Mouldering on the Shelves

These are capsules of books I read in 2007. Comments? Mail me.

Mouldering on the Shelves:

The New Kings of Non-Fiction, edited by Ira Glass

This American Life creator Ira Glass collected these stories as a way of inspiring new journalists. Ira is quite happy to allow the journalist to become part of the story, and I'm good with that. Everyone has a bias (except maybe – and I mean maybe – the World Almanac), and I'd rather see the bias obviously.

However, outside the realm of journalists trying to learn how to write with passion and clarity, it's tough to see the target audience. Journalism, even great journalism, has a built-in shelf life. While all of these examples are excellent, many of them left me wondering how the subjects of them are faring now. And some of them, for example Saddam Hussein, have been resolved rather publicly.

Overall, worth reading if not timely.

The World Is Flat Thomas L. Friedman

The best thing about this book is having read it so I can discuss it with Rod.

I realized pretty early on that I am not the audience for this book; it's intended for businessmen, not academics. It's also, while not exactly a polemic, certainly a bit of persuasion. Freidman's got strong pro-globalization views and he's upfront about that. Unfortunately, his writing style isn't well suited to persuading me.

Much of the book is taken up with gee-whiz case studies – or anecdotes – about the pervasiveness and desirability of modern technology moving production into the developing world. This is certainly happening, but with all Freidman's interpretation done via discussions with CEOs and repetition of bits of plant tours rather than hard statistics, I wasn't overwhelmed by his assessment.

In particular I was unhappy to see some misunderstandings of the very motivating technologies he was describing. Both the holes in his technological understanding and the happily stunned surprise any time he saw an unusual juxtaposition of nationalities producing a product led me to believe that he isn't a technologist. He's fond of cloaking his discoveries in brief revelatory statements; my revelation was that he's never read Gibson. Gibson was laying out the gestalt of his globalization fervor, if not the technical details, in the mid-80s. One would never point out a multi-national supply chain with this breathless tone on Slashdot; you'd look hopelessly out of touch.

It's not the only gap. Though he notes that companies and nations at the forefront of globalization often cut corners when it comes to the environment and their employees, he never seems to notice that this relationship may be causal. Of course, it might not, but when one of your theses is that globalized companies are ruthlessly efficient, it seems worth discussing at what point those efficiencies are excesses. And considering the role of governments, which he takes as independent of commerce, play in containing such excesses.

Though he recognizes areas of competitive advantage, he doesn't seem to think very hard about finding their sources. He talks a fair amount about how China's manufacturing sector is more efficient than the US sector, but not about how that comes to be, or if it is more than a transient inequity. Is there something particular about China, or have regulatory burdens – for consumers or workers – not been imposed yet?

You won't find answers to those questions, or particularly deep thoughts about them in here. Friedman does take a pass across some of the externalities and questions raised by globalization, but not nearly as deep as I'd like.

I don't mean to be completely negative about the book. There are interesting ideas in here, and some facts I didn't know. The discussion about the evolution of UPS is particularly interesting. However, I find that the real merit of Flat is as a starting point for discussions, not as a final position on the matter.

The Razor's Edge, W. Somerset Maugham

One of the nice things about reading almost randomly is the chance to observe unusual juxtapositions. Reading Maugham after Gibson is just such an opportunity. Where Gibson was glaring in his style until his narrative reached a given pace, Maugham was smooth throughout. Maugham never builds to a dizzying speed, but rather is more of a pleasant ramble that becomes more profound; his construction offers beauty at any speed.

Maugham is one of those writers who makes the careful structure of the whole work and the clarity and beauty of each sentence appear simple. As such, the work can build and resolve itself clearly, gaining impact and resonance as it progresses, until by the end you realize you've read something very profound. And it was consistently enjoyable as it unfolded. Quite a feat.

Strongly recommended.

Pattern Recognition, William Gibson

Pattern Recognition is a book that works best when it has you reading at a dead run, drawn forward briskly through Gibson's kaleidoscopic barrage of ideas and images. Fortunately, I was held at that breakneck pace through much of the book.

