Friday, July 06, 2012


by Dave Cullen

For those who are grieving, as I have been this year, a lot of questions come to mind, such as: Why? What’s the point? What now? Dave Cullen’s journalistic account of the shooting at Columbine High School, its causes and its aftermath, tries to answer many of the questions surrounding the event. As with any trauma, people tend not to leave their questions open - the media, the community, and the survivors of the Columbine shooting came up with answers within hours, days, and weeks. Many of these answers proved to be unfounded - the shooters were not bullied, or loners, or goths, or gay. They weren’t inspired by video games or violent movies. Stories of some victims’ heroic martyrdom were created out of thin air, while more accurate stories were ignored. And even the official investigation was clouded in secrecy. Cullen spent ten years researching the event, and comes out with a clearer picture. Like anything true, the story of Columbine is complex and multilayered. The lessons we can learn from the attack are not necessarily the lessons we were hoping to learn. But the humanity of all involved - even the killers - comes through. This is, after all, primarily a high school, and the students at Columbine feel strongly that the continuing life of the school should mean more than the terrible events of that day in 1999.

Thursday, July 05, 2012


by Kim Stanley Robinson

With 2312, Robinson seems comfortably at the top of his game. This is clearly the same storyteller who brought us the Red Mars series, but he’s aged - he’s willing now to gloss over some of the details and let his mind take him where it will. Which is generally a good thing - we get a whirlwind tour of our own Solar System, a system chock full of humans, and therefore full of art, culture, sex, violence, and engineering. Robinson’s love of the natural world(s) is in evidence in every chapter, but instead of the long passages on Martian geology, we get lists, extracts, found poetry, and jaunty hikes. Still, those with short attention spans may never appreciate Robinson’s style: though we encounter murder mysteries, terrorism and catastrophe, this novel is more concerned with wonder than suspense. We follow the long, unfolding evolution of the human race - and its individuals - as only Robinson can deliver it. And, at its heart, this is a romance, both literally and metaphorically.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Psychopath Test

by Jon Ronson

As you might be able to tell from the style of the cover, The Psychopath Test is not a clinical diagnostic tool. It's more of a light-hearted tour of the dark world of psychopaths and what Ronson calls "the madness industry," those who diagnose, treat, and work with psychopaths. Ronson's style is a bit madcap and scattered, which could be off-putting to some, but I found myself unable to put the book down. His investigations take him from topic to topic, pouncing on mysteries as they arise, and then diving into the deep background as needed. Ronson sits down with several psychopaths, including a man who claims to have faked his way into a mental institution and was then unable to convince anyone he was sane.

After meeting with Robert Hare, who literally wrote the book on Psychopathy, Ronson learns the famous checklist and starts to feel that he can identify psychopaths after briefly talking with them. But is such a diagnosis possible? Are psychopaths a different breed, or is psychopathy a spectrum? Can a psychopath ever be cured, or does the diagnosis doom you to be locked away for life?

The more I read, the more it seemed that Ronson was the perfect tour guide into a world bordering on absurdity. His combination of thoughtful investigation and playful reflection made for a fun and eye-opening ride.

My Top 11 Favorite Books Read in 2011

Better late than never... 

  • Doc - Russell
  • Among Others - Walton
  • Graceling - Cashore
  • Caleb’s Crossing - Brooks
  • Habibi - Thompson
  • The Clockwork Rocket - Egan
  • Skippy Dies - Murray


  • The Warmth of Other Suns - Wilkerson
  • Rock the Casbah - Wright
  • Half the Sky - WuDunn, Kristoff
  • Feynman - Ottaviani, Myrick

Monday, September 12, 2011

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

by David Eagleman

The human brain is both an incredible piece of engineering and a very flawed interface through which to experience the world. Every year or two I find it helpful to read something that reminds me of both these ideas. Eagleman, author of the delightful Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, does a terrific job of giving us a tour of the brain in all its biased glory - in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.

