Thursday, March 23, 2017

Rhats!, by Kerry Nietz

Kerry Nietz's book Rhats! A Takamo Universe Novella is my first expedition into the Takamo Universe.  For the uninitiated, Takamo Universe was a play-by-mail game that has now evolved into a web-based multi-player adventure game.  I know nothing about such things.  But I do know that a couple of my favorite sci-fi authors are now writing stories based in the Takamo Universe.

In Rhats!, Nietz follows the adventures of Frohic, young muto, or rhat, from a sentient species which, to another race that mutos call Uman, look much like rodents.  Mutos are known for their scavenging skills; in fact, their entire economy is based on scavenging.  Frohic ends up, rather against his will, on a scavenging ship run by Umans.  His tale (no pun intended. . . mutos have tails of course) reminded me of some of Heinlein's young adult stories: the kid who goes into space for the first time, facing conflict, seeking out a mentor, coming of age and become a man (or a grown-up muto).

This is book 4 of the Takamo Universe.  I will be interested to read some of the others to see how the mutos and their world fit in among other stories and worlds.  Nietz is in his element, with the tech, the world-building, and even some hints of spiritual themes (that I hope he can expand upon in other stories).  Rhats! is an enjoyable stand-alone story, but hints at many more stories to come.

Thanks to Takamo publishing for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

Have you ever been on one of those scenic train rides where you take in some pretty scenery, maybe have a nice meal along the way, and enjoy the company of your fellow riders, but you just go in a loop and end up where you started?  It's a nice ride, but it doesn't really go anywhere.  That's how I felt about Becky Chambers's The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.  This is a fun, colorful, imaginative sci-fi novel, but the plot doesn't go anywhere.  The good news is, even though it was going nowhere, I enjoyed the ride.

The crew of the Wayfarer, a tunneling ship that bores holes through the fabric of space, is made up of a rag-tag bunch of characters from many corners of the galaxy.  They are essentially a road-building crew, creating new routes for space travel.  They have been hired for a potentially dangerous but extremely lucrative job to build a new route connecting a small, angry planet to the friendlier parts of the galaxy.  Since there's no route yet, it's a long way there.

Along the way, they have a few adventures, getting boarded by pirates, caught in a swarm of gigantic cricket-like creatures, and navigating the politics of the Galactic Commons.  Much of the story involves descriptions and histories of the various species and the social dynamics between the species in the crew.  Chambers demonstrates the open-mindedness of the crew by pairing up the characters in various inter-species relationships, including a tech who is in love with the ship's AI. 

While the mission to the small, angry planet gives a semblance of direction to the book, the various events and character development don't form much a story arc.  It almost feels like an origin story or the pilot of a TV series, where we are introduced to the characters with the promise of new adventures each week.  Chambers mixes standard sci-fi elements with original ideas, alien stereotypes with her own creations, and stock characters with fresh faces, giving The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet a familiar, yet refreshing, feel. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Hazard, by Margaret Combs

Margaret Combs's life was drastically changed when her little brother Roddy was born.  This is true for most older siblings, but for Combs's family, the change was more pronounced.  Her brother was different.  Some labelled him retarded.  At least one doctor diagnosed cerebral palsy.  But few people knew the term by which his condition came to be known: autism.  In the 1950s and 1960s, when Combs was growing up, ignorance reigned.  She and her family got by as best they could, but struggled with fitting Roddy into their lives and community.  Combs tells her story in Hazard: A Sister's Flight from Family and a Broken Boy.

Because of the ignorance of the time, teachers and doctors didn't really know what to do with Roddy.  At one point, he went half a school year in a class for deaf students before Combs's mother figured it out.  Combs writes, "my brother was a small but clear dot on one extreme end of the autism spectrum, the opposite end of high-functioning so-called Asperger's.  None of us knew the: not my parents, not even Roddy's teachers at the Wallace School for the Handicapped."

Combs captures her mother's depression and helplessness.  Parents of disabled children, even with the knowledge and support systems that are available today, often feel isolated, judged, and rejected.  Even more so a generation or two ago, when awareness and compassion were future hopes, and stigma and exclusion dominated.  In Combs's case, her parents were from Appalachia, "where belief prevailed that the kind of people who bred retarded children were low and uneducated, whose bad behavior and foul natures led to illness and plague, who were careless and unscrupulous, whose children were ignorant and soiled."  On a visit to Combs's parents' hometown, they encountered a severely disabled teenager, accompanied by his family who appeared to fit the above description to a T.  Combs's mother "was a born-again, devoutly Christian, clean, educated woman and, still, she had birthed a retarded child, just like this behemoth of a woman with her piteous boy."

