Relief by Execution by Gint Aras: Reflections on Societal Woes from a Different Angle on the Holocaust

Relief by Execution

Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen

by Gint Aras

eARC, 94 pg.
Little Bound Books, 2019

Read: September 21, 2019


This is a short book (long essay), that to really get into would render the reading of the content pointless, so I’ve got to hold back some of what I want to say. The official blurb is a good starting point for a few thoughts I have in reaction to this essay:

Between the years of 1996-1999, Gint Aras lived a hapless bohemian’s life in Linz, Austria. Decades later, a random conversation with a Polish immigrant in a Chicago coffeehouse provokes a question: why didn’t Aras ever visit Mauthausen, or any of the other holocaust sites close to his former home? The answer compels him to visit the concentration camp in the winter of 2017, bringing with him the baggage of a childhood shaped by his family of Lithuanian WWII refugees.

Thus far, I’m on board with it—Aras blends recollections of the visit with glimpses of his past—the racism, the abuse, the ways of thinking that he was raised in, and then applying that to American society. I think this is a solid idea, but not terribly uncommon. What makes this better is the perspective Aras brings to it. Rather than identifying with the inmates, the victims of the holocaust; he puts himself in the shoes of the guards, of the soldiers carrying out the orders that those of us separated by a distance of miles, years and context can’t imagine.

Or, as the blurb concludes:

The result is this meditative inquiry, at once lyrical and piercing, on the nature of ethnic identity, the constructs of race and nation, and the lasting consequences of collective trauma.

It’s this part that I found wanting. The length of this essay didn’t work for me — Aras either spent too much time on things he didn’t properly develop, or he spent too much time talking about things that didn’t add enough value to the essay. Either fully developing things—which would probably take another 50 or so pages (just a guess)—or trimming about half the length to give a tighter, more controlled argument would have made this a stronger piece of writing.

I enjoyed the writing generally, but too often (not really frequently, but not rarely enough) his writing got in the way of what he was trying to do. His style was too elaborate, his vocabulary obfuscated, and he just got in his own way.

Lastly, I think the essay would’ve been better served with more about his actual time in Mauthausen.

In summary, I think this is a great concept, but I couldn’t get behind the execution—often overwritten, and either too short or too long. Still, this is worth your time. You’ll end up thinking about things in a different way, which is always beneficial. It’s a short read. It’s a compelling read. Sure, it’s a problematic read—but the positives outweigh that.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the author via Lori @ TNBBC Publicity in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this.


3 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

BOOK SPOTLIGHT: Robot, Take the Wheel by Jason Torchinsky

Today I’m pleased to welcome the Book Spotlight Tour for Robot, Take the Wheel by Jason Torchinsky. I jumped at the chance when asked if I’d participate in this because: 1. Content I didn’t have to work for at all; 2. It looks like a fun book that I’d like to help get eyeballs on; 3. How often to I get asked to do anything with a non-fiction book?; and 4. Check out the cover — that’s just awesome.

Read the post, enter the giveaway — or don’t wait for fortune to smile on you, go buy the thing!

Book Details:

Book Title: Robot, Take the Wheel: The Road to Autonomous Cars and the Lost Art of Driving by Jason Torchinsky
Publisher: Apollo Publishers
Category: Adult Non-Fiction
Release date: May 7, 2019
Format: Ebook/Hardcover
Length: 207 pages
Content Rating: PG (this book is accessible to everyone)

Book Blurb:

From the witty senior editor of Jalopnik, Gizmodo Media’s acclaimed website devoted to cars, technology, and more, comes a revealing, savvy, and humorous look at self-driving cars.

Self-driving cars sound fantastical and futuristic and yet they’ll soon be on every street in America. Whether it’s Tesla’s Autopilot, Google’s Waymo, Mercedes’s Distronic, or Uber’s 24,000 modified Volvos, companies across industries and throughout the world are developing autonomous cars. Even Apple, not to be outdone, is rumored to be creating its own technology too.

In Robot, Take the Wheel, Jason Torchinsky explores the state of the automotive industry. Through wit and wisdom, he explains why autonomous cars are being made and what the future of automated cars is. Torchinsky encourages us to consider autonomous cars as an entirely new machine, something beyond cars as we understand them today. He considers how we’ll get along with these robots that will take over our cars’ jobs, what they will look like, what sorts of jobs they may do, what we can expect of them, how they should act, ethically, how we can have fun with them, and how we can make sure there’s still a place for those of us who love to drive with manual or automatic transmission.

