Weinersmith’s Book Club, Part 4

Wooh! It’s been a while for this, so the list is rather long. I didn’t get to read as much as I’d like during May and June, so it’s not as bad as it could be:

Feb 10 – Ender’s Game (Card)

Rating: 4/5

A very pulpy book, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Card writes characters in a way that is reminiscent of Joss Whedon. That is, they’re realistic embodiments of suites of emotions, even if the characters themselves aren’t entirely believable. You accept them as something like epic characters – unrealistic, but only because they express a heightened version of real human behavior.

Feb 13 – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain)

Rating: 5/5

You really can’t go wrong with Twain. I don’t have anything particular to say other than to express my appreciate for Twain’s ability to tell a story and create great characters. There’s even a joke in there that’s still funny today:

Everybody was willing. So Tom got out a sheet of paper that he had wrote the oath on, and read it. It swore every boy to stick to the band, and never tell any of the secrets; and if anybody done anything to any boy in the band, whichever boy was ordered to kill that person and his family must do it, and he mustn’t eat and he mustn’t sleep till he had killed them and hacked a cross in their breasts, which was the sign of the band. And nobody that didn’t belong to the band could use that mark, and if he did he must be sued; and if he done it again he must be killed. And if anybody that belonged to the band told the secrets, he must have his throat cut, and then have his carcass burnt up and the ashes scattered all around, and his name blotted off of the list with blood and never mentioned again by the gang, but have a curse put on it and be forgot forever.

Everybody said it was a real beautiful oath, and asked Tom if he got it out of his own head. He said, some of it, but the rest was out of pirate-books and robber-books, and every gang that was high-toned had it.

Some thought it would be good to kill the families of boys that told the secrets. Tom said it was a good idea, so he took a pencil and wrote it in. Then Ben Rogers says:

“Here’s Huck Finn, he hain’t got no family; what you going to do ’bout him?”

“Well, hain’t he got a father?” says Tom Sawyer.

“Yes, he’s got a father, but you can’t never find him these days. He used to lay drunk with the hogs in the tanyard, but he hain’t been seen in these parts for a year or more.”

They talked it over, and they was going to rule me out, because they said every boy must have a family or somebody to kill, or else it wouldn’t be fair and square for the others. Well, nobody could think of anything to do — everybody was stumped, and set still. I was most ready to cry; but all at once I thought of a way, and so I offered them Miss Watson — they could kill her. Everybody said:

“Oh, she’ll do. That’s all right. Huck can come in.”


Feb 19 – Hocus Pocus (Vonnegut)

Rating: 2/5

Urgh, I hate giving such a low rating to Vonnegut, but this was just not good stuff, and even in the book he seems to recognize it. To my mind Vonneguts career had a parabolic sort of trajectory. He was always cynical, but earlier he combined it with humor and cleverness – that was the genius of it. His later books have all the cynicism, but lack the insight and comedy. So, they just come off as an aging liberal grousing about how everything’s going to shit.

Feb 28 – Foundation (Asimov)

Rating: 4/5

This was a really fun interesting idea novel, as are many of Asimov’s works. I don’t want to spoil it by giving the plot away, but perhaps I can enhance it for some: I happen to know that Asimov was a huge fan of Arthur Conan Doyle. After learning that, I really started to see a connection. “I, Robot” really does have the feel of a Sherlock Holmes short story collection. If you haven’t already read “Foundation,” check out some of the Holmes books first. I feel like there’s a strong tie between these authors, such that you appreciate each by reading the other.

March 1 – Musicophilia (Sacks)

Rating: 3/5

As with many Sacks  books, I enjoyed this, but not a lot stuck with me. His few classics are really excellent, but books like this are reminiscent of the works of Mary Roach – I love them, and they’re full of amazing stuff, but there isn’t a strong thesis or throughline to make the overall work powerful.

March 5 – In a Sunburned Country (Bryson)

Rating: 3.5/5

This deserves basically the same review as the above Sacks book. I gave it an extra 0.5 because Bryson has an excellent sense of humor. This book is basically a travelogue of a relatively brief trip to Australia. What makes it interesting is he doesn’t do a lot of the famous stuff – it’s more of an adventure in small towns. For example, at one point, he goes into a town that has a combination porno shop/pet supply store.

