Sunday, December 11, 2005{ "I will blog books right after I read them".postln })

posted by Tim Walters @ 10:11 PM

David McCullough, John Adams. I didn't know much about John Adams except that he was the second president. Turns out he had an interesting diplomatic career during the Revolutionary War, and had a lot of influence on the Constitution (largely due to writing Massachusetts' earlier constitution, the earliest in the world). The contrast between the Founding Fathers and the current kakistocracy is... instructive.

Tove Jansson, Moominpappa's Memoirs. As strange and wonderful as the other Moomin books, with the added benefit of introducing children to the concept of the unreliable narrator.

Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity Of Life. Good subject, good writing, but as such books often are, a little long on discussions of specific critters.

Christopher Priest, The Prestige. Speaking of unreliable narrators, this is one of my favorite examples. A feud between two Victorian magicians is outlined in their competing memoirs. The reader can piece the real story together just well enough that it's fun rather than frustrating, and it was an enjoyable re-read even though I remembered most of it. The final denouement is wonderfully creepy. Highly recommended.

Dan Simmons, Ilium and Olympos. As seems to be Simmons' standard pattern, the first book brings the sensawunda like a Nolan Ryan fastball, with great oversize and audacious (reenacting the Trojan war on Mars?) concepts flung at the reader in rapid succession. Unfortunately, the second book has to slow down and resolve the sixty bazillion complicated plot elements, and that's when the little tics that were minor irritations in the first book start to blossom into genuine annoyances. The characters, one realizes, are all obsessed with our period despite living in 4000 A.D. or so, to the point where they make Star Trek jokes and compliment each other on their knowledge of Lost Age slang--and that's just the robots (excuse me, "moravecs," named after Hans Moravec). Simmons always lays on the literary references, but in this case they're more like obeisances--to the Iliad, of course, but also to Shakespeare (who more than one character thinks is the bee's knees despite having encountered him shortly after learning to read as an adult) and Proust. Now I like Shakespeare, and would probably like Proust if I ever got around to reading him, but I definitely don't like long conversations where all the characters kiss their asses cluttering up my space opera, kapeesh? Also, the second book makes the mistake of shifting to the gods' and heroes' view for several chapters, the problem being that, as one might expect, the gods and heroes are both dim and dull.

Hm. That's a lot of complaints, but Olympos isn't bad. It's just that I feel there's a much better book struggling to get out, and that's not a feeling one wants to maintain for 700+ pages. And given that both Hyperion pairs (duologies?) had very much the same pattern--first book a blast, second book a mess--it's even more frustrating. Recommended, but caveat lector.

Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near. The Singularity, as you may recall, is the point where technological development turns an exponential corner and everyone learns to croon with an intensity currently unimaginable. Oh wait, that's the Bingularity.


Is Kurzweil right? Beats the heck out of me. He makes a convincing case, and I don't have any clear refutation to offer, but I can't help but feel that the whole scenario is a little too tidy for real life. It's a lovely daydream, regardless.

Daniel Dennett, Brainchildren. Essays about artificial intelligence and robotics. Very enjoyable, but I'm failing to dredge up any blogworthy insights about it.

Roger Zelazny, Jack Of Shadows. I hadn't read this in a very long time, and had forgotten how much of a bastard Jack is. He Learns Better, though, and it's very strange and enjoyable in that early Zelazny way.

Samuel R. Delany, The Jewels Of Aptor. Another new-wavey science fantasy, in this case Delany's first novel (published at 19!). There are some rookie mistakes (e.g. as you know, Bob infodumps), but the writing and atmosphere hold up very well. Recommended.

James Herriot, All Creatures Great And Small. No wonder this was huge--Herriot is a near-perfect anecdotist, and gives an impression of utter frankness. Certainly the disgusting parts of veterinary medicine, and the embarrassments of courtship, are not glossed over. (Don't worry, though, he gets the girl.)

Samuel R. Delany, The Motion Of Light In Water. The chain of association is clear here: Delany + "frank autobiography." Fearless and brilliant--the only problem is that it stops at 1965. More, please!

James Branch Cabell, Some Of Us: An Essay In Epitaphs. Ten (of course) essays on writers of the Twenties. Strictly for hardcore Cabellians, but, well, I am a hardcore Cabellian.

