Book Reviews

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (Book Review)

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(I finally get a real political post up and am feeling motivated again just in time for internet to go out at my house for an extended period of time.)

The title of this book is as long as it is accurate. Written by Jon Mooallem, Wild Ones explores the stories surrounding three specific species and the stories surrounding the people who surround those species. The animal cast is the Polar Bear, the Lange’s Meadowlark Butterfly, and the Whooping Crane. The human cast largely centers on the author and his daughter. His goal is to help his daughter see each of these animals before they are potentially wiped out. In doing so he meets the conservationists working to protect these species and shares their stories.

Going piece by piece through the title, this book is often dismaying. It does not include long term happiness and independence in the forecasts of any of its species. Anyone familiar with how global climate change is affecting the status of the polar bear probably isn’t surprised by that. What did catch me off guard was the bleakness shown surrounding many of the conservationists. The hopelessness, the stress, the burn out, the failure, and more are all shown in each of the three sections of the book.

Some of the historical parts drag a bit, but this book shines during the interviews when the author is asking these people about what they think the future of the animal they’ve fought so hard for is. You can tell that they have spent many nights internally debating whether they’re doing any good or whether the fight is worth it.

If we save the polar bear, but we have to feed every single one of them for them to survive the summer is it worth it? At that point is it a wild animal anymore and what does that mean to be wild anyway, do we care or does it care? If we save the butterfly that only lives on one type of plant, what good have we really done? How much energy is too much energy to put into a niche species whose absence from the food web wouldn’t really be noted? If we save the whooping crane, but the ones we save end up congregating at corn waste piles outside of ethanol factories, what kind of future is that? Is it pointless to try to restore a species to a historical baseline, when we’re living in a modern world? Are we saving these animals because it’s the right thing to do, because the Earth needs these species, or this way we can make ourselves feel a little better about all the species we didn’t save?

These are hard questions the modern conservation movement faces. I was impressed by the author’s willingness to not try to answer them himself, but to give time for people working on the frontlines, from behind the scenes, and even those who have given up the fight to respond in their own personal way to many of the issues.

It does end up oddly reassuring because of how human everyone is. You see their doubts, their struggles, and their triumphs. You can’t help but empathize with them. Although it certainly centers on the wildlife conservation issue, this book is worth a look from anyone who has a personal or political issue they have fought long and hard for. Asking questions about the causes we’ve taken up is hard. We all want to believe we’re doing the right thing. Saving the polar bears sounds like the right thing doesn’t it?

Many of the questions the author asks are questions I’ve asked of myself. They aren’t questions that have answers, but they’re questions that those of us working for a greener planet need to ask, and anyone who has taken up a personal cause will recognize. What will victory look like, how do we achieve it, is what we’re doing now getting us closer, can we accept anything shy of our own version of victory, what are we willing to give up, how much energy can we give before we become resentful or hopeless, why have we chosen to get involved?

★★★★☆ – Come for the ecology, stay for the self reflection. A reminder of my rating system

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Bad Feminist (Book Review)

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I first noticed this book on the Goodreads best nonfiction of 2014 list. I had read a couple fiction books in a row and I enjoy essay collections just as much as I enjoy short story collections. I’d like to think I enjoy those sorts of books because it guarantees at least a couple pieces I’ll like and a couple pieces I won’t so I can sound nuanced in my critique, but it might just say more about my attention span.

SPOILER ALERT, not for anything I’m going to say, but for the book in general. Roxane Gay sites a lot of recent pop culture in her various essays. Two that she reveals major plot points for are Gone Girl and the Hunger Games Trilogy. If you’re reading and see a book/movie come up but don’t want things spoiled, just skip a couple pages. She gives no warning in the book itself so this is my caution flag to you. I will add that she does a good enough job presenting each of her examples that if you’re not familiar with the source material, her point still comes across clearly.

