Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book List 2011: Part 4

Yet another list of books? It's like Christmas day!

Except not at all like that.

* = reread

Being Wrong:
Adventures in the Margin of Error
by. Kathryn Schulz

An in-depth look at wrongness. What it is, how we think about it, and why it bothers us so much.

We all hate to be wrong, but why is that? Why do we care so much if we're right? How come we don't mind being wrong when it comes to fiction, in which case we love to be surprised?

These are the kinds of questions that are covered in this book. Another one of those sciencey nonfiction books that I've been reading a lot of this year. Anyways I loved the subject, I loved the ideas it brought up. The only thing that really bothered me was that parts of it were kind of...boring? That isn't the right word, because it was dealing with such interesting things...and yet some parts just triggered something that made me tune out a lot. It has a bit to do with her writing style, but I also have to blame the typeface. Never before have I complained about a book's typeface choice, but this one was not good. It is a little too small and a little too...I dunno...something...I don't know enough to be able to express what it was I didn't like about it. Although I do know that its asterisks were freakishly small and I could never notice them, which was a total pain.

But anyways the subject matter was definitely interesting enough to make up for any minor grudges I might have against it. Fascinating stuff, I tells ya. Fascinating stuff.

        “If we relish being right and regard it as our natural state, you can imagine how we feel about being wrong. For one thing, we tend to view it as rare and bizarre—an inexplicable aberration in the normal order of things. For another, it leaves us feeling idiotic and ashamed. Like the term paper returned to us covered in red ink, being wrong makes us cringe and slouch down in our seat; it makes our hearts sink and our dander rise. At best we regard it as a nuisance, at worst a nightmare, but in either case—and quite unlike the gleeful little rush of being right—we experience our error as deflating and embarrassing.


        Of all the things we are wrong about, this idea of error might well top the list. It is our meta-mistake: we are wrong about what it means to be wrong. Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage. And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.”

by. Mira Grant

“But when the springtime turns to dust
(A thousand shades of blood and rust)
And everything is ash and stone
(Contagion writ in blood and bone)
Then what exists to have and hold?
(What story, then, has not been told?)
Let this be my sacred vow
(Oh Mother Mary, hear me now):
I will not fail, I will not fall
(Though Heaven, Hell, and Chaos call).
We are the children of the Risen.
This world our home, this prayer our prison.”

The second book in the Newsflesh triology.

Perhaps you'll remember Feed? It was the 2nd best book I read last year and it just might be one of my top 10 favorite books. Anyways, this is the sequel to that and it is awesome. It's a sequel so I can't say anything much about it without ruining bits of the plot. But the series does an absolutely amazing job of creating a fascinating and believable world. Mira Grant does her homework. She's audited classes on epidemiology, she's talked with everyone from medical professionals to gun nuts. All the information that she collects is never regurgitated back out to show how smart she is, it gets used in many subtle little ways that just make the world she's created so believable.

Anyways, I love this series. It's thrilling, it's interesting, and it's just plain fun.

        “"I'm not sure Joe here is going to give us a choice." I glanced at the mastiff. He was sitting calmly behind our little group, blocking the only other exit from the narrow row between the tunnels. "Besides, we've come this far. Don't you want to find out what the big secret the Wizard has to share with us?"

        "Maybe she's planning to give you a brain," deadpanned Becks.

        "If she does, I hope that means you're getting a heart," I replied, and starting walking.

        Behind me, Alaric said, almost mournfully, "I just want to go home."”

Unfamiliar Fishes
by. Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell looks at the interactions between Hawaii's and the United States that led up to the Hawaiian annexation in 1898.

I have a crush on Sarah Vowell. She is crazy smart, super funny, she's often on This American Life, she even did the voice of Violet in The Incredibles, oh, and she writes history books that are a lot of fun. What more could you ask for in a woman?

So yeah, I'm pretty biased and I enjoyed learning about Hawaii's annexation in a light and amusing yet informational manner.

