Archive for December, 2010

2010 Books

Friday, December 31st, 2010

I just posted my last capsule reviews for 2010, and looked back at the list of books I read this year.  I read 44 books this year, less than one a week, but still a fairly healthy number.  And it doesn’t count comics.

I wanted to pick a few that were particularly good and say a few words about them, but that’s proving to be hard.  I read a lot of really great books this year. I’m going to throw out a few links to some of the stuff I enjoyed the most.

In non fiction, this was the year I was blown away by Kevin Roose’s incredible The Unlikely Disciple, found out a ton about the recent Wall Street shenanigans in Michael Lewis’s excellent The Big Short, saw how a serial killer and the World’s Fair danced an abstract tango in Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, heard a rational plea for coming to terms with our finite planet from Jared Diamond in Collapse, and became a Chuck Klosterman fan by Eating the Dinosaur.

I read more fiction than usual this year.  Partially this was because I discovered Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and Farewell, My Lovely) and renewed my interest in Dick (The Man in the High Castle and A Scanner Darkly) and Atwood (The Year of the Flood, Oryx and Crake, and The Handmaid’s Tale).  I also got sucked into the Twilight thing, knocking off all four constituent books in pretty short order.  I also finally read The Grapes of Wrath, which is a towering work of literature, and found Lionel Shriver’s spectacular We Need to Talk About Kevin, a harrowing mirror held up to both the reader and the world.

That’s a pretty good year by my standards, and there are other fun things that didn’t quite make a mention here.

Review: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

Friday, December 31st, 2010

In some of his recent essays, David Sedaris has talked about how writing about his family has been a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, the stories are delightful and diverting; on the other hand, his family doesn’t seem to enjoy the notoriety.  I suspect that this pressure is part of the reason that his latest, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, is a collection of fables with illustrations by Ian Falconer.

A fable is a difficult thing to construct well.  The whole thing is short, the characters need to be vivid but believable, and there needs to be some kind of moral at the end, implied or stated.  Sedaris’s fables are enlightening and wicked; it makes me wonder if Aesop was as satirical to his readers.

Casting his characters as animals distances them from specific people and if this were a different author I would be tempted to say that it lets him unleash his darker views of people.  Sedaris has never shied away from depicting people as they are, but these iconic animals are some of his best creations.  No matter how much he needs a particular character to have a certain trait for his fable, they’re never forced or overcalculated.

In addition to his keen eye for the follies of people and society, Sedaris is an excellent writer structurally.  I have always been impressed with how his compositions flow in such a way that his point often comes dramatically clear only as the essay finishes.  That composition is on display here, as well as the skill with the telling detail that makes the cumulative effects more powerful.

And more than one of Falconer’s illustrations enhanced their story uniquely.

All that said, a fable’s a fable, and there are only so many one can read in a row.  I found Squirrel to be just the right length.  I suspect that another fable book is not forthcoming, and I’m looking forward to what Sedaris does next.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Shopgirl

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Steve Martin released this novella, Shopgirl, in 2000 well before he wrote Born Standing Up, but there is considerable similarity between them.  In both cases, the work is thoughtful and well executed, but strangely unmoving.  However, Born Standing Up relates a particular man’s singular experience becoming a unique entertainer while Shopgirl sticks much closer to the everyday.  As a result, there is less to divert the reader from the inertia.

After saying that Martin has trouble building up an emotional punch, I cannot really lay my fingers on what is missing.  There are characters with motivations and back stories, a strong sense of place, clear economical prose with a distinct voice, observations on people from different times of life and how they relate.  This should rise into a nice cake; but it doesn’t, and I don’t know why.

I have read a lot of books that provoked strong dislike.  Shopgirl was not one of those. None of the characters grated on me; the arc of the plot seemed plausible; the messages and themes were fine.  When I caught Martin making a temporally unlikely connection between one character’s involvement in the Vietnam war and another’s upbringing, I was paying enough attention to catch it, and I just more or less let it slide.  The narrative was pulling me along well enough that I did not begrudge him a little missed math.

Still, when I closed the book, I did not care about the journey these folks had been through.

It is difficult to fault someone for writing a well executed novel that lacks an undefinable quality, but that’s what I have to do with Shopgirl.

