Monday, January 27, 2020

By George

A four-decade-long quest came to an end last night, quietly as such things often do, when I turned the last page and finished Gordon R. Dickson’s old novel, The Dragon and the George

When I was a kid growing up in suburban Philadelphia my dad’s company would shut down for one week a year to retool their machines.  The company actually has two branches, one in Philadelphia and one in Wisconsin.  The Wisconsin branch would shut down in November for deer hunting season but the Philadelphia branch would shut down during the first week of August so everyone in Philadelphia could go down the shore.  Someone on my mother’s side of the family – an uncle in that vague Italian sense of anyone related to us in a way that was more complicated than it was worth to pin down – owned a house in Sea Isle City NJ and we’d pile into whatever car we had at the time, along with a good portion of our stuff and a cooler full of groceries, and head on down for the week.

Uncle Charlie had a twin house and we’d rent the bottom half of the right side for the week.  Sometimes my grandparents would come and rent another chunk of the house.  Sometimes Charlie and Judy would be there as well, but not often.  You’d walk into the living room – a space about twelve feet square with dark ‘70s paneling, a couple of couches and chairs, and a short table.  The kitchen was to the right.  Straight ahead was a narrow hallway, with a couple of bedrooms off to the right and a bathroom straight back.  My parents would take one room and my brother and I would take the other, and we’d be there for the week.

It tended to rain.

We got good at finding things to do that didn’t need sunshine.  I have deeply fond memories of Brigantine Castle, a giant haunted house that they built on a pier and staffed with college students majoring in theater and illegal substances.  Eventually it burned down.  We’d tour wineries.  My dad took me and my brother crab fishing one morning, which we managed to do with fishing rods and hooks even though he was the only one in the boat who would eat the things.  We’d see movies.  We’d play Yahtzee.  My brother and I would catch the innumerable quarter-sized toads that lived in the side lawn until one year they suddenly disappeared and never came back.  It was fun.

And when the sun would come out we’d head to the beach, a few blocks to the east of Charlie’s house.  We’d walk past another house full of relatives (whose names I never caught, nor do I ever recall seeing them – my mother would point out the house and we’d walk on) and Phil’s Pizza, which had a phone booth that we would search for spare change every time we passed by, and eventually we’d get to the sand and surf of New Jersey where my brother and I would spend quality time trying to damage ourselves and others with the heavy inflatable rubber rafts that you could rent from one of the stands.

Seriously, we had a great time.

The beach was right next to the Spinnaker, an orange and white hotel right on Sea Isle’s short boardwalk and by an order of magnitude the tallest thing in the city.  The bottom level of the Spinnaker was given over to shops, one of which I believe was a tiny little bookshop.

I haunted that bookshop, as I tend to do with all bookshops. 

One year I saw on the shelves a paperback with a dragon on it.  Actually there were a lot of paperbacks with dragons on them, but this one stood out because of the title.  I hemmed and hawed about buying it – my parents would always spot me some money for such things – but eventually moved on.  I later decided to go back and get it but never managed to find the time and eventually we went home.  It wasn’t there the next year.

I have no idea why this particular book stuck in my head the way it did when any number of other books contemplated and passed over faded from memory before I would even hit the front door of the shop.  But it remained one of those things in the back of my mind that I would half-heartedly look for whenever I found a second-hand bookseller, not out of any great sense of loss but simply because it was something I remembered.

I found it in a shop in Madison a few weeks ago, and for $2 I just couldn’t pass it up.  The price hadn’t changed since the 1970s, except this was the hardback edition.  I finished it last night.

It’s, well, okay.

It’s very, very 1970s.  It’s about 250 pages long, as opposed to the doorstops that most works of fiction are today.  It has cover art by Boris Vallejo because that was a legal requirement for such novels in those days.  It has a single-layer plot with no complications beyond obstacle/achievement/repeat.  It has a view of women roughly halfway between Rat Pack and Women’s Lib.  The basic story is that Angie somehow gets sent bodily from a lab in 1970s America into one of those quasi-medieval Tolkienesque landscapes that were pretty much required for fantasy novels at the time.  Jim tries to follow but gets sent back into the mind of a dragon instead.  He seeks her out.  The other dragons think he’s nuts.  He meets a human (a “george”) named Brian, a wolf named Aragh, and several other Companions.  Dark Powers are assaulted.  Angie somehow never actually appears until nearly the last page, an object of the action rather than an actor herself, and at that point most (if not exactly all) turns out well.

I don’t really recommend you rush out and buy it for yourselves, but it’s a reasonably entertaining way to spend a few hours if you like that sort of thing.

And now I have read it, and that long-ago gap from Sea Isle is now closed.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Thoughts on the Events in the Senate

This is how republics die.  Not with a spectacular collapse, but with the slow erosion of safeguards and protections until finally a party seizes absolute power and calls it freedom.

If you’ve been paying attention to the brazen partisan whitewash of Donald Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors that has played out over the last week in Mitch McConnell’s captive Senate, you know very well that you’re looking at the death of the American republic.  The Founding Fathers knew that this would happen – they just didn’t know when.  They understood that republics were fragile.  That a well-founded republic required an enlightened and educated citizenry, a commitment to the public good, and virtuous leadership.  That all of these things were difficult and, historically, in short supply.  That eventually the United States would fall victim to the forces that destroy all republics – ignorance, short-sighted self-interest, and the destruction of liberty by power.  They just didn’t know when it would happen.

Now we know.

It’s not that the opposition hasn’t put up a good fight.  They’ve outlined with crystalline clarity the crimes committed by the tyrant in the White House.  They’ve fought to have that evidence introduced in the trial, to have witnesses with direct knowledge of events testify on behalf of the truth, and to get this word out to the American people.

But from the beginning McConnell and his sycophants have made it clear that they’re not interested in such things.  They don’t care about the crimes committed, nor the fact that Trump is a tyrant.  They are on public record declaring that they have no interest in a fair trial of any sort and that they would coordinate with the defendant to ensure an acquittal regardless of the facts of the case.  They have blocked all evidence and witnesses from being heard.  They have worked tirelessly to deny access to any of this to the American people. 

The thing is that McConnell will probably win this round.  He has the power and he has worked to make sure that nothing will disturb the one-party dictatorship that he and the rest of the Republican Party are actively creating in what was once the land of the free.  He will overlook any crime, deny any reality, and destroy any law or Constitutional obstacle that gets in the way of that.  He has made no secret of this.   His party has been open in its pursuit.

But in their rush to get Trump out from under his crimes they assume that corruption will always benefit them.  They assume that power will always be theirs.  They forget that the next tyrant may hate their opponents as much as they do but may not like them either.

It may yet be possible to salvage the republic even so.  This will not be easy, however.

But if our children are to enjoy any sort of future, Americans must start the work now.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Four Score and One

One of the great lessons of life is that there are some things that you don’t get over.  You just get used to them. 

My dad would have been 81 today. 

It’s been about four years since he died, but I still catch myself thinking “Dad would love to hear about this” or “What would Dad say about that?”  I picked up a wheat cent in change today, for example.  It’s from 1955, when he was in high school.  It’s in pretty good shape, actually.  That’s the sort of thing we’d share.

I share that interest with Oliver now and I share other things with Lauren, and that’s just how life works down the generations if you’re lucky.

The people you love never really leave you, because they become part of you.  They stay in your head and in your heart and you can hear them sometimes, as if they were talking to you.  Memories and lessons replayed in your mind, but that’s enough.  We live until the last person who remembers us dies and that’s as much immortality as you need, really.

Happy birthday, Dad.

Saturday, January 18, 2020


Well, it’s official.  We’re homeowners.

We bought our house back in the 1990s, when times were simpler, American politics hadn’t quite yet become a Darwinian race toward Fascism, and people still thought we’d won the Cold War.  Kim was working toward tenure.  I was still in graduate school.  Our children were just gleams in our eyes.

Kim had moved to Our Little Town a couple of years before I did, for her job at Home Campus.  Shortly before we got married I moved up from Iowa where I was in graduate school, since one of us had to move and she had the job.  It was a fairly spacious apartment – housing was relatively inexpensive in Our Little Town back then – but it quickly became apparent that if we wanted to have a family at some point we should think about buying a house.

House hunting is one of those activities that are designed to convince you that you – yes, you, personally – are the only human being on the planet with any taste whatsoever.  Other people will think that of me when they come to look at my house, I have no doubt.  At least those parts of the house that I had any say in decorating, anyway.  It’s kind of like driving that way, since every driver on the road who is not you is either a maniac or an idiot.  We looked at a lot of houses that summer, most of which we crossed off our list fairly quickly.  Some we didn’t even get all the way through.

It eventually came down to two.  One was smaller and on a busier road but had a larger yard and there wasn’t any competition for it.  The other was the only one that had felt like home to me, but it had another bidder.  Eventually the guy who owned it – a single man who was being moved out of state by his job – decided he liked us better and let us have it for only slightly more than we’d bid.  We were glad to take it.

It took me going to the Title Insurance office at 4:58pm on a Friday and doing my best Philadelphia Glower at them until they added up two columns of numbers to get a total I could take to the bank (which was open until 6pm) to get a cashier’s check for settlement costs that we could present at 7:30am the following Monday, but eventually we had that check – with more zeroes on a check than I had ever seen up to that point in my life – and once we finished settlement we had the house.

