fly in in or out of, but as a passenger, there are definite upsides.

Oh, yeah, the book.

Huckleberry Finn is certainly worth pulling off the shelves and chewing on. The history of the book as being sort of put together over time leaves obvious seams in the narrative, and it seems like Twain wasn't entirely sure what he wanted to do with it. The tone shifts throughout and the plot's at least as contrived as some of Dickens's most outlandish.

But, there are many moments of lyrical beauty; laugh-out-loud bits of humor; huge moments of grappling with good and evil; and everything one could want out of a great book – well, no romance, sorry Austen fans.

How so much raw literature is contained in a book with its evident flaws is one of the great mysteries of letters. It's not that there's any doubt of how good the book is, but you're left to question how Twain ignores so many things that a writer is taught to pay attention to and still turn out a great novel. It's a fascinating thing.

Strongly recommended.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain

Saying that Connecticut Yankee is excellent is really kind of pointless. Many people with much better credentials than I have have made that judgment. But I have to say I was impressed on all fronts.

I've certainly read more of Twain's non-fiction than his fiction, especially of late, so it was refreshing to watch his writerly skills in the construction of a novel-length tale. His story is the scaffold for his ideas and it's purpose-built for that. The details of plot are completely far-fetched but executed with such aplomb that the reader willingly and consciously suspends disbelief. It's not so much that one says “I believe this,” but that one says “OK, I'll play along; where are you going with this?” This is much harder than Twain makes it look.

It helps that the ideas are thick on the ground. In much the same way that later Science Fiction writers (OK, H.G. Wells and Kipling were contemporaries, but let's not pick nits) would use imagined future societies to comment on today's, Twain uses the imagined past. Connecticut Yankee is an SF story in the best senses of that genre. It also has the bonus of Twain showing off his knowledge of human nature by connecting the dots from incident to legend. Twain's ideas resonate off the western myths more strongly than off an imagined future. He shows us explicitly how some myths are created by simple ego stroking, but the rest of the story invites a search for other possibilities.

There's a lot to think about here, and I understand why people try to get young students to read this. The ideas aren't always ones I fully agree with, but they're always worth devoting some thought to. Furthermore I think their presentation in the simple thought-provoking form is intentional to get people to have the arguments about them. This is Mark Twain, not Ayn Rand after all. I do think teachers should keep trying to get kids to read it, but the assignment should really have a requirement to read it again at 35 or 40 and revise your review.

Very strongly recommended.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach

Who writes these things? How do you come to a publisher and say, “I've got a great idea for a book: I go to various places doing scientific research using corpses and describe the work, and to put it all in perspective, I research the history of human use of corpses and write it all up in a breezy, informative style”? Delightfully Mary Roach found a publisher who would bite on that idea.

The result, Stiff, is breezy and informative, as promised. The topic, once one warms to it, is really pretty interesting and asks good questions about people's ideas about how bodies need to be treated after death and why. It's every non-fiction writer's dream – an interesting, thought-provoking exploration of an interesting area of society.

Strongly Recommended

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

What can you say about a book that's won the Nobel Prize in Literature and that has a blurb on the back from the New York Times Book Review claiming that as “required reading for the human race” it ranks with Genesis?

I suppose I should start by saying that I understand the praise, especially given the source. There's a lot of beautiful writing in One Hundred Years that's joined with a powerful structure and multi-layered symbolism. It's the kind of book that literature professors understandably go ga-ga over. I respect it a great deal as a novel.

On the other hand, I had real trouble getting through it. None of the characters came alive for me, and somehow the plot never compelled me. I respected what the author was doing, but he never drew me in. Perhaps that's simply a failure on my part, but that was my reaction. I've had similar reactions to David Foster Wallace; I respect him as an architect of prose, but don't enjoy reading him.

The Age of Gold, H. W. Brands

This was an interesting study of California's Gold Rush. I really hadn't understood the scope of this before, and it's really quite phenomenal. California's Gold Rush populated the place to the point of statehood so remarkably quickly that it had significant effects on both the state and the nation, arguably pushing the dominoes that caused the Civil War over much sooner than without the rush. And that's only one of the important effects here.

