Review: Curiosities of Elmira

April 22nd, 2017

I enjoy poking around in the less illuminated corners of history.  Kelli Huggins’s Curiosities of Elmira gave me a chance to do so in my old home town. I’m very fond of my first home though I recognize that it’s gauzed up a bit with age and youth.  Elmira’s one of those small Middle Atlantic towns that used to house a mix of manufacturing and agriculture that supported a stable population.  The living was good enough to afford folks their eccentricities while keeping them close to the practicalities. In the last half century many towns with that profile have begun to slide into obscurity.  I suspect that the writing is on the wall for Elmira as well.  Against that backdrop, it’s great to see people working hard to capture its legacy.

Huggins has been working at the county historical museum and blogging enthusiastically for a while now.  I’ve seen first cuts at some of these chapters on the museum’s web site.  That lent a glow of familiarity to the proceedings and having the articles all together made for a lively and friendly reunion.

She thematically breaks the book into collections of short articles.  Each of those sections reflects both her interests and Elmira’s quirky past.  In its heyday, the place was much more of a crossroads both logistically and intellectually.  Most of the heyday described here is in the later half of the 19th century into the 20th.  It makes for a breezy mix of sciences being born and society being rattled by the Civil War.  Huggins treats all the times with introspection and affection, though she does not shy away from criticism when it it due.

It’s a well written and organized survey of the middle history of an interesting place.


Review: Saturn’s Children

April 14th, 2017

Saturn’s Children starts with a deliberate and fond nod to Asimov and Heinlein and carries that legacy forward admirably. A pastiche or homage to those two by a writer of Stross’s caliber would be an entertaining read.  Stross launches from these classic works and peels away their 1960’s literary context and constraints.  He dissects both the kind of logical tight constraints imposed by Asmiov’s Laws of Robotics and the libertarianism (and scoped sexual liberation) of Heinlein’s later work through a modern historical perspective on Western Society. Stross carries the flag for stories that entertain and make you think, values at the core of Asimov’s and Heinlein’s legacies.

Children is set in a world without humans – or really without intelligent biological life of any kind – extrapolated from both our technical limitations and our societal perspectives.  In front of the plot is a Friday-ish sexy courier on the run, but the real whodunnit is about how these automata formed a society.  Along the way, Stross weighs in on the mechanics of space travel and other SF tropes.

Stross is a penetrating thinker.  He realizes that the sorts of behavioral rules that Asimov posits as edicts from an intelligent designer would instead evolve from an existing society.  Asimov’s Laws are logical; Stross’s are cultural and societal.  As with any societal rules, he recognizes that they arise from a melange of class, role, and sex.  The last may be surprising, but represents the kind of insight I respect from Stross.  Given the way humans interact with their automata (he says clinically) we’re going to screw intelligent robots as we build them.  Any intelligent and emotional entity will bend under that weight.

In addition to the deep cultural thinking, Stross projects the sense of wonder that these great writers captured in an interplanetary civilization.  One can give the statistics of a space elevator, but capturing both the sense of awe that a contemporary human would feel on seeing one while also positing the blase air that a member of that world feels is a bit of writing that elevates the work.


Review: The Sellout

March 26th, 2017

I’ve been rolling The Sellout around in my head for a few days and I think Paul Beatty’s work may be that rarest of books, one that deserves to become a classic.

Like the underlying societal issues it addresses, Sellout is surprisingly complex. On its surface the story of the protagonist, a black urban farmer cum Supreme Court defendant charged with holding another black man in willing bondage, is – perhaps unexpectedly – pretty direct. If he’s walking a tightrope to avoid suspension of disbelief, Beatty does so with such panache that any crevasse, rope, or danger curls up invisibly.

