Book Recommendations: Non-fiction

Note: This post will be updated as I read and is linked in the Navigation menu

One year I made a New Year’s resolution to read one non-fiction book a month. I thought it was going to be a tedious way to improve myself and continue to learn after graduation from university. I did not expect to fall in love with the genre.

This list is divided into two sections. The first is non-fiction for people who don’t read non-fiction. The genre can be intimidating! These books are easy to read, with a chatty style and lack of overwhelming technical terms.

The second section is for books that are more specific/niche/difficult to read. I recommend them for people who already have an interest in the subject or are willing to push through technical language.

Non-fiction for Fiction Readers:

Macintyre, Ben– Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

D-Day is often most remembered by that scene from “Saving Private Ryan” but this book delves into the ludicrous, hilarious, and astonishing story of the agents who spun the lie to the German intelligence that made the battle succeed…because the Germans were expecting the troops to land elsewhere. Some highlights from these characters include requests for chocolate from MI5 “for medicinal reasons,” a man with a degree in chicken farming creating entire networks of fake spies to feed bad information, and a woman who whispers insults about people to her dog in Russian. If you like James Bond, you’ll love this story because these real people pulled off one of the greatest espionage schemes in history and they were perhaps the least capable of doing so.

Nafisi, Azar– Reading Lolita in Tehran

Note: this book has a LOT of heavy literature analysis. If you don’t like classics, maybe this might not be the best choice. I almost put it in the other category but if you’re a heavy reader of fiction, you may have the background that this book relies on. Reading Lolita made my top ten list of 2016. It beautifully illustrates how our relationship with literature can give us strength and purpose while also focusing on parallels between literature and our modern lives. This book feels important to me on another level because it is very humanizing of the people of Tehran. In the western world, we’ve been blasted by negative media about this area and only see certain images of it. The book is political, feminist, and deeply touching.

Roach, Mary– Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Everything Mary Roach has written is well worth reading but I picked Gulp because of the many, many absurd scenes in this book that had me picturing the professional scientists Roach was interviewing staring at her in dumbfounded exasperation. Roach asks questions that we all wonder but are usually too polite to ask and isn’t afraid of getting her hands covered in various types of fluids and solids to understand the science. She conveys these stories with gleeful prose that’s easy to understand and easier to laugh to. I think Gulp requires less squeamish warning than Stiff, so I picked it for this list.

Ronson, Jon– Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries

Like Mary Roach, Jon Ronson has a way of reporting his stories that is comedic and relatable. This is a collection of essays with highlights include Ronson interviewing the Insane Clown Posse about their song “Magnets” and their distrust of nerdy looking people wearing glasses, a trip where he attempts to recreate a road-trip from a James Bond novel, and visits the North Pole where it’s always Christmas (maybe enough to drive people to murder).

Sandel, Michael J.– Justice, What’s the Right Thing to Do?

What’s that whole, philosophy thing about anyway? Michael Sandel breaks down in an understandable way many of the prominent ethical questions of our time. It’s a book that was suggested to me when I first showed interest in philosophy and a recommendation I pass on. The philosophy in Justice is all practical, ethical philosophy, not the sort of nebulous “How do we know we know?” topics that tend to have people running away screaming at the top of their lungs. The questions discussed here include examining the free market, taxes, and capital punishment. It’s a great resource on being able to understand and structure your own opinions on topics that often arise when politics are discussed while also being accessible to readers unfamiliar with philosophical concepts.

Simon, Matt– The Wasp that Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution’s Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life’s Biggest Problems

This may be the funniest non-fiction book I have ever read. It’s split into easily digestible sections, perfect for consuming when you have 10 to 15 minutes of time and want to learn something new. The book captures perfectly how shockingly strange our neighbor animals on this planet can be. It will gift you with many stories to pull out at parties, though maybe people don’t want to hear about the ant that stacks up the dead bodies of its conquered foes on its back like a towering monument of victory (I absolutely would love this story at a party).

Non-fiction:

Gladwell, Malcom– What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures

I would call Gladwell a less funny more technical Mary Roach. His writing is still far into the range of accessible, but he focuses more on journalism than comedic journalism (not that his stories can’t be amusing).  This collection of essays, which I think is much better in the latter half, covers topics from why there’s only one ketchup and dozens of varieties of mustard to the difference between choking and panicking. I prefer this one to Blink, because I feel that, unfortunately, there are some pop-psychology mistakes present in that book.

Kean, Sam– The Violinist’s Thumb: and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code

This book has a lot of dense science focused on genetics, but the stories within are worth pushing for. While genetics don’t determine everything about our life, they can determine how well we can play the violin (due to extremely flexible fingers) or why eating a polar bear’s liver is lethal and why nuns were some badass scientists. Another book where I went around yelling at everyone about what I learned within it.

Newborn, Jud– Sophie Scholl and the White Rose

I actually had to read this book for class and ended up finishing it in the university library, sobbing where everyone could see me. Sophie’s story and the story of her brother and the rest of the white rose is affecting because the main players of the story are so young. These are students (and a professor) who were brave enough to try to spread a message of resistance against the Nazi regime, risking their lives to do so. There’s a fervent (maybe foolishly idealistic) passion in the texts that these students wrote that’s intoxicating. The only way I can describe this book is spiritually uplifting. It restored my faith in humanity.

O’Connell, Mark– To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death

Transhumanism is an idea that I’ve been interested in for years and Mark O’Connell’s book is a great entry point to the world of people seeking to leave our biological bodies behind. Because O’Connell doesn’t subscribe to the doctrine of transhumanism himself, there’s a through-line to his adventure that follows his own path of regarding his mortal body and what it would mean to be free of it while not losing sight of how absolutely bonkers some of the transhumanists’ ideas sound. For people who are interested in futurism, biotechnology, and A.I., this book will be a pleasure to read.

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Challenge: Favorite Romance Trope

Tropes—we love to hate them and we’d be lying if we said we didn’t also love to love them. The challenge this week by @broodingYAhero for the #BroodyBFF street team was to discuss our favorite romantic trope.

