Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Philosopher's Flight

Sigils from The Philosopher's Flight by Tom Miller

The Philosopher's Flight
by Tom Miller
Published: Feb 2018

World War I rages in Europe and teen Robert Weekes is stuck at home in rural Montana, desperate to join the war efforts. He's dreamed of enlisting in the elite Rescue & Evac squad for as long as he can remember, but there are more than a few hurdles in his path. He'd need to become an expert empirical philosopher, or sigilrist: a practitioner well-versed in the art of drawing sigils to manipulate physical forces and matter (think magic without wands). Even though his tough-as-nails war-hero mother has taught him the basics, this cryptic field of study is so heavily dominated by women that men are rarely, if ever, train professionally. His talents eventually land him a university scholarship, but it's only the beginning of the trials and tribulations he must face to pursue his dream.

The Philosopher's Flight is a fun light read that pairs plausible alchemy with civil rights activism and rolls it all into an adventurous coming of age tale. Though it reads like a YA novel, it doesn't shy away from the darkness and violence that accompanies systemic oppression. I really enjoyed the "gender-flip" here-- it's a complex and nuanced reversal of the script. Even though women seem to have more of an aptitude for sigilry it certainly doesn't translate into total control over society. They are respected in some spheres and denounced in others, existing in a space somewhere between mutants in the X-Men Universe and the "witches" on trial in Salem. As an added dimension we get a quick glimpse into the dynamics of race relations in early 1900's America, but for the most part this remains unexplored.

Fans of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality will appreciate the effort Miller makes to ground empirical philosophy in science. The magical forces in the story are mysterious but not impenetrable (we get at least one character trying to decipher how the packets of magic energy travel in space). Plus with all the focus on rescue  missions and medical applications of sigils, it's really no surprise the author is an EMT turned ER Doctor (turned novelist!).

In all honesty, I wasn't hooked until about three-fourths of the way through when suddenly, I couldn't put it down. The first parts build up the slow simmering of tension and context until finally it all explodes into a rolling boil of drama that leaves you wanting more. According to this interview with author Tom Miller (which also details how his observations of subtle sexism as an EMT helped inform the novel) it's going to be a five part series. So that's exciting. Can't wait to see how this alternate-history world progresses. If stalking the webiste of the publisher is any indication, we may have "Philosopher's War" to look forward to (though Goodreads seems to indicate this is just an outdated alternate title/cover for Flight).

// I received The Philosopher's Flight as part of my subscription to Book of the Month

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

"I find myself radically discontinuous with myself." 

Feel Free is a phenomenal round up of Zadie Smith's articles and essays over the last ten or so years. Not all of the pieces were for me personally (specifically the heavy dose of highbrow lit crit), but man, the ones that were really struck me down to my core. So whether you identify as a writer, reader, artist, musician, historian philosopher, millennial, gen-Xer, black, white, or mixed: there's something that will speak to you, trust me. Together the essays weave a rich tapestry of voices, all varying shades of Smith. Deeply personal experiences are presented alongside stoic, critical analyses. She waxes poetic on the importance of libraries, how technology shifts reality, pluralism and the significance of race, why she was terrified of writing in the first person and oh yeah this one time she burned down her Italian apartment. Seriously, something for everyone.

I went with the audiobook (shout-out to narrator Nikki Amuka-Bird for knocking it out of the fucking park) not thinking about the fact that listening to a book makes it super tedious to bookmark or make note of beautiful passages. Soon what started as me googling to find a few direct quotes snowballed into a quest to find all 31+ essays. Turns out, of the essays that had been previously published, most are available online! Some live behind paywalls, some are available as previews but ultimately require a subscription, and some are freebies open to the public. One's even in German so viel Gl├╝ck damit...

I didn't collect all of these links to stick it to the publishing industry or help people bypass checking out the book for themselves. Just thought it'd be nice to compile the works into one easy-to-access spot for anyone else wanting to reference the texts digitally. Our benevolent overlords at Google Books have a ctrl+f-able preview available but it's not really the same.

Northwest London Blues
Elegy for a Country's Seasons
Fences: A Brexit Diary
On Optimism and Despair

Generation Why?
The House that Hova Built
Brother from Another Mother
Some Notes on Attunement
Windows on the Will: Anomalisa
Dance Lessons for Writers

Killing Orson Welles at Midnight
Crazy They Call me
A Bird of Few Words: Narrative Mysteries in the Paintings of Lynette-Yiadom Boakye
Getting in and Getting Out
MIA: Flaming June, Alte Frau, Mark Bradford's NiagraThe Tattered Ruines of the Map: On Sarach Sze's Centrifuge

Crash by JG Ballard
The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
Notes on NW
The Harper's Columns
The I Who is not Me (couldn't find the transcript, but this is an article about it)

The Bathroom & Meet Justin Bieber! (couldn't find the transcript, but this is an article about it)
Man Versus Corpse
Love in the Gardens 
Find your Beach
MIA: The Shadow of Ideas

And while I was scouring the web for EVERYTHING ZADIE I came across two beautiful commencement addresses that I may as well throw into this heap of links:

2014 New School Commencement Address
2016 Grinnell College Commencement Address

Happy Reading!

