ASK Musings

No matter where you go, there you are.

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August 2019



Emerald City by Brian Birnbaum

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Two Stars

Best for:
I cannot recommend this to anyone.

In a nutshell:
I couldn’t really tell you. I could reproduce the description from the back of the book, but I think that’s unfair to other authors whose books can be described by their readers without resorting to that. Though according to the reviews that have already seeded Good Reads it is ‘shocking.’

Worth quoting:
Here is an example of the writing that fills each page:
“He’d sooner have gotten mad at time’s perceived acceleration over life’s void of fulfillment. An illegal fraction represented best how fucked this so-called sentience was — and yet here she was, brooding over an extemporized jest.”

Why I chose it:
This was a free advance reader copy available through the Cannonball Read. I jumped at it because it’s set in Seattle (a place I called home for 10 years as an adult) and sounded intriguing.

This is either my first or second DNF (did not finish) review for Cannonball Read. I struggled with even doing this but I think if a book is offered free for review I at least owe it to the author to be as honest as I can be without being an asshole. I don’t think the review will be getting back to the author directly, and I can’t imagine he’d agree with or enjoy my criticism, but I’m offering it anyway, because that’s what we do here.

Are you familiar with @GuyInYourMFA? I believe that this book may have been written by the people those tweets satirize. Not because of the subject matter necessarily (there seems to be a female lead who isn’t described in an absurd way, and the plot isn’t just about a white man finding himself), but because of the writing style.

When I titled this review “The Writing Got In the Way,” it’s because it is genuinely difficult to read. And not in a the capital-G Great American Novel type of way that I admittedly don’t find appealing but understand serves a purpose; but because it seems like the author is trying so hard to sound complex and intelligent that it comes across as the opposite.

Do you remember the episode of Friends where Chandler and Monica ask Joey to write a letter of recommendation to the adoption agency? And Joey is worried it doesn’t sound smart enough so he goes through and replaces nearly every word with a related (though not necessarily matching in context) word? And it ends up being completely unintelligible? This book feels like 400 pages of that letter.

Multiple adjectives are included where one (or none) would suffice. Simple concepts (such as ‘a year’) become needlessly multi-syllabic (”two solstices.”) Now I will grant that there is a type of book where “two solstices” would sound poetic and lovely as a description of the movement of time; this book isn’t that one. Also, and I’m being pedantic here, but two solstices isn’t actually a year. At its shortest, it could be six months and a day. Only from the next sentence do we learn it’s meant to signify a year. So it’s oddly flowery AND inaccurate.

I went down a bit of a rabbit hole when this book didn’t show up on Amazon and learned that Emerald City is one of three books set to be released by a new publishing house this year. A publishing house co-founded and owned by the author who claims the book represents “hyper-intelligent energy” that readers are “starved for.” Hmmm. The book is meant to be released in three weeks but still has no presence on Amazon (the above link is to the out-of-print version) or Indie Bound, so I’m not sure it’s going to make it.

However, if there is a chance that the author will publish it later, my strongest advice would be to get a brand-new, completely outside editor to cut through the unnecessary metaphors and similes. Someone who can pare this book down to the core plot to allow the characters to exist. Someone who understands that ‘intelligent’ is not synonymous with ‘uses ten words when five would work.’

I don’t write fiction so I can’t imagine how hard it must be, but it seems that the author has made it even harder for himself by writing it in this way. I just couldn’t get past the first 50 pages, and so cannot recommend this to anyone.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
I offered to return it, but it shall instead be finding new purpose in the recycling bin outside my apartment.



July 2019



The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology by Mark Boyle

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Four Stars

Best for:
People interested in what it looks like to truly, deeply, live one’s values.

In a nutshell:
Mark Boyle once lived without money for three years. Now he’s gone further – he’s given up everything we would consider to be modern technology. (But how is there a book, you ask? We’ll get there.)

Worth quoting:
‘What are we prepared to lose, and what do we want to gain, as we fumble our way through our short, precious lives.’

Why I chose it:
For the past couple of years I’m been very interested in life that is closer to nature, especially as it relates to environmental impact. Plus, this is a hefty and gorgeous book.

Spoilers for the TV Show The Good Place throughout.

For my CBR review post I chose a Chidi quote from The Good Place: ‘Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re gonna follow them.’ In fact, throughout my read of this book I kept thinking of that show; specifically the twists in the third season, where we discover that no one has gotten into the Good Place for 500 years because it’s just too damn hard to make the right decisions.

I think even having strong, well-thought-out principles is rare. Religion may give it to some people, but even then, what does it really mean to, for example, love your neighbor as yourself? Or do no harm? How far are you willing — and able — to go in living your values? I’ve seen the phrase ‘there’s no ethical consumption in capitalism’ shared on social media often. I mean, I’m typing this on a computer that is slowly dying; if I want to buy another one, what company do I support? The one that gives no money to charity and built a giant new headquarters without considering including childcare facilities (Apple), or the one that supplies computers to the US agency currently keeping immigrant children in cages (Dell)?

Not great choices, eh? If we want to truly live a low-harm life, can we life the lives so many of us in industrialized nations are living? And if not, what does our life look like?

Author Mark Boyle wants to live by his principles, at least, as far as I can tell. He doesn’t elaborate on what those principles are in a list or any specific way, but he seems to generally want to live what he considers a real life – one that is closer to nature and a way to experience true connection to the earth. Which is amazing, but I think it is narrow-minded to suggest that this is the true way to live a good life. I don’t get the sense from Boyle that he believes everyone must live as he lives, but I do get the sense that he believes he is more connected to the idea of what it means to be human than, say, someone using a computer. I find that mildly amusing.

There are many eye-roll moments, but honestly not as many as there could be. And the storytelling itself is interesting. Boyle breaks down his first year of no tech (hand-tools only, no car, no electricity, no running water, no screens) by season, sharing the work he has to do to keep his sharehold land and cabin functioning. He grows his own food, catches his own meat (which he does grapple with as a former vegan). He doesn’t make his own clothes yet, and he does things like hitchhike if he needs to travel far. He doesn’t use a phone, which means he’s only reachable by letters.

And I think that’s where I do get a little annoyed with Boyle. Not because he’s choosing to live this life, but because he’s pushed it onto others secondarily. And that’s totally fine — other people aren’t required to approve of or participate in how I live my life — but when the only way a parent can reach their child with serious news is via letter, I think that’s kind of uncool. Yes, I realize that this is how it used to be before any phones were available, but it’s not how it has to be now.

I don’t agree that living without technology necessarily makes one closer to understanding what it means to be human, and I don’t think living with technology means one is necessarily disconnected. There are extremes in both ways of viewing the world. I don’t believe that camping is objectively better or worse than sleeping in a bed. But at the same time, I do understand that while the ends might be fine (being able to talk to my parents who are currently 6,000 miles away), the means can be problematic (how did the materials needed to make my phone get there). I mean, I gave up eating meat because I couldn’t come up with a way, given my currently life circumstances, to rationalize it, but I do see why Boyle does choose meet.

There’s a lot to think about with this book. How can we be closer to who we want to be? What does it mean to live this life? Are we living it deeply? And, obviously, who gets the luxury right now of moving to a bit of land in rural Ireland and living completely off the grid? We didn’t all spring forth with endless options around us when born – we may have intergenerational debt or trauma or cultural expectations or family relationships that can’t just be ignored or even processed by vowing to give up email.

I’ll be thinking about this book for awhile.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it