BOOK REVIEW: Children’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Kimberley Reynolds

Children's Literature: A Very Short IntroductionChildren’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Kimberley Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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To make an ineloquent (and possibly disturbing) comparison, what’s been said to be true of pornography is also true of children’s literature – i.e. we take for granted that we’ll know it when we see it, but trying to define its boundaries runs into difficulties at every turn. One imagines an illustrated book, simple of language and subject matter, featuring a child as protagonist, and avoiding the most traumatic or shocking subjects and themes, but none of those conditions has proven necessary and / or sufficient. Reynolds presents a landscape of children’s literature (and the debates swirling about it) through history, one that keeps in mind that the subject is slippery.

The book consists of six chapters and some ancillary matter. The first chapter sketches an overview of the history of children’s literature [restricted to English language books.] Here we see the changing face of kid’s lit over time, and learn how children’s literature only gradually became a distinct field, moving from the earliest English translation of “Aesop’s Fables” in the 15th century to the multimedia literary experiences of today.

Chapter 2 is the longest chapter and it investigates the many ways children’s books have been studied, and to what ends. As with adult literature, there are many different perspectives by which literary works can be analyzed, and many that apply to adult books are also seen here with their own child-oriented considerations: e.g. psychoanalytical, gender-centric, linguistic, stylistic, and historical. There are also some uniquely child-applicable considerations that are presented as well, such as how well adults can write in ways which optimally resonate with kids.

Chapter 3 investigates how the field has moved beyond the book to convey stories – old and new – in ways that might be more effective in reaching a diverse body of children. Emphasis is given to how the story experience can be more interactive and flexible to the needs of a broad audience.

The fourth chapter is about genre. In one sense, children’s books are considered a genre, but then there are many cross-genre books such as science fiction or fantasy books directed at a youthful readership. Special focus is given to the family story. The advantage of the family story genre is that it’s one area in which the child can be expected to have some level of experience. [Even orphans will have some sense of interpersonal dynamics by which they can relate.]

The penultimate chapter is about children’s literature as a means to prepare children for a future, from personal level considerations of mortality to societal level issues like ecological tragedy. Children’s fiction that looks to the future has become an increasing trend in the modern era.

The final chapter is where Reynolds gets to the most controversial aspect of children’s literature, which is whether (and, if so, how) subject matter should (or shouldn’t) be limited. One worrying concern is that children’s stories can become thinly-veiled means of indoctrination into political or religious (or anti-religious) dogma. It’s not just a matter of adults having greater discernment, but also that they have greater freedom to choose what books are available to them. The other major issue is to what degree children should be protected from traumatic, complex, or controversial subject matter, e.g. sex, suicide, etc.

The ancillary matter mostly consists of graphics (often historic art / artifacts of relevance) as well as a references / further reading section that is arranged by chapter.

If you’re looking for a concise overview of children’s literature and the debates and challenges that exist around it, this book provides a quick outline of the subject which references many exemplary works that can be looked into for more in-depth investigation.


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BOOK REVIEW: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Written in a confessional style, Nabokov’s masterwork tells the story of a middle-aged intellectual, Humbert Humbert, and his hebephiliac obsession with a twelve-year-old girl named Delores Haze — whom he calls Lolita. Early in the novel, Humbert is renting a room from Charlotte Haze (Lolita’s mother,) and Charlotte starts sending him heavy hints that she is interested in a more intimate relationship. While the Humbert that we get to know as readers is a creepy, obsessive stalker, in person the man comes across as articulate and suave – in other words, a fine marriage prospect for a single mom in the market for a husband. Eventually, Humbert does decide to marry Charlotte — not because he loves her, but because he is obsessed with Delores / Lolita and wants to stay close to the girl no matter what it takes.

