fantasy, fiction, Weird-Ass Stuff

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

Hello friends!

Now I know that I’ve been saying that I love things a lot lately (and it’s true. I’ve been on a wild hot streak for great books. That and I’ve been dipping into my back catalogue of beloved reads whenever I think I have something to say about them, rather than writing about books that I’m either not that into, or just liked and don’t have that much to say about), but I don’t want that to undermine the praise I’m about to heap on this particular novel. Which, when you think about it, why should it? I say I love people and different things a lot, yeah, but I mean it every time. I love to love things! And why not? Who wants to walk through life searching for reasons to dislike stuff? So I’m just going to say it, and I don’t want to hear anything about it, okay?

I loooooved this book.

There have been lots of books that I’ve liked recently (tons! See previous rambles), but this definitely going in my all-time fantasy favourites. I’d had it recommended to me a bunch of times before, seen it around in book shops and the internet, but for some reason I just never picked it up. I think it may have been my quick, lazy scanning of the description on the back, coupled with the name of the book itself, that made me think it was kind of YA-y and not really up my alley (there’s nothing wrong with YA. In fact, most of the YA stuff that I’ve read I’ve at least liked. I just don’t read a ton of it and I have to be in the mood for it when I do). But I finally received the recommendation that tipped me over the edge the other day and I haven’t seen the sun or any of my friends since.

Right off the top, YA this book is not. It is the complete and polar opposite of YA.  This book is OABBA (old-ass, bitter, broken adult). This is easily one of the most brutal, intense, completely banana-pants books I’ve ever read. And trust me, I’ve read some really weird shit (Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Dark Tower Series, anything written by Jeff Vandermeer). I always really dig it when a fantasy book leans into the limitlessness of the medium. You want a man that runs a library which holds the entirety of the knowledge he’s collected over his sixty thousands years as maybe-God? No problem. How about a family where some of the siblings can talk to animals, others can bring people back from the dead or use their ghost babies to see the future, and one of them has gone a little kooky from spending too much time in the afterlife (having been murdered in every conceivable way by their Father)? Why not? Think you should throw in a little crazy demi-god of murder fighting the US army to spice it up a bit? Go nuts! This novel is so jam packed with good, out there, original ideas that it easily could have rested on the laurels of its imagination and phoned the rest of it in. I still would have given it an A.

But it didn’t. I’m shocked (and jealous and…a little aroused?) that this is Scott Hawkins first book. I think it might be one of the most well plotted, tightly structured fantasy novels I’ve ever read. Even though the framing of the story is massive and sprawling (the search for a potentially dead God, the vying for his now empty throne, the end of the world), the actual core of the story is really personal, almost small. The threats are all legitimate and well established (we know how bad the bads are, what it is they can and will do), but even more importantly than that they’re properly motivated. You may not always know why people are doing the terrible things they’re doing while they do them, but by the end of the novel it all makes sense. It’s incredibly complicated, filled with a complex, diverse cast of characters who are all intelligent (they all do the things that intelligent people would do in their circumstances…for the most part. Sometimes the situations are so wacky that it’s hard to tell what it is a smart person would do), capable, driven by their own agendas, and often at odds with one another. That’s a lot of balls to juggle, but Hawkins nails it. It all just fits, you know? And the ending is so satisfying that, even though I love all the characters and definitely want to spend more time in this world, I don’t really want to go back to this story. It’s done. It’s been told. I don’t need anymore.

Anyways, I could really go on and on about this book (there’s so much good stuff here guys), but I feel like you’ve put up with enough of my barely coherent rambling for one day, so I’ll try my best to wrap it up. It’s big, brutal, surprisingly moving, darkly funny, extremely well thought out and, for all that, still a blast to read. I’d recommend this one for anybody who loves mythology, urban fantasy, dark humour, or just likes a super-duper, fucked up, wackadoodle story every now and again.

