Salvador is Didion's account her 2-week trip to El Salvador in 1982, then a country in the early stages of a 12 year brutal civil war. Her opening rep...moreSalvador is Didion's account her 2-week trip to El Salvador in 1982, then a country in the early stages of a 12 year brutal civil war. Her opening report describes some of the carnage and the everyday terror Salvadorans experience. The opening report is a vividly disturbing picture of just how cruel we can be to one another. From there Didion describes her encounters with various powerful citizens and American embassy officials, who relate the corruption and the utter confusion that permeates this civil war from the top to the bottom. From these interviews it is fairly plan to see that the Salvadorans and those in charge have become desensitized to the violence and disappearances, and are largely apathetic to any reforms proposed by the government. Yet the terror is still very much with them without abatement. Reconciliation is clearly not on the table and the average citizen has no hope that this war is ending soon. Also, discussed to some extent is the ineffectiveness of the U.S. Foreign policy in the murkiness of the civil war. A war in which our allies are more content with the continuation of this war in order to consolidate power rather than fight over ideological outcome or for a greater purpose. In the wake of needless bloodshed on such a massive scale, all an ambassador can do is work towards small victories like trials before executions and doing everything possible to insure the safety of the citizens in their charge.
Salvador is not a factual history of the war in 1982. It is, however, the war seen through the eyes of a journalist with limited time and resources in country. Bias is inherit in this kind of journalism and time and events told second hand become as fluid as the eye witness accounts. Didion tries to elevate these problems by sprinkling quotes and statements taken from official and vetted sources related to story is she is conveying. It's a one-sided truth, but I have not doubt that it is the truth to Didion. So while it's not a scholarly account of the events taking place in El Salvador in 1982, it is an invaluable piece that gives voice to the experiences and horrific events that shaped the lives of Salvadorans for over a decade.
Advice for other writers: Do not attempt to write like Didion unless your name is Didion. She does things with her sentence structure I didn't think was possible. At no point in my wildest imagination would paragraph sized sentence featuring a colon, a semi-colon, eight commas, and two sets of parentheses come off as anything but a clunky mess. Yet Didion's prose is so smooth and her phrasing so good that I hardly ever took notice of her peculiar style. She spews words onto the page and it comes out as a coherent, well constructed thought. She's a remarkable talent. (less)
The pencil is such a simple piece of technology that it is often ignored. No one gives it a second thought to lose a pencil or throw one away. In fact...moreThe pencil is such a simple piece of technology that it is often ignored. No one gives it a second thought to lose a pencil or throw one away. In fact, it’s the only piece of property that we lend to perfect strangers with little or no expectations of it being returned. The pencil is just everyday debris, a technology so common that we don’t even think of it as technology. And yet a tremendous amount of engineering, imagination, and hard work of thousands of people has gone into the simple, humble wood case pencil. Such a simple technology that has played such an important role in art and science, in everyday writing, and in every students learning experience deserves more credit then we give it.
Henry Petroski has taken on the challenge to track down and retell the history of the pencil in all its wonderful minutia. Starting from its murky origin through its industrialization to its place in our modern society (of the early 1990’s) the pencil has had an incredibly complex history and mix of economics and creativity that is inherit to any engineering endeavor. For Petroski the history of the pencil is a perfect metaphor for what he calls the engineering method. He makes a pretty convincing argument for treating the practice of engineering in the same manner that we treat the scientific method. It doesn’t take Petroski much arguing to convince the reader that engineering is so pervasive in our everyday lives, that it warrants more study of how engineers perform their jobs and make the things we simply can’t live without. However, since much of engineering is tied up in drawings and diagrams of designs and solutions, that there simply aren’t enough eloquent engineers to explain the process to the public in the same ways as popularizers of science.
Luckily, Petroski is an eloquent historian, whose enthusiasm for his subjects is infectious. Now full disclosure here, I’m something of a wood case enthusiast, so I need little selling on the arcane history of the pencil. For most folks it’s a bit of harder sale, which is understandable of course. But Petroski does such a good job of making the history relatable and easy to read that it feels more like reading a general history rather than a dry history of some dull everyday object. It’s not a page turner by any means, but I think there is enough information and enough exploration of the engineering methodology to keep anyone interested until the end. Then again I could be completely blinded by love of the pencil that this could all be completely terrible and not worth reading. So yeah, I thought it was great, not sure if everyone else will.
