Monday, November 30, 2015

Rain: a natural and cultural history

by Cynthia Barnett

Books by journalists aren't always great, even if the journalist is an excellent journalist. This book is full of fascinating information, but the narrative and thematic arrangement was not what I wanted it to be. I have a co-worker who disagrees; as the Dude says, "Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man."

I took longer to read this book than I expected. As fascinating as the information is, I felt swamped by the digressions and wanted a bit more science. The author truly delivers on the cultural history (mostly European and North American) promised by the title, and I started to enjoy that aspect more when I re-started reading after stalling out for close to a week. Could be that I'm judging this book too harshly because I wasn't in the mood for it, or something.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


by Alex Lemon

An outgoing athlete popular with the ladies, Alex Lemon could have had four idyllic years at college. Instead, he had a stroke, and then another, and another; some of the depression and hard times that followed were direct effects of this brain injury, but his disappointment and difficulties led him into drug and alcohol abuse, alienation from friends, and other antisocial behavior. Eventually he had surgery and recovered with the help of a nurturing mother. He's won some poetry awards.

I don't remember the recovery and redemption part very much. Reviews and/or the publisher's description refer to the book's "honesty," "unexpected humor and sensuality," and "Technicolor sentences." I remember it being bleak, morally un-enlightening, and not particularly inspiring.

Anyway, it's short. Could be a good recommendation for someone into memoirs of illness, or that sort of young-adult-off-the-rails memoir.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Fly Trap

by Fredrik Sjöberg

A lovely wee book that's as much a pleasure to hold (and behold) as it is to read. A rambling memoir/meditation of sorts by a Swedish entomologist, the narrative meanders through myriad subjects, always looping back to insects and those who collect and study them, in particular René Malaise, who sounds made up but isn't. If it's a trap, it's a luxurious trap, a honeytrap.

Describing a book like this one is always a challenge. It's about something, but it's also about everything and nothing in particular, about the journey as much as the destination. Certain writers can start on a subject and artfully pick apart or weave together such disparate threads, with the reader barely noticing. Alain de Botton, author of The Architecture of Happiness (among others), is one such writer. Somewhat stylistically similar books that I've reviewed might be The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea and About a Mountain.

Monday, November 16, 2015

More Happy Than Not

by Adam Silvera

Time was, I couldn't get enough young adult fiction. As a kid, I skipped from Encyclopedia Brown right to Stephen King, so maybe I was making up for lost time. (Okay, I did sneak-read my sister's Sweet Valley High books.) But what happened? Too much dystopia, too many vampires, too many covers with pictures of white girls. Also, I got burned by a few gay teen novels that weren't very good. I'm much more selective now in my forays into YA.

This book is part of a genre that I suppose could be called "new dystopia" or "dystopia lite," in which the world, instead of being radically changed or post-apocalyptic, seems more or less the same as now — except for that one thing. (A convenient, efficient, and probably sometimes lazy way to explore a particular aspect of society and the human condition.) The reviews were good, and it has a gay theme, and points for diversity. I figured I'd give it a try.

Reviews mentioned the twist ending, which kind of ruined it for me, since it wasn't that hard to guess. Maybe it would have been more effectively twisty if I hadn't been expecting it. Overall, I give it a "meh," but I can see why it got positive reviews, and I do think teens would like it. The urban and low-income setting is convincingly rendered, and the main characters are mostly believable. Struggling to come to terms with one's sexual identity is rich territory for teen fiction. The story is somewhat sad and not completely resolved at the end.


Bitter Eden

by Tatamkhulu Afrika

I fully admit that I was mainly attracted to the cover...

...of the 2014 edition, which continues around the spine; I doubt I would have glanced twice at the 2009 edition...

...which isn't bad, but certainly less striking and not as obviously erotic.

And erotic this novel is, in its way, though it's more "gay vague" than actually gay. The story, which takes place in a series of WWII POW camps, has some minor openly gay characters — mostly objects of derision and disgust, occasionally grudging and reluctant respect — but the two main characters are at best situationally homophilic. In the end, however, the characters' actions raise some questions as to whether it could have been more in different circumstances, or if the intensity of the original circumstances created some lingering confusion and misplaced yearning.

