Book Briefs 4

Brief reviews of a variety of books which, for whatever reason, I haven’t had the time or desire to write full reviews:

The Black Hills Yesterday & Today, Paul Horsted — A wonderful coffee table book about the Black Hills region in which photographer Paul Horsted found locations from which photos were taken from 1875 to 1935 and “re-photographed” them. The pictures alone are worth looking at but when you add in the changes shown in Horsted’s photos, they are almost priceless. Equally fascinating is Horsted’s story of how he attempted to locate the sites from which the original photograph was taken and the difficulties he encountered in doing so. If you want a glimpse of the content, Horsted has also made two galleries of photos from the book available online.

The Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi — Scalzi’s follow-up to his Hugo-nominated Old Man’s War is workmanlike SF with a military edge. From my perspective, however, it doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor. Old Man’s War was told by a 75-year-old man who left Earth to join the Colonial Defense Forces. Here, the story is told from the perspective of a Special Forces soldier, those born, bred and genetically modified exclusively for fighting in the never-ending wars with alien societies. While Scalzi raises ethical and philosophical questions about freedom, choice and free will, I was not as drawn in, perhaps because of an inability to identify as closely with the narrator’s perspective. That said, it is also only fair for me to point out that I read the book in less than 24 hours. (Scalzi continues to mine the future in which these stories are set with the recently released novella The Sagan Diary and the forthcoming novel The Last Colony, scheduled for release in April.)

Surveillance, Jonathan Raban — Intended to be an exploration of and commentary on post-9/11 life in the U.S. and the increasing invasion of our privacy rights, this novel has its moments. But the value of those moments is ultimately lost when none of the subplots are resolved. Instead, a cataclysmic event in the closing pages apparently serves to leave the reader hanging about its impact on the characters, as well as the subplots to that point. It seems as if the purpose is a sequel but the things I liked about the book were nowhere strong enough to make me want to come back for any sequel.

Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich — Although the style is somewhat offputting at first, this oral history of the nuclear plant disaster at Chernobyl ultimately becomes compelling. It takes a while to get used to the oral recountings of various people affected by or involved in the event with no accompanying narrative. That said, the stories journalist Alexievich allows these people to recount are tales of bravery, institutional incompetence, almost unbelievable environmental impact and heart wrenching personal tragedy. It is that aspect of the work that has earned it a variety of awards, including last year’s National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin — This reissue of a science fiction classic shows why it is considered a classic and how it may have influenced dystopian literature that followed, particularly Orwell’s 1984. Written in Russian in the early 1920s, We is the diary of a scientist in a future totalitarian society who is charge of efforts to build the first rocket to explore space. He meets a woman who causes him not only to question the society to which he has always been loyal but the society’s success in repressing and destroying the concept of individuality. To some extent, the book is somewhat prescient given what was to come in the Soviet Union.

There are ten million Belarussians, and two million of us live on poisoned land. It’s a huge devil’s laboratory.

Chernobyl teacher Mickolai Zharkov in
Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl

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