Category Archives: books

Booklist 2013

This is not a typo — I was going to post about the books I read in 2015 but realized I’ve fallen out of the habit, and haven’t actually done a roundup since 2012! Here are the books of 2013:

 

  • 31 Dec 2013:  The Yacoubian Building, Alaa Al Aswany.
  • 17 Dec 2013: The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton.
  • 29 Nov 2013:  Infinitesimal, Amir Alexander.
  • 19 Nov 2013:  The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, Simon Singh.
  • 2 Nov 2013:  The Panic Virus, Seth Mnookin.
  • 29 Oct 2013:  Taipei, Tao Lin.
  • 22 Oct 2013:  The Twelve, Justin Cronin.
  • 7 Oct 2013:  Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Martin Gardner.
  • 15 Sep 2013:  The More You Ignore Me, Travis Nichols.
  • 11 Sep 2013:  Undiluted Hocus-Pocus:  The Autobiography of Martin Gardner.
  • 1 Sep 2013:  JoylandStephen King.
  • 27 Aug 2013:  The Ninjas, Jane Yeh.
  • 20 Aug 2013:  Time of the Great Freeze, Robert Silverberg.
  • 11 Aug 2013:  The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka.
  • 29 Jul 2013:  Lexicon, Max Barry.
  • 20 Jul 2013: Forty-One False Starts, Janet Malcolm.
  • 12 Jul 2013: Thinking in Numbers, Daniel Tammet.
  • 10 Jul 2013:  Boundaries, T.M. Wright.
  • 26 Jun 2013:  Let’s Talk About Love:  A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson.
  • 15 Jun 2013:  Goslings, J.D. Beresford.
  • 1 Jun 2013:  You, Austin Grossman.
  • 25 May 2013:  The Night Land, William Hope Hodgson.
  • 10 May 2013:  20th Anniversary Report of the Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1993
  • 5 May 2013:  The Vanishers, Heidi Julavits.
  • 17 Apr 2013:  Belmont, Stephen Burt.
  • 10 Apr 2013:  Among Others, Jo Walton.
  • 2 Apr 2013:  Math on Trial, by Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez
  • 25 Mar 2013:  The Fun Parts, Sam Lipsyte.
  • 14 Mar 2013:  Mathematical Apocrypha, Steven Krantz.
  • 7 Mar 2013:  The Magic Circle, Jenny Davidson.
  • 2 Mar 2013: SnowAdam Roberts.
  • 24 Feb 2013:  A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers.
  • 9 Feb 2013:  The Wind Through the Keyhole, Stephen King.
  • 8 Feb 2013:  The Life and Opinions of a College Class, the Harvard Class of 1926.
  • 15 Jan 2013:  When the Tripods Came, John Christopher.

 

34 books.  21 fiction, 11 non-fiction, 2 books of poetry (note to self:  at some point read a book of poems by a poet I don’t personally know.)  Of the novels, 8 were SF/fantasy.

Best of the year:  Impossible to choose between The Custom of the Country and Forty-One False Starts.  

Wharton often writes about the drive to acquire money and status, which she presents not as a means to meet other basic human needs (food, security, companionship) but as a basic need in itself, and pretty near the base of the pyramid.  Sometimes the particular situation is a little dated (as in the concern with divorce in Age of Innocence) but Custom of the Country, which is about a New York deformed by a sudden influx of new, uncivilized wealth absorbing everything around it, couldn’t be more topical.

Janet Malcolm is of course the best essayist alive.  Forty-One False Starts is a collection of pieces, mostly from the New Yorker I think, mostly new to me.  The title track is amazing:  just as it says, it’s 41 possible openings to an essay, each one abandoned as Malcolm tries to start again.  (Or maybe as Malcolm pretends to start again; was the collage her plan all along?  That would certainly make them “false starts” in the literal sense of the words.)  The same anecdotes appear in multiple sections, from multiple points of view, or rather, from the same point of view, Malcolm’s, which always seems to be viewing from everywhere at once.  Here’s the first paragraph from false start 3 (which is just two paragraphs long):

All during my encounter with the artist David Salle—he and I met for interviews in his studio, on White Street, over a period of two years—I was acutely conscious of his money. Even when I got to know him and like him, I couldn’t dispel the disapproving, lefty, puritanical feeling that would somehow be triggered each time we met, whether it was by the sight of the assistant sitting at a sort of hair-salon receptionist’s station outside the studio door; or by the expensive furniture of a fifties corporate style in the upstairs loft, where he lives; or by the mineral water he would bring out during our talks and pour into white paper cups, which promptly lost their takeout-counter humbleness and assumed the hauteur of the objects in the Design Collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

“assumed the hauteur”  I love.  The capitals of Design Collection and Museum of Modern Art I love.  And there’s the presence of money in New York and the anxiety it stirs into the world of for-lack-of-a-better-word “culture”, just as in Wharton.  And Wharton is in Forty-One False Starts, too, in Malcolm’s essay “The Woman Who Hated Women”.  In fact, I’m pretty sure it was that essay that spurred me to start reading Wharton again, which I’ve been doing on and off ever since.  Malcolm writes:

There are no bad men in Wharton’s fiction. There are weak men and there are foolish men and there are vulgar New Rich men, but no man ever deliberately causes harm to another person; that role is exclusively reserved for women.

