Friday, January 8, 2016

Books Read in 2015, Part 2

More books!  Always more books!


From the Top: Brief Transmissions from Tent Show Radio (Michael Perry)

Michael Perry has made a career writing about small town Wisconsin in memorably funny ways – if you haven’t read his stories about being a First Responder in Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, you should.  These are smaller pieces, designed, as the title says, to fit in the interstices of a radio show that is in fact broadcast from a tent.  His job is to introduce the show, close the show, and fill the six-minute interval between the first act and the second.  They’re funny in a way, but Perry seems to be striving more for a kind of warm, heartfelt, positive humor than anything else, and the stories therefore tend to dissolve into a soft-focus glow.  There are stories about neighbors and farms, family and life lessons, and they are worth reading if somewhat slight and a bit too heartwarming.  But then they’re only two or three pages each, so there you have it.

Philosophy and Terry Pratchett (Jacob M. Held and James B. South, eds.)

There is a small cottage industry in the more abstract corners of academia that is devoted to making those corners a bit more accessible to nonspecialists by tying them into things that normal people understand and like.  Whether Discworld aficionados are normal by any definition is an open question, I suppose, but we’re friendly and we buy books so this tie-in was perhaps natural.  And it is even more natural given the strong ethical framework that pervades most of Pratchett’s work.  Pratchett, who died earlier this year, was a strong believer in right and wrong.  “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things,” is perhaps his most succinct statement of beliefs, but you can’t read his books without drawing lessons everywhere.  This book collects thirteen essays from academic philosophers exploring philosophical issues through the lens of Pratchett’s work – mostly Discworld, though with forays into other works (notably Carpet People and the Johnny Maxwell series).  They are divided into four categories – 1) Self-Perception, Narrative, and Identity, 2) Social and Political Philosophy, 3) Ethics and the Good Life, and 4) Logic and Metaphysics.  The middle two sections are by far the strongest – the first section collects what seem to be graduate-student level musings while the last section reminds you of why nobody reads philosophers.  The middle sections, however, make good use of Pratchett to explore accessible and entertaining ideas.  Kevin Guilfoy’s “Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy on the Discworld,” Jennifer Jill Fellows’ “Categorically Not Cackling: The Will, Moral Fictions, and Witchcraft,” and Erica Neely’s “The Care of the Reaper Man: Death, the Auditors, and the Importance of Individuality” were the best essays as far as I was concerned.  What struck me, though, is that with nearly four dozen Discworld novels and perhaps two dozen other Pratchett novels to work from – easily five million published words – more than half of the essays made use of a single quote, part of an argument between Death (who speaks in capitals) and his granddaughter Susan:

So we can believe the big ones? 
They’re not the same at all! 
Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point – 

It’s a telling quote, and fairly typical of Pratchett’s thinking, but the fact that so many of these authors landed on it to springboard off into their own points is a bit odd when you think of it. 

Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer (Chuck Thompson)

I’m not sure why I read so many books about traveling these days, being the sort who is quite happy to stay at home, but there you have it.  Thompson has been a travel writer for decades now, and he is tired of the militantly optimistic, hopelessly cliched, relentlessly upselling writing that is the bread and butter of the travel industry.  Everything, he notes, is a combination of old and new, so why does this have to appear in every travel article?  This is a collection of memories about his travels, about how he got into traveling in the first place, about his experience editing a travel magazine, and about his general impressions of various cultures ranging from American to Latin American to Southeast Asian and Eastern European.  There are some funny bits in here, and some good advice for people who like to travel but would like to see more than just the package tours that are easy.  Thompson comes across as an entertaining man, though whether you’d like to spend time with him on a trip remains an open question.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (David Eagleman)

Have you ever wondered what the afterlife might be like?  Eagleman has.  And in this slim but thought-provoking book he collects forty different versions of what we might expect after we die.  They’re not tales in any meaningful sense – they don’t really have main characters (other than often employing a generic second-person “you”) and they’re not connected.  But his sense of the range of possibilities is fascinating.  In one afterlife you sit in a pleasantly lit facility until the last person who remembers your name dies.  For most people this is a generation or two, and then you go somewhere else – nobody knows where.  Some people are stuck there until the historians forget.  In another, you relive all of the experiences of your life, except grouped by like kinds.  “You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex.  You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes.  For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.”  In another, you discover that God is a fan of Mary Wollstonecraft.  Throughout it all there is the pervasive sense that neither humanity nor a benevolent God really understand each other very well, and from that gap comes inadvertent consequences.  It’s a book that stays with you.

