Nonfiction, What Ben Read

Tristan Gooley is a Goddamn Treasure

GooleyOne of the classic human trade-offs is gaining technology and forgetting a corresponding skill. We get a cell phone with a built in address book and quickly stop remembering phone numbers. A society develops written language and gives up its oral traditions. GPS gives turn by turn directions and people stop reading maps. Maps themselves are technology, supplanting a more elemental knowledge of how to find our way in the world.

When technology begins to replace skill, the gains are often obvious while the losses, slower and less evident, are only mourned after the fact when it is “too late” to do anything about them. And that’s where our man Gooley comes in. He knows how to navigate in the oldest of old-fashioned ways, using nothing but keen observation with all of his senses. He also has the insight and education to start communicating to us what we have been missing.

Gooley deftly bridges the gap between us and an old skill. He knows exactly what we’ve lost, and he makes a strong case as to why it matters. He speaks the language of the 21st century and seems almost completely at home within it. No wild-eyed prophet crying out in the wilderness here. Just a friendly, erudite voice saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to get out and learn some nifty tricks and secrets about nature and the world around you?”

I just finished “How to Read Nature,” having previously read “The Natural Navigator” and “The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs.**” As you can see by the titles, there is some overlap of themes and material. But at least so far he’s managed to both stick to his broader themes and keep each book fresh and engaging.

If you are considering checking one of them out, “How to Read Nature” is actually a great place to start. It’s brief and compact, with a nice balance of the philosophical and the practical. There were a couple parts where one of his wisecracks didn’t quite land as intended (he’s generally pretty funny) or the flow of the book wasn’t perfectly polished, but these minor quibbles were easy to gloss over.

Gooley really shines when it comes to making his topic approachable. He recommends picking any aspect of nature that one finds interesting and using that as a means to greater understanding of the larger world. Flowers, birds, trees, stars, insects, rocks…it really doesn’t matter. It’s all connected at some level. So start with something that piques your interest and see where it takes you. Gooley peppers the book with brief exercises designed to get the reader started on the path to keener observation.

Meanwhile his obvious enthusiasm shines through on every page as he makes a strong case that we could all enhance our lives by becoming more aware of the natural world around us. I live in the city and grew up in cities. My life is unlikely to ever depend on my ability to locate true north by observing the stars. But having that knowledge gives an extra sense of being grounded in the world and a surprising amount of satisfaction.

4.5/5 trees. Definitely recommend.

** Some of the titles are different for the U.K. editions. If you’re in the U.S., read the U.S. versions. He notes that he has changed some of the specific examples in order to provide more relevant information for North American readers.

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Fiction, What Ben Read

Revenger

revengerRevenger: The hype quotes on books have gotten way out of hand.

“A swashbuckling thriller,” “Packed full of adventure…The most enjoyable book Reynolds has ever written,” (ellipsis as quoted) and from the publisher “Revenger is a rocket-fueled tale of space pirates, buried treasure, and phantom weapons, of unspeakable hazards and single-minded heroism…and of vengeance.”

I read Reynold’s acclaimed debut novel, Revelation Space and thought it was really cool albeit a tad ponderous. So this seemed perfect: same great real-scientist science fiction, spicy new space pirate content. And a not-so-daunting 400ish comfortably spaced pages. I’m in.

The reality was…not quite what I’d hoped.

It was slow getting started. Just when I was starting to lose patience it picked up. Things started humming along nicely, and then inexplicably started to drift again. But the action rallies in the end, building to a satisfying climax.

The plot and characters didn’t quite feel completely real. I could sometimes see the puppet strings as characters were dragged through scenes and plot points to get them where they needed to be. Somehow the book seems to both move slowly and rush through character development.

And for all the piratical hype, very few buckles were swashed. Spoiler alert:
*****Pirates appear a total of twice in the book. And it’s the same pirates both times. No other pirates even really merit discussion, let alone an appearance. There might only be one pirate ship in all of space.******
I’m picking on Reynolds here, but there have been plenty of worse books plastered with the same breathless acclaim. This was just the last straw in a long line of shameless blurb mongering.

I didn’t hate the book. I read it all the way through. The universe is intriguing, with hints of grander and darker forces than are revealed in this volume. I think I probably would have liked it more if I’d been able to take it for what it is rather than going in with the wrong expectations.

So please enjoy this new, more accurate version of the publisher’s description:

“Revenger is a tale of glorified junkyard pickers, stashes of old technology, and phantom weapons, of fairly serious danger and eventual heroism…and of vengeance.”

