Monthly Archives: January 2015

Review: This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

This Changes EverythingI’m not going to lie: this book depressed the heck out of me. Not that I was expecting a super cheerful read, considering Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything deals with humanity’s response to the threat of climate change. I never thought it was going to be fun, but I did hope it would give me some grounds for optimism.

Unfortunately, I finished the book with an overwhelming feeling of despair. If Klein is correct that the only way to ward off imminent disaster is to rise up as empowered, nature-loving Earth-citizens and demand that oil and coal companies abandon their “extractivist” ways and leave all those fossil fuels in the ground because life is more important than money–well, friends, I’m pretty sure we’re all doomed. Klein consistently argues throughout This Changes Everything that everything has to change, that any attempt to address climate change must also introduce social justice across the board, by introducing a minimum wage, agricultural reform, housing for the less fortunate, etc.

I’ve spent most of the past decade in China, Thailand, India and now Myanmar (aka Burma). It would certainly be lovely if everyone everywhere got food, housing, education and empowerment but we are so far from that reality that it’s virtually impossible for me to even imagine it happening. Even the most purely altruistic efforts to help can lead to dismaying unintended consequences, as with the fine-mesh mosquito nets distributed in Zambia to villagers who promptly sew them together and use them to fish, destroying local ecosystems in the process.

So Star Trek-worthy social justice aside, what are some of the promising ideas and signs for optimism Klein puts forward? She celebrates the local activism of “Blockadia”: the towns and tribes who step forward to protest and delay efforts to open new mines or lay pipeline for fossil fuels; the German towns who take control of local utilities; the Native Americans who become “solar warriors” by installing solar panels to provide energy for their homes; the student groups who lead efforts to divest their universities’ endowments of all fossil fuel stocks; the scientists working on perennial crops that better conserve water, etc. These are laudable efforts but virtually invisible to the average person going about their day. (In the meantime, the current administration’s efforts to preserve Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are met with fury by state elected officials.)

That’s the real problem. It’s not that I disagree with Klein’s fundamental point that we in the developed world are consuming way, way beyond what is sustainable and in the process racing toward a changed climate that will ultimately destroy our way of life. But our daily lives provide little to no incentive to change our ways. Where is this grassroots movement to demand political action going to come from? Klein references comparisons to the abolitionists who demanded an end to slavery, a societal change with a vast economic impact. I just don’t see most people outraged about the use of coal and oil. Most people are just thrilled that gas is so cheap right now. This book is unlikely to change that reality.

I have also seen first-hand how immediate concerns override long term considerations. My hometown depends primarily on a refinery and a power plant for employment opportunities. My home state, Kentucky, has a long history of dependence and exploitation by “extractivist” coal companies. But what is the solution? How do you look past the need to be employed, feed your family, get to your job every day?

I don’t think taking on the entire capitalist worldview is likely to help find an answer. The larger conclusions drawn in this book actually tend to feed the crazy of the climate change deniers Klein describes in an early chapter. It is unlikely that a global grassroots movement will arise capable of successfully demanding we all reject fossil fuels. The geoengineers who plan to seed the sky with reflective particles sound scarier than climate change itself. And apparently no technological fix is likely to come along that will magically save us.

In the meantime, we churn along, driving from home to work to school, running the AC or the heat at full blast, not worrying about much beyond our own individual lives. What can anyone do to stop 7 billion individuals from making fatal, self-interested choices every day? That’s the very serious question I wish Klein had answered. Unfortunately, I think you’re more likely to find the answer in some fictional post-apocalyptic dystopia than in this book.

Genre: Environmental anti-capitalist nonfiction

Read it if: You would like to know more about all the groups who aren’t going to save us from climate change; you are naturally optimistic and not easily subject to existential despair; you are a climate change denier and want to say “See! See! They’re a bunch of commies!” when referring to environmentalists.

Skip it if: You are looking for a practical, descriptive account of the effects of climate change and current efforts to combat it; you prefer blissful ignorance to soul-crushing knowledge.

Movie-worthy: It already exists.

 

Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

DSCN0093Where to start with this book? I am going to try hard not to gush love for Station Eleven all over the screen, but I’m warning you now: it could get messy.

The opening scene in Station Eleven takes place in Toronto, where an actor playing King Lear collapses mid-performance. This actor is a flawed and talented man named Arthur Leander and, while his death kicks off the story, his life connects every other significant character in the book. By framing the plague in terms of Arthur’s life, the life of a man who dies of cardiac arrest before anyone understands the world is coming to an end, the author ingeniously grounds global, catastrophic devastation in loss on a scale we can comprehend.

