Review: Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence

Review: Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie SpenceDear Fahrenheit 451: A Librarian's Love Letters and Break-Up Notes to the Books in Her Life by Annie Spence
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, libraries, nonfiction
Pages: 288
Published by Flatiron Books on September 26th 2017
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A Gen-X librarian's snarky, laugh-out-loud funny, deeply moving collection of love letters and break-up notes to the books in her life.

Librarians spend their lives weeding--not weeds but books! Books that have reached the end of their shelf life, both literally and figuratively. They remove the books that patrons no longer check out. And they put back the books they treasure. Annie Spence, who has a decade of experience as a Midwestern librarian, does this not only at her Michigan library but also at home, for her neighbors, at cocktail parties—everywhere. In Dear Fahrenheit 451, she addresses those books directly. We read her love letters to The Goldfinch and Matilda, as well as her snarky break-ups with Fifty Shades of Grey and Dear John. Her notes to The Virgin Suicides and The Time Traveler’s Wife feel like classics, sure to strike a powerful chord with readers. Through the lens of the books in her life, Annie comments on everything from women’s psychology to gay culture to health to poverty to childhood aspirations. Hilarious, compassionate, and wise, Dear Fahrenheit 451 is the consummate book-lover's birthday present, stocking stuffer, holiday gift, and all-purpose humor book.

My Review:

There’s a song in this book, or at least a subtitle, “To All the Books I’ve Loved Before”. And that observation also nicely encapsulates the level of snarky librarian attitude displayed throughout.

And this is also a terrific book to highlight Banned Books Week this week, as so many of the classics (and definitely less than classics) that the author pens her virtual missives to have been banned or challenged at one point or another.

Her letter to Fahrenheit 451 is every bit as meta as it should be. This absolutely timeless story about banning books has itself been banned multiple times in multiple places. Reading it reminds all of us librarians and our allies what it is we fight for when we fight for the freedom to read. And it’s a damn good book.

But the letter I particularly loved was her love letter to To Kill a Mockingbird, which has also been banned and challenged for decades. She loves it, because To Kill a Mockingbird is responsible for her lifelong love affair with books and reading. Not because she herself has read it, but because it is the book that turned her older sister into a lifelong reader. And it is her older sister who passed that gift that keeps on giving, to her.

There are love letters, and sometimes hate letters and snark-filled letters, to some other books that may not be classics, but still get regularly challenged. Like Twilight, which is as far from classic as it gets. Many people loved it, but that does not mean it will survive the test of time that makes a classic. Its derivative, Fifty Shades of Grey, also comes in for its fair share of that same attitude.

They’ve both been banned, Twilight for its witchcraft, and Grey for its sexuality. Having read both, these are books that I personally will be happy to see fall into the scrap-head of history – or the weeding pile of many libraries, but not as banning. They’ll always, and they should always, be available to whoever wants to read them. Which doesn’t mean that I’ll ever think they’re great lit – or even terribly entertaining lit. And yes, I read them both.

While her letter to Fahrenheit 451 is the author’s chance to talk about book challenges and book bans, many of her other letters and comments get into some of the nitty gritty of being a librarian surrounded by books. And involves some of the things that librarians have to do to maintain the libraries that surround them. Her letters to and about books that she is weeding, and the reasons that it may be time for some books to go, speak directly to the librarian in all book lovers.

And last but not least, of course, she makes book recommendations. It’s something we all do, because none of us can resist trying to matchmake every reader (and non-reader) with the perfect book for them.

Reality Reading B: I didn’t expect to read this cover to cover. It looks like the perfect book to dip in and out of. But the letters are like potato chips, you can’t read just one.

At the same time, I found myself wanting to quibble and argue with the author – as all book lovers are wont to do about what books they love best – and least. And it does have a bit of a feeling of “insider baseball”. I enjoyed Dear Fahrenheit 451 because it spoke directly to me as a librarian and reader. I have to wonder whether it will have that same effect on someone who is not both.

Except for Agatha Christie, who has definitely transcended her genre and become a “Classic”, the author doesn’t seem to be big on genre fiction. So if you’re looking for letters to science fiction, mystery or romance books, you won’t find much here. (If you’re looking, let me help. I’d be thrilled!) However, there are plenty of YA books that get a mentioned. Which is good, because there are plenty of challenges to YA books.

But the book does say a lot about the book lovers love of reading. And for that it’s awesome. And her letter to The One Hour Orgasm will absolutely leave you in stitches.

Review: The Prisoner in His Palace by Will Bardenwerper

Review: The Prisoner in His Palace by Will BardenwerperThe Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid by Will Bardenwerper
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, nonfiction
Pages: 272
Published by Scribner on June 6th 2017
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In the haunting tradition of In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song, this remarkably insightful and surprisingly intimate portrait of Saddam Hussein lifts away the top layer of a dictator’s evil and finds complexity beneath as it invites us to take a journey with twelve young American soldiers in the summer of 2006. Trained to aggressively confront the enemy in combat, the men learn, shortly after being deployed to Iraq, that fate has assigned them a different role. It becomes their job to guard the country’s notorious leader in the months leading to his execution.

Living alongside, and caring for, their “high value detainee” in a former palace dubbed The Rock and regularly transporting him to his raucous trial, many of the men begin questioning some of their most basic assumptions—about the judicial process, Saddam’s character, and the morality of modern war. Although the young soldiers’ increasingly intimate conversations with the once-feared dictator never lead them to doubt his responsibility for unspeakable crimes, the men do discover surprising new layers to his psyche that run counter to the media’s portrayal of him.

Woven from first-hand accounts provided by many of the American guards, government officials, interrogators, scholars, spies, lawyers, family members, and victims, The Prisoner in His Palace shows two Saddams coexisting in one person: the defiant tyrant who uses torture and murder as tools, and a shrewd but contemplative prisoner who exhibits surprising affection, dignity, and courage in the face of looming death.

In this artfully constructed narrative, Saddam, the “man without a conscience,” gets many of those around him to examine theirs. Wonderfully thought-provoking, The Prisoner in His Palace reveals what it is like to discover in one’s ruthless enemy a man, and then deliver him to the gallows.

