Sunday, December 27, 2015

Read It, 2015

In this blog post, I will present the final tally of books that I completed in 2015. There are a few complications that arise when trying to make an accurate list.

This list is more-or-less in chronological order. I say "more-or-less" because, going back through my previous blog posts to cull the complete list, I found that in some cases I had mentioned books that I read, but then forgot to mention in subsequent blog posts that I had finished them. So I am adding two Narnia books and one Frederik Pohl novel, Heechee Rendezvous, at the end of the list. This year's blog posts were inconsistent, and about halfway through the year I started adding separate "progress report" posts and list books I completed each month. I will try to continue this format in 2016, as it makes the books easier to keep track of.

There are a couple of books I mentioned in the blog posts, but I am unable to remember whether I actually finished them, so I am not going to count them. These books are Nathaniel Philbrick's short book (an essay, really) entitled Why Read Moby Dick, and Nature Stories by Jules Renard, a book from the New York Review Books Classics series. I will dig these up -- I think they are buried somewhere in my office -- and make notes about them in 2016. I may actually have completed the Philbrick book but just don't remember at the moment.

I think that some of the David Sedaris story collections that I "read" in audiobook form are abridged versions. I believe that three of them were abridged, although it is not entirely clear; these audiobooks came as part of a boxed set and do not have the usual descriptive information include. (Note: I hate the phrase "box set" because I am not describing a set of boxes, but a set of other things that were put together into a box). So, I am assuming they are the same as the CD audiobook editions described on Amazon, which describes them as "abridged."

I will count unabridged audiobooks as complete books for the purpose of making a count, but the abridged audiobooks I will count as half a book each. (That is easier than trying to figure out exactly how abridged they are; they may actually contain more than 50% complete by word count, but I am not going to try to figure out exactly which stories were left out, or whether the individual stories were abridged). So when I get to the end of the list, I'll subtract two books, so that the four abridged audiobooks each count as half a book.

Without further ado, here is the list!

  1. Simon R. Greene, Shadows Fall
  2. Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem
  3. Peter Watts, Echopraxia
  4. Charles Stross, The Rhesus Chart
  5. Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
  6. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
  7. Simon R. Greene, Casino Infernale
  8. Alex Hughes, Marked
  9. Alex Hughes, Vacant
  10. Kim Stanely Robinson, 2312
  11. William Gibson, Burning Chrome
  12. Andy Weir, The Martian
  13. Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
  14. J. G. Ballard's, Kingdom Come
  15. Harry Harrison, Bill the Galactic Hero: Planet of the Robot Slaves
  16. Richard Hughes, The Fox in the Attic
  17. Max Barry, Lexicon
  18. Alan Garner, Red Shift
  19. Jan Morris, Hav
  20. Anne Carson (translator), Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides
  21. Various Authors, Doctor Who: 12 Doctors, 12 Stories (bedtime story reading)
  22. Ernst Junger, The Glass Bees
  23. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 1
  24. Alastair Reynolds, Slow Bullets [novella]
  25. David Mitchell, Black Swan Green
  26. Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, Nature's End
  27. Harry Harrison, The Stainless Steel Rat
  28. Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora
  29. Charles Stross, The Annihilation Score
  30. Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam
  31. David Foster Wallace, Both Flesh and Not (Unabridged Audiobook)
  32. David Lipsky, Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace
  33. Frederik Pohl, Jem
  34. Isaac Asimov (originally published under the pseudonym Paul French), Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus
  35. David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (print version)
  36. David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (unabridged audiobook)
  37. David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day (abridged audiobook; counting as half a book)
  38. David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice (abridged audiobook; counting as half a book)
  39. David Sedaris, Barrel Fever (abridged audiobook; counting as half a book)
  40. David Sedaris, Naked (abridged audiobook; counting as half a book)
  41. Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
  42. Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes
  43. Frans G. Bengtsson, The Long Ships
  44. William Sloane, The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror
  45. David Mendel, Proper Doctoring: a Book for Patients and Their Doctors
  46. Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
  47. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (bedtime story reading)
  48. Larry Niven, Ringworld
  49. Larry Niven, Ringworld Engineers
  50. Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time
  51. Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men (bedtime story reading)
  52. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (bedtime story reading)
  53. C. S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy (bedtime story reading)
  54. Frederik Pohl, Heechee Rendezvous

That's fifty-four books, minus two accounting for the four abridged audiobooks. So, using the most accurate accounting I'm willing to try to reconstruct, I completed exactly 52 books in the calendar year 2015. That's a book a week, on average, although of course I didn't read any average books, and both the number of words per book and the rate of words read per week varied considerably.

There are a few books in the list I completed, but have not yet reviewed in the blog, and since I'm rapidly running out of days in 2015 (I'm writing the first revision of this blog post on December 28th, 2015), I'd better get to it:

Ringworld Engineers is a mixed bag, and while it feels slightly less dated than the first book, Niven's story here involves a lot of rishathra and more science-fantasy. Niven's concept of the Pak Protectors was, I thought, interesting but very unconvincing. The ending seemed to lack moral weight. The most interesting thing in this book was, I thought, the fact that as the story opens, Louis Wu is a wirehead. Again, I would have liked that to be an aspect of more importance to the story. I don't regret reading it, but I am not planning, at present, to read any more of the Ringworld books. I would like to explore some of Niven's short stories and essays, though.

The Salmon of Doubt is a book I would often pick up in a bookstore, glance at, and put back down again. I am a fan of Adams and I once saw him speak at an Apple developer conference, back in the nineties. His death at an early age was a shock to me. This collection is of interest mostly for the opportunity to experience his unique voice again, in the non-fiction pieces. His essays are always a joy. The unfinished bits of another Dirk Gently novel? Not so much. There are some funny scenes, but the unfinished work amounts to fewer than fifty pages. He had a promising start, but not much more. I miss his unique sense of humor.

Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men is an absolute joy. These are technically Discworld books, but publishers often segregate the "young adult" Discworld books from the "serious" Discworld books. They are also often hard to find. For example, our local Barnes and Noble carries the main series of Discworld books with fantasy and science fiction, but none of the Tiffany Aching books, of which this is the first. So one might expect to find some more Pratchett in the children's section. But it isn't there. Fortunately there is a whole new uniform edition of the whole series of Tiffany Aching books out now, and Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor stocks them all. I picked up all the paperbacks, and I'll pick up The Shepherd's Crown when the paperback version arrives.

The Wee Free Men is a sort of coming-of-age story about a young witch, Tiffany. It's a surprisingly serious story that is leavened by the recurring comic relief from a tribe of "pictsies" -- the tiny but mighty Nac Mac Feegle. It is one of the great joys of my parenting experience to attempt to read, for my children, the lines uttered by the Nac Mac Feegle in a very poor imitation of a full-on Scottish brogue. Fortunately they are not terribly critical of my performance. It is a real tribute to Pratchett's writing that just reading what is on the page will often trigger, in my children, bouts of genuine ROFLing. I plan to read them the whole Tiffany Aching sequence as their attention span allows.

So, over fifty books. I have not actually finished reading The Wee Free Men, but as I have a few vacation days, I think we'll probably do it. It would have been a little higher, I think, but during this past year, there were just too many days when I couldn't spend time reading.

Since June, I've been working in Ann Arbor four days a week, spending three nights a week there. Those nights alone in a quiet environment seem like they would be great opportunities to get some reading done. But I often found myself working late, and eating dinner late, going to bed too tired to read. On some evenings I'd bring work home in the form of a printout, or a pile of notes, or diagrams, or datasheets, and work on that stuff until I fell asleep. On some nights I'd call my wife, or read a bedtime story to my kids using FaceTime. So many of those nights didn't turn into reading time.

So, when did I find the time to read so many books? Well, I prioritize reading. I'm told that American adults spend an average of almost 3 hours of television per day. I didn't watch any "live" television (although I did watch some DVDs, and some downloaded episodes of Doctor Who on my iPad). I'm not sure how people find the time to watch that much TV.

How much reading time is reasonable and fits into a balanced life? I think ideally I'd like to spend between one and two hours a day reading. I like to read a bit immediately after waking up, and again before bedtime. I can't read much longer than an hour at a time without fatiguing my eyes. The time I actually manage to spend reading is closer to one hour than two, but even at an hour a day, I can usually manage to get through a book in a week.

I've learned some things about my reading habits by carefully logging and studying my reading for the year. I've learned that, while I often want to read serious non-fiction book or heavy work of literature, if lighter fiction is around me, I will gravitate to that. Magazines have the same effect; if I want to get through my books, I shouldn't bring any magazines or newspapers such as the New York Review of Books with me, or I will spend my reading time reading those instead. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it interferes with my goals of getting through certain books.

I have learned that I can impose a certain degree of discipline on myself just by limiting which books I bring into the room that I'm staying. If I leave most of my books in the car and only bring one book with me into the room where I'm staying, I will read the one I've got with me, because I'm too lazy to get dressed and go get another one from my car. If I bring in a lot of lighter fare, I won't stick to the one.

On the other hand, I have tried not to beat myself up when I find my mind wandering, and I allow myself to set aside a book. If it is really good and really of interest to me, I will probably come back to it, a week or a month or a year later.