Gibson's a stylist to an extent that few authors are. He draws vivid images with only a quick smattering of iconic words that fade away as like a quick cut in a music video; I spent much of the book watching the after-images of his writing as a new frame shot out of the fog. His style has several fixed points that all appear: the sea of trademarks, the winter palette, the side trips to Japan and Russia. In fact, from a distance, the plot of Recognition is the plot of Neuromancer; a loner is recruited by a large corporation to discover an enigmatic and expressive artist for unclear and possibly sinister reasons. The main character is even named similarly, “Cayce” vs. “Case.”

The similarities don't imply a rewrite; there's more a feeling of an echo or a near match in the brain's detection software. As the brain's need to impose order on the world is a basic theme of the book, this can hardly be accidental.

The style can be overwhelming in the quieter establishing sequences. His clipped, flashed images are tonally at odds with drawing the reader into the world, and I found it grating until the plot picked up the pace to match the whipcrack rhythm. Once the pace matches the style, the images haunt, the ideas entice, the echos resound and the whole thing becomes more than an exercise in style. My mind was engaged and stimulated pretty consistently once the speed picked up.


Population: 485, Michael Perry

I guess that the right way to describe Population: 485 is as a collection of essays and reflections on life in small town America. Such things fail or succeed largely on whether this gives the author something to say and how well he says it. Perry does well on both accounts. He's a good writer, definitely of the “tell the story” variety rather than the verbal pyrotechnician. That suits me and his material fine.

The twist on his discourse on rural Wisconsin is that he's an EMT, firefighter, and first responder for his local volunteer fire department. This makes him intimate with his town and his neighbors in an unusual way. The EMT angle is a hook on which he hangs some excellent essays, never a means to its own end. The sense of place and community (along many axes) is really the center of this work, and he does an excellent job exploring it.

It's funny, touching, thought-provoking, and generally a good read with something to chew on afterward.


Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Thomas E. Ricks

This is a remarkably clear-eyed and meticulously researched view of the strategic failures in the military occupation of Iraq. Ricks is a long-time journalist covering the Pentagon for The Washington Post and other publications, and he clearly knows his way around the bureaucracy and the front lines. He seems to have access to and a rapport with soldiers from the front lines to the upper echelons and an ability to understand them well. He also has the courage to write exactly what he believes, fairly and unflinchingly. It's a level of candor that the topic deserves.

Some folks may be disturbed that Ricks doesn't take a direct stand on the moral underpinnings of the war; he approaches it strictly from a strategic perspective. His questions are not “was it right to stage a pre-emptive war?” but “how has the conduct of this war furthered the stated goals of the administration and affected the use of such wars in the eyes of the international community?” It's not that Ricks is uncompassionate or unconcerned with those issues, but his focus is to take those subjective questions out of the equation and examine how competent the execution was.

The title should lay any questions about the tenor of his conclusions to rest, but the detail and insight he brings to establishing those conclusions is remarkable. It's difficult to imagine anyone refuting the basic themes and lessons he draws. I'm strongly tempted to see if I can find an attempt.

Highly recommended.

Common Sense, Thomas Paine

Nelson got me to re-read this classic pamphlet. It is a clear discussion of the reasons to declare independence from England that carefully balances the practical – no other nation would defend a mutiny, but might support a new sovereign state – to the deep ideas of a nation ruled by consensus rather than aristocracy. While it is interesting to see how many timeless ideas there are in the essay, it's also interesting to see the argumentation of the details.

All in all, good to re-read.

Thomas Paine, Craig Nelson

Nelson's biography is informative, interesting, and clear giving a solid and often insightful view into the life of one of our more interesting founding fathers. A tactless demagogue, Paine managed to alienate 3 nations – two of which he directly catalyzed – and end up ruined physically and financially. Paine was also a scientist and engineer who couldn't keep his nose out of politics.

It's an unusual life, and well worth reading about. While Nelson has a good eye for the telling fact and describes things well, there's not the feeling of deeply understanding a character that comes from the best biographies. To a significant extent this isn't Nelson's fault; Paine's an unusual man by any metric. One simply may be stuck with not getting more into the man's head than he put into his writing. And Nelson does a fine job leading the reader through the contributions he made and events of his life in clear detail. There's much to like here.


