Curious about ghost writers? I was, so I looked forward to Pretend I’m Not Here: How I Worked with Three Newspaper Icons, One Powerful First Lady, and Still Managed to Dig Myself Out of the Washington Swamp, from which I learned a lot about the tricky business of, essentially, impersonating someone else, usually someone important and famous. I also enjoyed the author’s description of how she got into the field. That said, she chose to tell her story in a gossipy, star-struck manner that turned me off. She also describes how she shared secrets about one of her clients with a friend who later published them and her defense, that her friend should not have done that, seems stupefyingly self-serving: isn’t the definition of a secret something that we do not share?
If you are a biology nerd, you will enjoy The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath our Feet. If not, you will certainly appreciate knowing about ichnologists (people who study animal traces, as the author), and many other fun facts, from where to find the secret nuclear bunker for members of congress to the existence of a keratin-eating moth, to the strange molting habits of coconut crabs, and how gophers were the first to reestablish themselves on the site of the Mount St Helen’s volcanic eruption. But I bet that, like me, you will mostly enjoy the first 100 pages of the book, exploring alligator burrows in the South East, rather than the recounting of the author’s Ph.D thesis, or traversing the stories of many extinct creatures with obscure names, linked only by their love of underground living.
The long and awkward subtitle of Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies says it all: it’s a long and often awkward book that tries to tie together physics, biology, geography, and business — and I found is fascinating despite its gawky structure. The core of the book is simple: scale matters and the world does not usually work linearly so that a large animal (like an elephant) is much more efficient than a small one (say, a mouse). Same for cities and perhaps for companies, too. The author has gathered scores of examples to illustrate his points, from heartbeats to growth rates to income and patent filings to, more surprisingly, crime and stomach flu.
Now to the not-so-accomplished part: the author insist on explaining everything in “plain English” which makes for eye-watering complication and length. I salute his concerns for the less numerically literate but he would have been better off to include a simple (graphical) lesson about exponential functions and logarithms — and proceed with equations and graphs. And his belabored references to the Santa Fe Institute, which he directed for a while, could be streamlined into a single tribute. Still, this is a wonderful look at how the very large is very different from the very small.
If you are a wine connoisseur, you will want to read Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste — and you will undoubtedly like it. What’s more intriguing is that a non-drinker, or a cynic who thinks that the drinkers who mumble about tasting blueberries and grass and dirt (!) must be faking it, will both find the book fascinating. The author spent a year studying wine (and passing a difficult sommelier exam) and it turns out that it is, indeed, possible to taste blueberries, grass, or dirt, although many experts really use the words to telegraph a particular type of grapes rather than a particular taste. Who knew? She also touches on the restaurant business and restaurant people, and her descriptions of the very rich who are able to buy the most expensive wines could have been excised without diminishing the rest of the story at all. But the tasting stories are worth it!
The Dhow House has many strengths: a wonderfully tropical island setting off the coast of Tanzania, a shadowy group of Islamist terrorists, a forgotten extended family, carefully researched birds, and spies! But I found the story unexpectedly slow-moving and focused on the minute feelings of the heroine, for whom I could not get to fully care, whether to love her or to hate her. A more patient and introspective reader may like this book more than I did.
Seamlessly moving from music to politics, movies, and fine art, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction explores the uncertain phenomenon of fame — and as you may surmise there is a large dash of luck in every hit. Still, the most intriguing aspect of popularity is the balance between innovation and familiarity, since humans need a bit of both. The author illustrates his argument with fresh, deftly told stories, and he is not afraid to expose the darker side of applying the psychological methods he explains. The book is easy to read but the ideas will stay with you.
Overwhelmed Southern Californian woman hires young live-in-nanny to take care of her young son so she can write about the travails of raising her older one (whom she conveniently forgets to mention during the hiring process — but she also forgets to check references and other details one might think are important). Add a couple of strange mothers (the nanny’s and her employer’s), hidden agendas for everyone, and messiness ensues. There are enough deeper moments to enjoy the story, but it’s not much more than a book-length satire of upper-middle class Angelenos.