As for The Custom of the Country:

With Undine Spragg, the antiheroine of ”The Custom of the Country” (1913), Wharton takes her cold dislike of women to a height of venomousness previously unknown in American letters, and probably never surpassed. Undine’s face is lovely, but her soul is as dingy as Gerty Farish’s flat. Ralph Marvell, one of her unfortunate husbands, reflects on “the bareness of the small half-lit place in which his wife’s spirit fluttered.”

I hate to disagree with Janet Malcolm.  But I disagree!  Back in 2013 I had a very well-worked out theory of this book, in which Undine Spragg was not particularly a villain, but rather the character who was best able to adapt to the new customs and the new country.  The men are weak, as Malcolm says, but indulgence of weakness can be a way of deliberately causing harm.  For every one of Undine’s “can’t believe she did/said that” moments in the book, there’s an analogous crime committed by one of the other characters, but expressed with more gentility.  Anyway, I’ve forgotten all my examples.  But it was a good theory, I promise!  I will admit that, having now read Ethan Frome, I can’t deny that there’s some extent to which Wharton experiences femaleness as a kind of horror.  But I don’t think that’s what’s going on with Undine Spragg.  (I also disagree with Roxane Gay about May Welland, who I totally think is meant by Wharton to be sympathizable-with but not likable compared with Countess Oleska, whose side I think Age of Innocence 100% takes, if it takes anyone’s.  Maybe more on this in the 2015 post.)

Others I should have blogged about:  I read Taipei because I was curious about Tao Lin, who some people think is a prankster masquerading as a fiction writer and other people think is really a fiction writer.  It’s the latter.  I mean, look at this map:

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He’s clearly somebody who sees himself in the tradition of experimental English-language fiction (Grace Paley!  Barthelme!  Stephen Dixon!  James freaking Purdy!) and I thought Taipei reflected that.  It was way more Barthelme than it was weird Twitter.  I had a good worked-out theory for this one, too, which I also forgot to blog.  Negative space:  it was a novel about a poet who is never seen writing or reading or performing poetry; i.e. a novel which places the experience of not-producing-poetry at the center of the poetic project.  Also there was something about the emphasis on Apple products and the relationship with China, where they’re produced — i.e. the novel is intently focused on use of Apple products while hiding the production of Apple projects, just as it’s intently focused on poetry while hiding the production of poetry.  But I was more into this interpretation before the novel actually goes to Taipei.  (And yes I know Taipei is not in the PRC; I felt willing to fudge the geography.)

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science:  from 1956, but, like Custom of the Country, almost painfully topical.  People don’t believe in orgone therapy anymore but the anti-scientific style in American culture is as healthy as ever.  Let’s Talk About Love:  the best book in existence about the problem of the “guilty pleasure,” or of art being “so bad it’s good,” or the basic difficulty of criticism of living culture:  is the critic’s job to tell you what to like and why to like it, or to understand why the people who like it like it?   (“Neither” is an OK answer here but let’s face it, these are the two leading candidates, unless “dispassionately analyze the class position of the work and the material circumstances of its production” still counts.)

Obscure novels that are great

I was thinking about the amazing and barely read here TRIOMF, by Marlene van Niekerk, and asked on Twitter:  what are novels you think are truly great and which nobody knows about?  Like, say, less than 10 Amazon reviews, to use an imperfect measure?

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Anthony Trollope’s preternatural power

Simon Winchester in today’s New York Times Book Review:

Traveling in China back in the early 1990s, I was waiting for my westbound train to take on water at a lonely halt in the Taklamakan Desert when a young Chinese woman tapped me on the shoulder, asked if I spoke English and, further, if I knew anything of Anthony Trollope. I was quite taken aback. Trollope here? A million miles from anywhere? I mumbled an incredulous, “Yes, I know a bit” — whereupon, in a brisk and businesslike manner, she declared that the train would remain at the oasis for the next, let me see, 27 minutes, and in that time would I kindly answer as many of her questions as possible about plot and character development in “The Eustace Diamonds”?

Ever since that encounter, I’ve been fully convinced of China’s perpetual and preternatural power to astonish, amaze and delight.