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure – The “Good Parts” Version  (William Goldman)

Once more, with Lauren.  Lauren has decided that she is too old to read with Dad anymore, which I can respect even though it makes me sad.  This was a good book to go out on, though.

One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Kevin M. Kruse)

Where do Americans get the historically inaccurate idea that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation”?  It certainly isn’t from the Founding Fathers, who were very clear on the fact that this was not so.  They even incorporated that view into federal law in the 1790s, the relevant phrase being, “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded upon the Christian religion.”  And in fact much of the criticism of the federal government at the time of its founding – and throughout the 19th century as well – was precisely its lack of religion. Yet millions of Americans believe the whole Christian Nation fallacy anyway.  Kruse’s answer to this paradox is that the idea behind it was created by right-wing corporate lobbyists as a way to fight back against the New Deal.  That those lobbyists eventually found a champion in Eisenhower in the 1950s, but Eisenhower worked to twist their anti-government logic into a more inclusive kind of ceremonial content-free faith in order to bring Americans together.  And that having been firmly established in the minds of many Americans by 1960, the connection between Christianity and the federal government once again got taken over by right-wing anti-government activists in the 1960s – torn away from Eisenhower’s inclusiveness and returned to its polarizing partisan roots.  And this is the Christian Nation nonsense that we live with today.  Kruse does a very good job with the second and third parts of his argument – he follows and explains Eisenhower quite well, and he does a convincing job of showing how it gets turned into partisan issues in the 1960s with things like the Pledge of Allegiance and school prayer.   His last chapter skims forward through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 21st century, bringing the story up to date, and that is useful as well.  What he doesn’t do convincingly is tie it to the New Deal’s opponents.  Given that this is the foundation of his argument, it is surprising just how little that failure detracts from the overall success of his case.

The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack (Mark Leyner)

This is a book about itself, mostly, and a deep journey down the rabbit hole of self-referential redundancy it is.  On the one hand, it is a story about Ike Karton – Jersey City man, beloved of the many and fractious gods, and fated to die violently (a fact telegraphed very nearly from the first page).  On the other hand, it is a story about the epic saga told about Ike Karton by legions of “blind, drug-addled bards” who incorporate everything ever said about Ike and the saga itself – including every mention of this fact throughout the book – into a vast, repetitive, mind-numbing oral tradition.  If you took out all the parts that are repeated verbatim over and over and over again it would probably be half as long, and if you also took out all the bits that the author likely saw as playful or post-modern or similarly arch but which mostly serve to remind the reader why that sort of thing is largely confined to academia where it can do no harm to the rest of the world it would be half as long again, and if you did that you’d probably have a very interesting and enjoyable short story.  As it is, it was a lot of wading for not much story, but that was probably the author’s intent.  You get the feeling he was mostly aiming for the language of a story about a story and that the story itself was not really important to him.  It was an interesting experience, in a liberal arts sort of way – the way three-headed frogs are, well, interesting – but not one I’ll likely repeat with any of his other books.

Wool (Hugh Howey)

After the experimental and rather tiresome prose of the previous book, it was nice to get into an old-fashioned story, told in straightforward narrative with characters, plot, and setting.  And this is really old-fashioned – a tale straight out of the depths of the Cold War, and thus right up my alley.  It’s a post-apocalyptic story set in a huge silo that stretches some 140 stories below the ground.  The outside air is toxic, and for generations the people inside the silo have believed that they are the only humans alive.  They live in a highly stratified and regulated society, each person with a job and a place, and while they have democratic elections there are powers beyond them that do the actual controlling of things.  The biggest taboo in this society is to want to go Outside, and the punishment for that is to get your wish – to be sent outside to clean the lenses on the external cameras and then die of the toxins.  Howey takes his time setting up the story – you don’t actually meet the main character until nearly a hundred pages in – but it unfolds with a crispness that keeps you reading along.  And when you discover – as you pretty much knew all along you would – that there are other silos and that some people already knew this – then it gets complicated and even more interesting as the rules get both explained and demolished, with a fair amount of sympathy for both sides.  Howey originally self-published this book and it shows – the author bio, for example, is rife with the insecurities of someone desperately trying to prove he belongs with the big kids – but it is a well-told story deserving of a wide audience, and he should relax.

