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26 May 2018

Book Review: Camino Island

Camino IslandCamino Island by John Grisham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We picked this up at the airport in Paris. We are about to move from Africa, back to the US for the summer, and then to Shenzhen, China in the fall. Because of this, we are trying to reduce our weight; meaning we need to be able to fit our belongings in 7 boxes weighing less than 50 lbs each.

So we told the kid we weren't buying any more books. His argument was, "But it's about F. Scott Fitzgerald's manuscripts! Dad LOVES Gatsby!"

We bought it. It's a paperback. Those don't weigh much, right?

I haven't read much recent Grisham. I loved his early best-sellers -- The Firm, Pelican Brief, A Time to Kill-- but then I stopped reading him.

I expected something different from this book, the plot of which seemed to wander about in a lethargic way, like a southerner telling a tall tale while sipping lemonade on a wrap-around porch during a hot summer afternoon. I didn't think Grisham was capable of wandering. But this book is mostly spent lavishing with a cast of characters that would be more comfortable in a lazy summer beach read.

The New York Times wrote the book "reads as if Grisham is taking a vacation from writing John Grisham novels." Yes. That. Exactly.


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23 May 2018

Book Review: The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train RobberyThe Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I used my "define words by context" skills quite a bit in this book;

"It was the stickman's job to take the pogue once Teddy had snaffled it, thus leaving Teddy clean..."

"She's a judy. Clean Willy's doll. Pinches laundry, doesn't she? Aye, she does a bit of snow."

"Every night. It's the reeb that does it. Reeb gives a man a powerful urge."

"That's the lay? You popped me out of Newgate for this? This is no shakes, to knock over a deadlurk."

Finally, on page 179, Crichton admits to the cryptic nature of the slang;
"'Dressed proper, with good manner, but speaks a wave lag from Liverpool, and he can voker a romeny." Harrenby glanced at Sharp, in the corner. From time to time, even Harranby needed some help in translation."

The word "cockchafer" was used multiple times before it was defined at the end of the book as a treadmill used to punish prisoners.

This is historical fiction. But one would make a mistake if one actually tried to learn history from this historical fiction. Crichton is an unreliable historian. Though he mentions well-known things from history, like the Crystal Palace from the 1851 Great Exhibition, he also fully invents some things, like the story of George Bateson.

Google George Bateson. There are several articles citing as fact that he invented a system to prevent people from being buried alive. But, in fact, this "fact" originated in this book. Crichton made it up and, through a series of erroneous citations, Crichton's fiction has been elevated by some to fact.

I took it as fact. Then I thought to myself, "Huh. I wonder if 'bats in the belfry' comes from Bateson and his belfry?" It doesn't, of course. George's name and the name of his fictional device is a joke, designed to make the reader think of the phrase, not the other way around.

The Bateson story doesn't happen until 3/4ths of the way through the book. Makes me wonder how many other asides I took on faith as accurate Victorian history when they were really just fanciful inventions of Crichton's imagination. Is a cockchafter even real?

Just another reminder to read, research, and check your facts with reliable sources before you claim something as real. A good lesson to learn, again, in this age of "fake news."


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19 May 2018

Book Review: The Other Einstein

The Other EinsteinThe Other Einstein by Marie Benedict
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I hate reading about abused women. I hate having to be a bystander while these women make decision after decision to stay with a person who only seeks to invalidate and minimize them.

So I did not like this book.

It was interesting to me that the word "mercurial" popped up every five pages or so. Either that was a calculated conceit by the author or she needs a better editor.

However, I did enjoy the clarity with which the idea for the theory of relativity comes to Mitza; "What would happen if the train left the station not at sixty kilometres and hour but at close to the speed of light? What would happen to time? If the train left the station at rapid speeds approaching the speed of light, the clock's hands would still move, but the train would be moving so quickly that light could not catch up with it. The faster the train accelerated, the slower the hands would move, ultimately freezing once the train reached the speed of light. Time would effectively freeze. And if the train could go faster than the speed of light, then time might roll backwards."

I also enjoyed this nugget of reflection on why great people who are also awful people are sometimes universally adored; "It's as if they've transformed their professional admiration into unshakeable personal affection, no matter how contemptibly he has acted."


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15 April 2018

Book Review: Timeline

TimelineTimeline by Michael Crichton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Interesting idea but poorly executed and written. I did not care about even one character, which was a shame. The descriptions of the Middle Ages were intriguing (as well as the lecturing about how we have the Middle Ages all wrong) but I wanted a better story, or, rather, a story that was peopled as carefully as it was plotted.

"In other centuries, human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But in our century, they want to be entertained. The great fear is not of disease or death, but of boredom. A sense of time on our hands, a sense of nothing to do. A sense that we are not amused."

"If you didn't know history, you didn't know anything. You were a leaf that didn't know it was part of a tree."


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14 March 2018

Book Review: Pompeii

PompeiiPompeii by Robert   Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I devoured this book. As someone said in the Goodreads thread, "To focus on the water systems of Pompeii and surrounding towns as effected by the imminent volcanic eruption is genius and I can't put this book down. Think it is a great way to add interest to an event we already know of the outcome."

