Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Recently Read Books: 2014

Sunday, January 4th, 2015

burmas3Books I’ve read in 2014 (in rough chronological order)

1. Beyond Band of Brothers, by Major Richard Winters

Dick Winters is the archetype of the American Airborne infantryman in World War II’s European Theatre. This is his memoir, wherein he gets to give some personal explanation and embellishment of his story told so famously by Stephen Ambrose.

2. No Less than Victory, by Jeff Shaara

A workmanlike telling of the story of the Battle of the Bulge.

3. The Frugal Woodturner: Make and Modify all the Tools and Equipment You Need, by Ernie Conover

Self-taught son of a self-taught wood turner describes ingenious ways of doing things differently from everyone else.

4. Box Making, by Doug Stowe

I make far too few wooden boxes. This book will help me to make more of them.

5. The Verse by the Side of the Road, by Frank Rowsome, Jr.

A history of the Burma Shave sign. Author Rowsome tells the complete story of the innovative roadside advertising campaign along with the text of all 600 of the rhymes.

 Back in the first half of the 20th Century, as America was falling hopelessly in love with the motorcar, a Midwestern shaving-soap company initiated a successful and ground-breaking advertising campaign using small roadside signs. The signs often masqueraded as public safety messages warning drivers not to drink or get distracted behind the wheel, but just as often were simple product pitches. What distinguished the Burma Shave signs was that they were always in a series of small red signs posted in a row along the roadside in such a manner that they could be read in a sequence, with the last one giving the company’s name.

Some amusing rhymes include:

HIS FACE WAS SMOOTH
AND COOL AS ICE
AND OH LOUISE!
HE SMELLED
SO NICE
BURMA-SHAVE

WITHIN THIS VALE
OF TOIL
AND SIN
YOUR HEAD GROWS BALD
BUT NOT YOUR CHIN—USE
BURMA-SHAVE

WHEN YOU DRIVE
IF CAUTION CEASES
YOU ARE APT
TO REST
IN PIECES
BURMA-SHAVE

6. Foolproof Wood Finishing: For Those Who Love to Build and Hate to Finish Paperback, by Teri Masaschi 

Meh.

7. USS Preble, by William Kaufman

A friend of mine—a fellow model railroad enthusiast—wrote and self-published this book, which is how I came to learn of its existence. It’s an interesting, fact-based novel about a naval officer and a warship in World War II. The book has issues, but is still fascinating.

8. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the The Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester

The OED was the original crowd-sourced project. Contributions were solicited from across Great Britain and one of the greatest contributors turned out to be a man imprisonedand rightly sofor murder. Winchester tells the fascinating story of the relationship between the embattled editor of the OED and the learned inmate. 

9. Hybrid Woodworking: Blending Power & Hand Tools for Quick, Quality Furniture, by Marc Spagnolo, The Wood Whisperer

Industrialization killed the craft of the wood worker in the Western world. Machines such as electric powered planers, jointers, drill presses, shapers, and table saws made the manual skills of the furniture maker obsolete. Over the years, the prices of these power tools dropped sufficiently to be affordable to the hobbyist, and the weekend woodworker was born. But then an interesting thing happened: not a few of these hobbyists began to discover the joy of working wood with those old hand tools that grandpa had used. A few more hobbyists began to make replicas of those old hand tools using modern manufacturing techniques, and the craft of hand wood working was reborn.

There are purists, who make fine furniture using only the hand tools that were in use a couple of hundred years ago. A larger group has emerged (and I’m one of them) who favor a hybrid approach: using power tools for the things they are best at, but using hand tools for the rest, simply because—outside of a production environment—they give better results just as fast and are far more pleasant and satisfying to use.

Marc Spagnolo is a talented young wood worker who embraced the hybrid solution simultaneously with embracing the Internet as a medium. He runs what he calls a guild on his Website. It is for members only (I’m one) and he publishes excellent quality videos on how to make things in your shop using the best of both hand and power tools. This book is a compilation of his techniques.

10. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, by Wendell Berry

This is a remarkable book by a remarkable author. It is a manifesto for improving our lives by improving the way we cultivate our food. As Berry tells it, we once were a nation of farmers, and that our agriculture was the source of our strength.

Remember how we learned about the great American expansion of the 1800s? When settlers headed West, fulfilling our Manifest Destiny, and brought agriculture, civilization, and prosperity to the American Heartland? Well, argues Berry, we’ve spent the second half of the 20th Century unraveling that effort. Those thousands of little farming towns are empty and bankrupt, those millions of farm houses standing like sentinels in quarter sections of verdant loam are now abandoned and unwanted. Those hundreds of American cities built on domestic agriculture are now broken and hollow specters of ruin.

Berry makes the indisputable point that culture is created by agriculture, and as a nation, we have destroyed agriculture, thus we have mortally wounded our own culture. I find his arguments clear and compelling. As America spirals into the abyss, where do you begin to set things right again? In the dirt. 

Yes, Berry’s arguments have some issues, as accepting them wholesale would force us to return to a patriarchal society, but he’s as correct as any other social critic I’ve read. When you consider that this was written in the 1960s, it seems to achieve prescience. 

11. Moonshine!: Recipes, Tall Tales, Drinking Songs, Historical Stuff, Knee-Slappers, How to Make It, How to Drink It, Pleasin’ the Law, Recoverin’ the Next Day, by Matthew Rowley

I’d love to make moonshine. The equipment is fairly simple and the process is thousands of years old. Basically, you can take any organic matter, like potatoes, corn, or wheat, crush it and boil it, then just let it ferment naturally. After a day or two you boil it and condense the resulting vapors into drinkable alcohol. Unfortunately, in the USA, it remains illegal, if only desultorily enforced. I have other hobbies that won’t get me into trouble.

12. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

I really like Stephenson. He is a creative original. However, he needs an editor. This book was too long. In this novel he constructs a world slightly different from our own, one where the religion is based on science, and the secular world has crazy beliefs about bearded men in the sky. Once you slog your way to the end, you find out that this notion of a parallel universe isn’t just an intriguing backdrop for a quest, but is an integral part of the story.