This faith struggle defines Combs's understanding, as well as her mother's.  The difference is that her mother seems to come to grips with it, while Margaret completely rejects it.  I had hoped to hear more of a theological reflection from Combs, but she never gets beyond her childish faith, where she "believed what my parents had taught me: Jesus held the tickets to everlasting life and now that I was baptized, I had one in my hand."  That's a pretty accurate description of many young Christians' experience in Baptist churches.  But that's not the end of the Christian life; faith must become one's own.  In a church that emphasizes discipleship and Christian growth, childhood faith blossoms into mature adult faith.  But for Combs, Christian faith never became her own, and she "jettisoned Baptist dogma and, along with it, the idea of souls dwelling anywhere after death."

It makes me sad to hear stories of people leaving their faith like she did.  Certainly her parents had their weakness and cultural shortcomings, but I couldn't help but wonder if their shared faith and consistent church involvement played a role in the stability of their marriage, which lasted at least until the writing of this book.  Combs, on the other hand, left her faith behind, and married and divorced two different men of another faith.  Perhaps if she had internalized the fact that Easter was more than "celebrating the tortured death of a prophet" and celebrated that fact that Jesus' resurrection gives hope for all of us, her adult life and marital happiness would have turned out better.  (I am not judging her, simply recognizing the fact that couples who are involved in church together have lower divorce rates than the general population.)

Given the ostensible purpose of the book, I was also a bit disappointed in the limited amount of insight into disability.  I was hoping for a memoir about growing up with a sibling who had a disability.  Hazard is a memoir about a woman growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, with occasional references to her brother who has an intellectual disability.  At several points I lost interest as Combs's "writer's" pen took over her "storyteller's" pen, resulting in some nicely written passages or whole chapters that did little to advance the overall point of the memoir.  But I guess that's what memoirs tend to do.

On having someone with a disability in the family, there were a few thought-provoking and challenging statements.  As she observes her brother in middle age, she writes, "The truth about disability is that it lasts.  And it doesn't get better; it grows worse and more complicated with age."  Many families who have a disabled family member can relate to her statement that "Growing up with a disabled boy in a time of ignorance had wracked my family, crippling our rhythms and feeding our sense of shame."

Combs doesn't offer a lot of solace for parents and siblings of people with disabilities.  She does offer a point of reference for people to relate to, but if readers are seeking inspiration, guidance, or hope, they should keep looking.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Revolution for Dummies, by Bassem Youssef

Bassem Youssef became a media sensation in the wake of the Arab Spring in Egypt.  He started a YouTube program which expanded into a weekly TV show that became one of the most successful television shows of any kind in the Arab world.  His brand of political satire, which was inspired by his hero, the American satirist Jon Stewart, ruffled feathers on every side of the social, religious, and political scene in Egypt.  He writes about his rise from surgeon to TV star to exile in Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring.

The events and factions of the Arab Spring are mostly mysterious to Americans, so Youssef's narrative and explanations are welcome.  He acknowledges his own inadequacies, and refers the reader to boring scholarly books for a more historically accurate account.  He writes, "Let me give you some advice: if you think you are ever going to truly understand what is happening in the Middle East . . . stop!"  Still, as he tells his perspective, a clearer picture of this period in Egyptian history comes into view.

Since Youssef came to fame as a political satirist, I expected this book to be funny.  He gets in a couple of good one-liners, like "This is how you know you are in an Arab country: you are either stuck in a revolution or in traffic."  But other than a couple of zingers, it wasn't funny.  Not at all.  I'm guessing his show was much funnier.

My overall impression of Youssef is that he is arrogant and unlikable.  He built his reputation on being a contrarian, calling out Egypt's changing constellation of leadership for their hypocrisy.  He does that, but the problem is that everyone who disagrees with him is an a--hole.  He claims to be Muslim, but I never heard a good statement of what that means to him.  To him, every Muslim leader in Egypt is hypocritical and power driven.  No matter who is in power, he opposes their every word.  That seems like an unprincipled, untenable way to live.

