Book Reports

Here’s what I’ve been reading in the last two months (except for the poetry), from the ones I liked to the ones I didn’t:


Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.

Adorable portrait of the ultimate nerd, both describing and enacting his childhood obsession with chemistry. Young Oliver used to spend hours ogling the wares at his local chemical supply store before spending his allowance on a bit of mercury or cyanide or whatever. His parents indulged him in every scientific enterprise, but also shipped their kids off to hellish boarding schools and never noticed that they were being starved and brutalized. When an aunt asked why his brother’s back was covered in livid scars and welts, they had no idea, they thought he was enjoying school. Ah, the English upper middle class.


Svante Paabo, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

Fascinating memoir by the researcher who pioneered the study of the DNA of extinct animals, most notably Neanderthal people. The first step was trying to analyze the DNA of some liver he bought at the grocery store. Paabo is good at explaining the difficulties of assembling a genome from the tiny fragments that remain after milennia (in fact, any large sequences are automatically discarded because they are sure to be modern contaminations). Also digs into his freewheeling sex life with both guys and dolls.


Tim Powers, Three Days to Never.

A heart-warming father-daughter story with time travel, Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, the Harmonic Convergence, and lunatic fringes of Mossad and a cult claiming to derive from Albigensian heretics. Also lots of quotes from The Tempest. Not perfect, but very engaging.


William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine.

A steampunk classic, maybe the steampunk classic. In alternative Victorian London, the government collects data and processes them with analog computing machines full of tiny gears, based of course on designs by Babbage and Lady Ada Byron, the Prime Minister’s daughter. But someone has designed a virus that criplles these analytical engines, and apparently it’s been stolen…very nicely done, only the invocation of chaos theory seems really dated.


David Lindley, Boltzmann’s Atom.

It is surprising how much resistance the idea of atoms (and molecules) encountered, long after they had shown their usefulness. In 1900, Ernst Mach was still declaring that he did not believe in atoms, though the younger generation had quietly moved on. The objection was that atoms could not be seen or felt directly, and science should only deal with the observable facts.

On the other side was, for example, the kinetic theory of gases. There had always been two separate fields, dynamics, which used concepts like velocity and kinetic energy, and a separate field that attributed to fluids and gases such properties as pressure and temperature. The kinetic theory said that these latter were not separate at all: temperature is just the average kinetic energy of the molecules, pressure just the force exerted by molecules bouncing off a surface. Boltzmann showed that the atomic theory could also explain the mysterious concept of entropy in an exact and elegant way, but his theory was even more controversial because he used statistics, then an unfamiliar subject to physicists.

From a modern perspective, it seems bizarre that so many scientists spurned the power and simplicity of the atomic theory because they couldn’t see the atoms directly. Direct evidence finally arrived in 1905, in Einstein’s paper on Brownian motion (this was his third most important paper of 1905, the other two being special relativity and his explanation of the photoelectric effect, which proved that light comes in quanta).

The book also describes Boltzmann’s life, which is mildly interesting; he appears to have been a rather annoying ditherer.


Tim Powers, Last Call.

Not as good as the other one. This one has Tarot cards, poker, and The Waste Land, with some cross-dressing that must have been a lot more shocking in 1990 than it is now.


Sean Carroll, The Particle at the End of the Universe.

About the Higgs boson. I was happy to learn more about ;its discovery, though at a certain point I still get lost. Emphasizes the large number of people who contributed significantly, making it hard to give anyone the Nobel Prize.


Eric Bergerod, Fire in the Sky The Aire War in the South Pacific.

Churchill it ain’t, but there is some interesting stuff. The Japanese planes were very light and maneuverable, and Allied pilots had to learn that you never wanted to be in a dogfight with a Zero. The Americans gradually developed planes that could dive at high speed and were tremendously durable.

One Japanese strategy was to fly a single Betty bomber over, say, Guadalcanal at night, doing little damage but putting the fear of god into the Allies and keeping them awake. They would desynchronize the propellers, producing an alarming chugging sound that earned them the nickname Washing Machine Charlie.

Also memorable is the fact that we continued fighting on New Guinea long after the front had passed it by, wasting many thousands of lives to no strategic purpose.


M.T. Anderson, Agent Q, or, The Smell of Danger.

Part of a YA series. There are some funny bits, mostly involving the setting in a Delaware whose physical and political geography is more reminiscent of Albania, or maybe North Korea. Anderson can do better, though, and I’d recommend his Feed instead, or maybe the Octavian Nothing books.


Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad.

I like to have a go at a proper literary novel from time to time, though I usually get bored and give up after an hour or so (more for Anne Tyler, less for Richard Ford). I managed to get all the way through this story of musical losers in search of redemption, but it wasn’t exactly fun. The characters are reminiscent of those in a Nick Hornby novel, former hipsters, washed-up rockers, and generally lost souls, but they’re not funny like Hornby people, and are generally too repellant for me to care whether they find redemption. The most appealing are the ones who commit suicide.

Part of my impatience is probably due to the ennui of yet another book about Manhattanites and their status anxieties.


Daryl Gregory, Harrison Squared.

A prequel to his We’re All Completely Fine, this book lacks the weird neuroscience that is one of his trademarks. A very creepy high school swimming pool is not enough to cover the loss. Read Pandemonium or After Party instead.


Ingrid Hill, Ursula Under.

Hill is addicted to the “Little did he know…” trope, which I think is seldom used by real writers. She also seems to have a bit of a fetish about procreation; the author bio says she has 12 children, which seems rather self-indulgent. I didn’t get very far before punting.


Joe Haldeman, Forever Free.

The Forever X franchise definitively jumps the shark. I like Haldeman, but something very bad happened here, leaving his characters adrift in a sea of mannerisms and attitudes, and leaving me unable to finish the book.

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2 Responses to Book Reports

  1. Mary White says:

    I love reading your reviews of books and I’m always so impressed that you understand some things that I wouldn’t even approach. I did love Ursula under though and thought she did a wonderful job going over several histories and blending them together.

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