Review: Little Fires Everywhere

January 20th, 2018

For my money Celeste Ng is one of the most complete writers working today.  She always spins an interesting yarn that sucks you in.  She’s more than just a raconteur, though.  When I look at her work more broadly, the plot structure is clear and concise.  The key points are all balanced and adorned with just enough ornamentation for relief and contrast.  The sections, chapters, and paragraphs all serve the story.  And the whole story is built from charming – occasionally gorgeous – prose.

That narrative comprises themes and imagery amplified by repeating motifs. These school below the surface, reinforcing the ideas and emotions without distracting from them.  The themes Ng explores are complex and powerful enough that her multicultural and multifaceted views find plenty of traction.  She lights new ideas in those themes and points out the path to long standing takes.  She lays out a solid intellectual meal.

Her thematic exploration is literary and lively. Metaphor and imagination rule here.  Her precise prose leads readers through these oblique and attractive path to the underlying ideas without detracting from the literary scenery.  She is masterful in both her choices of images and her execution.

I worry that when I praise a writer like I’m an English teacher I turn potential readers away.  Fires is interesting and dramatic to read.  It’s fun.

Strongly recommended.

Listening List 2017

January 6th, 2018

As a companion to my 2017 reading list, here’s the podcasts I listen to and why.

  • NPR’s Up First: This is basically the day’s headlines from Morning Edition.  When I bike to work, it gives me the lay of the news land.
  • Golic and Wingo: The sports equivalent of Up First. This used to be the Mike and Mike feed before ESPN retired that show.  I get a kick out of the younger Golic and the easy jock interactions.
  • His & Hers/SC6: I listen to this solely to get my Jemele Hill and Michael Smith fix.  They have great personal chemistry and they comment so widely on the world within the framework of sports.  Lately they’ve been openly poking their employer’s manipulation of viewers to my great delight.  They were given the wheel of ESPN’s flagship SportsCenter time and they’re driving it like they stole it.  Good fun.
  • Planet Money: I’ve been listening to Planet Money since they began putting them out.  It is consistently a great explanation of economic issues in concrete circumstances, and I recommend it unreservedly.  Even if you don’t generally care about economics, give it a try.
  • This American Life: One of the most respected radio shows/podcasts out there. For me, it earns that respect with every show.  Their investigative reporting is excellent and enlightening.  Beyond recommended; a must.
  • Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me: Peter Sagal and his talent riff on the news with panache every week.  Their guests are from a broad range and interesting.  I like the political ones best.
  • Welcome To Night Vale: A fiction podcast that combines humor, spookiness, and great characters.  Worth it for the throw-aways alone and  the story sneaks up to capture you.  It’s felt a little more aimless recently as the creators are doing more things, but still has many great moments.  Even if you don’t follow it, it’s worth hearing old stories.
  • Awesome Etiquette: I am an etiquette nerd, but I find that the Emily Post folks who produce this (Lizzie and Dan) are much less concerned with the fish fork rules than the relationships that underly the rituals we perform.  It’s a principled approach to etiquette that’s often more an advice column.
  • Dinner Party Download: This was a quirky take on pop culture that spent a lot of time on food, drink, history(!?), and terrible, terrible, terrible jokes.  Rico and Brendan had great chemistry and a great take on the world.  Sadly, this is in the past tense: they’ve moved on to other projects.
  • A Way With Words: A cool show about (English) word usage and origins.
  • Reply All: Reply All is a show about the Internet.  But, really, it’s about many many things that touch the Internet in some way.  The reporting is outstanding and the hosts are charismatic.  This is on a par with This American Life.  A must.
  • ScienceVs: Each episode reviews the scientific studies about some public policy or personal issue.  The host is delightful and the topics are compelling.  Great fun.
  • LA Public Library’s Aloud Series: The Los Angeles Public Library hosts a series of talks from authors, artists, and thinkers (including Q&A) and records them.  The talks cover a fantastic range of topics  from cephalopod intelligence to modern poetry.  I’ve never heard one I didn’t learn something from.
  • The Memory Palace: This is Nate DiMeo’s poetic and indescribable podcast.  There’s some history, some poetry, and some reflection.  Try a few and you’ll see if you like it.  I don’t miss an episode.
  • Here Be Monsters: HBM is another basically indescribable podcast.  It is eerie and enlightening.  Another one where you really have to look for yourself, because it’s beyond my powers.
  • Make Me Smart: This is an extension of Minnesota Public Radio’s excellent Marketplace radio show.  It began pointed at economics and politics – and those still figure prominently – but had branched into its own ongoing conversation.   It is a conversation shared by two world-class journalists (Molly Wood and Kai Ryssdal), so it’s not your run-of-the-mill chat. As all great conversations do, the discussion has developed its own in-jokes and themes (and a book club, that not all great conversations spawn). As with any conversation, it may or may not interest you.  Try enough to get the vibe if you’re interested.
