Friday, August 29, 2014

Quick & Fun: Nonfiction for the Sunbathing Skeptic

Labor Day is here!  If you are going to the beach this weekend, keep in mind that nonfiction can make good beach-reading, too. Unlike the plot of the latest thriller, the lessons taught in these three recent books might outlast your vacation.

Virtual Unreality, by award-winning science journalist Charles Seife, author of Zero, Sun in a Bottle, and Proofiness (a personal favorite), looks at the dark side of the “ultimate information revolution” engendered by the internet and the proliferation of digital information. Internet imposters (“sock puppets”), scams, and hoaxes prey on the even the most sophisticated computer users.  eBooks, print on demand, and digital self-publishing swamp us with e-dross. (Check out Amazon’s 101-page list of “books” by Philip E. Parker.) Wikipedia, aggregation, and other “reporting” phenomena degrade the reliability of information and reinforce error. Filtered newsfeeds and “narrowcasting” by special interest blogs heighten our differences of opinion and validate extremism. Commercial interests use “gamification” and the pressure of social networks to shape our brains and our behavior to their advantage (Farmville players, he’s looking at you.)  There’s more, and Seife’s readable, amusing prose will entertain even as it makes you want to toss your iPhone into the surf.  He ends with a takeaway: “The Top Ten Dicta of the Internet Skeptic”, a practical list of caveats and reminders. My favorite: “Top Ten lists are just marketing gimmicks intended for suckers.”

David J. Hand, professor emeritus of mathematics at Imperial College in London and scientific adviser to a successful algorithmic hedge fund, translates his expertise into a common-sense guide to probability for the layman: The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. That person who won the lottery three times?  The October, 1987 stock market crash?  Abraham Lincoln’s dream that he would be assassinated?  Completely explainable if you understand the “laws” of the Improbability Principle. The Law of Truly Large Numbers, the Law of the Probability Lever, and the Law of Selection respectively predict that such events will indeed occur, and occur more often than we expect.  Hand begins this enlightening and entertaining book by exploring the ideas of “chance”, “fate”, “randomness” and other expressions of the capriciousness of the universe. He follows with an easily graspable introduction to the sometimes counterintuitive mathematics of probability, and continues with chapters on the “laws” that together comprise the Improbabilty Principle. He discusses the way the human brain is wired to look for patterns where none exist and other biases that undermine our ability to acknowledge the principle and its laws. Examples abound, and by the time you finish the book, you will be seeing these laws in action everywhere you look. (A coincidence?) Like Seife, Hand leaves us with practical lessons on how a skeptic might use the principle to discern mistaken predictions, detect fraud and hyperbole, and distinguish what is meaningful from what is merely statistically significant.

Internet blogs are all about lists (see Seife) and things come in threes (see Hand), so of course I have a third recommendation: Think Like a Freak, by economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, authors of the popular Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics.  If you read them, you will recognize their trademark approach to explaining riddles of human behavior:  data-driven, unconventional, often light-hearted, and sometimes controversial.  This time around, the “Freaks” endeavor to teach you the qualities and techniques that make their research so successful. In breezy chapters such as “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language” (hint: they’re not “I love you) and “What’s Your Problem”, they emphasize that scientific problem-solving requires first that you admit you don’t know the answer; and second, that you correctly define the question.  They also include a chapter on how to persuade people of the correctness of your answer (and how to guarantee they won’t listen to you at all) and a final one on knowing when to admit you’re barking up the wrong tree and should quit (my personal favorite!) All of this illustrated by fun stories told with a little bit of snark, many with surprising twists that I won’t give away here. (Why did the band Van Halen require that there be no brown M&M’s in their snack bowls?)

