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.