Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Review: Talk To Me

Sunday, December 5th, 2021

I picked up Talk To Me hoping to see what I love about T. Coraghessan Boyle’s writing and I got exactly what I was hoping for. He is a very talented and popular author whose work I really enjoy.

Boyle is a consummate plotter and writes beautifully and expressively. He has a keen sense of humor and a penchant for quirky topics. All of that delights me, but it’s not what fascinates me.

What fascinates me is that he writes with more empathy than almost any author I’ve read. Specifically, he regularly takes a character from the modern zeitgeist who seems heinous and writes about them in a way that makes the reader understand how they could commit the horrible acts that brought them to the public eye. He has a skill for making you understand them without supporting them. It’s a powerful superpower.

In Talk To Me he brings it to bear on a range of characters from chimpanzee language researchers like the folks who claim to have taught a gorilla to communicate with humans using sign language and the sorts of folks in Tiger King. There is all sorts of behavior going on that would be hard to swallow in a headline, but seems natural in Boyle’s hands. It’s also compelling, thought provoking and has a unique vibe.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: You Feel It Just Below The Ribs

Monday, November 29th, 2021

You Feel It Just Below The Ribs is a novel set in the Within The Wires world. As I mentioned in my Anthropecene Reviewed review, I tend to prefer podcasts when I have the choice, but I was so impressed by their pre-released excerpt that I ordered the novel. Jeffrey Cranor and Janina Matthewson claim that you don’t need to know anything about the podcast to enjoy the book, and I think that’s probably true. That said, I recommend Within The Wires wholeheartedly; also there’s a lot of Feel It that seems targeted at existing fans. You’ll understand it either way, but how much you enjoy it will depend on how much you like world-building.

While there is a lot of continuity service and world-building in Feel It, there’s plenty of style and substance independent of it. The world is an alternate history of the 20th Century, which lets the authors riff on the nature of human relations, families, and the societies they build. I think they’re very insightful about the world and use the medium effectively in entertaining and provoking thought in the same work.

The balance concerns between entertainment and provocation is possible because they write very effectively. One of the features that drew me into Within The Wires was their ability to creep up on an emotional bombshell while keeping me oblivious to what’s coming and then to drop that bomb in a short, casual phrase. This comes through it Feel It.

The other salient point is that all the Within The Wires stories are framed as found audio and they indulge their writing ability to give each season its own texture. They continue this strategy here, constructing a found autobiography annotated by the academic publisher. That publisher has its own agenda, and the reader is never fully trusting of the text.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Anthropcene Reviewed

Sunday, November 28th, 2021

I fell in love with John Green’s Anthropecene Reviewed as a podcast. The podcast is a compelling combination of detailed exploration of seemingly incidental societal artifacts and revealing brave personal essay. This is obviously not for everyone. I loved the writing, research, and perspective he brings to these topics along with the boldness of revealing himself. I like his writing style and delivery as well.

The book is a pretty close transcription of these essays. The advantage is that if podcasts aren’t for you, you can still get to his writing. I personally prefer hearing him read, but you may enjoy reading these in the bathroom.

Either is Strongly Recommended.

Review: Unsettled

Saturday, November 27th, 2021

One of my friends who is on the more conservative side of my bubble recommended this critique of Climate Science and coverage. Steven Koonin is a physicist and researcher who is well respected in his field. He does have experience as a first-class researcher and scientist as well as experience In politics. He was employed as an Undersecretary for Science in the Department of Energy under President Obama. He worked for BP as a their chief scientist for renewable energy. In short, he’s familiar with the field and qualified as a scientist. He also has identifiable biases.

Given all that, I think the factual questions he raise point to places where the various studies seem reasonable to question. I’m not a climate scientist and not terribly familiar with the studies, so I can’t address the correctness of his factual claims. Nothing he claims is unbelievable to me. I think that models can be sensitive to small perturbations of initial assumptions and that the interpretation does depend on the bias of the interpreters. Scientists have points of view, even when they try to be as objective as possible. Considering that is interpreting any research is important, especially research that is as charged as Climate Science is.

