vamysteryfan: (books)
 Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s fairly audacious for an author to even try to unify 70,000 years of human history. Yuval Harari does it in this beautifully written, challenging, fascinating book. He puts his arguments together and then takes just that one step farther that makes you reevaluate conventional wisdom. He starts with the premise that human civilization is based on the ability to believe in imaginary things and to agree on them as a group. The groups got larger through history and we unified our imaginary agreements into larger and larger systems, such as money and religion. He and his translators did a wonderful job keeping the reader interested through some difficult chapters.

Thirty Tomorrows: The Next Three Decades of Globalization, Demographics, and How We Will Live by Milton Ezrati. I’m not a fan of the book. I thought the title was deceptive. Most of the book looked backward at history, rather than looking forward. While it was extensively researched, few of the examples were after 2010. Technological and political developments over the past five years have made some of his theories obsolete. Some of the chapters were contradictory. No matter how much the US “jawbones” other countries, it can’t change their monetary policies. He underestimates the impact of job losses and changing demographics

The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory by Michael S. Malone. A poor choice of title and an ultimately flawed book. It’s not about human memory, it’s about the devices we’ve created to store information for us. I wanted to title it “From Stones to Skins to Silicon: the epic story of our mnemonic devices.” As a reporter in Silicon Valley, he had a great seat for the development of computers. He’s excellent on those chapters. He’s a little shaky on early history.

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Did you know that Madison was the last surviving member of the Constitutional Convention? These two books taught me a lot about the fourth President of the US.

Becoming Madison by Michael Signer. This book covers Madison's early years and his influences. It's written in a lighter style than Madison's Gift. John Witherspoon was his professor at what later became Princeton. Patrick Henry was a major antagonist for much of Madison's early life. Their disagreements culminated at the Virginia Convention to ratify the Constitution. I had no idea Henry opposed it so strongly. Much of the book focuses on what Signer calls Madison's Method for overcoming opposition. Madison didn't have much charisma but he was organized and went to trouble to learn his subjects thoroughly. It's an interesting read.

Madison's Gift
by David O. Stewart. A scholarly, well-written look at five major people with whom Madison collaborated in forming a new nation. Madison's gift was in forming partnerships. With Madison, Washington helped lead the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers, Jefferson founded the party system, and Monroe solved the problems of the French relationship. Some of the partnerships later ended in bitterness, but his marriage with Dolley was a love match. I knew it had been a struggle to form the new government but I am impressed with the details of what it took to win through. The Virginian Founding Fathers really struggled with the issue of slavery and that comes through clearly. I always think of Adams' comment and Franklin's rejoinder: "Mark me Franklin, posterity a hundred years hence will not forgive us." Franklin: "Independence first, then the rest."

I haven't been writing as much in the online journals because I've been working on some other writing. I wonder if I only have so many words in me every day :) I have more books to share later this week.
vamysteryfan: (books)
 I haven't been reading as much as usual because I'm doing NaNoWriMo (and I've been writing there instead of here). 
Atonement of Blood by Peter Tremayne. Fidelma must discover the reasons for a murderous attack on her brother. This is the 24th book in the series, which surprised me. I missed a number of them. Fortunately, these books don't require much knowledge of the series. This is a good historical mystery. Fidelma has given up her life as a religious to concentrate on her career in the law. The mystery is satisfying as a standalone. It is convoluted and there are detours along the way but the author provides all the clues. I enjoy the details of life in Ireland in the seventh century. The one thing that drives me crazy is the author's insistence on reciting Fidelma's credentials several times in each book I've read. At this point, once is enough.
The Orpheus Descent by Tom Harper. Two separate but intertwined stories - the philosopher Plato in 389 BC is searching for a lost friend and modern-day Jonah, a rock guitarist, is searching for his wife Lisa, who may have been kidnapped or may have run away. The first two-thirds of it were excellent; the last third dragged. The analogy to Orpheus and Eurydice got a little labored. The sections with Plato had some interesting comments about philosophy. Favorite comment: "Democracy is a charmingly chaotic form of government. It treats all men equally, whether they deserve it or not." Also "You can step in the same river twice - if the river is defined mathematically." Jonah seemed to do a lot of pointless running around and the end of their story was rushed.
Goldberg Variations by Susan Isaacs. Gloria Garrison hasn't cared about her family in decades but must now choose one of her grandchildren to inherit the multimillion-dollar business she created. I generally enjoy Susan Isaacs' books but this one was not a favorite. First, constantly shifting viewpoints are a pet peeve in any book. Shifting among four people made it hard to get involved. Second, the main character was was unlikeable and her redemption at the end wasn't particularly believable to me. Third, the little epiphanies the characters had were a little too pat. I did enjoy the discussion of Teshuvah - quite different from Catholic confession.
vamysteryfan: (books)

Found In Translation by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche.
The Churchill Factor: How One Man Shaped History by Boris Johnson
The Monuments Men by Richard Edsel and Bret Witter
The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman
How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

Found In Translation by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche. I never think about the little instruction booklets that come with my new electronics. Thanks to this book I’ll never look at them the same way again. Translators and interpreters affect out lives in subtle ways. They have a hand in many areas, from the religious books we follow to peace treaties to YouTube videos and beyond. I never considering the difficulties in translating porn or TED talks. Most of us know at least one funny mistranslation (all your base are belong to us, anyone?) but think how dangerous a mistranslation could be in safety directions. The book is full of interesting anecdotes that will make you think.

