Book Review Revue Pt. 3

In the 80s my father tried to get his sons to keep track of the books we read in what he called a “book book” (which I just now finally understood — a book of books, I get it), and none of us took him up on it. It took 25 years or so but here’s me doing it now. On the Internet!

By the way, I’ve been reading a lot on Kindle for iPhone lately and I think it just might be the best reader app. I know I keep harping on readers but there it is. The truth. I hate to say it too because I’m not a big fan of Amazon. They’re just so… convenient. And they made the best reader app. Overdrive is good too though.

iBooks used to be just about as good, but the latest versions seem kind of buggy. I’m not sure how but sometimes tapping on the right side of the screen takes you back a page. IT SHOULD NEVER DO THAT.

Neal Stephenson, REAMDE (2012)
REAMDE feels like a kind of return to form for Neal Stephenson. It’s a lot like Snow Crash, only set in the present, which Stephenson makes to feel like the future. Apart from that it’s a pretty straightforward adventure story, full of the twists and turns and unlikely coincidences and interrelated character paths that characterize Stephenson’s novels. It’s not great writing, but it’s hella fun to read. Yes, I said hella.

Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)
I had finished Matterhorn, was in the middle of the Lotus Eaters, and had just watched a documentary about Hunter S. Thompson when I picked this one up. I was on this crazy 60’s trip, man, and I particularly liked this one, mainly because the writing is so inventive and the subject matter so bizarre-yet-historically-significant. It’s interesting to see how the inventors of the 60’s counterculture didn’t entirely resemble what they begat. Kesey was a jock! Who knew.

Tatjana Soli, The Lotus Eaters (2010)
Gauzy, pretty, excellent novel set among combat photographers in Vietnam. Part of the aforementioned 60’s kick I was on for a while this year.

James O’Callaghan, No Circuses (1982?)
In the early 80’s my father wrote a book, and it’s great! The protagonist is the newly-State-Department-appointed director to the cultural center in a fictitious Latin-American country… already very esoteric, and more so since the State Department doesn’t involve itself in those anymore. But for a while there it was a thing, and my father held that position in real life, in Ecuador, though the events in his book are quite fantastical and fun. I’d say to market it toward the NPR demographic. Publishers wanted.

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008); Catching Fire (2009); Mockingjay (2010)
I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and I get it, man. The books for young adults are written in such a way that you can’t put them down. It’s another one of those “invent a character and then beat up on him/her for several hundred pages” that I’ve written about several times since I’ve been writing these blurbs. It’s not unusual subject matter for young adults, what is surprising is how dark and brutal, pessimistic and cynical it is. It’s awesome.

Erik Larson, Lethal Passage (1995)
So. Guns. I like Erik Larson when he’s telling stories. In this book he has an agenda, which is ok, but it’s less fun reading than, say, In the Garden of Beasts. In his usual way Larson picks a narrative and then weaves a lot of other information into the telling of it — in this case, how a teenager in the 80s got hold of a gun and then used it to shoot up his school. Routine now, I know, but when Larson was writing this it was still a bit shocking, and he explores how it came to be, the history of gun regulation, the rise of second amendment fundamentalism and its lobbying power, and the inability of regulatory agencies to do anything about anything (by design). It all makes a lot of sense and is very depressing, as any and all attempts to talk about reducing harm or even study gun violence are hysterically perceived (by design) as an unholy attack on everything good and decent.

Since I started reading this book there have been a number of high profile shootings — Justin Ferrari’s death in my neighborhood, the Cafe Racer shootings a bit north of me, a mass killing in Chicago, one in Tulsa, the Aurora movie theater shooting, and now the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Of course others I can’t remember, and dozens so routine as to not be national news. The big ones are news for a week or a month and then we forget. Then there was the one in Toronto, shocking only because it didn’t happen here, shocking mostly to Canadians, who aren’t yet desensitized to this sort of thing.

Larson concludes the book with a number of laws that he thinks should be passed that might both protect the rights of gun owners and also prevent the kinds of shootings discussed above. It’s all a lot of nuanced logical wishful thinking that has no place in our political discourse.

Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory (2012)
It’s pretty repetitive, but reading this book you come to understand that great things were invented by great men at Bell labs.

The author spends a bit of time defining the word “innovation,” with the takeaway that corporate capitalism doesn’t often produce real innovation. The distinction drawn here is between optimizing or building upon existing technology (which quarterly shareholder-value-seeking companies do extremely well, and practically all modern “tech sector innovators” are in fact doing) and inventing entirely new revolutionary things (which quarterly shareholder-value-seeking companies can’t risk pursuing, and which practically all modern “tech sector innovators” are not doing).

