Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Top 10 from 2008

Of the books I read in 2008, these are my ten favorites, in no particular order. Please read them, and report back.

Woman's World - Graham Rawle
Anathem - Neal Stephenson
Our Inner Ape - Frans De Waal
Pump Six - Paolo Bacigalupi
Fall of Frost - Brian Hall
Little Brother - Cory Doctorow
People of the Book - Geraldine Brooks
The How of Happiness - Sonja Lyubomirsky
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves - M.T. Anderson
The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science - Natalie Angier

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


by Neal Stephenson
I've been of fan of Neal Stephenson's novels since Zodiac, his Boston Harbor eco-terrorism romp, though, like many people, I read Snow Crash first. Stephenson's books eschew the intimidating cool of some science fiction writers, and are more about adventure in the service of Big Ideas. Anathem is no different, yet his scope may be grander than usual; this time he's invented a world so that he can explore an alternate evolution of scientific thought. Unlike Snow Crash, Anathem starts not with a death-defying chase, but with a conversation in a monastery, and some have complained that the story doesn't really get rolling until about 200 pages in. I disagree. The conversations, the personalities, the contrasting of cultures is fascinating. Though the pace may seem slow at first, this is a well-built world worth learning about, one with a lot to say about our own. And our hero, Fraa Erasmas, is a thinker among thinkers. These are interesting people, who, for most of their lives, have had a lot of time on their hands. Of course, this is soon to change.

Like others of Stephenson's books, Anathem has its flaws: underdeveloped female characters and an ending that is both satisfying and frustrating. But, all in all, it was a long and glorious ride, full of fresh ideas but also in the tradition of world-building epics like Dune or Lord of the Rings.

Monday, December 15, 2008

On Chesil Beach

by Ian McEwan
There are moments in one's life that seem to be the fulcrum on which everything before and after is balanced. Of course, these moments aren't often noticeable unless something went badly, something that seems, in retrospect, the beginning of the end. In On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan has created this sort of moment for a young English couple on their wedding night, circa 1962. There is true love between them, and each is certain about the other. But they're on the brink of one of these fulcrums in their lives, and McEwan divides his time between close-ups of this very private night, and zoomed-out looks at the life stories of these two, how they came to be here, how they chose each other. And, after, McEwan follows the long-term results. It's a brief but powerful glimpse of two human lives, how they crash and reverberate backwards and forwards in time. Beautiful.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves

by M.T. Anderson
It's easy, from our vantage point, to see the American Revolution as a good thing. Even as we look cynically at the mythology of high-school history classes, it's hard to argue with the Declaration of Independence. And Anderson didn't write the two Octavian Nothing novels to convince us otherwise. But he does such a good job taking us back into that time, and in the body of a young black man, that we are forced to think again.

As we learned in the first book, Octavian is a slave raised by Boston scientists in the 1760s and 1770s. I won't go into details about the end of the first book, but the second book picks up soon after, with Octavian and Trefusis making their way back to Boston, which is now under siege by the Rebels. When Octavian hears of the Governor of Virginia offering liberty to all escaped slaves, he knows he may never see an offer like this again. Of course, the Governor is no longer held in high esteem by many Virginians, and is forced to live, with his troops (black and white) and wealthy Loyalist colonists, off the shore of Norfolk, in their flotilla of ships, gradually running short of supplies. Would Octavian have been better off fighting on the side of American Liberty? Not likely; the punishment for escaped slaves was often barbaric. Octavian runs into some friends, new and old, and everyone has a story to tell about their journey to freedom. Octavian's story gives us an angle on the Revolutionary War few of us know much about. And Octavian Nothing is a fascinating character, both of his time and alienated from it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Goodnight Bush

by Gan Golan and Erich Origen
George W. Bush has always been an easy comedy target. But Goodnight Bush takes one of the President's own favorite books and turns it into a gently horrifying commentary on his administration. In the same way "Goodnight Moon" lets surreality creep in while the room gets darker, one could argue that Americans slowly grew accustomed to the bizarre changes in their country during the reign of the sleepy prince in the White House. The artwork is perfect, down to that singular green of the walls (not very well represented in the book cover picture at right), and the text is flawless. As in the original, the details constantly change, though the overall mood is one of resignation and acceptance. By the end of the book, one has to ask, did the last eight years really happen? Or was I sleeping, curled up in a dark and ever-stranger room, as the world outside faded to black?

