Friday, October 30, 2009

Vanishing Vapour, by Brandon T. Minster

I don't know how I feel about this book. Originally I thought it was a good story that suffered from the ability (or lack thereof) of the storyteller. Then I started to think, "But actually, I'm not sure the story is so good." But by the time I got to the last third, I wanted to see what happened next, so I guess the story can't be all that bad.

The main character is a middle-aged office worker who kills himself. (I didn't include a "spoiler alert" warning because that's not a surprise; he (as the narrator) tells you himself in the first sentence.) The book deals with what he thought he'd find in the afterlife, how that differs from what he actually finds, and what that means for him.

Again, I don't know how to rate the book. Sometimes I think, "This is crap," and other times I think, "I've read much worse." Sometimes I think, "The lack of stage direction during the dialog shows spartan economy," and other times I think, "It's because he left out the little details that a better writer would have remembered." But I find the story compelling, the type that makes me think about it long after I've finished reading.

Rating: 5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman

I know two people who read this book, and they both said it was pretty interesting, so two weekends ago, when I was supposed to be studying at the local library, I checked this book out instead.

I've hated books more than this, but none were as infuriating to read. Hardly a page goes by that Weisman doesn't take the opportunity to remind us that humans are unstoppable killing machines. In one spot he mentions the relatively scant species we've driven to extinction, but in another he calls our heritage the worst episode of extinction since the Permian. It might be the case that both are true, except it's not. The extinction of megafauna when humans first reached the Americas was much worse. However, it's not as cool to castigate neolithic ancestors as it is to wag the beseeching finger at those fellow modern men who aren't as enlightened as yourself.

I wanted to read about the science of entropy, basically, and how it would play out in modern society. We get very little of that. Instead we get a healthy dose of industrial criticism, or the idea that foolish man has doomed himself and the rest of nature with us.

One thing that seemed strange to me: the record of earth's history shows just how varied climate and life have been, yet every dire prediction for the future is couched in the argument that global warming is a threat to the world. The process by which carbon would once again be locked beneath the earth's surface is presented here. Times when climate has changed more dramatically are presented here. Natural extinctions of nearly all life are presented here. So nothing we can do can really destroy all life. Even nuclear war would decimate it and alter it, but it wouldn't annihilate it. The second thing that seemed strange to me: if man is just another animal, why is his animal behavior sound roundly criticized? Elephants knock over trees just to scratch themselves, with no thought to the animals living in the trees or the trees themselves. They're just doing what comes naturally to elephants. Why do they get a free pass when man, just doing what comes naturally to man, gets hauled to the woodshed? I guess one would say it's because we should "know better," but why should we expect that of an animal?

Also, the science seems to be very poorly presented in some places. Sometimes we're told that thousands of years of living with man wasn't enough time for the American megafauna to evolve survival mechanisms, while elsewhere we're told that African animals have now adapted to 20th-century human technology. How much time does it take to adapt to a man with a spear? More than it takes to adapt to a man with a truck, evidently.

And remember when acknowledgements were limited to the dedication of the book? An author got to thank one person per book, and often it was only done by including the person's name. Now even fiction books have a acknowledgements page, and this has even grown to defining the page as "front and back." Well, Weisman has 11 pages of acknowledgements, so large a number that the demands of good journalism style require me to use numerals instead of spelling it out. Nearly all of the pages could have been summed up by one sentence: "I want to thank everyone who helped with the book." I mean, I read the whole book; I know who you interviewed and where. You don't have to recount it all for me at the end.

What I hate more than anything, though, is when Evolution (with a capital E) is presented as a sentient entity, as Weisman does here:

Back in China, this formerly cold-weather species coated its seeds with harvestable quantities of wax to guard against winter. Once it was brought to the balmy American South as an agricultural crop, it noticed there was no need to do that. In a textbook display of sudden evolutionary adaptation, it stopped making weatherproof wax and put its energy into producing more seeds.(140-1)
Seriously. The Chinese tallow tree "noticed" something, then "stopped" doing one thing so as to "put its energy" into doing something else. A legitimate scientist would have explained it more like this: "The American environment did not select against the genetically-mutated trees that failed to produce wax on their seeds. These trees then survived to pass along their mutation. Because these trees put less effort into seed coating, they thrived in other areas, such as seed production. Possibly even the wax coatings were a detriment in America, so the un-mutated trees were selected against. Eventually, only mutant trees remained." There's some good science behind that explanation. Evolutionists lose their effort to win over creationists when they assign rational decision-making processes to trees.