  • Found: Davy Rothbart publishes a zine of objects that people gather from the streets and send him.  The zine is quite a quirky collection of oddments and Rothbart’s live shows have a lo-fi vibe with real entertainment in there.  He uses the podcast to dig deeper into the stories behind the objects and explore longer form performance.  Perhaps my favorite parts are the songs based on the found objects – mostly the texts lists and letters – from the Found Musical.  Yeah, there’s a musical.  It’s a thing.
  • You Must Remember This: Karina Longworth’s exploration of Hollywood’s history is one of the real gems in the podcast world.  She balances diligent research and insightful modern analysis to not only tell a story but help the listener think about its place in the past and future.  I can find her delivery a bit dry, but the content is fantastic. After a few episodes I began hearing more subtle elements of her style.
  • RadioLab: Another blue chip podcast.  I listen to it primarily because it makes me yell at the speakers in ways that make me think.  When it’s good, it’s great. When it’s not, there’s usually something to think about.  And it’s often great.
  • StartUp: This began as a near-real-time history of Alex Blumberg founding Gimlet Media.  That was gripping and exciting, but since then it’s seemed a bit aimless.  I do think that their series on American Apparel’s troubled CEO is top-notch.
  • Below The Ten: Stories from life in South LA.  These are interesting and compelling.  Does not update often.
  • Baseball Tonight: I use this to just keep up with major league baseball.  I let a lot of it wash over me, but that’s possible because of the easy charisma and camaraderie of the hosts and guests.
  • Within The Wires: This is one of the other projects that Night Vale creators are spending time on.  It’s brilliant, funny, creepy, innovative storytelling and I don’t want to spoil it.  A must.
  • Alice Isn’t Dead: Another Night Vale creator’s project.  I find it a more straight-ahead thriller than Within The Wires, but it is very strong.
  • The Hidden History of LA: Short snippets of LA history.  Great if you live in LA.
  • The Pitch: Here’s the pitch: young investors pitch their startup ideas to a set of real investors and these folks report on it.  I thought I’d listen to one or two of these and stop, but it hooked me.  I enjoy assessing the presentation quality and I’ve come to like the repeating investors.
  • The Nod: Gimlet’s stab at exploring Black culture.  I listen to it primarily because I got hooked by host Brittany Luce when she did Sampler.
  • Live From The Poundstone Institute: I picked this up to listen to Paula Poundstone.  Adam Felber was just a bonus. The early few episodes were clunky as the two of them felt their way through the form.  As the show progressed, they developed a chemistry and rhythm that I quite like.  It’s solid and expect it will get stronger; I’ll keep watching.
  • NPR’s Code Switch: NPR’s swing at exploring the crenelations of a multi-ethnic culture.  The show can feel stilted at times, but the reporting and commentary are top notch.  It’s grown on me considerably.  If its niche appeals to you, it is very good.
  • Conversations With People Who Hate Me: The pitch for Conversations is simple: Dylan Marron calls people who screamed hateful things in his YouTube comments section and tries to figure out what ticked them off.  Marron’s execution is unbelievably strong: simultaneously professional, vulnerable, analytic, and compassionate.  And many other adjectives that apply to a bold person experiencing genuine emotion. I can imagine listeners rejecting Marron as the stereotype of an SJW – an observation he might well confirm – but I think he’s much more interesting than any stereotype.  A must.
  • Desert Oracle Radio: I may never know Warren Ellis found this lunatic poet, conspiracy nut, nature conservator, and svengali who broadcasts from the middle of the Mojave, but thank heaven he mentioned it in his newsletter. Listen to one episode and you’ll know if it’s for you.  It’s for me.
  • The Liminal: Another Ellis recommendation.  This is another podcast that I listen to because of the host.  He’s talking about fortean topics with a perspective somewhere between skeptical and accepting.  I’ve heard a lot of the topics and I admire the perspective.
  • Deep State Radio: One more from Ellis. This is a revolving set of foreign policy heavyweights weighing in on the state of the world.  I enjoy the tone and content.  Beyond that, they pay careful attention to gender balance – there are basically always half women foreign policy experts in the conversation. The group’s perspective is strong.
  • The Allusionist: This is another words and language podcast, but with a somewhat wider ambit than A Way With Words. I haven’t been listening to it that long, but I find that she casts an interesting net.
  • Uncivil: Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika report on some of the corners of the Civil War story that you won’t hear from Ken Burns.  It’s well-researched and takes no prisoners with its pro-equality perspective.  The Spin episode will give you a feel for the tone and quality.
  • There Goes The Neighborhood: Collaborative reporting by WNYC and KCRW on gentrification in Brooklyn and Santa Monica.  I learned a bunch, though it’s currently on hiatus.
  • More Perfect: This is the guys from WNYC/RadioLab coming at the US Supreme Court from excellent perspectives.  I probably like it more than RadioLab itself.  Recommended.
  • The Breakfast Club: This is the best of the non-music parts of an NYC-based morning show.  I enjoy hearing the rhythm and perspective of NYC.
  • The Sisterhood: Laurie Penny and her sister talk about feminist issues.  Still finding their feet, but shows promise.  I found their commentary on our robot masters particularly insightful.