At first, I was worried what I was going to do, because how do you pick just one romantic trope as your favorite? There are so many that are just so Good™ no matter how many times they appear in books. I’ll admit it, I’m weak for the “we’re pretending to be together for x reason but then we fall for each other” plot-line. I cozy up with the “oh no, we’re stranded in this remote location, I guess we have to work together to survive” stories. Give me a good “friends to lovers” and you’ll see me shake my head with a fond chuckle.

I rely on tropes like comfort food. When real life is too stressful or painful (2017 is testing me), it isn’t a turbulent book I want to dive into. Like a romantic comedy movie, I want to go into this story knowing that by the end, everyone who deserves happiness will be happy, after some humorous hijinks and melodramatic confessions, of course, and those who are Bad People™ are embarrassed and their goals frustrated. Hopefully publicly and with finesse.

That being said, my absolute favorite trope (which doesn’t show up in many light romantic comedies, for reasons that will be apparent) is when on a battlefield a person from the opposite side saves the life of their enemy, thus beginning a romantic entanglement.

This might be sort of a sub-trope of the “star-crossed lovers” trope and it has a lot of elements that make star-crossed lovers so appealing—the forbidden nature of the relationship, the risk of being caught, the way love transcends conflict, and so on.

But there’s that extra flavor that I find to be so GOOD, which is the saving the life on the battlefield bit. It’s just such a dramatic and compassionate moment—character A dying and character B coming by. Character A believes that character B is going to finish the job but instead B saves them. Their immediate separation, because of course B has to go back to their side of the battle and A to theirs. An obsession begins—who is this person who saved them? How do they find each other again? What if they are in a position where they are supposed to kill each other?

That’s some good stuff there, I tell you what.

My favorite book that utilizes this trope is Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor and I highly recommend it for anyone else who is a fan of YA fantasy and this particular trope (it also really doubles down on the star-crossed lovers trope).

Are there any books that you love with this trope? Let me know! I’m always searching for more…

 

Review: Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing

I received a copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for honest review.

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Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing: Encounters with the Mysteries and Meanings of Languages by Daniel Tammet is a non-fiction piece that focuses on our relationship as beings possessing the ability to communicate through language. This relationship isn’t always tended to—how many of us on a daily basis think about the words and the words others use to communicate, especially not just what they mean but how they sound, look and feel? In many ways, I felt as though this book asked of me to slow down and find pleasure in the way in which humans communicate.

Though it is a book about linguistics, Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing doesn’t require a previous knowledge or interest in the subject. Not bogged down with linguistic jargon, and thoroughly explained with the jargon arises, Every Word tells stories about language that are accessible and will appeal to a wide audience, which is its strength. Through personal stories and interviews, Tammet weaves together a tapestry on the beauty and frustrations of language, at once a method of connection and a barrier of understanding. It’s a love letter, laden with hopes, fears, frustrations, and the triumph of connection.

Tammet’s personal relationship with language is the first subject in his book and it is a necessary beginning as the author experiences language in a way that many people don’t. Identifying on the high end of the spectrum of autism, Tammet’s first experience with language was one that no one else understood. Numbers were his chosen way to communicate and Tammet describes this system and his tumultuous relationship with using English to express himself.

From the opening pages of Every Bird, I found myself examining my own relationship with language. It was German that I found myself ruminating on first because it is a language I began to learn as an adult. From Tammet’s explanations on his synesthesia with words where they had colors and textures associated with them, I remembered when I learned the adjectives langsam and schnell. They were wonderful words—langsam where the tongue makes a slow trip from the teeth back to rest, as lazy as the speed it implies. And schnell the opposite, a quick scoot. The verb schneiden and the noun Schnitt that sound like the whisper of scissors closing and were so easy to remember because of that.

Even now, writing this review, when explaining how Tammet describes his number language I wanted to use the word Kopfkino—a movie in the head. In English, perhaps, he painted a picture in my mind. After that, I had to think on English words I loved: velvet, which sounds as slinky and silky as it feels, iridescent and how it sparkles, luminous and its glow.

When a book leaves me spending so much time outside of reading it on thinking about the topics within, the writing was a success.

The rest of Every Word journeys through many topics, all related to language. Tammet captures the paradox of language in discussing the utopian dream of an easy-to-learn global language of Esperanto and the tragedy (to some more than others) of the disappearance of languages due to cultural imperialism. Here too he delves into the politics of the language of repression and the efforts of native speakers of suppressed languages, like those in Africa, to publish works in their mother tongue. He takes us on a trip to cultures obsessively dedicated with preserving the sanctity of their language in an effort that is both admirable and fool-hardy.

I felt that these subjects were handled with respect. Even when Tammet’s position on the topic shows through his writing, he isn’t dismissive of the other side of the arguments presented. With many of these political issues, there’s strong arguments on both sides and I liked that Tammet expressed his own doubts and beliefs without pressuring the reader to agree with him.

Tammet also creates a space to admire the personalities and quirks of languages—how Nahuatl dances with repeated syllables, for example. Similarly, he writes on the joy and playfulness of what it means to be a writer and tame language for the use of storytelling. George Perec, Tammet relates to us, wrote a novel without using the letter ‘e.’

There’s a universality to the subject of Every Word that makes it easy to recommend to people, often with me regaling them with a favorite anecdote from the book. I learned a lot reading the book, of course, but I also felt a new connection with the globality of languages and the words I learn both in my mother tongue and that of the one I chose to learn. It’s an absolute joy to read and inspiring of conversations on the more political questions where are not necessarily answered in the text.

This is a book for people who love language and for those who don’t already to fall in love with it.

Every Word as a whole reminds me very much of my favorite story to tell when asked about living in Austria or learning German. The common question: why did you chose to learn German, isn’t it hard, aren’t the sounds harsh?

I’ll leave this here, with a smile because it still makes me laugh every time I talk about it and is, I think, in the spirit of Every Word.

