Currently reading – Reviews, 2007
We believe that poverty does not belong in a civilized human society. It belongs in museums.
— Muhammad Yunus, Banker to the Poor
Not so good
Peter Høeg, The Quiet Girl
Translated from Danish by Nadia Christensen and read by James Gale.
Høeg is a mad genius. The question is whether we can let go into his madness and go along for the ride.
I was utterly captivated by this story of an erudite Danish clown, Kasper, who has a unique sense of hearing. Though the story veered into some unbelievable sequences, the descriptions of sound and silence are astonishing. Enjoying the sensations and emotions we can hear through these words makes it worthwhile to set aside the skepticism for a few hours.
I learned something a few years ago when I read several books by Australian writers (Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Randolph Stow). I would find myself lost, not understanding what was going on—the language was just different enough to cause disconnects, and many of the cultural references meant nothing to me. But I found that if I just kept reading, eventually a picture would form and the story would come back into focus.
That lesson was helpful with this book, which was often challenging in a similar way. Though the sound was always acute, the story often went fuzzy. At those times I just kept reading and eventually it would come back into focus; what seemed the distortion of a mad dream would resolve into the twist of a strange reality.
Like Smilla's Sense of Snow, this is a book that will be worth reading a few times to get a better and clearer picture of the story.
I ended up listening to the first half of the book, then reading the second half because I couldn't wait for the end of the long weekend to be working and commuting again to finish the audio book. James Gale is a wonderful narrator; I enjoyed his reading so much I ordered another reading of his, though I know little about the story itself.
Even when he had reached Klampenborg and the Elise was warm and there were other night owls on the road, he continued to hear, from the seats and motor and body of the car and from the traffic and the suburbs around him, the utterly simple and yet incredibly complex theme of the Goldberg Variations. As it begins to sound when you have gotten well into the variations and begin to notice that now you cannot leave, now Bach has hold of you, now you must go on, regardless of where it leads you.
"I was at the Royal Theater," he said. "I was six years old. Sometimes the theater uses artists' children, and I had a role as a child acrobat; we'd had afternoon rehearsals, but I didn't want to go home. I persuaded my mother to wait; I wanted to hear an opera. They performed Tannhäuser. The hero is a mama's boy, but even so I'll take you to hear it. We were a small group of children, from the circus and the ballet. We had climbed up to the iron supports of the scenery towers, way out at the edge of the proscenium. There we saw the director of the chorus. He waved the singers forward. There were a hundred. A hundred singers! 'The Pilgrim's Chorus.' The music got louder. It was as if it grew out of the ground. And at the end there came a crescendo. Full force. I almost fell onto the stage. I was blissful. Absolutely blissful. And it wasn't just the chorus; it was the sound of the audience too. I could hear the hair rise on the backs of their necks. And at that moment I felt the decision inside me. Not even a decision. A knowledge. That I wanted to be able to evoke a phenomenon like that. As great a sound. As many tears. Do you understand?"
"I'll lose everything," she said.
Her face was white, almost fluorescent.
"We all lose everything anyway," said Kasper. "We have just one option. We can try to lose in a somewhat housebroken manner."
"There are two types of silence," said Kasper, "or at least that's how it has sounded to me. There is the high silence, the silence behind prayer. The silence when one is close to the Divine. The silence that is the dense, unborn presence of all sounds. And then there is the other silence. Hopelessly far from God. And from other people. The silence of absence. The silence of loneliness.
It was delightful. When you have reached the age of forty-two, you live an even greater part of your life in memories.
"Actually," she said, "there's really nothing to fear."
He was forced up toward consciousness; his hearing was being intimidated by one of the sounds he had gotten too old to tolerate: the outlandish cooling fan of a laptop computer.
"I've done five hundred performances," he said.
"But they were all quite similar, weren't they?"
He looked her in the face. He had never seen such a look. It was absolutely calm. And absolutely alert.
"That's all right," she said. "We all try to camouflage the monotony. But it takes a lot of energy. To insist on being special all the time. When we're so much like one another anyway. Our triumphs are the same. Our pain. Try for a moment to feel what relief there is in the ordinary."
The touch was so careful that there was no pain. Already back then, before she disappeared, when she touched him he had felt that the greatest performances were not those on a podium or ring. The greatest performances were when fingertips took away a very thin veil between people and uncovered the universe in its entirety.
FSG, New York, 2006; Macmillan Audio, 2007
Walter Mosley, Blonde Faith
Mr. Mosley must be bored with his Easy Rawlins "thrillers."
Little, Brown, New York, 2007
Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram
Unabridged audio read by Humphrey Bower.
It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn't sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it's all you've got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.
I've read only one other book of this scope, Musashi by Eiji Yoshika. In a similar way, this is an epic novel based on a man's real life: a journey of discovery, harrowing violence, great love, and hard-won wisdom.
Based on my own much more limited experience, his descriptions of India and her people are insightfully crystalline. If you've never been to Mumbai, after reading the opening pages of this book you'll know what it feels like to land at the airport and make your way into the city. I felt I was there again. And then Roberts took me much further into India than I had ever traveled on my own.
In a few chapters, Roberts takes us through more than many of us experience in a lifetime. Over the course of this 900+ page book, he takes us through more than most of us can even imagine experiencing in a lifetime. And yet, the final passage of the book left me realizing that, in a very important sense, the story of his life was just beginning.
I found his vivid descriptions of violence difficult to stomach. Initially, this was diminishing the story for me. Then I realized that violence should be difficult to stomach, that if he hadn't revealed it so thoroughly, I would've been able to breeze past those aspects of the story without any real investment, and I would've been the poorer for it.
Humphrey Bower's narration is astonishing. His is the most refreshing and entertaining audio reading I've ever heard. The parents of a friend of mine gushed to her about all the great actors and actresses who had made this wonderful reading. But they are all Bower. The thing I'm most grateful for is that he took his time and told the story at its natural pace. So many readings feel rushed, as if the voice actors have been asked to cram the story into as few bytes as possible. In contrast, the pacing here is lush and unrushed. It's like lying on a beach and listening to the ocean for no other reason than to just get lost in it; after some time, the sound of the sea disappears, and there's just an expansive timelessness.
The voice, Afghan matchmakers say, is more than half of love.
[T]he Afghan guerrillas I came to know as friends, on a mountain near the siege of Kandahar, talked for hours about Indian films and their favourite Bollywood movie stars. Indian actors are the greatest in the world, one of them said once, because Indian people know how to shout with their eyes.
One of the ironies of courage, and the reason why we prize it so highly, is that we find it easier to be brave for someone else than we do for ourselves alone.
One of the reasons why we crave love and seek it so desperately is that love is the only cure for loneliness and shame and sorrow. But some feelings sink so deep into the heart that only loneliness can help you find them again; some truths about yourself are so painful that only shame can help you live with them; and so things are just so sad that only your soul can do the crying for you.
There is a five-part talk by Roberts on YouTube that provides a nice introduction to the flavor of his story:
- Shantaram - Gregory David Roberts - Part 1
- Shantaram - Gregory David Roberts - Part 2
- Shantaram - Gregory David Roberts - Part 3
- Shantaram - Gregory David Roberts - Part 4
- Shantaram - Gregory David Roberts - Part 5
St. Martin's Press, New York, 2004; Blackstone Audiobooks, 2006
Clark A. Campbell, The One-Page Project Manager
Above all else, I appreciate essence. Campbell distills the most important aspects of project management communication to the essential components, and he does so with precise conciseness.
He has managed to both simplify and expand project management communication. Every level of a project can be summarized on its own one-page project sheet, and all of theses sheets can be rolled up into a single one-page project sheet.
At a glance, you can see the progress of the projects objectives, tasks, and budget. Both areas of concern to the project's successful, on-time completion and exceptional performance are instantly recognizable. The project report rolls effortlessly off the one-page project sheet, and anyone can read it: senior management, peers, and your team.
[ More … ]
Wiley, Hoboken, 2007
Josh Swiller, The Unheard
A tough but sincerely honest story by a young, deaf Peace Corps volunteer who tackles and is utterly defeated by Africa, yet manages to salvage a deep insight from his experience.
That night I was in love with the sunrise before it came. Nothing was lacking. When you've been waiting for death to ram through the door, every additional minute feels more precious than all the diamonds in Zaire. It struck me that maybe this was what I had come to Africa to learn: not to save lives, not to exchange cultures, not to understand deafness or escape deafness or embrace deafness—just to be grateful for each moment. I saw that even the horror, the complete horror of Africa, spreading over the continent, hacking off limbs and heads, has an opposite and that opposite is a grace so profound that I still, many years later, have no words for it.
Holt, New York, 2007
Paul Auster, Travels in the Scriptorium
Auster revisits terrority similar to that he blazed with the New York Trilogy. It once felt fresh, but now comes across as rehashed.
Henry Holt, New York, 2006
Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
Unabridged audio read by Richard Matthews.
Wonderful, awe inspiring, and, at times, terrifying. This is the story of our universe and us, from the vastness of its expanses to the minuteness of our smallest bits.
I listened to this story each morning as I walked along the South St. Vrain river with it's ancient exposed cliffs that bridged me to the ancient times discussed in this book, and its waters and shorelines alive with life that bridged me to the current moments explored in the story. At more than 20 hours, it is a quite long book, yet I found myself wishing it would never end.
The unabridged, British version of the audiobook is read by Richard Matthews. His rich and sonorous voice matches the wit, wisdom, and even sarcasm of the book perfectly. The excellent recording quality made this a truly memorable listening experience. (This is very important; after this book I tried to listen to the audio version of Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe, but the thin, flat, tinny quality of the recording turned me off, and I couldn't finish the book. I'll read it someday, instead.)
When I returned home each evening I followed along with the story in the beautiful, illustrated edition of the book, which deepened the experience even further.
Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favoured evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely—make that miraculously—fortunate in your personal history. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth's mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, struck fast, untimely wounded or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result—eventually, astonishingly, and all too briefly—in you.
Space, you see, is just enourmous—just enormous. Let's imagine, for purposes of edification and entertainment, that we are about to go on a journey by rocketship. We won't go terribly far—just to the edge of our own solar system—but we need to get a fix on how big a place space is and what a small part of it we occupy.
… Such are the distances, in fact, that it isn't even possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. Even if you added lots of fold-out pages to your textbooks or used a really long sheet of poster paper, you wouldn't come close. On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with the Earth reduced to the size of a pea, Jupiter would be over 300 metres away and Pluto would be two and a half kilometers distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn't be able to see it anyway).
… Now the other thing you will notice as we speed past Pluto is that we are speeding past Pluto. If you check your itinerary, you will see that this is a trip to the edge of our solar system, and I'm afraid we're not there yet. Pluto may be the last object marked on schoolroom charts, but the system doesn't end there. In fact, it isn't even close to ending there. We won't get to the solar system's edge until we have passed through the Oort cloud, a vast celestial realm of drifting comets, and we won't reach the Oort cloud for another—I'm so sorry about this—ten thousand years. Far from marking the outer edge of the solar system, as those schoolroom maps so cavalierly imply, Pluto is barely one-fifty-thousandth of the way.
… But let's pretend that we have made it to the Oort cloud. The first thing you might notice is how very peaceful it is out here. We're a long way from anywhere now—so far from our own Sun that it's not even the brightest star in the sky. It is a remarkable thought that that distant tiny twinkle has enough gravity to hold all these comets in orbit.
The balance between accuracy and errors in replication is a fine one. Too many errors and the organism can't function, but too few and it sacrifices adaptability. A similar balance must exist between stability and innovation in an organism.
Random House, New York, 2003, 2005
Josh Rushing, Mission Al Jazeera
Like many, I first saw Rushing in the movie Control Room, a documentary about the Al Jazeera network. Rushing, a Marine, was in the film in his role as a media officer at the U.S. media center in Doha, Qatar in the period leading up to and during the early part of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
I was surprised when I came across this book and realized that he has left the marines and is now a correspondent for the English-language news channel, Al Jazeera International. He's a courageous young man; it cannot have been easy for a dedicated member of the U.S. Marines to leave the Corps and join what many Americans mistakenly consider to be the news bureau for Al Qaeda.
A little knowledge is a powerful thing: Al Jazeera is based in Qatar and was started by the Emir of Qatar, Hamid bin Khalifa Al Thani. Al Jazeera is sponsored by the government of Qatar in much the same way as the BBC is sponsored by the British government. The biggest and most important strategic U.S. military base in the Middle East is also based in Qatar, just across the city from Al Jazeera's headquarters, and the Emir obviously values his country's relationship with the U.S.
But Al Jazeera is a free press, not a puppet press, and they attempt to air all views in the stories they cover. This has, in fact, made them highly unpopular and even banned by several Arab governments.
So what are we to do? Ignore the first and primary free press of the Arab world? Not talk to them? Not attempt to help them understand our views? This appears to be the tact the Bush administration has taken, and the consequences to our image in the Arab world seems disastrous.
Enter Josh Rushing. He believes passionately in the importance of building bridges and telling the truth. In Doha, he argued the importance of this approach to his commanding officers, all the way up to and including General Franks, the commander of the Iraq War. Today, he is walking his talk by being a correspondent for Al Jazeera, based in Washington, D.C.
We can only hope that Josh Rushing accomplishes his current mission, sharing stories about the U.S., our people, and our values with the rest of the world, including the Arab world. Building bridges to and finding allies in the Arab world seems to be about the most important thing we can be doing right now.
Credibility is a watch word at Al Jazeera and I think it's fair to surmise that one thing the Emir wants to do is extend the credibility he has established with the Arab network to a broader, international audience. In our editorial meetings I have never heard mention of our marketing strategy, or even who our audience is meant to be. Even the competition—which for us is first and foremost the BBC World and CNN International—does not come up unless we're discussing how they are handling a story we're also covering, and how we can do it differently. The questions we ask ourselves are, "What can we add to the coverage that exists?" and especially, "Who does not have a voice in this story?"
Palgrave, New York, 2007
William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
Unabridged audio read by Shelly Frasier.
I've been listening to a lot more books this year, something I previously did only when on a driving vacation one yeaar. There's something I really appreciate about it: the way it makes me sharpen my attention. When I'm reading I can afford to space out now and then; if necessary, I simply reread a sentence, paragraph, or page. But it's not easy to back up a CD or an iPod just a bit, so I'm kept more on my toes. I've also come to realize that it's a perfect venue for storytelling, but not for books I need to ingest for my work.
I read Pattern Recognition a couple times previously and, for the most part, quite enjoyed it. Recently I read Gibson's latest book, which is a somewhat related story, and then decided it would be fun to listen to both in sequence.
Once again I quite enjoyed this story, except for the last section, which feels too much like a tidy-up exercise. At first I didn't like Frasier's voice because it felt wrong for Cayce, the main character, but then I realized her first voice is the narrator's voice, and her rendition of Cayce's voice is actually a good fit.
I appreciate the way the Gibson captures the pulse of today's brand-driven world, and the fact that some of us are allergic to those brands. I love the concept of a fanatical imitation of some classic original that somehow manages to subtly exaggerate some of the best features of the original while staying totally true to the essence of it.
There's something about this story that reminds me of Wim Wenders's Until the End of the World.
… Well, I tried to listen to Spook Country next, but I couldn't tolerate the reader's voice (Robertson Dean), and turned it off before I was even finished with the first CD. For me, his voice and intonation didn't match the story at all. Ah well.
Tantor Media, 2004
Arnaldur Indriðason, Voices
Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder
This guy can write! This is the third book by Indriðason I've read this year. Unfortunately, now I'll have to slow down and wait for him to write another. He was a journalist and film reviewer before becoming a novelist, and it shows. He creates vividly authentic characters, and it's easy to "see" the story and its setting as it unfolds.
The story is set during the holidays, for the most part in a hotel. The guests at the hotel enjoying their holidays are background noise, as Indriðason focuses on the people working or otherwise missing the holidays, the "other half" … and those are the colorful characters, the ones with a story to be told.
I imagine Indriðason has known people like his characters, and understands how their personal triumphs and, more strongly, tragedies color their lives, even decades later.
"The other option you have is to come to terms with this fucking life, as you call it, and put up with the suffering it involves. Put up with the suffering we all have to endure, always, to get through that and find and enjoy the happiness and joy that it brings us as well, in spite of our being alive."
Thomas Dunne, New York, 2007
Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
Unabridged audio read by Kristoffer Tabori.
Had it not been a gift from a really good friend, I doubt I would've ever chosen this book, but I'm glad she sent it to me.
This is a huge story, traveling three generations with a family from a small village near Mount Olympus to the suburbs of Detroit. It touches on many of major social upheavals we've gone through here in the U.S., and at the same time explores the intimate story of what it's like to be a hermaphrodite.
The story is a bit long, but Kristoffer Tabori's brilliant and nuanced reading kept me going when the story itself dragged. It's no surprise that it won the 2003 Audie Award for Best Unabridged Fiction. It also won the 2003 Pulitzer.
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2002
Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan
What if the entire purpose of human life were to get a spare part to an alien space traveler stranded on Titan, so that the space traveler could continue a multi-million year journey to a random destination in the universe to deliver a simple message: "Greetings"?
Vonnegut's first major book is a funny and bittersweet exploration of the seeming meaningless of life, and its simple antidote.
"It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved."
Dial Press, New York, 2006 (1959)
Arnaldur Indriðason, Silence of the Grave
Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder
This is Indriðason's second book published in English (translated from Icelandic). I read his first just recently, immediately ordered this second, and pre-ordered his upcoming third English release. He is a strong writer who dives deeply into his characters to reveal the passions and fears that drive them.
This story tackles some difficult subjects: an abusive husband/father, a shattered parent-child relationship, and the burden of living through a crisis that saw a sibling die. Indriðason handles each gracefully and with a dusky passion.
If someone had told me a few weeks ago that I would be reading a novel about these subjects and would end up appreciating it as a quite good read, I would've been skeptical. The miles pass and continue to bring surprises.
Thomas Dunne, New York, 2006
William Gibson, Spook Country
Gibson still has his finger on the pulse.
We live in multi-track world. On one of the major tracks, the world is still a slow, lumbering place, with physical goods slowly making their way from one place to another in big, rusty steel containers atop slowly moving ships. On another, more elite but rapidly expanding track, we can, if we choose to and can afford it, track those rusty containers on their voyages, and even view them in a virtual playground layered over the old world.
Gibson explores the intersection of these worlds, where some walk right through the new playgrounds unaware of anything other than the rust stains of the old world on the sidewalks they follow, while others play games—sometimes dangerous—in that same physical space, but in another place altogether.
And he manages to entertain with a gripping good yarn that unfolds on the pages of yet another, older virtual reality.
I recently came across an image that blends two virtual worlds beautifully in an article called 404 Error Pages: Reloaded in Smashing Magazine. The image is from the very cool 404 page of a Germany "Wordpress, Adsense, SEO und Internet Marketing" company called VI-SU:
Gibson has sharp eyes, tuned ears, and a smooth pen (well … probably not a pen).
And there they were, quivering slightly, reddish orange, arrayed as a field that filled her room, level with the height of the bed.… Still crouching on the the bed, she sat down and ran her left hand through the poppies she knew weren't there. She almost thought she could feel them. She swung her legs over the side and found the floor, poppies around her knees. Wading through them, toward the layered drapes, she felt momentarily as though they floated atop captive, unmoving water.
