** Plucked by Rebecca Herzig

I was a little disappointed to see that Plucked: A History of Hair Removal focuses solely on the United States, but the author’s lively coverage of both techniques for hair removal and the cultural forces behind it, is quite enjoyable, and profound at the same time. And I never realized that hair removal is such a large economic force!

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Filed under Non fiction

* Soda Politics by Marion Nestle


I wish I could say nicer things about Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning) because I completely agree with the author’s stance that over-consumption of soda is a public health menace. Sadly, the book is soporific. There are a few funny moments, as when the author shows baby bottles (!) with soda logos, which, she drily reports, were later observed to often contain the very sodas displayed on the logos. And she makes great points about how the soda companies lobby their way out of government intervention. But surely we can do better than create appallingly unattractive public campaigns to remind the populace that sodas are unhealthy, or ban them from food stamp sales as if food stamp recipients should be further encumbered by petty rules.

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** Humans Need Not Apply by Jerry Kaplan


Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence is a rather awkwardly organized book that starts in a meandering fashion, first singing the praises of technological progress, then moving to the techniques that online companies use to ensnare buyers and users, and only then discussing the income inequality issues brought about by the stark differences between those jobs that command the AI technology and those that do not, and may well be eliminated anyway. The author does a great job showing how computers have progressed astonishingly fast by comparing their progress to gas mileage (by now, we could be driving cross-country and back on a measly single gallon of gas!) He also has a spirited, if clumsy expose of what regular workers’ lifestyles look like in Silicon Valley. But gauche name-dropping and unlikely solutions to the problem (more 401K-like social security? I don’t see how that would resolve any of the problems of lower-paid workers) make the book a bit of a slog to read.

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** The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney


The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds is a highly idiosyncratic compendium of, well, clouds, from cumulus to cirrus, with all the species and varieties thereof. It mixes science, some quite serious, with art and even a visit to a fish market (you will have to read the book to understand that one), so it’s never dull. But there are problems. The first one is serious. It turns out that the taxonomy of clouds is very complex but the book’s organization (one cloud per chapter) and its small format and smaller yet pictures make it very challenging for uninformed readers to conceive of the differences between cloud types, let alone remember them. The other problem is geographic. The author is British and, of course, takes most of his examples from British clouds. California just does not have the same clouds!

 

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** Stories from the Shadows by James O’Connell


Stories From the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor is a collection of stories written about a Boston physician who works with homeless patients. Many stories just tell a particular person’s story, although others tackle more general themes about homelessness, poverty, and mental disease.

The stories are compelling, and the author is, without a doubt, a great physician, very much attuned to his patients and their needs. I would have liked more of a focus on solutions, at least partial solutions since it’s clear that the problem is immense, for how cities can tackle the problem of homelessness with both humanity and financial restraint. The stories make it pretty clear that right now, we are both spending a lot of money and doing a terrible job (most of the time). Not a good combo.

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Filed under True story

* The Blue Guitar by John Banville


The Blue Guitar is the story of a cad and kleptomaniac, told by him in superbly self-serving fashion. I suppose that a more patient reader would revel in the ignominious deeds, especially when contrasted with the breezy manner in which they are recounted.

I was bored.

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Filed under New fiction

*** The New Wild by Fred Pearce


The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation takes an unusual and refreshing take on invasive species. It turns out that they can be good for everyone, people, other species, and the ecosystem in which they arrive. The author give plenty of examples of lovely settings that are composed in great part (and, sometimes, solely) of non-native species, as well as entirely native ecosystems that went extinct. Along the way, he questions what “native” really means (not much, at least with a long enough time view) and whether human intervention is ever required to referee competitions between established and new species. Sure, we need to clean up our mess, but messing with species balance seems to be a fool’s errand.

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Filed under Non fiction