What I want to read in 2021

It’s been a stressful year for just about everyone. I don’t need to get into that, right? Some of us developed new hobbies and interests. Some of us focused on the familiar. Some of us read more than ever before; some of us could barely crack open a book due to constant mental buzzing. Unfortunately, I leaned more toward the safe and familiar in my down time this year. And I was lucky to stay employed, in a job that gradually took more and more of my time and attention, so it was very difficult to read more. At this point, I’ve accumulated quite a number of books to read that I just haven’t gotten around to. While my ambitions may simmer away to nothing, I’d still like to reassert a focus on reading.

Looking at my shelves right now, there are several books I’m eager to get around to. And while it might be blind hope, it looks like some of the added demands of the job should calm by the end of February at the latest. Maybe listing some of those books here will keep me motivated. So here are some of those books I hope to have finished by the end of 2021:

  1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: From A Certain Point of View, because I loved the first anthology of stories for A New Hope, and because I’m reading it right now. I better finish this! There have been some phenomenal stories already. This is the first example of why I just need to set more time aside for reading–I’m actually enjoying this collection! There isn’t yet a story that I love like “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper,” but several I’ve liked rather a lot, especially the most recent one I finished, Seth Dickinson’s “The Final Order,” which finally gives a name and personality to the Star Destroyer captain who dies in the Hoth asteroid field but also provides a searing reflection on the nature of fascism and (although this is probably an instance of my own worldview strongly influencing how I interpret the story) some fans’ unhealthy obsession with Imperial aesthetic.
  2. The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David Shipler. This is another book I’m currently reading and want to finish. I’ve been reading an ebook version, though I prefer print, so it’s just something I pick up in rare idle moments. It’s also a book I skimmed through back in law school, and I’m finding it generally more interesting than I remembered. It remains unfortunately timely.
  3. Star Wars: Master & Apprentice and Star Wars: Dooku: Jedi Lost, because I’ve become rather fond of Old Republic and Clone Wars content and because they’re books that I’ll enjoy discussing with my wife. She already finished Master & Apprentice for the Qui-Gon content and, while she doesn’t tend to read licensed fiction like this, she was thoroughly engaged.
  4. The Dinosaur Heresies and Raptor Red by Bob Bakker, because Dr. Bakker’s role in promoting the image of dinosaurs as smart, fast, warm-blooded, and closely related to birds was key to my early infatuation with dinosaurs becoming so dominating in my life ever after. He was a regular presence in many of the dinosaur documentaries I loved as a kid. But I never got around to his books, and they’ve been a little harder to find over the years. I’ve got both of these books now, though. While science has marched on, I’m still excited to read his popular nonfiction argument for the updated image of dinosaurs and his fictional companion novel that attempts to demonstrate what those dinosaurs might have actually acted like.
  5. Digging Dinosaurs by Jack Horner, for similar reasons to the above. He was similarly everywhere when I was a kid, for his discovery of Maiasaura and their nests, his theories on nurturing dinosaurs, and his influence on the Jurassic Park films.
  6. Michael Crichton’s Dragon Teeth is on my list for more nostalgia. Another posthumously published novel, this provides a fictionalized account of the Bone Wars. I was surprised to discover that I rather enjoyed his Pirate Latitudes, especially after finding his later technothrillers to be somewhere been jumbled and formulaic and unfortunately influenced by increasingly anti-science attitudes, and I would expect another historical fiction period piece to be similarly delightful.
  7. My Beloved Brontosaurus by Riley Black (though her former name is still used on the print copy I have). I’ve been meaning to start this book forever! She’s been a tremendous science writer with a paleontology focus who hooked me back when she was writing under the B. Switek name. And she has several more books out at this point that I want to read, too.
  8. Victor Milan’s Dinosaur Lords trilogy (well, it’s looking more like a series, but I have the first three, so that’s what I’m focused on). I read the first book when it came out. It was…fine, but I’ll keep reading for more knights-and-dinosaurs fantasy.
  9. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. I’ve slowly been watching the television adaption, and the setting was engaging enough for me to want to read the source material. I’ve been interested in more recent attempts to challenge and interrogate the racism and xenophobia in Lovecraft’s works, so this is a starting point for me (recommendations requested, though!).
  10. Star Wars: X-Wing: Rogue Squadron by Michael Stackpole. I started this a while ago when I was reading a lot of the old EU, but I never finished it. Jason Fry’s “Rendezvous Point” was very fun and apparently loaded with references to the Rogue Squadron books, though, so I want to try again. We’ll see if I get through it or any other books in the series. Pretty good timing, what with a Rogue Squadron movie coming out!
  11. Last for the list, Star Wars: Darksaber and Planet of Twilight, just to round out the Children of the Jedi trilogy of EU books.

There are other books I want to try to read this year, including several books stuffed away elsewhere in my house or currently only remembered thanks to my Goodreads “Want to Read” list. We’ll see how far I get, but if I even get through most of this list, I’ll be doing better than I did in this pathetic reading year of 2020. Fingers crossed!

