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For now, on with the books!
53. On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
This is the autobiography of neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks. Although it should maybe be noted that he glosses over his childhood pretty quickly, having already turned that into a memoir with Uncle Tungsten.
What's most striking about this account, really, is how surprising the portrait of Sacks' youth is. I've seen this guy on TV and heard him talk on podcasts and such, and he always came across as shy and a little dorky, in a sweet way, as a brilliant but perhaps slightly dotty old academic fascinated by brains and books and classical music and about as tame and unhip as a human being can get. So it was interesting and a little amusing to read about how he spent his younger years setting weightlifting records and speeding around the US on his motorcycle and having doomed gay love affairs and taking disturbing amounts of amphetamines. Just goes to show that you should never judge anyone by appearances, and to remind us that every quiet, sweet old person was younger and wilder once.
Mind you, I found these accounts of his youth interesting mainly in that they were amusingly unexpected, rather than because they were fascinating in themselves. The book, on the whole, is a fairly disjointed series of personal recollections which range from only very mildly interesting to somewhat intellectually stimulating or rather touching, with those last two becoming more common later in the book. His accounts of his research and writing are, unsurprisingly, the most engaging parts, or at least they were for me, as they make a nice (if not really necessary) supplement to his other books. I'd say if you've read those and want a little bit of a personal, behind-the-scenes perspective on them, or if they've made you curious about the person behind them, it's may be worth picking up.
If you haven't read them, and are at all interested in medicine, the brain, or how human being beings work, I recommend some of them very strongly. There is a sense of intelligence, humanity, and deep curiosity that comes out even better in those, perhaps, than in this autobiography, and the subject matter is weird and wonderful and incredibly thought-provoking. Start, I'd say, with either Awakenings or The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It's worth it.
It's been nine years since a super-flu pandemic essentially wiped out the world, but Hig has survived. He lives at what was once a small airport in Colorado with a gun nut he maybe can't exactly call his friend, his aging dog, and a small plane that he still flies regularly, even though there are a very limited number of places to go.
This is definitely on the literary end of the post-apocalyptic subgenre, full of all kinds of highly affecting emotion: pain, grief, numbness, hope. The writing is terrific, in a way that calls to mind the old adage that you can break all the rules, if you know what you're doing. Heller very much knows what he's doing, and he makes this feel, for the most part, like an effortlessly believable look inside his character's head.
I will say that I found the first half or so of the novel better than the second half, just because when Hig finally meets some other human beings, there's something about them that doesn't ring quite as true to me as Hig and his partner-in-survival do. Which is probably the only reason I'm giving this four and a half stars instead of the rarely-bestowed five.
Black Water is an island that's home to some kind of interdimensional rift, an ancient herd of magical deer, and a hereditary line of rangers with supernatural powers who are sworn to protect them. But the deer have a substance in their antlers that can be used to make powerful medications, so representatives of a pharmaceutical company are allowed onto the island once a year for a cull.
It seemed to me like an interesting genre-blending set-up, but I was rather disappointed by how little the novel does with it. The more real-world-feeling side of things is hugely underdeveloped, and the pharmaceutical company and its methods themselves are more magic than medicine and more plot device than either. There is a lot of scope here for some interesting themes about magic and science and capitalism and human need vs. environmental preservation, and such, but none of it really gets explored.
What we do get is readable enough, I guess. There's some action, some revelations, some romantic tension. But I have to say, none of it really gripped me at all. In the end, I'm mostly left with the feeling of a potentially interesting concept that didn't really go anywhere, or, more charitably, of a work by a writer who was interested in entirely different things about it than I was.
Rating: a slightly apologetic 2.5/5
(Note: This was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book.)
A collection of short essays -- originally blog posts -- from the late, great Ursula Le Guin. These cover a wide variety of topics: aging, writing, feminism, the state of the world, the antics of her cat, how to eat a soft-boiled egg. Some are serious, some slightly playful, a few just a little bit curmudgeonly, but, unsurprisingly, they're always thoughtful and well-written.
This book was published in 1986, and marked SF author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke's attempt to imagine what life and technology might be like, well... today. It's presented partly as straightforward speculation, and partly as semi-fictional scenes of future events or imagined future histories.
I picked up my copy in 1986, or possibly early 1987. In any case, I was a teenager at the time. I read it with some interest, and then made an improbable pact with myself: I would re-read it on the date it purported to to represent -- the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing -- and let the unimaginable middle-aged future me see what she thought about its predictions and their relationship to reality.
