Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 numbers

365 days
100 books
35,691 pages (average of 357 per book)
53 library books
34 audiobooks
6 books read on Kindle
53 fiction/47 nonfiction
21 by dead authors (according to scattered Wikipedia searches)
33 by authors who are not white males
2 graphic novels
5 books on the World Library's 100 Best Books of All Time list
0 Goosebumps, board books, or children's books

And just in case you thought I did nothing but read this year...

1 new job
3 rooms of self-installed eco bamboo floors (2.5 tons carried in box by box)
3 international trips
3 walls repaired from drywall cracks
52 episodes of Mad Men
0 comprehensive climate legislative victories
28 teeth straightened
3 concerts
1 very understanding and devoted wife

All in all, not so bad. I'll have more thoughts later once I recover a bit more from Ulysses!

Here's the list in reverse chronological order if you want to peruse. Let me know what you think...


one frickin' hundred

Ulysses (Gabler Edition)
Ulysses is the kind of book you could read again and again and again and again and always absorb a different narrative or interpretation - but right now it's a book I'd be happy to leave where it is and never look at again. I'll still agree with someone if they tell me it's one of the best books of all time. I still gave it 4 out of 5 stars. I recognize its brilliance, its completeness, its revolutionizing effect on literature and the English language. But boy was it hard to get through.

I mean - again, can I really say anything about this book that hasn't already been said thousands of times before?

It's long.

It's brilliant.

It's aggravating.

It's so complex and uses so many styles, devices, lack of devices, structure and total lack of structure that at times you feel entirely at sea and unsure why you decided to read such a monster.

It's about nothing (the plot is an ordinary day in an ordinary life where a cuckolded husband wakes up, eats, does errands, thinks a lot, goes to a funeral, works a tiny bit, spaces out, commits every single one of his thoughts to memory, masturbates, hallucinates, feels shameful, rescues a drunk guy from a whorehouse, invites him home, and gets into bed with his unfaithful wife) and everything (Ireland, the English language, marriage, sex, religion, blasphemy, atheism, food, poop, pee, birth, death, women, men, poetry, work, leisure, ancestors, family, expectations, whimsy, planning, alcohol, money, progress, anachronism, monarchy, bureaucracy, advertising, scholarship, bathing, not bathing, teaching, inattention, apathy, shame, pretentiousness, death, life, home, sailing, Western views of non-Western cultures, infidelity, loyalty, childhood, loss, cats, petticoats, and farts).

It wouldn't be honest for me to say that I read the whole thing. I'd be shocked if more than a few thousand scholars on the planet read every single word of that book and understood it. The process of reading this book encapsulated perfectly the goal of this blog - to examine reading and what it means to be literate. When I read forty pages containing fewer than eight periods, or 150 pages of the weirdest play ever written, or a nine-part examination the English language in a scene where a baby is born and a group of guys go to a bar, I freely admit that I didn't absorb every word. I didn't get every reference, I didn't pick up each parodic joke.

But I think that's okay. Reading a book like this is an experience that is hopefully more enjoyed than endured. I enjoyed large parts of it. I endured some parts of it. I expect to go back and read chunks later in my life. But for now, I'm excited beyond measure to be done with the beast.

In general, Joyce seems to have - in my limited literate understanding of books and writing - shifted the tectonic plates of what literature means. I would guess that Ulysses truly pioneered different methods of examining the day-to-day life of humans so that I get to enjoy work by Nicholson Baker and Chuck Palahniuk and friends. That's pretty cool.

ninety-nine

Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt was a work read that covered the basics of how science gets ignored, drowned out, overcompensated, and warped to advance the ends of the industry sponsoring the "research" effort. Essentially a few scientists that have gravitas because of past work on atomic weapons get paid to say that the research done on cigarette smoke, greenhouse gases, the ozone layer, acid rain, or secondhand smoke should be doubted. These scientists are often the same individuals across fields - Misters Seitz and Singer, etc, are called upon to doubt voluminous research finding cigarettes to be dangerous, anthropogenic (man-made) global warming, a depleted ozone layer, the effects of acid rain. They aren't experts in these fields, and yet the media reports both the conclusions of experts AND these schmucks to provide "balance." It's infuriating to the experts and to us, the laypeople who don't want to breathe air that will kill us and our children or destroy the ecosystem that's sustained so much human progress. Oreskes and Conway do a great job of showing how these unscientists push back on real science with industry support.

What I didn't like about the book, other than the slight dryness of the prose, is that they didn't tell us the status of the research done that did not side with the vast majority of established theorems. Were there studies that found we're not causing global warming, or that secondhand smoke is actually healthy for you? Tell us there definitely weren't, or if there were, that they were bunk and how. The focus on how the rhetorical war was won (or lost) was very useful for someone in my line of work, but I wanted to see if the other side had a single half-leg to stand on.

Regardless, it's a great book and I'm glad I read it.

ninety-eight

The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Leguin is one of those names you see pretty prominently in the sci fi section and she's always been on my to-read list. Starting with the award-winning novel about gender and identity and cold weather and connecting with the outside world seemed like a no-brainer. I'm glad I read The Left Hand of Darkness, but didn't enjoy it as much as I tend to enjoy sci-fi. It was a thought experiment more than a plot-driven novel, as science fiction used to be 40 years ago. What would happen if people didn't have assigned genders, but came into a particular sex for a little while to mate and then reproduce? How would that affect civilization? What would that mean for personal relationships, families, global conquest, and personality? Le Guin's conclusion isn't really one - it's more of a rumination. People would be less aggressive, and would be suspicious of an entity purporting to be a representative of a large conglomeration of human planets. The story was interesting, starting in cities and ranging through tundra, work farms, and continents. I'm glad I read it and I think you should too, if you like sci-fi.

ninety-seven

Towers of Midnight (Wheel of Time, #13; A Memory of Light, #2)
Brandon Sanderson has done it again - mostly. For those who are unfamiliar with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, it's a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy epic that began in the early 90s and still has not come to a conclusion. The books are enormous (regularly pushing 900-1000 pages), the scope has broadened to hundreds of characters, and, this being a fantasy series, the fate of the world is on the protagonists' shoulders. Robert Jordan plugged away for about 6 books of stellar quality, and then he lagged for several volumes that saw main characters forgotten, plotlines stagnate, annoying plotlines introduced, and very little happen. The series started to pick up with the publication of The Knife of Dreams - Things Started Happening - but then the poor guy got sick and died. Fortunately his wife and editor picked a younger author to finish off the "last" volume. That volume turned into three - and thus far it's been a good "final trilogy." There aren't many slow moments so he can be forgiven for expanding it into three books... a lot needed to happen to achieve resolution. We're currently hurtling toward The Last Battle (yes, it's even capitalized in the book), and people are Doing Things and Stuff Is Happening. And it's entertaining and well written. I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it, but I'd highly recommend giving it a shot. My only quibble is the voice of Mat, one of the main characters, who seemed a bit off, though not so much that his long-awaited chapter wasn't mostly fulfilling. Can't wait for the (really) last book!

