Book Review: Less,  Andrew Sean Greer

Book Review: Less,  Andrew Sean Greer

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Fiction: Less,  Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is about to turn 50, and his life is a mess. His longtime boyfriend Freddy is getting married to Tom and his publisher has turned down his latest novel. So, to avoid going to the wedding and to ignore his 50th birthday, Arthur plans a trip around the world. This is the premise for Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Less.

 

Less is a funny, bizarre, quirky novel about a trip that does not quite go as planned. Arthur is a so-so novelist with books that have barely made a ripple in the world’s awareness. He is most noted for being the former lover of a famous poet, though his own work has gathered a bit of a following in translation (which, he admits, is likely more due to the gifts of the translator than due to his own writing). However, he does get the occasional odd invitation: a poetry symposium in Mexico, a prize ceremony in Italy, a teaching assignment in Berlin, a writing assignment in Japan. When you don’t want to turn 50 alone in your home in San Francisco, and you CERTAINLY don’t want to go to your ex-lover’s wedding in Tahiti, you can string several of these together and voila! You have a most-expenses paid trip around the world.

 

I found myself with an interesting set of mixed emotions reading Less. In many ways, the protagonist and I are very different. He is gay, promiscuous, and friends with famous literary figures. I am straight, married, and my friends have not yet attained the level of fame they deserve. He is traveling around the world, and my last trip out of the US was almost 40 years ago. Yet throughout the book I found myself nodding in recognition at our shared journey. I am 52, so very recently went through the same numeric passage facing Less during his trip. The physical changes wrought by middle age are all too familiar, as are the emotions as you realize that your first 50 years did not go according to the script you thought you were writing–and you likely don’t have another 50 years to rewrite the story. Less may be “about” a gay man’s trip around the world, but it is so much more. It is about every man’s (every person’s?) trip through life, as embodied by a strange, sometimes clueless, protagonist.

 

Throughout the book, Less muses on his life. His relationships with the two men he spent years with. His frenemies who seem to both understand him better than he understands himself, and who do not know him at all. His work as a writer. His family, including a father who tried desperately to raise a “straight” son by taking him camping and other outdoorsy pastimes. The nature of love. Aging. And travel itself. His musings are often funny, often poignant, sometimes filled with self-awareness and self-discovery, and sometimes completely clueless.

 

In his trip, Less is given some interesting advice. One person encourages him to get fat. She also advises him to give up on love. Another person informs him that he is a “bad gay.” Less finds lovers in Paris and Berlin, though it’s fair to say he does not find love. He buys a tailored suit in one country, loses a (different) tailored suit in another country, and finally loses all of his luggage, returning home with only the suit he purchased. All of these incidents and so many more are told with whimsy, compassion, and amusement by a narrator who clearly adores Less, quirks and peculiarities and all. When the identity of the narrator is revealed at the end of the novel, it is not entirely a surprise. It is, though, a delight.

 

By the end of the novel, Arthur Less has changed. He knows himself better. He has found his writing voice again. He is ready for the next stage in his life. The journey to finding himself may have taken him around the world. But the journey within was much longer. Less is a novel that definitely gives the reader more. I highly recommend it.

 

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Book Review: Less, Andrew Sean Greer

Book Review: Music of the Ghosts, Vaddey Ratner

Book Review: Music of the GhostsVaddey Ratner

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Fiction: Music of the GhostsVaddey Ratner

 

Vaddey Ratner calls her second novel, Music of the Ghosts, “a story of survivors.” It is a deep, thoughtful, heartfelt story of two people whose journey to escape the killing fields of Cambodia is still fraught with danger and tragedy, even decades after the regime was overthrown.

 

Teera is a young woman who escaped Cambodia as a child with her aunt. They were the only two of a large extended family to survive. Teera’s aunt raised her and guided her through high school in Minnesota, college at Cornell, and then back again to Minnesota. Many years later, though, her aunt contracted cancer and died soon after the diagnosis. Among her dying wishes was for part of her ashes to be returned to Cambodia, to the temple in Phnom Penh she had helped raise money to rebuild. The building was dedicated to the memory of Teera’s father, a musician in pre-war Cambodia. More than a little lost after the death of this central person in her world, Teera returns to Cambodia to honor her aunt’s wishes…and to meet an old musician who has sent her a mysterious letter.

