Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Book Review - Die Empty

book cover for Die EmptyLance is a middle-aged man stuck in a loveless marriage and a life with no meaning. His sedentary existence has packed on the weight, both physical and mental, and he envies his successful and fit neighbor who may be banging his alcoholic wife on the sly. The Grim Reaper shows up to recruit Lance into brainstorming new ways for people to die.

Kirk Jones tells the story in second person, thus forcing you to take on the role of Lance. In chapter one, Jones dumps you into Lance's life. Jones systematically tears down Lance's pitiful attempts to find meaning in a world of soulless consumerism. Lance knows that his life is pathetic, but he lacks the self-esteem—or even friends—to find a way out of it, so he trudges on, looking for something, anything, to jolt some life back into him.

Fortunately for the reader, the Grim Reaper shows up in chapter two to give Lance a way to escape what author Danger Slater perfectly describes as "suburban ennui." Seeing this as an opportunity to escape his misery, Lance accepts.

The pace picked up, and it seemed like the story was headed in a direction I was hoping it would go, but then it veered off into a different direction. While Jones does a fine job with second person storytelling, I could never connect with Lance. Jones would write that you (Lance) would do something and my reaction was always, "I wouldn't do that." All I could do was shake my head and hope that Jones would have the Grim Reaper show up because those were the best parts.

3 stars.


Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Book Review - Exit Strategy

book cover for Exit StrategyThe GrayCris Corporation thinks that Dr. Mensah ordered Murderbot to investigate their shenanigans at the terraforming facility in Rogue Protocol, so they take her hostage and hold her for ransom. This is unacceptable to Murderbot.

Murderbot travels to the space station—basically the size of a small city—where Mensah is being held captive and has to figure out how to rescue her without getting her killed and it caught. Dying would be fine for Murderbot so long as Dr. Mensah gets away. Actually, dying would be preferable to getting caught.

Along the way, Murderbot is forced to confront its feelings. Those damned interminable feelings.

Exit Strategy is a fine conclusion to the story arc that spanned a quadrilogy of novellas/short novels that opens the Murderbot Diaries series (Yes, book five, a standalone novel, is already out). There's bot vs. bot action, lots of hacking, and overloading of processor memory buffers. Murderbot's biting sense of humor is in full swing, and the humans who care about Murderbot have learned how to give it space. Ultimately, the question of Murderbot's personhood status is finally resolved.

If you've made it this far into the series, you know what to expect and won't be disappointed.

4 stars


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Book Review - Hideous Absinthe

book cover for Hideous AbsintheAdams has crafted a thoroughly researched tome that explores the history of absinthe use in society with emphasis on its peak use in the late nineteenth century. While it runs from ancient Egypt's medicinal uses up to today's connoisseurs on the web, the focus of the book is on its peak usage period from mid-19th century Europe to its eventual banning in the early 20th century.

I'd heard about absinthe some thirty years ago, and its purported mind-altering effects were the stuff of urban legend. When something is banned, all people have to go by are tall tales meant to keep a firm grip on the listener's attention. Adams explores that aspect. How much of absinthe's legend is true; how much is hype? He focuses on the poets and painters who were associated with absinthe. He goes into great detail about the lives of famous artists (Van Gogh, Gaugin, Verlaine, Degas, Dowson, Wilde, etc.) to determine how much of their work's success, moral shortcomings, and health failures can be attributed to "the green fairy." In fact, he goes into so much detail that I feel he got sidetracked. The book becomes less about absinthe and more a study of the Decadent Movement and its propensity for creating alcoholics.

After absinthe becomes a victim of its own hype, the narrative rushes to modern day. Contemporary accounts note that absinthe tastes like crap, and Adams barely questions why that may be. A few scientific accounts are brought up, but it seems that biochemical analysis was a bit lacking at the time of publication. We know that thujone is the active ingredient in wormwood oil that gives absinthe its claim to mind-altering fame, but there doesn't seem to be any consensus on anything other than toxicity levels. As for why its taste doesn't hold up? We're met with a shrug, which isn't a great way to end a book.

