Tag: Nonfiction

Announcing: The Warbler Weekly (And a Book Review!)

According to the Gregorian calendar, it is nearly the end of February. Somewhere around the middle of this month—and truth be told, I can’t remember the exact date—The Warbler celebrated its seventh birthday. Seven years! It’s been an interesting time, to say the least, and I am immensely grateful to you, readers and friends, for helping me forge my love of reading into something tangible.

Today, I’m delighted to tell you about something new. More than a few of you know that I, along with several colleagues and friends, host a weekly writing podcast called Write Right on which we discuss a variety of writerly topics near and dear to my heart. I’ve been mulling over the idea of expanding this blog into a multimedia extravaganza for some time, and at the repeated insistence of my friend G. Derek Adams, I have done just that.

Meet The Warbler Weekly. It’s a companion to this blog (which I’ll continue trying to update with written reviews as often as I am able) in which I’ll cover one book or several works by a single author every week. The podcast will likely expand into other topics as I pursue a variety of endeavors, so I’m keeping it very loose. I’ll be publishing a post on the site every time I publish a new episode, too.

I’m using Anchor to host and distribute it, but the platform offers a bunch of neat features. For instance, if you download it, you can record questions or comments on episodes and send them to me, which I can in turn feature on future episodes. An asynchronous conversation, audible to all kinds of book nerds. Sounds fun, right?

The first episode is up right now, and you can subscribe to the podcast on any of your favorite services—links below to the big ones.

The first book review on The Warbler Weekly is Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, a book of nonfiction essays compiled by Jim Al-Khalili. Give the episode a listen and let me know what you think!

Anchor Podcasts      Apple Podcasts       Google Play Music      PocketCasts

2k to 10k – Rachel Aaron

Given that the podcast I’m on recommended this book almost a half-dozen times, I decided it would be prudent to read Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. 

So I did. And I’m glad we’ve been recommending it so heartily. The book is short and to the point, focusing on the author’s experience raising her own writing efficiency to (some might say) inhuman levels. 10,000 words a day is massive. It’s more than I write in a good week. And it’s what Rachel Aaron manages daily.

Her techniques for achieving that daily feat are not opaque magical rituals, nor do they require ritual sacrifice—much to the possible chagrin of folks hoping for a “secret sauce” to writing lots and lots of words. Rather, she has a three-part plan that she claims can double word counts.

I won’t dig into the details here, because the book can be read in an afternoon, but suffice it to say that the tips come down to time, enthusiasm, and knowledge. Not rocket science, necessarily, but when you have a strong sense of what you’re going to write, why you want to write it, and you make the time for it, you are guaranteed to get more work done than if you sit down to work without a game plan.

The most helpful thing in the book ties into something that’s been on my mind for a few months, since a particular episode of Writing Excuses aired. Specifically, it has to do with treating writing more like a fine art practice. Rachel Aaron’a take on this topic is simple: take the concept of a thumbnail sketch—wherein artists make a very small, abbreviated sketch of what they intend to work on prior to beginning—and translate it to your writing. Before you sit down with your draft, take five minutes to briefly write out what you’re going to write; get yourself from point A to B in brief, and discover if there are any hangups before you’re deep in word-selection mode.

2k to 10k is loaded with tips, most of which may seem like common sense, but the benefits of reading the effects of a carefully considered writing strategy cannot be minimized. If you’re a writer who is looking to improve your productivity at the page, you need to read this book.

2k to 10k is available on Amazon.

Behold a Pale Horse – William Cooper

Caveat Emptor: I get into a somewhat aggressive discussion about biblical literalism below.

Before I dig into this review, I have a confession to make: I didn’t finish Behold a Pale Horse. I couldn’t. I think that if the election had gone differently, if the world didn’t seem so crazy right now, that I might have been able to finish it.

But I just couldn’t get through it. William Cooper’s frantic writing, logically fallacious conclusions, and absolute certainty about the end-times in which the Illuminati rise to power (the dates of which are well behind us) made it impossible to read. It may be that I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater here, given the likelihood that there are kernels of truth contained in the sprawling madness of Cooper’s words, but I’m not too bothered by that prospect.