ninety-six

Small Wonder: Essays

I'm beginning to love Barbara Kingsolver - after reading The Poisonwood Bible I was happy to have stumbled over Small Wonder: Essays in the library. I'd recommended reading this - she narrates the audiobook version and her drawl and Southern accent makes her sound a bit like Diane Rehm. I got used to it after the first (rather slow) few essays. After that it was great story after great point after excellent argument. This was written shortly after 9/11, so there are some ruminations about war and fear and government, but she shines the most when she writes a simple letter to her 13-year-old daughter, and then one to her mother. She writes about independent bookstores, sustainable living, and TV. I enjoyed nearly all of them, both in terms of her writing and her points. I'm a bit fried right now (just finished Ulysses) and am not reviewing this with enough gusto, but I'd recommend it - I'll be looking for her earlier collection of essays - High Tide in Tucson.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

ninety-five

Things Fall Apart

I wasn't quite sure what to make of Things Fall Apart through the first half - and then I got the hang of it once the conflict coalesced and the tribes found an Other. Everyone and their brother has read this book except for me - so I'm glad I read it. It's well done, especially for its time, and the first half gives you a slice of African village life and family traditions and religious mysticism through a protagonist who's got some daddy issues. I couldn't get the hang of it because the narrative was so episodic when that was definitely not what I was expecting. He also writes it in almost a fable-like format, which is really interesting, but can seem simple at times. But the relationships and the fears and the community that are all manifested in the trials and tribulations of this man and his family were well done. Nigeria is obviously a different country than the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but I could see this book being what existed before the Price family arrived in Africa in the Poisonwood Bible.

The second half was a bit more what I expected - white come in, mess with the local culture through a mix of technology, religion, government, well-meaning, cruelty, and ignorance. Perhaps Achebe was able to open some eyes with the way he ended it. I thought it was fitting. All in all, I'm glad I read it. I'm sure you already did.

Monday, December 13, 2010

ninety-four

The Absolute Sandman, Vol. 1

What? A comic book? Does that even count as a "real book?" I would submit, based upon reviews and awards given through two decades, that it does. Could be even more than a real book. Many superlatives are thrown the The Sandman's way, and I see why. I was very, very impressed with the story, the writing, the art, the complexity of the plot - but at its core, it's about stories. This is Gaiman's wheelhouse - he likes a good yarn.

The Sandman is one of the Endless - seven eternal anthropomorphized aspects of human consciousness: destiny, death, dream, destruction, desire, despair, delight/delirium. Dream is the Sandman, and he oversees what we, and all things, dream and hope and fear. He's close to omnipotent, yet manages to not make things boring. He's complex, and grows, and bad things happen to him that he tries to fix, and often can't. He's got a crazy family, some offspring that cause trouble, and is always dealing with other supernatural entities to preserve the dreamland - wondrous and terrifying - from unspooling. He manages to walk out of Hell because he reminds Lucifer's host of demons that Hell would be nothing were it not for the dream of Heaven. He inspires Shakespeare, he helps lost children. He exacts revenge on lovers that he thinks had spurned him. And he manages to do this all with the utmost serenity. The scope of these ten huge collections are enormous. I read the first three in an enormous anthology, and then the rest in smaller paperbacks. The art is rather good, and the writing is always fun and interesting. Very few full spots. And though lots happens in America and the UK, a lot else happens in the rest of the world - not a pantheon of gods are neglected, and very few nationalities are ignored.

But the story soars through our highest hopes to our deepest fears, our funniest jokes to our most disgusting gore, our boring day-to-day to the heights of fantasy. Sometimes the day-to-day is what Dream wants most - the scene I'll remember most is him and his sister Death (who looks like what all the Goth chicks want to look like) feeding the pigeons in New York. Two supernatural uberdeities, and all they want to do is nourish the birds.

Clive Barker does this better justice:
"There is a wonderful, willful quality to this mix: Mr. Gaiman is one of those adventurous creators who sees no reason why his tales shouldn't embrace slapstick comedy, mystical musings, and the grimmest collection of serial killers this side of Death Row. He makes this combination work because he has a comprehensive knowledge of the medium and knows where his strengths lie. He has also - and this is infinitely more important than being a Comic Brat - a point of view about the world which he uses the anarchic possibilities of the medium to express. After all, where can the glorious, the goofy, and the godlike stand shoulder to shoulder? Where else can the bubble-gum hearts, the dream travelers, the serial killers, and the occasional guest-star from beyond the grave all occupy the same space? If the sheer profusion of these inventions and the apt absurdity of some of the juxtapositions puts you in mind of on of your more heated dreams, then surely that's what Mr. Gaiman intends. Forget what he's written on the title page. Hero and author are here synonymous. For the time you spend in these pages, Mr. Gaiman is the Sandman. And look! He just brought you a dream."

ninety-three

After Dark

I liked the writing in After Dark enough that I'd want to read something else by Hakuri Murakami, but not enough to actually have enjoyed the book a great deal. It's essentially a literary translation of a typical night spent by the Japanese people the Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson hung out with in Lost in Translation. The characters themselves aren't very important, and neither is the plot - it's the interesting writing. In fact, it has the feel of a screenplay, because he addresses the reader directly - "our viewpoint pans across the room" etc. It does jostle your perspective and expectations in a fun way - you linger over a cell phone sitting on a shelf in a 7-11, or stay looking at a mirror after someone leaves a room. I'd recommend if that's the sort of thing you're looking for, but I'd imagine I'll find I like his other plot-centered stuff a bit more.

ninety-two

Rabbit, Run

Harry Angstrom is socially retarded. And no, Sarah Palin, I'm not using that in a pejorative fashion. I'm using it in the strict definition of "late" - Rabbit has not developed any sense of what it's like for other people to exist around him. Or that they can hear him. He relies on his natural gifts - physical prowess on the basketball court - until they no longer serve him. (By the by, it's never explained why he doesn't take this amazing talent to college as most spectacularly talented U.S. high schoolers do.)

At that point - spoiler alert though not really - he marries a girl who he got pregnant but doesn't like very much. At some point, Janice becomes a drunk. There's some ambiguity over whether she's the real villain in the whole ordeal, but honestly, being married to Harry Angstrom would drive anyone to drink. He's flighty, annoying, simple-minded, unreliable, immature, and his love and care can disappear with a mean turn of phrase. He doesn't seem to understand why people react to his boneheaded declarations with disbelief. This follows him to the end of the book, as he runs away from one problem to the next.

At first I was repelled by his awful nature and didn't get the book. But then Updike's easy, thoughtful, and piercing writing took over to show me that Rabbit is like a lot of people who make up this world. Different aspects of his easy-yet-terrified personality are like me, but fortunately not enough that I can't get through a conversation without insulting someone or fleeing.

The discussions of religion were interesting, and must have caused quite a stir in the 60s - just as the scattered thoughts about sex probably riled the censors. Still, it's an amazing book about a very sad person in a sad situation, causing more sadness due to his sad social skills.

