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« June, 2002 »
Darwin’s Radio

With the recent death of Stephen Jay Gould I have been casting about to make sure I get enough science reading in my diet. This book -- while nominally science fiction -- fits the bill. It’s fascinating. The general premise, summed up as ‘what if evolution didn’t happen gradually over time, but all of the sudden, and you could prove it?’ makes a gripping story. The story is told from the several perspectives of main characters who are involved in differing ways as the tale unfolds. They are believable and yet flawed, and make decisions the reader can understand.

The book also does not skimp on the science. While the ultimate premise is not currently correct, many of the smaller sub-premises concerning retroviruses and the study of contagious diseases and virii are spot on. I have never read another one of Bear’s novels, but if his other books are anything like this one, I will be sure to pick up anything he has done.

I Saw Esau

Remember all the stupid kids rhymes you and your friends and/or siblings would make up and recite over and over, passing the time, and amusing your friends and quite possibly annoying your parents? This book is a collection of many of them. Collected by noted children’s scholars and illustrated with lovely rich watercolors by Maurice Sendak [with the occasional naked butt thrown in to raise some eyebrows, surely] the end result is a delight. While many of the rhymes are British in origin -- and thus do not include many of my personal favorites -- just being able to skim over these and get back again into the mind of being a child who considers these phrases the ultimate in conversationalism is a delight.

The Mummy

Whenever anyone asked me what I was reading when I was going through this book, my response was always “mummy porn.” While not strictly true, Anne Rice’s books seem to have gone more down that path lately. A little more tawdry and a little less historical. A little more blood and a little less conversation. This story of the mummy of Ramses coming back to modern-day London is entertaining but the venal supporting characters and the overall focus on conflict and strife [and killings] instead of a more nuanced plot is a bit of a shame.

Damned Lies and Statistics

I generally eat up these “teach normal people math” books and this one is even a cut above the rest. While Best is aware that people lie with statistics, he is specifically interested in how statistics come to us, from whom, and to what end. He explores the relationship of statistics to activism -- how statistics are often produced by activists who want to make a particular point, refuted by members of the status quo and often misrepresented by the press -- and how they often take on lives of their own. He uses several very strightforward examples, covering the whole range of political beliefs, so no one comes away disbelieving them due to their own biases, and explains how the lifespan of a statistic works. It’s great reading, and makes you feel smarter and more assured -- not angrier and more annoyed -- when you are done reading it.

The Future of History

Howard Zinn is great. He is well read, entertaining, has a suitable lower class upbringing and is Jewish. When he talks politics and you are left-leaning, you listen. If you are not left-leaning you probably also listen and then say ‘bah! what does he know?’ When he is interviewed by Barsamian, it’s always a good read and I hesitate to say anything bad about him, but these sorts of interviews seem to be to be one of the reasons that more conservative folks despise the left. Barsamian and Zinn are friends, Barsamian seems to know more about Zinn than Zinn himself, so these ‘interviews’ are really just Barsamian lobbing softball questions at Zinn so Zinn can come back with more of his witty repartee, ingenious political analysis and stories of growing up in the 'hood.

Not that conservative interviews are anything different, but I think those tactics are inherently not good ways to be convincing. To be informative, sure, but without any meaty back-and-forth on issues of substance [even if it were only to be straw man arguments along the lines of 'but surely you can’t be saying that the US government is corrupt? 'yes, that’s exactly what I am saying'] it becomes tough to understand just how tricky the issues of globalization and social change really are to the non super-genius populations. Zinn does a wonderful job of explicating how all history is politicized and if you want to be a faithful activist, choosing the version of history you support should be an early step you take. I just wish I could hear him up against someone who wasn’t so convinced of the righteousness and correctness of his ideas as barsamian is.

The Messiah of Stockholm

This book holds a special place in my heart because it has two of my favorite book themes in it: the little old lady who lives in her bookshop, and the hapless newspaper reporter at the barely functional newspaper office [think Shipping News]. The story itself is also compelling, a sort of weird guy with a zero of a job gets involved in a pseudo-mystery concerning a long lost manuscript, his own paternity and other pretenders to the same paternity throne. Along the way, the reader becomes party to the mytery and at the same time, not really sure what exactly is going on, but not in a bad way. I have a very low tolerance for authors that confuse me and yet Ozick does it in a way that is masterful and clever.

