Elegantly constructed and beautiful to read, this short novel by Thornton Wilder about the collapse of a bridge in colonial-era Peru addresses big theElegantly constructed and beautiful to read, this short novel by Thornton Wilder about the collapse of a bridge in colonial-era Peru addresses big themes with a gracefulness familiar to anyone who has seen a production of Our Town.
There's probably a lot to say about this book, but I think I would have to read it again to add anything intelligent. One quibble: even though one of his themes is how tragedy and happiness are scattered somewhat randomly through the universe, he does succumb to one writerly crutch. As we learn more about each of the characters it becomes clear that each one was on the cusp of a major life event as they made their final bridge crossing. That naturally amps up the drama of the story, but it also seems like a cop-out. Surely random tragedies take people on ordinary days too?
But that is a small criticism. Overall the book is well worth the small investment in time it takes to read....more
Wonky! If you're wondering what mainstream, technocratic policy wonks think about the current U.S. food safety system, you've come to the right place!Wonky! If you're wondering what mainstream, technocratic policy wonks think about the current U.S. food safety system, you've come to the right place! In seriousness, there is a lot of good information here, helpfully arranged and contextualized by many of the principal players....more
Covering only six action-packed years -- from the Easter Rising in 1916 to his assassination in 1922 during the Irish Civil War -- Coogan's biographyCovering only six action-packed years -- from the Easter Rising in 1916 to his assassination in 1922 during the Irish Civil War -- Coogan's biography of the Irish nationalist leader is an undeniably exciting read. It also aspires to be the definitive word on Collins, and Coogan has assembled every last scrap of correspondence and interviewed seemingly every living participant to get the story down on paper.
It is clear that the author has a great admiration for his subject, and a strong dislike for his primary rival, Eamon de Valera. This noticeable slant did make me wonder a little about the author's treatment of some episodes where the historical record is sketchy, but he is also more than willing to point out Collins' faults and failures. Coogan also delves into the mythology surrounding Collins and his death, dispelling some pervasive rumors and providing ammunition for others.
The most striking passages illustrate the way the Civil War (and the continuing Northern Troubles) wounded Ireland in a way that is only now starting to heal. Although Collins was shot by IRA soldiers who opposed the treaty he signed because it gave Ireland only an incomplete independence from Britain, it seems clear that even his enemies held him in the highest regard.
My one complaint would be that the book could be more readable than it is. The prose style is both dryly academic and oddly colloquial, and the author assumes quite a lot British and Irish history. Nothing that a few quick wikipedia searches didn't clarify, but not as inviting as it could have been....more
The Magicians is a very deliberate and very clever modern mash-up of Harry Potter and Narnia, with names altered just enough to appease the lawyers. AThe Magicians is a very deliberate and very clever modern mash-up of Harry Potter and Narnia, with names altered just enough to appease the lawyers. Atop that, Lev Grossman also manages to say something original about fantasy novels, which is this:
Much like inheriting a ton of money, magical powers will totally screw you up.
The parallels he draws between teenage magicians and today's over-achieving school kids feel right. And he makes a strong case that Hogwarts probably saw more drinking, sex and irresponsible abuse of magic than J.K. Rowling let on. The book is always engaging, often funny, and in its final third, pulls off a tricky balancing act by combining a fairly crazy plot twist with a lot of genuine emotion....more
An enjoyable, readable collection of quirky short fiction, "think piece" non-fiction and other errata edited by Dave Eggers and a crack-squad of Bay AAn enjoyable, readable collection of quirky short fiction, "think piece" non-fiction and other errata edited by Dave Eggers and a crack-squad of Bay Area high schoolers.
If you want free sample, one of my favorite pieces in the collection--"Rock the Junta" by Scott Carrier--can be read online here....more
I laughed out loud at every story in this collection, but that's not really such a grand accomplishment. I'm pretty much the world's cheapest date wheI laughed out loud at every story in this collection, but that's not really such a grand accomplishment. I'm pretty much the world's cheapest date when it come to cracking up at even the merest wisp of a joke.