The subtitle refers to one of the book's main ideas: that the human mind is far from a singular entity. Just as there are thousands of processes happening at the same time, there are also multiple "voices" in every brain, each contributing to the actions and decisions that are eventually carried out. Our conscious mind, which usually seems to be a singular and consistent narrative telling us what's happening in the world and in our heads, is, in Eagleman's view, like a newspaper giving us an extremely simplified summary of current events. Even those things we think we're currently deciding are more like the slightly-delayed minutes of a corporate board meeting, all of it presented to the CEO as if he or she was the only decision maker.

Eagleman's style is fun, with lots of memorable examples. A lot of the material has been covered before, in other popular cognitive science books, and at times, I wished for a bit more depth to his explanations, but in general I found the book entertaining and thought-provoking.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

My Top 14 Favorite Books Read in 2010

Whenever possible I've linked them to my reviews.

  1. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet - David Mitchell
  2. Room - Emma Donoghue
  3. The Help - Kathryn Stockett
  4. Ship Breaker - Paolo Bacigalupi
  5. The Hunger Games Trilogy - Suzanne Collins
  6. Little Bee - Chris Cleave
  7. Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier
  8. Behemoth - Scott Westerfeld
  9. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate - Jacqueline Kelly
  1. The Story of Stuff - Annie Leonard
  2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot
  3. The Evolution of God - Robert Wright
  4. At Home - Bill Bryson
  5. Justice - Michael Sandel

Monday, January 03, 2011

Ship Breaker

by Paolo Bacigalupi

Nailer is a Gulf Coast kid with a nasty job; he crawls through air ducts on abandoned oil tankers, scavenging copper wiring for his company. It's awful, miserable, toxic work, but it's a living, and also a coveted job among the "beach rats." What's worse, his home life is ruled by his abusive addict father. Nailer works hard to make quota every day and dreams of someday stumbling upon a really choice bit of scavenge, something that will make him rich enough to buy his way to a better life.

Then one day he hits the jackpot.

Of course, things are never as simple as they seem. I won't give away any more of the plot, but I will say that it's a thrilling, well-crafted and satisfying story. Like any other type of fiction, truly great science fiction features deep, memorable, flesh-and-blood characters. After reading Paolo Bacigalupi's short stories in "Pump 6" and his novel, "Windup Girl," I feel like his fiction has reached new heights with "Ship Breaker."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

While the worlds of science, medicine, and the global economy are more closely intertwined than ever before, the role of the public is unclear. When Rebecca Skloot learned that HeLa cells, used in laboratories all over the world, originated from one woman who has been all but forgotten by medical community, she researched the history of Henrietta Lacks, her family, and the incredible legacy of her immortal cancer cells. After finding out that millions of dollars had been made from cells extracted from their mother without her permission, Lacks' family was understandably reluctant to talk to Skloot. And Skloot, who had no interest in putting herself into the book she was researching, found her interactions with the Lacks family becoming a key part of the story. It's obviously not easy to sum up, but it's a thought-provoking, multilayered book that will stay with me a long time.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010


by Emma Donoghue

Five-year-old Jack has a good life. He lives with his Ma, who loves him very much, in a room filled with everything they need. Together they play games, watch TV, eat their lunch and clean up. As he tells us about his days, though, we quickly realize that something is very strange: the two never leave the room for any reason, and haven't since Jack was born. And we realize that Ma, though she does her best, is not actually happy - she's been held prisoner here by someone Jack calls "Old Nick" for seven years.

Though the setting sounds horrific, the tale is told by Jack, who, despite his unusual circumstances is a relatively normal and sweet kid. He's never known what he's missing. Their only window is a skylight, and for all Jack knows, there's nothing outside but "Outer Space." He separates things into "real" (things inside the room) and "TV" (things he's only seen on TV). Ma whisks Jack into the wardrobe at times when Old Nick visits, so the two have never seen each other.

