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Non-Work Reading

Items that particularly stood out are in bold.

[ 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 |
2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010--2006 ]

2018/12

  • Our Kind of Traitor. le Carré. Vintage le Carré espionage translated into the modern era: A Russian gangster looks to defect, bearing information implicating important English political figures in financial crimes. The start of the book is a bit strange as it shifts between flashbacks and their framing, but then it picks up rhythm and reads quickly. Characters are ok, the main protagonist gangster in particular likable and interesting. The final notes are telegraphed well in advance, but up till then the plot twists and turns are engaging enough. Just learning how all the various Russian characters are connected is itself a good hook. The novel isn't a standout, but it's entertaining enough. The modernization of classic le Carré elements of operatives just past their prime, amateurs out of their depth, and above all the indomitableness of bureaucracy also does some work to emphasize the timeless nature of what I'd argue to be his main thesis: "Intelligence services" are simply overly-lauded bunglers who get lucky every now and then, but largely achieve little except suffering, mostly for other people.

2018/11

  • The Bird Eater. Ahlborn. A middle-aged man returns to his abandoned family home to mentally rebuild himself after a tragedy. Fast reading modern Southern US story of atmospheric horror and madness. Lot of good elements throughout, notably the central imagery of birds and the small town setting. Most characters are solid enough, and the text moves along fast enough for the couple weaker ones to not be a real problem. The book's gotten mixed reviews, with the primary negatives seemingly from people who wanted a lot more explanation and logical mechanics for the events. Personally I thought the denouement was just right, with the main strands and central premise explained just enough and just reasonable enough to be satisfying while also fantastical. It's a good creepy night-time read, with the generalized malice and foreboding combining well the actual violence to make a lighter but very "enjoyable" story of depression, madness, and horror.

2018/10

  • The Stars are Legion. Hurley. Two families compete for control of a constellation of dying artificial planets and a world-ship that might save them. This book is super different from almost all sci-fi you might assume from that 1-sentence capsule. A very accurate way to capture it is "What if Hieronymus Bosch was a woman and wrote a space opera." Everything is biological---the clothes, the weapons, the ships---and everything is monstrous: Corridors and staircases are carved into the world-flesh, women give birth to bio-mechanical parts needed for various systems, conquered people are thrown into an abyss to the center of the world to be eaten by gigantic, lumbering, cruel "recycling monsters." There's a lot of violence and gore, but none of it particularly over the top. It's instead the details that make the book quietly disturbing in a good way, like characters climbing up a cliff by grasping and stabbing into the fleshy knobs of the cliff's cancerous skin. Importantly, every character is a woman. Men are so far gone from the species that the concept isn't even remotely hinted at. That changes things, a lot. Birth and birthing infuses the entire book, from characters giving birth in the middle of epic quests to whole new worlds being born. Without ever being preachy, there's a lot of subtext on abortion and birth control, marriage, and abusive relationships. It's very clear throughout that the book simply doesn't come from a typical, male, sci-fi perspective, which is appealing. The plot on top of that is solid, and the worldbuilding detailed enough without going too far trying to make sense. Lots of great scenes and imagery throughout, and a notably mature final resolution among the main characters.
  • Acceptance. VanderMeer. Book 3 of the Southern Reach trilogy.
  • Authority. VanderMeer. Book 2 of the Southern Reach trilogy.
  • Annihilation. VanderMeer. Book 1 of the Southern Reach trilogy, in which the US government attempts to investigate, understand, and contain what seems to be another dimension imposing itself on the California coast. I have not seen the movie, which is related to the books only in title and a vaguely/arguably shared conceptual premise. Really good modern Lovecraft-styled fantasy horror: Elder gods, other dimensions, plagues and violence, jungle marches, small coastal towns, madness. All of it here just vague enough to not be silly, yet tangible enough to not fall into what I see as the Lovecraft pit of endless boring adjectival synonyms for "horrible" and "inexplicable." Annihilation is a "fun" exploration story with a good number of action elements, and stands well on its own. Authority is a more personable descent into madness, makes even bureaucratic infighting compelling, and has one of the best shock jumps/vignettes in the series. Acceptance explains more of the setting, for better or for worse, and is definitely the weakest part of the series, but wraps everything up in an open ended but satisfactory fashion, and features a very appealing primary character. A major theme of all of the books is solitude and fitting in, explored in various ways by different characters. All in all a very strong read for people who enjoy the juxtaposition of government and the modern world with the paranormal, safari adventure stories, small town horror, and psychological thrillers rooted on madness.

