Review:The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of Firearms

The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of FirearmsThe Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of Firearms by Iain Overton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poignant, thoughtful, and surprisingly balanced, which isn’t something you see very often with a topic as divisive as guns. Author Iain Overton travels around the world to understand the gun from the many, many different people whose lives it has affected: victims, killers, traders, creators, hunters, enthusiasts, and doctors. He doesn’t hold anything back; if the best way to understand hunting is to be a hunter, he goes out and does that. His expression of remorse and regret after killing an animal on a hunting trip in Africa was particularly emotional and heartfelt.

This is a book I would absolutely recommend to people who want to dive into the discussion about firearms and their place in the world. Overton doesn’t hold back on any aspect; he acknowledges that guns are power incarnate and that shooting them can feel very, very fun. He acknowledges that they can be collected and can be valuable and historical. But he also faces what they do to people, what they do to bodies and lives. And the result of his experiences are a decidedly less sanguine feeling about them as a whole, even as he understands them.

Unfortunately, Overton’s experiences tell us that guns aren’t going away. Not soon, maybe not ever (or if they do, it’s only because something more powerful replaced them). Nevertheless, understanding them can help come to terms with their role in shaping our world and for that reason alone, this is a book I think you should read.

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Review: Jennifer Government

Jennifer GovernmentJennifer Government by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’ve never read a dystopia quite like this one.

“1984” set the tone for the dystopian future; the government that controls everything and everyone. It’s a future we fear constantly in an age of mass surveillance and secret NSA projects and black ops teams. The totalitarian nightmare.

“Jennifer Government” is a very different type of dystopia. Corporations are all-powerful and people take the last names of the companies they work for. Everything can be bought and those with the most money (corporations) have the most power. It’s a very different vision of the future and it makes for a fascinating setting.

The story itself is about a government agent (the titular “Jennifer Government”) who is hunting an executive responsible for killing fourteen people as part of a marketing promotion. That’s the simplified version; along the way, there’s a weave of different characters crossing paths and double crossing each other. The NRA is a private military organization. It’s nuts. And it’s awesome.

Barry’s writing style is taut and quick, in the “short chapter” tradition that keeps the pages turning at a lightning pace. It makes for the “can’t-put-it-down” experience.

With such glowing praise, why only four stars out of five? After I finished the book, I realized how much I still wanted to know about it. How did history develop in such a way that the government became a powerless bureaucracy and the culture evolved that people named themselves for their employers? The novel’s relentless pace became a problem; things I wanted to stop and explore I instead blazed past on chase scenes and escapes.

There isn’t time to wonder about the hows and the whys as the bullets are flying and the stakes are raised. The dialogue itself tends to be action movie-esque, a vehicle to keep things moving. But there are so many fascinating questions; how did we get here, why is the world like this, and no one seemed willing to ask them. A lost opportunity, if ever there was one.

In the end, I came away feeling as though I’d gulped down a very tasty meal, but so quickly that I didn’t really get a chance to taste it.

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Review: O: A Presidential Novel

O: A Presidential NovelO: A Presidential Novel by Anonymous
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

What a mess. “O” fails to live up to the standard (which really wasn’t that high) set by its obvious inspiration “Primary Colors” as a wink-wink fictional account of the 2012 election campaign between Obama and Romney. Even though it’s non-fiction, “Double Down” by Mark Halperin creates a more exciting narrative of the race, and that’s without the freedom to create any series of events one desires, since fiction doesn’t have to correspond to real events.

The story itself is a wandering mess. Point-of-view changes occur back and forth mid-chapter in an odd fashion. Despite being billed a book about “what O(bama) is really thinking,” he’s surprisingly absent for most of the book. Instead, we spend a lot of time looking over the shoulder of campaign manager Cal Regan and spend a lot of time going back and forth over the same issues of campaigning. Over and over.