In German, a snail is a Schnecke. A slug, on the other hand, is a Nacktschnecke. Nackt, of course, because he’s naked.

schnecke

Rating: 5/5 stars

Recommended for: people interested in language, especially topics of language preservation and linguistics, readers who like accessible non-fiction

 

 

Thoughts on Li’s “Dear Friend,”

dearfriendCapturing the quality of suffering during depression is a task that presents challenges to authors, especially in regards to communicating with readers who have never lived through a depressive episode. I use the word quality because there is a sensation to the experience of depression that is about as easy to explain to people as a taste they’ve never encountered before. In searching for a book to capture how I felt for years as a young woman that I could share with other people as an example of my experiences, there was the sense that the books I was reading had characters that were too melodramatic.

 

In truth, the characters were accurate to how depression affects some people and in many of them I saw myself and the ways I was out of control myself those years ago. But there’s a certain conceit to these characters, an expectation that the reader understands how depression influences not only thoughts but the body holistically. Unfortunately, I felt if I pointed to these novels, people would respond with a comment I’ve heard said among friends, “Why don’t they just do something about it?” turning depression into a concept of control (it is, of course, a concept of control, but not in the way that they think. In depression, one finds control in giving up trying to control).

For them, as I’m sure it was for people in my own life, the melodrama seems insincere, exaggerated, perhaps even intentional.

In Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, author Yiyun Li wrote a book that is partially a memoir, partially essays on her personal relationship to literature, and more essentially, ruminations on the experience of depression.

By picking and peeling at all the facets of her feelings, Yiyun Li unwinds the tangled and brambled knots of depression. Reading musings that are eloquent on the contradictions present in depression was eerie in that the thoughts were as intimate as my own.

“But when we read someone’s private words, when we experience her most vulnerable moments with her, and when her words speak more eloquently of our feelings than we are able to, can we still call her a stranger?”

Yiyun Li addresses the melodrama of depression, of how one is both aware of how helpless one is being and yet is also unable to be anything but. Inherent in this is the doubt, “Am I being melodramatic?” that doesn’t diminish the reality of suffering.

Captured here is the self-scorn that one has during depression as one holds in their mind the view of themselves and their depression as both an observer and the agent of action. I’ve always found that difficult to express—how it often felt as though I was watching myself and berating myself like a part of my mind had remained healthy and isolated while the rest of my mind induced my body into behavior I neither wanted nor could stop.

The contradictions of depression are examined as well, with a tender hand because Yiyun Li is not judgmental of suffering or scornful of it, but the opposite. Suffering is explored with a gentle intimacy and a respect. She is able to express how integral depression becomes with identity—invaluable and tyrannical.

“All the things in the world are not enough to drown out the voice of this emptiness that says: you are nothing…It is either a dictator or the closest friend I have ever had. Some days I battle it until we both fall down like injured animals. That is when I wonder: what if I become less than nothing when I get rid of this emptiness? What if this emptiness is what keeps me going?”

It would be a mistake to assume that this treatment of the subject romanticizes depression. Instead, a merciful acceptance permeates the work. The feelings that others labeled in her younger self that others labeled as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong,’ the older Yiyun Li requires no justification for.

This isn’t a book, necessarily, about overcoming depression and moving on triumphantly. Nor is it a book where Yiyun Li is seeking understanding, though that seems counter to the purpose of writing a memoir about depression. From the beginning of the book I was given the impression that the author didn’t care of the response of the reader and wouldn’t pander to their understanding. No excuses are presented, no explanations offered for why she was depressed beyond recognizing some of the origins of her feelings. Depression is personal, intimate, and this prose feels like the intended audience was none other than the author herself—the younger self that she can’t truly reach but is addressing.

The title encapsulates this distance and also the tone of Yuyan Li’s approach. Her depressed self isn’t an enemy but a friend she cares for. This is why there is no conquering, no triumph. One does not triumph over one’s friends or seek to conquer them, they attempt to understand. This is what appeals to me most about Dear Friend, that emerging from depression isn’t an activity that implies an award be handed over at the end.

Dear Friend is dense, circular, as tangential and meandering as exploring one’s own mind. It is through this format that Yiyun Li is able to capture the immense breadth of depression, the waves and tides of it, the way it affects relationships with strangers and intimate friends, the contradictory nature of how it provides control and also takes it away, the way one wants to cling to depression like a life boat and to shuck it as easily as changing clothes, and the stillness, the lethargy, the sense of non-being.

Dear Friend begs to be read and examined as carefully as Yiyun Li annotated the letters of authors she read. It’s stunning, heart-rending, frustrating, and difficult to parse. Yiyun Li admits she’s always been enamored with authors that elude understanding, a stance she’s tried to emulate her whole life. Though Dear Friend is confessional, this sense remains—it is deeply personal, simultaneously detached.

There’s an honesty to Yiyun Li’s thoughts and a lack of condemnation that I think some people would struggle with. But I also read it as an outline of tolerance, respect, and validation. It’s a book I will come back to in my own life as a way to articulate and understand my feelings and one that I will reference when others have misconceptions or questions about the experience of depression.

Fuckboys of Classic Literature: Far From the Madding Crowd Edition

This is a strange entry in our Fuckboys of Classic Literature category because the fuckboy of this book isn’t a character…but the author himself. I thought about inducting the soldier, Frank Troy, but ultimately decided he was more of an asshole than a fuckboy as his mistreatment of Bathsheba is rooted in his own failed, tragic love rather than a generalized view of women as existing for him alone.

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On a related note though: fuck Frank Troy.

No, the fuckboy of this story is Thomas Hardy, which is some kind of achievement. Good job, buddy? Hardy has earned his place by writing an entire book about a woman who is a paragon of independence, strength, and intelligence then completely undermining all of her achievements by making her character’s greatest failing that she’s shallow.

In the first chapter of Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy takes the point of his novel and slams it against the reader with about as much subtly as setting an airhorn off right in your ear.

Upon meeting Bathsheba for first time, Gabriel Oak observes her and, with a passing glance, understands her completely. He falls in love with her, assumedly, but as Bathsheba departs makes a wry observation that foreshadows the entire plot of Madding Crowd.

“That’s a handsome maid,” he said to Oak.

