Tuesday, April 27, 2010

twenty-nine

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)

I started this book in 2007 and had to stop partway through. I thought I'd be able to pick up where I'd left off, but I'd forgotten enough, and George R.R. Martin's plots are very complex with a lot of family history, so I ended up reading it cover-to-cover. I can read a swords-and-sorcery book pretty quickly, and A Game of Thrones is no exception.

What makes it exceptional is that Martin avoids the airy, naive, formulaic plotlines and moods that cling to most "fantasy" books. This is the opposite of what you'd normally consider a fantasy - characters are mean and selfish, they swear, people get hurt in detailed ways, main characters die without even a pause to catch your breath, there's sex and killing and power and people just trying to do what's best for themselves. Magic isn't even the prime vehicle of save-the-day goodness or corrupting badness - normal people serve just fine. Sounds an awful lot like what the Middle Ages probably was like. Aragorn, Drizzt, Sparhawk, Cadderly, Egwene, Richard Cypher, Bahzell, Eragon, Polgara - all of them wouldn't last a few hundred pages in Martin's Westeros. Everyone's a Red Shirt. It's as if he asked "what if the main guys weren't lucky about avoiding arrows and executions and sickness all the time? What if they were like everyone else?"

The result is that the book isn't exactly... peppy. You're just waiting for the next horrible thing to happen, and when there's triumph, you're waiting for the Bad Guys to figure out a way to undermine it. They usually do. But it certainly keeps things interesting.

I'm a little terrified to continue the series. He wrote this is 1996, produced three more gigantic books, the last in 2005, and still has three more to write in order to finish. Safe to say it's worse than Wheel of Time, and depsite Robert Jordan's death, that series will finish in two years.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

twenty-eight

Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe

I'm a little addicted to Bill Bryson's style of writing. My email verbiage has slowly morphed into a stepchild of his prose, and I'll read anything he's written. Neither Here Nor There jumped out at me when I was looking through the Europe section of the library, and after scanning Fodors, Frommers, and Let's Go editions, I was surprised to see a Bill Bryson book in the nonfiction section. Not that I have much reason to doubt anything he says in his books - it's more that I enjoy reading him so much that he must be fiction. So of course I picked it up, and finished his small section on France on the subway ride home, and then forgot about it until we got back from our trip. I picked it up again to see what I had missed in our Europe trip. Not much, it turns out, but at the same time, quite a lot.

He wrote this in 1990, and as such, his Bulgaria and Yugoslavia chapters are slightly arresting. But many of his other observations remain very salient. At the same time, however, his approach to travel in this book is not very similar to mine:

"When I told friends in London that I was going to travel around Europe and write a book about it, they said, 'Oh, you must speak a lot of languages.' 'Why no,' I would reply with a certain pride, 'only English,' and they would look at me as if I were foolish or crazy. But that's the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don't want to know what people are talking about. I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can't read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses."

I understand that excitement, but I like to prepare more than that, and am always trying to learn as much vocabulary before I cross a border as possible. But it does make an interesting book.

Instead of describing what else is in the book, I'll just quote bits to show you what you get when you read a Bill Bryson book. You can extrapolate this prose out to him fumbling around Europe. And now, comedy genius:

"It wouldn't bother me in the least if all the dogs in the world were placed in a large sack and taken to some distant island - Greenland springs attractively to mind - where they could romp around and sniff each others' anuses to their hearts' content and would never bother or terrorize me again. ... To my mind, the only possible pet is a cow. Cows love you. They are harmless, they look nice, they don't need a box to crap in, they keep the grass down, and they are so trusting and stupid that you can't help but lose your heart to them. Where I live in Yorkshire, there's a herd of cows down the lane. You can stand by the wall at any hour of the day or night, and after a minute the cows will all waddle over and stand with you, much too stupid to know what to do next, but happy just to be with you. They will stand there all day, as far as I can tell, possibly till the end of time. They will listen to your problems and never ask a thing in return. They will be your friends forever. And when you get tired of them, you can kill them and eat them. Perfect."

Even when I disagree with what he's saying, he makes my sides hurt.

