Podcasts and Bibliography

Writer’s Note: I am in the center of a two week streak of real life madness so blogging time took a serious hit.  I have been meaning to write this anyway and remove the ancient dead pages with a bibliography and links page – in fact, this post.  So while I am crazy busy, here are the books I read/am reading and the podcasts I absorb with all their links and references.

A couple of fine Internet friends asked for a list of books and resources that are gentler than attempting to get through an Economics textbook.  I pour data into my head every moment I can – I read an awful lot.  When I’m not reading, I’m driving or working.  I have a long commute so I listen to a number of podcasts.  

Podcasts

I use the Apple Podcast player that comes on the iPhone.  To be honest, as a piece of software, it fails where others have succeeded and I cannot recommend it; smarter people have written better better Podcast players than what Apple ships as default on their phone.  But because I moved all my Podcasts there when the software was first released I have been stuck with it.

Books

I admit: I don’t read much fiction.  I have given up largely on dead tree books and make heavy use of the Kindle.  The search and highlight feature has been the most useful feature.  All of these books are available from Amazon.  Links provided by Goodreads.

Fiction

Non-Fiction

Economics

History

Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At one point in David Mitchell’s amazing Buddhist science fiction novel “Cloud Atlas,” a character in the past comments on a character in the future he might or might not reincarnate into which you, the reader, knows is true (the action and the reincarnation) because you already read that passage about the character in the future because you’re reading from the future to the past and your brain explodes all over the wall in a big greasy lumpy mess you say “Maybe this is a good book.”

Six sections all written in the style of the section’s time period (the Canticle for Lebowitz section is arguably the strangest to read);

Six different stories from a South Pacific Travelogue to the transcript of a futuristic TV show all referring back to the events in the stories backward _and forward_ in time;

At least four character reincarnating with one ascending to Buddhahood and returning to suffering to help usher in a new era;

Big themes of the novel hidden in the structure of the novel itself;

A big puzzle of nesting stories where actions in one story impacts the others;

And an awesome science fiction novel for 33% of the story.

You might not bother to see the movie but you should read the book.

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Review: Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had a difficult time slogging through Debt. It shares a similar problem with Niall Fergeson’s completely unreadable “the Ascent of Money:” it mixes in the author’s politics and political leanings with history to give everything this weird political sheen (in this case left to Fergeson’s right.) In this case, Graeber’s book covers more facts than political lecturing but it’s bumped several stars for being overt.

However, Debt is a worthy read for anyone interested in the span of history from early Sumerian – Middle Ages. The sections on Babylonian debt-based society and the Roman slave society are especially strong; the entire chapter on the Axial Age and the move to coinage over debt to pay for mercenaries is good and solid read full of meaty “stuff.” The effect of the fall of the Roman Empire on the coinage left in circulation and how that contributed to the Dark Ages while the smaller communities returned to earlier debt and borrow strategies is also good. I liked the breakdown on how debt goes back to wife trading and wife purchasing with cows as demonstrated in Africa and moving from that to a more generalized market — the first people to ever price physical objects were, of course, thieves who needed to sell them for other things. And the most precious commodity is a human being.

Debt falls down in the Islam chapter and the China chapter, both which feel thin and full of conjecture. China has a big piece to play in the Cortez-dumping-silver-on-the-European-economy section but otherwise, it’s glossed over. The chapter on the rise of Islam and the role it plays is dry and nearly unreadable.

What I want to say about Debt is to skip the boring parts and read the interesting ones. Skipping to halfway through the book to the Axial Age chapter is a good strategy. Skip everything after the Middle Ages — Graeber hardly has interest in things like 18th century stock bubbles (although mentioned) and the rise of the East India Company. Saying, “Yeah this is a great book on ROME!” is good. Saying, “This is a great book on the history of monetary policy!” is not. It’s an okay introduction to the genesis of debt, a great discussion about ancient and near-ancient monetary policy, and a fairly terrible one on the modern day.

Not a waste of time, but not 5 stars either. A good 3.5 star book.

