Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Review: The Fifth Season

Saturday, November 10th, 2018

N. K. Jemisin has won the Hugo award for Best Novel for the last three years in a row.  It’s the kind of thing that eventually catches my attention, and I’m happy that it did.  The Fifth Season is the first of these three and a well deserved honor.  Jemisin shows off so many of the things I love about SF: careful world building, believable characters, and beautiful writing.

She creates an world that is exotic and intriguing while remaining connected to ours.  As most great SF authors do, she twists the world in a few comprehensible ways while keeping closely enough in touch to mirror reality. There is meaty commentary here on both fiction and reality that lands with a light touch. That is to say that the world is immersive and the story crackles along snappily.  One can enjoy the ride without deep thought.  If you like deep thinking, the world ignites and supports it.

Key to making a believable world is looking out at it through the eyes of a real person and seeing other real people.  Nemisin’s people are clearly of her world while being comprehensible to those from ours.  While much is indubitably made of the racial and sexual inclusiveness of her players, I find them at least as diverse in their worldviews and social backgrounds.  They are all genuine and interesting and complex enough that none of them is completely admirable or static.

True characters in a wide world are the catalysts for a great story but Jemisin’s writing is the cherry on top.  Her writing is structurally powerful.  It reveals the world and characters in a Salome-like dance, simultaneously enticing, propulsive and deceptive.  Plot, character, and theme all appear and deepen with brilliant timing.  The specific writing is a delight as well.  Individual sentences sometimes twirl as they conclude, bringing insight, horror, or power to the narrative.

And that closer…

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Midnight In Mexico

Saturday, October 27th, 2018

Alfredo Corchado is a Dallas Morning News reporter with a foot in the US and Mexico and in Midnight In Mexico, he organizes and memorializes his experiences in Mexico.  Those experiences open with a narco-driven death threat, so this isn’t a rambling, cuddly memoir.

It is a memoir of deep feeling and detailed reporting. I learned a lot about Mexico’s transformation into a state under siege from drug traffickers.  I learned more about the hearts of people who have to live in that transformed world.

Corchado’s research and journalism is compelling stuff.  You don’t get many death threats for erroneous stories, though, of course, I can’t check it. I picked up a bunch of book learning here.

I also admire his style.  Many of these stories are deeply emotional and tie to his family.  He tells them as stories that one would tell a friend in a bar.  He doesn’t dwell on the emotions, but they are plain nonetheless.

There’s much to like here.  Recommended.

Review: Bolivar

Saturday, October 27th, 2018

I’m getting interested in South and Central American history because I don’t remember much about it, nor did I learn a lot of it in school.  As I learn more about US history, the echos of its past become clearer.  Because I live in Southern California, I hear those echoes from the south of me as well.  And some of those echoes ring with eccentricity.  I’ve got to dig in and find more.

Símon Bolívar is a big enough name that even I have heard of him.  That’s like saying a few people have heard of George Washington, of course.  As with Washington, the real story is more complex and enlightening.  Bolívar is liberating Gran Columbia and Venezuela from a different enemy in the shadows of the American and French Revolutions.  He also comes from a different, more aristocratic stock and culture.   His path is littered with politics great and small and stronger urges for personal glory.  It is utterly fascinating to see how these differences play out in terms of Bolívar’s historical placement and the history of the nations he liberated.

Robert Harvey makes a good guide in that journey.  His prose is clean and his research seems sound.  The figures and cultures sparkle under his descriptions.  As with Conquistador, the text seems to be combining known texts rather than pushing new agendas.  Perfect for me.

Recommended.

Review: The Perfect Weapon

Sunday, October 14th, 2018

David Sanger has produced a deep look at how the political and policy world sees computer and network espionage and sabotage.  People inside and outside that world call that “cyber” but that makes me and other tech weenies of my cohort a little queasy.  My queasiness aside, these technologies are commanding people’s attention.

Sanger does some remarkable research and journalism in tracking publicly revealed and discovered uses of computer and network espionage tech. His work shows how this stuff is live and in use.  On one hand, people use whatever tools they have or can make when they want to spy; on the other the level of technical sophistication is surprising.  Weapon is worth reading to get that intuition.

I do think that there are a couple angles from which readers – like me – should be skeptical.  One is the aura of secrecy and awe that reporters and managers of these technologies wrap them in.  Some of that is because the mindset of using technology outside of its specification is unnatural to a lot of people.  In Zen and the Art, Robert Persig explained how beer cans are also essential repair elements.  That mentality pervades the thinking of people who make “cyber” work and it feels like magic until you develop the technique.  It’s the difference between watching a magic show and watching a magic show as Penn or Teller.  Easier to say than do.

Holding the secrets as secrets and wrapping the technology in some awe helps with getting funding, so there’s a significant incentive to do so.  I do think that research and development funding inside and outside the government can use the funding, so I agree with that tactic to some extent.  I worry when it’s not a tactic.  People who don’t understand the ideas tend to underestimate it; extra awe is a useful corrective.  Readers who want to really understand the underlying technology should adjust filters accordingly.