One day after the couple has settled into marriage, Humbert comes in to find that Charlotte is freaked out; she has read his journal and now knows what the reader is already aware of: that Humbert isn’t right in the head, that he secretly detests Charlotte, and that he desperately wants to possess Lolita. This would be the end of the line for Humbert’s ruse, but Charlotte, in a mad flurry of preparation to get away from Humbert, dashes in front of a speeding vehicle as she is crossing the road to post letters that would have outed Humbert as a hebephiliac cretin. But Charlotte is not around to tell the story, and Humbert is handed the unopened letters (no one has any reason to think he’s anything but a loving and devoted husband, so good is his mask.)

At the time of Charlotte’s death, Lolita is away at camp. While Humbert’s obsession may have been news to Charlotte, it seemed the mother was always keen to keep her daughter at bay. In part the mother – daughter never got along, but, on some level, Charlotte seemed uncomfortable having Lolita around Humbert, whether Charlotte was just jealous of the girl’s youth or whether she had some inkling of what was really going on can’t be known. [We only have Humbert’s perspective, and he is an admittedly unreliable narrator – though he does offer his own speculations about other character’s mindset, and – as will be discussed – his unreliability is in specific domains. In some ways, he’s unexpectedly forthright.] At any rate, Humbert takes Lolita on a road trip, at first telling her only that her mother was not well, and not until an emotional outburst much later, letting the girl know her mother is dead. [Lolita seems to suspect that Humbert killed Charlotte, but seems unperturbed by it – perhaps because she never got along with her mother, or perhaps, because she’s a bit of a psychopath, herself.]

After some time on the road, a time during which Humbert both has his way with Lolita and discovers that she isn’t the innocent little girl he’d imagined, Humbert and Lolita settle into a town where Lolita can go to a girl’s school and where they aren’t known. This settling in creates a number of challenges for the possessive Humbert because he would ideally like Lolita to spend no time whatsoever with other males and as little time as possible with other females, or at least with females who might learn about their unusual living arrangement. For instance, Humbert has to be convinced to let Lolita participate in a school play via a meeting with faculty and administration from the school.

Intriguingly, shortly before the play is to take place, Lolita insists they take their show on the road again. [There are many points at which it seems Lolita is playing Humbert, but this is the most intense subversion of the power dynamic. Lolita makes clear that they are leaving, and they will be going where she wants. She has come to understand her leverage, and is willing to exploit it.]

In the second part of the novel, as they are traveling around, Humbert begins to notice that they are being followed. Humbert describes cars tailing them, and men running away or talking to Lolita while Humbert has stepped away from the girl. Of course, we know Humbert is unreliable, and even he is not sure how much he can trust some of these “sightings” as real, as opposed to being products of his imagination. As we are on the subject of Humbert’s unreliable narration, it’s worth discussing that the particular nature of Humbert’s unreliable narration is a central to our relationship to the Humbert character. One might expect an unreliable narrator to hide or rationalize bad behavior, but Humbert not only lets the reader in on his bad behavior but frequently lets us know that he knows what he’s doing is societally (and / or morally) unacceptable. Knowing that he’s behaving badly or irrationally, and still making said choices would seem like it should make Humbert more despicable, but that’s not necessarily the case, at least not fully. Because Humbert is forthright in some regard and because he is so articulate and sensible (if not rational,) one’s reaction to him becomes complicated. I should point out that Humbert does rationalize his behavior, but he does so in a specific way, by acting as though his relationship with Lolita is a loving and, at least somewhat, healthy one.

This distorted worldview can be seen in his perception of Clare Quilty, who – to the reader – is Humbert’s mirror image; but to Humbert, Quilty is a monster. On their second road trip, Lolita falls ill and Humbert must take her to the hospital. As he is taking care of business, an unknown individual takes possession of Lolita. Searching high and low, Humbert can’t discover who took her and where they’ve gone. Then one day, after years have passed, Humbert gets a letter from Dolly Schiller (the now married Delores Haze, a.k.a. Lolita) asking for money to get them through until her husband’s new job starts paying. Humbert goes to her, intent on killing the man who dragged her away from him, but – once there – he realizes that Dolly’s husband wasn’t involved in her disappearance. Humbert begs Dolly to come back to him, only to realize that he is to her as Charlotte had been to him, a relationship she put up with to get what she wanted (or, with youthfully naiveté, thought she wanted.) Humbert willingly gives Dolly some money and goes, but only after she tells him who actually absconded with her, i.e. Clare Quilty. The concluding sequence of the novel involves Humbert’s confrontation with Quilty — surreal and almost comic as it is.

