This is basically the same book as Word Freak except instead of Scrabble players, it's about people who compete in memory competitions that require th...moreThis is basically the same book as Word Freak except instead of Scrabble players, it's about people who compete in memory competitions that require them to memorize decks of cards, names and faces, long strings of digits, etc. Like Word Freak, it goes on rather longer than I would find ideal. My favorite parts were the descriptions of pre-modern memory practices (like epic poetry and the memory palace), and (like Valerie said) the chapter on the OK plateau. This is a phenomenon where you get good enough at something that you go on autopilot, stop intellectualizing the task, and stop getting better at it. The author of this book, Joshua Foer, writes about his attempts to avoid getting stuck on the OK plateau by introducing circumstances or motivations that keep him in the learning phase.(less)
This mystery novel was an odd combination of the unreliable, sometimes unlikeable narrator of Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects and the misguided charity...moreThis mystery novel was an odd combination of the unreliable, sometimes unlikeable narrator of Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects and the misguided charity of Richard Price's Samaritan, but somehow the mixture feels fresh, particularly when New Orleans in 2006 is the star of the story. (In some ways, this is a better book about Katrina than Five Days at Memorial, which is ultimately about medical ethics.) I liked Claire's prickliness and the fact that we get to know her from her method of thinking; the way her age and appearance are unremarkable and even malleable as she fits in with different groups of people. I liked the briskness of the book and some keen observations and twists of humor in the descriptions. The book frequently refers to a fictional detective's guide without succumbing to the temptation to insert pages of it at a time. I disliked the mystical elements and the drug use (which I find boring even in books I love).
This was an unusual read and definitely worth checking out if you like mysteries--or New Orleans.(less)
Great nonfiction that introduces the science of forensic toxicology against the backdrop of Prohibition. In the early 20th century, people could poiso...moreGreat nonfiction that introduces the science of forensic toxicology against the backdrop of Prohibition. In the early 20th century, people could poison each other almost with impunity since there were few methods to confirm such a cause of death. Pioneering medical examiners based at Bellevue developed new methods to solve outlandish crimes--these stories make up a big part of the book. At the same time, though, the government was putting poisonous substances into all kinds of products containing alcohol to prevent people from redistilling them into liquor--which people did anyway out of ignorance or greed. Meanwhile, people were also threatened by medical and other products, in an age where there was no FDA to require testing or OSHA to monitor the workplace. Together this makes a coherent, informative, and entertaining story.(less)
I have a bone to pick with any librarian who knew me and my friends in 1992 and didn't recommend this medieval/sci-fi time travel adventure. It's abou...moreI have a bone to pick with any librarian who knew me and my friends in 1992 and didn't recommend this medieval/sci-fi time travel adventure. It's about a young, petite, blonde, braid-wearing, stubborn Oxford history student who goes back in time to the 14th century to study a local village firsthand. Little does she suspect that the Oxford she left behind in 2054 is about to deal with its own parallel cataclysm. The student, Kivrin, and her mentor, Dunworthy, are each frantically trying to deal with matters on the ground while ensuring that they're able to make their rendezvous and bring Kivrin back--otherwise she'll be stuck in the 14th century forever.
Siri points out that this book, imagining 2054 from 1992, gets some of the details wrong, especially in its failure to predict communications technology that would solve a lot of the characters' problems. I found this more irritating than amusing. Dunworthy and his aide-de-camp Finch are scurrying back and forth, dealing with a barrage of mundane problems and frustrating people. The author conveys this with such verisimilitude that I was often actually bored and annoyed during the parts of the book that take place in the 21st century.
The 14th century parts outweigh that, though. Kivrin is dazzled by the majestic bells, the crisp snow, the jewel-toned glass, and so is the reader. The author brings alive the rather ordinary household that she falls into, especially one little girl called Agnes. The plot takes awhile to get going, but when it does, the reader is very keen to find out happens to them all.
This book awoke the former editor in me, because it could have been better paced and the future sections could have had a more compelling, less bureaucratic plotline, but I still enjoyed it a lot.(less)
This book is another variation on the Oxford-time-travel theme. In this book, we have three protagonists, all visiting 1940 from 2060, operating separ...moreThis book is another variation on the Oxford-time-travel theme. In this book, we have three protagonists, all visiting 1940 from 2060, operating separately for almost the whole duration of the book. Also, once they make it to 1940, the story alternates between them but never returns to 2060. (Mr. Dunworthy never appears on stage, actually, remaining a wholly remote and Dumbledore-like figure, in contrast to his role in The Doomsday Book.) I liked that this book has less of the fussy business of scheduling and organizing and bickering (although it has its own forms of fussy business, particularly as Polly races around London).
