Sunday, December 31, 2023

December 2023's Burgoine Reviews & Pearl Rule Reviews

Author 'Nathan Burgoine posted this simple, direct method of not getting paralyzed by the prospect of having to write reviews. The Three-Sentence Review is, as he notes, very helpful and also simple to achieve. I get completely unmanned at the idea of saying something trenchant about each book I read, when there often just isn't that much to I can use this structure to say what I think is the most important idea I took away from the read and not try to dig for more.

Think about using it yourselves!


Celest by Sandy Robson

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Has Celest been kept safe from harm, or have we been kept safe from her? She's afraid of the sun and she's terrified of turning 18. This is the start of a love story that could bring the end of days. What is real? Who is lying and why does everyone she touch—die?


My Review
: This is the endlessly popular "exceptional teenager" story that I never much liked. It's written competently. It follows all the beats of the formula.

If you like this kind of thing, it's liable to please you. I don't; it didn't.

A Kindle edition (non-affiliate Amazon link) will set you back $4.99.


Empire of the Damned - Sampler by Jay Kristoff

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Gabriel de León has saved the Holy Grail from death, but his chance to end the endless night is lost.

After turning his back on his silversaint brothers once and for all, Gabriel and the Grail set out to learn the truth of how Daysdeath might finally be undone.

But the last silversaint faces peril, within and without. Pursued by children of the Forever King, drawn into wars and webs centuries in the weaving, and ravaged by his own rising bloodlust, Gabriel may not survive to see the truth of the Grail revealed.

A truth that may be too awful for any to imagine.


My Review
: Samplers don't really tell you that much about a read in its entirety, but they do tell you if you are going to want to stick it out for over 700 pages of the story.

I don't want to this time, to my surprise; I felt fatigued almost from the start, like I was just being lectured at. This was not at all what I expected.

Disappointing, but YMMV.

Preorder your Kindle edition for delivery in March 2024.


Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her "head-for-the-hills bag". In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father's junkyard.

Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education and no one to intervene when one of Tara's older brothers became violent.

Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she'd traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one's life through new eyes and the will to change it.


My Review
: Pleasant enough read, much like any memoir about an adolescent abused-by-misogyny-addled-man will be. Clearly her experiences were awful. I feel voyeuristic reading these kinds of books, since I have nothing to offer the author for their baring of painful past wounds except money in royalties. If you liked Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family, this will please you.

Kindle editions are $9.99 (non-affiliate Amazon link).


Blind Vigil (Rick Cahill #7) by Matt Coyle

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Anthony and Lefty Award-winning Author

A friend arrested for murder. A vicious killer lurking in the shadows. A world of darkness.

Blinded by a gunshot wound to the face while working as a private investigator nine months ago, Rick Cahill is now sure of only one thing: he has to start a new life and leave his old one behind.

He’s still trying to figure out what that life is when his onetime partner, Moira MacFarlane, asks for his help on a case she’s taken for Rick’s former best friend. The case is simple and Moira only needs Rick for one interview, but Rick is wary of waking sleeping demons.

Ultimately, he goes against his gut and takes the case which quickly turns deadly. Rick’s old compulsion of finding the truth no matter the cost—the same compulsion that cost him his eyesight and almost his life—battles against his desire to escape his past.

The stakes are raised when Rick’s friend is implicated in murder and needs his help. Can he help the friend he no longer trusts while questioning his own lessened capabilities? His life depends on the answer as a shadowy killer lurks in the darkness.


My Review
: I jumped into this series at book #7 because a) I'm a grizzled old veteran of the private-eye book wars, 2) the character undergoes the titular loss of sight, therefore is going to have to make big adjustments...thus effectively starting a new series, and lastly, I am always down for something escapist and plot-driven during the long nighttimes of the northern US's winters.

Billed as just right for John Sandford fans, this is one where I think the publisher undersells the read. The pacing and prose work together, a thing it never felt to me that Sandford does. There's no stop the action while I talk to you groundlings in these books, which I do feel in Sanford's work.

$11.49 on Kindle (non-affiliate Amazon link).


Last Redemption (Rick Cahill #8) by Matt Coyle

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: San Diego Writer’s Festival Mystery Writer of the Year for 2021

Anthony, Shamus, and Lefty Award-winning Author

Will Rick Cahill survive an insidious disease long enough to see his first-born child—or will sadistic killers murder him first?

Rick Cahill is finally living a settled, happy life. His fiancée, Leah Landingham, is pregnant with their first child and he is doing PI work that pays well and keeps him out of danger. Then a doctor gives him the bad news about the headaches he’s been suffering—CTE, the pro football disease that leads to senility and early death—a secret he keeps from Leah and his best friend Moira MacFarlane.

When Moira asks him to monitor her son, Luke—who’s broken a restraining order to stay away from his girl-friend—a simple surveillance explodes into greed, deceit, and murder. Luke goes missing, and Rick’s dogged determination compels him to follow clues that lead to the exploration of high finance and DNA cancer research.

Ultimately, Rick is forced to battle sadistic killers as he tries to find Luke and stay alive long enough to see the birth of his child.


My Review
: Clearly this series was my binge-thriller one for 2023. This read is still fast-paced, but Cahill's CTE brain damage is very much a point of drama in his life, as we saw in Blind Vigil.

I usually steer clear of child-endangerment stories because they're so often about girls in sexual predators' hands, but this one was (thankfully) free of that taint. Very exciting, surprising stuff...all done by a guy with a neurodegenerative disease.

$11.49 on Kindle (non-affiliate Amazon link).


Doomed Legacy (Rick Cahill #9) by Matt Coyle

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A sinister private detective agency, a shady shell corporation, and a dead friend—Rick Cahill is on his most dangerous mission yet

Private investigator Rick Cahill has been running from his past and chasing the truth his whole life. But his past is relentless—and so is his CTE, a disease caused by repeated head traumas that has attacked his body and his mind. As his CTE progresses, he realizes that the disease not only threatens his life but also endangers his family's wellbeing.

As Rick struggles to keep his family together, he does a favor for Sara Ansari, a business contact. Then, Sara is murdered, and the police believe her to be yet another victim of a serial rapist who has been terrorizing greater San Diego. But Rick has reason to question their theory. Determined to find the truth at any cost, and against his wife's warnings, he investigates on his own.

Along the way, he bumps up against a sinister private investigative agency and a shady shell corporation that may be hiding more than company secrets. As Rick digs for the truth about Sara's death, he risks his own life and the lives of countless innocents caught in his relentless crusade. Ultimately, Rick must decide if his quest is worth the risk of losing his family forever.


My Review
: The terrible costs of CTE have forced Cahill to focus on desk jobs to keep his understandably worried wife from nagging...he knows she's right, but when someone he's close to is murdered...well, old habits dying hard is part of the charm in a series like this.

Plus Midnight the dog is such a great character foil! Scratches the ma'at needs of a series-crime-fighting reader to perfection.