Review: Letter to a Christian Nation

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Sam Harris wrote this short piece, Letter to a Christian Nation,  arguing with a strawman conservative Christian that, I guess, they’re wrong and hurtful in their beliefs.  It is frustrating on quite a few levels.

For me, Harris is attempting the easiest possible refutation – undermining a belief set that requires every word in a sacred text to be literally true – and not doing a great job of it.  You simply cannot argue with the viewpoint that the Bible (or the Koran or whatever) is literally true from the mindset of a scientist who is looking for contradictory evidence. If the person who believes every word of the Bible believed in those kinds of argumentation styles or held those axioms, you would not need to write out the rest of the argument.

Any kind of argument about such disparate viewpoints has to start for some common ground, some sets of basic beliefs and shared context that would make a discussion (or even a meaningful argument) possible.  Because he is arguing with a straw man, Harris does not really have any mechanism for that search.  He simply conjures someone with the same underlying precepts who has been tricked into adopting these beliefs and talks him out of it.  That does not convince me of much.

Even if I believed that he had successfully argued his strawman into the ground, he really does not address the more difficult and interesting case of people of faith holding more moderate views that are congruent with modern science, but that still lead to moral outcomes he disagrees with.

I do not mean to undersell the difficulty of the problem.  I think Harris and I share similar worldviews.  But holding a consistent (or even correct) worldview is not enough when one sits down to try to convince others that their foundations of belief are wrong.  You have to set out your arguments in forms and from axioms that someone with very different ideas of the source of morality and the value of evidence will still have to accept at some level.  It is a fantastically difficult undertaking.

Harris’s swing at this hard problem did not convince me of much.

Review: Half Empty

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

I enjoy David Rakoff‘s writing a great deal, and was therefore pretty sure I knew what to expect as I dug into his latest, Half Empty. His usual erudite assessments of somewhat esoteric and interesting topics were there.  The meticulous organization of his thoughts and brilliant execution of his prose were on display.  Each chapter cum essay was deep and interesting, and I was enjoying everything without any large surprises.

I had forgotten that Mr. Rakoff writes books.

Many books that look superficially like Rakoff’s are collections of well executed or well received personal essays.  The chapters in Half Empty can easily masquerade as these kinds of essay, and, indeed many of these chapters have been published elsewhere. But it is a mistake to assume that these particular chapters appear just because it was time to bind a book.

As I was reading I did notice a tone that seemed unusual for the type of book thought I had in my hands.  It was more restrained and thoughtful than some of the other Rakoff I’ve read.  Rakoff is always in the center of the picture in his books, though often in a self-deprecating way.  And he is in the center of these as well, but more in a more subdued way – almost meditatively so.

The subtle shift of tone, as well as some of the continuing threads running through the chapters all crash together in the final chapter, which is surprising without being wholly out of the blue.  Themes and incidents from early chapters suddenly link in unexpected and holistic ways that make the events described in the final chapter vivid beyond even what Rakoff’s considerable craft could do without the groundwork.  To do all this in non-fiction is quite a remarkable feat.

Many people use their personal experience to make a point; Rakoff uses his to make a piece of literature, without fictionalizing it.  It is a powerful piece of writing that is not empty in any way.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Greatest Show on Earth

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution is an excellent discussion of the multi-faceted experiences and experiments that back the understanding of evolution.  He discusses evidence from the range of experiment and observation that support that worldview and points out convincingly that fossil evidence is the least of it.  In fact the fossil record can only refute evolution, which it pointedly has not done.  It is an admirable collection and explanation of reasons that scientists are convinced that evolution is a theory in the same sense that a heliocentric solar system is a theory.

However, it is not going to convince anyone who did not believe in evolution when they began reading.

I understand the contempt he expresses for those who oppose evolution. To scientists, they are simply ignoring facts, and worse, disrupting the work of people trying to pass on and extend those facts.  People who disbelieve evolution, to Dawkins, are equivalent to those who believe that the Sun orbits the Earth; and they are interrupting his lectures. He literally cannot contain his disdain for them.

While I understand his position, I think it is a counterproductive tone to take if you are trying to convince someone to give up their passionately held beliefs.  So, if you are diametrically opposed to evolution but are open to being coaxed into understanding and believing it, this is probably not the book for you.

If you do believe in evolution, Dawkins does an excellent, if occasionally rambling, job of laying out the major evidence and providing hooks where one can learn more.  I learned a bunch from it.

