Capsule Reviews

by Carolyn Dane

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman, edited by Michelle Feynman (his daughter) will interest and charm anyone who enjoyed Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. It's a very personal glimpse into Feynman's life, his loves, his joys and sorrows, the things that frustrated him - like the politics involved in the Challenger investigation (which he thwarted so neatly with his O-ring demonstration) - and the appallingly low quality of elementary school textbooks - which he reviewed for the State of California with far more seriousness and diligence than the professional educators. None of the less savory aspects of Feynman's character are found here; for those, see James Gleick's biography, Genius. Lots of nice pictures are integrated into the text.

Dangerous Doses: How Counterfeiters are Contaminating American's Drug Supply by Katherine Eban. It seems that several years ago the druglords of south Florida discovered, in drug counterfeiting, a more profitable and less risky enterprise than wholesaling cocaine and marijuana. Florida made it far too easy to get a license as a drug wholesaler, issuing many licenses to felons, and failing to enforce even the mild penalties that existed for violations. A typical scam was to buy large quantities of low-concentration Procrit (a drug that helps with anemia in AIDS and cancer patients, among others), and relabel it as high-concentration Procrit, which sells for upwards of $2000 per dose. Some drugs (especially anti-AIDS drugs) were bought on the street and resold to the same pharmacies that had issued them to consumers. Large quantities of fake Lipitor were shipped all over the U.S. Large wholesalers bought suspicious supplies of drugs from small wholesalers and added them to the general stock, so there was no way of tracing to separate the false from the genuine. This is a well-told true action-adventure story of five heroic investigators who set out to change the situation against long odds. Happily, they have succeeded to some extent, but there is still plenty of cause for concern. If you take expensive drugs, better check this one out.

Word Origins and How We Know Them by Anatoly Liberman. This is not your usual collection of word derivations mostly borrowed from secondary sources. The author, a professor at the University of Minnesota, has been working for 17 years on a definitive dictionary of the etymology of English such as exists for French, Spanish, German, and other languages, but not heretofore for our own. Here he describes his working methods and some of the things he has discovered. He does it with a light touch and a sense of humor that makes the inherently interesting (to me, anyway) topic quite entertaining. He comments on the "bow-wow theory" (that most words arise from imitating sounds), compared with the "pooh-pooh theory" (that most words arise from exclamations). He traces interesting pathways through archaic languages. There are also some etymologies you have probably not heard before: "cloak," for example, comes from "clock." How? Sometime during the medieval period, bells became associated with clocks, and a cloak is a bell-shaped garment. Here's a sample passage:

The idea of gemmation [budding] occurred to me when I was investigating the etymology of the English F-word. In the Germanic languages, about two dozen verbs beginning with fik-, fit-, fid-, fak-, fok-, fop-, fob-, fug-, and so on have the basic meaning "move back and forth". (fickle, fitful and fiddle are a small part of the verbs, nouns, and adjectives united by this meaning and the structure f + vowel + consonant). Each of them looks like an etymological mongrel, yet together they form a close-knit pack.

Under and Alone by William Queen. On the surface, this is the true story of an ATF agent who goes under deep cover and risks life and limb to infiltrate a nasty motorcycle club, the Mongols, and bring the bad guys to justice for murder, drug-dealing, and firearms offenses. Sorry, Mr. Queen, I just can't help suspecting it's a puff piece designed to burnish the ATF's reputation, which is badly tarnished for excellent reason.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. A very British book, but quite comprehensible to Americans, who use the same rules of punctuation even though they say "period" instead of "full stop". I'd recommended the book to a few people whose prose I edit and who need help with punctuation, so I finally decided I should read it. Purists will enjoy it, and many of the examples are entertaining. It is unnecessarily wordy, though; for the concise rules of punctuation, I know nothing better than Strunk & White, The Elements of Style, which has been around for nearly a century without being surpassed.

China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World by Ted C. Fishman. No real surprises here, just a lot of anecdotes and statistics that help you get your mind around the sheer magnitude of the phenomenon of China's growth.

Broken Prey by John Sandford - 14th in the series of thrillers featuring Lucas Davenport. All have the word "prey" in the title. Sanford is probably my favorite thriller writer, and the latest one does not disappoint. Although each novel can stand alone, they are best read in order, since characters continue and evolve from book to book. Sandford also has another, somewhat darker, series of four thrillers with a hero named Kidd, each of which has the name of a Tarot card in the title: The Fools Run; The Empress File; The Devil's Code; and The Hanged Man's Song. There's also a novel, The Night Crew, which is not a part of any series and might be a good one to sample to see how well you like Sandford before diving into a series.

1776 by William McCullough. A nicely told rendition of our nation's birth pangs, the human side of George Washington, and the desperate conditions the U.S. faced at its origins. What a shame this Pulitzer Prize winner from Simon & Schuster is marred by incompetent copy editing that confused principal with principle, lay with laid, and rein with reign.

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. A small, easy-to-read volume with several interesting ideas, most of which have already been widely discussed, e.g., that crime has decreased since Roe v. Wade because a generation of the babies most likely to become criminals have not been born, and whether "black names" handicap a child. Levitt teaches economics at the University of Chicago. He is obviously a remarkably bright and independent thinker, and he is refreshingly willing to take on the politically-correct establishment. He reminds me of Richard Feynman in his intellectual curiosity and his "pleasure of finding things out." Dubner is a writer who featured Levitt in an article for The New York Times Magazine, and then expanded it into this book with Levitt's cooperation. (Levitt said he didn't have time to write a book himself; he has too many interesting things to find out.)

Ordinary Heroes by Scott Turow. A gripping novel of a father's harrowing experiences during World War II, and a son's attempt to reconstruct that history, which was kept secret by his parents for reasons that constitute the shocking and satisfying surprise ending. Lots of the sort of gritty scenes we saw in Saving Private Ryan, and a fine wartime romance. Unforgettable.

Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground by Robert D. Kaplan. Military life is not a particular interest of mine, and I would not have picked this up except that I know from experience that everything Kaplan writes is well worth reading: I have read all of his books. This one contains some high adventure. Kaplan was embedded with the Marines who took Fallujah, and he describes his tour of the China-Mongolian border with a modern-day Indiana Jones type. There are many surprises, plenty of criticism of the Pentagon, and great respect and admiration for the "grunts" on the ground. Kaplan says the U.S. is an empire whether we like it or not, and has no choice but to behave like one. "Injun country" is his and their term for most of the U.S. military's operating environment in today's world: establishing fortresses as islands of security in a hostile environment, much as the cavalry did in the American west of the 19th century. The details are fascinating.

Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass by Theodore Dalrymple. The author is a British physician who works in a hospital in Birmingham. His description of the grim environment there is shocking; I would not have thought it possible that the social pathology in England could be so much worse than it is in the U.S. inner cities. Dalrymple places the blame squarely on the liberal do-gooders whose ideas and subsidies make "victims" and "poverty" where they need not exist. The picture is bleak beyond measure. As he says, "misery expands to meet the resources available for its alleviation." There is a lesson here for legislators, but they are unlikely to heed it; the cure will likely come from the evaporation of the resources due to disaster.

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