Happy Labor Day!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Falling into Fall: Upcoming books to pair with pumpkin and spice

The days may be getting shorter but my to-read list seems to stretch on forever*. I’m looking forward to mulled cider and wine, all things pumpkin-derived, and cool evenings on the balcony spent immersing myself in these soon to be new releases.  Being a book lover and working in a library means it kind of  feels like my birthday whenever the new books come in, so here is a list of my most anticipated new books of Fall 2014:

[*For those of you who don't know, which I would imagine is all of you, I am attempting to read 100 books this year. Why? Because goals. With 46 left to read and this late in the year it isn't looking good for me, but I've really enjoyed the challenge so far. I'll let you know in January how it ends.]

Wolf in White Van
John Darnielle
Isolated and disfigured game designer Sean Phillips orchestrates an elaborate text-based role-playing game known as "Trace Italian" with terrible consequences as the game plays out in real life. John Darnielle's mysterious and cosmically twisty debut novel, due out mid-September, should appeal to fans of Haruki Murakami and Alif the Unseen.
Station Eleven
Emily ST. John Mandel
Fans of Margaret Atwood, and those disappointed by California, should keep an eye out for the fourth novel from Emily St. John Mandel, also due out in September. Hours after an actor dies onstage during a production of King Lear the world begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time, Station Eleven is the suspenseful story of Hollywood actors at the end of the world.

The Bone Clocks
David Mitchell
If you were one of the many people celebrating the release of Haruki Murakami's latest (yeah guys, me too) then you probably already have your calendars marked for this one. Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell's upcoming metaphysical thriller is already long-listed for the Booker prize and you can expect to see it on the new books shelf in September.

Mermaids in Paradise
Lydia Millet
Lydia Millet's latest sounds like quite a ride.  Honeymooners Deb and Chip meet a marine biologist in the Caribbean who claims to have found mermaids. The couple teams up with others to save the mermaids from being turned into an amusement park attraction. Swamplandia! fans and readers of Jeffery Eugenides and Tom Rachman be on the lookout for this darkly funny new release in November.
Wittgenstein Jr
Lars Iyers
Lars Iyers returns with a "hilarious coming-of-age love story" set among a group of Cambridge undergrads determined to impress their existentially anguished professor dubbed "Wittgenstein, Jr." Fans of Muriel Barbery and Saul Bellow will be excited to get back to school with this in September.
Not That Kind of Girl
Lena Dunham
I'm sure you know of outspoken and witty Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture, Girls) by now so you probably already know that her book is coming out at the end of September. Honest, smart, and funny, "these are stories about getting your butt touched by your boss, about friendship and dieting (kind of) and having two existential crises before the age of 20 [...]" and more. If you love Kelly Oxford's Everything is Perfect If You're a Liar you'll probably be into this.
10:04: A Novel
Ben Lerner
Fans of Jonathan Franzen will be happy to get their hands on this novel due out in September. (September is going to be a busy month for me.) In 10:04 a man is asked to help a friend conceive a child in a New York that is teetering on the brink of collapse, socially and environmentally.
Love Me Back
Merritt Tierce
I suppose I should label this post "Hotly Anticipated end-of-Summer Bummers." If you like to read cheerful books, my recommendations are probably not for you.This gritty debut novel by Merritt Tierce about a struggling and self-destructive single mother should interest fans of Chuck Palahniuk in September.

And now, for lovers of all things Fall, "my"** Apple Chai-der recipe:
[**I actually use store bought prepared Chai tea concentrate and mix it with Bold Rock Cider in a 1 to 1 ratio because I am efficient.***]

1 1/2 cups water
1 cup apple cider ("hard" or "soft". Virginia has a fine selection of both to choose from)
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon crystallized ginger
5 whole black peppercorns
2 green cardamom pods, crushed
2 English breakfast black tea bags

In a medium saucepan combine water, apple cider, cinnamon stick, ginger, peppercorns and cardamom. Heat over medium heat until just beginning to boil. Reduce heat; simmer gently for 5 minutes. Remove cider mixture from heat. Add tea bags; steep for 3 minutes then remove tea bags. Strain cider mixture; discard spices. Serve in mugs.