All in all, it's a pretty solid book and an interesting look at the psychology of an all-male POW camp. The language is occasionally a bit old-fashioned, but don't worry about the slang (WWII, UK, South African), you can mostly skip over it or deduce its meaning. I don't know if this book is meant to be semi-autobiographical, but the author did spend time as a POW, and he had an interesting life besides.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Stuff: compulsive hoarding and the meaning of things

by Randy O. Frost

I've seen the Hoarders television show a few times. I think there might even be more than one TV series about hoarders. Even though gawking is the main point of such shows, they do convey a sense of the tragic nature of hoarding disorders. Where they fail is the therapeutic process, which they do very badly and also try to rush dramatically to create a narrative for the show.

This book is good for someone with a genuine curiosity about hoarding, but it's not for someone (such as a hoarder, or a relative or friend of a hoarder) with something at stake in the disorder. Its approach is more journalistic than scientific, and it discusses potential treatments in a general sense without purporting to provide any. So, yeah, if you read this you'll be gawking a little too, but in a much more dignified and respectful way.

Words of Devotion 1 & 2

by Keiko Konno

Meh. I usually like the "mature 18+" yaoi from this publisher, but this set was so-so. Full disclosure: I bagged and didn't actually read the second volume. The art wasn't great, pretty standard but with weird mouths. The story had potential but didn't seem to go anywhere, and the sex parts were rather tame. The first book also had a few side stories, unrelated to the main story, which I tend not to like unless they're really good.


The Story of Buildings: from the pyramids to the Sydney Opera House and beyond

by Patrick Dillon, with illustrations by Stephen Biesty

Being a children's book, this sampling of interesting buildings is brief and far from comprehensive. It is, however, an insightful and thoughtfully detailed look at not just the engineering aspects of architecture but also the social needs and aspirations represented in the structures we build.

The illustrations by Biesty are, of course, delightful. Some are large enough to require fold-out pages.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Good for kids grade 4 and up, as well as adults, with an interest in architecture.

Monday, November 09, 2015


by Matthew Stokoe

Not sure how I came across this book. Perhaps it was one of those times I was combing through the items on the library's website that were recently reviewed by other patrons. Somehow the descriptions of brutality and grossness and murder and talking cows caught my fancy instead of repulsing me.

I'd meant to copy the blurb off the back cover, which sums up this book so succinctly and better than I could, but I forgot to do so. The story is about a young man who has long suffered under the watchful eye of his horrible mother. He wants a life like the ones he sees on TV but doesn't know how to achieve it. He gets a job at a slaughterhouse (with a strangely lackadaisical attendance policy) and discovers a road to self-actualization through murder — and also talking cows, and bestiality.

The book is mercifully short. Not that it's poorly written, it's just really intense and rather disgusting. It isn't gratuitously or jokingly disgusting, however, like The Baby Jesus Butt Plug. This book is more along the lines of Chuck Palahniuk, perversity and depravity in the service of something literary.

The Yacoubian Building

by Alaa Al Aswany

I think I probably read about this book in the New York Times Book Review. I didn't read it immediately, but the review intrigued me enough that I did get around to reading it a couple years later.

Using the voices and stories of a variety of fictional residents in a real apartment building in downtown Cairo, the novel explores facets of Egyptian society that were/are considered taboo, such as homosexuality, and the open secrets of corruption and hypocrisy. It's initial publication caused a bit of a stir in the religious and relatively conservative country.

Though the book came out more than a decade ago, and the Arab Spring was five years ago, I imagine The Yacoubian Building still serves as a pretty accurate picture of contemporary urban Egyptian life. For that matter, though it's Egyptian in its details, it's also a pretty good picture of human nature, the (often hidden) complexities of modern life, and the diversity that lurks within seemingly homogeneous cultures.