This unique and highly readable volume is brimming with industry insider information and destined to be a conversation starter. It’s a must-have for car lovers, technology geeks, and everyone who wants to know what’s on the road ahead.

Purchase Links for Robot, Take the Wheel:

Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Indiebound ~ Book Depository

About Jason Torchinsky:

Jason TorchinskyJASON TORCHINSKY is senior editor of Jalopnik, a website devoted to news and opinions about all things automotive. As a writer and artist, he is known for his articles, artworks, talks, and videos about cars, technology, and culture. He has raced cars, wrecked cars, and driven possibly one of the most dangerous cars ever made with the King of Cars on the Emmy-winning Jay Leno’s Garage. He lives in North Carolina.

Connect with the author: Twitter

GIVEAWAY:

Win a print copy of Robot, Take the Wheel (5 winners / open to USA only)
(ends May 31, 2019)

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(if the Rafflecopter script isn’t working, just click here — it’s not as pretty, but it works)

My Favorite 2018 Non-Fiction Reads

Like every single year, I didn’t read as much Non-Fiction as I meant to — but I did read a decent amount, more than I did in 2016-17 combined (he reports with only a hint of defensiveness). These are the best of the bunch.

(in alphabetical order by author)

Lessons From LucyLessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog

by Dave Barry

My original post
So, I figured given the tile and subject that this would be a heavier Dave Barry read, with probably more tears than you anticipate from his books — something along the lines of Marley & Me. I was (thankfully) wrong. It’s sort of self-helpy. It’s a little overly sentimental. I really don’t know if this is Barry’s best — but it’s up there. Lessons From Lucy is, without a doubt, his most mature, thoughtful and touching work (that’s a pretty low bar, I realize — a bar he’s worked hard to keep low, too).

5 Stars

 The War Outside My Window The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865

by Janet E. Croon, ed.

My original post
LeRoy Wiley Gresham was 12 when he started keeping a diary. LIttle did he know at that point that he was about to witness the American Civil War (and all the desolation it would bring to Georgia) and that he was dying (he really didn’t figure that out until the very end). Instead you get an almost day-by-day look at his life — what he does, reads, hears about (re: the War) and feels. It’s history in the raw. You have never read anything like this — it will appeal to the armchair historian in you (particularly if you’ve ever dabbled in being a Civil War buff); it’ll appeal to want an idea what everyday life was like 150 years ago; there’s a medical case study, too — this combination of themes is impossible to find anywhere else. This won’t be the easiest read you come across this year (whatever year it is that you come across it), but it’ll be one of the most compelling.

5 Stars

TimekeepersTimekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time

by Simon Garfield

My original post
I, for one, have never thought that much about my relation to time, my relation to clocks/watches, etc. I know they govern our lives, to an extent that’s troublesome. But where did that come from, how did we get hooked on these things, this concept? These are brief studies/historical looks/contemporary observations — and I’m not selling it too well here (trying to keep it brief). It’s entertainingly written, informative, and thought-provoking. Garfield says this about it:

This is a book about our obsession with time and our desire to beat it. . . The book has but two simple intentions: to tell some illuminating stories, and to ask whether we have all gone completely nuts.

He fulfills his intended goals, making this well worth the read.

4 Stars

Everything is NormalEverything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid

by Sergey Grechishkin

My original post
If you grew up in the 80s or earlier, you were fascinated by Soviet Russia. Period. They were our great potential enemy, and we knew almost nothing about them. And even what we did “know” wasn’t based on all that much. Well, Sergey Grechishkin’s book fixes that (and will help you remember just how much you used to be intrigued by “Evil Empire”). He tells how he grew up in Soviet Russia — just a typical kid in a typical family trying to get by. He tells this story with humor — subtle and overt. It’s a deceptively easy and fun read about some really dark circumstances.

4 Stars

Planet FunnyPlanet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture

by Ken Jennings

My original post
Half of this book is fantastic. The other half is … okay. It’ll make you laugh if nothing else. That might not be a good thing, if you take his point to heart. We’ve gotten to the point now in society that laughter beats honesty, jokes beat insight, and irony is more valued than thoughtful analysis. How did we get here, what does it mean, what do we do about it? The true value of the book may be what it makes you think about after you’re done.