The Joke's Over, Ralph Steadman

Steadman's memoir is a collection of personal remembrances of Hunter Thompson. Steadman is Thompson's most famous and consistent collaborator, and was on the ground as Gonzo journalism took shape. He's also an interesting artist and writer in his own right.

The memoir is an interesting piece. It's a candid look back at a lengthy working friendship with one of the most famously difficult collaborators in modern times. The temptation is to talk about what it says about Thompson, but I think it's more interesting what it says about Steadman.

The very real stresses of decades of collaboration are present, including some real hurt feelings, but through it all Steadman remains loyal, if perturbed. I expect that there are some shouting matches that were toned down for the work. Despite the discontent, the respect and affection from both sides comes through strongly.

If you're not already a Thompson or Steadman fan, I don't think this book will make you one. Steadman assumes you know who these guys are and what's going on. In fact, for me part of the interest was in seeing Steadman's view of some of the incidents that Thompson has written about. If you are a fan it's both a chance to hear some of Steadman's voice and to get a view of what working with Thompson must have been like.

If you're not already a fan, you're better off picking up Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or The Curse of Lono and seeing what all the fuss is about.

I Was A Teen-Age Dwarf, Max Shulman

Brenda had a copy of this, passed down from some family member, and I grabbed it because I recognized the name of the lead character – Dobie Gillis. Wikipedia assures me that this is the second collection of Dobie Gillis short stories, but I didn't know that when I saw the title. I have a definite soft spot for the early 60's TV show, so I figured I'd rip through this.

It was very well done, actually. The pacing and plots of the short stories are probably worth studying. The characters are certainly from a different time, and the slang is either quaint or annoying depending on the moment. Still, it's a diverting, quick read.

Overall I still prefer the TV incarnation, if for no other reason than Bob Denver's inspired Maynard G. Krebs.

The Prince of the Marshes and other occupational hazards of a year in Iraq, Rory Stewart

I've learned a few things about Rory Stewart from his books: he has a knack for putting himself into interesting situations, he reflects insightfully about these experiences, and he writes honestly and clearly about both of those. It's tough to imagine someone's impressions of Iraq that I'd rather hear.

Stewart essentially volunteered his way into a high level position helping with the British efforts to rebuild two rural Iraqi provinces. This was easier than it sounds given his time in the Foreign Service and his unique experience in the vicinity. In short, he's experienced with the culture, driven to make the process successful, and willing to bear hardship.

His recounting of the experience is eye-opening. He finds himself consistently facing shortages of information and vision from the Coalition, underinformed on the goals of the Iraqis he's working with, and making his own missteps. He relates all these with a clarity and honesty that's part Joe Friday and part Joseph Heller.

As with The Places In Between he doesn't bludgeon the reader with his conclusions (other than maybe in the Afterward to the Epilogue), but his points are crystal clear. And along the way there's much to learn or just take in.

This book helped me to understand some of the culture collision that turned Iraq into such a quagmire. There are conflicts that it's difficult to imagine any approach fixing, but there are also some clear blunders. Mostly this work brings a clear perspective from a thinking man on the ground who has spent some time trying to make sense of the experience.

A must.

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five is such a huge book it both demands to be part of a world-view and seems too awkward to fit there. It's simple, factual layout of how little most people can change the world is simultaneously compelling and depressing. It would be easier to take if it didn't seem so likely to be true.

There's a lot to admire about the construction of the novel as well. Vonnegut builds an unconventional structure, describes how and why he's doing it, and still makes it affecting. Both the logical arguments and the emotional situations are built flawlessly.

The emotional reactions to his characters fight against the bleak constructs of his logic. It doesn't seem possible that such authentic people are at the whim of destiny. But, of course they are — they're characters in a novel. Whether humans have those constraints or not is a tougher question. It's one of the many Slaughterhouse raises.

A must.

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and other writing about New York, Stephen Crane

Crane's observations of New York are keen and timeless, though I wish they weren't so enduring. His style is clear, unpretentious, and direct which gives his sketches an immediacy.