And so slips by another year. I am not yet fifty, so I expect to have more years of reading ahead of me, but I have to acknowledge that the number of books I'll be able to get to, in the years remaining to me, is starting to look distressingly finite. If this really is a typical year, and I have thirty years left in which I'll still easily be able to read, then I have, perhaps, at best, 1,500 books left to be written by. And I have other things I want to do -- more music, more writing, more podcasting -- that might require giving up many of those books, leaving perhaps a far fewer number that I can get through. I would like to make them count. What books should they be?

I don't have a detailed plan for 2015, but I do know that I would like to read some work by the following authors:

  • J. G. Ballard, mostly some novels I've read before, but not for many years
  • Harlan Ellison, editor: Medea: Harlan's World
  • Harlan Ellison, editor: I'd like to re-read Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions (and, of course, The Last Dangerous Visions... that's a joke, son...)
  • Henry James (perhaps some of his lighter novels to start with)
  • Charles Dickens (I have read A Tale of Two Cities but there is, sadly, a lot of Dickens I have never read)
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard (the second and third volumes My Struggle)
  • Cixin Liu (The Dark Forest)
  • Gene Wolfe (I want to re-read or finish some of his earlier novels and stories that I either read long ago and forgot, or abandoned)
  • David Foster Wallace (especially his essays and short stories)
  • Kurt Vonnegut (some of his earlier novels, collected in volumes published by the Library of America)

I'd also like to watch some movies that are inspired by or related to the books:

  • The End of the Tour (based on Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: a Road Trip with David Foster Wallace
  • Screamers (the Peter Weller movie, based on a Philip K. Dick short story)

There are a few other books already piled up and waiting, including Hyperion, Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias trilogy, Call Me Burroughs, Another Roadside Attraction, Alan Turing: The Enigma, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The Worm Ouroboros (to re-read), Involution Ocean (to-re-read), and the Gormenghast books (I think I need to re-read the first, and finish the others).

What else?

Friday, December 4, 2015

Read It, December 2015, Progress Report 1

I finished reading Ringworld by Larry Niven. It's a relatively short novel. This is considered a classic of science fiction, and won a lot of awards. I can see why. It's a novel of big ideas: the ringworld concept itself, interesting alien characters; detailed technology; interestellar statecraft and politics; and the conception of luck behind the storyline of the character Teela Brown. That was enough to win awards, when science fiction was stuck, in many cases, in a storytelling ghetto, practiced by writers who were better at the science than the fiction, and fans who weren't, perhaps, all that critical.

The book is fairly dated in its utopian vision of the future. Chemical immortality (or at least very extended good health) is readily available. Faster-than-light travel is fast and easy (although the story does center around the idea that faster technologies could give races strategic advantages, and so are worth fighting for). Certain materials and technologies are pretty much magic -- for example, the General Products spaceship hull, which is completely indestructible, and completely protects the inhabitants, no matter what happens to it. These magic items become "plot coupons," "get-out-of-jail free" cards, or MacGuffins. Niven's descriptions include enough technobabble make Ringworld seem vaguely like hard science fiction, but really it is not very "hard." The space opera aspects are not well-developed either. The universe of Ringworld, compared to a much richer work like Dune or The Lord of the Rings, feels more like a sketch than a painting.

Interstellar travel is fast and painless. Sexual politics are friction-free, but straight out of the 1960s, which sometimes manifests in disturbing ways. I'm not going to enumerate them all now, but Niven's development of Teela and Prill is troubling. So, honestly, I can't strongly recommend Ringworld. It is worth reading if you are able to appreciate some of Niven's big and interesting ideas while at the same time pointedly ignoring his sexism.

There's one more thing: the book does not end well. Niven sets up the ending and so the reader is pretty sure what is going to happen. But then he doesn't describe what happens, even briefly, or provide a coda to the story arc. It feels strangely unfinished to me. There are a number of followup books set in the same universe, but it seems that Ringworld Engineers picks up twenty years later. After this book, I'm not at all sure I want to read it.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Read It, November 2015

I finished out the month of October with the Douglas Adams novel The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. This is the second (out of, sadly, only two) Dirk Gently novels, featuring anti-hero private detective Dirk Gently, that investigator of highly unorthodox methodologies who seems to solve cases despite his best efforts to simply scam his clients instead. This is a re-reading; It is nice to re-read it as an older adult. This is in many ways a more coherent story than the first Dirk Gently book, and it sticks with characters long enough that the reader can start to develop a liking for them. In particular, there is a female character named Kate who is as just as scattered and unconventional as Gently is. She is quite a strong character, in fact, and it saddens me all over again that we will not see what Adams might have done with her in future books. Or, in fact, really, in this one, as the book has a good beginning and middle but a weak ending.

In retrospect, it is frustrating to read Adams. The Hitchhiker's Guide books, at least the first few, remain some of the funniest humor ever published. They are funny in spite of Adams' apparent lack of interest in developing characters and plots. At his best Adams is up there with Pratchett in writing deeply humane and touching satire.

I believe Adams might be sort of the Phil Collins of British humorists. Collins is best known for his collaborations -- he is a brilliant session musician, and his finest work was with Genesis. he did produce a few really amazing songs as a solo artist, but for the most part he was better in collaboration. Adams may be remembered the same way; recall that he worked in collaboration on Doctor Who and the Hitchhiker's Guide saga, which was originally a radio serial, and amazing as a radio serial.

That material was so good that it survived the transformation to book form, for the most part. It was a little less successful as a TV show. The big-studio Hitchhiker's Guide movie, long stuck in development hell, has a few funny bits and pieces, but really is only of interest to viewers who were already Adams fans. The Dirk Gently books show Adams developing a greater ability to write characters and sustain storylines, but he clearly had room to improve. His death at the age of 49 (one year older than I am today) is still a shock to me, and a reminder that I should do what I can, with whatever gifts I have, every day.

I'm continuing to read my kids The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I will try to read them the second half of it this week remotely, via Facetime, from Ann Arbor. I'm working on the original Larry Niven novel Ringworld. I figure that as the last few days of the year approach, I'd rather spend those dark days reading something relatively light, than Knausgaard's My Struggle. In November 2015, I completed:

  • Frans G. Bengtsson, The Long Ships
  • William Sloane, The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror
  • David Mendel, Proper Doctoring: a Book for Patients and Their Doctors
  • Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Ringworld will probably be the first book I complete in December. I am not sure whether I ever read it, back in the day; it is not ringing bells yet, but I may have simply been very young when I read it. I know I read some other Niven novels, such as The Integral Trees, but again, I don't remember them very well.

On to December, and the end of the year!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Read It, November 2015, Progress Report 3

I finished The Long Ships and The Rim of Morning. I've made some comments on The Long Ships already, and so won't say a lot more, except to mention that it concludes in a pretty satisfying manner, tying up some plot lines and giving us pretty much the closest thing to a "happily ever after" ending that we could possibly find convincing.

The Rim of Morning contains two short novels in the "cosmic horror" vein practiced by writers like H. P. Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson. I don't have a good working definition of "cosmic horror," except to say that it does not focus on traditional horror tropes, such as the ghosts of humans, or werewolves, or zombies, or pedestrian human-scale threats such as serial killers. "Cosmic horror" comprises stories which undermine whatever sense of meaning and security we might have about our place in the universe.

To Walk the Night is a story about two friends, and the woman that comes between them. I'm not sure how much of this the author intended, but the close relationship between the two men is what might in modern terms be called a "bromance," and to a modern reader strongly suggests a homoerotic or at least romantic relationship. A college professor has been killed under bizarre, inexplicable circumstances, and the woman is the professor's widow. She is a cipher, lacking back-story. It is in some ways seemingly a very misogynistic story, on a surface level the story of a bromance destroyed by a selfish woman. Beneath the surface it is an unsettling story of posession, and perhaps alien invasion.

The Edge of Running Water is a story that might have come from the era of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, and centers around the spiritualism of the early twentieth century -- the world of seances and mediums. A college professor is building a device to communicate with his dead wife, and has driven himself to near madness with his quest and his unholy alliance with an unsavory woman -- again, there are strong misogynistic elements to the story. However, these don't completely destroy the genuinely unsettling elements of the story. Both of these novels would make good short films, and some of the more dated elements could easily be updated to be less sexist and misogynist while retaining the core storyline.

I want to mention Stephen King today, because he wrote the introduction to this volume. I have come nowhere near reading every one of Stephen King's novels or short stories, although I think I have read most of the well-known ones: The Stand, Firestarter, Pet Sematary, Christine, Cujo, Carrie, The Dead Zone, Insomnia, and the whole Dark Tower series (I have not finished The Wind Through the Keyhole, but it is on my to-read pile). I read these books at various points in my life, most of them when I was a teenager, but some later. Insomnia is the only one that I have read more than once. It is an interesting book that has, as a theme, aging, and so I can imagine that I might want to read it again as I get older.

But in particular I want to mention one of the Dark Tower books, Wolves of the Calla. I found this book to have that genuinely unsettling quality that can come about when the right story lands in the brain of a receptive reader. I was a new parent when I read Wolves, and the plot involves "roont" (ruined) children, who are kidnapped and returned overgrown and monstrous, their minds damaged and the potential their parents imagined, ruined. It was and still is a deeply disturbing image for a parent.

