Sunday, January 13, 2008


A few non-fiction books I read recently (in the realm of fiction, it's been pretty much only thrillers and crime novels lately) and what I thought of them:

  • The Math Instinct: Why You’re a Mathematical Genius, Keith Devlin
The author describes the truly amazing abilities of dogs, bees, ants, birds and other creatures when it comes to eye-mouth coordination, navigation, locomotion, and so on. He uses this data --- along with some studies on how infants pay attention to certain sets of things up to three, and some other studies on poorly-educated street vendors who can do complicated math procedures in their heads but not on paper --- to argue that people have an innate instinct for mathematics. It’s an interesting book, but not a cohesive one, and ultimately unsatisfying. The animal studies are fascinating, but nearly completely irrelevant to the matter at hand; the animals, as Devlin himself says, aren’t “doing mathematics” any more than the world is “doing physics” as it spins. The studies on humans, especially the differences between school math and real-world math abilities, are germane, and Devlin has a good case to make that people can do math, but are turned off it through poorly-done formal study. Finally, the book concludes with an exhortation for people to practice the basics more through memorization. Gosh, thanks! Never would have thought of that.
  • No Touch Monkey!, Ayun Halliday
A humorous memoir of bad or just plain weird travel experiences. Nothing is spectacularly unique --- from a dislocated knee in Sumatra, to getting clothes stolen while staying with monks in Hua Hin, Thailand; from being burglarized by an aggressively fearless monkey while too stoned to move in Pushkar, to the austere welcome a theater troupe receives in Soviet Romania. But Halliday is an engaging and very funny writer. She has an admirable talent for keeping the reader too amused to notice that nothing much of note is actually happening (hey, she was in Scotland with a baby!).
  • The Big Year: A Tale Of Man, Nature, And Fowl Obsession, Mark Obmascik
Three birders --- a bumptious salesman, a software code writer, and a retired business executive --- each set off on a “big year” in 1998: they are determined to see as many birds in North America as they can in one year. At first, the men are unaware of each other, and later, a somewhat personal rivalry develops. Obmascik, who wasn’t there during any of the expeditions, uses journals and interviews to tell the three men’s stories, and while it’s impossible to tell how much he’s glossing over, it does read as if he were a fly on the wall (or ship rail, or tree, as the case may be). I could have used more in-depth interviews with the birders themselves: their thoughts and feelings. At the end, the business exec seems rather disappointed that he’d done a big year; I’d like to know whether it was worth it. The recently divorced code writer’s tale is the most maudlin: he maxes out all his credit cards and battles depression to see 715 birds that year. Is he glad he did it? I did enjoy the various trails and trials the birders went through, however: seasickness, cliffs, cold weather, thousands of frequent flier miles.
  • Cross Country, Robert Sullivan
A 380-page rumination on the author’s experiences driving across the continental United States, several times over many years. Interspersed with his own experiences, Sullivan talks about history: Lewis and Clark; Carl G. Fisher and the Lincoln Highway; the See America First campaign and the rise of motor tourism; Kemmons Wilson and the Holiday Inn; the rise of the interstate system; the use of Jersey barriers; Jack Kerouac’s beginnings; even a brief look at the history of the to-go coffee cup lid. The factual information is fascinating, and told very well. That’s good, because the personal information is banal in the extreme. I don’t know whether Sullivan believes there’s value in acting as anthropologist of the quotidian (remarks on motel stays and breakfasts, sketches of parking lots), or if he truly thinks his experiences are interesting (he spends quite a long time detailing “the worst cross country trip ever,” in which nothing especially bad happens), but in either case, this book would have been an exceptional history of travel in America without them. It’s too bad. Sullivan’s a terrific historian, but he put way too much of himself in this book.
A look at some of the freaks, wonders, curiosities and con men of the past. From mentalists like Harry Kahne to limbless marvels like Matthew Buchinger and Sarah Biffin, from water spouters to growers, from learned animals of all types to Max Petomane the farting impressionist, there’s quite a lot to wonder at. Some of the acts get only the briefest of mentions, which left me a bit dissatisfied, more questions arising than facts presented. When Jay deigns to write a lengthier investigation, complete with a little information as to how a trick is done (for example, Laroche, who went up a spiral ramp inside a large sphere), it’s a much more enjoyable book. The illustrations, mostly old photos and playbills, are extremely illuminating. On the whole, however, nothing in this book was an interesting to me as a short piece on Jay himself which I read by Mark Singer earlier this year. Jay's deep learning in his esoteric field (the history of magic, con games, and freaks), skill to the level of miracle-working at card manipulation, and obvious psychological idiosyncrasies (why does he refuse so much work? Why does he avoid publicity?) could and should fill a whole book.
  • Soldier’s Heart, Elizabeth D. Samet
The author has taught literature at West Point for ten years, and writes of the ways in which literature has shaped her students. The book provides a few glimpses at memoir, but mostly it’s a look at how 9/11 changed cadets’ attitudes toward academics, and a reflection on the connection between the analysis of literature and military life. I was blown away by the passion of some of her students for classic literature, film, and poetry; the book certainly does much to destroy uninformed stereotypes about officers in the US military. More to the point, Samet does an excellent job justifying her position, making a strong case for the study of literature in all its nuances being good background for the future choices an officer may make. She writes of appreciating through literature moral courage as opposed to physical bravado, as in the writing of General Grant. It’s a thought-provoking and even moving book.


Churlita said...

Wow. That's a lot of non fiction reading. I need to read more non fiction.

daveawayfromhome said...

(sigh). You may have just shamed me into finally putting up my 2007 reading list.