There is of course a chapter on Comic Sans.

Just My Type: A Book About FontsJust My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield

The most I can say about fonts is that I can recognize Courier New 12, and now I know why: Because it was the standard font for the IBM Selectric ball, the Selectric being the typewriter I learned on in high school. (Mrs. Brown. Boy was she tough. You typed fast, fine, but you’d better have typed accurately, too, or she’d dress you down right there in class.).

Simon Garfield, on the other hand, is in love with typefaces, and here presents a comprehensive and believe it or not pretty amusing history of same. Some of his descriptions are lyrical

Doves type is most easily recognized by its ample space between letters, a y that descends without a curl, a ligature connecting c and t, and the bottom bowl of its g set at an angle, giving it a sense of motion, like a helicopter tilting at take-off.

There is of course a chapter on Comic Sans, although I have to stay that after reading it I still don’t understand the Univers[al] loathing for it. There is a marvelous chapter on the ampersand

Even in its more basic modern form, the ampersand is far more than abbreviation; its creativity provides a heartening reminder of the continuing impact of the quill in type design, and it signifies more than just a link. It also signifies permanence, not least to a professional partnership; Dean & Deluca are clearly in it for the long haul, as are Ben & Jerry’s, Marks & Spencer and the magazines House & Garden and Town & Country. But Simon and Garfunkel? No wonder they kept splitting up. Tom and Jerry? Of course they hate each other.

and there is continuing commentary on Helvetica, including an hilarious story about a guy who tried to live a day without it

His troubles began as soon as he climbed out of bed. Most of his clothes had washing instructions in Helvetica, and he struggled to find something that didn’t; he settled eventually, on an old T-shirt and army fatigues. For breakfast he had Japanese tea and some fruit, foregoing his usual yogurt (Helvetica label).

and an equally hilarious chapter on the worst fonts in the world

#8 Ecofont
The software takes Arial, Verdana, Times New Roman and prints them as if they had been attacked by moths.

and Garfield really, really hated the 2012 Olympic font

…maybe it’s an attempt to appear hip and down with the kids–it looks a little like the sort of tagging one might see in 1980s graffiti.

A wonderfully produced book with many fun illustrations, hundreds of typefaces incorporated within the text, and one of the world’s greatest prefatory essays. Oh, and love the endpapers, A Periodic Table of Typefaces.

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I have no words to speak of war.

Here, BulletHere, Bullet by Brian Turner

A series of poems about the author’s experiences as a soldier in Iraq, which together sum up the price of war and this war in particular.

‘In the Leupold Scope,’ where the narrator is looking through a spotting scope at a woman hanging laundry

She is dressing the dead

The narrator, by inference, just hasn’t shot the people who will wear those clothes yet.

In ‘AB Negative (The Surgeon’s Poem)’, a wounded soldier dies on her way to Germany

a way of dealing with the fact
that Thalia Fields is gone, long gone,
about as far from Mississippi
as she can get, ten thousand feet above Iraq
with a blanket draped over her body
and an exhausted surgeon in tears…

In ‘2000 lbs.’ Turner writes of a suicide bombing in Mosul using multiple viewpoints, beginning with the bomber

his thumb trembling over the button.”

followed by a taxi driver

…he regrets how so much can go wrong in a life,
how easily the years slip by…

a National Guardsman

…it’s just as well his eardrums ruptured
because it lends the world a certain calm…

and others, coming full circle back to the bomber

who may have invoked the Prophet’s name,
or not…

‘2000 lbs.’ is better at showing you what a suicide bombing is like than any photograph or video you ever saw.

In “Night in Blue’ Turner says

I have no words to speak of war.

You may beg to differ when you read this book.

One cranky note, because you know that’s how I roll: Here, Bullet is all free verse, with nary a sonnet or even any blank verse (Yes, I scanned some.) to be found. What ever happened to form in poetry?

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I think what grabs so hard in this book is that the good guys really are good guys, especially Stark.

