What I’ve been reading

I’m keeping up the reading tear…

Audiobooks first:

The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman.  The second and third volumes of His Dark Materials, the series that started with The Golden Compass. I enjoyed both, though not quite as much as the first volume.  Still, recommended, and it is nice to read a young-adults story like this that does not pull its punches.

Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer.  A non-fiction that argues that much of the findings of neuroscience were first considered by a set of artists ranging from Proust to Whitman to Woolf.  Interesting enough, but not terribly compelling.

And read on the iPad:

Innocent by Scott Turow.  I enjoy the world-weary tone of Scott Turow’s writing.  I greatly enjoyed his breakthrough novel, Presumed Innocent, back in the day.  I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much, but it was still an enjoyable read that kept me up late to find out what was really going on and what kind of legal shenanigans might ensue.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.  Somehow I never managed to read this, either in my own youth or when my kids were young.  But I’ve read it now.  My two biggest surprises: the Disney version stayed remarkably close to the story.  And just how short it was: I managed to read it in a couple of hours.  Still, justly a nonsensical classic that captures dream-logic better than just about anything else ever written.

Columbine by Dave Cullen.  Back when the Columbine shootings happened, I found them quite disturbing.  The shooters reminded me of many my friends from high school, and I could easily imagine, had they done something similar, the press coming up with similar reports.

I suppose I can now rest easily.  It turns out that the initial press reports were almost all wrong, and the shooters bore only the vaguest resemblance to my friends from those days.  In fact, as the book makes clear, almost everything that the press initially reported about the shootings was wrong.  The shooters were not part of the Trenchcoat Mafia.  They were not the regular victims of bullying.  They did not specifically target jocks, or Christians, or blacks.  Cassie Burnell did not affirm her belief in God just before being killed (it was another girl who affirmed her belief, and she survived).

While I found some flaws in the book (while it does a superb job of introducing the reader to the shooters and to some of the victims, most of the victims are not described at all; I found the level of detail about the day of the shooting to be insufficient), overall I found it to be a terrific read.

The Rolling Stones by Robert Heinlein.  Another old one that I never managed to read back in the day when I was devouring Heinlein by the truckload.  A fun little adventure and a good, quick beach read.

Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha.  An interesting read that argues that the evolutionary psychologist view of human sexuality is wrong.  That view is that males evolved to try to gain exclusive sexual access to their mates in order to ensure that the children they raise are their own, while women evolved to trade sexual favors for the long-term attention of a man who would help raise her children (or, as one chapter title has it, “Your mother is a whore”).  Instead, this book argues, back in the hunter-gatherer days humans were promiscuous, and monogamy only became common with the rise of agriculture.

The book makes a convincing case, citing evidence ranging from details of human anatomy (human testicles are much larger proportionally than those of monogamous primates), primatology (our nearest relations, the chimps and bonobos, are promiscuous), anthropology (the few hunter-gatherer tribes that have survived into the modern era tend to be non-monogamous), and sexual behavior (ranging from female sexual vocalization to the fact that men are more quickly sexually exhausted than women).  The one flaw with the book is that it spends all of its time arguing against the dominant view of human monogamy and against the specific scientists who hold it, and too little time laying out its own theory.  You get the evidence for their view as they argue against monogamy, but I would have liked to have them focus on their positive arguments instead of structuring the book against the anti-monogamy view.

(One of the best quotes from an author of the book, which I heard in an interview with him: the interviewer asked if he, who is married, is monogamous.  The response: “Our relationship is informed by our research.”)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.  I’ve never been a fan of Christie: I had only previously read one of her books, and in that one I figured out whodunnit and how while the murder was taking place.  But I decided to give this one a try, largely because it has a famous twist at the ending.  (I knew the twist going into the book.  But I’m not going to explain it here – look to Wikipedia if you must know.)  It was a fun read, and there were a number of minor mysteries that kept me guessing, even though I knew who the culprit was going in.  Impossible to say if I would have figured it out had I not known, but overall this left me willing to read more Christie at some point.

No Way Down by Graham Bowley.  I have a certain fondness for tales of great explorations.  One of my favorite books is The Last Place on Earth (also published with the title Scott and Amundsen) by Roland Huntford, about the race to be first to get to the South Pole.  No Way Down is about one particularly bad day on K2 in 2008, when a group of climbers, delayed on the way up, found that their prepared path down had been wiped out by an avalanche, leaving them to struggle to make it back alive.  Eleven of them died that day or soon after.

Written by a journalist and not a climber, the book lacks the first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to climb up into the death zone, knowledge that informs books like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.  And the book is limited by the fact that conflicting memories of survivors means that some things that happened that day cannot ever be known with certainty.  But overall, an excellent read: if you like real-life life-and-death adventures of those who would risk everything to climb a mountain or reach some obscure geographic point, you’ll enjoy this one.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman.  This is a re-read of a book that I first read soon after it came out about a decade ago.  A fun book set in an America in which aging versions of old gods, brought here by immigrants and then gradually forgotten, struggle to survive as best they can now that they have no worshippers to sustain them.  Not Gaiman’s best, in my opinion, but still a fun read.

Phew!  That’s a lot of reading!

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