It's quite obvious that Don Draper is influenced by Harry, and Janice by Betty Draper - and it totally makes sense. Harry just can't handle real people like Don so often can. Perhaps Rabbit will be able to function as well as Don in the later books.

I really can't analyze this classic more than it already has been, but I fully understood why and how Updike is an amazing writer. Definitely recommended.

ninety-one

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

I read Made to Stick for a work meeting, a little afraid that it'd be a self-help, New Age-y business book. My fears were unrealized. It bills itself as an extension of an idea in The Tipping Point, and manages this without embarrassing itself. I was impressed - the authors follow their own rules as they write. Those rules are: keep things simple by sticking to one core message, shock people out of their expectations to make them pay attention, stay away from abstract fluffy ideas by being concrete, be sure to include arguers that are credible due to expertise or perspective, use emotional examples so people remember and feel your argument, and tell a story to make your point - people will remember the story and forget the fluff.

These sound obvious but most of the points are forgotten frequently by people who should know better. Aside from the good advice, it's presented well, concisely, and entertainingly. I'd definitely recommend to anyone who does communications for a living (as a refresher) or anyone who wants to make a solid point, even at a dinner party.

ninety

The Prince

The Prince is a quick read, and because I'd read chunks of it in high school, I mainly just got impressions of Machiavelli. First off, he's whiny. Complains about his situation, and flatters Vettori enough that his section warning of flatterers comes off pretty silly sounding.

As I read through his various judgments and recommendations I had to stop myself from thinking this was a mordern-day U.S. conservative manifesto. Damn the collateral damage, don't take private property, and if you need to bust some heads to achieve your goals, bust away. That's not entirely fair, and I won't make the proclamation that conservatives are Machiavellian. It's more that it seems to come easier to them. Liberals have all sorts of moral compunctions about this sort of thing, and often it doesn't serve us well. Perhaps in the back-and-forth, rhetorical battles, liberals should fight a bit more like Niccolo Machiavelli.

Interesting read for that perspective, the sometimes-thoughtful argument, and to understand the reason he became an adjective.

Friday, December 3, 2010

music

That's one thing I miss this year. I still listen to it of course, and attend concerts, and find new bands, but a decent-sized chunk of my listening time is taken up by audiobooks. I'll be looking forward to next year when I can read and listen to music without a care.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

eighty-nine

9-11

This collection of interviews of Noam Chomsky in the weeks after 9/11/01 brings me back to that time and that two years following. This was when the mainstream American media turned gutless and you had to go to the BBC and truthout.org to get anything resembling a full picture of what was going on in the world. Chomsky was very much behind this idea and should be commended for being a contrary voice when so many were toeing a line that was called patriotism but verged on blind obedience.

His perspective - that America is a terrorist country in the same way that "axis of evil" countries support terrorism but is more effective and subtle at it - is troubling. He very rightly points out that the U.S. could practice foreign policy and national security more effectively and is shooting itself in the foot by making enemies and hurting innocent people when that's not always necessary. But he equates a terrorist attack like the events of 9/11 with the missile attacks on the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan (trying to get bin Laden) and the covert help the U.S. gave to the Contras in Nicaragua. Collateral damage and mistaken intelligence, while awful, is not terrorism, even if Sudanese people suffer from the lack of malaria medication. It's awful, but not the same - President Clinton wasn't trying to cause those particular effects, he was trying to take out someone that was actively trying to harm innocent people. The Nicaraguan Contra example is better, but still troubling. Not wanting to get into the justification for that debacle, I'll just say he makes a good point that Nicaragua went to the UN in order to receive justice (which the U.S. blocked), and uses this example to argue that the U.S. should pursue legal remedies against the perpetrators of 9/11. I'm all for legal avenues, and perhaps that would have been a more effective way of receiving justice, and possibly would have saved lives in Afghanistan. But I doubt the Taliban and Pakistani border leaders would have tracked down al qaeda operatives for us. (An interesting side note is that al qaeda doesn't merit a single mention in this book, whether by Chomsky's oversight or because no one really knew at that point that bin Laden was operating through them.)

Anyhow, the book didn't convince me that the U.S. shouldn't have invaded Afghanistan. It didn't convince me that the U.S. is a terrorist nation.

Did it rightly point out that U.S. foreign policy can be arrogant, dangerous, ineffective, and short-sighted? Sure!

Did it justify itself as a strong intelligent counterpoint to the direction of debate currently occurring in the country? Probably.

Did it make the point that there are complex motivations behind people that would attack civilians and while the action and rationale should never be justified, it should be understood in order to prevent such things from happening in the future? I think so.

Did it make me think? Was it a little repetitive? Yes and yes.

Did I find it a little hard to get through and glad I finally finished it so I can give the book away after all these years. Absolutely.

eighty-eight

Drown

After reading Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I had to give his earlier collection of short stories a shot. His clear, economical voice has the same authenticity in these stories as it did in Oscar. Thoroughly enjoyed them, from the childhood memories in the DR to the portraits of drug dealers, victims of childhood pig attacks, pool table deliverymen, and immigrants, to a guide to dating girls from different socioeconomic backgrounds (and what to hide in your house for each kind). Some of his characters have a bit of the self-destructive loathing (paired with incisive social observations) that I love about Chuck Palahniuk's writing.

Highly recommended - I'll be waiting for Junot Diaz's next book with bated breath.

Monday, November 29, 2010

eighty-seven

Why We Buy: The Science Of Shopping

Don Draper would scoff and say "what?"

I could barely finish this, and I'd say he ripped off Don Draper were it not for the fact that Mad Men was written after this book was. Is advertising really all about love? Hmph.

This book is written by Paco Underhill, who presents himself as an arrogant, simple-minded know-it-all who left (cue schlocky singsong playground bully voice) "academia" to go out in the Real World to actually apply all these "scientific" things that he learned in the ivory tower to the retail world. If you don't want to read the book, and I don't recommend that you ever do, this is essentially what it is:

'I mean, these retail simpletons were practically barring customers from their stores before I came on the scene! When I told them to get rid of the flaming spike viper pit in front of the cash registers and to move the Metamucil display from the volcano-based trapeze obstacle course to a middle shelf, sales went up three thousand percent, the store owners became billionaires, and they recommended my company, EnviroSell (tm), to all their friends. Ha, ha!'

Okay it's not that bad. Mostly. But that's the impression I got from Chapter 1 to the end. He does go through what retailers should know, and this book is ten years old. It's an interesting idea, and should have been a good book. Some retailers don't think about what would be easy for their customers, or who their customers really are, or what draws attention most effectively. But he presents this information as both a pool of knowledge only his company provides through the Miracles of Science, and also simple stuff that these stupid retailers should know, and rely on me, in my brilliance, to tell them for a fee. It doesn't work. Organizational, behavioral, cognitive, and linguistic psychology more than covers all of the "science" he trumpets as his own genius oeuvre that No One Else In The World thought of before he went corporate.

He does manage, in his headlong blind horror movie chase scene of a narrative pace, to accidentally step on some mundanely interesting insights. People watch you while you shop, locking things in glass cases hurts sales, people look at flashy things, customers like to do whatever's easiest, waiting in line feels longer than it actually is, parents will buy things to shut up their kids, women like to shop longer than men do, people fall for "deals," customers like interaction and information when making large purchases, and people like to pretend they aren't spending money. If this guy wasn't such a sad little goober, some of these insights, presented in a completely different way, and multiplied by about 17, would have made the book almost tolerable. I think he didn't quite get there.

If I needed one more thing to convince me that he's not some retailing psychology genius, his chapter on internet shopping (written in 2000), sealed it. Essentially this whole stores-using-internet-to-sell-stuff will never take off. People like being in stores too much. How can you replicate the shopping experience on a monitor with tiny images?

I want Roger Sterling to rough him up a bit, verbally.

eighty-six

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (Dirk Gently, #1)

I love me some Douglas Adams, and have been putting off reading the two Dirk Gently books because I've read the Hitchhiker series, I read Last Chance to See, I've read the Salmon of Doubt, and once these two books are done, I won't have any more of his books to read. That's one of the saddest thoughts on the planet - DNA has been unable to write more books for us for some time now due to the fact that he is dead.

Anyhow, I finally brought myself to read Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and I won't tell you what it's about, or who Dirk Gently is. I didn't find out until nearly halfway through the book, so why spoil it for you? I'm still trying to figure out the ending (Spoiler Alert: it involves time travel), and the plot is complex enough to prompt you to begin reading it again as soon as you finish. Now I know where Chuck Palahniuk got it. Instead I will, in the rich tradition that has preceded me, give you funny quotes from the book that only someone as awesome as Douglas Adams could come up with.

"Two figures in particular seemed ill-matched. One, a young man, was tall, thin and angular; even muffled inside a heavy dark coat he walked a little like an affronted heron. The other was small, roundish, and moved with an ungainly restlessness, like a number of elderly squirrels trying to escape from a sack."

"Richard stood transfixed for moment or two, wiped his forehead again, and gently replaced the phone as if it were an injured hamster. His brain began to buzz gently and suck its thumb. Lots of little synapses deep inside his cerebral cortex all joined hands and started dancing around and singing nursery rhymes."

And just to prove that he's not just skilled with his sardonic wit rifle, he can also do grief, where this character reacts to the death of a family member:

"I'm sort of embarrassed by not having a reaction ready. Talking about it would be all right except that you have to use the past tense and that's what..."

I don't want to read The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, because there won't be any more Douglas Adams to read after that. Maybe I'll reread Hitchhiker's next year.

eighty-five

The Elements of Cooking

The Elements of Cooking is an interesting almost-narrative glossary of most things you'd need to know to understand what a cook is talking about. I learned the definitions of lots of terms that you see on fancy menus (or hear thrown about on Top Chef or on food blogs), what beurre blanc and beurre rouge are and how to make them, and also how to make stock. We made a great deal of that using the Thanksgiving turkey, which was spectacular. I'd highly recommend this book for the non-cook, the cook, and he experienced, snooty cook.

eighty-four

Common Sense (Great Ideas)

Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense at a time when essentially all governments in the history of the world had been monarchies, ruled by despotism, or small enough to be totally and functionally nonexistent at a societal level. His articulation of the injustice of hereditary monarchies, military dictatorships, and colonial rule (of white people) is brilliant and ... wait for it... revolutionary.

His reasoning is clear, concise, and absolutely correct. The examples he uses, which range from biblical stories to the political landscape of the 1770s are fitting when one considers that the only information most people had at the time was printed in a bible, printed in small newspapers, read to them from a bible, or told to them by people who had read newspapers. I didn't need the story of the Jews' choice of a king to show me that kings are bad, but when most people learned to read by their bibles, I'm sure it was a smart move.

What is hilarious is that the Glenn Becks of the world use Common Sense as a manifesto for the evils of government. Well yes, he does castigate monarchies pretty thoroughly, and with good reason. And yes, they are governments. Governments that overreach and are fundamentally unstable in a changing world. But Paine speaks with passion, reason, and vigor about the brilliance of an elected representative government. Democracy is good. That is his thesis. We still have a democracy, as do most "socialist" European countries. Therefore it's folly to interpret this brilliant long pamphlet is a conservative treatise that gives you proof that the Founding Fathers wouldn't like liberals.

Highly recommended if you haven't read before.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

eighty-three

The Good Earth (House of Earth, #1)

Well, and I think that a review of The Good Earth needs to start with a "well, and" and end with a "well, now" because literally every other line of dialogue in this classic starts with one of those phrases. I assume it's a translation thing she was trying to get across, and I assume that she knew what she was talking about because she spent a good chunk of her life in rural China after having been born in West Virginia.

Anyhow, it's a classic, won a bunch of awards in the 30s and is seen as an accurate picture of Chinese rural life by much of the world. I'm not sure about that - it was interesting and it seems feasible she got the setting and customs right - but it was really a bildungsroman. For those who had to Google that, that means a coming-of-age story, but she really takes it into almost allegorical form by making it about all people (and by that she means men) and about all lives. Regrets, success, forgetting, making your mark, fear, the tenuousness of happiness, materialism - all of these are a part of Wang Lung's life.

(Spoiler alert.) He goes from poor farmer to happy poor farmer to farmer-ruined-by-drought to city beggar to extremely lucky draft-dodger to extremely lucky thief to wealthy farmer to wealthy landowner and happy old man. There are plenty of twists and turns in there for him, but that's his arc, and I was struck by how different his life would have been had he not lucked out and not come across a scared old rich guy carrying a lot of money. Buck tries to make it a story of success - poor farmer turns into the rich lord he once groveled before - but I just took the point that some people are lucky and some people are not. His hard work had very little to do with his later success.

And let's not get started on the famous misogyny - his wife and mistresses and daughters barely rate a mention, though his wife is one of the more admirable figures in literature. Maybe that's how Buck chose to make a feminist point - I sincerely hope so.

Well, now I really enjoyed it for the most part, I'm glad I read it.

eighty-two

Cat's Cradle

I love me some Vonnegut. Need to read more of him. Especially after reading Catch-22, this was the perfect springboard. Still absurdist and funny, but not repetitive. The plot is meandering, but it works perfectly. He starts looking into one of the creators of the atomic bomb, and then ends up with the scientist's children in a banana republic where the end of the world happens and he gains a new religion that someone made up a few decades ago. It does make more sense in Vonnegut's telling, but it's not supposed to. Quotes like this make me want to read more of his books:

"When we got into Dr. Breed's inner office, I attempted to put my thoughts in order for a sensible interview. I found that my mental health had not improved. And, when I started to ask Dr. Breed questions about the day of the bomb, I found that the public-relations centers of my brain had been suffocated by booze and burning cat fur. Every question I asked implied that the creators of the atomic bomb had been criminal accessories to murder most foul."

