Search

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Blankets is a charming, innocent, long format graphic novel. My friend Molyx gave this one to me for my birthday. With the exception of Moore’s The Watchman, this is the first graphic novel I’ve read that had designs on being considered serious fiction.

Blankets tells us the story of a young man from the American Midwest. He and his brother grow up in a highly religious household, obsessed by “the torments of Christ.” At church camp he falls in love with a young woman. They correspond, have a two week visit during her family’s implosion. Everyone grows up.

Thompson beautifully captures the magic and tenderness and heartache of first love, adolescent grappling with religion, set against the snow-becoming-summer thaw of a Midwest spring. The writing and the artwork are both lovely. I quite enjoyed the novel, which certainly elevates the form.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
A junkie is murdered. His next door neighbor in the flophouse motel is down-and-out police detective Landsman, who wakes up beside “the shotglass he’s been dating recently.” Turns out the junkie was shot in the back of the head execution style by a small caliber automatic. And since all of the jews who live in Sitka, Alaska only have another few months before they are exiled into a world that will not take them, Landsman has to move fast.

Thus begins The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, a fascinating alternate history noir detective novel which ends up being a meditation on some of the concepts of judiasm and the self-made traps people and peoples find themselves unable to escape.

As a noir detective novel, this is high quality stuff, which embraces some cliché while defying others. As science fiction alternative history, the novel works well. As a piece of prose, the novel is beautifully written, with more great sentences packed into many paragraphs than many writers achieve in a lifetime. As a truly great novel wrestling with huge themes… Well, it tries quite hard. I’d be curious to know what others think, particular any jewish friends.

I suspect that Chabon may have been seen as a race traitor or an anti-semite by some; I did not find that to be the case, but then, I don’t actually know much about Jewish orthodoxy, and finding fault in one of the world’s major religions isn’t something I’m bothered by.

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
Elon Musk is a polarizing figure. His efforts at making fundamental changes to the way humanity approaches space travel, transportation, and energy are having a profound impact on our world. He’s the closest thing to an Ayn Randian hero that I’ve ever seen in real life. As I write this, the recent Falcon launch above Los Angeles is the subject of numerous Facebook posts, and the talk of the new Tesla’s phenomenal acceleration abilities is probably the most interesting thing to happen with cars in a long time. He has also recently offered to help Puerto Rico rebuild a new type of power grid, and announced a fleet of Tesla trucks to take on the economics of the modern long haul trucking industry.

This biography was inspiring. Musk’s life is interesting, atypical, and filled with a drive to transform the world in positive ways at almost any cost which make him nearly a literary hero in my mind. In a time when “the best lack all conviction”, this book paints a portrait of one who does not.

Vance attempts to be neutral, though it seems clear that he too has succumbed to some level of Elon worship. The guy is full of faults; he’s not very tolerant of failure and probably pretty hard to be married to. His efforts to craft himself in the image of Tony Stark could come across as silly hubris, except…. It’s working.

This man and the teams of engineers and marketers he has surrounded himself with are transforming the world.

An inspiring book, and a good reminder: “There are no laws or rules other than physics that you must adhere to.”

Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim & Renee Mauborgne

Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim & Renee Mauborgne
“To search for a Blue Ocean” has become a Silicon Valley, West Coast cliché. I was resistant to read this one as a result.

But overt the summer, on the way to a fascinating course at the Singapore Insead school, I read it and learned a lot. It turns out that knowing businesses should seek less-crowded spaces in order to thrive and knowing some very practical ways to accomplish this are not the same thing at all. And this book is filled with case studies and some terrific, lightweight ways of ideating and measuring this topic.

I stole a few of the case studies here on how to graph the customer proposition relative to the competition, added a little bit of futurism borrowed from Kurzweil, and created a game I called Blue Ocean that a bunch of innovative thinkers and I used to spend some delightful hours on whiteboards. Over the last three months the result has been ten to fifteen entrepreneurial ideas which – while not all completely practical – are at least deeply innovative and have not been seen before in this world. That’s not an easy thing to do in the modern age, and I give a lot of credit to Kim and Mauborgne for clearly communicating a framework for how to think about competition and the open spaces where it may not exist.

Very useful and interesting book.

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls by Emma Cline
Disturbing and patient portrait of a young woman who falls prey to a Manson-style cult in Califoria in the late sixties. She is exonerated of any murder charges, but becomes a minor public figure. In the novel, she reminisces about the steps in life that took her to the Ranch and got her ensnared in the cult.

The novel was well written, gripping, just lurid enough to be mildly titillating and deeply sad.

I read in the Times that Ms. Cline has been engaged in a fairly nasty series of lawsuits against an ex-boyfriend, with whom she lived while writing this novel. He has alleged that she cribbed some of the material in this novel from his work and that she “hacked his email.” While I know nothing about this case, I will say that I’d be absolutely shocked if this novel had been written by a man. It just rings too true with the awkward experiences that I suspect characterize girlhood.

Mindset by Carol Dweck

Mindset by Carol Dweck
There are two ways of approaching a problem: The “fixed” mindset suggests that ability to succeed is implicit, fixed at birth or based on innate ability. The “growth” mindset suggests that people can succeed based on hard work, incremental improvements, training and perseverance.

Dweck argues that those who approach life and work with a growth mindset are more successful in the long run; they work harder even in the face of setbacks. They are also happier, she argues.

This notion is now somewhat ingrained in our culture (at least in North America high tech business culture.) But at the time she wrote it, in 2006, this was a novel way of framing the difference in perspective.

Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Annie McKee

Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Annie McKee
This trio addresses the role of Emotional Intelligence in leadership. There are some very useful discussions here on how to build organizations that grow leaders as a nearly automatic function of their structure and cultural values.

Sections on how to increase positivity as a cultural force in the workplace, how to grow leaders who grow more leaders, minimize control and pacesetting values are all valuable. A section on various different styles of leaderships and how they can be effectively employed in different situations was also valuable.

There’s a lot of practical advice here. (“Cultivating special relationships whose sole purpose is to help you along your path, is crucial to continuing development. Mentors and coaches help you understand your strengths…”) etc. Most of us is presented in an unadorned style that seldom gets in the way of the message.

Generally, this is a valuable book for leaders. I wish I had all of these lessons implanted on a microchip in my brain; as it is, it’s challenging to always stop and use them in the head of the moment.

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
Mr. Sinek uses the metaphor of the Marine Corps chow line to discuss how leaders should run their businesses. He preaches the need to make people feel safe and happy in their jobs, to give them a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. His writing is conversational to the point of being sloppy at times, but certainly accessible. He tries to tie lessons about leadership into an overarching thesis that humans’ biochemistry – as a result of evolution through natural selection – dictates how they perceive and respond to threats, camaraderie, and other social dynamics in the workplace.

When he dives into attempting to describe the way various neurotransmitters work in various office settings the work suffers. There's a lot of sloppy thinking masquerading as soft science. Indeed, Sinek will regularly offer a few sentences that are facty, if devoid of actual facts, then jump to a conclusion that is little more than metaphorical conjecture.

Example: "Oxytocin really is magical stuff. Mother Nature wants the ones who give to others to keep their genes in the gene pool." What? I thought we were talking about neurotransmitters, not magic. And I'm unsure of the role of Mother Nature in the evolutionary process. Unfortunately, language like this blunts the message Sinek is trying to deliver. And he is barely able to write a page without some of this kind of nonsense talk.

This isn't to say that there's not a valuable lecture here; this text would work great as a TED talk (which it started as) or as a series of lectures for undergrad business students. It's a decent, if shallow attempt to tie a basic understanding of the role of neurotransmitters in human motivation into hoary platitudes about the workplace. Dilbert meets Jared Diamond meets Malcom Gladwell.

Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation by Idris Mootee

Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation by Idris Mootee
I didn’t love this book.

The author had a half of a book here, very little of it fresh. And he stretched this lackluster content for 202 pages by publishing lots of poorly edited photos of boring business scenes, weak formatting, and excessive verbosity.

Consider, for example: “Within dynamic environments, foresight helps organizations better understand the variables influencing the pace, nature and possible impacts of change.” Well… Sure. But that’s hardly news. And the language is so tortured and poorly massaged that what little content there is here feels like it has been run through a Grad School Speak version of Google Translate.

Few of the ideas were wrong, and many of the little exercise suggestions in the book would be a good ice breaker at a strategic offsite… But that's about the best I can say.

Still, there were some good quotes in here from people like Warren Buffett.

The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes & Barry Posner

The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes & Barry Posner
Another Monicat gift, The Leadership Challenge is a sprawling 300+ pages on how to be a better leader. It covers topics like credibility, values, establishing a shared vision, how to empower others, how to encourage people to do their best, how to give feedback that is constructive, etc. There are a lot of very valuable lessons in this book, if nothing that feels particularly new. Still, anyone in a leadership role anywhere would likely be well served to pick this book up each morning, flip to a random page, then make sure they tried to follow the advice therein that day.

Pulp by Charles Bukowski

Pulp by Charles Bukowski
I’d never read any Bukowski, and he is certainly well known and referenced by everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Modest Mouse. For my birthday, the Professor got me a signed first edition of his take on the noir detective genre!

Except, this novel is a parody send up of the genre, and more of a meta-spoof on Bukowski’s impending death from leukemia. This was the last novel he wrote and he died shortly after completing it. The main character, Belane, is a dark-complected parody of Bukowski himself – a drunk, a misogynist, a layabout – and he does little but bum around making mistakes and waiting for “Lady Death” or “The Red Sparrow” to find them.