In order to tell the tale, Beatty creates an exaggerated view of America and LA rife with magical elements.  The most comic and dynamic such elements – e.g.,  the protagonist’s weed with surprisingly specific effects and the acrobatic city bus his girlfriend drives – sharply define borders with the real world.  Other elements, e.g., the miraculous neighborhoods of LA being systemically removed from maps and consciousness by gentrifying forces, delineate hazier borders between magic and reality.  Different people will see the line different places and each may learn something by trying to work out the border together – “Wait; who changed the area’s name?  OK, I mean put up the signs…”  “Was it really that unusual a place?”  “How? You’re kidding, right?!”

Anyone who’s pulled on a thread that touches on race or gender and privilege in America with an informed, intimate interlocutor will recognize the process of enlightenment and discovery. Every plot point in The Sellout seems to me that it could launch that kind of discovery.  It could also be met with simple disbelief and hostility as well.  These are the dangers of the examined life and of literary contemplation.  What’s remarkable about The Sellout is how fertile a ground it is for both examination and contemplation.

Even if you have no interest in society, race, Los Angeles or any of the other issues I see reflected in the book, it’s well worth reading just to bask in Beatty’s beautiful and powerful expressions.  He displays the rhythm and rhyme of a poet – or a musical virtuoso – while simultaneously grabbing imagery and vocabulary that snares meaning without caging it.  I understand that makes no sense; I can’t write like Beatty, either.

A lot of the book feels uncomfortable. Beatty’s world lets the reader sneak into the difficult and unsettling hollows of our world, but their essence is to be difficult and unsettling. Herein lies the power of The Sellout.  Beatty takes his readers to the nexus of clarity and ambiguity of so many spots where society’s fabric binds that talking about it with anyone will lead somewhere unexpected.  And it’s too compelling to shut up about.

A must.

Review: A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power

March 12th, 2017

My admiration for Jimmy Carter’s accomplishments is nearly boundless.  He’s a former US president who has dedicated his career to promoting justice internationally.  His view of justice is informed by his strong religious beliefs, which is refreshing.  Even as he holds to his Baptist faith and remains active in that church, he calls the church leaders to task when they make unjust decisions.  I admire his drive, dedication, and pride.

A Call To Action brings those beliefs and experience to bear on the state of womens’ rights across the world.  He is, as ever, unflinching in his assessment and optimistic in his outlook.

I do wish he wrote more dynamically.  His analysis of the state of the world and underlying causes seems to be exhaustive and even-handed. He augments telling personal anecdotes with well-chosen and clearly presented statistics.  He never shies away from a conclusion informed by his sense of justice, even when there is significant dissent on the matter.  Even when that dissent is driven by personal friends or professional collaborators.

But, man, his text is dry.

The message is worth digging through it.


Review: Futureland

March 5th, 2017

Walter Mosley always writes as Walter Mosley. I can imagine a reader picking up this book wondering how the mystery writer does in the SF world.  Such a reader will find that genre does not bound Mosley. His voice and expressive powers inhabit a speculative story as easily as contemporary fiction.

Structurally, Futureland is built of multiple short stories from different points of view.  Each lights up the world from a different point of view.  There’s an overarching plot and some interesting technical speculation, but Mosley’s always got society and race on his mind.  His SF world is tuned to amplify the ongoing economic exploitation in America without oversimplifying it.

But enough about the big picture.  The thing I love best about these stories is how each struts into the reader’s mind with direct and powerful writing.  Mosley’s always got the right word in the right place without ostentation or pretension.  Even when his characters are downtrodden, his prose swaggers.  The results feel muscular and powerful, even when they’re tender and wistful.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Roads Were Not Built for Cars

February 17th, 2017

Carlton Reid has done some impressive research into the relationship of bicycles and modern transport infrastructure.  It is a surprisingly rich relationship.  The first automobiles adopted the power chain and wheel technologies from bicycles (as did aircraft as well, of course).  Beyond that, bicycles were a driving force behind paving roads across the US and Europe.  Roads Were Not Built For Cars is Reid’s presentation of this.

He does an excellent job of research, but his presentation didn’t bring the situation to life for me.  It’s unfortunate, because the facts at issue interest me considerably.  Reid presents both facts and conjecture that are surprising – did Nazi Germany whitewash England’s cycling contributions to automotive technology for political reasons? – but if he shaped it all into a narrative, I didn’t make it there.  I didn’t finish the whole thing.