Still, I was expecting this to be somehow edgier or more consequential. (Yes I know that's a dumb expectation for a book of humorous essays.) Sedaris is clearly a hilarious guy, but he trains his firepower on some pretty soft targets here. It's a bit like hanging out with your funny cousin who always cracks everyone up at family parties.
And don't get me wrong: I enjoyed the book quite a bit. But big chunks of it were meh. Someone should give my cousin a book deal too....more
Lo in the distant past, my cousin gave me David Foster Wallace's mondo-opus Infinite Jest for xmas. Since then it has lived on my shelf intimidating tLo in the distant past, my cousin gave me David Foster Wallace's mondo-opus Infinite Jest for xmas. Since then it has lived on my shelf intimidating the other, littler books and taking their lunch money. I started to read it once and got through about 100 pages before my head of steam ran out. Pretty sure I've moved 10 apartments since and lugged IJ with me each time. So when I saw a bunch of folks were organizing an online reading group called Infinite Summer I figured, well, now or never.
(Some abstract, mild SPOILERS below - nothing specific that would ruin the book for someone, but avoid clicking the links.)
Now having finished I think I can say I loved it. Not everything works, but when it does it is pretty memorable. The book demands a lot: the first 200 or so pages are pretty rough going and I found I could only read it when my wits were sharp or else the page-long sentences started blurring together. But once you're acclimated to DFW's strange little world and full-court-press writing style the cumulative whoosh of the plot and the words and the spiderweb of allusions becomes exhilarating.
It helps that the book is funny as hell and full of clever set-pieces (Eschaton!) that beat back the tedium. And yeah, it is tempting to call b.s. on some of his more over-written passages, but for the most part DFW uses his powers for good, not evil. He employs all his post-modern trickery in the service of a big-hearted, painfully sincere (even, sappy) story. The numerous tales of addicts bottoming-out are sometimes quite grim and desperately sad, but that only makes their slow climb to sobriety all the more compelling.
IJ is difficult, but I truly believe he meant it to be as entertaining and as humanly meaningful as possible. (As an aside, I will say that some of DFW's linguistic inventions are so good I've started using them unconsciously -- particularly the howling fantods and de-mapping.)
Finally, I hope it is not too much of a spoiler to say that the plot cuts off quite literally in the middle of the action. The novel is not infinite but it does literally have no end. The feel is of something massive and ornate--a chandelier or a grand piano--snapping its tether and falling. At first there is virtually no discernible movement, then it begins to gain a terrible speed. It glitters ominously as it rushes downward, anticipating a clamorous transformation. But the video reel cuts off just before the crash and noise.
DFW stated that the story's end "can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame." Which is true, if you carefully track the clues strewn through the book, but also a major "what the hell" moment once you turn that final page. (SPOILER-laden theorizing found here and here, among other places.)
The big idea, presumably, is that the novel's form recapitulates its themes of addiction and entertainment -- broadly, the pursuit of happiness. The abrupt ending conveys that same sense of incompleteness that returns once the buzz wears off, a longing for just one more hit. Indeed, as deeply frustrating as it is to read, a 'traditional' ending with a sense of closure would feel wrong for the novel and the protagonists. Addicts never get closure on their addictions, it is always day-to-day with the possibility of relapse.
Ultimately, I feel like I should give this like 17 stars or something. Not because it is perfect or necessarily the best novel I've ever read, but I can't but help feel tremendous respect for the story he tried to tell. Even the books flaws seem like triumphs.
In some ways the detective genre has disciplined his writing. His canvas is much smaller here than with PSS, his socialist politics pushed to the background and his ornate prose streamlined. He has given himself another rich urban setting--two cities in fact, bizarrely intertwined, the setting for a murder.
And yet I am reminded of a review I once read of Jose Saramago's great novel, Blindness. The reviewer was puzzled as to what, exactly, the plague of blindness in that book represented. He concluded that Blindness was ultimately a novel about "not being able to see." I took that to mean that the book was powerfully resonant of all the horrors of the 20th century - war, genocide, etc. - but in the end abstracted beyond all specifics.
Something similar is happening with TC&TC. Mieville is careful not to make his allegory too ham-fisted. Instead he makes it a puzzle to solve - and a hook on which to hang our political obsessions. Certainly, it seems, he must be talking about the status of immigrants, or minorities, or the invisibility of the poor. Bilingual nations, multicultural cities. Or all of the above. Or something.
