Tag Archives: Books

Lexicon by Max Barry

lexicon_usa_hb_bigMax Barry has become one of my favorite authors. His novels take elements of every day life, the things that are changing around us because of advances in technology and our understanding of the world, and pushes those elements to extremes to explore their consequences in unique ways. In Lexicon, he does this again.

In today’s world, we are constantly bombarded with advertisements and propaganda that try to influence us. And there is a lot of research that shows this stuff works. The way things are presented to us or the context in which they are presented to us influences how we think about them or even how we think more generally. Imagine taking this to the extreme, where certain special words can completely hi-jack our brains and make us do whatever the speaker wants. That is the premise of Lexicon.

Lexicon follows the adventures of a group of people who are particularly adept at this kind of manipulation. They recruit kids to a special school where they teach them to hone these abilities and teach them these powerful words. These kids are then players in a bigger global arena in which the most powerful are trying to assert control.

One of these students, Emily, is different than the others, mostly in that her moral code brings her to break the rules. Ultimately, this puts her on the run from the very organization that trained her as she tries to understand the secret machinations that run behind the scenes.

I won’t go into the plot very much, but there are twists and turns throughout the novel such that you never really know who is on the side of the angels and who is not. And some of the characters are pretty grey in this regard, maybe not so much good or bad but, really, are like all of us: depending on the situation, they sometimes make good or bad decisions.

In any case, this is another entertaining novel from Max Barry that, while taking you on a roller coaster ride of adventure, still makes you think about some of the bigger questions related to how we think and what really influences how we think. I don’t really believe we are as completely autonomous as our brains make us think we are. What happens if that is taken to an extreme? Lexicon provides one entertaining answer to this question.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

DownloadedFileMy wife got me a Kindle for my birthday and, I have to admit, I’ve spent more time playing games on it than reading books. However, during a recent business trip to Florida (13 hours going, 15 hours coming back!) I took the opportunity to read my first piece of fiction on the Kindle (I’ve read one other book, non-fiction, and I’ll post about that soon).

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, is about, well, books. Books in the tradition paper format and books in electronic format. Books as each author’s masterpiece and books as collections of data. The story revolves around a mysterious secret society, a society that is discovered by the hero, Clay Jannon, when he, as an out-of-work 20-something, takes a job at a bookstore, Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore. The bookstore is stocked with the oddest of books, which are bought by the oddest of patrons. As Clay learns more about what is going on, applying computer algorithms to problems that the patrons have spent literally centuries examining, he uncovers an ancient riddle.

This is a fast paced story that interweaves a love for books and a love for modern technology, a la Google. Google features prominently, via their various technologies. I don’t know enough about Google to know if the glimpses inside Google culture are all that accurate, but it still makes for a compelling story. This is a story that has its excitements and twists and turns, but is remarkable in that the impact of the events really only concern a few characters. There is no world-changing or world-domineering bad guy, just people who have different views of things. And a puzzle to solve. If no one solves the puzzle, life goes on…

A couple of things did bother me in the plot. I won’t say much to not spoil the story, but if anyone else reads this and has some insight, I’d be interested in hearing it.

First, I don’t get the code. I don’t get how it was supposed to work. Anyone understand it? The explanation doesn’t make sense to me.

Second, I don’t understand how the Google employee, Kat, falls for the idea of what the puzzle might provide, if solved. She is a tech person, not into something supernatural. Unless that is another point the author is trying to make.

However, in spite of these concerns, the book is still very entertaining, fast paced, and does explore some interesting questions. It makes you think, at least a bit.

 

Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham

I heard about Catching Fire on NPR and thought the premise intriguing, so while on vacation I picked it up.  This book is full of fascinating ideas and the central tenet promises to shake up the current picture of human evolution quite a bit.

In Catching Fire, Richard Wrangham argues that the invention and adoption of cooking by our pre-homo sapien ancestors is a, if not the, key reason for our evolution into homo sapien. Cooking is an easy way of processing food such that our bodies can more easily digest it, and thus not spend nearly so much energy.  That energy, instead, is redirected to our brains.  That is, cooking freed our body from using energy for digestion and was able to use that energy to power our brains which could thus evolve into what they are today.