My Review:

Today is September 11, 2017, the 16th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, otherwise known as 9/11. As though nothing else ever happened, or ever will, that will ring through history the way that September 11, 2001 did. And that’s possibly true. Even the historic hurricane currently sweeping through Florida, while momentous, isn’t quite as earth-shattering. 9/11 was a day where the universe changed, where before and after are sharply and irrevocably separated.

While Saddam Hussein was not one of the architects of the 9/11 attacks, it is certainly possible to trace a direct line from the events of 9/11 to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled his dictatorship.

This is not a book about the war. Not the U.S. invasion of 2003, nor about the the Gulf War of 1990. Although in some ways it’s about both. A part of me wants to say that the book is about the “banality of evil”, but if there is one thing that Saddam Hussein never was, it is banal.

Instead, this feels like a book about the faces that humans wear, and about one particular human being who wore the face of evil, but only among many, many others. That evil face, the one that the world righteously condemned him for, is not the face that his guards saw. They saw a charismatic and kindly old man. While they were all aware of the evil that he had done, and none ever believed that he was innocent or should be freed, they still guarded someone who was much different. They all went in expecting a monster, only to discover that he was just a man.

The story here is about the twelve young American soldiers, the group that self-deprecatingly named themselves the “Super Twelve”, who had the duty of guarding Saddam Hussein in one of his own palaces during the lengthy course of his trial, right up to his inevitable execution.

The process took well over a year. That’s plenty of time for a group of people to gradually shift from guarded adversaries to respectful acquaintances, if not friends. And that is what happened. Unlike the common perception of “the rich and powerful”, which Saddam certainly was, in his incarceration and forced proximity to these soldiers he acted as a respectful and respected guest, and was treated for the most part accordingly. What small freedoms and little comforts could be provided to the old man, they did. And he appreciated them.

This book is about the relationship that formed among this isolated group. The Super Twelve, the medic who monitored Saddam’s health, the interrogators, and Saddam Hussein. Their camaderie with the prisoner seems odd to the reader, but yet it makes sense. Not only were they all stuck with each other, but they were prohibited from telling anyone what their duty assignment was. The only people they could talk to were each other.

And their prisoner.

Reality Rating A-: This is a hard book to describe, but a surprisingly easy one to get lost in. There are a lot of things packed into this slim volume, and all of them are thought-provoking in one way or another.

It is not really a surprise that the guards became friendly with the prisoner. Or not as the story turned out. If Saddam had been a demanding dictator within the limits of his confinement, the guards would probably have maintained their distance even over the extended time period. But that’s not what happened. Instead, he treated his guards with respect and even affection, and both the respect and affection were returned. They all knew what he’d done, but it didn’t have an effect on his treatment of them or theirs of him.

Instead, many of the guards felt as if this was the first time in Saddam’s life when he was safe. Ironically so, but still, safe. Whether or not he deceived himself about the inevitability of his execution, he was absolutely certain that none of his guards were going to kill him in his sleep – something that had not been true for his entire life. That lack of paranoia led to a lot better rest and attitude – possibly for everyone.

The author does detail enough of Saddam’s atrocities, and there were many, to make the reader certain that the man was the author of countless heinous acts. Even though he may not have seen them as anything more than necessary to cement and maintain his power, there is never any doubt that he was a brutal dictator who used fear and cruelty as potent and effective weapons.

Which does not affect the doubts of any of the soldiers, or of the reader. Not that he deserved death, but, to quote another influential character, “Deserves [death], I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Even as the trial is being conducted, the sectarian violence in Iraq not only continues, but escalates. Even from the soldiers’ limited perspective, there does not seem to have been a plan for what was to happen after Saddam’s capture. And the manner of his execution only feeds the violence. One of the questions that lingers is whether or not the invasion made anything better. War is easy. Hell, but easy. Regime change, on the other hand, while it is also hell, is damn hard. Especially on the people whose regime is being changed.

What we’re left with is the aftermath, not just for the country of Iraq, but on a personal level for those men who guarded and lived with Saddam Hussein in his final months. Watching a man that they had all developed relationships with go to his death punched an unexpected hole in all their lives. Being forced to stand by while his corpse was desecrated made them all sick and heartsore.

Saddam may have died, but none of them recovered. And their reaction haunts me.

Review: Forty Autumns by Nina Willner

Review: Forty Autumns by Nina WillnerForty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall by Nina Willner
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: autobiography, biography, history, nonfiction
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow on October 4th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In this illuminating and deeply moving memoir, a former American military intelligence officer goes beyond traditional Cold War espionage tales to tell the true story of her family—of five women separated by the Iron Curtain for more than forty years, and their miraculous reunion after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Forty Autumns makes visceral the pain and longing of one family forced to live apart in a world divided by two. At twenty, Hanna escaped from East to West Germany. But the price of freedom—leaving behind her parents, eight siblings, and family home—was heartbreaking. Uprooted, Hanna eventually moved to America, where she settled down with her husband and had children of her own.
Growing up near Washington, D.C., Hanna’s daughter, Nina Willner became the first female Army Intelligence Officer to lead sensitive intelligence operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Though only a few miles separated American Nina and her German relatives—grandmother Oma, Aunt Heidi, and cousin, Cordula, a member of the East German Olympic training team—a bitter political war kept them apart.
In Forty Autumns, Nina recounts her family’s story—five ordinary lives buffeted by circumstances beyond their control. She takes us deep into the tumultuous and terrifying world of East Germany under Communist rule, revealing both the cruel reality her relatives endured and her own experiences as an intelligence officer, running secret operations behind the Berlin Wall that put her life at risk.
A personal look at a tenuous era that divided a city and a nation, and continues to haunt us, Forty Autumns is an intimate and beautifully written story of courage, resilience, and love—of five women whose spirits could not be broken, and who fought to preserve what matters most: family.
Forty Autumns is illustrated with dozens of black-and-white and color photographs.

My Review:

Forty Autumns is a very personal story. It is one woman’s account of the history of her own family, separated by the Iron Curtain that fell across Europe in general and Germany in particular post-World War II. While it may be possible to generalize from this one woman’s family to the history of East Germany as a Soviet-bloc country and to the circumstances of many families that were kept apart over those forty years, the power in this story comes from that personal touch. We feel for the author, her mother, and her family because it is easy to see ourselves in their shoes. On both sides of that impenetrable wall.

