Friday, December 02, 2005

Reunion by Alan Lightman

by Alan Lightman

While attending a thirtieth-anniversary college reunion, Reunion's narrator wanders off by himself and gets stuck in reverie, seeing himself as he was back in college, but from the outside, and wondering how things might have been if at a few critical junctions he'd acted differently.

But this middle-aged professor, who is sliding toward numbness and nihilism, remembers what it was like to be in love, and when he comes back to the present, he recaptures that sense. It might sound kind of corny, but Lightman's soft touch and spartan prose makes the story credible and enjoyable.

Friday, November 18, 2005

the republican war on science

I just finished journalist Chris Mooney's new book, The Republican War on Science, and it was disturbing and mostly quite convincing. One of the worst cases of a bad decision, apparently politically or religiously motivated (or worse: possibly both) that immediately affects people is the Plan B pill.

The FDA decided not to make this "morning after" birth control pill available over-the-counter, despite an overwhelming majority of its scientific advisory committee recommending the agency do so. So why didn't they? Apparently because of ideological opposition to contraception itself, according to former FDA head Susan Wood, in this interview on Alternet. (She quit in August in protest over the Plan B decision.)

I'm a science geek and critical of the Bush administration and I follow the news, so I would have thought I'd have heard of most of the stuff in this book, but I hadn't. So read it, be shocked and dismayed but informed. It shows how Republicans have pushed to set the bar very high for scientific proof necessary to change laws or policies. This might sound good—in fact, they use an Orwellian term for it, "sound science"—but really it's to prevent action to curb global warming, protect endangered species, and so on. Indicative of their agenda is the fact that they want to make it easy to remove species from the endangered list, but hard to add them to it. There's no scientific justification for this double standard.

You can read more in this vein on Mooney's blog.

Monday, November 07, 2005

all good

Here are some books that I read in recent months that I never got around to writing blurbs for. Despite my neglect of them, they all rocked.
Bonjour BlancBonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti
by Ian Thomson

Watching EnglishWatching the English: The Hidden Roots of English Behavior
by Kate Fox

Watching EnglishThe Art of Travel
by Alain de Botton

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Case of the Female Orgasm

Bias in the Science of Evolution
by Elizabeth Lloyd
Although this book has been panned by many biologists, I found this book totally convincing. It addresses the scientifically and politically sticky question of whether women's orgasms evolved because they're somehow advantageous, or whether they are an evolutionary by-product of natural selection favoring men who orgasm. It's fairly obvious why men orgasm: stripping it to its bare bones, it's about geting their genes into the woman. But what function would the women's orgasm have?

Clearly women don't need to have an orgasm to get pregnant, but biologists have suggested that it helps bond men and women together, or that it has a mechanical function, helping women suck up sperm they want to keep and expel that which they don't. (Such things are known from the world of amphibians, for example, but there's little evidence for it in people.)

Lloyd picks apart all the competing stories and findings, and the only one that holds up is the byproduct view. For example, most of the theories that advocate an advantage for more orgasmic women fumble when they run into the data: there is huge variability amongst women in how easily they have orgasms. Some never can, some can with intercourse only with sufficient foreplay and "manual aid," and some can reach the big O simply by thinking. This doesn't jive at all with most of the ideas that orgasm is an adapation.

Some feminists have objected to the byproduct view, seeing it as belittling to women. But Lloyd counters that part of the project of feminism was to liberate women from being defined biologically, as the child-bearing sex. So implying that women's orgasms must have been naturally selected to be important runs counter to this feminist push, Lloyd argues. So it's not where orgasms came from that's important, but how people make the most of what they've got.