Review: Playing Through The Whistle

February 17th, 2017

Even if I weren’t connected to it, I’d have to agree that Aliquippa, PA is a remarkable place.  It has placed a steady steam of players into the NFL, been the source of two landmark Supreme Court labor decisions, given us the Pink Panther theme music, formed Mike Ditka, and produced my parents and grandparents.  The demographics and population of the town has also reflected the rise and fall of large scale manufacturing in America.  S. L. Price beings the place to life in Playing Through The Whistle in a way that’s engaging and consistent with my limited experience with the town.

As a sportswriter, a look at the football history of Western Pennsylvania raises your eyebrows. Just listing the stars – Hall of Fame members – who grew up and learned to play within 50 miles of Pittsburgh is startling.  A deeper look reveals a steady stream of both successes at all levels and strong prospects that don’t pan out.  There are a lot of factors that can distort the reality and the perception of that record, but as a writer it’s a story that must make you drool.  Price clearly couldn’t resist, and captures that duality.

I’m glad he couldn’t.  He digs in to the stories of the residents, the stars, and the history of the place and presents it dynamically. My experience reading the story of the place – so far – is certainly colored by my tenuous connection. Seeing names in print that I would hear as a kid visiting the place made a lot of the narrative real to me.  Beyond the names, the rhythms and emphasis in the stories from residents sound like the stories I’ve heard.  It’s remarkable to hear the tenor of them change in the years after my parents left.  I remember hearing my grandparents decrying many of the events that Price describes.  It’s enlightening to hear the events from a reporter with only a professional attachment to the place and compare them with how decades-long residents talked about them.

Even without that sort of history, Price balances the backdrop of the region and the specifics of the town admirable.  His research – historical and interviews – are remarkable.  Beyond the facts, he brings the place and the story to life. Coming into the area through the remarkable sports successes makes the other historical discussions accessible to a readership that might not usually look at history.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Little Brother

February 4th, 2017

As a regular BoingBoing reader, I’ve heard a lot about Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.  It’s a book targeted at young adults that is pro-technology and pro-activism, both of which are of interest these days.  I found it kind of a mixed bag.

The technical discussions are all refreshingly sound. Doctorow does a really nice job of boiling tech down into (what I imagine are) easily digestible bites.  He also is adept at pulling out the parts of the technology that are relevant to privacy and risk in our modern surveillance state.  He tells the reader what’s important in clear engaging prose.

From what I know about participating in protests and activism in general – which is mostly second-hand – he seems to do the same for protests and attracting unwanted attention as well.  The catalyst for Little Brother‘s plot is that a bunch of kids get swept up in a government sweep during a crisis, and he pulls no punches about what can happen.  His honesty on this front is one of the book’s real strengths.  Even though the events come to a conclusion, he’s clear that that is a messy conclusion.  Being a lightning rod for powerful forces – or being in the wrong place at the wrong time – can permanently change a person’s life.  Activism has stakes, and he never shies away from relating them.

Honestly the worst part of the story is the fiction.  His intention seems clear to me.  He’s using a (lightly) fictionalized account of a government response to a terror attack in San Francisco to take readers through his primers on activism, technology’s role in it, and great places to eat in the mission district.  It’s a fine structure to hang a book on, and I suspect he can cite relevant reports for the majority of the details and incidents.

For me, though, his characters never quite breathe enough. Their roles as symbols or framing devices always stick out just a bit awkwardly.  As I say, there’s much to like about the factual content, research, and explication here.  I never get lost in the story, though.


January 28th, 2017

For a while at the new gig, I had an office far from people I knew and from windows – the glass artifacts, not the operating system.  To keep my sanity, I started listening to a lot of podcasts.  Partially that was just to hear some voices, but I have come to enjoy many of then on their own merits.  Here are a few of my favorites that you might like, too.

