The Canon

It’s been 20 years since I last thought about Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species (for us humans, it goes: Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Primate, Hominidae, Homo, sapiens). Sapiens are the only living species in our genus (we possibly killed off the Neanderthals 28k years ago in a fit of disgust). The Canon is responsible for bringing it all rushing back, along with other science basics.
Angier dissects the major sciences into basic terms- physics, chemistry, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, geology and astronomy. She asks scientists in all these fields the same question, “What do you wish people knew about science?” and weaves their responses in with sometimes witty banter, but is always entertaining, always imparting knowledge.
Some of the chapters reminded me of why I dropped science in the first place– my mind was spinning with electrons and protons, the strong force vs. gravity (strong force wins!), atoms, DNA, molecules, etc. But most of the chapters fed a need to learn more– the evolutionary chapter particularly helpful in understanding Darwinism and natural selection.
Random cool facts:
* The quark was named after a James Joyce line from Finnegan’s Wake, “Three quarks for Muster Mark!”
* A bat’s wing, a penguin’s flipper, lizard’s leg, human arm all house the same set of bones: humerus, radius, ulna, and carpal.
* Full moon always rises at sunset
* When you look at Jupiter in the night sky, the image you see is what the planet looked like 30 minutes ago, Saturn’s image is 70 minutes old, the light in Polaris is from Shakespearian times.
Extremely readable book– recommended for the knowledge-thirsty.

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Then we came to the end

Devoured this in nearly one sitting. Hundreds of pages of silly white collar worker stories of wasted hours which then get turned into billable hours invoiced to clients. “The great unsung pastime of American corporate life, the wadded paper toss.” Swapping stories in Benny’s office. Rumors swirling. Minor wars and subversion over office chairs. Pranks pranks pranks, like taping sushi behind a co-worker’s table and letting it rot, turning everyone’s radio station to something different, stealing personal items off desks. Carl going nuts and taking off his clothes in his wife’s car, refusing to go to work, stealing Janine’s meds. Tom getting laid off and everyone fearing his reprisal, he then shows up in a clown suit with a gun. Chris Yop returning to dismantle the chair and throw it in Lake Michigan. The guy who Xeroxed a novel every morning, taking the pages back to his desk so it looked like he was reviewing legitimate business documents when in fact he read a book every few days.
Tucked in between the nonsense stories from the “we” perspective is the story of Lynn, the managing partner, who battles with breast cancer. She’s afraid to go to the hospital so simply does not show up for her appointed surgery. Her story is then co-opted by Hank, who writes a novel and whose reading brings everyone back for a reunion years later. The night ends with Benny desperately trying to keep the party going, but everyone eventually filtering out, except the mysterious “you and me.”
Joshua Ferris is not to be confused with Timothy Ferriss, whose 4 Hour Work Week I finished reading previous to starting this one. But the themes of both Ferris & Ferriss works are eerily similar– both are cautionary tales not to waste your days in a mindless job but to get passionate about it.
I can definitely relate to the characters in this book– the heady days of the Internet boom, followed by the tension of rolling layoffs, and then one day in September in 2001 when everything changed.

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The 4-Hour Workweek

Deliriously, shudderingly good book that will serve to kick my arse into gear; that year of global backpacking seems much more realistic now. Was this the first book to use AdWords to determine what a the most successful title would be?
Ferriss walks you through the basics of creating automated income streams which run like clockwork while you merrily traverse the globe. This is my dream, writ large. It’s all about taking mini-retirements along the way, instead of working the 9-5 lifestyle for 30 years in order to take a few years off at the end of your life.
First step is to crank up your productivity– figure out the 20% of activities that drive 80% of the results and drop the rest, refining the 20% to get even more out of them. Refuse all meetings without agendas, train your coworkers not to interrupt, ween people from phone contact to email contact. Use the puppy-dog method to try remote working and demonstrate amazing productivity without the distractions of the office. Figure out a way to make money distributing other people’s products or hitting a niche market with your own easy to product product. Use eBay to gauge interest in your product (cancelling the auction before it finishes b/c you don’t actually have a product to ship). Use AdWords to test test test what copy works and what drives sales. Have customer calls come to your cellphone at the beginning to figure out what goes in the online FAQ. Investigate outsourcing your life by having virtual assistants a globe away work on your behalf. Simplify and reduce your intake of the unessential (be it news or crap food, etc.) Go without news for a few days and see how much time you save– ask people around you what’s going on and see that you’re not missing much. Check email once a week (!)- perhaps extreme, but I like the idea of daily checking.
His comfort challenges are also interesting- ask for 3 people’s phone numbers each day just for the practice of it. Stare into people’s eyes. Say “no” to everything for a week. Negotiate lower prices at the farmer’s market, then take that negotiation to bigger transactions.
Don’t postpone life! Live!
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Originally published under the pseudonym of the main character, Louise Walbrook, because the contents are so very dirty (for 1960s standards). In 2001, Mrs. Templeton agreed to release the book under her real name.
Louise falls into an affair with Robert Gordon, whom she only dares to call Gordon due to his cruel and severe nature. “I shall hold you for ever, because I shall always find new ways of torturing you,” Gordon tells her at one point. It’s a bit on the masochistic side of things, but Louise enjoys submitting to humiliations at Gordon’s command. Very readable, great first person perspective on intimacy in the years after WWII.
Gordon is a psychiatrist, and cannot stop himself from analyzing Louise in casual conversation, where her jealousy and hatred of her mother and her unease about her father comes out. Eventually he breaks it off with her because he realizes he is too much in love with how things are. Years later, Louise returns to London and seeks out Gordon’s analyst for a few sessions, which culminates in them becoming lovers.

