One-star reviews of the best books

TIME recently composed a list of its critics’ choices for the best 100 English novels written since 1923. The magazine also links to the original reviews. Boooooring.

These one-star reviews of the novels culled from Amazon.com are much more fun:

The Great Gatsby (1925)

Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

“It grieves me deeply that we Americans should take as our classic a book that is no more than a lengthy description of the doings of fops.”

Lord of the Flies (1955)

Author: William Golding

“I am obsessed with Survivor, so I thought it would be fun. WRONG!!! It is incredibly boring and disgusting. I was very much disturbed when I found young children killing each other. I think that anyone with a conscience would agree with me.”

The Sun Also Rises (1926)

Author: Ernest Hemingway

“Here’s the first half of the book: ‘We had dinner and a few drinks. We went to a cafe and talked and had some drinks. We ate dinner and had a few drinks. Dinner. Drinks. More dinner. More drinks. We took a cab here (or there) in Paris and had some drinks, and maybe we danced and flirted and talked sh*t about somebody. More dinner. More drinks. I love you, I hate you, maybe you should come up to my room, no you can’t’… I flipped through the second half of the book a day or two later and saw the words ‘dinner’ and ‘drinks’ on nearly every page and figured it wasn’t worth the risk.”

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New book review posted

agonyforest2.jpgI have a book review up today at The Humane Studies Review. The book is Samuel MacDonald’s The Agony of an American Wilderness, an investigative report of the conflicts surrounding logging on the Allegheny National Forest.

Going into a book like this one, my two apprehensions are that it will be either boring or excessively biased against environmentalists. This one is neither. It’s well written, interesting, and, while the author clearly sympathizes with commercial logging, is balanced throughout. Here’s the full review.

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Two from Steve Martin

Steve Pellegrino, the author of one of the few good magic weblogs, links to a Steve Martin cartoon called “Morto the Magician.” Though it’s a bit gory and predictable at times, it’s a fun parody of the untalented illustionists who give magic a bad name. Incidentally, I’ve seen a live magician accidentally perform Morto’s signature effect, the magical production of a not-so-live dove. The real magician recovered with the same unperturned panache as Morto. The cartoon is available here.

The second item is Steve Martin’s 2003 novella The Pleasure of my Company. I read this over the holidays as a light break from my usual academic fare and enjoyed it immensely. It’s the story of Daniel Pecan Cambridge, a man whose bizarre obsessions keep him isolated from the world around him. (Asperger’s Syndrome? The book never says, but that’s my armchair diagnosis.) I went into it expecting only comedy, and it is often laugh out loud funny, but Martin also pulls off a delightful combination of skilled writing and compassionate insight. I recommend it.

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Love Don’t Cost a Thing

It’s about this time of year that many bloggers hang up their cyberspace stockings with care and ask that their readers show their appreciation with a dollar or two. I’m not going to do that because a) I think that’s kind of tacky, b) I run this site for fun, and c) there are other blogs that are a lot more deserving of gifts and money than this one is.

That said, running this site does take a small investment of cash and a large investment of time on my part. If you happen to enjoy reading it, I’ve provided an easy way to help support it without having to actually make a donation. Just click on the “Support this site” link under the Site Guide portion of the sidebar and buy something from Amazon.com. It’s the holiday season so you’re probably buying things from there anyway. Clicking here first won’t change any prices for you, but it will send a percentage of the sale my way in the form of Amazon Associates gift certificates. It’s a win-win situation: you get your gifts and I can get that Tiny Tim Christmas Album I’ve always wanted.

As an added bonus, I’ve put together a list of books I recommend. It’s an unabashedly idiosyncratic compilation, but it’s a good sampling of books that I’ve found particularly enjoyable or thought provoking over the past few years. Continue reading to see the list; clicking on any of the links also works for the Amazon Associates deal. Enjoy and be thankful for holiday shopping that can be done from your couch.
Continue reading “Love Don’t Cost a Thing”

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Monster of God


Perhaps it was beginning to look like the “freelance writer” part of my weblog subtitle was just a big scam to lend some credibility to the site, but I’ve finally gotten around to the business of being published. No longer can the naysayers claim the only way my stuff would see print is if I started my own paper and named myself editor!

Today my review of David Quammen’s Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind was published on www.aBetterEarth.org, the environmental policy site run by the Institute for Humane Studies. The book is about our uneasy relationship with fearsome alpha predators and what the prospects are for their survival. Quammen is an excellent writer (see his cover story in this month’s National Geographic) and Monster of God is an engrossing read. Check my review for further details.

