Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head

The World Beyond Your Head:On Becoming An Individual In An Age of Distraction

Matthew B. Crawford

This book by Crawford of “Shop class is Soul Craft” fame is another in a long line of recent books on the power of attention and craft in a age of twitter and youtube. There’s an important point here — that focused attention, especially on actual physical labor, is fulfilling and important, but I found some of the extrapolations to larger philosophical points labored. Crawford on the jig and its place in the work of a skilled laborer is fascinating, Crawford on Kant I found a bit of an overreach.

Not Recommended.

Review: Jame’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Black Leopard, Red Wolf
Marlon James

Booker award winning novelist Marlon James jumps into the epic fantasy game and produces a book that is gorgeous on the sentence level, well constructed on the paragraph level, but hugely challenging as a book.

Perhaps I’m not smart enough, or my attention isn’t focused enough, but I found this one to be tough sledding. James’s use of language is stunning, and I often found myself awed by his phrasing, but I also found it difficult to follow the narrative (such as it is) and never came to care much about the characters. People I respect love this book and say it haunts them months after they finished it, but it never landed with me. I kept feeling like I was just a couple of pages from having the whole thing click together, but it never happened. Despite the beauty of some of the language, I can’t recommend this. Your mileage may vary.

Not Recommended.

Review: Zelnick’s Becoming Ageless

Becoming Ageless: Four Secrets To Looking and Feeling Younger Than Ever
Strauss Zelnick

Part memoir of the super-rich and successful Strauss Zelnick, part guide to aging well, this book is just like many many others that claim to have some new information but are really saying – eat well, exercise regularly, sometimes hard, sometimes easy, have a strong community, go see a doctor regularly. That’s basically it. If you’re just getting started on a healthy journey, this is as fine a place to start as any, but no new ground is really broken here.

Not recommended.

Brown’s The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Daniel James Brown

Dad literature in extremis. Which usually isn’t something that turns me off, but this time, it was all just a bit too much bootstrapping, a bit too much greatest generation propaganda, a bit too much they beat the nazi’s twice kind of thing.

It isn’t that the lives of these young men, almost uniformly from hardscrabble depression era childhoods aren’t inspiring. They are, but that isn’t enough to make a good book.

Joe Rantz, the central character here had a childhood that’s hard to imagine today in most of America today. Living in work camps, and unheated shacks, he started working at an extremely early age, and was abandoned by his father and step mother when he was still in high school. Even with all that, he managed to attend the University fo Washington, and win a gold medal in Berlin. That’s inspiring. But in the hand of Brown, it all comes off as a little too Horacio Alger. The prose is too purple, and descriptions, too overwrought. When dealing with material as compelling as the lives of these young men, its better to be subtle, reserved, but Brown doesn’t write that way and that’s a pity. There’s great story here, but not a great book.

I’m sure this has been optioned for a movie. I hope whoever directs it does a better job.

Not recommended.

Review: Ferris’s Tools for Titans

Tools for Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers
Tim Ferris

I’ll confess to being a fairly regular listener to the Tim Ferris podcast. While Ferris can be annoying at times and the whole can smell like techbro city, he is a good interviewer and his guests are often interesting people I would have never run across otherwise. This book is a collection of excepts from those interviews but distilled down to lists and bites and devoid of the kind of personal energy that comes through in the podcast.

While there’s some good bits in here, you’re much better off just picking the episodes of the podcasts that interest you.

Not recommended.

Review: Simenon’s Pietr the Latvian

Pietr the Latvian

Georges Simenon

The first of the many, many Maigret novels. Many smart people love these novels, but I’m not yet convinced. The writing is strong, the characters compelling, and the plot serviceable, but there’s more than a whiff of anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment here. I might give one more a try since they’re so canonical in the world of crime novels, but all in all, I was underwhelmed and put off.

Not recommended.

Review – Card’s Enders Game

Enders Game

Orson Scott Card

Super genius boy in distant future is trained to play ever more complex war games until it is eventually revealed to him that (spoiler alert) oh shit, they weren’t games after all.

A book about the ethics of war, the bonds of friendship, and the isolation of the leader. When I read this, I was aware of its status as a classic, but not aware of Card’s horrific views on LGBT issues. Taken as a stand along book, it’s an excellent example of someone taking he confines of so-called “military SF” and doing something new and exciting with it. But taken in conjunction with his hyper reactionary views on gay rights, it reads differently.

I’d be lying if I said this isn’t an excellent book, but is it a necessary book? No. It grapples with serious issues in a thoughtful way (and I should note, isn’t homophobic) but so do many, many other science fiction novels not written homophobes. If I had to do it over again today knowing what I know now, I think I’d skip Enders Game, not because it’s a bad book, but because there are other loads of other books to read not written

Not recommended.

Melo’s Inferno

A kind of sensationalistic kind of interesting novel of Brazilian street kid who goes on to become a drug lord of his favela before losing it all to betrayal, hubris and paranoia. Not a particularly new take on the story of the drug dealer (i.e. basically Scarface in Sao Paolo) but interesting none the less for the local detail on live in the poorest neighborhoods of Brazil.

Melo appears to know the world she describes, and the style of book (it devoid of standard reference points for changes in narrator, dialogue, etc) is interesting, just not interesting enough to overcome what for me felt like a clichéd plot.

Not recommended.

Review: Labbe’s Loquela


Carlos Labbe

Bolano-esque, but more formally experimental and less enjoyable (at least to this pleb).
Like many such literary affairs, it’s plot, such as it is, centers on a love story. Of course, one of the lovers is a novelists, struggling to write. There is much discussion about the nature of writing, digressions into literary movements, real and imagined, discussion of who controls the novel, the writer or the reader? There is also a sort of who done it aspect involving two albino girls and their imaginary world.

It was all a little much for me.

I find the older I get, the less patience I have for the formally experimental. Through a couple of curveballs at me, sure, I’m game, but attempt to interrogate the nature of narrative art?

Sorry dude, I’m tired.

Not recommended.

Sensory Deprivation Tanks, Talking Dolphins, and Aliens: Remembrances of reading John C. Lilly

The Scientists: A Novel Autobiography

Simulations of God: Science of Belief

Programming and Metaprogramming of the Human Biocomputer

John C. Lilly

Lilly was a well know and respected scientist who, like many in the late sixties, kinda start going off the rails. Did young Sean read the works of science Lilly produced early in his career? No, he did not. Young Sean read the woo-woo stuff. Like lots of other people, I because interested in Lilly because of the film Altered States, which is (very, very) loosely based on Lilly’s works with sensory deprivation tanks. That deprivation tank work is what interested me in him, and when I moved in California, his books were all over the used bookstores. The books never did anything for me, but his work did inspire to give a tank a try. An experience much more worth while than the books.

I wrote about my experience in a sensory deprivation tank here. 

With the sensory deprivation tanks of course also comes communications with dolphins, new agey self-help, and a lot of other twaddle much of it dressed up as science when it really wasn’t. Unlike Robert Anton Wilson, I never really like Lilly’s books. I just kept picking them up thinking there’s eventually be something worth read in them. For me, at least, there wasn’t.

Not recommended.


Ginsberg, Leary, and Lilly — trifecta of drugged up post hippie culture