Saturday, May 28, 2011

Dirty Sexy Politics by Meghan McCain *****

Dirty Sexy Politics is Meghan McCain's memoir of her father's campaign for the presidency in 2008. As a new college graduate from Columbia (Art History), Meghan joined her father's campaign before the Iowa caucuses (i.e. at the beginning). Her drive to contribute more than just being the daughter-of, who, in her words, could be replaced by a cardboard cutout, led to conflict with the professional politicians and herself. More than anything else, this is personal remembrance. If, because of the title or something else, you're looking for gossip or sex, forget it! Meghan, a "passionate Christian," took a vow of celibacy for the campaign and the totality of drugs comprised a single Xanax tablet.

This is a wonderfully human story of a young women's foray into today's world of national politics. Like many young people, and some older folks, she is pretty disgusted at the state of discourse in general, and the Republican party specifically. While she is Pro-Life, she thinks it is foolish to or worse to be Pro-Life without being Pro-Contraception. From beginning to end, she repeats her view that "the [Republican] party needs to wake up to gay marriage being a civil rights issue." Seeming to follow the dictate - if you can't say something nice, don't say anything all - her mentions of the Palins are few, understated, and discreet. This is not a tell-all, kiss-and-tell book.

McCain's personal concerns about bus seats, clothes, and proper behavior showcase a young lady searching for a role in a tough world of old men. She is constantly torn between her desire to be an individual (in style and beliefs) and the demands of public life in today's media world. This book mostly tells-all about Meghan McCain and how she grew up on the campaign journey - about her too candid magazine interview, her misplaced expectation for a visit to the Bush White House, and her failed efforts to be everybody's best friend, especially the Palins.

You don't have to be young or female or Republican to enjoy this book.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel ****

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel a meta-novel about the Holocaust. It opens with author Henry's unmarketable concept for a flip book (a single binding containing two book with two front covers - this was popular in the days of pulp fiction, but now only survives for comic books) about the Holocaust. The volume would include a fiction book and a non-fiction book. In pitching this idea, Henry remarks on "how little actual fiction there was about the Holocaust."

Eventually Henry meets a taxidermist, also named Henry, who has written a play, also unmarketable, and also about the Holocaust. The two Henrys discuss writing and the Holocaust. The whole thing comes full circle, Beatrice and Virgil being fiction about the Holocaust and about the fictional pieces of fiction with the same subject and approach. Two fictional treatments and three non-fictional treatments, each inside each other.

In the non-fiction (essay) parts of Beatrice and Virgil, a question raised as whether the horror of the Holocaust can better be communicated by fiction or non-fiction: is the emotional impact of Schindler's List more or less than the impact of two talking animals - Beatrice the donkey and Virgil the monkey? Which form but communicates/invokes the Truth of the Holocaust. What do you think? Reporting or talking animals?

I don't know the answer, but I can tell you that, though at times uncomfortable, I sat through Schindler's List in its entirety. However, I was not able to read the full story of the talking animals, there were paragraphs and pages I found to be too much to even skim - I just jumped ahead.

Do not be fooled by the talking animals. This is a serious book about literature and its role in society. Not for the faint-hearted or lazy.

Monday, May 23, 2011

All the Lives He Led by Frederik Pohl ****

Science Fiction in the classic style: All the Lives He Led by Frederik Pohl, an author who pioneered classic science fiction, has won every science fiction award, and has been doing this for over 70 years. What is classical science fiction? A dystopic world and a narcissistic male. In this case it is 2079 and the world ecology has been destroyed by the re-eruption the the Yellowstone super volcano - a pleasant respite from the traditional evils of malevolent governments, aliens, and out-of-control technology. But, the protagonist, Burt Sheridan, is quite traditional - a loner against the world, more interested in self-preservation and sex, than saving the world, which, as usual, is both unsavable and unworthy.

Like the true master he is, Pohl creates a fascinating world - the center piece of which is the bi-millennial celebration of the explosion of Pompeii - in a virtuoso combination of history, technology, and satire (directed mostly at amusement parks). 2079 is a time when the population has bifurcated into refugees and indentureds and the bottom and the very rich and the security forces at the top. Entertainment technology is heavy of holographic virtual displays and low-energy technologies such as dirigibles and bio-tech. While the volcano tipped the scale to disaster, the immediate problem is a man-made plague.

Pohl, a science fiction master, manages the technology with out bogging down the in the swamps of explanation and explanatory digression. However, he does not overcome the challenge of a protagonist who is basically a self-obsessed loner. However, if you miss the heyday of Heinlein and Pohl (!) and the others, this is the book for you.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking ****

Did you physics education stop at F = ma; aka Newtonian "clockwork" physics circa 18th century? Or are you a little younger, or studied a little longer to get to e = mc^2; aka Einstein "relativity" physics circa early 20 century? In either case, you've heard of quantum physics, but it never made much sense. You might even have read Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time, but certainly that didn't help. Finally Hawking's new book The Grand Design written with Caltech professor Leonard Mlodonow makes sense of it all - waves vs particles - probabilities - 10 dimensions - the big bang.

This is a small book with fancy production values: beautiful artwork, color illustrations, and heavy paper. Anyone who has wondered about quantum physics will enjoy and appreciate this clear and concise explanation of the physics of the 21st century. The only drawback is the final chapter - which can easily be skipped - that waxes poetic about a 40 year old computer computer simulation grandly called "The Game of Life." If you're interested in this book, you've most assuredly heard of this little exercise decades ago can certainly skip another amateurish effort to explains the universe in terms of this toy.

My advice? read this wonderful explanation of quantum physics and, if you bought your copy, simply tear out the final chapter.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Hot: The Next 50 Years by Mark Hertsgaard ****

Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth by Mark Hertsgaard reports on a wide range of successes in the battle against rising carbon dioxide and oceans. The Dutch have been fighting off the ocean for centuries and their cultural history, political structures, and engineering enable them to plan for the long-term and stick to the plan. Proactive leadership in Seattle has made broad changes to reduce emissions (make neighborhoods more walkable) and water use (reduce grassy areas). Hertsgaard is an excellent reporter and these case studies are both readable and informative.

However, as an advocacy for "global warming," and clearly this was one of the goals, this book fails. First, it is so partisan and repetitive, it is difficulty to take the emotional exhortations seriously. Second, when a scientific point is discussed, the text substitutes an "authority," many of whom are clear biased, in place of discussions of the science. Third, woven throughout the book are melodramatic referrals to the author's young daughter and how sad it is for her to grow up in the 21st century (leaving me to wonder if the first or eleventh would have been preferred). Fourth, the author randomly jumps off topic to advocate questionable causes like eating local food and railing against corn syrup. Fifth, published in 2011, the "frightening news" is often out-of-date: "Plasma TV's take three times more power ... and more and more people are buying them." In fact, 84% of TV sales are energy efficient LCDs. Finally, the book editing matches its fact checking - both needing improvement. Example paragraph: "... In Asia, at least 500 million people obtain some of their ... water from ... the Himalayan mountains. ... In Asia, an estimated 500 million people obtain some of their ... water from ... the Himalayan snow pack. ..."

Bottom line: If you skip over the silly parts, the books contains extensive reporting from around the world on how different group are responding to climate change - some inspiring and some frightening.