Lessons from Reading 20 (or so) “Business Advice” Books

As the first step in researching my next book, I decided to study the competition. Or at least the people who sometimes hang out with the competition. I wanted to read a bunch of books that one might tag as “business advice,” or “career self-help,” or “here’s what good business people do, you moron.” Here’s the list I ended up with:

  1. So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport
  2. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
  3. The Alliance by Hoffman, Casnocha, and Yeh
  4. Zero to One by Peter Theil
  5. Give and Take by Adam Grant
  6. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy
  7. Gamify: How Gamification Motivates People to Do Extraordinary Things by Brian Burke
  8. The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris
  9. Superbetter by Jane McGonigal
  10. Friend and Foe by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer
  11. Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg
  12. Choose Yourself by James Altucher
  13. The One Minute Manager
  14. Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi
  15. Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Hansson
  16. Faster Cheaper Better by Michael Hammer and Lisa Hershman
  17. StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath
  18. #Girlboss by Sophia Amoruso
  19. Mindset by Carold Dweck

Plus there were these that I had previously read:

  1. Drive by Dan Pink
  2. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
  3. Getting Things Done by David Allen
  4. Quiet by Susan Cain
  5. Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
  6. The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell
  7. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  8. Work Rules! by Laslo Bock

I confess, there were some of these I didn’t read cover to cover, because I didn’t need to in order to get what I needed. But I always read at least a third, sometimes more, and often the whole thing. The idea was to try and understand why the book was popular and what lessons I could take from it. After my time with each, I wrote up a summary in Evernote that at least answered these questions:

  • What is the one sentence summary of this book?
  • How is it organized?
  • What does it do well?
  • What does it do poorly?
  • What does it do that others don’t?
  • What does it do that others also do?

This post will try and summarize what I’ve learned and the lessons I’m going to take with me. There was a lot of variety in these books. They ranged from barely a book at all (The One Minute Manager and Strengths Finder 2.0) to academic (Give and Take) to thinly veiled polemics (Zero to One). There was no one meaningful thing that all the books did. I didn’t like all the books –a few of them I really hated– but they all had something to teach. Here are some lessons I’ve extracted, even from the ones I hated.

Flip Conventional Wisdom

Books like So Good They Can’t Ignore You and The Alliance were attention getting because they took conventional wisdom and told you it was dumb advice. “Following your dreams is a super bad idea” or “People who put others first are more successful” are the kinds of messages that stand out. Find ways to do this wherever I can and maybe make it the hook for the whole book. “Obsession with video games makes you more effective at work” for example.

Tell Stories

I knew this one already, but it bears repeating. Some books, like Smarter Faster Better and Friend & Foe were a pleasure to read and made their points stick because they embedded them in stories about people. Often these were taken from headlines and sources that could be researched. Other books, like Lean In and Superbetter were more autobiographical and relied on personal experiences. Both are effective and I should strive to use stories with every major point and lesson.

Be Prescriptive, Be Specific and Be Practical

Look, I hated The 4-Hour Work Week and wouldn’t trust its author any further than I could throw him, but I have to admit that part of its success is because it offers specific advice that anyone can take. It points you to websites, gives you exercises, feeds you scripts, and tells you exactly what you can do. The advice in the book is actionable, if nothing else. Others, like Never Eat Alone and Superbetter, do this as well if to a lesser degree. They tell you what to do, and not just in a final chapter about “Putting this all to work” or what not. It’s baked into every page.

This give the book a feeling of utility and practicality that probably make it easy to recommend, talk about, share, and reference. Like you’ve gotten something out of your purchase beyond entertainment.

Be Evidence Based

Here’s one thing that most of the books definitely did NOT do. Some, like Zero to On, #Girlboss, and Remote – Office Not Required, and The Alliance get by on their authors’ platforms and credibility. They’re big names and they just tell you what they think and people buy the books because of the author. Others, like Choose Yourself and The 4-Hour Work Week play more off confidence and assertiveness and, frankly, telling you what you want to hear.

But for my goals, I’m better off learning from books like Smarter Faster Better, Give and Take, Friend & Foe, and Mindset. These books reference research, science, and experts in order to support their lessons and theses. And they stay readable while doing it because the research is used to support the story, not the other way around. In reality the research dictates the content of the book (because they aren’t just making things up) but it feels like the stories come first and the research explains them. It’s a good trick and one that I should learn.

Cram In Some Asides, Exercises, and Callouts

Several books made use of little inserts that broke up the chapters and made the books interesting to skim and look at. #Girlboss for example, had “Profiles of a Girlboss” vignette where the author had co-workers write brief bios of themselves. Remote had little cartoons, though the authors WAY overdid it. Superbetter had “quests” and exercises. The 4-Hour Work Week had all manner of exercises and callouts featuring websites and other tools. Faster Cheaper Better desperately needed callouts and bulleted lists to replace its giant paragraphs.

I think this feature helps make the book less tedious and probably helps sell it if someone is flipping through it. It’s also a great place to hit on the “Be prescriptive” advice above.

Be Cheerful, Be Optimistic, Be Fun

Even when I recognized the content of a book to be dreck (e.g., Choose Yourself) I found that I would still respond favorably to some part of it when the tone was happy, upbeat, and conversational. Many of the books like The 4-Hour Work Week and #Girlboss leaned heavily on this and were engaging reads as a result even if they were deeply flawed or lacking upon deeper analysis. They told personal stories, made jokes, spoke directly to the reader, and were generally optimistic about how things were going.

This is one of my strengths as a writer as well (or at least it has worked for me) so I should continue to lean on it when possible.


The books I responded to the most were ones that had a focus, a topic, a thesis, or some other strong organizing principle. There has to be a lesson or a problem or an insight to build the book around. Some didn’t do this at all. Choose Yourself was meandering. Mindset had a clear topic, but it went nowhere with it. Superbetter meandered without a strong structure. Zero to One seemed like a conclusion in search of an argument. And even Smarter Faster Better had a structure and topic that it failed to deliver on –it instead just gave us isolated vignettes that don’t live up to the topics of even individual chapters.

Other books, however, gave you a strong question or topic and then delivered. How has the employer-employee relationship changed? The Alliance. How do you improve and use your professional network? Never Eat Alone. When should you cooperate and when should you compete? Give and Take. What are your strengths and how can you build on them? Strengthsfinder 2.0.

Every part of the book should clearly relate to its point and its thesis.

So these are some of the major lessons I learned. I think it was a worthwhile exercise for a (relatively) new author and I hope to keep this all in mind. If nothing else it gave me a good sense of the competitive landscape and will help with the book proposal. And I picked up a few really good books along the way.

Book Review: SuperBetter

superbetterYou remember Jane McGonigal, right? She’s the one who blends positive psychology with game design and hopes that a game designer will someday win a Nobel Prize. Her 2015 book SuperBetter extends that concept and explains, more or less, how to apply gamification to dealing with adversity and challenge.