$11.49 on Kindle (non-affiliate Amazon link).


Odyssey’s End (Rick Cahill #10) by Matt Coyle

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Brain disease worsening, Rick Cahill risks everything— even his life— to provide for his fractured family's future

San Diego private investigator Rick Cahill's past comes back to haunt him when he's at his most vulnerable. His wife, Leah, has fled with their daughter, Krista, to her parents' home in Santa Barbara. She fears Rick's violent outbursts brought on by his potentially fatal brain disorder, CTE— and she doesn't trust that he'll ever be able to tame his manic desire to bring his own brand of justice to an unjust world.

Rick desperately wants to reunite his family and help provide for Krista' s future— one he fears he won't be alive to see. A jumpstart toward that future appears in the form of Peter Stone, Rick's longtime enemy. Stone offers Rick $50,000 to find a woman he claims can save his life with a bone marrow transplant. Rick can' t pass up the chance to buttress Krista's future.

When what seems like a simple missing person case spirals out of control into cryptocurrency machinations, dead bodies, and an outgunned faceoff, Rick is forced to battle evil from his past. Can he stay alive long enough to see his family one last time?


My Review
: The tenth in the series, fourth that I've read; Cahill's decline is getting more and more shatteringly obvious, and I know I was so angry and sad that this good-hearted guy has to pay such a steep price for his past. A man's bad decisions robbing him of his family in the present, and of any hope of a long-term future, is an evergreen plot arc in the series-crime-solving world.

Solid outing, believable stakes, the usual good genre writing.

$11.49 on Kindle (non-affiliate Amazon link).


This space is dedicated to Nancy Pearl's Rule of 50, or "the Pearl Rule" as I've always called it. After realizing five times in December 2021 alone that I'd already Pearl-Ruled a book I picked up on a whim, I realized how close my Half-heimer's is getting to the full-on article. Hence my decision to track my Pearls!

As she says:
People frequently ask me how many pages they should give a book before they give up on it. In response to that question, I came up with my “rule of fifty,” which is based on the shortness of time and the immensity of the world of books. If you’re fifty years of age or younger, give a book fifty pages before you decide to commit to reading it or give it up. If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100—the result is the number of pages you should read before making your decision to stay with it or quit.

So this space will be each month's listing of Pearl-Ruled books. Earlier Pearl-Rule posts will be linked below the current month's crop.



The Hank Show: How a House-Painting, Drug-Running DEA Informant Built the Machine That Rules Our Lives by McKenzie Funk

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: The bizarre and captivating story of the most important person you've never heard of.

The world we live in today, where everything is tracked by corporations and governments, originates with one manic, elusive, utterly unique man―as prone to bullying as he was to fits of surpassing generosity and surprising genius. His name was Hank Asher, and his life was a strange and spectacular show that changed the course of the future.

In The Hank Show, critically acclaimed author and journalist McKenzie Funk relates Asher's stranger-than-fiction story―he careened from drug-running pilot to alleged CIA asset, only to be reborn as the pioneering computer programmer known as the father of data fusion. He was the multimillionaire whose creations now power a new reality where your every move is tracked by police departments, intelligence agencies, political parties, and financial firms alike. But his success was not without setbacks. He truly lived nine lives, on top of the world one minute, only to be forced out of the companies he founded and blamed for data breaches resulting in major lawsuits and market chaos.

In the vein of the blockbuster movie Catch Me if You Can, this spellbinding work of narrative nonfiction propels you forward on a forty year journey of intrigue and innovation, from Colombia to the White House and from Silicon Valley to the 2016 Trump campaign, focusing a lens on the dark side of American business and its impact on the everyday fabric of our modern lives.


My Review
: I should love this book. I agree with the unstated but amply footnoted contention that Big Data is Bad, and was built to be that way from the start. But when reliving the utter and complete clusterfuck that was the 2000 election, an realizing what I'd hitherto not known...that this jackanapes was in the debacle up to his eyebrows...I lost any further interest in pursuing the read.

Just tell me where he's buried so I can go shit on his grave.

If you're more forgiving, or a lot younger and thus without the bad memories, than I am, a Kindle copy will set you back $14.99. (non-affiliate Amazon link)



Buying Reality: Political Ads, Money, and Local Television News by Danilo Yanich

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says:From a certain perspective, the biggest political story of 2016 was how the candidate who bought three-quarters of the political ads lost to the one whose every provocative Tweet set the agenda for the day’s news coverage. With the arrival of bot farms, microtargeted Facebook ads, and Cambridge Analytica, isn’t the age of political ads on local TV coming to a close?

You might think. But you’d be wrong to the tune of $4.4 billion just in 2016. In U.S. elections, there’s a lot more at stake than the presidency. TV spending has gone up dramatically since 2006, for both presidential and down-ballot races for congressional seats, governorships, and state legislatures—and the 2020 campaign shows no signs of bucking this trend. When candidates don’t enjoy the name recognition and celebrity of the presidential contenders, it’s very much business as usual. They rely on the local TV newscasts, watched by 30 million people every day—not Tweets—to convey their messages to an audience more fragmented than ever.

At the same time, the nationalization of news and consolidation of local stations under juggernauts like Nexstar Media and Sinclair Broadcasting mean a decreasing share of time devoted to down-ballot politics—almost 90 percent of 2016’s local political stories focused on the presidential race. Without coverage of local issues and races, ad buys are the only chance most candidates have to get their messages in front of a broadcast audience.

On local TV news, political ads create the reality of local races—a reality that is not meant to inform voters but to persuade them. Voters are left to their own devices to fill in the space between what the ads say—the bought reality—and what political stories used to cover.


My Review
: Well-written, if academic in tone; impeccably researched and footnoted; a really good book and an important read. I just Can Not Deal. Sickened, outraged, horrified, furious...these are not the emotional states I want to evoke as I enter 2024. Reality is doing it for me, I do not wish to add to my negativity burdens.

A Kindle edition will set you back a cool $31.64, but I will tell you it is worth the money and more...just be in the right frame of mind to get your mind around the scary realities of the present.



Surviving Gen X by Jo Szewczyk
Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Enter the neon-soaked world of Las Vegas in the 1990s with Surviving Gen X—a gripping and timely political work that follows the story of an unnamed man and an abused housewife as they navigate the city's dangerous underbelly.

Through their journey, they find solace in each other as the broken city attempts to destroy them. Unfolding like an electrifying dream, Surviving Gen X is an intensely intimate and profoundly moving tale packed with humor, heartache, and the quest for survival.


My Review
: My goodness, was this book trying too hard. I don't know what the heck was so transgressive as to give the author the idea a warning of the D/s lifestyle was necessary, but the warning I needed was about how awful all the women were. Terrible, thoughtless, rude. I just don't want to read any more about any of them.

