Books Read – February 2008

  • 52. Vol. 1 by Geoff Johns – 2/3
  • 52. Vol. 2 by Geoff Johns – 2/5

    Year-long weekly comic series; the comic book equivalent of 24, as each comic issue covers one week. Purports to answer the question: what would happen (in the DC universe, mind) if the three big guns (ie, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) disappeared. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does DC comics. Sadly, of limited interest to the non-DC comics fan, which includes me. It’s occasionally engaging and funny, but it’s based on some pretty obscure stuff.

  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – 2/5

    (I read the Gregory Hays translation.) The force of personality beams through this book, written more than two thousand years ago. I was touched by it, but to apply its wisdom to my own life would take some re-reading and meditation. In essence, the only important thing is now, what action we take now and how we order our thoughts to achieve that right action. Well, that’s it in a small, poorly defined nutshell, at any rate.

  • Portable Childhoods by Ellen Klages – 2/7

    A book of short stories. Sadly, short stories fade from my mind rather quickly. There’s quite a variety here, all centered around childhood (surprise!) in some fashion. I distinctly recall the little girl who voodoos herself into a mouse; the time-traveling lesbian physicist who encounters hatred and love in the past; the seven librarians who raise a child to adulthood; and… well, that’s it. There was more, but they’re already gone. They were beautifully written, but I sometimes wearied of the… nostalgia…

  • Welcome to Tranquility by Gail Simone – 2/8

    A story of aged, former superheroes and their past heroics and villainy and the way young people are mired in the untold, half-forgotten stories of their elders. Clearly, in some ways, inspired by Alan Moore’s Supreme and Tom Strong among others. Worthwhile, if you like superhero comics, but are looking for something a bit different. Otherwise…

  • The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby – 2/11

    The book that inspired me to start doing this. (We’ll see how long it lasts. Heh.) Nick Hornby wrote a series of articles for the magazine, The Believer, about the books he’d read in any given month. (Apparently, still ongoing.) It was somewhat inspiring to read a book by someone about READING. I found it somewhat inspiring and thought that, perhaps if I started writing some things down about what I’ve been reading, well, maybe all the reading I’m doing will feel a bit more worthwhile. Also, dovetailing nicely with my impulse to start writing a bit more.

  • Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins by Rupert Everett – 2/14

    An autobiography. Charmingly written, though the celebrity name-dropping does get a bit tedious. There’s a scene early on where he describes going to the cinema for the first time to see Mary Poppins and being so overwhelmed by the wonderfulness of it all, that he had to be taken, screaming, from the theatre. Worthwhile for the crazy anecdotes and celebrity character sketches. The quality of the writing is what really carries it.

  • Boswell’s Life of Johnson – 2/15

    A biography. It’s odd that I finished this one just after the Everett book (even though I had been reading Boswell for months). In some ways, a more vivid sketch of a person (Johnson), than Everett’s portrayal of himself. There’s life breathed on these pages. Boswell spent three decades making Johnson his life’s study. Boswell’s love for the man shines through everywhere. I fancied that I could imagine Johnson himself, now, strolling the night-time streets of somewhere, shouting and carousing with his friends.

  • 0/6, vol. 3 by Youjung Lee – 2/17

    Manga found at a library booksale. Hardly worth the twenty minutes spent reading it. (Nick Hornby didn’t write about anything that he disliked–by editorial fiat–in Polysyllabic Spree. I may follow suit. Why write about a book if I didn’t find anything worth taking away from it?)

  • The Wind in the Willows, Vol. 1 (ill. Michel Plessix) – 2/18

    Charming artwork in this comic version of the book, but I was reminded again about how very bored I have always been by this book. In spite of my very great desire to want to like it.

  • Count Zero by William Gibson – 2/18

    A sequel of sorts to Neuromancer, which is why I read it. I had just listened to the BBC’s radio play version of it and realized I had never read any of the other of Gibson’s “Sprawl trilogy”. It’s excellent if you’re jonesing for some retro-cyberpunk. If you’re looking for a first-time William Gibson experience, though, you’d be much better off reading Pattern Recognition or Spook Country, which explore many of the themes of his earlier books, but are much better written. Gibson’s earliest works are strong, but they are fairly dated.

  • My Own Kind of Freedom by Steven Brust – 2/21

    A Firefly fanfic novel. I probably wouldn’t have read it, if I hadn’t already read about six or seven of Brust’s Taltos novels (sword, sorcery, assassination, etc). What a charming little book this is. Wonderfully snappy dialogue and the book is light on its feet, never feeling bogged down in pointless exposition. It also made me want to re-watch the television series. You can download a copy yourself at the above link.

  • Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil by Jeff Smith – 2/22

    I picked this one up because of Smith’s comic series Bone. Sadly, this one’s a bit forgettable, but it does have a thinly veiled John Ashcroft as primary villain. Methinks that particular touch won’t age well. (Or at least I hope not.)

  • The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders – 2/22

    A series of essays, containing quite possibly the best essay on Huckleberry Finn… that I’ve ever read, anyhow. Also excellent are his essay on his trip to the United Arab Emirates’ city of Dubai and his trip to visit a boy who had been fasting for some unreal length of time (6 months?). Well worth the price of admission, this. (Also, the title essay is quite good. Really gets to the heart of the rot in our (USA’s) body politic.) He has a way of writing in a simplistic style which manages to simultaneously convey a great deal of subtlety and information.

  • Nana, Vol. 2 by Ai Yazawa – 2/26

    Chalk this one up as a guilty pleasure. The manga equivalent of ordering a “girly-drink” (which I also enjoy). The story of two girls, both named Nana, who move to Tokyo (?) and end up becoming roommates. As you can see, I’m already at vol. 2. The die is pretty well cast.

  • Halting State by Charles Stross – 2/26

    A sidenote: I went to a reading that Charles Stross gave for this book in Seattle and watched Stross endure the most painful Q&A session I’ve ever had the misfortune to witness. My heart ached for the man. He probably thinks that Seattle is full of autistic, half-witted, passive-aggressive thugs. I don’t know why he’d ever come to Seattle again, to be honest… Yeesh.

    That being said, the novel–told entirely in rotating second-person narratives, somewhat like text adventure games of olde–is serviceable. Not his best book (and I’ve read just about them all–I’d recommend Singularity Sky or The Atrocity Archive), but it does explore the future of the ubiquitous computing world we live in, extrapolated out 10-20 years. If you want some food for thought on where the cell phone ring in our nose is leading us, you’d do worse than to pick up this book.

  • Alias the Cat by Kim Deitc
    h – 2/27

    A fictional autobiography about a fictional account of the author’s discovery of a fictional proto-superhero comic. This is a story which starts “normal”–the author’s increasing obsession, fueled by eBay and etc, for a sort of cat-like character (a sort-of Rated R Mickey Mouse stand-in) and which rapidly veers into midget-villages and magical cat-beings. I can’t really emphasize how… odd… this book is. Shades of Crumb and Harvey Pekar.

  • The Nightmare Factory by Joe Harris – 2/27

    A graphic novel based on the horror (that is, the genre) short stories of Thomas Ligotti–a writer I’d never heard of before. One story is particularly Lovecraftean. The artwork is good, but in general the horror genre doesn’t really do it for me.

  • Good as Lily by Derek Kirk Kim – 2/27

    A fun little young adult oriented comic–probably geared more towards girls–about a 16-year-old girl whose 5-year-old, 30-year-old and 60-year-old selves arrive in her current time, complete with their memories and everything, with no explanation as to how they got there, which is the right choice, I think. (The why is suggested by the mechanism of their eventual disappearance.) A charming little comic that I probably would have enjoyed more (or been too embarrassed to read) about 15 years ago.

  • Flight, Vol. 4 ed. by Kazu Kibuishi – 2/27

    An aberration in that it’s a sequel that exceeds its predecessors (particularly Vols. 2 and 3). Essentially, an anthology of comics. A really excellent collection.

What I’ve been reading

THE SINGULARITY IS NEAR

I just finished reading The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil a couple of days ago. What a mind-trip that is! Kurzweil, a self-styled singularitarian, believes that current trends in technology will culminate, at some point (say 2040), in a technological singularity–measured, simply, by the creation of self-improving AI mentalities. Or something.

It sounds all very science fictional and bizarre (particularly when he talks about brain uploads and replacing the stomach with nano digestion machines), but he writes (and cites) very convincingly about the current state of technology and their eventual progression into mind-machine interface and AI.

I’d chalk him up to any other kind of crackpot prophet, only he’s very financially successful at parlaying his technological predictions into cold, hard cash via his various corporate entities. What can I say: it’s a fascinating book with nearly 150 pages of endnotes. I appreciated the book mostly for its big picture, holistic view on the current and near-future state of genetic, nano and robotic technologies. He lost me a little with the “what is consciousness?”, but I guess I don’t find that nearly as interesting.

