If you happen to see a copy of Alternate Histories of the World in the bookstore, or at a friend's house, by all means pick it up and flip through it;If you happen to see a copy of Alternate Histories of the World in the bookstore, or at a friend's house, by all means pick it up and flip through it; you should get a couple of grins and/or chuckles out of it. I can't unreservedly recommend buying yourself a brand new copy, unless you've always been in the market for a book of visual jokes that includes at least one reference combining Ro-Man Extension XJ-2 and Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale". (If you have been, you're in luck!) Reading the entire book cover-to-cover does produce the sensation of being trapped in a conversation with someone who can't help making the same joke over and over and over again; small doses would probably be best.
I get even more opinionated about the book, and go absurdly long on what it all might mean, over at my blog: Parenthetical Asides. ...more
Not a book to be read before bedtime if you are susceptible to the midnight screaming meemies due to fear of one or more of the following: abduction,Not a book to be read before bedtime if you are susceptible to the midnight screaming meemies due to fear of one or more of the following: abduction, acid, closed spaces, the dark, electrocution, fire, guns, heights, rats, schizophrenics, serial killers, tornados, or vivisection.
On the other hand, absolutely an amazing book chronicling a moment in history that encompassed the peaks of human spectacle and the valleys of inhuman depravity. Jack the Ripper is mentioned in passing a time or two throughout The Devil in the White City, which reminds me of a line from the (not very good) film adaptation of Alan Moore's Jack the Ripper graphic novel, From Hell: "Men will say that I gave birth to the twentieth century" Jack the Ripper boasts. Based on The Devil in the White City alone, you could make a much stronger argument that the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 actually can claim that distinction....more
This was a quick-and-easy read, not that there's anything inherently wrong with that. In a weird way the book subverts its own subtitle. I came away fThis was a quick-and-easy read, not that there's anything inherently wrong with that. In a weird way the book subverts its own subtitle. I came away from it really feeling like the case had been made pretty conclusively that Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies album and tour created the modern (though now actually pretty dated) archetype of rock-star excess. It's as if the author threw in additional, extraneous information about Led Zeppelin and The Who because those bands have much more name/song recognition and more respectable legacies (and also to pad the book out to just barely crack 200 pages). Still, all in all, it's an interesting transitional moment in pop history examined from the perspective of two legendary English bands and one crazy American one....more
This book is thoroughly excellent - every good thing you've heard about it is more or less true. If you have even a passing interest in how entertainmThis book is thoroughly excellent - every good thing you've heard about it is more or less true. If you have even a passing interest in how entertainment reflected the social trends of the past (particularly the '60's and '70's), or some curiosity about how grown men and women dedicated their professional lives to writing and drawing long-underwear heroes in never-ending fistfights, it's a fascinating examination. If you're a comics fan, and the subject matter hits closer to home and you already know the names of the major players, it's positively essential and revelatory.
It took me a few months to get around to marking this one as "read" because I knew I was going to want to link to my blog about it, and yet I found I had so much to say in dissecting the book (mostly in praise and agreement, but with some reservations and counter-examples of my own) that I kept putting it off while I organized my thoughts. The series of posts(!) is now underway, though, so alongside my recommendation of the book I can offer some more expansive reflections on it (with more to come).
Feel free to swing by my blog, Parenthetical Asides (parentheticalasides.blogspot.com), to go long and deep. I posted some initial thoughts here and introduced a more formal exploration here. ...more
English major nerds, holla! This a great overview of how the English language developed and continues to develop from the earliest identifying runes cEnglish major nerds, holla! This a great overview of how the English language developed and continues to develop from the earliest identifying runes carved into objects to the ephemeral electron of our interwebs age. 100 different words were selected to illustrate and encapsulate certain milestones and trends in the evolution of English in a page or two of meditation, but the book also touches on additional verbal sand-outs to flesh out every idea. Terrific fun if you have anyinterest at all in how spoken and written communication happens and what it all says about us.
I've been feeling very retro lately, with burgeoning interest in particular in pop-culture from the decade or so before I was born, so when Fire and RI've been feeling very retro lately, with burgeoning interest in particular in pop-culture from the decade or so before I was born, so when Fire and Rain was published I added it to my wishlist and I was psyched to get it for Christmas. Because I was of a mindset predisposed to enjoy the book, I had fun reading it, but I can't necessarily speak to any inherent charms it might hold for anyone else.
