Oh Play That Thing -- Roddy Doyle
I realized as I went along that this is a sequel to a book I haven’t read, but I found the main character – a former IRA assassin called Henry, now hiding in New York under an assumed name in the teens – so unlikeable that I don’t plan on catching up. A chunk of it covers Henry’s work as driver and factotum for Louis Armstrong in New Orleans and Chicago in the twenties, and Henry’s belated recognition that what got him a place in Armstrong’s entourage was that he was white, and Armstrong was smart enough to be able to use his presence as a sort of white shield and living passport. I didn’t like it.
Liars in Love -- Richard Yates
A collection of stories about unpleasant people being unpleasant. The writing is splendid but not worth the price of associating with the awful characters.
Backroom Boys -- Francis Spufford
A very good history of a half-dozen British engineering projects, such as the Concorde supersonic jet and the human genome research effort. The subtitle is "The Return of the British Boffins"; boffin is a British term for a technical expert, someone who knows how things work. Some great stories of how researchers had to pit budget concerns and bureaucratic inertia against the very real British respect for learning and desire to get things done. Really good reading.
The Last Magazine -- Michael Hastings
A roman a clef about working at Time magazine during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The author’s avatar, a young intern, is tasked with doing background research for two powerful editors at the magazine, one writing in favor of the war and the other opposed; cynically, the intern realizes he can just give the same information to both editors, since the facts won’t affect what they were going to write anyway. There’s a very good sequence where a war reporter writes some of the first articles about Abu Ghraib and the torture of Afghan and Irani prisoners, and after publishing them the magazine is terrified by the backlash and immediately retreats and leaves the reporter twisting in the wind, soon inventing an excuse to fire him. There’s no apology when it becomes clear the reporter was right, of course. The writing was good; there were a few flaws, but it’s not fair to pick on them since the book came out posthumously – the manuscript was found among his papers and there’s no indication that he ever intended to publish it, which may explain the presence of some jarringly graphic scenes where the characters watch disturbing pornography. The book would have been better without them.
Blood, Bones, and Butter -- Gabrielle Hamilton
A restaurant memoir that didn’t go the way I would have liked. The author did something really unusual: she founded a successful restaurant in New York City without ever having run a business or even worked as a head chef. The first half of the book is very good, telling the story of growing up with vast backyard sheep roasts, being abandoned by her hippie parents as a young teenager and left to fend for herself, lying about her age to get her first restaurant jobs. She later learned a great deal working for a catering company and running the food service for a summer camp before taking the leap to being a restaurateur, a thing that’s amazing she attempted and almost unbelievable that she succeeded. However, just as the story of her restaurant was getting good, and I was really hooked, the whole second half of the book veered off into a long post-mortem of her unhappy marriage, which didn’t interest me at all. I was disappointed.
Lifted -- Andreas Bernard
A history of the elevator. Could have been better written, but still interesting. Perhaps not surprisingly, actually inventing the elevator was almost easier than persuading people to use it. Elevators might have kept on being used for nothing but freight had it not been that improved steel production around the same time made much taller buildings possible, so always taking the stairs became impractical except for fitness enthusiasts.
Infinitesimal -- Amir Alexander
An excellent book on the development of calculus and how it threatened the way seventeenth-century thinkers looked at the world. The basic issue is this: consider a straight line AB, of some finite length. According to Euclid's geometry, line AB is made up of an infinite number of points. This raises a question: does a point have any length? If it does, then no matter how small the length, an infinite number of points must add up to more than the length of line AB; but if a point's length is zero, then even an infinite number of points cannot add up to the finite length of line AB. Calculus solves this paradox by using infinitesimals, which is a method that regards points as having nonzero but infinitely small length; so that each point on the line segment has a length of "one infinitieth", so to speak. This approach seemed to discredit Euclid, who defined a point as "that which has no part", so it was threatening to the powerful classes of the time, who used the beautiful, eternal consistency and provability of Euclid's geometry as an analogy for the hierarchy of a stratified society, which they considered as equally consistent and eternal as a geometric proof; they used Euclid's Elements as the intellectual justification for their whole worldview. The Jesuits forbade the teaching or even mentioning of infinitesimals, which is one reason mathematics flourished in Protestant countries but not Catholic ones. There's also a lot about Thomas Hobbes, who thought that infinitesimals challenged his doctrine that absolutism was the only proper government, and who spent his last years publishing ever more complex mathematical papers purporting to prove calculus couldn't work. When he got fed up with readers pointing out all the errors in his calculations, he just published a final edition in which he proclaimed no one was capable of understanding his calculations but himself. (It reads rather like a guy on the internet explaining why peer-reviewed journals are too jealous to admit that he's proved the Riemann Hypothesis.) It really held my attention.
The Siege -- Arturo Perez-Reverte
A mystery and thriller set against the backdrop of the siege of Cadiz, which lasted two and a half years during the Napoleonic Wars. The siege was largely a stalemate, since the French army held all the land approaches but the British fleet kept the French fleet penned up so Cadiz could be supplied by sea. Of the two main plot lines, one follows Cadiz's chief of police as he investigates a series of brutal murders, suspecting -- though he can't say how -- that the pattern of the killings is connected with the timing and aim of the artillery barrages from the French. The other follows the fortunes of the head of one of the great merchant families of Cadiz, whose risky and dangerous trading voyages are tangled up with her undeclared platonic romance with the only captain reckless enough to command them for her. I thought it was great.
Blandings Castle -- P.G. Wodehouse
A fantastic collection of short stories. The first half-dozen are set at rustic Blandings, where the amiably eccentric Lord Emsworth tends his flowers and prize pig and is kind to children in an absent-minded sort of way. The stories show off Wodehouse's exceptional skill with a phrase; among the highlights is "It is never difficult to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine." The second half-dozen are narrated by the indefatigable Mr. Mulliner, and reveal that the Mulliner clan has several representatives in Hollywood. The story of his nephew who got a studio job as a Nodder (one step below a Yes-Man, a Nodder's job is to nod enthusiastically when the boss proposes something) had me on the floor. I loved it.
Uncollected Stories -- Richard Yates
I wouldn't have read these, but the volume was included in the set, and if I don't finish a set once I've started I break out in hives. I appreciate that the writing is good and the stories are well-told, but that doesn't overcome the powerful dislike I have for all the characters in them.
Go Tell It On the Mountain -- James Baldwin
An autobiographical novel, his first, telling the story of a black teenager named John growing up in 1930s Harlem under the tyrannical rule of his stepfather, an evangelical minister, self-absorbed, anti-intellectual, and violent. John's stepfather is equally opposed to John’s brother's petty crimes and John’s devotion to schoolwork. John is in constant dread of Hell because his strict religious background condemns his resentment of his stepfather as sinful; on top of that, as he enters puberty he's starting to become aware of his sexual attraction to men (that part is mostly subtext.) There's a powerful scene when John has a religious experience during church services, a moment of grace that should be an occasion of joy to all evangelical Christians, but as the congregation celebrates he sees his stepfather glowering at him, clearly resentful of John taking a step away from his authority. It wasn't an enjoyable book, but it was well told.
Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? -- Andrew Lawler
A terrific natural-history book, tracing the descent of the modern chicken from its wild ancestor, the Asian red jungle fowl (its actual name.) There's just a tremendous amount of information on chickens -- did you know that there are more chickens than all other domesticated animals combined? Or that there are more than a trillion eggs laid every year? Or that the main source for flu vaccines is chicken eggs (because all strains of the flu originate in birds) and it takes about three eggs to make one dose of vaccine? There are chickens everywhere in the world except Antarctica, and the only reason there's no chickens there is that there's an international agreement to keep them out, to protect the Antarctic penguins from chicken diseases. Chickens are probably less disease-resistant than they used to be because of the way we've over-bred them -- a farmer of even a hundred years ago would barely recognize a modern chicken, with its cartoonishly huge chest and reduced wingspan. There's also a lot of information on the awful battery-cage conditions of industrial chickens, most of whom have their beaks removed to stop them from pecking each other. A chicken can live up to twenty years but most are slaughtered at six weeks. A Filipino interviewed in the book, who runs a cock-fighting ring (legal in the Philippines), makes a depressingly good argument that his fighting chickens have a better life overall than farm chickens. Great reading.
Money -- Felix Martin
A "biography" of money, partly about the history of the concept and partly about its possible future. There's a lengthy and interesting section on the futility of a fiat currency. 17th-century England had a fiscal crisis involving a scarcity of money; this was because the government-mandated face value of English silver money was less than the market value of the silver itself. This was an arbitrage opportunity: melting down English coins was against the law in England but not outside of it, so English currency flowed to Europe, leaving people in England with no means to buy anything. Faced with this problem, Parliament doubled down and argued that since "money" was a concept regulated by the Crown, it was impossible for a coin to be "worth" anything other than what the Crown said it was. The financiers solemnly agreed and kept right on selling the coins at a profit; whole crates of new coins went straight from the Mint to ships bound for Europe without ever being used as currency. Martin argues that the boom-and-crash cycle is not an inevitable consequence of a market economy, as some economists say; he argues instead that a crash cycle is a failure of the economic model, and he blames the banks, specifically the lack of regulation plus the fact that gains are held privately by the banks' investors, but losses are socialized because bailouts are paid for by the taxpayers. His proposed solution is a breaking up, not of the banks, but of the functions of the banks, following the so-called Chicago Model. In this approach some banks would be nationalized and serve the function of a public utility, while others would be private and pursue speculation and profit at their own risk. He admits that this is not a "solution" per se, but it would at least be a step forward, and the success or failure of private banks would not have the massive effect on the overall economy that they do under the current system. I'd be willing to try it.
Enemies Within -- Matt Apuzo and Adam Goldman
A brilliant, heavily-researched, and infuriating book about the abuses of authority by the New York police after 9/11. It took me a long time to get through it; I had to keep stopping to read some Wodehouse to get my blood pressure down. It's a Pulitzer-winning series from the Associated Press that's been turned into a book. The NYPD created a "Demographics Unit" whose job was to send spies and provocateurs (called "rakers") into neighborhoods, clubs, stores, and religious organizations to gather data on suspicious people, which in the end meant everyone. All of this was done with no judicial oversight and no regard for due process or even jurisdiction -- the unit carried out operations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where the NYPD has no authority. At least the people in charge of all of it have since been fired, not least because all their illegal searching and eavesdropping never found a single cell or plot, and especially never found out about the terrorist plot of Al-Qaeda bomber Najibullah Zazi, who was discovered and arrested by ordinary police operating within the law.
The Intern's Handbook -- Shane Kuhn
A reasonably good book about a mid-level employee of a firm of assassins, who stalks his targets by getting himself employed as an intern at their places of business, on the theory that interns are effectively invisible, so he can get close to the target without being noticed and escape without being remembered. I thought it could have been better handled -- it tries to go from an absurdist comedy about office assassins to a serious drama by way of a stunning plot twist. But the thing about a good shocking plot twist, the canonical example I suppose being the end of "The Usual Suspects", is that the big reveal should suddenly make you see everything that's happened in the story in a whole new light, and this one doesn't really do that.
Taken At the Flood -- Robin Waterfield
A very good history of early Roman expansion, covering the wars with Macedon and the absorption of Greece, so ruined by internal fighting that it couldn't make much resistance, and the series of wars and alliances and more wars that led to Roman control of the area where Turkey is now. What's astonishing is that this was all going on during the Second Punic War, so while Hannibal was crushing the legions in Italy and penning the Romans up inside the city, the Romans were, at the same time, fighting a whole different war on a whole other front! In fact Hannibal wound up doing the Romans a favor in the end, since after his family fell from power in Carthage he fled seeking refuge from one kingdom hostile to Rome after another, giving Rome an excuse to invade everywhere he went. (In the end he killed himself rather than be turned over to the Romans.)
Paris Reborn -- Stephane Kirkland
An excellent history of the great rebuilding of Paris under Napoleon III, when huge areas of the city were demolished and modern Paris built in their place. The engineers argued, with a lot of justice, that the historical value of the centuries-old neighborhoods they were levelling was outweighed by the fact that the neighborhoods were decrepit, unsanitary, dangerous, and part of an urban plan meant for a city a tenth the size of 19th-century Paris. Rebuilding the city allowed them to put in a much better sewer system, which hindered the spread of disease, and also gave them an opportunity to pave the city, thus finally ending the reign of the vile boue de Paris, the appalling mixture of mud, horse shit, and human waste that for centuries overflowed the streets, making all Paris reek from miles away -- the reason the Kings lived at Versailles, out of the city, and also the reason behind the French fashion for long dark pants (so the stains wouldn't show.) They did a really thorough job; Victor Hugo, when writing Les Miserables, which was set in the thirties, had to remind his 1860s readers that none of the scenes where the action was set existed any more.
Uncle Fred in the Springtime -- P.G. Wodehouse
Another excellent Blandings novel. The young Pongo, whose eccentric uncle the Duke, staying at Blandings, had decided that Lord Emsworth's prize pig needs more exercise and is plotting to kidnap the pig to get it in shape, turns for help to his other uncle, the eponymous Fred, Britain's most accomplished liar. Learning that the well-known mad-doctor, Roderick Glossop, is expected as a guest at Blandings -- where, conveniently, no one has ever met him -- Fred gets Glossop sent off on a wild goose chase and goes to Blandings posing as Glossop, with Pongo tagging along as his supposed secretary. However, the Duke's new secretary is the everlasting bad penny, Baxter, who knows Fred isn't Glossop but can't tell his employer because Fred blackmails Baxter with proof that he has gone to a dance party against the orders of the teetotaling Duke. So he tells Constance, who immediately hires a private detective (where does she find all these private detectives? Blandings is always crawling with them) to come to Blandings under yet another false identity to keep an eye on them, which is handy because the same private detective has also been hired by the Duke to kidnap the pig. There's also a pair of young lovers kept apart by unreasonable relatives, of course. There's a great deal of running around, hiding under beds, and sneaking through windows by night, and the pig -- who must have the most placid temperament in history -- gets stolen and re-stolen and hidden in a bathroom. In the end, through some stupendous lies, Uncle Fred gets the pig recovered, the lovers united, and everyone restored to everyone's good graces, except Baxter, who gets blamed for everything. I'd actually feel bad for Baxter if he weren't such an officious ass.
The Courtier and the Heretic -- Matthew Stewart
A book about Leibniz and Spinoza, natural and moral philosophers who lived about the same time and whose lives followed very different tracks. Leibniz roamed all over Europe getting government positions that funded his writing, while Spinoza lived quietly as a lens-grinder in the Hague; he couldn't have moved anywhere if he wanted to, since his writings would have been burned anywhere but the Netherlands, the only nation in seventeenth-century Europe that maintained freedom of the press. Spinoza must have had great strength of character to live a life so wholly without support: he had all the drawbacks of being a Jew in a Christian country, and in addition his writings -- in which he denied the immortality of the soul and also rejected the idea of a providential, law-giving God -- had gotten him formally expelled from the Jewish community, so no one was on his side at all. I feel like the author of this book leaned too far the other way, though, since it seems he felt that in order to sympathize with Spinoza he had to hate Leibniz. The book paints Leibniz as a greedy dilettante with no principles, as opposed to Spinoza, whom it presents as a kind of philosophical saint. The middle of the book was pretty forced, with the author laboriously reconstructing what might have been said at a meeting between Leibniz and Spinoza that no one's sure even happened, and further trying to show that everything worth while in Leibniz was stolen from Spinoza's letters, which there's no reason to think Leibniz had read. It's actually a pretty good picture of Spinoza and his times, and if everything about Leibniz were deleted it would be a good book.
Midnight in Siberia -- David Greene
A journal of a train ride across the entire width of Russia from west to east. The author, an NPR employee, had lived in Moscow for years and spoke the language. He dwells mostly on the strange dissonance between Russians' public and private attitudes. The Russian public face, he says, is stony, unsmiling, unfriendly -- no one stands in line, and no one ever says "Excuse me," they just shove -- and almost brutally indifferent: the author says he saw people walk right past a horrific car accident without helping, some of them actually stepping over the decapitated body of a teenage girl without even looking down. Whereas in private, he says, Russians are the most brotherly-love people on Earth, emptying their storerooms to feed strangers and willing to go to amazing lengths to make people feel at home. What this says about the Russian character I don't know, but it was interesting.
A Damsel in Distress -- P.G. Wodehouse
One of Wodehouse's novels from the teens, wherein an American composer of stage musicals, sitting in traffic in London, is surprised when a beautiful woman jumps into his car and asks him to step on it; with admirable presence of mind he weaves around the traffic jam and drives off, leaving an angry-looking man-about-town type yelling and waving his hat after them. She thanks him and hops out a few blocks later, leaving him none the wiser, but as young men are wont to do in Wodehouse novels, the composer has fallen in love at first sight; he sees he has to face the three problems of finding out who she is, getting in with her circle, and sending the yelling man about his business, and with faith in the American can-do attitude he sets out to do just that. It was pretty good.
Remake -- Connie Willis
A science fiction story set in a near-future Hollywood where the big business is making perfect computer-generated reproductions of old movies with new stars, or vice versa -- so imagine re-releasing "Annie Hall" with Diane Keaton digitally replaced with Jennifer Lawrence, or "Gone Girl" with Humphrey Bogart replacing Ben Affleck. A lot of the action is told from the viewpoint of someone on a drug trip, which can be a good storytelling technique when done well, which I thought this wasn't. Not a memorable book.