“But she has her faults,” said Gabriel.

“True, farmer.”

“And the greatest of them is—well, what it is always…Vanity.”

I fully allow that maybe Hardy didn’t mean that the greatest fault of women is vanity. Hardy could mean that the greatest fault of people is vanity, though with a similar subtlety to the quoted dialogue, Bathsheba is given a passage detailing the manner in which she admires herself in a mirror right before Oak’s comment. This action isn’t even utilitarian—Hardy makes sure to note that Bathsheba doesn’t adjust her clothing or hair, she merely wants to admire herself. I’ve seen enough paintings of women staring in mirrors with various titles alluding to vanity to not dodge this thrown brick of symbolism. I’m not sure Oak owns a mirror and if he does, he sure wouldn’t pause to admire himself in it because he’s not obsessed with himself (obviously).

Regardless, it’s still exhausting to read an entire book devoted to showing how a woman who doesn’t flinch in the fear of entering traditionally male spaces in both leisure activities (not riding side saddle), and business (going herself to seal deals on the trade floor) is brought to ruin because she meets a man that flatters her vanity.

For all that Bathsheba haughtily scoffs at like Boldwood’s attempt to woo her with wealth and comfort, she falls quickly to the flattering seduction of Troy. For a woman who seems determined to assert her independence and claims of never being tamed, all Troy has to do is swing his sword around and she falls apart with a gusty sigh. This is both not a euphemism and a euphemism.

Hardy teased me with having Bathsheba avoid the trope of being the Gold-digger™. Alas, he swerved and instead served up Vanity™. A trait, it’s worth mentioning, that Hardy identifies as being worse than “beating people down,” which is actually perplexing because between the two options, I’d choose to keep company with the vain person.

Bathsheba is humbled through Far from the Madding Crowd, and her humbling is strictly tied to her vanity. When her vanity is cured, what is her reward? To marry the man who pointed out she needed to be humbled in the first place and has steadfastly stood at her side all the while despite her, at times, cruel treatment of him. Wait…or is this Oak’s reward for being faithful, humble, and consistently Good™? It’s almost like the book, as much as it claims to be about Bathsheba is instead about a wild woman being tamed for the Good Guy™.

Darn it though, Oak is a good guy. Out of the context of this story he might be one of the best natured men in classic literature I’ve encountered aside from Henry Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Bathsheba doesn’t even save herself from the tangled web of ruin her vanity has caused—instead, a man solves the problem for her. As soon as Troy shows up, Bathsheba loses all capability for action and becomes passive, a reward for the men to fight over. Her ability to act as an agent is a thing of the past. Not like that feisty woman at the beginning of the book who marched into the men’s trading hall with her head held high, scorning societal norms could do anything about her difficult situation!

It would have been a vastly better book if Bathsheba had blown Troy away with the shotgun herself, is all I’m saying…

…and maybe I wouldn’t have to call Thomas Hardy a fuckboy.

 

BookBuddyAThon May 2017, in Review

I made it! (Sort of, almost, kind of) through my first reading challenge with my buddy @fatgirlfatbooks. She didn’t finish either, so I don’t have to feel too guilty, I don’t think. The blame lies with The City & The City for being such a slog to read. The drag to that book was unbelievable. Actually, since I’m already talking about it…

The City and The City (China Mieville)

This was the most disappointed I’ve been with a book in a while. It isn’t hard to nail down why exactly I found this book underwhelming because all of it was underwhelming except for the setting. The City & The City imagines a city that, through some vague and unanswered process, became crosshatched with a sister city. These two cities, despite the fact that they occupy the same physical space, consider themselves to be in different countries. For that reason, the societies in each city have set up a way of “not-seeing” the other city and the people who live there unless they officially cross the border.

It wasn’t a problem of suspension of belief as I was fully committed to the idea of these two cities sharing space. Politically speaking, the setting also created a lot of interesting questions: who governs the cities? Who policies them? How do the cities deal with different countries across the world? How does the economy of one city influence, or not, the other? and so on.

Unfortunately, the protagonist of the story is incredibly bland. Having finished the book, I can honestly say I still have no idea what motivated our detective. His only character traits seem to be: Average™, sort of competent at job, gruff, possesses stubble.

There’s a political conflict set up near the beginning of the book between nationalists in each city (that believe their city should be the only city) and unionists (the city is actually one city and should be merged). But is our main character of either of these political ideologies? Of course not.

He’s just rogue enough to have problems with authority but not radical enough to believe anything counter-cultural. It’s a weird choice because this doesn’t make him compelling. I kept thinking as I read the book: what if he had been a radical? What if he was one of those people who ignore the boundaries of the cities?

Beyond his lack of motivation aside from being vaguely competent at his job, the main character also seems to have no grounding interpersonal relationships. No family, two casual romantic entanglements that are mentioned in passing a couple of times then brought up at the end as if they’ve earned a pay-off of emotional impact, and a mentor relationship with a rookie that ends up going nowhere as well. Why? Why set any of this up to ignore it? The main character feels like he’s a cardboard cut out of a police detective. Ironically, I don’t think he’d pass the lamp test that is usually applied to female characters (as in, you could replace him with a lamp and the story would still occur without much being altered).

You may be wondering why I keep referring to him as the main character instead of his name. The answer is that I barely remember his name, not enough to be confident to type it. My buddy and I had this conversation about this after I challenged her to tell me 10 character traits about him:

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oh wait, that’s the guy from Romeo and Juliet

Frankly, the whole thing is baffling. Somewhere inside the kernel idea of The City & The City, regarding the co-existence of the cities, is a great novel. But this is not it.

 

To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death (Mark O’Connell)

Full disclosure, I haven’t finished this book as I type this review (I’m at 73 percent, I believe) but unless it goes completely off the rails, I feel comfortable sharing my thoughts on it.

To Be a Machine has been entertaining on several levels for me as a reader. On the first level is the subject matter it addresses—that of transhumanism and the eccentric, intelligent, and (sometimes) wealthy visionaries who are obsessed with it. Transhumanism is the devotion to the rejection of our biological forms and the vision of a future where we are no longer inhibited by them. For different transhumanists, this vision varies, but the core idea is the same. For them, the human body and all of its limitations, including but not solely mortality, must be overcome.