This book is definitely worth reading. Nabokov uses language with masterful poeticism, and builds a fascinating character in Humbert. Reader’s who loved “Confederacy of Dunces” will recognize that one doesn’t have to like a lead character to find their life-story intensely readable. But, while everyone hates Ignatius Reilly, one’s feelings for Humbert may be more complicated. He’s both detestable and sympathetic at the same time. The version of the book that I read had a nice epilogue by Nabokov, himself. While I don’t always find such ancillary matter is useful in works of fiction, in this case I got a lot out of it because the book is quite nuanced. If nothing else, I learned that Nabokov reviled all the “symbolism” that critics liked to attribute to his works. I’d highly recommend this book. While it deals in challenging matter, Nabokov leaves a great deal to the reader’s imagination, and so it’s not graphic or explicit as one might expect from a book that’s been so often banned. [Of course, being so banned was reason enough for me to read it.]


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BOOK REVIEW: Good Writing is Like Good Sex by C. S. Johnson

Good Writing is Like Good Sex: Sort of Sexy Thoughts on WritingGood Writing is Like Good Sex: Sort of Sexy Thoughts on Writing by C.S. Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Sex sells. This book attempts to capitalize on that fact to achieve a foothold in the concise writing guide market, a class of books for which there is no shortage and whose entrants include established masters such as Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ray Bradbury. Given the nature of this market, having hinted at sexiness as a hook, it behooves the writer to boldly embrace that hook, but this isn’t done. I’m not suggesting the author needed to venture into pornographic territory, and I understand that the book is not about writing erotica, specifically [a point that is made quite clear.] However, the banal and disembodied references to sex make the material drier than it otherwise would be. In creating a book that could be read by, say, the Pope or the chairwoman of the Southern Baptist Convention Lady’s Auxiliary without so much as the hint of a blush, the book draws attention to just how much it’s failing to follow its own advice. [I would go as far as to say that if a person had a rare condition in which the slightest sexual arousal would cause his or her heart to violently explode, killing everyone in a ten-foot radius, I would feel safe sitting next to that person on the couch as they read this book.]

The book takes a soup-to-nuts approach, reflecting upon the usual range of topics including: prep work, characterization, tension building, and editing. The information is good, and it’s presented in a brief and readable fashion. That said, it would be a much better first guide than one for someone who has read extensively on the subject because there isn’t much that is novel, either in the advice or the way in which it’s presented. If you’ve read other books on writing, you’ve probably read this advice before – and, in many cases, read it stated in a much more interesting fashion. There are some odd inclusions. At one point the author discusses the parts of speech. If you don’t understand the parts of speech, no writer’s guide will help you, and you probably need to revisit elementary school.

In this kind of book, examples are essential, and, here too, some odd choices were made. One such choice was the author using her own writings. [If you’ve read writing guides by well-known authors, you’ll note that they don’t even use their own writing, and instead tend to use stories like “Macbeth” or folktales – works that are well known to the broadest imaginable readership.] Among examples that weren’t from her own writing, there was a mix of more and less obscure references. It’s not so much that insufficient information was presented to get across the author’s point, but rather that a kind of affinity is achieved with readers when they have familiarity with a story, and that is sacrificed when the couldn’t possibly.

The long and the short of it is this, I think the book was a fine concise writing guide. It presents the information clearly and in a logically arranged fashion. That said, choices were made that felt odd – mostly in using sex as a hook and then eschewing any sense of sensuality. If you’re looking for an introduction to writing, you could do worse than this one [but you could probably do better as well.]