A Spy Among Friends -- Ben Macintyre
The sordid story of the Cambridge Five, a ring of Soviet agents in the British intelligence services. They were originally active during WWII, justifying themselves to each other by saying that the USSR was a British ally and they were helping the cause, but after the war they kept passing information right up through the fifties, and there was no disguising that that was treason. A couple of them were genuine Communist idealists -- Donald Maclean was, and Kim Philby may have been, no one's sure -- but the others were merely venal, especially Guy Burgess, a revolting man. Maclean's cover was blown when American intelligence passed super-secret decrypted Russian intercepts to the British; Maclean fled to Moscow, and Burgess, who hadn't been exposed but had had enough of the spy game, went with him. It was obvious they must have been warned by someone high-placed enough to know about the American information, and apparently everyone knew it was Kim Philby but couldn't prove it, so he was only let go from the secret services and continued to work as a journalist and spy in countries that didn't have extradition treaties with Britain until finally fleeing to Moscow in the sixties. The papers at the time referred to Philby as "the Third Man", probably influenced by the title of the Graham Greene spy novel. (Actually I had always thought that The Third Man was based on the Philby case, especially since Greene had worked in the secret services and knew all the principals, but it turns out the title was unrelated and it was just a coincidence.) The author makes the point that the spies could and should have been discovered much earlier, but the internal conflict and petty one-upmanship of the various British intelligence services prevented it. An engrossing book.
The Trial -- Franz Kafka
I read this in high school but I didn't really get it then; it's a lot more comprehensible now that I've had such experiences as jury duty and dealing with the DMV. It's the story of a year in the life of Josef K., who is arrested one day by agents of an unnamed government bureau and told that his trial is soon to begin; however, he's not told exactly when, or what it is he's accused of. He never does get any answers, and whomever he asks only tells him that it would be better for him to just go along quietly. The ensuing year is a strange and terrible time for K., as he is sometimes ordered to go to court (which is never in the same place twice) and sometimes told to go back to work at the bank as if nothing is happening. When he goes to court he has to wander around through decrepit buildings in search of the proceedings, sometimes finding them in the attics or basement storerooms and sometimes not finding them at all. Once he turns up to find the court empty, and when he looks through the law books he finds they are only full of pornographic magazines. (It's all the more confusing since Kafka never put the manuscript in order, and after his death his friend Max Brod had to guess at what order the chapters should be in.) A year after their first visit (on K.'s birthday), with no conclusion or verdict from the trial, the two agents turn up again and take him to be executed. At the last minute K. finally realizes that when he was told that it was better for him to just go along, what was meant was that he should take the knife from the agents and kill himself. He refuses, and the agents stab him to death; as he dies he coughs out "Like a dog!" So, you know, light comedy.
Connie Mack (vol. 2) -- Norman L. Macht
The second volume of Macht's enormous biography of Connie Mack -- about 1300 pages so far and still only brought up to the 1930s. The book starts with the end of WWI and the miserable A's teams of the early twenties, and goes on through the great renaissance, Mack's third and last era of championship teams, building and coaching the colossal powerhouse that was the A's of the late twenties and early thirties, built around Lefty Grove (the best pitcher of the prewar era) and the great Double-X, Jimmie Foxx, who Dad remembers even now as being one of only three players who ever hit a home run out of Fenway Park to the right of the flagpole. (For the record, the others were Moose Skowron and Jim Rice.) Your parents' heroes are always bigger to you than your own heroes, so I've always thought of Jimmie Foxx as a player out of legend (this is the same reason I think of Adlai Stevenson as America's greatest statesman.)
The Devil Wears Prada -- Lauren Weisberger
A workplace novel; I'm told it's a roman a clef, but I don't know who the model for the villainous boss is. A woman just out of college gets a job at a fashion magazine, working as a junior assistant to the magazine's editor, a hugely influential force in the fashion world and also a demanding tyrant. I thought there was a nice illustration of her character when she assigns the heroine to get advance copies of the new Harry Potter book for her kids and the heroine sweet-talks a book store owner into cooperating. As the heroine writes the owner a thank-you note on the boss's stationery, she reflects that the boss wouldn't care that the heroine was forging her signature but would probably object to the wording of the note as being too nice. What saves the book from being a mere "Poor me, I had a mean boss" memoir is that the book recognizes that half the heroine's problems are caused by her own bad attitude, since she considers fashion beneath her and is only marking time until she can get a different job, which is not a good path to job satisfaction. It was okay.
The Roman Republic -- Isaac Asimov
A popular history of Rome from the Etruscan era to the rise of Augustus, extraordinarily clearly written. I read this in high school but I read it again because I remembered Asimov's eloquent praise of the Romans' conduct during the Second Punic War. Asimov, a pacifist, is never really in sympathy with the Romans, whom he considered excessively inhumane and war-mongering, so the picture he draws of their heroic determination in the face of utter defeat is all the more effective. When Hannibal came over the Alps, taking Italy completely by surprise, he immediately crushed the locals and then defeated the first army sent against him, and then defeated a bigger second army. Rome marshalled all its available resources and sent ten legions, with their auxiliaries, under the command of the Consuls of Rome (as if the President were to go out and command in the field personally); the largest Roman army ever assembled, it numbered some 80,000, as against Hannibal's army of a little more than half that size. They met at Cannae and the Romans were annihilated. No one's sure how many were killed, but it was a lot. Livy and Polybius say 70,000 men were lost, but they were probably including non-Roman allies who went over to the Carthaginian side after the battle. With their armies completely destroyed, the Consuls dead, all their allies having deserted them, and nothing left between them and the armies of Carthage, the Roman spirit had its finest hour. When Hannibal came to the gates of Rome -- tradition has it that he threw a spear over the walls into the city -- the Romans only had one thing to say: "We'll wait." The city was still too strong to be taken, and in order to feed his army Hannibal had to remain in constant motion; and while he marched up and down Italy, chasing and being harassed by the few remaining Roman cohorts under Fabius Cunctator, "The Delayer", whose one job was to keep Hannibal occupied as long as possible, the Romans held the city and waited fifteen years for the next generation to grow old enough to rebuild the army. They sailed to Africa, forcing Carthage to recall Hannibal, and defeated him there; and on the return to Italy they showed their faithless allies that they hadn't forgotten or forgiven. Really well told.
The Roman Way -- Edith Hamilton
This is an overview of Latin literature, and an attempt at determining what common features the Roman writers had -- what was the essence of their "Roman-ness". Nationalism is of course one part of it; civic pride, civitas, was so deeply ingrained in Romans from their very earliest days that it can hardly be called an attitude -- more of a genetic trait. Romans never wondered if Rome was the preeminent state in all history, in the same way that they never wondered if the sky was blue. Interestingly, Hamilton argues that for all their feet-on-the-ground pragmatism in public affairs, the Romans were romantic in their writings, which are rich with imaginative imagery. She contrasts Homer's description of the making of the shield of Achilleus -- "the god cast iron on the fire, and gold, and copper; he laid his anvil on the block and gripped his mighty tongs" -- with Ovid's description of the making of the shield of Aeneas: "the bronze shines dark red and huge, like a storm cloud lit by sky-licking fire, whose glow can be seen across the Earth." Really interesting.
Summer Lightning -- P.G. Wodehouse
A Blandings novel, exceptionally involved and funny, involving, as usual, several people coming to Blandings under false identities and causing great confusion as they pursue various ulterior motives at cross-purposes. Galahad, the former wild lad of the family, is staying at Blandings writing his memoirs, a steamy piece of scandal-mongering that Constance fears will disgrace everyone she knows; but Galahad is much stronger-willed than his brother and Constance can't intimidate him, so she hires a private detective to steal the memoirs and also brings back everybody's least favorite model of efficiency, Baxter, hoping to reinstate him as Lord Emsworth's secretary. Lord Emsworth, however, is convinced that Baxter is insane (due to the events in Leave It To Psmith). Various people, for various reasons, steal both the manuscript and Lord Emsworth's prize pig -- the pig, particularly, is passed around like a hot potato as people keep stealing it from one another -- and after a great deal of mad running about, the pig is restored, the secret lovers' true identities revealed, the memoir agreed to be suppressed on certain conditions, and Baxter is left looking more the fool than ever. It was great.
Moon Face -- Jack London
A good short story collection. The title piece is the one I remember best, a psychodrama in which the mad narrator relates how he murdered his neighbor solely because he couldn't stand the neighbor's happy, smiling face -- believing that the neighbor's many troubles in life should have made him miserable, and considering his cheerful disposition a personal insult. So -- knowing that his neighbor was in the habit of fishing by tossing a stick of dynamite into a lake and netting the stunned fish -- he trained a dog to instantly fetch any thrown object and then gave it to the neighbor as a present. I thought it really captured the guy's deranged state of mind.
The Theory That Would Not Die -- Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
An excellent, very readable book about Bayesian analysis, a method of calculating the probability of a given event. It's named for the eighteenth-century mathematician Thomas Bayes; as usual for any science, if we were concerned with justice more than pronounceability the theory should have about twelve names on it, but Bayes was the earliest and proposed the first rigorous theorem, so there it is. The Bayesian approach is opposed on philosophical grounds by the adherents of a different approach, frequentist analysis. A Bayesian approach to determine a probability -- say, "What is the likelihood that a given email message is a scam?" would involve assigning an initial probability (a "prior") based on experience and prior knowledge of factors involved, and then adjusting that initial estimate after every observation. Frequentists oppose that idea because they say that assigning a prior is really just guessing, and that no estimation can be made until a large number of observations are made, wherein you can measure a frequency. It's been a matter of argument for three hundred years, largely for non-mathematical reasons -- in the twentieth century the leading frequentist and the leading Bayesian were both self-important tin-pot tyrants, filling their own departments with only their own adherents. When a world-renowned mathematician published a five-hundred-page book all about Bayesian approaches, the chief of the frequentists -- another world-famous man -- published a book review in which he called the book thoroughly competent but unfortunately invalidated by a basic mathematical error on the first page. (He meant that the fact that the book was about Bayesian analysis was itself the basic error.) Ah, academic high-mindedness!
The Greek Way -- Edith Hamilton
An examination of the spiritual life of the classical Greeks as shown in their literature. Hamilton thought that the main difference between people of classical times and modern times was that in classical times no one had any doubt whatsoever about the immortality of the soul, and this infused all their writing and behavior. It's an excellent overview of ancient Greek literature, starting with Hesiod and the pre-Homerians and continuing up through Plato and his immediate successors. Well worth reading.
The Near East -- Isaac Asimov
An excellent popular history of the Fertile Crescent and the tides of fortune that have swept this way and that over it for the last ten thousand years. One really effective device he uses is to describe some epoch-making battle and note that the participants had no idea that they were fighting above the ruins of a city where a similar battle had taken place a thousand years before -- and where yet another great battle had been fought twelve hundred years before that, unremembered in its turn. He also dwells on how the consequences of a war can far, far outlast the people who fight it: one reason the Fertile Crescent was fertile was that the people who lived there spent centuries digging irrigation canals that kept the whole region green and productive for literally thousands of years, until the invading Mongols destroyed the canal network in the thirteenth century; most of the region has been an arid wasteland ever since.
The Happiest People on Earth -- Brock Clarke
A black comedy about a Danish newspaper writer who, after an article of his angers terrorists and provokes a bombing, is put into protective custody and sent to live as a high school teacher in upstate New York. It doesn't seem to occur to him to question how strange that is, though we eventually learn it's part of a scheme by an FBI agent to break up her former lover's marriage. It wasn't that great.
Sense and Sensibility -- Jane Austen
Man, Regency England just sounds like the pits. This is the story of a pair of sisters living as poor relations in an uncle's house and desperately hoping to get married. Since marriage is their only possible escape, it's not surprising that they fall in love with the first unattached men they see; their relatives are kind, but there's no overlooking their subordinate position -- the sisters have no agency at all. The writing was good, and it was nice that both the sisters wound up with decent men, but I still think their whole society is awful.
T. Rex and the Crater of Doom -- Walter Alvarez
A very good book about the Chixculub meteorite, which struck in the Yucatan about 65 million years ago and ended the Cretaceous Period, causing worldwide catastrophe and killing off the dinosaurs in the process. The author's father was the first to propose (about 45 years ago) that mass extinctions could be caused by meteorite impacts, and the book describes the search for corroborating evidence and the discovery of such clues as a layer of metallic ore found at the same depth all over the world, dating to just the end of the Cretaceous, an indication that something kicked a huge cloud of metallic dust into the atmosphere and it settled all over the globe at the same time. Well laid out.
Midnight in Peking -- Paul French
A crime history, sort of. The book revolves around the brutal murder of a 19-year-old girl, the daughter of a former British consul, in Peking in 1937, just before the Japanese invasion. (The city was actually called "Peiping" at the time, because "Peking" means "northern capital" and the Kuomintang moved the capital to Nanking, but the book ignores that for clarity.) It's less a book about the murder itself -- which was never solved -- than it is about the expatriate community in Peking, the "White Castle", and the invisible barrier of privilege that surrounded it, which is really what quashed the investigation; the white community was much more interested in sweeping things under the rug than in bringing anyone to justice, and the Chinese police had no means to make the foreigners cooperate with them. Well-told but depressing.
Tom Sawyer, Detective -- Mark Twain
A minor novella, a parody of detective stories, with Huck Finn happily tagging along behind Tom Sawyer as he solves a murder mystery on a steamboat ride, involving a series of silly clues and plot devices including stolen diamonds, people who look exactly alike, people returning from years of unexplained absence, crooks double-crossing each other, and a crowd of admiring strangers gasping in wonder as Tom explains his ridiculous chain of deductions. It was pretty funny.
The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation -- The Venerable Bede
This was kind of dull. It covers a very interesting period -- the slow disintegration of Roman Britain and the growth of the British kingdoms, the invasion of Hengest and the Jutes, and the wars between Northumbria and Mercia; but Bede is really only concerned with squabbles among clerics (and with making his native Northumbria look better than Mercia.) Bede was, in general, against diversity of opinion, and he favored the rule of Rome over local traditions. He writes exhaustively about council after council arguing over the correct date of Easter, clearly considering that the most pressing issue in Britain, far more important than plagues and battles. He also does a lot of digressing to tell miracle-stories (all about Northumbrians of course), which soon becomes tedious. It took me some effort to finish it.
Bad Dirt -- Annie Proulx
Her second collection of "Wyoming stories", less bleak but less consistent than the first. Her general thesis seems to be that people move to Wyoming because they want to resist Society -- sometimes less out of conviction than out of a general liking for being stubborn -- and Wyoming attracts them because it's easier to resist things there because the place is so empty. The best story was probably one about a wealthy couple who move there and can't fit in -- the woman because she's insular and self-absorbed, the man because he's hampered by a romantic idea of the frontier neighborliness that he expects to find. When a snow-shoer with a broken leg crawls out of the woods into their back yard when only the wife is home, she calls the police rather than go help him, with the idea that the snow-shoer might be a burglar or a Gypsy or something, and when the husband finds out he's so ashamed of what people will think that he decides to move. Of course probably none of the neighbors ever thought about them at all anyway. I also liked a piece of whimsy about a game warden who, by chance, discovers that a certain patch of forest road is a portal to Hell that will open if you stamp your feet on it, and from then on brings any poachers he catches to that stretch of road and tells them, "I'll rip up the ticket if you jump up and down."
The Strange Library -- Haruki Murakami
An illustrated short novella, oddly bound (the binding emphasizes the story's debt to Borges and Eco), about a teenage boy who, on a whim, goes into the town library to ask for information on the first subject that enters his head -- tax collecting in the Ottoman Empire. The young girl at the desk sends him off with an extremely creepy librarian who leads him through back corridors of the library and down into a vast subterranean maze, eventually imprisoning him in a room with books about Ottoman tax collecting. The librarian tells the boy that he'll be freed once he's memorized all the books on the table, but after he leaves, a fellow-prisoner warns the boy that in fact the librarian intends to tear off his skull and eat his brain, since brains stuffed with knowledge are more tasty. With the help of the girl from the front desk, the boy and his new friend set out to escape. It certainly kept me reading.
The Language of Food -- Dan Jurafsky
A book about food criticism, looking at the class sensibilities in the way we talk about what we eat. He points out that reviews of high-end restaurants or expensive foods tend to describe the food in terms of sex -- menus are "seductive", the food presentation is "sensual", the cuisine is "orgasmic", the dessert is "sinful". On the other hand, lower-end restaurants and less expensive foods are described in terms of embarrassment -- you eat there when no one's looking, when you’re letting yourself go, when you deserve a break. It's a sign of some kind of mistaken priorities when a five-dollar bacon burger and two-fifty milkshake from Snarfburger is called a "guilty pleasure" but a seven-hundred-dollar tasting menu and a thousand-dollar flight of sake at Nobu is not.
The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa -- Yasunari Kawabata
His first novel, and very unlike anything else he wrote. Asakusa was the entertainment district of Tokyo in the twenties, and this is a stream-of-consciousness story, clearly strongly influenced by Joyce, about the narrator wandering the district and interacting briefly with the actors, thieves, and prostitutes that make up its population. Not bad.