Get out there and revel in the weirdness, ya’ll. It’s lots of fun 🙂

VBR

PS. As a brief disclaimer, this book is not for the faint of heart. It’s got just about every type of violence you could think of in it (sexual, psychological, emotional, boybeingslowlyburnedaliveoverthecourseofafewdaysinagiantbronzebullwhilehissiblings-aremadetowatchinordertoteachthemallaveryimportantlessonaboutlisteningtoyourfather-ical) and more than a few that would never cross your mind. If we’re doing a 1 to 10 scale of violence and depredation, 1 being See Spot Run, and 10 being A Song of Ice and Fire, this is a solid 12 or 13. I think you should brave it, but if you’re not the type of person that can handle this type of thing, you’ve been suitably warned.

adventure, nonfiction

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Continuing my trend of being super contemporary and timely, (does doing something twice, poorly, count as a trend?) I’m going to write a review of this book that I read a few months ago, that was released a few years ago, because of a movie that’s coming out soon(ish? Or maybe it’s already out? I could just google the release date, but I’m not gonna).

I love this book. A lot.

I live in a really rainy, dreary, overcast pacific northwest city (ten bonus points and a hug if you can guess which one) that had a record number of rainy, dreary, pacific northwest-y days this winter. I’ve got a high tolerance, and even fondness most of the time, for that kind of thing, but by the end of this winter even I was starting to drag a bit. Worse than that, I’d been in a major reading slump for months, one of the worst I’ve ever had. No matter what I picked up, I just couldn’t really sink into anything. I’d grab something, read a few pages, and pop it back onto the shelf. Even the old tried and true method of action packed and fantasy oriented didn’t work. Eventually I gave up, increased my TV and podcast intake to fill the gaps, and went about my dreary, bookless days.

It was during one of these podcasts (All The Books. It’s great, you should check it out) I was reminded about this book. They’d talked about it a bunch of times before, and one of them even mentioned it was one of her favourite books. I had it sitting on my shelf at home and I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a try.
I was instantly sucked in. I’ve never met David Grann before, he has absolutely no idea who I am, but I can’t help but feel, down in the deepest parts of my bookish lil’ heart, that this was designed specifically to delight me. It has an eccentric, larger than life, Alan Quartermain/Indiana Jones-esque main character, an old school society of adventurers, history facts (my favourite!), more information about the amazon than you could shake a stick at, war, intrigue, murder, aspiring movie stars, hapless wanna-be explorers, and just about anything else you could ask for. Did you know that there was actually a group in England called the Royal Geographical Society that trained “gentleman explorers” to head out and explore the world, mapping it as they went, and that these adventurers, loyal to the Empire, often acted as spies for the crown? How fucking cool is that? (And yes, I am aware that they helped to propogate the British Empire, which was most definitely a bad, one of the baddest bads. But you gotta admit, it’s also crazy interesting). By page two I was intrigued. By page fifty I was considering calling in sick for work.

Even though this story is bananas and chock-full of interesting characters and natural narrative hooks, I don’t think it would’ve been the same if anybody other than Grann had written it. The guy’s got a great eye for what makes a story compelling (I will admit that we seem to share a common love for obsessive types. I think all the most intriguing stories are, in one way or another, born out of obsession), and he writes about the people involved with genuine enthusiasm and empathy. As you’re reading you get the sense that he’s just as invested in getting to the bottom of the story as you are.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I loved this book. I’d recommend it for anybody who loves history or adventure or fun facts or even just a good story well told. And i’d especially recommend it for people who are going through a reading slump or a month-long case of the Mondays. I’m not going to pretend that it completely wiped away my blues, or that it caused the sun to shine or the birds to sing. But, for a few hours, it did make me forget about the rain.

Love you folks,

VBR

adventure, fiction, mystery, southern crime

Sunset and Sawdust by Joe R. Lansdale

Hey there my beautifuls!

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and because of my crippling laziness and attachment to sweatpants and my couch, I’m going to avoid all those gross outdoor things and write a second review today!

Huzzah!

Now for a severe tonal shift.

