Moneyball by Michael Lewis

June 29, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews | Leave a comment
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You’ve probably heard about this. Possibly the most well-known book about sports written in many years, this describes Oakland GM Billy Beane’s “scientific” approach to baseball. There’s a lot of interesting material here about statistics and it is probably worth reading…baseball bores me to tears but the book was interesting throughout. That said, there are two problems with the book. The first is that it is too long. To articulate Beane’s strategy requires only about a fifth of the book’s length, and with some engaging anecdotes this could be stretched out to maybe 70-80% of the book’s length. But that would be too short a book, so there’s padding. It’s frustrating, because the book should actually be longer than it is. The second and largest issue is it is a huge love letter to Billy Beane. Right from the start “insider thinking” is ridiculed and the strategy of Beane and Paul DePodesta is exalted as flawless. Even other GMs are portrayed as completely incompetent, wringing their hands as Beane constantly out-maneuvers them. Now that might be true. But the trouble is the book just asserts all this. The only back up for the claims made is the A’s winning record through this period. That is good but it hardly begins to justify the many claims of superiority made throughout the book. This isn’t Lewis’ fault per se: hands are tied because he has so little data to work with. His sin is in taking those results and exaggerating them to cover up for the statistical insignificance. What the book really needed was some interviews with other GMs to get the other side. The book is completely devoid of any intelligent person who respectfully disagrees with Beane, even though there are many in baseball. Instead it is just Beane and DePodesta making unchallenged claims and everyone else being portrayed as stupid.

While Moneyball‘s one-sided vision of the world makes it fall short of being a great book, it is still a good book and worth reading as long as it is read with a bit of skepticism.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

June 20, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews | Leave a comment
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It’s an old truism that there are no new stories, but once in a while a book comes along that tells a story in a new way. Mark Haddon has managed to write one of those books with Curious Incident, a detective story where the main character is a 15 year old autistic savant. The first person narrative plunges the reader into the main character’s alien way of thinking and does so extremely convincingly. The only problem, and it is slight, I had with it was I didn’t buy the character’s claims of an eidectic memory, but I can accept he thinks he has one, even if he doesn’t really. The rest of his strange mentality I can accept, especially given Haddon has apparently worked with autistic childron. In all my science fiction reading I’m not sure I’ve encountered a more alien character. Despite his disability the main character retains a certain charm that keeps the reader from getting too put off. It is a fantastic book. Strongly recommended.

The Star Fraction by Ken MacLeod

June 19, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Don’t have a lot of say about this one. MacLeod is very popular in Internet SF circles, but the book was kind of flat for me. He’s a smart, inventive author who knows his way around the ideologies of the twentieth century. His extension of this into a projected future was alternately impressive and pedestrian. I find his society wildly implausible but I don’t hold that difference of opinion against the book. What I do hold against it is the way the characters, which are very solid for the first third to half of the book, totally fall off the turnip truck as the author jerks them around by their strings to follow the plot. The plot is decent and all in all it is a good cyberpunk novel. I’ll be reading more by MacLeod even if I’m not convinced he’s the second coming of Christ, or even Banks for that matter.

Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold

June 12, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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A decent book, I suppose. In concept it is sort of Ursula Le Guin-lite at first glance, but actually the concept plays a remarkably minor role in the book. The concept, of course, is of an entirely male society where reproduction takes place using ova banks. Children are raised with a loose two-parent system and homosexuality is the only sexuality. In fact, all knowledge of women is suppressed and considered sinful. Reading the first 30 pages I wasn’t feeling too hot on the book since it seemed clear where it was heading, but I was wrong. The typical strategy with a book like this is to bring an outsider into the society to tour around and look at it from every angle and meanwhile have culture clash etc. See Brin’s Glory Season and Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Instead, Bujold takes her main character from the society in question and moves him completely out of it, so its a fish out of water tale instead. And there’s not really that much flopping around. The real main character is Elli Quinn, a character from the Miles series, and she does her best Miles impression. So after a 50 page head-fake towards doing a sociological book it settles in to a typical Bujold ode to the art of BSing. As such it is decent but nothing special. Recommended only for Bujold completists.

