Saturday, July 25, 2009

Stiff by Mary Roach

Have you ever wondered about what happens to your body after you die? If you have, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach is the book for you. Roach writes about a number of ways in which the bodies of the dead are used: medical education and research, ballistics research, forensics research, etc. She also writes about the different final dispositions of the dead, the traditional burial, the more modern cremation, or even newer ones like composting and liquefaction. Not for the squeamish reader, Roach's book is a trip through the morbid afterlife of our bodies here on earth.

This was my second book by Roach. I thoroughly enjoyed my first, Bonk, finding it quite hilarious at many points. Stiff was a little disappointing. Her attempts at humor seemed more strained, perhaps because of the subject. It was, however, an fascinating book about a variety of topics. Overall I think I found this book disappointing because I had such high hopes for it given how much I liked Bonk. That being said, Stiff is a solidly enjoyable read. If you are curious or even just a very eclectic reader, I would suggest adding Stiff to your TBR.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell has been on my TBR list for a while. I cannot remember where I heard about it first, but as a regular listener of This American Life, I am somewhat familiar with her work. Wordy Shipmates is about the Puritans who founded Boston. No, not the Pilgrims of the cliché Thanksgiving parades, but the dour Calvinists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Vowell traces American Exceptionalism and even much of our democracy itself back to these people. Jumping off from the sermons of John Cotton, Vowell regales us with the tale of colonial Boston. She writes about the heated religious disputes between Cotton and his two nemeses, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchison, both of whom would be banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Vowell also discusses the colonists relationship with the Native Americans, culminating in the brutal Peqoud War.

Vowell's writing is breezy and conversational. It is sprinkled with ironic humor, some of which made me laugh and then read aloud to my wife. Although some might not take kindly to her critique of both American Exceptionalism and a strain of anti-intellectualism that she feels springs in part from these colonists, I certainly enjoyed her book. Of particular interest to me was her discussion of the bookishness of these colonists in particular. For example, when a friend of John Winthrop's was trying to dissuade him from going to America, the friend wrote:

How hard will it be for one brought up among books and learned men, to live in a barbarous place, where is no learning and less civility?

Or perhaps when John Cotton escapes a certain prison sentence by coming to America because in prison there would be no opportunity for books or pens.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

House of Cards by William Cohan

House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess On Wall Street is an engaging look at the fall of Bear Stearns. Mr. Cohan makes an admirable attempt at explaining how the giant investment bank imploded. Unfortunately, I expected a better book. Cohan's book suffers from it's length and from the sheer number of people that about whom he writes. I found myself taking notes just to keep track of who was who. Also, at the end of the book, Cohan tacks on a little bit about Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. But this coverage of Lehman Brothers is shallow and irrelevant to the main story of the book, that of Bear Stearns.

My overall feeling about the book is that Cohan rushed to get it published, and his haste shows. It reminds me of Blaise Pascal's quip about writing a long letter because he didn't have time to make it brief. Perhaps Mr. Cohan didn't have time to make his book clearer and shorter.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday Salon

This week I wrapped up the Numbers Challenge, for which I read the following books:

  1. 39 Steps by John Buchan  review

  2. 7 Deadly Sins by Aviad Kleinberg  review

  3. A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters  review

  4. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien  review

  5. And Then There Were None (also published as Ten Little Indians) by Agatha Christie  review

I am currently reading House of Cards, a book about Bear Stearns and the crash of 2008. I started it earlier this year but put it aside. It grabbed my attention again this month, so I picked up and started reading it again. It is an interesting read so far, but it is sometimes difficult to keep track of all the names because the author quotes and talks about so many people. I continue to read What Is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot, albeit rather slowly. I also started The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo (of the Stanford Prison Study fame) and John Boyd. In addition, I will be starting a novel too, I just haven't decided which yet. I am getting a little burned out on serious fiction, so I am probably going to read some easy fantasy or sci-fi. That would leave me reading four books at one time. How many to you usually read at once?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

At-Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien

At-Swim-Two-Birds is such an odd and chaotic novel that it is really hard to review. It was so queer, in fact, that I cannot even really decide if I liked it or not. Nominally, it is about a sullen student of Irish Literature who is writing a novel about a novelist whose characters conspire against him. Perhaps enjoyable by those that like really strange novels, I found it more confusing than anything else.


Saturday, July 04, 2009

Bonk by Mary Roach

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex was a fantastic read! Mary Roach's book discusses a variety of topics from the multifaceted world of sex research. Despite the book's subject, or perhaps because of it, Roach can be hilariously funny. At times I laughed so hard there were tears in my eyes. Unfortunately, on the rare occasion, Roach's attempts at humor crossed over the line between funny and juvenile. But don't let that stop you from reading this fascinating and brilliantly funny book. Fair warning though, the book is not for those easily put off by frank discussions of sex.


For a preview of what you will find in Bonk, try listening to a talk she gave at TED: