Book Review: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

The Art of Being NormalThe Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lisa Williamson’s wonderful “The Art of Being Normal” explores the complicated and emotional coming-of-age of two English teenagers. David Piper wants to be a girl. Leo Denton has secrets of his own. The novel switches back and forth between the two characters’ points of view. Both characters are vulnerable and matter-of-fact in tone and diction and their voices capture the weight of their teenage worlds, but David is the more cheerful of the two while Leo is much more emotionally withdrawn and angry. Their family lives are very different: Leo is from a lower class and fights with his irresponsible mother while missing his father who left when he was a baby, and David is from a higher class with two doting, loving parents who think they know what’s going on with him, but have the details all wrong. Leo has two sisters who adore him, while David’s younger sister can’t quite figure him out. I found these family dynamics to be one of the highlights of the book.

They meet when Leo starts attending David’s school. School is rough, and David and Leo spend much of the book dealing with bullies; the unfairness of teachers, administrators, and parents; and their own emotional landscapes. These scenes are often tense and upsetting, but there is also a lot of humor and young romance, including Leo’s blossoming relationship with Alicia Baker, a girl who sees right through his apathy. A climatic road trip contains some of the best scenes between David and Leo, and also some of the most emotional moments. Starting about half way through the book I was in almost constant tears as revelations and obstacles escalate and the two characters try to overcome them. While I’m a little cynical about how their story arcs conclude, these are still very satisfying and soaring conclusions.

Williamson uses a matter-of-fact tone, straight-forward structure, and limited lyricism to prevent the often very emotional content from becoming melodramatic or sentimental. The style is very naturalist and frequently emotionally raw. David and Leo are not characters given to overwrought language, and this helps suggest how they are prepared to deal with what life throws at them. My heart often broke for David and Leo, and I could not help rooting for them to find happiness and acceptance.

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Book Review: The Economic Singularity by Calum Chace

The Economic Singularity: Artificial intelligence and the death of capitalismThe Economic Singularity: Artificial intelligence and the death of capitalism by Calum Chace

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Much of The Economic Singularity by Calum Chace is devoted to supporting the argument that machines will take over many and eventually most jobs from humans. In fact, the first 60% of the book steps through this argument, providing definitions, facts, anecdotes, and other carefully footnoted details. After this, the few remaining chapters describe possible consequences of an economic singularity in which the impact of this technological unemployment occurs rapidly and without clear outcomes we can predict right now. Chace writes for an audience of readers likely new to these ideas, and they will likely welcome the clear laying out of his argument that makes up so much of this book. I personally would have preferred the book spend more time on the economic singularity itself, examining scenarios and possible challenges and solutions, but I make certain assumptions about the future that most other readers may not at this stage.

I did learn new things in the first part of the book, including the term “centaurs”, and it was a good refresher about the history of work, jobs, machines, and automation. I enjoyed chapters 4 and 5 the most, however, because they explored possible scenarios and solutions that were frequently new to me. For example, chapter 5.2 explored universal basic income, a topic I only recently started following. Chapter 6 summarizes potential scenarios of an economics singularity.

Like other books on this topic, the possible solutions in chapter 7 are brief and not particularly satisfying. Acknowledging that it’s hard to predict the future, these solutions tend toward measures like monitoring and preparing, in anticipation of great change. I think this suggests that we really cannot do much until we see for sure that there is a problem, and that for now the best we can do is be as educated as possible before we are in a position to do anything. In fact, while I’m not certain this is intentional, the last bit of advice in the book is to the youngest generations, suggesting this is going to be their job to solve any problems: “they have the task of navigating us through the economic singularity of mass unemployment, and then the technological singularity of super-intelligence.” I would have preferred a more forceful admonishment to all living generations. The economic singularity is our possible future collectively, and I for one don’t want to wait around for “The Millennials and Generation Z” to deal with it.

