Review: Parable of the Talents

July 21st, 2018

Parable of the Talents continues the tale Octavia Butler began in Parable of the Sower.

All the praise I heaped on the first part continues to be true of the second (and final) part.  Butler takes her dystopia to its crushing extremes in ways that may feel eerily precognitive.  There are obvious parallels to our current politics despite Talents being published in 1993.  To me that speaks more to Butler’s ability to understand and reflect on American society than any intent to predict the future.  She saw the core features of humanity and America that are on display here and on the news pages back then and put them on paper in this immersive story.  All the facts and philosophies that underlie Talents have permeated the literary and historical scene for quite some time.  It Can’t Happen Here and 1984 lay out the strategy, but Butler humanizes it.

Strongly recommended.

Review: The Line Becomes a River

July 19th, 2018

Francisco Cantú has written a book that’s part anthropological field work, part journalism, part memoir, part disputation, and part vision quest.  That description sounds like a recipe for a patchwork of artifice, but Cantú has constructed a work that is much more difficult to describe than it is to understand.  It can be difficult to read, of course;  people are risking their lives in this world every day.

His topics, the southern US border, the policies around crossing it, and the Border Patrol that is the first point of enforcing them, are themselves a patchwork of emotion, history, and ideas.  People feel and think strongly about them and often they have no coherent way to express them in toto.  Cantú’s multi-faceted approach both illuminates the topics and articulates his views.  That articulation varies from matter of fact description to dream interpretation.

It doesn’t always work, of course.  There are passages that seemed overwrought to me.  It is clear he’s picking the incidents and anecdotes he relates to hang them on his themes.  Taken as a whole, I do find it moving and thought provoking.

It’s worth pointing out that his experiences all took place before the 2016 presidential election.  However one might think this has all changed since then, Cantú is clear that there was plenty of complexity and emotion here initially.

I want to put in a good word for the author’s mother.  She’s an incidental but powerful character.  I’d devour a biography of her.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Hillbilly Elegy

July 14th, 2018

J. D. Vance has done a reasonable job walking the line between memoir and social criticism in Hillbilly Elegy.  He tells a sound, comprehensive history of his Kentucky family and how they helped and hindered his life so far.  There are nods to how the culture in which they were steeped affects society in general.  That said, it left me a bit cold.

I agree with most of what he says here, but it’s also very much in line with my experience and upbringing.  I have significant Scots-Irish and Appalachian elements of my heritage as well as Italian and Polish immigrant elements and experience coming of age in a small Western New York town.  Everything he said jibes with that experience, though I was lucky enough to avoid the worst of the substance abuse and broken homes that directly impact Vance.  But Vance thinks that is ignored by modern culture to an extent that I don’t.

Perhaps tellingly, most of what he says about growing up a Kentucky hillbilly fails to resonates with experiences with family and friends in Western New York or my Italian and Polish relatives.  Lots of these values and hardships transcend Appalachia. Part of Vance’s point is that his history is more common than images of America might suggest.  I agree with that, but even so, he doesn’t illuminate much new ground for me.

Review: My Heart Is An Idiot

July 8th, 2018

Reading Davy Rothbart’s My Heart Is An Idiot felt a lot like plopping down at a neighborhood bar and striking up a conversation with a guy who’s done some fun things and spins a great yarn.  Beers are traded, and a perhaps you and he are sucked into another.  Rothbart is a down on his luck salt of the earth who you were lucky to meet.

It’s a con.

Rothbart built that impression using his immense craft as a writer and unflinching bravery as a storyteller.  He structures those yarns like a mathematical proof, pulling the reader along into outlandish situations by presenting each step as part of a natural progression.  That’s how you get from “yeah, I’d fly out to Arizona meet a girl I’ve been chatting with online” to dodging traffic while hauling moose legs off a busy highway.  Nothing seems unusual until you – almost certainly a lesser writer – try to relate the same story.

Beyond that, he’s fearlessly honest.  Another way these aren’t just bar stories is in the way he talks about himself and his world.  His broken and idiotic heart turns up  naked and raw and then slips back away. Again, nothing sticks out, but his beliefs and perspective come out in an instant when in life it might take years to get that close.   He bares these bits in ways that make it feel like it’s part of a rambling story, and drops back into the story before his shaggy-dog momentum flags.