Disclosure at the top. This book has a lot of misogyny in it. It opens with an attempted rape, and there’s shitty dudes treating women shittily all throughout. It’s the type of thing that would normally put me off a book but…I dunno. The author treats the misogynists in the book like they deserve to be treated (badly), and the female characters have tons of agency and grit. The people who discount them are quite clearly framed as being, not just villains, but short-sighted, close-minded, and stupid. It didn’t really bother me at all, but I know some people don’t like any of that kind of thing in their stories, and I get it.

I love Joe R. Lansdale. There’s something about his voice and the way he writes dialogue that just gets into my head, under my skin. His books are always fast and fun and filthy (in real life I’ve got the mouth of a Victorian era dock worker, but every now and again he’ll turn a phrase that catches me off guard). They’re also really unpredictable. He has this way of making it seem like everything is unstable- who the main character is, what the plot is actually about, who’s going to make it to the end. And not in a “bait the audience for cheap thrills” way *cough cough* walking dead *cough*, or in a “wait till you see what ridiculous twist I have in store for you, even though it isn’t really properly motivated by the story” (do I have to do another cough thing, or do we all know that I’m talking about M. Night Shyamalan) way. It’s just that these people seem to get themselves into legitimately dangerous, precarious situations, and you feel like if the story called for their deaths, Lansdale wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.

There is a little bit of male-gazey stuff with the protagonist (she’s hot and chesty and e’rybody knows it), but again, it didn’t bother me too much. My engagement with the story and my investment in the characters just carried me right past it.

Anybody who knows me knows I love a good mystery/crime book, and I’m a sucker for anything set in the south, but even if you’re not as into those things as I am, you should give this book a shot. Quick, fun, and well done. More Sunset please!

 

nonfiction

The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead

Hey, hey guys! I’m being contemporary today! I’m writing a review for a book that I just finished reading. That’s right. Not a fantasy series I finished half a decade ago, or a beloved memoir/book on writing that I first read when I was twenty, but I book that I finished just. last. night. Aren’t you proud of me? I mean, sure, it was published a couple of years ago and isn’t in any way relevant to what’s going on in the world right now, not a part of the zeitgeist (blegh! Is there any way of using that word without sounding like a total dickhead? “Stop using the word zeitgeist, ya dickhead!” Found it). But, you know, baby steps and all that.

On to the review!

I liked this book, but I didn’t love it, and I think it’s pretty obvious why:

I do not give a shit about poker.

I get why some people are into it, the rush of the gamble or the math or the strategy, but I have never been interested in it and I never will be. Whenever Whitehead talked about any of the technical stuff behind poker, I could feel my attention starting to drift. I’ve never read anything about the game before (or played it even. See aforementioned disinterest), so I thought it might be neat to pick up a book about it and learn a little bit. This one got bonus points for being written by an author that I like, who’s got chops, who has something to say. Turns out I was wrong. I didn’t have a terrible time, but I didn’t have a great time, and I definitely didn’t retain any of the poker information he doled out throughout the course of the book. It held such little interest to me that it vanished, cheap Vegas magician style, as soon as I read it. In one eye and out the other.

But that’s not Whitehead’s fault! He’s great! His voice, his intelligence and his particular brand of self-deprecating humor, are what kept me going throughout this book. In any other hands a book like this would’ve been a total dud for me, but even when I was tapping my foot hoping the cards-y stuff would end soon, he would slip a joke in that genuinely made me smile. I like this dude a lot, and am excited to read some of his stuff that falls a little more within my wheelhouse (I’m coming for you Zone One). This one just wasn’t for me. And I’m okay with that. Not every book has to be.

Good for people who like poker, or maybe are interested in learning just a little about it, and those who love jokes about sadness and despair. Also jerky enthusiasts.