YMMV, of course, so a Kindle edition is $5.99.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

THE ARREST, cozy catastrophe from a monadnock of literary SF


$16.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: The Arrest isn't post-apocalypse. It isn't a dystopia. It isn't a utopia. It's just what happens when much of what we take for granted—cars, guns, computers, and airplanes, for starters—stops working... Before the Arrest, Sandy Duplessis had a reasonably good life as a screenwriter in L.A. An old college friend and writing partner, the charismatic and malicious Peter Todbaum, had become one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. That didn't hurt.

Now, post-Arrest, nothing is what it was. Sandy, who calls himself Journeyman, has landed in rural Maine. There he assists the butcher and delivers the food grown by his sister, Maddy, at her organic farm. But then Todbaum shows up in an extraordinary a retrofitted tunnel-digger powered by a nuclear reactor. Todbaum has spent the Arrest smashing his way across a fragmented and phantasmagorical United States, trailing enmities all the way. Plopping back into the siblings' life with his usual odious panache, his motives are entirely unclear. Can it be that Todbaum wants to produce one more extravaganza? Whatever he's up to, it may fall to Journeyman to stop him. Written with unrepentant joy and shot through with just the right amount of contemporary dread, The Arrest is speculative fiction at its absolute finest.


My Review
: I should've read this in 2020. It would've suited the mood of that plague-stopped world perfectly.

Since I didn't, I read the book without any frisson whatsoever. As always with Lethem's writing, the sentences pass with their unshowy but tremendously high level of craftsmanship causing them to slide directly into your brain. This, despite every character being pretty much...average. They don't stand out; they aren't meant to. This is a cozy catastrophe, not a Hero's Journey. I don't know if that was Author Lethem's intent but it's what we got.

The most vivid presence, the one truly blaringly alive character, isn't the blah "Journeyman" ycleture entirely self-generated as no one addresses or refers to the main character by that name...but Todbaum (literally "death tree") the thinly-veiled satirical caricature of 45. Plowing through the landscape, crushing all remaining shelter and destroying the livelihoods of all unlucky enough to be in his way, his nuclear-powered engine of destruction was made before the catastrophe of The Arrest so is the only surviving example of technology that Lethem posits destroyed us. Now, in the post-Arrest world, people are clueless and helpless. Then here comes Todbaum to destroy them anew with his sociopathic indifference and hoarded tech.

Pretty on-the-nose as a caricature of 45, but equally applicable to the billionaire class and their survival bunkers as a whole.

What would've worked better for me, personally, in 2020 was the laying-bare of the then-president's sociopathy before January 6th, 2021, rendered fiction about his toxicity irrelevant to the point of becoming distasteful. I was mildly amused, and always entertained, by the story. I was never inside it, or moved to want more of it. I read the book and appreciated the author's skill. I didn't invest in anyone inside the story but watched passively as events happened to and around them.

In a way I suppose this is as close as I can get to the experience of people who consume stories by staring at them on TV. I accepted what I was shown. I never once thought about whys, or hows, or what-ifs. What's here is all there is. This is not my preference, to be honest; it leaves me outside and while I expect that was the point, I didn't enjoy it much.

For me, this was a case of wishy meets washy in a beige future world that's too much and not enough like the present for it to work as allegory, satire, or parable. I'd be angry and upset with it, except that it's too well-made, too craftsmanlike, to truly disappoint that much. While it delivers what it promises it will, it doesn't delight the way Author Lethem most assuredly can.

IN THE NAME OF DESIRE, classic of Brazilian gay-male literature

(tr. João Nemi Neto & Ben de Witte)
Sundial House/Columbia Universty Press
$16.00 trade paper, available tomorrow

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: In the Name of Desire, first published in Portuguese in the 1980s, is one of the most important Brazilian gay novels. It traces the remembrances of a man who returns to the seminary where he studied as a child. This visit, thirty years after his sudden departure, evokes stirring memories of his time there: his first love, nascent homosexual desire, the metaphorical agony of Catholic rituals, and the physical harm inflicted by peers and priests alike. As he revisits the halls, his memory wanders throughout the seminary, creating a narrative both liturgical and profane.


My Review
: Questions and responses, never answers. A lust-soaked catechism of discovering gay desire in adolescence. A bitter, angry disappointed-romantic's coming to terms with coming, and with coming out even when you could never be in. Plotless, though not storyless, this is a read with something to appall everyone in its frankness, its sometimes-you-wish-it-was-squeamish physicality. It might not even be all that meaty and of the flesh were it not for the powerful, passionate spiritual longing and desire that runs alongside and shoots through the bodily awareness of Tiquinho.

Being gay in a world where you're surrounded by the thing you lust after, yet are Forbidden to Touch...and at the peril of your soul, no less, if you fail!...pretty much perfectly explains why priestly celibacy is a risible concept. No normal male will pass the test forever. In failing, he is doomed. Expressing his natural desires dooms him eternally.

No wonder a femme like Tiquinho is drawn to mysticism. Its rejection of the body is very appealing to someone who Believes the absurd nonsense that sexual desires will cause the omniscient, omnipotent Sky-daddy to reject him eternally (the mirror of what Earthly parents all too often do). His embrace of his by-definition unrequited lust for Jesus has, as it so often does, the seeds of his eventual sexual awakening. A man is born!

What I think will be a major stumbling block for many people who would otherwise ring like struck bells to this story is its presentation: It's an interview, though between whom exactly I was never entirely settled in my mind about...older and younger versions of himself? himself and Authority as he's internalized it? An unseen interlocutor?...all or none, it's a very reflective way to tell a story. It also mirrors the Catechism, that combination of indoctrination and reflection that is the source of its power. What made me smile broadest was this mirror of catechism and its probing (!) internal questioning, only about gay desire, lust, love, and awareness. What a delicious subversion of the church's intentions for the form of catechism! Instead of indoctrination, catechism as a form of self-discovery, a path to honesty and knowledge not cant and dogma.

A very physical self-discovery. Be aware that you're going to be in the trenches of an adolescent male's bodily awakening. That might not be to all tastes. I resonated with it because I grew up among women who didn't like maleness. I'd say that isn't too terribly uncommon an experience, at least among the men I've known over the decades. What Tiquinho fetishizes and uses as desire focuses are common to many males whatever their sex lives. But they're dealt with in very physical terms. That won't be to all tastes.

A way to interrogate the power of faith to deform while shaping, the power of love to mangle and destroy while forming a spirit, and the brutal truth of male desire's perversion into control and abuse. It is a difficult book to read and a necessary story to hear.

Friday, December 22, 2023

THE JANUS POINT: A New Theory of Time, difficult, worthwhile read for #Booksgiving

THE JANUS POINT: A New Theory of Time

Basic Books
$32.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In a universe filled by chaos and disorder, one physicist makes the radical argument that the growth of order drives the passage of time — and shapes the destiny of the universe.

