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@@ (2 out of 5)
If you’re looking for an introduction to the painful subject of cancer — its history, its origins, and the efforts of science to combat it — I suggest you read the authoritative and compelling book, The Emperor of All Maladies, by the oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee. The Cancer Chronicles treats the same subject in a similar way but with far less success. George Johnson’s unrestrained use of medical and scientific jargon left me reeling, page after page, and I suspect that any other nonscientist will have a similar experience.
Undoubtedly, Johnson’s book — published in 2013, two years after The Emperor of All Maladies — includes information about numerous advances in cancer research and treatment that wasn’t available in 2011. Research in the field is accelerating that quickly! But Johnson shrouds his story with so many polysyllabic descriptors that I finished the book and couldn’t remember a single outstanding new development. There’s something to be said for the English language, unsullied by specialists’ cant. I wish technical writers would learn the lesson.
George Johnson is an accomplished science writer whose credits include extensive work on television as well as writing for The New York Times. I would hope that his other work is better than what’s on offer in The Cancer Chronicles.
Now, for starters, please note that these favorite science books of mine are only those I’ve read and reviewed during the past three-and-one-half years since I started this blog. So, you won’t find The Origin of Species or any of the other classics here. With that understood, my three favorites, in no special order, are:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is extraordinary on several levels: as a beautifully researched work of medical and scientific history, as a portrait of the profound impact of racism in America, and as a brutally honest first-person account of a writer’s challenging, decade-long struggle to write a serious book . . . Read on.
Are you wondering why cancer occurs more frequently with age? Dr. Mukherjee’s lucid prose, and his masterful command of the field of oncology, make it a snap to understand. Cancer is a genetic disease, and every gene among the 25,000 or so in the human genome is vulnerable to mutation in the course of time . . . Read more.
You may never have heard Milgram’s name, but you’ve surely heard about at least two of his most famous experiments. One was the fiendishly clever experiment he devised to study the small-world phenomenon, more popularly known as “Six Degrees of Separation.” His experiments yielded empirical evidence for the validity of that theory. However, the other, best known as Milgram’s “obedience experiments,” gets the lion’s share of the attention in this biography. It was these experiments that were the primary sources of Milgram’s fame — and his notoriety . . .
These titles are listed in no particular order. Each is linked to the review I wrote.
As I’ve dug more deeply into the subject of global poverty in the course of writing The Business Solution to Poverty with Paul Polak, it has become increasingly clear to me that truly understanding how today’s glaring inequities have come about requires extensive knowledge in a wide array of topics, from Third World history to social psychology, development economics to the history of business and international trade.
Well, I confess I’m no expert in any of those fields. I’ve read widely in some, superficially in others, and I’m learning a lot.
My reading has emphasized economic history, the economics of poverty, colonialism, Third World development, social enterprise, and the ongoing debate about the impact of “foreign aid” (more properly, overseas development assistance). Along the way, I’ve reviewed in my blog many of the books I’ve read.
In previous posts, I’ve offered up reading lists on some of these subjects individually. Here, I’m sharing a compiled list. I’ve read all these books — some before I began my blog, so that I haven’t reviewed them. Where I’ve reviewed a book, you’ll find boldfacing and underlining that signifies a link to my review. The books are listed alphabetically by the author’s last name.
Bornstein, David, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. Oxford University Press, 2007.
——, The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Clark, Gregory, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. Princeton University Press, 2007.
Cohen, Ben, and Mal Warwick, Values-Driven Business: How to Change the World, Make Money, and Have Fun. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006.
Collier, Paul, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Crutchfield, Leslie R., and Heather McLeod Grant, Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, 2nd Edition. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2012.
Diamond, Jared, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking Press, 2005.
Easterly, William, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Penguin Press, 2006.
Guha, Ramachandra, India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.
Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.
Light, Paul Charles, The Search for Social Entrepreneurship. Brookings Institution Press, 2008.
Lynch, Kevin, and Julius Walls, Jr., Mission, Inc.: The Practitioner’s Guide to Social Enterprise. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008.
Moyo, Dambisa, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
Prahalad, C. K., The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.
Sachs, Jeffrey D., The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. Penguin Press, 2005.
Sullivan, Nicholas P., You Can Hear Me Now: How Microloans and Cell Phones Are Connecting the World’s Poor to the Global Economy. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2007.
Wrong, Michaela, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower. HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
In his young life, the promising American writer Anthony Marra has already won awards, but he deserves another one simply for having the chutzpah to write A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. It’s set in Chechnya, no less, and during the worst of Russia’s endlessly brutal war against the Chechen people. It seems exceedingly unlikely that Marra has any experience of war or has ever lived in Chechnya. His credentials (apart from those literary awards) seem limited to an undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and a fellowship at Stanford, where he’s hanging out now.
