Reading List — March

March 23rd, 2008

Lots of reading this month, since writing has been so difficult and I don’t have the diversion of spending hours online. Online speeds here are slower than the rock cycle and I don’t have access in my apartment, so I have to spend hours in coffee houses and restaurants waiting for pages to load and consuming food and drink I don’t need in order to justify my taking up time and bandwidth.

As a result, my routine is get up, caffeinate and read for an hour, go to Coffee House Number One to do e-mail, etc., then go to Coffee House Number Two (which doesn’t have Internet access) to write for 3-5 hours, then go home and read forever. Consequently, lots of books in March.

Great Fortune, Dan Okrent, 4.5 stars: Just an exemplary piece of nonfiction, the epic of how Rockefeller Center came to be. The story brings together millionaires, zillionaires, robber barons, politicians, shysters, architects, and a brilliant spangle of eccentrics, artists, and visionaries that includes Georgia O’Keeffe (whose aborted involvement gave her a nervous breakdown), Gloria Swanson, Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Jones, Otto Kahn, Diego Rivera, and the astonishing S. L. Rothafel, better known as “Roxy,” who created the 20th century picture palace, the beyond baroque wedding cakes in which movies were shown in the 20s and 30s and whose ultimate creation was Radio City Music Hall, which broke his heart and literally killed him. At the center of the story is the neurotically self-conscious John D. Rockefeller, Jr., known as “Junior” (or even “Mr. Junior”) all his life, and who devoted much of his career to giving away the fortune his father had accumulated. You may not think this sounds interesting (I bought it used here in Phnom Penh, out of desperation), but if you give it a chance, it’ll enthrall you.

Deal Breaker, Harlan Coben, 3.5 stars: This is the first Myron Bolitar novel, and it’s interesting to see how fully formed he, his world, and his supporting cast were when the first in the series appeared. This isn’t my favorite Coben novel, or even my favorite Bolitar, but I enjoyed it, I didn’t manage to figure out whodunit (although a few people have expressed pity at my failure to work it out), and I laughed out loud several times. What more can you ask?

The Neptune File, Tom Standage, 3.5 stars: The planet Neptune was the first heavenly body to be discovered by deduction rather than observation. Astronomers had long noted irregularities in the orbit of Jupiter that could best be explained by the presence of an unknown and unseen massive object. Additionally, astronomers had realized for more than a century that the known planets were spaced with a kind of regularity – Mercury and Venus the closest together, Earth farther from Venus, Mars farther from Earth, and so forth, in a relatively simple mathematic progression. If the rule held true throughout the solar system, at least two planets were missing. The first one to be spotted turned out to be a large asteroid, one of the millions of bits of rock that probably represent a shattered planet. But further out, there was an enormous gap, and Jupiter behaved so oddly that two mathematicians, one English and obscure, one French and famous, set to work independently trying to predict exactly where the missing planet was and how massive it was likely to be – and when telescopes were trained at the predicted sector of sky, there was Neptune, right where they said it would be. But that’s only part of the story: this is also an infuriating tale of bureaucratic idiocy and failure of vision among the British astronomical establishment. Terrific book.

Orchid Fever, Eric Hansen, 4 stars: Orchids make people crazy, and Eric Hansen, whose wonderful Stranger in the Forest tells the story of his mostly solo trip across Borneo on foot, is eminently qualified to tell a tale of obsession on a grand scale. By turns hilarious and maddening, Hansen’s book presents a cast of orchid fanatics, thieves, breeders, hybridizers, judges with bewildering criteria for beauty, loggers and developers who casually destroy the ecosystems where unique orchids flourish, and Indiana Jones-type horticulturists and/or plain old orchid freaks who plunge into the world’s most hostile jungle environments to save them. Lurking behind all of this is a bureaucracy gone mad; CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species which is, according to your perspective, blundering, boneheaded, captive to special interests, or just plain evil. This is an organization that would prefer to let a species become extinct rather than allow someone to rescue it from the loggers’ path. And the eminent botanists at London’s Kew Gardens don’t come off any better – they seem much more concerned with protecting their turf and claiming credit for other people’s work than with preserving some of the world’s most exquisite plants. (If you like this book, you might also read Susan Orleans’ The Orchid Thief, a delight in its own right.)

The White Corridors, Christopher Fowler, 3 stars: I love Bryant and May, the elderly (approaching superannuated) detectives who head up London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, a resolutely disorderly group of cops whose continued existence is continually threatened by the bureaucrats who run everything else. (What would we do for villains this month if it weren’t for bureaucrats?) But I don’t love the mysteries as much as I love the characters. They’re in the “classic” mold, which to me means overplotted and improbable. (Here we’re dealing with a locked-room mystery and an untrustworthy third-person narrative that – I think – goes way too far in misleading the reader about a major character.) So I read this book as I read all of Fowler’s series, with absolute delight in the characters and in his really wonderful, and sometimes beautiful, prose, and I pretty much skimmed the resolution. I’ve never been particularly interested in who actually dunnit anyway – I like the form itself, the winnowing of information, the cast of characters, and the way the central question propels the plot. But if you like the classic approach to mysteries and you haven’t read Fowler yet, I think you have a treat in store.

White Ghosts, Will Rhode, 3 stars: English public-school yuppies awash in Hong Kong in the months leading up to the big Handover in 1997. For its storytelling and very interesting structure, this probably deserves a higher rating, or maybe I should do away with the stars, but I just didn’t really like any of the characters. So in spite of the fact that I really should have loved this book – Asian locale, fine writing, great structure – I finished it mostly out of a sense of duty rather than a compulsion to see how it ends. Rhode’s first novel, Paperback Raita (published unimaginatively in the States as Paperback Original) had a lot of the same strengths, but was much funnier.