Time is among the universe's greatest mysteries. Why, when most laws of physics allow for it to flow forward and backward, does it only go forward? Physicists have long appealed to the second law of thermodynamics, held to predict the increase of disorder in the universe, to explain this.

In The Janus Point, physicist Julian Barbour argues that the second law has been misapplied and that the growth of order determines how we experience time. In his view, the big bang becomes the "Janus point," a moment of minimal order from which time could flow, and order increase, in two directions. The Janus Point has remarkable implications: while most physicists predict that the universe will become mired in disorder, Barbour sees the possibility that order — the stuff of life — can grow without bound.

A major new work of physics, The Janus Point will transform our understanding of the nature of existence.


My Review
: On the Solstice, I think a lot about time. Why time's arrow only points in one direction, for example. I am always bothered by the implication inherent in the laws of physics that we presently understand that this is an observational artifact, not part of the structure of physics.

While I sit and ponder the strange dichotomies between what we observe and what theory tells us is possible, Author Barbour sets himself the task of learning the why, and questioning the how, of all the factors in physics that determine this issue's boundaries. That is an immense task.

It is also one well beyond most people's educational, vocational, and experiential capacities. The author isn't writing an academic paper in this book. He is, however, presupposing a lot of knowledge on the reader's part...if you don't know what a Boltzmann brain is, for example, this book will be lost on you...and even for those with the requisite grounding in at least the people who created the outlines of the Standard Model of particle physics, the need for frequent research breaks, aka "fallings down the many rabbit holes", is ever-present.

Very much not a Wikipedia-level treatment of an immensely important topic being argued, studied, researched, and pondered by some of the best-furnished minds in the field of physics today; yet it does not repel boarders with its case-shot loaded cannons of erudition. Author Barbour is quippy and quotable. The problem is quoting him won't help. This is someone with a very broad grasp of physics, history, cultural anthropology, etc. He lays out arguments that I suspect I only dimly grasp for his new model of endlessly repeatable order, ie creation of matter instead of its inevitable and complete decay, grounded in all the currents of thought there are.

Not, as you'd expect, a mere bagatelle to be consumed of an evening. Took me two years to read it, and I regret not a page or a minute of it. I was rewarded with a greatly expanded idea of what the science of physics is reaching for in its quest for a unified theory.

At this #Booksgiving moment, self-gifting this immensely challenging and deeply absorbing book is a great way to invest in your brain's expansion in entirely new ways and directions. It will be a Project. It is also well worth your eyeblinks.

THE IDEA OF THE BRAIN: The Past and Future of Neuroscience, very readable treatment of the State of the Art in neuroscience

THE IDEA OF THE BRAIN: The Past and Future of Neuroscience

Basic Books
$32.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A powerful examination of what we think we know about the brain and why—despite technological advances—the workings of our most essential organ remain a mystery.

For thousands of years, thinkers and scientists have tried to understand what the brain does. Yet, despite the astonishing discoveries of science, we still have only the vaguest idea of how the brain works.

In The Idea of the Brain, scientist and historian Matthew Cobb traces how our conception of the brain has evolved over the centuries. Although it might seem to be a story of ever-increasing knowledge of biology, Cobb shows how our ideas about the brain have been shaped by each era's most significant technologies. Today we might think the brain is like a supercomputer. In the past, it has been compared to a telegraph, a telephone exchange, or some kind of hydraulic system. What will we think the brain is like tomorrow, when new technology arises? The result is an essential read for anyone interested in the complex processes that drive science and the forces that have shaped our marvelous brains.


My Review
: The brain...the thing that is translating these geometric shapes on a screen into words, ideas, weirdly pulled apart and put together again in our age of tecnological marvels, yet lacking a paradigmatic metaphor. The many paradigms that we've fitted around our brains since we figured out the ancient system of thinking that had the heart at the center of intellect worked fine...until they broke trying to explain new data on brain function.

Well, you might think, so what? They're metaphors, not facts.

That's true as far as it goes. The role of a paradigmatic metaphor, like the best we have today of a supercomputer, isn't just to provide useful handles to grasp the still-elusive overarching explanation of what, how, and why the brain is and does. Thomas Kuhn, philosopher of science, said (in essence) that paradigms work until they don't and until new paradigms emerge, progress stalls.

That is where we stand now, atop a mountain of recently acquired data that blows up the supercomputer metaphor, but without another paradigmatic metaphor to shift to. We need, in short, another great leap forward like Darwin's theory of evolution was for millennia of accumulated biological data, to help us see how this immense pile of information can be turned into a fuller and more useful understanding of the brain and its processes.

While this is not the most fluffy and amusing read of 2023, it was deeply informative and very much an eye-opener. I had thought the neurologists were much farther behind the other sciences than they, in fact, are...much has been learned with the existence of fMRI machines and the technological like. The downside of these sorts of advances come when the private sector steps in to monetize the discoveries. They have no interest in helping people with the tech advances unless there's profit in it. The story of a severely epileptic woman whose life was completely changed by a brain implant being developed by a start-up, which then went bust, and the device (patent-protected) was permanently turned off, was particularly illustrative of the issue's costs.

Readable, informative, trenchant. Not easy to digest, but repays the effort put in with a very expanded view of whre science has come after its explosive beginnigs. Made me eager to see what comes next.

If, that is, I live that long...look how long it was between Linnaeus inventing the idea of species and Darwin explaining how they came to be in the first place.

THE SIRENS OF MARS: Searching for Life on Another World, when history isn't a far-away enough holiday escape

THE SIRENS OF MARS: Searching for Life on Another World

$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Mars was once similar to Earth, but today there are no rivers, no lakes, no oceans. Coated in red dust, the terrain is bewilderingly empty. And yet multiple spacecraft are circling Mars, sweeping over Terra Sabaea, Syrtis Major, the dunes of Elysium, and Mare Sirenum—on the brink, perhaps, of a staggering find, one that would inspire humankind as much as any discovery in the history of modern science.

In this beautifully observed, deeply personal book, Georgetown scientist Sarah Stewart Johnson tells the story of how she and other researchers have scoured Mars for signs of life, transforming the planet from a distant point of light into a world of its own.

Johnson’s fascination with Mars began as a child in Kentucky, turning over rocks with her father and looking at planets in the night sky. She now conducts fieldwork in some of Earth’s most hostile environments, such as the Dry Valleys of Antarctica and the salt flats of Western Australia, developing methods for detecting life on other worlds. Here, with poetic precision, she interlaces her own personal journey—as a female scientist and a mother—with tales of other seekers, from Percival Lowell, who was convinced that a utopian society existed on Mars, to Audouin Dollfus, who tried to carry out astronomical observations from a stratospheric balloon. In the process, she shows how the story of Mars is also a story about Earth: This other world has been our mirror, our foil, a telltale reflection of our own anxieties and yearnings.

Empathetic and evocative, The Sirens of Mars offers an unlikely natural history of a place where no human has ever set foot, while providing a vivid portrait of our quest to defy our isolation in the cosmos.