These are sketches, and so are designed to be universal rather than particular people; one doesn't remember the quirks of the subjects but the pressures of their world. It's troubling how many of these pressures I still see, given the inevitable ends they drive people to.

Good stuff.

The Vintage Bradbury, Ray Bradbury

This collection demonstrates that Bradbury's a tough guy to pigeon-hole. The canon says he's a science fiction author – which I don't really buy, any more than I buy Walter Mosley as an SF writer – and the book blurb claims he's closer to being a magical realist. I'm not enough of a literature student to have a compelling, erudite response to that, but I don't think that his work is as ethereal as the magical realism I've read. If anything, I'd characterize Bradbury as being the opposite; everything in these short stories is more real than real – especially the unreal stuff.

Bradbury's got a knack for drawing you into these stories and buying in to the rules of them. Once the world's on the table he plays fair, but he's enough of a purveyor of the fantastic to usually set something off-kilter. Not always, though. Two of the more touching stories, “Dwarf” and “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit,” are completely conventional in their setting, though again Bradbury has the contrast and brightness all the way up.

The scenarios are front-and-center here. I probably cannot recall a single character's name, though the plots of the stories and their settings are fresh and powerful. That's helpful in drawing you into the stories, but is probably less palatable for someone interested in characters slowly revealing themselves.

It's actually comforting that these are short stories. It's tough to imagine how exhausting 300 pages in the world of “Dandelion Wine” would be, or how harrowing it would be to read something as intense as “Kaleidoscope” (the only one of these I remember reading before) over a similar length. I know he can write effective longer works, but the intensity of these short works is intoxicating.

Strongly recommended.

Don't Get Too Comfortable, David Rakoff

When I read Fraud I noticed how impersonal Rakoff's writing was, and how he turned that to an advantage. Comfortable finds him much more personable, though still the curmudgeon.

It's quite a diverting set of essays, and while none of them made me weep, all of them were enjoyable. Most made me think.

It goes without saying that Rakoff is an excellent writer, both in terms of the perfect words in the perfect sentence and in the structure of his essays. But I'll say it anyway. It's a joy to read his prose, and he writes on a variety of interesting topics with just enough of a personal touch to make it a conversation but not so much that you come away drained. It's the kind of writing that makes the personal essay look enormously easier than it is.

Strongly Recommended.

Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis

I was thinking of Main Street when I decided to read this, and as in Main Street, Lewis assays a strata of American society without oversimplifying it or demonizing its inhabitants. It's a remarkable ability and it leaves a strange taste in the mouth. Babbitt's representative of many aspects of America that I despise, but he's hard to dislike.

That lack of repulsion toward Babbitt is really quite a remarkable feat, and it goes a long way toward explaining why Babbitt is so well regarded. George Babbitt is a shallow, bigoted, hypocritical, opportunistic lump of a man. He's everything I try not to be, and perhaps fear I am. I should have no positive feelings for him at all. And he learns basically nothing in the book – so there isn't even the Christmas Carol hope of redemption. He's going to stay exactly as he is. But somehow, Lewis makes this seem all right.

Babbitt is clearly fictionalized, but the ring of truth is strong in him. Folks who wonder how conservative politicians keep getting elected could learn a lot from Sinclair Lewis (and George Babbitt).


Wealth and Democracy, Kevin Phillips

Phillips work on wealth and how it has affected democracy is enlightening, if not gripping. There's a lot to learn from it, but it's definitely a scholarly tome, rather than an engaging introduction. I recommend a basic cynicism and a grasp of the basics of economics before going in.

Once you're in, Wealth is full of clear analysis and telling anecdote. Truth to be told, I'd be happier with a little deeper analysis, but overall this is more than enough to clarify more of the forces that make America work.

It's worth pointing out that Phillips is not uniformly gloomy on the effects of the rich on the country, nor does he believe that the only possible course is worsening differentials in prosperity. He clearly points out moments of reversals in the trends of the rich getting richer and points out how that could happen again. It's an enticing possibility, though I'm less optimistic than he is.

