8 Following


The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick Just started reading this so I'm not sure yet what I think about it. I got it because Ursula K. Le Guin said at one point that it was the best science fiction novel ever, or something like that. So far it's done one cool thing which is show me my American privilege, that I'm not usually very aware of. Everyone in the world wants to learn to speak English. Nobody looks askance at me because I'm in too nice a neighborhood for my ethnicity. And I don't feel like a stranger or outsider in my own country. The racism and anti-semitism of this society are much worse than us here now, but part of it is that what there is doesn't happen to people of my ethnicity and skin color. That reversal is very interesting to explore. The sexism, though, seems completely unconscious, as is unsurprising for the early 60s. So that's doubly ironic. More to come later.

The novel dropped down behind my bed for a few days, but tonight I fished it out and finished it. I realized I didn't much like any of the characters or any of the action so far, when I faced my reluctance to get down and find it under the bed. The action became compelling shortly afterward, but I still found the ending very unsatisfying. Maybe in 1962 just the fact of an alternate history was sufficient to make it cool? Maybe knowing that he actually used the I Ching in writing the book makes it cool, in some 60s hippy way? Maybe the suggestion that truth is contingent, that history isn't fixed, was why people liked it so much? I mean, UKL loved it! I'm kind of appalled at that. Am I so dumb that I just don't get it? Or did that boat sail in 1965 or so and 47 years later it's just too dated to be good anymore? I'm not really sure.

In what sense was the book-within-the-book actually true inside the book (as the oracle declares at the end)? In what sense is the book actually true inside our world? The book-within-the-book that the oracle declares as truth is not equivalent to our world, not even back then when he wrote it. A number of major things are different, including Churchill still being in power and Hitler living to be tried as a war criminal. So why is it true? Is it just that reality, history is a matter of the imagination? I don't think I'll be seeking out and reading more PKD on the strength of this one. Please, people who loved it, feel free to explain why I'm wrong in the comments.
House - Tracy Kidder Tracy Kidder has a real ability as a writer to make nonfiction books about technical subjects fascinating. You learn all about the process, the people, and the personalities involved. Soon you're at the jobsite yourself, with hope and anticipation of the successful finish. He's just a very, very good writer. The pacing and the story just build until it's almost like a page turner novel. You can't put it down. I loved this one very much. One might almost think I miss building things.

It makes me want to write a novel set at a nuclear plant, with the denouement happening during a shutdown, and as the plant comes back up to full power at the end. Surely there must be personalities in such a book, and action and meaning, but there's something thrilling to me about the very work itself. Kidder manages to convey this thrill about the making of a house. I really will read the rest of his books soon. He's truly great.
Cryoburn - Lois McMaster Bujold Another fun romp with Miles Vorkosigan who, in his position as Imperial Auditor, figures out the scam and fixes what's going wrong on the planet. This novel lives up to its predecessors, though not the funniest, nor deepest, nor any superlative among them. Nevertheless, Bujold is always a lot of fun. This one was a typical delightful read, easily finished in a day or two.

I enjoyed all the animals as pets, and the young viewpoint character. Miles is implausibly energetic and heals incredibly quickly, as always. But that's only proper for fictional superheroes, isn't it? I wonder if politics in the US have made me cynical, for I found myself thinking how refreshing was the idea of leaders who actually reward honesty and loyalty in underlings, and who live up to a high standard of those characteristics themselves. If I noticed my boss accepting a bribe, I don't think I would run instantly to turn her in to her superiors. Instead I would begin looking for another job and only when I found one would I quietly, anonymously, let the right people know what was going on at the former place. Whistleblowers are not treated well, that I've seen. Though if people's lives were at stake I hope I would respond very quickly.

So in a culture that places the highest value on personal loyalty, it's refreshing to see the assumption that good citizens would not hesitate to turn in their bosses for corruption.

The action played out nicely down to a satisfying ending that brought tears to my eyes. I know I'll enjoy reading whatever comes next from Bujold in this series. The characters are great and the stories are lively, funny, and fast-paced. Though I wish, sometimes, for more of the depth she showed in Cordelia's Honor, the founding novel of the series. I still think that one was my favorite.