When I was introduced to the Beatles it was purely in appreciation of their music, glossing over their breakup as just kind of a shame. So for me this was just about my first exposure to really detailed accounts of how the band disintegrated and how that played out in the public perception at the time, all of which was pretty fascinating. The parallel problems and break-ups of Simon and Garfunkel and CSNY were interesting in their own right, and the simultaneous rise of James Taylor's profile made for a decent counterpoint.
The downfall of the book, if it has one, is that those four stories really don't add up to a whole greater than the sum of the parts. It really is no more than a recounting of a bunch of things that happened in the music world, and the world at large, in 1970 but there's no compelling narrative that strongly unites those happenings. Real life is like that, I suppose, but how gripping you find such a loose throughline may vary wildly. There's also a lot of behind-the-scenes name-dropping, and I found it difficult to keep straight all of the non-famous figures, studio musicians and business managers and so forth who were as much a part of the happenings as the rock stars. But, again, for the specific pop-culture itch I've been feeling lately, this served as a perfectly good scratch....more
I really enjoyed Stephen Greenblatt's Will In The World, a fascinating attempt to flesh out (however speculatively) the man behind the nigh-mythic namI really enjoyed Stephen Greenblatt's Will In The World, a fascinating attempt to flesh out (however speculatively) the man behind the nigh-mythic name Shakespeare. Given that positive prior exposure, and a subtitle like How The World Became Modern, I found it hard to pass up The Swerve.
Greenblatt still writes engagingly and speculates persuasively, but ultimately I don't think the book lived up to its own hype. Nor am I convinced that any book could truly find a moment in history and pin it down as the turning point when modernity was born. Greenblatt does give it a game attempt, in explaining the little-known story of how a copied manuscript of Lucretius's On The Nature Of Things was discovered in a monestary by a Renaissance bookhunter and passed from his hands into wider circulation. The philosophical concepts of On The nature Of Things stood in stark contrast to the prevailing worldviews of the day (mostly of the Catholic Church) and yet are very compatible with notions that most of us today would consider common sense or self-evident, such as the idea that the point of life is to minimize suffering and find happiness. But it seems to me that On The Nature Of Things is more an example of how contemporary thinking changed than a root cause of the change. The story of Poggio's recovery of Lucretius's work is interesting, but slight, and much of the book is padded out with tangential (albeit still very interesting) material about everything from a brief history of the physical tools of writing to the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum to the zany hijinks of Pope Urban VI and Anti-Pope Clement VII.
All in all, not earth-shattering, but a worthy addition to the European History wing of my home library....more
This book was extremely well-written, evocative, and totally gripping ... and yet I am giving it only three stars because of my customary, literal intThis book was extremely well-written, evocative, and totally gripping ... and yet I am giving it only three stars because of my customary, literal interpretation of the GoodReads star ratings system. It feels wrong to say "I really liked it" or "It was amazing" because it was a brutal, harrowing read about despotism and man's inhumanity to man. Fascinating and chilling stuff, but not exactly likable or enjoyable. I think The Feast of the goat rightly deserves the Nobel it was awarded, but proceed at your own risk into the dark and disturbing subject matter....more
There's a lot of great stuff in this historical survey of pre-Columbian America. Don't be fooled by the title (as I was) into thinking that the book iThere's a lot of great stuff in this historical survey of pre-Columbian America. Don't be fooled by the title (as I was) into thinking that the book is going to focus exclusively on what life was like in North and South America in the year 1491 A.D. and only that year. It's a sweeping look at the many empires and ethnic groups and every human organization in between that rose and fell in the Americas since the dawn of humanity - at least, those we know by even the slightest traces of historical evidence, while there are still mysteries which may never be solved because all traces of answers were lost ten thousand years ago. The most fascinating aspect of the in-depth examination of North and South American archeology is how much has been discovered and learned in the past ten or fifteen years, which encompasses most of the time I've been out of school and happened well after the years I was learning about Native Americans in fifth or sixth grade. In addition to exploding myths which were presented as fact when I learned them, Mann goes sof ar as to look at the political reasons why such myths existed in the first place and why many people find the proving or disproving of long-held beliefs to be frustratingly difficult.
