Thursday, 29 May 2008

Review: "All Over but the Shoutin'" by Rick Bragg

On a recent trip over from the states, my mother brought a copy of "All Over but the Shoutin'" by Rick Bragg, which I read during my recent holiday.

Rick Bragg is a journalist, a Southerner, and a storyteller. In this book, he tells his story, his family's story, and with love, respect and regret, his mother's story. Their stories are closer to my mother's generation and its experience of the old south and its poverty, but those experiences are still accessible in a quite personal way for me at a distance.

It was particularly timely to read about Bragg flying his own mother to New York to watch him receive the Pulitzer Prize while in the midst of our trip around the UK with my Mom, who had never been outside the states before.

Anyway, I loved the book and highly recommend it.

Review: "Use of Weapons" by Iain M. Banks

"Use of Weapons" is another in Iain M. Banks' series of "Culture" novels. For those not familiar with the series, the Culture is an interplanetary civilization in which disease, injury, age, material want, and even war are all things of the past. Citizens live their lives almost entirely as they choose, and information and aesthetically satisfying experience are valued above almost all else.

The permanent peace is made possible because the Culture is so heavily armed that only its ideals prevent it from obtaining any goal by force. In fact, the decision makers and the vast majority of ordinary citizens are so content, well-adjusted and just plain enlightened that they must recruit individuals who are maladjusted enough to be able to enforce their ideals. These individuals work for Special Circumstances, the part of the culture that deals with first contact (as in "Player of Games") foreign relations, and espionage.

Cheradenine Zakalwe is an operative of Special Circumstances. He is an immigrant to the Culture, and comes from a world steeped in conflict. As we come to understand, he is a man of action, inclined to solve problems with force. He is also intelligent enough to be a master tactician and (critically) needs ultimately to believe that he is a force for good in the world.

"Use of Weapons" reminds me of "All My Sins Remembered" by Joe Haldeman, in which a man is conditioned to be a deadly operative against his deeper ideals as a Buddhist. In both works, the larger conflict is for the main character to come to grips with his own identity.

Both "Use of Weapons" and the larger "Culture" series (particularly the original "State of the Art" novella) are highly recommended.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Review: "The Man with a Shattered World" by A. R. Luria

Although I read little non fiction in general, one exception has been the work of Oliver Sacks, whose writing I enjoy, and whose topics are almost always entertaining and engaging. I picked up "The Man with a Shattered World" largely because Sacks wrote the introduction, and because it sounded as though it would be a nice companion to "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" and other works already in my library.

I was not disappointed. "The Man with a Shattered World" is one of two biographies published at the end of A. R. Luria's distinguished career as a neuropsychologist. The book tells the story of Zazetsky, a soldier in the Second World War whose brain injury instantly transformed him from a bright young man on the verge of finishing his engineering degree to an illiterate unable to perform any meaningful work or even hold a simple conversation.

Zazetsky discovered that he was still able to write by rote (although reading even his own writing was a tortuous process), and was able to chronicle his injury and its effects. Although he never recovered as fully as he hoped, Zazetsky struggled to improve himself in what ways he could and did make some small progress. Given that he initially could not even recognize the Cyrillic alphabet and at his best could barely read more than two words at a time, the fact that he was able to write over 3,000 pages of journal entries over the course of 30 years is as inspiring as the moon landing.

Between the numerous journal entries, Luria intersperses observations, brain science, and other narrative details. He provides the structure that Zazetsky himself could not, but with a light hand, so that the journal entries themselves shine through. This combination of subjective detail (from Zazetsky) and objective detail (from Luria) is what makes the book so enjoyable and comprehensible.

A very good read, both informative and inspiring. I look forward to picking up a copy of the other biography ("The Mnemonist") at some point in my travels.

Review: "A Separate War & Other Stories" by Joe Haldeman

After reading through the omnibus edition of "Forever War", "Forever Free" and "Forever Peace", I picked up a copy of "A Separate War & Other Stories" based on a friend's recommendation. The collection is short, but good. "A Separate War" is a parallel narrative to the last section of "Forever War", in which we follow Marygay Potter's last campaign in the Forever War.

Recent works like the "Ender's Shadow" series by Orson Scott Card have tread this territory, mining the author's most famous work and constructing a parallel narrative. Where even the best of the "Ender's Shadow" series seemed a bit convoluted, "A Separate War" flows naturally and is a fine companion piece to the larger work.

The rest of the collection is quite enjoyable, particularly the paired stories "Out of Phase" and "Power Complex". What really makes the collection especially enjoyable are the author's introduction and notes. Haldeman teaches writing, and shares his insights about the craft of writing in a natural way that's a refreshing accompaniment to the stories themselves, kind of like a good director's commentary on a DVD.

Well worth picking up and a very quick read.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Review: "Raw Spirit" by Iain Banks...

I don't usually read non-fiction for pleasure, but "Raw Spirit" is not only one of my favorite non-fiction books, but one of the best books I've read in a long time, period.

The book is as much an autobiography as anything else, as in the process of exploring all things whiskey, Banks shares little gems about so many other topics. The book is littered with observations about Scotland, driving, Science Fiction, and the start of the war we still find ourselves dealing with over five years later. Think of it as a whiskey-themed stream of consciousness with notes of politics and storytelling. Scotland itself is the most important component, just as the water that feeds a distillery determines the character of the whiskey produced.

I look forward to reading more from Banks very soon. I borrowed "Raw Spirit" from the Stornoway library, so I also look forward to picking up my own copy of this book, as I expect it will be a well-thumbed reference as we explore Scotland in the next few years.