I have a love-hate relationship with Pollan. He writes well, but for popular science I often find it a bit lighter on science than I’d like. As with many writers who fall somewhere between journalism and pop science, you often get a long story about visiting a person and place instead of a detailed description of the science at hand.
Then again, I have never failed to enjoy one of his books. This one is about plants that have so deeply satisfied human desires (marijuana, apples, potatoes, and tulips) that humans have cultivated them extensively. The conceit here is that the plants have tapped our desire as a means of reproduction. This isn’t a new idea, and I suspect it wasn’t new in 2001, but it is very well explored. And, like all Pollan’s books, it has an engaging structure as it moves from topic to topic – tulips are beauty, apples are sweetness, potatoes are control, and marijuana is intoxication.
In short, I enjoyed it, and to the extent I have criticisms, they are basically unfair. I would prefer more depth in a book that is supposed to read more like an adventure travelogue of food. If that sounds like something you’d like, I recommend it.
The Botany of Desire (Pollan)
This is a graphic novel about the author’s life growing up during the Iranian Revolution as the daughter of secular leftist parents. It’s not the most beautiful of graphic novels, but the art hits the right tone. Although I enjoyed it, and recommend it if you’re interested in the history, I have trouble putting it on the same pedestal as books like Fun House by Bechdel. Bechdel’s book both recounts stories from her life and weaves them into a sort of visual poem. Satrapi’s stories are fascinating (viscerally, they are more interesting than Bechdel’s), but they don’t really come together as something.
They are vignettes from her life, and that of itself is quite enjoyable, but I came away wanting something more. Perhaps it’s just my ignorance, but it wasn’t clear to me why a story or moment went in one place and not another, other than mere chronology.
The Complete Persepolis (Satrapi)
Wood does an excellent job of trying to make you understand how people in the Islamic State think. A lot of it is personal memoirs and history, but most interesting of all, Wood argues that the West has often misunderstood Islamic State members, by either claiming that they’re purely the product of our own influence, or that they are not truly a religion, or that the people in charge are mere power seekers. To oversimplify a bit, Wood’s big point is that these people are best understood as religious people with a great deal of conviction, who believe in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Qu’ran, that leads to their awful behavior. Particularly memorable for me was a part where he mentions a conservative American scholar who believes we fail to understand ISIS because most of us in the secular West no longer understand the basic ideological framework that would lead someone to endure war and privation for religious beliefs.
The Way of Strangers (Wood)
What a great little book on everything to do with venom. Wilcox relates a lot of fascinating biology along with a lot of the weird anecdotes you might imagine a biologist who studies venom might have.
This book is basically what the title claims. I was actually hoping for something a bit more technical, but this book really is concise and focused mostly on basic historical facts. If you don’t know anything about the history of computing, this is a great place to start. If you already know the basic deal, I’d skip it.
Computing: A Concise History (Ceruzzi)
A great little book describing the history of English. Its only flaw (which I hesitate to call a flaw because the author is quite aware of it) is that in the book’s exuberance for the specialness of English, it can get quite a bit too teleological. Just about any claim in English’s favor could be easily explained as survivor bias.
Still, it’s a fun romp through the history of the English language, and worth a read.
The Adventure of English (Bragg)
This is a well-researched history of New York’s Bellevue hospital. The author cleverly uses what is ostensibly a sort of biography of Bellevue to explore the history of medicine since the 18th century, and to explore the relation between hospitals, the government, and the public in the United States. It’s fascinating stuff.
Caveat: I have met and like one of the authors, so I am biased.
I enjoyed this book, though I worry time will treat it poorly, as it has already been victimized by the authors’ success. This book is basically a description of how the authors (and others) created google ngrams. It’s not just technical stuff either – it’s a lot of their philosophy of what they find interesting.
The problem is that a lot of the book consists of interesting patterns and correlation they found using ngrams. The correlations are neat, but given how popular ngrams has gotten (and especially its spike in popularity a few years ago, the examples don’t feel as exciting as they must’ve when the book first came out. This isn’t exactly a knock against the book, but it does make some large sections of it less interesting than they might’ve been.
Uncharted (Aiden, Michel)
A delightful history of how the book The Sun Also Rises got written. It’s basically a slice of Hemingway’s early life, right up until that book made him famous (and a tiny bit afterward). My only gripe is it participates in this notion about Hemingway that I’m not quite ready to sign up for – that he was some sort of master of image creation. I’m sure he put forward an image of himself, but that’s true of every writer. It’s not obvious to me that he does it more than just about anyone else, and I don’t see him as especially calculating about it. I mean, he did put forward an image, but he also really actually liked drinking hard and watching bullfights.
Still, it’s well-researched and tells a great story about a great story. If you’re interested in Hemingway, you’ll like it.
Everybody Behaves Badly (Blume)
I finally got myself into Martin Gardner, and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. My only complaint (and, it’s a bullshit complaint) is that I really prefer a particular type of puzzle – the kind that is simple enough to easily hold in one’s head, and which doesn’t benefit from having pencil and paper. Some of the puzzles had interesting results, but really just required you to sit and write out a little algebra.
My Best Mathematical and Logic Puzzles (Gardner)