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Friday, January 1, 2021

Quick Book Reviews

Lord of the Flies - William Golding: Certainly an interesting thought experiment.  I think what I found most interesting was learning later that there was basically a real life Lord of the Flies situation:  Those boys did just fine.  It's the jerk that had them arrested on their return that most exemplified that bad behaviors in a book.

Betrayer of Worlds, Fate of Worlds - Larry Nevin (recommended by Matthew Stanford): These are the conclusion to a solidly crafted sci-fi series (Fleet of Worlds), but I can't say I recommend them.  They were never bad and I can't point to any specific flaw that kept me from really enjoying them, but I didn't.

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande (recommended by Daniel Gollahon):  An excellent, if macabre, look a end-of-life care and just how screwed up it is.  I have basically no interest in medicine and had a hard time putting this down.

The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen: This is a weird book, but interesting.  I wouldn't call it enjoyable, but it did keep me reading.

The President and the Assassin (recommended by Patrick Flanigan):  This is a really good book about President McKinley's assassination.  It felt like reading something by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and that's high praise from me.

Mrs.  Dalloway - Virginia Wolfe: There are scenes in this book that I thought were very good but, as a whole, I didn't really enjoy it.

His Dark Materials (recommended by Cassidy Schenley and Ben Houston), Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, A Dream (recommended by Cassidy twice), and American Gods: All of these are great books that have inspired fantastic TV shows.  That's not so surprising for most of them, but I hate football, so it's pretty impressive that Friday Night Lights really drew me in, although the book occasionally felt somewhat padded with extraneous detail. The audio book of American Gods is really excellent.  The TV adaptation of His Dark Materials isn't finished, but I've really enjoyed it so far.

Native Son - Richard Wright: This book is about a young African American man in the 1930s.  This book puts a very difficult lens on racism in America.  Its tragedy struck me hard when I read it, and it has only become more relevant in these past few months.  Highly recommended.

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube - Blair Braverman (recommended by Amy Lynn Dzura): This memoir is the kind of thing that makes me feel like I haven't done nearly enough travelling in my life.  It also drove home something that I'd readily admit, but can never really grasp the enormity of: I have no idea what it's like to have to make my way through this world as a woman. Native Son did the same thing about being a person of color.  These books provide important glimpses, but I'll never truly understand.  Don't think this book is incredibly serious.  I often found myself laughing out loud, which isn't common for books.  An excellent book.

Sons and Lovers - D.H. Lawrence:  You can't accuse the author of being sneaky about how creepy this novel is; it's right there on the tin.  Certainly a well-written novel, but far more Oedipal than I can find strictly enjoyable.

Killers of the Flower Moon - David Grann (recommended by Amy Steinfeld): A great book, but also very troubling.  Anybody who thinks that America's racial inequities are simply a reflection of socioeconomic disparities, rather than being driven by racism, needs to read this book.  In the early 1920s the Osage Native Americans in Oklahoma became some of the wealthiest people in the country.  After decades of oppression and forced relocation, they should have had it made.  Instead, local officials took control of the Osage's money and, to a large extent, their lives, with the full complicity of the United States government.  Even after a series of suspicious murders that always passed Osage wealth to a well-connected white person, they struggled to get anyone to care.  The book is also interesting because it shows the methods of the newly-formed FBI when someone finally does try to help.

The Odyssey: Clearly an amazing achievement, but it's just so long and so weird.

Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert Heinlein (recommended by Maria Jhai, Laura Thompson, and Tanner Scott):  You can't really look at a list of significant science fiction without seeing an entry for this book.  It created a word that's now in the Oxford dictionary.  To be honest, I didn't really care for it.  I feel like it's aged very poorly over the 60 years since its publication.  The social commentary was too exaggerated, it tried too hard to be funny with rare success, and it mixed ideas that could be seen as progressive today with a weirdly judgy and condescending attitude towards women and LGBT folks.  This line from a female character, but clearly written by a man, was probably my biggest issue: “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault.” I also hated Jubal Harshaw.  He's the worst combination of Gary Stu and author mouth piece that I can recall reading in published fiction.  I'm still glad I read it, because it's so significant to the genre.

Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team - George Jonas (recommended by Mike John): I found this book fascinating.  It's about Israel's efforts to take out the leaders of major terrorist organizations in the wake of the Munich massacre.  It would be a good read even if it was fiction (though I would criticize the pacing in that case).  I'm just honestly not sure how accurate it is.  It seems generally plausible to me, but this isn't the kind of story where anyone can independently verify the events that the author described.  It was an interesting look into Israeli culture, and I'm glad I read it.  I was annoyed that this wasn't available in a digital format.