It's a strong portrayal of London during the Blitz. The three time travelers, alas, are not very clearly distinguished in terms of their temperaments and outlooks, which makes the book duller than it should be, and well-nigh confusing when more than one of them is in the same room. And this was a strange flaw to find in this book, since the protagonists of To Say Nothing of the Dog do manage to be well delineated.(less)
A very readable and informative work of nonfiction that should appeal to those who liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this book concerns Alic...moreA very readable and informative work of nonfiction that should appeal to those who liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this book concerns Alice Kober, a Brooklyn College professor of the 1940s who made major leaps in solving a tricky, alluring linguistic/archaeological problem before her untimely death. Just a few years later, building on her insights while giving her little credit, a man named Michael Ventris solved the mystery. Margalit Fox offers biographies of all the major players as well as an explanation of what they discovered.
Linear B was a language written on clay tablets at sites in Crete that posed a particularly impenetrable problem: Neither the writing system, nor the culture, nor the language they were written in was known. By contrast, the decipherers of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics knew what kind of language was probably being written down, and they had the Rosetta Stone which translated between a known language, Greek, and hieroglyphics. To decipher Linear B, it was necessary to figure out whether it was an alphabet, a syllabary, or a series of ideograms; to posit sound values for the symbols; and to match the sounds to some comprehensible language.
It's amazing that Kober was able to come so close to solving it based equally on leaps of insight and elbow grease. She devised incredibly laborious methods of tabulating the symbols of the language on cards, or scraps of paper during wartime scarcity, which she filed in cigarette cartons and queried with needles, as a kind of database, in a punchcard system. Through all this, she taught as a professor of classics and was exploited for secretarial work by the editor of the Linear B tablets catalog.
Part of the goal of the book is to give Kober her due, but Fox also makes Ventris, the ultimate decipherer, as well as Evans, the discoverer of the tablets, into interesting figures. At times, the view into midcentury scholarly practices is simply charming, and at other times infuriating to a modern sensibility. In the end, it's simply exciting to learn the answers about who wrote the tablets and what their ancient society was like.(less)
This book has been compared to Bossypants, but I think parts of it are more like the work of Chelsea Handler. I liked these essays well enough, and go...moreThis book has been compared to Bossypants, but I think parts of it are more like the work of Chelsea Handler. I liked these essays well enough, and goodness knows it's a quick read. There are a few incisive passages about feminism--specifically, not putting up with bullshit that men do not put up with--that are quite good and have already been extensively quoted by everyone else.
I actually wish this were more of a straight-up memoir, though. The author seems to be almost exactly my age, but grew up poor in England and moved to London alone as a teenaged music journalist. I found everything that happened to her before age 25 more interesting and would happily have read a whole book about that, as opposed to the adult Moran going to clubs with Lady Gaga and whatnot.
Recommended for: Allison, but not until after January because there is a lurid childbirth scene and also because this is a book that can easily be read in five-minute increments, so you should save it up!(less)
I wasn't able to get a German-language ebook of this brief work on humor during the Third Reich, but even in English, I could perceive the author's Ge...moreI wasn't able to get a German-language ebook of this brief work on humor during the Third Reich, but even in English, I could perceive the author's German viewpoint. He emphatically distances himself the books of "whispered jokes" that were published immediately after the war as pseudo-evidence of German innocence. Instead, he asserts that joking around can't be considered serious political speech or an actual form of resistance. (I think Jon Stewart's been making this point for a few years now.)
On the contrary, the jokes presented in this volume are evidence that ordinary Germans knew of Nazi leaders' shortcomings early on--and that they were aware of crimes against their Jewish neighbors. Hardly any of the jokes in the book are actually funny.
Sample: My father is an SA man, my oldest brother is in the SS, my little brother is a member of the [Hitler Youth], my mother belongs to the Nazi Women's Group, and I'm in the [League of German Girls]. We meet up once a year at the Nuremberg Rallies.