Reading List 2017

December 31st, 2017

I read 36 books in 2017.  I generally write up a capsule of each as I finish so I don’t have much new to say. Here are the ones I strongly recommended:

And here’s everything I reviewed in 2017.


Review: Race and the Early Republic

December 31st, 2017

Race and the Early Republic is an excellent introduction to how US society reacted to citizens and slaves who were outside the early ideas of what constituted people.  Of course, the term in use was “white men” – a more honest phrasing than many in common use today. Michael Morrison builds Race from a collection of scholarly essays on relevant topics and enlists the authors to cross-pollinate (and cross reference) one another.  It forms an interesting and cohesive collection. It is academic enough that it is a little dry for my tastes.

Though I find the presentation sterile, the ideas are compelling.  Essays address different aspects of how European immigrants, indigenous people, and slaves found their way in the new country.  Importantly the authors look out from the groups as well as in from the majority and historical point of view.  The collection acknowledges what the dominant population encoded into the historical narrative as well as the actions and reactions of  the people themselves.  The resulting book brings more texture and understanding of the period and how it meshes with what comes before and after.

Present and Accounted For

December 30th, 2017

O Holy Night
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Adeste Fidelis
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
We Wish You A Merry Christmas
Christmas in Hollis
The First Noel
Merry Christmas, Baby.

And The Little Drummer Boy, if and only if you’re Bowie and Crosby.

Review: The Second Coming of the KKK

December 29th, 2017

The three incarnations of the KKK each have a distinct character wrapped around manifestation of the parts of American society that resist change and exploit fear. My description may sound a little timid for an institution that is universally reviled – and I revile it – but the strongest elements of Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK explain how Klan leaders presented it to the nation as a normal institution.  The second (major) incarnation was the most visible and politically influential one.  At a time when our leaders openly demean citizens based on their race, or their origin, or similar sources of otherness, Gordon’s study of the history is essential.

The current xenophobic forces in the country and world are not the KKK, but the tools and motivations that its leaders used to expand the institution’s influence are all clearly visible in today’s news.

