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Books, A Year in Review - 2008, Part II

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia CommonsHere is the second part of my review of the books I read in the last year. Part I was an analysis of my reading habits, while this entry will give a brief review for each book.

There were three books I read this past year that I really, really liked: The City of Ember (the first of the Books of Ember), The Jungle Book, and At the Water's Edge : Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea. I would strongly recommend all three of these books.

Tales of The Frog Princess

I've already posted a short review of the first book of this series. After reading the rest of the books, my opinions is pretty much the same. Out of all the young adult and children's fiction I've read over the past couple years, these books are definitely the simplest. For an adult, they're mildly entertaining. However, my 9 year old daughter (8 at the time she read them) absolutely loved them. She read the entire series, and even liked some parts so much that as soon as she finished a paragraph, she carried the book over to me and asked me to read it. So, to quote what I wrote from the previous review, "I guess the verdict is that if you're looking for a book for a child that's graduated from some of the simpler early readers (like the Junie B. Jones series), but isn't quite ready for young adult fiction, yet, then this series may be good for them. It's certainly rated very high on Amazon, and my daughter very much enjoys it."

The Books of Ember

I've already posted a short review of the first book in this series, and a movie based on the first book just opened this past weekend. The short summary of the first book is that the City of Ember is dying. The generator powering the city is breaking down and the city is running out of supplies. However, the people of Ember don't know anything at all besides their own city. The two main characters, Lina and Doon, must figure out a way to solve the city's problems. The second and fourth books in the series are sequels, while the third is a prequel. Unfortunately, I can't describe their plots without spoiling the outcome of the first.

The first book is incredible. It really sucks you in, and you have a hard time putting it down. Even my daughter read it in just two days. The rest of the books in the series aren't as engaging or exciting, but they are still very good books, and I still very much enjoyed reading them.

Once Upon a Time in the North

This book is a prequel to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. It explains how two characters, Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison, first met. If I'd never read His Dark Materials and simply picked up this book, I would have thought that it was a decent story, but nothing to write home about. The best part, I thought, was the setting, in Pullman's alternate universe where history took a slightly different course than in ours. However, the reality is that I have read His Dark Materials, and seeing as how Lee Scoresby was my favorite character from the original series, I was interested to read more about his development. So, if you liked His Dark Materials, this is a nice short story that fills in a little more about some of the characters.

The Spiderwick Chronicles

There are five books in this series, but at an average of 135 pages per book, with a large font and some illustrations thrown in, the entire series still doesn't take long to read. As probably most people know now that the movie's come out, the stories are about a group of kids (twin brothers and their sister) who, after moving with their mother into the house of their old uncle, Arthur Spiderwick, discover a field guide that Spiderwick made describing a magical world of fairies, goblins, trolls, etc., that exists right alongside the normal world, but is usually hidden because the magic creatures don't want to be seen. The evil shape shifting ogre, Mulgrath, wants to steal the book, because he thinks the information it contains can help him conquer the world. As can be expected, the books were much better than the movie. Not only were there more details, but the characters were also more likeable, and the story made more sense. It should also be noted that the movie was very liberal in its adaptation. Overall, I enjoyed the series, and would recommend it to young and old like.

Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently Series

I originally read these books in middle school, and this is the first time I've re-read them as an adult. They were better than I remembered - probably because I now understand most of the references. Like most of Adams' books, they're humorous science fiction. The book jacket itself describes the book as a "thumping good detective-ghost-horror-who dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic". The main character, Dirk Gently (actually, more of a secondary character in the first novel, but the main character in the second), is a private investigator, who operates based on the "fundamental interconnectedness of all things." The plots themselves are a bit meandering, but the joy of these books aren't the stories themselves, but the way they're told. There was one section I found particularly funny, which I'll quote here. It's a section where Dirk is discussing the supposed fact of Isaac Newton inventing the cat door, and is a bit dismissive of his discovery of gravity.

"Gravity," said Dirk with a slightly dismissed shrug, "yes, there was that as well, I suppose. Though that, of course, was merely a discovery. It was there to be discovered." ...

"You see?" he said dropping his cigarette butt, "They even keep it on at weekends. Someone was bound to notice sooner or later. But the catflap ... ah, there is a very different matter. Invention, pure creative invention. It is a door within a door, you see."

Anyway, that's pretty indicative of the way the books are written. If you don't particularly like that passage, this may not be the series for you. I, however, liked it very much.

