Frivolity: Fave Reads '99

From the "Who asked You?" Department, it's

Larry's Top 10 Fave Reads for 1999

All Men Are Mortal, Simone de Beauvoir (translated by Leonard M. Friedman)
Before I read this book, I believed that my life was basically meaningless--no matter what I did, I'd lose everything when I died. This book pointed out the fundamental fallacy, the short-sightedness of my belief. This book demonstrated that life would be meaningless even if one could live forever. It's the story of someone who does just that. In his quest for meaning, he turns to politics, to love, to art, to accomplishment, to philosophy, to wisdom. Nothing helps. In spite of this, it's a fun read.
The Jain's Death, Patrick Farley
Patrick Farley's Electric Sheep is probably my favorite web comic, and The Jain's Death is probaby my favorite e-sheep story from 1999. A Jain nun goes up against some tough foes. Then things get really weird, reminding me of... have you read any of Moebius' stories where he tries to get all mystical? And you sort of have to tune out the story, but the pictures are still pretty? This story gets like that.
Black Rain, Masuji Ibuse (translated by John Bester)
This year I went on a sort of atomic tour of New Mexico. I visited some Manhattan Project sites. I learned about the people who designed the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was an awful accomplishment--grand and brutal. I caught myself starting to get caught up in the grand side of things, so I read Black Rain, a story of bomb survivors. It reminded me of the brutality of large-scale bombing quite effectively.
Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
There was a time before Zen had entered California's culture. There was a time when Buddhism was still exotic in Berkeley, at least among its white people. This book transported me back to that day, buoyed along by Keroauc's poetic stylings.
Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey
This year, I read two novels about families of tough people who act tough with one another. One of those was Postcards. It was by E. Annie Proulx, so I expected really terrible things to happen to all of its characters. (And they did.) The other such book was Sometimes a Great Notion. It was by Ken Kesey, and I hadn't read anything by him, so I didn't know what to expect. So when the whole family situation melted down into a really messed up tale of love and revenge, I was viciously surprised.
Joe Jones, Anne Lamott
I don't read self-help books; I read Anne Lamott novels instead. They're all about dealing with personal difficulties and helping friends who are dealing with personal difficulties. Like this book--I'm still not sure what its story line is, or if it has one. There's a group of friends, they have their problems. They talk about their problems, they deal with their problems, they don't deal with their problems. They do stupid things in the way that people do stupid things. I emerged from this book better able to deal with life.
Modern Meat, Orville Schell
The hippies and luddites are screaming about bovine growth hormone and the filth of modern swine farming, giving the impression that these things will wipe out all life on earth in a generation. The meat industry says that everything it does is perfectly safe. This book describes some investigative journalism to uncover the truth between these extremes. We learn about illegal use of low-level antibiotics--perhaps putting more meat on a beast, definitely encouraging antibiotic-resistant diseases. We see what happens when bovine growth hormone escapes from its packaging before it can be put inside a cow. We see a laboratory of scents and tastes where researchers make cattle feed taste better. We learn of the strange ubiquity of reconstituted meats. I don't trust the strident hippies; I don't trust sleazy meat PR flacks. I trust these stories.
The Code Book, Simon Singh
I have a confession. Though I am a computer geek, I never really understood the thinking behind RSA encryption or public/private key encryption. Everything I knew about cryptography was stuff I'd learned from David Kahn's The Codebreakers, and that only really covered stuff up to World War II. My friend Ron works at and ordered this book through their internal ordering system. Due to some glitch, he received four copies. He gave me one, and I read it. It taught me about RSA and public/private key systems. I'm not ready to run out and implement these things, but I have the level of knowledge I expect to get out of a popularized science book.
Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
You've probably already read this book. I mean, if you're looking at this web page, you're probably either a web-indexing robot or else a friend of mine. If you fall into the latter category, you probably already read Cryptonomicon and liked it. So why should I waste my time writing up a blurb for it?
Standing By and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos, Jane S. Wilson and Charlotte Serber, Editors
I read a few anthologies of first-person accounts of life in Manhattan-Project-era Los Alamos this year. This one was my favorite. The USA government was doing its best to keep the existence of atomic research secret. Thus, physicists from all over the USA and England were plunked down into the middle of the desert, along with a huge support staff. Some aspects of this exile were easy; some were less so.