Final verdict:
Kinda cool if you take it for what it is. 3/5 ion drives
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Nonfiction, Uncategorized, What Ben Read

Brunch is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party

1So the guys behind a podcast called “Dinner Party Download” wrote a book titled Brunch is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party. One might assume that they are not completely impartial, and one would be absolutely correct. The anti-brunch case is argued very loosely, with the general thrust being that it is too commercial and also prone to making you lazy and day-drunk.

The perspective is hipster-ish, and slanted toward single people who enjoy having drinks (though they do make allowances for teetotalers and those blessed with progeny). If you’re not the target market, either read the book as anthropology or don’t bother. The authors know their target market and pander unashamedly.

All that aside, it was a fun read. There is something to be said for a dinner party: friends coming together for the purpose of enjoying good food, good company, and perhaps some mild hijinks. Adding a little more DIY to our socializing could be both good for camaraderie and easier on our budgets. And the book is sprinkled with enough banter, anecdotes, humor, and practical tips to keep it light and enjoyable. Underneath all their tomfoolery, the authors are earnest in their evangelization.

Also, I don’t want to spoil anything, but there is a twist ending that definitely made me chuckle.

Fun and funny
4/5 Mimosas

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Nonfiction, What Ben Read

12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers

51ymGTSNSyL12 Strong by Doug Stanton (previously titled “Horse Soldiers) started out really strong, jumping straight into the action. The description of the fortress Quala-I-Janghi, the House of War, really sets the stage for an epic showdown. Events start unfolding, we reach a crisis…and then Stanton throws out an anchor and slowwwws everything way down.

We get a bunch of good backstory on a bunch of guys whose names become hard to keep straight. I found myself constantly flipping back trying to remember who was who. Stanton does not do a great job of sprinkling in little cues or reminders to help us recall whether this guy is the medic with the kids or the divorced weapon specialist or the communications officer with the pregnant wife etc., etc.

I am getting these descriptions wrong. I know I’m getting them wrong. And it’s a disservice to some really badass dudes. But the book just jumps around too much, and doesn’t really make more than a couple of the characters stick.

What it does do is provide a really impressive behind-the-scenes look at Special Forces soldiers doing what they do best. This is a war story, a story about heroism, but it’s also reasonably nuanced. These guys are think first, shoot last types of operators. They are diplomats, advisors, strategists, always looking to fight smarter, not bloodier. They pay attention to cultural sensitivities. They repeatedly tell their Afghan allies, “This is your war, we’re just here to help.” And with the staggering force of U.S. airpower behind them, they achieve an astonishing amount of success.

Of course things didn’t quite work out so well in the end. And while the focus is on these particular events, the book acknowledges the larger context. The epilogue reads a bit like a look at what might have been. The Iraq war, where some of the protagonists would end up suffering death or maiming, is generally painted as a Bad Idea.

It’s interesting to read the reactions to this book. They’re mostly positive, but there’s some criticism from the left, “too much enthusiasm for war,” as well as from the right “why are they acting like John Walker Lindh (the American Taliban) is worthy of any sympathy?” To me it generally trends in the patriotic, heroic direction that one would probably expect.

These really are incredible and impressive events regardless of how one might feel about war in general or the U.S. operations in Afghanistan in particular. And the way Stanton takes a step back at the end to look at the broader picture prevents it from coming off as blindly jingoistic.

Impressive but flawed
3/5 stars

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Fiction, What Ben Read

Grown-ass man reads illustrated book of fairy tales and loves it

NorseGodsJust finished Susan Beard’s English translation of Norse Gods by Johan Egerkrans. Egerkrans is a Swedish illustrator and the original text was in Swedish. His retelling of the myths is fairly standard but enjoyable. He acknowledges a wide variety of sources, but as always with this subject Snorri Sturluson’s Eddas provide the essential foundation.

He takes the legends seriously, but enjoys emphasizing some of the humorous aspects as well. For example, Heimdall is supposed to have had nine mothers, all virgins. Egerkrans supposes that his birth must have been a “somewhat confusing” affair.

ProseEddasSimilarly, the artwork is a mix of quirky and intense pieces. My personal favorite is Thor fishing for Jormungand. The horrifying World Serpent boils up from unseen depths, occupying about 3/4 of the panel and utterly dwarfing the thunder god and giant in their boat above. As the serpent prepares to take the bait (a bull’s head) I got a real feeling of the bravado it would take for Thor to view such a monstrosity as his rightful prey.