Makes 2 servings (2 cups total)

Friday, August 15, 2014

What To Read Where

In his 2011 The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux offered ten essential rules for encountering new places. The rules make useful advice for anyone taking advantage of the doldrums of August to seek out that bit of the state, country, or globe they haven’t sought out before. The eighth rule is especially essential since it hints at a quick stop at your local library before departing.

“8. Read a novel that has no relation to the place you’re in.”

Theroux explains that travel can be lonely enough and overwhelming enough for the traveler to need a break. A novel set in an entirely different place can be, said Theroux in an interview with Rick Steves, “a refuge.” Spend some time in Juneau and eventually you’ll need a break from all the new, Alaskan impressions. Madame Bovary then, and not The Call of the Wild, provides relief.

And with everything around you so different from everything on the page, the characters and settings in the novel will be all the more vivid. Read Madame Bovary in the French countryside and some of the details may pass you by. But read it in Juneau and every part of an opera in Normandy seems strange and wonderful. “Nothing is more memorable,” said Theroux, “than the novel you read in the very, very far away place.”

Here are five reading experiences I’ve had, and one I haven’t, that seem to follow the rule. I recommend all the books, some of the trips too.

This summer I had the fortune or misfortune of  spending a weekend in Las Vegas. My book of choice was Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. When the Mojave Desert felt a bit too expansive, I could spend time with Arthur, trapped in the hold of a Nantucket whaling ship. When the 111 degree heat had me wanting to sit down, I could travel with Arthur to the South Pole.

Visiting a monastery in Charleston, South Carolina I brought along Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji. Among the first novels ever written, Genji is Buddhist where the monastery was Catholic, opulent where the monastery was humble, and full of romance and intrigue where the monastery was at least not visibly either.

On a pilgrimage to Flannery O’Connor’s home in Milledgeville, Georgia I decided not to go the obvious route and instead brought along Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. While Ripley might be bloody enough for O’Connor’s tastes, there are no farmhouses here, only well-dressed cosmopolitans shuttling across Italy.

This could probably be flipped around. O’Connor once famously said, “When in Rome do as you done in Milledgeville.” Why not take this almost literally and read Wise Blood at the Trevi Fountain, A Good Man is Hard to Find at the Pantheon, or Everything That Rises Must Converge at the Spanish Steps? 

And the experience that started off this whole bizarre practice: reading Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar on an Amtrak from New York to Pittsburgh. Granted, Theroux and I were both on trains, and The Great Railway Bazaar is a travel book and not a novel, but the juxtaposition of fiction and reality was exactly as Theroux later recommended in The Tao of Travel. In my hands I had India, Iran, and China, and out the window: Altoona.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Future Tension: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of my Sci-Fi Summer