 

Tun remained in Cambodia after the war. He lost everyone and everything. One of the few who survived his imprisonment, he had been held with Teera’s father near the end of the war. Tun had also been a musician, and the two men were familiar with each other before the war. While they were imprisoned together, Teera’s father entrusted Tun with the location of three musical instruments he had made by hand. Although they were not of any particular value, they were literally the only things he had left, and he asked Tun to find his daughter and give them to her. Tun had returned to Phnom Penh many years after the war looking for any signs of his friend’s family–and found the temple. There, the broken and crippled man was given a home and the opportunity to play his music. Eventually, he managed to write Teera, telling her of the instruments and of his friendship with her father.

 

Shifting back and forth between these two characters, author Vaddey Ratner brings us into a Cambodia that still struggles with its past. Everyone who survived the Khmer Rouge period was a victim–but many of the victims were also victimizers. Tun started the war as a soldier for the Khmer Rouge. During one of the purges, though, his loyalty was questioned. His daughter was raped and murdered, and he was thrown into prison. Under torture he gave up names of people he knew. Some of those people were subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Whether this was because he gave up their names or not is unknowable–the “Organization” was arresting and killing people under any pretext, so it’s quite possible the names he gave were given up by other people as well, or that they would have been captured for other reasons. But the guilt he feels is real.

 

This is a reality for the actual Cambodia as well. What do you do with people who fought in the war? Most of the soldiers who fought against the Khmer Rouge were killed. But many of those who fought for the Khmer Rouge were killed or imprisoned and tortured by the regime itself. Should those people be held accountable for bringing Pol Pot to power? Or was their own experience at his hands enough punishment? Tun is physically and mentally shattered after the war. His family is dead, his body is broken, and his mind is haunted by his crimes. Yet he feels that he should be held more accountable. Ratner ultimately leaves that to the reader to judge.

 

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Book Review: Music of the GhostsVaddey Ratner

 

Book Review: Metatropolis, Edited by John Scalzi

Book Review: MetatropolisEdited by John Scalzi

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Science Fiction: MetatropolisEdited by John Scalzi

 

Imagine a future where cities are built on the remnants of the cities we know. Portland/Seattle/Vancouver have merged to become “Cascadia.” These meta cities transcend national boundaries and have cultures, alliances, and citizenships of their own, sometimes coming at the expense of the surrounding countryside that used to support their previous iterations.

 

This is the world that John Scalzi and four other science fiction authors have imagined in Metatropolis. No longer are people American, or Canadian, or Chinese, or Swedish. Rather, they are part of the larger and pan-national metatropolis, or they are not. Citizens of, say, St. Louis, can travel without need for passport to Hong Kong or Stockholm or Cascadia. Travel to geographically nearby St. Charles, Missouri, is much more problematic. Technology has divided these green cities from the “wilds” surrounding them, and a private corporate police force (or other militia) enforces the separation of the people within from those without.

 

Metatropolis is an anthology, five stories by five authors, set in a single “world,” but very different in their approach. Jay Lake introduces us to Cascadia, structurally overlaid on the Pacific Northwest, struggling to both create a new utopia and escape from corporate and nationalistic interests that would bring it back to the carbon-using heritage it rejected. Lake’s “city” is both anarchic and rigid, both urban and agrarian, high-tech afraid to show up on the grid. Tobias S. Buckell writes of a Detroit that ultimately moves to reject cars. Elizabeth Bear also looks at Detroit, at a community within the community that finds trust and interdependence are essential to life in this new world. John Scalzi moves us to St. Louis, where placement exams determine your role within the city and refusal to conform means banishment to the wilds that have replaced former suburbs. And Karl Schroeder takes us to Europe and to a new, virtual reality that is looking to replace the metatropolis, perhaps at the expense of everyone not part of the experiment.

 

Anthologies bring both strengths and weaknesses to a world. They bring different perspectives. None of the authors see the world (either ours or the one they’ve created) the same way, which creates both a fullness that would be impossible from a single writer and certain inconsistencies that would not be permissible in a tighter narrative. They are five distinct stories. It is possible they happen consecutively, but that is not required by the format nor spelled out within the narratives. There is no specific relationship between the stories, other than they all take place in the same general landscape. No characters move from one story to another. Even the two stories set in “Detroit” make no direct mention of each other, except for a brief and oblique reference in one to an event that occurred in the other. Frankly, were the stories not in the same book, I would not have necessarily recognized that they were set in the same world. Even the shared names (e.g., Cascadia) barely acknowledge any relationship among the stories. These are five solid individual stories, but their differences are more noticeable than their common heritage.