I'm pleased to report that I have, in fact, kept that pact, although I must say that unimaginable middle-aged future me is mostly just a little bemused, really.
Like most attempts by smart people to imagine the future, this is a combination of the oddly prescient, the way off-base, the almost-but-not-quite, and the just plain bizarre. There is a lot more of that last thing the further the book goes on, I think. Clarke increasingly seems to engage in weird fights of fancy, some of which seem to be intended mainly to provoke or shock. At least, I see no other explanation for things like the implication that necrophilia is likely to become a socially acceptable practice, now or ever. I mean... what?
To the extent that it is trying to be serious and thoughtful, though, I'd say most of the predictions have the not-uncommon problem of being wildly over-optimistic. Some of the technologies he imagines being fully mature by now are still very much under development, and others have never materialized at all. Our understanding of genetics has come a long way, for instance, but we have definitely not yet reached the point where doctors are basically predicting an infant's future medical history and best career choices at birth. We're also not hooking VR machines directly into our brains, or regularly flying around the world at supersonic speeds, and we haven't effectively eliminated rote, dehumanizing jobs. Nor do we yet have a base on the moon, something Clarke describes as having taken longer than anticipated, but still a reality by 2019.
But that's hardly a surprising mistake. Futurists have almost always been wildly optimistic about the future of human space flight, even when they think they're being pessimistic about it. Meanwhile, they seldom seem to have put much thought into imagining the possibilities of robotic space exploration, which, in reality, have been quite impressive.
Actually, robots are something that futurists have always just been kind of weird about, and Clarke is no exception. He scores an impressive point by stating that the future of household automation will consist not of robot butlers, but by a collection of various intelligent appliances. But he then goes on to lose that point again immediately by mostly describing, well, robot butlers. At least he does kinda-sorta predict the Roomba!
He does pretty well with a few other things, too. He's basically right on the money about the rise of HDTV, for instance. Actually, the chapter on the future of movies and television is particularly interesting, because it's just about a 50-50 blend of "Wow, that was uncannily insightful and accurate!" and "Wow, this guy has absolutely no idea what's coming."
No idea, of course, because like most people at the time, he just couldn't quite imagine the internet and its overwhelming significance to the world to come. There are times when he seems to be groping all around the idea. He talks about increased availability of knowledge and the educational possibilities of watching lectures given by teachers halfway around the world. He imagines being able to call your home computer from work to give it orders. He even mentions online support groups that existed on platforms like Compuserve at the time, in the context of a (very strange) chapter on the future of psychiatry, but seems mostly unable to see the larger potential in such things.
Which isn't to berate Clarke for literally not being able to see the future, but it certainly does point out how ultimately futile such attempts pretty much always are.
I thought it might be fun to conclude by quoting a passage that I think captures the experience of reading this sort of thing charmingly well. It's about future cars, from the chapter on transportation:
On-board navigation will make it impossible to get lost. The car will be able to locate its position using satellite navigation systems and show it on a color video map display. This TV display -- located on the passenger side, not the driver's side -- will store an atlas of maps on a videodisc.
That's an impressive prediction! Although perhaps not an entirely surprising one, since if there's anything Clarke did understand the possibilities of really, really well, it's communications satellites. It would be petty to ding him for not predicting the exact placement of the GPS screen, or even for not considering the possibility that the machine would give verbal directions. It seems like an awesome success of a prediction! At least, until you get to the very end. Videodisc, forsooth! Oh, bless.
Well, hey, I suppose if the future were easy to predict in detail, it would be much less interesting to live in.
Rating: Honestly, how does one even rate this? I think I'm going to give it a 3/5. Which is a bit on the low side, as my ratings go, not because he failed to sufficiently predict the future, but mostly just because of how off-the-rails some of the later chapters get.
I don't think I ever actually read Profiles of the Future, but I've been wondering if that might be interesting to check out, too.
Pietro Brnwa -- aka Peter Brown -- is a former mafia hitman who has entered Witness Protection and is now a doctor in an appallingly terribly hospital. And someone from his past has just checked in as a patient.
It's a fun story, full of cynical humor and violence and weird bits of medical trivia, but I found it just a little too over-the-top (particularly one especially grotesque scene towards the end), and it's maybe trying just a little too hard to be clever. The result is mostly enjoyable, but not quite as thoroughly so as I'd hoped.