Much of Catching Fire offers various arguments to support this thesis, from the fact that raw diets result in drastic weight loss as the energy from the food cannot be extracted efficiently by the body; to evidence that processing food, even simply adding air to puff it up, makes it easier to digest; to the fact that in many cultures, cooking and sharing meals is a much more important sign of bonding between men and women than sexual relationships.

In addition to offering a new view of human evolution, Wrangham also points out some secondary effects that should resonate with our modern society.  First, the more foods are processed, the more easily our body can extract calories from them.  This, Wrangham speculates, is a key reason for the obesity epidemic: our foods are so processed that our bodies are getting way too much out of them.  Second, cooking has lead to a nearly universal subservient role for women.  In almost all cultures, women are tied to the kitchen, the cooking fire, the pit, and their lives are strongly centered on that role.

I’m still trying to figure out what the implications of the processed food argument are for my own life.  For example, is it better for me to get that steak medium rare or well done?  If well done, I will get more energy out of it, presumably giving me more energy myself and helping me feel overall more energetic. But, it also means it’s likely to add to my beer gut more than the medium rare steak, which my body will have to spend more work digesting.  Not sure which is overall better.

It is interesting that, in the end, it doesn’t seem to matter if the diet contains meat or is vegetarian, but more important if it involves cooked or raw food.  Wrangham argues that our bodies have evolved to essentially need cooked food; they aren’t designed to process raw food.  Our brains are too expensive, energetically, to be able to function on a raw food diet.

I felt that the book dragged on in places, with Wrangham padding his argument a bit more than he needed and sometimes offering evidence that was tenuous at best, but overall I thought that his ideas were fascinating.  I certainly learned quite a lot, both about humans as a species and about how I might want to approach my own diet.  I certainly recommend Catching Fire.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has become quite a well known author.  With the recent movie Coraline, based on the book of the same name by Mr. Gaiman, he is fast becoming a household name.  I’ve read a few of his previous efforts, including American Gods and his short story collection Smoke and Mirrors, both of which I greatly enjoyed.  His newest book, a children’s book like Coraline, is The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book recently won the The John Newbery Medal for “the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature,” an honor which I think it richly deserved.

I don’t want to give away much of the plot, but I’m sure that there might be some spoilers in what follows.  I would rather describe my general thoughts about the story.  The story centers around the childhood of a young boy, Nobody Owens, as he grows up after a tragedy in his family.  I imagine it won’t be much of a spoiler, since the title of the book essentially gives this point away, to say that Bod, as Nobody is nicknamed, grows up in a graveyard.  I’ve read that Gaiman was inspired on this point by The Jungle Book, putting a young boy in a very odd environment in which to grow up.  The plot revolves around Bod growing up and learning about the graveyard and the world around him, as well as the mystery surrounding the events that led him to the graveyard in the first place.

The story is fast paced, with several adventures as Bod discovers new corners of the graveyard.  The reader essentially grows up with Bod, learning about both the world in which Bod lives as well as the greater world beyond the physical world in which most people live.  We learn that Ghouls, Werewolves, and, while never explicitly stated, Vampires exist in this world.  Bod has to learn to navigate both the everyday world as well as this supernatural world in order to survive.

There are three main aspects of the story that I particularly enjoyed.  First, there is a diverse cast of characters and, while we don’t get to know most of them very well, they all add a lot of color to the universe of The Graveyard Book.  Second, the plot is definitely suspenseful, and at the peak I definitely didn’t want to put it down.  It is a real page turner.  Finally, the book is meant for children.  Maybe not the youngest, but maybe preteens or so.  As such, I like that it doesn’t offer a world-view that is all roses.  That is, bad things happen to Bod and, even when he does the right thing, it doesn’t always work out for him.  And the ending is bitter-sweet.  I’ll leave it at that.

I highly recommend this book.  It is full of imagination and I expect that most kids would love the world that Gaiman has created.  I am torn in hoping that Gaiman further explores the world of the graveyard, but, at the same time, it is maybe better to leave those corners too to the imagination.

There is a website dedicated to the book.