Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

Review: Lords of the Realm

Sunday, October 13th, 2019

I heard a strong recommendation for John Helyar’s Lords of the Realm from an excellent baseball commentator, so I grabbed it. I did so with some trepidation. The subject is primarily off-field games – contract negotiations and labor relations – which is usually dead boring to me. I like to sit in the stands and bullshit, not compare player salaries.

I’m pleasantly surprised to report that Helyar brings the evolution of baseball’s labor situation to life very well. He manages to both animate the owners, union founders and leaders, and players. There is plenty of negotiation that feels specific to baseball. He also explains the labor issues clearly and insightfully. Whether you’re like me and love the game more, or a student of the finances, Lords is worth your time.

Recommended.

Review: In Patagonia

Thursday, September 26th, 2019

In Patagonia is a book that, like Desert Solitaire, captures a place but is not a travel book. Bruce Chatwin has written an ode to a people and place that he found himself drawn into.

Chatwin’s Patagonia is a desolate, supernatural place inhabited by loners, discards, and outlaws to which he was drawn by a possibly fictitious brontosaurous skin. The inhabitants are simultaneously historical, fictional, and contemporaneous giving the place a timelessness that few places can claim. The result is to place a real location outside into a magical realm.

It’s a beautiful and unique work.

Strongly recommended.

Review: War Dances

Sunday, September 8th, 2019

I really enjoy and appreciate Sherman Alexie’s poetry and short work that I’ve read. War Dances feels much the same as The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven in all the right ways.

I don’t have much else to say.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Private Empire

Friday, August 30th, 2019

Private Empire is a well-reported history of ExxonMobil’s history between the Exxon Valdez disaster and the first term of the Obama administration. Steve Coll does a fairly even-handed job of both documenting the corporate actions and animating them with the personalities who drive them.

One cannot approach the history of a corporation that acts on the scale of a nation in without some bias, but Coll is even handed enough that I believe that I got a clearer sense of the motivations of the players in the corporation. I came away with two insights: ExxonMobil policy is driven as much by the personalities of the executives who steer it as by the structure of the industry and market it exists in.

The corporation projects the economic mass of a nation channeled by a single industry and market. The industry leads the corporation to search into places with oil that one can get at. Getting at oil includes at least geology, changing technology, the government (or other organization) that controls the legal claims to that geology, and the public relations of getting access to it and selling it. As complex as the problem is, that is much more constrained than what drives nations. Under those constraints oil companies act in a pretty broad range of ways.

Coll argues that the personalites of the executives steer those actions. Over this period ExxonMobil was headed by basically two people: Lee Raymond and Rex Tillerson. Their mix of aggressive drive and Boy Scout upbringing led to more nuanced responses to their problems. The company’s expansion (including merging with Mobil) and geopolitical adventures (including responding to kidnappings and pulling a legal heist on the nation of Venezuela) are surprising in ways I approve and disapprove of. I understand them better having read this.

Seeing Tillerson as a cross between Boy Scout and Robber Baron makes his tenure as Secretary of State pretty surreal.

Recommended.

Review: Manuscript Found

Saturday, August 17th, 2019

Literary sources abound in the modern world. This book came to me as a Patreon perk from Nathaniel Lloyd’s Historical Blindness podcast. His podcast is worth its own review, but not here.

Manuscript Found is a historical novel told with a metafictive bent. Lloyd is writing a novel about Joseph Smith and the founding documents of Mormonism. He’s also commenting on both the contents of the historical record and how an author – or historian – injects their views into their writings. It’s a nice mix, though it can be a little dry and subtle.

Lloyd braids this with a thread about authors of documents exposing the workings of Masonry. I find that choice to be illuminating. Revealing the workings of a secret society and presenting the foundations of a religion that is particularly shrouded in silence raise questions about how each arise and address the release of them. Alongside that he presents other protagonists’ involvement with the Underground Railroad. The Railroad is another secretive historical society whose motivations for secrecy are driven primarily by practicality.

His use of a fictional historian relating the workings and motivations of those groups fleshes the ideas even a bit more. He challenges many preconceptions about history and people through the historian’s voice.

I found it very intellectually challenging and thought provoking, though less emotionally engaging than some. I’m reminded of Jimmy Carter’s fiction. I admire the thinking and structure behind it, but wold love some more dynamism.

Review: The History Of White People

Sunday, July 7th, 2019

As titles go, The History Of White People, is pretty confrontational. Nell Irvin Painter is definitely issuing a challenge with it, though one can choose to fight her, wrestle with the works she does, or with your own preconceptions. I advocate a bit of all three.

The history one hears is shaped by the perspectives and assumptions of the tellers. For many, this makes history – told with any passion or even sense of narrative at all – more engaging and illuminating than even the intricate nuts and bolts description of the technical systems that power the world. (The styles and content of technical and historical works do overlap and the best and worst of the two broad areas cross over.) Because histories can engage intellect and passion together, they can motivate readers to learn more and take action like few other writings. Readers need to remember that first sentence – all humans who write history bring their perspective to it. I can easily forget that, so I remind myself whenever I can.

I mention all that to underscore my admiration for Painter’s title. When a Black historian who is proudly African American releases a work with that title, she puts her ambitions and perspective squarely on the table. Painter is famous enough that she doesn’t need to be so brash just to sell books or gain attention. I take it to be a declaration of boldness framed with historical responsibility.