She remembered Inchmale describing Stockholm syndrome, the fondness and loyalty one could supposedly come to feel for even the most brutal captor. She wondered whether she might be experiencing something like that, here. Inchmale thought that America had developed Stockholm syndrome toward its own government, post 9/11.
The old man sat with Bobby, speaking to him quietly, calming him. Tito listened. Bobby no longer reminded him of his mother. Bobby's fear was on some other frequency. Tito guessed he chose to allow it to overwhelm him, invited it, used it to make things the fault of others, attempting to control them with it.
Putnam, New York, 2007
Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation
A brilliant book, challenging to read, and not to be missed. Iweala, a graduate of Harvard who has received many prizes for his writing and lives in Washington D.C. and Lagos, tells the story of a child soldier in an unnamed West African conflict through the eyes and in the words of that child, Agu.
Agu is in turn naive, brutal, wistful, and sadding too much that he can't return to his village. He just wants to be a child, even as he is abused, terrorized into obedience, and drugged into states of brutality. The scenes of conflict are interspersed with his tender remembrances of his life at home before the war broke out and his innocence was shattered.
We all hear and read stories about child soldiers, but Iweala brings the experience home in this book. We should all read this book and let it inform our decisions about the policies we support (through active participation or apathetic non-participation in our governing processes), the things we buy (what is the real price of a diamond?), and the way we live (how much does each tank of gas contribute to tragedies like the genocide in Sudan?).
But I am sitting here listening to the other men talking and breathing and breathing and somehow looking alive. When it is so, we are really all just waiting to die, I am still sadding too much. I am not liking to be sad because being sad is what happens to you before you are becoming mad. And if you are becoming mad, then it is meaning that you are not going to be fighting. So I cannot be sad because if I cannot be fighting, then either I will die, or Commandant will be killing me. If I am dead, then I will not be able to be finding my mother and my sister when this war is finishing. I am thinking to myself of all the thing that I will do when the war is over and I am alive. And I am thinking that when it is over, I can be going to university to study. I think I am wanting to be Engineer because I like how mechanic is always doing thing to the truck and I like to be watching even though there is no chance for me to try what they are doing. And sometimes I am thinking that I want to be Doctor because then I will be able to be helping people instead of killing them and then maybe I will be forgiven for all my sin.
HarperCollins, New York, 2005
Arnaldur Indriðason, Jar City
Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder
Iceland. It's raining and raining and raining, the clouds hang low, Reykjavik is a bleak city, the murder of a lonely old man is depressing, its unfolding slowly reveals something even darker, Inspector Erlendur is himself a lonely old man, sleeping in his clothes in a chair, eating microwaved dinners, trying to ignore a chest pain that he suspects in lung cancer, smoking all the same, dealing with a drug-addicted and pregnant daughter, and somewhat plodding in his relentless pursuit to solve the murder.
It sounds like a mix that should result in a terribly boring book, and I was skeptical through the first couple of chapters, but once he gets going, Indriðason serves up a bracing story that is impossible to put down. The sense of place he creates is crisp, and his characters are quirky, flawed, and shambling; in other words, fully and vividly authentic.
I'll definitely be visiting Indriðason's Reykjavik again.
Thomas Dunne, New York, 2005
Stephen Hawking with Leonard Mlodinow, A Briefer History of Time
Quite some time ago I read, didn't fully understand, and was thoroughly enchanted by A Brief History of Time. From time to time I read books I don't really understand; it keeps me on my toes, reminds me that I'm not seeing everything, and that I should never presume that what I can perceive is all that can be perceived.
More recently, I started to reread A Brief History of Time, but for some reason set aside after I got about 1/3 of the way through it. Then I came across this book, which has been around for a couple years, but which had slipped my attention.
I was attracted by the marketing: "more accessible, more concise," so decided to give it a try. I am disappointed. Honestly, I can't fully understand what is presented even in this "more concise" version of the story, but I miss the enchantment of the earlier edition. Hawking and Mlodinow seem quite inclined to bring "god" into the picture in this edition, and that makes me uncomfortable. They don't seem to have any problem introducing god as a type of magic voodoo to explain away what they can't explain. Where is the science in that?
This edition is going to the used bookstore. Someday I may finish rereading the first edition. In general, I'll look for stories about science that don't fall back on the convenience of a god to explain away the unexplainable.
[A couple years later: I'm reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Apparently I was mistaken in my criticism of Hawking and Mlodinow's book:
Much unfortunate confusion is caused by failure to distinguish what can be called Einsteinian religion from supernatural religion. Einstein sometimes invoked the name of God (and he is not the only atheistic scientist to do so), inviting misunderstanding by supernaturalists eager to misunderstand and claim so illustrious a thinker as their own. The dramatic (or was it mischievous?) ending of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, 'For then we should know the mind of God', is notoriously misconstrued. It has led people to believe, mistakenly of course, that Hawking is a religious man.
I'm left wondering, however, why someone so intelligent would choose words that can be easily misconstrued.]
Bantam, New York, 2005
Paul Auster (narrator), I Thought My Father Was God and Other True Tales from NPR's National Story Project
I remember one stretch a few years ago when I was in my workshop each evening and on the weekends working on some freestanding shelves I was making for my desk area. I would often listen to NPR, and a few times heard Paul Auster telling stories from the National Story Project. I was enchanted with some of the stories.
So when I stumbled upon this unabridged audio book I thought it would make for a great listen. Indeed, Paul Auster is a good narrator; he brings the stories alive without imposing himself on them. But the primary feeling I was left with after listening to all of these stories was a sense of how sad and small many people's lives are. It felt like many of the stories were an outlet for long-carried pain.
I was struck by how strongly people get attached to trivial things like rings and pens, and how willing people are to use illusion as a balm for hurt. One woman whose young nephew had suddenly died saw it as a clear sign from God, which she took great comfort in, that a neighborhood kid with the same name said hello to her. She never paused to consider that she wanted so much to comfort herself that she would've found her sign one place or another, regardless.
I was relieved when the last story finished. It was a clever story that tied the, at that time, ongoing storytelling project to unfolding life, but again expressed a sad life, a woman caught in repeating and seemingly self-inflicted cycle of woe who finds her salvation in the radio.
There were, for sure, many bright stories and funny stories, but they ended up eroded by the waves of sadness and hurt washing in from America's storytellers.
In the end, perhaps it was the context that mattered: to hear a couple of these stories now and then was probably the right dose. To hear them stacked up against each other during my commute, day after day for more than a week, was simply an overdose.
John Burdett, Bangkok Haunts
Disjointed and forced.
Knopf, New York, 2007
Sherman Alexie, Flight
I don't want to say much of anything about this book, other than it's terrific. I'd highly recommend reading it, but without reading the blurbs or the cover beforehand, in order to preserve the maximum amount of surprise.
Alexie had been a writer I was paying attention to after I read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and then Reservation Blues. His stories were gritty and tough, like life, sometimes hard to take, like life, but ultimatey well worth the journey. But I last read him in 1999, when I read Indian Killer. That was a story so bleak, so without a glimmer of the possibility of redemption, that I decided I could no longer read his books, and I passed on two books of short stories he released after that.
For some reason, perhaps simply because the passage of nearly eight years softened my aversion, I decided to read his new book. I'm very glad I did. This is his first full length book since Indian Killer, and perhaps his perspective has evolved as well during the intervening years.
Flight is also gritty and tough, and tremendously creative and eye opening. A real accomplishment. I think I'll reach back and read the two books of short stories I missed.
Black Cat, New York, 2007
Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle
Nothing in this book is true
I'm pretty sure I read this book before, more than 30 years ago. I'm pretty sure I read nearly all of Vonnegut's books. But I pretty much had forgotten about him until he died earlier this year, after which I read his final book, one I had missed. I was delighted by it, and decided to reread some of his earlier books, beginning with this one, the one that made him famous.
I didn't recognize anything in the book, which made it an entirely fresh read for me. And a powerful read at that. Vonnegut knew that we're crazy enough to kill ourselves … all of ourselves; after all, we're doing it in slow motion. He just sped things up in this book. The result is a funny, tragic view of our suicide. "Only H. Lowe Crosby and his Hazel cried out. 'American! American!' they cried, as though tornadoes were interested in the granfalloons to which their victims belonged."
And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, "What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?"
It doesn't take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists on one word and one period.
This is it:
Dial, New York, 2006 (1963)
Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness
Unabridged audio read by the author.
Fascinating book. Gilbert gives us a glimpse into how our minds work … and fail to work. He explores the tricks our minds use to store our memories efficiently and then reconstitute them when needed, as welll as how those tricks pretty much guarantee that our memories are inaccurate.
And he peers deeply into what he claims is the single thing that distinguishes us from all other life: our capacity to imagine. Of course, there, too, he uncovers the sleights of hand our minds use, and how they almost always cause us to misimagine our futures.
Where does this leave us with this wondrous, flawed computer between our ears? I'm going to enjoy mine, appreciate it that it helps me wander through and enjoy life more than than circumstances warrant, but try not to trust too much its predictions for my future.
The audio version of the book is read by Gilbert. It's probably not true, but I imagine that his grandkids must love listening to his stories.
Indeed, when scientists want to establish the causal relationship between two things—cloud seeding and rain, heart attacks and cholesterol, you name it—they compute a mathematical index that takes into account co-occurrences (how many people who do have high cholesterol do have heart attacks?) and non-co-occurrences (how many people who do have high cholesterol do not have heart attacks, and how many people who do not have high cholesterol do have heart attacks?) and co-absences (how many people who don't have high cholesterol don't have heart attacks?). All of these quantities are necessary to assess accurately the likelihood that the two things have a real causal relationship.