March 10 – The Children of Captain Grant (Verne)

Here’s a good rule for reading Verne: If you haven’t heard of the book, it’s probably terrible. This book was slightly better than the usual “off brand” Verne books, but not great. It’s basically a cast of cheap stock characters (strong silent man, absent minded scientist, young adventurous lad…) going around the world in search of the answer to a puzzle. There’s a good deal of cleverness in the way the puzzle itself keeps getting reframed, but after a while it just feels tedious.

March 11 – Havana Nocturne (English)

Rating: 4.5/5

This was a really interesting book that changed my perspective on the history of Cuba. It’s about 20th century Cuba in the days leading up to Castro’s revolution. It’s amazing to think that Cuba was basically this crazy Vegas-like island wealthy Americans (particularly mobsters) would visit for wild times before the somewhat puritanical Fidelistas took over. Definitely worth reading.
March 14 – The American Way of War

Rating: 3/5

I gotta be honest – I barely remember what this book was about. When I’m doing audiobooks I sometimes get books I know will be simple just to relax a little. As I recall, this was basically a retelling of the idea of the military-industrial-congressional complex in the modern setting. Interesting, but not to much new to me.

March 22 – Drive

Rating: 3.5/5

I can’t tell if I like this book or think it’s bullshit. The basic idea is that, according to behavioral economics, some stuff that seems to make sense business-wise doesn’t work. For example, affording people creativity in the workplace gets better work out of them than financial incentives. In fact, sometimes financial incentives produce worse results (due to pressure and removing the intrinsic joy from them). I gave it a decent rating because it did make me rethink a few things. But, it didn’t blow me a way.

March 23 – The Emperor of All Maladies

Rating: 4.5/5

This is about as good as non-fic gets. The author essentially presents a biography of cancer. You get a good sense of what cancer is, the current state of research, and why it’s been so hard. It also explains why the idea of a “cure for cancer” isn’t  really something that makes sense. Definitely a good read.

March 27 – Red Moon Rising

Rating: 3/5

I didn’t find this book particularly well written, but the subject matter (the early days of the Soviet space program) was interesting enough that it was worth it. There’s probably a better book on this topic. But, since it was new to me, I enjoyed it.

April 2 – Charlemagne (Winston)

Rating: 4.5/5

I was nescient on Charlemagne before reading this book, and it was great. I have a much better understanding of him and his time period. Definitely a great read.

April 3 – Captain Bligh’s Portable Nightmare

Rating: 2.5/5

Forgettable non-fic. Interesting topic, but it just didn’t do it for me.

April 4 – So Long and Thanks for all the Fish (Adams)

Rating: 1/5

According to wikipedia, Adams’ manager lived with him for a while to make sure he completed this book on time. It shows. This book is by turns confusing, annoying, and depressing. I haven’t yet read the last of this pentilogy (is that a word?), but it can’t be worse than this.

April 13 – Space Trilogy 1 (Lewis)

Rating: 3.5/5

Like a lot of C.S. Lewis, I enjoyed this book although the prose and plot weren’t that great. But, in his almost Victorian style, Lewis is very good with using his whimsical locations as a sort of substrate for presenting ideas about life and happiness. It’s probably a better book to pull quotes from than to actually read, but I enjoyed it. There are two more in the series, and I think I will probably read the others.

April 30 – Speaker for the Dead (Card)

Rating: 4/5

Really enjoyed this. It took the fairly narrow world of Ender’s Game and broadened it out to contain a lot of new elements. Sci fi that explores biology is somewhat rare, so this one was a lot of fun.

May – The Mind’s Eye (Sacks)

Rating: 3.5/5

I feel the same way about this as I did about Musicophilia. Enjoyable, lots of neato fun facts, but no real thesis or big  idea. To me, that’s the important quality of great non-fic.

May – Mathilda (Shelley)

Rating: 4/5

A weird, interesting, very ambient, and highly Gothic tale. Definitely worth a read.

May – Just How Stupid Are We (Shenkman)

Rating: 3.5/5

Loved the thesis, though I found the argument a bit rambling. He used a lot of stats, but there were also plenty of anecdotes that (to me) drowned out the underlying logic. However, the thesis – in short, that more Democracy is decidedly not always better – is an interesting and challenging one.

