|The Force Awakens, 2015 vs. A New Hope, 1977|
I very much enjoyed The Force Awakens, but when I first saw it, barely ten minutes of the movie had elapsed before it became clear the movie was glaringly—if not painfully—derivative of A New Hope. By the time it was over I felt it was even more so of course, but I wasn't sure just HOW much it had borrowed from the earlier movie until I sat down to write to a friend about it...and this poured out:
Let's play a game: In which movie do the following things happen? (BIG TIME SPOILERS HERE, be warned.)
• In the first scene after the 3D intro crawl, a monolithic Carillion star destroyer demonstrates its size via a slow pass through the frame, during which said destroyer gives the impression of being far too big for any movie screen.
• A Crucial Message is spirited away in the memory banks of a Crucial Droid before it can be intercepted by the Villainous-"Evil Empire". (This droid "speaks" in chirping bleeps, except when something "sad" happens to it, then it sounds much like a mourning dove.)
• A Plucky Rebel removes a stormtrooper helmet and announces that he is rescuing a captive fellow Plucky Rebel.
• Poor scavengers are shown scraping out a meager and soul-crushing existence on a desert planet, one of which desert dwellers is essentially an orphan, and boy oh boy, The Force Is Strong With This One.
• A wise and trusted friend gives Anakin Skywalker's light saber to this Force-adept orphan.
• Storm-troopers lead a charge to track down the Crucial Droid, which after a hasty escape ends up on said desert planet.
• The "Evil Empire"—in hot pursuit—mercilessly slaughters innocents when the Crucial Droid escapes again. (This mendacious "Evil Empire" is led by a seemingly heartless mega-villain whose leadership is both spiritual and secular; He is an embodiment of The Dark Side, dresses almost entirely in black, wields a red light saber, and is mentored by an even more powerful and evil spiritual master.)
• Good and evil alike congregate in a bar where strange live music and even stranger creatures are on display.
• The "Evil Empire" has constructed a colossal, spherical, world-ending machine that, though it does indeed resemble a moon, be assured...that's no moon: It's a space station. The Plucky Rebels attempt to rescue one of their own from this space station.
• Han Solo—having botched a job and been tracked down by his employers—tries to smooth-talk his way out of trouble. (At various times during the movie he says "I've got a bad feeling about this," and "I'm workin' on it.")
• The Force-adept Orphan and a new friend look on, horrified, as the mega-villain kills their beloved father figure with a red light saber.
• The Jedi master returns to action having disappeared when his star pupil (the aforementioned mega-villain) joined the "dark side."
• Plucky Rebels fly x-wing fighters through the Space Station's equatorial trench and shoot at the station's weak spot to destroy the space station moments before its weapon can destroy the rebel base.
A. The Force Awakens! An "even more powerful and evil spiritual master" does not appear in A New Hope!
|Current Reading||The Cobweb||Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George||
With all the detailed discussion of Saddam Hussein and the depth thereof, it's hard to believe this book was written five years before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
|V.||Thomas Pynchon||Started it in Sept. 2013, got about 1/3 through and was thoroughly enjoying it. Then life interrupted and other (often lighter) fare won my attention (but what isn't lighter than friggin' Pynchon??) but I refuse to put this back on the shelf.|
|The Bushwhacked Piano||Thomas McGuane||
This is a sort of trippy Confederacy Of Dunces kind of story. Quite a bit darker, a little less slapstick, far more erudite, no doubt. (I can never articulate why Kerouac's On The Road continues to leave me flat, but I think I was probably hoping it was more like The Bushwhacked Piano.)
Always'd known he was a dynamic and engaging lecturer and a relentless and (it must be said) brutal debater, and yet it took the man f***ing DYING to get me off my dead ass and actually READ his words. For enduring shame, as this collection has in a very short time earned a spot on my list of lifetime favorites. There's no evidence that any of the 107 essays in this book were first drafts -- quite the contrary -- but more than one reliable source (Was it Salman Rushdie? His VF editor Graydon Carter?) tells of Hitch meeting a deadline with a thousand-word first draft, and if even the weakest piece here (IMHO, "The You Decade," p739) was created thusly it would be borderline miraculous.(I should just leave this, Hitch-22 and God Is Not Great here in the Currently Reading section since I dip into all three regularly.
|Misquoting Jesus||Bart Ehrman||
If God could perform the miracle of inspring the words of the Bible, why on earth couldn't he have performed the seemingly EASIER miracle of preserving them? Some facts to consider:
1. There are no extant orginals of any of the combined 66 books of the Old (39) and New (27) Testaments.
2. Forget the originals, there are no Greek copies of any NT originals dated any earlier than the second century AD, and most of the 5700 extant greek fragments and full NT manuscripts date to much later.
3. Not one of those 5700 copies is identical to any other. That's 5700 versions of what we're told by fundamentalists and biblical literalists is the immutable, inerrant Word of God.
How can this be?
If you think about it, it's actually not surprising at all. The printing press is not invented until when...1500? So every copy of ANY BOOK -- not just the Bible but Chaucer, Homer, Josephus, Aristotle, etc -- prior to that (and afterward for, say, 100 or so more years) had been HAND COPIED by human copyists...every sentence, every word, every letter. So of course mistakes were made which were passed on anytime THAT copy was copied, which resulted in a third generation copy containing ITS OWN mistakes which were passed on in addition to the prior set of errors. As I said: NOT SURPRISING, BUT NOT REALLY A PROBLEM if you regard the Bible as a quintessentially human moral guide, or as influential literature. Long-debated mysteries of conflicting Gospels and vengeful actions of a presumably loving Creator become understandable: It's not a divine book, but a perfectly HUMAN book.
As Ehrman goes to great pains to explain, most of these hundreds of thousands of errors are insignificant: misspellings. But sometimes they're huge. The Gospel of John story of the woman taken in adultery ("Let him without sin cast the first stone...") appears in NO New Testament manuscript prior ot 400 AD or so: it is a story clearly inserted. More interesting to me, the story is not mentioned in any Biblical commentary until about 1000 AD.
|Interface||Stephen Bury (aka Neal Stephenson) and J. Frederick George||
Stephenson's first book after his out-of-nowhere success with Snow Crash. J. Frederick George (aka George Jewsbury) is Stephenson's uncle, a distinguised historian; I'd love to know exactly how uncle and nephew collaborated, what their process was like, and how much of this is Stephenson and how much is George. (My uneducated guess would be that it's at least 70% Stephenson since it's a novel and George doesn't write novels. Also, it largely reads like Stephenson's other early work. In fact it makes me wonder if Stephenson wrote it himself, but got so many ideas and so much help from his uncle that he went ahead and gave him a writing credit. Again, just a surmise based on a veneer of circumstatial evidence.)
|Gold Bug Variations||Richard Powers||
The long awaited reread? Could it finally happen? (29NOV12. Indeed it did!)
|Rendezvous With Rama||Arthur C. Clarke||
Love it. An extremely plausible-feeling description of a starship—and human reaction thereto—that arrives on earth's doorstep one day
|Reamde||Neal Stephenson||I'm going to read this monster AND teach two classes I've never taught before this school year? (AND read The Recognitions!) I'm about 400 pages into Reamde so, I am clearly finding far more time for it than I should given my new work load!!|
|Finding Serenity||Edited by Jane Espenson||I've been on an all-emcompassing Firefly kick since mid-March (going back to watch all things JOss Whedon, whom I didnt really know existed. Now it's Buffy reruns, Angel, Dollhouse (holy CRAP, Dollhouse!), Cabin In The Woods, The Avengers, Much Ado About Nothing (whenever THAT comes out...). Although I have to say, with The Avengers having done as well as it did, Whedon can pick and choose his projects. (I love the fact that back in 2005 he said he wouldn't attempt an Avengers movie!)
Where was I? Finding Serenity. A collection of essays about the Firefly TV show, green-lighted by FOX (WTG Fox!) then sabotaged and cancelled by same before it even finished its first season. (Boo Fox!) Serenity is the name of the Firefly class cargo spaceship in which most of the TV show took place. This was no ordinary TV show, and the fact that it is essentintially the defining work for everyone who was involved with it (save for those who previously worked on Buffy The Vampire Slayer perhaps) is a testament TO that work. Highlights here are Jewel Staite's essay detailing her five favorite scenes in each of Firfely's fourteen episodes (which favorites overlap very nicely with my own). Staite played Kaylee, Serenity's mechanic, in the show and movie, although the movie had not been released when this book was published.
|The Hunger Games||Suzanne Collins||This goes into my "You Can Only Hear Everyone Rave About A Book So Long Before You Cave And Take A Look Yourself" category. I enjoyed it quite a bit, with only a few reservations. (I have the same feeling after reading this that I had after I read Twilight: Glad I read it, didn't at all feel like I was wasting my time, but no real desire to read the sequels.)|
|The Book of Drugs||Mike Doughty||
After a foreword wherein MD states "I'm terrified of a common scenario: Memoirist is dogged, exposed, denounced," he then proceeds to sling so much shit at his former bandmates - true or not, and I'm leaning toward probably true - that there's no way I can take the declaration of terror seriously. And I'm only 1/3 the way though the book. As I read this I often wonder how Soul Coughing survived long enough to release more than one album.
|The Disappearing Spoon||Sam Kean||
VERY entertaining stories from the Periodic Table! The weird way certain elements were discovered, the weird way certain elements are used, the weird ways certain scientists (and non-scientists!) behave(d) in the presence of certain elements. (The title comes from element 31, gallium, a metal who's melting point is higher than room temperature but well below that of hot coffee....think of a practical joke you could play with a gallium spoon.... )
|Into Thin Air||Jon Krakauer||14JUL11. My second time through this (on audio this time) and it was just as gripping as the first "dead tree" reading...see comments below. Beck Weathers's story still made me weep with joy, and Ian Woodhall's story still made me shout with rage.|
|A Naked Singularity||Sergio De La Pava||Took me less than 18 moonths to grant A Naked Singularity the reread it's been screaming for since I finished the initial read. (See below. After two readings and continued scrutinizing, remains in my top five favorite novels of all time.)|
|A Drinking Life||Pete Hamill||
(Audio) Not as much about drinking as one might expect, given the title, but an engaging autobio nonetheless. I'm particularly interested in Hamill's career arc from wanting to be a cartoonist as a kid to becoming the well-known journalist. And I also like the way he frequently refers to the multiple versions of himself; the cartoonist, the boyfriend, the street fighter, the dutiful son of the Irish alcoholic, juggling these personas day in and day out (as we all must and do).
|A Study in Scarlet||Arthur Conan Doyle||
It took the Guy Ritchie movie to nudge me towards the original Sherlock Holmes, but here I am at long last, wishing I'd got here sooner. POST-READ: FANTASTIC! As with Moby Dick and many other famously classic novels, you hear so much and wonder, then you take the time and do the work and it's no wonder at ALL why people are reading these works hundreds of years later!
25DEC10. This book was a lot of fun! I read it right after The Big U, Stephenson's first novel; Zodiac is less silly than The Big U but still playful, if that makes any sense. Apropos of nothing...In each Stephenson novel there seems to be a primary character whose personality drives the fun in the book...call it the Imp of the Perverse. :-) In The Big U it was Casimir and/or Fred. In Zodiac it is mostly Sangamon and I'd have to say Bart as well. In Snow Crash it's both YT and Hiro, in Cryptonomicon it's Randy and Amy (and surely Sgt. Shaftoe, in the WWII sections) and in The Baroque Cycle it's Daniel and of course Jack--the original Imp himself--and definitely Eliza. (Anathem was the only Stephenson novel that I didn't detect the Imp, although I wouldn't argue if you said Fra Orolo had a little of the Imp in him! There's quite a bit of the Imp in Diamond Age's Bud, but of course ol' Bud couldn't rein it in, so...)
|The Big U||Neal Stephenson||
Just finished the Go Big Red Fan prologue, and I think I can see why Stephenson sort of disowns The Big U. It's his first novel, published in 1984 when Stephenson was 24 or thereabouts, which means it was written when he was 22-23, if not younger. But just because Stephenson wouldn't consider writing something like The Big U in his forties doesn't mean he shouldn't have written it in his twenties. I'm only eight pages in but I think this book will be a lot of fun for the same reason another author-dissed first novel, The Broom Of The System is a lot of fun: it was written by a young guy feeling his oats, and that sense of play is irresistible to me.
If you lean on your visuals the way I do when reading, the campus map I did up for my Big U page will probably be even more helpful than the scene spotters.
|The Baroque Cycle Vol. II: The Confusion||Neal Stephenson||
Volume II consists of Book 4 (The Bonanza) & Book 5 (The Juncto) which are set during the same period and whose chapters have been interleaved (con-fused) to preserve chronology.
11-28-10. Sixteen months after starting it, I finished it, and wished I hadn't let myself get sidetracked. As much as I liked Volume I Quicksilver, I like Volume II The Confusion even more.
What? Another page? It's getting to be a habit.
The luscious, WICKED irony of checking out a book about how peoples' lives are being lived ever faster* and only being able to find an abridged version.
But what I heard I liked well enough to want the whole shebang (seriously, this book could be the bible for anyone else like me whose stated hobby is "keeping my calendar clear") so now I'm reading a print copy.
*(viz. how a microwave oven is now too slow for most people; Most TV shows' end credits are shown concurrently with the beginning of the lest show, lest the viewer switch away, etc. ad infinitum)
|The Greatest Show On Earth||Richard Dawkins||
Dawkins has written many books on the effects and results of evolution, assuming he could convince staunch history-deniers of evolution's value. Here, he does something others have done but that he has not...maps out exactly why evolution should be regarded as fact. Dawkins explains exactly what it is we observe that leads us to conclude, beyond any doubt at all, that complex life on this planet is descended from simpler, older forms; That, unquestionably, all life on earth is related; We humans are not only cousins to other primates such as monkeys and apes, but cousins—albeit far more distant cousins—to plants, to even bacteria, even fungi, even viruses: all of it.
Inverse to the note about James Gleick's book Faster previous to this...I was about 2/3 through The Greatest Show On Earth when I happened upon an audio copy at the library. So I'm finishing it in the car and on daily walks.
|The Passage||Justin Cronin||
A ten pound novel as a gift for Father's Day... about vampires: perhaps the ballsiest gift call my wife has ever made, and whaddaya know, I friggin LOVED it.
|Running With Scissors||Augusten Burroughs||
One of the very few books I've started sight unseen; it was a buck at a yard sale, had some nice blurbs from trusted sources, AND it's a memoir (which genre I know I'm not supposed to like but Lord help me I do) so boom. Devoured the first sixty pages in one sitting, laughing loudly and often.
How can a nightmarish childhood at the hands of insane parents be so funny? (I guess how could it NOT?)
|A Naked Singularity||Sergio De La Pava||
10JAN10. Well! January isn't even half over and I think I've already found my favorite book of 2010. I'm precisely 1/6 the way through A Naked Singularity and it has shoved all my other reading to the back burner. I'm having as much fun reading this as I had reading Infinte Jest, and/or Gold Bug Variations, and/or The Lost Scrapbook*. An assload of fun, in other words. (*De La Pava's novel reminds me of Dara's in another way. It's self-published and out-of-nowhere and surprisingly, astronomically good despite. I can't believe it's De La Pava's first novel, and it kills me how hard he will have to work to get a wider audience for it, if he's even able to do that at all.)
27JAN10. I ABSOLUTELY LOVED THIS BOOK. At its heart is the story of Casi, a disenchanted but successful young NYC public defender who is being courted into thievery by a devious (if not downright demonic) coworker named Dane. Dane learned about a multi-million dollar drug deal involving one of Casi's clients, and Dane thinks it's time he and Casi stopped being spectators in life's rich pageant and started "being the change they wish to see" in...themselves. A Naked Singularity is almost 700 pages but it reads much quicker since it holds the reader's interest in a variety of ways; It's very funny (from the silly name mispronunciations in an otherwise serious trial, to an elaborate biblical allegory at a ritzy theme hotel, to the interactions of Casi's extended family...something I'll wager the author shares with his protagonist, judging by the number of De La Pavas thanked in the acknowledgments), action-packed (the heist scenes were light-speed page-turners), very educational (NY legal system...dominant boxers of the 1980s... a Colombian recipe that sounds delicious...with obscure cultural name-drops ranging from "Three's Company," to Nietzsche, to the tragedies of Luis Colosio and Andres Escobar, to that horrfying viral video of the lady darting in front of the speeding locomotive, etc.), erudite (my code for "it has many words I had to look up"), mercilessly heart-rending (the forlorn series of letters between Jalen Kingg, a pathetic, mentally retarded death-row prisoner and Casi, Kingg's latest attorney), completely detail-obsessed at some points (Casi's caseload is laid out over dozens of pages early in the book, to say nothing of how much we learn about boxer Wilfred Benitez) and ridiculously absurd at others (the Clerical Confessions HBO show, or the Monty Python-ish contempt and "C.O.C.K." hearings near the end of the novel), with a tantalizing bit of in medias res to keep pomo-geeks like me happy (while also taking meta-ironic aim at cleverness-for-it's-own-sake...p496), and is topped off with a wicked little plot twist at the end that I SO did not see coming and that I re-read three times, muttering "I'll be damned..." each time.
For a couple weeks A Naked Singularity was a huge part of my life; I looked forward to waking up to it, I thought about it while I was at work, and I couldn't wait to come home to it at the end of the day. How does one recommend a book more strongly than that?
By creating a web page for it. Is how.
|War Dances||Sherman Alexie||
I'd heard of Alexie but never read anything by him until his piece "War Dances" in the New Yorker this summer. It's the title piece in this collection (duh-hoy) and easily the most memorable, although "Breaking and Entering" is up there too. The collection features six or seven short stories, each separated by three smaller things like poems, or Q&A pieces.
|A Life Decoded||J. Craig Venter||
This generation's The Double Helix. The story of a huge scientific discovery, complete with all the scheming and backstabbing. Unlike James Watson's 1968 memoir, A Life Decoded is also its author's full autobiography.
|Wobegon Boy||Garrison Keillor||
I could listen to this guy read biscuit recipes. His own novel though? Not too bad! (That pissy office "apology" had me HOWLING with laughter as I listened to the audiobook in the car!)
|On The Road||Jack Kerouac||
I took a shot at this maybe ten years ago and got perhaps halfway though it before I stopped caring. Took another shot maybe five years ago and didn't get as far. Now I have it on audio and we'll see how far we go... [Finished it , but never really cared. A year after reading and all I can remember is, he met a mexican girl, and ended up in Mexico, somehow, for some length of time.]
|The Man Who Loved China||Simon Winchester||
On audio: The story of Joseph Needham, author the seminal Science And Technology In China series.
A delicious little character study from history's greatest ESL student. Heartrending and heartwarming.
Audiobook: I cannot get over how good this guy is. And ever since Ken Burn's The Civil War I much prefer to hear McCullough reading his own words. (I'm trying to lose some weight, walking 90 minutes a day. Audiobooks make the time pass pleasantly, but listening to McCullough makes the time all but evaporate.)
Loved this! Like most Americans I got the overview of the revolution and most of the headlines in grade school, but just in the barest outline, enough to leave a bolus of unconnected images in my memory. For instance I had no CLUE....
|Sweet and Vicious||David Schickler||
From the man who brought you Kissing In Manhattan. A tasty slice of midwestern lovers-on-the-run romance. Reminds me of Denis Johnson's "Angels" (though I read THAT so long ago I could be way off base with that impression) and Bonnie and Clyde.
|God Is Not Great||Christopher Hitchens||
I'm almost positive I would never read this had I not found a copy of the audiobook at the library; I can listen to Hitchens more easily than I can read him, strangely. (On philosophical subjects, Richard Dawkins can be strident of course, but Hitchens can be snide and snotty: not my idea of entertaining reading.) Turns out Hitchens, here, is not as arrogant as he usually is, he's just laying out the information as he has gleaned it (from what I assume would be an extensive bibliography, not included in the audiobook.) The snide comment or two gets through, but when you consider what he's learned about organized religion and the claims they've made throughout history, and what they've done and continue to do in God's name, it's a wonder he can maintain any sense of fairness and decorum at all.
|Expelled From Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader||McCaffery / Hemmingson||
I've been curious about Vollmann ever since DFW name-dropped him in his phenomenal cruise ship piece "Shipping Out" (later to be rechristened as the title piece of his miraculously good non-fiction collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) and I tend to enjoy anthologies with the word reader in the title; A chance encounter with The John McPhee Reader launched me on a wicked McPhee kick that's never really ended (see my page devoted to McPhee...).
|Angels & Demons||Dan Brown||
DaVinci Code was a quick fun read. I heard from a reliable source that this was a bit better. Indeed it was. [I had the same problems with A&D that I had with The DaVinci Code: supposedly intelligent characters put ridculously elaborate clues together as the clock ticks, but in other scenes they can't recognize screamingly obvious clues that an 8th grader could spot. (Like whether a word is written backwards, etc.) ]
|The Diamond Age||Neal Stephenson||
A breather (if you can call a 500 page novel a breather) before moving on to Stephenson's Baroque Cycle Vol. II, The Confusion. And incredibly dense story of future tribalism combined with nanotechnology run amok.
|The Baroque Cycle Vol. I, Book III: Odalisque||Neal Stephenson||
If Book One: Quicksilver, was primarily about Daniel, and Book Two: King of the Vagabonds was primarily about Jack, Book Three, being titled Odalisque, must be about Eliza. Indeed, she has gone from nearly being executed in a Turkish harem, to a financial impressario who plays European finance like a board game, uses Kings like pawns, and obtains title and position with astonishing political and social alacrity.
It's astonishes me how good Stephenson is thoughout all these books. The Confusion (Baroque Cycle Vol. 2, containing Books 4 & 5) is widely regarded to be better than Volume 1, but I'm holding off a bit. The Diamond Age, Stephenson's post-Snow Crash story of a world consumed by nanotechnology (or so I'd describe it after 130+ pages) has my attention for at least the next week.
|William Smith and the Map That Changed the World||Simon Winchester||
Audiobook. I love that he's reading his own words here. (Winchester could read a friggin' SOFTWARE MANUAL and it would be engaging.)
The first map of what exists UNDER England and Wales was created by one guy in the early 1800s. ONE GUY launches modern geology.
|The Baroque Cycle Vol. I, Book II: King Of The Vagabonds||Neal Stephenson||
I know; pretty ballsy to state that I'm reading entire 2700 page Cycle. I just finished Quicksilver and enjoyed it tremendously. I would say as much as Cryptonomicon, but in a very different way. Both are tremendously educational, but I have to tip my cap to Quciksilver...how else would I EVER learn this much about 17th century Europe and enjoy the process.
02JUL09. Daniel Waterhouse leads off in Quicksilver, Jack Shaftoe comes to the fore in King of the Vagabonds, and now Eliza is rapidly gaining connections and position in western European society in Odalisque.
|Moby Dick||Herman Melville||
As one who claims to enjoy not just books but literature, how precisely have I made it to age 43 not having read this?
6-7-08. Sat up straight, inhaled deeply and started this sucker at long last, and the news I have to report is that there's no news at all: ALL YOU'VE HEARD IS TRUE; there's a reason Moby-Dick is on all sorts of Best Of All Time lists. That bit about the pulpit having a friggin ROPE LADDER? Are you kidding me? AND the preacher pulls up the rope ladder after climbing into the pulpit? Holy crap, what was Melville jonesing on? And Ishmael completely abandoning almost all of his prejudices against "pagan cannibals," growing to feel genuine affection for Queequeg? Masterful. (What a treat, when I really want to like a book, and have wanted to like it for a long time, and then it's better than I was expecting it to be. They're just now boarding the Pequod and I can't wait to read more.)