Now, shall I do a similar post for games I want to try to get through in 2021? Hm…probably not. There’s a tension between time spent on video games and time spent on books, as both are time-consuming hobbies that demand my focused attention. Still, there are games I want to get to for next year. And no, I won’t be doing similar lists for TV shows and movies–sadly, I get more than enough of that in.

And don’t worry, I don’t see this “things I want to get to” post being annual. (Have I done something like this before? Uh…maybe?) Just trying to set some positive goals for next year, after such a dreary 2020.

Review: The Guilty Die Twice

The Guilty Die Twice: A Legal ThrillerThe Guilty Die Twice: A Legal Thriller by Don Hartshorn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was given a copy of this book in exchange for a potential review. This puts me in the uncomfortable position of writing a review that is ultimately unfavorable, even though it’s more likely than usual that the publisher or, even worse, the author might read this. I don’t think I was the target audience for this book after all. If you like legal thrillers or law dramas, I think you should stop right here. My review isn’t going to do you any good! You might well enjoy this book, especially as a breezy weekend read! But if you tend to find your tastes might align with mine, then feel free to continue on. (Note that some spoilers will follow.)

The eye-catching synopsis on the back of the book begins, “Two bullet-riddled corpses. Two attorney brothers. Two sides to the story.” One would anticipate family rivalry, high drama, courtroom antics, and perhaps a morbid tale of murder and moral compromise. But the book sketches this in only the broadest strokes, and at the end of the day, there is really only one side to the story.

The two brothers are Jake and Travis Lynch. One’s a prosecutor, and the other’s a struggling attorney handling mostly pro bono work in private practice. They had a falling out over ten years ago because of the events surrounding a capital murder investigation and trial. Now they’re forced back together, as Jake prosecutes the cringingly named “Rich Kid Murders” and Travis defends the kid from the other side of town charged with their deaths. The book is basically split between the perspectives of Jake, Travis, and the alleged murderer, Sam. Its central tension revolves around two mysteries: who actually killed the “rich kids,” and what happened between Jake and Travis? As you might imagine, a novel hung on mysteries that are easily answered by the three viewpoint characters reads as annoyingly drawn out. And it’s not much of a mystery about the murders, as we have everything that happened but who pulled the trigger early on, and Sam is an unrepentant sociopath. So my primary motivation in reading was to figure out what exactly happened between Jake and Travis.

Here’s the thing, though. Travis is presented as a moralistic crusader who refused to compromise his conscience even though it cost him his family. But the truth is anything but that. Spoiler: as a law clerk, he began to doubt the justification of the death penalty, and he used that doubt as its own justification to unethically obtain and conceal evidence from his brother to fruitlessly attempt to prevent the conviction and execution of an irredeemable sociopath. Ten years later, he once more finds himself handling another irredeemable sociopath, having decided that this was somehow important and uniquely his responsibility. Never mind that he has never prosecuted or defended a capital murder case in the intervening years, or that he seems in way over his head, or that he desperately needs paying clients and his pregnant wife is increasingly anxious because he’d rather devote himself to every pro bono cause (to the point that he puts off a scheduled appointment at one point because some non-paying walk-ins showed up!), or that there are surely better choices for a defender in Austin. And by the end of the book, without much reason to do so, he finds himself questioning his opposition to capital punishment after all, while dropping his self-enforced exile from his family and considering getting into the family business. In other words, the final moments show that he’s been engaging in a bit of poverty tourism for a decade, living in a poor part of town by choice and forming romantic notions about the lives of the impoverished, only to be prepared to jump right into the benefits of his family heritage as soon as anyone from his family makes more than a half-hearted gesture to bring him back into the fold. His bitterness about his family’s lifestyle chafes even more in retrospect, knowing where he ends up by the end–especially since he also spends quite a bit of the book denying the substantial privilege of his upbringing that even a life of pro bono work simply would not erase.

You’d think that I had something against a person like Travis, or that I’m perhaps fervently pro-death penalty. No, I have my own family drama, and I too can be a bit of a bleeding heart with an opposition to the death penalty. But Travis’s pigheaded, narrowminded perspective made him a drag to read.

On the other hand, Jake is initially presented as a raging asshole prone to heavy drinking. He is those things, but he’s also a devoted husband, father, and son. He’s clever, he’s analytical, he’s good at seeing through motivations. He’s surprisingly willing to see the talent in others, including a transparent ass-kissing lackey in the office and even his own brother. By the end, Jake had become my favorite character. Still, I was tired of the toxic masculinity oozing from Jake, Travis, and Sam. They all were arrogant, overconfident, and prone to expressing only anger openly.

The moments where Jake and Travis interacted with their family were probably the best in the book and felt the most honest. Family dynamics are complicated, even when they shouldn’t be, and author Don Hartshorn does a good job of portraying that. But even though they are the most interesting and have the most emotional stakes, they unfortunately don’t occupy as much of the novel as sections engaging with local politicking and the murder case.