Cynical, short, and unsatisfying unless you’re a Bukowski fan or scholar, I should think.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
What starts as an interesting sketch of a relationship sparling towards conclusion takes a turn for the Shutter Island and becomes a nightmarish dream sequence before falling apart completely by the end. Great tone in the first third, descent into the mind of a non-character by the end left me irritated.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
What a beautiful coming of age novel, told with Mitchell’s pateience, keen sense of observation, obsession with the dialect of different ages, and his not-quite-in-focus-while-passing-through-the-background supernatural influence.

Black Swan Green tells us of a year in the life of a teenage boy in the small British Hamlet of Black Swan Green. He has a strange encounter with a Baba Yaga, probably dies, his dad leaves his mom, he deals with bullies and class and learns about girls and money and generally gets a year older. There’s just so much good stuff here, even wrapped in a fairly traditional bildungsroman.

I’m eager for David Mitchell to write more, because he is really quite good.

Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munroe

Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munroe

Alice Munroe has a terrific ear for the quiet emotions that motivate average people. This collection of thirteen short stories about the relationships between Canadian women speaks volumes in just over two hundred pages. Their secret fears and hopes and misdeeds large and (mostly) small are laid bare here if you’re patient enough to just listen; they’ll tell you all about their lives, and reading about them will enrich yours.

I’ll happily read everything Mrs. Munroe has written, and I only hope that it’ll help me get a little closer to being able to listen as carefully as she does to all the things people don’t say.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Christmas 2017

It's time!

After an incredible, but incredibly busy year, I've finally got a little down time to update Word.

I'm writing this from a lovely little village in the mountains of Laos. Dr. Stout is here and we're enjoying breakfast. Coffee and an omlet laced with thai chilis.

While my reading has probably been a little slower than some years, and my writing has been almost nil, it has been a great year. I've learned a ton, we've travelled to some wonderful places, and have unlocked a few achievements professionally. The people I love all seem to be doing well.

Merry Christmas, all.

Here are the books that will be posted in the next day or two:

Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munroe
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
Pulp by Charles Bukowski
The Leadership Challenge James Kouzes & Barry Posner
Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation by Idris Mootee
Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Annie McKee
Mindset by Carol Dweck
The Girls by Emma Cline
Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim & Renee Mauborgne
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon


-tf

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Good to Great by Jim Collins

Good to Great by Jim Collins

My friend the Monicat pushed this one on me, complete with all of her little notes, handwritten in the most precise script, never giving answers, just asking probing, sphinxlike questions in the effort to make me a better leader. Her timing of this gift was prescient; there are major changes coming in the structure of the company where I work which will push me to expand and extend my responsibilities. This will be great, but will force me to learn a lot quickly. And since I received this a few days before disappearing on a two week (relative) break in which I intended to try to be a little more reflective, particularly on my goals, leadership, and the traits that I wanted to continue and those I wanted to shed… Well, this particular prescription couldn’t have come at a better time.

Collins and team looked at a bunch of companies who dramatically outperformed their competitors over a sustained period of time, and tried to ask WHY they did. Then they attempted to distill the commonalities from these stories into a guide for how companies went from average performers in their market (Good) to market leaders (Great.)

I ended up with a deeply marked up book and two or three pages of useful notes from this book. Wish that I could spend two days discussing the lessons here with my fellow leaders at Kabam. But not today.

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
I enjoyed this novel about a professor from the Dominican Republic and the women he has loved and lost over the years. Diaz writes comfortably, fluidly, lyrically, and with lots of street lingo that feels convincing.

I really appreciated the gift of this novel. Diaz has a unique voice that I’d not been exposed to before, and I appreciated his inner nerd (Wintermute beach reference, etc.) that shined through from the DR womanizer narrator.

Will definitely read another of his books.

The Fireman by Joe Hill

The Fireman by Joe Hill

Some say the world will end in fire… And in Joe Hill’s long, sometimes bumbling novel, that’s certainly the case. This is a decent thriller and a half-hearted stab at the type of post apocalypse that his father did so fine a job of in The Stand. Unfortunately, we end up bogged down in small-camp politics and end up missing out on any greater theme or lesson. And since I’m using words like bogged and bumbling, I suppose that tells me that we also miss out on a particularly thrilling adventure or story.

Will still happily read more of Joe Hill’s work, but this was perhaps my least favorite of his so far.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Shantaram is a lovely sprawling adventure story and romance set in the Indian and Afghan underworld as seen by self-aggrandizing escaped convicted Austrialian heroin addict and thief. The novel I swell written, albeit in something of an over-the-top Pat Conroy style in which music and soul and moonlight and a generalized excessive romanticizing of the Indian subcontinent dominate the prose.

Our hero escapes to India, falls in with the locals, lives in the slums, is a heroic doctor, becomes a powerful and wealthy gangster, overthrows an evil madam, loves women, smokes a lot of hash, smuggles drugs, goes to prison, falls in with the mujahedeen, fights Russians in Afghanistan, and returns to Bombay.

There is a lot to like here, and I was happy for the recommendation. This book is alive with the magic and romanticism of India, as seen by Western eyes. This is exactly what Rushdie and Adiga are rebelling against, so in the larger context of literature about the region it suffers a little. But it is a lot of fun, and an enchanting story.

Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

So then Joe took his barbarians into the realm of the classic Western, and it was kinda awesome!

A caravan of merchants, misfits, and those who have lost something important head out into the badlands of wherever. They have a few folks with mysterious pasts along for the ride. After a few adventures they arrive in a depraved town that is caught in the midst of an underworld conflict between two bosses. Our heroes pick sides, get involved in the wild west range war that ensues. Everyone mostly loses, but there are some great heroics along the way.

And yes, Logan is here, if you are an Abercrombie fan. Good times.

Little Star by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Little Star by John Ajvide Lindqvist

A childless couple finds a little girl on the side of the road. But she turns out to be some kind of a weirdo siren, who, as she gets a little older, ends up leading a bunch of other little girls into a weird American Idol style death-cult.

I like his writing, and I like some of his stories, but this one was a bit goofy.

Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman

Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman

I am fortunate to have a colleague who spends a lot of time thinking about appropriate books for me to read that will help me become a better leader, better executive (which is what I seem to be these days. Gulp!) She thoughtfully annotates these HBR style selections with little notes – questions mostly – and they are almost always very timely and thoughtful.

Primal Leadership mostly told me that I need to quit being such an aggressive boss and “pacesetting” all the time. This is good advice, and the book had a lot of other good advice too, covering a bunch of types of leaders and common leadership foibles. There’s probably something here for almost everyone who is a manager. The key lesson for me was to quit pushing people so hard. Good advice.

The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy

The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy

This wasn’t a very impressive dialog. One guy convinces the other guy that life is shit. That’s basically it. I was unimpressed; just felt like a nihilistic sketch without anything interesting to say or any particularly strong language. Given that McCarthy is such a powerful writer, this one just felt like an exercise that he published to capitalize on the strength of his name.

Lolita by Vladamir Nabokov

Lolita by Vladamir Nabokov

“I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita…”

I read this book for the first time my twentieth year, when I was much closer in age to doomed Dolores Haze than to its protagonist. I recognized it then as a masterpiece and a beautiful, powerful, troubled account. Upon rereading it this summer on an extended trip to China I was struck again by the power, the majesty, the terrible tragedy and love of this story. Lolita is a heartbreaking love story between a terrible Old World Grendel and crass, blossoming overripe adolescent America. This is a heartrending feat of sculpting with language.

From the opening paragraph to the closing sentences above, Nabokov’s showy florid prose is both electric and elegiac. This is the kind of writing that makes anyone (me at least) want to put down their pen in despair, with the certain knowledge that you will never write a single page as good as what he is able to deliver in the hundreds.

There isn’t much new to say about this tale that hasn’t been said before. I don’t think I’ll try, except to mention for my own notes that HH’s heartbreak over his inability to achieve any truly lasting immortality with Lolita (who is- at best- destined to grow beyond the transcendent moment of nypmhetism that so captures him) struck me as a reflection on the deep tragedy of any pair of lovers ever to live: None will ever know all the secret languages and moments and passions and conflicts and hopes of a couple but that couple themselves. The full-near-to-bursting emotions and secrets of love that (hopefully) almost everyone is lucky enough to experience at least once in life are doomed to pass, unremarked, unknown and forgotten by everyone else, to disappear, “like teardrops in rain.” Beyond embodying all of that love in offspring – children – then, the creation of inspired art, like this wonderful novel, is the only immortality that lovers may ever share.

Happy New Year 2016

It has become fashionable of late to blame the year 2016 for those things which have occurred within it. And make no mistake, some very stupid or unfortunate things did occur. But on balance, for me, 2016 has been one of the best years of my life. I'm writing this today from a place that I couldn't have imagined I would ever end up, high above the Mediterranean overlooking an ancient city, watching dawn rise on golden stone. Professionally and personally things just seem to keep getting better. The good Doctor and I are happy, we live in a beautiful place, there's a cat who is spoiled beyond belief, and he is constantly surrounded by books in his library in the sky.

I feel like I read less each passing year. I blame it on these fiendishly convenient and engaging little devices which allow us to bring games and social connections and all of the wonderful stupidity of the internet to bed with us. It's too easy to pick up the ipad and play a game. And then, there are a few elements in this grand and complicated life that distract from reading. But, at the same time, there's been a whole lot of plane travel this year, and a lot of nights in hotel rooms, and these are places that help me focus on the book at hand.