Deadeye Dick, Kurt Vonnegut

This is one of the first Vonnegut books I ever read, and I've been meaning to reread it. I enjoyed it, because I like Vonnegut's world view, but this isn't my favorite of his works. There are plenty of interesting ideas in here, and his clear and telling turns of phrase, but it never becomes more than the sum of those parts.

Worth reading, though.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

I always think of Gatsby as a novel of the rich, and surely its protagonists are that, but I always seem to forget how much more there is to this than a well written story about people in an obscure setting. I don't know why I confuse Fitzgerald with Austen, but apparently I do.

I did go into it looking for off-putting references and situations I couldn't identify with, but found more the excesses of youth. The situations reminded much more of college fraternity parties than high class politics. There is an etiquette to such environments, but it's not alien to me.

Still, a sad story told among the fraternity parties of the rich would only be a diversion, not a piece of great literature. Fitzgerald is always crystal clear in his writing, and usually says just enough to tell the story. There are several amazing points, however, where he lets a perfect, lyrical, true observation about the world fall into the story like snow off a bamboo leaf. These little perfect sentences at exactly the right time are reason enough to read Gatsby.

But wait, there's more. Structurally and thematically, what was a story about some interesting characters dancing in the ruins becomes a perfect reflection of the unspoken interplay of society, about love that cannot be, and the balanced, unmalicious clockwork of America that excludes it. It's a powerful profound piece that is bleak in exactly the way Main Street isn't.

How Fitzgerald makes this look so effortless, I'll probably never understand and always revere.

Strongly recommended.

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007, Laura Furman

Another round of O. Henry winners, a collection I obviously enjoy. Overall there were several of these I thought were excellent, though a significant number of them only seemed well built. Not that there's anything wrong with being well built, but not all of the stories had life to them.

Several of these looked like formula work. Not the sort of formula work that one associates with TV sitcoms, but formulaic literature. Take literarily under-represented group, center the story on them, add some symbolism and a lonely tone and voila – literature. Getting them to breathe is harder.

And, as unpromising as the first few were, several of these breathe just fine. Joan Silber's “War Buddies,” Jan Ellison's “The Company of Men” and especially Andrew Foster Altschul's “A New Kind of Gravity” all breathe just fine. Of the set, I think the strongest is “Gravity,” but they're all excellent. There are several here that I was only warm to that are also excellent and that you may warm to.


Collected Short Stories, Volume 3, W. Somerset Maugham

This volume consists entirely of stories featuring Maugham's mild-mannered writer turned intelligence agent. They're all very well written and diverting, but so genteel that it's difficult to consider them in the same genre as James Bond. They're not, of course; they're in the same genre as the rest of Maugham's short stories – civilized slices of life from the perspective of an early 20th century Englishman. Sort of Dahl without the twists.

That's more dismissive than I actually am. All of these are brilliantly executed and diverting enough. They're just not gripping. Kind of like the lead character.


To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

A book that deserves its reputation.

It's quite a solid piece of work, building from an episodic introduction to the fictional town it's set in to a gripping courtroom scene and the aftermath thereof. A fine meditation on the state of the world and the passage to adulthood that actually follows the maxim of showing rather than telling what happens to characters.

In addition to the surefooted and excellent writing and the thoughtful consideration of the world around us, Lee has written a real page turner. If you didn't want to consider larger themes, there's still a gripping story here. From the point where the trial begins, I read the book in one gulp.

Very strongly recommended.

The Johnstown Flood, David McCullough

I really enjoy books like The Johnstown Flood. I get to learn a lot about a seminal event of historical significance that most people have heard of, but few can describe. And there's a lot to learn, not just from the staggering facts about the event - which McCullough relates clearly and fairly - but from comparing it with today.

The Johnstown flood was a largely man-made catastrophe caused by the richest men in America and they didn't lose a single lawsuit. That's a little different from the world outside my window, and it significantly helps me understand what America was then and maybe what it is now.

The book's is full of little moments that call out the uniqueness of the event and the way people always react to tragedy. It's well-researched, interesting and enlightening.

Highly recommended.

The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood

It's kind of odd to call a retelling of the Odyssey from Penelope's point of view merged with postmodern appearances from a Greek chorus of murdered minor characters a light work, but for Atwood it is. It's also a good deal of fun.