Hartshorn almost inadvertently wrote two potentially very interesting women. One is Christine Morton, a hard-as-nails reporter who unfortunately is mostly described as blonde and attractive, even as she does a great job as an investigator, and she is treated with hate and derision by both brothers, although the novel never provides a great motivation for that hate. Toward the end, Christine and Jake almost become allies, and I imagined a more interesting relationship for them in which they were professional rivals (bloodhound journalist versus prosecutor with an iron grip over his office) but had a reluctant, almost weary respect for each other. That never quite materializes, and even though Christine helps Jake, she’s left to seem “foiled” by him in the end. The other interesting woman barely appears at all. Bonnie Wong occupies a single scene as a defense attorney for one of the other kids charged with the murders. She’s presented as antagonistic, at least from Travis’s viewpoint, but she offers a good if obvious strategy, while Travis enters the meeting apparently deciding the best way for his client to win is to simply blame everything on the co-defendant without much support. Bonnie doesn’t like Travis. She clearly views him as an inferior attorney. She remembers how he withheld the evidence, and he obviously hasn’t made any waves since then. But she still tries to treat him with courtesy and tries to extend an olive branch to build a better case for both defendants. She’s not actually allowed to do anything else in the book, though, as her defendant quickly exits the picture for reasons I won’t disclose here, one of the few twists I won’t touch on in case you do decide to read this.

Most of the other characters are forgetful, though I mostly remember the women–unfortunately, especially the brothers’ wives–as deceitful, manipulative, and interested in vicarious power and wealth. Not great. There are other problematic moments. Hartshorn, who is white, largely writes white characters, but he has depicted Sam the killer as Korean. We don’t get to know Sam that well, and we don’t really understand his family background; his parents are supposed to be sympathetic, and yet they somehow raised not one but two sociopathic criminals who end up entangled in the criminal justice system for crimes they gleefully committed. Hartshorn makes awkward choices in how he describes Sam, for instance having Sam observe early on his “unmistakably Asian features in the rear window” of a car. More broadly, Hartshorn seems interested in making stabs at complicated issues like socioeconomic and racial inequities and the imperfect nature of the justice system, but the only one really taking any time to reflect on these issues is Travis, whose views are remarkably shallow and self-centered (as I’ve described above), and the individuals allegedly crushed by an unfair society who are now lashing out in rage are both portrayed as sociopaths with no particular motivation for their violent lifestyles.

Another bizarre element is that the book almost feels like a 2000’s period piece, even though it appears to be in the present day. The law offices are very reliant on paper still, for some reason, and at one point a character literally closes a cell phone, like it’s an old flip phone. The bizarre, amorphous time period stuck out to me. But it doesn’t warrant more comment than that.

The Guilty Die Twice isn’t painfully bad; while I didn’t often have much motivation to keep reading, it wasn’t a struggle to turn the pages when I made time for it. But its weak points crowd out its strengths, and when we all have such limited attention spans and so many sources of potential entertainment, I just don’t think that I can recommend this particular one.

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A genetic determinant for encountering the paranormal?

I would highly recommend Phenomena, which I reviewed in my last post, but I also wanted to quote at length from one of the passages toward the end of the book. It’s speculative, and does not reflect Jacobsen’s personal opinion. It’s not verified. But it really tickled me. I’m intrigued. Consider it an incentive to read the whole book. Here you go:

“We are also mapping [DNA and immune systems of] people and their families who claim to be remote viewers or have anomalous perception,” [Garry] Nolan [of the Nolan Lab at Stanford University] confirms . . . . “Whether real, perceived, or illusion, there appears to be a genetic determinant.” And while Dr. Green maintains that his patients’ injuries may have come from high energy devices or their components, both Green and Nolan think there is more to it than that. “Some people [seem to] repeatedly attract the phenomena or the experiences,” Nolan says. “They act like an antenna or are like lighthouses in the dark.”

Review: Phenomena

Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government's Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and PsychokinesisPhenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis by Annie Jacobsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Phenomena is an improvement by leaps and bounds over Annie Jacobsen’s earlier Area 51. Both books detail histories of covert government projects that have otherwise been awash in misinformation, classified projects, and the whiff of the paranormal. Both books are heavily researched and well-cited, benefiting from substantial FOIA requests and interviews conducted by the author herself. But I found a reliance on an off-the-wall account of the Roswell crash harmed the overall credibility and plausibility of the otherwise well-worth-reading Area 51. In contrast, Phenomena avoids overextending into speculation.