59. The Waste Lands by Stephen King
Book three in the Dark Tower series. So far, I am finding this series more agreeable as I go along. King is definitely a better writer by this point than he was when he wrote The Gunslinger, and, unlike the second book, this one is mostly lacking in things that make me look a bit askance. But, man, is it still unfocused and rambly, and I can't see any reason why this series needs to be anywhere near this long. It also ends in an unsatisfying place, even when you know going into it that it's going to be very much "to be continued."
And I increasingly find myself wondering whether the storytelling mechanisms King uses -- the emphasis on fate as a reason for things working out the way they do, the echoes between the world most of this is set in and our own -- are interesting worldbuilding choices or just lazy writing that allows King to justify any coincidences and deus ex machinas he wants.
Still. It was a fairly quick read for its length, and, like much of King's work, I found it an ideal kind of book to take on vacation: engaging enough to painlessly while away a long plane flight, but not so much so that it's hard to put down when you land.
People have suddenly started falling prey to something called False Memory Syndrome, in which they appear to recall alternate events and lives they never lived. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that the reason for this turns out to be pretty much exactly what you think it is, if you have any experience with science fiction at all, but the details are rather interestingly twisty. Also utterly ridiculous, as nothing about how any of it works makes any sense whatsoever, and the more Crouch tries to explain it "scientifically" the less sense it makes. It's nice and fast-paced, though, with lots of crazy timey-wimey fun, and I give Crouch some points for being willing to follow his premise to some interesting extremes.
Your comments about the Clarke book reminded me of a conversation I had with my nephew when he was around 13 or so (he's in his 30s now). He asked me how the world was different than what I thought it would be like when I was his age. I thought, "What a great question!" My answer was that we thought of the things we already knew of getting better, but there was a lot that we never imagined, the things we had no clue about. We had cars, so we imagined flying cars. We had TVs, so we imagined really big TVs that took up the whole wall. But nobody I knew imagined home computers or the internet. Obviously, somebody imagined them, as here they are. But not the average schmo walking down the street.
Something else I've noticed is that even when predictions about where technology is taking us are actually reasonable, nobody ever seems to fully grasp the sociological changes that will come with them. Clarke may have vaguely understood that we'd be doing more things online in the future than we were on Compuserve in 1986, but he, unsurprisingly, failed to understand what that would mean to our everyday lives, grossly underestimating the way it would change everything from commerce to politics. And if I had a nickel for every 1950s SF novel I've read in which we already have household robots and regular commuter flights to Mercury by 2019, but women are still confined to the kitchen, well, I might be able to buy one of those flying cars we're supposed to have by now.
Yes, excellent point.
A bit more trivial, but still interesting, is the ways in which old and imagined technologies are sometimes mixed. I recently read the beginning of an excellent SF series in which pilots have ports in their brains to which they can hook cables that allow them to interact organically with their aircraft. Still, though, phone booths. And it's not like Maxwell Smart wasn't talking into his shoe in 1966!
A detailed look at the ways in which large groups of diverse people acting or thinking independently can, in aggregate, sometimes be much better at decision-making and problem solving than individuals or small like-minded groups. (Think, for instance, of the way that polling the audience on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire pretty much always results in the right answer.)
There wasn't a whole lot in here that was particularly new to me, and I don't find all of it equally compelling, but it is a decent overview of the subject, with lots of examples. Interestingly, Surowiecki seems to spend almost as much time talking about the ways in which this sort of thing can go wrong and the conditions under which it doesn't work as he does on the ways in which it can be effective. Which I think is extremely important, actually, because otherwise it might be far too easy to take a shallow and naive reading of Surowiecki's arguments and end up subscribing to some familiar but misguided conclusions, like the idea that experts are completely useless (a notion he explicitly disclaims in the afterword to the edition of the book I have).
It's also worth mentioning that this was originally published in 2004, so it now feels rather dated, certainly in its examples, if not in its conclusions. I often found myself wondering how differently it would have been written today and whether events like the subprime mortgage crisis or the 2016 election would have changed the author's thinking any, or provided him new material to work with. I especially find myself wondering if the ways in which we've come to use the internet over the past fifteen years might have actually undermined our ability to make our individual decisions independently, something Surowiecki identifies as a key component of effective collective decision-making.
