Monday, May 23, 2016

Tubes: a journey to the center of the internet

by Andrew Blum

This book is so-so, but I did finish it. Kinda maybe would have been better as a long article in a magazine. Maybe it just needed a different author? I bet Alain de Botton would have been more evocative and stirring, more effectively philosophical. But it's not bad.

The idea is solid: to search out and describe the physical structure of the internet, which is ethereal and place-less in our imaginations. We have the abstract notion of "cyberspace," but especially with the advent of wi-fi and cellular data, we tend to forget that our e-mails (and porn, and all the rest) actually travel through very real fiber optic cables — beneath oceans, under city streets, across continents, alongside highways — and pass through routers and servers in huge buildings full of hardware and wires (generating a lot of heat and consuming loads of electricity). The internet is a real physical network, not a bunch of 1's and 0's flying through the air.

What's the purpose, on the other hand, of such a project? It's not really going to have any lasting effect on how people think about the internet. It's a bit of a lark, interesting but not impacting. (One could argue it's important for people to understand the reality and physicality of the internet, it's fragility and resilience, it's cost and what it consumes — but let's not kid ourselves that people are going to be moved by such pleas.)

Anyway, if the idea intrigues you, by all means go for it. The book is good enough that your interest will carry you through. If the idea doesn't tickle your fancy, though, the writing may not be enough to hold your attention.

The Last Days of My Mother

by Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson

I swear it was only a coincidence that I read this book while on vacation with my mother. I mean, a book about a middle-aged man who's gone on a trip with his dying mother for a last hurrah (and possible miracle cure) — who'd choose to read that while being a middle-aged man on a trip with his mother?

Seriously, though, I'd had it checked out from the library for a long time, and the book was approaching the maximum number of renewals, so the choice wasn't entirely down to me. In any event, turns out it's a very funny book, despite being about death and dying, and drinking and drugs. While the latter topics might be expected to be funny, they just as easily could be tragic; death and dying, meanwhile, need not be tragic if life is well-lived and concludes with dignity and self-determination.

Translated from Icelandic by a small university press, this book is delightful, even when it's being poignant and/or one of the characters is being morose. I laughed out loud a bunch of times. The main characters are quirky but also lovable and believable; minor characters tend toward the outlandish, but that's Amsterdam for you. I would recommend this book to anyone who's looking for contemporary fiction that has a sense of humor without being frivolous. One of the best of the year so far.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Early Pleasures: memoirs of a sensual youth

by Frederick Kohner

When one does an internet search for this author's name, the results are either about this book or about a guy who wrote all the Gidget books and worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood. I'm pretty sure it's the same person, but I didn't find any websites that say so explicitly.

In any case, this book is nothing like a Gidget story. It's a biography — or maybe memoir is more accurate, since one description calls it a "fictionalization" — recounting the author's sexual awakening as a young man in Austria and Paris during the 1920s. Like many an adolescent, his sex life was more a matter of frustrated desire than erotic fulfillment, so definitely not smut and not exactly titillating. I found it very interesting, though, in a documentary sense, as a record of what it was like to be that age at a particular time and place in history. Maybe a touch on the boring side.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Red House

by Mark Haddon

The first book I read by this author was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which is so unusual and wonderful, being narrated by a young man with autism, that of course I'd want to read more. I also really loved A Spot of Bother, a humorous exploration of aging and mortality against the backdrop of a family celebration — not innovative like the first, but very well done and very entertaining.

This book is about family as well, but rather than celebration we have resentments, regrets and rivalries, and a sense of an ending. Some funny bits here and there, but overall somewhat melancholy, though not quite tragic. I put off reading this book due to a negative review I saw somewhere, but I think the review was just some rando rather than a critic or journalist or someone I trust. Anyway, not bad at all, but not top of my list for recommendations either.

(For the record, I'm not going to bother writing up Curious Incident. It's well-known enough, by me and many others, so the praise above will suffice and I will cross it off my list.)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Into the Grey

by Celine Kiernan

Oooh! A spooky story about 15-year-old twin brothers in Ireland in the 1970s. I read this as an e-book, which was an okay experience, but I wish I had read the actual book, because it's a nice physical object — size, heft, design. But I was traveling and trying to be compact.

I read it on the plane, so it was sort of dark, but too many people around to be a really scary atmosphere. I did get frightened at one point, and a little choked up even, but also I was kinda drunk. (Long story... spilled my drink when half-way done, and both flight attendants gave me replacement minis, so I wound up with three and a half drinks instead of one.) I was also, about two-thirds through the book, prepared to be really pissed off if it ended the way it looked to be headed, but I won't spoil the ending by telling you.

