Wrangham's thesis is that fire is what made modern humans. We didn't just learn to use fire because we were so smart: using fire actually gave us an evolutionary advantage which led to our being smart. In a nutshell: cooked food is more nutritious and easier to eat, thus allowing our evolutionary ancestors to acquire more calories for less effort, increasing their survival and also freeing up more time for things like inventing the wheel.
At first this may seem counter-intuitive, but Wrangham makes a convincing case, talking about the speed of evolution and how it's plausible that humans could indeed have evolved as a result of our control of fire, which Wrangham dates back to (possibly) up to a quarter of a million years ago. He talks about the physiology of chewing and digestion, how our australopithicene ancestors differed from us in how they ate, and crucial differences between human diets and monkey diets. Lots of talk about how the body handles cooked meat and vegetables differently than raw meat and vegetables. All of this is fascinating and convincing.
I think the second part of the book is weaker, as Wrangham goes into evolutionary psychology, which as usual involves a lot of speculation but without much evidence. Many of the later chapters felt a bit padded, like he had an obligation to bring in a social and cultural dimension to the argument. This I found less convincing -- we get a lot of talk about how cooking and food preparation shakes out in "primitive" societies, but this is all dealing with homo sapiens in our modern state. It's somewhat interesting but I don't think it really contributes much to his central thesis, which is supported strongly enough by the physical evidence.
Overall, a good food science and physical anthropology book.
Recommended for: Fans of evolution, monkeys, and cooked food.
Not recommended for: Creationists, vegans, or raw foodists.
I love this book and I want to recommend it to everyone, especially those who are seriously wide-read, "bookish" people who have at least some familiarity with the literary scene, writers' workshops, and the angst of being an aspiring writer (or even a published one).
If this book puts you off because of the pink cover and all the people who have shelved it as "chick-lit" — ignore that nonsense. Jincy Willett only writes "chick-lit" if you think a book by a woman about a woman is by definition chick-lit. Amy Falls Down is "writer-lit."
You should also know that this book is a sequel to "The Writing Class," which is unfortunately not available on Audible. However, it's a sequel only in the sense that follows chronologically with the same main character. There are some references to the events in the previous book, but you don't have to read it first. Though you really should, because The Writing Class was also wonderful and the reason I discovered Jincy Willett.
Amy Gallup is a writer. A dumpy, sixty-something writer who had a brief moment when she was in her twenties, as a "writer to watch out for." She wrote several books that received critical acclaim but only modest sales, and then, for reasons that only slowly emerge in this book, reasons that she herself can't fully articulate, she stopped. She hasn't written much of anything for thirty years. When we first met her in The Writing Class, she was making a meager living teaching creative writing as adjunct faculty at a community college. That book was our introduction to Jincy Willett's scathing and hilarious (yet affectionate) send-up of the modern writing scene, and a cozy-ish murder mystery.
Then Willett comes along and writes Amy Falls Down, in which there is no murder, no mystery, and not even that much of a plot. Yet it's every bit as good as the first book — in fact, possibly better. It reads like something Willett wrote just because she felt like writing it. Which is perfectly congruent with her protagonist, Amy Gallup, who writes when she feels like it, which hasn't been for thirty years.
In the first chapter of this book, Amy falls down. And hits her head on a birdbath. Which gives her a concussion. By coincidence, she had an interview scheduled for that afternoon. A reporter, doing a story on "washed up writers - where are they now?" (not phrased quite that unkindly) was supposed to come to her house to talk to her. To her horror, Amy realizes that she gave the interview and can't even remember it. She goes to the hospital, meets a nice doctor who is, like apparently almost all doctors, a wannabe novelist himself, and then gets a call from her former agent, who informs her that she has suddenly generated "buzz" because of her interview.
As Amy suddenly finds herself attracting (unwanted) attention for the first time in years, she also finds herself writing stories again for the first time in years.
The story is ostensibly the resurrection of Amy's writing career, a resurrection she never dreamed about, cared about, or particularly wanted. Along the way, she attends writers' conferences, bookshop appearances, and radio talk shows in which, pushed once too often, she turns her rarely-deployed but devastating wit on a windbag host and generates more publicity for herself by taking him apart on the air.
You can also see thinly-disguised representations of prominent contemporary authors, bestsellers, in the fictitious authors Amy meets. I won't name names because Jincy Willett is a lot better-read than I am and probably was thinking of completely different names than the ones I thought she was satirizing, but the beauty of her characterization is that every one of these people is real, hilarious, sometimes likable and sometimes buffoonish, but no one is a cartoon. Much of the book is spent inside Amy's head and her interior monologue, which is maybe why people insist on calling this "chick lit" (it's not), but Amy's thought process is human and funny and real, and gives you a glimpse of what a real writer can do when writing about real people with messy, complicated lives even if they are, from the outside, perfectly mundane ones lacking any sort of novelistic drama and adventure.