*1st draft of this review written with a General’s Layout (Extra Black) No.555 B-core pencil(less)
I’ll admit I never made it past page 5 of the Scarlet Letter before buying the Cliff Notes. So, reading When She Woke was my amends for that slight. W...moreI’ll admit I never made it past page 5 of the Scarlet Letter before buying the Cliff Notes. So, reading When She Woke was my amends for that slight. When She Woke is a direct allegory of the Scarlet Letter set in a modern dystopia where instead of prisons people are “chromed” a color specific to the severity of the crime. In this case the protagonist, Hannah, is chromed a red for committing the murder of her unborn child after having an affair with her preacher. Society, which is more fundamentalist, shuns the chromes, to the point where chromes average life span is only a few years. Hannah makes the choice that she isn’t going to live out her sentence in fear and believes that what she did was not wrong and that the God of society is no longer her God. So she fleas, to leave everything she has ever known and make a new life where she’ll be accepted.
When She Woke is not the most original story. Limited by choosing to stick so closely with the Scarlet Letter, Jordan creates a very believable near future dystopian novel. Christians are not well depicted in this story, and lack the nuance of real people. On the other hand the way Jordan has Hannah explore her own faith and explore the new possibilities that are newly opened to her is depicted in more realistic manner. I also didn’t care much for the ending, felt too much like one of those open ended Hollywood endings. It’s not that that is a bad way to end the novel, it’s just somehow less than satisfactory. Still a very good story none the less.(less)
A typical low achieving teenager just trying to get by, dealing with the shortcomings of parents too busy to relate to their changing son, and navigat...moreA typical low achieving teenager just trying to get by, dealing with the shortcomings of parents too busy to relate to their changing son, and navigating the underbelly of the unpopular in high school contracts mad cow disease that changes his entire existence. Laid up in a hospital bed at the very beginning of his adult life, Cameron laments on the possible future he will never experience. Instead of just waiting to die Cameron sets out on a surreal adventure with a hypochondriac dwarf and a lawn gnome who believes he is a Norse god, to save the world a space-warping scientist and possibly save his own life. Oh, Cameron is guided by a pink haired, punked out angel only he seems to be able to see. None of this should work.
But it does. Going Bovine is just fun. Bray accomplishes a rare feat, the channeling a foul mouthed teenage boy without making him a flat caricature. At times it can be quite funny, even when dealing with an issue like terminal illness, Bray never lets the story take itself too seriously. She mixes glimpses of reality and wished for reality seamlessly with the narrative, confusing space and time and giving the reader the real sense that as the disease progresses that Cameron is losing his grip on reality. Going Bovine is such an entertaining well crafted novel, it’s hard to see why it has been classified as a young adult novel.(less)
The early 1st century Celts are an incredibly mysterious bunch. They left no written record for themselves, and what little archeological evidence tha...moreThe early 1st century Celts are an incredibly mysterious bunch. They left no written record for themselves, and what little archeological evidence that can be found only provides the slimmest of glimpse into these people’s daily lives. What little has been recorded comes from foreigner invaders or was passed down through oral tradition. This to me seems like the perfect environment for an imaginative writer to thrive in, and G. R. Grove does with her fourth novel The Druid’s Son.
At its heart, The Druid’s Son is the coming of age story of a young man during the turbulent early years of Roman occupation. Togi, the protagonist of this story, is a member of the proud Ordovices a not yet totally defeated tribe of the Anglesey (Wales). Togi unlike most boys his age is not only taught the ways of warfare and sheep herding, but he is also taught the rituals and the spirituality of the Druids by his stepfather one of the last remaining Druid priest of the Anglesey. The result is that Togi is a well balanced character with all the necessary skills to transition from a skirmish with a Roman Legion to the politics of the King’s court, making his story all that more compelling. Togi’s ability to go from warrior to priest, combined with a natural intelligence/intuition, gives him a serious edge in the ever exalting battle to save his people and religion from destruction. For Rome the Ordovices are pain that must be dealt with swiftly so they can get back to expanding the empire. But for the Ordovices it’s a matter of survival and the preservation of a way of life not accepted by their new rulers. Togi’s destiny is closely aligned with fate of his people and slow building tension culminates in a final showdown with the Romans that test Togi to his limits.