Free-Range Chickens

by Simon Rich
Free-Range Chickens is a collection of short dialogues and lists, on subjects Simon Rich has spent too much time thinking about, such as childhood or Dracula or God. Some are mildly funny, while others caused bouts of spastic giggles around our household. Rich plays with a lot of common TV and movie tropes, injecting the awkward comedy of real life. Obviously, it's one of those books much more easily enjoyed than described.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates

by Sarah Vowell
The Wordy Shipmates is not what I was expecting; I pictured maybe a colorful trip back in time, where, through Vowell's quirky lens, we would get a close-up portrait of life on the Mayflower and among the Pilgrims of Plymouth. Vowell is more interested in the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and, more importantly, getting us into the heads of those Puritans. Why, exactly, were they Puritans? Why leave England when they did? What did the New World mean to them? And, perhaps most interestingly, how did their values evolve into the America of George W. Bush? I realized I had been expecting a movie, albeit a daring independent film, but Vowell delivered something even better: a book, with the power to not just show us history but to help us get inside the minds of people we never thought we'd relate to.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

by Natalie Angier
When Natalie Angier offers you a whirligig tour, that's exactly what you get. Angier's writing style is playful and sparkling, and she seems to genuinely enjoy every aspect of science. Unlike Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, Angier's book is less about the wacky geniuses throughout the history of science, and more about what we know now, or rather, what we should know. She asked leading scientists what basic scientific knowlege no one should leave home without, and then uses her whirligig wit to take you along for the ride. Admittedly, there were sections where I started to feel my attention slipping (chemistry, anyone?), but all in all, the tone is light and full of startling and memorable examples. For instance, did you know that, though the cells making up our bodies are too small to see with the naked eye, some cells are so large that you could enjoy a single one for breakfast? Over-easy?

Friday, October 24, 2008

People of the Book

by Geraldine Brooks
Hanna Heath is a rare book conservator in Australia, called to Bosnia to help restore a very rare book indeed: the Sarajevo Haggadah, which had gone missing during the siege in 1992. As Hanna gets to know the book, which is one of the few illuminated manuscripts in the history of Judaism, she comes across a few clues as to its history: a botched binding, a tiny butterfly wing, a white hair, some salt crystals. We travel back in time to witness these crucial moments in the book's 500-year life, and those who lives it touched along the way, including a girl who helps to save it from the Nazis and those who possessed it in Seville, Venice, Vienna. Between each story from the past, we return to Hanna, as she falls in love with the Bosnian librarian who saved the book during its most recent sectarian conflict. It's an intricately interwoven set of stories, full of memorable characters.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

How to Be Useful: A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work

by Megan Hustad
There are plenty of books out there that encourage people to shed the corporate chains and find more creative, outside-the-box, "authentic" ways to make a living. Isn't it time you stopped compromising, and stayed true to yourself? Good advice, in an ideal world, perhaps, but a lot of us find ourselves headed in the other direction. What about those of us who have already embraced our creative sides, but now need to buckle down and work, at least for a while, in the corporate world?

Hustad admits right away that most of the "creative and sensitive" souls she knows would never deign to pick up a "success book," such as How to Win Friends and Influence People, or The 7 Habits of Successful People, except maybe in secret. But, truth be told, there are some very good nuggets of wisdom from many of these books, and Hustad worries that her artistic friends may be shunning good advice at their own peril. Hustad does the work for us, pouring over a hundred years of success literature to find the good bits, advice that works today as well as it did in 1901. Some of her findings are counterintuitive; the first section, which draws on Andrew Carnegie, claims that to "just be yourself" is not always helpful. And another chapter concerns the right way, and the wrong way, to be self-deprecating.