The second level of entertainment comes from the author’s reaction to transhumanism and the people he interviews on the topic. O’Connell has a visceral rejection of transhumanism, which is fairly common when people bring up the idea of uploading their brains into machine bodies, but also struggles with his identity as a decaying organism. Humorously, and human-ly, O’Connell confronts humanity’s apparent need to reject its own nature and also ascribe meaning to its animal life.

As someone who is heading off to complete a post-graduate degree at a university that is a bastion of transhumanism, O’Connell’s journey through these ideas as an outsider is interesting for the exact reason that I’ve never rejected them. The resistance to transhumanism, where it comes from, why people find it ghastly, is laid out bare in this book.

The Pseudo-religion interpretation of transhumanism that arises through the book is a take that I’ve never considered or encountered before and O’Connell’s arguments are compelling.

Whether it’s a topic you’ve encountered before or not, I recommend the book because the fields involved with transhumanism (technology, biology, psychology, engineering, A.I. research) will continue becoming more prevalent in the next 15 years. The ethics of bio-technology, of the enhancements and the eventual future that transhumanists envision is sure to be the heated topic of debates that will filter into the mainstream media once the fringe technology advances far enough to be mass producible. As O’Connell’s writing is entertaining, accessible, and investigative, To Be a Machine is a decent entry-level starting point for people interested in the movement.

 

That Summer (Sarah Dessen)

This was Sarah Dessen’s first book and I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of it. Many first books are easily identifiable as first books after writers have published as many as Dessen has, because like a painter’s style changes and matures over time, authors improve. In That Summer though, Dessen’s prose possesses the jaunty quality that I associate with her. To reference the title of this book, Dessen’s writing calls to mind summer because there’s a sunny, warm, breezy quality to it.

My favorite aspect of That Summer was that the focus of this coming of age story was between sisters. The novel captures how an age gap between siblings can influence how they understand or remember events during their childhood, in this case the divorce of their parents and the older sister’s behavior during the time.

The pacing of the book is slow, a lazy drift, but I’m not sure that’s a negative. Again, I think of the comparison to summer when, especially during summer breaks between high school years, the days stretch with little occurring each day.

A solid read, worth picking up if you’re a fan of Dessen and haven’t gotten around to this one yet, like me, or were thinking of skipping because it is her first.

 

Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet (Charlie N. Holmberg)

I waited for a week hoping that by the end of this challenge I would have a better idea on what I wanted to write about this book. Yet, I’m still at a loss. Maybe mixed-feelings is the best way to describe this book?

The plot was not what I was expecting, for sure. This is both good and bad—good, because it went in such an unexpected, off the rails direction (which I really liked at the end), and bad, because darn it! I wanted a magical baking book!

There is magical baking in this book, but it is an accessory rather than a focus of the plot. To describe the plot here would be difficult because it relies on the slow accumulation of memories by the main character to answer the mystery of her existence and unnaturally powerful baking skills.

I will say this—the events of the book are compelling. I didn’t want to put it down once I started and was eager to understand the mystery. The pay off at the end, where the identities of the characters are defined, is well done and I maybe, just possibly, shed a tear (I’m weak).

Maybe what’s leaving me reluctant on this book is how brutal it was. I’m not sure there’s redemption for actions of certain characters (Maire, the main character, I exclude from this because I do understand her). Maybe I felt the brutality was unnecessary? But that’s a personal preference and not related to the actual deserts of the book.

For now, I’m going to just conclude that my feelings are ambiguous. Still very much a fan of Holmberg though!

 

The Golden Compass a.k.a Northern Lights (Philip Pullman)

This is such a classic that I don’t want to spend too much time talking about it because what more can I add? All the accolades and praise for The Golden Compass are well deserved, especially for the world-building. Lyra, though she’s young, is relatable because of her pluck and genuine concern for others. The ending line to this book is absolutely incredible.

Hopefully it won’t take a reading challenge to spur me on to read the second one… using my Kindle to read library books has ruined my life in regards to reading books I own.

2016: Round-up Part 2

One of the bonuses of only working a 13-hour week is that you have a lot of time to cultivate a hobby. We say that about our copious spare time, “It’s a good year to pick up a hobby!” with a sort of nervous, giddy humor because at any moment we’re waiting for the Austrian government to realize it’s made a massive mistake in regards to the amount it pays us for how many hours we’re committed to the youths.

I swear we’re not running a con.

Here are books 26-50 of 2016.

 

26. Claimed (Evangeline Anderson): I wrote a blog post about this here. Another Alien Romance Kindle book that I read on my quest to try to find a book that would satisfy the dream of Alien/Human relationships that the game Mass Effect planted in me like a hungry tapeworm that’s sucking me of nutrients for as long as it goes unfed. Unfortunately, no aliens in alien romance books seem to look like aliens? Why is this? Did Bioware not tell the erotic fiction community of writers on Amazon that people don’t really seem to be at all disturbed by romances with aliens that look like bird dinosaurs?

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“all of our fans need to have a conversation with the lord” -Bioware, probably

 

27. I, Robot (Isaac Asimov): My first Asimov, my first steps into classic sci-fi. I plan on writing a longer post about this, but I’m really disappointed by how Asimov wrote the female protagonist of this book. Sure, the philosophy of A.I. in this book is fascinating, but women, especially women scientists, deserve better.

28. The Earl’s New Bride (Frances Fowlkes): Uh…it has a beautiful cover. I gave it 2 stars so probably skip it?

29. Darkfever (Karen Marie Moning): The Fever series is going straight on the top of my list of Problematic Faves. The problems are rampant (alpha male aggression being viewed as romantic and sexual assault as a plot device are a couple) so I would preface any recommendation for these books with that warning. With that out of the way though, this is an urban fantasy that is so engrossing it’s hard to think of anything else once you’ve started it because of the cliff hangers and the compelling devastation of the story. If you want a story about faeries where they are cruel, manipulative, and engaged in destructive conflict with each other, this might be the book for you. The five books of the series also have a satisfactory ending that winds up all the loose ends and answers all the questions that have been burning post the first book, which is a prime achievement for a series.

