Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

May 8th, 2022

Left Hand is another classic I have somehow missed to now, written by an acknowledged master, Ursula LeGuin. It was well worth it, even though it took a while.

It tells a great story with interesting characters that holds your attention. Like some other great SF, it balances a new environment and world building with adventure and character advancement. LeGuin displays a deft hand here, with both an engaging plot that features timely twists and an overall composition peppered with sparkling phrasing. It’s a great novel.

What impressed me even more than getting to read a great novel is how powerfully she manipulates ideas. She puts at least two fundamentally challenging ideas into the reader’s mind – how an expanding culture/nation can open relations with a fundamentally non-aggressive agenda and the extent to which rigid sexuality defines a society. I was even more impressed that she approached these ideas without resolving them. So much speculative fiction introduces such ideas in such a way that they are intrinsically bound with the author’s judgements on them. LeGuin builds an interesting story around these ideas that reaches a satisfying end without being inevitable.

I was left with the feeling that there were other ways that these theses could end, but not in the sense that they were sequels to this story. Both telling a great story and planting an intellectual seed is a remarkable feat.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Circling The Sun

April 3rd, 2022

Circling The Sun is fiction, but based fairly tightly on the life of famed aviator Beryl Markham. Basically none of the names have been changed to protect anyone and Paula McLain tells the whole story in the first person from Beryl’s perspective. The events are real, though I haven’t verified that she didn’t rearrange some for dramatic effect. The motivations and meanings are all speculative.

I’ve read Markham’s own memoir, West With The Night, and quite liked it. She’s a remarkable woman who led an nearly unbelievable life. She’s both one of the first woman bush pilots in Africa who set international records in aviation and one of the first women to train horses successfully in Africa. She’s one of the first, if not the first, women to be licensed in both of those areas. If that weren’t enough, she writes like a dream. I don’t know why you’d take his word for it over mine, but her book was praised by Ernest Hemmingway.

McLain does a fine job reproducing the feeling of Markham’s writing style, though McClain is writing about a different period of Markham’s life. This feels like the same writer to me, but not the same person. Elements of Markham’s style are there, but she’s not the same person yet. I was quite impressed.

The period in question is actually before she invested herself deeply in aviation, so if that’s the main lure for you, I suggest West With The Night instead. Other than that, I can’t think of a reason to stay away from Circling The Sun.

Strongly Recommended.

March is grap month

March 12th, 2022

OK, not really, but I have had someone inquire about using grap and a notice that it has been included in the Free Software Foundation’s Free Software Directory.

Fans of archaic typesetting software, rejoice!

Review: Hero of Two Worlds

March 6th, 2022

I didn’t know much about Lafayette before reading Mike Duncan’s biography, and I’m delighted to have that changed. Duncan’s a podcaster and his writing shows it. It’s lively and engaging and aimed at people whose time he competes for. I feel confident he could do justice to any figure he cares about, and he clearly seems to care about the Marquis de Lafayette.

The Marquis is a giant figure in American and French history. I mostly knew him as a military and diplomatic figure who played key, mostly behind the scenes, roles in the American Revolution. That’s true and well fleshed out by Duncan. He also points out how brushing shoulders with the American founders influenced him. In many ways he pulled in the purest forms of the stated ideals of the new republic.

His history in America was, if unsung, entirely positive. The founders and citizens of the new country embraced him. His time in France was trickier. He certainly brought the American ideals back to the brewing pot of revolution that was France. Applying his ideals to his homeland was much more complex. That was made more tricky by his inability to stay out of the fray.

He walked a path between endorsing and supporting the monarchy while pressing for a version of republicanism and human rights that exceeded those of the Americans. He was embraced and expelled at different times by the many shifting factions of that revolution. His fate ran the gamut from commanding the national guard to difficult imprisonment. Duncan traces this all with insight and clarity.

A compelling book about an incredible person.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Vallista

March 5th, 2022

I’m a fan of Steven Brust and his Taltos novels, of which this is one. As with all the other Taltos novels, on the surface it’s a snappy fantasy novel with a wise-guy protagonist. Magic, swords, and wisecracks abound. As with all the others, this has a tone, theme and form different from the others. This one is has the form of an escape room adventure. Vlad finds himself embroiled in a sorcererous puzzle without knowing why, how, or what the goals are. Kind of like waking up on Myst.

He’s resourceful so he quickly gets moving, and despite the air of confusion, the story moves smoothly along. Vlad is mostly alone, but he always has a wise-cracking familiar along and he’s narrating this to an as yet unknown interlocutor, so the humor and sharpness stick around.

