52 Books a Year: #15 - Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons

Posted by Brian Sat, 14 Nov 2009 21:57:00 GMT

Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons
By Kurt Vonnegut

3.5/5

I honestly don’t remember enough about this book to write a coherent review of it and I didn’t take any notes while reading it. I guess this is why you shouldn’t wait six months to write a review of a book. It is a collection of essays on various subjects and I would only recommend it for fans of other Vonnegut works who wish to read all of works. Interesting, but not essential.

Posted in  | Tags ,  | no comments

52 Books a Year: #14 - The Botany of Desire

Posted by Brian Fri, 13 Nov 2009 21:15:00 GMT

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World
By Michael Pollan

4.5/5

Occasionally I like to ask others to suggest books for me to read. Both Second Nature and The Botany of Desire were suggested to me by my yoga teacher. Michael Pollan’s books had been on my radar for a while, having read several of his essays and seeing him on Bill Moyers’ Journal, and he does not disappoint.

In The Botany of Desire Pollan examines how four different types of plants (apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes) affected culture and and how culture has affected each of these plants. This simple premise provides for a fascinating read.

You learn about the real Johnny Appleseed (eccentric but rich) and the copious amounts of applejack made from his trees. Quite often the truth is stranger than fiction and in his case it is. He proves to be more far more interesting than the popular image of some wanderer randomly throwing apple seeds around with a pot on his head. You also learn about the culture of prized apple types that existed before the 20th century. A man with a new type of apple could become famous.

Tulips provide the most confounding plant in the book. Amazingly enough in the 1630’s they produced the first well-documented speculative bubble in history in Holland. The idea of a flower causing a bubble today seems absurd, but the idea of homes causing a bubble seems absurd to me as well.

Marijuana provides the simplest explanation of a plant affecting culture. Pollan explores the burgeoning pot farms of Amsterdam and describes his own experiment in growing pot from his younger days. It is an honest and refreshing look at the role of drugs in our culture

He finishes by looking at potatoes and the way they have affected modern agribusiness. The growth of fast-food empires such as McDonalds has created enormous demand for identical potatoes, which modern agribusiness has grown to supply. This last section provides a launching point for most of his work since, describing the growing role of multi-billion dollar chemical and genetic engineering corporations in farming.

Pollan is a gifted writer and flows easily from philosophy to history to anecdote without missing a beat. This particular book also stands out since I read most of it on my honeymoon watching over Niagara Falls and Toronto. Every bit as good as Second Nature.

Posted in  | Tags  | no comments

52 Books a Year: #13 - Second Nature

Posted by Brian Wed, 11 Nov 2009 19:10:00 GMT

Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education By Michael Pollan

5/5

Second Nature was Michael Pollan’s first book and also the first book of his that I have read. On the surface it describes his growth as a gardener from his childhood to the time the book was released, but into this story he weaves ruminations on the American relationship between nature and culture.

The book shines in its more philosophical parts. He describes a debate about what to do with a small local forest that burned down. Should it just be left to grow back on its own? Should it be cultivated into an orderly park? Was it really all that natural to begin with? It was an island of forest surrounded by civilization. If it should be returned to nature, which version? 19th century? Pre-Columbus? Pre-Native American? The point is that man too is part of nature and once we arrive there is no such thing as returning it to its natural state, indeed there never was such a thing. Nature is not static and attempting to enforce this on a space is also bringing it under man’s control, albeit less so than a suburban lawn, which he describes as “nature under totalitarian rule”.

Pollan envisions a garden as a place where we can meet nature halfway, enforcing a coherent and pleasing order in a way that works with nature. (It can also be the place to firebomb a groundhog hole.) If you are expecting a guide to gardening then this book isn’t what you are looking for, but if you are looking for inspiration in how to approach your garden, then Second Nature is a very worthwhile read.

