Mouldering on the Shelves

These are capsules of books I read in 2008. Comments? Mail me.

Mouldering on the Shelves:

When You Are Engulfed In Flames, David Sedaris

Another thoroughly enjoyable series of essays from David Sedaris. This collection seems to find him more introspective rather than reflective. Many of his essays in other collections are really short memoirs or character studies of members of his family, but these tend to be set closer to the present and self-focused.

That probably sounds more ego-centric than I mean it, but even when his family or others make appearances in this collection, the focus remains on the author's thoughts rather than the scene itself. That's not to say that Sedaris has been solely descriptive before; this is a more subtle shift. He's mentioned in print that he feels some concern about his family's privacy - and more importantly that they do - so some of the focus change may be due to that. Regardless of the cause of the change, his writing remains enjoyable, thoughtful, and entertaining.


The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker

Another science-based exploration of the human mind through the lens of language with Steven Pinker. As in his previous books I've read, I'm impressed by his logical thinking and careful use of experiment, combined with an accessible description of the topic at hand. And again, the topic at hand is pretty large.

When reading his work, I'm often as delighted by Pinker's logical process and scientific grounding as with the content of his hypotheses. It's a source of great joy to see a meticulous, careful thinker who understands that he might be wrong work out both what he thinks and how to test it. Even if you're not interested in language or human thought, it's worth reading one of his books just to see the procedural aspects of a scientist at work.

The topic at hand would be interesting if Pinker was just spouting conjecture. Many people have argued that language shapes thought, but he argues compellingly that the reverse is true. That by studying how humans structure their language, some understanding of the brain's working can be adduced. The idea that English grammar is modulated by our understanding of word meaning across distinct axes is compelling and well described. The idea that metaphor reflects a process of generalization and application that is broadly used is also intriguing.

A capsule is too small to get into the details of the arguments and counter-arguments in play here. It's a testament to Pinker's writing that he explores the ideas with enough complexity that even laymen can enjoy some of the nuance at play.

Strongly recommended.

The American Presidency, edited by Alan Brinkley and Davis Dyer

This was a really good overview of the presidency from a set of the most respected historians working today. While there was some amount of information here that I'd heard before, there was also enough new perspective to interest me in revisiting some of these men. For example, Wilson's star seems to be of distinctly different brightness depending on who you read; several historians believe that his shabby treatment of Black Americans at home outweighs his internationalism. The essay here by Knock argues the other way. I need to know more to make a judgement.

Other presidents are equally fascinating. A reader's times play a role in what looks interesting and important, and with the economy so much in the news these days, the 1920's and 30's seemed particularly interesting. As is often the case, it was more difficult to make the late 1800's come alive.

Each of these essays had something worth knowing in them, though of course none of them tells the full story of the times. A worthwhile reference and appetizer.


Crooked Little Vein, Warren Ellis

This is Warren Ellis's first prose novel, and as a follower of his web presence and other work, I was expecting his usual adrenalin-rush prose and trips into alarming corners of the human experience. That's all there. What I wasn't expecting were the bits of sweetness in here.

It's a very enjoyable book. Nothing in here changed my life, but I laughed, I got a little misty, and I kept wondering what was around the next corner.

I wouldn't pick this up if you're not ready to have your mind (and other parts) expanded by the disturbing range of human behavior. No, really. If that doesn't bother you, pick it up and enjoy.

Recommended (with the caveat above).

The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell

The Wordy Shipmates is Vowell telling us some of the story of the Massachusetts Bay colony, and she brings her love of American history and ability to make times come alive. As usual when I read anything she's written with any research behind it at all, I learned a lot and enjoyed it.

The only criticism I have is that her goals in telling this history seem vague. Other than her personal interest, it's unclear why this period is particularly interesting, or what she'd like readers to take away from the book. The result is that the book is more of a snack than a meal. I learned a bunch of things about the period, and understand the people involved better. There are occasional allusions to how the attitudes fostered here relate to modern times, but without an overarching theme, I don't form a lasting impression.

It is Sarah Vowell, so there's only so much I'm going to gripe. But I think that a clearer theme would help focus her excellent writing and research.

The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights, John Steinbeck

This is a strange little thing. It's a recasting of Le Mort d'Arthur into more readable prose by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck apparently never considered the work finished, and it was published after his death.

It definitely has the feel of being a work in progress. The early tales cleave very strongly to Mallory's phrasing, and are pretty lifeless to my ear. Later tales begin to warm to life, but also have a lot of the voice of 1960's Steinbeck in them. At any rate the voice I hear sounds a lot like the one I heard in America and Americans.