The concept, and the SuperBetter app that goes with it, came after McGonigal suffered a concussion from which she had great difficulty recovering. The first part of the book talks about positive psychology and video games, describing how video games are often helpful and healthy. The second section describes several rules for “being gameful” in your approach to challenges and all the other shit life can throw at you. Appropriately, these generally follow a video game motif, instructing you to adopt quests, seize power ups, and beat the bad guys.

Peppered all through this in asides and inserts are “Quests” where McGonigal asks you to take a moment to do something that illustrates what she’s talking about and increases some type of what she calls “resilience.” You may be asked to increase your social resilience by sending a kind note to someone, or improve your emotional resilience by looking out a window for a few minutes. Most of these little quests struck me as somewhat twee and goofy, but they seem pretty inseparable from the book’s methods and messages. The section of the book contains several applications of these quests and other lessons for specific “adventures” or things to do with the SuperBetter system. Think of them as playlists for particular moods or goals.

MgGonigal also inserts lots of “SuperBetter stories” into the chapters, which are testimonials and correspondences from SuperBetter users. I skimmed over all these, since they generally served to just repeat the lessons I had already read. I think they would have worked better if there were fewer of them and they had been incorporated directly into the main text.

Overall, I can see why this book is popular. The SuperBetter system is alluring and applicable to everyone, and apparently it works for at least some people. That’s awesome. McGonigal also has convivial style and seems like the kind of person you want cheering for you or helping you get through something tough –which is exactly what she does through this book. And I’m happy to say that despite the whole self-help aspect of the book and the eye rolling nature of some of the “quests,” McGonigal frequently drops some science by referencing proper research done at universities and published in peer reviewed scientific journals.

Book Review: The 4-Hour Work Week

4hwwYou all, I think this guy may be a sociopath. And he wants me to join him.

This book is exactly what the title suggests: a (supposed) guide to working just a few hours per week and joining what the author Tim Ferris calls “the new rich.” Ferris sets out to teach you how to “DEAL” –Define your financial goals, Eliminate stuff that will interfere with them, Automate income, and Liberate yourself to travel the world. Yeah, it’s that kind of book.

I was grossed out right off the bat. Ferris starts off with the hard pitch, telling you about all the ridiculously wonderful things he has done in his life, how much money he has coming out of his ears, and how super awesome things are for him –and how he can help you have a super awesome life if you’re pumped up enough to do what’s right for you and seize this amazing new opportunity! Everything about the tone of it made me think I was listening to the Shamwow guy strut around on a stage.

He tones it down after the introduction, but it’s clear that Ferris is recommending a “take care of numero uno at all costs” kind of approach to life. In fact, he comes across as a straight up scumbag in places and he has credibility problems as a result. He often tells you to only look out for yourself and break certain social contracts, especially as they relate to work. Some examples:

  • Negotiate a work at home agreement, then travel the world when everyone else thinks you’re working at home.
  • Avoid getting assigned work or interacting with people by “training” coworkers to not interact with you
  • Hold back your best work performance for your work at home days so it looks like you’re more productive when working remotely
  • Start a side business on company time
  • Test market a new product by placing Google adword ads, then just take people to a “page under construction”
  • Use loopholes in rules to win –-in his case, a kickboxing tournament in China.

And so on. One of the net results of all this is that I don’t trust him at all and would want nothing to do with him if I met him.

But then again, maybe trust isn’t a necessary ingredient here. Instead, Ferris heaps on more advice, tips, tools, testimonials exercises, and product recommendations than I’ve seen so far in this exercise. The book aims to be a practical workbook for achieving the lifestyle the author (supposedly) has. It throws so much against the wall, everyone is guaranteed to find something useful or at least thought provoking. You will find something to try or change, and you will be told exactly how Ferris thinks you should do it. I, for example, actually took away a few new ideas for time management and prioritizing work. I also found his chapter on oursourcing tasks to virtual personal assistants in India fascinating and practical in a crazy, outside the box kind of way.

So despite sounding like the lovechild of motivational speaker and the ShamWow guy, you can’t say that Ferris is just throwing around empty platitudes. The book is replete with practical, clear, and doable advice and tools. Along with the “get rich easy” promise, I can see why this made the book so successful.

Book Review: Gamify

gamifyI admit it: as someone who blabs on about the psychology of video games and as someone who is an industrial-organizational psychologist, I should know more about gamification. But I don’t. So I picked up this book.

Burke isn’t a psychologist or a game designer. He’s an analyst with Garnter, a very large marketing research and consulting company. He specializes in gamification, which he defines as the the application of game mechanics and experiences to motivate people. GAMIFY is meant to teach you how to create a gamified experience for employees, students, customers, or anyone else with a common interest or goal. The front half of the book goes through each of these groups and explains how gamification has worked for them, citing examples and case studies. The back half of the book details Burke’s 7-step process of “player experience design” that aims to create an effective gamification …thing. I still don’t know what the propper noun is here.

I think the first section is just full of example after example of gamified systems, and it could have been pared down quite a bit. At just 162 pages the book is already slim –probably intentionally so– but I think much more attention could have been given in the back half to the nuts and bolts of gamification. Burke lists out a lot of sub-steps and topics to keep in mind, but their treatments are always cursory –just a paragraph or two each. The book would have benefitted from exercises, case studies, tools, forms, and other practical aid. As it is, it’s a primer on gamification at best.

Burke also eschews any discussion of how fields like psychology, communications, economics, human-computer interaction, user experience design, or even game design could help the gamification process. Probably because he’s not trained in any of them. Nor does he really engage in any kind of evidence-based or data driven argument, which IS odd for someone with his background. The book would have benefitted from it, and I’m left dubious about what is truly understood about gamification by those with an empirical bent.

Finally, and this probably stands out to me because of who I am, but I’m kind of irked about how little Burke understands video games and how dismissive he is of them. I understand that the goal of gamification is NOT to turn something into a video game. But I think successful video game (and board game) design has a lot to illustrate about effective gamification. Instead, the author just seems to hand wave them away with generalities like “Video games have a constant barrage of lights and sounds that make playing the game an exciting experience.” Which depicts only a surface level familiarity with games and a limited understanding of why they are appealing (hint: it’s not just the pretty graphics). Indeed, perhaps someone should write a book about what video games can teach us about effective gamification…

Book Review: You Are Not So Smart

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself is a blog turned book that aims to explore many of the common biases and errors in decision-making that have made the field of behavioral economics so active in the last few decades. Author David McRaney confesses to not being a psychologist (hey, it happens) but he does a pretty darn good impersonation of throughout the book’s 48 chapters, each of which is dedicated to one reason why you may not be so smart about day-to-day decision-making as you think.

In general, McRaney does a good job of making each one of these 48 topics accessible. He doesn’t talk over a general audience’s head, yet he usually manages to work in descriptions of the research and scientific evidence that each chapter’s topic is predicated on. And it helps that by and large each topic is something that most readers can relate to –remembering childhood events, procrastinating, deciding what brands to buy, affirming your political beliefs, responding to authority figures, arguing with idiots on the Internet, and the like. The book’s schtick is that through its revelation of common errors and biases related to these topics it constantly posits that you aren’t as smart or rational as you might think, because you are no exception to the effects described. Each chapter tries to hook you with declarations of a common misconception and a related truth. It’s the kind of “See, science and psychology matter to YOU and your everyday life” stuff that I love reading about. You should find something interesting in every chapter.