My Review
: Women in STEM fields are still outnumbered by men. I like reading about them because it gives me a hopeful feeling about the pace of change in our world. Once upon a time, Vera Rubin and Lise Mitner and Henrietta Swan Leavitt were just...not talked about, invisible in our public discourse about Science. Now, there are books and movies about the women who have always practiced in the STEM fields like Hidden Figures to educate us on this erased history.

About time, too.

What that doesn't do is tell us anything about the women actively working in the STEM fields, about their motivations and curiosities, their ideas about what the field they're working within is and should be doing. This book's main appeal to me, then, was to tell me about a woman's journey to, and progress within, planetary science—a field I find endlessly fascinating.

I get the whole enchilada here, the story of why the author became a planetary scientist...spoiler alert, the centuries-long Romance of it all had a lot to do with well as her own précis of the state of modern research into the past and present of our neighbor. The reasons we should care about Mars and its past aren't stinted, either.

What I enjoyed most, I think, was her palpable pleasure and excitement as she tells us about the atmosphere of tension and the sense of relief in Mission Control as probes and rovers are launched toward and land on Mars. The description then weaves in the results, the science, that is the reason for all this highly educated and trained labor focusing on this place. Her narrative voice never descends into gee-whizzery. She is definitely writing out of passion and fascination but doesn't become a total fangirl squeeing her way around the world she is privileged to inhabit.

Since that's exactly what I'd do, I was impressed by this restraint. Of course, her long training in the field does instill a certain sense of remove from the raw passion of the fan. It's taken her a lifetime of learning to get to where she is. It wasn't, and isn't, easy to fully dedicate yourself to a passion. The compromises made are always hard...being away from family, the strains on one's marriage...and she deals with all those honestly.

An extensive Notes section offers the non-scientist a roadmap for further reading and discovery. As this is a personal story, a memoir of a woman who chose to serve her passion for science, it isn't a read I judge by how well-sourced her information is. I just went along with this intelligent, erudite guide as I visited the world of a practicing planetary scientist.

You should, too, whatever your sex or gender. Also a good last-minute ebook to gift to your high-school aged girl giftee as a proof that aspirations are very much achievable.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

INTO SIBERIA: George Kennan's Epic Journey Through the Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia, a sort of anti-travelogue

INTO SIBERIA: George Kennan's Epic Journey Through the Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia

St. Martin's Press
$30.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In a book that ranks with the greatest adventure stories, Gregory Wallance’s Into Siberia is a thrilling work of history about one man’s harrowing journey and the light it shone on some of history’s most heinous human rights abuses.

In the late nineteenth century, close diplomatic relations existed between the United States and Russia. All that changed when George Kennan went to Siberia in 1885 to investigate the exile system and his eyes were opened to the brutality Russia was wielding to suppress dissent.

Over ten months Kennan traveled eight thousand miles, mostly in horse-drawn carriages, sleighs or on horseback. He endured suffocating sandstorms in the summer and blizzards in the winter. His interviews with convicts and political exiles revealed how Russia ran on the fuel of inflicted pain and fear. Prisoners in the mines were chained day and night to their wheelbarrows as punishment. Babies in exile parties froze to death in their mothers’ arms. Kennan came to call the exiles’ experience in Siberia a “perfect hell of misery.”

After returning to the United States, Kennan set out to generate public outrage over the plight of the exiles, writing the renowned Siberia and the Exile System. He then went on a nine-year lecture tour to describe the suffering of the Siberian exiles, intensifying the newly emerging diplomatic conflicts between the two countries which last to this day.


My Review
: Russia always seems to have vicious, cruel, authoritarian governments. George Kennan documented the horrifying repressions of the tsarist regime of Alexander III, father of the ill-fated Nicholas II. The adventurous man whose trip through Siberia Author Wallance is epitomizing first went to Siberia, governed by our then-close ally Russia, to lay a telegraph line across the country beginning in 1864 and eventually have it reach Western Europe. There was an Atlantic cable to England, but the Atlantic has these terrible, damaging things called "hurricanes" every so often, and then there's that big line of volcanoes up the middle of it that periodically erupts here and there...think Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull, it has always made sense to have a backup.

Kennan spent a couple years doing the work, and was in love with Siberia by the end of it. The US and Russia, after a long period of close ties that peaked after we bought Alaska from them in 1867, began getting terrible reports about the political prisoners being abused in Siberian prisons. Kennan, by now a professional journalist, was widely thought to be the best possible person to investigate the situation on behalf of the US. He was vocal in his love for Siberia. He said publicly that he felt the complaints of terrible conditions were unlikely to be true...prisoners' families could join them there, after all!

Kennan and artist George Albert Frost traveled through the tsarist penal system, documenting conditions as they found them. Kennan wrote an eleven hundred-page exposé of the horrors they witnessed; Frost's drawings and photographs were included. Frost himself suffered a breakdown—what we would call today PTSD—and really was never quite the same again.

Kennan never lost his love for Siberia and its people but he became an implacable detractor of the Imperial Russian government. He had the evidence to back his outrage and disgust up. He devoted his next decade to a lecture tour enlightening audiences to the facts of what was euphemistically called "the Exile System" of political repression. When, decades later, the October Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power, Kennan famously said that "the Russian leopard has not changed his spots."

I read this fascinating history of events I'd had only a passing awareness of in the context of Kennan's report to Woodrow Wilson about the Bolsheviks and his subsequent criticism of the Wilson Administration's pusillanimous response to them. His 1885 trip was touched on, but I now know why he was tasked by Wilson with preparing the ignored report. This book, not at all a long read, brings the full awfulness of Kennan and Frost's experiences to life. It is nothing short of gut-wrenching at times. It is extremely carefully footnoted and supplied with an admirable bibliography. I believe Author Wallance has done everything except invent time travel to bring us the best report of the facts possible. His contextualization was emotionally honest, but not of the sort that leads me to mutter, "don't try so hard."

I recommend it highly...but with the warning that delicate fleurs who don't enjoy details of physical cruelty should pass right by. I did, to be honest, feel as though these facts were rather more abundant than was strictly necessary. I had a half-star knocked off for feeling like I was being knocked in the teeth. As Frost's art exists, I wanted to see it, or some of the photos, just to see the realities behind the descriptions of the place itself, though not the abuses!

Not always an easy read, but a wonderfully immersive and interesting historical light on a country whose past binds it to the US.

THE INVENTION OF SICILY: A Mediterranean Odyssey, a title that truly says every last thing about the book within

THE INVENTION OF SICILY: A Mediterranean Odyssey

Verso Books
$26.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A fascinating cultural history of this most magical of islands.

Sicily has always acted as a gateway between Europe and the rest of the world. Fought over by Phoenicians and Greeks, Romans, Goths and Byzantines, Arabs and Normans, Germans, Spanish and French for thousands of years, Sicily became a unique melting pot where diverse traditions merged, producing a unique heritage and singular culture.