I get the impression that had Steinbeck been able to smoothly balance timelessness and modern perspective, as he does in the best spots of Acts, this would have been a really enjoyable book. I don't think he got there. Like Juneteenth, this may not have been published for a reason.

Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This is a book about flying that isn't much about flying. The thin conceit here is one that many authors adopt: Saint-Exupéry sets out to talk about flying in order to talk about life. Two things make this better than most such books. First, the conceit is so thin that in a few pages it has evaporated completely. Secondly, he writes bravely and well about his thoughts on life.

It's not a book of revelation, but of recognition. A reader is more likely to say "boy he said that well" than "I never thought of that." Clear expressions of important truths are worth reading, though.

Very enjoyable. A good book to take on a 3-day hike. Except for the stories about trekking away from airplane wrecks without food until near death.


How To Lie With Statistics, Darrell Huff

A classic of a different nature. I didn't learn much about statistics from How To Lie With Statistics, but it's a fine refresher on how to read figures skeptically. If you're not a math person but want to hear some straight talk about why numbers are as slippery as words, this is worth a look.

It was also surprising to read this just to see the examples. He talks about production statistics from manufacturing plants and explains why labor and management representatives might want to represent them differently. When's the last time that came up when you read the paper? I'm sure they still do, but these were obviously much more universal figures of concern in 1954 than today. A better example of numbers in context would be hard to find.


The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane

A classic, of course, but one I hadn't read. Crane has done an impressive thing here, he's found a real sweet spot in the spectrum between detailed description of a particular event and relating the iconic character of all such events. Courage strikes a powerful balance between telling one man's experience at Chancellorsville in the American Civil War and relating the jumble, terror, and horror of all wars.

The entire book is a brilliant balancing act taking soldiers who are at once completely universal – the tall soldier, the loud soldier – and tellingly specific – Jim Conklin. Crane's lyric descriptions of key events creates and sustains this profound duality throughout the short work.


Halting State, Charles Stross

This was quite a bit of fun. It's a cool near-future speculative fiction piece set in a heavily networked Scotland. Stross clearly knows the land he's working in – a world overlaid with augmented reality nicely extrapolated from today's Internet – and keeps the plot moving along snappily. If you're a SF person at all and wonder where Google Earth and iPhones in every pocket might lead us, this is a pretty fair look.

Beyond the tech, the real world Scots setting helps keep everything just that little bit alien. One of his characters speaks with enough of a dialect to remind you where you are, but if you've been reading your Welsh, it'll be mild local color.

One other neat stunt that keeps the proceedings at a canted remove is the use of the second person singular throughout. It's a nice touch in that it makes reading the book feel a little like running these characters as RPG (or MMORPG) characters. That meshes nicely with the subject.

I imagine it's even more fun if you haven't encountered the ideas before.

Strongly recommended.

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, Nancy Isenberg

Isenberg's look at Burr is scholarly and deep, and shows an understanding his life and times, particularly his early life. As with many books about this time, it underscores how little the fundamentals of American political players have changed, even though the particular tactics and issues of the day have morphed.

As much a repudiation of Burr's many critics as a conventional biography, Isenberg assumes that the reader knows the basic outline of Burr's history and brings new sources and interpretations to bear on his reputation. For example, while not rehashing all the arguments of the treason case against Burr, she argues compellingly that he was more a man on the outs politically than an actual traitor. Similarly, she prefers to interpret rather than retell the events of the Hamilton duel.

She argues that in many ways Burr was pure of heart, though a man of his times. He certainly made some interesting choices, though many of his core values seem quite sound. Isenberg does good work pulling his reputation away from that of an interesting scoundrel and back towards a fundamentally decent politician caught on the wrong side of the Devil's bargains that career entails.

Either of those extremes probably misstates the case, but this work makes Burr's life clearer.

Recommended if you're interested in early US history.

WLT: A Radio Romance, Garrison Keillor


I really enjoy Keillor's monologues on A Prairie Home Companion: they're hilarious, sweet, and thought-provoking and never dull. Those ten-minute trips are almost never exactly what you expect and usually worth the journey.

WLT shares a tone with many of those monologues, but doesn't have the same range or unpredictability. There are certainly many bits of great writing in here, and they cohere well into a novel. Still, the characters and situations in here don't seem to come alive for me.

That's frustrating to write as a reviewer, even just a capsule blogger reviewer. There's nothing here to dislike; in fact reading this was enjoyable, if ephemeral. It's tough to take someone to task for writing something well that should grab me, but that didn't.

I can't recommend it, but I suspect the failure is with me.

Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris

My recent look at the Panama Canal reminded me that though I'd read a fair amount about Teddy Roosevelt, I hadn't really looked at his presidency in any detail. Morris's biography tells the story with a clear focus on the man. This isn't really the book to read to get a deep understanding the foreign policy ramifications of Roosevelt's round-the-world naval maneuver, but will give you an idea what it meant to Roosevelt.

Teddy's one of our most iconic presidents, and getting a handle both on what made him unique and memorable as well as how those iconic images compare with what he did is fascinating. I suspect that I'll visit this period of history again to get additional insight.

Roosevelt is quite a piece of work. Personally, he's an obsessively active man, playing tennis and hiking almost compulsively, yet finding time to read voraciously - a book or more a day. Impulsive and scholarly, outspoken and politically adept, wealthy and reform minded - the contradictions are impressive. Morris does a good job reforming a human being out of these contradictions and charting how that remarkable human made the decisions he did. Furthermore, the resulting prose is enjoyable and lively.

I would have liked to see Morris put Roosevelt into more of a historical context. To what extent were his reforms enabled by the rising progressive movement and to what extent did those reforms impel that movement forward? How well do his ideals align with modern environmentalism? To what extent did he influence American expansionism?

While I'd like to know what Morris thinks about these things, I'm also perfectly happy to look around and decide for myself. It's to Morris's credit that this work has made the era lively and interesting enough for a deeper look.


Lindbergh, A. Scott Berg

Berg's biography is remarkable in capturing a unique life very clearly. He does a great job of painting Lindbergh warts and all. But, really, the best thing about Lindbergh for me was finding out more about Lindbergh the person. I was aware of the highlights of his career without being clear on how much he did for aviation and for other areas of life. There aren't a lot of guys with aviation records, bio-tech patents and literary prizes on their resume as well as a history of ecological negotiations and triumphs.

Berg does great service at showing the person who accomplished these things, and he's an interesting and unique one. His wanderlust and need to be in control created opportunities and friction for him throughout his life, professionally and personally. Berg's access to his wife's diaries and journals helps show this side of Lindbergh.

Overall a remarkable telling of a remarkable life. Strongly recommended.

The Path Between The Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914, David McCullough

McCullough's sweeping history of the creation of the Panama Canal is a fine example of how much of the world you see in one thing if you look carefully at it. Granted, the Panama Canal is a pretty big thing no matter how you slice it, but McCullough does an excellent job showing how it connects to everything from Aida to World War I.

As usual, McCullough has picked an interesting story and lays it out clearly and dramatically. He takes us through the abortive French attempts and the far reaching effects of the scandals at its core, through the politics and personalities as the US picks up the ball, including a detailed study of the formation of the Republic of Panama and its ties to the fiscal situation of the Frenchman pushing for the canal. Then there are the remarkable stories of the successful US construction and the ways in which that agrees and disagrees with the popular conceptions.

It's an excellent chunk of history, well told.

Strongly Recommended.

Empire Falls, Richard Russo

This book surprised me. For the first 400 pages or so, it's a perfectly well-done story of small town Maine. The characters all develop fine, walking the line between quirky people and symbols nicely enough, even if occasionally one of them feels compelled to point out the symbolism or subtext a bit too explicitly in one of their internal monologues.

It's the kind of story that you feel you have a pretty good handle on. A couple "hidden" truths snap easily into place and you feel like you've got the whole thing pretty nicely dissected.

Then something happens. Something surprising that isn't a gratuitous twist, though it was completely unexpected. Most of the time a sharp turn appears in a story, something else snaps in the structure that makes it clear that this was all a shaggy dog story leading to the sharp turn. That's not the case in Empire Falls. What's remarkable is the characters stay exactly as they are and just react. Like people. This is remarkably difficult to pull off and Russo does it with panache. It's a nice piece of work and I'm glad I stuck with it.


American Gods, Neil Gaiman

Gaiman's got a real gift for bringing old myths and stories alive, and this novel lets him showcase that. He's talented both at letting you see an old story in a new way, which can provide a revelation, and in transplanting tropes between genres in fresh ways. It's tempting to turn his stories into crossword puzzles of sorts, looking for the original tales and source material, but everything works just fine if you turn off your inner detective.

I do think Gaiman tends to inspire strong attachment in his fans, but though I enjoy his work, it doesn't pull me into fanboyism. I don't know why that is, but I realized that the other day listening to Warren Zevon. I'm a Zevon fan; I'd listen to anything he's done and like nearly all of it. When I'd hear of new work by him, I'd seek it out. Objectively, however, I realize that he's a good songwriter and performer who captures the hearts of people who enjoy a certain set of topics and motifs. Gaiman is the same thing, but not for my tropes.