This is all very sensible, of course. To statisticians. But studies show that when ordinary people want to know whether two things are causally related, they routinely search for, attend to, consider, and remember information about what did happen and fail to search for, attend to, consider, and remember information about what did not. Apparently, people have been making this mistake for a very long time. Nearly four centuries ago, the philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon wrote about the ways in which the mind errs, and he considered the failure to consider absences among the most serious:
By far the greatest impediment and aberration of the human understanding arises from [the fact that] . . . those things which strike the sense outweigh things which, although they may be more important, do not strike it directly. Hence, contemplation usually ceases with seeing, so much so that little or no attention is paid to things invisible.
Knopf, New York, 2007
Martin Limón, The Door to Bitterness
Limón's military sleuths, Sueño and Bascomb, always have a wild romp through Korea in the years following the Korean war, and this story is no exception. But Limon introduces something new here: an apology of sorts for the ill treatment that resulted from the all fun - take no reponsibility attitude. Good stuff.
Chusok, the Autumn Moon Festival, was an ancient holiday celebrating a bountiful harvest. It is the most popular holiday in Korea. Families travel many miles to be together and give thanks to their ancestors for providing the precious gift of life.
SOHO, New York, 2005
Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea – One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time
Garima is the love of my life and has been my traveling companion on this long, strange trip for the past 16, nearly 17 years. When she suggests I should read a book I listen. Garima listened to a library copy of this book, and I decided to listen to it as well, during my commute. Garima's enthusiasm for the story was so high I decided to also pick up a hardcover copy of it that we could add to our library. (The book is worth its price just for the photo of Haji Ali it contains.)
The audiobook, read by Patrick Lawlor, is wonderful. But the story is so good I found myself unable to stop when my drive home was finished, so I read parts of the book as well.
There couldn't be two more opposite approaches to dealing with the challenges in Pakistan and Afghanistan than the ones Bush and Mortenson are taking. While Bush is spending tens of billions of dollars drestroying; Mortenson is spending a meager amount of dollars building schools. The dismal results of Bush's policy are in our headlines every day. The successful results of Mortenson's policy are quietly enabling remote towns in Pakistand and Afghanistan to educate their children. While Bush sends the sons and daughters of others off to fight his war, Mortenson is boots on the ground, risking his own neck to bring the opportunity of education to as many kids as he can (61 schools so far). Bush and his policies are as strongly disliked abroad as at home. Mortenson is being invited to drink three cups of tea with people in the region.
When the porcelain bowls of scalding butter tea steamed in their hands, Haji Ali spoke. "If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways," Haji Ali said, blowing on his bowl. "The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die," he said, laying his hand warmly on Mortenson's own. "Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time."
"That day, Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I've ever learned in my life," Mortenson says. "We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly. We're the country of thirty-minute power lunches and two-minute football drills. Our leaders thought their 'shock and awe' campaign could end the war in Iraq before it even started. Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them."
We need to support Mortenson in his admirable mission. His is a truly American way to share our spirit and abundance with the people with whom we share this planet. "What motivates me to do this? The answer is simple: When I look into the eyes of the children in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I see my own children's eyes full of wonder—and I hope that we will each do our part to leave them all a legacy of peace instead of the perpetual cycle of violence, war, terrorism, racism, and bigotry that we adults have yet to conquer."
- For more information about this wonderful book and to order a copy, visit Three Cups of Tea at www.threecupsoftea.com.
- For information about Mortenson's nonprofit organization, visit the Central Asia Institute at www.ikat.org.
And a few more glimpses into this wonderful book:
[A]s I found in Pakistan, Mortenson's Central Asia Institute does, irrefutably, have the results. In a part of the world where Americans are, at best, misunderstood, and more often feared and loathed, this soft-spoken, six-foot-four former mountaineer from Montana has put together a string of improbable successes. Though he would never say so himself, he has single-handedly changed the lives of tens of thousands of children, and independently won more hearts and minds than all the official American propaganda flooding the region.
So this is a confession: Rather than simply reporting on his progress, I want to see Greg Mortenson succeed. I wish him success because he is fighting the war on terror the way I think it should be conducted. Slamming over the so-called Karakoram "Highway" in his old Land Cruiser, taking great personal risks to seed the region that gave birth to the Taliban with schools, Mortenson goes to war with the root causes of terror every time he offers a student a chance to receive a balanced education, rather than attend an extremist madrassa.
If we Americans are to learn from our mistakes, from the flailing, ineffective way we, as a nation, conducted the war on terror after the attacks of 9/11, and from the way we have failed to make our case to the great moderate mass of peace-loving people at the heart of the Muslim world, we need to listen to Greg Mortenson. I did, and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
– David Oliver Relin Portland, Oregon
Greatness is always built on this foundation: the ability to appear, speak and act, as the most common man.
– Shams-ud-din Muhammed Hafiz
Norberg-Hodge admiringly quotes the king of another Himalayan country, Bhutan, who says the true measure of a nation's success is not gross national product, but "gross national happiness."
"I request America to look into our hearts," Abbas coninuted, his voice straining with emotion, "and see that the great majority of us are not terrorists, but good and simple people. Our land is stricken with poverty because we are without education. But today, another candle of knowledge has been lit. In the name of Allah the Almighty, may it light our way out of the darkness we find ourselves in."
– Syed Abbas, supreme leader of northern Pakistan's Shia, at the official inauguration of Kuardu's primary school, one of the school's built by Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute
The only way we can defeat terrorism is if people in this country [Pakistan] where terrorists exist learn to respect and love Americans," Mortenson concluded, "and if we can respect and love these people here. What's the difference between them becoming a productive local citizen or a terrorist? I think the key is education."
Viking, New York, 2006
Wait! This isn't a book! Yeah, but it is an experience worth reviewing, and I have already started listening to books with it, so…
I didn't expect to like the iPhone this much. I had hoped I could finally stop hating my cell phone; in fact, I've ended up really liking it.
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Scott Berkun, The Myths of Innovation
I saw a video of Berkun speaking about this book. He is a quite lively and enthusiastic speaker, and though his writing didn't grab me quite as strongly, it's a worthy read. He reveals what he thinks innovation is by exposing that it isn't what the myths make it out to be, providing a number of good insights.
The best lesson from the myths of Newton and Archimedes is to work passionately but to take breaks. Sitting under trees and relaxing in baths lets the mind wander and frees the subconscious to do work on our behalf. Freeman Dyson, a world-class physicist and author, agrees, "I think it's very important to be idle…people who keep themselves busy all the time are generally not creative. So I am not ashamed of being idle." This isn't to justify surfing instead of studying: it's only when activities are done as breaks that the change of activity pays off. Some workaholic innovators tweak this by working on multiple projects at the same time, effectively using work on one project as a break from the other. Edison, Darwin, da Vinci, Michelangelo, and van Gogh all regularly switched between different projects, occasionally in different fields, possibly accelerating an exchange of ideas and seeding their minds for new insights.
If you have someone good to talk to, and something important to talk about, communication is rarely in need of acceleration. In fact, software that rewards people for slowing down and thinking about what they're reading and writing might be the greatest innovation of our time.
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O'Reilly, Sebastopol, 2007
Eliot Pattison, Beautiful Ghosts
I quite enjoyed Pattison's first book, The Skull Mantra, but didn't enjoy his next two as much, so I stopped reading his stuff. Recently I noticed that he is releasing a new book this fall and my curiosity led me to pick up a used copy of this book just to see. Unfortunately I feel much the same about this book as I felt about his second two books. Once again he includes an unrealistically happy ending.
"Being a prisoner is just something other people do to you," Shan said. "Being a thief or a liar, or becoming a fugitive, that is something you do to yourself."
St. Martin's Minotaur, New York, 2004
Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus
Translated from Polish by Klara Glowczewska
Now it is possible to understand how Kapuściński evolved into one of the most incredible chroniclers of our world.
Traveling with him as he struggles to comprehend India and China on his first trips abroad, we become aware of the keen curiosity that awakened in and drove him.
Watching as he reads—throughout his travels to Africa, Asia, and Latin America—an edition of The Histories given to him on the eve of his first trip abroad, we can see his eyes growing clearer and sense his mind sharpening with the questions that bring his writing so alive with intimate stories connecting us to the places he visits and the people with whom he interacts.
Kapuściński truly is our Herodotus. And something more, for he has learned an especially important lesson from reading The Histories, that which he yearns to know but Herodotus doesn't share. Where Herodotus tells us with a sweep of a sentence of some great event, Kapuściński reveals what the common participants in the events he witnesses feel, think, exalt, and suffer. He shares with us glimpses into their lives and, sometimes, their individual deaths.
Now that Kapuściński has left us, there is nothing left to do but read again and again the histories he has left us: Another Day of Life, The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, Imperium, The Shadow of the Sun, Shah of Shahs, The Soccer War.
A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again. It starts much earlier and is really never over, because the film of memory continues running on inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable.
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Knopf, New York, 2007
Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Unabridged audio read by Stephen J. Dubner
As surprising and refreshing as cutting into a green apple and discovering a sweet orange. Read it!
This book, then, has been written from a very specific worldview, based on a few fundamental ideas:
- Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life. And understanding them—or, often, ferreting them out—is the key to solving just about any riddle.
- The conventional wisdom is often wrong. Conventional wisdom is often shoddily formed and devilishly difficult to see through, but it can be done.
- Dramatic effects often have distant, even subtle, causes. The answer to a given riddle is not always right in front of you.
- "Experts"—from criminologists to real-estate agents—use their informational advantage to serve their own agenda. However, they can be beat at their own game. And in the face of the Internet, their informational advantage is shrinking every day.
- Knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world much less so. If you learn to look at data in the right way, you can explain riddles that otherwise might have seemed impossible. Because there is nothing like the sheer power of numbers to scrub away the layers of confusion and contradiction.
Dubner's narration on the CD is lively and easy to listen to.
Morrow, New York, 2005, 2006
Martin Cruz Smith, Stalin's Ghost
It's funny, there's nothing wrong with this book, it hits all the right notes—it's moody, suspenseful, darkly humorous, and well written—but I simply wasn't moved and nothing in the story surprised me.