What makes The Druid’s Son special is Grove’s sense of history. She manages to fill in the gaps of our knowledge with the something that not only seems plausible, but with something that rings true with the time and place. Another great aspect of her writing style is that the reader is able to decide if the Druidic magic is tangibly real or just a matter of perception. At no point is the reader asked to take the stories religious and magical aspects to be literally true, instead, we are left just enough space to draw our own conclusions. Another real treat is that Grove has a real eye for geography, and her descriptions of the lush landscape and topography make the scenes in the novel feel like real places and are a physical part of Wales and Ireland. A really terrific historical novel for a time period we know so little about. (less)
Science Is Culture is the first culmination of the on-line magazine Seed's project to bring together scientists and non-scientists to talk about the c...moreScience Is Culture is the first culmination of the on-line magazine Seed's project to bring together scientists and non-scientists to talk about the cultural interface of science and the humanities. In this collection 22 scientist and 22 non-scientist from diverse backgrounds sit down to talk about what they have in common and how what they do effects the larger culture. Most of the participates have previously worked together on projects or have crossed paths before. So most of the conversations come off as quite amiable and carefree, but there is never really any tension and nothing new about the science, culture divide comes about. These are conversations among friends, who already agree about much of what they discuss and are reluctant to push the sticker points that come up from time to time. The format of the conversation is free form with the participates driving the conversation which was both good and bad. Some conversations led to interesting points and new insights, while others drifted off topic and became something of a political rant or grip for their cause. Which is too bad because the conversations that devolved quickly where on some the most controversial and interesting topics like self-deceit and the climate politics. Only a couple of the conversations stand out as being substantive, but not earth shattering. And only one were post-modernism thinking reared its head and then quickly back itself into a corner, but the post-modern poet did come up with a way to better involve children and non-scientist in the act of science like thinking. In the end I would sum up this book as the start of a good idea, but needs more bite to really do something of interest. Actually, that's how I would sum up Seed magazine as well.(less)
If our universe is defined by the limits of time since the Big Bang, then what lies beyond that boundary?
To try to answer that question Mitsuse has mi...moreIf our universe is defined by the limits of time since the Big Bang, then what lies beyond that boundary?
To try to answer that question Mitsuse has mixed hard science fiction, heavy on cosmology, and the three of humanities great philosophical traditions. And by mixing, I mean pitting against one another in a battle for supremacy and to save humanity from destruction at the hands of some not so benevolent beings. Ten Billion Days and Hundred Billion Nights also covers a tremendous amount of ground starting at the very beginning of the universe to its final death from entropy.
Without going into too much detail, the novel tells a story of an alien influence on the growth and development of humanity, and how it has manifested itself in different religions and philosophies throughout history. These are the parts of the novel in which Mitsuse is at his best. The writing for each time period resembles the religious and philosophical texts of the time, and the science fiction elements of the plot and battle scenes are worked into the story line seamlessly. But the most compelling part of the story for me though was the insights into Buddhism and that outlook compares with the Christian worldview. At times I didn't fully understand what was going on, and at times the constant descriptions of the characters every thought process got to be a bit tedious; but I'm still amazed at how Mitsuse was able to work so much into one science fiction story and still write something compelling.
Ten Billion Days and Hundred Billion Nights was an ambitious undertaking, and I believe the Mitsuse pretty much pulled it off. It assumes quite a lot of prior knowledge about both physics and metaphysics, and it moves so quickly it can sometimes be confusing, but in my opinion it was well worth the effort to read. I very much enjoyed my first foray into Japanese science fiction.(less)
Machine of Death is a short story anthology about a singe premise, a machine that could tell a person how they were going to die. Each author puts the...moreMachine of Death is a short story anthology about a singe premise, a machine that could tell a person how they were going to die. Each author puts their own unique spin on the idea, some stories are vague in the details and some are direct and to the point. There is quite a bit of variety in this collection and quite a bit of vairitey in quality with only a few stand out stories. I've read this very slowly over the last year, mostly because it's hard to read story after story about the same topic and keep it all straight. To me a large portion of the book is just a blur of very similar stories run one after the other with no real distinguishing features.(less)
Flatland is primarily a geometric exploration of dimensional realities explored by an intrepid square from the two dimensional world called Flatland....more Flatland is primarily a geometric exploration of dimensional realities explored by an intrepid square from the two dimensional world called Flatland. In Flatland all things are shapes defined only by there perimeters with no volume, everything in their world is in a single two dimensional plane. Throughout this short novel the square explains to the reader how a two dimensional figure such as himself views and relates to the world around him. There is quite a lot of math and some spacial re-thinking to do, to get a clear understanding of these odd two dimensional landscapes. But the whole explanation of the two dimensional world is built up so that the square can tell the story is of his adventures exploring three dimensional space (Spaceland), one dimensional lines of Lineland, and even the single inhabitant of Pointland (no dimensions at all). All these explorations are exercises in geometric theory and all are a setup to the philosophical question of what the fourth dimensional would be like looking down on all the other sub-dimensional planes. A very out there concept for someone writing in the 1880's. Another out there concept for Abbot to expose was the classicism and sexism of Victorian England. Through a subtle satire (class in Flatland is determined by number of sides Circle highest – women portrayed as single lines the lowest) we see the ugliness of the Victorian class system and the that time periods view of women. There's even some discussion on the topic of eugenics/isolation for anyone who deviates from the rigid norm of society. From the social commentary you get the idea that Victorian England was all about status and climbing the social ladder; not a lot of room for original thinking.
