Sunday, 4 January 2009

2008 book reviews (the year, not the number of books)

2008 has been a work-intensive year for me so my reading list comes nowhere near the mark of Aaron Schwartz's 100 books.  Do I get points for reading most copies of The Economist, and certainly all four quarterly issues of Genealogists' Magazine?  (Well, nerd points, at least.)

The best are linked to Amazon.

1. Affluenza, by Oliver James.  See my previous partial review here.  An interesting read but not entirely convincing.  "Rich people aren't necessarily happy" isn't that earth-shattering of a thesis, I have to say.

2. Armageddon in Retrospect, Kurt Vonnegut.  Vonnegut was my first literary hero, but his relevance waned in later life as he was hit with what I can only describe as Crotchety Old Man syndrome, and seemed to merely reiterate his earlier themes.  So I was really quite astounded at the quality of this collection of unpublished works on war and soldiers (some set in WW2, some in fictional realities).  Easily as good as his classic short story collections like Canary in a Cathouse.

3. The Assize of the Dying, by Ellis Peters.  This is two novellae, the title story and Aunt Helen.  I like Peters' Cadfael material immensely and thought I'd try some of her other work.  These early tales are probably for devoted fans only; though readable, they're not particularly well crafted.

4. Cobweb, by Neal Stephenson and Frederick George.  This is Neal Stephenson's writing style applied to a Tom Clancy-esque plot about biowarfare.  A good read though not essential.

5. The English, by Jeremy Paxman.  I haven't actually finished this one.  It's interesting enough, but nowhere near as good as Kate Fox's Watching the English.  It's probably more interesting if you're actually English yourself, and are heavily invested in that identity (which the author seems to be).

6. Martian Time-Slip, by Philip K. Dick.  A mentally ill Mars-born boy sees dead people.  Well, sort of.  I had never really read much PKD and picked out a few titles to see what all the fuss was about.  This may not be his best but it's still fascinating.

7. The Men Who Stare At Goats, by Jon Ronson.  Very well done investigation of the more bizarre side of military research at the CIA and elsewhere, with important connections to torture practices in the Iraq war.  My only complaint is that Ronson fails to tie it all together; he is happy to leave it with "look at the damage these crazy theories can do", without looking at the power structures that enable them to prosper and mutate.

8. Mike's Election Guide 2008, by Michael Moore.  Amusing, but nothing more than an airplane flight read.  Now that Obama's in, what will he complain about?  (I'm sure he'll find something...)

9. A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs, by Ellis Peters.  A bit better from Peters, though it does read a bit like a Hardy Boys novel of beachside mystery adventure.  But hey, I love Hardy Boys.

10. Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell.  I just got this and read it right after Christmas.  It's very well done and heartily recommended.  Gladwell has a great gift for pulling together other work and research into a single coherent thread.  Outliers' premise is simple: the self-made man is a myth.  His logic is devastating.  I had come to this conclusion myself previously, but this book actually made me a lot less angry about it, and more appreciative of the opportunities I have had in life.

11. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions, by Dan Ariely.  I didn't finish this book, though I had high hopes for it (see "The Undercover Economist").  His points just aren't that compelling.

12. Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives, Richard Wiseman.  This is a survey of social experiments that Wiseman and others have been involved in, and has some parallels with the excellent book Influence.  Wiseman's examples, though, suffer from being a bit too mainstream, like finding out what's the funniest joke (his conclusion, as mine, is that he found the blandest joke in the world that translates across cultures).  On the whole, not as quirky as it could be.

13. Radical Forgiveness: Making Room for the Miracle, by Colin C. Tipping.  This is a sort of manifesto of living by Tipping, who puts on seminars on various topics.  Overall I think it's a useful viewpoint, though I tend to disagree with some of his premises.  To be read with an open mind.

14. Rules Britannia: The 101 Essential Questions of Britishness Answered, From How to Keep a Stiff Upper Lip to Who Ate All the Pies, by Rohan Candappa.  This is really just a joke book, but the lengthy treatment of the origin and usage of the "Who Ate All the Pies" football chant was illuminating.  For a book that purports to help one understand Britishness, it is unfortunately a bit in-jokey.  E.g., I still don't know who or what Rabbie Burns is.

15. Scandals, Vandals, and Da Vincis: A Gallery of Remarkable Art Tales, by Harvey Rachlin.  I only read part of it, but wasn't overly impressed by its remarkable-ness.  It seemed more Anecdotal than anything.

16. The Second Messiah: Templars, the Turin Shroud and the Great Secret of Freemasonry, by Christopher Knight.   A fun conjectural read in the vein of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, but both better strung together and less easily dismissable than that.

17. The Space Merchants, Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth.  Surprisingly relevant socioeconomic satire from the true masters of the genre.  Originally published in 1953, it's both fun and thought-provoking.

18. Spook Country, William Gibson.  Gibson is damn good, and though this isn't necessarily his best, it's still better than most novels out there, period.  This one's about something like location-based services, nuclear spies and counterspies, and Sino-Cuban freerunners.  If you like its genre, you'll like the book; if not, it may not convince you.

19. Tales of the Country Eccentrics, by Tom Quinn.  I picked this up in the charity shop.  It's a selection of brief anecdotes about strange English countryfolk doing strange things.  Fun.

20. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by Philip K. Dick.  An alien civilization introduces a mind-altering drug that makes people hallucinate fantasy lives that revolve around a Barbie-like play set produced by the protagonists corporation.  What's not to like?

21. The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford.  A brilliant dissection of how to apply basic economic theory to everyday life.  It helped connect a lot of dots for me, and it's written in a very readable style that reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell.  My only complaint is that the author is a bit too enthralled by the invisible hand, offering it as a solution even when lacking proof points.  Overall, highly recommended.  (Note: the U.S. subtitle, "Why the Rich are Rich and the Poor are Poor," makes it sounds a lot more confrontational and Republican-rhetorical than it actually is).

22. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, by Dan Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams.  I didn't get very far into this as it seemed, well, kind of obvious.  If you're a businessperson and want to know what all this fuss about "the wikis" are, it might be a useful primer.

23. The Will and the Deed, by Ellis Peters.  Another early Peters effort, this one based around a crash-landed plane and a crime of opportunity in the Austrian alps.  Farfetched but a fun whodunnit nonetheless.  (For those of you who can't stand the term "whodunnit", all I can say is this book sort of fits the tag.)

24. You Don't Need a Title to Be a Leader, Mark Sanborn.  Absolute shit.

25.  50 Facts You Need to Know: USA, by Stephen Fender.  I'm not sure I read all 50 facts, but there were some interesting ones there.  This is designed for Brits with misconceptions about America (e.g. regarding the prevalence of cowboys).

So there you go.  That's all I can recall, at least, having rummaged through my bookshelves.  Maybe this year I'll also get through some of the (previously posted on B5J)  books I (for the most part still) haven't read yet.  We'll see.

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