In this fascinating account of the island from the earliest times to the present day, author and journalist Jamie Mackay leads us through this most elusive of places. From its pivotal position in the development of Greek and Roman mythology, and the beautiful remnants of both the Arab and Norman invasions, through to the rise of the bandits and the Cosa Nostra, The Invention of Sicily charts the captivating culture and history of Sicily.

Mackay weaves together the political and social development of the island with its fascinating cultural heritage, discussing how great works including Lampedusa’s masterpiece The Leopard and its film adaptation by Visconti, and the novels of Leonardo Sciascia, among many others, have both been shaped by Sicily’s past, and continue to shape it in the present.


My Review
: Sicily's thousands of years of documented history can't be done justice in a shortish survey book. It can, however, do the reader who loves Italy and longs for a Sicilian vacation a very big solid by explaining a bit about why Sicily is not like the rest of Italy. There is a significant prejudice against Sicilians, and Southerners more generally, in Italy as a country is without internecine conflict...but the reasons go back a very long way.

Starting from its origins as a Greek colony, Sicily has been fought over by outsiders for millennia. Different Greek city-states, Phoenicians, Normans on Crusade taking it from Arabs...if you want to understand how Sicilian culture gave rise to the ultimate Family, the Mafia, insulated from the rest of the world, look no further than its long history of being the prize in other peoples' wars.

Italy the current nation-state did not even exist until 1860. After that Unification, the country pretty much ignored the agrarian island. Riots and rebellions, official neglect and church corruption, all led to the rise of the chaotic present in which the Cosa Nostra/Mafia/organized crime has acted as a kind of de facto government substitute. The present-day refugee crises have had a powerful impact on the island's rickety infrastructure and led Sicilians to harden their opinion that the rest of Italy is not interested in helping them cope with this problem not of their own making...again.

The book is written very ably, and has a deft touch on the topics it does cover. It does not pretend to authoritative stature as a major history. It is clear about its purpose as a survey of a long, long history of a much-put-upon place. It will give Italophiles bad wanderlust, and spark curiosity in most history buffs. Any place that has Archaic Greek, Byzantine, Golden Age Muslim, Byzantine, medieval Norman, Spanish, and Catalan ruins and buildings still in use is a place very much worth getting to know. Don't go in expecting a deep dive into any one period's history, and this book will surprise, delight, inform, and astonish you.

But images? *tsk*

FOLLOWING CAESAR: From Rome to Constantinople, the Pathways That Planted the Seeds of Empire, armchair travel with the best kind of guide

FOLLOWING CAESAR: From Rome to Constantinople, the Pathways That Planted the Seeds of Empire

St. Martin's Press
$30.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A travel narrative following three ancient roads and looking at more than two thousand years of history of Ancient Rome through the modern eye.

In 66 B.C., young, ambitious Julius Caesar, seeking recognition and authority, became the curator of the Via Appia. He borrowed significant sums to restore the ancient highway. It was a way to curry favor from Roman citizens in villages along the route, built from Rome to Brindisi between 312-191 B.C. He succeeded and rapidly grew in popularity. After achieving greatness in Rome and the far reaches of Gaul, he led armies along this road to battle enemies in Roman civil wars. And then, across the Adriatic Sea, he joined Via Appia's sister road, the Via Egnatia that began in today's Albania. Other armies followed these two roads that eventually connected Rome to Byzantium, today's Istanbul. Octavian, who became, in 27 B.C., Rome's first emperor, and his friend and later enemy Mark Antony traveled portions of both roads to defeat Caesar's murderers Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in eastern Macedonia. The great Roman statesman Cicero, the Roman poet Homer, the historian Virgil and many other notables traveled along one or both of these roads. In the first century of the Roman Empire in the earliest years of Christianity, the apostles Peter and Paul traversed portions of them. Pilgrims, seeking salvation in far-away Jerusalem, followed them as well throughout much of the Middle Ages. In the early second century A.D., the emperor Trajan charted a new coastal route between Benevento and Brindisi, later called the Via Traiana.

Today, short stretches of the original three roads can be seen in the ruins of ancient Roman cities, now preserved as archaeological wonders, and through the countryside near, and sometimes under, modern highways. Following those routes is the purpose of treading along the path that Caesar and so many others took over the early centuries. Modern eyes, seeing through the mists of more than two thousand years of history, lead the traveler along these three roads coursing through six countries between Rome and Istanbul. It is a journey full of adventure, discovery, and friendship―one one worth taking.


My Review
: I enjoy history for itself, and the many present-day echoes of historical events just add texture to my pleasure. This historical-tourism book was as deeply involving to me as a standard historical narrative because the conceit...following the Roman my idea of a great adventure vacation. The author was my guide on this escape from home. It worked as well as anything could because I knew I was in experienced hands (he has written four other books on touring Italy as a history buff.)

While I was very interested in his veteran-journalist's observations of the world traversed by the Roman roads he then traversed himself, and by his reports of his companions' responses to the modern world as well as the archaeology of the paths they traveled together, I was very disappointed that the book contained NO maps or photos.

Don't let that lapse stop you from enjoying the informed, intelligent voice of this forty-five-year veteran reporter as he shares his observations of the world he's moving through. His lifelong fascination with Italy and Rome (men really *are* obsessed with Rome!) gives him a very full view of the countries and regions he takes us through. This book is one of those rare books that, just as a reading experience, solely for the way the author builds an image and creates a simile, is a pleasure to read.

That his trip in Turkey, Asia Minor that was, coincided with COVID and its joys was very evocative for him. Plenty of plagues to meditate on. His religious ruminations are interesting to my deeply, faithfully atheist self...the road network of ancient Rome, and its internal postal connections enabled thereby, are largely responsible for the spread of the religion all across the empire. (There were christians in Pompeii...they found a ROTAS square there! By 79AD there were christians in Italy!)

I do want to mention that the "Caesar" of the title is not Julius; remember that Caesar was a title during the empire, and Trajan, whose Via Traiana is followed, was also a Caesar.

Self-gifting for a lovely time on #Booksgiving, as you settle down in your favorite reading spot, a beverage and a snack close at hand...Italy is involved, there is going to be food talk...and immerse yourself in a part of the world that could not possibly be richer in cultural highlights.

One star off for the absence of photos and/or illustrations.

Monday, December 18, 2023

MORTAL REPUBLIC: How Rome Fell into Tyranny, using History to explain the present pretty convincingly

MORTAL REPUBLIC: How Rome Fell into Tyranny

Basic Books
$18.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Learn why the Roman Republic collapsed—and how it could have continued to thrive—with this insightful history from an award-winning author.

In Mortal Republic, prize-winning historian Edward J. Watts offers a new history of the fall of the Roman Republic that explains why Rome exchanged freedom for autocracy. For centuries, even as Rome grew into the Mediterranean’s premier military and political power, its governing institutions, parliamentary rules, and political customs successfully fostered negotiation and compromise.