If I Should Die (Joseph Stark)If I Should Die by Matthew Frank

One of my favorite reads of 2014.

Joseph Stark serves in the Territorial Army in the sandboxes of both Iraq and Afganistan and returns home wounded (and how is in itself is a long, slow and positively delicious reveal). Honorably discharged as physically unfit for duty, he becomes a constable in training for the CID in Greenwich. His first case begins as a series of vicious muggings of the homeless, and one of the things I loved about this plot is that the cops know immediately whodunnit. Cops usually do, in fact real police work isn’t much of a mystery, but don’t think for one moment that that fact makes this narrative any less absorbing. They know, all right, but they can’t prove it at first, not even with all the cell phone cameras of modern life and CCTV-laden public spaces of the UK at their disposal. Then the most recent victim dies, and now they are looking for murderers. The tension amps up excruciatingly, especially when the perps escalate their offenses while infuriatingly keep slipping through the grip of the police.

In the meantime Stark is going through physical and psychological rehab (with the best shrink character I’ve ever read), he is exacerbating his healing by acting as if he can chase down perps like any healthy copper, the Army keeps calling with steadily increasing exasperation about his last action in the field, he’s falling in love with his hydrotherapist, and his DS is the nosiest, most prying detective living. I would have popped her one at least once, superior or no, but then I’m not a good soldier, and Stark is the very definition of one.

I think what grabs so hard in this book is that the good guys really are good guys, especially Stark. He was an exemplary soldier and he’s going to be an exemplary CID detective, once he gets over his absolute refusal to ask for help when he needs it, the idiot (one of the nicer things his DS calls him). Detective Sergeant Fran Millhaven is just one of the best women copper characters you’ll ever meet between the covers of a book, and DCI Groombridge is a boss to be admired and emulated. The action scenes, too, are terrific. Stark is not your ordinary, everyday soldier. He was very, very good at what he did, and there is a riveting scene where he could really have put the hurt on a perp and consciously, coolly decides not to because of a conversation he had with Groombridge about the difference between violence in the field against the enemy and violence at home against a suspect. In that moment he crosses over from soldier to CID detective. It is beautiful to behold. (And you’ll love the cane.) Given recent headlines here at home, this book ought to be required reading for every cop in the USA before they’re allowed to carry a weapon.

But Stark is the heart of this narrative. I am so looking forward to meeting him again.

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Flying Is Basic Transportation to Alaskans

In Inside the Sky, Langewiesche (son of the author of Stick and Rudder) explores the art and craft of flight in first person from the left seat, the view, aviation history, banking, accidents, weather, the FAA, and the tower. “Flying at its best is a way of thinking,” he writes. “Because of that, once having left the earth’s surface, people never again quite return to it.”

On banking, he illustrates an integral movement of flight by using analogies anyone can understand

The bank is a condition of tilted wings, and the turn is the change in the direction which results. The connection between the two is inexorable: The airplane must bank to turn, and when it is banked it must turn…The miraculous part of the maneuver is that the turn has an important balancing effect on the bank that causes it. The same effect, in cruder form, steadies cars on banked roadways, and bobsleds on the vertical walls of icy tracks. The difference in airplanes is that as the bank angle increases, the turn also quickens and by doing so automatically delivers a balance that is perfect. Bicycles react similarly: When they start to topple, they turn and thereby keep themselves up. Airplanes are even steadier. They operate in three-dimensional space and do not rely on tires to keep from sliding to the side They will never capsize no matter how steeply they are banked.

On aviation history

The first detailed account of the Wrights’ success appeared not in the New York Times or the Scientific American, but in Gleanings in Bee Culture, a little magazine for beekeepers published in Medina, Ohio.

I immediately cut-and-pasted that into an email to Laurie King, saying “Perhaps Holmes subscribes?”