 

Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable in court. Having five writers tell us their vision of the same world gives us both larger picture and and occasionally a disjointed and even contradictory picture. It is not my usual cup of tea, but it makes for a nice change of pace from the usual novel.

 

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Book Review: MetatropolisEdited by John Scalzi

Book Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner

Book Review: In the Shadow of the BanyanVaddey Ratner

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Historical Fiction: In the Shadow of the BanyanVaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a beautiful, haunting, exquisite story that will live in my heart for a long, long time. “War entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his.” Gripping the reader from that first sentence, Vaddey Ratner takes us back to 1970s Cambodia. Told from the perspective of seven-year old Raami, we follow her family from their home in Phnom Penh to exile in the countryside and then from exile to forced labor. It is a story of survival more than triumph, and not everyone in her family survives.

 

The Khmer Rouge killed hundreds of thousands of their own people. Some estimates are over two million deaths during their four-year rule. Many were executed for supporting the former regime. Many more were worked to death or died of starvation in forced labor camps. Others became sick and died from inadequate or non-existent medical care. Raami is witness to every form of death and atrocity visited by the “Organization,” the term the regime used to describe itself. She herself is forced to labor, prohibited from going to school, taught to forget her past and serve the revolution. Although she holds onto the memories of her childhood including the poems and stories of her father, her spirit and her body are brutalized by misuse.

 

Yet, Raami is resilient. In the face of death, abuse, loss, illness, forced labor, and every other imaginable horror visited on her and her family, she continues. Despite there being no reason to hope, Raami lives. Despite every reason to lose her ability to love, Raami loves. As much as it is the story of one little girl, In the Shadow of the Banyan is the story of the Cambodian people. Brutalized and forsaken, both she and they survived.

 

There was a time, not too many years ago, when America was a place of hope for refugees and other victims of brutal regimes. Author Vaddey Ratner was a little girl in the “killing fields” of Cambodia. She, like her character, survived those days and came to America. Ratner arrived as a refugee in 1981 not knowing English. In 1990, she graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and went to Cornell, where she graduated summa cum laude. In these days when this country seems to have strayed from that vision of being a country of immigrants, perhaps this book can remind us why an America that stands for freedom for the oppressed and hope for the persecuted is so important.

 

Ratner may have arrived not knowing English, but she has become a master of the language. Her prose is achingly beautiful. She spends paragraphs describing rain, then compares that rain to the sorrow expressed by her mother. One character tells the story behind his shaved head and his scars, describing in detail how he obtained those scars to save his family–and how it ultimately did not matter. Ratner weaves Cambodian folk tales into the story through poetic retellings by Raami’s father and through more traditional stories told by peasants and servants Raami meets. These details bring light to the darkness of the story.

 

In the Shadow of the Banyan may be told from a child’s perspective, but it is not a children’s book. It is a book about the loss of childhood, the loss of an entire generation’s childhood, the loss of an entire nation’s innocence. It is also a book about resilience and hope. Ratner reminds us that the most desperate people can embody grace and empathy. Hopefully, she reminds us that the most blessed people can do the same.

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Book Review: In the Shadow of the BanyanVaddey Ratner

Book Review: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate Bowler

Book Review: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve LovedKate Bowler

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Nonfiction: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve LovedKate Bowler

 

You’ve heard someone say this to you, usually in a dark and difficult time. “Everything happens for a reason.” You may have said it to people. As someone who has lost parents, who has fought depression, who has a loved one with cancer, who has wrestled with questions of life and death for decades, let me say very plainly: that is a horrible thing to say to someone. Perhaps it brought you some measure of peace when someone said it to you. Good. For others, though, being told that a higher power wanted their child to die or their husband to get cancer or their rape to take place for a reason is disgusting.

