Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ten Books, Volume 8

I asked CPA Boy what one of my favorite things to do is. Criticize books!

Here's the latest crop:

  • What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
    • The author of this book has a webcomic named xkcd. I had never heard of it before I picked up this book, which is an expanded version of some of the comics and also has brand new questions.
    • Each one features his cartoons drawn in a minimalistic stick figure style. The specific math and physics is also included. I am so far past my calculus days (I remember NOTHING!) that I tended to skip over the math stuff and stuck to the pictures and explanations instead.
    • Sample question: How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?
  • Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent
    • I started reading this book about 3 years ago and then it got waylaid by all the library books I check out. Last week I was between library visits so I polished this off in a couple of hours.
    • I watched Ken Burns' documentary series "Prohibition" (aired on PBS in October 2011) and I have been watching the show "Boardwalk Empire" all along too. The combination of these three things has given me a better understanding of 1920s history.
    • Anyway, some Prohibitionists thought that a lot of suffering by women and children would be eradicated if they could keep men from getting drunk. Men would drink away their paltry earnings and some would beat their families while in a drunken state. (Unfortunately it turns out you don't need to be drunk to be a wife beater.)
    • Other Prohibitionists were xenophobic. Many of the newest immigrants were from Southern and Eastern Europe, not the mainly Northern Europeans who had already immigrated and assimilated earlier. (Notable exception to this: the Irish.)
    • Because the Sixteenth Amendment (Income Tax) had passed it was felt that the revenue generated by alcohol taxes was no longer needed (it was a HUGE portion of Federal revenue, something like 40%!).
      • This would help doom Prohibition by the 1930s because the Depression meant there was little income tax revenue by that point. The government needed the alcohol tax revenue and the creation of jobs that would occur if alcohol could be legally produced again.
    • Many people ignored the law. And once that happened it becomes easier for people to break other laws they don't like.
    • This book was fascinating. The people involved on both sides of the issue were fascinating. Highly recommended!
  • Dr. Mutter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
    • Thomas Mutter lived from1811-1859, dying at 48 of a fatal lung condition. He was a Philadelphia surgeon who had a special fascination with "monsters", people who were so deformed that they were willing to be operated on without anesthesia.
      • Well, all surgeries were performed without anesthesia in those days but usually as last resorts.
    • Mutter was among the first practitioners of plastic surgery. He was also open-minded about advances in medicine and immediately began using anesthesia when it came available. He really cared about his patients and their sufferings.
    • His method of care contrasted sharply with other doctors of his time. It used to be that not only would you have surgery while awake and without the benefit of anesthesia, they also sent you home immediately afterwards. Mutter created a section in the hospital for aftercare where patients could recover for a few days first.
    • The book also covers other doctors, contemporaries of Mutter. One, Dr. Meigs, a renowned obstetrician, would not and could not believe that doctors were responsible for the transmission of puerperal fever (also known as childbed fever) which was an infection of the reproductive organs that killed many women. 
      • Despite scientific evidence that proved hand-washing by doctors and midwives to be effective in preventing its spread, Meigs said "Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen's hands are clean" and refused to wash his before each delivery. He also thought anesthesia was the work of the devil and that women (thanks to the Bible) were meant to suffer pain. Ass. He went to his grave thinking he was right.
    • Dr. Mutter collected medical oddities and other specimens which he donated to create a museum. The Mutter Museum still exists in Philadelphia today.
    • Mutter added an umlaut over the "u" in his name but I don't know how to render it in Blogger. Sorry.
  • The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
    • This was a good story, complete in itself but with the possibility of future adventures should the author desire to write any.
    • A young man inherits a home from a distant relative. He arrives in Virginia with his companion Niamh who is a mute teenager.
    • A ghost story ensues and lots of mysterious happenings occur before the final chapter.
    • The story is told using journal entries, security camera footage, letters, Niamh's handwritten notes and more. A fun read.
  • The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
    •  The story was interesting, about a half-Chinese, half-American girl who grows up in her mother's courtesan house and then becomes a courtesan herself.
    • Amy Tan is a great writer but I feel like I have read this book before. Every novel I have ever read that takes place in China always seems to have the same basic structure. Granted, I have probably only read about a half dozen of them (Lisa See is another popular author in this genre) but they are always the same!
      • A woman or women living in a the cosmopolitan Chinese city (almost always Shanghai) sometime in the last 100 or so years faces hardship and is left with nothing. Then she somehow ends up in the country where the other women are all horrible and catty to her, if not worse, (the men are all patriarchal and cruel) but the main character perseveres and triumphs.
      • That said, I do enjoy learning details about life in China. But perhaps a history book might be better than reading a different version of the same old story.
  • The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
    • Not to repeat myself but I have probably read about half a dozen novels that take place in Amsterdam (or another town in the Netherlands) sometime in the 16th or 17th centuries. A young girl gets married to a man she barely knows. People are all strict Calvinists so everyone wears drab colors and conforms. Things happen to the new bride, she triumphs by the end, blah, blah, blah.