The story is multi-layered and multi-generational, with multiple "ghosts" both literal and figurative. It explores themes of love and loss, moving on (or not) and growing up. At a dingy old seaside cottage, one of the brothers is possessed by the ghost of a child, and the remaining brother must somehow figure out how to save him. The story of the ghost child links to the story of a dead WWI soldier, whose story in turn links to the twins' stroke-addled grandmother and a suicidal stranger they saved from drowning in the ocean.

The twin who narrates has a very clear and genuine voice, and his powerfully expressed love and fear for his brother are both underlined by the vaguer sense of how they're beginning to grow apart and moving toward adulthood. In many teen books, the adult characters are absent or useless and/or the teen characters act as if no adult could ever understand or help. Refreshingly, in this book the narrator believes his parents could help him and his brother; even though he has compelling reasons not to ask for their help directly, he still sees the possibility of drawing on the potency of their familial bonds. While he searches for his own strength and understanding, he has a lingering tendency to seek the shelter of their care and authority — a tendency that itself is evolving into a recognition of the wisdom and capability that come with experience and maturity — which I think is a more realistically nuanced portrayal of the adolescent experience.

All those details aside, it's also just a really good story with a lot of narrative tension and emotional intensity. I've already recommended it to a teen reader!

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Grasshopper Jungle: a history
The Alex Crow

by Andrew Smith

One could be forgiven for thinking the author of these two books could not possibly be the same Andrew Smith who wrote Winger and Stand Off. I'm reviewing these two together because both are wacky, irreverent science fiction-y stories; I'll review Winger later, probably after I've read Stand Off (on the shelf at home).

Grasshopper Jungle is a real eye-catcher, bright electric-green with yellow-edged pages, and the insides are equally exciting. It's also a little raunchy, if you consider giant mutant insect sex to be naughty. Teenager sex happens too, but a lot more bug sex happens. The story could be considered something of an anti-GMO parable, or a warning about science (and wealth and power) run amok, but it's also just a story about a teenage boy who loves his girlfriend but also maybe loves his gay best friend too. Teens seem to really dig this book, and I was pretty jazzed by it too, though I think there was waaay too much cigarette smoking (totally unnecessary smoking, IMHO, but seriously overdone even if you believe it did add something to the story).

Side note about Grasshopper Jungle: After reading this book, I noticed that the Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication data lists "Gender identity" as one of the subject headings. No one in the story questions or changes his/her gender identity, so it's completely wrong and should be "Bisexuality" or "Sexual orientation." I was able to get it changed in my library's catalog pretty easily. I also contacted the LoC to see if they could have the CIP data changed for future editions of the book; they promised to get back to me, but it's been more than a year. Even if they do change the CIP, thousands of libraries still have copies with the wrong subject heading. I've considered a few ways to try to start a campaign to spread the word and get other libraries to change their cataloging too, but I don't know if I'll ever get it together to really do anything. I also tried to contact the author through a form on his website, but no one wrote back to me.

The Alex Crow is not as good as Grasshopper Jungle. It sort of felt to me in some ways like a soup of ideas leftover from the earlier book, and the characters aren't as engaging. Repeated themes include absentee adults, mutant/cybernetic animals, doomsday scenario. Humor and sex are lacking compared to GJ. Still worth reading and a solid recommendation if you enjoyed its predecessor.

Monday, May 02, 2016

I.O.U.: why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay

by John Lanchester

Well, this book wasn't exactly what I was expecting, but it was okay. I almost gave up early on, because I was annoyed at the mix of &3163; and $, but the specific amounts turn out not to be all that relevant, and their sheer size in the trillions and very high billions is impressive in either currency. Also, the author is a Brit, and he does look at the 2007-08 financial crisis from a specifically Anglo-American perspective, and he does highlight some crucial difference in how things played out on both sides of the Atlantic.

The author has an interesting theory, but it only comes up at the beginning and end of the book. He believes that the fall of Communism left the capitalist democracies, and especially the "Anglo-Saxon" model of capitalism as practiced in the US and UK, without an enemy or a credible alternative or basis for comparison, creating a climate in which extreme deregulation of banking and financial services set the stage for the worldwide financial crisis and massive bailouts and credit crunch of the late 2000s. Most of the book is then a look at the steps leading up to the sub-prime mortgage/collateralized debt obligation/credit default swap debacle, and some of its aftermath.