The idea of aqueducts has always been fascinating, though I lack the specific engineering understanding to fully comprehend how amazing they actually were. I've seen the ruins of several (most impressively, Segovia in Spain and Pont du Gard in France) but knowing that before laser measuring and surveying, Roman engineers were able to build these massive, yet delicately-designed, structures. "The great Roman roads went crashing through Nature in a straight line, brooking no opposition. But the aqueducts, which had to drop the width of a finger every hundred yards--any more and the flow would rupture the walls; any less and the water would lie stagnant--they were obliged to follow the contours of the ground. Sometimes it was only the eagles, soaring in the hot air above some lonely mountainscape, who could appreciate the true majesty of what men had wrought."

Harris is a good writer in the sense that I was never given pause by his structure. Nor was I frequently blown away by his prose, save for a few dog ears like this one, where he is describing how smell and touch set off memory;

"But lately almost anything could set it off--a touch, a smell, a sound, a colour glimpsed--and immediately memories he did not know he still possessed came flooding back, as if there was nothing left of him any more but a breathless sack of remembered impressions."

I enjoyed every bit of it. Not once was I thrown off by the anachronistic coupling of language using modern terms cuddled up with Roman terms. Nor was I thrown off by the fictionalization of known Roman citizens.

Harris puts thoughts into Pliny the Elder's mind (and I'll leave it to the learned historians to determine how accurate his imaginings might be, although in the Acknowledgements, Harris says that Mary Beard read the manuscript and provided feedback; having just finished SPQR, I tend to trust that Beard knows what she's talking about) but one stream of consciousness Harris attributes to Pliny's thought process was particularly moving;

"Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us, he thought, for our greed and selfishness. We torture her at all hours by iron and wood, fire and stone. We dig her up and then dump her in the sea. We sink mineshafts into her and drag out her entrails--and all for a jewel to wear on a pretty finger. Who can blame her if she occasionally quivers with anger?"

Ampliatus, the villain of the piece, wants his work in Pompeii to be important through the ages. He also wants to use predictions of the future as a way to solidify his power, so he commissions a sibyl, a fortune-teller, to give him a prophecy. And it's this prophecy that causes him to stay in the town as it is being pelted by ash and pumice; his conviction that Pompeii will survive.

"She saw a town--our town--many years from now. A thousand years distant, maybe more. She saw a city famed throughout the world. Our temples, our ampitheatre, our streets--thronging with people of every tongue. That is what she saw in the guts of the snakes. Long after the Caesars are dust and the Empire has passed away, what we have built here will endure."

The moral? Interpreting prophecy can dangerous.

"It killed more than two thousand people in less than half a minute and it left their bodies arranged in a series of grotesque tableaux for posterity to gawp at. For although their hair and clothes burned briefly, these fires were quickly snuffed out by the lack of oxygen, and instead a muffling, six-foot tide of fine ash, traveling in the wake of the surge, flowed over the city, shrouding the landscape and moulding every detail of its fallen victims.The ash hardened. More pumice fell. In their snug cavities the bodies rotted, and with them, as the centuries passed, the memory that there had even ben a city on this spot. Pompeii became a town of perfectly shaped hollow citizens."


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Book Review: SPQR

SPQR: A History of Ancient RomeSPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The snob in me was prepared to hate this book. Like a learn-ed history teacher probably should.

But, me, I am not so learn-ed. And my knowledge of Rome was spotty, at best. SPQR helped me put everything together in a chronological order that finally helps me understand Rome.

See, it's not just empire. First it was a city-state run by Etruscan kings. Then there was the Lucretia incident, a likely mythical tipping point for Roman citizens to overthrow their foreign king and form a republic (I actually played Lucretia in the Britten opera once but never quite made the connection as to what point of Roman history all of it...too busy learning notes and blocking to learn history; shame). The Roman Republic was born at approximately the exact same time as Athenian democracy, but neither was glorious and fully formed at any point in history; at best, it was always a bunch of rich people struggling to retain their power. Then Julius Caesar is murdered, because they were worried he was becoming too powerful, and Octavian becomes Augustus Caesar, who became the power-concentrated-in-one-person those who killed Caesar feared.

Beard puts all of this together in an attractive narrative that gives just enough detail to keep me interested and intrigued but not so much as to overwhelm. I'm what she knows about Rome that she left out of this book would fill volumes.

As usual, the greatest pleasure of history is the interesting trivia about things I've never thought about before.

Like the word "Aborigine" comes from ab origine meaning "from the beginning."

Or September comes from "7th month" (October, 8th, November, 9th, December (10th) because the old Roman calendar was structured differently and then suffered from development as they were continuously challenged to find a way to keep time that was consistent but also matched with the natural rhythms of the world, which has 365 1/4 days in a lunar year (back then, once in a while, they'd add an extra month to get things back on track; now we add an extra day every four years)

Or the fact that, of course, they did not calculate time like we do. BC, AD, BCE, CE; all a product of our modern sensibilities applied after-the-fact to ancient times. Romans usually referred to dates by the names of the consul who held office.

