I've been working my way through Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series lately. He has an astronomy background and his novels tend to be all the way at the diamond end of the Mohs Scale of Sci-Fi Hardness. I'm impressed that thus far in the series (I'm almost done with book 4) there's been no faster-than-light travel whatsoever: I take the extreme view that hard sci-fi should never include any form of FTL, because of the consequences for causality. Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky is probably the best slower-than-light space opera I've read, but the Revelation Space novels are in second place.
More generally, Reynolds often gives technical and plausible-sounding justifications for the various advanced technologies that appear in the books, which is a nice bonus for the reader who knows enough physics to make sense of it (but probably impenetrable to others). The problem with this is when I have enough expertise to know why it doesn't work in reality (i.e. the few references to condensed matter physics), I can see behind the curtain and the illusion is ruined. But most of the time it works, and it's a nice way of extending the sense of wonder that can be found in physics.
Unfortunately, this attention to plausible justification in the scientific realm isn't matched in Reynolds' characterization. I'm finding that the biggest flaw in his writing is that his characters' actions often seem insufficiently motivated. Certainly reasons are provided, but they often just don't ring true.
It's appropriate that both his strengths and his weaknesses are in the realm of explanation and justification, because most of his books center around some grand mystery, and much of the urge to keep reading derives from the desire for an explanation. The real climax of the book tends to be the big reveal, although there's usually a nice space battle afterwards. Reynolds has used various devices across his novels to keep the mystery under wraps, some more successful than others. In particular, what he does in the first book in the series (itself called Revelation Space) is so frustrating it feels like being cheated.
Revelation Space alternates between three viewpoint characters who start out in separate places but come together over the course of the novel. And the big mystery (the titular revelation) is actually explained to one of those characters early on. But to keep the reader in the dark, the narrative cuts away right as the explanation starts. Later on, this character's thoughts on this topic are only related in vague terms to keep the secret (and at the same time remind the reader that there is a big secret). Then, when she finally tells the second viewpoint character about it, the story cuts away again! Only when the third character finds out, late in the novel, does the reader get to learn the secret as well.
So why do I say this feels like cheating? There are similar devices that seem legitimate: for instance if a mystery novel briefly takes the viewpoint of the killer during the murder without revealing his identity. I think the problem here, though, is that these are persistent viewpoint characters throughout the book. That gives them a special status, where the reader's immersion in the fictional world is directly connected to the reader's immersion in those characters' minds. To keep the reader out at these critical moments in the story sets up a distance between the character and the reader, and sets the author up as censor rather than storyteller.
That said, I think one could do something interesting with this device in a first-person narration in which the narrator was deliberately keeping secrets from the reader, but in third-person limited mode it was jarring and frustrating. Luckily, Reynolds must have seen the error of his ways, because after his first novel this particular trick hasn't shown up again.
I walked down to Columbus Circle today to shop at Borders for the last time; their going-out-of-business sale was in full swing. This is the second chain bookstore to close in my neighborhood this year, following the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble in January. I went to that liquidation sale, too.
But I didn't buy much at either sale. These days if I'm going to read a book I buy an electronic copy, because I always have it with me and it doesn't take up any space. I saw a hardcover copy of A Dance with Dragons at Borders and almost laughed. Why carry around such an inconveniently huge tome? I imagined struggling to hold it in one hand on a rush hour subway while hanging on to a pole. (I'll probably see someone doing this before the summer is over, but still...) If I buy physical books it's because they have diagrams or maps that won't render well on a Kindle, or because I'll want to page through them quickly. At Borders today I bought a travel guide for an upcoming vacation, and a kanji dictionary.
I suspect that e-reader adoption isn't widespread enough nationwide to account for the collapse of the chain bookstores. (The Upper West Side may be a different story--I see a lot of Kindles on the 1 train.) There's the fact that books have a lot more competition for attention in the age of DVR, Netflix Instant, MMORPGs, and endless other digital diversions. And when people do buy physical books, they can still go to Amazon and save the sales tax.
I have fond memories of the Borders I used to frequent in Connecticut growing up. When I was young "the bookstore" often just meant the crappy Waldenbooks at the mall, so the huge, well-stocked Borders was a definite improvement. It wasn't until I got to Berkeley that I gained an appreciation for the kind of expertly-curated specialty bookstore whose loss people lamented with the arrival of the chains. The Barnes and Noble in Berkeley closed while I was there; I'd like to say it was because of the vibrant independent bookstore culture, but several of the indie shops were closing too. (Anyone know if The Other Change of Hobbit is still open?)
Meanwhile, here on the Upper West Side we still have the 82nd St Barnes and Noble. If it closes too, I'll definitely miss it, but that's mostly nostalgia. I still shop there on occasion, but even if I find something I might want to read, I usually won't take it to the checkout line. Instead I just pull up the title in the Kindle Store using my phone and send myself the sample chapter. The big bookstores might be going away, but I feel like I've already left them behind.
Previously, on Arcane Gazebo... Almost two years ago, I took a strong position against buying George R. R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons until the entire series is complete. Then, I inadvertently made my commitment even stronger by leaving the post at the top of this blog since then.
Last week, the book finally came out. The reviews are reporting that it's terrific, and (importantly) gets the story going again after the narrative sprawl of A Feast for Crows. And so I find myself wanting to read it after all! But how can I repudiate my earlier position without looking like a Romney-esque unprincipled flip-flopper?
The answer will be revealed... below the fold:Continue reading "A Feast of Crow"
Jo Walton at Tor has been blogging about George R. R. Martin's fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. The blog posts start with this one, which is a pretty good description of the series for those of you who haven't read it. I recommend the books, but I also recommend waiting until he actually finishes the series (which could be far in the future, when we're all reading it on our retinal implants while waiting for the mechanic to finish changing the oil in our jetpacks).
Indeed, these were the books that led me to adopt a general policy of not reading any fantasy (or sci-fi) series which had yet to conclude. I had already given up on Robert Jordan, but that's because his books were getting progressively worse. In Martin's case, that wasn't the problem (although A Feast for Crows was a bit disappointing), but the lack of closure at the end of each one, followed by a multi-year wait during which I'd forget important details of the complicated plot, was getting annoying. It became clear that the series would be a much better experience if I could read it all the way to completion in one go. So I'm waiting until I can do that.
Series bloat seems to be endemic in fantasy, for which I mainly blame Tolkien: everyone seems to think they need to write at least a trilogy. But some of my favorite fantasy novels are standalone: Perdido Street Station, The Lies of Locke Lamora. Lately I've been seeking out more like those and avoiding epic series unless I know it's finished. (Which has led me to read less fantasy and more sci-fi, where I tend to find less of a serial tendency.)
Again, it's not that I don't like epic series, it's just that they're more satisfying when I don't have to wait for the next volume. Books of this type, at least the good ones, compel the reader to keep turning the pages and devouring the storyline, and because there's no resolution at the end of each volume, that desire to keep reading persists but is frustrated. Jo Walton talks a bit about this quality:
Firstly, they have a very high "I-want-to-read-it" quotient. This "IWantToReadItosity" is hard to explain, is utterly subjective and is entirely separate from whether a book is actually good. Who can say why Robert Heinlein and Georgette Heyer and Zenna Henderson have it for me and Herman Hesse and Aldous Huxley don't, despite the fact that Hesse and Huxley are major world writers? I'll happily acknowledge that The Glass Bead Game is a better book than Job: A Comedy of Justice, but nevertheless, Job has that IWantToReadItosity, and if you left me in a room with both books and nothing else, it would be Job I'd start first.
Now even within genre this is something that varies a lot between people. The Wheel of Time books don't have it for me, I've read Eye of the World and I didn't care enough to pick up the others. Ditto Harry Potter, where I've read the first three. These are books that have IWantToReadItosity for millions of people, but not for me. The Song of Ice and Fire books do, though, they grab me by the throat. This isn't to say they're gripping in the conventional sense--though they are--because IWantToReadItosity isn't necessarily to do with plot or characters or any of the ways we conventionally divide up literature. It's got to do with whether and how much you want to read it. You know the question "Would you rather read your book or go out with your friends?" Books have IWantToReadItosity if you'd rather read them. There are books I enjoy that I can still happily put down to do something else. A Game of Thrones is eight hundred pages long, and I've read it six times, but even so, every time I put the bookmark in, I put it in reluctantly.
