The Counsel's File, by Paul Theroux. A novel consisting of episodes in the life of an unnamed man in the diplomatic service, working as the counsel in the Far East. While there is a narrative structure to the entire book, each chapter stands alone as a complete tale, and the stories range from the mundane to the supernatural. Theroux is my favorite novelist writing today- and perhaps my favorite travel writer as well; he combines tremendous craft with excellent stories and tremendously interesting narrative. This book and its companion novel, The London Embassy, are my favorites of his novels. TheLondon Embassy, written some time after The Counsel's File, book continues the narration of the protagonist of the earlier book through his assignment in London.
I started reading Theroux on the advice of a friend who told me that
Theroux's The Family Arsenal was his favorite novel. I would strongly
recommend that book, as well as The Mosquito Coast, Millroy the
Magician, My Other Life, and just about anything else he's written,
but I think he's at his best with short stories, like the collections mentioned
above and Sinning With Annie.. (My latest read was The Black
House, a superb ghost story full of dark foreboding and menace.) Theroux's
most recent book is a complete collection of all his short fiction, including
some pieces not previously brought together, published under the title
The Collected Stories.
Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins. I'd never read Robbins but was prompted to read this by a correspondant who read my essay on beets in rec.food.cooking. It's about beets, immortality, causation, the course of history, culture and the boundry between this world and the next. It's also very entertaining.
The Goldbug Variations, by Richard Powers. An astoundingly complex and tremendously engaging work of fiction. This novel manages to relate in depth two romances, the structure of Bach's Goldberg Variations (including some allusions to Glenn Gould), the history of genetics, the structure and function of DNA and RNA, some cryptography, the life and work of an obscure imaginary Belgian painterand scores of bits of historical trivia. It's one of those books you push through, waiting to see what happens next, and yet one you wish would never end, so marvellously involving is the narration and the characters. Certainly my favorite novel of the year so far.
Beside the book above, Powers has written four other novels, three of which I have finished recently. Galatea 2.2 explores the cognitive sciences, and the possibility of a bottom-up artificial intelligence, while at the same time tracing difference relationships in the narrator's life. Like the book aboove, it's brilliant, incredibly involving reading. And Three Farmers on Their Way To A Dance does for history what the preceeding books do for the sciences. In this book, a large number of seemingly independant threads slowly intertwine over a period of seventy years, all revolving around a photograph the narrator sees in a museum on a brief stopover in Detroit. Prisoner's Dilemma explores the dynamics of the family, and of life and death, though a metaphorical tale of a family like the author's. It's surprising, moving at at times, and hard to forget.
Memoir from Antproof Case, by Mark Helprin.This story begins with the narrator informing you that he is in his 80s, living in Brazil, hiding from men who are no doubt looking for him to kill him. He's been an investment banker, a pilot in WWII, married to a billionairess, institutionalized in an asylum in Switzerland, and an instructor of English at a Brazilian Air Force acadamy. He also seems to have a bizarre hate for coffee in any and all forms- something not explained until near the end of the story. The narration moves around in time, like the ramblings of the narrator. It's a terrifically involving and brilliantly told story.
The Moon and Sixpence, by W. Somerset Maugham. I can't recall what led me to start reading this book in the midst of all the recent fiction I've been reading; perhaps it was a reference to the movie made from it, or a general reference to Maugham in an essay somewhere, but I'm glad I did. It's the story of a middle aged English stockbroker who abruptly abandons his family to travel to Paris and take up painting. It should be apparant to those familiar with Paul Gauguin that the book is very much a fictionalized version of Gauguin's life, and parallels it close, as the protagonist moves from Paris to Marsailles and eventually to Tahiti, living in abject poverty, driven only by a need to create art. .
Morality Play, by Barry Unsworth. I always approach prize winning books- especially Booker Prize winners (and nominees) with some trepidation. Usually, one of the prerequisites for winning a major literary prize is a certain degree of obscurantism. This was not the case with Morality play.
The plot development is very involving, and the characterizations, though
sparse, draw a vivid picture . The ending is perhaps a bit of a let down;
in the opening pages, the narrator tells of the great horrors he has witnessed
that are with him to this day, and as the story nears its conclusion the
reader is prepared for some horrific tale- but the reader is instead left
with a rather ordinary ending and one that wraps things up a bit too quickly
and perhaps too simply. That's not to say it isn't a good or well done
ending- only that the author seems to be setting the reader up for something
very different from what is finally presented. In that context, the ending
seems weak. Reading, I often found myself comparing Unsworth's middle ages
with those of Umberto Eco's as portrayed in The Name of the Rose, and it
seemed to me that Eco covered similar ground but in a much more vivid and
involving (to the reader) manner. I still recommend the book; the comparison
to Eco is as much a compliment as a criticism.
