9 Algorithms That Changed the Future

In our increasingly digitally-dominated world, any book that attempts to explain for the layperson "the ingenious ideas that drive today's computers" should find a ready audience and become required reading for the curious, enthusiastic, responsible and attentive netizen—a category more and more of us find ourselves in these days, willy-nilly.  

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Bill Griffith: Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003

Contemporary readers of Bill Griffith's comic strip, Zippy the Pinhead, know with certainty that the illustrator is one of the most accomplished draftsmen working in comics today, his talents on a par with those of Robert Crumb. His art -- nuanced shading; economical linework; evocative textures; fidelity to dress, gesture, expression, architecture, automotive design, and the thousand and one other accoutrements of modern life -- is an unfailing daily marvel, especially considering the speed and regularity at which the strip is produced. Moreover, Griffith's staging and pacing are exemplary. Knowing all this, current fans of the strip are in for a surprise, a shock, and, ultimately, a major treat, when they pick up Griffith's new career retrospective, Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003, and discover an artist whose rudimentary skills were on a par with those of, say, a young Aline Kominsky.

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I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did

Once held close to the chest and protected by well-understood laws, the valuable information about our lives that we blithely disclose with our every keystroke has the potential to turn around and bite us on the butt. Modern jurisprudence has failed to cope with the new intrusions and, what's even worse, has actually come down against the individual's rights. Although the cover image of I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did is that of an omniscient HAL 9000-type lens, Andrews's remit is not really the surveillance state exemplified by ubiquitous CCTV cameras and drones, nor is government her major villain. She is primarily concerned with the information we give away to corporations and other shady characters when we work, play, or shop online.

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The Hellstrom Chronicle

Watching The Hellstrom Chronicle upon its fortieth anniversary reissue (in a beautiful, immaculate, eye-candy print -- but with no extra features) propels me back instantaneously to my teenaged years when I saw this unique hybrid documentary for the first and only time. Selected images from the film and its overall tone have remained seared upon my cortex for the intervening forty years, compounded by the contemporaneous reading of the book by Frank Herbert which the film inspired, Hellstrom's Hive. (More on this prose artifact in a few moments.) The roiling psychic miasma of fear and awe, esthetic delight and Lovecraftian horror swept over me again -- dissipated somewhat, it is true, by my advanced wisdom and the world's eventful history since then. But the film remains a landmark worthy of its Academy Award for Best Documentary and stands as a forerunner of much documentary and quasi-documentary work since.

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The Plots Against the President

The Plots Against the President, Sally Denton's fascinating new study of the early presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is a move toward a kind of historiological equivalence. While sketching with a novelist's compassion and precision the unique actors and forces and ideas at play during the turbulent Depression years, her account simultaneously transcends the minutia of the 1930s and reveals brilliant insights into our current condition. Yet, until the book's closing sentences, she makes no explicit comparisons, trusting the intelligent reader to draw the obvious parallels.

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Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty

The fifty-one tiny stories (vignettes? prose poems? blipverts? flash fictions?) contained in Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty resolutely refuse total decryption. But they burrow into the reader's subconscious and sprout odd blossoms. At first glance, Diane Williams appears to be the love child of Donald Barthelme and Kathy Acker. At second glance, she resembles the adopted daughter of Gertrude Stein and Carol Emshwiller. At third and subsequent glances, she resolves as uniquely, enigmatically herself: a Delphic jester uneasily inhabiting some generic suburbia totally incompatible with her gnomic utterances. 

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Distrust That Particular Flavor

William Gibson is a superlative storyteller, able to mint fresh, intriguing characters and propel them through compelling plots. He limns postmodern and futuristic venues with a keen eye. He taps the zeitgeist and spins out its skein of probable trajectories. But beyond all these skills lies something numinous, something that can only be termed a "sensibility." Distrust That Particular Flavor, his first book of nonfiction, representing over twenty years' worth of occasional journalism, book-introducing, and speechifying, takes over your senses and tastes and attitudes, substituting Gibson's sensibility for your own, allowing you, willy-nilly, to channel the man.

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The Infinity Puzzle

The average citizen, playing with his or her iPhone, spares not a moment's thought for the scientists who made it possible. Happily, a worthy remedy to this shameful gap in our communal knowledge comes in Frank Close's The Infinity Puzzle. Written with pellucid prose, a keen eye for salient details, a talent for the illuminating metaphor, a passion for the topic, and a novelist's gift for portraiture, narrative, and suspense, this book plumbs the rich roots of our current scientific understanding of how the universe works, down where it all gets fuzzy and weird.

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The BN Review on Pulse for NOOK

Now you can enjoy the Barnes & Noble Review on your NOOK  with the free Pulse app.  Take great writing about books and reading with you wherever you go.

 

Download the Pulse app (click here for NOOK version) to select from a wide assortment of news and entertainment categories.  You can group them according to your tastes, and read anywhere, anytime through Pulse's image-rich, dynamic interface.  The Barnes & Noble Review looks as great when viewed through Pulse as it does on the web -- and as all of our reviews, essays and features are posted there, you won't miss a thing. (Here's a shot of what Pulse looks like in action.)

