Friday, May 31, 2013

The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti ****

Ambrosio Molinos, a Spanish farmer and storyteller of the pre-industrial oral traditions, founded a successful artisanal cheese company--Paramo de Guzman. The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti tells the story of the founder, how he started and then lost control, and so, so much more. In a post modernist way, the distinction between Ambrosio's story and Paterniti's is constantly blurred both in content and style. For example, Ambrosio's story telling is characterized as digressions within digressions. The book models these digressions with lengthy footnotes which themselves include subsequent footnotes. Both intermingled stories are personal, free ranging, and idiosyncratic.

 The story is full of nostalgia for simpler times, local food, and rural life styles, including a complete description of the cheese making from the choice of pasturage for the sheep, curds and whey, aging the cheese in bodegas dug into the local mountains, through packaging and labeling. Both Ambrosio and the author are interested and discuss at length the relationship between rural citizens such farmers and petty officials, modern actors such as investors and lawyers, and artists. A good example of the latter is a sculptor who is concerned about nothing but carving beautiful statues which the town receives for nothing. In return, the town feeds and clothes the sculptor. Pure art; pure appreciation.

The long history of Castile and Spain plays a important of the narrative. The Story of Spanish by Nadeau and Barlow, which covers the same history from a different point of view, is a good companion read.

I found the eerie mirroring of the Ambrosio and the author, their ambivalent relationship with the past and present, and their tenuous grasp on time and reality, constantly made me read this more as a novel then the memoir it is suggested to be. Even at the end, I still think of this as a quirky novel, but it is an interesting read in either case.

 I received a free copy of this book from the Goodreads First Reads program.


Friday, May 24, 2013

The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti *****

The Almond Tree recounts 50 years of Israeli history through the eyes of a Palestinian mathematical prodigy written by Jewish-American author Michelle Cohen Corasanti.

Ichmad Hamid opens his story in 1955 as a child living in Israel when his little sister climbs out of her crib goes wandering. Ichmad and the family find her across the street from their house ... in the a mine field. No amount a screaming "Don't move!" can save her from being blown to pieces while her family watches helplessly. Like Pangloss, and Job before him, Ichmad faces this and each tragedy that follows with faith and optimism.

Ichmad's mother and his brother Abbas want to kill the Israelis, while he and his father want to live in peace. This is the essential conflict in the Middle East - peace or war. Since the sad history for Israel and Palestine is known, the author explores the history for individual Palestinians. Ichmad or Abbas ... who has the right approach ... who can make a differences for themselves, their families, their country?

Not surprisingly, no answer is offered for that last question ... for that matter, no answers are offered at all ... just a well-written fantasy of success against long odds. It is this lack of answers that allows this story to be a great novel.

I received a free copy of this book from the Goodreads First Reads program.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Story of Spanish by Nadeau & Barlow ****

Let's start with full disclosure: I LOVE books about about languages, especially their history. The Story of Spanish by Nadeau and Barlow is a fascinating and comprehensive new entry in this genre, the gold standard of which is: The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson.

Spanish is a romance language, like French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian, derived from vulgar (spoken) Latin, all of which belong the the Indo-European languages and trace back to Sanskrit, and maybe something even older Ice Age Superlanguage.

This book is full of wonderful trivia like the Iberian peninsula was named before the Romans by the Phoenicians and means something Land of Rabbits, and canoe and barbecue are native American words from the time of Columbus that English received through Spanish. In addition to etymology, spelling, grammar, this extensive book also covers history, politics, economics and sociology of both Iberia and Latin America for the last 2,000 years.

All of which leads to my one small complaint ... parts of this book veer far from language into politics (Spain lost it's premier position in the world because of the Inquisition) and promotion (I can't even count the number of times the Spanish-language Nobel prizes are mentioned.) Some sections are just long lists of Spanish-language authors and accomplishments - reminiscent of Oscar acceptance speeches.

Overall a wonderful book for anyone interested in language and words.

For more, listen to this free podcast: PRI's Patrick Cox interviews Julie Barlow.

I received a free copy of this book from the Goodreads First Reads program.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Your Guide to the (US NPS) National Parks by Michael Oswald ****

Your Guide to the National Parks by Michael Joseph Oswald is a  wonderful paperback book (almost 700 pages) covering all 58 US NPS National Parks. This beautiful book includes pictures, maps, and detailed information on the national parks - in full color. In addition to the basic information -- hours, lodging, activities, the book includes vacation planning information such as weather and the very helpful "What's nearby."

From first-hand experience traveling to almost half of our national parks over the last 40 years (I now have a Senior Pass - explained on page 2), I know the hardest information to find is the location of the nearest grocery store and something to do when the family has OD'd on hiking and natural history. The "What's Nearby" section comes to the rescue here.