Unfortunately, the interesting gems pop up at random amidst a very unfocused tour written in a very dry style. I found my attention wandering pretty frequently and had to reread several sections many times because I had trouble finding a hook for my comprehension. I hung in there with the book because that's what I do with books I bring on the bus, but I'd have a hard time recommending the experience....more
I wanted to like this book more than I ultimately did. I think it demonstrates some of the pitfalls of writing pop-science, which is that any attemptI wanted to like this book more than I ultimately did. I think it demonstrates some of the pitfalls of writing pop-science, which is that any attempt to use science, even interesting science, in service to a larger unifying theme runs the risk of creating a big, muddled, unsatisfying mess.
I probably would have been satisfied with just the neuroscience aspects of the book, explaining how humans perceive music and what exactly happens in our brains and bodies as we process things like rhythm and melody. Stuff like that ranges from mildly interesting to really fascinating. (Though I could do without the authorial touches like referring to dopamine as "happy juice." I may not be a biochemist but I can handle the proper names of hormones, guy.)
Unfortunately, Levitin tries to take it much farther than a description of the science. He makes wild speculations about the early evolutionary differentiation of humanity and the "invention" of music, things which are semi-plausible but impossible to back up. He brings in personal anecdotes about meaningful songs in his life that are fine in and of themselves but also don't prove his thesis. He divides the book into studies of six types of songs, but the six divisions are arbitrary.
I'm on board with the notion that human nature would be radically different if there were no such thing as music. I just don't think Levitin successfully answers the question in his own subtitle. Maybe that's because human nature is so elusive and hard to define that any attempt to explore its origins is doomed to fail. Maybe a more apt title for this book would have been "The World Through Songs: A Bunch of Random Stories and Interesting Science Facts About Music". Not as zippy, I suppose....more
Science AND history??? Must be back-to-school time ...
After reading eight novels in a row through July and August, it was a bit of a mental adjustmentScience AND history??? Must be back-to-school time ...
After reading eight novels in a row through July and August, it was a bit of a mental adjustment going back to non-fiction, but at least this particular slice of history has a pretty good narrative throughline and the bits of biology trivia were fascinating. Once again it is patently obvious why I was an Area I major and not an Area III major - I like stories, and I like science only to the extent to which it is interesting (whereas to major in science you have to demonstrate knowledge of the boring along with the conversation-worthy. And yes I'm saying that cholera is "conversation-worthy" but obviously you wouldn't want to be having that conversation over, say, Chinese food).
So. Yes. A fine book, there, Mr. Johnson, and I will probably track down your other work, everything Bad is Good For You sooner than later. I will also track down Parasite Rex, mentioned in your acknowledgements, for my wife, because she loves parasitology, and I love her, weird veterinary surgeon interests and all....more
Growing up in the late 20th century as the world came more and more to resemble the much-invoked global village, I really took for granted the size anGrowing up in the late 20th century as the world came more and more to resemble the much-invoked global village, I really took for granted the size and scope of the planet. I knew I could get on a plane and fly anywhere in a day or less, and wherever I got off the plane I'd be able to spend some travelers' checks on food, lodging and postcards. Even in history class, when learning about the age of exploration and the difficulties of crossing the Atlantic, I absorbed the information but never really thought about the implications.
Big Chief Elizabeth conjures up the late 16th and early 17th century realities and I found myself constantly shaking my head in amazement. Given the detailed recounting of several attempts to establish permanent settlements in Virginia, it's amazing that any of us live here at all, let alone that the 400th anniversary of Jamestown was a couple years ago. The circumstances weren't just difficult, they verged on the outright impossible, and a lot of luck and happenstance allowed England to get a foothold on the mid-Atlantic coast of North America. Milton's book isn't necessarily incredibly well-written, to my eye, which is why this is only a three-star review, but the events he relates in and of themselves are fascinating. ...more
I think I first became aware of Tom Wolfe when Bonfire of the Vanities became a runaway hit and they started talking about making it a movie, and peopI think I first became aware of Tom Wolfe when Bonfire of the Vanities became a runaway hit and they started talking about making it a movie, and people spoke of Wolfe as a man who would write one book per decade (which sounds like a pretty sweet gig) and each book would really encapsulate the decade, as Bonfire of the Vanities did for the 80's. I never read Bonfire, but then again, I don't really find the subject matter that compelling. (I mean, I love 80's pop culture, but not so much the financial and political signs of the times.) The space race, on the other hand, definitely grabs my attention, particularly because I was born into a world where man had already walked on the moon, and sometimes I take it all for granted. Plus, how can any science fiction fan not revel in the moments where fiction started to become fact?