Cooper alleges that all secret societies are connected, that all serve the Illuminati, and that all are working toward a singular goal: the subjugation of humanity. Meh. He also thinks that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is actually an Illuminati document, and pretty much any time the Protocols are invoked, my eyes roll so far into the back of my head that I can see my own neurons shutting down.

What I found most interesting about my partial (around 50%) read of the book was an observation I made regarding Constitutional Purists. Cooper’s rabid loyalty to the Constitution (with which he lumps in the Bill of Rights, a concept I’ll expand on below) reminds me of Biblical Literalists. People whose deeply held beliefs require certain cognitive sacrifices—to actively ignore millennia of human progress; to make use of the consumer benefits of the scientific method while denying the process that leads to those tangible discoveries; to selectively choose that some biblical Truths are more True than others, while still others can be completely ignored.

When Cooper talks about the Constitution, he talks of an infallible work of genius, a document of such tremendous power and unfailing wisdom that it alone could rule the land. And he lumps in the Bill of Rights—the first 10 amendments to that infallible Constitution—along with them.

Think about that for a minute. The Bill of Rights, comprised of those tremendously important changes to the infallible document, specifically having to do with personal freedoms. The thing was designed to change with the changing world.

Change is terrifying, no doubt about that. Our understanding of the world around us is constantly bombarded by new information, and that bombardment has only grown more fierce with the development of the astounding communication technologies on which we rely every day.

Which brings me back to Behold a Pale Horse. Much of the book was written long before its 1991 publication, and in the intervening years many of his certainties about the pending collapse of individual freedoms and the subjugation of humankind have failed to come to pass. 2000 went by without a hitch. As did 2012. No alien takeovers. No government prison camps—aside from the for-profit prison industry, but that’s another can of worms. No Grand Conspiracy. Nowadays, with the prevalence and power of the individual to do research online, Behold a Pale Horse seems more like a guy with a “THE END IS NEAR” sign than a prescient and brilliant book about Hidden Truths.

What drew me to this book was the discussion of the UFO phenomenon, which it does get to, but it dwells far too long on the idea that Alien civilizations are in on the whole “subjugation of humanity” thing. I don’t buy that, either. I don’t think we’re important enough, or valuable enough, frankly. It’s the same audacity of that biblical literalist, that the world was created for us. That we are the most important and magnificent things out there, divinity notwithstanding.

I think it’s much more humbling to acknowledge the truth of the Pale Blue Dot. We’re here, and we have the most remarkable and strange and perhaps unknowable gift of consciousness, and for the tiniest of moments on the cosmic scale, we can observe the most magnificent concert of physics unfolding. To me, that’s much more interesting than bunkers and evil supergovernmental organizations and mean aliens that want to harvest our organs or whatever.

I don’t often put a book down without finishing it, even if I loathe it. This was an exception—I didn’t even hate it, truth be told. I just couldn’t compound the anxiety and frustration of the current political climate with the shenanigans in Behold a Pale Horse. And, for what it’s worth, there are much better UFO books out there.

The Geek Feminist Revolution – Kameron Hurley

It’s difficult to know where to begin when discussing Kameron Hurley’s essay collection, The Geek Feminist Revolution. Heartfelt may be a good word. Expansive may be another. But what keeps coming to my mind, over and again, is important. Vital, even. Especially in today’s America, wherein the once-fringe Gamergate movement has become the de-facto governing philosophy of the country. It sickens me to complete that sentence, but it’s where we are.

Hurley’s book explores nothing new, which is a remarkable enough thought on its own. The problems women and minorities face in the zeitgeist are nothing new, and though things are slowly changing—and we certainly live in a “better” time—we are still unbelievably far from where we need to be. And it feels like we may have just taken a major step backwards.

Hurley’s essays are a no-nonsense, unvarnished look at the status quo, most often through the lens of her personal experiences. Her anger, pain, and passion are evident in her every word, and they suffuse you as you read her essays. It’s frustrating to read, because the very real problems she describes are absurd. Combined with her frank, brutal writing style, the essays achieve their goal easily: to incense the reader. And we should be angry. And we should be galvanized by her words and the words of so many others to take action, to stand beside our fellow humans and say “enough is enough.”