Despite these limitations, which would likely strike the average National Book Award-winner as insurmountable, Marra does a convincing job of portraying the interior dialogue of his characters, marooned in the scorched earth of their ancestral homeland. By immersing the reader in the telling details of everyday life in this hellhole of unending terror, he manages to transcend the particulars of his story and conjure up the universal feelings that roil around in us all: love, envy, fear, betrayal, loneliness, hope.
The principal characters of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena are Akhmed, “the worst doctor in Chechnya,” who cut medical school classes to study art; Sonja Rabina, a brilliant ethnic Russian surgeon who left a prestigious residency in London to return home when war broke out; an eight-year-old girl named Havaa who became an orphan when “the Feds” burned down her house and dragged away her father (as we learn in the opening lines of the novel); and Khassan, an aging history scholar whose faith in Marxism was shattered, and his life’s work rendered pointless, by the revelations following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
These characters, and others, form an accidental community, crowded together by the tragic events around them. “As a web is no more than holes woven together,” writes Marra, “they were bonded by what was no longer there.”
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is structured as a tale of five days’ events, but it doesn’t read that way. In fact, during each “day,” we’re rocketed back and forth across a stretch of more than a decade, from the early 90s to 2004, with vivid flashbacks that loom larger than contemporary events–and flashes of the characters’ future that obviate an epilogue. Marra explains: “time didn’t march forward; instead it turned from day to night, from hospital to flat, from cries to silence, from claustrophobia to loneliness and back again, like a coin flipping from side to side.”
The precocious and wise young child, Havaa, is unhappy with the unfairness of it all: “It’s stupid. There are maps to show you how to get to the place where you want to be but no maps that show you how to get to the time when you want to be.” As a reader, you may feel a little bit like Havaa. However, if you manage to navigate through the years and still follow the arc of the story, you’ll find A Constellation of Vital Phenomena highly rewarding by the end.
Oh, and by the way, the title is taken from a Russian medical dictionary. It’s the lead definition for the word life.
@@@ (3 out of 5)
It’s pronounced “HOO-leh.” Not “Whole” or “Hole” or “HO-lee” or any other Americanized bastardization of the Norwegian “Hole.” And that’s just one of the many many fascinating things you’ll learn from reading The Bat, Jo Nesbo’s first novel in the celebrated Harry Hole series of detective novels!
In The Bat, the then 32-year-old detective is in Sydney to lend assistance to the Australian police following the murder of a young Norwegian woman there. Harry is paired with an older detective, an Aboriginal man named Andrew Kensington, who seems bent on introducing him to the history, culture, and language of those he still sometimes thinks of as “his people.” But it’s not long before Harry finds himself immersed with Andrew in the search for a serial rapist and murderer — and, to no reader’s surprise, he quickly demonstrates that he can turn up leads and spin theories far faster than any of his hosts.
The Bat displays some of the signs of the many outstanding Harry Hole novels to follow: thoughtful and intelligent characters who wear their weaknesses on their sleeves, extremely complex plotting, and enough blood and guts to satisfy a depraved Hollywood producer. However, this first book in the series shows a young writer just warming up to his craft. There are long, beautifully constructed speeches where disjointed dialogue would have been more likely, and the story is slow on the uptake, in contrast to Nesbo’s later efforts that invariably start off in mid-story.
Throughout The Bat you’ll find Nesbo musing much as he does in the later books:
The title of this novel, we learn, represents the term for Death in one of the more than 100 Aboriginal languages still spoken in Australia. And death there is aplenty in The Bat. It’s a nicely crafted book despite its flaws, and the suspense will likely hold you until the very end.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
If you saw Harry Hole walking up to you on the sidewalk, you’d probably cross to the other side of the street. He’s close to six-and-a-half feet tall, looks tough (and is), and rarely smiles. This much-conflicted detective on the Oslo police force isn’t the kind of guy who makes friends easily or has a lot of fans either on or off the force. He’s an alcoholic who spends more time off the wagon than on, and he seems to devote more effort to pursuing his own investigations than those he’s assigned. However, Harry Hole is a brilliant detective who deploys both intuition and deductive reasoning to solve some of Norway’s most devilishly complex crimes.
In Nemesis, the fourth novel in Jo Nesbo’s celebrated Harry Hole series, a murder committed in the course of a bank robbery engages more and more of the Oslo police as other, similar robberies take place and city officials demand results. Eventually, Harry is assigned to the robbery detail that’s run by one of several of his arch-enemies. Trouble ensues (of course!) when Harry insists on viewing the initial robbery — the focus of the investigation — not as a bank job but as a homicide. Meanwhile, one of the several girlfriends in Harry’s past turns up dead, not incidentally the same evening Harry has dinner with her in her apartment. To make matters worse, Harry can’t remember a thing about the evening. Now, he’s not only at loggerheads with his superior in the robbery detail but a potential suspect in a murder case as well. (Naturally, Harry refrains from telling anyone about his presence at the murder scene.)