Get it from Powell's Books.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
by Jonathan Safran Foer

Foer's second novel is disjointed, but it ultimately pulls mostly together and rewards close attention. Told in three voices, like his previous novel, my favorite was the precocious kid who is trying to unlock the mysteries of his dead father's life. The novel's other lines were harder to follow—because they were written in stream-of-consciousness and were also less compelling—but ultimately they all tie together in a neat package. (I'm sure it would all be tighter on a second read, but I rarely read a book twice.) Some might think some of it too cute, but I applaud Foer for tackling the sitcky topic of how people cope with the fallout of 9/11.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

I just finished George Saunders' new novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. Here's my mini-review:
A fable about the dangers of power in the hands of the brainless, Reign of Phil at first seems at first like a thinly-veiled critique of the Bush administration. But actually it goes deeper than that, and deals with people's fears in the face of oppression, and how they seek happiness. I like some of Saunder's other stuff better (see my earlier post on some of his New Yorker stories), but Reign of Phil is still worth a read.
Read excerpts from the book, from the publisher's website on the book.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

good = bad

Everything Bad is Good for You
by Steven Johnson

What? Video games are beneficial? They tax your decision-making, pattern-sussing, and plan-formulating skills? Fabulous! I've always felt guilty about playing video games, but after reading this book I think pop culture—especially gaming—is more intellectually demanding than I had thought. One point that particularly rang true was how Johnson pointed out that almost no one reads the directions for games; rather, part of the fun of the game is figuring out the rules of the world as you go along. So there's a new Zelda game coming out next year—and you get to be a werewolf! Maybe I'll pick that one up...

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Short Short Stories
by Dave Eggers

These are, as the title says, quite short stories. Most or all of these were published in the UK's Guardian newspaper, which makes puts all its content online for free. (Or you could buy the book like me. What is born every minute? Yes, a sucker is.) So really, rather than me wasting time talking you into reading one of these, you should just read one yourself. My suggestion of where to start: No More Death. The rest from this book, plus more, are here. You can thank me later.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

going back to cali

Less Than Zero
by Bret Easton Ellis
Set in the hills of L.A. in the 1980s, it follows a bunch of rich kids who spend their time getting fucked up and wondering why they feel nothing. And yet it makes me pine for California. I think it's funnier if you're not from there; most of it doesn't seem terribly shocking to me, though I'm sure to others it's outrageous.

Sixpence House
by Paul Collins
His previous book, Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the Earth focused on failure and yet was compelling. This book is another unexpected success: he writes about quitting San Francisco and moving his family to a tiny Welsh village overrun with bookstores. They end up failing in their attempt to buy a home—and to feel at home. Yet he spins the mundane details of life and the quirky hundred-year-old books he collects into a fluffy and satisfying cotton candy ball of a book.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Down & Out in Paris & London

After the scary and sinister 1984, I didn't expect George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London to be so funny. Don't worry, it has depressing aspects to it as well. But Orwell can see the humor in the lives of drunken, dead tired dishwashers and others behind the scenes in restaurants and hotels. Throughout, he argues, directly or indirectly, that these people financially at the bottom of society aren't fundamentally different from everyone else and deserve to be treated better. But I think he could keep his sense of humor largely because he was educated, which made him not really one of these people; he always had an avenue of escape from poverty, should he decide to take it. (He more or less admits this toward the end.) Anyway, the book is funny (at least when he's in Paris and has money and time to go occasionally to cheap bistros and drink); the Paris part is The Jungle of the restaurant and hotel world; and it's a fascinating glimpse into the genesis of Orwell as a political satirist.

Friday, April 01, 2005


David Mitchell is all the rage here in England. His latest novel—Cloud Atlas, which I got obsessed with—is in the chain-store windows and was a Booker Prize finalist. Like that book, Ghostwritten is a collection of interlinked stories with a common theme: all life is chance, but guided by laws we can only discern dimly. This one got missed for the Booker lists, and one reviewer said Mitchell's chaotic second novel, Number9 Dream, got shortlisted for the prize not on its own merits but because the committee felt bad they'd missed his first book. But I'm going to give Number9 a try. He's now officially one of my favorite authors.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Freaky Deaky
by Elmore Leonard