As much as the awe-inspiring writing, I like his perspective.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Stranger In A Strange Land

June 22nd, 2018

I hadn’t read Stranger in years, though like all nerds there were ideas and vocabulary from it that were part of my worldview.  Recent events incited me to have another look and refresh those old engrams.

Coming back to Stranger reminded me how much it challenges assumptions about religion and culture.  I found ideas in there that rewarded some thought and dissection.  My dissection was encouraged by their oblique presentation.  I’m confident that some of that was a stylistic decision to mimic the oblique writing style of so many religious texts.  Forcing readers to interpret vague text  draws them into the ideas and invests the interpreter in the meanings they form by dint of expended energy.  Noticing that aspect of inspirational writing was probably worth the reread.

I think of Heinlein as an idea generator – I often claim that he produces an interesting idea every hundred pages – and Stranger supports that.  It is speculative fiction in the best sense of that term.  Neither prediction nor prescription, but a reflection on humanity framed to encourage new thinking.  Ideas about the human condition, feminism, marketing inspiration, and carnival history are reverberating nicely in my skull now, which is great fun.

If Stranger is trying to sell its ideas on societal values, its literary constructions intrigue me.  Though there are nods to various underrepresented groups – e.g., women and a sympathetic Muslim character – it never felt inclusive to me.  I mean inclusive in a more broad sense than a purveyor of “Political Correctness” might construct it.  I don’t think Heinlein is failing to represent women, or people of color, or first nations citizens, or your favorite hot button name well; I think he isn’t representing humans well.  All of these characters feel like glib, educated, science fiction writers to me.  Even his allegedly charismatic Messiah is easily forgettable.  The only character I remember distinctly is Mary Sue, er, Jubal Harshaw.  And I don’t like him much, but he did evoke an emotion.

It’s possible that Heinlein intentionally kept his characters sketchy to act as symbols or manifestations of various counter points to his philosophical ideas.  I don’t see a lot of Bible characters as fully realized, either, so I believe this is a possibility rather than an excuse. That illuminates how I think about Stranger – I look at the ideas and presentation as parts of a manifesto that Heinlein tossed into the world.

There are ideas I find compelling in Stranger. There are ideas I disagree with. Any work with that density of ideas served up with a modicum of entertainment is worth my time.

Strongly Recommended.  If you want to punch Harshaw after 3 pages, you’re not alone.

Review: Desert Solitaire

June 22nd, 2018

I am tempted to describe Desert Solitaire primarily by analogy to other work, high concept style. It’s Classic A written by Great Author B.  I’m resisting that because that approach denigrates what Edward Abbey has written.  Solitaire captures ringing ideas with a unique voice.

Abbey’s book captures person, place, time, and outlook with clarity and power.

Ostensibly it is a memoir of Abbey’s two seasons as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Utah in the mid-1960’s. The text is not a diary. He is deliberately coalescing multiple years into a single progression, picking stories and moments to connect to larger truths, and capturing his time and outlook.

Beyond capturing himself and his times, he pays homage to the timeless and singular beauty of the high desert.  The blend of poetry and lore he brings to that homage tune Solitaire‘s song to the ears of the west and turn it into a siren call to desert rats and cowboy philosophers.

A must.

Review: The Comanche Empire

June 3rd, 2018

I don’t know much at all about the history of the American Southwest despite living in the region (broadly construed). I know the basic outline of Northeastern history much better.  I have been trying to improve this and when Patrick Wyman’s Tides Of History Book Club recommended Pekka Hamalainen’s  The Comanche Empire, I decided to pick it up.

Hamalainen sets out to upset readers conception of the Comanches.  In my case, that is easy – I don’t know much about them beyond recognizing them as Western Movie villains. My very limited understanding the history of this domain was informed by the conflicts between Spain, Mexico, France, and the US. Those players are here, of course, but most of the traditional narrative only recognizes the Natives as weather conditions.  Empire makes the situation clearer by animating the Comanches.

