MixedSan Francisco ChronicleAmelia Pang exposes the shadow economy of forced labor camps beyond the reach of hidden-camera-toting citizen-journalists that may also, stealthily, produce the goods we consume ... Pang adroitly situates readers to Chinese culture and society; in particular, she conveys a sense of a China independent of the Chinese Communist Party with which it has become synonymous ... Pang writes movingly of the Uyghurs’ enforced assimilation. She also writes sympathetically about Falun Gong, of which her mother is a \'practitioner.\' She also discloses, \'I used to write for the Epoch Times, a US-based Chinese dissident news organization … staffed mostly by Falun Gong followers.\' But she passes up an opportunity in leaving it at that. The Epoch Times has been in the vanguard of reporting on laogai; since Pang left, it’s also gone all-in on Trump and COVID-19 conspiracy-mongering. The peril is that the problems she identifies will disappear into the maw of our culture war. They deserve so much more than this.
MixedThe Irish Times (IRE)The master feeling-tone Baseless evokes is horror ... There’s a sense of Baker unburdening himself. Baseless is marked by the first-person indignation of the private citizen – albeit a virtuosic novelist – rather than the game-face of the professional historian or journalist. This imbues it with \'dear reader\' zeal and moral conviction ... This approach has its blind spots.
Matthew B Crawford
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleWhy We Drive is about driving like Moby-Dick is about whaling. Its real subject is the creeping culture of \'safetyism\' and its handmaiden: a cloying progressivism — abetted by tech companies for whom its moral messianism conveniently cloaks venal self-interest — intent on sanding down life’s hard edges that, for all its professed concern for our welfare, is inimical to much of what we know about human flourishing ... there’s an ornery, autodidactic streak to Why We Drive; the sense of an omnivorous editorializing mind for whom everything is grist for a think piece. His analysis seems at times as \'overdetermined\' as the vehicular future he fears ... A sojourn in Portland furnishes a target-rich environment, but there’s a canned feel to Crawford’s cliche-slinging account: stilted vignettes of run-ins with woke-scolds and lurid-haired poseurs. And the event he’s ostensibly there to cover — hipster mummers careening around a manicured city park in art cars — isn’t remotely analogous to the event he juxtaposes it with: a motorbike \'scramble\' in the Virginia countryside that’s essentially a gathering of expert practitioners from a skilled subculture. It’s purely a butt, to throw the rugged integrity of the latter into sharp relief ... But it would be a shame if these excesses put readers off. Crawford has something important to say.
PanThe Irish Times (IRE)Unfortunately, Under the Red White and Blue is marred by self-indulgence. Marcus follows his pet interests. The result is a torrent of self-absorbed, insufficiently contextualised discursions (on Moby Dick, bluesmen, hard-boiled crime fiction, police procedurals) and free-association riffs retailed in hectic sub-Pauline Kael prose. Its accounts of movie and stage adaptations are mostly description, yielding scant critical insight. The overall effect is of a logorrhoea of pop culture arcana: the critic as garrulous Danny Baker blabbermouth ... This indiscriminate feel extends to language. It’s hard to get hold of the business end of a sentence that, including embedded quote, runs to 220 words. This is not David Foster Wallace stress-testing language and grammar to wrest meaning from them, his struggle writ on the page-Marcus isn’t working at that level here. It’s taxing on the reader; at 154 pages, Under the Red White and Blue is Gatsby-length but feels longer ... delivers on one front: quoting generously from Gatsby itself. Granted it’s a target-rich environment, but there’s an art to this and the excerpts are well-chosen. Anything that drives readers back to a transcendent work, fully \'commensurate to [our] capacity for wonder\', is to be commended.
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle... reflects the reputational swan-dive of its subject. Levy is the dean of tech writers; Facebook’s brass gave him the run of the C-suite. The result is evenhanded and devastating ... Levy skillfully captures the feverish creativity of the Palo Alto company ... mostly unspools a follow-the-data account of how the company’s headlong pursuit of growth led to its present predicament.
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle... a lyrical, polemic account of our collective transmogrification from personhood to userdom ... McNeil nails our shifting metaphorical understanding of the web ... is alive to the bizarro aspect of internet phenomena ... At its best, Lurking succeeds like the best apps: offering an experience you never suspected you needed but can’t imagine going without — a personal U.X. history of the internet articulating the sensations of being online that users everywhere will recognize.
