Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Revenge of the Wrought-Iron Flamingos, Donna Andrews

Revenge of the Wrought-Iron Flamingos
Donna Andrews

So there's this flamingo thing in my life. I have to write up the story at some point, but suffice it to say that there is a flamingo collection that follows me around. It's not that big - perhaps 30 specimens, mostly of the plush toy variety - and most of the time it's in a box to keep it out of the way, but it's real and various people know about it. In fact, I bought only two members of the collection. The rest were given to me by others, mostly co-workers at various jobs.

In any event, through an odd set of circumstances that I inflicted upon myself, some good friends in the neighborhood learned about my flamingo collection and gave me this book, based purely on the title, I assume.

Now that I've read it I can tell you a bit about it. It's a murder mystery (and those who've read my reviews here before will note that isn't my favorite genre) set at a craft fair and historic battle reenactment in Virginia. I guess it's also supposed to be a comedy, though to be honest I don't recall laughing much while I read it.

The main character - Meg Langslow - winds up as both a suspect in and the solver of a murder. There is the usual cast of characters - many of whom are suspects - and the incompetent cop who needs help solving the case.

Frankly it seemed a bit formulaic, and clearly the author has a pattern going. Her book titles in this series (at least those featuring Meg Langslow) include: "The Penguin Who Knew Too Much", "Cockatiels at Seven", "Murder With Puffins", and so on. There are more, but I'm sure you get the idea.

Of more interest to me was the craft fair scene. I've done shows like that, and I know a couple of iron workers as well. Not only that but some of the other things relating to the plot revolved around software in one way or another. I'm afraid I don't have any interest in the reenactment thing, but other than that I'm a pretty good stand in for Meg in terms of background and experience.

In the end, I think she got much of the fair right. She did mangle a couple of details, but that's minor. I don't think her understanding of the software issues is all that good, alas. And I'm even less sure about her descriptions of the police work at the scene, but there we're outside my area of expertise.

Still, if you take it as a light hearted read, it's OK. Maybe someone like Ed would know more about the murder mystery side of it and could tell me if it's any good or not. Her books get pretty high marks in amazon.com's reviews.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Title: Freakonomics
Authors: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Rating: Good

Yes, I finally got around to Freakonomics. I know, I know. I'm way, way, way late in doing so. It seems as if everyone has already read this book. What can I say... I'm slow.

The best brief description of Freakonomics I can give would be be something like: "A book of short narratives discussing human behavior in interesting and possibly controversial ways, and that manages to aggrandize the authors while simultaneously claiming that they aren't seeking aggrandizement."

Let me be a bit more specific. Levitt is a highly respected economist with an interest in human behavior. He's won all kinds of awards and so on. Dubner is a writer working for (among others) the New York Times. He wrote a piece about Levitt that eventually lead to their collaboration on this book. Somehow, despite the text indicating that the authors are very modest and self effacing, that isn't what comes across. You can only read that someone is quiet and reserved so many times before you start wondering if the writer isn't trying a bit too hard.

As for the discussion of economics, it's interesting, though it's pretty brief in reality. The major items are discussions of how information is used by some to their advantage, how much money one branch of one Chicago street gang made selling drugs, the possible connection between legalized abortion and the drop in crime rates in the 1990's, and a few items on parenting, like nature vs. nurture, risk assessment and name selection.

Most of that content is just fine and not too controversial as far as I can tell. Note, however, that I'm not an economist (nor a mathematician), and even if I was qualified in some way, the backing data supporting the conclusions isn't given here. (Though, apparently, it is available somewhere else. Read on.)

On the controversial side there is a discussion about the relative safety of children around guns and swimming pools that some who want to limit gun access don't like. And then there's the biggie: the question of whether or not one impact of Roe v. Wade was a reduction in crime 20 years later.

