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Mistress of the Empire (The Empire Trilogy, #3)

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This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at

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Red Seas Under Red Skies (Gentleman Bastard, #2)

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This book is two halves of a book. The first half is a dull regurgitation of the first book, with a plot that is portrays the main characters at their least interesting. After I whipped through the first book, I immediately began this one, but I found my interest waned quickly. I put this down for a monthlong hiatus before I came back to it out a sense of duty.

Luckily, when I picked it up again, I was rewarded. The second half is as dynamic as the first half is plodding. The most interesting characters in the book take over in the second half, and the protagonists are not the annoying know-it-alls that they are in the first half of the book. The in-depth (for a landlubber) descriptions of the workings of a ship are a real treat, and the setting becomes one of the best in modern fantasy.

For fans of fantasy, this is a series to check out. Though there's delays in publishing the third in the series, the first two books stand alone well enough that it shouldn't keep fans away.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at
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A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

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The amount of work put into this book is awe-inspiring. Ulrich has taken an extremely dry and boring diary of a so-ordinary-it-hurts early American midwife and with exacting cataloging and thorough additional research, come up with a wonderful story of a life. She's waded through the inconsistent spelling and extremely terse style and made absolutely mind-boggling numbers of connections here.

Good history provides analysis in addition to the hard work, and this book is no slouch there, either. The original diary is filled with entries like "Weather clear. I bakt bread. Calld 3 pm to Mrs. Brixton who was in travil and tarryd all nigt." This is not a document that easily gives up its secrets. No, Ulrich manages to find the connections, and make astute observations about the role of women and family in the life of the ordinary New England settler. By looking at these accounts, Ulrich paints a convincing picture of the economics of the area, the social structures, down even to the minutest detail. It's really quite incredible.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at

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Sports media that doesn't suck

Hi, my name is Paul, and I am a sports fan.

It may seem odd to word that as a confessional, but the pervasive culture of sports is one of talking heads, empty non-analysis, pining for the old days that never actually happened, and casual misogyny.  I am proud of none of these things, and yet I like sports.  Why?  Partially because I love the competition, spectacle, and physical wonder of it all, but also in large part because I can tune out a lot of the really terrible sports media.

The thing about sports media is that it's not all bad, it's just that the easiest stuff to find is bad.  Almost everything on ESPN is atrocious, in-game commentary is usually full of platitudes, and the commercial culture surrounding sporting events is mostly a competition by advertisers to sell the best substitute for manhood manifested as beer, trucks, or hardware.  But the thing about sports media is that there's so much of it, that if you dig a little bit, you can find intelligent commentary and analysis.  I know when I started looking for this type of stuff, I despaired of ever finding it.  Here's hoping this list will save some people some time.


Hang Up and Listen
My favorite source of sports analysis, by far, is a weekly podcast put out by Slate.  It's run by a Slate Editor, a longform writer (who'll make another appearance in this list), and a contributor to NPR.  This is the best source I've found for focusing on sports as a lens for society.  There's frank discussion of race and gender, as well as plenty of harsh critique for sports media when they revert to peddling the same stale storylines.  If you track down one thing from this article, make it an episode of Hang Up and Listen.

Sports Illustrated
The august old sportsweekly is still one of the best sources for analysis of sports news.  While the internet has stolen some of the thunder of breaking news, SI has gracefully made the move to editorial voice and investigative reporting.  The Scorecard section is a wonderful summary of the past week's events that you may have missed, along with some great contextualization of those events.  The feature story at the end of the magazine, too, is almost always worth reading.  While not focused on current events, the writings of Gary Smith, S.L. Price, Grant Wahl, and others tends to be some of the smoothest writing out there.

A Whole Different Ball Game by Marvin Miller
I can't overstate how much change this single book brought to my viewpoint of sports.  Marvin Miller was the leader of the Major League Baseball Players' Association, and he was the driving force in the change of sports labor, and had a huge role in creating sports as we know them today.  He was also the man who had the nerve to rock the boat and point out that sports were business, and that the owners were pocketing all of the profits and stifling innovation.

Ball Four by Jim Bouton
A Few Seconds of Panic by Stefan Fatsis
Out of Their League by Dave Meggyesy
North Dallas Forty
It never fails to amaze me how much the athlete is treated simultaneously as hero and commodity.  These three books and one movie each talk about what it means to be a professional athlete.  It's easy to forget how hard you have to work to be a professional athlete, and it's easy not to realize how merciless it is as a profession.

30 for 30
Much as I don't like ESPN, they are the genesis of the 30 for 30 series.  It was originally created to chronicle 30 important moments in the 30 year history of ESPN, though it has since gone into a second series.  If you follow this blog, you already know that I watch these a lot.  The nature of the series (different director and creative team on every film) leads to hit-or-miss filmmaking, but generally this series is worth watching.  There are some stories I know, some I don't, but most of them are more than just the regurgitation of the dominant myth.  There's more thought put into this than most sports media, and it shows.