The other thing that makes the book approachable is that McRaney isn’t afraid to use informal language and specific cultural references. The book is replete with references to Battlestar Galactica, World of Warcraft, and other touchstones. It also contains occasional phrases like “this is bullshit” and “what the hell?” and other casual language that makes it feel like you’re listening to someone go on about this stuff over a beer or a shared commute. It’s a friendly and refreshing tone for which I’d like to thank not only the author for offering, but also his editor for allowing.

The book’s roots as a blog also show through in that most of the chapters are very short –some are in fact as brief as a healthy blog post, it may not surprise you to find out. On the one hand, this can be nice because you can nibble your way through the book, working through one or two of the chapters at a time if you’re not up to taking huge bites. It also makes the book easier to use as a reference later if you want to return to one of the errors or biases.

On the other hand, though, I think the book often misses the opportunity to tell stories that give some more context and meat to the phenomena it describes. Other books in this same vein that I’ve read have walked the reader through narratives about either how the researchers developed their ideas and experiments, or told stories about real-life applications of the biases and mental hiccups they describe. In his book How We Decide, for example, Jonah Lehrer frames a discussion about dopamine predictions by describing how a Lieutenant Commander in the British Navy reacted to odd readings from his radar display and barely saved many lives in the process. There’s none of this gripping storytelling in You Are Not So Smart, nor does McRaney do anything along the lines of tying several related topics into one larger concept, like maybe how our instincts to preserve our self image worm their way into an astonishing array of daily decisions. This book is clearly a collection of blog entries based on a bullet list of topics. And while that has its appeal, if McRaney does a follow-up work I’d probably enjoy it more if he really took his time to research some interesting background material and weave a bigger picture out of all the individual strands.

Book Review: Ready Player One

Okay, let’s say you’re a child of the 1980s, and like a lot of people who were teens during that unprecedented explosion of pop culture you’re thoroughly steeped in the lore of 80s American movies, television shows, video games, music, and toys. NOW, imagine that all that trivia is key –almost literally– to proving not only that you weren’t wasting your youth, but also to defeating evil, getting the girl, and acquiring massive riches. That’s pretty much the nerd fantasy behind Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

The setup for this dystopian future science fiction novel is that James Haliday was a game designer and fan of the 80s who was equal parts Howard Hughes, Richard Garriot, and batcrap crazy. He was also the pro generator of “The OASIS,” a virtual reality game into which most of the world has retreated in the face of global calamity. Right before dying, Haliday announced a massive quest within his creation, challenging players to find a series of secret challenges within the virtual universe. The winner gets control of the OASIS as well as several billion dollars. Enter our hero and narrator Wade Watts, a.k.a., “Parzival,” a destitute youth who educates himself on everything the 1980s had to offer in order to find Haliday’s Egg before an amoral megacorporation can do the same and seize control of the virtual paradise.

The main hook in Ready Player One is how it revels in 80s pop culture. Absurdly enough, Parzival has to quote lines from Mathew Broderick movies and master multiple classic coin-op arcade games in order to find and beat each of Haliday’s challenges. In addition to these central plot points, conversations between fellow egg hunters (or “gunters” for short) are thick with similar references. Having come of age in the 80s I’m in the sweet spot for this kind of thing, and I recognized and appreciated almost every single reference. I smirked, for example, when one character snapped at another with “Tell the truth, Claire!” even when the author provided no other context. And I not only vividly remember the classic Atari 2600 game Adventure, but I had myself found the game’s easter egg after which Haliday’s entire hunt was patterned. So as a literary device, this stuff is fun if you’re the kind of person who will appreciate it. If you’re not, I’m not so sure.

On the downside, while the OASIS makes a vivid and flexible backdrop against which you can tell a story, Cline seems to over rely on it a bit in terms of plotting. Improbable plot devices constantly popped up in the form of overly convenient “artifacts” or super-items within the game, which highlighted cracks in Cline’s otherwise good plotting. Need a way to make the bad guys totally invincible for just long enough to make things dramatic? Artifact. Need a way to save the hero from certain death? Artifact. Want a humongous showdown between protagonist and antagonist? Two artifacts. It gets a little obvious at times, as does Perzival’s uncanny knack for possessing whatever area of obscure expertise needed to beat every challenge.

That said, Ready Player One is generally really readable and a lot of fun if you’re in the target audience. Things zip along quickly in the vein of a classic quest tale, which is exactly what the story is. Cline also taps into many themes that are relevant to anyone living nowadays –things like online privacy, escapism, commercialization of art, the value of offline friendships, obsessive fanboyism, and the like. These topics are handled pretty well in the context of the larger story, and Cline makes some insightful and interesting statements.

So I’d recommend Ready Player One if the gist of it sounds interesting to you. The “everything that was nerdy about your youth is actually awesome and totally key to domination of your opponents” plot is a bit eye rolling, as are the transparent plot devices, but it’s still fun and it’s neat to see someone throw references to things I loved as a kid like they were so much party confetti.

Book Review: The Information

Jame’s Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is kind of all over the place, as you might expect given its nebulous subject matter. The author intends to do pretty much what the subtitle suggests: review the history of information as a concept, dive into the scientific field of information theory, and ponder what recent volume of information flow means for us as a society or even as a species. As such, it’s a mix of history, hard science, and even a dash of speculation.

My favorite parts of the book were the history of science bits, which Gleick presents after what seems to be exhaustive and comprehensive research. He traces the evolution of information as a concept, starting around the invention of the written word, then working up through the time line and pointing out landmarks like the printing press, the discovery of logarithms, the telegraph, Morse code, the telephone, the computer, the Internet, and the like. Each of these is discussed in the context of how they shaped the abstract concept of “information” and all led to the inevitable creation of a theory of information. I also loved learning about all the people behind these inventions and discoveries, and Gleick delivers the best bits of biographies on characters like Samuel Morse, Alan Turing, Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace (nee Byron), Claude Shannon, James Maxwell, and more. These parts of the book were replete with fun facts and amusing stories, like the woman who tried to “send” a bowl of sauerkraut by the newly invented telegraph or how the editors of the Oxford Dictionary decide what new words to add each edition. It’s all very educational and made me think of information and the information technology around me in new ways. I always love learning about visionaries and how they made their mark.

The sections on the formal theory of information, though, were also enjoyable, but to my layman mind they were sometimes dense to the point of being impenetrable. Gleick doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff, and his discussion of information theory is flung far enough to cover many fields: mathematics, cybernetics, quantum theory, psychology, electrical engineering, chemistry, astrophysics, computer programming, genetics, history, cryptology, and more. And while Gleick doesn’t revel in jargon and he makes many attempts to keep things at a high level, much of the book is unavoidably scholarly. Still, I was usually able to follow along with the WHAT he was getting at, if not the HOW. And it really is impressive how widely he casts his net.

