Archive for the ‘What’s New’ Category

Review: The Forever War

Sunday, 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: The Annihilation Score

Friday, May 4th, 2018

I’m a fan of Stross‘s Laundry Files. Most of my reviews of the series don’t have much to add to those links.  Annihilation Score marks an interesting point for me in that it is set in the same universe but from a different character’s viewpoint.  I was drawn in to the world partially by the computer science in-jokes, so it’s compelling and interesting to see the world without those references.  Stross carries it out well, showing us how the Laundry looks from an academic woman’s perspective.  He doesn’t miss a beat.


Review: Unexpected Stories

Friday, April 27th, 2018

I’ve often talked about my love of SF short story collections, and this small collection fits the bill.  It is only two stories, but they would be at home in any reasonable showcase. Octavia Butler is quite brilliant, and acquits herself well in these early tales.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the collection is the faint praise that Walter Mosley gives the stories in his forward.  From what he says these are a couple stories of primarily academic interest.  And he’s correct, in a sense. Butler later writes much more important and deep works.

I found it is powerful to look at these stories as expositions of craft.  Deep thoughts don’t matter if you can’t hold a reader’s attention. Butler’s craft is unparalleled. She gors on to bigger things, but these are diverting, interesting, stories with real meat.  It is only her later triumphs that dim the praise.


Review: A Colony in a Nation

Sunday, April 15th, 2018

In A Colony in a Nation, Chris Hayes made me reframe my thinking on several topics that I thought I’d thoroughly understood. It’s always hard to lead people to seeing things new ways, and more so when you have an interest, some study, and strong opinions.  The topic here is how people – mostly white American people – treat people different from them.  The topic is incendiary and the sides dug in.  Hayes is in the midst of this as an MSNBC commentator and journalist, and it is tempting to dismiss his views from that bias.  I think that would be unwise.  Agree or disagree with his conclusions, he repeatedly shifts the camera to reveal facts one knows from a new perspective.  Every chapter of this made me reconsider ideas I thought I understood completely.

Part of this is his eloquent and effective writing.  He corrals ideas effectively and channels the reader’s impressions powerfully.

Finally, and crucially, Hayes resists any urges he might have to suggest quick fixes.  He’s looking at the system that makes up our society and admits his complicity without condemning himself – or anyone else – for being part of it.  Despite that, he does not leave anyone off the hook either.  It’s a powerful position.

A must.

Review: Hunt for the Skinwalker

Sunday, April 8th, 2018

I read a lot when I was a kid, reinforced by being pretty good at school.  When you read all the assignments you get sent to the library to “read quietly.” Reading quietly was a treat for me – a way to explore the world from a small town.  I read lots of stuff, including things like collections of ghost stories and UFO investigations.  I also read histories of science and Norse mythology.  Don’t judge me.

Hunt for the Skinwalker would fit nicely on the bookshelf of my past next to say this charmer.  It purports to be a scientific investigation of a bunch of UFO/ghost stories coming out of a Utah ranch investigated by a set of folks called the National Institute for Discovery Science. It’s a book of common conspiracy and UFO stories and the unconvincing investigation that follows.

I wound up reading it based on a mention from The Desert Oracle.  The Oracle is an unflinchingly weird view of art, rumors, and craziness in the western deserts. As a tour of the particular rumors that form in the desert, Skinwalker is a fine example.  Beyond that there’s not much here.

I do have to say that “skinwalker” is a cool name for an Navajo shapeshifter.  So, two things.

Praise to the Cast

Saturday, March 31st, 2018

“That’s the impossible middle ground we’ve established for ourselves,” (or something like it) is how Kevin Porter, who hosts the Good Christian Fun podcast with Caroline Ely, describes their work.  The conceit is that the hosts and some guests review items from Christian-targeted pop culture and toss out their impressions.  Along the way they talk about their relationship to American Evangelical Christianity.  Both of them grew up attached to the Church in different ways though – as they freely admit – neither has the resume to be talking about any of professionally.

That’s the aspect I find charming about it.

Both are young socially liberal folks who care about their religion.  They freely and deeply share their doubts and moments of affirmation.  And some appalling popular culture.

It reaffirms my faith in people to hear personable, openly religious people who care about justice and decency.  If you feel like you need a dose of that now and again, come check it out.

Review: Louie, Take A Look At This

Friday, March 30th, 2018

Luis Fuerte is Huell Howser‘s collaborator and camera operator who worked with him on many iconic shows across Howser’s storied career.  In many ways it’s a straight ahead memoir that shows great respect for both his collaborator and their shared work.  If you’re looking for tales out of school, don’t look here.