While the overwhelming power of some of her other works isn't really present here, the book is as thought provoking as any she's written, but easily more fun than most. Penelope's a believable if not trustworthy narrator, and the narrative is brisk and engaging. The 12 maids pop in to stir the pot often, and in the end there are more questions than answers, but the questions are all worth thinking about. And of course, the writing is excellent.


If the River Was Whiskey, T. Coraghessan Boyle

I've enjoyed most of the Boyle I've read, which has primarily been short stories. The works in here are all short stories, and mainly character sketches. They have perfectly serviceable plots, but most of them focus on clearly painting Boyle's characters.

He's got a knack for creating memorable characters, showing them to us at key moments in their development, and illuminating them with just the right words to bring them alive. The stories go down easily - mostly - and you walk away having met some interesting folks.


At Cannan's Edge America in the King Years 1965-68, Taylor Branch

Branch wraps up the narrative of the Martin Luther King, Jr. years in this volume. I think this and Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire are enlightening books for any student of history or person interested in politics to read. Branch covers the 60's Civil Rights era with the broadest possible scope, while keeping his focus strongly on King and his attempts to secure black rights. The lessons he reveals about the media, the nature of American politics, and human beings in general are as relevant to today's world as they are to the 1960's.

Boy does that sound like a snoozer of a book, and it might be in a lesser author's hands. Branch makes the era and the larger than life personas - the Machiavellian Hoover, the misguided LBJ, the egos and sacrifice in the Civil Rights Movement itself - all absolutely sing on the page. Because of the strength of Branch's work, I'm likely to look at the LBJ bios coming out with the recent release of his tapes. The narrative is every bit as gripping as a novel, but with the additional weight that you can trace the direct lines between the events here and the state of the world today. I have an inkling why children of the 60's pine for the 60's now.

I understand my nation and people better for having read this trilogy. I think I'm a different person for it, and that's a rare thing in this world.

A must.

The Best American Science Writing 2006, Atul Gawande

This is a collection of science articles from 2006 where “science” is fairly broadly construed. There are a couple in here that are not strictly speaking about science, but all of them are thought provoking.

It is a collection, and as with all collections, there are shining stars and clunkers – though I am hard pressed to actually name a full on clunker. OK, I found a couple of the “Earth without humans” entries tedious, and the article on chess playing computer programs did not hold many surprises for me, but by and large I was intrigued in some way by most of these articles.

Probably the articles I found most interesting were Paul Bloom's “Is God An Accident”, Jack Hitt's “Mighty White of You” and Robert R. Provine's “Yawning”. All of these told me something about a field that I didn't know or gave me something new to think about, even if it was just why I yawn.

Overall, a series worth watching.

The Weather Makers, Tim Flannery

This book really sums up my relationship with the climate change issue in a nutshell. There's something important going on, but getting at the nut of it without hype is fantastically difficult. The world is incontrovertibly getting measurably warmer. It seems likely to me that humans are causing or accelerating that. It seems wise that until we get a handle on the long term effects of that process, we should try to slow it down. It's getting that handle that seems to be impossible.

I really want a dispassionate appraisal of the current state of knowledge on climate change. That's not the book Flannery has written. Now, to be fair, that's not an accident; he believes that humanity is looking down the barrel of an extinction-level change in the environment, and that excites him for obvious reasons. Sadly for him, on me his emotional appeals have the exact reverse effect from the one he intends.

That's not to say that I think the book is pure hokum, or even untrue. But he never misses an opportunity to be breathless in his description of a situation or to conflate the worst and average cases. For example, it's obvious that isolated pockets of ecosystem that are tightly bound to their specific conditions are the most sensitive to changes in the climate. But while they are important bellwethers, focusing the discussion on them to the exclusion of more adaptive species that are more tied to human survival seems misleading. Sad as it is that a tree frog found in only 3 places on Earth goes extinct, I'm much more concerned about the fate of dairy cows. If he'd been more explicit and dispassionate about that link, I'd believe that this was an analysis and not a prophesy.