30. Bloodfever (Karen Marie Moning): I don’t think there’s been many series where I tore through all the books so quickly. Waiting for book 5 to come off of wait list at the library for a week and a half was so torturous I almost bought it…

31. Faefever (Karen Marie Moning): see Darkfever

32. Dreamfever (Karen Marie Moning): see Darkfever

33. Tithe (Holly Black): Reading Moning’s story about messed up faeries sent me back to reread my favorite YA story about disturbing faeries. Tithe is one of my favorite YA books—it’s mucky like a swamp at night with the magic of fireflies sprinkled about the dark trees. The book, with a deeply flawed cast, is damp, slimy, grimy, and dripping with 34magic.

34. Iron Kissed (Patricia Briggs): Every time I read one of these books I think I’m never coming back, but then I do.

35. Shadowfever (Karen Marie Moning): I didn’t perish from this wait, but I almost did.

36. Sphere (Michael Crichton): This book features important topics such as a man bemoaning the lack of coconut cake in his life. In all seriousness, I’m a fan of this book more than the movie even though they got Samuel L. Jackson in the cast. It treats the main female character better than the movie. Favorite idea out of this book: alien life might not be mortal and thus not understand the concept of morality as we do. So GOOD!

37. Love Letters to the Dead (Ava Dellaria): This book had no love letters to love of my life Friedrich Nietzsche, 0/10

38. A Court of Thorns and Roses (Sarah J. Maas): Since this is so popular on the internet and showered in praise already, I’ll hold back on spouting about it as well. Love it though!

39. Bone Crossed (Patricia Briggs): For real, I think this is the last Mercy Thompson book I read…

40. Beyond the Highland Mist (Karen Marie Moning): Hot advice for aspiring writers—go read some of the first books one of your favorite authors ever wrote and weep at how much they have improved. It’ll give you confidence! (This book was TERRIBLE but hey, Moning, you got better!)

41. Dog Songs (Mary Oliver): The fact that Oliver gathered an entire volume of poetry on her love of dogs shows how great of a human being she is and that you should obviously read this volume.

42. Dark Places (Gillian Flynn): My favorite Flynn book! I’ve read all of them so I can say that. I learned about the mania of Satanism that swept through psychology and how people treated children they thought were falling victim to these practices so the setting of Dark Places immediately delighted me. The wonderfully researched backdrop of these events fits so well with the plot. One of those books where all the characters are terrible 43people, which is Good™.

43. Seeing Stars (Simon Armitage): There’s a poem in this collection about sperm whales that haunts me.

44. Anti-Education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions (Friedrich Nietzsche): If you’re interested at all in how education systems should work, read this book. Nietzsche warns against specialization because he fears the breakdown in communication between fields. Basically, Nietzsche is a pro-liberal arts education fellow.

45. To Tame a Highland Warrior (Karen Marie Moning): The writing will get there someday…

46. Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie): OHHHH BOY. Not to spoil anything, but this trilogy was on my top ten list of the year. It felt so liberating and exhilarating to read a book where gender as a concept was archaic and be faced with my own desire to know the genders of characters anyway. Add on top of that a story that involves an A.I. adapting to being an individual, a political struggle of an entity against itself, and an aristocratic nose 46that won’t quit, I’ll be hollering about this book until my death. It’s hard to succinctly summarize this trilogy but it made me love science-fiction passionately.

47. Soulless (Gail Carriger): I’m actually a little bitter about this book because it provided the perfect opportunity in the world-building to have an asexual main character and instead she just ups and marries a werewolf so like…what was the point, I ask you? Plus, it had that Regency inspired setting that I love so yeah, basically let down of the year probably.

48. Princess of the Midnight Ball (Jessica Day George): The prose of this book was in the style of a traditional fairy-tale, which didn’t really do it for me. But a decent read, if you’re into fairy-tale retellings.

49. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley): Check out why Bernard Marx is a fuckboy here. Utopia or Dystopia, you know? If you really think about it…

50. Sabriel (Garth Nix): Really solid fantasy read. I’m not sure what else to say about it? Nix is really good at world-building and I’m also glad that the romance in this took a definite back seat, allowing the female main character to have a purpose more than True Love™. Read if you love necromancy!

 

He & It, She & It: Differences in Male and Female Fantasy of Android Lovers

Notes: this piece has reference to sexual abuse and assault. The analysis
focuses on a heterosexual dynamic insofar as a machine can be considered gendered
.

 

What would it mean to love a machine and, in return, be loved by a machine? The potentiality of robot lovers is a ubiquitous trope in science-fiction, not a recent one either, that indicates the cultural belief that artificial intelligence will not only exist in the future, but that human beings will desire to carry out relationships with these machine-entities. The acceptance that the natural course for artificial intelligence is for it to be housed in a human-like body is a correlated trope among science fiction media. Why this seems to be natural conclusion of machine entities is sometimes questioned—in I, Robot, the film based on Isaac Asimov’s well-known work, Will Smith’s character asks about the androids, “Why do you give them faces?”

It is as though once the intellectual capabilities of a machine progress far enough for it to be considered an individual, we as humans feel compelled to grant that entity with a body. Further than that though, compelled to give them a body like our own and with capabilities similar to our own, which in many ways seeks to incur our emotional response towards these entities to be empathy. In the same way that Will Smith asks about why the androids have faces, with confusion and perhaps disgust, in Ex Machina Domhnall Gleeson’s character Caleb questions android programmer Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac, why he has given his A.I. the concept of sexuality.

There’s a question at the heart of these inquiries, one that targets what it means to be an individual, an entity, a person. As the capabilities of computers increasingly races forward with ability for calculation and recall that no human will be able to compete with, the need to draw a line between us, those understood to be individuals, and them, those understood to be merely machines, becomes of ethical importance. As long as a computer remains a machine, or rather, as long as it doesn’t qualify as an entity, it can remain a tool. Being a tool rather than an entity carries on the back of its definition the determination of what ethics are applied to its function—how we humans may handle it for our own uses, for example.