May 14 – The Cloak my Father Left (Lilias Haggard)

Rating: 4/5

That rating is probably unfairly high. If  you’re not already a fan of Rider Haggard, you probably won’t enjoy this book at all. However, being a lover of his books, I found this to be very compelling stuff. And, if you want to be a writer, there’s actually a lot of inspiration in this book for you. A decent amount of it is about Haggard going on adventures just to get into a writing mood. There are also a number of good sections on his correspondence with great contemporary authors of his, like Stevenson and Kipling.

May 15 – Xenocide (Card)

Rating: 3/5

You lost me, card. Good and somewhat unique character writing, but the world has gotten so expansive that the threads are falling apart. Plus, the portrayal of science is so cheap and ludicrous and TV-like that it really takes you out of the story.

May 21 – Open (Agassi)

Rating: 2/5

Many reviewers said that this was not a typical sports bio. Maybe that was true for the first third or so, which was quite good. The last two thirds is so full of contradictions and self-serving false humility and extended descriptions of how good Andre Agassi is at tennis, that you can barely remember that this book started at a bio of a rough weird childhood.

June 2 – The making of the Atomic Bomb (Rhodes)

Rating: 4.5/5

A great and long book. This book is so in depth, it has background story on Ernest Rutherford who was at least one generation removed from the Los Alamos scientists. But, it is still quite readable and fun, and looks at the story from many perspectives. Great stuff.

June 2 – The Journal of Submarine Commander von Forstner (von Forstner)

Rating: 3/5

Found this on librivox. It was a bit rough, but it’s fascinating stuff. It’s basically a description of submarine warfare from a German commander, written during the war. It was apparently published in English and used as a propaganda piece in Britain. It’s mostly just war stories, but there are also a number of interesting discussions of technology. For instance, the amount of water you take on to dive varies based on the salinity and temperature of the water.

June 8 – Driving Like Crazy (O’Rourke)

Rating: 3.5/5

I’m not convinced O’Rourke even believes the stuff he claims to believe, but he writes a good satirical essay. It’s like reading Hunter S. Thompson, if he’d been a cranky aging liberal Republican. Light reading, to be sure, but fun.

June 10 – The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (Wilson)

Rating: 3.5/5

This is a bit of a 1950s classic, I’m told, and it’s pretty good. The first half at least is excellent. But, it doesn’t hold. The descriptions of war time are great in places. For instance, he talks about feeling no guilt for cheating on his wife in Italy, because he couldn’t countenance the idea that killing was fine while sex was illicit. It really gives you a view of that state of mind. Worth reading, but don’t put it on top of your stack.

June 11 – She (Haggard)

Rating: 4/5

Another forgotten classic by Haggard. Despite the sexism and racism of the period that is typical of Haggard, it’s an excellent exploration of the idea of immortality and fate. It actually contains long segments in Latin in Greek, though fortunately provides translation in book.

June 20 – American Caesar (Manchester)

Rating: 5/5

Loved this one. It’s a biography from beginning to end of Macarthur. But, more than that, it’s a good discussion on the philosophy of war, which is something I hadn’t previously been interested in. Definitely worth the read.

June 21 – Ayesha (Haggard)

Rating: 3.5/5

Not quite as good as she, but it contains the best scene in either – when Leo meets his living dead wife. Elegant stuff.

June 21 – The Road (McCarthy)

Rating: 5/5

Great stuff. It’s like Hemingway wrote a post-apocalypse novel. Read it.

June 22 – Future Babble (Gardner)

Rating: 4/5

Great book on the failure of future predicting by so-called experts. More and more, I’m convinced that there’s a class of academics who are no better than fortune tellers (though they are much better paid). Now if we could just get Ray Kurzweil to read it…

June 22 – The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (Dostoevsky)

Rating: 5/5

Dostoevsky, so it’s gotta be good. This is a short one, but it contains a lot of the elements of his longer works. If you haven’t read Dostoevsky, this might be a good place to start.

June 25 – Solaris (Lem)

Rating: 5/5

Can I rate higher than 5/5? One of the best books I’ve ever read. Can anyone recommend more books by Lem?

June 26 – Big Boy Rules (Fainaru)

Rating: 3/5

An interesting book on America’s use of mercenaries in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, it was too rambling to present a cohesive argument. It was more like a memoir that happened to include talk of mercs.

