Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Sunday, November 25th, 2018

Critics were nearly universal in their acclaim for The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven when it first appeared, and the book has held its reputation and has been republished several times. In my opinion, the critics nailed it.  Sherman Alexie’s perspective encompasses the universal experiences of society’s forgotten and the specific context of Native American Reservation life. He can sling poetic prose like few others.

The result is a series of potent shots of rotgut language that appall and enlighten with unbalancing power.  It’s the kind of book that one can go on a bender with or nurse over time.  One way or another, I encourage readers to try some.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Legends & Myths of Hawaii

Sunday, November 25th, 2018

People build their world from shared stories and I enjoy hearing others’ stories.  This narrative wanderlust led me over to the retelling of a set of Hawaiian myths by no lesser a source than King David Kalakaua.  He was the last male monarch of Hawaii, and seems to have a respect for the material tempered with a scholar’s instinct for context.  He is well versed in Hawaiian and Western traditions.

Hawaii has a shorter history than Europe or America.  The islands were unsettled before a few hundred years CE, and settlement seems to have been transient until circa 800 CE.  They can sustain humanity but they’re far enough from human settlement that bootstrapping their habitation was difficult.  One interesting aspect of that history is that the islanders claim a merged history and mythology that remains in the dim clouds of human memory.  Kalakaua imbues his discussion with both a realism for historical accuracy and a literary appreciation for the power of myth.

The legends are a combination of cheer leading for the various royal lines and tribal powers and general chauvinism for the emerging nation.  Kalakaua frames each with a political and social framing that helped me understand who has a stake in the power of the legend.  Then he dives in and tells the story as a story.  It’s enlightening in ways that many tellings of Western myths are not.


Review: The Fifth Season

Saturday, November 10th, 2018

N. K. Jemisin has won the Hugo award for Best Novel for the last three years in a row.  It’s the kind of thing that eventually catches my attention, and I’m happy that it did.  The Fifth Season is the first of these three and a well deserved honor.  Jemisin shows off so many of the things I love about SF: careful world building, believable characters, and beautiful writing.

She creates an world that is exotic and intriguing while remaining connected to ours.  As most great SF authors do, she twists the world in a few comprehensible ways while keeping closely enough in touch to mirror reality. There is meaty commentary here on both fiction and reality that lands with a light touch. That is to say that the world is immersive and the story crackles along snappily.  One can enjoy the ride without deep thought.  If you like deep thinking, the world ignites and supports it.

Key to making a believable world is looking out at it through the eyes of a real person and seeing other real people.  Nemisin’s people are clearly of her world while being comprehensible to those from ours.  While much is indubitably made of the racial and sexual inclusiveness of her players, I find them at least as diverse in their worldviews and social backgrounds.  They are all genuine and interesting and complex enough that none of them is completely admirable or static.

True characters in a wide world are the catalysts for a great story but Jemisin’s writing is the cherry on top.  Her writing is structurally powerful.  It reveals the world and characters in a Salome-like dance, simultaneously enticing, propulsive and deceptive.  Plot, character, and theme all appear and deepen with brilliant timing.  The specific writing is a delight as well.  Individual sentences sometimes twirl as they conclude, bringing insight, horror, or power to the narrative.

And that closer…

Strongly Recommended.

Most Perfect Album

Sunday, October 28th, 2018

Many of the cool kids know that RadioLab is one of my regular podcast listens and the US Constitution is my favorite government spec.  RadioLab has taken the Constitution and mixed it liberally with Schoolhouse Rock – another favorite – to produce The Most Perfect Album.  These are original songs based on the 27 Amendments to the Constitution.

If that description didn’t start you downloading it, I’ll point out a few highlights:

It’s free! Check it out!

Review: Midnight In Mexico

Saturday, October 27th, 2018

Alfredo Corchado is a Dallas Morning News reporter with a foot in the US and Mexico and in Midnight In Mexico, he organizes and memorializes his experiences in Mexico.  Those experiences open with a narco-driven death threat, so this isn’t a rambling, cuddly memoir.

It is a memoir of deep feeling and detailed reporting. I learned a lot about Mexico’s transformation into a state under siege from drug traffickers.  I learned more about the hearts of people who have to live in that transformed world.

Corchado’s research and journalism is compelling stuff.  You don’t get many death threats for erroneous stories, though, of course, I can’t check it. I picked up a bunch of book learning here.

I also admire his style.  Many of these stories are deeply emotional and tie to his family.  He tells them as stories that one would tell a friend in a bar.  He doesn’t dwell on the emotions, but they are plain nonetheless.

There’s much to like here.  Recommended.

Review: Bolivar

Saturday, October 27th, 2018

I’m getting interested in South and Central American history because I don’t remember much about it, nor did I learn a lot of it in school.  As I learn more about US history, the echos of its past become clearer.  Because I live in Southern California, I hear those echoes from the south of me as well.  And some of those echoes ring with eccentricity.  I’ve got to dig in and find more.