Like PSS, the ending is unsatisfying, but for the opposite reason. Here MIeville isn't stuck piling useless subplots atop one another, rather he has over-corrected and cuts his plot short with an ending that left me wanting more more, and not in a good way.
At any rate, I never got bored with this one, and I continue to be impressed with Mieville as a writer. I'm just waiting for him to hit one out of the park....more
This was waay better than my first brush with Elmore Leonard, Pronto. For starters, the main character is charming and funny rather than tedious and uThis was waay better than my first brush with Elmore Leonard, Pronto. For starters, the main character is charming and funny rather than tedious and unlikable, and the plot is twisty and never lags. The protagonist here would be Jack Foley from Out of Sight, the world's coolest bank-robber. While reading, it's hard not to picture George Clooney reprising his role from the movie version. (Reportedly Leonard wrote this one with a movie deal in mind, but Clooney didn't want to be typecast as a thief.)
If it's easy to imagine the movie version of this book that's because it's virtually a screenplay to start with. 90% dialogue plus some basic blocking, almost nothing in the way of description. And to his credit, Leonard writes great dialogue -- just watch how the shifting alliances between the characters are foreshadowed through the tone and texture of their words.
Still for all its charms, Road Dogs struck me as a bit lightweight. Not that there's a damn thing wrong with a fun and entertaining summer read....more
This is a terrific book for anyone interested in learning about the shape of our world's energy production. What's unique about the book is how MacKayThis is a terrific book for anyone interested in learning about the shape of our world's energy production. What's unique about the book is how MacKay analyzes the problem of sustainable energy. His calculation is emphatically not the state of the art; it is, in fact, deliberately crude. Any old university, environmental group or coal power trade organization is likely to have more sophisticated energy models and predictions -- with their own assumptions buried deep within. MacKay's book aims to arm his readers with the ability to separate hype and spin from scientific facts.
MacKay (a physicist by trade) approaches sustainable energy as a series of Fermi Problems, or "back-of-the envelope" calculations. This approach seeks to take a complicated problem and boil it down to its essential core. As the saying goes, "as simple as possible, but no simpler."
To solve such a problem it helps to clearly state assumptions, identify the right physical quantities (and their units) and ultimately arrive at an "order of magnitude" estimate. Physicists in particular are trained in this way of thinking and often use it as their first crack at a research problem. The process won't necessarily get the "right" answer, right away, but by doing it you learn the structure of the problem and better understand how your simple model might be made more accurate.
MacKay's goal with this book is to assess whether it is even technically possible (economics and politics aside) to live on sustainable energy. The energy system is, of course, quite complicated, but MacKay breaks it up into numerous bite-sized problems, with each bite yielding an estimate of part of our energy consumption or production. Wind, solar, biofuel, nuclear, cars, heating, gadgets, etc. are all subjected to this analysis.
The book can be read on many levels. The main narrative is suitable for interested layfolk who aren't scared off by equations. Many of the most fun Fermi problems are contained in the appendix, which should probably be read by any physical science students studying for their doctoral candidacy exams. The figure captions and endnotes also provide a wealth of additional information, such that the book has that multi-threaded feel you get from browsing wikipedia for an hour.
MacKay ultimately concludes that yes, it is indeed possible to switch to sustainable energy. He even provides 5 different possible plans for Great Britain. But he cautions that none of them will be easy and all will require the citizenry to start saying "yes" to change, rather than complaining about how ugly windfarms are.
For MacKay, it remains an open question whether the political barriers are surmountable and whether human societies will choose sustainability as a preemptive strike against ecological collapse. This crucial political and economic question is left as an exercise for the reader.
Mystery writers must strike a careful balance: no one likes a mystery that is too obvious or one that is too obscure. Similarly, science fiction authoMystery writers must strike a careful balance: no one likes a mystery that is too obvious or one that is too obscure. Similarly, science fiction authors have a mandate to bring the science and make it plausible (their readers are, after all, total geeks). But fans are also looking for something new and interesting. So that's the sci fi game: "predict" what the major scientific breakthroughs will look like for the next millennium or so, but make them seem "real" ... or else your nerdy fans will turn on you.