I was thinking a bit about her comment that IWantToReadItosity (we need a better name for this) is separate from whether a book is actually good. And certainly it's easy to think of really terrible books that have it (The Da Vinci Code, for example), and great books that don't (much of what we were assigned in high school). In fact, there's a strain of thought that Great Literature should be difficult and challenging, and therefore shouldn't have IWantToReadItosity. I don't think that's true, though. It's not that the two qualities are anticorrelated, they are just orthogonal. I even came up with a diagram to illustrate this:
Which is not to say that Haruki Murakami is a better writer than Melville, just that reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a different experience from reading Moby-Dick. (And Wind-Up Bird really is difficult, just not because of entire chapters dedicated to the details of the whaling industry.) However, it is to say that these guys are both better writers than Ayn Rand, because she's pretty bad.
Discussion is open: what books in the literary canon have IWantToReadItosity? And what are some standalone fantasy novels or completed series I should read?
I've been debating whether to buy a Kindle, and so the famous Nicholson Baker review in The New Yorker was of interest as one of the more high-profile negative reviews of the device. Although I don't really believe him when he says that funny passages get less funny when read on a Kindle, he mentions some other downsides like the (so far) limited library and the DRM concerns. These seemed like good points.
To address his aesthetic objections to the device, he goes on to suggest downloading the Kindle app for the iPhone instead. I ignored this advice at first, but some time later my curiosity got the better of me and I got the app. It's free, after all, and would be a good way to try the format. And I was pleased to see that there are a few books available for free. Mostly the initial volumes of various long-running series, under the favorite business model of drug dealers everywhere. (I went for His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novick; a better choice from the free selection is Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice, but I'd already read it.) So I was able to follow Baker's suggestion at no cost. Still, I thought, it seemed crazy. I'd much rather read on the book-sized Kindle. Who wants to read an entire novel on the tiny iPhone screen, flipping pages every paragraph?
The answer, apparently, is me. The Kindle app is completely awesome, and I feel like it's doubled the utility of my iPhone. It has one gigantic advantage over the actual Kindle that Baker doesn't even mention: if I owned a Kindle, I would probably take it with me on vacation, or on long train rides, but I wouldn't carry it around with me all the time, since it's not small enough to fit in a pocket. But the iPhone I already carry with me everywhere. Which means that now, I always have a book to read. If I find myself waiting in line, or on the subway, or at the doctor's office, I can just start reading. I even catch myself looking forward to waiting for something so I can read a few more pages. Sure, before the Kindle I could surf the net or play games on the iPhone, but for waits of longer than a few minutes, being able to dive into a book is much better.
So, I'm a convert. I finished His Majesty's Dragon tonight, and I'm shopping right now for my next book. There is one problem, though. Sometimes I've been reading, say on the subway, and I get to my stop in the middle of a chapter. I walk home from the station, and when I get home I naturally want to continue reading. But who wants to read on the tiny iPhone screen? If only I had some kind of book-sized device that would automatically sync with the page I'm on...
And that, of course, is why Amazon gives away the iPhone app for free.
I'm off to New York this week to look for housing; to put me in the right frame of mind, I'd like to hear suggestions of iconic portrayals of NYC (particularly Manhattan) in fiction. Accuracy of the portrayal is less important than style, but if it captures the spirit of the city in some sense that's a bonus. In any case the city shouldn't just be the setting (Wikipedia has a whole category devoted to this); New York should be somehow central to the story or thematically important. Some ideas (just off the top of my head):
Please suggest more, and I will check out the ones I haven't seen/read so as to be up to speed on the cultural connections to my new location.
Bonus round: iconic portrayals of Wall Street or the finance industry in particular, such as the Oliver Stone film Wall Street.
Just a post to keep the page alive—I'm back in Berkeley from Thanksgiving (in Vegas) and my high school reunion (in Connecticut), but now I really need to finish my thesis very soon. A couple notes from yesterday:
An easy way to get the full-service treatment from the TSA is try to get through security with an expired driver's license (even if it only expired three days ago). This also entailed filing some kind of form with my name on it so I'm probably on the watch list now. However, as I learned Thursday, flying on the day it expires is allowed. Now I have to fit in a trip to the DMV, and renewing my license now will ensure that I end up taking a job in some other state, requiring me to do it again in a few months.
I had to make two stops on my way back from Connecticut: my actual connection in Philadelphia, and an "unscheduled fuel stop" in Denver. (I myself sometimes make unscheduled fuel stops in my car, but when the airlines do it I find it somewhat worrisome.) With computer use prohibited during all the takeoffs and landings I had lots of time when I was forced to do something other than work on my thesis, and I took the opportunity to finally read Philip K. Dick's classic novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which as you probably all know was the inspiration for Blade Runner). I liked it, and while it was a short novel with a light prose style, it was extremely rich and coherent thematically. The book is concerned with the nature of the distinction between "real" and "artificial", and addresses this from many directions at once, with almost every principal element of the plot and the setting illuminating a different aspect. I'm inclined to write a full review, but I don't have time so I'll stop here and get back to work.
I was alerted (thanks Kate!) to Scott Lynch's just-released novel Red Seas Under Red Skies, which looks like more swashbuckling piratey fun in the vein of some of my other recent reading. But it's the second in a series, so I first picked up its predecessor. This post is a spoiler-free review.
Scott Lynch: The Lies of Locke Lamora
At first I didn't think much of the fact that the main character's name is Locke; it's an actual name with an old-timey sound, evoking Enlightenment philosophers and spurious silent e's, and so it's not too surprising to see it used in fantasy. But when it turned out that Locke Lamora is a gentleman thief with a heart of gold who pines over his lost love, I started to wonder if this weren't a deliberate reference to another character of that name. Nevertheless, I was willing to extend the benefit of the doubt... until I read the chapter where he steals the clothes off a merchant.
This is not to say that the character is lifted directly from his video game counterpart; Locke Lamora has his own style, perpetrating elaborate and lucrative scams on the nobility of his home city Camorr. The first chapter opens in the middle of one such plot, and depicts the unfolding con with a Tarantino-esque nonlinearity, in which the game only becomes clear when the pieces are assembled at the end of the chapter. It's a nice trick for keeping up the readers in the dark when the protagonists have all the information, and is used fairly often early in the book.
However, Locke gets caught up in much more serious business in the course of executing his latest scheme, and about halfway through the book the story becomes correspondingly darker. The narrative structure likewise becomes more linear as Locke loses control of the situation. The pace becomes faster and faster until all the various plot threads come together in a frantic finale.
It's not a deep book, but it's a very well plotted and gripping thriller, one that I thoroughly enjoyed and devoured in three days. The book shares many aspects of its protagonist: clever and witty, a flair for the dramatic, full of surprises. And, well, the stealing: aside from the familiarity of Locke himself, the city of Camorr is a fantasy version of Venice, complete with near-Italian names and phrases (and some appropriate geographical neighbors); several of the characters hew to well-known archetypes (e.g. the mob boss Capa Brasavi); the fantasy elements need little explanation as they are for the most part standard tropes. But I think this is just a way for Lynch to avoid spending too much time on world-building and get right to the action. For presumably the same reason, the backstory gets chopped up and presented in short interludes between chapters. All this could be cause for complaint, except that it's assembled in a very compelling and effective manner. The interludes are usually relevant to whatever's happening in the main story at the moment, but I really liked one in particular, placed just after a cliffhanger ending to a chapter, that ended up paralleling the action very nicely.
What Lynch is really going for is not a grand, sweeping epic, but the fantasy equivalent of a heist movie or gangster film. (The reviewers quoted in the front of the book liked to cite Ocean's Eleven, but that comparison seems to be more suited to the second novel where the characters reportedly rob a casino.) The novel succeeds admirably, both at achieving a cinematic feel and at maintaining the requisite pace and suspense. Highly recommended.
Since I haven't posted in forever, here's some of the stuff I've been doing instead:
(It is apparently Internet Law that these posts have titles of the form "Harry Potter and the [adjective] [noun]", but that annoys me so I'm not going to do it.)
If I'm going to post about Harry Potter before the new book comes out, I guess I'd better do it now. The truth is that I've never been excited enough about the series to stay current with it, and am generally one or two books behind (I still haven't read the sixth volume). I read the first four while studying at Cambridge, which was a nice combination, and found them to be enjoyable light reading, but nothing extraordinary. So I never got pulled into the cultural phenomenon, and won't be attending any midnight release parties.
