What I've Been Reading

Steve Martin, Born Standing Up. New York: Scribner, 2007.

I'd heard a lot of good things about Born Standing Up so I was a bit disappointed to see at heart it was just another celebrity autobiography devoid of anything other than the most superficial insights. A pleasant enough diversion but not much more.

Simone de Beauvoir, She Came To Stay. New York: W.W. Norton, 1954.

It's usually an insult when you can say that you've read an entire novel and the characters are still mysteries to you after three hundred pages. Here, though, that's the whole point of the novel. Other than that, I don't think I have anything to add to 50 years of literary criticism.

Warren Murphy and James Mullaney. The New Destroyer: Dead Reckoning. New York: Tor, 2008.
Warren Murphy and James Mullaney. The New Destroyer: Killer Ratings. New York: Tor, 2008.

I was about halfway through Dead Reckoning when I realized that The Destroyer series had become a crazed right-wing fantasy, where liberals really do hate America, where the president is a stoic hero, where Iraq financed 9//11 and possessed weapons of mass destruction, where Sunni and Shia Muslims work together without problems, where the prisoners on Gitmo are coddled like babies. A quick search on-line turned up this this three-year-old article where Warren Murphy laments that the Destroyer series had become too liberal and neededreturn to its conservative "glory days."1,2

Which strikes me as absolutely moronic. Part of the appeal of The Destroyer was that everyone was an idiot. Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, Americans, Russians, Mexicans, capitalists, communists, whites, blacks, cops, criminals — every last one of them a blithering moron unable to see past their own petty needs and dragging the world to ruin. Maybe the overall thrust was conservative but it wasn't conservatism with blinders on.

Didn't stop me from finishing Dead Reckoning or Killer Ratings, though. But that's it — I'm done with the series.

Sergei Golynets, Ivan Bilibin. Translated by Glenys Ann Kozlov. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1981.

I became interested in Bilibin's work after oohing over Mark Buckingham's appropriation of it in Fables. This book is an excellent overview of Bilibin's life and work — though it is a bit light on Bilibin's fairytale illustrations, which were what interested me the most.

Jennifer 8. Lee, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. New York: Twelve, 2008.

Ms. Lee doesn't really have a central thesis about chinese food — this is really just a collection of magazine articles chop suey, General Tso, and the quest for the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world (with a special guest appearance by Chen Kenichi). It's worth reading if only for the chapters devoted to uncovering the secret birthplace of the fortune cookie.3

Benjamin Wallace, The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine. New York: Crown, 2008.

This is a fascinating tale, full of history, fraud, and intrigue. It's got a fascinating cast of characters — stop-at-no-costs collector Christopher Forbes, ultra-competitive auctioneer Michael Broadbent, wine connoisseur (and likely con man) Hardy Rodenstock. It all starts when Rodenstock sells a bottle of wine owned by Thomas Jefferson through Broadbent to Forbes, and starts to heat up when a decade of mounting suspicions and convenient coincidences causes the provenance of Rodenstock's wines to come into doubt. Things look like they're about to come to a head when new forms of testing emerge that can be used to accurately date old wines, and potential evidence of fraud emerges at one of Rodenstock's former residences.

And then it just ends.

A duped oenophile files a lawsuit against Rodenstock, and wins by default because Rodenstock announces his intention not to appear in court. I realize that this is non-fiction book about events that are still unfolding, but it's still a bit jarring. Still, it's an engrossing read, and I'll be lining up to read the inevitable expanded version that comes out in a few years.

Joe Haldeman, The Forever War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974.

I can't believe it's taken me this long to read The Forever War (the comics don't count).

Alan Sokol, Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

This is a collection of essays by Sokol about his infamous Social Text hoax and the ensuing "Science Wars." Interesting material, dull execution — the same anecdotes and incidents are constantly repeated, the same ground endlessly recovered. Interestingly, I mentioned the book to one of my buddies and he was genuinely surprised that the Science Wars were still going on. He was of the opinion that the scientists had won.

I was also reminded of something Don Simpson had said after attending a conference on postmodernism at the University of Pittsburgh — he said that he couldn't shake the feeling that the speakers were veiling their sentences with allusions and jargon to cover for the fact that they weren't actually saying anything. He thought it was some colossal joke. But then Don's cynical that way.

Richard Florida, Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy is Making WHere to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

Richard Florida has always struck me as someone who makes a living by repeating the obvious. The big obvious message of Who's Your City? is that if you want to get a job in the movies you probably should move to Hollywood. I suppose there's some value in establishing that the world is not flat, and that Internet hasn't made geography completely irrelevant yet. But I don't see why saying these things makes Florida some sort of visionary genius.

My problem is that Florida is perfectly content to observe — he hasn't developed anything resembling a predictive model. He can tell you that Portland is full of indie-rock hipsters, that areas with high concentrations of gay people and artists are on the forefront of gentrification, but he can't tell me how or why either of these things came to be. Which means that his books makes for some interesting reading if you're looking to buy a house in an area with lots of singles, and absolutely useless if you're trying to build an area that will attract a lot of singles.

  1. In a blatant conflict of interest the author info notes that James Mullaney is the author of "22 pseudonymous novels" but neglects to mention that they were Destroyer novels. So essentially the National Review Online ran a puff piece advertorial written by its subject. I wish I could say I was surprised.
  2. I also notice Murphy was didn't object to the "liberalization" of his creation until sales started to dip.
  3. Kyoto, Japan. And now you know... the rest of the story.

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