Similarly I find the appeals to an planetary climate stabilization system system named for an Earth Mother to be misleading magical thinking. Flannery gives examples where that system clearly came out of whack causing extinction events. Humans are part of the ecosystem, and that system isn't some perfect thing created by a benevolent universe. In my opinion, if the species has come to a point where it can influence the climate of the planet, and there's significant evidence that it has, the species has to step up to the plate and learn how to engineer the climate, not back off to a known more-stable state and stop worrying (though such a backing off may be prudent until we understand the knobs better). After all, even the author thinks that the climate's turned on us in the past.

I just don't think that imagining a climate control system tuned to keep the planet's temperature ideal for life and naming it after a Greek Earth Goddess is productive as a guiding scientific principle or rhetorical strategy.

Overall I am dissatisfied with the book, but I suspect that much of that is my discomfort with the presentation. It's clearly closer to a sermon than a statement of a scientific theory. I strongly prefer the latter, but I recognize that the stakes may be high, and that Flannery's far from alone in the preaching business. I'd still prefer to see more precision in the arguments and less appeal to the emotions. The topic's important enough that I'll keep looking.

People need to think about this stuff, and this book is definitely a place to start. It's full of interesting ideas, even if they're all presented as terrifying. It's worth a read, especially if this sort of tone is less grating for you than it is for me.

The Places In Between, Rory Stewart

Looking over my bookshelf, I'm apparently a sucker for stories about people who step out to hike ridiculous distances or undertake other ill-advised travels. I guess there's something to shucking it all and simply walking and thinking for a while that appeals to me. Of course, I wouldn't walk the width of Afghanistan in the winter, but then I'm not Rory Stewart.

Rory's a young man who set out to do cross Asia on foot and was interrupted by the unpleasantness in 2002. He eventually got permission to go back and fill in the spot he missed by crossing Afghanistan in 2002. He didn't have any real official help or any backup team or anything, just his considerable knowledge of the culture and adequate knowledge of the languages.

The story of his travels is comical, touching, frightening, inspiring, and baffling. He's walking in some of the most isolated and lawless areas of the world in the immediate aftermath of an invasion of the country - though Afghanistan has had no shortage of invasions. His route is at least partially chosen to coincide with a journey undertaken by a Mughal emperor, which gives some historical context to the whole thing, but the star of the show is really the Afghan environment.

This would be a good book even if a merely adequate writer simply wrote down the incidents of the journey, but Stewart's both an excellent writer and adopts a style that showcases the ideas at play here.

Following the style of the emperor he's following he keeps himself almost completely out of the text. He's certainly the narrator, but he does an excellent job of relating what he sees and not much else for much of the book. It's only near the end, as the encounters we've shared through his eyes have begun to collect in the reader's consciousness, does he begin to make a few more pointed observations.

It's a remarkably effective technique that opens a reader's eyes.

Highly recommended.

Sharpe's Rifles, Bernard Cornwell

This book is such a potboiler that every fiber of my literarily pretentious being wants to just beat on it. I mean, it's a totally testosterone-driven buddy movie of a book that features the cavalry literally riding over the hill to save the day several times. An outline of the book and its characters could not sound more like a big-budget Hollywood action blockbuster. But, I really can't say anything bad about it.

I don't mean that in an ironic way. When I read, for example, a modern Bond book I give myself over to the irrationality and laugh my way through it. That wasn't my experience here. This was a masterpiece of execution. There are no indulgent literary flashes here, no pretensions for this to be more than adventure story.

It's set in the Napoleonic Wars, and while there's reasonable period detail here, it's not flaunted. Often when I read a period piece there's extra exposition designed to show off how much the author knows about the time; Cornwell is remarkably restrained about it. There are enough telling details to put you right in the time, and even that you might want to know more about, but again no ostentation. He's telling a story and tells you what you need to know.

Overall it's quite an impressive piece of work that way. Cornwell tells a fast moving, exciting story that punches all the old plot standbys unironically and makes you root for his characters. The book is great fun and shows no sign of how hard it must be to make all these clichés seem fresh. It helps that is protagonist is a flawed guy who shows every sign of developing throughout the series as he does in the book, but mainly Cornwell just tells a great story.

