Like all of Dawkins, this is good, although this is the fifth book of his that I've read, and having moved roughly from greatest to least renown (The...moreLike all of Dawkins, this is good, although this is the fifth book of his that I've read, and having moved roughly from greatest to least renown (The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, The God Delusion, and now this), I may be at the point where I'd gain more by re-reading what I've already read than tackling his other writing. This is a decent book for people new to Dawkins, and it's gentler on scientific detail than usual, for those worried about getting lost in the material. It is expressly targeted at a non-scientific audience and has the stated goal of communicating the wonder and beauty of scientific discovery.
Consequently it's the lowest-content book of his that I've read; many of the ideas and examples from nature can be found in his other books. Towards the end I thought there was a bit of a loss of focus as well; Dawkins starts writing about a subject that interests him (memes, cognition, the reflection of environment in our genes and brains, and parallels between the gene pool and the brain) without specific concern to beauty as revealed by the scientific method. The prose is clean and elegant as his prose always is, and reading this book was a pleasant way to spend time, but I'd point most readers to his other stuff. (less)
This reminded me of Lives of a Cell but set in space, and unfortunately I don't consider that a compliment, although if you liked the style of that bo...moreThis reminded me of Lives of a Cell but set in space, and unfortunately I don't consider that a compliment, although if you liked the style of that book you may enjoy this as well. Carl Sagan explores the history of astronomy and physics, the solar system, and the heavenly bodies beyond. It is written in an affable, enthusiastic style and I think its intent is to try to communicate the magic and wonder of astronomical discoveries to the everyday reader, emphasis on magic and wonder.
For me it's overdone. Maybe I'm a grumpy and unimaginative rationalist, but I'd rather just enjoy the beauty of the facts and not have my reading interspersed with speculative "I wonder"s and forced attempts at generating said magic-and-wonder aura around the subject (which frankly is wonderful enough without embellishment, I mean we're talking about outer space here). The absolute low point is a risible four-page tangent in the middle of the book in which Sagan imagines himself as a prehistoric man pondering science and the stars. ("If you run fast with a small flame, it dies. Their children are weak. We did not run. We walked, shouting good wishes. 'Do not die,' we said to the flame. The other hunterfolk looked with wide eyes.")
The science contained in the book is a nice summary though I imagine you can get more detailed, up-to-date knowledge by just browsing around the Internet; it is written at a very general level, such as that which you might find in a high school textbook or an encyclopedia. I do in particular appreciate the way Sagan wraps the science around history, especially when referencing the ideas and philosophies of the ancient Greeks, which gives a nice context that you might not encounter in a book focused on teaching just the science. (less)
A fluffy but enjoyable story about a veterinary student who leaves school to join the circus. Told in flashbacks, with the main character as an old ma...moreA fluffy but enjoyable story about a veterinary student who leaves school to join the circus. Told in flashbacks, with the main character as an old man recalling his heady youthful travels and the people he met and the woman with whom he fell in love.
The characters and the plot are not this book's strong points. I hope you won't think poorly of me for saying that the main character is a despicably good guy. He's nice and sweet and honorable and frankly something of a goody two shoes. The other main actors play somewhat stereotypical parts: a charismatic, strong-willed, abusive man, his perfectly beautiful wife whose only flaw is that she doesn't fight back against the abuses, various quirky and goofy sidekicks, the evil and greedy boss. And the stereotypical characters stir together to form something of an stereotypical story.
What is a lot of fun is the atmosphere of circus life that the author creates in the spaces in between. Training the animals, pulling in the suckers, hopping between train cars, getting periodically chased out of town, all of that stuff is really enjoyable and entertaining reading. The earlier part of the book is full of more of these details and it's actually disappointing towards the end when the book puts its focus on finishing its plot. (less)
Not as much fun as the first one, I'm afraid. They do the Hunger Games all over again, with more blood, more clever opponents, and more fiendish schem...moreNot as much fun as the first one, I'm afraid. They do the Hunger Games all over again, with more blood, more clever opponents, and more fiendish schemes from the eeeevil Capitol.
A minor flaw in the first book was that things felt at times randomly contrived, without a sense of flow or narrative, just one new thing (usually some arena hazard) happening after the other. That flaw gets magnified here. The arbitrary steering of the book's direction makes it harder for me to care about the characters and the plot complexities; if something random is going to happen next chapter that blows things all up, then why invest myself too much in what's going on now?
