Books chewed and digested

Location: Bay Area, California, United States


Wednesday, June 30, 2004

But they *look* so sweet on that bicycle
Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

If I keep reviewing these nonfiction titles, people are going to start to assume that I am *that* kind of person. People who want to learn things. So let's be clear, I don't really want to learn things. I know some things already and I'm not convinced they are doing me much good. Plus, to quote Homer Simpson,"My brain is full. When I learn stuff, it pushes old stuff out. Like when I learned to make wine and forgot how to drive."

But I like Jon Krakauer. I liked his book about why I don't mountain climb. I think I liked the one about nature, but I don't remember it very well. I grabbed this at my local bookstore (Costco) and gave it a try. I figure if someone smarter than me compared it to In Cold Blood and Executioners Song, it must be pretty sweet. Actually before I get to the Krakauer book, you should know that I read Executioner's Song because I had never read any Mailer and it was the one that I thought was his seminal book. So there I am, reading (skimming) this huge ass book and about 40% of the way through it, something seemed funny. It didn't read like other fiction novels, but it was too ridiculous to be true. And then I found out that it was true. And that this dude that I thought seemed a wee bit two dimensional, was, in fact, a dude that killed people and wanted to be put before a firing squad in Utah. It made the book seem a little creepy. Good, but creepy.

But speaking of Utah. This book is about the murder of a mother and daughter by her brother-in-laws. But its really about religious fundamentalism and Mormonism. The book talks a lot about the roots of the fastest growing religion (over 10 million worldwide) that came from the western frontier 150 years ago. Its hard to remember that Mormonism has only been around since right before the civil war and therefore the history of its beginnings are a lot more accessible than say, the historical documents at the start of Christianity. I feel a little sorry for the Mormons, their history is a little less murky than say, Judaism, and the leaders of the LDS church haven't done the *best* job spinning their own history to sound like Noah's arc or Moses and that bush. All of the fallacies and poor impulse control of Joseph Smith and Bringham Young are right out there for you to examine. While Krakauer clearly is trying to challenge the Mormon authority and its seemingly blind adoration of its founding fathers, he makes a decent attempt to say that no organized religion is without its Inquisition, or Crusades or witch burnings.

What makes this book so cool is that Krakauer makes it fun. He spins a tale and leaves out all that crap you don't care about. His writing is suspensful and succinct. He writes like he is telling you a cool story in a pub while some stupid ass baseball game is on. Its great stuff. All history should be like this. He isn't really telling you the story about some famous people, he is telling you a story about someone that made decisions that have had huge repercussions. And its clear that dude could be you. Its a book about people searching for something they are missing in their lives. And it doesn't matter if it was in the frontier or if it was last Tuesday. And he's great at it. So check it out. I promise I will stop reviewing history books and get back to all the Oprah Book Club stuff y'all been waiting for.

Bibliovore says: Its like getting a box of Sees's chocolates that is filled with scotch-mellos. You were pleased enough to get the box and now you just have to control yourself from getting a little overfull.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

More reading for the tanning booth
Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About by Mil Millington

Since we are on a mode of light summer reading, I thought this might be a nice little niblet to offer people to get them through the bleakness of July. This title may seem familiar to those of you that have seen his website of the same name (I know that you all want me to post that site as a link--but you can google as well as I can, you lazy bastards) in which he lists all of the arguments that he and his partner have had over the minutiae of cohabitation.

This book takes that theme (obviously) and gives it a plot. Pel and his girlfriend Ursula ( take a moment to figure out who has the worst name) live in England with their two young sons and spend a large amount of time getting on each other's nerves. This is that point where I am supposed to summarize the plot so you can all get a sense of what happened as I make my point about global themes and gender issues, but I hate summarizing, so I am going to directly what I liked and didn't like about the book.

Millington has that great dry British humor that seems like its self-deprecating when its actually indicating that everyone else is an idiot. That is one of the strongest parts of the novel. He has good comic timing and a great way with dialogue that makes the real point of the book, (the couple's incessant fighting), well, funny. In the beginning of the novel, I was a little uncomfortable about the bickering. Ursula (yes, she has the worst name) comes across horribly and you feel bad for Pel, who comes across like this browbeaten little man who's just trying to do the right thing. And then slowly, you realize he's an idiot too. You realize that they deserve each other in the truest sense of it all and finally, you realize that there constant arguing is really very sweet and that they really care about each other. In some ways, that's exactly why I liked this novel so much better than The Corrections by Franzen. They had horrible relationships and you didn't feel sorry for them, you just felt bad that you had to know what it was about. TMG&IHAA is fun because there is something sweet about the feelings behind all the screaming.

Another thing I really liked about TMG&IHAA is that Ursula is German and Pel is British and there are many fights about the differences between Germany and England. Though they live in England, there is this underlying sense that bad things only happen in England and Pel seems to only have patriotic feelings for England out of guilt and a strong sense that Ursula can't win. It had not occurred to me that people within Europe talk smack about one another with the same ferocity as the rest of us and they have stereotypes that never occurred to me. How foolish of me not to think that there would be strife between people who all look the same (ie-white). Go figure.

My complaint about the novel is that the plot has a certain "Three's Company" quality that a dose of honesty would fix. I would have liked for Millington to have gone for a plot that is a little more realistic than the category "wacky hijinks". But its his first time out the gate and I am going to cut him some slack.

