Archive for June, 2012

Review: REAMDE

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Whenever I talk about a Neal Stephenson book, I generally have nice things to sayREAMDE has all of his strengths as an author on display: a well thought-out near-future (or maybe divergent timeline) world, many thought-provoking elements in service of a good story, a set of interesting protagonists solving tricky problems, and a breakneck pace.  There is also the occasional bit of perfect description that causes you to see the commonplace from a new angle.

It’s a lot of fun to read, and one gets the impression that Stephenson is having fun writing it.  At one point, in the middle of a firefight, he steps back and introduces a new character – backstory and all – a detour of tens of pages.  He does this, I think, both for the joy of pulling such a thing off well, and to cheerfully heighten the tension of the conflict by drawing the reader’s attention away.

I can pick at this or poke at that, but basically REAMDE delivers the well-imagined thrills of a Cryptonomicon.  If you liked that, you’ll like REAMDE.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Maphead

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

When I reviewed Braniac, Ken Jennings first book, I said I would be on the lookout for more.  I skipped his trivia almanac, but I devoured Maphead with great delight. As with Brainiac, I have an  interest in the topic, even if I haven’t given in to it at Jennings’s level. 

Structurally, Maphead is very much like Brainaic: Ken Jennings goes out and immerses himself deeply into a geeky sub-culture in which he was previously only mostly immersed and tells us all about it.  In this case, his topic is maps and the passtimes around them without feeling like I went to class.

Maphead‘s a little like a 1990’s P.J. O’Rourke book where P.J. would tromp off to some troubled nation, drink with the locals, and boil it all down for his readers humorously.  Except Jennings travels are most interesting in the sense that he’s covering the conceptual landscape of his topic. And there’s much less drinking.  So perhaps not a great analogy, except for the key points that both are funny and I learn things from them without feeling like I went to class.

I think Maphead is best understood as a travel book where we’re traveling around the idea of maps.  In the tradition of great travel authors, Jennings succeeds both because he has picked representative stopping points in an interesting destination, and because he is informed and good company on the journey.

He finds interesting places that readers with less time to look around might miss.  Maps are awesome, and it’s not very surprising that the Library of Congress has a boffo collection; Paris has a big tower.  What one might not expect is that there are a set of folks who hold imaginary road rallies on maps with pen and paper, or the extent to which a game show winner/author might get sucked into GeoCaching, or that there’s a National Geography Bee.  All of these are enticing to different degrees, but The National Geography Bee sounds so bad-ass that it should clearly be widely televised instead of the World Cup.  Our man Jennings found the thing, and shows it to us in all its geeky, competitive, synthesis-of-facts-and-thinking glory.  I am now aggressively hostile to the National Spelling Bee (which isn’t Jennings fault; OK it is kinda) for taking away coverage from the National Geography Bee.


Finding all this stuff and describing it in a way that recognizes its essential nerdity while highlighting its fundamental attractions (beyond its essential nerdity) is a brilliant coup.  If a book called Maphead sounds like the smallest bit of fun to you, you should read this.  You will have much more than the smallest bit of fun.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: City of Scoundrels

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Chicago history seems to be full of larger than life characters and ironic juxtapositions. This may be because the city is some kind of fantasy exemplar of corruption, hubris, and contradiction, or because the folks who chronicle the place can spin their tales that way.  Gary Krist’s City of Scoundrels: 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth To Modern Chicago enhances the city’s larger-than-life reputation, for better and worse.

The 12 days in question are in late July 1919 in which a simultaneous race-driven set of riots, political maneuvering, child kidnapping, and blimp crash(!) combine to form a significant crisis.  The driving forces are, unsurprisingly, the riots and the maneuvering.  The crash and the detective case add flavor to and flesh out the news cycle of late 1910’s Chicago.

While the additional color adds context and scope to the main proceedings, the last part of the subtitle never really coheres.  Krist gives us a clear and insightful view of the times, but never quite connects it to the larger arc of Chicago’s history.  Some of this is because larger arcs are inherently large, and few turning points are absolute.  These riots had ramifications beyond their time, but Chicago has too many other forces colliding on it for them to feel definitive.

While the subtitle somewhat oversells the book, what is there is an insightful and engaging telling of a key time in Chicago history.  I found it gripping without having any particular interest in Chicago.