I’m going to be critical of an important detail in a second here, but the main thing you need to know about this book is that it’s extremely honest. The language is plain, the emotions are real, and everything in the book feels like a conversation with a living breathing person. The author does a fantastic job of helping you see the world through her eyes and all of her viewpoints are well presented. I know honest seems like a strange word here, but it’s the one I keep coming back to.

The book starts and ends with her explaining the title Bad Feminist. She claims this title for herself because she feels many of the things she does don’t fit with what most people would define as a feminist. She goes on to talk about how much our culture likes to put people on pedestals but then the second a flaw is found in their life they are torn down along with whatever values they tried to stand for. She calls this idea that there is one right way to be a feminist ‘essential feminism’ and really goes through a lot of good arguments about why holding people to these absolute value codes is a horrible idea.

I completely agree with her point there, but the problem is throughout the book it becomes tough to tell if she’s using the idea of going against essential feminism as a way to excuse some of her comments. An example of this is an essay half way through the book called ‘Reaching for Catharsis’ in which she talks about the book Skinny by Diana Spechler. These two comments are made within two pages of each other, “The body is a personal territory and every person’s weight struggle should be taken seriously, but there’s overweight and there’s overweight,” then when talking about the weaknesses of the book, “the implausibility of all this drama over a mere thirty pounds of excess weight.” Should every person’s weight struggle be taken seriously only if it’s more than 30 pounds that’s causing the problem?

There are several places in the book where a broad statement is made, but then followed by a specific case where the opposite is held to be true. It becomes a tricky line the author walks at several points in the book. It certainly doesn’t overcome all the books positives though. I can’t stress enough how much this book felt like just having a normal chat with a friend. A dozen topics are covered from gender in politics to music lyrics to scrabble tournaments. Even though sometimes the author seems to want to have her cake and eat it too, it’s still a delicious cake that’s worthy of checking out.

★★★★☆ – Modern culture dissected thoroughly if sometimes a little questionably. A reminder of my rating system

How to Lose a War, Sworn in Steel, and Eisenhorn(Book Reviews)

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Good afternoon everyone. I know it has been a long time since we’ve chatted, over two months in fact. As it turns out, grad school occupies a big chunk of time. Who knew? I know my posts have vanished and there is a lot of content I’ve missed. Hell, I missed the entire mid term elections. My goal originally with this blog was two posts a week, obviously that won’t be achieved this year, and I have an annoying habit of completely dropping a project once I know the goal is relatively unobtainable. In an attempt to at least keep this thing alive, I present to you the book reviews of all three books I’ve finished in the last two months. Who knows, I might even manage to start making somewhat regular posts again.

 

How to Lose a War: More Foolish Plans and Great Military Blunders by Bill  Fawcett

Starting with a little military history, we have How to Lose a War, a collection of essays breaking down disastrous military campaigns from ancient Greece to the modern day. Most conflicts get one chapter with bigger ones like the Napoleonic wars and WW2 getting several chapters from different perspectives. WW2 has a German and a Japanese chapter for example. Each chapter is written by a different author.

I’ll start by saying if you don’t like history this book probably won’t win you over. If you do like history you’ll probably enjoy it. If you’re indifferent towards history you’ll like the first couple chapters, probably get bored when the book turns to 1800s France and sadly put it down before the book closes with a really strong breakdown of Nazi internal policy and its consequences during WW2.

This book does focus, as you might guess from the name, on what went wrong at various times in history. Sometimes the mistakes are obvious(attempting a night attack, not having good maps, and getting lost until dawn or ordering stirrups for your cavalry that are too small to fit the standard issue boot of your army) sometimes they are less so(several pieces of the Spanish Armada). It occasionally gets murky whether or not it was a clear mistake that should have been foreseen at the time or really something we call a mistake now with the benefit of hindsight.