3.5 Stars

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (Audiobook)The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

by Mark Manson, Roger Wayne (Narrator)

My original post
This is an enjoyable, amusing, call to re-examine your priorities and goals. It’s not about ceasing to care about everything (not giving a f^ck), but about being careful what you care about (giving the right f*cks). Manson’s more impressed with himself than he should be, but he’s a clear and clever writer displaying a lot of common sense. Get the audiobook (I almost never say that) — the narration is worth a star by itself (maybe more).

4 Stars

Dear Mr Pop StarDear Mr Pop Star

by Derek & Dave Philpott

My original post
If you read only one book off this list, it should probably be the next one. But if you pick this one, you’ll be happier. This is a collection of correspondence to pop musicians/lyricists picking apart the lyrics, quibbling over the concepts, and generally missing the point. Then we get to read the responses from the musician/act — some play with the joke, some beat it. Sometimes the Philpott portion of the exchange is better, frequently they’re the straight man to someone else. Even if you don’t know the song being discussed, there’s enough to enjoy. Probably one of my Top 3 of the year.

5 Stars

ThemThem: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Hea

by Ben Sasse

My original post
My favorite US Senator tackles the questions of division in our country — and political divisions aren’t the most important, or even the root of the problem. Which is good, because while he might be my favorite, I’m not sure I’d agree with his political solutions. But his examination of the problems we all can see, we all can sense and we all end up exacerbating — and many of his solutions — will ring true. And even when you disagree with him, you’ll appreciate the effort and insight.

5 Stars

Honorable Mention:

Henry: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to AmericaThe Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

by Steven Pinker

I started this at a bad time, just didn’t have the time to devote to it (and the library had a serious list waiting for it, so I couldn’t renew it. But what little I did read, I thoroughly enjoyed and profited from — am very sure it’d have made this post if I could’ve gotten through it. I need to make a point of returning to it.

Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal by Ben Sasse: A Profound and Helpful (and Hopeful) Book I Wish I Could Adequately Discuss

ThemThem: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Hea

by Ben Sasse

Hardcover, 288 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 2018
Read: November 27 – 30, 2018

I really do prefer to come up with my own synopsis/summary, but I was struggling to come up with one without this taking 3-4 times as much space as I usually do for an entire post. So, I’ll just use the Publisher’s:

           Something is wrong. We all know it.

American life expectancy is declining for a third straight year. Birth rates are dropping. Nearly half of us think the other political party isn’t just wrong; they’re evil. We’re the richest country in history, but we’ve never been more pessimistic.

What’s causing the despair?

In Them, bestselling author and U.S. senator Ben Sasse argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, our crisis isn’t really about politics. It’s that we’re so lonely we can’t see straight—and it bubbles out as anger.

Local communities are collapsing. Across the nation, little leagues are disappearing, Rotary clubs are dwindling, and in all likelihood, we don’t know the neighbor two doors down. Work isn’t what we’d hoped: less certainty, few lifelong coworkers, shallow purpose. Stable families and enduring friendships—life’s fundamental pillars—are in statistical freefall.

As traditional tribes of place evaporate, we rally against common enemies so we can feel part of a team. No institutions command widespread public trust, enabling foreign intelligence agencies to use technology to pick the scabs on our toxic divisions. We’re in danger of half of us believing different facts than the other half, and the digital revolution throws gas on the fire.

There’s a path forward—but reversing our decline requires something radical: a rediscovery of real places and human-to-human relationships. Even as technology nudges us to become rootless, Sasse shows how only a recovery of rootedness can heal our lonely souls.

America wants you to be happy, but more urgently, America needs you to love your neighbor and connect with your community. Fixing what’s wrong with the country depends on it.

Now, a lot of people are talking about/writing about negative tweets, hostility between parties, loss of civility, etc. in our contemporary culture. But most of them are discussing symptoms of something deeper — and addressing the symptoms isn’t going to help much. Sasse wants to focus on the underlying issues and spends a lot of time talking about them before describing how he best thinks we can take care of them (and the symptoms).