7-18-08. Back into it and relishing every page. Melville apes Shakespeare with stage directions...an interesting choice, and I'm not minding it.
8-15-08. I'm reading several books concurrently (as you can see) but still loving this one above all. Occasionally—but only occasionally—Melville's language can feel archaic for obvious reasons, but most of the time his prose is smooth and soothing; It really is a pleasure to read. He has a penchant for comparing newly observed phenomena (Ahab's intractible nature, the process of whaling, etc.) with life in general and the human condition; I'm sure it would get annoying in the hands of a lesser writer, but here it's endearing.
4-26-09. Finally finished this after several interruptions (my ADD manifests itself in almost every facet of my life and reading is no exception). If you've ever thought of reading this, get to it. But beware: there's a devious little surprise lying in wait near the end. Not the obvious final confrontation between man and whale, but just prior. A utterly heartwrenching moment between Ahab and Starbuck...
I was halfway through Stephenson's King Of The Vagabonds (which I'm enjoying TREMENDOUSLY...Jack had just used a homemade bomb to feed an entire peasant village!) when months of curiosity—and a Books-a-Million Christmas gift card burning a hole in my pocket—finally got the best of me. If I can resist doing up a web page for this [I did] I might finish it before summer [again, I did.] If my OCD kicks in it could take me through the summer. I'm not plowing through ANYTHING as fast as I burned through Cyrptonomicon again. By not giving my brain any downtime (I was reading any waking moment that I wasn't at work or asleep—and taking copious notes—and molding them into something remotely presentable) I actually made myself sick.
4-18-09. So I lied. Got about 100 pages in per day and devoured this monster over spring break. Dig it: a world where the monks in monasteries are not the hyper-religious scholars but the high-end philosophers & scientists who have been banished by society for thousands of years of work that led to A-bombs, genetic enginering abuse, etc. + they, the monks, can be yanked from the monasteries by society when society isn't smart enough to solve this big problem or that + one of those problems turns out to be an alien invasion + the monks have to dump their robes and don space suits = 1000 pages of yee haa!
|The Baroque Cycle Vol. I, Book I: Quicksilver||Neal Stephenson||
I'm not sure I've ever seen a writer do what Neal Stephenson has done/is doing with his career. His name is well-made with Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, but The Baroque Cycle shows an artistic maturation that is geometric, not merely arithmetic. Quicksilver was so entertaining while also being terrifically educational. My only regret is that, even with a breakneck reading pace, it will still take forever and a day to enjoy all of this. (And Anathem awaits beyond the horizon too!)
|The Partly Cloudy Patriot||Sarah Vowell||
Audio, in the car, between bits of Simon Winchester. And as with Winchester's book, I prefer to hear the book rendered in the author's imperfect but utterly engaging voice. Here' she's talking about Gettysburg, politics, her own silly life, etc.
Cryptonomicon had me jonesing for cyberpunk. This has Blade Runner and especially The Matrix written all over it (or vice versa) (or vices versas) (whatever). Gibson's style is bare-bones; you have to fill in a lot of gaps and it's a lot of fun seeing if your imagination matches Gibson's. Most of the time mine can't hold a candle. Luckily there's a lot of help online:
1. Chapter notes at Rochester wiki
2. Dean Taciuch's notes
3. Paul Brians' study guide.
4. Good ol' Wikipedia.
This thing is a monster, but I've wanted it ever since finishing Snow Crash. Finding a paperback copy for $2 was a very happy accident. (Now...I'd like to pick it up soon, but Confederacy of Dunces just came today. Stay tuned.)
1-11-08 AND...I found a nice copy of Moby Dick, a book I've been admonishing myself for reaching the age of 43 not having read.
1-24-09. Alright, I haven't finished Moby Dick yet, and don't care. I know I'm loving it and I'm not in the least worried that I won't finish it! BUT...phenomenal reviews of Stephenson's recently released Anathem steered me toward the Baroque Cycle, none of which I owned at that moment, and toward Cryptonomicon, which I did, and which has been on my short list since finishing Snow Crash a few years back, as I said. It didn't take long (two pages?) to remember that Stephenson's style is one of the things I enjoyed about Snow Crash, and it wasn't much longer after that that I committed...not only to all 1130 small-font pages of Cryptonomicon, but to all 2800 pages of the seven Baroque Cycle novels, AND THEN to Anathem which I think is pushing a thousand pages itself! We'll see. When I embarked on my five month Richard Powers binge I was pretty sure I wouldn't honor that long term committment and somehow I did. (It won't happen if the writing isn't good, but then you won't make that kind of committement to writing that isn't good.)
2-11-09. A day or two from wrapping this puppy up, if you can believe it. (Averaging about 40 pages a day AND doing chapter thumbnails as I go...look for a Cryptonomicon page on this site, possibly this weekend.)
2-14-09. Good God... I may never recover from reading this unforgettable book! It takes its place along side Infinite Jest and Gold Bug Variations as one of my lifetime favorites.
|Twilight||Stephanie Meyer||Certain titles become cultural imperatives. Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, and you can't teach in a public school today, as I do, without seeing one of the four current iterations of Meyer's Twilight series flowing up and down the hallway in most female hands. An exaggeration perhaps, but in fact, in my five classes, perhaps two copies of the book will be visible on desktops at any moment. Counting the perhaps one or two more copies lurking in backpacks, you're talking about perhaps 3 of 25 students reading them. Extrapolate to a student body of 2200 and you have over 250 kids reading the books (to say nothing of the ones who've already read) which might not be Harry Potter numbers, but for all I know it might be, and either way it's not bad at all in a time of Wii, Xbox, and 500 TV channels.
1-2-09. Not bad! It ain't JK Rowling but all things considered, I enjoyed it. (The things considered? As I mentioned about Rowling when discussing Harry Potter & The Order Of The Phoenix, Meyer has not met an adverb she doesn't like. And there was a point about halfway though where, if Bella said ONE MORE THING about how beautiful Edward is and how she didn't deserve him, I would have flung the book into a wall. Luckily she seemed to take a cold shower just in time.)
|Outliers||Malcolm Gladwell||Well-paced, well thought out, brief, and terribly, terribly insightful. (I'll never be able to enjoy summer vacation again!)|
|The Ancestors Tale||Richard Dawkins||
What am I going to do? My reading list, as you can see, is quite long. I cannot be starting new books, and I CERTAINLY can't be starting ten-pounders like this one....BUT IT'S SO DAMNED GOOD! Dawkins isn't afraid to get too techinical, which I like because often I can follow him, he's that good of an elucidator. The story is of a journey taken by a time-traveler travelling BACK in time at great speed, meeting up with all the branches in his evolutionary tree (first we hook up with chimps, then other primates, then other mammals, etc.) Sooner or later a representative of all our ancestors will be walking with us as we walk further and further back in time. The narrative is patterned after Chaucer. (The Chimpanzee's tale, The Blue Whale's Tale, etc. Although the Blue Whale's nearest relative is the hippopotamus of course, not us, but Dawkins occasionally digresses for fascinating little side trips like that.)
7-27-07. Started this again, but was quickly derailed by Harry Potter 7 (see below).
|On Beauty||Zadie Smith||
Audiobook, via iPod, on midday, hour-long summer walks (i. e. work-out walks). As with all audiobooks, the quality of the voice talent weighs heavily on the quality of the experience—an added dimension that can enhance or detract from the writing itself. As such, this reader, Peter Francis James...Good GOD Magnum...completely convincing as: upper-crusty academic 50-something white male Brit (Howard), AND gangsta wanna-be black male teenager (Levi), AND disaffected black teenage female (Zora), AND Esther Rolle-ish, maybe Nell Carter-ish black matriarch (Kiki) AND rapper Carl, and at least a dozen other Hatians and Brits and New Englanders...the mind reels at a performance talent matched here only by Zadie Smith's writing talent. The first paragraph of Chapter 4:
When it comes to weather, New Englanders are delusional. In his ten years on the east coast Howard has lost count of the time some loon from Massachusetts had heard his accent, looked at him pitiably, and said something like "Cold over there huh?" Howard's feeling was, look. Let's get a few things straight here. England is not warmer than New England in July or August, that's true. Probably not in June either. But it is warmer in October, November, December, January, February, March, April and May. That is, in every month when warmth matters. In England, letterboxes do not jam with snow. Rarely does one see a squirrel tremble. It is not necessary to pick up a shovel in order to unearth your rubbish bins. This is because it is never really very cold in England. It is drizzly, and the wind will blow; hail happens and there is a breed of Tuesday in January in which time creeps and no light comes and the air is full of water and nobody really loves anybody.'24SEP08. Fantastic! And it shocks and pleases me to read that David Foster Wallace was her favorite writer. You'd never know it to read either of the two books of hers I've enjoyed (White Teeth being the other. Which see, well down this page.)
In the bargain bin at friggin' Food Lion, of all places. Not only is the story engaging, Crichton appends an extensive recommended reading list, and since I'm teaching genetics and genomics (among other biological subjects) I couldn't have found this at a better time (though of course Melville gets pushed back yet again, through no fault of his own.)
|The Easy Chain||Evan Dara||
Sure enough, I FINALLY curl up with Moby-Dick, and this sucker comes out! (It won't be here for a few days, but the moment it arrives I shall dive in. His first book is a stunner, one of my all time favorites (as you can read below and can see on my page devoted to it.) 6-16-08. It's here, I'm getting started. See the top of this page for current comments.
6-26-08. Done. If I can ever get my head around this, I may give it its own page...
|In Persuasion Nation||George Saunders|
|The Brief And Frightening Reign of Phil||George Saunders||
Bought a canister of blank DVDs frm Amazon and needed a few extra bucks to reach the hallowed $25 tally, earning free shipping. I keep about three dozen books in the Save For Later part of my Amazon shopping cart for just such occasions: if the "New/Amazon.com" price is less than $4 over the cheapest Used/Marketplace price ($4 being the cost of shipping in Marketplace) then I can buy a new copy from Amazon. TBAFROP was the only book whose Used price was still close to the new price. (At the time of purchase; The Used price has come way down since then.)
ANYWAY....the book itself is a political allegory. You will not find Pastoralia- or CivilWarLand-grade laughs here, but you'll find a few. More importantly, you'll find Saunders's withering commentary on the basic human tendency to separate others into "Us's" and "Them's", and on the—usually concomitant—basic human tendency to follow blindly leaders who describe the Thems in ways soothing to Us. (It MIGHT take you 60-90 minutes to read these 130 small, wide-margined, nearly double-spaced, occasionally illustrated pages. If you're a Saunders fan, I think it's worth it.
|The Discomfort Zone||Jonathan Franzen||
He read the first chapter at the Miami Book Fair and CSPAN filmed him earlier this year and I ripped it to mp3. I've enjoyed the mp3 enough times that I committed to a print copy. I listened and read along. Franzen's reading is far more evocative than his text alone (which might seem obvious, but many writers' voices do not do their own words justice, I've noticed.) This makes me wonder what sorts of nuance am I not getting from, really, ANY writer, when I hear his/her words with my brain voice and not their reading voice. [I first noticed this in SJ Perelman's hilarious Raymond Chandler spoof, "Farewell My Lovely Appetizer" which was published in The New Yorker in 1944 (Dec 16, p but which I first encountered via Selected Shorts, where it was read HILARIOUSLY by James Naughton. (Not an exaggeration. My "Farewell" mp3 is one of the handful—of my dozen thousand—that I like so well I could listen to it immediately after listening to it.)]
|The Braindead Megaphone||George Saunders||
One of my favorite fiction writers (Pastoralia and CivilWarLand In Bad Decline are hilarious, as mentioned in the Broom Of The System comment below) turns his pen to commentary and reportage. I still prefer his fiction but this was engagingly poignant and hard to put down.
|How To Be Alone||Jonathan Franzen||
All SORTS of good stuff in here. His tiff with Oprah ("Meet Me In St. Louis"), a long piece ("Why Bother?" usually referred to as the Harper's Essay) where he questions the relevancy of the novel as an artform; another long piece about corruption and whistleblowers in the the Chicago Post Office ("Lost In The Mail." This is a fantastic article, I must say); another terrific article on prisons in Colorado ("Control Units").
|A Confederacy of Dunces||John Kennedy Toole||
A friend recently raved about how much fun she was having with this and promised to give me her copy as soon as she finished with it. Well screw waiting, said me, when I can get used books for a song online!