I did find it amazing just how many times in history an invading group has just taken it as a given that once they arrive the local population will greet them as liberators. This book certainly hammers home the idiom, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

One other thing I was happy about is this book spread out the criticism pretty well. Several chapters were devoted to US mistakes in Korea and Vietnam. England, Spain, France, Germany, and Russia all get highlighted. A couple African rebellions and wars I was completely unfamiliar with also get mentioned. The only spot the book really felt like it was piling on was against Napoleon. I’m certain he was a great general and had to build the empire somehow, but only reading about the fall certainly colors your whole perspective.

★★★☆☆ – Good lessons that shouldn’t be forgotten, but could use more depth in some areas and less in others. A reminder of my rating system

Sworn In Steel by Douglas Hulick

Second in the Tales of The Kin series and second in this review roundup we have Sworn in Steel. I greatly enjoyed book 1, Among Thieves, for its clever writing and setting. The second one is set in our same somewhat mystical , somewhat middle ages, and somewhat middle eastern city with our same main character picking up pretty quickly after the first book left off.

I won’t say too much more because that would reveal several key plot points of the first one, and the plot twists continue to be executed nicely in this one. Those plot twists really don’t come until the second half though. The first half is largely filled with things happening to our hero with very little interaction or initiation on his part. I was getting a little worried, but the second half is much better.

Not just does our hero retake the reigns, but does so in a manner that brings up lots of great questions about the nature of promises both to yourself and others. I know that sounds hokey but I’m having a hard time finding a better term. Oaths and expectations are a big theme throughout the book. When people have big expectations of you, what do you owe them in terms of leadership, honor, or faithfulness? Both books have had these themes, but they really start shining through in the second half of this book.

This series does have some of the best sword fight descriptions of any book I’ve ever read. I get the distinct impression the author actually knows quite a bit about fencing, and if he doesn’t he has successfully fooled me. These aren’t just two people swinging at each other. Feints, stances, parries, and lunges are all described, planned for, and executed artfully.

Obviously read the first one first, but even if you’re not a big fantasy fan you’ll still enjoy it because it’s mostly just a setting and not so much a central focus.

★★★★☆ – Slow start, but a resolution that’s worth the wait with great overarching questions. A reminder of my rating system

Eisenhorn Omnibus by Dan Abnett

Finally we come to the 850 page three book and two short story collection that is Eisenhorn. I’m reviewing it all as one book. The setting is the popular sci fi world known as Warhammer 40K. Humanity is beset on all sides by aliens, heretics, and demons. The noble inquisition and the powerful space marines are really all that stand in the way of us being wiped out. Eisenhorn is a member of the inquisition and all three books follow him over the course of several hundred years.

This was the second thing I’ve read in the 40K universe and I’m quite glad it wasn’t the first. There is quite the lexicon you’re expected to already have committed to memory before opening to page one. On a related note the author often switches between first and last names of characters, and given the number of characters introduced over the whole book, this can get confusing especially when you have children of previous characters referred to by the same last name.

One thing I do like in this book is the time scale. If you have someone doing in depth investigation across several planets, that isn’t a quick process. Although it doesn’t take up a lot of time in word count, just having the note that they had to spend 10 weeks digging through bureaucratic files in a musty basement may not be exciting, but it did give a level of realism that was nice.

Speaking of time frames, when the story covers one character over several centuries you expect some character growth, and here we come to my primary criticism of the book(s). The beginning of book one our character sets down their hard and firm philosophy. Then slowly you see him start to make a few exceptions and act in slightly different ways. You see him justify and rationalize it. I’d really been looking forward to the end of the book to see if our hero would finally give in to heresy as a necessary evil and suffer the consequences, or if he would reflect on the path he was going down and repent ahead of time.

Instead the final battle happens, in which the hero kind of uses a few tools he felt uncertain about, then two pages are devoted to epilogues of every character except the protagonist. We never see him actually deal with the consequences of his choices or even see if he understands the choices he has made. There was great character buildup and it ends on a complete whimper that left me feeling remarkably unsatisfied especially considering the page investment.