The book does meander and doesn't have a whole lot of focus, but it's still a fun ride.

eighty-one

Foundation (Foundation, #1)

Isaac Asimov enabled many of the science fiction books I've grown to love, so I had to try his most famous classic. It's barely science fiction - he wonders what would happen if social science advanced enough that it became predictive with enough complex math so that a "psychohistorian" could know what would happen in the future with only a few percentage points margin of error. The book is essentially five successive short stories exploring if Hari Seldon (a psychohistorian) made correct predictions about the downfall of a Galactic Empire. We follow various people that think he has, and find out how those predictions come to fruition.

I enjoyed the book for the most part, but could only do so in the context in which it was written - the 50s. Really interesting ideas, and the writing's actually pretty good. The sequels look very uninteresting to me, but I'm glad I read this. It's not for everyone. He doesn't describe very much, but then he wasn't really trying to in this book. It was mainly a way to explore this predictive history idea, and I'm sure in the 50s, that was a very alluring idea. I'd be curious about other titles of his that would be interesting in a more modern context.

eighty

Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine



From the jacket:

"Forty years ago I first linked up with Unguentine and we made love on twin-hulled catamarans, sails a-billow, bless the seas... So begins the courtship of a certain Unguentine to the woman we know only as Mrs. Unguentine, the chronicler of their sad, fantastical tale. For forty years, they sail the seas together, alone on a giant land-covered barge of their own devising. They tend their gardens, raise a child, invent an artificial forest--all the while steering clear of civilization. Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine is a masterpiece of modern domestic life, a comic novel of closeness and difficulty, miscommunication and stubborn resolve. Rarely has a book so perfectly registered the secret solitude of marriage, how shared loneliness can result in a powerful bond."

This is a weird, short book about marriage. It's a bad marriage on the surface, but comfortable in its ways. It's told through allegory - this awesome fantastical barge that is essentially a steerable island. The lonesomeness of marriage is made physical, the focus on the day-to-day, the miscommunication, the love, the ability to ignore huge things to keep your existence moving forward. You're literally on an island, with the outside world nowhere to be seen, and your routine, though it changes, is what you rely on to keep your sanity. You pass notes to your spouse without talking to them, though you love each other. Sometimes when I'm working long hours at my job and barely see my wife except briefly at night and in the mornings, and mainly exchange information through email and IM, this portrait rings true. It took a few dozen pages to get used to the flow of the narrative, and then you're almost halfway done with the book. I think I'll be casting my memory back to this book for quite some time. Kudos.

seventy-nine

The Poisonwood Bible

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. I'd thought The Poisonwood Bible was more about, say, the bible in Africa than about Africa dealing with those who love the bible. I was wrong - Kingsolver really did some research to be able to speak with such strong voices.

Missionary family goes to jungle in the 60s, reverend father is a little crazy and racist and a lot misogynistic and deluded. Wife is long-suffering and does her best, and the four girls are each a different take on the West's perception of Africa. From the privileged disdain to the scholarly study, and from the wholehearted acceptance to childlike wonder and immature misunderstanding. The story is actually quite interesting, and you find yourself relating to some of these voices as you go. The African characters become more developed as a few of the Price family allow themselves to get to know the natives. They do end up richer, but I wish they'd gotten even more so by the end. You learn a bit of the history of Belgian Congo/Zaire/Democratic Republic of the Congo. The view that the book tries to impart is not only how difficult it is to get to know the continent from the West, but how much daily life of regular people could care less about King Leopold, Lumumba, Mobutu as long as they are left alone and not oppressed.

I most identified with Adah, and in addition to her fun word games and brilliant observations, I thought this was interesting:

"When Albert Schweitzer walked into the jungle, bless his hear, he carried antibacterials and a potent, altogether new conviction that no one should die young. He meant to save every child, thinking Africa would then learn how to have fewer children. But when families have spent a million years making nine in the hope of saving one, they cannot stop making nine. Culture is a slingshot moved by the force of its past. When the strap lets go, what flies forward will not be family planning, it will be the small, hard head of a child. ... For every life saved by vaccination or food relief, one is lost to starvation and war. Poor Africa. No other continent has endured such an unspeakably bizarre combination of foreign thievery and foreign goodwill."

Monday, November 22, 2010

seventy-eight

Naked Pictures of Famous People

Meh. I love me some Jon Stewart and Daily Show, and I love how his work over the last decade has become timeless. The Daily Show has a long shelf life. This book does not. I bought it in a bargain bin maybe eight years ago, and forgot about it. After the Rally To Restore Sanity, I thought I'd give this a try.

It's a bunch of short essays about pop culture of the late 90s, where Hanson Christmas cards detailing their decline, a Martha Stewart sendoff, and Princess Diana's immature letters to Mother Teresa all seem very dated. Somewhat "heh" but not enjoyable. The other pieces that are older (the secret Gerald Ford tapes, Hitler's Larry King Live interview, JFK's Jewish schoolboy chum's trip to the Kennedy Compound) should have more staying power but somehow don't.

I'm glad Jon Stewart is doing what he's doing now. We're all better off this way.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

seventy-seven

Catch-22

Once again, in reading a classic, I can't really add anything worthwhile to the discussion of Catch-22. I enjoyed reading it on the whole, and appreciated its contradictory absurdist use of symbols to explain some of the problems of modern life. I liked how each character was a different symbol of absurdity: status, economics, greed, leadership, opportunity, violence, sex. I did think, however, that it could have been done in 100 less pages. If you want to know what Catch-22 is, here's the distillation:

"Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them."

Also, not that it necessarily was meant to be, but this is certainly not a feminist book. The women are there to serve functions for the men. It's set on an Army base, so it's somewhat predictable, but nonetheless disappointing.

seventy-six

What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures

Once again, Malcolm Gladwell releases a book, I read it, I like it a lot, and tell people about it. This one isn't even new material - just a collection of his New Yorker articles in book form. They're still fascinating. He looks into infomercials and Ron Popeil to explain sales and selling. Ketchup to explain taste and marketing. The Dog Whisperer to explain what animals see when they look at us. Birth control methods to explain reproductive cycles, historical change, and religion's effect on private matters. Mammograms and spy satellites to give context to supposedly foolproof methods of observation. Etc etc.

It doesn't have a central thesis like Tipping Point or Outliers did, but it's still fun and informative and challenges your brain. What more can you ask for?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

seventy-five

Nightmares and Dreamscapes

I picked up this audiobook quickly at the library and decided to try it after seeing that a bunch of celebrities narrated each one - including Whoopi Goldberg, Lisa Simpson (the voice), Rob Lowe, Kathy Bates, and Tim Curry. What it took me a little longer to realize was that the book is actually 826 pages long. But I'd say it was worth it.

The stories ranged from a moving, alive finger sticking out of a bathroom sink drain that torments a husband, long-dead rock and roll legends that inhabit a rural town in Oregon, a mafia boss getting buried in his Cadillac for revenge from the perspective of the burier, and a nocturnal vampire aviation enthusiast.