Other jokes are disrespectful to Nazi leaders, but none of them is very biting. The gallows' humor of the Jews comes closer to being funny, but overall, this book is more about the slow march of Gleichschaltung and social conformity than it is about resistance.(less)
I held off writing about this book since I wanted to send it to a friend and was afraid if I made it sound too good, she'd run off and buy it herself...moreI held off writing about this book since I wanted to send it to a friend and was afraid if I made it sound too good, she'd run off and buy it herself before her birthday! I enjoyed this mostly for the voice of the 11-year-old protagonist. The author doesn't use the irony of her age to dripping excess, as many writers would be tempted. But he does focus on her stubborn and inquisitive qualities. I especially liked her interactions with her older sisters. I'm not a huge fan of cosy mysteries, but I would read another book in this series (just not back-to-back).(less)
A well-written memoir about a half-Jewish, half-Iranian boy growing up in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh with unyielding Trotskyites for parents. Two aspects...moreA well-written memoir about a half-Jewish, half-Iranian boy growing up in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh with unyielding Trotskyites for parents. Two aspects make this better than most memoirs. First, the author is genuinely observant and doesn't just rely on the differences between a child's perceptions and an adult's understanding to make his prose pop. For example, describing their decrepit new apartment near the river in Pittsburgh, he writes "Our neighborhood sloped down toward the water and gave the impression that in due time all the streets and houses would slide completely into it and be no longer."
Second, the book carefully explores how a parent's choices can affect their children. While the Socialist Workers Party makes an interesting backdrop, it might be equally true of a parent who is extremely religious or a fanatical outdoorsman. Sayrafiezadeh's parents' beliefs affect him in ways they don't understand, showing that sometimes it's more complicated to be a child than to be an adult.(less)
If Walls Could Talk would make a good prerequisite for Consider the Fork for it's quite similar in tone but covers a much broader range of topics in p...moreIf Walls Could Talk would make a good prerequisite for Consider the Fork for it's quite similar in tone but covers a much broader range of topics in private life, such as sleeping arrangements, bathrooms, childbirth, toothbrushing, dinner seating, drinking, and much more. On the other hand, it doesn't have any particular overarching theme or thesis; arranged in short thematic chapters, this book would make a good subway read.
I liked the first two sections, on living rooms and bathrooms, best. It depicts a series of changes in what areas of the home are shared or public, and where people could be expected to be alone, and the ongoing question of whether people want separate rooms for separate activities or a big central hall.
The viewpoint is very British and focused on the late medieval period to the present day, but mostly the Tudors and Stuarts. This is sometimes jarring for an American reader: for example, the author takes it as a given that everyone now uses continental-style duvets instead of sheet sets, although I don't know any Americans who do. Anyway, since I quite enjoy reading about the 16th-19th centuries, this focus didn't bother me; I liked reading about "closets" as a private room for prayer and letter-writing, or messy tallow candles, or the possibility that in long premodern winter nights, people slept in two sections, waking up to read, talk, or have sex in the middle of the night.
There are a few myths busted here, of which the most surprising is the idea that everyone was dirty and opposed to bathing before the 20th century. The author talks about how communal baths were actually quite popular in the Middle Ages--maybe the custom was brought back by Crusaders from the Middle East--and it was only from about 1550-1750 that "washing oneself all over was considered for the greater part to be weird, sexually arousing, or dangerous" (loc. 1493). She attributes that in part to the fact that "many holy wells and baths were closed down in the Reformation because worshipping the saints to whom they were dedicated had become idolatrous and illegal." (less)
I'd bet this author doesn't have an MFA--who needs it, if you can write like this? This novel takes place in a (to me) exotic Southern milieu where pe...moreI'd bet this author doesn't have an MFA--who needs it, if you can write like this? This novel takes place in a (to me) exotic Southern milieu where people cook with Crisco and have gun safes in their bedrooms. Ro Grandee, born Rose Mae Lolley to a mother who abandoned her with an alcoholic father, receives a message from a stranger that she must leave her abusive husband. Ro, who accommodates her husband, wars with the vestiges of Rose Mae, until a new person emerges. Great turns of phrase carry the reader through a multistate adventure (with just a few rambling sections) to a satisfying ending.(less)
I think I threw up in my mouth a little when I saw this book was published by "Disney Hyperion," but it ended up being nicely done. It's about a girl...moreI think I threw up in my mouth a little when I saw this book was published by "Disney Hyperion," but it ended up being nicely done. It's about a girl who goes to a secret boarding school for spies--her mother is the headmistress--and who falls for an ordinary kid from town. The romance struck me as pretty thin, but as the protagonist is 15, I had no problem believing it. The portrayal of the school is nicely done with fun details and surprises throughout. The narrative is slangy and fast-moving. As boarding school stories go, it's much less involved than the encyclopedic world Harry Potter and much more fleshed-out than the textureless world of A Great and Terrible Beauty, which I really loathed. I'd recommend this to a younger teen or reluctant reader.(less)
Years ago, I decided that I wanted to see all of the extant Brueghel paintings--a fun project that has led me to visit some places I otherwise wouldn'...moreYears ago, I decided that I wanted to see all of the extant Brueghel paintings--a fun project that has led me to visit some places I otherwise wouldn't have. Online, I've met people who are trying to do the same thing with Vermeer, but nobody new is signing on for that, even though Vermeer has fewer known works, because one of them was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 and no one knows if it will ever be seen again.