One of the most contentious questions in the online world of textual interpretation (blogging, fan fiction, and the like) concerns the moral status of Severus Snape, Harry’s “Defense Against the Dark Arts” teacher. Snape is the only character whose moral status has remained unknown through the series: while this greasy-haired teacher appears on the surface to be more evil than good, by the end of the sixth book the reader is still left questioning Snape’s motives and disposition.
There's a passage in Plato's Republic about how the true test of morality is whether a person can be good even if everyone is convinced he's evil. That's the sort of position Snape's in (if he's actually good), and so it's the ultimate test of his rejection of Voldemort. And as the essay I linked above mentions, it's a point about the transparency of evil. One of the complaints raised against The Lord of the Rings when the movies came out was that good is associated with beauty and evil with ugliness—you can tell who's evil just by looking. In Harry Potter, it's not so easy: people you hate, even justifiably (Snape really is kind of an asshole), are not necessarily evil, and may even be on your side.
So, as should be obvious by now, I'm in the "Trust Snape" camp, and I may have to read the last two books just to find out how it goes.
Will I be able to post one long-form review per week? Almost certainly not, but it's a good target to aim for.
The choice of subject for this installment reveals how far behind the times I am; the last volume in the trilogy was published ten years ago. However, I now have only four more books to go before I catch up to the ones that my friend helpfully lent to me (numbers 8 and 9 in the overall continuity).
Robin Hobb: The Farseer Trilogy
(Assassin's Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin's Quest)
The trilogy follows a very standard pattern: book one introduces all the major characters and conflicts, and traces the overall plot arc on a smaller scale; book two builds up to a very dark ending in which all seems lost; and in book three the heroes come back to save the day. Each book is also written in a slightly different mode, as the titles suggest: Apprentice is the origin story, describing FitzChivalry's childhood and training; Royal Assassin is a book of court intrigue; and Quest is, well, the quest, traveling through unmapped forests and magical cities in search of a way to Save the Kingdom.
So far this all sounds very generic; what makes this more than boilerplate fantasy are the characters. It's a distressingly common trend in epic fantasy to introduce a vast cast of characters, most of which the reader can't keep track of and the author doesn't have time to develop. Hobb takes the opposite approach and focuses tightly on a small number of characters personally connected to the protagonist, giving them three-dimensional personalities and interesting story arcs of their own. (She has a slightly annoying tendency of making nearly all female characters smarter and more perceptive than the males, but maybe this should be excused since the reverse is regrettably often true in this historically male-dominated genre.)
One structural choice that undoubtedly contributed to this focus is to use first-person narration from FitzChivalry's perspective throughout the series. FitzChivalry is frequently an unreliable narrator, and this is sometimes employed in an interesting way, such as when the reader can infer a (magical or chemical) change in his state of mind from changes in the narrative quality. Other times it's simply frustrating: it took me a long time to get started in the first book, largely due to the fact that 6-year-old Fitz has no idea what's going on. And the reader can generally look forward to figuring out any plot development at least a paragraph and sometimes whole chapters before Fitz does, as he is the most clueless of the Clueless Males in the story. If you're the type of person who yells advice at the screen when watching horror movies, consider yourself warned.
Overall I thought it was a strong entry into the genre, despite a few annoying quirks. I found it enjoyable enough to move on to the next trilogy in the same setting, which appears to replace the ninjas with pirates. (Ok, the assassins of the first trilogy were nothing like ninjas. But still, pirates!)
Further discussion will require spoilers, so I've put it below the fold. If you're reading this on RSS you might not see the break, so be warned: spoilers ahead.
Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday. I've always heard he was a great novelist, but haven't ever read any of his books—the only work of his that I've read is the short story "Harrison Bergeron". I think Slaughterhouse Five is supposed to be the canonical Vonnegut book, maybe I should pick up a copy.
I was reading wigu when something improbable happened: I actually noticed a banner ad. (My brain's banner ad filter has been extremely good since about 1997.) It was an ad for t-shirt shop Seibei, and the reason I noticed it is that it had a list of topics which included "Murakami". Of course this was Haruki Murakami, one of my favorite writers (as opposed to pulp novelist Ryu Murakami). Sadly, the shirt in question doesn't appeal to me—I guess I'm not that fond of sandwiches.
The shirt is a reference to the (very) short story, "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning", which can be found online and which you should all read. It can also be found in the collection The Elephant Vanishes. He's got a new collection of short stories out, which I haven't picked up yet (because it's still in hardcover), but I'm looking forward to it.
There was an interview with Murakami recently in the Wall Street Journal (via JSpur), but I'm pretty sure it's behind their subscription wall so I can't link to it.
In conclusion, better Murakami t-shirts are needed.
UPDATE: Here's the WSJ piece, thanks again to JSpur.
Like the opposite of Amazon book recommendations, LibraryThing's UnSuggester lists books that are unlikely to be found in the same library as a given title. I entered one of my favorite books, Haruki Murakami's masterpiece of surrealist fiction The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and was amused to get a list of mostly Christian devotional books. It's not that Wind-Up Bird is anti-religious in any way, so I imagine it's a result of demographics more than anything else. (Via Unfogged.)
Last.fm should do a version of this for music.
Here's an attempt to take a chunk out of my review backlog, and post an open thread for the first time in a while. I've been seriously neglecting the blog lately, as part of a larger pattern of neglecting most of my personal projects in favor of general indolence. I have ambitions of getting back to posting regularly, but it will depend somewhat on inspiration, and the holidays usually disrupt posting anyway.
Lots of high ratings here, partly because I'm prioritizing items I've really liked recently.
The Prestige: A movie notable for casting David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, and for including the back of Josh's head in the trailer (reports that he appears in the film itself are unconfirmed). The plot itself is centered around two feuding stage magicians in Victorian England who make escalating attacks on each other both within and outside their respective shows. The film opens with Borden (Christian Bale) awaiting a death sentence for the murder of Angier (Hugh Jackman), and the bulk of the story is told in (sometimes nested) flashback. The movie is intricate and clever, but it also telegraphs its secrets so that the alert viewer will figure them out before the final reveal. Still, the ending was well-done even if it wasn't a surprise, and the film as a whole is nicely coherent and thematically dense. Rating: 4/5
Arrested Development - Season Two: Everything I said about the first season applies, only more so: it's even funnier and more cleverly written this time around. The show takes its mastery of the running joke to a new level, and its self-referential humor gets even denser. This show builds up jokes the way a dramatic series builds up the plot, so that it just gets funnier as the season progresses. Rating: 4.5/5
Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria: I don't know how Tri-Ace does it but I find every one of their games extremely addictive. (Except for the original Star Ocean, and Radiata Stories, neither of which I've played.) This game is no exception and devoured approximately 100 hours of my free time over a relatively short span of weeks. It's a worthy successor to the brilliant Valkyrie Profile, maintaining the unique feel of the original while adding its own twists on the gameplay. The combat system in particular is much more sophisticated, and makes for very engaging battles. The side-scrolling dungeon exploration mode remains, but with a teleportation mechanic that allows for more complex (and sometimes maddening) puzzles. What it lacks compared to the original is mostly aesthetic: I found the music and art to be mostly inferior (although there are some expections); the beautiful 2D backdrops of Valkyrie Profile have been replaced by more realistic 3D settings (although, true to the profile concept, movement is still restricted to 2D). In certain locations, however, the graphics are truly spectacular and surpass any setting of the original. Overall, my aesthetic complaints are minor, and this is one of the best games I've played in a while. Rating: 4.5/5
Tad Williams: War of the Flowers: A rare standalone novel from Tad Williams, this one starts in familiar territory—present-day San Francisco—and then transports its slacker protagonist into the world of Faerie. Williams has imagined Faerie as having experienced societal and technological changes parallel to those in the human world; consequently his fairyland is an urbanized, deforested place in the midst of environmental and political crisis. An allegorical reading of the setting is straightforward; more interesting is the personal progress of the hero as learns how he fits in to this world. I found the prose a bit cumbersome, and the pace lags at times, but when it picks up it's quite good, and the plot takes some nice unexpected twists. Rating: 3.5/5
The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America: Although it's no secret that I like this album, my review of it is overdue. It's excellent, just a notch below last year's Separation Sunday (which was my pick for album of the year). This album is less like a story than its predecessor, with Craig Finn actually singing instead of just talking most of the time, and the songs relating individual vignettes rather than a single overarching narrative. The album starts out very strong with "Stuck Between Stations"; this and the next two songs are among the best on the record, along with "You Can Make Him Like You" and a surprise acoustic turn on "Citrus". ("Chips Ahoy!", which follows the first track, can be downloaded here.) The slower ballad "First Night" fell a bit flat, however, and I'm not wild about "Chillout Tent". Even with these weak moments, though, the Hold Steady have once again recorded one of the best albums of the year. Rating: 4.5/5
George W. Bush reading Albert Camus has been the source of a lot of humor lately: this piece in The American Prospect is especially good.