I am not entirely convinced that he’s diagnosing the problems correctly — but he’s as close as I’ve seen. In short, we’ve stopped seeing our fellow Americans as countrymen that need to be convinced and compromised with, instead as evil opponents that need to be defeated and humiliated. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking politics, social policy, or people who like a TV show you don’t. The loss of civility, decency and humility in our culture is a clear and present danger to our union.

I’ve got a strong, strong desire to spend a week or two posting about this book — going through it a chapter at a time. But this isn’t that kind of blog — and I just don’t have that kind of time. There are places for that sort of conversation, this isn’t one of them. The books thought-provoking, inspiring, discouraging, and entertaining — not usually at the same time, but frequently within a couple of pages. I took pages of notes — really. Some of them just because I liked his phrasing. Some because I wanted to spend some time thinking about what he said, or doing follow-up reading, Some because I thought he nailed the idea.

Now, while Sasse goes to great pains to keep the book a-political (at least when it comes to specific policies), he correctly sees that politics is one of the main ways we’re separating ourselves from one another — or are being separated by them. So he talks about some of the ways that’s happening, and because he’s more familiar with the antics of the Right, he focuses primarily on them (also, it’ll give him more credibility to beat up his “own” team than the other guys). There are some Republicans that he cites favorably, and some Democrats that he puts in negative light — but primarily, Democrats come out of his book looking a lot better than his fellow Republicans do. I liked that a lot. If nothing else, it shows that Sasse’s willing to practice a lot of what he preaches (maybe all of it, I don’t know).

Sasse writes with conviction and compassion, humor and wisdom, even if (maybe especially if) you disagree with his politics, he’ll win you over with his common-sense realism. Some of his proposed solutions seem very pie-in-the-sky, and those are my favorites. Some of them seem more likely to succeed, but either way, just people talking and thinking about them is a step in the right direction. And I can’t help but imagine just that would be enough to satisfy Sasse. Read this book. Get others to read it. Talk about it.

—–

5 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

Planet Funny by Ken Jennings: Chortling Towards Bethlehem? or We Are Amusing Ourselves to Death

Planet FunnyPlanet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture

by Ken Jennings

Hardcover, 320 pg.
Scribner, 2018
Read: June 21 – July 6, 2018
This is going to be much shorter — and much more vague –than it should have been, because I was in a rush to get out the door on the day I took this back to the library and therefore forgot to take my notes out of the book. Which is a crying shame because I can’t cite some of my favorite lines (on the other hand, I don’t have to pick from my favorites). I’m actually pretty annoyed with myself because of this — I spent time on those notes.

I’m going to try to save a little time here and just copy the Publisher’s synopsis:

           From the brilliantly witty and exuberant New York Times bestselling author Ken Jennings, a history of humor—from fart jokes on clay Sumerian tablets all the way up to the latest Twitter gags and Facebook memes—that tells the story of how comedy came to rule the modern world.

For millennia of human history, the future belonged to the strong. To the parent who could kill the most animals with sticks and to the child who could survive the winter or the epidemic. When the Industrial Revolution came, masters of business efficiency prospered instead, and after that we placed our hope in scientific visionaries. Today, in a clear sign of evolution totally sliding off the rails, our most coveted trait is not strength or productivity or even innovation, but being funny. Yes, funniness.

Consider: presidential candidates now have to prepare funny “zingers” for debates. Newspaper headlines and church marquees, once fairly staid affairs, must now be “clever,” stuffed with puns and winks. Airline safety tutorials—those terrifying laminated cards about the possibilities of fire, explosion, depressurization, and drowning—have been replaced by joke-filled videos with multimillion-dollar budgets and dance routines.

In Planet Funny, Ken Jennings explores this brave new comedic world and what it means—or doesn’t—to be funny in it now. Tracing the evolution of humor from the caveman days to the bawdy middle-class antics of Chaucer to Monty Python’s game-changing silliness to the fast-paced meta-humor of The Simpsons, Jennings explains how we built our humor-saturated modern age, where lots of us get our news from comedy shows and a comic figure can even be elected President of the United States purely on showmanship. Entertaining, astounding, and completely head-scratching, Planet Funny is a full taxonomy of what spawned and defines the modern sense of humor.

In short, Jennings is writing about the way that humor — the entertainment culture in general, really, but largely through humor — has taken over the cultural discourse in this country, so much so that you can’t make a serious point about anything anymore without injecting a smile or a laugh. This could be subtitled, Neil Postman was right. Jennings looks at this phenomenon through a historical lens (mostly over the last century) and a contemporary lens — analyzing and commenting on both.

