Review: Furiously Happy

October 28th, 2017

Furiously Happy is Jenny Lawson’s second non-coloring-book. As with her previous work, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, its blog origins are clear in its episodic structure and topical range.  I intend that as a compliment.  Her blog is very popular for many good reasons.

The reasons I find most compelling are Lawson’s charming and effective writing style and bravery in deploying it to share her experiences with mental illness.  Her style is crisp and filled with surprising turns of phrase.  When she is describing a daffy situation or a comical argument, the style carries the reader along as a sprightly passenger – sort of a less repetitive trip through It’s A Small World. When the waters get deeper, her tone keeps readers hopeful and engaged.

And the waters do get deep.  Lawson is bold and unflinching in describing her illness. Mental illness has a stigma.  Even someone who appears to have not only a normal but an extraordinary life, as Lawson does, bears the brunt of that.  She has a powerful capacity to both make the tribulations of her illness clear to those who know the problems in the abstract and to those who have never heard the clinical terms.  Her courage in truth-telling is key to pulling that off.

The work is all personal, and the tone is correspondingly manic.  While I recognize that as an aspect of sharing her illness by sharing her point of view, it does mean I had to step away from the book a few times and cool off.

Overall, strongly recommended.

Review: Bitch Doctrine

October 21st, 2017

Bitch Doctrine is Laurie Penny’s follow-up to Unspeakable Things, and it has all of the praiseworthy features of that work.  For all of those reasons, it is worth reading.  If nothing else, her comments on the 2016 election are a draw, though she did not include her reluctant and powerful endorsement of Clinton:

Any government leader must be considered an enemy to those who believe in radical change. Hillary Clinton is not yet that enemy but by damn. I hope she gets to be. Hillary Clinton is the sort of enemy I’ve been dreaming of over ten years of political work. She’s the kind of enemy you can respect. I look forward to fighting her on her commitment to climate protection, on workers’ rights, on welfare, on foreign policy. Bring that shit on.

Doctrine has significant structures and bones from Penny’s regular writing gig on the New Statesman (from which I took the quote above) and other places.  Because I follow her writing and social media presence, I’ve seen many of those essays.  My familiarity with them does not dilute their persuasiveness, but does rob some of the more impressive turns of phrase of their surprise.

Her work remains brilliantly composed and thought provoking.  She persuades with remarkable compassion, passion, and eloquence.  And recognizes that people will always disagree.

I found Unspeakable Things to be extremely powerful, but I think a reader can start with Doctrine as well.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: All the Dirty Parts

October 7th, 2017

Hey, it’s a Daniel Handler book.  This time Handler has metaphorically thumbed through one of his young adult romances and printed all the pages that my horny 17-year-old-self would have memorized the page numbers of.  The trick is that he’s printed only those parts.

His protagonist is a young man (Cole) in the waning years of his high school career who – to be purple about it – is often consumed by passion.  He sleeps around a lot and finds many people willing to do so with him.  Handler inflicts the usual punishment on him: he falls in love. Arguably twice, but not in a Sweet Valley High kind of way.

Handler evokes the witches brew of feelings that love and sex inflame in people in ways that hammer your chest and mist your eyes with a few words.  Cole is real because he’s foolish, wise, callous, and slowly changed.  Watching Handler put him through his paces is intellectually a writing master class and emotionally a fantastic trip.

The trick of doing this by only “turning on the camera” for the dirty parts kept me engaged throughout.  There’s no question about Cole’s unreliability, but trying to piece together missing facts, his deliberate self-deception and his youthful mistakes is a huge chunk of the fun.  That the reader only sees Cole when he’s foaming at the mouth only improves it.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Enemies

October 7th, 2017

Tim Weiner’s Enemies scratched my itch for a well-researched and clear history of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  An unbiased history of such an inflammatory institution is unrealistic, but Weiner does a solid job maintaining a scholarly demeanor as he chronicles the evolution of the institution.

Depending on the context and the audience, the FBI may be a political spy agency, an elite law-enforcement and anti-terrorism unit, a bumbling group of copy trying to learn intelligence work, key federal support in important criminal cases, and a few more things.  Weiner wisely does not lock himself to a perspective or summation of the agency but has clearly dug into the time line of an institution that protects its secrets.  His scholarship includes interviews, documents and the usual broad bases that journalists use in prying these institutions open.

His even handed reportage does not mean he hides embarrassing information or that he makes excuses for the Bureau.  The illegal wiretaps and black bag jobs are all clearly on display and so are the remarkable successes at infiltration and enforcement. While one can guess at Weiner’s sympathies, this reader always had the impression that he was sticking to the facts as much as possible.  The effect is a bit like Jack Webb without the camp factor.

Overall, a remarkably well-executed and comprehensive history.  Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Mark of Zorro

September 16th, 2017

Given my love of serial fiction – especially comics – it may be surprising that I’ve never sat down and read the original Zorro story.  This is the 1924 The Mark of Zorro, a version of the serialized Curse of Capistrano story from Johnston McCulley, and it is a ripsnorter.  McCulley is a pseudonym who created many such mystery men.  It is easy to see why Zorro is the most famous.

Like the Sharpe‘s Rifles books, there is not too much to say about Zorro, except that it is a brilliantly written page turner.  Check it out sometime.


Review: Rootabaga Stories

September 15th, 2017

I heard of Rootabaga Stories from Robert Charles Wilson’s strong story “Fireborn” in Mashup, which is based on a line from one. Carl Sandburg wrote the collection for his children and subsequently published them.  The stories are Sandburg’s conception of what American fairy tales should be.  One of the first salient points Sandburg addresses is to underline the class mobility and fairness that are part of the American mythos by removing references to royalty.  It is pretty telling that these are hardly recognizable as fairy tales without kings and princesses.