I hesitate to identify Amy as an author stand-in, even though the similarities between her and her author are too obvious to be ignored. Because I can picture Jincy Willett reading my review and letting out an exasperated sigh about readers who think they're smarter than they are. Not that she'd say anything, because like Amy Gallup, I imagine that Jincy Willett may find people exasperating and annoying, but she doesn't have the cruel streak necessary to actively mock them even if they deserve it.
Since I listened to Amy Falls Down on audio, I can't easily type all the quotable passages I want to fill this review with. Just take my word for it that there is lots of quote material. Willett writes with wit and humor and warmth and sometimes just enough of a sharp edge to let you know that, like Amy, she could really cut you down if she wanted to. But she won't, because she's too nice.
The subplot, with some members of her writing class from the previous book setting up an "authors' retreat," is almost incidental, and for much of the middle section of this book I thought Willett had dropped it completely. It gets wrapped up at the every end, with enough humor to justify its inclusion, but it seems like mostly a bone thrown to readers of the first book. It does, however, continue to skewer the foibles and pretensions of writer wannabes, writer gurus, writers' workshops, and the entire industry that has grown around those who fancy themselves enamored of "the writing life."
This Audible freebie is a short story set after Steelheart (so spoilers for that book) and before the second book.
Like Steelheart, it's an entertaining if lightweight story. Now that Steelheart has been slain and the former city of Chicago, once ruled by the tyrannical Steelheart, is free, the Reckoners are trying to rally the citizenry, who are still terrified of "Epics" (the metahumans in this universe) who they believe will soon return.
An epic known as Mitosis, because he can split into an infinite number of clones of himself, has come to Newcago to challenge David, the slayer of Steelheart. The story is about half-and-half Sanderson's usual tropes: trying to rally the common people to Do the Right Thing (but always under the leadership of author-designee Chosen Ones), and being clever with super powers. Mitosis's weakness was rather amusing, as were the few bits of non-monologuing dialog he had.
Sanderson always has some logical, well-constructed underpinning to explain all the supernatural/superhuman phenomena in his worlds, usually revealed only after a few books, and I think I've figured out the key to the Epics' "random" weaknesses.
Definitely read Steelheart before you read this. Still not sure how soon I will get around to the next book, as this series is not his best, but if you like a slightly different spin on superheroes, Sanderson usually succeeds in throwing some interesting twists.
More than one Jim Butcher fan has told me that the Harry Dresden series takes several books before it really picks up. I am still unsure if I have the perseverance to keep reading one mediocre book after another until the awesome happens.
Fool Moon is okay. This time Harry Dresden, the angsty, soulful, oh-so-manful-yet-gentlemanly-yet-chivalrous-yet-really-a-big-fat-tool wizard, has to solve a bloody series of murders in Chi-town. At least there is no coyness in this urban fantasy — right from the beginning, he, and the reader, knows he's dealing with werewolves, and he even mostly convinces his mundane cop friend Detective Murphy.
Dresden pulls the magic staff and demon-summoning and charmed amulets out right away. So far the best aspects of Jim Butcher's writing seems to be the worldbuilding. In two books, we already have been presented with a considerable menagerie of supernatural beings existing in the shadows of the mundane world, complete with rules and secret societies and laws of magic that are as consistent as in any urban fantasy.
The werewolves killed some associates of "Gentleman Johnny" Marconi, Chicago's biggest gangster and Harry's nemesis from the previous book, apparently destined to be the ongoing mundane antagonist to our hotshot wizard, as opposed to all the demons and dark wizards he's pissing off on the supernatural side. Murphy is under investigation by Internal Affairs because of stuff that happened in the last book (some of it Harry's fault), and the FBI shows up to investigate the killings, with their usual lack of humor, and lack of appreciation for so-called "wizards" babbling about werewolves.
Naturally, there are twists. The biggest non-spoiler twist is one of the better elements of Butcher's worldbuilding in this book - there are several kinds of werewolves. Butcher makes the distinctions between them interesting and believable. Dresden finds himself alternately allied with and battling werewolves of different types and factions.