And I’m glad I did. While some of the finer points may have been lost on me, I enjoyed the history of science treatment and got enough of it to get a feel for the shape of information theory and how the general concept of information has evolved and been revealed through advances in philosophy, science, and technology –what it is, how it’s measured, where it goes, and what its properties are. It’s heady stuff, but fun to think about.

Book Review: The First Two Gentleman Bastards Books

As far as character archetypes go, we’ve seen the likes of Locke Lamora before: clever, dashing, silver-tongued, and full of tricks, he seems to have been put together with the same blocks as Robin Hood, Brer Rabbit, and most Errol Flynn movie roles. To have him as a character in a psudo-fantasy novel, then, is pretty interesting. Lamora and his partners in crime fancy themselves as diciples of the god of thieves, and they live simply to be “richer and cleverer than anyone else” with stealing from the rich being more the point than actually being rich.

The Gentleman Bastards, as his gang calls itself have a penchant for long cons and elaborate schemes that require more acting and subterfuge than swordplay. Their playground is the city of Comorr, which author Scott Lynch presents as a kind of Rennaisance Vennice built on the bones of a mysterious, powerful, and completely abandoned civilization. There’s magic, but outside of a kind of supercharged chemisty called “alchemy” it’s very powerful but extremely rare. This all gives Camorr and the larger world a very refreshing feeling to it, as it’s unlike any other high fantasy I’ve ever read.

One of the things I like about Locke as a character is that Lynch manages to avoid the tempting trap of making him too good at what he does. Cleverness can be a superpower that trumps any danger if the author sets his mind to it, and then it becomes as boring and trite when the hero thinks or talks himself out of any peril as it would be if he just punched everyone super hard. While Locke and his companions clearly think fast on their feet and show a preference for extreme preparation in whatever they attempt, it’s often not enough. Things go badly, they make mistakes, complications arise, and unfortunately runs of bad luck do happen. What’s entertaining, then, is watching the characters react to these challenges and seeing them suffer setbacks and maybe even complete defeat.

The first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora is definitely the better of the two I’ve read so far. The plot is sufficiently complex given the nature of the characters, but it hangs together well and lets us enjoy seeing Locke and his partners wedged into a tight spot before finally wiggling their way out. It also presents a nice mystery or two and lets us learn about the workings of Comorr’s gangs and culture in the process. It’s entertaining all the way through.

In contrast, the second book, Red Seas Under Red Skies, almost stalls out in the beginning. It opens with Locke and his companion Jean attempting a casino heist that seems like something more out of an Oceans 11 movie than a fantasy novel. Sure, this isn’t a typical fantasy setting, but the “Sinspire” casino still seemed a little too incongruous for my tastes. From there the plot gets messy quickly and it seems like Lynch is picking up and abandoning threads all over the place just to have fun with them but not putting enough thought into a coherent narrative. This changes towards the end of the book when all the major parts of the plot mostly come together, but it’s still nowhere as nearly done as in the first book.

So, if you fancy a fantasy page turner with a unique setting and a likeable but flawed trickster hero, give the first book a try. There are more in the series coming, with the third book supposedly due out later this year.

Book Review: Robopocalypse

“Robots go bananas and kill everyone” isn’t exactly a novel idea in science fiction, but it stands as a sturdy foundation for Daniel Wilson’s book Robopocalypse. You know the drill: Man creates artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence takes one look at man and says “Yeeeeah, I’m gonna just go ahead and destroy all humans.” Man proves resourceful, spirited, and difficult to eradicate. Time travel may or may not be involved.

What’s interesting about Robopocalypse is that instead of focusing big battles a la Terminator, it lingers on the beginning of the “New War” and shows how the AI serendipitously gains control of all the mechanical and electronic do-dads that near-future humanity has grown reliant on and turns them against their creators. So not only are there service robots choking people to death, there’s killer vacuum cleaners, smart cars that deliberately crash themselves (and their human passengers) into one another at high speeds, buildings that turn off the lights and lure people into elevator shafts, and the like. Much like World War Z, each chapter in Robopocalypse is a vignette following a wide cast of characters who aren’t even connected until the book’s climax. These early to middle parts of the book were the most enjoyable to me because they showed a wide, creative array of ways that things could go south if our machines turned against us.

Unfortunately this also works at cross purposes with the rest of what you want out of a novel. Robopocalypse is epic in nature –it chronicles the near annihilation of humanity– but it feels very cursory. The rapid-fire chapters cover a lot of ground, but Wilson doesn’t take any time to build characters or develop them beyond crude, stunted arcs. I don’t really feel like I know or care about any of these people –or robots, for that matter. The book is full of great gaps in its plot so that it lurches forward months at a time, robbing the reader of getting to know the characters or get a feel for what they’re going through. It’s all punchline and no setup.

The nature of the chapter vignettes also fails in that each one is supposed to be told from the perspective of a given character, but the author often tries to convince us that the action is being reconstructed by an overall narrator who sees gleans events from a variety of sources such as security cameras, eyewitness testimony, and other recordings. This conceit simply doesn’t work in that you’re always conscious of an omniscient author cramming things together in a way to tell the story he wants to tell. There’s no “found footage” feel to the narrative like I think he was going for. Instead you just have to decide to go with it, but roll your eyes a little while you do. Worse, the characters often don’t sound like what you’d think they’re supposed to, like the frozen yogurt employee who throws in just a few too many similes and colorful turns of phrase when supposedly dictating his eyewitness testimony to a cop.

So, it’s unfortunate that Robopocalyse wasn’t better written, because it has some neat ideas that could have stood some fleshing out. It feels like a book that should be three or four times longer than it is, given its desired scale and large cast of characters.

Book Review: Cannery Row

Continuing to try and work my way through John Steinbeck’s novels. This short work bears a lot of resemblance to Tortilla Flat in that it’s largely devoid of plot and focuses on a group of loafers and bums, and it’s kind of funny in places. Cannery Row has a bit wider scope, focusing as it does on the community near a fishing cannery in Monteray, California. I’m not sure of the timeframe, but I’d guess that like other Steinback books it’s set in the early 20th century. The bums in question here are the residents of “The Palace Flophouse and Grill,” a former fish meal storage hut. Like the paisanos in Tortilla Flat, the Palace’s inhabitants are possessed of skills and philosophy but are lacking in ambition. Instead they just choose to take things as they come and enjoy life. Their outlook largely mirrors the first half of the novel.

This changes a bit when they decide that they should throw a party for one of Cannery Row’s other residents, Doc, a kind of dour but helpful natural philosopher who collects and works with wildlife specimens. The book loosely follows the Flophouse crew and Doc as they screw up one party and try to make it right with another. Chapters are interspersed with little scenes and tales from around the community, giving us sometimes funny and sometimes grim views of everyone else in town. And for such a short book it has a wide cast. In addition to Doc and the Flophouse inhabitants there’s Lee Chong, the owner of the local grocery store, Dora Flood, the madam of the local restaurant/brothel, and assorted other neighbors. Through them the book hits on its themes of happiness, community, charity, and ambition.