1-18-08. About 3/4 through this and enjoying it. Very silly, great fun, although the valve thing is getting beaten to death, along with the worldview thing.
|The Periodic Kingdom||P. W. Atkins||
Irresistably slim at 149 pages, and a brilliantly conceived survey of the periodic table of the elements, presented as if it (the table) were a kingdom and the elements are regions. Various 3D maps of the "kingdom" (elevations based upon atomic diameter, another based upon atomic mass, another based on ionization energies, etc.) show, clearly, how these characteristics of the elements are interrlated. The analogy is fascinatingly apt in some instances; when it rains in the region of potassium, the drops of water explode on impact with the terrain, pointing up the extreme reactivity of potassium and water. Atkins's writing style can feel slightly stilted at times. (How many times need one use the word consanguinity, and in sentences like this? "Complexity can effloresce from subtly different consanguinity." This is a bit rich for a book putatively aimed at a general reader.) Still, I teach basic chemisty, yet I'm gaining new insights about the table in general and several elements in particular. For a science geek like me, the book is quite fun.
|The Broom Of The System||David Foster Wallace||
My 2nd trip through this novel, Wallace's (if legend has it correctly) 1985 senior thesis at Amherst College. I'd forgotten just how much fun this guy was when he was young. Not to suggest I don't enjoy his recent stuff, definitely I do. But these days it's his non-fiction I tend to reach for. Back in the mid-80s DFW was just NUTS: characters named Candy Mandible, Judith Prietht...a publishing house named Frequent & Vigorous...a desert installed in the heart of Ohio...a cold-blooded great-grandmother (literally, not figuratively: her room must be kept at 98.6 or she goes hypothermic) named Lenore Beadsman, the same name as her great-granddaughter, the book's protagonist....and I'm not even to page 80 yet. (Did I mention the precocious cockatiel named Vlad the Impaler?)
Wallace remains on a short list of favorite authors that not only are erudite, but have a real sense of play that I find irresistible: (Pynchon, specifically in Crying Of Lot 49), George Saunders (both Pastoralia and CivilWarLand In Bad Decline are RIOTS); David Schickler (not just "The Smoker" but the rest of Kissing In Manhattan as well...see below), I'll add to this list, I'm sure.
|Flight Of Passage||Rinker Buck||
Back in 1966, Rinker and his brother Kern (15 & 17 respectively) flew a rebuilt Piper Cub from New Jersey to California in 7 days (6 days flying, one day off in El Paso). It's on many lists of great flying stories, so knowing how much I loved West With The Night (Beryl Markham) and both Biplane and Stranger To The Ground (Richard Bach) I took a shot. Two chapters in and I'm enjoying it. Stay tuned.
8-3-07. Very entertaining! With relative ease, Buck alternates between sounding like the introspective 45 year old he was when he wrote it to the brash 15 year old he was at the time of the flight. And for the record, I was able to discern that the flight took place from Saturday, July 2, 1966, when they departed Basking Ridge, NJ, to Friday, July 8, 1966, when they arrived in southern California. Buck never states these dates in his narrative—in fact he appears to go out of his way not to mention the Fourth of July on the 4th of July!—but gives three or four clues for those such as myself who enjoy light detective work.
Also intersting, I thought: the UPI wire report reproduced at the start of Chapter 16 (p. 239 in my edition) has several facts screwed up, clearly the info came from Tom Buck (the boys' father) in advance of the actual events. I also was amused to read in one of the reprinted newspaper clippings in Chapter 19 (pp. 294-295) that Tom told the "Reporter At Large" (Finston) that his crash in 1945 was a military crash...while Rinker writes on p. 186 that dad's crash, in 1946 actually, was clearly not a military excursion. Another reprinted clipping retains two handwritten asterisks highlighting a) more of Dad's exaggeration (he never saw combat) and b) Dad mentioning the nonexistent waterbag, which is a recurring comedic issue thoughout the narrative.
|Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows||J. K. Rowling||
All you've heard is true: best of the seven...amazing, if not downright inspirational. By the end of this book I was yelling at it, talking to it...crying. (Yes, Abigail Mae, I said crying. I think reviewer Tina Jordan put it best: "I wasn't just riveted, I was overcome.") Funny, sad, action-packed, romantic, mysterious...it's just an amazing achievement, the best of the series, I think I already said, because as much as I enjoy postmodernism and other "pomo tricks," (as visitors to this site well know by now) there really is something to be said for good old fashioned resolution. And on THAT count, trust me, this book delivers like Domino's. (The word closure bobs in this book's wake, and will as long as people are reading these books, which I can all but guarantee will be for hundreds of years. At least.)A few images from the book that are already seared into my memory: (MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW. Highlight the following white area to view the hidden text)
Other random thoughts: Like all six of its predecessors, at right around the 2/3 mark Deathly Hallows goes from being a good story to being a can't-put-it-down page-turner • Like the recently released Order of the Phoenix movie, Deathly Hallows has no Quidditch in it whatsoever, but you do need to know about Quidditch to understand some details • A gadget that we haven't seen since—if I'm not mistaken—Book One, Chapter One, reappears in a crucial role. (I'm mistaken: it shows up in Order of the Phoenix too, but only momentarily.)
|Kissing In Manhattan||David Schickler||
Yet another gem I got for a SONG at the local library's book sale. This curious cross between a novel and a short story collection includes Schickler's hilarious debut piece, "The Smoker," which was published in the The New Yorker (June 19, 2000) and changed his life almost literally overnight.
I was happy to see that "The Smoker" is not a one-off from Schickler...that the wit and humor on display in "The Smoker" pervades the entire book. (I was also thrilled to read that Schickler is a big fan of CivilWarLand In Bad Decline by George Saunders, since the last—in fact the only— time I've laughed aloud this much while reading was when I was reading Saunders.) I didn't know that the eleven stories were connected in any way (though it's hinted at plainly in the jacket notes. Duh.) and this made for a surreal experince as I randomly selected stories to read. Character names kept reappearing, not to mention the enigmatic apartment building named The Preemption which is the only "character" that seems to appear in all the stories (I've read five of the eleven).
When you approach someone you know but haven't seen in a while, and whom you address by name, you can tell within millliseconds that they don't remember you even if they are good at covering the fact. This book talks about that sort of instantaneous judgement...the little ways you asses a situation instantly and, most of the time, correctly. (Holy crap, you MUST take a look at this short talk by Gladwell, not only for his engaging story about marketing phenomena...BUT FOR THAT HAIR. I can't come up with a single person to compare Gladwell to, hair-wise. It must be seen to be believed.)
|Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers.||Mary Roach|
|Blood Meridian||Cormac McCarthy||This has been on my list for years now. Both David Foster Wallace and Harold Bloom—two writers who could not be more different—both worship this thing, so why not gve it a whirl?
6-30-07. Upon finishing this phenomenal story I immediately did some research. It turns out that most of this barbaric novel is based on true events. If so....hell, if so then I'm speechless; I was pretty naive about just how uncivilized civilized humans can be. At times (at many times) I was reading the book with jaws agape. The violence flashes like lightning and just as quickly is done, the reader left attempting to digest what happened. (Often I couldn't even tell what happened. McCarthy used so many arcane terms, I had to read at the computer so I could google unknown words. A quick flip through my well-marked copy reveals an average of something like two unfamiliar terms per page. One page had six.)
|Something Happened||Joseph Heller||
When the publisher who fought for (and essentially discovered) Catch-22 says this one is better, you pay attention. This has been on my not-so-short list since seeing Robert Gottlieb rave about it in The Stone Reader.
5-13-07. I'm weird. I had Call It Sleep in my hands, open and reading. But I set it aside for The Stones of Summer, which I was enjoying with minor reservations, then my Richard Powers Half-Year commenced and nothing else mattered until I'd digested every word he'd written. Now I'm done, and what book do I pick up? Stones? Call It Sleep? Neither. I pick up this sucker of course. I told you, I'm weird.
(Who knows; Maybe, like the others, THIS one will be a victim of circumstance and be deferred through no fault of its own...ain't life grand?)
6-12-07. Now, I'm not going to say "Nothing happened," (as some infamous reviewer wrote long ago) but this book just did not work very well for me as entertainment. Much of it has to do with the repulsiveness of the protagonist. I did not feel good when he felt good and I did not feel bad when he felt bad. The opposite was true, in fact. It felt too much like work as well. This is the kind of book I should have put down after 200 pages or so, something I can NEVER DO. I guess I was holding out for a more satisfying resolution. Or, really, any resolution.
I brought several "literature" books with me on a recent trip to Kissimmee/Disney, and at the last minute threw this into my bag. Whaddaya know, ended up digging into this hard and fast. I completely loved Darwin's Radio, Blood Music and Moving Mars so why not? So far so good...the asteroid Juno was inhabited by humans in like 2500 AD or so, but far down the line they learned time travel and the asteroid—60 miles wide and 180 miles long and essentially hollowed out, containing several cities—has come back from the future to help us deal with the nuclear havoc we've wreaked upon our planet. I'm about halfway through at this point.
5-13-07. Bear is amazing. At no time when I'm reading him do I feel all the things I feel when reading other science fiction (namely, at least once saying to the writer: "OK, dude, you're trying too hard here..."). At the end of Eon, Bear gives us a four part epilog that is is satisfying in the same way the preceding main story was: Incredibly and WILDLY imagined and extremely well written. I would read the previously mentioned three books before reading this again (which is meant far more as a statement about them than about Eon, believe me) but I'd read anything by Bear before anything by any other Sci Fi writer save for perhaps Asimov.
|The Immortal Game||David Shenk||
The book illucidates—move by move—the famous 1851 pickup game between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky (two chess giants of the day) while also presenting minutae about the game, its history, it's practitioners. I chose to read through the game analysis chapters first...they alternate with the history chapters. (The game has been famous since the moment it ended—less than an hour after it started—and rightly so. Anderssen hands over his two Rooks and Queen, completely numbing Keiseritsky to the subtle murder he's committing with his Knights and Bishop.)
|Permanent Midnight||Jerry Stahl||
The friend who offhandedly recommended The Queen's Gambit has been also (but NOT AT ALL offhandedly) trying to get me to read this for years, going so far as to buy me a copy recently. I'm 2/3 through it and all I can do is wonder why I enjoy not only this story but all stories of heroin addiction. The Naked Lunch, Trainspotting, Jesus' Son, Pulp Fiction... the list goes on (I'll be renting Requiem For A Dream soon, instantaneously recommended to me by a coworker upon my confession of my morbid fascination), and I end up in tears reading and seeing what these people do to themselves and the people around them. It's a shattering experience as a reader/movie-goer; what on earth must it be like to experience this madness firsthand? (I'm happy to confine that to my imagination, of course.)
3-7-07. What does one say after reading something like this? I've written five or six thoughts here but I keep deleting them; Nothing comes close to describing this book, save perhaps for a heavyweight punch to the solar plexus. This one will be with me for quite awhile.
|The Echo Maker||Richard Powers||I've heard of people buying up all of one author's work and reading it all  and I never understood it. Boy do I now. The past five months have been one amazing story after another, a string of great reads....each one I couldn't wait to come home to after work, that I looked for excuses to escape with. The Echo Maker is no exception. (It's not feeling like one of his best, but that's not really saying anything since Powers has yet to write a bad book. Besides, I just passed the 2/3 mark this morning and who knows WHAT lies in wait in the final third! The jaw-dropping moment that makes Plowing The Dark great doesn't happen until very near the end, though of course The Gold Bug Variations was and is great from start to finish. As I once read, there's something almost monumental about GBV.)