★★★☆☆ – There are some great sci fi elements, but it’s a tough intro to the setting and if you need character resolution stay far away. A reminder of my rating system

Prey By Michael Crichton (Book Review)

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Generally I only use a title in my review posts, but Prey is far too common a word in titles. I ran it through Barnes & Noble’s website and searched in ‘Books Only’. I got 2,372 results. My favorite of which is a vampire romance parody novel of Eat Pray Love titled Eat Prey Love. I will however be reviewing the 6th hit on the page, Prey by Michael Crichton.

It’s beach season and I love a good page turner of a novel to lounge in the sun with. This book certainly filled that need. It was a little slow early on, drawing out the anticipation a bit much, but it made up for that in the second half. Nice action scenes along with steady tension made the last 200 pages really fly by. I left feeling remarkably unsatisfied though, and I’m laying most of it on the shoulders of the main character.

He is supposed to be an incredibly bright project manager who is on the forefront of computing technology that uses genetics based programming. It is a real branch of computing and Crichton does include an interesting half bibliography half ‘would you like to know more?’ reading list at the end of the book. If you’ve read or seen Jurassic Park, the main character is supposed to be Dr. Grant. He is the specialist who has the know how to save the world from the evil that science has accidentally unleashed in it’s rush for progress.

In Jurassic Park though we had the two kids to ask the questions the audience needed answered in order to follow the plot. In Prey the main character jumps back and forth between brilliant deductions and asking really basic questions that I found it hard to believe he didn’t already know. When you’re writing sci-fi, and even though Prey is set present day there is fictional science running amok so I’d classify it as sci-fi, it’s important to have a character the audience can identify with that can help the reader feel like they aren’t completely out of their depth.

A classic example is Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies. The character is on a journey of growth and knowledge, so the audience can follow along in this strange world and still feel included. It’s fine to also have an Obi Wan Kenobi type intelligent character, but when that character is the protagonist and asks Luke level questions about basic things going on in the story, it makes the whole narrative feel substantially weaker.

In one scene the main character made some remarkably astute observations about how the program he helped write was behaving and used his environment to save his life and the lives of two others. It all flowed nicely and didn’t feel like a stretch for his character as all. On the other hand it takes him 400 pages to connect some mysteriously disintegrated computer chips he finds in the opening chapter with the entity he is fighting that he knows consumes carbon and other computer components. It felt repeatedly like the intelligence of the hero was entirely dependent on what the plot needed from him at the time and that killed the immersion I had and the enjoyment I took in his clever solutions.

On a similar note of immersion destroying but sadly cliched tropes, there is a scene about half way through in which two characters are killed. The two people are good friends with the main character and they’ve been close for many years. At no point does anyone suggest to call the police or get any sort of authority involved. Later on, phone lines get cut too, so it wouldn’t have been that hard to cut off communication earlier. Instead we have these two deaths happen and our lead just accepts it and gets back to business. The frequency of this plot hole is so sad that it is hilarious, or sad-larious if you will, but I generally thought Michael Crichton was above it.

As long as you’re prepared from truly questionable writing with the main character there is a lot of enjoyment to get out of this book. It did have some fun science ‘what if?’ scenarios and the action scenes are well handled. It isn’t the best of Crichton and it isn’t the best of the genre, but you can do worse if you’re looking for a light summer read.

★★★☆☆ – If you like Crichton go for it, just be prepared to not buy into the main character on any level. A reminder of my rating system

Skin Game (Book Review)

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My observant readers, which is of course all of you, will note I’m starting this post with the exact same 12 words as my last one and that after talking about fantasy series occasionally getting so long as to be intimidating to new readers I’m reviewing book number 15 in a fantasy series. Look, you’ve got a point, but no one likes a wiseass. I do promise to review some non fiction next(and do some politics which I may even post tonight!), but these last two release dates(for Quespin and Skin Game) had been circled on my calendar for a while.

I simply review things as I read them, but simply inserting a review of the 15th book in a series seems somewhat awkward, so I’m going to focus this piece on the series as a whole and whether it is worth your time to read enough to care about the 15th book. I’ll admit I may seem a little bias since I obviously thought it was worth getting to book 15, but that’s why my star rating system is set up the way it is.

