Book Review Revue Pt. 2

Before getting into the blurbs, I’d like to take a minute to rag on some reader apps.

First, Overdrive for iPhone. Overdrive is required by the Seattle public library eBooks collections and is not terrible, but a few things keep it from being truly good. First, images. You can’t zoom in on images at all, which is beyond annoying, particularly if you’ve got charts, any images with text in them, of which A Billion Wicked Thoughts has a few. Second, you can’t select text to copy, and there’s no built-in dictionary if you want to select something and look it up. Finally, and probably worst, the footnotes system is terrible. I downloaded Infinite Jest from the library and couldn’t get too far because you need to be able to navigate footnotes. Instead of each individual note’s link taking you to that note, it takes you to the beginning of the entire notes section. So, clicking on note #34, for example, will take you to note #1, and then you have to advance yourself to 34. This was ok for a while, until I reached a certain note in the book that’s dozens of pages long (a list of the main character’s father’s movie projects). I don’t know if this was the reader’s or the file’s fault, but either way the book became unreadable.

Worse than Overdrive though is the Google Books reader for iPhone. I bought A Dance With Dragons for this format because one of our local bookstores (the Elliott Bay Book Company) had titles for sale via Google. One of the disadvantages of the eBook format is not being able to support local booksellers, so I thought hey, this is perfect, until I had to use this reader. I think it was version 1.2.0, and what a piece of crap.

Two main problems: the reader is very slow, and it routinely gets stuck such that you can only advance the pages, and not go back, or vice versa, depending on how you’re reading. The way this becomes most noticeable is, say you read through a passage and want to go back a page or two to review something. Good luck to you sir! The reader might let you page back, but it will be slow about it, and once you’ve paged back it won’t let you page forward again (this is particularly true across chapter boundaries). You can work around it by paging back some more, then paging forward again, but you’ll have to stare a the “spinny” icon for a while while the app decides what to do. Truly awful. I suspect that the length of the book was a factor (it’s a pretty long book), because otherwise I don’t see how Google could release such a lame app.

As with Overdrive, you also can’t zoom into images or highlight/copy/look up text. The next thing I read was back in iBooks. What a difference. I’d love to buy more eBooks from Elliott Bay but I won’t do it until Google fixes their reader.

At any rate:

George R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords (2000), A Feast for Crows (2005), A Dance with Dragons (2011) – A
What I said the last time still applies. This series is addicting, and reads so fast you hardly notice how damn long it is. Reading these back to back kept me in a dark place for a while though, and I was glad to be done with them. I don’t mind having to wait however many years for the next one.

W. Craig Reed, Red November (2011) – B+
This one’s a pretty fascinating and enjoyable read about submarine warfare during the Cold War. I was a bit of a submarine buff in my teens (I played many hours of Gato) and it was fun to relive that for a bit (I looked at a lot of Wikipedia while reading this). You get a nice overview of the events, brinksmanship, and technology of the era, some of it widely known and some that’s relatively newly revealed.

Ogi Ogas & Sai Gaddam, A Billion Wicked Thoughts (2011) – C
Sex! Now that I have your attention, these authors attempt to bring together theories of male and female sexual desire with an analysis of what people search for and look at on the web. It’s all pretty interesting, though maybe too ambitious and probably full of crap. Reviews by people who know something about the science find a lot not to like, but as far as facts are concerned vs. analysis or explanation, it’s probably still a good read.

Anthony Summers & Robbyn Swan, The Eleventh Day (2011) – A-
Given what an effect 9/11 has had on American decision-making and world events in general in the last decade, you’d think the facts in the case would be more settled and widely understood. Summers and Swan do a good job laying out the known knowns and unknowns as well as the ways in which these differ from the popular understanding. The results are quite surprising and generally exasperating.

I do wish the authors had spent more time refuting conspiracy theory. That section of the book may be the weakest; it doesn’t cover all of the most popular assertions and it often appeals to emotion rather than sticking to evidence. Still the book is worth reading.

Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2008), The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009), The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010) – A
I wanted to know what all the fuss was about, and now I get it man, I get it. I picked these up (electronically, thanks everyone for the iTunes gift cards) and couldn’t put them down.

The story is kind of like Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Ender’s Game. Larsson invents a fantastical cyber-punk heroine to beat the crap out of and later reward by letting her realize some elaborate revenge fantasies. The big theme is female empowerment within a male-chauvinist Swedish culture, though it’s a bit hard to take seriously when the male hero is a cartoonish womanizing action-nerd.

There are other themes, the most interesting is Larsson’s commentary on journalism, first specifically regarding economic journalism’s stenographic tendencies in Dragon Tattoo, at least five years before Jon Stewart’s Jim Cramer takedown. This builds into a larger statement on the power and responsibility of investigative journalism to uncover abuse and corruption, and modern journalism’s abdication of this responsibility. This, years before Stephen Colbert’s White House Correspondents Association dinner speech, which was when a lot of us became more aware of it. Clearly these have been issues for a while but Larsson may have been more prescient than most.

Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (2011) – A+
We’ve all seen Vietnam war movies like Platoon or Full Metal Jacket that depict the misery of that period. Matterhorn is something else. Obviously a book can only go so far in portraying the war experience, but I’ve not seen or read anything else that gave a better sense of the tactics, weapons, operations, routines, emotions, and politics that a Vietnam-era soldier (or Marine, in this case) would have dealt with. It’s an inspired work, not to mention a page-turner.

Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (2009) – B
Most everyone will find something to like in what Crawford has to say regarding the cult of college, the empty promise of a future where we are all fancy “creative class” knowledge workers (in the States at least), and the increasing disconnect between how one earns a living and what gives one meaning. Everyone might not like the way he says it though… it’s a bit of a dry, academic, philosophical treatise (which is a bit ironic given his general contempt for academics). The best parts are anecdotes from the author’s experience as a mechanic and electrician, and these are often in the footnotes. I took exception with one or two of his arguments at some point, but I forget now what they were, and I don’t care enough to go back and figure it out. So let’s call it good.

That’s all for now. On a whim I just “graded” these books. My criteria are a combination of how well-written I think the book is and how much fun it was to read, and I have 3 seconds to decide.

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