The line between entity and machine surely has to be the capacity for emotion—sympathy and empathy, passionate and platonic love, frustration, pride, wants, hopes and fears. A computer can say, “I am sad,” if programmed to do so and even can do so with complex parameters to define the situations in which an expression of such an emotion is logical or expected. In this example though, few people would believe that the computer “feels” the emotion behind the words.

With these two conflicting ideas, that of entity or tool and the experience of emotions, the idea of engaging in a romantic relationship with an android is intriguing and of two natures: on one hand, questionable in sincerity, on the other, a fantasy. There is a gendered divide that arises when examining machine entity romances or sexual relationships. For men, the possibilities of an android partner conflate a power-fantasy while for women the exact opposite is true, it is a security-fantasy.

He & It, the male perspective on the android fantasy, is riddled with disturbing notions of power-fantasy and especially so in regards to sexual power-fantasy. Browsing pop-media for examples of female androids has an uncomfortable likeness to skimming a porn magazine. The women androids are ridiculously beautiful, over-sexed (for what use does a machine entity have for exaggerated sexual organs?) and, perhaps most disturbingly, obedient. Tammy Oler overviews examples of this in her piece “Of Women Borg,” but I’d like to circle around to the first example of female androids I raised in this paper, that of the entities in Ex Machina.

The programmer of these A.I. entities, Nathan, is drenched with an overt, and disturbing, veneer of threatening masculinity that is obvious from the first scene in which we encounter him, sweaty and confident after boxing a punching bag. A foreshadowing, in fact, of his need to be physically strong in order to grapple his misbehaving creations into submission, but that’s to get ahead of ourselves. Nathan has taken it for granted since he began his project chasing after true artificial intelligence that his creation would be sexual. It certainly fits his purposes—he keeps one of the subservient creations as a maid, cook, and sex toy. She remains silent the entire film, another layer to the utter power-fantasy she encapsulates, for Nathan does not want her to even communicate with his male house-guest.

Nathan created an intelligence, for it is intelligent, complete with emotions and desires of its own, only to bind it into sexual slavery. This is where the concept of entity becomes important, for if this android was a mere machine, his use of it for sex wouldn’t be violation. After all, that would be no different than having sex with an artificial vagina with added body to interact with. But that is not what Nathan has done, somehow that wasn’t enough for him. He created an entity and rapes it, indefinitely and without remorse.

The evidence that Kyoko is not a mere machine is apparent in its (her?) behavior—she sits slumped in hallways, head down, a classic image of someone traumatized. When the opportunity arises, she holds a knife to her abuser and helps murder him. This reflects trauma and revenge; these are the actions of an entity that experiences resentment, hatred, suffering.

Male power-fantasy surfaces in androids as an opportunity for a man to have a woman who obeys all commands without complaint—objects of desire for men who don’t have to navigate concepts of consent as they would with a real woman. Their lover will always find them attractive, perfect, intelligent. Their lover will never stray, a programmed loyalty that eliminates the need for jealousy or fear of rejection. An android woman eliminates male insecurity by promising the man that, to his lover, he’ll always be everything to her and she’ll never leave.

As Oler succinctly phrases it, “In the unchecked hands of men, technology will be used to create ‘better’ women—sexier, subservient private property—and real women will be made redundant.” Ex Machina exemplifies this; Nathan has no physical contact with any other humans in his massive, private estate and there are no human women present in the film. If anything, Ex Machina is a warning on this fantasy—no entity, human or artificial intelligence, will accept the dehumanizing abuse of male power.

Conversely, the She & It perspective of female fantasy and android lovers is not a power-fantasy, but a security or safety-fantasy. The stark contrast between what women view as a possibility out of android lovers and what men do is sobering, said mildly, and tragic, if said honestly. Where men would use the programming of an entity to force it into consent, women view that programming as an opportunity to force the respect of consent. In other words, the male fantasy see androids that are ready for sex at any moment and the female fantasy sees androids that won’t force sex at any time.

This safety-fantasy is expressed explicitly multiple times in Marge Piercy’s He, She & It. The repeated reference to this are striking, “He has total inhibition blocks against sexual violence,” one of Yod’s creator tells his future lover, Shira. This is an aspect of the male android’s nature that will eventually raise him above his male peers when it comes to Shira’s desire and her love.

If this wasn’t obvious enough, Piercy brow-beats the fact into us once more with a conversation Yod and Shira have before they engage in sex: “I would never hurt you, I could never hurt you. Believe that.” Shira’s reply? “That would make you different indeed from any man I’ve known.”

Though it could come across as heavy-handed, these conversations between Shira and her android lover instead tap directly into the desire of women to be safe and especially to be safe in the hands of men. It begs women to question, what if? What if there was someone I knew I could be safe with because they are incapable of harming me? What if I never had to fear that my ‘no’ would be ignored? The ease of these desires indicates the generalized fear and victimization of women in a patriarchal society that is fraught with rape culture.

The male android in this book almost ceases to be “male,” an idea that Shira occasionally ruminates on. For women, perhaps the idea of an entity as a lover that isn’t gendered is easier to accept because it means removing the known threats of masculinity they are familiar with. Yod has a male body but what Shira considers a feminine mind.

Shira’s lover Yod comes with other benefits, some that are more superficial like his inability to conceive of age or beauty. Yod is indifferent to Shira’s physical appearance, quieting an insecurity of women that their lover will leave them for someone more attractive or will stop being attractive to them as they grow older. The fantasy extends to Yod being a listener, he’s infinitely attentive and unendingly tender. But unlike the silent entities in Ex Machina, Yod isn’t silenced—the core of his relationship with Shira is reciprocity. They experience a melding of minds while online that reflects their desires for each other, to know and be known.