Símon Bolívar is a big enough name that even I have heard of him.  That’s like saying a few people have heard of George Washington, of course.  As with Washington, the real story is more complex and enlightening.  Bolívar is liberating Gran Columbia and Venezuela from a different enemy in the shadows of the American and French Revolutions.  He also comes from a different, more aristocratic stock and culture.   His path is littered with politics great and small and stronger urges for personal glory.  It is utterly fascinating to see how these differences play out in terms of Bolívar’s historical placement and the history of the nations he liberated.

Robert Harvey makes a good guide in that journey.  His prose is clean and his research seems sound.  The figures and cultures sparkle under his descriptions.  As with Conquistador, the text seems to be combining known texts rather than pushing new agendas.  Perfect for me.


Review: The Perfect Weapon

Sunday, October 14th, 2018

David Sanger has produced a deep look at how the political and policy world sees computer and network espionage and sabotage.  People inside and outside that world call that “cyber” but that makes me and other tech weenies of my cohort a little queasy.  My queasiness aside, these technologies are commanding people’s attention.

Sanger does some remarkable research and journalism in tracking publicly revealed and discovered uses of computer and network espionage tech. His work shows how this stuff is live and in use.  On one hand, people use whatever tools they have or can make when they want to spy; on the other the level of technical sophistication is surprising.  Weapon is worth reading to get that intuition.

I do think that there are a couple angles from which readers – like me – should be skeptical.  One is the aura of secrecy and awe that reporters and managers of these technologies wrap them in.  Some of that is because the mindset of using technology outside of its specification is unnatural to a lot of people.  In Zen and the Art, Robert Persig explained how beer cans are also essential repair elements.  That mentality pervades the thinking of people who make “cyber” work and it feels like magic until you develop the technique.  It’s the difference between watching a magic show and watching a magic show as Penn or Teller.  Easier to say than do.

Holding the secrets as secrets and wrapping the technology in some awe helps with getting funding, so there’s a significant incentive to do so.  I do think that research and development funding inside and outside the government can use the funding, so I agree with that tactic to some extent.  I worry when it’s not a tactic.  People who don’t understand the ideas tend to underestimate it; extra awe is a useful corrective.  Readers who want to really understand the underlying technology should adjust filters accordingly.

Sanger’s invaluable contribution is framing the human elements.  Who funded what and when.  Who wound up in the papers and who didn’t.  How the people who move armies and conventional espionage resources view them.  For me, that’s an extremely illuminating view of the world.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Conquistador

Saturday, October 13th, 2018

Buddy Levy has put together a very readable history of Hernan Cortes and his battles and maneuvers with Montezuma, the Aztec Empire, and other Central American tribes.  It was a great beginning as I begin looking at Central and South America’s history.

Levy’s not the most inspirational writer, nor the deepest and most insightful researcher.  But he does know a great story when he hears it and tells it with clarity and alacrity.  He gets out of the way of history and sprays his spotlights on it in a remarkably even-handed way.

And it’s a crazy story from a modern perspective.  Tribal leaders bring a fantastic mix of motivations.  Sometimes they are modern and conventionally tactical.  Sometimes they make decisions that seem unfathomable because they have very different values.  For example, those shiny yellow rocks are interesting and fun to make jewelry out of, but so are tropical bird feathers.  Watching one side wheedle gold locations from the other who’s happy to point out feathers at the same level is fun.  There are more interesting ideological collisions, too.  The story doesn’t need much help.

A great introduction to the region and politics.  Strongly recommended.

Review: From Beirut to Jerusalem

Saturday, October 13th, 2018

Thomas Friedman spent years in the Middle East as a New York Times reporter who deeply absorbed the lay of that land in the 80’s.  Beirut is part reporting, part memoir from that time.  My impression was that it presents the facts from his solid reporting alongside his opinions, impressions, and feelings about those times.  I think there’s considerable value in all of these, but of course, proper calibration is key.

I found his description of the Assad regime’s destruction of Hama and subsequent massacre in 1981 eye-opening.  I was alive when it happened, but don’t recall the kind of outcry such events would deserve.  For me the massacre is in a crack between history and lived experience, and I completely failed to see it.  Beirut was worth it for Friedman’s harrowing chapter on that massacre. I cannot imagine how many Syrian rebels this created and how dedicated they are.  When you’ve seen a city’s population literally decimated in retaliation, surrender is very unattractive.

There’s plenty more in here that’s illuminating to understanding the current cauldron boiling there.  From the impressions of Arafat to the machinations and political gamesmanship of keeping them relevant to street level-impressions of Jerusalem that form the titular contrast with Beirut bring the area to life.  Of course, those are personal impressions, driven by Friedman.  He has – and admits – his own biases.  To the extent he understands them, of course.

The blend of reporting and impression is essential in understanding the state of play here.  Don’t trust all of it.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Visiting Tom

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

Michael Perry is one of my favorite writers. He consistently charms and challenges me by writing about small town life.  He does a fine job telling how people live together and how that lights up American life.

Not news.  If you like his other work, you’ll like this.  If you don’t know, have a look at Mr. Perry’s tale-spinning neighbor and tribulations with traffic laws.