I recommend this kilogram book for travel planning ... where do we want to go and what do we want to do? I visit the grandkids in the NorthWest each year, and this book provides just the convenient information to research the alternatives. The books for far more convenient and easy to use than clicking through hundreds of pages on the Internet.

When you decide where to go, the individual parts of the book, either geographic sections or individual parks, are available as Kindle National Parks ebooks.

I received a free copy of this book from the Goodreads First Reads program.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura ****

Fumihiro Kuki is Raskolnikov for the the 21st century. Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura is a philosophical thriller in the tradition of Dostoevsky, where the psychological consequences of a "it seemed like a good idea at the time" murder unfold as amoral punishment for the crime.

While the book is part crime mystery - there is a detective pursuing Fumihiro - and part political thriller - Fumihiro might be connected with a terrorist group - it is mostly a study of individual privilege and amorality. Fumihiro's father, in his sixties and very rich, raises him to be a "cancer," to bring evil into the world. Fumihiro, still a child, resists this parental plan by murdering his father.

From there Fumihiro struggles with the triple theme of nature, nurture, and free will. How much of his behavior is from his family history/genetics, what can be blamed on his father, and for what does he have to assume personal responsibility. In this beautifully written book, Fumihiro vacillates between living in the present, logically dealing with his day-to-day needs for companionship and security, protecting himself and his childhood sweetheart, Kaori, and analyzing the full arc of his life, trying to understand the personal and societal effects of his actions, especially of murders. 

People around Fumihiro die, some might be accidental, some might be suicides, and all might be murders, by Fumihiro, or someone else. This ambiguity reflects Fumihiro's life, concrete on one level - people are dead - and unknown on many other levels - who? why? why? While it is the nature of rational analysis to focus on alternative explanations, this book raises the question of whether continuous inquiry is driven by the quest for Truth and a way to avoid confronting it.

If you liked Crime and Punishment, you'll love Evil and the Mask, for all the same reasons.

I received a free copy of this book from the Goodreads First Reads program.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Projection by Risa Green ***

Projection by Risa Green is a cross between Freaky Friday, The Mummy and Nancy Drew. Three high school girls set off the solve the mystery of the Oculus Society, a 2,000-year-old secret society of women protecting the power to exchange bodies, and the murder of Gretchen's mom. The other two girls are wild and poor Ariel and Gretchen's BFF Jessica.

All three girls share a common bond that they have lost someone: Gretchen's mom, Jessica's dad, and Ariel's parents, ... or maybe it was Ariel's dad and Jessica's parents. Therein lie my only complaint with this teenage-angst mystery. The mystery is nicely woven into the story and revealed with a twist that ties together many story strands. However, I found the voices and characters to be too similar, so that with the body switching I was often confused as to who was talking. Fortunately since I did not feel much differentiation of these three girls, this confusion did not detract much from my enjoyment of the book.

 I received a free copy of this book from the Goodreads First Reads program.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier *****

When you are smart enough or crazy enough (sometimes it's hard to tell the difference), the world is rife with structure and causality. It's not hard to tell with the author of Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier; he is one the smart ones and he lives in a world of clockwork information dominated by Silicon Valley. As a entrepreneur emeritus (also from that valley), I live in an ordinary reality of chaos and luck. None the less, I really enjoyed his fantasy: humanistic information economy ... you might be thinking, what is that ... I'm not saying, you'll have to read the book. But I will tell you some of the brilliant insights that underlie this bright view of the future.

First, the foundation of the value created by the Internet comes from spying on real people (while they consume (fake) free content). From ad placement to translation to market research  to political intelligence, the results from these big data applications all depend on input from many, many people. These Internet users exchange their valuable information for cheap content. As a result the owners of the (spy) servers get super rich and the users ... well ...

Second, the Internet  (and information technology) destroys more jobs than it creates. Cases in point: sales clerks, book sellers, bank tellers, travel agents, tax preparers, teachers, ... In the near future you can add truck drivers, taxi drivers, surgeons, many others, ... What's left? entrepreneurs and engineers (this is a Silicon Valley fantasy, right?) at the top, and housekeepers and gardeners at the bottom. No middle class.

Finally, the good business models of the last several decades have been enterprises that take all the power and compensation without any of the risk. This includes the mortgage crises, most financial engineering, and companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Again, you need to read the book for the details here.

All of this leads to a rather dystopian view of the future, but Jaron Lanier has a remedy. As someone who started my tech career with some assembly language coding, I love this solution: two-way links, aka back pointers! Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine those back pointers would solve such a wide range of problems, but Lanier is really smart and he presents a good argument.

I'd say the first half of this book (problem statement) is a must read for anyone interested in how information technology (and the Internet) might be changing society - no special technical knowledge required. The second half (solution proposal) is interesting; this is where the back pointers are discussed.

Note: I received my copy of this book (free) through the Goodreads First Reads program.