Bob Holmes’ Flavor is a popular science book about the sense we use that’s one of the hardest to put into words. Holmes has interviewed scientists working on taste, smell, neuropsychology, genetics, soil composition, molecular gastronomy (and more) to really get into what we mean when we talk about how things taste, because it’s far more complicated than those old four-taste tongue diagrams you might remember.
One of the big takeaways from the book is that the difference between professional tasters (like wine-experts) and amateurs is more about the attention they pay and the vocabulary they have practiced with than anything specific in their tongues. It’s written in a light humorous fashion and though I would have liked a bit more in-depth explanation on a few points (how do we know a nerve is transmitting at maximum intensity?) this definitely provided enough facts to make me a bit of an insufferable dining companion.
Kevin Van Tighem has written about Alberta’s environment, and his concern for it, for over thirty years. Our Place is a collection of those heartfelt, thoughtful, researched essays.
The book is organized by themes so you get fishing pieces together, and hunting ones together, and the whole idea of segmenting up something that is large and whole get put together. This approach means the footnotes can get a little sad, especially when you read a hopeful essay from the 1980s where the hope didn’t really work out.
Even if you are not a hunter or a fisher, his writing about those practices is evocative and persuades the reader to appreciate the attention they reward. But in the end, what I appreciated most about the book was Van Tighem’s sense of the connectedness of all things, how attention and language matters, and how natural gas and tar sands exploitation is costing Albertans their souls.
The Collapsing Empire is John Scalzi’s most recent space opera. It takes the tropes of far flung planets and space ships travelling between them and puts some interesting characters doing clever things in those ships and places of power and knowledge. Yup. Good stuff.
The collapsing part of the empire (called the Interdependency because they rely on trade between stars to survive) is that the bits of nonspace that connect these farflung worlds without having to travel actually faster than light (though the effect is pretty much the same in a Traveller-esque fashion) are shifting, and that’s shifting how power will play out on the grand scale. It’s a good ecological metaphor and I enjoyed how humanity has had to build habitats wherever they could connect to each other, rather than on planets that would be suitable for bearing human life.
I’m a bit interested in what will happen when the shifting status quo meets up with either Earth or a generationship kind of thing that didn’t use the networks that are shifting. It’s a series though, so that doesn’t happen in this book. It was a fine light read; a good popcorn book. As far as space opera I’ve read recently I like it better than The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but not as much as Leviathan Wakes or The Stars Are Legion.
I enjoyed Tetris: The Games People Play even though it was essentially a business story. Box Brown is good at making characters out of real people, and the very analog style of art worked really well in contrast to the pixels of the game under discussion for most of the book. It laid everything out clearly with the convoluted selling of rights that some people didn’t have, and in the end it all works out for the Russian who invented the game (though his friend and sidekick through most of the story ends up um.. badly in a way that surprised me and could have been a frame for a very different style of book).
In the beginning of the book there was a bit about the importance of games and the cultural significance of them, which gets wrapped around back to by the end. I think that’s the best part, and what I’ll probably return to. It felt a little like reading Scott McCloud in its clarity and use of the comic format.
I’ve become less of a devotee of the power of games in the last year or two, mostly because I’m seeing more ways that adding game layers to things enhances certain political projects. Which is conflicting, because while I love games and I wish I could play them more, but I prefer it when games are kept in the realm of recreation and art, not business or the betterment/anaesthetizing of society or the efficiency of an organization.
So yes, the book about Tetris made me feel bad about the world. But it’s good.
I liked Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving’s Annihilator, but I don’t mind stories about writers trying to write something good. In this comic, Ray Spass is an asshole screenwriter working on a dark space opera when the main character Max Nomax comes to him to find out what happened in Nomax’s life. There’s a data bullet lodged in the annihilator’s brain which corresponds to the inoperable brain tumour in Spass’. It doesn’t quite get to the level of Morrisony weirdness that it could, which is a bit disappointing and it’s kind of (extremely) wanky but it’s pretty.
Roughneck by Jeff Lemire is, like his classic Essex County, a story featuring a hockey player. Derek Ouellette had a stint with the Rangers where he was aviolent goon, and now he lives in a small shitty town in northern Ontario working at a diner and beating people up. When his sister comes to town to get away from a terrible boyfriend things change. Sort of.
What I love about this story is its handling of violence. It’s not a hugely complicated story, but the resolution shows exactly the kind of earned change I want to see in fiction.
The thing I feel weirdest about this book is that Jeff Lemire is a white guy telling stories about indigenous people. In this article he says:
“For me, these were a way to educate myself, that’s what it comes down to. And I hope my experiences up there allowed me to create something and reflect what I saw and show other people.”
For me that makes sense, but like Lemire I need to work out my thoughts in writing and I’m not from a community that has my story told for me, so I’m kind of primed to be sympathetic. I understand that it’s shitty to have white dudes in all these spaces. Don’t read white people’s writing about indigenous people: read (and pay) indigenous people telling their own stories. If you like comics a good anthology for finding some new creators would be Moonshot (here’s an article with some blurbs and examples of artists featured in that book, and Moonshot vol. 2 should be coming out soon).
But as far as Roughneck goes I do like this specific story, even if it’s a symptom of greater terribleness in the world.
In my general “trying to read more nonfiction” project of this year, I got kind of a freebie: October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville. A freebie, because I’m going to read a new China Miéville book pretty much regardless of what it’s about. That it’s about a moment in history I didn’t know in any great detail, and it’s now a time in my life when I’m trying to understand a bit more about politics and history is a good coincidence.
Miéville is a writer whose sentences I enjoy and this book benefits from him being good with narrative. Each chapter covers a month between February and October 1917 (with a pre- and post- chapter bookending them) and follows the activists and reactionaries who are doing things. There were a lot of things going on in Petrograd at that time. I’d had no idea how much stuff happened between the abdication of the tsar and the Bolsheviks finally assuming power. Yup. A lot of stuff happened.
Probably not as scholarly a treatment as the sources in its works cited, but I know a bit more about history now, without feeling like I was slogging through a dry text. It also didn’t overdramatize things and felt well-researched (though he does say in the afterword that he was relying on works in English, not primary sources). I do prefer Miéville novels though, since I really enjoy his shaping of the reality in the pages rather than simply (though evocatively) reporting on things.