A solid page-turner crime novel by a master of the genre, with a keen ear for dialogue. I would have thought a book about aging hippies, remnants of Weather Underground-type groups, who bomb the bourgeois for money and pleasure, would be tedious and cliche. But Margaret Atwood, who loves crime novels and especially Leonard, recommended this one in particular. Even if Leonard missteps occasionally (such as when a character's blotter acid kicks in in five minutes, making me think "don't write what you don't know"), the story moves along convincingly and, of course, has a twist at the end. Leonard also wrote the book behind the new Uma Thurman and John Travola movie, "Be Cool," the follow-up to "Get Shorty" (also by him). I liked "Get Shorty," but I haven't seen the sequel. My guess: the books are better.

Friday, March 04, 2005

when was that now?

More on Ali Smith's Hotel World since I just finished it: I especially got caught up in the heart-rending stream-of-consciousness chapter second from the end where a dead girl's sister stays up til the break of morning obsessively remembering the sister and it reminds me of how I was right after my dad died and depresses me to think how little I think about my dad and how I have to think for a while to remember how long ago it was when he had a heart attack um it was when I was a junior in college it was in February I think see I've even forgotten the day I know it was right after his birthday and I felt badly and also good that I hadn't gotten him anything for his birthday what did he really need anyway not anything I could have given him I don't think I mean anything I hadn't already given him even though the last time I talked to him it was about my car battery and how to fix it even though that was our last conversation I still knew I still know that he loved me and he knew I loved him and now I can count yes it's been eight years and now my sister is going to have a baby it's official she started telling people Thursday and why couldn't he have been here for that but of course there's no why there's only where where is he now? But even the girl in the story when she's remembering her sister she still can laugh and I think if my dad had a ghost would he want to see me crying or laughing? even if it means he's kind of forgotten?

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

By a strange coincidence, the first novel I started here, Hotel World, is by a local author, Ali Smith. I didn't know this til I cracked the book and read the author's bio blurb. I picked the book because Jonathan Safran Foer and Jim Crace offered glowing quotes for her covers. I'll give you the intro to the novel so you can see for yourself how amazing it is. It hooked me from the start:
Wooooooooo- hooooooo what a fall what a soar what a plummet what a dash into dark into light waht a plunge what a glide thud crash what a drop what a rush wath a swoop waht a fright what a mad hushed skirl what a smash mush mash-up broke and gashed what a heart in my mouth what an end. What a life. What a time. What I felt. Then. Gone. Here's the story; it starts at the end. It was the height of the summer when I fell; the leaves were on the trees....
And the book's printed with unjustified pages, which gives it a distinct look and a special place in my brain.

inspirational reading for journalists

  • It Ain't Necessarily So: How the Media Remake Our Picture of Reality by David Murray, Joel Schwartz, and Robert S. Lichter

    This critical take on media coverage—primarily of science, health, and social studies research—makes a lot of good points about how researchers distort the truth by presenting only part of a story. Sometimes this is surely unintentional, other times it may be shaped by reporters' biases to fit a story into a mold, such as evil villian (i.e., a company) foiled by do gooder (i.e., researcher, reporter, environmentalist).

    The book has a somewhat conservative, anti-environmentalist bent: for example, it criticizes reporters for uncritically relaying evidence of global warming, whereas most complaints about media coverage of climate change say reporters give too much creedence to doubters who are outside the scientific mainstream, in the name of "balancing" the article.

    One of their points that stuck with me was to avoid ad hominem attacks where reporters cast doubt upon a person—say, by noting that a doctor has received money from a pharmaceutical company—without actually dealing with the content of the person's claims. This is important for me to remember, as it's a tactic popular with leftists, whose politics I'm steeped in. (The next book on the list uses this tactic too much, for example.) I thought of this point about ad hominem attacks when reading an interview with movie director Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness in The Believer where he criticizes Michael Moore:
    Q: Can you give me an example of what you would call gratuitous meanness or creulty in a film?