13. Sight Unseen, by Robert Goddard

I like Goddard’s books and I’ve read many of them over the years. He spins fascinating mysteries that are…unusual. They are meticulously plotted stories that often involve untangling events that occurred decades ago. While their structure tends to be similar from book to book, each one is interesting in its own right. This one dealt with a kidnapping that goes bad, and a witness is killed by the getaway car. Many years later, seemingly after all the evidence is washed away, a few interested parties emerge and solve the puzzle.

14. Measure Twice, Cut Once: Lessons from a Master Carpenter, by Norm Abram

Norm is a carpenter who makes furniture, and has a lot to offer in techniques, tools, and values. His television show, The New Yankee Workshop, is an excellent demonstration of his skills and approach. This book is less useful than watching him make things.

15. The Political Mind, by George Lakoff

Lakoff is a brilliant scientist who has done ground-breaking work in understanding linguistics and human cognition. In this fine book he turns the bright light of his intellect upon the puzzle of politics and particularly how conservatives seem to be able to frame their issues in a compelling way, and how progressives struggle to do so. This book will give you a greater understanding of how humans think, and why our political world is shaped the way it is.  

16. The Finishing School: Earning the Navy SEAL Trident, by Dick Couch

Dick Couch is a former Navy SEAL, so he knows what he’s talking about. This book is a follow-up to his earlier work on the the Navy SEAL program, “The Warrior Elite.” In this book, he focuses on the training the SEALs receive. It will leave you in awe of the skill, dedication, intelligence, strength, stamina, experience, and courage of these men.

17. Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

An excellent novel about a gynecologist in Ethiopia, son of a Carmelite nun from India, and an enigmatic English surgeon. This is a masterful work by a skilled novelist. Highly recommended.

18. Blanket Chests: Outstanding Designs from 30 of the World’s Finest Furniture Makers, by Peter Turner and Word Works

So many things to build, so little time.

19. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

I first read this remarkable book in 1968 shortly after an acquaintance and his pal, upon learning that I had not read it, recited the dialog from Clevinger’s court-martial from memory. Throughout the remainder of the 60s and 70s, I read the book several times and it’s disturbing story strongly influenced this youthful reader.

Reading the book again after 30 years was still as enjoyable as before. Author Heller, wanting to show the irrationality of war, writes Catch22irrationally of war. His characters have become archetypes of state-approved, inexplicable, and terribly self-destructive behavior.

I find that I still don’t like or understand the ending. It still feels tacked on, inconclusive, and incongruous. I get the strong feeling that Heller never did understand what the bottom line of his novel really was, and so the ending was contrived. This doesn’t detract from the value of the book, though. 

20. Helen of Troy, by Margaret George

This was too boring for me to make much headway with. Abandoned.

21. Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst

Another excellent dark and moody spy novel from the master. I always enjoy Furst’s novels for their characters, situations, and moody environment even when they seem a little repetitive, as this one does.

22. Another River, Another Town: A Teenage Tank Gunner Comes of Age in Combat—1945, by John P. Irwin

A well-but-simply told, familiar story of a very young man growing up in the rigors of war. 

23. Sutton, by E. R. Mohringer

Hard to believe but this is Mohringer’s first work of fiction, he does such an excellent job. In order to tell the story of enigmatic bank robber, Willy Sutton, Mohringer invents an unusual literary device and, through his abundant skill, makes it work. This is a great and readable story, and whether or not you believe it all hinges on a single comment made by Sutton’s lover  late in the book. Very well done. 

24. Winter of the World, by Ken Follett

The second book of Follett’s great trilogy of the 20th Century. Over the years, Follett’s writing has become a caricature of Follett’s writing. I still like it, but literature it ain’t.

25. Why We Make Things, and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman, by Peter Korn

Korn is the founder of a woodworking school in New England. This is his memoir of his life and how he came to create his school and its undergirding philosophy.

26. The New Traditional Woodworker: From Tool Set to Skill Set to Mind Set, by Jim Tolpin

Many woodworking hobbyists are discovering the joy of working with hand tools and eschewing power tools completely. They get more intimate and appreciative of their tools and their materials, the shop is a quieter and more pleasant place to work, and there is no dangerous sawdust to avoid (hand tools produce chips; machine tools produce dust).

What’s more, when not burdened with the need to produce furniture in production quantities and free to build just one piece at a time, it turns out that using only hand tools isn’t appreciably slower. Power tools don’t make you better—arguably they make you worse—they just make you faster.

Tolpin is one of those converts to the new traditionalism and his book is a series of progressively more difficult exercises in woodworking that teach you the basics of using hand tools correctly, effectively, and satisfactorily.

27. Redshirts, by John Scalzi

Never having been a fan of the 60s TV show Star Trek, I worried that this book would be lost on me. Still, I didn’t quite live in a cave back then, so even I know that the cheesy TV show regularly killed off unimportant characters to convey danger or drama, and that those doomed actors—coincidentally or not—always seemed to be wearing red shirts in their fatal episode.

To his everlasting credit, author John Scalzi decided to write a serious science fiction novel about this amusing phenomenon, and succeeded in making it a) interesting, b) believable, and c) compelling to this non-Trekkie. 

28. The Year Without Pants, by Scott Berkun

Berkun spent about a year and a half working for a company, Automattic, for the specific purpose of writing this book about his experience. The company is unique in many ways, and Berkun’s motivation for the book was to describe the different approach the company has to many conventional corporate challenges.

Notably, Automattic, the company that created and maintains WordPress blogging software, is totally distributed with employees located all around the world. And not just a few employees, but all of its staff is widespread. There is no real “home office.”