Point is, The Echo Maker is not only a rich, mulitvalent experience, it's shaping up to be a sort of mystery. Dare I say a whodunnit?
 Mark Moskowitz talks about it in his terrific documentary The Stone Reader which, if you love to read, you should see.
|The Time Of Our Singing||Richard Powers||
Who would have thunk, back in September (see Prisoner's Dilemma, about six rungs down) when I expressed my pipe dream of devouring Richard Powers's entire body of work, that I would actually be able to stay focussed enough to do it, with my A.D.D. A**?
2-3-07. Finished this mini-monster last night, a few strokes after midnight, and by now, saying "WOW, HOLY SH**, THAT WAS AMAZING" after closing the back cover of a Powers novel is just not saying anything anymore because it has happened almost every single time. So this time, I'll say: Even if The Echo Maker sucks canal water (and of course it doesn't) he would deserve that National Book award, or seven. In Time Of Our Singing, We follow several characters in one multiracial American family from birth to death...and that's about all I'll attempt to share in this limited space aside from also stressing that the book is vast, and complicated, and because it's an exhaustive retelling of a unique but surely not uncommon African-American experience, I often forgot I was reading a writer who's writing prior to this book was certainly not anti-diversity, but not terribly diverse. (I can't recall any black characters—not so much as a figurant—in any of his prior work. Not that multiculturalism is a requirement for good writing: the fact remains that there are countless places in this country where there are few if any black people, and I don't see why stories set there are less valid than ones set in any of the countless places where there are few if any white people, or a 50-50 mix. And really, no one said they are, so I'm sort of talking to myself here I guess.)
Anyway. My only caveats, and there're two: 1) occasionally Powers overdoes his emphasis: "She closed the door, ending every story ever written..." or some such. Luckily this only happens once every dozen pages or so, so I'll cut him slack. 2) The aging of the voices. Characters at 20 are verbally indistinct from characters at 50. Powers drops a lot of cultural refernces that one can use to establish and maintain chronology—which I like, not only for continuity's sake, but for the fun of actually looking stuff up—but Jonah and Joey's conversations in 1992 sound and feel the same as their exchanges in the early 60s.
|Plowing The Dark||Richard Powers||
My Powers project is making me antsy...I'm liking almost everything I'm reading from him (including THIS!) but I REALLY want to check out his new one, The Echo Maker, which recently won a National Book Award. (Operation Wandering Soul was nominated in 1993 but lost to The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx...another book I loved.)
It's a test of my discipline to read this and then the huge Time of Our Singing (and read them well, taking notes and looking stuff up on Google, the way I usually read a book...not just blasting though it), and only THEN tackling The Echo Maker. As I've mentioned, no one is more surprised than I that I've stuck to this program! It doesn't hurt at all that I've almost completely connected with almost all of Powers's work: this is no chore.
12-26-06. Of the six Powers novels I've finished since August, this one is takes it's place with Galatea 2.2 as a lifetime favorite. Don't get me wrong, I loved all these books, and do indeed recommend them all for various reasons, but Plowing the Dark has a subtle twist at the end that lifts it above the others, and in a way, above The Gold Bug Variations. I'm not going to spoil it, but two pages before the end of this 400+ page novel—that is in essentially two unrelated, interlaced novels—Powers brings the two stories together in a way that, for me at least, was utterly and magnificently jawdropping.
On to The Time Of Our Singing!
Against all odds, and with, so far, only one diversion (the delectable Chess Artist, inhaled in about 4 days, last month) I appear to be holding true to my goal of reading all of Richard Powers's books consecutively (excepting of course The Gold Bug Variations, WHICH I STILL LOVE, TWO YEARS AFTER READING IT.)
Gain is two stories wrapped around each other, that never overlap and barely intersect, like the two snakes in a cadeucus. One story is the 160 year saga of the Clare Chemical Company, (a la Procter & Gamble, Dow, etc. P&G is occasionally cited in the novel as Clare's main competition) which begins in 1830 when a gentleman named Clare and his sons haul some of their homemade soap to a customer on the other side of Boston. The shipping cost them more than their received payment, but the soap was such a hit that the company took off and never looked back, growing and diversifying, reacting to changes in the country's politics and economy (Civil War, myriad depressions and recessions) over the next century and a half. The other story concerns Chicago-area real-estate agent Laura Bodey and her bout with ovarian cancer. The barest of intersections in the two stories occurs near the end when it appears that Clare's chemicals are the cause of Laura's cancer.
This novel reminded me of Evan Dara's The Lost Scrapbook quickly and often. In fact I would not at all be surprised to learn that Powers had been influenced by Dara's novel.
|The Chess Artist||JC Hallman||
Taking a break from my Powers obsession to nurture my ongoing love affair with chess (begun ostensibly with my first reading of David Foster Wallace's (still) amazing essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" but which was pulled into mercilessly tight focus two years ago with my first—and immediately upon completing it, second—reading of Walter Tevis's fanstastic chess novel The Queen's Gambit.)
|Operation Wandering Soul||Richard Powers||
One of the character's in Galatea 2.2 that I liked (Diane) really disliked Operation Wandering Soul. Color me curious to see why Powers would have one of his characters hate one of his books (and hate was indeed the word Diane/Powers used.)
12-23-06. I'm halfway through Plowing The Dark, and of the six Powers novels I've read, only Operation Wandering Soul here left me scratching my head. Undoubtedly virtuosic, but there is a plot twist at the end which facilitates the ultimately positive message of the book. If you miss that twist—and I did—this book will seem, well, hopeless. And even if true, that's OK, we can't all have a happy ending
|Prisoner's Dilemma||Richard Powers||
Powers's second book. Number nine comes out next month, and I've decided that I'm going to work my way from his first (the just completed Three Farmers On Their Way To A Dance) to the most recent (the as yet unreleased #9, The Echo Maker.) By the time I finish this, then gobble up #4 (Operation Wandering Soul. #3 is Gold Bug Variations which I read a couple years ago) then devour #6 (Gain. #5 is Galatea 2.2 which I read just last month and which pretty much started this mania) then #7 (Plowing The Dark) then #8 (The Time Of Our Singing) then Echo Maker, it should be time to pick out my summer reading next June!
With my wandering eye and short attention span, I seriously doubt I'll be able to stay focussed over six books. We'll see.
|Three Framers On Their Way To A Dance||Richard Powers||
Loved Powers's The Gold Bug Variations in a huge way, Galatea 2.2 was both similar to—and different enough from—GBV not to disappoint. So now I'm starting at the beginning with Mr. Powers. The story goes (as explained in the half-autobiography, half-Pygmalion fable ) Powers was working in computers (DP?) in Boston and one day, in a museum, turned a corner and saw August Sander's famous eve-of-WWI photo of the eponymous three farmers. Eight books later (I think his 9th is soon to be released) he's one of the country's most respected fiction writers, and—better yet—rapidly nearing the top of my love list.
|Life Interrupted||Spalding Gray (audio)||
This poor bastard. I worshipped him from fairly early on, coddling and protecting a VHS recording of an HBO broadcast of his Terrors of Pleasure monologue for over 16 years before converting it to DVD last month. It dawned on me during one of his monologues (I don't know which one it was, Monster In A Box, maybe Gray's Anatomy...whichever one in which he was uncontrollably barking) that this guy, loveable genius though he might be, was one seriously screwed up puppy. And then, even though he was with one woman for, what, a couple decades? He finds love with someone else, settles down and starts a family, and life is suddenly good. And he thinks "How am I going to write any more monologues when I have no more crises in my life?" Within a day of expressing that thought while visiting friends in Ireland, he is involved in a horrific car crash that doesn't quite take his life, but screws him up so badly that he instantly had many more crises worth writing about. But the wreck wasn't what drove him to suicide in the end. The wreck was merely the first domino to fall, with other dominoes representing his inability to reclaim the Long Island house he immediately regretted selling, being a master storyteller but by chance not being in NYC on 9-11-01 and missing the story of a lifetime, and of course, to borrow his own words (from his phenomenal breakout performance Swimming To Cambodia) "...other things...we will never know about."
Sam Shephard is reading this final monologue, and while I always have liked Shephard in the past and do definitely like listening to him read here, there are so many phrases that are characteristically Gray—I can hear Spalding saying them so differently than Shephard does, pausing for effect here, milking it for the laugh there...I'm happy to have it, but it's just not the same.
|Body and Soul||Frank Conroy||
And the pinball bounces again...I have three Richard Powers novels enroute—overdue actually—and good ol' Dow Mossman splayed out on my dining room table with plenty o' notes and scribblins, and on a fluke I go and and dive into this that's been on my shelf three years, a beautiful hardcover copy that I got from the local library for like $5, and then grew to hate the deckle edge and later actually sanded the deckle edge off to make the pages smooth and flip-able or thumb-able.
Aug 31, 2006. There's actually a word for this type of book, a book that follows a character from youth to adulthood: bildungsroman. It's an unweildy word, in my opinion, though I've seen it in several places before, and in fact it was one of those words I'd had to look up five or ten times and never absorbed the meaning of. But the shoe fits like a...like a....(no.) But it does! I LOVED THIS, in no small part because it reminded me so much of Walter Tevis's book The Queens Gambit (scroll down a-ways). The kid's a poor prodigy piano player. Mommy drinks, no dad, kid meets a kindly music teacher who, luckily, has ALL SORTS of connections (actually, this kid lucks into a LOT of sh** that I came simply to refer to as "narrative lube," which descriptor you'd think would sort of have to disqualify a book from being good, and maybe it does. But I still loved this. I came to care quite a bit about what happened to almost every character in the book. Even some unsavory ones.)
|Galatea 2.2||Richard Powers||
My attention, w/r/t books, is more and more like a pinball, glancing off this bumper, then resting in that little bucket seat only for a second until it gets bopped back into play. I FINALLY sat down with Stones of Summer after FINALLY sitting down with Call it Sleep...and then happened across a $4 copy of this. As you can see if you scroll down a year or two, I loved Powers's The Gold Bug Variations more, almost, than my own sweet pulse and have been scheming a re-read ever since finishing it.
This will do for now; half the page count, and it is freakishly meta in a way I've never seen meta done before: The book features Powers himself as the protagonist in obviously fictional construct (teaching a computer program to think, more or less) but the construct is embedded in a narrative that, with not much research, proves to be Powers's own literary history. His first four novels—Galatea 2.2 is his fifth—are alluded to then later dicussed outright in this novel as they are written and released. Powers even offers witheringly honest reactions to some reviews of his first four. AND...in the case of good old GBV, a fair amount of explication is provided, with (joy!) my beloved Jan O'Deigh (GBV heroine) making a cameo! So of course I love it.
|Speak, Memory||Vladimir Nabokov||
Started this several years ago. It was great* and getting better but I got sidetracked (as is my wont). I finally bumped it to the top of my list.
*And by great I don't mean really good. I mean, every paragraph has at least one moment that inspires awe at the simple mastery of the language. And all this from a writer for whom English is a second language. (Check that. Third language. He was born in Russia, but around his aristocratic household French seems to have been the preferred language. )
7-30-06. I started this in 2000. I read a chapter or two last summer, but it's now about time I gave this amazing book the attention it more than deserves.
