Book review: The Grief Hole by Kaaron Warren

The Grief HoleThe Grief Hole by Kaaron Warren

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who’d have thought musicians have a dark side?

Theresa helps women find emergency housing. But sometimes that isn’t enough. Sometimes she has to intervene because she can see ghosts clustering around an imminent victim. After an intervention leaves her battered, she goes to reconnect with her Uncle and Aunt, where she is drawn into the mystery surrounding her lost cousin and her art. Is she strong enough to not be drawn in too far?

This is a tough review for me to write as I haven’t actually finished it, yet feel compelled to say something before DNFing.

I bought Kaaron’s book almost two years ago and thought it was about damned time I read it. I was immediately drawn in. As much as I hate using the terms “powerful” and “evocative” in book reviews,* I actually think they are apt here. There are some real gut-punch moments that bring you to the world of grief. The list of awards it has won is thus unsurprising.

And of course, this is exactly the time to read such a book…

With the stress of a pandemic, the upheavals to work, the uncertainties of the near future, this was just not the sort of book I could keep reading. This is a compliment to Kaaron, as this book certainly “evokes”* but that is just not what I need right now. I will have to return to finish the last third when real-life feels less like a horror novel.

* There are quite a few buzzwords that appear in book reviews and blurbs that don’t really say anything. Powerful? Like a steroid munching Nordic strongman, or a highly effecting and engaging narrative? Evocative? As in the imagination is stirred, or the emotions, or both?

Expect my next fiction review to be of something a little more light-hearted.

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Book vs Movie: Jojo Rabbit – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference? from CineFix is the hilarious Jojo Rabbit based upon Caging Skies.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that I haven’t decided to read a book about an abusive Nazi protagonist during the second World War. Obviously, that sort of book would be such a fun read and exactly the sort of rollicking good time I would make space for in my limited reading time.

It will probably come as a major surprise that I haven’t seen Jojo Rabbit as yet. How could I not have seen a movie involving Taika Waititi?

brody-jojorabbit

The answer is children. If you ever want to see a movie in cinemas ever again, either don’t have kids or be very happy abandoning them with a teenager who is only pretending to look after them while they mix your 30-year-old single malt with Coke.

… Or take them along to the cinema with you, like the kids we saw watching Deadpool 2. I’m sure those kids will grow up just fine. Especially once their teacher finally tells them what a strap-on is.

So the take-away from this post is that I want to see the movie even more now.

Book review: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Pyramids (Discworld, #7)Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Camels would receive more admiration if they published in the peer-reviewed literature and spat in fewer people’s faces.

Teppic sets out from home to learn a trade. An honourable trade. An important trade. A valued trade. So he attends Ankh-Morpork’s famed assassins’ school. But he has barely graduated when his father dies and he has to return to the family business: king of an ancient land. His new worldliness clashes with the millennia of tradition held in place by the priests of Djelibeybi. These traditions lead to cataclysm and Teppic has to save the land of pyramids before war breaks out. Because war has to break out. It’s tradition.

As I was reading Pyramids – the bit with You Bastard calculating the flares – the sheer scale of the Discworld novels struck me. There are so many little pieces crammed into each book that you wonder how Sir Terry managed to repeat that effort over 40 times. It probably struck me because Pyramids is a more straight-forward narrative with a focus on the character of Teppic. When compared to many of the other Discworld novels I’ve read of late, this one is an “easy read”.

Definitely a 4 mathematical genius camels out of 5 novel.

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Afrofuturism: From Books to Blockbusters

Time for another instalment of It’s Lit. This month they discuss Afrofuturism.

I have to admit that my exposure to Afrofuturism outside of the MCU and music (see below) is limited to one aborted attempt at one of NK Jemisin’s novels. I do own Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed and Samuel Delany’s Babel-17… and haven’t read them yet. That should still get me cool points, right?

Which got me thinking about a point made in the video. Obviously, this genre is not new, yet my personal exposure is somewhat limited. So, just out of interest, I checked my library. No Du Bois, no Butler, no Womack. Jemisin and Tomi Adeyemi do feature. I guess you just need to be a very recent award-winning author to be picked up by libraries.

The point being, black storytelling does seem to face extra hurdles in reaching an audience. Aboriginal authors appear to face similar hurdles unless you’re a professor of writing at a major university and multi-award-winning author.

At least the video has some titles and authors we can all go out and buy.

With the success of Black Panther, the term Afro-Futurism got pushed into the mainstream. But what is Afro-Futurism and what is its place in Black storytelling? In this episode, we give you the starter pack on answering that question.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favourite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavour.

The greatest mashup you’ll ever hear:

Book review: Buddhism is Not What You Think by Steve Hagen

Buddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond BeliefsBuddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs by Steve Hagen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Enlightenment or your money back!

How can we see the world in each moment, rather than merely as what we think, hope, or fear it is?
How can we base our actions on reality, rather than on the longing and loathing of our hearts and minds?
How can we live lives that are wise, compassionate, and in tune with reality?
And how can we separate the wisdom of Buddhism from the cultural trappings and misconceptions that have come to be associated with it?

Steve Hagen’s Buddhism is Not What You Think is pretty straight forward. He sets out to answer the above four questions whilst addressing the title of the book. And he does this in the introduction. The rest of the book is pretty much just examples to drive the main point home.

There aren’t too many books that wrap their entire argument/premise up quite this quickly. But that probably comes back to the message Hagen is trying to get across about Buddhism and truth. Essentially, we already know truth, but we are too caught up in everything else in life to see it. Thus, Zen practice and Buddhism are about helping get past the distractions.