Wolfe rights in a very stylized manner which draws attention to itself but somehow ends up serving the story in spite of that fact, or possibly because of it. When Wolfe finds a turn of phrase that he really likes ("the right stuff" being only the most obvious example) he returns to it again and again and again. But in telling the story of military men being trained to conquer the new frontier, repetition is inevitable. The astronauts practiced, and practiced, and simulated, and practiced some more. Their whole lives were routine and repetition. Wolfe hits all the highlights of accomplishment, and illuminates some of the behind the scenes personality struggles as well, and turns real history into a blockbuster.
When the first Gulf War began I was in high school, and vaguely disappointed that in that day and age decades after Vietnam we as a species were stillWhen the first Gulf War began I was in high school, and vaguely disappointed that in that day and age decades after Vietnam we as a species were still settling problems with killing machines. I remember my grandmother being afraid that the war would last past my 18th birthday and the draft would be reinstated and there would be woe and lamentations. Then the war ended up being quick and easy and became kind of joke with punchlines about Republican Guard members surrendering to camera crews.
When the second Gulf War began I was twenty-eight and my brother was twenty-five. He was also a first lieutenant in the Army and was quickly sent over to Iraq, and that simple fact always did and always will color my perception of Operation Iraqi Freedom: it put my little brother's life at risk. He survived, and if it left any emotional scars he hides them well, but still. If the invasion of Iraq was widely hailed as one of the most highly justified military actions of U.S. history, I'd still be pissed about it.
So you can imagine how much I felt sick to my stomach and blood a-boiling reading Fiasco, which illuminates the many ways in which the invasion and continued military presence in Iraq has not, in fact, been our greatest triumph. Ricks has a definite opinion on everything from the justification for going to war to the manner in which it was conducted as both invasion and counter-insurgency, and his views pretty much line up with mine. And he may have an axe to grind and a point to prove, but I think he does prove it, with an embarrassing abundance of facts from a variety of sources. I don't think this book would really change very many people's minds one way or the other. If you were pro-Dubya and pro-Gulf War II, you'd probably dismiss the whole book as sour grapes, hindsight, agenda-driven cherry-picking, and so forth. If you were anti-Dubya and anti-war, you won't find much her to nuance your opinions in the opposite direction. But if you are vaguely in the "anti-" camp but couldn't readily explain why, Fiasco would probably give you the specific examples you were looking for. ...more
I've read several books about the history of American comic books, some published by the large publishing houses who survive today (DC and Marvel) andI've read several books about the history of American comic books, some published by the large publishing houses who survive today (DC and Marvel) and others in a more independent vein, but they all tend to follow the same arc. They touch on the invention of the comic strip, its repackaging as a comic book, the ascent of the superhero and the proliferation of genres from romance to Western to horror. Then there's a breif mention about the comic books decline and near-demise in the fifties. Sometimes that's where the book ends, if its focus is the Golden Age; other times it's just a blip before the Silver Age begins and superheroes return to greatness and the kids who were comics' first fans become the second generation comic book creators themselves. I suppose those books regard the anti-comics hysteria and the winnowing of the field as negative space in the narrative, the antithesis to their thesis, and that's why the industry's travails and contraction get such short shrift.
