Here’s a good horror book for Halloween: Rock Creek Park starts with a single, disfigured body, but within a few days and a few down pages the body count inches up, “normally”, I dare to say, as befits a detective novel. But midway through the book, as chimps are bred with humans (adapted from The Violinist’s Thumb and its Russian mad scientists) and spy agencies from three countries collide, there are hundreds of corpses and any pretense that this political intrigue could really happen melts away. Too bad, the investigator hero is interesting (if impossibly sleep-deprived!)
The message of Run Wild is simple: organized marathons in urban environment are an abomination and we should instead run far from the crowds in the middle of nature – presumably mowing down the hikers in our path. I made up the mowing down part, egged on by the self-righteous tone of the book. Even though I would never run a marathon and certainly not with 20,000 others, who needs a book-long rant on the topic?
Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future sets out to show the benefits of migration, both for the receiving country (where the locals often feel that the newcomers are a burden to society) and the country of origin for the migrants (which may suffer from “brain drain”). The research is impressive, the numbers add up, but I would have liked more consideration of the personal and societal costs of migration, along with a more practical approach than opening all borders widely, which seems highly unpalatable to the citizens of developed countries.
If you think that there are two kinds of people, honest and not, you may want to read The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves so you can see how most people are honest most of the time (yeah!) and also “fudge”, just a little, whenever it’s convenient and tempting to do so. People will help themselves to a company pencil — but probably not steal cold cash. They may take a few dollars — but not ransack the till they are supposed to guard. They may explain that their grandmothers died right before an exam — but only if they are failing the class (why not their grandfathers, I wonder…) But what’s remarkable is that people are very sensitive to simple reminders to be honest, especially when delivered right at the moment of temptation.
Many shades of Who’s in Charge, which explores free will, and indeed its author is quoted in this book. A well-told exploration of how honest people can do dishonest deeds.
What Happened to Sophie Wilder is the story of two young graduates of a creative program who are trying, with different levels of success, to make it as writers in New York, but with a quite unexpected and thrilling, detective-novel ending. I did not care much for the heavy literary atmosphere, but that’s just a matter of taste I suppose. What bothered me more was that the central element of the plot, the woman’s conversion to Catholicism, seems to be sudden, unexplained, and rather unbelievable. And the more interesting character, her father-in-law, only appears midway through…
I know nothing about music — barely enough to recognize the author’s name, he of Talking Heads fame. And yet I very much enjoyed How Music Works, an ambitious and occasionally disordered hodgepodge of musical history, analysis of the music industry, and copious amounts of autobiography. I particularly enjoyed the analysis of the financial workings of the industry in a time of a wrenching transition to digital distribution as well as the chapter on technology. Who knew that the depth of the grooves in LPs mirror the sound, so that experts, back in the day, could identify classical records just by looking at them?
My only gripe is really a regret: at times, the autobiographical strands make all kinds of (to me) obscure references that I had to just turn the page. Still a lot of fun.
By the author of The Disappearing Spoon and with the same verve, The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code tells the story of DNA discoveries, organized around memorable characters, be they scientist-nuns, Jefferson instructing Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for mastodons (really!), freakish Paganini, he of the hyper-flexible thumb — and assorted scientists’ fights and political intrigues. He has a great time with cute gene names (my favorite is “turnip” for one that creates stupid flies, but only because I already knew “sonic hedgehog” and crazed crossbreedings of (yes) humans and chimps. My disappointment in the book is that I seem to have promptly forgotten most of the real science in it. Perhaps I have the turnip gene after all…
The Scientists: A Family Romance is the memoir of how the author came to understand that his father died from AIDS not following an unlucky needle prick he claimed to have suffered in his lab, but from homosexual sex, carefully ignored and hidden by both his father and his mother. The book is a beautifully written introspective exploration of the author’s feelings, amply relying on his vast knowledge of European literature — and will probably appeal to literary types, of which I am not. I was not able to feel much compassion to what I saw as a book-length complaint, from a grown man, of how his father betrayed him in a manner that seems cowardly, to be sure, but perhaps can be understood (and forgiven) considering the context and time. Family secrets are awful, but in this case it would seem best to move on.
Don’t let the Oprah Book Club label scare you away, there’s more to this book than a classic redemption story, and don’t worry about an Eat, Pray, Love mushiness fest either. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail features a plucky but momentarily bereft and struggling heroine who undertakes to hike hundreds of miles on the beautiful but very challenging Pacific Crest Trail to find herself — and makes it, literally and figuratively, despite a woefully inadequate preparation that equipped her with too-small boots and a comically oversized backpack, not to mention an extremely hazy notion of what might lie ahead of her. But she perseveres, meets all kinds of interesting characters, and gives us breathtaking descriptions of the high sierras, a real treat if you’ve ever hiked up there. An inspiring tale of grit.
It’s a little silly to read a book about raising children when child # last is 16 and will be gone soon… but perhaps the point of reading such books is more to reaffirm how very wise we are since we already know and practice the techniques they recommend. But I digress. Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success makes a number of reasonable points about raising children, including that generic praise spoils kids, that intelligence coms in multiple flavors (see Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences), and that there is a reasonable middle between tiger parents‘ excesses and giving up on any structure. Its best point, I thought, was to remind us that we need to resist the pressure of our own peers to be crazed, overinvolved parents. For the rest, I was put off by the author’s repeated assertion that the children of educated parents are more likely to have psychological problems. More likely to have their psychological problems examined by a professional, sure, since their parents can pay for such help, but I doubt they are any worse off that other children.