Incidentally, books I’m reading for review won’t be listed on the sidebar. I already have a few other science books lined up that I’ll hopefully get to review in the near future.

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The secret life of VandyGirls

After spending some time in DuPont’s Kramerbooks tonight I couldnt resist picking up a copy of Alexandra Robbins’ new book, Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities. (Is it creepy that the first two books on my currently reading list are Pledged and Lolita?) Robbins went undercover to report on what modern sorority life is really like, and found that reality is often worse than the stereotype. Having attended a southern university where fifty percent of the women are in the Greek system, I find that scary, believable, and sad.

Though complaining about the Vandy Greek system was, and is, a favorite hobby of mine, the fact is I kept my distance from that scene. For me Greek Row was simply a rowdy and obnoxious street I had to cross on my way to Borders, or a malicious force that transformed previously interesting women into vapid VandyGirls. How did this black magic work? Pledged promises to be an illuminating and disturbing read.

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Overdue update

[Note 2/24/04: Zhubin starts off a discussion on Bush’s support of a Constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage and the future of the libertarian-conservative alliance in the comment section.]

OK, I’ve been getting some complaints about the lack of updates. Sorry about that, but it’s been an exceptionally busy week. Sleep has been at a minimum and work at a maximum, a situation only exacerbated by the onset of Aerobie-friendly weather.

Several weeks into classes things are still going well, though I’m having to devote much more time to them than I’d expected. French has been by far the most difficult. The last time I took French was my sophomore year, so my class is full of freshmen who are much better at it than I am. I’m catching up, however. In doing my last assignment I learned that the French word for porcupine is porc-pic — literally, spiked pig. Interesting.

My most enjoyable course has been Philosophy and Literature. Maybe that’s because all we’ve done is read things our professor likes and talk about them. He has good taste, though. This class has turned me on to a writer I’d never heard of till now named Peter Taylor. Most of his stories are set in the South, especially Nashville and Memphis, and they are saturated with both ambiguity and keen observation. I’ve never read anything quite like them before, and I enjoy them very much.

I plan on updating more soon. In the meantime, read about the adventures of Cato’s Tom Palmer on the ground in Baghdad. He goes armed with 500 copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and recounts events on his recently improved weblog.

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Dawkins on trial by juries

I’ve been meaning to post for a while about an article from Richard Dawkins’ new book A Devil’s Chaplain. In it he disparages (and misunderstands the reasons for) trial by jury, but in the end he comes up with an intriguing suggestion for reform. An online version of the article is available here.

Dawkins assumes that the purpose of a jury is strictly to determine the factual issue of guilt or innocence by polling the decisions of its members. He compares the process to an esoteric scientific experiment to test innate color preference in herring gulls and asks what conditions need to be met to return valid results. Answer: there must be a large sample and each individual in it must be tested independently. Testing one bird doesn’t tell you anything meaningful about the species; testing a bunch of birds in a group introduces the possibility of imitative tendencies spoiling the data. Getting good results requires testing lots of birds individually.

So how do our human juries stack up against the herring gulls? Twelve people evaluating the evidence is better than relying on a single judge, but the evaluations aren’t truly independent. As Dawkins notes:

…juries are massively swayed by one or two vocal individuals. There is also strong pressure to conform to a unanimous verdict, which further undermines the principle of independent data. Increasing the number of jurors doesn’t help, or not much (and not at all in strict principle). What you have to increase is the number of independent verdict-reaching units.

What to do? Having multiple twelve person juries would be prohibitively expensive and complete isolation for each juror would remove the benefits that arise from group deliberation. Dawkins suggests that the system could be improved by having two juries of six people, or three of four, at every trial. They would be completely sequestered and would all have to reach the same verdict for an outcome to be valid. He calls this the Two Verdict Concordance Test and it would allow us to say with more confidence that cases that pass it have truly been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Up to this point I agree with Dawkins (more on that in a minute), but at the next step his view of trial by jury as strictly a fact finding tool takes his argument in a bad direction. He proposes testing trial by two juries against trial by two judges. Whichever system yields the higher concordance must be the more reliable system and, therefore, the one we should adopt. Dawkins places his bet with the judges:

Would you bet on two independent juries reaching the same verdict in the Louise Woodward case? Could you imagine even one other jury reaching the same verdict in the O.J.Simpson case? Two judges, on the other hand, seem to me rather likely to score well on the concordance test. And should I be charged with a serious crime here’s how I want to be tried. If I know myself to be guilty, I’ll go with the loose cannon of a jury, the more ignorant, prejudiced and capricious the better. But if I am innocent, and the ideal of multiple independent decision-takers is unavailable, please give me a judge.

