Categories
Review

“SPQR”

Mary Beard

Very much inspired by my reading of the history of the Byzantine Empire, I realized that I also don’t know much about the history of Rome aside from the bits that you pick up by cultural osmosis, growing up here in the West. Bookstores are great for things like this, where you don’t know what specifically you want to read, but you do know the general topic—just wander over to that section and browse, and see what catches your eye! Which is how I arrived at this book.

I mostly enjoyed the read. I filled five or six pages of a memo book with quotes as I was reading, things that stood out to me, which I somewhat did with the thought in mind of pulling some of them for writing this review, but now that I’m doing the writing, I don’t think I’m actually going to follow through on the idea. Suffice it to say, it was well-written, and generally an enjoyable read. Easier to read than Norwich’s work was, at least, aided in part by being a single volume instead of three, and thus feeling like more of a general overview than the curriculum notes for a four-year course of study.

The reason that I don’t want to go for my notebook, though, is that I have one main thought that I’ve kept circling around for the entire second half of the book: the study of history is not neutral. By studying, and teaching, and writing about history, we impose our own views upon it; we, as humans, are not able to view any objective truth. We are subjective creatures. And this thought kept circling around and around in my mind from the moment the word “friend” was used.

Friendship is a fine thing! Lots of people have friends, it’s one of those fundamental human experiences that historians should keep an eye out for. It is not, however, the only thing, and sometimes calling someone a ‘friend’ is a disservice. In this case, when the source material you are citing is a man referring to another man as his “same-gender partner”, discarding that in favor of “friend” is wrong. We have a word for that: erasure.

There is a reason that a through line in anti-LGBTQ sentiment is “these things didn’t used to exist,” and that reason isn’t that said things actually didn’t used to exist; it is that historians over the last couple of centuries have gone to great lengths to pretend they didn’t, to bury or destroy any evidence that they did. And yes, there is an argument to be made that we shouldn’t try to paint historical figures with our modern terminology—but then, that argument only seems to come up when we’re talking about whether or not a historical figure can be called queer.

Historians are, historically, extremely eager to find any possible heterosexual explanation for things, even when doing so requires extensive leaps in logic. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets were written for men? Well, you see, back then cultural morays about how much affection men could platonically show other men were different. Alexander the Great was so distraught at the death of the man he loved that he demanded he be deified, and that when he himself died, he be buried in the same tomb? They were just the best of friends. President Buchanan was so visibly in a relationship with Senator King that their nicknames in DC were “Uncle Fancy and Aunt Nancy”? Say, is that is why my history classes sorta just didn’t talk about President Buchanan at all? Nevermind, don’t worry, there’s a perfectly straight explanation for this — it’s just gals being pals.

Once that thought was in my mind, it was hard to let go of it and not read this book in a queer-history light, and boy, does it ever not hold up well to that sort of inspection. The only clear mentions of homosexuality at all are a passing remark about a Senatorial insult being someone ‘enjoying nubile slave boys to an uncouth amount,’ and some mention of Hadrian—which is itself rather unavoidable when talking about Hadrian.1

So, here’s my summary: this is a good overview of Roman history, but it is, like all studies of history, flawed. It got me to break my usual “no writing in books” rule, and correct the word “friend” to “boyfriend” out of something akin to spite; but it also gave me pages of interesting quotes about Rome and the Empire, and taught me a great deal that I didn’t know. Plusses and minuses. It’s worth a read.2

  1. Although, having said that it’s unavoidable, I immediately noticed that the Wikipedia info-box on Hadrian lists three different burial sites for him, but somehow doesn’t have room for the name of the man he loved so much that he had thousands of statues carved in his image all across the Roman Empire, so, modern historians haven’t improved.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“Test Driven Development by Example”

Kent Beck

‘By example’ books really aren’t my cup of tea—going back and forth between a book and the actual thing in order to follow along is too much overhead for either activity to work well, and just reading along without doing it myself leaves the book feeling rather anemic a lot of the time. That said, this book wasn’t terrible; I enjoyed Beck’s writing style throughout the whole first part, he did a good job livening it up with some personality so it didn’t feel like reading a WikiHow article. But where my interest really kicked in was in the third part, where it switched to more of a traditional Programming Book style, just dispensing a bunch of condensed advice.