I don't want that to sound dismissive. I enjoyed American Gods a great deal. It was engrossing and I wanted to see how it came out. I enjoyed the themes and found the whole thing well-crafted. His small Wisconsin town is achingly attractive: it's a siren, with all that entails.

I'll read more of his stuff. But I don't await it breathlessly.


Smoke and Mirrors, Neil Gaiman

This is all classic Neil Gaiman stuff. Plenty of inventive short stories breathing life into old tropes and stories. A fun way to while away a plane flight or other journey. A good read.

America and Americans and selected nonfiction, John Steinbeck

This was an interesting sampling of work from Steinbeck. He evidently wrote on a wide range of topics, and this contains a broad sample. There are fond memoirs of friends and his home as well as some near propaganda from World War II and Viet Nam. The actual short book, America and Americans, has the feel of something not quite baked. He clearly felt strongly about what he was saying, but wasn't able to do anything but lecture on the topic. The result is a lot like listening to an old fellow who wants his say; there are useful facts in there, but the presentation is unbearable.

Other writing in here proves that he's certainly a product of his times, but also a thinking man. I might disagree with him, but I think he'd be interesting to talk with. He's certainly interesting to read. I may pull Travels With Charley at some point to see if that's any less strident than America and Americans.

Sharpe's Eagle, Bernard Cornwell

Um, yeah. I couldn't exactly stop at just one of these. There's nothing new to say that I didn't say before. Cornwell continues to effortlessly breathe new life into the hoariest of clichés and make me like it.


The Princess Bride, William Goldman

Most people my age remember this as a movie rather than as a book. While I'm a great fan of the movie, I may come to like the book even more. All the fantasy and great one-liners from the film are there, but I found the book to be a more personal and bittersweet experience. This really is a father trying to explain life to his kids both as it is and as he wishes it were. Goldman's such a good writer that his wishes can blind you, but he never loses his grounding here.

Structurally there's less of a Hollywood ending here, and a few small differences in the plot, but the real difference is the much stronger presence of Goldman and his real life in the book. It both contrasts and compliments the fantasy he's creating in ways that make it deeper without making it less enjoyable. There are much worse ways to hear how the world works.

Strongly recommended.

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is my first Dostoevsky and my first Russian novel, for that matter, and if they're all like this I understand the attraction. It's quite a piece of intellectual analysis wrapped in a narrative. There's plenty to think about and absorb, and there is a distance to the exercise. Remarkably there's also a tone set by the work, though unfortunately it's a uniformly brooding one.

I won't remember any of these characters as characters, but I will remember the roles they played in the exposition of ideas and symbolically throughout the novel. It's too bad one can see so much of the machinery of the novel, but that may be due to the cultural differences. I understand how a novel works, but not 19th century St. Petersburg, so the legerdemain that normally conceals the symbolism runs right by me.


Schrödinger's Ball, Adam Felber

Adam Felber's first novel is overall a fine thing, though it never breaks out to greatness. It's a fairly light piece, though not without some metaphysical heft. His characters are all likable and believable, his situations make sense and themes and plot cohere. It's, y'know, a novel, and as I say, a well executed one.

It's not a great novel. There are no jaw dropping surprises or life changing insights. There are some very sharp insights and the plot's not dull, but again, not fantastic.

It's a very enjoyable read.


Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, Rajiv Chandrasekaran

This is the third account I've read of the adventure in Iraq, and each one seems to light up something new. I'd understood the problems of isolation in the Green Zone, and some of the problems of the CPA expectations, but Chandrasekaran really illuminated the state of the economy for me.

If he's correct, and I think I believe him, the whole economy was propped up by oil revenues, and the only real currency was favor with the government. It's really hard to adjust to that mindset; that a functional society could be built that way is not intuitive. It's bizarre to understand that Saddam picked a value for the dinar and subsidized purchases outside the country so that the owners believed that a dinar was worth what Saddam said. This is a very different world to rebuild from than 1945 Germany or Japan. Despite the ideologies in play, the basic worldview of businessmen in those countries followed the same physics as the rest of the world; in Iraq this doesn't seem to be close to the case.

This means that knocking over the ruler and collapsing the economy are essentially the same thing. Everything needs to be built – not rebuilt; what's there is a Potemkin village of a country. If you went in not understanding this, well, disaster's to be expected.


I'll probably have to read Bremer's book to get the other side of this.


Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Dava Sobel

This was a thoroughly enjoyable way to pass a plane flight. Sobel writes clearly and with some passion about a fairly dry topic, and clearly highlights the interesting aspects. My life wasn't changed, but I learned a bit, and thoroughly enjoyed it.