The year in question here is the suitably science-fictional-sounding 2000.
I'm afraid that I seem to always approach anything with "year's best" in the title, whatever that year might be, with a little too much optimism. There's something about it that just seems to promise a cavalcade of top-notch gems, and the reality almost always ends up being slightly disappointing.
Sadly, that's true of this volume, too. There are certainly some very good stories in it. Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Birthday of the World" is a standout, as is Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters." (I'd just recently encountered the latter elsewhere, as it happens, but it was worth re-reading here, too.) But as far as I'm concerned, most of the stories sit somewhere between decent but forgettable and just plain dull. Likely that's due in part to a bit of a mismatch between the editor's tastes and mine. Hartwell seems to lean towards the hard SF end of the spectrum, which is something I find myself less and less interested in as time goes on. Increasingly, I find myself thinking that if I want to read a science lecture, I'd much prefer to read one about real science, which is often quite fantastic enough. And a few too many of the pieces in here have interesting ideas, but don't bother to include very much in the way of actual story. Which is something that can work in SF, but it isn't as easy to pull off as some authors seem to think.
Based on the Dozois anthologies I've read, though, I do seem to find him way more in tune with my own tastes. I've still got a couple of those sitting on the TBR shelves looking forlornly at me, but the fact that they are so big makes them a little too easy to keep putting off.
>29 dukedom_enough: A delightful example!
And, yeah, it's the very, very rare "best of" anthology that doesn't have a least a couple of stories I agree fully deserve to be there, whatever I might think of the collection as a whole.
Australian lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne is quiet, withdrawn man, damaged by his experiences in WWI. He can't believe his luck when the lively Isabel decides to marry him and join him on the remote island where he was previously stationed all alone. But things change for them when a boat washes up on the shore of the island with a dead man and a live infant in it, and Isabel, devastated by a series of miscarriages, begs him not to report the incident and to pass the child off as their own.
It's mostly a very quiet sort of story. There is some tension in it, as you know right from the beginning that the choice Tom and Isabel make is going to have some painful consequences. But mostly it's quiet, and slow, and rather melancholy. Which makes it a good book for when that sort of thing is exactly what you're in the mood for, and, fortunately, I think I read it in very much the right mood.
Sympathetic or not, though, I don't think we're really supposed to think she's "justified." What she does might be understandable, but justified is another matter entirely.
I absolutely loved the recent Amazon TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens. And what do I do when I absolutely love something? That's right, I buy books about it! So, of course, I had to pick up this companion book, which features a look behind the scenes, including interviews with pretty much everybody both in front of and behind the cameras.
I have to say, the text isn't all that impressive. There's not huge amounts of substance to most of it, and often feels like it's trying to hype the show as much as it is to bring us into the making of it, which just seems totally unnecessary. There are also a lot of little factual inaccuracies, in things like the descriptions of what happens in particular scenes. Nothing glaringly horrible, but it does rather give the impression that the author hadn't actually watched the show. Although that perhaps ought to be forgivable, seeing as the book was almost certainly in the works while the series was still being made, so presumably he actually hadn't had the chance to watch it first.
On the other hand, though, visually and physically the book is really nice. Hell, I'd say it's almost worth it just for the wonderful cover art, but there are also lots and lots of pictures, some of which help give you a really good sense of just how rich and detailed the sets were. Indeed, the parts of the text that I found far and away the most interesting had to do with the set design. The production designer has some fascinating things to say about the visual themes he used on the sets, and his attention to detail is just staggering.
So, while I can't remotely call this a must-have for fans of the show, it was at least worth a look, and I'm sure it's going to look very, very pretty on my bookshelf.
And, yeah, they're both very pretty, and do an amazing job, too. They've basically got chemistry oozing out of their pores. I would happily watch another six hours of nothing but those two characters hanging out together, even if they're just eating lunch.
>48 RidgewayGirl: They were supposed to be in the show. They were in the original script, and had even been cast already and everything, but they ended up being cut, I think for budget reasons. Which disappointed a lot of people, but Neil Gaiman's comment, I think, was that something had to go, and he felt better cutting something he'd written than something Terry Pratchett had.
In this kids' novel (or maybe it's YA?), set in a world where magic isn't what it used to be, young Jennifer Strange acts as a manager for a group of once-powerful sorcerers who now use what's left of their power to do stuff like unclogging drains. Then she's told that she is actually the Last Dragonslayer, and has a predetermined appointment to kill the last dragon, something that might have an effect, good or bad, on the state of magic. But she really doesn't want to do it.
