Friday, 25 November 2016

Tales of Ordinary Sadness, by Neil Randall

I just reviewed Neil Randall's short story collection, Tales of Ordinary Sadness, for Beatdom Literary Journal. Take a look here.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Currently Reading

I'm currently reading or about to read:

  • Neil Randall's Tales of Ordinary Sadness
  • Allen Ginsberg (ed. Bill Morgan)'s Best Minds of my Generation
  • Martin Torgoff's Bop Apocalypse 
  • Camilla Flojas's Zombies, Migrants, and Queers
  • Marvin Cohen's Others, Including Morstive Sternbump

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Half a World Away, by Alistair McGuinness

In Half a World Away: Jungle Tribes, African Guides, and a Donkey Called Angus, Alistair McGuinness invites his readers along for an unexpected traipse around the world with him and his wife, Fran. Following the closure of his car manufacturing plant in Luton, he is given a redundancy package, which he and Fran choose to spend travelling the world with their ultimate destination being a new life in Australia.

What follows is a trip around part of South America, a vast swath of Africa, and eventually to Australia, with a little excursion to Fiji in the middle. Alistair and Fran seem to be magnets for odd adventures, with Alistair often finding a way to get drunk or otherwise find trouble. He documents the comical characters they meet along the way, as well as the breathtaking scenery.

McGuinness is, for the most part, a very talented and engaging travel writer. His descriptions of the places he visited are wonderful. (I've been to many of them and his perceptions rather match my own.) However, I was suggest that he find a better editor. The narrative could be tightened somewhat to element weaker elements and thereby create a far stronger book. McGuinness is on his best form when describing amazing places and strange people, but the emotional background and the seemingly amusing personal exploits (somewhere between Bill Bryson and Hunter S. Thompson) are not so well-handled.

One thing that caught my attention throughout the book, and which rather depressed me, was something I've noticed as a fellow world-traveller. Everywhere Alistair and Fran go, they are surrounded by tourists, con-men, and the destructive impact of tourism. While tourism brings some measure of prosperity to far-flung parts of the globe, and brings wisdom and experience to those who travel, it also brings with it a lot of negative results. It's something I've struggled with on my own journeys, and which stuck with me while reading about Alistair and Fran's travels. They are occasionally in a position to look out over a marvelous view or otherwise revel in the glory of nature... and yet there's always a tour group nearby waiting to charge in and take a million photos. Nothing is untouched or unspoiled.

Despite that negativity, the book itself was quite enjoyable. If you want a taste of travel in South America or Africa, I recommend you check it out. 

Thursday, 10 November 2016

A Great Place to Have a War, by Joshua Kurlantzick

Laos is one of my favourite countries and I've been fortunate enough to have visited twice. Being a history buff, particularly American history, I was eager to read this forthcoming book from Joshua Kurlantzick, which I received as an uncorrected proof.

I was not disappointed. A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA is an excellent history of a tragic period of history. It traces the origins of the war and of the CIA very well, but adds in a personal dimension by telling the stories of four men who guided the war and the expansion of power undergone by the CIA during that period: Bill Lair, Tony Poe, Vang Pao, and William Sullivan.

I studied the Vietnam War in university and later learned bits and pieces during my extensive travels through Southeast Asia, and yet much of this book was new to me. Particularly in his descriptions of battles, his dealings with characters on a personal level, and his studies of declassified CIA documents, Kurlantzick has put forth a valuable and enthralling resource.

It is also, of course, highly disturbing. Anyone well-versed in the tragic history of the Vietnam War knows that atrocities occurred all the time, and a great deal of them by Americans. This book details some of those atrocities, including shocking facts:

US bombing of Laos would become so intense that it averaged one attack every eight minutes for nearly a decade.

In 1969 alone, the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than it did on Japan during all of World War II. By 1973, when the bombing campaign ended, America had launched over 580,000 bombinb runs in Laos.
Figures like that, and relating to the unexploded bombs that continued - and still continue - to kill innocent civilians are mindblowing. Yet they are also hard to fathom because they are so terrible. Kurlantzick, however, brings the war over in more personal terms that makes it easier to appreciate the awfulness of the U.S. actions in Laos.

He talks about how random the bombing could be, saying:

In the first months of 1970, some U.S. pilots routinely released ordnance over the kingdom without really locating any military target, simply because they could not find a target to hit in North Vietnam and they did not want to land back in Thailand still carrying their bombs.
He talks of villages wiped off the map and people gunned down in the streets for target practice. The coldness of the U.S. pilots is beyond belief. And yet these were not isolated, single events:

96 percent of the Laotian civilians surveyed had witnessed a bombing attack, and most had witnessed more than one.

He goes on to say that 60% of people had personally seen someone being killed by U.S. bombs.

Towards the end of the book Kurlantzick wraps up his story by showing how the U.S. simply withdrew, leaving Southeast Asia in a terrible mess, and how the CIA had grown during its Laos war from a spy outfit to a war machine. It is a sad read, but an important one in understanding this complicated and depressing modern world. 