There’s some good little tidbits in the earlier part, though; I think my favorite one was:

[Automated] tests are the Programmer’s Stone, transforming fear into boredom.

A great way to think about it! Write tests so that instead of worrying something will break as you continue working on it, you just go ‘meh, now I’ve gotta wait for the tests to run.’1

This was a quick read; if you’ve been doing some form of TDD, it probably won’t continua much that’s new, but it’s a nice way to get an overview. And if you aren’t doing TDD, go ahead and read it; as I said, it’s quick, and Beck makes a better case for TDD than I will in a single blog post. It’s available in the O’Reilly Library.

  1. Although, ideally, it’s not much of a wait – this is the benefit of unit tests, in particular, that you make them small and very quick to run, and with that you’re able to run the relevant segment of them after every change.
Categories
Review

“Confessions of a Recovering Engineer”

Charles L. Marohn, Jr.

Having quite liked the Strong Towns book and some of the YouTube channels based on it, I’ve had the sequel-of-sorts on my list for a while, and was finally able to get around to reading it. My overall review is “this is definitely an addendum to Strong Towns” – you can read it on its own, it goes to pretty solid lengths to reiterate material when it’s referencing it, but even with that it doesn’t particularly feel like it can stand on its own.

As a book, I think it’s fairly well-written; the use of a single street and a single incident as something to reference back to throughout is an effective device for centering the policy discussion.

Said policy discussion really comes down to two things. Firstly, that there should only be Roads and Streets — Roads being a thing focused on getting people from place to place quickly, and Streets being a place that people go to.1 The word/concept “stroad” comes up quite often in the book — a sort of painful middle ground, something trying to do both things and as a result doing both very poorly. Think of how you get to Best Buy, or Walmart, or any other big box store like that; clearly that’s meant to be a Road, because it’s a terrible place to walk around so it can’t be a Street… except it’s also pretty bad at driving on, because there’s people trying to turn onto or off of it, and probably a bunch of stoplights, and a general poor attempt at being a Road. Marohn makes a very good argument for abolishing these awkward things and forcing every piece of driving infrastructure to be either a Road or a Street, and then to be good at being what it is.

Which leads to the second point, and for this I’ll just use his own words:

T one safe, the street must communicate the real level of risk to the driver. In other words, the driver must feel discomfort driving in a manner that is unsafe. (40)

Or, more viscerally: when was the last time you went 45 on a narrow, technically-two-lane-but-for-the-people-parked, tree-lined, watch-out-for-the-kids-playing-basketball neighborhood street? Probably never, because doing 45 there feels deeply unsafe. You didn’t have to look for a speed limit sign to know that you should be going slowly; you can tell that the street does not want you going fast, and that if you try to go fast, you’re gonna have a bad time.

And that’s the design policy he advocates for. Our infrastructure is built around the idea of forgiving drivers for their mistakes… but once you account for human psychology, that means that drivers will make more mistakes, because they know they don’t have to pay as much attention.

And now, really, I’ve kinda spoiled the whole book. Those are the core arguments; everything else is filling in details or repeating points to drive them home. There’s a couple chapters at the end that felt like later additions, and in particular the one about his legal arguments with the state licensing board feels entirely out of place. The whole section on transport technologies is entirely too generous to Elon Musk, but then, at the time this was written, his reality distortion field hadn’t failed yet, so we were all a bit more forgiving.

One last pull-quote, though, to which I’ll add emphasis, because I thought it was a really great way to discuss some of the issues with policing in the US.