        “The years 1826 and '27 marked the nadir of missionary-seaman relations. The Sandwich Islands section of the ABCFM's annual report in 1827 tiptoes up to its chronicle of disturbing anecdotes. The mortified report states that in Hawaii, "a series of events took place, which, for the honor of our country and of Christendom, the Committee would gladly pass over in silence."

        In January of 1826 the demure chronicle contends that the Dolphin, a United States military ship, arrived in Honolulu. "Her Commander expressed his regret at the existence of a law, prohibiting females from visiting ships on an infamous errand." Learning of Hiram Bingham's influence, and determined to procure female companionship for himself and his shipmates, the captain informed the high chiefs "that unless the law against prostitution were repealed, he would come and tear down the houses of the missionaries."

        Six or seven members of the Dolphin's crew burst into a religious service Bingham was conducting at a chief's house and threatened him with clubs. Then they went off and broke some windows at the mission house. When the captain arrived on the scene, rather than apologize for his men's threats and vandalism he purported that "he had rather have his hands tied behind him, or even cut off, and go home to the United States mutilated, than to have it said, that the privilege of having prostitutes on board his vessel was denied to him."”

Leave it to Psmith
by. P.G. Wodehouse

An incident involving a pretty girl and a stolen umbrella sets off a chain reaction of events that embroils the gregarious Psmith into a hotpot of confusion and mistaken identities. But it'll all be worth it if he can get the girl and not have to deal with any fish while doing so.

This book had me laughing out loud a lot. Wodehouse is just so darn witty. Plus unlike a lot of his work this book has crime and action and even guns! I don't know what else to say.

But I will say that even though Psmith is said to wear a monocle I always ignore that fact, because I can't imagine anyone wearing a monocle. Literally. Whenever it is mentioned a monocle will materialize on my mental Psmith and then by the next sentence it will have vanished again.

Also I should warn you that it starts off a little slow, but I assure you that if you just give it a little bit it will definitely be worth your investment.

        “ 'Work, work, always work!' sighed Psmith. 'The curse of the age. Well, I will escort you back to your cell.'

        'No, you won't,' said Eve. 'I mean, thank you for your polite offer, but I want to be alone.'

        'Alone?' Psmith looked at her astonished. 'When you have the chance of being with me? This is a strange attitude.'

        'Good-bye,' said Eve. 'Thank you for being so hospitable and lavish. I'll try to find some cushions and muslin and stuff to brighten up this place.'

        'Your presence does that adequately,' said Psmith, accompanying her to the door. 'By the way returning to the subject we were discussing last night, I forgot to mention, when asking you to marry me, that I can do card-tricks.'


        'And also a passable imitation of a cat calling to her young. Has this no weight with you? Think! These things come in very handy in the long winter evenings.'

        'But I shan't be there when you are imitating cats in the long winter evenings.'

        'I think you are wrong. As I visualise my little home, I can see you there very clearly, sitting before the fire. Your maid has put you into something loose. The light of the flickering flames reflects itself in your lovely eyes. You are pleasantly tired after an afternoon's shopping, but not so tired as to be unable to select a card - any card - from the pack which I offer...' ”

Sex on the Moon:
The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History
by. Ben Mezrich

The story of how Thad Roberts stole a collection of priceless moon rocks from NASA and might have gotten away with it too if it wasn't for those meddling Belgians.

I didn't realize it until after I finished this book, but this is the guy that wrote Bringing Down the House. He apparently also wrote the book that The Social Network was based on, but I never read that one. It would seem that every book this man writes is the exact same plot: A highly intelligent young man goes to college and while there their brilliance creates a hubris that leads them down the gray area of ethics. And like usual it is done in a novelized style. Which makes it flow much easier, but also means he's probably taking a lot of liberties.

