Tag Archives: nonfiction

Nonfiction I want

I’m sure there’s fiction coming soon that I want to read, but nothing springs to mind right now.  Instead I’m wishlisting a bunch of nonfiction.

Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients by Ben Goldacre — available in the UK, not available in the US until January 2013.  But in the meantime, I’ve also got Goldacre’s Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks and Big Pharma Flacks.  Goldacre is a research fellow and psychiatric registrar in the UK.

Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man by Walter Stahr.  Most people probably think of Alaska if they think of Seward at all, but he was pretty awesome as Lincoln’s Secretary of State.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t by Nate Silver.  I’m interested mostly because I’ve been watching Silver’s numbers for the election and am curious to get a peek into his philosophy.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.L. Max.  What it says on the tin.  I don’t quite get the DFW adulation that so many feel.  Yes, he wrote beautifully, but no more so than many others.  Yet his suicide in 2008 seems to have lead to a literary canonization of sorts.  Maybe this will help me understand it.

(Okay, what is up with all the colons and subtitles? Can’t nonfiction writers and publishers come up with simpler titles?)

A People’s History of London by Lindsey German and John Rees.  Ackroyd’s London histories are just too dense and intimidating but this looks manageable, maybe as a jumping off point.


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SBD: Shakespeare according to Bill Bryson

Today’s SBD:  Shakespeare – what do we really know about him?  He wrote a lot of plays and some sonnets; he was from Stratford upon Avon, where his wife remained even as he spent years in London as an actor and playwright.  That seems pretty basic, and then there are the dedications to the Earl of Southampton and the poems to a beautiful youth, which encourage speculation that he was at least bisexual, and the dark lady of other sonnets.

Okay, really, what do we know for certain about Shakespeare?  That’s the question that Bill Bryson asks and addresses in his Shakespeare – the World as Stage.

William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a wild supposition arranged around scant facts.  With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.  His Shakespeare is like no one else’s — the beneficiary of Bryson’s genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.

That blurb indicates that Bryson reveals Shakespeare the man, when in fact Bryson very clearly indicates that he has NO IDEA who the man was as an individual and that there is little surviving information that would provide enough detail to draw any conclusions that were not purely speculative.

Bryson breaks the book, which is relatively short, coming in at only 196 pages, into an introductory chapter followed by chapters on the early years (what is known of his youth, primarily a function of his father’s position); the lost years (no one knows what he was doing or where he was); the London years; the plays; the years of fame; the Jacobean years; death; and claimants (the publication of the First Folio, and later speculation about provenance of his plays).  Bryson first disabuses readers of the notion that there are many primary sources of information from Shakespeare’s time.  He spends the vast majority of the book talking about academic speculation built on the scraps of verifiable evidence and textual analysis.  He himself does not engage in textual analysis, but hypothesizes who Shakespeare might have been as a man and a citizen of England and London during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.  The main difference between Bryson and the academics he chides seems to be his open acknowledgement that what he is doing is pure speculation, in addition to the fact that he draws no particular conclusions.

I found the book interesting in the sense that it questions things that the average person thinks s/he “knows” about Shakespeare, but generally preferred the more generic sections in which Bryson discussed the history of London or the tension between Protestants and Catholics to the sections specific to the man.  I haven’t read anything else by Bryson, so I can’t really compare; the blurb touts his wit and storytelling gift, which seemed a little flat here.  Still, I’d recommend the book as an antidote to the “biography” that is fed to students in standard high school and college survey literature courses.

Afterthought: I didn’t realize that in real life Derek Jacobi belongs to the Oxford camp, which makes his appearance in Anonymous that much more interesting.


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Loved, liked, and meh

Book I read last week that I loved: Novik’s latest Temeraire book, Crucible of Gold 

Several years and books ago, Novik hinted about the alternate history of the New World as a result of the existence of dragons, and in this book readers get to learn more.  But better than that, the dull, dragging narrative and clunky pacing of the last book have vanished.  While I understand intellectually that Tongues of Serpents was a set up book, it needed better editing and pacing.  (Like the second and third books, which felt like a single long book chopped in two for marketing/business purposes, I wondered a little if it would have been better off coupled with either Victory of Eagles or Crucible for better pacing and plotting because it was a disappointment on its own — that seems to be the general consensus among the readers I know.)

Anyway, I love the way the Inca and Tswana dragons and their view of their human families are a foil for the European mindset about dragon ownership, and yet at the same time highlight the possessive natures of the dragons in Temeraire’s coterie.

One particular part left me goggle-eyed and startled, because I did NOT see that coming.  Not shocked or offended in any manner and it sort of fits in retrospect, but just startled.  Sort of the way I felt when JK Rowling casually announced that Dumbledore was gay.

And the ending was good, circling back perhaps to clear up some dangling threads in the next book.