In the book's favor remains the core premise that violence is fun to watch - or in this case, read. But it's a weaker echo of the first book. I hope things pick back up in the finale. (less)
Wow - every 20-30 pages of this book something happens where you say to yourself "I can't believe that happened." Ghost Wars is a history of US involv...moreWow - every 20-30 pages of this book something happens where you say to yourself "I can't believe that happened." Ghost Wars is a history of US involvement in Afghanistan from the anti-Soviet uprising in the 1980s up to the day before the WTC attacks. I think it's essential reading for anyone to understand what's going there. There are so many twists and turns, so many parties involved and alliances forming and breaking, and so many dollars and arms changing hands. If it were written in a more literary style about less well-recognized events, you might be excused for thinking it was some kind of spy novel.
The biggest lesson of all is that the Middle East never was and never will be an "us against them" story. There were and are the Taliban, al Qaeda, Afghan communists, Massoud's Northern Alliance, Saudi royals, Iranians, the CIA, the Defense Department, the State Department, Soviets, countless mujahedin warlords, etc. At various points many of the parties involve either change their allegiances outright or shift their focus from one enemy to another. And embedded in every friendship was some difference of motive, to the point where one's friend's friend could easily be one's enemy.
In any case, the book was really amazing, a touch on the wordy side in its efforts to be comprehensive but that's all. Through exhaustive research, Steve Coll gives you an omniscient, bird's eye perspective, giving a steady authorial guide through the geopolitics by sprinkling a little history with a careful recounting of the events and quotes from people on all sides. You can really see the clashing motives, the decisions made and left unmade, and a steady unfolding of events towards the crushing ending.
The book stops short a day short of 9/11 but sadly provides a hard finish that is all the worse because everyone knows what is to come next. The quote on the cover, from the NYT, is spot on: "...makes the reader want to rip the page and yell at the American counterterrorism officials... and tell them to watch out." If your knowledge of American involvement in the Middle East and South Asia is murky and vague like mine was, this book will have your eyes about a million times wider when you finish. (less)
A pretty coffee table book covering the history of Penguin Books' cover designs. Penguin has a strong artistic tradition regarding its covers. The ora...moreA pretty coffee table book covering the history of Penguin Books' cover designs. Penguin has a strong artistic tradition regarding its covers. The orange spines that adorn the covers of this book are readily recognizable to any reader. Over the years Penguin produced many gorgeous covers and a few clunkers, and author Phil Baines curates a collection that includes both.
The original three-panel Penguin covers and the subsequent minor variations are beautiful examples of design. Everything looks clean, crisp, and aesthetically pleasing, and even decades later many of them do not appear dated. My favorite designs besides the originals are the Tschihold classics designs from the 1940s (the two pages of roundels are gorgeous), the physical sciences covers of the 1970s, the Games covers of the 1950s, the 2005 Reference relaunch (a tremendous homage to the original design), and the Modern Classics look from the 2000s that I think you can still find in bookstores today.
The text is satisfactory but falls short in two areas. For one, it does not always explain typography and design decisions in a way that laymen like me can appreciate. I'm not saying that the text is abstruse, but that when you are talking about letter spacing, halftone printing, etc. to non-designers, you have to take some time to illustrate clearly the effects of a design decision and its pros and cons to make us really and truly get what it is that you have to say. I also think that this collection could have been improved by showing some covers of the same book evolve over the years. For example, multiple covers of A Clockwork Orange appear in the pages; it would be cool to see them side by side, changing over the years, reflecting different selling approaches, popular reactions to the books, and so on.
In what I can only describe as a great irony, my copy of the book was very poorly bound, and the cover came unglued from the spine halfway through reading. (less)
A book of sharp little twists and the usual thematic obsessions of Philip K. Dick: reality, perception, and free will. If you like that kind of stuff...moreA book of sharp little twists and the usual thematic obsessions of Philip K. Dick: reality, perception, and free will. If you like that kind of stuff you'll like this, if you don't care for it then maybe you won't, but I think most readers will have a generally good time. There are at least four short stories in this collection that were later turned into big-budget Hollywood films.
Even the very worst of the stories at least have some kind of bizarre oddball concept or idea to share with you: a carnival from outer space, an ethereal being that can only be perceived by taking a drug, a plasma alien narrator whining to an intergalactic bureaucracy. So you never feel like any of the reads was a waste of time; the worst that happens is that the ideas get thrown out there but don't go anywhere.
The difference between the good and bad stories is Dick's ability to explore the idea he's throwing out there to a satisfying degree (and in part whether he can stop himself from going into action-movie mode). I'll particularly highlight "Foster, You're Dead" as a story that does this well. It takes a fresh little twist on a believable future (especially during the Cold War when these were written), gives you human characters with human foibles and desires, and ends with a tremendous tweak of the reader's nose. There are a few other stories that do this well; this one was my favorite of the lot.
