Monthly Archives: March 2012

** The Litigators by John Grisham

John Grisham can write suspense — so well that he can keep us eagerly turning the pages even though the plot of The Litigators is completely implausible. It starts with a masterpiece of an on-the-job burnout but shortly the burned-out brilliant lawyer joins a two-bit firm that does not always manage to stay within ethical boundaries as its partners chase ambulances, a most improbable turn of events, even for a very traumatized ex-corporate lawyer, who would obviously do at least as well to hang his own shingle.

But if your mind can make the leap, then his journey into the dirty water of mass-tort lawyering is rather entertaining as he goes up against a formidable partner in his ex-firm — and loses the trial, thankfully, but not the battle. The epilogue is as impossibly rosy as the start, but after a couple hundred entertaining pages.

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*** Reinventing Discovery by Michael Nielsen

Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science is a brilliantly optimistic book about how new communication options are changing the way scientists can collaborate and help them produce much better, faster results. It is written by a scientist who is able to use real examples of mathematical proofs constructed on wikis by ultra-brainy mathematicians (so cool), invention contests open to all, playing chess in teams of amateurs facing grand masters, and, perhaps most intriguing of all, enlisting so-called civilian scientists to fold protein molecules or categorize galaxies.

But perhaps the best parts of the book are the ones where the author explores how such online collaboration efforts can work or fail. Clearly there is a certain temperament that lends itself to leading such distributed teams, making sure that valuable contributions from low-ranking members are recognized. Collaborative efforts work best when participants can interact civilly around logical arguments (so it’s easier to play chess collaboratively than politics, for instance). But even for scientists the main obstacle is the cult of the published article, which is often the only metric considered for hires and promotions. If collaborative science is to flourish we need to change the metrics to a set that includes collaboration.

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* Money Well Spent by Paul Brest and Hal Harvey

When I picked up Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy I thought I would be able to read about how to better allocate money that I give away. And I did, in a fashion, but the pith of the book is really about large charitable foundations, so for people with at least a couple of millions to give away… Lucky them!

If you should belong to the club, the book will show you how to apply sound business principles to investing: define the likely return on investment, monitor success, disseminate what you learned. It’s an MBA for philanthropy, all rather mundane, if eminently reasonable. One shining feature of the book is the candid discussion of a number of projects underwritten by the organizations that the authors head and by others.

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** The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing by Mayra Calvani and Anne K. Edwards

After 1061 posts it’s about time that I finally inquire about how to properly review a book, don’t you think? So I picked up The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing with curiosity and interest and I now must warn you, emphatically, that I do not write book reviews, at least not of the professional kind (not that I ever pretended to!). This blog is composed solely of amateur contributions, amateur being the word the authors bestow, over and again, on reviews that are not worthy of serious publishers. But perhaps there is a place for us amateurs, and even some value for our readers?

The authors make lots of excellent points, starting with the basic facts that reviewers should read the books they are reviewing (I second that!) and be reasonably good writers (I try, I try!) They also recommend to festoon books with Post-It notes as you read them. I do that, which generates many raised eyebrows and questions when I read in public… For the rest, I am a rank amateur. I consistently fail to note the author’s qualifications. I talk too much about what I like or don’t like rather than whether other readers would enjoy the book (but how would I know what other people would think??) I try to be kind but I don’t shy away from saying I did not like a book. Amateur, through and through…

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* Seppuku by Andrew Rankin

Rivers of blood flow from the first page of this slim volume, most appropriate matching its title of Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide, but it’s not the gore that left me unsatisfied with the reading. Indeed, while I naively believed that seppuku was a ritual way of committing suicide, I learned that it became over time a way to order someone else to disappear — a mandatory suicide, in a way. The most fascinating but morbid chapter of the book describes the elaborate, exacting, perverse  ritual to be observed exactly: how to position oneself, where to place the screen to shield the spectators, and how to handle the basket that contains the head of the deceased (obligingly severed by a friend since gut-cutting hurts and splatters but does not kill, at least not quickly). But after a few descriptions of deaths, this reader became both disgusted and maybe even bored by the carnage.

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** The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is a history book that reads like a novel, centered around a book-length poem, De Rerum Natura , by Lucretius, a surprisingly modern take on nature that mixes atoms with a complete absence of gods. Forgotten and almost lost for hundreds of years, one copy of the manuscript reappears in the 15th century in the (searching) hands of an ex-bureaucrat in the office of a disgraced pope (John XXIII, the one that should not have been!). The story here allows the author to tell us about roman orgies, about the masochistic habits of monks, about shaving animal pets to make vellum, about the rather funny intrigues of multiple popes, and how a good handwriting was such an asset to rise in the bureaucracy of the 15th century.

The author’s claim that the discovery of the manuscript somehow changed the world to the modern one we know is a bit stretched, in my mind. perhaps it’s a modernizing world that can embrace a manuscript with a modern outlook rather than the other way round. But still, a thoroughly enjoyable way to look at history

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* New by Winifred Gallagher

New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change starts with the idea that the success of the human race is entirely and indubitably linked to our thirst for new experiences, but without providing much proof. It’s true that we walked out of Africa to explore new territories. But was that really our insatiable curiosity at work, or simply a mundane search for food, and maybe peace and quiet to boot? True, Isaac Newton was born on a farm but then moved to Cambridge to be bombed by apples, and he certainly was curious, but it seems to me that the move had little to do with curiosity (and indeed  there must have been more apple trees at home than in Cambridge) and rather with his desire to be with other scientists. Some of the points made in later chapters are more convincing, in particular that the very genes that encode for curiosity may be advantageous in some environments (hence assuring their survival) while in others making for difficult behaviors that handicap their bearers. But soon we are back to how we are more and more impatient as a species, surely because our genes have changed so much in the past 20 years (I think not), and how this is feeding our need for the latest iPod. Nope, I think that’s called publicity, playing perhaps on our love of novelty, but  more on status-seeking tendencies.

All in all, a rather messy book, perhaps exhibiting the very intense need for novelty that it seeks to describe.

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