Honorable Mention

Be Sweet, Roy Blount Jr.
One of the USA's funniest authors tries to come to grips with the idea that his mother was depressed for most of her life. You'll laugh out loud while thinking to yourself, "Oh my gracious, that must have been very sad."
Power System Safety Manual, Department of Energy, Western Area Power Administration
I liked this book because it taught me of the existence of "hot stick" work. Maybe every power lineperson in the world knows about hot stick work, but it was new to me. The idea is that if you're working on a power line and that line is live, then you don't want to touch it with your hands, not even if you're wearing gloves. So you use a hooked stick. But this isn't any ordinary stick--it's a "hot stick". It's made from non-conducting material. As part of its maintenance, you must keep crud off of it--in case the crud might conduct electricity. When you clean the crud off of it, you need to make sure that any cleaning substance you use won't leave behind a conducting residue.
Maggie Cassidy, Jack Kerouac
Earlier this year, I travelled to Lowell, MA. Jack Kerouac grew up there. There was a monument there that gave me the impression that Kerouac had set some of his stories in Pawtucketville, a thinly disguised Lowell. The monument made clear that Pawtucketville is the name of a neighborhood of Lowell. Then I read Maggie Cassidy, a story that's set in Lowell. And the story calls Lowell "Lowell" and Pawtucketville is obviously a neighborhood in Lowell. So I don't know whether I mis-read the monument or what.
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
I enjoyed reading Moby Dick. I think that this is partly because I felt free to skip over parts of it. The book begins with lots and lots of quotes from literature and the bible--the quotes mention whales and whaling. I decided that Melville couldn't possibly want me to read all of those quotes--most of them were pretty dull. I decided that he just wanted to make the point that whaling, for all of its proletarian nature, was still fit subject for literature. So I skimmed that part. I enjoyed reading Moby Dick. I think it helped that I had just learned a lot about whaling during my travels in the towns surrounding Boston. People will tell you that you don't need to know about whaling before you read Moby Dick, because it will explain everything that there is to know. I call bullsh*t on that. Moby Dick will pretend to explain whaling. Really, it just says a lot of lyrical nonsense which sounds pretty and demonstrates that Melville knew something about whaling. Do not think that you will learn about whaling from this book. In fact, I'd bet that this book is pretty irritating to people who read it without first knowing something about sailing or whaling. But I enjoyed reading Moby Dick.
My Year of Meats, Ruth Ozeki
If you took part of Modern Meat and turned it into a novel, and tossed in some information about American meat press relations (a hobby of mine (no, really)), this would be it. I would have enjoyed this novel more of I hadn't already read Modern Meat, and if I didn't spend so much time reading meat PR web sites. Ozeki's thunder was stolen.
Harry Potter vols. 1-3, J.K. Rowling
I read the first three Harry Potter books and they were okay. They had adventure and excitement and really wild things and candy, which were all very nice. There was an irritating thing about them--the protagonist is definitely someone special. I can imagine reading this as an impressionable youngster and thinking, It's okay if I never try to do anything exciting: my birth wasn't heralded by prophecy and lightning storms. This book made me want to hunt through used book stores in search of Five Children and It, an old book about a bunch of siblings who encounter some ancient Greek mythical creature called a Psammead. These children were quite ordinary, but they didn't let that prevent them from having magical adventures and being as cowardly or brave as the situation called for.
Longitude, Dava Sobel
This book has it all: celestial navigation, wooden ships, wooden clocks, biography of an obsessive inventor, that Maskelyn guy, treachery, and a discussion of time zones.
Little Gloomy, Landry Walker and Eric Jones
I feel a little nervous putting this comic book onto my list of fave reads--so far, only one issue has come out. It shows lots of potential. Young versions of your favorite movie monsters wander around and complain about their relationship problems. The only character who has his act together is a hairy guy named Larry. (He's hairy because he's a werewolf, but I identify with him anyhow.)

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