And, like Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck’s appreciation for simple pleasures and the authentic, straight-forward people who love them shines straight through. You get the feeling that Mac and the others in he Palace Flophouse and Grill may not amount to much in life, but they’re doing a better job of living it than any politician, businessman, or person of would-be significance ever could. To me, though, the bums in Cannery Row were much more likeable than those in Tortilla Flat –they’re lazy and they may steal on occasion, but they’re more honest about it and don’t go through the (admittedly amusing) mental and philosophical acrobatics needed to justify their actions. They just do what they do, and they care about the other people in their community enough to put up some effort. They seem like nice fellas.

Book Review: Bossypants

You know Tina Fey, right? Writer and host of Weekend update for Saturday Night Live, actress and producer on 30 Rock, and reluctant Sara Palin impersonator. Bossypants is the result of the “hey, I should write a book!” urge that people like her get, and lucky for us it’s as funny and well written as we could want. The book is autobiographical in nature, and follows the typical template of starting with her childhood, moving through adolescence, then young adulthood, early career, then current day. For some reason I thought the book was going to deal more with motherhood, but while that particular topic is present, it’s no more so than others.

As you might expect, those other, accompanying topics are slapshot and almost random, and the book reads more like an extended blog than any kind of memoir. You get stuff on her dad, the time she spent surrounded by gay teens in a summer theater camp, her early days at SNL, her time with an improv troop, her wry description of a magazine cover photo shoot (probably my favorite chapter), her honeymoon, and others. But that’s cool; I certainly wasn’t looking for or expecting any kind of coherent narrative or theme to tie everything together. I just wanted to be amused. And for those of us who are fans of 30 Rock, there’s a delightfully meaty serving of inside baseball (is that a weird mixing of metaphors?) that describes getting that show off the air and the creators’ pleased amazement over its eventual success.

And, as I said, it’s all pretty amusing. Fey has a great, wry, and piercing sense of humor that couples well with the familiar staple of self deprecation. She makes fun of herself constantly, seizing on her shortcomings and using them to bludgeon the reader into amusement. It also works in that once she does turn her sights on other targets, like answering particularly insipid reader e-mails and messageboard posts, she doesn’t come off as arrogant or superior. It’s more like she and the reader are sharing a sidelong “Oh my god, can you believe this?” kind of understanding. It’s also notable that this version of Fey is a lot more raunchy and lewd than you might be used to if you’ve only experienced her through the filters of network television. Not that it’s all potty jokes, but there’s a few pointed jokes about things like sex, religion, menstruation, and homosexuality. Oh, and there’s also an extended bit about jars full of urine, so I guess there is some bathroom humor too. But it’s all pretty funny.

Book Review: Mockingjay

Mockingjay is the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, in which our heroine Katniss Everdene finally comes into her own. Here’s the super condensed version of the setup: dystopia, dictatorship, reality TV, gladiatorial games, love triangle, rebellion. That will get you most of the way there, but you can read my review of The Hunger Games or Catching Fire for more detail.

After the filler that was book 2, I was glad to see Collins finally start running full speed with a theme she’s been hinting at since the first book: Katniss as an unwilling and even unknowing role model and inspiration to the growing rebellion in Panum. She, along with several of the other characters from previous books, find themselves in the middle of a full-out war against Capitol, fighting for their freedom by cutting off the city’s access to the goods and services it had traditionally plundered from its various surrounding districts. Only Katniss finds that life as a the face of a rebellion isn’t much better than the alternative, since she’s still being pushed around, still having to throw herself into danger to protect those she loves, and still finding herself literally on camera and fumbling to play a part for the sake of appealing to home viewers. It is, in short, very much like being in the Hunger Games. I thought this was pretty clever of Collins, and I really like how she plays with this intersection of celebrity, politics, and warfare, which you can see pretty clearly in the real world if you squint your eyes and cock your head just a little.

The author also continues to touch on other themes like responsibility, government control, sacrifice, the role of media in war and politics, class warfare, poverty, and the rest. And, of course, while things resemble the Hunger Games thematically, we are finally not watching Katniss and Peeta stomp around an actual arena. Instead we see Katniss and her crew engaging in real warfare, making hard decisions (or failing to), and living with the consequences (or trying to). The book does, in fact, get pretty dark at times. Like really dark. Like, dead babies dark. This is kind of surprising for a book found in the “Young Adult” section of the bookstore, but at the same time it gives it a sense of gravity that entirely fits with the themes being laid out.

I cannot, unfortunately, say the same thing about the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gail, but at least in Mockingjay I can sigh and remind myself of three things: 1) this is indeed a book written for young adults, 2) Katniss is supposed to be like 16 or something and most every one of us was also emotionally retarded at that age, and 3) it’s not nearly as bad as it was in the first two books. And, in the end, Collins decided to give us a payoff (or at least a resolution) that actually felt natural and deserved.

So, while Mockingjay wasn’t the novel page-turner that I found the first book to be, it was definitely better than the second and made for a nice cap to the series.

Book Review: The Wise Man’s Fear

Note: There are going to be some spoilers for The Wise Man’s Fear below. I don’t feel like I can really explain my opinions about the book without delving into that kind of territory, so come back later if you haven finished the book yet but plan on it.

It’s disappointing, really. I generally liked Patrick Rothfus’s initial book in his fantasy series, The Name of the Wind, which introduced us to the trouper orphan Kvothe and promised to tell us both how his extravagant legend grew and what the truth behind it really was. We saw Kvothe live on the streets, use his native wit and ability to get into The University, and then saw him start to make a name for himself while trying to learn what he could about the mysterious company that foisted that whole “orphan” status on him. The book was framed in an interesting way by “present day” Kvothe telling his story to two men: one who wants to tease the truth apart from the legend and one who wants truth to become legend again.

The Wise Man’s Fear continues Kvothe’s story, and while it’s still got some of the interesting world building and character moments that the first book does, it’s also got some crippling flaws that made it hard for me to get through the book if for no other reason that the constant face palming kept blocking my view of the page.

First among these is the fact that Rothfus spends the first chunk of the book retreading territory well worn from the first volume. We get to see more of Kvothe puttering around the University, more of Kvothe being poor, more of Kvothe pining after his untouchable lady love, more of Kvothe feuding with the obligatory rich bully kid, more of Kvothe imperiling his health for the services of a money lender, and generally more of everything we got in the last half of the first book. And this isn’t just a quick refresher to help span the long wait between books; the author spends THREE HUNDRED AND SIXTY FIVE PAGES rehashing.