Police target areas they perceive as high crime. When they discover criminal activity, which they inevitably do given the approach, it reinforces the initial perception. There is no control group receiving equally aggressive policing to create comparable statistics. (195)

An excellent point about sampling bias, at the end of a chapter that’s a pretty good quick overview of everything wrong with the ‘routine traffic stop’ as a concept.

Overall, this is a pretty good read; go for the first one first, and if you’re still interested in more, give it a read.2

  1. Interestingly, this concept can be broadened – I quite liked his discussion of how transit options like trains and planes are a form of road, whereas, say, a cruise ship is a street. Feels weird to say, but within this framework, it fits!
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“The Tenth Island”

Diana Marcum

“Travel” is a new book genre to me, and it may be a dangerous one, because about 2/3 of the way through I finally sighed and admitted to myself that I now want to visit the Azores, and added them to the list. Helpfully, I’ve even got a few notes about where specifically to go and what things might be good to visit. Broadly speaking, as described in the book, the Azores are something like Hawaii, but with the old-world European cultural flavor. There was a remark at one point about “in the village where I was staying, the garbage truck was pulled by a mule,” is the idea.

As a book, I found this a good read; Marcum did a really good job of bouncing back and forth between her life and the experience of being in the Azores, and provided a great deal of historical context, as well. It makes a lot of sense when you consider her background as a journalist; the Pulitzer win just locks that feeling in.

There’s a lot of short chapters, which makes for a good bit of light reading, and quite often there’s a good little life lesson or memorable moment tucked in there to end them. A collection of vignettes, rather than a single long narrative. It works well! And who doesn’t love little bits of advice, like:

When traveling, one should forget constant exploration. Go back to the same spots. You’ll be recognized as a familiar face and you’ll discover more.

It was a fun read, nice and light, and I enjoyed it. Check it out!1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“What If? 2”

Randall Munroe

One of the tropes of the internet that I really enjoy is the concept of “relevant xkcd”. As it turns out, when you spend nearly two decades publishing three comics a week, you wind up covering a staggering variety of topics, to the point that pretty much any topic will have a relevant xkcd to link to. And, in thinking about that, I’m amazed all over again at Randall Munroe’s work; there is so much xkcd. Thousands of comics… and they aren’t always stick figure things, a few times a year it’ll some sort of complex piece of software, or a gigantic world to explore, or some other exploration of what a “webcomic” really is in light of the technology of the web.

Anyhow, that’s all a digression, because in the spare time he’s apparently got from all of the above, he’s also had time to write a couple books, and all the ones I’ve read are delightful. A couple years later, I’m back to report on the sequel of the last one I reviewed, and it’s… exactly what the title implies. More “absurd hypothetical questions,” answered with a great deal of research. “Can a person eat a whole cloud?” Well, that depends — are you squeezing the air out first? If so, you can! If not, definitely no, and you may actually wind up dehydrated amidst a larger cloud than you started with.

It’s all things like that, and it really shows that Munroe is, in his way, a very effective science communicator. This feels like a great book to give to a curious kid to encourage that curiosity, and get them to ask some really interesting questions in class.1 It’s a delight, and, in the truest sense, fun for all ages. I absolutely loved this book; give it a read.2

  1. And, based on the notes in some of the questions submitted, a great many of those will quickly be directed back to Munroe, for a continuation of the series.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“Doctor Alien”

Rajnar Vajra

I’m really starting to like this ‘small, episodic’ format—it makes it easy to get into things quickly, and also provides clear points at which you can notice that you have once again stayed up too late reading and need to go to bed so you can function tomorrow.