2018/07

  • The Ethical Slut. Easton and Hardy. Non-fiction self-help guide on non-monogamous and other relationships. I had initial reservations picking this up stemming from the title, and am still opposed to it. Most attempts to reclaim negative language, as the authors engage in here, just seem like largely futile extra work. In many cases the negative connotations are never going to be eliminated, so why carry them as baggage? Language changes, let it go. The use of "slut" throughout the book works within itself, after a while it's just a symbol on paper and isn't jarring. But it's an unnecessary barrier. For example, it seems to make it much harder to share specific passages with other people who haven't read through to accumulate that context. Even if nothing else, it's just an unnecessary brick in the potential dialog, something that has to be explained.
    The book is otherwise very good though. Some of the text and thinking can be validly accused of veering too far into New Age hippy-dippy nonsense. But that's mostly in introductions and flavor text. Much of the conceptual framework is definitely non-conventional, but no less elegant and useful for it. Other parts seem just downright useful, ways to think and talk through various issues. None of it's especially novel in this day and age, at least within my personal experience, but it's well thought out and presented, and feels refreshing regardless.
    Notably, much of the book applies even within conventional monogamous relationships. The strong rooting on a cohesive, reasonable foundation of self-respect and self-identity, tied with practical processes for communicating and working problems, make it seem much better than most other relationship self-help type books I've ever scanned.
  • Sex at Dawn. Ryan and Jethá. Non-fiction arguing against the "standard narrative" of the primacy of monogamy. This book is somewhat hard to categorically evaluate. In places it at minimum approaches pseudo-science, but in the precise sense that it's not necessarily wrong for perhaps being so? It's difficult to believe the authors apparently originally submitted the book for scientific publishing. Not realizing it would be rejected in peer review, as it was, betrays a concerning lack of self-awareness. It doesn't even matter to this point whether the conclusions are right, analysis comprehensive, etc., much of the tone and style of the book is more ranting and dumping than science, and they should have realized that. The content is also thinner than it seems. The authors frequently repeat claims and framing at length to make particular sections seem more substantive than they are, and make larger logical jumps than is often admitted in simply stating conclusions. Many of the asides and rhetorical devices are also overwrought. I've previously seen very negative reviews of this, and having read it can see why there are many rebuttals from scientists, ranging from personal blogs to journals to entire books (e.g., Sex at Dusk).
    All that said, I don't personally have much disbelief about the book's overall conclusions and suggestions---as opposed to some disputed details of fact or interpretation. I did not previously believe human monogamy was a necessary biological construct, and substantial contrary evidence seems pretty obvious. But there have indeed been people for whom and eras in which that view is/was heavily entrenched. These authors likely just could have more productively pushed back on that traditional mindset with a more reasoned tone and more careful approach.
  • Mating in Captivity. Perel. Non-fiction commentary---arguably not a self-help guide?---from a therapist about maintaining an energetic marriage. Largely a good and useful read, but I would have thought most of these were well understood ideas? Definitely hard to continuously practice and enact, but the main theme of maintaining personal boundaries and a sense of self, along with communication, aren't exactly all that novel? A very few parts also seem outright embarrassing---the chapter about sex on campus in particular reads every bit as naive and ahistorical, though admittedly much less negative, as any number of insipid New York Times columns bemoaning the same topic. All that said, I do think it is useful to have a reasonably well written dialog collecting these ideas and examples. Maybe there is more value to be had in focusing on the specifics as more of a guide than I am seeing at first blush reading through overall.
  • Committed. Gilbert. Creative non-fiction from the author of Eat, Love, Pray, about her subsequent marriage. Readable enough, but ultimately basically a middling travelogue/memoir. Unfortunately it overreaches a bit in being dressed up somewhat as sociology. For example, it repeatedly discusses early Christian emphasis on celibacy. Gilbert makes some natural interpretations from that, but doesn't inspire confidence they're very aware of scholarly work on the history and alternative theories (e.g., celibacy as a mechanism to counter rampant sexual exploitation and abuse among poor, often slavery-bound early Christians).
    Even as a travelogue/memoir, Committed feels limited in retrospect. There are major internal contradictions that do get addressed but only insufficiently. The early framing emphasizes the author as a perpetual wandering traveler, and also talks a lot about the value of circumstances inducing the protagonists to spend considerable time apart. But the whole drama is literally rooted in trying to settle down together in... New Jersey/Philly suburbs. And once those original circumstances prompting their time apart change, they immediately default into spending the whole year closely together. The author only eventually takes one tiny trip apart from her partner, at the very tail end of the story. These mismatches do get noted, but only very briefly. There's not nearly enough introspection paid to the stated beliefs and lifestyles versus what they actually do.
    Further, I'm not sure what to take from the book overall. The framing and the historical tidbits in particular push hard at times against monogamous marriage and related conventional expectations. But when you get down to it they're a very conventional couple, just a pair that started off by traveling quite a lot. Much more than I think the author acknowledges, the book isn't about marriage in general, but more specifically coming to terms with very conventional but secular rather than Christian marriage. Ultimately the secret fidelity vows, etc., just aren't that unusual at all unless you're looking from a very Christian perspective.