Jacobsen has quite the niche, writing meaty tomes about formerly classified military subject matter. At this point, I trust her as a writer and researcher. But even if you had no knowledge of the author, Jacobsen keeps to an open-minded yet grounded approach in recounting the military and intelligence community’s adventures in psychic research; she builds the needed trust in her relative objectivity throughout. This leads to the sort of writing about paranormal subjects that I love: fact-focused, invested in its human subjects but unwilling to blindly accept their claims, and comfortably probing the edges of unusual fields of study. She competently writes about the history of research into extrasensory perception and telekinesis without ever jumping onto the bandwagon of critics or true believers. And the accounts she produces, pulled from formerly confidential reports and verified in a variety of interviews, indicate that something unusual is certainly happening, that there might actually be some form of ESP and TK, even if it’s an unreliable ability that can’t be consistently trained to manifest in just anyone. Jacobsen does not shy away from discussing instances of fraud and failed scientific controls, especially in the civilian side of research, and yet there are moments that defy rational explanation–especially some of the stories revolving around characters like Ingo Swann, Pat Price, and Angela Dellafiora. I’d often read aloud to my wife a shocking story about how one of these remote viewers could, for instance, accurately detail a covert military installation that was so classified even the observer was not initially aware of it. Of course, I’m not observing these events myself, and I think it would be easy for a skeptical reader to suggest that perhaps some of this represents government disinformation efforts past or present, but there are still some wild accounts in here that can’t be confidently explained away. I enjoy reading about paranormal subjects, it’s true, but ESP has always seemed somewhat boring and inconsequential even if it could be determined real; so what if someone can apparently bend spoons when rubbing a finger over them or can sometimes guess a basic shape on a card more often than the standard rate for blind guessing? Furthermore, skeptics have so firmly branded the subject with stigma that I’d accepted hand-waving dismissals of the subject matter as absolute truth without bothering to take a second glance until now. But this book made me interested, both because sometimes these powers produce more fascinating results than would otherwise be expected (some might even say that some of the results appear “miraculous”) and because so many of the characters involved in this research are interesting in and of themselves.

I don’t think this book will get a true believer to question their cobbled-together paranormal beliefs, and I don’t think it will convince a hard-nosed skeptic that ESP (whatever that really represents) might be real, but it’s an engaging text about an unusual field of military study, and if you can set paranormal stigma aside and approach the book with an open mind, I suspect you too will be thrilled, amazed, and curious to know what this all might signify and why exactly the military remained interested in it for so long.

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Just a little ESP

The book I’m primarily reading right now is Phenomena by Annie Jacobsen (who also wrote Area 51, which I found to be well-researched and quite interesting though too much space was devoted to a rather bizarre Roswell theory), and the game I’m primarily playing is the 2017 version of Prey developed by Arkane Studios. Naturally, paranormal phenomena and ESP are on my mind a lot at the moment.

I’ve always really enjoyed reading books and articles or watching shows and movies that involve the paranormal, whether fiction or nonfiction or that in-between spot of heavily produced, heavily spun “documentary” that follows real people and real events while offering very little truth–like your typical ghost investigator show. Like Mulder, I want to believe, but since my teen years I’ve become quite the skeptic, far more a Scully (although as seen recently on this site, some think I’m ignorantly bullheaded about my skepticism, so they might see me as more of a Doggett). Still, while I take it all with a grain of salt, I’ve never stopped casually exploring the subject. Not a hobby or a passion, just a casual interest. I like when I find sources that also seem to love the collection of subjects that fall into the general category of “paranormal” but approach it with skepticism, like Jacobsen or the ever-delightful folks behind The Spooktator (which I am quite far behind on at this point).

All that said, it’s kind of funny that my attention is currently focused on ESP. I’ve never been that interested in this particular topic. I’ve never looked that closely; the most intriguing claims of lab results never seem that remarkable to me, even if I were to accept them outright. But I don’t know enough about the subject to really have that strong of an opinion. I do know that I have no time or patience for mediums and the like that grew out of the spiritualism movement; so many have been proven charlatans, and even those who genuinely believe what they are doing can’t offer anything all that convincing to me.

Set all that aside, though. The big reason that I don’t really care about ESP one way or the other is that it’s one of those things that doesn’t seem to make much of a big impact on the world. Let’s say that people can exhibit extrasensory perception, and that this means that they can sometimes correctly identify what someone else is thinking. What does this mean? Not a whole lot. It doesn’t seem like a very consistent or reliable ability. The over-the-top telekinetic powers of movies or games are obviously not realistic. So what if you can sometimes correctly intuit the symbol on a card at a rate that is slightly higher than expected for someone purely guessing? It doesn’t reshape how anyone thinks about the world. And I imagine that we’d eventually be able to come up with a theory for how ESP operates, if it were seriously documented, and I’m not sure that theory would require a radical reconception of our understanding of the natural world.

In contrast, what if extraterrestrial life not only existed, but it had evolved into intelligent, technologically advanced cultures that surreptitiously visited and monitored Earth? That could require a radical new understanding of our place in the universe and of our own limitations as humans. Perhaps an anthropocentric view of the world just couldn’t be preserved any further. Perhaps, to understand how the aliens could travel such vast distances and maneuver and hide their craft in such unique ways, we would see dramatic shifts in physics. It seems like a big deal, in a way that correctly predicting card faces isn’t.