There were more than a few moments while I read the essay collection in which I thought critically about my own experiences. It’s given me pause, and further material for an essay I’ve been considering writing which I’d call something like “On Being an Invisible Minority.” It’d no doubt be controversial, but I worry about writing it, and truth be told, never will. I was able to articulate the thesis of that essay after reading Hurley’s collection, though. So I’ll share the question here: Are we gaslighting individual members of groups for assuming privilege?

I think the core of that question is that privilege is a complicated subject, to say the least. There are so many different qualities that are privileged in our society, but there are also many that disqualify the larger, “superficial” elements of privilege. Just writing that sentence filled me with anxiety. Finishing the thought does, too. Because I’m a white, cis male.

But I’m also Jewish. I’m also a victim of sexual assault. I’m short. I wear glasses. I have a physical disability that resulted from an injury that prevents me from effectively washing the dishes or flipping a pancake without discomfort. I have international experience and dual citizenship. I am multilingual. I am medicated for depression and anxiety, like so many other Americans.  I feel like I’m in constant conflict with myself over the obvious privilege and the not-as-obvious struggles. And everywhere I read that those superficial elements of my privilege supersede the things about me I feel have been much more defining in my journey through life.

Most of those things require digging to discover. But walking down the street, I’m way ahead of the game. I know that. So there’s the duality within me that drives me up the wall: I am immensely privileged, and I acknowledge that and want to do my part to change the status quo. And I have struggled, and continue to struggle.  But comparing the severity of tragedies and struggles is going down a dark, divisive path. I will never do it. I support the fight of my many brothers and sisters who want nothing more than the dignity of an equal opportunity to succeed, to live without fear of assault and discrimination.

Suffice it to say this: in my pursuit of success as an author of genre fiction, some doors will open more easily for me than for my compatriots of color, women, and the litany of others who suffer this systemic discrimination. It is unacceptable. Hurley’s essays shine a bright light on these issues, and for that, it is a work of great import.

This was a difficult review to write. But The Geek Feminist Revolution was not a difficult book to read. It flows, and Hurley’s righteous fury is appropriate and inspiring. Her contribution to the canon of the fight against discrimination, especially in our corner of the zeitgeist, will stand out as a remarkable moment of commitment.  Hurley has cemented herself as a fearless fighter—a woman driven to this end not only by external forces, but an internal strength and perseverance that drives her to shout until she is hoarse, then shout some more. Kameron Hurley, you have written a fantastic collection of essays here. Your work should be considered required reading for anyone who wants to become a “figure” in the genre fiction community.

I’ll be pushing it to every writer I know.

The Geek Feminist Revolution is available on Amazon and directly from the author.

Storyteller – Kate Wilhelm

storytellerI’m not sure where I first saw the title of this book, but I remember it standing out. It may have been on Cory Doctorow’s twitter feed, but that’s not important. What caught my eye was not so much the title as the subtitle: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop.

I’ve spent the better part of the last year and a half vacillating between opinions regarding my future as a writer. I am currently writing professionally. I write these book reviews for fun (and to develop a personal brand that will be ever-so-appealing to future agents and publishers). And I work on my own fiction almost every day.

But I’ve got a hunger to study writing. I want to sit in a classroom and discuss the craft, read the words of my peers, and build a rigorous practice for myself as a writer.

The hunger led me to researching graduate programs in creative writing; specifically those that would be friendly to genre writers, considering the general sentiment among “academic” fiction writers and instructors toward fantasy and sci-fi.

But then I remembered hearing about Clarion, the six-week intensive workshop designed by and for genrefic writers that has been consistently churning out magnificent, successful writers for about 45 years.

And here’s a book by one of the women who was foundational in the workshop’s creation, writing about her own experience. I bought a copy without hesitation.

Storyteller is at once a memoir, writing textbook, pep-talk, and history. Kate Wilhelm’s writing is clear, engaging, entertaining, and honest. Her love for Clarion, its students, and speculative fiction as a whole. It’s hard not to get caught up in the thrill of the development of this unprecedented workshop, in the struggle as they were forced to move from university to university, in the confusion and emotional intensity that comes from sharing critiquing writing.

