I like to share what I’m reading, and I keep a diary of everything I’ve read. So, I think I’ll do a post now and then with 1 to 2 sentence reviews of books I’ve read. Feel free to make recommendations in the comments.
Oct 18 – In Dubious Battle (Steinbeck)
Review: 4/5; Not Steinbeck’s best, but still… Steinbeck. Also, gives you a good sense of local political sentiment during the red scare.
Oct 19 – Gang Leader for a Day (Venkatesh)
Review: 5/5; There was a section in Freakonomics discussing Venkatesh’s research, which made me want to read this book. It’s a fantastic report on life in a Chicago gang in the late 80s, as researched by a young grad student sociologist with an interest in gang economics.
Oct 19 – The Girl on the Boat (Wodehouse)
Review: 4/5; My first Wodehouse book. It first I was worried it’d be too damn dry, but it got wet very quickly. It’s a comedy of manners that’s too loopy and involved to describe here. Worth reading, or reading aloud to a friend.
Oct 24 – Colonel Quaritch, V.C. (Haggard)
Review: 2.5/5; This is a really odd book for H Rider Haggard. It’s a 19th century social drama with complex romantic interrelations. This in itself isn’t necessarily bad, but because it’s Haggard, there’s also a treasure map. It’s bad enough to have a deus ex machina, but to have it looming over the entire story like the Sword of Damocles is catastrophic. For all I know, this might’ve been a good book. But, I’d never have guessed that because I was so distracted by the knowledge you receive from the beginning that everything will be fixed in the end by buried treasure.
Two things saved it from being a 1/5: First, Haggard’s enjoyable, easy, and occasionally poetic style. Second, a great quote: “men grow virtuous when there is nothing more to gain.” Ain’t that the truth.
Oct 25 – Packing for Mars (Roach)
Review: 4/5; Probably Mary Roach’s best book, and definitely her best work since Stiff. I enjoy Roach’s work, but always have the same complaint: I like my non-fic to have a throughline – something that motivates the whole book. For example, in Jonathan Weiner’s Long for this World, it’s a question of whether immortality is desirable. Or, in Freakonomics, it’s the idea that human existence can be understood in economic terms. Packing for Mars was great by brute force alone. That is, I’m not sure what the point of the book was, but Roach did such a good job with her research that it was enjoyable the whole way through. To get a 5/5, I would like to see Roach expressing a feeling for what this all means.
I’m gonna stop there before this turns into an essay. Suffice it to say that this is, like critiquing a friend, a complaint I make only because the book was so damn good that it threw this one lack into stark contrast.
Oct 26 – Not George Washington (Wodehouse)
Review: 2/5; My second Wodehouse book, and I did not enjoy it. Despite Wodehouse’s usual brisk style, the book lacked the charm and wit that made “The Girl on the Boat” great. Maybe I just didn’t catch a lot of inside jokes about publishing for newspapers in the 1910s, but this one just didn’t do it for me.
Oct 27 – Being a Boy (Warner)
Review: 3.5/5; A quick, enjoyable read about growing up in a Puritan farm in the early 19th century. Didn’t blow me over in any way, but it was definitely fun. Good enough that I’ll check to see what else Warner wrote. Also, had an interesting fact: Apparently in his community dancing and playing cards were forbidden. However, kissing at parties was just fine. Arbitrary social rules are weird!
Oct 29 – The Lost City of Z (Grann)
Review: 5/5; I have a soft spot for books about explorers, but this one is truly excellent. A great adventure, brand new facts uncovered by the author, and a really interesting and satisfying conclusion. It’s a biography of Percy Fawcett, spiced up with lots of asides and notes from the author’s life. Awesome.
Oct 31 – Rendezvous with Rama (Clarke)
Review: 3.5/5; Don’t get me wrong, I liked this book, and I get that it’s considered a bit of a classic. But… like… how many books did Clarke write about a big something coming near Earth to be investigated by humans semi-inconclusively? As usual for Clarke, there are lots of ideas, though I would’ve liked more character work. I found I sometimes had trouble telling who was who, and had to periodically refresh my memory.
Oct 31 – The Year of Magical Thinking (Didion)
Review: 4/5; A sad (and more importantly, interesting) account of the life of an author in the year after her husband died. It’s more of a meditation on failing to deal adequately with death than a book about the topic of death per se. The most interesting element is the idea of inadvertent “magical thinking.” Specifically, the author says she was unable to let go of the idea that her husband would return. For instance, she couldn’t get rid of his shoes because he’d need them when he returned.
Wooh! I’ll make another post like this next time I’ve racked up enough books. If you agree/disagree with any of the above assessments, feel free to note them below.