Similarly, if ghosts are real, or if near-death experiences actually show glimpses of an afterlife, or if reincarnation accounts were verified beyond any doubt, then that would be proof of life after death. That would be a remarkable thing! We might never understand anything about what consciousness is like after death. But we would have an assurance that there is more than what happens in this life, and that we continue on somehow. I think this would be an amazing reassurance to the vast majority of people. In my experience, even religious people have moments of doubt, so even for those with an established faith, this could give peace of mind. It could also upturn some religious beliefs–what are Christians supposed to do if reincarnation was an undeniable reality? For that matter, for those who tend to focus on the material, provable nature of reality, how do you react to that? That there is something larger and perhaps unobservable or immeasurable that we will all some day experience but that can’t be objectively analyzed? If you’ve spent your life as a hardened atheist, what does this news mean to you? At the least, it would seem like more people would have to seriously concede the limits of what the scientific method can reveal about our world, even as those who are fervently religious might face another challenge to their literalist adherence to a particular faith tradition.

Even the capture and display of a cryptid could be more interesting, if only because you’ve presented an animal that might not really fit in with a particular ecology, or that might seem impossible to exist in a particular habitat without detection for so long. I like animals. A new, strange animal would just be cool. And it would be something that you could reach out and touch, so to speak.

So that’s why I’ve never been overly interested in ESP, psychic precognition or retrocognition, telepathy, psychokinetics, or anything else like that. Even if some of these things could be established as undeniably real, they would seem mere oddities to me, rather than signifiers of something world-shattering. That said, psionic powers in video games are another thing entirely. PreyBioshockMass Effect, and Deus Ex have all delighted me with the powers on display. And while the Force comes with its own mythology and fantasy science source, the central unseen power of the Star Wars universe has resulted in entertaining and intriguing abilities in movies, shows, games, books, comics, and more. These over-the-top powers, and their sci-fi explanations, certainly would leave more of an impression.


Anyway, I’m sure I’ll post reviews of Phenomena and Prey on this site when I’m done with them. For what it’s worth, I’m enjoying them both rather a lot so far! And as a final thought, if you have any suggestions on books or documentaries that explore ESP with a skeptical bent (or that at least show something more restrained than breathless credulity), consider sending them my way. I wouldn’t mind taking a more serious look at the history of parapsychological study of this field.

Review: The 37th Parallel

UPDATE: Chuck Zukowski appears to have responded to my post. You can see the comment at the bottom of this post. If it’s really him, he is really quite angry at my characterization of him. He also rightly points out that I do not have a science background (hopefully that’s clear to any regular readers). I’m not going to change my review. I’m also going to leave the comment up; it’s more ranting than argument, but I do feel the guy deserves the space to defend himself. I would prefer that people who put themselves in the public eye just avoid seeking out commentary from random people on the Internet, but I can’t dictate what people do with their free time.

The biggest takeaway from the comment, for me, is that the individual claiming to be Chuck says that Ben Mezrich mischaracterized him. He says that his wife didn’t have two jobs, for instance. If I were Chuck, I’d be furious with Ben for characterizing myself in such a horrible way. I suppose if you read this review now, keep in mind that the depiction of Chuck is far more a fictionalized character than an accurate portrayal. To the extent that this is true, Mezrich has published pseudo-fiction as nonfiction. That goes further than just making up dialogue or using a composite character. It feels a little like character assassination…

The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America's UFO HighwayThe 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America’s UFO Highway by Ben Mezrich

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’d never read anything by Ben Mezrich before. I’d heard of his works, though, if only because of the occasional Hollywood adaptation. I’d seen The Social Network. It was interesting to see that he’d written a book on the paranormal, which I found squirreled away in a corner of my local library a while back. Either this book or the concept of concentrated geographic regions of paranormal activity across America had been discussed in the so-bad-it’s-good “documentary” Hellier, so there was the faintest ring of recognition in the back of my mind when I did come across it. I figured, why not? I’ve read plenty of books and stories and watched plenty of shows with a paranormal bent, so I felt confident that at best, this could be a thoughtful examination of strange phenomenon or perhaps just a quirky character piece, while at worst, it would be some entertaining fluff to occupy some of my down time.

Sadly, for the most part, The 37th Parallel failed to even be entertaining.

