Thursday, January 27, 2011

I'm a Stranger Here Myself, by Bill Bryson

I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away, by Bill Bryson

The description of I’m a Stranger Here Myself depicts the observations of the author returning to America after 20 years abroad. Considering one good friend was an expatriate for many years and another was born in Europe this seemed a selection aimed right at my book club. While the discussion was lively as always, it largely centered around frustration at the misleading premise.

Bryson is an obviously talented writer, and his style of observational humor gets off to a great start by examining the national pastime. “What is the difference between baseball and cricket? The answer is simple. Both are games of great skill involving balls and bats but with this crucial difference: Baseball is exciting, and when you go home at the end of the day you know who won.” Other winning vignettes look at the legal system—“Allied with the idea that lawsuits are a quick way to a fortune, whether deserved or not, is the interesting and uniquely American notion that no matter what happens, someone else must be responsible.”—and our eating habits: “Obesity is a serious problem in America (well, serious for fat people anyway).” Unfortunately this collection of newspaper columns doesn’t stay on topic.

While subjects such as “Being sprayed by a skunk is absolutely the worst thing that can happen to you that doesn’t bleed or put you in the hospital” are damn funny, there isn’t anything here that relates to the promise of the title. The narrative titled Your New Computer purporting to be the installation instructions for a new PC literally had me laughing out loud. “At each prompt, reconfigure the specified path, double-click on the button launch icon, select a single equation default file from the macro selection register, insert the VGA graphics card in the rear aerofoil, and type "C:\>" followed by the birthdates of all the people you have ever known.” I’m absolutely positive this is what my mother hears when I try and explain how to update her virus software! Again, though, while amusing it has nothing to do with how America has changed over the past few decades or how it differs with other parts of the world. I think I’d have thoroughly enjoyed this book if the publisher had written the blurb differently. Disappointing.

I did violate one of Bryson’s Rules for Living though: “27. All reviews of the author’s work will, with immediate effect, be submitted to the author for correction and helpful revision before publication.” Oops. :)

First Sentence:
I once joked in a book that there are three things you cant do in life.

Beyond Light Bulbs, by Susan Meredith

Beyond Light Bulbs: Lighting the Way to Smarter Energy Management, by Susan Meredith

I recently took a new job at a solar company and have been learning a lot about alternative energy. I spotted Beyond Light Bulbs at Half Price Books; glancing at the introduction I saw that while the author now lives here in Austin she studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where our CTO taught. While the subject is more about modern energy management than solar specifically, the coincidences were enough for me to walk out of the store with it.

I found this to be a bit uneven, but overall does a good job of taking a complicated topic and making it accessible. Meredith outlines our obvious dependence on oil and other environmental hazards, and then describes the pros and cons of many alternative energy sources (including solar). I was a bit afraid I’d have to suffer through a lot of left-leaning propaganda, but her approach to global warming was quite refreshing. “Is there global warming or not? Is it caused by humans or natural phenomena? ... Rather than wasting our human energy debating this, ... why not find ways to reduce emissions so that we have good air quality, regardless of how our current problems were created?” Well said.

The descriptions of energy management and the problems we face therein are presented in a well-rounded form and quite useful. The author starts to lose some of her even-handedness towards the end, though. When describing how governments should get involved she does okay, but doesn’t really advocate a single approach. “Restrictive policies and standards can block energy flow. Sometimes this is appropriate. Some policies and standards channel solutions toward particular pathways. Sometimes that’s appropriate. Perhaps there are some policies and standards that need to be relaxed or removed to allow for flexibility in dealing with the uncertainty of the energy path ahead.” Unless you are of the all-government-restrictions-are-evil persuasion, virtually any view can be fit into that description! I think pouring money into corn-based ethanol is neither green nor a viable alternative to oil, but I suspect the farmers of Iowa will disagree; both of us, however, can claim Meredith’s approach fits our worldview.

Where she really goes off the rails in my opinion is her approach to world peace via smarter energy management. “1.6 Billion people in our world have no electricity! If we want to improve global relations, this is an obvious place to start.” The Peace Corps is the sort of agency to worry about bringing electricity to Sub-Saharan Africa; our government should concentrate more on reducing our hypocrisy and arrogance, instead starting to judge ourselves by the same standards we judge others. We improve global relations by being a better neighbor, not by building better light bulbs.

First Sentence:
“When are they going to make a movie that has a positive future?” my husband asked after watching yet another futuristic film showing destroyed buildings, chaos, violence, confusion, and a pervasive mood of despair.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The End of the World, edited by Martin H. Greenberg

The End of the World: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by Martin H. Greenberg

The end of the world is an eerie concept, explored in several interesting and unique ways in this book. Jody After the War by Edward Bryant was both melancholy and beautiful, while We Can Get Them For You Wholesale by Neil Gaiman was quirky and somewhat disturbing. My favorite was easily The Wheel by John Wyndham, about a world that has decided technology of any sort is the root of all evil, and the tragic consequences of finding a simple wagon in this society. As with any anthology a few entries were weaker than others; Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels by George R. R. Martin for instance was a scary look at divergent evolutionary paths but I found the ending telegraphed. Robert Silverberg’s When We Went to See the End of the World was another odd one; every character equally shallow and unlikeable, but the backdrop against which the story is told was fascinating. All in all, a great collection of stories.