All Quiet on the Western Front:  With all of the excellent literature making clear just how terrible war it, you'd really hope that we wouldn't be so eager to glorify and engage in it.

Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson (recommended by Rebekah Jenkins): Like The Sun Does Shine, an excellent book about just how horribly the criminal justice system screws over people of color.  If you honestly believe that the justice system isn't motivated by actual racism or that cops and DAs don't lie, please read one of these books.

Great Expectations - Charles Dickens: A fine book, but I like South Park's adaptation better.  I didn't care for the ending at all.  Apparently Dickens' original ending was different and he was pushed to change it.

Dragon's Egg - Robert Forward (recommended by Laura Thompson): I enjoyed this book, but I think more as an exploration of a thought experiment than the elements that I would traditionally like in a novel (characters, plot, dialogue, etc.)  The Cheela are aliens the size of sesame seeds living on a neutron star.  When humans first encounter them while studying the star they are pre-agriculture but live, think, and develop a million times faster than humans.

The Color Purple - Alice Walker: I've never been very fond of epistolary novels, but this is quite good.  Tragic and terribly sad, but good.

The Mole People - Jennifer Toth (recommended by Jenne Rempel):  This was a really interesting look at a segment of society that I didn't even know existed.  While it feels padded at times, I generally found it enjoyable and an important lens on poverty and police interaction with communities.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway: Having read these and The Sun Also Rises, I think I can definitively say that I do not care for Ernest Hemingway.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway: Having read these and The Sun Also Rises, I think I can definitively say that I do not care for Ernest Hemingway.

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline (recommended by Walter Streigle):  I wouldn't call this ground breaking science fiction by any means, but definitely a fun, quick read.  Frankly I'm surprised it got made into a movie, since it reads like an IP lawyer's worst nightmare.

Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck: I don't feel like this has aged terribly well, but it's still worth reading.  Particularly because this is one of the books that shows something can be considered a classic without rambling for several hundred pages.

The Return of George Washington - Edward Larson (recommended by Patrick Flanigan):  This is well written and I'm glad I read it, but it's not going on my list of favorites.  The book, probably to distinguish itself, focuses on Washington during the Constitutional Convention and efforts to ratify the document they created, where most books leave him in the background, not without reason.  While Washington chaired the convention, he didn't speak all that much.  During the ratification debates he didn't take much of a public stand, since people viewed him as the presumptive president, and that would make it unseemly to campaign to create the government he would lead.  This book generally conveys what we know about this time in an interesting and clear way, but it seems to occasionally belabor somewhat minor points in a way that feels like padding.

The Martian - Andy Weir (recommended by Daniel Ambar): I really enjoyed this book and had a hard time putting it down.  In retrospect, this is surprising to me.  The author spends a lot of time going into mind-numbing detail about the various calculations the character is making, but it was injected with humor and never went quite long enough to make me frustrated.  It's amazing to me how this guy got published: he put the book up for free on his website and people asked him to make it available on Kindle so it would be easier to read.  He put it on Amazon at the minimum price and it racked up enough sales to land him a movie and a book deal.  I'm looking forward to watching the film (it's on the long, long list I'm working through), and I won't be surprised if it's better than the book, which isn't something I've ever really thought.

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte: I found this very difficult to get through.  While the imagery can be very beautiful, I found it impossible to follow.  I think this is another one of those classics which suffers from the way I'm just trying to get through my list.  I might come to love this book on my third or fourth read, when everything is clearer, but I'm not really willing to invest that kind of time into a book that I didn't enjoy in the first place.

The Radium Girls - Kate Moore (recommended by Amy Lynn Dzura): I had heard about this generally from Stuff You Missed in History Class, but this is still a very good read.  After radium was discovered, it was an instant sensation even though it seems like we really only had evidence that it could glow in the dark and destroy tissue through radiation.  Companies sprung up from nowhere to capitalize on its glow in the dark nature to make luminous watch dials.  The specifically instructed the women in their factories to stick the tips of their brushes  in their mouths, the same brushes they were using to paint radium on the dials.  They continued to do this despite knowing the health hazards.  The women fought for compensation at a time when it was very unpopular for them to do so.  They were instrumental in OSHA being created and it was probably only because they fought so hard to be heard that rigorous safety protocols were put in place for the Manhattan Project.  I do recommend this book, but I think it falls into the category of historical fiction with which I'm struggling to decide if I have an issue.  