Though it owes its existence to Primary Colors, O suffers in every comparison. Perhaps it’s because the Clintons, love ’em or hate ’em, are larger-than-life characters even in real life, with drama and scandal and intrigue. Contrast Bill Clinton with “No Drama Obama” and you see why the best the author can do is come up with a tepid “donor tries to share dirt about campaign rival” storyline that isn’t interesting, isn’t intense, and never actually turns into anything. Considering how little the story actually seems to follow the 2012 campaign, it’s a wonder why the author didn’t invent something more dramatic. The Republican opponent, Tom Morrison, seems to be a fusion between McCain (war hero) and Romney (businessman), so . . . maybe we’re just reading some guy’s political fan fiction about the hypothetical candidate he wishes could have existed to run against Obama?

Instead, we get side references to the fact that Obama likes to smoke, wishes he could play more rounds of gold, and swears sometimes. Riveting stuff.

If you want a more exciting political fiction novel that is based (loosely) on real people, read Primary Colors; it holds up better, and this is from someone who wasn’t overly impressed with that book, either. If you want a narrative that actually managed to be interesting, and has the added benefit of being true, look at Mark Halperin’s works, “Game Changer” and “Double Down,” about the 2008 and 2012 campaigns respectively. They’re good stories, and both have the added benefit of being based on actual events.

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Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2

Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2 by Ben Gelinas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite my love for in-game lore and the lore of Dragon Age, this book falls into the “so okay it’s average” camp. That’s not for a lack of trying on the author; the production value on this book is tremendous. The art itself is gorgeous. I spent a long time looking at the two-page spread on the inside cover that has (as far as I can tell) every named NPC from all three games in a group portrait. The rest of the book is lovely as well, with different colors and styles to create the feel of a document that might actually exist within the game world.

The problems arise from the fact that this is an attempt at creating a comprehensive tome about a world that revolves around player choice, which creates vastly different world states. The level of effort that goes into writing around things like the gender and identities of the three protagonist characters (The Warden, Hawk, and the Inquisitor) go to almost comical lengths. “Details of Hawke’s identity, gender and abilities differ depending on who’s telling the story.”

Except that in the game, Hawke (the player character) defeats a powerful enemy in single combat and saves all the nobles of the city, which is what prompts them to name Hawke “the Champion of Kirkwall.” In-game, everyone is aware that Hawke is a man or a woman, a mage, a warrior, or a rogue, because the other versions of that character just don’t exist. It’s only in the effort to create a narrative that unifies all of these possible choices that makes this silly non-entity description of Hawke possible.

And that’s a huge problem when three of the most important characters in the world have this “non-entity” status. But even for defined characters like party members, the accounts have this curiously abrupt quality where the text just stops abruptly as soon as it gets to describing what might have happened to them in the game. Because, again, the world state can be different. Characters can live and die depending on your choices, which is what makes the Dragon Age games so much fun; your version of Thedas can be unique to you. But it makes a universal account impossible.

I still commend the author for spending a tremendous attention to detail. The bits that don’t deal with the characters and content of the games are excellent. Background stories from places we haven’t been or events that took place before the game . . . these are interesting. The creation of legends, too, is handled well. But so much of the book is focused on the events and characters of the games that it’s hard to wholeheartedly recommend the book for these other interesting bits.

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Review: The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe

The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the UniverseThe Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe by Thomas Levenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A surprisingly trim and concise history on the period of time between Le Verrier’s discovery of Neptune and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In that interim period, a planet named Vulcan was born, lived in the minds of many, and then faded into obscurity before finally being decisively put down by Einstein many years later.

Considering the heavy topics this book covers (Newton’s theories, the discovery of Neptune, Einstein’s work, etc.), you’ll get the feeling that author Thomas Levenson is moving through the subject at warp speed. Compared to “Chasing Venus,” a book by Andrea Wulf about the early efforts to measure the transit of Venus across the sun, the effort to identify a planet between Mercury and the sun seem almost benign in comparison to that other exhaustively detailed effort. And before we’ve even had more than a few moments to consider that observational evidence wasn’t coming in, we’re jumping ahead in history to Einstein and the coup de grace.