First Sentence (from the Introduction):
Humankind seems to take a certain grisly delight in stories about the end of the world, since the market in apocalyptic prophecy has been a bullish one for thousands, or more likely, millions of years.

The Case of the Late Pig, by Margery Allingham

The Case of the Late Pig, by Margery Allingham

My boys have decided that my mother collects pigs, much to her chagrin. Anytime we are out and see something with a pig motif (slippers, figurines, screen wipes, you name it!) the kids inevitably say, “Grandma Elaine needs that!” As a result a good-natured swine-themed gift exchange occurs every Christmas, with mom even getting into the action and trying to turn the tables on us: this past year, I received a copy of The Case of the Late Pig.

I was unfamiliar with the detective Albert Campion before this, but apparently he was fairly popular during the early twentieth century, and as recently as 1990 has been filmed. The story was interesting, including mysterious letters and disappearing corpses, but not really compelling enough to make me want to read other volumes in the series. I love mysteries, but this style where it is virtually impossible to solve the problem along with the sleuth isn’t my favorite. Not improving matters is that Campion’s sidekick, Lugg, spoke with a thick accent and heavy slang that really slowed down my reading: “The bloke ’oo wrote this knew you was always anxious to snuff round a bit of blood, doin’ the rozzers out of their rightful, and ’e kindly give you the tip to come along ’ere as fast as you could so’s you wouldn’t miss nothink.” All in all, The Case of the Late Pig was a pleasant diversion for a short afternoon, but not really my cup of tea.

First Sentence:
The main thing to remember in an autobiography, I have always thought, is not to let any damned modesty creep in to spoil the story.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Assholes Finish First, by Tucker Max

Assholes Finish First, by Tucker Max

Tucker Max is as articulate and intelligent as he is debauched and misogynistic. I loved his first book, I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, so when I received Assholes Finish First for Christmas I was quite happy. Sadly, this outing didn’t capture the same horrifying charm as the first.

There is a lot of humor here, and again some of the phrasing is laugh-out-loud funny. “I love women, I love alcohol, and I love combining the two. If God invented anything better than drunk sex with a hot girl, he kept it to himself.” “She had one of those goofy permanent smiles, like the kind worn by people who watch The 700 Club without irony.” Really funny! Unfortunately, many of the stories here struck me as more vulgar than funny. I’m not pro-life by any stretch of the imagination, but the chapter titled Tucker Max: Baby Killer can only be described as somewhere between dismaying and disgusting.

While there are some high points (especially “Tucker Goes to Campout, Owns Duke Nerds” and “The Capitol City Clown Crawl”), overall it seems this book is more about self-gratification than storytelling. Assholes Finish First is funny, but compared to the promise of I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell ultimately disappointing.

First Sentence:
I went to law school at Duke, and as you may know, basketball is huge there.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Snakehead, by Patrick Radden Keefe

The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream, by Patrick Radden Keefe

In June of 1993 a decrepit tramp steamer named the Golden Venture ran aground in the dead of the night near Queens; the police officers who discovered the wreck were stunned to find over 280 Chinese immigrants being smuggled into the country leaping into the water and swarming the beach in an effort to abandon the sinking ship. With this startling opening, the book jumps back in time a bit and begins to tell the true story of the smuggling ring behind the accident and their trip to justice. This is a fascinating read and full of vivid prose; the heartbreaking descriptions of the immigrants take on a greater depth of horror when you realize this isn’t fiction, but actually happened: “It was a primordial scene—an outtake from a zombie movie—as hordes of men and women, gaunt and hollow-cheeked, walked out of the sea. ... There they collapsed, vomiting saltwater, their bodies shaking, they faces slightly purple from exposure. ... They were dressed only in their underwear, and ... they looked like "something from a concentration camp." They were all angles, bones and ribs, not a finger-and-thumb’s worth of body fat between them.”

Keefe does an excellent job of explaining how the smuggling ring worked worldwide, intermixing the stories of the ringleaders, the FBI investigation, and the Golden Venture and its passengers. I was surprised at how complicated the human-trafficking operation was, and how willing the people trying to get to America were to enter the scheme. Many, even after enduring the indignities of being treated like cattle and then forced into a form of indentured servitude, would send for their families via this same illegal channel. “Even an illegal existence in the United States was better than a legal existence anywhere else.”

That said, the one viewpoint that seems to be missing is that of the immigrants themselves. What happens to the group after being rescued is covered, but very little of the journey itself. Sean Chen is the closest we get, but his story largely starts when he is detained after the wreck and his path through INS seeking asylum. Regardless, for anyone interested in either true-crime or the sad state of our immigration laws will find this book difficult to set down.

First Sentence:
The ship made land at last a hundred yards off the Rockaway Peninsula, a slender, skeletal finger of sand that forms a kind of barrier between the southern reaches of Brooklyn and Queens and the angry waters of the Atlantic.

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