Sanger’s invaluable contribution is framing the human elements.  Who funded what and when.  Who wound up in the papers and who didn’t.  How the people who move armies and conventional espionage resources view them.  For me, that’s an extremely illuminating view of the world.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Conquistador

Saturday, October 13th, 2018

Buddy Levy has put together a very readable history of Hernan Cortes and his battles and maneuvers with Montezuma, the Aztec Empire, and other Central American tribes.  It was a great beginning as I begin looking at Central and South America’s history.

Levy’s not the most inspirational writer, nor the deepest and most insightful researcher.  But he does know a great story when he hears it and tells it with clarity and alacrity.  He gets out of the way of history and sprays his spotlights on it in a remarkably even-handed way.

And it’s a crazy story from a modern perspective.  Tribal leaders bring a fantastic mix of motivations.  Sometimes they are modern and conventionally tactical.  Sometimes they make decisions that seem unfathomable because they have very different values.  For example, those shiny yellow rocks are interesting and fun to make jewelry out of, but so are tropical bird feathers.  Watching one side wheedle gold locations from the other who’s happy to point out feathers at the same level is fun.  There are more interesting ideological collisions, too.  The story doesn’t need much help.

A great introduction to the region and politics.  Strongly recommended.

Review: From Beirut to Jerusalem

Saturday, October 13th, 2018

Thomas Friedman spent years in the Middle East as a New York Times reporter who deeply absorbed the lay of that land in the 80’s.  Beirut is part reporting, part memoir from that time.  My impression was that it presents the facts from his solid reporting alongside his opinions, impressions, and feelings about those times.  I think there’s considerable value in all of these, but of course, proper calibration is key.

I found his description of the Assad regime’s destruction of Hama and subsequent massacre in 1981 eye-opening.  I was alive when it happened, but don’t recall the kind of outcry such events would deserve.  For me the massacre is in a crack between history and lived experience, and I completely failed to see it.  Beirut was worth it for Friedman’s harrowing chapter on that massacre. I cannot imagine how many Syrian rebels this created and how dedicated they are.  When you’ve seen a city’s population literally decimated in retaliation, surrender is very unattractive.

There’s plenty more in here that’s illuminating to understanding the current cauldron boiling there.  From the impressions of Arafat to the machinations and political gamesmanship of keeping them relevant to street level-impressions of Jerusalem that form the titular contrast with Beirut bring the area to life.  Of course, those are personal impressions, driven by Friedman.  He has – and admits – his own biases.  To the extent he understands them, of course.

The blend of reporting and impression is essential in understanding the state of play here.  Don’t trust all of it.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Visiting Tom

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

Michael Perry is one of my favorite writers. He consistently charms and challenges me by writing about small town life.  He does a fine job telling how people live together and how that lights up American life.

Not news.  If you like his other work, you’ll like this.  If you don’t know, have a look at Mr. Perry’s tale-spinning neighbor and tribulations with traffic laws.

Recommended.

Review: Sourdough

Monday, September 10th, 2018

I hadn’t noticed that Robin Sloan also wrote Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store as well.  Sourdough feels very much of the same world.  Like Penumbra, it’s steeped in Silicon Valley culture and somewhat more enamored of it than I am.  Sloan also puts an almost magical realism patina over it as well.  The story is as much a fable or fairy tale about fitting in and finding yourself as anything else.

The crotchety part of me wants to dismiss Sourdough as half-baked and unbelievable, but honestly Sloan’s writing is so charming that my crotchety self just gave up fighting about it. I’ll resist any bread and baking metaphors and leave you to enjoy.

Recommended.

Review: Founding Mothers

Friday, August 17th, 2018

I would be curious how a reader would react to Cokie Roberts’s  Founding Mothers without knowing the title or author.  The focus of Mothers is, well, mothers of course, but she keeps her beam wide enough to illuminate the key features of the Revolutionary period that makes these folks interesting.

One could easily read Mothers as a general history of the Revolution and only come away with two odd aspects.  First, few tactical details of the battles are in here.  There’s a time and a place for tactics, but so many people have written about those ideas and so little of it is relevant to anyone but military scholars (without a connection to something else that the tactics drive or influence), that I don’t miss them.  The other aspect a reader would certainly notice is that Roberts gives women their due.

What I find most remarkable about Mothers is that Roberts explores the contributions and viewpoints of the distaff side while keeping the overall context of a world of men and women firmly in view.  Other works that push women into the spotlight do so by making the acts that men have deleted from history or ascribed to men as bigger than they are.  That upsets men, but Roberts doesn’t have to pick that fight.  She tells the story of these women and their diverse positions and contributions without preaching about it.  These folks speak well for themselves when Roberts voices them; they don’t need any additional cheering from the sidelines of a modern agenda.

It’s a powerful approach, well executed.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Parable of the Talents

Saturday, 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.