But what if he was factually guilty of breaking an unjust law (say, one that prohibits teaching evolution in school)? That Dawkins does not say, and therein lies the problem.

Dawkins writes that, “Twelve jurors are preferred to one judge only because they are more numerous.” Not so. Jurors are also preferred to judges because they represent the community, not the state. Statistical validity was not the concern of religious and political dissidents suppressed by the Court of Star Chamber, or pamphleteers charged with sedition in Colonial America, or abolitionists illegally aiding escaped slaves after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. Though underappreciated today, the power and right of juries to refuse to convict in unjust circumstances was vital for winning some of our most cherished freedoms.

There is still a role for jury nullification in modern life, such as in trials dealing with medical marijuana, euthanasia, regulation, taxation, or just cases where a law that’s good in general is bad in a particular case. Juries might not score as well as judges on the Two Verdict Concordance Test, especially in these kinds examples, but that is a feature of the system, not a defect.

Granting that Dawkins misses this point, does the rest of his analysis hold up? I think it does. Fact finding isn’t the only function of a jury, but it is one function. Even when the less objective, “conscience of the community�” role of the jury is taken into account a representative verdict is more likely to come about with multiple juries than it is with just one. The only downside I can see is that the smaller juries would be less likely to include members with relevant expertise (for instance, a psychiatrist in a case involving prescription drug use), but with the way juries are dumbed down with peremptory strikes these days that’s not likely a relevant concern.

From a libertarian point of view, multiple juries would likely have the additional benefit of increasing the prevalence of nullification. As in the present system, any one juror would still have the power to prevent conviction. However, he would face less pressure to go along with a unanimous or guilty verdict since no one in the room would know what the other juries on the case are going to decide. [Afterthought 1/5/04: Or might he be less inclined to nullify, mentally shifting responsibility to the members of the other juries?]

I don’t know if it would be constitutional for a state to amend its jury system in this way and it’s probably best not to mess unnecessarily with something as important as trial by jury. Nonetheless, if the opportunity to institute trial by multiple juries arises (the first Moon colony? Iraq?), it looks like a sound option for reform.

The rest of A Devil’s Chaplain is up to Dawkins’ usual high standard. It’s an eclectic assortment of his shorter writings, with everything from reviews of Stephen Jay Gould’s books to a letter he wrote to his then ten year old daughter on good and bad reasons for believing things to remembrances of Douglas Adams. Recommended for its elegant writing, clear thoughts about evolution, and refreshingly candid attacks on religion.

For more on jury nullification, see the excellent book Jury Nullification by Clay Conrad or, for a shorter presentation, read this paper I wrote on the subject.

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Nucleus Shrugged

From Greg Bear’s introduction to “Blood Music” in The Collected Stories of Greg Bear:

“Cells are self-making and self-regulating in ways we never imagined only a few decades ago. In other words, our cells are intelligent, in their way, and sometimes even break loose from their slavery and assert their individuality.

“We call such things tumors.

“I wonder — do tumor cells read the genetic equivalent of Ayn Rand?”

I’ve read the passage several times this morning and I’m still not sure if this is a compliment to Rand for the liberating force of her novels or a shot at the social skills of some Objectivists. Maybe it’s both.

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All Consuming

I found a website today that just makes me giddy with its niftyness. That’s because it’s all about two of my favorite activities, blogging and reading. That’s because I’m a real dork sometimes. OK, most of the time. Precision is not the issue here, so let’s move on, shall we?

The site is allconsuming.net. It makes it easy to list books on your blog and also tracks what books are most frequently mentioned throughout the blogosphere.

Check out the “Currently Reading” section on my sidebar to see the improvements made by All Consuming. It used to be just plain text; it was either use that or include gaudy ads from Amazon. Now the cover, title, and author all appear pretty much automatically — I just input the book at the All Consuming website (easier than rebuilding my index template in Movable Type) and voila, there they are.

The site allows comments to be included, but I’m not currently using that feature. You can also document an entire collection of books or a list of favorites.

Clicking on the links doesn’t just take you to the Amazon item page anymore. Instead you get a page with a purchase link (incorporating the Amazon Associates ID of your choice), additional info, mentions from other blogs, and related pages from Google, among other things.

The last features I’ll mention are a listing on the main page of the most talked about books and an option to track books mentioned on other blogs of your choosing (either people you know or who may have similar taste).

So there you have it. If you have a blog and would like to list books on it, this site makes it very easy to do.

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