I cannot answer that question. I think it is possible - I buy the arguments as presented in the book - but I've also done a tiny bit of web research and there is (or was) a serious argument over this. It turns out Levitt made some sort of error in his analysis and admitted it publicly. He claims that it doesn't substantially change his conclusions. His detractors - who may or may not have an ax to grind or be staunch abortion foes, I really don't know - seem to disagree.

I suspect I could do many hours of research trying to resolve the dispute to my satisfaction. I note, however, that Levitt did the right thing by letting others examine his methodology and data, and by admitting the error that was found. He gets points for that as far as I am concerned.

A major point of the book is that there are always unintended consequences of any economic action. If you provide an incentive to do (or not do) something, you will almost certainly cause other effects that you did not predict. That is a truism, of course, but it's nice to see some concrete examples laid out for review.

Levitt and Dubner are apparently writing a blog for the NYT now, capitalizing on the fame that came with Freakonomics. Maybe some of the articles there are as interesting as those in the book. If they cause some to question things a bit more - rather than just accepting the "obvious" answer - that'd be just fine with me.

In the unlikely event that you haven't read Freakonomics I can suggest you do so. But get it used. I think Levitt and Dubner have made a lot of money off the concept, and while I usually don't care about that, the possibility of false modesty here bugs me a bit.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
Douglas Adams

As promised in my review of The Salmon Of Doubt, I read Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency next. And you know, it was a fine read. It wasn't like reading Hitchhiker's, but it was good. I hate to damn it with faint praise, but that's what I think.

So what is it all about? Well, I guess you'd call it a comedy about several individuals whose lives (and one death) all interact in various improbable ways. The story takes place mostly on earth and mostly in the now that was present in the late 80's (when there were car phones but not cell phones), though there are some excursions to far away points in both time and space. There's also a couch stuck in a hallway in such a way that it cannot possibly be removed and could not have gotten there in the first place.

If there's a problem with this novel, it may be that there are too many plot lines that converge in too many convenient ways for me to suspend my disbelief completely. I know it's the whole point of the Dirk Gently mythos - everything is tied together in improbable ways that only Dirk can ferret out - but I just couldn't quite swallow it all. That may have limited the impact of some of the humor.

Oh, and despite the title I don't think that Dirk Gently is actually the main character. In fact it's hard to say who is in that role. There are several to chose from, and some never meet Dirk himself in the course of the story.

In the end I'd say this was a fun book, but didn't contain the laugh out loud humor that other work by Adams - like the Hitchhiker's series - is known for. At some point I'll reread Long Dark Tea Time Of The Soul and see how it has held up. I recall there were some funny bits about Thor in that one.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Salmon Of Doubt, Douglas Adams

Title: The Salmon Of Doubt
Author: Douglas Adams
Rating: Great!

I really, really, really, really miss Douglas Adams. Damn it I miss him. One of my domains - bangtherockstogether.com - is named after an obscure line from The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, and simply put, his books were a formative influence on me. The man was funny, he could write, and he had his whole life ahead of him when he unexpectedly died of a heart attack in 2001. Given he was born in 1952, you can see he died far too soon.

Despite being a fan, there are many things I don't know about him. As a result some of The Salmon Of Doubt was particularly welcome. It's a collection of essays, articles, interviews, and early drafts of the first few chapters of an unfinished book that were all extracted from his hard disk after he died.

There are hilarious stories here about his youth that make me feel like my childhood wasn't all that far out of line. There are introductions to various books and instructions on how to make tea. There are articles written for various magazines - mostly about software or the Macintosh - and descriptions of his radical atheism (his own title for it). There are analogies - like the story of the puddle thinking about how amazingly well it fits into the depression in the ground it is in, how that depression must have been made for it to fit into, all while it is evaporating. And there are stories, like the cookie story, which you simply must read, though I originally heard him tell it live on some TV program years ago. From all of this one gets the sense that Adams had an ability to connect with people - both in his writing and in person.