    TS: Sure. Fahrenheit 9/11. Wolfowitz wetting his comb. [A clip in the movie shows Paul Wolfowitz, preparing to go on camera, ungracefully wets a comb in his mouth and then runs it through his hair.] There was absolutely no purpose in including that scene except to humiliate him.

    And Moore also spliced together clips of Bush saying "Iraq" and "Al Qaida" to parody the link his administration made between the two, but if he wanted to be honest, he could have just used actual quotes from Bush or Cheney making such a link. Anyway, despite any biases of the authors of the book, they have important points to make about pitfalls to watch out for and ways to round out stories.

  • Trust Us We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber

    I've only just started this, but it seems good. It details how reporters rely too heavily on press releases and PR people for their stories, and how PR people are adept at getting their clients' voices into the media by hiring third parties—paid spokespeople who either are experts in a field or pose as such.

    The book uses the "follow the money" kind of critique critcized in It Ain't Necessarily So. It's OK to follow the money, but you have to follow through and show first the amounts are significant and timing right to actually affect things, and second you have to examine the people's actual claims, too. You can't just stop with casting doubt.

    We'll see how that book develops. Anyway, it's already made me more wary of press releases.

  • The News about the News: American Journalism in Peril by Leonard Downie and Robert G. Kaiser

    These guys know of what they speak: these editors at the Washington Post are veteran journalists who interviewed a bunch of other veteran reporters about the state of American media. It's depressing how many problems there are, and the authors trace them all back to one thing: Money. As media companies shifted from being privately to publicly held, and as they then became parts of larger conglomerates, the drive for continuous profit—at rates far exceeding what other industries expect—at the expense of quality has seriously damaged journalism.

    But it's not like the problems will go away if we ignore them, so I usually get more energized than down when I read these things. Most reporters have no special knowledge of the area they're writing (or talking) about, they have no time to delve in deep and dig up stories or develop expertise, and they tend to uncritically regurgitate the words of government officials, politicians, and press agents. And this is just the newspapers. TV is abysmal. They actually show canned material made by PR firms, but not identified as such. And instead of actual reporting, TV is dominated by full-time blatherers who shout opinions, and whoever is loudest or most charismatic tends to win. I watch so little TV that I thought I wouldn't want to read the chapters on it in the book, but I was fascinated by how much worse TV has gotten over the years, and also made me face the fact that the picture most Americans have of the wider world is that mediated through television.

  • Backstory: Inside the Business of News by Ken Auletta This collection of articles, mostly from the New Yorker, takes on roughly the same theme as The News Behind the News: money and the increasingly business culture of news. The stories take a more detailed look at certain newspapers and networks. I'm looking forward to the one on Fox News, especially after watching Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism and being shocked but also not knowing how much to trust the documentary. Some of the stories are poorly organized and I got lost in the details. It would take a very dedicated reader to keep track of all the names of editors mentioned in a story about the New York Times, say, who he has probably never heard of before and never will again. What Auletta brings that's special is access: apparently he talked his way into numerous newsrooms and was able to observe top editors in action and talk candidly with their underlings about the news business. The pieces here are stories, with fleshed out personalities and plots that pulled me along even when the details of who said what when weren't inherently fascinating.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Motherless Brooklyn
by Jonathan Lethem

A conversation between a gangster, wired so his stooge outside—who suffers from Tourette's—can listen in, and a mystery man inside a Manhattan zendo ("a Japanese church") kicks off the novel. The rest of the novel, told by the Touretter, details how he was rescued and mentored by the gangster, first as a petty criminal, then as a shady detective. Between tics, barks, and outbursts, the narrator fumbles through a murder investigation, tailed by a killer giant. Gradually the Touretter collects clues and the meaning of the confusing conversation from the first pages unfolds, a message in a bottle. And, yes, of course there's a little graphic sex, too. The narrator admits to a lover that someone once said his dick is shaped like a beer can. Some people lack all the luck.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Best of McSweeney's, Volume 1
edited by Dave Eggers