Finally, the book ends with this pearl of wisdom:

The intelligent solution would require the courage and the wisdom to put our knowledge to the test. It would be poignant and distressing in ways, but not fatal. It would henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one.(272)
Weisman enjoys the intellectual's freedom to recommend policy without commenting on its implementation, so I'll ask the question he avoids: does he advocate forced abortion, or just forced sterilization? He doesn't even recognize that he must choose between one of these two options because in his mind, once everyone is sufficiently enlightened, they will all do this voluntarily. Notice how he thinks it requires "courage" and "wisdom," but somehow doesn't require "policing" and "oppression." Of course not.

Weisman wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Whence comes this "intelligent solution," if not from the intellectual explosion that has accompanied our increased numbers? If someone like Newton is a one-in-a-billion, our ancestors had to wait millennia for their first; we now have six alive right now. Weisman argues that following his draconian policy (which he kindly assures us would be "fairly applied," because he somehow knows the inner thoughts of elected officials yet determined) would thin our ranks to under one billion within 150 years. He's basically saying, "Thanks for the modern technology; now everyone else die so we can enjoy it," and advocating for the freezing of technological progress for the remainder of time.

I hold that technology will provide the solution to the problems of today. If no one currently alive knows how to clean up spilled nuclear radiation, we need to make more people to figure it out. Man has always been one step ahead of his cleaning strategy. We'll solve the pollution problems of today and have new problems to solve in the future. It comes from the basic laws of economics, that until there is a problem you don't divert resources to its solving, and that decisions are based on opportunity costs. The first person to decide to pour his engine oil down the storm drain didn't create a crisis by himself. The conservation movement has made giant strides in winning the public consciousness. We now take the welfare of other animals into consideration when making many of our decisions. The solution to man's problems isn't fewer of us; it very well may be more.

Rating: 0 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome

If James Brown is the Godfather of Soul, this book is the James Brown of humor writing. Amazingly, it was originally written as an earnest travelogue of a boat trip up the Thames, and looking for it, you can see the places where Jerome (we're on a first name basis--or are we?) gives helpful tips about which towns to see and which to avoid. But it success has always been a result of the comic scenes and the humorous writing style.

As I read this book, I was struck with how, much like history, comedy has an arrow. Old comedy usually doesn't work well, because what still works has been appropriated by everyone and is now commonplace. The topics identified by Wikipedia as "hack" comedy (I've had some very boring jobs in my life, and as a result I have probably read 75-80% of Wikipedia) were once fresh and new. The first guy to end a joke about a promiscuous woman by saying, "And I said to her, 'Mom,...'" was probably slaying them in the aisles. Do it now, though, and they tell you to go back to the Poconos. (Do any serious comics still play the Poconos, or is it too much of an embarrassment now?) Well, the same holds true for comic writing. This book is over 120 years old now, so all the bits that work have been stolen, and now that I read this book, the funny jokes aren't so funny because I've heard them all before. But it helps to remember that, in this book, they were original. There's no way to go back in time and read this book when it was first published, but I can appreciate that, as funny as it was for me, it would have been much funny back then.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell

Imagine what A Tale of Two Cities would be like if it had been written by Debbie Downer. That's sort of what this book is like. The main character teeters on the edge of existence in Paris as a dishwasher, then in England as a tramp. The amount of work involved in being out of work is startling. The narrator makes the point that tramping is only a belittled profession because it doesn't pay well. "If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately" (174). Or is it Orwell making the point? It's hard to tell how much of this book is fiction and how much non-fiction. The back of the book tells booksellers to stock it in the fiction section, but some summations of Orwell's work includes this book as a work of non-fiction. Orwell did spend some time as a dishwasher, but was that the basis for the story, or research for the essay?