Hustad's blend of history and advice, both timeless and topical, is a pleasure to read, and I can already feel myself becoming more useful.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Botany of Desire

by Michael Pollan
In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan looks at four domesticated plants: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato, and through them examines how they co-evolved with us to meet our desires: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. Examples of co-evolution abound in nature; isn't it natural that our species, and our various human cultures, have co-evolved with other species? This wide-angle view allows Pollan to look deep into American (and world) history, as well as the history of science and agriculture, revealing as much about humanity as about the four plants in question. Though Pollan's writing can be a bit over-the-top at times, for the most part, The Botany of Desire is a fascinating, eye-opening journey.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


by Geraldine Brooks
Letter-writing is a lost art. Even those who write letters regularly can find it a struggle, especially when writing to someone one loves and admires, and especially when one's own circumstances are less than admirable. What is there to say when the truth seems too ugly to recount? This is a problem faced repeatedly by the idealistic Civil War chaplain, Peter March, who is obliged to regularly send charming reassurances home to his wife, Marmee, and his four "little women." March is a good man, but his lofty ideals are getting splattered with mud and blood and reality, and, after a year in the war he may not even be sure he deserves to come home.

Brooks faced quite a challenge in creating a "missing" character from a classic novel, making sure he could be as compelling as the familiar faces of "Little Women," but she's succeeded brilliantly. March, based somewhat on Louisa May Alcott's father, Bronson, is a character all his own, and he adds a lot of humanity and imperfection to Alcott's original tale. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Woman's World

by Graham Rawle
To create his new novel, Graham Rawle crafted it the usual way, and then spent two years combing through 1960s-era women's magazines to find bits of text - from ads or fiction or other articles - that he could use in place of his text. Then, rather than typing it all up, he clipped out all the magazine bits and meticulously arranged them on pages, occasionally enhanced by bits of magazine art or magnificent drop caps. He photographed the results, and that's what you see.

Like many, I don't always expect that a piece of art will produce a good story, or vice-versa. And I'm sure some people will be turned off by the look of Rawle's book, thinking that it would be too hard to read, even if the novel was well-written. Not at all. Woman's World is a joy to read, and the clipped-out quality is not just a novelty, but essential to the story. I can't tell you much of the plot without spoiling it, but it does become clear very quickly that the narrator is not the most reliable. Norma Fontaine's world of fashion and good housekeeping is not as simple as it seems. The dark humor and unusual narrative style of this book reminded me somewhat of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, although the stories themselves have nothing in common. Woman's World is a delight for the heart and mind as well as the eye.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Our Inner Ape

by Frans De Waal
When humans do something especially generous, kind, or empathetic, we like to describe these actions as being very "human." When we do something cruel or vicious, we often describe those actions as "animal." Frans De Waal would argue that neither of these familiar sides of humankind are unique to humanity. All apes exhibit startling levels of empathy, and not just with their own kind. At the same time, our closest cousins in the animal kingdom, chimpanzees and bonobos, can be as cruel as they are kind. De Waal divides his book into sections named Power, Sex, Violence, Kindness, and then talks about our own species as "The Bipolar Ape." Chimpanzees and bonobos have very different societies (bonobos are female dominant and generally less violent, using sex as a social, er, lubricant) but both are similar to us in many ways. Where do we fit in? Somewhere in the middle. Despite our species' unprecedented levels of complexity when it comes to communication and technology, there's very little motivating us that doesn't align perfectly with our fellow apes. But perhaps, by learning more about our place amongst our nearest animal relations, we can understand our own species better and hopefully bring out the best in ourselves.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

How I Conquered Your Planet

by John Swartzwelder
You won't find Swartzwelder's goofy-ass novels at your local Barnes & Nobles. They're self-published, with bland covers and big type, and they're not exactly high literature. They are, however, written by the guy who wrote more Simpsons episodes than anyone else, and his brand of so-stupid-it's-genius comedy is immediately recognizable. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments in How I Conquered Your Planet that I became the crazy guy on the bus, randomly bursting into mad giggles. Sorry, fellow bus riders.