This book made me want to give McSweeney's another look. I love its sister publication, The Believer. But McSweeney's was too caught-up with experimental fiction to be interesting, it seemed to me before. But then reading this I found they'd published journalism and some actually enjoyable stories. Another couple books of stories and reporting issued by the McSweeney's world, which I read recently and recommend: McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
Michael Chabon
This is the same as issue #10 of McSweeney's Quarterly. The stories varied a lot in quality and interest to me, but there were some gems, and I discovered a couple new authors here.
The Best American Nonrequired Reading (2002)
by Dave Eggers
The 2003 collection is even better. I haven't read the 2004 one yet, but when I think about it I nearly wet my pants.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Fortress of Solitude
by Jonathan Lethem

My streak of serendipitously finding ever-better novels is over. This was good, but not great. It starts slow, bogged down in the main character's childhood, like many biographies I've started and not finished.

But it picks up as the character matures, ventures off his home block in Brooklyn, starts tagging, smoking weed, and playing superhero. From reading the book jackets, all of Lethem's other books seem to have incredibly weird aspects; this one has a touch of strangeness, but it's not central, which was a bit disappointing to me.

More stuff:
  • Two reviews from the Guardian (London): +/

  • A Powell's bookstore interview with Lethem after publication of Fortress. Link

Thursday, December 02, 2004

My first article in a glossy mag! (Mine's on the lower half of the page.) OK, it's the CERN Courier, not the New Yorker. But still...

The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization
by Brian Fagan

1816 was widely known as the year without a summer. A massive volcanic eruption in Java, one of the biggest since the last great ice age 20 000 years ago, cast a pall over the Earth. Temperatures plummeted and storms battered crops. Across the world in Geneva, the cold weather kept Mary Shelley indoors, where she entertained her husband and a friend with the now-classic story Frankenstein, a cautionary tale of the dangers of science.

Anthropologist Brian Fagan's The Long Summer is a cautionary tale, too. Modern agriculture and technology help buffer much of humanity from short-term climate shifts, such as the odd drought or flood, volcanic eruption or ocean-current shift. (The summer of 1816 seems to have been merely an inconvenience for the Shelleys.) But, Fagan argues, this buffer is illusory. We are actually more vulnerable than ever to long-term climate change. Fagan's book takes the long view, covering the migrations and development of human societies over the past 20 000 years. He shows how human societies have risen to great heights when the climate was cooperative - but also suffered spectacular crashes when the climate shifted. Archaeologists have long known about these ups and downs of civilization, but many make sense only in the light of relatively recent data on the history of climate change.

From cores from glaciers, lake beds, and the ocean, combined with studies of tree rings and pockets of preserved pollen grains, climatologists have assembled a remarkably detailed record of the climate since the last ice age. Fagan focuses on the picture these records paint, while piecing together a parallel narrative of human societies from the much more scant written records and artefacts people left behind, which give a sense of their lifestyles and movements.

In shifting from mobile to settled life, from diets based on a wide variety of plants and animals to those reliant on a few staples, populations have soared. But in going through this process, which Fagan calls "trading up", people exchanged flexibility and mobility for some measure of stability and prosperity.

But what will happen if there is another major climate shift? Atlantic ocean currents warm Europe, but a few thousand years ago those currents probably shut down when North American glaciers melted, plunging Europe into a mini ice age. Humanity has flourished through the past 15 000 years, a rare stretch of warm, stable climate that Fagan calls the "long summer". Today we do not have the options open to our ancient forebears of shifting back to herder or hunter-gatherer lifestyles. But another major climate change is bound to come, and no doubt sooner rather than later because of human-influenced climate change. When it does, humanity will face tougher decisions and greater chaos than ever before. This book is an attempt to get people thinking about it now.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell
This hodgepodge of six stories strands the reader, over and over, in new lands without a map. One, two, three, four, five, six times the stories course from the past to the future, in chronological order. (Later it returns to each storyline again, five to one.) But each story is so compellingly-told that it pulled me along. I wanted to figure out who the characters were, where and when they lived, and what tied all the stories together.