By the 130s BC, however, Rome’s leaders increasingly used these same tools to cynically pursue individual gain and obstruct their opponents. As the center decayed and dysfunction grew, arguments between politicians gave way to political violence in the streets. The stage was set for destructive civil wars—and ultimately the imperial reign of Augustus.

The death of Rome’s Republic was not inevitable. In Mortal Republic, Watts shows it died because it was allowed to, from thousands of small wounds inflicted by Romans who assumed that it would last forever.


My Review
: The Mary Beard School of Skepticism About Past as Prologue is in session.
The past is no Oracle and historians are not prophets, but this does not mean that it is wrong to look to antiquity for help understanding the present.
This is intensely controversial. I am not at all sure it is true, but after reading this thoroughly researched and well sourced in the facts that we can know book, I'll put a pin in my inclination to doubt. I can enjoy this book on its factual merits quite well enough.

The author focuses his attention on the period between the victory of the Romans over Carthage in the Second Punic War, and Octavian's usurpation of power, effectively beginning the Empire. That time, its unrest and gradual normalization of political gridlock and, ultimately, violence, does bear a resemblance to the current pass in US–and world–politics.

I have no kick with that fact being pointed out. I am pretty confident the author's analysis of what led up to the events, and how what went down made the resolution of the problems seem pretty obvious. The way he has used the chapter order is, pretty clearly, tendentious...a downward slide from functioning, if troubled republic into one-man rule and autocracy just *feels* more and more inevitable as the facts we know are marshaled.

Where I go a little off his carefully laid rails is where he posits his ideas for how the slide was not inevitable, and the autocracy could've been avoided. That is allohistory which, by itself, is fine by me. But this is presented with a very authoritative air, not differentiated from the text based on facts that surrounds it, and that felt a bit like I was being led to agree without any facts or evidence that his conclusions were plausible. There can not be any such evidence or facts because that isn't how things *did* play out. I can't say he's wrong for all the same reasons.

The desire to show us how to fix the ugly, scary passage we're going through by using the past as a model makes a lot of sense. It still shouldn't be presented as being the equal of the fact-based narrative around it.

Your history-loving giftee, your anxious old uncle who just knows The End Is Nigh, will lap up this story. The good thing is that, as the facts pile up, the author hands the reader this double-edged aerçu:
No republic is eternal. It lives only as long as its citizens want it.
That is hopeful, if you believe there is a chance to warn and arm people against what is occurring; and disheartening, because look what happened to Rome.

The author is of the former opinion, and this book is the case he makes for it.

GALILEO AND THE SCIENCE DENIERS, a great read and a good gift


Simon & Schuster
$18.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: An “intriguing and accessible” (Publishers Weekly) interpretation of the life of Galileo Galilei, one of history’s greatest and most fascinating scientists, that sheds new light on his discoveries and how he was challenged by science deniers. “We really need this story now, because we’re living through the next chapter of science denial” (Bill McKibben).

Galileo’s story may be more relevant today than ever before. At present, we face enormous crises—such as minimizing the dangers of climate change—because the science behind these threats is erroneously questioned or ignored. Galileo encountered this problem 400 years ago. His discoveries, based on careful observations and ingenious experiments, contradicted conventional wisdom and the teachings of the church at the time. Consequently, in a blatant assault on freedom of thought, his books were forbidden by church authorities.

Astrophysicist and bestselling author Mario Livio draws on his own scientific expertise and uses his “gifts as a great storyteller” (The Washington Post) to provide a “refreshing perspective” (Booklist) into how Galileo reached his bold new conclusions about the cosmos and the laws of nature. A freethinker who followed the evidence wherever it led him, Galileo was one of the most significant figures behind the scientific revolution. He believed that every educated person should know science as well as literature, and insisted on reaching the widest audience possible, publishing his books in Italian rather than Latin.

Galileo was put on trial with his life in the balance for refusing to renounce his scientific convictions. He remains a hero and inspiration to scientists and all of those who respect science—which, as Livio reminds us in this “admirably clear and concise” (The Times, London) book, remains threatened everyday.


My Review
: A concise, well-thought-through biography of Galileo. The point of another biography of him is the present climate od science denial, of skepticism in our social and political realms, about the way science is done–and why it is done that way.

There is much to be taken from an erudite scientist and polymath's recounting of the events of Galileo's life in the specific context of looking at what led him to become a prisoner of conscience, what the men who opposed his dissemination of his discoveries were fighting for and against, and what this battle cost all of society. Author Livio is tendentious, unapologetically so, and presents a perfectly astonishing notes, footnotes, and sources collection for a popular not academic book.

The organization of the book is more thematic than linear. Following the author's arguments is, as expected from a scientist, not hard...being organized is kinda the job description of scientist, after all...but do not expect the chronology of Galileo's life to make an appearance, and go with the logical flow.

Science, being dedicated to the pursuit of facts, often presents its conclusions as Truth...then changes its mind as new evidence comes in. This is a feature, not a bug, in how science works. It conflicts with many people's intense need for Immutable is pretty much antithetical to Immutability. This has the sad consquence of people like the church hierarchy is made up of, running head-on into people like Galileo and his fellow scientists as they follow the evidence and the facts in reaching very new conclusions...facts are not Truth. The conclusions based on the facts, new and old, are not Truth. Science is a worldview based on probabilities.

Many people feel this is shifty...dishonest...trying to put one over on them.

This is the conflict that Author Livio is arguing against. He does not use head-on confrontation to do so. Galileo's life, and his conflict with the hierarchy, does most of his heavy lifting. The beauty of his book is that this argument, presented in any other way, leads to deeper entrenchment of anti-science attitudes. By using the life of a well-known and respected scientist from the past, the attitudes that led him into conflict, and how that conflict is now understood, Author Livio uses the back door to find the chinks in the faulty logic used by science deniers.

Great book for your loud old uncle, or your argumentative teen boy, who has Opinions about science with no information to rest them on. Also good for you to read because you will learn more ways to build your counterarguments to the denials of facts to serve that evil illusion, Truth.

TOO MUCH INFORMATION: Understanding What You Don't Want to Know, a how-to-think book

TOO MUCH INFORMATION: Understanding What You Don't Want to Know

MIT Press
$19.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: How much information is too much? Do we need to know how many calories are in the giant vat of popcorn that we bought on our way into the movie theater? Do we want to know if we are genetically predisposed to a certain disease? In Too Much Information, Cass Sunstein examines the effects of information on our lives. Sunstein argues that government should require companies, employers, hospitals, and others to disclose information not because of a general "right to know" but when the information in question would significantly improve people's lives.