Pre-Civil War Black Nationalism

According to the introduction by Amiri Baraka, this book is one of the essential texts discussing the roots of black nationalism in the US. Unfortunately, it’s really tough to read. McAdoo obviously knows his subject very well, and has researched it extensively. However, the bulk of the test is primary source material from various black congresses and meetings, interspersed with commentary like ‘need I say anything more?’ by the author. I exaggerate a little, but not too much. If you are really interested in this topic, this book spells out the major players, the formative events and many of the major moments of the black nationalist movement prior to the war. However, if you do not come already ready to pore over speech after speech, you likely won’t enjoy this. Many good illustrations, spotty presentation overall.

In the Stacks: Short Stories about Libraries and Librarians

This book just came out a few months back and I signed up on the hold list at my library so that I could be the first to read it. Some of these stories are farily familiar -- Borges and Calvino have written about libraries in the past -- and some are new to me. Only one of them didn’t grab me and make me think in some way. One of the little delights of getting to read a lot of stories about librarians at once is that some of the stories can have bad libraries, some can have spinster librarians and some can have a lady who lives at home with seventeeen cats and you don’t have to get your dander up about it, you can just enjoy the story without getting huffy about the author playing to type. This is an excellent collection with stories about all sorts of librarians and all sorts of libraries, reserve it now.

The Cobweb

Unlike other snack food authors, Stephen Bury’s books deserve more attention than a binge-purge approach. Unfortunately, I am so delighted when I find somethign by Neal Stephenson [and J Frederick George] that I just dive on in, read wildly and don’t generally stop until I’ve finished the book. This is in some ways unfair to the author[s] but I feel I can’t help myself.

This is a different sort of book from the ones I’m used to seeing from either Stephenson or Bury. It concerns Iraq, the Gulf War starting up and the possible manufacturing of biological warfare agents. The book seems a bit quaint after the 2002 anthrax scares, but it still delivers strong characters, both male and female, and frequent chages of venue and perspective without the usually accompanying discombobulation. I’ll try reading this again when I’m not staying up all night to do it. I’m sure it will be worth the effort.

Casual Day Has Gone Too Far

Even though Dilbert comics and their wildfire popularity among cubefarm workers very nearly defines the word irony, I can still pick up a Dilbert book and eke out a chuckle or two. In this case, my amusement was mainly at the bearded, suspendered, anecdote telling Unix Guy who is the object of much scorn and ridicule by the other workers, and the only one of the humorless drones who I remotely identify with

I like Dilbert fine, and this is a Dilbert book, so it’s fine. Reading Dilbert books always reminds me of two things:

  • my friends at my old office jobs who probably still silently suffer at work with Dilbert cartoons posted above their desks
  • Scott Adams using the Dilbert characters in Xerox training manuals

The Librarian Who Measured the Earth

This is a children’s book about Eratosthenes, the librarian and mathematician who forst thought out a way for measuring the circumference of the planet. The book has an intro that basically states that the author made up the parts of Eratosthenes' early childhood since no records survive of how he really lived. Drawing on historical account of the time, they paint a picture of their estimation of what a smart Greek child must have been like, and extrapolate from there. The book was well-illustrated and clearly explained the procedures that Eratosthenes went through

The Myth Of The Liberal Media

If you’re like me, you cringe whenever anyone forwards the idea that the American media is in some way liberal and soft on left-wing ideas and activities. And yet also, if you’re likeme, you do not have the hard facts to back up these gut feelings that the media isn’t liberal at all. This collection of essays by Herman does a great job of meticulously picking apart media coverage of majorly politicized news stories and explaining the slants that he finds [often right-wing but always supporing the corporate/capitalist agenda] and explaining where he thinks they come from

Herman isn’t a conspiracy theorist and he does not feel that the heads of major media get together and decide to cover certain topics and let other topic lie. Rather he explains how publicly held companies, with their mandate to bring profits to shareholders, have an obligation to cover news and highlight issues that are advantageous to their corporate owners and, most of all, advertisers. And, in being pro-business and pro-advertiser, they wind up, in many ways supporting an anti-left stance. Fascinating and not easy reading, this is one of the best political books I’ve read.

High Fidelity

People complained when this book came out as a movie that they had done the original text a disservice by moving the setting from the UK to the US. While I saw the movie first, I enjoyed reading the bookwith its UK settings and dialogue. Amazingly, despite this change, the movie was incredibly faithful to the book with almost entirely the same characters and a lot of the same dialogue. I noticed one or two scenes that had been changed or omitted but this was the exception and not the rule. The book is fun, fairly light but amusing and is readable in one [long] sitting.