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleCertainly, [John Frémont] presents an awkward, and anticlimactic, subject for a biographer—a failure as a Civil War commander, after contesting Lincoln’s 1864 re-election, the balance of his life was a fortune-draining diminuendo of failed business ventures that left him and Jessie destitute. Rather than vilifying or lionizing John, Inskeep smartly situates him in his context. And here he yields his true significance: as a cipher for the forces at large in U.S. society ... Inskeep emphasizes (and perhaps belabors) parallels between the mid-19th century and today ... But some of his most arresting and affecting passages capture the deep strangeness of the period from a contemporary standpoint ... In skillfully telling the story of John and Jessie’s messy, flawed lives, Imperfect Union enriches our understanding of the messy, flawed nation they helped create.
Richard J. King
PositiveThe SpectatorWhat can we learn from Melville’s workup? King recovers lost resonances ... To ‘Moby Dickheads’, Ahab’s Rolling Sea is a treasure trove. King situates Melville as a person of his time, writing amid a quickening pace of discoveries about the natural world but, pre-On the Origin of Species, inclined to couch them as further disclosures of God’s design. Still, Moby-Dick prefigures Darwin ‘by de-centering the human’ ... Less convincing is King’s gloss on the book as a ‘proto-environmentalist’ text, with Ahab as a stand-in for ‘Big Oil’.
MixedThe Irish Times (IRE)... a portrait of the artist as a young, white, privileged man ... a more ambitious work of imaginative projection...It’s also weightier, less amorphous: autofiction grounded in irreducible personal experience, but trained, like a social novel, on a contemporary problem ... Lerner depicts an ennui rooted in plenitude and the collapse of meaning – a cultural din approaching escape velocity toward David Foster Wallace’s \'total noise\' ... But amid Lerner’s forensic accounting of Adam’s presumptions...Topeka feels overwrought, pushing a teleology towards Trump ... In this frequently virtuosic novel, we glimpse the seam between the human-constructed world and the abyss beyond. No less than rules invoked by a uniformed goon, however, Topeka is an artefact. It is about America in 2019 but, brimming with self-awareness, it is also of it.
PositiveThe OregonianMcCann, further removed in time, fully nests the takeover in 2016. What emerges is not a \'deplorable\'-haunted prologue to the general election of that year but \'an illuminating bit of ordnance\' that lights up its ructions ... Shadowlands offers occupation leader Ammon Bundy and his acolytes little exculpation. They might have conceived of their act of \'insurrection\' as a blow for Jeffersonian democracy, overthrowing tyrannical authority toward restoring the land to \'the people\'— presumptively white ranchers. But McCann is alive to its unseemliness: \'disenfranchised white men ... mining for feelings of sovereignty and personal power by restaging white settlement on Native land\' ... But Shadowlands accords its subjects their innate dignity rather than treating them as types or props in an argument. Bundy resembles, of all people, empath Bill Clinton in his disarming emotional affect and ability to imbue otherwise-dry ideas with solemnity and gravitas, McCann notes
PositiveThe Irish Times (UK)Zink is Gen X’s gift to millennial letters, and Doxology announces itself like a squall of screeching Sonic Youth feedback trailing droll asides like an album review in a snarky 1990s zine ... Amid the turn-of-the-millennium noontide, Zink alights on the sheer pre-miniaturization pre-virtualisation profusion of \'things\' ... feels more substantial and solidly-wrought than Zink’s prior work. Most recently, Mislaid and Nicotine were unassuming yet arresting, but there was a performative feel: exuberant but jerry-built; their loose ends gathered up rather too neatly. Doxology leaves things untucked ... This solidity throws a certain weightlessness in Zink’s fiction into sharper relief though ... Antigravity plotting contributed to Mislaid’s hectic whimsy, but it jars in an otherwise-grounded novel. Of a piece: a disembodied hamminess of speech – characters sounding like repartee-slinging aesthetes yucking it up over brandy and cigars. In a less virtuosic novel the reader might bog down. It’s testament to Doxology’s verve that you’re propelled through.
RaveThe Los Angeles Times...riveting ... The Dreamt Land is imbued with deep attachment to place. Arax is a native son descended from Armenian immigrants to the valley; he’s spent most of his working life there...This is a deeply reported work keenly alive to local subcultures — often conditioned by soil and access to water — that debunks notions of the valley as monolithic, like the single crops in its fields ... [Arax] avoids simple vilification of growers, and such prescriptions as he offers — for instance, de-commissioning junk land — are incremental ... Arax is especially insightful on the political currents roiling this Trumpy enclave.