We had pizza delivered to our new address that night, because we could.

We kept the apartment for another month and slowly moved things out, one carload at a time.  I would go over to the house sometimes and work there – it was quiet and I was putting together my first history class of my own and I could spread out and stay up until truly ungodly hours without disturbing Kim.  Eventually we got a few friends together and rented a truck for the big stuff – it was all of a three-block move, but nobody wants to be hauling a sofa by hand that far – and by the end of the month we had finally gotten all of our stuff out of the apartment.

By that point we’d made our first mortgage payment.

Because you don’t really own your house when you first buy it, not usually.  You own about 10% of it, and the rest belongs to a bank.  Interest rates were fairly high at the time, and we ended up with a mortgage that came with an 8.5% variable rate which we locked in at the first opportunity.

Not long after Oliver was born interest rates crashed and we traded that one in for a 3% rate that left us with the same payment and enough cash left over to replace the roof.  This turned out to be a good thing, since it meant we no longer shared the attic kneewall spaces with any vagrant squirrel that happened by.  Those rodents do not pay rent on time, let me tell you.

At some point – probably after I finished grad school and started actually being productive – we had enough money to pay a bit extra on the mortgage every month.  If you do that you can pay it off a lot faster, it turns out.

We made our last payment in December.  The “Release from Lien” document arrived in the mail a few days ago.  The place is ours.

It’s strange not having to write that check anymore, though it is a strangeness I can live with.  With Oliver in college and Lauren following along shortly we already know where the money will go.  But still.  It is nice to have that debt paid.

Happy homeowning!

Monday, January 6, 2020

Nice Puppy. Good Boy.

What do you get when you take a corrupt and authoritarian president, add in a well-deserved impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors, and stir?

War crimes, that’s what.

Apparently der Sturmtrumper – over the objections of US military professionals who actually understand things like “consequences” and “international and American law” – decided pretty much on a whim that he was going to violate US law and policy going back decades as well as the sovereignty of one of our most hard-fought-for allies in a region of surpassing national security interest in order to assassinate a guy that neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama felt was worth the blowback this kind of stupidity and lawlessness would cause.

Our allies – those der Sturmtrumper hasn’t yet succeeded in alienating, anyway – are aghast.  The Iraqis have openly called for the removal of all American forces from their country – something they have every right to do, after all.  The US is hurtling ever close to international pariah status.  And the Pentagon is scrambling to figure out how to cope with yet another war that we can’t pay for.

Isn’t it amazing how we can always find money for catastrophically stupid military adventurism but somehow can’t find anything for taking care of the veterans who served, let alone anything like education, health care, infrastructure, or keeping Americans from starving in the streets?  Hello?  Is this thing on?

On the other hand, nobody’s talking about impeachment right now, which is after all the entire point of this exercise.

And just in case people do once again start to discuss the fact that he is only the third president ever impeached and the only one who truly deserved it, der Sturmtrumper has publicly declared that he will bomb cultural cites full of civilians, which is explicitly a war crime and for which he should be removed from office immediately and bound over for a military trial.

You will note that the Pentagon has publicly declared that yes this is, in fact, a war crime and no they will not, in fact, be following the psychotic demands of this unhinged president, because they know very well what kind of consequences that would have and the military is nothing if not practical in its calculations, even if it means insubordination.  US military code explicitly requires American military personnel to disobey unlawful orders, after all.

Not that the GOP cares of course.  They’ve given themselves over entirely to the Cult of Trump and can no more control their knee-jerk servility to their false god than they could stop ripping immigrant families apart in the name of “family values” (whose family? whose values? not mine), embracing political corruption in the name of absolute power, or enriching billionaires at the expense of everyone else.  It’s just what they do now.

My god but this country has been brought low by a rogue administration and its lackeys, cronies, minions and enablers. 

Hang onto your hats, folks.  Impeachment keeps getting worse and worse for this authoritarian nightmare and he and his lackeys, cronies, minions and enablers will be doing more and more desperate things to distract from it.  They may well succeed.  Cult leaders often do.

There is almost no way this will end well, and may der Sturmtrumper feel every consequence that comes of it.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Books Read in 2019, Part 3

Part 3 and last!


Savages (KJ Parker)

Calojan is the best general in the Empire, in this story set long after the events of most of the other books Tom Holt has written under Parker’s name.  He never loses, and he needs this track record if the tottering old Empire is to survive.  Raffen starts the story by watching his family being executed and then being left for dead but turns out to be clever and adaptable.  Chauzida is the king of the Aram Cosseilhatz – nomadic warriors intertwined with all of these stories.  Aimeric is a wastrel with some talent for organization and a useful friend named Orsella.  Parker simply sets up all these pieces and lets them run in this tightly paced yet still sprawling story of a decaying Empire at war.  It’s hard to know who the real savages of the title are, and if there is an overall story rather than a series of historical inevitabilities it’s hard to see.  But as always with Parker it’s the writing that pulls you along and makes you want to read more.  He has an almost hypnotic ability to suggest deep history in a short space – a particularly well turned paragraph describing the many things people tried to do with an architectural disaster of a room in the City's palace being just one example – and the characters are the usual assortment of sharply drawn men and women on the make: thoughtful, reflective, hemmed in by their choices, and neither as good nor as bad as they like to think of themselves.  I’ve read a lot of Parker this year, and I can’t say I regret that. 

Naked (David Sedaris)

David Sedaris is probably best enjoyed in small doses.  He’s a wickedly sharp writer, particularly when he’s writing memoir-style pieces – his fiction is less interesting – and he can be very funny.  But his default writing persona is The Incredibly Self-Absorbed Asshole and after a while that grates on you.  You want him to show some empathy, pull his head out of his own ass, and stop being such an insufferable snob – and, eventually, toward the end of each piece, he generally does have some kind of reckoning along those lines.  But it can be a long slog to go through that with a book’s worth of such essays.  Some of the essays in this book I suspect I have read before – or heard before, since they’re generally better when read aloud by the author – and some of which were new.  He describes his mother, his time hitchhiking with his friend Veronica, his week at a nudist camp (the title piece), his time as a migrant farm worker in Oregon, and so on, and they’re all well written but a lot to take in at once.

Great Plains (Ian Frazier)

Ian Frazier loves the Great Plains – that region of the United States (and Canada, though he doesn’t deal with that part in this book) where the rains are scarce, the vegetation is thin, and the skies are wide.  For some years he lived in Montana and simply traveled around in his van, seeing the place.  He intersperses detailed reports of his traveling (often simply listing rivers, describing every single aspect of a scene, or recalling exact conversations) with long historical excursions through Native American and frontier history.  This is a reprint of something that originally appeared in the late 1980s so some of the things he describes as current are long since gone and forgotten like the history he brings up, but it remains a fascinating glimpse of a region often forgotten.  Frazier is a good writer when he gets out of his own way and he has a journalist’s talent for finding interesting people and things to write about.  For those interested in follow up, there is an extensive section of notes at the end of the book with sources and commentary.

Quite Enough of Calvin Trillan: Forty Years of Funny Stuff (Calvin Trillan)

Calvin Trillan has been writing short pieces for The New Yorker since the Johnson Administration and this is a collection of essays, ruminations, and verse from that period.  If you’re looking for erudite, gentle, and rather dry humor this is your place and Trillan is your guy.  They’re all of a piece, sharing the tone and concerns of someone who sees New York City as the center of the universe.  Trillan mines his Jewish ancestry, his upbringing in Kansas City, his personal foibles and curmudgeonly beliefs, and his general status as an affluent New Yorker in all sorts of ways, and it was a nice break from the general shrieking madhouse that is the world these days.  I read this during the week where it became clear that der Sturmtrumper was blackmailing a sovereign nation into working on his reelection campaign and his minions were loudly shouting that this was perfectly acceptable conduct from the leader of the United States, so any break from that kind of treasonous insanity was welcome.

Don’t Go There!  From Chernobyl to North Korea: One Man Loses Himself and Finds Everyone Else, in the World’s Strangest Places (Adam Fletcher)

Adam Fletcher – the man who tried to tell me how to be German in fifty easy steps – is living the aimless life of a mitlaufer, a word that his German girlfriend Annett translates as “also ran” or perhaps “hanger on.”  A British expat living in Berlin, not doing much of anything, in full retreat from his own life and past, he decides one day that the solution to this is to go traveling – and not just anywhere, but to strange and challenging places.  Istanbul in the middle of what turns out to be time of riots and protest.  China in the deep winter, much of which he and Annett spend trapped on a bus.  Chernobyl.  Ghana.  A Hara Krishna ashram in Argentina.  Israel.  Transnistria and Moldova by himself, once Annett finally gets tired of it.  Liberland, a self-declared libertarian ministate on the border between Croatia and Serbia.  North Korea.  And, perhaps the most difficult of all, his old hometown of Thetford, England, which he fled in a panic of stories about how awful it was, stories that might or might not have been true.  As with any such travelogue, it’s mostly about Fletcher’s journey of self-discovery and the rediscovery of his own life with Annett in Berlin, but Fletcher is an entertaining writer who manages to stay on the proper side of the Life Lessons while occasionally turning a good phrase (“Boredom is a luxury good,” is the one that will likely stick with me).  It’s an entertaining look at a life neither terribly well nor poorly spent but deeply thought over once he gets going, and worth a read.