Gordon’s history is extensively researched and clearly articulated.  She breaks out her analysis topically rather than chronologically. That helps separate the concerns but does somewhat obscure the narrative arc.  That said, exploring the mechanisms and driving forces of the expansion are telling.  The 1920’s KKK (the second coming) was equal parts fraternal organization, terror group, and multi-layered marketing scheme.  She picks each of these elements (and a couple more) apart deftly and cleanly. Watching and understanding those wheels is enlightening.

Of course the most mortifying thing about both the 20’s KKK and the current fear-mongering is that citizens embrace it.  To me, the elements that the Klan leaders present are combinations of rationalizations, appeals to avarice, raising false fears, and appeals to the herd mentality.  On the other hand, people – and I’m a person – always respond to them.  I would be delighted if Coming presented some kind of remedy, but the 20’s Klan pretty much burned itself out.  There’s some solace in that, but I’d rather have a clearer path.

In any case, there is much to learn from Second Coming.


Review: Victorian Los Angeles

December 28th, 2017

Until I sat down to write this review, I hadn’t noticed that Chris Epting is also the author of Teddy Roosevelt in California, which I also enjoyed reading.

Victorian LA is a combination of tour book and historical retrospective mostly set in downtown.  LA has a reputation of being a Mid-century Modern, Art Deco, Jet Age kind of city, but this work highlights Victorian buildings and their origins.  Epting’s enthusiasm and knowledge shines through.  His prose is clear and compelling.  Overall a great book to plan a trip downtown (and other older neighborhoods) to scope cool architecture.


Review: Prisoners of Geography

December 10th, 2017

Tim Marshall, author of Prisoners of Geography, is an old had covering foreign policy for the BBC et al. He’s been around the block physically and philosophically and Prisoners does an excellent job showing readers how those link.

The theme of Prisoners is relating the physical shape of nations to their goals and actions as collective entities.  Marshall is not the first to make those kind of connections. His experience with both the reporting and reality of foreign policy sparks Prisoners into something special.

His discussions of how geography shapes the goals and actions of China, America, and Europe are clear and enlightening.  The first place his expertise deepens the analysis is in the discussion of  Russia’s long term motivations. His explanation of  how those motivations shaped Russia’s/Putin’s choices in the recent annexation of the Crimea sparkle. There is nothing like hearing the motivations of the nations, their leaders, and their people from someone who has done the hard work to understand them beyond a surface level.  The Crimean situation and Russia’s perspective are much clearer to me.

As good as the description of Russia is, the chapters on the Indian subcontinent and on Japan and Korea really shine. In particular, my understanding of the players and moves in Pakistan and Afghanistan is much, much clearer.  I’m interested in foreign policy and my eyes glaze over when experts try to explain the relationships in Pak-/Afhgan- istan.  Marshall sifts the facts to identify the key players – who only partially conform to the borders on the map and completely to the shape of the land – to illuminate their motivations, and to lay out their actions.  Actions that seemed random then seem direct now.  The descriptions of the history and motivations on the Korean peninsula is in the same league.


Review: The Unexpected President

December 10th, 2017

I admit an unhealthy affinity for Chester A. Arthur and his presidency.  To me, he is the epitome of a man who rose from corrupt beginnings to grow into decency when thrust into the office.   The Unexpected President is Scott Greenberger’s biography of Arthur.

Greenberger tells the story in a solid, scholarly, readable way.  He describes the man and the times clearly and gives the reader the space to draw their own conclusions.  Or paint one’s own picture, I assume.


Fake Radio: a plug

December 4th, 2017

Fake Radio is putting on It’s A Wonderful Life this Friday night (7 Dec 2017) at the Acme . If you’ve never seen a performance, they’re a loose troup of comedians rooted in improv and voice acting who perform Golden Age radio dramas live. In my experience they bring the right amount of respect for the source material and gleeful snark to their renditions to make the evenings fun while keeping true to the material. They’re good fun. Come out and see them if you get a chance.

Portland folks also get a treat. Or two.