Book Review: View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman (Three Stars)

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Book Review: View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman

Three Stars

“If you don’t know it’s impossible it’s easier to do.”

A few good insights into art and culture scattered among five hundred plus pages of drivel. When Gaiman writes very good drivel, but it’s still a hodge-podge of introductions, essays and reflections.

“Those of us who write fantasies for a living know that we are doing it best when we tell the truth. Truth is not in what happens but in what it tells us about who we are.”

The best single item was “Make Art Good,” his 2012 commencement address at the University of Arts in Philadelphia. Lots of life lessons for the rest of us.

“It’s time for creators to accept that we are becoming dandelions. Dandelions just let their seeds go to the wind, and do not mourn the seeds that do not make it.”

Another “related work” finalist for a 2017 Hugo Award. This category will be hard to score because all of the entries are mediocre. Apparently related works is Continue reading

Book Review: Hearts of Fire, edited by Voice of the Martyrs Four Stars

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Book Review: Hearts of Fire: eight women in the underground church and their stories of costly faith, edited by Voice of the Martyrs

Four Stars

Incredible stories of women over the last seventy years who faced persecution and death because of their Christian faith. Modern American readers will shrink back from the reality that such treatment is meted to women in this world today. It is.

Most of those featured did not seek attention. They were going about their lives as children or mothers with little concept of the world beyond their village. The world came to them, and it was angry.

Sobering. It’s happening today. In this world. In this country. (See Hiding in the Light)

Book Review: Traveler of Worlds by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Three Stars

“I thought I would create ‘enwonderment’ as a kind of analogous noun [to enlightenment and empowerment] that explains what science fiction is supposed to do.”

Another “related work” finalist for 2017 Hugo Awards. This one is at least a coherent whole, unlike almost all the others. A multi-day interview with Silverberg highlighting where he came from, how he got into writing, and where he is now.

“New experiences happen all the time, not always pleasant ones, but the ones that shape you, the ones that define you, happen early.”

Far-ranging dialogue touches on art, horticulture, theory of art and films he likes. A Grand Master of Science Fiction, Silverberg also produced non-fiction on Continue reading

Book Review: Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt

Four Stars

“Engineers make up the problems and we solve them.” Helen Ling

Despite the cringe-worthy title, an excellent history of the women who contributed to the unique successes of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Superb concept and research. Too bad the storytelling falls short. With so large a cast, Holt often fails to identify her frequent shifts of focus character. Even as an advocacy work, her biases bleed through too obviously.

“As odd as it seems by today’s standards, the beauty contest was a result of JPL’s progressive hiring practices … unintentionally highlight the presence of educated young women working for JPL.”

Even with its shortcomings this book sets the record straight about the vital contributions of the “computers” as they were called Continue reading

Book Review: The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher (Three Stars)

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Book Review: The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

Three Stars

Star Wars was and is my job. It can’t fire me and I’ll never be able to quit, and why would I want to? (That’s both a rhetorical and a real question.)”

I really wanted to like Fisher’s unintentional swan song. The style is conversational and intimate–sometimes too intimate. But the lack of real substance and her frequent profanity detract. (Twenty f-bombs, most neither relevant nor necessary.)

“If I’d been in high school instead of doing shows with my mother … I would have lived life as a teenager [instead of] having crushes on gay men.”

Mostly this biography covers Carrie’s childhood through the immediate aftermath of the Star Wars phenomena, with reflections on fans and fandom thrown in as filler. And a strange life she lived. She grew up in the spotlight of Hollywood celebrity, was apparently raped by her stepfather when she was fifteen, and knew only that she never wanted to be in show business.

“Would he … forgive me for … being a nineteen-year-old who, despite using four-letter words with such ease and familiarity, didn’t turn out to be the pro … I seemed to be?”

The titular diary offers insight into her mind as a nineteen-year-old thrust into both a starring role and an adulterous relationship, one of which she knew would go nowhere. Here are samples:

“Heaven’s no place for one who thrives on hell.”

“You took my breath away. And now I want it back.”

“How perfect can he be if he can’t see through me?”

A 2017 Hugo Award “related work” finalist, which category is the World Science Fiction Society’s excuse to give more Hugos. If Hugos are nothing else, they’re promotional tools.