I meant to post some filler-type stuff before I left, but lab priorities took over that time. Anyway, my flight to New York was uneventful and I can post the filler now that I'm here. A Friday Random 10, and below the fold, the key to that post from last week with the first lines of favorite books.
This one might have made for an interesting divination. Anyway, the books from last week:Continue reading "Friday Random 10, plus book answers"
I found this meme over at LiveJournal: pick 10 favorite books and list the first lines of each. Here's my list, in alphabetical order by author's family name.
Guess the sources in the comments. Many of these will be easy for this audience. #9 is definitely the easiest; the hardest may be #4 since the line itself is pretty generic. Googling is obviously cheating but checking your own bookshelf probably not.
I guess some comments are being posted anonymously even when the name is filled in? I've tweaked the template but I'm not sure if this solved the problem; I'm keeping an eye on it. Meanwhile, this blog now has a LiveJournal feed here.
It seems like it's been a slow period for new music lately (hence no music review this week), but the new TV on the Radio album is coming out soon. There's been a ridiculous amount of buzz about this album, but they were awesome enough at Coachella that the hype might be accurate.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest: I put on my eyepatch and bandana Friday night and headed out for some good piratey escapism. Unfortunately about the first hour and a half of this movie were insufficiently interesting and I found my mind wandering back to the real world. Doubly unfortunately, as a result of the unfreezing process the guy directly behind me had no inner monologue and was having trouble controlling the volume of his voice, so we were regaled with an endless series of "UH-OH!" and "OH NO!" and laughter at inappropriate moments. What I really wanted to do was turn around and say "Arr, matey, still yer tongue or I'll cut it out and feed it to th' sharks" but somehow I restrained myself. Um, anyway, the extended action sequence at the end of the movie acheived an acceptable level of swashbucklery, so I wasn't entirely dissatisfied. And of course Johnny Depp is awesome. But the first movie was better. Rating: 3/5
Jonathan Lethem: Gun, With Occasional Music: (Thanks to Jolene for recommending this.) After seeing Brick I was ready for more noir in unusual settings, and this book delivered with a detective story in a near-future dystopian Oakland. The fun thing about a book set in the East Bay is that many of the locations are familiar, so when the protagonist visits the El Cerrito hills or 59th and Telegraph I can visualize it exactly. Except with
Uplifted "evolved" animals walking around. Also, it is illegal to ask questions without a license, hence P.I. is "private inquisitor", and the government encourages the use of designer drugs to keep the population docile. The setting is obviously not intended to be a realistic possible future, but rather to instill a sense of confusion and alienation in the reader while fitting in with noir conventions. A very nice touch was that late in the narrative, a twist occurs which puts the detective in the same position as the reader with respect to the oddities of the future society. Any good noir story should have the narrator employ colorful and witty language, and Lethem is very good at this; I kept turning the pages looking for the next clever line as much as for the next plot twist. Rating: 4/5
My intention for the short capsule book reviews in the open threads is simply to say whether or not I liked the book in question. For Cory Doctorow's novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, I wanted to comment further on some of the themes present there, so I've put this commentary in a separate post (i.e. this one). Specifically, many of the characters in the novel have supernatural origins and are trying to fit into mundane human society; however, their inherent weirdness tends to leave them feeling like outsiders. One of the things that makes this novel appealing is that the approaches the various characters take to their outsider status are familiar to those of us who are weird in ordinary, non-supernatural ways: indeed, the characters nearly provide an exhaustive list of the ways weird people deal with mainstream society. I'm a total amateur when it comes to literary criticism, but this was a particularly interesting topic to me as someone who has taken several of these approaches over the years.
Some spoilers below the fold.Continue reading "Weirdness and the outsider in Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town"
This completes my backlog of books to review, so now I need to read some more. Fortunately, there are a number of intriguing suggestions left from the summer reading thread...
Cory Doctorow: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town: I read Cory Doctorow pretty regularly on Boing Boing, but I hadn't tried his fiction before. This one looked appealingly surreal, with a protagonist whose parents are a mountain and a washing machine, so I picked it up. The plot is straightforward: Alan is trying to fit into society despite his bizarre origins, but is being stalked by his murderous, undead brother. This provides the motivation for a study of weirdness and dealing with outsider status that forms the larger theme of the book. (I have much more to say on this topic but I intend to put it in a separate post.) There are also a couple of subplots, one of them being a charming love story, and the other being an unnecessary geek-out involving free wi-fi in Toronto, during which the characters frequently seem to be talking in Cory Doctorow's Boing Boing voice. The main story was very entertaining, however, and led to some further thoughts which I'll hopefully get around to posting. I'll also mention that the book is available for free download in a variety of formats at Cory Doctorow's website. (I bought a physical copy, because like Alan I enjoy having actual books on my shelf.) Rating: 3.5/5
Camera Obscura: Let's Get Out Of This Country: This CD makes me want to dance. It's not remotely dance rock in the sense of, say, Ladytron—in fact it's indie pop from Glasgow, and that other Glasgow band Belle & Sebastian is a much more apt comparison—but I could definitely practice some of my recently-learned ballroom steps to a few of these songs. The cleverly-named "Tears for Affairs" is suitable for cha-cha, and "The False Contender" is a waltz. The album as a whole has a fun, light feel; although there are no truly spectacular tracks that beg to be put on repeat, it's a nice CD to play all the way through, and you'll be left with a calm feeling afterwards. Rating: 3.5/5
After I wrote my review of Norwegian Wood it occurred to me that I could extend it to a discussion thread. We've already discussed Great American Novels, but for this one put questions of literary merit aside (as well as questions of American-ness) and instead think about books that seemed to contain part of your own essence. Books that, because of characters or setting or writing style, captured some element you find in yourself. What book would you give someone to help them understand you better? In short, what books resonate with you? I've already said Norwegian Wood was this way for me, now I want to hear your picks.
This topic could easily be extended other media as well: movies, music, art...
First: Today's Dinosaur Comics strip is excellent.
I have several books to review but I'll do one per week to spread them out a bit.
John Burdett: Bangkok 8: I don't read a lot of mystery novels, so I'm trying to remember what led me to pick this one up. I think it was an Amazon recommendation. The novel is set in Bangkok's 8th precinct and revolves around a U.S. Marine who is killed by snakes that were planted in his car. (Snakes In A Car!) Ultimately I found the mystery aspect less compelling than the novel as a cultural study; the city of Bangkok is a rich and interesting setting, and the protagonist, a devout Buddhist working in a thoroughly corrupt police force, was a nice twist on the usual detective hero. This was a detective who saw everything in terms of Buddhist mysticism, detecting the past incarnations of the souls he encountered, and for much of the novel it's an open question whether he really has some supernatural insight or if this is just the way he sees the world. In the end this question is settled somewhat more definitively than some of the central plot points. Rating: 3.5/5
Ellen Allien & Apparat: Orchestra of Bubbles: This is some very good German techno, taut and ominous, evocative of alien landscapes or city lights viewed from far off. It's a fairly coherent album, good for playing all the way through late at night. "Metric" is one of the standout tracks. Rating: 4/5
I have returned from Mexico, where I was so lazy as to not even open my computer the entire time, hence the lack of blogging. I went from a hot, clear day in Cabo San Lucas to a fogged-in and chilly Berkeley; often what happens is that I'll return to much better weather than I had on vacation, but not this time.
I tried to post from the Phoenix airport (which had free wi-fi) but was prevented from doing so by a problem with the network switch in my office in Berkeley. Fortunately I did get the chance to delete the 45 spam comments that had accumulated just before the site went down.
