Category Archives: Books

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

dog-stars.hellerAt first, The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, is a difficult read. Heller eschews traditional sentence and paragraph structure. Instead of complete sentences, often the narrator of the novel “talks” in incomplete phrases, partial thoughts, and stream of conscious ramblings. Dialog is not distinguished from the narrator’s own internal voice. However, once you get by this odd composition, behind it is a story that is both touching and harrowing and certainly worth the effort.

The Dog Stars takes place in Colorado, in an America, a world, that has been decimated by a plague of unknown origin (though at one point, Livermore is blamed…). Whatever the origin, the current reality is that very few people are left and those that are either roam the countryside looking for supplies to scavenge and loot or have holed up in various compounds that they then defend against the roaming tribes. It is in exactly this situation that the protagonist, Hig, finds himself in. Hig and another man, Bangley, have taken residence in a neighborhood near an airport — Hig is a pilot — which, thanks to Bangley’s meticulous planning and military mindset, they have successfully defended against numerous attacks. However, having a creepy gun obsessed guy as his only “friend” starts to wear on Hig. Hig is lonely. Hig misses his wife. Hig wants more than to fight off a never ending hoard of invaders.

The novel follows Hig’s journey, both internal and external, of self-discovery, of finding what exactly he wants out of life in this new world. Along the way, we learn what it takes to survive in such a place, where all infrastructure is gone, people survive on their wits, and no one trusts anyone. How does Hig find purpose in a world where everything has been destroyed? Isn’t there more to life than simply defending his house, his dog, and his plane? Hig’s journey takes us along a path where he learns what it means to be human again in a world that humanity seems to have abandoned.

If you can make it through the odd compositional structure, the novel weaves a rich tapestry and has enough twists and turns to keep you turning the page. However, it certainly isn’t for everyone, as the structure may be too strange to digest for some. But, if you get by that, the novel rewards you with a story that certainly is heartfelt and gratifying.

Artful by Peter David

artful.davidIt seems the vampire and zombie thing is being done to death and Artful, by renowned comic book writer Peter David, is yet another entry into the mix. Focusing on vampires, it takes place in Oliver Twist’s world, shortly after the end of Dicken’s novel. Thus, already, it makes for a somewhat novel take on the whole vampire schtick. And, as the introduction makes clear, this isn’t a world full of emo vampires, struggling with their humanity. As the narrator states:

Watch some television programs, or read some books in which vampyres are heroic and charming and sparkle in the daylight, and then return here and brace yourself for a return to a time that vampyres were things that went bump in the night.

These vampires here are down right evil, with the goal of subjugating the human race, or at least grabbing a good share of power.

Peter David is known in the comic book world for taking characters that have been cast aside and breathing new life into them. Here, he does something similar to the Artful Dodger, the hero of this novel, though certainly not of Dicken’s original take. Artful finds himself in a world of vampires and intrigue where what he once took for granted is no longer what it seems. Artful befriends a young woman, lost on the streets, and their adventure into the world of the vampires begins. Along the way, the son of vampire hunter Van Helsing, a young boy who is very mature for his age, joins the adventure and even Oliver himself makes an appearance.

David’s penchant for dialog shines, which some memorable lines such as:

– bloodsucking monsters known as tax collectors already existed

– Only in death do worthless people have worth.

– the average person, of whom there is an insufferable number in the world

– lack of attention from God is not necessarily a bad thing, as the former residents of Sodom, Gomorrah, and the entirety of the Earth prior to Noah’s construction of an ark would have been able to attest.

– [regarding prostitutes] With how much respect do people treat slabs of beef? Beef is pounded, sates the appetite, and is extended no particular consideration beyond that. The sad truth is that oftentimes the ladies are seen as similar objects in that they are pounded in a variety of ways for the purpose of satisfying certain appetites, albeit unwholesome ones, and the remains are left behind for someone else to worry about.

There is a lot of commentary on society and politics sprinkled through out the novel, mostly from the point of view of a street urchin like Artful.

The novel is great fun, traipsing through Victorian London with numerous references to other literature set in the same time. Artful encounters the Baker Street Boys and even some more historical characters from the time. The action is fast paced, the characterization vibrant, and the plot has enough twists and turns to keep you engaged.

A Better World by Marcus Sakey

sakey-a better worldMarcus Sakey’s second book in his Brilliance saga, A Better World, picks up a few months after the first. In the world Sakey has created, about 1% of people are born with extraordinary gifts, not X-Men type gifts, but enhanced perception or the ability to read body language to an amped up level, that allow them to do things a regular person cannot do. What would happen in such a world? Would the government try to control these special individuals? Would they ultimately rise up and fight back? In Sakey’s world, they do indeed.

Nick Cooper is one of these so-called brilliants, though he has worked for the government eliminating dangerous brilliants. He is doing what he thinks for God and country, but it puts him on the other side of the rest of the brilliants. In A Better World, we see the ramifications of Nick’s actions in the previous book, Brilliant. Without giving too much away, Nick is still in the center of the action, trying to save a world that doesn’t necessarily seem to want to be saved, on either side.