June 28 – Magnificent Desolation (Aldrin)

Rating: 1/5

This book succeeded in convincing me that Buzz Aldrin, though talented, is basically a self serving douche.

June 30 – 1776 (McCullough)

Rating: 3/5

I like McCullough, but I would’ve much rather had a biography of Washington. The idea of a book just about this important year is interesting, but it leaves you wanting more context at the beginning and more information at the end.


WOOH, that’s a lot of books. I’ll have to start doing these more frequently.

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15 Responses to Weinersmith’s Book Club, Part 4

  1. quintopia says:

    If you liked Future Babble, I’m guessing you’ll like Everything Is Obvious *Once You Know The Answer

    Also, Lem didn’t do too many novels, but I recommend seeing the two Solaris movies. The Soviet one is slightly better if you fast-forward through the useless long scene of driving on Japanese freeways.

  2. Lucas says:

    I read McCarthy’s _The Road_ pretty soon after I read Dr. Phil Plait’s _Death from the Skies_.

    I’m pretty convinced that the background cataclysm was due to a gamma ray burst.

  3. Theorrhea says:

    I never knew that Asimov was a big fan of Conan Doyle – thank you for that knowledge! It’s one of those things where you experience something viscerally as being true – everything falls immediately into place around that fact. I’m sure this is a bad and irrational instinct, but it’s tons of fun – I think this is what Descartes meant by the ‘clear and distinct’ perception of truth.

    The last hitchhiker book: people are pretty divided on it. A lot of folks don’t like it because of the despairing, nihilistic tone, and I love it for the same reason.
    It’s strange that you thought the fourth book was depressing, as it’s the book with a love story and a happy ending. The nihilistic streak in the series is, I think, in a low ebb in the fourth book, which maybe makes the events more depressing.

  4. Joshua says:

    For Lem, I really enjoyed the Cyberiad. I can’t believe that whoever the translator is could actually translate Polish puns into English ones, so there must be a lot of rewriting on the part of the translator, and it makes me wonder whether I’d be similarly entertained by the original Polish. I also liked several of his other things, but none were as captivating as Solaris or as entertaining as the Cyberiad.

    For Buzz Aldrin, I haven’t read the book but I saw some of his art when it was on display at the Smithsonian Air&Space, and it was pretty wonderful stuff, not like “I’m an astronaut and look at me paint!” but rather “I’m a painter who has some stories to tell about being an astronaut”. It was a good complement to photographs of the Apollo missions.

  5. kitukwfyer says:

    Hmm… I’ve read Lewis’ entire Space trilogy (twice actually) and I agree, _Out of the Silent Planet_ is a little dry in both writing and plot. I remember the second book, _Perelandra_, being even harder to get into, but it was much more overtly arguing for and against morality. Good stuff….I remember thinking the third book, _That Hideous Strength_, had the best plot of the three. It was still silly beyond belief, and the two main characters were pretty stereotypical, but still more sympathetic than Dr. Ransom, methinks. There was more work done with temptation, fall, and punishment than I remember in the previous two…Some things in it were pretty horrific. I ended up rereading the trilogy mainly because I wanted to reread that one.

    Not sure why I’m going on like that. I’ll summarise by saying you should finish the trilogy. It’s not the best thing out there, but I plan on making my cousin read it when he’s older. It has earned it’s place on my permanent shelf (unlike Narnia…).

    As for the rest of what you’ve got, I’ve read _1776_, and agree completely. It’s good stuff, but it would have been better with introductory material and some sort of quick rundown of the remaining war and how the events of 1776 did (not) directly affect following events…..or something.

    Totally agree on Twain. Totally disagree on _Ender’s Game_. I know, blasphemy. I could have respected _Ender’s Game_, but the ending completely lost me. I stayed up literally all night to finish it, and it ended with a big uwwgh, IMHO. I think I told people it was the anti-Star Wars.

    As for _The Road_, that entire book was just beautiful, and I wanted to love it. At the end, though, I was looking for substance, and didn’t find a whole lot that impressed me. Better than Hemingway, whom I can’t stand, but a regretful “meh” on my part.

    Beyond that you got a couple things on my list. The Asimov/Doyle connection is interesting. I’ll have to keep it in mind when I get to Asimov…

    Oh, and if you want to read about Charlemagne again sometime, try the _Vita Karoli Magni_ written by Einhard, one of Charlemagne’s courtiers. It’s all praise, but still a great read….at least in German. I’ve never read an English translation…I liked it anyway.