 

Kate Bowler’s very personal book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved tells the story of her first year living with cancer. Bowler was a newly minted Ph.D. with a position at Duke Divinity School, and after years of trying she and her husband had just welcomed their first baby, Zac. A few months after giving birth, she received the news that she had stage 4 colon cancer. The prognosis was grim–few people live even a full year after that diagnosis.

 

Bowler discusses frankly her reactions of anger, sadness, and fear. It is a story full of love. She and her husband come from very supportive families. They were childhood sweethearts in Canada, and immediately parents and siblings rallied together to take care of her and her family. Her husband was there for her, and her “family” at Duke Divinity School also came through for her. Friends from high school and beyond came to be with her. Even with all that support, though, the emotions were overwhelming. Confronting death, especially one as painful and cruel as cancer, shatters a person. Facing that diagnosis with a newborn, thinking you will never see him walk or talk or go to school or any other milestone parents treasure…well, hopefully few of us will ever confront anything like that.

 

Woven through the book is her faith. Bowler is a Christian, teaches in a divinity school, and has a Ph.D. in church history. Her expertise is on the prosperity gospel in America. She spends a lot of time in prosperity gospel churches, churches where a tenet of faith is that God only blesses. Need money? Ask and He will give. Wealth and health and all good things are a natural result of faith. The opposite is true as well: if you are lacking in health or wealth or any good thing, that is a clear sign that your faith is lacking. Somehow, you are to blame. Get rid of your sin, increase your faith, turn to God, and presto! Although this is not Bowler’s own faith tradition, she realized while going through this that she had been at least somewhat affected by this doctrine. Suddenly, though, the easy answers and the trite responses were no longer adequate. “Everything happens for a reason” sounds reassuring, until you are the one facing death, you are the one facing cancer, you are the one facing a future without you in it. What “reason” makes sense in those circumstances? What “reason” gives hope or restores your spirit or nourishes your soul? Most of the reasons people offer in those circumstances make God sound capricious and cruel. They make no sense when you consider evil people who get to live full lives and play with their grandchildren and die in their sleep.

 

Bowler teaches at a divinity school, but she does not consider herself a theologian or a pastor. Rather, she is a person of faith, a student of faith traditions, but most of all she is a person with cancer, a mother and wife trying to prepare her family for a future without her in it, a Christian clinging as tightly as possible to the Christ who suffered on the cross and who promised to be with those who are suffering. She is open with her struggles, her anger, her disappointment, her resentment. She prays. She swears. (She gives up “not swearing” for Lent one year.) Her honesty is raw and courageous and painful. And at the end of the year…well, she’s alive. She beat the odds. There are no guarantees, but she has gotten more time than she was told to expect. And we have gotten a book that affirms life in the face of death as powerfully as anything I have read in years.

 

Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved does not try to explain why Kate Bowler or anyone else suffers. But it does remind us that we are not alone. Whether we look to a higher power or whether we rely on a more earthly community, suffering is not unique to any person. That is not a reason “why,” but it may be the reason why we keep going despite our suffering.

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Book Review: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve LovedKate Bowler

Author Spotlight: Richard Bach

Author Spotlight: Richard Bach

Happy Birthday, Richard Bach, June 23

Quote: Richard Bach, “Fly free and happy beyond birthdays and across forever, and we’ll meet now and then when we wish, in the midst of the one celebration that never can end.”

 

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Richard Bach’s best known work is without a doubt Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Even though Jonathan Livingston Seagull was published as an adult book in the 70’s, my uncle and aunt gave it to me for my 10th birthday. I adored the story of a seagull’s stubborn pursuit in the joy of flying and took to doodling seagulls in flight for years down the margins of notebooks and homework. Jonathan Livingston Seagull truly fits the definition of a picture book — where both the text and pictures interact to tell the story together.

 

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Although, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, was my personal favorite growing up, indubitably, his Ferret Chronicles made the most impact on my family as a whole. The Ferret Chronicles is the sort of book series that should come with large warning labels and wrapped in caution tape. After reading the series to my children, son #1 asked for a pet ferret and wasn’t sidetracked from the idea even after I demanded an essay on the care of ferrets researched in our local library. And those critters lived for a long time, from the time my oldest was in elementary school till he was in high school.

The books in the Ferret Chronicles were favorite read-alouds when our boys were growing up. Son #2 appropriated the family copies of the Ferret Chronicles books for his forever bookshelf – those books he re-visits and re-reads like old friends. These books make for great shared reading for elementary aged children.