This is a story of courage across generations. It is easy to see the courage of the author’s mother Hanna, a young woman who took her life in her hands and literally ran across the border before it turned into deadly barbed-wire – with gun towers. But there was also courage in staying. Hanna’s mother, Oma, exhibited that kind of courage, as she strove to keep her family together and keep them from turning on each other, as so many families did, during the long dark years when the Secret Police seemed to have a spy in every house and every factory.

And it is, in the end, a story of survival. Because the family, on both sides of that once formidable divide, remained intact in spite of the dictatorial regime’s best and worst efforts. This is their personal story of that long, twilight struggle. And it’s marvelous.

Reality Rating A: Forty Autumns turned out to be a book that I just plain liked. I fell into the author’s story, and found myself picking it up at odd moments and sticking with it at points where I only intended to read a chapter, which turned into two, then three, without my being aware of it. The prose is spare, and it simply works, even though I’m having a difficult time articulating exactly why.

Forty Autumns also reminds me of two books I read recently. The history it contains reads like a nonfictional account of the history that is also covered by the marvelous, but fictional, On the Sickle’s Edge. Both are stories about families that are separated by the Soviet regime, and detail the ways that those trapped behind the Iron Curtain manage to survive even the harshest repression with just a little bit of hope.

It also touches a bit on the history in Sons and Soldiers. It felt obvious, at least to this reader, that the American G.I. that Hanna marries, the author’s father, was one of the “Richter Boys” whose history is outlined in that book.

This is very much a story about women – their courage, their tenacity, their perseverance. In this family, it is the women who cling to love and hope when all seems lost, as it so often does. This is a story that takes the political and makes it compellingly personal. Through the author’s story of her family, we get a glimmer of understanding of what life was like during those very dark years.

Part of what made this so readable is the way that the author managed to bring out the experiences of both sides of this struggle. So often, this kind of story is told only from the perspective of those who made it out, while those who were left behind recede into the shadows.

That is not the case here. Instead, we see Hanna’s struggle to make a place and a life for herself alone in the west, while the family she left behind struggles equally if differently to survive repression and stay together, with the State always looking over their shoulders, not just because that’s the way it was, but especially because Hanna’s defection left the rest of her family under a life-long cloud.

I found this story to be eminently readable. The author’s prose is spare, but she does a terrific job of telling the story without inserting additional drama or melodrama. There was plenty of both without needing to manufacture any!

In the end, the reader feels for this family, and joins in their triumphant celebration that they made it through, and were reunited at last.

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Review: The Great Quake by Henry Fountain

Review: The Great Quake by Henry FountainThe Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, nonfiction, science, science history
Pages: 288
Published by Crown Publishing Group (NY) on August 8th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the tradition of Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm, a riveting narrative about the biggest earthquake in recorded history in North America--the 1964 Alaskan earthquake that demolished the city of Valdez and obliterated the coastal village of Chenega--and the scientist sent to look for geological clues to explain the dynamics of earthquakes, who helped to confirm the then controversial theory of plate tectonics. On March 27, 1964, at 5:36 p.m., the biggest earthquake ever recorded in North America--and the second biggest ever in the world, measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale--struck Alaska, devastating coastal towns and villages and killing more than 130 people in what was then a relatively sparsely populated region. In a riveting tale about the almost unimaginable brute force of nature, New York Times science journalist Henry Fountain, in his first trade book, re-creates the lives of the villagers and townspeople living in Chenega, Anchorage, and Valdez; describes the sheer beauty of the geology of the region, with its towering peaks and 20-mile-long glaciers; and reveals the impact of the quake on the towns, the buildings, and the lives of the inhabitants. George Plafker, a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey with years of experience scouring the Alaskan wilderness, is asked to investigate the Prince William Sound region in the aftermath of the quake, to better understand its origins. His work confirmed the then controversial theory of plate tectonics that explained how and why such deadly quakes occur, and how we can plan for the next one.

My Review:

The heart of the book The Great Quake, is literally the great quake itself. The narrative, based on interviews with survivors and with the geologist who ended up making the quake his life’s work (and a bit vice versa) come literally at the 50% mark of the book.

What comes before and after is a layperson’s guide to the geology that causes earthquakes and the development of the scientific theories that surround earthquakes in specific and the movement of the continents in general. For those of us who remember “plate tectonics” as being settled science when we were in high school, it’s a revelation to discover that it wasn’t settled at all until after the scientists did their deep dives into the study of this particular quake, and all the destruction it left in its wake.

And for those of us who have ever lived in an earthquake zone, the building standards that make it much more likely that we will survive an individual quake, even if all our stuff knocks off the walls, owes its research and development to the study of this particular quake as well.

The Good Friday Earthquake, as it is still sometimes referred to, especially in Alaska, was the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded. While the loss of both life and property was relatively small in absolute terms, thanks to Alaska’s rather small population in 1964, it still destroyed two towns completely (Chenega and Valdez) and wrecked parts of Anchorage, Seward, Cordova and many others. The tsunamis it generated wreaked havoc along the Pacific coast on both sides of the ocean, down to California on the eastern side and all the way to Japan on the western shore.

And in some ways, its aftershocks are still being felt today.

Reality Rating B: I picked this book up because I lived in Alaska between 2002 and 2005. We lived near Earthquake Park, the land that is left after everything closer to the water dropped and fell in. I worked for the University of Alaska Anchorage on Alaska’s Digital Archive, a statewide project to digitize photographs of the history of Alaska, and if there was one thing that both the UAA collection and the Anchorage Municipal Museum had lots of pictures of, it was the results of that earthquake.

The book itself packs a lot of information about geology and the development of the theory of plate tectonics into settled science into layperson’s language, and wraps it around the story of the quake and its aftermath.

A lot of things changed in Alaska because of the Good Friday Earthquake. The town of Chenega was wiped out. Valdez was too, but because Valdez was on the mainland, and on the road system, and because it is one of the few ports in Alaska that is warm-water all year round, it was rebuilt inland.

The survivors’ stories from both of those places, particularly their accounts of the earthquake itself and the immediately following events, are harrowing and traumatic, and keep the reader riveted to the page.

However, the first third of the book is mostly scientific discussion. It’s all understandable to the non-scientist reader, and it definitely serves as background for what comes later, but there’s not a lot of human interest in that section. It does however talk a lot about the development and eventual proving of, among other things, plate tectonics, and that first third moves at about the speed of, well, plate tectonics.

Once you hit the story where the pork and beans are flying like shrapnel, it’s a wild and rollicking ride from there onwards, and completely absorbing. Readers who have any interest in geology, natural disasters, earthquakes and/or Alaska will find The Great Quake to be a fascinating read.

There’s a stand of trees on the Seward Highway that used to be up on the cliff above. The earthquake dropped the entire stand into the saltwater of Cook Inlet, where they stand today. They are dead, killed by the saltwater they now stand in. But they remain as ghostly sentinels to the power of that quake.

Review: Four Princes by John Julius Norwich

Review: Four Princes by John Julius NorwichFour Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe by John Julius Norwich
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, nonfiction
Pages: 304
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press on April 4th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Europe, 1491 to 1500 was an exciting time to be alive. The entire continent was overshadowed by four rulers, all born within a ten-year period:
King Francis I of France, the most interesting of the quartet, bursting with energy and swagger, was a great patron of the arts and the personification of the Renaissance.
King Henry VIII of England—who was not born to be king but embraced the role with gusto—broke with the Roman Catholic Church, and made himself head of the Church of England.
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, the most powerful man in the civilized world, obsessed with the religious disputes of Europe, was leader of the Spanish and then Roman Empire.
Suleiman the Magnificent, the richest of them all, stands apart as a Muslim, who brought the Ottoman Empire to its apogee of political, military, and economic power, as well as to the golden age of its artistic and architectural prowess.
Never before had humankind seen such giants coexisting. Against the rich background of the Renaissance, they laid the foundation for modern Europe. Individually, each man could hardly have been more different. Their mutual relations shifted constantly: often they were actively hostile and occasionally they were friendly. There was a healthy respect between them; never did one make the mistake of underestimating another. And together, they dominated the world stage.

My Review:

I know that this isn’t quite my usual, but, once upon a time, back when I was about 12, I saw the movie Anne of the Thousand Days. It was a very, very fictionalized account of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. And for some reason, I was absolutely fascinated.

Not by the so-called tragic romance, but by the time period. I was just old enough to develop an intense fascination with history, and for years after seeing that movie I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on about the Tudor period, eventually expanding into the Plantagenets and the early Stuarts.

I also wasn’t too particular about whether the book was fiction or nonfiction. If it was within my reasonable comprehension, I comprehended it. It was also during this time that a friend’s mother gave me a copy of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, one of those book relationships for which I will be forever grateful.

It was my abiding interest in all things Plantagenet, Tudor and Stuart that led me to both Dorothy Dunnett’s sprawling, compelling, immersive Lymond series and eventually to Outlander. For a movie that wasn’t actually all that good, at least according to the critics, it cast a surprisingly long shadow over my reading life.

But I digress.

It’s been a long time since that deep dive into English history, but when I saw Four Princes up on Edelweiss, it just called to me. This was that period, and it looked like a bit of “once over lightly” of both the English history that I remembered so fondly and the greater European history that it touched on but generally did not explore.

And so it proved. I expected to kind of “dip into” Four Princes for the parts I recognized. Instead, I found myself absorbed, reacquainting myself with history I knew, and filling in so much that I glossed over back then.

One of the reasons that history often fascinates, at least part of why it fascinated me, was that it seemed like the right person (sometimes the wrong person) in the right place at the right time could have an immense impact on present and future events. That has often seemed less true in our times, although recent events have shown that the wrong person in the right place at the right time can still have an immense negative impact on the world. But in this very accessibly written history, we see that impact, not just how it occurred but also what it accomplished – and what it failed to accomplish.

We tend to think of kings (and queens) and historical personages in general as old and grey, not because they were born old, but because by the time they are famous and their portraits got painted, they generally were, as the saying goes, in the autumn of their lives, if not downright close to midwinter. As the play Hamilton hints at, while we may remember the U.S. Founding Fathers as old men in white wigs, at the time of the Revolution they were, for the most part, young. Except for Benjamin Franklin – he HAS always been old. 😉

What Four Princes brings to the fore is that in the first half of the 1500’s, the monarchs of the four great powers, England, France, the Holy Roman Empire (which, as we know, was neither holy nor Roman nor exactly an empire) and the Ottoman Empire all came to power within a decade of each other and were all, in fact, born within a decade of each other. Which means they were all young together, all took their thrones young and together and spent all of their respective reigns dealing with each other in particular, and not just that their countries worked for or against each other with different people at the helm each go around.

And for the most part, they all knew each other. Henry of England, Francis of France and Charles of the Empire had all met and were all related to one degree or another. Suleiman the Great was the outlier, most mysterious and least known in Europe – no matter how much or how often he threatened it.

And they each had outsized and long-lasting impacts on their respective countries, if not on each other. In their half century, Henry created the Church of England, Francis began the religious persecutions that stained so much of its history, and both Empires reached the heights of their powers – heights they never attained again.

Reality Rating A: If you have an interest in European history, or enjoy reading history in an accessible style (or honestly, if you know a student who needs to read a relatively short history book that is actually good to read) Four Princes is excellent. It made me remember why I was so fascinated with this period, and has gotten me hooked all over again.

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas PrestonThe Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston, Bill Mumy
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: adventure, archaeology, history, nonfiction
Pages: 304
Published by Grand Central Publishing on January 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A five-hundred-year-old legend. An ancient curse. A stunning medical mystery. And a pioneering journey into the unknown heart of the world's densest jungle.
Since the days of conquistador Hernán Cortés, rumors have circulated about a lost city of immense wealth hidden somewhere in the Honduran interior, called the White City or the Lost City of the Monkey God. Indigenous tribes speak of ancestors who fled there to escape the Spanish invaders, and they warn that anyone who enters this sacred city will fall ill and die. In 1940, swashbuckling journalist Theodore Morde returned from the rainforest with hundreds of artifacts and an electrifying story of having found the Lost City of the Monkey God-but then committed suicide without revealing its location.
Three quarters of a century later, bestselling author Doug Preston joined a team of scientists on a groundbreaking new quest. In 2012 he climbed aboard a rickety, single-engine plane carrying the machine that would change everything: lidar, a highly advanced, classified technology that could map the terrain under the densest rainforest canopy. In an unexplored valley ringed by steep mountains, that flight revealed the unmistakable image of a sprawling metropolis, tantalizing evidence of not just an undiscovered city but an enigmatic, lost civilization.
Venturing into this raw, treacherous, but breathtakingly beautiful wilderness to confirm the discovery, Preston and the team battled torrential rains, quickmud, disease-carrying insects, jaguars, and deadly snakes. But it wasn't until they returned that tragedy struck: Preston and others found they had contracted in the ruins a horrifying, sometimes lethal-and incurable-disease.
Suspenseful and shocking, filled with colorful history, hair-raising adventure, and dramatic twists of fortune, The Lost City of the Monkey God is the absolutely true, eyewitness account of one of the great discoveries of the twenty-first century.

My Review:

The road to The Lost City of the Monkey God begins with a high-tech Indiana Jones and ends with Guns, Germs and Steel, with a couple of detours for pestilential diseases and “academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” Except that in this case the stakes are not small at all, and the story is fascinating from beginning to end.

This is a true story. It’s a story of obsessions both great and small. And a story about con men, soldiers and scientists. And ultimately, it’s a story about the price that we pay for the knowledge that we gain.

There have been legends about this city, whether under the name Ciudad Blanco or as the title describes it, the Lost City of the Monkey God, since the time of Hernan Cortes and the conquistadores. The Spanish conquerors of Central and South America came across many, many stories of fabulous lost cities of gold and jewels. One of the most well-known of those legends is that of El Dorado, the city of gold.

But a film producer named Steve Elkins was particularly fascinated with the legends of Ciudad Blanco, the white city that was supposed to be hidden somewhere in the Mosquitia province of Honduras. Honduras as a country in modern times has been through some very hard and violent times, and the Mosquitia province is infamous for its dangers, not just from the hazards of its jungle terrain, but from the guns of the narco-traffickers who make Mosquitia their home.

While the narco-traffickers have not always been the problem that they are today, the jungle has always been there. During the great age of European exploration in the 1800s, and even afterwards, there were multiple attempts to locate the famous “White City” but to no avail. Very few of the documented expeditions seem to have even gotten close to this mythical place, and one of the best documented was recently discovered to be completely fraudulent.

It seemed like an obsession that was doomed to never be fulfilled, but technology caught up to dreams. On the ground, the jungle swallows everything, but from the air it’s a different story. Or at least it is to LiDAR imaging, a combination of lasers and radar that can see through the dense ground cover to the remains of any structures underneath.

Initially, the story was first to discover, well, if there was anything to discover. It took years and money and grants and cooperation from multiple organizations and at least two iterations of the Honduran government to finally get permission to survey possible sites, and then even more money and permissions to get the still top-secret LiDAR on site to survey the possibilities.

Which turned out to be enormous, both literally and figuratively. The story in The Lost City of the Monkey God is about the author’s participation in these expeditions, both the original LiDAR mapping and the “ground-truthing” with archaeologists a few years later, to make the jungle yield up her long buried secrets.

And exact her toll.

Reality Rating A: The Lost City of the Monkey God is one of the most absorbing pieces of nonfiction it has ever been my pleasure to listen to. June is Audiobook Month, and I’m thrilled to have such a marvelous story to recommend. For a science fiction geek, that Bill Mumy, Lennier from Babylon 5 (also Will Robinson from the classic Lost in Space) read me a story just added to my enjoyment. His voice conveyed just the right tone of understated enthusiasm that seemed perfect for this story.

And the story itself is fantastic. There’s something for adventure readers, history buffs and even science geeks. That’s a lot of groups to appeal to.

It’s not just that the author distills a lot of historical research into great reading, but that the research he has to distill is just so interesting. They say that all myths and legends have a grain of truth in them, and it’s that grain of truth that Elkins and his team are hunting for. But there’s a lot to wade through. Finding out that the best documented case was a complete load of bunk just added to the wild and crazy aspects of the story.

There’s a “you are there” aspect to the author’s story of the expeditions themselves, and it rings true because he actually was there, waiting out the rain and dodging snakes with the rest of the team. There’s a lot of emphasis on the dangers of the environment, the romance of its pristine nature and the changes and destruction that are made in the pursuit of this great archaeological treasure.

And it is a great treasure, not in the jewels and gold sense, but in what it adds to the knowledge of a lost people and their society.

This is also a story that reminds the reader that “nature bats last” on multiple vectors. Unlike so many discoveries of supposedly lost civilizations, the cities in Mosquitia really were lost. This is not a story where the locals know all about the place but it isn’t considered “discovered” until white men find it. In Mosquitia, the cities were abandoned in the early 16th century, the jungle closed in, and the remote nature of the valley along with the dangers of the few methods of getting to them meant that no humans went there. This was a place where you actually couldn’t get there from here, even when “here” was defined as the next province. Traveling through the dense jungle, as opposed to flying over it and dropping in on a helicopter, was too hazardous for anyone from any culture to attempt when there was no one to see and nothing that anyone knew of to gain.

But nature also bats last in the Guns, Germs and Steel sense. The devastating pandemics that obliterated the Central and South American civilizations in that same 15th and 16th century time periods were not the type of diseases that die without a human host. Oh no, these pathogens were quite happy to cook themselves into new and more virulent strains in animal and insect hosts, while patiently waiting for a new batch of humans to enter their lair. As the expedition members did, with life-changing and sometimes life-threatening results.

For the reader, this is a journey that will stick with you long after the final page. For the participants, its aftermath will shadow the rest of their lives.

Review: American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin

Review: American Heiress by Jeffrey ToobinAmerican Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, history, nonfiction, true crime
Pages: 368
Published by Doubleday on August 2nd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author Jeffrey Toobin, the definitive account of the kidnapping and trial that defined an insane era in American history
On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a senior in college and heiress to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by a ragtag group of self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The already sensational story took the first of many incredible twists on April 3, when the group released a tape of Patty saying she had joined the SLA and had adopted the nom de guerre "Tania."The weird turns of the tale are truly astonishing -- the Hearst family trying to secure Patty's release by feeding all the people of Oakland and San Francisco for free; the photographs capturing "Tania" wielding a machine gun during a bank robbery; a cast of characters including everyone from Bill Walton to the Black Panthers to Ronald Reagan to F. Lee Bailey; the largest police shoot-out in American history; the first breaking news event to be broadcast live on television stations across the country; Patty's year on the lam, running from authorities; and her circuslike trial, filled with theatrical courtroom confrontations and a dramatic last-minute reversal, after which the phrase "Stockholm syndrome" entered the lexicon. The saga of Patty Hearst highlighted a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown. Based on more than a hundred interviews and thousands of previously secret documents, American Heiress thrillingly recounts the craziness of the times (there were an average of 1500 terrorist bombings a year in the early 1970s). Toobin portrays the lunacy of the half-baked radicals of the SLA and the toxic mix of sex, politics, and violence that swept up Patty Hearst; and recreates her melodramatic trial. American Heiress examines the life of a young woman who suffered an unimaginable trauma and then made the stunning decision to join her captors' crusade. Or did she?

My Review:

The past, as they say, is another country. They do things differently there.

1974 is definitely the past. Which is something which also feels unaccountably “wrong” at the same time. I was a junior in high school when Patty Hearst was kidnapped. And it seems like a life-time ago – only because it was.

patty hearst SLAThe story of Patty Hearst’s kidnapping, conversion, capture and conviction is so wildly improbably that it could only be fact. If someone tried to sell this saga as fiction, it would be rejected as too improbable to be believable. But it really happened.

It’s a very wild ride.

One of the things that struck this reader is just how inept both sides of the equation were. The cops, notably the FBI, come off as much more Keystone Kops than clear-eyed Eliot Ness. It’s not just that they couldn’t catch a break, but that they often didn’t know what break to catch. In hindsight, there were all kinds of clues that weren’t followed up on. This didn’t have to go on nearly as long as it did.

Especially since the criminals were no more ept than the cops. As you read the story, it’s impossible not to be struck but just how often the SLA just got lucky. They may have planned their individual operations down to the details, but there was no overall plan and no major goal to be accomplished. They seem to have been living in a bubble of their own making. And it somehow kept working for them.

Until it didn’t.

The central figure in this story is Patty Hearst herself. So much hinges on figuring out what she really thought and felt. And that’s an unknown, and always has been.

It’s difficult not to put myself in her place. At 19, if someone kidnapped you at gunpoint and locked you in a closet, what would you think when weeks later they offered you the option of walking away or joining up? Would anyone actually believe that walking away was a real option? I keep coming back to that over and over. Expediency says to play along.

The questions, both at the time and now, come back to whether or not she truly believed in the revolutionary cause she ended up espousing. But even if she did, how can anyone say that she truly gave unforced consent to anything that happened? How free was she to choose? We’ll never know.

Which is probably how she managed to receive both clemency from President Jimmy Carter and a pardon from President Bill Clinton. In the end, with Patty controlling the narrative, everyone saw what they wanted to see.

Something that Patty Hearst seems to have been very, very good at playing.

Escape Rating A-: One of the things that this book does well is to set the stage. The 1970s are not that long ago, but they are also in some ways very far away. The optimism of the civil rights movement and the feminist movement had not yet faded into cynicism. At the same time, it was a completely crazy era, as the anti-war protests of the 1960s descended into revolutionary fervor and violence of all types. Including lots of bombings and home-grown terrorism.

The cops come off as almost completely inept. At the same time, the criminals were more lucky than smart. One of the things that the author makes clear, but is so hard to imagine today, is that there were no cell phones and no internet. Communication was slow and clumsy, coordination was incredibly difficult. Those are factors which made the criminals lives much easier, and the cops’ jobs much more difficult. Occasionally, that ineptitude feels like it drags the narrative down a bit. Because the bulk of the book is about Patty’s life on the run with the SLA, the length of time she remains free and the inability of the police and the FBI to find and apprehend her goes on and on, because in real life it did.  However, I would have liked a bit more on the trial and its aftermath than is present in the book.

At the end of the book, the questions are still unanswered. Both the question of just how willing a participant Patty Hearst was in the later SLA criminal activities, and also just how much will did she have at that point? It’s ironic that the phrase that most often comes to mind in reference to her case, Stockholm Syndrome, wasn’t in use at the time of her trial because the Stockholm event itself had just occurred in 1973. Was she formally brainwashed? Based on the book, it seems doubtful. Not that the SLA might not have tried, but that they never seemed to have it that much together. Did she have Stockholm Syndrome? That seems much more plausible.

That the questions from the book continue to haunt me says something about the writing. This is a good story. It always has been. There’s a lot of drama, a certain amount of melodrama, and a fascinating use of a kind of sin and redemption trope, as Patty is taken from her good girl life, becomes an outlaw, and then reforms. It’s also a story about where the rich really are different from you and me. No one else in history has ever received both clemency and a pardon. Money still talks.

American Heiress is a compulsively readable account of an utterly fascinating riches to rags to riches story of crime, punishment and redemption.

Review: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach

Review: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary RoachGrunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science, nonfiction
Pages: 276
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on June 7th 2016
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Best-selling author Mary Roach explores the science of keeping human beings intact, awake, sane, uninfected, and uninfested in the bizarre and extreme circumstances of war.
Grunt tackles the science behind some of a soldier's most challenging adversaries—panic, exhaustion, heat, noise—and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them. Mary Roach dodges hostile fire with the U.S. Marine Corps Paintball Team as part of a study on hearing loss and survivability in combat. She visits the fashion design studio of U.S. Army Natick Labs and learns why a zipper is a problem for a sniper. She visits a repurposed movie studio where amputee actors help prepare Marine Corps medics for the shock and gore of combat wounds. At Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti, in east Africa, we learn how diarrhea can be a threat to national security. Roach samples caffeinated meat, sniffs an archival sample of a World War II stink bomb, and stays up all night with the crew tending the missiles on the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee. She answers questions not found in any other book on the military: Why is DARPA interested in ducks? How is a wedding gown like a bomb suit? Why are shrimp more dangerous to sailors than sharks? Take a tour of duty with Roach, and you’ll never see our nation’s defenders in the same way again.

My Review:

This review will be posted on Veterans Day 2016. Some years I write something about the holiday and the history behind it. My post for 2012, titled Remembrance Day, – Veterans Day, is still one of the most read items that I have ever posted.

This year I’ve chosen to review a book about the unsung heroes, scientists and researchers, who do the unglamorous and often stinky work that helps more soldiers come back as live veterans instead of dead heroes. It is research that delves into some of the odder corners of science and technology, and comes with not just a necessary dose of gallows humor, but often with a bit of slapstick as well.

Mary Roach’s latest work of nonfiction, Grunt, is all about the crazy ideas that help soldiers survive, whether on the battlefields or off. The problems and conditions that the author investigated are usually not remotely glamorous. They often delve much too deeply into realms that most of us would rather not think or talk about.

Reading the chapter about research into the causes and prevention of diarrhea over dinner was probably a mistake on my part. But she does manage to make the most mundane, and occasionally odoriferous, topics utterly fascinating.

So many of the issues explored in this book, from sleep deprivation among submariners to the potential for loss of life on SEAL teams because one member has dysentery at an inopportune moment all do impact on not just combat readiness but also on combat survivability.

Pilots in World War II were afraid of being shot down into shark-infested waters. Really. There was a lot of research into developing shark repellent – all of which failed fairly miserably. And turned out to be unnecessary. Sharks seem to be interested in prey that won’t fight back. They went after lots of dead pilots and dead or dying shipwreck victims, but healthy pilots swam for hours in shark infested waters with very few casualties. Sharks are capricious – there were a few.

The research on terrible smells was much funnier, but still had a deadly purpose. Trying to determine both which smells would completely distract enemy combatants and developing ways to deliver the stench without getting it on the messenger was hilarious. And often wrong headed in multiple ways. And yet, if an enemy could be so overcome by “Stench Soup” or the hilariously named “U.S. Government Standard Bathroom Malodor” that they can’t manage to draw their weapons, they could be disarmed and captured with much lower loss of life – at least as long as the “good guys” were wearing gas masks.

The scenarios that the author investigated ranged from the nearly sublime, uniform materials that can survive fire but not cook their wearer in the desert – to those ridiculous possibilities of stench warfare. But there is plenty of seriousness here as well, for example as she delves into the problem of making a vehicle that will keep its passengers alive if it drives over an IED. The chapters on genital transplants are medically interesting, psychologically fascinating, heartbreaking and slightly crazy making all at the same time.

But every investigation covered in this book, from the stink to the sharks to the maggots, all serve one goal. Bringing more soldiers back alive, and finding ways for them to return to civilian life with the best quality of life possible.

Reality Reading A-: This is a great read. The chapters are all compelling reading, and generally short and sweet (or stinky). There’s just enough detail not just to whet the reader’s appetite (or occasionally kill it) but also to show why the seemingly mundane is so important and worthy of government funding.

All in all, a fascinating read for the day.

Review: A Truck Full of Money by Tracy Kidder

Review: A Truck Full of Money by Tracy KidderA Truck Full of Money by Tracy Kidder
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, internet, nonfiction
Pages: 320
Published by Random House on September 6th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Fortune, mania, genius, philanthropy the bestselling author of Mountains Beyond Mountains gives us the inspiring story of Paul English, the founder of Kayak.com and Lola. Tracy Kidder, the master of the nonfiction narrative (The Baltimore Sun) and author of the bestselling classic The Soul of a New Machine, now tells the story of Paul English, a kinetic and unconventional inventor and entrepreneur, who as a boy rebelled against authority. Growing up in working-class Boston, English discovers a medium for his talents the first time he sees a computer. As a young man, despite suffering from what would eventually be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, he begins his pilgrim s journey through the ups and downs in the brave new world of computers. Relating to the Internet as if it s an extension of his own mind, he discovers that he has a talent for conceiving innovative enterprises and building teams that can develop them, becoming a Pied Piper of geeks. His innovative management style, success, and innate sense of fair play inspire intense loyalty. Early on, one colleague observes: Someday this boy s going to get hit by a truck full of money, and I m going to be standing beside him. Yet when English does indeed make a fortune, when the travel website Kayak is sold for almost two billion dollars the first thing he thinks about is how to give the money away: What else would you do with it? The second thing he thinks is, What s next? With the power of a consummate storyteller, Tracy Kidder casts a fresh, critical, and often humorous eye on the way new ideas and new money are reshaping our culture and the world. A Truck Full of Money is a mesmerizing portrait of an irresistibly endearing man who is indefatigable, original, and as unpredictable as America itself.

My Review:

soul of a new machine by tracy kidderThe first book of Tracy Kidder’s that I ever read was The Soul of a New Machine, an inside look at the development of a new 32-bit minicomputer at Data General in the late 1970s. In internet years, that feels like several centuries ago.

The universe of computing, and the universe of the ways in which our lives are impacted by computers and related technology, has changed immeasurably since that “soul” was put into that “new machine”. But those giants at Data General are to a significant extent the ones whose shoulders the subject of this new book stand. As is Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web in 1989.

Without the evolution in computer technology that took us from computers that filled rooms to what were then called minicomputers because they were considerably smaller than that to the PC revolution to the Internet, our world would be immeasurably different. So, just as The Soul of a New Machine was the story of a group of people who helped build the revolution, A Truck Full of Money is about the soul of the new tech economy, as seen through the eyes of a man who is one of its avatars, and one of its success stories.

The story follows the career of Paul M. English, the creator of numerous companies throughout the internet age, including Boston Light, the very successful Kayak.com and his current company, Lola Travel. English has a knack for not just having a great idea for a company, but building a team that can carry it through to success, and subsequent sale for “a truck full of money” to someone else. And then he starts all over again.

Not every one of his ideas succeeds. But the ones that do, really, really do. Like Kayak.com.

The author uses English’s biography to tell his story, making it both a look into the tech economy of start-ups, venture capital and failing frequently, often and hopefully upwards as well as the biography of one individual who has been mostly successful in that environment.

English himself is a fascinating character to watch, from his beginnings in working-class Boston in the 1970s to his hyper success in nearly every decade afterwards – interspersed not just with a series of failures but also with his coping with, and sometimes failing to cope with, a bipolar disorder that causes episodes of hypomania. Sometimes the black dog of depression bites hard, but more often the demons of hypomania gave English incredible amounts of energy and very little ability to process the rapid firing of his brain or the people that he needed to carry out any of his visions.