8-6-06 What a lovely, lovely book. I'm always amazed when I know I'll reread a book, despite having so many unread books on my list. I had to create a page for this one.
|Coming Into The Country||John McPhee||
A detailed look at three regions of Alaska....Northwest Alaska, in "The Encircled River," Urban Alaska (Anchorage & Juneau) in "What They Were Hunting For," and the upper Yukon, near the Canadian border, in "Coming Into The Country". If you've ever wondered if, in this day and age, people live in the woods and hunt and fish to feed themselves and avoid almost all traces of civilization, the answer is "read this book," and "yes." If you've ever wondered if YOU could, the answer is "read this book," and "you probably can't."
|Heirs Of General Practice||John McPhee||
An examination of "family medicine" and "general practice" in Maine. Both sides of the Specialization debate are presented, but it's mighty hard to argue against a good old family doctor for a community located in the middle of nowhere.
|Abandon Ship!||Richard Newcombe, Peter Maas||
The movie Jaws. The three of them are going after the shark. Quint, Brody and Hooper are in the belly of the boat at night, drinking, having a few laughs, trading stories about scars. Quint shaves everyone's buzz when he points out that one of HIS scars was obtained during the torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis, July 30, 1945, and subsequent 4 days in the water while no help came and survivors were ravaged by sharks.
It's a famous moment in a famous movie based on an actual event. This book reveals excruciating details about the torpedo attack, the sinking, the survivors adrift on the Pacific at the mercy of the sun and the sharks. it also reveals INFURIATING details about a ridiculous kangaroo court martial which drove the ship's surviving captain to commit suicide, and details about the worthless bags of **** that set him up and allowed him to take the fall.
The book was originally published in 1958. My version has a fascinating afterward by Peter Maas, with recently discovered details about how the Navy brass knew the Indianapolis was sailing straight toward enemy subs but withheld that knowledge, allowed the captain to think he was in safe waters, then had the GALL to court-martial him for NOT sailing in a defensive manner: THE ONLY CAPTAIN OF A SUNKEN SHIP TO BE COURT-MARTIALED IN WWII.
|The Control Of Nature||John McPhee||
The New Yorker re-ran the first third of this book after Katrina battered and soaked Louisiana. The first third, which originally ran in the late 80s, concerns human efforts to control the Mississippi River. The second third of the book concerns man's effort to control the lava flows off the southern coast of Iceland. The final third concerns man's effort to control the not-so-gradual disintegration of the San Gabriel mountains in southern California.
As always, McPhee is a model of simplicity and literary efficiency that could easily be described as virtuosic. Writers who can make complex technical and scientific concepts easy to understand are exceedingly hard to find, and while McPhee is getting on in years (born in 1931) the world is lucky that he got very good very early in his life and that he is prolific; we have at least 30 books by him.
|The Chocolate War||Robert Cormier||
A book for teens that a colleague recommended highly. (Since I also work with teens, maybe it's about time I read something written for them!)
|Longitude||Dava Sobel||I've read this book twice now, and I still love it. It's brief (my first reading was in one sitting) and one gets the sense that some serious editing was done. The interpersonal drama between Victorian academics and Noblemen seems like it could have made this book 500 pages long at least, but Dava Sobel keeps the narrative humming. As in James Watson's "The Double Helix," the high science is presented in such an engaging manner that it could almost be called a page-turner!
PREMISE: Before the mid-1700s, mariners, even high-level naval officers, were dying at sea because they were getting lost. Sailors could easily tell their latitude by the elevation of the sun and stars, but finding one's LONGITUDE, on the surface of a sphere that rotates at 1000 miles per hour at the equator, demands precision timekeeping, and they simply did not have the necessary precision in a portable timekeeper. Sure, on clear days and nights they could use the relative positions of the sun, moon and stars, but these methods required extremely complicated calculations, and took HOURS. (Forget about cloudy days and nights, as well as times when the deck is pitching and rolling, as in a storm.) So the British government offered what today would be over $10 million to the person who could design a clock with the accuracy AND portability required for oceanic navigation (i.e. a clock that neither loses nor gains more than 3 seconds per day. At the time clocks were off by as much as a couple minutes per day.) Long story short: a non-scientist named John Harrison designed a heavy (50+ pounds) but accurate clock, but was conspired against by the powers that be (scientists) who thought clocks were a "gimmick." The story is about the 5 clocks he made, how accurate they are, and especially who conspired against him and how. (And his son. This is a story that compasses decades.)
|Freakonomics||Steven leavitt & Stephen Dubner||
This was a VERY quick and very interesting read, and reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point strongly and often.
|Zazie And The Metro||Raymond Queneau||
Had never heard of Queneau but for a single mention in Evan Dara's novel The Lost Scrapbook. Just started this.
1-26-06. What the hell? A trippy romp around Paris, and then the cops open up with machine guns?? And who gives a sh** about Zazie? By the end I couldn't have cared less what happened to her, I was far more interestied in Marceline and Charles, or "Unkoo" Gabriel. Which is OK since Zazie is actually a supporting role in the story.
|Adventures of a No Name Actor||Marco Perella||
Christmas gift...one or two chapters in and liking it. FUNNY because he doesn't BS. If big stars act like assholes Perella says so, and names names, which is even funnier.
1-1-06. This is HILARIOUS! Every story has made me laugh out loud. I also like how it seems clear this writer/actor could write "heavier" stuff if he wanted to.
|CivilWarLand In Bad Decline||George Saunders||
He had a story published recently in The New Yorker called "CommComm" that quickly entered my top five favorite short stories of all time. I'll bet this book was written around the same time; It has a similar feel and many similar themes, and is very good as well (though I've read only two of its nine or ten stories.)
12-30-05. Holy crap! I had no idea abject hopelessness could be so damned funny!!
|The Lost Scrapbook||Evan Dara||This was my second time through this amazing novel. No one seems to know who Evan Dara is or what else he/she has written. Many feel the name is a pseudonym. Don't know, don't care. Love it. Love it so much in fact I took closer notes this time through and created a web page for it. (I'm also in the process of indexing it, but that will take several months.) (6-10-06. Gave that up shortly after I wrote this, but I might pick it up again someday.)
The book itself annoys some readers since it takes over 300 pages to get to the point. It's a series of scenes and conversations, the beginnings and endings of which bleed into one another: impressions of various individuals and relationships in the fictional Missouri town of Isaura. The book has no chapters, and the narrative only breaks in two places. (With two or three blank pages in both places, strangely.) If you stick with it, there's a point—about 2/3 to 3/4 the way into the book where the disjointed scenes begin slowly to coalesce. You don't really notice it happening, which is cool, but it dawns on you that many of the people you heard from during the first part of the book are getting sick in Isaura. And the photographic film company that essentially owns the town (a la Eastman-Kodak in Rochester, NY) is denying any responsibility, though one of their chemical waste pipes did burst near an elementary school. For financial reasons much of the town is ready to accept any- and everything the company says, turning against town "activists" who distrust the company. But after a while the truth grows undeniable...
|White Teeth||Zadie Smith||
A friend loaned me this novel a year ago, and I started it then but got distracted by other reading. Happy to see it again.
11-20-05. A terrific read. It's basically a story of two guys who fought together in WWII, then moved to England and lived near each other and raised families. It's painted across the mulitcultural scapes of North London: Pakistanis, Indians, Jamaicans, Brits, etc. The thing about Smith's writing...and Heaven help me I KNOW this will come across disrespectfully but I mean it in with highest respect: Sometimes she reads like a female writer and sometimes she reads like a male writer. It's a pleasant surprise, it produces startling effects, and it's definitely entertaining.
|Ghost Rider||Neal Peart||
Rush's drummer. His daughter was killed in a car wreck in August, 1997, and his wife died of cancer ten months later. He quits Rush for awhile and hops on his motorcycle and doesn't get off it for almost a year. This has a real "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" feel to it, for several obvious reasons, but a big difference is the sense that Peart is easing away from madness as the trip unfolds, whereas Robert Pirsig slid into it.
9-25-05. OK here's another difference: Pirsig doesn't come across as a shmuck in several places. A couple times I almost set the book aside in annoyance and almost in disgust. Now yes, Peart just lost his wife and daughter, but the anti-Americanism seeps off the page (not that it isn't warranted, at times) and the sneering way he refers to one young lady—who had the audacity to change her mind about him—only as "that woman". Eeek. (Ever since Clinton, that phrase has struck a nerve with me.) And his friend gets busted for drugs, a problem the friend has had before (this is the "third strike," it's conspicuously underemphasized) and it's admitted and acknowledged openly...yet this incarceration is repeatedly referred to as an "injustice." (Although, on second thought, if Peart and friend are railing against the mere fact that drugs are illegal, then OK, I guess I understand the use of "injustice." It didn't really feel that way when I was reading it. It felt like they were whining that the guy had been caught, which, don't do the crime, and all that.)
|Harry Potter & The Half Blood Prince||J. K. Rowling||
Halfway through it and enjoying it at least as much as the first five HP books.Everyone's getting older, kids cuss now ("Damn!") Rowling even drops an irate "slut" into the mix, so to speak. Sluts?? MY DAUGHTER WILL NOT READ THIS SATANIC SCRIPTURE!! :-) Harry's become such a well-rounded character (popping off at Dumbledore even!), it's gets easier and easier to put up with the relatively minor things that bug me about Rowling's style (See Order of the Phoenix comments way down this page.)
|Gold Bug Variations||Richard Powers||
A mid-50's scientist was on the verge of real discovery in the realms of DNA research, and nothing happened. Decades later a librarian wants to know why. Where'd he go? What happened?
If you liked Gravity's Rainbow you might want to give this a look. It has what I'll go ahead and call a Pynchonian level of technical discussion. Power's voice is hard work, but after awhile I found it growing on me. Rich characterization, imagery, and arcane references galore. Many appear to be included to aid with chronology...the book is non-linear. Not to a fault, but almost.
7-14-05. Took this book on a recent trip to Australia/New Zealand. 14 hour plane flights, 4 hour bus rides...I'd finish it in no time right? Wrong. I never cracked it once for all the iPod listening.
7-29-05. Just finished, and the question that keeps turing over in my mind is: so, why CAN'T this be my favorite book of all time? I think it might be. It's got music (and lots of it), it's got science (just a little more than I could get my head around—not a bad thing), it's got aching romance (I've discovered I have a bit of a taste for romance here as I plow into my 40s), it's got suspense and puzzles and art and trivia, to say nothing of just being wonderfully erudite and well-written and DIFFICULT. [The really good books that I've gotten lost in have been books that rewarded study and note-taking, and character lists. Like the good old Queen's Gambit back in November, I might have found myself doing an instant reread, were it not for this puppy's 600 page count. (I got a Harry Potter waiting in the wings, Jackson.) ]
|How The Mind Works||Steven Pinker||
This is the big one. I've had my eye on it for some time. Finally bit the bullet, but of course it's 600 pages, AND I'm pretty well committed to "Speak, Memory." We'll see.
5/2/04. I'm liking this a LOT. Pinker, like Carl Sagan, and John McPhee, and Robert Wolke (my favorite science writers) has an ability with the language that makes him at least as good a writer as he is a scientist. No small compliment when you realize that Pinker's credentials as a cognitive science researcher are, from what I can tell, unmatched by any other popular science writer. He has an ease with the language that makes a dense page of text something to look forward to (Several successive pages having no images and few paragraph breaks can be intimidating, even to we avid readers) and like the three popularizers mentioned previously, Pinker can be very funny.
|Bobby Fischer Goes To War||David Edmonds and John Eidinow||
I love chess, and it has always killed me that Bobby Fischer is such an incorrigible prick. Reading what took place before, during and after the 1972 Reykjavik World Championships, it's a wonder they took place at all. Fischer had to have every little detail HIS WAY. Ridiculous demands that for the most part were catered to. Combine this childish behavior with the racking paranoia of the Russians...like I said, How did this take place? (Chess books aren't supposed to be this engaging!)
|The Tipping Point||Malcolm Gladwell||
When and why does "word of mouth" start kicking in after a movie is released? Why do some ideas become fashionable to many people and other ideas remain localized, or unknown? Why is Kevin Bacon the poster child for networking and well-connectedness when there are almost 700 other actors who are better connected in Hollywood? How could 40 or 50 kids in New York, simply by wearing hush puppies, revive the popularity of the shoes on a national scale? The book is ostensibly about human connections, and ideas that "stick," But to ME it screams chaos theory: a social variation on—or version of—the fabled "Butterfly Effect."
|The Da Vinci Code||Dan Brown||
Took me long enough, right? :-) As you can see on this page, I don't usually seek out bestsellers. This one, though, has become something of a cultural imperative, and it was on sale, so what the hay. Is it good? It is a good pulp thriller. Is it fun? Yes indeed. Is it well-written? Even considering that Brown isn't striving to be Hemingway, my answer to this question is still only: More or less. It IS well-paced. Brown can titrate the suspense in just the right doses to make this a WICKED page-turner. (e.g. It's 2 AM and I really should go to bed since, you know, work tomorrow. But the chapters are tantalizingly short, and almost every single one ends with a teaser for the next chapter! Bastard! ["They opened the box and couldn't believe what they saw!!" End of chapter. LOL Subtlety is NOT one of Brown's strong suits.] So I kept saying "Oh, another three pages, what could it hurt?" Hyeah. Say that enough times and you're up another hour.) All the discussion of artwork and religion and ritual had me clamoring for Google, checking everything out, which is my idea of a good time, and for that I'm grateful to Brown. (It also doesn't hurt that I took my first—and perhaps only—trip to Europe last summer and spent several hours at many of the story's locations, especially the Vatican and the Louvre.)
