Archive for June, 2014

Review: The Fuller Memorandum

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

The Fuller Memorandum is another Library Files novel from Charles Stross. I like the Laundry Files because they seem like Stross is having great fun writing them.  On their surface they’re exciting stories set in a well-imagined modern fantasy setting seasoned with the sorts of geek culture that appeal to me.  They’re much more than simple time-wasters, though.  Each one I’ve read so far is actually an almost mimetic commentary on some form of adventure genre or author.  The Jennifer Morgue played with the James Bond franchise with verve and insight.  The earthy, trust no one spy thriller a la LeCarre gets the business here.

Accordingly, the mood in Fuller is more oppressive than in Jennifer.   If Fleming and his cinematic heirs  are escapist, LeCarre and his camp are brutalist. Bringing the same set of characters through those sets of tone is a beautiful display of  writing skill.  Sometimes I think that Stross started writing these to practice exactly that sort of flexibility.  If so, he’s gotten remarkably good at it.

In addition to putting the Laundry folks through a wringer where actions have more consequences and trust is scarce, Stross shows us the whole Laundry world from a more depressing angle.  The feeling of whistling past the graveyard is more one of staring thoughtfully at the stones.  A universe with such a Lovecraftian epistemology is bound to be depressing, and the tone lets Stross run with it.

All of this is actually quite fun, though a different kind of fun than Jennifer. Everyone is still recognizable as the engaging characters from other Laundry novels, and there are still plenty of winks, nods, and in-jokes running around.  In addition to the (meta-)commentary, it’s a taut modern fantasy thriller.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Thank You For Your Service

Monday, June 16th, 2014

David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service shows us a cost of war that’s easy to miss or to misunderstand.  While there is an element of polemic to Service, this is a much deeper book than a simple call to arms.  Finkel is able take us into the lives of soldiers who have suffered horrifically in war but have also done so invisibly.  They are invisible because their wounds are internal.  They bear the traumas of nightmare experiences and of physical but internal brain injuries.

I’m not the writer or the journalist that Finkel is, so this review contains a lot of my conclusions from taking what he showed me and rolling it around in my head for a while.  Essentially I’m cooking in my biases and handing that information out. All readers of Service will do this. They will be able to do that because Finkel has been absorb the lives of these people and to depict them unflinchingly.  He has his biases, certainly, but his presentation is multi-faceted and nuanced.  One comes away with an understanding of the mammoth scope of the damage done, the people fighting to make it better, and the enormous and unexpected challenges facing the damaged and those trying to help.

One of the key things Finkel shows is how real the injuries of these people are.  It is difficult to explain how experiences that leave no physical marks are as debilitating and as clinical as amputations. I suspect many of you are not convinced by these sentences, which is why it’s worth reading his.  Initial skepticism – warranted though it may be – just cannot reasonably hold up against the unrelenting evidence that one sees when you follow these people for a while.  Basic functions of their brains are impaired; the evidence becomes too much to ignore. These aren’t touchy-feely or subtle injuries.  They are as clear and obvious as a severed limb once you take the time to look.  Finkel took the time to look and presents the facts in ways that cannot be ignored.

The resources being spent to fix these problems are woefully small compared to the problem.  One suspects that the people handing out the money don’t completely understand that these are real battlefield injuries, not people who are just sick of war.  In addition to having to face life damaged, the survivors are fighting to get even the smallest assistance learning to compensate for their injuries. Facing that with damaged brains only makes matters worse.

Finkel also alludes to a bigger problem.  It’s clear that even with all the money in the world we just don’t know how to help these people.  These people’s brains are damaged in ways no oone knows how to fix.  They will never have proper memory function again; we don’t know how to reset that breaker.

All of this makes this human cost more clear and tragic – there are many, many soldiers from our wars who are permanently and invisibly damaged.  Their injuries crush them, their spouses, and their friends while making it appear that they are merely irresponsible, not permanently injured.  The resources to help them are well beyond inadequate, but even with infinite resources, we don’t know what to do.

