Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Book Review: Nemesis Games (The Expanse #5)

(Completely spoiler-free review) It's a little unfair of me to give this novel three stars. I enjoyed it as much as the previous four novels in the series, most of which earned four stars. It has the same technical detail, emotional realism, respect for all types of human experience, and surprising blockbuster events as the previous ones. In fact, you could argue that the events in this are bigger and more impactful than anything else that's happened in the series. Actually, that's my complaint. The story has gotten too big, and the sheer size of the story requires some plot convolutions and pacing issues that weren't present previously. Also, so much tragedy occurs in this episode that it's hard to be entertained by it. But you better believe I'm still holding myself back to read the next one ASAP. In the long run, Nemesis Games deftly sets up the last four books in the series and maintains almost everything I liked about the previous ones, so it's pretty miraculous in just doing that. I also like how the politically marginalized are given a detailed psychology and politics of their own in this. If I could give three and a half stars I could, but this is the best I can do to express my very slight disappointment.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Book Review: St. Francis of Assisi by G.K. Chesterton

I read this book not because I wanted to know more about St. Francis (that was a bonus), but because I wanted to observe how Chesterton structured his biographical sketch. It's cherry-picking at its best, because you know going in that it's cherry-picked. Chesterton, as always, is best at the big picture and worst at the details. I found Chesterton's sketch of St. Thomas Aquinas to be better, but there were many memorable bits in this one: Chesterton's theory for why the Dark Ages were so dark, his ability to show the real point of the miraculous so you don't get sidetracked arguing what doesn't really matter, and his argument that Francis's mirroring of Christ goes both ways are all worth the price of admission. This seems to be less dense than his other work, which makes it faster reading but also leaves you chewing on his statements a little less . Good middle-of-the-road Chesterton and what it was lacking (slightly) in content it made up in inspiring me to write my own biosketches someday. Maybe you can write your own too?

Book Review: Gwendy's Button Box

This one was over too soon. King and Chizmar (although it must have been King because he started the story) tell a story about a box that is the perfect blend of mystery and power. You want to press the buttons and find out what happens, but you're also afraid of it -- although I want more detail. The central character is believable and grows up convincingly through her interactions with others -- although I want more detail. The whole story is an entertaining contrivance, without much weight to it, like the button box itself. It's also well-crafted -- I had no idea it was co-written till it I found out through an interview at the end. If this is the product of King co-writing, then he should co-write more.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Book Review: Real Artists Don't Starve

It's a little hard for me to review this book because it's a little too familiar. As I've worked on writing over the past few years, I've collected stories about original artists and how they made their art (Neil Gaiman's 8 Rules for Writing are still stuck next to my computer). I read about the Inklings and Jim Henson, and Van Gogh and Michelangelo. In this book, I see many of those same stories collected and put together in an engaging, easy-to-read package, and I'm glad to see how much I've forgotten. Goins also adds some other stories I hadn't heard before, especially from the music business. One of the problems with a book like this is that ultimately it's a lot of things that worked for other people, and the exact same thing is never going to work for you. But as far as mildly myth-busting books go, this is a good one. Artists need patrons, and marketing isn't an inherently bad thing. This book is a welcome collection of reminders of those things we should already know but have somehow forgotten.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Book Review: Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn is book 4 of the Expanse series, and so much happens in each book that I've learned not to even read the synopsis of the next one till I finish the last one. I'm not sure if this is the best yet but it's certainly in the running, and it's a complex debate because each book is so good. My spoiler-free high points were where evolutionary convergence saves lives (that's a big thing of mine, taking up about a chapter in my own recent book) and how the epilogue turns a satisfying denouement into a harrowing harbinger of future chaos in a way that makes perfect sense but I never saw coming. My only wish is to have the characters be a little deeper: part of this is that the plot is so break-neck and inventive that there's not much time for character, One emotional arc in particular (Elvi's) is so much less than it could be. But I only detect that upon introspection after the fact: while reading/listening, these books are the most substantial fun I've had since the heydays of Michael Crichton's best work.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book Review: Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

I always read books in order, but I would recommend reading the notes at the end first for this book. That's the only place where you find out that this is not really a new Crichton novel, but an old one, about as old as I am (mid-70s from what I can tell). Knowing that would make me more impressed at how developed his style is for such an early work: how fluidly it reads and how rapidly it unspools the plot. It would also be clear why Crichton shelved it, despite its completeness. There's just not quite enough here to justify its publication, despite all the action. Crichton is edutainment, with the emphasis on the "-tainment," but his best books bring out things you never knew and never thought of before. There's nothing here that rises to that level, although cameos by some famous characters are fun. You learn a little more from this than you do taking a ride on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but it is pretty fun and it's an ultrafast read. I anticipate in a year I'll have trouble remembering if I actually read it.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Book Review: The Discarded Image