But The Da Vinci Code is far from perfect, and it most certainly isn't genius, contrary to the opinion of one of the jacket blurbs.
In a book purporting to reinstate the primacy of the sacred feminine, why the hell couldn't Sophie be the Indiana Jones character and Langdon be the 2nd fiddle? (I know: Brown is a 40 year old white male teacher...he'll be spending more time writing in the voice of his main characeter so it helps if his main character is similar to him.)
Most characters are one-dimensional. Early on it seemed that every word out of Cpt. Fache's mouth, every expression that crossed his face, was unquestionably malevolent. (Hey, the guy's name is "angry" in French. What am I expecting, right? As I said, Brown lacks subtlety.) But by far my biggest complaint: There were a few times in this book where a couple main characters who are supposed to be well-educated experts are SO brainless that I was actually cussing them audibly: "YOU IDIOTS! HELLO?? YOU CALL YOURSELF A CRYPTOLOGIST? YOU CALL YOURSELF A SYMBOLOGIST?? WAKE THE HELL UP!! A couple of examples"[the following paragraph will spoil it if you haven't read the book and want to. To see the text, highlight the following blank space, it's white text.]
|Snow Crash||Neal Stephenson||
I've had this on my short list for a long while. I actually went to Borders, fresh xmas gift cards in hand, looking for Snow Crash above all others, but it's still selling decently and was not to be had. On Amazon used copies have not dipped below $7 or $8. So, until I find a copy I want, I shall, perhaps fittingly, given the story, read a virus-laden internet copy. [Text files don't have viruses per se, but misspellings and missing lines and paragraphs are sort of textual ills, and I dub them thus.]
2-8-05. OK I don't know what the hell the story was with Amazon the other day, but just last night I found like 8 million paperback copies of Snow Crash for pennies each. So that will get here in a week...
2-23-05. Not bad! A little flimsy in some spots and careless in others (*I* remembered about YT's dentata, but she didn't? And what the hell happened to Sushi K?) but VERY imaginative and funny too.
|Searching For Bobby Fischer||Fred Waitzkin||
The movie has long since been memorized by all in my house save for my wife. My daughters and I love watching it still, 10 years after it came out. It's about time I went to the horse's mouth.
2-8-05. At least as good as the movie, and—as is almost always the case with books that also are movies—probably better, if for no other reason than the details about Russian and American grandmasters, and of course the lengthy chapter at the end about Fischer himself. (OF NOTE: in the movie, Josh beats the cocky kid at the end. This is a dramatization of the 1986 Primary Nationals, held in Charlotte, NC, and in the actual event Josh did win the championship, but not that last game, as he did in the movie. In reality Josh and Jeff Sarwer played to the bone: two kings left alone on the board. Jeff and Josh both ended up with 6 wins and a draw, but because Josh began the tournament as the top seed, he played tougher opponents and was declared the tournament champion.)
|The Lovely Bones||Alice Sebold||
My Mom, a librarian, strongly recommended this to me, and I'm enjoying it, even though I thought it was [hard swallow] an Oprah book. And you know something? It IS an Oprah book: sort of like the literary equivalent of what a lot of people call a chick flick. But you know something else? It's terrific. The older I get, the more willing I am to check out a chick flick—I really liked "Love Actually," for instance—and with my very long reading list it will take a lot more to bump an Oprah book to the front of my list, but at least it's not unthinkable, which it probably was as recently as say five years ago.
Which tells you nothing about the book and too much about me. THE BOOK, at long last, is about a 14 year old girl who is brutally murdered and finds herself in heaven. The narrative consists of her observations from heaven (and occasional flashbacks) as she sees the effect her death has on her family, friends, and most interesting of all as far as I'm concerned, her murderer. I also like that since we're reading the thoughts of a dead girl who now can see and hear everything, it's written in what I guess you'd call "first person omnicient." (You've probably heard about the ending...yes it's weak, but frankly I'm cutting Ms. Sebold some slack; Like her protagonist, Sebold was horrifically sexually assaulted. Years later she spotted the guy and reported him to the cops, who promptly—and thankfully—locked his ass up! Happy endings—or as happy as an ending to a story that starts like that has any right to be—do occur sometimes.)
|A Short History Of Nearly Everything||Bill Bryson||
Yet another fantastically written science popularization. This book is for those who wonder how it is we know the really big things we know about the universe, written with humor and detail. A rare example of an educational page-turner.
|The Queen's Gambit||Walter Tevis||
When you have friends that recommend books like this to you, the world is indeed a nice place to be. I love chess the way that only we who are doomed to suck at it forever can love it, and THIS BOOK IS FOR ME. It's the story of a young girl who finds she can visualize entire games in her head and thus has, forever at her disposal, a "board" on which to run combinations and follow lines. And she starts kicking the ever-loving sh** out of everyone in sight, dashing masters against the rocks and grinding state champions under her heel. And then she gets even better. Her nearly catastrophic bout with booze feels inserted and frankly is one of the novel's few weak spots, but screw that, this book is too much fun to bitch about. If you know not only what the phrase "Mate in nineteen" means, but what it implies, do yourself a favor and give this book a look.
12-1-04. I've read books twice, but never before have I read a book and liked it well enough to reread it immediately. First time for everything I guess.
5-14-06. I'm still on the chess kick that began when I read this a year and a half ago (now have over 15 books in my "chess library," read a few pages, or play a game every day) so it's fair to say this book changed my life.
|Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix||JK Rowling||
I'm 2/3 the way through this and so far Goblet of Fire is still my favorite. BUT, Rowling has finished strong in each of the first four books, so #5 here may end up alongside #4 on my short list. (I must say it for the 10,000th time: her dialog attribution dives me up the damned WALL!! AGH! Rowling has never met an adverb she didn't like!! " ' Look out' said Ron warningly..." " 'I'm tired' said Hermione docilely..." And while Harry's character is being fleshed out nicely (blowing up at his friends, worrying about girls, pouting when things go wrong, i.e. being a normal teenager), Malfoy is still a "maddeningly" one-dimensional character as are most of the villians. THAT SAID, this is an 870 page book that I'm going to finish inside of a week: so much fun!
10-17-04: All done and WHEW! Another amazing story. I do have two minor beefs, but they will spoil it if you haven't read the book and want to. To see them, highlight the following blank space, it's white text.
This account of the first Gulf War (1991) is rude early and often. No honest book about the USMC wouldn't be. I've just started this and makes for quick and eager reading.
Afterward: I enjoyed this A LOT, but I must warn any hard-core marines (because hard-core marines FLOCK to my site...) ...this may not be the book for you. Swofford has literary skill (and ambition) and sometimes he tries a little too hard to display that. (How many times do we need to hear that you read Homer over there?)
|Moving Mars||Greg Bear||
AUDACIOUS. Greg Bear realizes one possible reality of 200 years from now. The politics and culture behind the civilization that came after the ones from Earth and Moon that colonized Mars. The Moon, the Earth and Mars all exist in a loose federation called "The Triple." Folks from Mars in the late 2100s are something like the way we Americans view the Brits today: polite, unaggressive, perhaps to a fault. (Well, not perhaps.) Unfortunately for them they are also way behind the ever-aggressive Earth technologically. Until...a small band of Martians make a scientific discovery that tips the scales and upsets all sorts of balances.
The story is told as a 1st person memoir of a major player in the politics of the time, Casseia Majumdar. (She's at least as memorable a heroine as Oedipa Maas of T. Pynchon's "Crying of Lot 49.")
|Blood Music||Greg Bear||
My wife gave me Darwin's Radio after hearing one review, and it has turned out to be inside my top 5 favorite books of all time, and is probably tied with Carl Sagan's Contact as my favorite Sci-Fi novel. OK that was three years ago. So why am I JUST NOW getting to my second Greg Bear book? Who gives a rat's ass, this was AMAZING. It's from 1985, but it's something like the next level beyond cyber-punk. Think of how The Matrix is reality turned inside out...Blood Music is reality reconstituted. In other words, in The Matrix, there is the alternate universe we all are being fed by the machines. But there's still that dingy gray underpinning: The Desert Of The Real. In Blood Music reality's tablecloth is unceremoniously yanked from under the flatware, leaving only a handful of humans left standing, looking around, going "What...the...hell? And then...the table is yanked.
A fantastic page turner, with all the good hard science I crave.
|My Losing Season||Pat Conroy||
Our library not only loans books but sells them, cheap. Used of course, but my standards for a book's physical condition are well below what the library sets for books it will put up for sale, so I often make out like a bandit. Hardcover copy of this book in great shape? $2.
The font is almost too small (is "eye strain" one or two words?), but, as ever, Conroy's writing is fluid, and he possesses a love for the game of basketball, and particularly his former teammates, that seeps off the page.
|Into Thin Air||Jon Krakauer||
It's been a long time since I realized I would read this book someday. I've had many chances to buy it, but finding a copy for $1 was the tipping point, and this occurred last Thursday. I read a few pages initially, but REALLY curled up with it yesterday (13MAR04), finishing off the final 270 pages over the course of the day. Like The Perfect Storm, another famous adventure book, Into Thin Air, is mighty quick reading.
After finsihing the book I went online and discovered Anatoli Boukreev's response to the book, as well as Krakauer's response to Boukreev. (Boukreev was being paid $25,000 to guide paying clients--over twice what other guides were paid, and ten times what the Sherpas were paid--but wasn't doing that especially well according to Krakauer. It all gets complicated because much of this ordeal took place in the middle of the night, during what was basically a hurricane, and well above 25,000 feet, where there is a third of the normal amount of oxygen in the air and one's brain rapidly turns to bean dip. And it's grown even more complicated because Boukreev has since perished in another mountaineering disaster.)
|Everything And More: A Compact History Of Infinity||David Foster Wallace||
He's trying to elucidate the work of Georg Cantor, mathematician who didn't discover infinity, of course, but who proved that there is more than one infinity, and that they are different sizes. I can't really say that Wallace completely succeeds, but I'm a big fan of his "hyper-colloquial-then-hyper-erudite" style so it was quite fun for me. AND I did regain an appreciation for a lot of the calculus that I couldn't handle at age 20.
