Book Review

Mightier than the Sword by K.J. Parker

213C6E2B-B014-4579-BC81-E00D20D67BC1-519-00000097C3E425BEK.J. Parker is one of my favorite writers, which is odd because they don't exist. Well, I mean they do but that's not their name. K.J. Parker is the pen name of Tom Holt, another author, when he feels like writing fantasy (though this isn't high fantasy, so no magic here. Low fantasy, I suppose, is the term though it more often feel like alternate history without having to worry about actual history).

I like K.J. Parker so much, in fact, that I have purposefully not read several of his novels. Why? Just so I won't find myself in the position of having read everything has has written thus far.

The funny thing is, I have a hard time getting into Tim Holt novels but I drink up Parker novels like delicious Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper.

Imagine my surprise, and glee, when I found out that there was a new novella out (found via the New York Times Book section, of course). I immediately hastened to Amazon and bought it.

And I have just devoured it on my flight to Portland, Oregon (the same flight on which I finished reading Amatka). It is a short book following a typical Parker character: someone involved in the ruling class, good at his job but doesn't want to be, and thrust into lots of intrigue. The book also features another of Parker's favorite things: long lists. Lists of fictional books, lists of fictional provinces, and lists of supplies.

I loved it all, and it doesn't hurt that the central mystery (if you can really call it that, since it is pretty incidental to the story) revolves around monks who love books (as does the main character).

Who should read it: I'm always hesitant to actually recommend Parker's books to people because I think they are to a very specific taste, and there's nothing worse than telling someone to read a book you really liked only to find out that they didn't enjoy it. Therefore, you shouldn't read this book.

Would I read it again: I would, but that would be very silly since I still have so much unread Parker left to enjoy!

Get it: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Powells | WorldCat

Amatka by Karin Tidbeck

4F45465A-2FB3-4030-84BB-D7B24675BF47-519-000000930BE40660As I was reading Amatka I kept thinking about Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy, which I very much enjoyed. Each work (I consider the entire trilogy to be one thing, because I'm cool like that) is what the kids would call “high concept.”

VanderMeer's work combines a high concept story idea with what can only be described as “writerly writing.” Some people love it (i.e. me), and others not so much.

Tidbeck takes a super high concept idea, what if people went to a strange place where you had to constantly name things to keep them from dissolving, and bolts on a very personal story about a woman trying to adjust to life in a new place, meeting a partner she never thought she could, and questioning the very foundations of her society.

I was doubtful about how long Tidbeck could make her core concept work. There's only so many times I want to read about someone calling a pencil a pencil so it doesn't turn into goop, but she did a masterful job of quickly building this strange little world and populating it with very real, and believable, characters.

Who should read it: People who love high concept worlds populated by very relatable characters.

Would I read it again: I would, which is saying something since I don't normally re-read things. I'm certainly going to be reading her next book (whatever it is!).

Get it: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Powells | WorldCat

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? by Alan Alda

IMG_0047Alan Alda is well known for his acting career, but the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear his name isn't M*A*S*H but Scientific American Frontiers. He hosted that show for something like 11 years and feed the flames of his passion for communicating science to general audiences. It certainly worked for me, though I knew in high school that I'd never really be a scientist.

I took physics in my senior year of high school, as you do, and I wasn't a bad student but I never did particularly well on the tests. Then one day I missed a test due to illness, so she had me do a make up test after school the next day. However, she didn't give me the same test, rather I had to explain the various theories that were covered on the test instead of solving math equations. I aced it.

Would that I were more perceptive person, dear reader, for it would have been at that moment in which I would have figured out the course of the rest of my life. Instead I went off to college and decided to major in physics. That lasted about one semester, after which my lack of higher math skills was confirmed. Again.

It took me several years to figure out that communicating complicated ideas is my strong suit, though I am by no means an expert on this practice (but I keep trying!). Which leads me to this book.

I was aware of Alda's work with scientists to teach them effective communication skills, and since I communicate technical issues to non-technical audiences for a living I figured I could learn a thing or two from this book.

The book itself is as charming as you would expect for a book written by a man who makes a living being charming. Alda wraps stories around all of his lessons (don't call them “tips,” he's not a fan of tips) which grounds them in reality (and proves that his methods are effective since he extols the virtue of storytelling throughout the book).

The keys to successfully communicating, according to Alda, are:

  • Empathy - Try to get into the mindset of the people you're communicating with.
  • Storytelling - Don't start with the facts, lure people in with a story and then slip in the things you want them to know.
  • Improv - This is mostly a tool to learn the first two things.

Alda uses the 200ish pages of his book to illustrate these points with interviews with scientists, a little bit of research, and a heaping helping of anecdotes (I particularly liked the thing he does with a glass of water and an audience member).

This quote from the book, said by Steve Strogatz, does a pretty good job so summing up the whole thing: “the trouble with a lecture is that it answers questions that haven't been asked.”

Now, I should point out that I rarely read non-fiction and even more rarely read memoirs of which this sorta kinda is. The reason? I always bristle at the tendency of people to make themselves the heroes of their own stories. Alda does a little bit of this, but his charm and clear language managed to overcome my dislike for this trope.

Who should read it: Anyone who wants to think about how to communicate their ideas with others. Fans of Alan Alda.

Would I read it again: Probably not, but I will think about some of the things he mentions when I writing for an audience.

Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Powells | WorldCat