Despite all that, it’s a great pop sci book. The existence of hypothetical planets is a fascinating topic on its own (how many people have ever even heard of such a thing as a hypothetical planet, let alone one that orbited the sun closer than Mercury?) and it’s especially relevant given astronomer Mike Brown’s announcement that there is a true ninth planet out beyond Pluto. At the moment, the Ninth Planet exists only on paper and in equations, and this book is an object lesson on all that this means; for while Neptune was discovered via the power of math and logic, so too was Vulcan inferred. Which will the Ninth Planet be? I can’t wait to find out and that’s what makes this book a great read. It’s one thing to go back and look at an interesting bit of scientific history; it’s ever so much more thrilling when you realize that we’re living through our own period of intense astronomical discovery.

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Review: Sword of Destiny

Sword of DestinySword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Witcher series continues to be a breath of fresh air for the fantasy genre, which continues to be a supremely ironic thing to say considering this book was first published in 1992. This book continues the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, notable monster slayer and sorceress lover. The book itself is a collection of short stories as Geralt moves from one adventure to another, though these tales feel more connected than the stories from the previous book “the Last Wish.” In particular, we see how some of the biggest arcs of the Witcher storyline begin to take shape, especially the first meeting between Geralt and his Child of Destiny, Ciri (which was a hugely exciting moment considering Ciri’s role in the Witcher 3).

If there’s one thing about this book that I wasn’t crazy about, it’s this; I feel very much like I’m exploring this world without a road map, and not in a cool “let’s see what’s out there” way but in a “I feel like I’m missing something important here.” A lot of terminology isn’t explained and concepts and descriptions must be inferred from context, which is sometimes difficult considering the sparse, utilitarian writing style. It’s a problem with the previous book as well, honestly, but it didn’t bother me as much because even though it was the first book, I thought it might all be explained. Here, though, I was aware that despite having played one of the games, read two novels, and a graphic novel . . . there were still details that I didn’t quite follow.

That said, don’t overlook this book. It’s a wonderful fantasy world and everything about it and everyone in it are interesting and exciting. Most of all, however, is the fact that nothing about the Witcher feels like it’s in the long shadow cast by the Lord of the Rings. I have no idea if author Andrezj Sapkowski ever read Lord of the Rings, but even if he did, its influence isn’t here. Maybe it’s a product of cultural difference; the Witcher draws very heavily on its polish origins, but for an American reader, that creates a feeling of an entirely new world, something that isn’t easy to come by in the fantasy genre.

So, although I didn’t plow through this book with the reckless abandon of the first volume, I still enjoyed my time in Geralt’s world and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

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Review: 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea

I think this is a much better book than my rating gives it credit for. There’s always something intensely subjective about a review, something that often has nothing to do with the quality of the text itself, that goes into the final “what do I rate this” decision. It could be the reader’s mood that particular day, it could be the juxtaposition of what else the reader is working on at the time, or it could be the phase of the moon or Saturn being in retrograde, or whatever.

I know that I personally tend to read in cycles, where I’ll focus on a particular topic or subject at a time, read through a few books, then move on to the next one. I haven’t really been in a survival story mood lately, which begs the question: is that my fault or the books? I leave it to you to decide.

Regardless, there’s a lot to like here. Franklin has an excellent writing style and keeps a firm grip on the direction of the narrative (ironically the opposite of how survivor Alvarenga’s boat drifts aimlessly across the ocean). There’s nothing worse in a nonfiction adventure story than an author who insists on inserting him or herself into the text, which can work if it’s done well . . . but it’s usually not done well. Franklin has a style like a good investigative journalist, interested in getting the facts and the truth as much as possible, but without editorializing on the subject.