Twenty years after the initial outbreak, survivors cling to life in tiny towns formed in the ruins of the past. The Traveling Symphony, a motley collection of actors and musicians, travels among these outposts of civilization performing classical music and Shakespeare’s plays. Their motto, borrowed from a Star Trek: Voyager episode, is painted on one of the wagons in their caravan: “Because survival is insufficient.”

This is the recurrent theme of Station Eleven: finding meaning in life beyond mere survival. A former member of the paparazzi trains as a paramedic; a management consultant recognizes his own sleepwalking existence while compiling a 360 report on a target executive; a woman lives half her life in the world of her graphic novel, where Captain Eleven longs for his lost home and fends off attacks from the Undersea. The graphic novelist, Miranda, is the first wife of Arthur Leander. She creates the world of Station Eleven and its Captain solely for herself, with no expectation that readers will ever see or understand her work. Yet, twenty years after her death, the art she created retains its power.

No question, Station Eleven is going on my keeper shelf. I feel lucky to have read it.

Genre: Brilliant post-apocalyptic literary novel

Read it if: You loved Far North by Marcel Theroux or The Dog Stars by Peter Heller; you enjoy novels that explore human connection and the yearning for art in life; or you think the whole end-of-the-world genre is totally played out and would like to be proven wrong.

Skip it if: You are a doomsday prepper looking for survival tips; you thought The Road by Cormac McCarthy was a little too optimistic; or you have anxiety dreams about being trapped in an airport forever.

Movie-worthy: Yes, please!

Review: The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

The Sense of Style by Steven PinkerIn The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Steven Pinker brings humor and logic to the difficult task of writing about writing. Unlike most language mavens, Pinker doesn’t lay down a set of iron clad rules to be blindly followed. He makes clear that language is not set in stone, but fluid, an ever-evolving wiki influenced by speakers and writers of English everywhere. Good writers must observe the rules that will contribute to clear, graceful prose and choose their words with care. In some cases, good writers may disagree, and that’s okay.

The author, a celebrated cognitive scientist, explains some of the deep structure underlying the parts of speech we learned in grade school, revealing the true reasons clunky sentences falter or confuse the reader. His discussion of the “classic style” of prose writing made me think about writing in a completely different way, as a conversation with an unknown reader, intended to show some aspect of the world as clearly as possible. Pinker debunks some of the inherited, arbitrary rules of the past, but he’s not advocating complete anarchy either; rules exist so that writers and readers can understand each other, and writers will always be judged on their choice of words and knowledge of basic guidelines for literacy.

I didn’t agree with everything Pinker says; for example, my opinion of the Oxford comma is best expressed by the Vampire Weekend song of the same name, while Pinker supports it for reasons of clarity. I also disagree with him on the question of whether to put the period outside of the quotation marks at the end of a sentence. He says the only logical choice is to put the period last, but I agree with most American book publishers: it looks messy.

Those quibbles pale in comparison with my delight at Pinker’s stand on the singular “their,” the increasingly accepted choice for a non-gender-specific plural possessive. (For example: “Whoever arrived last left their shoes beside the door.”) I’ve been sneaking it in for years, even though I know it’s frowned on in formal writing. That rule needs to change, because “their” is here to stay, people! Accept it! Apparently William Shakespeare and Jane Austen already used it, so there you go.

In short, The Sense of Style is fresh, vivid and engaging. It made me think about the underlying structure of the written word in a way no other style guide has. And it has cartoons! (Steven Pinker says I’m allowed to start that sentence with “and,” and to happily split infinitives all day long if I want to.)

Genre: Style guide for critical thinkers and grammar rebels.

Read it if: You secretly loved diagramming sentences back in grade school; you wince when someone says “between you and I”; you wish someone would finally explain when to use “less” and when to use “fewer.”

Skip it if: You are a grammar stickler with a heart condition; you will literally die if you have to read about when to use “who” and when to use “whom”; you are looking for a quick, easy guide that will tell you exactly what to do at all times, no thinking required.

Movie-worthy: N/A. Although who knows, maybe those people who made the documentary about Helvetica could tackle it.

 

 

 

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin LiiuI was very excited to read this science fiction novel, originally written in Mandarin and recently published for the first time in English. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu) opens with the death of a professor at the hands of teenage Red Guards during China’s Cultural Revolution. His young daughter, Ye Wenjie, witnesses the murder and it changes not only her fate, but the future of the world.

In the near future, a scientist working on nanomaterials finds himself caught up in a government investigation into a group known as Frontiers of Science. The scientist, Wang Miao, learns that a number of highly respected scientists have recently committed suicide. The Chinese government, working with the US and Great Britain, wants Wang to infiltrate the suspect group and find out more about their activities.

Although reluctant to get involved, Wang soon learns that his work has made him a target of mysterious forces. While seeking answers, he discovers an online game called Three Body, a virtual reality experience that profoundly engages his mind. Nothing is coincidental in the world of The Three-Body Problem–connections abound and soon a shocking truth is revealed about the nature of the game and the future of the world.