PS if you've found any of the ones I'm missing are easily accessible and I'm just dumb, drop me a comment and I'll add it in!

Feel Free: Essays
by Zadie Smith
Published: February 2018

Saturday, January 27, 2018

We're All Spinsters Here

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror 
by Mallory Ortberg
To Be Published: March 2018

Thanks to Disney's whimsical remakes of capital "R" Romantic folklore, my only childhood exposure to fairytales was cheerful princesses singing their way to happy endings surrounded by industrious animal friends. But we're all adults here. I think by now, we all know these are just sugar-coated versions of some pretty gnarly source material.

The Merry Spinster meets us somewhere in the middle with 11 twisted versions of well known fables and fairy tales that are somehow as playful as they are sinister. The shorts are adapted from Mallory Ortberg's series Children's Stories Made Horrific from the now defunct  temporarily offline The-Toast.net1. It's certainly not required that you know the OG classical versions of the stories to understand what's going on, but it can't hurt (so here they are!) As with any sort of parody, the better the grasp you have on what is being referenced, the more you'll get to wryly smirk to yourself as you read along.

"The danger of silence is that someone who wishes to hear a yes will not go out of his way to listen for a no.
- "The Six Boy-Coffins", The Merry Spinster 2
If scary stories aren't really your jam, just know that these aren't necessarily as gruesome as fairy tales of yore (...okay, maybe some are). Rather, they're well-crafted and sly in their horror-- the truly chilling undercurrents are the social mores, the patriarchy, and what we endure in the name of love. This is where Ortberg's particular brand of dry dark comedy really shines through. Much like her debut book, Texts from Jane Eyre, the language and style remain faithful to originals, a truly gritty homage.

Reading through past interviews, I feel like Ortberg's love for the title might be what willed the rest of the book into existence. It's super fitting too: the Merry Spinster archetype may be the only uplifting motif running through these bleak pages. So on that note, here's a quote from the author explaining the concept beautifully:
"I would always love for my next book to be a light comic novella called The Merry Spinster and to explore those themes of glorious female solitude. I think female solitude is a mental condition as well as a physical state. You can be married and a spinster. I think spinster is an identity every woman can claim, if she will. … I feel like a lot of women, or a lot of feminists, joke about taking to the sea or living alone in a cottage as this kind of fun freedom."

// I received this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced readers copy and may not be final. Please refer to a finished copy.

// Footnotes
1The Toast is dead, long live The Toast...You'd better believe as soon as it's back online I'm linking the shit out of it.
2. This is a random art card from the Smith-Waite tarot deck and has nothing to do with the book, but I tweaked it a teensy bit and now it's just PERFECT you'll see.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Making the Monster, or Happy 200th Birthday Frankenstein!

Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
by: Kathryn Harkup
To be Published: Feb 2018

2018 marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's gothic masterpiece-- Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Widely recognized as one of the first (if not the first) work of science fiction, this revolutionary novel has truly withstood the test of time (and continues to haunt middle school literary criticism to this day). Some may already know the broad strokes of how this story came to life: on a dark and stormy night (of course), 18 year old Mary joins her friends in a competitive game to see who can write the best horror story. Inspired by the rational ideals of the Enlightenment and recent advances in electricity research, Mary writes the short story that she will later develop into the novel we know and love.

Making the Monster dives quite bit deeper into the historical context of this work, piecing together not only Mary's biography but those of her family, friends and any intellectual or "natural philosopher" she may have been influenced by. This is interwoven with the upheavals in politics and the sciences leading up to her education and journey away from home. Though the narrative unravels into countless tangents and side-histories, it is well-organized and cohesive. This is a book for anyone who enjoys reading about the history of scientific progress-- the controversies, the blunders, and the experiments that got us where we are today1. Whether or not you enjoyed (or even read) Frankenstein, if you appreciate its significance in history and are ready to fall down the rabbit-hole of alchemy, galvanism, and medical experimentation (oh my!), check it out.

// I received this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
*blows dust off drawing pad* 2018 resolutions here we go!
1. If weird medical history is your thing and you're not already listening to the Maximum Fun podcast "Sawbones" Run, don't walk.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1)
by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu)
Published: Nov 2014 (first published 2007)

THIS is the hard sci fi I've been craving: chock full of physics thought-experiments, tedious descriptions of nanoparticle research and multi-dimensional folding, with a hefty dose of cult environmentalism. Plus it's written and set in China -- starting with the Cultural Revolution and spanning the decades leading up to present day-- so there's also heavy focus on the persecution of scientists and intellectuals by the Communist Party. So if you enjoy your dystopian fiction a little too real, look no further.

As a literary work it's not entirely consistent - there are some gloriously crafted passages with a fair share of dry, struggle-to-get-through moments. But I'm leaving the 5 star rating on Goodreads for the incredible ingenuity packed into the story. There's a lot to unpack here and I felt it all pulled together quite nicely. Though for anyone interested in checking it out, a warning: definitely did myself a disservice listening to this over audiobook. On top of it being a bit more difficult to distinguish between names, there were so many times I wanted to go back and reread an especially technical passage or process described in a previous chapter with absolutely no idea how to scroll back and find it. Will definitely be adding this to my library as a hardcopy.