[ Home | Contact Me ]
There is a linked chronological list of books reviewed at the bottom of this page. This page is perpetually out-of-date. See my LibraryThing catalogue for a more up-to-date inventory or for more reviews.
Through Amazon, you can also buy some books that I recommend, there is both a Canadian store and a US store.
The Last Hero is an illustrated Discworld adventure, story of course by Terry Pratchett and illustrations by Paul Kidby. It was better than I expected, the illustrations work well with the story. The sticky frying pan kept making me laugh out loud. Also the bird-gripping-a-salmon spaceship design was simply brilliant. I liked Death with the kittens too. That would make a good poster.
I re-read Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring before going to the movie. It's a fairly enjoyable adventure and of course the canonical fantasy story. I think I last read it when I was about 10, so I remembered basically none of it. From what I have read about Tolkien, he was more interested in creating his languages than in the actual story, but I didn't get that feeling. I got more a sense that he was interested in his invented history, and there are long expository sections of the book where he goes on about historical background. I think probably The Silmarillion was the book he enjoyed most, although most people find it almost unreadably dense.
I was surprised that in the foreward to my book he spends considerable time dispelling some myths about his writing, particularly since the same ideas about his writing were presented in some of the recent articles surrounding the movie.
As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. ... It's sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels. ... One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to fully feel its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth in 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my closest friends were dead. Or to take a less grievous matter: it has been supposed by some that 'The Scouring of the Shire' reflects the situation in England at the time when I finished my tale. It does not. It is an essential part of the plot, foreseen at the outset, though in the event modified by the character of Saruman as developed in the story without, need I say, any allegorical significance or contemporary political reference whatsoever. It has indeed some basis in experience, though slender... and much further back. The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten, in days when motor-cars were rare objects (I had never seen one) and men were still building suburban railways.
Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a wonderfully written work of classical science. By this I mean she draws her conclusions based on direct observation, as free from preconceptions as possible. This is absolutely essential for a work analyzing people's cultural interactions as it is first descriptive and then prescriptive. All too often, when dealing with people, we cannot resist utopian urges to prescribe how they should behave, rather than accepting and working with the reality of human interaction in all its richness and complexity.
She starts with the most basic element of a city: the sidewalk. What makes a particular area interesting and comfortable for people to be in? Her fundamental concept, difficult to grasp with traditional rigid methods of planning and analysis, is that cities thrive on diversity of people, of buildings, of activities... that the whole engine of a great city is a diverse and interesting street life, full of people circulating around. In clear and compelling descriptions she lays out the characteristics of districts that "work", and compares their success with the failed areas of cities. Time and again, she finds the failed areas are victims of misguided planning, of utopian schemes about vast collections of imposing buildings or projects set within parkland.
This reminded me of Toronto's Olympic bid, and of how I think they are fortunate to lose. Grand schemes like that always end in unusable spaces. The Simpson's mocked this in the episode where they visited the empty wasteland of the former St. Louis World's Fair, a bare plaza with scraps of paper blowing across its stark expanse. Just recently in the paper there was an article about the areas built for the Sydney Olympics, now standing empty and underused.
It's a mark of her careful approach to analyzing the life of cities that she doesn't get around to looking at that great bugaboo, the car, until her 18th chapter. So many people, myself included, rail against the destruction of cities by cars, but she argues that this is just symptomatic of bad planning in general. Importantly, she argues for a slow and gradual discouragement of car traffic, rather than some grand plan to instantly turn the downtown into a pedestrian area. Again and again she returns to the slowly, "organically" evolving reality of working cities, rather than the lofty architectural abstractions favoured by planners, or the immediate urgencies of roads and parking as seen by highwaymen.
The June 2001 Reason magazine has an interesting interview with her.
Thief of Time just arrived in the post today. Quite amusing. Proved to be an unexpectly good companion, as it happens, to Kathmandu.
William Henry Jackson was a remarkable man, with a life so full of activity that he only got around to writing his autobiography Time Exposure in 1940, when he was 97 years old.
After quite a lot of detail describing his early home life, his adventures get underway as he enlists in the army, ending up in Company K of the Twelfth Vermont Volunteers.
