Category Archives: Books

The Peripheral by William Gibson

If you’ve never read William Gibson, it can be a chore to get going. He takes the adage of “show, don’t tell” to an extreme, not really describing the worlds he creates as much as throwing you in to the middle of them. He invents jargon and concepts that he throws at you as if everyone knows what they are. It is only by reading, by immersing yourself in his world, that you can learn what he is saying. But, the end is always worth it.

The Peripheral is another such story. As with all of his books, Gibson creates a near-future world, taking some of our current trends in technology and society to an extreme. Here, he creates two worlds that somehow communicate with one another through devices, through peripherals, that are essentially robots that people temporarily inhabit, giving them a new identity — a new body, a new gender, a new experience — at least for a while. Understanding the relationship between these two worlds is part of the story, so I won’t give it away, but it is another intriguing world that Gibson has built. He creates concepts that are alien but built upon our own experiences that are ingenious. For example, describing how two characters secretly talk to one another:

Whatever randomly synthetic language the one spoke, the other understood. Never the one thing long enough to provide a sufficient sample for decryption.

That is, these two characters speak in almost random sounds — now like birds, the next in grunts — that only they can understand. And they don’t speak in any one long enough for anyone to figure out what they are saying. The story is filled with these technological marvels that flesh out Gibson’s futuristic visions.

The main characters, Flynne and Nick, find themselves trying to save Flynne’s world from some truly nasty people who’s only concern is power. These people almost seem like evil incarnate, but, really, what is evil? Such people don’t view themselves as evil. Gibson touches on the nature of evil: “That evil wasn’t glamorous, but just the result of ordinary half-assed badness, high school badness, given enough room, however that might happen, to become its bigger self.” He also touches on climate change and the dangers it poses to the world, and how governments manipulate our every day lives.

I always find Gibson entertaining and thought provoking. His worlds are both alien and familiar, with technological marvels that you both covet and are repulsed by. I look forward to the next one.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is always an entertaining and often a thought-proving writer. In Anansi Boys, he tells the story of Fat Charlie and his brother Spider, a brother Fat Charlie didn’t know he had until he was well into adulthood. Their father is rather special, but Fat Charlie doesn’t know that. He only knows that his father is a good-for-nothing that seemed to abandon him and his mother when he was a child. It is only when his father dies and Spider comes into his life that he realizes who his father, and by extension he himself, really are.

Gaiman shifts the story telling from the point of view of different characters, some of which are actually quite creepy. His characters are well developed and he gives even the worst of the villains solid motivation.

As Fat Charlie learns about who he is and who is brother is, they both have to escape the plots of powerful forces aligned against them. Without revealing too much of the plot, they have to learn to work together to make it out alive.

Gaiman’s writing is always clever, and he has a number of nice lines that were memorable:

  • “The nature of parents is to embarrass merely by existing, just as it is the nature of children of a certain age to cringe with embarrassment, shame, and mortification should their parents so much as speak to them on the street.”
  • “Today, like every day, roughly five thousand people on the face of the planet will experience one-chance-in-a-million things, and not one of them will refuse to believe the evidence of their senses.”
  • “…he noticed that anything louder than the gentle Brownian motion of air molecules drifting softly past each other was above his pain threshold.”
  • “…as a small girl she had been unable to envision a God who disliked anyone enough to sentence them to an eternity of torture in Hell, mostly for not believing in Him properly…”
  • “The important thing about songs is that they’re just like stories. They don’t mean a damn unless there’s people listenin’ to them.”
  • “Naturalists have pondered this for years: there are spiders whose bite can cause the place bitten to rot and to die, sometimes more than a year after it was bitten. As to why spiders do this, the answer is simple. It’s because spiders think this is funny, and they don’t want you ever to forget them.”

As with all of the Gaiman I have read, in Anansi Boys he deftly combines a clever plot with great characters and some deeper rumination about the world we all share. Another great story by a master storyteller.

The Hike by Drew Magary

The Hike, by Drew Magary, is an odd tale, the story of Ben, who finds himself wandering a strange world that is filled with elements from his life. He has to avoid a number of potentially deadly situations as he tries to find his way through this strange world. In the end, he both learns a bit about himself and comes to peace with some of his past.

At first, it felt like Ben just makes one random encounter after another, and it seems like there is no real point or purpose to these events as he wanders this strange world. After some time, they start to gel and there is a larger picture that emerges. However, at the end, it isn’t quite clear what the purpose of Ben’s wanderings has been. I have my guess, but it is really only that, a guess. Or, I’m dense. Probably more likely the latter. But, still, while the story of Ben’s hike is entertaining and, quite honestly, very unexpected, the reason for it left at least me guessing.

That said, I enjoyed it enough that I will for other books by Magary.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

With a title like that, how can you go wrong? Girl Waits with Gun, by Amy Stewart, is a novelization of the life of Constance Copp and her sisters, Norma and Fleurette. What starts off as a minor incident — a local man driving his fancy car runs into the Copp sisters’ horse and buggy (the story starts off in 1914) — leads to Constance becoming what Stewart calls one of the country’s first female deputy sheriffs.