This is one of those stories where the voice makes the book. It's an authentic voice - a bright, charming and frustrating 5-year-old - but also one you feel comfortable with even as the suspense builds and the two find themselves confronting the Outside. A remarkable book.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Story of Stuff

by Annie Leonard

After seeing Annie Leonard's popular 20-minute web movie, The Story of Stuff, like a lot of people I wanted to know more. If each link along the chain of our economy - Extraction, Production, Distribution, Consumption and Disposal - is broken, dysfunctional, and harmful to us, what can we do to change things? Leonard, who has traveled the world tracing the path of consumer goods from their creation to their disposal in landfills, expands greatly on her video, showing us both the extent of the problems facing us, and lots of great ways to correct them.

Unlike a lot of environmental books, Leonard doesn't put a lot of emphasis on trying to change our lifestyles, buying greener products, voting with our dollar, etc. While she certainly tries to live sustainably (eating locally-grown foods and sharing a lot of material goods with her neighbors) and non-toxically (keeping PVC and other toxics out of her house) she knows that there's only so much we can do on an individual level. It's not enough for us, as citizens, to choose from a menu of unhealthy or unsustainable offerings. It's time for us to change the menu itself.

How does this happen? Corporations (such as Interface carpet tile company) sometimes voluntarily decide to invest in converting to more sustainable business models, and it's inspiring to see. More often, however, corporations only make changes when it's more immediately profitable, or when they're forced to by government regulations. Leonard points out that there are great models around the world of governments steering corporations towards sustainability in ways that benefit both the corporations and the citizens who live and work with them. In a finite world, we can no longer afford to waste so much of our resources. Leonard shows a path towards a much more realistic future.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

by David Mitchell

This may end up being my favorite novel of 2010. I've been a David Mitchell fan since I read "Cloud Atlas," and always find both his ideas and his language exquisite, but I'd forgotten just how fun his novels could be. Jacob de Zoet is an early 19th-century Dutchman, a young accountant who is sent to help clean up the corruption at the Dutch trading post of Dejima, in Nagasaki Harbor, Japan. He's a good man, but obviously in over his head. The tiny, man-made island is a virtual prison for the Dutchmen, who are almost never allowed over the bridge and onto the mainland. De Zoet's cohorts cast a wary on him -- many of them were rounded up, against their will, to join the ship's crew, and are doing what they can to earn a little money on the side in Dejima.

Orito Aibagawa, a midwife, is one of the few Japanese women allowed onto Dejima, so that she may study Western medicine with the mysterious Dr. Marinus. She catches Jacob's eye, and he soon finds himself searching for ways to spend a few scraps of time with her.

The second part of the book follows Orito into a dark adventure on the mainland, and I won't say more about the plot. Fascinating setting, memorable characters and a complex, but exciting, story. Loved it.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

Aibileen, a black maid in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s, works for an upper-middle-class white woman, Miss Elizabeth Leefolt, doing the housekeeping, cooking the meals, and raising the woman's little girl, Mae Mobley. Miss Elizabeth seems to have little interest in her daughter, and Mae Mobley can't help but notice. Meanwhile, Miss Hilly, one of the white woman's dearest friends, advises her to build an addition to her house -- a restroom just for Aibileen's use. After all, it's just not sanitary to be using the same facilities as the help, is it?

Miss Skeeter Phelan, a friend of Elizabeth's and Hilly's, decides she wants to be a writer, and believes she's come up with the perfect idea for a book -- what's it like to be a black maid? They must have some interesting experiences, right? So she asks Aibileen if she or anyone she knows might be interested in telling her their stories. Aibileen's response, of course, is less than enthusiastic. This is 1963, in the deep South, and there's no way Aibileen or any thinking person would endanger their job, their family, or their community by talking, let alone publishing. Skeeter assures Aibileen that everything would be anonymous -- she'll even change the name of their town. Soon the project is underway.