We gave our extended family the first book in the series, Rescue Ferrets at Sea, as Christmas gifts the year it came out because the ferrets as coast guard sailors were probably the closest to a book we’ve encountered about the Coast Guard. (This was a big deal to our family because my mom worked as the civilian personal officer on Governor’s Island a Coast Guard base in New York City’s harbor for many years before the base was closed.) Although, Rescue Ferrets at Sea, will probably be our all-time favorite Richard Bach book, the rest of the series is a fun romp that’s a mix of fairy tale and modern parable. Ferrets are always the lead characters who have an adventure that leads to personal growth.

 

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Author Spotlight: Richard Bach

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mary Russell, Laurie King

Recipe & Review : Teatime with Mary Russell, Laurie R. King

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Mystery Series Review: Mary Russell Novels, Laurie R. King

Mary Russell is the leading character in Laurie King’s mystery series that takes place between World War I through the roaring 1920s. American raised 15 year old, Mary Russell meets the retired detective Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs one day and they create a unique relationship that grows from mentor-protege to friends to an equal partnership as the series moves forward in time. Mary Russell is a match for Holmes with her keen observational skills, a logical mind with the ability to deduce as quickly as Holmes himself, and an independent spirit with a compassionate and loyal heart. For most of the series, Mary Russell is an academic from Oxford, studying both the Talmud and chemistry; and Holmes has no issues dragging her from the library or lab into an assortment of adventures.

The series itself is suppose to be the personal writings of Mary Russell, mysteriously gifted to the author, in order to create a memoir of Holmes’ later years and the Russell – Holmes partnership. Therefore, the majority of the series stories are told from the perspective of Mary Russell that include personal reflections on the narrative as reminisces that point out youthful folly or include hidden background information.  The characters, interactions, and dialog of Russell and Holmes truly belong to King, even though, Holmes was clearly grown from the cannon of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle even makes cameo appearances through out the series as well as other fictional and historical characters. In The Moor, Russell and Holmes return to the Dartmoor setting of The Hound of Baskerville to solve a case for the historical figure of Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould. In The Game, the partners work with the adult Kim from Rudyard Kipling’s work. In addition, Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft Holmes, and Dr. Watson also appear in the series. The historical detail in each novel make it easy to slide into the period, not only the outward setting of clothes and daily details, but the also the more nuanced social norms and interpersonal manners.

As with many multiple volume series written over a large span of time (first book in 1994 and still going strong), the best starting point is the first novel, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. King was already an accomplished writer at the start of the series and the craftsmanship in her writing has maintained its high quality throughout the series. With the first book starting with Mary Russell as a teenager, this series is very approachable to readers in middle or high school. The first book could easily be classified as a Young Adult coming of age novel.

As an academic or detective, Mary Russell needs a heartier tea like an Assam black tea from India or an English Breakfast blend to get her through both late night study sessions or trailing clues across the country. Likewise, if you can get her to stop and eat, a savory scone or filling sandwich would be needed to refuel her energy level for the next chase and plot twist in a case.

Savory Cheese Scones

  • 2 cups self rising flour
  • 6 TBS cold butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 cup grated or chopped extra sharp cheddar cheese
  • 3 TBS crushed french fried onions
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/3 cup milk, cream, sour cream, greek yogurt, or ricotta cheese
  • Optional: smoked paprika for garnish
  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease a baking sheet, or line it with parchment.
  2. In a food processor, pulse the flour and butter  to make an unevenly crumbly mixture.
  3. Add the cheese and onion, and pulse till cheese is just coated with flour.
  4. Add the eggs and dairy of your choice; pulse just until everything is evenly moistened; the dough will be very sticky.
  5. Spray an ice cream scoop with pan release; then portion scones (about 12) on the baking sheet, pat the tops to flatten lightly. Sprinkle with smoked paprika.
  6. Bake the scones for approximately 20 minutes. Remove them from the oven, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Chicken Curry Tea Sandwiches