Ta ta for now 🙂

VBR

adventure, fantasy, Weird-Ass Stuff

The Malazan Book of the Fallen Series by Steven Erikson

Even though now, when asked, I always list this as one of the best fantasy series of all time, I actually went at this one a couple of times before I was able to really sink into it. I remember my uncle, the man who introduced me to fantasy in the first place, gave me this as a gift when I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old (and I know, some of you out there are thinking about the sex and the violence in these books and wondering if that’s an appropriate gift for a twelve year old and I just want to say…cool it, okay? The internet exists. There’s dicks and boobs and karate fights everywhere. This battle you’re fighting is already lost). He really recommended it, and I thought he was just the coolest, so I gave it the ol’ college try, bounced off the first chapter a few times, then shelved it and moved on. Thinking back on it now, I’m pretty sure the thing that pushed me away from it the first time, is the same thing that made me love this series when I actually got into it.

It’s completely and totally fucking bananas. It starts off in the aftermath of this huge magical battle, with a flying castle thing and hell hounds being teleported into a wizard’s tent and a marionette doll with a powerful mage (or maybe a demi god? It’s been a while you guys) trapped inside and a whole bunch of other batshit things just flying around. And it just spirals out from there. There’s a whole race of undead soldiers and weird loner sealmen things that can bring on ice ages and four armed giants and gods from different dimensions and just about everything you could think to shove in a fantasy series. I love it. It’s so crazy. As you can probably tell, I’m all about the weird now, the weirder the better, but back then it was a little much for me. And if it’s a little much for you too, I get it. No judgement.

But you guys, you should really stick with it. This series is sooooo big and well thought out and well written and epic and surprising and amazing and weird (are you allowed to put half a dozen conjunctives in one sentence? I guess that’s what happens when you drink a vat of coffee for your morning meal. Looking back on it, this whole post has been a little more Burroughs-y than normal. Ah, the wonders of cheap and readily available drugs for breakfast). I had a hermitty, indoor summer a few years back where I read through all of them and, even though this series has ten books in it and each are around a thousand pages, at the end of it I was still sad. Don’t get me wrong, the ending is perfect, one of the best I’ve read in a fantasy series. The problem was, I didn’t want it to end at all. What I wanted was to spend more time in this world, more time with the characters and the cultures that Erikson created…..After ten thousand pages. If that doesn’t sell you on this series, than I don’t think I really want to be book friends with you anymore.

Great for readers of epic fantasy who are looking for something a little different, history and anthropology nerds (there’s tons of stuff about ethnic groups and races, meaning other than human, migration patterns of people etc. etc.), and people interested in worlds with a deep, well-conceived mythology and history.

Okay, I’m going to go run a few laps or maybe take a Xanex or something.

Love,

VBR ❤

PS. As a brief side note, I’m aware that there’s somebody else out there writing more stuff in this universe (or was, I haven’t really kept up) but…it’s not the same. I gave it a go a few years back and it just didn’t hit it for me.

PPS. I’m kidding about the book friends. I want to be book friends with all the book people. Even if you don’t like outstandingly written, bonkers epic fantasies. Is there an emoji that I can use that looks like a mildly threatening, sort of joking, sarcastic looking side-eye? You know, that look that you give where you’re like “I’m kidding, but also I’m trying to tell you something”? Asking for a friend.

fiction, historical fiction

The North Water by Ian McGuire

I am such a sucker for a period piece. Even more of a sucker for one set in this particularly grimy, shitty period of English/European history. Even, even more of a sucker for a period piece about a weirdly specific industry that doesn’t exist anymore. Now, to be fair, this book isn’t exactly a deep dive into the whaling world (which, despite my love of learning anything and everything history, even the horrifying stuff, I’m a little thankful for. Whaling was fucking brutal. Have you ever read anything about whaling? I love whales, so maybe I’m more sensitive than your average Joe, but the sheer volume of animals that industry killed makes me a little sick to my stomach. The whaling boom didn’t last a terribly long time, some places that I read guesstimate it at about a hundred or so years, but it almost completely wiped whales out. Their populations have never recovered) but just having it as a backdrop to the story hooked me.

But really, this story could have been told anywhere, at any time. As much as I like the setting, and as much as it fits and helps to facilitate the plot, it’s not what this book is about. The real nugget at the centre of this novel is McGuire’s interest in the darkest parts of the human animal-what it is we want, why we want it, the things we’re willing to do to others to get it.

