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.

Review: In The Dream House

March 22nd, 2020

Carmen Maria Machado has brought a remarkably powerful work into the world with In The Dream House. Any short summary would belie the honesty, power, and craft she employed. That said, it’s a memoir of her years as a victim in an abusive relationship.

Abuse is complicated, layered and yet invites simple judgement from us. Everyone has preconceptions about what it is and perhaps insight from being involved. Whether the reader believes that one brings it on oneself or that the abusers are possessed by overriding malice or many many other explanations, each person and relationship differs.

Machado tells her story in tiny, bite-sized chapters that slowly cohere into the narrative. They also cohere into an introduction to her remarkable mind. She has dissected her experience deeply from many angles. Each chapter is a facet of those thoughts, captured at different moments in time and reflecting aspects of the situation. That creates bounds around her experience that neither define or encapsulate it. Other people’s experience is never our own, and Machado doesn’t let us believe so. The corral she draws around the thing clarifies it remarkably.

She attacks the thing from so many perspectives. She is a scholar of the literature and the statistics. She is a queer woman living with her understanding of others’ assumptions and judgements. She has dug deeply into how those preconceptions have shaped her own ideas of her identity. She is a hurt child. She is a Star Trek fan. She is a literary scholar. She is a young, sociable college student. She is a writer. And so, so, much more. She is a human, and one I find remarkable.

I have to stress hat last facet – being a writer – because she is a remarkable one. Each of these facets is a gem in itself. The memories are evocative and poetic. The musings are clear while capturing the thoughts that led her to them. The scholarship is professional. And the whole thing intertwines in ways that make it all more of what each is.

A must.

Review: To A God Unknown

March 22nd, 2020

To A God Unknown contains a simple narrative presented with all the complexity and style that literature can muster. I have not read a lot of Steinbeck, and I’m surprised how much of the human condition he can illuminate with his spare, direct prose.

Unknown lays out the characters and their lives without obvious artifice, but it’s pretty hard to miss the symbolic role they are to play. Everyone is iconic here, and the stakes are both trivial – a single family ranch in Central California – and monumental. The ranch is nothing to the world and everything to these people. The events are pedestrian in that any rancher can relate and lyrical in that no one can explain them. The characters play their literary roles in the drama without deviation while stinking of humanity.

The result is a powerful concoction. I didn’t wind up caring a lot about what happened to these characters, but I did come away with a lot of empathy for the people whose lives are at the whims of the ineffable.

Steinbeck also opens the door to think about how people think about and try to bargain with the ineffable. No conclusions, but lots to think about, if you are of that mind. And I certainly am.

Recommended.

I went to the grocery today

March 13th, 2020

A trip to by some food and firewood is not worth posting about, but with the COVID-19 outbreak and response, I think it is. I was reaffirmed and calmed by the trip. I found a business well-stocked with food and other supplies – modulo an absolute dearth of toilet paper – filled with people being served in orderly lines.

Lines were long. I spent close to an hour and a half in line, but I passed the time in a delightful conversation with a couple of fellow citizens. We talked about quite a lot, but it really took off when the two others realized that they were fellow poker players. I learned quite a bit about local cardrooms and even less official venues where local folks play. I admit I was surprised that the cheerful grandma I’d been chatting with was such a knowlegable and succesful player. The fellow behind me bought a business that he still runs based on his winnings from a bowling tournament. He copped to only playing games for money.

One of the reasons I wrote this post is to report my experience. Some of the reports in my media bubble made shortages sound more widespread. I had stopped for the same items I bought today last night and I was alarmed to see the full parking lot and long lines. I knew I had what I needed, and bailed for home. I admit I was frightened by last night’s surprise, and left before I’d sized up the situation. Today’s trip restored a lot of my faith in people and in our community.

Stay safe, all. Follow preventative advice and be kind to your neighbors.

Review: The Lady From The Black Lagoon

February 17th, 2020

The Lady From The Black Lagoon delivered a powerful blend of ingredients that come together to make a new, delightful tale. I was expecting a conventional biography of an underappreciated woman whose significant contributions to the movies were predictably underplayed by the various old boys networks. Lady delivers the goods here, with meticulous research of Milicent Patrick’s career. Casual fans of monster movies, like me, probably don’t know her name but almost certainly know the results of her brilliant creation: the creature design and costume from The Creature From The Black Lagoon. The confluence of studio politics, ego mania, and internalized patriarchy erased her indelible mark on the movies and a big part of Lady is an attempt to start redressing that.

Any figure who had been treated so harshly by the people in the industry she was such a big part of would be a worthy topic such a biography. That Milicent turns out to be a larger-than-life personality is an added delight. Mallory O’Meara brings her vividly to life.

But wait, it gets even better. O’Meara meshes Patrick’s story with her own story of building a new life in Los Angeles and researching the biography of Patrick. This plan is as brilliant as it is daring. It works because O’Meara composes and expresses her intertwined memoir with power, compassion, and clarity.

Her voice is a distinctive combination of confidence, honesty, and whimsy. She describes the process of learning the ad hoc methods of historical research as she works through Patrick’s story. She links that story with her own career in the same industry and how it mirrors her idol’s experiences. She also shares the ways that the experiences of writing the book prompted deep self-reflection and how it changed her.

O’Meara composes and expresses these competing threads of biography and memoir with moving panache. She is an excellent writer with a vivid voice.

A must.

Review: How To

February 2nd, 2020

The physics nerds that I know – and I know a couple – approach problems along similar distinctive pathways. They tend to try to break an obstacle down into fundamental principles, translate it into mathematics, and methodically explore the whole set of possibilities in those formulas. If your mind doesn’t work like that, it sounds like a deadly dull process.

Randall Monroe gleefully proves that idea wrong in How To.

The premise is that he approaches some simple, practical problems with a whimsically amplified version of the stereotypical physics nerd mindset. the result is an impish set of a completely impractical explorations of mathematical modeling. The trick is that he has so much fun laying out and working through these models that readers are sucked into the pleasures of analysis.

Again, that sounds much duller than it is. Anyone who is interested in math or science will find themselves quickly sucked in. I hope that people who don’t think they are will feel the pull as well.

Strongly recommended.

Review: How Do We Look?

February 1st, 2020

This is kind of an interesting beast in that it is an adaptation of two British TV episodes on a remake of a well regarded series, Civilization. Dame Beard’s focus is on how ancient art reflects humanity’s impressions of their bodies and their gods.

It does have the nature of a breezy overview that short episodic television often has. Within that framework, she makes several thought-provoking points. I also appreciated how she pointed out artistic movements and shifts that may correlate with philosophical shifts. I’m no expert on ancient art, but this has whetted my appetite to learn more.

Recommended.

Review: How Long ’til Black Future Month?

January 11th, 2020

So often when I review short story collections I start by saying that they’re a mixed bag, which is me basically saying that the quality is uneven. Black Future Month is mixed, but all the stories work for me.

That surprised me a little because the stories really cover a lot of ground. If N K Jemisin has a lane, she clearly doesn’t need to stay in it. OK, very broadly speaking you could call all of these SF, but one could easily defend several as outside that domain.

More importantly than which Dewey Decimal number I assign the collection, I found all of them entertaining and most thought-provoking. Some play with storytelling, some subvert genre conventions, and all are just good stories.

With a title like this one, it’s easy to imagine that the point of the writing is to provoke reactions, especially given the state of the SF community. Jemisin walks a difficult line with boldness and panache. She is intentionally challenging many assumptions that underlie SF, but that’s never the whole point of a story. These are SF stories, and ideas and themes have center stage. By illuminating those themes from unfamiliar angles, these stories sparked new ideas for me.

Big picture issues aside, everyone in these stories is believable. All SF authors manipulate their characters to highlight the speculation inherent in the fiction. Jemisin’s people always ring true. I never thought that someone playing by her rules in the worlds she puts them in were acting like characters. They were people. (That reinforces the inclusion and representation goals, of course.)

Overall an interesting and exciting set of stories.

Strongly Recommended.

