Review: The Bicycle Diaries

June 27th, 2020

The Bicycle Diaries was an unexpected gem.

This is a discursive window into David Byrne‘s thoughts, tied together by some connection to his experiences commuting by bicycle in cities around the world. I’m generally interested in people’s bicycling impressions, so I decided to check it out.

Byrne turns out a fascinating and thought-provoking collection of essays about bikes, art, human nature, urbanization and gentrification, music, and a few more topics I can’t recall at the moment. These are organized by the cities in which his commutes sparked the thoughts. They’re too well written to be off-the-cuff, but each one gives the impression of sitting down with an articulate friend in a coffee shop or bar and catching up. Though he usually starts from bicycling, he often winds up somewhere unexpected, which is the way many of my rides go, too.

That kind of format only works when the author has interesting things to say, and Byrne does. I found him surprisingly honest and forthright. He puts some ideas and observations on the page that a more timid author would shy away from for fear of offending people. I found all of his thoughts worth chewing on, even when I disagreed or quibbled about how he expressed them. My only regret was that I couldn’t actually converse with him.

A must.

Review: Spying On The South

June 19th, 2020

Tony Horwitz is one of my favorite writers on rural America. Michael Perry and Bill Bryson tell a romantic story of small towns that I do bask in, but Horwitz is less varnished. Everyone has a bias, but I find that Horwitz presents people he meets as people with all their faults and merits. It’s a bracing reminder that we share the country with human beings and not position papers.

Spying recounts another Horwitz trek across the country, stopping and talking with people. He has a knack for highlighting the most personal and historical areas he finds.

He hangs his book on following the route of Frederic Law Olmsted who wrote a series of articles about touring the South before the Civil War. He mostly walked the road and just talked to people and wrote. Journalistic standards were more lax then, so Horwitz assesses those stories skeptically. Olmsted was a staunch abolitionist and he both documented and supported efforts to overturn slavery on those trips. He’s an unreliable narrator, but an interesting route generator.

Most of Spying is Horwitz working his interviewing and exploring magic, and I enjoyed it. There is a surprisingly long section where he reprises the plot of City Slickers while seeming completely oblivious to that movie’s existence. Skip it if you don’t want to see a non-Jack-Palance cattle drive without the cattle. Overall I learned a lot and enjoyed the book.

Strongly recommended.

Grap release

June 10th, 2020

If you’re looking for another harbinger of the End Times, consider this grap release. The changes are minor, but the code is now available from github.


Review: Station Eleven

June 6th, 2020

Station Eleven comes with an excellent pedigree. Emily St. John Mandel’s novel was nominated for many awards – winning several – and got a shout out from the folks at Make Me Smart. It’s partially based in a post-pandemic world, which resonates with the current times pretty strongly.

Even without the timely topical resonances, it’s quite a good book. She’s written a nice combination of plot-driven mystery in the vein of Crash or Magnolia, post-apocalyptic page turner, celebrity send-up, and meditation on the role of art in societies both pre- and post-industrial. That’s a lot of balls to keep up in the air, and she does it with brio.

The structure is impeccable and the writing is quite lively. There’s a lot to like here, but beyond the resonances with my current safer-at-home perspective, it never caught fire for me. That’s strange and frustrating for me to conclude. Analytically, I can point at a lot of great features of this book, but nothing brought it alive for me. I guess I chalk it up to the magic of art. If it does sound like something you’d life, do give it a try. As I say, I think it’s very well done. It may pop for you in a way it did not for me.


Review: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

May 24th, 2020

Carlo Rovelli wrote a series of short essays on physics for the European press recently that Seven Brief Lessons collects. They are very short – a few pages each – but do a remarkable job introducing and motivating the ideas for a lay audience. I think I have a reasonable grasp of physics for a lay person and I got a couple new insights on the ideas and their importance.