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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark

The Art of X-Ray ReadingThe Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If one asks a group of people whether a story worked or not, one is likely to hear widespread agreement, but if one asks them why it worked [or didn’t,] one is likely to get a hodgepodge of murky conclusions. The average person will struggle to put together a coherent explanation for failed stories, an explanation which may or may not be grounded in paydirt. That’s because whether writing works or not is a matter of emotional resonance, and what delivers that emotional experience is almost as hidden as the pipes and wires in the walls that deliver water and electricity. Clark’s purpose with this book is to show the reader some of the characteristics they can read for, features which may not be readily apparent when one is lost in a good book, but which make the difference between a masterpiece and a ho-hum work.

While I referred to “story” a lot in the preceding paragraph, it’s worth noting that Clark’s book does cover the gambit of creative writing activities – including a few poets, essayists, non-fiction authors, and repeated references to one very famous playwright. That said, the bulk of the works under discussion are fiction — be it a novel, short story, epic poem, or play.

The book consists of twenty-five chapters, and the subtitle is a little bit deceptive because not all of the chapters take a single work as a focal point. Each of the chapters has a core concept to convey, using one or more authors (and one or more of each writer’s works) to do so. Some of these lessons are at the level of language, such as Nabokov’s playfully poetic alliteration and assonance, Hemingway’s sparse prose, or Toni Morrison’s effective use of repetition. Other chapters explore how intrigue can be set up and sustained: such as in Shirley Jackson’s foreshadowing of the twist in her story “The Lottery,” or the way “Sir Gawain and the Green Night” turns a non-event into unexpected chills, or how Harper Lee uses the slowed experience of time to build tension. Still other chapters present techniques such as placing texts within the text as done in “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” zooming in or out with perspective as is done in Homer’s “Odyssey,” or Shakespeare’s rejection of conventions in his sonnets. Some chapters investigate how a tone is established such as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, and one other focuses on intertextuality – i.e. the borrowing of ideas from past masters in a non-plagiaristic sort of way.

The authors and works selected are popular and will generally be a least familiar to avid readers of English language literature, and most readers will have read at least a few of the works under consideration. A few of my personal favorites were explored including Shakespeare, Yeats, and Hemingway, and I suspect that will be true of most readers. There was only one author of whom I had no knowledge, M.F.K. Fisher, a writer who is well-known to mid-twentieth century cookbook fans, but who is a little obscure today. Having said that, I did come away with an interest in reading the book under discussion – i.e. “How to Cook a Wolf.”

While this book is marketed towards writers, I think any serious reader would find it an interesting and worthwhile read. If you want a better understanding of what succeeds in the world of writing, you should take a look at this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Trafik by Rikki Ducornet

TrafikTrafik by Rikki Ducornet
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: April 13, 2021

A robot (Mic) and a cyborg (Quiver) live and work together in close quarters, doing blue-collar work until the going gets tough and they charge off for a utopia called Trafik. I enjoyed reading this for its rich approach to language, its compelling reflection upon humanity [and isolation therefrom] and its thought-provoking imagining of the unfolding of the future. That said, I don’t think it will be everyone’s cup of tea. I’ll try to paint a picture that will help the reader to determine where they would be likely to come down on this book.

First things first, if you are expecting the usual high-adventure, plot-driven science fiction novel, that’s not where this work shines. There are a few contributing factors. First, the high density of creative language is not conducive to fast-paced consumption in which visuals form effortlessly in the mind’s eye. Second, a central question is what being human means, and what happens when one isn’t amongst others. One has Mic, a robot, who is intelligent but not inherently emotional. And, so, the aforementioned question largely pertains to Quiver, who is a cybernetically-enhanced human being. I have no idea when this was written, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the pandemic lock-down / quarantining influenced the work that it turned out to be. Because a lot of the story is spent with these two different entities being plugged into the virtual world, getting a vicarious experience of being in the world. [Also, the book is only about 100 pages, and so the idea that it could have been produced in that timeline is not as unbelievable as if it were, say, five times as long.] At any rate, while this isolation and questioning of one’s humanity makes for a philosophically fascinating inquiry, it’s not really amenable to the adventure and interpersonal tension usually depicted in genre fiction, characteristics which inherently require a great deal of emotional experience and interaction.)

