Archive for May, 2011

Review: Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City

Monday, May 30th, 2011

Apparently Henry Ford has a Forgotten Jungle City.  This is the sort of fact that is impossible for me to ignore.  Fortunately it is also impossible for Greg Grandin to ignore and he has done plenty of excellent reserach to bring the whole story to readers of Fordlandia.

You have to give Grandin some credit for turning an odd obsession late in Ford’s life into a Forgotten Jungle City.  One could easily have looked at the situation and seen a footnote in Ford’s biography and moved on.  Grandin sees a grander tale, both in terms of the city’s story and how it reflects the attitudes of Ford and other US industrialists.

The history section of your local library or bookstore is full of stories of grand engineering feats, especially from this time. Most of those narratives have moments where the builders are fumbling around trying to figure out how to make their plan work, or finding the right people to implement it.  Several pieces fall together to make any of those projects succeed.  While reading Grandin’s story one keeps expecting that chapter where the right people and the right ideas cohere.  It doesn’t come.  Fordlandia never was a going concern.

Obviously there are a lot of failed projects, but Fordlandia sets itself apart because it was bold in both hubristic scope and conflicting ideals.  Those aspects reflect the personality and philosophy of Henry Ford, and Grandin spends much of the book exploring how it reflects Ford’s career and mindset.  That reflection shows a man of surprising contradictions and enormous influence over American thought and industry.  There are plenty of reasons to belive Grandin is accurate, and I was left with an interest in finding out more about Ford.

Overall Fordlandia is clear, well-written, and well supported.  There are a couple places where it feels slightly padded.  Grandin covers some very similar ground more than once, but it is not terribly distracting.  Overall it is an interesting story of a corner of history that reflects and magnifies its time.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Stormy Weather

Monday, May 30th, 2011

Stormy Weather is a good deal of fun, but there are no surprises in here for a Carl Hiaasen fan.  That is not to say that the plot is predictable or that the characters are uninteresting.  They are Hiaasen characters: quirky without being outlandish, rougish without being trite.  Everyone is acting as people – sometimes bad people – will and Hiaasen hands out just desserts by the end.

The setting for this outing is the mid 1990’s immediately following one of the big hurricanes that devastated South Florida.  Hiaasen is less interested in the power of nature than the gang of opportunists and petty crooks that the event brings out of the woodwork.  He’s also interested in the forces of justice, such as they are, in the guise of his recurring ex-Florida Givernor turned unlikely vigilante  and some other folks he recruits.

The setting was a little jarring – it’s surprising how much has changed in 15 years – but a well preserved slice of the time.  And people are the same.


Review: 2:46 Aftershock: Stories from the Japan Earthquake

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

2:46 Aftershock is very much an artifact of its time, specifically it is an Internet-created anthology of short descriptions of the 11 Mar 2011 earthquake and its effect on the residents.  It is being sold to raise money for the Red Cross relief efforts.

It is a remarkable emotional collage of the reactions of these people to a seminal event in their lives.  Each entry is concise and evocative.  The topics range from how the author’s core values have survived a terrifying event, to thoughts about how the media served and didn’t serve the people, to whether an author would live in a high-rise again. Taken together, the pieces form a vivid snapshot of how a life-changing moment impinged on this community.

If I were to pick a nit, it would probably be that many of these pieces are from non-native Japanese.  But that would be a nit.  This book captures the reaction of this community, and its unfair to gripe about the composition of a group that produces a work of this power.

It is only fair to mention that one of my good friends, Rod Van Meter, is a contributor.

Strongly recommended.

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

There’s a lot going on in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I both learned a lot of facts and considered a lot of ideas from it.  I came away believing that it is just a little too scattered, and that a little more focus on a smaller topic set would make it more powerful.

Rebecca Skloot sets out to tell the story of the person from whom the longest running cultured cell line in cancer research was taken.  Along the way she talks about the research uses to which the cells have been put, the ethical quandries raised by taking those cells without permission, the increasing commercialization of cell lines for research and the rights of donors in them.  There’s also a theme of the different levels of care provided to poor and Black patients as compared to richer White patients, and the history of research hospitals exploiting those poor patients.  Sometimes that exploitation takes the form of actively infecting people with a disease to see the effect.  That causes an unsurprising suspicion from the poorer members of society.  One can understand the thinking: “if they don’t infect me with something, maybe they’ll only sell my cells.”

