From Books

Ten Books: 2017, Volume 2


More blather on the subject of my recent reading. This volume covers ten books read in the spring and early summer of 2017.

Placements on my  Great Novels ,  Great Sci-fi and Fantasy Novels  and  Great Crime Novels  lists are highlighted with gorgeous and helpful color-coded rankings.
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  • The Moviegoer 38   Walker PercyThe Moviegoer (1961)
       This is the story of Binx Bolling, a disaffected New Orleans stockbroker who undertakes a sort of half-hearted search for meaning in his life. If he were more ambitious about the search, he might’ve been as manic as Kerouac’s Sal Paradise. Any more disaffected, Camus’s Stranger. Any more sympathetic, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. As it is, perhaps due to his predilection for sitting passively through movies watching others wrestle with post-war, homogenized American life, he isn’t the most rebellious of rebels and, in the end, no revolutionary. He makes a self-sacrificing decision to save another, or, possibly, he uses the other to save himself. Alternatively, he may simply be signing on to a pact of mutual self-destruction.

  • Skinny DipCarl HiaasenSkinny Dip (2005)
       Another of Hiaasen’s rollicking comedic South Florida “enviro-thrillers.” In this one, Mick Stranahan rescues a beautiful woman he finds clinging, naked, to a floating bale of marijuana miles from the Atlantic shore. He takes her to the small island where, as a caretaker for an absentee owner, he lives alone with his Doberman pinscher. There he hides her while the two of them try to find out why her husband tried to kill her and to exact revenge.
     
    There is a whole lot more going on, including the nefarious doings of Everglades polluters and corrupt government officials. Really a fun read. The perfect book to enjoy while relaxing with a mojito on a lovely Florida beach. Hurry though. You’ll want to do this before development and climate change destroy what is left of Florida’s appeal.

  • Good Science, Bad Science, Pseudoscience, and Just Plain BunkPeter DaempfleGood Science, Bad Science, Pseudoscience, and Just Plain Bunk (2012)
       I didn’t take notes while or shortly after reading this book, so I am limited in what I can say. I can say that I was fairly disappointed in it. My disappointment stemmed mostly, I think, with style and emphasis, not substance. It is a book targeted to STEM educators, not to me. Discussions of pedagogical methods do not engage me, though probably they should. We can all be teachers.
     
    I agree with what the author is trying to do. He seeks to encourage robust teaching of critical thinking and the scientific method to combat the erosion of our society’s ability to consider and deal effectively with complex issues and the overwhelming amounts of information and disinformation we must evaluate to do so. He uses examples of how poorly presented scientific research in the media, to a public poorly prepared to evaluate it, leads to poor choices in personal lives and in public policy. He is right about the importance and enormity of the challenge we face. (It is quite sobering to think about how much more acute the problem is today. More than four years after the publication of this book, we elected as President a man who demonstrates a complete and utter lack of scientific understanding and, worse, a disregard bordering on disdain for the importance of science and empirical evidence when grappling with important and intricately complex problems. It is a perilous time.)

  • GalapagosKurt VonnegutGalapagos (1985)
       Due to a series of unfortunate and improbable accidents, an unlikely group of human survivors is marooned on a small island in the Galapagos. They turn out to be the only humans unaffected by a virus that renders the rest of the human race infertile. So, observed by our narrator, the ghost of one Leon Trotsky Trout (Kilgore’s son, whose soul misses several chances to pass through a portal to the afterlife), the human race evolves over a period of 1,000,000 years to something resembling a fur-covered seal. Our species loses along the way its over-sized brain, the source of so much of its trouble over the millinea. So it goes.

  • The Last Hero: A Life of Henry AaronHoward BryantThe Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron (2010)
       An outstanding biography of an impressive man. Henry Aaron is a larger-than-life American hero and a man who has always lived up to the fame and adulation he never sought. A lesser man would have collapsed under the weight of expectations on one side and hate on the other. It saddens me to know how joyless was his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s iconic home run record. How bigots, semi-literate cowards who, for the price of paper, envelopes, and postage were able to sour his achievement. Then, years after Aaron had put the record behind him and had achieved peace off the field as a successful businessman and respected executive, the steroid-tainted breaking of his record by a self-absorbed and odious anti-hero dragged him again into the limelight and into a controversy he wanted no part of.
     