3.5 stars


Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Book Review - Kaufman's Field Guide to Insects of North America

book cover for Kaufman's Field Guide to Insects of North AmericaWhen my son was little, he developed a curiosity about bugs. He'd ask me what a particular one was, but most of the time I didn't know. We'd then try to look them up on the internet (BugGuide.net is a good source). So one Christmas, his mom got us this book.

It's a great introduction to the world of insects (and select arthropods often misidentified as "bugs"). It's broken down by class and order with color photos and relative sizes of select species that are either common or of notable interest. After a general introduction about the particular group on a page, there's often another paragraph about a sub-group followed by a sentence or two about featured species or genera, typically the pictured individuals.

And so this has fueled our continuous drive to identify every insect we observe in our yard.

Who's that butterfly that keeps landing on Alex? Red Admiral

Do I need to worry about this beetle? No, it only eats decaying wood.

Is this bee going to sting me? No, it's just a yellowjacket that smelled the sugar in your drink. Don't kill it because it eats the bugs that eat our crops.

These ladybugs have different spots. That's because they're different species.

Dragonflies, damselflies, katydids, fireflies, soldier beetles, paper wasps, weevils, stink bugs, owlet moths, robber flies, ants, butterflies, and bumble bees. On and on.

One of the most useful features of the book is learning who's a pest and who's an ally. The pest identification part is obviously important, but even more so the ally. While I knew that ladybugs were awesome, they didn't have any biting or stinging parts to worry about. And they're cute. Insects that we were taught in our childhood to fear for their nasty stingers are actually our allies (wasps, hornets), too. I even let some paper wasps build a nest under my deck one year because of what I learned here. Spoiler alert: No one got stung.

Even at just shy of 400 pages, there are limits to what this book can cover as there are nearly a hundred thousand species of insects in North America alone (11,000 moths; 16,000 flies; 24,000 beetles, and so on). As such, sometimes we were left wanting more information on either a bug we'd found or clarity on a particular type of beetle. But I guess that's where the internet comes in handy.

Definitely recommended for those wanting to get to know more about whom they share their yard with.


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Tropical Storm Isaias

A month ago, Tropical Storm Isaias ploughed into the northeast. Connecticut took a pounding. Eversource, the deliverer of my electricity, claimed they were ready, but judging by the number of people without power and the length of time we were out, it would seem that they weren't.

We were without power for seven days and 22 hours. I bought a new generator the next day (the old one was on the fritz), so we were able to keep the food in the fridge. I grilled a lot. We flushed the toilets with water from the rain barrel. I keep five gallons of potable water on hand at all times, but even this time we ran out and had to get more.

Here's why I was without power for eight days:

two trees on the power lines
It's always here. Irma, Sandy, the October Snow Surprise. There's a rock shelf where several trees staked their roots down decades ago, but the shallow soil has left the trees that grow in this spot vulnerable to high winds. And so, they come down in the big storms.

Fortunately, my home and family were spared. But it was terrible to watch. The winds came out of the south and battered the trees like waves crashing on a beach. This grand red maple in the backyard (picture taken from my garage shortly after it happened) is the closest the damage came to my house.

red maple damaged

A cottonwood crashed across two of my neighbors' yards.

cottonwood down

An ash tree fell from a neighbor's backyard into mine.

ash tree down on rock wall
Two other trees, a maple and a birch, were severely damaged. I don't have pictures at the moment, but if I take them, I'll post them later. A leader on the maple was snapped about fifteen feet off the ground, sending it into a v-notch on a nearby tree. The crown on the birch broke off about forty feet up. It's now dangling by a fragment of xylem.

And yet this is nothing. Hurricane Laura, a category four storm, just tore up Louisiana. Many of those poor souls have nothing left. So for all my griping, I am thankful things weren't worse. If a storm like Laura came through here, the damage would've been incalculble.