The chapters of the unfinished book are wonderful, and as a result of reading them I'm going to have to reread Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency next, despite the 50+ books in my TBR pile.

I wish he'd had the chance to finish The Salmon Of Doubt along with all the other things he should have written in his life.

One of the last things in the book was written by Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist. (Adams mentions Dawkins frequently, and credits Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker with causing him to understand evolution. Dawkins credits Adams with introducing him to his wife. The two were clearly good friends.) The piece is a lament over the loss of Adams, and despite the fact that it was written nearly seven years ago now, it still strikes home. Yes, I cried a bit while reading it.

Douglas Adams was a genius, plain and simple. In this book you get to see his human side, and I strongly recommend it. It's not as great a work as The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, but it tells you about the man and his passions.

The Glorious Deception, Jim Steinmeyer

Title: The Glorious Deception
Author: Jim Steinmeyer
Rating: Good

Magic has always been something that fascinates me. From as far back as I can remember I was always interested in seeing magic performed and trying to understand how it was done. I have zero belief in the supernatural, so I always assumed (and still do) that the great magicians are just fooling my senses in some way. But I've never pursued my interest in magic to the point of actually learning how to do it. Clearly it requires too much grace and coordination - things I lack entirely - for me to pull it off.

But that doesn't mean I'm not interested in reading about it, and when The Glorious Deception came to my attention I hoped that it would be entertaining and enlightening. It was.

At its heart, the book is a biography of William Robinson, also known as Chung Ling Soo, "The Marvelous Chinese Conjurer". He was one of the biggest magicians of his time, performing mostly in Europe for many years. As you can probably guess - with someone named Robinson being called a "Chinese Conjurer" - there were some odd things going on in his life. But the story of William Robinson, on its own, wouldn't use this many pages. Yes, there were some complexities to his life, but if the book were only about him it would be less than half as long.

What Steinmeyer does in addition is tell a lot of the story of magic at the time - roughly 1860 through 1920, including the birth of vaudeville. It talks about various important performers and the acts they had. In a lot of cases it gives enough detail to understand how various illusions were actually performed, which I really appreciated.

If you have any interest in magic this is a good read. It will help you to understand a lot of where modern magic comes from, and the ways in which it is done. I've never been either a big biography or history fan, but this book held my attention from start to finish. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Cyberiad, Stanislaw Lem

Title: The Cyberiad
Author: Stanislaw Lem
Rating: Good

I originally thought this would be the last book I reviewed in 2007, but several chapters at the end didn't get finished until today, so it's the first in 2008.

To the best of my knowledge, The Cyberiad is Lem's most famous book. I've read it before - years ago - and remembered almost none of it. Now I know why. It's not a bad book by any means, but it isn't the type that is going to stick with me in any detailed way.

This is a book of fairy tales set in a very, very vaguely science fiction setting. As fairy tales, I guess they are supposed to have morals, but in most cases I don't see them (I admit to being notoriously dense, however) which just makes them oddly written short stories in to me. Add to that some of the dated technology mentioned (the book was originally published in 1967, so vacuum tubes are in while transistors are not, for example), a plethora of made up words, and a wanton disregard for the laws of physics and rational story-telling and you get a recipe for stories that don't remain in my memory for long.

They're fun as you read them, though, and the last couple are better than the rest, as they bring up philosophical issues with some meat to them. All but the last feature one or two "constructors" - Trurl and Klaupacius - who are robots famed for their ability to create machines to solve problems. With only a couple of exceptions, the stories aren't even related, and make no mention of each other, so they mostly stand on their own.

The most interesting thing to me, though, is that the book was originally written in Polish. The translation to English must have been a nightmare, and Michael Kandel - the translator - deserves a lot of credit for making things come out as nicely as they do. There is wordplay and rhythm in these sentences that must have been a challenge to translate, particularly when combined with all the made up words.

If you're interested in some basically silly short stories that claim to be SF but are - in reality - stretching the limits of even fantasy, check it out.