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Review: The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I have a weekend to read!” I thought. “And Pynchon’s novels are all now on the kindle! What better than to spend a few hours reading an Official Classic of 20th Century American Literature ™!”

I have learned that:

– I’ll finally get off my butt and read Pynchon’s longer novels.
– A continuum of exists from Nabokov -> Pynchon/Vonnegut -> Davis Foster Wallace that neatly explains my reading habits.
– I will spend the next week looking for loops and horns.

Greatly enjoyed the quick, short read although it leeched all sanity out of my mind. Was a bit shocked how much it read like /Infinite Jest/ in tone and style as, for some unexplained reason, I was not expecting that at all. It’s a classic of literature! It’s on the kindle so it’s trivial to acquire. You should read it, too.

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Review: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fantastic 2/3rds of a book and a flat 1/3rd of a book. If you quit at the 2/3rds mark, I’m fine with that because the last third falls flat.

Swerve is about the re-discovery of Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things,” an Epicurian poem extolling an early Roman atheist worldview of a universe made of atoms descended directly from the Greek Epicurians. For the first third, Swerve dives into the literature movement of the Roman Empire, the nature and industry of hand-written books on scrolls, libraries, and a world of literacy in a time of hegemony. And then Rome fell apart bit by bit and the books were lost to mold, moisture, Christians with torches, and monks who didn’t care to make copies. The early Christian Saints clutched their chests and fell on their fainting couches about how Roman Literature in its beautiful literate manicured Latin, so much better than the crude Greek or Hebrew of the Levant, destroyed their souls and should never be read — wink wink — really don’t read it except you should. To no one’s surprise, people took the Saints seriously and it went from oh no we’re not reading that to NO WE REALLY AREN’T READING THAT and thus, books get lost and destroyed and neglected and used for kindling. Some of the books were copied and recopied in rotation in forgotten mountainous monasteries. On the Nature of Things was one of those.

The second third of the book is about the academics of early Renaissance Florence who fought precisely like academics do. Nothing is better than threats and slander and lies and assassination attempts over translations of Latin. Some of the books crept out, some of the books stayed in collections, but fundamentally these crazy academics established fonts and notation and procedure and pedantic lexicography and everything the modern world needs to analyze literature. These are good people, the crazy ones who go to the Alps to steal books from monasteries. It’s like an Umberto Eco novel except it all really happened.

So thus the book about the atoms and the atheism is returned to circulation.

This is all well and good. But the last third of the book stretches to make Lucretius’s poem important in the course of history. The arguments are tenuous at best. Galileo! Thomas Jefferson! Newton! I think there was a Kant reference stuffed in there. The argument isn’t very good because it was an whole body of literature, not just one poem, entering the literary market once again (histories, plays, philosophy, huge books of maps) that helped kick things along. Sure a book talking about atoms had some impact but wow, it felt overblown. This is unlike Fourth Corner of the World where the return of Ptolemy’s Geography had noticeable and traceable effect — before Geography, no maps; after Geography, maps — it’s unclear what the return of Lucretius’s poem actually had.

Again! Absolutely fantastic first two thirds of a book. Worth reading. Perfect in its awesomeness. Last third — merely good and sometimes bordering on okay. Recommend for the first two thirds, which is more than I can say for 90% of the history books I’ve ever read.

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Review: Sarum: The Novel of England

Sarum: The Novel of England
Sarum: The Novel of England by Edward Rutherfurd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I greatly enjoyed Sarum. All 1033 pages of it.

Sarum is the first Edward Rutherford book I tackled, although his New York book has stared at me with longing on a shelf for years. Starting at the end of the last Ice Age, Sarum follows the generational paths of five families through time to the modern day. The book hits all the strong beats: the building of Stonehenge, the Roman Invasion of Britain and their colonization, the Dark Ages, Saxon Britain, the Norman Invasion, the War of the Roses, the High Middle Ages and the Black Death, the coming of Protestantism and Queen Elizabeth II, the English Civil War, the conquest of India and the American Revolution, Trafalgar and Waterloo, the Great Wars of the 20th Century. Sarum left me with a great sense of breadth and time and gave me an appreciation for age and the passing of time. Everything starts and everything ends — cultures, religions, industry and business, technology, reigns great and small. That which felt eternal at the time it happened passed and soon became someone else’s archeology.

