Thursday, December 14, 2017

SEA OF RUST, a scary, funny, beautiful End of the (Robotic) World novel


Harper Voyager
$27.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: It’s been thirty years since the apocalypse and fifteen years since the murder of the last human being at the hands of robots. Humankind is extinct. Every man, woman, and child has been liquidated by a global uprising devised by the very machines humans designed and built to serve them. Most of the world is controlled by an OWI—One World Intelligence—the shared consciousness of millions of robots, uploaded into one huge mainframe brain. But not all robots are willing to cede their individuality—their personality—for the sake of a greater, stronger, higher power. These intrepid resisters are outcasts; solo machines wandering among various underground outposts who have formed into an unruly civilization of rogue AIs in the wasteland that was once our world.

One of these resisters is Brittle, a scavenger robot trying to keep her deteriorating mind and body functional in a world that has lost all meaning. Although she does not (cannot) experience emotions like a human, she is haunted by the terrible crimes she perpetrated on humanity. As she roams the Sea of Rust, a large swath of territory that was once the Midwest, Brittle slowly comes to terms with her raw and vivid memories—and her guilt.


My Review: If you're a fan of cynical, witty anti-heroes who do what they have to do to survive in a world that doesn't much like them, read this book.
The one truth you need to know about the end of a machine is that the closer they are to death, the more they act like people.
If you're a fan of noir stories of monolithic world-dominating systems that give dissenters only a tiny sliver of room to exist, read this book.
Magic was just something people liked to believe in, something they thought they could feel or sense, something that made everything more than just mechanical certainty. Something that made them more than flesh and bone.
If you want to read a fast-paced tale about survival against the odds, read this book.
These are the things that life is all about. These moments. It’s not about the rituals. It’s not about getting by. It’s about the stack of tiny little moments of joy and love that add up to a lifetime that’s been worthwhile. You can’t measure them; you can only capture them, like snapshots in your mind.
If you like the idea that nothing anywhere ever lasts, for good or for ill, this book should head your list of reads to come.
"You're not wrong, Jimmy. That's why we're all out here. To get through one more day."
He nodded, looking wistfully out into the street. "I miss it, you know. Being a bartender. But the people. I mostly miss all the people."
Most dying robots do. People gave us a purpose. Something to do all day, every day. At the end, I suppose, you spend a lot of time thinking about that. It's harder to get by when getting by is all there is.
Brittle, aka Britt, is our PoVbot. (I had no idea until this good moment that I'd been longing to type that always.) She is a she, a Caregiver bot, and she survived the war of extermination against the humans. She then survived the robot-vs-OWI...One World Intelligence...mainframes. There were six OWIs, now there are two surviving mainframe AI monoliths, and the battle is on between them to make all the bots left independent of the mainframes into facets (mobile extensions of the OWIs' superintelligence).

There's a weird sort of comfort in knowing that AIs compete ruthlessly for the same scarce resource that humanity's been competing for since forever: Subjects, foot soldiers, followers, believers, call them what you like. It could be an artifact of the concept "AI" being modeled after humanity's own rapacious, exclusionary concept of "intelligence." I tend to think not, as I fall into the darkly despairing cynical worldview camp. All advanced intelligence is primitive and savage because it's got perspective and sees its own destruction as inevitable, therefore there's no need to be "good" because this is it.

Oh dear. That makes life pointless and authority nugatory. Better shore up The System! Go tell some lies.

And my brethren and sistern, there are some *whoppers* that this book holds back from you only revealing at the end. Or The End, if you will allow me the punchy but cheesy overemphasis. It is a slow burn, this lie that Britt tells us. It is clear to me it's a foundational myth, and so escapes the opprobrium heaped on untruth in both human and bot society. But it might just merit that opprobrium after all, you'll have to decide for yourselves. Because you'll be reading this excellent novel. Honest and truly you will, or you'll regret not knowing what Cargill wants us to know.

I'll leave you with this unspoilery observation made by Britt early in the book. I think most of y'all will agree that it's an essential truth, a verity, a fact of deep meaning:
Respect for the dead is a human notion meant to imply that a life has meaning. It doesn't. Once you've watched an entire world wither away and die after tearing itself apart piece by bloody piece, it's hard to pretend that something like a single death carries any weight whatsoever.
And that, my olds, mes vieux, is exactly where we are.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

THE BOOKSHOP, Penelope Fitzgerald's Fanfare for the Common Woman Afoul of the Powerful


Mariner Books
$9.99 eBook platforms, $14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: In 1959 Florence Green, a kindhearted widow with a small inheritance, risks everything to open a bookshop - the only bookshop - in the seaside town of Hardborough. By making a success of a business so impractical, she invites the hostility of the town's less prosperous shopkeepers. By daring to enlarge her neighbors' lives, she crosses Mrs. Gamart, the local arts doyenne. Florence's warehouse leaks, her cellar seeps, and the shop is apparently haunted. Only too late does she begin to suspect the truth: a town that lacks a bookshop isn't always a town that wants one.

My Review: Florence Green is my current idol of Resistance. She has lived quietly and unassumingly in Hardborough, a small East Anglian seaside town, and realized that her life was simply passing and not being lived. So she took her small inheritance and opened a bookshop.
A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.

Of course, she takes out a loan against the freehold of her premises to start the business. The sums are risible by today's standards, since this is 1959, but they seem enormous to Mrs Green. She sets out to stock her business with the remainder stock of her former employers in London, then contacts publishers' sales agents to visit and display their wares:
Those who made it {to her shop} were somewhat unwilling to part with...what Florence really wanted, unless she would also take a pile of novels which had the air, in their slightly worn jackets, of women on whom no one had ever made any demand.
This being 1959, a certain degree of wincing at this self-deprecating, or merely invisibly sexist, humor is to be granted; but Fitzgerald wrote the novel in 1977 or thereabouts, as it was first published in 1978. Was this mildly misogynistic sally meant to be read with a raised eyebrow, or was she simply oblivious to its sexism? I don't know, but I'm guessing it wasn't ironic based on the tone of the tale. It's very funny either way.

Life as a business proprietor is not stress-free. Mrs Green is a busy, busy woman. Many are the factors she is required to balance in her running of the business. Yet summer comes but once a year, and after all what good is living in a seaside village if the sea is invisible?
She ought to go down to the beach. It was Thursday, early closing, and it seemed ungrateful to live so close to the sea and never look at it for weeks on end.
It's always seemed odd to me how many people I know here in my own seaside city who simply don't pay the slightest attention to the ocean that surrounds us!

Mrs Green has failed to do one crucial thing in opening her shop: Get the town's Great and Good on side. In fact, when she is invited to the local county set's meeting place, she receives a very simple and direct order to cease and desist her plans to open her shop in the Old House, which it transpires the local grande dame wishes to put to another use. To everyone's blank surprise, she does not back down. The invisible battle lines are drawn:
She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.
The battles go in Mrs Green's favor...until they quite memorably do not. The quality do not like being told no.

But the battles are waged fully! Mrs Green is not one to lie down and say die!
Courage and endurance are useless if they are never tested.
The tests are, in the end, simply more than Mrs Green has the resources to withstand. The state gets involved. The lawyers and the banks are not on her side. The town isn't willing to pull themselves out of the primordial muck of How Things Are Done to rally to her aid.
It was defeat, but defeat is less unwelcome when you are tired.
And yet Florence Green stood tall until the last moment, only leaving Hardborough when her very last farthing is needed to buy her way out of the morass that her impertinent refusal to bow before the quality has landed her in.

For that reason, I recommend this book for your 45-hating, Resistance fighting, Yule giftee. It will give them a rock to stand on.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

THE LOST SKETCHBOOK OF EDGAR DEGAS, a beautiful novel told in a deeply immersive voice


$9.00 eBook, $14.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Ten years after Edgar Degas' 1872 visit to New Orleans, a lost sketchbook surfaces. His Creole cousin Tell -- who lost her sight as a young woman -- listens as her former child-servant describes the drawings and reads Degas' enigmatic words. It's both cryptic and revelatory, leading Tell to new understandings of her marriage, her difficult, brilliant cousin Edgar, her daughter Josephine, and herself.


