Monday, November 26, 2007

Post Thanksgiving Book Review

I've got a backup of books I wanted to spout about. (Not to mention a 2 foot high stack of books I haven't gotten to read yet. Yikes.) So in no particular order, here goes:

1) The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman. Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times, and one time he got to take this great trip to India, and like, they've got a Pizza Hut there! How cool is that? Doesn't that make you think the world is really flat? Actually, Tom, it makes me more convinced that you're a bumbling idiot. In the immortal words of Bart Simpson, "I didn't think it was physically possible, but this both sucks and blows." Friedman has written a 300 page 6th grade book report on globalization, and he did all of his research by Googling management textbooks. If you spent a hour by yourself coming up with a list of characteristics of globalization you'd get just what Friedman apparently charged the NYT a fortune in expenses for. I'll admit, the first 50 pages were so bad, I stopped reading, so to be fair, I could be missing the "good parts" in the back. If I ever heard about a ship falling off the edge of the ocean, I'll be sure to go back and finish it.

2) The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow. From the juvenile to the adult. Too adult (No, not dirty, you perv. Sophisticated). This has been called, or at least is in the running for, the Great American Novel. And there is obviously a lot about this book that is spectacular. It was one of the first novels to feature an obvious immigrant, in an obviously immigrant neighborhood, as the main character. The beauty of it is that Augie, the immigrant in question, is portrayed so clearly as a definitive American. He is capable, smart, and motivated. His problem is that the endless possibility before him offers no clear path. The book is something like an extended resume of Augie's life. Augie the movie ticket seller, the deliveryman, the book thief, the union organizer, the eagle trainer, the dog groomer, the student, the salesman, etc.. etc.. He is willing to try anything, because he has no idea what he actually wants to do with himself. He could be good at all of these things if he put his mind to it, but nothing "clicks". In the end, he comes to some appreciation of the fact that in neither his work life nor his love life, will an actual switch get thrown in his head that says "HAPPY". This is slightly depressing - because Augie has been operating on the assumption that if he just tried the right thing, with the right job, or the right girl, it would all fall in place. It's not that he can't be happy, but rather that some effort will have to be involved. Being happy for Augie is in large part willing himself to not be bored.

As for the use of language, I can't say anything smart. Bellow writes beautiful language, as opposed to beautiful stories. From what I understand, one of the innovations was his intense usage of the "street language" he grew up listening to in Chicago among the immigrant neighborhoods. It's rough, dirty, and improper. But the sentences run quite long and they ramble about. Personally, I cannot focus enough on the language (the sounds, the cadence) to appreciate it. I'd prefer a clearer story to follow. I'm willing to concede, though, that the book is a major milestone in American literature, if only for the intensely detailed descriptions of what the lower ends of American cities are really like to those trying to claw their way out.

3) The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman. No, Nicole Kidman isn't in the book - but she probably is perfect to play the part of Mrs. Coulter in the movie (in theaters Dec. 7th in case you missed the 5000 commercials this weekend). A sci-fantasy kind of trilogy with a heavy, HEAVY religious element. Can't say much about the actual role of religion without giving away much of the fun. However, this is a really worthwhile read. The main characters, Lyra and Will, are two roughly 13 year-olds who, in a common sci-fantasy motif, find out they are Really Important People who can do X, Y, and Z to save the world. The fun of the books is not in the plot, it's clever but not stunning. The fun is in the detail and the novel world that Pullman creates, with the talking bears and the daemons and the multiple worlds and the Dust and all that. It's not quite as engaging as Harry Potter, where you just wanted to go to Hogwarts for a year yourself, but it was a pretty fun ride.

4) On the Wealth of Nations, P.J. O'Rourke. O'Rourke reads Adam Smith so you don't have to. In fact you get two books in one, since he read Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments as well (they are really a matched set). It's a short, fast read, and O'Rourke gets out a lot of the essential points of Smith that get lost when people just say "invisible hand" and laissez-faire. Economic progress consists of three elements: pursuit of self-interest, the division of labor, and free trade. There is a lot more said by Smith, and a little more said by O'Rourke, but these are the things you need. Self-interest doesn't mean greedy bankers screwing over defenseless grannies, either. It simply means that what we do with our money is our own damn business.
Rather than continue on summarizing what is already a summarization of Smith, I'll just highly recommend the book.

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