Metro Stop Paris: An Underground History of the City of Light (Gregor Dallas)

The framework of this surprisingly dense book is the deceptively simple idea that since the Metro is the easiest way to get around Paris, it might be a good structure for a book about the various sights and events of this most storied of cites.  What I originally thought would be a fairly light travel memoir sort of thing turned very quickly into a deep and fascinating dive into French history.  One stop launches Dallas into a thorough examination of the relationship between Andre Gide and Oscar Wilde and how it all intertwined with Alfred Dreyfus.  Several take you through events from the 18th century – both Revolutionary and pre-Revolutionary – and others take you all the way back to the medieval city, precious little of which remains for the modern viewer.  Dallas is particularly fond of Emile Zola and returns to him at several stops.  Anais Nin takes up much of a chapter, as does Clovis, who ruled the area in the 5th century CE, and one other chapter is taken up with the sad history of the Huguenots and in particular Gabriel de Montgomery.  French history has a qualitatively different feel than British or American history and Dallas makes it come alive.  This isn’t a quick read, but it is an enjoyable one.

The Amberlough Dossier (Lara Elena Donnelly)


Imagine if you will a fantasy novel – not a swords and sorcery secondary world story full of magic or dragons but simply an alternate world, one that has different politics, history, and culture but follows the same sorts of natural laws and rules of human behavior that this one does.  It has politics, intrigue, sex (a lot of sex, of many different varieties), family, secrets, and theater.  And instead of being set in some vaguely medieval environment, imagine it set in something very much like Weimar Germany.  If you can do that, you’ve come to Amberlough and here you will meet the main cast.  Cyril is an intelligence agent with a few bad mistakes in his past.  Aristide is his lover, a man who ostensibly makes his living onstage at the Bee – Amberlough’s version of Caberet – but who has secrets of his own, secrets that provide him with his real income.  Cordelia is a stripper at the Bee, a colleague of Aristide, and a tougher and more intelligent woman than she gets credit for.  Amberlough – the capital city of the region of that name – is roughly Berlin circa 1928, a city of decadence, political intrigue, and a pervasive sense of dancing against the dying light of a better, more tolerant time as oppression and repression loom.  The Ospies – the One State Party members who would like to unify the four states of Gedda into a single polity, regardless of the wishes of those who live in those states – function more or less as the Nazis in this scenario and as they come closer and closer to seizing power the echoes of Fascism become louder and louder.  This is a lushly written story of resistance to authoritarian violence, one whose relevance to our own time is uncomfortably clear.


It’s maybe three years after Amberlough and the resistance is doing its best.  The Ospies control Amberlough in what is clearly an analogue of Nazi Germany though – so far – without the virulent racism that led to the Holocaust in the real world.  Aristide is living in exile in Porachis, having somehow wormed his way into the good graces of some fairly elite echelons of Porachan society.  Cordelia, it turns out, is running the resistance.  She’s now known as Spotlight, the leader of the diffuse guerrilla movement called Catwalk which has been plaguing the Ospies since they took over Amberlough.  Cyril is missing and presumed dead.  Throw in Lillian (Cyril’s sister), Jinadh (a Porachan minor royal and the father of Lillian’s son Stephen), Memmediv (the mole whose actions led to Cyril’s fate but who now is content to work against the Ospies for his own reasons) and you’ve got an intriguing middle chapter of a story.  Alliances come and go, tensions ratchet up, and eventually the die is cast for the last chapter.


One of the things that sets the Amberlough series apart from most trilogies is that the Big Events that would usually be the climax of volumes happen between books.  The Ospies come to power and set up their Fascist state between Amberlough and Armistice.  And they fall from power between Armistice and Amnesty.  By the time this third book opens, perhaps five years after the events of the second book, the Ospies are gone and Amberlough is in the middle of its first post-Ospie election – it is, to continue the Weimar metaphor, roughly analogous to the late 1940s in our world, though it was not necessary to have a World War to get there.  Aristide is now a partner in a shady import/export business with ties to the new Amberlough and any number of other places.  Lillian is angling for a position in either of the new governments that might come to power after the election.  Cyril returns as a pawn in a larger power struggle, a shattered PTSD shell of his old self.  Lillian’s son Stephen is an unruly private schoolboy.  Memmediv is just an offstage name caught up in offstage crises.  And Cordelia is dead, a martyr of the revolution that toppled the Ospies between Armistice and Amnesty and for that reason gradually losing the earthy humanity that defined her and slowly becoming mythic.  Donnelly is a writer who focuses on the textures and small moments that ground the larger story, using them to illuminate broader themes of regret, loss, and opportunities not taken.  In both of the final volumes of this series the character who looms largest is the one not there, the hole in the center of the story’s donut around which the other characters revolve.  There is plenty of action in all these books but ultimately they are about the quiet moments, the identities we adopt and shirk, and the things we do for love.  This series may well have been my favorite books of 2019, and I will no doubt be recommending these books to friends for a long time.

That’s the Way it Crumbles: The American Conquest of the English Language (Matthew Engel)

Matthew Engel is at pains to say he is not anti-American and further that he even likes many of the quirks of American English.  It’s simply that he likes British English better in most cases and would prefer for the two dialects to remain as separate as possible, which he acknowledges is a losing cause and has been for centuries.  One of his main points in this dense but entertaining book is that a surprising amount of British speech today actually consists either of naturalized American words, which he indicates by printing them in bold in the text, or of words that died out in Britain but were reimported from the US at some point, which he indicates by printing them in bold with a dagger.  He goes through this process more or less chronologically, attributing sources when he can (Noah Webster is an obvious one, but PG Wodehouse as one of the most active importers of American words in the 20th century came as a bit of a surprise), and there is a list of them by time period and source in one of the later chapters.  It is surprising, reading that list, which ones Engel feels still need to be defined for a British audience and which ones he is content to let stand.  The book is updated through 2018 and there some marvelous asides regarding the current political descent of both countries into madness, but mostly he focuses on his beloved words.

Strange Planet (Nathan W. Pyle)

You’ve probably seen these cartoons if you were online at any point in 2019.  They feature bulbous aliens with big black eyes trying to live normal human lives and speaking in an odd sort of meta-language designed to highlight the absurdities of everyday experience, and they’re quietly funny in a pleasant sort of way. 

“I found this,” says one alien, holding a cat. 
“Great,” says the other.  “It’s vibrating.” 
“That means it’s working.
"What does it excel at?”
“Scratching.  Also hiding.” 
“An ideal companion.” 

My favorite sequence shows the aliens late at night, as one hears a noise and rushes off with a baseball bat. 

“Identify yourself!” it says.  “I am holding recreational equipment!”  It turns to the other alien and says “I am going to haphazardly swing this object.” 
“Shall I accompany?” 
“You are safer here given what I just said.” 
“OK, I prefer this plan.”  There is a short pause, and then the bat-wielding alien returns. 
“What did you discover?” 
“The vibrating creature was knocking over objects for no reason.  Also our furnishings resemble a hostile being.” 
“Did you strike our furnishings?”
“Our furnishings did not respond to my verbal warning.” 

It’s perhaps not a cartoon for everyone, but I liked it.

Three Moments of an Explosion (China Mieville)

One of the things you always know you’re going to get when you pick up a China Mieville book is good writing – the man can string sentences together.  You also know you’re going to get something just a bit outside of whatever you consider normal.  Sometimes more than a bit, really.  All of this is on full display in this collection of short stories.  The title story leads off – a very brief snapshot of exactly what it says it’s about, though with the added idea that such things have been thoroughly monetized by nanotechnology.  There are straightforward horror stories, stories that don’t quite end so much as stop, a long story involving competing archeologists and the things they find, and a few meditations on what might be out there beyond our meager reach.  I liked the stories in the first part of the book better than those in the second, but they were all worth reading.

Fortunately, the Milk (Neil Gaiman)

I read this because I needed something good to read that wouldn’t take more than a day or so, as the book I was actually reading got left behind on a trip and I wouldn’t get it back for about that much time.  And it filled in nicely.  It’s a sweet, clever story designed for younger kids but – as with the best of such stories – with plenty to keep the parents entertained while reading it.  The set-up is simple – Dad goes out for some milk but takes rather longer than his kids think he should, and when he arrives back home he spins them a tale of what kept him late – a tale involving aliens, pirates, a one-eyed volcano god, and perhaps most importantly, a time-traveling stegosaurus in a hot air balloon.  It’s clever and funny and if you read all the way through and look carefully at Chris Riddell’s illustrations you can see a few allusions that the main audience probably won’t get.  My kids would have loved this when they were younger, and perhaps they still might.

Coraline (Neil Gaiman)

I didn’t plan to go on a Neil Gaiman binge, but circumstances were what they were and if there’s an author worth binging it would be Neil Gaiman so I can’t really complain.  Coraline is a young girl in an old house.  She and her parents have one flat.  Miss Spink and Miss Forcible – two old actresses – have the flat below, and the crazy old man and his musical mice have the flat above.  Coraline often sees her parents as a bit of a nuisance, so when she discovers that the door in the “room for best” that usually only opens onto a brick wall will sometimes take her to another parallel world she heads off eagerly.  But there she finds an “other” family, with parents who look like hers except with black button eyes.  And from this point on it becomes a story of capture and escape, of bravery and family, and of cats and ghosts.  They made this into a movie about a decade or so ago and it remains the only scary movie ever to freak out Lauren (who was, in her defense, five years old at the time – it’s a pretty freaky story even in book form as an adult).