My biggest problem with the story comes from the fact that one’s world becomes very, very small when one is adrift at sea. This is a huge revelation, I know, so bear with me. There are plenty of details to keep things go; tropical storms, whale sharks, water spouts, and the perpetual struggle to survive, but at some point when you’re adrift, the cycle settles in: food, water, fatigue, despair, sunburn. At some point, we’ve gotten through the fact that you have to eat some pretty disgusting things to survive and it’s hard to keep your hopes up.

Overall, if you’re hungry (heh) for a good survival at sea story, I think this book will deliver on exactly what you’re looking for. Or if you want to meditate on “how much worse can it get” for a person struggling to survive, this book is for you. If you’re not a survival story kind of reader, though, I think you can drift on.

Review: Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century

Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American CenturyExit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century by Daniel Oppenheimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book largely due to the chapter on Christopher Hitchens, who has long been a writer I’ve admired (his support for the Iraq War notwithstanding). I was very interested in seeing a neutral perspective on Hitchens, since I already have read at length what Hitchens himself said about that decision.

Before we get to the Hitch, however, we move through history as we explore the political careers of several other Leftists who ultimately, well, left. On the first few chapters, I am more ambivalent; these stories are likely going to be of more interest to those who are familiar with the men in question. I myself had only the vaguest recollection of who Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham was (before going to look it up on Google).

Although it was likely not the author’s original intention, what struck me as most interesting about the chapters on very early Leftists like Chambers and Burnham was the stark reminder of the history of the Left. It’s so very easy in political history to assume that the arrangement that exists today is equivalent to what came before; the Left is liberal, the Right is conservative, end of story.

But we forget that the political Left went through a long history with competing ideologies and that the social liberalism that brought me to the Left once struggled for intellectual oxygen against communism. These days, the idea that “Lefties are all commies” is basically a dead horse trope, a political joke that’s amusing irrelevant. So irrelevant, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that it used to be true. But I digress.

The most interesting chapters were on Norman Podhoretz, Ronald Reagan, and the Hitch. Podhoretz isn’t someone I was familiar with, but his story is so fascinating in its self-destruction that you can enjoy it entirely on its own merits. The ill-advised publication of the book that led to his public humiliation and ostracization doesn’t need you to be political to relate to what is basically a very human story. Especially when you consider how many people tried to warn him about what he was doing.

I list Reagan and Hitchens as the other highlights of the book as these were the individuals who were most relevant to me personally, since Reagan continues to cast a long shadow over the political landscape even today and I’ve read most of Hitchens’ books. It’s also interesting to contrast Reagan with the other figures of this book, as he’s the only one who isn’t described as an academic or intellectual. His story is a different one and at the end of it, I wonder what would have happened had he never been shifted to the right (although such a shift seems inevitable, given his personality).

Finally, we come to Hitchens. It’s unfortunate that Hitchens is one of the shorter chapters, because this was what I most wanted to read about. While author Daniel Oppenheimer generally takes a fairly neutral tone throughout the book, never allowing his own politics to color his prose, he describes Hitchens in particular as having fallen as a result of his rightward drift. Not because Left = Good and Right = Bad, but because the decision to double down on the Iraq War ultimately seemed to demolish Hitchens’ own vitality when the war effort began to unravel. Oppenheimer describes Hitchens’ best work as having come before the Hitch left the Left, which I would agree with.

It should go without saying that this book is for those with more than a passing interest in political history and thought. But for readers of that persuasion, it’s a fine read. It’s particularly refreshing in its balance and even tone, neither sanctifying nor demonizing of Left or Right. That’s something that’s increasingly rare in modern political thought (unfortunately, and yes, I hold myself as having failed this standard). If you’re interested in the topic, even a little, this book gets a solid recommendation.

