Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Ben Franklin

I’d read somewhere that this was among the better autobiographies written by a famous American. I’ve gotta admit, that I’m fairly new to the field of autobiographies, having read only one or two now.

Big Ben Franklin’s skinny little volume was most noteable because it reminds us that autobiographies are written by people, not historical figures. Accordingly, what is most striking about this work is all that it doesn’t contain. For example, it ends well before the beginning of the revolutionary war, Continental Congress, Declaration of Anything, and so on. So forget most of the context in which you think about Benjamin Franklin, (no kites with keys tied to them either) and prepare instead for the self-aggrandizing tale of a citizen of Boston and Philadelphia, whose civic contributions to Philly were numerous.

Ben is concerned much with prices, the printing business, how to relate to others, and how to be virtuous without being a member of any of the New England sects which dominated the cultural landscape at that time.

A final detail which bears mentioning is that Ben’s language is delightful; written in a time far enough back to be tongue-teasingly archaic and irregular, but not so far back as to remind us of the incomprehensibility of Dryden. His sentences are long, winding, and chock full of clauses, and his vocabulary is a lot of fun to try on.
The Watchmen by Alan Moore

First “graphic novel” I’d ever read, and it took some coaxing by The Professor and LT, I’ll admit. But, this was a cool work of fiction; far more than I’d expected, even if there were people in tights who dress up and chase criminals.

I’ll not go into any plot or character details here, since I think the movie is about to break on the shores of North America like a marketing tsunami. The subject matter is very dark, the character portraits complex, the plot labyrinthine. The artwork is, as a rule, mediocre at best, but the “camera work” and scene composition is often interesting. There’s a particularly cool chapter told with attention towards the relativity of time such that it stutter-jumps around over a fifty year span every panel or two.

Overall, it was a neat bit of super-hero mayhem and murder to devour over the course of a few sunny hours in Florida in the days just leading up to Christmas.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuinn

LT recommended this one to me, and since I remember enjoying reading The Dispossessed a few decades ago, I eagerly gave it a try.

This is classic sci-fi from the eighties. Guy shows up on a planet where gender relations are very usual because, well, gender isn’t binary. Turns out that the inhabitants of this planet are neither male nor female most of the time, but enter a sort of estrus state where they can become a specific gender for a few days when it’s time to reproduce or to, you know, party. As you might imagine, this adds an usual dimension to the politicking and interpersonal relationships in their quasi-feudal society. Our primary narrator observes all of this and gets deeply involved in palace intrigue and international diplomacy. Then the story takes a radical right turn, and we get an extended men-vs.-nature bit in which a couple travels across arctic wastes for a few hundred pages.

All of this works out okay, I suppose, but several issues kept me from really enjoying the novel too much. The first was its plodding prose – frankly, just plain bad in many cases and dull in most others. The second was that I felt the novel was unable to maintain focus. If the idea was that traditional gender roles has a huge influence on society – okay, fine. Tell me about that. If the notion was that realpolitik works differently in a culture where gender is non-binary, okay, fine, keep focused on that. Instead, I’m left with a setup, and elaborately explained set-piece dealing with this core conceit (“What if instead of having a predefined gender, people could become male or female when it was time to have sex?”) that ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere. The politics and behaviors of the characters and kings here was basically what you’d get from similar Earth societies. The interpersonal relationships and intrigues weren’t markedly different either. And then, as if she was as bored as the rest of us with the notion, the author wanders into a different story for the last third of the book. Now, if the point is, “gender roles don’t really influence the machinations of culture all that deeply”, then I suppose this book would serve as some low-grade ammo for this perspective. But I’m nearly certain that this is exactly the opposite of what Ursula was trying to wrestle with.

Finally, I’d be curious to get The Professor’s take on this one, since she’s so much more deeply initiated in to the arcane of 21st century gender studies than am I. She might understand what was attempted here in a way I’m just missing. But, since it just wasn’t that cool or interesting, I don’t think I’ll ever recommend it to her.
The Cellar by Richard Laymon

More bad horror. Picked it up after watching the superb film, “Let the Right One In”, which I thought a beautiful work that does credit to the horror genre. So, with vampires and murder on the brain, I picked out a likely candidate from the local Chapters. Read it fast, maybe four hours total on a colddarkrainy Vancouver Sunday at the Fairmont.

What happens is, there’s a house where something eeevil lives. It’s so eeevil that lots of people have been killed there over the years, and the family of eeevil inbred hunchback types who live nearby run a haunted museum of sorts of out the place. Luckily, this collection of clichés doesn’t prevent assorted folks from foolishly venturing into “Beast House.” Turns out, mostly bad things happen there.

Meantime, a young mother and her teenage daughter go on the lam from her eeevil and rapacious ex-husband who has just been released from prison. But when their car breaks down, it isn’t near Disneyworld. Nope, unfortunately for them, it’s near—you guessed it! – Beast House!

Overall, this was lurid enough to not feel like it was pulling punches, mixing plenty of sex with its violence. There’s a beast orgy, some very unpleasant child-rape sequences, and lots of good old fashioned murder. Otherwise, not too remarkable.

I’d give this one a B- for the pulp horror genre. It’s not as good as House of Leaves or Salem’s Lot, but it’s a lot better than The Farm, or The Right Hand of Evil.
Shame by Salman Rushdie

Rushdie’s novel about Pakistan is satirical, biting, funny, beautiful, chilling, and usual all of his phenomenal bag of tricks. It’s a full-volume circus, featuring methuselean crones, virgin birth, generals who cry, magic prognosticating tapestries, fornication, enough metaphor to confuse the most devout scholars, and another fifty years of Indian-Pakistani history besides.

Shame tells the tale of a collection of men and women who are metaphors for the birth and fall-from-grace of the nation-state created by partition in the late fifties. But don’t expect a clear cut history lesson; while the literal narrative unfolds as it might well have, the world is chock full of magic realism.

Rushdie’s writing is, as always, so lyrical, so stylized and so, frankly, beautiful that he’s able to take the reader exactly where he wishes in every overfull paragraph... For example:

Once a beautiful young women rendered lovely and naked by the hot wind from a terrorist bomb that killed her father, the mother of brain-damaged girl who represents Pakistan grows old. As she ages, and her husband, the autocratic military dictator who runs the country becomes more and more corrupt, she dons the black burqua and begins to speak only in metaphors. “[she] became in those years, almost invisible, a shadow hunting the corridors for something it had lost, the body, perhaps, from which it had come unstuck. She became less than a character, a mirage, almost, a mumble in the corners of the palace, a rumor in a veil.”

Recall now, that this is the mother of “Shame”, the young woman who represents Pakistan, and who becomes a bestial whore, slaughtering the citizenry in her furious retardation… Ahh, Mr. Rushdie, tell us how you really feel about partition.

Anyway, this is a great book. Again, it’s not quite Midnight’s Children, but it’s not far from it. The language is beautiful, the characters fascinating, the scenes memorable, and the entire tower constructed in such a way that you don’t realize what you’re in the middle of until you’re surrounded. And by then it’s too late to do anything but keep turning pages, mouth slightly agape in wonder as this master juggler and illuminator lets his trick unfold towards it’s beautiful, inevitable, and chilling conclusion.

IF you haven't read Rushdie, and care at all about style, language, fiction, or the multiplicity of cultural perspectives which comprise our world, might I most heartily recommend?

It's worth interjecting here that these posts are made in the order in which I read these books. This is one reason that there is often a significant delay between posts -- many times I've not had a chance to go back and write a review of something, so while many later books have already had their writeups done, the posting of the whole is delayed.

It's important to me to stick to these two rules -- that I not write about any book I don't actually, completely finish. (There are a LOT that I only make it 2/3 of the way through and just get bogged down, distracted, leave them in another country, whatever.) Also, I refuse to post out of order -- to my mind, everything you read is influenced and weighed against the stockpile of knowledge and memory in your head. To read David Foster Wallace (RIP) without having first read Pyncheon is to miss much of the tradition in which the former is working. More succinctly: Revelations makes little sense without Genesis.

Who cares about all this? Likely just me. I'm not aware of anyone who reads this regularly, or even occasionally. Though, now that Facebook and Twitter have brought all us so much closer, it's possible that readership has increased! If you are out there, dear reader, add a comment and let me know!

Written from a 2nd floor study, grey day, Austin Texas, with the memories of Christmas and family fast fading in my mind...

Dreams from my Father by Barak Obama

This fine and earnest biographical memoir reveals that we have just elected a first rate mind to be the next president of the United States. Written shortly after his graduation from Harvard Law, Obama gives us a history of his life and a superb meditation on race in America.

From his childhood in Indonesia to his troubled adolescence in Hawaii, through to the ghettos of Chicago in which he worked as a community organizer, and finally on to his father’s grave in Kenya, Mr. Obama writes with clarity, just the right amount of detail, and a degree of lyricism which is surprising from someone who has become a career politician.

The book is candid, and no doubt proved politically inconvenient at points; he speaks frankly of things and describes situations which most politicians would be tripping over themselves trying to disown.

I loved this book, bought and gave out two copies immediately after reading it. I hope that Sherry enjoys the book as much as I did.

This book made me even more proud of the choice we collectively made. Dreams from my Father suggests that perhaps we have our first philosopher-president in a very long time.
Profiles in Courage by John Kennedy

What a fine reminder that once upon a time, politicians were statesmen too. Luckily for the entire world, I think that such a time may have come again now that we’ve elected Barak Obama. But I get ahead of myself, because when I read this book, the election was still weeks away, and I still had some concern that the forces of ignorance would once again carry the day in the US of A. So I turned to a book I’d long heard mentioned by a man whose life was over long before I was born, but whole legacy of nobility in politics inspired a generation.

Written while he was a freshman senator, Kennedy’s book provides compelling and heartfelt portraits of other members of the US Senate who provided examples of political courage, typically by doing something that was against the common grain, was political suicide, or both. Sam Houston, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Robert Taft, and one or two others. It is impressive, filled with historical portraits which are interesting and motivational. In particular, Kennedy’s descriptions of Daniel Webster portray him as perhaps the greatest American ever to live, and make me want to read more about him.

I’m disappointed to read that Kennedy is now believed to have not been wholly responsible for writing this book; apparently he had a lot of help. In any case though, this doesn’t cheapen the work. It is still a fascinating, occasionally moving collection of biographical sketches of politicians who were motivated by higher values than a need for reelection or a desire for power. Profiles in Courage should serve to remind us all that the US Congress is, for all its faults, a courtroom in which moral choices which shape our future and reflect our national character are tried. Though our leaders may too often be found wanting, the institution provides a venue in which the best in us can sometimes be found on display.
Winning by Jack Welsh

I had to read this one twice. My friend TJW, scion of Vancouver, advised me over a year ago that this book represented, in his opinion, the best of management theory and practice. Having now read it, I completely agree, and would add that it’s also a fine primer on how to be a leader in modern organizations.

The book is quite thorough enough and easy enough to comprehend that two readings aren’t necessary. But too long had passed since I looked at it, and I sincerely feel that a person could likely benefit from the lessons contained herein every year or so. From how to motivate employees, to how to hire new ones, to a superb chapter on business strategy, Welsh, the Warren Buffett of company management shares with us concise lessons on nearly every aspect of modern business.

The book is easy to grasp, and should likely be required reading for anyone with a stake in how a corporation or division is run.

Thanks, Jack. Useful lessons distilled from a storied career. Thanks, Tarrnie. Good recommendation.

Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki

Felt a little bit guilty reading this one, as if I wanted to put a brown paper book-cover over it, so people couldn’t see me reading a pop-finances book For Dummies™. For whatever reason, though I enjoyed some of Kiyosaki’s articles in the past, I wanted to avoid feeling like a chump, so I avoided this book.

Finally though, I broke down and decided to read it in October. Like many of us, I suspect, finances and the economy are much on my mind in these troubled days.

Kiyosaki’s trope is simple; he had two father figures, one of whom was highly educated, the other of whom was an aggressive, successful businessman. Kiyosaki clearly learned more from the rich dad than from the educated dad. He tries to impart some of these core philosophical differences to the reader in two hundred pages of tortured English.

The core point here is: invest your money in assets which will return money to you. Don’t invest your money in expenses. Then, work to grow your assets, and be smart about using a corporate structure to avoid as many taxes as possible. It’s sound advice.

Key points:

1. You must think differently about money, about investing, about assets and liabilities than most people do if you want to get out of the rat race.

2. Your job, no matter how well it pays, is unlikely to ever make you rich. The nature of the deal is such that your cost of living is likely to increase with your wages, you pay so much to the government, and no matter how hard you work, there are only so many hours in a day.

3. By being smart about taking advantage of various tax structures, the power of incorporation, etc. you can help avoid some taxes, and help pay your expenses with pre-tax instead of post-taxed money. This will help.

4. You must above all understand the difference between an asset, which is something that returns you money without any effort from you, and liabilities, which are anything that cost you either time or money in upkeep. (Your home being the principal thing most people mistake for an asset.)

Overall, I agree with most of the lessons in this book. Money is power, though not an end unto itself. In order to get free from the rat race, one needs more than just the income they can derive from employment.

Now, my ability to put some of these lessons into practice is what I really need to spend time on instead of this navel gazing blog.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Haruf has gifted us all with an unadorned, moving little novel about the intertwined small-town lives of Holt County, north of Denver. Our cast of characters includes a couple of old ranchers with hearts of gold, a pregnant high school girl, two boys whose mother is suffering from depression, and a principled teacher. These lives get tangled up in various small-town doings. Ultimately, we’ve given a hopeful message about the ways community can pull together to help out with kindness and love.

The novel is well written, the prose neither flashy nor too wooden. In terms of tone, it’s Richard Russo without the flashes of wit and comedy; John Gardner without the stylistic brilliance or hopelessness.

The parallels drawn between humans and animals are likely exactly the way you’d think if you lived in a rural area. (Indeed, I’ve noticed this tendency amongst the few truly rural dwellers I know.) This shows up over and over – the parallel scenes in which the ranchers use a “calf extractor” is contrast with a young woman’s first exposure to a speculum. Later, the brothers even argue about thinking of her as a heifer. But none of this is mean-spirited. It seems to be from a genuine desire to make the a point that goes a little something like this: “While we are all just animals, subject to the same indignities of the flesh as the lowest herd beast, humans pull together through personal bonds which form communities. And that makes all the difference.”

There isn’t a lot more to say here. The plotting is prosaic. The characters sketches. The language very Iowa school. The net is vaguely heartwarming; like a Hallmark Special. Nice, sweet, just lurid enough in a few details to feel authentic, while not quite as legit as a Terry Allen tune.

I enjoyed the novel. It’s quite fast (I read it in two days, late summer, Texas), and fits firmly into the “stories of the American heartland” genre.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnagie

This classic of mid-century boosterism is charming, useful and accurate, if terrifically dated at this point. This book is a collection of chapters dealing with ways to make oneself a more likeable, more sociable, better person. It is not cynical, nor are its lessons overly manipulative. The book reminds you that everyone wants to be liked, and thinks of themselves as a good person. It advises that you determine what motivates and interests others. It advises you to avoid criticism except in delicate ways. It is filled with practical advice on how to raise your charisma, be a nicer person, and get what you want by ensuring that others want it too.

Useful, concise, and now, having aged like a fine cheese, historically interesting.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Merry Christmas to all!

Having just had a few days to catch up on R&R, I'm just about to post a ten-pack update in an effort to get this page caught up on the year's reading!

Stay tuned for details on a few Rushdie novels, some sci-fi, bad horror, economics, the memoirs of a few presidents, and my first review of a graphic novel!

Happy Holidays!


Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Wow! Wow. Wow! What a fine and fabulous book. Yet again, Mr. Rushdie has absolutely outdone himself. Wow.

The Satanic Verses is a sprawling epic of men, women, angels, prophets, devils(?), martial artists, movie stars, and nearly everything else between Bombay, Mecca and the great wet city Ellowen Deeowen. Like several of Mr. Rushdie’s other novels, it is told with a frantic post fall-of-Babel style. Everyone talking, multitude of voices in the wilderness, every sentence near competing with tits fellow, falling over itself to delight, entertain, amuse and perplex the reader. It is downright funny, a comedy first and foremost maybe; a tragedy second, a deadly serious meditation on faith third.

The core of the framework tale concerns itself with two men, both of whom fall from an exploding jetliner over the English Channel. The jet has been destroyed by muslim militants. One of the men, Gabreel, is a Bombay film star. The other, Saladin, is an Indian expatriate voice actor living in London. As they fall, the one takes on the countenance of angel Gabriel and dreams. The other adopts a more satanic countenance. Then things start to get really complicated.

Along the way, there are two other critical tales told. One is the story of the Prophet, Mahound (Peace Be Upon Him). The other is the tale of a young woman who is visted by the angel Gabriel, becomes covered in a gown of butterflies, and leads the residents of a North Indian villiage on a doomed crusade to walk to Mecca.

All of the above plot bits and major story arcs make up just the primary weave of the garment. As usual with Rushdie, there are hundreds or more sub-threads which are all woven together to ask some really compelling questions about faith.

So was the fatwa upon Rushdie justified? Is the book blasphemous? Why is “Satanic” in the title?

For a devout muslim, particularly one uneducated enough to miss the rich tradition in which Rushdie is operating, certain passages in the book would certainly seem sacrilegious. The prophet is not presented in the best possible light, and any number of questions about his veracity are slyly woven into the narrative. There’s a really haunting sequence in which an Iranian imam brings about and revels in the slaughter of students during the revolution. And one of the core question at the heart of the book could be summed up as “did the prophet compromise his message for political gain in the early days of Islam.” This is where the title comes into play. Turns out that some accounts indicate that Mohammed (PBUH) may have at one point acknowledged, however obliquely, the power and divinity of earlier three goddesses who were much favored by the people of Mecca. Later, the prophet rescinded his statement, indicating that Shitan had spoken to him in the voice of the angel Gibreel and misled him. These so called “Satanic Verses” of the Koran were excised completely about 600 years later, and are not recognized by most fundamentalist Islamic scholars, as they imply that the prophet was not infalliable.

Now, this Satanic Verses bit is really just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the blasphemous portions of the novel. And, since it doesn’t seem to take much to get radical islam riled up, it’s no surprise, I suppose that they didn’t like what was in the novel. What is more surprising is that there were any who were both educated enough to read it and rigid enough to want to kill a person for writing a novel. But then, as the prophet in the novel suggests, there are only two types of people for whom God has no forgiveness, “writers and whores, which are the same.”

I loved this book. Not quite as much as Midnight’s Children, but still among the finest things I’ve ever read. It really helps that, as anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I’m trainwreck-fasinated by the muslim faith in its modern incarnation. I wish very much that I could travel to some muslim counties, or even more that I had a smart, educated friend who was also a devout muslim. I’ve certainly got a lot of questions…

Fine book, Mr. Rushdie. As always, you amaze.


The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz

“Use bright, cheerful words to describe other people.”
“In moments when you are alone, recall pleasant, positive experiences.”
“Make sure you can always pronounce another’s name the way they pronounce it.”

These are the sorts of earnest, fine and useful advice that Scwartz’s delightful book is full of. In thirteen chapters which are filled with a zeal for life, a desire for right action, and a charming nineteen fifties brand of boosterism, Schwartz gives great practical advice for how to be a winner in all things you do.

I sincerely enjoyed this book, and believe that if a person read it twice a year for their life, and committed to living by the principles it espouses, that the person would really, truly have a better life, be more successful, and be a shining star to everyone they knew.

Does it sound like a self help book? Yes, and it definitely is. Does it sound cheesy? Well… It’s YOU who have become too cynical, too jaded to remember that being a good person, always striving to be happy, working to make other’s lives better, and so on… These are actually really good and noble values, even if our post-post-post everything culture makes us want to sneer at them.

Here is to trying to banish cynicism and trying hard to be the type of person who is able to think big in all things, and get the most out of life.


Vagabonding by Rolf Potts

Recommended on Amazon and by a few friends, but...

Rolf Potts had nothing new to say. The only interesting parts in his book were the quotes from other, smarter people, who had already laid down the philosophies he so clearly ill-understood. The quality of his writing was poor, and there was little to no substance. Dr. Seuss managed to capture the core spirit more succinctly in “Oh The Places You’ll Go!”

Potts was mighty proud of himself for being a person who had done some wandering, had a bunch of experiences seemingly at random – (yeah, okay, I get it, you scored with a Hungarian girl one time on the road – good for you) --and seemed to have drawn few useful conclusions from them. (“When you get home, your friends won’t understand you.” Being about the most profound— better summed up by Wilco a decade earlier.) His constant looking down his nose at others who are doing the EXACT same thing as he was irritating (see the section on “Trustafarians” and “Tourists” for examples). Aside from being a good refresher on “Common Quotables: From Thoreau to Muir”, I just didn’t see much in the book. In short, it was self aggrandizing without substance.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything against “vagabonding” as a way of spending some time. I just don’t really see either capital-T “Travel” or capital-V “Vagabonding” as an actual lifestyle or philosophy; just a way of making the act of seeing new places both more and less profound at the same time.

Four Hour Work Week was a far better look at similar topics.

How to Make Millions with Your Ideas by Dan S. Kennedy

Still on the quickly-getting-tired Business/Self-Help category we have Dan Kennedy's early nineties book on how to be a successful entrepreneur. Kennedy was highly involved in the mail-order, direct-to-consumer, and the early television info-mercial scene. He (apparently) made millions and has made millions of dollars for some of his clients by advising them on ways to build better businesses.

These could be summarized as:
- Find products and sell them.
- Make your business a service business in addition to its other functions.
- Use synergies between various businesses you control to get a multiplier effect.
- Market yourself and your business aggressively to get more customers; then sell these customers more stuff.

The book was vaguely useful, if occasionally smarmy. As part of a larger cross sampling of entrepreneurial case studies, there were a few tidbits here. In particular, a primer on how to get more money for a business you sell to a larger company was likely valuable. The end of the book also contains a (now very dated) list of various resources which could help you find products to sell, find customers to sell them to, deal with fulfillment, etc.

Not a waste of time, but... I couldn't help but feel like Dan Kennedy was just using ME, the reader, as yet another sucker he could toss off a quick book to and make a few bucks. The coupon at the end of the book for a PERSONAL PRODUCT REVIEW WITH DAN KENNEDY... Not sure the infomercial market is for me... Still, interesting as part of a larger study.

Demonology by Rick Moody

Bit of a snoozer, this one, I’m afraid. The title looked good, the cover imagery was provacatve. The core notion wasn’t bad, which was, “let’s tell some semi-zany stories that deal with modern social angst in our North American consumerist culture.” So far, so good. But, unfortunately, Moody just lacks the zeal and writing ability of, say, George Saunders, who did the same thing better.

I’ll admit that not a single story in this collection sticks in my mind. And that should tell you something.

The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss

Now this was something actually new! I stopped into a bookstore in Canada; a bookstore I really don’t like, I might add. I was irritated with the fiction I’d read recently and wanted to learn how to do something new.

I ran across Ferris’ book and opened it up with great skepticism. I was delighted. Ferris advocates a type of lifestyle design that is empowering, realistic, and entirely possible, if not for everyone.

In brief, Ferris encourages you to recognize that almost nothing is out of your reach and that most of the reasons people give for deferring their dreams are simple excuses. He goes on to give lots of great advice for how to manage one’s time more efficiently – sort of a “habits of highly effective people” bit – then he dives into a collection of chapters on how to reform your work/life balance in a fairly radical way. He gives further advice on a wide range of topics, from “outsourcing your life” to how to structure companies such that they aren’t a horrific burden on their leaders.

I loved the book, and have become a follower of Ferris’s blog, and, in large part, the lifestyle he advocates. It was the sort of book that well stated a number of beliefs I’ve had for quite some time.

In short: The rules don’t have to apply to you, because there are no rules. If you don’t like it, don’t do it. You can have the life you want; it’s there for your taking.

Highly recommended for anyone who is paralyzed by all the bullshit fears in life that prevent them from actually having one.

Ferris reminds us that learning new things is cool, that you can be anything you want to be, and that life is yours if you but choose to participate in it.
Ahh, what an interesting week!

The Senator and KMK stayed with us for the week, as their house had no power. The game continued, shuddering towards the finish line with as much grace as a drunken linebacker. I spent a little time reading, a little time writing...

And now, as of this fine Sunday morning, I'm ALMOST all caught up from the summer's reading. Without further ado...


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Darkfall by Dean Koonz

Darkfall was exactly the kind of pulp horror Koonz has led me to expect. A series of grisly, unexplicable murders in New York send a prototypical Mulder & Scully team out into a terrible snowstorm to track the killer. He's open minded; he wants to believe, you might say. She's a by-the-books woman of science, no room for emotion or superstition in her cold heart. At least not until the right man can thaw her...

In any case, turns out that the killer is a voodoo priest, summoning demons and 'goblins' from various hells as part of a vengeance plot. Along the way, the Mulder character's kids get targeted to be gobbled up by these devils. Some chases ensue. Good wins. Love triumphs. The voodoo priest's black magic catches up with him. Scully learns how to love. Yawn.

The Iron Council by China Meville

Meville has cool ideas. It’s that simple. From golem commanding thaumaturgies to mangled half-men Remade, to the catacopic stained zones where chaos reigns, he shows us a darkly fantasic mirror of our own world.

The Iron Council is set in the same world as Perdido Street Station, many years after the events described therin. It’s not a sequel, or really related in any way, and you don’t need to be familiar with Meville’s other works to enjoy this one.

Meville could improve the occasional impenetrability of his prose, which makes wading through all of his novels a bit tiresome at points. He overuses arcane words, and obscures the flow of narrative needlessly on occasion.

But he gives you very interesting places, characters, and action sequences. What do they they all really mean? Not much, I think, other than telling a fine and dark tale of things that might have occurred in a strange place which never existed. It’s not fantasy, except in a literal sense. It’s not horror, though often horrific. It’s fine speculative science fiction, I suppose. And it’s good, if a bit tedious at times.

Taft by Ann Patchett

As I quite liked Bel Canto, I was eager to stumble across Taft in a Houston Half-Price Books. I dimply recall likely that our friend Kerri B. was a fan of Patchett’s other works. So in the hopes of feminizing my bookshelf slightly, I picked this one up to read on our trip to Honduras.

Taft is a mid-thirties ex-drummer. He’s a bartender in Memphis. He takes in a young woman who needs a job. We get a mildly tragic tale of broken relationships, broken families, and a man’s desire to do good with the wreckage of his life while resisting temptation.

It’s a good novel, Patchett is a good writer. It’s not Bel Canto, but as a bit of an homage to the Rabbit Angstrom, John Gardner’s heroes, and the protagonists of Richard Russo’s novels, it’s fine work.

Six Stories of the Jazz Age by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I suspect there is a reason that most of these tales never really got much mainstream interest. While they are entertaining, occasionally silly, they qualify as little more than pieces that reveal a bit of the character of the age. Little depth here, and they add little to the understanding of the life of this already overanalyzed writer.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner had the same kind of buzz surrounding it that The Life of Pi did. The same people were telling me about it, the same vague part of the world invoked in their commentary.

As the first novel I’ve ever read from an Afghani, I was delighted. The prose is good without being flashy or great. The plotting is fine, if a tad contrived at various points. The descriptions of Kabul make me think it must have been a fine and fabulous city before the soviets came and wrecked everything.

I have issue with the inclusion of blond-haired-blue-eyed Nazism as a root of evil. It seems to me that the Taliban are a regionally grown menace, who reached their sick conclusions without much influence from Mein Kampf. So then, in a sense, having the evil Talib baddie as a white man felt like a way of shifting blame to an “other.”

Otherwise, the novel was pretty good; I enjoyed it but didn’t love it, and while I’d read his later works, which I see appearing in bookstores everywhere, I’ve not run right out to buy it yet.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Nafasi writes a beautiful memoir of her time in Iran during and after the revolution. As we all know, things went from bad to worse for intellictuals once the Shah was overthrown. And for women, things got worse still. Throughout this period, Nafisi and her students undertook a clandestine study of several of the masterworks of Western literature.

I’m fascinated by Iran, and the Muslim world as a whole. I see in Nafisi’s story a microcosm of some important broad questions about how education, freedom, and the role of women can co-exist with some of the particularly virulent strains of Islamo-fascism that currently hold sway in the middle east.

My only complaint here would be that there’s slightly too much navel gazing on occasion, surrounding what it felt like to look at a certain tree, etc. But overall, this is a fascinating glipse into a world that as an American, as a male, I could never otherwise peek inside. And it’s a world in which scholars are heroic; risking everything in order to teach and acquire knowledge.

This book describes the kind of quiet bravery that I wish we could hear more about from the Muslim world.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Cool little sci-fi novel. Bit of a classic, I suppose. Haldeman, who clearly served in Vietnam, writes the first half of his soldier’s story with a real ear for grunt dialog. Things get a bit steamy as he fantasizes about a free-love co-ed army. Then, once we delve into the meat of the tale, which addresses the social implications of faster-than-light travel, things start to get really interesting.

Our protagonist goes on several missions, one of which strands him in a galactic backwater. When he returns from each of these missions, some really significant periods of time have passed for Earth. The social and inter-personal revelations which unfold are fascinating and occasionally touching. Dan Simmons had clearly read Haldeman’s novel when writing a few of the tales in Hyperion.

Spook Country by William Gibson

I really like William Gibson, so I really liked this novel. It takes the same fictional-high-ground that Pattern Recognition did, which is to say, it embraces the post-Neuromancer future as the present and writes sci-fi sounding modern day fiction.

Our characters are the same international hipsters, cool hunters, artistes and mercs of other Gibson novels. The language is similar, though slightly plainer in many cases. But it’s still a treat to read his descriptions of places you’ve been.

In this case, since Gibson is a bit lazy and sets the novel mostly in the two cities he likely knows best, Los Angeles and Vancouver, I happen to be VERY familiar with the locations he’s describing, which is fun. In particular, the novel’s conclusion, amid the blue and orange shipping containers on the Vancouver harbor dockyard is a view that I see out both my office and my hotel window about 100 days a year. And since I’m fascinated with the spaceport looking place I can appreciate his fascination with the same.

A fun, fast novel. It doesn’t cover any new ground, and the inclusion of weird deities hearkens back to the Loas I liked the least in Count Zero. But it’s still cool fiction, and it’s cool that our world is now largely Gibson’s future from twenty years ago.
Wow! What a summer!

Houston, Honduras, Vancouver, Silicon Valley, Oxford, Napa, Austin... It just didn't stop!

The Professor accomplished all that she set out to; both law firms were excited by her, as one would expect.

I've nearly accomplished what I set out to. The games are all nearly in their respective boxes. It had been a while since I did a hard crunch like the last few months. Learned a lot, definitely advanced a level or two and picked up a few new feats.

Meantime, this week is (busy) but falling action on the games. The Senator and the esteemed KMK are here staying with us until their city has recovered from Ike's beating.

So many interesting times and good conversations with various people around the world in the last three months. And more than a few great new books read. At least one or two of them changed completely the way I think about things. Read on for more!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Oh, so far behind!

Last post was read in January! In Oxford! Since we've had fiction in Texas, How-To books in Vancouver, Lit'ra'ture in Honduras, and Horror in Houston!

Hopefully a real post coming up soon, but a few things I'd like to visit with myself about:

Taft by Ann Patchett
The Iron Council by China Meville
Darkfall by Dean Koontz
Winning by Jack Welsh
The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
Demonology by Rick Moody
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

I promise to at least TRY to get to all of these before the end of August.

Meantime, I'm grinding away on NFS - but things are looking good!

The Professor finished her summer with the fine people of FBJ in Houston, and is now working our in Silicon Valley. We had a great group vacation to Roatan, which reawakened my interest in scuba diving. Vancouver has been beautiful this summer, and the team up there is really coming together.

Family all seem to be well.

More soon, I hope.


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Belle de Jour by Anonymous

Belle won a number of awards a few years ago for her blog. At became a fan of her keen eye and lurid details back then, and was pleased to read a fuller account of her life. Belle is a high-priced call girl who lives in London. She writes a diary of her adventures, romantic, sexual, and otherwise. Her account is chock full of keen observations on people in general and Londoners in particular. It’s also quite shockingly sordid at points. So if there’s much on the internet pornosphere that disgusts or upsets you, this probably isn’t the book for you. She covers almost all of the same kinds of topics that, say, the syndicated column Savage Love addresses, albeit with far greater charm, wit and verve.

There never any real resolution here. Belle lives, works, dines out with friends, goes to visit her mum, and so on. But she’s a charming lady to get to know, and there are plenty of juicy sex tips.

I purchased this one for a few pounds in Oxford England while over there visiting some fine developers. I read the whole thing over the course of an afternoon at the MalMaison. Somehow, I think it was the kind of place of which Belle might approve.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Prize by Daniel Yergin

At long last I finished Yergin’s masterpiece! The Prize is a sprawling epic history of the oil industry, from the discovery of the first well outside of Titusville, PA. leading all the way up to the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein.

Yergin’s opus was recommended to me by the Senator, who makes his living at least in part from the shuffling of international hydrocarbon resources. Weighing in at a dense nine-hundred pages, the book is nothing if not comprehensive. Yergin gives us a month by month accounting of the major incidents, deals, players and follies of almost everyone involved in oil from the mid-nineteenth century to near the present. This book is remarkably informative; I now know vastly more geography, political history, and way more about oil exploration, processing, and sales than I did before. Yergin’s writing is tight but filled with the kind of delightful anecdotes and details that humanize what could otherwise be a dry account of a history of industry.

Oddly, if anything, the book isn’t quite long enough. I’d love to read a revised new edition that dealt with the critical decade since the first gulf war. Oil and the politics and economics that surround it are a critical piece of understanding how the modern world works. It seems that this truism is becoming only more the case as we move towards the middle of the twenty-first century. We are all still Hydrocarbon Man, and look to continue to be for quite some time.

And just to be blunt: I really, really enjoyed reading this book. Found it fascinating, and it significantly changed the way I think about some elements of our world. Great work, Dr. Yergin!
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

Milton Friedman, economic godfather of the modern neoconservative movement preached an extremist form of lassiez-faire capitalism. Friedman and his disciples from the Chicago School of Economics have shaped the growth of the modern free trade movement in countries from Chile to Russia to South Africa to the Maldives. But is the Chicago school doctrine, which calls for flat taxes, globalism, multinational corporations which replace most traditional functions of the state actually good for the citizens of those countries in which it has been implemented? Naomi Klein definitely doesn’t think so.

Klein’s work here is brilliantly researched and painstakingly footnoted. Her arguments are generally persuasive. She tracks Friedmanism and a corresponding destruction of democracy and worsening welfare of the body politic from Pinochet’s Chile to the corporatized Green Zone of modern day Iraq.

I can’t help but feel that Klein could have benefitted from a slightly tighter focus. Her attempts to draw a parallel between the sensory-deprivation, LSD and shock treatment experiments of Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron and MKULTRA and the economic “shock therapy” of Friedmanic capitalism seems strained. Indeed, the whole metaphor of extremist capitalism as torture writ large upon a population ends up seeming weak. It presupposes the value judgment that Dr. Klein hopes to lead the reader to, weakening her arguments. This lack of focus occasionally pokes it’s head up in other ways as well – as with Klein’s comments about the benefits of the Canadian health care system, which, while accurate, end up reminding the reader that Klein is anything but open minded about her topic. As an avid anti-globalist, and a democratic socialist, Klein has wonderful insights, and has done great research; let them stand on their own. Descending into rhetoric which is outside the scope of the core argument distracts the reader, and ultimately slightly tarnishes Klein’s credibility.

This mild criticism aside, the book is a fascinating five hundred page tour through failed experiments in capitalism by the World Bank, IMF, and the US military-industrial complex. Klein walks the same halls as did Perkins in Confessions of an Economic Hitman. But where Perkins came across as a bit of a self-aggrandizing hack, Klein is an eloquent, thorough scholar.

This book is a fascinating expose into the economic theory which has driven a particular brand of US foreign policy over the last half-century. If half the goateed teenagers protesting the WTO talks in Seattle had been even slightly as bright and well informed as is Dr. Klein, it’s likely that the world might have paid a lot more attention to their protests. This is the most articulate anti-globalism screed I’ve ever read.
If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien

I had tremendous respect for The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. This earlier semi-biographic novel walks through the same rice paddies, NCO tents, and chopper rides to safety. Like O’Brien’s other works there’s a lot of meta here. The author and the narrative itself both exist inside the narrative. There’s an ongoing dialog between reader and writer which forms a subtext for the story.

At its heart, the novel is an anti-war message by one of those who knows best what the human costs are and how the fog of war can obscure both moral judgment and clear definition of purpose. When you’re head down in the trenches, or picking up the arm of a friend just killed by a child’s grenade, it’s hard to know think much about Marshall Doctrine.

This work is not as powerful or as sophisticated as The Things They Carried. It seems to have been a warmup piece. But it was engaging, short, easy to read, and contained at least a few things which had not yet been said about the most over-written war in recent memory.
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

The Hot Zone may have started the “out-of-control-virus-stopped-at-the-last-minute-by-dedicated-scientists” genre that the film Outbreak capitalized on back in the late nineties. See, apparently Marburg, an Ebola like virus managed to escape from the Rift Valley of Africa and make it’s way to a suburb of Maryland. Luckily, CDC comes in and saves the day by taking out all the infected monkeys. Or something like that.

The Hot Zone wasn’t particularly fresh, interesting or compelling to my mind. But it did feature lots of detailed and gruesome descriptions of the effects a virus like Marburg has on the human body.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Pastoralia by George Saunders

Hooray! A new treat! Saunders short stories are a real breath of fresh air! Like so many new writers I’ve enjoyed over the years, I owe this one to Terry, so thanks!

Pastoralia is a rollicking treat – much like In Persuasion Nation. Again, we’ve got the same mismatch of characters in unusual situations. From the domestic squabble between a fake caveman and woman in a living diorama, to the poignant romantic misadventure of a loveless misogynist, there’s a lot here.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is even better than Pastoralia. Unfortunately, I seem to have loaned my copy to the slow reading MotherTucker a few months ago, so I don’t have it here to reference. But, off the cuff: another collection of short stories which are so weird and fast paced that they can be dizzying. The writing has a particular style which I would probably describe as intentionally forced and conversational. (“You would not expect me to take you there, would you? No you would not.”) Such that the reader is constantly in a strange sort of one way conversation with the narrators, or is listening to these sorts of one-sided conversational monologues. The title track to this book, CivilWarLand, is heartbreaking in its way – telling the tale of a Cival War themepark which falls prey to urban decay in a rather unusual manner. The whole piece ends up being a comi-tragic lament for our civilization in decline. Solid work, Mr. Saunders!

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

Eh. Maybe I was just getting tired of Saunders by this point, but the socio-political commentary of “The Brief and Frightening Reign” ended up coming across just as a sort of silly-stoned experiment. The plot in brief: Two nations made up of very small populations of strange mechanical creatures clash along a border. Phil, a nobody with delusions of grandeur ends up misusing mob rule and becoming a sort of demagogue. Under his brief, frightening reign the citizens of the lesser of the two countries have their rights badly trampled. In a sort of anti-IMF parody, they are loaned resources as such usurious rates that soon they are all homeless and have no country left. You get the idea. It’s silly satire but without the usual Saunders wit and pathos.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

With images of a Will Smith trailer running in my head, and hopeful visions of one of my favorite horror novellas finally brought to life, I loaned this collection of short stories to The Professor during our fall trip to Tofino. She didn’t get a chance to read it on that trip, but I snared it and read it again, for the first time in ten years or so there in the beautiful bar room of the Wickannish Lodge, surrounded by twisted tree-trunks worn smooth by wind and water.

Mattheson’s most famous work has inspired generations of horror writers. Stephen King speaks reverently of him in On Writing, and, I think, Danse Macabre as well. The stories are edgy as hell for the time they were written, mostly in the 1950s. You’ll feel echoes of Twilight Zones and other pop-horror and sci-fi tales on each page. In some ways, this book forms a backbone cannon for modern pulp grist as much as do Poe and Lovecraft.

The title story bears no resemblance whatsoever to the crap that Will Smith peddled on the silver screen this Christmas. It’s bleak, fascinating, post-apocalyptic and gruesome. And it contains one of the finest ending sentences of any horror story I’ve ever read:

“A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.”

Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen

A cute lawyerette in H-town this summer recommended this novel to me over cocktails in a treehouse one sunny afternoon. A week later, my mother recommended it as well. So I picked up a copy at Half-Price Books. I enjoyed it but wasn’t blown away. It was cute…

The novel involves the framework story of an old man, fading into the convalescent senility of the elderly in a nursing home. His memory is sparked by a rivalry with one of his fellow residents, and he recounts for us a love story wrapped up in a post-Great Depression circus tale. The framework story doesn’t work particularly well for me. An identical trick was used to better effect in the framework tale from The Green Mile, and a similar one worked beautifully in The Blind Assassin. By this time around, it feels like it was lifted from a “framework story template guide.”

The main narrative is engaging. Details of circus life, the wickness both petty and great in which the owner of the bigtop and his minions engage provide some compelling villains. There’s sufficient sex and alcohol to keep things at least a little lurid. An elephant is the hero of sorts, which is cool. Overall, when the narrative sticks to the past it’s quite deft, if a tad predictable.

Nice work, Mrs. Gruen. I’d read another of your novels.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Happy New Year!

I can't believe that my last posting is from a book I read last summer in Houston! I'm back in Austin now, of course, and months have passed. Oh, so many fine books and interesting times! Just returned from a six week walkabout, half work, half-play. Colorado, Orlando, Tampa, South Beach, Key West, Manchester, Glasgow, London, Oxford... But as the Wizard of Oz reminds us, there's no place like home.

It's a cold and rainy saturday night. Before heading off into the night to ROCK, a couple of backdated posts:

Leisey’s Story by Stephen King

Yawn. It’s a word I’d never associated with the master of pulp horror before. King has dee-lighted me from It to Skeleton Crew. But Leisey’s story is just a little… dull. Ultimately, my problem is that the narrative voice of Leisy just isn’t very interesting. And the trick of having her never curse, but instead use silly made up curses, like in Misery, well… It worked well for a psychotic nurse. Once. And sifting through the ashes of a marriage is an interesting thing, but... Well, for a beautiful and much shorter take on this, Joan Dideon was far more worth ones while. Anyway, not much else to say here except that I wasn’t impressed.

Thinner by Richard Bachman

If you’re driving and getting a blowjob at the same time, try not to run over any gypsies. They can curse you and make you get progressively thinner. Cool novel, fun premise, fairly weak AIDS parable, as people described it in the eighties. Classic Stephen King from a time before it was known that Bachman was a pseudonym. Good resolution. Nice, wicked little tale.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows by JK Rowling

Well, it’s done. It must be a challenging thing to wrap up an epic fantasy novel.
Especially one whose popularity has so exploded that it’s become way more than just a series of books in the collective mind of planet Earth.

The final installment in the boy-wizard saga is fine. It’s not good, really. At least most of it isn’t. There’s an interminable ‘wandering in the woods’ section in which our three friends have fallings out and dues ex machinas pop out from behind every bush. But the big battle for Hogwarts at the end is fairly satisfying, and we get a checklist of all the things that should happen in an epic novel like this. Lessons learned, love triumphs over hate, martyrs are made, old friends lost, etc. Funerals? Check. Marriages? Check.

IF this sounds overly snarky, I apologize. I did very much enjoy the sprawling Harry Potter series. Ultimately, there was just as much substance here as there is in a Hogwarts Value Meal from McDonald’s, which seems appropriate, since commercialism swallowed this franchise up whole, and will likely dance around in it’s skin for the next fifty years. At least until Rowling starts her next series… I think I read somewhere that it’s going to be called, “Scarry Trotter and the Sorcerer’s Bone.” It’ll be produced by Vivid.

Thanks JK. I enjoyed your novels.