This was a fairly solid book for advice around Zen practice. But the philosophy aspects I was after were a bit light on.

We often think we know things when in fact it’s only our imagination taking us further and further away from what is actually happening. What we imagine then seems very real to us. Soon we’re caught up in our imaginary longings and loathings. But if you’re here – truly present – you realize there’s nothing to run from or to go after. You can stay calm…Just be with this moment and see what’s going on.

 

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Book review: Blackwater by Jeremy Scahill

Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary ArmyBlackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let’s privatise the military. How could that possibly go wrong?

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army outlines the political landscape of Blackwater’s founding, the personal history of several key players – particularly Erik Prince – and the actions and intentions that made the company so infamous. It attempts to explain and document how mercenaries went through a rebranding to become the operators of choice in conflict zones around the world.

Okay, so I thought I had read enough news articles and the like to have some idea of what Blackwater was about. Mercenaries and the name Blackwater became something of a shorthand for “loose cannons”, becoming the villains in movies and TV shows. But as Scahill outlines, the reality and totality are so much worse than I’d thought. Blackwater and several other companies are discussed, along with the players who made this all possible. You’ll recognise many of the politician’s names, but maybe less so the “contractors”. This was disturbing reading.

They couldn’t get a coalition of the willing, so they turned to a coalition of the billing.

There were a few very important points that were made. The first was how senior political figures decided they wanted to privatise the military and associated intelligence work. This is such a terrible idea that you have to be pretty ideologically bent-out-of-shape to think it is good. The most troubling reason for this being terrible is the lack of accountability this gives these newly privatised people with guns, bombs, and shady contacts. As numerous leaks have shown over the years, the military is already far too unaccountable.*

Which brings me to the second point, that once they are privatised, the companies lobby hard to remain unaccountable, saying they don’t fall under military rules because they are private citizens, and that they don’t fall under civilian rules because they are acting as part of a military force. In essence, they can literally commit murder and they have been positioned by their lobbyists and key politicians to never be even investigated for the crime.

Those points should disturb everyone. You may not see a problem with war profiteering, or religious fundamentalists pushing for war and creating conflict (or at least involving themselves in them), or free marketeers wanting to privatise everything, or private companies hiring “shoot-first-never-answer/ask-questions” mercenaries to guard their kitchen supplies. But I think we can all agree that you have to be accountable for your actions, and Blackwater (et al.) has not been.

After reading this book you’d think Erik Prince would suffer some consequences…. Nope. He’s still going.

The only complaint I have about Scahill’s book is that it was somewhat repetitive. Several points were raised repeatedly, not to highlight them, but because the surrounding issues or players were being discussed again.

After reading this I can only hope that the various players involved aren’t allowed to have positions of power and influence ever again.**

* Because schools, hospitals, cafes, etc are totally legit military targets and not war crimes.
** My hopes will remain unfulfilled, I’m afraid.

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How much do we spend on reading?

A few years ago I published a table from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wow, you sure know how to party!

Thanks.

Anyway, that table highlighted how much Americans spent on reading per year. Because I’m a Nerdus scientificus, for fun I decided to collate the stats in a spreadsheet and create some graphs.

You are just one big party animal, aren’t you!

I certainly am.

So the first chart is a summary of inflation-adjusted US income, expenditure, entertainment spend, and reading spend by the average “consumer unit”. A consumer unit is obviously the economists’ way of referring to a living, breathing, thinking, cog in the economic machine. Apply the appropriate conversion factors for your country.*

Untitled-1

As you can see, US income and spending haven’t really changed in two decades in real terms. That’s right, despite more wealth having been created in the economy since 2000, the average cog in the machine hasn’t seen a change to their take-home pay. Sidenote: I noticed union membership is rather low in the US as well. Might be related.

Over that same time period, the spending on reading has declined. The line for entertainment wasn’t particularly clear in the above chart, so I made this second one.

Untitled-2

It could be argued that entertainment spend is roughly static over time, while reading spend is clearly declining in real terms. But the question is, what does this mean?

The obvious conclusion that Guardian columnists and other industry wonks will make is that (choose one or all to write your opinion column today!):

  • Kids these days are playing Facepage and Tweeters rather than reading books.
  • People have short attention spans and can’t handle reading decent books.
  • Too many people are Netflixing and Chilling.
  • Something derisive about gaming.
  • Blame falling education standards or immigrants or something.

Yes, the media landscape is more diverse now. This is a true fact, not an alternative one. But that doesn’t really explain the decline. Because reading also became cheaper over that time period. Amazon entered the market, heavily discounting paper books and shipped directly from the warehouse. E-books became a thing, which again changed the cost of buying books.

So you have to question how good a metric spending is to reading. Unless you are writing an industry opinion piece.

I also mentioned the lack of change in household income in real terms. It would be interesting to dig up some figures on financial stress for the average household over this same time period. And I’d posit that entertainment is more likely to involve passive forms, like television, than active forms like reading when stress is higher.

Another metric I’ve discussed before is the reported reading figures. Some of those figures suggest people are actually reading more now, while other figures of how much that is are less encouraging.

Ideally, the industry figures would be more transparent. That way someone could actually crunch the data and to track average individual book consumption and reading totals over time. Then we could put some opinion columnists out of work.

* By this I mean look at the currency conversions and think about whether you reckon your country-people would spend more or less of their household earnings on reading than an average American. More. The answer is going to be more. We’ve seen their leaders.