Peter Pan

Perhaps it's impossible to read a book like Peter Pan without any preconceptions. The story has become such a part of popular culture, with numerous adaptations. I grew up watching a cartoon called Fox's Peter Pan and the Pirates, which was where most of my knowledge of the characters came. I've only seen clips from most movie adaptations of the story, and only saw the Disney version of the story after I was an adult. Still, with all those glimpses and the Fox cartoon, I'd already formed those characters in my mind. To read the story and see them not live up to my expectations was a disappointment. This was especially true of Peter Pan himself, who was much more self-centered in the book than in any of the adaptations I'd seen. Still, it's a good story, and I enjoyed reading it. Perhaps I just need to read it a second time, now that I know what to expect.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde

Hmm. I don't have much to say on this. It was an okay story, but not great. Given how prevalent the story is in popular culture, and given how short it is, it probably is worth reading. It's just not the type of story that I'll probably ever read again. I do have one gripe - in the story, Mr. Hyde looks like pretty much a normal person, just sinister in some unrecognizable way. However, so many depictions of Hyde show him to be monstrous. In fact, the actual book that I read had a picture of a green skinned Hyde on the cover. Note that the Amazon link I've provided here is to a different edition than the one I read - I couldn't find that one on Amazon.

Gulliver's Travels

I've already posted a full review of this story. The brief summary is that Dr. Lemuel Gulliver goes on a series of trips to distant lands, each with a strange people or culture. I didn't like the book very much. For one thing, it's a political satire, but I don't know enough about the politics of the time to get most of the jokes - a bit like when my 9 year old watches The Daily Show. Worse, I disagreed with many of the themes. In the lands of Laputa and Balnibarbi, Swift mocks science. In Glubbdubdrib, Swift presents the typical grumpy old man attitude of how things were so much better in the good old days. And in general, the book was rather misanthropic. As I wrote for many of the above books, this one is probably worth reading just because it's a classic and there are so many modern references to it. However, don't go in expecting a light hearted tale of Lilliputians and the Blefuscudians, which is all that most people seem to know about the book.

The Jungle Book

I've already posted a full review of this book. It is a collection of short stories largely centered around the inhabitants of an Indian jungle, and then largely around Mowgli, the "man-cub" raised by wolves. To quote my full review, "The non-human characters were anthropomorphized to a degree - they could speak to each other (and to Mowgli), they were more intelligent than in real life, and there was a bit more organization and 'Law' than really exists, but to a large degree, the animals in the book behaved like they really would in the wild." I liked this book very much, and can definitely see why it's retained its popularity for so long.

From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up Book Cover From the Ground Up

Buy it from Amazon
I've already posted a full review of this book. For someone like me, this book was extremely interesting. It's the autobiography of Fred Weick, a very influential aeronautical engineer. He developed a method for designing propellers, lead the wind tunnel research to develop the NACA cowling, invented the tricycle landing gear, designed the Ercoupe airplane, and was the chief engineer at Piper for a number of years, among other things. If you're an aviation buff, this is definitely a good book about a person you may not have heard enough about, before.

Dreams From My Father

Before I'd completely made up my mind about who I was going to vote for for president this time around, I figured that if there was a chance I was going to vote for Obama, I ought to try to learn a bit more about him, first. So, I bought this book. It was very interesting, and made someone like me, who'd grown up in a white suburban neighborhood, think about race issues that have never really affected me, but have had such a huge impact on other people. I did think Obama made a little bit too much of an us vs. them mentality with regard to race. But, I do recognize that racism and tension between different races does exist, particularly in certain regions, so I can understand why some people do think that way. I'll also note that I've seen a few right wing e-mails that quote portions of the book, trying to make a big deal out of them. But, having read the book, I don't think they're nearly as bad as the out of context quotes make them out to be. I'll list one of those quotes here as an illustration - the part about "ingratiating" himself to white people.

When people who don't know me well, black or white, discover my background (and it is usually a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother's race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign. They no longer know who I am. Privately, they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose - the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds. And if I were to explain that no, the tragedy is not mine, or at least not mine alone, it is yours, sons and daughters of Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island, it is yours, children of Africa, it is the tragedy of both my wife's six-year-old cousin and his white first grade classmates, so that you need not guess at what troubles me, it's on the nightly news for all to see, and that if we could acknowledge at least that much then the tragic cycle begins to break down...well, I suspect that I sound incurably naive, wedded to lost hopes, like those Communists who peddle their newspapers on the fringes of various college towns. Or worse, I sound like I'm trying to hide from myself.

In context, it becomes more clear that it's about how people will treat him when discovering he's of a mixed race couple. While I'm at it, there's a section from Audacity of Hope I've seen that's also used dishonestly - the often misquoted section of the book about standing with Muslims. Here's the actual quote (see Right Truth for more commentary):

They [Muslim immigrants] have been reminded that the history of immigration in this country has a dark underbelly; they need specific reassurances that their citizenship really means something, that America has learned the right lessons from the Japanese internments during World War II, and that I will stand with them should the political winds shift in an ugly direction."