It seems to be a growing trend to write these books more and more like novels, because they sell better.  I will catch passages in books like this one where the author will have sentences like: "'Death' she must have thought to herself grimly."  The author has no support for this.  She writes it because it makes for a more compelling read.  I especially noticed this in Erik Larson's book, Devil in the White City, which I love.  I go back and forth on whether this is inappropriate in a book claiming to be non-fiction or just a fun garnish to make the facts we know to be true more compelling.

Howards End - E. M. Forster:  This is well written, but I just couldn't bring myself to care what happened.

Forever War - Joe Haldeman (recommended by Laura Thompson and Daniel Ambar): This is another sci-fi story that mostly interested me because of the concepts it explored.  The main one being that, due to relativity, a soldier could survive centuries of war while aging very little and come to feel like an alien in in his own society.  I liked it.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman - Laurence Sterne:  Absolutely terrible.  This is joining Don Quixote and Infinite Jest as the most painful reads on my list of classic books.  You see, the joke is that the narrator is a bad story teller and can never get to his point.  It's not a funny joke.  It's overly generous to even call it a joke.

The Snow Leopard - Peter Matthiessen (recommended by Cassidy Bonham Schenley): This was an interesting and important book, but I can't say I really enjoyed it.  The writing came across to me as unnecessarily stilted, and it made for a difficult read.

I, Claudius - Robert Graves: Much like Howards End, this is very well written, but it never seemed to really draw me into the story.  I did find this book more interesting.

Main Street - Sinclair Lewis: I didn't enjoy this.  It's a satire of something that I've never experienced, which gave me flashbacks to Don Quixote, though it's not nearly that bad.

Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America's First National Park - Alston Chase (recommended by Sara Taylor): I was completely unaware of this.  Apparently Yellowstone's natural ecosystem has been almost systematically destroyed by the National Park Service (NPS) and their predecessor.  I had always assumed that NPS was primarily a conservation agency that used science-based approaches to protect our national parks.  Not only is that not happening, they have often been actively antagonistic towards science.  This actually seems to be a parallel with our approach to cops.  Instead of having scientific experts running the program with a small staff of security personnel, the agency was dominated by law enforcement officers hostile towards professionals.  The book shows a tradition of deceit and ill-conceived programs throughout the park's history.  The book was published in 1987, so I don't know what's been going on since then.  It also discusses the difficulties the NPS faced because it was given two competing (possibly mutually exclusive) objectives: to preserve the park's and to make them available for the enjoyment of the public.  I'd recommend the book, but I will definitely note that the author prioritizes thoroughness over keeping the reader interested.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman - John Fowles:  This is a weird, weird book.  The narrator sort of takes on a life of its own, and then provides three different possible endings to the story.  Like a choose your own adventure, expect that nobody actually makes a choice.

Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy:  I think the only positive thing I can say about this book is that it's not as bad as Ulysses.  Like James Joyce, McCarthy eschews the use of most punctuation, including quotation marks.  I don't view this as a valid, let alone good, stylistic choice.  I see no upside.  It makes it harder to read.  Instead of being drawn into the story I was struggling to parse whether something was actually spoken aloud.  I might try to do the other McCarthy book on my list, The Road, as an audiobook.  I normally wouldn't do that, but it might actually make it tolerable.  

Educated - Tara Westover (recommended by Cassidy Bonham Schenley):  I really liked this book.  It's a memoir by a women who was raised by in a Mormon survivalist family under extremely abusive conditions.  She was able to get into BYU without a day of formal education and ended up getting a Ph.D. from Cambridge.  It's a really inspirational look at the tragic consequences of diagnosed mental disorders.

Under the Volcano - Malcolm Lowry: Yet another book that seems to intentionally written to obfuscate, rather than tell, the story.  There were parts in this that I found interesting, but I feel like you'd need to slowly read this book several times to actually grasp what's going on, and I just can't make that investment.

Death Comes for the Archbishop - Willa Cather: I couldn't really get into this book.

On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle - Hampton Sides: This was a really good book about amazing feats by the U.S. military in Korea that, if the author is to be believed, were necessitated solely by MacArthur's hubris and delusion.  All I really knew about MacArthur prior to this was that he was a big time general during WWII.  This book made him seem like the worst.