I read this book because it is about a man who stole moon rocks. As it turns out moon rocks are actually worth a LOT of money. I had never heard about this heist before and it intrigues me. The heist it definitely the best part. The rest is okay, but a lot of it seems to be trying to get you to sympathize with the guy, but I just can't do it. He risked his dreams, his job, and the woman he loved, so he could steal national treasures. He did it despite the fact that it would mean not only disgracing the organization that had been so good to him, but also a man that had been nothing but kind to him. Oh, and he cheated on his wife. So to hell with him. Now tell me more about these moon rocks!

        “"Dr.Cooper, what's in there?"

        She looked up from her computer list.

        "That's where we keep the return samples."

        "Return samples?"

        "That's right. The rocks that have been sent out, studied, and sent back."

        Thad stared at the little midget door. Of course, the return samples would be kept separately—they'd been taken out of the pristine, controlled environment of the vault, used in experiments—they weren't useful as research samples anymore. But still, it seemed odd that they would be locked away in an even deeper corner of the vault.

        "Don't worry," Cooper continued. "We'll be inventorying them as well. There's a safe in there, a few feet tall, it's really kind of cute. Even though the return samples themselves are basically considered trash."

        Trash—that seemed like a particularly harsh way to describe the return samples. They were still moon rocks, brought back by hand by the Apollo astronauts. Thad had a strange feeling—like he was suddenly back in the museum at the University of Utah, sifting through crates of fossils in a storage basement. One man's trash, another man's treasure. Except, in this case, it was such an unbelievably significant treasure. It seemed shameful to think of it as trash.

        "The return rocks—they're still just as valuable as the rest, right?"

        "The whole point of this place is to house lunar materials to be used by scientists for experimentation. The monetary value of these rocks is kind of beside the point. And I wouldn't get hung up on the whole trash concept—only about two percent of the entire collection is in the return vault."

        Two percent of eight hundred and forty-two pounds. Thad did the math in his head. That meant there were seventeen pounds of moon rock in the return vault. Locked away in a safe designated as trash. Seventeen pounds, at 453 grams to a pound—that was 7,701 grams of moon rock. At $5 million a gram...

        "Forty billion dollars," Thad whispered, staring at the midget door.”

Demon Fish:
Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks
by. Juliet Eilperin

A look at the historical and present day interactions between humans and sharks.

I was really excited about this one. I love sharks and so I was fascinated to find a book that wasn't just another info book about sharks, but one that dealt with human interactions with sharks. The book starts out just like I was expecting as it deals with the tribes of people that worshiped sharks and the role sharks have played in various religions. However, we quickly learn that the history of human interactions with sharks is this: Humans kill sharks. We kill an absolutely staggering amount of sharks. Why? Because we want sharksfin soup (a soup that's flavor isn't at all dependent on the shark's fin). Because we want to feel manly. And because we're just afraid of them. This is a truly enlightening book. But it does make you feel rather ashamed of the human race. I was watching The Daily Show recently and Jon Stewart was making some very ignorant comments about sharks being mindless killers and I just wanted to yell at him for buying into all that Jaws bullshit. So...you know...watch out for being instilled with some rage against people who speak ill of sharks.

        “A relentless worker, Myers only stopped producing when he was felled in 2006 by an inoperable brain tumor. He died at fifty-four on March 27, 2007; that week the journal Science published his last, groundbreaking paper: it provided convincing evidence that the decimation of sharks in the Atlantic had produced a cascade of unintended effects that were distorting ecosystems up and down the East Coast. He and his colleagues calculated that between 1970 and 2005, the number of scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks declined by more than 97 percent, and bull, dusky, and smooth hammerhead sharks dropped by more than 99 percent. During that same period nearly all of the sharks' prey species exploded: the cownose ray population off the East Coast expanded to as much as forty million. They became the thugs of the ocean, rampaging and pillaging in their quest to sustain their ever-rising number. Cownose rays eat tremendous amounts of bay scallops, oysters, and soft-shell and hard clams, and by 2004 their consumption of nearly all the adult scallops in the North Carolina sounds forced the state to shutter its century-old bay scallop fishery.