What are here are telling details of how creators become collaborators.  Luis has a real touch for describing the unspoken dance that emerges as he learns to trust Howser’s storytelling instincts and interview skills and Howser comes to appreciate Fuerte’s composition skills and operational brio.

It is not deep, but is diverting.

Review: Locking Up Our Own

Friday, March 30th, 2018

James Forman, Jr. is a defense attorney and community activist in the District of Columbia who has been in the courts’ trenches.  Inspired by the toll that decisions of the last 50 years have taken on people he has met, he relates a well researched history of national and DC criminal law.  There are a many books that wade into this history and tell similar stories.  Forman brings a fascinating matter-of-factness to the issues.

He is clear that DC’s environment is driven by the forces that drive DC’s nascent black-driven power structure.  DC unique in that its government is essentially formed in this time.  Until the 1970’s the city was administered half-heartedly by Congress.  In 1973 Congress cedes control to a locally elected government.  Because the populace was largely black, so was the government.

Despite that unique formation and evolution, the DC drug possession and gun violence laws are among the most draconian.  DC is a “law-and-order” style city despite that phrase often signifying such laws imposed by whites.  Forman delves into his memories and the historical record to show how class, violence, and the drug epidemic all combined into the powerful brew from which those laws emerge.  His research and ability to connect it to his own experiences is fascinating.

His sense of balance also restrains him from looking for quick fixes to the complex problems those laws have engendered.  He never claims the easy answer or the simple motivation.  That sort of balance is rare and valuable.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Gnomon

Sunday, March 18th, 2018

Gnomon mashes up several genres – police procedural, technothriller, heist movie, historical fantasy, and a few others that are harder to name – into a sparkling oroboros of an SF masterwork.  That is a genre that often shines a light onto today’s society by turning a knob past 11.  Here, Nick Harkaway twists the knob of privacy and surveillance past the peg and we’re off to the races.

He does a nice job building a world that’s believable enough to spark ideas and arguments without distracting overly much from those ideas.  And the ideas and allusions start coming fast.  The magic is that those genres and allusions spotlight the ideas in addition to obfuscating them.  Ideological sounds ring out and randomly reverberate more deeply as Gnomon progresses.

Gnomon is rich with ideas inside and calls outside its universe; those ideas reverberate, rattle, and ultimately pervade the genres and entangled narratives that form it. Those narratives outline the ideas of self, democracy and representation, persuasion and coercion, and privacy.  The multi-genre, multi-narrative style shows how these ideas dance with and tussle against one another. By wrapping them in various forms of story and literature, Harkaway makes them elemental.

Now allusion and reverberation is all well and good, but if the story doesn’t engage people, it’s pointless.  Gnomon is pointed.  Each arc is propulsive on its own terms and spiced with the questions and tension of figuring out how it all connects to the others.

Hardaway’s Gnomon was one of the best things I’ve read in a long time both for thinking and for fun.

A must.

Review: The Doomsday Machine

Saturday, March 17th, 2018

Daniel Ellsberg walks in controversy.  Specifically he’s an anti-war activist who has made a life’s work out of exposing the internal operations of the US government.  He’s the person who stole and published the Pentagon Papers, internal documents describing Vietnam War internal motivations and policies.  He believed that the government behaving hypocritically and risked his freedom to draw attention to those policies and actions.  Despite that playing out when I was a child, it’s still controversial.

Whatever you might think of him, Ellsberg is consistent. In Doomsday Machine he continues to speak out about what he believes are immoral government policies.  Doomsday Machine aims at US nuclear policy throughout his tenure in the government.  Unfortunately he doesn’t have the physical copies of the documents he cites, which means readers have to treat Doomsday as a memoir.  He does make some pretty serious accusations about how branches of the government and military are competitive when they should be cooperative.  He claims that military branches routinely misrepresented the intelligence they had about the USSR to the State Department and the President.

I’m making that sound more diplomatic that Ellsberg does.  I don’t have any idea what the truth of the matter was in the 1960’s and 70’s much less now.  Still, these stakes are high and as a call for transparency, I find it compelling.

There’s a second half of Doomsday that Ellsberg devotes to persuading readers that the concept of mutually assured destruction through nuclear war – or any such extermination system – is unsound.  He does a nice job of bringing that home, IMHO, and it’s certainly worth deep thoughts.  It is natural to mentally distance yourself from the destructive power that a doomsday machine entails, and Ellsberg reminds you that the plan is to kill as many people as possible.  People have to decide for oneself if there’s a benefit worth that price, but I think there’s real value in seeing the price clearly.

Doomsday is certainly a reflective surface.  Readers will see themselves as much as Ellsberg in it – know it or not – but as a nucleation site for these ideas, I think it’s worthwhile.