Listening List 2019

January 3rd, 2020

I listen to a lot of podcasts and I thought I was pretty regular in making recommendations. Evidently not. Here’s my current list with comments:

  • 1A (Weekly news roundup): Weekly commentary on political and international news reported in mainline US media. The host Joshua Johnson brings both an interesting perspective and an interesting set of commenters to it. Johnson is leaving, so this is on the bubble.
  • 99% Invisible: Roman Mars orchestrates this discussion of the good and bad design that shapes and has shaped our world. It’s a Radiotopia production. I usually learn something and always enjoy it.
  • A Way With Words: These folks do an excellent podcast about language origins, evolution, and usage. I like that they are descriptiveist and inclusive, which is to say they document English as it’s used including dialects often considered ungrammatical and lowbrow. They’re both professional linguists as well. Great fun.
  • Historcial Blindness: Nathaniel Lloyd conducts this tour through the fortean and unusual areas of history with a skeptic’s eye. His delivery can be a little dry, but I find the content is more than captivating.
  • Awesome Etiquette: I’ve talked up these folks before, and I will again. They advocate for and apply a version of etiquette based on three principles of quality human relations. Their family business is the Emily Post publishing and training endeavors, so they have the chops to tell you which fork to use and why, but that’s rarely the focus. One of my favorites.
  • Baseball Tonight Podcast: I love the rhythms of a baseball play-by-play radio broadcast. Buster Olney and company keep those rhythms in this daily MLB summary. Good for baseball fans.
  • Bombshell: These folks are my favorite accessible foreign policy experts. I always learn something when I listen to them and I never get bored. In foreign policy, that’s an unbelievable combination. Check them out if you care about foreign policy.
  • Code Switch: This is an NPR podcast about race in America. The hosts and reporters bring broad perspectives and great reporting skills to the beat. It’s often informative both about the issues the report on and on the constraints of reporting on them for a large news outlet. High variability, but generally very strong.
  • Conversations With People Who Hate Me: Dylan Marron calls people who left him nasty comments on his social media accounts and talks through how that came to happen. This is not an ambush, but a collaboration between both folks on the line. In addition, one can easily find Dylan himself grating. He strikes me as what stereotypical conservatives think a stereotypical liberal sounds like. I think he’s more interesting than that, but your mileage may vary.
  • Desert Oracle Radio: Key Layne remains a fascinating and poetic preacher of the weird and marginalized who strikes a unique balance the mystical and the skeptical. Listen to two and you’ll know if it’s for you. It’s for me.
  • Dolly Parton’s America: Jad Abumrad and some of the other talented folks at WNYC and RadioLab talk about and with country star and current media darling Dolly Parton. They do an excellent job both illuminating her as a person and as a lens to look at America. Limited series, and worth it.
  • Deep State Radio: Another foreign policy podcast. The flagship is intended to be a cocktail party atmosphere where experts are chatting. I generally find it a bit more staged and biased than that aspiration. It’s largely redeemed in my ears by regulars Rosa Brooks and Kori Schake who often rise above the politics of the day to re-enforce the key principles behind internationalism.
  • Art And Ideas: The Getty Museum puts this regular discussion with the Getty conservation and museum staff. Most are driven by exhibitions that at the Getty, but I find them informative. If you’re near the Getty these may well draw you up to see those shows. As a guilty pleasure I enjoy listening to host Jim Cuno as he grows as an interviewer and host.
  • Golic and Wingo: ESPN’s flagship sports talk podcast. I listen to keep up enough to converse. It is fun as a radio show as well, in a Disney/ESPN kind of way. Mike Golic, Jr. and the Sorry In Advance podcast are high points for me.
  • Good Christian Fun: A look at faith and spirituality through the lens of evangelical-targeted media (music, movies, etc). I’ve learned a lot about Evangelical culture and niche media as well as hearing from some extremely talented rising entertainers. As interesting as all that is, it works because the hosts – Kevin T. Porter and Caroline Ely – are honest, enthusiastic, open, and bold. It’s a strong flavor and it won’t appeal to everyone. I won’t miss an episode.
  • Here Be Monsters: This is one of my favorites. The hosts peer into frightening and unknown themes. Surprising, intimate, and often harrowing.
  • History Is Sexy: Emma Southon and Jenina Matthewson ramble through history with a decidedly feminist perspective. They both bring a dry wit and easygoing tone to the proceedings. As I say it’s a ramble and probably not for everyone,