“I was always looking ahead to what I wanted to be versus who I didn’t realize I already was.”

An incredibly strong, talented person.

“Metaphor be with you.”

Book Review: Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin (Two Stars)

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Book Review: Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week by Ursula K. Le Guin

Two Stars

“Listening is an act of community, which requires space, time, and silence. Reading is a means of listening.”

I wanted to like this book because I respect Le Guin as an author and a person, but two stars was a gift. This drivel seems tossed together to justify the selling price. It won awards perhaps because it says all the right things. Or it was her turn.

“There seems to be a firewall in my mind against ideas expressed in numbers and graphs rather than words, or in abstract words such as Sin and Gravity.”

She has opinions and states them well, but with precious few facts. She feels rather than thinks, and she’s proud of it. Yet she prefers “the fierce reality of true fiction” over “wishful thinking.”

“I’d rather follow a narrative than a thought, and the more abstract the thought the less I understand it. Philosophy inhabits my mind only as parables and logic never enters it at all.”

Le Guin admits she writes fantasy because she can’t do the math for real science fiction. That’s legitimate. Others should be as honest. But then she degrades hard science fiction as elitist and reactionary. That’s hardly fair. I like fantasy–her kind of fantasy–but I like science fiction that makes me think about velocity vectors and Hohmann transfer orbits.

“… the critics increasing restriction of literary fiction to social and psychological realism, all else being brushed aside as sub literary entertainment.”

Skip the reviews. They’re good but she both tells you too much and tells you how to think. Many folks like to be told how to think, but even when I agree with her I’d rather find my own way.

“The New York/East Coast literary scene is so inward-looking and provincial that I’ve always been glad not to be part of it.”

Her defense of abortion, whatever you may think on the topic, is among the best I’ve ever read. I wonder what her child would have thought.

“It’s hard to ask a child to find a way through all that [reproduced voices, images and words used for commercial and political profit] alone.”

Book Review: Hiding in the Light by Rifqa Bary (Five Stars)

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Book Review: Hiding in the Light: Why I risked Everything to Leave Islam and Follow Jesus by Rifqa Bary

Five Stars

“The place for women was at home, close to their families, close to Allah. Close to suffocating.”

Wow. The amazing story of a Moslem child who encounters a divine presence in Sri Lanka. She grows, is disfigured, rejected by her family, moves to America with them, only to encounter less love and support. She discovers that her encounter was with the Spirit of Jesus. When she covertly converts to Christianity, things get worse.

“Kill me? I knew he couldn’t consider my life so meaningless. Could he? Yet a simple Muslim man who aims to follow his religion must sometimes do the unthinkable to maintain his honor.”

Villains? Not her parents. They acted as they thought they must, given their religion and culture. Instead I nominate the politicians, bureaucrats and courts of Florida and Ohio, who callously treated an innocent child like a criminal, shuffled her around like a commodity, and exploited her for partisan politics. (Charlie Crist, then governor of Florida, comes off as a special hypocrite.)

“But jail. Why? I had run away from home because my life was in danger for believing in Jesus Christ. My rights as a human being seemed to vanish.”

“The most stunning part of this interrogation [by officers of Florida Department of Law Enforcement] was that it was done without the presence, knowledge, or even notification of my lawyer or even my guardian ad litem.”

In the midst of endless hearings and fosterings, she develops two forms of cancer (rhabdomyosarcoma and adenocarcinoma) and finds her life threatened from within as well as without.

“You know, Lord, the Bible says a woman’s hair is her glory. Well, I am laying down my glory tonight, all my strength and my beauty, for Yours.”

How she acts, how her faith grows, and how she perseveres is an inspiring story, which of course isn’t finished as she must spend the rest of her life hiding–hiding in the light.

“I knew it sounded crazy [to discontinue cancer treatment]. Was crazy. It didn’t make sense to me either. But I knew in my spirit that God was calling me to do this, and I decided I would rather die in obedience to Him and live in disobedience and possibly survive the treatment. My life was not my own anymore, and my spirit found a way to be at rest with that.”