I don't usually go for horror - I've read King's The Stand, which isn't really horror, and loved it. This year I read Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, which I enjoyed as well. I don't like horror movies - those tend to scare me after the movie stops. While the stories in this collection are scary and creepy and freaky, they're also well-written, engaging, funny, and smart. He does what he does as good as you can really expect. He's even able to talk about larger issues. Color me impressed.

seventy-four

The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

I read A.J. Jacobs’ “A Year Of Living Biblically” last year, and judging by my review of it, it’s hard to imagine why I tried his other famous book. I thought his attempt to chronicle living by the words of the bible was a little juvenile and disappointing in its lack of historical analysis. I wanted to hear more about why things made their way into the bible, how people have interpreted it over the years, what it meant to him and people in our age. It ended up being a scattershot personal journey that was more about the importance of family than his intended subject matter.

This was also a lot more pop-psych than I would have hoped for. His “investigation” into what intelligence actually is amounts to various gestures toward common clich├ęs, rather than his opinion about what being smart means. As he reports on interesting bits from the encyclopedia, he goes for the quick yuk-yuk joke rather than absorb the info or tell you what he thinks it means. “Apparently, there’s a whole group of people – and by people I mean losers – who also comb the Britannica looking for mistakes.” Ha, ha! Ha! Sigh.

All this said, it borders on informative, and it sounds like a fun way to increase your understanding of the world. A survey course of existence, forcing you to know about things you’d never read about.

I did find the entry on Thomas Paine interesting enough to want to read more of his stuff, if only to have ammunition in a theoretical fight with a Tea Partier: “His ideas were solid – relief for the poor, pensions for the aged, public works for the unemployed, a progressive income tax. But in England, where he was living at the time, it got him charged with treason. Things worsened with he wrote another pamphlet attacking organized religion. Though he made clear in the pamphlet that he was a deist and believed in the Supreme Being, he still got charged with being an atheist.” Sounds like Glenn Beck hasn’t read Paine.

I did have to identify with Jacobs in this respect:

“I’m wondering if – to continue Ezekiel’s metaphor – I bit off more than I could chew when I announced this Britannica project to the world. Because I have to tell you, I’m not sure I can go on. I’m not sure I can hear another one of those tissue-thin pages crinkle while turning. Or see another black-and-white picture of an old man with elaborate facial hair. Or learn about the average cubic meters of water discharged by another African river. Or crack open another volume with a spine emblazoned with the Scottish thistle – a plant with sharp thorns that serves as Britannica’s weird-looking and aggressive logo. Why exactly did I think this was a good idea again?”


This book was also the last one I read on a Kindle - I'll post about my thoughts on e-readers soon.

Monday, November 15, 2010

seventy-three

In Me Own Words: The Autobiography of Bigfoot

This was recommended on a few lists that contained mostly grown-up books, and I understand why - but I wasn't expecting such a short book when I ordered it online. In Me Own Words isn't in any library system I belong to, so I had to try Amazon. It's supposed to be Bigfoot's tell-all autobiography. It's more of a short graphic novel with a lot more words than you'd think. "Me have opinion. What happen world me ask? Me once believe in good. Now, no. World go shit, just like bigfoot screenwriting career." It gets better and better, and the illustrations are funny and graphic and weird and not what you'd expect. Definitely recommended.

seventy-two

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

So far this year in books written by comedians, I've read Craig Ferguson's book "American on Purpose" and Bill Maher's book "New Rules." Steve Martin's "Born Standing Up" is much more Ferguson's than Maher's. I truly enjoyed a thoughtful, sincere, and funny novel-length biographical essay on comedy. Martin's book doesn't try for laugh-out-loud moments, but manages to make you chuckle to yourself here and there, smile, and furrow your brow with "ahhhhhh" moments. His take on what comedy means is refreshing. He begins with a brief childhood sketch and then gets right into his career, education, and stand-up failure through success through departure to movies. I think this quote will illustrate what I liked best about the book:

"I recently viewed a musty video of an appearance on The Virginia Graham Show, circa 1970, unseen since its airing. I looked grotesque. I had a hairdo like a helmet, which I blow-dried to a puffy bouffant, for reasons I no longer understand. I wore a frock coat and a silk shirt, and my delivery was mannered, slow, and self-aware. I had absolutely no authority. After viewing the show, I was - especially since I was writing an autobiography documenting my success - depressed for a week. But later, searching my mind for at least one redeeming quality in the performance. I became aware that not one joke was normal, that even though I was the one who said the lines, I did not know what was coming next. The audience might have thought what I am thinking now: "Was that terrible? Or was it good?"

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

seventy-one

The Hunger Games (Hunger Games, #1)

I was not expecting to like Hunger Games - young adult books rarely satisfy me. But Collins' voice was intelligent and interesting, the story pulls you along from about page ten, you want to know exactly how far things will go, and what it all means. The meaning of this book has more to do with just how far voyeurism, reality entertainment, and exploitation will go. With these subjects it manages it does well. The larger political meaning I'm told will have to wait until books two and three - which makes me want to read them. I want to know what a post-second-civil-war-brought-on-by-resource-battles-and-regional-infighting United States looks like from another perspective than its cruel sacrificial exploitainment game system. Collins seems like she's got more to say and I'm willing to give it a shot.

seventy

The Wordy Shipmates

Sarah Vowell’s most recent book is The Wordy Shipmates, and I wanted to like it more than I did. It’s the story of the second wave of pilgrims/immigrants to Massachusetts in the 1600s. After the Mayflower landed, John Winthrop showed up with a dozen ships and became the first Governor of Massachusetts. I grew up playing the town of Winthrop in track and lacrosse, so I always find it fun to learn about the origins of Massachusetts names. Newton was a new town, Swampscott was… a swamp?


Anyhow, Vowell’s contention is that the pilgrims were nerdy religious types. When talking about how few books they were able to bring over, she says: “Winthrop and his shipmates and their children and their children’s children just wrote their own books and pretty much kept their noses in them up until the day God created the Red Sox.” Perfect.

She takes us through the voyage over from England, and this passage jumped out at me:

“To see a ship similar to the Arbella, you can go to Plymouth, Mass., and climb aboard the replica Mayflower II, which to me is a claustrophobic floating vomitorium I couldn’t stand to be on for more than nine minutes, much less nine weeks. (A replica Arbella was built for Massachusetts’ 300th anniversary in 1930; but, according to Francis Bremer, it ended up beached at Salem’s Pioneer Village and the city of Salem tore the thing down after it “became a haunt for youths indulging in various questionable activities.”