 

To get the BN Review on Pulse, once you've downloaded the free app to your device, you can add sources  -- look for the Review under the "Entertainment" category.  Once you've added us to your home screen, that's it.  Your device will automatically update, bringing you the latest from the Barnes & Noble Review. Pulse works great on iPad, iPhone, and Android-based phones, too (click here for these versions of the app).

 

And thanks, as always, for reading.

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The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

No amount of prior study or imaginative mental time-travel can prepare the reader for the outré and unsettling sights to be found in Julia Suits's wild and wacky...The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions. Burly, topless businessmen clad in hula skirts and ankle bells. Blindfolded clerks riding a Satan's Derby's worth of mechanical goats. Regally crowned shopkeepers plummeting down trick staircases. Farmers committing suicide by cannonball. The mind reels, as these uncanny vestiges of an extinct realm tease our wits and senses with devilish confusion. Chaos reigns supreme!

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Five Books on Korea

In the wake of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il's death, suggestions for reading about the enigmatic nation have been circulating via Twitter, including frequent mention of Adam Johnson's forthcoming novel The Orphan Master's Son, which follows a boy from life in the labor camps to work as a professional kidnapper.

 

Earlier this year the BNR featured a Five Books list of informative titles about Korea -- North and South -- led by Barbara Demick's penetrating study Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.

 

The full list of suggestions follows.

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Graeme Wood on Christopher Hitchens

 Atlantic contributing editor and BNR contributor Graeme Wood discusses the influence and legacy of Christopher Hitchens.

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A.C. Grayling on Christopher Hitchens

"Even those who were on the opposite side of any argument from Christopher Hitchens," writes A.C. Grayling, "were compelled to admire the sharpness, control, and extraordinary richness of his mind."

 

Click "Read More" to see his full rememberence.

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Remembering Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

The literary world grapples with an enormous loss today:  Journalist, author, and provocateur Christopher Hitchens has died of pneumonia, arising from cancer of the esophagus.  His death was announced by Vanity Fair, where he had been a contributing editor since 1992. 

 

His reputation was built on his eloquence, his delight in putting entrenched opinions to challenge, and his eager assumption of Orwell's mantle as a defender of truth against ideological distortion. His impact as a stylist -- Hitchens wielded both a deadly wit and an implacable sense of joy in literary combat -- was as large on his fellow writers as his politically unclassifiable positions (he defended atheism as fiercely as he did the War in Iraq) have been on the surrounding culture.

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Christopher Kimball Picks His Favorite Cookbooks

Wondering what to get the chef in your life? We asked Christopher Kimball, founder and editor of America's Test Kitchen and author of such delicious cookbook classics as The Cook's Bible and Fannie's Last Supper, to share with us his Holiday Cookbook Buyer's Guide for 2011. Click to see his mouthwatering choices

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The Sexual History of London

The transgressive writer Samuel Delany has theorized that one major reason for the creation of cities in the history of civilization was to provide more and better sex than could be found in pastoral or village settings. By this measure -- and according to the randy evidence found in the endlessly entertaining, illuminating and simply shocking new book by Catharine Arnold, The Sexual History of London, that storied city must be accounted a shining beacon in humanity's progress.

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Stacy Schiff Picks Her Favorite Biographies

When we asked Stacy Schiff  to share a few favorite reads, the author of Cleopatra obliged with a revealing look at the bookshelf of a biographer -- packed with the lives of  literary and political figures seen up close.

 

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The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick

There can be no more dependable indicator that we now all inhabit (or delude ourselves into believing we inhabit) a Philip K. Dick universe (or the shoddy simulacrum thereof) than the appearance of this mammoth volume of Dick's journals, letters, and private stream-of-consciousness essays, which he voluminously generated for a full eight years following his infamous mind-blasting, soul-shattering, paradigm-upsetting cosmic epiphany of 1974. Only waves of patented PKD-style reality distortion could have landed us in our contemporary situation.

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The Phantom Tollbooth: 50th Anniversary Edition

This handsome new edition of the classic children's fantasy novel The Phantom Tollbooth comes stuffed with extras in the form of various introductions and appreciations, by such intelligent, perceptive, and young-at-heart literary folks as Maurice Sendak, Michael Chabon, and Philip Pullman. These tidbits are all savory. But the real meat of the package remains Juster's inspired skylarking in the pages of this eternally silly-yet-wise novel, with its pitch-perfect original bramble-bush illustrations by Jules Feiffer. Having an excuse to enjoy this book again, and to introduce it to a new generation of readers, more than justifies investment in a bright, fresh copy!

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The National Book Awards: Jesmyn Ward, Stephen Greenblatt, Nicki Finney and Thanhha Lai

On Wednesday night, November 16th, the 2011 National Book Awards winners were announced: Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones took the award for fiction, while Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern received the award for nonfiction. Nikky Finney's Head Off and Split won for poetry; Thanhha Lai took the award for young people's literature for Inside Out and Back Again.