While Berkun’s descriptions of how day to day work, hallway conversations, and formal meetings are conducted across thousands of miles and dozens of time zones is fascinating, he seems to be downplaying the reason why this particular company can do it successfully, and makes the implicit challenge for others to try it disingenuous. Automattic is an open source company. From the very beginning, its founder and all of its employees did they work voluntarily. Employees were selected from the ranks of people who had already demonstrated their commitment, skill, and dedication by contributing source code purely for the love of doing so. 

Still, it’s an important look at one way organizations of the future can be constructed, and well worth reading.

29. On Call in Hell: A Doctor’s Iraq War Story, by Richard Jadick

Fascinating story of a Doctor who decides—correctly—that bringing the medical aid station closer to the front line will save grievously wounded soldier’s lives. Of course, bringing the aid station closer to combat endangers the doctor, too. Jadick puts his theories into practice in Iraq, and this makes for a gripping memoir.

30. The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II, by Gregory A. Freeman

Now that just about everyone involved in World War II is dead, there is an enormous amount of really interesting stuff coming out of the shadows. This fascinating book is about a heroic mission that was never made public and almost didn’t happen because of some despicable political alliances made by people far from the battlefield.  

31. The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, by Alisa Smith and J.B.Mackinnon

A two-handed memoir of a young Canadian couple eating only locally grown food. This artful small book is the outcome of a blog about the year-long project.

32. Double Cross, by Ben McIntyre

Last year I read McIntyre’s superb book on the subterfuge surrounding the Allied invasion of Sicily in World War II. This book is McIntyre’s telling of the even larger effort at deceiving the Nazis about the D-Day invasion of Normandy. 

The book is a spellbinding and comprehensive look into the behavior of real spies, who are simultaneously more quotidian than those of Le Carré and more flamboyant than those of Ian Fleming. The truth is far stranger than any fiction.

33. Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst

Alan Furst is back in the saddle with another impossible-to-put-down spy novel. I save my Furst books for long voyages or bouts with illness, when I know that I will have many consecutive hours to enjoy soaking in the moody ambiance of this great series of novels.

34. Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, by Greg Grandin

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It is very well researched and contains no speculation, just documented facts, yet it reads like a novel.

In the late 1920s, tremendously successful entrepreneurial automobile maker Henry Ford was consolidating his empire on two fronts. Firstly, he pioneered vertical integration, whereby he owned his entire supply chain. He owned iron and coal mines, railroads, smelters, and steel factories to supply his automotive plants. He owned forests and lumber mills to supply wooden parts for his cars. His second area of innovation was social engineering, and while he had some notable successes, his overall record was pretty dismal. fordlandia

This fascinating book tells the story of his efforts at both vertical integration and social engineering through the lens of Ford’s attempt in 1927 to build a rubber plantation in the Amazon jungle of Brazil. The plantation included a model city, called Fordlandia.

The parallels to current efforts at social engineering by today’s captains of digital enterprise are abundant. The perspective of a century make it clear that the attempts by Bill Gates, Larry Page, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and other Henry Fords of today are just as doomed and ridiculous as those of a previous generation.

35. Going with the Grain: Making Chairs in the 21st Century, by Mike Abbott

Mike is an English “chair-bodger” who makes simple but incredibly stout chairs out of green wood, primarily ash. Inspiring.

36. Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner

I first read this ground-breaking dystopian science fiction novel shortly after it was first published in 1968. The innovative literary devices and the overall believability made a big impression on me. Re-reading it after 45 years is fascinating as forgotten characters and scenes come alive again. Remarkably, much of Brunner’s speculation about an overpopulated future has come true today.

37. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway

The bible of permaculture for the masses by a genuinely brilliant teacher.

38. Make a Windsor Chair, by Mike Dunbar

Exhaustive discussion of making the essential Anglo-American human-holding device.

39. Chairmaking and Design, by Jeff Miller

Interesting descriptions of various chair making processes.

Recently Read Books: 2012

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

(in no particular order)

1. The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore is a funny writer. He creates funny characters and has them do funny things. This novel is about a horny dinosaur who invades a California coastal town.

This is one of Moore’s earlier works, and it isn’t as polished as his later works, but it’s fun nevertheless. In one representative scene, the eponymous, aroused monster falls for a tanker truck as it idles in a parking lot. The tanker’s driver dies in the ensuing hijinx, which illustrates one of Moore’s more endearing traits as an author. Also in this book you will meet the delightful Kendra, Warrior Babe of the Outland, one of the author’s strange and wonderful characters. Kendra, along with the entire wacky, fictional town, reprise their roles in Moore’s “The Stupidest Angel.”

2. You Can Farm, by Joel Salatin

Salatin is a guru in the new agriculture movement. He is an energetic, outspoken enthusiast of locally grown, healthy, sustainable plants and animals. While he has written several quite readable books, he’s a farmer who writes, rather than a writer who farms. Ever since Michael Pollan made him famous in the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Salatin has had a wide and growing audience. His approach to farming is so notable that he proselytizes his methods however he can. In this book he makes the case that you can actually make a living at farming without compromising sustainability.

3. The End of War, by David L. Robbins

This excellent book describes, in novel form, how the victors wrapped up the pursuit of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II. There was still a lot of blood remaining to be shed when the outcome of the war was clearly seen to be an allied victory, but the allies were not at all a unified front. The three main players, Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt all knew that their actions in 1945 would have lasting effect on the shape of Europe in the decades to come. All three came from wildly disparate backgrounds and brought equally disparate ideals to the bargaining table.

This novel has been called flawed because of its ambitious and problematic subject matter, but for devotees of the genre, it is revealing and fascinating.

4. Live and Let Die, by Ian Fleming

In the 1960s I was a big fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, and Live and Let Die was my favorite. It’s been well over 40 years since I’ve read it and it was fascinating to reread it as an adult.

Fleming’s novels were simple, formulaic, and improbable, yet they were mind-expanding to young mid-century readers like me. Fleming’s time as an OSS agent in World War II gave him and his creation a frisson of reality, and Bond’s worldliness and his success with women made him quite appealing to a twelve-year-old boy, and there’s a twelve-year-old boy in many of us.