Given that confusion, the narrator's tendency to blame Jews for many things makes the modern reader uneasy. Is this a narrator, or the author? Part of the unease comes from subsequent history. It's not Orwell's fault that the Holocaust happened. Poor white people are always the most racist because they are always the most threatened by advancing minorities. A borderline-subsistence dishwasher and tramp would easily be anti-semitic, but the blurring between author and narrator leaves the reader uncomfortable with all the hatred of Jewish pawn brokers and landlords.

One chapter is all about tramp slang and tramp swearing. However, the publisher bowlderized the entire section, leaving paragraphs such as this:

A word becomes an oath because it means a certain thing, and, because it has become an oath, it ceases to mean that thing. For example, -------. The Londoners do not now use, or very seldom use, this word in its original meaning; it is on their lips from morning till night, but it is a mere expletive and means nothing. Similarly with -------, which is rapidly losing its original sense. One can think of similar instances in French, for example, ------, which is now a quite meaningless expletive. The word -----, also, is still used occasionally in Paris, but the people who use it, or most of them, have no idea of what it once meant. (177)

One word that made it past the sensors, is when the narrator tells us that two tramps fought because of "one saying to the other, 'Bull shit,' which was taken for Bolshevik--a deadly insult" (192). This fits with the way the English tramps are paradoxically anti-socialist. In one bunkhouse for tramps the narrator works an afternoon in the kitchen of the neighboring poor house, where he throws away five pailfuls of leftover food. He mentions to another tramp that the food could have been given to the bunkhouse, but "I saw that I had awakened the pew-renter who sleeps in every English workman. Though he had been famished along with the others, he at once saw reasons why the food should have been thrown away rather than given to the tramps" (198). The homeless French were affected with a lazy socialism that came more from the expectation of their station in life than from conviction, but the British tramps were rabid loyalists.

Ultimately, I liked this book. Maybe I liked it because it's about being poor, and I'm becoming poorer and poorer.

And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs--and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety. (20-1)

For a while I thought I might give it my first 7-monkey rating. I'm not sure about that, though. It's good, but it wasn't the Nadia Comăneci of books. But it was better than the two books I've rated at 6.5 monkeys, so I guess my rating should reflect that. After all, there is only one Nadia Comăneci of books, and it's Moby-Dick.

Rating: 7 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Candyfreak, by Steve Almond

True story: one evening I was downstairs and I had to poop. I don't like to poop without having something to do; it seems like such a waste of time. All the books I was reading were upstairs, so I went to the bookshelf and started looking for something to read. Our books are alphabetized by the authors' last names, so the first book I came across that I hadn't already read, that wasn't a giant work of political science or history, was Candyfreak, and that's how I came to read this book.

This is one of my wife's favorite books. In fact, she just asked me, "Are you going to give it a good review because I love it so much?" I might be tempted to do that, if this were her book review blog. However, she writes book reviews for a different website, and she can post all her pro-Candyfreak opinions there. Here I will post my Candyfreak opinions, which are less glowing.

Firstly, there was way too much pretentious food writing. I understand that Almond can't describe every candy bar he eats as, "Crunchy, sweet, really sugary," but he also doesn't need to write things like, "The interplay of tastes and textures was remarkable: the teeth broke through the milky chocolate shell, sailed through the mild caramel, only to encounter the smoky crunch of the almonds, and finally, the rich tumescence of the dark chocolate" (101). Please. What's most remarkable about this overblown navel-gazing is the fact that, not four pages later, Almond writes of fine chocolate critics, "This movement has, alas, spawned its own insufferable rhetoric.... (Those familiar with other luxury foods--wine and coffee, for instance--are no doubt familiar with this process: the curdling of expertise into hauteur.) The new chocolate specialty products are equally pretentious." (105-6). He could have just as easily included, "And so is the burgeoning field of candy literature." But he didn't. Because Shakespeare gotta get paid, son.

The second most annoying thing is Almond's need to tell me that George W. Bush is a horrible president. Why, because of something involving candy? No, just because. In case you wanted to know how Almond felt about the 2002 midterm elections, he tells you on pages 203-4. He then veers from respectability into the realm of the complete hack by claiming Bush stole the election of 2000, which is such a contemptible, outright damnable lie that I'm surprised I didn't just stop reading right there. For the record: requiring a state to have ONE election standard for the entire state is not illegal. In fact, 7 of 9 supreme court justices found it a necessary requirement of our Constitution. Perhaps Gore won Florida, but since ballots were treated differently and counted differently (at Gore's team's bequest), no one will ever know. Saying Bush stole the election, and saying the Supreme Court decision was 5 to 4 are sure signs of liberal worthlessness. Almond covers himself with this stench, all while ostensibly writing a book about candy.