Honorable mentions:
Grantland has a good mix of news and number crunching for the hardcore fan, despite the fact that it's owned by ESPN.
The Classical covers sports with a literary bent.
The Best American Sportwriting anthologizes great longform writing for the past century, and every year since, just in case you missed it.
Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram did a lot to make me realize that my distaste for certain sports had more to do with my unfair biases and less to do with the sport itself.

Why spoiler warnings need to die

You probably know what spoilers are. Plots are advanced by the narrative use of plot points. Any virtual or in-person conversation that reveals a plot point too early is deemed a spoiler.

Spoilers can apply to movies, TV shows, books, video games -- pretty much any story-driven media. For simplicity's sake, I'll stick to discussing movies. Reviewers have learned to compensate for spoilers by treading very carefully around plot points. Too carefully. The care to avoid spoilers has reached levels such that it leads to overly careful wankery like this.  Or like this. Or this.  

It's all wrong. If you're still concerned about spoilers, you shouldn't be. They're bad for critics and bad for viewers, bad for analysis and bad for plot.


"Spoilers" almost never spoil anything

Most things labeled as spoilers don't qualify for the moniker.  Only plot points that radically change the viewer's conception of the story can be truly spoiled.  Knowing that Bruce Willis is a psychiatrist in The Sixth Sense isn't a spoiler.  Knowing that he talks to Haley Joe Osmont isn't a spoiler.  Knowing that he is actually is dead the whole movie is.

But it still doesn't matter, because...


People will forget spoilers by the time they encounter the original plot

Some of you are probably angry that I just ruined the ending to The Sixth Sense.  Look, it's time we had a heart to heart. If you haven't already seen that movie, you are never going to. "Planning to see it eventually" doesn't count. And if you ever do see it, even an insightful masterwork like this post will be unlikely to stick around in your memory long enough to interfere with your enjoyment.

Art that has been released recently is a bit more difficult. If you're the type of person who keeps up with TV shows, for instance, you are probably watching that show within a week of its release. Of course, then avoiding spoilers is easy -- just don't read any article that purports to be a summary within a week of its release. If you don't have the self-discipline for that, then what makes you think that a silly little spoiler warning is going to stop your craving for instant gratification?


There is no such thing as "unspoiled"

Unspoiled art is pure art, art untrammeled by expectations, and uninhibited by context. It's also impossible. The moment that you can conceptualize a piece of art enough that you know you want to experience it, you have already gained context, and thus lost the spoiler battle.

Art cannot be experienced without context. You put art in a white room with white walls with soft ambient lighting, or you can put it in a dark room projected on a screen from behind you, or you can listen to it using the most expensive headphones you can find, but even those approaches still don't eliminate context, they only minimize distractions. Aside from that, you as the viewer bring your own emotional baggage. Are you sleepy, content, nervous, or distracted? Are you overfull from a just-finished meal, or are you hungry? Did you have a long walk to get to the gallery, or did you saunter over to your couch and turn on the TV? These and innumerable other factors change your art experience.

A lot of smart people figured out that context matters in the 20th century, and it led to relativity in physics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics, and contextualization in postmodern philosophy and art.  It's not a brand new concept, and we are doing ourselves a disservice to pretend that art is the one thing that can be experienced without context.

In fact, some of our most treasured media institutions are designed to bring context and spoilers.  Postcards, flyers, and advertisements are meant to get people to see art, but they also spoil the purity of experience.  The very purpose of movie previews is to be bombastic spoiler machines.  How are these spoilers so good if all the other spoilers are so bad?


Spoiler warnings are distracting and decrease signal-to-noise ratio

Up to this point, every point I've made has been about how spoiler warnings are irrelevent or ineffective. Time to shift gears and point out how they are actively bad.

Spoiler warnings are annoying, hamper usability, and generally make discussion a chore. When I see some variation on "Don't read further if you want to avoid spoilers," I am no longer thinking about the point of the piece I'm reading, but instead I'm thinking about my process of reading. This is like watching Life of Pi and having a sign flash on halfway through the first act that says "YOU ARE WATCHING A MOVIE WITH A CG TIGER." Thank you, fictional sign, but I already knew that.


Spoilers actually increase viewing enjoyment

It's true, you will actually like something better if you get exposed to spoilers beforehand.  Science says so.


Spoiler concern eliminates valid discussion

This is the Big Kahuna, the real reason I hate spoilers, and the whole reason I'm writing this blog post in the first place. Have something to say about a movie? You better make sure you get signed forms from all people in earshot waiving their rights, in perpetuity, for them to object to hearing what you want to say.

But, you know, just don't say it, right? Wrong. Completely wrong. That viewpoint is the information wants to be free argument turned on its head. Understanding is gained through analysis and discussion, and there's no surer way to quash discussion than by putting the onus on the speaker to make sure that his audience is ready to hear what she has to say.