Fleming’s Bond is grittier and more authentic than the cinematic Bond. Yet his knowledge and sophistication in all things, from gambling to booze to politics, is what makes him an appealing action hero. The Bond of the movies got that part right.

Fleming’s creation made the secret agent genre into a world-wide phenomenon. The sixties witnessed countless movies, TV shows, magazines, products, toys, and standup routines based on the idea of an ultra-sophisticated tough guy who could kill a man with a single blow of his hand, and who devastated the ladies with his cool. This was a meme to reckon with.

It wasn’t until John Le Carré introduced George Smiley a generation later that one could see the reality from which Bond sprang. Both are useful archetypes, one realistic and human, the other unrealistic and what we fantasize we might be.

5. The War of the Rats, by David L. Robbins

I read this excellent book about the battle of Stalingrad more than a decade ago and really enjoyed it. The horrific pitched battle between the Russians and the Germans inside the city of Stalingrad is told through the true story of a young Russian sniper. He is so successful at surreptitiously killing Germans that the Russian command makes him the head of new sniper school, and a hero in the newspapers. In response, the Germans dispatch their best sniper to kill the young Russian. What a great storyline!

Sometime after I first read the book, a movie loosely based on the book, called “Enemy at the Gates,” was released. It was also excellent, but the stories varied somewhat, and they began to muddle in my head. It was a pleasure to reread the novel again so I could tease apart the different interpretations.

6. Guide to Concrete: Masonry & Stucco Projects, by Phil Schmidt

A simple book, written to help the homeowner build patios and pathways.

7. Free-Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly Yard, by Jessi Bloom

I can’t really believe I read this whole book cover to cover, but I did. It was similar to eating an entire bag of marshmallows: unsubstantial, yet somehow good at the time.

This book is aimed primarily at urban and suburban gardeners, and how to safely add chickens to the mix without forcing them to stay screened in a coop.

8. Republic Lost, Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig is a prodigious talent in the legal field. A youthful prodigy, he initially held conservative views, but in later years has a been a leading voice for reform, particularly in the area of intellectual property in the digital age.

In this book, he reveals his current thinking about how the influence of corporate money has destroyed our democratic process. The book is an intelligent call to arms for reform. I highly recommend it.

9. The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara

I have been an avid reader of military history since I was about six years old. Of the hundreds of books, fact and fiction, that I’ve read about war, this is the best one. I first read this telling of the battle of Gettysburg in 1976, when, to little fanfare, it appeared in paperback, even though it had won a Pulitzer Prize two years before. Author Michael Shaara died soon after its publication, and the book fell from sight until the release, in 1993, of the movie “Gettysburg,” whereupon the book was rereleased and finally began to garner the attention and accolades it deserved.

When an author writes nonfiction, he or she is restricted to telling the story using only documented facts. There’s a whole lot of history that isn’t documented, and often an adroit novelist can convey more of the truth of history than can be done with mere facts. That’s exactly what Shaara has done with the three days of Gettysburg in 1863. Weaving his narrative around a dozen or so of the leading players on both sides of the conflict, his smooth prose tells the story of men caught in the web of their own making, forced by circumstance into a decisive battle.

This is at least the fourth time I’ve read this fantastic book, and the first time I’ve listened to it as an audiobook. As expected, it remains engrossing, entertaining, educational, historical, and pure fun. Even though the events are well known, we see them unfold through the eyes of the players, and we are fascinated anew.

Nowhere will you find a better description of war and warriors than here. Shaara takes us inside the heads of Lee and Longstreet as they both fret over J.E.B. Stuart’s epic failure to enlighten the Confederate army. While tolerant Lee regards the lapse as that of an errant, prodigal son, Longstreet seethes in his desire to court-martial the joy-riding young cavalry officer.

On the Union side, Shaara paints the most detailed and loving portrait of an honest-to-god American hero, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlin, the intellectual Maine professor of rhetoric who has the tenacity and courage to hold the extreme left end of the Union army line on Little Round Top against wave after wave of Longstreet’s Texans.

In the light of the book’s renewed success, his son, Jeff Shaara, took up the authorial mantle and has written a fine series of sequels and prequels to The Killer Angels. I’ve read several of these and, while they are well worth reading, none of them touches the brilliance of the Father’s original masterpiece.

10. Eye of the Red Tsar: A Novel of Suspense, by Sam Eastland

A beach novel about a tough Russian who used to be the Tsar’s right hand man. Improbable story, fun read, forgettable.

11. The Brisket Book: A Love Story with Recipes, by Stephanie Pierson

A slightly tongue-in-cheek look at one of the most homely and unsung cuts of beef. Pierson has more to say about brisket than one might imagine can be said about this ultimate comfort food.

12. Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, by Lisa M. Hamilton

A series of prose portraits of rugged individuals who refuse to succumb to the economics and ethos of factory farming.

13. An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler

Adler’s book is a self-described homage to MFK Fisher, the iconoclastic foodie of the 1930s and 40s. Interesting agri-philosophy peppered with useful recipes and kitchen ideas.

14. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, by Clay Shirky

This book is fascinating. Clay Shirky is one of, if not the, smartest, most perceptive observers of the sociology of the post-industrial age. There is simply lots of meaty good stuff about people, culture, civilization, and human nature here, and how digital technology is facilitating remarkable social change.

Humans remain the same, but our behavior changes depending on the social and economic opportunities presented by our environment, and that environment is becoming dominated by digital digital tools and networking, so our behavior changes to match it.

15. Agincourt: A Novel, by Bernard Cornwell

I read this plot driven beach novel on the beach (actually, on the airplane on the way to the beach). Highly recommended as such, but don’t look for anything else. Cornwell’s work is historically accurate and interesting for that, but don’t look for literary sparkles here.

16. Fighter Pilot, by Robin Olds

A superb memoir of a legendary character. Robin Olds is an archetype of the Greatest Generation and of fighter pilots. An easy and enjoyable read that will make you proud to be alive.

17. Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-45, by Neill Lochery

An account of the fascinating role Lisbon played during World War II. As the capital of small, neutral Portugal, the city hosted spies of all countries and intrigue aplenty. The city’s mayor tiptoed on a razor’s edge playing Allied against Axis interests without provoking either to belligerence.

18. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

I couldn’t finish this book. I could barely get started. It took the author page after page of stodgy, congested prose to say very little. The sheer weight of the volume deterred me from anything after the first tortured plot point, which was more like a plot continuum.

19. Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction, by Sue Townsend

I read this book with some consternation. It was too readable to abandon, yet too problematic to enjoy. The main problem it posed was that it is about the 99th book in a long series of “Adrian Mole” novels by author Townsend, beginning when the protagonist was 13 years old. It would certainly have been easier for me if I had read any of the 98 predecessors, but I am woefully ignorant of British pop culture and entered the fray unprepared. Oh well.

On the plus side, it is largely written in the epistolary style, which I find quaintly endearing.

20. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand

An unforgettable and beautifully written biography of Louis Zamperini, a track prodigy and Olympic runner who was shot down over the Pacific during World War II. The young airman’s ordeal in a plastic raft and as a Japanese prisoner of war will simultaneously tear your heart out and inspire you.

This is a superb book in every respect, telling a true story with painstaking verisimilitude and detail, along with the pacing, characterization, and balance of a fine novel. If you wonder why they’re called “The Greatest Generation,” this book will inform you as to the answer.

21. The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters, By Chip Kidd

A coming of age story of an innocent young man in art school, studying that new discipline, graphic arts. The protagonist finds himself under the influence of wanton women and maniacal art teachers. Is this autobiographical? Certainly not. Maybe.

22. They Eat Puppies, Don’t they?: A Novel, by Christopher Buckley

I’ve been a big fan of Christoper Buckley since reading his first novel, “Steaming to Bamboola” about a million years ago. His second book, “The White House Mess,” an amusingly titled political satire disguised as a story about the guy in charge of the President’s Kitchen, was a hit and established his literary direction. Since then, Buckley has been master of the genre of political-satire-by-infiltration; kind of the novelistic equivalent of Stephen Colbert’s TV personality. Usually he does a fine job, but not in this effort. I finished this send-up of US-China relations out of loyalty, but it really didn’t measure up to Buckley’s normal quality.

23. The Mind’s Eye, by Oliver Sacks

The engaging English psychologist writes once again about how trauma and disease gives us a glimpse into how the mind works. In this volume he relates the story of how he loses sight in one eye, and how that affects the way he sees and thinks.

24. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

A heartbreaking story of immigrant life in America in the early days of the 20th Century. Sinclair makes a compelling case for implementation and reform of work laws, consumer product safety laws, political campaign laws, and a multitude of others. The conclusion he arrives at, apropos of the time, is socialism.

25. The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling

A classic collections of stories from England’s Victorian storyteller.

26. Food Rules, by Michael Pollan

Because America is relatively young collection of people from other cultures, no truly indigenous American cuisine has ever existed. Not only does what we eat have a multitude of origins, but this country was formed by hard working, unreflective pioneers with little time to enjoy the subtler pleasures of life. Consequently, refined eating and quality food have never played a significant role in this country.

A country without its own cuisine is a country adrift in the kitchen, and, as Pollan has written elsewhere, most Americans don’t have a clue about what to eat. In this slim volume, the author gives us a series of simple rules of thumb that we can use as a guide to good eating.

The foremost, and overarching, rule that Pollan arms us with is this excellent one:

Eat food, not too much, mostly leaves.

The first two words of this axiom are freighted with meaning, as Pollan has often pointed out, most of what Americans consume is not really “food” at all, but an edible, food-like substance made from highly processed corn.

27. That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo

Russo, one of my favorite novelists, let me down with this effort. Russo’s metier is crafting characters who carefully teeter between annoying and lovable. In this book, he lets his people err on the side of annoying. The protagonist’s parents, whose role in the narrative is to be the archetypes-of-annoying, are fascinating and interesting, but they needed to be balanced by characters more lovable.

28. Parrot and Olivier In America, by Peter Carey

I really enjoyed this excellent and amusing book. It’s a historical novel, a comedy, a satire, and a romp. Carey tells the story of two Europeans, a working class English rogue and a French Noble, on their 1831 trip to America together.

The novel is rich and complex, the characters improbably multifaceted, and their personalities and backgrounds impossibly different, yet they are thrust together to visit the New World. Hilarity, with a colossally bright wit and of an atmospheric scope, ensues. The book satirizes everything it touches, with a grace and color hard to find.

evidently this novel is a send-up of Alexis de Tocqueville and his famous account of his journey to America. I have never read that work but this novel kindles my interest. Do yourself a favor and read “Parrot and Olivier.” You’ll have lots of fun.

29. An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin

Martin’s novel is a small and personal tale of a ruthless and beautiful woman in the New York art scene.

30. Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, by Simon Winchester

A detailed biography of the Atlantic Ocean. Very readable, very fascinating.

31. Summerland, by Michael Chabon

If you love elves and orcs and baseball, this is the book for you.

32. Story’s Guide to Raising Chickens, by Gail Damerow

The more I live with chickens, the more I like them. The more I like them, the more interesting it is to learn about them. “Story’s Guide” is the chicken rancher’s bible.

33. Fobbit, by David Abrams

A novel set in the rear echelons of the Iraqi combat zone. Not epic, but worth the read. Based on the author’s experience in Iraq.

34. The Myth of the Rational Market, by Justin Fox

This fascinating and readable book is exhaustively researched and clearly written. Justin Fox tells the story of an unbelievable yet remarkably durable meme: that movements of the stock market can somehow be predicted. The idea that the stock market is something other than a casino, that it is something more than just a wild gamble, that an intelligent person can rationally invest and consistently make a profit is impossible, yet our greed is so strong we conjure lies to tell ourselves otherwise, and this is the biography of those lies.

