A Little Taboo and Not Much Story

Seducing My Guardian book cover

For my second romance novel, I picked up more of a novella. It was part of a series called A Touch of Taboo by Katee Robert. Each story has a hint of a taboo subject. I saw the fourth book of the series recommended in my latest search. It is called Seducing My Guardian and is about a young woman who lost her parents in a tragic car accident at the age of sixteen. On her twenty-fifth birthday, at which she gains full access to the trust her parents left her, she decides to seduce her guardian. She never lived with this guardian. He shipped her off to boarding school and managed her financial affairs.

This was a quick read and falls into a subgenre that I would call “steamy sex held together with just enough story”. Obviously, she succeeds in seducing her guardian. They spend the night exploring and acting out sexual fantasies. The sex is well-written with a bit of the woman wondering about the motivation and psychology behind what she is doing. I largely found the novella simplistic and disappointing.

The author could have explored the relationship side of the story a bit more. And that led me to realize something about myself. I am not really interested in erotic stories for just the steamy sex. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate it. It’s just not enough. I want to know how they came to be together, how they might have a life together and deal with the challenges that life throws at two people sharing their bodies and their lives. That just wasn’t there in this book, and it left me wanting more.

Love at the End of the World

Last Light book cover

A few years ago, I got curious about romance novels. I had never read one. I had seen a lot of them growing up in the 80s – paperback covers with shirtless men and long blond hair blowing in the wind. But this is a huge industry, and I wanted to know more about it. When I asked my girlfriend for a recommendation, she told me to read Outlander.

I had heard of this book but never thought of it as a romance novel. It was time-traveling historical fiction, right? Yes. But is was also a romance novel with steamy sex scenes. The quality of the writing was way beyond the reputation that I had heard of for romances. I read the series through book four before I decided to drop it, and I didn’t read any more romance.

Recently, I decided to dive back into romance, maybe something a little less literary and a bit more mainstream for romance novels. I logged onto the subreddit r/romancebooks and searched for books with strong female main characters (FMC) and steamy sex scenes. I never knew there were so many subgenres in romance! After some digging through recommendation, I landed on reading Last Light by Claire Kent.

Last Light takes place after an asteroid hits Europe causing the breakdown of civilization. The setting reminded me a lot of Stephen King’s The Stand but without the deadly virus. The narrator is a young woman leaving her home town to join others who left before her. Her love interest is an older man who was a mechanic in that same town. They end up traveling together for safety. Obviously, they fall in love.

The plot was well-written and engaging. I genuinely wanted to know what would happen next. The sex scenes were steamy and fit well in the course of the story. None of it felt out of place and a break simply for a sex scene. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel with one exception. At the end of nearly every chapter (or maybe every chapter, I didn’t go back and check), the author makes some sort of reference to “love at the end of the world”. It was cliche. It was absurd and redundant given the plot. And it was tiresome to read over and over again.

Despite that one annoyance, I enjoyed my first dip into the waters of more typical romance fare. And I did some more research to find other novels that I might enjoy. I must admit is takes some work. A lot of the stories that I found in my research just make me shake my head. They aren’t my thing and aren’t for me. But I have some new possibilities. If I make it to the end of any of them, I’ll share here.

A Contemporary SFF Magazine

Uncanny Magazine No. 45 Cover

I am a huge fan of science fiction. I read many sci fi novels in high school, and recently subscribed to the semi-pro Uncanny Magazine. It publishes every other month and includes short stories, novellas, poetry, and essays on the topics of science fiction and fantasy. The latest issue is number 45, March/April 2022.

In this issue I dogeared five different pieces – two short stories and three essays. Flowerkicker by Stephen Graham Jones (available online April 5) is the story of a couple on a hike up a mountain. She is stopping to view every flower. He wants to get to the top and back before sunset. And they come across something out of the ordinary along the path.

In Requiem for a Dollface by Margaret Dunlap (also available online April 5) a teddy bear seeks the “murderer” of a child’s favorite doll. Upon discovering the perpetrator, he must make a very difficult ethical decision.

The essay Acknowledging Taiwanese-American Vampire Foodies by Jo Wu discusses explores cultural prejudice in the foods we eat and how they affect our attitudes toward those who eat differently. I thought the title absurd, not expecting much from the piece. Instead I found it poignant and insightful.

Resisting the Monolith: Collecting As Counter Narrative by Rebecca Romney is an essay by a collector of feminist science fiction. She traces the history back before Margaret Atwood to the nineteenth century. I added at least two titles to my “to read” pile after reading it.

Wax Sealed With a Kiss by Elsa Sjunneson (available online April 5) discusses the role of letters in general and love letters in particular throughout history and their use in fiction such as The Screwtape Letters and This is How You Lose the Time War. She even explores how her own letter writing helped her get perspective on her divorce.

I encourage anyone with an interest in contemporary science fiction and fantasy to read and subscribe to this excellent magazine.

