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Book roundup, part 14

Some great reads and a huge disappointment in this installment. Includes The Loudest Voice in the Room, Hatching Twitter, Dogfight, Ancillary Justice, KOP Killer, The Circle, Working God’s Mischief and Where Eagles Dare.

Non-fiction

The Loudest Voice in the Room, by Gabriel Sherman ★★★★★

The Loudest Voice in the Room is meticulously researched, a dispassionate and remarkably restrained report on the life of Fox News creator Roger Ailes, who comes across as a man with a savant-level understanding of both the psychology of the American Right and how television can be used as propaganda. He also comes across as a raging asshole, a man for whom bluster, bald-faced lying and physical intimidation comes as naturally as breathing.

A book on Ailes of course isn’t complete without chronicling the rise of right-wing media culminating in Fox News and it turns out Ailes has been at the center of political manipulation of television since he started working for Nixon, doing an objectively impressive job of rehabbing Nixon’s image.

And then finally Fox News, where Ailes found his haven—a remarkable match of a man and a mission. Where Ailes defended the station’s farcical slogan of “Fair and Balanced” by saying that the other news outlets were so far left that by watching Fox you were getting balanced news. Or something equally headache-inducing.

The fascinating thing about right-wing media is that the more successful it is, the poorer the GOP does in elections:

After Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, Mark Rozell, the acting dean of the George Mason University School of Public Policy, and Paul Goldman, a former chairman of Virginia’s Democratic Party, wrote an essay noting the inverse relationship between the rise of conservative media and the Republican Party’s ability to win national majorities. “When the mainstream media reigned supreme, between 1952 and 1988, Republicans won seven out of the ten presidential elections,” they reported. “Conservative talk show hosts and Fox News blame the ‘lamestream’ national media’s ‘liberal bias’ for the GOP’s poor showing since 1992. Yet the rise of the conservative-dominated media defines the era when the fortunes of GOP presidential hopefuls dropped to the worst levels since the party’s founding in 1856.”

The Loudest Voice in the Room is required reading for anybody who cares about the state of politics in America.

Hatching Twitter, by Nick Bilton ★★★★☆

Hatching Twitter is interesting and well researched, full of insight into the early years of Twitter, the haphazard way the company came into being, and the damaged souls who birthed it. The book is often unbelievable in the way only reality can be: If it were a novel it would be preposterous.

None of the early founders and employees of Twitter come out looking good, especially Jack Dorsey, who emerges as an unbelievably narcissistic human and the poster child for San Francisco tech-industry douchiness.

The main drawback of Hatching Twitter is a tendency for the prose to go purple at every opportunity, for example in a description of a meeting where computers “gasped for air as their fans whirred to life.”

But overlooking the heavy-handed style, Hatching Twitter is a wonderful document of the creation of one of the communications revolutions of our time.

Love this nugget about what Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg thought of Twitter:

[…]once telling a group of close friends that Twitter was “such a mess it’s as if they drove a clown car into a gold mine and fell in.”

Dogfight, by Fred Vogelstein ★★★★☆

Dogfight goes behind the scenes of the battle between Google and Apple and gives a chilling portrayal of the raging A-type world of Silicon Valley. If you’re at all interested in the technology business, this is a must-read.

The section on the development process of the iPhone and just how much of a bet-the-company product it was is fascinating, as is the description of the preparation for Jobs’s introductory keynote, demoing a product that was held together with duct tape and willpower, having to follow the “golden path,” the only way through the sequence of listening to music, taking a call, and checking email that was known to—probably—not crash the device. I needed a nap after reading the description of the engineering heads sitting in the audience knowing full well the fragile state of the device and of course knowing everything about Jobs’s legendary rages at people who failed him.

Fiction

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie ★★★★☆

Takes space opera in a new direction with a fresh look at the life of a vast ship AI and hive mind. If you’re into the genre, Ancillary Justice is a given, often feeling like Iain M. Banks in concept and scope and full of intriguing ideas. But it’s also frustrating in being scattered—the novel has so many ideas that they sometimes get in the way of the storytelling.

The plot is hard to summarize without spoilers, so I’m not even going to try, but one of the core ideas that’s very well executed is that the protagonist is a ship AI in service of a seriously fascist, expansionist interstellar empire that inhabits drones, mind-wiped prisoners of war, so the same mind exists both as a ship and as individuals. It’s trippy and executed very well.