He lets his criticism spill over into American politics as well.  Trying to emulate his hero Jon Stewart, he tries to trump Stewart's anti-Trumpism.  But it comes off as artificial and overblown.  His attempts to equate Trump with Egyptian regimes that run over peacefully demonstrating civilians with tanks don't fly.  His comparisons of Fox News to the the Egyptian broadcasters who work hand-in-hand (or maybe hand-in-glove) with the government similarly fall flat.  If he wants to see examples of government and the news media working together, perhaps he should have paid more attention to the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Youssef, perhaps inadvertently, gives support to Trump's position on Islam.  He writes about that crazy YouTube movie that someone made about Mohammed.  (He buys Secretary of State Clinton's line that the attack on the Benghazi embassy was a reaction to the video.)  Muslims throughout the Arab world rioted, issued death threats, etc.  Youssef writes, "Isn't it a wonder that when people accuse Islam and its Prophet of being violent and extreme, the first reaction out of Muslims is violence and extremism?"  On Trump's immigration policies, Youssef says, "When Muslims worry about Trump becoming president and how he will deal with Muslims, they are just worried they will be treated the same way they treat non-Muslims in their countries.  Like sh--."

I would like to have read some reflections on political Islam from someone who is both a faithful Muslim and who is in favor of religious freedom and diversity.  I am in no position to judge Youssef, of course.  I have never met him.  But I feel like someone who so flagrantly displays his opposition to Muslim practices and theology is probably not a good representative of the faith.  E.g.: A sheik "proffered that freedom devoid of religious control would inevitably lead to sexual freedom and orgies happening in the streets (which sounds like heaven on earth to me)."

Instead we get a guy who wants to kiss up to liberal Americans by parroting anti-Trump, anti-Fox news one liners, who equates the political and religious cesspool that his country has turned into with the American political and religious atmosphere.  Sure, there are parallels.  He says that "radical Christians and radical Muslims are not that different," while failing to acknowledge the yawning chasm that exists between radical religionists in the U.S. and in the Arab world.  Again, I don't see Christian clergy crushing protestors in the streets of New York.

Youssef faced opposition and personal peril to himself and his family due to his outspoken political statements.  He gained a large following in Egypt, where there was no tradition to vocal opposition to the government.  For that, the recognition he has received for being an influential voice in his home country is warranted.  But as he tries to continue his caustic brand of commentary across the Atlantic the result is more screeching than substantial.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Come Be Wild With Me, by Kristen Maxwell, illustrated by Kevin Sabino

I spend way too much of my life indoors, and appreciate any call to get outside more.  In Kristen Maxwell's Come Be Wild With Me, she issues a call of the wild.  "Do this.  Do that.  Plug in.  Plug out.  That's not what life is all about!  Instead, let's get away, even if, just for a day."  Go deep into the woods, live off the land, commune with nature, commune with the animals.  In general, I love the message.

Kevin Sabino's illustrations add a unique look to the book.  They are a sort of gray scale watercolor with highlights in neon colors.  They look cool, but they are so far from the colors of nature that they look really unnatural.  (OK, some of them look like wildflowers, but the whole look is not natural looking.)

The main reason I don't particularly like this book is the fact that it is completely unrealistic.  Don't pack, and trade your clothes for leaves?  Don't worry about food, just eat berries and drink from a stream?  Dance with the animals?  Soar with the butterflies?  I love the call to get away from modern amenities and unwind in nature, but Maxwell and Sabino's vision is more silly and idealistic than practical and doable.

So, go be wild, but unlike what Maxwell offers, you should be prepared.  Be sure you bring water or a means of water purification.  Bring some food, and if you're going to eat wild berries be sure you have a knowledgable guide or a good reference so you don't eat berries that will make you sick.  Be kind and respectful to the animals, but, for the most part, don't expect them to be your buddies (especially large mammals).  Remember the sun will be your blanket and the breeze will be your A/C, but be prepared for temperate extremes; I don't want you to get hypothermia.  And if you're going to shed your clothes, wear sunscreen.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Meeting, by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris

These Fireside guys crack me up.  Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris's latest stroke of hilarity is The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Meeting.  If you have ever worked in an office, or ever been to a meeting, you will laugh out loud at their understated humor.  The Fireside books all follow the same model, a few short sentences on each page, accompanied by illustrations that look like they are from the 1950s.  It's a style reminiscent of an elementary reader from that era, teaching grown-ups about the world around them "by breaking down the complexity of grown-up life into easy-to-digest nuggets of information, and pairing them with colorful illustrations even a child could understand."