And in the middle of all of his success, his desire to help people. Not just on the intimate scale of taking care of the people who are close to him, but in the broader humanitarian goal of helping with several crises around the world, particularly in Haiti and in his Boston hometown.

Escape Rating B-: A Truck Full of Money is an interesting book, but it didn’t grab me as much as I remember The Soul of a New Machine did when I listened to it sometime in the 1990s. Admittedly, a long time ago.

One issue is that A Truck Full of Money isn’t told in a linear fashion. Each of the vignettes is interesting, but the coherent whole doesn’t emerge. Thinking about it, the non-linearity probably reflects the subject, who, when he is on, sparks ideas in multiple directions simultaneously.

We also don’t see much of the subject’s relationships with colleagues and family, except on a superficial level. The characters in this biography seem to brought on to show their function in the work rather than their place in the life. This may be a reflection of what these relationships actually are, but it feels a bit hollow.

We see a lot more of the what than the why.

While this isn’t a book about bipolar disorder, there is more depth in dealing with this part of the subject’s life than anything else that hits close to the bone.

One of the most interesting parts is seeing the way that this economy, which has powered so much of the development of the technology sector, really works. The way that venture capitalists deal with fledgling businesses, and the how and why of where their funding comes from and how they decide what to do with it, explains a lot about the way things work now.

If you’ve ever worked for a company that was bought by venture capital firms, or in an industry that is dominated by such firms, that part is fascinating.

All in all, A Truck Full of Money makes an interesting and readable bookend to The Soul of a New Machine. In a strange way, that feels like the beginning of a story, and this one feels like, not the end, but maybe the end of its middle.

Review: The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

Review: The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil GaimanThe View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: essays, fantasy, horror, libraries, nonfiction, science fiction, writing
Pages: 544
Published by William Morrow on May 31st 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An enthralling collection of nonfiction essays on a myriad of topics—from art and artists to dreams, myths, and memories—observed in Neil Gaiman’s probing, amusing, and distinctive style.
An inquisitive observer, thoughtful commentator, and assiduous craftsman, Neil Gaiman has long been celebrated for the sharp intellect and startling imagination that informs his bestselling fiction. Now, The View from the Cheap Seats brings together for the first time ever more than sixty pieces of his outstanding nonfiction. Analytical yet playful, erudite yet accessible, this cornucopia explores a broad range of interests and topics, including (but not limited to): authors past and present; music; storytelling; comics; bookshops; travel; fairy tales; America; inspiration; libraries; ghosts; and the title piece, at turns touching and self-deprecating, which recounts the author’s experiences at the 2010 Academy Awards in Hollywood.
Insightful, incisive, witty, and wise, The View from the Cheap Seats explores the issues and subjects that matter most to Neil Gaiman—offering a glimpse into the head and heart of one of the most acclaimed, beloved, and influential artists of our time.

My Review:

“Fiction is the lie that tells the truth” – This is a quote that Neil Gaiman seems to have adapted from Albert Camus’ version: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

A good bit of this collection is about the creation of that fiction, not just his own, but also other people’s. So we get a look into how the writer does his craft, but even more of a peek at what the writer thinks about other writers’ books that he has known and loved. And sometimes that’s about the books, and sometimes that’s about the writer, and most often it’s about the love.

As a librarian, I have to say that the entire first section of this collection just warms the proverbial cockles of my book-loving and book-pushing heart. Because in it, Gaiman basically lays out his love of books and bookstores and libraries for the entire world to see. And his expression of that love is absolutely lyrical. It’s a paean to libraries and a clarion call to save them all wrapped into one beautiful ball.

He also talks a lot about the books that shaped him, both as a person and as a writer. If the “Golden Age of science fiction is twelve” or thirteen, as the age varies depending on what story he is telling, then Gaiman was exposed at just the right moment. But even if you are not a lover of science fiction, his story of escaping into books as a child will resonate for any adult who has spent their life escaping from it in books. We all started out young.

As a writer, Gaiman began as a journalist (not unlike his friend, the late, much lamented Terry Pratchett) and moved from writing for other people to writing the stories that, as he says, he couldn’t keep inside. And the stories that he wanted to read. Along the way, he passed through comic books, fantasy, science fiction and horror. As many of the languages of myth-making as he could manage. In various pieces of this collection, there are essays that speak to one or more of those interests, with digressions into movies and music.

But whatever he is, or was, writing about (or in some cases speaking about) the author’s voice shines through. And that love. Love for the genre, love for the medium, and especially love for the power of words and the worlds they create.

Escape Rating A: Because this is a collection of essays and whatnot, I don’t actually need to read the entire thing to write a credible review. But I had so much fun reading it that I could not make myself stop.

Also, I recently listened to the beginning of Neverwhere, read by the author. As I read The View From the Cheap Seats, I could hear the author’s voice in my head, especially reading the speeches. It’s a very distinct authorial voice, and a surprisingly excellent voice for reading.

(Some authors are notoriously bad at reading their own work. Gaiman is emphatically not one of them.)

trigger warning by neil gaimanAs an essay collection, while I wouldn’t say that it is uneven the way that last year’s short story collection, Trigger Warning, was, I would say that the appeal of the collection will depend on how closely the reader’s interests match the author’s.

Anyone who loves books and reading AT ALL will enjoy the first section, Some Things I Believe. Because the author believes A LOT about the joy of reading to move us and the importance of bookstores and libraries and of simply READING.

But other parts of the collection reflect different tastes and interests. As someone who reads a lot of science fiction and fantasy, the essays in those sections, including the speeches, had plenty of resonance for this reader. The stories within the stories, the tropes that are referred to, the people being honored, are all ones that I am not just familiar with, but frequently also love. And occasionally have my own stories about.

And his writing about science fiction and fantasy and being both a reader and a writer echo my own experiences in the SF fan community.

His speech about Tulip Mania as it relates to the Comic Book Industry (Good Comics and Tulips: A Speech) should probably be read by anyone interested in the economics of fads and/or the bursting of false-demand economic bubbles.

At the same time, the sections where I’m not as invested, aren’t as interesting to me. My taste in music is different from the author’s. So while I find his essays on music interesting, they don’t move me in the same way that the ones on SF and fantasy do. They are excellently written, but don’t touch a place in my heart.

But so much of this collection does.

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