There should be a genre for "Books that are Like Sitting in that Professor's Class." If so, this would be a prime example of the genre. If you want to hear C.S. Lewis speaking about the subject he knows best -- the medieval mindset -- sit in this class, and find out not really what the medievals thought, but more how they thought and what they saw when they looked up into the sky at night. As I was reading this book, I attended a concert of 14th-century Gregorian chantels in Notre Dame. I thought it'd be Gregorian chant, like in that 90's radio song, but rather it was lively music with words as densely packed as the Hamilton concert. It felt more like music by my favorite band than echoey "church music." This sense of life and feeling intensely comingled fits exactly with Lewis's explanation of medieval literature. It's really that mind-opening. At the end, Lewis goes out on a philosophical limb a bit, and makes a very good point about how we see the things we want to see, but honestly, takes it too far. Still, given the liveliness of the period that is so scorned by others, I understand why he wanted to push back. And I'll even go so far as to say he's right, although the way in which he's right is better described by Owen Barfield (speaking at his best) than by Lewis himself. Regardless, this is what education and learning is about, and at the very least, it'll help medieval music concerts feel like present-day music to you, and will give you "medieval-colored glasses" through which to contemplate the world around you.

Book Review: The Spaemann Reader

I picked up this book to read one essay, Spaemann's classic on Nature. Then I read another essay about how art imitates nature. Then another about the end of modernity. And then I just gave in and read the whole thing (I did skip one about Rousseau, I have to confess). This is the kind of philosophy that draws me in because it says interesting and true things about big questions. I found out later that Spaemann may be Pope Benedict's favorite philosopher, and maybe that's a good way to choose who to read. He's definitely high on my list now. Also found out later that Spaemann was quoted extensively in Thomas Pfau's Minding the Modern, which I found to be similarly engrossing. So there's a little network of interesting thought, some of it under the umbrella of phenomenology, but whatever it's called, it's good stuff.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review: The Fountain and the Furnace by Maggie Ross

Sometimes the right book hits you at the right time. This book, by an Anglican hermit and centered around the experience of tears, was that book for me when I read it a few months ago. I didn't even want to review it publicly because it spoke so deeply, but then I realized that it might help someone else who is receiving the gift of tears. So, if you're that person, check out this book, its words are still rippling through my heart.

Book Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

I knew too much about this book before I started. The general premise is fascinating, and the world-building -- at least the world-building's initial premise -- has always stuck with me. Unfortunately, I read the book, and that's pretty much all there is to it. The book meanders around among several characters, and it ends up settling on a female character that I never found convincing in the least. Part of the problem may be the terrible audiobook version I listened to (it sounded a bit like Mr. Burns from the Simpsons trying to do a female voice), but my overall experience was slogging through internal monologues and business deals I didn't care about to get to some interesting speculation about reality and history and contingency. Then something would happen that wasn't really explained and it would switch to another character. I still have hopes that the TV series could expand on this world with better characters, plots, and politics, because it's a fascinating world. Finally, everyone depends on this Oracle fortune-telling mechanism in a way that just didn't seem realistic, but in the end that dependence may actually make sense. Still, I'm not sure and too many things are left unexplained for me to say I enjoyed this book. I can't even make this review coherent ...

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Review: The Story of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien

For a Tolkien fan, this is a lesser piece in the puzzle, but still very interesting. Kullervo's story is a story Tolkien translated and poeticized from a much older original. What's most rewarding is not the story itself but how its tragic themes are developed by the young Tolkien and how they grow into his later work. I found the essays at the end to be even more valuable than the story itself, because here Tolkien analyzes the old story, and it contains an insight about how we worked out puzzles through writing. For example, he was always bothered by why a man would steal a golden cup from the dragon in Beowulf, enraging the dragon and setting part 3 of the story into motion. So that motivated him to write a story about an unassuming hobbit conscripted to steal a cup from a dragon's hoard. That one insight made the book worthwhile for me. But I just told you, so should you read this? Probably only if you are a Tolkien completist or are interested in the process of translation.

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

This story is set in a Britain before the Norman Conquest but after King Arthur. It has swordfights, ancient knights, ogres, and magical dragons, but its real point is the relationship between an old couple on a journey to visit their son. Part of the point is the way the mists of forgetfulness swirl through the story, so I won't say much about the plot, except to say that you don't get tired of exploring the world, and yet the point is the relationships more than the world itself. Because of the setting and formal language, it evokes Tolkien and Beowulf, but it analyzes a marriage in a way Tolkien himself never approached. This is not epic, it is intimate. Though it's a slow build, it earns an intense, even devastating emotion as it nears the end. This is unlike any other book I've ever read, and its quiet elegance along with its natural groundedness won me over.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Book Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

In a book that covers a lifetime, I usually gravitate to the wartime chapters. In Atonement, the opposite is true, due to McEwan's ability to paint even household activities in vivid shades of meaning, and possibly due to his ability to communicate the mundane horror of war. The central character, Briony -- a writer who grows, hopes, then regrets -- is particularly compelling. A few sections of extended conversations involving submerged feelings didn't click for me (I almost put it down in Chapter 2), but that may be the audiobook's fault. Overall, it's an intimate story sumptuously told, and affecting, communicating deepest truths when exploring what drives a writer and how mistakes can overshadow a life.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Book Review: Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve

For a book on data analytics, this is very readable and engaging. I'm considering giving it to my freshman science writing class because it analyzes the familiar (authors like J.K. Rowling) using simple word-counting methods to determine interesting things like trends in opening lines, adherence in practice to their own stated rules for writing (most are true to their own advice, especially after they give it!), and, as the title suggests, favorite words. There's a mildly depressing part about how the bestselling books are now written at a 6th-grade level, when in the 1960s they were up around a 10th-grade level. Well, that one is more particularly depressing for a first-time author whose own book clocks in at a tenth-grade level, but I'm not sure if it counts as good news for anybody. This is more about introducing the idea of analysis than it is about really getting into what makes writing work. But for what it is, it's engaging and makes this reader want to do some analysis of his own.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Book Review: The Hobbit

So, once again, I went there and back again, reading The Hobbit aloud because my younger two boys are old enough. They were riveted by Tolkien's invention and humor -- it seems like we laughed more this time. Also, Tolkien's writing doesn't follow a three-act shape, but is surprising in how events unfold as well as which events unfold. Alas, if only Peter Jackson had been able to hold back ...

PS: Now my youngest runs around yelling "Attercop!" and "Tomnoddy!". I couldn't be more proud.

Book Review: God Matters by Herbert McCabe

I want to teach like Herbert McCabe writes. He takes the nearly-thousand-year-old ideas of Thomas Aquinas and sharpens them to fine points, then uses them to poke holes in all manner of shoddy thinking. He is a Dominican who writes so clearly about transubstantiation and the Immaculate Conception that they make sense to even this Protestant scientist. My understanding of sacraments, Holy Week, creation, even time itself was expanded by this book. The worst part is when other scholars write a chapter or so and he argues back and forth with them. These other scholars are good, but it's like sunspots, they look dark even though they're bright because they are against the backdrop of the sun itself. I find McCabe's politics challenging and (since most of this was written in the 80's) not quite as applicable, but still, it's a genuine loss for us that we don't have him around to comment on today's events.

Book Review: The Image of the City by Charles Williams

As a collection of essays, it's hard to give this a single rating. Three of the essays are as good as anything I've read: "Natural Goodness," "The Cross," and "The Way of Exchange." I assigned the first of the three in class to talk about the Fall and the Problem of Evil; the third of the three deserves to be taken seriously by anyone who thinks relationship and narrative should affect theology (by which I mean it deserved to be taken seriously by everyone). Williams coined the phrase "holy Luck" to describe the chance events that bring people into our spheres of influence, and months later I find myself still thinking of that. His theology of "exchange" may be more relevant now than it was in the 1940's. It's not all this powerful: I find the first section and last section to be least relevant because they are very literary and focused on Williams's Arthurian writing, which I have not read. But as for the high points of this book, there's nothing higher.

Book Review: Outlines of Romantic Theology by Charles Williams

There are two rules for reading Charles Williams: 1.) The later the better and 2.) The more about Dante the better. This book proves them both. The first half is an earlier set of several chapters where he outlines his ideas about "romantic theology." It's fine, but not vintage -- he's still working out his ideas and his Biblical analysis is a distinct angle but seems too constricted. The second half is a later essay that is a distilled version of The Figure of Beatrice and it boils down his insights to a 180-proof version. Probably the most accessible and best combo of pages vs. content that you'll find for this author.

Book Review: I'm Thinking of Ending Things

This is a nifty little book that doesn't overstay its welcome. I expect a book like this to have good twists and a genuinely creepy atmosphere, but there's a few character moments and subtle details that make it a cut above the rest. I almost wonder if it would be better if some key information were not deliberately withheld to give it some twists near the end. A good choice for an audiobook, too.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Invisible Power and the Role of the Artist

Fascinating interview with a filmmaker in Artspace that I found inspiring for my own writing. Here's the key quote, which focuses on invisible political power:

"The current system of power is fundamentally pretty invisible to us. It resides in finance, in all sorts of new kinds of management, and within computers and the media, which involves invisible algorithms that shape and manage what information we get. I think one of the most beautiful things artists and journalists can do at this moment in time is to be sympathetic and understanding to the people who voted for Brexit and Trump, and then bring to the fore the invisible power structures that those people feel completely distanced from so that they know where power is. And do it in such a way that isn’t obscure so people like me don’t have to read it three times just to understand it. Do it in a way that really grabs ordinary people’s imaginations."

This is what science writing does, in a way -- it brings to the fore the invisible power structures that shaped our world, although because those power structures are natural and bigger than humans, there's a lot different to the implications than the ones described in this quote or this interview.

As the subtitle to A World from Dust puts it, it tells "how the periodic table shaped life." The periodic table is an invisible power structure! And chemistry is the science of finding it out.