It's all very inventive and fun if you're into math and geometry. If you aren't I would stay from this particular book, although small it is not an easy read.(less)
In the Shadow of the Banyan is a heartbreaking story of a minor royal Cambodian family caught up the disastrous social engineering of the Khmer Rogue...moreIn the Shadow of the Banyan is a heartbreaking story of a minor royal Cambodian family caught up the disastrous social engineering of the Khmer Rogue in the mid 1970's. Based partially on the experiences of Ratner, herself being only five years old at the time when the Khmer Rogue came to power, this fictionalized account of the aristocracies and utter devastation of the Cambodian people have suffered through is beyond understanding. Ratner has done a wonderful job of breathing life into a period of Cambodia's darkest period. Chronicled from the perspective of a seven year old girl, whose family is violently uprooted from their city home and forced to work in the country as part of the idealized agrarian society the regime believes will return Cambodia back onto the right path, she gives first hand account of the struggle to adapt to ever changing whims of “Organization,” the lose of a beloved father, the separation of families, starvation, forced labor, and what it's like living knowing that one step out of line the Organization's ever changing rules results in torture in death. The tension knowing that at any moment the life you have built and rebuilt could be destroyed because you are today's enemy must have been overwhelming. And for much of the story there isn't a way out for this girl's family dark corrupt reality where death is all around them, but the overwhelming will to survive for her and her mother, if not for themselves than for all that they lost, gives them a chance a to triumph over extreme adversity and make their escape.
Ratner uses lines of poetry and flowery prose to create a serene atmosphere that is completely counter to devastation of the events taking place in the story. This gives the story a real sense of Buddhism; a peacefulness that's hard to describe concerting the topic. It can be surreal at times. Another thing I liked is the narrator, a child, is not the typical precocious child wise bound her years, instead her account reads like that of a child forced to grow up by her circumstances. It is a more adult like voice, but I think this only adds to her lose of innocence and her childhood. This is a beautifully written and heartbreaking account of the ugliness we humans can inflict on one another.(less)
Destiny Disrupted is not an academic history of the Islamic culture through the ages and Tamim Ansary doesn’t pretend to be to be Islamic Scholar. Wha...moreDestiny Disrupted is not an academic history of the Islamic culture through the ages and Tamim Ansary doesn’t pretend to be to be Islamic Scholar. What Destiny Disrupted is, is a very readable collection of the core stories that make up the Islamic history from its earliest beginnings to right through September 11 attack and the subsequent wars. A narrative of world history that is so different from our own, but as complex and intricate as anything the west as has to offer. Any survey of world history would be incomplete without the Islamic perspective, and Ansary is able to give the Muslim people a context and explains the reasoning behind the shape of their culture without becoming distant and cold to the subject matter demanded from a scholarly work.
What Ansary argues isn’t the classic ‘clash of cultures’ that has been taught in the West dating back to the crusades, in fact for much of world history the west had so little to do with the middle world it would be hard to describe much of anything besides the 1st crusade and the current wars as a clash (at least from a wider view of World History). Instead Ansary presents a rather compelling thesis that Islamic history and Western history are two very different world histories trajectories that have only recently collided and are trying to work themselves out. Ansary doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable implications of his thesis: "The argument between Christian and Muslim 'fundamentalists' comes down to: Is there only one God or is Jesus Christ our savior? Again, that's not a point-counterpoint; that's two people talking to themselves in separate rooms." The real disappoint with this book is that once he builds his argument to a final crescendo, he leaves it there with no satisfactory answer. An impossible task I realize and something that is going to have to play itself out on a larger stage. (less)
In the Miso Soup is a gruesome and biting social commentary of the Japanese sex trade; and the men and women who buy and sell sex. It’s a nasty tale o...moreIn the Miso Soup is a gruesome and biting social commentary of the Japanese sex trade; and the men and women who buy and sell sex. It’s a nasty tale of a 20-year old guide whose chosen occupation is to show tourists around this seemingly disgusting, but socially acceptable underworld. Where high school girls sell it and businessmen pay to drive the loneliness of modern society away. Kenji, the tourist guide, is not particular proud of his line of work, seeing as an end to means, but remains non-judgmental of the people and the business of sex for sale, until he meets an American with a deadly streak.
The book itself is divided to three parts. The first part serves as an introduction to the sex underworld and this scary, enigmatic American, who is also a pathological liar. The second part deals with confirmation of Kenji’s worst fears and shows the true character of the foreigner. It also shows growing disgust with the sex industry and the people who support the industry. The third and final part of the story is more of a physiological analysis of behavior, full of strained metaphors.
A very good, very disturbing little book. By no means is it for everyone.(less)