My Review: In the spirit of full disclosure, Harriet is my social media pal and the best of friends. It's unlikely I'd've published a negative review of the book under those circumstances, but equally unlikely I'd be so disrespectful as to puff up a book I did not enjoy. If you can't say anything nice, say nothing, is the tack I take on reviewing books by friends.

Luckily for the world, I absolutely adored reading this book. I have the good fortune to have seen a number of Degas's works in person, and I am familiar with New Orleans and its culture from years of contact with it and its practitioners. As I was reading the book, I'd come across things that spoke to me of the unique place that New Orleans is.
Honor reads a description of the city of New Orleans. Edgar appears to have written this on the eve of his departure. I almost can't listen, caught and struck as I am by some of the images: the city as a huge sleeping cat, washed and clean, or foul; something about Lake Pontchartrain's beauty. Something "glittering," something "humming." Lemon trees and orange trees. People of all colors. It moves me, in the wake of Edgar's despair, to discover in his own words how much he cherished about this city I love so much, in spite of all. What might have happened if he could have stayed, for a summer, another winter? Could he have felt healed? Could he have found comfort? Maybe even love?
It's not necessary to spell it out in blocks of visual data. In this case, as the narrator has lost her sight, it would be deeply suspect to do so. But what New Orleans is, in the end, is a place of the heart and soul more than a physical entity. New Orleans is either your home or it isn't, and you're aware of the answer from the second you arrive. It is undeniable and it is for life: You're a yat at heart or the magic is lost on you.

The magic is lost on me.

That doesn't mean I don't get it, though. I get what draws people to the place. I think Chessman's words vivify the spell of New Orleans as much as they limn the landscape of art. The narrative device of a lost sketchbook filled with New Orleans's grace and beauty by one of the leading artists of the time read to a blind woman relative of that artist by one of the subjects of his art is delightful. It requires no effort to understand...and that's the highest compliment I can offer a writer irrespective of the genre in which she works. Framing devices are too often part of a Conversation With The Reader. I don't appreciate that kind of story. I want you to lift me out of my comfy reading posture and transport me to your story's locale without making blaring announcements like a train's conductor does.

And that is Harriet Chessman's gift.
Here on my lap is something Edgar held once, and many times, something he opened, often, to record what he saw in our pretty, messy, crowded house. I wonder if Edgar still misses this sketchbook. I wonder what his days are like now. He must have filled dozens, hundreds, more such books since that winter when he was our guest.
In a passage tesserated from simple words, the complex conceit of the book takes shape. Telly, our blind point-of-view character, vivifies the world Chessman creates for us to inhabit. Telly is never obtrusive...she isn't the point of her own story, how typically female...she talks to us like she's across the tea table, she chats with us as she would any friend come to wile away an afternoon. It becomes more and more obvious to the reader that Telly inhabits her time with her cousin Edgar as old people inhabit their past. She is the mother of young people, she is the wife of a good man, and she is blind. She is blind in her eyes and she is blind in her heart and she gropes for understanding at every turn, physical or psychical.

Over the course of these 130-ish pages, I felt myself adjusting my reading speed to expand my pleasure in Telly's company. Odile and Honor came to feel like intruders, not one a beloved child and the other a welcome visitor. I was jealous of the attention they commanded from Telly. How silly, I'd tell myself, as annoyance whipped through me at Telly addressing one or the other. As it happened, Edgar, to whom Telly speaks in her memories of the past, elicited no such response from me. I was, instead, a full participant in Telly's relationship to her glamorous Parisian cousin.

I love reading books where I am that fully engrossed, carried out of the 21st century. It's a pleasure to be made that transparent to one's own eyes. I recommend this read to anyone looking for an immersive experience that won't require an entire month to read but will leave food for thought to keep you ruminating for months to come.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

ATLAS OF CURSED PLACES, a beautifully produced coffee-table reference book


Black Dog & Leventhal
$24.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Olivier Le Carrer brings us a fascinating history and armchair journey to the world's most dangerous and frightful places, complete with vintage maps and period illustrations in a handsome volume.