AT&T was a regulated monopoly, not beholden to producing quarterly shareholder value, but rather to the mission of expanding and improving phone service (and getting paid for it) within parameters imposed by the government. Perhaps the most important of these parameters was that inventions at AT&T had to be shared, licensed to private business at nominal cost. The nature of intercontinental wired phone service was such that planning and research was conducted on a decades-long timescale, and the company was required to (and had the luxury of doing so within its monopoly) invest in a lot of basic science and research, the results of which were often improved upon elsewhere.

What then came out of Bell labs is a large subset of modern information technology: the transistor, information theory (courtesy of Claude Shannon), UNIX, C, cellular phones and networks, satellite communications, fiber optics. This tension between true innovation coming from a non-competitive economic dynamic, and optimization resulting from competition, is an interesting one. I imagine we see it all the time in what governments and universities fund/invent and then companies bring to market (I think there’s another book out there exploring how this worked in Silicon Valley), but our dependence on both is not as widely discussed as it should be.

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City (2004)
As mentioned above in regard to his book Lethal Passage, Erik Larson has a schtick. His schtick is weaving disparate but co-incident historical narratives together in a way that’s both informative and entertaining. This one covers a serial killer working Chicago at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair, and goes into detail re: both. That is, how the killer worked, and what all went into making the fair happen, particularly Daniel Burnham’s incredible effort to pull it all off. Good stuff.

Geraldine Brooks, The People of the Book (2008)
I picked this up at the cabin my wife and I were staying at on vacation, literally to read on the beach. It turned out to be something of a page turner and I ended up buying a copy. It’s a novel based on the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illustrated medieval volume that survived centuries of war and inquisition. Brooks invents stories around specific episodes in the book’s history, and she weaves them in brilliantly with the main narrative of the Australian restorer tasked with repairing the book. Lots of twists and turns in this one, and humanizing of Muslims, so if you’re Pamela Geller you might want to skip this one.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories (2003)
I love Ursula K. Le Guin. Her way of telling stories and creating moods is one of a kind. I find it a bit interesting how she seems to only have two modes though: stories about space exploration, and medieval-type fantasy (horses, sailing, magic, that sort of thing). I think she might have some stories set on Earth but I haven’t read them yet.

The stories in this collection are of the former variety (space), and they’re great. Le Guin focuses on fictional societies which will have certain things in common with those on Earth and certain differences. The differences — in climate, the length of a year, the length of seasons, genders, sex, male to female ratios, race — drive a lot of her imaginings, and in her subtle way encourages the reader to think about how these aspects of ourselves are dealt with in our culture.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Gifts (2004)
Following my blurb above, this one is the latter variety (medieval). What is it with wizards and serfs and horses and sword fighting and whatever that continues to inform fantasy writing? I don’t know, but Le Guin imagines these things better than most. A lot of what I said above carries over here. What would it be like if a society was divided into families, each of which possesses a supernatural power passed down through generations that affords some advantage or disadvantage over the other families? Well here you go, read this.

Erik Larson, Thunderstruck (2006)
Ok, so obviously I like reading Erik Larson books. I mentioned his schtick in my blurbs above in regard to Lethal Passage and Devil in the White City. This book is essentially the Devil in the White City, but in a different decade, with a different murder, and with Marconi instead of Burnham. Takeaway: Marconi was a dick.

I was in the middle of reading this when I played at Toorcamp this summer. I was talking to some RF nerds and got into a silly semi-argument with a particularly pompous nerd about Marconi. More precisely, I let him argue and opted not to engage. Later on these nerds were talking about Nicola Tesla, and I said, “Tesla was an underrated band.” The same nerd said, “I wouldn’t say Tesla was underrated. Ok maybe he wasn’t appreciated in his lifetime but now lots of people think he’s great.” I thought I liked nerds but now I remember that they are annoying.

Michael A. Hiltzik, Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age (2000)
Dealers of Lightning is a nice complement to The Idea Factory, and ultimately arrives at the same conclusions I mentioned in that blurb. Real innovation occurred at Xerox PARC because very smart people were allowed to pursue research with no strings attached. In this case though it was a shame, as Xerox didn’t seem to understand what was going on at PARC and was too institutionally rigid and bureaucratic to turn PARC’s creations into products. Their several attempts to do so were bungled in the worst way, and even the laser printer, which eventually became wildly profitable for Xerox, was met with official resistance and skepticism all along its path to commercialization.

Xerox’s loss was everyone else’s gain, including Apple and Microsoft. Former PARCers went on to start 3Com, Adobe, among others.

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