Weinersmith’s Book Club, Part 3

Jan 3 – Up From Slavery (Washington)

Rating: 4/5

It’s a little hard to rate this book, since it’s of historical importance, so consider the 4/5 as an indication purely of how enjoyable a read it was.

For those who don’t know, this is Booker T. Washington’s memoir, in which he describes having been born as a slave and his life thereafter, focusing greatly on his work at Tuskegee. It has a very Victorian-era America flavor, in that it is written very matter-of-factly, concerned almost entirely with the importance of hard work, and is nice to everyone, including slavemasters. It’s interesting to read that in a time when lynching was still happening, there was a guy willing to to say “just keep your head down and work hard, and people will like you.” It is perhaps lucky that he didn’t get to see the Harlem Renaissance crash against the Great Depression.

It also led me to read an important speech of his, known as the Atlanta Compromise Speech. By modern standards, it’s more of an agreement to suffer racism than anything, but still can be appreciated as a good piece of rhetoric.

Jan 4 – A Walk in the Woods (Bryson)

Rating: 3.5/5

Some of you may not know Bill Bryson outside of “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” In that case, you may not know that a lot of his early work was comedic travelogues, like this one. Here, Bryson decides to hike the Appalachian Trail and write about the experience. Although he’s a funny writer, this book really needed to be shorter. Unless cheap shots at Appalachian country folks will always replenish your desire to continue reading, you might find the last third of this book a bit tiresome.

Jan 5 – Cup of Gold (Steinbeck)

Rating: 3.5/5

Okay. Okay. Okay, so imagine this: Imagine Steinbeck, before he wrote books about struggling poor Americans write a PIRATE ADVENTURE. And imagine that, despite being a pulpy PIRATE ADVENTURE, it still has Steinbeck’s style of alternating between specific scenes and abstract epic descriptions of the movement of time.

THIS BOOK EXISTS.

I couldn’t easily rate this one, since I feel like I was just bug-eyed the whole time I read. “STEINBECK WROTE A PIRATE NOVEL? A PIRATE NOVEL? ABOUT PIRATES? PIRATING?”

As a book, it’s not bad. It was Steinbeck’s first novel, and solid for an opening effort. I consider Steinbeck to be among the greatest character writers ever, and you see that budding in this book. It’s a bit overshadowed by this book being a corny pirate book, but there are a number of scenes where you really get the sense of the Steinbeck who would develop later.

Jan 6 – The Tipping Point (Gladwell)

Rating: 3/5

Ugh. Okay, this book is a very fun read, full of neat stories. HOWEVER, it’s a bunch of speculation and anecdotes masquerading as legitimate sociology. I really enjoy Gladwell’s skill at writing, but he just doesn’t seem to have great command of a body of facts and insights. That’s a crucial lack for someone who is ostensibly acting as a science writer.

I actually did enjoy reading, and it was inspirational in its way, but really you should read Gladwell like you eat candybars – sparingly, and with a little shame.

Jun 7 – A Man Without A Country (Vonnegut)

Rating: 4/5

It’s Vonnegut, so it’s good. But, it’s not his best. This book is basically a collection of essays, ideas, and angry rants written toward the end of Vonnegut’s career. Early in reading it, I was reminded of how Mark Twain (America’s other great satirist) became angry and bitter late in life. Then, to my surprise, Twain’s twilight bitterness was actually a motif in this book!

It’s worth reading, because all Vonnegut is worth reading, but he did other better books.

Jan 12 – Globish (McCrum)

Rating: 3/5

This book had some interesting fun facts, but kind of felt like a paint by numbers airport book. A few fun (but mostly well-known) historical anecdotes paired with some neato facts about modern English, and PRESTO – book.

Jan 15 – The Demon-Haunted World (Sagan)

Rating: 5/5

I had been hesitant to get into Sagan’s non-fic, since reading 15 year old pop sci books doesn’t exactly thrill me. That said, this was a beautiful book. I can’t say enough good about it, so I won’t start in on that – just read it.

Jan 16 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Capote)

Rating: 4/5

This was a very fun quick read that is far more clever than the movie. In fact, it was clever enough to remind me of early Wodehouse, at least in terms of the wordplay and character work. Unfortunately, there wasn’t the same cleverness of structure, which is the only thing that kept me from giving it a 5.

Jan 26 – Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Stowe)

Rating: 4/5

A fascinating read, but holy crap this book could’ve been shorter. I am told that it’s of a genre called “sentimental novels,” which were designed to be read by 19th century women at home. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that it drones on a bit. But it really took some willpower to get through.

Interestingly, despite being stridently pro-abolition, it’s a very very racist perspective. The author talks about the sweet simple nature of black people as part of the argument for why they shouldn’t be slaves. By my modern sensibilities, that strange contradiction – “blacks are totally equal, but inferior in the ways most of truly value” – was the most dominant quality.