The book I liked well enough:  Fair Game by Patricia Briggs

I liked but didn’t love this book and I haven’t quite figured out why beyond a few general quibbles.  First, Anna’s development from cowering and fearful in the first book of the series to organizing and managing in this third book.  Told not shown, and not particularly believable to me given how hard Briggs worked to present her as hesitant, self-doubting and reticent.  Second, in the early books, Anna’s delicacy and short stature were made much of IIRC but in this book she is average height or taller.  Did she suddenly have a growth spurt after maturity?  Lastly, I’m growing uncomfortable with serial killers and rapists in urban fantasy and Briggs’ use of rape and/or threatened sexual assault to the female narrators and characters in her books in particular.  It’s all down to personal taste and YMMV, obviously, since a lot of other readers really loved this book.

The meh book:  Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

Some of the entries in this short survey are obvious (Joan of Arc); others are less so (Carry Nation); and still others are original and inspiring (Ida B. Wells).  The tone and style are extremely casual and informal, with the author making comparisons to Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, etc. — very pop culture referential, as if the author felt she had to equate each woman    It’s hard to condense the history of a complex character like Eleanor of Aquitaine to 15 pages or less, and the difficulty is very apparent here; in many of the biographies, the emphasis is on the trivial and the titillating rather than substance, which is an unfortunate waste of an opportunity.  There’s no significant analysis and the approach is not serious , and the bibliography and citations are somewhat lacking IMO.  Perhaps I’m the wrong audience; maybe a 20 year old who knows very little about history would be fascinated by this introduction to the wild women of days gone by.  Or maybe they could find the same information at Wikipedia for free.


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Currently reading and circling back to

Right now I’m reading Scandalous Women, a short volume with very brief biographies of women through history that were scandalous or infamous for their behavior.  I like the concept and the organization of the book but feel pretty ambivalent about the tone and style of writing, which is extremely casual and informal.  On one hand, it makes sense to use a contemporary approach to language, metaphor, and comparisons in order to introduce readers to historical figures they may never have heard of.  On the other hand, it seems a little too pop culture referential to me, since I don’t need names like Lady Gaga to be dropped in order to be engaged by the material.  But perhaps I’m not really the target audience for the book?

Last week Dear Author linked to an allegation of plagiarism of film content in a m/m book.  It just so happens that I reviewed the book in August and gave a negative opinion based on the editing, noting the similarity in plot to the movie although possible plagiarism didn’t occur to me at the time.  I’m contemplating doing a re-read of the book and a re-watch of the movie in order to examine (yes, I know others are doing the same and don’t necessarily think I have anything original to contribute to the discussion), yet am reluctant to read the book again — a lot of readers loved it, but I thought it read like a first draft and needed a lot of editing and polishing.  Worth it?  I don’t know, especially since the TBR is bumping up again.


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Post-holiday SBD

In theory, I should have a lot to say for SBD about books and leisure reading, namely genre romance, after having a long weekend to read brain candy.  Especially since the weekend included hours spent in hurry up and wait fashion at the airport and on jam-packed-full airplanes.

I had good intentions.  I downloaded a bunch of samples to try on Tuesday.  Skimmed and discarded them on Wednesday.  Bought a copy of Joanna Bourne’s The Black Hawk on Sunday in anticipation of the return flight.  The Black Hawk, which I bought because Adrian was the most intriguing character in Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady, didn’t really grip me in the first 10 pages so I’ve set it aside momentarily.  (Of course, “momentarily” could mean “in perpetuity”, given my reading ennui and extremely short attention span.)

What did I read instead?  Nonfiction and magazines.

Last week, Rosario reviewed Through the Language Glass: How Words Color Your World, which sounded fascinating.  And I toddled off (metaphorically speaking) to Amazon to download a copy.  I’m about half way through, with lots of notes and highlighted passages.  Absolutely worth $9.99 if you’re interested in language or linguistics at all.

First magazine up, the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs.  There’s a fascinating article on Russia’s demographic decline since 1991, as well as one on the euro zone.  The lead article, “Is America Over?” should be mandatory reading for every elected official in Washington and all members of the military-industrial complex.  The reviews of recent publications have me itching for more nonfiction, except some of the prices are INSANE.  $170 for a book on the evolution of the European Convention on Human Rights?  I’ll borrow it from a library or go without, thanks.  Of course, one book that sounds interesting, Oil of Russia: Past, Present, Future, is available for free online.

Second magazine:  Holiday Entertaining from Cook’s Illustrated.  Years ago, one of my roommates corrected me when I said that I couldn’t cook — she’d eaten many meals cooked by me, and thought it was more accurate to say that I was not interested in cooking but that I was capable of doing it well when necessary.  Which is true, I suppose — there are some recipes that I rock, but for the most part  steamed vegetables, pasta, roasted/baked/seared meat, etc., are the default when I have to cook (and microwave meals are not acceptable).  (There’s a reason behind that disinterest but it isn’t worth unpacking, thx.)  Anyway, if I’m so disinterested, why this magazine?  Because the table of contents included two articles/recipes that I love and will attempt to cook at home:  cassoulet and a Spanish tortilla.  Yum.  Roasted pear salad, sweet potato casserole, and butternut squash soup are not beyond me either.  We’ll have to see.

And there’s more nonfiction on the horizon:  TheBiochemist gave me a copy of History of the World in 100 Objects!  It is beautiful.  And huge.