Then, when Kvothe does move on, Rothfus pointedly refuses to discuss an entire adventure involving “a storm, piracy, treachery, and shipwreck.” Granted, you could view this as more deconstruction of the genre on Rothfus’s part, but what it really did was make the retreading of University life seem even more glaring. And while things do get a little more interesting after we leave the University, this is quickly followed by the two biggest face palms of the whole book. One of my complaints about The Name of the Wind was that Kvothe was a bit of a “Mary Sue” in that he was super good at everything and way too mature for a kid in his early teens. Kvothe excels at almost every subject, is a master musician, a clever magician, a brilliant engineer, a fleet-footed burglar, and more. Rothfus does not rectify this in the second book, but rather exacerbates it. In fact, at points it rather embodies some of the most embarrassing male wish fulfillment fantasy that the genre has to offer.

To wit: at one point Wise Man’s Fear’s plot lurches to the left and Kvothe suddenly runs off to …well, I’ve really got no other way to say it: he learns to have sex real good. He becomes (or is naturally) supernaturally good at the sex, in fact, because his tutelage comes from the ancient goddess of …sex. Of course. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that this whole section of the book was so embarrassing and out of place that it really seemed more like it came from a mouth breathing fanboy than the author of the imaginative and well plotted The Name of the Wind.

And from there, it doesn’t get much better, because after our hero graduates with his Ph.D. in sexing, the next stretch of story takes us to Japan. Well, not really, but it might as well be, since Kvothe’s learning martial arts and swordplay from a mysterious, honor-bound warrior society again sounds like something that some Japan-obsessed fan fiction writer would come up with. Also, he shows some ninja ladies how awesome he is at sex. No, I’m totally serious.

All that slagging aside, there are actually things about The Wise Man’s Fear that I liked. The interludes with modern day Kvothe continue to be interesting, and even in the awful “goddess of sex” and “Japanland” sections there are scenes that I liked, such as Kvothe’s meeting with a malicious tree spirit that uses its clairvoyance to mess with people and the way he solved his final warrior’s test with a different tree full of leaves sharp enough to cut him to ribbons.

And I continue to like how Rothfus deconstructs the whole fantasy hero trope through the telling of Kvothe’s story. But I just wish he had shown enough restraint to let the real Kvothe be less than the legend and let his exploits be revealed to be less than what they became in the retellings. In the first, book, for example, we learned that while Kvothe didn’t “slay a dragon and save a princess” as legend has it, but he did trick a large, lizard-like beast into poisoning itself, thus saving himself and his female companion. That’s the sort of clever stuff that I think is infinitely more interesting than tossing in a incongruous clichés like a sex goddess or a mysterious society that teaches people how to be kung-fu masters in just a few weeks.

I’ll still read the next book –look forward to it, actually– but suffice to say I’m pretty disappointed in this one and hope Rothfus returns to proper form.

Book Review: Catching Fire

Catching Fire is the second in the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. I liked the first book pretty well, so I went right into this one. Unfortunately it’s really not anywhere as good, despite having a lot of potential. I get the feeling that Collins only had two books’ worth of story to tell with these characters in this world, but because she needed a trilogy she set out to fluff up this completely unnecessary middle book.

As you may know, The Hunger Games books are set in the post-apocalyptic world of Panum. The empire’s capital, Capitol, is nestled in the bones of North America and maintains a firm boot on the necks of 12 surrounding districts. Part of this bullying involves sending 24 youths to fight to the death until one is crowned victor of the annual Hunger Games, which are televised to both entertain the citizens of Capitol and rub it in the rest of Panum’s collective face. In the first book, our heroine Katniss Everdene survived the Games, along with her love interest Peeta. But the manner in which they did it required thumbing their noses at the Capitol, which had two unintended consequences that form the plot of Catching Fire. First, the other districts take inspiration from their defiance and start rebellions. Second, the Capitol exacts revenge against Katniss and Peeta by forcing them to fight in another Hunger Games.

So, yes. We get essentially the same plot as last time: Katniss and Peeta fighting in the Games and fumbling around with their emotions. Collins shows she still knows how to write a page turner, but it’s THE SAME PAGES WE’VE ALREADY TURNED IN THE LAST BOOK. I was really expecting Collins to run with the idea of the unintentional heroine who has to figure out how to lead a rebellion, as she had set up in the end of the last book and in the opening of this one. Instead we get that all delayed until the third book while we’re left to putter around in the arena again in an adventure made more dull by its lack of novelty.

I really do think that Catching Fire could have been excised entirely, with the few important bits (like Katniss’s victory tour and the instigations of rebellion) put into the beginning of the next book. It would have been much better than what we got.

Book Review: Reality is Broken

Unlike people who apparently pay attention to what’s going on in the gaming industry, I only recently became aware of Jane McGonigal, a Ph.D. in Performance Studies best known for designing alternate reality games and thinking really big thoughts. After reading her book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How they Can Change the World, McGonigal strikes me as part cheerleader, part social scientist, part entrepreneur, and part that crazy lady in the downtown L.A. parking lot that would always throw pigeons at me. It’s an interesting combination.

I wanted to review Reality is Broken here because McGonigal does what I do: she examines the intersection of psychology and video games. Only where I tend to look at the larger world and apply theories about human behavior to explain game design and player behaviors, she does the inverse by starting at maxims of game design and player desires to understand how we do things in the real world.

Or rather, how we should do things in the real world. The central thesis of the book is that reality –that is, everything that’s NOT a game– is inferior to games and we can learn a lot about how to make reality better by looking at what makes games so wonderful. This idea is codified in fourteen different “fixes” for real life, such as getting in a epic mindset (Fix #6), opening yourself up to having fun with strangers (Fix #9), and doing work that’s intrinsically satisfying (Fix #3). The book is at its best when it draws these straight lines from the things that make video games great to ways to improve our work, philanthropy, and relationships outside of games. Specific, actionable goals subject to clear feedback, for example, are things that every game designer aims for and every player seeks out, and to the extent that we can adopt those same standards in real life and frame our everyday activities in game-like terms, we can be happier and more productive. The game-cum-todo-list Chore Wars is a perfect example, and I find that kind of stuff fascinating.

That’s a pretty cool topic, and I have to admit that McGonigal has a knack for drawing these parallels in ways that are really clear and make you think “Yeah, I can see that!” This made the early chapters of the book (grouped under the heading “Why Games Make Us Happy”) my favorites, since they focused on building her argument and really nailing in a clear way many of the things about video games that can make us happy and mentally healthy. The second group of chapters (“Reinventing Reality”) start to deal with applying these rules to alternate reality games. My favorite one of these was “Cruel to Be Kind,” which was a re-purposing of the old “Assassins” game that many of us played on college campuses. The difference is that instead of sneaking up to people and squirting them with water pistols, C2BK players would perform random acts of kindness –such as a warm greeting, a helping hand, or a kind compliment– in order to take each other out of the game. Only you never knew who your fellow players were, so many perplexed but pleased bystanders are often caught in crossfires of friendly words and offers of aid. It’s the kind of thing that perfectly captures the kind of “let’s make the WHOLE WORLD totally awesome HELL YEAH!” attitude that McGongal is so well known for.