Most authors just gloss this over and focus on the plot. Enough about the physics of warp drives ... explosions! After all, it's a lot to expect a mere fiction author to put forth a coherent theory of wormhole dynamics or the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics just as a prerequisite for blasting some aliens.
And yet Neal Stephenson, bless his heart, seems determined to try. He has always reveled in cool ideas themselves and will happily spend pages explaining how public-key encryption works or what nano-bot power sources might look like. With Anathem he has taken this urge to its obsessive extreme and constructed a fully detailed, 7000-year intellectual history as a backdrop for his story.
I can see how this book might not be for everyone. The book starts slow and at first lacks the usual Stephenson pizazz. There are no kitana-wielding pizza-delivery-men here, just a bunch of monks (although some can indeed kick ass). The sheer volume of alternate vocab words can be daunting. (Note: be sure to read past page 200 before giving up -- the plot picks up significantly after that point.)
But in many ways, Anathem is Stephenson's most confident and mature novel. His earlier books have a magpie quality to them (particularly the Baroque Cycle) -- jumping willy-nilly between multiple characters, plotlines and concepts. Here he sticks to a single narrative and builds systematically to a gripping finale. While it is not perfect, I enjoyed it tremendously and would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes a good spec fic speely....more
With far too many books out there it's clear that the author has a decent concept for a novel but no ability to write an interesting finale. Not so, EWith far too many books out there it's clear that the author has a decent concept for a novel but no ability to write an interesting finale. Not so, Elmore Leonard. Pronto's ending is hardly a surprise, but it is pretty funny, and almost makes up for the 250 pages preceding.
The main problem with the rest of it is that the protagonist is a tedious, unlikable old fool (as other characters are constantly pointing out to him). Nothing much happens and you don't care a whole lot about the characters. Still, it has its moments and it zips along pretty quickly.
I hear that Elmore Leonard is usually much better than this, so maybe don't let this be the first one you pick up....more
It seems I've developed a certain crankiness when it comes to traditional fantasy novels. I'm a fan of the genre, but even some of the best books comeIt seems I've developed a certain crankiness when it comes to traditional fantasy novels. I'm a fan of the genre, but even some of the best books come off as cliched and narrow-minded if you think too hard about them. And yet here we have a book that seemingly dabbles in all the tired cliches but is a joy to read from end to end.
As far as world-building goes, TNotW is no great shakes. Starting from the map on the inside cover that looks vaguely like Europe, Rothfuss supplies a lot of bog-standard fantasy tropes: magic? dragons? heroism? check check check. The book is a coming of age story involving a school for young magicians, which has been a winning formula for other authors too I think. But none of this really matters. In fact, the book would still be almost as good if it didn't have magic elements at all.
The real stars here are Rothfuss's fluid writing style and strong characters. Kvothe is as fascinating a hero as I've seen in a fantasy novel in a long time. He's brilliant, arrogant, a bit of a drama queen, but also pretty likeable. He struggles with grief and poverty and disappointment as much as with "dark arts best left alone." He has a sense of humor and Rothfuss writes him some scathingly sarcastic banter. He seems like a real person, and someone you'd actually want to spend 700 pages with.
Compare him in your mind with Robert Jordan's one-note characters like Rand al'Thor, and you'll realize that Patrick Rothfuss knows how to write.
It only gets four stars because the ending is totally unsatisfying and I'm expecting great things from the next two books in the series. Get cracking, Rothfuss....more
(1) The prose is terrible: pretentious and windy. The authors typically end each chapter with chin-stAn entertaining potboiler with two main problems:
(1) The prose is terrible: pretentious and windy. The authors typically end each chapter with chin-stroking fluff that almost makes you want to put the book down each time. Or at least thumb ahead. The plot is decent enough - I could see this being made into an entertaining summer movie.
(2) We never really learn anything about the mystery book, the Hypnerotomachia, which is a missed opportunity. The authors have constructed an elaborate puzzle balanced on top of actual scholarship. But the authors hold all the cards, so what we get is a big "historical what if."