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte:  A nice, light read.  I feel like it would be entirely unremarkable if published today, but I believe it was groundbreaking when published.  I'm no child psychologist, but the protagonist seemed to say and think things completely out of proportion to her development.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce: More intelligible than Ulysses, but that's saying very, very little.

Under the Volcano - Malcolm Lowry: Yet another book that seems to intentionally written to obfuscate, rather than tell, the story.  There were parts in this that I found interesting, but I feel like you'd need to slowly read this book several times to actually grasp what's going on, and I just can't make that investment.

Death Comes for the Archbishop - Willa Cather: I couldn't really get into this book.

On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle - Hampton Sides (recommended by Jill Talley): This was a really good book about amazing feats by the U.S. military in Korea that, if the author is to be believed, were necessitated solely by MacArthur's hubris and delusion.  All I really knew about MacArthur prior to this was that he was a big time general during WWII.  This book made him seem like the worst.

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte:  A nice, light read.  I feel like it would be entirely unremarkable if published today, but I believe it was groundbreaking when published.  I'm no child psychologist, but the protagonist seemed to say and think things completely out of proportion to her development.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce: More intelligible than Ulysses, but that's saying very, very little.

T. Rex and the Crater of Doom - Walter Alvarez (recommended by Adam Bates):  A really interesting look at what we know about pre-history and how by the guy who realized an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.  Not much more to say.

Naked Lunch - William Burroughs: This is well written and I was very interested while I was reading, but I felt let down at the end.  It seems kind of lazy to me to make your book forty something vignettes that can be read in any order.  You can write only the scenes you find interesting with no obligation to have a coherent narrative, good pacing, or a satisfying end.  This makes the whole less than the sum of the parts.  Even with that being the case, it is a compelling and enduring look at addiction and withdrawal.

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Another book that seems like it would benefit from multiple read throughs.  It is told in a flowing and not terribly linear manner reminiscent of an oral history.  It often led me to be confused as to what was happening and when.  Definitely interesting, but difficult to process.

Guns, Germs, and Steel - Jared Diamond (recommended by Byron Hotchkiss):  A generally interesting (but occasionally tedious) exploration of why different human civilizations advanced at dramatically different rates.  This was well timed.  I only recently learned just how much chance played a role in this process.  It mainly came to my attention when I found out just how much more advanced the Middle East was than western Europe.  Then the movable type printing press allowed Europe to develop at unprecedented rate.  The technology was incompatible with the predominant languages in other major civilizations, so they were left behind.  This book is more about how environmental factors impacted development.

Neuromancer - William Gibson: Presumably this was groundbreaking when it came out for it to be on my list.  It's a solid book.  Weirdly I had trouble putting it down but feel no real desire to read the other books in the trilogy.  I imagine someone will tell me that passing them up is a mistake.  It does seem unnecessarily difficult to read.  Part of that is the typical sci-fi overuse of made up words, but it's also the fact that every character seems to have four to five names, which is my major gripe with Russian literature and I didn't care for here.  It isn't keeping it fresh to cycle through terms every time you refer to a character, it's disorienting with no upside.  Apparently a film adaptation has been in the works for well over a decade.

The Expanse - James S. A. Corey (recommended by Gus Ryer):  I've only read the first two books so far, but I'm really liking it.  I'll give a full review when I've finished the whole series, which probably won't happen until next year.

Absalom, Absalom! - William Faulkner:  There's no denying that Faulkner was a brilliant author but I do wish that he could tell a story in a straightforward manner just once.  Like his other books I've read, Absalom, Absalom seems written to intentionally confuse and stymie the reader.  I imagine literary critics would say that this somehow makes the book more powerful.  Maybe they're right, but I've read great books that told stories beautifully without requiring several read throughs to understand.  I definitely think this book could have done without a run on sentence over twelve hundred words long.

Truman - David McCullough (recommended by Lauren Sharkey Byam): Harry Truman never stood out to me as a particularly important president, but maybe that was my mistake.  He took over during the final stages of the Second World War and, if someone else had been in charge, there very well may have been a third.  He was the first president to have nuclear weapons at his disposal.  This is another book that really makes General MacArthur look like he was absolutely out of his mind toward the end of his career.  Although it seems like Truman tolerated him for longer than he should have, a weaker president could have been railroaded by MacArthur into open war with China.  Truman wasn't perfect by any means, but he seems to have generally been a decent man and to have handled difficulties as well as could be expected.
Like the other books I've read by David McCullough, I enjoyed this and would recommend it.  That being said, it's really long - over a thousand pages.  I wouldn't have minded that if all of the content seemed necessary or interesting, but that just wasn't the case.  At times it felt like I was forced to read the Wikipedia article of everyone that was mentioned.  Then there were just lists of facts at various points.  Still a good book overall, I just wish they'd edited it down a bit more.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Ken Kesey: This is considered a classic for a good reason.  It's an excellent book.  Even so, I might like the movie better.  It brought this story to life in a way that the book didn't for me.