And boy howdy does he ever have a low opinion of us. This book is dark. While there are good people doing good things (our friend the doctor is a nominally nice guy…sometimes…sort of), the characters are mostly bad men motivated by base desires.

He outlines his ideas about men, as little more than beasts (though I do think he offers a good argument, several times throughout the book, that we can be better), through the two main antagonists of the story, Drax and (I guess spoiler? Eventually I’m just going to stop putting these in my reviews and just write whatever I want. Listen, whenever you read a review of something on my page from this point forward, just assume that it’s probably going to have a spoiler or two in it, but that I won’t ruin the major conflicts at the heart of the story for you. Okay? Okay) Baxter. While on the outside these two seem pretty different, beneath that they share the same dark, selfish motivations.

Henry Drax is all id, all desire, but of the emptiest, bleakest sort. He wants things, craves them, but he feels no passion for them. When he gets an urge, he uses whatever means necessary to satisfy that urge, and then he moves on, unhindered by the experience, unchanged by it. There never seems to be any enjoyment of a thing, any pleasure, and he never thinks about the morality behind his actions. In fact, he even states in the book that he thinks that morality in and of itself is pointless, just something that men like us use to impose our will on men like him. He’s the perfect brute, stripped of any feelings of obligation to the social contract. Like every dangerous, aggressive animal, he’s all surface, no depth.

Baxter, the secondary antagonist, is more complicated, more conniving, but ultimately the same. At the observable level he’s a gentleman, clean and wealthy and law-abiding. He plays the game, abiding by society’s rules on the surface, even using them to his advantage. But beneath all that, he’s the same type of animal as the first. His desires differ (money, status, power), but his willingness to do anything to get them is the same. Drax is meant to be the more monstrous of the two, a vomit-streaked and blood-soaked child murderer, his crimes all violent and committed by hand, up close. But, if you crunch the numbers, Baxter has the much higher body count by the end of the book, and seems just as unbothered by it.

All of that is just a really long, roundabout way of saying that I thought this book was great (and I didn’t even get to really talk about the main character! He was so good! Sympathetic and genuinely decent, but a bit of a fuck up nonetheless. At times a good person, other times a little pathetic and selfish and shortsighted). It was dark and bleak, but not completely despairing (again, there are good people doing good things just for the sake of doing them). The writing was beautiful, the characters were complicated and interesting, and the story was gripping as hell. One of my favourite reads of the year so far.

As always, with love,

VBR

adventure, fantasy, fiction, Weird-Ass Stuff

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

So….I just watched the trailer for the new movie coming out and….blegh. Which is a shame, because I had actually managed to get myself excited for this one. I love Idris Elba, and ol’ Matty McC is a really good casting choice for the Man in Black. I mean, I never really thought it was going to do the books justice (which is a really complicated, next to impossible thing for a movie to do. The only time I think I’ve ever seen a movie that I liked more than I liked the book was No Country for Old Men. I love that book, but the definitive vision of it in my head is, and always will be, the movie), but I was hoping it would at least be interesting and weird. Apparently, action-shlock, uber-hollywood, “I’ll save the world for the both of us, just after I figure out a cool new way to load my six shooter” was the way they decided to go. Double blegh.
It’s such a dumb, predictable, terrible direction to take this franchise. To keep the big and the action packed, but remove all the zany parallel world, sf/fantasy stuff. The things that I liked the most about all these books were how batshit weird they were. Even this first one, which adheres the closest to the old school tropes, a good ol’ western vengeance, has streaks of strange marbled throughout (like our hero does mescaline sometimes, just to put a little pep in his step), and it only spirals out from there. I can’t think of any other series that would be able to pull off having an Arthurian culture that uses six shooters instead of swords, nineteen twenties style gangsters, and doombots with explosive golden snitches and lightsabers in the same world. And with Stephen King at the helm, the journey may have been big and wacky and sprawling, but I always felt like I was in good hands. He may not have known from the getgo where exactly the story was going to go, but I always felt like he could get there.
These books are great, and fucking weird, and so much fun. By all means go and see the bland ass movie they’re making (and let me know if I’m wrong about it, because I’m giving this one the firmest of passes. And yes, I realize I have a big, bitter pill stuck in my craw about this, so I’m being more harsh than I need to be but I feel the way I feel), but please, please, if you’re going to do that, put a little time and effort into the books first. There’s a lot to get out of them.