Why Humans (and Machines) Play Games

Seven Games book cover

Author Oliver Roeder in his book Seven Games uses those seven games (checkers, chess, go, backgammon, poker, Scrabble, and bridge) to explore both the human history of games in general as well as how the approach to creating artificial intelligence (AI) has changed as it has been applied to games. At first those developing AI tried to develop machines that think like humans do. But that direction was unfruitful due to the depth of the games. There was simply too much to these games to simply use brute force calculations. New approaches were attempted and the results were a completely different way to think about games, a machine way.

The book also highlights the best players of each of these games and how AI has affected them and game play in general. The author does an excellent job of showing the human side of playing games and their importance to human development. And he takes what could be a very dry topic (AI) and makes it extremely relatable. For anyone interested in games in general or the development of AI, I highly recommend this book.

Maintaining What We Have

The Innovation Delusion book cover

I have often wondered why we have such a hierarchy of jobs. Why are service and maintenance jobs considered so “low”? After all, someone has to do that work for our civilization to keep working. It takes a different set of skills and experience but there is nothing inherently more valuable to our society about doctors and lawyers than mechanics, nurses, and janitorial staff. We need them all.

Recently I went looking for a book on this subject. I tried searching for the term “maintenance”. Unfortunately most of the results were about how to do it. I had to give up. But then I started reading a book on my list and discovered that unlike its title, it is really about maintenance and those who do it. That book is The Innovation Delusion by Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell.

The authors are fed up with what they call “innovation-speak”. This is newness for its own sake and comes with all the cliches. We definitely need real innovation and technology. And we are surrounded by it – indoor plumbing, public transportation, electricity, etc. But our focus these days is on digital innovation to the exclusion of the physical technology that requires ongoing maintenance, as everything does.

This book is a primer on how our almost exclusive focus on building new stuff has led to us neglecting the maintenance of our existing technology. You hear this in the cries about our decaying infrastructure and the deep backlog of deferred maintenance. Unfortunately, the answers given in public are more about enhancing what is there or building new. We need to address how we will maintain what we have.

The authors do a thorough job of outlining how we got in this state and how it is affecting all of us while often devastating local communities. But the book is short on solutions, and that is on purpose. This book is a call to arms to pay attention to the situation outlined, to start a conversation that will lead to action. It is well-written and inspiring. And if you have any interest, in addition to reading the book you can follow what the authors are doing at www.themaintainers.org.

A Touching Ode to Awe

Book cover for Contact by Carl Sagan

Shortly after it was first published in 1985, I read Contact by Carl Sagan. I was a nerd in high school who loved hard science fiction by authors such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. I’d watched the PBS series Cosmos and was very much interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Of course I was going to read this novel!

When I first read it way back then, I was an altar boy with a deep faith in God. Now as a divorced man in his early fifties, I find myself more of an agnostic than a believer of any religious faith. While I no longer believe in the supernatural, I do recognize there is much in our world that remains explained. I believe in the incredible capacity of humanity for love and the undeniable beauty in the universe that inspires awe.

Given this change over the last thirty-five years or so, when I recently thought of this book I decided to read it again. I am so glad I did. I was surprised by how much of the book I didn’t remember. Most of it in fact. But despite my changes over the intervening years, I loved the book just as much this time as when I first read it.

Despite his public status as a non-believer, the author respected religion in many ways throughout the book. In fact, much of it involves the interplay between religion and science, though indirectly. In the end, he reveals how much these two have in common, specifically the numinous experience of awe and the foundation of love.

Yes, this is the hard science fiction story of how an advanced extraterrestrial intelligence contacts the human race and how the human race responds to that contact. But on a deeper level, it is about human relationships and how they interact with the enormity of our universe and its limits. It deals with these intelligently, intellectually, as well as emotionally. Carl Sagan may have been known as one of the preeminent astronomers of the twentieth century, but he was also a committed and loving husband, father, and humanist. And both of these sides shine forth from this incredible novel.

A Complicated Man

Cover of the book American Lion by John Meacham

History is full of turning points. One such turning point in US history is the presidency of Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States. Before him, the office was seen largely as administrative and inferior in role to the Congress. The government was largely elected and run by elites elected by a very small electorate largely made up of white male land owners. This left much of the population unrepresented. The slow change to larger enfranchisement started during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The presidential biography American Lion by John Meacham covers these years and Jackson’s role in them.

The book leans largely toward hagiography in the vain of much Lincoln biography. Jackson saw himself as a father figure to the nation, a champion and savior of the people, and the author shares this view with little exposition on the darker moments in his presidency. Regardless, this is a largely well-written overview of Jackson’s life as a US president.

Jackson saw the role of president differently than his predecessors. He saw a strong role for the president as the only federal office directly elected by all citizens. While this was not strictly true (and still isn’t) due to the electoral college, it is not entirely inaccurate either. At that time Senators were still elected by state legislatures. The election for president was the closest thing the country had to a national mandate. Our modern view of the role of president started with Andrew Jackson, and this book is an excellent introduction to this history.