My humanities major brain didn’t always quite track the scientific arguments laid out in this novel, but that didn’t detract at all from the story or the philosophical questions it raises. Would humanity benefit from contact with an advanced civilization? Would first contact divide or unite us? Would we even stand a chance against anyone technologically advanced enough to reach us? Do we deserve a chance in the first place?

The Three-Body Problem is the first book in a trilogy and I will definitely keep an eye out for the next two books. The website mentioned in the book, www.3body.net, exists in real life, with news and updates about the series.

Genre: Physics-themed science fiction that appears to lose nothing in translation

Read it if: You don’t mind an extra helping of science with your science fiction; you are curious about the “bestselling Chinese science fiction novel”; you can’t resist a first contact scenario.

Skip it if: You tend to get headaches from sentences like this–“A ruby-based traveling-wave maser amplified the signals received by the gigantic antenna, and in order to minimize interference, the core of the reception system was immersed in liquid helium at -269 degrees Celsius.”

Movie-worthy: It would make a really cool movie if the special effects were good enough.

Review: Killing Floor by Lee Child

Killing Floor by Lee ChildIn Killing Floor, Lee Child introduces the world to Jack Reacher, an Army brat turned MP. Retired after 13 years in the military, Reacher takes to the open road. He carries no ID, no credit cards, no photographs–nothing that might tie him down or connect him to the world.

That fierce independence becomes a liability when he wanders into a small Georgia town and finds himself the primary suspect in a brutal murder. As he becomes enmeshed in the details of the case, he discovers a personal connection that changes the equation in a big way. He has a stake in finding and punishing the perpetrators.

At the heart of the plot is a giant coincidence, and it’s a bit of a stretch to believe it. It helps that even Jack Reacher acknowledges the unlikely randomness of this particular twist. He accepts it and moves on, and the reader has no choice but to follow suit.

While the plot races along, it’s really the protagonist that makes Killing Floor such an exceptional read. Reacher has a highly practical, calculating intelligence. He does not hesitate to kill and he feels no remorse afterward, yet he’s not amoral or unfeeling. He suffers the shakes when the adrenlin wears off like anyone else. As Reacher describes it, relating another character’s acceptance of a terrible situation: “He had stopped worrying and started relaxing. He was up on that plateau where you just did whatever needed doing. I knew that place. I lived there.”

In fact, Reacher lives in the moment in a way that’s almost enviable. When he appreciates a lovely day, a good meal, or a drive in the country with a beautiful woman, it’s with the knowledge that these moments will not last.

I plan to read as many of the books in this series as I can as part of the TBR Reading Pile Challenge. The important thing is to read them in order–I think I’ve actually accumulated most of the books at yard sales, library sales, etc., and this handy website will help me keep them straight.

On a completely unrelated side note, reading this book set in a small Georgia town outside Atlanta right after finishing The Walking Dead compendium left me wondering how Jack Reacher would fare in a zombie apocalypse. I’m guessing he’d do really well.

Genre: First-person conspiracy thriller

Read it if: You appreciate a loner antihero with mad skills taking out the bad guys; you don’t mind having mixed feelings about the actions of the guy whose head you’re hanging out in; you are deeply suspicious of well-maintained small towns.

Skip it if: You prefer your violence off-screen; you like good guys who are, you know, good; you can’t abide a plot-pivotal coincidence.

Movie-worthy: After reading this, I’m surprised it took them so long to make a Jack Reacher movie. Almost as surprised as I am that they cast Tom Cruise.

Review: The Walking Dead (Compendium One)

The Walking Dead: Compendium OneFor the last few months, The Walking Dead has been my obsession. I binge watched all four and a half seasons on DVD and then on iTunes, until I ran out of new episodes. So imagine my delight when I opened one of my Christmas presents and found this gigantic book, a collection of the first 48 issues of The Walking Dead comic.

Although this graphic novel is the source material for the AMC TV series of the same name, they are very different. To my surprise, the comics are much darker with regard to human nature. Terrible acts that are only threatened or suggested on the show are carried out remorselessly on the page. Many of the characters lack that spark of hope and humanity that make the series so compelling, and the series also does a much better job of exploring the nature of leadership and how it shapes the evolving post-apocalyptic societies of an essentially lawless world.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE COMIC AND THE SHOW!

A few big differences stood out for me:

1. No Daryl. One of my absolute favorite characters on the show doesn’t exist in the original comics. Apparently, the show creators loved Norman Reedus so much when he auditioned for Merle that they created the character of Daryl just for him. Without Daryl and his crossbow, The Walking Dead just isn’t the same.