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction (Neil Gaiman)

This is the book that I left behind when visiting Oliver at Small Liberal Arts College – fortunately there was only a 3-day gap between going down to see the play he was running the lights for and going back down to pick him up for semester break, and it’s also a collection of short pieces, so there was no real issue with picking it back up again.  And it is worth picking up.  Neil Gaiman is one of the better writers out there today in terms of both having things to say worth listening to and being able to say them well.  This is, as advertised, a collection of small non-fiction pieces, mostly introductions to other things (and occasionally to other people) but also a few other types of writings.  He tells you a lot about his life in the process – it’s not a bad memoir in some ways, though it’s nowhere near comprehensive enough to count as a biography – and he tells you much about what he thinks about art, about writers, and about how life ought to work.  It’s a fairly long book – Gaiman is one of those writers who writes pretty much constantly – but it flies by quickly and has interesting things to say.

Sorry I Ruined Your Childhood (Ben Zaehringer)

I finished the previous book while visiting family – something I had not thought I’d be able to do – and did not bring a spare book with me.  Fortunately books are one of the things we give each other at Christmas, and someone (not me) received this one, so I read it in the car on the way home.  It’s a quick, breezy, rather bleakly funny cartoon book – one strip per page – and it has a few good laughs in it.

The Turk Who Loved Apples and Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World (Matt Gross)

The best travel writing is about neither the traveler nor the destination but rather the intersection between them – how the place affects the person traveling through it.  Because that is, after all, the point of traveling.  Familiar and normal are different things.  Travel should change you.  You shouldn’t be the same person you were when you started, if only because you’ve seen unfamiliar things and thought about them and they've become in some small way part of your new normal.  This book, however, is about the traveler.  Matt Gross loves to travel.  It’s his life.  It is, in many ways, his entire identity.  From picking up almost at random and moving to Vietnam as a recent college graduate to working as The Frugal Traveler for the New York Times for several years to just going here and there on his own, travel is who Matt Gross is and what he does.  Somewhere in there he gets married to a Taiwanese woman whose family he frets will never really accept him, has a daughter and (by the end of the book) another child to be determined later, and dwells upon his childhood (particularly his self-sabotaged relationship with his younger brother, which he is determined to fix), but mostly he talks about Matt Gross the Traveler.  And while this is interesting in the way that people who live interesting lives are, it doesn’t really tell you much about the intersection between the traveler and the places he’s been.  He goes in a known quantity and he interacts with much of the world in articulate ways that are often quite entertaining, but aside from slowing down in the last chapter (something he explicitly declares will change soon) he really doesn’t seem to be all that influenced by a lifetime of visiting the world.  He remains the known quantity he was at the beginning, and that seems a lost opportunity.

Total Books: 51
Total Pages: 15,730
Pages per day: 43.1

Happy reading!

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Books Read in 2019, Part 2

Part the second!


Severance (Ling Ma)

This is a novel about surprisingly inconsequential actions set against a consequential background.  Candace Chen is an immigrant.  Born in Fujian, China, she comes to Salt Lake City as a child, young enough that she is culturally more of a first-generation American caught between the Old World experiences of her parents and the New World she grows up in than the immigrant she actually is.  Like many rootless people she drifts to New York City where she gets a job overseeing the production of Bibles for a specialty publishing company – a job that is both important to the company and ultimately meaningless, like most jobs today, a mindless but well-paid repetition of tasks.  She finds a boyfriend.  She starts a photoblog.  She misses her (now deceased) parents.  And all of this is set against the Shen Fever epidemic – a disease that, like Candace and Ling Ma herself, starts in China and comes to America.  It ultimately attacks the brain, leaving its victims little more than zombies rotely repeating their daily routine until their bodies give out – not all that different from her job, really, which is probably a point Ling Ma is making.  In alternating chapters you get Candace’s story before the epidemic in New York and after, as she and a small group of survivors make their way west.  They loot houses of the fevered for supplies, and when they find some still living, still shuffling through their empty routines, they kill them as a mercy, which is also probably a point Ling Ma is making.  It’s a well-written story, but a curiously muffled one – for all the trappings and events of a post-apocalyptic novel it never really feels tense the way such novels usually do, and, like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station 11, the events that would ordinarily serve as dramatic high points get moved by fairly quietly.  There is probably a point to that as well. 

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City (KJ Parker)

Orhan is an outsider – a “milkface” among the “blueskins” of the Robur, a man who has risen to a position of some rank (in his case, a colonel in the Empire’s engineering corps) despite the misfortune of continuing to exist in the wrong color.  He’s a con artist with both brains and heart – charming, morally flexible, rueful in his assessment of his life and prospects, dedicated to personal advancement, petty revenge on the Empire, and the protection of his troops from bureaucratic assaults, able to mix with any level of society, and pretty much the dictionary definition of attitude problem.  But when the Imperial forces are quickly and easily destroyed by an unknown enemy and all that is left is a frantic defense of a city under siege, it is Orhan who rises to the occasion and orchestrates the resistance.  The City – clearly modeled on Justinian’s Byzantium, with its color-coded factions (Greens and Blues here), Greek- and Latin-derived names, and general centrality to a crumbling empire under siege – is in trouble, surrounded by forces that are, mysteriously, waiting for someone else to show up before they attack.  When that someone does, the plot gets thicker – and from there it’s a flat-out dash of twists and turns to the end.  Parker – the pen name that Tom Holt uses for his more serious and less comic works – is a phenomenal writer whose plotting is both intricate and compelling and whose characters spring to life as people you’d find interesting but are probably glad not to live with. 

Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies (Ian Buruma and Avashai Margalit)

Every once in a while the library down at Home Campus weeds out part of its collection and puts the books it no longer wants out on carts for anyone to take.  I found this slim volume on one of those carts and it looked interesting.  It didn’t really turn out to be in the end, but it was short and it was worth a shot.  The main idea behind the book is the titular “Occidentalism” – a sort of mirror version of the Orientalism that views the East as exotic, inscrutable, and desirable.  Occidentalism, in contrast, views the West as something evil to be opposed, fought, or in some cases even eradicated.  It opens with 1940s Japanese thinkers celebrating the supposed organic wholeness of traditional Japanese society against the mechanistic emptiness of the United States in particular and the West in general, and then it marches through such topics as radical Islam and “the Russian soul.”  The enemies of the West are often, it seems, Westerners.  It’s hard to say what the main point of this book was, having now finished it.  That seems a missed opportunity.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars: Welcome to Night Vale, Episodes, Vol. 1 (Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor)

I’m not much for listening to podcasts because when I do listen that’s all I end up doing and eventually I have to go do other things.  But Welcome to Night Vale is a wonderful show – A Prairie Home Companion as written by HP Lovecraft, all about a quiet little town in the desert where all the conspiracy theories are true – and when they started publishing the podcasts as books, with each episode as a chapter, I figured that was for me.  I read the first two volumes a couple of years ago, but since volumes three and four came out this year I figured I’d go through the lot of them in one swoop rather than try to remember what had come before.  Plus, each chapter is introduced by one of the creators or perhaps one of the voice actors and you get some additional insight as to what they were trying to do.  In this first volume the general foundations are laid.  The calm reassuring voice of Cecil, our window into Night Vale with his community radio broadcasts.  Perfect, beautiful Carlos, the new scientist in town and Cecil’s great crush.  The Dog Park that no citizen of Night Vale is allowed to enter or even know about.  The Great Glow Cloud that drops dead animals from the sky and eventually runs for the school board.  The eldritch horrors of the City Council, the radio station management, and the hooded figures in the Dog Park.  The Sheriff’s Secret Police.  Hiram McDaniels – a 5-headed dragon wanted for insurance fraud who eventually becomes a mayoral candidate.  The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your House.  Old Woman Josie and the angels who live with her despite City Council’s insistence that angels do not exist.  The hellbeast that Cecil insists on calling a cat hovering four feet in the air in the radio station men’s room.  Each episode is a small slice of life in Night Vale and includes both the traffic report (usually some kind of rumination on strange things) and the weather (always a song).  If you’re looking for a place to visit that somehow manages to be both entertaining and weirder than our current reality, you will find no better home than Night Vale.

The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe: Welcome to Night Vale, Episodes, Volume 2
(Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor)

In season two of Welcome to Night Vale they shifted from simple stories about the town and its off-kilter daily life to longer arcs, such as the ongoing mayoral race between the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your House and Hiram McDaniels, the attempted takeover of Night Vale by Strexcorp, and the ongoing saga of Intern Dana, who went into the Dog Park and ended up trapped in an alternate dimension with a blinking lighthouse on top of a mountain, a large army of winged soldiers, and a cell phone whose battery never ran out and that always got wifi so she could call and text Cecil.  There are still daily life stories and the town remains the haven of unbridled weirdity that it always has been, and the commentaries before each chapter continue to give insight.  One of the themes of the commentaries is the increasing popularity of the show, which hit a much wider audience this year.  And deservedly so.

