1491

What do we really know about life in the “New World” before the “Old World” invaded it? In American history textbooks, life pre-Columbus is shortened to a page or a few paragraphs. This book seeks to remedy that, to shine a spotlight on the tremendous civilizations that populated North and South America.
With the first whiff of contact with the new land, the Europeans spread smallpox to the Indians, even before seeing them. Their animals interspersed their germs into the forests, where the disease quickly spread and ravaged entire populations. By the time actual people to people contact was established, the civilizations were already in serious decline.
How did the ancient Indians get here? Multiple migrations out of the Bering Strait area, then down the coast in boats. Artifacts have been dated from 13,000 years ago on the new continents.
They’d invented the wheel, only to use it in toys but not to do labor– they were lacking large pack animals to harness, plus wheels not effective on the landscaped roads they had build for llamas (steep steps).
At any rate, highly readable look on the social, political and ecological environment of the area pre-“Discovery”.
Recommended by Kottke.

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Vagabonding

I don’t feel quite right about crediting Mr. Potts as the author of this work, since 85% of the book was quotes from other writers (Walt Whitman, Joseph Conrad, Ed Buryn, Thoreau, etc. etc. etc.) and “in their own voices” type stuff from regular travelers.
The overall gist of the book is to just get out there on the road, you don’t have to save up a bunch of cash, just set one foot in front of the other, work along the way, don’t be a slave to your pre-ordained schedule, don’t make fun of the natives, do be open to anything that happens to you along the way.
Perhaps the best use of this book is as a bibilography, since at the end of each “chapter” he lists 20-ish books you should check out for more information.
Overall: useless
Negative points for mentioning space tourist Tito’s $20M trip into space.

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In His Sights

I’ve been having some issues with my latest crop of books I’ve attempted to read. This is only one of the bad bunch. Supposedly written by a professional writer (er, journalist), the quality of the writing is 6th grade level, thus qualifies as worse than a beach book and nearly unreadable. I stranded this one, even though I’m intrigued by the real life premise, which is that her ex-boyfriend stalks her for years by doing things like breaking into her apartment and rearranging furniture before disappearing for months. That level of heightened fear is interesting, too bad Brennan kills my interest in the story with boring language like “When I withdraw my hand, I recognize this as a moment that seals a connection.” Blargh.

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Stuffed & Starved

Life is too short to suffer through reading a bloated 300+ page book that was inflated from a doctoral dissertation. I don’t have anything against non-fiction, in fact I’m devouring a well written and approachable 1491 (America before Columbus); I just feel strongly that these types of issues could get more visibility if the writing wasn’t so starched and dry.
Basic idea of the book is great– exploring why a billion people are starving during an era when a billion people are obese, globalization’s effect on small farmers, farmer suicides, etc.
Unfortunately, his writing style renders it unreadable.

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Traffic

One of my dream jobs is to be a traffic engineer. Reading this book feeds some of that desire, with explanations as to why merging at the last minute is a good thing (uses more of the available roadway), how traffic calming devices work in London and the Netherlands (make a road seem more like a village and people will treat it as such), how fewer signs is better (we ignore signs anyway, and without signs are forced to figure out things on our own, being more attentive), how India and China are coping with their explosions in traffic growth. On traffic jams– better to go slowly, consistently, rather than stop/go traffic. Cellphones take our attention away from the road even when handsfree, and reduce reaction time.
Overall, an enjoyable reading experience that teaches mindful driving (and mindful cycling, walking).

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The Writing Class

I first fell in love with her writing with Jenny and the Jaws of Life, an amazing book of short stories. If I’m not mistaken, this is Willett’s first novel, and it’s a good one.
The premise for the story is a writing class, one of those adult-extension classes where you imagine a bunch of losers gathering together to praise each other’s meager scratchings. Only the teacher of this group (Amy) is actually good, and is actually a published writer. And the group of supposed losers show themselves to be individually interesting (everyone has 1000 stories inside), a cohesive group that makes great progress. Throw in a murder mystery and voila, you got your Writing Class.
One of the class members makes threatening phone calls, tapes other class members and plays them back to Amy over the phone, mails mimicked poetry, causes the deaths of 2 group members (one falling off a cliff, one poisoned), plus near death of Amy.
Interspersed with the storyline, any aspiring writer can pick up tips from the fictional teacher– the idea that we suspend our disbelief that the author has actually done all the things she portrays in her fiction, which enables the writer to just let go and write, without worrying that too much of her is being exposed. Other tips– lists of ideas and characters. Writing exercises where you assume the other gender, or make up ten names and write thumbnail sketches of each name, or write an opening paragraph for a short story or novel on the spot. Amy shows us how to “show, not tell”.

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America America

This one came highly recommended to me, but I disagree; it’s simply average writing telling a somewhat interesting tale. Our narrator (Corey Sifter) is the editor of a local newspaper, present day, mentoring a young college-bound highly intelligent girl of bohemian parents. Sifter weaves the current day plot (caring for his elderly father who has a stroke, worrying about his 3 daughters who have all left the house, taking care of Trieste the intern, watching the development of a mall on the old estate property) with a storyline from the 1970s when he first met his wife and her sister, working for their father and working on the campaign of a man who was almost President of the US but who was derailed by the allegations of involvement with the fatal traffic incident involving a young intern.
The story’s coherence & charm begins to unravel for me when the narrator stops referring to his wife as “his wife”, but as Clara. So she is finally revealed. Wow. But the most egregious error would be the American Graffiti-type recap of where everyone is now and what’s going on in their life. Extremely unnecessary for a novel.
Good beach read.

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