I like to take Murakami with me when I travel internationally; for Japan it was Sputnik Sweetheart and for Italy it was Kafka on the Shore. This time it was Norwegian Wood, which I finished this morning. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle remains my favorite of his novels, but Norwegian Wood is the one that most resonated with me; I saw a lot of myself in the main character and parts of me in many of the other characters, too. Anyway, I always thought people who initiate conversations with strangers on the BART are weird, but today I joined their ranks. A woman sat down next to me and opened a book. I glanced over from my own book (I had moved on to Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow), read one line of dialogue, and recognized it as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. So I had to take off my earbuds and tell her that it was one of my Favorite Books Ever. (Her favorite Murakami novel, as it turns out, is Norwegian Wood.) Maybe some of that extraversion from the paternal side of my family rubbed off on me this week.
So, since I've been completely out of touch for five days: what did I miss?
I'm off to Cabo San Lucas today, so here's an open thread. I'll be back Friday, but I expect to have some form of internet access at the hotel so I may check in here. My poolside reading list: Sheri S. Tepper, Grass (80% complete); Jon Burdett, Bangkok 8 (50% complete); Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood; Cory Doctorow, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. (I will also note that the bookstore I went to yesterday was very good at not having specific titles recommended in the summer reading thread, despite having other books by the same authors.) Double music review this week due to the absence of one last week.
Snow Patrol: Eyes Open: I was disappointed in this album on first listen—it's not as good as their previous full-length Final Straw, and doesn't have any track as good as "Run" or "Chocolate". But after hearing it a few more times I realized that it's still pretty good. Most of the songs are clean-sounding, heartfelt anthems, more in the style of "Run" than "Tiny Little Fractures". Occasionally this gets boring ("You Could Be Happy") but most of the time it works. "Set The Fire To The Third Bar" is one that worked better than most. Rating: 3.5/5
Art Brut: Bang Bang Rock & Roll: As I noted when I saw them at Coachella, this is a very funny band. Somewhere between the Hold Steady and Monty Python, the band features excellent rock instrumentation beneath lyrics half-sung and half-spoken with goofy sincerity by Eddie Argos. The opening track, "Formed a Band", declares, "Look at us! We formed a band!" and announces their intention to appear on Top of the Pops; this latter becomes something of a recurring theme. I can identify with the character in "My Little Brother" who has "just discovered rock and roll", and in "Good Weekend" the singer's glee at having a new girlfriend is infectious. ("I've seen her naked—twice!") It's tough to pick a favorite track here, but I might go with "18,000 Lira" which describes a group of inept bank robbers preparing for a heist. I'd heard the album was good when it was only available as an import, but I held off for the U.S. version which included three new tracks: among them, "Really Bad Weekend" is one of the best songs on the record. Rating: 4/5
I skipped the open thread this week, but you can consider this a general media thread. Some links, none of which are complimentary of the subject material:
I can't believe I haven't linked Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog yet. This is definitely the funniest Middle English blog out there. In a recent post, he rewrites the opening of The Da Vinci Code in the style of the Canterbury Tales. An excerpt:
So Sauyniere lyk Sinon storye tolde
False as the devil, and seyde yt forth ful bolde
For he hadde yt rehersd many a yeer
(Ye notice, o myn gentil rederes deere,
Ich telle yow nat of what thys ‘thyng’ might be-
Yt ys a tricke poetic vsid by me
To kepe yow yn confusioun most plesynge
Thurgh alle thys vague and nonspecific tesyng).
Keep the book recommendations coming! I'm tempted to follow Kevin Drum (and several other bloggers) and read all the Hugo nominees. (I've already got two down.) Even better would be to get ahead of the curve and read one of next year's Hugo nominees, but that's a little harder to figure out. Meanwhile, all of the noir recommendations are especially timely given the movie I ended up seeing Friday night:
Brick: A detective noir film, complete with complicated plots, beautiful and mysterious women, and an investigator with a troubled past who gets beaten up a lot. The characters all talk and act like they're in a 1950's noir flick. There's a gimmick here, however, which is that the film is set at a high school with students as the principal characters. This could have come off as ridiculous, but the film does an excellent job with this juxtaposition, sometimes making it completely believable and seamless, and other times playing the contrast for laughs. Much like the best episodes of Buffy, the high school is used as a rich source of archetypes, and the noir setting works as a metaphor for the usual struggles of adolescence. All that aside, I love a good detective story, and the movie delivers in that department as well. Rating: 4/5
Calexico: Garden Ruin: I first encountered Calexico through their collaboration with Iron & Wine last year. In fact, their sound is something like Iron & Wine transplanted to the southwestern states. (I'm guessing the name of the band is a blend of "California" and "Mexico".) Calexico's latest album is a solid addition to their catalog, moving between a variety of styles—some songs sound more country, some have a more Mexican sound, and the last track "All Systems Red" has more of a straight rock sound. The album doesn't quite reach the heights of In the Reins, but it's a good listen. "Roka" wouldn't be out of place on a Robert Rodriguez soundtrack. Rating: 3.5/5
It's another media thread, but at least the medium under discussion is different. As I mentioned in an earlier comment thread, I will be traveling quite a bit over the next four weeks. The first trip, to Pasadena for Caltech's alumni weekend next week, will merely involve a lot of driving, but the others will require air travel. And while the Nintendo DS remains tempting, I'm also looking for some entertainment that doesn't run on batteries and can be used during takeoff and landing. So, anyone have summer reading recommendations?
To narrow the field a bit, a few preferences (but feel free to violate any or all of them in your recommendations): recent books preferred to older ones, paperback preferred to hardcover, fiction preferred to non-fiction. (Not that I have anything against non-fiction in general, but I'm not usually inclined to read about Middle East foreign policy when I'm sitting on the beach.) Sci-fi and fantasy are the genres I usually read, but other genres or non-genre fiction are ok too.
Since I should provide some recommendations of my own: the best book I've read so far this year has been Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, and my favorite book from last year was Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (which I read during last summer's travels).
The above was the title of a slide in Jorge Cham's talk yesterday (discussed below). The slide cited four films: The Seniors (1978), Real Genius (1985) [this one prompted cheering from the audience], A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Hulk (2003). This is a pretty good list already, but I suspect there are more, and it seems like a good topic for a Friday thread. Make suggestions in the comments. No need to stick to film, either: it was at least implied that Fred was previously a physics grad student in Angel, and there are probably plenty of novels with grad student characters (some of them not written by Neal Stephenson).
For that matter, there are lots of mad scientists but rarely do you see their grad students. It's hard to imagine they're doing all that mad science themselves. Sure, Dr. Frankenstein had Igor, but Igor seems like more of a postdoc. And Frankenstein operates the apparatus himself—what kind of PI does that? A more realistic portrayal would be something like:
[Dr. Frankenstein's group meeting. Igor, exhausted from taking data all night, presents a graph.]
Igor: So the data clearly indicate increased mobility of the subject.
Frankenstein: IT'S ALIVE! [pause] Start writing it up, I want to submit this to Physical Reanimation Letters by next week.
Having just finished reading Spin (which I reviewed below) I found myself thinking about timescales. The novel did a good job of bringing long timescales into perspective, but what about short ones? In the book, the ratio between Earth time and solar time was about 108, one hundred million years outside the earth to each year in the Spin, or 3.17 years every second. This was an enormous ratio, with any timescale relevant to human civilization passing by in less than a day. It was mind-boggling to read about in the book. But I realized that I was sitting in the lab doing a diagnostic measurement in which I watched the response of a SQUID to an applied microwave field, and my software was acquiring about one point every second, at nanosecond resolution. That's a ratio of 109, ten times greater than the ratio in Spin. I usually don't think much about how long a nanosecond is, but it's really astonishingly short—as far removed from normal human timescales as stellar lifetimes.
It's not just in my lab—with gigahertz processors in wide usage, much of modern technology runs on nanosecond timescales. (And Windows still manages to be frustratingly slow at times, with billions of clock ticks in a second to work with.) Faster timescales are a bit harder to get to, at least in semiconductor electronics. The pulse generator I use in qubit experiments has a time resolution of 5 picoseconds, which always impresses me until I remember that the accuracy is only 250 ps. There's some research into a faster electronics technology using superconducting circuits and flux quantization, called Rapid Single Flux Quantum (RSFQ), which I believe gets to picosecond timescales. Berkeley professor emeritus Ted Van Duzer has been involved in this.
Anyway, I'm not sure I have much more insight into fast timescales than slow ones, but at least they're more accessible.
I'll be going to Coachella this weekend, and I will definitely be blogging about it afterwards. I may try to do some liveblogging by phone barring technical problems.
Robert Charles Wilson: Spin: Next time Zifnab recommends a book I'm just going to clear my weekend schedule. This novel was nearly impossible to put down and I devoured it in two sittings over the last two days, mainly at the cost of sleep. The central premise is very compelling: an unknown entity enshrouds the Earth in a bubble that alters the flow of time inside, so that for every year that passes on Earth a hundred million years elapse outside. The efforts of human scientists to understand and work around this, and the reaction of society to the event and the threat of the expanding sun, were what kept me turning the pages. Unlike the last sci-fi novel I read, this one had thought through the science a little more carefully, and most of the issues that came to mind related to slowing down time on the Earth were addressed in the book. (I suspect there are some problems related to general relativity with the way the Spin worked, but I've not studied GR.) I also felt that the author had an astute political eye; depictions of societal development under the Spin were entirely plausible.
On the other hand, I didn't like the characters very much. I'm not sure they were meant to be likable—one of the recurring themes is the psychological stress imposed on the generation growing up under the Spin, and the Spin itself makes a good metaphor for the emotional difficulties of the protagonist. But the fact that I found him annoying meant that I didn't care very much about the more personal storylines, and preferred to read about the large-scale effects of the Spin and the central mysteries of the book. Fortunately, there was plenty of interest to be found there.
The book has some comments to make on sustainability, and even though the ending seems optimistic, it was only optimistic in the context of the fictional universe, whereas back in the real world we're still pretty much fucked when the planet runs out of resources. It's sobering to come away from the novel and realize that we may really be facing the end of the world in a few decades, albeit via resource exhaustion or global warming rather than an expanding sun. Rating: 4/5
Pretty Girls Make Graves: Élan Vital: Like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, PGMG have calmed down a bit, but in this case it has led to their best album yet. Their tone has moved from angry to confident, while mostly preserving the dark elements of the music. I was unimpressed by "The Nocturnal House", which was released early and appears as the opening track, but it is followed by four excellent songs. "Pyrite Pedestal" is my favorite of this set and of the album, but labor anthem "Parade" is nearly as good. The second half of the disc (after an interlude) is not quite as strong as the first, but is notable for "Pictures of a Night Scene" and "Selling the Wind", the latter featuring an accordion and sufficiently piratey lyrics to be added to my Sept. 19 playlist. I feel like there's a bit of a fall-off in quality for the final two songs, but the initial quality level is very high indeed. Rating: 4.5/5
It's spring break, but I don't have any vacation plans. I do have some travel lined up later on this spring: I bought my tickets for Coachella so I'll be seeing some of you there next month.
The Hills Have Eyes: This movie was so bad I'm just going to leave V for Vendetta on the sidebar. Normally I like horror flicks, but this one seemed unclear on the concept. Specifically, the film confuses "scary" with "gross", and so we get a lot of gore and ugly mutants but not a lot of suspense. Instead of being frightening the experience was merely unpleasant, and it wasn't even the most disgusting thing I'd seen all week (David Bowie's eyeball hanging out of its socket being the clear winner there). The protagonists are dumb even by horror movie standards—Roger Ebert writes pretty much his entire review on how dumb they are—and some of them are sufficiently annoying that I was rooting for the mutants within ten minutes or so. Some critics have suggested that the movie is an allegory for the Iraq war. Such a film would have been much more interesting; in reality the movie drags out a few political stereotypes but doesn't sign on to an agenda or pursue anything as sophisticated as an allegory.
Charles Stross:Iron Sunrise: Here's the problem with "hard sci-fi": sometimes the author knows just enough physics to get it wrong. For example: this novel's faster-than-light communication scheme involving EPR-style entangled qubits. Now, I'm one of the few readers of this book who actually has a pair of entangled1 qubits in his2 basement. But any competent physicist should know that information can't be transferred this way—you just get correlated random numbers. (You can make a one-time pad this way for quantum cryptography, and indeed this has been done.)
All this shows is that I'm a big nerd. Once I stopping thinking very hard about the physics in the book, it turned into a fun pulp novel, with spies, assassins, conspiracies, and Nazi villains (or near enough). Once the plot really got going I was hooked, and it was an excellent way to pass the time while I was stuck in the airport last weekend. One non-science complaint I had was that the plot twists were all telegraphed in advance, so there weren't any big surprises. However, the characters were well-written and just reading about their interactions was fun.
1It's actually debatable whether they are entangled (I suspect they are) but they are definitely coupled. More on this in an upcoming post.
2Actually, UC Berkeley's basement.
Arab Strap: The Last Romance: I felt like I am not nearly bitter enough to appreciate this album properly. And this is supposed to be one of Arab Strap's more uplifting records! Well, the tone does get happier as the CD plays, culminating in the nearly-triumphant "There Is No Ending". (The US version of the album has two bonus tracks, but that one is clearly the end of the album.) Overall this is a decent album with a few excellent tracks: the first song and the aforementioned last song; another one I like is "Don't Ask Me To Dance". For the most part I like the darker music, which probably means I should check out their other records which are supposed to be along the same lines. (This purchase finally prompted me to find out that the Belle & Sebastian album The Boy With The Arab Strap was named after this band, and not the other way around.)
My trip back from Baltimore took about 12 hours longer than it should have, but I eventually made it back. Despite attempts to catch up on sleep I still feel like I'm recovering—it was a busy week.
V for Vendetta: This is a powerful movie that mostly does a good job blending action/suspense with a political message. The setting is a near-future Britain which has slid into fascism after the deterioration of Iraq and some high-casualty terrorist attacks. (Meanwhile the United States has fallen into anarchy and civil war.) The plot centers around the masked-and-caped V, who pursues a personal vendetta against certain government officials, while working on a larger plot to overthrow the entire government in the spirit of Guy Fawkes. It wouldn't be correct to say that V is the hero of the movie—he's morally ambiguous at best and commits at least one act I found horrifying. However, the government he's fighting against is so much worse that he sometimes seems good by comparison.
The movie can be didactic at times, and the message is delivered in a heavy-handed way. However, I think the time for subtlety is past: the government we have right now is detaining citizens without trial, torturing innocent people, and asserting unlimited executive power. It's refreshing to see a movie that stands up and says straight out that we, as a citizenry, should not tolerate these things. I certainly don't think we need to blow up any buildings, and Guy Fawkes is the wrong model for this sort of thing, but the basic notion that the people have a right to replace an unacceptable government translates well to the ballot box.
As for the film qua action movie, it's generally well done. There is a thread of paranoid tension running throughout that works well to keep up the suspense—this is one of the ways that the politics reinforce the action. A sequence early-on in which V takes over the state-run television studio is especially good, and the climactic fight scene at the end is the sort of thing the Wachowskis excel at. There are a couple of points where the exposition/recapping becomes excessive and the suspense wanes, but it picks up again afterwards.
Anyway, I liked it. (Remember when I wrote short capsule reviews in the open threads?)
David Goodstein: Out of Gas: This book is Goodstein's effort to explain the interrelated problems of peak oil and climate change to a non-technical audience, and in doing so he explains the physics of energy and the historical development thereof. He sets forth a mostly pessimistic picture, anticipating oil supply problems in the very near future and associated social turmoil. Unfortunately I think he too quickly brushes off the economic arguments about alternative energies becoming more cost-effective as the costs of fossil fuels increase. I don't think this solves the problem but it should make the situation better than he expects. (One of the frustrating things about reading peak oil commentary is that physicists are frequently naive about economics, and economists naive about physics.) His treatment of the basic physics issues surrounding energy production is very good, however, and I would recommend it to a non-technical audience for that reason.
In the end, I am still not sure just how worried I should be about peak oil, but the answer is clearly non-zero.
Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not: This is the hot band over in Britain right now, and musical Anglophiles will find their sound pleasing. Imagine the drunken swagger of the Libertines with the guitar sound of Franz Ferdinand, and you have a good approximation. This CD hasn't quite achieved the heavy rotation of certain other recent British additions to my collection, but it's still pretty good. The major single seems to be "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor" but several others are equally good, like "Fake Tales of San Francisco".
By popular demand, Tyler Cowen has been blogging about the Great American Novel. I've long been convinced that the answer is Moby Dick, so I was pleased to see that Cowen chose an appropriate set of criteria:
So what qualities must The Great American Novel have?...