Some selections:
"Meetings are important because they give everyone a chance to talk about work.  Which is easier than doing it."
"Adam's life is being consumed, piece by tiny piece, while he pretends to care about faucets."  (Instead of faucets, insert your line of work.)
"Most of people at this meeting have nothing to say, but they say something anyway."
"Mr. Beverley is reading out a sixty-page document entitled 'The Paperless Office.'  Yesterday Mr. Beverley e-mailed the document to everyone and told them to read it before the meeting, which they all did.  Just in case, he hands everyone a printed copy."
"These important people are discussing workplace diversity."  (Pictured: a group of middle-aged, white males sitting around a table.)
This Fireside guide is a terrific parody of office foibles, meeting quirks, and the modern white-collar lifestyle.  It's pretty hilarious.  Check it out--and take it to your next meeting.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Colony in a Nation, by Chris Hayes

In a 1968 speech, Richard Nixon said that "Black Americans . . . do not want more government programs which perpetuate dependency.  They don't want to be a colony in a nation."  In his new book, A Colony in a Nation, author and MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes builds on that theme, specifically with respect to law enforcement.  He makes the argument that "American criminal justice isn't one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes."

Hayes writes extensively about his coverage of Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of Michael Brown's death, as well as his experiences growing up in New York.  As subsequent investigations found, Ferguson police had a long history of racial disparity and of milking the poorer, minority citizens of the city through spurious traffic stops and incidental fines, as well as treating black people in humiliating ways.  Sadly, this is the case in cities all over the country; it took the killing of a young man to bring it to light in Ferguson.  Hopefully other municipalities and police departments are reevaluating their policies and practices in light of the investigation in Ferguson.

I agree with Hayes that policing in many areas of the country is in dire need of reform.  But he draws the colonial parallels well past the point of ridiculous.  He compares the drug-dealing culture in our cities to colonists smuggling goods past British tax grabbers.  "Smuggling in the colonies was not so different from drug dealing in economically depressed neighborhoods and regions today. . . . Dealers, like smugglers, become institutions--the way, say, New Englanders viewed John Hancock in the years leading to the revolution."  So the dealer overseeing a network of crack dealers in downtown Philly is the same as John Hancock?  Got it.  (I do have some sympathy with Eric Garner's case.  Selling legal goods [cigarettes] illegally [individually] should not be an offense, much less a capital offense.)

OK, so Hayes has equated drug dealers with the tariff scofflaws who built our nation, thus justifying their illegal activities and perhaps recognizing them as forerunners of a coming--legitimate--revolution.  How about demonstrating that white, privileged, college kids are just as felonious, but are treated better than their inner-city, poor, minority counterparts?  Hayes, a graduate of Brown University, thinks it's just fine for Ivy Leaguers and other college kids to flaunt their lawlessness.  "Elite four-year schools are understood by almost everyone involved in them--parents, students, faculty, administrators--as places where young adults act out, experiment, and violate rules in all kinds of ways.  And that's more or less okay, or even more than okay; sometimes it's encouraged."  Not by me.  I know, I felt like a puritanical stick in the mud reading this portion of the book, and I'm sure I sound like one.

The larger  point that he makes--that campus disciplinary systems provide a parallel system of justice that insulates college kids from the consequences of their actions--is valid and important.  But his response is basically, "That's great, because kids can learn about all the wonderful vices of the world and be protected from inconvenient consequences like criminal records."  (That's not a quote of Hayes, but my interpretation of his response.)  He tells a story about sitting around smoking pot in the dorm, and when a campus cop came by, he just commented on their choice of music and said goodnight.  If a similar group of black kids was smoking pot in, say, someone's basement, and a cop came in, there probably would have been arrests or citations or something.  Hayes uses this discrepancy to excuse college students' behavior and call for similar leniency among the population at large.  I believe the conversation needs to be about enforcing laws among college kids.  If college police paid more attention to student criminality and substance abuse, perhaps colleges wouldn't have so many alcohol-related deaths and intra-student rapes.   Maybe he'll change his tune when his kids are about to go off to college.

Hayes is certainly right to argue that discrepancies in the enforcement and prosecution of crime, where they exist, need to be rectified.  Our prison system is testimony to the glaring fact that blacks are more likely to be jailed than whites.  An argument that higher imprisonment rates among blacks is solely explained by the fact that blacks commit more crimes than whites simply does not hold up.  As compelling and colorful as the colonial argument is, I don't believe it holds up to the level that Hayes wants it to.  There are too many black Americans who are thriving outside of what Hayes calls the Colony to argue that "our entire project for decades has been to keep [black people] there."  

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!