The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal – Ben Mezrich, 2009

I’d meant to read this when we got it at the library, but teaching a class which will cover Facebook prompted me to finally check it out. I enjoyed Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions quite a bit, but as soon as I started this one I remembered the patina of gratuitous sex he’d laid over everything in that book. At the time it didn’t slow me down too much, but surely I would have noticed the crazy overwriting–maybe an editor (that dying breed) took it out in the earlier book. From a random perusing: “His jowls reverberated with the motion, like fleshy waves in a swirling epidermal storm.” Every noun has at least one adjective. It was a timely read and a quick one, but it left a bad taste in my mouth, both from the quality of the writing and from a feeling that Mezrich was set on making the gossip as juicy as possible (look at that subtitle!), subtleties be damned.

The Stand – Stephen King, 1980

Thank goodness for Paperback Swap, where I was able to replace my copy of the misguided Expanded Edition with the original. I’m not sure when I last read this version–I probably didn’t get the “updated” one until a few years after it came out–but I’d forgotten quite how good it is. (Kev totally disagrees!) I couldn’t put it down for long once I’d started, and I was sad when it was over. It was partly because in contrast with the lesser/longer version, I relished the crisp pace and authentic feel of the time period; partly because whoever the talented editor was, he or she managed to cut away the majority of King’s inherent weaknesses as a writer; and partly because it is a wonderful narrative.

I’ve always been fond of post-apocalyptic stories, starting (as far as I can recall) with The Girl Who Owned a City. (I suppose the turtles dealing with the Flood in Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake fit in as well.) Competent loners thrive, and the abundance of stuff left behind creates a paradise of resources. Plus, the minutiae of daily life become interesting challenges.

In The Stand we have a classic random-collection-of-survivors team, overlaid with a Manichean struggle between Randall Flagg, “the dark man,” and Mother Abigail, a saintly elderly African-American woman. Although King is prone to creating a “magical negro,” I personally find Mother Abigail to be less offensive than his other characters in that vein. Her internal dialogue shows her to be more complex than she seems to the other protagonists, and her death isn’t just a “save the white folks” sacrifice. The unsung editor cut down the set pieces devoted to the crazy-as-a-bedbug people King tends to spend too much time on (“The Kid,” an extraneous psychopath, was eliminated entirely–I vividly remember searching for the end of his interminable scene in the 90s edition). With the crazy kept to a reasonable level, The Stand fits squarely in the SF/fantasy genre as opposed to horror (my working definition: SF/fantasy has a why, even if it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny; horror is not interested in why), so it’s no wonder I like it best of any King novel.


AUDIO To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Life Long Obsession – Dan Koeppel, 2005; read by John McDonough

I haven’t blogged audio books, partly because I listen to so few, and partly because they don’t seem as “real” as regular books. Also, I can’t go back and remind myself of particular passages. However, I’ve been listening to more on my MP3 player, and this one in particular was thought-provoking–but I’m unlikely to read it now I’ve listened to it.

I downloaded a bunch of Recorded Books audios because our district library subscription was about to be canceled. I’m not a fan of their interface (nobody is), and I’m not a fan of their readers (a minority opinion). I prefer only to listen to audios read by the author, but there aren’t enough of those (especially at Recorded Books, because they pride themselves on their readers). But I’m using the MP3 player to pass the time while working outside, and that lowers my threshold. Bird-watching fascinates me, so the content won me over. But ugh! John McDonough is completely the wrong reader for this title. He sounds elderly and stuffy, but it’s a first-person memoir by a guy who’s only two years older than me, writing in a voice that is the opposite of formal and stuffy. I wouldn’t have continued listening if the story wasn’t so interesting.

Richard Koeppel is a “big lister”–someone who’s seen thousands of birds and has made it an avocation. His son Dan tells Richard’s life story and his own, both shaped by obsession with birds–Richard because it’s his central concern, Dan because his father cared more about birds than about him. Richard was fascinated by birds ever since seeing a brown thrasher at the age of 11, but his parents discouraged him from pursuing ornithology; Dan never got the bird bug, but in middle age realized it was the only way to get close to his father.

Big listers are a strange breed: some content to check off a bird pointed out by a guide, even if they couldn’t identify it themselves, others almost scientists (although the mania for accumulation seems to pull against the achievement of true science). Dan tells the stories of Phoebe Snetsinger, the greatest lister of all time, motivated by a cancer-carried death sentence; Joel Abramson, Richard’s college room-mate who became an ornithologist; Peter Kaestner who parlays a career in the Peace Corps and as a diplomat into enough time in each country to pick up the local birds.

Phoebe Snetsinger thinks of her record (over 8,000) as her legacy. Richard also thinks of his list as an accomplishment. Right after finishing this audio book I saw a letter in Harvard Magazine in which the writer says “I expect that in about another 25 years I will have seen more [Harvard-Yale] games than anyone, ever. Not that this is of the slightest importance in the greater scheme of things, but I think it will make a fitting epitaph someday.” At least he denies its importance, but for that to be your epitaph? That kind of collecting bug I don’t really get. It’s telling that Richard Koepell counts other things as well: beers, cheeses, now butterflies.

Ultimately Dan makes a certain kind of peace with his father by accompanying him on birding trips. They’re together when Richard spots #7,000, and Dan whips out a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

Dan bares his pain and confusion at his parents’ treatment of him (his mother, while not bird-obsessed, left some major parenting voids as well), and this may be too much memoir for birdwatchers, while focusing too much on birds for memoir lovers. Memorable nonetheless.