The major's cap was the size of a saddle, gray with red trim. He removed it to take notes because taking notes was a serious business; more careers were built by going to meetings and taking notes than by triumphs on the battlefield.
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2007
Don DeLillo, Falling Man
Earlier this year I read Jess Walter's The Zero, the best novel about 9/11 that I've read so far. So with me, DeLillo had a tough act to follow.
DeLillo's book is okay, but the emotional feeling is so similar to The Zero that it didn't feel fresh to me. I found the structure of The Zero more captivating and the presence of the event much stronger in it.
DeLillo's story is focused on a handful of people reacting to a tragedy. With the exception of a few passages and a few words, it felt like it could've been any tragedy. That surprised me. Perhaps that's the point?
Scribner, New York, 2007
Frans Johansson, The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us about Innovation
I love hardcover books. This is due to a couple of things: how they feel in my hands, and my reverence for books. I treat my books with care, I keep them clean, I put a protective cover over the dust jackets, I don't write in them. It gives me great pleasure to see these cared-for books on the shelves of my library and to think about what I've read in them.
But once in awhile I come across a book I just have to beat up. It needs to get dragged around with me when I travel (flying provides such a great chance to focus on reading), and I need to mark it up, fold the corners of pages, and write in it.
This is one of those books I just had to beat up. It went with me on several business trips. I marked favorite passages with Post-Its until I ran out of them, then I folded pages like crazy. I underlined passages and scribbled notes about ideas it provoked on the inside covers. The books is now a beat up wreck.
So how did I reconcile this with my typical treatment of books? As soon as I had read the first few pages of this book and realized I was going to need to beat it up, I ordered a paperback copy that I could mash up something fierce, while the original hardcover copy sits protected from abuse on my shelf.
I don't often buy two copies of a book; doing so is a tribute to what an important book I think this is.
Johansson has come closer than anyone I've read to bottling the magic of creativity and innovation. His book has focused the way I think about thinking. It has made me more confident in my approach to learning: I read all over the map, sometimes about things I just barely grasp or frankly don't understand at all. Sometimes I walk away from a book with only one idea and I'm not even sure the idea is correct, but now I realize this is helping me to think in these intersectional areas, or at least outside my comfort zone.
I may never give birth to what I consider a truly innovative idea (like Dawkins's memes, for example, from another book I'm reading and only somewhat grasping, The Selfish Gene). But I have had my own "Aha!" moments, and they are what keep me enlivened. I think what I've learned from this book will help me create the conditions that could make a few more of these moments possible.
The researchers are not quite sure when something interesting will happen [when researchers from different fields intersect], but if they keep talking, they know something will happen.
[The] experiment was creative because it was new and valuable, and it was innovative because the creative idea had become realized.
[Lina Escheverria, head of the glass research group at Corning Inc.] has passion for almost everything she undertakes. She seems intent upon making sure everyone else does, as well. "I want the researchers [at Corning] to have the creativity of van Gogh, but lead the life of Michelangelo," she says. I ask her what she tells her researchers to encourage them to step into the unknown and to innovate. "I tell them to follow their hearts," she says. "Follow your heart. Do something you are interested in, do something you can get energized about. That is where passion comes from. And," she says, "creativity comes from passion."
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Harvard Business School, Boston, 2006
José Carlos Somoza, Zig Zag
Translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman
This is a difficult review. This book is well written and I think people who are into this genre will like it. Not me. I picked this up because a few years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed a previous book by Somoza, The Athenian Murders. Because of that I kept expecting this story to take a turn for the better, which unfortunately kept me reading it until its utterly depressing end.
We're all ignorant, but we're not all ignorant about the same things.
– Albert Einstein
Everything that is, is past.
– Anatole France
We tend to blame ourselves for the tragedies we suffer. When catastrophe overcomes us, we withdraw into the past, searching for some sort of mistake we might have made, something to explain it all.
Rayo, New York, 2007
Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything
Read by Alan Sklar
A predominantly anecdotal overview of the business environment changes being caused by the economic pressures generated by open-source-style collaboration (peering), which some companies are successfully embracing, some are reluctantly adopting, and some are vigorously—and perhaps fruitlessly—resisting.
The book suffers a bit from the tendency of the authors to wax poetic when, to better effect, they could be casting a more dispassionate eye on the facts. I cringe, for example, when I hear something being described as "infinitely cheaper" when it is, obviously, only substantially less expensive. Give me the numbers.
I appreciate their introduction of the concept of a pre-competitive knowledge commons - "a new, collaborative approach to research and development where like-minded companies (and sometimes competitors) create common pools of industry knowledge and processes upon which new innovations and industries build."
I also appreciate their expansion of Tapscott's concept of prosumption, a term he introduced in his book, The Digital Economy, which describes the blurring of the gap between producers and consumers.
The narrator of the CD sounds tired and disconnected from what he is reading.
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Portfolio, New York, 2006
Haruki Murakami, After Dark
Translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin
A dreamy, sometimes hallucinogenic journey with a handful of characters through a long night in Tokyo. Murakami has this gift of revealing to us the ungraspable mysteries that drive us in a way that makes them seem almost, but not quite understandable.
If you've ever led a night life, you'll recognize the spaces he explores: the quietening of the day's frenzy, the illusion of safety that the danger-tinged cloak of darkness brings, the kindred souls of the night travelers who share little in common beyond the unspoken recognition of sharing a space, the timeless quality of the predawn hours, and, finally, the dissolution into the embrace of morning.
"You know what I think?" she says. "That people's memories are maybe the fuel they burn to stay alive. Whether those memories have any actual importance or not, it doesn't matter as far as the maintenance of life is concerned. they're all just fuel. Advertising fillers in the newspaper, philosophy books, dirty pictures in a magazine, a bundle of ten-thousand-yen bills: when you feed 'em to the fire, they're all just paper. The fire isn't thinking, 'Oh, this is Kant,' or 'Oh, this is the Yomiuri evening edition,' or 'Nice tits,' while it burns. To the fire, they're nothing but scraps of paper. It's the exact same thing. Important memories, not-so-important memories, totally useless memories: there's no distinction—they're all just fuel."
Knopf, New York, 2007
Richard Preston, The Wild Trees
The story of the adventurer scientists who are exploring some of the tallest trees on earth (the tallest known tree, at over 379 feet and named Hyperion, lives in a hidden valley in Redwood National Park).
The tales of climbing are told so vividly that they provoked my acrophobia and left my palms sweating. Preston also brings vividly to life the odd collection of characters who have been measuring, climbing, and studying these trees for the last couple of decades.
There's a bittersweet quality to the story, as you realize just how much we've lost through reckless clear cutting. When the Redwood park was expanded in 1978 to protect the watersheds that nourish the last stands of redwood forests (now down to just a couple of percent of the original forests), the timber companies raced around the clock to cut as many of the giants down before the deadline. These were trees that were one, two, even three thousand years old, and supported entire ecosystems in their crowns. So that we could have decks.
Today the same thing is happening to the old growth forests in Canada, Russia, Asia, Indonesia, and Australia. So that we can have more inexpensive decks, hardwood floors, kitchen cabinets, and toilet paper. We are so shortsighted.
But even as we lament the passage of so many of these wondrous beings, we can still celebrate those that still stand majestically in the remaining groves. It is such an amazing experience to stand before living beings that are as big around as a living room, as tall as a skyscraper, and in some cases nearly as old as our memories. Here's an illustration by Robert Van Pelt of people standing near a tree named Iluvator, which is over 30 stories tall and 23 feet in diameter.
The book contains a few wonderful illustrations by Andrew Joslin. One is of four climbers between about 180 - 200 feet above the ground in that same tree, Iluvatar. Joslin's drawing is based on a photograph by Thomas B. Dunlin.
Another of my favorite photos by Dunklin is of a fern mat about 300 feet above the ground in a tree named Poseidon. Preston also has a bunch of great photographs on his website.
There's a wonderful collection of information, stories, photos, and videos on the site of Mario Vaden, an arborist and passionate tree lover in the Medford, Oregon area. He has personally visited many of the giants mentioned in The Wild Trees. He also links to a wonderful video on YouTube of Jim Spickler climbing the world's tallest tree, and has one photo album with some great panorama shots of the trees.
"When I first started out climbing trees, I had no idea that they held fifty percent of the life on the planet," Lowman said to me. "We had no clue that the forest canopy is this amazing hot spot for biodiversity.
"There's always a moment during a climb when you lose yourself," [Stillett] said. You don't have a name anymore. When you find yourself in a place in nature where if you make a mistake you will die, you become open to what's around you. You start feeling the limits of your perceptions as a human being. You perceive more clearly in redwoods, and you see time's illusory qualities."
"Maybe these trees can teach us something about ourselves. Marie and I and you, we're nothing. We're little snapshots in time, and we'll soon be gone. This grove has burned in huge fires during the past millennia. Redwoods don't die if they burn. A redwood can be burned to a blackened spar, and afterward it goes, 'Wooah,' and just grows back. Look at Kronos. It's been hammered. It's dying. And it's more beautiful than ever. These trees can teach us how to live. We can be hammered and burned, and we can come back and be more beautiful as we grow."
Update: The cover story of the October 2009 National Geographic is The Tallest Trees, and it includes an amazing foldout mosiac photograph stitched together from 84 images of a 1,500-year-old, 300-foot-tall redwood in California's Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (it looks like it could be Iluvator).
Random House, New York, 2007
Kurt Vonnegut, A Man without a Country
And if I die—God forbid—I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, "Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?"
When I heard recently that Vonnegut had died—God forbid—I was astonished to realize that it has been eight or nine years since I last read one of his books. I'd read them all through Timequake, and deeply appreciate the way he tells the truth through his novels.