On the crash of a Boeing 747 one night in Bombay

I refuse to turn away from the thought that the airplane’s lights illuminated the ocean’s surface at the last instant that the surface appeared to surge at the airplane from somewhere above, and that the flight engineer flinched as the water exploded through the cockpit. It does not help to be polite about these details. The tangible consequence of any serious failure in flight can be just such an unstoppable insider’s view.

I think all good pilots are unflinching realists.

Langiwiesche the pilot tests his skills by flying through storms. On purpose.

The secret of good storm flying is to stay low, in slow and vulnerable airplanes, and to resist the pursuit of performance. By the standards of practical transportation, therefore, it is an artificial problem. Mother weather lies within the first 20,000 feet of the ground, where gravity compresses the atmospheric mass into a dense soup, and above which the airlines for economic reasons as well as safety and comfort must climb and cruise. Engineers have designed away the storms, leaving professional pilots to fret about the kind of unimportant turbulence that startles their most anxious passengers.

That is the allure of storm flying. There is no graduation from the experience, only an end to each flight. The techniques we practice involve a certain calmness under pressure.

Good for Langewiesche (and Sullenberger, who spent his off-time flying gliders). I’m happy at 39,000 feet, myself, at least in the big planes where I don’t know the pilots.

He gives us a vest-pocket history of meteorology

Pity the forecasters. Of all the sciences, theirs is the most public. Here is a short version of its evolution. Emergence from the sea came first, followed by speech, followed by talk about the weather. Then came sacrificial rites, followed by the idea that peasants might pay a tithe to priests to keep the sky in order. Aristotle…wrote Meteorologica, the first unified weather theory, around 340 BC. Two thousand years later Rene Descartes doubted his methods and applied new rigor to the ignoring of God…Credit Galileo with the thermometer, his student Torricelli with the barometer, and French intellectuals in general with the discovery that atmospheric pressure rises and falls with weather and altitude. Acknowledge various Europeans for their wind and humidity instruments, for their discoveries in physics, then jump to the mid-1800s, to places like Ohio, where the telegraph suddenly allowed news about the weather to travel faster than the weather itself.

National governments now set up weather services to collect observations and issue forecasts. At last a modern relationship could develop between the weather wizards and the public they served. It was a terrible shock…

I am reminded of Doris Kearns Godwin’s Team of Rivals, where Lincoln has hired all the men who ran against him for office, all of whom are doing their level best to stick it to him in one way or another. He would have been well justified in blasting the hair back on any or all of them, but the only man in his administration he looses his temper with is…the Army meteorologist.

In chapter 6, “Slam and Jam,” he writes about air traffic controllers, and is alarming and reassuring by turns

On a mechanical level, the most pressing issue that controllers face is a surge in air traffic without a commensurate expansion of runway availability.”

but then concludes

The resulting complications are measure in wasted fuel, money, and time — but not in lives lost or even in levels of danger.

Reassuring. Inside the Sky ends with a chapter on the 1996 Valujet crash in Florida, a calm examination of the cascading series of errors that cause it. The law of unintended consequences rules.

In conclusion, Langewiesche writes

Flight’s greatest gift is to let us look around, and when we do we discover that the world is larger than we have been told and that our wings have helped to make it so.

I’m an Alaskan, born and bred. I like to say I was on a plane before I was in a car, which is an exaggeration but not by much. Flying is basic transportation to Alaskans. I was raised in Seldovia, a tiny village on the south shore of Kachemak Bay. There is no road.

This forced familiarity with flight can lead non-pilots to regard small planes as nothing more than taxies. This book shows us otherwise.

Alert readers will recognize Langewiesche’s name from the acknowledgements page of Blindfold Game. His The Outlaw Sea greatly informed the plot of my novel.

The evil Wood is stirring…

UprootedUprooted by Naomi Novik

Poor Agnieszka, she’s such a klutz, but at least everyone knows that the wizard who lives up the valley won’t choose her for his ten-year tribute. Until he does, and away she goes to live with the Dragon in his tower. The evil Wood is stirring, sending noxious poisons and vicious beasts into the villages to destroy crops and herds and kill residents. It becomes apparent that the Dragon is capable of fighting only a holding action against it, and then Agnieszka’s unsuspected talents begin to manifest themselves, bringing with them a hope of victory.