The Razor's Edge, by Somer Maugham. I read this after The Moon and Sixpence, as it was the next Maugham that fell into my lap. Stylistically it's very simialr, and begins with a refernce to the earlier book, and some discussion of why Maugham wrote a book about Gaugain as an Englishman. The Razor's Edge is a tale about a number of people- a social climber and hedonist; a seeker of truth and knowledge; and a number of others, all of whose paths repeatedly cross over a period of perhaps 20 years. A movie was made of this book, starring Bill Murray that achieved little success; apity, as it's an excellent story.
Wicked: by Gregory Maguire. We all know the story of the Wizard
of Oz, but did it ever occur to you that maybe Hollywood was giving us
the cleaned up vertsion? I mean, what exactly was the Wizard up to? And
don't you think the Witch was painted just a little too simply? Maguire's
book takes all the elements form the Baum books- talking Animals, cybernetic
TikToks, different peoples of Oz, and weaves together a wonderful story
that I couldn't put down. You'll meet the Wicked Witch of the West and
her sister long before they became witches, along with Glinda, their schoolmate,
and various other curious folk. You'll find out that the Wizard didn't
just accidentally turn up in Oz. And you'll see a side of Oz definitely
not for young readers.
Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp, by C. D. Payne. A terribly funny and enjoyable book. It was recommended to me as something that would make me laugh out loud in public; it did so, often, and in embarassing places. It's a wonderful adventure, the story of a bright, creative and somewhat socially challanged teenager from a family for whom the word "dysfunctional" would be a major understatement. He falls hopelessly in love with a beautiful, brilliant (and manipulative) girl, and slowly starts hatching complicated plots designed to bring the two of them together that result in one unintended diaster after another. The result is an absolutely delightful story. Strongly recommended.
Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death, by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen. In 2003, author Lisa Cullens was given an assignment by her editors at Time Magazine to look into new trends in funeral services among Baby Boomers in America. This seemed fertile ground for inquiry- after all, around 2.3 million Americans will die in the coming year, and as the population ages, this number will double, if population trends continue, by 2040. Cullens' editor was particularly curious in seeing her write about "wacky" new trends in funerals- NASCAR coffins, artificial diamonds made from the cremated remains ("cremains", in the language of the industry) of loved ones, and that sort of thing. But what she discovered on her journey went well beyond the curious and the strange, although that aspect is represented in this book. She discovered how, as the ethnic and cultural profile of this country continues to change, funeral customs have changed, too, among both the immigrant communities and the native born.
Cullens' journey takes her from the mundane- traditional funeral homes in New York- to the exotic- a Hmong funeral in St. Paul. Minnisota- and the truly bizarre, a pyramid in Salt Lake City where a fellow by the name of Corky Ra prepares bodies in something approximating ancient Egyptian mummification. Along the way she visits schools of Mortuary Science, casket discounters, mourning families, and Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the German scientist/showman, with his traveling exhibit of "plastinated" cadavers. Interwoven with Cullens narration are the stories of a number of recently deceased people, and how they, or their families, chose the celebration that followed their departure. One chapter, on the emerging tradition of "green" burials, in which bodies are buried in such as way so as to quickly decompose and feed the ecosystem impressed me enough that I made a decision to research this for my own (hopefully distant) eventual disposal. The idea of becoming part of a nature preserve sounds much better- and more ecologically sound- than either quasi-permanent internment in a large, and ridiculously costly casket, or being turned into a lot of ash and gas.
"Remember Me" will no doubt be compared to Mary Roach's "Stiff", which is unfortunate, as this is a much better, and much more respectful book; Cullens doesn't treat her subject as something that must be viewed with the postmodern sense of ironic detachment that spoiled "Stiff" for me; rather, she treats all her subjects with deference and with respect, even the fellow making mummies in Salt Lake City. Cullens herself worries that some will also compare it to Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death", and makes a point of stressing that her aim is not a debunking of the funeral industry. I don't think to many people will make that comparison- although I suspect a lot of reviewers looking for a point of reference will. The rest of us will simply enjoy a well-written book that manages to be interesting, entertaining, and thought provoking.
Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton. I am a great fan of de Botton's previous books, but he seems to have lost his direction and his philisophical anchor with this one. Expanding on his discussion of Epicurious found in "The Consolations of Philosophy", "Status Anxiety" repeats a single argument seemingly endlessly: That we would all be happier if we simply lowered our expectations and looked inward for satisfaction.
Yes, many of us would be happier if we did that- but not all of us. There are many who seem to derive their happiness through accomplishment, whether in art, science or business, and thankfully so, as it is these men and women who drive civilization, and help create the wealth that allows modern people the luxury of introspection and leisure instead of struggling for survivial as our forebears did.
There's also something very ironic an an author as ambitious and productive as de Botton- who has produced many books and television series- lecturing us on lowering expectation and spending more more time on introspection. Perhaps he's just having a bit of a joke at our expense ;-)
The Lady and the Monk, by Pico Iyer. Iyer, a correspondant for
Newsweek as well as a well-regarded travel writer, travelled to Japan to
spend a year learning about Zen. In so doing he made friends with a young
Japanese housewife through whom he learned a tremendous amount about Japanese
society and life- as much, or more, than he learned through his Zen studies.
This is book by turns fascinating and moving.
Sunrise with Seamonsters, by Paul Theroux. This is a collection of Theroux's shorter pieces, beginning with some of his earliest, together with an introduction by the author. The pieces range from Theroux's earliest writing for publication, done while he was a young teacher in Africa, through various essays, a review, some travel pieces, writings about family, and the title piece, an essay about rowing a boat around Cape Cod. Theroux 's commentary tells how he came to write each of the pieces and provides us with a very honest asessment of each piece in retrospct. It's a very enjoyable book and an fascinating look into Theroux's development as a writer.
Video Night in Katmandu- And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far-East, by Pico Iyer. Think of Paul Theroux in the East, but in a much more cheerful and sober state of mind. Iyer reports back on the collision of Western and Eastern culture and does so in a tremendously witty and stylish manner. He's much less judgemental about what some term the "cultural imperialism" of the West, perhaps because he approaches the people and places he writes about with a very open mind and fewer preconceptions and normative notions about how other people should live. He may not like everything he sees, but he understands how and why things come to be the way they are, and has great affection for the people he meets.
Cranks, Quarks and the Cosmos, by Jeremy Bernstiein.Bernstien
is the author of a good many books and a good many scientific profiles
for the New Yorker, a literary form that he claims to have invented. I'm
not sure that I'd completely accept that- Berton Rouche's "Annals of Medicine"
series for that magazine seem to have predated him- but that aside, Bernstein
is still one of the best popular science writers around. He is a master
of the New Yorker style, having been trained by that magazine's great editor
William Shawn. He also has a deep understanding of modern science missing
from some of the modern writers of popular accounts, and he lets the story
tell itself, rather than taking the lazy route of adding stylistic affectations
to add interest to a poorly told story. His profiles of some of the greatest
physicists of the modern era, like Mach, Bohr and Schroedinger, really
clarify for the lay reader what it was about the accomplishments of these
men that gave them their place in history.
Darwin Among the Machines, by George Dyson. Those of us who have spent more than a few years with computers have read a great many books about the history of computing, and they seem, for the most part to be of the "kings and battles" school of history writing: Long lists of men and machines that convey the image of computing history as strictly an additive process, in which advancement is due to improvments in the low-level technology of the hardware. Thus the 1940s and 50s are summed up as the era of tubve computing, the 1980s become the era of the microprocessor and so on. We're also given a few names to spice up the narrative. Babbage makes the obligatory appearance, as do Turing, Von Neumann and Grace Murray Hopper.
But Dyson presents a very different approach. Rather than concentrating on the machines that are the exemplars of computing technology at any given time, he chooses to concentrate on the philisophical assumptions that underly the philosophy of computing at a given time, as well as how the availible technology and economics dictated how that philosophy was to be realized. At the same time, he gives us a story about the evolution of life on earth, and the interplay between theories of life, and theories of computing. Not an easy trick to pull off, and yet Dyson's narrative is both rigorous in its science, and compelling as a story.