Finally, I’d like to note that although it’s only described in the foreward and postscript, Oppenheimer’s thoughts on the nature of political allegiance and ideology were especially important to me. More and more, I’ve fretted about how people on “my side” can hold what I feel to be profoundly stupid ideas; most anti-vaxxers are on the Left rather than the Right, for instance. How can people who hold compatible ideas to my own be so misguided about other things, I would ask myself?

Oppenheimer reminded me that Left is a broad category and that many competing ideologies fall under its umbrella. He describes the Left and the Right as suits that don’t entirely fit right; maybe they bunch in the shoulders or have sleeves that are a little too short. But we pick the one that fits the best and ignore the little ways it doesn’t fit. Oppenheimer offers his book up as a challenge “to wrestle with the ways in which his or her own political suit might strain at the shoulders a bit more than is comfortable to admit.” And while it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll be leaving the Left any time soon (if ever), this book helped sharpen my perspective.

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Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider: The Official Art Book

Rise of the Tomb Raider: The Official Art BookRise of the Tomb Raider: The Official Art Book by Andy McVittie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This absolutely beautiful book managed to make me feel surprisingly guilty.

I loved Rise of the Tomb Raider; it’s a worthy sequel to the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot (which I also loved). This book is, as you might expect, a collection of concept art and design documents that led to the creation of the game’s characters and environments.

The reason why this beautiful book made me feel so guilty is because it shows you just how much care and detail went into the environments and backgrounds that I cruised through as I jumped from one ledge to another on my way through the game. I love the Tomb Raider games and I get totally immersed in the world when I play . . . and yet I never spare more than a passing glance at the lovingly crafted ruins, relics, and other pieces that artists worked to create. There’s a page about a few chalices and other Byzantine relics that talks about how much realism the art team tried to create, but this chalice isn’t part of the plot (as chalices are wont to be). It’s just a nice looking ancient cup. I probably ran past it at top speed without ever noticing.

I play games to be immersed, but when that immersion happens, I give the credit to the writers who created the story and the actors who brought the characters to life. Maybe I spare a thought for the programmers who actually built the thing and maybe, maaaybe I think about the art team when I appreciate a well crafted character model or a pretty forest. But when you see just how much care, just how much craft and attention to detail goes into all of this, even a little cup that’s just a setting detail, it makes you appreciate how absolutely spoiled gamers are when it comes to our digital worlds. There’s an entire world of art around every moment and for the most part, we just treat it as window dressing as we focus on the shoot-shoots and the booms.

If you’ve played Rise of the Tomb Raider, I recommend picking up this book from your local library and paging through it, giving the artists a few moments’ consideration for all the work they did. We appreciated it, even if we were running by their work too quickly to notice.

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Review: American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics

American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and PoliticsAmerican Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics by Dan Savage
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For the avid Savage fans out there, this book might be unnecessary. If you’ve read Savage Love religiously, if you’ve read all of his other books, if you’ve followed his work very closely, you may not feel the need to pick this one up. There’s a feeling early on that there isn’t as much “new” stuff here, that these are topics and discussions that Savage has covered before. The subtitle for this book might be “the complete Dan Savage primer.”

And yet, even if you’ve read the entire Dan Savage canon, I still think this one is worth your time. Savage’s writing style is just so crisp, so compulsively readable, that his books are a pleasure to work through, even if the topic is deeply serious.

Of particular interest to me were the chapters about growing up Catholic (I can relate to that) and his experiences when his mother passed away (which, fortunately, I can’t relate to yet), the latter of which prompts some thinking on the death with dignity movement and physician assisted suicide (both of which I support whole-heartedly).

There’s so much more to be enjoyed, however. I love his frank style. I love the practical approach to sexuality. At one point in the book, Savage describes a particular piece as “the kind of discussion you’d have with someone after a few glasses of wine.” I think that’s a perfect description for the book as a whole, as wine-fueled discussions can be serious, deep, silly, opinionated, intense, thoughtful, and everything else one can imagine, but never boring.

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