I’m kind of uncomfortable saying this because it’s likely to be misunderstood, but I read this more like I would read Joyce’s “Ulysses” than like I would read, say, “Ender’s Game.” That is to say, I read it more as a prose poem — immersing myself in the language and the momentary experience of the characters — rather than following the thread of events and looking out front as a rider on a rollercoaster might. I’m not comparing any works here, just my approach to reading them.

There’s a fundamental question when producing art of any kind, and that is how much one roots in the past (in established human experience) and how much one can venture into the unknown. Stick too much in past experience and your work is uninteresting. Launch yourself too much beyond the familiar, and people can’t recognize what one is trying to do – let alone enjoy it. Ducornet is clearly experimenting with how much she can charge forward. At points, I’m thinking of the arrival at Trafik, the story even reads a bit like stream of consciousness psychedelic tripping.

If you’re looking for a work that requires soaking in and reflecting upon words and futures, then you’d probably find this to be an enjoyable read, a work that verges on prose poetry. However, if you are looking for plot-driven sci-fi, you might find it ponderous. [Also, if you’re the kind of sci-fi reader who finds violations of fundamental physics unpardonable, this book might not be for you. (That said, there is some shifting between real and virtual worlds for which I might have missed cues.)]


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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: Gotham by Gaslight by Brian Augustyn

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight The Deluxe EditionBatman: Gotham by Gaslight The Deluxe Edition by Brian Augustyn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume collects five issues that [mostly] set Batman in a Victorian Era world. The issues do not present a serialized story arc, but rather four independent stories connected through world building.

The first two stories are the heart of the book, and the other two are of varying degrees of relevance and are used to round the volume out to book length. It should be pointed out that those first two issues make up about two-thirds of the book’s page count. The first, “Batman: Gotham by Gaslight,” imagines Jack the Ripper, having retired from London, moves to Gotham City, and Batman must end the serial killer’s reign of terror. The second, “Batman: Master of the Future,” depicts Gotham as it’s about to host a World’s Fair type event and is approached by a mysterious villain who warns them to cancel the event or face dire consequences. I thought the art and world-building were done nicely to create an interesting and unique conception of Batman. That said, neither story wowed me, and I particularly found the resolution of the Ripper story to be anti-climactic. [Though it was not so much a story problem as an insufficiently villainous Ripper — i.e. one who was a little too Scooby-Doo villain-like for my taste.] Usually, I would enjoy the dark, Ripper, line more, but – in this case – I think the Master of the Future edged it out. [The problem with that story had more to do with obscure motivations.]

The third issue is set in the Gotham by Gaslight domain, but is a much broader story, featuring a big team-up and a multiverse. It’s entitled, “Countdown Presents: The Search for Ray Palmer, Gotham by Gaslight, #1,” and – as that mammoth title suggests — the ensemble team is drawn to Victorian Gotham searching out a missing Ray Palmer. I liked this story even less than either of the first two. There was just too much going on in too tiny a space.

The final two issues are “Convergence: Shazam!, #1 and, #2.” Of these, #1 has nothing to do with the Gotham by Gaslight world, but it’s necessary to grasp #2 which does include both Batman and Victorian Gotham. Batman’s role in the second part is not inconsequential and we even see a little bit of his Victorian rogue’s gallery, but still the fit of this Shazam! comic in the collection is a bit questionable.

Being a fan of the Batman comics and not so much a fan of either DC team-ups or Shazam!, I liked the idea idea of the first two issues. That said, I wish more effort had been spent to make the climax and resolution satisfying, matching the level of the intriguing worldbuilding. Had those stories gripped me more, I don’t think I would have been dismayed by the other stories, chalking them up as bonus material.

I read the Deluxe Edition. It has some sketch art ancillary material, but not much else besides a story introduction by the author.