The intriguing tale of how an absurd idea can become widely accepted as true comes to life in the narrative, along with those economists and thinkers who fight back against the notion. The author is a scrupulous journalist, and he holds his point of view in check throughout, believing–correctly–that the sheer implausibility of the historical facts make his point better than could any editorial emphasis he might add.

In 2011, I attended an exclusive technology conference at a swanky resort in Phoenix, Arizona. During the lunch break I happened to sit across the table from a bright young man and we struck up a conversation. We couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds: He was an East Coast literary intellectual with Ivy League credentials, while I’m a Californian, ex-hippie, technology entrepreneur. We liked each other immediately. His name was Justin Fox, the author of this book.

Fox’s day job is the editorial director for the Harvard Business Review, and he writes about economics for Time magazine. He said he would send me a copy of his book and was gracious and thoughtful enough to remember to actually do so when he returned home. I sent him a copy of my book in return.

I’m a computer geek, and not a scholar of finance or investment or the men who dominate those fields, so I had no expectations of recognizing any of the players in the drama. However, as the book unfolded I was astonished to discover many names whose work I was already familiar with in the fields of computer science and cognitive psychology. These scientists and researchers played significant roles in the fields of finance and economics, including John von Neumann, Benoit Mandelbrot, Daniel Kahneman, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and Amos Tversky. What a fascinating surprise!

This is a great book and I highly recommend it. In particular, if you wonder how the financial establishment trashed the American economy in 2008, you will find the answer here.

35. Bossypants, by Tina Fey

This memoir of a TV comedienne is an amusing trifle.

36. I, Claudius, by Robert Graves

The 1934 book describes the reign of the Claudian Emperors of Rome, including their intrigues and excesses, some 2000 years ago. This is an interesting and worthwhile historical novel but I found the first person, memoir-style writing problematic. There was simply too much telling and not enough showing.

37. War Games: Inside the World of Twentieth Century War Reenactors, by Jenny Thompson

Most of us a familiar with Civil War reenactors. They teach us ancient history by showing us how the combatants lived and died in the compelling drama of simulated battle. There is another diverse group of reenactors, though, whose interest is in World War I and World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and even Iraq and Afghanistan. These reenactors tend to hide from the limelight, unlike their 19th Century counterparts, because many of the participants in the real events are still alive, as are the emotions surrounding the conflict. Author Thompson does a good, albeit leisurely, job of showing us the moral fuzziness in this emotional milieu.

38. Comrades and Chicken Ranchers: The Story of a California Jewish Community, by Kenneth L. Kann

This book is an oral biography of many of the Jewish immigrants who came to Petaluma California in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. It also interviews their children, grandchildren, friends, and a few neighbors and associates. It tells the story of an immigrant community that was at once utterly representative of the American melting pot while being just as utterly unique in the way that only a deeply ethnic minority can be.

Two years ago, my wife and I moved to Petaluma, so this is very relevant history for me. When I mention the book and the story of the Petaluma Jews to my new neighbors, they nod knowingly and give me additional fascinating tidbits. The Jews didn’t create the chicken ranching business in Petaluma, but they were prominent practitioners of it, and eggs and chickens were big business here in the years before, and just after, WWII.

39. Notes From a Small Island, by Bill Bryson

This book chronicles Bryson’s farewell tour of England after 20 years of residency there. He decided to take one last look at the island nation before returning to his native Iowa. Bryson is a good storyteller, always interesting, and at times he can be hilarious.

40. The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

The last book I read in 2012 might well be the best book of the year, and certainly one of the most fun. The novel, set in Thailand a hundred years or so in the future, when energy is scarce and disease wrought by genetically modified foods are plentiful, is a gripping story of intrigue and smoky atmosphere.

I am not a fan of deus ex machina fantasies like those of Tolkien and Rowling. I’m much more interested in the defensible extrapolation style of Heinlein and Asimov. Bacigalupi stays clearly within the lines of straight-up science fiction, and the backdrop of steamy Southeast Asia powered by spring engines is immensely satisfying.

The plot surprised me at every turn. Even the eponymous character of the windup girl didn’t make her appearance until chapter three, and then her essential purpose in the story wasn’t clear for several more chapters. The twists continued right up until the very end.

Bacigalupi’s prose is every bit as atmospheric as Alan Furst’s, easy to read yet richly layered. I highly recommend this book.

Book Review: On the Origin of Stories by Brian Boyd

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Darwin’s theory of evolution is generally regarded as one of—if not the—most important scientific revelations in history. Even amateurs like me give it props, but respect and understanding are two different things. It’s particularly difficult to wrap your head around the theory’s profound implications when you are one of those evolved forms. To put it another way, while humans have evolved many powerful mental abilities to help us understand the world in which we live, we haven’t evolved any particular mental ability to let us clearly see ourselves in an evolutionary perspective. We struggle to grasp what it really means to be an animal, driven by instinct, composed of an unordered set of adaptations, and not the rational, clear-headed, self-directed person we imagine ourselves to be.

It’s true that humans are animals with a highly evolved set of cognitive powers, but that doesn’t mean that we are without instinct or without invisible motivations rooted in our survival adaptations. Not only do humans have a history of ignoring the effect of their adaptations, but our recent history shows us misunderstanding and abusing them. In the middle of the twentieth century, the pseudo-science of eugenics was used as a justification for genocide. Academia, in recoiling from eugenics, banished any enquiry into how Darwinism might affect Homo sapiens. For at least a half-century, serious enquiry into the evolutionary basis of human behavior was suppressed. Unfortunately, in the vacuum, touchy-feely psycho-babble like Freudianism dominated the landscape of study.

The passage of time as well as such technical tools as computer-aided-tomography has finally allowed serious scientists to turn their attention to human evolution, provoking only ragged outbursts of hysteria. The last couple of decades have seen a tremendous explosion of fascinating and important work in the many new evolution-based fields of study.