Recommended, with the above tonal caveats.

Review: At Home

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

One of the great joys of reading Bill Bryson’s travel writing is joining him on his side trips, literary and physical.  Bryson writes like a guy who likes to learn and share facts about our world from the profound to the obscure, and will take off on a side trip with the slightest encouragement.  I generally find this to be one of his great assets.

The premise of his At Home: A Short History of Private Life is that he will take his readers on a tour of the old English rectory he lives in and explain how it came to be what it is.  He will then connect its history to the larger trends in the development of private life in the West. The tour will go room by room from the entryway to the attic. This seems to be a great set up for Bryson to spin many informative and interesting yarns.

Generally he does not disappoint.  He touches on everything from the development of architecture in England, Europe, and America, to the lives of servants, to why we have the spices on the table that we do.  Because he’s Bill Bryson, this information is swaddled in clear, diverting language with a wry humor that keeps it all in perspective.

Despite all this, I found myself looking at the number of pages remaining much more often than I usually do in a Bryson book.  I think that the structure is a little too loose here.  There’s almost nothing that can’t be tied to a room in the house somehow, and Bryson takes advantage of that to range widely on topics from the London sewers and the germ theory of disease to the anatomical rearrangements caused by corsets or the once fashionable practice of having wigs made from one’s healthy hair.  All these topics are diverting, but it is remarkably easy to lose track of the big picture when the picture is as big as Bryson makes it.

While that rattling narrative makes for a wandering read, it also makes it easy to pick the book up for a few pages, soak up Bryson’s description of whatever fascinating corner of Western civilization he’s decided is fair game, and set it back down for later.  The loose structure makes for a rambling book, not an unreadable one.  And it is an enjoyable and educational one as well.

Recommended, though the pace may be different than one expects.

Review: Aftershock

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

Robert Reich is a former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton and general supporter of worker’s rights.  His Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future lays out his point of view on the current situation and where he thinks we should go. I do not buy everything he says, but there are some thought provoking ideas in here.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is his take on the growing economic inequity in America.  Most of the people who rail against this argue from some moral position about how large disparities in wealth are wrong because of their unfairness.  Reich’s position is more interesting: to a first approximation he argues that if you want to have a stable economy based on the sale of consumer goods, you need to make sure your citizens can earn enough to buy those goods.  It’s a nice perspective because it lets you have the discussion with people who have different ideas of the righteousness of economic disparity.

There are other interesting ideas in here, too, as well as some very radical ideas for restructuring the economy and government to provide job and wage security for middle class workers in America.  I’ll be very surprised if many of these ideas appear in the near future, but it’s worth having someone putting concepts like these out there, if only to remind people that they exist.  A reverse income tax may never happen, but it’s an idea worth understanding and considering.

Almost everyone will find something to disagree with in here, but that will require thinking about it.  That’s worthwhile.


Review: Squawk 7700

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Peter Buffington’s Squawk 7700 is partly the bittersweet memoir of a man who had to give up on his dream of flying for a living and partly an indictment of the state of the airline industry that led him to that point.  I am naturally sympathetic to both of those aspects.  I love flying and dislike the idea that making a living doing it is closed to people with a passion for it.  I also see the dangers and unfairness of the treatment of regional airline pilots.  They have to work incredibly long hours at a technically and physically demanding job for the kind of money we pay house painters.  That is a recipe for trouble and more people should be aware of why their tickets are so cheap.

Buffington writes knowledgably and with heart about the technical topics and the hopes and routine days of an aviation professional.  He also is unflinching about the state of professionalism that he finds at all levels of the aviation world. There are a lot of useful facts and many interesting anecdotes in the work.

All that said, I think Buffington’s editors have let him down. As I say, there are two related but distinct books in here vying for time and focus –  the memoir and the warning.  Walking the line so that they reinforce each other’s message rather than distract from each other is no easy task, and Buffington is not always successful.  The dispassionate tone of a whistleblower creeps into his memoir at times, reducing the reader’s sympathy, and the inflamed tone of storyteller comes through in critiques of policy that may be better served by a cool assessment of facts that need no magnification.  There are some spots where closer copyediting would clarify the technical portions as well.

Overall I agree with his assessment, and respect his passion.  I think another editing pass or two would make those clearer to readers outside the aviation world, who would benefit greatly from hearing what he has to say.