I think these kind of questions represent a healthy tussle about facts. That said, I think that no matter how extreme one finds the bias of climate reporting, there are plenty of problems that are frequently framed as climate problems that I care about regardless. For example, even if renewable energy is completely neutral to the climate, I support adoption and subsidies for plenty of other reasons. I don’t see Koonin’s concerns as significantly changing my policy positions.

If you are curious about critiques of Climate Science and reporting, it’s a well written set of concerns from a prominent scientist. There’s a back and forth about the content, of course. I found it interesting and worth my time, even if I didn’t fundamentally change my worldview.

Review: When The Reckoning Comes

Saturday, October 30th, 2021

I wish I enjoyed reading When The Reckoning Comes more. It makes the review frustrating because my analytical self can’t find much to dislike and many things to like. But my more emotional side wasn’t engaged.

I never found myself caring much about LaTanya McQueen’s protagonist. Again, on paper, there are lots of ways she and I should connect. Both from a small town, felt ostracized but were talented enough to get out into the world and lost touch with our origin. Of course, we’re different in the important area of race – he writes knowing that sounds like he’s got no idea of the magnitude of that – and gender – he writes … . But I do connect with other characters from different worlds, so I don’t feel like it’s that simple. It’s just one of those ineffable things, I guess.

The book itself is a well written hybrid of horror, ghost story, and thriller that never settles down into the conventions of any of those genres. The forces haunting the story are literally and figuratively the plantation that holds up the town, the evils done by the family that owned it and enslaved many, and the locals who helped perpetuate and profit from those evils. Of course, those kind of evils and roots reach into today, manifesting as segregation and profound unfairness at most levels of society.

McQueen connects the horrors of the enslavement to the modern white privilege, and never settles into easy answers about which causal or worse. Similarly she never settles into the rythyms of a specific genre. The result is an uneasiness of the reader that helps propel the story as bodies and horrors pile up.

As I say, I like the ideas and the execution, but my investment never materialized.

Recommended.

Review: When the Stars Go Out

Saturday, October 9th, 2021

I like to imagine that most people who enjoy reading have embraced the idea that writing in genre can be a stregth rather than a limitation. I often find it helpful to think of artists primarily being in one of the camps Scott McCloud defines in Understanding Comics. Broadly those are storytellers and commenters on form. Paula McLain is solidly in the first camp. She’s got things to say and is using the mystery/crime fiction genre to structure the story. The result is a page-turning story.

The focus is a cop on a break to deal with trauma cast in the role of of private eye in her home town. “Cop” undersells her skills – she’s an experienced and effective investigator who can’t leave a case in her specialty alone, and picks one up here. This is a fairly common crime fiction setup and Stars mostly follows the conventions from that to a conventional conclusion. I mean if you’ve ever read a mystery, you’ll recognize the beats of the story, but that genre has a rich enough body of beats to choose from that the effect is that I recognized I was hearing salsa and also that I was hearing excellent salsa. McLain’s prose is expressive and her plotting is propulsive. It’s a gripping read.

Her story also lights up a lot of ideas and issues worth thinking about. The investigation is into the disappearance of young girls in rural communities. The setting is Northern California in this case, but I think the ideas are more universal. I think there’s no way to talk about that without talking about the foster case system, personal trauma of the perpetrators, victims, and families, and the effects and support of the communities. McLain doesn’t blink at any of that. She brings solid research, and for all I know experience, to the details of plot, character and setting that elevate Stars from the run-of-the-mill.

She also deftly ties this to a story most Americans will recognize from the headlines, which is a nice subtle way to underscore the point that she’s telling us what headlines obscure about that kind of story.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Genesis

Sunday, September 12th, 2021

Genesis is a novel that feels to me like a short story. It’s an SF bottle movie (one location and one topic) with a little twist to it that is smart about its topic, but maybe a little longer than it needs to be.

That topic is Artificial Intelligence (AI) writ large, in the sense of what is a conscious entity and can humans create one. The “will AIs replace replace us” trope appears, too, in kind of an interesting, understated way. Because the story is all told indirectly it did make me engage in the story in some interesting ways. I think it would make a great book club selection for some nerds, in that the questions it raises obliquely are more interesting than the plot on the paper.

There’s some nice writing, and a good engaging structure to the story.

Recommended.