Since my wife read this book several years ago, I've already eaten many of the rarer candies featured here. We saw Palmer's in Sioux City when we visited friends there. I didn't particularly like the Twin Bing, but I bet I'd get used to it if I lived there. Living in Kansas with a compliant local grocery store, I ate my fair share of Valomilks. I like them a lot, but I'm disappointed when I open a pack to find they've leaked. I like eating Idaho Spuds when we visit Utah, and I grew up in California, where I loved eating Rocky Roads. The second half of the book features Almond's visits to all these factories. If you can ignore the strident claptrap, the book can be somewhat enjoyable.

Rating: 3 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, by David S. Landes

I don't know what to say about this book. I read it and I enjoyed it, but when I start to think about why, I can't really come up with anything. Landes appears to have written a book explaining why rich countries are rich and poor countries aren't, which is fine, but also easy. No one can argue with the results, because they are what they are, and no one can really argue with the causes, because who really knows what the crucial difference is between America and Nigeria? If we evacuated both countries and repopulated each with citizens from Turkey, say, or if we just switched Americans for Nigerians, what would happen? It's impossible to say with certainty, and so that means any answer is plausible.

Landes's writing style takes some getting used to. He likes to end his paragraphs with biting bons mots, which means the book feels like it was written by a sitcom "gay best friend" character. But, like anything else in life, you get used to it, and by the end of the book the ironic asides even had me smiling.

This book was a school assignment, as was Guns, Germs, and Steel. Of the two, Jared Diamond seemed to do a better job explaining the reasons for economic disparity. Landes points out where it exists, and documents the historic events that resulted from it, but he doesn't give much of a reason beyond, "Some people work harder than others." Sure, that's true, but it shouldn't have taken 650 pages to spit it out.

In some respects, though, Landes's book is more intellectually honest. Diamond appears to go out of his way to avoid pinning the reasons for economic failure on people themselves. It was history, or geography, or biology; anything but humanity itself. This is an understandable reaction to centuries of racial justification. While there's no real arguing that white people are richer than others, modern decency requires an explanation that ignores who's white and who isn't. Landes's book reads like the work of a man who is now old enough to call political correctness the hogwash that it is. Plenty of times he blames poor societies for many of their own problems. He holds up Japan as an example of a poor society that pulled itself up by its sandle-straps, as it were. He seems to say to the modern Arabic world, "The Japanese proved it can be done, so why aren't you doing it?" He writes off the loud excuses of many Latin Americans, Chinese, and Arabians (in Arabia and elsewhere), and calls out their fellow travelers for their intellectual dishonesty. Which is all refreshing to read, but probably not very academically kosher these days.

The top blurb on the book's back is from renowned Stalin apologist Eric Hobsbawm, which made me leery of the political bent I'd be reading, but Landes appears pretty on-board with much more conservative economic thinking than Hobsbawm. Still, though, I never really understood where Landes stood on the idea of comparative advantage. He seemed to feel nations who forwent industrialization in pursuit of their comparative advantage had been sold a defective bill of goods from English economic thinkers, but then he acknowledges the role it played in Japan's advancement. You can't industrialize from the top down; the money for the new equipment has to come from somewhere, and usually that "somewhere" is in less-industrial pursuits. He also seems to be in favor of the idea of using tariffs to protect infant industries, which all my trade textbooks have said is unjustified and hurts the protectionist nation. Landes says only nations who have grown large enough to not need tariffs then tell other nations to get rid of theirs, and points out (correctly) that many modern industrial giants went through a period in their nascent industrialization that involved heavy tariffs.

Because I'm a fan of history as well as economics, this book kept me entertained, even when it seemed to be saying nothing new in the answering of global economic disparity. I didn't like how this brand-new paperback book began falling apart on me within weeks of purchase, though. The glossy layer of the cover began peeling back from the edges. Maybe he should have thrown in a few pages about shoddy workmanship of American-printed books.