This sorta reminded me of reading, like, an old Sherlock Holmes thing. Or, maybe, Elementary, rather than classic Sherlock Holmes, because of that episodic (and modernized!) vibe. Each one has a nice amount of mystery going on, that feeling that you’re racing the protagonist to figure out what’s really going on. And done in that very satisfying way, too; in the first story, I figured out Patient #1 almost immediately, and felt quite happy when my suspicion was eventually confirmed.1

The introductory material felt a bit overly-congratulatory, but I found myself agreeing with it eventually. Vajra did a really great job of creating interesting aliens—not only is there a very impressive amount of variety in the physical appearances of the aliens, but there’s also some fun cultural differences on display as well. That latter aspect feels like it’s a rich vein for exploring that hasn’t been nearly thoroughly explored enough, but the former, this may be one of the best explorations of this “aliens can be weird” thing I’ve ever seen.2 The aliens are, truly, weird; even with the visual descriptions, there’s a couple that my brain just gave up on trying to visualize, and I wound up as that parable about blind men arguing about what an elephant is.

The third story did a great job of tying things together, and felt like a reasonable close to the series. There’s definitely room for more, if desired, but in these three pieces we’ve got a complete arc, and I was quite satisfied with the ending. Plus, it just had a great sense of cosmic wonder to it, which is a great note to end on. Hopeful science fiction! This is what I want to read.

Overall, I really enjoyed this; it’s a fairly quick read, and manages to hold onto that ”god bless you, old sci fi, you had such high hopes for us”3 kind of vibe while also, like, knowing that cell phones exist. Striking a great balance. Give it a read.4

  1. Spoiler:“She’s a baby!” I muttered to myself, over and over, as I read that one.
  2. The other contender I can think of is Robert L. Forward’s Rocheworld series — between the flouwen and the icerugs, he’s got some really interesting alien lifeforms as well.
  3. Screenshot of a tumblr post by user “ghost drama” that reads “i love old science fiction because it’s all like “IT’S THE DISTANT YEAR TWO THOUSAND AND THREE AND MAN IS EXPLORING THE DEEP CORNERS OF THE UNIVERSE” like god bless you old sci-fi you had such high hopes for us"
  4. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“Ocean of Storms”

Christopher Mari, Jeremy K. Brown

Picked at random out of my library of science fiction ebooks, and came up with a good one! The general vibe I have of this book is that, while it could use one more pass from a good editor, it’s got solid bones; the plot tracks fairly well, and feels engaging all the way through, and I was delighted to find that I couldn’t predict the ending ahead of time.

My notes to the authors, should they ever read them:

  • There’s a little of “as you know, Bob” at times—the explanation of the difference between a fission and fusion reactor felt a bit silly, given that it was happening on the moon. By the time you’re there, you’ve probably picked up enough background knowledge about science in general to get the concept.
  • Not every story needs a romance arc!1 The first time around I actually, for the benefit of nobody but myself, pantomimed gagging. It felt forced, and also highlighted how thoroughly male-dominated the cast is.2
  • The pacing feels a bit odd towards the end—about 50 pages from the end, I started wondering if this was going to end on a cliffhanger to set up the next book.3

Editing notes aside, however, I really enjoyed it! I should come up with some kind of pseudo-award to give out to books that successfully trick me into staying up late reading; this would be a winner. And really, what higher praise can I give? Give it a read.4

  1. Well, if you’re writing a romance novel, maybe it does — although, come to think of it, a romance novel without a love story does sound like a pretty interesting exploration of genre.
  2. The president being a woman is a nice touch, but a) I can’t recall her actually having a name other than “the President”, and b) I don’t think she ever talks to another woman, so, there goes the Bechdel test.
  3. Spoiler: It didn’t, the book actually tied things together reasonably well; while it feels like there’s still room for more, it’s less “second movie” and more “spin-off TV series” territory.
  4. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“The John McPhee Reader”

John McPhee

To date, The Control of Nature remains my favorite McPhee book, and the one I’m most likely to recommend to a new reader, but this is a very strong contender. It is, as the title implies, something of a sampler platter of his work; subsections of a variety of pieces, and as a result, covering a far broader topic area than any of his other books. The books are usually more focused, tied around a single theme; in this one, that single theme is John McPhee.