Enough researchers have probed the subject with sufficient rigor and repeatability to elevate cutting-edge, evolutionary psychology to the level of “hard” science. We are not just working with theories and metaphors any more. What’s more, there are many skilled writers bringing scientific findings to the amateur reader. Brian Boyd’s new book, “On the Origin of Stories”, subtitled “Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction”, is a fine example.

The book is a fascinating enquiry into how humans think, behave, and conceive of the world and each other through the startling lens of our evolved survival mechanisms. Boyd says that “Minds exist to predict what will happen next.” What sets this book apart is its focus on the role of art, and particularly the art of telling not-strictly-true-stories, in shaping human behavior and civilization.

Some readers will object to Boyd’s pedantic, step-by-relentless-step defense of fiction—and all art—as an evolved behavior. But political correctness, in its unyielding fight against eugenics, still actively combats contemporary researchers when they look human-ward. To make his case, Boyd clearly feels that he must not only examine art from an evolutionary perspective, but he must also examine evolutionary biology as well, which he does doggedly, but effectively. Boyd explains, “Since evolution challenges deeply held intuitions about our special place in the world, since the controversies have been sharp and the confusions and misrepresentations profuse, we have to tread carefully.” Even if you are not a hyper-sensitive, political-correctness Nazi, or a bible-thumping Creationist, seeing human nature through Darwinian lenses can be challenging to one’s self-image, and while Boyd’s methodical arguments are demanding, they are not unwelcome.

I’m neither an academic nor a scientist, but a designer and builder of software, which means that I endow high-technology products with human-facing behavior. Understanding how humans conceive of the world around them, and how they are motivated, is an essential skill for anyone in my line of work.

Historically, computer programmers have ignored all of this human stuff and instead immersed themselves in the abundant technical minutia of programming. Of course, the software they wrote was heartbreakingly difficult to use. It took many years and many tears before an awareness of the linkage between bad software and misconstrued human nature emerged. And sort of like those vestigial defenders against eugenics, there remain many who resist the idea that evolutionary psychology plays a role in the design of software. Yet, because evolutionary psychology directly addresses human motivation, it is arguably the single most useful tool for understanding and designing the form and behavior of software.

Not only are Boyd’s opening chapters on evolutionary psychology an excellent précis of the territory, but his focus on the evolutionary origins of storytelling are even more useful to the software designer. Narrative, or storytelling, is a vitally important tool both for the design of behavior and for the communication of that design.

Boyd gives us a vocabulary for understanding storytelling. He shows how humans conceive of the world through stories. Our relations with others are framed by our physical memory into narratives with characters and events to enable future recall. Our values and our perceptions are based on these storytelling mechanisms. We imagine the world through narrative eyes: plot and character, event and intent, attention and pattern, anticipation and surprise.

Storytelling is what allows the software designer to imagine real people in front of our software creations. Storytelling allows us to see their instinctive human motivations and perceptions at work as they manipulate the interfaces that we design. Storytelling allows us to share our abstract designs with others who must implement them.

The evolutionary basis of art is probably the least examined, and least understood, area of contemporary evolutionary study. Even Stephen Pinker’s 1997 book, How the Mind Works, a sweeping overview of the field, fumbled the art ball. Pinker posed two theories. The first being that art is merely a by-product—or vestigial remain—of our big brains used for other, more important things. Pinker’s second argument is that art is used to attract mates. Being otherwise without purpose, owning an expensive painting, for example, communicates one’s wealth, and by extension, ability to nurture offspring.

Boyd kindly but thoroughly dismantles both of Pinker’s arguments. Art as by-product falls to the argument that evolution quickly evolves away from costly but useless abilities, citing the way cave-dwelling salamanders soon become sightless. The art-as-sexual-attractant is a more resilient argument. Darwin described such mechanisms, like a peacock’s tail, calling the process “sexual selection.” Boyd argues,

“If art were sexually selected, this would predict that it is overwhelmingly male and directed to females, developing rapidly at puberty, peaking just before mate selection, and diminishing drastically afterward. But mothers of all cultures sing to infants; infants prefer their mother’s singing to their fathers; infants of both sexes engage in cooing and singing, clapping, and dancing as soon as they can.”

It is easier to recognize human adaptations when we look at the simple, fundamental manifestations of art in human behavior than it is to discern them by gazing at a Vermeer or a Klee.

Boyd says “Evolution by natural selection is a simple principle with staggeringly complex and unpredictable results.” No where is this more true than that uniquely human affect, art.

“Despite its many forms, art, too, is a specifically human adaptation, biologically part of our species. It offers tangible advantages for human survival and reproduction, and it derives from play, itself an adaptation widespread among animals with flexible behaviors.”

Some people might find it hard to believe that something instinctive and important for human survival could also be so entertaining, enjoyable, and often inconsequential. But humans persist in having sex even when there is no chance for reproduction.

Boyd also argues that just because something serves a purpose, it doesn’t mean that it can’t serve others as well.

“Eyes evolved for vision, but we also use them for communications: hence our contrastive white sclera, which highlight the direction of another’s gaze, and our highly refined capacities for registering and inferring attention and intention from others’ eye direction. That we can now intimidate others with our stare does not refute the fact that eyes evolved for vision.”

The core of Boyd’s case is that art is a form of cognitive play. “We can define art as cognitive play with pattern. Just as play refined behavioral options over time by being self-rewarding, so art increases cognitive skills, repertoires, and sensitivities.” The role of play is to safely practice what we will eventually need to survive. We play at fighting because eventually we will fight for our lives. We play at storytelling because eventually the real story that plays out around us will determine our fitness to succeed.

Storytelling, and all art, is the tool and training ground for humans to learn and practice social interaction. Humans develop a sense of “event comprehension” while still in the cradle. Events, of course, are a key element of plot and narrative.

