Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde (CBR book #16)

My dryspell is over at last! After several boring, disappointing, and simply "meh" selections, I have come across a solid nominee for the year's top five. This is one of those books I couldn't stop talking about so read it already!

Shades of Grey takes place in the future society of Chromaticia, after an event referred to only as the Something That Happened. Society, or The Collective, is run according to infallible rules set by Chromaticia's founder, Munsell. Not surprisingly, the rules don't always make sense, like why spoons are no longer made, or why bottles and jars are to be manufactured in one size only. There are other mysteries in Chromaticia as well, like why noone can venture into darkness, why all living things have barcodes, and why the two biggest threats to The Collective are swans and lightning.

If I'm starting to lose you, the first thing you need to understand is that a lot of Shades of Grey is tongue in cheek. Fforde is a master of the absurd and sets up a lot of silly situations that, sadly, remind me of work first, then a lot of other things after that. There's a great scene where our narrator, Eddie, goes to a library. Most books have disappeared over time, but due to a poorly drafted directive, staffing levels at libraries will remain unchanged forever. So Eddie is followed by seven librarians who have nothing to do. One, a ninth-generation librarian, shows Eddie empty shelves and describes the books they used to hold. "Murdoch on the Orientated Ex-Best," "The Complete Sheer Luck Homes," and other titles roll from her tongue like a bad game of telephone. Sometimes it's just the titles she gets right, like Catch-22, a "hugely popular fishing book and one of a series."

And we haven't even touched on the Colortocracy. Apparently people's ability to see color is severely limited and people are divided into classes based upon their color perception. If you see mostly red, you are a red. If you see yellow and blue, you are a green. If you see little to no color at all, you are a grey, and the lowest in society. Marriages are arranged based on how one's color perception may help maintain or raise your position in society. Are you a coveted violet who sees closer to the blue range of the spectrum? If so, why not marry a red to deepen your child's violet perception uprange?

Color also plays a role in health and well-being. Depending on your ailment, visualizing a certain shade may make you better...or kill you. Perhaps you need a little pick me up? Try lime, but don't view too much, it's a gateway they say that may lead to the more powerful lincoln green and before you know it, you're chasing the frog...

And I could go on and on. Fforde injects wit, humor, and fun in this story about Eddie Russett, a Red, who travels to the town of East Carmine on an assignment to conduct a chair-census. As Eddie learns about the people of East Carmine, he develops a dangerous habit of curiosity which leads him down a path that's part Alice's trip down the rabbit hole, but more Neo swallowing the red pill, if you ask me.

In all, a slightly slow start (mainly because I had no idea what was going on for the first 30 pages), a great middle, and an end promising two more books to come. And will I read them? Absolutely. I can't wait to see what Fforde has coming out and will make it a point to check out his other books in the Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series as well.

For some fun information on Shades of Grey, click here.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Superfreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (CBR book #15)

Superfreakonomics is the follow up to Levitt and Dubner's first book, Freakonomics, which was a great book. Basically, Levitt and Dubner use economics theories to describe things more interesting than, well, economics.

For an idea of what Superfreakonimics is about, a quick look at the cover sums everything up nicely..."Global cooling, patriotic prostitutes, and why suicide bombers should buy life insuance." And if that doesn't catch your interest, the Steve-o's also discuss the following (taken from freakonomicsbook.com)
  • How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?
  • Why are doctors so bad at washing their hands?
  • How much good do car seats do?
  • What’s the best way to catch a terrorist?
  • Did TV cause a rise in crime?
  • What do hurricanes, heart attacks, and highway deaths have in common?
  • Are people hardwired for altruism or selfishness?
  • Can eating kangaroo save the planet?
  • Who adds more value: a pimp or a realtor?
I'm a fan of these books because they're accessible and thought-provoking. They are also fairly quick and easy reads. Talk about the art of taking technical speak down to my level (Marcia Bjornerud, eat your heart out)!

So a solid recommend if you're the non-fictiony type. Enjoy!

Tinkers by Paul Harding (CBR book #13)

Just because a book wins a Pulitzer Prize doesn't mean you have to enjoy it. There. I've said it. And now I feel better. You can probably see where this is going...

I decided to read Tinkers because it won the Fiction Pulitzer Prize in 2010. I figured by reading it, I would somehow become smarter, or at least seem smarter. Things started off well. As with a fine bottle of wine, I'm a sucker for good packaging and presentation. The book is only about 200 pages and comes in a compact form, great for holding. Sometimes I feel like I'm not reading a proper book when I get a large hardcover edition and I can't fit it snugly in one hand. You know the kind; when you put the book down, that bit of muscle (fat?) between your thumb and index finger hurts. But Tinkers fits snugly in one hand, like a well worn baseball glove, or peas and carrots, or well, a nice glass of cabernet. Let's go with that.

So I liked the feel. The cover, minimalist. A white backdrop with a few trees clustered in the corner. Simple, pleasing to the eye, artistic. Hmmmm....looking good so far. And the content? Well, like a great top note, Harding grabbed me with his first line, "George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died."

Harding writes stories from George Crosby's childhood, stories that center on his father. Crosby's father was a tinker (or, as Lemony Snicket would say, tinkers is a fancy word for traveling salesman). The stories themselves are interesting, but there is a lot of fluff in between. Okay, okay, it's probably called something other than fluff in the literary world, like transitional prose or corollary exposition (making stuff up right now). But to me, it was fluff. He'd go on for a page or two about how a clock worked or how something looked. I guess you have to have pretty mad skills to go on so long about something so simple but it kinda bored me.

Maybe if we took that glass of Cabernet and reduced the book to it's good parts, we'd have an engaging 100 page novella (do those win Pulitzer Prizes?). So I feel a bit contrary to not think this book is the bees knees. Clearly it was well received by many. But for me it just gets a "meh."

Reading the Rocks by Marcia Bjornerud (CBR book #14)

This book came by way of a friend of mine. I didn't get much information except that he assigns it for an earth science class he teaches and hasn't had any complaints. I find pretty much anything interesting so I thought I might actually enjoy it.

Reading the Rocks is a book about the history of the earth, and in some respects, the universe. Besides geology, Bjornerud also talks about evolution and climate change. If you're bored just thinking about this, I'm not. I really thought Bjornerud had an interesting concept in her book. Concept, interesting. Execution...not so much.

I am a big fan of technical books written for the layperson, but I'm not sure that's what Bjornerud was going for. She used a lot of long, technical terms and went into details that made me wonder if she was really writing for a more niche audience. I hate to admit it because I've never done this with a book before, but I skimmed a lot of pages. I know, for shame!

I suppose for a "textbook," this book could be worse, but even with the worst textbooks, have I ever complained to a teacher?

So unfortunately, not a recommend for me, unless you're REALLY into geology. And I mean you go to conferences and think collecting miniature stuffed grand canyon's is the cat's whiskers (actually, that sounds kinda fun). On a side note, I have a stuffed HPV molecule in my office at work. Apparently my co-worker's dad is a sex therapist and that's the kind of thing they give away at THEIR conferences. I don't think people quite understood what I meant when I sent out an email saying, "okay...who gave me HPV?"

Anywho, I guess I'm not talking about the book anymore. For a good laugh, check out this website: giantmicrobes.com