I hope that 2016 was not the flaming-trash-fire it has been popular to call it for you. I hope your life exceeded some of your greatest expectations, as mine did. And I hope you got to read a lot of words. After all, they're all we have to go on.

12/31/2016
-tf

Monday, December 28, 2015

Slade House by David Mitchell

Slade House by David Mitchell

A short collection of vignettes which reveal the mystery of the sinister Slate House. This is the least impressive book of Mitchell’s that I’ve read; it felt like a few notions from his earlier works that barely amounted to a look at a haunted house tale.
The prose is fine, but unimpressive. The revelation(s) are obvious from a long way off.

I enjoyed this book, but it is nowhere near the level of quality of some of his other works.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Mr. Mitchell’s epic Cloud Atlas spans several centuries, leaps continents and cities in a single sentence, comprises itself of at least five different variants of the English language, and flirts with as many different forms. This is not one novel, but a collection of novellas which loop and coil around one another, inform one another, flirt with greater themes and truths while still (mostly) managing to maintain a coherent shape and an approachable style. This is a masterpiece written by a truly gifted and disciplined craftsman.
Structurally, this book sprawls across five stories: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (a diary), Letters from Zedelghem (an epistolary), Half-Lives: A Luisa Rey Mystery (thriller), The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (memoir), An Orison of Somni ~451 (interview), Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After (oral history), and then back through each of them for a second visit in reverse order. Each is quite different, sometimes they stop in mid-sentence.

For this reason, the book is long and occasionally frustrating, in the way several of Mitchell’s books can be. Just about the time you’ve got a grip on the new language of a particular section, just as you’ve started to really become engrossed in the narrative or the trials of a particular character, Mitchell changes the channel on you. The metaphor of channel surfing feels appropriate somehow, because it feels that abrupt and disconnected. But unlike channel surfing, these stories are intertwined, sometimes if only at the “butterfly flaps its wings in China” level. And there is a greater whole presented with themes that seem to carry throughout other Mitchell works.

This is a great writer with something to say and a powerful drive to transcend the confines of genre fiction.

I finished this one the morning of December 19th, 2015, the day after our 11th wedding anniversary. We have just arrived here on Dragon’s Cove for two weeks. There is a rainbow over the violence of the sea just to the west and the strange old witch house creaks and groans a little as it warms up.

Time for another cup of coffee.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Ghost written is one of Mitchell’s early works. It consists of a collection of stories which are connected only through tenuous links. The boy who runs the music shop in the first tale happens to sit near a man from the second tale, and so on.
There is a lot of terrific writing here, and we manage to span the globe, from a lovestruck record store clerk in Tokyo to a Russian con-woman to a Chinese peasant. Almost each of these tales is compelling in one way or another.

The themes and stylistic trademarks that Mitchell will end up getting a lot of praise for in later works are almost all right here. Good stuff.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Jacob Z is a low level Dutch clerk who has just landed on the Dutch occupied spit of land just off Nagasaki from which trading enterprises with Imperial Japan are conducted. The dutch are the only country allowed to trade with Japan for decades and this is the only allowed port. Dutchmen (there are no women present) are only allowed to visit the mainland under heavy supervision. Jacob Z rises in prominence, discovers corruption, falls in love, and meets a powerful mentor. Time passes. The intrigues of the local warlords get complicated. Samauri are involved!

The prose is beautiful. It’s David Mitchell. We get a couple of dizzying perspective shifts and a few abrupt time lapses. The result is an epic, beautiful pastiche of a few lives in a strange place with a few hints of magic. Terrific work.

Perhaps my favorite of the Mitchell books. Perhaps.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
This was the first of the David Mitchell novels I read. It was a gift from my aunt, Terry. I was blown away.

First, the writing is really good. Really good, filled with observations and techniques that elevate this one from a novel to literature.

Second, the plot and structure floored me. In what (I now recognize) is David Mitchell’s style, we jump from narrative to narrative, across a span of many years. Of course, they are all interconnected, though it is hard to see how each time we jump narratives.

I don’t want to give away much more here, except to say that this one paid off for me every page along the way, and paid double at the end when I was able to look back and finally see the epic expanse of what he had done.

So I immediately put everything else on the nightstand on the back burner and went out to buy as many of his books as I could find… Since Vancouver no longer actually has, you know, bookstores, I had to go to Tokyo to find the next one, just a block off Shibuya crossing…

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir
Finished this one on a trans-Pacific flight from Canada to China, safe in an awesome spaceship operated by Air Canada. I’ve never read a more delightful, more scientific, sci-fi novel.

Mark Watney gets stranded on Mars when the NASA mission he is a part of goes sideways. Alone, without communication, he… I will tell you no more. But suffice to say this tale is never dull, despite being peppered with hard science. Mark is one of the more likeable heroes I’ve read about in a long time. And while the “man-vs-nature” core conflict seems like something that would have gone out of fashion around the time of Stephen Crane, this one manages to be vastly more engaging than, say, Tom Hanks talking to a volleyball.

The Martian is a light, joyful celebration of human knowledge, scientific inquiry, and the human spirit. It’s also a fine adventure story, and a superb lesson in how to use language to make what could be dry subjects interesting.

The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry

The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry

McMurtry pops the bubbles of several of the western hero clichés in this short novel. Doc Holiday, Wyatt and the Earp Brothers, Charlie Goodnight, Quanta Parker, and a few others bouce from Denver to Texas to Tombstone Arizona. None of them are portrayed as heroic figures; their deeds are pointless, their mistakes and foibles all too human, their lives short and mostly ugly and without meaning.

The writing is elegiac, sprightly, and the dialog humorous in the way that many of McMurtry’s dark/light cowboy duos are. His treatment of gender relations is pretty similar to what he has done elsewhere, in which clueless, work-obsessed men disappoint their ladies with their fumbling lack of social grace.

The only thing that perplexed me was this: McMurtry is busy setting up and knocking down legends here; taking clichés and masterfully subjecting them to the harsh spotlight of a modern sensibility on what they might have really been like. (The casual domestic abuse scene, for example.) But when it comes to the Indians, they are mostly treated like stage villians, no more nuanced than Blue Duck in Lonesome Dove. They torture whites for fun, roast genitals, “invade the privates of female captives with fireants” and so on. The savage redman cliché is treated here with all the nuance of a Michael Meyers film. And I’m not sure why, because LMM certainly is aware of what he’s doing.

The “showdown at the OK Corral” for which Tombstone is best known takes place in less than two pages; we watch see Wyatt Earp’s last days as a geriatric suffering dementia in Santa Monica, well into the age of the automobile. He was, in McMurtry’s telling, a legend who never deserved to be remembered.

A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge by Terry Shames

A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge by Terry Shames

Terry’s newest book is more sure-footed, denser, and darker than Samuel Craddock’s previous escapades have been. Samuel himself is a more nuanced character here (he makes the occasional mistake, and has moments of self-doubt.) Feels like we’re moving away from the small-town cozy and towards a more mature and complex mystery. Though there are very few surprises here, because the whodoneit part (and even the location of the body) is telegraphed quite heavily, there is enough other stuff going on here that I was engaged the whole ride. There’s still a little bit of art, a lot of cinnamon rolls and iced tea, some horses and cows, and some Texas dialect. But mostly, we’ve got a chief-of-police tracking down a couple of (long cold) murders and digging up dirt (literally!) on the moderately sordid past of an old friend.

I enjoyed this one a lot and am eager to read the next one!

Meditations on Violence by Rory Miller

Meditations on Violence by Rory Miller
Lately I’ve been casually teaching a few of the folks at the office the basics of boxing and krav maga. I’m certainly not a truly qualified instructor of either of these disciplines, but I’ve spent a lot of time trying to learn both over the last decade. Sgt. Miller’s book and his instruction in-person in Austin stuck with me. So while I’ve read this one before, I found myself going back to it to think about how I should modify my lesson plan. I reread it over a very long week here in the glorious Vancouver summer.

Miller’s experience with violence- mostly through his work as a corrections officer- seems as if it makes him an expert on the topic. I enjoyed his thinking and writing again, through I find myself raising an eyebrow at least every page or two at what seem like tall tales. (“Sarge didn’t even spill his coffee!”) Still – in my limited experience, this is a unique book, which focuses on the delta between martial arts training and real world applied violence. And it is a useful lens for thinking about how to teach folks a little self-defense.

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
Collection of short stories, which purport to be “wicked” but often fall pretty far short. The first of these is the best and the remainder gradually slide downhill. Atwood herself-- or at least an elderly female Canadian writer of fiction—appears as central to most of these tales. And there’s a fair amount here that feels like it is revisiting the Toronto writers scene from the sixties. Are these the same people we met in The Robber Bride? I’m not sure, but there are similarities.

She’s a good writer, and the language is solid, some of the imagery neat. (Particularly in the first story of the collection.) But overall, her body of work is much, much stronger elsewhere, so this is probably only really interesting to the completionist.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a modestly interesting management book on how to better structure interpersonal realtionships between company leaders. Presumably the lessons here could be applied to any working group, but they seem particularly focused on top level executives. There are a lot of feelings here and the book is pretty focused on the way people interact with one another rather than establishing core competencies, thinking about how to load balance effort, strategies for establishing dominance in a market, dealing with competitors, etc. Basically, if you’re interested in thinking about how some group of senior level people at your company might not be getting along well, this book might be interesting for you.

