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Tuesday, 14 April 2020 09:47

Standing guard – ‘Barker House’

The notion of crime and punishment has long been a subject of artistic expression. Those who commit misdeeds and those tasked with exacting retribution for those misdeeds allow for a wealth of character and thematic exploration. A society’s treatment of those it imprisons often serves as an effective lens through which to view the rest of that society.

Those grand ideas writ small are what make up “Barker House” (Bloomsbury, $26), the debut novel-in-stories of David Moloney. Through a series of interconnected looks at some of the corrections officers at a New Hampshire prison over the course of one year on the job, Moloney explores some of the grim realities of mass incarceration. By delving into these people on an individual level, he assembles a broader and much more vivid picture of the system as a whole.

What makes this book compelling – and it really is compelling – are those extended character studies. We learn about these people and what makes them tick. We find out about the circumstances that landed them in this job and the motivations that keep them there. There are rookies and lifers, each with their own ideas about how this job works. Some seek to better the system, others are content to simply get along.

And all the while, the machine grinds on … and the prisoners are not the only grist for the mill.

Published in Style

If you’ve ever paid a visit to one of this country’s National Parks, you know that there is a surfeit of awe-inspiring natural wonder in the U.S., albeit one that is perhaps not given quite the degree of respect that it deserves. It’s hard to imagine standing in one of these majestic places and not feeling overwhelmed by its beauty.

Now imagine doing that for ALL OF THEM.

That’s Conor Knighton’s travel guide/memoir “Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-To-Zion Journey Through Every National Park” (Crown, $28), a book whose subhead is both accurate and insufficient. Knighton, a correspondent for “CBS This Morning,” does precisely what he says – he goes to every single National Park (though a couple more have been established since his 2016 trip.

Zigzagging through the country over the course of the year – sometimes with his sage photographer sidekick, often alone – Knighton offers up a loving look at our national natural pride. But it’s an internal journey as well, with Knighton also spending this time dealing with the aftermath of his breakup from his fiancée and other personal turmoil.

Published in Adventure

Anyone who has been paying attention to baseball over the past half-decade is aware that the game has never seen this many home runs. Single-season records for homers has been broken and broken again, both by individual teams and by the league as a whole. More than ever before, the long ball has become the central part of the game.

There are a number of factors that enter into this. Analytically-inclined executives have made their way into positions of power in front offices all across the sport. Changes to the ball itself have undoubtedly played a significant part. Strikeouts no longer carry the stigma that they once did.

And then, there is the evolution of the swing itself.

It’s that last notion that Jared Diamond, national baseball writer for The Wall Street Journal, addresses in-depth with his new book “Swing Kings: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Home Run Revolution” (William Morrow, $28.99). It’s a deep and broad exploration of those coaches on the fringes whose refusal to be bound by the status quo led to brand-new thinking about how we swing the bat, as well as the players who made (or remade) themselves into explosive hitters by accepting some unconventional wisdom and thinking outside the box.

Published in Sports

I love crossword puzzles. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve found real joy in solving those black-and-white grids. From the daily newspaper to collections in books to online sources, I’ve been a cruciverbalist for most of my life.

But I’m far from the only person out there with a devotion to the joyous wordplay that comes with crosswords, spending a portion of just about every day working my way across and down, filling in the blanks and feeling the satisfaction of a finished puzzle. Millions of people engage with crosswords every day, though we all have our routines – some solve at breakfast, others as a break during the day; some solve on their commutes, others in the evening to bring their day to an end. Maybe it’s intellectual engagement they seek. Perhaps a competitive thrill. Regardless, it ultimately boils down to love of the game.

Adrienne Raphel loves crosswords as well. She loves them so much, in fact, that she went ahead and wrote a book about them. “Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them” (Penguin Press, $27) is a thoughtful and in-depth look at a hobby that has been occupying minds for over a century. Through a combination of historical research and first-person experience, Raphel takes the reader on an engaging and entertaining stroll across and down the cross-world.

Published in Style

There are few better feelings than the sensation that comes with the dawning realization that the book you are reading isn’t just good, but great. No matter how much hype you’ve seen, no matter how many recommendations you’ve received, it all comes out in the reading. When the language captivates you and the narrative enthralls you and the themes provoke you … that’s a great book.

Emily St. John Mandel’s “The Glass Hotel” (Knopf, $26.95) offers up just such greatness.

It’s a mesmerizing puzzle box of a book, one whose many interconnected parts are in seemingly constant motion, both through space and time. That sense of propulsive perpetuity creates an almost insatiable hunger in the reader; we simply can’t stop. There’s a rhythm to the steady movement that borders on the hypnotic, sweeping us away at speeds that vary from snail-paced to breakneck – all in service to an incredible story.

Published in Buzz

When I first heard about “The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball's Afterlife” (University of Nebraska Press, $27.95) by Brad Balukjian, my reaction was pure and basic: “God, that’s a f---ing good idea.”

Even after a decade-plus of literary reviews, I can count on one hand the times that I was legitimately envious of the idea behind a book. Not necessarily the best books or the most interesting books, but the ones with an underlying premise that spoke directly to me.