While Stewart takes some liberties with the facts, maybe being most liberal with the motivations of the various characters, as well as combining various historical people in different ways, she tells a riveting story. At first, it seems that this is such a trivial matter, but it escalates until the sisters are in fear for their lives. Constance takes matters into her own hands, helped by the local sheriff, and leads the charge against the man, who is a son of a powerful local businessman and a regular bully. The sisters receive death threats and, at one point, their house is almost burnt down. Not only does Constance navigate her family through this mess, she also helps out another young woman that has been badly mistreated by the same man.

What is perhaps most fascinating about this book is the fact that Constance was a real person and yet, despite her adventures (this is the first of several books detailing the adventures of Constance Copp and her sisters), is a figure that is hardly known. In what may be a first, she has no Wikipedia page. For someone who was such a trailblazer, it is almost inconceivable that someone hasn’t created a page about her.

There are times that the story is slow going. The tension builds slowly, and there is a lot of inter-sister dynamics that are explored. However, the tension is real and builds to the point that one is unclear if all of the sisters will make it to the next book alive (given there is a series of books, we know Constance makes it, but it isn’t a given her sisters do). In the end, this was a rewarding read that opened a new era and perspective for me.

Grant by Ron Chernow

I’ve read a few biographies of ex-presidents, about Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln — the big ones, the founders and the man that, arguably saved the nation from splitting. Arguably, because one could make a case that Ulysses S. Grant did as much or more to keep the nation together, both as military commander during the Civil War and as the president that, primarily, oversaw Reconstruction and tried to implement the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and other laws that were passed to eliminate slavery and give rights to black Americans.

Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Grant, beyond the fact that he was a Civil War general, a president, and that he is on the $50 dollar bill. Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, entitled, simply, Grant, is a wonderful introduction into this man that almost passed through life as an abysmal failure, until the Civil War happened.

As described by Chernow, Grant was the most unassuming man. Never pursuing glory or power or promotion on his own behalf, he still rose to be supreme commander of the Union Army. Before the Civil War, he was a disgraced soldier, having been discharged from the Army for drunkenness. However, the Civil War brought out his strengths, and he shown, being one of the few generals that brought the fight to the South, as Lincoln had constantly admonished his previous generals. Grant wasn’t just fighting a war, he was fighting it to win.

After the war, he became president, not so much because he sought the office, but because he was by far the most famous and well liked American at the time. The terms he gave Lee at Appomattox upon Lee’s surrender were gracious and, while the South certainly didn’t spare any love for Grant, at least they felt he had not made them suffer unduly. This was in an era when candidates didn’t actively campaign for the office, they were nominated at the convention and either accepted or not. Grant accepted his nomination and was elected to two terms, where he primarily oversaw Reconstruction and the fight against the newly formed Ku Klux Klan. He and his administration and generals squashed that incarnation of the KKK. However, it wasn’t enough, and white resentment about the War and the newly enfranchised former slaves led to great violence against those same black Americans, with the goal of making them terrified to vote. The first years after the War saw blacks vote, obtain office, and political power. But, soon, the retaliation of whites led to a dominance of the Democratic party, which was aligned with the previous slave owners.

Grant wasn’t elected to a third term (back then, there was no limit), but was nearly nominated three years later, again on the strength of his fame.

In Chernow’s telling, Grant comes across as an unflappable figure, who never lets his emotions show. He simply does his job, as best as he is able, and, as a soldier and general, he did it better than anyone else. (In other pursuits, he was miserable, such as in business.) Grant let power come to him rather than chase it directly. And power did come, along with responsibilities and headaches. Grant’s one fatal flaw is that he could not see the flaws in his friends, and that weakness led to multiple disappointments and betrayals.

Grant is an excellent biography, possibly one of the best I’ve read, both because of Chernow’s masterful telling and the new-found understanding of what, after reading this book I believe to be, is one of our most underrated presidents. I would now rate Grant as one of the top five, maybe even top three, presidents in my personal list, maybe after Washington and Lincoln (and ahead of my boyhood hero Jefferson).

Maybe one of the reasons that Grant’s story resonates with me is that I see a little bit of my dad in him. My dad was also trusting to a fault, and that led to some of his business woes. He was a generally reserved man, but came alive when around his friends (though, granted, he had a language barrier that Grant did not). He worked hard and let his work speak for itself.

Grant led a life that one can respect and, possibly, even strive for. Not in being a soldier, necessarily, but in how to live life, how to treat others, how to receive praise, how to simply be. Maybe, though, with an added bit of skepticism about the motives of people around you.

I highly recommend this book. This is one I may tap into again in the future. I can’t say enough good things about it. It makes me want to see some of the memorials to Grant, such as Grant’s Tomb in New York City. Next time I’m there!