Hardly sounds like an endorsement of terrorism to me (and, by the way, Muslim is hardly a synonym for terrorist). For discussion of other out of context, garbled, or just plain fabricated quotes from the two books, check out this page from factcheck.org.

Tao Te Ching

I've already posted a full review of this book. As one of the central texts of Taoism, it has significant cultural influence. It's written as poetry, and can be read in a long afternoon. I didn't agree with all of it, but it was still thought provoking.

The God Delusion

For me at least, a good portion of the book was preaching to the choir, but not quite as much as I'd feared going into it. I anticipated 420 pages of dissecting arguments for the existence of gods, pointing out inconsistencies in religious doctrines, and reasons why non-belief is the more rational choice. And while a good part of the book does address those points, that's only about half of it. The rest of the book deals with different but related issues, such as the roots of religion, the basis for morality, and reasons for speaking out against religion. I don't entirely agree with all of Dawkins' arguments, but I still recommend this book.

By the way, I have started working on a full review for the book, but it's taking a bit of time. I hope to post that full review within the next month, but as usual, I'm not making any promises.

The Voyage of the Beagle

I've already posted a full review of this book. In fact, I'll just quote the introduction of that review here.

There are many reasons to like this book. One can't ignore the historical importance, since this expedition gave Darwin much of the insight that would lead to developing the theory of evolution, but this book would still be interesting even if Darwin had gone on to do nothing after sailing on the Beagle. The book is basically the journal of a young man on a round the world voyage, visiting much of South America, Tahiti, Australia, and a few other places, describing all the different cultures, geographies, and animals that he encountered.

The Victorian language makes it a bit of a long read, but it's still very interesting. Note that the Amazon link I've provided here is to a different edition than the one I read - I couldn't find that one on Amazon.


This book was divided into basically two halves. The first half was a general overview of paleontology, how we know what we know, the general trends of dinosaur evolution, etc. The second half was devoted to short one to two page summaries of individual dinosaur species. It's not exactly an in-depth book, and I think it's targeted more at young adults, but I thought it was a very good introduction and overview. For an interested layman like me, who's read lots of articles on dinosaurs here and there, and looked at exhibits in museums, a book like this helps tie all that information together.

At the Water's Edge

I've already posted a full review of this book. Again, I'll simply quote the introduction of that review here.

It was written by Carl Zimmer, and as the long title suggests, is all about those two dramatic transitions of life evolving into such distinct environments. This book was great - one of the best non-fiction books I've read in a while. It was just the right blend of story telling, concepts, and evidence, and made for a very compelling read. In fact, I think I finished it in less than a week.

It's also worth mentioning that Carl Zimmer has a blog, The Loom, in which he'll sometimes publish supplementary material to his books. I now have several other of his books on my wishlist.

The Parrot's Lament: And Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence and Ingenuity

This book was full of many stories of, well, animal intelligence. It's not meant to be a scientific examination of the field of animal intelligence, just a collection of anecdotes. As an example, consider the photo from the cover of the book. It shows a man ferrying a leopard and her cub across a river. The full story is that the man, a conservationist named Billy Arjan Singh, adpoted and raised the leopard when she was orphaned. Part of raising her included taking her along on his boat trips. Once she was mature and released back into the wild, she became pregnant and had cubs. When a flood came, she remembered the high ground of Singh's compound, and carried her two cubs to his home. When the flood waters began receding and she was ready to leave, on her first crossing of the river with a cub, she found that it was still a little high and the current dangerous. So, once she returned for the second cub, she carried it down to the boat and waited for Singh to ferry her across.

The book was interesting, but after reading books by Carl Zimmer and Frans de Waal, you get a little spoiled. Still, the sequel, The Octopus and the Orangutan: More True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity ,is on my wish list.

Great Mythconceptions: The Science Behind the Myths

This book reminds me of a print version of Snopes or Myth Busters. The author, Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki, has regular radio and television programs in Australia and the UK. This book is a collection of some of the myths he's dispelled in those shows. It covers such topics as the echo of ducks' quacks, the bogus Bible code, the health of aspartame, etc. It's interesting and useful as a quick reference for people who buy into many of those old wives tales. Just remember that no single source is the final authority on anything. I'm not sure I agree with everything that he wrote, and I'd need to see a bit more evidence on some of the topics to be convinced. Still, it was worth reading.

Formatting updated 2008-10-14 to improve layout, but text not changed.

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