The War that Killed Achilles -- Caroline Alexander
A very good close reading of the Iliad, concentrating on its literary merit rather than its historical accuracy. Alexander sees the poem as largely about the contradictions of human motivation and what it means to be a soldier. The heroes of the Iliad certainly believe in honor and glory, and, as individuals, sometimes achieve them; but the war is neither honorable nor glorious -- it's nothing but ten long years of butchery, betrayal, selfishness, and deceit, ending in genocide. Alexander points out that in the famous first line -- "Sing, O Muse, the wrath of the son of Peleus" -- the word wrath (menis in Greek) is a word normally used only of the gods, appropriate since Achilleus was nearly a god himself: Zeus intended to lie with Achilleus's mother Thetis until he found out she was fated to bear "a son stronger than his father", whereupon he made her marry a mortal. Well told.
The Boys in the Boat -- Daniel James Brown
A book about college crew racing in the thirties. I thought there was a little too much gosh-wow with the "look how these plucky westerners showed the Ivy crews what's what!!" but it was still well told, with a lot of detail about boat-making. He also gave you a good feeling for just how important it is that all the rowers in a shell be absolutely, perfectly synchronized, and how hard it is to achieve that. The writing was very good.
Dr. Mutter's Marvels -- Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
An excellent biography of Thomas Mutter, a 19th-century surgeon I'm glad to have learned about. He was the first modern practitioner of "plastic surgery", which these days is associated with vanity, almost a synonym for "cosmetic", but at that time was desperately important. Mutter worked with burn victims, mostly women; working in front of a coal-fired stove while wearing heavy wool dresses that were hard to get out of put women at much higher risk. Burn survivors lived terrible lives, often unable to blink, or eat or even breathe normally; one patient drooled constantly because her scar tissue kept her mouth half open. There was no sympathy, either: burn survivors were openly called "monsters" and "freaks", even in academic literature. Mutter developed methods of peeling skin from the back and neck without detaching it, and stretching it to cover burn areas so it would graft in place. This was all done without anesthesia, which sounds really horrible, but actually Mutter was led to it out of humanity: he couldn't bear regular surgical practice, where the patients screamed the whole time and fought to escape from the operating table. Burn victims were so happy at the thought of being able to move normally again that they sat patiently throughout the operation; all the more so because Mutter, unlike the general run of surgeons then or now, put a lot of effort into pre- and post-operation care. He would meet with the patient several times before the operation, going through the procedure in dumb show over and over again, getting the patient used to being touched on the necessary spots so she'd be calm and wouldn't flinch when it came time to do it for real. Mutter seems to have been a thoroughly admirable person, who brought relief to many people who badly needed it. Great book.
Stuff Matters -- Mark Miodownik
A pretty good book about materials science, with chapters on such topics as how concrete is made, and how they came up with aerogel (a material that's structurally solid despite being over 98% air, an almost perfect thermal insulator.) There's also a good section on the crystalline structure of chocolate that explains exactly what's going wrong whenever I try to temper chocolate. A fun read.
On the Truth of the Catholic Faith -- Saint Thomas Aquinas
This book is usually called Summa Contra Gentiles, "Against all the Arguments of the Unbelievers", but in fact Aquinas never gave it a title and the editor makes a pretty good case that this title is more in line with Aquinas's intentions. Aquinas was concerned, not to show that the beliefs of Christianity are true (since most of them are unprovable), but to show that none of them are contrary to reason. This is why all of his arguments are couched in the language of Aristotle, whose works on logic and dialectic were equally well known among Christian as well as Muslim scholars. Since medieval scholars tended to follow Aristotle slavishly in areas where he was totally wrong, it's a little weird that the one point where Aquinas contradicts Aristotle is one where Aristotle was right: Aristotle said that spontaneous generation was impossible -- "No reproduction without copulation" was his conclusion -- but it was so widely believed in Aquinas's time he just decided Aristotle must have been wrong. It's 1500 pages long and kind of dull, so I wouldn't recommend it unless you're really interested in medieval philosophy.
The Egyptians -- Isaac Asimov
A popular history of Egypt and its ups and downs from ancient times up through the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Very clearly written. I had never known that ammonia got its name because it tended to accrete on the roofs of the caves that housed the temple of Ammon, wherefore the Romans called it sal ammoniac, or the Salt of Ammon.
Beowulf -- J.R.R. Tolkien
I practically know Beowulf by heart, and it was interesting to see where Tolkien's word choice differs from mine, but the really good part of the book was the explanatory notes. Tolkien was the preeminent Beowulf scholar of the twentieth century, and his notes and explanations come from an amazingly wide and deep knowledge of the language and sources and related literature. It was fantastically interesting.
On Heroes and Hero-Worship -- Thomas Carlyle
A series of lectures on the "Great Man" in history, and a strong influence on Nietzsche. Carlyle regarded the flow of historical events as largely mutable, and he thought that it was the place of superior men to control events and the place of lesser men to revere and obey. (He's not using "men" in the common 19th-century metonym for "humanity", either; he thought only men could be capital-G Great.) Carlyle would have been horrified at the rise of Fascism, but the fact is, his work helped provide the philosophical foundation for it. The lectures were popular among the sort of rich elite who go to philosophical lectures, but not among other thinkers -- Emerson broke with Carlyle over them, considering Carlyle's position incompatible not only with a Republic but with any humanitarian society. Most historians reject Carlyle's thesis that "the history of the world is the history of Great Men", arguing instead that history is driven by social and economic forces and people's reaction to them. Marx said, partly in reaction to Carlyle, that people's ability to change events is heavily limited by the circumstances they were born in -- that history is not easily mutable but requires immense force to change it, and a leader can only direct events to a certain extent, and even that only when he has the support of a great many people.
Nobody's Home -- Tim Powers
A ghost-story novella, about two women in London during the Regency who visit a mysterious person called Nobody, who lives in a houseboat on the Thames, to get themselves freed of the ghosts that are haunting them. It was pretty good.
Funny Girl -- Nick Hornby
A novel, very well-written and funny, about an English girl who, inspired by her hero Lucille Ball, leaves her home town in 1964 to go to London and become a comedian. She becomes the star of a popular TV comedy, and the story follows her career through the run of the show and subsequent other work and movies and finally the inevitable reboot. It's partly a comedy of manners, partly a strong defense of comedy and light entertainment generally. There's a great scene during a BBC panel discussion where the snooty highbrow guy, after spending the whole panel slamming light entertainment as vapid and worthless, is challenged to quote one line of Shakespeare and can't do it. The heroine gleefully seizes the opportunity to remind everyone, quite correctly, that Shakespeare is full of lowbrow entertainment aimed at the masses. Not a lot happens in the book, actually; it's the telling that makes the story good, rather than the content.
The Mystery of Cloomber -- Arthur Conan Doyle
A minor novella, a supernatural revenge story set in a small town in southwestern Scotland. A new arrival is puzzled by the paranoid behavior of an elderly neighbor, a retired general who has surrounded his entire property with a palisade; the general is eventually killed by three Buddhist priests who use their psychic powers to force him to leap to his death. Going over the dead general's papers the neighbor finds his diary, and learns that the general was killed in revenge for a terrible massacre of civilians he perpetrated during the First Afghan War forty years before, and the priests have deliberately haunted him this whole time in order to increase his misery before killing him. It was all right.
The Global War on Morris -- Steve Israel
A black comedy where, through a combination of unlikely circumstances, a variety of law-enforcement agencies become suspicious of a nebbishy New York medical-supply salesman named Morris. The government agents are hyper-aggressive and paranoid, and the book leaves you to reflect that any behavior at all looks suspicious when people have already decided you're guilty. Morris gets arrested and sent to Guantanamo, where he spends years alternately being ignored and questioned about things he's never heard of; he also gets force-fed when the guards mistake his observance of a Jewish fast day for a hunger strike. I can't say I enjoyed reading it but it was a good cautionary tale.
My Mortal Enemy -- Willa Cather
A short novel about an unhappy marriage. Told from the viewpoint of a Westerner named Nellie, it describes the marriage of Nellie's childhood friend Myra to a New Yorker named Oswald. The marriage displeases Oswald's rich uncle, who disinherits him, and the couple lead a budget-conscious middle-class life, which dissatisfies Myra. The story jumps to ten years later, when Nellie encounters Oswald on the West Coast; Myra is ill and bedridden, and Oswald takes care of her, but they live in poorer circumstances than before. Nellie gets in the habit of taking Myra out for air; on one of these trips she asks Myra why she seems so angry with her husband, but Myra can give no articulate answer, except that her life has always been one of exile. Myra eventually dies of her illness, and Nellie is somewhat surprised to find that Oswald has no bitter memories; he explains that he had always loved Myra, even though she was difficult. It was a sad story.
Cocktail Time -- P.G. Wodehouse
An outstanding farcical comedy about the amiable but conscienceless Uncle Fred, who, having advised a respectable friend to write a memoir, and then arranged for the resulting scandalous tell-all to be published under the name of a needy relation, happily blackmails everyone to ensure that his niece and her fiancé, both under the thumbs of domineering wealthy relatives, can escape into financial security and get married. I loved it.
Paul Is Undead -- Alan Goldsher
A surrealist story where the Beatles were zombies. It wasn't bad, but once I've told you the premise, I've more or less described the whole book.
Heavy Weather -- P.G. Wodehouse
The sequel to Summer Lightning, with Uncle Galahad still at Blandings, and his two sisters still trying, respectively, to destroy the manuscript of his scandalous tell-all memoir and prevent his nephew Ronnie from marrying a girl they consider beneath them. Lord Emsworth, Ronnie's trustee, has still not let Ronnie have his inheritance, being both cowed by his sisters and distracted by fears that someone will steal his prize pig. To this tableau, enter Monty Bodkin, who, in order to marry the girl he loves, has to hold a steady job for a year so her guardian will consent. Having just been fired from his job as an editor at a children's magazine (for writing a column on gambling) he latches on as Lord Emsworth's secretary. After a hugely funny series of plots, counterplots, mistaken identities, and last-minute gambits, and Monty getting fired (again), it all ends happily, with Ronnie holding the pig hostage to force Lord Emsworth to cough up his inheritance and then eloping, and Monty finding his true métier as a private detective. Excellent reading.
God's Bits of Wood -- Sembene Ousmane
A powerful novel about the great strike of the Senegalese railroad workers against the French colonial overseers in the late 1940s. The French characters are uniformly awful, which is hardly surprising, since colonial service often attracted the worst sorts of people, people too dishonest or incompetent or both to get along at home. The scenes with the French are pretty short, though, just long enough to show the total disgust and contempt they feel for the Senegalese, and most of the novel is split between the men running the strike -- who are angry at the abuses of the French but also shamed by the loss of their status as breadwinners -- and the women in their families, who have no status under the colonial government (because the Senegalese practiced polygamy, which the French wouldn't recognize, so they publicly called the workers' wives "concubines" and refused them any rights) and who now have to take more of a role in social leadership. One of the decisive moments of the strike was the "March of the Women", when the women of Thies walked four days to Dakar, to show that no one's resolve had weakened even though the French had turned off the municipal water supply, forcing everyone to make a twenty-mile round trip to get water from the river. The scenes of starvation, violence, and death are wrenching, but it was a very good book.
The Land of Canaan -- Isaac Asimov
A popular history covering the general region on the eastern littoral of the Mediterranean south of Syria, from ancient to modern times. The title was kind of a political necessity, since the book was written in the late sixties and the publishers wouldn't have wanted to use the word "Palestine" just then. That whole region was fairly independent through ancient times, largely because the two great powers on either side, the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians, were happy enough to let it alone so it could serve as a buffer state. The relatively brief periods when someone in the region became a minor power -- such as Israel under David -- it was because both the Egyptian and Mesopotamian kingdoms happened to be going through a period of weakness right then. Very clear and well presented.
The Case of the Love Commandos -- Tarquin Hall
Another in his series of mysteries starring the Delhi private investigator Vish Puri. I'm afraid the series has rather run out of steam, and this wasn't very engaging, although I was interested to learn about the Love Commandos, a real phenomenon, where youth activists opposed to enforced arranged marriages try to break up engagements. They probably don't actually kidnap unwilling brides all that often, but I suppose "The Case of the Protesters Who Waved Signs" wouldn't have had that élan that publishers look for in action stories.
American Lion -- Jon Meacham
A sympathetic biography of Andrew Jackson, very well-researched and clearly written, but failing in its aim to make me like Jackson any better. He was a small-minded, short-sighted tyrant, driven by a win-at-all-costs mentality that might make a good football coach but makes a terrible statesman. He was a racist and an unapologetic supporter of slavery. He was also a nightmare for the Florida Indians; as a general he committed war crimes against them, and as President he unlawfully forced them to migrate -- thus becoming the first President to break an Indian treaty and setting the precedent for all the other broken treaties that followed. He made the government more polarized and more autocratic. On the one hand he broke with the tradition established by Washington of appointing the employees of the various Departments based on merit and retaining them through changes of administration, and instead got rid of the entire government staff and replaced them with only members of his own party, a crappy tradition that's had bad consequences for the executive office ever since. On the other hand he established the "Imperial Presidency", doing all he could to change the office from merely the most senior civil servant to something more monarchical. For instance, up till his time foreign governments addressed their communications to "The Congress and President of the United States"; Jackson insisted that all communications must be addressed only to him. He also openly rejected the Constitutional checks on his office and defied both Congress and the Supreme Court when they tried to rein in his unlawful abuses of power. Oh, and don't forget he spent all his political capital to destroy the Bank of the United States, mostly out of personal dislike for the men in charge of it, a disastrous policy that caused a long depression. In his personal life he was no better, a domestic tyrant who would relate to his family only on terms he dictated, and who apparently felt no day was complete unless he formed a new lifelong grudge against someone for some trivial perceived slight. Just an awful person and a stain on the history of America.
Rust -- Jonathan Waldman
A really good book, appropriately subtitled "The Longest War". The author spent time at "can school", a symposium held by the Ball company about methods of preventing corrosion in cans. Soda cans have a very thin layer of polymer coating sprayed on the inside to protect the metal, since soda is not only corrosive but under pressure. Turns out the pop-top is the reason soda cans have to be stored lever-side-up; in order for the lever to be able to pop the can open, the can is scored in a semi-circle underneath it, making that line one mill thinner than the rest of the can. Cans are filled just shy of being full specifically so no soda will touch the scored line, but if the can is stored upside down the soda will eventually eat through the line and blow the can open. Also: tomato sauce companies use jars rather than cans, even though glass is more expensive, because tomatoes are so acidic no metal can could last very long. There's a great section on bridges and the endless fight to stop rust from spreading on them. For smaller bridges it may soon be possible to cast an entire bridge out of plastic, which would never rust and never need to be painted, and would probably last 75 years without any maintenance until the ultraviolet light from the Sun broke its structure down far enough. A fascinating book.
The Naulahka -- Wolcott Ballestier and Rudyard Kipling
A bad novel written while Kipling was living in America. I don't know how much of the book to blame on his co-author, but the incredibly offensive and infuriating "love" story -- the hero spends the whole book blithely dismissing the heroine's aim to work in international aid as a teacher, and explaining to her that what she really wants is to live quietly as his political campaign's trophy wife -- is unlike anything else in Kipling. (However, the book's conclusion that the people of India are lazy, stupid, cowardly, superstitious, thieving, and ungrateful sounds just like him.) The "Naulahka" of the title is a legendary necklace of fabulous value, and when the “hero” follows the heroine to India in order to sabotage her work and force her to return to America, he decides, as sort of a side-interest, to find the necklace and take it; the fact that this would be stealing literally never crosses his mind. Unfortunately the hero doesn't die horribly, but at least he doesn't get hold of the treasure. The book doesn't mention the heroine's having a debilitating brain injury, but she must, since she decides to go back and marry the hero. I hated, hated, hated it.
The Seashell on the Mountaintop -- Alan Cutler
A very good biography of the 16th-century Danish priest and scientist Nicolas Steno, who was the first to recognize that fossil shells in high places could not be remnants of the Flood, as was commonly thought, because study showed them to be of differing ages. He proposed instead a model whereby the earth around the fossils was gradually eroded and sedimented over time. He also proposed the "law of superposition", which states that the differing ages of fossil specimens can best be explained by supposing that sedimentation has happened over and over again over very long periods, so the oldest fossils on the lowest strata were gradually overlaid by higher strata containing newer fossils. This was among the first evidence for what was then called the "Deep Time" hypothesis, the idea that the Earth was a great, great deal older than had previously been thought. The prose is very clear and enjoyable. Good book.
Contenders -- Erika Krouse
A fighting novel, about a heavily emotionally damaged woman named Nina making her living in Denver by anti-mugging: she hangs around a bar until a guy hits on her and gets mad when she turns him down, and when he gets aggressive she beats him up and takes his wallet. Since the only constant thing in Nina's life is karate, which she has been practicing since she was a small child, she gets a lot of wallets. As the novel opens she gets home with a wallet she's just taken from a guy she knocked out cold, only to open it and find a badge. The cop she took it from has set out to track her down, wanting the badge back and also wanting to beat her to death in revenge; and just as she's preparing for the fight of her life, a long-lost childhood friend of hers turns up to deliver her ten-year-old niece, whom she's never met but who is now an orphan needing Nina's help. Nina couldn't be less prepared to look after a child even if she weren't being hunted by a homicidal cop, and in order to move forward she has to metaphorically die and be reborn, which she accomplishes through violence. It was really good.