It doesn’t actually seem that preternatural to me that a young, presumably educated woman read a novel and liked it.  What he should have been convinced of is Anthony Trollope’s perpetual and preternatural power to astonish, amaze and delight people separated from him by vast spans of culture and time.  “The Eustace Diamonds” is ace.  Probably “He Knew He Was Right” or “Can You Forgive Her?” (my own first Trollope) are better places to start.  Free Gutenbergs of both here.  Was any other Victorian novelist great enough to have the Pet Shop Boys name a song after one of their books?  No.  None other was so great.

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“Losers often grow up to be writers”

My first cousin once removed Marilyn Sachs, on writing:

One final word of encouragement to those of you who are cowardly, cry babies, and liars, as I was. These are extremely promising qualities for future writers. If you are a coward, you will probably spend more time at the library than you would ordinarily, and if you tell lies, it just shows that you have an imagination even if others don’t always appreciate it. Cry babies tend to be sensitive, which is also a plus for writers. When I grew up, I found that I had become a great expert on bullies, and my books are full of them.

So, don’t feel you have to be smart, beautiful, brave and popular to become a writer. Or even to be a good speller. Losers often grow up to be writers, which means we have the final word.

Her books are mostly for kids.  Have you read them, parents?  Some of the classics:  Laura’s Luck (1965), my favorite alienated-kids-at-summer-camp book.  The Fat Girl (1984), a truly creepy YA novel about brutal psychosexual guerilla war in high school.  The Bear’s House (1972).  I remember almost nothing about this but just hearing the title makes me choke up so I know it was really sad.

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Rachel Kushner (w/ comma poll)

From Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers:

I realized I’d been wrong.  She was not the pedigreed rich.  He was and she was not.  Sometimes all the information is there in the first five minutes, laid out for inspection. Then it goes away, gets suppressed as a matter of pragmatism. It’s too much to know a lot about strangers. But some don’t end up strangers. They end up closer, and you had your five minutes to see what they were really like and you missed it.

This is great!  My one question is about the commas in the last sentence.  If it had been me I probably would have omitted the comma after “closer,” but I sort of think Kushner’s version is better.  Then I wonder:  what about leaving the one after “closer” and adding another after “like”?

Hey, this is a good opportunity for a poll!  I’ve never put one in here before, let’s give this new WordPress functionality a swing.  (Non-standard comma used there on purpose, pedants.)

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A very How Not To Be Wrong Christmas

My bookselling friends tell me that December is the big book-selling month of the year.  (These Census figures show even bigger spikes in January and September, but these are from textbooks, which make up a really big chunk of the total book market.)

And indeed, sales of How Not To Be Wrong shot up in a very satisfactory way during the holiday season; according to Nielsen BookScan, the book sold more copies in the Dec 15-21 week than it had any week since the first month of release in June.  The book also rose up the Amazon rankings; having settled in in the #1500-2000 range for a couple of months, it popped up to around #700, about the same level as August, and stayed there for two weeks.  Two days after Christmas, pop — immedately back down to four digits.  The increase in ranking suggests that How Not To Be Wrong was unusually popular around Christmas, even relative to other books.

One thing I don’t quite get, though; the Kindle edition also got a notable rankings boost in the second half of December, though a bit smaller.  Where is that coming from?  Do people buy books for other people’s Kindles as Christmas presents?

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Notes on Gone Girl

It reminds me of Martin Amis’s The Information, in that it is a really well-made thing, but one which I think probably shouldn’t have been made, and which I’m probably sorry I read, because it’s sick in its heart.

Everything else I can say is a spoiler so I’ll put it below a tab.

Continue reading

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Loved and reviled

The jacket copy for the paperback of Sheila Heti’s novel How Should A Person Be? starts, in large bold type:

By turns loved and reviled upon its U.S. publication…

That’s pretty bold jacket copy writing, to come right out and say that the book you’re considering buying was reviled!

In fact, it was very good.  One thing I like about it is the way that the title seems to leave room for an invisible adjective which shifts the sense of “How,” i.e.

How ______ should a person be?

where the implicit word in the blank space shifts around a lot as the novel progresses.

 

Stoner

Stoner, a 1965 novel by John Williams, has been named the 2013 Waterstones Book of the Year.

Pretty cool to see an old book recognized!  I read this a while back; it’s one of those books often mentioned as a “forgotten classic” and I read such books out of a sense of obligation.  But sometimes, like this time, it pays off.  (See also:  Independent People, The Bridge on the Drina.)  Stoner represents a certain strain in the mid-century American novel that I really like, and which I don’t think exists in contemporary fiction.  Anguish, verbal restraint, weirdness.  Among famous authors, maybe some of Salinger, maybe some of O’Connor (but not glowing like O’Connor, more subdued, and not funny like Salinger, more deadpan.)  Besides Stoner I am thinking of James Purdy and Richard Yates — not even so much Revolutionary Road but The Easter Parade, which is grinding and merciless but at the same time strangely mild-mannered, in the same way Stoner is.

