Books

Arrived in my pile

by on November 25, 2014 at 3:22 pm in Books | Permalink

1. John A. Allison, The Leadership Crisis and the Free Market Cure.

2. Peter J. Wallison, Hidden in Plain Sight: What Really Caused the World’s Worst Financial Crisis and Why It Could Happen Again.

3. Ted Gioia, Love Songs: The Hidden History.

4.Andrew Palmer, Smart Money: How High-Stakes Financial Innovation is Reshaping Our World for the Better.

Best non-fiction books of 2014

by on November 24, 2014 at 1:34 am in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

First there are the economics books, including books by people I know, including Piketty, The Second Machine Age, Tim Harford’s wonderful macro explainer, Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down, Lane Kenworthy on social democracy, The Fourth Revolution by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge, Daniel Drezner The System Worked, and Frank Buckley on why the Canadian system of government is better.  And Russ Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness.  We’ve already talked, written, and thought about those plenty, and they are not what this list is about, so I will set them aside.  Most of you are looking for excellent new books in addition to these, books you might not have heard about.

Here are the other non-fiction books of the year which took my fancy, mostly in the order I read them, noting that the link usually leads you to my previous review or comments:

Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century.  Long, exhausting, and wonderful.

Christopher Hale, Massacre in Malaya, a broader history than it at first sounds, fascinating from beginning to end.

Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life.

The Very Revd John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert.

John Keay, Midnight’s Descendants: A History of South Asia since Partition.  An excellent treatment of how much work remains to be done in the “nation building” enterprise in South Asia.

Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugutive Life in an American City.  A sociology graduate student hangs out with lawbreakers and learns about police oppression, an excellent micro-study.  My column on her book is here.

Gendun Chopel, Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler, Tibetan scholar goes to India and records his impressions, unusual.

George Prochnik, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of His World.  I loved this one.

I’ve only read the first half of the new Tom Holland translation of Herdotus’s Histories (I will get to the rest), but surely it deserves note.

Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.  This book won the National Book Award for non-fiction.

David Eimer, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China.  A look at China’s outermost regions and their ethnic minorities.  Just imagine that, we had two excellent popular China books in the same year.

The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, by Davi Kopenawa.  Repetitious in parts, sometimes incoherent too, but it offers a smart and unique perspective you won’t get from any of the other books on this list or any other.

Jonathan Rottenberg, The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic.  This treatment stresses the (partial) cognitive advantages of having a tendency toward depression.

Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary, assorted facts and insights about the English language, you don’t have to feel like reading a book about poetry to find this worthwhile.

David Sterling, Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition, huge, expensive, wonderful, more than just a cookbook though it is that too.  I’ve spent some of the last few weeks learning these recipes and what makes them tick.

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.  A good overview of how some of the main pieces of today’s information technology world fell into place, starting with the invention of the computer and running up through the end of the 1990s.

Arthur M. Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life.

Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph.  As good or better than the classic biographies of the composer.

Stephen Kotkin, Stalin, vol. 1.  This one I have only read a part of (maybe 150 pp.?), it is very long and does not fit my current reading interests, but it seems very good and impressive and also has received strong reviews.  So I feel I should include it.

Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins.

So who wins?  If I had to pick a #1, it would be The Very Revd John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, not the kind of book I would be expecting to coronate, which is a testament to the magnetic force it has exercised over my imagination.

Then I would pick Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugutive Life in an American City and David Sterling, Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition as the runners-up.

My fiction picks were here.  There are still some wonderful books to come out this year, and already-published books I will still read, especially after mining other “best of” lists, so around Dec.31 or so I’ll post an updated account of what I would add to this list.

…cetacean brain size, relative to body size, increased substantially about thirty-eight mill years ago when the odontocetes evolved from the ancient archaeocetes…

What drove these changes? It does not seem to have been the transition to an aquatic existence itself as that occurred about fifty-five million years ago and brains stayed at roughly the same relatively small size relative to body weigt as the archaeocetes made their gradual entry into the ocean.  A better hypothesis is that the increased brain size of the odontocetes thirty-eight million years ago was driven by the evolution of echolocation.  The early odontocetes had inner ear bones that were good at picking up high frequency sound, which suggests that they had developed a form of sonar.  Lori Marino thinks “that echolocation came on line and then got co-opted for social communicative purposes.”  In this scenario, the odontocete brains increased in relative size to deal with the acoustic information itself, as well as, perhaps, a new perceptual system based on the data from the returning echoes.  But…the change may have been even more profound: “This may indicate that the large brains of early odontocetes were used, at least partly, for processing this entirely new sensory mode [echolocation] that evolved at the same time as these anatomical changes and perhaps for integrating this new mode into an increasingly complex behavioral ecological system.”

That is from the new and notable The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, previously covered on MR here.  And here is my earlier post on the economics of dolphins.

