Weekend reading and more: Jonathan Lethem, Tim Powers, Steven Landsburg and P.D. James

I love reading but I can’t seem to go on a healthy diet with a regular intake of books. I alternate starving (these last three weeks or so) and bingeing (last weekend, when I planted myself on a lawn chair and did little else). So, here’s mini-reviews of the latest titles I’ve fed myself.

  • Jonathan Lethem, You Don’t Love Me Yet: Lethem gets out of his native Brooklyn (Fortress of Solitude, The Disappointment Artist) and goes to Los Angeles to tell us this whimsical story about a dysfunctional band, among art galleries, avant-garde parties and with a not insignificant part played by the LA Zoo. While the prevailing tone is farcical, Lethem’s ear for wordplay hides language gems on almost every page.
  • Tim Powers, Three Days to Never: if you’re into time travel, alternate realities, and the Mossad’s most improbably cabalistic experiments, this book is for you. It took me a long time to read the first half, then I accelerated and finished it in one sitting. IMHO, the story would have held up well even without so much Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein.
  • Steven Landsburg, More Sex Is Safer Sex: economics professor Steven Landsburg builds on the success of Dubner and Levitt’s Freakonomics and expands on some of his most successful Slate columns to produce an entertaining book (his parents, we’re told, hate the title, but I bet it’s selling better than “Incentives, Externalities and Cost-Benefit Analysis” would have. Oh, and “Applied Statistics” – see Gerd Gigerenzer’s Calculated Risks for more on the dramatic lack of numeracy in our society). A quick read written in an almost-too-accessible style, this is the perfect gift for your libertarian friends and offers several counterintuitive insights. The world is overcrowded? Take the state of Texas, carve it into 500-square-meter subdivisions, and build a home for 4 people on each lot – voilà, you’ve just housed the entire world population. I’ve always thought of other people’s children as imposing negative externalities, especially when they fly within half a dozen rows of my seat, but perhaps I should revisit my judgment. This point is also being driven home to me by…
  • P.D. James, The Children of Men: this is a terrific dystopia about the end of our civilization due to a sudden and unexplained infertility of the entire human race. I’m only about halfway through it and I am in awe at P.D. James’s skills – perhaps I should start reading the Dalgliesh novels too? My paperback edition also had the added bonus of Clive Owen’s face on the cover; I haven’t seen the movie, but I am not very inclined to do so, as this book is the opposite of a Hollywood action blockbuster – introverted, meditative, almost philosophical. On a side note, I wonder why it is Canada and Britain that consistently produce the best in the apocalyptic genre, as in The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (whose quiet, elegiac tone seems to me to owe something to P.D. James’s book). Americans, it seems, are too terminally optimistic to entertain such thoughts. Yet, when material like this comes from such capable hands as Baroness James’s, the results are – as American book jackets would say – un-put-downable.

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