The traditional narrative of the region has gaps that become more visible as one considers them.  Some of those gaps include the factors that made Texas ripe for splitting from Spain and Mexico.  Why and how is Northern Mexico such easy pickings in the Mexican War?  What in the world is the story in New Mexico?  The answer to all of those is not “Comanches.”  But answers that don’t face the facts about the extent and power of these Natives are confusing and incomplete.  Empire fills in the negative space in the historical narrative.

The Comanches are interesting in their own right as well.  They are a powerful geopolitical player, as I mentioned above. The group  is also interesting in terms of their internal nearly federated government style.  Multiple loosely cooperating clans who share tribal customs and values are capable of combining efforts to remake their society and act effectively against technically more advanced states.

The Empire exists because they can change their way of life to move into the great plains, but they disappear as much because they cannot sustain the new style than because they are defeated in battle.  Explosive population growth without carefully husbanding resources – in this case horses and bison – failed catastrophically.  This is a cautionary tale worth significant ruminations.

The Comanches also traded in and supported themselves with slaves.  This was certainly a second fuse burning in their society, though the ecological failures seem to have gotten them first.

Overall Empire is an accessible introduction to a fascinating people.

Recommended.

Review: How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything

May 27th, 2018

It is always a bit surprising to hear a Georgetown Law Professor write discursively, but this is one of the great strengths of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. It has the title and back flap summary of another current events book focused on foreign policy.  And it certainly is that.  The parts of it that I found more thought provoking and engaging are when Rosa Brooks writes like she’s lecturing a grad student seminar in international law.

When that happens, she tells a convincing story that Western Civilization is worth saving.  That the vague consensus on values and authority of nations to enforce mores and influence on the worst of human behavior works well enough to make a positive difference.  That expressing the values of human rights, when merged with that consensus, advances the species.

Neither Books nor I believe that these institutions work all of the time.  We may not believe that they work most of the time.  Her realistic and hard won experience in these matters – she was high up in the Pentagon and significant Human Rights groups – have effectively tempered her idealism.  Though the running gag on Deep State Radio is that she’s uniformly pessimistic about humanity, but much of Everything undercuts that.  She is ruthlessly pragmatic, but ultimately seems to hold a flickering flame of hope up against the To Build a Fire odds.

The other aspect of Everything that I found compelling is her penetrating analysis of the changes technology and resulting politics have wrought in sovereignty with respect to international law.  I have long taken these legal concepts to be set in stone.  They framed my understanding of the morality of international intervention and violence. Brooks has moved me a significant distance off that base.  She has convinced me to strongly consider that enough has changed in the world that there are significant gaps in the ideas that underlie those legal constructs.  I also admit the possibility that humans may be able to adapt the ideas, laws, and consensus that form the basis for international law.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Forever War

May 27th, 2018

Dexter Filkins is a journalist in the best sense of the term. Different folks have different ideas about the goals of the vocation, so here’s how I evaluate them. Journalists go into a situation, immerse themselves in it, and return stories that help us understand it. They bring their observation, investigation, and communication skills.  They also bring their minds, biases, and hearts.  Humans have to.

Filkins plied that trade in the Middle East in the first decade and a half of the 21st century.  He’s seen Taliban beheadings, daily life in Mujahideen camps, been embedded with US Marines in Fallujah, and watched the Green Zone, and US attitudes that underlie it, evolve.  He reports on it all clearly, with head and heart.  And he is honest about the prices he paid to be there, even when others paid them. Readers may disagree with elements of his reporting but his dedication to bringing these stories to others is outstanding.

H/T @kairyssdal for the recommendation.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Astrophysics for People In A Hurry

May 6th, 2018

This collection of essays from Neil deGrasse Tyson warmed my heart, but didn’t delight me.  That may say more about me and prejudices – having read Asimov’s math & science essays as a kid – than Tyson’s writing.  He’s writing about interesting stuff.  He’s engaging.  He illustrates difficult concepts with interesting analogies.  He taught me things I didn’t know.  But I still come off more warmed than excited.

If you – or your kids – have any interest in cosmology and astrophysics take a look.  If you want to find out if you have an interest in those things, have a look.

Recommended.