The highlights of the book are the grisly Stonehenge chapter (nearly a novella in itself), the building of the Salisbury Cathedral and the horrible chapter on the Black Death, followed by the Revolution and the Cavaliers in the Civil War. Of the five families, two are the main focus of the book: the horrible decedents of Tep, the river man who has always been there since before the Ice Age ended, and the Shockleys, decedents of a Saxon Thane whose fortunes rise and fall with England’s. For 1500 years those two families have back and forths, constantly crossing paths until finally joining in the 20th century. The other families (Caius Porteus’s decedents, the family of Nooma the Mason, and the Godefrei’s) play second fiddle — save in the Cathedral chapter — to the others.

Sometimes the chapters felt a little too short and that generation ended too soon but, generally, I read this book with Wikipedia and my (nonfiction) history of England open to flesh out some of the details where the book glossed over. Overall, I enjoyed the rich detail Rutherford supplies in with the every day lives of his inhabitants of Sarum to give grounding in the time period. No politics get injected in the background of historical period detail — it is told, straight, to help couch the feelings and motivations of the characters.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read some meaty historical fiction or to get an entertaining grounding in the history of Britain. Although some of the archeology in the early part of the book is a little wobbly now (book came out in 1987), the rest is solid and was backed by my reference books.

Five stars.

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Review: Old Man’s War

Old Man's War
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have exactly one essential issue with “Old Man’s War:”

The book ends so well and succinctly I feel no compulsion to read the sequels.

Otherwise, this book is fantastic. So many cool science fiction themes to ponder: the corporatization of space exploration and settlement, “We are the invaders,” the incredible diversity in life and the further diversity in how it tries to kill us, the bizarreness of space battle, and the future of humanity, all packed into one little thin tome. The presentation of the various aliens is fantastic, and so are the ways humans die in space — some great, some terrible.

I can gush about Old Man’s War all day. It’s like an evil Star Trek.

The nut of the book is this: Earth offers its old people a chance at a new life when they reach 75. If you so live that long, you can join up with the CDF, the Colonization Defense Forces, which promises a new life and a Fountain of Youth. Only hitch: you don’t ever come back to Earth. Earth marks you as dead and you are gone into space forever. This is clever — instead of poaching the breeding population, needed for colonization, it poaches the old and infirm who only drain terrestrial resources and have a full life experience. And the CDF makes good on its promise……. in a way.

Ah space, full of aliens to meet, greet and shoot in the face. Humans have a skip drive which allows them to get around in the galaxy and there, the entire cast of Star Control II awaits them. Those things that look like HR Giger’s nightmares? Peaceful underwater mathematicians who want to bond and share with humanity. The wise deer-headed mammalian animals out of Star Trek? They love the taste of human flesh and set up human farms whenever they take out a colony. So be aware, recruit! What you think is huggable thinks you are tasty on rye.

In the CDF you aren’t going to last long because everything in the galaxy wants to chew on your head. So here’s your gun! Here’s your BrainPal(tm) and your body full of SmartBlood(tm). Know that humanity needs to be genetically enhanced on the fly to survive in the harsh and crazy conditions of space. You’re enhanced, now! Go shoot some aliens for the good of mankind!

I have special love for the super intelligent bugs with the shield around their entire solar system to keep out invaders and their religious purity and their weird war games. For should any of these aliens interact with dirty humans they will be pulverized and their molecules shot into the nearest black hole unless it is under the onus of war. Then there will be death! And rebirth! It will be glorious! Woo!

5 stars. Great book and a great look on what humanity being the alien invaders in a galaxy full of intelligent species is like and how the stupidity of life isn’t confined to just Earth. Go read it.

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Review: Mockingjay

Mockingjay
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review containers spoilers for Mockingjay.