2. Lori & Rick. On the show, it’s clear that Lori and Rick had a troubled relationship before the whole undead epidemic. It makes sense that when Shane told Lori Rick was dead, she would turn to him for comfort. In the comic, Lori and Rick are happily married, but Lori leaves her comatose husband behind to flee for Atlanta, indulging in a one-night stand with Shane along the way. Although I was never a big Lori fan, her character on the show is much more interesting.

3. Kentucky. In the comic, Rick, Lori and Shane are from Cynthiana, Kentucky. I like that because I’m also from Kentucky, but on the other hand, that’s a long way to go to get to Atlanta. It makes it even more wildly improbable that Rick would ever find his family. I get why they relocated Rick’s hometown to Georgia.

4. Dale and Andrea. Dale is a bit of a busybody in both the original comic and the show, but his humanity kept him grounded on the series. In the graphic novel, he is a cranky curmudgeon, which makes his love affair with Andrea (!) all the creepier.

5. Decapitations and dismemberment. As anyone who’s watched the show knows, there is a lot of gore. Somehow, in the comic, there are even more decapitations and people lose limbs like I lose sunglasses. It’s crazy. And gross.

6. The Governor and Michonne. The Governor is so much skeevier and more horrifying in the comic. It was pretty awful. When Michonne takes her revenge on him, I had to skim through the pages because, yikes. The TV show was considerably more tasteful, believe it or not. Also, Michonne is one of my favorite characters on the show, while in the comic she was just scary.

7. Character development and arcs. In general, the TV show takes the time to really develop characters. Their behavior may change over time, but it makes sense psychologically and feels fairly true. In the comic, people did some weird things (hello, Carol!) and felt generally less real to me.

In short, I’m glad I had the chance to read the graphic novel but I won’t be hunting down Compendium Two anytime soon. Instead, I’ll just wait for my next fix of the series, returning in February. Hooray!

Genre: Post-apocalyptic survival horror comic.

Read it if: You would like to see the original inspiration for one of the most gripping and gruesome shows on TV.

Skip it if: You watch The Walking Dead for the sociological complexities and character arcs, not for the gore.

Movie-worthy: Right now I just want season five to start back up!

The 2015 TBR Pile Reading Challenge

2015TBR

Last year around this time, I posted a few new year’s resolutions, including a resolution not to buy any physical books in 2014. Did I keep this resolution? I most certainly did not. I spectacularly failed to keep this resolution, as evidenced by the many books, both new and used, that only recently joined my already crammed shelves.

So, this year I’m trying a different approach. Bookish is hosting the 2015 TBR Pile Reading Challenge, and I’m going to commit to reading 50 books from my existing collection of unread physical books. Yes, I said 50. Go big or go home, right? That should be about half of my total books for the year and should leave plenty of opportunity to spend some quality time with my kindle, while picking up the occasional new release or irresistible used book store find.

Here are the challenge guidelines outlined by Bookish:

Challenge Guidelines
  1. The challenged will run from January 1, 2015 – December 31, 2015. The sign up link below will remain open until January 16, 2015 at 11:30am.
  2. Anyone can enter! You don’t have to be a blogger, just as long as you review the book you’ve read. You can review on your book on your blog, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, etc.
  3. Any genre, length, or format of book counts as long as it is a book that’s been sitting on your self for some time. Short stories and novellas do count! The only stipulations that the book must have been released in 2014 or earlier. No 2015 ARCs or 2015 fresh-off-the-press releases allowed.
  4. On the 25th of every other month (see schedule below), we will post a wrap-up for the previous two months. These posts will be done by one our bloggers and will contain new linkys for you to add your own wrap-up posts. If you did not sign up by January 16, this is where you can sign up as well.
  5. To help you tackle your TBR piles we will also be hosting Read-A-Longs on months that do not have wrap-ups. Voted on by challenge participants, Read-A-Longs will have two post dates: the first half of the book and the second half. Please note: You do not have to take part in our Read-A-Longs to participate in the TBR Pile Challenge. You can participate in all of them, some of them, or none of them. This aspect of the challenge is entirely optional.
  6. There will be two giveaways – July and December. Giveaway details will be explained once the giveaway post goes up. We don’t want to overwhelm you with too many details now  🙂
  7. You don’t have to follow Bookish to join the challenge, but you do have to follow us to be entered in the giveaways.
How many books are you planning to read for this challenge?
1-10 A Firm Handshake
11-20 A Friendly Hug
21-30 First Kiss
31-40 Sweet Summer Fling
41-50 Could This Be Love?
50+ Married with Children

 

I’m looking forward to clearing some space on my shelves this year! I’ll get started right away. Well, as soon as I finish The Walking Dead compendium I got for Christmas…

Category: Challenge