The Churchill Factor: How One Man Shaped History by Boris Johnson. I really enjoyed Boris Johnson’s unabashedly exuberant The Churchill Factor. I lucked into an ARC and it’s worth reading. It took some time to get used to his slangy style, but it was worth it and even eventually seemed appropriate. Johnson’s premise is that Churchill was exactly the right man in exactly the right place to make the choice for good that benefited history. The year 1940 was pivotal in the fight against the Nazis and he made a decision to end appeasement. I loved the stores about his past, his relationship with Clemmie, and his prodigious writing output. I learned a lot about Russia’s activities in the war – my history classes glossed over a lot of that. The only chapter I didn’t like was the one where Johnson listed all Churchill’s worst decisions and then proceeds to excuse/explain them away. He really reached on some. All in all an enjoyable read for someone looking for more information about Churchill written in a casual style.

The Monuments Men by Richard Edsel and Bret Witter. This is an extremely detailed account of about a year during World War 2 after D-Day in the European theatre. Hitler and his crew systematically looted the great treasures of Europe. If they were in museums or in the hands of private collectors, especially Jewish ones, they ended up in the hands of the Nazis. The were shipped east and kept in repositories, many of those underground. The Monuments Men tried to track down these repositories. Remarkably, the Allies made the decision to return the artwork to where it belonged, even to Germany, instead of claiming it for reparations. I will never be able to look at the Castle of Neuschwanstein in the same way after learning it sheltered so many looted treasures.

The Monuments Men worked without much in the way of resources. It was remarkable that they were able to return so many treasures. Visiting European museums would be a very different experience today if it weren’t for their efforts. I was particularly moved by the story of Rose Valland. She has been given short shrift in many historical accounts. If it weren’t for her recordkeeping, many items would still be lost. The Monuments Men were gifted art curators and historians. Many of them went on to distinguished careers in the best known museums in the world.

The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman. This book attempts to explain what the CIA’s Master Chef examination, Michael Symon, and Thomas Keller have in common. It explores what makes a great chef from several different viewpoints. Is it adherence to classical cooking, a sense of fun, creativity? This book was written in 2001 so it was interesting to read in light of what we know now. Michael Symon is a big name on television and Thomas Keller is still revered as the chef for the French Laundry. I hadn’t heard about the Master Chef designation. It was interesting to read about the challenges the aspirants went through. The exam tests a chef’s knowledge of classical French techniques thoroughly. If you haven’t read and practiced the recipes in Escoffier, there’s no point. It’s a good addition to any foodie-file’s shelf for the behind-the-scene tales. Very enjoyable

How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson. It’s a companion book to a series currently being broadcast on PBS. What would history be like if an artificial intelligence wrote it? It would likely focus less on human interactions and more on the development of technologies. Robots wouldn’t care as much about social evolution as they would about technological innovation. The hummingbird effect is in contrast to the well-known butterfly effect where tiny actions can have enormous unknown consequences. The hummingbird effect is linked chain of causality that might be unanticipated but traceable. I enjoy these kinds of books about the development of technology. I like the background information about how inventions came to be and the changed our lives.

vamysteryfan: (books)
Of All the Gin Joints by Mark Bailey, illus. Edward Hemingway.
I’m not quite sure what I think about this book. There are short 2-4 page “chapters” on different actors, stories about various Hollywood hangouts, both closed and current, and 40 cocktail recipes. After reading the book, I don’t want to drink any of them. I might have overloaded by reading the bios in quick succession. I think it was supposed to make me nostalgic for the golden days of Hollywood but instead it just made me sad. So much wasted time and talent is chronicled here. I think movie buffs will probably enjoy it, or people who like their Hollywood stories with a touch of schadenfreude. It is well-written and I liked reading the background stories about some of the famous Hollywood restaurants and hotels. Probably for liability reasons, they only included dead actors, but that was a touch macabre for me. The drawings were nice. Making them all slightly askew was an even better touch. Everyone had Tallulah Bankhead eyes, even the men.

Life at the Marmont: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Legendary Hotel of the Stars–Chateau Marmont by Fred E. Basten
Now I know why I read Of All the Gin Joints - it was so I would recognize more of the names in Life at the Marmont. It’s part celebrity gossip and part Hollywood history. From the days of the talkies to Johnny Depp and Lady Gaga, pretty much every actor and writer stayed there. We also learn quite a lot about the staff, most of whom worked there for decades. The book has an almost claustrophobic focus on life at the Marmont and doesn’t discuss what went on afterwards in guests’ lives. That’s especially jarring when it comes to Rita Hayworth, Vivian Leigh, and Sharon Tate. The book also stops at 1987, with only a brief afterword to update the Marmont’s status. I could wish that, with the reissue, more information had been added for the last 25 years. Still, if you’re at all interested in movie history, this is a good book to read.

Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film by Marc Spitz
This book is extensively researched. The author attempted to tie together various music, books, films, and fashion into a “Twee” movement based in certain geographic areas, involving notions of whimsy, romance, gentleness, and some amateurishness. He wants to see Twee as a movement to a kinder, gentler America. His basic concept didn’t work for me. I found the analogies labored and the categories not defined enough to be persuasive. He drew in too many disparate elements to try to make his argument but didn’t unify them. I don’t see many similarities between Brooklyn, Portland, and London or Glasgow. To me the very word twee is derogatory and I don’t think he succeeded in redefining it. It did succeed in intriguing me into looking into a few of the music groups and films he mentioned but I don’t think that saved it.
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I ended up reading three books about Paris and Parisian artists up through World War 1. And one science fiction novel.

Twilight of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust, Renault, Marie Curie, Gertrude Stein, and Their Friends Through the Great War by Mary McAuliffe. A fascinating look at Paris and Parisians during a time of artistic, cultural, and scientific ferment. Each chapter covers a year between 1900 and 1920. Characters enter and exit, all their lives intertwining, feuds and love lives stopping and starting. I never knew Marie Curie and Albert Einstein met and went hiking together. I never knew how influential Gertrude Stein was. The war years are sad, but the chapters did give me a firmer grasp of how World War 1 affected the French. I liked that she stayed focused on Paris. The city itself is a character in the book. She did some very careful research and the approach is quite scholarly. It’s well worth reading.

Paris at the End of the World: How the City of Lights Soared in Its Darkest Hour, 1914-1918 by John Baxter. It’s a somewhat interesting read but not at all what it is billed to be. The story focuses as much on the search for his search for his grandfather’s history as it does on Paris. The sections on Paris are less about the war and more about people’s sex lives, focusing on prostitutes and gay men. Salacious is the word for it. It was odd reading this one right after Twilight of the Belle Epoque because they are so different. I hardly recognized some of the same incidents, they were described so differently. Many of the illustrations are from the tabloids of the time. I haven’t read any of the author’s other books. This book makes me think I haven’t missed much.

Liberty’s Torch by Elizabeth Mitchell. An interesting book about how the Statue of Liberty came to America. It’s an icon now but it’s surprising how many people were indifferent or hostile to the project. The opening chapters focused on Bartholdi’s history, including his mother’s influence, his trip to Egypt and his involvement in the disastrous Prussian conflict. He conceived the project and then spent years in fundraising and trying to get the support of influential people. Joseph Pulitzer spearheaded New York fundraising efforts, Gustave Eiffel created the skeleton, Victor Hugo supported the project. Emma Lazarus wrote her famous poem as part of a fundraising effort. It’s very well researched but the stories about the fundraising got a little repetitious. It did make the point that projects unpopular at the time can go on to be roaring successes. And that difficulty in execution is no bar to success.

Transhuman by Ben Bova. My fiction book of the week. This is an excellent combination of speculative fiction and suspense. A biologist working on gene manipulation thinks he’s discovered a cure for cancer. The government and the corporation funding the research want to control it. A little girl’s life depends on it. It’s well written and worth reading.
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Creativity: The Perfect Crime by Philippe Petit. Audacious is the word for this book. It is such a different approach to explaining and encouraging the creative process. I love the drawings he uses to illustrate his ideas. I love the way he embraces contradictions. He has such a distinctive writing style. It was a pleasure to read. He's the tightrope artist who specializes in difficult (not to say insane) locations.

Queen Victoria, a life of contradictions
by Matthew Dennison. I am not really sure who the audience is for this book or its goal. It presents Victoria's life in a superficial way. It focuses on family and a few other people but it is too short to do them justice. It's not even a good introduction for those seeking to learn more about the woman who gave the name to an age and style. Disappointing.

The Sugar Season: A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup, and One Family's Quest for the Sweetest Harvest
by Douglas Whynott. A surprisingly interesting book about maple syrup - its roots in American history, family involvement in a multibillion dollar industry, and how even maple syrup can be involved in an international theft. It was interesting to learn that while the techniques of harvesting sap have advanced, it's still highly dependent on Mother Nature. Global warming and man's effect on the environment is playing a part in the shifting industry.

Children of the Revolution
by Peter Robinson. It's been a few years since I read any books by this author. I like the Yorkshire setting. The characters are fairly interesting. I just didn't find it that engaging. The mystery wasn't that interesting and the victim was unlikeable. Still it was a pretty good read.

The Merlot Murders
by Ellen Crosby. I have read others in this series, so was pleased to find this first one. Very enjoyable. She got the descriptions of Virginia wine country right. Her details about wine making were fascinating. Likeable characters, even knowing what comes next. A good read.


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