If you like stories in the Victorian Era, and are a super hero fan, you may find this intriguing — though you might also find it a bit disappointing, depending upon your tastes.


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BOOK REVIEW: Money Shot, Vol. 2 by Tim Seeley & Sarah Beattie

Money Shot Vol. 2Money Shot Vol. 2 by Tim Seeley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: May 11, 2021

The second volume of Money Shot involves two distinct stories: one minor and one major. For those who’ve not read the opening volume [or my review, thereof,] the premise is “Star Gate” meets “Zach and Miri Make a Porno.” More specifically, a group of scientists have developed a portal allowing them to travel to other worlds. However, it’s very expensive to operate and they are experiencing difficulties funding the project through conventional grant-making agencies, and so they make the implausible (but entertaining) decision to finance their research via the market for kink-jaded porn, making and streaming porn in the “sex with aliens” genre.

The first story is a short but amusing look at lead scientist, Christine Ocampos’s, brief bout with an alien venereal disease that she picked up on an expedition / porn filming in the domain of Satan (depicted as physical place.) What I really liked about this story is that it had a message that was conveyed gently by way of story, without slapping one upside the head with said lesson. [I mention this because I felt differently about the second story because it did the exact opposite.] To elaborate about what I liked about the first story, we see Ocampos blowing events out of proportion in her own mind until a molehill reaches of Himalayan heights. Meanwhile, an intertwined story arc shows one how one person’s catastrophe can be another’s minor irritation and vice versa. We see this all through showing (both pictorially and verbally,) not telling.

The second story is much grander in scale, space opera grandiosity – in fact. In the story, we see Earth being offered a trial membership in some kind of intergalactic federation. The meeting is flubbed by a doofus of a US President, clearly meant to evoke Trump, but who is named Kirk and who gets tasered by the alien emissary. Later, we find that the scientists are still struggling with inadequate energy levels to run “Money Shot” [the portal’s nickname, a play on porno lingo] and lack of funds to pay for the massive amounts of energy required. They discover a planet that has a particularly attractive and hedonistic population that would be perfect for selling porn views. However, after some reluctance on Ocampos’s part is circumvented, the team is getting ready to go when Kirk’s men seize the portal, and President Kirk agrees to allow them to go on their expedition, provided he is taken along. [He wants to screw an alien because an alien zapped him, even though the planet they are going to is not a member of the aforementioned federation – whose representative zapped him.]

So, earlier I contrasted what I liked about the small story with what I didn’t like about this bigger one. To be more specific, there’s a lot of drag put on the story by overplaying a gag and drifting into sermonistic territory. Where the smaller story has a message that it subtly conveys via the story, the bigger story has a message that it fish-slaps the reader upside the head with repeatedly such that it becomes a hindrance to the story. That message is essentially: we hate Trump and we would really love to see physical harm come to him – repeatedly. But it’s not even the tasering, mule-kicking, or Wolverine-esque running through of Kirk that really drag the story, but the expositions and exaggerations that are the kind of thing you might be familiar with if you have that FaceBook friend who only posts political commentary, memes and comments which reflect varying degrees of truth but that makes clear that that person believes that everything about the political opposition is pure evil and that they should be crushed by any means necessary.

I suspect there are three major responses to this book. Starting with the most obvious, Trump voters and many other conservatives (those righty FaceBook ideologues) will hate it, but they are likely a miniscule market demographic for this series. On the other end of the spectrum, the lefty FaceBook ideologues will absolutely love it, perhaps passing by the many sex scenes and nudity to use the parts where Kirk takes a beating as their own masturbation porn. Finally, for the non-ideologues, it’s a fine story that you’ll wish was a bit less preachy and divisive, and which let the story shine through more. [But I may be suffering from political divisiveness fatigue.]

As I said, it’s a solid story. If you don’t have a problem with cartoon sex and nudity, you’d probably enjoy it. That said, if you’re not highly political, you might find it takes the politics a bit too far. [But if you hate Trump so much that you’d like to run over him with your car, then back over him, then run over him again, then you should already be [pre-]ordering.]