I liked the story here, even if it does end a bit abruptly with a lot of exposition. But I found the world annoyingly hard to suspend my disbelief for, since it features a Great Britain composed of tiny independent kingdoms and an alternate magical history, but also things like modern real-world car models and trivia questions about General Patton. And the humor sits, I think, right on the borderline between amusingly quirky and slightly too silly, coming down a little too often on the "slightly too silly" side of the line for my taste. Although that might not be entirely the book's fault. I think maybe I just wasn't in quite the right mood for that particular brand of comedy. Or maybe not quite the right age for it, as I suspect I would have enjoyed this at least twice as much when I was twelve.
Doyle, the former mayor of Boston, and his wife Bernadette wanted a big family like the Irish Catholic one Bernadette was born into, but when they suffered infertility problems after having one son, they ended up adopting two small black boys. Then Bernadette died and Doyle was left alone with his sons, for whom he had ambitions they weren't necessarily inclined to go along with. Until, one snowy day many years later, an event happened that would change everything for them all: Tip, one of the sons, was nearly run over by a car, only to be saved when a strange woman pushed him out of the way.
I don't want to reveal too much more of what happens, but, honestly, no plot summary is remotely going to do this one justice. It's a wonderfully written, well-characterized, quietly thoughtful novel about family and the chance events that shape our lives and... well, about a lot of other things as well. But mostly about family.
This is the first thing of Patchett's that I've read, but it's definitely not going to be the last. I can see why she's so highly regarded.
Bioethicist Jacob Appel addresses difficult questions of medical ethics by describing dozens of scenarios, largely based on real-world cases, and inviting readers to think about what the most ethical thing to do in each situation might be. These questions cover a broad scope of medical ethics, including issues involving reproductive technology, when to keep someone alive vs letting them die (by, say, removing a ventilator), how limited funds or scarce resources like human organs ought to be allocated, what the limits of patient confidentially are, and under what circumstances it might be ethical to treat someone without their consent.
Almost all of the dilemmas described are complicated and surprisingly difficult to resolve, things that fall in confusing moral gray areas, involve having to choose between two courses of action that might both seem right (or both wrong), or that invite one to consider making an exception to sensible general rules. For each situation, Appel sums up in just a few pages the various ethical concerns involved and the arguments to be made on each side. He also often talks about how similar real-world examples have been handled, and mentions any guidelines or general medical opinion that might exist on the issue. (Although I was surprised by how infrequently there even seemed to be any strong guidelines or general consensus.)
I'm impressed by how clearly and concisely Appel manages to cover the relevant issues, and the balanced and utterly unjudgemental way in which he does so without bringing his own personal opinions into things. He also doesn't attempt to provide any clear-cut answers, instead encouraging readers to chew over and debate the issues involved themselves. As an exercise in getting people to put real thought into this stuff, it's very nicely done. Even if, I confess, my main reaction to almost all of these scenarios is to be deeply glad I'm not the one who has to make the decisions.
I was also pleased by the one touch of amusing whimsy in what is otherwise a calmly serious look at some pretty disturbing subjects: for each of the situations he describes, Appel gives his hypothetical physician the name of a famous fictional doctor, so that we're reading about ethical dilemmas faced by people like Dr. McCoy, Dr. Van Helsing, and Dr. Maturin. Well, it gave me a smile.
(Note: This was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book.)
And a different note, I’m not convinced there is any wisdom in crowds. : )
This novel, set in South Africa, blends together science fiction and fantasy into something that's just... nuts. There's demigods, superpowers, weird mythology, drugs, pop music, genetic engineering, and robots achieving sentience. There's also a lot of darkness, too: the main villain is disturbingly violent, and even the notionally good guys do some pretty horrible things.
It's a pretty cool kind of nuts, though, overall, with lots of energy and imagination. I'll admit, I did lose the momentum of the story for a bit before it got to the (entertainingly over-the-top) climax, but I think that was my fault, really, not the novel's, as I've been annoyingly distractable lately. So I'm no going to hold that against it.
Rating: It's hard to know exactly how to rate this, but I'm going to go ahead and give it a 4/5
Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta has been investigating a series of murders in which the victims' bodies have been decapitated and dismembered. But when the latest unidentified torso turns up, the M.O. now appears to be very different, and the consequences may be disastrous.