Stockett, who started writing "The Help" based on her memories of her family's black maid, Demetri, does her best to capture the voice of two maids, Aibileen and Minnie, as well as Skeeter. Whether she succeeds (or offends) is for you to decide. For me, my wife, and most readers we've talked to, the book is a heartfelt success, bringing the reader to a time and place and community that would otherwise be hard to imagine. More than most books I've read, this was hard to put down. I especially recommend the audio version, which uses three actresses for the three main characters.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Everything Matters!

by Ron Currie, Jr.

Lots of books have an omniscient narrator. "Little did Bob know, he was making a terrible mistake..." Okay, that was an awful example, but you get the idea. Junior Thibodeau is actually born with that voice in his head, and it's talking to him. It doesn't talk all the time, but what it says seems to be true. The information he receives is often useful, and sometimes more than he can handle. The day he's born, he's told that in 36 years, 168 days, 14 hours, and 23 seconds, the earth will be hit by a massive meteor, wiping out all life on the planet. As you can guess from the title, this is a story about deciding what to do with one's limited time. Is it worth investing in relationships, trying to help people, getting involved in a world you know will come to an end? Junior struggles with these questions, as we all do.

This was a strange book, and pretty dark at times, but Junior is ultimately a likeable character. You hope he'll succeed, whatever that means. And I really couldn't tell where the story was going... could Junior use his "gift" to help himself? To help the world? And, as the voice in Junior's head asks him, after telling him of the world's fate, does anything he does really matter?

Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

by Michael Sandel

Sandel, Harvard professor, took his popular class on the philosophy of law and condensed it into 200 thought-provoking and entertaining pages. Sandel's goal is to give a brief but thorough introduction to several different legal philosophies, including Utilitarianism, Libertarianism, the works of Aristotle, John Locke and Immanuel Kant, and modern philosophers like John Rawls. In each case, Sandel uses thought experiments as well as historic legal cases to examine these philosophies from different angles. The effort to create a just society has never been easy, and I found my eyes opening to some of the benefits and pitfalls of each approach. I felt that Sandel did "justice" to each system he talks about, while still clearly having his own point of view. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Little Bee

by Chris Cleave

"Little Bee" is the name a young woman from Nigeria takes after she decides it is no longer safe to keep her own. When Chris Cleave's brief but powerful novel begins, Little Bee is being released from an Immigration Detention Center in Britain, where she's been held for two years learning the Queen's English and doing her best to keep herself alive and intact. Where she goes from here is uncertain, but she has a British man's driver's license and business card in her pocket. How she acquired these, and where they take her, I will leave for you to find out.

Sarah O’Rourke, the other narrator of the book, comes from a very different world. Sarah is an upper middle-class Brit working for a stylish magazine and raising her young son. Little Bee's appearance in her life is both a blessing and a curse, bringing up a terrible choice Sarah had once had to make, one she thought was buried in her past. I would love to say more, but one of the joys of this very human story is Cleave's perfect sense of timing in revealing the past and present to the reader. It's a story of the heroism possible in all of us, and of the way we choose to live on in the face of dark situations. Cleave's writing is beautiful and gentle, with a sense of humor that helps carry us through. I'll definitely be checking out his previous novel, Incendiary, and any of his future works.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Art & Fear

by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Books encouraging one to express oneself are often more frustrating than inspiring; afterwards, I often regret reading instead of actually creating, or I slump back into those existential creativity-killing questions such as "But what's the point?" or "Who cares?" Rather than focus on a particular craft, Art & Fear addresses creativity in general and helps deal with some of these questions head-on, freeing the reader to just get on with the creative work. From the introduction:
This is a book about making art. Ordinary art. Ordinary art means something like: all art not made by Mozart. After all, art is rarely made by Mozart-like people - essentially (statistically speaking) there aren't any people like that. But while geniuses may get made once a century or so, good art gets made all the time.

