What are you reading this month? (January 2013)
We’ve further expanded the definition of AVQ&A—our Monday and Friday discussion prompts—by asking you (and two of our regular contributors) a simple question once per month: What have you read in the past month, or what are you currently reading? If you have suggestions for AVQ&A questions, big or small, you can e-mail them to us here.
January is often a bit of a wasteland for book releases, after the big seasonal push to get everything significant into stores in time for Christmas. But people are clearly excited for Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time epic saga finally wrapping up with Brandon Sanderson’s A Memory Of Light on January 8. Warren Ellis’ huge fan base now has his second novel, Gun Machine, to occupy them for about two hours. Girl With A Pearl Earring author Tracy Chevalier has a new historical novel, The Last Runaway, about the Underground Railroad, and George Saunders’ short-story collection Tenth Of December is reportedly terrific. We’ll have reviews of most of these, if not all of them, coming up later this month.
I just finished Stephen Gould’s Impulse, another January release—it’s a sequel to his thriller Jumper, which, as I constantly feel the need to repeat, is much better than the dumb-as-dirt Hayden Christensen movie adapted from it. I don’t want to get too deeply into it, because I’ll probably be reviewing it at some point, but it’s a solid (though somewhat market-driven) addition to what’s become a loose series. In the largely plotless Jumper, a teenager found out he could teleport; in the heavily plotty sequel, Reflex, his wife picked up his ability in time to help deal with his capture by horrific people. In Impulse, they have a teenage daughter who learns to teleport as well. The book falls comfortably into the realm of modern YA, with a teenage girl with powers, dealing with brutal people and situations and figuring out how to survive, but what makes it interesting is Gould’s habitual attention to methodology and detail. He really seems to have thought a lot about both the physics of teleportation and the sociology of a pair of control-freak teleporters who suddenly have no control whatsoever over their daughter. And I just started James Smythe’s The Explorer, largely on a whim because it was sitting on my desk; in just the first dozen pages detailing a space-exploration project, everyone but the protagonist has died, so I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where the story goes from there. It already feels like an action movie that started with the ending.
I’m on the Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club beat, so I’m usually reading something silly involving show business. But every once in a while, I like to branch out and read something exceedingly silly involving figures outside the world of show business. As part of my ongoing fascination with the deluded psychology of horrible, horrible people, I recently read Rielle Hunter’s What Really Happened, the insane tell-all from John Edwards’ mistress and the mother of his child. The book is a terribly written jeremiad against Elizabeth Edwards (because you really can’t go wrong attacking the memory of the woman whose husband you were sleeping with while she died of cancer) and Andrew Young, the Edwards aide who pretended Edwards’ daughter with Hunter was actually his. This spurred me to want to read The Politician, Andrew Young’s own account of the scandal that sunk one of the most promising political careers of the past 20 years. Young was a true believer, a political animal who revered Edwards. I’m about halfway done with Young’s book, which is infinitely better written than Hunter’s, but similarly self-serving and myopic. (I haven’t even gotten to the chapters involving Hunter yet, but anticipate them with baited breath.) It’s a bit of a Rashomon situation, where the same events are recalled very differently from different perspectives, and it’s a good warm-up for my next two Show-Biz Book Club entries: I’m following up the tell-all from KISS drummer Peter Criss with what I imagine will be very different accounts of the group’s rise and fall from KISS guitarist Ace Frehley (No Regrets) and Gene Simmons (Kiss And Make-Up).
Like many a fretful Democrat during Election 2012, I clung to the warm blankie of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog whenever the political winds appeared to be shifting, even though those winds were mostly just pundits blowing hot gas. What seemed to be a volatile election was actually quite stable, a wire-to-wire victory for Obama that held mostly steady in Silver’s aggregate poll model. I’m almost ashamed to admit how much I wanted the results to adhere to Silver’s model, just as a victory for empirical thinking over the poll-skewing “gut feelings” of partisan hacks. When Silver’s predictions bore out (50 out of 50 states!), I was duty-bound to pick up The Signal And The Noise, his wide-ranging survey of statistical analysis as it’s practiced across a range of disciplines. Moneyball it ain’t: Silver writes with the prose craft of, well, a statistician, arranging his arguments clearly and dispassionately without infusing them with the anecdotal flair of Michael Lewis’ non-fiction. Yet the book is compelling all the same, exploring the use and abuse of data as it applies to politics, baseball, poker, computer chess, the stock market, weather forecasting, and other fields. In an age where we have access to more data, Silver warns that it’s no less likely for that data to be misinterpreted or poorly weighted, and some areas, like the stock market, are slipperier than others when it comes to prediction. What comes through strongest in The Signal And The Noise is Silver’s insistence on honesty and scientific rigor in the face of irrational thinking, and his suggestion that everyone should have the humility to question their methods and biases. It’s a simple lesson that many are not incentivized to take to heart.