Brands does a nice job personalizing the historic trends by selecting a few people and following their lives through the causes and effects. His selections are strong and do a good job of describing the elephant from their points of view and then drawing the rest together from a more historically objective point of view as well. It's actually a huge phenomenon – though I don't buy all of Brands assertions about the effect on the American psyche – and well worth looking at and thinking about.

The writing is accessible and interesting.

Strongly recommended.

Oyster, John Biguenet

John Biguenet has written the most amazing short story I've ever read. That really doesn't have much at all to do with Oyster, but I bring it up whenever I talk about Biguenet. I really don't have to keep beating that horse, though, everything he writes is worth the time to read.

Oyster starts out like another story about rural America, where personal history has a long reach and the traditions have more influence on people's lives than the things we see on TV do. This is a genre unto itself, and you have to do something out of the ordinary to distinguish yourself here. It's sad that atmospheric stories about tight cultures in the shadow of America are a dime a dozen, but that's the way it is. And a few chapters into Oyster, I thought that's what I had my hands on. I had a the broad outlines of what I expected to happen doped out, what the big reveal was going to be and was settling in to see if Biguenet was going to take me there in an interesting way.

But the story resolutely refused to go the way I expected it to. Those characters I thought I had nailed into the shapes that would make a story refused to act like characters. That plot I'd doped out refused to come to a boil the way I expected. Very frustrating.

The integrity of the place and the characters was stronger than their placement in a work of fiction. It wasn't a life-changing read, but it was interesting and rewarding. And Biguenet writes beautifully. Not at all what I expected and delightfully so.


Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt

This is one of those books that demonstrates what good writing is all about. This is McCourt's memoir about growing up blindingly poor in Ireland, surviving childhood illnesses, an irresponsible father, and the general misery of barely having clothes on his back. What's impressive is that it's not a sad book.

If you understand how he pulls that off, and I don't completely, I think you learn something about writing. Something that Twain knew.

Part of it is giving a pitch-perfect voice to his young self. Part of it is never treating the people in his life as characters, but as people. But part of it is pure magic as far as I can tell.

Don't let the subject keep you away. This is well worth reading.

Strongly Recommended.

His Excellency, Joseph Ellis

A quick look at my author index you'll see that Joseph Ellis is my guide to the founding fathers. He's interesting, insightful, and for my money a good scholar. He certainly indulges in informed speculation, but does a good job of indicating when he's guessing and what his basis for those speculations are.

His Washington biography is everything one would expect from his prior work, well written, and insightful. For my money, Washington is probably the founding father in most need of this kind of illumination, and Ellis does not disappoint.

It's hard to underestimate Washington's importance to this country and this accessible, insightful biography should help people understand why he was so revered in his own time and to this day.

Strongly recommended.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach

I first read this in junior high school, from a set of photocopies that a teacher brought in and assigned. Sorry about the royalties, Richard.

It's still a fine little fable and well worth reading, and the short length doesn't hurt. One of the best things about the book is how well the aviation references go. Jonathan really really speaks like a flight instructor.


Talk to the Hand The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door, Lynne Truss

I really enjoyed Eats, Shoots & Leaves and I was looking forward to see what Truss's next work was. She characterizes Talk to the Hand as a table-thumping rant about the rudeness of society, which also sounded good.

Now, I'm a man who recognizes the table-thumping rant as the art form that it is. This is a pretty good one. It's heartfelt, well thought out, and delivered with solid style. It's great fun to read. I just wish I agreed with it a little more.

It's easy enough to get people to agree that society is going down the tubes, but generally pretty difficult to get those same people to agree with your analysis. Everyone's got their own ideas of what's right and wrong. But ultimately the issues are so subjective that it's tough to get people to agree on the problem, let alone the causes or solutions.

It is an enjoyable read, and I didn't expect her to fix the rudeness of the world. But I was left somewhat unsatisfied.


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