Sunday, July 27, 2014

My Queer War
by James Lord

Picked this up on a recommendation, so I wanted to like it. The story, being gay during WWII in the military, is very intriguing, but the writing was not to my taste. Florid, rococo even, like a dowager queer in a kaftan surrounded by chintz and chinoiserie. The killer? "Adjacent side street" -- c'mon, man! Of course it's adjacent if it's a side street. A superficial reason for not finishing the book, but life's too short to read books one is not enjoying.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Mezzanine
by Nicholson Baker

Thank you to whomever recommended I read The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker: intricately crafted, delicately structured, infinite yet contained, constrained, discrete — the novelistic equivalent of a ship in a bottle.

I've enjoyed a number of the author's other books, but if you've read some you'll also know that liking one of his is no guarantee of liking others. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Boy Detective Fails
by Joe Meno

A difficult book to like. While part of me wants to understand and empathize, I can't at the moment recall any fictional portrayals of the experience of mental illness that have really clicked with me, and remembering this books makes me wonder if any ever could. I really didn't care for it all, and I'm surprised that I actually finished it.

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell
by Tucker Max

Terribly crass, but I liked it. Probably a weakness of character on my part, but sometimes I can be charmed by a smarmy frat boy who at least has some storytelling talent and some funny hijinx to relate. I don't know or care how much of it is true, and I don't care. Imagine if David Sedaris were a bro. I chalk it up to bullshitting, as in talking without any real regard for truthfulness. I just put in a hold request for the sequel (he's got three books now), and I'm probably going to watch the movie of this one someday. Hell, I've even written my own zine collection of drinking stories called Blackout: The Search for Rock Bottom. Sue me... and screw you.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell

Another amazing book by one of my favorite authors. Quite different from his two(?) other books I've read, but still soooo good. It's historical fiction set in the time when the West was just barely interacting with Japan, and that only commercially under very controlled conditions. Throw in a forbidden romance and some Japanese almost-mythology, and the result is a deeply fascinating and dramatic story with wonderfully complex characters.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Smart Swarm: how understanding flocks, schools, and colonies can make us better at communicating, decision making, and getting things done
by Peter Miller

While this book is briskly readable and thoroughly interesting, it suffers from the disease of hyperbole that afflicts many of the lengthily titled books referenced in its text. Books such as How Everything's Connected Because of YouTube and Why That's Going to Save Humanity Maybe Not as We Know It but Probably Better Because Ashton Kutcher Is Awesome Even if He Did Quit Tweeting, which I've made up, but you probably know what kind of book I'm lampooning.

The trap is that of the Enlightenment. We're figuring out all these new things, and it's looking as if we'll be able to solve every problem ever if we just apply this or that new paradigm in the right way. But no matter how much you fix stuff, people will find a way to fuck it up anyway — amiright?

All in all, though, it's nowhere near as bad as the connection-is-everything wisdom-of-the-crowd internet boosterism to which it irritatingly and persistently gives shout outs. The actual science bits, about analyzing swarm and colony behaviors, how they *sometimes* apply to human situations, are quite nice. The caveat, however, is delayed too long. Following the final chapter on the downside of swarms (for example, when they become mobs and crush people to death), the conclusion is very pragmatic and does a good job of couching the amazing discoveries in some much needed realism, but why is that only at the end?

It's not all at the end; there are a few earlier hints that termites are not our multitudinous messiahs. My favorite hint is when he talks about the movie Minority Report (a book first, of course, which he fails to mention) and points out how those future cops make very effective use of swarm-y robots to find Tom Cruise but the knowledge they needed to make the "spyders" clearly hasn't led to the elimination of poverty or a generally positive transformation of society.

But it's a good book. Self-organizing, collective, decentralized behavior in animals is truly fascinating and fertile ground, and this is an excellent introduction for those with low to medium science prowess. I recommend this book. It just has a few things that are particularly irritating to me. But they can be overlooked. In a way, I'm glad for its shortcomings, as I've found my new peeve word (a phrase, technically): not unlike.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark
by Mary Wollstonecraft

I read about this in a zine, Hyena in Petticoats, about M.W. and the zine author's obsession with her. I suppose it helps that I used A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a major source for a college paper ("Teaching Madness," about the fate of well-educated young women in a society unprepared to accept them). Anyway, Wollstonecraft was a feminist pioneer, a real piece of work, and totally ahead of her time (and yet, being only human, she went a bit bonkers over a married man).

We think of Scandinavia as so civilized these days — maybe even more civilized, in some ways, than the rest of Europe and North America — so it's interesting to read an old-timey English woman's thoughts on traveling in what was then the wild, barbarian north. It's also quite interesting to consider how a generally progressive intellectual can still be so totally backwards in some ways. Makes one wonder what the future will find lacking in today's liberalism.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland
by Patton Oswalt

For a guy who usually plays the minor character that's the schlubby butt of jokes, this dude is super smart. So smart, at times, that you can almost miss the humor. I'd say he's more of a Sarah Vowell than a David Sedaris: you get the guffaws, but with seriously introspective interludes. One gets the sense that his true calling is to write for shows that are critically acclaimed cult hits but unfortunately get canceled after a few seasons (eg., Arrested Development), rather than stand-up comedy. An enjoyable and easy read that could make you pee your pants, or wax nostalgic, or a bit of both.
Cold: adventures in the world's frozen places
by Bill Streever

I love this kind of book (literary nonfiction), but this particular one is only a moderately good example of the genre. Nothing in particular is wrong with the author's informative and evocative exploration of coldness, combining thorough knowledge with pleasant story-telling, but it just isn't cream of the crop. I'll give it a solid B-minus.
The Strangest Man: the hidden life of Paul Dirac, mystic of the atom
by Graham Farmelo

Somehow I got the idea that this guy, like Alan Turing, a tortured genius of the same era, was gay. I kept waiting through the whole book for the big reveal. He certainly was awkward enough with women. Alas, no dice.

This would be a tricky book to recommend. As a biography, it's well-written and holds the attention, even while being quite long. The author provides good insight into the unspoken and the strange, of which there's plenty in the life of a mathematical savant who surely would be diagnosed on the "autism spectrum" in modern day. You get a good sense of the history and politics of nuclear science around WWII, and the author consistently connects Dirac's early training in engineering and technical drafting to his uniquely visual and instinctual approach to subatomic physics, a realm of almost pure theory and maths. Unless you find all those things interesting, you'll likely have trouble slogging through; if you do, you'll be in hog heaven.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Atlas of Remote Islands: fifty islands I have never set foot on and never will

by Judith Schalansky

Holy-moly this book is awesome! I love to geek out over maps, but I'm often frustrated by the clutteredness of a lot of modern atlases, with so many roads especially but also too many small towns and other unimportant things. I probably shouldn't post this on the internet and let someone steal the idea, but I'd love to make an atlas that only shows the interesting stuff, just what's relevant to history or politics, exceptional geographical features, etc. — which is really just a way to introduce the description of this Atlas of Remote Islands as just nearly the exact oppposite of that idea, in some ways, and precisely the same in others, but correspondingly and contrastingly equally awesome in its own way(s). Each map provides a wealth of detail, but not every detail, and the details it does provide are somewhat estoric or anecdotal, and always delightfully interesting. You can tell the author really treasures maps and put a lot of that love into this book. If you dig maps, you need to read this book, and maybe even own it. The book itself as an object is beautifully designed, a true pleasure to hold and to read. It's on a very short list of books I'm actually interested in buying and keeping forever.