The Buying of Lot 37: Welcome to Night Vale, Episodes, Volume 3 (Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor)

Most of the weirdness of literature, movies, or television comes from watching normal people doing bizarre things, but with Welcome to Night Vale it comes from watching bizarre people trying to do normal things.  In this season we continue to follow the bent and twisted denizens of Night Vale through the aftermath of a mayoral election, the building of the new opera house, the ups and downs of Cecil and Carlos, and other things that with more mainstream characters might be quotidian but with these characters feels like a porcupine trying on a three-piece suit.  It’s all marvelously constructed and written with a flair for the epigrammatic, though it does tend to blend together in an immersive sort of way if you read it all at once.  But Carlos is home after a year in the desert with the roving army of winged soldiers, and all is as well as it gets in Night Vale, really.

Who’s a Good Boy?: Welcome to Night Vale, Episodes, Volume 4 (Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor)

And so the extant volumes of Welcome to Night Vale in book form come to an end with the conclusion of a number of long story arcs.  You can see the general framework of Welcome to Night Vale growing and maturing, as Cecil increasingly becomes a three-dimensional and unreliable narrator rather than simply our portal into this world, as Desert Bluffs becomes more central to the story, and as the writers take on more pointed and more substantive issues rather than just reveling in joyous weirdity.  The trial of Hiram McDaniels, for example, is a fairly remarkable thing in a story like this one.  The commentaries before each episode add a lot to your understanding, and the whole thing ends with you wanting to find the next book, but that won’t be for a while.  Alas.

The Two of Swords (KJ Parker)

Volume 1

The war between the Eastern and Western Empires has been going on for so long now that nobody really remembers why they’re still fighting.  Something to do with honor, perhaps.  Or revenge. Quite possibly nothing but habit.  And throughout this book KJ Parker (i.e. Tom Holt being serious rather than bittersweet comic) slowly introduces us to a wide variety of characters, each of whom gets a large section from their perspective that advances the story forward just by that much.  Teucer, the small-village archer about to get sucked into the war.  His buddy Musen, a born thief and a craftsman – a member of the Lodge.  Telemon, an agent of the Lodge with a talent for assassination.  The brothers Forza and Senza Belot – the two greatest generals in history and it’s just a shame they’re on opposite sides trying to kill each other and, as a byproduct, perhaps win the war.  The Emperor Glaucus, a scholar and collector.  Daxin, the Grand Logothete of Blemya – a buffer state between the two empires and currently on the short end of a war against the desert nomads.  Oida, the second-best musician in the empires and perhaps the only person who can travel freely between the two warring sides.  Procopius, the guy better than Oida.  And so on – the story gets wider and more complex with each character.  Each section was previously published as a novella and is here collected in this first of three volumes.  The war goes well or not, the characters do well or not, and ultimately – as the reader slowly comes to suspect – it’s all just clearing the way for the real conflict to follow.  Parker’s novels are always a treat to read – well written, intricately plotted, and immersive, with sharply drawn and complex characters (there are no real villains though they often do terrible things, for example) – and he does a surprisingly good job of juggling all of the separate pieces, though I’m glad I’m reading them all at once instead of trying to keep track of them over the long, drawn-out publication schedule of the original novellas.

Volume 2

The war gets deeper, the world gets grimmer, and the lead characters keep changing.  In KJ Parker's bleak civil war between the Eastern and Western Empires nobody really seems to know who's winning.  Forza Belot may or may not be dead, his brother Senza is sort of but not really besieging the capital of the opposing empire (even though the government itself fled to an island fortress beforehand), and the Lodge is doing what the Lodge does, which is never really clear even to high ranking members of the Lodge, whose identities are also not clear if you go up high enough.  There is a long subplot about stealing a deck of cards, which makes sense in context, but mostly this is a story about the characters of men and women in a brutal and chaotic world not of their own making.  Every chapter shifts POV to another character - sometimes a Lodge member, sometimes a mercenary soldier, sometimes the thief trying to steal the cards, sometimes a different mercenary charged with kidnapping a woman another character considers valuable – and the plot builds slowly around that.  Parker is a brilliant writer whose sentences follow one on the other with ease and joy even as his world grows darker and more violent with every page.

Volume 3

This is the volume where we find out who the main characters really were – Telemon and Oida, for those of you not paying attention as you were reading the first two books – and what happens when a utopian secret society has the power, money, and influence to destroy an invincible empire in order to remake the world.  Hint: it’s not pretty.  Told from the ground up, this is more of a character study than a novel – many things happen, of course, and Parker’s writing makes you eager to get to the next sentence, next chapter, and next volume – but in the end it’s hard to say whether anyone has changed or not.  Parker does wrap things up fairly neatly, the way he tends to do even at his grimmest, and it’s satisfying to see how the characters end up.  I think it would help immensely if he ever published a map of his world, since so many of his books are set in the same world, if across hundreds of years.  It’s hard to follow the game without a program, especially since Parker is so skilled at creating a textured historical world with only a few allusions. 

Smoke and Mirrors (Neil Gaiman)

This is Neil Gaiman’s first collection of short stories, published in 1997, and you can see the talent that is emerging here even as his later work outshines it.  That said, there are a couple of great stories in here – “We Can Get Them For You Wholesale,” for instance, a story about murder and bargains, as well as “Murder Mysteries,” which takes a cosmic view of such things.  There’s also a lot of stories which read as someone writing in the style of HP Lovecraft, and any number of long poems that I can appreciate but don’t really enjoy much.  In the introduction Gaiman gives you a few paragraphs about each story, and I put a separate bookmark there so I could read them as I completed each story.  It seemed appropriate.

Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia (Chris Stewart)

This is another of those travel memoirs that I like to read, except that instead of traveling Chris Stewart decided to emigrate from the UK to the mountains of Andalucia in Spain.  He buys a ramshackle farm from a peasant whose villainy is obvious to all but him.  He moves his wife and dog there.  He meets the neighbors, becomes embedded in the community, and eventually most things work out reasonably enough.  He’s not good with timelines – he clearly lived there for a number of years before writing this book and events tend to get jumbled together based on what story he feels like telling next – and despite his efforts it takes him a very long time to figure out that the locals are just as smart as he is.  But he is well-meaning and educable, and it’s a fairly positive book in the end – just as the subtitle says.

The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson)

In a near future where nation states have withered to the point of irrelevance, where nanotechnology has largely ended the economy of scarcity, and where people have sorted themselves out into “claves” of likeminded peoples, John Percival Hackworth has been given a task.  Hackworth – who lives a neo-Victorian lifestyle near Shanghai – is a computer programmer, and his mission is to create a primer, a book capable of raising a small child, and in particular the granddaughter of Sir Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, an Equity Lord in Hackworth’s clave.  When he makes a copy for his own daughter and then has it stolen from him, all sorts of problems ensue.  The copy finds its way to Nell – the daughter of a street thug (executed in the first few pages of the novel for his crimes) and a neglectful mother, protected by her brother Harv – who uses it to grow up with.  Coming into this complex story are Miranda – the voice actor who makes the book come alive for Nell and who becomes, without ever meeting her, something of a replacement mother for her – and Judge Fang, whose judicial activities weave in and out of the plot.  It’s kind of a picaresque in some ways, as the plot follows each of the main characters through long periods of time – some in detail, sometimes simply by noting that time has passed – and the conclusion is somewhat vague as much of the order in coastal China deteriorates.  At this stage of Stephenson’s career he was one of the leading figures in cyberpunk and this is one of the books that made his name.  He’s matured as a writer since then, but even his early works are well worth reading.

The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (Catherine Nixey)

The transition from the classical pagan world to Christian Europe is usually told as a triumph – the defeat and casting aside of the old gods and culture for the new and presumably better one we’re familiar with.  But, as Nixey points out, to the Romans the word “triumph” meant more than merely victory.  It meant the annihilation of their enemies, their humiliation, and their oblivion.  This, she says, is what happened to the classical world.  It’s a story that often gets overlooked or soft-pedaled by later (Christian) writers, who tend to write as if classical civilization was overjoyed by the prospect of conversion to Christianity and the adoption of a new culture.  Nixey instead portrays a transition characterized by mindless fanaticism, brutal violence, cultural destruction, and futile resistance.  The villains are the monks, hermits, and other Christian zealots whose vicious crimes were often coated in a thick layer of self-righteousness and earnest claims to be destroying their enemies out of love – to save them from hell they would put them through hell, in other words.  In the end, the overwhelming majority of classical civilization – a thousand years of culture, science, ethics, faith, learning, and relative tolerance – is now deliberately lost to us, and we will never truly fathom the depths of that loss.