Painter certainly writes from her advertised position, recognizing that having come to fight she needs to support her positions carefully and with direct and clear connections to the original sources. She does so with aplomb and accuracy; her scholarship seems compelling.

I find her arguments to be generally sound and interesting. Her detailed and compelling deconstruction of the stunningly broad range of eugenic race theory is rich in detail and merciless in prosecution. Given how subjective and malicious this body of work is, this is shooting fish in a barrel. She expands her assessment into the literary and historical – giving Emerson a few sharp kicks in the shins that challenges the reader to reassess his writing and biases. She convinced me that there’s a fair amount more bathwater around Emerson’s babies than I remember. If and when I wade back into those tubs, I’ll be looking with a more jaundiced eye.

Her writing style is well suited to this kind of exploration and challenge. She writes clearly and precisely, connecting solidly to primary sources and also providing the occasional cutting comments that remind readers how biased and self-serving the overall picture is. I imagine that some will find her style dry, but I respect the tightrope she walks. For my money, the writing matches perfectly.

Recommended.

Review: The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet

Saturday, July 6th, 2019

I picked this up as a result of an offhand recommendation on the History Is Sexy podcast, and I’m pretty happy I did. It’s somewhat off my usual path, even in the scope of SF. It’s space opera writ small in that we see operatic machinations from a ground-level view. Becky Chambers handles it all deftly.

World building gets great respect from some SF fans, me often included. These days I tend to value world building that forms a milieu that frames the societal or technical aspects of the world that are the target of the author’s themes. Chambers brings just the right amount of detail to her world to make it believable and habitable without making it so complex that it is distracting. Her universe abstracts ours to make her characters and their trials and tribulations shine.

Her focus is on the people who are making a living by trading in an opening galaxy, the bonds they form as they ply their trade, and the ways that big events toss them about. It’s quite a refreshing approach. She makes our society alien enough to see in new ways and familiar enough to be relatable. It’s quite a joy to bond with the family taking shape even as it continues to evolve.

Recommended.

Review: Operation Mincemeat

Friday, June 21st, 2019

I am a pretty big fan of history, but I find myself gravitating to the histories that cover longer timeframes or individual lifetimes. A friend recommended Ben MacIntyre’s history of a classic act of disinformation, Operation Mincemeat which is neither. I went in with a bit of trepidation.

I should not have worried. MacIntyre’s writing is extremely engaging and lively. He coveys the idea that a team of eccentric, mostly patriotic, enthusiastic British intelligence officers came up with an idea just crazy enough to work that would enable one of the key landings in WWII. He balances the giddy rush of lets-put-on-a-show with the tension of a tight Mission Impossible episode. Also Weekend At Bernie’s.

MacIntyre has been writing about British Intelligence long enough to have found some of the most colorful members of it. There’s something inherently charming about a team that includes Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, and Graham Greene – skilled intelligence experts who are also talented writers. None of those folks are center stage of Mincemeat, but the folks who are involved have their own quirk and wit. And conflicted motivations. MacIntyre tells their story whimsically and with scholarly backing.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Apocalypse Codex

Saturday, June 15th, 2019

Back to The Laundry.

My admiration for Charles Stross’s work in general and the Laundry books specifically is sizable and enduring. I love the mix of spy thriller, horror, and organization management review. All the computer science, networking, IT, and aviation references help a lot, of course. Great fun for me.

The Apocalypse Codex shows off Stross’s world-building and attention to the clockwork of plot. I didn’t come away with the same feeling of gleeful pastiche that I have in other Laundries, but I came away with a deeper understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes in the world.

One way that manifests itself is in Stross’s understanding and explication of the world of megachurches, both functionally and philosophically. The view is – perhaps surprisingly – sympathetic. The details of the way the church administration blends faith and business practices are clear and believable. It extends to the implicit comparison with the application of similar constraints and techniques inside the Laundry. Some of these practices and motivations are inherently exploitative. Stross lets neither organization off the hook for that. The social criticism of both Megachurches and National Intelligence Services is subtle, but pointed.

Meanwhile, Bob Howard is becoming a more mature and responsible manager of people and himself. Stross blends the natural ripening of a human with the guidance and discipline of the (faith-influenced?) organizational management styles in believable ways that are enjoyable, subtle, and worth reflection.

Finally, there are some plot twists for the series that make one gasp in the how-did-I-miss-that way that great spy writers can pull off.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Always Running

Monday, April 15th, 2019

Crux was a memoir that derived its impact from the literary framing that Guerrero put on her family’s story. In Always Running, Luis Rodriguez comes at his memoir from another direction. He tells his story plainly – starkly in places. That clean, simple approach lets his times and his perspective imbue his experience with heft and meaning.

Rodriguez writes crisply and evocatively without poetical flourishes that might distract from his narrative. Much of his point is that so many shared his circumstances and faced their own difficulties, victories, and tragedies all around him. Directly relating his life and the others it touches magnifies it.

That said, the differences that inspire him to challenge his readers and his society are all the more powerful because they seem so small at first. A few little choices mean the difference between a life of petty violence and a life of social reform. His life and his friends’ lives are continually balanced on a razor’s edge.

Recommended.