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A New Debate Format - Book Reviews
Posted September 28, 2016 at 09:26 am



I had to stop the experiment for a bit because I wasn't getting much reading done while finishing up a project. But, I'm back on track, and I'm going to try to run weekly book reviews from here on out.


For transparency: If you click the links below, for the next 24 hours, if you buy something on amazon, SMBC gets a small payment. So, basically, if one of the books below looks tempting, we'd appreciate if you clicked the link before buying.


This is a new thing we're doing, so if you have any thoughts on how it can be improved, please let us know.



Aug 17 - Shocked (Casarett)


A quick bit of history and science on the topic of bringing humans back from the brink of death. It’s a quick read, with a lot of dorky humor injected. It’s not bad, and there are a lot of neat stories and weird science, but it kind of felt like it was Not Quite Mary Roach. Still, fun if you’re interested in the topic.


Verdict: 3/5


Aug 20 - Red Notice (Browder)


An INSANE memoir about Browder’s life in high finance, going on adventures making crazy deals as the Soviet Union collapses and breaks apart. Making deals required him to go to strange places and repeatedly risk being assassinated. He sounds like he’s totally nuts, but it’s a hell of a story.


Verdict: 4/5


Aug 25 - The Conundrum (Owen)


An interesting book. It starts with the economic observation that efficiency (which theoretically is good for the environment) often leads to increased consumption (which is probably bad for the environment). Owen suggests that if efficiency tends to lead us to consume more, the only way to save the environment is to reduce our lifestyles.


I don’t buy everything he’s saying, but I think it’s a very interesting argument that’s worth confronting.


Verdict: 3.5/5


Aug 27 - Woe to Live On (Woodrell)


A great novel about a group of Confederate soldiers, written with a lot of realism and depth. An interesting feature of this book is that it’s stylistically very 19th century, but it yet contains the violence and sex that tend to be elided in actual books from that period.


Verdict: 5/5


Sept 1 - How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything (Brooks)


This was a pretty excellent book. It’s a sort of combination of a memoir of Rosa Brooks’ time in the Pentagon, along with the history and psychology of how (according to her) our relationship to war has changed for the worse in recent times.


Verdict: 3.5/5


Sept 3 - White Trash (Isenberg)


A good historiography of poor whites in the history of the United States, and how they tend to be viewed by cultural elites. I felt like it got a bit less compelling as we got to modern times, but maybe that’s just because I’m more familiar with life now than life 300 years ago.


Verdict: 3/5


Sept 5 - Eye in the Sky (Dick)


Like a lot of these early Philip K Dick novels, I feel like it’s a cool idea and a well-developed world, but the execution is really hokey.


The plot is about a bunch of people who get zapped by a high energy beam, who then somehow start serially inhabiting each other’s consciousnesses. Each such universe contains the strange biases of its consciousness. It’s fun, but it’s really just 1950s pulp stuff, despite the clever premise.


Verdict: 2/5


Sept 6 - Messy (Harford)


A fun little book on how interesting ideas often come from what Harford refers to as “messy” situations, in the broad sense of (supposedly) non-ideal creative environments. It contains a lot of fun stories ranging from musicians to scientists.


Verdict: This book is written by an author I have met personally, and I’ve decided my policy on such reviews is that I won’t list a number verdict.


Sept 7 - The Man Who Japed (Dick)


A dystopia story about a sort of puritanical world, only the puritanical culture stems from something like suburban American cultural norms circa 1950. It’s all right. Dick has so many stories about controlling prudish middle-aged women that I’m starting to wonder if the character isn’t based on someone real.


Verdict: 2.5


Sept 9 - The Broken Bubble (Dick)


Now this is something interesting! It’s Philip K Dick, but not science fiction, and it wasn’t published until after his death. Early on in his career, Dick wrote literary fiction, and I would say this is the best one I’ve read so far. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. It’s a story about two couples - one very young and accidentally pregnant, and one divorced because they were unable to conceive. The dynamics are really interesting, but it lacks the subtlety and depth that Dick would later develop. I found myself wishing he had come back to this novel later in life.


Verdict: 3/5


Sept 14 - The End of the Cold War (Service)


A very enjoyable and in depth history of the last six years of the USSR. The only part that was slightly odd was that now and then he seemed to really fanboy over Ronald Reagan. I certainly don’t mind reading history books from people with political views (because the alternative doesn’t exist), but it felt out of place in such a long meticulous work of history. Still, quite good!



Tags: politics