RaveThe Oregonian...an intergenerational saga that will transform your understanding of hardscrabble societies behind today\'s Pacific Northwest and the region\'s history of political radicalism ... It’s also a riveting read in the classic western literature tradition of Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain, delivering the rich pleasures of an epic story well told whether or not you’re drawn to its subject matter ... well-drawn are the \'Bachelor Boys,\' Finnish-American World War I veterans who find community, meaning and a salve for wartime trauma as a roving \'band of brothers\' ... The realism of Deep River comes with a magical tinge.
MixedThe Irish Times (UK)Gopnik turning \'centrist dad\' to extol (read \'mansplain\') to his radical-curious Trump-traumatised daughter the virtues of liberalism, considered by many today to share these besetting vices: precious, preening, elitist ... Gopnik is an easy mark. And he’s set himself a thankless task: rehabilitating a shrivelled husk-like split-the-difference creed forsaken by the cool kids. Found complacent and insufficient to the times, it exists for leftists strictly in negative space, defined by what it isn’t. Through the depredations of neoliberalism, not to mention the \'consent-manufacturing\' of its brass, it’s even assumed a sinister cast. And it fares little better on the right; held to be an agent of soul-sick materialism, fount of permissive ersatz values, purveyor of anomie and slippery slope relativism ... Gopnik hits hardest though in dissecting self-defeating left-liberal pieties ... Gopnik’s pronouncements on liberalism are epigrammatic, or too cute. But if we can stand to hear it, in 2019, from a boutique white liberal dude, he’s written an adroit call to the centre as the proving ground for ideas, crucible of heroic compromise and locus of progress whereof \'our circles of compassion enlarge\'.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesCep narrates this saga atmospherically and with empathy. There are lyrical passages. plus judicious detail ... Excursions into the annals of life insurance fraud and folkways of voodoo are fascinating. Though I wonder if she reckons sufficiently with Radney — an exhibit here of the insouciance toward \'black-on-black crime\' she otherwise notes.
PositiveLos Angeles Times...a densely allusive, mind-bending novel of ideas that plays to our acute sense of foreboding about where technology is leading us. That it does so in a story set 37 years ago attests to McEwan’s powers of invention ... McEwan eschews the sci-fi trope of androids going rogue, turning on their masters. Here, they’re delicate flowers; several self-sabotage or otherwise do themselves in to quit this vale of tears ... Machines Like Me is more stylized than naturalistic. Besides the retro-futuristic aesthetic, it’s imbued with computational logic — events parsed as matrices of variables, decision trees to navigate. There’s a certain staginess but, overall, the feel of an intricate literary machine situated squarely, in its characters and plot, on the fault lines of contemporary debates about technology ... Machines Like Me\'s masterstroke is to bring this specter to the moral realm where non-human shades into inhuman, but not necessarily in a way that flatters us.
PositiveLos Angeles TimesThe Mastermind is a tour de force of shoe-leather reporting — undertaken, amid threats and menacing, at considerable personal risk. Ratliff’s reportage unfolds in crisp, atmospheric prose, and he brings a dispassionate eye to a milieu lousy with unreliable narrators, triangulating where possible to separate fact from legend.
PositiveThe Irish Times... far from a glum book about abject lives. Survivors form mutual support groups – \'they live richly in mourning\' – and those who have inflicted violence turn their lives around. But their stories resist narratives of closure and redemption ... At bottom, American Summer is about American exceptionalism, but not the kind spoken of by that son of Chicago’s privileged northern suburbs, Donald Rumsfeld. Instead, it’s a story of near-hermetic racial segregation and permissive gun laws. The latter erupts into public consciousness with mass shootings, but Englewood and its like, burying scores of their youth each year, bear the daily price, Kotlowitz notes. Strewing these pages: acts of impulsiveness and bravado by young men \'for whom a sense of future feels as distant and arbitrary as a meteor shower,\' rendered lethal by the admixture of easily-acquired firearms.