Collected Short Stories, Volume 4, W. Somerset Maugham

This represents another little project completed - all the W. Somerset Maugham short stories down. I've talked about the other volumes, and there's no radical change in quality or content here. They're all interesting in some way or another: they're beautiful, or funny, or touching. And they're all beautiful to read in the way that a complex, well-designed machine is interesting to watch. Things mesh beautifully.


What's the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank

I'd assumed that this was a Michael Moore-esque lefty hugfest that looked down its nose at the foolish folks in Red States and made the reader feel good about knowing better. (And at that point you've gotta ask why I picked it up in the first place - low self esteem?) It's not. It's a very thought provoking exploration of the last 20 years in politics and how they got that way. And it's readable and funny.

Under his lively portraits of the conservative foot soldiers in Kansas and the changing demographics of the state is a logical argument that castigates the left for abandoning its role as the champion of the poor, leaving them to be distracted and recruited by wedge issues. It's as brutal an indictment of the current state of politics as you'll ever read, but stated clearly, with minimal rancor, and lots of biting humor and appreciation of irony. Maybe there is hope for political writing in a post-Ivins world.

Under the tactical arguments about how this affects the balance of power in the short run are some serious philosophical questions about the role of government in shaping the texture of a society and the employment of its resources. One is lead to think about the extent to which a government can or should shape economic forces in the name of social mores. These are questions in the background, but Frank points out that without any discussion of them, the parties have answered them.


Dzur, Steven Brust

Hey, it's another Vlad Taltos book. Yeah, it's been out for a while, but I pick them up as I see them in paperback.

I'm hooked on these, in kind of a low key way. I've become charmed by the characters and interested in the plot. I'll read them as long as Brust keeps writing them. Try one out and you'll have a pretty good idea if you'll be hooked, too.

On The Wealth Of Nations, P. J. O'Rourke

I joked that this was P. J. O'Rourke's Cliff's Notes on Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, and that's pretty much what it is. O'Rourke's objective to a fault, mostly pointing out how brilliant Smith's thinking is in its recognition of fundamental economic principles and how self-contradictory the book is when it extrapolates into social and political issues. While those are useful observations, I'm left neither with a desire to wade into The Wealth Of Nations myself to capture the nuance, nor with a feeling that I've learned very much that's new about the book.

Kind of a dud for me, but an honest and fair one.

The Physics of Superheroes, James Kakalios

I've stayed away from these Physics of [pop culture phenomenon] books because I assumed that they were really going to argue that these things were plausible, and consequently drive me into a hurricane of rage driven by something I like. Thankfully, that's not Kakalios's plan. He's using the parts of comics that get the physics right – or, more often, close to right – to excite people's interest in physics. This book apparently grew out of a seminar intended to attract physics students at the University of Minnesota.

While I certainly agree with his desire to draw people into learning something about physics, or comics, I'm surprised that there's an audience who remembers early Ant-Man adventures and isn't already geeky enough to follow freshman physics. However, my weird intuition aside, he's apparently had success and more power to him.

Of course, I've had freshman physics and I know a thing or two about comics, so my ability to rate this as a draw is zero. If I have a complaint, it's that there was too little math, which goes to show you not to trust me on these things at all. But my love of seeing the math is a known problem.

The writing's accessible, and he knows his comics and his physics. Try it out on a child you know who reads comics.

Born Standing Up, Steve Martin

Martin's memoir of his days learning stand-up and his first steps to stardom is interesting, if unaffecting. He shines clearly as a person of considerable talent and intelligence who's lived an extraordinary life, but somehow his telling of the story doesn't pull your heartstrings. Perhaps it's because we all know how it works out, and he doesn't pretend to have an Behind the Music hidden heartbreak to share. Perhaps it's just his tone.

By spending so much time on what this wasn't, I don't intend to cheapen what it is. And it is a very diverting story of becoming a popular entertainer with a distinctive, carefully nurtured, style. Martin's a singular guy, and even though he's not yanking your heartstrings Spielberg-style, his personality comes through. For me, it's nice to hear the story of someone more inspired by The Razor's Edge than Catcher In The Rye.


I Am America (And You Can Too), Stephen Colbert

Ok, this is pretty funny.

I was underwhelmed but Jon Stewart's out of character book, though I liked his textbook, but I really enjoyed Colbert's. I haven't seen the show, but now I know what the tone must be like. Colbert's writing is hard to fault. It's a remarkably solid, hilarious, sustained satire. That ain't easy.

Strongly Recommended.

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