Still, worth reading in that it’s full of historical perspective, and was the most read novel of its time.

Jan 27 – Breakfast of Champions (Vonnegut)

Rating: 4/5

Again, not Vonnegut’s best, but damn good. Most of you are probably familiar with it, so it won’t be worth my time to go into detail. Also, the plots so odd and winding that I’m not sure what I’d write…

Jan 28 – The Underground City (Verne)

Rating: 3/5

Not nearly Verne’s finest, but fun! Think of it as “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” except instead of a bizarre underground world there’s an old coal mine, and insted of mammoths and dinosaurs, there’s a former mine employee who’s being a dick.

Also, this is an amazingly good example of the Victorian “dumb chicks are hot” trope, in that the female love interest is pretty much literally mentally retarded.

Feb 2 – The Red Queen (Ridley)

Rating: 4.5/5

This is what all pop sci books should be. The author has strong command of the facts, and uses analogies only when it’s conventient – not just to make himself seem clever. It focuses on an idea in biology called The Red Queen’s Hypothesis, which wikipedia can explain better than I.

The only thing that cost it a perfect score was the way the last 2/5ths or so focused entirely on humans and human society. Although it was more fun, it was less challenging mentally. Also, when making claims about human nature, I think you really need to have strong command of information. Although he did a very good job, he sometimes indulged in specious reasoning when it came to probably male-female differences.

Feb 2 – Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Chua)

Rating: 2/5

Garbage. Anger porn. You can tell the author barely believes her own argument because she backs off of it in the preface! The preface (I shit you not) states that anyone can be a Chinese mother – you need not be Chinese nor a mother. THEN, she says there’s also no such thing as a Western parent, since “Western” is too broad a term to carry meaning in this context. She then procedes to spend the rest of the book using all of these terms in the usual sense.

Reading this, it occurred to me that there’s actually a similarity between Chua’s book and Gladwell’s stuff. I’m going to refer to these as “Airport Sociology.” Basically, these are books that properly should be called “my memoirs,” or “Chicken soup for the soul part 162.” But, instead of just presenting anecdotes, they layer on unsubstantiated (sometimes contradictory) sociological “facts.” “Facts,” meaning something the author has thought of on 2 separate occasions.

Both “Tipping Point” are guilty of this: Tell an anecdote, then at the end loosely connect it to the overall theme, which is broader in scope than a memoir. It’d be like if my webcomics entries were titled “The Strength of Strengthness,” and after each entry I wrote something like “How did I succeed where others had failed? Through strength. The strength… of strengthness.”

Unless you want to sit all ┬áday tearing your hair out, don’t put yourself through this book.

Over this time period – Discrete Mathematics with Applications, Chapter 1, (Rosen, 6th Ed.)

Rating: 5/5

Loving the hell out of discrete. Here’s how I would describe learning other math without discrete. Imagine someone says “move your hand like this, and you’ll turn right.” With practice, you learn to do this. Then they say “move your foot like this and you go faster. Like this and you slow down.” With more practice, you learn this. After a while, you get pretty good at this.

Then, after you thiiiink you get it, someone comes along and says “oh hey, dude, you’re in a car.” You look around, and you see the steering wheel, the break, and the gas. Suddenly, all that other stuff seems easier and part of a bigger whole. And, you can’t help but wonder why your other teachers didn’t start with “so, you’re in a car.

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6 Responses to Weinersmith’s Book Club, Part 3

  1. Alex says:

    Do you subscribe to audible.com or another large audiobook seller?

  2. Jenna says:

    I’m glad the discrete math is going so well, because that’s the textbook I’m using for my course this semester. :O

  3. Leo says:

    Have you ever read any works by Crichton?

  4. Zachary G says:

    I’m currently reading Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience. It’s sad that a lot of his information is outdated. Especially in the wake of everything the Keppler space probe has shown, I really wish Sagan were alive just for the sheer joy of possibility he would feel and, by extension, spread to the rest of us. I feel like there are a handful of other public-speaking scientists that are tauted as “this generation’s Carl Sagan,” such as Michio Kaku or maybe Brian Greene, but none of them have that same kind of earnestness in my opinion. But then again, Sagan literally changed my life through Cosmos, so I guess it’s a bit much to ask for a modern replacement. Also, STEINBECK WROTE A PIRATE NOVEL? How is that not the first thing that comes out of any self-respecting English professor’s mouth?

  5. Jonathan says:

    “Instead of just presenting anecdotes, they layer on unsubstantiated (sometimes contradictory) sociological ‘facts.’ ‘Facts,’ meaning something the author has thought of on 2 separate occasions.”

    Oh man, I also totally hate these books. Never, ever read anything written by Thomas Friedman.

  6. David says:

    I was surprised to find so many books that I’ve read in your list, and your ratings actually match mine (would match, had I been writing literary review blog entries), so I guess I’m off to look for Sagan’s Demon Haunted World. Thanks!

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