“The Wax Pack” is one of those.

Balukjian, a lifelong baseball fan, undertook a simple, yet deeply fascinating adventure. He bought a pack of Topps baseball cards from 1986, the year he got into collecting. He popped the decades-old gum into his mouth and flipped through the 15 cards, regaling himself with ghosts of seasons past. And then, he packed up his life and embarked on an epic road trip, a cross-country voyage in which he hoped to make contact with the players he found when he peeled the paper from the titular wax pack.

The result is something unexpected, a thoughtful exploration of fandom that also serves as a glimpse of the different directions a faded athlete might go. And in the process of delving into this sports-loving memory hole, Balukjian himself becomes more present, undertaking an effort to look back at his own history.

Published in Sports
Sunday, 29 March 2020 15:41

Boom or bust - ‘Anthropocene Rag’

Speculative fiction often offers a glimpse at new beginnings that spring forth from cataclysmic endings. The entire subgenre of dystopian fiction is built largely on the premise. We’re fascinated by the idea of what might rise anew in the aftermath of the collapsing old.

The popularity of that fundamental concept, however, means that the resulting literary work is often wildly variant in terms of quality. Yes, it’s easy to write about the end and what comes after, but it’s exceedingly difficult to do well.

With his new book “Anthropocene Rag” (Tor, $14.99), Alex Irvine does it well.

It’s a sprawling portrait of a future United States where a natural disaster contributed directly to a technological one, the effects of both compounding exponentially in a manner that completely alters civilization as we know it. A small group of people, struggling to carve out a place in this harsh, unforgiving and mercurial world, is offered a unique opportunity. Each is left to wonder not only why they were chosen, but who ultimately has done the choosing?

Told in a deliberately haphazard fashion, leaping from perspective to perspective, “Anthropocene Rag” follows these unlikely pilgrims on their quest across a broken American landscape, one defined in ways overt and subtle by its past even as it has been subsumed by the wave of the future. There’s a new frontier – one that is ever-shifting and unpredictable.

Published in Buzz

At first glance, the disciplines of science and philosophy would seem to be mostly distinct. To put it simply, science is about considering how the world works, while philosophy is about considering why the world works the way it does. Again, an oversimplified explanation, but close enough.

What the two share, however, is that deep-seated desire to unpack the secrets of the universe. And in some cases, the line of demarcation can become considerably more difficult to find.

In “The Dream Universe: How Fundamental Physics Lost Its Way” (Doubleday, $26.95), author David Lindley posits that in the bleeding edge world of theoretical physics, that line is all but erased. He walks the reader through a quick-hit history of science and how our conception of what “science” even is has evolved from the philosophical beginnings of the Greeks, growing into something observationally and experimentally based over the centuries, only to relatively recently push so far into the theoretical realm as to circle back round to its thought-driven underpinnings.

That might sound a bit heavy, but Lindley has a real gift for narrative; it’s rare for science writing – even pop science aimed at a broad audience – to be this readable and engaging. Lindley pushes us through the history of science via a handful of touchstone figures, giving us a crash course of sorts. From the early work of Galileo up through the pure-math musings of today’s physics giants, we’re along for the ride.

Published in Tekk

It’s easy to forget how long the publishing process really takes. Books are written and proofed and edited and reproofed and reedited and so on and so forth, with release dates scheduled months in advance. So far in advance, in fact, that you occasionally wind up with something that is accidentally timely.

So it is with Chris Bohjalian’s latest thriller “The Red Lotus” (Doubleday, $27.95). It’s excellent in the way that Bohjalian’s work is always excellent – smart, crisply-paced, well-plotted – but it also happens to feature a central plot point revolving around the threat of a weaponized disease. While there are essentially zero actual similarities between Bohjalian’s plot and current events, the timing of the book’s release means that the comparison is unavoidable.

Still, once you move past that odd bit of synchronicity, you can enjoy this book for what it is – a taut and twisting work that features the intrigue and idiosyncrasy that are hallmarks of Bohjalian’s work. It is evocative and exciting, a quick and engaging read that will prove a welcome experience for fans of thrillers.

Published in Style

If history were different, how different would it be?

That’s the underlying notion behind most alternative history stories, books and series that look into the past, alter something fundamental … and then see what happens. That forward-moving extrapolation of what changes – large and small – might come about because of that singular shift.

Like any speculative fiction, what we actually get in terms of quality varies wildly. Narrative complexity, world building, historic verisimilitude, strong characterizations of people both fictional and non – it all depends on the talents of the author in charge.

S. M. Stirling’s talents are formidable, which is what makes his latest offering so good.

“Shadows of Annihilation” (Ace, $18) is the newest installment in Stirling’s “Black Chamber” series. It’s a long look at an alternate World War I, one where Teddy Roosevelt has regained the presidency and consolidated his power and hence is at the helm during the war. One of his many weapons utilized against the enemy is the Black Chamber, a sort of proto-CIA involving espionage, assassination and a score of other below-board activities designed to fight America’s foes and advance her interest.

Published in Style
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