At one point in the book, Joanna Mason, one of the victors from Catching Fire, has this exchange with Katniss:

“Is that why you hate me?” I ask.
“Partly,” she admits. “Jealousy is certainly involved. I also think you’re a little hard to swallow. With your tacky romantic drama and your defender-of-the-helpless act. Only it isn’t an act, which make you more unbearable. Please feel free to take this personally.”

I like Joanna because she sums up why I only give Mockinjay, the last book in the Hunger Games trilogy, a 3.5 — although Goodreads only allows me to give full stars. About half of the book is Katniss moping around or mooning or complaining or whining or otherwise not moving the plot along much at all. Entire chapters devolve into “and Katniss feels bad.” I get she feels bad and she’s had some unbelievably bad life experiences at the hands of the Capital that defy belief but she’s also the main viewpoint character and the complaining got old.

The other half of the book is full of action sequences, one more implausible than the next. And here are some of my bigger plot gripes:

– Anyone notice Katniss gets turned into Hawkeye? Anyone? I couldn’t decide if this was good or bad, honestly. On one hand, thumbs up Avengers! On the other hand… isn’t Hawkeye in the Avengers? It turns out I like the character of Beetee and I did like District 13s crazy cache of technology and weaponry but this felt silly.

– The bombing of District 12 which, on any level of examination, makes no sense. If District 12 is mining, and the military uses coal to run its generators for the mountain military base for the scene with District 2, doesn’t blowing up District 12… shoot the Capital in the foot? Or, as everything seems to run on nuclear — those hovercraft ain’t steampunk — what was the point of District 12 the whole time? A buffer to District 13?

– Everyone forgets Peeta is missing a leg. The whole book forgets Peeta is missing a leg. I suppose the new leg is so awesome it no longer needs mention? And why does Peeta, who, I should mention, is missing a leg sent on a military mission for District 13 after they made such a hoopty-do about military training and people going on military missions being in military fit condition? Why is Peeta thrown in with their squad? This makes no sense whatsoever.

– Why is the entire military of the Capital housed under one mountain in District 12? Can they not… find two mountains? A mountain and a big sprawling fort? I dunno, a mountain and a freaking castle? Who designs their military to have one massive point of failure?

– And my biggest gripe: why the hell did the Capital trap the entire city where normal people live like the Arena? I was completely down with the Arena-like mobile pods of death. Those rocked hard. But when streets opened up into whirring meatwheels of death, I was like… okay, shark? You have been jumped.

I can go on and on. The whole book doesn’t work.

It sounds and feels like sour grapes for a kid’s book that never made the slightest pretension of sci-fi worldbuilding. I rolled with it in Hunger Games and Catching Fire because the centerpiece, Katniss, and what happened to her was gripping and awful enough to keep the book rolling. Here, in Mockingjay, the actual rebellion is abstracted out as big events unfold offscreen (notably Peeta’s rescue). The whole world is in flames and we see Katniss curled up in a corner. Good sequences, like the bombing of District 13 and the firefight in District 8, are overshadowed by strings of “buh” moments. For a big global rebellion, the book is missing some essential meat. I can’t see it. Even the news updates aren’t enough. Like Katniss, I can only know about it in the abstract, and it makes the first 70% of the book unsatisfying.

The final end is good. Mockingjay gets back a star for the final pages.

I wanted more. I didn’t get more. The book is the weakest of the three. Of course read it to finish off the series, but no reason to re-read a second time.

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Review: Catching Fire

Catching Fire
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yeah, look. I don’t like the Two Towers as much as Fellowship or Return of the King, either. Because it’s a damn long dull travelogue where people travel alot and angst a bit and talk and sort of fill out the world and there’s this one giant crazy insane OMG battle right there in the heart of things. Just like Catching Fire.

Except in Two Towers, Helm’s Deep is not trying to actively eat the people within. And Gandolf isn’t a crazy drunk named Haymitch. There is a hot guy, but he has a trident, wears a net, and looks way better than Aragorn.