That is all to say that maybe I’m getting a little frustrated with books about emerging technologies that spend a lot of time arguing that these technologies will emerge with potentially negative consequences, and spend relatively little time exploring that future and its challenges. Writers in this genre cannot be blamed for this state of affairs, of course; so few people even think about these issues, and therefore writers must take on the arduous task of educating the readers they anticipate are new to these topics. I’ve immersed myself in related topics for a couple decades now, so I don’t personally need to be convinced. What I’m ready for are solutions and proactive steps we can take right now.

Another thing I would like to see in books of this type (and this is a general critique of the genre, not this book in particular) is participation from people other than white men and a few men of color in academia and industry. Using this book as an example, there are very few references to any female experts on related topics, and no mentions of any women in the acknowledgement page other than the writer’s partner. Again, this is not a critique of this particular book or this particular author, but of this entire genre of technology books, where women and people of color are still far too rare. Some have suggested that this is because experts, writers, and readers of these topics tend to be white males. Even if that is the case, one proactive step we can take now is making emerging technologies, transhumanism, singularitarianism, and related topics more inclusive. This isn’t on Chace to do himself; it’s on all of us to seek out various experts and open up these various topics to people from diverse backgrounds. For example, I’m curious to hear how African nations and experts are confronting the same challenges. When it comes to Universal Basic Income, what are women and people of color saying, especially those the left and right feel will benefit the most? Do they find UBI paternalistic in any way? What solutions do they offer? As for female experts, researchers like Amber Case are well-versed in topics related to technology, design, globalization, and the advent of new media like VR and AR; what does her writing and research suggest about the path toward a possible economic singularity? I hope in coming years to see much more exploratory and prescriptive works about topics like the economic singularity from writers of diverse backgrounds featuring experts from diverse backgrounds.

As for Chace’s book, I think it works well as background, summary and starting point about a fascinating and frightening potential future. His passion for these topics is obvious and it has been great to listen to him speak about them on various recent podcasts. He’s reaching a wide audience and that can only be for the best.

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Book Review: Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

Caliban's War (Expanse, #2)Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What I like most about The Expanse series of books by James S.A. Corey so far are the characters. They are interesting, relatively complex, often very funny, and come from many different backgrounds (including fictional backgrounds like “Belters” – the population of humans who were born and for the most part live their entire lives in the Asteroid Belt, far from Earth and its gravity, resulting in fascinating physiological, cultural, and language differences.) In the second book, Caliban’s War, a few new characters are introduced, including my new favorite, Bobbie Draper, a Martian Marine. Her story is one of two frames, beginning right after the prologue that introduces the mystery, and takes a particularly satisfying story arc from a PTSD-inducing attack to recovery and justice of sorts.

Along the way, other fantastic new characters are given space, including Chrisjen Avasarala, the United Nations Assistant Undersecretary of Executive Administration, and Praxidike Meng, a botanist on Ganymede. As the plot unfolds, the characters are moved around like chess pieces to solve the larger mystery and confront the larger threat. At times, I felt the positioning and meeting of characters was a little too predictable and obvious; the characters became plot devices that need to be placed in particular spots for the plot to progress. This sometimes took me momentarily out of the story. What follows their placement, however, generally captivated me. The plot is very exciting, often very suspenseful, and I read through much of the book very quickly.

Some of my favorite characters from the previous book, including the amazing crew of the Rocinante, return. Set about 18 months after the events of Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War finds captain Jim Holden a changed man suffering from psychological trauma related to what happened on Eros. I felt this character arc became a little melodramatic but it was also very satisfying, because you cannot help but root for him and Naomi Nagata, and also Amos Burton and Alex Kamal, as the crew reconsiders their mission.

I loved the settings throughout the solar system as well as the descriptions of the hardware. The alien protomolecules are absolutely horrifying and lead to our heroes finding themselves in some incredibly tense and frightening situations. Some of these are similar to those in the previous book and felt to me slightly repetitive. I hope the later books in the series go in new directions. They were really exciting and well-written, however, and the overall plot of the series is definitely moved forward.

The book ends with a whopper of a cliffhanger that manages to be both surprising and frightening. I cannot wait to jump into the next book!