Richard Powers, Plowing The Dark. Powers, as usual, straddles C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures:" you probably don't have to be able to pick up less-than-explicit references to the Douanier Rousseau and VR theory, but it helps. As usual, though, he never seems to just be showing off or post-modernly cool--his books are unashamedly heartfelt. Plowing The Dark combines two threads: an artist coming into a high-tech research lab to give life to their virtual reality system (while battling her own insecurity about her work) and an English teacher kidnapped by terrorists in Lebanon. The stories seem unrelated, but do come together ambiguously by the end, and perhaps more importantly, complement each other thematically, one being about sensory overload, the other about sensory deprivation. Recommended, but read The Gold Bug Variations or Galatea 2.2 first.

Poul Anderson, Flandry Of Terra. I usually like Anderson's fantasy (including borderline stories like "The Queen Of Air And Darkness") better than his science fiction, and this didn't change my mind. It's not bad, though, just a little dated and repetitive, the three stories being much of a muchness in both description and setup, and to some extent in plot.

John McPhee, Coming Into The Country. An excellent description of Alaska and its people, written in the Seventies. Clearly he loves both, but at times it's hard to tell what's scarier, the grizzly bears or the small-town politics.

Winsor McCay, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend. My friend Greta Christina gave me this after we'd had a discussion of newspaper comic strips. I had maintained both that the domain was limited enough to talk meaningfully about a best-ever, and that Calvin & Hobbes was it; she stumped for Winsor McCay, and won by default, since I'd never read him. That omission is now rectified, and I'm very glad of it. I don't put it quite on the C&H level for pure enjoyment, but given that the things that slightly bug me (the strange wordiness and erratic punctuation of the dialog; the strict adherence to the formula) are features of its period, while the art and concept are far ahead of it, I have to say that's a worthy contender for the best-ever title from an objective point of view.

Each strip is a dream which gets progressively stranger and ends with the dreamer waking up and regretting eating Welsh rarebit. What's amazing is (1) the brilliant drawing style and (2) the fact that the dreams are entirely credible. I've had a couple of them myself. Highly recommended, and you can check out some examples online.


At 8:25 AM, Blogger Todd T said...

In the time that you read all of this, I have read exactly five books, a couple of which were about 100 pages, plus assorted lesser stuff. Oh for time and/or reading speed.

I had to look up 'kakistocracy', which really ought to be in daily use, not just now but always. I wasn't sure whether it meant government by those who like to play army, or maybe had something to do with 'ca-ca'. I was close.

Haven't read any Moomintroll stuff yet. Should. Ditto Simmons, who flawed or not is a fairly major figure in the genre. I've read only SUMMER OF NIGHT, which is a Stephen Kingish affair, though consistently well written, about horrific creatures invading a boy's heartland summer. Coincidentally I was just reading last night about Moominland, an amusement park in Finland, in the travel guide WEIRD EUROPE, which has lots of cool stuff in it, and wisecracks in the commentary, but one feels there is still weirder stuff out there to be seen.

I think 'kapeesh' is actually spelled 'capisce', which makes me wonder now whether the Italians believe that bad fish somehow leads to understanding. Possibly it leads to illuminating dreams, a la RAREBIT?

THE PRESTIGE is excellent indeed. I have since scored a couple more Priests (ahem) but haven't partaken yet.

Bingularity, Bing-hilarity. But as little as we can say about the Singularity's nature, why *not* that? I predict a Neil Barrett, Jr., novel.

If, after the Singularity, there are still entities with a passion for holding power, then it won't be a paradise.

Max read all of the FLANDRY stuff in high school, but even then I preferred Retief and the Stainless Steel Rat, both of which he also led me to.

I am a closet Herriot fan, for the reasons you give. There's something about rural England that usually casts a spell on me as well. Before reading it there are any number of reasons to expect something much less, but it's good. The TV series was nearly as good and quite pleasant.

At 9:29 PM, Blogger Tim Walters said...

I had to look up 'kakistocracy', which really ought to be in daily use, not just now but always.

One thing that the Adams book made clear was that extreme partisanship started about five minutes after we won the Revolutionary War.

If, after the Singularity, there are still entities with a passion for holding power, then it won't be a paradise.

Kurzweil seems to think that moral superiority will come along with intellecutal superiority. I tend to agree more with Ted Chiang's notion that superintelligent entities will differ from each other more than we do, rather than less. But someone has a brilliant plan for this eventuality (and I say that non-sarcastically; I have no idea whether it will work, but it's definitely brilliant, and reading the essay smacked down a lot of my assumptions about AI).

I was pretty disappointed when I re-read a Retief book a while back. The lone-man-against-a-galaxy-full-of-idjits thing gets a bit old, and I've come to prefer more affectionate satire. Laumer seems to genuinely hate the Foreign Service.


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