  6. mccyc says:

    Lem is one of my favorite sci-fi authors. Try “His Master’s Voice” for an interesting take on the “scientists receive an alien signal” style of story.

    For his most imaginative and out there stuff, the Cyberiad is a great collection of short stories. Think sci-fi fables.

    I also really enjoyed “Peace on Earth.” It was my favorite of his novels with the recurring character Ijon Tichy. Sort of a “Dirk Gently’s Detective Agency” style novel, but dealing with a cold war “arms race” concept.

  7. Rylan says:

    Orson Scott Card’s Ender books are truly some of my all time favorites. I’m interested to see what you think of the others

  8. Mathew Walls says:

    If you thought So Long and Thanks For All the Fish was as bad as it could possibly get, you’re in for a nasty surprise with Mostly Harmless.

    Also, CS Lewis’s space trilogy, in my opinion, starting out interestingly but just gets weirder and less coherent as it goes on, which was pretty much the opposite of what I was hoping for when I read it.

    I totally agree with you about the Ender series as well, the third one was where I went “No, this is no longer worth reading.”

  9. Neil says:

    “Trilogy in five parts” is the official description of that increasingly incoherent series of books.

  10. Rick says:

    Zach, I would caution you against taking Havana Nocturne at face value. As a Cuban-American, with family currently living in Cuba, the book takes a biased stance towards the Castro brothers and greatly exaggerates the mob’s power in Cuba. While the mob was certainly present and certainly made a lot of money on casinos, their base was largely in Havana, and consisted only of nightclubs and casinos. Just like Las Vegas and many other cities in the US where the mob was present. Also, the Fidelistas were not so much puritanical as they were interested in solidifying their control.

    For a better understanding of Cuban history and politics, I would suggest the books by Humberto Fontova and Alvaro Vargas Llosa. While they may be clearly against the Castro government, they have more than enough supporting evidence for it. Also, I recommend looking up the blog “The Real Cuba” where they have a list of other books on Cuban history as well.

    I hate to see someone get suckered in false stories about Cuban history and politics, as it is a subject very close to me. I hope you too don’t fall into the same trap.

  11. RavenBlack says:

    Almost entirely unrelated recommendation: since I agree with pretty much all your reviews where I’ve read the book, and this is a recommendation you aren’t likely to hear elsewhere, I feel it’s worth saying. I recommend for you, Lethem’s “Gun, With Occasional Music”. I can’t really recommend his other works, not that they’re *bad*, they’re just … well, I felt like I’d had my time wasted by every other one of his I’ve read.

    Since you appear to also share my taste in games a bit, I’d also recommend Iain M Banks’ “The Player Of Games”. It’s slap bang in the middle of a series (or a least an “otherwise established setting”, since the series isn’t really sequential) but, as Gun is to Lethem, it’s the one of his I enjoyed while not really caring for most of the others.

    Also, when you’re in the mood for more pulp sci-fi, don’t totally give up on the Ender series – Xenocide is indeed a chore to read, and Speaker was “meh not bad” at best, but Shadow and its cohorts pretty much go back to the roots again, being more like Ender’s Game. After a break to get over the sour taste of Xenocide.

  12. NotDomo says:

    I read Lem’s The Cyberiad in original Polish, and as impossible as I thought it would be to translate, I think the English version is great. XD

    Other books I like are Mortal Engines (similar to Cyberiad), His Master’s Voice, any of the Ijon Tichy stories, Eden, Solaris, Peace on Earth.

  13. Alison says:

    For Lem, “The Futurological Congress” is the funniest book to genuinely give me nightmares. I read it in one sitting and did not sleep well for the next few days. It’s like Brave New World with some Inception mixed in. It’s not Lem’s best, but it’s short and an interesting experience.

  14. Woodman says:

    Glad to see so many Lem fans. After Solaris, my two favorite Lem novels are Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, and Fiasco. I think Lem wrote Fiasco as a first encounter type story because he thought everyone else stunk at writing them. I also love Lethem’s work; definitely Gun, Wall of the Sky, Wall of the Eye, and As She Climbed Across the Table. Anyone else read Fiasco?

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