As if those weren’t enough Immortal Life also a biography of Henrietta Lacks, the narrative of how that biography was dug out of the distrusting community by our intrepid reporter, an investigation into the difficult straits of the Lacks extended family, and a buddy movie starring Lacks’s daughter and the reporter.

All that is presented in an involving way, and the development is clear and well organized.  That said, there are only so many changes of viewpoint and tone that a reader can take in a couple hundred pages.  There is too much to take in from too many perspectives.

The other side of that coin is that none of the topics receives the depth of coverage it deserves.  There’s a book in here about the exploitation of the poor by government research and the distrust and hatred it has bred.  There’s a discussion to be had about the state of the medical saftey net and services than can break cycles of abuse that are not being provided by our government and the human and financial toll that is taking.  There’s a history to tell about this specific family, its members, and in particular, Lacks’s daughter. And then there is the HeLa cell line from Henrietta, including all the scientific and ethical questions it raises.

Unfortunately, we get just the trailer versions of all that.  They are good trailers, but any one of those topics deserves the space to breathe and be explored in its entirety.

Despite my concerns, I think Immortal Life is worth reading.  It forms an interesting nexus between a lot of issues and ideas, and a reader may leave the book on a very different trajectory than they arrived at it from.


Review: Water for Elephants

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is an interesting story that’s well told.  I enjoyed reading it, and wanted to find out what happened to the characters.  The unusual setting is never offputting and adds flavor to the narrative. None of that is easy to do, and this is a well written novel.

I am not sure it is going to be a very memorable novel for me.  While I was engaged throughout, none of these characters captured my imagination or touched my heart.  I feel like everyone played their role well, but it all came out as a play, not an episode from life.

Some of that is probably the plotting.  The story certainly feels screenplay-ready, and there’s already been a movie made from it.  That is not damning in and of itself; well structured novels can be easy to adapt to the screen.  I did not come away from it with more than a well structured plot, though.

The characters are all engaging, but none of them has that telling detail that lifts them off the page.  They are all clearly painted enough, and have a personality and motivations.  What they do not have is the spark that moves from them being a collection of facts to a person moving through a world.

This sounds more critical than I intend it.  It is not easy to write a story that coheres as well as this one and that is as genuinely interesting to read.  There is still a hurdle beyond that, though, and Water for Elephants did not clear it for me.

Still, recommended.

Review: Tiassa

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Steven Brust’s Tiassa is one of his more fun Vlad Taltos novels.  It also features characters from his other Dragaera novels for good measure.

Structurally it’s really three novellas from different periods in Vlad’s life, including some future period that I don’t think I’ve seen yet.  Two of those intersect with characters from his Musketeer-inspired novels as well.  In terms of incident, the novellas are fairly light stuff.  Vlad and the cast solve some problems and perform some derring do.  All in a day’s work, and probably fairly enjoyable for someone’s first Taltos novel.

If you’ve been reading a while, there are little hints dropped about a variety of little ongoing mysteries in the series, and the characterization continues to develop across the distributed timelines.  This is all what you bargain for if you’re  a long term fan.

Perhaps because the plot is so generic for a Taltos novel, I couldn’t help but notice how much fun it is to watch these characters think through a problem before they get to the point where they have to fight about something.  They’re willing to fight, and any fight is a wild card, but the clear emphasis on planning is a little joy.

Anyway, recommended if you are a Brust or Taltos fan, though if not this is a pretty good place to jump on.

Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Sarah Vowell is fun to watch as a writer.  She has consistently had interesting things to say and said them in a unique voice. Her personal essays have always been brilliant, and watching her develop the techniques to keep that intimate tone while extending her work to a book has been exciting and enlightening.  Her latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, marks another point in that evolution.  It is a also a fascinating, readable study of the Hawaiian monarchy from Captain Cook’s time until the islands became a United States territory in the Spanish American War.

