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Corrente Reads Books!

a little night musing's picture

We read books: let's review them here! Leave your reviews in the comments.

A few weeks ago vastleft asked for recommendations of artist biographies or memoirs. What I'm working on today is one of those. Perhaps you've read a biography or autobiography of an artist (or scientist, for that matter) which incorporates information about how they approach their work?

We've also had a request for books about the history of Fermat's Last Theorem. I gave my suggestion here. If you've read this or any of the other books for nonmathematicians that have been written about this, let us know what you thought.

Housekeeping note: I'm changing the title of my Sunday book review posts so as not to create confusion with the posts of my esteemed colleague Truth Partisan who originated the Sunday Morning Book Review series here. I took the title idea "Correente Reads Books" from CD's comment "Corrente: the blog of people who read actual books! without pictures or flashy spinning graphics, even! wow." (And thanks for the great link in that post, CD!)

But before I make the change retroactive: do people think that title is no good, does it need the word "Sunday" in it, does it lead to confusion with some other series somewhere, or do you just plain have a better idea?

My review to follow...

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khin's picture
Submitted by khin on

The last one was by T.R. Reid (recommended).

But I did read nine chapters of Thomas Watson Jr.'s autobiography.

a little night musing's picture
Submitted by a little night ... on

Society's Child, an autobiography by Janis Ian

I have always had a special fondness for Janis Ian's music, ever since her first hit song "Society's Child". I don't know how I stumbled over her website recently, but I was thrilled to find that she had written an autobiography not too long ago. I immediately reserved it from the library (sorry, Janis!).

This is a beautiful memoir of a life with many twists and turns. It is amazingly short - about 350 pages - given how much stuff is in it. From the first line:

was born into the crack that split America.
On one side of the chasm was the America my parents lived in. There, the country was still congratulating itself on winning the war after the War to End All Wars. Men wore suits and ties to work, or laborer’s uniforms. Women wore stiletto heels, and kept themselves pure for marriage. Females did the housework, males did the heavy lifting. Blacks knew their place, whites knew theirs, and there wasn’t much room between.
On the other side of the crack was the America I grew up in, bounded by anarchy and a passion for truth. In that America, all wars were meaningless, born out of governmental greed and disregard. Vietnam was just the latest in a series of events to help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

I think this book will be most meaningful to people who lived through the times she describes, or who are followers of her music. Janis Ian does a wondeful job of evoking the times in a few sentences, as you see above.

Her story is also the story of many betrayals along the way: not surprising for someone who entered the music business at a young age. Her descriptions are so focused on the moments she writes about that some of the betrayals, when they come, seem to be shockingly out of the blue, as indeed they must have seemed at the time. Her story is a struggle to come to trust herself.
For me one of the best parts of the book is the discussions of the craft of songwriting, as she describes the choices she makes putting some of her songs together, beginning with "Society's Child". I actually wished that there could have been more of this.

You can read an extended excerpt from the first chapter at her website, and you can also download some of her music for free. In fact, she also has an interesting essay on the subject of music downloading called The Internet Debacle, originally written for Performing Songwriter Magazine.
Janis Ian's songs have meant a lot to me through the years, and I was completely enthralled by her autobiography, feeling as if I were finally getting to meet a penpal in a way.

Here is a part of her story that I did not know: Janis Ian's mother had MS, and one of the things Janis was able to do for her was to enable her to go to college even though she was beginning to be less mobile because of it. In her mother's memory Janis has formed the Pearl Foundation, which funds scholarships for returning students. Purchases made through the Janis Ian Store benefit the Pearl Foundation. (When I do buy a copy of this book, I'll be buying it there!)

There is a wonderful interview with Janis discussing her autobiography here.

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

And thanks for remembering my request.

The last line of this song still brings a chill after all these years, naming and claiming her caste.

a little night musing's picture
Submitted by a little night ... on

but (as a friend of mine pointed out in high school) you can be very beautiful and still be "ugly" as far as high school standards go, and that's what it's about.

This song has a lot of wonderful lines. And it is one of the ones she writes a bit about in the book!

a little night musing's picture
Submitted by a little night ... on

More books about Fermat's Last Theorem:

For non-mathematicians, in addition to Simon Singh's book Fermat’s Enigma: The Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem which I mentioned previously, there is:

Amir D. Azcel, Fermat's Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem

Azcel's discursionary style is not everyone's cup of tea, but I have enjoyed all of his books so far. And he is also not too misleading in his decription of the mathematics.