        Charles H. "Pete" Peterson, a professor of marine sciences, biology, and ecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who co-authored the paper, says its findings proved researchers had just "scratched the surface of the implications" of eliminating sharks from a given ecosystem."”

The Great Gatsby
by. F. Scott Fitzgerald

A story of wealth, societal classes, America, and love gone wrong.

It seems that this is a book that most people read in school. I, however, never had to read it in school, but after reading it I can understand why it is often assigned there. It's rather short and...well, I don't want to say the writing style is simplistic, because that conjures the idea that it isn't good writing. Perhaps "concise" is a better word? Regardless, there aren't any lengthy bouts of flowery verse that you have to read multiple times before you really understand what it's saying. Some authors spend pages describing every element of some view to you, splashing more and more detail onto the scene. Fitzgerald, however, is adept at giving you just the right amount of detail and feeling in a simple phrase to let you create the rest details yourself. For example:

"I had on a new plaid skirt also that blew a little in the wind, and whenever this happened the red, white, and blue banners in front of all the houses stretched out stiff and said tut-tut-tut-tut, in a disapproving way."


"She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can. Her face, above a spotted dress of dark blue crepe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty, but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering."

I don't really know what to say about it. It strikes me as a kind of book that won't change your life, and yet will float about your head making little impacts on your thoughts for a long time. So all in all I'm glad I gave it a read. Plus it'll also give you an added appreciation for these Kate Beaton comics.

        “We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out at the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

        The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an enchanted balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”

Moonwalking With Einstein:
The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
by. Joshua Foer

The story of an ordinary man who briefly made memory his life and how he won the US Memory Championships after only studying for a year.

Think about this: Mary Roach, Jonah Lehrer, and Dan Ariely all have quotes featured on the cover of this book. In case you've forgot, all of them have also been featured on this year's book list. Apparently I must be circling books of a common type.

Joshua Foer manages to pull of that difficult task for a non-fiction book, and that is to give a study about something scientific a plot and a human face. More specifically the science is that of memory, the face is his own, and the plot is his life. While covering a piece about a competition between memory athletes Foer keeps getting told that their brains aren't special, that anyone could memorize the precise order of decks of playing cards if they really wanted to. And he ends up giving it a try to find out if that is really the case, all the while researching just what memory is all about.

If it was just straight up science I'm sure it would have been interesting, but it wouldn't have been nearly as compelling. It's similar to an A.J.Jacobs story in the way it is a fun story about a man who experiments on himself, how those experiments affect his life, and what he's learned at the end of it all. I like A.J.Jacobs' books and I liked this one as well. It was a lot of fun and it makes you really appreciate memories.

        “So why bother investing in one's memory in an age of externalized memories? The best answer I can give is the one that I received unwittingly from EP, whose memory had been so completely lost that he could not place himself in time or space, or relative to other people. That is: How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We're all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory. Not yet, at least. Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character. Competing to see who can memorize more pages of poetry might seem beside the point, but it's about taking a stand against forgetfulness, and embracing primal capacities from which too many of us have become estranged. That's what Ed had been tryin got impart on me from the beginning: that memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it's about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human.”

American Gods:
The Tenth Anniversary Edition
by. Neil Gaiman

On the day he gets out of prison Shadow gets the news that his wife has died. While heading home to attended the funeral he runs into a strange man calling himself Wednesday who is looking to hire him. A war is brewing, the old gods versus the new, and Shadow soon finds himself caught in the middle of it.

Honestly, I have no idea what to say about this book. Never before have I come across a book that I simultaneously thought was both amazing and a complete piece of shit. On one hand the plot and the ideas were interesting, the writing was well done, and the way it portrayed some of the gods was really fascinating. On the other hand the main characters were some of the worse I've ever seen, most of the story seemed superfluous, and the ending was anti-climatic. But the main character...I still can't believe how bad he is. In fact, I could rant on and on about how the main character of this book is the world's dullest character. You can ask my friends, because they've had to hear this rant as I was reading the book. But I won't rant and rave here.