This American Life is a groundbreaking radio journalism show that also podcasts its content.  That’s not an unusual state of affairs, and several of the podcasts I listen to either have radio show roots or are ongoing shows. This American Life is many things, but the attraction for me is its powerful commitment to both tireless research and immersion in stories and in their innovative and powerful storytelling techniques.  The commitment to getting to the core of the story is enough of a reason love them.  Any of their work during the election, on refugees, or on education (especially in Chicago) is insightful.  Most telling is the one time the staff felt that they had to retract a story. Listening to how embarrassed and angry they are at themselves and at the intensity of the mea culpa they issue – they essentially turn the full focus of their considerable investigative prowess themselves – made me understand the standards they hold themselves to.  Since that show, their fact checking has been well beyond what normal humans would consider sufficient.

The other key thing about This American Life is the caliber of their communications skills: they tell a great story.  Those skills not only make this show powerful, but has spawned a progeny that addresses a stunning array of topics aiming for the same compelling and illuminating power.

Planet Money explains economics and the economy using the powerful storytelling techniques of This American Life. The lineage here is direct.  Some of Planet Money‘s founders were key players in This American Life.  The podcast itself grew out of a This American Life episode. They do their progenitors proud.  Almost every episode has something worth listening to, but these two recent episodes will tell you if Planet Money is for you, though they’ve also done some projects worth looking at.

Welcome to Night Vale is a horse of a different color.  From everything.  It’s one of those pieces of art that sounds ridiculous when you describe it, but it is its own macabre, poetic, comical, romantic thing.  Try a few and you’ll know if it’s for you.

Night Vale has also produced several very different children.  All of these are original and solid, though only Within The Wires speaks to me. It’s one of those pieces of art that blindsided me completely.  One episode was light and comical and the next showed me how much these characters had come to breathe, even though I’d had only the smallest hole through which to see them.  Try it.

Off-Ramp is John Rabe’s rambling, insightful, penetrating, light-hearted romance with southern California.  He has a boundless curiosity and takes significant delight in bringing local stories from the sprawling metroplex of LA to that community. He’s led me to art shows, restaurants and injustices in my adopted home with a smile and a wink (where appropriate).  It’s something of a shaggy dog, but it has such personality that I think of the show as a weekly must.

Reply All is a show about the Internet.  Like soylent green, the Internet is people. From that vague jumping off point they find stories of humor, terror, and passion that cannot be missed.  They also try some innovative things. Another must.

The Memory Palace is a site full of poetic history.  Nate DiMeo constructs these short, evocative gems about people great and small.  Pick one up and try it out.

Here Be Monsters is an emerging favorite. Ostensibly about fear and the unknown, it covers a broad range of subjects.  I’ve just started listening to it, so I don’t know if I’m just hitting a strong streak or not.  If you try these, try a few and get the feeling of the range.

There are more, but I’m going to stop here for now.

Review: Whitewashed Adobe

January 28th, 2017

I’m still trying to get a handle on how this place I call my home came to be what it is.  That leads me to histories of the area, like William Deverell‘s Whitewashed Adobe.  As with Before LA, Deverell focuses on the change in demographics that occurred here after the Mexican War.  The steady dilution of Mexico’s influence on the area is surprising, but evidently difficult to characterize.

Deverell focuses on several key events and environments that give a flavor, but root causes remain slippery.  He describes the brickyards where Mexican-descended laborers literally built LA from Los Angeles.  That’s telling and powerful, but there’s no watershed here.  Brickwork slowly went away for everyone – especially in the face of earthquakes.  It’s easy to feel the workers being engulfed by the emerging American city they laid the bones for, even when both sides would claim not to have participated in the assimilation.

Other events and iconography are also well chosen, including the Fiesta de Los Angeles and the Mission Play.  Both are interesting mergings of the social and commercial that reflect the prevailing mindsets of the time.  Either could be and probably have been the basis for books of their own.

I did learn a lot from Whitewashed Adobe, but I can’t say that it was an irresistible page-turner.  The writing is clear and informative, but not inspiring.