"I tend to think of life as bleak when I can't find a parking space at the supermarket, but imagine what it must have been to be Italian in the fourteenth century. For a start, in 1345 it rained nonstop for six months, turning much of the country into stagnant lake and making planting impossible. The economy collapsed, banks went bust, and thousands died in the ensuing famines. Two years later the country was rocked my terrible earthquakes - in Rome, Naples, Pisa, Padua, Venice - which brought more death and chaos. And then, just when people were surely thinking that things had to get better now, some anonymous sailor stepped ashore at Genoa and said 'You know, I don't feel so hot,' and within days the great plague was beginning its long sweep across Europe."

"...but I soon learned that everyone in Paris was like that. You would go into a bakery and be greeted by some vast sluglike creature with a look that told you you would never be friends. In halting French you would ask for a small loaf of bread. The woman would give you a long, cold stare and then put a dead beaver on the counter. 'No, no,' you would say, hands aflutter, 'not a dead beaver. A loaf of bread." The sluglike creature would stare at you in patent disbelief, then turn to the other customers and address them in French at much too high a speed for you to follow, but the drift of which clearly was that this person here, this American tourist, had come in and asked for a dead beaver and she had given him a dead beaver and now he was saying that he didn't want a dead beaver at all, he wanted a loaf of bread. The other customers would look at you as if you had just tried to fart in their handbags, and you would have no choice but to slink away and console yourself with the thought that in another four days you would be in Brussels and probably able to eat again."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

twenty-seven

The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels

I'm very skeptical of business books - I see them as slightly more serious versions of Get Rich Quick books and Self Help books. But this was actually helpful. As someone who's worked in less traditional office and business settings, starting a new job in a real organization would be a very different experience. The First 90 Days provided some productive ways of thinking about how offices and coworker and boss relationships work. It also gave strategies of thinking about how to hit the ground running in any new situation. Planning for goals after the first day, week, month, two months, and three months helps you think about what you might want to be doing. Even for less senior people, the chapters that go through how a new CEO starts surveying her team and figuring out who should stay and go are interesting - you end up looking at a common situation through another set of eyes. Other helpful thoughts ranged from how you want to introduce yourself to new coworkers, how to organize priorities, and how to split up what you need to learn into easily manageable chunks. Much better than I thought it was going to be.

twenty-six

Ender in Exile (Ender's Saga, #6)

If you haven't read Ender's Game, go read it. And then you have two choices of follow-up novels - Speaker for the Dead etc, or Ender's Shadow etc. I followed Ender's Shadow and truly enjoyed the geopolitical sci fi exploration of what happens after a unified earth loses its distant planetary enemy. I understand that the Speaker for the Dead sequence is a lot more philosophical and esoteric - I'll have to be convinced to try it.

Anyhow, Ender in Exile is a bridge between the two. It takes place within the last two chapters of Ender's game, where Card gave a quick "and this it what happened to the main character" summary. This book is an interesting exploration of that. Card's very good at writing very smart people acting very smartly. This turned out to be scientific, sociological, psychological smart pulp. I enjoyed it very much, and it kept my brain interested. He also kept the book emotionally interesting, when it'd be easy to keep very smart young people unemotional. But it's really only interesting if you read Ender's Game and wondered what happened to Ender, and don't feel like cracking open Speaker for the Dead.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

twenty-five

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

Jeffrey Toobin usually annoys me on CNN, so I picked The Nine up with a bit of dread. Fortunately the reason I erroneously thought he was inane and stupid on TV had more to do with TV and the usually moronic subjects they turn to their legal experts for than Toobin's intellect itself. He knows the Supreme Court much better than Anna Nicole Smith and divorce lawyers - and we come out the winners of that in The Nine. I knew just enough about the Supreme Court to get by in politics and DC, and just enough to know that a legal career wasn't in my future. This book serves as an excellent introduction to the last 14 or so Justices, the day-to-day of the Court, the important decisions of the last few decades, the effect the Court's had on society and politics, and most importantly, the measures being taken to influence the Court itself. If you don't know a whole lot about any of those things, this book is for you, and will actually entertain you. Toobin has a liberal perspective, so if this sort of thing would bother you, it's probably not your best introduction. But it only comes out rarely and didn't get in the way of communicating the facts. Toobin's writing is clear and lively, when it could so easily get bogged down in dates and _____ v. ______ formatting.

