Nov. 30th, 2016

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My daily routine has changed thanks to a new job, so I’m still working out where the all the previous reading time fits into the new schedule. Still, I did get some reading done. Which is good news for the book report fans out there.

MatildaMatilda by Roald Dahl

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Roald Dahl’s classic kids’ novel about five-year-old genius Matilda Wormwood, who lives with her rotten parents and deals with their rottenness by playing pranks on them. Once she starts school, she is pitted against the vicious and abusive headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, who is clearly insane and hates kids. Like many Dahl classics, this book is top-loaded with dark but cartoonish humor and heavy satire that takes a very dim view of both bullying headmasters and parents who don't appreciate how exceptional their kids are (to say nothing of used car salesmen). Even the over-the-top punishments meted out by Miss Trunchbull serve to make a point about how some people manage to get away with outrageous behavior. It’s a bit much at times, but otherwise it’s a well-told tale that deserves its reputation as a classic.

Quicker Than the EyeQuicker Than the Eye by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a mid-90s anthology of 21 short stories, some of which appeared previously in magazines, with the remainder exclusive to this collection. Bradbury covers a lot of his usual territory – sci-fi, the supernatural, sentimental American nostalgia, dystopian futures, murder, literary tributes and surrealist fantasy. Inevitably, even the best stuff here will get compared to Bradbury’s classic stories and perhaps come up short for many readers. But there are a number of gems here – an apartment complex haunted by the ghosts of Laurel and Hardy, an octogenarian couple gleefully trying to kill each other, an explanation of why people build cities in disaster-prone areas, and a closet connecting parallel worlds, among others. Not everything works perfectly, but for my money, this collection demonstrates that even this late in his career, Bradbury still had the ability to tell a good page-turning tale, and tell it well.

Zero HistoryZero History by William Gibson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the final installment in Gibson’s “Blue Ant” trilogy, which – as is tradition for Gibson trilogies – brings together characters from the first two novels, although the balance here skews more heavily to the second book, Spook Country. That book’s protagonist, ex-indie rock singer Hollis Henry, returns as she is once again hired by mysterious Blue Ant chief Hubertus Bigend – this time, to track down a mysterious designer who makes secret-branded denim clothing. Bigend also hires Milgrim – another Spook Country character, fresh out of an experimental rehab program – to perform industrial espionage. The objective in both cases is the same – giving Blue Ant an edge in winning a govt contract to design military uniforms (which are in turn a leading indicator of fashion design trends, it seems). Things get complicated when a couple of Blue Ant employees defect to another bidder who doesn’t appreciate the competition. At first I had trouble grasping the idea that the marketing and fashion industries are full of this much danger and intrigue. But Gibson makes it work – possibly because, when I think about it, he has always written about the intersection of art, corporate culture, government power, fashion, and technology, but the art/fashion/culture aspects are more obvious when he uses a contemporary setting rather than a futuristic cyberpunk dystopia. Anyway, although Gibson pushes his luck a little by the third act, Zero History is for me the most satisfying episode of the series – perhaps because I’ve learned to recognize the underground territory he’s mapping out here. And it's strangely interesting territory.

The Elephant in the RoomThe Elephant in the Room by Jon Ronson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a short Kindle-Single follow-up of sorts to Jon Ronson’s Them: Adventures with Extremists, which was published in 2000 and featured, among other extremists, Infowars’ Alex Jones, who at the time wasn’t really well-known outside of fringe conspiracy theory circles. These days, Jones is a national figure as one of the voices of the “alt-right” movement driving Donald Trump’s presidential run – Trump is on record as a fan of Jones, who arguably started the whole “Hillary For Prison” meme. Ronson reconnected with Jones at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in hopes of accessing Trump. He didn’t, but Ronson did spend time with Jones, Trump advisor Roger Stone and alt-right Trump fans – and this is the result. Like everything else related to the election, your opinion of this will largely depend on how hardcore and partisan your political views are and how much what Ronson wrote differs from what you wanted him to write. Personally, I liked it – as with Them!, Ronson has an uncanny and important ability to get to the humanity of his subjects without painting them as conveniently 2D caricatures of pure evil. (In fact, Ronson argues that the Left has inadvertently empowered and galvanized the alt-right in part by doing just that.) At under 50 pages it’s not comprehensive by any means, but it’s a good snapshot of the influence of the alt-right on Trump’s campaign and the chaos and madness that has manifested on both sides of the aisle.

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