Review: The National Road

Monday, September 6th, 2021

I was attracted to Tom Zoellner’s collection of essays because we share a love for road trips and reflection, though mine had become more sky trips pre-COVID. I love the enforced mindfulness of a long drive and I’ve had many an insight on the highway or airway. Zoellner is a better writer than I am and many of his essays coalesce into the sorts of historical discussions of Americana that I love.

The road is an inspiration we share, but the insights are less universal. That’s probably inescapable. So much of what I love about road trips is the internal and personal reflections. I suspect that Zoellner doesn’t consider as many computer science thesis topics as I did in graduate school, for example.

That said, all of these essays are good, and diverting. But I enjoyed my favorites so much more than the mass of them, the effect raised the bar in hindsight. Worth a read.

Review: The Midwich Cuckoos

Sunday, August 22nd, 2021

I came to this as through a couple roads. There’s an off-the-cuff reference to it in The Invisibles that I ran down for my contemoporaneous annotations of that series which is enough of a draw to attract me. When the guys at Random Horror Podcast No. 9 covered the first film version of (Village of the Damned) and hinted at some powerful depth in that movie, I decided to pull it from the library.

There was a lot I liked about it, but it didn’t have the depth that Cecil and Jeffrey implied. For what it’s worth, I found their analysis of Village of the Damned reflects their depth as thinkers and artists more than the movie supports. And I’m delighted that they pushed me to read the source.

It hits all the beats of late 1950’s SF. It wrestles with issues of evolution, the roles of science and the military, societal mores, and political dogma without any of the distractions of realistic characters. The characters are all there to make philosophical points and raise intriguing questions, not to engage the reader emotionally. They are solid, just not much beyond stereotypes. The ideas are the stars of the show.

To its credit, the plot is well constructed to maneuver the characters to bring out the ideas that John Wyndham wants to address. The clockwork is well-crafted and executed with the occasional well-turned phrase to bring it to life. And it has a life. The characters move believably through the machinations that bring the questions of a hostile nature and humanity’s role and the role of its intellectual, spiritual and emotional constructs in it into sharp relief.

They are interesting ideas and worth thoughts. My only deep criticism of it, allowing for how it stays so well in its genre lane, is that there is little ambiguity present. Wyndham uses his world to raise his issues, but makes sure to scope each one tightly. The result feels as much like a murder mystery or one of Asimov’s puzzle stories. Given the constraints, there are few resolutions that make any sense other than the one the characters reach.

I see why Cecil and Jeffrey asked questions that neither Midwich nor Village raised. I like looking at the ideas, but my thoughts all start by negating one of the explicitly stated facts of the plot. I find the value in the power of the the underlying ideas to provoke speculation.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Twain’s Feast

Friday, July 16th, 2021

Andrew Beahrs’s Twain’s Feast defies easy categorization, but I’m really happy that I read it. It’s historical, culinary, environmental, journalistic, literary, and includes recipes. If Beahrs were less steeped in any of these areas, I doubt that Feast would cohere into anything worthwhile.

The basis is a menu Mark Twain includes in The Innocents Abroad that is a tribute to the uniquely American foods he was missing in Europe when he was writing. Twain’s got elements of a blogger in him and it’s easy to imagine his menu chapter as a listicle in the current media world. I intend that as an endorsement. Twain’s such a keen ofserver of people and society that his menu is not so much a bill of fare as a collection of evocative dishes. Food is so connected to our cultural consciousness that his readers would not have been able to read it without their own memories and passions rising. Feast Beahrs’s response to that stimulation.

He brings an interesting array of talents and fascinations to play. He’s a good literary historian who knows Twain well. He puts the dishes into the sort of personal and societal context that wold make them so beloved of Twain. Then he connects the same dishes to contemporary times.

The connections take Beahrs out into the world to tell those stories. He does a good job connecting them to different aspects of the world. Prairie Chicken is on the menu, but you can’t eat one because there probably only a few hundred birds alive. But the story of the birds themselves and the people caring for them is compelling. Details of BBQ and Southern dishes connect to Twain’s relationships to the Confederacy and the Union. That reflects into society’s relationships as they evolve. Each chapter connects the food to something compelling about this world.

He writes well and has a passion for food as well.

Strongly Recommended.