As the story unfolds, Harry becomes enmeshed in a series of seemingly unlikely and disconnected subcultures, from the Romany (gypsy) diaspora to the world of bank robbers to the ways of the corporate elite. Nesbo’s research is extensive, and the details that emerge naturally in the telling of the tale are fascinating.
It’s hard to imagine that more than a handful of crime writers anywhere in the world could spin out this tale, seamlessly interweave several complex subplots, populate them all with thoroughly believable characters, and build suspense to a shattering conclusion with the skill that Jo Nesbo brings to his craft.
At his best, as he was in The Leopard, Jo Nesbo is the equal of any mystery writer alive today. Even when his work falls a little short of perfection, the result is still outstanding. Both The Redbreast and Nemesis fall into that category. I can’t wait to read the other seven Harry Hole novels I haven’t yet opened.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
In town recently for a probing interview conducted by Berkeleyside co-founder Frances Dinkelspiel, best-selling novelist Khaled Hosseini spoke about his craft much as any storyteller of our pre-literate past might have done.
“I just start writing and hope something happens,” he said. The interview took place June 23, 2013, before a capacity crowd in the chapel at the capacious First Congregational Church of Berkeley under the auspices of Berkeley Arts & Letters.
Hosseini starts with characters he cares about and sets out to tell their stories. “You should be really excited about writing when you get up in the morning,” he insisted. If he loses interest in the characters, he’ll throw out as many as ten chapters and start all over again.
“I spend years with these characters,” Hosseini explained. “There’s an internal dialogue that goes on” as they develop in surprising ways.
And the Mountains Echoed began as a “linear novel” about a young brother and sister, Abdullah and Pari, born in an Afghan village in the late 1940s. However, as Hosseini started to write, he began to wonder how some of the minor characters that had cropped up would fit into the narrative. For example, the children’s uncle Nabi “became central to the story” as the writing proceeded, and Nabi’s connection to a Greek doctor working for an NGO in Kabul subsequently took the story to a small Greek island as the doctor, too, emerged as a major character.
The result of Hosseini’s organic writing process is a novel that is at once intensely personal and broad in scope — a story that captures a half-century slice of Afghan history as it relates the lives of Abdullah, Pari, and their family from the peaceful era of the mid-20th Century in Afghanistan to the present day in the South Bay below San Francisco. Compared to Hosseini’s previous novels, which verged on tear-jerker melodrama despite (or perhaps because of?) their universal appeal, And the Mountains Echoed is more ambitious, more nuanced, more insightful, and engages Hosseini himself far more.
This book firmly establishes Khaled Hosseini as one of the finest novelists working today. He belongs among that handful of post-colonial writers — including V. S. Naipaul, Chinua Achebe, and Nadine Gordimer — who were born within cultures unfamiliar to “the West” and serve as our interpreters of the intercultural experience.
Khaled Hosseini, now 48, has lived in the United States since the age of 15, when his family secured political asylum and moved to San Jose. (A Communist coup had just toppled the Afghan King, and Hosseini and his family were fortunate to be living in Paris, where his father was a diplomat.) A physician, Hosseini practiced medicine in the South Bay for a decade until shortly after the runaway success of his first novel, The Kite Runner, persuaded him to turn to full-time writing. Collectively, his three novels — A Thousand Splendid Suns was the second — have sold more than 38 million copies.
Late in her interview, Dinkelspiel asked the author what plans he had for his next book. “I have a few ideas,” Hosseini said, “but I really won’t know what will happen until I sit down at the keyboard.”
Fair warning: this is NOT a comprehensive list of my all-time most cherished novels. It’s merely a list of the 13 trade novels I’ve enjoyed the most among the many I’ve read and reviewed in this blog in the past three years. So, no bellyaching please, that I’ve left out Philip Roth or Leo Tolstoy or somebody else you think is the all-time greatest novelist! Please note, too, that I’m excluding the mysteries and thrillers I review as a category of their own. Which is not to deny that some of these books are thrilling in their own right.
What follows are the 13 novels in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each is linked to my review of the book.
A 19-year-old Berkeley woman hides out on a Chilean island from the FBI and the Las Vegas criminal gang pursuing her.
By the 23rd century, the oceans have risen by twenty feet, and only a seawall protects the city of Bangkok. Genetic engineering has run amok around the globe, leaving only the Thai Kingdom to resist the “calorie companies” that are the only source of food for most of the world.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist portrays the five-century history of conflict surrounding a cherished religious book, from the Spain of the Inquisition to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.