It’s a broader swathe of his work than I’ve read before; if you skim through what I’ve read of his in the past, it definitely has that naturalist perspective locked in, but I haven’t spent time with his “focus on a single person” type things, or his sports coverage. It’s an interesting change of pace; I don’t really expect I’m going to dive into those as much as I have the outdoors, but I won’t go out of my way to avoid it, either.1

One part really captured me, and immediately added a book to my wish list: the excerpt from The Curve of Binding Energy. Somehow I hadn’t yet found out that he did an entire piece on the progenitor of Project Orion. My favorite nonfiction author, writing about one of my favorite topics? Sign me up.

Overall, I continue to love everything McPhee wrote. I’ve got another of his books in my queue, but I’m deliberately holding off on it, trying to space them out. If I haven’t yet convinced you to read some of his work, give this one a try; it is, like I said, a great introduction to his writing.2

  1. And I figure I will eventually read his entire oeuvre, it does seem to be what I’m working my way towards at this point.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“Urban Trails: Portland”

Eli Boschetto

This was something of an impulse buy, but in the spirit of something I’ve been trying to do more of lately: ‘be a tourist in your own city.’ Get out and explore, find new things that you didn’t know about, generally just get yourself out your ruts.

Now, I’m aware that this post is going up at maybe not the best time of year for being outdoors in the Pacific Northwest, but that’s not a permanent state of affairs, and it’s a perfectly reasonable time to start putting together a todo list for nicer weather. And hey, some people are into the rainy-and-cold outdoorsmanship!1

Regardless, this was a fun read, and I’ve definitely taken notes for areas I’d like to explore myself. I also had the chance to do some of the exploring already—as I’m writing this, it’s the afternoon of a day where I spent the morning wandering around Hoyt Arboretum, entirely on the recommendation of this book. It’s a good little piece of reference material, and I recommend it!2 I’m also looking at another book by the same publisher about biking in Portland, because the mentions of biking in this one are something of an afterthought.

  1. I am not one of those people, but I’m told they exist.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume 31”

(Various authors)

I’m not a big fan of the whole ‘death of the author’ thing, and this book really drove home just why I feel that way. It’s a great example of it, really. It’s a collection of stories written by different authors, so surely we can view it separately from the name on the cover, right?

But to set aside the name on the cover, you have to set aside a great deal of context. The people choosing which stories made it into this collection… work for the L. Ron Hubbard foundation. They chose to work there. They looked at that name, and the legacy of it, and thought “yes, I want to be associated with this.” And, a step beyond that, everyone who submitted a story to this contest did so having, again, looked at the name L. Ron Hubbard and thought “yeah, I’m fine with being associated with that.”

That’s a lot of context to throw away, is it not? And it provides a certain amount of explanation for why some of these stories were the way they were. There’s one in here that reminded me of what I don’t like about Orson Scott Card—it treats the female protagonist as if her only purpose for existence is to make babies. Given that the setting feels like it started from the inspiration “what if Handmaiden’s Tale, but in space?” it takes some gall to have the story end with “anyways then she found the right man and they had kids and then happily ever after!”

When it comes to science fiction, I’d rather read hopeful things. This anthology did not deliver on that; I think the most hopeful story in there was one that’s a man in a mental institution, starting to recover from the fact that his sister responded to their parents dying by trying to murder him for the inheritance. Cheery!

Unlike most of my reviews, I’m not gonna end this with a call to action. This wasn’t a good book. Don’t pick it up—Hubbard’s legacy doesn’t deserve that kind of support. Go look for an anthology of queer fiction instead, those are usually better.

Categories
Review

“The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet”

Becky Chambers

The first chapter sorta set me on the wrong mindset for this book; I think, actually, that’s why I bounced off it the first time I tried reading it. It feels like it’s going to be a lot grittier than the book turned out to be. Someone with Secrets, having just done Crimes to escape their Mysterious Past? That’s a very specific vibe, one that, quite frankly, feels rather generic at this point.

That isn’t what this book is.

This book is a study in characters. It’s an exploration of cultural differences on all sorts of different scales, from the ancestral privilege enjoyed by the Martian subset of humanity to the interspecies differences in what the concept of love means.