What else belongs here?

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Gladwell, Chabris, and the responsibilities of the science writer

It started with Christopher Chabris’s highly negative Wall Street Journal review of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath:

One thing “David and Goliath” shows is that Mr. Gladwell has not changed his own strategy, despite serious criticism of his prior work. What he presents are mostly just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behavior, but what his publisher sells them as, and what his readers may incorrectly take them for, are lawful, causal rules that explain how the world really works.

Chabris complains that Gladwell places a lot of weight on a tiny study, which later researchers have failed to replicate, a fact unmentioned in Gladwell’s book.  Chabris went into greater depth in his blog, in a post title “Why Gladwell matters (and why that’s unfortunate)”.  On Gladwell’s readers:

Who are those people? They are the readers who will take Gladwell’s laws, rules, and causal theories seriously; they will tweet them to the world, preach them to their underlings and colleagues, write them up in their own books and articles (David Brooks relied on Gladwell’s claims more than once in his last book), and let them infiltrate their own decision-making processes. These are the people who will learn to trust their guts (Blink), search out and lavish attention and money on fictitious “influencers” (The Tipping Point), celebrate neurological problems rather than treat them (David and Goliath), and fail to pay attention to talent and potential because they think personal triumph results just from luck and hard work (Outliers). It doesn’t matter if these are misreadings or imprecise readings of what Gladwell is saying in these books—they are common readings, and I think they are more common among exactly those readers Gladwell says are his audience.

Daniel Engber, in Slate, complained that Gladwell’s books don’t send a coherent message:

So which is it: Do the poor get poorer (Outliers), or does being poor make them rich (David and Goliath)? It’s both…. The notion that a rule holds true except for when it doesn’t runs through David and Goliath, and insulates its arguments from deep interrogation.

And today, Gladwell himself weighs in with a testy response to Chabris’s review.  Who told him it would be a good idea to title it “Christopher Chabris should calm down?”  For that matter, who told him it would be a good idea to respond at all?  Don’t get me wrong, I get it — if somebody said those things in the national press, I too would probably say

What is going on here? The kinds of people who read books in America seem to have no problem with my writing.

but I would say it to my wife and my friends — that’s what they’re there for! — and maintain a dignified silence in public.  At least I hope that’s what I’d do.  (A wag on Twitter pointed out that the last guy to write a long public complaint about a bad review from Chabris was Jonah Lehrer.)

Heard enough about Malcolm Gladwell?  Too bad, because now you get to hear my take.  I like Malcolm Gladwell.  I sometimes feel a little bit alone in my defense of him.  I thought The Tipping Point showed a strong intuitive grasp of mathematics.  I don’t care if he doesn’t know how to spell eigenvalue, because I feel like he instinctively gets how differential equations work.  I think he is a superb writer of English sentences and I think people consistently underestimate how much that has to do with his popularity.  (See also:  Nate Silver.)  I can’t defend David and Goliath because I haven’t read it, or Outliers, or any of his books after the first one.

But I want to talk about this point Chabris makes on his blog, which I think deserves focused attention even though I disagree with it:

It doesn’t matter if these are misreadings or imprecise readings of what Gladwell is saying in these books—they are common readings

Is that true?  Are we, science writers, responsible not only for what we write, but for what careless readers are likely to make out of what we write?  I can’t accept that we are.  I write a lot of articles of the form “People justify X by saying Y but actually Y is not a good argument for X” and every single time I do this, the comments demonstrate that most people read it as “X is false.”  Is there a sentence in the piece of the form “None of which is to say that X is false?”  Of course there is.  Doesn’t matter.  I claim this is not sufficient reason to stop writing articles of that form.  But I think it’s something we all ought to be conscious of as we write:  not just, am I saying what I mean to say, but what are the obvious and inevitable misreadings, and how can we express ourselves so as to make them rarer?

Then there’s the question, more central to Chabris’s criticism, of how thorough science journalists must be in their treatment of the literature.  What Chabris wrote about Gladwell’s use of the small, unreplicated study seemed pretty damning to me.  But then I thought:  well, what do I do in How Not To Be Wrong?  In order to make my point I write about a study — in fact, a study by Christopher Chabris — about genetic influence on general intelligence.  Has Chabris’s study been replicated?  Frankly, I don’t know.

Here’s where I think the difference is.  A book like Gladwell’s is meant to advance a certain thesis, and the studies he cites are adduced as evidence for that thesis.  In my book, the thesis, which is some point of mathematics, is something I know is correct.  So the studies play the role of illustrations, not evidence.  My approach is like Gladwell’s, in that my goal is to tell a story.  But writing about math is much easier, because I know in advance that my story is true.

 

Update:  Andrew Gelman weighs in with a great post on popular science as stone soup.

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