The Nonexistent Knight -- Italo Calvino
A short novella, set in the days of the wars of Charlemagne, about the knight Agiluf, who is only an empty suit of armor. It seems to be a story about identity -- Agiluf moves and talks and capably fills his place in society, but has no inner life. It may also be a commentary on expectations, since Agiluf has all the qualities of a perfect knight -- bravery, chivalry, piety, and so on -- and yet he doesn't exist, suggesting that no real person can perfectly embody a moral code without letting the real identity be swallowed by the role it's playing. I liked it.
The Cloven Viscount -- Italo Calvino
Another short novella, about an Italian nobleman who goes to war against the Ottomans and fights a Turkish swordsman, who splits him in half from head to toe. The army doctors miraculously save the lives of both halves of the Viscount, and they return home on one leg each, where it becomes clear that the division has split their soul as well, leaving one good half and one bad half. In an unusual variation on the good twin/bad twin trope, nobody likes either one -- the bad half because he's brutal and cruel, the good half because he's offensively self-righteous. Eventually a doctor sews the two halves back together and everyone is satisfied. It was a good story.
Yes, Chef -- Marcus Samuelsson
An excellent autobiography; English is the author's third language, after Amharic and Swedish, so I suspect a co-author, though I didn't see one credited. The first sentence is a real grabber: "I have never seen a picture of my mother." When he was three there was a tuberculosis epidemic in his home town in Ethiopia; his mother walked to Addis Ababa with his older sister, the two taking turns carrying him; all three were sick, but both children survived. Their mother died of TB in Addis Ababa and the children were taken in by an international relief organization. Soon afterwards they were adopted by a Swedish couple, who gave him the name Marcus (he was born Kassahun.) It's left vague as to why his father didn't go with them, and though Marcus did go to meet his father later in life, there's clearly a lot of resentment there that's been glossed over. Swedish students are encouraged to pick a trade early, and Marcus, whose adoptive grandmother was a great cook, decided to go into cooking and eventually graduated from the famous culinary institute of Gothenburg, and after studying in various restaurants around Europe he came to America, where he showed great talent and inventiveness, mixing American and Ethiopian food, and eventually starting his own restaurant, Red Rooster. He's cooked state dinners for the Obamas at the White House, which is pretty damn awesome for a one-time penniless refugee. I really liked it.
Leave It To Psmith -- P.G. Wodehouse
The last of Wodehouse's books about the imperturbable Psmith ("The 'P' is silent"). The absent-minded Lord Emsworth, sent by his bossy sister Constance to London to pick up a snooty highbrow poet, mistakes Psmith for his guest and brings him back to Blandings. Psmith, having fallen in love at first sight with a woman he has learned works at Blandings, is happy to go along, and breezily passes himself off as the poet (Wodehouse says somewhere that "Blandings has impostors like other houses have mice.") Psmith foils Constance's plan to reinstate the supercilious, hard-hearted Baxter as Lord Emsworth's secretary and winds up taking the job himself (it's rather a revolving door at that position) and gets engaged to the woman, and everything, naturally, ends happily. It was brilliant.
The Dark Ages -- Isaac Asimov
A popular history of Western Europe between the fall of Rome and the Crusades. Asimov mentions that "Dark Ages" is a misnomer, since there was nothing particularly darker about those times than others, but the phrase was so common when he was writing that he used it anyway. Most of it, naturally, deals with the rise and fall of the fortunes of the various Germanic tribes who conquered this way and that across Europe for centuries. Charlemagne managed to unite the eastern and western Gothic tribes to create the Holy Roman Empire (a name that raised eyebrows in Constantinople, which still considered itself the capital of the Roman Empire). Charlemagne foolishly intended to split the empire three ways among his sons, but two of them died before he did; the luck didn't last long, though, because the empire wound up being split among his three grandsons instead. The two strongest ones took the east and west parts, which essentially became France and Germany, and they left their youngest and weakest brother with a small buffer state in the middle; this buffer state was made up of the fertile territory of Alsace and Lorraine, and France and Germany have been fighting over it ever since. One of the depressing things about studying history is seeing how one dumb, unconsidered decision can keep having bad consequences a thousand years later.
Something Fresh -- P.G. Wodehouse
The first novel about the rustic estate Blandings Castle, and its proprietor, the elderly Lord Emsworth, absent-minded, not very bright, largely spineless, and oppressed by his older sister Constance, a freezing, humorless tyrant who is always dragging him away from working in his garden in the nice weather to make him work on the family history under the eye of his offensively efficient secretary, Baxter. While visiting the hotel of an American millionaire (the two terms are practically synonymous in Wodehouse) and being shown a very valuable scarab ornament, Lord Emsworth absently puts it in his pocket and takes it home, thus setting in motion a parade of houseguests all arriving at Blandings under one pretext or another, all determined to recover the scarab for a reward. Naturally everything works out for the best, with the millionaire reconciled, Baxter banished, and the right people marrying each other. It was great.
Aladdin's Lamp -- John Freely
A book about medieval science in the Islamic nations, which should have been a lot more interesting than it was. The writing was dull and the book dragged.
The Fiddler in the Subway -- Gene Weingarten
An excellent collection of essays. I actually didn't care much for the title piece, about an experiment where one of the best violinists in the world, using a million-dollar violin, played incognito in the lobby of a New York subway for most of a morning and afternoon. Weingarten is dismayed at the fact that very few people stopped to listen to the music; but I think he gives insufficient thought to the fact that nearly all the people using the subway are on their way to work, and don't have time to stop to listen to a violinist, whether his music is sublime or not. Much better, I thought, was a terrific story about a party clown in the DC area called The Great Zucchini, who must be the best handler of kids' birthday parties ever. I also admired a wrenching, compassionate essay about parents who have accidentally left their children in hot cars, and how unexpectedly easy it is for that to happen. People just can't keep more than a certain number of things in mind at once, and if having your child in the car is a break from routine -- like, the child's usually in school during the day but today he's sick so you take him along while you do errands -- and several things happen to distract you, the fact that the child is in the car can just drop right out of your mind. People have suggested putting a weight sensor or something under a child's car seat, so it would sound an alarm if the car were parked too long with the child still in it, but that can't get made because can you imagine the lawsuit if one malfunctioned? That story won the Pulitzer, and deserved to.
Money For Nothing -- P.G. Wodehouse
Another inspired farce. Hugo Carmody needs five hundred pounds to go in with his friend Ronnie and start a London nightclub, but his uncle Lester, trustee of Hugo's inheritance, won't let him have the money on the reasonable grounds that Ronnie is a hopeless chump and is sure to lose it. The hero of the novel is Lester's financial manager, John, who loves a woman named Pat, who loves him in return but won't marry him because of his lack of backbone when dealing with his boss. Hugo, Ronnie, and John drown their sorrows at a gambling-club, which is raided, and they escape in the company of a couple of con artists who take advantage of their collective innocence to work a stock fraud on uncle Lester. However, not only is Lester too smart to fall for it, he's actually broke, since all his money is tied up in his entailed estate. The con artists hit on the idea of stealing the estate's heirlooms and cleaning up on the insurance, and Lester goes along with it, each side intending to double-cross the other, but the plot is accidentally foiled by Hugo catching them in the act. Lester gives Hugo the five hundred pounds he needs to get rid of him and the burglars try again, but this time they're foiled by John, who realizes that Lester is in on the crime and gives him a piece of his mind, thus winning Pat's heart, and everything ends happily.
Is That a Fish In Your Ear? -- David Bellos
A book about the process of translating, which should have been better reading than it was, but the writing was dry and academic. I was interested to learn that there are far, far more translations from English into other languages than the other way around -- the vast majority of Chinese literature, for example, has never been translated into English. I also hadn't realized what a tremendous expense translation is for the European Parliament, which conducts all of its business in all twenty-three member languages.
The Orchard Keeper -- Cormac McCarthy
A strange novel set during Prohibition. Marion Slyder, a bootlegger, picks up a hitchhiker, who tries to murder him with a tire iron. Fighting back, Slyder strangles the hitchhiker and dumps his body in a pit in an abandoned apple orchard. An old man living in a shack in the orchard later finds the body, and, for obscure reasons, decides to cover the pit and maintain it as a grave site. The hitchhiker's son, a teenager who lives by setting traps for waterside animals, later becomes Slyder's accomplice in bootlegging, though neither of them know that Slyder killed the boy's father. The old man eventually dies in a shootout with the police, while Slyder gets caught with a trunk full of whiskey and goes to jail. The novel ends with the boy, apparently some years later, returning to the town and finding it abandoned; he walks unknowing past his father's resting-place. I didn't really understand the point of the story, but it did keep me reading.
Loitering -- Charles D'Ambrosio
A brilliant collection of essays, which I liked particularly because they were written by someone who uses essays to explore questions rather than to insist on answers. Suicide runs in the author's family and it comes up a lot in this book; he argues, for example, that J.D. Salinger's work is largely about the effort to remain alive in the face of the desire for self-destruction. He writes movingly about how he was haunted by fear after his brother's suicide and then his other brother's attempted suicide. The most striking part was the wrenching episode when he's sitting reading in a coffee shop and glances out the window to see his surviving brother standing and looking at him, and the feeling of impotence that results from knowing he can't do anything to help his brother beyond walking him back to the halfway house where he lives. It really stayed with me.
Constantinople -- Isaac Asimov
A very good popular history of the Byzantines, running from the founding of the city up to its fall in 1453. Constantinople is kind of a blind spot in my education -- my history classes in school only barely mentioned it, which is weird because European history makes no sense at all without accounting for it: its colossally powerful presence was all that kept the weak and disorganized states of Europe from vanishing under military and cultural invasions from the East. We call them the Byzantines, but they thought of themselves as the Roman Empire right up to the bitter end. Though more autocratic than the empire in the west, it was also better managed. The Byzantines learned from the failings of the Romans and avoided their two biggest mistakes. First, the empire went eight hundred years without ever debasing its coinage, which made its financial system incredibly stable and assured it could get credit even during bad times. Second, for its whole existence, its army was composed solely of its own citizens; when they employed mercenaries, which was rare, it was never inside their own territory. Because of this the Empire never had to fear an uprising of the soldiers, and didn't need to follow the dangerous practice of buying the army's loyalty with ever-increasing bribes. It was probably also the reason Constantinople's army never had a manpower shortage due to citizens unused to fighting and unwilling to serve: the citizens fought bravely right up to the very end.
We Need To Talk About Kevin -- Lionel Shriver
This was well-written, but it was so massively depressing I couldn't enjoy it. It's an epistolary novel, a series of letters from a woman to her former husband, all about the problems of their son Kevin. Since her letters never make any reference to answering letters from her husband, it becomes obvious the husband must be dead, and as we go on we find out that the problem with Kevin is that he's a murderer, in prison for having killed a dozen of his high school classmates and a teacher. There's no one in the story to like: Kevin is a murderer, obviously; the father, from his wife's description, was a self-satisfied asshole who saw only what he wanted to see; and the woman herself is pretty repellent, since she loathed her own son from the second he was born, and worse, even though she knew Kevin was violent, even after he burned his younger sister's eye out with acid, she never made any attempt to get him any help or admit there was anything wrong. I read an interview where the author says she tries to write about "people who are difficult to love", and she sure succeeded with this one.
No Mentor But Myself -- Dale L. Walker & Jeanne Campbell Reesman, eds.
A collection of articles about getting published, not really practically relevant any more (I'm pretty sure no one goes to magazine offices these days to choke the editor until he coughs up whatever's in his pockets as partial payment of a months-late story fee) but still entertaining.
The Three-Cornered World -- Natsume Soseki
A journeying story; in fact the title in Japanese means "Grass Pillow", a common 19th-century term for a walking-trip where you slept on the ground. The main character is an artist who has come to a remote mountainous area to paint landscapes, but can't get inspired; he makes a few sketches, but mostly fills the time writing poetry and wondering about the history of the hostess at the little hostel he's staying at. When he's not doing that he sits and thinks, musing about suicide (a student and friend of Soseki's had drowned himself the previous year) and the place of art in society, reflecting that an absence of common sense seems to be necessary to an artist. It was kind of a dreamy story, which was probably deliberate. I liked it.
Lord Emsworth and Others -- P.G. Wodehouse
A great collection of short stories drawn from all corners of Wodehouse-land: a Mulliner story, a Blandings story, a few Drones stories, a story about the hard-luck idler Ukridge, and a few golf stories. I can't believe I'm saying it, but the golf stories were terrific. Wodehouse is so good he can even make stories about golf interesting and funny.
The Elephant Vanishes -- Haruki Murakami
A collection of short stories, none of which I liked. I suppose I didn't really understand them -- what was the meaning of the story where a woman has episodes of insatiable hunger, or the one about a woman who gives up sleeping so she can obsessively reread the same Russian novel, or the one where a man starts getting obscene phone calls from a woman he doesn't know? I didn't get it.
Operation Nemesis -- Eric Bogosian
An engrossing and scary history of the Armenian genocide, and the semi-organized group of survivors who spent years tracking down the Turkish officials who were most to blame -- many of whom were living in other countries under assumed names -- and assassinating them. The Turks, to this day, have done a very good job of pretending the genocide never happened, so it's hardly surprising that the revenge scheme isn't better known than it is.
Under Western Eyes -- Joseph Conrad
A novel of Tsarist Russia. As Conrad notes in his preface, the novel was obsolete almost as soon as it was written, since the Tsar was overthrown soon after it was published, an event Conrad had thought impossible. Possibly because Conrad had left Poland for good at the age of sixteen and was no longer spiritually in sync with his homeland, the story is told from the viewpoint of an Englishman, a teacher of literature living in Europe. It's a story of conscience, as the hero, Razumov, is approached for sanctuary by a fellow-student; the student has just assassinated a government official with a bomb, and, mistakenly believing that Razumov shares his anarchist views, asks for help escaping. Razumov, who is actually a monarchist, turns the student in; the student is executed and Razumov is recruited as a state agent to infiltrate the anarchists. He resents being used as a spy but fears becoming a suspect if he refuses, so he goes along. The wrenching part of the story comes when Razumov encounters the mother and sister of the executed student, who mistakenly believe that Razumov was his best friend and abettor; he can't tell them the truth without exposing himself as an agent, and the strain crushes him. It was pretty depressing.
The Shaping of France -- Isaac Asimov
A popular history, covering a lot of the same ground as his other book The Dark Ages but concentrating on the Frankish tribes and going into more detail. Funny how what we think of as "France" didn't really come into being until the sixteenth century; before Henry of Navarre it was just a collection of all-but-entirely independent regions, who paid only lip service to the King, if that. The English were able to achieve so much success in their wars against France largely because so many of the French fought with the English against the King! There was a good reason Louis XIV had his cannon inscribed with the motto ultima ratio regium ("the last argument of kings"): only the King had enough money to support heavy artillery, and it was the King's cannon that silenced the independence of the dukes.
The Last Interview -- David Foster Wallace
A collection of interviews with Wallace, including the last one conducted before his death. Like Nabokov, he preferred to do interviews by mail so he could write several drafts; he didn't believe in the value of spontaneity. Wallace really seems to have bought into the idea of himself as the voice of his generation -- he thought that the ubiquity of popular culture and advertising shaped people his age so much that they really could be spoken of as a homogenous entity. I don't agree. I've never thought a generation could be said to have an overall identity, but Wallace thought it could, and he thought its defining characteristic was what he called "a stomach-level sadness". Not surprising for someone who eventually committed suicide, I guess.
Into the War -- Italo Calvino
Three autobiographical essays about World War II. Calvino, who grew up in San Remo, was sixteen when Mussolini allied with Hitler and declared war on France; Calvino was drafted into a Fascist youth group, a sort of paramilitary organization, and he was given a uniform and assigned jobs such as assisting refugees, carrying equipment, and standing watch as an air-raid warden. His group was not well organized, and he and his friends really wandered around to suit themselves, occasionally rummaging around abandoned houses hoping to find money. He says that for all the frantic bellowing of devotion to Mussolini, no one ever talked about him without fear in their eyes. It felt very realistic.
A Wild Sheep Chase -- Haruki Murakami
My favorite Murakami novel. The narrator, whose name we aren't told, is a man in his thirties who runs a small translation business in Tokyo. (He's actually a recurring character from Murakami's first two novels, but I didn't know that when I read this.) At one time he had a close friend whose nickname was The Rat, but they have been out of touch for some years. He has occasionally gotten long letters from the Rat, one of them enclosing a draft of a novel, which the narrator has never gotten around to reading. In his last letter the Rat included a picture -- a mountain landscape -- and asked the narrator to make sure it appeared in print somewhere; the narrator used it as the background image for a magazine ad. As the novel begins, the narrator gets a visit from an agent who represents a powerful criminal boss, who -- absolutely seriously -- tells the narrator that he wants him to find a particular sheep that appears in that picture; failure will mean the end of his business and probably his life. The narrator can think of no plan except to ask the Rat, but he has to try to find him in a roundabout way so as not to lead the agent to his front door. The rest of the novel is the narrator setting out to find the Rat and find out what's up with that sheep. It was really good.
