Interact Book Club 2007 (Rio)

Notes and thoughts about books and life's unexpected pleasures

From the left: Franca Agnoli, John Thomas, Wendy Kellogg, Leah Findlater, Dan Russell, Steven Poltrock

Three hours at a churrascaria in the Copacabana neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro.

Six friends, Franca Agnoli, Steve Poltrock, Wendy Kellogg, John C. Thomas, Leah Findlater, Dan Russell.

We ate Brazilian barbecue off lethal-looking spears, had a little sangria and talked about books.


Books: What good ones have you read this year?

Franca: The Emperor's Children, Claire Messud. This is a novel for the beach--elegant writing, characters a bit contrived, a mystery of manners and human behavior. The characters sometimes seem a little like prototypes, but with writing like this, who cares? It's a fun, well-written read.

John: Old Man's War, John Scalzi. Sounds a bit like a Heinlein story--seventy-five year old John Perry joins the Colonial Defense Force to be in the spacer army, a great deal for a guy who gets a new body with fast-clotting smartblood and embedded neural co-processors. John says the book "unpeels your assumptions one by one" while putting new blood (so to speak) into the old SF genre. "The older you get," John says, "the more appealing this book becomes."

Wendy: The Gatecrasher, Madeline Wickham. From Library Journal: Fleur Daxeny is beautiful and sophisticated, with an appetite for comfort beyond her means. She also has a fine wardrobe of black designer dresses that she wears to the funerals of wealthy London women in hope of snaring their grieving husbands. Once captivated by her good looks and charm, these men provide her with money, a home, and an extravagant lifestyle for however long it takes her to stash a bit of cash and move on to the next. Such is the fate of Richard Favour. The ease with which Fleur moves into his life dazzles him. His late wife had been really rather dull, and everyone in his family seems to find Fleur most refreshing. But just as Richard proposes marriage, the unscrupulous Fleur gets bored and begins reading obituaries again. This is an often witty and deeply biting novel of modern manners and morals.

Leah: Sweetness in the Belly, Camilla Gibb. Lilly is orphaned in Morocco, raised as a Sufi Muslim, travels to Ethiopia on a pilgrimage, returns to England, but never quite fits in. Set in the politically complicated 1960s, Sweetness has lovely, well-crafted prose that cuts to the essence of what it means to belong to a place and culture.

Dan: 1491: New revelations of the America before Columbus, Charles C. Mann. Bascially, everything you learned about pre-Columbian life in the New World was badly mistaken. Based on the latest archaeological, biological and botanical discoveries, Mann paints a New World that is older, more populated and far more complicated a place that you ever dreamed. It's a book full of surprises--whether it's the excess of buffalo in the middle West (caused by a massive die-off of their prime predator, the Plains Indians), or the idea that the primitive cultures of Amazonia are the tattered remnants of a decimated population, this book will challenge all you know about New World life and culture. I couldn't leave it alone.

Steve: The Coffee Trader, David Liss. A story of historical intrigue, weaving together 17th century Amsterdam, Portugese Jews in Dutch exile, hidden identities, intra-class persecution, intrigue... and coffee. Miguel Lienzo lives by deception and his wits in a complex weave of stories to make money in the Dutch markets before joining forces with an intriguing Dutch widow to corner the nascent coffee market.

Lightning Round, wherein you have two minutes to describe a book you think we should all read...

Franca: American Pastoral, Phillip Roth. "It's the best book I've read in two years... and I think it's Nobel Prize material." Fair enough. The Swede just wants to live out his life in peace and tranquility, but the turbulence of the '60s catches him and his daughter up in protest violence and an unstable life. Roth's prose gives voice to the pain of a man who has forever lost his daughter.

John: Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy—Until You're 80 and Beyond ,Chris Crowley & Henry S. Lodge. Sorry folks, it's just what you thought--weight training and aerobics really WILL make you live longer. So stop futzing around and get out there and work out!

Wendy: Harry Potter #7: The Deathly Hallows, J. K. Rowling. If you haven't finished this book by now, please go do it soon! We can't wait forever to talk about it!

Leah: Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty, Muhammad Yunus. It's the memoir of the microcredit loan, an idea created by Yunus in Bangaladesh, and now spread around the world with huge effect. A truly inspirational book that "leaves you feeling like you can make a difference."

Dan: Very Short Introduction Series of Books, Oxford Press. Each of these slim volumes is a kind of "Cliff Notes" for adults on topics-you-wished-yo'ud-learned-in-school. Topics range all over the place, from art history, to linguistics, to intelligence, to quantum theory and schziophrenia. Check out their Oxford Press web site for the series. Most titles available on Amazon.

Steve: Wealth Without Worry: The Methods of Wall Street Exposed, James Whiddon. A straight-forward read, this book tells about a simple method to minimize risk and maximize reward.

Life's Unexpected Events and Pleasures, wherein you tell a small tale about something that happily surprised you...

John: "The best, most unexpected meeting I attended was the Future of HCI meeting in Seville, Spain." Sponsored by Microsoft, this junket featured some discussion about where HCI was going... but the most memorable event was dining at a world-class restaurant that featured food items made of foams. Nuvo cuisine at its technological height.

Wendy: "Home made treasure hunts for kids." You forget how much fun they are. You definitiely forget how much work they are... but the tradeoff is worth it. If you have kids, give them a good treasure hunt!

Dan: I was really surprised by my trial run of "No Knead Bread." It's true: great bread (wonderful taste, excellent crusty surface!) made in your kitchen with out kneading. Amazing. The recipe at the New York Times.

Leah: "Watching kids do amazing gymnastics on the beach near Ipanema.... They looked like they were having so much fun!"

Steve: "Give up your car! I did this in Italy and was remarkably suprised and how well it worked. America! Get out of your cars and walk a little bit!

Last edit: September 14, 2007