Love you folks,

VBR

PS. As a side note to all the entertainment big wigs that read this blog, when you have a series this big, this sprawling, MAKE IT A TV SHOW YA DUMMIES. There are tons and tons of Stephen King fans out there (even just the mild ones, like me) who would tune in to a Dark Tower series done right. And you just can’t collapse something this large into a two, or even three, hour movie. You’re setting yourself up to fail.

PPS. Did you guys hear about the fact that they’re trying to turn The Sandman into a movie? INTO A MOVIE?! AAARRRRRGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!

fiction

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

I had a really interesting time with this book. The first half I couldn’t really tell if I liked it that much. Lauren Groff is a beautiful writer (though every now and again her prose veers into the overwritten. Sometimes I could feel her crafting the sentence, writing and rewriting it, polishing it down until it was perfect, so much that it pulled me right out of the book), but I found I was having some of the same problems that I had with The Monsters of Templeton. The story is better crafted, and the characters are all really well drawn, but I just couldn’t get hooked in.

I don’t think it was entirely Groff’s fault. I’ve read a toonnnnn of literary books about men who are geniuses, or think they’re geniuses, and how complicated their relationships can be. I could build a house out of the “examinations of a whole life” literary books I’ve read (Larry’s Party by Carol Shields deserves a shout out here. I’ve liked a lot of them that I’ve read, but out of all them, that one has really stuck with me over the years). So, at this point in my life I’m slightly wary of them, and more than a little weary too.

Also, I did like Lotto, mostly, but he was just sooooo arrogant and self-centered. And Mathilde, for the first part of the book, seemed too perfect to be interesting. She was supportive and un-endingly kind. She got mad but she always forgave him, always came back to love and support him again. Their relationship, which was the crux of the whole first half of the book, just wasn’t enough to rest a novel on.

Until.

The back half of this book really saved it for me. It not only engaged me more than the first half did, but worked some sort of weird, good novelist voodoo that made the previous half seem better than it had while I was reading it. I won’t say what, but at around the mid-point of the novel there’s an event that shakes things up a bit, and precipitates a sudden shift in the perspective the story is told through. It goes back and shows you events through the eyes of Mathilde, a character much angrier, sharper, and more complex than I would’ve thought.

I’d had to push myself to the midway point of this novel, not exactly grinding through it, but not getting that “I can’t wait to get back into this” feeling you get when you’re really hooked by a book either. The second half I devoured, shoveling it into my brain in just a few sittings.

In the end I’d like to say that I loved it, but I’m not really sure that I did. I was okay with the first half, loved the second half, and think I liked it overall. I’d say for those of you out there that like character studies, deep dives into tangled and complicated relationships, you should give this one a read. Just remember, if you’re not feeling it, try not to give up on it too quickly. You’ll be happy you pushed through.