PositiveLos Angeles Times\"Is Bookends strictly for the Chabon completist? I’d recommend it for the Chabon greenhorn on up ... Bookends reveals in full measure the avid fandom flickering around the edges of much of Chabon’s fiction ... Bookends wobbles and sags in places. Chabon can frustrate as well as beguile ... Still, in an age of algorithmic \'based on your viewing history\' recommendation engines, it offers — with all the serendipity, and redundancy, this entails — the gleanings of an idiosyncratic, omnivorous human mind: a destination unto itself but also a gateway to the work of others.\
MixedThe Irish Times\"... [Abramson\'s] unvarnished analysis is a tonic to breathless accounts of new media companies inclined to take them at their own reckoning ... Abramson’s apparent lapses on attribution - six apparently bang-to-rights instances she’s copped to - are disappointing ... At minimum, [the lapses on attribution suggest] carelessness – doubly unfortunate in that it occurs in an otherwise sharply reported work.\
PositiveThe Irish Times\"... among the many feats of Jon Ward’s deft Camelot’s End is its retrieval of Carter, the 39th US president, from sainthood ... Camelot’s End cuts through the mythology ... For all its demythologising, Camelot’s End narrates a rich drama.\
Patrick Radden Keefe
PositiveLos Angeles Times\"[The book] reads at times like the annals of an action movie, teeming with superhero derring-do for \'the cause\' — one Ireland, united, north and south ... Say Nothing powerfully documents a society benumbed by trauma attempting to reckon with the abyss that engulfed it ... Toggling between marveling at his \'sociopathy\' and acumen though, I wonder if Say Nothing doesn’t unduly mythologize Adams. Mentioned only in passing is the vital tradition of non-physical force Irish nationalism.\
RaveThe OregonianNicholas Smith’s Kicks...is a lively, engaging cultural history of a uniquely functional yet fetishized object—commodity footwear and consumer durable but also personal style statement, athletic talisman and coveted object of desire. Smith’s tale teems with freebooting DIY tinkerers, traverses the sociocultural trend lines of our time and runs smack dab through Portland ... Kicks will appeal to more than devout sneakerheads ... It’s a work of synthesis rather than substantial original reporting, but Smith is a skilled curator. He situates sneakers at the intersection of celebrity culture, the personal fitness movement, even globalization (describing the black eye Nike sustained in the 1990s following revelations about conditions in the Asian factories that then fabricated its sneakers) ... \'History is full of the outsized effects of seemingly minor events,\' writes Smith. His history of sneakers is replete with them.
Laurie Gwen Shapiro
PanThe Los Angeles TimesThe Stowaway has the makings of a high-concept true story for the ages … Shapiro narrates this period piece with gusto. But pushed beyond an elevator pitch, The Stowaway’s high concept stalls … All of which begs the question of whether The Stowaway isn’t a book that would have made a great magazine article. In pursuit of the blockbuster narrative nonfiction grail, it comes across as inflated. Like a photographic miniature blown up to poster size and tricked out in Instagram hues, its definition blurs; you lose yourself in the pixels.
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleVirtual reality, or VR, is the 'stage magic' of technology, observes Jaron Lanier in his new professional memoir, Dawn of the New Everything — the multiplication of technical effects to transport the beholder from the everyday to a simulacrum of another reality ...spirits us back to a time when a plurality of ideas about what the Internet could be were still in play. Thus, it traces the provenance of the organizing principles of the Web we live with today ...an account of the making of a digital humanist ... Baggy, unkempt and idiosyncratic as its author, it pulses with kaleidoscopic insight, recondite science and deeply felt opinions — a rejoinder to singularity-struck 'digital supremacist[s]' ... By limning his own history in virtual reality, Lanier offers a vision for an enhanced reality for everyone.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleTroublemakers takes as its frame a sped-up high-tech version of early Medici-era Florence, 'thirty-five miles and seven years' into which were telescoped many of the greatest hits of the information economy ...offers a corrective to the regnant great man theory of technological progress of which the virtuosic Mr. Jobs is exhibit A. In narrating these innovations, Berlin shows the village that brought them forth ... It’s easy, with hindsight, to deride, but Berlin, project historian for Stanford’s Silicon Valley Archives, brings out the sociocultural forces that hobbled the Alto... For all his prickly iconoclasm, Jobs had a reverence for Silicon Valley’s history and lore, Berlin observes. Troublemakers shows the indebtedness of Apple and other 'self-made' success stories to these forces.
MixedThe Millions...there’s his composure on the page: a finely-milled crystalline prose that never announces itself yet pins its subjects with felicitous precision; the apotheosis of the New Yorker’s signature patrician style ...McPhee is not so brash a writer, his catharsis slower to pay out ...Draft No. 4 is a different kind of book — a writing manual-cum-professional memoir. This invites a certain windy raconteurship. There are intriguing glimpses of the operation behind The New Yorker’s exquisitely modulated prose — a kind of virtual organization...is, no less, a period piece; a treasury of keen insights from a painstaking craftsman and a capsule of the charmed status of an elite practitioner during what looks today like a golden era of magazine journalism replete with extended parlays with editors, protracted fact-checking triangulation, and two weeks on a picnic table.