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Now Humanity Feels the Tug of Proxima b, Too

artist’s impression shows the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri

Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Caption: “This artist’s impression shows the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image between the planet and Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface.”

It’s good to be skeptical, but it’s also nice to see rumors confirmed by real and exciting  announcements: the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced today the detection of an exoplanet orbiting the nearby star Proxima Centauri. At a minimum mass 1.3 times that of the Earth’s, Proxima b might be a rocky world. With an orbit of 11.2 days around a red dwarf smaller and cooler than our Sun, it might be a wet rocky world. And if there’s liquid water on the surface of Proxima b, then there might be conditions for life. All those mights? Good reasons to continue studying this object, especially because it’s so near.

The exoplanet was detected by measuring the wobble it causes its parent star.  There are currently no telescopes capable of taking a direct image of Proxima b, but such telescopes are expected to become available around 2018. Over the next several years, these and other technologies should give scientists the means to pin down the size and mass of Proxima b, detect an atmosphere if there is one, and perhaps even tease out the composition of the exoplanet and any atmospheric gasses.

But just knowing that Proxima b is out there and having a rough estimate for its mass is a big step forward in planetary research and the search for extraterrestrial life. From previous research such as the Kepler Mission, we know the majority of stars have planets, and many of them have rocky planets. Now that we’ve detected Proxima b around our nearest stellar neighbor, it seems even more likely that there are worlds out there that can support life.

Proxima b at 4.25 light years (1.295 parsecs) away is still too far for us to reach in a reasonable amount of time with our best current space travel technology, but it’s tantalizingly close to urge us to improve our remote sensing capabilities and investigate new approaches to interstellar travel. Do you feel the tug  from beyond our own solar system to explore? Our own solar system is fascinating enough. Now we’ve got a new planetary destination just one star over, beckoning us to come visit.

a view of the southern skies over the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile with images of the stars Proxima Centauri (lower-right) and the double star Alpha Centauri AB (lower-left) from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

The location of Proxima Centauri in the southern skies
Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO/ESA/NASA/M. Zamani
Caption: This picture combines a view of the southern skies over the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile with images of the stars Proxima Centauri (lower-right) and the double star Alpha Centauri AB (lower-left) from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Solar System and is orbited by the planet Proxima b, which was discovered using the HARPS instrument on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope.

Book Review: The Gilded Razor: A Memoir by Sam Lansky

The Gilded Razor: A MemoirThe Gilded Razor: A Memoir by Sam Lansky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been on a tear through a few memoirs this week, and I saved this one for last for two reasons: the subject matter and the reviews that suggested it was funny.

But it’s not funny. Not really.

In terms of subject matter, narratives (books, movies, or TV shows) about drug use make me exceptionally uncomfortable. I generally avoid them but every once in a while I steel myself and dive into one. Lansky’s account of his drug use is riveting but also very upsetting. I cannot read about his experiences, even told using the voice of his past, flippant self, and find anything particularly funny about them. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think Lansky does either. In my opinion, Lansky is not using humor in any gratuitous way to bring readers into his story. Humor is not the tone of the book, but part of the characterization of past Lansky, and I think the book is stronger for this approach.

The memoir is propulsive, though, and it’s easy to get caught up in the momentum of the rocketship ride that was his youth. By the end it seems miraculous that he survived. Lansky writes with a matter-of-fact tone and attention to detail, and he also uses urban and wilderness settings to great effect as background to his rapidly deteriorating situation and search for help. It’s fascinating to read his memoir and think about what he values in telling his story in comparison to other writers of memoir.

I think that it is potentially quite difficult to find the right ending for a memoir, one that lives up to the situations and emotions in the preceding history. I felt that Lansky’s memoir transitions rather abruptly at the end to what changed for him at age 19 so that he could become sober, but I wasn’t sure exactly what had changed. I would have liked more analysis and contemplation about what happened at this transition point. As it is, however, the rapidness of this transition follows an emotional arc that left me in tears. The final two paragraphs, in my opinion, are too humble; Lansky ends with a universal statement, but what struck me the most about his memoir was how singular his strength was to overcome and manage his demons.

