Brief Book Reviews 2

by Robert Nagle on 6/5/2012

in book reviews,Brief Reviews

Here are some abbreviated book reviews. (The brevity neither reflects on the quality but simply on my inclination to write a thorough review at the time). See also: my index of book reviews which I recently started. Please note that at the bottom of this post I’m going to try to mention books which I’m currently reading and plan to review. No promises obviously, but  the To-Read is more for my reference.

alley-orig Earth: The Operator’s Manual. By Richard Alley.  This book written for the general reader provided the foundation for a PBS series about climate change and earth science. This is not great writing, but the tone is dispassionate and fair-minded and full of useful information. Alley first came to prominence through his work with ice cores and testifying before Congress. He doesn’t have strong political views, but he understands the places where people commonly misunderstand the science and is a good explainer.
image With One Eye Open by Polly Frost  ($2.99). This  is a  series of sophisticated but hilarious sketches by Polly Frost about popular and Net culture. It’s light and fun reading, poking fun at writers, Facebook, theatre, commercialism, dieting, celebritydom, software to write novels. These are obvious targets of satire, yes,  and the humor is so topical and trendy  that I wonder if it could have been  written 6 months from now. Most  take place under a Manhattan backdrop, with a love/hate relationship towards technology, publishing and the bohemian lifestyle. Among my favorite stories were “Final Paper You Want From Me” (a college girl dreams up new and crazy social networking sites), Reblock Yourself the Polly Frost Way (seminars to teach people to resist the impulse to write) and  My Dog Breeds (an illustrated guide to dog breeds for today — such as the iDog). Frost and her husband Ray Sawhill are the writers behind Sex Scenes, sexy audio stories about Hollywood. P.S., I read almost every piece on the bus while standing up! Recommended.
image Mind Performance Hacks by Ron Hale-Evans. I bought this 2006 book by accident and have greatly enjoyed it (and used copies are selling for next to nothing on Half.com and Amazon).  The book consists of 75 chapters of about 3-4 pages each. Each chapter contains a hack or technique for creative problem-solving or just mental exercises. Sounds hoaky, but page after page is loaded with insights: how to think analogically, learn an artificial language, ask stupid questions, cultivate the naïve mind, construct memory palaces, hold a question in your mind. In addition to being well-written, it is also well-researched.  Lots of  references to important cognitive psychology and self-help sources , including a reference to my all time favorite  How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett.  Even if you are not seriously interested in the subject or the specific techniques being proffered, it is still a great read. Highly recommended.
image Offshore. by Penelope Fitzgerald  I read this with high hopes (after reading her incredible Blue Flower book about the life of Novalis).  Structurally, this book had lots of short chapters, but the story dragged … lots of talk, not really any development.  I kept waiting for the action to proceed, but the not-so-interesting dialogue became the sole reason for reading. I gave up. (Hard to believe that this won the Booker).
ctrct_7 Contracts: The Essential Business Desk Reference by Richard Stim.  (Ebook price: $20).  This ebook gives an alphabetized list of contract terms and examples of how they are used and the legal principles behind these terms. The important thing to know is that this is more like a reference or dictionary than a how-to guide. I would have preferred a better organization system to help me understand the relationships between the different terms. This ebook would have been perfect if it provided a hyperlinked & hierarchical outline of related terms in a Part 1 and then provided the alphabetical list in Part 2. Instead, the only way to read this ebook was alphabetically – which is ludicrous.  The explanations and writing for this book were outstanding; too bad  Nolo didn’t have enough insight to provide different paths to look through the digital content.
image Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.
I read 100 pages and was utterly bored, both by the style and action (the premise was somewhat interesting, but far-fetched).  The premise was good, and I could tell the book was headed somewhere, but until that point, the narrative just wasn’t doing a lot.  I have fond memories about some of Heinlein’s earlier books (like Tunnel in the Sky), but this one just didn’t engage me.
image Arthur & Edith, Mike & Gloria. by Donna McCrohan (print book only) describes the reaction to the show in the 1970s  I wondered whether anyone had ever written about this milestone TV series, and I am happy to report that this book is every bit as revealing and insightful as I had hoped. This book reprints reviews by TV critics and does in-depth analysis of how characters evolved during the show. It also provides a lot of background about how Norman Lear started the show and how his primary aim was entertainment and not really social commentary.  We need more books like this: short, well-researched books about historic TV series which allow readers to appreciate what social forces influenced the show and how the public responded. Highly recommended.
File:Lost Moon.jpg Lost Moon: Perilous Journey of the Apollo 13. By Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger.  This book (upon which the film Apollo 13 is based) provides a lot more details and background information about the accident. I’m guessing that science journalist Jeffrey Kluger had a major role in shaping the narrative (which was expertly told and whose chapters alternated between flashbacks and current dramas). The book highlights things missed in the movie: the vast amount of flight experience Lovell already had (having flown twice around the moon),  the personal connection Lovell had with ill-fated Apollo 1 tragedy, the social protocol NASA astronauts had (including that of Lovell’s wife, who had to keep one wife “busy” while NASA prepared to deliver the news of her husband’s death), the nitty-gritty detail of the necessary burn operations they had to take,  how the “venting” of oxygen  surrounded the ship during most of the  return home (and interfered with visibility). The book certainly captures the exciting and heroic efforts of the astronauts and crew; strangely, the whole story is told in third person, which papers over the fact that (inside the spaceship at least), the perspective is entirely Lovell’s.  Recommended

 

Still reading: The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage, Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air by David J.C. MacKay, Lying: 10 Easy Ways to Spot a Liar, Two Mile Time Machine by Richard Alley, Hack the Planet by Eli Kintisch, Puddenhead Wilson by Mark Twain, Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living (Union of Concerned Scientists),  various accounting books,  Using Drupal (Oreilly). Reinventing Fire by Amory Lovins, Walking Words by Eduardo Galeano, What Philosophy Can Teach you about your Cat by Stephen Hales, Revised Kama Sutra by Richard Crasta, Last Tragedy by  Herb Mallette,  Every Vote Equal by John R. Caza.

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