Despite the sprawl problems—which could be fixed with some editing—I’m very much looking forward to the next installment in the series. It’s great to have a new talent on the scene.

KOP Killer, by Warren Hammond ★★★★★

Third in the sci-fi/noir trilogy about ex-cop Juno of the Koba Office of Police, one of the dirtiest cops ever and now a shell of a man driven by revenge and a pathetic dream of making right his past mistakes.

This is by far the strongest entry in the trilogy—Hammond brings out all the guns in a twisting plot that gets progressively darker and darker as it goes along. In its strongest moments it’s reminiscent of James Ellroy—high praise indeed. Strong stuff.

The Circle, by Dave Eggers ★★☆☆☆

The Circle has generated a lot of buzz and positive reviews and I don’t understand why. The basic idea is solid: It’s the near future and The Circle is a next-level Google kind of company that’s come up with a universal authentication system everybody is using. Our protagonist is a young woman who gets a job in customer support and through an unlikely series of events rises rapidly in the company to become its face to the public. But of course there’s a darker side to The Circle…

There are good things in the novel: Eggers is very effective at creating a sense of creepy dread; for example, there’s a scene where the protagonist learns that social media metrics are directly tied to your performance reviews that reads like a complete nightmare. Shudder.

But the core problem with The Circle is that it’s obviously written by a person with no technological awareness, which becomes—duh—a huge problem in a novel where technology is central to the plot. So the dire warning underlying it become little more than the impotent rant of a Baby Boomer.

Also problematic are the characters, especially the protagonist, who have all the self-awareness of sleep walkers, and the symbols—like the voracious deep-water shark—that are as subtle as a hammer to the head.

It’s too bad, really; The Circle wants to deal with important issues, but does it in such a ham-fisted way it’s impossible to take seriously. Though it’s probably much more enjoyable if you don’t know anything about technology and haven’t read many other novels.

Working God’s Mischief, by Glen Cook ★★★★☆

Continues the Instrumentalities of the Night series in able fashion. If you liked the previous installments, you’ll like this one. But if you’re new to Glen Cook, this series is not where you should begin. Instead, plow through the fantastic Black Company and the über-epic Dread Empire series. Once you’re through those, the Instrumentalities of the Night series will be there waiting for you.

Where Eagles Dare, by Alistair MacLean ★★★☆☆

The good news is one of the seminal World War II thrillers can be had used for $1.99 in paperback. The bad news is you hippies who want to read it on your fancy-pants Kindles are out of luck. No Kindle for you. Although if you’re illiterate you can watch the movie adaptation, which is remarkably close to the book and stars Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood.

Now, I first read Where Eagles Dare many years ago, when Alistair MacLean was the coolest writer a 12-year-old boy could possibly find. And just to pass it off at the gate, yes, nerd I had already read Lord of the Rings and MacLean was way cooler. So there.

At the time MacLean was the ultimate writer of the Cool Guy thriller. His heroes were flawed, usually tormented by something we the readers weren’t allowed to know, but also brutally competent, and Where Eagles Dare has one of the shining examples of the genre in Smith, a man who knows things we can’t understand, a man who sees things we can’t, but who is also a man oh so weary of it all. In other words, exactly the man a 12-year-old boy wants to grow up to be. And since it was World War II, there were bombers and machine guns and (dun-dun-DUN) the SS!

Which is to say that for the sophisticated reader of 2014, Where Eagles Dare is a bit of a relic: the characters are threadbare and the plot is, well, silly. The whole book is based around a premise that, once revealed, will make you groan. Which doesn’t change that it is incredibly efficient. The plot moves like the alpine post bus toward the end: Fast, unstoppable, and somehow romantic.

For your next airplane ride or vacation, this is a good one to bring with you, both for the reading experience (which will keep you up later than you should) and to appreciate the workmanship of an unstoppable plot.

(DISCLOSURE: Links go to the Amazon Kindle store and are affiliate links. If you buy one of the books through a link here I get a tiny kickback from Amazon and it doesn’t cost you anything extra. Be a mensch, eh?)

Posted Sunday, 06 April 2014 by

« Desert rose

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