WILLFUL CREATURES

Aimee Bender’s the dreamiest. By which I mean to say, that reading her is like dreaming awake. There’s the pumpkinheads who give birth to an ironhead, steam constantly rising round about. There’s the man who goes to the petstore and brings home a little man in a cage. He abuses the little man mercilessly, then sets him free. When he goes looking, all the other little people hide from the big man. But like a dream, these stories mostly fade from memory; I just can’t keep them in mind…

HAUNTED

Chuck Palahniuk’s newest: a grisly, modern day CANTERBURY TALES. The book is a collection of gruesome or weird stories surrounded by a framing device: the writer’s retreat from hell. In this case, though, the hell is entirely self-generated. It’s satire of the darkest order. If you like your humor grisly and deranged, I can’t think of a better book. Otherwise, not recommended to the faint at heart. One word of advice: don’t read “Guts” while eating breakfast…

SPIN

Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo nominee–which is why I read it, initially. It was fun, but I don’t really have much to say about it. Science fictional premise: the earth is trapped in a sphere of unknown origin. Outside the sphere, time progresses normally. Inside, slow as molasses (actually, I can’t remember the exact ratio). Basically, because of the time discrepency, the people living on earth are faced with the destruction of the world when the sun explodes. The book is about the various ways in which people might react to their inevitable and (slowly) oncoming annihilation.

JUMPER

This novel by Steven Gould is a YA (that’s Young Adult) novel about a teenager who discovers that he has the power to teleport anywhere that he has visited and can visualize in enough detail. It’s fun, with a not entirely likeable protagonist–he’s believable as a self-centered adolescent with an extraordinary power. I think they’re making this into a movie with Hayden Christensen as the title character.

LIKE NEVER BEFORE

A collection of interconnected short stories (almost a novel, really) by Ehud Havazelet recommended by Cthulie and Meestagoat prior to their departure. (Cthulie texted the full citation of the book to me–I certainly would never have remembered the author’s name, otherwise.) The stories span 60-70 years of the members of one jewish family, as they fail and fail to connect with one another (particularly the men in the family). An excellent display of craft and a nice insight into a culture pretty alien to me. And yet there’s that heartwrenching theme of the harm caused to those closest just by living, either the mad flailing of adolescence or the well-meaning fumbling at understanding.

Summertime reading

The very best thing about not being in school anymore is being able to read whatever I want… Since I’ve finished my program, I’ve read a rather strange mix of books:

In alphabetical order:

After the Plague by T.C. Boyle

A surprisingly grim little collection of short stories that I picked up after finishing The Magus. I read this one while on the island of Sifnos. They were well written, but I mostly just wanted to finish it so that I could move on to the next thing. I traded this book at a Sifnian hotel’s book exchange for Jack Maggs.

Child of Fortune by Norman Spinrad

A science-fictional, psychedelic, sexual mind-trip. The premise: given infinite personal freedom, near instantaneous universal travel and no fear of personal want and deprivation–how might people behave? In a pan-galactic society with the Maslow’s deficiency needs fully met, how do individuals achieve self-actualization and self-transcendence? Spinrad is ultimately quite sceptical of artificial means of achieving these goals (drugs, electrical brain-feedback). The protagonist achieves actualization through the book just read.

A Hacker Manifesto by McKenzie Wark

Let me attempt to summarize the argument (and most likely fail):

1) There have been several historical class systems which drive each next stage of development. Capital as Land to Capital as Production to Capital as Information. The vectoral class is the monopolist of Capital as Information and its demesne is intellectual property, copyrights, patents, etc.

2) The hacker class (those who produce new ways of thinking, doing, etc) is uniquely powerfully situated, because without the products and cooperations of its efforts the vectoralist class would fail. The book calls for the hacker class to free information (the product of the “hack”) from its “commodity form”.

Oh, just go and read the summary…

Inside Job by Connie Willis

Short and sweet. It’s the story of a professional debunker of spiritualist scam artists, whose latest target becomes possessed by the ghost of HL Mencken. (Also, see the talk page for this entry.) I wasn’t very familiar with Mencken before this, so the book was a treat in that sense. Finished before I’d even started, it’s more like a long short story than anything else.

Jack Maggs by Peter Carey

I found this book in a Sifnian hotel book exchange on my last day on the island. It’s brilliant. I read most of this book while sitting in the airpot at Heathrow during our five hour layover. S and I were sitting in the airport “Quiet Room”. I sat down to read, lost…track of time, closed the book, looked up and it was three hours later. Immensely satisfying. It’s a twist on Dickens’ Great Expectations, with the Magwitch character as the protagonist. Indeed, there’s even a Dickens-like writer character whose popular written sketches are derived from the strange and curious individuals he meets around London. Even the “villains” in the story are bizarrely sympathetic. The books ending is subtle and endearing.

King Rat by James Clavell

I traded The Pickwick Papers for this one at an The Matrix, an internet cafe on Naxos run by a charming Australian couple. Definitely a trade down though. I picked it up based upon a dim memory of someone recommending it to me, though I couldn’t remember who. It’s grim and disheartening and the prose is nearly unbearably clunky. Not much to say about this one, except I was glad to have finished it. I read Shogun in high school and enjoyed it, but I don’t think I would now, were I to re-read it.

Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier

I might have read this one based upon a mention on BoingBoing. It’s a charming, YA novel about a young sceptic confronted with undeniable proof of the existence of magic via a doorway which links Sidney and New York. Sadly, part 1 of 3. Told from three POVs: two first-person Australian perspectives and a third-person limited American one. The culture/language/perceptual clash between the Australian and American girls is perhaps the most interesting thing about the book.

The Magus by John Fowles

B recommended this book to me prior to my trip to Greece. The book is set on a Greek island. It seemed appropriate. However, I couldn’t find this book at any of the used bookstores I went to here in Seattle. I picked up The Pickwick Paers instead. However, while strolling about the 12th century port town on Paros, I came across a tiny used bookstore with perhaps 200 English-language books. Imagine my surprise when one of them turned out to be this one! It was missing 4 pages, so I managed to talk the middle-aged Englishwoman at the counter down from 4 to 3 euros. “These pages missing: are they important?” I said. “Maybe,” she said, “I don’t know.” “Hmm,” I said, “don’t you think this should be 3 euros rather than 4? With the missing pages?” (I imagine S was smirking at me, at this point.) The cashier looked at me as if to say, “I can’t believe you’re quibbling over one euro…” but she said, “Okay. But don’t try to sell it back to me!” And I said, “Oh, I wouldn’t. Were you burned by this before?” She nodded and stuck my book in a plastic bag. Shortly after, power went out all over the city. S and I ate dinner at a garden restaurant in the dark, cats prowling about our feet.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

What can I say? I like Dickens. (Might as well say I like brussels sprouts, for some people.) The nice thing about Dickens, as travel reading, is that it has definite staying power. No finishing this one while sitting on the airplane, hours from any decent bookshop on either side. No trolling through depleted airport bookshops, despairing at the selection. Anyway, this is one of his earlier books. It’s rather episodic (having been written in serialized form, anyway) and follows the adventures of Pickwick, eponymous founder of his club, which is made up of ridiculous men–friends of Pickwick and basically failures at their chosen specialities, whether it be poet or sportsman or etc. The book is rather funny, but Pickwick’s imprisonment in the Fleet Prison is particularly moving. Specifically, his account of the poor debtors imprisoned there.

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

Near future science fiction which is, happily, not cyberpunky nor post-apocalyptic. A major theme is technology-induced generation gaps. That is, the kids are immersed in technology in ways in which the adults–particularly the elderly–find opaque and alien. More a showcase for pushing current technological trends out 15 years or so(?), Vinge does a nice job of exploring the social/societal ramifications of ubiquitous VR-esque computing; the threat of easily obtainable biological/chemical weapons; and the question of the library’s place in the future–perhaps the most overly optimistic piece of the book is that people would care so much about what happens to the printed books in libraries. Not the way things are trending, anyway. It was fun.

The Secret Society of Demolition Writers

I picked this up because of Aimee Bender. A pseudonymous collection of short stories. The book provided a list of its contributors, but neglected to indicate who wrote what. Hence, “secret”. The stories were fairly good. The two
memorable ones were about a safecracker who encounters the ghost of his future daughter and the story of a literary/academic rock star who induces one of her students to help her commit suicide.

The System of the World by Neal Stephenson

I only wish I had read this sooner! The third book of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, this concludes the series nicely. There’s so much in this book, that I have trouble singling out specific things to mention. Collectively, these three books form an amazing piece of work in its ideationaly and historical breadth. Highly recommended.

Thud! by Terry Pratchett

Is Pratchett’s health failing? Is he losing his touch? This book felt tired, specifically the first half of the book was filled with what seemed like half-hearted gags and character tropes. Which is unfortunate, because the book deals with long-term, historical strife between trolls and dwarves. (Providing many easy real-life parallels.) I noticed on the verso page that he co-wrote this book with Lynn Pratchett. It made me wonder. By the end of the book, it had picked up a fair amount of steam, but I couldn’t shake my initial uneasiness.

PKDick’s A Scanner Darkly: the book and the movie

A nice little essay on PKDick and his book A Scanner Darkly.

Arctor/Fred is the kind of protagonist your overlords would love you to be. Grandmother’s recipe for totalitarianism was systematic de-education, paranoid psychotic involution, Oxycontin and Chips Ahoy. What more cranial-rectal exchange could your masters desire than that you should squander your meager resources demolishing your mind, cognizant that you are doing so and miscalling it heroism?

I’m still not sure why I never got around to reading this one. Some day.