The first section plunks into a 150-year-old South Pacific travel diary. Not a little off-putting is the pedantic pen of the uptight diarist, with his obscure bon mots and taste for foreign tongues. But quickly it gets juicy, with cannibals, gold rush fever, stowaways. The diary ends mid-sentence. New story, new style: Snappy, sassy letters from a young destitute musician conning his way through life. 1930s Belgium. Combination of Catcher in the Rye and The Graduate. Letters to whom? Some friend, unclear who. Round three: 1975, California, a powers-that-be story of industrial greed and hit men. What next? Style shifts, settings jump, plot twists, always surprises.

See A. S. Byatt's review from the Guardian (UK).

Friday, November 19, 2004

Floating Off the Page by Ken Wells
Most newspaper articles aren't worth reading a year later, but book collects unusual articles. They're the A-heds from the Wall Street Journal, weird, wacky, funny, fascinating stories that break the usual reporting mold. How cheaply can someone live on a cross-country trip? A thrifty reporter does it to find out. What's it like for a car show model? Or a belly dancer in Egypt? Again, the reporters go and find out. One scribe writes on folks who talk in only short words, one beat per.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

by Jim Crace
This novel's characters endure self-imposed quantines in hopeless attempts to cure not only their sick bodies but sick minds. Five travellers set out into desolate wastes for forty days of fasting and deprivation, to lead simple lives and purify their souls. But they run up against their own weaknesses and the conflicts with each other and two others they run into on a barren plain. The stupid mind games the characters play with themselves are exactly like what I found myself doing when I was on meditation retreats. Either Crace has been on retreat—or he's just in touch with his demons. In this stripped-down environment, the characters' personalities are laid bare, and it's both comic and disquieting to see people so unmasked.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
Bryson is my new favorite author. He somehow manages to dig up all sorts of quirky facts I'd never heard about subjects I thought I knew about. I just finished reading his Mother Tongue on the history and study of English. It was nearly as good as his Short History of Nearly Everything (though this is on science, a subject closer to my heart). I also love how he skewers past pedants and their outdated ideas. Even when they're easy targets, with his light touch it's still fun to read.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff
It's no accident the characters in this novel work at a virtual reality company. The book is itself virtual reality. I'm enveloped in the tumult of the lives of two multiples—people with multiple personality disorder. The way one character handles her difficulties reminds me of the guy with no short-term memory in "Memento"—and the book is as engrossing as that movie. Like, when I'm reading it, I'll think I'll just read one more page before I go turn on the music or get some food or whatever, and next thing I know I've read ten pages. It's as if my mind that wants to read is split off from my body and from the minds that listen to music and wander off, contemplating tomorrow. Brings home how in our fragmented consciousnesses we all suffer a bit from split personalities.

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Kindness of Strangers
edited by Don George (Lonely Planet Books)
This sounds like a sappy book: tales of travellers who received unexpected and unwarrented kindness from strangers. It even has a foreword by the trendy Dalai Lama. (He's great, but I get skeptical because I see his name too often.) But actually the stories are mostly all really good and make me feel better about wandering around here in Switzerland and France. The worst case scenarios in my travels couldn't be as bad as the woman who got lost in an African desert in the middle of the night, or the woman who got stranded on the far side of a huge lake in Israel, or the guy stuck in a blizzard in the mountains of Afganistan. But somehow, people always came to their rescue, they found their friends, their lost items were returned, whatever.
It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science
edited by Graham Farmelo
This book of essays is mostly about great equations in physics. Perhaps I'm jaded about physics, but I thought many of the best essays were on other sciences. My favorites were those on an equation for chemistry in the ozone layer and an equation for chaotic systems. Not surprisingly, these were by science journalists, rather than scientists, and focused on the people in addition to the concepts. Unlike most popular science writing which avoids equations at all costs, this assumes that people can understand something of the equations, and can themselves glimpse some of their beauty.