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown

Like every other sentient being in our galaxy, I had read The Da Vinci Code, and all affected superiority aside, I enjoyed it. It was fun, exciting, and easy to read, and left me with something mildly interesting to think about. One woman I know, however, thought the book was evil and threw it away. Which of us do you think Dan Brown likes more, the one who checked his book out of the library, or the one who paid full price for it before trashing it?

Well, Dan Brown is sure to hate me even more now, because this time I borrowed my mother's copy, and after my wife reads it, we're giving it to my sister. If I were a liberal hack, I'd site "The Great Recession" as my reason, but the truth is I'm just a cheap bastard.

Before my mother's book arrived in the mail, I read reviews on amazon.com. Maybe it's the jaded economist in me, but I can't read online reviews without assuming the good ones are written by people who benefit financially from the product and the bad ones are written by their competitors. I see five one-star reviews and I think, "Wow, their competition must have spent a whole afternoon working on this one." So some of the Dan Brown reviews were legitimate and some were just the work of bitter wannabe thriller writers, and I have no idea which were which. But one of the criticisms that seemed true was that there are flaws in Brown's writing style. Brown's publisher's relatives who wanted to include mild criticisms to appear unbiased said the style was a little strained, while competitors' relatives said it read like a junior-high-schooler wrote it.

To be sure, I opened the book randomly and was amazed by the number of two-word paragraphs I found.

Then silence.

Dead silence.

p. 261

Most writers' editors would probably balk at a preponderance of two-word sentences, but when you're Dan Brown and you're the only reason Doubleday hasn't shuttered the doors for good, you can turn in a manuscript comprised entirely of two-word paragraphs and everything will be fine.

The style criticism, though, is overdone. Sure, turning to page 261 and reading those two paragraphs made them seem foolish, but when I was reading from page 260 to 262, those paragraphs didn't jar me out of the story. And that's the thing about Dan Brown that his critics get wrong. There's more to writing than style. There's also story. Successful writers have both, in varying combinations. What Brown lacks in style he makes up for in story. So reading The Lost Symbol wasn't the exercise in taxing prose that the critics made it seem. The book went quickly (partly thanks to two-sentence paragraphs) and was enjoyable.

The dust jacket promised "Brown's most terrifying villain to date." I'll say. The guy has a thing for looking at himself naked in front of mirrors (pp. 11-12, pp. 268-269), and the narrator has a thing for describing the villain's "massive sex organ" as a "heavy shaft of flesh" (p. 268). Come on, man. There's "terrifying" and then there's just "creepy."

Like every good "thriller," this one has a plot-twist which the dust jacket describes as "an unthinkable finale." I wouldn't call it that, since earlier in the book the idea of the finale came to me as a fleeting notion. But it wasn't the result of the author having given it away, and ultimately, it made the finale less far-fetched because, I mean, if I had thought of it, how crazy could it have been, right?

Rating: 5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Psmith in the City, by P.G. Wodehouse

I can't decide if, meeting Psmith in real life, I'd like him or not. He's kind of a dick. All his interactions seem to result from his boredom, not from any desire to actually interact. His conversations seem to convey his condescension to his counterparts, like he's only deigning to talk to someone so stupid because he finds it humorous that people so stupid actually exist. Reading about it is funny, but thinking about trading places with Jackson makes me wonder if my first order of business wouldn't be punching Psmith right in the mouth.

But, like I said, reading about it is funny, so this book was good reading. Again, there was quite a bit of cricket. If I had read this without having first read Cricket Explained, the cricket bits would have been a chore, but because I could understand what was happening, they were exciting and dramatic. I was nervous for Mike in the final cricket match because I was certain someone would ruin his century the way the bank manager did at the beginning of the book, but it didn't happen. Psmith's (and Wodehouse's) dislike for meaningless office work found a doting acolyte with me, having once worked in a bureaucracy nearly as bloated and worthless as the fictional New Asiatic Bank.

All in all, it was another enjoyable read, but it lost a bit of its luster when I stopped to think about meeting Psmith in read life.

Rating: 5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.