What I'm Reading

Stephen E. Braude, The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

As a kid I always like reading books about the paranormal — probably because they're racked next to the computer science books in the Dewey Decimal System. I never really believed in Bigfoot or UFOs or screaming crystal skulls, but they made for a nice diversion from real life and were exactly sort of thing I needed to get my young imagination racing. So every now and then I'll check out a book on parapsychology just to see if there's anything interesting in there.

This book starts off with an nice foreword, where Braude takes knee-jerk skeptics to task for being utterly dismissive of things beyond human experience, and for slandering paranormal investigators as credulous dupes. Braude then squanders that over the next eight chapters by proving that he's a credulous dupe. During Braude's investigations he makes wild conclusions based on incomplete data sets, conducts experiments with insufficient controls, manages to incompetently document mysterious phenomena, and picks and chooses only the sources that are favorable to his conclusions.

Braude has an unfortunate tendency to fall back on the cases of D.D. Home and Eusapia Palladino, because he thinks they're well-documented and unimpeachable. And they are — by nineteenth century standards. To twentienth century eyes the protocols used for the controls are woefully insufficient, the observations made are maddeningly vague and irrelevant. Plus, everyone involved in these investigations has been dead for a century, so there's no way to re-examine the data or conclusions in a meaningful way.

Here's a particulary ironic moment. In one chapter Braude recounts a tale of a Baltimore police officer who's managed to delude himself into seeing images in the random folds, which leaves Braude shaking his head at the man's level of delusion. Yet only a few short chapters later Braude is reading all sorts of fantastic details into a blurry Ted Serios photo. The images in question are reproduced in the book, and Braude's description of the photo is significantly divergent from the reality.

In short, there's a lot of sloppy, unscientific thinking going on here, a lot of sound and fury that proves absolutely nothing. There are interesting observations to be made about the extraordinary and paranormal, but Braude isn't the person to be making them.

Jonathan Lethem, You Don't Love Me Yet. New York: Doubleday, 2007.

I fint the experience of any given Jonathan Lethem about the same. For the first half of the book, I usually find myself wondering why I should care about anything that's happened so far. Then, there's a brief shining moment in the middle where everything totally clicks, I totally get it, and I'm really curious to see where things go from here. And then he loses me again, and I wonder why I cared in the first place.

Which isn't to say that You Don't Love Me Yet is awful. It's got some interesting characters, bizarre situations, and meaningful themes, but it's just not able to draw them together in a way that's consistently interesting or entertaining.

David Bainbridge, Beyond the Zonules of Zinn: A Fantastic Journey Through Your Brain. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

As much as I hate to admit it, this is the first book this year that I couldn't really finish. I mean, I finished it, but I only read the first half in any detail. I skimmed through the second half of hte book.

It's not that the subject matter is inherently uninteresting — the central nervous system is a fascinating topic, and Bainbridge is not only trying to explain how it evolved, but how our thinking about it has evolved. But the book is just a tad too dry, a tad too technical, to reach a general audience. I think I'd be more receptive to the material in a different format, too — maybe as a series of magazine articles, or a TV documentary.

Peter Watts, Starfish. New York: Tor, 1999.
Peter Watts, Maelstrom. New York: Tor, 2001.
Peter Watts, Behemoth: B-Max. New York: Tor, 2004.
Peter Watts, Behemoth: Seppuku. New York: Tor, 2005.

I've been searching for the third and fourth books forever, only to find them up the street at the library. So I checked 'em out, sat down with them, and then realized about 50 pages into B-Max that I couldn't remember who any of the minor characters were.

The Rifters books are weird. They're the storie of Lenie Clark, a cyborg responsible for maintaining geothermal power stations along deep ocean rifts. Unfortunately, she and her colleagues run into something that's not supposed to be down there, and which the government doesn't plan on letting out.

The first 100 pages of Starfish are pretty much perfect — if you could end the book right after Lenie and Ken meet for the first time, you'd have one of the greatest science fiction short stories ever written, hell, one of the greatest character studies ever written. The rest of the book is pretty good too — there are some interesting interrelated points about life and intelligence, and everything gets pulled up into a nice, satisfying package. Maelstrom is still pretty damn good — as Lenie becomes the focal point for what might be the end of the world, Watts uses the degeneration of society as a metaphor for evolution and manages to neatly tie things together with the themes from the previous book.

Behemoth, though, is a major step down. It does complete Lenie's character arc in a satisfying manner — she goes from dead inside in the first book, to angry in the second book, to guilty in the third book, and finally manages to get her shit together by the conclusion of Seppuku. Unfortunately, Watts increases the focus on Lenie's personal evolution by discarding most of the larger philosophical issues, and in the end we're left with a confrontation between a tragically flawed cyborg and the cackling sociopath who's trying to destroy the world for no particular reason.

Erich von Däniken, Gods from Outer Space. New York: Bantam, 1971.

Pulled this one off the bookshelf while I was prepping for my essays about The Eternals. It struck me that von Däniken might make a better public speaker than an author — when he can't control the pace of his presentation it becomes very obvious that he's not really constructing an argument as just heaping "facts" upon "facts."

Still, one of the reason I like von Däniken and other wackos is that they have a tendency to think big thoughts. Totally impractical, wrong-headed, insane thoughts, but nonetheless fascinating. Sometimes, a temporary immersion in pure crazy is just the right thing to get the creative juices flowing.

Harumi Kurihara, Harumi's Japanese Home Cooking. New York: Penguin, 2007.

I do cook, but I'm not exactly a gourment chef, so I tend to appreciate cookbooks like this one that include a lot of basic kitchen instruction and include a ton of simple recipes that are easy to modify. Admittedly, I haven't managed to prepare anything out of the book yet, but I'm working on it. Really.

Christopher Buckley, Boomsday. New York: Twelve, 2007.

Buckley has a reputation as a political satirist, but he's always struck me as more of a farceur — he never seems to have strong opinions or meaningful insights about his subjects. Boomsday, for instance, is ostensibly a novel about Social Security reform, but the most penetrating insight he manages to throw out there is "Gosh, Washington's gonna screw that up, aren't they?" Having said that, Buckley's never dull. Boomsday is full of terrible people doing terrible things to each other in amusing ways fashion, and everyone (including, to some extent, the insufferable heroine) gets their comeuppance by the end. And hey, if you're not going to be meaningful, it's always good to at least be entertaining.

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