Print Story December books
By aphrael (Sat Jan 08, 2011 at 01:55:51 PM EST) (all tags)
You'd think with the holidays and all I would have read more in December, but apparently not; I only got through eight books in their entirety, although I've gotten through a smattering of others (half of a reread of Eifelheim, for example, and some of Gardner Dozois' 2010 compendium of science fiction stories, and part of Last Call ... but those aren't finished.

I feel diminished by my slower reading speed. :(

The Vanished Kingdom: Travels through the History of Prussia

A relative got this one for me off of my Amazon wishlist as a birthday present. As often happens when people do that, it wasn't quite what I'd expected.

It isn't a bad book, but it's not really a history book. It's more of a travel book: someone driving around old east prussia and talking about the history of places he encounters. The history is interesting, but it's incomplete; more than anything else it renders an impressionist image of the history of Prussia, rather than an actual history.

Still, it contains one of the best expressions of nationalism I've ever seen, something that really doesn't register for Americans but which rings true for Germans, and many others:

To plant your feet in the ground, to know it's yours and that the beautiful fields and the woods so carefully tended are only that way because your family made it that way - that is my idea of a homeland. And I do not mean that your father, or even your grandfather, hierd a few men with a team of oxen or a tractor to clear your land, and then you farmed it. I mean ancestors you never knew about, hundreds of years ago, who first had to fight for the land and Christianize it, had to lose it perhaps, then win it back again I don't know how many times before they could truly call it their own. Always, always prepared to die for it! That's what Prussia means to me. The land out there has been a sponge for my family. It soaked out our sweat and our blood and it bloomed like an oasis in the desert. I am old enough now to realize that I will never see it again as something mine in the legal sense. Because of that, I'll never go back there to visit it, though I know I could. It would be too much pain.

Part of belonging to an immigrant society is that my ancestors deliberately abandoned whatever feelings of this sort they had, to seek a new land where things would be better. My grandfather's family is ancient, on these shores, and yet even it can trace no more than three hundred years ... and during that time it has moved so frequently that there is no patch of land which any of us could point to and say, this has been a sponge for our family. So this long-term association with a single parcel, this sense that it is imbued with the sweat and blood of ancestors, is emotionally baffling to me.

(It does not help, perhaps, that I have no connection, really, with any ancestors beyond my grandmother's generation, or with any other than my grandmother in her generation; that simply serves to make the overall concept even more incredible).

Jumper: A Novel

This was a light (in the sense that it wasn't very difficult or serious reading), entertaining, and dark (in the sense that the characters in it come out of a very, very unpleasant world; the main character is running from an abusive father, and his relationship with his absent mother plays a huge part in the book's plot). It wasn't a great piece of science fiction - and the macguffin is particularly silly - but it was highly entertaining, and much, much, much better than the movie, which took everything interesting from the story and abandoned it in favor of emphasizing the silly macguffin.


The sequel to Jumper. It wasn't quite as good as the first one, and managed to make the macuffin even more unbelievable, but it was still fun.

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War

A friend of mine has been traumatized by watching the series Hoarders, causing him to feel like he needs to purge. (He doesn't have that much stuff to begin with, so I find his reaction amusingly exaggerated). He asked my husband to take a bunch of books to the library to donate them, and I fished this out, because I'd heard about it and was curious.

It's a bit difficult to characterize.

On the one hand, it works very well as a description of what life is like for lower class white people in America, and how they've basically been screwed for decades, and with good reason trust nobody in the political world to do anything other than sell them out to the elite business interests. It's a picture which middle class liberals would do well to look at, because (a) it's a world which is mostly incomprehensible to us, with an outlook based on completely different life experiences and assumptions about our interactions with people, (b) it's a worldview with particularly strong political power because of the sheer number of people whose lives are like htis, and (c) the antipathy that many in this group have for educated urban liberals, driven by mutual misunderstanding that has degenerated into mutual contempt, is responsible for the inability of liberal policies to draw support in much of the country. (Which is to say: often it's not the policy that's the problem, but the contempt for the person promoting the policy ... said contempt arising out of decades of miscommunication and misunderstanding). The New Deal coalition fell apart at least in part because urban liberals and the rural poor stopped talking to each other, and this book is an attempt to jump across the chasm.

On the other hand, holy ** is this a rant. Like all good rants, it's over the top and exaggerated, and that makes it hard to tell what to take seriously and what not to. And because it is so filled with sarcastic anger, it's difficult to engage with.

I'm aware that my objection to the anger may be a reflection of my privilege. But ... seriously, a less sarcastic and over-the-top version of this book would be easier to read. This is particularly true because the author's contempt seems to be for everyone, as evidenced by this:

Bobby Fulk, millionaire realtor, sits in the back booth of Royal Lunch waiting for his burger and fries. The newspaper lies on the table in front of him. Stylish, jowly, and red faced, he is well dressed in a dark gabardine sports coat and beige cashmere turtleneck. The best description of what he is doing with the newspaper is 'looking at it'. YOu certainly couldn't call it reading because he just scans the headlines. Bobby can't read in any meaningful sense of the word. He has never purchased a book from a bookstore and probably has never read a book on real estate. He doesn't even read the real estate ads in the paper because he has access to the MLS on the internet in his office, and his secretary prints out the listings for him. Presented with a newspaper, he sucks in the headlines as complete summaries of the text: COUNTY REPORTS 7 HOMICIDES THIS YEAR (nobody he knows, so who cares?); BUSH STANDS FIRM ON OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM (good man, everybody needs freedom, Bobby thinks to himself); and DEVELOPER APPLIES FOR NEW PUD (he knew the planned development was in the works six months ago). If there's a story about a local high school football or basketball game, he might wade through the first few paragraphs, but only because he's looking for the score.