Well written. Her prose is clear and compelling. Hard to believe English is her second language. There is no indication of writing assistance. Read this if only to marvel at her ability to convey her inner emotions while all around her is threatening.

“‘Honor Killings in America’ Nothing compared to my own renouncing of Islam and embracing Christianity, dishonoring both faith and family. Yet the blood of all these girls testified to the reality of my experience.”

I lived in Saudi Arabia for most of three years. I’ve seen their people, their culture and their religion closer than most westerners. We don’t–we can’t understand the inner thoughts and motivations of Moslem men. We can’t imagine how women live and cope with that life, even those who whole-heartedly embrace it.

“There may actually be times when making the right choice for yourself as an individual seems to put you at odds with the world…. Her home, her security, her serenity, and even her safety were thrown into madness…. However, this young woman did not succumb to the madness. She chose an attitude of love, despite the pain, an attitude of compassion despite the hate shown here, an attitude of perseverance…. At only seventeen years old, she found the strength to overcome and succeed.” School district director’s remarks at her high school graduation as class valedictorian.

Book Review: The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis (Two Stars)

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Book Review: The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution: 1782-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis

Two Stars

“Americans needed to think continentally.” A. Hamilton

Revisionist history at is best … and worst. Making use of newly available correspondence and biographies of his principles, Ellis reconstructs the efforts leading up to the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia and the battle to ratify the new charter. However, his uneven handling of its modern meaning exposes his biases.

“It is indispensable you should lend yourself to its [the government’s] first operation.” A. Hamilton to G. Washington, 1788

Writing history is tricky. The historian must present the truth in a way that the reader can understand, even though the world view and values of their time may differ. Even if sources are cited, the reader seldom has access to them. He must trust the integrity of the writer. And if internal evidence betrays bias or false reporting, then the reader Continue reading

Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig (Five Stars)

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Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

Five Stars

“We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.”

I wish I read this book forty years ago. Instead I was reading fantasy and science fiction and tripe like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Not that I agree with Pirsig on everything, but he wrote about things I’m still pondering.

“The ultimate purpose of life, which is to keep alive, is impossible. One lives longer in order that he may live longer.”

Normally I read and review a four hundred page novel in three days. This book took several weeks because I kept stopping to look up or ponder things. The bottom line is: this is a deep investigation of life and reality. It’s a mashup of Continue reading

Book Review: Sully: My Search for What Really Matters by Chesley B. Sullenberger (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Sully: My Search for What Really Matters by Chesley B. Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow

Four Stars

“We need to do the right thing every time, to perform our best, because we never know which moment in our lives we’ll be judged on.”

An intimate look at the man responsible for the “Miracle on the Hudson.” Sullenberger’s biography as much as the story of his five-minute flight to fame.

“A hero is someone who risks his life running into a burning building. Flight 1549 was different, because it was thrust upon him and his crew.” Lorrie Sullenberger

Obviously, Sullenberger is not an author. The late Zaslow brought together a decent product quickly, however he bears responsibility for the many shortcomings. Perhaps Sullenberger talks like this, but the prose is wordy and awkward. Lots of digressions; some felt like filler.

“In the cultures of some companies, management depends on the innate goodness and professionalism of their employees to constantly compensate for systemic deficiencies, chronic under-staffing, and sub-standard subcontractors.”

Post 2001, the pensions and standards for airline pilots were gutted. Sullenberger shares his obvious unease with the direction of airline management. Capitalism undergirded America’s growth and plenty, but it has a dark underbelly.

“How many different levels of technology do you want to place between your brain and the control surfaces? Technology is no substitute for experience, skill, and judgment.”

I’ve been flying for sixty years. This book confirms my preference to fly commercially only when I have to. It’s no longer fun, efficient, nor economical. It’s effective, usually. So far.

“One of the reasons I think I’ve placed such a high value on life is that my father took his.”

By now most readers know that Sullenberger objected to the way the National Transportation Safety Board investigation was portrayed in the movie supposedly based on this book. The backbone of the movie, that investigation gets about four pages in the book. In fact, the movie should be evaluated as “based on a true story” fiction. The book is much better.

“Flight 1549 wasn’t just a five-minute journey. My entire life led me safely to that river.”