You will find it here (pdf), forthcoming in the Erasmus Journal of Philosophy and Economics.

For the pointer I thank Ray Lopez, who in turn drew upon Patrick R. Sullivan, a commentator at The Money Illusion.

Human-dolphin fishing cooperatives

by on November 21, 2014 at 2:37 am in Books, Education, Science | Permalink

1. They have been reported to exist in Australia, India, Mauritania, Burma, and the Mediterranean, but the best known are in Brazil.

2. In parts of southern Brazil, human fisherman have been cooperating with dolphins for many generations (of each species).

3. If fishermen clap just the right way, dolphins will herd fish into the desired areas of fishermen, in muddy lagoon areas.

4. The dolphins perform a distinctive kind of dive to signal to the humans it is time to cast the net for the fish.

5. Only some individual dolphins are able (willing?) to do this well, perhaps the others belong to the forty-seven percent.

5b. The dolphins which cooperate with the fisherman are also more social, more socially connected, and more cooperative with other dolphins.

6. The Brazilian fishermen name the star cooperating dolphins after ex-presidents, soccer players, and Hollywood stars.

7. The names aside, it is not clear whether dolphins benefit from offering this assistance; some commentators suggest the dolphins end up with isolated or injured fish from these exercises.

Here is one blog post report on these practices.  Here is one piece of the original research.  I stumbled upon this while reading the new and excellent Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, a new book from University of Chicago Press.

What I’ve been reading

by on November 21, 2014 at 1:55 am in Books | Permalink

1. Daniel Schreiber, Susan Sontag: A Biography.  I never tire reading about her, or reading her, for that matter.

2. Richard Bernstein, China 1945: Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice.  A very good book on how the Americans had a decent relationship with the Chinese Communists in 1945 and how rapidly that fell apart and why.

3. Paul Vigna and Michael J. Casey, The Age of Cryptocurrency: How Bitcoin and Digital Money are Challenging the Global Economic Order.  A good and useful introduction to the beliefs of those who believe in the subtitle being true.

4. Michael Pye, The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are.  The topic is so intriguing to me that I’m going to start this book over again fresh.  My first crack at it yielded no success, as I felt it was too much about Bede and Frisia and didn’t tie together a larger picture.  But I paid extra shipping charges to get it early from the UK (it’s not yet out in America), so perhaps I am not treating sunk costs as sunk…

5. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, This Earth of Mankind, volume one of the Buru Quartet.  These are the greatest books which most educated people never read, and I am giving them a reread.  So far volume one is as good as I remember it, maybe better.  I think of the set as an extended, four-volume meditation, by an Indonesian political prisoner, on what a life really consists of.  Here is a short essay on the quartet.

The story is here, his book is Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.  Previous MR coverage is here, it was one of my favorite non-fiction books of the year.

From Chris Taylor’s new How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise:

The comments section on the Marginal Revolution blog post about the Death Star calculation is a case in point.  Here, even now, sober economists [TC: is that what you people are?] hash out questions about the variables: Whether to factor in the slave labor of Wookiees (which was partly responsible for its construction, according to the novel Death Star). Or whether you could fund the whole thing from taxes on the population of Coruscant (which is said to have a trillion inhabitants, thus funding the Death Star at a cost of roughly $8,000 per person)  or whether a quality assurance engineer should have nixed a thermal exhaust port two meters wide that led to the main reactor shaft, and what effect this oversight might have had on the Empire’s chances of getting an insurance policy on its second Death Star.

The original MR post on the Death Star is here, and by the way the Taylor book is excellent for all those interested in the topic.

For the pointer I thank a Mr. Christopher Weber.

2015 Law and Literature reading list

by on November 18, 2014 at 1:26 am in Books, Education, Film, Law | Permalink

The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition

The Law Code of Manu, Penguin edition

Njal’s Saga (on-line version is fine)

Lawyer Poets and that World Which We Call Law, edited by James Elkins

Glaspell’s Trifles, available on-line.

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka, edited and translated by Joachim Neugroschel.

In the Belly of the Beast, by Jack Henry Abbott.

Conrad Black, A Matter of Principle.

Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Novels and Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, volume 1.

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov.

Moby Dick, by Hermann Melville, excerpts, chapters 89 and 90, available on-line.

Year’s Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer.

Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman.

The Pledge, Friedrich Durrenmatt.

E.M. Forster, A Passage to India.

Haruki Murakami, Underground.

Honore de Balzac, Colonel Chabert.

Toer, Pramoedya Ananta, House of Glass.

M.E. Thomas, Confessions of a Sociopath.

Films: A Separation, Memories of Murder, other.

Podcast: Serial

If you are eligible (economics graduate students have taken it in the past), do take my class, I am very happy to have you there.