  • 2 cups rotisserie chicken breast shredded or 13oz can chicken  
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped pecans
  • 1 tart green apple (like granny smith or crispin), finely chopped 
  • Salt & pepper to taste (optional, depends on how much curry you use)
  • ¼ cup dried sweetened cranberries
  • Vidalia onion vinaigrette/salad dressing or a light mayonnaise based salad dressing (enough to moisten, so the salad will hold together, but not be runny)
  • Curry powder or paste to taste (if using paste, warm in microwave oven for easier mixing)
  • half a loaf soft whole wheat bread or brioche buns
  • unsalted butter, room temperature
  1. In a large bowl, break the chicken into flakes.   Combine with nuts, apple, cranberries, and onion; stir until well blended. Add curry powder or paste and salt & pepper.
  2. Spread one side of each piece of bread lightly with butter, and go all the way to the edges. Top the buttered side of bread with some of the chicken mixture and top with the remaining bread slices, buttered side down.
  3. Carefully cut the crusts from each sandwich with a serrated knife. Cut the sandwiches into quarters. Yields about 4 whole sandwiches or 8 halves or 16 fourths.

 

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Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mary Russell, Laurie R. King

Also see —

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mitford Books, Jan Karon

Recipe & Review: Teatime with China Bayles, Susan Wittig Albert

Recipe & Review: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

Book Review: The Hellfire Club, Jake Tapper

Book Review: The Hellfire ClubJake Tapper

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Fiction: The Hellfire ClubJake Tapper

Friday, March 5th, 1954. A young freshman congressman wakes up from a drunken stupor lying in the bottom of a ravine in Washington’s Rock Creek Park. Nearby is a crashed Studebaker…and the body of a young woman. So begins the story of The Hellfire Club, Jake Tapper’s first novel, but hopefully not his last.

 

Jake Tapper is a leading correspondent and analyst for CNN’s Washington DC bureau. As such, he has seen the inner workings of modern Washington firsthand. In his debut novel, though, he turns his attention to an earlier era, the 1950s. Ike Eisenhower is president, Jack and Robert Kennedy are rising young stars, and Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn are headlining the news on a daily basis with their hearings on “the Red menace.” Tapper may not have been alive to cover Washington during that time, but he brings a journalist’s eye and a storyteller’s art to bring the time to life in this book.

 

The Hellfire Club is a private, invitation only, club that is one of several such secret societies in Washington. It is so secret, in fact, that few know about it and even fewer will talk about it. There, barons of industry socialize with political leaders from both sides of the aisle. Deals are done, sins are shared, reputations are made and destroyed, and the real power in Washington is exercised. First-term congressman Charlie Marder gets swept up in this world before he knows what’s happening. His exemplary service as an Army captain in WWII Europe and his career as an academic at Columbia have failed to fully prepare him for the battle lines in Congress. Enemies masquerade as friends, true friends are hard to find, and successes become failures with the stroke of a pen. Even the strongest of relationships are tested in this kind of turbulence.

 

Charlie’s wife, Margaret, is an academic herself. A zoologist, she is much more familiar with the workings of nature than of politics. Wild horses could drag her away–and they do. She leaves Washington to participate in a study of wild horses on islands off the coast of Maryland. This leaves Charlie alone in Washington. There, he finds that the taste of power and the pressures of the job lead to compromises he never expected to make, and he finds that he is not entirely the person he believed himself to be.

 

Charlie and Margaret are wonderful characters. Neither are saints. Both make mistakes. Their journey together and their recognition of the other’s failings and strengths makes for a powerful story arc. There are times in the book when neither of them is particularly likable. Yet, by the end, I was cheering for each of them and for their relationship to make it. Any long marriage will face struggles–though most of us don’t have to confront the temptations or the threats that walk the halls of Congress. Charlie discovers that he is not the same person without Margaret. He needs her to be his best self–and that humility guides him (and them) through the powerful conclusion of The Hellfire Club.

 

Tapper brings the transitions of the 1950s powerfully to life. It is easy to look back and gloss over the Eisenhower era as one of peace and stability. In fact, the dramatic transformations of the 1960s were already taking root in the previous decade. Black veterans were being elected to Congress–in very small numbers–but they were not allowed any real power. Women were seldom seen in any leadership roles. Mostly they were used by men in power as toys. Sexual abuse was not only tolerated but expected. Yet the book hints at the changes that were brewing. Margaret Marder has a career, one she intends to pursue even while her husband is in Congress and even while she is pregnant. Charlie’s one true friend throughout the book is Isaiah Street, an African American congressman from Chicago. These relationships help him survive the challenges facing him. Beyond their value to the story, though, Margaret and Isaiah help us remember how far we’ve come in such a relatively short time.