Best stories: "Beyond Lies The Wub", "Foster, You're Dead", "Imposter" [sic], "The Minority Report" (considerable differences from the movie). (less)
Definitely one of the best children's books of all time, one of my favorite books for either kids or adults, and if you haven't read it by the time yo...moreDefinitely one of the best children's books of all time, one of my favorite books for either kids or adults, and if you haven't read it by the time you're reading this I feel sorry for you. Wordplay, puns, silly jokes, a rare sense of gleeful whimsy that makes you forget you're a busted old grownup and reminds you of the kinds of things you thought about when you were nine years old.
And really that's why I think you should go read this; there is a bit in here you can appreciate when you're older that you don't quite appreciate when you're younger. Not that there's anything that kids don't literally understand, but when you're older and you've genuinely had to do "petty tasks" and given "wasted effort" out of "habit", you know how bad the Terrible Trivium can be. Or if you spent time in a beautiful city staring at your shoes to get from place to place, you know about Reality and Illusions.
There are things that you've lived through as a kid, but when you're an adult you've really lived through them. And I expect when I'm older I'll have lived through yet more still. The final message that the main character Milo receives from the Lands Beyond is "FOR MILO, WHO NOW KNOWS THE WAY." Picking this book up after the first time in years reminded me that there is a way out there that you want to follow but that you can wander off of, without ever realizing that you've gone.
A great, poignant autobiographical comic about author Marjane Satrapi's experience growing up halfway between Iran and Europe. The drawings are flat,...moreA great, poignant autobiographical comic about author Marjane Satrapi's experience growing up halfway between Iran and Europe. The drawings are flat, relatively simple and sparse, like a child's, and thereby reminding you at all times that you are seeing complicated, emotional, sometimes terrible and sometimes wonderful things through the eyes of a youth. (The story extends from Satrapi's childhood through her early 20s.) The simplicity is the joy and the book speaks to you with its heart on its sleeve.
I don't have a lot more to say, as there's really no point in recapping Satrapi's life story; the life story is the point of the book, it's about growing up. That she does half of it during a revolution in her home country and half of it adapting to a strange new Western country makes her story more unique and exciting than most. But the book relates experiences that everyone can understand as well; thus a story about her parents' friends tortured in prison is juxtaposed with Satrapi trying to outdo her friends, and Iran's crackdown on women's attire is mixed with details of how women let bits of their personality show through what they could wear.
I'm sure part of my enjoyment of Persepolis was simply hearing any life story told from such a different perspective than my own. Nothing I can do about that; in the end, the reader is who he is, and maybe someone else from a less fortunate background might not find it so interesting. But I think on top of that that the story is told very well, honestly and poignantly and kindheartedly, and that much should make it worthy of anyone. Read and enjoy. (less)
After reading this I couldn't figure out why there have so many plaudits for Schulz. To me, this book was a confused magic realist-mess, exerting itse...moreAfter reading this I couldn't figure out why there have so many plaudits for Schulz. To me, this book was a confused magic realist-mess, exerting itself breathlessly in a poor attempt to squeeze awe and fantasy from mundane, quotidian life. I thought it compared very unfavorably to Kafka and Borges. (Hell, at one point someone even turns into a cockroach.)
The edition I read combined two books, The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, both of which consist of loosely connected collections of short stories. I thought that the former was bad, through and through, and that the latter was very slightly better (the eponymous story was all right) but still much of the same. Schulz's illustrations periodically decorate the pages; these are quite good, reminiscent of John Tenniel's illustrations of Alice in Wonderland.
The writing is painfully, cloyingly ornate, given to barrages of mystical, ethereal verbiage. In Schulz's world, a man could never go for a walk in the park. The man would instead stroll softly, fiercely, robins and jays alighting from tree to tree, their paths tracing a web in which the realm of the birds was reflected as the realm of man is reflected in his roads and railways, while the midday sun glimmered wildly overhead, etc. etc.
Now this is annoying but not fatal, provided there is still a good story to be found under the layers. But all too often that's all there is. It seems the point of the stories is to couch descriptions and events in these terms and then to declare implicitly or explicitly (exhortations to the reader) that there was meaning and beauty in doing so. Sorry man, I didn't see it. With the exception of the one mentioned above I wouldn't recommend a single story out of this book. (less)
I enjoyed this thoroughly despite not knowing much about boxing at all. A collection of boxing essays from A.J. Liebling, a writer for the New Yorker...moreI enjoyed this thoroughly despite not knowing much about boxing at all. A collection of boxing essays from A.J. Liebling, a writer for the New Yorker from the first half of the 20th century, that are similar but enjoyable. Somewhat cantankerously narrated and dryly observed, Liebling spends time not only watching fights but visiting training camps, sitting at bars with old-timers, chatting about fighters with the man-on-the-street, and periodically referring to the pugilist culture of 19th century Britain as depicted in Boxiana, a British writer of those times whom Liebling admires. (A running joke in his essays is to lob a bombastic line of praise for Boxiana at some point near the beginning.)