It’s a wonderful book, and would be regardless of its usefulness as a writing resource.

As a resource, however, I believe it to be tremendously valuable. The tips Wilhelm weaves within her stories, connected to examples of situations in which they applied, helps to ground her suggestions in reality. Oftentimes I will read pieces of writing advice, and they’ll go in one….eye? and out the other? How do you transpose that idiom?

My point being that there’s an additional weight to the advice Wilhelm gives in Storyteller. Something about the way she writes, coupled with what I’ve heard/read from so many Clarion alums, lends a degree of gravitas to her words.

Not only that, but they’re always kind, encouraging, and honest. It’s exactly what I needed to read to feel like this whole “writing” thing wasn’t a waste of time.

If you’re a writer, particularly a genrefic writer, you’ve got to get this book. Keep it close to you when you write. Leaf through it when you feel like you can’t write any more, and refuel with the gems of advice it contains.

Storyteller is available on Amazon.

Draftshares: Humor, Nonfiction, Other

For the next batch of noteworthy drafts, we turn to the humor and nonfiction genres. Take a look, and offer feedback if you can!

So You Might Be a Vampire: (Humor) Nobody told Bob when he became a vampire he’d have to keep his shitty job. He’s average looking, not rich, not pale and blood is a drug, not a food. There are over 101 ways to suck at being a vampire, and Bob is living proof.

Presenting Complaints: (Humor) A disastrously run NHS hospital is threatened with takeover by an amoral private health concern.  Dr Tom Rysarian – shallow, selfish, and monumentally lazy – becomes embroiled in a last-ditch effort to save his place of work from privatization.

Try not to fall off the Long Gray Line: An autobiography by David Howard on “[his]” progression from Plebe to graduate at West Point.”

Holding Their Ground: (Romance) When no one is watching, history repeats itself. This time, almost no one is ready– except perhaps the inhabitants of the Bird that have escaped the wreckage below. Boy meets girl as the world fumbles to regain control over their own bodies.

The Investigations of the Para-Usual: (Humor) Somewhat blundering Professor O’Singh learns too late that the price of knowing everything is the destruction of everything we know

The Underworld Startup: (Humor) Sameer, the son of an Underwold Don, wants to leave the world of crime and launch a startup. Will he succeed in his mission?

Recipes I have Stolen: Tales from the Trenches: (Nonfiction) Inspired by Alex Lester’s life and my career working in some of the best kitchens in Europe and the USA

Liquid Handcuffs: (Nonfiction) A book inspired by Steve Jacobson’s life as a pharmaceutical poster child; being prescribed unnecessary medications as a means of not defining the real issues.

Chariots of the Gods — Erich von Daniken

9781452671536Several years ago, while working at PlayStation, I was introduced to the most compelling evidence I have ever seen for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. That there is extraterrestrial life is, to me, a given. That there is intelligent extraterrestrial life also strikes me as true, it not because of statistical likelihood, then certainly because of the aforementioned evidence.

That evidence came in the form of a four hour documentary called “The Disclosure Project,” in which people who are trained observers — pilots, control tower operators, radar technicians… Mainly military and paramilitary personnel —  soberly talk about their experiences with UFOs and other phenomena. I’m not asking you to watch all four hours of it, but I encourage you to check it out. It might blow your mind a little bit.

“The Disclosure Project” started me down the rabbit hole of research into extraterrestrials. The issue is that the “good stuff” is obfuscated — some say intentionally — by stories and individuals that must be ignored outright. Finding the wheat among the chaff is, unfortunately, not unlike searching for a particular piece of hay in a haystack. The labyrinthine world of extraterrestrial research collides with many other communities, from New Agers to conspiracy theorists and everything in between, and among the group are the Ancient Astronaut theorists.

Simply put, the Ancient Astronaut theory states that ancient texts — religious texts in particular — contain accounts of extraterrestrial visitation. The theory uses things like the great pyramids, nazca lines, and other relics of the ancient past to further prove their point; ancient peoples, they reason, can’t possibly have had the technology to build those things. Therefore, aliens.