It’s about found family, and biological family, and how the former can help replace the latter, or heal the wounds imposed by them.

It’s a collection of vignettes, a journey—no, an odyssey—of over a year, the moments of excitement along the titular long way to what does turn out to be a small and angry planet.

Overall, it’s an absolutely beautiful read. I devoured it in an afternoon, and finished reading it watching the sun set and the stars come out, and that’s maybe the perfect way to have done so. It fit the flow of the story. So much of the science fiction I read is about action sequences and big things happening. ‘Ordinary people reacting to extraordinary circumstances.’ This felt like it was starting to fall into the other side of that quote—‘extraordinary people reacting to ordinary circumstances.’ For all that the setting is so very, very much built around the fact that it’s in space, in the future, that isn’t important. What’s important is the people you’re traveling with, and the way you feel about one another.

I loved this book, and I highly recommend it. Go give it a read.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“97 Things Every Programmer Should Know”

ed. Kevlin Henney

Reviewing a “collected wisdom” book like this is rather difficult, as not only is there not a single plot line throughout it, there’s not even a single core idea to it. It is, in fact, 97 core ideas, each told in a couple of pages. Which does make it easy to pick up and put down, and read in fits and starts. The quality and relevancy of the advice varied, although not in precisely the way you’d expect—there’s a fair few that, with what they referenced, felt very dated but gave advice that remains useful, and then there were a couple that felt dated and gave dated advice. Itself a useful reminder that, for all the field likes being the latest and greatest, newest shiniest, age does not mandate that a piece of wisdom has grown less useful over time.

So hey, the book club at work continues to provide interesting books to read, and this was another one. Give it a read – you can pick up a physical copy1 or read it online through the O’Reilly library.

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“Negotiating the Impossible”

Deepak Malhotra

As with every business book, it’s certainly of the genre, and that winds up coloring my review with a certain amount of “for a business book…” a lot of the time. Still kinda applicable here, in that you have to know it’s a business book, but Malhotra actually does a great job of not feeling like he’s writing a business book most of the time. It’s impossible to entirely escape the trappings, but he at least avoids the “this is a backdoor memoir of someone who isn’t actually that interesting” problem that plagues a lot of these. Turns out, using stories from history and politics makes this kind of thing a bit more interesting! Use your own stories occasionally, but—especially with the amount of non-disclosure agreements clearly in play—they aren’t actually as interesting as hearing about, say, how JFK approached the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The actual “business advice” aspect isn’t bad, either. You can tell the guy is a teacher, and has had time to practice teaching this in order to actually boil it down well. I can actually kinda feel the structure of the class, which unit happens at which part of the term, each chapter being a week or two of class. The ideas have been boiled down through that practice, and he’s got a nice overview kind of thing at the end of each section.

All in all, this was a surprisingly interesting read, and I do recommend it. Can’t hurt to know a little bit more about how to handle negotiations, as they’re more common in life than you’d think. Give it a read.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“Quantum”

Patricia Cornwell

This was a slow burn of a book; I nearly gave up on it multiple times at the beginning, but I wound up totally caught up in it, and very glad I’d stuck through. The writing style takes a lot of getting used to—it feels very stream-of-consciousness, but in a specifically neuroatypical way. Neuroatypical, and very stressed out, which fits very well with the actual events in the book. Especially given, as I realized something like 230 pages in, the entire contents of the book, a whole lot of events, took place in a single day. I, too, would be feeling fragmented and jittery if my day started with a morning presentation to an audience that included a surprise four-star general and ended after midnight with being part of Mission Control for a particularly dangerous spacewalk!

There’s also the core aspect of crime thriller to the book, and I also found that quite engaging once it actually started up. This book has my favorite bit of foreshadowing I’ve seen in quite a while, and I spent a large amount of my reading time repeating that one line to myself, waiting for the protagonist to figure it out. Because, like I said, she’s having a very long day; I am comfortably at home, doing some leisurely reading, but she is cramming two weeks’ worth of events into one 30-hour day. It makes sense that she’d miss it.1 It was so very satisfying to see that one line come back to help things click together.