Writing this review all these years later has solved a riddle of sorts for me. A while back, I was given a reader advisory practice question to suggest a book for someone who enjoyed Let the Great World Spin. One obvious approach, I figured, was to look for books that also have a variety of first-person viewpoints.  I couldn't come up with anything in the moment, and it's nagged at me for years. If I could have remembered The Yacoubian Building, it would have made an excellent answer to the challenge.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

The Bell Jar

by Sylvia Plath

I feel a little weird saying so about this modern classic tale of mental illness and attempted suicide, but I found it to be a quick and breezy read. Sylvia Plath's only published novel is of a modest length, but the subject matter (based somewhat on her own experience, which is why she never meant for the book to be published in the United States) is intense and convincingly depicted. The easy readability must come from the protagonist's casual, conversational, relatable voice, which is also a factor contributing to the book's verisimilitude.

If I owned more books, instead of just borrowing them from the library, I'd put The Bell Jar on the shelf next to The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal. Both are about young people struggling to understand their place in the world and to reconcile their own feelings and aspirations with society's expectations. Despite being written in 1946 and 1963, respectively, neither is dated (except in some details) and both speak to the angst and alienation felt at one time or another by most young adults.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Misbehaving: the making of behavioral economics

by Richard Thaler

I consider myself a pretty intelligent guy, but understanding economics has long been a struggle for me. A major sticking point is theory versus reality, which, in a nutshell, is where behavioral economics comes in. When people appear not to be acting as the perfectly rational agents (surprise) presumed by classical economic theories — for example, when they don't save for retirement even though they know they should, or make a rash gamble on a gameshow instead of going for the sure money — behavioral economics tries to find out why they don't. (And, as explained more thoroughly in the author's other book, Nudge, its insights can be used to craft government policies and business practices that make it easier and more likely that people will do the right thing.) People aren't always rational, so emotion needs to be taken into account, and people aren't all awesome at math (particularly statistics), so our false intuitions and misleading biases affect our behavior too.

Very unexpectedly, I laughed aloud while reading this book. I guffawed over the theory, devised by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, that young people will (naturally, instinctively, rationally) calculate their lifetime wealth and earnings and make judgements about how much to spend, and when to spend or save, so that they won't run out of money and might even be able to make bequests!

This book doesn't have any practical advice per se, but you could garner some strategies for recognizing and maybe correcting your own financial and economic misbehaviors. It's also not a deep study or even a catalog of the findings of behavioral economists. The author spends a fair amount of time talking about the people who are the scientists and economists, and about his own personal journey and career, which I suppose is meant to increase the appeal to the lay reader. For some readers it will; for me, I kinda wish I'd read a long (but much shorter than this book) article in a magazine such as Harper's or Atlantic Monthly.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Plastic: a toxic love story

by Susan Freinkel

Well, you can imagine how depressing a book like this can be. We're killing ourselves and the planet with our addiction to cheap plastic throw-away things, it might be too late to do much about it (even if we wanted to do so), and all we got was this demonic-looking deformed plastic Easter bunny from China.

But this book is also full of fascinating scientific and historical details and anecdotes, and it actually strikes a much more hopeful note than I've implied. (The pessimist is I, not the author.) Plus, plastic can't be all bad. Many modern marvels, such as life-saving medical devices, would not be possible without it. The writing quality is adequate to the task.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Men Undressed: women writers and the male sexual experience

edited by Stacy Bierlein, et al.

The premise of this book, women writing male characters in sexual situations, intrigued me. Doesn't take much effort to think of any number of counter-examples, male authors portraying female sexuality; nor does it take much imagination to guess at the ways male authors might project male sexual fantasies onto female characters and fail to present authentic female experiences of sex and desire. So, turnabout is fair play.

It's a collection of short stories and excerpts from longer works, so you get a couple gems, a few turds, and most in the middle. As a collection, I don't think it captured the best and most successful efforts by women writing male sexuality, so I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to someone with a casual curiosity. As a man, I found some of the characters' emotions or actions unconvincing, perhaps wishful thinking on the part of the authors — as I'm sure many women react to some instances of men writing female characters. If you want to take a more academic or critical look, however, a range of styles, scenarios, techniques and degrees of quality can be viewed as an asset for a book of this sort.

I wish I had a better memory of which stories I really liked... Best as I can recall, some of the good ones (IMHO) were "Mating in Captivity" by Nava Renek and "The Gift" by Kim Addonizio, but you'll have to judge for yourself.