This alluring read includes 40 locations that are rife with disaster, chaos, paranormal activity, and death. The locations gathered here include the dangerous Strait of Messina, home of the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the coal town of Jharia, where the ground burns constantly with fire; Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where 8 million migrating bats darken the skies; the Nevada Triangle in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where hundreds of aircraft have disappeared; and Aokigahara Forest near Mount Fuji in Japan, the world's second most popular suicide location following the Golden Gate Bridge.


My Review: History, a ruling passion of my reading life, contains so many byways, culs de sac, and dead ends that are fascinating that it's a wonder the "real" history ever gets told. I love the odd and unsettling details that get lost when one reads only The Big Picture. There are very few byways left unexplored by now, wouldn't you think?

You haven't read this book yet.

Start here, in India. Most US citizens have probably heard of Centralia, Pennsylvania, at some point or another...a town that sits atop a coal mine burning out of control since 1962. Now multiply that by about fifty and set it in a country where there isn't any kind or sort of centralized authority charged with keeping people safe from the consequences of profit-driven environmental rape. Oh wait...that'd be 45's Murrikuh, so sorry. Anyway, the image of Hell that is Jharia makes Centralia look like a minor dump fire.

Then let's go back in time to Timur's reign of terror. In the uniformly awful 14th century, Timur (or Tamerlane as the West knows him) was memorably more heinous than his contemporary rulers and more feared than the only slightly more virulent Black Death that killed almost 50% of the world's population. He managed directly to slay over 15 million people of the 300 million alive on Earth at the time he was busily slaughtering entire cities. This ghastly spot is the site of his mausoleum. It bore the inscription, "When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble." On 22 June 1941, a silly Soviet scientist raided his tomb; mere hours later, the Nazis began the unbelievably costly Operation Barbarossa, which cost over 5 million more lives, and led to the deaths of millions more in its wake.
The moral of this story, kiddies, is DO NOT TAKE CURSES LIGHTLY.

Unlike the unbearably silly Lutz family that bought 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York, after ghastly Ronnie DeFeo slaughtered his family there the year before. They found out the hard way that there is no such thing as a deal too good to be true, lasting a whopping 28 days before bailing on this buy-of-a-lifetime Dutch Colonial in a desirable neighborhood.
Lots of publicity still attends the case, and the Lutzes have been called liars and profiteers. Amityville's just down the road from here. It's a nice village and nice people live there. I myownself get no evil vibe from it. But I wouldn't spend a night at 112 Ocean Avenue for any damn reason.

For the ghoulish giftee, this book's the best!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


GLOBES: 400 Years of Exploration, Navigation, and Power

University of Chicago Press
SALE $19.00 hardcover, quantities limited!

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: The concept of the earth as a sphere has been around for centuries, emerging around the time of Pythagoras in the sixth century BC, and eventually becoming dominant as other thinkers of the ancient world, including Plato and Aristotle, accepted the idea. The first record of an actual globe being made is found in verse, written by the poet Aratus of Soli, who describes a celestial sphere of the stars by Greek astronomer Eudoxus of Cnidus (ca. 408–355 BC). The oldest surviving globe—a celestial globe held up by Atlas’s shoulders—dates back to 150 AD, but in the West, globes were not made again for about a thousand years. It was not until the fifteenth century that terrestrial globes gained importance, culminating when German geographer Martin Behaim created what is thought to be the oldest surviving terrestrial globe. In Globes: 400 Years of Exploration, Navigation, and Power, Sylvia Sumira, beginning with Behaim’s globe, offers a authoritative and striking illustrated history of the subsequent four hundred years of globe making.

Showcasing the impressive collection of globes held by the British Library, Sumira traces the inception and progression of globes during the period in which they were most widely used—from the late fifteenth century to the late nineteenth century—shedding light on their purpose, function, influence, and manufacture, as well as the cartographers, printers, and instrument makers who created them. She takes readers on a chronological journey around the world to examine a wide variety of globes, from those of the Renaissance that demonstrated a renewed interest in classical thinkers; to those of James Wilson, the first successful commercial globe maker in America; to those mass-produced in Boston and New York beginning in the 1800s. Along the way, Sumira not only details the historical significance of each globe, but also pays special attention to their materials and methods of manufacture and how these evolved over the centuries.

