Thursday, December 31, 2009

Consider the Lobster

A before-bed re-read. I like to read things that are engaging but not too exciting before bed, so that I can be sure I will ultimately go to sleep. Essays I have read before fit the bill nicely. (Especially when they're about Kafka, or dictionaries--both very low on the excitement scale but high on engagingness.) Standout track in this collection: The extremely long essay about John McCain's 2000 (not 2008) presidential bid. Wallace does so much in this one essay--it gets better every time I read it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Three Men in a Boat, to Say Nothing of the Dog- Jerome K. Jerome

It may come as a surprise to some readers--it did to me--that people were hilarious in 1889. In pictures they look so serious! At least one guy was making free with the jokes and timeless wit, though: Jerome K. Jerome, the author so nice they named him twice.

This amply-named and humorous fellow has allowed so much time to pass since writing his book that it is now in the public domain. This is good news for cheapskates. It would also be good news for the book's original publisher, who once remarked to a friend, "I pay Jerome so much in royalties I cannot imagine what becomes of all the copies of that book I issue. I often think the public must eat them." Maybe so--the book has been in print continuously for a hundred and twenty years.

I read this book for free on my iPhone--though I now plan to buy a copy--and you can download it to your computer for free at Project Gutenberg. I HIGHLY recommend you do so.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory- Kenny Fries

I found this book in the science section of my favorite used book store, which in retrospect probably started us off on the wrong foot (excuse the pun). As promised by its title, the book intersperses brief essays about the author's disabilities--and, of course, his custom-designed shoes--with brief essays about Darwin and Wallace, and the evolution of The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

...For kind of a long time. I was already familiar with much of the Darwin / Wallace history, but their story was presented cogently and compellingly, and held my interest. And the essays about the shoes, fine.

But not until fairly far in the book does the author blend the two narrative strands or treat larger questions of adaptability and 'ability' vs. 'disability' in different environments. Also, I'm not quite at the end of the book yet, but so far the author has not discussed his homosexuality--which is treated just as explicitly in the text as his disability--in any Darwinian context. Which, of course, he doesn't have to, but it just seems like the elephant in the room. Because although the catchphrase that means a lot to the author is "survival of the fittest," a rudimentary understanding of evolution by natural selection reveals that "reproduction of the fittest" more closely describes the actual mechanism...

I think my overall dissatisfaction with this book stems from my desire for it to be something it is not. I was hoping for a book of essays on themes social and scientific, written for someone who has studied that scientific field in depth. Which it is not. But just because the book is not well-adapted for the niche I had provided for it, doesn't mean it is not well-adapted for a different niche somewhere else.

There, I just explicated one of its themes for you. You're welcome.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Birthday or Whatever- Annie Choi

"That book made you laugh," said Amy, by way of lunchtime conversation.

"Yeah..." I said. "It's one of those, 'my life: with jokes!' It's good."

"Hey," said Amy. "Your review is done!"

And it is.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Unseen Academicals- Terry Pratchett

I was thrilled to see that Terry Pratchett had a new Discworld book coming out; I thought the world might already possess the last one it was going to receive. I was thrilled again--though slightly alarmed--to see it on a right-in-front-of-the-door, new-books-at-50%-off promotional table at Barnes and Noble. I bought the book right away, and returned my library copy, but wondered uneasily if it was on that table because it was not selling well. Or, more optimistically, if it was such a big name that it could be a loss leader or something. I'm going to believe the latter explanation, despite not really knowing what a "loss leader" is or how it works, so please do not tell me if you have information to the contrary.

In my ideal world, Pratchett would write two new books a year, timed to coincide with Christmas and my birthday, and they would all be about the characters in the Watch. I am never very excited when Pratchett introduces a new group of characters, but as I read I come to understand that in his wisdom he has not gone wrong. And in subsequent readings I like the new characters more and more, and realize that he has done the exactly right, best, most perfect thing. This book, which introduces yet more characters, is no exception. I read it with Amy and we enjoyed it very much.

It's hard not to look for telltale signs of the author's early-onset Alzheimer's ("is the loosened-up, slightly...different Vetinari any kind of stand-in for the author himself?") but I suppose that's something we'll just have to deal with from now on. I for one am thrilled to have gotten this next book, and will treasure whatever else Pratchett authors. Apparently he is indeed hard at work on the next novel in the Discworld series. Go, man, go!

For some reason, almost everyone I talk to has never heard of Terry Pratchett, despite his having sold millions upon millions of books worldwide. Which raises the question: who is buying these books? Is it one person? Where are they?
Anyway, I do a crummy job of explaining Pratchett to people who have not read him. I launch into my paean, and about four seconds in, people go "hmm" in a way that indicates they are hiding their true feelings. I should probably just mention to people that he was KNIGHTED by the QUEEN for services to literature, and leave it at that.
But I just can't help going on! He's a genius! Did you know you could even get knighted for services to literature? I didn't.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Stiff- Mary Roach

DO read this book, but DON'T read it before bed.

Or while you're eating.

Since I eliminated both of my favorite reading occasions almost immediately, it took me a long time to finish this book. But reading it was worth the dragged-out timeline, because the book is truly fascinating, focused, and surprisingly funny. I don't know whether Mary Roach won any awards for her writing in Stiff, and I am too lazy to find out, but she should have.

Consider the task she faced: to write about cadavers--remnants of our loved ones but no longer our loved ones, bodies which may have any number of mind-boggling adventures perpetrated upon them. (Not that--and this is key--not that they mind.) The book is informative (sometimes overly so), even-handed, thoughtful, and respectful. AND it's funny. It's laugh out loud funny. Let me tell you: you have not received those sidelong snortlaughing-while-reading-in-public looks until you are snorting in public while reading a book about cadavers.

How did Roach make her writing snortlaugh-funny, while writing about cadavers, without once availing herself of disrespectful cheap shots? I read closely to try and scry out her genius plan. According to my scrying, her genius plan was two-pronged. Prong One: wordplay. Any time a historical source or present-day researcher uses a slightly odd turn of phrase, that phrase is turning right around and cropping up again a few paragraphs further on, in a slightly surprising, playful or humorous way. Good stuff. (Consider the control she must have over language, to make these odd things stick out slightly and then to turn them gently on their ears. Hope she got an award for that, too.) Prong two? Her own quirky normalcy. She's talking about crazy ish sometimes, and she realizes how crazy it is. Sometimes it is a little repulsive. But she also finds it super-fascinating. The reader gets the impression that this lady would be excellent to talk to at a cocktail party...just as soon as you're through eating, that is.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Anthologist--Nicholson Baker

Baker's writing always strikes me as odd but enjoyable. Not until this book did I think to call it poetic, however. But I suppose it is, and the style suits the book well. For the novel's narrator, Paul Chowder, is a somewhat-successful poet who is trying his best to write the introduction to a poetry anthology. He is (dun dun DUNN)...The Anthologist.

But really, two aspects of this novel make it a particular pleasure. One is the narrator's careful and passionate explanation of poetic rhythm. If that sounds boring as hell, well, what can I say. It's interesting, in the way mundane things are interesting when described by someone who is passionate about them. Also it helps if you like poetry.

The other aspect is Nicholson's writing itself, as above. Somehow it always makes the ordinary seem new and just a little strange. His sly and witty narration also slips in some sideways truths about life and human psychology. I wish I had my copy to quote from, but it's back at the library already... ready for the next reader to check out. Do it!