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert:  Probably groundbreaking at the time, I found this relatively boring.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President - Candice Millard (recommended by Amy Steinfeld) A really excellent book about the assassination of James Garfield.  It's a shame that Garfield's time as president was cut short, as he seemed to have been a really good man who never even wanted the position.  The book's subject matter seems oddly appropriate now.  Garfield could have easily survived being shot.  The bullet didn't kill him.  He was killed by American arrogance and refusal to trust the scientific method.  By the time Garfield was shot, Europe had widely accepted the germ theory of disease and had seen astounding drops in the number of people killed by well intentioned medical care.  American doctors, by and large, refused to listen.  They even took pride in the filth that they got covered in as a mark of their profession and experience.  So as James Garfield lay wounded on the filthy ground of a train station, and for weeks thereafter, doctors repeatedly inserted unwashed fingers and probes into his wound and ultimately caused him to die of septicemia.   Even more fascinating to me is that, during that same time, Alexander Graham Bell first conceived of the metal detector and made a working version in order to help locate the bullet.  The book is as much about medicine, Bell, and Garfield's assassin as the president himself.  A fairly easy read and highly recommended.

Rabbit Run - John Updike: The style of the writing is fine, but the story reminded me a lot of Catcher in the Rye.  That's not a good thing.  This protagonist is also a malcontent whiner, except he's old enough that he should be more responsible.  The misogyny has not aged well.  While it may have been important at one point, I don't think this deserves a place on lists of great books anymore.
Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman: I was disappointed by this, but only because I had extremely high expectations of Gaiman after the American Gods audiobook.  This was a fine urban fantasy story, which drags at points, but nowhere near as good as American Gods.

A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole:  Yet another novel about an unproductive protagonist who spends the entire story whining about everything.  The story is redundant and uninteresting.  A review in the New Yorker said this book is "essentially a long, R-rated cartoon in prose" and that describes it far better than I ever could.   

The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World's Most Astonishing Number - Mario Livio (recommended by Sara Taylor): I thought I'd enjoy this book, but I can't say that was the case.  While I learned a good deal about the discovery and use of the golden ratio, I can't call that material riveting.  I believe I was already familiar with most of the examples the author provides of where the golden ratio can be found in nature.  A good chunk of the book was debunking claims that the golden ratio was used in various famous buildings.  I don't think this is a bad book, but I think you either need to know less about the subject matter or care more about the history and development of mathematical theorems and properties than I do.

Ragtime - E. L. Doctorow: I didn't care for this at all.  The style and subject matter were both a slog for me.

The Sheltering Sky - Paul Bowles:  Wikipedia describes this as a "novel of alienation and existential despair".  It was better than I was expecting from that description, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it good.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail - Bill Bryson (recommended by Cassidy Bonham Schenley):  A really excellent book that I would highly recommend.  There's nothing really profound, but it's a fun interesting read that is 50% hilarious travel journal, 25% history of the Appalachian Trail, and 25% scathing indictment of the agencies that are supposed to be responsible for guarding America's precious natural resources.  I did not care for the movie.

The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton:  This is a fairly easy read, which I like.  But it's also pretty boring.  I just can't bring myself to care about 19th Century upper class mating rituals.

Blindness - Jose Saramago: This is about people in a region suddenly going blind for no clear reason and society crumbling as a result.  I generally enjoyed this book, even though it has three separate elements that have made me hate other books: (1) there are no quotation marks, or much punctuation at all aside from periods and commas, (2) there are no proper names, and (3) it's not divided well - there are no chapters at all and the sentences and paragraphs seem to go on and on.  I want to be clear, I enjoyed the story in spite of these choices, not because of them.  I can sort of get on board with not using names as a thematic choice that makes sense in this very limited context, but the other two remain an anathema to me.  I would recommend this with one additional caveat.  As one might expect, society disintegrating can lead to a lot of disturbing situations, from bodily waste to rape.

Last updated: August 15, 2021

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