Friday, 28 October 2016

Death's End, by Liu Cixin

This is a vast and fascinating book - the third in an engaging, far-reaching trilogy by the greatest Chinese sci-fi writer, Liu Cixin. I will try to review it without spoiling anything for those who haven't yet had the pleasure, although the title rather gives away the inevitable ending.

Across his Three Body Trilogy, Liu Cixin has offered a story of earth-versus-trisolaris, and later, in the second book, this scope is expanded with the dark forest philosophy to a chaotic, over-crowded universe of every-civilization-for-itself. In this final book, the seeds that were long ago planted have now come to be fully grown plants. It has been an incredible journey.

Yet Death's End (or The Birth of Death, as its Chinese title goes), is far grander in scope than the previous two novels, which now seem rather dull and uneventful by comparison. In the first book, which was probably the conventional best of the series, Liu took us back to the Cultural Revolution, and how the cruelty of humanity essential brought upon its own downfall. In the second, we saw how humans dealt with the inevitability of death from the cosmos, reeling in the knowledge that we were not alone, and suddenly rather tiny and fragile.

The third book in the trilogy spans tens of millions of years. Its protagonist takes advantage of hibernation technology to travel through time, visiting all of the most important moments in earth's history since "the Common Era" (ie what readers know as now). This is Cheng Xin, a woman who for some reason is constantly tasked with saving the world, and who constantly makes poor decisions. She is a quite likable character, but rather weak - perhaps believable but perhaps a little too "girly". I get the distinct impression that Liu is trying to make a strong female character but it is clear he really doesn't understand women very well. Through all his books, the women are rather poorly written.

In fact, that's this novel's greatest downfall - as with the previous two. Liu is obviously a great mind and he can theorize incredible happenings in the universe. His ideas are spectacular and he describes them pretty well... yet, he seems to struggle with humans. He's better at talking about the technology required to travel at the speed of light or destroy a galaxy than he is at putting two people together and having them talk. So be it. This is sci-fi after all.

Another downfall - and this may be the translator's fault - is that the metaphors liberally employed throughout are rather obviously stated. This occurs first in a strange opening scene, where a puddle is drying on a floor. We are twice informed that this is a metaphor for a dying civilization. Any writer worth his salt knows not to deliberately state that a metaphor is a metaphor.

Granted, this is a translation from Chinese to English. There are certain cultural quirks to understand, and certain translation issues. Stating the obvious and repeating the obvious is not considered a bad thing in Chinese, so maybe that caused this little issue. Anyway, this translation is superior to those of the previous two novels. It is also interesting to see the future from a Chinese perspective, as China may actually have far more of a role in the future history of the earth than Hollywood and Western novels like to suggest. Liu envisages a world where people speak a hybrid of Chinese and English, and where a rather large percentage of the clever folk have Chinese names... Not too give too much away, but by the end of the book it's really only Chinese characters who have anything to do with anything. The non-Chinese characters mostly avoid stereotypes but often speak in odd, clunky ways that are not really believable.

Regardless of its faults, this was a long, long, long trilogy which held my attention and entertained me throughout. I probably enjoyed the first book the most, and the second disappointed me quite a bit, but the third was a gripping story with an absurdly large number of events unfolding over tens of millions of years. I'm absolutely not a fan of science fiction, yet this managed to entertain me immensely, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

How Lenin and Stalin Brainwashed Russians, by Larisa Vetrova

How Lenin and Stalin Brainwashed Russians uses propaganda posters from the early years of socialism in Russia to tell the story of the nation's dark modern history. The posters themselves are illuminating and the history is fascinating, but sadly the book is written in quite poor English. It is a short read, almost possible to finish in a single sitting, but unfortunately the experience is spoiled by the unnatural prose. With a little editing, this could be a very enjoyable book. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinaw

Sometimes I go online and feel like genius among idiots. Log into Facebook and you're surrounded by people trying to explain away the latest idiotic ranting by Donald Trump, or parroting a hip meme in the liberal community. Everyone, it seems, is stupid. 

A good way to feel like a complete idiot is to pick up a book like The Grand Design. From start to finish I struggled badly to comprehend much of what was said. Physic has never been my greatest strength - in fact, I didn't even take it in high school and have always struggled with its basic concepts. 

Yet I find science of all sorts utterly fascinating, and so I was eager to read what was touted as a book that was accessible to the lay person. There are no mathematical formulas; just basic descriptions and analogies to make these concepts easier to digest. It is a book that sets out to explain the whole universe, and that's precisely where it lost me. I guess my puny brain cannot comprehend that much information. 

In the beginning, Hawking sounds like a stoned college student. Take for example, the analogy of a goldfish in a bowl, looking out at the world. To him, the world looks very different to what it actually is, yet he can create certain rules from observations that can allow him to "see" the world. Then Hawking speculates that we are that goldfish... 

Although Hawking's analogies allow even people like me to follow along, I found myself lost more often than not. Often, the only thing I could follow were the constant stream of awful dad jokes scattered through the book. It seems as though every complex explanation is punctuated with some lame punchline.