The-Ancient-Aliens-Guy-And-The-Ancient-Astronaut-TheoryI’m not certain, but I believe the principle text of Ancient Astronaut theory is Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, which was on sale at Audible.com over black Friday.

So I happily purchased it, knowing that I’d get to it eventually, and a few weeks ago I had roughly five and a half hours of chores to do during which I listened to the book in its entirety.  The narrator, William Dufris, performed admirably, but considering that the book is non-fiction, performance wasn’t a thing to which I gave much consideration.

What I cared about was the substance of the book. I wanted to find in it compelling evidence that would show me beyond a shadow of a doubt that civilizations visited this planet thousands of years ago and sparked human society.

But I didn’t find it in Chariots of the Gods. What I found instead was more of the same frustrating tactics that plague the UFO discussion at large: the faulty logic that absence of evidence for one condition constitutes evidence for another, the assumption that ancient religious texts are literally true, and half-formed points followed by series of leading questions designed to distract from the lack of complete evidence.

That isn’t to say that the book wasn’t interesting; on the contrary, I found it to be a fascinating look back in time, to the late 60s, when the moon landing electrified the world and filled people with wild dreams of a technological, interplanetary future. It is particularly interesting to see von Daniken’s wishful predictions about moon colonies in the 80s and humans on Mars by the 90s. I often wondered while listening to the book whether his thoughts were representative of the zeitgeist or if he was an outlier. I suppose I could ask my parents, who would have been in their early twenties at the time.

But back to the book. I understand the point of a persuasive essay, sure, but a Chariots of the Gods only has a handful of salient points within its pages. That being said, I find Ancient Astronaut theory plausible—which would essentially make humanity a cargo cult— which is why I was even more disappointed in the book than I ought to have been.

By asking a plausible question and following up with hysterically delivered series of hypothetical absurdities, von Daniken weakens his salient points. He rests his hat upon the assertion that the Epic of Gilgamesh, Bhagavad Gita, and old testament are literally true, that Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly Merkabah (Chariot) was an eyewitness account. He takes them to be truths without offering any kind of support for that assumption, leaning (I surmise) on the convenience of widespread belief in gospel truth.

That particular assumption fails my first litmus test, and that so many of the subsequent arguments are built on this shaky foundation weakens the whole book enough for me to want to throw the babies out with the bathwater. There are good points in there: rock quarried from places too far to transport conveniently, with no evidence of said transport; mysterious metal alloys that make no sense; accurate drawings of the Pleiades constellation on rocks; and many, many others. Instead, von Daniken and his heirs argue that Sodom and Gomorrah were annihilated by nuclear weapons.  In my mind, that’s not a relevant point.

At the end of the day, the five-hour book is worth listening to, not only because of its sporadic delivery of real head-scratchers, but for its effectiveness as a window into the recent past. And if you click on this here link, you’ll be throwing me a bone, which I appreciate. But if you’re looking for something a bit more serious to dig into UFO research, look at Disclosure (part one, part 2) and  Sirius.

The Hunt for Vulcan – Thomas Levenson


Another very exciting development in the world of The Warbler: I had the privilege of reading (and now reviewing) a book from Random House (!) thanks to this whole “building a brand” nonsense I’ve been trying to do. Learning about the options available to independent book reviewers has been exciting and illuminating. Publishers want books read and reviewed. I want to read and review books. It’s a wonderful match. But let’s stop talking about talking about books, and get to the talking about books, shall we?

Outside of speculative fiction, I best like reading books on science designed for laypeople. Many (if not most) books like this focus on successes of science. On discoveries that change the world, and a glimpse at the far-reaching ramifications they may have had.

Not so with Vulcan.

The Hunt for Vulcan tells a tale — and a tale it is — of hubris, ego, and failure. Of desperation and curiosity. Of a world rapt in the excitement of discovering the new. Leveson expresses that excitement in such a way that I was electrified with it. He makes statements that capture the heart of the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and the fallibility of those who engage in that pursuit: us.