Nothing in the two novels in The Edge of Morning unsettled me quite like that storyline in Wolves of the Calla, or the visions of the aging, sleepless protagonist of Insomnia. But they are unsettling nonetheless. Some very dated characterizations and plot elements can't entirely detract from that, and so I provisionally recommend them, for readers who may be willing to overlook the novels' flaws.

I have some vacation time this week, and some coming up at Christmas time. I pulled a book from my New York Review Books Classics shelf, Proper Doctoring by David Mendel. This is a book of advice for physicians on, basically, professionalism and bedside manner in medicine.

The book seems to contain a lot of good advice, but it is a bit of an odd read. Much of it seems like common sense. Much of the rest seems like it might be of greater interest to physicians in training than a general audience, despite the subtitle, A Book for Patients and Their Doctors.

For a general audience, I would say that I can't strongly recommend it. I think the book would be more engaging and readable if it had been structured around more personal anecdotes and the arc of the author's medical career, rather than the way it is structured, around themes, broken down into rather generalized pieces of advice and guidance for different situations. Clearly the author has a lot to say, but somehow the professional detachment and sensitivity towards patient confidentiality he preaches seem to weaken the book. I have read many essays by medical professionals, and they can be fascinating and compelling. This book is less so. Although I'm sure it has some kind of permanent place in the literature used to train physicians, I'm not sure it is makes a compelling read outside of that context.

I'll finish Proper Doctoring. I'm not quite sure what I'm going to read next. I've been reading my children The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. They love it, and it is a reminder to me of just how funny and thought-provoking Douglas Adams could be at his best (and, as I've mentioned before, how not all his work lives up to the standard set in Hitchhikers). I might continue with a re-reading of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. I will start to look back over this year of blog posts and figure out just what my final tally and list of works read in 2015 will look like, and consider what I might line up for 2016.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Read It, November 2015, Progress Report 2

Well, it took me some time, but I finished The Long Ships. It is a big, sprawling epic work in every sense, and it ends well, with a treasure-hunt story. I recommend it, although it will probably take you some time to finish. Remember that there is no shame in setting a book aside for a while and coming back to it later.

I am now continuing with another book from the New York Review Books Classics series, The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror, which reprints two novels by William Sloane. I am about two-thirds of the way through the first one, called To Walk the Night. It's definitely in the "cosmic horror" genre, dated but fascinating. I'll have a fuller report on it when I've finished this volume. This book is not nearly as long a book as The Long Ships, but my reading (and blogging) time is limited this season, so it may still take me a while to finish it. Fortunately I have some vacation time at Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up, and so may be able to do a bit more of both. Happy fall!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Read It, November 2015, Progress Report 1

I'm continuing to read Frans G. Bengtsson's novel The Long Ships. I've made progress in only this one book so far this month, but it's a doozy. I actually started it in June, as my own previous blog entries tell me, but set it aside at roughly the halfway point. The novel is broken up into four books, bound together in this New York Review Books Classics edition, but originally published as the first two books in one volume and the second two books in another volume. Is that confusing? It's sort of similar to the way that Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is one novel, broken into six books, but published in three volumes. Anyway. In June I mentioned that I didn't think my kids were old enough to enjoy it, but it turns out I was wrong. This past weekend I read them several chapters from the third book, in which (according to Wikipedia),

Orm joins a party led by Thorkell the High in England and when he learns that Harald's daughter Ylva is staying in London, gets baptised and marries Ylva. They move to a neglected farm, his mother's inheritance in Göinge, northern Skåne, near the border with Småland. During the following years (992 to 995), Orm prospers, and Ylva gives birth to twin girls (Oddny and Ludmilla), a son, Harald, and later to another son (though possibly from Rainald), Svarthöfde (Blackhair in the Michael Meyer translation). Meanwhile, Orm also gets busy in converting the heathens in the district, with the help of Father Willibald.

This book, long and dense and suffering slightly from being a work in translation, really comes to life when read out loud. The scenes in Orm's church, hosting a 3-day drinking celebration of his son's christening are, read aloud, very funny and memorable. If you read this book, and I recommend it highly, be prepared to take your time with it, to allow the scenes and characters and speeches to open up and come to life.

Oh, and there's apparently a movie, too. Not a very good movie, it seems. I should be finished with this book in another week or so. The way I convinced myself to read it again was basically to lock the rest of the books in my "to read" pile in the back of my car so that in the mornings, I'd have only this book lying out and available, while getting access to the others would require me to get up and dressed and out first. As I am basically lazy, especially before I've had my morning coffee, this worked very well to convince my future self to go ahead and invest the reading time in a very rewarding book that is not quite as easy to get into as one of the fluffier books in the car. Is that a "mind hack?" Oh, and since I am reading my New York Review Books Classics volumes in order by spine color, after I finish this one, I can move on, progressing along that shelf to a book bound in a slightly different shade of red!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Read It, October 2015

The final tally list of books I completed in October is:

  • David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (print version)
  • David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (audiobook)
  • David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day (audiobook)
  • David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice (audiobook)
  • David Sedaris, Barrel Fever (audiobook)
  • Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
  • Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes

That list is obviously pretty heavy on the David Sedaris. It's because I picked up a discounted boxed set and it seemed perfect to accompany my long commutes. Some of the audiobooks seem to be abridged, but not too drastically. His earlier work is some of his best. Holidays on Ice has the stories that are the most laugh-out-loud funny, while some of his later work is funny but often quite dark, especially when he explores the death of his mother in a completely unsentimental yet moving way. I realized as I listened to these that a little Sedaris goes a long way, in terms of influence -- even having only heard a few of his pieces on NPR over the years, his self-deprecating, dry style has strongly affected my own essay-writing. That's not a bad thing, but it is a reminder that I need to do enough writing to allow my own voice to emerge. When I only write an essay occasionally, it seems like it is easier for it to accidentally sound like the other people I've been reading.

For November, I've got lots of books on deck including both some very light fare (the Doctor Who novelizations of Shada and City of Death and some heavier work (Samuel Beckett) and some work that it somewhere in between (Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Book 2). There's also a heap of non-fiction, including the rest of Neurotribes and The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke.

I don't have a lot of time to write tonight, but I want to mention The Hare with Amber Eyes. This is a remarkable book -- the history of a powerful Jewish family fully immersed in the business and culture of Vienna, whose wealth and property was seized by the rise of the Nazi party. Once the patrons and friends of Impressionist artists and poets, art collectors and contemporaries of Rilke and Proust, the war left the family forcibly dispersed and their assets "Aryanized." The author began studying this part of his family tree when he inherited a cabinet full of tiny Japanese ornamental sculptures called netsuke. It's a tragic story but a fascinating one, so I highly recommend it to anyone interested in art history and especially the history of Anti-Semitism.

There is one more thing I want to mention. In my last update I described seeing the movie The Martian in 3-D. Last weekend I noticed that my oldest daughter, now 11, was reading the book, and asked her to come with me to see the movie. It is technically PG-13, but that is entirely for some colorful cursing; not a single person actually dies in the story, and there is no inter-personal violence whatsoever, which seems pretty remarkable for a big-budget movie in 2015. I had described the trouble with watching it in 3-D, and how the 3-D effect makes the scenes of the rover on the surface of Mars look very fake. I can confirm that these scenes are more convincing in 2-D. From my perspective, the 3-D effect is interesting, and impressive in a few scenes, but ultimately I think it makes the experience more distracting than immersive.

My impressions of the movie, having seen it twice? It's definitely a bit slow. Last time I watched it quite late at night, and chalked up feeling tired to simply being tired. I saw it earlier in the evening this time, and it became clear that it is just a bit slower-paced than is ideal for immersion and entertainment. And I say that as someone who generally really likes what a director can do in a long, meditative movie such as Tarkovsky's Solaris. What did Veronica think of it? She was not thrilled. She seemed mostly annoyed that the movie plot differed slightly from the parts of the book she had completed.

When questioning her about it later, it became clear that she had missed a lot of the detail the director put in there to add structure and texture to the film. For example, there's a sort of countdown going on in the way the protagonist's food supply is slowly running out. As he packs to leave the habitat for the last time, he writes on a packet of freeze-dried food "Farewell to Mars" or something to that effect; he also signs his name to the calendar of Martian days he has marked off on the wall of his habitat.

Later in the film when he is actually preparing for the terrifying experience of lifting off in a rocket stripped of windows and nose cone and just about everything else, we see him eating the reconstituted, freeze-dried food from his very last food packet, the one marked "Farewell to Mars." We also see him shave and clean himself up and he is emaciated, with sores on his body -- these are two signs of just how close he has come to starvation. She didn't seem to put together the significance of any of these details. I guess some of that just comes from being a young person not accustomed to looking for the meaning in the things on the screen. I think, also, that she is used to movies that are often much faster-moving, often animated. I hope that when she finishes the book we'll be able to talk a bit more about the differences between book and film, and why the media of film requires a different approach, and the different kind of excitement one can get from a more thoughtful, slow-paced movie.

Happy November!

Update written at the end of 2015: at about this point in the chronology, I finished Fred Pohl's third Heechee book, Heechee Rendezvous. Unfortunately, I did not make a note of just when I completed it. Apparently I didn't find it all that memorable. We do meet the Heechee, but it seems a little anti-climactic when we do. The book has some interesting ideas about the point at which a computer-modeled personality suddenly gains a "soul" of sorts; that is one of the more interesting elements of the book. There is also some thinking about uploading a dying person into a virtual world, but no one has written about that better than Greg Egan, in his novel Permutation City, so just read that, okay?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Read It, October 2015, Progress Report 2

I have not really been on top of the progress reports. We've had some cold viruses rampaging through the family. I was quite sick on Saturday. I started improving on Sunday, and so came down for my usual work week. I haven't missed any work, because my symptoms have been mild (acetaminophen helps), and I don't think I'm contagious. But I haven't been getting much reading done. After work, I just fall asleep early, and wake up several times during the night either feverish, or shivering. I'm hoping this virus is done with me soon.

I did get out to see The Martian (the movie) last week. I don't find it all that much fun to attend movies alone, but I did enjoy this one. I attended a late showing after a long work day, so I was quite tired, and although it is quite a long movie, at well over two hours, it kept me awake. Having read the book, I went to the movie knowing that a few of the key plot points were based on dubious science. The only version showing when I showed up at the theater was the 3-D version, and that was very distracting. In 3-D, a lot of the beautiful Martian landscapes looked distinctly odd, with the little rover sticking out as looking very toy-like, like those tilt/shift photos you see that deliberately make a real scene look like a model. While the 3-D effect on the "beauty pass" shots of the spacecrafts were gorgeous, the effect of being, subjectively, inches from Jeff Daniels' age-spotted forehead was much less so. So personally I'd recommend the plain old 2-D version.

There are a few things to comment on. The interiors of the launch vehicles and interplanetary vehicles are ridiculously gigantic. This makes for nice practical sets with lots of places for cameras, I suppose, but it's unconvincing; if you've been to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and seen real launch vehicles, you know that, in space, space is at a premium, because mass is at a premium, because the energy required to transport objects into space is enormous. The zero-gee effects with astronauts bouncing down the passageways and around turns were not all that convincing. Honestly, probably the only movie I've ever seen with convincing zero-gee effects was Apollo 13, because those were actually shot in the "vomit comet," a plane performing long dives, over and over, yielding an inertial frame of reference where everything in the plane was falling together, so the actors and props really were weightless with respect to their surroundings. In The Martian the actors are pretty clearly using wire harnesses, and it shows.

I could go on about the silly ways computers are depicted in movies. This film wasn't too bad about this, but I was still surprised that, given the film's likely audience of geeks, the producers would still display various forms of code on the screens that made no sense whatsoever in context. As a software engineer, it takes me out of the scene and makes me feel insulted. But still, I guess I should be glad that some of the tech was at least plausible. I liked the portrayal of engineers in the film. Never mind that a sandstorm on Mars could not do the kind of damage that sets the plot in motion, or the heavy risk of radiation on the surface of Mars, or the somewhat ridiculous flying around at the climax of the film. I was just happy to see a majestic, beautiful movie that felt in part like an homage to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and wasn't a complete insult to the intelligence of the audience. So I'd recommend it, but I'd recommend reading the book first. I am curious to see if there will be a Director's Cut that follows the plot of the book more closely.

This week, I continued with my boxed set of David Sedaris audiobooks; I have finished Me Talk Pretty One Day which is, I believe, abridged from the print edition.

I also re-read Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. I read this book back when it came out, after really enjoying the Hitchhiker books and radio series, and found it confusing and not entirely successful as a novel. Back in the day, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and imagine that the book was just too subtle for me, that there were things going on I wasn't smart or refined enough to appreciate. After coming across an essay by Jo Walton about this book in her collection What Makes This Book So Great, I decided to give it another read, as an older adult. It's still confusing. It has some funny and striking scenes, but the plot seems fragmented and overly complex, the character development weak and unconvincing, and the ending very rushed. In other words, it isn't as good as the better of the Hitchhiker's Guide books -- the funny bits aren't as funny, the story arc isn't as much of a story, etc. What it has going for it is a series of funny digressions, scenes, character sketches, and dated references to computers. I was wondering about the strange structure of this novel. It introduces Doctor Who-like time travel elements in the last few pages, with a character revealed to have Time Lord-like abilities -- which in context, doesn't make a whole lot of sense -- and discovered that, per Wikipedia:

The genesis of the novel was in two Doctor Who serials written by Adams, City of Death, (in which an alien tries to change history at the cost of erasing humanity from existence), and in particular the cancelled serial Shada, which first introduces a Cambridge professor called Chronotis who is hundreds of years old. He has been living and working at a Cambridge college for centuries, apparently attracting no attention (noting with appreciation that the porters are very discreet). In Shada, Chronotis's longevity is due to him being a Time Lord, and his time machine is an early model TARDIS. These trademark elements from Doctor Who were removed by Adams for Dirk Gently.

And I realized that hey, I've seen City of Death, and that's why the plot seems familiar! I have a copy of the recent adaptation of Shada waiting on my shelf to read, too. So there you have it; the novel is basically a recycled Doctor Who story, imperfectly transformed into a not-all-that-effective, semi-parody of the well-worn British detective drama. I'm wondering if I should re-read the follow-up book, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. Does it hold up any better? Oh, and also, I'm coming to think that my taste in books doesn't match up very well with Jo Walton's, at least not in this case. I haven't read all the essays in What Makes This Book So Great, and I like some of her insights into, for example, Heinlein's Friday, but I don't think we are in agreement about this Douglas Adams novel. Creating a clever puzzle of a plot just doesn't engage the reader enough to make a book worth reading. A book structured as a murder mystery at all, even a parody of one, in which the murder is deliberately meaningless, infects the whole enterprise with a capricious lack of meaning. In fact, the book is so ineffective as a novel that I may wind up not bothering to keep a copy in my library; as space gets tight, I have found myself wanting to more of the "purging" work that necessarily comes with managing an actual, curated library, as opposed to an endlessly-growing collection consisting of every stray book that follows me home. I'll have to think on that. Maybe I'll give it a third chance, out of my general appreciation for Douglas Adams. Or maybe it's time to just acknowledge that not everything he wrote was great, and let it go, so that it doesn't make his much better work seem poorer by association.

I'm also continuing to read, but haven't finished, The Hare with Amber Eyes. That book is becoming more interesting as the story proceeds into the wartime years of the twentieth century, and I should be finished with it soon. Onward!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Read It, October 2015, Progress Report 1

This month's "reading" so far involves a few audiobooks. I have a boxed set of audiobooks by David Sedaris in CD form. They are abridged, or at least most of them are, so they shouldn't count as complete books, but they count for something, I guess.

  • David Sedaris, Barrel Fever. I thought the "barrel fever" was going to have something to do with the craze for going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. In fact, it's a term for alcoholism, or delirium tremens brought on by alcoholism (the "DTs"). So the title story in this book, not give out any spoilers, is pretty dark. Funny, but darker than I was expecting.
  • David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice. I've heard some of this material before, in shorter form, on public radio. I had not heard Ann Magnuson's reading of the story "Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!" (The exclamation points are part of the title). She did a terrific job with this story. I believe this collection may be unabridged.
  • David Sedaris, Naked. At this point, you like Sedaris or you don't. I enjoy his stuff but I don't have the laugh-out-loud reaction I did when I first heard some of his pieces. His reputation as a humorist may be a little deceptive. In this book he gets into narrators that are clearly not exactly him, although it can be a bit hard to determine just how much "him" is in them.

In print, I've been reading Fred Pohl's later Heechee books. I'm most of the way through Heechee Rendezvous. These later installments just aren't quite as interesting as Gateway. I have a copy of The Annals of the Heechee waiting, but it remains to be seen if I'll dive into that one, or put it on the shelf.

I've been reading Neurotribes: the Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman, and so far it is an excellent book. There are a few inexplicable editing problems, where he refers to a character by last name that he has not introduced yet. But fortunately I have only found a handful of these puzzling occurrences. I assume they might be fixed up in the paperback. As a father of autistic children and someone who probably qualifies as on the spectrum myself, I believe this is a significant book, and I'll have more to say about it later. Onward to another week!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Read It, September 2015

Here's the final tally for books completed in September:

  • Charles Stross, The Annihilation Score
  • Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam
  • David Foster Wallace, Both Flesh and Not (Unabridged Audiobook)
  • David Lipsky, Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace
  • Frederik Pohl, Jem
  • Isaac Asimov (originally published under the pseudonym Paul French), Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus

The Lucky Starr novel is a hoot -- very short, very dated, but fun. It would make a great radio drama, and I could do this sort of thing with a published work that is over 60 years old, if not for our endlessly expanded copyright law. Meanwhile, I've started on NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman, which so far is fascinating. I have lots more books on deck. Onward with October!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Read It, September 2015, Progress Report 3

It's been a pretty uneventful week-and-a-bit. I have continued to listen to the essay collection Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace, in the car. After the challenge of his review of Wittgenstein's Mistress, it is a bit of a relief to have some lighter essays. I'm currently listening to "Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama," which is especially relevant to me given that I have read a couple of the books he mentions, including The Man Who Knew Infinity: a Life of the Genius Ramanujan. It also really drives home what a polymath Wallace really was. It seems almost unfair. I think I would have liked to meet him.

I also picked up a paperback copy of a Frederik Pohl novel I read a long time ago: Jem. If I recall correctly, an excerpt from Jem was published in Omni magazine around 1979 or so. If I recall correctly, it contained a bit of a sex scene. If I recall correctly, this led 12-year-old me to read the novel.

Thirty-six years later, Jem isn't so great; its gender politics and its geopolitics are pretty dated, but its three science-fictional alien races are still very cool. It's basically a minor thriller with science fiction elements, but it is more space opera than science fiction; the geopolitics could have played out on earth, and the aliens don't seem that integral to the plot. I have to remind myself that it was written a few years after the 1970s oil crisis and so concerns a future where the world is broken into a fuel bloc, a food bloc, and a "people bloc" of countries that export service workers. The prospect of nuclear war is also very much on Pohl's radar in this story. And so this is really a political/military thriller, and one might think of it as fitting vaguely into the military science fiction sub-genre.

The failures of Pohl's science-fictional imagination in this book are almost more interesting than its successes. In this world, tachyon propulsion from orbit makes the most expensive part of space travel the fuel cost of lifting a ship initially into orbit. But there is no concern shown at all to the problems of relativity associated with faster-than-light travel. In this high-tech world, people exploring an alien world transport gasoline-powered planes and boats there, record audio on magnetic tape, and send information on paper or microfiche(!)

The really badly dated parts of Gem center around sexual morality. Post-sexual revolution, pre-HIV, male science fiction writers liked to imagine, and teach impressionable young readers, that we would all soon be living in a sexual utopia where women would use men sexually the same way that men use women, and all would be content with this situation. So we have a protagonist who is a military officer, a West Point graduate, with a highly-placed father, leading the American expedition to Jem. She cheerfully fucks her way along in the world, to get what she wants at any given time. She's not even a serial monogamist; at one point, she has donated an egg to a sperm and egg bank on the alien world Jem, and discovers that the egg was fertilized. She finds herself wondering just who the father might be, because she honestly isn't sure. The women on Jem are, apparently, routinely donating their eggs to use later, perhaps with surrogate mothers. Meanwhile, in the real world, egg extraction is a non-trivial medical procedure, but Pohl is happy to imagine that it will be routine under primitive field-encampment conditions on toxic, hazardous alien planets. I guess it takes a real man to properly trivialize female reproductive biology.

Pohl also introduces a character who is a carping moralist, and we hear her inner monologue of disgust and loathing towards anyone expressing sexual interest in her, or the couples hooking up all around her. Pohl made her a translator who has had the hemispheres of her brain split, to further her career in simultaneous translation. I remember this fascinating concept from reading this book as a child, but back then I didn't really even begin to parse the way Pohl apparently uses her to illustrate sexual hypocrisy. She spends the book casting judgment on other people's sexual mores, but she's literally of two minds about it and hard-wired for hypocrisy -- the half of her brain that does engage in sex outside of marriage apparently literally doesn't, and can't, know what the other half is up to, or at least can't discern the disconnect. She feels perfectly justified in adoring her chosen partner, even when it quickly becomes clear that he does not have any particular passion for or particular interest in her, or sterling character himself. I am not entirely clear what Pohl is getting at here; is he illustrating sexual hypocrisy in order to mock it, to claim that all scolds are hypocrites, or to show her as a tragic figure who would otherwise be virtuous, had she not been damaged in this way? It just does not seem very clear.

As I said, even though they are not very well-integrated with the overall plot, the aliens are interesting. Jem's 3 intelligent alien races are an underground, mole-like race, a surface-dwelling, crab-like race, and an aerial race of gasbags (the characters sometimes refer to them contemptuously as "fartbags. The life on Jem is apparently mildly toxic to humans; they can have a severe allergic reaction to exposure to environmental proteins. Jem's life has a similar sensitivity to earth organisms.

Pohl had a world here where he could have come up with interesting symbiosis between the different intelligent races, and done much more with the contact scenarios and developing significant relationships between human and alien characters. He really doesn't do much of that, though. The human sympathy for the aliens is disturbingly limited; if that is his intentional message, it seems like quite a dark one. By the end of the book the humans are engaging in plantation slavery, and there is some kind of a rant about how this is consensual, but it is impossible to tell whether Pohl is writing a apologia for slavery, or mocking such apologia.

All through the book, the alien races are there to be exploited; in an early scene, a biologist shoots them down and the injured sentient aliens drag themselves around the camp, slowly dying. Humans literally use the "fartbag" balloonists for sexual gratification; it turns out that a mist of aerially-released fartbag sperm, drifting down onto humans, is a combination hallucinogen, euphoric, and aphrodisiac -- so potent, in fact, that it triggers an immediate orgy among the humans present. The release of sperm can be triggered by strobe lights, and so the colonists of Jem begin holding regular dance parties. This makes Jem sort of like Studio 54, I guess, with its a high concentration of drugs and sperm -- again, just what was Pohl intending to portray, or parody, here, and for what reason?

I'm reminded a little bit of John Varley's Titan and also of the aliens of Medea from Medea: Harlan's World, which I believe was also excerpted in Omni magazine, which also led me to that book; I want to pick up a copy of Medea and read it again and see how well those stories have shown up. I'll bet it holds up a lot better than Jem, and I know that Titan certainly does. It seems unfortunate that Pohl's reputation rests on a handful of works that are quite memorable -- for example, Gateway and The Space Merchants, but would be far stronger if not for a lot of mediocre work. To be fair, I have not read more than a selection of his novels, so perhaps I am missing some information. If you're interested in a satirical, polemical space opera, I'd recommend reading Pohl's much earlier book The Age of the Pussyfoot, which is at least light-hearted and often quite funny.

There's more to tell about planet Jem and its unusual star, but really, by the standards of better hard science fiction, it's not that interesting. Oh, and the sex scenes I remember from my childhood? Let's just say they were a lot more exciting when I was twelve. "The future of sex that wasn't" would be a good topic for a con panel on sexuality in science fiction. White male science fiction authors envisioning a post-sexual-revolution world that perfectly preserves, as if in amber, their own attitudes towards the subject? Don't sign me up for this particular future -- although it could inspire a really fun convention costume event!

Meanwhile, I am just about finished with Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is essentially a transcript of a long series of conversations with David Foster Wallace. There are some real insights here. Disturbingly, Wallace's tendency towards suicidal ideation is present as a subtext all through is comments -- he is constantly talking casually, in a joking manner, about blowing his brains out, in a manner that was, at the time, probably just shy of setting off his interlocutor's alarm bells. Reading Wallace talk about his insecurities and painful introspection about all his perceived faults feels voyeuristic, but there is some insight here about all writers, all artists. I feel closer to him as a person than I do when reading his brilliant and often self-revelatory essays. I'm just not quite sure he was really comfortable with what he actually revealed. But his thoughts on media and television and music are more than worth the price of admission.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Read It, September 2015, Progress Report 2

I have a line-jumper to report. Somehow, Terry Pratchett's last Discword novel*, Raising Steam, jumped the line and I read it before a number of other books that have been waiting patiently for months. *[Well, last "regular" or "main sequence" Discworld novel; the Tiffany Aching book The Shepherd's Crown is a young adult Discworld novel in the Tiffany Aching sequence and it came out after Raising Steam, so it is, truly, sadly the last Discworld novel]. Raising Steam is about the development of railroads in Discworld. It fits nicely into the Moist Lipwig sequence, but does not really stand out as better or worse than the others. Really, the whole sequence is quite good. It does not do anything special to close off or round out the sequence, and so reading the main sequence of Discworld novels will forever leave readers with a slight feeling of incompleteness. I think that in itself is a tribute to the author; the world, and not just the series of books, will hereafter always have a Terry Pratchett-shaped hole in it.

I've been reading many things this month, including a number of things that aren't books. I read the New Yorker's article on Donald Trump and his relationship to the White Nationalist movement. I picked up some discounted audiobooks on CD at the Book Warehouse in the Birch Run outlet mall, specifically a boxed set of David Sedaris audiobooks, and an unabridged version of the David Foster Wallace essay collection Both Flesh and Not.

Both Flesh and Not opens with the essay "Federer Both Flesh and Not" and I listened to that essay driving down to Ann Arbor on Monday morning. I have very little interest in professional sports of any kind, but DFW makes tennis very interesting, and his enthusiasm for the sport becomes contagious at least as long as I am listening to his analysis. Like all DFW essays, this one is about many things, including the history of tennis, the way we react to and treat athletes, and the way they respond to this attention. Having never really heard of Roger Federer, I had a very strange instance of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or recency illusion. Just an hour or so after I had listened to this essay, I overheard two co-workers talking about Federer. The essay dates from 2006. Apparently, Federer has been enjoying a recent comeback after a number of years of relative obscurity. Wallace's genius is not obscure at all; it's an amazing essay, a real tour de force.

The next essay, Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young, is somewhat more difficult to get through in audiobook format. Wallace starts off discussing the then-recent crop of "conspicuously young" writers and winds up tackling some very heady topics, including the notion of just how contemporary culture manifests and shades a piece of writing, and how recent fiction has been morally damaged by television writing, an inescapable influence for young authors. He also lays into MFA programs, which no doubt deserve the tongue-lashing. When he wrote this, Wallace was about 26 years old. It seems almost inconceivable to me that at 26 he could be so insightful, and so well-read (although at that age somewhat more showily and conspicuously so than he was in later writing). He really was so very, very brilliant.

It is hard to listen to this essay in audio form and I have had to listen to the whole thing repeatedly. I'd like to be able to back up just a few seconds, but my car's CD player will only back up to the beginning of a track (or if it will scan backwards, I don't know how to make it do so). The essay is so dense that if I was reading it in print, I would require frequent breaks to stare into space, think admiringly about the argument he was making, and perhaps Google a few of his references. It's hard to do that while driving.

Now I'm working my way through his long review of Wittgenstein's Mistress and I am at sea here, knowing even less about Wittgenstein than I do about young writers and MFA programs circa 1988. I may not finish reading (listening) to this collection of essays this month, but I am trying. I have also started reading Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky. The multiple introductions are heartbreaking, and I haven't even gotten to the real dialogue yet. I would love to see the movie adaptation, called The End of the Tour. I'd have liked to see that one in the theater, but I don't think it played anywhere within fifty miles of Saginaw, Michigan, so I'll have to buy a DVD when they are available.

Finally, I read half of the most recent long essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic magazine, "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration." I will read the rest, but it is so grim that I had to stop for now. This is another of those essays by Coates which will prompt me to buy paper copies, and give them to my friends. But I had to stop, for now.

I've also been reading bits and pieces of The Art of Electronics, Third Edition by Paul Horowitz and Winfield Hill. This is an amazing book, and I understand more of it than I ever would have, a few years ago. I've also been reading chapters from Make: Encyclopedia of Electronic Components Volume 1: Resistors, Capacitors, Inductors, Switches, Encoders, Relays, Transistors by Charles Platt (yes, the same Charles Platt who wrote science fiction, including The Silicon Man I've gotten more deeply into my electronics hobby; at the age of nearly fifty, when I can barely see well enough to solder parts together, I finally have the electronics hobby that my grandfather tried to teach me when I was eight or nine years old. And I am trying to pass his enthusiasm for the subject on to my own children. (No grandchildren yet!)

And so I will stop there. Another update soon!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Read It, September 2015, Progress Report 1

Over Labor Day weekend I read the new Laundry Files novel from Charles Stross, The Annihilation Score.

This one is different in that it is told entirely from the perspective of Mo, Dominique O'Brien. An experienced combat epistemologist (I'll bet your spell checker doesn't include that word), in this story she gets a serious promotion. For those following along with the story arc, Bob now hosts the Eater of Souls and has become a sort of scary successor to Angleton, but Mo is a Deeply Scary Sorceror in her own right, with her own Laundry career. In fact that's been true as far back as the second Laundry Files novel, The Jennifer Morgue. She's not an accessory to Bob, and no one's trophy wife, and does not really work in his shadow. Stross should get some credit for not writing Mo as a weak secondary character. In fact, he jokes a bit about it, having Mo mention the Bechdel Test, when her conversation with another woman happens to turn to Bob.

This is reinforced by the situation at home, where Bob and Mo find, for very good and terrifying reasons, that their work has turned them both into people who are not really certain if it is either safe or comfortable to live with each other. So they are undergoing a sort of hesitant, unwilling trial separation. This has the effect of allowing the narrative to really stick with Mo. To reinforce the idea that this is a story told from a female perspective, we have a "birds coming home to roost" setup, where Mo has to figure out how to work with both Mhari and Ramona. Poor Bob -- for him, it seems like that is a terrifying setup for an urban horror novel!

I'm not going to say that Stross is great at writing a female character -- Mo is no Molly Bloom -- but it's clear Stross worked hard at it, and he's done, I think, a good job. I get the feeling that he isn't quite in Mo's head the way he's in Bob's head, but even so, he writes rings around a lot of other genre authors.

If I had to pick one series from the "urban fantasy" genre to keep and the rest to discard, I wouldn't, because I wouldn't give up Kat Richardson and Jim Dresden or even Simon Green or Thomas Sniegoski. But the Laundry Files books would definitely remain on my short list. When a new one comes out, I actually hesitate to buy it, because I know I will be pretty much unable to do anything else, neglecting work, family, personal hygiene and nutrition, and everything else, until I've finished reading it. So I try to wait until I have a suitable weekend.

This novel is a great addition to the Laundry Files. If this novel had a downside for me, it would be that I miss Bob and his endearing nerdiness. Mo is just not as much of a gadget freak as Bob, and doesn't rattle on at length about the details of the magic and technology that this world mixes together. She has her own things she's nerdy about, especially violin and classical music, but I feel like Stross did not know her subjects well enough to write a lot about them. Or maybe he just had to make cuts for length; this is quite a long Laundry novel.

I would be happy to read another Laundry Files novel told from Mo's perspective. At the end of this novel she's in the same kind of rough shape that Bob was in, at the end of The Jennifer Morgue. But I've known Bob for a lot longer. If his success at saving the world, and his new assignment as host to the Eater of Souls, means he has to lose his wife, well -- I'll be very sad for him. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Bob, are you OK?

I have one last comment on the book. I understand that when a series changes publishers, the graphic design continuity is often lost. But there has been a nice graphic consistency in the Laundry Files novels, particularly the last three, including some nice typographical consistency. This book discards that continuity for some cover art that does feature a violin case, but is largely just vague and ugly. I guess it makes sense given that it has a different narrator, but it probably has more to do with Stross's change of editor at Ace. It's a shame and a disappointment. Take a look at this cover, and this cover, and this one. The other current editions for the Laundry Files novel are sightly less consistent in the way they lay out text blocks on the cover, but they have similar artwork and use the same typeface. Now look at the new one. Not only does it not look like it belongs to the same series, it's ugly. Ace, what the hell were you thinking?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Read It, August 2015

It is Tuesday, the first of September. This morning I stopped at a diner for breakfast and while eating their sad, tasteless version of biscuits and gravy, I finished reading (actually, re-reading) Nature's End by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka. Technically I did not finish this book in August, but I finished it before 9 a.m. the first day in September, so bite me, I'm counting it as an August book.

I could not recall much details of this book, but as I re-read it, I recalled certain scenes and elements that are still vivid thirty years later. The book is a novel, told in multiple first-person narrative. This narrative technique is tricky and risks leaving the reader alienated, as she fails to make the jump each time the narrative voice changes. The writing is technically competent for the most part, but I do feel that the narrative characters are not quite vivid enough to make this technique work well. This is in part because the book is choppy and episodic, broken into very short chapters, so we don't spend enough time with each character to really get to know his or her voice.

The narrative chapters are interspersed with short chapters consisting entirely of clips from news media. The formal innovation here is that the first few are real excerpts (or seemingly real excerpts -- I have not tried looking them up) from news sources, dated pre-1985. Then the sequence of news clippings continues smoothly into extrapolated, fictional news reports on a similar theme: for example, deforestation.

This is moderately convincing even when it is obvious that a cited source is fictional. Of course the difficulty is that in reading this book in 2015, thirty years after it was written, we know that 1985's future did not play out as described in that future passed by. The book's argument is that the forces contributing to "nature's end" would go exponential in their destructive power over that period. While the curves may indeed be exponential and we do indeed have terrifying anthropogenic global warming occurring now, the time window between then and now is probably too small for the curves to really look exponential.

Given that reality these days is plenty terrifying enough this fear-mongering now seems like weak tea. But this doesn't make up the whole of the book. The book is especially good when it becomes less polemical and the authors just put together an engaging showing-not-telling action sequence. There are several of these. They include a description of a life-threatening smog event in Denver, a narrow escape from a massive forest fire in the Brazilian rainforest, the description of a dust storm destroying a farm in Iowa. Put these together with a plot involving a political hit on a demagogue promoting mass suicide, and a somewhat cliched ending involving an Island of Doctor Moreau scenario with altered animals and spiritually uplifted, gifted, altered, damaged children, and you've got a book that is definitely flawed, definitely a product of the "day after" scaremongering of the era that was happening as the cold war wound down, but is still interesting and, maybe, might motivate a reader to study what really happened, and is happening, in both nature and culture.

I'm going to propose that the New York Review Books Classics series adopt this book and bring it back into print, perhaps along with Warday, which I also intend to re-read soon. Flawed though it is, I think it deserves to be read.

I also finished the first Stainless Steel Rat book. It is in fact quite short, and pretty blatantly sets up the sequels. I'll pick up the next one at some point. I don't feel that I need to rush. I enjoyed this book and it is clear that it was very influential on a generation of writers, particularly screenwriters, but the science fiction aspects just haven't worn that well, and I enjoyed Harrison's parody novel Bill, the Galactic Hero more.

I also finished Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. I would have liked to squeeze in another book, but four doesn't seem to bad, even though The Stainless Steel Rat was quite short. My work schedule is easing up a little bit, as we are winding down the process of developing large quantities of new code and in a phase of bug fixes and applying spit and polish to our alpha 2 release. Things will ramp up again for a beta phase, so I can't guarantee I'll be able to read very much in September, but I'll do what I can. A friend loaned me The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edumnd de Waal. I've only read a few pages, but it looks to be a very compelling work of non-fiction. My car is stuffed with more books, begging me to read them. But now, off to work again...

Monday, August 24, 2015

Read It, August 2015, Progress Report 1

It is kind of late in the month to be writing my first progress report post. Today is Monday, August 24th. But I am happy to report that I finished Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel Aurora. I have continued to work long hours this month, so my reading time has been very limited, but as we hammer a huge initial pile of work into a software release, we are gradually emerging from crunch mode into something resembling a more sustainable work schedule.

I won't spoil it too much for you, but Aurora is a story of interstellar travel in a generation starship. Robinson's world is one without magical breakthroughs; the speed of light is still the law of the land. The biggest single extrapolation is the development of the book's intriguing narrator. This is an adventure story that is also at its heart a work of philosophy, a work about human values and the nature of intelligence and loyalty. The author asks us to consider the real nature of our relationship to the rest of the universe, beyond our home planet. Are we really destined to colonize the universe? Is it even possible?

As the best science fiction always is, KSR's new book is very profoundly about the present and our present relationship to those questions, while playing off his earlier work in a playful way. It's not exactly clear how they all fit together, but Robinson appears to be building a sort of ad hoc multiverse, in which different versions of his future history overlap , but do not quite recount a single, coherent history. I found this intriguing; it is almost as if Robinson's view of the future has evolved as he becomes older and the range and depth of his thought deepens, and our relationship with our own home planet is widely recognized as a relationship in profound crisis. Just like that, in fact.

I am not sure this is his finest work. For me that will probably always be his Mars trilogy. This future, because it is on a sort of parallel track, doesn't seem to refute that one, as much as suggest an alternative that makes, perhaps, more sense in 2015, with a different feeling about our future than we had back then. Which one is more realistic? I don't know, but I have my suspicions, and you may, too.

I have just started to read something lighter, Harry Harrison's original 1961 novel The Stainless Steel Rat. I have been curious about this book for a while, especially after reading and enjoying Bill, the Galactic Hero (and, unfortunately, failing to enjoy the sequels). I have only read the first few pages, but it is entertaining so far.

I always find older science fiction interesting -- it is often a bizarre combination of new technology that predicts the future, and old technology that the author somehow imagined would still be around. The result is often bizarre in retrospect. So, for example, we have the protagonist who pulls off a heist and gets on a spaceship to throw the authorities off his tail, but is carrying with him a suitcase full of cash, because money hundreds of years in the future looks very much like money in 1961. He can exceed the speed of light, but he gets his news from printed newspapers, delivered by pneumatic tube. But, perhaps this is not so unrealistic. After all, we were told to expect flying cars, but even the world of Blade Runner never included wi-fi, GPS, or cell phones -- instead, Deckard calls Rachael on a video pay phone. Harrison is not one to take himself too seriously, though, so it's quite possible, if not likely, that these anachronisms were entirely intentional.

I'll have an update after the end of the month. Until then, happy reading!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Read It, July 2015 (and More about Lexx)

Well, this is my worst showing yet. In July I finished only a single book for my own enjoyment. The book was David Mitchell's Black Swan Green.

This is a lovely novel. It captures the author's life (roughly) at age 13, with all his insecurities, both internal and external, and the very honest brutality of his classmates, in a way that is moving, precisely because it is lacking in mawkish sentimentality. The characters are archetypes, to some extent, and sometimes fill specific roles in this bildungsroman, but they are quite convincing. It all fits together in a neat artistic bow at the end, but I think that's OK. The narrator grows as a person, over the course of a year, and winds up impressing the reader.

The narrator has a stammer, which hit home for me because several of my children have speech impediments, to some degree, and we have not been able to get them any assistance (that's another long story). The cruelty of the various adults and children in his life regarding the stammer is not surprising. It reinforces my belief that my own children are better off home-schooled -- although homeschooling can have its own pitfalls, such as the toll it takes on the sanity of the parents.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time mourning my poor showing this month, or trying to justify it. But the biggest reason is simply that I've continued to put in long hours at a new job, sometimes fifteen or sixteen hours a day. Many days this past month when I left work, I had every intention of eating a quick meal and reading for a bit before I went to sleep, but many evenings my eyes and my brain were just too fried, so I'd often start to read a page or two, realize I was not getting anywhere, and just go to sleep. I had somewhat better luck reading a chapter first thing in the morning, and that's how I finished Black Swan Green, but it was slow progress.

On those evenings where I've been two fried to read properly, but too wired to go to bed, I've been watching some videos. I finished season one of Mad Men, and started season two. The show is very impressive, but you know that already.

I've also been working my way through the rest of Lexx. I'm not entirely sure why. Masochism, maybe? Lexx is very frustrating. Some of the bigger-picture setup is just beautiful, and deserved much better storytelling, It has brilliant moments and occasionally really stunning sets and visuals, despite the relatively low budget. Episodes such as "Brigadoom" really redeem the show for me and make me smile. But for the most part, the individual shows are just painful to watch. They are hour-long episodes, but contain barely enough script for a half-hour show, so everything is terribly padded. I sometimes find myself just skipping ahead a minute or two at a time with the fast-forward button to get through interminable, redundant scenes. The episode entitled "Girltown" is a good example of the show's endless, painful sexism, and how it keeps sinking back into the insulting portrayals it is (apparently) trying, but failing, to satirize.

Where the show manages to do some specific satire, parody, or homage, it can be quite entertaining. But it really feels like the creators just couldn't, for the most part, come up with any ideas to drive the plot of the individual episodes other than the endlessly tedious rehash of "Stan and Xev want to get laid, but Xev doesn't want Stan; Xev likes Kai, but Kai is dead; 790 loves Xev, but 790 is just a robot head." They just play out this same set of flat, adolescent motives over and over again, in slightly different settings. That's about 3/4 of Lexx. But there's about 1/4 of it that is funny, or surreal, or thought-provoking, or actually successfully erotic.

So why do I keep watching? I am watching for those occasional flashes of interest, because when they do show up, they seem to almost make the slog worthwhile. I am a big fan of writing or video that takes artistic risks. Most of the things that are superficially "risky" about Lexx -- the nudity, the horny characters, the body horror, etc. -- are not really risky at all. They're your basic pandering to the lowest common denominator "Cormanesque" science fiction/horror tropes. But the show does some things occasionally that actually risk artistic failure. In "Brigadoom" we suddenly have one of the major character's back-story explicated as an honest-to-god musical, with Kai singing his life story and Xev joining him on a stage, and it's amazing. Not just amazingly weird, although it is that, but beautiful.

That's a project I'd like to work on with someone -- to watch Lexx in depth. I believe there are things to be learned from artistic failures. A podcast format might be suitable here -- perhaps one show per episode? But that's probably too much; it might work better to condense some episodes into one podcast, while others get more detailed treatment. For example, the two-parter "The Web" and "The Net" should get a single podcast; they comprise one of the more interesting shows. Would anyone like to collaborate on this? It's easy to just criticize a work like this; there is a lot to criticize. But I think Lexx is weird enough and, occasionally, risky enough to be worth talking about.

UPDATE: I've discovered this podcast, but not listened to it yet, and it doesn't look like it got very far into the show. There's also this one, which looks like it covers more episodes. I'll have to give these a listen; it's possible they already did what I would like to do. But we'll see.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Read It, June 2015

In June 2015 I finished reading:

  • The Glass Bees by Ernst Junger
  • My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
  • Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds [novella]
That is not a very impressive list. June was a month of a lot of travel, a lot of chaos and transition, and a lot of work at my new job. The job is going well, but all the changes are leaving me kind of drained. In the evenings after work last week I even started (gasp)... watching DVDs instead of reading. I've been working my way through Mad Men, Season 1.

OK, so I'm a little behind the TV-watching world. Still, I'm enjoying these shows -- they are wonderfully written and acted. Honestly, I might watch them even just to drool over the Mid-Century Modern furniture. There is some fascinating character development going on, even in characters that started out rather simple and flat. It's impressive, but still, I gravitate towards reading rather than watching, although I will never give up the chance to watch a great or at least interesting film, preferably in a theater.

I have not read, but listened to, most of the Chronicles of Narnia in the form of the Focus on the Family audio adaptations (I have not yet finished The Last Battle, but I'll finish that in my car trip back down to Ann Arbor on Monday morning.

I will not claim that listening to these audio dramatization counts as re-reading them. These adaptations seem quite complete and faithful, and use large portions of the dialogue and text verbatim, but they are not a reading of the the unabridged text.

Still, I am reliving the stories, and in a very satisfying way. I've also been reading the books out loud to my children, but that is slow going -- a chapter or two a night. We are most of the way through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (I believe that the books should be read in publication order). But how is it that C. S. Lewis did not use the Oxford comma in the title?

I am continuing to chip away at The Long Ships by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson. This is a very funny and entertaining book but the dry humor demands concentration, and I have found my concentration to be in short supply recently. This would be a great book to read out loud, but my children are too young to appreciate it. So, I have only finished the first part (out of four). I am enjoying the story and I beieve I will finish this book, but it may take me a while and I may allow another book or two to jump ahead of it in line.

I am tempted to pick up the second part of My Struggle. I'm also tempted to pick up something by David Mitchell, or to read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. Maybe I should just browse my own shelves, which contain many unread books, or my own wish list. Any suggestions?

Update, written at the end of 2015: over the next few months, I did finish reading my children The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and The Horse and His Boy. Unfortunately, I neglected to note exactly when I did so. The exact order and timing are a little bit muddled in my head, because I also listened to the (abridged) audio drama versions of all the Narnia books put out by Focus on the Family.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Read It, June 2015, Progress Report 3

It has been a crazy-busy and stress-generating week. I have left one job and started another. I am now working for Thorlabs, Inc. as part of their "UFO" (Ultrafast Optoelectronics) team in Ann Arbor. Thorlabs is not a small company but the UFO office is a new "greenfield initiative" business unit. Here is the press release about the UFO office. I probably shouldn't try to say much more about it, so I will just say that it is a very cool team working on very cool things! Also, employee discount! Parents! Teach your kids about Mach-Zehnder Interferometry!

What does this mean for the Potts family in Saginaw? Well, that is a difficult question. For some jobs it would make little difference if I was working in my home office or in the company's office; I could write code either way. In this position I will need to be on-site a lot. So for now I am commuting. It is 90 minutes one way. Some people might be willing to drive three hours a day for work, but I'm not. So I have arranged to spend part of my week in Ann Arbor and part of my week in Saginaw and commute weekly instead of daily. I've completed my first week of this arrangement and I'm actually driving fewer miles per week than I was commuting daily to Dow in Midland.

We will eventually move back to Washtenaw County, or at least a lot closer to it. The housing market in Washtenaw county is problematic (warning: PDF link). We own a home (well, at least a mortgage) in Saginaw. It is not clear if we might be able to get any money back out of the house at all. The home market in Saginaw does not seem to have improved since 2010. The differential in housing prices is pretty dramatic, so even if we could get our down payment back, it would probably not suffice for a down payment on a home (even a much smaller home) in Washtenaw County. We need to be open to possible creative solutions. Meanwhile, I'll be commuting again this week while we try to figure this out.

So I have not gotten a lot of reading done. I did chip away a little bit at The Long Ships by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson. It's a funny, imaginative pseudo-historical tale about Vikings. I don't have a lot to say about it yet. I also had a line-jumper; I found, at Nicola's Books, a copy of Alastair Reynolds' new novella Slow Bullets. At about 40,000 words, it's a quick read. I enjoyed this dark but hopeful story, but I admit the setup is slightly hackneyed (the passengers in hibernation wake up only to discover their journey has lasted far longer than they ever expected). It has some of Reynolds' signature Revelation Space body-horror moments, so if you're not used to that, you might not like this work. The print edition is marred by a couple of glaring typos. If you are already a Reynolds fan, you will have to read this one. If you aren't, you might want to start with one of his story collections. I particularly recommend Zima Blue and Other Stories.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Read It, June 2015, Progress Report 2

I read My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Don Bartlett. This is the first volume of a six-volume autobiographical novel, translated from the Norwegian. I stumbled across this in Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor and knew immediately that I had to give this work a try. It has been waiting for me to start it for a few weeks but as soon as I dove in, I was hooked.

This is a work of intense realism. It has been praised for its lack of pretense and utter honesty, although of course even brutally honest, self-deprecating autobiographical writing is a work of careful artifice. In this case the feeling of verisimilitude that flows from the page comes from the way that the narrative jumps around in time, as memory does, and often slows down to explore physical details from Knausgaard's memories, or wander into Knausgaard's musings on art, literature, time, and in this volume, most importantly, death. The whole second half of this volume begins with Karl Ove receiving word of his father's death, and his trip to his grandmother's home to deal with the aftermath of the man's grim death by alcohol. It really is grim, but it also feels very, very true.

Not all grim or tragic work succeeds in producing a cathartic release in the reader. The real triumph of this book is that it does not feel, ever, like phony nostalgia. There are no dancing bears or brightly-lit childhood memories. In fact it seems that Knausgaard had quite a melancholic life in a cold, rugged, and dark country. His world view has an atheistic, existentialist feel. You can read an interview with the man here. One could wonder what sort of mind writes a six-volume autobiographical novel of such brutal honesty. Really, I think it is our contemporary answer to Proust's In Search of Lost Time. It is also a remarkable work of translation.

I have a few very minor quibbles with the text. I stumbled across a couple typographical errors and a couple of word choices that seem not like artistic choices but incorrect usage. I expect that these might be corrected in later printings. But in general the ebb and flow of the text is remarkable. I have the next two volumes lined up on my shelf, in the Farrar, Straus and Giroux papeback reprint editions. The remaining three volumes are not available yet. I am planning to read them all, but I will not race through these books. They deserve careful consideration.

In other news, over the past couple of weeks I have also been "re-reading" The Chronicles of Narnia. I have not been reading them per se, but listening to audiobooks, and not unabridged or even abridged audiobooks, but audio dramatizations. This series was a Christmas gift from a friend and they are very nicely done, covering every important conversation and event in the stories while moving along at a good clip, turning each book into two or three compact discs.

This series is arranged in the modern way, with the books not in publishing order but in their "in-universe" chronological order. This is called by the publisher the author's preferred ordering. I'm not going to get into the controversy over whether that is true, or whether the publisher should present the books in this order. I will just say that, having first read them in publication order many years ago, it is not my preferred order, and it is not the order I am presenting the books to my children. In my opinion, if you read The Magician's Nephew first, there is much that should be mysterious and intriguing in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that is instead largely drained of mystery.

I don't quite count this as "re-reading" the books, but I am getting a lot out of the audio drama. I've been playing them in the car while I commute to and from work. The kids have enjoyed them as well. It has been a long, long time since I last read these books -- probably thirty-five years. I watched the first two of the recent film versions and they were really mediocre; I remember almost nothing about them. The audio dramatization is a much more effective way to experience the story.

I am struck by Lewis's somewhat heavy-handed, but beautiful, Christian allegory peeping out at every turn. It also is amusing to come across all the story elements that Lewis and Tolkien share. I'm not sure who first used the army of marching trees, although of course both borrowed them from Shakespeare. One set their heaven in the east and one in the west. Tolkien's introduction to The Lord of the Rings in which he talks about how much he despises allegory, takes on a new meaning. there is a darker side to Lewis's world, in which British schoolchildren, because they are "sons of Adam" and "daughters of Eve," are born to colonize and rule the "lesser" races of talking animals and human-like beings that are always portrayed as lesser, although oddly not the children of "lesser God." Just as the beauty of Lewis's Christian allegory peep out everywhere, so does his provincial, colonialist thinking.

Speaking of colonialist thinking, last night I showed my children the original version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It remains a fantastic movie, just perfectly structured, and my kids all immediately wanted to watch it again the next day. But speaking of colonialism -- parents, have you talked to your children about Oompa-Loompas?

I also have started reading The Long Ships by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson. I set that book aside to read My Struggle: Book 1 but will now return to it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Read It, June 2015, Progress Report 1

I read The Glass Bees by Ernst Junger. This is a short novel, and an odd one. Written in 1957, it is technically science fiction, in that it describes a future that involves small, high-technology robotic devices, as well as films made with artificial actors. The storyline, the present of the book, is minimal. A man is applying for a job at a futuristic, rural robotics factory (I think it would be accurate to call it a "post-industrial" facility; as Bruce Sterling points out in his introduction, the site is reminiscent of modern high-tech campuses in Silicon Valley).

In the first half of the book very little happens in the present; the protagonist is waiting, and we read his digressions and memories of his military past, as part of Germany's mounted light cavalry. The book's brevity does not imply it isn't slow-going. I read early in the morning these days, before I've had my coffee, and I found myself struggling to stay focused, even on these relatively short chapters.

Our protagonist has a brief meeting with the wealthy, reclusive founder, and then is left to wait in a garden setting, while he undergoes a sort of passive hazing. He is told to beware the bees. With a pair of binoculars he looks at a nearby hive to discover that it is filled with artificial bees, apparently collecting nectar more efficiently than natural bees; each docks briefly at the hive, which is really a sort of liquid cargo terminal, and then is "fired" back into circulation like a projectile fired from a gun. We then return to a series of flashbacks, and memories of his childhood. As he continues to look around with his high-power binoculars, he sees a shockingly bizarre sight in the pond, and has to struggle with what it might mean, until he meets the founder again. Is he stung by one of the glass bees? It seems unclear. Or is he just reacting to a memorable day in his personal history where he ate outdoors with his colleagues, and many of them were stung, but he was not?

After reading Bruce Sterling's introduction, I was expecting more dialogue and action, and more of a science fiction present. Instead I got pages and pages of these digressions and memories. It is a very oddly told story. I don't think it is a great book, but it is definitely somewhat haunting. Knowing so little about the history of Germany, I am sure I am missing a lot of subtext. Wikipedia says:

The novel follows two days in the life of Captain Richard, an unemployed ex-cavalryman who feels lost in a world that has become more technologically advanced and impersonal. Richard accepts a job interview at Zapparoni Works, a company that designs and manufactures robots including the eponymous glass bees. Richard's first-person narrative blends depiction of his unusual job interview, autobiographical flashbacks from his childhood and his days as a soldier, and reflection on the themes of technology, war, historical change, and morality.

That's all true, and this book's blend of past and future reminded me a bit of the works of Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky Brothers. But overall, I did not find the story very compelling, and so I can't give it a strong recommendation. The many digressions and ambiguities give critics lots to think about, and maybe under different circumstances I'd join them in reflecting more deeply on the book. Perhaps it was just not quite the right time for me to read it.