The initial chapters on defining humor, the history of humor and academic humor studies are probably the best part of the book — not just because of their scope and subject matter, but because how Jennings is able to be amusing and insightful while informing. (although the amusing part is problematic given the thesis of the book). I enjoyed learning about the use of humor in the 20th Century — who doesn’t associate the two? I don’t remember a time when the best advertisements/commercials weren’t the funniest (other than things like the crying Native American anti-litter AdCouncil stuff). But there was actually a time when that was looked down on? Who knew?

I also particularly liked the history of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and then pivoting that into a look on the way even entertainment changed in the last few decades because of the funny-ification of all things. Jennings gives a pretty decent defense of Alanis’ “Ironic” (while enjoying a few shots at it, too) — and the ensuing discussion of Irony the cultural waves embracing and shying away from Irony, Enjoying things Ironically, and a need for sincerity was excellent.

Politics, obviously, has fallen prey to this comedy-take over as well. From Nixon shocking everyone by showing up on Laugh-In to Clinton (pre-presidential candidate) on The Tonight Show to then-candidate on The Arsenio Hall show to every political player doing Late Night shows. Obama appearing on Maron’s podcast and Between Two Ferns (crediting that appearance with saving ObamaCare?) and onto the entire Trump campaign. At this point, the book got derailed — I think — by getting too political. If Jennings had kept it to Trump’s embracing/exploiting the comedy takeover, I probably would have enjoyed it — but he spent too much on Trump’s politics (while having ignored Nixon’s, Clinton’s, Obama’s), enough to turn off even Never-Trump types.

I’m pretty sure that the book was almost complete about the time that Louis CK’s career was felled by allegations of sexual misconduct — which is a shame, because Jennings had to go back and water-down a lot of insightful comments from Louis CK by saying something about the allegations while quoting the comedian. At the same time, it’s good that the book wasn’t completed and/or released without the chance to distance the man from the points used — otherwise I think Jennings would’ve had to spend too much time defending the use of those quotations.

I think Jennings lost his way in the last chapter and a half or so — and I lost a lot of my appreciation for the book as a whole at that point. On the whole, it’s insightful writing, peppered with a good amount of analysis, research, interviews, and laughs — outside of his weekly trivia newsletters, I haven’t read Jennings and he really impressed me here. In short, it’s a fun book, a thought-provoking book, and one that should get more attention and discussion than it is. I may quibble a bit with some of the details, but I think on the whole Jennings is on to something here — and I fear that it’s something that not enough people are going to take seriously until it’s too late.

—–

3.5 Stars2018 Library Love Challenge

Everything is Normal by Sergey Grechishkin

Everything is NormalEverything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid

by Sergey Grechishkin

Kindle Edition, 336 pg.
Inkshares, 2018
Read: March 19 – 26, 2018

I would spend hours by the balcony window, watching smoke rise from the power station chimneys on the horizon and listening to the suburban trains chug by in the distance. Most of my memories of that time coalesce into a sense of timeless boredom. But after my first taste of bubble gum, something new began to mix with my malaise: jealousy of the kids in faraway countries who could chew such gum every day.

This is the kind of thing that you expect a memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union to be full of — a grim skyline, yearning for something unobtainable, a general malaise. But in Sergey Grechishkin’s book, you don’t get a lot of that — yes, it’s there, to be sure (how could it not be?), but there’s so much more.

Grechishkin writes with a vivacity, a thorough-going sense of humor, a spark of hope that you don’t expect — and are frequently surprised by. He doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the USSR in the 70s and 80s, but he paints a picture of a life with hope. The book focuses on his childhood — particularly school ages — we get a little before, we see him briefly in University, with a hint or two about what happens next. But primarily we’re looking at his time in school. This coincides with the time of Leonid Brezhnev (at least the tail end) through the early days of Mikhail Gorbachev, with all the changes those days entailed. It’s not an incredibly political book — but it’d be difficult to discuss life under these various leaders without mentioning them and the way each government was different from the previous.

A word about the humor — which is all over. We’re not talking Yakov Smirnoff, first off. Secondly we’re not talking about anything that makes light of the hardships, or denies them. But comments that can talk about the hardships in a way that is above to find the humor in the human condition or something else we can all relate to: like

So many Soviet friendships and even families have been formed while standing in lines.