    This biography traces Aaron’s life from his childhood in Mobile, Alabama through his career on the field and beyond. Any “mature” baseball fan will enjoy this book for its glimpse into the world of the Major Leagues of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Every American might benefit from its portrayal of a country struggling then, as it does now, to achieve fundamental equality for all of its citizens.

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God 92   Zora Neale HurstonTheir Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
       A novel ahead of its time. Its focus on the life of its African-American woman narrator, with little time, really, to spend on an explicit treatment of the larger social issues of the day, creates a compelling portrait of a strong and attractive individual that just feels very real. The implicit presence of the larger social issues of the time is quite clear. This novel was a big influence on Toni Morrison and others. I haven’t read a lot of these writers, but I have read some of Morrison (The Bluest Eye and Beloved), and the connection is obvious.
     
    Huston’s written representation of the vernacular English of her Southern African-American characters does at times make for difficult reading. It wasn’t popular with some influential African-American writers and critics of the time, but it seems to me an essential element of her realism.

  • The Puppet Masters 31   Robert HeinleinThe Puppet Masters (1951)
       A story set in 2007 with similarities to the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As must be the case with most any science fiction read almost 70 years after publication, much of this novel’s technological advances (and, especially, non-advances) are laughable. As is its political and cultural setting. (Almost all of Philip K Dick’s works are so afflicted.) A reader’s suspension of disbelief is key. The story itself is entertaining enough, though less so for me than some of Heinlein’s others.

  • Money 92   Martin AmisMoney (1984)
       The subtitle of this novel is “A Suicide Note.” The suicide is not necessarily what it might be expected to be. Nothing in the novel is what it might be expected to be. Underlying all of the bi-continental nonsensical debauchery is a coherent plot, but it reveals itself only after a long and wild ride. Amis has a gift for the convoluted absurd (see also my appreciation for Time’s Arrow).
     
    The author includes himself as a fairly minor but significant character in the novel. The novel was inspired by Amis’s unhappy involvement, as scriptwriter, in the production of the poorly-received film Saturn 3. From Wikipedia I’ve learned the character Lorne Guyland (the name a play on Long Island) is based on Kirk Douglas, and that the Dire Straits song “Heavy Fuel” was inspired by the novel. Trivia.

  • Hiding in the MirrorLawrence M. KraussHiding in the Mirror (2005)
       The author explores the history of speculation on the subject of extra dimensions, from Plato down to string theory. He weaves an entertaining and informative tale. Krause is a great read for those of us who are “armchair speculative physicists” but can’t really do the math. I have been a fan since reading his The Physics of Star Trek and hearing him speak one year as part of Hamline University’s “Malmstrom Lecture in Physics” series.

  • Scoop 48   Evelyn WaughScoop (1938)
       A satirical novel and a send up of British war reporting, which if Waugh is not exaggerating too much, was at the time something like sports reporting. By which I mean war far away from the shores of Jolly Ole, especially, no doubt, war between darker-hued peoples, was treated as a sport engaged in expressly for the entertainment of the British newspaper-reading public (men). In this novel, a naive man who writes a weekly gardening column for a small town paper is mistaken for a distant relation–a newly-lauded novelist–and sent to Africa in his place to cover a rumored revolution. There he bumbles his way to a big scoop. It’s an amusing story in an uncomfortably dated way. Not that we are never guilty of the same sort of war-reporting-as-entertainment today.

See also:

Ten Books: 2017, Volume 1
Seventeen Books – 2016 Part #3
Ten Books – 2016 Part #2
Ten Books – 2016 Part #1
113 Great 20th Century Novels
46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels
45 Great 20th Century SciFi/Fantasy Novels