Archive for June, 2020

Review: The Bicycle Diaries

Saturday, June 27th, 2020

The Bicycle Diaries was an unexpected gem.

This is a discursive window into David Byrne‘s thoughts, tied together by some connection to his experiences commuting by bicycle in cities around the world. I’m generally interested in people’s bicycling impressions, so I decided to check it out.

Byrne turns out a fascinating and thought-provoking collection of essays about bikes, art, human nature, urbanization and gentrification, music, and a few more topics I can’t recall at the moment. These are organized by the cities in which his commutes sparked the thoughts. They’re too well written to be off-the-cuff, but each one gives the impression of sitting down with an articulate friend in a coffee shop or bar and catching up. Though he usually starts from bicycling, he often winds up somewhere unexpected, which is the way many of my rides go, too.

That kind of format only works when the author has interesting things to say, and Byrne does. I found him surprisingly honest and forthright. He puts some ideas and observations on the page that a more timid author would shy away from for fear of offending people. I found all of his thoughts worth chewing on, even when I disagreed or quibbled about how he expressed them. My only regret was that I couldn’t actually converse with him.

A must.

Review: Spying On The South

Friday, June 19th, 2020

Tony Horwitz is one of my favorite writers on rural America. Michael Perry and Bill Bryson tell a romantic story of small towns that I do bask in, but Horwitz is less varnished. Everyone has a bias, but I find that Horwitz presents people he meets as people with all their faults and merits. It’s a bracing reminder that we share the country with human beings and not position papers.

Spying recounts another Horwitz trek across the country, stopping and talking with people. He has a knack for highlighting the most personal and historical areas he finds.

He hangs his book on following the route of Frederic Law Olmsted who wrote a series of articles about touring the South before the Civil War. He mostly walked the road and just talked to people and wrote. Journalistic standards were more lax then, so Horwitz assesses those stories skeptically. Olmsted was a staunch abolitionist and he both documented and supported efforts to overturn slavery on those trips. He’s an unreliable narrator, but an interesting route generator.

Most of Spying is Horwitz working his interviewing and exploring magic, and I enjoyed it. There is a surprisingly long section where he reprises the plot of City Slickers while seeming completely oblivious to that movie’s existence. Skip it if you don’t want to see a non-Jack-Palance cattle drive without the cattle. Overall I learned a lot and enjoyed the book.

Strongly recommended.

Grap release

Wednesday, June 10th, 2020

If you’re looking for another harbinger of the End Times, consider this grap release. The changes are minor, but the code is now available from github.


Review: Station Eleven

Saturday, June 6th, 2020

Station Eleven comes with an excellent pedigree. Emily St. John Mandel’s novel was nominated for many awards – winning several – and got a shout out from the folks at Make Me Smart. It’s partially based in a post-pandemic world, which resonates with the current times pretty strongly.

Even without the timely topical resonances, it’s quite a good book. She’s written a nice combination of plot-driven mystery in the vein of Crash or Magnolia, post-apocalyptic page turner, celebrity send-up, and meditation on the role of art in societies both pre- and post-industrial. That’s a lot of balls to keep up in the air, and she does it with brio.

The structure is impeccable and the writing is quite lively. There’s a lot to like here, but beyond the resonances with my current safer-at-home perspective, it never caught fire for me. That’s strange and frustrating for me to conclude. Analytically, I can point at a lot of great features of this book, but nothing brought it alive for me. I guess I chalk it up to the magic of art. If it does sound like something you’d life, do give it a try. As I say, I think it’s very well done. It may pop for you in a way it did not for me.