Given that, I don't know how I missed picking up this book when it was first published, but after I heard the news I watched a clip of his appearance on the Daily Show talking about it, and found myself laughing out loud again at his wit and appreciating again his wisdom.
This book is wonderful. Wow, we are so fortunate that for so many years he told us his stories and shared with us what he saw with his clear eyes.
His discussion of pyschopathic personalities (or PPs, introduced via a natural segueway from a disussion of Bush and the people who surround him) provided me with a real "Aha!" moment. So often I have watched these people doing certain things and wondered how in the world they could do it, but I never stopped to think that they could actually be sick.
What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is that they are so decisive. The are going to do something every fuckin' day and they are not afraid. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they don't give a fuck what happens next.
Sanity has lost a voice.
We are here on earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different.
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Seven Stories, New York, 2005
Robert Wilson, The Vanished Hands
A well-written story about a demoralizing corruption. This book preceded The Hidden Assasins, which I read recently and now understand better.
Wilson is a strong writer, but tackles the darkest recesses of the human soul. I won't be able to read another book of his for a long time.
Falcón preferred to lose himself in vague thoughts that might lead to better ideas.
Harcourt, New York, 2004
Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
I confess, books like this bring out the cynic in me. If you want to try to script your life, then this is the book for you. I found a lot of it really repellent. I had to laugh at the section Identifying Your Center because he left the category of 7 Habits Centered off the list; doesn't strike me as much different than Church Centered (to be honest about his own paradigm, he should've included the personal note he added at the end of the book in the foreword).
The part of the book that really creeped me out is the visualization and affirmation section. How about just meeting life with fresh eyes once in awhile?
The one concept in the book that I find valuable is the urgent-important time management matrix. That alone made it worth slogging through the rest. However, I strongly disagree with his classifying pleasant activities as not important.
We must not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time. – T.S. Eliot
In the midst of the most degrading circumstances imaginable, [Viktor] Frankl used the human endowment of self-awareness to discover a fundamental principle about the nature of man: Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.
Free Press, New York, 1984, 2004
Jonathan Lethem, You Don't Love Me Yet
The Bard of Brooklyn takes a trip to L.A. Lethem is a good writer, but the result feels a bit touristy, an outsider cruising the scene, not quite living it, taking a few colorful snapshots, not seeing the whole. I wonder why?
For the band, this public rendition of what's instantly become their hit song is the moment when time stops its hectic flow and earth's atmosphere expands, just a little, to make room for something new, embodied by themselves.
"I want what we all want," said Carl. "To move certain parts of the interior of myself into the external world, to see if they can be embraced."
Doubleday, New York, 2007
John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity
Technology and life only become complex if you let it be so.
A delightful little book that practices what it preaches. Maeda—a professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, an inspired and thoughtful designer, and a man with a heart—presents his ten laws of simplicity, and three corresponding keys.
In fact, in a gesture of respect to his readers, he tells us early on, "If you wish to save time (in accordance with the third Law of TIME), I suggest you start with basic simplicity (1 to 3) and then skip to the tenth Law of THE ONE which sums up the entire set." In my opinion, anyone who does this is foolishly saving time; this is a book worth reading, and even reading again.
Perhaps the most important thing he does in his book is to present the choices we must consider when we design anything as the extremes of a continuum, for example: How Simple Can You Make It? ‹---› How Complex Does It Have To Be?
A gentle, inspired start is the best way to draw students, or even a new customer, into the immersive process of learning.
That which appears to be of immediate relevance may not be nearly as important compared to everything else around.
The opportunity lost by increasing the amount of blank space is gained back with enhanced attention on what remains.
I reached to my chopsticks to begin, when my friend said, "The taste of this meal is affected by the room we sit in."
While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clear.
There's always an ROF (Return on Failure) when you try to simplify—which is to learn from your mistakes. When faced with failure, a good artist, or any other member of the creative class, leverages the unfortunate event to radically shift perspective.
Magnificent individuals in jobs that demand maximum performance of themselves tend to deny themselves the perceived weakness of the undo crutch, but it doesn't mean that they don't know how to relax.
[ More … ]
MIT Press, Cambridge, 2006
Darrell Huff, How to Lie with Statistics
The drawings and dollar amounts are certainly dated, but the underlying principles are solid. I picked this book up to help keep myself honest as I work with metrics; it's sort of the average Joe's version of Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.
In most ways the two books couldn't be more different: the subject of this review is a mass-market paperback printed in black and white on newsprint-quality paper with simplistic line drawings, while Tufte's book is an oversized Smythe sewn hardcover printed on thick Monadnock Dulcet Text paper and brimming with richly detailed illustrations, many in color, some even tipped in. But the two share this: they both show us why we must maintain a healthy skepticism as consumers of data, and urge us to be diligent in presenting our own data honestly.
The fact is that, despite its mathematical base, statistics is as much an art as it is a science. A great many manipulations and even distortions are possible within the bounds of propriety. Often the statistician must choose among methods, a subjective process, and find the one that he will use to represent the facts. In commercial practice he is about as unlikely to select an unfavorable method as a copywriter is to call his sponsor's product flimsy and cheap when he might as well say light and economical.
Time magazine, notable for the consistent excellence of its graphics, published a chart that is an amusing example of how statistics can pull out of the bag almost anything that may be wanted. Faced with choice of methods, equally valid, one favoring the management viewpoint and the other favoring labor, Time simply used both. The chart was really two charts, one superimposed upon the other. They used the same data.
One showed wages and profits in billions of dollars. It was evident that both were rising and by more or less the same amount. And that wages involved perhaps six times as many dollars as profits did. The great inflationary pressure, it appeared, came from wages.
The other part of the chart expressed the changes as percentages of increase. The wage line was relatively flat. The profit line shot sharply upward. Profits, it might be inferred, were principally responsible for inflation.
You could take your choice of conclusions. Or, perhaps better, you could easily see that neither element could properly be singled out as the guilty one. It is sometimes a substantial service simply to point out that a subject in controversy is not as open-and-shut as it has been made to seem.
If the source of your information gives you also the degree of significance, you'll have a better idea of where you stand. This degree of significance is most simply expressed as a probability, as when the Bureau of the Census tells you that there are nineteen chances out of twenty that their figures have a specified degree of precision. For most purposes nothing poorer than this five percent level of significance is good enough. For some the demanded level is one percent, which means that there are ninety-nine chances out of a hundred that an apparent difference, or whatnot, is real. Anything this likely is sometimes described as "practically certain."
Norton, New York, 1954
Robert Crais, The Monkey's Raincoat
I've read a few of the more recent books by Crais and, after the most recent one, became curious to read his first from twenty years ago. It's okay, but he certainly has polished his craft over the years.
Bantam, New York, 1992 (1987)
Amitav Ghosh, The Hungry Tide
Reading is for me an experience of ebbs and flows. Most books swirl in the ordinary eddies of the tides, some reach higher, some flounder in the mud. Occasionally there is an exceptional high tide that washes up a special gift like this story and I realize anew why I read.
The Hungry Tide gracefully combines several richly imagined characters and two stories set in the other-worldly Sundarbans, the maze of rivers, inlets, and mangrove-covered islands to the Southeast of Kolkata in the Bay of Benghal.
Ghosh explores the lives of folk who live in the Sundarbans, the forces of nature, the legends of the region, the passions of cetology—the study of marine mammals, the complex conflict that arises when internationally funded ecological programs designed to preserve places and animals compete with the needs of dispossessed peoples, and the ordinary pulses of the heart that occur when individuals cross boundaries of differences and attempt to understand each other.
Much of the story is told from the deck of a small fishing canoe, so vividly that you can feel it sway and vibrate as it moves across the ripples of the tides, can taste the salt when the tide moves in, and can smell the fresh water when the tide moves out. Fokir, the fisherman, rows his sturdy yet fragile craft and Piya, his sturdy yet fragile passenger, through moments of utter calm, joyful discovery, deep revelation, and stark terror.
The finales of both stories are similarly explosive and shattering, yet in the calm following the parallel devastations, you can glimpse the resilience of people as they pick themselves up and move forward again. In this way it is the story of all of us who have faced challenges in our lives.
Ghosh is an exceptional writer. As with all of his books, his research and first-hand knowledge are exceptional. His novel is an imagined story anchored in actual history and real experiences: he has traveled in the tide country, spent time with a cetologist, listened to the memories of an uncle who was a headmaster in Gosaba, and obviously drank deeply from the well of Ranier Maria Rilke's poetry.
As I look on the scene before me I cannot help wondering what it has meant to them—to Fokir, to Kusum—to wake to this sight, through the better part of a year. Has it provided any recompense for everything they have had to live through? Who could presume to know the answer? At this moment, lying in wait, I can think only of the Poet's words:
but the start of terror we can hardly bear,
and we adore it because of the serene scorn
it could kill us with …
I had reached the point where, as the Poet says, we tell ourselves
Maybe what's left
for us is some tree on a hillside we can look at
day after day …
and the perverse affection of a habit
that liked us so much it never let go.
Surely the settlers would turn back now. In our hearts we prayed they would. But what happened instead was something unforeseen: the people in the boat began to shout in unison, "Amra kara? Bastuhara." Who are we? We are the dispossessed.
How strange it was to hear this plaintive cry wafting across the water. It seemed at that moment not to be a shout of defiance but rather a question being addressed to the very heavens, not just for themselves but on behalf of a bewildered humankind. Who, indeed, are we? Where do we belong? And as I listened to the sound of those syllables, it was as if I were hearing the deepest uncertainties of my heart being spoken to the rivers and the tides. Who was I? Where did I belong?
[W]ords are like the winds that blow ripples on the water's surface. The river itself flows beneath, unseen and unheard.
Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2005
Qiu Xiaolong, A Case of Two Cities
I was enchanted by Death of a Red Heroine, Xiaolong's first book, which provided such an intimate glimpse of life at street level in Shanghai and included such a surprising and refreshing mix of poetry within the prose. This story also includes the refreshing mix of poetry, yet left me with a feeling of almost, but not quite. I was also quite surprised by the poor quality of the editing.
Long, long I lament
there is not a self for me to claim
oh, when can I forget
all the cares of the world?
The night deep, the wind still, no ripples on the river.
– Su Dongpo, Song dynasty poet
St. Martin's Minotaur, New York, 2006
Robert Crais, The Watchman
Quite good for what it is: a page-turner beach read. Crais has a knack for keeping the pace at red line throughout a book. In general I'm not that fast of a reader, but I can't help but finish one of his books in just a few hours … they're impossible to put down unfinished.
The girl seemed even younger in sleep, and smaller, as if part of her had vanished into the couch. With her asleep, Pike believed he was seeing her Original Person. Pike believed each person created himself or herself; you built yourself from the inside out, with the tensions and will of the inside person holding the outside person together. The outside person was the face you showed the world; it was your mask, your camouflage, your message, and, perhaps, your means. It existed only so long as the inside person held it together, and when the inside person could no longer hold the mask together, the outside person dissolved and you would see the original person. Pike had observed that sleep could sometimes loosen the hold. Booze, dope, and extreme emotions could all loosen the hold; the weaker the grasp, the more easily loosened. Then you saw the person within the person.
Simon and Schuster, New York, 2007
Robert Wilson, The Hidden Assassins
While, in my opinion, Wilson has as yet not matched the quality of A Small Death in Lisbon in his subsequent books, this in an engrossing story of a bombing and several characters who are swept up in the investigation or consequences of it. It seems that many more novels are now incorporating the ever present shadow of terrorism in our lives and how it darkens our thinking and emotions. Wilson addresses this ably.
Contentment was a strange human state, he thought, as a light steam rose from the car park. Just at the moment life seemed boring and the desire for change emerged like a brilliant idea, along came a new, sinister vitality and the mind was suddenly scrambling back to what appeared to be prelapsarian bliss.
Harcourt, Orlando, 2006
Robert Littell, Vicious Circle
Robert Littell writes well. While I can't judge the accuracy and authenticity of his novel's settings and characters, I did find it a compelling story. The problem is that it's just such a depressing story, with no winners, and many, many losers.
Overlook Duckworth, Woodstock, 2006
Jess Walter, Land of the Blind
I like the way Walter writes, and this story has a big sweep, with perceptive ruminations on the terrors and confusion of childhood; the youthful desire to contribute to rectifying what is awful about society; the hollow excitement of succeeding in the fast-paced environment of tech startups; the addictive and soulless nature of media-spun politics; and the glimmer of hope that there is some spark of good to be found, a hope difficult to extinguish, even in the face of the wearying onslaught of evidence to the contrary.
"The guy you shot?" he asks finally. "That's the only person you ever killed?"
"But it's still with you? You still see it."
"Yes. But there are things I feel worse about." She pictures Rae-Lynn, the one she couldn't save, who spent her last six weeks fucking and doping and falling. Caroline bought Rae-Lynn a sandwich like this once; she can still see the tiny girl wolfing it down.
Clark nods. "There aren't even names for some of the crimes we commit."
Regan, New York, 2005
Ron Hansen, Atticus
I was really enjoying this story and the laconic Atticus when the narrative jarringly shifted two-thirds of the way through to a hasty summary written in the colorless voice of Atticus's son, and it fell apart for me. It felt like a cheap literary trick to explain away the yet hidden bit of the story that Atticus hadn't figured out, and the explanation astonished me for its lack of forensic integrity.
Harper Perennial, New York, 1996
Dana Spiotta, Eat the Document
An intriguing glimpse into the lives of ordinary, yet somehow extraordinary Americans, and the tensions generated by this conflict between the quietly normal routines that define us as subject to gravity and those parts of us that struggle to break free, leaping weightlessly through the air, twirling noisily with exuberance.
She discovered, despite what people may imagine, having nothing to lose is a lot like having nothing.
Scribner, New York, 2006
Barry Nalebuff & Ian Ayres, Why Not?How to Use Everyday Ingenuity to Solve Problems Big and Small
I enjoyed this book; it's full of spirit, challenging us to open our eyes a bit wider and think a bit more broadly and deeply to uncover those Aha! ideas.
[ More … ]
Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 2003
Jess Walter, The Zero
This book opens with one of the most poetic descriptions of mayhem I've ever read, which aptly sets the pace for the entire story. Citizen Vince demonstrated to me that Walter is an excellent writer. He applies the same talent to The Zero, but here is a story I find much more compelling.
His use of memory blackouts to frame the story really touches the nerve … that experience of coming to … wondering how we got here … feeling ignorant … knowing something has changed, but not quite grasping what … knowing the fabric has been rent, yet watching others gloss over the obvious tears. Our vision is failing, but it seems all we can do is try to see in the same way we always have.
"Yeah," Remy said to the genial reliever, and he thought about how nice that would be: relief, a guy in the bullpen waiting to take over when you run out of gas. Go to the left-hander. Life would be much easier if we all had a coach watching us, looking for any sign of fatigue or confusion, specialists waiting just down the foul line to stride in and save our work, to salvage what we've done so far, make sure we don't waste the end of a well-lived life.
Remy stared at the notebook before him. Should he be writing any of this down? That Ann Rogers doesn't like caffeine? That she has a streak in her hair? He had the sense that any detail would become important if he wrote it down, that its importance would be determined by the record he kept.
Doesn't everyone react to the world as it presents itself? Who really knows more than the moment he's in? What do you trust? Memory? History? No, these are just stories, and whichever ones we choose to tell ourselves—the one about our marriage, the one about the Berlin wall—there are always gaps. There must be countless men all over the country crouched in front of barbecues, just like him, wondering how their lives got to that point.
He let go of her hand and walked toward the window, thinking again that perhaps life had returned to normal, and that normal was a string of single moments disconnected from one another. No reason to think that anything had ever been different. You worked in an office all week. Your girlfriend's real estate broker boss came over with her husband and you cooked them dinner. And when it came time to eat, it wouldn't matter whether you remembered planning the dinner. A meal doesn't care about the cook's intention; it just gets eaten.
The jet bore down, grinding and moaning, toward the runway, then seemed to hover a few feet above it, before it lurched and skipped, fell several feet, and leveled, the hydraulic landing gear spitting, spinning, and catching and then the frantic clutch of brakes, and a thousand technological miracles later, Remy and April were walking down a jetway, Remy looking nervously over his shoulder. Act, he thought. Just do what you have to do.
What do you do when what you are seeing/hearing/reading doesn't quite match reality? Here are a few sentences from a story in msnbc.com today:
"You know, I welcome debate in a time of war and I hope you know that," Bush said in opening remarks at the guest speaker at a retreat that drew about 200 lawmakers to a Virginia resort.
He said disagreeing with him over the war – as many in the room do – does not mean "you don't share the same sense of patriotism I do."
"I look forward to working with you," he said. "I know you've probably heard that and doubt whether it's true. It's true."
– Bush focuses on Iraq in meeting with Dems, Feb 3, 2007.
Hello? As Walter says at the beginning of The Zero, "This Happened."
Regan Books, New York, 2006
Jess Walter, Citizen Vince
Fresh, witty, and crisply paced, with rich characterizations, but ultimately not about much of anything.
If it ends truthfully, then the story ends badly, in death. It's the reason most theories and religions and economic systems break down before you get too far into them—and the reason Buddhism and the Beach Boys make sense to teenagers, because they're too young to know what life really is: a frantic struggle that always ends the same way. The only thing that varies is the beginning and the middle. Life itself always ends badly. If you've seen someone die, you don't need to read to the end of some book to learn that.
But this story doesn't end in death; it just trails away into limbo.
Regan Books, New York, 2005
Farewell, Ryszard Kapuściński
I read this morning that Ryszard Kapuściński died. I've wondered from time to time whether I could name a favorite author, and always told myself no. But when I read this I realized the answer is yes. My favorite author has died. I was sad thinking I would never read anything new from him, and grateful for everything of his I had read. Then I did a search and found he left us one more book, to be published in English in June. What an amazing final gift. I'm glad. Such mixed emotions!
A lifetime ago I was an exchange student in Ethiopia. Never have totally figured out that year. I've been trying to ever since. Now and then an author helps me. Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible helped much. A few years ago I stumbled across Kapuściński's book about Ethiopia, written about the same time I was there. He opened my eyes and made me see. Not everything, but much.
Over the next bit of time I read everything he wrote. Yeah, there's no doubt he is the most amazing author I've read. His last book I read, The Shadow of the Sun, is the best book I've read. Maybe his new one will be better. But then?
How do I express my gratitude to someone who's gone? I can't tell him about how often I searched the Internet to see if there was a new book by him that had been published since the short time before when I had last searched. I can't tell him how he helped me understand things deep inside me that are both scars and triumphs of growth. I can't thank him for making me realize that what I had experienced and failed to understand was something that was not understandable, but that others had experienced as well.
Farewell Ryszard Kapuściński. My life is fuller because of how you shared yours and emptier because of your passing.
Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
A bleak, well written, and unforgettable story. The cadence of his storytelling voice is amazing. But I may never read another book by him.
My daddy always told me to just do the best you knew how and tell the truth.
Knopf, New York, 2005
George Pelecanos, The Night Gardener
A bleak, well written but forgettable story.
Little, Brown, New York, 2006
Michael Flynn, Eifelheim
I don't like reading about the Middle Ages—it strikes me as such a superstitious, dirty, stinking time—but a friend recommended Flynn, and this is his most recent book, so I picked it up. I still don't like reading about the Middle Ages, but this is a solid story. It combines meticulous research and detail with an interesting question: what might have happened if a spacecraft crash landed near a small German town toward the end of the Middle Ages and the visitors were forced to live among the townsfolk for several months while they worked to repair their craft?