You get a picture of how close the court was to striking down Roe v. Wade in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case in the early 90s - if it weren't for a chance meeting O'Connor had with Souter that pulled Kennedy away from the majority, Roe would have been struck down by a 5 Justice majority. Rehnquist was already writing the majority opinion that would do just that when Kennedy bolted and wrote a new majority opinion. Scalia was not happy at all, and throughout the book you get a picture of just how pugnacious and angry he is at just about everything. O'Connor's power as the swing justice on the court is more fascinating than you'd think - she didn't want the power and tried to circumscribe the scope of her role when writing opinions. Thomas is also fascinating - his hatred of those who opposed his nomination bursts out at odd times, all the while he exists as the most friendly justice to regular people working at the Court. He's also an RV nut - who'd have thought?

twenty-four

Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse, #1)

Dead Until Dark is the novel that started the True Blood HBO series. After watching and enjoying Season 1, I thought I'd give the books a shot, to see if there's more world building and interesting detail in literary format. There's a little bit, but HBO got most of the interesting stuff into their scripts, and added more than was in the books, in my opinion. The writing's not very good, but it does try its best to pull you along. The rootsy, political, and racial interesting aspects of the HBO series are essentially absent from the book - it reads like what I'd always expected the book to read like from all of those hours I spent shelving under "H" in the Waldenbooks mystery section. It's fun and pretty brainless, and I'm glad they made a better TV series out of it. I might try the next book, but I'm looking forward to Season 2 a lot more.

twenty-three

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a 70s New Age classic. I'd also been told it's a Christian allegory, and I definitely saw why people think that, too. Basically Jonathan loves flying, instead of eating and fighting for food like the other seagulls. He discovers amazing new ways of flying fast, acrobatic flying, etc etc. The other seagulls don't like this and exile him. He then kind of goes to heaven, but then returns, and teaches other like-minded gulls. It's inspiring and the message that you should do what you love, and strive for art and beauty and compassion is all right there. If I'd read it when I was younger, I would have taken it as encouragement to keep reading. But I also would have continued to not eat a lot. Because Jonathan only eats once in the whole book, and I got worried he would waste away. Silly I know, but when the other birds tell him he's wasting his time and should eat more, I was also asking him when the last time he ate was. The clueless "flock" shouldn't be able to make such a good point. Regardless, I thought it was at least interesting enough to know what it was about, but I was very glad it was so short.

Friday, April 2, 2010

twenty-two

Paris to the Moon

Adam Gopnik's a writer for the New Yorker who moved his budding family to Paris because, as he writes at one point, he wanted his infant son to grow up in a beautiful world, and not be exposed to Barney the Dinosaur. He succeeds at the first, but the beautiful world is still a globalized one, and his son becomes obsessed, in a very French way, with Barney. I assume the same sort of logic propels the continued existence of EuroDisney.

The book is a collection of his essays, nearly all of which are totally fascinating and very well-written. He writes the common tropes about an American experiencing odd European customs, and witnessing the strange cultural colonization of American habits invading Paris. His essay on finding a gym was illuminating - people in Paris, other than ex-pats and police officers, don't jog. And their gyms are more for hanging out and eating sandwiches in pools than burning calories. When he finds a brand new "New York style" gym and joins it, it still retains enough Parisian-ness that the actual workout is pretty self-conscious and almost funny. His chapters about fashion week, French cooking, and daily cultural interactions are great, and he writes in big enough words that it keeps you on your toes. Enough history is thrown into the mix that you learn quite a bit about French politics and social events, too.

He shines when writing about his son, and trying to raise him well. He talks about their story time before bed, which at first just consists of him telling heroic baseball stories about "The Champ" who's a pitcher about the age of his son. There's not baseball in France so he feels he has to instill some American cultural heritage. But he goes and researches old early 20th century baseball and creates a world where The Champ is fighting with Ty Cobb, and playing in all of the old timey parks in their funny hats every night, and it apparently just captivates his son. I'd guess that pretty much anything would have, but the added storytelling prowess just adds to the effect. Anyways, it worked, as did the book.