The Dresden Files falls under the increasingly popular heading of urban fantasy. A broad definition of that would be fantasy elements brought into a modern day setting. The main character is a wizard who fights trolls and deals with faeries, but does so in the modern day city of Chicago. Harry Potter would be another example of an urban fantasy series. It is a genre I enjoy greatly and I’m happy to see it getting more attention as its own subset.

If you decide you might want to give this particular series a chance, I should warn you that first two books are probably the weakest in the series. It’s clear the author didn’t really have a solid focus yet and they were just kind of stumbling through plot points that someday might get woven into a much more coherent arc. They’re fun beach read type books, but the series doesn’t really hit it’s stride until book 5(Death Masks) which is one of my favorites of the whole series.

By that time, and especially by book 15, the world is fleshed out and there are multiple organizations running around each with their own agenda. Even better is that I can only think of one organization that is 100% malevolent. All of the organizations seem plausible because you can see most of their motivations and understand why they’re working in one direction or another. The main character has to work together with pretty much everyone at some point, and those sorts of shades of gray in characterization always make the world feel a little more real.

The other fun character in these books is the city of Chicago itself. If you know the city you will recognize locations. There is a large battle in the Shed Aquarium in one book and in another the giant skeletal T-Rex nicknamed Sue who lives in the Chicago Field Museum is brought back to life. It’s subtle, but it’s another one of those things that the author has used to make this fantasy novel seem that much more relatable for the reader.

Focusing on book number 15, it brings back my favorite of the more villainous groups and plots and schemes start running rampant from the start. The good guys, or at least the side we’re more sympathetic with, plays its side much more intelligently than good guys are normally allowed to when we have intrigue. Everyone knows there is going to be betrayal from the start, and it’s nice to see ample preparation taken.

I was warned ahead of time that I would likely shed some tears reading this book. Patrick Rothfuss, author of the Kingkiller chronicles, and James Marsters, reader of the Dresden Files for the audiobooks, both posted tweets about crying. I won’t lie, I cried. Telling you why would be a spoiler, but suffice to say there aren’t a lot of books I’ve cried during, and none of them could be classified as fantasy. I mention it as part of the review of the series as a whole. I am invested in these characters and I really do care about them. There isn’t much higher praise I can give a book.

I don’t think Skin Game is the best in the series, but it is certainly proof that the series isn’t slowing down and I will remain an avid reader. As for the series as a whole, I would recommend it to people who don’t normally read fantasy because there are plenty of modern elements abounding as well. This isn’t Tolkein’s world of elves and dwarves, but it’s a magical experience never the less.

 

★★★★☆ – My biggest problem is that I have to wait another year for the next one. A reminder of my rating system

Quespin (Book Review)

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My observant readers, which is of course all of you, will note the release date for this book is June 3rd, and today is the 4th. As much as I did enjoy this book, I didn’t read it all in one day. Amazon shipped me the book early. Ordinarily I would count this as a good thing, but the problem is they clearly shipped a copy that wasn’t meant for resale. There were mistakes on the back cover, type setting errors in the text itself, and the whole book was missing an author’s page. This was meant as a review copy for Amazon and wasn’t fully edited. I won’t be counting those details in my final rating because they obviously won’t be there in the product you would receive. Still neat getting a book before the release date though.

Whenever I try out a new author, especially in the fantasy genre, it seems there are already several thousand pages of books I’d need to read to get caught up. Sometimes that’s nice, knowing if I like the book there are a bunch more. More often though, I feel this odd aversion to a well established series because the train has already left the station so it seems awkward and/or too much work to get on board late(Dr. Who I’m looking at you). Quespin is the debut novel for author J C Anderson, and it felt nice getting in on the ground floor of a new series.