The best fantasy novels use their genre to echo events in the present day, and there is a lot going on here, nature versus technology, tradition versus innovation, environmental degradation disguised as murderous demons. Novik makes the villain credible and understandable and even sympathetic, and as much sinned against as sinning. The battle scenes went on too long but what the heck, you can skim those. This is a fully realized world, with a love story that is delightfully under the top, where the reveals make total sense within the construction of the plot–Novik never cheats–and the ending is sheer perfection. Recommended.

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Let’s go out and play.

“What drew me to the topic of space exploration was not the heroics and adventure stories,” Roach writes in her introduction of Packing for Mars, “but the very human and sometimes absurd struggles behind them.” and adds at the end of her introduction, “Space doesn’t just encompass the sublime and the ridiculous. It erases the line between.”

I’ve read a lot of first-hand accounts of the space race for research for my science fiction novels (now available as e-books, Second Star, A Handful of Stars and Red Planet Run, never miss an opportunity for self-promotion, that’s me), and I can say unequivocally that Roach is dead on about the sublime and the ridiculous. I’ll never forget the story of Gus Grissom absolutely refusing to take a dump the entire three days he was on orbit because he. would. not. poop. into a plastic bag and then massage stuff into the result and store it for the groundside docs to examine when he got home. I didn’t blame him one bit.

The point is, though, that all the astronauts, Mercury, Apollo, Space Shuttle, would do anything and everything that was thrown at them no matter how idiotic just for the chance of getting into space. I don’t blame them for that, either.

Here in one book Roach has assembled many of the best human stories to come out of our space program, astronaut selection, motion sickness, the Three Dolphin Club, going to the bathroom, and in the last chapter, titled “Is Mars Worth It?” answers her own question with the red shift limit best defense of funding space exploration and colonization I’ve ever read:

The nobility of the human spirit grows harder for me to believe in. War, zealotry, greed, malls, narcissism. I see a backhanded nobility in excessive, impractical outlays of cash prompted by nothing loftier than a species joining hands and saying “I bet we can do this.” Yes, the money could be better spent on Earth. But would it? Since when has money saved by government red-lining been spent on education and cancer research? It is always squandered. Let’s squander some on Mars. Let’s go out and play.


*Roach does footnotes as well as Richard Holmes (The Age of Wonder and if you haven’t read it, you should). Sometimes I would turn the page, see a footnote, and read it first.

Some other great reads about the space program:

Chariots for Apollo: The Making of the Lunar Module by Charles Pelligrino and Joshua Stoff. One of the funniest, smartest books you’ll ever read about the Apollo program, and would someone for crissake please bring it back into print already? Or at least Kindle it. Sheesh.

Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins. The best of the astronaut autobiographies, until

Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane. Reviewed on this site here. Roach liked Mullane’s bio, too.

Words to Raise Children By

For Father’s Day, from David Owen’s The First National Bank of Dad:

Children who are read to regularly from early ages develop lifelong skills that can’t be acquired from a VCR or the Disney Channel. They become better listeners and find it easier to pay attention in school. Their vocabularies grow rapidly, and grammar seems less mysterious to them. They don’t immediately lose interest in any idea that is harder to grasp than a television commercial. They develop the patience to follow a complex problem to its solution. They become better writers all by themselves, through their ample powers of imitation.

…Good readers do better in school, score higher on standardized tests…attend better colleges, hold more interesting jobs, write more persuasive legal briefs, make better conversation, and become less and less likely to gripe about being bored…

Most of all, children who grow up immersed in books develop the ability to answer their own questions….Gradually, they acquire a skill shared by the greatest scholars in the world: the ability to educate themselves…

Words to raise children by.