Butcher is a decent writer. The weakness in this book was the same weakness as in the previous book - Dresden is supposed to be this bad-ass wizard, who has so much darkness in his soul that his "soul gaze" can leave people shaken and stunned, and yet he spends much of the book being chased, beaten, bushwhacked, and bedazzled, between musing on how very old fashioned and chivalrous he is. Karen Murphy, his "will they/won't they?" supporting character, is a hot-shot police detective who's constantly described as a cute little cheerleader getting cutely irate at Harry for cutely holding doors open for her. Harry has a real white knight complex going on and while I know it's gauche to infer too much about an author from his characters, I really do wonder if Butcher is one of those guys who spent his entire high school and college years moping about being "friend-zoned."
By the second half of the book, you can predict how it will end, but it's still a decently entertaining story. Butcher is starting to hint that "dark things are afoot" and the supernatural is becoming more active, so maybe Harry will go on to more world-saving stunts in future volumes. Will I continue reading this series? Eventually I'll probably try the next book. But so far it is a strictly average urban fantasy series, basically a paranormal romance for guys.
James Marsters is a great voice actor - however, I can't give the performance 5 stars for this book, because he does have a tendency to speak in a low, almost muttering voice, which is not a good feature in an audiobook that may be listened to while driving or doing housework with background noise, etc.
You have to love a heroine named Athena Hera Sinistra. By the end of the first chapter, we've learned that our 19-year-old protagonist is the terror of everyone she's ever crossed paths with, capable of beating up professional mercenaries singlehandedly, and has a rack that makes men stop to stare in the middle of a crisis. A little Mary Sue-ish? Well, some of her preternatural abilities are explained later in the book, but yes, we've got some serious Heinleinian wish fulfillment going on here.
"Heinleinian" is not necessarily a bad thing. Darkship Thieves reads a lot like an homage to Heinlein's classic space operas, with hyper-competent, rather ruthless but ultimately moral protagonists sharing pithy words of wisdom and vaguely libertarian sentiments while kicking bad guys in the crotch.
Athena Hera Sinistra is the daughter of a Patrician, one of the "Goodmen" who rule Earth as an oligarchy. Spoiled, tempestuous, brilliant, beautiful, and dangerous, and with some series Daddy Issues, she finds herself seemingly being kidnapped aboard her own father's space yacht by his mercenary goons. She escapes, doing plenty of damage in the process, and runs into the "Energy Tree" that someone centuries ago created to float beyond Earth orbit and grow "power pods" which are harvested for Earth's energy needs.
Okay, the science is a little dodgy.
Athena gets picked up by one of the legendary "Darkship Thieves," who steal power pods and flee back to their secret base in the outer solar system. Carried off by the superhuman genetically-enhanced cat-man, Athena begins what is of course an inevitable kiss-kiss-slap romance with our futuristic space highwayman. She learns about their advanced asteroid, "Eden," run along vaguely anarcho-libertarian principles, and begins to become integrated into their society. Then her boy gets captured while making another power pod run, and she has to go back to Earth for a confrontation with Daddy Dearest, in which we learn all kinds of deep dark secrets about Earth's real history and Daddy's sinister plans for his little girl, and an entire gang of space biker allies is introduced in the final act.
Darkship Thieves was a fun romp. The writing is just okay and the story was, as I said, largely rehashed Heinlein, with a stronger romantic element, but if you like classic SF, this is a fairly well-executed tribute.
The Troop is good. Stephen King good. It's no surprise it got blurbed by King — it's just the sort of creepy, gross, and disturbing tale he wrote in his glory days, where the real horror is not the supernatural or science gone mad, but how human beings treat each other.
Five boys in a Boy Scout troop, led by small-town doctor Scoutmaster Tim, embark on a weekend of camping and merit badge-collecting on a tiny island off the coast of Canada. Unfortunately, someone else joins them on the island, a visitor who is gaunt and almost insane with hunger.
Once the bad stuff starts happening, the boys notice that there are boats, military boats, surrounding the island. And no one is coming to rescue them.
This is not a book for those with weak stomachs or who can't handle stories in which children die. You will grow attached to these five boys - Kent, the big, brash son of the town's police chief; Max, sensible and easy-going; Ephraim, fearless, wired, coiled and angry; Shelly, the odd, "slow" boy who makes everyone uneasy; and Newt, the chubby, nerdy butt of everyone's jokes.
This boys' adventure is a pretty horrific survival tale. It's got blood and guts and solid characterization, and smooth, pleasing writing that will still creep you the hell out. As a long-time Stephen King fan, and a former Boy Scout, The Troop gets high marks from me - I will definitely be checking out Nick Cutter's next.
It's pretty much impossible not to know the plot of this hundred-year-old sci-fi classic, the granddaddy of all alien invasion stories, the inspiration for all Mars fiction ever since, even stories without Martians. The ravaging of London, the iconic tripods, the inhuman, ululating Martians, probably everyone is familiar with Wells' story even if only a fraction have actually read the book.
