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Monday, September 26, 2016

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions - Randall Munroe

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsSo, What If? was my choice for a satire book for my 2016 reading challenge.  In it, Randall Munroe, the author of the webcomic xkcd answers email questions he's received that are absolutely ridiculous, but he answers them in a serious manner.  I think the best, easy example of this is the often-asked question, "What would happen if the sun turned off?"  In answer, Munroe lists a lot of "pros" to the sun going out, such a reduced risk of solar flares, improved satellite service, being able to drive across asphalt laid directly on ice instead of needing to build bridges, and safer parsnip consumption.  And then he follows it up with the downside to the scenario: we would all freeze and die.  Other types of crazy questions include...

-What would happen if all the rain in a rainstorm fell as one massive droplet?
-How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic London to New York?
-How quickly would the oceans drain if a circular portal 10  meters in radius leading into space were created at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, and how would the world change as the water was being drained?

These are accompanied by the actual science--though sometimes stretched in crazy ways--which is really well explained for those of us who are not physicists, and also by the stick figure comics that Munroe has become internet-famous for.  His type of humor really agrees with me (when I understand it; the webcomic's page contains a warning that states "This comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)," and I am a liberal-arts major) so I thought I would like the book quite a bit.  And I did...

...but.  Here's the thing.  Munroe also runs a What If? blog, and most of the content of the book comes from there.  There are a few new things in the book version, but just a few, and most of the "new things" are questions that came in that Munroe finds especially weird and worrying but doesn't answer in full as he does the other ones.  If you've read the What If? blog, then there's not a ton of new stuff here to enjoy.  The blog is also set up better for Munroe's style than the book is.  xkcd and consequently What If? are known for the alt-text that Munroe uses, which is the text that appears when you hover your mouse over an image, and serves as a sort of caption.  Pretty much all of the comics that Munroe inserts into the What If? answers online include an alt-text, but only a few of them are included as captions in the book.  He also uses footnotes in a funny way on the blog, but when you read the book, either in hard copy or on Kindle, they're not as accessible; on the blog, you click the footnote and the note actually just pops up where you are, without directing you to the end of the article.  In the book, you have to go to the end of the article to read the notes, which are typically funny and not actually citations, and are things you want to read as you along rather than at the end, and that makes for a lot of flipping back and forth.

Munroe's typical wit and style are evident here, and I wasn't disappointed by that at all.  Still, I think this book is best suited for people who aren't familiar with xkcd and What If? in their internet forms; if you're already a fan, I think you're better off just sticking to the website.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Obelisk Gate - N. K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth #2)

The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth, #2)After I finally got around to reading The Fifth Season a few weeks ago, I immediately ordered The Obelisk Gate to continue on.  This is a sin, because I ordered it from Amazon.  Forgive me.  I'd purchased The Fifth Season at Kramer's Books, a local bookstore (with a cafe called Afterwords, which is just so perfect) here Washington, DC, and I intended to do the same with The Obelisk Gate, but I didn't think it was likely I'd be near there by the time I wanted to read the next book, and besides, Kramer's usually only has one copy of each book out a time, so how could I know that this would be there when I got there?  It is new.  (And kudos to a publisher that releases in paperback right away.)

Well, the book came and about three days later I found myself at Kramer's.  I bought Seveneves instead.  I had The Obelisk Gate slated for one of the days in my weekend, to which someone asked, "You're going to read an entire book this weekend?"  Well...yes?  I mean, I typically read several.  On this particular weekend I didn't, because I ended up binge-watching Once Upon a Time and spending a significant amount of time lying on the couch groaning about how hard my life is in the wake of a run.  (I am not a good runner.)  But I did still read all of The Obelisk Gate.  And...

It suffers from second book syndrome.