The answer Flynn provides is plausible, exploring both the enlightened thinking and fear-based reactions that might have occurred in such an encounter between peoples of such different races and levels of knowledge. I particularly appreciated his portrayal of the main character's attempts to understand and speak about the advanced technologies he was seeing through the limited portal that his experience provided him. How would you try to understand and articulate electricity, fiber optics, radio transmissions, space travel itself, if none of these things had ever been in your life before?
Flynn has created vivid characters and has drawn a rich picture of the time. His descriptions toward the end of the story of the plague that swept Europe at the time are terrifying. You can really experience how abandoned of hope you would feel if you faced something of that magnitude at a time when medical knowledge was so crude. It made my skin crawl and left me with a strong physical desire to wash my hands and wipe the book with alcohol.
If his story had included only the Middle Ages narrative, I would've rated it higher. But the present-day part of the story, which is interspersed in short chapters throughout the book, falters. Oddly, his modern characters are stiff and less believable; they add little to the overall story, and detract from the sum total of the book. Their ending story is particularly hokey.
One of his modern characters is a researcher (a stand-in for Flynn himself?) who is painstakingly uncovering the story through old manuscripts and other evidence, and he does pose a vital question, even if it's a bit stitled for conversation: "It was the wildest sort of coincidence. Who knows what else may be out there, lying in archives and libraries, unrecognized because the right people haven't looked at it in the right way? Things for which we've found safe, acceptable, believable explanations."
Tor, New York, 2006
John le Carré, The Mission Song
I like it when John le Carré is an outraged writer. I think the angriest of his twenty books is The Constant Gardener, and that's also my favorite. He seems mildly angry in this story, but more so simply dismayed, as if sighing, Look what these arseholes have gone and done now, rather than shaking his fist at the high heavens, red in the face, furiously cursing maggots, the way I felt he was in The Constant Gardener.
Here he is imagining for us what may happen behind the scenes to lead up to an "event" such as the one we heard about a few years ago when a bunch of freelance mercenaries were apprehended in Zimbabwe before they could stage a coup in Equatorial Guinea. His tempered anger comes from the disregard the players in these events have for the many innocents who will suffer and be killed as a consequence of their profit-motivated maneuverings and manipulations.
The story is weakened somewhat by the main character, Salvo, who is complex and quite fleshed out, but has a detached quality that colors the entire story, as if he is relating something that happened to someone else. None of the other characters are written strongly enough to offset that lack of immediacy, and I think the story gets tidied up too much at the end. Haj's wrap-up letter comes across as particularly contrived.
Little, Brown, New York, 2006
Richard Powers, The Echo Maker
Richard Powers is one of my most favorite writers. I've read and been fascinated by every book he has written. In each, he tackles a couple big themes and approaches them from multiple points of view, weaving the story from the threads of several characters who together form a sweeping tapestry of intricate detail.
In The Echo Maker, his major themes are our brains, our minds, our consciousness, and our greed and disregard for this planet we share with other incredible species who've endured for millions of years and are now withering under the brute force of our impact on our habitat.
The story is a mystery, and how we think is the most mysterious aspect of it; it is a psychological thriller, with us playing both the protagonist and the antagonist; it is a humbling look into a mirror, with the realization that the recognition of our reflection is a trick we play on ourselves. All of this played out by ordinary people, our neighbors, ourselves.
My understanding of my life and this Life has been greatly enhanced by reading Richard Powers's books over the years. What a thrill it is to be a character in this play.
As she shrunk and the sea of glass expanded, she saw the scale of life—millions of tangled tests, more answers than there were questions, and a nature so swarmingly wasteful that no single experiment mattered. The prairie would try out every story. One hundred thousand pairs of breeding swifts pumped eggs into everything from rotting telephone poles to smoking chimneys. A plague of starlings wheeled overhead, descended, Daniel said, from a handful of birds released into Central Park a century ago by a drug maker who wanted America to have all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare. Nature could sell at a loss; it made up in volume. Guess relentlessly, and it didn't matter if almost every guess was wrong.
How could he tell them? Energy fell on an ancient cell; the cell registered. Some prodding set off a chemical cascade that incised the cell and changed its structure, forming a cast of the signals that fell on it. Eons later, two cells clasped, signaling each other, squaring the number of states they might inscribe. The link between them altered. The cells fired easier with each fire, their changing connections remembering a trace of the outside. A few dozen such cells slung together in a lowly slug: already an infinitely reshaping machine, halfway to knowing. Matter that mapped other matter, a plastic record of light and sound, place and motion, change and resistance. Some billions of years and hundreds of billions of neurons later, and these webbed cells wired up a grammar—a notion of nouns and verbs and even propositions. Those recording synapses, bent back into themselves—brain piggy-backing and reading itself as it read the world—exploded into hopes and dreams, memories more elaborate than the experiences that chiseled them, theories of other minds, invented places as real and detailed as anything material, themselves matter, microscopic electro-etched worlds within the world, a shape for every shape out there, with infinite shapes left over: all dimensions springing from this thing the universe floats in. But never hot or cold, solid or soft, left or right, high or low, but only the image, the store. Only the play of likeness cut by chemical cascades, always undoing the state that did the storing. Sempahores at night, cobbling up even the cliff they signaled from. As he once wrote: Unsponsored, impossible, near-omnipotent, and infintely fragile …
No hope of showing them that. He could at best reveal the countless ways the signals got lost. Shattered at any joint: space without dimension, effect before cause, words cut loose from their reference. Show how anyone might vanish into spatial neglect, might sway up with down and before with after. Sight without knowing, recall without reason, tea parties of personalities fighting it out for control over the bewildered body, yet always continuous, whole to themselves. As consistent and complete as these bright and skeptical students now felt.
On the second evening, she comes back inside from smoking half a pack out on Bonnie's deck, to find the girl distraut. She won't say why at first, just keeps repeating, "It's nothing. No problem." But she can't stay on task and ends up carbonizing the potpies. Karen finds the culprit on Bonnie's coffee table: Weber's new book, which the girl has been dutifully plowing through at the rate of half a page a day over the last several months.
"This is what's upset you?" Karen asks. "Something in here?"
One more denying shake of the head, then the girl breaks down. "There's a God part of the brain? Religious visions from some kind of epilepsy storm?"
Karin is all over herself, comforting the girl. And the girl takes some comforting.
"You can turn God on and off with electric…? It's just some built-in structure? Did you already know this? Does everybody? Everybody smart?"
Karin sushes her, strokes her shoulders. "Nobody knows. He doesn't know."
"Of course he knows! He wouldn't put it in a book, if he didn't. He's the smartest man I've ever met. Religion is just a temporal lobe…? He's saying belief is just an evolved chemical thing you could gain or lose…? Like what Mark decided about you? How it's not him anymore, how he can't even see that he … Oh shit. Shit. I'm too stupid to get this!"
And Karin, too stupid to help. Some part of her—some temporal storm—wants to say: What we sum to is still real. The phantom wants our shaping. Even a God module would have been selected for its survival value. Water is up to something. She says none of this; she has no words. Bonnie's doubt must have been long in coming, a slow-growing tumor. She's shaken enough to entertain any wider belief system Karin might suggest. For a long time, they look at each other, caught in some shameful secret. Then, on nothing but grim smiles, they make a pact, joined in the trick of belief, novitiates in a new faith, until damage changes them.
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2006
Spike Lee, When the Levees Broke
Most films disappoint me; I typically end up regretting that I've wasted my time watching even the shortest of them. This four-part documentary by Spike Lee runs four hours, plus there is an epilogue that is an additional nearly two hours long. Yet I ended up feeling that watching this film was an incredibly valuable use of my time. So I'm going to break with my norm and include a review of this film amongst the books I read.
This is a story we're all intimately familiar with: the fury of the storm, the horror of destruction and death, the incomprehensibly inept response, and the disgust that our federal government responded more slowly to help our own people here at home than it did to bring aid to the victims of the tsunami halfway across the world (and at the time I thought that was a painfully slow response).
Spike Lee brings an additional level of focus and clarity to this story: he gives the people of New Orleans the time and space to tell their stories; he deftly presents a multitude of views to bring us perspective; he makes it possible for us to come closer to understanding what it must have been and is like to be there.
This is the art of documentary filmmaking at its finest.
HBO Documentary Films, 2006
Jane Poynter, The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2
About ten years ago I found myself in Tucson for a day. I had seen photos of the architecturally stunning Biosphere 2, so decided to visit. It was a rich experience (the place itself much more interesting than the defensive guide). When I saw this book I realized I wanted to better understand the story behind this graceful structure.
And what a story it is. I had no idea how much drama and upheaval lay behind the fascade of this experiment! I have no doubt we'll be able to solve the technical challenges to establishing colonies in space, but I wonder if we'll be able to solve the human challenges.
Unbeknownst to me, the winter-over crews at the South Pole also take nicknames. This, it seems, is an acknowledgement that the experience has transformed them. It's made them different from all those who have never experienced the particular solitude that comes with extended isolation with a small group, and the personal release that follows when the insanity of our impression-packed modern life is stripped away. One is left staring into one's own unfamiliar face, the eyes speaking of things one had never known lay behind them.
Later, people would ask me why I wanted to give up two years of my life to go inside Biosphere 2. I could never understand this question. I did not view it as giving up two years, but gaining them. I wanted to be part of somthing bigger than me.
Dr. Richard Farson, a managment consultant and Harvard psychologist who heads the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, recently told me, "People think that organizations are strong and individuals are weak. That is wrong. Individuals are strong. Relationships are fragile. There is no relationship that cannot be broken."
Thunder's Mouth Press, New York, 2006