Still, despite a terrible ending, I thought this was a step up from Dan Brown's books. There are no silly global conspiracies, just academic warfare, and the characters are somewhat believable (if often irritating)....more
It is exceedingly odd to read such an influential book decades after its DNA has been burned into pop culture. It is inevitably a bit of a letdown. FoIt is exceedingly odd to read such an influential book decades after its DNA has been burned into pop culture. It is inevitably a bit of a letdown. For example, much as I love The Incredibles, it's clear that Brad Bird took the basic premise and several of his best jokes straight from the Watchmen. Same goes for Heroes and most of Hollywood's recent comic book adaptations.
Still, Watchmen remains a pretty fascinating book. It kept me turning pages and blinking in surprise at its inspired craziness (especially the audacious ending). Inherently Watchmen is trying to have its cake and eat it to, to be a literary deconstruction of the comic book genre and simultaneously a badass example of it.
Now I'm wary of seeing the movie because I suspect Hollywood will grok the badassery, but not the irony....more
This is the best book I have come across on the subject of corporate influence on science. Prof. Michaels details in case after case how corporationsThis is the best book I have come across on the subject of corporate influence on science. Prof. Michaels details in case after case how corporations have used the "tobacco strategy" to muddy the waters and delay government regulation of harmful substances. The case studies -- secondhand tobacco smoke, lead, benzene, beryllium, diacetyl, the list goes on and on -- start to blur together, so consistent is the gameplan.
The main scientific takeaway from the book is this: epidemiology is difficult to do correctly and very easy to break. A statistically significant connection between worker exposure and cancer takes years of work. Corporations have become adept at "re-analyzing" scientific studies to create false negatives and routinely put out scientific reports written by Ph.D.s that "sound like science" but serve to obscure rather than reveal. Michaels describes the rise of "product defense firms" that brag on their websites that they can delay regulation of your harmful product for years.
Depressing stuff. But the good news is that David Michaels has been tapped by President Obama to lead the beleaguered Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ... if he can survive a blizzard of right-wing accusations and still be confirmed. He is definitely the right guy for the job - during the Clinton years he was the architect of a highly successful DOE program to compensate workers from the government's weapons labs for their exposure to toxic substances. The story of this successful, bi-partisan program is the final chapter of the books, and is a hopeful coda to what comes before....more
Slowly working my way through Sandman. This one was enjoyable, but I do miss the overarching plot of the first two. Still, 'Midsummer Night's Dream' aSlowly working my way through Sandman. This one was enjoyable, but I do miss the overarching plot of the first two. Still, 'Midsummer Night's Dream' and the one about the cats contain pretty much exactly what I'm looking for in a Neil Gaiman story, and the other 2 entries in this volume aren't bad either. I hear volume 4 is maybe one of the best in the series......more
File this one under books I disagree with but grudgingly respect. Cass Sunstein argues here (quite passionately) for wider use of formal cost-benefitFile this one under books I disagree with but grudgingly respect. Cass Sunstein argues here (quite passionately) for wider use of formal cost-benefit analysis (CBA) in government policy making. Lest you think this is merely a dry legal exercise, note that Sunstein is currently serving as President Obama's regulatory czar where he is putting his stamp on all manner of government regulations. The arguments in this book may well play a role in the safety of your workplace or the quality of the air you breathe.
Formal CBA is the notion that any government action should be justified by an accounting of all costs and benefits. In theory that's pretty unobjectionable, but in practice CBA has been used to tear down public health and environmental protections. Sunstein swears he is not a de-regulator. As a liberal, he claims to be interested in making government regulation more efficient by targeting scare resources at the most pressing problems.
There are still a lot of progressive objections to this sort of thing. For example, it is easy to measure costs, but much harder to measure benefits. What monetary value do you place on cancer deaths averted? For another, most costs and benefits are not shared equitably - how do we deal with that? For a third, cost calculations often involve future economic predictions which are, to put it charitably, extremely uncertain.
Naturally Sunstein anticipates and responds to all these objections and more, but I was left with the distinct feeling that CBA is sometimes a way of wrapping your assumptions in numbers in order to give them an aura of scientific certainty. In one especially damning chapter, Sunstein describes the range of cost-benefit balances for one proposed regulation (arsenic in drinking water). The range is so enormous that you could justify regulating or not based on which assumptions you choose to make.