Friday, October 01, 2004

yes, i'm a dork

Strange Beauty by George Johnson
By one of the best science writers out there, this biography of one of the century's great theoretical physicists, Murray Gell-Mann, was fascinating and actually had enough physics, explained well enough, that it has already helped me in my own writing about physics for my internship at CERN. Murray Gell-Mann was a child prodigy, but apparently suffered from it. He had an amazing memory, which helped him in his work, and he won a Nobel prize, but it doesn't seem to have made him especially happy. So whenever I rue my bad memory at least I know I'll forget the failings of my life and they won't eat me alive.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
I fell in love with this book. It's a travel writer's tour through science, a world he knew almost nothing about before he started the book. I think his outsider view makes it a fresh treatment of material that mostly scattered across other popular books on physics, genetics, anthropology, geology, you name it. It's full of experts throughout history saying stupid things and rejecting ideas that turned out to be right. It's got underdogs who overcome adversity, like the janitor who wrote scientific papers that were eventually accepted as brillant--a real-life Good Will Hunting. And it stresses how amazing science is, but nonetheless how little we know. And it's got weird, disturbing facts like that a pillow that's been used to a few years is a good portion--like ten percent by weight--dead skin and dust mites.
The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene
If you're dying to understand weird, complex physics without actually crunching any numbers or slogging through equations, this is the book for you. It's a bit pedantic--it seems he thinks it's really important for the reader to understand certain distinctions that maybe aren't that big a deal to most people. But the writing is smooth and, for this kind of book, lively (though the attempts at humor fall flat). A lot of the physics is acted out by Simpson's characters, like Itchy and Scratchy attacking each other on a moving train to illustrate relativity.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

an american in geneva

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
A whimsical tour-de-force, a hilarious romp through Paris, a rumination and mediation on Frenchness. I read most of this on the plane on my way to Geneva. My favorite part: Gopnik's trip to a supposedly American-style gym, where the staff thought exercising one a week is a lot. But five or six days a week? They said that sounds wearing. And when he goes to a typical French gym, everyone's hanging out on the poolside eating sandwiches.

Sarah: a novel by JT LeRoy
A jolt of foreignness, though it's a bit too smart for its premise: a prepubescent transvestite who wants to become the most revered truckstop prostitute around. But its a fascinating, fast-paced story. The book reminds me of Terry Southern's stuff--the guy who, with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, wrote the screenplay for "Easy Rider." But the couple of Southern's books I read seemed to be caught up in trying to shock the reader; LeRoy seems a bit caught up in this, but not so much as Southern. Leroy's got promise to develop into a really great writer, and he's still young: he wrote this a few years ago at age 20.

Barrel Fever by David Sedaris
While hilarious, this book has a different feel from most of Sedaris's later stuff. No stories about his family, only a few true stories about himself. Most it's over-the-top fiction. As long as I ran with the scenarios he was throwing up--a long-unemployed man who suddenly becomes a star actor and director by making a film about his previously lazy life--then it cracked me up. One of my friends who's a big Sedaris fan didn't like his latest book, and worried that if he ran out of stories about his family, he'd be washed up. I think that if that ever happens, he's still got a knack for fiction.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

sad but touching

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
I've read a good amount about Iraq under Saddam and wanted to learn about Iran during the same period, going through the revolution and Iran-Iraq war. I bought a dense book by a great journalist, Dilip Hiro, but only got through 50 pages of it. This comic, on the other hand, I read in an afternoon. This true story covers the same period through the eyes of girl growing up in Tehran and is more gripping and memorable than books filled with details of armies' movements and governmental turnovers.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
Beware! Only about a third of this book isn't a duplicate of the stories in his other books. But the last story, on neighbors who compete with conspicuous consumption and then with conspicuous altruism, was alone worth the $4.50 I paid for this used, "as is" copy. When I went to see Sedaris read recently, a guy nearby me had an equally beat up copy of the same book, and when Sedaris signed the book, the guy asked him to write something mean inside. Afterward he showed us the note: "To my cheapskate friend. My new book is only $23.95."

