Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

In The Dream House

Sunday, 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

Sunday, 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.

Review: The Lady From The Black Lagoon

Monday, 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

Sunday, 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?

Saturday, 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.

Reading List 2019

Friday, January 3rd, 2020

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

Review: Second Founding

Saturday, December 28th, 2019

I enjoy Eric Foner’s work both because he is interested in the US Reconstruction and because he writes lucidly and thoughtfully about it. The Reconstruction informs the current form and slant of American society at the same time that the content of the story we tell ourselves about it varies completely with who is telling it. This is an exploration of the time that citizens imbue the national government with new powers and new roles at the same time that people begin making the myths that will continue to inform the discussions about them. In Second Founding, Foner frames those struggles inside the bounds of the constitutional amendments that people enact and interpret.

People often interpret the past as being more unanimous than it was. In thinking about the reconstruction amendments – 13, 14, and 15 – I’d bet that most people imagine a pretty unified support for the general ideas that recognize formerly enslaved people as citizens. Foner does an excellent job drawing out the various competing positions and the compromises that create the amendments and their interpretation.

Depending on what one believes – and the Reconstruction narrative they know – current discussions about the ability of the federal government to override state laws to protect voting rights or civil rights can be completely opaque. The false uniformity makes current actions feel like unethical exploitation of established law. If one’s mythology includes the idea that the 14th amendment recognizes rights of citizens and declares that the federal government must act to protect them, the 20th century has a flavor of betrayal to it. If one’s mythology views that amendment as a mechanism to secure a lasting voting bloc that supports moneyed interests, the 20th century looks more like a replay of a domestic power grab that hade been beaten back at the end of the 19th. Founding strips such false consensus away and opens a door to talk.

The reality, as Foner explains, is that the amendments were the results of a compromises between at least the 247 congressmen who wrangled over them. Some were pretty clearly motivated by ideals; some were pretty clearly motivated by power politics. Some were motivated by the financial interests of patrons. Some were driven by what state legislatures were willing to approve – a process that includes how the amendments will tilt powers and representation of states in the future. Most balanced combinations of those motivations.

Many of the arguments the representatives and pundits published at that time took root as the basis of the mythology of the emerging post-Civil-War central government. There are few arguments about these amendments that don’t date from their creation.

Foner chronicles the arguments and resulting language that defines them. He also holds the various interpretations of the arguments’ expression and resulting clauses up and connects them. He has a definite bias, but presents more than enough information to understand the process.

He then goes one step further and explores how the Supreme Court interprets the amendments. It is oddly comforting to see that political appointments and hidebound jurists are nothing new. Foner argues compellingly that the justices of the day did interpret the law conservatively – and commercially. (And President Johnson’s influence was considerable as well.)

Overall this is a clear and informed exploration of these Amendments and the people and stories around them.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: How To Hide An Empire

Sunday, December 8th, 2019

This is another joy from the work of Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei on the brilliant Throughline podcast that NPR supports. They credit Daniel Immerwahr’s How To Hide An Empire significantly in their Puerto Rico episode. I recommend that episode.

Empire itself is a strong history of the United States’ adventures acquiring and administering territory in the 19th century and the sea changes that WWII brings to that Empire. The two phases are fascinating in their own rights. The strange happenstances of expansion by a democratic yet slave-holding state before the war are fundamentally refined by changes in technology and geopolitics worked on and by the US. The US becomes a worldwide distributor of influence, goods, and arms and our foreign holdings reflect that in ways that surprised me.

The first half of Empire shows how the US’s Manifest Destiny mythology drives conquest and land acquisition, modulated – as always – by the internal struggles between Northern financial and manufacturing interests against Southern slave-driven interests. The expansion of the empire is also influenced by our best ideals. The geopolitics of the world also plays a role. Unlike European powers that were wresting land and resources from largely indigenous people, the US was largely wresting land from other colonizers. The interplay between the promises one makes to the colony and the improvements that appear when the uprising is over reveals a lot about human nature.

After World War II, the US needs foreign holdings less to pull in resources like rubber and guano (yes, guano) than to project influence and products. The underlying changes that drove those changes and what that means for the people in the colonies are fascinating. The trade-off between exerting influence based on democratic ideals and holding colonists in varying piecemeal states of rights and protections produces some remarkable verbal tap-dancing and outright doublethink.

One hopes this sort of history can make citizens think more deeply about how we act. Empire is a clear and accessible place to start.

Strongly recommended.

Review: The Retreat of Western Liberalism

Sunday, November 17th, 2019

Edward Luce is one of the co-conspirators over at Deep State Radio, a concern I support with some reservations. I picked this up reluctantly. Luce is not my favorite speaker on DSR – that’s probably Rosa Brooks or Kori Schake – and I was concerned that his book would be similarly dry to me. I’m delighted to find him much more sparkling on the page.

Retreat illuminates the state of the world for me in two ways I find useful. It is a powerful and intelligible summation of facts and motivations of liberal ideas in the sense of the sorts of ideas that motivated the creation of the United Nations and other national cooperative bodies (NATO, Marshall Plan). Western leaders planted these after World War II to promote specific values. Luce explicates what these institutions are and what specific ideals the leaders tried to embody in them. The ideals are key to me. We can and should argue about the details of these institutions and how they are implemented, but holding up the motivations and principles that they are intended to promote lets one focus on whether those are worthwhile outside the details of who is behind on their UN dues.

Luce presents those institutions and ideas in the world outside our window, full of mistakes, compromise, and players who don’t believe in either the institutions or the ideals. People who believe in a simplistic world of simple good and evil are woefully unprepared to deal with those very real forces and people. Luce is persuasively and clearly realistic about how the ideas that the WWII winners tried to plant in the ground operate and fail to. He lives in a world where outcomes are not inevitable and invites us to join him.

Beyond that, he writes with clarity, wit, and charm that I was not expecting. While I’m happy to defend that evaluation of his writing, I suspect readers who are less sympathetic to his support of the international institutions will find his style more grating.

Recommended.

Review: The Phoenix Project

Sunday, October 27th, 2019

Yeah, I really read this. It’s a novel about DevSecOps. Really.

Intellectually, I understand what Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford are up to. They believe in this management and software develop methodology and are trying to evangelize it. What surprised me is that they to spread the word in long form narrative fiction. Evidently they hypothesize that there’s a market for fiction about a Hero’s Journey through software development management.

I pretty much had to read it.

As literature, it’s a total potboiler. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Our hero is thrown into a job he can’t refuse in a department full of underappreciated characters who mistrust him. There are high-level schemers working against his goals and the goals of his company. The security manager takes apparent glee in undermining the smooth operations of systems to defeat imagined foes. Fortunately there’s a guru/guardian angel who embodies nearly every cliche of the misunderstood Silicon Valley genius to take our hero under his wing.

Along the way, our hero quits in frustration, only to be literally begged to come back by the CEO. The security manager walks out, drinks himself into oblivion and comes back to the good side through application of DevSecOps principles. Our hero wins the loyalty of his team, frees his company from the prison of hidebound operating principles and leads it to the Nirvana of market penetration. If you know what I mean, and I think you do.

It’s an advertisement dressed up as an airport novel, executed perfectly competently. For that matter, I learned a few things about DevSecOps management principles that were worth thinking about.

I can’t recommend it, but it’s exactly what it says on the tin.