On these two opposite sides of the spectrum, we see entities that are abused by humans or elevated to a higher status due to their nature. Ex Machina is a disturbing film for women because it reaffirms what many women believe men desire out of them. It is also a disturbing film for men, I hope, because the consequences of male desire in the film is a response of zero mercy from the abused entities. He, She and It has been labeled a misandrist text, not for surprising reasons. All of the human men in the book are insecure, self-inflated with ego, resentful and bitter towards women if not dismissive, and obsessed with their own status. Yod is praised for not being male as a human man is male and is the hero of the story. In machine entities, humans see possibilities for relationships lacking features that humans find lackluster in what is currently available to them. Unfortunately, what this has revealed about what humans find lacking in relationships of this day-and-age is unflattering to our culture. It highlights the deep divide between genders, one which is losing power and authority over the other and is desperate to retain that status, and one that dreams of a future where fear of assault is unnecessary.

BookBuddyAThon May 2017

I’m participating in the #buddyreadathon this year! My buddy, of course, is @fatgirlfatbooks .

buddyread

Buddy read: a book you and your buddy read together. Our selection: The City and the City by China Mieville.

We both added this book to our TBR lists so long ago that neither of us remember any more what the plot of the book is but we think it’s science fiction (?).

Favorite color: a book that has a cover that is the same color as your buddy’s favorite. My selection: To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell.

I picked this book because my buddy and I spend a lot of time talking about robots and A.I. so book about transhumanism seemed relevant to our interests…and it turns out that yellow is not a common book cover color…

Title: a book with the same first letter in the title as your buddy’s name. My selection: That Summer by Sarah Dessen.

I’ve read a lot of books by Sarah Dessen, but this one (which I believe is her first) is one I haven’t yet. As an added bonus, it meant that I had a book that has both initials of my buddy’s name. Overachieving here.

Buddy’s pick: provide your buddy with three books, they will choose one for you to read. My buddy’s selection: Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet by Charlie N. Holmberg.

Holmberg’s Paper Magician is positively regarded in these parts, so Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet had that going for it already. My buddy and I also discovered that we share a weakness for baking and the main character in this book is a magic baker. Maybe the book I’m most excited to read for this challenge, I bought this book a while ago but it was lost in the shuffle of my library loans so thanks to my buddy!

Guilty pleasure read: a book that you’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten around to. My selection: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.

My good friend gifted me this entire trilogy for Christmas and I’ve really been meaning to read them but I keep falling behind on my library loans and not having time for my physical books! My book is the U.K. version, so I’ll technically be reading Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. She was shocked I missed this during my childhood and her family even treated me to some Tokay over the holidays so it’s time for me to read these…

Once the challenge is over, I’ll post my impressions of the books (and maybe some comments from my buddy). Time to go find out what The City and the City is actually about…

April 2017: Round-up

It was supposed to be the edge of summer and yet, while I was at Strobl am Wolfgangsee in late April, we got one last snowfall. Excellent! There was a grand total of two of us who were happy about that, but I’m glad to delay the summer heat for a weekend. Though, maybe the strange weather impaired my decision making ability because I drank some water from the See. I’m waiting at any moment for illness.

Yes, it’s been a good changing of the seasons so far here in southern Austria…

As for the reads? I only made it through 14 books this month but I toppled a couple of longer books like Fall of Hyperion, which left me in a week long daze where I was unable to do anything but stare at the ceiling and listen to “Man Who Sold the World” by David Bowie on repeat, so there’s that.

Hunted is a great fairy tale retelling of Beauty and the Beast, complete with my favorite aesthetic of a castle surrounded by endless snowfall. Mary Roach continues to be the dream researcher with Grunt, confronting poor professions with all the questions about inappropriate topics we want to know but are too embarrassed to ask.

Best of April 2017Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

The competition for best book this month was steep. I have a piece on He, She & It by Marge Piercy coming on Monday and Here I Am by Jonathon Safran Foer is a direct fit for me when it comes to the topic of differences between generations and how they define their identities. Unfortunately for these two books, though, I finished the second book in Dan Simmon’s Hyperion cantos and lost my damn mind. Hyperion/Fall of Hyperion farcasted straight to the top of my favorite books of all time list, so I’m obligated to give it the best of award for this month.

At the end of every chapter as I read this book I ended up mouthing “oh my god.” That’s how good this book is. The themes, each one complex enough to deserve its own essay, include: the destructive nature of tourism, A.I. becoming self aware, the stagnant state of evolution of the human genome, religion and sacrifice, the nature of poetry, destroying humanity to save the world, metal death creatures, time travel, the insignificance of the human race in the universe, what would happen if we could resurrect poets who died young and give them all the memories of their life to see if they would continue creating work, and putting your middle fingers up at whatever God you believe in.

For all that, it might be strange to say that there are parts of this book that are genuinely funny and had me laughing in between the continual “oh my god”s. The last fatline squirt is one of the most delightful lines of literature and lives up to the delight that the name ‘fatline squirt’ already is.

If I don’t stop now, I never will, but before I get to the Worst of April, I’m going to listen to “Man Who Sold the World” and dip into a fugue state for a while.

Worst of April 2017: Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza

I crossed out the Worst because I don’t think this book is bad, I was just disappointed by aspects of it. Empress has a lot of positive qualities–a diverse cast, space travel, dramatic murder politics, and a fun robot friend. The world-building in the universe is intriguing, I’ll be thinking about the implications of having memory completely tied up in a computer in our heads for a while, for example, and Belleza created cultures that feel intricate and well founded.

Unfortunately, all of this good stuff is bogged down by pacing problems. I believe this series is going to be a duo-logy, but for once in my life I’m going to say that instead of editing down, this book should have been expanded. All of the events in this book happen so fast. They’re good events! I want to read more about them! Plenty of scenes deserved more time than they were given and the backstories of characters were provided but in intense, brief injections.

Sometimes the plot would leap forward and characters would relate a lot of stuff that happened in the time leap with a sentence or two, all of which just made me wish I had been able to read that full scene instead of hearing about it in retrospect.

It’s a compliment to the story that Belleza has written that I actually wanted more time with it and I’m looking forward to the second book in the series as well as work from her in the future.

(I’m cutting off David Bowie to save me from myself.)