Mr. Mulliner Speaking -- P.G. Wodehouse
The second collection of stories narrated by the garrulous Mr. Mulliner about his vast array of relatives and the scrapes they get into and out of. A lot of them are, in skeleton, about a young man who pretends to be something he's not in order to impress a woman, only to fail utterly, and then discover that his real self is just what she wanted. It's the fleshing out that makes the stories great.
The Trouble With Physics -- Lee Smolin
A dry but informative examination of the basic problem with string theory: not only is it not possible to test it by physical observation, there's no reason to think it will ever become possible. What surprises me is that there are a lot of influential scientists who are so committed to string theory that they are willing to just ignore the most important part of the scientific method -- testability -- and even sniffily call it an outdated idea. There does seem to be a bit of hand-waving around the subject: it should really be called the "string hypothesis", since it meets none of the criteria to be called a theory, but no one ever brings that up. The author argues that string theory has become something of a mania; the fact that after thirty years there still is no well-formulated theory should be a signal that the whole idea should be reconsidered, but the physics community has just doubled down and tried to assert that previous standards of proof don't apply to them. I do notice that whenever anyone is publicly questioned on the basic foundation of the string hypothesis, they immediately retreat into explanations of why ordinary people can't grasp the massive complexity of the idea, which is nothing but an appeal to authority.
The 47 Ronin -- John Allyn
A novelization of the famous story of medieval Japan, about the samurai retainers of a feudal warlord who, when their warlord is killed by a rival, are ordered by the shogun's government to accept the new situation and do nothing. The samurai, who are now ronin because they have no lord to maintain them, are faced with a dilemma: they must either disobey the shogun or leave their lord unavenged, both of which are unacceptable. Some of the ronin reconcile themselves and go off to make new lives, but 47 of them decide that disobedience is the lesser of two evils, so they disperse and secretly make their way to the rival's home city, where they regroup and kill him. To atone for their disobedience they then all kill themselves. The writing was okay but not inspired.
Butch Is a Noun -- S. Bear Bergman
A collection of highly personal essays about gender identity. Probably a lot of Bergman's intended audience shares a background of experience that gives them a context I don't have; for me the main takeaway is that binary gender thinking is so ingrained in our culture that the only way a butch fits into our mental framework is as "a woman acting like a man", which is not only inaccurate but creates a sense of implied hostility right as part of the definition -- if Box A and Box B are the only options, and they're fixed in stone, then someone climbing out of Box A into Box B is doing something unnatural. But if we can recognize that Box A and Box B aren’t set in stone, and there can be a Box C or a Box H or a Box QQ*@M7 or any of an infinite number of other options – or better yet, that the whole idea of boxes is a social construct and people can exist at any position of a large spectrum -- then everybody could just relax. Also, as a gender-neutral pronoun I prefer "ze" to "xe" just as a practical matter, since it's obvious how to pronounce "ze" and if you want people to change their habits it's a good idea to lower the barrier to entry as much as you can.
Turgenev's Literary Reminiscences -- David Magarshack, trans.
Sadly, this turned out to be mostly a collection of mean-spirited character assassinations on everyone Turgenev had a grudge against, which seems to have been nearly everyone. The literary figures of 19th-century Russia all seem to have been high-strung, nervous types, eager to take offense and loath to forget, but Turgenev tops them all. He makes a meal of his resentment, his rage at a magazine editor who said he liked someone else's poetry better than Turgenev's undimmed after thirty-five years, and he clearly regards any political or literary disagreement with him as a worse crime than murder. He can't have been a fun person to know.
The Shaping of England -- Isaac Asimov
A popular history of England from ancient times to the modern era. Asimov always adds context to make history more than dates and battles. Here he gives a particularly good illustration of a mistake that people keep making in the same way over and over from one millennium to the next: when two or more factions within a state are fighting, one of them is sure to call on some outside power for help -- a move that has never ended in anything but disaster. Probably a lot of leaders who make that decision are aware of the usual consequences, but that's the trouble with factional quarrels -- most people would really rather let their nation be destroyed than let the opposing faction win.
Over Seventy -- P.G. Wodehouse
Wodehouse's third or fourth autobiography, written in the fifties after he emigrated permanently to America. It was prompted by a magazine asking him to look back on his career, and he remarks that a description of his career would be pretty boring, since it would just go "I wrote a book and people liked it, so I wrote another book and people liked it, so I wrote another book..." and so on. It's mostly a series of funny stories about Americans he knew, along with an essay heavy with footnotes, because, he said, someone told him that a serious biography should have footnotes in it.
The Wild Palms -- William Faulkner
This is actually two thematically-related novels, told in alternating chapters. The better of the two is called "If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem", and Faulkner wanted that to be the title of the book, but the publisher used the title of the other novel instead. They're both stories about a man who becomes responsible for a pregnant woman. One is a former medical student who left med school to run away with a married woman who wanted to live a Bohemian life, and since the story is set in the twenties, when no adulterer could get a job, they've come to live cheaply in a Florida cottage for the winter while she tries to persuade him to let her get an abortion. The other is a prisoner at a work camp in Mississippi who's conscripted to help with rescue work during the great flood of 1927; sent out in a rowboat to find a man reported to be stranded on a roof, he does not find the man, but does rescue a pregnant woman from a tree. The flood carries the boat far downriver, and the man -- who can't approach anyone for help without getting shot at, because of his prison uniform -- has to care for the woman while looking for a place to turn himself in. In the first story the med student eventually gives the woman an abortion himself; she bleeds to death and the student surrenders to the police, though he's saved from trial by the woman's husband, who pays people off not to press charges, to prevent more scandal. In the second story, the prisoner delivers the woman's baby and keeps the three of them alive on the edge of the river for months until he finally finds a police boat and turns himself in, whereupon he gets ten years added to his sentence for escaping. They were both well written, but I liked the prisoner's story better.
The Late Monsieur Gallet -- Georges Simenon
Not very engaging. It's an assumed-identity mystery and the answer is pretty obvious, though it was written before the war so that trope probably wasn't so played out then. I didn't find the main character interesting and the writing was nothing special, though that may be the fault of the translator.
The Lions of Al-Rassan -- Guy Gavriel Kay
A very good book, an alternate history set in Spain during the Reconquista except with all the names changed. I was impressed that the author managed to write a genuine classical tragedy, a friend-against-friend, love-versus-duty story, without chickening out and letting a deus ex machina solve everyone's problem. I liked it a lot.
When to Rob a Bank -- Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner
A collection of posts from their online blog, on such topics as why we don't tip flight attendants (probably because they're perceived as belonging to a "higher class" than tipped employees.) I thought the most interesting one was a post analyzing the economic cost of our fear of strangers -- a big inefficiency, since the huge majority of people who are attacked are attacked by someone they know. I actually went into a bank carrying this book, though it didn't occur to me till later that that might not have been the best idea.
If I Die In a Combat Zone -- Tim O'Brien
A Vietnam memoir, the first part dwelling on his plans to dodge the draft by going to Canada, which he wound up not doing, he says, just because the weight of expectations from his family and community were too much for him to resist. What struck me about the later part was his vivid description of how constant the fear was, how no one was ever really free of it at any time, and how tacitly acknowledged but never spoken of it was. He says that everyone's ambition was to get assigned to office duty back of the lines, and draws a powerful picture of a near-uprising in his unit, caused by the fact that the black soldiers thought the white NCOs were overly favoring the whites when arranging for people to get non-combat duty. A very good book. The title comes from a common marching cadence chant, the second part of which is "...box me up and ship me home."
Pedro -- Pedro Martinez and Michael Silverman
Decently written, hitting all the beats you'd expect of a sports autobiography, nothing to write home about. I was mildly surprised to see that Pedro still thinks the Red Sox were wrong not to meet his demand for an extra year after 2004, even though he had one more good season in 2005 and then three seasons as dead weight, which was exactly what the Sox predicted and the reason they wouldn't go for the extra year in the first place.
The Dead Father -- Donald Barthelme
I admit I didn't understand this at all. It's a weird allegorical (I think) story about a group of people on a road pulling a large cart behind them on ropes. On the cart is the Dead Father, a sort of giant, or statue, or anyway some kind of entity representing the concept of fatherhood; the pullers of the cart are his children, who sometimes obey him and sometimes command, as he's sometimes senile and sometimes not. It's not clear where they're going or why, until it turns out that at the end of the road is the Dead Father's grave. The only thing I really got out of it was that Barthelme must have had a problematic relationship with his father.
Letters and Sayings of Epicurus -- Odysseus Makridis, trans.
Epicurus gets a bad rap because he argued that the object of life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. The Stoics ridiculed his position as mere hedonism, though they must have known better since to the Greeks "pleasure" never meant just physical sensations but also the life of the mind; Epicurus thought that most human suffering came about because people don't sufficiently think through their actions.
The Shaping of North America -- Isaac Asimov
A popular history of the European colonization of North America, up till the French and Indian Wars of the 1750s. Nothing you didn't learn in high school, but I read it for the author, whose prose always makes enjoyable reading.
The Grand Banks Cafe -- Georges Simenon
I tried one more book by Simenon, to see if I'd just picked up a dud the first time, but this one was no more interesting. It's one of those stories where the cop goes somewhere out of his jurisdiction, and every character in the book knows what the cop wants to know but won't tell him. I thought it fell flat -- I don't even remember what it was the cop wanted to know.
After Dark -- Haruki Murakami
A strange, alienated novel that takes place over the course of one night. A college student named Mari is reading a book at Denny's, which she chose because it's open all night. She's approached by a former high school classmate, Takahashi, who remembers her because he had a crush on her older sister Eri; we eventually learn that Eri has some sort of sleeping sickness, having announced one day that she was going to sleep for a while and then never waking up. There are some dream-state chapters that seem to be told from the sleeping Eri's point of view. Takahashi leaves to practice with his jazz band, but comes back when another late-night habitué, a former female wrestler who's now a bouncer at a shady quasi-legal brothel, needs Mari, who speaks Chinese, to translate for a Chinese prostitute who's been beaten by a client. They get help for the prostitute but don't find her assailant -- we the readers see that he's a businessman who likes to work alone in his office at night. I thought it was very good.
Dead Wake -- Erik Larson
A re-creation of the last voyage of the Lusitania, the liner whose sinking by a U-boat was widely condemned as a war crime and helped bring America into WWI. It's actually not clear whether she was a legitimate military target, since both sides cranked up the propaganda machines so far that the truth has been obscured. Certainly the ship was carrying some quantity of rifle ammunition; certainly the commander of the U-20 knew she was a passenger liner, and his communiques to the shore say nothing about her carrying contraband. British negligence also contributed, since the Royal Navy observed increased U-boat activity in that area, and sent warnings to Navy ships, but didn't notify the Lusitania. Almost 1200 people died, largely because the Germans made no effort to rescue anyone, which was a big departure from the norms of the time and a big part of why public opinion turned against Germany in so many countries.
Seveneves -- Neal Stephenson
I didn't care for this. For one thing it uses a story structure I've never liked -- the plot's established, and rolls along, and then we jump into the future to what is essentially a new story, with new characters. Also, I didn't really like either story. The first is about what happens when the world finds out that a terrible meteor storm, the remains of the exploded Moon, will wipe out all life on Earth within two or three years. It's told in kind of a satellite's-eye-view fashion, without a protagonist, and a scattershot here-and-there approach, picking up little bits of one person's story and then another's without ever concentrating on any, which I think is meant to get across that the scale of the disaster is so huge it's just impossible to relate from the viewpoint of one or even several people. Which is fine, but I found it unsatisfying. The first story ends up with the entire human race reduced to eight women, one of them infertile, reasonably secure in a base on a big space rock. Then we get the time jump, and the whole second part of the book is basically a Tour Guide To The World Five Thousand Years Later. The book never gave me a good reason to accept that a whole new human race could be produced from seven individuals, but even aside from that I found his future world unconvincing. Listing all the things I didn't like would be as tedious as reading that part was, so as a representative I'll just say I don't believe that a blog post could be so important that everyone in the world would know it by heart five thousand years later. The book wasn't technically unskillful, but I thought it just didn't work, either in whole or in part.
Blackout -- Sarah Hepola
A memoir written by a recovering alcoholic, whose drinking got so bad she would lose whole weekends or more, sometimes waking up in a strange hotel with no idea how she'd gotten there. Women are typically more affected by alcohol than men because they have lower body density, and the writer says that blackouts may be more common among women than is generally recognized, partly because an alcohol-induced blackout is almost indistinguishable from a rape-drug-induced one. It was a well-written but disturbing book.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World -- Haruki Murkami
A weird novel, consisting of two stories, told in alternating chapters, that at first seem to have no connection. The first story is about a man who works as a courier for an organization that deals in encrypted information; the second, about a man who has just arrived as a prisoner at some sort of village, whose inhabitants are all dreamy figures with no memories, and which is surrounded by a dark forest and a wall. Eventually it becomes clear -- well, sort of clear -- that the first story's organization encrypts information by storing it symbolically in the courier's subconscious mind, and the second story is a representation of the courier's subconscious mind itself. I liked the first story but I didn't really like the novel as a whole.
French Leave -- P.G. Wodehouse
A funny story about a collection of well-born layabouts trying to make money without doing any work. There's the usual confusion and mistaken identity -- Wodehouse's favorite device -- and a good scene where the overbearing police chief gets socked in the eye, much to the delight of his long-suffering underlings.
The Night-Born -- Jack London
A pretty good short story collection. The one that stuck with me was a character study, a portrait showing London's opinion of the arrogant idle rich: a spoiled young woman on a cruise ship in port throws coins in the water to watch the local children dive for them. When sharks appear and the children stop diving, she starts throwing in more and more valuable coins, just for the pleasure of watching the children weigh their desperate poverty against mortal danger. When one of the children finally dives in after a gold twenty-dollar coin and is killed, the men on the ship make a big show of turning away from the woman in disgust -- although any of them could have stopped her. It was well drawn.
The Possessed -- Fyodor Dostoevsky
An anti-nihilist novel, the most political thing he wrote. I believe he wrote it because he was dissatisfied with Turgenev's attack on nihilism in "Fathers And Sons": Turgenev's nihilist, Bazarov, is a decent person with bad convictions, which he ends up not following. Dostoyevsky wanted to show a real, dedicated nihilist, someone whose definite goal was the overthrow and destruction of all civilization. It proceeds on two levels. On the personal level, Dostoyevsky's nihilist, Verkhovensky, is a revolting, immoral person, as a genuine nihilist must be, and his influence corrupts the main character, Stavrogin, who might otherwise have become a good person. On the abstract level, Dostoyevsky attacks the weakest part of nihilist logic, the belief that a new society must necessarily appear after the old is burned down. Dostoyevsky argues, I think correctly, that civilization is produced not by historical necessity but by human effort, and our efforts should be towards preserving and improving it, because destroying it would probably bring about, not a new and better society, but simple chaos. We see this when Verkhovensky's plotting destroys his home town (a microcosm of Russia), murdering some, driving others mad, and burning much of the rest: nothing is gained, the town is simply ruined, and order has to be restored by force from without, while Verkhovensky flees to leave other people to pay for his crimes. Not really a likable book, but a gripping one.
Annihilation -- Jeff VanderMeer
A horror novel, told from the point of view of an unnamed biologist, part of an exploration team sent to investigate an anomalous area that has appeared somewhere on the Carolina coast; the narration is somewhat lurching because the biologist has undergone lengthy hypnotic sessions but doesn't remember them -- this is because the members of the eleven previous expeditions have all died or gone insane. Eventually she realizes that her hypnotic conditioning was much more extensive than she had been told to expect -- she realizes that she and the other expedition members are literally seeing different things. As the others die, or vanish, or go mad, the biologist becomes paranoid and suspicious of the team's leader, a psychologist; this paranoia only increases when she finds old journals that reveal that there have been many more than eleven previous expeditions. It's a very unsettling story, doing a good job of conveying nameless fear and the terror of not being able to trust your perceptions.
The Man Without a Country -- Edward Everett Hale
A patriotic nineteenth-century novella, exactly the right length, about a soldier involved in Aaron Burr's aborted treason attempt. Sentenced to life in prison at the trial, he bitterly denounces the government and wishes he may never hear of the United States again. Shocked by this almost blasphemous wish, the court decrees that he must serve his life sentence aboard ships of the Navy, where no one, for any reason, may ever mention the United States in his hearing, or discuss it with him in any way; the only books and papers he will be allowed must be from before 1776. He grows old in this existential exile and comes to repent before he dies. I liked it.
Double Indemnity -- James M. Cain
Kind of the definitive femme fatale story, about an insurance investigator who is lured by a fascinating woman into helping her insure her husband's life and then murder him. The first half is the murder plot, the second half is the insurance man trying not to get caught and starting to suspect that the woman has played him for a fool. A classic.
Authority - Jeff VanderMeer
A sequel to Annihilation, involving a government official coming (not before time!) to investigate what the hell's going on at the facility that's been sending all these expeditions into the anomalous "Area X". The official has to deal with two infuriating mysteries: the mystery of the facility, whose Director has disappeared, leaving behind a mixture of ignorance and stone-walling; and the mystery of his own mission, assigned to him by deliberately vague superiors whose motivations and cross-purposes are unclear. It relies on you having read the previous book for context that makes the facility personnel's mad behavior frightening instead of eccentric, but I don't see how the author could have avoided that.