That’s all for today 🙂

VBR

nonfiction

On Writing by Stephen King

I’m going to let ya’ll know, right off the top, that I have a particular and everlasting love of this book. I’ve reread it probably three times now, which is more than most other books, especially considering it’s a nonfiction (I don’t think I’ve ever gone back and reread a nonfiction book before).
The first time I read it was during my very first creative writing course. I was struggling, a lot, I’d hit a wall and I couldn’t seem to push through it. Nothing I was writing was good enough, even down to the sentence by sentence stuff, and I couldn’t seem to get anything on the page that I didn’t just immediately erase. If anybody that’s reading this has ever had that experience before, you know how defeating it can be. To have an idea that your insecurities, disguised as perfectionism, just won’t let you express. I talked to my teacher and he tried to guide me through it a bit, but when that didn’t work he lent me a copy of this book. I don’t know what it was about King’s writing, maybe it’s the matter of fact way that he talks about just putting shit down and editing it later, or the way that he lets you in to his life and the times when he’s had trouble getting back to writing, but it really helped get me over that hump.
The second time was another slump. I’d just gotten out of a bad relationship and I was having trouble getting things out again. I had ideas a plenty, but most of them seemed like hack trash. I was perusing a used bookstore, my normal pick me up activity when I’m feeling a little blue, and I came across this and remembered how much help it had been the last time so I picked it up. Again, even though I knew what was in the book this time, his steady hand and matter of fact explanations about the craft of writing, the bits and bolts of it, his assurance that you’re the only one hindering yourself when it comes to writing (but also, you should really never do this and this and this), really saw me through my slump.
Now it’s become my writing slump ritual. I feel sorry for myself for a week or two, I eat too many pastries and spend hours sifting through musty old book stores, and then I pick up this book, and read it, and remember that the only thing I need to do in order to write again is to want to.

Love,

VBR

nonfiction

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Stephen Pinker

“As one becomes aware of the decline of violence, the world begins to look different. The past seems less innocent; the present less sinister.”

I’m not sure why I’ve decided to review this book now. It’s not a new book and it’s been a while since I read it. I just saw it sitting on my shelf and got to thinking about it, about how hopeful it is and how starkly it contrasts with most of the news being pumped through on my feed. I think it carries a really important message, one that sounds a bit of a rallying cry to those that refuse to believe things are only getting worse and worse, and one that deserves to get spread around as much as possible.

It’s not very often that you read a book that completely changes the way that you think about things. I’d always known that I had a problem with that “everything these days is so much worse than it was when I was a kid” thing that people always say, but I never really pushed back against it. I disagreed, but I wasn’t able to articulate the reasons why it didn’t seem right to me that we were living in an era of unprecedented crime and danger, even though we could see rights for several marginalized groups steadily improving over the course of the last few decades, that I myself could come out of the closet in a small rural community and have almost no issues (there were a few, but nothing like what I would have gone through twenty, even ten, years before. I may not have always been happy with the way people talked to me, but I was safe). Better Angels Of Our Nature not only gave me the tools and knowledge I needed to confirm my suspicions that we were, in fact, doing okay, but also provided me with a complete change in perspective when looking at the current state of mankind.
This book goes through and systematically picks apart the idea of continually declining morals, using historical context (being alive in medieval times, or industrial revolution times, or ANY time before now was fucking bleak), statistical information regarding death by violent causes (often even low balling past numbers and high balling current numbers just to make it seem fair), and giving some pretty good reasons why people always seem to think the world is spiraling out of control (historical myopia, confirmation bias, increased access to information regarding crimes through media, etc.).
Brief warning before you dive into this one, it’s a brick of a book. It’s big and it’s full of lots of statistical data and facts about the human brain and behavior, so you’ve got to be prepared to parse through a lot of that kind of thing. Don’t get me wrong, this book is not a slog. Stephen Pinker is a great writer with an engaging voice and humor to spare, but it does require a lot of attention and more than a little effort to get through.
I’m worried that I’ve left the impression that this book is a clinical dissection of things, and that’s not really the case. It’s very well argued, Stephen Pinker is an academic and structures his argument like one, but the message behind it is a really hopeful, human one. He makes the argument that we should be proud of ourselves for what we’ve managed to do so far and that we shouldn’t give up pushing for progress, because when we’ve done it in the past we’ve made some (albeit limited) progress. Societal advancement is a stop and start, stuttering, sometimes slightly backsliding process, but it does have a general upwards tick to it.
Anyways, this was a really good, informative, hopeful read. If you’re a human behavioral nerd like me, a history nerd like me, or you just want a book that will prove to you the world is not barrelling down a barren slope into an open, bone strewn pit, you should give it a go.
🙂
VBR