The brain works by strengthening paths that are used repeatedly, so we need to practice those skills necessary for survival. In the ultra-social world of humans, perceiving and understanding the honesty and intent of others is paramount.

Boyd describes it by saying,

“A work of art acts like a playground for the mind, a swing or a slide or a merry-go-round of visual or aural or social pattern. Art’s appeal to our preferences for pattern ensures that we expose ourselves to high concentrations of humanly appropriate information eagerly enough that over time we strengthen the neural pathways that process key patterns in open-ended ways.”

The portion of our brains that are uniquely human, the neocortex, is constructed differently from the older parts of the brain, and it functions differently, too. It works more like an executive, integrating signals from widely disparate facilities. This necessitates a mechanism for aiming the executive. Boyd asserts that this mechanism is attention.

Attention is what allows us to focus on the tiny behavioral cues of others, to determine their intent and to assess their validity. Conversely, it allows us to alter our behavior, so that the cues we send to others suit our own intentions. Stories become cognitive exercises that focus our attention on “perceived patterns of behavior in order to infer intent.”

Attention is remarkably important to humans. To a significant extent, attention is the true currency of human civilization. The maxim “survival of the fittest” seems to say that all of us evolved beasts are constantly in competition not only with our surroundings, but with each other. That is certainly true, but it is also true that we cooperate, and we often do so across large populations. By definition, any social species must cooperate effectively, and humans are exceptional in this regard.

“All social species prosper more together than alone, or they would not remain social, but humans take this to another level, ultrasociality, the most intense cooperativeness of all individualized animal societies. Not endowed by nature with formidable strength or speed, we have been able for hundreds of thousands of years to coordinate our activity sufficiently to kill large prey—and, for thousands of years to construct pyramids or cathedrals and settlements of thousands or even millions.”

Cooperation itself is a multi-faceted thing. At the lowest level is mutualism, wherein simply being near others of the same species is helpful; watching for predators, for example.

The next step, active cooperation, explains why parents look out for their children. But in this case, the direct tie to genes is obvious. How can cooperation be explained when those involved don’t share genes? Deduced from game theory, the answer is termed reciprocal altruism: “I help you in the expectation that you may help me later.” Of course, it is still very easy to cheat, so humans have evolved many cognitive tools for the detection, prevention, and punishment of cheaters. These uniquely human tools include

“Sympathy, so that I am inclined to help another; trust, so that I can offer help now and expect it will be somehow repaid later; gratitude, to include me, when I have been helped, to return the favor; shame, to prompt me to repay when I still owe a debt; a sense of fairness, so that I can intuitively gauge an adequate share or repayment; indignation, to spur me to break off cooperation with or even inflict punishment on a cheat; and guilt, a displeasure at myself and fear of exposure and reprisal to deter me from seeking the short-term advantages of cheating.”

Boyd says, “Rather than merely taking these emotions as givens, we can account for them as natural selection’s way of motivating widespread cooperation in highly social species.”

One of the more fascinating aspects of this book is its description of the empirical tools employed by evolutionary psychologists to explore their theories. Boyd describes the work of evolutionary psychologist Leda Cosmides attempting to discern the workings of the human anti-cheating mechanism. She found that although people struggled to solve problems in logical reasoning when presented in abstractions, people solved them easily when they were presented in terms involving cheating in social exchange.

Behaving in non-selfish ways is logical only if you see the bigger picture of cooperative groups, but people don’t think of groups, they simply behave according to their emotions. And those emotions are mechanisms that function regardless of logic. Our justice-detection mechanism, key to mutual altruism, often makes us behave in ways that defy the assumptions of logicians.

“In one experiment, the dictator game, two strangers play for (usually real) money, say $100. I, as dictator, must offer you a share. If you accept the division, both of us keep our agreed portions. If you reject the offer, neither of us receives anything. In terms of strict economic rationality, an offer of a dollar, even a cent, would leave the second participant better off, and should therefore be accepted. But … often if the sum offered is only a little under $40, the respondent rejects it. A sense of fairness in social exchange overrides the rational calculation of gain. We have evolved not to be ‘rational individuals’, profit maximizers, but social animals, holding others to fair dealings even at our own cost.”

Stories originated in the need for informing our justice systems; for monitoring people’s compliance with fairness. Gossip is the simplest and most widespread form of this, and ultimately, all fiction derives from it. Out of such simple mechanisms grow mighty civilizations.

Slowly, methodically, Boyd steers us away from conventional thinking about the role of art and narrative. The importance of art can be seen in its ubiquity. “Art” he says

“(1) is universal in human societies; (2) it has persisted over several thousand generations; (3) despite the vast number of actual and possible combinations of behavior in all known human societies, art has the same major forms (music and dance; the manual creation of visual design; story and verse) in all; (4) it often involves high costs in time, energy, and resources; (5) it stirs strong emotions, which are evolved indicators that something matters to an organism; (6) it develops reliably in all normal humans without special training, unlike purely cultural products such as reading, writing, or science. The fact that it emerges early in individual development—that young infants respond with special pleasure to lullabies and spontaneously play with colors, shapes, rhythms, sounds, words and stories—particularly supports evolutionary against nonevolutionary explanations.”

As I read this book, I assumed that Boyd was a scientist; an evolutionary biologist. At some point I glanced at the dust jacket and was surprised to find that he is a professor of English in New Zealand, and that he is “the world’s foremost authority on the works of Vladimir Nabokov.” The book is divided in two equal portions. The first half is pure evolutionary psychology, and I found it quite fascinating and informative. In the second half of the book, Boyd-the-English-Professor emerges. He presents two timeless works of literature from the evolutionary point of view. You can get a glimpse of his dual nature just by knowing that his selections are “The Odyssey” by Homer, and “Horton Hears a Who” by Dr. Seuss.

While I devoured the first half of the book, the literary second half seemed prolix and redundant to me. You may have a different experience. In any case, I recommend the book to anyone interested in evolutionary science, and in particular to any practitioner in the world of human-facing software.