Monday, March 03, 2008

Taking Only Two Classes Doesn't Keep Me Busy

I'm bored, so I thought that instead of studying for my test on Thursday, I'd write short reviews of all the books I've read lately.

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, Wallace Stegner--Pretty good. I really enjoyed the account of Powell's first run down the Colorado, but the accounts of his second and third journeys are significantly less interesting, and so are the middle years when Powell was doing his Native American anthropological studies. However, it got interesting again towards the end when Powell ran the USGS and tried to get western states to be not-stupid by making political boundaries conform to watersheds and to have the government ensure settlement, irrigation canals, and dams were built in sensible places based on the limited water in the arid west. He generally failed at getting many of his ideas turned into law, but he certainly seems vindicated by all the water problems in the west today.

I also read Stegner's Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West back in November which I really liked; it was my first introduction to Stegner's thoughts on water (or the lack thereof) in the west, and I've been eating it up since.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan--OD was very good and IDoF wasn't that great. OD tracks the history of four meals (actually, it was either three or six meals by my count: the main ones being processed corn from McDonald's, sustainably raised stuff from a farm, and self-hunted/gathered/gardened stuff ) and describes the greater effects of our eating habits on ourselves and the world. I was totally convinced and the book has helped turn me into a food snob. I now buy the large majority of my food from either the produce or bulk aisle of Berkeley Bowl or the 3x weekly farmer's markets in Berkeley and avoid things like high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and anything I can't pronounce. This is after subsisting on frozen pizza-like products for most of my adult life. (Wait, I'm an adult?) Friday I made a salad with a bunch of wild miner's lettuce I picked on a trail run.

IDoF wasn't that great because it seemed unnecessary. Reading OD gives you the same sort of dietary advice, but in the form of interesting stories, and IDoF gives you a repetition of the same info, but without interesting stories. It also spends a lot of time telling you how nutrition science is bad science and we should believe neither the "fats are bad you" hypothesis or the "carbs are bad for you" hypothesis, but then it dwells way too long on the "omega 3" hypothesis, even though we're not really supposed to believe that one either. I totally agree with the "Eat food. Mostly Plants. Not too much." advice, I just think that all you need to do is read this very good NY Times Magazine article that he wrote, and you'll get the point.

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins. Before I read it, other people told me he was just as preachy as fundamentalist theists, just from the other side of the argument. I disagree with that, but I can see why people don't like this guy. I think his ideas are based on evidence, but he's pretty sarcastic about it. This really didn't bother me that much. (If this is surprising to you, you must not know me very well.) What I did dislike about the book was the dense textbook-like discussion of the minutia of evolution, particularly in regards to reasons why humans might have evolved into the species we are--with most of us believing in the supernatural. He delved into some of the same depths when he dealt with cosmological issues, and I enjoyed that, so maybe that's just my preference for one field of science over another and not anything to do with the quality of writing. In general, when he wasn't amusing me with sarcasm, his style was fairly dry; the lyrical or poetic phrases were mostly in quotes from Bertrand Russell. ("Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.")

Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris. I liked this one more than Dawkins' book, and I think more than Harris' first book. Sure, it was only 100 pages long, but it seemed more applicable to the real world than some of Dawkins' technical scientific chapters.

Hatchet, Brian's Winter, and Brian's Return, Gary Paulsen. I decided to re-read this children's classic, and I read two sequels to it that didn't exist when I was a kid. They are kids' books, so there wasn't much to them, but I did enjoy the latter two that I hadn't read before: Winter because survival in winter just seems more interesting than survival when you don't have to worry about hypothermia, and Return because it's about the kid deciding to deliberately leave society and go live in the woods again rather than being forced there by a plane crash. To the extent that a kids' book can discuss that issue, it did OK.

Also, I listened to some books on tape: The Truth With Jokes by Al Franken (Loved it. Hilarious. I hope he wins the Senate seat in Minnesota.) and 1776 by David McCullough (Very good. It was really interesting to see how the luck of good or bad weather or other circumstance determined victories in the early part of the war, and it was interesting to learn more about an American war that I actually feel really good about.)

Now I'm listening to Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, which is totally ridiculous. I read most of it right after high school but decided it would be better for me not to finish it because I was buying into the objectivist philosophy a little too much (plus the S&M weirded me out). I'm really liking it, but I realize how completely ridiculous it is. All I can think to compare it to is porn. Entertaining with a totally ludicrous plot. Just as cable installers and cheerleaders probably do not really behave the way they're portrayed in porn, I don't think most people are sniveling, conniving, sell-out slaves to the opinions of others or that "all men with passion are hated," but I do have to admit, it's totally addictive to think of yourself as the one true Howard Roark genius in the world, with everyone else either out to get you and/or stupid.

Oh, and it's totally not important, but Farewell My Concubine (basically, the story of an androgynous dude who gets ticked when his buddy gets a girlfriend, also, the worst movie Gong Li has ever been in) and A History violence (dialogue worse than Batman Forever or Congo) were the most disappointing movies I've seen recently. I Am Legend also disappointed, but 3-iron was very good. The two main characters speak one total word in the entire film (the supporting cast does talk a little) but it's sort of eery and beautiful because of it.


  1. are you giving up "cheese product"? what's aaron going to do without you to defend it? i'll have to read that NY Times article and if i like it, leave it out in plain view for him to "find".

  2. for sure, I'm tillamook only these days. heck, I even passed up "100% pure" kraft grated parmesian because it's got some sort of anti-flaking chemical in it.