What I'm Reading

Last year I made a resolution to read fifty new books — and I wound up reading fifty-six (plus another 24 books I was re-reading). The pace of my reading has slowed dramatically over the last several months, though, and I know why — I stopped taking the bus when the price of gas dropped to the point where a bus pass wasn't a good value. While driving to work is definitely faster, it's also wasted time — I can't do anything while driving other than focus on the road. Taking the bus gave me plenty of time to sleep, think, play video games, and especially read. I doubt I'll ever read at this pace for a while, unless the price of gas skyrockets (possible), or the price of a bus pass drops (extremely unlikely).

This year my resolution is to take all the time I spent reading and channel it into something creative.

Allegra Stratton, Muhajababes. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2008.

Jeffrey Kluger, Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple). New York: Hyperion, 2008.

Joshua Knelman and Rosalind Porter (eds.), Four Letter Word: Invented Correspondence from the Edge of Modern Romance. New York: Free Press, 2007.

Wow. It's been so long since I read these books that I can't recall what either of them is about except in the most general terms. That does not speak well for either book.

Ecology.Design.Synergy: Behnisch Architekten + Transsolar ClimateEngineering.. Berlin: Aedes, 2006.

This was the catalog for an exhibition at the Heinz Architectural Center last year, though that description is somewhat disingenous. The book and the exhibition featured the exact same content — word for word, letter for letter. The only difference is that the book is a neat little package the exhibition featured lots of awkward-to-read placards covered with tiny type. Given the choice between a $15 museum ticket and a $10 book that have the exact same content, I choose the book.

Ecology.Design.Synergy has some interesting things to say about green architecture, but the structure isn't doing it any favors. It's written like an architect's proposal or a PowerPoint presentation — random bullet points with only the most tenuous of links. This works for a proposal because 90% of the real work is done in face-to-face meetings where the architect can fill in the gaps. It doesn't really work for a book.

John McPhee, Oranges. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967.

Oranges was mentioned in a recent Step article about the color orange, and it sounded interesting enough to check out of the library. I'm glad I did. It's a breezy but memorable read filled with fun facts about the biology, history, sociology and industry of oranges (and citrus fruit in general).

Here's my favorite anecdote from the book, one that's really stuck with me. There are some researchers who are trying to create a virus-resistant strain of Persian limes. To do this, they need to grow some lime trees, but no one actually grows lime trees — lime buds are just grafted onto hardier rootstock. So they need to start from seeds, which means cutting up limes. But Persian limes have been bred for seedlessness, and the researchers go through a few thousand limes without finding a single seed. So go to a plant that makes frozen limeade concentrate, sifted through two dump trucks of leftover sludge, which nets them a mere 250 seeds. But citrus fruits are weird — they can produce seeds of just about anything that's ever been grafted to the rootstock they're growing on. Out of those 250 seeds, just two wound up being lime seeds. Their colleagues are shocked — they didn't think they'd get any lime seeds.

The first time I read that I thought that there was a metaphor for something in there. And then I realized that there's a metaphor for everything in there.

Michel Gondry, You'll Like This Film Because You're In It: The Be Kind Rewind Protocol. Brooklyn: PictureBox, 2008.

After the filming of Be Kind Rewind, Michel Gondry decided to take the same idea to the next level, setting up a soundstage in a New York art gallery and allowing groups go through and create videos with a number of sets and props. The resulting videos were then placed in the front of the gallery where they could be rented for free. Most of the movies sound simultaneously dreadful and appealing but Gondry loves them all, less for their artistry and more for what they reveal about the folks making them.

Sarah Manguso, Two Kinds of Decay: A Memoir. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Everything Sarah Manguso writes is great, and this memoir of her battle witha rare autoimmune disease is no exception.

George MacDonald Fraser, The Reavers. New York: Random House, 2008.

I've heard generally positive things about Fraser's "Flashman" novels, so I was surprised that this book is an unreadable mess — badly plotted with idiotic cardboard characters and an overblown writing style that somehow managed to stretch a 50 page short story into a 200+ page book. Are all of Fraser's novels this bad or is The Reavers just an exception?

Paul Gravett & Peter Stanbury, Holy Sh*t!: The World's Weirdest Comic Books. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2008.

I dunno what's worse: that I actually own copies of several of the comics referenced within, or that I own a few that are weirder.

Mario Acevado, X-Rated Bloodsuckers. New York: Eos, 2007.

A mediocre murder mystery where some of the characters happen to be vampires. From the title I was expecting at least some mild titillation but the action here is so extra-mild that it doesn't even qualify as softcore. Note to authors and editors: if your title promises x-rated vampires you'd better deliver!

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