There are many reasons why I did not enjoy this read. Some are related to style and narrative, but some are related to its underlying subjects. Frankly, there was quite a bit of overlap between these factors. My central complaint is that the book follows a thoroughly unlikeable and uncompelling outsider who is convinced that he is a crusading hero for the truth–and it never really makes much of an effort to challenge or contradict his beliefs about himself or his investigations. I had never heard of Chuck Zukowski before, but it is clear that the central figure of this narrative is eager for publicity. By way of example: in the book, he finds a little bit of metal at the alleged Roswell crash site, orders some analysis that produces data that would allow for a more conventional explanation, and pushes for a press release and special event to celebrate his findings; he calls out a local news team to interview him about a cattle mutilation case he’s investigating; and when he comes up with his “UFO highway” hypothesis, central to the book but barely present in it, his sister asks, knowing him, “What do you want to do with this? Put out a press release?” A quick Google search shows that he maintains a website; he’s active on Twitter under a handle based off his site name; he turns up for radio and news interviews; and his IMDb page indicates that he’s slowly carved a bit of the paranormal TV racket out for himself, most recently with his own show, Alien Highway. To return focus to his portrayal just within the book’s narrative, Chuck is a gun-nut paranoid obsessive who forces his family to relocate from California to Colorado so he can go from a full-time job in microchips to a part-time freelance position closer to some of the more interesting paranormal activity he’s gotten reports about. He follows a quest for glory to become a Reserve Sheriff’s Deputy, but his need for publicity ultimately puts him in opposition with his department, and he’s fired from that volunteer role. Once out of the volunteer job, he makes no effort to go back to full-time work, instead focusing more on his hobby of hunting UFOs and investigating cattle mutilations. In the meantime, his wife has to hold down two jobs just to cover the bills. He overspends on bullshit technology for his investigations, because just about every middle-aged white male paranormal investigator conflates lots of gadgets with doing science. While he still had a decent income, he would try to bribe his wife with appliance upgrades and kitchen remodeling to get her over the frustration of his overspending (in other words, he spent even more on “woman stuff” to try to pacify his wife over spending too much). He seems anxious about his wife not understanding his UFO obsession, and he gets frustrated when she doesn’t believe the same nonsense he does, but she’s shown as nothing less than supportive, giving him all this free time to travel across the country and letting him blow through their money even while she’s working double and raising their kids. A highlight of his reckless, selfish behavior is when he reflects on two incidences in which his wife “exploded on him”: one time after maxing out a credit cart on equipment “the same afternoon she’d tried to make a payment on their youngest son’s braces” and another time when he spent $300 on scalpels the morning after their washing machine broke down. If there is a true hero, it’s Tammy, his long-suffering wife, whose main character flaw appears to be an enabler tendency and an unwillingness to demand that he make any sort of sacrifice for his family or even seriously consider the possibility of psychiatric care even as he spirals into paranoid thinking including the belief that he is perpetually tailed by government agents in black SUVs.

There was nothing charming to me about Chuck. He seemed like a bad dad and a bad husband, too obsessed with what he wanted to see to even register how his actions impacted those around him. Maybe that’s an unfair read, but there’s nothing he did for his family (at least in the book) that was truly selfless. Sure, he bought an RV and took them on family trips a lot when the kids were younger–so he could drive to places known for paranormal activity. He even scheduled participation in a volunteer archaeological dig with his wife for his wedding anniversary so that he could learn more about how to conduct physical investigations at field sites.

Chuck also broadcasts a lot of tired, racist beliefs about Native Americans. He believed the Anasazi were in communication with aliens. He reads Indian “sacred and historic” sites as somehow fundamentally connected to the paranormal phenomenon he tracks. For that matter, he does not seem to register that indigenous peoples have been repeatedly displaced. And in the tradition of the classic, “I’m not racist, I have a/an [insert race here] friend,” he even has a “part Native American” friend who drifts in and out of the story for Chuck to use as a tracker, sidekick, and key to get onto indigenous lands.

Mezrich tries to keep us in Chuck’s perspective, only occasionally taking a trip to track someone else’s (typically sympathetic or allied) viewpoint. I suppose he was trying hard to frame Chuck as heroic, or perhaps he just couldn’t think of a better way to humanize him. But his depiction of Chuck is someone with 90% grandiose thinking and 10% halfhearted humility. His acknowledgments only complicate the subject further, as he remarks, “Chuck is certainly one of a kind, and it was impossible not to be inspired by his enthusiasm about what he views as a quest for the ultimate truth, regardless of the consequences” (emphasis added). I’m not sure how to read that aside, other than as an admission by Mezrich that Chuck’s delusional worldview is flawed and lacking in self-awareness. There is nowhere in the text itself that felt like an attempt to be tongue-in-cheek or to seriously engage with Chuck’s thinking.

There are problems outside of Chuck. Another issue for me was the style. The dialogue manufactured to fill in most scenes, to present something closer to a novel than a more removed non-fiction narrative, reads as cliche and stilted. Characters talk like they’re in a bland action movie, rather than like real people. Most of the characters, in fact, are not given the opportunity to be presented as the fully rounded humans they must be in reality, with the bare-bones writing directing most of the energy to Chuck’s delusional thinking and his cattle mutilation investigations. We’re constantly bombarded with exposition, like when Chuck “explains” Roswell to his wife, and actual dramatic tensions are typically skipped over. Yet anyone with even a passing interest in the paranormal is unlikely to uncover any new “facts” here, just the same lukewarm, regurgitated tales with even the most wildly speculative accounts presented as genuine possibilities. On top of all this, Mezrich makes the baffling decision to hop around in time, which had me shuffling between chapters to see whether events were happening before or after what I was currently reading; it didn’t build to anything, and a standard timeline would have only brought clarity, so it’s a truly puzzling choice.