The book is heavy on the Eaton affair and its affects on the first years of the Jackson administration. It also covers the main events of Jackson’s presidency in fair detail including the Bank War and the nullification crisis. It is regrettably short on coverage of the treatment of native Americans in general and the Seminoles and Cherokees in particular as well as the growing controversy over slavery. This last is an especially grievous oversight as Jackson himself was a slaveholder. I was left with the feeling that the author so admires the strengths of Jackson that he couldn’t bring himself to equally cover the flaws in his character and behavior.

Despite this shortcoming, the book is a good overview of the presidency of Andrew Jackson and illustrates how it was a turning point in US history. It does show Jackson as a complicated man with both strengths and flaws, though I feel it overemphasizes his strengths and too easily forgives his flaws. It rightly treats the subject as a man like anyone else but doesn’t go into enough depth on the darker more controversial aspects of the man and his presidency.

Success Through Failure

Book cover for Adapt by Tim Harford

Throughout my life I have been told that mistakes are okay and to learn from them. However much of my experience has taught me very differently. In school, mistakes were bad and led to low grades and poor performance. At work, mistakes can lead to reprimands, demotions, or the loss of a job. So contrary to much of what I was taught, mistakes felt like something that should be avoided at all costs and certainly should not be accepted as a normal part of life. In his book Adapt, Tim Harford turns this on its head, showing not only how to learn from mistakes but arguing that, as it says in the subtitle, success always starts with failure.

The key takeaway is what Hardford calls the Palchinsky Principles after a Soviet scientist who was sent to Siberia and later executed by Stalin for daring to point out adaptations that would not work. These principles are variation, survivability, and selection. Adaptation starts with trying lots of things that might work, but which are unlikely to cause a catastrophic failure. After seeing what fails (most attempts) and what works, select the change that best meets the need.

A key to this process is to make sure that you know when you have failed. That may seem obvious, but we humans have a way of talking ourselves out of our mistakes. We deny they were mistakes at all by telling ourselves a story that somehow turns them into successes. Sometimes when we fail to admit our mistakes we continue on a failed course, wasting time that could be spent pursuing a more successful solution. And sometimes we just convince ourselves that it really wasn’t that bad even when we know better.

Throughout the book, the author uses examples to illustrate learning organizations (the US Army in Iraq), creating ideas that matter (solving the problem of locating a ship at sea), finding what works for the poor (building wells in Africa), and many others. By using such case studies, Harford explores in a practical way how to successfully change and adapt. In a world where it sometimes seems that innovation and change are happening for their own sake with no consideration of unintended consequences, this is a book with a method that could help create change that better solves the problems we collectively face.

Optimizing Regret

Cover of the book The Power of Regret

Bestselling author Daniel Pink’s latest book is The Power of Regret. It is based on scientific research that he commissioned as well as numerous previous studies. What is unique about this book is how the information is presented. It is both highly accessible and incredibly informative and practical.

The main argument is that regret is actually a positive emotion. It focuses us on how we can do better. Of course, focusing too much can incapacitate, and the book shows how to tap into this power of regret while avoiding its downsides.

Most studies group regrets by life categories–work, family, friends, romance, etc. But Pink sees similarities in regrets across these categories discovering four core regrets that he classifies as foundation regrets, boldness regrets, moral regrets, and connection regrets. He details each of these regret types and shares examples from regret surveys.

In the final part of the book, Pink shows how to “optimize” regret in a way that makes life better. In some cases this simply means taking the lessons from our regrets and moving on. In others, it involves undoing regrets.

I have had many regrets in my life. I spent the latter half of my forties working through a lot of them–learning from them and frankly growing up a bit. I feel like I learned so much of what is in this book the hard way. I sure would have appreciated learning sooner with the help of this book.

Reading a Banned Book

Cover of the book The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

With all the controversy over the graphic novel Maus after a school board in Tennessee removed it from its eighth-grade curriculum, I decided to read it for myself. I’d heard of the book and that it is the only graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, but I had never read it myself.

The book is the story of the author’s father in Poland during the Nazi rise to power in Germany, including his experience of the war in Poland and in Auschwitz. The Jews in the comic are mice, the Germans cats, and the Poles pigs. As you might expect, it is not a story with a happy ending.

In fact, the story doesn’t have much of an ending at all. And it is more than just the story of the author’s father. It is the story of how the author interviewed his father and came to learn about his experiences. Through the story we learn that in large part this was an effort of the author to learn about and understand his father in light of his own childhood with his father. And the telling is unflinching and real.

Perhaps this is why the book has been both used as a tool for teaching the holocaust in schools as well as made it the target of banning. It shows the brutality and cruelty of what really happened and how it affected not only those who went through it but the rest of their families as well, including their children born after the war. It is a story that still needs telling, and reading.