A much longer book could be made from this story, so the amount of information packed into this relatively small volume is actually pretty amazing. In lieu of attempting to summarize, here are a few of the things that grabbed my attention:
  • Investment banks did (and no doubt still do) create subsidiary entities called SPVs "special purpose vehicles" and SIVs "structured investment vehicles" to keep assets (such as securitized debt) and the associated risk of those assets off the banks' balance sheets, and to avoid or circumvent rules, such as those requiring a certain amount of capital reserves to cover said risky assets. SIVs and SPVs can be set up for 364 days or fewer, as a workaround for rules that would apply to a company that existed for a year or more. Even where regulations exist, skirting the rules and brazenly violating the spirit of the rules is widespread.
  • "It shouldn't be possible to be that wrong" is what the author says about the risk modeling and statistical analysis that convinced bankers and regulators that they had magically made all the risk disappear (or at least passed it on to someone else). For example, the 1998 Russian bond default should have happened once in 3 billion years, but it wasn't the only supposedly highly unlikely event to have happened in recent decades; still, bankers believed the math that said problems with packaged and securitized sub-prime mortgages were absurdly unlikely, equivalent to winning the UK national lottery 21 times in a row.
  • Further criticizing the risk-taking and bonus-accumulating culture of financial services, the author makes a distinction between "business" (which celebrates economic thinking, where money just makes more money and profit is the only product) and "industry" (which makes or does something, with money as means and byproduct). Beyond the immediate effects of the worldwide crash and bailouts, the turning of entire national economies (US and UK) away from industry to unregulated financial services, and the triumph of capitalism over communism, has the secondary result that business and economic thinking have spread to areas it doesn't belong, such as education, health care, government services. The free market and capitalist ethos is not a good model for social welfare projects, which should begin with a discussion of values, principles and desired outcomes, then proceed with decisions about what is affordable and feasible. The alternative is economic thinking, in which the idea of value is replaced by the idea of price, and which seeks to maximize "profit" by privatizing, downsizing, and monetizing the common good.
Long story short, we still need more balance between capitalism and communalism. Meanwhile, I'm going to try to position myself to buy a house when the next "asset correction" causes prices to bottom out again, which I predict will happen in about three or four years.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

If Walls Could Talk : an intimate history of the home

by Lucy Worsley

Another book in the category Curious Histories of Mostly–White People Things. Of course, if you live in North America or Europe or an urbanized area just about anywhere in the world, no matter your color or culture, these Things are yours now too: bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens, housing and households of a certain size, expectations of privacy are all being globalized, for better or worse.

Anyway, this book is an interesting and nicely written exploration of the historical, and changing, cultural significance of the objects and activities which make up that thing we call a home. It covers a broad range of topics, so my recollections are of random tidbits of information:
  • spits for roasting meats were turned by a type of dog specially bred to be a size and shape that would fit inside a hamster wheel–like contraption attached to the spit
  • people in olden times went to sleep early (when it got dark) but often got up for a few hours to do stuff in the middle of the night before going back to sleep for a few more hours
  • royals wiped their butts with cloth napkins
  • we all should be more grateful for modern toilets and sewers
History is more than great people and geopolitics. The details of everyday life in the past are fascinating. I recommend this book for readers who like to think about historical settings and "period details" more than supposedly significant events. Also good for trivia buffs and amateur sociologists.

One D.O.A., One on the Way
Why Did I Ever

by Mary Robison

I read Why Did I Ever quite some time ago, but I've never forgotten the author's unique and biting sense of humor — sarcastic, world-weary, nothing's sacred, whip-smart, everything's fucked. Both books are fairly short and enjoyable, assuming you appreciate the caustic wit, and both feature a female protagonist who works in the film industry, either in the South or from the South. Both books also consist of short, diary-like entries, epigrams and lists. (One D.O.A. has lists, anyway; I don't remember if the other does.)

Published in 2001, Why Did I Ever features a character trying to manage her ADD while struggling as a screenwriter and navigating various personal crises. One D.O.A., One on the Way came out in 2009 and is narrated by a location scout married to a lazy scion of an old-money New Orleans family; she's trying to train an intern, even though all the work has moved to Shreveport since Katrina, and inexplicably having an affair with her husband's identical twin, perhaps only because she can't always tell which one is which. A number of the lists in the latter book detail the myriad ways New Orleans remains a shambles several years post-hurricane.

If you think you're a match for this type of humor, I give a hearty recommendation for both of these books. The author has written a few collections of short stories, but I haven't tried any of them.