Bibliovore says:
Its like kettlekorn--yummy, but it won't be such a bad thing when it goes out of style.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

If I Went to the Beach I Would Have Read This
Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert

Finally, I get to read something light and fun. Stern Men is set in the insular and inbred world of Maine Lobstermen. Not just any old lobstermen but feuding island loberstermen from 20 miles off the coast of Maine. The protagonist is 18 year-old Ruth and she's a kick in pants. She's better than spunky, she's a foul-mouthed pain in the ass who desperately tries never to do what anyone tells her to. You get a great feel for the island life and the smell of fish guts. Between the alcoholics, inbred idiots, manipulative upperclass, cheating spouses, misanthropes and letches--every character is about equally sympathetic. I vastly enjoyed not caring all that much about the characters but rooting for them all the same. And of course Gilbert ties everything up in a neat happy ending. Who wouldn't want to know all about the history of the first through fourth lobster wars?

Bibliovore says: It tastes like lobstah of course!

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Games in the Final Frontier
The Player of Games by Iain Banks

Utopia meets empire. In the future there will be no war, famine or sickness. We'll live hundreds of years, regrow our own body parts and secrete all the drugs we want with special glands. We'll have nothing to do all day but play games and have sex but mostly play games. Oh yeah and machines will all be sentient. So begins The Player of Games. The book was entertaining while I was reading it but the after-taste is getting worse. For one thing, at the very end it decides to be a Novel of Ideas (capital N, capital I) but it should have stuck to being a good story. I can't decide if the moral of the story is 'oppressing people overtly is wrong but manipulating them to achieve your ends is right' or maybe 'playing to win is good for everyone even if you turn out to be a pawn in someone else's game.'

Instead of bothering, just go out and read Ender's Game instead. If you missed Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game when you were 15, it's not too late to read it now. It's a far better take on the game-as-war theme. I have to warn you not to get too excited and read the rest of the series. The quality drops dramatically after book 1 and book 4 was almost unbearable.

From the guilty pleasure department.
If you really like sci-fi/fantasy about games then I do recommend Piers Anthony's Split Infinity. It's got plenty of nudity and games and talking robots and it doesn't pretend to be anything more than entertainment. The first 3 books are pretty good but only the first one goes into any detail about the game culture.

Bibliovore says: it tastes like eating a whole plate of fried cheese appetizers--good, greasy and salty going down but now you don't feel so good. I can't believe I ate the whole thing...

Monday, June 07, 2004

Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr
Review by Nina

You should read this book even if it's not really your kind of thing. A couple, one just over 40 and the other just under, move from the Bay Area to rural Mexico to start up the husband's old family mine. The book feels more like a collection of short stories than a novel. The language is lyrical without being gushing and Jake will be happy to know that Doerr never dips into magical realism. There might be odd coincidences and an oddly humorous but sad bit in which an old priest is followed around by all the village dogs all the time, but there are no miracles.

This isn't a travel book, nor is it some of that "see how poverty makes people noble" crap. Mostly it's about the wife's journey to both understand and deliberately misunderstand the people around her and the events in her life.

It's sad but not that bleak. More on the "relentless tide of fate" side than the "all doom all the time" side. I take great solace in the fact that this was Doerr's first book published and she was 68. That means I have about 34 more years before it's too late for me to publish my great American novel.

Bibliovore says: it tastes like Chicken mole from Montero's Cafe. Chiles with chocolate means it's rich but not sweet.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Tipping Point—Malcolm Gladwell
Review by Jake

I think one of the reasons that I have been reticent to write reviews is that I hate summarizing. It reminds me too much of those horrible book reports that we did in middle school. It makes me feel like I need to take notes while I read so that I can provide fluid commentary. Bah!

I have decided to forego any reasonable summary and simply tell you why I thought it was cool and if that doesn’t work for you—well….I don’t care really.

I thought this book was totally cool. Now typically, I struggle with non-fiction because it requires more thought than I want to give books. It makes me read every sentence when I really want to skim and so I get frustrated when I have to slowdown. But this book does a great job feeding all the interests I have.

I’m sure that, in some ways, it’s supposed to be about economics and marketing, and maybe it is. But I don’t care about that stuff, so I’m focusing on the bits I liked. This book talked a lot about the kind of people that make stuff happen. Gladwell believes that ideas and trends spread because there are key people that spread it to large numbers of people. He believes that these key people are charismatic (for a variety of reasons) and these small numbers of people set the stage for the whole market. And I think he is dead right—it seems so smart to me that these special people turn the tide for the whole market. Think about it—do you know someone that seems to know everyone? That when you make a diagram of all the people you know, there are one or two people that link all your different social groups together?

The other smart thing he goes in depth about is the size of functioning groups. His claim is that any group larger than 150 becomes less effective in a number of areas. He talks about this in depth by looking at all different types of groups. I was a little suspicious of this but by the end I bought his line of reasoning and wonder why we often educate our children in huge schools.

So check it out and see if it makes sense to you. Find the Maven and the Connector in your social group. Its good, clean fun.

Bibliovore says:
Its like one of those huge taco salads, you keep digging in and finding new, good fatty bits. Mmmmmhhhmmm guacamole...