Nothing major — just a quick smile as you read. At other times, he’ll deliver a hard truth about life in the USSR through a joke. Like here, when describing how they couldn’t process the appearance of Western athletes on TV during the 1980 Olympics criticizing their governments:

For those lucky Soviet citizens who were allowed to cross the border, any sort of misbehaving while abroad or giving the slightest hint at being unhappy with the Soviet workers’ paradise would mean no more trips anywhere except to camping locations in eastern Siberia.

You laugh, and then you realize that he’s talking about a harsh or sad reality while you’re laughing. I don’t know how many times I’d think about something being funny or actually be chuckling at something when I’d catch myself, because I realize what he’s actually getting at.

The jokes slow down as he ages and the narration becomes less universal and more particular to his life — looming chances of being sent to Afghanistan, and other harder realities of adulthood on the horizon. It’s still there, it’s just deployed less.

While narrating his life, Grechishkin is able to describe living conditions, schooling, medical care, shopping, food, friendships, family life, dating, Western movies, crime, the role of alcohol in society, political dissidents, and so much more. I enjoyed his discussing the experience of reading George Orwell (via photocopy) or listening to Western pop music — learning that LPs were “pressed at underground labs onto discarded plastic X-ray images.” You can do that? That sounds cool (and low-fidelity). Almost everything in the book seems just the way you’d expect it, if you stopped to think of it — but from Grechishkin’s life experience it seems more real.

This is one of those books that you want to keep talking and talking and talking about — but I can’t, nor should I. You need to read this for yourself. If only because Grechishkin can do a better job telling his story than I can. You really don’t think that this is the kind of book you can enjoy — but it is..

Did I have a happy childhood? Well, it was what it was. From a nutritional and a relationship standpoint, it wasn’t particularly great. But it also wasn’t awful or tragic. It was, when I look back on it now, normal.

Normal was a word that showed up more than once in my notes — despite everything around him, his childhood seemed normal (and its only now that I remember tat the word is in the title). I’m not saying that I’d trade places with him, his life was not easy — or that there weren’t kids in Leningrad who suffered more forms of deprivation or oppression (not to mention kids in less well-off areas in the USSR). But on the whole, he had a childhood thanks to a caring family, a good school, and good friends. Everything is Normal shows how against a bleak background, a normal life can be possible. It does so with heart, perspective, humor and a gift for story-telling. Exactly the kind of memoir that will stay with you long after you finish the book. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Inkshares in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.

—–

4 Stars

Timekeepers by Simon Garfield

TimekeepersTimekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time

by Simon Garfield

eARC, 368 pg.
Canongate Books, 2018

Read: February 16 – 23, 2018

Time, once passive, is now aggressive. It dominates our lives in ways that the earliest clockmakers would have surely found unbearable. We believe that time is running away from us. Technology is making everything faster, and because we know that things will become faster in the future, it follows that nothing is fast enough now. . . But the strangest thing of all is this: if they were able, the earliest clockmakers would tell us that the pendulum swings at the same rate as it always has, and the calendars have been fixed for hundreds of years. We have brought this cauldron of rush upon ourselves. Time seems faster because we have made it so.

I remember a few books pretty distinctly from my childhood — particularly those I read that were my first forays into “grown up” books — Ian Fleming, Erle Stanley Gardner, Mario Puzo, Richard Hooker, and so on. The first non-fiction book that I remember trying along those lines was Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, which may have ruined me for a lot of the non-fiction that would follow (we can talk about my discernment later). It was funny, it taught me a lot, it made me think of the early US Space Program a little differently than what I’d been taught, and it was told in Tom Wolfe’s voice (which I love to this day). But it cemented the way I look at non-fiction books. Today, when it comes to non-fiction reads, there are a number of ways I tend to judge them (rightly or wrongly) — first (always first): Is it well-written? I’m not saying it has to sound like Wolfe, but does the writer know what he’s doing? Even if I end up learning a lot from a book, if it’s not well-written, I’m not going to like it. Secondly, is it informative? Do I actually learn something, or is it a re-hash of things that any number of books have said (do we really need that many biographies of Abraham Lincoln?)? Thirdly, does it make me think of something in a new way, or challenge my preconceptions (does this examination of Don DeLillo make me re-think White Noise? (I know of no book like this, but would love to read one)). Fourth, this is not essential — but is the book entertaining? It gets bonus points for that.