This is actually book 8 in a series, none of which I had previously read, but while it did leave me feeling like I'd come in in the middle of the story as far as developments in the main character's personal life go, Cornwell is diligent enough about bringing new readers up to speed that I had no trouble with it, even though I'm usually not a fan of coming into series in the middle.
I read this one only because it was given to me by a mystery-loving friend who thought it seemed like the sort of mystery story that science-nerd me would like, because there's a fair amount of medical science in it and the investigation takes a scientific approach. And while I'd hardly call it the most science-oriented book I've ever read -- hey, I read a lot of SF -- I did find some of the forensic details quite interesting.
Said friend also described Scarpetta as a "strong female character." That, unfortunately, is a phrase that now too often seems to either be used in a way that's so vague it means almost nothing, or else reserved only for female characters who are very limited and stereotyped varieties of "strong." But I'm pleased to report that the phrase fits Scarpetta in the good way: she's an intelligent, respected professional, but she also has flaws, and she feels very human, rather than being anybody's wish-fulfillment idea of a strong woman. I liked her.
As for the plot, it's nothing particularly groundbreaking, but I did find it engaging enough, and, pleasantly, it turned out to be exactly the kind of thing I was in the mood to read. I only have one real complaint about it, but unfortunately it's a significant complaint for this kind of story. The ending, I felt, was entirely too abrupt and not really very satisfying. Especially as, now that I think about it, it does leave a pretty serious dangling plot thread. So that was a little disappointing, but despite it, I've come out with a reasonably good impression of Cornwell, and wouldn't be adverse to picking up another of her novels sometime.
I will add that this particular work, having come out in 1999, now feels kind of dated. Not in a bad way that made it more difficult or uncomfortable to read. But I can't help finding it amusing that it includes careful explanations of what the internet is, or how it's possible to scan a photograph and e-mail it to someone. And the story also includes several gay and lesbian characters. They're treated by both the author and the main character with acceptance and sympathy, but reading this in 2019, it's hard not to find it weird how both author and character seem to feel the need to address the subject of their love lives with a sort of coy delicacy, and the way it's taken for granted that it could be disastrous for any of them if their employers found out does kind of bring home just how much some things have changed. On the other hand, the fact that the novel is set during a federal government shutdown thanks to congress not being able to pass a budget is a depressingly familiar detail.
Rating: I'm giving this one a 3.5/5, although I probably would have gone up to a slightly generous 4/5 if the ending had been stronger.
The latest work of scientific insanity by xkcd cartoonist Randall Munroe purports to offer up "absurd scientific advice for common real-world problems." Some chapters do precisely that, such as the one that suggests filling a swimming pool by purchasing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bottled water and then opening the bottles using a nuclear weapon. Some -- OK, a very few -- might actually be kind of handy, such as the chapter that offers up a fairly simple formula for estimating how far anyone can throw any object. (You can play around with that one a bit here.) Others -- lots of others -- illustrate interesting scientific principles by contemplating ridiculous extreme possibilities. Pretty much all of them are very much Do Not Try This at Home. Seriously, please do not destroy any moons of Mars in an attempt to power your house. Thank you.
As always with Randall Munroe, it's a lot of whimsical, deeply nerdy, and occasionally slightly alarming fun.
A collection of strange and beautifully written short stories, in which, among other things, vampires learn to suck lemons, young women are turned into silkworms, and former US presidents find themselves reincarnated as horses. Oddly enough, the title story was, for me, the least satisfying of the lot (although still very well-written), but the best of them sort of crawl into your brain and do some really bizarre and interesting things in there. The silkworm story ("Reeling for the Empire") is particularly unforgettable.
Rating: I think this one earns a 4.5/5, and probably would even just on the strength of the two or three best stories alone.
Clifford Simak wrote some very entertaining science fiction novels, including a few that may reasonably be regarded as classics in the field. This, unfortunately, is not one of them.
The novel centers on an order of religious robots on a planet they've named Vatican-17, who have attempted to build a robotic pope who will be truly infallible, and who are using human psychics to search for Heaven, which might or might not be a real place you can actually visit.