After hearing my confusion over all the good qualities and bad qualities of this book a friend asked me, "Well, would you recommend it?" And that made me think. I came to the conclusion that if you like dark fantasies, folklore, and travel stories, I would recommend this book. Just make sure you're reading it for those elements, and not for the story or the characters. I will also point out that as I was reading this I couldn't help but think about Terry Pratchett's book Small Gods. I could almost swear a lot of this was cribbed from that book. I mean a one-eyed god needs help from a human to try and reclaim his power? Someone beat you to this story, Gaiman. Actually, you know what? Just go read Small Gods instead. It's got amazing characters, a better plot, more profound ideas, and in general is just a lot more fun.

        "Wednesday pushed the paper away. "Fucking Johnny Appleseed, always going on about Paul Bunyan. In real life Chapman owned fourteen apple orchards. He farmed thousands of acres. Yes, he kept pace with the western frontier, but there's not a story out there about him with a word of truth in it, save that he went a little crazy once. But it doesn't matter. Like the newspapers used to say, if the truth isn't big enough, you print the legend. This country needs its legends. And even the legends don't believe it any more."

        "But you see it."

        "I'm a has-been. Who the fuck cares about me?"

        Shadow said softly, "You're a god."

        Wednesday looked at him sharply. He seemed to be about to say something, and then he slumped back in his seat, and looked down at the menu and said, "So?"

        "It's a good thing to be a god," said Shadow.

        "Is it?" asked Wednesday, and this time it was Shadow who looked away.

Before I Go to Sleep
by. S.J. Watson

Christine wakes up every morning to find that she can't remember where she is or even the majority of her own life. Every day her husband Ben has to tell her about her accident and fill her in about her own life. Then when she goes to sleep at the end of the day she'll forget everything once again. But something else happens everyday, everyday someone calls to reminds her that she's been keeping a journal and thus everyday the first thing sees when she opens it is the sentence "DON'T TRUST BEN" written in her own handwriting.

I got this book on a whim after seeing it on some list of good summer reads because it sounded interesting. I wasn't expecting much, but it turned out to be really exciting. It was also kind of fun because you can tell she used some of the same sources Walking With Einstein used. I don't really want to say much about this book because I don't want to ruin any surprises. So just know that I enjoyed it so much that I read it in a day because I just continuously had to see what happened next!

        “My name is Christine Lucas. I am forty-seven. An amnesiac. I am sitting here, in this unfamiliar bed, writing my story dressed in a silk nightie that the man downstairs—who tells me that he is my husband, that he is called Ben—apparently bought me for my forty-sixth birthday. The room is silent and the only light comes from the lamp on the bedside table—a soft orange glow. I feel as if I am floating, suspended in a pool of light.

        I have the bedroom door closed. I am writing this in private. In secret. I can hear my husband in the living room—the soft sigh of the sofa as he leans forward or stands up, an occasional cough, politely stifled—but I will hide this book if he comes upstairs. I will put in under the bed, or the pillow. I don't want him to see I am writing in it. I don't wan to have to tell him how I got it.

        I look at the clock on the bedside table. It is almost eleven; I must write quickly. I imagine that soon I will hear the TV silenced, a creak of a floorboard as Ben crosses the room, the flick of a light switch. Will he go into the kitchen and make a sandwich or pour himself a glass of water? Or will he come straight to bed? I don't know. I don't know his rituals. I don't know my own.

        Because I have no memory. According to Ben, according to the doctor I met this afternoon, tonight, as I sleep, my mind will erase everything I know today. Everything I did today. I will wake up tomorrow as I did this morning. Thinking I am still a child. Thinking I still have a whole lifetime of choice ahead of me.

        And then I will find out, again, that I am wrong. My choices have already been made. Half my life is behind me."”