Strongly recommended.

The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby projects the image of being a likable guy who enjoys football, pop music, and reading a good book; he's certainly the kind of writer who will grab you soundly and wrench you into his world for a pleasant few days and then drop you back on the ground a better person. In short, he's the sort of guy I'd probably enjoy hanging out with. I suspect that this collection of essays from the Believer magazine are as close as I'll get to that.

The essays are based on the idea that each month Nick will tell you what books he's bought and briefly discuss what he's read. The idea is that he's fighting the rising tide of books coming into his house, as are all readers.

It's a lot of fun to pretend to hang out with such an erudite, down-to-earth guy as Hornby, who takes such evident joy in writing about books. He's perfectly happy to tell you he doesn't get through a number of books that he starts, and that the sheer brilliance of Dickens can leave him blind to other fiction for a time. He chats amiably about lots of other things, too, in his clear, crisp, funny prose. He makes a good companion between books. That is if you can take more than a day skipping through this short book.

Strongly recommended.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin

This fits nicely on my Civil War history shelf between We Are Lincoln Men and The Civil War, A Narrative . Narrative follows the big picture of the war, focusing primarily on the military aspects; Lincoln Men views Lincoln obliquely through some of his friends. Rivals views the political side of the war through Lincoln and his cabinet.

Rivals does trace each of the rivals into the run up to the 1860 presidential nomination, effectively painting their character and history. It seems as though we'll take another oblique look at Lincoln by continuing to compare him to these three throughout his administration as in Lincoln Men, but that's not the way Goodwin approaches it; Lincoln is the direct center of the later chapters.

In some sense it's surprising to spend 300 or so pages getting to know these three cabinet members who were Lincoln's direct competitors before being drafted into his cabinet only to see them fade into subordinate roles in the last 400 pages. The approach is actually powerful in its parallelism to history. Seward, Chase, and Bates were national figures for years when Lincoln finally pulled himself into the world's eye by his own bootstraps. Once there, though, his star rises to the point where the others become footnotes. Goodwin puts them into the reader's consciousness to show how remarkable it is that Lincoln takes center stage. Seward, Bates, and Chase are interesting enough in their own right, which definitely helps.

In addition to the structure, the focus on the politics of the war is enlightening. It's easy to imagine that the North rose up against the moral wrong of chattel slavery and fought to the end to see it removed. The truth is more remarkable. There were stumbles and political fights throughout the war. It's thought-provoking to read this in the middle of a debate about the continuation of the Iraq War and wonder how history will judge my generation. But, that's one reason to read history.


The Good, the Bad, and the Mad: Some Weird People in American History, E. Randall Floyd

Man, what an odd little book.

I think this is intended as a teaser for kids interested in odd figures in history to draw them into reading history, but what an odd selection of figures and tone. I mean, any book that includes Jane Addams and Cyrus Reed Teed on basically equal footing is, um, impressive. First woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize / some whack-O who pioneered the hollow Earth theory – yeah, I guess they're about the same.

Overall the descriptions tend toward the sensationalistic, and the selections are unfathomable. It's a strange work.

Brainiac, Ken Jennings

This is one of those books I would never buy for myself. I like to watch Jeopardy! when I'm near a TV and it's on, but I was pretty uninterested in Ken Jennings's run on the program when it happened. I mean, it's a game show – who cares? I expected Brainiac to be “another quickie C-list celeb cash-in, full of shallow ghostwritten thoughts on why tolerance is good and pollution is bad, filled out with some baby pictures and holiday recipes.” That quote's from the acknowledgments section where Jennings jokes about his original goals for the book, and obviously pretty far from the truth.

Jennings writes really well – especially if you're a geek – and has a bunch to say. His run on Jeopardy! is in there, but it's essentially a framing device for an exploration of the attraction and significance of trivia and a survey of the trivia landscape, past and present. It's all done with warmth, humor, and style and is hugely diverting and informative, both in a trivia-question and a deep-thoughts way.

As I say, I wouldn't have picked this up on my own, but I'll be looking for any future books from him.

Strongly recommended.

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