So I was pretty excited about reading a book which would focus on what all the other books gloss over, and what I found was a decent enough study of what happened to comics in the 50's and why. Some good insights about post-WWII America and everyone's role in it (children vs. parents, adolescents vs. authority, conservatives vs. experimentalists, snobs vs. populists, etc.) and some interesting nuggets about comic books themselves and the people who produced them. Hajdu's style got a little too cutesy for my taste in a few spots, and his book doesn't really live up to its subtitle - the comic book purges of the 50's were definitely something that happened in America, but I wouldn't say the phenomenon changed the country in any appreicable way. (I am developing a serious mistrust of subtitles - see The Bonehunter's Revenge.) Still, as a pop-history survey it was a fair read and a worthy addition to my ridiculously nerdy library....more
I continued my exploration of the fascinating Prohibition era with this book, but it didn't quite live up to my expectations for it. It's a perfectlyI continued my exploration of the fascinating Prohibition era with this book, but it didn't quite live up to my expectations for it. It's a perfectly competent history as presented, but I was expecting something a little more focused. I wanted to know how the denizens of New York City lived through and dealt with Prohibition. As it turns out, according to Lerner, the answer by and large is "they ignored it". But that would make for a pretty short book, so he pads it out with some historical context as far as how the 18th amendment was passed and what pre-Prohibition saloons in NYC were like, and then pads out the ending by examining the nomination and election of FDR and the ultimate repeal of Prohibition in the 21st amendment. I found the end-padding far more irksome than the beginning: any history book can justifying "backing up a bit" and providing context and frameworks. But if the premise is "life in NYC as affected by Prohibition", the connection to a presidential campaign seems tenuous at best. FDR was a New York governor, and Lerner argues that Manhattanites gradually became more politically involved in the Prohibition struggle in its last few years, continuing to resist in civilly disobedient ways but also "voting as they drank" but still ... national elections are not synonymous with NYC elections. I was hoping for more anecdotes about how speakeasies operated, how bootleg liquor ended up in the homes of New Yorkers, how organized crime grew in the city (esp. since Chicago usually gets all the attention in those chapters in broader Prohibition books) - I got some, but what can I say, I'm greedy and I wanted more....more
The problem with history is that it's never quite as narratively satisfying as fiction. I've probably said that before, but I'm of a mind to insist thThe problem with history is that it's never quite as narratively satisfying as fiction. I've probably said that before, but I'm of a mind to insist that it bears repeating. Real-life dramas may be fascinating precisely because they actually happened, with details that would strain suspension of disbelief past the breaking point in a novel, but the vast majority of the time the events simply unfold, as history does, without the steadily raised stakes and increased action leading to an explosive climax that marks the kind of fiction I like. Alas.
So The Bonehunters' Revenge is a well-written survey of the careers of two American scientists in the latter half of the 19th century, and it evokes a gripping period of time in both our national history and in the then-nascent field of paleontology. It fundamentally succeeds as both dual biography and documentation of the West of the 1860's - 1890's. But ... but! The title is a bit of a tease.
As far as I could tell, there was never any "revenge" served up in the feud between Cope and Marsh which is the crux of the book. The subtitle as it appears here at GoodReads is "Dinosaurs and Fate in the Gilded Age". The physical edition I actually read is subtitled "Dinosaurs, Greed and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age". Apparently, when you qualify a "feud" as scientific you mean that it is cerebral and dull. The "coming to blows" of the Cope-Marsh feud involved letters and interviews in the Herald newspaper - and not even weeks and months of back and forth with escalating rhetoric, or physical confrontations inspired by the words exchanged. No, just an article, a response, and a counter-response. The whole affair was silly and petty and that may very well be Wallace's point, but I suppose I went into it hoping that there might be barroom brawls, pistols at dawn, train trestles dynamited, or other blockbuster elements. I was disappointed. Wallace tried to liven things up by also highlighting the publisher of the Herald, who was apparently one crazy loon, but even his antics could not add much to the rueful saga of two egocentric Victorian archaeologists.
It takes a lot to make me regret reading a book, and of course The Bonehunters' Revenge didn't come close to that level. It just stayed at the level of "moderately enlightening" instead of anything really earth-shattering. ...more
Usually when I can't think of much to say about a book I'll go with "it was well-written", faint praise at best as one would hope a book that managedUsually when I can't think of much to say about a book I'll go with "it was well-written", faint praise at best as one would hope a book that managed to get published was at least not poorly written. But I can't even muster up that much enthusiasm for this book. Maybe I've just been run ragged or fighting my biological impulse to hibernate lately, but I fell asleep more while reading Prohibition than any recent book I can remember. It didn't hold my attention at all, and some of the author's stylistic tics and repeated cliches bordered on off-putting.
The scope of the book didn't really live up to the sub-title, either. A good bit of time is spent on the development of the "dry" movement in America and the post-WWI push for a prohibition amendment, and then a here-and-there approach to the 13 years of Prohibition itself: biographical sketches of a bootlegger and a corrupt attorney general, some surveys of telling statistics, a couple of mentions of President Harding and Al Capone. And then the book ends on December 5, 1933, so any ways in which America really was changed as a result of Prohibition are left to the reader's observation and/or imagination.
I find the 1920's to be an interesting period in US history, especially in light of Prohibition, but that interest going in was the only thing that kept me going through the book. It just didn't deliver exactly what I was looking for. There were some interesting tidbits, but not the nuts and bolts I was more curious about. I have some other Prohibition-focused books on my shelf, though, and maybe those will yield more....more