All of which sounds like it could perhaps make for some interesting musings, or maybe for some satirical humor, on the subjects of artificial intelligence and religion. It does neither, though. Instead, it seems to mostly consist of characters sitting around telling each other the same stuff over and over and over, none of which was particularly interesting in the first place. Neither the world nor the theology of these robots ever feels very well-developed, and the plot is thin enough that the whole thing could probably have been cut down from 300+ pages to novella-length, and been the better for it. And then there's the ending, which kind of feels like it belongs in another story entirely (but not necessarily a better one).
I picked up this slim volume in a gift shop in Denali National Park when I was there a couple of months ago. It features beautiful photographs of the park's landscape and its plants and animals, and, of course, of the mountain itself (which was particularly nice, since I never caught more than a partial glimpse of it through the clouds when I was there, an experience I'm told is pretty common). The accompanying text occasionally has a bit of that over-familiar quality of nature writing that's trying to be a bit too poetic, but in general it's good, and it offers up some interesting information about the park, its wildlife, and its history to accompany the pictures.
It was very pleasant to spend an hour or so slowly perusing it, revisiting some of the things I'd seen and vicariously experiencing some of the ones I missed. So it was a very nice souvenir to bring home from the trip.
A strange image to use for a mountain! I’d have thought the idea most people have of “crown jewel” is “useless bit of bling made out of stolen colonial loot and brought out every two or three decades to add lustre to an outdated form of government...”.
I googled “crown jewel of” and most of what came up, other than pages about actual jewels, was either American real estate or tourism. My favourite was: “Sveti Stefan – The Crown Jewel Of Montenegro’s Most Unique Vacation Spots”. There are people on the internet who have a real feeling for language, it seems ... :-(
Doesn’t matter for your photo-book of course, that’s the sort of thing where you buy it, or don’t, based on whether you find the pictures attractive when you flick through it in the shop.
A collection of short stories, all focusing on Indians or Indian-Americans. They're simple, quiet, domestic stories that provide glimpses into the lives of very ordinary-seeming people, and yet at the same time they feel incredibly layered and rich. The writing is excellent, too, in a way that's unpretentious yet wonderfully effective. Several times I found myself finishing a story, setting the book down and just whispering to myself, "Wow, she's good."
Paul's wife Lexy is dead, fallen from an apple tree in their back yard. The police believe it was an accident, but Paul isn't so sure, and he desperately wants to know exactly what happened that day. But the only witness was their dog, Lorelei. So Paul becomes convinced that all he needs to do is to find a way for Lorelei to talk.
It's hard to know quite what to think about this one. The whole talking-dog obsession is honestly pretty ridiculous, as are the weird clues Paul ultimately follows to draw conclusions about what happened. Plus, the dead wife herself, who we learn about through Paul's memories and flashbacks, has a little too much of the manic pixie dreamgirl about her for my taste, even if she's a manic pixie with something of a dark side.
None of this feels like it ought to add up to a good story. But Parkhurst's writing is so good that she darned near pulls it off. She has a real talent for including little details that feel devastatingly real, and for insightful descriptions of what things like grief and depression and desperation feel like.
Rating: I don't at all know how to rate this mixture of the brilliant and the kind-of-dumb, but I guess I'll go with a 3.5/5
Jillian Scudder covers the basics of space science, starting with the view from Earth and then moving out, section by section, through the planets of our our solar system, to other stars, to other galaxies, to the structure of the universe as a whole.
I will say that the writing here doesn't really have the gripping, sense-of-wonder-inducing quality that the very best science writing has. But it what it does have is a very clear and readable presentation of a lot of interesting and important scientific facts and ideas. I admit that I found my attention wandering a bit sometimes, because most of this material is stuff I already knew, but I think for people who are excited about the idea of learning something about astronomy and space science but don't have a lot of background in it already, it's going to meet their needs quite well.
For myself, the parts I found most enjoyable where the little sidebar discussions she sometimes includes, where she gets a little more playful and out-there, and considers odd hypothetical questions like what would happen if you could open up some kind of portal between your house and somewhere on the surface of the moon, or if a mirror placed out in space somewhere could allow us to see a reflected picture of Earth's past. It was fun to have those scattered in among the more straightforward material about things like the life cycles of stars.
Rating: If I were reflecting my own personal enjoyment of it, I might have to give it a 3.5/5, but I've actually studied astronomy and am not really its intended audience. As an evaluation of how good I think it is for those are are its intended audience, I'm going to go with 4/5.
(Note: This was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book.)