Cakes and Ale, W. Somerset Maugham, 4 stars: Maugham is one of my all-time favorites, in part, I think, because his experience as a playwright taught him more about shaping scenes than most writers ever learn, but mostly because he’s just a great storyteller. Not necessarily a very nice, or particularly sympathetic, man, but a fascinating one who can lean right across the table and say, “Listen to this,” and you’re still there 36 hours later, listening with all your heart. This book caused something of a scandal when it came out because it was based rather transparently on the then-recently deceased Thomas Hardy and it dared to suggest that Hardy’s best books came out of his marriage to a woman who had worked as a barmaid and who lived well off the moral radar screens of the day, having affairs right and left both before and during the marriage. In Maugham’s view, and the view of the book’s narrator, also a writer, the first wife, Rosie, was responsible for the life force that animated the early books and that is so keenly missing from the more academic later ones, written after she left him. Cakes and Ale is one of the rare books about writing that’s actually worth reading. Oh, and I bought it here in Phnom Penh in an old Bantam Paperback with an absolutely lurid cover – man sitting on a bed with his shirt unbuttoned, woman in the foreground undoing her dress, and the cutline, “’You must take me as I am,’ she said.” A classic. I wonder where all the paperback book cover paintings are – I’d love to collect them.

The Agenda, Bob Woodward, 4 stars: Woodward (along with Carl Bernstein) is the only journalist to single-handedly destroy a presidency, and I’ve always found it fascinating that later presidents have given him such extraordinary access to the inner workings of their administrations. In this one, Woodward details the first Clinton term, as the new president and his political circle struggled to find the center of their presidency. Distracted by side issues such as gays in the military and occasionally blinded by hubris, they fought their way to the understanding that the primary issue was, in fact, the one they were elected on: as James Carville famously put it, “It’s the economy, stupid.” A fascinating inside perspective on a how the most powerful man in the word wandered in the wilderness after his election while seeking the central theme of his presidency. And Clinton remains one of the greatest characters, so to speak, in American politics.

The Very First Light, John Mather and John Boslough, 4 stars:  John Mather was the primary force in the effort to create the COBE satellite and put it into orbit in order to learn more about the so-called cosmic background radiation.  Discovered accidentally by two AT&T scientists who at first thought it was due to pigeon droppings in their radio receiver, the cosmic background radiation is a low-frequency sizzle of radio waves that (it seemed at first) was spread exactly evenly throughout the universe.  This discovery was made at a time when the Big Bang model of the universe was in competition with Fred Hoyle’s Steady State Theory — in fact, the term “Big Bang” was Hoyle’s derisive way of describing the alternative to Steady State, in which the universe was stable and essentially static, with atoms of matter simply popping into existence in empty space.  But it didn’t take cosmologists long to theorize that the cosmic background radiation could be the “echo” of the Big Bang, actually predicted by the mathematics of that model.  The problem was that matter is not distributed evenly through the universe — it accumulates in gigantic structures here and there and just doesn’t exist in appreciable quantities elsewhere — and if the matter in the universe is “lumpy,” then the leftover radiation from the Big Bang should be, too, since all matter came originally out of the pure energy of the Bang.  And COBE proved exactly that — that the background radiation is a lattice, more concentrated in some places than others.  This was the discovery that established the Big Bang once and for all and relegated Hoyle’s Steady State Theory to a footnote.

There were a bunch more books this month, but this is way long, so I’ll call it off here.

5 Responses to “Reading List — March”

  1. Greg Smith Says:

    Tim:
    Have you ever considered an ancillary carreer in CliffsNotes? Just from reading your synopsies, I’m getting smarter.
    Arthur C Clarke is probably smiling down on some this month’s entries.
    Thanks again for the eclectic bag of goodies. Awfully good of you to do the heavy lifting for relatively lightweight readers like myself.

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hey, Greg —

    I’m just a junkie for reading. One thing that I find interesting is that people think I’m smarter than I am and demonstrate it by the books they give or lend to me. One guy here in Phnom Penh just gave me a book about Fermat’s Last Theorem, which is apparently the champion math problem of all time. It’s written by Simon Singh, who wrote THE BIG BANG, which I loved, but I’m a mathematical illiterate who literally had to have a tutor to get me through fifth-grade long division.

    I doubt I’ll get through it, much less write about it on the site.

  3. Greg Smith Says:

    Tim:

    At least you did get through long division. The fifth grade was the toughest three years of my life. (I know, it’s an old joke but not that far off the mark.) In college, I took bonehead physics and the teacher used lots of pictures and models to bring me and my fellow mathematically challenged classmates along.
    For a final exam, he showed us pictures of Fermat’s FIRST Theorem. It was pretty. That’s all I remember.
    How can people think yure smarter than you are? That’s dumb. It must mean youre smarter than they are. That’s what I think, anyway, and that’s what I got out of the fifth grade.

  4. Sphinx Ink Says:

    I’m impressed that you not only spend the necessary hours tapping away at your keyboard for your own work, but also you find time to read copiously. (You must be a super-fast reader.) I salute you. And thanks for the excellent mini-reviews of the books.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Elora — I do read fast, but that’s probably just because I read so much. When I pack for Asia, the first thing I do is send ahead, via DHL, a 55-lb carton of books (it also contains one ream of blank paper for printouts, since the paper here is British-size, A-4, which is longer and narrower and messes up my page counts.) Then I fill my bags with books, up to the 70-lb limit. And THEN I buy books in used bookstores all over Asia. It really is an addiction.

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