Things start to fall apart in the third section of the book, however, which includes description after description of McGonigal’s various other alternate reality and crowdsourcing projects. It’s here that I kind of started to lose the thread, because describing things like Wikipedia other collective intelligence projects as “games” starts to strain credibility and the premises put forth earlier in the book. How exactly did we get from “Players seek out experiences that create psychological flow” to “Let’s get gamers to blog about solutions to the energy crisis?” Is that really a game the same way that Halo or The Sims are? It sure doesn’t feel like it, and that’s kind of where I think Reality is Broken is itself a little broken.

Still, it’s a very interesting book, and it gave me some great ideas. I should also mention that McGonigal’s tone takes some getting used to and more than a couple of pinches of salt. She obviously believes these big thoughts and thinks that games can serve as models for making the world better, to the point where she (somewhat infamously) thinks there should one day be a Nobel prize for game design. But like I said her claims sometimes strains credibility and you often wonder what the point B between points A and C looks like, because you apparently missed it. But at the very least, the chapters on what makes games work are worth reading, and the rest of the book will at worst make you feel pretty good about being a gamer. Still, her joy and optimism are infectious, and having champions like McGonigal for our hobby is hardly a bad thing.

By the way, if you want to get a taste for McGonigal’s grandiosity and ideas, you can do so by watching her TED Talk here.

Book Review: Full Dark, No Stars

Full Dark, No Stars is Stephen King’s latest collection of stories, but unlike previous anthologies this one consists of novellas instead of short stories. “1922” is about the fate of a Nebraska farmer who kills his wife and tangles his star-crossed, teenage son up in the consequences. “Big Driver” is a lot like if Stephen King wrote a Lifetime Movie of the Week script: female author on a road trip is waylaid, sexually assaulted, left for dead, then has to wrestle with how to deal with her shame and rage. “Fair Extension” offers a disturbing answer to the age old question of why bad things happen to good people, while “A Good Marriage” examines what might happend when a wife discovers that her husband of 27 years is secretly a serial killer.

Relative to King’s last collection, Just After Sunset, I liked Full Dark a lot more. My favorite of the novellas is “Big Driver,” which I hated at first because it felt like King was basing his character’s inner dialog on pamphlets swiped from the local battered women’s shelter. It just felt stilted and cliche. But not long into the story, things take an interesting turn and it starts to read more like what you’d get if the lead character from one of those “bloodless murder mysteries” that so captivate little old ladies were to find herself trying to solve a brutal crime where she was not only the victim, but the artiber of justice. I also liked “1922” for its skillful use of an unreliable narrator and the way King toys with us by leaving clues about how reality might have diverged from this character’s confession.

As I went through each of the 4 novellas, I kept thinking that the theme tying them all together was that of people being forced (or at least strongly nudged) into bad situations by the events around them. Most of these stories exhibit excellent plotting on King’s part –you can see the characters ponder their next act or their next decision, and you can see the forces at play. Tess wants to go to the police about her attacker, but she fears the shame and damage to her career. Darcy wants to turn her serial murdering husband in, but she doesn’t want to leave an indelible stain on the lives of their children. Wilfred wants to acquiese to his son’s demands to sell their land, but he doesn’t want it going to buyers who will turn it into a polluting slaughterhouse.

All this is done in a way that doesn’t make the author’s hand apparent in dictating the plot; the characters’ actions seem believable and understandable, if not conscionable, because their reasons ARE part of their characters. And indeed, I was happy to hear King mention in the author’s Afterword that this is exactly the effect he set out to create, even if he also identified the collection’s theme as “retribution” (which, in hindsight, makes total sense).

So, while this is not traditional King (there’s nary a supernatural element to any of these stories that can’t be explained away) it’s still pretty good writing in the thriller vein. King fans should check it out.

Book Review: The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games was one of those books (a trilogy of them, in fact) that people kept recommending to me, but which I kept ignoring because it was written for young adults and because for some vague reason I kept thinking it had some kind of severe right-wing slant to it. Turns out that while the former is true, the latter isn’t, and I enjoyed the book quite a bit.

The Hunger Games is set in a near-future dystopia where North America and its sundry governments have been replaced by the totalitarian state of Panem. Radiating out from Panem’s capital city of, uh, Capitol (I did mention this is a YA book; we’ll let that one slide) are 12 territories, or districts. Capitol is where the money and power are, with its inhabitants enjoying high technology and wealth sufficient to let them pursue silly vanities and distractions, while the districts occupy positions of varying –but generally insufficient– wealth and status. District 12 is the home of our heroine Katniss Everdeen and one of the poorest districts, located in the former Apalacian region. Sixteen year old Katniss is having trouble keeping her young sister and emotionally crippled mother fed and alive, but her troubles deepens when she’s ensnared as a “tribute” in The Hunger Games. These are a kind of gladiatorial games cum reality television that Capitol uses to keep members of the 12 districts under its thumb, with two children from each region fighting each other to the death in a carefully controlled wilderness while the whole ordeal is broadcast to all of Panum. Supposedly it’s a display of the capital’s power and reinforcement of the idea that the districts are subjugated to its whims.

What Collins does very well in The Hunger Games is describe the grueling action and suffering that all these kids (Hunger Games tributes range from 12 to 18 years old) go through. The book is very engaging in a constant cliffhanger kind of way and the situations that the Gamemakers contrive to torment the participants are pretty creative. So it’s a good page turner, to be sure.

But I also admire Collins’s subtle handling of the characters pretty well, especially for a YA book. Katniss tells the story from a first point of view, so the action sticks entirely to her, but it becomes pretty clear early on that she’s a bit of an unreliable narrator. Katniss thinks of herself as unlikable and hard, but utterly outclassed in the Hunger Games. And while she has surely been toughened by her lot in life, the astute reader will notice from the way that other characters react to Katniss that there’s more to her than that –townspeople seem to like her and her opponents in the games seem to fear her. She’s both much more capable and inspiring than she gives herself credit for.

This unawareness of how people perceive her is a nice bit of literary complexity that also feeds directly into Katniss’s relationship with her fellow tribute from District 12, a baker’s son named Peeta. The potential romantic relationship between the two characters is central to both their arcs, but it’s not as simple as you might expect. The pair play up the romantic angle for the Hunger Game so that they can get help from sponsors, but the way the book is written neither Katniss nor the reader is 100% sure about how genuine it is until the end. Since we know for sure that Katniss is going to survive the games (she’s the book’s narrator, after all) Peeta’s fate and their relationship make a nice stand-in for something for the author to imperil.

That all said, The Hunger Games isn’t perfect. The whole conceit of the games being a way for Capitol to control its districts is a bit flimsy in that it’s hard to imagine such a thing working in the absence of economic, cultural, or military forces also working to keep the people down. If those things are supposedly also at work, it’s not touched on much, and I was left unconvinced that the people of Panem would tolerate these ritualistic and wanton murders of 23 of its children every year. I’m also left somewhat disconcerted that while Katniss is a very capable and strong role model for young female readers, her whole fate nonetheless hinges on pretending to fall in love. I get the vague feeling that Collins may be engaging in some kind of commentary here by making at least part of the romance a sham forced upon our heroine, but at the same time I don’t think I’m totally getting it. Maybe that’s my problem.

