Saturday, September 19, 2009

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

I read this book for a macroeconomics class. Although it is an interesting book, as far as I can tell, it has nearly nothing to do with macroeconomics. The only reason I can see for requiring us to read this is to disabuse us of any notion we have of racial superiority before we start looking at economically less-developed countries.

Diamond's contention is that Eurasian society was more advanced, and so dominated the American, African, and Australian societies it met, because of advantages of Eurasia's positioning, flora, and fauna, instead of because of something superior in Eurasians themselves. In fact, one of Diamond's stranger side-tracks is when he argues that modern New Guineans are on average smarter than modern Americans. Despite our supposed stupidity, we still hand their asses to them in a GDP contest, and he says it's entirely a result of having heavy grains and large mammals to domesticate.

Diamond does a good job presenting his case. And then, because this is modern America, he does a good job restating his case for 400+ pages (sort of like The World is Flat, only not so self-congratulatory) and turning his case into a cottage industry. He also includes about 40 pictures of people from around the world with very little connection to the text. It was like he found out his publisher would let him have up to 40 pictures and he used the first 40 he could find. While the pictures show the wide range of human faces found on Earth, the text does nothing to set up the pictures or explain their connection to his theories.

My favorite thing about the book, though, was probably the following quote: "It may come as a surprise to learn that plant seeds can resist digestion by your gut and nonetheless germinate out of your feces. But any adventurous readers who are not too squeamish can make the test and prove it for themselves" (116). In preparation for accepting this challenge, I kept the seed of a plum and am waiting until I have some free time so I can root through my poop looking for a seed. Plus, I need to find out if a plum stone is going to get stuck in my intestines. I don't really want to have to explain this to a doctor.

Rating: 5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Big Money, by P.G. Wodehouse

I was pleasantly surprised to find the closest branch library of the county next to us (which could end up being our county, if things go the way I'd like) has a huge selection of books from the Collector's Wodehouse edition. The first of the group I selected was Big Money.

The cash-strapped Lord Biskerton (known to friends as The Biscuit) and an equally-poor friend of his from school are trying to figure out how to get some money. The friend, Berry Conway, works for an American financier whose niece, Ann Moon, is coming to visit. Berry recommends The Biscuit's aunt to be the girl's chaperone, an arrangement which leads to Ann's engagement to The Biscuit. However, Ann soon meets Berry, who wows her with the tale of being a secret service agent, and The Biscuit flees London to avoid his creditors, meeting an American girl who came over on the boat with Ann. While both The Biscuit and Ann want out of their engagement, Berry is trying to sell a copper mine in Arizona he inherited, believing it worthless. His boss owns the mine next door and knows Berry's mine is extremely valuable, so he tries to buy the mine cheap through a proxy.

Of course everything turns up all right in the end. There are some hilarious scenes in this book, like when The Biscuit decides to avoid his creditors by wearing a false beard, or when his father visits the suburbs, or when Berry crashes a dance to see Ann again. All in all, the book accomplished what I wanted: it made me laugh.

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Danger at the Zoo, by Kathleen Ernst

My daughter loves Nancy Drew mysteries, except for the whole suspense part. When listening to them read aloud she will plug her ears if things get too scary (and "too scary" includes any character experiencing the disappointment of another character), and when reading them to herself, she'll just skip ahead. When we were leaving Kansas, a friend of our gave my daughter three American Girl mystery books featuring Kit Kittredge. My daughter took a look at the first one, entitled Danger at the Zoo, and declared they were too scary, reasoning, "It has the word 'danger' in the title."

To help ease her past this, I decided to read one of them with her. This was the first time we'd read a book together. Previously when "we" were reading a book, I was reading aloud and she was doing eight other things while she was supposedly listening, and then she would infuriate me by being able to tell me exactly what was going on. (This from the man who reads books while singing sacrament hymns. I guess getting bored and entertaining ourselves runs in the family.) For this book, however, we took turns reading a page at a time.

I was expecting to dislike this book because it is tied to a product line. In my experience, these types of books are nothing more than 70-page long advertisements, sort of like most Saturday-morning cartoons; product placement comes first and story comes second (or, as Austin Powers would say, sometimes not at all!). I was pleasantly surprised that this book didn't read that way at all. The book was about a girl, and aside from the postcard stuck in the back that advertised the American Girl catalog (which postcard was quickly discarded, since I don't need to spend $80 on a doll that's lost in the Uncanny Valley), there was no shilling associated with this book.

