It feels a little awkward to start off this week with a book that’s a decade old, but hey, it’s got a new cover and we don’t remember it all that well, so we’re going to roll with it. Besides, a decade is the new cutoff for doing remakes isn’t it? How short is the cycle between Marvel reboots? Six weeks? Something like that.
Anyway, yes, the lead-off this week is James May’s Magnificent Machines. It has a very British subtitle too: “How men in sheds have changed our lives.” May, who some of you may know as one of the hosts on BBC’s Top Gear, is a bit of a gear head, and in Magnificent Machines, he wanders into the dusty corners of the shed(s) and examines some of the more pivotal inventions of the last one hundred years. He hits the obvious targets, of course—flight, space travel, the Internet, electronic music, mechanized warfare—but he also spends a bit of time looking at the inventions that didn’t quite take off. Like the zeppelin, for instance. And the theremin. Also, the hovercraft.
[Didn’t quite take off. See what we did there? Is it too early in the newsletter to be pleased with ourselves? Yes? Okay, we’ll tone it down a bit.]
Now, on the other hand, Simon Winchester tackles technology with both a bit longer scope and a tighter focus. The Perfectionists looks at how precision made the world. Winchester, who has been covering the inner workings of history for, uh, a couple of decades now, hauls us back to the early days of the Industrial Revolution when guys named Wilkinson, Maudslay, Bramah, Ramsden, and Whitworth were doing something interesting with weights, measures, and the fine art of calibrated craftsmanship.
It’s somewhat irresponsible of us to be talking so vaguely about a book that is charting the history of precision, but that is part of the larger point that Winchester is making. Is Ultra Precision the most true and complete goal, or has our never-ending pursuit of absolute perfection blinded us to an aspect of being human. More than just a catalog of finer gradations on the ruler, The Perfectionists asks us to consider: at what cost?
And speaking of asking questions and refining working models, there's a new edition of The Decision Book this week. Krogerus and Tschäppeler's classic is filled with things like the Eisenhower matrix, the BCG box, the rubber band model, and the feedback box (which is different than the feedback analysis, thank you very much). We're not saying this book will help you make every decision, but it will certainly help you understand why you have made a specific decision (cognitive bias and/or cognitive dissonance aside, of course).
And for the writers in the room, this is an awesome resource for providing narrative models to slap your characters around with. Just noting. [We'll add a copy on the writing book cart later this month for Write Time.]
And speaking of the modeling behavior and puzzling over how things work, Matt Kenney, senior editor at Fine Woodworking, recently set himself the challenge of designing and building one wooden box a week for an entire year. 52 Boxes in 52 Weeks charts his efforts as he re-examines the basics of his craft and then sets out to do the work. Doing the work is an important skill, as you know, though having a handy guide helps too.
We like boxes. You can put things in them. You can admire them. You can stack them up and see the physical results of your efforts. It’s not all metaphor, you know.
And speaking of craft, Paul Theroux has been seeing the sights and talking to folks for a long time now, and Figures in a Landscape is his latest collection of essays. Some of them are travel narratives, some of them are insightful literary criticism, and some of them are profiles of other people that are commentary on the human condition writ larger-than-life. Theroux’s attention to the craft of writing and his persistently keen curiosity run throughout this collection.
And speaking of revealing essays, Richard Russo joins the ranks of Those Who Have Written About Writing with The Destiny Thief. Russo’s collection of nine essays range from an inspiring commencement speech to a meditation on art and life and the oddly placed toilet seat. Elsewhere he tackles Mark Twain’s place in our literary landscape and follows a friend on a harrowing journey of transformation. Percolating through each of these essays is Russo’s fascination with the creative process. By the end, the question of “where do writers get their ideas?” is well laid to rest.
And speaking of revelation through prose, Michael Ondaatje is back this week with Warlight. As he has done for much of his career, this book defies easy categorization. It’s ostensibly about two teenagers who are left in London after WWII, but it quickly becomes more murky and mysterious than that. Why did their parents go to Singapore? Who is The Moth? Is this a Dickens retread masquerading as a literary coming-of-age metaphor? And what is up with their mother returning without their father? Naturally, it’s a dozen years later when the younger of the two starts to unravel the mystery, and oh my, we all know how unreliable memory can be.