Most histories of computing begin with the abacus, or some other tallying device, the natural consequence of seeing computers as simply larger and faster arithmatic engines. Even those who begin the story with Babbage tend to focus on the notion of Babbage's machine as a device for calculation, despite the obligatory quote from Lady Ada Lovelace about the potential of the caclulating engine for purely symbolic computing. But Dyson begins his narrative in an unexpected place- Hobbe's Leviathan. For Dyson, Leviathan is the first theory of the emergent properties of complex systems, as well as the first theory of how reliable systems can be built from unrelaible componants- a theory as applicable to biological evolution as it is to the problems of vaccum tube based computers of the 1950s or to the studies and simulations of complex systems that gained so much momentum in the 1980s and 90s. The questions raised are traced both through their impact on computing and on biology. Dyson introduces us to the brilliant and mostoly forgotton work of Baricelli in creating a numerically based "artificial life", reasearch that was going on at the Institute for Advanced Study while Dyson was a child growing up on the grounds.
Dyson also brings a new clarity to the evolutionary debate. As he explains it, the question is not between a theory of creationism relying on faith and evolution relying on evidence; it's much more subtle and complex. We actaully have three possibilities: Design from without, design from within, and selection from random processes. The former is nominally the creationist position, but it's also the position of such people as Rupert Sheldrake. The selection from random processes model of Darwin does have flows, as creationists like to point out, but those flaws do not automatically have to put us in the Creationist camp.
This brief discussion barely touches the surface of this complex and
wonderful book. It's certainly one of most stimulating and thoughtful books
of the last few years to touch upon the topics of complexity, self-organizing
properties of complex systems and related topics, and may prove to be one
of the most influential works in influenceing the direction of work in
these areas in the next few years.
The Last Three Minutes, by Paul Davies. Speculations on the end of the Universe, entropy and related topics. A good piece of popular cosmology by a well-known author in the field.
The Perfect Machine, by Ronald Florence. The story of the creation
of the Mount Palomar Observatory and its 200 inch telescope, one of the
great engineering wonders of the 20th century. There's a great personal
story as well as a great technological story in here.
At Home in the Universe, by Stuart Kauffman. Probably the best single book about the current research program that seeks to explain how complexity evolves in nature. Kauffman is at the center of this work, as a member of the Santa Fe institute, and writes about it with exceptional clarity and engaging style. He also presents his own theory of how self-organization arises from complexity.
The Invention that Changed the World by Robert Buderi. The Atomic Bomb may have ended WWII, but radar won it- and gave birth to the computer revolution, the transistor, and a score of other modern technologies. This book tells a fascinating story that should be better known. I found a very few technical faults- mostly explainations or illustrations that were a bit incomplete or perhaps misleading- but that's nitpicking. A friend associated with contemporary radar research tells me he learned quite a bit about the history and the people from it, too. Fascinating book.
On Intelligence, by Jeff Hawking. There's really nothing new in Hawkin's book- but this is still a very useful (not to mention fascinating) volume. The basic notion of mind as associative memory, in which learning, perception and cognition are all part of the same process, can be certainly be traced back to Pribram, if not earlier, and perhaps even Hebb (whom Hawkins cites). And the notion of a generalized system of perception without modlaity specific mechanisms is certainly as old.
What Hawkins does is bring together a lot of information from areas that haven't talked to each other much, as well as theory and experiments that has been neglected by modern AI and cognitive theorists. His advantage is that he comes into the debate on mind and brain without, as they say, a dog in this fight. Unlike so many AI researchers, cognitive theorists and philosophers, he's not wedded to a paradigm that he's based an acdemic career on. He's obviously read not only the psychology, neurobiology and AI literature, but also the early work of people like Weiner, Lettvin, McCullough, Pitts, and others who came at the problem from an enginnering background, and saw the generalizability of neuonal networks where physiologists might have been inclned to see organs and specialization.
I can't say I agree one hundred percent with everything Hawkins proposes, and I think he is perhaps a bit too dismissive of the philisophical issues. But if you're interested in any of the fields I've mentioned, I think you'll find this to be an excellent read.
The Hubble Wars, by Eric J. Chaisson. A fascinating look at the
science and the politics behind the Hubble project written by the official
spokesman and educational director of the project. One member of the Hubble
team has told me that the author is full of beans on a number of topics,
which is not surprising given how much of this is a political story,but
it's still a good read and does give one man's perspective.