A Highly Unlikely Scenario -- Rachel Cantor
A surreal near-future story about a teenage boy who works in phone support for a pizza delivery company (his job is to counsel impatient customers to cultivate a Zen frame of mind and accept that the pizza will arrive when it is right for it to arrive.) His work phone starts getting calls from people such as Marco Polo, Roger Bacon, and famous Kabbalist rabbis of the Middle Ages. Since he dropped out of school to support himself after his parents left, he doesn’t recognize any of the names, and is surprised when he gets approached by a secret society of Roger Bacon-idolizing librarians, who need his late grandfather's Kabbalistic books to help them with their re-creation of Bacon's talking bronze head. It was goofy, but I liked it.
The Wright Brothers -- David McCullough
A very good biography of the brothers, drawing them as exceptionally steady and sensible, real "solid citizens" in the 19th-century sense. Wilbur, the older brother, intended to go to Yale, but during a hockey game the local bad kid smashed him in the head with his stick and laid him out; during his convalescence he got typhoid fever and was bedridden for months. This ended his college plans so he went in with his brother to start a bicycle repair business, which did so well it not only supported the family but funded their side interest of building an airplane. (Worth noting that the brothers' entire project, over several years from the first glider to the working airplane, cost something less than two thousand dollars!) Their first priority was methodically, rigorously testing everything previously written about powered flight and finding it was all wrong, which let them start all over; they spent a lot of time trapping birds in enclosed spaces so they could watch them fly from close up. In one of those odd cases where the prophet has no honor in his own country, the American government was totally uninterested. In fact they seemed not to be paying attention at all -- when the Wrights wrote to the War Department, clearly stating that they had a working model of an airplane and were willing to sell the plans and the model to the US government on the cheap, the secretary wrote back as though the Wrights were asking for money to fund experiments! In the end they had to go to France, where their airplane became the wonder of the age and Paris reeled at the sight of Orville flying circles around the Eiffel Tower. It was a really good book.
Acceptance -- Jeff VanderMeer
The resolution, more or less, of the Annihilation series, where the official from the second book meets the biologist from the first book, and we also get a flashback story from before the anomaly appeared. It wasn't as good a story as either of the first two, and the ending, insofar as I understood it, didn't satisfy me.
The Birth of the United States -- Isaac Asimov
A popular history of the circumstances leading up to the Revolution, the Revolution itself, and the aftermath, up through the adoption of the Constitution. Very clear and well explained. There was a very good description of the Battle of Saratoga and how it changed the face of the war, not only delivering the first-ever surrender of a British army but bringing foreign recognition and support and establishing the US as a real nation. Interestingly, the real hero of Saratoga was Benedict Arnold, whose courage and decisiveness at the crucial time really won the battle. Because of his later treason -- all the worse because he was not a Loyalist, and his only goal was money -- Arnold's name was struck from Army records. The list of generals at West Point has a blank space where his name should be; the monument at Saratoga has four niches for statues of the generals, but Arnold's niche is empty, with no plaque; the spot on the battlefield where he was wounded has a marker noting that the bravest man in the army was wounded there, but doesn't include his name. If only he'd died from that wound he'd be remembered as one of America's greatest heroes.
Factotum -- Charles Bukowski
Hated it. It's the story of a few months in the life of Bukowski's fictional alter ego, Henry Chinaski, a disappointed would-be writer who drifts from one crummy job to another, always getting fired because he goofs off and steals. Chinaski is repellent, a failure who thinks he's too good for the world, and he fills his time getting drunk and masturbating while spying on women through their windows. This was the first Bukowski book I've read; I won't be reading the others.
Meet Mr. Mulliner -- P.G. Wodehouse
An excellent collection of short stories from his prime, all set in a pub where the garrulous Mr. Mulliner regales the regulars with unlikely stories about his enormous collection of relatives and the bizarre mix-ups they get themselves into. It was very funny.
Funny in Farsi -- Firoozeh Dumas
A memoir of growing up in the United States as an Irani immigrant. I thought it was pretty good. There were some good examples of immigrant confusion: in the seventies most Americans had never heard of Iran, so when people said "Where's that?" and she said "Persia", they would invariably ask "Where the cats come from?" Her family actually had no idea what that meant, since apparently "Persian cat" is an English-invented breed name, but it was a big help, since after that whenever anyone asked where they were from they could say "Persia, you know, where the cats come from," and that satisfied everyone.
Going After Cacciato -- Tim O'Brien
A Vietnam novel, kind of about escapism. The plot involves an officer and a dozen or so men, including the narrator, on patrol near the border in the northwest; one of the men, Cacciato, having worked out on a map that it's physically possible to walk from Vietnam to Paris, deserts, and the rest of the unit goes after him to bring him back. The chase crosses several countries and gets more and more absurd, and eventually we realize that the whole story is actually a daydream the narrator is having while on sentry duty at night. It was pretty good.
The Oysters of Locmariaquer -- Eleanor Clark
A pretty good book about French oyster cultivation, strong on detail. I really liked the parts describing the centuries-old hand-cultivation methods and how they work, but I really didn't like the elegiac parts where the author laments how the younger generation (in the 1950s) was leaving the area to find work elsewhere. I mean, what a tragedy that women were going to work in Paris rather than live short, hard lives in unheated one-room shacks with drunken wife-beating husbands!
The Man Upstairs -- P.G. Wodehouse
An early collection of short stories. I liked the title piece best, an O. Henryish story where a struggling writer and a struggling artist, living in the same cheap boarding house, are pleased to start achieving success, until they find out that both of them have been anonymously buying the other's work by way of encouragement. This isn't all bad since it leads to their happy marriage. A good book.
Waiter Rant -- Steve Dublanica
A reasonably good book about working as a waiter, and later headwaiter, in an expensive New York restaurant. It's a series of blog posts that have been turned into a book, and it shows. I did like the well-drawn picture of how the pressure of spending long shifts at close quarters makes petty quarrels among the staff turn into festering resentment that almost always leads to fights and sometimes to lasting hatred. That part was very accurate; however, though the author pays lip service to the notion that he was as much to blame as anyone else, he still represents his co-workers as angry, petty people who make his life miserable out of envy and laziness, and his eventual firing as happening because another waiter's boyfriend was friends with the owner, rather than because he wasn't succeeding at the headwaiter's job of keeping the front of the house running smoothly. Also, I'm pretty sure the scene where he was all "You can't fire me, I quit!", and the boss lost his mind about it, only happened inside his head.
The Strength of the Strong -- Jack London
A short story collection, mostly speculative future histories, not very good. One story predicts a general invasion of the rest of the world by the Chinese, whom London presents as fighting like army ants, their vast numbers making their advance irresistible. The "white nations" ally in self-defense and develop biological weapons, which they use to wipe out the entire Chinese population; London argues that as there is no "common psychological language" between white people and Asians, the death of over a billion Chinese should affect the white victors no more than the death of as many flies. I didn't like it.
Thinking, Fast and Slow -- Daniel Kahneman
A book on decision making, and how people's general reluctance to reconsider their first approximations often leads to error. There was a lot of good stuff about confirmation bias and about loss aversion, a much bigger human motivator than you'd think, but the part that struck me most is how our problem-solving strategies can backfire. When faced with a difficult problem most people try to break it down into a series of simpler problems; but by doing that you can often trick yourself by substituting an easy question for a hard question and calling that a solution. The prose is kind of dry and the book dragged in places, but it was still worth reading.
Fine Just the Way It Is -- Annie Proulx
Another collection of Wyoming stories, although there are also a couple set in Hell and featuring the Devil's long-suffering personal assistant, Duane. The Hell stories are farcical comedies, while the Wyoming stories are bitter tragedies; I'm not sure what point she's making there. I liked the story about the guy who found out that his long-haul driver father had four other families, none of whom knew about the others, and that he gave the children in each family the same names so he wouldn't get confused.
Stories in an Almost Classical Mode -- Harold Brodkey
I didn't enjoy these. They mainly concerned middle-aged men feeling sorry for themselves, and they wandered, and I thought they were dull.
The War For Late Night -- Bill Carter
A blow-by-blow account of the strange rats' nest at NBC in 2010, which was so weirdly complicated I can only sum it up by saying "Jay Leno won in the end and Conan O'Brien got shafted." The author makes the case that Leno was rather less to blame for this mess than he was for the mess of 1992, where Johnny Carson retired and Dave Letterman got stabbed in the back and Leno usurped the Tonight Show; but Leno's behavior that time made people less willing to give him the benefit of the doubt the second time. Plus, all comedians hate Jay Leno anyway, because he was really, genuinely funny, and he deliberately stopped being funny in order to tell safe, boring, neutered jokes that were all forgotten five minutes after he told them. The book also argues that even the biggest network decisions are really made on the basis of personal loyalties rather than on objective data. It felt a little long, but that may just have been an unavoidable effect of the subject matter. It was pretty good.
Accordion Crimes -- Annie Proulx
I didn't like this. The prose was good but the story was relentlessly depressing. The book uses a handmade accordion to follow the lives and sorrows of a succession of 19th and 20th-century immigrants to America; the accordion is made by an Italian, and passes successively through the hands of blacks, Germans, Latinos, Poles, and French Canadians. It seems at first glance that the accordion must be cursed, since all of its possessors live rotten lives and usually die horribly, but that's actually just a natural consequence of living as a poor immigrant. I wouldn't recommend it.
Joy in the Morning -- P.G. Wodehouse
A Bertie Wooster novel, really the pearl of the bunch, where Bertie falls victim to an intellectual woman who decides his character needs improving; her forceful personality is too much for poor spineless Bertie, who helplessly becomes engaged to her. Luckily he has a rival, the local police constable, and through a series of resourceful ideas and tactful lies, Jeeves manages to extricate Bertie and everything is resolved happily. The writing is so good, and the story is so funny, that the book could hardly be improved. I loved it.
Sputnik Sweetheart -- Haruki Murakami
I liked this, but it is rather a collection of Murakami tropes. You could use it as a drinking game. It's an oddball love story, where the unnamed narrator (DRINK!), known to us as K, has unrequited feelings (DRINK!) for a woman his age named Sumire. Sumire falls in love with an older woman named Miu, who was once a professional pianist but had to give it up (DRINK!) and becomes her secretary and travelling assistant. The title comes from a Japanese play on words (DRINK!) involving the pronunciations of the words "Sputnik" and "beatnik". Sumire has no friends other than K (DRINK!), and the two often speak by phone (DRINK!) Eventually K gets a static-filled, unclear phone call (DRINK!) from Miu, who is in Greece, telling him that Sumire has disappeared (DRINK!); K goes to Greece to look for her but does not find her (DRINK!) and eventually suspects she may have walked off into some sort of parallel world (DRINK!) He has a mystical experience (DRINK!) and returns to Japan; the novel ends ambiguously (DRINK!) when K gets a strange phone call (DRINK!) from Sumire, who may or may not be at a phone booth near her apartment. Good book.
Our Federal Union -- Isaac Asimov
A continuation of his popular history of America, starting with Washington's successors in the White House and the War of 1812 and continuing through the end of the Civil War. It has very good miniature portraits of the great figures of the twenties and thirties -- Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams. He draws a very clear and thoroughly depressing picture of the massive corruption and war profiteering in the North, which often crippled the armies of the Union and likely prolonged the war. Very well written.
The Shepherd's Crown -- Terry Pratchett
Pratchett's last novel, and the last of the YA books featuring no-longer-apprentice witch Tiffany Aching. This is the story where Granny Weatherwax, the Colossus of the witching world, finally dies, and there's an unspoken but savage fight over who will take her place as the tacit leader of the witches. It's Tiffany, of course, and the novel ends with the establishment of a new status quo. Pratchett was dying when he wrote it, and the scenes surrounding Granny's death are very well-written and moving, but the rest of the book was kind of uninteresting.
George Marshall -- Debi and Irwin Unger with Stanley Hirshson
A good biography, covering his education and early career, the war, and his post-war diplomatic career in about equal thirds. The authors think Marshall's greatest strength as a commander was his ability to choose personnel: when he was put in charge, he ignored seniority and connections and promoted on his own judgement, which almost always turned out to be correct. (When he put Eisenhower in overall command of the European theater, he was jumping him over the heads of sixty-six generals senior to him.) I was also impressed with the (mostly) tactful way Marshall dealt with the British, whose assumption that the Americans were junior partners who should do what they were told must have been infuriating. It was also interesting that, although he campaigned for it tirelessly, the Marshall Plan was not actually his own design; Truman thought, probably correctly, that the plan would not get Congressional approval with his own name attached to it so he co-opted Marshall's name instead. The general respect Marshall's name carried in America after the war was certainly the biggest factor in pushing popular support for the plan. I enjoyed it.
The Innovator's Dilemma -- Clayton M. Christensen
A pretty good book about how a company can fail by succeeding. Basically the problem is that if a company that's successful with Product X really innovates, and really comes up with a game-changing Product Y, then in order to promote Product Y it has to compete with itself -- not only does this drain revenue, it alienates customers, since early iterations of Product Y almost certainly won't fit the needs of the company's biggest customers, who will demand that the company double down on Product X. That's why really game-changing products almost have to come from new companies who don't have to compete with their own legacy tools. Not bad.
The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden -- Jonas Jonasson
A very funny tall tale about an orphaned young black girl working a miserable job in the sewers of Johannesburg during Apartheid, who manages to learn math and uses her knowledge to lever herself up into jobs as a menial laborer for various incompetent government employees while actually doing all their work. She eventually becomes a janitor for a research scientist, and since her boss is a time-server whose family bribed his examiners to get his degree, she teaches herself physics from his library and so, at one remove, finds herself in charge of South African nuclear bomb development. When the old South African regime starts to crumble, she trades an unrecorded bomb to some Mossad agents to help her escape, but due to a mix-up with some shipping containers she ends up a refugee in Sweden with an unaccounted-for nuclear bomb on her hands. It only gets crazier from there. I loved it.
Beyond Numeracy -- John Allen Paulos
A collection of magazine articles re-edited for the book, dealing with misuse of statistics in the press and the general need for a more quantitative approach to decision-making. Pseudo-science comes in for a lot of hammering, which was fun. I liked it.
Octopus! -- Katherine Harmon Courage
Good natural history of octopuses (the correct plural!) and how little we still understand them. Did you know an octopus's brain is a kind of network spread out over various nodes in its body, and the nodes can operate autonomously to a certain extent? One thing biologists haven't figured out is why the octopus's body should spend such a heavy expenditure of energy on its brain, when an octopus only lives about three years and there doesn't seem to be any pressing reason for it to need high intelligence. I liked it.
Louder And Funnier -- P.G. Wodehouse
A collection of articles he wrote for Vanity Fair in the teens and twenties, mostly about the American theater, and told in the voice of a befuddled and not very bright Englishman trying to make sense of America. (Wodehouse was at this time making a very good living writing musical comedies for New York theaters.) The title comes from an old vaudeville story about a nervous after-dinner speaker, where someone in the audience calls out "Louder!" and someone else adds "..and funnier!"
The Invention of the Restaurant -- Rebecca L. Spang
A very interesting history of an idea: an institution that does nothing except serve food, a French innovation of the seventeenth century. It's a good example of semantic drift -- restaurant literally means "restorative", and it originally referred to any kind of broth or thin soup eaten by invalids; the name came to mean a place where such soups could be bought, and then a place where cooked food could be bought. They seem to have come about largely because of increased ease of travelling. Unless a traveler were well-connected enough to stay as a guest in a house rich enough to feed him, there weren't really many alternatives -- such eating-houses as existed were really clubs meant for feeding the local working men, who weren't welcoming to strangers; not to mention that because workers all ate at the same time, the eating-house always served its meal at the same time, and if you came late you were out of luck. So when middle-class people started travelling for pleasure, it became clear that a need existed, and restaurants were what filled it. The book was probably someone's Ph.D. thesis originally, and the writing is kind of stained with academese, but the subject matter is so interesting it's still worth it.
Norwegian Wood -- Haruki Murakami
A reminiscence story, as many of his novels are. The hero, Watanabe, is 37; on a plane flight he hears the song "Norwegian Wood", and this sets him thinking about his life twenty years earlier, in the late sixties when the song came out. He was a college student then, and the story centers around the love triangle among him and two women named Naoko and Midori, set against the backdrop of the widespread student unrest of the time, a reaction to rightward leanings of the Japanese government. As in all Murakami novels the characters' interactions are largely by phone, probably symbolic of the feelings of disconnection and alienation Murakami seems to associate with his generation. The title in Japanese actually means "Norwegian Forest", a legitimate translation of "Norwegian Wood" but not the sense meant by the Beatles. Appropriately, the novel is full of forest imagery, mainly centered around Naoko, whose emotional problems eventually lead her to a sanitarium far from the city. I liked it.
The Golden Door -- Isaac Asimov
The last volume of his popular history of America, covering the Reconstruction and the Gilded Age and ending about 1920. (He meant to write another volume but never did.) A lot of it deals with the short-sightedness of American nativists who valued the stratified and ordered society produced by heterogeneity of language and religion over the vigor and dynamism of a society constantly remaking itself through immigration; a fight happening all over again in exactly the same way today. Good book.