We need to stop doing this to people if we can avoid it.

All of this Finkel shows us without lecturing us.  He makes us figure it out and see it ourselves.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Young Money

Monday, June 16th, 2014

Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple was one of the most insightful and compassionate books I’ve read. Once you see a writer produce something like that, you have to give his next book a read no matter what.  Young Money is a look at entry level jobs on Wall Street and the people who took them in the middle of the biggest downturn since the Great Depression.

We start by meeting a set of new financiers who were willing to let Roose “embed” with them for a couple years of writing.  It’s clear that he was looking for a diverse lot, and does well at finding them.  He finds several women and minorities as well as people well off the Ivy League path that so often leads to these particular corridors of power. Roose connects us to these folks quickly and believably, and takes us with them on their trip into (and maybe back out of) high finance.

In addition we get a look at the combination of hazing, indoctrination, and training that is the entry level Wall Street experience.  Though Roose does his best to bring out the unique aspects of Wall Street, I was often struck by how much the young peoples’ experience resembled my graduate school experience.  Long hours, busy work, demands placed on you just to get you to demonstrate loyalty – yep, been there.  Of course, I wasn’t making $100K and living in New York, but …

All of this is well done and informative, but the key facet that Roose brings to this whole endeavour is his humanism and compassion.  The reader can tell that his biases are to dislike these folks.  He wants them to be greed-driven pirates who would run the country’s economy into the ground to gather money.  But he can’t do it.  Much as he did at Liberty University, he cannot stop seeing these story elements as young people.  He never loses their humanity.

They have their faults, and Roose puts those out there honestly.  But even when he’s relating the most boorish behavior exhibited by the most entrenched Wall Street villains – who probably did wreck the economy to make a fast buck – he can’t demonize them.  It’s a powerful skill and helps the book and the reader maintain a sense of perspective about the subject and the system.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Bad Monkey

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

I like reading Carl Hiaasen’s writing.  It’s always smooth, clear, and seasoned with perfect sentences.  His heroes are loveable rogues who wander the magical land of South Florida, savoring its beauty; his villains are short-sighted opportunists out to metaphorically strip-mine the place.  The plots are dazzling clockwork that brings these elements together in a charming dance.

The particulars always differ some, food inspectors as agents of justice, bilking Medicare instead of gouging hurricane victims, but the essential elements of a Hiaasen novel are all here.  Enjoy.  I did.


Review: Spillover

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

It is easy alarm people over the possibility of a pandemic.  The mass media does it every cold and flu season, which made me a little leery of David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections And The Next Human Pandemic. I was pleasantly surprised.  This is an informative, well-reasoned and researched book about epidemiology.  Admittedly, this is a niche.

Quammen spends all of Spillover tromping the globe describing different diseases that have jumped from other species to mankind, with differing severe effects.  Outbreaks of Ebola or Hendra, frightening though they can be are usually isolated and small events; AIDS has been a widespread slow burn. Along the way he introduces us to the people who study these things and the techniques they use.

He also builds the edifice of our current understanding for the reader.  He describes how diseases can primarily live in a reservoir host for decades and why they can be more virulent when they jump species.  We also learn why diseases that have such a safe haven are harder to eradicate.  AIDS and ebola can hide in their animal reservoirs; polio and smallpox cannot.  There is much more to our understanding than that simple fact, and Spillover does a good job building up that understanding.

The writing is technical.  Quammen expects his readers to be comfortable with science and a little math, but he has a real knack for the illustrative example.  He also is good at pointing out the salient aspects of a mathematical or scientific principle, even if the reader doesn’t know the full principle.

The only thing that disappointed me about the book was that there’s no introduction that sets a road map for the book.  You have to sort of trust Quammen that he’s got a point or two and that they will emerge over the course of the lengthy text.  They do, but given the size of the tome and the occasionally daunting technical content, a goal would have helped.