Book Review Revue

Besides telling me where the bus is and replacing my guitar tuner, my favorite thing about the iPhone is that I can read books on it. The screen is pleasant enough to look at, I don’t need a light, my books are always on me, they don’t clutter the house and get dusty, the classics are all free, and I can download most anything else anytime. I can even get free titles through the Seattle Public Library (though the selection isn’t as good as iBooks or Kindle… not yet).

The result is reading is more convenient and pleasant, and I do it more. There’s also been a lot more non-fiction in the mix than I’m used to.

There are disadvantages to this format. You can’t share books, which is lame. You can share iBooks with other iPhones that sync to the same computer (as far as I know that’s the only way), but you can’t just give a book to your friend when you’re done with it. And if I ever switch to Android, I forfeit my new book collection.

Also, the price. You should be rewarded for saving the manufacturing expense of a physical book, but you’re not. Usually the digital copy is a couple of bucks cheaper than the paperback, other times it’s more expensive, which, why? New books live in the $11-13 range, which is ridiculous in my view. It should be $5. It’s not like you can share it.

Finally, graphics and images suck on iBooks (and Overdrive, the reader the library uses). So far they’ve been very low-res, lacking detail when you zoom in, when you can zoom in (can’t do it at all on Overdrive). Having to zoom in is annoying as it is, but you should be rewarded with some more pixels. Kindle has been much better in this respect.

That said, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. Here are some blurbs on what I’ve read lately.

George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1998)
You know how the Lord of the Rings is perfectly formulated to capture the imagination of a 13 year-old boy? This is like that, but with “adult subject matter:” incest, rape, ultra-violence, feudalism, treachery, political intrigue, tailoring. I didn’t realize going in that the “A Tale of Ice And Fire” series, of which this is the first book, is such a huge fad right now. But I can see why — it’s fast-paced, suspenseful, engaging, and extremely well-written. Lindy West of the Stranger got it exactly right in her review last week. I don’t forsee getting anything done until I’ve read the next three.

Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test (2011)
Jon Ronson is a successful writer, and can afford to take a year and travel the world to pursue some vague questions he has about madness. Good for him. On the heels of reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, though, this one was disappointing. The books are similar — both are part road-trip story, part history lesson, part ethical inquiry, but where TILOHL was scholarly and thorough and great, The Psychopath Test feels disjointed and slapdash. It helps that Ronson’s an entertaining writer, but in the end I don’t think I learned much reading this one. The actual test, which is a series of questions designed to measure a person’s empathic qualities, is interesting, as are the points Ronson raises regarding who gets to define mental illness, and the character studies of actual psychopaths. But still, for what it cost this book was short and not nearly as good as the comparably-priced TILOHL. Smart buyers take note.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010)
Rebecca Skloot took a science class in college and learned about certain enormous advances in biology and medicine that came about because one particular woman’s cancer cells were unique, and could replicate indefinitely in culture. Little was known about the woman beside her name (Henrietta Lacks), few cared, and Skloot made it her mission to uncover the truth, damn it. Incredibly, it took ten years of determined research, along with becoming intimately familiar with the Lacks family, to put it all together, and the result is impressive. One thread describes a lot of clever science that for decades operated in a regulatory black hole, with complicated results. Another thread involves the humans caught up in those complications, and Skloot does a good job of following both without dismissing their ambiguities. There are few clear villains or heroes.

Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (1985)
The author invents a 10 year-old protagonist and then tortures him for a few hundred pages. I liked this book. It’s a classic of sci-fi and I look forward to trying out the sequels, but man! It’s fiction designed to make you seethe with rage against the bad guys. I’m not sure what that says about me. The end has a nice twist, I kind of saw it coming, but also didn’t, so that was good.

Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts (2011)
Erik Larson describes the Nazi party’s rise to power in 1933 and 1934 from the point of view of William Dodd, the American ambassador to Germany, in Berlin. Partly I enjoyed this book because I went to Berlin once, and want to go back. Partly also I’m the son of a diplomat myself, though our experience overseas was very different from the Dodds’. I should hope so. The book mostly focuses on their first two years, then really skims over the rest, which was a bit disappointing (they was there til ’37). But ’33 and ’34 were interesting enough. Spoiler alert: things went badly.

Kevin Poulsen, Kingpin (2011)
This one was fast-paced and suspenseful, and about the hackers who steal and sell credit card numbers. Who knew? It’s big business, full of danger and treachery and dumb hacker names. It’s also about the fine line between whitehats and blackhats, and why a nuanced approach is necessary when assessing the activities of the former lest they turn into the latter. Also: crime seems to pay for a while, then everyone gets arrested. So don’t steal credit cards.

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers (2008)
Enough has been written about this book I think. It’s good — fun to read, thought-provoking and all that. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t believe that social forces and luck influence how people turn out, that every one is entirely self-made and responsible for everything that happens in their life, then you won’t like this book. It’s not your fault though, you’ve been influenced by social forces and luck to think that way.

Seth Mnookin, The Panic Virus (2011)
The Panic Virus is a history of vaccination, its controversies, and backlashes: particularly the current one regarding autism which is actually finally maybe starting to die down, let’s hope. It’s very well-researched and thorough, but unfortunately Mnookin at times has trouble concealing his contempt for the anti-vaccine crowd — many of whom are just frightened parents. This is counterproductive. Nevertheless, the evidence is overwhelming: mainly, that there is none, that vaccines cause autism. And also, vaccines are incredibly effective at preventing extremely horrific diseases. One line in particular stands out, that vaccines have saved far more lives than any other invention. It’s important to remember that.

Neal Stevenson, Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World (2003-2004)
Collectively these books are the Baroque Cycle, and I thought they were great. The worst I can say about Neal Stevenson is that sometimes his writing can be a bit juvenile (usually in fighting or sex scenes); the rest of the time the man is genius. These historical fictions are both insanely well-researched and imaginatively rendered. After reading these I found I had some basic knowledge of, and interest in, 17th and 18th century European history (I spent roughly half my time looking things up). I wasn’t much into nonfiction before reading these and Cryptonomicon. But now I am. And I learned some new words, like usquebaugh. I order that in bars now and get kicked out.

Neal Stevenson, Cryptonomicon (1999)
This one was also great fun, an adventure story occurring simultaneously in WWII and in 1999, weaving fact, fiction, and a preoccupation with cryptography and money into a fast-paced and engaging, page-turning juggernaut. These are common threads in Stevenson’s writing, particularly his fascination with money, and the use of gold and silver as currency. Strangely, this is a debate that’s never quite gone away (whether all economic activity should be intimately connected to mining shiny metals), and he doesn’t seem to pick a side (except in one scene, where an aged Goto Dengo celebrates Japan’s postwar flourishing despite, or rather because of, not having a gold-backed currency).

Neal Stevenson, Snow Crash (1992)
So yes, after reading this one I got into his other books. The other books are better, but this one’s good fun, a harrowing image of one possible future where the world has devolved into a Darwinian/Libertarian chaos hellscape organized into corporate city-state/suburb/stripmalls, where cyberpunk ninja assassins run amok with atomic robot dogs. Also, there’s an Internet, only you have to wear those silly virtual reality glasses that everyone in 1992 thought would happen.

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