Reread: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

June 6, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment
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Guy Gavriel approaching the height of his powers. His first trilogy is both too Tolkien-obsessed and too rough in terms of writing, and his later books become too bound to history and mysticism. I’m hard pressed to pick out the best of Kay’s middle three books, and while I generally rank them Lions of Al-Rassan, Tigana, and then Song for Arbonne others disagree. Certainly it is no slight to Tigana to put it under Lions. Tigana’s broad theme, regional nationalism, is rather stuffy by modern standards, and it’s easy to look down on someone (and several people do it here) invoking the word “freedom” a great deal with the expected end result of making himself monarch. Tigana’s pseudo-Italy is not quite as gritty as the worlds of his later books, but even here the first rule with Kay is you have to simply accept that his characters have modern attitudes despite their setting. If you can get past that and accept Kay’s flair for the slightly melodramatic, Tigana is a great book. His writing is considerably better than in the Finovar Tapestry and his character work is quite good. Tigana is a remarkably nuanced book, almost to a fault. If I have any complaint it is that Albericco was a little too weak and snivelling, especially after being painted in the first section of the book as a very powerful and evil figure. Watch out for Kay’s out-of-left-field stand against truth in favor of happiness near the very end of the book.

Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

June 5, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Gene Wolfe is the best science fiction writer I’ve ever read. That is my unshakable conviction after reading Urth of the New Sun, the last of the New Sun books. That doesn’t mean he’s my favorite, because inevitably favorite comes down to a reader-author intersection of characters, style, setting, and theme, but it does mean he writes some absolutely excellent books. And they aren’t far off being my favorite. When I first found out Wolfe was an engineer, I was stunned because of the highly literary tone he adopts in the New Sun books. The more I thought about it, however, the more it made sense, because Wolfe, more than anyone else I’ve ever read, writes a postmodernish, hazy, subjective, almost dreamlike story that somehow convinces you that while the first person narrator may not be even close to understanding them, the world around him is operating according to concrete laws. So it is not really postmodern at all, just real, in the same way we don’t always understand what happens to us, although of course the main character has quite a bit more happen to him in a day than most people do in a lifetime. The giveaway, I’ve decided, is the way Severian has a perfect memory. Most authors would give a trait like that to a main character as an interesting distinguishing feature and would make it influence him or her somehow. The better authors would take such an unusual trait and show its ramifications, its positives and negatives. But Wolfe isn’t really doing any of that. Severian from time to time complains his memory is a curse, but Wolfe trusts his reader to accept this assertian without having his main character drag the reader through ponderous soul-racking sorrow or guilt to prove it. And the memory does help Severian from time to time. But the real reason, I think, for the perfect memory is to establish Severian as a reliable narrator. It’s not like a Woodward-style political book where scenes are recounted with direct quotes even though what the characters are reported as saying is being filtered through the memory, time and bias of whoever he interviewed. Severian remembers exactly what was said and exactly what happened to him, and thus we accept what he says as truth, even though it often makes little sense when we first read it. Or rather, we accept his perceptions as truth, and then are left to work out what the objective reality was behind those perceptions. And it is there, almost from the beginning Wolfe manages to convey that.

To be complete it must be said Urth of the New Sun is not quite as strong a work as the Book of the New Sun (I would consider the four books a single story). There are a few too many references to what happened before (almost everything Severian sees reminds him of something from his travels in BoNS–perhaps this is a realistic effect of perfect memory but it still comes off as tiresome eventually). Also, it is a complicated story involving time travel which always comes off as a little sketchy (his engineer’s training does not stop him from tossing causality out the window). Still it is head and shoulders above almost everything else in science fiction.

Positively Fifth Street by James McManus

June 4, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews | Leave a comment
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Fairly enjoyable magazine-article-turned-nonfiction-book about a journalist descending into the poker world for a week to cover the World Series of Poker and a Las Vegas murder trial. It’s in kind of the classic New Yorker fixup mode, although the article was for a different magazine, where a story too long for an article but too short for a book is padded out to novel length with some difficulty. The good news, though, is that in between the filler (and there isn’t a huge amount, just a little too much for its own good) the story is quite compelling. It’s a very participatory narrative since the writer decides to compete in the World Series as well as cover it, and has a lot of personal interaction with some of the big players in the murder case (and fictionalizes and speculates when he doesn’t). If you are interested in Poker or the Las Vegas casino lifestyle, this is a good book to pick up. Otherwise, it is mainly notable for the surprisingly unsympathetic portrait of himself the writer chooses to paint (basically, a poor poker player and a poor husband) because his choice in filler tends toward angst.

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