Piccadilly Jim -- P.G. Wodehouse
One of Wodehouse's great farces. The hero, the titular Jim, has made rather an ass of himself through high living in New York and is dismayed, returning to London, to find himself notorious -- the tabloids printing wildly exaggerated stories of his roistering, and respectable people practically drawing the hems of their garments aside as he walks by. He sets out to reform his reputation, and befriends an American millionaire whose social-climbing wife has forced him to move to London, where he is pining away for want of baseball and infuriated by his appallingly spoiled stepson. As often happens in Wodehouse, the oppressed victim only needs a galvanizing incident to allow him to triumph, and everything ends happily: the millionaire puts his foot down and takes ship back to New York for the pennant race, with the rehabilitated Jim going along as his secretary and incidentally marrying his niece. It was a lot of fun.
Jake -- Alfred Slote
A very good YA baseball book from the seventies. I remember reading this on the Cape when I was about ten. The eponymous Jake is twelve or thirteen years old, being raised by his older brother, who's in his twenties, because their parents abandoned them. Jake has a lot of rage, which he expresses through competition on the ball field. Jake's team is the unloved stepchild of its league, having only nine kids total, no sponsor, and no coach. Jake is the team's leader, but since league rules require an adult coach, the mom of one of the other kids comes to the games and sits reading her newspaper while Jake does the actual coaching. It's a good story.
after the quake -- Haruki Murakami
A collection of short stories, all dealing with the aftermath of the great Kobe earthquake of 1995. Possibly Murakami thought this theme wouldn't be apparent to a non-Japanese reader, since the title is different in English (the Japanese title means "All God's Children Can Dance".) All the stories are set in February 1995, one month after the quake but one month before the subway gas attacks. The one that stays in my mind most is "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo", an odd story about an ordinary man who keeps waking up to find a humanoid frog sitting in his kitchen, working himself up, he says, to fight the giant subterranean monster that causes earthquakes. They were all good, though.
Past And Present -- Thomas Carlyle
It's hard to think of someone with whom I agree and disagree so thoroughly as Carlyle. This is a mid-19th-century book on the "Condition of England Question", a phrase he coined to describe the tremendous class differences in England and their bad effects, and what the proper way was of dealing with them. Carlyle's main topic was that despite the fact that England had both abundant natural resources and vast wealth, the majority of the people still lived in grinding poverty, and that people willing to work were not able to find jobs. He called this state of affairs intolerable, chastised the ruling classes for thinking only of their own profits and blaming the poverty of the poor on their own moral faults, and warned that such injustice was what had brought about the French Revolution. Well done Tom! However, he was also a firm believer in aristocracy and believed that men naturally recognize their superiors and follow them (you can probably guess what I think about that one.) To illustrate this the whole middle part of the book is taken up with a long account of a change of administration at a medieval abbey, where the abbey solved its long-standing financial and disciplinary problems by appointing the most capable monk as abbot, even though he was of a lower social class than the previous abbots -- preferring problem-solving ability over empty pedigree. Carlyle wanted the same thing to happen in his time on a bigger scale, for the ruling classes to give up some of their privileges and widen the franchise to allow talent to rise (for example, because of the medieval borough system, the mighty industrial city of Manchester, with a population in the millions, had no representation in Parliament.) He was right, too -- only five years after this was written, the working population of England rose up in the Chartist Rebellions, which were put down by the Army but did force a narrowing of the class divide.
Three Moments of an Explosion -- China Mieville
A collection of short stories, most of which didn't appeal to me except one, a very good story about a psychotherapist whose unusual treatment method is to identify the toxic people in her patients' lives and then murder them. I loved that one.
A Visit From the Goon Squad -- Jennifer Egan
A novel consisting of a series of interconnected stories following a dozen or so characters, closely or peripherally involved in the music business, and their interrelations at various points over twenty or thirty years. The villain of the novel is Time, the titular goon, who inescapably assaults the characters' lives. I liked the way a washed-up musician and a washed-up music journalist team up to resurrect themselves by producing a documentary of the musician's final tour, the strain of which they both know will probably kill him, which he's fine with. As he says, the story of the documentary should be "How did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck nobody cares about?" It was really good, I thought.
Quo Vadimus? -- E.B. White
A collection of pieces White wrote in the early thirties for the New Yorker. I find White generally doesn't make me laugh; I thought the title piece, a story where a man goes around the streets of New York asking people "Quo vadimus?" and invariably having to explain that it means "Where are you going?", was pretty flat. It's not usually worth trying to explain why something is funny to one person and not others, but context certainly has something to do with it; a long satire poking fun at the pompous pseudo-genteel way the Florida newspapers describe the doings of Society demands some familiarity with the real thing, which I haven't got.
The Road Not Taken -- David Orr
A very good exegesis of Frost's poem "The Road Less Traveled", whose title, as the author points out, most people misremember. There's a disagreement on the poem among critics -- is the poem, as most people read it, all about the value of considering your road in life and following one path rather than another because you want to, rather than because of what everyone else has done before you? Or is it, as many academics think, really a satire of that way of thinking, and arguing instead that what roads you choose really make no difference? The latter view relies largely on an idea of Frost as a nasty, self-satisfied prick whose only pleasure in life was looking down on other people, a false picture created by Frost's main biographer. Like Poe, Frost had the misfortune to have his papers and "official biographer" status fall into the hands of a man who hated him intensely. I was very pleased with the author's point that "a poem is not a riddle", and there's no prize for "solving" it.
Armada -- Ernest Cline
This was an immense disappointment. After his previous book, which was very good, I expected a lot better, even of an obvious "Last Starfighter" rip-off. Our hero, whose name I've forgotten because the book is so shallow, is a high-school student, just turned eighteen, whose all-consuming hobby is a space-battle video game. His friendly boss at the game store where he works gives him an advance model of a new immersive gaming rig, and he hooks it up to use it and it's great. Then, the next day at school, the following things happen in the space of about ninety minutes: He fights and humiliates the school bully, a hovercraft drops out of the sky and calls him out by name in front of all his peers, he finds out that the video game was a secret training platform and he's now desperately needed to help the Earth fight off an alien attack, he meets the cool girl of his dreams and she likes him back, he has to jump into a star fighter and fight off aliens, he saves the day through a reckless maneuver no one else would think of or dare, he's called on the carpet by the commander who has nothing better to do during an invasion than give our hero a speech about how he's a dangerous loose cannon, and then he finds out that his long-dead father is secretly alive and in charge of the whole Earth fleet. This naturally led me to think that the immersive gaming-rig was really some kind of wish-fulfillment machine, and I was expecting the rest of the book to reveal what was really going on; but in fact the book not only played it straight but doubled down, having our hero and his friends eventually take over the whole armada and establish peace between humans and aliens, and the last scene has the school bully turning up again and fawningly apologizing to the hero. I hated it.
The Violinist's Thumb -- Sam Kean
A very readable history of the study of genes and how they work. There are large chunks of our genome that are almost certainly pieces of other organisms that were once parasites or symbiotes of ours, which we gradually absorbed. The title comes from the case of the violinist Paganini, the greatest virtuoso performer ever: he had incredibly flexible joints (a side effect, many now think, of a rare genetic disorder that was probably also responsible for his early death) and he could stretch his thumb across the back of his hand to touch his little finger. Because of this he was able to play both arco and pizzicato at the same time, and produce astonishing complexity that no other violinist could match. I'm sad he was never recorded.
Dostoyevsky: Reminiscences -- Anna Grigoryevna Dostoyevskya
Memoirs of Dostoyevsky's second wife. Their marriage was a great deal happier than his first, and came at a good time: he was at a low point his life. He was unwell, with both epilepsy and some sort of lung trouble. His first marriage had been unhappy, and he was saddled with supporting his worthless stepson, as well as his dead brother's wife and relations, who were demanding and ungrateful, and his own favorite relatives (his sister and brother-in-law and their children, whom he adored) lived in Moscow while for financial reasons he had to remain in St. Petersburg. Also he was by all accounts an overly trusting person, which not only led to him lending money to people who never intended to repay him, it led to him getting rooked by a publisher who bought up some of his debts and used them to force him to deliver a novel in a few months or else forfeit all rights to all his works. Since he was in the middle of writing "The Possessed" and could not delay it (it was on a different deadline) he hired a stenographer from the local college and dictated "The Gambler" to her at night while writing "The Possessed" by day. This stenographer was Anna; they fell in love and were married, which worked to Dostoyevsky's benefit immediately -- the crooked publisher had left town unannounced, to make sure Dostoyevsky could not deliver "The Gambler" on time, and he was at a loss until Anna advised him to turn the manuscript in to the police station and have the desk sergeant log the time. Anna took over Dostoyevsky's business interests and moved the couple to Italy and later France, both to let him write in peace and also to keep his in-laws from badgering him for money. Over several years she paid off all their debts and they had several children, something Dostoyevsky had always wanted but had stopped hoping for. Anna was a "woman of the sixties", what we would now call a feminist, and though Dostoyevsky was a traditionalist he respected her position (probably the more easily since on anything relating to literature she treated him with an awed deference.) Dostoyevsky was one of the best public readers of the nineteenth century -- matched only by Dickens, said people who'd heard them both -- and Anna touchingly relates how proud she felt sitting in the crowd and seeing the audience roar, or laugh, or weep, as he led them. It was a good book
Healing the Angry Brain -- Ronald Potter-Efron
A book on anger management, kind of dry. The background chapters on the structure of the brain and the relation of anger to impulse control were pretty interesting, but other than that I didn't get much out of it.
You Know Me Al -- Ring Lardner
A very funny epistolary novel, published in 1916, though the letters appeared as a series in the newspapers over the few years previous. They consist of letters home from a minor-league and later major-league pitcher named Jack Keefe, a hilariously un-self-aware boob, talented but too egotistical to be coached. Over the course of the letters it becomes obvious he will never get any better because he blames losses on everyone but himself -- according to him he would win every game if only the other players knew how to field, and even at that if a batter gets a hit it was only because he was lucky, or the umpire should have called him out on strikes long before. Like most boobs he fancies himself extremely clever, and his serene accounts of getting rooked left and right, which he presents as examples of his own slyness, are almost as funny as the long list of reasons he comes up with why it was lucky for the other guy Keefe decided not to fight him. I liked it a lot.
The Empathy Exams -- Leslie Jamison
A very good collection of essays, generally about dealing compassionately with people when you don't want to. The author spent some time working as a fake patient for medical students -- that is, she would see a med student in a visiting room at the med school and relate a list of symptoms that she'd been given by the instructors. There was more to it than the students' strict diagnostic ability: she was also measuring their skill at listening to and observing patients. For example, sometimes she was told to act embarrassed and reticent, to see if the students kept asking questions after she stopped talking, and in what manner they asked them -- did they make eye contact, did they use the patient's name, did they wait for an answer before turning away? Other times she was supposed to present visible symptoms of some other problem -- for example, hunched posture, lack of eye contact, low and meek voice, all signs of domestic abuse -- to see if the students picked up on them. It was really interesting. I was struck by a point she made in an essay on people with psychosomatic disorders: she visited a convention for sufferers of "Morgellon's Disease", which is not actually a disease but a psychological problem; she reminds herself that although the disease is not real, the suffering is. Very well written.
The Gilded Age -- Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner
This was a bit up and down. It's essentially two stories in alternating chapters, involving two overlapping sets of characters, one written by each author. It didn't work that well for me because the stories are so different in tone -- Warner's is a realize-the-value-of-hard-work romance, while Twain's is a savage attack on the culture of patronage and back-scratching in Washington. Worth reading for the prose, though.
Hear the Wind Sing -- Haruki Murakami
Murakami's first book, rather unlike his later ones. It's more of a mood piece than a novel, with the unnamed narrator, on summer break from college, spending most of the novel either sitting on the beach or hanging around a dive bar with his moody friend, whose nickname is "The Rat", and reminiscing about the women he's slept with so far (three) while ill-advisedly trying to start a relationship with a fourth. These same characters reappear in his later novel A Wild Sheep Chase, which I liked a lot, and it was interesting to see this slice of their earlier lives.
Hammer Head -- Nina MacLaughlin
A memoir of a woman who left her newspaper job to become a full-time carpenter. She and her boss mostly did finish work, with the variety of jobs a small operation has to take: tiling floors, installing cabinets, building stairs, hanging doors. As you might expect it dwelt a lot on how much more tiring but more satisfying her new job was than the old; she did a good job of showing how the consequences of doing or not doing good work are so visible and long-lasting in carpentry. I liked it.
The Good Thief -- Hannah Tinti
A pretty good novel set in what seems to be rural New England sometime before the Civil War; our hero is an orphan, ten years old or so, growing up in a winery/orphanage run by Catholic monks of varying degrees of friendliness. There are good descriptions of the occasions when someone comes to adopt a child -- generally a childless farmer who needs an extra farm hand -- and all the children line up, desperate to be chosen, dreaming of a family and a mother and better food. Our hero is always passed over, largely because he's missing one hand from an unremembered babyhood incident, and morbidly dwells on the fact that if he's never adopted he will someday be sent to join the army, where the food and the treatment are terrible. He eventually gets taken away by a man claiming to be his long-lost older brother, who turns out to be a con man and thief who wants a disabled child as a prop and shill for his work. The con man is eventually recognized by enemies from his past, which leads them into trouble that also involves our hero's forgotten past. I liked it.
Dialogues on Natural Religion -- David Hume
This is cast in the form of a letter from a naive youth to a friend describing a kind of Socratic dialogue at which he was present, and relating the arguments put forth by the three participants. The participants, who all have Greek names, don't appear to be portraits of anyone in particular, so they're probably just imaginary characters Hume uses to voice common arguments which the character Philo, his own voice in the dialogue, refutes. The other characters put forth the "argument from design", which says that the apparent order in the world is proof of a designer, and the "argument from evil", which says that the weight of suffering in the world is not compatible with the existence of a benevolent creator. Hume, an atheist himself, is constrained in what he can say. In theological terms, the distinction between "natural" and "revealed" religion is that "natural" religion is that which is discoverable through the unaided use of human reason, while "revealed" religion is truth known to us only because God revealed it through the prophets. Hume's work can only deal with natural religion because in his time publicly denying the truth of revelation was against the law. So he deals solely with what we can deduce from observation of the world, and concludes, first, that the argument from design is not sufficient to establish God's existence (though he carefully does not deny God's existence); and second, that human reason is a priori incapable of making any provable statements about the nature of God, should he exist.
The Death of Caesar -- Barry Strauss
An excellent reconstruction of the course of events on the fateful Ides of March. Strauss draws Brutus as a rather pompous, self-important person, easily manipulated by the real leader of the conspiracy, Cassius, into regarding himself as a liberator of Rome. I was surprised to find that the idea that Brutus may have been Caesar's illegitimate son is a later invention and almost certainly couldn't have been true. He does more justice than is usually shown to Cicero, who is often, I think unfairly, regarded as a timid man who blew with the wind. Strauss draws Cicero as a brave man willing to make almost any compromise to prevent civil war, which he knew firsthand was the worst possible outcome for Rome. I find that a lot more likely than that Cicero could have undergone a sudden total change of character at age sixty, since after all hope of preventing war was gone he is known to have been utterly fearless in supporting liberty, not only relentlessly attacking Antony but refusing Octavian's offer to join the Second Triumvirate, when he knew that refusing would make Octavian, the most powerful man in the world, his enemy. Good book.
Pinball, 1973 -- Haruki Murakami
His second novel, continuing the story of the unnamed narrator and his friend the Rat. Like many of Murakami's novels it's told as a retrospective, the narrator, now running a small translation business, looking back on a period in his past when both he and the Rat briefly became obsessed with playing a certain variant of pinball, and when he was dating an interesting but alienated girl who later hanged herself. There are a lot of surreal elements, like the pair of identical twin women who wander into his apartment one day and live with him for over a year without ever telling him their names, and who insist on holding a funeral for a dead circuit board from his telephone. It had more of a plot than his first book, and was pretty good.
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding -- David Hume
This is a condensed version of his earlier "Treatise on Human Nature", a flop that no one read. He writes generally in favor of skepticism and experience, arguing that we cannot make a priori deductions about existence but can rely only on direct experience. He draws a distinction between an "impression" (knowledge produced directly by the senses) and an "idea" (something only imagined or thought of) in order to argue that all ideas are immaterial unless grounded in impressions. A necessary consequence of this idea is that we cannot have any knowledge of an afterlife, and Hume does argue this, though he introduces it as an idea he heard from "a friend" in order to avoid prosecution for atheism. He also argues that all human actions are motivated by passions, and that reason is only what we use to justify our actions after the fact. (I think he makes his most persuasive arguments here.) He was a believer in what we would now call "physical determinism", the idea that since every effect follows necessarily from its cause, which itself follows necessarily from its own cause, and so on, then the whole history of the universe must have been predetermined at the instant of creation. The prose is good but a little soporific. I couldn't read it all in one go.