Fall: or, Dodge in Hell (Neal Stephenson)

When humans finally achieve immortality by uploading their consciousnesses into a digital universe the end result will be Middle Earth.  Or the Bible.  Or possibly Milton’s Paradise Lost.  This will probably come as a surprise to the tech engineers running the place, but that’s what Neal Stephenson is predicting and presumably he knows these things.  This is a Big Book, in every sense.  It’s physically big – Stephenson always gives good value in terms of words per dollar – and it tackles Big Ideas, such as identity, immortality, the nature of knowledge across impenetrable divides, the general direction of American culture and politics, and the difficulty of knowing anything in an age of Fake News.  Somewhere in all of that are anywhere from three to five separate novels of varying accomplishment, all clamoring for attention and all confined within the covers of this one book.  The story opens in Seattle, where many of the characters from REAMDE have settled after the events of that novel (this isn’t really a sequel, though – no need to read the first one if you don’t feel like it).  Richard Dodge Forthrast – tech guru and bazillionaire, generally known as Dodge – is about to have a minor surgical procedure, during which he will die.  This is not a spoiler – it’s the engine of the plot.   Because he never bothered to update his will after a brief flirtation with cryogenics and other forms of forced immortality, this sets off an immense struggle between his heirs – his niece Zula, her daughter Sophia, and his old partner Corvallis chief among them – and the immortality guys, led by Elmo Shephard (El, for short, and if that’s also the word for god in Hebrew, well, that’s not accidental).  After some time passes – there are several sections in this book that are divided by years or even decades – Dodge’s connectome (what we might call his mind or his soul – these terms get thrown around loosely) gets uploaded to a digital universe where he basically recreates Genesis while playing the role of God.  Eventually conflict comes to both the real world and the Land, as Dodge’s world comes to be called, and as more characters die in the real world they get born in the Land where the conflict continues.  There is a great pile-up of mythological references here – characters named Adam, Eve, Edda, and Spring play their roles, as do sacred groves and mariner’s tales – and ultimately the last part of the novel comes down to a Quest (capitalized) straight out of the Secondary-World Fantasy Trope-Shop, one that I had a hard time caring about mostly because I knew that all the characters were just bits and bytes even within their own world, let alone in mine.  I like Stephenson’s books – the man knows how to WRITE and he’s always thought-provoking – and there were long sections of this that I enjoyed very much (usually those set in the real world rather than the Land), but I’ve read almost all of his fiction and this one is definitely the weakest of the lot.

How to Be German in 50 Easy Steps (Adam Fletcher)

This is one of those short, breezy, not entirely informative but entertaining books that purport to tell you painlessly how to survive in another culture.  It's a pastiche of observations from an English expat happily living in Germany now, divided – as advertised – into 50 chapters of between one and two pages.  Fletcher clearly loves his adopted country and just as clearly it took him some time to adjust to it, so there are a few useful tips here (prepare to eat a big, slow breakfast, for example), but he assumes a familiarity with the German language that his target audience may or may not have (he leaves a lot of things untranslated – there’s a chapter on the five most useful phrases in German, phrases that can be arranged in any order to form a complete conversation, but he never actually tells us what those mean in English; plus this book is one of those that you can flip over and read from the other side, this time in German) and he’s more interested in broad observations and punchlines than cultural analysis.  It’s a fun book, and you can get some useful things out of it.  But I’m still not German.

German Men Sit Down to Pee and Other Insights Into German Culture (Niklas Frank and James Cave)

This is a slightly more serious and vastly more informative version of the previous book, written by an actual German (Frank) and his Irish coauthor (Cave).  Like Fletcher’s book, it goes through various bits and bobs of the day in Germany, explaining things that you should do (obey rules, eat a slow breakfast, and yes, sit to pee) and not do (make jokes about Nazis, be overly forward, or get shocked by nudity), though Frank and Cave do take the time to translate the German for the reader.  It’s a useful if rather surface-level introduction for those heading to Germany for a time.

Something Rising (Light and Swift) (Haven Kimmel)

I discovered Haven Kimmel with her autobiography, A Girl Named Zippy, which remains one of my favorites – it just barely missed my Top Month’s Worth Of Books post, and that’s just the problem of reading all the time.  It’s a nice problem to have.  This is a novel, though, and while it is well written it isn’t really my thing.  The best adjective I can come up with for it is “humid” – it’s basically a Southern Gothic novel set in a small town in Indiana.  Mostly it tells the story of Cassie, a born rebel and a pool shark growing up poor with a sister with mental health issues (Belle), a mother forever mourning the life she gave up to run away with Cassie’s father (Linda), and Cassie’s now absent father (Jimmy), from whom she inherited her pool skills though at one point she beats him handily at his own sport.  The book is told in several sections widely separated in time – from the late 1970s to the late 1990s – and it has the closed-in, few-options feel of a life and a town going nowhere.  Characters change, grow, even die, and the future never looks any different.  It’s even difficult to say quite how it ends, since little if anything gets resolved.  It’s a well-crafted book, but not one I really enjoyed.

Alice Isn’t Dead (Joseph Fink)

Well, I now know which of the two Welcome to Night Vale creators is responsible for the eerie weirdness and general mood of the series (Fink) and which is responsible for the black humor that runs through it (Jeffrey Cranor).  This book is entirely Joseph Fink’s, and it is a dark, twisted horror novel about things just below the surface of everyday life, without the absurdities that make Night Vale funny.  Keisha’s wife Alice disappeared before the book began, and Keisha then disappeared back into her pit of anxiety for a long time before it began to dawn on her that Alice wasn’t dead after all.  So she gets a job as a long-haul trucker as a way to search the country.  She quickly runs into the Thistle Men – weird, inhuman, murderous creatures – and a teenaged runaway named Sylvia who knows about them and is on her side.  It turns out that lots of people know about them, but few are willing to acknowledge them.  And when Fink explains exactly what the Thistle Men are it becomes clear just how much of the story is a metaphor of modern American life.  There are also “oracles” – cryptic, as oracles are, but beneficent – and a woman with paper skin who seems to pull the strings behind all of this, and there is the trucking company that Keisha (and Alice) work for and which is more than it appears.  Most things are.  Intertwined throughout is the story of Keisha and Alice – how they met, how they lived, and so on.  If you’re looking for an intelligent horror story with a lot to say about how we live today in the modern United States, look no further.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Books Read in 2019, Part 1

I am one of those people who always has a book with him, no matter where he is.  It is a trait that has served me well, though it is also one that has gotten me some odd looks from people who do not share this trait, which is most people these days.  The world would be a better place if people read more, but so it goes.

Here is the list for 2019.  Enjoy!


All Clear (Connie Willis)

This is not really a stand-alone novel so much as it is the second half of Blackout, which I finished at the end of 2018, so if you plan to read this you should start with Blackout because otherwise you will be completely lost.  It’s WWII in England – mostly London, it has to be said – and Polly, Mike, and Merope (Eileen) are still trapped a century before they were born, trying to get back to mid-21st-century Oxford.  Colin and Dunworthy, back in Oxford, are working to retrieve them, though this gets scant mention until the latter third of the book.  This could have been a much better book, as Willis clearly did a tremendous amount of research into daily life during the Blitz and other parts of home front England during the war, and because she peopled this novel with well-drawn and interesting characters – Sir Godfrey, an aging but commanding actor, being my personal favorite among the “contemps,” the people actually from the period who weren’t going to escape back to Oxford.  But as with Blackout, Willis foregoes the characters to focus on the mechanics of time travel and the desperately muddle-headed actions of the historians as they spin and fret and generally act like time travel was something they hadn’t been thoroughly trained to do.  This is especially true of Polly, whose histrionics grate after a while, which Merope’s bland optimism is meant to smooth over and which Mike’s can-do wheel-spinning is meant to contrast with, with only partial success.  Only in the last hundred pages of this two-volume novel does the action start to mean anything or the characters start to get out of their own way.  This is the second half of a very long story whose main plot twist I figured out nearly 800 pages before the characters did and whose subsidiary plot twists seemed painfully obvious to all but those charged with implementing them (hint: Willis is a big fan of Agatha Christie).  The story has all of the flaws of To Say Nothing of the Dog with little of its redeeming humor and it spends too much time on the mechanics of time travel rather than the story happening where the time travelers have landed, in sharp contrast with The Doomsday Book (the best book in this series).  It’s well written and if you can get over wanting to smack the time travelers with a wet noodle it’s engaging, and as noted the last hundred pages go a long way toward redeeming it, but there’s a lot of slogging to do for that payoff.  Somewhere in the 1100 pages of this and Blackout combined is a really good 400pp book searching for a way to get out.

Gnomon (Nick Harkaway)

This is not an easy book to read, but it is a rewarding and vastly entertaining one in many ways.  It is a perfect example of Harkaway’s style – discursive, digressive, allusive, looping from one seemingly unrelated tangent to another until it all comes together in the end, and demanding in its vocabulary and ideas.  There is no other writer active today who has as much fun with the English language as Harkaway does and it shows, but you have to work for it.  If you’re looking for a straightforward story, look elsewhere.  But if you’re willing to follow Harkaway on his flights of fancy, secure in the knowledge that the diversions will all come back to center eventually, you will be richly rewarded.  Inspector Mielikki Neith works for the Witness – the all-encompassing surveillance system that runs the direct democracy of England in this near-future setting.  Known as incorruptible and above reproach, she is naturally put in charge of the case of Diana Hunter, a woman who died under interrogation (something that Simply Does Not Happen Anymore).  Because the Witness can read thoughts as well as actions the interrogation actually recorded Hunter’s mind, and Neith must enter that mind to find out what happened.  It turns out that Hunter spent years laying the groundwork to defeat the Witness, and she will lead Neith on a thorough exploration of what it means to have an identity and to maintain that identity in a world where privacy no longer exists.  Hidden within Hunter’s mind are other minds – set off typographically from the main story – and outside of her mind are other, more mysterious beings.  This is a deeply philosophical book, for all its action sequences, one that raises challenging questions about who we are and what kind of world we choose to live in, and it’s told with Harkaway’s signature verve and humor.  I enjoy his writing – The Gone-Away World is among my all-time favorite books – but it is a complex and challenging story that is not for readers unwilling to take the time to figure it out.