It absolutely kills me to say this, but it's true.  The Fifth Season built up a complex world with several intertwined story lines on different timelines.  Unfortunately, at the end of that book, it was basically all transformed into backstory.  I felt that this didn't bode well for The Obelisk Gate, and I was right.  This book is a big bunch of nothing happening.  Nassun, Essun's daughter, takes the stage as a character, and her part is a bunch of walking and then mostly stuff that we've already seen from Essun in her various personas: trying to master orogeny.  Essun, meanwhile, just stays in one place and...doesn't do much.  She talks to Alabaster.  She talks to Tonkee.  She talks to other people.  There's talk of a moon but no one will really come out and say it.  There's talk of the Obelisk Gate and what she's supposed to do with it but not really any doing in itself.  A few things happen near the end, but honestly I didn't feel that they were big, plot-moving things on a grand scale, more things that were just thrown in to have some sort of climax for this book.  There is a bit more involvement of the stone eaters, which was interesting, and the writing remains decent, but that second-person tense is still killing me, the breakaways to first-person are distracting, and nothing really happened.  This is extremely frustrating to me because I like Jemisin so much, but this book just didn't work for me.  Second books in trilogies are hard, and this definitely fell prey to all of the problems that can plague them.  It was just "meh," overall, and because it's so hard to talk about a book that was just "meh," I'm going to leave it at that.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter, #3)Continuing my Harry Potter re-read, I've come to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is apparently the most popular book in the series.  This has never really made sense to me.  I think it's because people absolutely love Remus Lupin (he is pretty cool) and adore Sirius Black (which, I mean, he's not bad, but really?).  But even re-reading this, with knowledge of the whole series in my head, I couldn't get past the feeling that, once we get to the beginning of the climactic events, the story feels very cobbled together and everything just goes on for way too long.

This is, of course, the story of Harry's third year at school and it's also the only book of the series where there is not some sort of direct confrontation with Lord Voldemort or his minions!  (Peter Pettigrew doesn't really DO anything in this book and so I am convinced he does not count.)  After a confrontation that involves him unwillingly using magic, Harry runs away from the Dursleys and, through a roundabout series of events, ends up spending the rest of his summer at the Leaky Cauldron where he eventually finds out that an escaped convict from Azkaban Prison is probably out to kill him.  This rather puts a damper on the start of the school year, but Harry promises to not go looking for Sirius Black, because why would he?  Well, of course he's eventually goaded into doing stupid things, and also gets caught up in some rather random events involving time-travel and a couple of different varieties of shapeshifters.

While many people love this book, I think it has more problems than the others in the series.  Part of it is that Rowling essentially wrote herself into a corner--if your characters can time-travel to solve problems, what's keeping them from doing that to solve things for the rest of the series?  She does try to set limits on it, but clearly recognized that this was something that was not sustainable long-term, as she tried to correct it in the fifth book by destroying the devices used to ravel through time.  Except, apparently, one that pops up in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child but let's not get into that because it's kind of widely acknowledged to be a train wreck in comparison to the main series.  My other two problems with this book is that it falls victim to a long info-dump of exposition right in the middle of some climactic events while the group is at the Shrieking Shack, with everyone going on and on about what's really going on when it kind of seems like they should be, I don't know, doing something about it.  And then there's the thing about the climax itself just going on way too long.  It basically starts with the group going off to the Shrieking Shack and lasts basically until the very end, which is a decent portion of the book.  Keeping suspense going that long, especially with a big info-dumping monologue in the middle of it, is hard, and I don't think Rowling really managed it well.

Honestly, to me, this book has always felt like the one that was most "off in the weeds" and didn't seem like Rowling had a really good idea of where she wanted to go with the series plot as a whole in it.  Things like the Weasley twins not noticing that the Marauder's Map showed there was a guy named Peter Pettigrew hanging out in their brother's bed for several years come across as big plot holes that just weren't thought out, and the whole thing felt more cobbled together than the other volumes in the series.  Professor Lupin is obviously a big draw here, but Sirius Black doesn't honestly have a big enough role to appeal to me and clearly is not qualified as a guardian for Harry so I don't know why people always tout him as such.  (Honestly, Hagrid is a far better father figure for Harry than Sirius ever is.  Sirius' appeal to Harry is entirely built up in Harry's own head rather than being based on anything concrete.)

This is probably my least-favorite book in the series, after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, though we'll have to see if that changes after my OotP re-read.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, September 19, 2016

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth - Colonel Chris Hadfield

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on EarthFor me, this book was much like its author: completely off my radar until this year, 2016, when it was suddenly everywhere. This is strange because the book is copyrighted to 2013, and Hadfield himself completed his last space mission (the one he became well-known for) in 2013 as well.  So why did this all suddenly come across my desk this year?  I have no idea.  And actually, I had no idea that the two (book and person) were connected until I Googled Hadfield and realized yes, I did know who this person was, though (again) I only became aware of him recently.  He's the guy who made all those space videos!  I would have figured this out if I'd just read the book, because he talks about making them, but it was nice knowing who was doing the talking as I went all the way through; it made it resonate more.