  • I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats: This remains the podcast I’ve talked about earlier. Two creative and charismatic people chatting about making commercial art. And also, Mountain Goats!
  • LA Podcast: A regular podcast on Los Angeles issues – mostly housing and transit issues, though city council and law enforcement corruption gets plenty of time as well. They’re biased and outspoken, but I’ve learned a ton.
  • Make Me Smart: A sampler of technology and economic issues hosted by charismatic and intelligent folks – Kai Ryssdal and Molly Wood. There are moments where I think their coverage has gaps, but it has the feel of a long running exploration and that often fills them. I find it enlightening to hear how intelligent, interested, laypeople see these issues. And I learn about issues I’m unaware of too.
  • Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone: Um. Yeah. I can’t endorse this but I can’t stop listening. Good luck.
  • Opposing Bases: This is a discursive and informative aviation podcast from a pair of current air traffic controllers. It’s a strong flavor and a niche topic.
  • Planet Money: NPR’s economics podcast continues to evolve and inform. Good for anyone who has any interest in it.
  • RadioLab: Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich look at science and the world through their unique lens. I’ve sent them money just because they make me want to argue with them.
  • More Perfect: One more from Abumrad and company. Supreme Court cases and a constitutional amendment album.
  • Recording Artists: Another Getty podcast. Archival interviews of woman artists from the 20th Century interspersed with modern commentary. Extremely strong.
  • Reply All: “This is a show about the Internet.” It’s about much more than that. Best of breed.
  • ScienceVs: Remarkably kooky and balanced assessment of scientific research around modern issues. The host, Wendy Zuckerman, is particularly fun. The show does seem to be casting around, but she remains a draw.
  • The Allusionist: Language and usage podcast. Helen Zoltzman’s excellent take on language and surrounding issues. I learn a lot from it and I’m consistently entertained.
  • The Anthropocene Reviewed: John Green reviews random things on a 5-star scale. Really an excuse for diverting and thought provoking spoken word essays.
  • The Art of Process: Aimee Mann and Ted Leo interview creators about the structure of their creation process. Rambling and interesting.
  • The Indicator: More NPR economics. 10-minute bites. Hits more than it misses, but doing 10 minutes every day means some will miss.
  • The Kitchen Sisters Present: I started listening to this because they did a sequence on people who collect and preserve … things. All kinds of odd things. They tell other interesting stories as well.
  • The Memory Palace: Nate DiMeo’s poetic reflections on history. Delicious snacks of history and langauge.
  • The Nod: This is billed as a podcast about Black culture, but I find that the best episodes are driven by the hosts’ – Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings – interactions and personal obsessions. They are winning and engaging.
  • The Truth: Mostly fairly short form audio fiction with (more or less) a Twilight Zone/twist ending kind of bent. I can only give it “diverting,” but I keep it in the list.
  • This American Life: Still worth it.
  • Throughline: One of my new obsessions. Well articulated and researched history that bears directly on modern issues – as all history does. The hosts – bring a fresh perspective to every story. Even when I know a bunch of the basic background of the events they cover, I learn something.
  • Tides Of History: Historian Patrick Wyman presents Roman and Middle Ages history with a solid narrative framing. He does a great job explaining the societal systems that form history and the scientific systems that let us understand them. Great stuff.
  • Uncontrolled Airspace: Rambling general aviation podcast. The hosts know a ton and have an easy chemistry. The presentation meanders quite a bit and not for everyone.
  • Up First: Daily capsules from Morning Edition.
  • Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me: Still worth it.
  • Welcome To Night Vale: Still worth it. Mostly.
  • Within The Wires: Far and away my favorite fiction podcast. An intricate and moving story about an alternate history told through found audio. I can’t really explain it beyond that. Try a season.
  • You Must Remember This: Karina Longworth’s quite brilliant take on Hollywood history and how it reflects American values. I’m not a Hollywood fan and I always learn something.

Fair warning, I financially support some of these folks, though I don’t make any money from that.

Updated to include the disclaimer and The Truth summary.

Reading List 2019

January 3rd, 2020

I read 22 books in 2019. (Off-by-one error). Here are the books I strongly recommended: