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book review: the triumph of human empire

I’m reading more nonfiction this year and stuff like The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams is why. I mean, this is a good justification for the trend unlike the dopey baseball book I also just read (but that gave me the difference between a 2-seam and a cut fastball in a way that feels like it’ll stick, so maybe I’m too harsh).

Williams compares the writing and other work by Jules Verne, William Morris and Robert Louis Stevenson with the frame of how the three felt about and responded to the massive shift in how the world worked at the end of the 19th century when Earth’s maps were getting filled in and human empire was everywhere. Williams argues that these writers were sensitive to the idea that the imperial west and its technology was now on its way to pushing up against each other more and more and relying on interconnections and brutality in dealing with those connections. Density was going to build and things were going to get much more complicated and these three wanted to resist the way things were going. Williams doesn’t make them unvarnished heroes or anything; they were still privileged white dudes and were racist and sexist and otherwise problematic in their own ways, especially in regards to colonialism.

The idea that we’re now in a similar kind of era, when we’re anxious about the end of the world through climate change and that it’s something we caused because we couldn’t stop digging coal out of the ground so we could cross huge distances easily, made the whole thing hang together really well. It’s clearly written and doesn’t plod. It’s also nice to have words for some of what I love about Verne and science fiction in general (the distancing mechanisms for the heroes in his geographic romances). I didn’t know as much about Morris or Stevenson, but I was glad to learn.

I had to get this as an interlibrary loan, because our public library doesn’t seem to grab random University of Chicago Press books, but hooray for the interconnected apocalypse we live in where it was possible to snag.

book review: the dark tower (complete series)

Last July I began reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I finished it last week. I’m glad I read it but there were definitely aspects I liked more than others.

I came to the series through Jon Rosenberg’s Scenes From a Multiverse‘s Gunshooter strips and the upcoming movie. I like to know about these big event pieces of fiction that people will talk about even if I haven’t been to a movie theatre since Fury Road (no wait, I saw The Force Awakens in the theatre). In this case I wanted to get a bit of my own opinionating underway before the flood of other people’s thoughts overwhelm me. Casting Idris Elba as the gunslinger pissed off racists (Rosenberg’s second wave of Gunshooter strips reflected this casting) so that’s cool, but I wanted to have more of a reason to care about this story, and that meant reading it.

There are seven books in the series and they range unevenly between post-apocalyptic western and alternate-universe-hopping Sliders knockoff and self-indulgent hamhanded metafictional pastiche. I liked it best when it was doing the western thing (The Gunslinger (Gunshooter interpretation), the middle 3/4 of Wizard and Glass and the non-priest-focused parts of Wolves of the Calla), and the ending was pretty great. I hated the Doombots and the Harry Potter references and the “Stephen King: maintainer of the universe” bullshit. The way things were kludged together in terms of timelines and reinventing how timetravel worked with a handwave about a keystone world annoyed me, as did most of the dialogue.

But. I’m glad I read it. I like it as a frame for reading the rest of Stephen King’s work through. It felt supremely self-indulgent but that’s what you trust an author with, right? If it had ended worse I’d have been pissed off, but it ends well (deus ex machina note from Stephen King aside).

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book review: just ride

I mentioned Rivendell Bikes a couple of reviews ago, and Just Ride is a book by the founder of the company, Grant Petersen. It’s a collection of strategies and velosophies (his coinage) for riding bicycles – “a radically practical guide.” The big idea behind the book is that bicycle racing has fucked up the way people purchase and ride bicycles. Most people are built differently than pro cyclists and ride their bikes differently but bike manufacturers try to sell things meant for racing racing racing!

Petersen talks about how you don’t need so many gears on your bike, or fancy cycling-specific clothes and how the weight of steel frames makes for a more pleasant and durable machine. Now, of course his philosophy does mean that the kinds of bikes you’d want to buy if you bought into everything he says here might end up being Rivendell bikes. For my girlfriend that’s enough to disdain this book entirely as snobbery.

But even though we’re all enmeshed in fucking capitalism, I think the ideas in Just Ride are more in line with the kind of riding I prefer. I just want to ride my bike places, not be a King of the Mountain on Strava. So far the most direct change I’ve made to my bike-thinking as a result of this book was change my year’s cycling goals to being time focused rather than distance.

I do really like my road bike’s clipless pedals and my cycling shoes that go with them, so I’m not throwing them away. But winter-biking like I’ve been trying to do has made me happy I can ride my mountain bike with my regular sheepskin lined wintry boots. I didn’t agree with everything in the book, and there’s a part of me that is interested in bike racing as a sport, but I’d totes recommend bike-interested people to Just Ride.

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book review: y: the last man (complete series)

I read the first couple of trade paperback collections of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerrera’s Y: The Last Man years ago, and I think the only reason I didn’t continue reading it was the usual library dance of the next volume not being on the shelf when I wanted it and blah blah blah laziness. At my new library, all five volumes of the omnibus edition were just sitting on the shelf when I was wandering by and I decided it was time to fill in that gap.

Y: The Last Man is pretty good!

I knew I liked the premise but in my head since I’d never completed the series it was just a cool premise. I didn’t remember much else about it. I was a little worried it was going to feel very heavy-handed or that it was going to devolve into bullshit (which is my impression of what happened with Fables, though I may be wrong about that). But Vaughan writes really good dialogue (and you can totally hear how Saga is by the same writer). There’s a lot of good weirdness and I like how the story isn’t a slave to its premise. Other males are born; there’s acknowledgement that all sorts of species will go extinct; there’s jokiness through the action scenes. It gets a bit more globe-trotty than I expected in the later volumes and I like the eventual sidelining of Yorick as the key to everything and focusing on how he’s dealing with his very changed life as the object of humanity’s quest. I’d also say it stuck the landing.

book review: towards a new manifesto

Towards a New Manifesto is a dialogue about Marxist philosophy between Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. They are important in Marxist critical theory and are the kinds of theoreticians I did not read enough of in my undergrad and then took “professional” graduate degrees that fled even the notion of critically examining the ways our professions think about what we do. Or I just slacked off in those classes.

I don’t have a lot to say about this book. It was a very fragmented dialogue that I felt I was missing a lot of context for. I did not feel very smart while reading it, but if bits of it got lodged in my brain somewhere for the next Marxist theory book I read, then I think it’s succeeded.

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book review: ultralight bike touring and bikepacking

My girlfriend and I are thinking about bike-touring more. Since we’re librarians that tends to mean research. One of the books that has thus found its way to our coffee table is Justin Lichter and Justin Kline’s guidebook Ultralight Bike Touring and Bikepacking.

The idea of going on a bike trip with pretty minimal stuff is very very appealing to me. I don’t like schlepping non-book stuff around and I like going places. So I’ve been reading a lot of blogposts about this kind of stuff, and not a lot was completely new. The bike models they talked about and the wheel-sizes and the companies making the bike equipment were all things I was familiar with. One of the people from Rivendell bikes was in here, which I appreciated since they make machines I dearly covet (my present to myself when I hit 40 will probably be a ridiculously pretty bike like a Hunqapillar).

One thing that made this book better than the blogposts was that it felt a little less manipulated for ad-dollar page-views. I mean, the writers talked about specific products probably about the same amount that a bike-blogger does but it feels different in pages somehow. And the fact that they have contributors talking about foraging for food on the side of your trail and taking less stuff makes me get my hackles up a bit less when they’re praising certain ultralight tarps (’cause tents are heavy luxuries).

There’s a lot in this book that could be ridiculous to follow along with too closely. It’d be easy to work too hard at being some sort of perfect ultralight gram-counter, and yeah it’s promoting a certain kind of consumerism that’s trying to be something more than it is. But in general, I liked this book, especially in the practical aspects of what to pack in your frame bag and what to sling behind your seat. And they say Tajikistan would be a good place to ride it.

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book review: game-day gangsters

I don’t read a tonne of nonfiction books. I tend to leave that to internet articles and blog posts and maybe some professional stuff. But generally short bits. Game-Day Gangsters (PDF link) by Curtis Fogel is longer than a blog post but it’s a short book and one I quite enjoyed.

See, the thing I like about journalism in general is the feeling that you’re dipping into another world that actually exists. In good nonfiction you might even understand a bit more of it. Game-day Gangsters‘ subtitle is: Crime and Deviance in Canadian Football, and that was a world I only knew the tiniest bit about.

In the book Fogel examines legal issues in football, specifically around violence, hazing and performance-enhancing drugs. The key idea he uses to pull these issues together is consent. What does it mean to consent to risk to have your legs broken at work? How do players see consenting to being humiliated in order to bond with a team?

It was a very clear book for dealing with legal issues. Fogel interviewed players and administrators from junior, university and professional levels of Canadian football (identified by position – this is not a tell-all book of who’s juicing) and for an outsider like me it seemed well-argued. The realities of capitalist exploitation and the precarious labour situation of the professional (or aspiring professional) football player solidified my appreciation (possibly by appealing to my own biases, selah).

I’m working on a fiction project that deals with violent sport, so this was a bit of a research material book for me, or I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. It’s good though, and if you have any interest in the area, it might be worth your time. I got mine from the library but it’s Creative Commons licensed and the PDF is available from the Athabasca University Press website.