Let's give everybody the benefit of the doubt, and say that nobody wants to be rude and ruin a plot for anybody. (For our example, it doesn't really matter, as rude people are unlikely to care about spoiler warnings anyway). For every person who has something to say on Twitter, Facebook, on a blog, or in person, if they have to check with their audience before revealing a possible spoiler, what are they likely to do? Are they likely to ask everybody if they can talk? More likely they don't say it.

But that's what the spoiler warning is for, right? It's there to give people the opportunity to share without injuring the poor precious virgin ears that are unready to hear it, right? Still wrong. Not only does it provide a frustrating hoop to jump through whenever you want to talk about art, it means that readers who would otherwise engage on a deeper level with the art instead choose not to read further, in the name of some fallacious "pure first experience" that is as impossible as Jesus riding up on a Unicorn with a briefcase full of war bonds.


It's time for our art discussion to give up our spoiler obsession.  Not only are they annoying non-content, they actively reduce the quality of our critique.  Join me in the rallying cry: Death to spoiler warnings and shame on those who use them!

Forts of Old San Juan: San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico

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I picked this up during my trip to El Morro, the largest fort in San Juan. Reviewing it is a bit silly at first glance, as it's just a souvenir book. In fact, I'm not sure if it gets distribution outside the park.

The book, however, goes well beyond what I expected of it. It's only about 80 pages, yet it does an excellent job of establishing the fortifications as historical landmark. This is no dry recounting of measurements and dates, but instead is a well-contextualized account of the struggles and culture that made San Juan a major focal point for centuries. There's figures, illustrations, and maps galore.

If you happen to be in San Juan, and are looking for an overview, you could do a lot worse than this.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at

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The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard, #1)

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Judged as a riproaring page turner, I enjoyed this thoroughly. It did that thing that really good fantasy does, that stickiness that just won't let it leave your hands. It's fair to say that I lost some sleep for this one, and that I enjoyed it immensely.

However, it didn't challenge me particularly. As much as I ripped through it, it didn't really stick with me. The hero is a familiar urchin-turned-brilliant-thief trope, and his save-the-day plotline doesn't really shock too much. There are a few interesting characters, such as Father Chains, and even the marks for the thief. It's nice to have some fantasy end with the hero saving the day and NOT being rewarded with immense power, but mostly this is the same story I've read before.

But still, it's a story that works. This book may reinvent the wheel, but it's a really great wheel. Definitely worth a look for fantasy fans.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at

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The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 2: From the Bastille to Baghdad

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Gonick wraps up his History of the World series in this volume, and a worthy wrapup it is. Gonick continues to use the flair and accessibility to keep history from becoming dull and dry. The art pops and the voice of the author is present without being overwhelming.

I do have one minor quibble with the book, and that is that Gonick occasionally is a bit too close to some of the last history. As we get closer to the end of the book, we start seeing more of the events of history through the lens of the 2000s, when the book was written. This is unavoidable to a certain degree, but it is a bit jarring, even read now, a mere four years after publication.

This really is a fantastic series. This probably isn't the book you should start with, but it will do an excellent job if you're looking for a very high-level understanding of the last 225 years of history.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at

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The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 1: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution

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I'll praise Gonick's Cartoon History of the World series to everybody who will listen. As a history buff and a thoughtful comics fan, this series exists at a perfect intersection for me, and I think that anybody with even a passing interest in one or the other will find this illuminating.

Of course, the usual caveats apply. Nearly 300 years is a lot of ground to cover, and there are things that are left out that I wish had been included. What's more, the format encourages a certain amount of flippancy, which means that if you prefer your history dignified and dusty, this book won't appeal to you.

But the same style means that the book is incredibly successful. This is a highlight reel of history, which means you get a very zoomed out, highly contextual view of history. It's useful to understand how Charles V is simultaneously balancing the New World and the old, or how the Dutch revolt has ties affecting Indian politics. If you're looking for an overview of history, you aren't going to find much better or more accessible than this.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at

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One Hundred Fifty Years in Christ: The Sesquicentennial History of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, New Munich, Minnesota 1857 to 2007

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I'm not given to anything spiritual or religious, so no doubt the appearance of this on my shelf will surprise some followers, but I have been rediscovering a love of history. My father's side of the family is from the tiny hamlet of New Munich (pop. 321), so when I saw this laying around on a recent visit back, I knew I wanted to pick it up, religion or no.

The three parts to this book vary wildly in style and substance. Without a doubt, my favorite section is the opening, which describes the founding and growth of the community. During this pre-automobile era, New Munich was clearly much more important to the surrounding community. The second part encompasses a bit more history, and takes a much more academic and analytical bent toward the subject, bringing up topics such as the Lakota Indian Wars and American westward expansion and fitting New Munich into a wider narrative. The last chronicle is the driest, and gets into a lot of church politics and maps much more of the relative reduction in importance of the community, as the town and parish shrink and the automobile allows more community members to meet their needs at other places.

For general history, I don't think I'd recommend this book, but if you have a connection to the town or area, I would say this is a surprisingly deft chronicle, and you are quite likely to learn something of interest.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at

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