What's more, the story was actually pretty good. It was the right amount of mystery for the target age group (ages nine and above); no one was going to die, but instead Kit was investigating a possible band of "unscrupulous black-market monkey thieves." (I told our kids, "If I were in a band, I'd call us The Unscrupulous Black-Market Monkey Thieves." They said, "What would your song be called?" I said, "Kit Kittredge." They said, "How would it go?" I sang, "Kit Kittredge! Yea!")

Yet another nice thing about this book is the fact that it's set in the Depression, and instead of sitting around being bitter about what they don't have, the Kittredges are focused on trying to help other people who have even less. How did a modern American toy manufacturer finance a book like this? Is someone asleep at the wheel over at American Girl?

Anyway, by the middle of the book my daughter was excited when it was time to read together. She dealt with her fear by skipping ahead and reading the last chapter, so she'd know that everything turned out okay. She might even read the other two books on her own (although she says one of them has a cover that's too scary).

One of the characters is a young hobo Kit's family knows named Will. I was very glad I paid strict attention during the hobo chapters (yes, more than one) of The Areas of My Expertise, as it was good preparation for all the hobo-ocity that takes place in this book.

I'm glad we read this book together, and I would read more Kit Kittredge books with my daughter.

Rating: 6.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Jackie Robinson, by Arnold Rampersad

The last of the baseball books I read for my senior research paper turned out to be the best. While I completed the paper in May, I kept many of the books to read. When it came time for us to leave Kansas, I was about a third of the way through this book. The last time I moved while reading a library book, The States Rights Debate by Alpheus Thomas Mason, I just took it with me, and when my mother came to visit three months later I gave it to her to return. (I wonder how large my fine is for that one.) Since I wasn't expecting any of our Kansas family members to come visit soon, I knew I couldn't do that with this one.

Once we got here, though, I checked the book out of the local library and picked up right where I left off. I'm glad I did, because this book was very enjoyable. My wife said to me, "That looks like it would be a hard book because it's huge and non-fiction." (She's not a fan of non-fiction, reading them only when she gets suckered into it by novelized memoirs.) The truth is, though, that it wasn't hard to read at all.

I'd always thought of Jackie Robinson a lot like Neil Armstrong: he was the first man on the moon, but he was just an astronaut, not a champion of moon-people rights. This book taught me how wrong I was to think of Robinson like that. He was very much concerned with civil rights, not just with playing baseball. He agreed to integrate baseball, and suffer with the difficulties that would bring, because he wanted to advance the civil rights fight and his skills were such that he could best do that through baseball.

I've previously read a concise biography of Martin Luther King, written by Martin Marty (seriously), so I knew a little about the split in the civil rights movement towards the late sixties, and the way King was being marginalized at the time of his death. Robinson experienced much of the same, as militant groups like Nation of Islam belittled him and pressed him aside. This book made me more interested in reading a biography of Malcolm X, but I'm not sure I'd get the complete story if I read his autobiography he wrote with Alex Haley.

I also was interested to learn about Robinson's political views. He supported Nixon in 1960 but by 1968 he thought Nixon's election was a threat to American blacks. Robinson was consistent on the issues, but as the parties and politicians shifted around him, he went from Republican to Democrat and back a few times.

Having grown up in Los Angeles, I'm a bit of a Dodgers fan, and I always loved to remind Giants fans that, when faced with a trade to the Giants, Robinson had preferred to retire. The truth, though, is that Robinson had decided to retire from baseball no matter if he was traded or not, and only didn't tell the Dodgers about it before the trade because he had a lucrative deal with a magazine for exclusive rights to the news of his retirement. Today when a ballplayer retires he has to worry about whether to burn his pile of money on the lawn of his Florida mansion or his Arizona mansion, but when Robinson retired, he spent the next 15 years worrying about income.

Rampersad goes a little light on the baseball, treating it like just a job that his subject happened to have, which I actually didn't mind too much. Having already read Brooklyn's Dodgers and The Dodgers Move West this summer, I already knew about a lot of the teammates and important Dodgers events that happened during Robinson's tenure, like the 1950 collapse to Philadelphia, the 1951 collapse to the Giants, winning the 1955 World Series, and losing the 1956 series in seven games. A reader not as familiar with the 1950s Dodgers might need to make occasional reference to a baseball almanac or Wikipedia.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.