The book follows our title character as he grows up in a dwarven city sealed off under a mountain. The great war of years ago forced the mages of the city to seal the whole mountain trapping whoever was in the city at the time. The politics that led to and are a result of that decision are a source of most of the conflict in the book.

The limited environment to explore leads to a surprising number of rich characters. The story is all told from Quespin’s perspective, but many times it feels as if other characters are really the focus. That blends nicely with the fact that Quespin certainly feels that he is out of his element for much of the book. Either way it is good to see side characters get more than a trope or two for a personality and motivation.

The pacing of the book is extremely quick which both helps and hinders the experience. On one hand you won’t get bored while reading it, but there are moments that plot points are introduced far too rapidly. There were conversations I lost track of who exactly was saying what and there were pages I had to go back and reread because I wasn’t certain how a specific conclusion was reached.

The hints at a larger world are nicely fit in with the classic method of quotes from other books from the universe starting off each chapter. This is supposed to be the first in a trilogy so I’ll be interested to see if the author will continue to balance character growth and world building as well as was accomplished in this one or if it will fall victim to the genre trap of becoming too enamored with the world at the expense of the plot.

In the interest of full disclosure, I do know the author and consider them a good friend, so take that for what you will with my review.

★★★★☆ – If you like mixing your magic with your politics this is a fledgling series to check out.. A reminder of my rating system

Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why (Book Review)

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Everyone appreciates a joke on some level. The content, timing, and appreciation levels certainly differ from person to person, but humor seems to be one of those universal human experience things. Another item on that list is the constant asking of why. Why do we laugh? Why do we find anything funny? What’s the point?

The book Ha! sets out to answer those questions and other about the nature of laughter. The goal isn’t to answer them from a philosophical point of view, but more from a biological point of view. What purpose does laughter serve in the brain and what can we learn about how the brain processes information based upon the fact that we use laughter?

The theory proposed in the book has to do largely with conflict resolution. The brain enjoys figuring things out. When it figures something out it makes itself feel good with a boost of the chemical dopamine. Jokes require you to figure something out. When you get a joke you feel good and when you feel good you laugh. It would be wrong of me to imply the book is that drawn out over 250 pages.

There is a lot more covered in this book. A brief history of how comedy evolved through the 50s to today. Humor’s affects on the healing process are examined. Differences between the sexes in terms of when are more likely to laugh are brought up. Plenty of studies and tests are brought up to support each point, but the book never drags itself down with too many citations. Things keep moving at a good clip so you’re on to a new angle before you’re really bored.

My favorite chapter in the book involved a look at why we have such a hard time teaching computers to recognize humor. The examples of computers trying to write jokes are great both for their accidental comedic value and what it tells us about what jokes are funny. One of the computer written jokes was, “What do you call a device that can fly?” Answer: An Airplane Hanger! Did you laugh? I know I didn’t. The reason the computer thought it was funny though was because it had clothes hanger classified as a device, so it was going for double usage with the word hanger and hangar. When it was laid out like that I could understand what the computer was trying to do, and those are reasonably conclusions the computer made based upon its assumptions. The joke falls flat, and in so doing tells us exactly how tricky constructing a good joke can be.

The author does warn you that the book is not designed around helping you to be a funnier person, merely understanding what makes a funny person. The last chapter does include an account of the author going to an open mic stand up night just to get the experience though. It is just one of the many anecdotes in the book that keeps things light and will help many of the author’s points stick with you well after reading. If you’re interested in the interview with author that convinced me to add to this book to my reading list you can read or listen to it here[1].

It feels relevant, so I’m going to close this review with the single greatest joke I’ve ever read. It is the yardstick I measure all of my humor by and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tell a joke that will top it. The great comedian, writer, and co-founder of Monty Python John Cleese was answering questions from fans on a website. Each of his answers was brief and brilliant. After around a dozen snappy one liners, someone asks, “You seem to be a man of few words, could you tell us exactly how may words?” John Cleese answered, “Two.”

 

★★★★★ – Well written, informative, accessible, and humorous. Everything I could ask for in a pop science book.