This is a very brave memoir, one in which Lansky allows himself to be extremely vulnerable and open. I feel grateful as a reader to have been offered this glimpse at his turbulent life.

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Book Review: The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and Loss by Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and LossThe Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and Loss by Anderson Cooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I started Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper’s conversation The Rainbow Comes and Goes not expecting to enjoy it much, but by the end of the book I was thoroughly charmed. The first quarter of the book explores Vanderbilt’s childhood, one which found her thrust into the limelight at only eight years old because of a custody hearing between her mom and aunt instigated by her grandmother and nanny. This section describes a life of privilege, money, and fame that is very alien to me, but soon Vanderbilt and Cooper get to shocking revelations and more universal experiences that brought them down to Earth and kept me reading.

Mother and son establish a nice rhythm during their conversation and their honesty and vulnerability comes through in their words. I often found Cooper’s reactions to his mother’s revelations endearing; she was not one to talk about her past, so much of what she told him was brand new to him. This leads him to ask questions during their conversation that help her explore her past and self even more deeply.

My favorite sections in the book include surprising (to me) information about the actors and other famous people Vanderbilt knew, dated and even married, and other allusions to the era like songs and movies. While reading, I listened to songs by The Andrew Sisters and Harry Richman on Apple Music, based on a couple quick references to these singers Vanderbilt mentions. I think one of the reasons why this book works so well is because Vanderbilt really evokes the eras she is recalling.

The last section of the book serves as a contemplative and philosophical wrap-up, and although I found the generalizations and platitudes in this section less engaging, I felt Vanderbilt and Cooper had earned the space for them. Their conversation seems to have been a positive experience for them both, and brought them closer together while allowing them to explore their pasts and shared losses. It’s fascinating to read Cooper discover the ways he is like his mother, after thinking most of his life he was nothing at all like her, and it’s wonderful to read how in opening up her past to her son, Vanderbilt is also able to tell her son how proud of him she is and how much she loves him. She comes across as a wonderfully alive person at age 91 (when they had this conversation) who was often challenged in her past by circumstances beyond her control, but resilient enough to overcome some truly traumatic experiences and heartbreaking losses along the way.

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Book Review: Boy Erased: A Memoir by Garrard Conley

Boy Erased: A MemoirBoy Erased: A Memoir by Garrard Conley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I highly recommend Garrard Conley’s beautifully written and emotional memoir about his religious upbringing, sexuality, rape, and conversion therapy. The book varies in mood between rage and compassion, and Conley grounds these extremes of emotion with a matter-of-fact tone and lovely lyrical language. As his nearly two weeks in conversion therapy marches forward with steadily increasing tension, he takes frequent detours back to the past to describe the events that lead him there. The flashbacks are often fragments, with flashbacks leading into even earlier flashbacks. This technique is effective in showing how fragmented he became after years of stress and suffering until his life essential split into two separate and unsustainable ones while in college.

This is not only an emotional work, but a complexly emotional one that reveals aspects of conversion therapy, his religious upbringing, and the Southern setting that might be unfamiliar and surprising to many readers. For example, the compassion he has toward his parents, religious leaders, and the leaders and workers at Love in Action (LIA), including its leader John Smid, is paired with an undercurrent of rage, suggesting a narrator who is deeply spiritual and forgiving, but nevertheless hurt and angry, all of this at the same time. This powerfully conveys the reality of the trauma he suffered. There is something so horrifying about the bureaucracy of LIA, its application forms, its workbooks, its lesson plans and exercises, that seems both impossible and tragically real at the same time.

Many readers will bring to this book their own stories and experiences and will likely find parallels to their own lives. I certainly did. I’m very thankful to Conley for sharing these experiences in his memoir; this is a brave act, and I hope that the process has been positive and beneficial for his own wellbeing. No one should ever have to go through what Conley went through, but many do, and by being open and vulnerable about his own life, he helps shine a light on injustice, while also inspiring change and healing.

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