Sounds like the north-of-Boston suburbs I grew up getting to know. The book is interesting, and well-researched, but I found it dragged here and there. I liked Assassination Vacation better, which I absolutely did not expect. There’s a lot about the religious philosophy behind what drives these people, and though the colonists’ interactions with the Native Americans looms large in the narrative of the book, for some reason I thought those parts weren’t as interesting as they should have been. Though you can see the importance of these relationships and, knowing bits of the history that unfolds through the next few centuries, you have a sense of dread as alliances are made and broken. Your mind runs through possible alternative futures – how could America have developed in peace with the people who’d lived there for millennia? Would it have been possible? It must have been. What could they have done? Something. The book doesn’t talk about this at all (it’s not its bailiwick, so that’s fine), but I was hoping for a little more. My disappointment is only a 4 out of 5 kind – I did enjoy the book and learned a lot, and her voice is very enjoyable. Definitely recommended.

sixty-nine

Silent Spring

Silent Spring is a classic, helped push the federal government to create the EPA, and was a large reason we finally banned DDT and other incredibly dangerous chemicals from agricultural and pesticide use. I admired her expert understanding of the science and how critical she saw the need to action to be. Good for someone in the environmental movement to read to know where most of everything came from.

The science she explains is so clear that it reminds me of the science behind the dangers of tobacco and greenhouse gases. The blowback she received from industrial interests reminds me of tobacco companies and fossil fuel interests. Definitely recommended.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

sixty-eight

The Victorian Internet

Utterly fascinating history of the invention, development, spread, ubiquitous use, and decline of the telegraph. The Victorian Internet is a very important global read - this invention was truly one of the most important our species has ever created. The phone, fax, internet, and satellite systems were all just continuations of this idea. A connected planet, exchanging information in real-time. Standage, just as in his "A History of the World in Six Glasses," manages to communicate a subject that could be convoluted, dry, and inaccessible in an extremely clear and entertaining fashion. Couldn't put it down.

Quick notes - because an in-depth summary would be silly for a book of this nature:

Samuel Morse essentially invents the electric telegraph (after the French and the British try to make use of the optical telegraph - which is essentially an elaborate windmill whose arms you can manipulate). He manages to invent Morse Code at the same time.

He has the darndest time getting anyone to think it's anything more useful than a funny trick.

Thomas Edison not only invented the lightbulb, but he got his start running messages back and forth in complex telegraph stations (as did Andrew Carnegie), became an excellent Morse Code operator, and then revolutionized the existing technology behind the telegraph. Smart guy.

It took a lot of false starts to lay down the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable, but the process essentially involved dumping miles and miles of reinforced cable out of a boat and chugging to the other side.

Because you paid by the word, people developed elaborate code systems to communicate by long nonsense words that required a codebook to translate.

Highly recommended.

sixty-seven

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

This is easily one of the better books I've read all year. "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time" is funny, intelligent, and gripping. Somehow Christopher, the autistic narrator who hates metaphors, can make you feel the emotions of the serious things happening to him despite not being able to feel them himself.

His father ended up becoming the main character in the emotional realm to me. Because Chris doesn't like to be touched, his father, despite losing his wife, is only able to express his love and devotion to his son by holding up his hand and spreading his fingers, and then joining their fingertips. Anything else will set Chris off, and though it seems like a consolation Christopher makes to the odd emotional needs of the people he's forced to share a planet with, his boiler-repairman father clings to the gesture like a life preserver.

I loved the diagrams, pictures, and sketches he includes in the book to better communicate imagery. Christopher doesn't like metaphors, though he'll try out similes.

I love how he has to wrap his head around one of his father's friends' odd habit of socializing with his father:

"When I got home Rhodri was there. Rhodri is the man who works for father, helping him to do heating maintenance and boiler repair. And he sometimes comes round to the house in the evening to drink beer with Father and watch the television and have a conversation."

If you don't like this paragraph, you probably won't like the book:

"Eventually scientists will discover something that explains ghosts, just like they discovered electricity, which explained lightning, and it might be something about people's brains, or something about the Earth's magnetic field, or it might be some new force altogether. And then ghosts won't be mysteries. They will be like electricity and rainbows and nonstick frying pans."

Seems like everyone I know has read this, but if you haven't, it's a quick read and I predict you'll enjoy it.

sixty-six

Assassination Vacation

I really enjoyed Assassination Vacation. I've seen Sarah Vowell on the Daily Show, and her incredibly subtle, dry sense of humor practically forces you to read her books.

This is about three presidential assassinations - Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Lincoln's murder, being slightly more well-known than the other two, requires more digging, and Vowell really goes the distance. She goes from historical landmarks, monuments, graveyards, seashore dying places (Garfield was shot in DC and after months of not healing, went to the Jersey Shore to escape the summer humidity), assassin enablers' prisons and, for instance, the store John Wilkes Booth bought his gun. She drags along her sister and young nephew for many of these treks because she doesn't drive. Her sister tries gamely to humor the morbid nature of these trips, but the nephew loves it all - he calls cemeteries "Halloween Parks."

You learn a lot about all three presidents, their VPs, the history of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and America's peculiar fascination with guns. You learn that though Lincoln freed the slaves, his memorial service was segregated. Garfield's assassin was much more than "a disappointed presidential appointment-seeker: he wanted to be appointed Ambassador to France, was crazy, hilarious, homeless, and a product of an Upstate NY Bible Communist Sex Cult. Also, the guy who sheltered John Wilkes Booth after he fled DC apparently knew more about Booth than he let on to authorities: "Which is why, when authorities questioned Mudd, Mudd played dumb, claiming that he didn't recognize Booth because Booth was wearing a fake beard - lame."

Lame. Awesome. More than the history and the factoids that she imparts to her readers, I love her voice. She really does show herself in the narrative, and she's a sarcastic, nosy, lovable, dark, know-it-all. For this book, that voice really works perfectly.

Monday, October 4, 2010

sixty-five

The Library at Night

I think Paul recommended I read The Library At Night, and I had no idea what it'd be about. It's a sort of history, sort of memoir, sort of exploration of his personal library, but mostly it's about the importance of reading and the history of the written word and libraries.

I appreciated learning about ancient Greek, Arabic, and European libraries, as well as global efforts to organize books. This is perfect for librarians and those, like myself, who grew up in libraries and worked in them as a teenager. I liked his thoughts on reading in general, as well as his particular literary loves. Lots of quotes in the book mean that he's thought about quotations in general:

"...to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present."

I like that. I also like:

"A dictionary from the seventh century B.C. carries this prayer: 'May Ishtar bless the reader who will not alter this tablet now place it elsewhere in the library, and may She denounce in anger he who dares withdraw it from this building.'"

"The idea persists even today: our books will bear witness for or against us, our books reflect who we are and who we have been, our books hold the share of pages granted to us from the Book of Life. By the books we call ours will we be judged."

"And yet, however careful our reading, remembered texts often under go curious changes; they fragment, shrivel up or grow unpredictably long. In my mental library, The Tempest is reduced to a few immortal lines, while a brief novel such as Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo occupies my entire Mexican imaginary landscape. A couple of sentences by George Orwell in the essay "Shooting an Elephant" expand in my memory to several pages of description and reflection that I think I can actually see in my mind, printed on the page; of the lengthy medieval romance The Devoured Heart, all I can remember is the title."

I could spend hours in most libraries, and I always leave with far too much. Thinking about what books sit on our shelves is important to me, and when I visit someone's house, I always check out their collection. And the final thought about remembering shades of books is so true - not only for books but for life in general. There's so much we forget, that remembering the important things, good and bad, is critical. You seem to learn that as you tack on the years.