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BOOK REVIEW: The Secret World of Weather by Tristan Gooley

The Secret World of Weather: How to Read Signs in Every Cloud, Breeze, Hill, Street, Plant, Animal, and DewdropThe Secret World of Weather: How to Read Signs in Every Cloud, Breeze, Hill, Street, Plant, Animal, and Dewdrop by Tristan Gooley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: April 8, 2021

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading an article discussing the numerous types of human intelligence. While I firmly believe that the traditional notion of intelligence is sorely inadequate, the social scientist in me is always skeptical when social scientists try to pack up human experience neatly into boxes [because, often times, human experience is anything but neat — thus resulting in categories that aren’t mutually exclusive, are overly partitioned, or are insufficiently partitioned.] So, I don’t know whether I believe that the current scheme, which suggests there are eight types of intelligence, is a good one or not. [Getting to the point here, I promise.] For instance, I’m not sure whether “naturalist intelligence” [one of the eight categories] is really a different kind of intelligence, or just a different field of application. What I do know, is that – either way – it is worth trying to improve one’s understanding of nature, and – also — this book will help you build these faculties.

Tristan Gooley is the Sherlock Holmes of the natural world, taking note of often subtle cues to better understand the overall picture of what’s going on in nature. This particular book examines what we can determine about weather using the variety of clues offered by the natural world – ranging from obvious weather signs like clouds to more obscure indicators such as animal behavior.

The book consists of twenty-two chapters. Many of the chapters are focused on weather phenomena like clouds, winds, fog, precipitation, dew, etc. Some chapters are about natural elements that provide indicators about what might be expected, e.g. the shape of mountains as they influence wind patters, the differential heating effects of different surfaces of the planet. And some chapters discuss specific ecosystems and their recurrent weather, e.g. forests or cities.

The book contains many graphics, mostly drawings and diagrams used to visually depict ideas that are not readily grasped through text descriptions. The book also contains notes, a bibliography, and suggested further readings.

I’d highly recommend this book for anyone who spends time outdoors or who wants to learn more about doing so. Gooley uses stories, analogies, and interesting facts skillfully throughout the book, building a work that will teach one a great deal in a fun and interesting way.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente

Comic Book History of Comics: Comics for AllComic Book History of Comics: Comics for All by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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As the title suggests, this is a history of comic books and graphic novels that is presented in the form of a comic book. This book turned out to be more fascinating than I expected (and, obviously, I thought it would be interesting enough to start reading it in the first place.) The added fascination, of all places, came from the economics nerd in me (I thought that guy was dead, but apparently not.) You may wonder what economics has to do with the history of comics, but it turns out that there was a long period of learning about how the unique characteristics of comic books should influence how they were most lucratively sold. At first, comics were sold just like other magazines, but eventually people realized that the fact that these periodicals told serialized stories (and that they were potentially collectable) made them a very different kind of product. And there were booms and busts along the way.

It’s not just economists who might find something surprisingly interesting in this book, there is a colorful discussion of intellectual property law as it pertained to comics. (As well as the more visceral human-interest story of the artists who created characters that made executives and actors billions of dollars, while said artists eked out a living.) Long-story-short, this book isn’t just for those interested in how artistic styles changed, or how various popular characters came to be, though those subjects are touched upon as well. It looks at the history of comics from many angles. One learns a little about the unique Japanese, Brazilian, Mexican, and African comic book markets, and one even sees how comic books played a roll in international relations. While it’s mostly an industry (macro-)level look, there is discussion of a few who individuals who changed the industry (e.g. Alan Moore.)