I'm guilty of not reading the original until now, though I've read and watched countless adaptations and tributes.
Wells's story moves along with the first person narrator experiencing the coming of the Martians, falling in cylinders shot from a great cannon on Mars. At first they seem weak and helpless, being just gelatinous bodies without the strength to move about in Earth's gravity, and even after they display their heat ray, no one really considers them an existential threat - the army will show up soon enough to sort them out.
Once they rise up on their hundred-foot-tall tripods, however, they prove to be an unstoppable force. The British army gives them a bit of a fight at first - the Martian war machines are not impervious to artillery shells - but between poison gas and heat rays, they're soon killing everything in their path, laying London to waste, and driving six million people into panicked flight.
The narrator makes his way across a ruined London, finds himself trapped in a house beneath a Martian war party, and experiences the horror of their dining habits and the madness of his fellow survivors.
As a straightforward sci-fi story, of course, this was a frightening tale of alien invasion. But it's also frightening in its description of what almost becomes a post-apocalyptic landscape. The great metaphor of The War of the Worlds, of course, is the domination of less technologically advanced civilizations by stronger ones who feel entitled to take what they need and prey on their inferiors. In other words, Wells describes the British being treated as they have treated others, and the coming of the Martians is no less devastating to England than the coming of the English must have seemed to the natives of Africa, India, and North America. Wells makes this point very effectively without ever harping on, hence one could choose to totally miss it and see the novel as just a SF war story. But then you'd be missing the true dimensions of the horror Wells is describing.
As a novel, The War of the Worlds is more of a travelogue, in the style of Wells's 19th century contemporaries, than an adventure story. The narrator never actually does much, just bears witness to what the Martians do. The strength of the story is in the gruesome details about the Martians, and the havoc they visit upon hapless Earthmen.
It may appear to be faded with age, but it must have been quite the hair-raiser back in the day, as evidenced by the famous Orson Welles broadcast that terrified America.
Miriam Black has the power (or curse) of knowing exactly when and how someone will die. The moment she touches someone, she sees a vision of their death and knows to the hour when it will happen. And she can't change it - she's tried. As with any story about time travel or precognition, the story comes around to the inevitable question of causality. Miriam knows, from past experience, that trying to interfere with someone's death just means she ends up playing a role in it. Then she meets someone whose death she really wants to prevent, and the question becomes, is fate actually immutable, and will she cheat it?
The most compelling aspect of Wendig's writing, and probably the most annoying, is Miriam's voice. She is a cynical, chain-smoking harlot with a deathwish and a mouth that can make a sailor blush. We get dribs and drabs of her background - an uptight, puritanical mother who naturally turned her daughter into the sinful, rebellious manifestation of everything she was trying to prevent, and the crushing burden of seeing people die over and over, peacefully in bed or violently squished between vehicles, young and old, whether she knows them or not, and finally, the death that she thinks earned her her "gift."
None of this really makes Miriam likable. She doesn't want to be likable. She revels in being unlikable. She's taken up a vagrant lifestyle, following people around when she knows they're going to die soon, and stealing their stuff, a psychic vulture. She runs into a nice guy named Louis, a truck driver, and a not so nice guy named Ashley, a con artist. Ashley figures out what Miriam can do, and Ashley also turns Miriam on. Unlike sweet, gentlemanly Louis.
At this point, all I could say was, "Run, Louis!" but obviously that's not the way the story is supposed to go.
Miriam is brought to the attention of a creepy bald drug dealer and a murderous pair of assistants, thanks to Ashley, and so Louis is dragged into the situation, and so Miriam has to figure a way out of the visions she's already seen.
Props to Chuck Wending for an ending that did not feel like a cheat, and for a witty, funny, profane voice. But Miriam's awfully hard to like, and while I'm somewhat interested in where her story will go next, I can only take her in small doses.
Shirley Jackson did not invent the "Let's spend the night in a haunted house" trope, but she owned it with this book. Arguably, her disciples Richard Matheson and Stephen King even improved on it, but The Haunting of Hill House is a study in how to generate understated shivers without gore or violence. (Okay, there is a bit of gore, but it's phantasmal... right?)
The story opens with a straightforward expository introduction to Dr. Montague, who wants to spend the night in an 80-year-old house reputed to be haunted and shunned by the locals. It has the usual haunted house history - the builder was cracked, bad things happened, and everyone who's moved in since has left immediately. Dr. Montague hires two people with a history of paranormal encounters to stay with him, on the theory that people who've had weird things happen before are more likely to cause weird things to happen in a haunted house. The owners of the house also insist on sending their worthless heir to join the party.