My Review
: How many times a day do you have to fill out a form of some sort? How many forms does it take for you to interact with your bank, your local government, your vendor of choice for whatever gotta-have-it you gotta have today? I know most of us don't read the Terms of Service, and even if we start to, they're written in legalese to discourage all but the most bloody-minded to give up, scroll to the bottom, and hit "I Agree" even though you're pretty sure you don't.

Autocomplete makes some forms tolerable and password managers make others easy enough to forego the usual "do I really want to sign up for this?" soul-searching. But it is all information...your information. You are your information.

Author Sunstein (Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America, Impeachment: A Citizen's Guide) was the Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration, as well as the Harry Kalven Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago Law School; he is currently Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. In other words, this is someone who really knows what information is used for, and has an unaralleled grasp of the costs that gathering, storing, and manipulating all this information costs at every end of the transaction.

What this book did for me was to make me think through the mindless "I Agree"-clicking I do when I am online. Service providers are required to disclose things to us for a reason, and it isn't *our* protection. Author Sunstein doesn't provide panaceas or one-size-fits-all solutions to the issue of information overload. He offers a considered, informed insider's look at how the constant demand for your information, the constant barrage of their legally-required information to you, leads to the fatigue of indifference.

This doesn't make it sound like a #Booksgiving gift. It should be one you gift yourself, but as the demand for and deluge of information grows more and more overwhelming, it's a great time to think of the consequences as we head into the presidential election cycle of 2024. Your politically active pals could use this readable, thoughtful treatment of the complex issue of how much is too much or out...and how to manage, parse, and organize that information as presented to you.

Valuable information (!) for your engaged, aware friend.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

FRIENDS OF DOROTHY: A Celebration of LGBTQ+ Icons, excellent gift book for your favorite gay guy

FRIENDS OF DOROTHY: A Celebration of LGBTQ+ Icons
(illus. Alejandro Mogollo Díez)
Imagine! Publishing
$24.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: This giftable collection of Instagram-worthy illustrated biographies takes you on a tour through LGBTQIA+ history from the 20th century through today—featuring Judy Garland, RuPaul, and Lady Gaga.

What makes a gay icon? Free, uninhibited expression; an open mind; creativity; and bravery. Friends of Dorothy celebrates a wide range of people with the strength, vulnerability, charisma, and style that set them apart and gave them status with the queer community.

Queer icons include supporters of LGBTQIA+ rights such as Marsha P. Johnson, and others like Divine and RuPaul who shattered social barriers to become important cultural ambassadors of queerness, changing the world in the process. Other icons are timeless entertainers with unique appeal, from Judy Garland and Bette Midler to Grace Jones and Lady Gaga.

This collection welcomes readers into a flamboyant world populated by larger-than-life figures who inspired LGBTQIA+ people—over the decades—creating controversy, challenging conventions, and sometimes putting their own lives on the line in order for new generations to live in a more equal and accepting world.


My Review
: Watch Anthony Uzarowski's interview with Robert Bellisario!
My idea of a good, entertaining browser's book for gifting this #Booksgiving.

It is important to note that thes mini-biographies are of queer icons, not necessarily queer people. No one, the author is careful to state, imputes a private sexual behavior to the not-out folk in here...though I guess you would have to be a diehard homophobe to ignore the unspoken realities of some of the faces herein. Still, there is no necessity of being out, still less out and proud, to be a bona fide gay icon.

The author, whose interview linked above you should totally devote an hour of your life to watching, is a major pop culture maven. His credentials are spread all over gay media. He knows, in other words, his stuff. He has selected a good balance of music, film, and activists of both sexes and other genders. The forty lovely illustrations are both good art and witty commentary...Freddy Mercury has one fun portrait in here! the package is aimed directly at gifting, whether to yourself or others.

It isn't groundbreaking new information, or incisive commentary, it is pretty much just what it says...celebratory profiles with portraits, meant to be engaged with in bursts or otherwise over time. A browser's book, as I said before; thus pretty much perfect for the gift giving season.

BAD GAYS: A Homosexual History, spill the tea on these mad, bad, dangerous to know men

BAD GAYS: A Homosexual History

Verso Books
$19.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five


The Publisher Says: An unconventional history of homosexuality

We all remember Oscar Wilde, but who speaks for Bosie? What about those ‘bad gays’ whose unexemplary lives reveal more than we might expect? Many popular histories seek to establish homosexual heroes, pioneers, and martyrs but, as Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller argue, the past is filled with queer people whose sexualities and dastardly deeds have been overlooked despite their being informative and instructive.

Based on the hugely popular podcast series of the same name, Bad Gays asks what we can learn about LGBTQ+ history, sexuality and identity through its villains, failures, and baddies. With characters such as the Emperor Hadrian, anthropologist Margaret Mead and notorious gangster Ronnie Kray, the authors tell the story of how the figure of the white gay man was born, and how he failed. They examine a cast of kings, fascist thugs, artists and debauched bon viveurs. Imperial-era figures Lawrence of Arabia and Roger Casement get a look-in, as do FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover, lawyer Roy Cohn, and architect Philip Johnson.

Together these amazing life stories expand and challenge mainstream assumptions about sexual identity: showing that homosexuality itself was an idea that emerged in the nineteenth century, one central to major historical events.


My Review
: This book made me laugh a lot more often than it made me angry...given the subject, that is quite a compliment.

Every so often it is useful–and let's not front, good catty fun–to contemplate the lives of those gay guys among us who exemplify the adage, ‘if you can't be a shining example, you can be a horrible warning...choose wisely.’ We in historically oppressed minority communities tend to hold up the shining examples and quietly ignore the shady, rotten, or even downright evil people that make up our world. Since those people are literally everywhere, some among them statistically must be gay...often we know they were, at least by modern lights, but we stay shtumm to avoid handing ammunition to Them, The Oppressors.

Time to wiggle out of that girdle, y'all, the haters gonna hate no matter what we do or don't celebrate, talk about, venerate.

This browser's garden of delights is so much fun to romp through, tutting in horror, chuckling in sympathy, staring slack-jawed in appalled repulsion. What these figures from the past would make of being lumped into a category based on what history—gossipy old thing, history—has to say about their sexual lives and/or natures, we will not likely ever find out. I'm pretty hopeful that the current round of gains made by the QUILTBAG spectrum of outlaws will solidify and become embedded in the culture. The sheer rage and hate that the thunderous scum on the reactionary end of the social spectrum tells me that they're very afraid of that happening and are doing everything they've ever done before to stop it from happening...but it seems to be less effective this go-round.

Books like this remind us all that just because They are worse, doesn't mean we are all good. Accepting that people are people, an inconsistent and highly changeable lot, every-damn-where on every metric and spectrum any huan mind can devise, is a key weapon to deploy against demonization by Them.

Learn your history...all of it...and no one can ever surprise you with a hurld accusation again.

Self-gifting for the whitest gay (not lesbian, trans, or PoC) guy this #Booksgiving. If you know some white gay man well enough to want to give him a gift, you can count on this one making a hit.