Posted in  | Tags  | no comments

52 Books a Year: #12 - True Enough

Posted by Brian Sat, 07 Nov 2009 20:01:00 GMT

True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society
By Farhad Manjoo

4.5/5

Truthiness. That is this book summed up in one word. If you are a regular watcher of The Colbert Show, then you are already familiar with the theme of the book. There is no such thing as truth in modern media and politics. Instead there are various versions of the “truth” and simply repeating a “fact” often enough can make it seem so to a wide audience. The fragmentation of media outlets that give smaller and smaller audiences exactly what they want to hear leads to “truths” with little to no basis in reality. He pushes these points home by exploring 9/11 conspiracy theories, the swift boat campaign against John Kerry, and claims that George Bush stole the 2004 election.

The big shortcoming here is that there really is no Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society part. He outlines how the death of truth has caused collateral damage to society by reducing trust, the essential lubricant of any vibrant society. A chapter is tacked on at the end that vaguely tackles these issues, but there is no real substance to it. He doesn’t offer anything even resembling a solution.

Posted in  | Tags  | no comments

52 Books a Year: #11 - Slapstick, or Lonesome No More

Posted by Brian Fri, 06 Nov 2009 20:44:00 GMT

Slapstick, Or Lonesome No More By Kurt Vonnegut

2.5/5

I really don’t know what to think about Slapstick. It was the third Vonnegut book I read in a row (after Mother Night and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater) and it is definitely not one of the highlights of his career. There isn’t a lot of structure and it comes off as a mashing together of various ideas into a lumpy whole, including telepathic deformed children, shrinking Chinese, collapsing western civililization, and randomly assigned family cousins and siblings.

Vonnegut apparently wrote it after the death of his uncle and the relationship of the Swain children is supposed to represent his relationship with his deceased sister, who functioned as a muse for him. I would consider this the least essential of all the Vonnegut novels I have read.

Posted in  | Tags  | no comments

52 Books a Year: #10 - God Bless You Mr. Rosewater

Posted by Brian Fri, 06 Nov 2009 02:33:00 GMT

God Bless You Mr. Rosewater By Kurt Vonnegut

4/5

I mentioned yesterday that Mother Night was a book that I liked at first, but then gnawed at me for months until I thought it was amazing. God Bless You Mr. Rosewater took a somewhat opposite course. Reading it is a surreal trip into the line between insanity and charity, but it doesn’t have the same sort of staying power. Or possibly I only have room for long-term thoughts on one Vonnegut novel at a time.

Eliot Rosewater is a wealthy trust-fund child who is struggling to use his money for philanthropy. Norman Mushari, Jr. is a lawyer trying to get rich by weaseling his way into some extended family. Vonnegut is direct, dark, and sarcastic is his writing, milking humor from the worst in human nature and hypocrisy abounds. It never reaches the level of surrealism found in Slaughterhouse-Five, but it never reaches the vileness felt in Breakfast of Champions either. Instead he finds a nice balance between the insanity of Eliot and the gold digging of Mushari.

God Bless you Mr. Rosewater is probably middle-of-the-road in quality as far as Vonnegut novels go, but that is still much better than the best that most authors achieve in their lifetimes. If you haven’t read Vonnegut yet, get started.

Posted in  | Tags ,  | no comments

52 Books a Year: #9 - Mother Night

Posted by Brian Wed, 04 Nov 2009 18:15:00 GMT

Mother Night By Kurt Vonnegut

5/5

I read my first Kurt Vonnegut book in the summer of 2007. It was Breakfast of Champions and it left me completely dumbfounded. Very rarely do I put down a book at the end and just say “Wow”, but I had never read anything like that in my life. I read a few other of his novels that summer with similar results (Slaughterhouse-Five and The Sirens of Titan), but didn’t get back to the rest of his work until this spring when I read a few more. Mother Night was the first of those.