When I read The Wordy Shipmates I thought it was somewhat unanchored and wandering.  I thought more attention to a theme would tie the book together more.  Unfamiliar Fishes doesn’t have this problem, though it is superficially similar in structure.  The difference is a mastery of tone and narrative voice; this is another story about how people’s ideals of how to live and the reality of a government of people collide.  The difference is that Vowell ties the book together with her personality, nerdy love of history, compassion for people, and personal history.

Mixing history with one’s own life and personality is beyond difficult.  Put too much of yourself, or the wrong parts of yourself, into the story and you come across as condescending or arrogant.  Put too little of your feelings into it, and you can come off as a smartass or dilettante.  Vowell gets the tone perfect here, after perhaps finding her way in Shipmates.

With that tone, Fishes takes a leisurely, deep look at Hawaii and how it collided with Western Civilization, starting with the missionaries, then the capitalists, and finally the soldiers.  It’s a sad story, really, and while Vowell has certainly picked a side, she remembers that all the players are human beings.  She consistently reminds the reader as well.

It’s a very personal kind of history, and hearing it told well and felt deeply is well worth the time.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Autobiography of Mark Twain

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Mark Twain’s Autobiography was conceived as a bit of a publishing stunt, with its publication delayed until 100 years after his death.  The manuscript (in a couple versions) has been available to scholars for some time, but it’s being released to the public now.  The packaging is a three volume set with each heavily annotated with Twain scholarship.

From what I can tell the scholarship is exemplary.  Each detail and anecdote is researched and cross-referenced.  Each of the several earlier edited versions that were published are noted, and material that was compiled during the creation of the Autobiography attached and put in context.  If you are a Mark Twain scholar, this is a great collection of information.  I confess that it was too dry for me.

The Autobiography itself is very unorthodox and enjoyable.  Mark Twain decided that the best way to build such a thing was to dictate it from his bed in daily bursts.  Rather than a chronological remembrance of his life with reflections interspersed, he presents a rambling daily discussion on either his life history, or something his daughter wrote about him in her biography, or whatever else strikes his fancy.

The whole thing is basically a collection of Mark Twain blog posts from the last few years of his life.  It is completely charming.  There are certainly dry parts. I find that Suzy’s biography wears thin, and he includes whole newspaper articles in there so he can go off on a rant.  Still, the posts – er, entries – themselves are intelligent, insightful, and entertaining.  It is a series of blasts from one of our most cantankerous and compassionate men of letters wandering where his fancy takes him, bounded very loosely by the cord of autobiography.

It Twain were alive today, he’d be blogging and I would be following him.

Strongly recommended; I’d skim the scholarly stuff unless you’re a scholar.

Review: Zero History

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Gibson’s Zero History ties up a lot of the loose ends from Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, perhaps concluding his Big Ant stories.  Characters from Recognition and Country run through it, none more so than Hubertus Bigend, CEO of Big Ant, the hipper than thou advertising agency at the center of the stories.

Gibson’s beautiful turns of phrase and illuminating details guide the reader through the almost contemporary world of Blue Ant.  The only place his skill for the telling detail seems to fail him is that he seems obsessessed with the iPhone.  If Gibson didn’t get some product placement money out of this, Apple got a great deal.  The only non-iPhone used by a protagonist is a trap, and nearly everyone gushes whenever they touch one.  It’s almost out of place.

Thematically it is interesting that what appears to be the conclusion of this trilogy takes as its theme the rebirth of characters.  Virtually every character’s life is pivoting through the course of the novel, though at different rates.  Like the grooves on a phonograph some characters are turning slowly as their lives rearrange, while those on the inner groove are turning more quickly.  The different characters and different rates make the thematics powerful without being overly obvious.

It makes for an interesting read even if you have not picked up the earlier works in the series, but knowing who’s who makes the changes more resonant.


Review: Instrument Procedures Handbook

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

The FAA’s Instrument Procedures Handbook is a well respected reference for IFR training.  I picked up a copy primarily because it was available inexpensively on the Kindle.  I was hoping for a good refresher for the technical details of the instrument rules.

The Handbook turns out to be something like an IFR-centric Aeronautical Information Manual.  That’s what I expected, but a little less than what I hoped for.  There’s a lot of good information in here, and I would say it is more readable than the AIM, but overall there are much better places to learn this information from.  As a refresher and a reference, it is solid.