Sunstein says that despite all these flaws it is better to do CBA than to be in the dark. Your mileage may vary....more
A very nice collection of short stories set in the world of Jonathan Strange Mr. Norrell (and one set in the world of Neil Gaiman's Stardust). They arA very nice collection of short stories set in the world of Jonathan Strange Mr. Norrell (and one set in the world of Neil Gaiman's Stardust). They are all mostly clever, entertaining, well-written if not terribly earth-shattering. A pleasant dessert course after the feast. The title story has some meat on it - it's a witty, feminist take on English magic and the character of Jonathan Strange himself - but some stories do seem like discarded footnotes from the novel....more
I'm a dope when it comes to economics, but my impression is that this book has been hugely influential among the anti-corporate globalization crowd. II'm a dope when it comes to economics, but my impression is that this book has been hugely influential among the anti-corporate globalization crowd. It came out shortly after the Seattle WTO protests and soon popped up on the bookshelves many of my development-minded friends.
It's easy to see why: Stiglitz is about as prestigious a development economist as you are likely to find--Nobel Prize winner, former chief economist at the World Bank, by some metrics the most cited economist working today. So if he says something has gone wrong with globalization, people listen.
His message here is very reform-minded--he thinks globalization is here to stay--but his arguments should resonate with anyone concerned about poverty in the developing world, or about jobs here in the U.S. His basic thesis is that the IMF has drifted from its Keynesian roots and been hijacked by a narrow economic orthodoxy that rabidly pursues privatization, market liberalization and low inflation to the detriment of all other social and economic goals. The attack of the market fundamentalists!
He notes that this prescription for economic growth, dubbed the 'Washington Consensus', is far from the consensus position among economists. Indeed, it seems as if the IMF's policies are designed for the benefit of the financial elite, rather than with the goal of achieving broadly-shared prosperity in the targeted countries. Hence the IMF's focus on inflation rather than unemployment, and their relentless drive to open up markets to foreign investors rather than fostering local entrepreneurship.
The results have been disastrous for developing nations from Russia to East Asia to Africa. Indeed, he makes the point that globalization has been a net loser for sub-Saharan Africa and that countries who have resisted the IMF have been more successful on average than those who didn't. (Interestingly, he mostly lets his former employers at the World Bank off the hook.)
If you are looking for a popular introduction to macroeconomics, look elsewhere. This is more like an extended, wide-ranging hallway conversation with an eminent professor. Still, I learned a ton about how these institutions work and how they might be made accountable to the billions of people impacted by their decisions. The general discussion about nurturing and building economies are also hugely relevant given the recent economic collapse....more
A collection of 12 short stories from an incestuous gang of hip, young, mostly-British authors, edited by Nick Hornby. There are a few misses here, buA collection of 12 short stories from an incestuous gang of hip, young, mostly-British authors, edited by Nick Hornby. There are a few misses here, but they are outweighed by the hits, some of which are quite good.
The Mixed: Irvine Welsh's contribution was a fascinating mess - I don't think it quite worked in the end, but it was a fun ride. I wasn't quite sure what to make of Dave Eggers's typically experimental tale about the life and death of a dog, but I think I enjoyed it.
The Bad: Colin Firth is a great actor, and while his entry in the collection is a quirky, noble try, he should probably keep his day job. While I am a huge fan of Zadie Smith in general, her story was one of her weaker efforts. ...more
Like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, this book is a synthesis of science, philosophy and cultural observation that aims to change the way youLike Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, this book is a synthesis of science, philosophy and cultural observation that aims to change the way you look at a big complex chunk of the world -- namely food. Pollan's style is more casual than Diamond's -- more dinner conversation than college lecture -- but he is an amiable, self-deprecating, common-sensical, highly-quotable chef.
Another thought: On one hand, Pollan is an idealist who offers harsh condemnation of the industrial food system and advocates a sustainable way forward. On the other hand, he is an arch cultural-conservative, celebrating a return to traditional (even primitive) food systems. Contradictory? Discuss....more