 

Tapper makes 1950s Washington come to life in The Hellfire Club. Within the first 50 pages we have appearances by the Kennedys, the Nixons, Lyndon Johnson, and other power players from history. It may be a book of fiction, but Tapper weaves actual historical figures into the narrative, along with actual events (such as a shooting in the Capitol by Puerto Rican separatists), to make it feel like we’re reading about actual intrigues and cover ups. The Hellfire Club may be a dangerous club to join, but it’s a wonderful book to read.

 

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Book Review: The Hellfire ClubJake Tapper

Book Review: The Android’s Dream, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Android’s DreamJohn Scalzi

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Science Fiction: The Android’s DreamJohn Scalzi

I will admit it. Part of me is still 13 years old. It probably always will be. So when a book’s opening chapter involves a complex plot to murder an alien trade negotiator using provocatively scented flatulence to send coded messages, messages understood by the negotiator as questioning his virility, I could not help but laugh. Loudly. As I said, part of me will always be 13.

 

The Android’s Dream may be the funniest science fiction book I have read in a decade. Written in 2006, I am so sorry that I was not aware of it years ago. It has the trappings of serious sci-fi. An alien race, nominally aligned with the earth, is facing a succession crisis. Part of the succession plan for the ruling clan involves the sacrifice of a sheep, a sheep specially genetically designed for the ruling clan by biologists on earth (a result of a previous treaty between earth and this planet’s rulers). However, all of the sheep on the alien planet succumbed to an illness, so the original line is only available on earth. And someone is killing those sheep.

 

Harry Creek is a low level state department employee, but he is much more than that. A computer prodigy, he won the Westinghouse Science Award as a teenager. A war hero, he single-handedly saved the few members of his battalion who were not wiped out in a pivotal battle. Back on earth, he just wants to live a quiet life. When he is asked to try to find the sheep for the government, he traces their DNA to a very unlikely source: Robin Baker, a young woman who owns a pet store near Washington, DC. What follows is a combination of humor and hijinks that send Harry and Robin from a shopping mall to an interstellar cruise ship to the halls of power on the planet Nidu. All of Harry’s formidable skills are needed to keep Robin and himself alive and one step ahead of their adversaries.

 

Scalzi is hilarious. He introduces us to characters like Takk, an alien on a religious quest to experience sin, who occasionally eats people when his job requires it (were he not on a quest to experience sin, that sort of thing would be too sinful to contemplate). We meet Chet, whose job it is to monitor a play space in the mall (it uses an anti-grav generator that requires the use of special shoes) and who lives to regret giving those special shoes to Harry and Robin before they get into the play space. A computer possessed of a human consciousness (uploaded upon the person’s death) realizes just how horny she is. These are not the usual tropes in science fiction, and they make for some laugh out loud moments throughout the story.

 

And, because it’s John Scalzi, we are asked to consider some deeper questions. What are the ethics involved in genetic manipulation? Is a computer with a human consciousness a sentient being? Do the rights of individuals trump the needs of a planet? With his usual deft touch, Scalzi presents the dilemmas without being heavy handed or dogmatic. His characters find their own answers, but seldom does he leave us thinking that their answers were the only possible right answers.

 

Science fiction as a genre has long been marginalized, not considered worthy of serious consideration by literary critics. Frankly, this is ridiculous, and says more about the critics than it does the genre. Any who still hold this prejudice should be silenced by two words: Margaret Atwood. The Android’s Dream is not a literary classic, but it is a delightful work by an author who himself is creating great books that belie that stigma. Even in a book that is comedic and lighthearted, Scalzi tackles deep, current issues of identity and ethics. He might be playing in The Android’s Dream, but he is playing with grownup toys in the grownup’s playground. And he proves with each new chapter that he belongs.

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Book Review: The Android’s DreamJohn Scalzi

Also see

Book Review: Redshirts, John Scalzi

Book Review: Lock In, John Scalzi

Also read Head On: A Novel of the Near Future (Lock in) — the next book in the series.