(I'd avoid Marilyn vos Savant's book on the subject. I often like her writing, but on this proof she just did not seem to be able to grasp how the thing worked.)

For readers who want a more mathematical history of the theorem and its proof, I can recommend sight unseen these two (which may require some undergraduate-level math background and a bit of work), but take a look before buying:

Algebraic Number Theory and Fermat's Last Theorem, by Ian Stewart and David Tall

This is really a textbook, said to be accessible to advanced undergraduates, by two very good writers. The reviews say that it contains a historical development of the subject as well as recent (post-Wiles) developments.

Fermat's Last Theorem: A Genetic Introduction to Algebraic Number Theory, by Harold M. Edwards

This book introduces many of the techniques of algebraic number theory through a discussion of FLT and the history of the various attempts to prove it. This one is not quite "sight unseen", but I read this book too long ago to recall exactly how much math background it requires. Edwards is a wonderful teacher and writer and historian of mathematics (and a really nice person!). If I recall correctly, this book does not discuss the Wiles-Taylor proof of FLT though.

And a different kind of book, my friend C. J. Mazzochi has written The Fermat Diary, a series of memoirs of Mazzochi's travels as he followed (literally) the development of the Wiles-Taylor proof; the text is accompanied by dozens of Mazzochi's wonderful photographs of the mathematicians and places involved. (C. J. Mazzochi is a mathematician who works in a related area of mathematics, and is also well-known in the mathematical community as a photographer.) This book is about the people (Wiles and the mathematicians whose work contributed to the proof) and their personalities and relationships, as well as the process of working in mathematics.

(Mazzochi also wrote a small booklet attempting to explain the proof at an undergraduate student level. I don't know if he ever succeeded in having it published.)

john.halle's picture
Submitted by john.halle on

For the Janis Ian fan's I'd highly recommend David Hajdu's Positively Fourth Street from a few years back which deals with Greenwich Village generally and the transition from the folk coffee shop to the mass market rock scene as personified by Bob Dylan, Richard Farini (who turns out to be a genius), Joan Baez, and Joan's sister Mimi Farina.

Also, Dylan's Chronicles is an absolute must read-as it turns out that as everyone was looking at him, he was looking right back with dead eye precision.

Among musician memoirs, I wish John Adams Hallelujah Junction were just a little better than it is, though it is fine piece of work in many ways and worth reading for the vanishingly small circles who are interested in what we used to (but can no longer) call "contemporary music."

What I have not read but will when I get a chance are Prokofiev's recently letters in which he comes across as expected, frighteningly brilliant, more than a little catty not to mention absolutely impossible. Apparently lots of funny stories about his American sojourn where he got to know Mary Baker Eddy and became a Christian Scientist. Go figure.

votermom's picture
Submitted by votermom on

I'm reading the Harry Dresden series (yeah, I'm late to it) and I'm on the last book so far.

Th books y'all are reading sound so serious.

Aeryl's picture
Submitted by Aeryl on

I just got done reading a fiction novel "Night's Cold Kiss", which I'm terming the anti-Twilight(which I've also read, horrors!).

It's a "vampire's walk openly among us" story, probably a little more like True Blood, than Twilight, but wevs. It's infinitely more interesting than Twilight.

Even the good vampires have to feed on human blood, but they feed from legal donors, who are contracted through an agency, or partners who willingly enter into such an arrangement. But they only feed a pint or so, whereas the bad vampires feed from people until they reach death. Once a vampire does it, they are addicted forever to the "death-high", and have to be hunted down. Feeding provides orgasmic release for both parties, so there are no shortages of humans willing to donate.

So there is actual sex in these novels, unlike Twilight, and the heroine of the novels is turned into a vampire(to save her life) in the first novel, instead of dragging it out, unlike Twilight.

It was so weird to me that Twilight is as popular amongst adults, as it is, since the "star-crossed lovers involving humans & vampires" stories have been around since Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series, which has been around for some time. And Twilight took away what has always been fun and interesting about those stories, the sex and violence.

Then again, I'm infinitely more comfortable with the idea of the stalking crazy vampire boyfriend genre being targeted to adult women, who through experience, realize that's just a cool fantasy that doesn't play well in reality, than young impressionable tween girls, who now think being with a crazy stalker guy means it's true love.

votermom's picture
Submitted by votermom on

We smut-readers must stick together.