As opposed to the previous book, this one ends in a cliff hanger. There isn’t any easy resolution and the book ends with one hell of a bang, literally. The third book will be picking up right after the end of this book, so there is a bit of a cliffhanger, but the action is so intense and the world that Sakey has created so vibrant, with odd characters all around, that it is worth the wait.

Another glorious romp in a unique world. I understand that these books have been optioned for a movie, so in some form you will get acquainted with this world.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking,_Fast_and_SlowThere aren’t many books I read that I would recommend that everyone read. But Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow would be one.

We all want to think we are rational agents, that we actively deliberate when we make a decision, that we think about the things we hear with a critical mind. In fact, much of so-called “classical” economics is built on just such an assumption of rational people. Kahneman, a Nobel prize winning economist known for his pioneering work on behavioral economics, demonstrates with example after example that we are far from such rational beings.

Even worse, our brains essentially trick us into thinking we are rational. The decisions we make, the way we process information we see and hear, and our reactions to the world are all influenced much more than we realize by our subconscious mind. In fact, many decisions are made at the subconscious level and, only after the fact, does our conscious mind make up reasons for those decisions. That is, we create our own narratives that make our thinking self-consistent, that make our world view and our internal world make sense.

Kahneman has lead or been part of numerous studies that demonstrate how our brains process information and how we reach decisions and he describes some truly eye-opening and mind-opening examples. I won’t go into any of them here, for fear of getting them wrong, but needless to say they make one question exactly how rational and how in control of our own minds we really are. Do our thoughts and beliefs come from well-thought out origins, or are they the reaction of some deep part of our minds that we aren’t even aware of? How much do we really know ourselves?

Lest one think that these are esoteric questions, Kahneman’s examples are real-world, showing how these kinds of subconscious mental processes influence pretty much every decision we make. He includes examples of how judges make decisions, how military training is conducted, and how we do simple things like how we interpret the world around us.

The book is dense with a lot of concepts that Kahneman tries to dumb down for the average reader, but even so, some of these ideas take a few readings to absorb. I’ve only gone through the book once, but I certainly intend to revisit this book, probably multiple times.

I would highly recommend this book to any and everyone. I think that it is with this kind of insight that we can build better economic and political systems that aren’t based on fallacious assumptions about the nature of human behavior. Once we all recognize how we really do think, we can maybe make an active choice to try to, in the end, be a bit more rational.

 

This Will Make You Smarter edited by John Brockman

thiswillmakeyousmarterEach year, John Brockman and Edge.org ask a group of renowned scientists and thinkers a thought provoking question to stimulate discussion about important topics. In 2011, he asked “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” Something like 150 people contributed short essays with their answer to the question. They range from profound to rather silly (at least, in my opinion). But they all provide new ways of thinking about the world around us.

For example, P. Z. Meyrs discusses the “mediocrity principle”. Simply put, it means that you, or me, or any of us, aren’t special. We aren’t the center of the universe. Things don’t happen to us for a reason. The universe isn’t out there to either help us or hurt us. It just is, and we are just a part of it. Sean Carroll follows up on this, by stating “Humans… like to insist that there are reasons why things happen… [that things] must be explained in terms of the workings of a hidden plan” but, in the end, there is no such plan. In a twist to this idea, Samuel Barondes points out that, while each of us is ordinary, we are also each one of a kind.

Jonah Lehrer discusses research on willpower with an example of 4-year-old kids. These kids were sat down in a tiny room and presented with treats. They could either eat one now, or if they could way for a few minutes alone in the room, they could have two treats when the time was up. Some kids waited and some did not. In the end, it wasn’t a matter of kids having more or less willpower, but the kids who could wait for the two treats were better able to distract themselves, focusing on something else rather than the treats. The most important result: the kids who could wait, who could distract themselves from the most immediate reward, scored 210 points (on average) on SAT tests in high school compared to those who didn’t last 30 seconds before grabbing a treat. As Lehrer states, “these correlations demonstrate the importance of learning to strategically allocate our attention.” If we can learn to focus on things other than the immediate reward, we can improve our overall lot in life.

Another theme that is explored by multiple authors is the human brain’s inability to really assess risk. We inordinately fear things that have an extremely low probability of happening while we don’t give a second thought to things that actually are relatively likely. Garrett Lisi summarizes this paradox nicely: “The startling implication is that the risk of being bitten and killed by a spider is less than the risk that being afraid of spiders will kill you because of the increased stress.” That is, the stress of being afraid of spiders is more deadly than the spiders themselves.

One last example is by Jason Zweig. I like it because, in an ideal world, I would try to implement this in my own life. He focuses on serendipity, and how to nurture the creative process that lead to those Eureka! moments. In particular, he says that research shows that serendipity is a consequence of abrupt shifts in the focus of our brain activity. It is when the brain completely shifts gears. To facilitate this, he personally tries to read one scientific paper each week that is not in his field and to read it in a completely different place. The idea is to break his routine, to force his brain into new circumstances, with the goal of promoting shifts in the focus of the brain. I like the idea; I just need to find some time to do it.

There are a lot of other essays that are very interesting, going into various aspects of the scientific method, or principles from economics, or the role of randomness in our lives. Like the other books in this series, I highly recommend it, if for no other reason than to provide food for thought about how both our brains and the universe they find themselves in work.