Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

Review: Race and the Early Republic

Sunday, 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.

Review: The Second Coming of the KKK

Friday, 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

Thursday, 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

Sunday, 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

Sunday, 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.


Review: Killing Gravity

Saturday, November 18th, 2017

That darn Warren Ellis points me to books.  He pointed me to Corey White’s Killing Gravity with the words “space witch!”

That may not be enough for you.  Killing Gravity is a short, fast paced, space opera thriller.  There are several sparkling bits of prose in there, though it feels a bit like a video game movie.  It is smooth and snappy with its pleasures.  Quite enjoyable.

Recommended.  And the main character is a space witch.

Review: The Ark

Saturday, November 18th, 2017

I do enjoy me the occasional potboilerThe Ark falls squarely in that topic.  It is Boyd Morrison’s tale of a two-fisted engineer and his beautiful archaeologist partner saving the world from a megachurch-founding Bond villain while racing to discover the secret behind Noah’s Ark.  In some sense there’s nothing more to say.

I’ll say a little more.

I found this because I met the author’s sister a few times.  That probably colors my review favorably, but I hope not too much.

It’s a very well written, tightly plotted thriller.  The plot’s intricate and zippy.  This is a fun book to read on a plane or generally while the time away with. A snappy plot is harder to execute than many people think.  There’s got to be enough intricacy to keep the reader interested and belief suspended without getting bogged down in excessive description or exposition.  Morrison roars down that fine line like it’s a wide boulevard.  He’s clearly mastered this and enjoying it; his delight is infectious.

Don’t expect great literature, but it is great fun.


Review: Parable of the Sower

Sunday, November 5th, 2017

When I was reading SF in my younger days, I tended to stick to hard SF and Space Opera. Those have their pleasures, and expand one’s thinking in some interesting ways – though often in what’s missing than what’s there, I’ve been gravitating toward more literary SF of late. The freedom to speculate seems even more powerful to me when meshed with a fresh contemporary point of view.  Dhalgren and and the like (if there is anything like Dhalgren) have been greatly invigorating.

Octavia Butler came to my attention via the brilliant KPCC show Off-Ramp.  After hearing her praises from such a trusted source I had to read something and I picked Parable of the Sower. It lived up to any hype.

Parable is set in a near-future collapsing America well on its way to dystopia.  Butler brings a keen eye for how real communities and people behave to this world. The collapse is not with a bang, but a progression.  Individual neighborhoods and suburbs hold on to different degrees, but they are being slowly consumed by the larger collapse.  One can see the frog boiling, but it’s also clear why the people in the world don’t.  And why we probably wouldn’t. People’s powerful cocktails of  experience, continuity, and hope will leave them in various positions of denial.

Importantly, Butler breathes life into both communities being overrun by mobs and the mobs doing the overrunning.  Every one is believable and to some extent sympathetic.  It is difficult to imagine walking a mile in even the worst mob member and condemn them.  Having seen this, many other fictional societal collapses feel contrived.

At the core of Parable is a young woman who perceives the danger and also takes inspiration from some bits of the collapsing society.  She’s a slowly forming charismatic leader motivated to form a community to carry a form of civilization forward.  Again, one believes who she is, even as the question of who in the world might follow her, and if that’s a good idea remains profoundly open.

The idea of community is central to Parable. Butler depicts the collapsing communities – from nation through neighborhood to family – with compassion and power. It seems to me that she also believes that humans will always form communities, and so she shows us the evolving tribes and the sorts of connections that form them.  It is a virtuoso performance with much to learn from and consider about it.

By the way, her writing is quite brilliant taken sentence-by-sentence and chapter-by-chapter.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Furiously Happy

Saturday, 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

Saturday, 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.