Saturday, August 28, 2010

BooksFirst - March to August 2010

Books Bought
Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Talib

Books Read
Bonk by Mary Roach
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The Grand Idea by Joel Achenbach
Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain
Florida Roadkill by Tim Dorsey
60 Days and Counting by Kim Stanley Robinson

Books Heard
Fluke by Christopher Moore
Abba's Abba Gold (Thirty Three and a Third series) by Elisabeth Vincetelli


It may came as no surprise to regular readers that I have a deviant streak in me. In middle school I would go down to the base library and read the entire shelf of books in the 612.6 section. I never understood why books on human sexuality were filed under Applied Technology, but after reading Mary Roach's Bonk, I understand that odd categorization a little better.

The book is not about sexuality per se, but rather about the people who study it. Going back to Kinsey and Masters and Johnson and even earlier, she chronicles the researchers who had an uphill battle in even getting the authority to begin legitimate scientific or medical investigations. And not all these researchers come off as disinterested folk in white lab coats holding clip boards. A lot of them have rather colorful personal lives.

While not an explicit theme of the book, the recurring item that I kept noticing was how sparse the research is. There just isn't that much out there. And the researchers that are doing it are still fighting puritanism. At one point, in order to see a particular type of MRI procedure, she had to volunteer herself (and her husband) as subjects because volunteers are so rare.

All of this is written with a great deal of wit and just enough titillation to keep the interest level up.

Far and away the leader in the fiction section of my Which Book Should I Read Next poll was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. That I have never read this book before was a monumental failing on my part. I think perhaps some of avoidance was fear that I would like it more than Slaughterhouse Five, the book most often mentioned in the same breath.

I immediately found that the book does live up to its reputation. It is funny, dark, and subversive. The absurdist humor has withstood the test of time and still accurately skewers the follies of war. Fifty years after its publication, it is not the stunning revelation it was when first released, but it still packs a punch. I do have a few quibbles. It is perhaps about 20% too long. Some of the bits and points seem to be hammered home over and over again. And in a few places it is just a little too over the top. Nonetheless, an amazing work and achievement.

But Kurt Vonnegut has nothing to worry about. Heller really never matched the success of Catch-22 while Vonnegut went on to write on a wide variety of themes with equal wit and insight. But Catch-22 is a legitimate member of the modern canon and one I was remiss to miss for so long.

On the non-fiction side of the poll, The Grand Idea by Joel Achenbach also ran away in the polling. Perhaps plugging the poll in the comments of his blog wasn't the best way to get an impartial opinion. Achenbach is the Washington Post's best reporter to have never won a Pulitzer. You practically need one to be admitted to the WaPo cafeteria and it's a shame he doesn't have one yet.

Achenbach clearly has a love affair with the Potomac River and the book is pitched as a biography of George Washington's effort to develop it. The problem is that Washington never accomplished much of his grand idea and he comes off as a bit of dick trying. George Washington used his experience as a land surveyor to claim large swathes of western territory and then uses his reputation as a war hero to fend off stake jumpers. He also uses his influence to steer the new national capitol to a location just upriver from his plantation, an early example of what George Washington Plunkitt would call 'honest graft.' It doesn't help that the Potomac never quite becomes the road to the west that Washington wanted it to be, regardless of his motives.

As a narrative, the story just fizzles. There is no real drama, intrigue or tension. As a route west, the Potomac just missed the boat. The last third of the book chronicles the post-Washington history of the river. And while the C&O canal did eventually achieve some of Washington's dreams, the railroad and other routes west eventually made even that obsolete. Achenbach does point out that one of the central ironies of Washington's grand idea is that had it not failed, we wouldn't have the wonderful natural resource that we have today.

It's pretty well established that I am an Anthony Bourdain groupie. I've seen him on stage four times. I have his No Reservations show on DVR. And so when he dropped hints that a new book was about to drop, I ran to BigBoxOfBooks to get a copy. Medium Raw is a new collection of essays about food, travel, and life. They don't have any sort of narrative arc, but tend to jump around. But they are beautifully written. When he wants to be eloquent the words just flow; when he wants to be profane, the profanity just flies. Tears will flow either out of laughter or out of sorrow.

One problem is that Anthony is a little ubiquitous, so a lot of this information was not entirely new to me. I'm familiar with all his grudges and feuds but it is good to hear his authoritative take. A lot does also get a little inside baseball-ish. He names names, but unless you eat in New York a lot, you don't really know who he is praising or trashing. But overall this book is great for both the casual fan and the diehard foodie. You will laugh, you will cry, you will get very hungry.

Ever since I read the entire Travis McGee series in one summer, I have been a sucker for the cynical satiric Florida-set thriller. There is just something so absurdist about the state that brings out the best in writers of dark humor. The 1999 debut novel by Tim Dorsey, Florida Roadkill, mines this vein deep and wide. Written very broadly, it is for people who find Dave Barry a little subtle and Carl Hiaasen's characters just too naturalistic.

The writer is a former reporter for the Tampa Tribune. As an erstwhile Tampan, I found the geography and the descriptions hilariously dead on. Every real place he mentioned was perfect in his description. Even the fictional locales were so true to life they should have existed.