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesAvoiding portentousness, Fountain, a veteran New York Times science reporter, paints a deft portrait of life in these remote outposts ... Fountain isn’t a showy writer, but there’s a fever-dream quality to his account of those five minutes that 'made the earth ring like a bell' that captures the hallucinogenic oddness of a world off-kilter, out-of-joint, suddenly uncooperative ... Interleaving snapshots of a lost world, the primal power of nature and high science, The Great Quake is an outstanding work of nonfiction. It’s also a reminder that the original agent of creative destruction resides not in the corporate boardroom, ivory tower or artist’s salon but beneath our feet.
PositiveThe Portland OregonianThe Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet, by New York Times science writer Henry Fountain, documents the 1964 Alaska earthquake ... Fountain atmospherically depicts life in the frontier communities, Native Alaskan fishing village Chenega and port town Valdez, that were razed when 'the earth (rang) like a bell' for five minutes... He captures the sheer sensory oddness of an earthquake ...narrative is haunted by images that live long in the mind, not least a crimson tide of dead red snapper flushed from the roiling depths ... But The Great Quake is also detective story... Enter the U.S. Geological Survey's George Plafker ... he supplies elusive empirical validation of the theory of plate tectonics – that the Earth is fissured with grinding plates – described by Fountain as 'the unifying theory for all the geological features and processes that humans have wondered about for centuries.'
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleLashinsky invests Kalanick with social significance — emblematic of a cultural moment as the nerdy but dudely exemplar of San Francisco’s 'brogrammer' culture ... Lashinsky punts on trying to 'bridge the —hole-versus-misunderstood divide' on Kalanick. It seems beside the point. It’s hardly a surprise that the CEO of the most aggressive startup on the block isn’t an emotional empath. Maybe there’s a certain integrity to owning this. Either that or, just as likely, he has the hide of a rhino. More relevant though is the breadth and narrowness of Uber’s vision — expansive yet reductive; boiling down everything in its path to a 'hackable problem,' locked into an endless quest to maximize utility and, inviting that bad behavior seen in its corporate headquarters, fixated on its own growth.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleBilton opens American Kingpin collecting string, introducing the characters. This doesn’t come without some slack while the reader waits for the action to spool up...But halfway through, with everyone in place and the tick-tock under way toward its denouement, the narrative, retailed in brisk Vonnegut-length chapters, becomes tight and riveting.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleMuch of the thrill in reading about their short but vertiginous histories lies in the glimpse this offers into how, in a crucible of competition and regulatory skirmishes, they assumed their current contours as harbingers of 'a new trust economy,' as Stone puts it ... Stone, an editor at Bloomberg, is best known as the author of the terrific The Everything Store (2013), about Amazon. The Upstarts is a penetrating study marked by the same thorough reporting that distinguished this earlier work. No figure is too obscure in the annals of Uber and Airbnb for Stone to track down, including the poignant stories of sundry entrepreneurs who converged on similar ideas but, amid various missteps, failed to find traction.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleProminent among Lewis’ considerable achievements in The Undoing Project is the presentation of abstruse but important ideas in a compulsively readable braided narrative pulsing with the singular spirit of the duo behind them.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe Attention Merchants is a book of our time, touching on an emerging strain of anxiety about the information age that goes beyond gripes about digital distraction or information overload ... In its synthesis of such ostensibly disparate threads, The Attention Merchants is a bracing intellectual tour de force. But Wu writes with more brio than your average policy maven/academic.
David Foster Wallace
RaveThe MillionsA collection of discretely commissioned pieces for assorted magazines marshalled over 15 years might feel disjointed. But String Theory is remarkable for its cohesiveness and seamlessness with the preoccupations of Wallace’s fiction ... Wallace played the game with all of his person. The same intellectually questing, sensorily hungry spirit is present in his writing about it. The result is a terrific book about a human activity and life outside the lines that trammel it.
MixedThe Los Angeles TimesA onetime travel writer, Roach excels in capturing science’s 'foreign country' aspect — roaming as a stranger in a strange land among its weird norms and novelties, grand monomaniacal passions, practitioners’ idiosyncrasies and obscure lexicon ... She writes exquisitely about the excruciating while also displaying supreme attunement to the oddness of the subculture she’s writing about. In Grunt, she’s concerned with the military’s 'quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, bacteria, panic, ducks' ... Yet Grunt is not without its languors. A chapter on the history of shark repellent development is thin gruel. At other times, some of the machinery behind Roach’s writing becomes creakily apparent ... Grunt is at times tremendously entertaining, wildly informative and vividly written, but as an examination of humans at war it feels small-bore.