While Liebling clearly loves the sport of boxing, he avoids over-reverence, a trap that has snared thousands of mediocre sportswriters. His love is instead communicated through nitty-gritty detail, countless little things that catch his eye and that he then relates to you. This is, for me, the best way to write about sports - don't make it bigger than it is (it's entertainment), don't make mythologies out of the athletes (they're just people), basically don't try too hard. If you love the sport, just write about the sport, and it'll come through. (less)
Something of a cross between a textbook and a well-organized collection of essays on post-WWII European history. If you want to learn basic modern Eur...moreSomething of a cross between a textbook and a well-organized collection of essays on post-WWII European history. If you want to learn basic modern European history, this book definitely gets the job done. Its target audience is part academics and part general audience, and while you shouldn't expect a spy novel, the prose is really very readable for the casual but intellectually curious reader (and occasionally sarcastically dry in a totally British manner). You may need to look up some terms and proper nouns, but you don't need to come pre-equipped with an infrastructure of knowledge about social theory and historical knowledge.
There is no central thesis; even 800-odd pages cannot help but be generalist when covering such a wide range of people, places, and points in time. The chapters do have themes and there are many small arguments made here and there, such that sometimes you feel like you're reading a burst of mini-essays, each no more than a handful of paragraphs in length. I quite approve of the lack of central thesis - I think writers often try too hard to have one and underrate the value of simply stating the facts as you see them - but I still think at the mini-essay level, the book falls a bit prey to the compulsion towards arguments.
For me the best sections were "The Impossible Settlement" and "The Coming of the Cold War," illustrating how the Allies transitioned into opposing Cold War powers, and "The Reckoning," about the 1990s civil wars in Yugoslavia. In general I preferred the reporting of events and did not enjoy the sections on cultural theory and intellectual movements as much, perhaps because I am not an academic. But on the balance a really educational read, overflowing with topics.
I loved this book and think that it deserves much more fame and recognition than it gets. A wonderfully painted vision of the world after nuclear holo...moreI loved this book and think that it deserves much more fame and recognition than it gets. A wonderfully painted vision of the world after nuclear holocaust, with an evolved Catholic church, new warlord geopolitics, and fresh battle lines between science and religion; a fierce and bleak statement on humanity's recidivism. It deserves a place in the high canon of science fiction.
The book is divided into three episodes in the future history of humanity, after it has pulverized itself with nuclear bombs sometime in the 20th century (so that's a little dated, yes). It starts a little slowly, but picks up nicely, sketching the harsh life of a desert abbey in the west of the former United States, their devotion to the lost knowledge of civilization past, and the omnipresent specter of war. There are many memorable characters and a few arresting scenes. You lose yourself as a reader, you feel like you're there, sitting behind the abbots, traveling across the desert.
There are a number of Latin phrases from Catholic liturgies and unless you're very familiar with Catholicism or Latin, you will want Google handy (or Wikipedia; at present there's a page specifically devoted to Latin phrases in this book).
I picked up this book because of the rather striking epigraph in The Blind Assassin. This is a book about Iran during the last days of the Shah, befor...moreI picked up this book because of the rather striking epigraph in The Blind Assassin. This is a book about Iran during the last days of the Shah, before he was toppled and replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Ryszard Kapuscinski is an openly literary writer of nonfiction; the back cover says that he "brings a mythographer's perspective and a novelist's virtuosity" to his subject; his Wikipedia article mentions Adam Hochschild describing his work as "magic journalism," in comparison to fictional magic realism. So you have to take that into account when you pick him up - don't expect a dispassionate retelling of the facts. But if you accept this then you have a pretty decent book o your hands.
The story is told through a series of vignettes, like peeling through a memory, or seeing paintings at a museum. Some are extremely vivid. The one that sticks with me most is when Kapuscinski meets a man who was tortured by the Shah's secret police in cruelly creative fashion: he is strapped to a chair that gradually moves towards a white-hot iron wall until he admits wrongdoing. While retelling his story he breaks down crying and pleads, "God... why have you chastised me with such a terrible deformity as thinking? Why have you taught me to think, instead of teaching me the humility of cattle!"
The vignettes are excellent but Kapuscinski sometimes oversteps the bounds of his abilities. He is a great storyteller but not a great analyst. For example, when he directly describes what he believes to be the Shah's vision of a Great Civilization, the writing is weak and a bit outlandish. But when he gives a concrete instance of the Shah's ambitions, describing the Shah's splurge on infrastructure and subsequent massive waste from horribly inadequate planning, it is a memorable and funny story.
A very short book that you could read in a day. (less)