As with so many of these novels, Brust’s mastery of the specific form and genre writing in general is so strong that if this story sounds like you’d like it, you’ll like it. But if you like to ruminate on these things and think about societal and personal themes there’s a lot to chew on.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Nothing is Wrong and Here is Why

March 5th, 2022

Alexandra Petri is fun to follow on twitter and well regarded as a humorist and satirist. Well enough that the Washington Post decided to publish a column written by her regularly. I dipped into her columns in this collection.

These columns are from the early years of the (First?) Trump administration. I think they were good fun at the time, but didn’t age well for me. The details and criticism all are on point, but for me the individual columns were not as distinct as I’d like. There’s a nice twitter snark to them and many a well-turned phrase, but they all seem to blur together after a while.

Review: Everything You Wanted To Know About Indians, but Were Afraid To Ask

March 5th, 2022

I wasn’t so much afraid to ask these questions, but didn’t have a lot of Native Americans sitting around to ask. And more to the point, there are a lot of different groups of Indians to ask. Anton Treuer does a fine job addressing a lot of questions I had – and I think many people will have – without oversimplifying.

Most of the answers are, “it depends.” The traditions, preferences, and history of the groups of Natives on the East Coast, The Dakotas, and the West are widely different which informs every answer. That alone is worth the experience of reading it.

Treuer writes clearly and plainly. There are no weasel words here, but a clear description of the state of the world.


Review: Talk To Me

December 5th, 2021

I picked up Talk To Me hoping to see what I love about T. Coraghessan Boyle’s writing and I got exactly what I was hoping for. He is a very talented and popular author whose work I really enjoy.

Boyle is a consummate plotter and writes beautifully and expressively. He has a keen sense of humor and a penchant for quirky topics. All of that delights me, but it’s not what fascinates me.

What fascinates me is that he writes with more empathy than almost any author I’ve read. Specifically, he regularly takes a character from the modern zeitgeist who seems heinous and writes about them in a way that makes the reader understand how they could commit the horrible acts that brought them to the public eye. He has a skill for making you understand them without supporting them. It’s a powerful superpower.

In Talk To Me he brings it to bear on a range of characters from chimpanzee language researchers like the folks who claim to have taught a gorilla to communicate with humans using sign language and the sorts of folks in Tiger King. There is all sorts of behavior going on that would be hard to swallow in a headline, but seems natural in Boyle’s hands. It’s also compelling, thought provoking and has a unique vibe.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: You Feel It Just Below The Ribs

November 29th, 2021

You Feel It Just Below The Ribs is a novel set in the Within The Wires world. As I mentioned in my Anthropecene Reviewed review, I tend to prefer podcasts when I have the choice, but I was so impressed by their pre-released excerpt that I ordered the novel. Jeffrey Cranor and Janina Matthewson claim that you don’t need to know anything about the podcast to enjoy the book, and I think that’s probably true. That said, I recommend Within The Wires wholeheartedly; also there’s a lot of Feel It that seems targeted at existing fans. You’ll understand it either way, but how much you enjoy it will depend on how much you like world-building.

While there is a lot of continuity service and world-building in Feel It, there’s plenty of style and substance independent of it. The world is an alternate history of the 20th Century, which lets the authors riff on the nature of human relations, families, and the societies they build. I think they’re very insightful about the world and use the medium effectively in entertaining and provoking thought in the same work.

The balance concerns between entertainment and provocation is possible because they write very effectively. One of the features that drew me into Within The Wires was their ability to creep up on an emotional bombshell while keeping me oblivious to what’s coming and then to drop that bomb in a short, casual phrase. This comes through it Feel It.

The other salient point is that all the Within The Wires stories are framed as found audio and they indulge their writing ability to give each season its own texture. They continue this strategy here, constructing a found autobiography annotated by the academic publisher. That publisher has its own agenda, and the reader is never fully trusting of the text.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Anthropcene Reviewed

November 28th, 2021

I fell in love with John Green’s Anthropecene Reviewed as a podcast. The podcast is a compelling combination of detailed exploration of seemingly incidental societal artifacts and revealing brave personal essay. This is obviously not for everyone. I loved the writing, research, and perspective he brings to these topics along with the boldness of revealing himself. I like his writing style and delivery as well.

The book is a pretty close transcription of these essays. The advantage is that if podcasts aren’t for you, you can still get to his writing. I personally prefer hearing him read, but you may enjoy reading these in the bathroom.

Either is Strongly Recommended.