Simon Garfield’s Timekeepers, clears the bar for every one of these standards. Since he does it more succinctly than I could, I’ll let Garfield sum up the book:

This is a book about our obsession with time and our desire to beat it. . . The book has but two simple intentions: to tell some illuminating stories, and to ask whether we have all gone completely nuts.

He begins with telling the well-known (at least in brush strokes) story about the invention of time zones — but man, did I not understand really how this came about. Then he covers the experiments with the calendar, the clock, etc. tried following the French Revolution (and how some of those experiments live on). We get a couple of chapters on time and the cinema. Music (Beethoven, The Beatles, recording and more), photography, filibustering, the work day, and other sundry topics are covered as well. You can’t forget watch-making, watch-marketing, watch-design, watch-capabilities, watch-symbolism, and a few other watch-related notions that I can’t think of at the moment.

Let’s get to the writing itself. Garfield has a way with words — the number of sentences that I highlighted because of his use of the language is pretty high. If I quoted every one that I wanted to, this post would quickly move into the tl;dr range — and into the copyright infringement range not long after that. It wasn’t just his style, the book simply displays some well-crafted writing. It’s not perfect — but it’s good. I’ll freely admit that not every topic he covered really interested me, but his writing kept me reading — and I was rewarded pretty frequently. Even when my interest waned, his writing would stand out here and there so I could appreciate the how he said it, even if the what didn’t interest me. Rarely, the topics that did grab me would have a paragraph or so that didn’t rise to that level, however. I’m not going to go into specifics on this point, though — I didn’t bother to note those, and I bet that comes down to taste and others won’t think of those passages the same way, and they were brief moments, so they didn’t detract from the whole.

Did I learn something from the book? Much more than I expected to. The chapter on the French experiments alone probably taught me enough to justify the whole book. I didn’t/couldn’t stick with the details of watch-making (I have a hard time visualizing that kind of detail), but even that was fascinating and informative on the surface. Most topics broadened my understanding and taught me something. Also, the sheer amount of trivia that I picked up was great (the amount of time spent recording the first Beatles LP, why pop music tends to be about 3 minutes long, etc., etc.)

But it’s not just about the information gained — it’s what that information means (both in terms of the book’s argument(s), but in how the reader considers that information in the light of what they already know and personal experience. Every time that Garfield moves from the “here’s what happened” or the “here’s how this works” bits to the “because this happened” or “because this works” bits, it was something I don’t know that I’d spent too much time thinking about previously. Sometimes those took the form of quick “huh,” moments — but occasionally he brushed against profundity, which I really appreciated.

And yes, Garfield picked up bonus points for entertainment. After the first paragraph in Chapter 1, my notes read “Between the Introduction and this paragraph, I’ve laughed four times. Am going to dig this book.” Later on, I wrote that I didn’t care about the content, really, I was having too much fun reading it to worry about it being right.

There’s room for improvement, I think. If there’s a design to the organization, I’m not sure I see it. He appears to hopscotch around between his topics. I’m honestly not sure how he could have arranged them to flow from one to another, but I do believe it could’ve been done. I think he could’ve lessened the detail occasionally (and increased it in a spot or two). But generally, this is me being nit-picky for the sake of not being a push over. There’s really almost nothing to complain about.

Garfield scores across the board with this one, however. I do think the survey hops around a bit too much without obvious connections between the ideas so that the cumulative punch is less than it could be. In his concluding thoughts, Garfield raises some issues and asks some pointed questions that could be more forceful, more pointed if the preceding chapters had been more clearly linked. Nevertheless, the points were made and I, like most readers (I suspect), had to give some serious thought about my relationship to time and what I actually value. I’ll have to continue this thinking for a while, actually — the fact that I have to — and want to — is because of this book forcing me to consider things I’ve taken for granted about time and how my life is governed. I suspect I am not alone in this.

Thought-provoking, interesting, educating, well-written and generally entertaining — Timekeepers really covers all the bases and covers them well. You’d do well to check it out.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the swell folks at Canongate Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this. I’m very sorry this posted after the release date, my notes had that in March.

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4 Stars