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Category Archives: culture

I love a biographer who writes like a novelist. Robert K. Massie builds a compelling story of Catherine’s amazing life using only the facts, which are astounding. Obscure German princess becomes child-wife of the emperor of Russia… and upon his death assumes the throne. Bright, thoughtful, and surprisingly free of the ridiculous egos that most royals succumbed to, Catherine pulled her country into the 20th century and played a full role on the European stage.  Intellectually intimate with Diderot and Voltaire she was a self-educated scholar with an impressive understanding of politics and philosophy. To be perfectly honest, towards the middle of the book when the Russia-Prussia-France squabbles got bogged down with infighting and double-crossing, I got a little bored. Otherwise, I loved the book.

A- (minus for the interminable squabbling)


Filled with pungent details around what its really like to grow onions and raise pigs in the backyard of an Oakland California tenement, this book reeks of originality and spunk. Some passages, relating to dumpster diving and ‘poultry harvesting,’ are not for the faint of heart, but author Novella Carpenter brings a sense of gritty dignity to her experiment in living off the land in an urban environment. I loved Carpenter’s on-the-fringe neighbors, and I loved imagining what her living room looked like (with bee hives) and smelled like (with rabbit hutches). There’s nothing out there like this book. Breathe deep and enjoy.

A – (minus for occasional ‘narrative meandering’)

Clay Shirky’s most recent book highlights the power of social networks to enhance information and communication. Shirky is an engaging writer, conversational, and yet content rich. The book is peppered with lots of great examples. It’s a good read.

Solid A for content and readability

Tim Riley nimbly treads the thin line between pop biography and scholarly research. The book is scrupulously well documented and yet an entertaining narrative emerges, very readable.

Lennon’s early life is astounding with its odd twists and turns, punctuated by two bizarre and self-absorbed parents. The book is worth reading, just to digest the first 15 years of his life.

But the thing that I really respect about this book, is what Riley leaves out. We are never given the name of the misguided brute who assassinated Lennon in the New York hotel lobby. And this is at it should be. There should be no glorification: no limelight. Any kind of attention could only prompt other sick-minded individuals to look for their moment in the sun of infamy. Better to let the culprit remain unnamed, neglected.

My take: commendable A- (How many biographies really do read like a novel? This one does. The minus is for a few passages that ramble on with anecdotal facts and comments that end up being all sound and fury signifying nothing. )

Dr. Sandra Steingraber, PhD in biology, has written two compelling books. An interesting mix of personal narrative and scientific facts, the books weave a path between her own story and the story of the poisoning of the earth. To me, it is astounding that, after reading them, not everyone takes up the cause to save the planet from the looming threat of toxins, petrochemicals and carcinogens.

To be honest, her books have triggered me into action, both for my future and my daughter’s. This is a must read for anyone who cares about the 7th generation.

Note: Steingraber wrote “Living Downstream“, the 1990’s bestseller.

Solid A for relevancy and integrity (no plus, because every once in a while she rambles on a bit, not often but every so often, so if you find yourself skimming in a few places, know that you are not alone. So did I.)

I don’t post much fiction on this site, but Major Pettigrew is a not-to-be-missed personality. Helen Simmonson’s debut novel sings with clarity, wisdom, excellent writing and a plot that churns up to the last page. If you liked Agatha Christie’s wry spoofs of English country villages and Barrow’s & Shaffer’s soft courageous portrayal of the Guernsey islands during WWII you’ll be in line for this one.

Covering such issues as racism, the denial of the outsider, and intercultural misunderstandings, the novel threads it way through a series of related events fraught with social gaffes and a ironic nuance, only to finally bring us to a very satisfying and unabashedly heartwarming conclusion.

Oh yes, no doubt about  it. Solid A

I’ve read a fair amount of ‘outsider’ books on India, all of which try to do the impossible: portray the country in its complex and contradictory entirety. None comes closer to highlighting its magnificence, pointing out its inherent paradoxes, and revealing its haunting mystery, than Jonah Blank’s Arrow of the Blue Skinned God. Told with sober compassion, the book traces the epic journey of the Ramayana, alternating between the present India and the ancient past. Underneath the suffering and the futility, Blank gives us heartbreaking glimpses into the soul of India and her people.

The only noted omission in the book was the lack of glossary, as Blank uses a fair amount of Hindu words and phrases.

solid A

I can’t wait to tell you about this one.

Chevalier (Girl with the Pearl Earring), tackles a fascinating moment in natural history: the late 19nth century, when archeologists and historians were just beginning to probe evolution and natural selection.

At this time in history, the northwest coast of England revealed an astounding number of dinosaur skeletons, some perfectly preserved in their entirety. The book tells the story of the local fossil hunters, and one particularly talented young woman, Mary Anning. Virtually unschooled, Anning, nevertheless, had a knack for finding the remains of creatures never before seen by the Academy. This book is the story of her discoveries and of her struggle to be recognized by Britains’ academic elite, aided by an unusual advocate and friend.

The writing in the book is flawless: rich, poignant, and every word counts. Rarely do I regret a book coming to its end, this was one.

My take: oh yeah, A ++

You want to be a starfish because if you lose a leg, you grow back a new one. The starfish is a model of decentralization.

The spider, in contrast, is highly centralized. All ‘administration’ is concentrated in the central part of the body. This leaves the spider more vulnerable. If you lose the center, you fall apart.

Decentralized organizations are stronger and more resilient and the internet encourages and fosters them. Collective repositories, open source software, and social networks all represent the decentralized starfish model. (Wikipedia, Apache, etc.)

An example of the spider model would be American auto makers: less flexible, unable to respond quickly to changing customer demands and needs.

The books was a great read: the prose is straightforward, not too many “big words”… especially good in mid-summer when half of one’s mind is on vacation anyway. Bring it to the beach if you want something a little more substantial than the latest Alexander McCall Smith installment.

Solid A.

Everything Bad is Good for You

I’m underwhelmed.

(If you read Gee, Shirky’s Here Comes Everyone, Jenkins’ Convergence Culture, and brush up on Jensen and Flynn’s racial theories, you can pretty much skip this one, cuz its mostly a rehash.)

My take on it: B minus