“At first blush, this may seem something of a burlesque, a tale of nineteenth-century astronomical follies, Victorian gentlemen chasing a mistake. But there’s more here than a comedy of errors. The story of Vulcan suggests something much deeper, something that gets to the heard of the way science really advances…”

That something deeper? The simple notion that in the search for truth, we make mistake after mistake until a definitive result appears. Once we achieve that result, we look out from our updated view of the real and begin the process again.

In the case of The Hunt for Vulcan, the subject is a planet that never existed—Vulcan—save for in the minds of astronomers and mathematicians in the nineteenth century.

The book covers the history necessary to understand the Vulcan conundrum in its entirety. We learn of Sir Issac Newton, and how his mathematical formulae were able to consistently predict the positions of celestial bodies in motion, explaining the relationships between the planets. Newtonian mechanics covered, we jump ahead to issues with Saturn that plagued astronomers. It didn’t conform well enough to the math. If the math was inaccurate, what was missing?

In order to maintain the sanctity of math in the post-Newton world, a French mathematician, Le Verrier, set out to explain the error by introducing a new planet to the solar system before it had been observed. One that, crucially, conformed to the existing mathematical explanation of the universe. When proof of said planet was found (Neptune), Le Verrier was elevated and glorified, and the existing worldview remained intact.

But Saturn’s oddities were not the only problem in the Solar System. Mercury had a sort of wobble that perplexed scientists for centuries following the development of Newtonian mechanics. Le Verrier, now proven in the realm of discovering unseen planets using the power of mathematics, haughtily pronounced the existence of an intra-Mercurial planet. Thanks to the math, this planet had an approximate size and mass, and a predictable position in the night sky. What to do next? Name it!

Thus, the planet Vulcan was born.

“As Vulcan’s troublesome history reveals, no one gives up on a powerful, or a beautiful, or perhaps simply a familiar and useful conception of the world without utter compulsion—and a real alternative.”

But nobody found it. What’s more, it should have been much easier to spot, being between Mercury and the Sun. Think about it: a nice, big light behind it to illuminate it in the day, and a collection of recognizable landmarks (space-marks?) to guide the eye at night.

The hunt went on for years. Le Verrier, enraged, worked tirelessly to prove Vulcan’s existence. He practically tortured his staff, his inflated ego blasting any and all in its path as it was punctured. After a final failed attempt to find Vulcan, in which several astronomers were shamed (for reporting false sightings,) the lid seemed to be closed on Vulcan. Despite the fact that it had never been seen, it still hovered in the periphery of popular science, until a better explanation for Mercury’s behavior would rear its head.

Along came Albert Einstein (of personal interest to me and my family. Ask about it later, if you must), with the audacity to blow the lid off of science completely in a series of four papers which completely changed the world. Newtonian mechanics weren’t wrong. In fact, they’re still used today to get a “ballpark” for beginning physics students. Einstein simply proved that they weren’t right enough. Einstein’s tremendous triumph not only rocked the world, it destroyed Vulcan entirely. Here was math that perfectly explained the behavior of the planet, without the need for a ghost planet.

“The result emerged at the end of a chain of mathematical reasoning, the inevitable outcome of subjecting matter to number. Einstein, usually a fairly phlegmatic man, felt this one to the bone. When he completed the calculation of the orbit of Mercury and saw exactly the right number fall out of the long chain of pure reasoning, he told friends that seeing Mercuries motion fall out of his equations hit him with a physical shock.”

The Hunt for Vulcan is a wonderful book. It reads like a novel, full of tension, laughs, and drama, with a cast of characters that seem almost unreal. At the core of it all rests the beauty that it is real, and by the heroic efforts of those researchers, even when they were wrong, we know more about our magnificent universe. Levenson captures the thrill of the chase, the thirst for knowledge, and the unstoppable force that is scientific truth, in a way that is relatable and eminently enjoyable.

“Science is unique among human ways of knowing because it is self-correcting. Every claim is provisional, which is to say each is incomplete in some small or, occasionally, truly consequential way. But in the midst of the fray, it is impossible to be sure what any gap between knowledge and nature might mean.”