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Bone in the Throat

The raucous chef-writer has a pretty decent work of fiction here. This was entirely readable, if a bit drawn out (last scene with Charlie Wagons could have been shorter and still poignant). But his writing style was excellent– delicious depictions of the food, naturally, and realistic impressions of NYC neighborhoods in the 90s when it was still pre-Disneyfied.
The story starts out with a bang & gristle, a dead body floating ashore. Then we’re introduced to the backstory of Tommy, neighborhood boy turned chef who refuses the mob life despite his uncle’s connections. Tommy loves cooking, and we follow the friendship that springs up between him & the chef at the restaurant. He is eventually faced with a decision of giving up his uncle or getting locked up himself.

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Flash Fiction Forward

Giddy, dizzying short short stories. 750 words or less, some so powerful you feel you’ve been punched in the gut. The authors’ use of language is skillful swordplay at this level. Nothing is left to chance– every word matters. No skimming allowed. Recommended in spades for those of you out there looking for quick witted inspiration. The whole idea of short short stories is that we’re able to consume so much information so much more quickly now (compare 1950s TV to today’s complex story lines for an easy metaphor).
The man walking in the rain with a banana story is just mindblowingly simple and intense.

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Natasha’s Dance

St. Petersburg built from nothing in 1700s as the door to Europe, build on marshy land, in styles borrowed heavily from Vienna (?Venice?) and Paris. Everything French was considered superior to backwoods Russian until the War of 1812 when Napolean invaded. Then the backlash against the French language began, the upperclass had to teach themselves Russian from the peasants. The Decemberists born out of the war of 1812, eager to grant freedoms to the serfs. Pushkin the poet did much to create the Russian language, which was missing many of the nuanced terms; there were basic terms but not many for ideas of the mind. Anything sneaky or dishonest was said in French.
Stranding this one b/c of the onslaught of other books hitting my desk. This is a thick one, and something I’ll revisit later.

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The End of Mr. Y

Hmm. I can’t seem to remember where I picked up this book recommendation, but it was on my list when I went to the bookstore in a harried frenzy to pick up something for a last minute weekend getaway to the beaches of Baja. Parts were interesting, by the end was an extreme case of cheesiness. Science meets philosophy meets literature. Travel to the Troposphere after taking the tincture of holy water & vegetable charcoal and staring at a black dot, traveling down a tunnel into the world of the mind. Ariel is the main character, a PhD student studying thought experiments, whose advisor suddenly disappears. She discovers the cursed book “The End of Mr. Y” at at used bookstore, devours it then finds a key page missing. In her advisor’s old office she discovers the missing page, which contains the recipe for the tincture that takes you to the Troposphere (or MindSpace, as the ex-CIA agents call it). Encounters with the mouse god Apollo Smintheus, dashing into the safety of the church, rebuffing Adam (ex-priest)’s advances, jumping from person to person in the Troposphere to reach her advisor, and show up at his real-life house. The end is a mess, it’s almost like Thomas lost steam and just let her characters walk away into the sunset.

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Falling Man

Excellent, tight, concise work by DeLillo portraying the horror of 9/11, before and after and years after. Only DeLillo has the ability to dance around the scene, leaving most things untold, hinting and describing and not playing on our sympathy bone too much. His story follows Keith, who survives the attack on Tower 1 and who picks up a stray briefcase in the mass exodus down the stairwell with the rest of the survivors. His brain is essentially cracked by the event. He immediately makes his way over to his estranged wife’s apartment, where he remains. The briefcase belongs to a woman who also survives– and Keith starts a brief and intense affair with her as they reminisce about those moments in the tower. As she describes her experience, he searches the crowd for a glimpse of himself. They both see the maintenance man with a crowbar.
The title comes from the performance artist, the Falling Man, who begins falling with safety harness above busy intersections, getting everyone to quietly watch and comment. He cocks his body at an angle to denote that he is not simply falling, but something more.
We also see Keith’s wife (Lianne)’s mom and her 20 year affair with the German under an assumed name. Keith’s son Justin scans the skies for more planes.
The story also trails the terrorists in training – Atta & his crew in flight school. Poignant scenes where Hammad, cleanshaven and flirting with the cashier, tries to think up something funny to say. In the end, we all simply want to be liked.
So yes yes yes I would recommend it.

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