Book Review: The Future of Humanity, Michio Kaku

Book Review: The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond EarthMichio Kaku

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Nonfiction Science: The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond EarthMichio Kaku

You cannot avoid physicist Michio Kaku if you watch science shows on TV. Nor would you want to. He has hosted or guest starred on programs for Discovery Channel, Science Channel, BBC, PBS, and other networks, sharing his expertise on physics, string theory, and other scientific disciplines. Well known for popularizing these challenging subjects, Kaku is also a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York. (Probably unrelated to his brilliance or his fame, I would argue he also sports one of the most distinctive heads of hair in science since Einstein, but that may just be follicular envy on my part.)

 

His 2018 book The Future of Humanity explores the possibilities of humans leaving earth to colonize other planets. Clearly written for an audience with one foot in science and one foot in science fiction, Kaku has a breezy style that is easy to read and carries you along. He quotes from theoretical physicists and NASA astronomers, then switches effortlessly to recaps of Star Trek episodes and references to visionary works by Jules Verne and Olaf Stapledon, among others. He looks at both the possibilities and the pitfalls of living beyond our comfortable planet. Could we survive long-term in an environment we were not evolved for? Could we “terraform” another planet? What would it take to make Mars (or any other planet) livable? What are the possibilities and potentials beyond our solar system? How could we get there? Is there intelligent life beyond our solar system? If so, could we coexist? Could we even communicate?

 

Kaku’s The Future of Humanity also looks at colonizing space through unexpected means. If we find that the speed of light is indeed insurmountable (which is a depressing implication of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity), can we send multi-generational ships? If so, how could we guarantee that those great-grandchildren of the pioneers were willing and able to colonize a new planet when they arrived? What are the ethics of sending, say, 200 people from earth who would give birth to children that would live and die on board a ship, and expect that some 250 years later their descendants would be expected to colonize a world they likely knew little to nothing about? What kind of governance would be required to assure the ship-dwellers neither had too many, nor too few, children? Kaku may be a physicist, but his questions and explorations are deeply rooted in a very humanistic ethic. What if we were able to extend life indefinitely–would a 250-year journey be worth making if we lived 1000 years? Or, what if we could upload our consciousness to a machine which would make the journey? Or genetically modify our descendants to live in inhospitable environments? What would it mean to humanity if our galactic descendants no longer looked like us physically–or were no longer even made of the same organic stuff that we consider essential to life?

 

The Future of Humanity definitely walks the line between science fact and science fiction. It does clearly show where science is right now. If we were to try to colonize Mars tomorrow, we would likely fail. Fifty years from now? It is quite likely the tools will be available. Whether the will and the money will be available is a much dicier proposition, and Kaku acknowledges that. But insert enough time, enough scientific progress, and enough environmental pressure on earth from climate change and overpopulation, and the equation may change. Mars may look very attractive in 200 years when compared to a polluted, crowded, hotter earth. Kaku is not necessarily a pessimist, though, when it comes to earth. He acknowledges that birth rates are slowing, that there are reasons to hope for a cleaner tomorrow, and that climate change has uncertain consequences. Earth itself may not be such a bad place in 200 years. And his vision of an inhabitable solar system relies heavily on technologies that are little more than dreams in visionaries’ minds. For a book of scientific fact, there is a significant amount of hopeful speculation. Someday we might look back at this book in amazement at the technological breakthroughs it foresaw. Or, as we did in 2015, we may be asking ourselves why “Back to the Future” hoverboards aren’t parked in our garages.

 

Science can be both hopeful and hopeless. Kaku’s book envisions a very hopeful future, one where we colonize first the solar system and then the galaxy, one where humanity has a future in the stars for even millions of years. Eventually, though, it will all end. Science is divided on whether it all ends with the galaxy collapsing upon itself in a spectacular reversal of the “big bang,” or whether it ends with the second law of thermodynamics winning and everything just running out of energy and freezing, but either way we may only have several billion years left to prepare ourselves for our eventual end. Somehow, though, even though our earth may burn up in an expanding sun sometime around 5 billion years from now, and even though the universe as a whole will end some unknown billion years after that, Kaku seems to find reasons to hope that humanity has a bright future among the stars.

 

Leave it to a theoretical physicist to remind us that the universe will eventually end. At least, though, we have still some time to prepare for that.

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Book Review: The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond EarthMichio Kaku