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

In Me Own Words: The Autobiography of Bigfoot, words and pictures by graham roumieu
He eats a lot of people, gets himself in trouble. Living in the woods ain't all it's cracked up to be, he says. Squirrels play slide whistles all day. "Why they be trippin' on me?," he says. "Bigfoot gots to reprazent."

Monday, August 09, 2004

CivilWarLand: stories and a novella by George Saunders
Like his book Pastoralia, this is a collection of twisted stories, many set in failing, fantastical theme parks. These stories feature a boneless girl, a raccoon disposal company, and a bevy of ghosts. Death and job insecurity run throughout--and left me wondering which is worse.

Also see the author's brillant apparently off-the-cuff comments in an interview in the March 2004 Believer (not online). Also good are a New Yorker interview and The Atlantic (who used to have their interview online for free and then took it off, so I linked to the Google cache).

Tuesday, August 03, 2004


Clumsy: A Novel by Jeffrey Brown
Usually I only read comics when I like the drawings as well as the story. Brown's drawings suck, but I loved it anyway. This graphic novel is all about the amazing joy that can come with a new relationship--and the awkwardness and misunderstanding. Half the time the characters are having sex. Chris Ware, James Kolchalka, and Ira Glass all claim on his book covers to love his work.

Peanut Butter and Jeremy's Best Book Ever by James Kolchalka
Yet another hilarious book by one of the most prolific alternative comic artist-storytellers. Here's an interview he did with The Onion. I tried to find somewhere other to put up a link where you can buy the book online, but even the publisher sells it through Amazon rather than direct. I got mine at Giant Robot, a store for overgrown children in the Haight.

Friday, July 30, 2004

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young
This memoir is great for thought experiments. I think: Would I act differently than Toby Young if I met Jim Carrey or Kenneth Branaugh? If I got a coveted job at Vanity Fair (or somewhere equally prestigious) would I hire a stippergram for my colleague's birthday? Despite eventually losing his job at Vanity Fair and becoming a raging alcohoic, Young's story has a happy--but not sappy--ending.

The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain by Alice W. Flaherty
I like reading books about disorders because I can see myself in them and it's fun to self-diagnose, even when I know I'm sort of being a hypochondriac. Take Geschwind syndrome, marked by hypergraphia, a deepened emotional life sometimes described as hyperphilosophical or hyperreligious, a low sex drive, and extreme talkativeness cause by an excessive attention to detail. Sounds familiar!

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Summer reading so far...

Everything Is Illuminated by Jon-fren Safran Foer
A holocaust novel unlike any I've heard of--though I might not have read it if I'd known it was one. In letters from the narrator's Ukrainian penpal, Safran Foer murders English and resurrects it. His warping of English is even funnier than David Sedaris's in Me Talk Pretty One Day. Also, according to this New Yorker article, the author speaks as an Oracle through an electronic sign in Manhattan.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
My new favorite author. I didn't like him when I first read part of Naked, but after hearing him on the radio and in person, I've got a sense of his comic timing, which is key to his jokes. Plus if you can imagine his high, nasal voice when reading his books, that helps make it funnier too. Hear him read online on This American Life. All their shows are available as streaming audio, which you can record if you want (see my instructions).

The Making of Toro: Bullfights, Broken Hearts, and One Author's Quest for the Acclaim He Deserves by Mark Sundeen
When life hands you poop, make a poopsicle. Then sell it. (Read the intro and that will make more sense.)

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Cadavers by Mary Roach
We'll all be dead someday, so why not read about dead bodies now? Proof that "hilarious science book" is not an oxymoron.

The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart
Russians? Yes. Lots of them. Dubutantes? Only one so far, but he doesn't wear a pastel gown. Handbook? Well, I can hold it in my hand. But it's not a step-by-step how to book. It's a novel.