What's your vision of the future? Will aliens colonize earth? Will Earth colonize them?  Will civilization as we know it survive rising sea levels? Will languages exist as we understand them? What mighty empires will rise and fall and rise again? This summer I have been furiously reading through a lengthy list of recommended sci-fi, dystopian, and futurist reads and I'm declaring winners and losers here, on this blog, today.  First, the Good:
The Girl in the Road was awesome.  Imagine a world suffering the predicted effects of climate change (rising sea levels, crop failures, extreme storms, etc.). Now add to that a not-too-distant future imagined with mostly appropriately advanced technology (no improbable leaps in A.I. but a little genetic silliness), and the global hegemony has shifted east to Mumbai. A young woman being pursued by a mysterious little girl goes on the run to hunt down her parents' killer in Ethiopia via "the Trail", a long and seemingly mythical  hydro-electric project spanning the Arabian Sea from India to east Africa. The Girl in the Road is pretty terrific magical realism set against a well-constructed, believable future backdrop. It was so different from anything I've read in the genre. I would recommend it to any lovers of sci-fi/fantasy and to readers who say they "don't read science fiction".
The Man with the Compound Eyes, another from the realm of magical realism, was a beautifully written and imaginative story.  Originally published in Taiwan, the book is set in another not-too-distant future impacted by a changing environment.  A grieving professor is preparing for her suicide as her seaside home is gradually consumed by the sea. A young member of the fictional Wayo Wayo tribe is cast off his South Pacific island home according to tradition. Their lives intersect when a swirling garbage vortex washes ashore. Are you hooked yet? 
The Bees is my most recommended book of the year and so far not a single person has given me the stink-eye after reading it--yet. When I saw it come in I was skeptical, I'll admit.  I mean, a bee narrative?  Yes, a bee narrative! I haven't connected with an anthropomorphic bug protagonist in such a visceral way since Charlotte's Web. This book, quite frankly, should have been silly.  Flora 717 is a big awkward sanitation worker bee who dares to bee (I'm sorry) more than her prescribed station in life. One jacket blurb (clearly written by someone who has only heard of books in passing) declared it "The Handmaid's Tale meets The Hunger Games."  No it isn't. I don't particularly care for the "[book] meets [other book]" reviews anyway. They are lazy and do a disservice to the books, especially considering how completely well thought out The Bees is. Maybe what we need are review reviews?
Now for the BAD (and my sassiest review to date on this blog so brace yourselves): California is a little bit of Oryx and Crake, On Such a Full Sea, The Dog Stars, and The Road but WAY less thoughtful than any of those books. The characters are shallow and one dimensional, which seems to be on purpose but it's hard to say, and if the author were better she might have pulled off a sort of Ira Levin does Beverly Hills, 90210: the post apocalyptic years. Sadly, she did not. This book was really disappointing, an incredibly naive story about dull people whining in the wilderness. Recommended instead are: Oryx and CrakeOn Such a Full SeaThe Dog Stars, and The Road. 
The Girl with all the Gifts was a pretty average zombie story, which could be forgivable, but I was promised so much more! It was not "thrilling", "gripping", "haunting" or "heartbreaking". Sometimes it seems like reviewers go into a book deciding they're going to like it no matter what. While still moderately satisfying in the way zombie stories usually are, all of the characters were such dull caricatures and the Girl was really annoying. The incredibly silly final act required the reader to suspend an awful lot of disbelief too, though I won't spoil the "twist" for those still determined to read it. If you're hoping for the World War Z, Zone One, or even The Strain of 2014, shuffle past this one. I still say Black Moon, though not technically a zombie story with a capital Zed, is the most satisfying zombie novel of the year.

Finally, the UGLY: The Martian by Andy Weir. Why Ugly? Because 1) I could only bring myself to give it three stars on Goodreads but I liked it. 2)  I winced through every line of dialogue but couldn't put it down and read it in two sittings. And 3)  the astronaut was so obnoxious that I was rooting for Mars, then recommended it to my 16 year old brother who L-O-V-E-D it and asked for more. The science is super cool, the astronaut is a dumb frat boy stereotype (who became an astronaut somehow), and the scary space action is non-stop even when it's, well, stopped. The basics: Guy goes to Mars, gets stranded, keep a detailed scientific log peppered with "that's what she said" jokes.  And it's really fun.

Summer Reading 2014 has come to an end. Get some closure at the big finale party at the main library this Saturday, August 9th from 10-1.  Party like it's 2114!

Friday, August 01, 2014

Man Booker Goes Global

After a too-long hiatus, I’m re-entering the RPL blogosphere to write about books and reading, using my “What Are You Reading?” tag. One of my first posts (in 2010!) was about the Man Booker prize, so it seems appropriate to start out with it this time around as well.

The short list for Great Britain’s Man Booker Prize has always been one of my favorite sources for must-read literary fiction.  Since 1968, the award has been for books written in English by a citizen of The United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland, but beginning in 2014 it is open to any book written in English and published in the United Kingdom.  Included in the long list of 13 novels released last week are four by Americans, all available at RPL.