    • So this book's extra little hook is that the new bride receives a dollhouse exactly like her new home. She begins to order items to furnish the dollhouse but the miniaturist not only sends her what she ordered but also things that seem to predict the future. There are a bunch of mysterious circumstances. There is a man who is revealed to be a homosexual, another very popular trope in novels taking place any time before current times.
      • It seems that there are so many plots (not just in books about the Netherlands) where the naive girl marries a man who doesn't want to sleep with her. Then she walks in on her husband and some teen boy.
        • Obviously homosexuality was something to be hidden in times when you could be sentenced to death for it but do these characters always need to be so careless about not locking doors?! (I guess there wouldn't be a SHOCKING SCENE if the doors were locked.)
    • Here is a line direct from the novel: "The air is hot, the atmosphere a bruise."
      • WTF does that even mean?!?! Yesterday CPA Boy and I were waiting at a red light and I said, "The atmosphere is a bruise!" And he laughed because I shared this line with him already. 
      • This is one of those things that takes me right out of a book because all I can hear is the author's voice saying, "Look! I'm WRITING!"
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
    • Another novel that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world (some deadly disease kills most of the world's people). This was a complete story, not part of a new trilogy, which helps immensely. I was disappointed by part of the ending in that a couple of characters should have had a more meaningful interaction before one died and there was a lot of coincidence considering people are roving around the desolate countryside. But it was pretty good overall.
  • Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
    • Three moms of new kindergarteners become friends and secrets come out. You know right at the start of the book, in the middle of the school year, that a character dies (but not which one) and then the book flashes back to the kindergarten orientation day.
    • I liked What Alice Forgot by this author (I remember little of it, however) but disliked The Husband's Secret. I loved this book though. It had a very satisfying ending and the characters were interesting.
  • The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
    • I was between library books again and picked up my copy of this book because I knew I could polish it off in an hour or so. It's one of my childhood favorites. I saw the cartoon movie years ago and didn't love it. In the book the two main characters are Pongo and his wife Missis. Then another dalmatian comes to live with them named Perdita. In the movie they omit Perdita completely but use her name for Missis instead. Guh.
    • I hadn't read this for quite a while and I was horrified to see how sexist it is! Context is everything and this book was written in the mid-1950s so I guess that's to be expected.
      • But Missis and Perdita are such stupid dogs compared to Pongo. There are places in the book where Pongo exchanges looks with other (male) dogs indicating something like, "Awww, look how cute my stupid wife is!" Pongo can count and add numbers while Missis gets confused with more than 4. Pongo understands human speech completely but Missis and Perdita only know a few words.
      • You can't look to this book for lessons in feminism (which is advocacy for political, social and economic equality to men, by the way). Oh well. I still love the story though.
  • California by Edan Lepucki
    • This book gained fame because Stephen Colbert promoted it on his show as part of his segment on Hachette (a publisher) and Amazon.
    • First, I have no idea why this book is named California. One of the main characters is named Cal, short for Calvin. Another character nicknames him California. There is another main character named Frida. Their points of view trade off in each chapter so it doesn't make sense that the title refer to just Cal. The story is never clear where the action takes place. The Sierras? They are in California to be sure but since the author goes out of her way to never specifically place the action there it's odd.
    • The characters live in the mountain forests because they are refugees from a post-apocalyptic world. I am getting bored with these books. Maybe it's time to reread The Stand, which is the best of the post-apocalyptic books!
    • This book also commits the crime of taking forever to get questions answered. Cal and Frida live alone in the woods and eventually visit a nearby enclave of people. They ask questions...well, Cal asks questions. Frida takes her lead from Missis in The One Hundred and One Dalmatians. She's a WOMAN; it's not her place to question things, you silly reader!
    • So Cal asks questions and this is what happens:
      • "Oh, we'll talk about all that later!"
      • A character smirks and looks away.
      • A character pretends they didn't hear the question.
      • Etc....
      • Bah!
    • I am pretty sure this book is going to have a sequel. Screw it, I'm giving out spoilers here!
      • Another main character plans to infiltrate a nearby Community (with a capital C, dontcha know?) and plant bombs. He apparently wishes to create anarchy. This is revealed towards the end of the book. At the very end of the book, Cal and Frida have moved to the Community. They know about the bomb plot but seem unconcerned. Whuh? The end.
    • Another weird thing is that every single woman kowtows to the men and they don't question anything, even when the main leader takes all their children away and resettles them in the Community (As inside spies maybe? Who knows?). Does apocalypse make women stupid?
      • Apparently so.


  1. Time to read some female-empowerment fiction. Is that an oxymoron? You are feeding a female stereotype with your first book review, "I tended to skip over the math stuff." Umlaut "u" is alt-0252 for small, alt-0220 for capital. üÜ

    1. I took calculus and physics over 30 years ago and haven't used it since. I understood the math THEN but NOW calculus and physics equations are meaningless to me. An example of "use it or lose it".

      Thanks for the umlaut info. Don't know why I don't know all those codes by heart. Guh.