And speaking of unreliable narrators, we’re not entirely on board with Araminta Hall’s Our Kind of Cruelty, but lots of folks are speaking very highly of it. Gillian Flynn calls it “one of the nastiest and most disturbing thrillers” she has read in years. A. J. Finn says it is a “perfect nightmare of a novel,” and one of our fellow booksellers at Powell’s says it is a “toxic and addictive book.” So, there you go.
What is it? Well, it’s the story of Mike, who has been dumped by V. Mike, however, thinks V is just playing a long-form version of a thing they did called Crave, which is pretty screwed up to begin with. From over here, it looks like Mike is badly in need of someone telling him that “no, really, she’s moved on and you need to not be such a creepy stalker douchebag,” but maybe we’re wrong and there’s some twist at the end. Or maybe Hall just gets inside the psyche of Mike enough that the whole thing is really off. We’re not entirely sure, but hey, we’ll let someone else read it first and report back.
On a less confusing note, Mac Barnett’s second book in his beguiling trilogy of kid’s books is out. This one is Square. Square likes to move blocks from one place to another, and he thinks Circle is an artistic genius. Uh, this one might be about an unreliable narrator too, wherein Square isn’t aware of . . . oh, geez. No, really, it’s not like that other book. This one has happy pictures by Jon Klassen! It’s got cute shapes. It has a simple narrative that unpacks easily for the small kids in the room. No one will be psychologically scarred by Square! [Ed note for Candlewick Press: You may certainly use that for a blurb on the next edition. Kthxbye!]
Let’s stick with something simpler, shall we? How about time? Time is easy, right? You walk up, and think: “Oh, man, where did the morning go? Is it time to put pants on already?” Or you think: “Boy, I wish it was lunchtime already. Why is this day going by so slowly.” Well, Carlo Rovelli—who opened our eyes and minds with Seven Brief Lessons on Physics—is here to set us straight with The Order of Time. Rovelli, however, is clever enough that he puts forth some talking points that will keep both the philosophers and the physicists in the audience happy. No mean feat there, we assure you.
And speaking of clever tricks and breezy style, Steven Hyden has some thoughts about classic rock. In Twilight of the Gods, Hyden looks back at being rescued by rock and roll and wonders what is going to happen to those icons of his youth. As the rebellious tunes of a previous generation get transformed into mind-numbing elevator musak, what happens to the very rebellion such music prompted, preceded, and encapsulated? Does no one rebel anymore? Have we missed our chance at making a difference? Is the tinny sound of our verve—piped through the crappiest of speakers—all that remains? We hope not. At the very least, it’s all getting a proper eulogy with Hyden, who isn’t quite a ready to go gentle into that good night as we might think. Nor, truth be told, is rock and roll.
And speaking of audacity and daring, how about a book on the Pony Express? Jim DeFelice’s West Like Lightning gives us an in-depth exploration of the first “overnight” mail carrier, which was started by three guys with a bunch of horses and an idea. The Pony Express is an indelible part of the American Myth and DeFelice spent some time retracing the route and digging into the myth.
And speaking of historical figures, Karen Lee Street’s second book featuring Edgar Allan Poe is out this week. Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru features our first writer of detective fiction, lost soul-makes, ornithomancy, and a legendary jewel from . . . wait for it . . . Peru. Nothing makes for a creepier historical mystery than mummified bird parts (delivered through the mail, no less), visitations from old ghosts, and a mysterious visit to South America.
And speaking of visits to strange places, one of our favorite writers is branching out into a new genre this week. K. R. Richardson's Blood Orbit is being pitched as Criminal Minds meets Sherlock in Space, and we're all aboard for that. Blood Orbit is a bit of a buddy book, where one of the buddies is a cybernetically enhanced investigator. Inspector J. P. Dillal and his off-world rookie pal, Eric Matheson, are in charge of upholding the corporate law on Gattis, a company planet, and, well, when it's company interests that are more important than the rule of law or common moral decency, things start off a little noir and get darker from there. Think Raymond Chandler meets James S. A. Corey, and you're probably in the right headspace for this book.
And speaking of strange headspaces, our favorite self-named robot is back in Artificial Condition, Martha Wells’s follow-up to the fantastic All Systems Red, which first introduced us to Murderbot. He’s not that bad, actually. He’s just, um, misunderstood. We think. We’re not entirely sure we want Murderbot to figure out if it is truly self-determinate or not, but we sure do like the way it thinks.
And that’s a lot of thinky books this week. Who knew? We certainly didn’t, but that is how they stack up sometimes.