There are enough low-lifes, deadbeats and scammers to fill a dozen novels. The shifting points of views are dizzying until about halfway through the book Dorsey starts killing them off in a spree that would make Quentin Tarantino squeamish. Overall, the book is derivative of so much it ends up reading like an homage to every twisted Florida tale ever. By the end I was finally involved enough in the surviving main characters only to have that shot out from under me in a way I wasn't quite expecting.

Dorsey has gone on to write another dozen books. In the meantime I have yet to buy Carl Hiaasen's latest. The rest of the Dorsey oeuvre will have to wait until I have caught up on the real thing and am jonesing for a whacky Florida novel hit strong enough to settle for second best.

Now that I live in the greater (very greater) DC area I should read more books set in that locale. One trilogy that I started a while back by Kim Stanley Robinson concludes in Sixty Days And Counting, the finale to Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below Zero. These books are set in DC against a world undergoing catastrophic climate change. While the first two books were clunky, they at least featured some great disaster movie set pieces, a flood and an extreme cold snap respectively, that added some excitement.

I kept waiting for the grand weather finale in 60 Days and I'm still waiting. The trilogy ends not in fire or in ice, but in endless polemics. Nearly all the action takes place off stage and the heroes just kind of walk around spouting position papers. The smug moralizing would make Al Gore cringe and the over the top technological solutions are well researched but just a little too clever. What little action there is comes from an astoundingly lame romance-suspense subplot about sinister secret government agencies which is excruciatingly bad and simple-minded.

I struggled through this trilogy hoping for a better payoff, but instead of hurricane I just got a fizzle.

Last summer on family vacation, we listened to Lamb by Christopher Moore and the entire family thought it was hysterical. So this spring when I went on a driving trip of the Southwest, I took along one of his earlier novels, Fluke. Set among whale researchers in Hawaii it showed a lot of promise to have some biting satire about phony scientists and ecological zealots.

Instead, about half way through it goes off the deep end, literally. The whole mystery of if and how whales are communicating with the hero is revealed and not in a good way. From there the rest of the book takes a bizarre turn in a direction that aims high and misses wide. The fantasy pseudo-science fiction section is nowhere near as interesting as the more reality based parts of the book.

Christopher Moore is a daring and very very funny writer, so I guess I can forgive the occasional mistake, but I just wish I had picked something a little better this trip out.

Picking audiobooks to share is a tricky proposition. They have to interest all the listeners. I am a bigger ABBA fan than a straight man ought to be and my wife loves them even more. There is a series of books/audiobooks where each volume examines one seminal album. Rather than pick any one album, Elisabeth Vincetelli uses ABBA's Gold as a retrospective on the career of Sweden's greatest guilty pleasure export. She uses each track to illustrate some phase or aspect of their career. While I am a fan, I learned a lot about the band I never knew. I also appreciate the thesis that there is a lot more pain and introspection in the songs than the poppy arrangements would suggest.

One failing of the audio version in particular is the lack of clips that would illustrate the points better. Brief snippets of spoken lyrics just don't cut it. Even worse are the long passages discussing the visual aspects of the many pioneering music videos they made and the painfully 70s outfits they wore. Without a YouTube connection, trying to visualize the segments being described was frustrating.

Another intriguing part of the book was how Benny and Bjorn had musical ambitions beyond pop music. By no coincidence, we went and saw the Signature Theater production of Chess a week after listening to the book. In hindsight, there are a lot of very theatrical clues in ABBA's music that would emerge in their stage writing. This book made me feel a lot less guilty of being an ABBA fan even when it wasn't (and perhaps still isn't) cool to be.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Where Not To Go In DC

According to the Tea Party of Maine, you should not ride the Yellow or Green lines of the DC Metro.
If you are on the subway stay on the Red line between Union Station and Shady Grove, Maryland. If you are on the Blue or Orange line do not go past Eastern Market (Capitol Hill) toward the Potomac Avenue stop and beyond; stay in NW DC and points in Virginia. Do not use the Green line or the Yellow line. These rules are even more important at night. There is of course nothing wrong with many other areas; but you don't know where you are, so you should not explore them.

Rachel Maddow reacts:

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Places I have been to recently which are on those lines include Dukem Ethiopian Food on U Street and Oyamel Cocina Mexicana, home of the cricket taco. On the other hand perhaps Tea Partiers are better off not stretching their culinary palate in that way.

From the Official Maine Tea Party DC Tourist Guide, they offer this helpful piece of xenophobia on why DC is so unsafe:
DC's population includes refugees from every country, as the families of embassy staffs of third world countries tend to stay in DC whenever a revolution in their homeland means that anyone in their family would be in danger if they went back.

For those teabaggers who are tempted to try some ethnic food, they do offer this suggestion:
Libertarianish Virginia economics professor Tyler Cowen extensively explores and reviews restaurants, especially Northern Virginia Asian fare, at

I like the idea that a professor has to be identified as 'libertarianish' so as to remove the taint of taking ethnic food suggestions from an actual member of the educated elite.

So, teabaggers, please by all means avoid anything in DC interesting or tasty. All the more for me.