If you’re even mildly curious about physics, these are a nice introduction to some of the exciting and evolving areas. They’re small enough to read in a few minutes each, which makes Seven Brief Lessons is a tasty physics appetizer.

Strongly recommended.

Review: VALIS

May 24th, 2020

VALIS distills a lot of the themes that draw readers to Philip K. Dick. It’s an amazing mix of personal experience, paranoid fantasy, speculation, analysis, research, and gnostic epistemology. That sounds impossible to pull off, and it is. And it’s a classic.

It has its flaws. There are parts that are primarily street preacher rantings. There are parts that are droning exposition. There are parts that are pages of unorthodox interpretation of meticulous religious scholarship. There is a bit of internal self-therapy.

And yet, a shape emerges from this oddly formed piece of writing that wormed its way into my psyche and stuck there, probably permanently. Some of it is the creative interpretation of philosophical and Fortean ideas. Some of it is genuine insight into the workings of our imperfect minds. Some of it is the bold honesty of projecting his life onto the page. Dick presents ideas and connections between ideas in ways that ring powerfully when struck by conventional ideas.

That’s not a great capsule for people deciding whether to read it or not. I think if your path has led you to VALIS, you should read it and it may connect. If not, I wouldn’t go looking. It’s the kind of book that finds you.

Strongly recommended if it does ring your doorbell.

Review: What’s Wrong With The World

May 9th, 2020

One of these days I’m going to send a forensic team in to figure out how these sorts of random books show up in my library wish list. I suppose it would be nice if there were some sort of elves in the stacks tagging e-books for me, but I think it’s just random late night browsing.

This is G. K. Chesterton opining on the state of English society in 1910 or so, and it’s massively frustrating for me. He consistently writes concise, charming sentences that invite novel thoughts but they connect to reach conclusions with which I disagree. For instance, he writes in support of the position that women should be restricted to domestic roles because that strengthens society. I dropped three or four of his supporting sentences into my quotes file because they make fun of patriarchical structures in society and men’s bluster in support thereof, but I think those structures are anachronistic.

I actually hope that this is satire and I’m missing the point.

It’s a good reminder that great writing does not imply support for my values.


Review: University Park, Los Angeles: A Brief History

May 2nd, 2020

I keep picking up Chris Epting books from the various Los Angeles libraries. This time my local county library enticed me into it.

University Park is very much in the same vein as Victorian Los Angeles. It is driven by the architecture of the area Epting is looking at. That approach has its power; he’s described several places I plan to visit on future jaunts around LA. However, the narratives and personalities of the history makers get less attention that I prefer in a history.

Very good for an architecture-driven history.

Review: Agency

May 2nd, 2020

Agency takes place in the same continuity as The Peripheral, and it surprised me again. This time the surprise was how resilient the setting turned out to be.

Gibson has often turned his mind toward anthropomorphizing artificial and collective intelligences. He has a remarkable skill at making that dry idea engaging and entertaining. He makes robots human like no one else.

His artificial intelligence is the star of the show and he primarily uses the thriller plot of Agency to illuminate that intelligence’s emergence and maturity from multiple perspectives. One of the things that delights me about this is that he makes his human characters real and interesting enough that their perspectives are authentic and enhance his ideas about artificial life.

Beyond this extended character study, Gibson is an SF master who also cheerfully throws out other ideas to play with along the way. He’s also quite good at constructing the thriller that underlies all of this.

While I liked it quite a bit, I don’t think it’s his most profound work. It is very entertaining and very engaging – emotionally and intellectually – but he has been even deeper. That may say more about how I rate the quality of his other work.


Review: The Body

April 4th, 2020

Bill Bryson turns a beautiful phrase. He also organizes a great book and executes it quite brilliantly. He’s funny and informative and as a writer has few equals.

I particularly love his travel writing and his memoirs. They’re warm and funny and informative.

His science writing tends to leave me cold. I think I miss the personal connection of lived experience that he brings to his other writing. The Body isn’t for me.