Santa Cruz is pretty quiet, so I've been catching up on my reading. Here are
some brief reviews of books I've read recently.
- The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan
I picked this up after seeing the newly restored film print. This
turn-of-the-19th-century novel is a beautifully dizzying series of interleaved
stories, and stories within stories, recounted verbally by the characters that
appear in them. The stories touch a huge number of subjects -- math, science,
philosophy, religion, sex, marriage, etc. -- with interesting perspectives at
every turn. The larger context of the story is a conflict between Islamic and
It is interesting to contrast the book with the film. The largest differences
(besides significant editing to keep it below three hours) are in the
portrayals of certain characters. The main character of the movie is much less
compelling than he is in the book. The geometer of the movie is much more
compelling. While in the book he is distracted to the point of folly, in the
movie the geometer appears capable, personable, and wise.
I wonder if this
reflects a general change in attitudes about scientists, or merely the personal
inclinations of the film maker and the author. Apparently Potocki was an
adventurer of sorts, like the main character. Film making is ultimately a
fairly technical, and thus nerdy occupation.
The film is also quite good.
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X, with Alex
This should be required reading in any class on 20th century American history.
Apart from its social and political significance, the most remarkable thing
about this book is its chronicle of the personal change Malcolm experienced in
his life as a Muslim. He started the book before his falling out with the
Nation of Islam, before his pilgrimages to Africa and the Middle East, and
completed it after those events. On the suggestion of Haley, the early chapters
were not edited to conform to Malcolm's changed world-view. As a
result, the reader witnesses him changing his mind. Rising above dogma, as so
few can, Malcolm reveals himself as not merely a great political figure, but a
great thinker. It is moving, and tragic.
- Buck Alice and the Actor Robot, by Walter Koenig (a.k.a. "Chekhov"
from Star Trek).
Elsewhere on the web you will find this book heralded as The Worst Science
Fiction Novel Ever. (This site has since disappeared).
I beg to differ. This is the funniest book I've read in years! The characters
are pathetic -- stereotypes of stereotypes. Descriptive passages are loaded
with hilariously strained (or wholly broken) metaphors. The science makes no
pretense of plausibility, and the plot has a Kafka-esque meta-literature feel
(e.g. the story begins with the ultimate tragedy).
The book is a lampoon of the science fiction genre, and particularly targets
Lucifer's Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, following the
outline of that book quite closely.
I wish to publically thank Matt Briggs
(author of the previously mentioned web page) for bringing this treasure to my
attention, and Amazon.com's out-of-print service for dredging up a copy for me.
- The Proud Highway, Hunter S. Thompson's letters 1955-1967.
Edited by Douglas Brinkley.
The letters provide a somewhat different, and more approachable perspective of
the gonzo journalist. The tenuous relationship between Thompson's stories
(e.g. Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas) and the reality of his life is,
perhaps, somewhat revealed. Thoughts about life, career, and, of course,
politics. Be warned he was homophobic in his youth.
- Watergate, by Fred Emery.
This seemed appropriate reading, given the political references to this event
during the Clinton administration. The comparison could scarcely be further off
the mark. This book includes information from the most recent tape releases,
and references the works of the men involved. For example, Hadleman quoting
Nixon, discussing welfare reform: "Be sure it's killed by Democrats, and that
we make big play for it, but don't let it pass, can't afford it". It is a
- Rush Limbaugh is a big, fat idiot, by Al Franken.
- You got to dance with them what brung you, by Molly Ivins.
Two amusing commentaries on politics in the 90's. Al Franken is shooting
fish in a barrel. But someone has to do it, and he does it with a sense of
- Second Nature, by Michael Pollan
There are wonderful insights in this book, about nature and our role in it.
More thoughtful than idealistic. Perhaps most interesting is his account of
his struggling with the concept of a "weed". He begins with the notion that
"weed" is an artificial construct made by people with a bias against certain
plants. This idea doesn't survive experience, however, and he develops more
insightful definitions in the book. The results are relevant not only to his
back yard gardening, but to our relationship with nature in general.
Beware of his confusion about Einstein and the nature of photosynthesis,
however. This seem to be a common misunderstanding among folk who only
peripherally read about science: thermonuclear reactions are not occurring in
your garden. More plainly, plants don't grow by converting energy (sunlight) to
mass. They use energy to rearrange mass (which they collect from air and
- I smell Esther Williams, by Mark Leyner
- My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, by Mark Leyner
- Et Tu, Babe?, by Mark Leyner
I've read Leyner previously, and he never disappoints. Bizarre, out of control,
and insightful. Similar to Thompson, but not overtly political. His earlier
work (top of the list) is less coherent, but more beautiful. If you added line
breaks it would be poetry.
- The Crime of Sheila McGough, by Janet Malcolm
This is a book of profound and insightful observations on the role of truth and
narrative in our legal system. It's framed in the odd story of an unremarkable
law-and-order Republican attorney who ends up disbarred and in prison for a
crime it appears she didn't commit. Malcolm makes no grand conclusions, or
indictments. A wonderfully written book. This is the first I've read of Malcolm
(after hearing her on The
Connection via RealAudio). I'm looking forward to reading more.
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