This is a quick read, but packed with interesting information for those of us who are basically interested in everything. It’s well drawn as well. Check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Dangerous Religious Ideas by Rachel S. Mikva

Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and IslamDangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Rachel S. Mikva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you’ve only read this book’s title, it may not be the book you think it is, but I would argue that that’s a good thing. The first thing one might expect from the title is that it’s by an atheist or skeptical agnostic, someone in the vein of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, or Michael Shermer. Not that there is anything wrong with such books or authors, but there are a ton of books of that nature, and I’m not sure how much value-added is to be found in new ones. (And more importantly, if one is interested in what is dangerous about a thing, taking into account only views of outside critics presents substantial risk of misconstruing the insider’s perspective.) This book, however, is by someone “on the inside,” a Rabbi and scholar of the Abrahamic traditions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.) [It’s worth noting that Mikva deals only with the Abrahamic traditions in this book. The degree to which the ideas discussed apply to other traditions varies greatly.]

One might be thinking that the book plays Nerf-ball, a religious individual explaining the faults in religion will surely be like “greed is good” Gordon Gekko explaining a market crash, making end-runs around reality to justify a point of view and to minimize the role of one’s belief system in the tragedy. However, when Mikva was elucidating the dangerous ideas of religion, I felt she was candid in her criticisms and that she carefully balanced criticism among the three Abrahamic traditions. The main difference between Mikva’s arguments and that of those mentioned above isn’t so much seen when she’s laying out the dangers, but rather when she discusses the theologians who’ve historically tried to mitigate said dangers.

A second mistake that one might reasonably make about this book is to think that is focuses on the usual suspects of outrage about religion — honor killings, sanctioning of slavery, misogyny, etc. I think Mikva made a wise move in focusing on a few ideas that are deeply engrained in a broad cross-section of religious followers. The central theme of this book is that the danger lies all around, not only, or even primarily, in the hateful ideas of a few extremists, those who misinterpret scripture or who hold onto interpretations that maybe accurate to authorial intent but that are still horrifying to our present-day notions of what is appropriate (e.g. treating all humans like human beings, which was not so much a thing in Biblical times.) Instead, Mikva proposes that dangers lie in ideas that are often not given a second thought, such as followers’ beliefs that they are part of the one and only true faith.

The book’s thirteen chapters can be thought of as taking on three major dangerous ideas. First, in chapters 2 through 6, the book considers the idea of scripture as the literal word of god. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the scriptures of the Abrahamic religious were as vaguely benign as those in some Eastern religions, but the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Koran all have some cringeworthy ideas in them. Still, it’s hard for a large number of religious followers to accept that these are just books written by humans who may not have had as great of insight into the divine mind as they claimed. So, what to do? Does one accept that it’s alright for a man to sell his daughter into the sex slave trade if he’s cash-strapped?

The second major dangerous idea (Ch. 7 through 10) is that of “otherness.” This is described in different ways, depending on the nature of the religion (i.e. “chosenness” in Judaism or “election” in Christianity,) but it’s essentially the idea that one’s religion is the one and only true religion and everybody else is wrong and immoral. This is the kind of widespread idea that poisons human interaction. [It doesn’t really matter if you’re a smiling missionary or a Semtex-strapped suicide bomber, if you’re approaching other people from the perspective that they are inherently wrong, immoral, and inferior, then you don’t have any basis for a relationship of peace, respect, and understanding.]

The last idea, addressed in a much more compact space, is that there are pitfalls to religion being too fundamentally entwined in what we normally think of the sphere of governance – i.e. lawmaking, crime and punishment, etc. One issue is that ideas about justice were relatively draconian in Biblical times. However, a bigger problem may be that of foisting one’s beliefs on others in an underhanded way, using the State’s monopoly on force to do so.

It should be pointed out that this book is written in a scholarly fashion. This means that readability isn’t has high as it could be. It will send even well-read readers who aren’t theologians or experts in religious studies to the dictionary now and again to learn the jargon of religious philosophy.

If you are interested in the impact of religion on the societal landscape, this is a worthwhile book to check out. If one has read Dawkins, Hitchens, or the like, this book is worth rounding out one’s understanding by seeing how the problems of religion are seen by those on the inside, those who choose to reflect upon the problems, but who aren’t willing to throw it all out to get rid of said problems. I felt the book was balanced and it pointed out some important ideas that are not necessarily readily apparent to everybody.


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