A stunning and accessible guide to one of the great tools of human exploration, Globes will appeal to historians, collectors, and anyone who has ever examined this classroom accessory and wondered when, why, and how they came to be made.

My Review: Author Sumira is a conservator of printed paper. Her expertise within that niche is the preservation and restoration of antique globes, whose survival into the present is nigh on miraculous given their inherent fragility. In her introductory chapters, Author Sumira presents us with a distilled historical timeline of the development of globes as a means of conveying information and illuminating concepts that would otherwise be nebulous at best, then gives an even more fascinating (to me at least) précis of how globes have been made through time.

None of this even scratches the surface of Author Sumira's expertise on the matter. It feels to me as though she was tasked with creating a "for Dummies" version of her life's work by her publisher. This is someone whose depth of knowledge is matched by her breadth of viewpoint. In the essays concerning the sixty globes pictured in this gorgeous, oversized coffee-table book, hints of Author Sumira's wide-ranging appreciation for the role, history, and place of each globe illuminate the sheer physical beauty of the artifacts in ways that are meat and drink to geography nerds, photography buffs, history mavens, and whatever one would call globe people.

Let me get out of the way and let you revel in the joys of the globes:

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

YOU'RE ALL JUST JEALOUS OF MY JETPACK, perfect lightener for the po-faced


Drawn & Quarterly
$19.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says The New York Times Magazine cartoonist Tom Gauld follows up his widely praised graphic novel Goliath with You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, a collection of cartoons made for The Guardian. Over the past eight years, Gauld has produced a weekly cartoon for the Saturday Review section of Britain’s best-regarded newspaper. Only a handful of comics from this huge and hilarious body of work have ever been printed in North America—and these have been available exclusively within the pages of the prestigious Believer magazine.

You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack distills perfectly Gauld’s dark humor, impeccable timing, and distinctive style. Arrests by the fiction police and imaginary towns designed by Tom Waits intermingle hilariously with piercing observations about human behavior and whimsical imaginings of the future. Again and again, Gauld reaffirms his position as a first-rank cartoonist, creating work infused with a deep understanding of both literary and cartoon history.

My Review: Tom Gauld brought out this collection in 2013. He is a Serious Intellectual with an Impish Streak, as his 2015 photo attests:

Easy on the eyes, funny to the bone, smart and wry and a lot of fun and game-changingly talented. Gauld has made a solid name for himself by being truthful, unsparing, and wryly willing to play the game he ever-so-Englishly lampoons. Anyone on your gift-giving radar who is a book person, a comics person, or a smart person is very likely to enjoy this book. Most people don't buy themselves books like this, so clearly frivolous and unserious, which means it's perfect as a Yuletide surprise for your favorite po-faced intellectual, your unsmilingly Goth niece, or your own sweet self as a means of escaping the seasonal silliness and brummagem jollification with a fellow eyebrow-raising up-the-sleeve laughing smartypants.

Before Gauld, very little humor and even less comic ink was spilled in such a way about books as cultural objects and not items of celebrity or nonce-memes. If these images did not make you laugh out loud in real time, you should not bother with this book.

Also? Might be a good idea to unfriend me. Tom Gauld makes me guffaw so hard my abdomen cramps.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

MOONCOP, a quiet gentle and uncompromising look at loneliness


Drawn & Quarterly
$19.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

All cops in noir stories eat donuts and drink coffee.

Of course they buy them from the local shop.

[Mooncop] is 96 pages of Gauld's quiet storytelling. He isn't aiming for humor and he doesn't shy away from silence. It is deeply satisfying to be taken by the hand and led to the place that Gauld wants to go: Human hearts that are quieter than most fiction lets on. What happens between peaks is only a valley by comparison.

Paying $20 for this book would, I admit, make me panther-screechingly furious. The library gets my thanks for having a graphic novel section. I enjoyed this gently sad exploration of endings and their occasional happy discoveries.