What I’ve been reading (quite a lot, actually)

I’ve recently gotten an iPad.  I’ll write on it at some point, but for now it’s worth noting that it’s led to my reading more.  So there’s quite a few volumes here to discuss.  Audiobooks first, then on with my readings.

Pontoon by Garrison Keillor.  While cleaning out my mother’s apartment, I found this as a set of disks.  I like Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stuff, so I brought it home and listened to it on my commute.  I did enjoy it – it’s fairly typical Keillor, all small-town doings with finely sketched eccentric characters doing unexpected things.  But interestingly, given how I came across it, it turned out to be largely about how one woman adjusts to the unexpected death of her mother, and the things she discovers about her mother.  So I enjoyed it, but I cannot deny that there were painful moments.

–  The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman.  Also listened to on audiobook.  I was drawn to this having heard that it is an epic fantasy written by an atheist.  Sort of a Narnia for the atheist set, from what I heard.  I must say, I am not disappointed.  I greatly enjoyed the book and look forward to listening to the next two volumes of the series.

The book did one thing that impressed the hell out of me.  It sets up a world in which everyone has a “daemon,” or familiar animal, who is a constant companion.  While the book doesn’t explicitly state this, it’s pretty clear that the daemons are the souls of the individuals, reflecting their underlying personality and giving energy and spirit to the person.  An interesting concept.

Then, around halfway in, it becomes clear that a group of villains based on the Catholic Church (I told you Pullman was an atheist!) are experimenting with severing the connection between people and their demons.  The point-of-view character has her own connection threatened.  And the book does a masterful job of turning this into a major tragedy.  Even though the concept of demons is entirely fictional, the scenes showing them as being threatened (or, in some cases, separated) are incredibly moving.

All in all, strongly recommended.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.  I like Dickens, and I suppose I always meant to read this eventually.  And this is another cleaning-out-my-mother’s-apartment story: I found a copy of it there (I know she loved the book), so I decided to read it.  When I was around halfway done, I got the iPad and so switched over to reading it there.  And at one point I started listening to an audiobook of it, though I abandoned that effort shortly.

It’s standard Dickens: a diverse set of memorable characters, a quickly moving plot driven by much coincidence, much humor and much pathos, and an interesting window into the Victorian mindset.  (There’s one plot involving a young woman who runs off with a man who cannot, for various reasons marry her.  This is viewed as a tremendous tragedy, and she’s ruined.  What an awful worldview, that calls a woman running off for love “ruined” and views the man who runs off with her as a villainous seducer.)  Justly a classic, I loved the book.

But a note on the audiobook experience: when I’m listening to audiobooks, I generally do so while driving.  And occasionally my mind will wander before coming back as events in the book progress.  I found it impossible to attend to this book in that way: the story and prose is sufficiently dense, and a slight lapse of attention caused me to lose track of enough literary gems, that I quickly abandoned the attempt.  I may return to it at some point, having read the book through, but I could not have my first experience of David Copperfield be an audio one.

Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, on the iPad.  An account of the 2008 campaign, focusing first on the primary battle between Obama and Hillary, then on the general election between Obama and McCain.  Very gossipy about the candidates and their staffs, very quick-moving, and very enjoyable.  I did love this book and strongly recommend it.

Overall, both Clinton and Obama came off well, McCain rather less so (his temper and tendency to shoot from the hip are both on prominent display).  The only major candidate who comes off really poorly is John Edwards, who is shown to be narcissistic, selfish, and at times delusional.

Space Cadet by Robert Heinlein, on the iPad.  Somehow I never read this one back in the days when I was devouring Heinlein books by the truckload.  But when I saw that it was available on the iPad, I decided to give it a shot.  A fun little story, though far from Heinlein’s best.  Not bad for a quick little read.

Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin, on the iPad.  This is an account of the near-collapse of the financial system in the spring, summer, and fall of 2008.  This isn’t the book I was hoping it to be – I was hoping to read a book that went into details on what caused the meltdown, to get a better understanding of the financial system.  Instead, this was a page-turning narrative of how the meltdown proceeded and what the financial industry leaders and government officials did to try to keep things afloat.  It read like a thriller, with major players trying hard to make deals before deadlines, some succeeding and surviving, others failing and seeing their firms go belly-up.  But not the book I wanted, but a fun read nevertheless.

My biggest surprise: just how involved the government was in driving the deals.  In some cases, Hank Paulson (treasury secretary) or Timothy Geithner (then chair of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, now treasury secretary) got the CEO’s of the financial corporations on the phone and ordered them to do deals of various sorts.  In some cases they called groups of the CEO’s to meetings and strong-armed them to do what they felt needed to be done to keep the system going.  Rather startling – you call this a free market?  But overall, probably a good thing that they did, else the entire financial industry might have collapsed, taking the world economy with it.

Recommended, though only if you want a narrative of what the players did over those frantic weeks, not if you want to understand how it all came about.

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