book review: sleeping giants

I wanted to like Sleeping Giants (by Sylvain Neuvel). It’s about discovering parts of a giant robot that have been buried on earth for 3000 years and putting them together to see what happens. It’s told in the form of a series of reports, mostly interviews with the principals.

At first that format worked out okay and I thought we’d be getting into a cool Arrival or Three-Body Problem-esque story of communicating with aliens in this case through artifacts. But by a third of the way in I realized this was actually trying to be Pacific Rim.

Now, I liked Pacific Rim, but it was an action movie. Trying to tell an action movie type story through the distancing effect of interviews (throughout which the interviewer is a powerful “shadowy figure” who’s supposed to be intriguing but is massively overexposed and unrealistic for that) was a bad fit. And the interviews were too directly “transcripts” instead of the faux-oral history style that lets you get what happened in instead of people telling each other what happened. And then despite the “official reports” veneer the author was satisfied with a ridiculously superficial portrayal of how organizations work. That portrayal would work fine in a big dumb action movie, but it feels like such a mismatch with a slow sci-fi novel with absolutely no showing and all telling.

If those kinds of issues wouldn’t bother you, then it’d be an okay book. It was on the longlist for Canada Reads and I’m glad Company Town, a clearly superior (though still on the fast-paced thriller side of the genre) scifi book, made it to the 2017 shortlist instead.

book review: dialogue

At some point I’m pretty sure I read Robert McKee’s Story. I imagine it was at a time when I still thought writing would be the thing I’d do (as opposed to whatever it is I do now). Last week while I was on our main floor desk I was faced with McKee’s 2016 book Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen on our “Interesting Nonfiction” display and I took it home.

It’s fine. I enjoyed the breakdowns of dialogue in screenplays, scripts and prose. There was good stuff about the way scenes build through speech, and the construction that goes into building a satisfying scene. I was also reminded of Adaptation and how these forms can make crap as easily as they can make art.

book review: the break

The Break by Katherena Vermette is a multithreaded novel about a crime that takes place in Winnipeg. A young Native woman is attacked in the February night. There’s a witness who calls the police. So it’s a story about a crime, but it’s definitely not a procedural.

We get to know the family around the incident through a number of different viewpoints, including a couple of outsiders (a girl who’s escaped detention and a police officer). The story mostly takes place over less than a week, but is filled with flashbacks that give it a lot more depth than that.

It was a great book.

I often talk about how for me, the practical reason for reading fiction is to build empathy. If you get into the heads of people who are different from you, you help expand what your world can be, and it makes you better at understanding and helping people with different experiences from you. The Break is totally going to be my go-to example for that. Vermette gets us into heads really deftly and her descriptions were incisive and made me shudder. We feel for the weaknesses and we feel the strengths everyone shows.

It’s great. You should read it.

book review: norse mythology

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology translation is a fine little basic sampler book of tales about Thor and Loki and Freya and all that lot. I realized reading it how much the Marvel Comics versions of Asgard have warped my brain around this mythos, but yeah. They’re fine stories. There are bits where the Gaimanish language pokes through more than others, which I liked even if it felt a little anachronistic. This felt more like Fortunately the Milk… Neil Gaiman rather than American Gods Neil Gaiman, if that makes a difference to you.

If I had a lot of Norse myth stuff I might have stronger opinions on which stories were included and which weren’t but like I said, most of my knowledge comes via Kirby so I’m no expert. I didn’t have a book of Norse myths on my shelf before and now I do. eems like a win.

book review: the utility of boredom

The Utility of Boredom is a collection of essays about baseball by Andrew Forbes (not the one I knew from Winnipeg 20 years ago). He is from Ottawa though, and his MLB team is the Blue Jays so I felt more of a connection with his (Ontario-based) thoughts than if they were all about southern California. It’s good and thoughtful and does some of that romanticizing of the sport that I enjoy so much. If you’re interested in why I like baseball this’d be a good book to read.

book review: the divide

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap is Matt Taibbi’s book about how economic inequality affects the American judicial system. How if you have huge amounts of money you will never go to jail but if you have no money you will be hounded by the police for walking down the sidewalk. It was incredibly depressing, but a good read (especially as a companion to Piketty’s Capital which was talking about how the wealth gap grows).

I don’t have the experience of getting thrown in the back of a police van for walking home from work as part of a commercial fishing approach to policing. I also don’t think that the laws should turn away from companies that steal and commit fraud just because there might be collateral consequences to the economy (which is something the Obama administration argued and has become part of banking prosecutions such as they are in the U.S.).

Part of the most depressing part of this book is that it was written in 2014, so pre-Trump. All the deportations and massive fraud investigations and fuckups that hugely and disproportionately affect poor americans, that was under Democrats. Trump deporting people isn’t new. Obama deported thousands and thousands by letting states use traffic stops to get immigrants into Immigration’s clutches. Yes the jackbooted thugs are ever more fascist, but it’s not like America has been a good place for non-white people before 2017-01-20.

book review: capital in the twenty-first century

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was a big book a couple of years ago. It’s still large (mwah waaah) but it’s a not-inaccessible examination of some of the economic history we find ourselves embroiled in today.

Piketty uses a lot of historical data to look at how economic income patterns have changed, especially in France, since they had records going back to the 18th century, but more generally in the West. Why did Marx’s prediction that runaway capitalism would lead inevitably to its own collapse not work out like that? Why are we coming into a new age of inequality where the rich own more and more and the poor have less and less, and is this unprecedented?

I quite enjoyed learning about this stuff. I’m no economic specialist and wouldn’t be able to quibble with the data Piketty chose and didn’t choose, but I found it very interesting that the shocks of WWI, the great depression and WWII had on income and ownership were much bigger than I’d thought. For people growing up after the 1940s we have a perspective that equality is possible and the best thing to invest in is an education, but that’s skewed by specific postwar policies that have been undone by specific 1980s policies and greater deregulation. Inequality will be growing and if we don’t want that to continue we have to make changes to the capitalist system. Piketty never really goes so far as to say we should get a new system instead of capitalism, which is probably my biggest beef with the book.

It was written in an accessible enough style and Piketty re-explained concepts he was relying on at the beginnings of chapters so even a nonspecialist could follow along. I do think David Graeber’s Debt was more interesting in both writing style and content, as far as big modern books on economic principles go.