The book seems to talk in the voice of a friendly mentor. It's the kind of book you want to underline several times a page and give to all your art-making friends. Being a fairly slim volume, it won't distract you from your work for long, and you can easily carry a copy with you in your toolkit.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My Top 12 Favorites from 2009

...that is to say, of the books I read in 2009, these were my favorites, in no particular order. Please read them and report back.
  1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery
  2. Human Smoke - Nicholson Baker
  3. Zeitoun - Dave Eggers
  4. Art & Fear - David Bayles and Ted Orland
  5. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow
  6. American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld
  7. Feed - M.T. Anderson
  8. City of Refuge - Tom Piazza
  9. Leviathan - Scott Westerfeld
  10. Predictably Irrational - Dan Arielly
  11. The Geography of Bliss - Eric Weiner
  12. Bright of the Sky - Kay Kenyon

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

I haven't always been a big fan of audiobooks, but I'm starting to see how they can sometimes have real advantages over printed books. Take The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance. With bits of dialogue like this, from Jim,

"Say, who is you? Whar is you? Dog my cats ef I didn' hear sumf'n. Well, I know what I's gwyne to do: I's gwyne to set down here and listen tell I hears it agin,"

I blanched at the thought of ever reading the entire book. Then after hearing some recommendations of the audiobook read by Tom Parker (Grover Gardner), I gave it a try. Parker's voice explored every nook and cranny of each accent, which, in an audiobook, was delightful. I have no idea what Parker's actual voice is like; his default in this case was a warm and personable Arkansas sound, reminiscent of jazz legend Bob Dorough. And, with Parker's help, I fell in love with the story.

Though the book has its flaws (I could've done without Tom Sawyer's intervention towards the end), I came to realize that Huck's voice is what makes it so special, and so much more involving the The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. While Tom is a trickster, always gleefully gaming the system, Huck doesn't wish to bother anyone; he wants nothing more than to be free. Free of the confines of polite society; free of the clutches of his drunken, abusive father; free of the settled life. It makes perfect sense that he would befriend Jim, who, of course, craves a much more fundamental kind of freedom. Huck eventually has to decide whether he can live outside of society itself, and this is what makes the story so subversive for its time, and for ours: sometimes that's the only way to do the right thing.

Friday, December 11, 2009


by Dave Eggers
Zeitoun is the true story of a successful man, a respected business owner with a devoted wife, three children, a dog, and rental properties all over town. Unfortunately, that town is New Orleans, he's a Syrian-American, and his life is about to change forever.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun is the kind of guy you like to have around in times of crisis. He's calm, self-assured, and resourceful. When the news comes that Katrina may be more than the standard summer storm, Zeitoun helps his wife pack the kids and dog off to Baton Rouge to stay with her sister; Zeitoun decides to stay to watch over the family home and all the tenants of their rental properties. His wife isn't happy about it, but knows that her husband is as stubborn as he is hard-working. The two are in constant contact via cell phone, as usual. As devastating as the storm is, Zeitoun sees the flood as an opportunity to make use of a secondhand canoe he'd picked up at a yard sale. He paddles around his neighborhood, helping anyone he can and checking on neighbors. With help from other residents, he rescues several elderly people from their homes. And every day he feeds the abandoned dogs in the house across the street.

As Kathy Zeitoun follows the horrific news stories, her calls to Zeitoun get increasingly insistent -- he's got to get out of there, leave town now that the storm has passed. After his cell phone runs out of power he takes his canoe over one of his properties every day at noon to call his family. And it's there, one day, as Zeitoun is about to call his wife, that several military personnel burst in the door and arrest him. He is never given a phone call; as far as his family knows, he is dead.

Dave Eggers writes the story in a subdued, just-the-facts style--no verbal fireworks are needed, of course. I was riveted. A lot of books have been written about the Bush years, and I haven't felt much need to read them; I know what I think about his administration. But, without even touching on anything political, Zeitoun says volumes about the catastrophe of Katrina, of New Orleans, and of our nation's response to a city in crisis.