Sunday, January 12, 2020

It's Not Just America

QualitylandQualityland by Marc-Uwe Kling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Qualityland is both a good scifi story and an extended joke. The author takes the everyday situation of receiving something you didn't order and don't want through the typical absurdities. In the process he shows society has gone beyond the Peter Principle and Murphy's Law into Peter's Problem. With its near-future setting, it reads like a cross between Douglas Adams and a Monty Python script. 
In Peter's country, Qualityland, everything is great. The status quo is always great, even if it changes often. Algorithms decide everything, from jobs to relationships to diet to social status. It's all so great. And most things are automatic. In fact, TheShop sends you things before you know you want them, and charges you accordingly.  One day Peter receives something from TheShop that he absolutely does NOT want, and he attempts to return it. But that calls Qualityland's greatness into question, being not so great. Bureaucracy and frustration ensue. 
It's a satire of modernity bringing to mind Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” from the 18th century and Karel Capek’s play "RUR" from the early 20th; it's a cri de couer for the everyman of the 21st Century—all without preaching. The most interesting and gratifying thing about the book is that, like those other literary works, this is not about America. It's a scathing indictment of (insert name of “First World” country here). We're all alike. Kling skewers capitalism, colonialism, tribalism and most other -isms out there with an even touch, highlighting human foibles. We really are all alike.
The translation has given just the right touch of exasperation to elicit humor over tragedy as Peter tries to assert his individuality in a world gone mad with conformity and consumption, and the end result is thoughtful laughter (or facepalm) instead of tears. Highly recommended.

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Sunday, December 22, 2019

It's the Season of Lovingkindness

This year for Christmas, I’m hoping to pass on to you, dear readers, the gift I got last Christmas: a writer. Jodi Thomas’ new book, Christmas in Winter Valley, is as heartwarming as a Hallmark Christmas movie. It follows last year’s Christmas book, Mistletoe Miracles—and in between the two I’ve hunted up and read at least 44 of her other books. Thomas writes authentically about Western life and people, both historical and modern; most of her latest books are contemporary. She does a perfect blend between western and romance, and anyone who’s ever lived in small-town anywhere will find someone or something to recognize in her stories.
This one, part of her Ransom Canyon series, has ranch life at the forefront: wild mustangs, a runaway orphan, a kind cook, a mysterious inheritance, and Christmas are thrown into the mix as well. As usual, there’s a lot of laughter but some tragedy, too, just like life.
The Holloway men are trying to run the ranch as usual while their brother Griffin and sister-in-law Sunlan are visiting her sick dad. The collegiate cousins-in-law have shown up to visit before Christmas, three city girls who mostly shop and party. Cooper takes off to the back country to care for the mustangs before they’re snowed in, and Elliot is trying to manage the cow hands in addition to his usual job of manning the books. Coop gets injured, Sunlan’s dad needs more care than expected, and Elliot’s college girlfriend shows up to add to the chaos. It all adds up to a merry time in Texas.
More than one character will get their happy ending when the snow clears; it’s another specialty of Thomas’ to intertwine several stories in a book.
While not quite under the “clean romance” umbrella, Thomas never focuses on the sex scenes for more than a page or two. Her books focus on regular people making the best of things through hard work and kindness. Isn’t that really what love is, after all? Dear readers, I hope you find the best books all year long—and may you be blessed with the gift of lovingkindness in this season that celebrates love.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Lovers of Asian Sagas, Rejoice

The Throne of the Five Winds (Hostage of Empire, #1)The Throne of the Five Winds by S.C. Emmett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a love/hate relationship with this book, and it would have gotten 5 stars from me if not for a couple of peculiar choices the author or editing team has made. It was unputdownable if not for those. Number 1 mistake: footnotes instead of glossary for terms the author tells me there are no English words for. Really? A colorful bird that fans its tail and has a horrific voice? And you need to tell me that "sleepflower" makes a potion that makes people sleep? (And an overdose can kill.) Really? That needs a footnote of explanation? Those are the most egregious examples, but most of these terms are understandable enough to glean from context, and footnotes throw me out of the story, breaking a rhythm of reading I'd rather not break. Glossary, front or back, would let people make their own choice to look up the fake words or not.
Number 2 mistake: the foreword where you tell me these terms need to be explained. Lots of folks do these seemingly historical footnote projects, but usually they are done in books that have an obviously alien setting and context, whereas this book is obviously a mashup of the stories of Genghis Kahn and Tamerlane with an authentic historical flavor, and in the afterword, the author thanks authors and actors she has read and watched for research (without naming any of them).
Anyone with any experience watching or reading Chinese sagas will recognize this time period. It isn't a flaw, except for the attempt to disguise it by the aforementioned intro and footnotes.
The storytelling is great, the characters believable, would be 5 stars if not for stupid choices.