Damnation Alley (Roger Zelazny)

I’m not sure why I picked this up in the middle of the Silo Series, but it was late and I had a file folder full of post-apocalyptic novels from Humble Bundle to sift through and there you have it.  The United States – and likely most of the world – has been largely destroyed by nuclear war and by the freakishly harsh weather that followed it and continues decades later.  In Boston an outbreak of plague threatens to wipe out the fragile outpost of human civilization there.  In the nation of California (always identified as such), they have the cure.  And in between is Damnation Alley, a continent’s worth of weather, radiation, and predators both human and animal.  Into this goes Hell Tanner – former motorcycle gang member, now paroled for just this purpose.  He has an armored truck, a bad attitude, and just enough of a stubborn and humane streak to see the job through.  Written in 1968, the story feels a bit dated, especially in the odd psychedelic interludes toward the end and its general attitude toward women.  What a long, strange trip this is, though.

Shift (Hugh Howey)

The middle volumes of trilogies are pretty much by definition handicapped – they can’t really begin or end anything of much significance, and mostly they are tasked with the unenviable job of taking you from the first book to the last book without doing much of significance or losing your interest along the way.  Howey gets around this problem by making his middle volume a prequel of sorts.  This is where you find out the backstory to Wool, in three widely spaced parts that were originally published separately.  In the first we are back in a recognizably contemporary world.  Set a couple of decades from now, it follows the story of Donald – freshman Congressman and former architect – as he gets sucked into the project of building the Silos.  None of those events are remembered in Wool.  In the second, we follow events that are considered ancient history in Wool but are still dimly remembered.  These events acquire an urgency to them that was missing from their first telling in Wool.  And in the third we get a new perspective on the events of Wool themselves, as the story is told from the point of view of characters who were had either minor roles in Wool or were anonymous offstage presences entirely.  Once in a while, toward the end, you get entire scenes from Wool presented – much like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – word for word from the original only this time you are looking out from the other side of the conversation.  It’s a marvelously effective strategy, and by the time you reach the end you have caught up with the events of Wool and are eager for the final volume to bring the story to a close. 

Dust (Hugh Howey)

By the time Dust opens the storylines from Wool and Shift have come together and all that is left is to see where they go.  This is mostly the story of Juliette and Donald, the main characters from the first two books, and what happens to them when they collide with each other and with the world around them – all without ever actually meeting or even having any real understanding of the roles each other plays.  There is a lot of action and a surprising amount of violence, as well as a few short and ultimately wasted forays into larger social issues (the role of the religious group in Silo 18 is notably cartoonish, even for a reader like me who sympathizes with the point Howey was trying to make), but the characters are well drawn and you follow along rooting for them to figure it all out.  The action shifts between the three Silos already introduced in the series, as things once considered literally unthinkable in that universe become commonplace and then outdated.  Most good stories are ultimately about the crumbling of one world and the creation of a new one – either at a personal level or at a societal level – and this series is no exception.  The story ends rather abruptly and inconclusively, but it’s clear that the world of the Silos will not last much longer and Howey sets himself up well for a sequel series in the newly created world if he ever chooses to go down that path.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Richard Rhodes)

With the atomic bomb class that I teach set to run again last summer, I decided it would be a good time to reread the main textbook and get reacquainted with the material.  Despite being nearly 30 years old this is still by far the best single-volume history of the atomic bomb out there.  Rhodes is a good writer with an ear for stories, and he takes the bomb from its origins at the turn of the 20th century, when physicists were still working out the structure of the atom, to its use in 1945.  He has his axes to grind – he spends an awful lot of time parsing Niels Bohr’s personal philosophy and applying it to places it really does not fit, for example, and he clearly loves Leo Szilard – but overall it is a balanced and entertaining read.  This is the “25th Anniversary Edition,” which basically means a new cover and a new forward added before the previous forward – otherwise even the page numbering is the same as the previous edition.  Rhodes’ decision not to update anything in light of recent scholarship – or even technological change, such as the passage that discusses cathode ray tubes as the television screens “of today,” a description that will come as some surprise to a generation raised on flatscreen televisions – is a bit of a puzzle, but the book holds up well regardless.

Mrs. Bradshaw’s Handbook to Travelling Upon the Ankh-Morpork & Sto Plains Hygienic Railway (Terry Pratchett, aided and abetted by the Discworld Emporium)

In the 19th century travelers would often purchase guidebooks like these, written by people who had gone before them and could describe the accommodations, conditions, and other aspects of travel so they would know what to expect.  And in the grand tradition of the Ankh-Morpork City Guide – another spot-on parody of a 19th-century literary genre – there is this.  Purportedly written by one Georgina Bradshaw, it is exactly what it says it is.  It lists entertainments, hotels, restaurants, and festivals for every town along the routes taken by the AM&SPHR, as well as travel tips and unsolicited opinions and advice.  I’m not sure how much Pratchett actually had to do with this book – my guess is not much – but it’s a pleasant diversion.