1. It must reward successive rereadings and get better each time.
2. It must be canonical and grip the imagination.
3. It must be linked to American history and letters in some essential way.
4. It must span the intellectual, the emotional, the religious, and the metaphysical.
5. It must be fun. You must be sad when the book is over, and wish it had been longer than it was.
6. It must be about a large white whale and have numerous Biblical allusions.
Cowen also suggests some runners-up and dark horse picks. I can see the argument for Huckleberry Finn, but even though I love Mark Twain I wasn't wild about that particular novel. Of Faulkner I have only read short stories, a gap I should remedy at some point.
My favorite piece of American literature from high school was Catch-22, but I can't argue for this as the Great American Novel. The much-loved Catcher in the Rye didn't do much for me; I suppose my teen angst was of a different character than Holden Caulfield's.
So what are your picks for the Great American Novel? What's your favorite "canonical" American novel? What did you read in high school that was the biggest waste of time? (My pick for the last question: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver; not especially canonical, but nevertheless assigned by my hippie American Lit teacher.)
I know some of you have read it, so I'm putting more detailed comments in this post. My spoiler-free review is in the previous post. Spoilers start below the fold (or possibly right away if you are reading by RSS).Continue reading "A Feast for Crows Spoiler Thread"
I must have been on vacation, because I have a bunch of media to review:
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: Despite my initial skepticism, my curiosity got the better of me and I went to see this. Outcome: the Christian allegory stuff is pretty mild and not nearly as off-putting as, say, talking animals. The movie is a pretty good adaptation of the source material, but it's no Lord of the Rings. Most of the characters were lacking in depth and the plot felt barely-connected at times. (I think these were also features of the book? But it's been a while.) Also, the pacing was a bit off—the movie takes too much time to get the characters into Narnia and then has to make up a lot of ground. Finally, it was appropriate that Peter obviously had no idea how to use his sword (and did anyone else hear the Zelda "you got the item" music in their heads when Peter gets his sword and shield, or was that just me?), but it made the climactic duel between him and the White Witch reminiscent of nothing so much as Xander vs. Harmony in The Initiative.
Guitar Hero: I'm sure I look ridiculous wailing away on that guitar controller, but the game is fun. It didn't really feel much like playing an actual guitar until I tried it on Hard difficulty, but at that point it was quite enjoyable (but, indeed difficult). The game wins bonus points for having volume settings that default to the maximum value of 11.
George R. R. Martin: A Feast for Crows: If you've started the series, you've no doubt read this latest installment already. If you haven't started it, then, DON'T. At least, not yet—wait until the final book comes out. A Feast for Crows is very good, but it seems to have been written on the principle that A Storm of Swords contained too few cliffhangers. If you do read it, remember that there's an appendix in the back with all the family trees, followed by a preview chapter of the next volume, so the book will actually end when it looks like there are still seventy pages left. This is maddening, because at that point you will be very eager to know what happens next.
And that's when you find the author's note explaining that the next book will be about the characters that didn't appear in this volume, which means... the cliffhangers in A Feast for Crows won't be resolved until two books later.
So spare yourself the pain and don't read this until you can pick up (at least) the next two volumes immediately afterward.
(Also: this put the child monarchs of Narnia in a whole different context...)
The Constantines: Tournament of Hearts: These guys did a decent job opening for the Hold Steady, so I went looking for their latest album. It proved difficult to find, but I happened upon a advance review copy in the used CD section of a Berkeley record store that will remain unnamed, since I probably shouldn't be announcing that they are selling CDs marked "not for resale". So, the album: it's a good listen, solid distortion-y indie rock (as was the live performance) but there are no real standout tracks. "Lizaveta" is a good example.
Also, don't miss the ongoing "Essential 90's Albums" thread below, which has broken the comment record. (I feel like there should be bells ringing and a shower of confetti when this happens.)
I listened to a lot of music (by my standards) this year, but mostly neglected other media categories. So the rest of the end-of-year list is drawing from a smaller set of works. I'm sure I overlooked lots of worthy books, movies, and games this year, so please point them out in the comments.
Favorite movie: Sin City
This was definitely the most visually interesting film of the year, a film that really looked like its graphic novel source material. This was coupled with a series of storylines running at top speed, each depicting some act of heroism rising up from the dark heart of the city. The movie was grotesquely violent, but I think this was an important part of the experience (I addressed this point in more detail in my longer-than-usual review back in April).
Honorable mention: The 40-Year Old Virgin surpassed expectations by being completely hilarious while being sympathetic to the shyness afflicting the title character. The dialogue and characters were very authentic, even when the situations got a bit ridiculous.
Favorite book: Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Murakami manages to find pockets of magic and portals to alternate worlds hidden around Japan, and then teases us with short glimpses of the wonder he's found. This was my favorite of his since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and was more accessible as well. The basic story sounds pretty straightforward: a 15-year-old runaway goes on a journey, falls in love, faces his inner demons. However, as with everything Murakami, there's a lot more beneath the surface.
Favorite video game: Well, Xenosaga II was probably the best game I played this year, but that list is very short. I can't really close this category until I've played Dragon Quest VIII, for one thing... What else should I be playing, as long as this category is open?
This item is a bit dated, but apparently there's a prize for "oddest book title" awarded every year:
Rick Pelicano and Lauren Tjaden's extremely serious manual on how to Bombproof Your Horse is today hailed as runaway winner of the prize for the oddest book title of the past year.
It takes what the Bookseller magazine describes as a staggering 46% of the vote in a poll of publishers and booksellers.
Runners-up in a shortlisted international field of six are Detecting Foreign Bodies in Food, with 27%, followed by The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox, with 15%.
The British-based Diagram prize - a magnum of champagne awarded by the Bookseller since 1978 - reflects the book trade's unceasing bafflement and delight at the highly specialised titles which some of its members in Britain and further afield produce.
Also on the 2004 shortlist were Applications of High Tech Squids (VCH Verlagsgesellschaft), Equids in Time and Space (Oxbow Books) and Sexual Health at Your Fingertips (Class Publishing).
This week's excuse for not blogging: my apartment flooded due to heavy rain. ("Heavy" by Berkeley standards, anyway.)
I did, however, start A Feast for Crows. Sometimes predictability is nice: you know the poor sucker in the prologue of a George R. R. Martin novel is going to die before the first chapter, so you are free to hate this character and root for the bad guys. (Martin helps out by making the POVs in the prologues progressively more annoying.) Whereas once the novel gets going, it's not wise to get too attached to any particular character, since you never know who is going to get killed off for no apparent reason.
Finally got a full night's sleep last night. First I couldn't sleep because of the fever, then the cough kept me awake, and after those cleared up I passed a critical point in Woken Furies and stayed awake reading for several nights (since the only time I have to read is when I'd otherwise be sleeping).
Richard K. Morgan: Woken Furies: Morgan redeems himself for Market Forces with this worthy entry into the Takeshi Kovacs canon. I would rate this as better than Broken Angels and not quite as good as Altered Carbon, but still very, very good. It's set on Kovacs' home planet of Harlan's World, thereby explaining a lot of cryptic references in earlier books, and is structured as a suspense novel rather than Altered Carbon's detective story or Broken Angels' treasure hunt; most of the plot revolves around Kovacs mounting a rescue mission for a comrade imprisoned by the government, while avoiding various factions that are trying to hunt him down. Meanwhile a number of characters show up that have been alluded to in previous novels, including some significant figures from Kovacs' past. (Can I spoil something if it's in the prologue? I'll restrain myself.)
One of my (few) complaints about Broken Angels is that it didn't do much with the series' central digitized-consciousness premise, in comparison to Altered Carbon. Fortunately Furies comes back to this and derives some entertaining new conflicts from it. I was especially impressed by the cliche-breaking, Whedonesque way one of these conflicts was resolved; the ending on a whole was excellent, and one of the nice elements of this series is that the books always end in a way that suggests that exciting developments are ahead for the next one.
Gogol Bordello: Gypsy Punks: Ukrainian gypsy punk music sounds like a great idea, but is better in concept than in execution. The gypsy instruments were interesting to listen to at first, but once the novelty wears off I found there wasn't much substance underneath. Plus the singer got irritating after a while. A couple tracks are above average, "60 Revolutions" being one of them.
Like PZ Myers, I read the Chronicles of Narnia at an age (I think I was eight) where I was too young to notice the Christian allegory. My ability to understand metaphor actually turned on fairly late; even in my senior year in high school I was unable to handle questions in English class that required sophisticated textual interpretation. Nonetheless, in retrospect it seems pretty obvious, once I am reminded of the details. I mean, the lion dies and gets resurrected? (Well, Lord of the Rings did that too, but supposedly Tolkein himself was unimpressed by Narnia's heavy-handedness.)
