long overdue book roundup

March 17, 2007

in Books, Movies, and Music, Reviews

I haven’t done a book roundup in almost a year. I am embarrassed to note from this list that I didn’t read a lot in the last year. I did lose my Sudoku book midway through the year so that can’t explain it. I will note in my own defense that I am exceptionally well rested, my filing is up to date and there are no dust bunnies under my bed.

This is long so I put it after the jump. Books are roughly in the order I read them.


JPod: A Novel, by Douglas Coupland. I haven’t read any Doug Coupland in like a zillion years, not since everyone in the world in my age demographic was also reading Doug Coupland. But this book was supposedly a “sequel” to Microserfs so I bought it because I loved Microserfs. I was deceived; this book is not a sequel to microserfs. The Coupland schtick is kind of old these days. Meh.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, by Cory Doctorow. A pretty good fantasy novel. Unfortunately, its also packed full of bunches of distracting technology stuff that doesn’t fit in well, and it really kind of falls apart at the end. Parts of it are beautifully drawn, but once again I find myself disappointed in the whole.

Since Cory’s work is released under a Creative Commons license I had this funny urge to remix the book to remove all the tech stuff, move sections around to resolve the ending better and turn it into the short fantasy novel it really should be. But then I came to my senses and realized that really I should maybe be WRITING SOMETHING OF MY OWN rather than editing someone else’s stuff for NO REASON AT ALL.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan. Michael Pollan wrote the Botany of Desire, which is a great book. This is a less good book although it is a lot scarier. In this book you, too, can become completely consumed with crashing despair over your food and decide never to eat a damn thing ever again. Cheery! The first two thirds are well researched, well-detailed and well written; last third is dull and self-indulgent. It is a good read but very, very depressing. Personally I will never eat beef again, and I am now spending $10 for a dozen eggs.

A Dirty Job: A Novel, by Christopher Moore. Yay! Chris Moore! Yay! Yay! This is a book about Death. It’s set in San Francisco, like Blood-Sucking Fiends, and as a lot of the same tone. I think I like the Urban Chris Moore better than I like the Coastal Chris Moore or the Hawaii Chris Moore. (none of this will make any sense to you unless you read Chris Moore. That’s OK, move on).

The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Useable Trim, Scraps, and Bones, by Tony Bourdain. Tony Bourdain has, alas, not been terrifically funny since Kitchen Confidential. There are one or two bright moments in this collection of articles and other stuff. The short story is cute.

Try, by Lily Burana. The glorious Madame Lily is one of my tiny invisible friends who lives in my computer and this is her first novel. Try is a romance about Wyoming and rodeo cowboys. It is a super big fat fun read. There is a lot of sex in it.

The Bug, by Ellen Ullman. A literary geek novel. It is really, really geeky and really, really dark. It’s kind of an odd duck of a novel given that its great science fiction but it was published as a Literary Novel under a Literary Imprint. Thus ensuring that the lit people took one look at it, saw it was about technology and thought “ick” and the science fiction people never saw it at all. There is only a little sex in it and it is kind of disturbing.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. A quick read, kind of fluffy, and I can’t remember a darn thing about it. I do remember one of the authors was really very impressed with the other author. There is no sex in it at all (unless you count the co-authorial love).

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire. They made this book into a popular musical so you’ve probably already heard the gimmick: its the wizard of oz, told from the point of view of the wicked witch. I loved this book. It was funny and subversive and brilliant. I have more of Greg Maguire’s books on my reading list, but I have heard that he peaked on this one.

Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. I have an addiction to books about writing. I read a lot of them. Eric says that reading books about writing is my way of avoiding doing any writing. Which is probably at least half true. But if you’re going to read books about writing, this is a really great choice. Its one of the best books about writing out there. I actually read it a number of years ago and stumbled across it again just recently when I was cleaning my office, so I read it again. Its a truly great book and very inspiring.

The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life, by Julia Cameron. This book stunk. If you’re going to read books about writing, don’t read this one. Julia Cameron wrote The Artist’s Way, which was a good book for exploring creativity in general, although it was kind of self-helpy and woo woo. This book retells a lot of the same information from that book, only with more woo woo; it rambles; it is self-indulgent; it provides no insight. Readers: I didn’t like it.

Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut. A couple years back I finally got around to reading Slaughterhouse-Five, and it was AWESOME. S5 is just a tremendous book and I immediately put a whole bunch of Vonnegut books onto my reading list. This was the next one and….hm. There is obviously a Vonnegut Voice and a Vonnegut Style but it doesn’t seem to hold together as well as S5. (by the way I was recently sent a link to Vonnegut’s amazing short story Harrison Bergeron. Its worth a read or a re-read if, like me, you had to read and analyze it in grade school)

Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Eco. Now I remember why it was I didn’t read a lot of books last year, it was because it took me six months to get through this one. I won’t say that it was dull, because it wasn’t, or that it was a difficult read, because it wasn’t. I just kept falling asleep in the middle of it, and then finding something else that was more interesting to read and putting this one aside, and then forgetting who all the characters were and where the plot had twisted and having to go back a hundred pages or so to catch up and restart. It’s a good book, though. If nothing else it makes you realize just who it was that Dan Brown was copying so incredibly badly in the DaVinci Code.

You Suck: A Love Story, by Chris Moore. Two Chris Moore books in a year, an embarrassment of riches. You Suck is the sequel to bloodsucking fiends. I admit I am kind of nervous about this sequels thing (the Christmas book and now this). Also that there are two Chris Moore books in a year. Terry Pratchett had trouble maintaining quality when he started writing too fast. I have the fear. I would like fewer books and better ones. That said, You Suck is….OK. It is not as good as a Dirty Job or Bloodsucking Fiends, but it is better than Fluke. It has some really funny moments. I chortled loudly and madly at the goth kids, who, frankly, were WAY more funny than the main characters. Abby Normal STOLE this book. The ending seems kind of cop-outish. But still, worth at least a dozen Right to Writes.

Digital Game-Based Learning, by Marc Prensky. I could do a whole blog post just on this book. DGBL is a book about, uh, digital game-based learning. Prensky’s thesis is that people under the age of 40 — the “Games Generation” — learn differently from previous generations. Because this generation grew up with video games and MTV they’re used to taking in and processing information at a much faster pace and can more easily parallel-process multiple streams of information at once. Traditional methods of teaching — long lectures, followed by testing to make sure they were listening — will bore them to death and the content just doesn’t sink in. Its not that kids can’t pay attention. It’s that the teaching methods don’t work for minds that are literally wired different. Prensky’s solution, thus, is to create new learning methods for new minds that involve games and interactivity.

I ate this book up like pie. I’m not a trainer, although it could be argued that tech writing is a form of teaching. And tech writing — both documentation and books — certainly has quite a lot of the sort of hidebound tedium that Pensky talks about old-style training suffering from. Ironically it was Kathy Sierra (a former trainer) who told me to read this book, and I think her head first series has been hugely revolutionary for changing the way computer books can be designed and written — or at least doing something radically different from the same old format and the same old style. I’ve got a lot to think about from this.

Next up in the reading list: a modernist novel that I’m crawling through about a page a night; more books Kathy Sierra told me to read, a bunch of books about JavaScript, and yet another attempt at Quicksilver.

{ 3 comments }

1 Guy March 17, 2007 at 6:52 pm

The Head First series is a great idea, but….

I’m not a gamer, and when their examples in Head First Java got into gaming, they lost my interest. It’s tricky finding examples for such books that appeal to a wide enough range of reader/students.

2 Marcy Sheiner March 17, 2007 at 8:28 pm

Writing Down the Bones is indeed one of the best writing books around; I too am addicted to how-to’s on writing.

The two Vonnegut books you read are separated by a few decades; by the time he got to B of C he’d deteriorated. Try the ones just following S5: Cat’s Cradle, God Bless you Mr. Rosensomebody, and Welcome to the Monkeyhouse.

3 Enno March 20, 2007 at 4:58 am

As someone who works in the Games industry, I enjoyed JPod a lot more than previous Coupland books. A lot of it is spot on. I borrowed the book to my Canadian colleague and he got even more laughs out of it :-)

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