The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi)

In the near future, calorie companies will occupy the same economic and political niche as oil companies do today, according to this grim but remarkably textured novel.  When the oil ran out, the Contraction began.  Now the world has begun a second Expansion, one powered by muscle and driven by genetic manipulation.  Foodstuffs are under siege – few of the varieties from the Expansion era have survived the engineered plagues, and fewer still of the governments have survived with them.  Anderson Lake represents AgriGen, a calorie company based in Des Moines, which seems to have become the capital of a vast empire that is left mostly offstage.  He works in an expanded and vastly different Thailand, ostensibly running a factory that makes kink-springs (the new source of portable energy) but in reality seeking new foods or seeds for AgriGen to use.  This will entangle him in the world of Thai politics and law enforcement.  It will also entangle him with Emiko, a New Human created in Japan and entirely unsuited for the Thai climate.  It will get him caught up with Hock Sen, an old Chinese refugee from Malaysia.  The intrigue swirls and the grit and poverty of the new Thailand become as much a character as any named person here.  It’s a difficult book to follow, as the initial setup – Anderson’s fascination with a new kind of fruit that he finds on a Thai market stall and what this might mean to his calorie company – gets lost in the shuffle about halfway through and the plot switches over to larger issues, but as a created world it is fascinating.

The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians (Cynthia C. Kelly, ed.)

This is a collection of snippets from a staggeringly wide variety of people who all had one thing in common – they were involved, in some way, with the creation of the atomic bomb during WWII.  Some of these came from things I’d already read and some were new to me, but most were on point and interesting.  The book is divided into sections covering various aspects of the project – the odd partnership between General Leslie Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer gets a section, for example – and there is plenty here to think about. 

Atomic Farmgirl: Growing Up Right in the Wrong Place (Teri Hein)

The Hanford facility of the Manhattan project has been called the most polluted place in the Western world by people who ought to know.  Its mission, during WWII, was to create the plutonium that powered the Trinity test and the Nagasaki bomb, a tricky process given that plutonium does not occur in nature and once created has to be separated out from a witch’s brew of lethally radioactive waste products that are created alongside of it.  Those waste products have to be stored somewhere, and that somewhere was not all that far from the wheat farm on which Teri Hein grew up.  Hein’s book is mostly a memoir of a place.  She delves into the 19th-century history of the eastern Washington State Palouse, with its Indian wars and its Appaloosa horses.  She lovingly and breezily recreates her family life growing up in the 1950s and 1960s there, naming names and passing along the kind of casually stinging judgments that friends and family always have for each other but rarely air in public.  And she details the health woes of the people around her, a disproportionate number of whom developed cancers of varying kinds.  She does not deal with them very much, the title of the book notwithstanding, and she says up front that she cannot prove that their health problems are related to Hanford though she believes they are.  Mostly it’s a chatty little memoir of growing up in post-war rural America, barely framed by the larger issue of the title.

Daybreak (Brian Ralph)

This was another of the graphic novels that I downloaded from Humble Bundle’s post-apocalyptic offering, and it was a quick read.  It’s the story of a boy in a shattered urban landscape filled with zombies of some kind – shambling, hostile, mostly off-screen evils who can transmit their condition through bites or scratches.  The boy has one hand, a source of innumerable puns, and it is a story of his inevitable destruction.  It’s told in an odd sort of second-person style with the POV being the reader, who is constantly addressed as if part of the story.  It’s a grim story but a well-written one, and the wood-cut style sienna drawings carry the action pretty well. 

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia (Michael Booth)

The Scandinavian countries – broadly defined to include not only Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, but also Iceland and Finland – hold a special place in the imagination of Europeans and Americans.  On the plus side, they are usually seen as restrained, prosperous, egalitarian places full of decent people with quality healthcare.  On the downside, they are seen as having incredibly high taxes, boring food, and poor social skills.  Above all, they are seen as nearly interchangeable.  As always with stereotypes there is a grain of truth in all of this, but the larger truths are much more involved.  Michael Booth is an English journalist married to a Danish woman.  He has lived in Denmark for quite some time, and this is his effort to understand both the similarities and differences between the Nordic countries and the larger truths behind the stereotypes.  And mostly he succeeds.  He has clearly spent a fair amount of time in these countries and spoken with a great many people, and he is an entertaining writer with an eye for a good story.  He starts with a fairly detailed analysis of Denmark – the longest section of the book – and then moves by country through the others.  He very much loves the Finns.  The Swedes seem to irritate him, as they do much of the rest of Scandinavia.  The Norwegians are an odd mix of off-putting and fascinating for him.  The Icelanders mystify him.  And the Danes?  Well, he lives there and sees more of the complexity of the place than he does elsewhere.  Booth is still very much an Englishman, one who would probably find himself on the more conservative end of politics in his own country and throughout Scandinavia (which still puts him at most center-left on an American scale, as the US is far more right-wing than anything in mainstream Europe), and this colors his analysis somewhat.  But taken as one man’s rather opinionated travelogue through the north, this is an entertaining and informative book that is well worth the time.