This book eventually gets to that case, but it tells many other stories along the way. FBI agent Wittman worked not just on stolen paintings but also on looted artifacts and misappropriated cultural treasures. He often worked undercover, and his stories of duping greedy thieves in seedy hotel rooms are very satisfying. Not only do the good guys win, but art is returned to be appreciated by the public.
The writing here is workmanlike (Wittman enlisted a journalist as cowriter) but I didn't mind because the tales are so good. The backstory on Wittman's childhood is reasonably interesting and not drawn out. He also tells about how he went to trial for drunk-driving/manslaughter (and was acquitted) after a car accident that killed his good friend and FBI partner. This isn't particularly relevant to the art theft theme, but I think he had to address it since it dwarfs the rest of his career in the public record, and the authors do make an attempt to tie it to his approach as an FBI agent.
The book concludes with Wittman's effort to recover the Gardner paintings. If you follow the art world, you know he didn't succeed, because you would have heard about it. But he comes tantalizingly close and is apparently in contact with a syndicate that possesses the art. Then bureaucratic turf wars get in the way and the criminals shimmy out of the net. This part of the book is heavy-handed--there's a guy in Boston who comes off particularly badly and would probably want to issue a rebuttal--but having had no idea that there were any leads at all, I devoured the last fifty pages of this book. (less)
A little of Matt Taibbi goes a long way, in my experience, but I ended up liking this book more than I expected, because it has an actual point.
There...moreA little of Matt Taibbi goes a long way, in my experience, but I ended up liking this book more than I expected, because it has an actual point.
There are moments where I felt as though Taibbi asserted something, expected the reader to take it as given, and plowed on ahead. In the end, though, I accepted this style--otherwise, the book would turn into All the Devils Are Here, which I couldn't get through. Talking about Alan Greenspan, Goldman Sachs, commodity speculation, and Obama's muddled promises about healthcare, Taibbi paints a picture of self-interested, venal bureaucrats who are almost too dim to realize what they're doing is wrong.
Taibbi posits that there is an oligarchical class of people like this who, far from planning for America's bright future, are making extremely short-term selfish decisions. It's like they don't care if they get caught because they'll already be rich, or dead, by the time anyone figures out what's going on. I'm not sure he convinced me that this is going on exactly as he says, but the picture he paints--of a political culture totally unable to analyze the situation, let alone respond--is convincing and damning.
This was recommended to me after I reviewed Mr. Peanut and it shares the same weird sense of the narrative collapsing in on itself. I can't say much w...moreThis was recommended to me after I reviewed Mr. Peanut and it shares the same weird sense of the narrative collapsing in on itself. I can't say much without spoiling the plot, but I enjoyed the author's aesthetic and writing style. (Though I thought the character of Lucy was anemic and her first section was so dull by comparison to the others that I was tempted to give up on the book.) It's concise but evocative of the temptation to throw off your life, disappear, be someone else--a most extreme form of self-reinvention. (less)
My friend Claire, who started a book discussion group for librarians to try new genres, discovered this author. I've made a few previous attempts at r...moreMy friend Claire, who started a book discussion group for librarians to try new genres, discovered this author. I've made a few previous attempts at reading romance books, never to my satisfaction, but this one is a real find.