After the war, he settles into a comfortable life as a photographer's assistant, but following a romantic disappointment lights out for the West. He has an incredible career that ranges all over the Western United States, just one example of which is being the first man to photograph Yellowstone in 1871, images which helped in its being made into a National Park in 1872.
Following that, amongst other impressive adventures, he travels around the world with the "World's Transportation Commission", across India, Australia and Korea, ending up crossing Siberia by open sledge. Even after that, his life still holds many more future events.
It is a remarkable work that would qualify as excellent fiction, but is even the more interesting for being an account of a real life from the beginning stages of the settlement of the American West through to the mid-1900s. He records an incredible time of change and relatively speaking, quite a recent moment in history. It's amazing to think that at that time, less than 150 years ago, they had a civil war, and after that the railway was just pushing its way west. Los Angeles was a town of just 5000 people. All in all it's a fascinating first-hand encounter with an enthusiastic, adventurous photographer and painter.
My only wish would have been for more of his photos and paintings -- he selected his favourites I guess, but they are a small sample mostly showing people or locations he was particularly fond of. I suppose with a lifetime of thousands of photographs, it would take dozens of volumes to give his visual work justice.
The Library of Congress has images from his 'round the world voyage with the World's Transportation Commission.
The George Eastman House has the Henry Gannett Album and some stereo views.
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is an attempt to address the question of why Europeans conquered the Americas and Africa, and not the other way around. It analyzes the factors underlying the conquests by trying to get to ultimate causes -- why did Europeans have the particular technologies and illnesses that they did, while those they conquered were vulnerable to the diseases (which did most of the killing in North America) and the superior weaponry (including horses for cavalry).
These causes are investigated by examining the last 13,000 years of history on all of the inhabited continents, seeing what initial advantages and disadvantages they had. Diamond's argument is that in the Eurasian content there happened by chance a fortuitous combination of easily domesticatable plants and animals. In addition he argues that by accident of geography, the Eurasian continent has an East-West axis that makes it easy for developments to propagate across the entire landmass.
Obviously there's far more information than I could hope to summarize. I found the book really interesting as it makes a successful effort to encompass the developmental histories of all of the inhabited continents, thus providing me with a much broader perspective than I got from standard European history classes. It is very interesting to see the complexities of so many different societies, from hunter-gatherers on through to sophisticated agricultural empires. These variants of society existed all over the world, across time and space spanning thousands of years and thousands of miles. Due to different geographical circumstances and different initial combinations of plants and animals, societies all over the world reached different levels of development, so that depending on e.g. which Austronesian island you visited, you might encounter an agricultural kingdom or a small hunter-gatherer group.
One of the aims of the book is to demolish racist arguments of success and failure, and it does this very well, by showing how incredibly simplistic such ideas are, in comparison to the incredible complexity of actual societies world-wide. He makes a very conscious effort to try to set historical analysis within a rigorously scientific framework, using evidence of all types to support his conclusions. Amongst other things, it really is a fascinating overview of world history in the broadest sense, addressing the developments of societies and the movements of people on all inhabited continents.
Rather than simplistic tales of "good" hunter-gatherers versus "bad" farmers, or "good" aboriginals versus "bad" colonizers, or any of the other arbitrary dichotomies people like to put forward, it was fascinating to read the real history of conflicts amongst people. In stories about the high levels of violence in and between New Guinea tribes, and analysis indicating violent dislocations of people, such as Bantu farmers replacing Khoisan hunter-gatherers in Africa, or Maoris armed with guns conquering the Moriori people, he replaces simple generalizations about "Africa" or "Australia and New Zealand" with an appreciation of their different peoples and cultures.
I had remembered Kim Stanley Robinson's Escape from Kathmandu stories as very amusing and cool from when I read them in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. Upon re-reading them in book form I found them somewhat less amusing and with more hemp than I had remembered. However, the second story in particular, "Mother Goddess of the World", is quite good. And the first story was still reasonably entertaining.
I normally read mostly science fiction and science fact, so I sometimes find novels like A.S. Byatt's The Biographer's Tale somewhat disconcerting. I guess one could call it multilayered but that implies too much separation between the areas it explores, they are more intertwined, think perhaps of a spiral galaxy in which the individual ordered star systems when viewed as a group from a distance have an emergent structure. This story whirls with whorls, whether at the heart of marbles, in fingerprints, or in a distant spinning maelstrom.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman describes the opening month of the First World War, from the perspectives of all sides in the combat. Despite the complex manueverings of nations and armies, she gives a clear sense of the personalities and decisions involved. By reading first about the plans being made and then seeing how they were carried out by commanders in all the confusion of war, I got a much better sense of how the war started out.