The picture of Tyr with his hand in Fenris’ mouth was also impressive. Tyr stands resolute, an aging war god stoically prepared to lose his hand so that the monstrous wolf can be bound. The Tyr section was excellent overall. There is some historical and linguistic evidence that Tyr was the chief god in the pantheon until the wily, ambitious Odin usurped him. This book gives him his due in a way that many works on the subject do not.

The book itself was really nicely put together. It’s a fairly quick read at about 150 not-very-dense pages. There is a ton of art: just about every god and myth gets a large full-color illustration. In addition, there are a bunch of smaller sketches sprinkled throughout. Along with his own work, Egerkrans included a number of quotations from primary sources, plus illustrations from other time periods. The overall effect is a smorgasbord of mythic goodness.

I had to have this book shipped over from Sweden because it wasn’t available at the library and I didn’t want to pay the $120 they were asking on Amazon. But no regrets, it’s a beautiful creation and I’m thrilled to have it.

Worthy of Valhalla
4.5/5 Thor’s Hammers

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Fiction, What Ben Read

All I Did Was Shoot My Man

Today’s post by Ben: Some thoughts on reading All I Did Was Shoot My Man by Walter Mosley. 

Book cover: All I Did Was Shoot My ManOne of my favorite things about the noir genre is the savagely understated humor from the narrators. Hammett was good at it. Raymond Chandler was a master. Walter Mosley is right in there with them. One of my favorite passages of the book comes early on, when a woman addresses protagonist/narrator Leonid McGill as a “n***** in a cheap suit.”

“I resented her calling my suit cheap. It was sturdy, well crafted, a suit that had three identical blue brothers between my office and bedroom closet. It’s true that it cost less than two hundred dollars, but it was sewn by a professional tailor in Chinatown. The price tag doesn’t necessarily speak to quality — not always.

As far as the other things she said I made allowances for her being from rural Georgia and having just gotten out of prison after eight years. Socially and politically, American prisons are broken down according to race: black, white, Hispanic, and the subdivisions therein — Each one demanding complete identification with one group attended by antipathy toward all others.”

I  had to laugh. First because I saw that I’d been baited. I read straight into Mosley’s hands, expecting the narrator’s reaction to mirror mine. He shocks you with the slur, but then tickles you with the misdirection.

And the other half of the laugh was at the absurdity. Leonid McGill is a man who has seen just about everything, and has done many a dirty deed himself. He’s cynical and tired. He has learned some patience, he has gained some empathy, but he can still be riled. And what’s getting him hot under the collar? Not the brutal epithet, but the disrespect to his eminently practical suit.

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Nonfiction, Reviews, What Ben Read

What Does this Button Do?

Hello from the snowy North! Today we have a book review from Ben, who just finished What Does this Button Do? by Bruce Dickinson. So, without further ado…

What Does This Button Do?: An AutobiographyDickinson is one of the most fascinating figures in heavy metal or music in general. Not content to be “just” the front man for one of the most successful and beloved metal bands in history (Iron Maiden), he is a fully certified commercial airline pilot, nationally successful fencer, idiosyncratic writer, and modern renaissance man.

Despite his formidable talent, this book really brought me up against the inherent limitations of an autobiography. With everything coming from his own point of view, he manages to make his extraordinary life seem oddly normal. I constantly felt, while enjoying the undeniably entertaining succession of anecdotes he delivers, as though I was straining to read between the lines and see the man himself.

A note at the end, which states that he consciously chose to leave out any discussion of wives or children, helps explain the  somewhat impersonal feel of the book. Any mention of romantic entanglement ends around his college years. In some ways I have to credit the way he resists any urge to be gossipy or to air  dirty laundry. There are a few mentions of band politics or music business maneuvering, but there is almost nothing mean-spirited to be found.

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Dickinson in his pilot garb via Famous People

Frustrations with the somewhat incomplete portrait aside, the book did amplify the respect I already felt for the man. As the title implies, he clearly demonstrates a powerful curiosity about how things work, and a willingness to dive deeply into any subject that catches his formidable attention. His descriptions of the nuances and physicality of vocal performance highlight his dedication to his craft and overall professionalism. And while there are a few moments of obvious but well-earned self-importance, his overall tone is down-to-earth and relatively humble, with a characteristically dry British humour.

If there were to be only one book written about Bruce Dickinson, this one would be insufficient. But it was definitely enjoyable, and should complement any other, more conventional portrait quite nicely.

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