Taking place in 1837, mostly on an English estate, the novel has a fast-moving, intriguing plot (involving a disputed inheritance); punchy dialogue; a Latin joke that you have to translate yourself; and lots of characters that are far more diverse and fleshed-out than seems strictly necessary in a book of this genre. A lot of the time, it reads like a historical novel that happens to have a racy cover. There's one particularly good scene where the heroine spies on the hero in his library and watches him use a paper-knife to slice open the pages of his book. I'll leave the exact description for you to discover but it's both sexy and historically insightful.
The only things I didn't like are the aspects that make this a Regency romance. The sex scenes are well-written (which can only be defined, in my book, as not being badly written) but each seems so incongruous and ahistorical compared to its five preceding pages wherein the characters stand in a room and banter suggestively. Worse, like the characters of every romance novel I've attempted to read, the protagonists here periodically drop everything and indulge in extended reveries along the lines of this one: "She was a mystery, and Ash was going to enjoy unraveling every delicious clue, until he'd stripped every last inch of her naked. In every sense of the word" (loc. 476). This style of writing is totally different from the rest of the book and seems kind of narratively inert to me. If it's expected in this genre, it's only because other authors aren't as skillful as this one in moving the plot along and portraying nuance in the actual scenes where things happen.
I'm not sure I'll race through Milan's oeuvre like Claire is doing, but I'd definitely recommend this to anyone looking to give romance a try.(less)
I probably shouldn't live in Texas, right? Jenny Lawson is like the deranged love child of David Sedaris and Mary Karr, although the Sedaris compariso...moreI probably shouldn't live in Texas, right? Jenny Lawson is like the deranged love child of David Sedaris and Mary Karr, although the Sedaris comparison gives her more credit for subtlety than she deserves and Lawson's family seems more loving and cheerful than Karr's. To me, Lawson takes every joke two steps too far, but I suspect that's what other people like about her. I got this as a Kindle Daily Deal for $2 and read it on an airplane, which seemed to be the right amount of effort for something that is itself so casual.
Recommended: Again to Allison and for the same reasons as the last one.(less)
There's a hole at the center of this book that took me a while to perceive. The alleged murderers are there most vividly, in all their backstabbing so...moreThere's a hole at the center of this book that took me a while to perceive. The alleged murderers are there most vividly, in all their backstabbing sordidness. The victim, too, is described. The lawyers are personified, as are a few jurors and detectives. Even the newspaper titans Hearst and Pulitzer are portrayed. Who is missing? The reporters who originally told this story in the pages of the World and the Journal. Given the current charges against Rupert Murdoch's news empire, a story of journalists interfering in a police investigation is very timely--except that the reader doesn't see a lot of what happened on the ground. I don't know whether the material that would reveal that layer of the story is absent, or the author just didn't bother with it, but I finished this book feeling like I'd missed the best part of the tale.(less)
The book I read last week was first-time novelist Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook, which my father purchased for me presumably beca...moreThe book I read last week was first-time novelist Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook, which my father purchased for me presumably because the back of the cover says it's "as deadpan and funny as the young Evelyn Waugh" and that "Shteyngart has given us a literary symbol for this new immigrant age, much as Saul Bellow or Henry Roth did in theirs." Luckily, these pronouncements are true. You can hear Bellow in sentences like, "She turned away from him, and he was left to stare into the stern little bun of her hair." (310)
Insofar as it takes place in New York City and the made-up Mitteleuropaisch city of Prava in 1993, I suppose this would appeal to plenty of readers. I think there is even more pleasure in it for readers like me, who have been steeped in the measured realism of the 19th century Russian novel, and who see those attitudes and styles here warped first by the pressures of Soviet communism and then by the bewildering free-for-all of American capitalism.
The skeleton of the plot: Vladimir Girshkin, only son of striving Russian immigrants and dropout of a prestigious Midwestern college, works at an immigrant "absorption" society. There he meets an eccentric Russian man who says that if Vladimir can effect his becoming a citizen, he will hook Vladimir up with his rich gangster son in Prava. Vladimir finds himself in debt and hunted by mobsters, so he indeed takes off for Prava and finds himself involved with the too-cool American expat community--with the purpose of criminally defrauding them. To say much more would give too much away.