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Sunday, November 24, 2019

Thanks to the Women

The Giver of StarsThe Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m always fascinated by books about books and libraries; this Reese Witherspoon Bookclub pick focuses more on the librarians and the freedom literacy can bring.
It’s the distressing 1930s, in between the wars, and listless socialite Alice is excited to marry handsome Bennett Van Cleve, who’s in England on a ministry trip with his coalmine-owning father. She’s going to live in America!
What she finds when she arrives is that she’s not going to live in a vibrant city, but a small town in rural Kentucky, which feels more like prison to her than the life she was escaping.
Alice is surrounded by strangers and by poverty, both material and emotional, that she’s never experienced and never before seen. But Alice isn’t shallow from her life of privilege—just ignorant—and this is her coming of age story.
The Federal Works Project Administration has funded the Pack Horse Library Project and in defiance of her father-in-law, she’s joined the project as a librarian along with four other women, pledging to deliver books throughout the hills and hollers of Appalachia.
Alice’s father-in-law believes women have no place outside the home, and no rights within it. He believes that might and money make right. Miners all over the country are trying to unionize out of their terribly unsafe working conditions, and literate hillbillies don’t sign papers that allow themselves to be evicted off their own land. Van Cleve is threatened by the change happening all around him and will hire anything done to stop it; he fixates on Margery, the local free spirit that’s heading the charge for change. This creates most of the tension in the book, for despite Alice being the main character, it’s actually Margery’s story that matches the Amy Lowell poem that gives the book its title. She’s one of those larger than life characters that do exist in the real world who inspire us to do better and dream bigger.

It’s always good to wander through the woods of Appalachia and Moyes brings the scenery to life as well as the people; all in all, a good read.

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Friday, November 22, 2019

A Source of Hope

Reconnecting to the Source: The New Science of Spiritual Experience, How It Can Change You, and How It Can Transform the WorldReconnecting to the Source: The New Science of Spiritual Experience, How It Can Change You, and How It Can Transform the World by Ervin Laszlo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was grateful to win a Goodreads Giveaway for an advance copy of this book, on sale in March 2020 (it still needs quite a bit of proofing, btw.).
I initially had trouble with the choppy structure of the book, but eventually I realized this is an attempt to make the ideas more digestible: short bites. The early chapter on scientific theory, while dense, is short. Mainly it supplies the support to the theory of a holotropic universe: everything trends toward wholeness.

Positives: overview of current theory connecting spiritual experience and quantum physics; great stories from famous people about their spiritual experiences; excellent guidance on practices; beautiful explanations of how Buddhist and Taoist wisdom reflects quantum thought.

This would be good for those just beginning to explore these ideas; those who have limited experience in the creative arts; and those who have or want no overtly religious framework to their exploration of the intersection between physical and spiritual realities. It's also inspirational for those of us who may have read and practiced more widely in this area; I’ve read Dean Radin’s story before, for example, but I was pleasurably surprised by quite a few of the others.

There's no input from indigenous or Jewish or Christian mysticism except as implied in the personal essays however, so it’s not comprehensive in that sense. Nor is it heavy on the science outside that early chapter, though there are good references scattered throughout the text. (For those who are interested in the science of how quantum physics and neuroscience intersect, I recommend How Emotions Are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett.)

All in all, one to recommend to the curious, and a worthy addition to any spiritual library.

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Monday, November 18, 2019

Questions Are The Best Teachers

The LessonThe Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thought-provoking, which I believe is the point. There are actually a lot of lessons learned, even if the lesson being taught remains in question. It's actually a pretty amazing thing to pull off, a book that keeps talking once the covers are closed, a book that lives inside a person. The themes go much deeper than colonialism if you want them to: a book itself is an invasion by an alien consciousness, no matter that we invite them in. The characters live. This is definitely one of those crossover books like The Sparrow. I thought I was going to end up being depressed, but instead I'm left with the comfort of the ocean. I don't know that I'd want to read a sequel, but I'd definitely like to read more from this author.

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