Mother Night didn’t wow me at first, but it is one of those books that sticks in your mind and gnaws at you for months. The introduction is fashioned to appear as though Vonnegut is simply introducing the legitimate memoirs of the lead character. It is superbly done and could easily be believed if you have no other experience with Vonnegut.

The novel follows Howard Campbell, an American playwright in Nazi Germany who is recruited as a spy by the U.S. War Department. From there the novel follows the consequences of him pretending to be a Nazi propagandist in WWII and beyond. His memoirs are supposedly written while he awaits trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison for his role in spreading anti-Semitic propaganda.

When I finished this book I thought it was good, but it has grown on me since to the point that I find it be superb. Campbell’s struggle to escape what he pretended to be (and what everybody else thought he was) is infiltrated by doubt about what he actually was. In the introduction Vonnegut lays out the moral of the book, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” His writing was dark and the morals often ambiguous, but here it is best heeded.

Posted in  | Tags ,  | no comments

52 Books a Year: #8 - Linux Apache Web Server Administration

Posted by Brian Tue, 03 Nov 2009 21:38:00 GMT

Linux Apache Web Server Administration By Charles Aulds

4.5/5

This spring I reached my breaking point with Apache. I didn’t really have a good understanding of what I was doing and I was moving from tutorial-to-tutorial trying to fill in the gaps. Finally, I decided that I needed a book and the next day I started reading Linux Apache Web Server Administration courtesy of the library. This covers version 2.0 of the server. Currently Apache is on 2.2.14, but this still provides a solid foundation of the fundamentals, which is exactly what I was looking for. If you understand the fundamentals of Apache, the wealth of tutorials and how-to articles out there start making a lot more sense.

You will get the most value out of this book if you are running Apache on a box with root access. A lot of this will not apply if you are in a shared hosting environment (like me), but you will at least understand why your host has setup the server in a certain way as you curse them. The writing can be dense, but this is a dense topic. I felt like the coverage of scripting wasn’t very thorough, but for those without much programming experience I can see it being valuable.

If you are struggling to understand proper Apache usage like me, then this book is for you. As soon as anything went wrong I had very little understanding of how to fix it. Now I at least understand how to start.

Posted in  | Tags , ,  | no comments

52 Books a Year: #7 - Just How Stupid Are We?

Posted by Brian Mon, 02 Nov 2009 21:53:00 GMT

Just How Stupid Are We?
By Rick Shenkman

3/5

The Myth of the People is quite possibly at an all-time high in America. The wisdom of the people is absolute and more direct democracy is the answer for all of our ills. You hear it all over the place. Here in Cincinnati we have referendums on the ballot asking whether the city council should be able to form a regional water authority or spend any money on rail without a referendum. We’re not voting on a plan. We’re voting on whether our elected leaders are even allowed to have a plan without asking for permission.

Just How Stupid Are We hits back by showing that as the American public has been given more power it has shown itself to be less and less prepared to wield it. Most Americans don’t know who any of their elected officials even are, let alone if they are competent. Does public support for a war in Iraq mean much when only 1 in 7 of those people can even point out Iraq on a map? This, combined with increased marketing and spin applied to political rhetoric, has left the average voter with little understanding of the consequences of his vote.

Shenkman’s style is brisk and the subject matter is depressing, but if you want to see just how ill prepared the average citizen is to field his democratic power then this book is for you. He tries to provide a glimmer of hope at the end by outlining a plan for improving the situation, but there is very little hope of any of that happening. The American Empire is in full decline.

Posted in  | Tags  | no comments

52 Books a Year Update

Posted by Brian Wed, 07 Oct 2009 23:20:00 GMT

I have actually read thirty-eight books so far this year even though I have only posted reviews for six of them. I need to get cracking on that. It’s difficult to write a review for a book you read six months ago.

I’m currently about two books behind where I should be for one book a week. I’m reading Cryptonomicon right now which certainly isn’t helping me to catch up.

Posted in  | Tags  | no comments