A final failing of the book is its failure to wrestle with the nature of the investigations here. Chuck wants to be viewed as engaging in science, and Mezrich never challenges this. It’s a common failing of paranormal narratives; the story only works if you suspend your disbelief, so better not point out the shortcomings in that story. Chiefly, Chuck thinks it’s science to go to cattle mutilation sites days or weeks later, interview the ranch owners, take samples from the corpses, and record observations about the sites. He eventually finds a veterinary school that will autopsy the corpses, resulting only in a continued refrain that the cause of death cannot be explained. Chuck apparently has no interest in actually investigating what “normal” animal deaths are like. Despite there being fields of study into decomposition, Chuck remains focused only on those cases that are called in. Yes, they present interesting mysteries, but you’re never going to get an answer if you keep poking at the things that can’t be explained with the tools you have. His investigations could provide interesting data points in aggregate, but he’s looking for proof of a particular worldview rather than trying to understand what’s happening. Unknowns are, to him, proof of his beliefs, rather than gaps in the path to better understanding. His apparent lack of interest in seriously examining how animals die and how they decay means that he can’t seriously rule out other results. He’s spent years doing this and has never found anything conclusive, but he thinks the big breakthrough will be through continuing to focus only on the unexplained. In other words, he’s trying to be an expert without bothering with the basics. He’s not trained as a scientist, and he seems to view forensic investigations for a police case as interchangeable with the scientific method.

Chuck’s fixation on the outlier cases of animal deaths foreshadows his “UFO highway” hypothesis. You see, he gradually filled a map of the US with pins showing where paranormal events occurred. One night, he took down all the pins and restored only pins that correlated with “his recent [investigations of] mutilations,” “his own UFO investigations,” and MUFON files sent to him by his sister where the “events . . . could be corroborated by multiple witnesses, or that had enough circumstantial evidence for him to consider them verified.” Using a highly subjective process reliant upon his own experience and judgment, he produced a band of cases that were concentrated between the 36th and 38th parallel. It’s sort of an interesting coincidence, but when you start with the factors he used, it’s not weird that there would be some sort of geographically contained result. He even claims that the “only big hitter that’s missing” is his sacred Roswell, but attempts to explain this by saying that if the flying saucer that crashed had come from Kenneth Arnold’s Mount Rainier sighting, it would have to pass the band to get to Roswell. He does not seem to register that Mount Rainier, too, is outside of his predetermined band, and so the grandfather of UFO sightings would be excluded as well. And he outright ignores the many, many, many UFO sightings throughout the US and, for that matter, the world that don’t fit within this geographic band. Combating anecdotes with anecdotes is counterproductive, but I could point to famous UFO cases like the 1967 Malmstrom Air Force Base incident or the 1950 Mariana UFO video or the 1980 Rendlesham Forest incident, not to mention the numerous sighting reports from throughout the nation going into organizations like MUFON, or the sightings that have given rise to serious investigations by other countries that don’t even lie across this latitude (e.g., Brazil, Canada, France, and the UK). In other words, even without careful scrutiny, this hypothesis just flies in the face of reason, demanding that we give greater weight to reports verified by one man operating in one region of the country.

With the suggestion of his sister, Chuck then added pins of military bases and those “American Indian sites, both sacred and historic,” that happened to fall within this geographic band–a completely irrelevant data point, and highly selective since he’s not adding all the bases and indigenous communities or archaeological sites outside of that band. They ended up with a lot of pins on a narrow band of a map after this highly guided approach, arriving at a predetermined outcome. His sister even concedes, “Some of this has got to be coincidence. Some of it is probably related to the reporting mechanisms. Where we’re situated is informing the kind of reports we see, and the ones we can verify.” Yet still, these faithful believers choose to accept the findings because the map looks significant somehow. It’s a small matter to them that they can’t determine how or why it’s significant.

It does seem that some in the paranormal community have latched onto this. I’m not surprised. True believers engage in so much magical thinking and confirmation bias that anything vaguely interesting or curious gets grafted on to support the colossal, rickety structure of belief that has grown to define their worldviews. But it is nonetheless frustrating to see, and Mezrich, who appears to otherwise be a “mainstream” author writing about “serious” nonfiction subjects, should not have presented such a belief set without seriously engaging with and challenging it. Yes, perhaps it was obvious to Mezrich that these ideas should not be taken seriously, and perhaps he should be able to trust a reader to engage critically with a work. But all too often, that will not happen. His use of heavy redaction on the last page, to suggest that Chuck finally found some truly otherworldly occurrence that confirmed his beliefs, is an especially awful example of how he put flimsy beliefs ahead of rigorous thinking. I’m disappointed all around.

Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Underground Railroad is grim, surreal, fantastical, and darkly satirical. It also rings true–as the acknowledgments attest, this is a fictional narrative built from a tradition of real stories from escaped slaves, from oral histories and the exemplary works of that antebellum literary genre. Its first sections are especially brutal to work through, as the violence and casual disregard for humanity of a slave-holding plantation are described in gruesome detail. The novel quickly deviates into moments of reality-straining fantasy, though, with a literal Underground Railroad, a skyscraper in South Carolina, and a hodgepodge mix of attitudes/philosophies/policies regarding race and labor that feel vaguely anachronistic when encountered from state to state within a narrative period of months. It’s a jarring experience, and it encouraged me to think of the book as not just pseudo-historical fiction but allegory for the contemporary systemic racism and injustice in America, and for continued racist policies post-slavery like black codes in the Jim Crow South or America’s flirtation with eugenics prior to the Second World War. While radically different in style and tone, the subject matter and surreal approach to a fictional slave narrative invites positive comparison to Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canda.

It took me a while to read this because it was hard to read. Not the writing, and not for lack of interest in the characters (and speaking of, the escaped slave protagonist held my sympathy and interest, but I had a dark fascination with the slave hunter antagonist with his bounty hunter iconography and bizarre black-boy sidekick). The sheer brutality and suffering and often a deep sense of hopelessness and despair, with only the faintest glimmer of hope and with so many senselessly tragic endings, made this very challenging to continue to engage with. It was worth it.

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Review: Children of the Jedi

Children of the Jedi (Star Wars: The Callista Trilogy, #1)Children of the Jedi by Barbara Hambly

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

From what I gather, people typically love or hate this book. In a book in which Luke falls in love after entering into a remote relationship conducted through computer chats with a dead person, I think it’s reasonable to expect that it would be polarizing. My own feelings about it did not reach either extreme, however.

There were things I liked. I liked this depiction of Leia as a strong statesman who has not fully pursued her latent Force abilities, and who is haunted by her witnessing of the destruction of Alderaan. I liked the treatment of the Death Star architect war criminals, and Leia’s complicated feelings on that subject. I liked the fleshing out of Elder Houses and some of Leia’s background in Alderaanian royalty (though I like what the new canon has done with this far more). I liked C-3PO’s role in the plot, and I liked that he wasn’t treated solely as comic relief or an afterthought; I find that I really like whenever someone finds something for Threepio to do in a story. I liked some of the weird science philosophy musings on the nature of sentience and the division between synthetic and organic intelligences, but I didn’t expect a Star Wars story to ask heavy questions about the nature of consciousness and what defines a person as distinct, or whether someone can be replicated in a move from organic to robotic (which the book cutely distills to a question of identity as to whether someone might be “another Corellian of the same name”). I similarly liked Hambly’s effort to wrangle with the limitations of the Force when it came to mechanicals. And I liked the new alien races and many of the new characters–I especially loved the nature-loving ex-stormtrooper Triv Pothman and the Force Ghost of former Jedi adventurer Callista.

There were also things I did not like. I did not like the pacing of the book, and the tone often felt very not-Star Wars, whatever that means exactly. It often was slow, reflective, and grounded. For a Star Wars story, I found these elements to be somewhat boring. Also, Luke is really wrung through over the course of the story; in an effort to limit his god-tier Force powers, the narrative breaks him down physically and mentally. He acts like a heroic Jedi throughout, though torn by his personal connections (in other words, he acts like Luke). But it is exhausting to read how exhausted he gets, how much pain he experiences. He is in perpetual excruciating pain and operating with pretty extreme sleep deprivation for much of the book. It’s a bit much, but I get that authors often struggled with how to use Jedi Master Luke. I similarly did not care for his relationship with Callista (and definitely prefer that Luke ends up with Mara, who is a more interesting partner for him). They fell in love too fast and with too little reason. How she is brought back to life is also rather morally questionable. And while R2-D2 gets to be useful, I really hate how he almost kills Han and Leia (even if he didn’t have control of himself at the time).

There are other things that I don’t feel strongly about. Han and Chewie were more support characters, but they were portrayed accurately. The battle moon that serves as the central threat of the novel is just a Death Star Lite, but at least it’s not another literal Death Star. The supporting threat of a cyborg augmentation that allows a Force-user to control droids seemed wildly bizarre to me. The Ismarens would have been more interesting villains if more time had been spent on them, although Roganda, calculating and bitter former concubine of Palpatine, felt at least like a unique sort of threat. There are a lot of tropes that don’t feel like they should be in a Star Wars story, like what amounts to a minor zombie threat, although I recognize that zombies (or something similar) have ended up in use in many Star Wars stories, so it’s hard for me to identify what exactly felt off about it. Mara Jade and Lando Calrissian have insignificant cameo appearances, and they’re not really out of character but they don’t really have the chance to act in character, either. Finally, the novel is necessarily dated by its release before the prequel trilogy, so a lot of the details about an enclave of Jedi children, and the apparently accepted presence of Jedi families, no longer make a lot of sense, even though I could accept the broad idea that Jedi would care for Force-strong younglings.

I liked the writing and the weirdness, even though I didn’t like how everything worked as a Star Wars story about the Big Three heroes of the original trilogy. I’d be interested in reading non-Star Wars works by Hambly. I don’t regret reading this book, and it’s definitely not the worst Star Wars book I’ve read. On the other hand, I wouldn’t join with those who love it in recommending it to others. It was, if nothing else, an interesting experience.