Monday, April 2, 2012

Book Reviews

My notes for the 2012 reading list aren't showing up in Worldwide's browser, so I've copied them below, for reasons of vanity, as well as for the benefit of my one follower and two commentors. It's been fun trying to write two sentence reviews.

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder
Picked this up because Salman Rushdie said it was Christopher Hitchens' favourite book. Thoroughly enjoyable, but I found neither the Sebastian character, nor Charles' love for Julia credible. Perhaps all of the characters were just too rich and too British for me to fully understand.

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
The one book the OG's enjoyed in the last two years, it certainly held my interest, although I found a couple of plot twists implausible. I finished it quickly but won't be reading the sequel. That seems to say enough.

Ned Tillman, The Chesapeake Watershed: A Sense of Place and a Call to Action
Charming memoir by a friend of the family, centered on life in the Chesapeake Bay region, capably sprinkled with science, history and environmentalism. Enjoyed the geology lesson most, as it was the area with which I was least familiar.

Charles C. Mann,  1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
Fascinating look at the development of what I now know is the Columbian Exchange. More enjoyable than 1491. I had no idea of the extent to which Chinese appetite for South American silver figured in the cycle, nor that malaria and other unwanted parasites were invariably part of the package.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov,  Pale Fire: A Novel
I didn't like Lolita when I read it,
Perhaps the fault was mine; I didn't get it.
I found Pale Fire on the bookshelf in the basement,
And skipped the Foreword, finding in amazement The words in verse--and comments--metafiction!
It's clever sure, but there is better fiction.

William Styron,  Lie Down in Darkness
Beautifully written, painful to read; especially after Darkness Visible. Even with the knowledge of events from the time shifting narrative, I was still hoping for some sort of redemption at the end, even though I didn't really like anybody.

Matthew Yglesias,  The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think
Not a lot new here if you read his blog (I do) but interesting throughout, and yet another case for the Kindle Single. Time to slip the bonds of zoning and central planning and give the people what they want.

Sam Sommers, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World
The title says it all. The only thing I learned is that Seinfeld is about normative behavior, not nothing. Enjoyable throughout, but I encountered most of the substance in 2011.

Louis Sachar, Holes
Stole this from the BG's bookbag for a quick hit and possible conversation piece. A story that slowly draws you in and wins you over with characters reminiscent of Roald Dahl.

Kim Aubrey, Crave It: Writers and Artists Do Food
Is their beauty in food beyond the pleasure of taste and the warmth of shared experience? Sometimes, but this mostly tastes of sucrose.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Anecdotal examples of the Kahnemann story with some good practical advice for self improvement. Not as good as I had hoped, but I am suddenly mindful of the Cue, Response, Reward cycle, and its implications in many areas.

Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: a World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption
Having your Olympic hopes shattered when your plane gets shot down, you spend 6 weeks on a raft in the Pacific and 3 years as a Japanese POW run by a sadistic monster is rather unpleasant. Thank goodness Billy Graham came along to save the day. Great story but I couldn't wait for it to end.

Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, Poor Economics
Finally, some middle ground between Sachs and Easterly, backed by data, and with credible proposals for action. The herald of a quiet revolution?

Mark Kurlansky, The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America's Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town
Might have enjoyed this more if I hadn't read Cod first. A little too much hagiography and not enough economics for my taste. The early history and the mechanics of the fishing industry are fascinating.

Jared M. Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Had been meaning to read this for years; finally picked it up at the intersection of a discussion of 1493 and a trip to New Guinea. Remarkable in sweep and succinctness; how different might our world be if Africa was wide, rather than long and the zebra had been willing to take a bridle?

Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
Who knew that James Garfield was such a remarkable figure? I don't know what was more shocking to learn about the late 19th century: the accessibility of public figures or the ignorance of the medical profession regarding germs and infection. Dodgy politics too. At least some things have changed.

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's travels
Relatively enjoyable insight into the human condition. Apparently i missed the thinly disguised anti Whig satire

Michael Morpurgo, War Horse
I am getting old--skeptic of incredible coincidences and unimpressed by anthropomorphic animals. Not certain if it's me or this title. I suspect the latter, but fear the former.

Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide
More Gladwell than Kahneman. Not a lot of new material (the marshmallow study, loss aversion, the anchoring effect, the paradox of choice, etc,), but well written and sprinkled with stories from sports, which is always a selling point for this reader.

William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness
Concise account of the author's descent into and recovery from suicidal depression. Painfully honest and beautifully written, it is a reminder of how complex our operating systems are and a caution against prescribing "cures" for psychological problems. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Katherine Porter, Broke: How Debt Bankrupts the Middle Class
Lots of people just like you and me declaring bankruptcy, often as a result of job loss, divorce or illness. And the process is expensive and confusing.

Philip Coggan, Paper Promises: Debt, Money, and the New World Order
Readable history of the role of money as a medium for exchange and a store of value; predicts China will be holding the bag in a hundred years, eliminating the comfort the US has enjoyed in having it debts denominated in a currency it can print at will. But we'll muddle through somehow.

Jacqueline Novogratz, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World
Interesting and honest take on projects in the developing world. I didn't believe her miraculous encounter with the eponymous garment in Rwanda, but she won me over eventually, as she seems to have done with many others.

Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us
An airport purchase by LDW, I read this mostly in quest of yearly numbers. Again, echoes of Ariely and Gladwell, but still in it's own voice. Wish I had understood intrinsic motivation twenty years ago.

Norton Juster, Jules Feiffer, The Phantom Tollbooth
Someone pegged my Flavor Flav Halloween costume as the watchdog, and was incredulous when I confessed to not knowing the book. Enjoyable throughout, though this grump grew tired at times of the non-stop irreverence. And I expect its lesson teaching-powers are often overestimated by hopeful parents.

Peter H. Diamandis, Steven Kotler, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
Plenty of things to be optimistic about as we move exponentially toward progress in many areas. But predictions are difficult, especially about the future.

Matt Ridley, The rational optimist: how prosperity evolves
People have constantly been predicting the demise of civilization, despite incredible, even exponential improvements in world gdp, personal wealth, life expectancy, global harvests, reductions in pollution emissions, death from water borne diseases, and gains from trade. But this time it's different.

James Robinson, Daron Acemoglu, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
You only have to read chapter 15 to learn that inclusive economic and political institutions that allow competition are crucial to national prosperity, but the rest is full of historical examples of how rulers, governments and entrenched elites have interfered to benefit themselves. China beware.


  1. I take it that I am "Worldwide." Love that! Amazing list, Sweetie.

  2. Thats two books about debt. Are you planning on reading "Debt: The First 5000 Years" to make the trifecta?