Edie Investigates (Nick Harkaway)

It occurred to me while reading Gnomon that the only bit of Nick Harkaway’s fiction that I hadn’t gotten to yet was this short story, a prequel of sorts to Angelmaker.  Edie Banister is a retired British spy, once a WWII heroine and now an old woman in her eighties.  But when a former colleague turned banker ends up murdered in a small town, she finds herself drawn to the scene and mixed up with the hapless investigator sent to cover it up.  Like most short stories – at least the well-done ones – it says as much by what is left unsaid as what is actually written down, and it ends on an open note that no doubt would make sense if I proceeded to reread Angelmaker, and I had planned to do that next except that I loaned my copy out and have yet to get it back.  So perhaps another time.

I Wrote This Book Because I Love You (Tim Kreider)

There is a strong current of darkly funny melancholy that flows through the various essays in this book – a memoir of sorts, or at least a collection of personal essays about Kreider’s own life.  This is in some sense a follow-up to We Learn Nothing, and the tone is about the same.  Kreider mostly focuses on love and the difficulties he has with it, on sex and how it differs from his first topic, and on the perils of being an aging writer.  He writes warmly about a collection of ex-girlfriends, many of whom ended up as friends but at least one of whom very much did not.  He seems to collect people who inhabit lives on the fringes of society – one close friend and former girlfriend is and was at the time a whore (to use her own preferred term) while the opening essay recounts a trip to Mexico on a circus train with a woman who was pretending to be his wife.  His chapter on teaching a writing course at Scott College – on being a single middle-aged man surrounded by beautiful and vulnerable young women and the odd sort of freedom that comes from the highly restrictive rules of conduct that such a position necessarily entails – is perhaps the most reflective of the lot, though the long meditation on his aging cat comes close.  Kreider is an excellent writer whose essays are thoughtful, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, and well worth reading.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain (Ian Mortimer)

Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveler’s series is what social history ought to look like.  Well written and accessible, aimed at a popular rather than scholarly audience but well sourced and supported for the professional historian (though probably a bit broad for the handful of specialists likely to read it), each installment brings to life an era of British history in a way that is designed to spark rather than deaden interest.  The central idea of this volume is that you – a modern Briton, though the rest of us are welcome to tag along – have somehow gone back in time to the late 17th century, to the period that followed the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and you will need guidance on how to live there.  He starts with a general overview of regional differences – the first chapter focuses on London, while the second is simply “Beyond London” – and then moves on to more practical advice: what to eat, what to wear, where to stay if you travel, what entertainment is on offer, and so on.  Like its sister volumes on medieval and Elizabethan England, it’s an immersive introduction to a foreign time and one that gives the reader a clear sense of how people living there went about their lives – a sense that is often missing in more traditional histories.  The quiet epilogue is one of the more powerful sections of the book.

In Sicily, 1896-1898-1900 (Volume 1) (Douglas Sladen)

As part of my ongoing dabbling in genealogy I recently discovered that my grandmother’s parents were from two small villages about a dozen miles or so west of Messina in Sicily.  They left in 1907, shortly before most of Messina was destroyed by an earthquake, so that’s timing for you.  I started to wonder what Sicily was like at the time and found this book online, available for free downloading.  The two volumes together are just over 1000 pages, and I admit I bogged down about a third of the way into Volume 1, but Douglas Sladen is a fairly entertaining writer and I will likely go back to them at some point.  Sladen was an Englishman who spent most of his life traveling and then writing about it, and he had all of the views that one would expect of an Englishman who could afford to do that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries at the height of the Empire.  He does seem to regard the people and places he finds with no small amount of affection, though.  He starts his Sicilian tour in Messina, which he says immediately that he will not describe because it is a horrid place and then spends ten pages describing.  He and his party (including two Americans, who alternately amuse and astonish him with their utterly un-English manners) then take a train about 25 miles south to the small city of Taormina.  Sladen says explicitly – several times – that Taormina is a great place to visit if you don’t want to do anything because there is nothing at all to do there, and then he spends about 140 pages describing in detail the nothing there is to do.  This turns out to be fairly interesting actually – the chapter on the local opera house is worth the download all by itself.  He likes the flowers and the ruins, he’s enamoured of the women, he finds the men grandiose and the boys thieves.  He illustrates his book with a profusion of photographs, which I found surprising in a book of this vintage (he also uses “kodak” as a verb).  And then he and his party head to Syracuse, which is clearly his favorite spot in all of Sicily to which the rest of the island cannot compare.  I left him there, but someday I will return.

Downfall of the Gods (KJ Parker)

This slim novella is actually one of the more optimistic of Parker’s stories, which may be damning with faint praise but there you go.  Tom Holt seems to use the KJ Parker name for his grimmer stories while reserving his own name for the more humorous (if often bittersweet) novels he writes, but they’re all astonishingly well written.  Lord Archias has gone to the temple to pray to his Goddess for forgiveness for the crime of murdering Lysippus, a long-time friend whom he found in bed with his wife.  But Lysippus was the Goddess’ favorite musician, and even though Lord Archias’ prayer was properly done, she decides not to forgive him after all.  This, it turns out, is the beginning of a surprisingly complex story told from the Goddess’ perspective, a story of the pettiness of the gods, the problems with being immortal, and the difficulties mortals go through when confronted by the gods.  There is a trial by ordeal, some trickery, and a fair amount of wry, gently weary philosophy as the Goddess explains how the gods work or don’t work and as Lord Archias transforms over the course of his struggles.  In the end it is the Downfall of the Gods, as the title suggests, though not perhaps as you would have seen coming and not in a way that inspires much regret.

The Last Days of New Paris (China Mieville)

Nobody does Other like China Mieville.  For most authors, their Other characters are just recognizable humans dressed in funny alien suits, but with Mieville his Other characters are well and truly Other, to the point where you can have some trouble just wrapping your head around what they are at all.  In this short novel it is 1950 in New Paris, which diverged from our Paris in 1941 thanks to the S-bomb, a fact that doesn’t become clear for a while.  What is clear is that New Paris is a strange and haunted place, where Nazis occupy a city overrun by Surrealist “manifs” (short, I suspect, for “manifestations,” though this is not explicitly stated) without actually controlling it.  In alternating chapters you get the 1950 story of Thibaut, a French Surrealist fighter who eventually teams up with Sam, who is a spy (though for whom is not revealed until well into her story), as well as the 1941 story of the S-bomb.  Those stories merge horrifyingly toward the end as Thibaut and his Exquisite Corpse manif struggle against, well, a lot of things.  Appended to the story are both a glossary (it helps to have a thorough knowledge of Surrealist art, which I do not) and an odd chapter purporting to be Mieville’s description of an interview with an old man who must have been Thibaut.  Mieville frames this as a true story told in a fictional style, which only adds to the complex, dreamlike quality of the whole.  This is a challenging and prickly book but a compelling one.  Mieville demands concentration and thought from his readers, but such readers will be rewarded.

The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber

If you ever wanted to see how long a book of less than a hundred pages can be, this would be Exhibit A.  I read this book, chapter by painful chapter, for a professional development discussion group down at Home Campus early in the spring semester and I cannot tell you how much of a chore it was.  It shouldn’t have been, since the basic idea of it is neither complicated nor radical.  The University, the authors say – presumably referring to academia in general rather than any one particular institution – has been corporatized and everything in it, from teaching to research to personal contact and conversation, has been reduced to a commodity.  This has led to a general crisis both in higher education in general and among academics in particular since commodities exist to be produced, commercialized, and exploited at top speed and this model is grotesquely ill-suited to education.  Anyone even remotely connected to higher education understands this, and everyone not actively promoting that agenda knows very well that it is a damaging and destructive way to operate an educational institution.  Education is not a commodity, and the values of the free market don’t translate into anything useful when applied to it – a shortcoming free market universalists refuse to accept about their pet ideology, which they believe should be applied to all things at all times regardless of results, who fervently believe that the inevitable failures of this approach are the result of insufficient purity, and who therefore demand that the model be applied with even more fanaticism next time, with predictable results.  Much of what is wrong with the world today can be traced directly back to this free-market universalism, in fact, and the University’s situation is no different.  This should therefore have been a slam dunk of a book to read, particularly given its obvious intended audience.  But the authors of this slim, jargon-packed book choose to discuss the issue from such a towering position of clueless privilege that it renders their arguments irritating and their conclusions largely irrelevant to anyone likely to read it who is not similarly privileged.  It becomes clear very early on that these are tenured professors in a field that does not require expensive equipment to conduct research, and speaking as an adjunct in a university system that has been aggressively targeted for destruction over the last decade by right-wing vandals seeking to destroy the well-informed citizenry that the Founding Fathers understood was necessary to the survival of a free republic, few if any of their recommendations are serious options for me.  The book is, therefore, a tremendous missed opportunity and a colossal waste of time.

Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North (Robert Ferguson)

This isn’t a history of the Scandinavian nations, though it does have a lot of historical information in it.  It’s not quite a memoir either, though Ferguson frames it as his own personal excursion through Scandinavian culture and much of it is taken up with intricately related stories from his own personal experiences.  What the original three-act play about Henrik Ibsen is doing in the middle of it is anyone’s guess.  But it all more or less fits together as episodes around a theme if you don’t question it too much.  Ferguson – an entertaining writer throughout – is a British expat married to a Norwegian woman and living in Oslo.  He has made the study of Scandinavian culture his life’s work and repeatedly says that his original purpose was to explore the issue of Scandinavian melancholy, but as his research and conversations expanded that idea seemed less and less tenable until it simply became a collection of his own impressions of Scandinavian culture in general.  As with many of these books it focuses mostly on the Danes and the Norwegians, devoting much less attention to the Swedes and mostly ignoring the Finns, Icelanders, and Greenlanders.  The Swedes in books like this tend to be treated with the envious irritation you might see directed at a successful but self-satisfied and condescending older brother, which always surprises me having been there a few times and found it to be friendly and welcoming.  Ferguson spends a lot of time on Ibsen and larger issues of Norwegian culture, on WWII, on the Kalmar Union that kept the three nations fractiously united for four centuries, and how all of this and more filters down to his life in Oslo.  It’s an interesting ride, if a very personal and rather idiosyncratic one.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (David Eagleman) )

I first read this four years ago and it has stuck with me ever since.  It’s a slim book, just over a hundred pages, so each chapter is only two or three pages long.  They’re not connected except thematically and, in their vaguely melancholy second-person viewpoint, stylistically.  Each chapter presents a different possible afterlife.  There’s one where everything that was ever created continues to exist, including thousands of lonely and unhappy gods.  There’s another where God is the size of a bacterium and one where He (or She, it varies by chapter) is impossibly vast, both with the same general message that communication across differences in scale is hardly possible.  There are afterlives with caring but slightly confused Gods, and afterlives with distant Gods, and afterlives with Gods who make odd choices with even odder consequences for those of us subject to them.  The one that has always stayed in my head longest is the afterlife where everyone goes to a well-lit neutral sort of space, compared in the book to an airport terminal, where you can stay comfortably and eat and drink your fill until the last person who remembers you dies, and then you move on – ironically, just as they arrive.  Nobody knows where you go after that.  And woe betide those who become historical figures, doomed to stay there for as long as their story is told no matter how far it drifts from what actually happened.  The overall effect of all these afterlives is a quiet simplicity of infinite options, none of which are what you would have chosen but all of them mostly benign in their way.

The Three-Body Problem (Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu)

At the height of China’s Cultural Revolution, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie finds herself politically exiled to Red Coast Base 1, a remote and deeply secret installation in the mountains.  Nearly half a century later, nanotech researcher Wang Miao and police detective Shi Qiang find themselves drawn into the consequences of that.  Scientists all over the world are dying at inexplicable rates, the laws of science seem to be falling apart, and the mystery behind all that goes back to Red Coast Base 1.  Alongside this is an immersive virtual reality game called Three Body, where players such as Wang (this is a Chinese book, and accordingly family names come first and given names second) find themselves on an alien planet where Stable Eras and Chaotic Eras alternate without pattern and a three-sunned solar system wreaks havoc on Trisolaran civilizations.  As the plots converge, a number of things become apparent.  First, Shi is probably the most grounded character in the lot for all his surface flaws.  Second, Ye has set in motion a long-term catastrophe.  And third, this is ultimately a First Contact story, as the Trisolarans are distressingly real and the powers of Earth – cooperating in the face of a larger threat – face long odds of survival.  Liu’s world is suffused with a very Chinese tone, one that the translator captures well and which differs from the Eurocentric SF/F that I usually read.  His heroes are the scientists who drive human progress, and his enemies are the rigid political straitjackets that limit them.  He can get deeply caught up in some of the physics and there are some loose ends that one presumes will get tied up in later volumes of this trilogy, but the writing is evocative and the story hums right along.  The mirrored First Contact narratives of Ye Wenjie and the Trisolarans are an interesting statement, and Liu clearly agrees with Stephen Hawking’s view that any contact with alien life will not end well for humanity.  Great technological advances do not necessarily mean great moral advances, and those who assume otherwise suffer for their naivete. 

The Dark Forest (Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen)

This is a novel of two halves, widely separated in time, where the larger shape of Liu’s narrative starts to become clear.  In the first half, humanity is still reeling from the implications of Trisolaran contact and the existential threat that this represents.  In response, the UN initiates the Wallfacer project.  The Trisolarans have seeded Earth with “sophons,” multidimensional particles with artificial intelligence capability and subatomic size that work to bring all scientific research to a halt and serve as the perfect intelligence agents, allowing the Trisolarans to see all that happens on Earth in essentially real time.  The only thing they cannot do is read human minds, and the Wallfacer project basically selects four humans to come up with plans in the recesses of their own minds that could defeat the Trisolarans.  Luo Ji is perhaps the least accomplished of the four and mostly he sees no purpose in it, but as the others get defeated by the Wallbreakers – human agents of the Trisolarans – he ends up the only one left.  The second half of the story takes place two centuries later.  Luo has woken up from hibernation to find a radically different human society on Earth, one with a vast fleet of space warships.   He’s also found his old friend Shi Qiang.  Together they will witness from Earth the first contact with the Trisolarans in the solar system, as a Trisolaran probe attacks the combined fleets of Earth.  In the aftermath, Luo returns to his Wallfacer days to devise a desperate defense, one that finally makes sense of the cryptically placid opening sequence of this book and reveals the grim meaning of the title as well.  It’s a well-done and ambitious book, especially for a middle volume of a trilogy, and clearly comes from a different sensibility than most Western works.  I’m not sure I’d have called it the best SF book of 2015 the way several reviewers did, but I can see why they would.

Death’s End (Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu)

In a universe where pretty much everything sentient wants you dead – nothing personal, you understand, just how it works, which is if anything even more frightening and disheartening than if they all hated you – your only hope for survival is not to be noticed.  This is the lesson of the Dark Forest.  And humanity and the Trisolarans have failed.  The final installment of the Three Body Trilogy is an episodic novel – in many ways more of a picaresque than a single story – on a truly grand scale.  It starts with an odd preface in Constantinople as the city is about to fall to the Ottomans, before going back in time slightly to the period before Luo Ji’s dark forest defense.  Yun Tianming is dying, but very much in love with Cheng Xin.  Eventually this turns into the Staircase Project – an attempt to insert a human presence into Trisolaran society as a deep spy and possible saboteur, but the time scales are so off that the project’s main purpose largely gets forgotten.  There is another episode involving two human interstellar warships, far from home, who initiate a dark forest attack on Trisolaris – one that will ultimately seal the doom of the Solar System as well.  There is an interlude where Cheng Xin is the Swordholder – Luo Ji’s successor – and another where she faces an attempt to save humanity that might be worse than the thing it is trying to prevent.  And at the end, billions of years into the future, there is only time and matter and a universe that is at once deeply hostile and generally uncaring.  This is, in essence, a cautionary tale of First Contact.  Liu’s basic point is that humanity should be very careful about what it wishes for when it comes to contacting alien civilizations, because if we get what we wish for we will regret it.  It is a grim story full of hard science and struggling people who never really get what they want, shaded in tones noticeably different from most Western novels.  The universe winds down; that’s how it’s made. 

The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Anthony Abraham Jack)

The next time I hear some privileged whiner complaining about “coddled college students these days” I will go nuclear.  All I hear when people say that is a frank admission of their hostile ignorance and an abysmal lack of empathy.  Anthony Jack is a sociologist interested in what the lives of modern college students are actually like, and he focuses this book on the unseen barriers that even the most seemingly fortunate students – the ones plucked from poverty and instability and given a chance at one of the nation’s top schools – face.  Most of these are cultural – the fact that without mentors or family experience in college (which is, after all, a rather artificial environment and difficult to explain if you haven’t been through it) these students are often at a loss to understand the unwritten rules, for example.  What are “office hours,” really?  Do I really have the right to ask questions or demand time from authority figures?  Some of the barriers are economic as well – what happens to students who can’t afford to go home or eat out when the cafeteria closes over spring break?  Through in-depth interviews with students at the pseudonymous “Renowned University,” Jack works to elucidate those issues and brings the real world of those students vividly to life for the reader.  Sometimes the barriers are the result of malice or incompetence but mostly they’re either structural or the result of good intentions and unintended consequences.  What separates Jack’s study from similar previous studies is his distinction between “the Privileged Poor” – people like Jack himself, who grew up in poor, often violent neighborhoods and lived with unstable families and homelessness but who earned scholarships to elite prep schools before moving on to college – and “the Doubly Disadvantaged,” who lacked those scholarships and opportunities until they went to college itself.  The Privileged Poor, he said, get over their culture shock in high school and face a much smoother transition to college that way than the Doubly Disadvantaged, since they understand the unwritten rules when they arrive, yet both are still poor, with economic barriers uniting the two groups, and both are hungry over spring break.  As an academic advisor and someone who teaches First Year Seminar, even though the students I see are generally not “the Privileged Poor,” this will be a useful book for me going forward.