Granted, the LotR analogy doesn’t hold together upon even the most casual of examination… although Peeta does have a little Samwise in him. But, Katniss and Peeta do their As Required By Law (Literally) world tour where Awful Things Happen and things go from very dull to very very bad indeed with an additional pile of badness because this book wouldn’t be in this particular trilogy if there wasn’t a chance for insane mayhem and death with graphically and lovingly described spurts of gore at the hands of the sadistic masters Panem who, upon reflection, are also very bad at thinking their cunning plans through.

But that is, as they say, another story. Find out! Read the book.

One thread I do like about Katniss throughout these books is, in the face of competent adults with a plan, she’s a seventeen year old girl who doesn’t have the experience. She doesn’t suddenly acquire years of wisdom from the sky. She doesn’t become Super Katniss. She stays a seventeen year old girl. And although she manages to resist the charms of Fan Favorite(tm) Finnick Odair — how can one not love Fan Favorite(tm) Finnick Odair with his intense and unending awesomeness? — she is still seventeen, way out of her depth, and she’s not going to level up through sheer prose. She’s Katniss, she’s good at what she’s good at, she’s terrible at what she’s terrible at, she’s amazing at shooting people with her bow, and the story rolls forward through her oftentimes confused first person perspective.

Middle book syndrome is a downer. Book doesn’t have an oooh aaah beginning. Book doesn’t end because the book after it has the story climax. It has some especially interesting fireworks along the way and fills out the story quite a bit. The broken economics of Panem don’t get much better. Terrible things do happen and characters with actual names die. But it cannot possibly live up to the books before it or after it because it’s entire job is to carry the story along.

And it does. Story carried. Mission accomplished. Bonus points if you bought the trilogy because book 3 starts on the very next page…

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Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book should come with a helpful Public Service Announcement:

“While reading this book, you will not eat, drink, sleep, or go to the bathroom. If you do go to the bathroom, you will take the book with you. May cause stress, loud meeping noises, insomnia, and an intense need to grab the next book.”

Thankfully, it’s a short book. Otherwise, I’d have to work out some sort of cunning bathroom-based scheme or come down with a terrible case of one day ebola to get the book done. There’s no reading it over multiple days. This is an official One Day Book where that’s what you do on that day. You read the Hunger Games.

Pretty much everyone knows about this book: dystopia future, brave girl fighting for her life in a sadistic arena, courage in the face of great odds, science fiction, etc. My interest while reading the book was to pull as many sources I could without resorting to the tvtropes page. I recognized:

– Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”
– Stephen King’s “The Running Man”
– Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”
– Raiders of the Lost Ark (“Bad Dates.”)
– Theseus and the Minotaur
– Imperial Rome
– Etc.

I have a quibble. It’s not all rosy rainbows. The economy of Panem doesn’t… work. Normally, in a science fiction novel this would bother me but, here, the problem is easily brushed under the rug by reminding oneself that a) this is a Young Adult Fiction Novel and not Foundation or Childhood’s End here b) the economics are not the point of the story and c) why are we dwelling on the internal politics of Panem when oh my God that guy JUST DIED HORRIBLY DID YOU SEE THAT???!? In my book, which, to be fair, is a pretty big book, a good blood splatter covers a multitudes of sins, and a well-written blood splatter written in a tight, snappy, almost Elmore Leonard-like prose covers the sin of failed internal economics. I’m okay with it, and when you read the book, you’ll be okay with it, too. Trust me on this one. It’s a mere quibble.

So I like the book. I liked it I went diving into the next book immediately on finishing the first. Now, granted, I am expecting Peeta Mellack to burst into some John Savage to Mustapha Mond like lecture about the uselessness of the Capital and the trueness of the rest of the world (and not Katniss, Katniss is established as open mouth, insert foot, and I appreciate that about her so it has to be Peeta). Without this, it won’t be Brave New World enough.

I don’t know if I would read it a second time. I’ve read Brave New World something like seven times, a world record in my reading, and it’s not up there. It’s not a great dystopian novel. But it’s one hell of a story and it’s written in snappy, fast prose. Five stars.

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