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The Death-Ray

Right now Daniel Clowes is voyaging through the prolonged and impressive midpoint of his career, an era which began with Ghost World in 1997 and shows no sign of diminishing. Everything he produces at this juncture is rich with mastery, fertile with invention, and stamped with his ineffable individual touch. The Death-Ray originally appeared in 2004 as issue number 23 of Clowes's periodical comic Eightball. Limited in availability and impact by this format, the story has been rescued by current publication as a luxuriously oversized hardcover. 

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Physics on the Fringe

Any reader who loved The Men Who Stare at Goats or Sex and Rockets will derive similar joy from this finely wrought survey of gonzo ingenuity in the service of science. These "discoverers" or "paradoxers," as they were called in Victorian times, firmly endorse science's claim to represent an objectively true taproot into the numinous substratum of creation. So these outsider physicists are simply seeking to participate in the same consciousness-raising enlightenment which all the great scientists have experienced. But, bereft of any actual talents and training demanded by the academic and corporate "hegemony," they are forced to perform a kind of "hedge science," like the second-string wizards who can't make it into Hogwarts. 

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James Thurber Meets Neil Gaiman: The Thirteen Clocks (Video)

Neil Gaiman narrates an animated adaptation of James Thurber's classic of dark-humored fantasy.

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Adam Kirsch on the Loeb Classical Library

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Loeb Classical Library, and Adam Kirsch is writing a three-part celebration of the influential series in honor of its centenial. In his first essay, Kirsch examined Socrates from the (sometimes unflattering) perspectives of writers other than Plato. This month, he examines the arresting modern relevance of the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus. 

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Julian Barnes Takes the Man Booker Prize

The fourth time is, apparently, the charm. With The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes wins the 2011 Man Booker Prize. The multifaceted writer has been shortlisted three times before, for three wildly different novels -- first in 1984 for his innovative Flaubert's Parrot; fourteen years later for  England, England; and then again for Arthur and George in 2005. In The Sense of an Ending, a man in late middle age finds that a secret from his childhood threatens to overturn the careful architecture of his comfortable life.

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The Bible Repairman

The name of Tim Powers has been a secret talisman for a select group of readers for decades. His ardent fans have used that byline as an unfailing compass pointing to contemporary urban fantasies of surpassing elegance, thrills, cleverness, and emotional heft, such as his Fault Lines trilogy or Declare. But Powers has also worked in a historical or steampunk vein, and it is this mode that launched his name into wider spheres of public attention with the adaptation of his novel On Stranger Tides as the latest installment of Johnny Depp's Pirates of the Caribbean series.

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Tomas Tranströmer Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature

The Swedish Academy announced Thursday that the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature goes to eighty-year-old Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. In its press release -- itself an almost poetically compressed document -- the Academy said they chose Tranströmer "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality." Helen Vendler celebrated his work in a 2009 essay in the New York Review of Books, saying: "He looks deep into the pool of the mind until an image looks back at him, and he holds it steady."

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Cosmic Numbers

For my generation, the gold standard of popular science writing was always Isaac Asimov. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, erudite but layman-friendly books on scientific topics were much scarcer than in this current Golden Age, populated by such giants as Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, Richard Dawkins, and Roger Penrose. So when Asimov began his column of scientific journalism in 1958 in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction -- a feature that was to last for almost thirty-five years, until his death in 1992 -- and thereafter commenced to issue a steady stream of books on a near-infinity of topics, he found an eager audience that adopted him as their helmsman. Jovial, witty, down-to-earth, omniscient, wide-ranging, skeptical, scrupulous, meticulous, and speculative, Asimov always delivered essays that did not so much hold the reader's hand as shine a light ahead while he encouraged you to follow in his bold and brave footsteps. Consequently, for me to assert that a living writer possesses Asimov's virtues is to offer high praise indeed.

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Hector Tobar on L.A. Literature

In search of the "Los Angeles novel": New York City is teeming with writers -- journalist, novelists, poets, essayists -- all hoping to catch their big break. So it's no surprise that many of our greatest American novels are set in Gotham. Yet there's something refreshing about a fantastic Los Angeles novel as well. The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar, which will be featured as a B&N Discover Great New Writers pick this holiday season, is the newest addition to that list. In honor of the publication of his captivating new L.A. novel, we asked Hector to provide his own list of favorite L.A. works. 

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Hark! A Vagrant

Having thoroughly enjoyed Kate Beaton's first collection of wonderfully nonsensical and risible, yet somehow seductively educational comics (her foresworn history degree does not go unemployed in her new artistic career), I went about investigating her website, Hark! A Vagrant, where many of the strips first appeared and where many new ones continue to manifest, and yet I somehow remained clueless as to the derivation and meaning of the title she chose to bestow on her book and site.

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April 17: "In less than three years, both GM and Chrysler would be bankrupt, and a resurgent Ford would wow Wall Street..."

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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.