It's thin as pretexts to throw a bunch of strangers together in a haunted house go, but it works as well as most horror story setups. The plot itself is no more than the summary - this group hangs out in a creepy old house, and creepy things happen creepily. But Jackson really created characters. Dr. Montague is fussy, stuffy, and (when his wife shows up later in the book), completely henpecked and almost pathetic. Eleanor, the protagonist if this book has one, is a meek young woman used to being pushed around and disregarded. She shows up at Hill House because she figures anything has to be better than her life with her sister and brother-in-law. Theodora is a brassy, sarcastic single girl who occupies the "slut" slot reserved for every horror movie, though on the page she doesn't do much more than flirt with bad boy Luke (though more is certainly implied). There is also the dour local woman hired as housekeeper, and then Dr. Montague's domineering, insufferable planchette-reading wife, who really livens things up when she arrives, and her driver Anthony.
But the main character, of course, is Hill House.
Hill House has bumps and shivers and shadows and cold spots and closing doors and whispering voices and all the other special effects of any self-respecting haunted house, but naturally the real horror comes from the effect it has on its victims. One member of our group of house-sitters proves to be most susceptible to its blandishments. I shan't spoil, though it's pretty obvious almost immediately who's not going to leave Hill House.
This is a ghost story rather than a horror story; for connoisseurs of haunted house stories I wouldn't even say it's necessarily the best. But it is a classic whose influence can be felt in every haunted house story and movie ever made since, and Shirley Jackson does a lot with a little; definitely a must-read on a dark October night.
I find Tolstoy a gloomy writer. Despite his deeply religious beliefs, I have not read a single story of his that seemed to contain any real hope, optimism, or joy, just lives full of misery, hypocrisy, and disappointment, until the very end. Then there is redemption through grace - a very Christian message, but not exactly an uplifting one except to those who've already accepted that life is meant to be suffering and the only relief is your reward in the hereafter.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich begins and ends with the title character's death. His colleagues and friends are notified of his death, and are deeply affected:
"Ivan Ilych had been a colleague of the gentlemen present and was liked by them all. He had been ill for some weeks with an illness said to be incurable. His post had been kept open for him, but there had been conjectures that in case of his death Alexeev might receive his appointment, and that either Vinnikov or Shtabel would succeed Alexeev. So on receiving the news of Ivan Ilych's death the first thought of each of the gentlemen in that private room was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances."
The story then goes on to trace Ivan Ilyich's entire life, from a fairly happy childhood to a tolerably happy marriage, descending into an increasingly bitter and joyless one, until Ivan Ilyich contracts a terminal disease and dies, in the end, after weeks of pain and suffering and his friends and family all pretending he's not dying, which only upsets him more.
This novella is really Tolstoy indulging in moral philosophizing. The unfortunate Ivan Ilyich looks back on his life and his steadily decreasing pleasure in it, and then comes to a place of peace only at the very end. Tolstoy's prose (even in translation) is nuanced and subtle and a master artist's portrayal of his subjects.
Simon Prebble's narration is excellent, and his tone perfectly suited to the story.
"Slippery" Jim DiGriz is a rogue in a society that is a peaceful, plentiful utopia and has mostly bred antisocial behavior away. That leaves men like DiGriz bored and, unable to cope with society any other way, they plan capers. Since there are so few people like him, there is a Special Corps dedicated to stopping these nefarious ne'er do wells.
After a bank heist and a scam that turns the wrong way, DiGriz gets captured, and recruited into the Corps. Of course. Takes a thief to catch a thief, and DiGriz's boss is a former arch-criminal himself. DiGriz is sent to figure out why a peaceful, backwards planet is building a battlecruiser. This leads him into conflict with the beautiful and deadly Angelina, who mostly gets away with stuff because this book was written in 1961, so even in this far-future galactic setting, everyone expects a pretty girl to be a hapless doll, not a sociopathic mastermind plotting revolutions and conquest.
DiGriz is the archetypical scoundrel who's secretly a decent guy, and his crimes are mostly bloodless ones. He reviles Angelina's bloodthirstiness, yet still falls in love with her... because she's hot? And also because she's a criminal mastermind like him.
Coal-burning robots, giant battlecruisers that exist for no particular reason, thousand-year-old galactic civilizations, and guys 'n dolls. Nothing deep here, but it's an entertaining space romp. This is a classic space opera and light-hearted sci-fi that shows its datedness a bit, but will be fun for anyone who likes the old stuff.
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