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Tue, Apr. 12th, 2005, 03:23 pm
Reading Roundup, March 2005

Well, my February book roundup was a little early; this one's a little late. Ah, the end of the semester approaches, and I tremble before its mightiness. Oh yes I do. I thought I didn't get much pleasure reading done in February, but this month has been even worse. Other than my remarkable ability to consume bad thrillers and plow through sociology, I haven't read much at all. April's reading roundup may be positively embarassing. Oops.

The good: William Poundstone's Prisoner's Dilemma bounces back and forth gleefully between history, biography, biology, economics, and politics, all in service of explaining and exploring game theory. Focusing on the life history of Johann von Neumann and on his development of the field in the political climate of the forties and fifties, the book illuminates clearly and cleverly the dangerous rationality of the game-theoretic approach. This book is perfect for beginners - the science and math is well-explained and well-contextualized to minimize the intimidation factor, even for people who hate to calculate a tip - but even math geeks will appreciate the story of how the field came to be, and how it has penetrated many disciplines in unexpected ways.

The bad-but-good: I wish I could say that The Fionavar Tapestry, by one of my perpetual favorite authors Guy Gavriel Kay, was a good series. It wasn't, exactly: the high-fantasy trilogy steals liberally from Tolkien, sports cardboard-cutout characters who fail to react realistically, and practically hammers you over the head with its Great Struggle Between Good And Evil. And yet there's a lot of wonderful material in the books as well, so I can't quite say it's bad either. The notion of a fantasy world which is the "real" world (and to which our world is linked) is hardly new, but Kay manages to make it fresh by using myths from several cultures as the guiding tropes of the story. His concept of mages is original as well, even if he doesn't do nearly enough with them - and his grotesque twist on what happens to the lios alfar (okay, okay, elves) is unforgettable. These may be Kay's apprentice work, but you can see the outlines of how he'll eventually become a good fantasist in here. Worth reading, if you've got the spare time.

The surprise: I genuinely didn't expect to like Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I have a pretty low tolerance for being preached to by idealists who think they should be running the world but don't have any real idea how the world works (hello, anti-globalization movement!), and that's what I thought Freire was. Fortunately, I was wrong. This short, surprisingly readable book is a call to arms, yes, but Freire doesn't think that Daddy Knows Best. Instead, he advocates authentic education as the solution to the social and economic problems impoverished rural Brazil faces - education which includes listening to the real needs and concerns of the people who are being affected by the problems he hopes to address. Don't read this, though, unless you're ready for some serious soul-searching. I don't like all the things this book revealed to me, but I'm very glad I read it nevertheless.

The disappointment: I love Connie Willis's work with all my heart and soul, and I'd been saving Lincoln's Dreams for a rainy day, since it was the last book of hers that I hadn't read. Now I wish I'd saved something better, since I'm left with a faintly sour taste in my mouth. This book doesn't live up to either the biting satire of Bellwether or the heartbreaking lucidity of Doomsday Book. While the premise (a woman is having mysterious dreams from out of the past) is potentially interesting, the execution makes it about as much fun as, well, listening to someone else talk about their dreams. Yawn.

The it's-about-time: I kept meaning to read First Person, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan's anthology of essays on (as they put it) "New Media as Story, Performance and Game." It's basically a lot of very smart people saying a lot of very smart things which left me feeling totally voiceless and inadequate in my chosen field. Given a few days to let the overwhelming atomosphere of brilliance settle, I'm sure I'll be able to learn a great deal from what's written here. The nice thing is that the chapters are thematically organized, well-edited and fairly short: it's a good beginner's guide to the Who's Who of the new media world, especially as people tend to write about their own pet projects and issues.

The guilty pleasure: I am trying very hard not to be embarassed about reading Lee Child's Jack Reacher series - and not just reading it, but devouring all seven soft-cover books in the course of about four days. Child is not a great writer nor fantastic with characters: our hero Jack Reacher is an ex-MP drifter whose special talent seems to be super-competence at everything, especially getting into bed with pretty women. (Can you say Gary Stu?) The plotting ranges from mediocre (Tripwire) to shockingly good (Running Blind), though, and the premises are generally original. It's the details, though, that really make the books a pleasure to read. Whether it's the clever way that Reacher escapes his FBI surveillance, or the well-executed shootout in a blinding downpour, you'll remember individual scenes from these mostly-forgettable thrillers for long after you've finished the books. Trust me - I've actually read them twice.

Also: have you read Kevin Brockmeier's "The Brief History of the Dead" yet? No? Don't you people listen to me? Go. Now. You will not regret it.

(There's a full-length novel version coming out imminently. SQUEEEEEEEE! They're also making a movie out of it; even though the script's by David Auburn, I'm vaguely dubious. We'll see.)