Doughnut (Tom Holt)

When I was reading Holt’s book, The Outsourcerer’s Apprentice, I got the feeling that it was the second book in a series – and I was right.  This is the first book, the one that explains, more or less, how the various alternate worlds were created and why the obsession with ring-like foods.  Theo Bernstein has had a hard time of it when the story opens.  Through a minor calculation error he has managed to destroy the Very Very Large Hadron Collider and the mountain it was inside of, which ultimately leaves him broke, divorced, and ready for a mysterious offer from his former mentor.  That offer eventually finds him cruising the multiverses for his brother Max and what solace he can find.  It’s not a book that ties things up very neatly, and it doesn’t lead directly into The Outsourcerer’s Apprentice so much as obliquely set up its parameters.  But it is full of Holt’s trademark dry British humor, hurtling pace, and twisting plotlines, and that’s a grand thing.

A Dirty Job (Christopher Moore)

When you read a Christopher Moore book you pretty much know what you are going to get: laugh-out-loud vulgarity, deft plotting, and the occasional moment of humanity, all swirled together into some of the most entertaining writing being put to paper today.  I’ve read this one before – it’s my second favorite of his books, after Lamb – but I gave a presentation this summer for a friend of mine who paid me with an ARC of the sequel, so I figured I’d reread the first one beforehand.  I was not disappointed.  Charles Asher runs a second-hand shop in San Francisco.  He’s a Beta Male, hopelessly in love with his wife, who dies in the first chapter not long after giving birth to their daughter Sophie.  Through a series of events involving a seven-foot tall black man in a pale green suit, a book entitled The Great Big Book of Death, and a fair amount of misunderstanding, Charles finds himself to be a Death Merchant – one of a small handful of people charged with collecting the souls of the dying and making sure they move on to the right person for the next stage of their journey.  Naturally he screws this up, and from that premise – as they say – hilarity ensues.  Moore populates this novel with a cast of misfits – Charlie’s employees Lily and Ray, his neighbors Mrs. Ling and Mrs. Korjev, the Emperor of San Francisco, and Inspector Rivera – as well as a host of demons trying to take over the Above.  There are moments of raw humanity – Moore obviously spent some time with hospice workers, and he thanks some of them in the acknowledgements – and more moments of outright absurdity, and when it is all over (Sophie is seven by that point) things are resolved, more or less.

Secondhand Souls (Christopher Moore)

It’s a bit later than the events of A Dirty Job, and things have calmed down somewhat, though not entirely, and new crises are emerging.  The forces of darkness have regrouped and are once again threatening Charlie (in his various new forms) and the universe in general.  This time Charlie Asher and his found family of misfits and loved ones has to contend with not only the Morrigan from last time, but also a bean sidhe (pronounced “banshee,” in the inscrutable way of Gaelic words and phrases) and a tall man dressed entirely in yellow who is both familiar and something quite apart, and they have to do it without Sophie’s “goggies” – her protective hellhounds.  Christopher Moore writes some of the best comic dialogue in American literature, and he is at the top of his game in that department in this novel ("What the fuck's a shivah?"  "I think it's that Hindu god with all the arms."  "That can't be right. The Goldsteins are going to sit on it with me.").  He is also introducing more thoughtful ideas underneath his stories now, adding depth to them.  This book plays a lot with notions of death and dying, dignity and humanity, for example.  The parts with Concepcion and Mike explore this, for example, though some of Mike’s story can be more than a little disturbing if you think past the comic overtones. There’s a fair bit of Buddhism in this book, and Egyptian mythology as well.  In the end it works out happily, though as with all of Moore’s novels perhaps not as one might have expected.


vince said...

I recently bough and read The Windup Girl, and really enjoyed it.

David said...

I read his "Shipbreaker" as well, and it was also good. I'll have to watch for more of his books.