Review: What’s Wrong With The World

May 9th, 2020

One of these days I’m going to send a forensic team in to figure out how these sorts of random books show up in my library wish list. I suppose it would be nice if there were some sort of elves in the stacks tagging e-books for me, but I think it’s just random late night browsing.

This is G. K. Chesterton opining on the state of English society in 1910 or so, and it’s massively frustrating for me. He consistently writes concise, charming sentences that invite novel thoughts but they connect to reach conclusions with which I disagree. For instance, he writes in support of the position that women should be restricted to domestic roles because that strengthens society. I dropped three or four of his supporting sentences into my quotes file because they make fun of patriarchical structures in society and men’s bluster in support thereof, but I think those structures are anachronistic.

I actually hope that this is satire and I’m missing the point.

It’s a good reminder that great writing does not imply support for my values.


Review: University Park, Los Angeles: A Brief History

May 2nd, 2020

I keep picking up Chris Epting books from the various Los Angeles libraries. This time my local county library enticed me into it.

University Park is very much in the same vein as Victorian Los Angeles. It is driven by the architecture of the area Epting is looking at. That approach has its power; he’s described several places I plan to visit on future jaunts around LA. However, the narratives and personalities of the history makers get less attention that I prefer in a history.

Very good for an architecture-driven history.

Review: Agency

May 2nd, 2020

Agency takes place in the same continuity as The Peripheral, and it surprised me again. This time the surprise was how resilient the setting turned out to be.

Gibson has often turned his mind toward anthropomorphizing artificial and collective intelligences. He has a remarkable skill at making that dry idea engaging and entertaining. He makes robots human like no one else.

His artificial intelligence is the star of the show and he primarily uses the thriller plot of Agency to illuminate that intelligence’s emergence and maturity from multiple perspectives. One of the things that delights me about this is that he makes his human characters real and interesting enough that their perspectives are authentic and enhance his ideas about artificial life.

Beyond this extended character study, Gibson is an SF master who also cheerfully throws out other ideas to play with along the way. He’s also quite good at constructing the thriller that underlies all of this.

While I liked it quite a bit, I don’t think it’s his most profound work. It is very entertaining and very engaging – emotionally and intellectually – but he has been even deeper. That may say more about how I rate the quality of his other work.


Review: The Body

April 4th, 2020

Bill Bryson turns a beautiful phrase. He also organizes a great book and executes it quite brilliantly. He’s funny and informative and as a writer has few equals.

I particularly love his travel writing and his memoirs. They’re warm and funny and informative.

His science writing tends to leave me cold. I think I miss the personal connection of lived experience that he brings to his other writing. The Body isn’t for me.

Review: In The Dream House

March 22nd, 2020

Carmen Maria Machado has brought a remarkably powerful work into the world with In The Dream House. Any short summary would belie the honesty, power, and craft she employed. That said, it’s a memoir of her years as a victim in an abusive relationship.

Abuse is complicated, layered and yet invites simple judgement from us. Everyone has preconceptions about what it is and perhaps insight from being involved. Whether the reader believes that one brings it on oneself or that the abusers are possessed by overriding malice or many many other explanations, each person and relationship differs.

Machado tells her story in tiny, bite-sized chapters that slowly cohere into the narrative. They also cohere into an introduction to her remarkable mind. She has dissected her experience deeply from many angles. Each chapter is a facet of those thoughts, captured at different moments in time and reflecting aspects of the situation. That creates bounds around her experience that neither define or encapsulate it. Other people’s experience is never our own, and Machado doesn’t let us believe so. The corral she draws around the thing clarifies it remarkably.

She attacks the thing from so many perspectives. She is a scholar of the literature and the statistics. She is a queer woman living with her understanding of others’ assumptions and judgements. She has dug deeply into how those preconceptions have shaped her own ideas of her identity. She is a hurt child. She is a Star Trek fan. She is a literary scholar. She is a young, sociable college student. She is a writer. And so, so, much more. She is a human, and one I find remarkable.

I have to stress hat last facet – being a writer – because she is a remarkable one. Each of these facets is a gem in itself. The memories are evocative and poetic. The musings are clear while capturing the thoughts that led her to them. The scholarship is professional. And the whole thing intertwines in ways that make it all more of what each is.

A must.

Review: To A God Unknown

March 22nd, 2020

To A God Unknown contains a simple narrative presented with all the complexity and style that literature can muster. I have not read a lot of Steinbeck, and I’m surprised how much of the human condition he can illuminate with his spare, direct prose.