Though I do not usually like picaresque stories with characters that waft in and out unloved by the author, Vladimir is such a strong and amusing personality that I was immediately drawn in. Prava, with its idiosyncratic "Stolovan" population and Communist detritus, is absolutely believable; and I enjoyed the second half of the book much more than the opening in New York. (This book certainly shows up the tiresome European interlude in The Corrections.) Do I believe the epilogue? It seems like a joke, but I guess it's the joke that America plays on its immigrants.(less)
The author, Charles Mann, as a journalist, has no particular stake in the scholarly debate, and presents both sides of each argument in turn. You come...moreThe author, Charles Mann, as a journalist, has no particular stake in the scholarly debate, and presents both sides of each argument in turn. You come away from it having learned about archaeological and anthropological method as well as the new theories. The author also writes well about his various adventures reseaching the book, which include a plane running out of fuel and a truly disgusting sounding meal.
The first major section deals with the population of the Americas. It opens with a great anecdote: about an early 20th century anthrologist who studied a primitive group called the Siriono, whom he called "among the most culturally backward peoples of the world." The problem was that he had it all wrong:
The Siriono were among the most culturally impoverished people in the world. But this was not because they were unchanged holdovers from humankind's ancient past, but because smallpox and influenze laid waste to their villages in the 1920s. Before the epidemics at least three thousand Siriono, and probably many more, lived in eastern Bolivia. By Holmberg's time fewer then 150 remained--a loss of more than 95 percent in less than a generation. [...:] Even as the epidemics hit, the group was fighting the white cattle ranchers who were taking over the region. The Bolivian military aided the incursion by hunting down the Siriono and throwing them into what were, in effect, prison camps. [...:] It was as if [Holmberg:] had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving. (9)
This same error seems to have been made time and time again in the study of pre-Columbian America. Scholars believe that the very first contacts between explorers and Indians (before Europeans were attempting to colonize) exposed the Indians to diseases--smallpox, mostly--that killed as much as 95% of the population. When the 17th century colonists showed up and saw small bands of Indians foraging and camping, they were seeing the traumatized, disoriented remnants of much larger societies, not some idealized nature-loving innocents.
The problem then becomes mathematical. If you say that the post-Columbian population of the Americas was X and hypothesize that 96% of the population was killed by disease (therefore, the pre-Columbian population = X/.04) you are going to come up with a vastly higher figure for the pre-Columbian population than you would if you assumed that only, say, 94% were killed. This has led to the accusation that archaelogists are creating millions of people out of thin air. Mann then discusses the study of these epidemics, for example, why they spread so quickly and had such high death rates. (On major explanation is that the Indians, having few domesticated animals--cf. the work of Jared Diamond--were much more susceptible to diseases that crossed from livestock to people than were the Europeans who brought the germs over, who'd been living among pigs and goats for centuries.)
The second part of the book talks about Indian technology and, particularly, agriculture. It explains, for example, that Europeans and Indian societies made different use of tension and compression in engineering. When Europeans encountered an Indian rope bridge, which relies of course on tension, they were terrified because they had never seen bridges that didn't rely on visible arched supports (compression). The Indians did not use the wheel because they had no suitable domestic animals and slippery surfaces, not because they were simple-minded. Many of their tools and records were created of materials that rotted away quickly in the damp climate.
But the most interesting discussion has to do with agriculture. Mann describes how the Indians appear to have created maize (corn), possibly the world's most useful crop, almost from scratch. "Maize's closest relative is a mountain grass called teosinte that looks nothing like it [and:] is not a practical food source." (194) Somehow, Indians hybridized an edible version that doesn't "shatter" (its seed waits on the stem to be collected by humans), a process controlled by 16 genes in maize and teosinte, unlike wheat and barley in which that behavior is controlled by a single gene. No one seems to understand how they did it. Moreover, scholars now believe that parts of the "natural" American landscape were intentionally created by Indians--the Great Plains, for example, created over many hundreds of years by Indian fires in order to encourage a population of buffalo. In the Amazon, where the soil is so poor that it has been called "wet desert," Indians started using swidden (also known as slash-and-burn) techniques to avoid exhausting any single area of soil, and they fostered seemingly random combinations of plants and animals that bolstered soil quality. Huge areas of the Amazon may be, in a sense, man-made.
The book contains many more interesting little points that I won't bother to type out, and, despite its occasionally rambling feel, it does a good job of arguing a central point: Americans have, for centuries, used what they "knew" about the Indians to either excoriate or mythologize them. The new research makes it ever harder to reduce the Indians to soulful wanderers, innocent hunter-gatherers, or ruthless heathens; instead, it begins to reveal fascinating societies that rivalled those of contemporary Europe in population and sophistication. (less)