The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography In An Age of Extinction, by David Quammen. Reading Quammen is an adventure that takes you on a marvelous journey to exotic locales around the globe; he's a wonderful writer who also has a deep understanding of biology, genetics, history and who knows what else. This book takes the reader through history and around the world as Quammen explores the writings of Darwin, Wallace and others, and personally visits islands and isolated niches around the globe, alone and in the company of naturalists. Absolutely first rate, for the most part, although I do have some complaints. Too often, the author uses various devices to spice up a story that really can stand by itself, and too often he skims over a technical point that could be explained simply enough. And sometimes he seems to underestimate the mental abilities of his readers, especially when it comes to trivializing some important mathematical points. But the book is still quite good.
The Thorn In The Starfish: The Immune System and How It Works, by Robert S. Desowitz. A very deatiled tour through the immune system starting with Jenner's work on Smallpox up through modern AIDS research. Desowitz presents a very detailed description of the modern-day understanding of the immune system. While a popular account, this is not necessarily light reading along the lines of a Stephen J. Gould; the book requires an attentive reader.
In The Wake of Chaos, by Stephen H. Kellert. A slim volume (just 158 pages of text) on a popular subject, that of chaotic phenomena and non-linear dynamics. Not mathematically rigorous (though the reader should be familiar with basic algebra), and yet precise and clear in its expositions of the nature of chaotic systems. An excellent introduction for the student or the educated reader interested in an accurate and precise description of chaos theory without the hand-waving or ponderous pseudo-metaphysics that cloud so many popular works.
Complete Folding Kayaker by Ralph Diaz. The author has for a number of years published a slim but tremendously valuable newletter for folding kayak enthusiasts, and this book is essentially the information collected by Ralph and his readers over the years, updated, corrected and expanded, together with new information collected for the book. The result is a unique and absolutely invaluable reference volume for owners (and prospective owners) of folding kayaks. Ralph is no dillitante how-to author; he's a fanatic evangelist for folders, knows everyone in the business, and has helped countless people to select the kayak that's best for them. I have been enamored of folders since I saw my first on Isle Royale back in 1968, but as a 14 year old I didn't have the wherewithall to buy one and put the notion aside for 28 years. In 1996, with Ralph's help, I found my first folder, a Folbot Greenland II. If you're contemplating purchase of a non-whitewater kayak, you must read this book- even if you hadn't been contemplating a folding boat.
One Good Run: The Legend of Burt Munro, by Tim Hanna. If you've seen, and loved, "The World's Fastest Indian" you might want to think twice about reading this book. Despite a good deal of romantization on the part of author Tim Hanna, the Burt Munroe depicted here is not exactly the kindly old coot seen in the movie. The real Munroe was a single-minded, often difficult, man who, in truth, abandoned his family, and ignored a good many social graces in order to pursue his one interest single mindedly.
But then, history is rarely made by gentle, accomodating people, and in this regard, the real Burt Munroe does not disappoint. While the movie is charming in its depiction of the kindly innocent abroad, the real story is much more complex, and in the end, much more interesting. Munroe was anything but the naiive innocent abroad on his first (of many) trips to America. He'd lived in Australia, travelled to England and much of the continent, and was quite the sophisticated traveller when he arrived at Bonneville. His knowledge of engineering was indeed largely self taught, but he also took advantage of the wisdom and experience (and good graces) of many others who advised him along his way.
Hanna does a very good job of telling Munroe's story- although he is perhaps a bit too eager to recreate conversations and internal monologues for my tastes. Still, it does help to move the narration along. And he does treat Munroe's relationship with his family rather perfunctorily, although I suppose it could be argued that it's not really the aspect of his life that people are most interested in.
Fans of motor racing and motorcycles will find much to enjoy here, particularly as George Begg's biography of Munroe (which Hanna acknowledges was a major source) is no longer in print.
The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina, by Frank Rich. This is one of those books that tends to be read uncritically by those looking for stones to throw, and critically by those who are skeptical of Rich. Given that, debating the realtive value or accuracy of Rich's pronouncements is likely to fall on deaf ears. I will say that I am not a fan of Rich's; I find him tiresome, and guilty of the most common sin of those who have little of consequence to say: He tirelessly nitpicks at incidental details, he reads literally those things which are intended to be metaphorical, he reads meaning into statements that are not there, and generally take the most ridiculous interpretations possible if they serve his purposes. It's hard to add anything to what Christopher Hitchens has written in his devastating piece in the Clairemont Review. I'll just suggest that the more open minded fans of Rich might want to read it (http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.1276/article_detail.asp).