My only complaint with this book is that it feels like it ended too early. There’s a sequel, of course, which I suspect I’m going to pick up at some point, but the amount of threads remaining doesn’t feel quite right for that. I don’t feel enough closure at the end of this book for it to be complete, but I also don’t feel enough open questions that I think there’s room for an entire second book. It’s the “cliffhanger at the end of the season” thing, really, it feels contrived to get you to come back next time. The story itself doesn’t want another book, it just wants another 100 pages.

Still, that’s not a terrible complaint to have, and I did very much enjoy the read. The setting is cool, the use of flashbacks—and, eventually, flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks—is a really interesting way to develop the backstory, and all the characters feel like real people with real problems. It was a good read, check it out.2

  1. Here’s the spoiler: the line is “playing musical cars today, ma’am?” It registers as a throwaway line from a background character who is particularly an asshole, and so with all that context it, again, makes perfect sense that the protagonist misses it. But oh, the payoff…
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“The Velvet Rage”

Alan Downs

Somehow I thought this book was a history of the gay rights movement, and I didn’t so much as read the subtitle to disabuse myself of that notion, so once I got into the book proper, it was a heck of surprise. Although, really, “the book proper” is the wrong way to put it, because, out of everything, I found the preface to be maybe the most powerful part. It certainly made for an effective hook!

For the majority of gay men who are out of the closet, shame is no longer felt. What was once a feeling has become something deeper and more sinister in our psyches—it is a deeply and rigidly held belief in our own unworthiness for love. We were taught by the experience of shame during those tender and formative years of adolescence that there was something about us that was flawed, in essence unlovable, and that we must go about the business of making ourselves lovable if we are to survive.

It was at about this point in the book—you know, a handful of pages into the preface, not even the introduction yet, that I realized I may have been wrong about what the topic of the book was.

Very few of us feel the shame, but almost all of us struggle with the private belief that “if you really knew the whole, unvarnished truth about me, you would know that I am unlovable.” It is this belief that pushes us, even dominates us with its tyranny of existential angst. In our own way, young and old alike, we set about the business of “earning” love, and escaping the pain of believing we are unlovable. It is this damned quest that pushes us to the highest of highs, and simultaneously brings us to the brink. This is both the creator of the fabulous gay man and his destroyer.

The thing that it brings to mind most, for me, is my favorite article of political coverage I have ever read—that description of Pete Buttigieg as the Best Little Boy In The Whole World. And it really is the same concept:

What would you like me to be? A great student? A priest in the church? Mother’s little man? The first-chair violinist? We became dependent on adopting the skin our environment imposed upon us to earn the love and affection we craved. How could we love ourselves when everything around us told us that we were unlovable? Instead, we chased the affection, approval, and attention doled out by others.

I’ve selected quotes, almost exclusively, from the preface. It was unquestionably the most powerful part of the book, and, again, an immensely effective hook. Which isn’t to say that the remainder of the book had no value—it’s just less quotable, and less immediately impactful. It’s a great example of one of the key points the book makes, actually: here’s the problem, and here’s the much more drawn-out solution. As with most things, solving the problem is a lot harder than just identifying it, and is the sort of thing that takes lots of small changes over a long time.

All in all, I am very glad I read this book. It opens with so accurate a summary of the gay experience that, as I said to someone, “I thought I was going to read this book, but instead it read me.” Or, to go with the more memeable syntax, the text message I sent to someone with the first quote, above: “this book walked into my living room and shot me”

If any of the quotes above hit for you like they did for me, go read this book.1 Right now. There’s no immediate, change-your-life-by-snapping-your-fingers advice in there… but 1% better, every day, adds up real fast. Or, as the last line of the book says:

I invite you to consider making a change for the better.

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.