The most interesting element here is the way he tells the tale, by using a fictional Silicon Valley company and showing us the interactions of their leadership group throughout a few meetings. Sound dull? Well… It is. But it is still far, far more interesting than the epilogue, in which we move from the parable format to a more direct checklist. Here’s the list of the Five Dysfunctions:

Absence of Trust
Fear of Conflict
Lack of Commitment
Avoidance of Accountability
Inattention to Results

Now as a framework for thinking about your team or studio or company this is a pretty decent place to start. And that does make this book useful if you’re the kind of person who has ever stood in front of a whiteboard and tried to get others to think about how your organization could improve. If barbarians with axes, or gumshoes, or cumshots, or vampires, or futurism, or whooshing spaceships, or martial arts, or geopolicitcs are your thing instead.. Pass.

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
There are no heroes here.

And no one gets to escape. They are all bound into a senseless and brutal conflict. Most of them die, usually after being maimed, defeated physically and spiritually, and end their lives morally bankrupt and mostly unmourned. There are no heroes here.

If you like any of Abercrombie’s work, you’ll like this. The focus stays mostly on the barbarians. These are men who know the legends of Threetrees and the Bloody Nine but not much more. Perhaps a few of the older Named Men fought with (and against) them a few times, but for the most part, those days are quickly fading into legend.

Byaz and the knights of the Union are here, also not being heroic. They try. But they fail, when stupidity, arrogance, cowardice, or other human frailties end up putting them in the mud.

There are no heroes here, but Abercrombie writes a high octane tale of three to five different factions in a local protracted skirmish that ends up with a lot of people dead. It’s an anti-war novel, in fact, and none the worse for treading familiar ground in both genres. Hardcore barbarian battle fantasy and Catch-22 style anti-war are seldom found in the same body. Nice work.

But there are no heroes here.

Revival by Stephen King

Revival by Stephen King
The preacher starts messing with electricity. Fate deals him a rough blow and his fortune becomes tied with a small boy. Each travels through a few decades of America in the back half of last century. Their paths cross on occasion.

The preacher gets dangerous, becomes a demagogue and a revivalist. He cures people, but… They have unexpected side effects. Perhaps because they are ripping a tear in the warp and weave of things and starting to let in parts of the Great Old Ones? You’d have to read to find out.

This is King, so it’s a good yarn, loads of jus’ plain folks writing, and a whole lot of the author’s love of rock n’ roll and Americana.

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
In a land without honor where only money and murder have value a rough and tough merc leader and her brother are betrayed.

She crawls back from death, gathers a collection of troubled badasses and ruins all their lives in her singular pursuit of vengeance.

I like Abercrombie’s violent, dystopian take on fiction. For my money, he’s better than Jar Jar Martin.

Naomi’s Room by Denis MacEoin

Naomi’s Room by Denis MacEoin

Atmospheric and sad horror novel that ends with a skull-crushing nose-dive into clichéd resolution. It was the ancient crap in the attic from the time the house was owned by that eeeevil guy who did the eeevil stuff. Too bad he ate your daughter’s soul, dude.

It’s been a while since I read this, and I recall that the writing was acceptable. I remember thinking the scene in the London shopping center when the girl disappears was compelling; I could feel the growing terror in the main character as the terrible realty that his daughter had been kidnapped

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Sanderson’s big new epic fantasy series got a lot of love from the right corners, so I picked up a thousand page paperback brick and threw it in the bag for Vietnam. Perfect beach reading, even on too-windy a beach near an ancient city far away…

Good battles. A few interesting heroes and anti-heroes cavort around, a couple of coming-of-age plots that felt a bit tired unfold. There’s a cool system of magic, and a focus on interpersonal intrigue. My biggest beef is that the scenes between men and women in this book are almost all terrible; does anyone ever actually have sex in this universe? I don’t think so.

I’d read the second one. In fact, I’ve owned it since the day I got back but haven’t started it. Hardback.

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

On Such A Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

She travels across a ruined, crappy dystopian land in search of her brother. The writing is decent, but nothing amazing. Then she ends up in the city, where she is some kind of a weird slavegirl to an elderly couple. Luckily, her brother is one of the most celebrated neurosurgeons in the land or something, and… I just can’t remember. This one didn’t make much of an impression on me.

Vietnam by National Geographic

Vietnam by National Geographic

As mentioned previously, the National Georgrapic series of travel books do a very fine job of giving the flavor of each place without being such an exhausting phone-book-catalog of temporal restaurant and hotel details. The National Geo book on Vietnam gives us lots of pictures and glossy highlights of each town and borough, along with lightweight historical context for why a place is the way it is now.

We used this book to plan our 10th wedding anniversary trip to this wonderful country… And we had a ball. I’ve written more on the subject elsewhere, but here’s a little timbit on one of the things I will most remember:

“And oh God the food. Never have I been to a place with such an obsessive interest in food, and no country I have visited has such a wealth of incredible, diverse dishes. In each of the four cities we visited there was nary a square foot in any ally or sidewalk which wasn't taken up by people cooking or eating. The calendars hawkers tried to sell on the street were not of fast cars or local girls, they were of the monthly specialty soups. From French coffees and baked goods, to the freshest of herbs, to the dozens of kinds of noodle, to high quality delicious grilled meats of every kind, Vietnam wins the gold ribbon for food. If you are a foodie, a chef, or a cook you owe it to yourself to come here…”

After Christmas, Before New Years

It's time!

From a little pub in the charming town of Yachats where we come each day to check internet...

Updates coming for a collection of novels, including most of the David Mitchell collection!

-tf

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Long Overdue

It's been a while since the grey day in February when I last updated this blog. The world keeps turning. It doesn't slow down.

We've had many adventures this year. Perhaps in a month or so I'll tell you about a few of them. China, Boston, Japan, Cali, Stampede, Texas, the Rockies.

It's rainy grey fall overlooking the harbor. We had a relaxing weekend. Macbeth, Onesies party, Tableau, Main Street with friends, flaming orange and red trees and puddles on the seawall. Halloween is behind us now (vampire black-tie affair followed by karaoke!) Dragon Cove is just a month away.

And there have been quite a few books.

On Such A Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
Naomi’s Room by Denis MacEoin
Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
Great North Road by Peter x
Revival by Stephen King
The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
Meditations on Violence by Rory Miller
A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge
The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry
The Martian by Andy Weir
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Ghostwritten by by David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

And perhaps one more...

Coming soon!

Happy autumn,
-tf

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Uvarum Double Feet



My father, Henri Victor Fields, died this morning on Valentine’s Day 2015.

He was born in East Texas in early May of 1947 to Maggie Peal Fields, an artist, and her much older husband, Harry Fields. He grew up there in Frankston among the towering pines and humid sticky days. Harry worked for the Texas Railroad Commission at a train depot near the small central square. Before long, Vic had a little brother, Gene Fields. Copper haired to Vic’s sandy blonde, cheerful and at ease with people, Gene and Vic occupied different ends of a spectrum in many ways, very similar in others.

Vic was exceptionally bright. He told me he would read the dictionary, one word at a time each night. According to Vic, during the nineteen fifties Maggie and Harry rented out parts of their house on Commerce Street to travelers. Maggie made biscuits and Harry worked at the depot, and “Little Fields” grew up among the strangers at the boarding house and the nosy rhythms of a small town. Stories of Vic and his brother’s adventures in East Texas were the fables of my young life.

Maggie was a painter throughout her life and Vic grew up in a house of artistry. He and his little brother had a fondness for pranks, many of which are probably the things his friends remember best about him. For example, Harry had a fear of fire. Vic and Gene made what looked like a giant match from a broomhandle and painted plaster. They would run through the hall of the house in Frankston pretending to strike this giant match on the floor. Another time, they apparently rigged up a telephone in a treehouse and used it to call far off places. (Russia is how the story goes.) I suspect this was as much Gene as Vic, but my Dad’s telling of the tale made it easy to imagine the two little boys giggling and reaching out to a larger world from a platform in the boughs of the great pines.

The boys had a dear cousin, Ange Lyles, whose mother was close with Maggie. Angie and her mom lived there for a while in Maggie’s house. Many of Vic’s early stories involve Angie, and sepia photos from that time show a girl with big cheeks and bigger eyes peering at the boys from the porch. The cousins remained close throughout their lives.

Vic strove to get out of Frankston and eventually made it far. By all accounts he was a gifted student at the local highschool, where Maggie also worked as a librarian as the boys grew up. Upon graduation, Vic was (as the story goes) the first boy from his school to ever attend University. In the summer of 1967 Vic headed off to college at the University of Texas in Austin. Around this time, the boys played in a band. Vic told stories of trips to Austin to play, though one suspects Gene was the better musician of the two.

Within a year or so (after, perhaps, a semester spent back in East Texas, where Vic had to do penance at Henderson college for having had a little too much fun and spent too little time with his classes) Vic moved into La Voyager apartment complex, north of the University Campus in Austin. Next door lived a long haired, dark eyed beauty named Sherry. She studied studio art at the University. Their first date was the weekend of Texas Roundup, an event in which neither of them participated. Before long they were married and had a Siamese cat named Old Kitty. This started one of their many traditions. For the rest of Vic’s life, there was always a Siamese in the house.

Vic studied political science and Sherry studied art. They drank beer at Shultz’ Beer Garden and lived on the periphery of the counter-culture movements of the late sixties. Vic loved Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, the Stones. After graduation they bounced around a bit. They lived in Denver as ski-bums for a season, in Cincinnati, and then returned to Dallas for graduate school. Realizing that Vic had a mind and focus which could go far, a professor there recommended him for the University of Columbia’s Russian Studies Institute in New York.

They moved to Manhattan, lived on the Upper West Side near Columbia. Vic studied Russian language and politics there. Sherry worked at Saks Fifth Avenue initially. They fell in with the Columbia poli-sci literati and often told stories of their peers and mentors there. One of these was former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, “ZB,” about whom they told stories.

In the later stages of the PhD program there at Columbia, Vic was approached by the Central Intelligence Agency. All but the dissertation done, he and Sherry left New York for the woods and suburbs of Langley, just West of the Potomac. In the height of the Cold War, he worked for the CIA as an analyst, building dossiers on members of the Politboro. He told stories of CIA role playing sessions in which each of them acted the part of a different minor official in Moscow, trying to consider the angles of spycraft that would give the US some advantage.

As the story goes, Vic was eventually tapped to move to Russia for a year under some bogus pretense. Sherry was recently pregnant, and they declined. Instead, he took a job with Dow Chemical, which had plans to expand their distribution in the Soviet Union. They moved to Chicago, where they had two boys.

But the lure of academia called. (And probably the joy of raising a family on a chemical salesman’s wage amid the snow and strife of Chicago in the late seventies waned quickly.) They moved back to Texas, to Lubbock where Vic entered law school at Texas Tech University.

Sherry worked as a City Planner, Vic learned the law. Soon, a third child was born. A daughter. Blonde and big eyed. Lauren. Weezel. Vic made friends there; some of these would remain close to him for decades. They drove out to the Pinky’s liquor store and drank Coors beer and talked about professors.

After graduation they moved back to East Texas and lived for a while in Maggie’s old house again. Brother Gene and his wife, Jemmy, lived nearby as well with their daughters, Robin and Allison. It was a house of kids and art and music and noise and southern cooking. Vic took a job with the Ramey law firm in Tyler while Sherry probably went a little bit nuts killing time in rural East Texas.

They moved to Tyler, to a two story house on Pinecrest Street. Near a few blocks of undeveloped woods they raised three kids, several cats (still Old Kitty, but also Houdini), and a pile of Golden Retriever puppies, beginning another tradition that would last throughout Vic’s life. (Rusty begat Scout who begat Ranger. Is that how it goes? Close, maybe.) The kids went to school, joined the scouts as Gene and Vic had, learned to cuss. Sherry worked as an artist. Vic made partner at the law firm.

His love of pranks continued. He would stop at a local nudist colony out on the interstate and sign up the other partners for mailing lists. Once, when going to a fortieth birthday party for another lawyer, he bought a pig from an East Texas farmer. He took the pig to the party, wearing a sign that said, “Happy Birthday!” Everyone got a good laugh, and when the party was over, they expected Vic to take the pig away. Of course, he just smiled and said, “Nope. This is your pig now.” (See, Vic knew even then that pigs could not be rented. Once you owned a pig, it was yours!)

Vic developed a running habit then, in the latter part of the eighties. He ran from the house to a nearby lake, on the grounds of the University of Texas at Tyler. He saw foxes there, and ducks, and would take Rusty on some of these runs. He grew more intense, grim. He would fill up a backpack with encyclopedias and dictionaries and run. Around this time he also developed an enthusiasm for backpacking and dragged his family along on several truly brutal treks among the peaks of the Rockies.

He loved the mountains, particularly the Continental Divide near Pagosa Springs, in Southwestern Colorado. He also learned to scuba dive around this time, and took his family on several vacations to Grand Cayman, where we swam with stingrays and saw sharks deep down along a wall.

But Vic was discontent as he approached forty. He struggled then with a depression that had likely been with him since his father had succumbed to dementia some years before. The fear of losing his mind was a great cloud on Vic’s horizon, and he spoke often of it in these years. Needing a change (and probably fearing that their children were growing up a little too East Texas redneck for their more liberal tastes) Vic and Sherry moved again, this time back to Austin. They moved in circles sometimes, I guess.

In Austin they rented a house in the hills west of town, and Vic became a partner with Davis and Davis law firm. Mike, Lauren, and I grew up, wrecked cars, got mediocre grades, made friends. Ripened. Vic worked with insurance companies and chemical exposure cases. Sherry painted and threw pottery. Old Kitty and Houdini were replaced by Dragon.

Vic and Sherry bought a house at 503 Westlake Drive, on an acre of hill country. They raised kids and built a beautiful home. Vic and Sherry’s Dad and the kids laid out what seems like miles of flagstones, built ponds and a deck. The house was a hub of youthful activity, parties, energy, romance, music. Vic started his own firm, hired minions. Some of these turned out to be friends. The family went on a grand vacation to Europe in nineteen ninety four. We explored the Swiss Alps, the Catacombs of Paris.

The kids grew up, moved out, but not too far away for the most part. Vic stayed active in his children’s lives. He would often stop by with a pint of Haggen Daaz Dutch Chocolate, Anderson’s Coffee (only Alfred’s Blend, of course), a bottle of Morgan Pinot. He continued to work at the law. I remember stacks and stacks of papers in his office. He once told me that after twenty years as a lawyer he couldn’t stand to look at papers or even read much anymore.

But he did read, and one of the things he read, likely the last book he ever read, was Lonesome Dove, by Texan Larry McMurtry. He enjoyed cowboy shows, and the myth of the last cattle drive appealed to him. In the story, two old friends, one light and one dark, go on an epic journey from South Texas to Montana. He could quote Lonesome Dove almost verbatim, along with loads of Dylan lyrics. Sometimes we would talk mostly in “Lonesome Doveisms” and Dylan verse; no surprise that the kids who came around thought we were pretty weird.

In Lonesome Dove there’s a sign that hangs above the South Texas ranch. The sign reads, most memorably, “We Don’t Rent Pigs.” But far below that it has another saying, a motto, written in latin. Uva uvam vivendo varia fit. At one point Coll, the serious one, teases Augustus, Gus, the light-hearted one, saying “You don’t even know what that says. It could be inviting someone to rob us.” To which Gus replies, “If anyone comes along who can read that, I hope they do try to rob us. I’d like the chance to shoot at an educated man once in my life.”

Later in the story, when Gus dies, Coll vows to bring his friend’s body back to Texas, to an orchard just south of Austin. He carries the body of his friend all the way back on the sign. The part in latin is the only piece which makes the whole journey, and ends up becoming the tombstone of Captain Augustus McCrae. It means, loosely, “Some grapes help other grapes to ripen.”

If you've been to 503 in the last twenty years you've seen the sign, or at least a replica, made with real old square nails and burned in wood. My brother and I made it for Dad. He freaked out, because he thought we’d stolen it from the museum in South Texas where the film prop hangs.

One grey day in February, a lot like today, while we walked on the stones on the shoreline at Burnet Marine Park, near Vancouver Canada, amid very different piney trees than the ones he had grown up amongst, Vic told me he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He was fifty eight years old.

He made me promise then that he would never end up in “Rusk” like his father had. I expect he made a bunch of people promise him this. He was scared.

He quit the practice of law and lived for another ten years, in his home, at 503. He had quite a few more adventures. We spent a Christmas along the Continental Divide. He came to visit us in Canada and explored the woods and coastline and mountains here. He visited his brother and spent time with Maggie in the later years of her life. He became a grandfather to Mike’s son, Greyson Fields.

Vic got his wish. He lived at home, at 503, on the porch, with his Golden Retriever, Ranger, and his Siamese cat, Blue Duck, near his Lonesome Dove sign. In the summer the yard filled with fireflies and the sound of frogs from the pond below. He ate all the Haagen Daaz he wanted. Last summer he and Gene had a reunion in Central Texas. They drank too much Shiner Bock beer, and listened to Dylan and the Stones. Sherry and Mike looked after him right until the end. In the last six months of his life he was a sad, scared skeleton. But he was surrounded by family, in a comfortable and familiar place that he built with his wife, his family, his hard work, and the strength of his younger mind.

Lauren and he sat on his porch swing and drank coffee in one of his last lucid moments. Alfred’s Blend, of course.

Some grapes help other grapes to ripen. Lauren will be one of those. Like Mike is for Greyson. Like Vic was for us.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver

Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver

Quite possible that this is the strongest collection of fluers du mal that I’ve ever made my way through. Is poison bon bons a better metaphor? How about “the longest collection of quiet, depressing little tales I’ve ever read?” Is that explicit enough? Did I mention that you’ll probably drink more than usual while you read this book? Maybe these are poisoned whiskey sours?

Carver is a modern American master. He captures the middle class and their dissolution and private dissatisfactions. The Great Generation and the Boomers are both well represented in this collection of nearly sixty short stories. They almost all acquit themselves poorly, having made a mess of themselves and the ones they tried to love. The collection is exclusively focused (myopic) on this narrow subset of citizens of the USA. They’re all white. They all live in the burbs. They are all between 18 and 60 in the year 1970, though the stories take place within two decades of that date.

These people have anger, complacency, petty wrongs, sexual frustrations, failed relationships, and alcoholism. Almost all of them.

Sound kinda grim and unpleasant? It is. Beware. If you read three of his stories and decide it isn’t your bag, that’s cool. They won’t get any nicer than those three. This book has thirty-six of them. Seven are new and were never previously published anywhere else.

Carver is a master. Make no mistake. His sense of the desperate, the unsaid, those things that people can’t speak out loud, even to themselves… is superb. His ear for dialog probably isn’t 100% pitch perfect, but if he misses many notes, I don’t hear most of them.

The final tale is a two part story dealing with the last days of Checkov’s life. For your Trivial Persuit needs, Checkov and wife and physician spent his last hour sipping Moet.

These are heavy stories. Where he’s calling from is a dry-out rehab center. It’s Christmas Day.

Japan by National Geographic Traveler

Japan by National Geographic Traveler

We’ve been looking for a better series of travel books since I gave up on The Lonely Planet as a publisher. National Geograpic does a stellar job of providing image rich local flavor and color, mostly skipping the dry catalog of things hotel and restaurant reviews which is better served by online sources. Instead, the folks at National Geo give us light history and lots of frank talk about what makes a place interesting. This was The Professor’s find, and I enjoyed it so much that we also picked up one on Vietnam to help us prepare for an upcoming trip.

Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek by Terry Shames

Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek by Terry Shames

The third installment of my aunt’s Texas based detective cozy is a good bit of fun. Former police chief, Samuel Craddock, gets reinstated to investigate a murder which is wrapped up in a shady land deal that left the town dead broke. There’s a little art, a little sleuthing, a little of that small town twang. Good fun!

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Read this tidy little collection of short stories on an overnight plane ride to Tokyo. Each deals with music and the ending of things. Only one of them sticks in my mind: a story about a plaza musician in Italy who is hired to take part in a sad parting of famous lovers- Hollywood has-beens- who use the young musician to invoke a song that reminds them of their good times.

Ishiguro is a superb writer, with a great sensitivity to the inability of humans to really connect with one another, or ever really get what they want. Each of these tales feels a bit like a sketch though. Readers new to his work should start with Never Let Me Go or The Remains of the Day.

A Man Without Breath by Phillip Kerr

A Man Without Breath by Phillip Kerr

In the Katyn Woods near Smolensk the Germans are awaiting a Russian counter attack. Things are not going well on the Eastern front. The siege of Stalingrad has just ended in disaster for Hitler. Nasty reports are starting to come to light about the activities of the Reich. Plots and schemes (which are the same thing) are being birthed right and left by the German nobility.

Bernard Gunthar is a man without hope. His wife is dead, his country in ruin, and Hitler is in power. He is recruited to head to Smolensk to help Goebbles to build a case against the Russian NKVD for the mass murder of a bunch of polish POWs in the hopes that this will sway international public opinion in German’s favor. Along the way he finds a lot of corpses, drinks a lot, quips a lot, kills a man, makes loves to a woman, and generally behaves like himself.

This one was written a good bit later than Berlin Noir and it shows. The language is occasionally anachronistic and the whole plot is rather contrived. Still though, this lives in the shadowy borderlands between historical fiction, noir detective drama, and spycraft. Good stuff if you like any of the three; popcorn even if you don’t.

The One From The Other by Phillip Kerr

The One From The Other by Phillip Kerr

Bernard Gunthar is back. The Russians and the Americans have divided up the former territory of the Reich. Jewish death squads from Haganah are hunting former Nazis, but there are many still in hiding and an underground railroad spiriting them away by way of the priesthood. There are villains aplenty here and Gunthar runs afoul of most of them.

Better for its setting and tone than its improbable plot, The One From the Other is still good gumshoe fiction. Gunthar meets dames, wisetalks authorities, trades punches and pistol shots with Nazi’s, CIA, thugs, and more!

The Things They Carried by Tim O’ Brien

The Things They Carried by Tim O’ Brien

Reread after a conversation w/ the esteemed CoggyCog. (Recently earned his 10 year merit badge!) The Professor and I are planning a trip to Vietnam later this year, and while I’m not interested in reducing the country to a shadow of a single war, there’s no doubt that as an American, the Vietnam War is an important part of how I think about the country. Moreover, I wanted to muse over what an anti-war war-game might be, and O’Brien’s work seemed a good place to start.

O’Brien’s lyrical collection of fables of the Vietnam war are as much a look at storytelling and how stories work as it is a war-novel. The book is sad and funny and poignant, and meta. It feels a little dated now, because twenty years ago when I first read it, this seemed like really cutting-edge narrative work. (Unreliable narrators, framework tales, etc. etc.) Maybe I was just new to the party, or maybe mainstream storytelling has stolen a bit of O’Brien’s thunder.

Still, this is a fine book, and probably one of the best pieces of fiction written about America’s misadventures in the jungles so long ago. We got ourselves a nice mellow war today…

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

A living cliché of a retired ex-cop spends his days watching television and staring into the barrel of his service revolver. Then a snotty psychopath terrorist style killer decides to antagonize him and give him a reason to live. The old cop finds loves, does some detecting, and eventually uncovers the killer’s evil plot to… Well, you’ll have to read on to find out more, won’t you?

Pretty forgettable, this one.

I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman

I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman

I read this one for a second time in the Chana Hot Springs area of Alaska in an eighteen hour period waiting for the rain to subside. I still really enjoy Klosterman’s turn of phrase and cocktail-party parlor-tricks with pseudo-logical pop-culture legerdemain. His discussion of villains and why they matter is delightful and insightful, even upon a second reading. Big chunks of this book were read aloud to The Professor while we waited for a flooded stream that had swallowed our road to subside. I think she enjoyed it.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

Rosewater turns his back on his wealthy family and the guaranteed good life. Instead he drinks, lies around in a slovenly condition, and dispenses advice and little bits of money to his constituency, the local losers of Wherever, Middle America. This is more classic Vonnegut except… It just isn’t very good. The characters are less-than-compelling. The writing comes across as unstructured rant on well-mined turf. Vonnegut has already said all of this before, better elsewhere.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut goes to a writers convention in middle America. Wait. Sorry, Kilgore Trout goes there. My bad. But Vonnegut’s there too, talking in your ear the whole time. He’s a charming drunk and cynic on a barstool.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Trafalgore, the cock of a Shetland pony, Billy Pilgrim, So it goes, po-te-weet. It’s all still here. It’s all still really powerful.

It’s funny to look back on the time-slicing and the filmstrip technique of bombers running backwards and realize how innovative this was at the time. In a post-David-Fincher and JJ Abraham’s world each of these bits of narrative trickery seem obvious, already done. But Vonnegut didn’t have a battery of post-effects editors and suites filled with gear. Nothing but a pencil, maybe an Underwood, and the power of the word.

Picked this one up to reread just one passage. Ended up reading the whole book. (It fit so nicely in a coat-pocket!) Ended up tearing through a whole stack of tiny little Vonnegut paperbacks in the next week, mostly on the road and crappy inns of the Alaskan Highlands.

Runaway by Alice Munro

Runaway by Alice Munro

Munro has a superb eye for detail and ears for hearing all the things people can’t say aloud. Runaway is every bit as good as Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Lovership, Marriage. Munroe tells us stories of the most intimate details of the tiny lives of the residents of Canada over the last seventy years.

One part Eudora Welty, one part Carver, one part Margaret Atwood, all masterfully rendered.

I am very eager to read the rest of her work. I expect to learn something quiet and important from every story.

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Saunders writes strange, stylistically distinctive short stories about hopeless social situations in the modern age, or in near-future parody ages. A couple of these stories are quite powerful. Almost all of them are disturbing little bon mots of quiet desperation told with a lot of irony and black humor. Saunders remains fresh, distinctive, with a great eye and ear for the absurdity and hopelessness of Middle America.

Somewhere at the crossroads of Carver, Alice Munroe, Chuck Palahniuk, and Monty Python Saunders sits, grinning a slightly sad grin and spinning great little stories.

Wool by Hugh Howey

Wool by Hugh Howey

Interesting dystopian sci-fi with some predictable twists and turns. The world felt like an interesting sketch of life after the fall with a decent adventure tale and romance thrown in. Our heroine, mechanically inclined, independent, aloof goes on a harrowing adventure and loops back around to where she began. It’s all alright. The world is interesting, the action is capably rendered, but the characters (mostly) feel shallow and thin.

The book was recommended to me as an example of sci-fi that started on a writer’s forum website somewhere and became popular enough that Howey continued it, picked up a publishing contract, and now has a best seller. If so, and it is has first work, I’m eager to read his followup efforts.

IQ84 by Haruki Murakami

IQ84 by Haruki Murakami
What a rambling and strange novel by Japanese master Haruki Murakami. I don’t think I really liked it, but I did struggle through all 946 pages.

Two Japanese loners find themselves in the alternate reality of IQ84, a world where there are two moons in the sky. The title of the novel is a play on Orwell’s, 1984, sort of. But this doesn’t really carry through the plotting or analogy of the novel except in the most olblique ways. IQ84 has no tyrannical government, though there is a sinister cult, and some supernatural/metaphysical elements emerge eventually.

The novel is such a mighty tome that the translated English version cannot seem to quite hit a consistent tone. I suspect there was much linguistic byplay and punnery in the original Japanese, some of which seems like it is trying to peek through now and again. But I didn’t find myself delighted by the language very often. (Though there is a three page sequence describing getting kicked in the balls that I remember being impressed by.)

Overall, I may just not be smart enough to be down with Murakami. I know that he is spoken of with great reverence and has many disciples. But this is the second time now that I’ve really fought my way through a strange and seemingly endless book and been left just kinda scratching my chin and wondering what it all meant.

Berlin Noir Trio by Philip Kerr

Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr

Kerr’s trio, March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem are so much more than noir detective fiction.

Bernie Gunther is a private detective, very much in the vein of Sam Spade, but his world is a lot more complicated. The Nazis are rising to power in Berlin. They are almost a joke for a bit; thugs no one quite takes seriously. Eventually they joke gets a lot less funny. People go missing. By the time the second world war is over a lot more people have gone missing. Berlin needs a hard drinking private dick with lady problems and a strong right cross more than ever. Sordid, historically fascinating, good language. Good stuff.

Of the two, March Violets and A German Requiem are the best. Cabaret era Berlin turns to a smoking ruin of rubble and crime over the course of these three novels. Quite a few people end up dead. And we get just a sense

This is excellent crime and detective fiction.

Six months...

Another six months without a post. Shameful! But hardly the first time, and likely won't be the last. Luckily, I've kept up notes on the books, read more than a few of them, written a few stories, spent some time making a couple of games, and done some delightful travelling with the Professor. Life remains good.

Now... quick thoughts on some of the books I read this year!

-tf

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Arc

The horror novel is live!

The Arc is a dark tale set in the midst of a terrible hurricane in Midtown.

Jaycee needs to escape Savannah. Big John desperately needs a fix from the Sultan before he gets sick. Lloyd Grey needs to find a way back to normalcy and escape the horrors of a grim duty performed in the desert. All three are caught up in a supernatural tempest that threatens to tear Houston apart, and lured deep into the clutches of a sinister ruin known as the Arcology, where a malevolent force bends their minds to its own dark will.

This is a modern horror novel, in the vein of Stephen King, Clive Barker, or Jonathan Maberry.



Special thanks to Give Up for the awesome original cover art!

I hope you enjoy my first foray into long form horror.

Vancouver, June 9, 2014
Tim Fields

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Last Death of Jack Harbin by Terry Shames

The Last Death of Jack Harbin by Terry Shames

Small town football, Gulf War veterans, cults, bikers, gamblers, love triangles, and loveable old Samuel Craddock. Good stuff! This one is a letter grade better for my tastes. (Darker, people here actually curse, take drugs, have secrets, have sex, etc.) Terry’s writing is strong and sure-footed here, while still coloring inside the lines of a small town cozy. Much of the byplay on secondary details (art) is gone from this novel, and what we get in its place is a much more involved, interesting mystery novel. Looking forward to the third! Good stuff!

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell

Woodrell, more famous for the excellent novel, Winter’s Bone, wrote a novella called The Maid’s Version. The story deals with an explosion in a garage next door to a Saturday night dance in rural Appalachia some fifty or sixty years ago. The mystery of what happened that fateful night is doled out in hints during a collection of vignettes told from the perspective of various survivors or relatives of the deceased. Generally, the focus is more on the color of the narrators and the texture of small town life than it is on the mystery itself, whose resolution is a tad overly complicated for my tastes.

Interesting, well written at points, good ear for dialog, but otherwise not nearly as impressive as the rural-noir Winter’s Bone.

May Update

Glorious spring weekend here in Vancouver. Today we slept in, went to see an impressive production of the Verdi opera Don Carlo, walked along the harbor, made deep-dish pizza, read and wrote a bit. The professor's birthday is mid next week, and I've declared a moratorium on travel for the month of May. The last few have been fascinating whirlwind of new job, new games, loads of travel, and more than a little writing, reading, and editing.

The Arc is just about ready to go live. I plan to release it on Amazon's Kindle platform, hopefully before month's end. It's a nasty little tale set in Houston Midtown just before a great hurricane smashes into the coast. The Arc is a horror novel in which several not-so-nice people meet something much worse. I did the original draft back in 2010 when we first moved to the third coast. Not for the squeamish. I'm quite excited, because a Houston artist whose work I admire, Give Up, has agreed to do an original piece for the cover of the book. His creepy poster art was papered on many of the abandoned buildings which inspired the novel. So if you like horror, stay tuned!

Otherwise, I've been working on book 2 of the Western, the sequel to Last Call at the Rusty Nail. It still needs a lot of work, so no promises on delivery date.

In the meantime, a couple of reviews!

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Happy Birthday to me.

Lots of books. Berlin Noir trilogy, IQ84 (my first Murakami!). Wool. The Arc.

Coming soon.

Happy Spring to you all.

-tf

Sunday, December 29, 2013

10 Years of Word

In all the excitement around posting the rest of this year's books, finishing the remix of the Western, celebrating the holidays, and working on The End of the World As We Know It I forgot something important... This blog, Word, passed its 10th anniversary this month!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Last Call at the Rusty Nail by Tim Fields

Christmas present for all you Western fans out there...

Over the last few days, here on the glorious Perpetua Coast near Yachats I fully re-edited the first book of the western I wrote in 2006 & 2007. At the urging of a good friend I published it on Amazon Kindle Direct. It's free, right now at least.

Last Call at the Rusty Nail

Jack Crow is a treasure hunter and a gunslinger. Robert Cogburn is a gregarious gambler and ladies man. Solomon David is a travelling archaeologist and scholar. When the three get tangled up in a plot to take over Texas they end up drawing their friends and lovers into an adventure that spans the breadth of the state and changes the course of history.

One part adventure story, one part mystery, one part reflection on the Western genre, Last Call at the Rusty Nail is a fast-paced tale of heroism, scholarship, gunplay, family, history, and the darkness of the imagined West.



This one is a frolicking action adventure set in Texas, 1902. It's a bit of a mystery, a bit meta maybe, and a lot of homage to Larry McMurtry, Frank Dobie, Zane Grey, and Elmore Leonard (RIP.) I hope some of you enjoy it. :)

N024A2 by Joe Hill

N024A2 by Joe Hill

Christmasland is not a place you’d like to visit. Lucky for you, you’re too old anyway. The Gas-mask man would just rape and kill you (maybe not in that order) and bury you in the House of Sleep. But if you’re one of my younger readers, say, Greyskull’s age, then you might get taken to Christmasland… Your parents won’t be too pleased about it, but in time you’ll learn to love it there. With so many games to play ("Scissors for the drifter!") and so much fun to be had, you can remain there in Christmasland forever. Never grow up, never deal with the hangover of New Years and the come-down of getting any older…

Joe Hill is getting better with every book. He’s got at least five memorable characters here, and a story that defies cliché at several turns. This is good horror, and if the worst criticism one can level is that he’s starting to sound a lot like his dad, well… Then we’ve all got a lot to look forward to from the rest of his career.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro

Munro won the nobel prize for literature in 2013 based on a body of work, but Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage is a good place to start an exploration of her efforts.

She’s been called a “master of the [short story] form” by folks like Salman Rushdie. She’s written more than a dozen books of short stories which seem to mostly deal with small-town relationships, the uncertainty in the space between lovers, and the unpredictable cul-de-sacs of life.

This collection is beautiful and beautifully written, with a density of insight on personalities and character which is reminiscent of a more generous, less sexually-aggressive Kundera. (Even typing this, I worry that so imprecise a comparison does Munro a disservice.)

The stories all circle themes of the unknowability of the future and the lifelong impact of chance intimacies. Munro sees deeply into the secret heart of each of her characters, then presents them spread out for the reader in a way that makes you think about how little you probably really understand about the people you’re closest to…. And by extension how difficult it is to really see inside the motivations of more casual acquaintances.

Munro is eighty-two years old, and has declared that she is done writing. It’s a shame, because her ability to turn an emotional microscope on her characters is powerful. The good news for the rest of us is that she’s written quite a lot in her life – so there’s lots for us to learn.

I plan on picking up everything else by her I can find the next time I’m at Powell’s.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

A Chippewa boy’s mother is raped, but the perpetrator can’t be prosecuted effectively because of the complexities associated with jurisdiction on the rez. He and his friends, a largely indistinguishable collection of teen boys, live their lives and plot revenge while hanging out with various people who tell them old indian stories. There’s a couple of violent moments of climax and extremely little falling action.

The writing is highly uneven; most of the lyricism that Erdrich exhibited in some of her earlier work seems to be lacking here. Much of the language is borderline wooden, and the regular intrusion of italicized Chippewa words feels a bit forced, detracting from both the language and the narrative. Worse, the beautiful tangled web of intersecting lives which characterize the inbred relationships of the reservation are sacrificed on the altar of plot and structure here. The whodunit and procedural pontifications ultimately distract from the bits that make this interesting: the lives of three young friends on the reservation.

I quite respect Erdrich, and am loathe to disagree with a National Book Award committee, but in this case, I found the characters either stock clichés or largely forgettable, the language uninspired, the plotting obtrusive, and the overall package just plain dull much of the time. Dissapointing, but only because I thought so highly of some of her other work.

In short, as tale of crime and punishment, this would never make it into the top 50 tales. As a reflection on the modern experience of reservation dwellers in this strange new century, this falls quite short. As a coming of age tale, not in the top 500. As top native American fiction… but then, there’s the rub isn’t it? At the point where that’s what I’m looking for, (and it still wouldn’t beat her earlier work, or anything by Leslie Marmon Silko, or..) then I’m having to look for something good to say about a book that really just didn’t do much for me.

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

So now are you ready for Extinctathon? Like loads of other Atwood fans, I was delighted to pick up her newest novel, and the conclusion to the trilogy begun with Oryx and Crake. MaddAddam is… uneven. There’s a lot of brilliance here, and some fine language, but to be honest, Atwood seems like she’s tired of Jimmy and AdamOne and the rest of the crew. The novel plays out well, giving us some insight into Zed, one of the most interesting characters in the series, as well as a few other people we like, at least insofar as we feel sorry for them and sad when they are gone.

We also get to hear a muted account of what happens after most of the last of God’s Gardeners are gone, when the Crakers pick up the reigns of civilization.

A solid ending to a solid tale of apocalypse, with some good writing and memorable scenes. More than that I cannot say.

Thunderstruck by Eric Larson

Thunderstruck by Eric Larson

Marconi plays the mamba… But before his efforts were used to build this city (apparently on the backs of rock and roll), he was a slightly obsessed Italian inventor who caused quite a stir in England by experimenting with radio waves.

At the same time, a snake-oil salesman and his paramour are bouncing between London and the US Coast. Everyone gets caught up on a ship at sea… things unfold.

Interesting historical fiction unfolds, familiar if you’re familiar with Devil in the White City or Larson’s other works. Good stuff, weaving a tight line between history, education, crime, and storytelling.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Turns out, there’s a sequel to The Shining! Who knew?

Started this one when the weather had just turned in Burnaby; finished it on a glorious drunken evening in a small cabin on the beautiful shore of Discovery Passage, Quadra Island, BC. The lodge attached to the cabins was busy shutting down for the season. All the half-indian girls who worked the place were busy talking about their upcoming vacations to sunnier climes. (Belieze and Costa Rica were favorites.) A few of the older groundskeeper types were planning on staying the winter nearby to keep an eye on the place, just like Jack Torrence did for the Overlook Hotel long ago…

Doctor Sleep picks up with Dan, the little boy with the strange gift of “Shining” which allows him to see the future, communicate telekinetically, see ghosts, and a few other things. Dan’s gift is a curse as well, so he’s crawled deep into a bottle to try to blot out the ghosts that still follow him around. Eventually, he hits rock bottom (in one of the novel’s more contrived and silly scenes) and decides to go straight. Enter AA, which forms something of a framework and theme for the novel. (The Shining = addiction, Doctor Sleep = recovery.)

Dan forms a psychic connection with a little girl who also has the Shining, only much stronger than he. The two of them and a few of Dan’s AA buddies track down a wandering tribe of psychic vampire types who abduct and feed on children. Plot ensues.

The novel is fun, never dull, but very far from the tight plotting and genuine frights of its predecessor. King’s afterward at the end of the novel briefly addresses how difficult it must be for a creator to revisit one of his most successful works forty years later.

Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Drowned Cities is the sequel to the mildly interesting novel Shipbreakers. So this is another tale of dystopian cities and populations scattered by war, resource shortage, and rising sea levels. Tool, the bioengineered dog-man from Shipbreakers, returns. This time he helps a young refugee girl and her friend, Mouse, try to escape a DMZ where warlords fight an endless feud for which there can be no victor.

The novel suffers from being written for the YA audience, which means that the dystopian nastiness Baculgulpi clearly wants to write (and did in The Windup Girl) has to be reigned in. The descriptions and his world vision are interesting; everything is sticky, damp, calorie-obsessed, violent, and makeshift. It’s a low-tech version of Gibson or low-magic version Miéville.

Ultimately, the novel steers a little too straight a line up the middle of standard adventure story plotting, and never breaks much new ground. A decent romp, but plays it too safe, coloring only inside the lines; and this amounts to a fatal flaw for a genre which is supposed to be pushing the boundaries.

The Limits of Software by Robert N. Britcher

The Limits of Software by Robert N. Britcher

An old friend reached out to me with a strange inquiry: “Can you please read this book and let me know if you think it is literature? You may be the only person I know with a sufficiently varied background to make this determination.” Aside from being quite a flattering way to engage someone, this was someone I respect a great deal but haven’t been close with in any way in about twenty years. (And barely corresponded with at all, truth be told.) How could I resist?

Britcher was involved with running a massive software project for the FAA in the mid-eighties. This was a sprawling, ultimately failed, multi-agency effort to replace the software used for air traffic tracking. In this subtly self-aggrandizing discussion of the effort, Britcher gives an overly florid collection of descriptions of the software development process, and of the challenges associated with large scale programming efforts. Ultimately, people form The Limits of Software, because we are all flawed, creative, organic human beings with lives and peccadillos that get in the way of pure logic and engineering. His basic point- that large scale engineering efforts now represent terrific investments of human capital, emotion, passion, and creation- is a good one. Fascinating to consider that the energy put into a game like, say, Grand Theft Auto V (an enormous software development and content creation problem, on par with the effort described here) is likely greater than the work that went into building, say, the Brooklyn Bridge.

Fascinating book filled with cloudy metaphors, which often obscure the mechanics of what is going on in an effort to make it sound impressive and ethereally interesting. Yes, it’s literature, I suppose, but then there’s a lot that qualifies out there, much of it more lucid and interesting.

Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood

Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood

Collection of short stories about various Canadian writers. The language is good, as is the storytelling, but so much of this is lost in the shroud of history. Unless you have strong thoughts and memories of the Toronto writers scene in the seventies and eighties, I’m afraid many of these tales may lack punch.

Still, if you’re a student of Atwood, there’s plenty here to like, and it doesn’t feel like a waste, even if you can’t help but recognize you’re missing the punchline a lot of the time.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

God’s Gardeners live off the grid, more-or-less. They recycle, eat trash, eschew consumerism and products created by the corporate chemical-biological compounds. They are led by AdamOne, and they try to memorize the names of extinct (or soon to be extinct) species. They take in almost anyone, including our protagonist.

Meantime, a massive virus has wiped out most of humanity. Jimmy the Snowman and The Crakers, and a few ladies Jimmy once knew survive. Also some Painballers, which are pretty much exactly what they sound like.

This novel rounds out the world a bit, and introduces us to the brothers, Adam and Zed, who end up being pivotal to the early stages of the after-party.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Jimmy the Snowman, what have you done? You’re a half-size God, a lesser deity who has been manipulated into ending the world just because you were a misfit in High School. You poor fucker.

This kicks off the tale of Jimmy, Crake, Oryx, God’s Gardeners, and the end of the world as we know it by Margaret Atwood.

Book One tells us what brought about the specific mechanics of the end, but for the bigger picture of what brought us there, just look around. Inequality of wealth, society divided, genetic manipulation, pornography, fast food, and corporatization are what makes the world need destroying. Then Crake appears with the brains to really get the party started.

Adam named the living animals, MaddAddam names the dead ones. Would you like to play Extinctathon?

Malta & Gozo by The Lonely Planet

Malta & Gozo by The Lonely Planet

Malta and Gozo are both very small islands in the midst of the Mediterranean Sea. The Professor and I had the wonderful opportunity to visit in the summer of 2013. The trip itself was a strange and incredible experience; we visited ancient ruins, dined with interesting people, met with the minister of Finance in the Palace of Aragon, and dipped our toes in what HP would describe as “Gin blue waters.” Before our trip, we picked up this guidebook to give ourselves a crash course in the Islands.

The book itself isn’t very good. I have complaints about the way it is organized, and the appalling lack of pictures, given how cinematic the settings it describes can be. Instead, we get entirely too much focus on specific restaurants.

This is the second or third time I’ve been less-than-dazzled by the Lonely Planet as a publisher of guidebooks. Time to try a different press.

A Killing at Cotton Hill by Terry Shames

A Killing at Cotton Hill by Terry Shames

Very proud of my Aunt Terry for publishing her first novel! As diligent readers of this blog know, my Aunt had a tremendous influence on my taste in fiction, supplying me with age-inappropriate novels at an early age, and rewarding me with loads of books most birthdays and Christmases. So it was with great pleasure that I finally got to enjoy something she wrote.

Writing a review of a work created by someone you love is always difficult. Honest feedback? Saccharine praise? Seems like there’s no good way to win. So let’s play this one straight but sunny:

Samuel Craddock used to be the chief of police in a fictional town based loosely on Brenham, Texas. Now he’s a good natured widower who collects regionally inappropriate artwork, raises cows, and flirts aimlessly with the old biddies in his community. When a good friend is found murdered, Craddock gets involved, helping out her grandson and, ultimately, sleuthing out the guilty.

Terry’s novel is a fast read in a genre style known as the “cozy.” This is a mystery characterized by a plucky, relatable protagonist, relatively bloodless murders, and a focus on hobbyist details of some largely unrelated past-time. (Think “Murder, She Wrote.”) In this case, the hobby is art collection, which frequently ends up feeling like the real focus of the novel, with the poor old murdered lady regularly taking a backseat to discussion of various modernist painters and the talents of the improbable grandson of the victim, himself a young artistic phenom.

The writing is light, with dialog that generally rings true, sentences which don’t try too hard, and excellent pacing that keeps the action propelled forward. At first the tense struck me as slightly odd… first person present tense isn’t something I think of as very common. (“I set my bag down inside the kitchen and stand looking around.”) Perhaps this is a standard in cozies? Terry has a good ear for the language of rural Texas, and (mostly) avoids the tendency to have her characters speak in corn-pone regionalisms.

The mystery itself is (oddly) reminiscent of some of Travis McGee’s adventures, with seedy land speculators, fallen women, and incompetent local law enforcement all constantly crowding around the protagonist. Unlike McGee though, Craddock is a gentleman, and he avoids any sexcapades or bad language. This keeps the novel firmly in PG territory, bloodless and sweet, as opposed to sanguine and salty. Again, I suspect this is true to the cozy form.

As a debut novel, and one that I understand to already have a sequel in the works, A Killing At Cotton Hill is a fun introduction to a kindly old detective, in the least trashy small town in fictional Texas. I look forward to more of Samuel Craddock’s adventures.

Big applause to my awesome Aunt for her first novel!