This passage is from Gao Wenqian’s Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary:

Doctors in China could not conduct major medical procedures on top leaders without the approval of the Politburo Standing Committee.  Such was the long-standing rule.  Thus, in 1975, Deng Ziaoping and Marshal Ye Jianying, leaders among the old CCP cadres who had generally despised the Cultural Revolution and had shown little enthusiasm for the political style of the mercurial Jiang Qing, now had to negotiate emergency surgery for Zhou Enlai with her allies Wang Hongwen and Zhang Chunqiao.  For once, these tough political adversaries managed to see eye-to-eye.  They all gave their consent to surgery and sent their decision to Mao, who always had the final say.

Zhou Enlai had four operations before dying of cancer.  For the last two operations, however, Mao instructed the doctors to tell Zhou that in fact he was being cured and the tumors were removed.  He ceased to believe that when the unbearable pain arrived.

Over the more than four centuries from the time of Ivan the Terrible, Russia expanded an average of fifty square miles per day.

That is from the extraordinary new Stephen Kotkin biography of Stalin, titled Stalin.  The first volume of 949 pp. brings the reader up only until 1928.  A lot still happened after that.

There are already more speakers of Aramaic in metropolitan Detroit (around a hundred thousand) than in Baghdad…

That is from Christian Caryl in the 4 December 2014 New York Review of Books, reviewing Gerald Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.

I just clicked on pre-order

by on November 11, 2014 at 11:58 am in Books, History, The Arts | Permalink

Michael Hofmann, Where Have You Been?: Selected Essays.  Hofmann is a poet, translator, and essayist and in my view he is one of the finest (and most underrated) thinkers and writers of our day.  The book is due out December 2.  Here are previous MR mentions of Michael Hofmann.

My favorite fiction of 2014

by on November 11, 2014 at 1:11 am in Books | Permalink

Overall I found this to be a weak year for fiction, with most of the highly anticipated books disappointing me, including those of Murakami, MacEwan, and David Mitchell.  Even the third volume of Knausgaard had extraordinary material through only about fifteen percent of the text; it was worth reading but most of it did not hold my attention very well.  Here are the ones I really liked, with the first two being my favorites:

1. Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things: A Novel.  A missionary visits space aliens, some of whom embrace the Bible eagerly, almost too eagerly.  Meanwhile he and his wife on earth write letters back and forth, showing they are the true aliens to each other.  This is the fiction book this year I enjoyed most, and the one I kept on wanting to pick up after I had put it down.  It is one of the most resonant portraits of space aliens I have read. yet without it being a science fiction novel.  Here is a useful NYT review, describing the book as “defiantly unclassifiable.”

2. Emmanuel Carrère, Limonov, The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, A Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia.  This work blends fiction, non-fiction, and occasional social science (was a non-corrupt transformation of the Soviet Union really possible?, Gaidar ultimately decided it wasn’t), but in terms of the subjective experience of the reader it is most like a novel.  In addition to its literary quality, this is a deep book about why liberalism will never quite win over human nature.  Here is an interesting Julian Barnes review, although it is insufficiently appreciative.

3. Andrés Neuman, Talking to Ourselves, “Women who know what they want never want anything interesting.”

4. Javier Cercas, Outlaws: A Novel, my earlier remarks are here.

5. Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  The Booker Prize winner, I thought this was at times too sentimental but an excellent story with some depth too.  It deals with an Australian in a prisoner of war camp in WWII and his escapades surrounding that time in his life.

I have yet to start the new Colm Tóibín novel, and I often like his work.  I read some of the new Sarah Waters, which struck me as a little too belabored for the time I had to give to it, but a quality work which will please her fans.  Cesar Aira wrote some more and he continues to be interesting.  I continued a reread of Moby Dick.

I am preparing my list of my favorite non-fiction books of the year and that should be ready before the Christmas shopping season starts.

In the meantime, what new fiction can you all recommend to me?

What I’ ve been reading

by on November 8, 2014 at 7:58 am in Books | Permalink

I’ve been on a roll with my last few books:

1. Denis Johnson, The Laughing Monsters.  This one doesn’t seem like it is trying very hard, and yet I like it more than the author’s other books, perhaps for that reason.  It’s about two (ostensible) buddies, set in Africa, then all kinds of secrets unfold.  There is a NYT review here.

2. Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things: A Novel.  A missionary visits space aliens, some of whom embrace the Bible eagerly, almost too eagerly.  Meanwhile he and his wife on earth write letters back and forth, showing they are the true aliens to each other.  This is the fiction book this year I enjoyed most, and one I kept on wanting to pick up after I had put it down.  Here is a useful NYT review, describing the book as “defiantly unclassifiable.”

3. Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life.  The fact that so many pages still feel so non-comprehensive is a testament to the life being covered here, and to the richness of its historical period.  Still, this is fresh and easy to read throughout, recommended.