So, I picked this up because a few people had it posted on lists of self improvement books, and that's a category I needed to fill for my reading challenge and one that sounded utterly awful because self improvement books as a rule are.  While I don't think Hadfield intended this to be a self improvement book, I can definitely see why it's ended up being considered as one, in addition to being a cool autobiography and book about being an astronaut in general.  The reason that it's floated into the SI sphere seems to be this: Hadfield has a lot of advice to offer without actually seeming like he's offering it, and definitely without shoving it down your throat.  He's a very personable guy, someone I felt I could get along with even though we pretty much have nothing in common but speaking English.  He uses his own experiences in his career, both on his path to become an astronaut and while he was "deployed" as one, to exhibit little mindsets and behaviors that really anyone can use for trying to improve life.  He turns a lot of pithy little sayings on their heads; instead of "Don't sweat the small stuff," Hadfield thinks that you really should, at least in some situations, because those neglected little details can really come back around bite you later.  Planning ahead isn't worrying over nothing, it's planning so that you know what you'll do if different things (such as problems caused by those little details you neglected) arise later.  Striving to make zero impact gives you the opportunity to make a positive impact while also reducing the possibility that you'll make an ass of yourself trying to show off and make a positive one.

All of these little lessons are generally applicable to the population at large.  I didn't see anything in here that was astronaut-specific.  And that's the point, isn't it?  I mean, it's not much of a guide to life on earth if you're only giving out info that astronauts can use.  And all of these things are gently folded in among amusing, poignant, and sometimes heartbreaking stories about the joys, trials, and disasters that come with what is, really, an extremely dangerous occupation.  Most of us don't have to worry about seven of our friends being blown up when their car loses a piece of insulation, as happened with Hadfield's friends and coworkers when the Columbia exploded in 2003, but we can still take the lessons he's learned from various points in his life and career and apply them to our own.  It's also a rather quirky look at what being an astronaut is like, because most of us quite frankly have no idea, and I like that Hadfield was able to make it so much more real for the average person like me, who has absolutely zero chance of ever setting foot in space.

Overall, this was a fast, light read with some good stories and spot-on observations about life, and lessons that we can all learn from.  I would have liked to know a bit about the other space missions Hadfield went on, in addition to the one to the ISS--he only briefly mentions them--but the ISS one was the longest by far so I can see why the focus was there.

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Sophie's Choice - William Styron

Sophie's ChoiceUgh, what a tedious book.  I read this because a) it's supposedly a classic and b) it's on the ALA's banned books list, which means it qualifies for one of my reading challenge categories.  Again, I can see why it was banned: because it involves tons of talk of sex, and the people who like to ban books are terrified of sex.  Also it was apparently banned in Poland because it highlights how anti-Semitic that country was?

Anyway.  The main story here is about struggling writer Stingo, who ends up living in a boarding house where the titular Sophie and her lover, Nathan, also live.  While Stingo tries to write a great Southern novel, he gets tangled up in Sophie and Nathan's disastrous love affair and learns about Sophie's past in Poland during World War II, including her time in Auschwitz.

Stingo is pretty clearly Styron; not a literal version of Styron, but he wants to write about all the same things Styron writes about and Styron uses him to shove his own philosophy about slavery and concentration camps and whatever down our throats.  This is especially easy for him because Stingo is the narrator.  I basically hated Stingo.  He was so boring and pretentious and all he ever thought about was getting laid.  I didn't care about him at all and the best parts of the book were when he was "narrating" Sophie's story, because those parts actually read as normal third-person narration for the most part rather than Stingo's pretentious rambling.

Sophie is someone that everyone falls in love with right away because she's hawt.  No other reason.  This is sad, because I think there were other reasons to love Sophie--but none of the characters actually like her because of them.  Her personal story is deep and moving, and is the story of a non-Jewish inmate of Auschwitz.  She apparently knows how to love unconditionally, given her feelings for Nathan despite his abysmal treatment of her, though some of this is probably her clinging to something that seems stable (even if it's not) after the previous turmoil of her life.  The thing I didn't like about Sophie is that she is an unreliable narrator.  She's told everyone different versions of her story with different details revealed.  Stingo purports to have the true version, but how can we really know?  All of these lies and contradictory revelations that Sophie puts out kind of made me doubt her larger story as a whole, which really isn't something that I think was supposed to happen.

Other problematic things about this include how Nathan's mental illness is portrayed.  He's very clearly unstable from the beginning of the book, but I don't know...something about how Styron tied his (unknown to everyone else until late in the book) diagnosis into his behaviors and used it to just excuse away his behavior seems...not good.  I mean, people with mental illnesses are not dangerous as a rule, and Nathan very clearly was from the very start.

Overall, though, the book just dragged.  I like the parts with Sophie's story, but I knew the ending of that before I started, and so it didn't come as a big, heart-wrenching, shocking moment for me.  Stingo I absolutely hated.  (Did I mention he sexually assaults someone?  They're making out and once he realizes she doesn't want to have sex, he decides to just whip it out and try to get a handjob out of her, even though it's been made pretty clear from her reactions that she's not into it.)  The non-Sophie parts dragged, and I didn't want to read about Styron's philosophy at all.  This was tedious all over, and I'm glad to have it over with.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Fifth Season - N. K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth #1)

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1)"For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question."

Wow. How amazing of a book dedication of that? While it's relevant to the book, it's also particularly poignant in light of the fact that Jemisin just won a Hugo Award for The Fifth Season, against hordes of haters who tried to rig the system and are led by a guy who referred to her as an uncivilized "half-savage." And Jemisin writes so many characters who would easily fall into this category of having to fight for respect in our world, though in their own worlds they often end up having to fight for respect for entirely different reasons.

Let's use that as our jumping-off point, shall we? Jemisin writes a wide array of non-white characters (there are only a handful of white characters in this book, and most of them aren't even white in the traditional sense; they are LITERALLY WHITE) who also tend to be all along the spectrum of sexuality and who often have what we would probably consider non-traditional relationships. All of these people would definitely face heavy discrimination in our world. But that's the thing: in their own world, they don't. These things are just accepted, as they should be. Do these characters face discrimination? Yes. But here, it's for a completely different reason...

It's because our main characters are orogenes, otherwise called by the insulting term of rogga. What does this mean? It means that they can manipulate energy and consequently the earth itself, stealing life from other people, animals, and plants in the process. Orogenes are human, but they're not considered as such by the people of the Stillness, the land they inhabit. They're viewed as extremely dangerous and there's an entire order of people called Guardians who are devoted to keeping them in line and killing them if they step out of line. We know from the beginning of the book that our mains are orogenes, and we watch them struggle with this, and how wrong their treatment is, all through it.

This is a hard book to talk about without spoilers, but I'm going to try. The book starts with a man ripping open the Stillness, a land that's not actually still at all, and starting what the narrator refers to as "the last time" of the end of the world. It sets of a cataclysmic event that annihilates the largest, most powerful city on the planet and sends everyone from the equatorial zone scampering for safety further north and south. But that won't help them much, because it's heavily implied this is going to be a disaster that will take thousands of years to go away. In the midst of all this is Essun, whose chapters are written in the second person singular tense (which I'm not particularly fond of) and who is mourning the death of her child, who her husband killed after finding out the kid was an orogene. Essun herself is an orogene, but this was only known by her two children and one other friend in her village. She accidentally betrays her powers and is forced to leave the village, but that's okay, she was going to anyway, because her husband has also made off with her other (also an orogene) child, and she is determined to get her daughter back.

We have two other story threads going on as well. The first is that of the young girl Damaya, who has been discovered as an orogene by her village and parents and is being shipped off to the Fulcrum, a school where orogenes are turned into weapons for the use of the empire. The second is that of Syenite, a four-ringed (which is basically a level-four, of ten) orogene who is being sent on a mission with the only ten-ringed orogene currently in existence. Oh, and she's also supposed to get pregnant from this guy along the way, because the Fulcrum wants a steady supply of strong orogenes to feed its needs.

Syenite's story was definitely the most intriguing and, I think, the strongest. Damaya's pretty much felt like a typical supernatural school story to me, most of the time, with her dealing with hazing and learning her abilities and getting into trouble. Essun's was mostly a lot of walking, though a few interesting things came out of it along the way. But the real big reveals, and the real big events, all happen within Syenite's story, which meant that when I hit an Essun or Dayama chapter, I found myself flipping ahead to see how long it would be until we got back to Syenite. There was a weird time-jump in her story at one point, though, which felt very choppy to me and did disrupt my "flow." But I think we really see this world through this story line, more than the others, and I was sad to see it end, because it's pretty obviously not going to continue in the next two books in the series.

Also, I think the book as a whole read better during the body than it did in retrospect, after the end. During the main reading, it's not outright said but is definitely apparent that Damay and Syenite's stories take place before the cataclysm that starts the book, mainly because, well, the world isn't ending. But when they all get tied together at the end, it makes them feel much more like plain old backstory than compelling plotlines on their own, and I liked them as separate plotlines; I think it would have felt much neater if they had been, and had just been tied into the Essun one.

Do I think this is Jemisin's strongest work? Well...no. I much preferred The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which was her first book (and was also nominated for a Hugo but lost out to a book called Blackout/All Clear, which I haven't read so I can't tell if the loss was "deserved"), but she continues to build intriguing worlds with vibrant characters who come out of very different molds than what we typically see in fantasy, and I think that's very important. I think I would put this one below The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms, both of which I liked very much, but above the Kingdom of the Gods and the Dreamblood books, which I didn't like as much. Still, there are two books left to go in this series, and Jemisin is really masterful with worldbuilding, so I'm intrigued to see where these will go. It definitely seems like they're going to be more direct sequels than the other connected books she's written so far, so it'll be interesting to see how she handles an outright series more than "companion" books for the first time.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Empire of the Summer Moon - S. C. Gwynne

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American HistoryEmpire of the Summer Moon is another title that came to me through the Deliberate Reader book club.  I was pretty pleased when I picked it up, because as I noted recently I haven't read a lot of nonfiction this year, and this was a nice change.  According to the subtitle, it's about "Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian tribe in American History," which is some interesting capitalization, but that's besides the point.  Let me just put this out there from the beginning: other than a couple of chapters at the end, this book is not really about Quanah Parker.  Parker's relevance is basically that he managed to wrangle the title of "Principle Chief of the Comanches" out of the US Government when the majority of the Comanches had been, finally, confined to a reservation, and he became a leader later in his life and caused a lot of trouble for the government earlier in it.  But beyond that, this book is largely not about Parker, but is more about the Comanches in general, without specifics for any part of it.

It must have been hard to write a book about the Comanches, because really people didn't, and don't, know that much about them.  They weren't a literate tribe and kept themselves fairly isolated, far more so than most of the First Nations we hear about.  The exact degree of isolation depended on the band (there were five within the Comanches) but overall it means that there isn't a lot of documentation from the Comanche side of things.  This means that what Gwynne is forced to rely on is documentation from the American (and Spanish, and Mexican, and Texan) side of things.  The result is that most of the information comes from records of Comanche raids on settlements and the various attempts to hunt down groups of Comanches, either preemptively or for revenge.  The notable exception to this is the few times that people who were taken captive by the Comanches and were either released or adopted into the tribe documented their experiences to some degree, which was a fascinating change.  As for documents from the Comanches themselves?  There are a few letters "written" by Quanah Parker at the end, but that's pretty much it.  Maybe something that a chief said here or there that was recorded by a white guy, but there's not much in that category.

I think this was a fairly good general history; it's hard to be more specific and detailed without that (non-existent) documentation from the Comanche side.  But even the generalities of Comanche life were fascinating.  What did bother me was some of the language that Gwynne uses.  He constantly refers to the Comanches and other First Nations peoples as savages, uncivilized, and lacking in culture.  Well that might all be true...but only if you're looking at it from a standard "white conqueror" viewpoint.  It's such a weird thing because this isn't an old book; it was published in 2010, a year when one would think that the author of a book such as this would know better.  The writing itself is very engaging, and it kept me reading until the end, but I had this constant little squirming sensation in the back of my mind because, uhm, that's not how you talk about people?  Or have I been mis-informed all this time?  Anyway, while the narrative part is good, there is a lot of underlying racism here, and sometimes it's not lying that far under; it's very clearly an instance of "history is written by the victors," in which case victors is, of course, white guys.  Not cool at all.  I think if that had been handled in a proper way, this book would merit a better rating than I'm ultimately going to give it, which has to be...

2.5 stars out of 5.  There was some interesting information here and it really got me interested in a period and area of history in which I hadn't formerly had much interest, but the way it was handled was not the best and it gets a serious knock for that.