Sandburg builds a world of echoes from his beloved American midwest that holds wide open expanses, robust cities, and mighty trains that connect them.  Typing that, it strikes me how well that reflects the structure of Grimm’s milieu with respect to Europe’s idealized past.  America’s idealized past is one of great plains compared to Europe’s dark forests.  Democratic cities form instead of serf-built castles.  Names are foggy echoes of what Americans imagine First Nations names to sound like, cross bred with Midwestern slang rather than Olde-Time-y European sounds.  Again, this shows the structure of Sandburg’s project.

Story to story Sandburg keeps enough consistency to solidify the world without being a slave to it. The result is a grounded Oz, if that makes any sense.  It is a remarkable and quirky example of world-building.  It’s easy to see why Wilson was inspired by it.

As befits an icon of American poetry, the language of these stories is unique and powerful.  The phrasing of his descriptions are singular without being self-consciously poetic. They stand alone without being obviously from Sandburg while on reflection they clearly bear his stamp.  Even if one finds the contents of the stories contrived or twee – which I don’t, but understand – Sandburg’s language rings.


Review: Tales of a Traveler

September 15th, 2017

Tales of a Traveler is a collection of classic suspense (ghost) stories from one of America’s first literary writers. Washington Irving shows his skill at producing these tales set in the framing sequence of a collection of men marooned by weather. As historically interesting as that is, the stories have been repeated many places and are really not that gripping any more.  Irving is a great writer, but very much of his moment here.  The very details and craft that made the stories gripping in the moment distances them from a modern reader.  It’s interesting to see these tales in their native form, but I cannot really recommend them.


Review: Mashup

September 2nd, 2017

Gardner Dozios collects and edits a lot of SF and SF collections.  There is a story that Larry Marder is the Nexus of all Comics Realities in the sense that everyone working in comics knows him and that he gleefully links people up.  That’s how I think of Dozios.

In any case he gathered a set of interesting voices for Mash Up and set them loose with the simple mission to write him a short story that starts with the first line of a literary classic. Everyone’s game, of course and most of the results are fun and interesting.  In fact, overall the range of voices is broad.  No two stories seem cut from the same cloth, which makes it an interesting way to hear writers you’d like to hear more from.  All of this is leading to the correct conclusion that this is a diverting collection of stories from good writers.

Then there’s Mary Robinette Kowal’s Tour de Force “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.”  It’s one of those short stories that the only real advice a reader can give is “read it.”  I’ll risk a few more words.  It’s about adventure, and the price of getting what you want, and love, and growing old together, and how small events change societies, and how gender bends peoples impressions.  And Hollerith cards. (And she even nailed the premise, weaving one of those themes through the chosen opening line, which few authors managed.) Go read it.

Recommended.  The Lady Astronaut is a must.

Review: Rapture of the Nerds

August 27th, 2017

As I’m searching for a word to sum up Rapture of the Nerds, I keep coming back to “romp.” I get the feeling that while writing this Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow had great fun sideswiping virtually every nerdy enclave they scream past as they tell an enjoyable story.  One can almost hear one or the other saying “look sharp or you’ll miss that one” or even “hold my beer – I’ve got this.” There is a fair amount of snark in here, obviously, but a lot of it is unobtrusive.  The kind of smart-assery that one only notices if one was already in on the joke.  I’m sure there are jokes I’m not in on that went right by.

As much fun as all the in-jokes are, Rapture delivers both a story worth following and ideas worth thinking about.  I don’t think our authors think that the Singularity is more than an interesting though experiment, but they’re delighted to jump into that experiment with both feet and a calculator.  Stross and Doctorow treat us to ideas about how much power will go into maintaining the computational power needed to play this game, what kinds of social structure that might enforce, and what invading alien armadas look like in that SF landscape.  All very well done with the aforementioned spoonful of snark to help the medicine go down.

One of the best parts of Rapture is how human the Doctorow/Stross Singularity is. Family relations, interpersonal relationships, internal human psychology, and gender perceptions all flare up at various points.  These are not just ideas that are played in passing, but many form key plot points.  A singularity (and the noun phrase “a singularity” brings me joy) created by another life form might be markedly different.  In fact, if our civilization ever migrated to, say a Heinlein Moon Is A Harsh Mistress society the singularity there would differ.  Some English Literature Ph.D candidate can have the idea of comparing SF society singularities for nothing.

Of course the point of great SF is to reflect on humanity.  To me Rapture is ultimately a celebration of some of the bits that make humanity human, for good and ill.


Review: The Utopia of Rules

July 16th, 2017

I forget how The Utopia of Rules came to my attention – probably from Warren Ellis’s excellent newsletter – but I found it interesting in a very niche kind of way.  David Graeber is a scholar, specifically an anthropologist, and an activist.  He’s got a crust of old school Marxist academia that comes through in his thinking.  If that puts you off, you’ll hate Utopia. In fact there are lots of reasons that one might hate the book, but I seem to have threaded the needle and come out the other side having gobbled up some ideas.

The possible offputting factors include the dry topic, the academic writing style, the navel gazing nature of the whole enterprise, and the quaintly academic worldview from which it’s all undertaken.  The enterprise in question is an erudite assessment of what modern bureaucracy says about the anthropology of Western European & American civilization.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed Graeber’s execution.  He’s an academic and writing for a group of academics I probably wouldn’t be a part of if I were an academic, but he writes clearly and engagingly within those confines. I found plenty to disagree with, though overall I enjoyed having my ideas challenged.  He convinced me of some points as well.  Overall, I now see bureaucracy as an important phenomenon in Western Civilization practically and philosophically.  In and of itself that’s an interesting idea for me and was well worth reading the book.