Objections to tone are always a risky business, as anyone who has gotten into an internet description of racism can attest. But ... this contempt isn't even directed at me and it leaves me squirming inside.

In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the Counter Look at the Fast Food Chain that Breaks All the Rules

This came out of the same pile of books, and was much better. I'm a sucker for well-written histories of somewhat obscure topics, and histories of companies are always a good game for this - particularly companies which are prominent today; they scratch the itch that wants to know how did things get the way they are?.

The politics of inheritance of family-old successful companies is often ugly, and there's some dark family history involved here - every member of the second generation of owners died before their mom did, leaving her to stop back in and take control of the company at an advanced age; and there's some evidence that as she was deteriorating, old and and infirm, she became a pawn in a nasty internal power struggle, was captured by one side of the struggle, and was gradually cut off from her friends and isolated in her 'palace' so that she couldn't interfere with what those who had captured her were doing.

This won't keep me from eating there, though, any more than the christian references on their packaging do - because they're a rare beast, a fast food chain focused on quality ingredients, and for that I'll forgive their owners much.

The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years

This was a fascinating history of the interaction between the plasmodium virus and humanity, including the brief period where DDT seemed to be winning the war before DDT-resistant mosquitos came into their own, the failure of the modern mosquito net movement, and the recent development of a new, chloroquine-resistant, form of the plasmodium bacteria.

One of the best parts of this was the discussion of the failure of mosquito nets. It seems that people in malaria-endemic areas consider malaria to be a normal part of the landscape, much as we would consider the common cold, and so simply don't remember to do the ihngs that westerners say will prevent malaria (if they even believe the claims in the first place) ... meaning attempts to prevent malaria which depend on locals doing something as a part of regular behavior are simply doomed.

Fur, Fortune, and Empire: the Epic History of the Fur Trade in America

This was a very good history of the American fur trade. Unfortunately, I was expecting a history of the global fur trade, which is silly because I can read the title, but there you have it.

I was particularly interested in the discussion of the short-lived Swedish colony on the Delaware river, something I've long known existed but have seen little to no information about.

I was also interested in the discussion of why, when the American beaver was hunted to near-extinction in the 1830s, the Canadian beaver wasn't - it turns out the HBC had established, essentially, a crop rotation system, wherein creeks were divided into several different sets, and only one set could be trapped on in a particular year ... allowing the beaver in the other sets to (a) grow larger by not being hunted every year, and (b) have offspring who would then move into the vacant areas which had been hunted up. There's a tragedy-of-the-commons aspect to this, as the HBC could only do that because it had an effective monopoly; and it's instructive to note that their behavior was totally different in Columbia, where the US-English condominium encouraged them to hunt the beaver to extinction under the theory that this would keep the Americans out.

Another interesting factoids: Prince Rupert claimed to have invented the torpedo!

Anyhow, of the books I've read in the last month, this was the best, and I'd heartily recommend it.

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder.

This was the first, long, chunk of The Golden Age of Science Fiction: An Anthology of 50 Short Stories, where, as a long novel in its own right, it simply didn't belong.

It was, quite frankly, terrible.

The premise of the story is: some people on a boat encounter this manuscript in a copper cylinder, floating on the high seas; when they open it, it tells a tale of some people swept away by a current to the unbelievable world of the poles, where people love death and hate life.

Leaving aside the wierd anti-socialist propaganda aspect of the story, and leaving aside the actual lack of science and the silliness of the macguffin ... the prose was tedious. (To be fair, I find that's generally true of nineteenth century serial prose). And the book suffers tremendously from unnecessary exposition; a number of the scenes on the boat include a pompous know-it-all explaining esoteric knowledge to his companions with the tone of a lecture and the airy superiority of an aristocrat.

The book was everything modern science fiction claims to be a reaction to; it deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

< Why do I keep forgetting all the snappy titles I think of during the week? | Well, that worked out pretty much like I hoped. >
December books | 3 comments (3 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
Malaria by ni (4.00 / 1) #1 Sat Jan 08, 2011 at 03:56:17 PM EST
I recently enjoyed "The Miraculous Fever-Tree".

history of the interaction between the plasmodium virus and humanity

I'm sure this isn't indicative of the quality of your book, but Plasmodium is nothing even close to a virus.

"These days it seems like sometimes dreams of Italian hyper-gonadism are all a man's got to keep him going." -- CRwM

Bacteria by ni (4.00 / 1) #2 Sat Jan 08, 2011 at 04:21:18 PM EST
form of the plasmodium bacteria

Also not bacteria, although seeing now that you opted for two different sorts of organisms in one paragraph, I guess you probably suspected this.

Plasmodium is basically "none of the above" on the common list of organisms. If you sort of squint, though, you could call it a sort of algae.

"These days it seems like sometimes dreams of Italian hyper-gonadism are all a man's got to keep him going." -- CRwM

[ Parent ]
AGREES: by ammoniacal (2.00 / 0) #3 Sat Jan 08, 2011 at 10:31:22 PM EST

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

December books | 3 comments (3 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback