Thursday, May 28, 2015

Read It, May 2015

The tally of books finished for May, 2015 is:

  • The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes
  • Lexicon by Max Barry
  • Red Shift by Alan Garner
  • Hav by Jan Morris
  • Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides, translated and with essays by Anne Carson
  • Doctor Who: 12 Doctors, 12 Stories by Various Authors [read to my children as bedtime stories]

I did not write detailed notes about Grief Lessons and I don't think I'm going to. Anne Carson is an interesting scholar and poet -- consider this profile from the New York Times Magazine. I will say that these are, I think, excellent translations into modern English. What is harder to translate is the context and meaning of the plays. Herakles has a strange plot, almost a non-plot, and leaves the reader wondering "why?" Hekabe is probably the one best understood by modern readers, since it is a story of revenge. Hyppolytos is another strange story about love taken to the fetishistic point, but it has interesting resonance with modern teachings about "purity." Alkestis also has a very odd storyline, again with Herakles (Hercules) as a character, and seems to be a tragedy that fails to work as a tragedy. It reminded me strangely of the scene in the Wakefield First Shepherds' Play when the shepherds are fed by a miraculous supply of food from an empty bag. I am humbled to read that Euripedes is thought to have written over ninety plays, but only eighteen or nineteen have survived.

In terms of numbers, that's a little better than last month. I was hoping to spend more time on non-fiction. I did spend some time, but it was mostly with books like Conceptual Mathematics: a First Introduction to Categories by F. William Lawvere and Stephen H. Schanuel, and Basic Category Theory for Computer Scientists by Benjamin C. Pierce. In addition, I've been reading, or at least chipping away at, a variety of other papers on similar subjects.

I am hoping to improve my understanding of category theory to the point where the categorical-theoretic aspects for certain constructs implemented in the Haskell programming language -- functors, monoids, and monads, specifically -- are clear to me. I at least partially undertand these constructs in terms of how they work for writing functional programs, and I've used a few of them in programs, but I would like to understand them a little more formally.

I'm not sure I can explain exactly why, except that I am fascinated by what Haskell can do with these tools, and by what some very smart people are doing with them. The future of Haskell and its role in the wider world of practical programming languages is a bigger topic, but maybe it would make sense to say that I am trying to upgrade my brain. I think in some sense I have Ph.D. envy, although at this stage of my life I think a Ph.D. in Computer Science or Mathematics is probably just not in the cards for me.

I am progressing through my shelf of New York Review Books Classics nicely. Four of the books I completed this month are from that series. The series remains really impressive and fascinating. Although I have quite a few of their titles, I really can't hope to read them all. They are publishing them monthly. I could probably keep up with a subscription, reading one a month, but there are, I think, something like 350 books in the NYRB Classics back-catalog. I own 52 of these at the moment, and I've completed 14 (and read bits of a few others). As much as I love this series, I do like to mix them up with lighter, or maybe heavier, fare, and some of them will likely just never be to my taste -- and that's OK.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Read It, May 2015, Progress Report 2

I finished Red Shift by Alan Garner. It is quite a short book, but a bit difficult. You will need to take your time with it. For an American, some of the British word usage was confusing. I had to double-check to verify what a "caravan" is, in Garner's usage It didn't help that it involved dialect and concepts from three different historical periods.

The multi-layered story is told almost entirely in dialogue, with extremely minimal description of locations, objects, and actions. The book interleaves events and characters from three different time periods, centered around a place and an artifact. It's difficult to tell what is going on, at times. This makes it "high-concept" or "arty" so if you dislike work that might be called "experimental," avoid this novel. Personally I love work like this in general, except in those cases when the concept takes over and ruins the art, as in (in my opinion) Mark Z. Danielewski's Only Revolutions.

That does not happen in this book. The work produces some genuine shiver-up-the-spine moments, this juxtapositioning of ephemeral human lives like gnats around a fixed landscape. It's dark, but vivid. Look up pictures of "Mow Cop" and you will get a sense for the spiritual power of that place, and perhaps understand, just a bit, why it inspired Garner.

Continuing with my red-spined NYRB Classics, I'm halfway through Hav by Jan Morris. This is a work of fake travel-writing. It's beautifully done. I wish I could visit Hav. If I had done more traveling myself, I'm sure this fake place would seem eerily familiar and the wry humor she brings to her descriptive language of the people and places of Hav would produce outright laughter instead of simply grins. It's also elegiac, and I find myself in mourning, just a little, for a place that never existed. How weird is that?

For what it's worth, while I was looking up other work by Morris, I discovered that she wrote a work called Conundrum that is the story of her transition from James Morris to Jan. I have not read Conundrum, and I don't think anyone has a perfect claim on understanding just what comprises a feminine voice, as opposed to a masculine voice, in writing. But from the beginning of this book I was struck by the unusual combination of physical detail, the sense of secret history, a clear love of architecture and design, the male-seeming attention to military rank and uniform, and hierarchy and power and authority in the characters, but also to the details of women's dresses, interior decorating, and a sensibility that constantly delights in describing light, colors, textures, and flavors.

Is it possible that, because the author presented herself at different times in her life, and so interacted with others as, both a man and a woman, her perspective on an imaginary place is somehow wider? Maybe that's just something I've retroactively imagined. In any case, I mean it only admiringly. It seems fitting that the author of such an extraordinary story had an extraordinary life story herself.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Read It, May 2015, Progress Report 1

I finished The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes. It's a dark book, and explores the idea of individual existence and what human beings owe to others. It's a dense work. There's a lot going on: Mitzi is blind, but most of the other characters are metaphorically blinded in some way: blinded by infatuation, blinded by politics, or blinded by post-traumatic stress response. What does the fox represent? Is it the individual's self-consciousness, trapped in the "attic" of the individual body? This one seems like it deserves re-reading. But not anytime soon.

I read a novel by Max Barry, a thriller called Lexicon. It's a very fast-moving, exciting story, quite tightly written and well-paced. There are some great twists and surprises. It's kinda-sorta science fiction. The idea is that a secret cabal of "poets" have taken neuro-linguistic programming, hypnotic suggestion, and psychographic segmentation to the next level, and discovered how to hack the human mind, using words that will allow them to gain "root access" and control people. The plot centers around the discovery of a mythical artifact, a "bareword," a back-door password that will instantly gain root of any person, no matter what personality "segment" they occupy.

This idea that language can hack the brain has been explored before, and better, in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, and a little bit in Charles Stross's Laundry Files novels, where certain images and patterns can also hack the brains of susceptible persons. The name "bareword" may be borrowed from Perl programming, where it indicates a variable name that is not prefixed with a "sigil," and therefore is subject to misinterpretation -- a bareword can bypass some of the language's, and through this the computer operating system's, safety features. If the brain has a machine language, and an operating system, then why couldn't it be susceptible to hacking? Hypnotic suggestion, nootropic drugs, etc. -- these things are already "mind hacks." But of course the metaphor of the mind as computer clearly is an imperfect one. The brain isn't literally made of registers, I/O busses, and arithmetic logic units.

There's a lot to like about this book; it's very nicely put together, with some genuinely exciting plot twists that feel very satisfying when they arrive. Howard Hawks, the film director, famously said that a good movie is "three good scenes and no bad scenes." This book has some great scenes. The scene where Emily first encounters the bareword is wonderfully written. The organization that conducts experiments on human subjects is horribly convincing. But it also has some scenes that are, to me, a little unconvincing.

In one scene, Emily has to fix a damaged computer by cannibalizing other computers. She can supposedly figure out how to do this because of her cleverness, and her training in linguistics, history, philosophy, psychology, and neurological anatomy. I'll accept that Emily is very clever; a genius, even. But the text does not mention any background in computer programming or electrical engineering. It doesn't mention any tools such as a soldering iron, a logic analyzer, or even a multimeter. It's kind of laughable. To me, it was just a little too hard to suspend disbelief at this point, especially after accepting all the other plot devices I had provisionally accepted. Maybe this is because I understand this subject area well enough to know what this kind of problem-solving requires. Meanwhile, as the hard science about how the brain processes language is still rather "soft," it felt easier to suspend disbelief in the notion that the brain has a universal backdoor password. But still, it pushed me out of the story.

So, I think this is a pretty good science fiction/thriller, but comes up just short of being a great one. It's professionally done, but at times feels more formulaic and workmanlike than inspired. The author introduces more ideas than he really explores thoroughly. There's a brilliant critique of modern media and the rise of Fox News. There's an exploration of the concept of the "tower of Babel" and the division of human languages, and why that happened, and what it would mean if we had a universal language. These linked ideas themselves really deserve a bigger story and a more convincing science fiction setting. I enjoyed it, and gave up sleep to finish it, but it won't be part of my permanent library.

On deck this week: Red Shift by Alan Garner. (I'm working my way through a whole shelf of New York Review Books Classics, arranged by color, and I'm still in the red side of the ROYGBIV rainbow, with quite a few more unread volumes with red covers to finish before I reach orange). The Fox in the Attic and Nature Stories, the only two NYRB Classics I have with white covers, I (somewhat arbitrarily) placed to the left of red. Having finished The Fox in the Attic, I've been reading bits of Nature Stories to my children at bedtime. It is a slim collection of beautifully written and illustrated short stories about animals, written by Jules Renard. The stories range from haiku-like, even a single sentence in some cases, to a few pages. It's a lovely book.

I've also nearly finished reading my children Doctor Who: 12 Doctors, 12 Stories (we've just started the story featuring the eleventh doctor, the one played by Matt Smith). This story is written by Neil Gaiman and it is quite a good one, although overall, all of the stories in the series have been quite well-done. I recommend this collection to any young Doctor Who fans.

Also on deck: a whole lot of non-fiction vying for my attention; in fact, it is hard to choose. So for the moment I'll finish Red Shift and then see if anything else cuts in line.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Read It, April 2015

The final tally for books completed in April, 2015 is kind of disappointing:

  • Andy Weir's The Martian
  • Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
  • J. G. Ballard's Kingdom Come
  • Harry Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero: Planet of the Robot Slaves

Only four books, and Bill was quite short. I am also about halfway through Richard Hughes' The Fox in the Attic, and I should be able to finish it in a few days. I really hope, in general, to be able to finish more than a book a week, on average. But I guess I should be grateful that I can get any reading time in at all these days.

I have a lot of books to choose from in May. I have picked up the first two books of Karl Ove Knausgaard's massive novel, My Struggle, translated by Don Bartlett. I thumbed through these in Nicola's Books down in Ann Arbor and had to bring them home, although with a few others. There is more non-fiction reading too, including The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. I think that one is probably up next, with its particular relevance to the situation in Baltimore specifically, but in pretty much every American community in general.

I have far more plans and ambitions for podcasts than I do quiet time to record, but I am considering moving forward with a podcast to be called the Saginaw Review of Books, modeled very roughly after the New York Review of Books (and similar publications from London and Los Angeles). I have long had the desire to start publishing a print magazine, even small and without contributors, or with very few contributors. I had even considered mimeographing it for old-school vibe, but the larger point was that I didn't want to make it an online magazine. Could a podcast work? With contributors, either coming in to the home studio, or contributing over Skype? What do you think?