Anyway, at the time I read them I liked the books well enough, and they were probably the first fantasy novels I read, but I soon moved on to other authors and didn't really return to Narnia (and I remember basically nothing of the plot of any of the books). I think I made it through the entire series once, where by comparison I read Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series about 8,000 times. As children's fantasy goes, the latter series is far superior, with more interesting characters, wittier dialogue, and more emotional impact—scenes from that series are seared into my brain in ways that C.S. Lewis never accomplished. Wonder if that one had Christian subtext too, or if it was all Welsh folklore. But I digress.
Back to Narnia, my excitement about the movie has thus far been limited, but not due to the allegorical aspects. After all, Lord of the Rings had that, and I was still excited about the movies, because they were good stories. And one of the reasons a lot of people find Christianity appealing is that it draws from universal narratives about sacrifice and redemption, which are certainly appropriate for epic fantasy. No, what turns me off about Narnia is that I tend to be uninterested in stories in which the protagonists are children. Of course, that wasn't the case when I originally read the books, but maybe that's why I never returned to them as I became more interested in mature perspectives. Likewise, the Harry Potter series has become more interesting to me as the characters age (although I am still one book and two movies behind on that one). Speaking of which, another thing that worries me is that filming the Chronicles of Narnia right now is a transparent attempt to jump on the LotR/Harry Potter fantasy bandwagon, and while this doesn't mean the movie won't be good, it means the filmmakers have less motivation to do a good job if they think it's a sure thing commercially. (Remember that Fellowship of the Ring was a huge risk for New Line and Peter Jackson!)
All that said, I do have a certain curiosity about how the Narnia movie will handle the source material, so I'm likely to end up seeing it anyway.
HOMER: OK, don't panic -- remember the advice your father gave you on your wedding day.
[remembers Abe with hair and a tuxedo]
ABE: If you ever travel back in time, don't step on anything because even the tiniest change can alter the future in ways you can't imagine.
My severe tardiness with this week's open thread has already led to one threadjacking. In the spare minutes I've had available for blogging this week there's always been a higher-priority post on my mind. Anyway, here it is, almost in time for next week's open thread.
Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner: Freakonomics: My main complaint about this was: too short. Levitt takes the reader through several very interesting economic studies, with a focus on incentives and correlation vs. causation. There wasn't an overall theme, but a nice variety of topics ranging from detection of cheating among schoolteachers administering standardized tests, to the economics of crack dealing, to Levitt's controversial finding that the Roe v. Wade verdict led to a drop in crime 20 years later, to the influence of one's given name on future prosperity. The book was a quick and easy read, written at a very non-technical level (it was amusing at times when they try to explain something like regression analysis).
I'm now reading Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, at Phi's recommendation.
The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema: It's hard to listen to this without comparing it to their previous LP Electric Version, which is one of my all-time favorite albums. I discovered The New Pornographers and Electric Version while suffering from a series of foul and dark moods, and the music was a pure shot of happiness that immediately lifted my spirits. With that kind of personal significance it's hard to imagine that Twin Cinema can compete, and instead it takes a different direction and stakes out its own territory.
Cinema has a sound like a more refined version of the band's debut album Mass Romantic, and trades the constant exuberance of Electric Version for a wider and more contemplative emotional range. The better tracks on this one are longer and almost anthemic rather than three-minute triumphant bursts: "The Bleeding Heart Show" was the first track on the album that really made me sit up and listen, and the amazing closer "Stacked Crooked" completely erases any doubts I might have had about this record. The only downside is that this band always manages somehow to write one song that annoys the hell out of me for reasons unknown and mysterious, and in this case it's "These Are The Fables". But aside from that, this is a really great CD.
I'm seeing them live later this month, so you'll undoubtedly be hearing about that as well.
Man, actual science blogging is fun but difficult. There may be more of it in the future, since people seem to like it. If I'm lucky, I'll get some crackpots to populate the comment threads for extra entertainment!
Meanwhile, I have no intention of neglecting the cultural aspect of this blog. Although the open threads seem to be migrating to Tuesdays...
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: This is Rowling's most anti-statist book yet. The wizard arm of the government continues its slide into fascism, as it covers up intelligence failures, suppresses dissent, employs the press as a propaganda arm, scapegoats minorities and political opponents, dismisses expert teachers at Hogwarts and replaces them with ideology-based curricula of no practical value, ignores real threats while pursuing a completely imaginary terrorist plot, and tortures suspects for information. Wait a minute, this sounds familiar.
Harry continued to be a dick throughout the book, but it turned out Voldemort has good reason just to try to kill him off rather than turn him to the dark side. He still might turn evil without Voldemort's help, but I'm not holding out much hope for this. At least we'll be spared the passage in which Harry gets up off the operating table in his new magical suit of armor and shouts, "NOOOOOOO!"
I'm going to import the sixth book from Britain, as I've read the British editions of the previous five, but while I wait for it to show up I am reading Freakonomics, which is terrific so far. It's a much easier read than I expected and the findings described are tremendously interesting. I'll post a full review once I finish.
Four Tet: Everything Ecstatic: I first encountered Four Tet on that Snow Patrol mix CD that came out earlier this year. I'd heard them classified as "folktronica" but this (their latest album) doesn't sound very folky. (Pretty much my only point of comparison on this is the Caribou album I reviewed recently, which does sound like what I would expect folktronica to sound like.) Regardless of the proper classification, it's a fun CD with an experimental feel. I like "And Then Patterns".
Some of you may be interested to know that Bruce Springsteen is using a Four Tet song as his walk-out music on his Devils & Dust tour.
In other music news, The New Pornographers' new album (Twin Cinema) is out today. I went to lunch near the record store so I could pick it up right away. I'm still getting used to the fact that it sounds different from Electric Version, but it's good nonetheless. I'll review this in a week or two after I've had a chance to meditate on it.
Oh, this is so lame. The producers of the Da Vinci Code movie don't want to upset anybody:
Studio officials have consulted with Catholic and other Christian specialists on how they might alter the plot of the novel to avoid offending the devout. In doing so, the studio has been asked to consider such measures as making the central premise - that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene - more ambiguous, and removing the name of Opus Dei.
"The question I was asked was, 'Can you give them some things they can do to change it, to make it not offensive to the Christian audience?' " said Barbara Nicolosi, executive director of Act One, an organization that coaches Christians on making it in Hollywood. She said she was approached by Jonathan Bock, a marketing expert hired by Sony for his knowledge of Christian sensibilities, and included in the discussions Amy Welborn, who has published a refutation of "The Da Vinci Code" titled "De-Coding Da Vinci."
"We came up with three things," Nicolosi said: the more ambiguous approach to the central premise, the removal of Opus Dei and amending errors in the book's description of religious elements in art.
Fortunately, most the of the Christians I know personally are unperturbed by such things, but sadly there's a long tradition of this kind of overreaction in Christianity. This goes back through the church's list of banned books and persecution of heretics, all the way to the founder himself:
Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. (Mt. 12:31)
Insomnia is striking this week, inexplicably, but at least it's giving me a chance to catch up on my reading.
Richard K. Morgan: Market Forces: [Follow-up] Basically I remained unimpressed by this book. The plot did pick up near the end, but the writing was very plain throughout compared to Morgan's other works. The characters continued to baffle me, and entire thematic elements disappeared unexpectedly. Throughout the book I kept thinking of Chekhov's dictum, which Morgan follows very well when it comes to physical objects (e.g. the baseball bat) but fails to apply to more abstract elements. Anyway, I think a talented director could make a spectacular anime series out of this, but the novel was a bit disappointing.
Now I have finally started the fifth Harry Potter (Order of the Phoenix) and it seems that Harry has become a nasty, moody adolescent with a case of PTSD and some serious self-absorption. Which makes perfect sense given his past experiences. Now if Voldemort doesn't at least make an attempt to turn this guy to the dark side, he should just turn in his supervillain badge. (I confess that my dream is a seventh book in which Harry turns evil and is the primary villain. But this seems unlikely.)
The Lucksmiths: Warmer Corners: This is a pretty solid indie-pop album that reminds me of Belle & Sebastian and (especially with the jangly guitars) Teenage Fanclub. The standout track is "Sunlight in a Jar".