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Books 2018: #1 – #10


This volume covers ten books read in January and February of 2018. I have done a somewhat better job than usual keeping these reminisces brief.

Fancy pants color-coded indicators of placements on my  Great Novels ,  Great Sci-fi and Fantasy Novels  and  Great Crime Novels  lists add dubious value to the reviews of qualifying books.
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  • A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the CosmosDava SobelA More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos (2011)
       This is a nicely-readable biography of Copernicus, with its focus on the years in which he sat on his astounding treatise, knowing its publication could endanger his life and livelihood. Finally, at the very end of his life he was persuaded to print it. But even then he presented his conclusions carefully, allowing them to be interpreted as if he believed that while they worked mathematically to make the most precise predictions about the positions and movements of the planets, they did not necessarily describe actual reality (and contradict the Bible). Smh.
     
    The author interposes her play, And the Sun Stood Still, in an attempt to breathe life into her portrayal of Copernicus. It is an interesting approach, but I didn’t really love it. Nevertheless I look forward to reading her Galileo’s Daughter, which promises a sneakily indirect biography of Copernicus’s great scientific descendant.

  • A Coffin for Dimitrios 10   Eric AmblerA Coffin for Dimitrios (1939)
       A novel with some resemblance to The Thirty-Nine Steps (reviewed here). This is a continent-spanning thriller with the better, more interestingly developed story of the two. It should have been the subject of a Hitchcock film. (Now I think about it, Coffin also has some resemblances to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.)

  • The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It Every TimeMaria KonnikovaThe Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It Every Time (2016)
       An important subject for sure. In light of Trumpism and the increasing information about just how Russia and others successfully infiltrate social media and seek to manipulate us, anything reminding of our inherent vulnerability to con jobs big and small is important. But this book bored me. Its repetition made me think that a longish magazine article would have sufficed. Additionally, the excessive attention given to scams to which I would never be at risk (fortune tellers for one) left me disengaged.

  • Stormy WeatherCarl HiaasenStormy Weather (1995)
       Another of Hiaasen’s fantastically comic, formulaic entertainments set in development-beleaguered Florida. This one set against the backdrop of “Storm of the Century” Hurricane Andrew. Bad guys–developers, politicians, polluters, moronic scammers of all types–get their just deserts. In the end, a disaffected, scarred, charmingly-flawed good guy gets (and rescues) the disrespected, scarred, flawed-but-hot good gal. For all that, fun escapist fantasy.

  • The Handmaid's Tale 109 20   Margaret AtwoodThe Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
       I re-read this novel in part because of the attention given it due to the Hulu television series, though I don’t Hulu and have not seen it. I imagine it translates well and makes for creepy viewing. The book holds up well 33 years after its publication. It must have initially been in part a reaction to Jerry Falwell and the so-called Moral Majority. Now with Falwell-the-Younger and the neo-Majoritarians having revealed themselves as abject hypocrites (71% of them, anyway), Atwood’s dystopian vision is more frightening than ever.

  • Trespassing on Einstein's LawnAmanda GefterTrespassing on Einstein’s Lawn (2014)
       This is an engaging and quirky overview of the world of cosmology and the search for reality as seen through the eyes of a father/daughter pair of obsessive armchair theorists and science groupies. Well, the view is through the daughter’s eyes and it is as much a memoir as it is a book about science . But it covers a lot of big ideas in excited prose, and it should appeal to armchair theorists and science groupies everywhere. It did to this one.
     
    [Late-breaking news: The death of Stephen Hawking led to my reading two biographies and countless popular-media profiles of the great theoretical physicist. I am now reading a book by one of Hawking's great contemporaries and a frequent sparring partner, Leonard Susskind (Gefter calls him "Lenny"), and if I can muster the time and energy I will write more on my blog about my armchair obsession with Hawking and others seeking answers to the really big questions.]

  • The Salmon of DoubtDouglas AdamsThe Salmon of Doubt (2002)
       This is a sad collection. It consists of previously published essays along with unpublished writings retrieved from Adams’s disk drives after his untimely death. The collection is named for the fragment of a new Dirk Gently story presented. Apparently, Adams was considering the possibility of recasting it as a sixth volume in his Hitchhiker series. We will never know which way it might have gone.
     
    The gems here are the short essays. Three of them I shared with friends or family in emails while I read the book: “Maggie and Trudie” tells the story of a pair of dogs that reminds me of our dog and granddog. An essay originally published as liner notes to a recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos was called “brilliant” by the most knowledgeable musician I know, and the following short excerpt from a travel piece is typical of Adams …
     

    Jane, who is much better at reading guide books than I am (I always read them on the way back to see what I missed, and it’s often quite a shock), discovered something wonderful in the book she was reading. Did I know, she asked, that Brisbane was originally founded as a penal colony for convicts who committed new offences after they had arrived in Australia?
     
    I spent a good half hour enjoying this single piece of information. It was wonderful. There we British sat, poor grey sodden creatures, huddling under our grey northern sky that seeped like a rancid dish cloth, busy sending those we wished to punish most severely to sit in bright sunlight on the coast of the Tasman Sea at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef and maybe do some surfing too. No wonder the Australians have a particular kind of smile that they reserve exclusively for use on the British.


  • The Fabulous Clipjoint 24   Fredric BrownThe Fabulous Clipjoint (1947)
       The first of a series of Chicago-based crime noir novels featuring the uncle/nephew team of Ambrose and Ed Hunter. A page-turner with a well-constructed and not entirely predictable plot. Frank, I think, for its time.

  • Mary and the GiantPhilip K. DickMary and the Giant (1987)
       I chose this novel at random from the sizable (virtual) stack of unread PKD in my possession. What sort of fantastic giant might stalk some dystopian nightmare in this one? What weird California future?
     
    Nothing and nowhen of the sort, as it turned out. This novel–early PKD–is one of a handful of non-SciFi novels in his oeuvre. I enjoyed it and it left me wanting to know about its enigmatic author …

  • Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. DickLawrence SutinDivine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (1989)
       … and so I picked up this biography. The Internet tells me this is the definitive book on the life of an author who has become one of my obsessions. Surely it is. Very enlightening. Anyone like me, fascinated by Philip K Dick’s unique imagination and knowing next to nothing about him (beyond his Wikipedia entry and a few half-remembered magazine profiles), should read this biography today.
     
    It turns out that Lawrence Sutin taught at Hamline University, the small St Paul, Minnesota university where I worked for eleven years. Our time there overlapped for several years, but we never met.

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