The absurd plot involves a bus driver / private eye named Frank Burly, who is not, shall we say, all that bright. When the Martians arrive, disguised as magicians, and work their mind-control upon him, Frank is recruited, against his flimsy will, into the Martian military. Most of this seems to be an excuse for Swartzwelder to brilliantly play with time-honored cliches in several genres. Not an easy book to recommend, but if you enjoy clever, absurdist, stoopid-funny writing, definitely check this out.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking

by Jeff Gordinier
When the media stops talking about something, does it cease to exist? How about something as big as a generation of Americans (albeit a small one)? How can we talk about members of Generation X "saving the world" when they think the whole concept is cliché and overblown? (And please don't call them "Generation X", that's so 90s.) Jeff Gordinier, after plenty of apologies about terminology and generalities, does somehow manage to show that Generation X, though permanently in the shadow of the Boomers and drowned out by the Gen Y/Millenials, is still in existence, and in fact, whether they like to talk about it or not, saving the world.

Any book this jam-packed with generalities and personal anecdotes, of course, has to be taken with a grain of salt. But a lot of the writing was really brilliant, and I found the book encouraging and inspiring. With all the 24/7 hoopla about the wonderful continuing adventures of the Boomers, it's easy to forget that those of us who are, say, 31-48, have had a distinct and valid culture that's worth talking about.

Little Brother

by Cory Doctorow
Part Young Adult technothriller, part polemic and part how-to, Cory Doctorow's latest novel was one of the most gripping page-turners I've read in a while. What happens when Marcus, a kid who loves to wrap his mind around solving puzzles (like, how do I sneak out of school when there are technologies in place surveilling my every move?) finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time after a terrorist attack, and ends up being questioned by the Department of Homeland Security? "Am I under arrest?" he asks, still under the impression that he has a constitutional right to speak to a lawyer. But no, he's definitely over his head. And when he's at last returned, shaken, to the streets, one of his friends remains in custody, possibly never to be seen again. And the DHS lets Marcus know he'll be watched. Marcus makes a vow that he's going to bring his friend back.

Little Brother is one of those stories that feels just around the corner from today. We've all heard plenty of arguments about privacy vs. security, but, for many of us, it's easy to feel that, if we have nothing to hide, we're not going to spend a lot of time worrying about our freedoms being taken away. Doctorow shines a bright light into the problems with this thinking, and vividly illustrates what happens when national security stops serving us and becomes another form of terrorism. Buy it for yourself and any smart young people you know.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Pump Six

by Paolo Bacigalupi
Paolo Bacigalupi (pronounced "Batchy-Galoopy") has a sick fascination with humankind's abuse of technology. Rather than blurting out, at some merry social gathering, the latest disturbing news about endocrine disruptors getting into the water supply, as I have been known to do (sorry, everyone), Bacigalupi spins it into a world, a future whose inhabitants can barely remember anything different. Dystopian visions are, of course, a staple of science fiction, but these stories feel fresh -- rather than imagining those picking up the pieces after humankind has nearly destroyed itself, Bacigalupi often asks what happens after we've "perfected" ourselves, solving food shortages, conquering aging. While advances in technology seem able to solve almost any problem (with, of course, the help of our glorious corporate overlords), we are still humans; long-term thinking has never been our forté.

Bacigalupi presents these short stories in the order in which he wrote them -- a courageous choice that allows us to see his writing evolve over time. The first couple stories, though well written, were not my favorites, and I'd encourage anyone picking up Pump Six to read on, deeper into these darker worlds.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Fall of Frost

by Brian Hall
Brian Hall has once again pulled off another high-wire feat of empathy. His meticulously-researched book taking us inside the minds of the Lewis & Clark expedition, I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company, remains one of my very favorites, and he returns to this form with Fall of Frost. This time he's primarily inside one man's head, though that head is old and white and tends to dart back and forth in time. Though we often travel back to Frost's youth or early adulthood, it sometimes seems as if we're still with Frost in his old age, traveling through his own history, making sense of his past while occasionally reshaping it into legend as needed. After all, in his later years he's a celebrity, often interviewed about the life that brought the world such beloved poetry. Frost's public doesn't necessarily want to hear the grimy truth, and neither does Frost want to talk about it. He is both a painfully solitary man and a constant cultivator of attention. There are countless detailed biographies about Robert Frost, but Hall lets us be there, with him, as he stops by woods one snowy evening. Beautiful.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Count of Monte Cristo

by Alexandre Dumas,
translated by Robin Buss

After doing a few calculations and realizing how many years it would take me to read all the books I had on my current "to-read" list, I started to think maybe I wanted to be a little choosier about what I spend my time on; I'm not a fast reader, after all, and I had recently read some real duds. So I started paying more attention to people talking about their all-time favorite books. For my friend Andy Sherman, it was The Count of Monte Cristo. What the heck. I checked it out of the library. To my chagrin it was 1243 pages; I could read 3 or 4 books in that amount of time! I resolved to give it the 50-page test, and wasn't disappointed; it's an exciting story.