Shadows in the Vineyard -- Maximillian Potter
An excellent true-crime book about viticultural blackmail, which I had never suspected existed. The story deals with a French vineyard that makes Burgundy wine -- one of those premier cru places you've never heard of because the wine costs a thousand dollars a bottle. Some jerk with nothing better to do would sneak into the vineyard at night -- impossible to prevent, since vineyards are really big, and no one even tries -- and dig down a few inches to expose the vines' roots; then he'd drill a small hole in the root, cap the hole with a wooden plug, and put the dirt back. He did this for an entire year, until he'd primed every single vine. Then he sent letters to the vineyard's owners, demanding a huge ransom and threatening to wipe out the whole vineyard if they refused. When they didn't reply, assuming he was a nut, he sent another letter naming two locations and telling them they'd find the vines there dead in the morning, which they did. (He came back and used a turkey baster to inject weed-killer into the holes he'd made.) The poisoner put way more effort into the attack on the vines than on the plan of how he was going to get his ransom, though, and the police caught him at the money drop. It was a good read.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up -- Marie Kondo
I hated this book to a really irrational degree. Normally if I don't like a book I give it to the library or a used book store, but this one I threw in the trash. If I hadn't taken the wood stove out of my house I might actually have burned it. I was put off right from the start by the author's let-me-tell-you-what's-wrong-with-you tone, and my feelings didn't get any kindlier when she reminisced about how she used to throw away other people's stuff when they weren't looking. It was when she advised getting rid of all your books because no normal person rereads anything that I realized that continuing to read would only raise my blood pressure, so I threw the book out.
How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming -- Mike Brown
An good book about working as a professional astronomer, and long nights spent studying distant skies with powerful telescopes, which sounded interestingly tedious. The title is attention-grabbing but inaccurate, since it was an international standards body that reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet, and the author had nothing to do with it, except that around the same time he discovered several planet-like bodies further from the Sun than Pluto, which contributed to the debate about just how you should define a "planet". There's a depressingly sordid story about how some grad students studied the publically accessible records of Brown's radiotelescope use, and tracked his work backward to realize he'd discovered a planet-like body, and immediately faked some earlier observations and published it as their own discovery, then tried to smear him for stealing their work, then refused to apologize when they were found out. Not really an uplifting look at the ideals of science.
A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka -- Lev Golinkin
Excellent memoir about growing up Jewish in the last decade of the Soviet Union and the Golinkin family’s long, painful escape to the West. Lev was ethnically Jewish but had almost no Jewish identity – none of his relatives knew Hebrew, and it was against the law to learn it. Even at Passover they didn’t know the prayers; they only knew that they were supposed to eat unleavened bread (though they didn’t know why) and ritually wash their hands. Lev’s father took flour in secret to a baker who made matzo – they would have gotten in trouble had they been caught. (Although how much trouble couldn’t be predicted: the Soviets would sometimes savagely punish minor infractions and other times ignore major ones. The author believes this was deliberate policy: Soviet rule was grounded in fear, and the basis of fear is uncertainty.) The main consequence for Lev was the beatings he took from fellow students for being a "zhid" – the teachers just walked right past. He came to America as an adolescent, knowing nothing about Judaism except that it had been a curse on his life – he went to Boston College partly because it didn’t have a Jewish Studies department. The last part of the book is Lev retracing his journey back to the Ukraine after the fall of the USSR, and coming to understand and embrace Judaism. I liked it a lot.
The Mirror of the Sea -- Joseph Conrad
A collection of autobiographical essays, more about the sea and the ships he sailed in than about himself. They weren't bad. I liked his idea that the true moment of departure is when you can no longer see your starting point.
Junkyard Planet -- Adam Minter
An excellent book about industrial-scale recycling and people's amazing ability to generate value out of garbage. I learned a great deal from it. For instance, our trade imbalance with China determines where our recycled raw material goes: shipping companies have to send container ships from the US to China mostly empty, because China doesn't buy much from us, so the companies offer massive discounts to get people to use the space -- so it's cheaper to ship old newspaper from LA to China than from LA to, say, Chicago. There's a big market for old newspaper in China, since they use it to make cardboard boxes for all the things we buy from them. There are companies whose whole business is mining old landfills, recovering stuff that was garbage in 1965 but is usable now. And people are looking ahead these days, too: touch-screens work because the glass is impregnated with indium, a valuable rare-earth mineral. There's currently no way to reclaim indium from glass, so old touch-screens are just garbage; but there's a couple companies who buy up old touch-screens for a few cents each, and then store them in warehouses in low-rent areas, anticipating that eventually someone will need indium badly enough to work out how to get it out of the glass.
An Ocean of Air -- Gabrielle Walker
The Earth's atmosphere weighs more than five and a half quadrillion tons. That's a whole lot of pressure! This book goes over the history of people's understanding of air, and how we figured out what air is made of. There's a good description of the efforts to create the first man-made vacuum, a thing many thought to be impossible. Not bad.
The French Prize -- James L. Nelson
A bildungs-roman, a sea story about a teenaged officer named Jack who is appointed to his first command, a merchant ship sailing from Baltimore to the Caribbean during John Adams’ administration, amid the tensions that led to America’s quasi-war with France in 1799. It was well-written, a good mix of action at sea with intrigue ashore, with some very interesting characters. I liked it a lot.
Quantum Man -- Lawrence M. Krauss
Overview of Richard Feynman’s amazingly numerous contributions to particle physics, coupled with a not-really-successful attempt to explain them to a lay audience. Feynman was the locus of a large cult of personality, which he spent a lot of effort cultivating, apparently out of loneliness. I’m afraid this author bought in to the Feynman Legend a little more than is reasonable, not only excusing Feynman’s bad qualities but recasting them as positively admirable. Feynman’s students all dropped his classes, not because he was a poor lecturer but because students couldn’t appreciate his brilliant digressions! Feynman tutored no notable graduate students, not because he was impatient and disinclined to read other people’s work but because he was too busy generating ideas he never pursued! You get the idea. Feynman’s career was astonishing already; there’s no need to turn him into some kind of secular saint. Interesting thing about Feynman: he maintained a pose of looking down on people – his letters to his wife and friends are nothing but a catalog of complaining about how stupid everyone is – but he was actually desperate for approval; he never met any new acquaintance without managing to mention his Nobel Prize in the first half hour, for example, and of course there are the books he co-wrote, which might as well have been titled “Look How Brilliant, Unconventional, and Generally Admired I Am, Vols. 1-3”.
Jonathan Wild -- Henry Fielding
A picaresque novel that's also a satire on 18th-century English politics. The main character is the real-life swindler and thief Jonathan Wild, to whom Fielding constantly refers in a pompous bombastic style as "the Great Man". (This was the term the Tories sarcastically used for their enemy Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister.) Fielding uses Wild's career to preach a satirical lesson that "true Greatness" is achieved through total amorality and self-interest, lavishly praising Wild's conscienceless brutality and sneeringly deriding any kind of belief in honesty or kindness. He savagely redraws Wild's career as a reenactment in little of Walpole's, ending with Wild's hanging and leaving no doubt that he thought Walpole deserved the same. It was entertaining.
Mere Christianity -- C.S. Lewis
A big chunk of this was Lewis' description of his own conversion, which he attributes to the argument from morality: both Christians and atheists agree that most of the same things are morally wrong, he argues, so morality must be preexistent. He also introduces what he thinks is an unanswerable argument for Christianity, generally known as "Lewis' trilemma", wherein he argues that Jesus must have been either genuinely God, or a liar, or a madman. But Lewis was not a logician and his "trilemma" is not taken seriously by any theologians. It's not logically sound because the three options he lists are not the only options possible: Jesus may have been influenced by Eastern thought and regarded himself as God in the same sense that everyone is God; he may have made an error of understanding based on good-faith reasoning. It's not theologically sound because no one has a clear understanding of exactly what Jesus meant when he talked about himself, and many scholars believe that he never intended to say that he himself was literally God. The later part of the book is an examination of what exactly was the significance of the Atonement; Lewis was out of his depth here and I didn't find that part of the book very coherent.
The Blithedale Romance -- Nathaniel Hawthorne
A love-quadrangle story set at "Blithedale", a fictional version of the Brook Farm socialist experiment, although the characters are invented and don't seem to be portraits of any real people at the farm. The narrator, Miles, works at the farm for a year or so and looks on as two women, wealthy Zenobia and poor Priscilla, are rivals for Miles' friend Hollingsworth, a one-track-mind preacher on prison reform. Miles is himself in love with Priscilla, which he reveals on the last page as if it were a great secret, though it's obvious throughout. Miles can be kind of nasty; he needles both women out of jealous resentment. He's also something of a voyeur and eavesdropper, which is how he figures out that the two women, unknown to themselves, are half-sisters. After a fight with Hollingsworth over the latter's increasing fanaticism, Miles leaves Blithedale and does some poking around in town, finding the women's father and pumping him for information in a pretty sordid way, getting him drunk enough to find out the rest of the story: both sisters have performed on stage in a pseudo-psychic act called "the Veiled Lady". Zenobia uses her wealth to force Priscilla back on stage and so be rid of her, but Hollingsworth finds out and decides to marry Priscilla, spurning Zenobia, who then drowns herself. Miles goes back home and lives on as a disappointed bachelor with no one to spy on. It was well-written but I didn't like it that much.
The Baby in the Icebox -- James M. Cain
A pretty good collection of pulp stories. The title one is the best, a story about a jealous husband, proprietor of one of those old roadside attractions they had back before freeways, which includes a small zoo. Wrongly convinced that his wife's new baby is illegitimate, the husband looses the zoo's tiger into the house one night to kill them both. The wife saves the baby by hiding it in the icebox (this is the thirties, so it's an actual icebox, not nearly as cold as a refrigerator) and tricks the husband into coming into the house to get killed in her place. I liked it.
Mulliner Nights -- P.G. Wodehouse
An excellent collection of short stories about Mr. Mulliner's vast array of relatives. Most Mulliner stories are about learning to stop worrying and stand up for yourself, and this leads to a lot of memorable telling-offs of various overbearing people, which is always fun. I particularly liked the story about a man whose uncle, a bishop, asks him to take care of his cat while he's away, and the cat, by its dignified bearing, reduces the man to a quivering jelly, walking on tiptoe in his own home, until one night he gives the cat some whisky and the cat lets its hair down, so to speak, and they become pals. Great book.
Perfect Rigor -- Masha Gessen
A biography of the oddball genius Grigori Perelman, a mathematician who solved several long-standing problems, including the famous Poincare conjecture, for which he was awarded the Fields Medal (the math version of the Nobel Prize) and the first of the Millennium Prizes, million-dollar awards given by the Clay foundation for anyone who can solve any of the dozen problems on their list. Perelman declined both the medal and the award (I believe he's the only person ever to turn down a Fields Medal) since, he says, the whole process of giving prizes to individuals when every mathematical achievement is built on the work of many other people makes no sense. He also says that if everyone agrees his proof is correct then no other recognition is necessary. A lot of people criticized him for turning down the Millennium Prize, saying he could have donated the money to charity or something, but I think his position is consistent: if he believes that the act of accepting the award is in itself unethical, then using the money for charity doesn't retroactively justify an unethical act. Perelman lives quietly in Russia and doesn't give interviews, so this book is more of a picture of him given by people who knew and worked with him.
Service Included -- Phoebe Damrosch
A book about waiting tables at a super-high-end restaurant and how high-pressure that is. The author worked as a waiter at Per Se, the New York restaurant of the famous Thomas Keller (who runs the even more famous French Laundry restaurant in California.) The rules for waiters are strict: no perfume, no strong-smelling laundry detergent, no first names, no flirting, no holding chairs for the women of the party unless it's very clear that the men of the party aren't going to do it. A lot of the book is taken up with the frantic preparations for visits to the restaurant by the New York Times food critic, who at the time was Frank Bruni. There's also a love story involving an affair with one of the kitchen staff, but I thought the book would have been better without it, since the book is really "the story of the restaurant Per Se", not "the story of the waiter Phoebe". Good book, though.
The Doors of Perception -- Aldous Huxley
Huxley had the idea that the human mind acts as a sort of filter or reducing-valve that limits our understanding of the cosmos to prevent us from being overwhelmed by it, and theorized that psychotropic drugs might "open the doors of perception", as William Blake said in a different context, and allow the user to grasp higher truth. (It was this book that inspired Jim Morrison to use the name The Doors, although he did know the title came from Blake.) In the mid-fifties Huxley arranged for a doctor to give him a dose of mescaline (it wasn't illegal then) and had a drug trip with a tape recorder going. This book is his later reconstruction of the experience. He says that he had expected to see visions and brilliant displays of light, and was a little disappointed that he only had general impressions of shapes. He adds that at times he did feel an all-encompassing sense of contentment, which went mostly unrecorded because in the moment he felt no inclination to do anything but experience it. It was a very interesting book, but it didn't do anything to make me think hallucinogens are really useful.
Heaven and Hell -- Aldous Huxley
A later sequel, an essay describing his idea that Heaven and Hell represent two parts of the human psyche, or regions of the mind, ordinarily inaccessible because they are of no use to daily experience. He speculates that medieval Christians could experience mental states similar to those of psychotropic drug users when deprived of important nutrients during winter famines, or deliberately through practices such as fasting or self-mortification, which can bring on delirium. Huxley thought that these two "antipodes of the mind" are the ultimate source of all religions.
Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves -- P.G. Wodehouse
A Jeeves and Wooster novel, this one marshalling circumstances that force Bertie to go back to the dreaded estate of Totleigh Towers. Wodehouse is so cheerfully unabashed about reusing plot elements that you really have to admire him for it: Bertie is once again terrorized by Spode, forced by Stiffy Byng to help in her schemes to make her father award her fiancé a vicarage so they can get married, and yet again threatened with having to marry the appallingly drippy Madelyne Bassett. There's even yet another subplot involving Bertie's uncle and Stiffy's father battling over a collectible statuette no one in his right mind would want. And none of it matters because the writing is so funny and so well-crafted you wish Wodehouse alive again so he could write a dozen more just like it.
Hunger -- Sharman Apt Russell
A good book about the effects of prolonged malnutrition. Most of the data on the subject comes from World War II: the Nazis kept records on the health of the prisoners in the concentration camps even as they were starving them, and the Russians besieged in Leningrad decided to thoroughly record the progress of their hunger and deaths from starvation for posterity, salvaging a work of lasting importance to human health out of their nightmare in defiance of the Nazis. The war also called attention, really for the first time, to the problem of how to help people recover from extended starvation diets. This led to the Minnesota Experiment, where a few hundred Quakers, pacifists, and other conscientious objectors volunteered to spend eight months gradually starving themselves and then try to recover. Most of the participants suffered permanent physical and psychological after-effects of varying degrees -- several reported that even years later they could never relax or sleep unless there was food where they could see it -- but the data gathered from the experiment was of great help later on in helping the freed Jews and other war refugees feed themselves back to a healthy state without hurting themselves. A sobering read, but very well researched and presented.
A Son of the Sun -- Jack London
A collection of South Seas stories, following the adventures of an American trader as he outwits, outsails, and outfights rival traders and native islanders. They're well written but I had to roll my eyes at descriptions of islanders speaking broken English punctuated with "um" at every third word.
The Roman Empire -- Isaac Asimov
Another popular history, covering the span from the accession of Augustus in 30 BC to the sack of Rome in AD 476. Not really as good as his book on the Republic, as the Imperial period had fewer people that a modern reader would admire, and also because the whole work is elegiac -- as though Rome declined in a straight line for five hundred years, when in fact a better way of looking at it is that various circumstances combined to allow Rome to reach an unprecedented and unsustainable peak of power and wealth for a brief period, after which it regressed to the mean. He does offer some convincing reasons for the ebbing of Roman influence, primarily the general decline of the Italian population and economy, which was caused partly by waves of plagues from Asia and partly by a large-scale emigration of people and business to the wealthier and more prosperous eastern half of the empire, feeding Constantinople at the expense of Rome.
The Luck of the Bodkins -- P.G. Wodehouse
One of his inspired farces, rather like a Marx Brothers movie, which he may have had in mind when he wrote it. It takes place over the course of a ship voyage from England to New York and is concerned with the adventures of Monty and several of his friends, involving even more than the usual number of ridiculously jealous and unreasonable women and their equally jealous and unreasonable fiancés, as well as a harassed American movie executive who mistakes Monty for a Customs inspector who's after the diamond necklace he's trying to smuggle in without paying duties, and who also mistakes Monty's friend, a writer named Tennyson, for the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (long dead even when the novel was written) and hires him to write for the movies. Through luck and a brass front Monty manages to pull everything through, and by the time of the arrival in New York everyone is happily engaged to the correct person and gainfully employed. I love Wodehouse.
Made to Kill -- Adam Christopher
A pretty good first novel, set in an alternate 1950s America where robots were invented after the war but no one liked them so they were all decommissioned, except one, an experimental model named Ray who works in conjunction with a large mainframe named Ada. Since Ray's tape memory can only hold 24 hours of information he needs to power down every night and upload his memory to Ada. After the scientist who built them died, Ray made his living (ha ha) as a private detective, but Ada gradually reprogrammed him to switch to the far more lucrative profession of assassin, keeping the PI license as a cover. Ray is aware that he's been reprogrammed but has also been reprogrammed not to resent it, though there are hints that his hardwired operating system, which is based on his inventor's brain, still retains hidden traces of his original personality. Ray is approached by a client to find and kill a missing Hollywood actor, and the job leads him into a bizarre plot to use the movies to transmit mind-controlling pulses all across America -- kind of remote-control brainwashing. I liked it.