You may remember that RPL librarians nominated Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for the “other” prestigious European literary prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The Man Booker judges agree with us. You may have already read our enthusiastic endorsement, but it bears repeating here:
“Equal parts funny and heartbreaking, Karen Joy Fowler's sixth novel "starts in the middle" and takes the reader back to the murky world of 1970s behavioral psychology experiments through the unreliable memories of a young woman recalling a childhood trauma that drastically altered her and her family.  The novel deftly explores ethics, memory, animal rights issues, and the meaning of family.  With a knockout twist that the author masterfully conceals, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a breathless joy to read.”

Orfeo, by Richard Powers, was blurbed by its publisher as a “man on the run” thriller, perhaps in a commercial appeal to a wider American audience than Powers, author of the 2006 National Book Award winner, The Echo Maker, usually attracts. Peter Els is a 70-year-old composer, retired and largely forgotten. He has the idea that musical patterns can be encoded into the DNA of a bacterium, is mistaken for a bioterrorist by an overzealous Homeland Security Department, and becomes a fugitive.  But this premise is only an excuse: Orfeo is a novel about music and its transcendent possibilities.  Told largely in flashbacks that relate Els’s personal relationships (with his first lover, his ex-wife, a friend and collaborator, and his daughter) as well as his very personal relationship with music, the novel is also an exploration of 20th century music, from Mahler to Steve Reich and beyond. (I found his long descriptive passages of various works best read and and then re-read while listening to the works themselves, which I found on YouTube and in the library.) You don’t have to be a music lover to enjoy Orfeo, but if you’re looking for the thriller promised on the flap, you will be disappointed.

Art is also at the heart (and soul) of Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, my favorite of the four and the best book I have read yet this year.  Like Peter Els, Harriet Burden is an aging artist, also largely ignored and forgotten. Her assemblages received little critical attention in the art world, and her career as an artist was overshadowed by her role as the wife of a famous New York art dealer.  “Harry”, bitter and disillusioned, is convinced that were she a man her art would have received the attention and acclaim it deserves. Following her husband’s death, she tests this hypothesis by undertaking a trilogy of installations and presenting them as the work of three different male artists, who agree to the ruse for their own purposes, and with tragic results. Hustvedt’s ekphrasis* is as successful as Powers’s; her vivid descriptions of Harry’s works are richly imagined and fully convincing. If Orfeo’s structure is a symphony in four movements, The Blazing World is an assemblage of disparate materials -- journal entries, critical reviews, press releases, correspondence and interviews -- collected by an art historian after Harry’s death. Stay with it: the first 50 to 75 pages baffled me, but the compelling heroine and Hustvedt’s piercingly intelligent prose had me fully entranced and engaged thereafter.

Which brings us to Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Its first 50 to 75 pages were full of laugh-out-loud promise, but I was completely baffled and fully disengaged by its end.  Paul O’Rourke, a middle-aged dentist in New York City, is a lonely atheist in search of a religious tradition. He’s also a die-hard Red Sox fan, and a Luddite who despises “me-machines” (smart phones) and social media.  O’Rourke is alarmed to discover that someone has created not only a Facebook page for his practice, but an online persona who espouses the beliefs of an obscure sect (the Ulms) whose origins are described in a lost Old Testament book (the Cantaveticles) and whose fundamental tenet is doubting God’s existence.  Got all that?  The novel’s comic beginnings meander into long-winded pseudo-biblical discourse and angst-ridden rumination. I kept reading, but by the time I finished what had become an entirely different book from the one I had begun, I was questioning my own faith in the author’s promise.

Whatever I may have thought of the last, hats off to the Man Booker judges for recognizing this vibrant collection of American literary voices in their first global long list.

* What a great vocabulary word, and where better to use it than a library blog??