Political satire of the highest order. Like all superior satire, this book isn’t just funny — its droll treatment of politics in Washington and Beijing is spot-on accurate.
A National Book Award-winning novel about a brutal crime and its consequences on a Chippewa reservation in the Upper Midwest.
A 19-year-old Iraq war hero on a Pentagon tour of cities around the country encounters the reality of American civilization today — and finds he doesn’t like it much.
Set in 1838, an extraordinarily rich tale of class conflict, exploitation, and forbidden love in South Asia against the background of the opium trade.
Set in Geneva, this taut thriller takes the reader into the world of a brilliant American scientist who has developed mathetical formulas that make billions in profits for his hedge fund.
A novel that digs beneath the artificial veneer of life in North Korea to examine the mindless lives of its people, from the lowliest convict to the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, himself.
A tense and beautifully-constructed story set in Hollywood in its heyday as the euphoria of victory in Europe and (later) in the Pacific gives way to the hysteria of the Red Scare, the Hollywood Blacklist, and the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.
A high school English teacher in a small Maine town is lured through a portal in time that leads directly back to September 9, 1958. Jake’s mission: to hold out until 1963 and kill Lee Harvey Oswald before Oswald can assassinate JFK.
A naturalized Canadian citizen, formerly a trained killer for the Israeli armed forces in the 1960s, returns to his homeland when he learns of his father’s murder in Tel Aviv. Suddenly he is pulled back into the ethically murky environment he had fled seven years earlier.
In a future USA with a tyrannical right-wing government in power and privacy a thing of the past, a hapless Russian-American seeks love in vain as New York enters into the final stage of total collapse.
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Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II by Arthur Herman
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Since I was born six months before the U.S. entry into World War II, I grew up familiar with a long list of names — little-heard now, more than half a century later — that were associated with the U.S. role in the war that seized hold of Planet Earth for a half-dozen years and set America’s course as a superpower for the balance of the 20th Century. Jimmy Doolittle, Henry Kaiser, George Marshall, Hap Arnold, Curtis LeMay, Paul Tibbetts, and a host of others — every one of whom figures in the epic story so skillfully told in Freedom’s Forge.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, Freedom’s Forge focuses on the role that America’s business community, and especially Big Business, played in the monumental effort that resulted in the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan just months apart in 1945. Two extraordinary men — William S. Knudsen and Henry Kaiser — are the stars of this story, business impresarios who marshaled the stupendous numbers of men and women and the unprecedented mountains of raw materials that supplied the U.S. and its Allies with the weapons of war.
Nothing since — not the Apollo moon landings, not the war in Vietnam, not even America’s protracted wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East — has come even remotely close to the magnitude of World War II. Over the five-year period from July 1940, when the U.S. began to rearm, until August 1945, when Japan surrendered, “America’s shipyards had launched 141 aircraft carriers, eight battleships, 807 cruisers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts, 203 submarines, and . . . almost 52 million tons of merchant shipping. Its factories turned out 88,410 tanks and self-propelled guns, 257,000 artillery pieces, 2.4 million trucks, 2.6 million machine guns — and 41 billion rounds of ammunition. As for aircraft, the United States had produced 324,750, averaging 170 a day since 1942.”
Can the human mind today even comprehend what must have been involved in manufacturing 300,000 airplanes and 100 aircraft carriers?
This staggering output of weapons came as a result of a profound transformation of the American economy, engineered in significant part by Bill Knudsen and Henry Kaiser. The two could hardly have been more different, and they didn’t like each other. Knudsen was a modest and unassuming Danish immigrant who worked closely with Henry Ford on the Model T and later built and ran General Motors into the world’s largest industrial corporation, dwarfing Ford’s output. Kaiser, a West Coast construction magnate who was the son of German immigrants, was flashy, outgoing, and immoderately persuasive — a model of self-promotion. Together with a host of others in and out of government, these two men led the conversion of the U.S. economy to unparalleled heights as the “arsenal of freedom.” Nonetheless, “[i]n 1945 Americans ate more meat, bought more shoes and gasoline, and used more electricity than they had before Hitler invaded France.”
Though I thoroughly enjoyed reading Freedom’s Forge, there was one discordant note. Author Arthur Herman, a free-market conservative who wrote this book as a visiting scholar at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, advanced a political message throughout. That message could be summed up as “FDR, the New Deal, labor unions — bad. Business, businessmen, military leaders — good.” He could hardly have been more blatant. But the man writes well, and he did a stellar job of telling this unimaginably complex story between the covers of a single volume.
In the conclusion, Herman quotes Josef Stalin when he first met at Tehran with Roosevelt and Churchill in 1943: he “raised his glass in a toast ‘to American production, without which this war would have been lost.'” There could be no higher praise for capitalism, coming as it did from the dictator of the Communist Soviet Union.