Science fiction authors must get frustrated, because on the one hand they try to clearly explore issues, then to see them play out for real years later without any intelligent discussion taking place, and on the other hand sometimes it seems no matter how crazy the future they imagine, some aspects of it end up coming true. Now our modern world is not quite like the one imagined in Alfred Bester's The Computer Connection (called Extro in the UK) yet there are some aspects of his society with its collapse into hedonism and pervasive (and sometimes perverse) advertisement that can be seen reflected in a funhouse mirror in ours. Of course Bester is writing a sort of demented tongue-in-cheek future, not some serious prediction of future events. Nevertheless I am always amazed, given the time period in which some books were written, how they can still resonate, however crazily, with current times. Extro is a very entertaining, wildly creative book, there are immortals and Indians living on dry Great Lake beds, and a chase that spans from Ceres to tunnels deep beneath the earth. It's all really quite mad and frequently amusing.
Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner is a detailed account of dam construction and water projects in the American West, starting with the explorations of John Wesley Powell in the late 1860s up through to the situation in the early 1990s. It is really incredible that in the short span of time since the late 1800s, almost all of the settlement of the desert West has taken place, along with huge associated water projects. From end to end it reads as a chronicle of incredible folly. In the service of greed and a mania for monumental construction, almost unimaginably vast alterations have been made to the natural environment, with giant dams, water pumped over and through mountains, canals across deserts, good land flooded, bad land irrigated, it's an incredible catalog of man versus nature.
I can't even begin to summarize the scope of a 500-page, indepth work like this in a few paragraphs. I can say that if you have an interest in environmental issues or history you should find this interesting. I could sometimes only manage a chapter at a time as the monumental avarice, deceit, and indifference to the environment that was described, with billions of dollars in government money used to subsidize, amongst other things, poor crops growing in a desert to the benefit of giant corporations, well let's just say if my blood could boil steam would have been coming out of my ears.
This book acts once again to reinforce my growing understanding, from The Economist and other sources, of the incredible destructive power of government subsidies. There was also a 4-part PBS series based primarily on Reisner's book, they called it Cadillac Desert: Water and the Transformation of Nature.
It boggles my mind to think that we have gone from a basically pristine environment in the late 1800s to an entirely artificial, man-made paved paradise, just 125 or so years later. Also, Canadians should take a particular warning from this book. The American southwest is a desert. It has a vast, unslakeable thirst for water, based on a useage pattern that is unsustainable in the most farcical extreme. As incredible as it may seem, they've pretty much tapped out every single possible source of running water available to them. When they inevitably want more, they will turn north. In fact various schemes have already been proposed for the diversion of Canadian water. Why have it go to waste up in empty Canada when it could be irrigating American deserts? Such schemes may seem mad, but not much more so than the colossal monuments of water diversion they have already constructed, in defiance of gravity, geography, economics, environmental conditions and most of all common sense.
I subscribe to the "first brilliant burst" theory of artistic creativity. It seems to me that quite often an author's early works express in a single burst all of the ideas that they have been developing in their formative years, and they have a very hard time matching the same level after that. This is made particularly difficult by the conflict between the modern business interests of generating a steady predictable revenue stream, and the artistic need to create and explore new worlds. Thus in the interests of business we get "sequelitis", with endless prequels, sequels, and sidequels to a single impressive work.
I make this comment about early works versus sequels as I have just finished Jack the Bodiless by Julian May. I very much enjoyed May's breakout series, The Saga of Pliocene Exile. However, I found the subsequent works, which are basically filling in the back story to the saga, to be rather straightforward "good vs evil" tales, about the multifarious branches of the Remillard family. The first sequel books, about the Intervention, were like that, and this newer series, about the Galactic Milieu, is the same at least based on my reading of the first book in the trilogy. I won't be bothering with the rest of the Milieu trilogy.
Skylife: Space Habitats in Story and Science seemed an appropriate read with the recent activity in and around the International Space Station. The book is an anthology of fiction and non-fiction about space stations and related space structures. It had a fairly good selection of material.