One final note is that this is the first book I've read on the Kindle. I'm borrowing it from my mother, and it's been an interesting experience. Some of the tools I like - I also like being able to set it down, not needing to prob it open in one hand with thumb and pinky. But the price of a new book will probably prevent me from ever getting one, and candidly, the button for "next page" is annoying after you press it several hundred times. We'll see.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

audiobooks

















As for my experience with audiobooks, and to their detractors, let me just say this - it's a different experience than reading in the same way that blind people experience the world in a different way than those with sight. They miss out on brightness, color, and motion, while hearing and smelling and tasting and feeling more acutely and more fully than people who can see. There is definitely an experience that you get by picking through the words on your own via pages. I certainly prefer it, but audiobooks go back to the way stories were told around the campfire - they're given to you. They're an experience. And yet... your brain can still pause, dissect, interpret, cogitate, and process the information in the same way a visually read book can.

There are benefits aside from the convenience of reading while running or doing the dishes. You gain (or have to endure, depending on the performer) the cadence, pronunciation, accents, and mood of the prose. Neil Gaiman reading me his short stories, Barack Obama telling me about his childhood - these are experiences I simply could not manufacture on my own, reading their printed words. Even if I were to adopt my own internal monologue - such as having Sean Connery read Great Expectations to me in my head when I was a high school freshman - it would not have been the same.

I recently read Alberto Manguel's "The Library at Night," and I found these passages to be illuminating in exploring what reading means:

"Socrates - who despised books because he thought they were a threat to our gift of memory, and never deigned to leave a written word - chose to read the speech of the orator Lycias, not to hear it recited by the enthusiastic Phaedrus."

"Precision of recall was deemed all-important, and throughout the Islamic Middle Ages, it was considered more valuable to learn by listening to books read out loud than by private study, because the text then entered the body through the mind and not merely through the eyes. Authors published not so much by transcribing their work themselves as by directing it to their assistants, and students learned by hearing those texts read out to them or by reading them to a teacher."

So sometimes it's better to read with your eyes, and yet it is possible to read with your ears. There is a value to absorbing the information through two different senses.

The caveat is that yes, it's certainly possible to have an audiobook playing in the background, words flowing past your consciousness without being given the attention they deserve. However, it's equally possible to have a book in front of you, turning page after page, skimming along and absorbing absolutely nothing.

In terms of my challenge this year, it's been fascinating to see people push the idea of audiobooks being a "cheat." If the logic goes that I'm not absorbing information - the same logic should extend to skimming. I'm doing my best not to do either, which is why it's so important to me to select books that I'm fairly certain will be good. You don't skim or half-listen to good books. You want every word in your brain.

Monday, September 27, 2010

sixty-four

Ask the Pilot

Ask the Pilot is an interesting read. I learned some things I found useful: the daily grind of a pilot, crew, and plane; how airlines operate networks; what flight attendants look at and notice when they deal with passengers; "cross check" over the PA actually does mean that the flight attendants are checking each other's work as they go through the cabin prior to takeoff and landing, while "1L, 2R" means which doors need to be opened after landing; being a pilot is very unglamorous unless you're an international long-haul pilot; seniority is the way the airlines operate; planes are both complicated and simple in that the plane automatically takes care of a lot of the more difficult aspects of flight, but these systems are complicated to oversee, and autopilot isn't used all the time.

I thought the format of chapters that begin with an essay on the topic, with a series of Q&As that follow, was a smart way to organize the book. However, I thought the Q&As got a little repetitive, and his prose is informative, snarky, but boring and pedestrian at the same time. Great job for a pilot, okay job for a writer.

sixty-three

The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicle, #1)

I'd heard great reviews of this book from a surprising number of people, so I had to give it a try. And the back book cover contains the following.

"I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during the day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

You may have heard of me."

Not bad - has a level of mystery balanced with snarky arrogance that I find absolutely fascinating. My only worry was that it'd be too silly to be believed, but this is a very science-based fantasy novel, if that can be believed. Rough things happen, though the way that the narrative is given to the reader, it's pretty clear that he survives the events in the story he tells. It's almost an adult's version of Harry Potter arriving at Hogwart's - imagine Harry penniless, uninvited, and attempting to enter the school four years before he's allowed, with no familial support. Rothfuss's prose is funny, compelling, and really draws you along. It's smart as well - Kvothe's quick wit and interesting observations are fun.

But I'm not sure I've seen a passage like this in a fantasy novel:

"Perhaps the greatest faculty our minds possess is the ability to cope with pain. Classic thinking teaches us of the four doors of the mind, which everyone moves through according to their need.
First is the door of sleep. Sleep offers us a retreat from the world and all its pain. Sleep marks passing time, giving us distance from the things that have hurt us. When a person is wounded they will often fall unconscious. Similarly, someone who hears traumatic news will often swoon or faint. This is the mind's way of protecting itself from pain by stepping through the first door.
Second is the door of forgetting. Some wounds are too deep to heal quickly. In addition, many memories are simply painful, and there is no healing to be done. The saying "time heals all wounds" is false. Time heals most wounds. The rest are hidden by this door.
Third is the door of madness. There are times when the mind is dealt such a blow it hides itself in insanity. While this may not seem beneficial, it is. There are times when reality is nothing but pain, and to escape that pain the mind must leave reality behind.
Last is the door of death. The final resort. Nothing can hurt us after we are dead, or so we have been told."

Usually when fantasy authors try to ruminate about morality or existence like this, I've found, it comes across as filler or self-indulgent blather. Rothfuss seems to have a deeper story he wants to tell than magic and swords (and honestly, I'm not sure I remember a sword in the whole book). The Name of the Wind is more about the nature of stories than adventures, sorcery, and battles. I eagerly await Kvothe's wit in the next volume, which will be out next year.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

sixty-two

On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington, #1)
On Basilisk Station has been on my list since I read David Weber's "Oath of Swords" and "The War God's Own" and somehow loved them. Those were in his own fantasy world (knights, armor, gods, dwarves, engineering), whereas I know a lot of people seem to like his larger sci-fi Honor Harrington series. This is the first one.

Honor is a great character, smart, succinct, funny, and manages not to fill all the stereotypes for the "smart female captain." Seeing as it was written in 1993, Weber deserves some applause for this. The story itself was gripping, interesting, and managed to make you think a bit. Set in the distant future, but still somewhat realistic, and relying on physics we can mostly understand, Honor is in the Royal Manticoran Navy, which is one nation of star systems vying for power with others nearby, connected by faster-than-light drives and wormholes. The interesting bits come in when Weber brings us effortlessly into his space combat tactics, local politics, military politics, and the role of the enlightened colonizer. The plot that Honor uncovers is a little predictable, but still interesting. It kept me reading long enough to want to know more about her, and I'll be reading the next in the series soon.

This was also my first book read on my borrowed Kindle - I'll post about it separately soon, after I post on audiobooks, but I'm finding the experience alternately easy to use and annoying to use.