Let’s see, what other book related things went on?  Well, the book club selection was made — A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness.  H’s analysis:  Twilight for grownups, which cracked me up since I know exactly what she thought of Twilight (I gave her my copy and she used it as a doorstop after DNF’ing it after 1 chapter) and that whole mess.  Of course, most of the people in her book group loved Twilight, so…I’d love to sit in on that book discussion.



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Last year the British Museum and BBC Radio partnered to present  A History of the World in 100 Objects.  Each of the objects was the subject of a podcast, and if you went to the British Museum in London, you could listen to the podcasts on premises and see each of the objects.

I happened to see one section of the display (released in increments) while visiting in February 2010, and was pleased.

Everything was grouped more or less by era or geography.

Now a gorgeous hardback book has been produced.  I lusted for it at B&N the other day but refrained from buying since it’s on my holiday wish list.

But I want a copy!

(Although I like the cover on the UK edition better than the US cover.)


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Nonfiction: reading about the financial crisis that began in 2008

Greed is good – Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (1987)

The will to be stupid is a very powerful force — Miles Vorkosigan, “Brothers in Arms” by Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)

What do a Sandra Bullock Oscar vehicle and the financial meltdown of 2008 have in common?  The connection isn’t obvious at first:  Michael Lewis.  The author of The Blind Side and Moneyball, Lewis worked on Wall Street and wrote Liar’s Poker about his experience back in the late 80s (published 1989, reissued 2010).  And he has circled back to Wall Street and the investment industry in The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, (c) 2010, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

When the crash of the U.S. stock market became public knowledge in the fall of 2008, it was already old news.

The real crash, the silent crash, had taken place over the previous year, in bizarre feeder markets where the sun doesn’t shine and the SEC doesn’t dare, or bother, to tread.  The smart people who understood what was or might be happening were paralyzed by hope and fear; in any case, they weren’t talking.  The crucial question is this:  Who understood the risk inherent in the assumption of ever-rising real estate prices, a risk compounded daily by the creation of those arcane, artificial securities loosely based on piles of doubtful mortgages?

Mortgage bonds. Credit default swaps. Collateralized debt obligations. Synthetic  CDOs.  Asset backed securities. Mezzanine  investments.

Intentionally vague, uninformative, even deceptive based on their common usage versus specific usage in the mortgage-backed securities field.  Until a few years ago, I’d never heard of any of this stuff.  And I would guess that many, many Americans would say the same thing.  As Lewis puts it, “How do you explain to an innocent citizen the importance of a credit default swap on a double –A tranche of a subprime-backed collateralized debt obligation?” (223)

He does so carefully, mapping everything out and repeating parts of it through the use of different perspectives.  Lewis follows the analysis and trading of several smart investors – one Wall Street industry group*, and two outsider individuals or groups – who analyzed the risk of packaging subprime mortgage-backed bonds into derivatives, and bet against them early on when it was contrary to Wall Street’s conventional wisdom.  Much of his criticism (valid IMO) is that everyone on Wall Street was so busy thinking up news ways to make money and creating new “products” to sell that they never actually looked at the underlying value and/or risk of their new baby; they just enjoyed the billion dollar profits.  He uses “fraud” and “ponzi” repeatedly through the book, while also pointing out the sheer ignorance and greed of investment banks and institutional investors.

Highlights (or lowlights as the case may be)

  • Lewis’s characterization of CDOs as “a credit laundering service for the residents of Lower Middle Class America.  For Wall Street it was a machine that turned lead into gold.” (73)
  • On the investment banks:  “Why didn’t someone, anyone, inside Goldman Sachs stand up and say, ‘This is obscene. The rating agencies, the ultimate pricers of all these subprime mortgage loans, clearly do not understand the risk and their idiocy is creating a recipe for catastrophe?’ Apparently none of those questions popped into the minds of market insiders as quickly as another:  How do I do what Goldman Sachs just did?” (78)

The Big Short, ultimately, is a scathing indictment of Wall Street and its culture, and of ratings agencies.  The U.S. federal government, lenders, and borrowers get pretty short shrift, too.  It is compulsively readable as a narrative of the looming disaster, and also educational about complex instruments without being pedantic or verbose.


* The head of the hedge fund who is nominally an “insider”, since he and his two colleagues worked as analysts or auditors earlier in their careers, comes across as very much a skeptic and cynic about Wall Street and the utility of the big three rating agencies.  Through out the book, he is described as being absolutely tactless and unapologetic about what he perceived as the stupidity and poor/non-existent internal controls and risk management of  investment banks and their CEOs.


ETA:  WRT credit default swaps, which are essentially insurance contracts, I understand the explanation of what they were and what their impact was…but fundamentally don’t *get* them.  In “real” insurance contracts, the person buying the contract has to have an insurable interest in the person/entity who is the subject of the contract, otherwise it was just gambling and the contracting parties could do unscrupulous things to the unrelated insured third party to “win” their bet.  Jurisprudence developed around insurance preventing that and creating the insurable interest requirement.  With a CDS — not so much…was that an element in their abuse?


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