This one fell in one sitting. It's not too long, a terrific collection of intriguing short fiction.
|A Fan's Notes||Frederick Exley||
If your life is not working out the way you thought it would, I recommend you do what Exley did and write something like this. An eye-opening (and occasionally uproarious) look at addiction, ambition, and depression. (I was inspired to read this after seeing "The Stone Reader" last summer. There are at least a half dozen books discussed in that movie that I have sworn to read. I'll try to make a note when I manage to do it.)
|Roger's Version||John Updike||
Read many poems and a story or two by Updike, but this is my first Updike novel. A buddy of mine who is a big Updike fan recommended that he and I do a parallel reading. As I understand it, it's about a theology professor who must deal with a student who is attempting to use computers to prove the existence of God.
|Annals of the Former World||John McPhee||
Since I began teaching 8th grade science last year [this was written in 2002, fyi] [Hmm. That means this table is a decade old. Maybe some rearranging is in order? .........NAHHH.] (and since 8th grade science in my state is largely earth science) [or was, until 2005, now there's almost no Earth Sci in it] I've been looking for someone who can do for geology what Carl Sagan did for evolution and of course, astronomy. Somehow I didn't know that McPhee, a long time favorite, had written five volumes on the subject, and they all could be had within one hardback cover. Great fun, this! (Sure it's a lot of work, but the best books are. And this is one of the best you'll find. It won a Pulitzer in 1998 for general non-fiction.)
|Soon Perhaps||Winning Chess Strategies||Yasser Seirawan||I much prefer tactical fireworks on the chessboard, but one can only get pinched and squeezed and suffocated (i. e. handily BEATEN) by patient positional players for so long before one does something about it...|
|Wittgenstein's Mistress||David Markson||
Read this back in 2001 and have been planning a reread ever since. Spurred to comment on Goodreads by someone who liked my other posts, I spat out what has turned out to be my favorite of my own reviews there.
|The Recognitions||William Gaddis||
Had this on my list for a LONG time. Finally got a copy, have dug in and am having a grand time looking up facts and vocab. Yes, that is my idea of a good time!
4DEC11 It kills me that I finally got into this puppy, and then work kicked in -- work being a school year that is orders of magnitude more time consuming than any foregoing save my rookie year -- AND Neal Stephenson released Reamde. As Wm. Gass said in his intro, the book isn't going anywhere; It will wait patiently for me to come back around!
|Song for the Blue Ocean||Carl Safina||
Another science poularliser named Carl S. It's more than fate.
|Serenity Found||Edited by Jane Espenson||Picks up where Finding Serenity left off (see below), after the release of the Serenity movie. Some of these essays are scholarly (some cloyingly so), some are just silly fun. As with Finding Serenity, I found the most engaging essays to be the ones written by folks who worked on the show itself. (In this book, visual effects whiz Loni Peristere, and Capt. Tightpants himself, Nathan Fillion. The essay by Orson Scott Card is a highlight as is Espenson's introduction.|
|The Stones of Summer||Dow Mossman||
I had to drive to Chapel Hill to see The Stone Reader two years ago. It is a movie that (pardon me) changed my life; it changed the way I think about books, and writers, and reading. I came home and immediately ordered copies of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep and Joseph Heller's Something Happened but not The Stones of Summer.
Now it's two years later, I have the Stone Reader DVD, which motivated me to order a copy of The Stones of Summer. BUT...Two days ago I finally picked up Call It Sleep forgetting completely that The Stones of Summer was on its way from Amazon. Now Call It Sleep is back on the shelf and I'm combing through SoS quite deliberately. I can already tell the book will have its own page on this site.
Overwhelmed by the above mentioned Richard Powers litany, so this got set aside...but it was set aside by many people who went on to enjoy it tremendously, so maybe this hiatus is required....
|DOUBT||Jennifer Michael Hecht||
An easy to read reportage of one of the least well-reported philosophical standpoints.
|The Living Sea||Jacques Cousteau||
As a spanking new oceanography teacher this year, I am in DIRE need of someone who loves the sea to show me why and how. Carl Sagan Did it for astronomy, John McPhee did it for geology....Could I ask for someone better to introduce me to the world's oceans? I found my beat-up, jacket-less copy in the bottom of a box that was seconds away from being discarded, and even though the book is 40 years old -- and frightfully politically incorrect (they way this world-reknowned steward of the seas treats coral reefs is disheartening to say the least) -- I find myself grabbing the book far more often than I thought I would. Cousteau, ever-French, is a wonderful tour guide!
|The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives||Leonard Mlodinow|
I'd always thought that, of the many highlights of Baz Luhrmann's song "Sunscreen" the following lines were particularly trenchant:
Maybe you'll marry, maybe you won't.
Maybe you'll have children, maybe you won't.
Maybe you'll divorce at 40, maybe you'll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary.
Whatever you do, don't congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either.
Your choices are half chance.
So are everybody else's.
This book explains why those last two lines are among the truest words ever written.
|The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo||Steig Larsson||
People whose opinion you trust can only rave about a book around you for so long before you start wondering what the frickin' buzz is all about. I'm about 1/3 though this and am having a grand time with it! (More to come...)
|How To Reassess Your Chess, 4th Ed.||IM Jeremy Silman||
16JAN11. It won't arrive until the middle of the week. But when it does I'll dive right in. Going through the 3rd edition of How To Reassess Your Chess was an INVALUABLE experience, opening my eyes to aspects of the game to which I previously had been oblivious. Supposedly Silman completely rewrote the book ("from scratch" was the phrase that caught my eye) greatly expanded it, rearranged it, chopped out the Basic Endgame chapter (the chapter that inexplicably OPENED the 3rd edition!), and added a 90 page section on the psychological aspects of the game (Silman has a two-page mention of this topic in his 1998 Complete Book of Chess Strategy which served the digest-like purpose of that volume but left this reader wanting more.)
19JAN11. It's here, and let me just point out that if you consider the physicality of reading an important part of a good read (how a book feels in your hands, how the pages feel as you turn them; Kindle and other eBooks be damned*) then straight out of the box this book will satisfy. In fact, if you got a copy of Silman's mammoth Complete Endgame Course and wondered, "what would it be like if Reassess was this big?", well wonder no longer; The 4th edition looks and feels nearly identical to the Endgame book. Silman does claim that he completely rewrote the book knowing that of the dozen or so books he's written, this is the one that will be around when he's long gone: he wanted to do it up right. And if you've read the deservedly famous 3rd edition you know that there were typesetting issues and other minor things that didn't detract from the quality of the instruction but kept you (or at least me) from thinking the thing had been meticulously proofed.
Forget about all that: this is one elegant volume. I can not WAIT to immerse myself in it!!
(More commentary to come of course)
*(I know, I'm pretty luddite about that, and fighting a rapidly disintegrating battle--like senior citizens who avoid cell phones or voice mail or even computers--but still.)
|The Sign of Four||Arthur Conan Doyle||
The Guy Ritchie movie sent me back to the proverbial Horse's Mouth, and it's a shame that it took so long because this stuff is terrific. Note to fans of the TV show House Read Sherlock Holmes stories! It's like House, set in the 1800s. Holmes is House of course (check the name joke) Watson is Wilson, and the highlight of each story is watching Holmes/House solve tough problems with simple observations and targeted guesses. (Not as much wise-cracking in Holmes as in House, and Holmes doesn't guess wrong as often as House does either.)
|Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself||David Lipsky||
(Started this, but got distracted. Soon again perhaps.)
Transcripts from an interview Lipsky conducted with David Foster Wallace from March 5 to March 9, 1996. Wallace was wrapping up his Infinite Jest book tour, and this book is essentially an answer to the question "How was the reluctant genius dealing with newfound fame?"
|Reading Like A Writer||Francine Prose||
How-To-Write books carry more weight with me when written by well-published (and preferrable well-known) writers. Stephen King's On Writing is at the top of the list, but the more I read this the closer to the top it moves. (The woman's name is Prose, for chrissakes.)
|Guns, Germs & Steel||Jaren Diamond||
I never finished Collapse* but enjoyed it while I was reading it, and this primise of this book is too good to pass up and can be summed up in a simple question: Of the 5 habitable continents (correctly counting Eurasia as one) why was it the western end of Eurasia that gave rise to the most influential societies on Earth? Why did Europeans conquer North Americand and Aouth Americans instead of vice versa? Science has long shown us that biologically and intellectually all races are essentially identical, so what was it about Europeans that allowed them to invent guns before other societies; allowed them to be resistant to the diseases that they unwittingly used to exterminate 95% of their enemies; allowed them to invent metal weapons first? The answer, as elucidated by Diamond, is both head-smackingly simple and excruciatingly complex, and—provided Stephenson or Vollmann doen't lure me away**—I'll devour this in less than a week.
*the first half of Collapse covers societies that acturally collapsed, which is what I was interested in, and the latter half discusses societies that have NOT collapsed, so I drifted...
20JUL09 **...and Stephenson did... (sigh)
|My System||Aron Nimzowitsch||
I'm a tactical junkie, but it's long past time I studied strategy in a serious way. Much of what I've read about My System (including this edition's intro by Yasser Seirawan, one of my favorite chess writers...this edition being the 1991 "21st Century" overhaul by Lou Hays) talks about how difficult your first trip through it can be. Nimzo's ideas may not seem to make sense, you're warned. And I'm seeing this, but really, anytime you can tag along as one of the greatest players in history walks you through game after game and position after position—including 50 of his own complete games with meticulous analysis—life is still sweet.
|Sway||Ori & Rom Brafman||
In the same vein as Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, Tipping Point or Blink. Perhaps not quite as polished, but still a very informative and fun stundy of why we as humans simply cannot help but to act irrationally far more frequently than we'd ever admit.
Why are the monolithic stone heads essentially all that's left of the once thriving civilization on Easter island? (Hint: Don't cut down all your trees.)
Sep 08: Had to set it aside. It's terrific but, alas, numerous personal and professional impingencies...well, impinge, you see.
What am I, nuts? Do I not have five books in progress already? Haven't I read this twice already? Am I really this impulsive?
24SEP08. After two chapters, back to the shelf with you...
I'm not inherently attracted to Morrison's work, but how many "Best Of All Time" lists that I respect will have to include this before I tackle it? None more (says Nigel) since I started it this morning. After a page and a half though, I can already tell this will be a TON of work. (As a fan of D.F. Wallace, and T. Pynchon, this is not a bad thing for me.)
(4-22-07: I made the mistake of looking up all sorts of articles about this book, I was enjoying it so much, then some spoilers got through and ruined it for me. I'll finish someday, no question, but not before the newness of this "spoilage" wears off.)
Christmas gift....this has been on my "to read" list for some time. Two or three pages in and it already feels like Gravity's Rainbow (i.e. difficult) which I knew it would, but a higher level of committment will be required to fully enjoy this thing. We'll see if I can muster it while all the other Christmas presents and activities beckon for attention.
|Call It Sleep||Henry Roth||
It's been on my short list for several years now. On numerous "Best Of All Time" lists.
|Portnoy's Complaint||Phillip Roth||
My better half found a tattered copy in a buck-apiece sale at the local library. She's not terribly literarily minded, so spying this in her considerable haul was a nice surprise.
|The Blank Slate||Pinker||
See Words & Rules comment two rungs below...
|The Blind Watchmaker||Dawkins, Richard||
|Words & Rules||Pinker, Steven||
Have yet to read an unengaging book by Pinker. He's a superb writer...this one is quite overdue.
|Atlas Shrugged||Ayn Rand||
Had it on my list for two reasons. 1. I loved The Fountainhead which I read 20 years ago. 2. It's on numerous highly regarded "Best Of All Time" lists. I really should at least take a look.
|The Bible Companion||Isaac Asimov||
I've picked this up numerous times as a reference. (It can be a sort of Cliff's Notes for both New Testament and Old.)
Have sampled bits of this in The New Yorker and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
|Chemistry Explained||Robert Wolke||
A text book with a sense of humor. Chemistry is a weak spot in both my science knowledge and my interest. Wolke makes you love whatever he's writing about.
|Mason & Dixon||Thomas Pynchon|
|Great Books||David Denby||
Got halfway through it in 1999, was loving it, got distracted.
|J R||William Gaddis||
Started it, put it down. Want to pick it up.
|A Frolic Of His Own||William Gaddis||
Have taken two shots at this...
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