Or the fact that in the 4th century BCE, the base of the main platform for speakers in the Forum was decorated with the bronze rams of enemy warships captured from the city of Antium during the Latin War. The Latin word for "rams" is rostra, from where we get the word "rostrum."

Or the idea that the very idea of an electoral government is flawed because of the eternal conflict over whether the elected official is a "delegate," bound to vote exactly the way the people who elected him wish him to, or a "representative," elected to exercise his own judgement.

I'm writing this review 3 full days after I finished the book and I've already forgotten 80% of what I learned.

So I'll have to read it again. Then again. Then one more time. And I suspect it will be enjoyable each time because I'll have forgotten that I learned all this once or twice before. Everything old is new again.


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03 December 2017

Book Review: The Fault in our Stars

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just got back from a quick weekend get-away to Amsterdam, my first time in the city. Before we left, I handed my 13 year old this book.

I had read it myself, years ago, but didn't remember much about it. But I love John Green's voice and see much of that style in my own son's writing. Plus, Amsterdam! We love reading books that take place in the places we currently are.

My kid read it on the flight from Africa to Amsterdam. He reads quickly so he finished it in the Schiphol Airport while we were trying to figure out how to buy train tickets. He did not cry. He already knew the ending. He knows all the endings. The internet and his natural curiosity have created endless moments for us to say, a la River Song, "Spoilers!"

Then, as we were traipsing along the canals and bridges, we stumbled across the now-famous "Fault In Our Stars" bench, where in the movie adaptation, Gus tells Hazel he's sick again.

Then we went to the Anne Frank house and I suddenly vividly recalled Hazel's struggle with the stairs.

Currently, the last room you go to in the museum is a space where they have filmed people, regular people and famous people, discussing the impact of Anne Frank.

And there was John Green on the screen, reading from The Fault In Our Stars "At the end of the hallway, a huge book, bigger than a dictionary, contained the names of the 103,000 dead from the Netherlands in the Holocaust. The book was turned to the page with Anne Frank's name, but what got me was the fact that right beneath her name there were four Aron Franks. Four. Four Aron Franks without museums, without historical markers, without anyone to mourn them."

So when I got home, I borrowed the book back from my son. I'm a quick reader, too, apparently. I just read it in one sitting.

And then I read some of the reviews; the anger of some people who think that teenagers don't talk like that and the whole book is pretentious.

But, see, some teens do talk like that. And the whole point of Gus WAS that he was pretentious. Hazel loved him most in those moments when he wasn't, but she was charmed when he was. "When surprised and excited and innocent Gus emerged from Grand Gesture Metaphorically Inclined Augustus, I literally could not resist."

And I loved the conversations they had about scrambled eggs.

Frankly, one of the reasons I love John Green is that I see my son in so many of Green's characters; too clever by half, gloriously nerdy, and awkwardly kind and generous.

So all ye who think these characters were not typical, shush. There is no typical. And just because the world likes to present all teens as vapid consumers of media and junk food, some teens defy that generalization.

Yes, the book is a little over-wrought. It's like watching the movie Titanic, which I have never done, because who wants to get attached to a bunch of characters who you know are just going to die in the end?

But isn't that was life actually is? Getting attached to characters who are just going to die in the end? "I am in love with you, and I'm not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have, and I'm in love with you."

Hazel and Gus are philosophical in a way that I find totally believable. They are smart, thoughtful kids who have been in the brink. When you have been to the brink and somehow survive, the way you approach the world changes entirely.

When Hazel veers off into cynical philosophy, the wisdom doesn't seem out of place in a 16 year-old's body. Because that 16 year-old has tasted the end and remembers what it tastes like:
"Without Pain, How Could We Know Joy? (This is an old argument in the field of Thinking About Suffering, and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries, but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate.)"

Or when Gus is desperately (though we don't yet know it's desperate) trying to make a mark, even while playing a video game, we understand that he understands what it's like to look death in the face and wonder if you've done enough with your life:
"All salvation is temporary. I bought them a minute. Maybe that's the minute that buys them an hour, which is the hour that buys them a year. No one's gonna buy them forever, Hazel Grace, but my life bought them a minute. And that's not nothing."

The character of Peter Van Houten was a stretch, but in a book laced with metaphor, he fit perfectly:
"My response is being written with ink and paper in the glorious tradition of our ancestors and then transcribed by Ms. Vliegenthart into a series of 1s and 0s to travel through the insipid web which has lately ensnared our species, so I apologize for any errors or omissions that may result."

The process of healing:
"Each sleep ended to reveal a person who seemed a bit more like me."

The revelation of seeing yourself through someone else's eyes:
"You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are."

And the knowledge, that must be relearned on every bad day, that every day you are alive is, literally, a chance in of lifetime:
"I was thinking about the universe wanting to be noticed, and how I had to notice it as best I could. I felt that I owed a debt to the universe that only my attention could repay, and also that I owed a debt to everybody who didn't get to be a person anymore and everyone who hadn't gotten to be a person yet."


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