Monday, August 17, 2009


A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by David Eggers - A thoroughly enjoyable and well-written novel (including the introduction - don't skip it) that perfectly captures the zeitgeist of 1990's youth and young adults, that generation of upper-middle-class children who, with a lack of traditional life obstacles to focus on, grew up with the luxury of diverting attention to self-analysis and finding angst and trauma in family turmoil and tragedy. Of course losing both of ones parents to cancer within a month at age 21 would be truly traumatic for anyone, and for the first 350 pages I was convinced that an otherwise normal guy had his life turned upside down by these events and he had a story exploding inside him that he had to put to paper semi-autobiographically in order to cope and move on. But those last 87 pages killed that character and left me with a lasting bad aftertaste, as it became clear that this was a guy who would always intentionally look for turmoil and exploit any situation for the emotional wreckage that leads to the ability to write. The rest of the book lost a lot of its integrity with that truth emerging more and more strongly throughout the denouement.

Economic Gangsters, by Edward Miguel and Ray Fisman - (Working for Ted Miguel this summer, of course I have to read his books, and am biased in my take on them. But consider that my praise for this book is not so much of a biased review of a book by someone I enjoy working for but a more innocuous result of selection bias, since I choose to work for people in the first place that are probably very good at writing books.) I tend to mentally use Freakonomics as the gold standard for pop-econ books, and while Economic Gangsters wasn't quite as whimsical and fun, it was definitely more interesting as a whole as every story focused on parts of a larger problem of economic development. Through diplomatic parking tickets at the UN, rainfall-based predictions of violence in Africa, thinking like a smuggler in Hong Kong and like a businessman in Suharto's Indonesia, and tales of war recovery from Sierra Leone to Vietnam, certain themes emerge as clearly important (culture of corruption) and others become frustratingly vague (war damages), and, just as with Freakonomics, the case is made extremely strongly that to understand problems on this scale, it's imperative to think like an economist.

Also, in this book I discovered my new hero, Antanas Mockus, philosopher-mathematician and mayor of Bogota who used the city for experimental new tactics of law enforcement such as hiring un-armed, unable-to-make-arrests mimes to mock violators of traffic laws. (Violations plummeted.)

Self-made Man, by Norah Vincent - A woman dresses up like a man for a year, joins a man's bowling league, stays in a monastery, gets a sales job, dates, and writes a book about her revelations about what it's really like to be a man. Bizarrely, I both really enjoyed reading it, and really didn't think it was very good, and it's hard to pinpoint why either of those are true. I think its just a bit too self-indulgent and personal to be a "good" examination of gender stereotypes, but it's certainly a fun collection of stories that press lots of buttons in the reader from a fresh perspective (well, not entirely fresh, Camille Paglia is similar and much more credible in her opinions somehow, maybe just because I really like her and not Norah Vincent, but obviously even the two of them together are very rare in their views on gender roles and feminism.)