Sci-fi geeks with a penchant for rock ’n’ stomp, prog excess, and other flavors of pop will enjoy this one.

STRANGE STARS

DAVID BOWIE, POP MUSIC, AND THE DECADE SCI-FI EXPLODED

The mothership connection is clear: Where there’s rock ’n’ roll, science fiction isn’t far away, as Hugo Award winner Heller (Taft 2012, 2012, etc.) deftly demonstrates.

The author was born in 1972, a couple of months after David Bowie’s landmark album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” appeared. That wasn’t Bowie’s first foray into sci-fi; as Heller notes, his career is bracketed and punctuated by tunes devoted to the intrepid Major Tom, who ends up a skeleton encased in a spacesuit with Bowie’s 2015 farewell album, “Blackstar.” It’s a good thing Bowie was on the case, writes the author, for Pink Floyd wasn’t going to get the interplanetary job done, and Neil Young, despite the sci-fi–born “doomsday, time-travel, space-ark” album “After the Gold Rush,” was pretty well earthbound. There’s a lot of yes, but hedging as Heller assembles his catalog of sci-fi rock: ELP may not have been thinking outer-spacey thoughts with “Tarkus,” which, “for all its highbrow musicianship…is hardly the stuff of classic sci-fi,” and X-Ray Spex was more tuned to pop culture than cyberia when Poly Styrene got to caterwauling about the Bionic Man. Still, it’s clear the author has listened to a vast assemblage of music, and readers who don’t know the foundation stories of P-Funk and Devo, Gong and Hawkwind, Kraftwerk and Jefferson Starship, and a whole host of lysergic-and-Asimov–soaked bands will find his tales to be both entertaining and instructive. His explorations sound just the right note, too, as when he unpacks the Deep Purple tune “Space Truckin’ ” to find in it “in essence, Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to Be Wild’ recast for outer-space Hell’s Angels.” Though the thesis can be a little wobbly once taken outside of the 1970s—Chuck Berry didn’t hitch his Caddy to a star, after all, and Elvis, though Martian, was resolutely terrestrial—the book holds up well to argument.

Sci-fi geeks with a penchant for rock ’n’ stomp, prog excess, and other flavors of pop will enjoy this one.

Pub Date: June 5, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-61219-697-8

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Melville House

Review Posted Online: April 4, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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