Category Archives: Reading

Forrest Gump from Sweden

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and DisappearedThe 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a Swedish Forrest Gump story, and like the movie, it is great fun, though you can’t really put your finger on why.

Allan Karlsson absconds from the nursing home in his slippers a few hours before his 100-year birthday is to be celebrated. Within minutes, he is on the run with a suitcase full of money, chased by gangsters and acquiring a motley assortment of friends (including an elephant) as he goes. Interspersed with this are chapters detailing his life as a global, slack-jawed globetrotter, forever stumbling in on historical figures at opportune moments.

Great fun – and some of the Swedishness of the very understated humor makes it through the translation as well.

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Not quite the game I hoped for

Playing the GamePlaying the Game by Alan Lelchuk
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was lent this by my daughter’s very capable history teacher on the assumption that, since I am interested in both basketball and history, this would be interesting. I love the premise – an obscure history professor and assistant basketball coach at an Ivy League college gets appointed as head coach, with nobody expecting much. By recruiting disadvantaged youth and reading passages of American history to them, he brings the team to the NCAA finals.

It should work, but it doesn’t. The main character is not believable, the history excerpts are too long-winded, and the adversities encountered (racist faculty, an NCAA looking askance at the newcomers and plotting against them, etc.) seem rather contrived. In the end, you start wondering whether the whole story is a figment of the main character’s imagination – not just the author’s.

Pity, it had so much going for it…watch Danny DeVito in Renaissance Man instead – it has humor and compassion, and a slightly similar subject. And the academic comes out on top.

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Four is a little, four is a LOT!

imageMy friend Cheska Komissar is quite a character. Not only does she make a peanut sauce that restores my faith in humanity, she is also the bubbliest person alive and, as of a few months ago, a children’s book author. Her delightful Four is a little, four is a lot is just the thing to get someone turning four – and wondering, as children do: Is four a lot or just a little?

The book has four illustrators (of course), but you would be hard pressed to see the difference in styles – though the collaboration has been remote, the drawings are remarkably close in coloring and style and the underscores the text excellently.

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So, count up the number of three-year-olds you know, surf you way over to the Four Dollar Books website and get the requisite number of books (at four dollars each, of course.) They also have birthday cards featuring illustrations from the book – and the combination will be both four-midable and four-tunate…

Highly recommended!

The intellectual bodybuilder

Cover of: Muscle by Samuel Wilson Fussell Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder
by Sam Fussell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sam Fussell, a tall and scrawny son of two writers and academics (Paul and Betty Fussell) started bodybuilding in an effort to remake himself, and succeeded, to the point where, 4 years and 80 pounds later, he competed in and nearly won a bodybuilding competition. This is the hilarious story of how he did it and the outlandish characters he met on the way – all in search of size and definition. (Here is a blog post giving a fuller summary.)

A fun read, though there are occasionally too much detail on diet and training regimens – on the other hand, it nicely illustrates the obsessiveness needed. I understand Muscle has become something of a cult read in bodybuilding circles – the author, quitting after realizing the futility in it all, nevertheless leaves you with a feeling that for all the drugs and diets, he did enjoy being something different for a while – still comparatively safe that he had a somewhat privileged position to return to.

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Paul Fussell in memoriam

Paul Fussell, curmudgeon par excellence, died yesterday at 88, according to The New York Times. He was one of my favorite authors ever since I giggled my way through Class: A Guide to the American Status System around 1987, combining insightful analysis with sharp humor and, when serious, righteous and exceptionally well formulated anger.

Of his serious books, I would particularly recommend The Great War and Modern Memory, a literary analysis of how war was described before and after the first world war, for which he won the National Book Award. He wrote similar works about the second world war, as well as an analysis of American travel literature, but it is this one that stands out, the perfect companion to Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. His autobiography, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic is very interesting – here is a video interview where he talks about it. Of his more essayistic and humorous work, Class: A Guide to the American Status System still stands out as a superb mockery of an academic treatise lightly hiding very sharp observations of the American not-so-hidden status system. It was written in 1983, but holds up well over time – one of those books that irrevocably introduced an ironic view of America you just can’t (and won’t want to) shake.

Fussell apparently was not an easy man to live with, but this seems to have yielded some literature as well: His first wife Betty wrote her own scathing autobiography My Kitchen Wars and his son, less scathingly, the cult tome Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, both of which are highly readable as well.

Keep it simple, stupid–and elegant.

In Pursuit of EleganceIn Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing by Matthew May
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A nice (I suppose you could say elegant) little book about why less often is more. Anecdotal, well-written, with at least some examples I found very interesting (the “shared space”, rule-free concept of traffic regulation exemplified in the Laweiplein crossing for example, as well as the Nigerian clay pot vegetable coolers,) some I found rather repetitious (the iPhone’s elegant simplicity) and others done better elsewhere (Christopher Alexander’s pattern language approach to architecture.)

Much to like, some to admire, and the book is summed up in the four elements of elegance: Symmetry, seduction, subtraction and sustainability. A nice little read, recommended.

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Quote for the day (Jaron Lanier edition)

“Separation anxiety is assuaged by constant connection. Young people announce every detail of their lives on services like Twitter not to show off, but to avoid the closed door at bedtime, the empty room, the screaming vacuum of an isolated mind.”

“On any given day, one might hear of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to a start-up company named Ublibudly or MeTickly. [..] At these companies one finds rooms full of MIT PhD engineers not seeking cancer cures or sources of safe drinking water for the underdeveloped world but schemes to send little digital pictures of teddy bears and dragons between adult members of social networks. At the end of the road of the pursuit of technological sophistication appears to lie a playhouse in which humankind regresses to nursery school.”

— Jaron Lanier (2010). You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, ch. 14

Update May 9: I was going to review this book, and then Jon Battelle goes off and writes a review I completely agree with – though I would like to add that the book is also delightful for its creativity with language and sheer eclecticism.