At any rate, I liked the book and plan on reading the two others in the series.

Book Review: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

David Sedaris is one of my favorite writers, thanks in large part to the simultaneously self-deprecating but smug humor in his collections of personal essays like When You are Engulfed in Flames, and Holidays on Ice. This new book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a decidedly different turn, though.

The book is essentially a collection of fables with animals standing in for people in a way that allows Sedaris to write short, pithy illustrations of human foibles, shortcomings, and absurdities. Sedaris said once in an interview that using animals in his stories allowed him to cut right to the heart of what he had to say without bothering to establish characters’ back stories or personalities. They’re animals; we know the relevant traits off the bat (pardon the pun) and Sedaris can fill in the rest to get us where he wants us to go. This works really well, and not coincidentally for the same reason that many of Aesop’s Fables work well.

The Migrating Warblers, for example, shows us how we can inadvertently dabble in racism and cultural superiority for the sake of entertaining a crowd, while The Toad, The Turtle, and the Duck shows how looking down on that kind of thing belies a double standard for what constitutes admirable versus admonishable behavior. Sedaris also gets a bit topical, like with The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat, in which he skewers the claptrap of The Secret and new age self-determinism by examining what happens when a lab rat gets injected with carcinogens despite its pathologically upbeat outlook on life. This is all pretty funny and incisive stuff, and Sedaris isn’t above spinning tales like The Parrot and the Potbellied Pig for the sole sake of closing it with a punchline in the form of a groan-worthy pun.

But I couldn’t help noticing how many of the stories in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk have a much darker edge to them as well. Cautionary stories like The Motherless Bear and The Mouse and the Snake go into some very grim places for the sake of illustrating the perils of self-pity and unconditional love. And the eponymous squirrel and chipmunk turns out to be a bittersweet story about how time magnifies lost opportunities born of closed mindedness. These stories are not possessed of the trademark Sedaris funny, so be ready for that.

In fact, on balance the book is not nearly as laugh out loud funny as the author’s other works, but it is decisively clever writing and conveys some great insights about human behavior, even though it’s all about chipmunks and squirrels.

Book Review: At Home

The full title here is At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and in it historian/humorist/homeowner Bill Bryson aims to explore the history of domiciles through a tour of his own aged home in pastoral England. Bryson structures the book by dedicating a chapter to each room or area in the house and delving into historical topics associated with that location. For example, Chapter 6, “The Fuse Box” lets him discuss Thomas Edison’s contributions to in-home electricity and lighting while Chapter 8, “The Dining Room”, gives him a chance to talk about eating habits and how the concept of meal times evolved over the ages. Other chapters and topics include The Kitchen (the spice trade, cooking), The Garden (landscaping, public parks), and the Drawing Room (furniture making and decorating).

And this seems to me to be a pretty good row of hooks on which to hang a series of historical musings, but once you get into it you realize that Bryson doesn’t so much hang his topics neatly on the appropriately labeled hooks as he tosses things all over the place. The chapter on The Nursery, for example, is largely about the plight of the poor in Victorian England. Because, I guess, the poor had a lot of kids? Maybe? Or take the chapter on The Cellar where the author recounts the construction of a canal to link a young New York City with the Great Lakes region. Because both cellars and canals involve concrete, maybe? Or consider the discussion of the great locust plagues of the Central Planes that happens during the chapter on The Study because …well, honestly I’ve got no idea. And just about any chapter is apparently fair game for an extended discussion of architecture.

But you know what? That’s all okay, because this is Bill Bryson, and the man could make interesting reading out of a cholera outbreak. Which he does. In the chapter on The Bathroom. Because of the poop. At Home possesses every bit of Bryson’s trademark charm and wry humor, mixed with interesting stories of people you’ve never heard of and new angles on people you have. I’ve said before that Bryson’s greatest gift is that he can so effortlessly entertain and educate at the same time, and this book is another clear example. He also has a great way of communicating the absurdities of the age, particularly Victorian England and Colonial America, which are the two time periods that account for the bulk of the book’s historical scope. Discussions about things like poisonous wallpaper, wigs made from one’s own hair, and welfare institutions that offer worse fates than those they rescue children from are abundant and fantastic.

If I had one complaint, it’s that even Bryson’s cursory approach to structuring the book around different rooms and associated topics leads to a lot of zig-zagging around history. There’s no sense of progression or perspective as you move from one era to another. Instead, you just get lots of tangentially interconnected vignettes and by the time you get to the back third of the book Bryson is regularly saying things like “it was he, you may recall” to link recurring characters back to events he described a hundred pages earlier.

But that’s easy to shrug off, especially if you take each chapter as more or less self contained. If our school’s History textbooks were written more like At Home and its science texts more like A Short History of Nearly Everything then I think a lot of kids would find studying for tests much more appealing.

Book Review: Earth (The Book)

A while back Jon Stewart and the other writers from the popular The Daily Show with Jon Stewart wrote a parody of high school Social Studies textbooks called America (The Book): A Guide to Democracy Inaction. That was a great piece of satire because it lambasted something most Americans were familiar with and it had a structurally solid skeleton on which to drape its parody. We all knew what he was talking about, or at least we knew we should know, which was often kind of the point. It had a target that was specific enough to structure a book around, but multifaceted enough to offer plenty of material. Earth (The Book) is also pretty funny in places, but not quite as much so as its predecessor, partially owing to the fact that it’s kind of a mess and doesn’t have much of a structure.

Stewart et al. cast Earth (The Book) as a guide for the benefit of alien visitors who arrive on our 3rd planet from the Sun after the human race has managed to annihilate itself in one way or another. Kind of a friendly guide book aiming to hit the highlights. None of us will be here to explain all the stuff they’ll find in the ruins, so it falls to this tome to explain not only the basics like Earth’s geology and weather, but also such inexplicable nonsense (to an outsider, anyway) like commerce, culture, religion, art, and science. Rather than large paragraphs of text, the book relies on a lot of gags derived from pictures, fake newsclippings, charts, photographs, and other visual aids with scattershots of text to go along with them. This being a Daily Show production, every page oozes irony, sarcasm, and humorous self-deprecation, and it often works. Noting on the page about film that “We called Hollywood the Dream Factory; unfortunately most people who went to work there ended up working at the Cheesecake Factory” is pretty witty, as is crediting Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of “The Watson Summoner.” And there’s lots of stuff like that spread throughout the book.

Unfortunately, Earth (The Book) is fairly uneven, with a few too many of the jokes falling flat or relying too much on the same gag that you had just read a dozen pages earlier. The graphic-heavy nature of the pages also make the book tiring to read in long sittings, but you may get much better experiences out of it by just reading it a page or three at a time when you find yourself with a few spare moments. Whenever that might be. I’m not judging.

In the end, Earth (The Book) is worth reading if you’re a fan of Stewart’s (and probably more to the point, his writers’) brand of irony comedic self immolation. America (The Book) worked much better both as a concept and in execution, though, so if you haven’t read that one yet I’d start there.