The Neverending Story was ok but I like the movie better. The second part, where Bastian transfers over to Fantastica and goes on some sort of neo-Buddhist Siddharthaesque journey of enlightenment, was rather tedious. Incidentally the second movie, which is not really related to the second part of the book, is to be avoided as it is terrible.
I really enjoyed The Ingenuity Gap by Thomas Homer-Dixon. It's a book I wish I could have written. It surveys a diverse landscape of topics related to the complex systems of the modern world, covering economics, politics, the environment, the human brain, and many other threads and linkages, all to develop the central idea of the increasing need for ingenuity in our increasingly complex world. Very interesting reading.
I thought The Unwanted Gaze by Jeffery Rosen did a good job of examining how American constitutional protections have been eroded from a privacy standpoint. It reminded me of Smoke and Mirrors, which documented how the drug war has also lead to a weakening of the guarantees in the US constitution.
I enjoyed Neil Stephenson's The Diamond Age, a big novel of speculating about social evolution and the impact of nanotechnology.
Neil Stephenson's book Zodiac, which is one of his earlier works, is fairly weak. However, it's good reading for Haligonians, because much of its discussion of Boston's environmental problems is still relevant to Halifax. The Halifax sewer system is just as bad and Halifax's harbour still as dirty as Boston's used to be.
Nobody Nowhere by Donna Williams is an interesting first-person account of her experiences growing up as an autistic.
The Truth is the 25th Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett. I thought it was good. Really placed an emphasis on the importance of verifying your sources (it's about a newspaper), which seems to be a lost art these days.
Of the four books in the Harry Potter series so far, I liked the third best, since it seemed that there were enough clues to guess at the ending, whereas the rest of them, including the fourth, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire seem to pull their ending out of a hat. However, the core of the story is really about the friendships with Ron and Hermione, good versus evil, and dealing with the challenges of growing up. She does a remarkably good job of getting into the head of a 15-year-old boy.
I thought Ishmael by Daniel Quinn was ok, but since it was about stuff I already knew, I found it more didactic than revelatory.
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is pretty good. It gets better towards the end, as the despair and tension mount. I liked the ending.
I had to find out what all the Harry Potter mania was about, so I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. I found it remarkably conventional, almost everything in it has been seen before in fantasy literature, other than the invention of Quidditch. In terms of fantasy enjoyment and innovation, Terry Pratchett is more to my liking, his first two Discworld books The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic really skewered the fantasy genre conventions well, similar to what Douglas Adams did to science fiction. For someone familiar with the genre, they are laugh-out-loud hilarious. Some of the later books in the series have also been quite good, particularly Small Gods which I thought was exceptional. His "Johnny" books are ok, but the Bromeliad series (Truckers, Diggers, Wings) is really excellent, gently amusing for children, but also with a lot of interesting things for adults to think about.
A friend loaned me The Tesseract by Alex Garland. It reminded me of Pulp Fiction, with its interwoven storylines.
I found The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman to be a good book on history, using an unconventional approach. There are many different schools of historical analysis. As far as I understand, after years of analyzing history, B. Tuchman decided to write a book showing how sometimes people, leaders in particular, just behave like idiots. I was interested to read the section on the Renaissance Popes as it reminded me of Garry Wills book Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit.
I have enjoyed Connie Willis's short stories in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, she has written a lot of gently amusing stuff. So I tried out her book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, which I found only vaguely entertaining. However, the book was written as a tribute to Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, so I bought that to see what it was about. It is very amusing, which is all the more remarkable considering that it was written in 1889. The sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, is also quite amusing, up until the part where they actually go on the trip, whereupon it becomes rather unremarkable. The first book was written by JKJ about himself and his friends when they were in their 20s, and the second, written in 1900, finds them now in their 30s and married. Highly recommended.
I discovered, in the process of checking the publishing date information, that both these books are available online in their entirety, from Project Gutenberg:
I was particularly pleased to read JKJ's books since I had just finished David Sedaris's book Me Talk Pretty One Day which had gotten all sorts of rave reviews of being hilarious and which I found not amusing in the slightest.
If there's a book link, there's a review above. Lots of books are missing since I rarely update this page.
Links here are to the book or author websites.
[ Home | Contact Me ]