2018/06

  • Whitewater Philosophy. Ammons. Non-fiction musings on the meaning, hazards, and responsibilities of whitewater kayaking. Too much to say to have any thoughts here yet.

2018/04

  • Artemis. Weir. Essentially a steal-from-the-mob heist story set on a near future lunar colony. This is Weir's second book, following from the very successful The Martian, and... it's bad. Though deeply lacking in character complexity, The Martian worked because it told a simple but compelling space survival story with an authentic engineer's voice. Artemis has a dumb, predictable crime plot told with a completely inauthentic voice---Weir completely fails to make the ostensibly female & Muslim protagonist sound any different from the astronaut in his previous outing. Worse, over that inauthenticity and lame plot is laced a jarring stream of unfunny, PG rated sexual innuendo and commentary directed at the protagonist's expense. I'd say the book is at best generic, banal young adult science fiction, but kids should be exposed to better stories.

2018/03

  • Where You'll Find Me. Gagne. Non-fiction accounting of the death of Kate Matrosova while hiking in the Northern Presidentials. Too much to say to have any thoughts here yet.

2018/01

  • The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter. Goss. An entertaining mashup of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein's monster, Dr Moreau's animals, Van Helsing's vampire hunters, and a litany of other early sci-fi references. Regrettably I couldn't catch all the references, especially on the Dracula side of things of which I am not especially fluent. Many are fairly obscure, like Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter, which has a very prominent highlight here. Personally I'm not interested in this fad genre of trying to impressively reference as much nostalgic material as possible, but this one is readable enough in its own right. The style of the book takes a little getting used to at first, with callouts of fourth-wall breaking meta-dialog as the group of women ostensibly writing this documentary argue about how to write it. The novel also drags a bit at the end, too much expository closure. But it has a solid, interesting plot, and likable enough characters and relationships. A bit more deeply, the author is exploring and making interesting points about the role of women in all these early stories---Goss notes explicitly in the acknowledgements that the initial genesis of the book was thinking about how often the female monsters are anonymously cast aside. So there is more depth to this than some other mashups.
  • Our Human. Castro. Tor.com short. Second read. This is a good story about a team of bounty hunters tracking down some kind of unspecified war criminal. The basic ideas have really stuck with me since I first read it. Kind of an Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness vibe, with more perspective from the natives.
  • Bourbon, Sugar, Grace. Reisman. Tor.com short.
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