Unknown lays out the characters and their lives without obvious artifice, but it’s pretty hard to miss the symbolic role they are to play. Everyone is iconic here, and the stakes are both trivial – a single family ranch in Central California – and monumental. The ranch is nothing to the world and everything to these people. The events are pedestrian in that any rancher can relate and lyrical in that no one can explain them. The characters play their literary roles in the drama without deviation while stinking of humanity.

The result is a powerful concoction. I didn’t wind up caring a lot about what happened to these characters, but I did come away with a lot of empathy for the people whose lives are at the whims of the ineffable.

Steinbeck also opens the door to think about how people think about and try to bargain with the ineffable. No conclusions, but lots to think about, if you are of that mind. And I certainly am.


I went to the grocery today

March 13th, 2020

A trip to by some food and firewood is not worth posting about, but with the COVID-19 outbreak and response, I think it is. I was reaffirmed and calmed by the trip. I found a business well-stocked with food and other supplies – modulo an absolute dearth of toilet paper – filled with people being served in orderly lines.

Lines were long. I spent close to an hour and a half in line, but I passed the time in a delightful conversation with a couple of fellow citizens. We talked about quite a lot, but it really took off when the two others realized that they were fellow poker players. I learned quite a bit about local cardrooms and even less official venues where local folks play. I admit I was surprised that the cheerful grandma I’d been chatting with was such a knowlegable and succesful player. The fellow behind me bought a business that he still runs based on his winnings from a bowling tournament. He copped to only playing games for money.

One of the reasons I wrote this post is to report my experience. Some of the reports in my media bubble made shortages sound more widespread. I had stopped for the same items I bought today last night and I was alarmed to see the full parking lot and long lines. I knew I had what I needed, and bailed for home. I admit I was frightened by last night’s surprise, and left before I’d sized up the situation. Today’s trip restored a lot of my faith in people and in our community.

Stay safe, all. Follow preventative advice and be kind to your neighbors.

Review: The Lady From The Black Lagoon

February 17th, 2020

The Lady From The Black Lagoon delivered a powerful blend of ingredients that come together to make a new, delightful tale. I was expecting a conventional biography of an underappreciated woman whose significant contributions to the movies were predictably underplayed by the various old boys networks. Lady delivers the goods here, with meticulous research of Milicent Patrick’s career. Casual fans of monster movies, like me, probably don’t know her name but almost certainly know the results of her brilliant creation: the creature design and costume from The Creature From The Black Lagoon. The confluence of studio politics, ego mania, and internalized patriarchy erased her indelible mark on the movies and a big part of Lady is an attempt to start redressing that.

Any figure who had been treated so harshly by the people in the industry she was such a big part of would be a worthy topic such a biography. That Milicent turns out to be a larger-than-life personality is an added delight. Mallory O’Meara brings her vividly to life.

But wait, it gets even better. O’Meara meshes Patrick’s story with her own story of building a new life in Los Angeles and researching the biography of Patrick. This plan is as brilliant as it is daring. It works because O’Meara composes and expresses her intertwined memoir with power, compassion, and clarity.

Her voice is a distinctive combination of confidence, honesty, and whimsy. She describes the process of learning the ad hoc methods of historical research as she works through Patrick’s story. She links that story with her own career in the same industry and how it mirrors her idol’s experiences. She also shares the ways that the experiences of writing the book prompted deep self-reflection and how it changed her.

O’Meara composes and expresses these competing threads of biography and memoir with moving panache. She is an excellent writer with a vivid voice.

A must.

Review: How To

February 2nd, 2020

The physics nerds that I know – and I know a couple – approach problems along similar distinctive pathways. They tend to try to break an obstacle down into fundamental principles, translate it into mathematics, and methodically explore the whole set of possibilities in those formulas. If your mind doesn’t work like that, it sounds like a deadly dull process.

Randall Monroe gleefully proves that idea wrong in How To.

The premise is that he approaches some simple, practical problems with a whimsically amplified version of the stereotypical physics nerd mindset. the result is an impish set of a completely impractical explorations of mathematical modeling. The trick is that he has so much fun laying out and working through these models that readers are sucked into the pleasures of analysis.

Again, that sounds much duller than it is. Anyone who is interested in math or science will find themselves quickly sucked in. I hope that people who don’t think they are will feel the pull as well.

Strongly recommended.

Review: How Do We Look?

February 1st, 2020

This is kind of an interesting beast in that it is an adaptation of two British TV episodes on a remake of a well regarded series, Civilization. Dame Beard’s focus is on how ancient art reflects humanity’s impressions of their bodies and their gods.

It does have the nature of a breezy overview that short episodic television often has. Within that framework, she makes several thought-provoking points. I also appreciated how she pointed out artistic movements and shifts that may correlate with philosophical shifts. I’m no expert on ancient art, but this has whetted my appetite to learn more.