For those unfamiliar, this 1840 novel concerns a young sailor from Marseilles, Edmond Dantes, who has a beautiful fiancee, a great job, and a father who's proud of him. Unfortunately, there are those in town who are rather jealous of Dantes' good fortune, and their envy is whipped up, by the smartest of the lot, into a conspiracy. And the fragile political environment (Napoleon has been exiled, but is rumored to be planning a coup) only makes things worse. Dantes ends up, without a trial, being thrown into a dungeon to live out the rest of his days alone, with only the memory of the life he should have had. After nearly going insane, he establishes contact with another prisoner, who helps him figure out the identities of his antagonists. He vows that if he ever gets out, he will have his revenge on these men.

Dumas has a breathless, melodramatic writing style that takes a bit of getting used to, but can be very entertaining. He was paid by the line, and he made the most of this by writing a lot of dialogue, which, coincidentally, makes his writing all the more digestible to the modern reader. There are chapters, especially during the middle of the book, that I felt could have easily been trimmed from the book, but my main frustration was with character; at times the Count of Monte Cristo seems to be a god (a fact not lost on those around him) and one almost wishes he were a bit less all-powerful. His overuse of his powers do eventually seem to catch up with him, but Dumas seemed to like his character too much to give him any real regrets. Strangely, the Count reminded me of Batman, who almost seems like an evolution of the same character: the poor unfortunate who grows into a worldly manipulator, dealing out vengance to those who would abuse their power.

Robin Buss's translation was a joy to read, and taught me that a well-translated 19th century French novel could actually be more of a page-turner than an untranslated 19th century English novel. Must keep this in mind.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The How of Happiness

by Sonja Lyubomirsky
I love popular science books. For instance, Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling On Happiness was a fascinating look at the reasons so many people are bad at finding happiness. But Gilbert was very clear: this was not a self-help book, and was not designed to actually help the reader find happiness. Okay... So.... And then there are hundreds of self-help books out there, full of enthusiastic advice and dozens of anecdotes to back it up: "If it worked for Suzy Peterson, it just might work for you!" Actual scientific research rarely enters the picture.

Along comes Sonja Lyubomirsky, a respected scientist who has unashamedly written a self-help book. As a research psychologist and University of California professor of psychology, she has tested thousands of people to determine how much of our happiness is within our control (as opposed to hereditary or circumstantial) and what, exactly, we can do to become happier people. Some of her book will be familiar to those who read Gilbert's book; she talks about what happiness is, and what it isn't, and why it's important. But then she goes on to present 12 "Happiness Activities" that have been rigorously tested. Most of them are nothing new: keep a gratitude journal, get regular exercise, savor life's joys, commit to your personal goals, etc. But what's new is the "How." She stresses that not every approach works for every person, and helps you to customize your happiness program to fit your personality and lifestyle. And, because she's tested all this, she can get very specific; for instance, writing in a gratitude journal once a week is much more helpful for most people than doing so once a day. Lyubomirsky seems to sincerely want to share her research findings with the general public, and with very good reason: it's important stuff. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Soon I Will Be Invincible

by Austin Grossman
In the evolution of the comic-book superhero/supervillain, it's become increasingly common to attempt to really get inside the heads of the characters, rather than just watching their larger-than-life exploits from a distance. What's it truly like to pull on a pair of tights in the morning and vow that today's the day your evil plan will, at last, be complete? With Soon I Will Be Invincible, Grossman dispenses with the graphics altogether and uses literary fiction to explore the lives of Dr. Impossible, a supervillain, and Fatale, a cyborg superheroine. He strikes a wonderful balance between gently spoofing the comic-book world and celebrating it. At one point, Dr. Impossible muses, "I decided it was time to stop punishing myself. And start punishing everyone else."