The Man in the Empty Boat

The Man in the Empty Boat - Mark Salzman Mark Salzman is one of my favorite living writers. His stories, whether novels or memoirs, are charming and wonderful, often hilariously funny, but deeply touching, too, and important. Not just frivolous or fluffy. This latest one of his was no exception. We really see the world in very different ways, he and I, yet he has the ability to reach me, to show me the familiar, to make me care. I recognize me in him. I think that is perhaps one of the most important ways I connect with an author, or they with me, is when their writing causes me to recognize myself, to identify with the characters in the story.

When his sister died, when it turned out that it was the hospital that killed her, that story is so familiar to me from my own life. First from the time when I was young and idealistic and went to work in the computer department of several hospitals, when I realized they kill people all the time, every single day, from dumb mistakes. When I realized you should never go into the hospital unless and until the quality of your life without it is so bad, and the possibility that they can fix you is so good, that it's worth that mortal risk. I began then camping out in my loved ones' hospital rooms any time they had to be in, asking questions, checking labels, doing my best to safeguard them from dumb mistakes. I did this when my dad was sick, too, but in his case I wasn't able to help much. He was given dose after dose of what turned out to be bad Heparin, and it caused his fever to spike (overlooked by the hospital when the techs kept shaking their instruments, failing to believe them, and taking more and more readings until one finally came out lower, then writing that one anomaly down instead of the honest answer). It caused him to have terrible difficulty breathing, as the clots formed and lodged in his lungs. I put my foot down finally and got them to call a medical pulmonary specialist who realized the problem in about 15 seconds. Because the medical community knew that there was bad Heparin out there. Someone made the decision to leave it in circulation rather than cause a panic. Much better that patients should die than that we have to admit a mistake, right? Yes, I'm still a bit bitter. He did die anyway, despite my best efforts.

When he talked about his writing, how hard it was for him, I recognized that too. And yet what he publishes is always marvelous. There were several times when I just laughed and laughed out loud while reading this one. And maybe it's precisely because he doesn't have things all sewed up neatly for us, because he still is astonished and a bit bowled over by life, that his writing is so refreshing and lovely. He reminds me a lot of Nevil Shute, one of my favorite dead writers.

I kept thinking he was coming to a religious conversion of some sort. That's what it felt like he was reaching toward, and as a lifelong atheist myself who converted in my late 30s to Mormonism, I was recognizing again what he felt and thought. But though it was spiritual, for him, it wasn't quite religious. I get the feeling his mind just won't work in that way, that it's too foreign to him. It might be Buddhist, in a way. The empty boat of his title refers to a story I heard told by Mattheiu Ricard, a biochemist and Buddhist monk. That you don't yell or get angry on a lake when bumped into by an empty drifting boat. You just laugh because you aren't the target. So when you empty out that "me" so there's no target there, you find peace, truth, and right. The "me" being the mental construct, the mistake, that causes suffering. In Mark's case, his realization happened because of a dog fart, but the principle is the same.
Seed to Harvest - Octavia E. Butler I just reread this compilation of 4 of the novels of her Patternist series, as well as the other one, Lilith's Brood, which is a compilation of her 3 novels of the Xenogenesis series. She's one of my favorite writers ever. I had to go just now and bump her up on my list. The themes she gets at are so important.

With the whole relationship between Doro and Anyanwu, I sort of saw my mother and father's connection to each other again. Doro just operates by force to get his needs met and make what he wants happen. Anyanwu builds families, communities around her that are based on give and take, on her caring for her people. Doro loves his people, too, but he can't seem to see their needs as mattering compared to his needs or wants. He has the power to enforce his wishes, and he just does that. Anwanyu tries and tries to explain to him what he's doing wrong, but he can't hear her. Only after centuries when she is about to self-destruct, to leave him in the only way she can, does he realize she really matters enough to him for him to change a small amount, for him to make a few concessions. Butler seems to understand deeply the interaction of power and coercion with love and need in people's connections.

It brings to mind for me the civil rights movement, when one activist said they thought they would be able to shame white people into doing what's right, then later he realized they had to win their rights. It was a contest and white people weren't going to willingly give up their advantages. It makes me hear again my mother saying to my dad, "you can bully people into doing a lot of things, but you can't bully people into loving you."

Butler sees humanity very clearly with all their fear, their irrational anger and hate, and their unwillingness to accept new ideas. But she sees them in a loving way, too. She loves her characters, I think, even the ones like Doro who persist in doing evil stuff. And what I like about her most is how she can take a story that has an ending nobody would call happy, and somehow make a new way of life out of it. Her characters survive. They adapt. They accept a new normal, even if it's a form of slavery or some other lack of freedom and self determination. They change almost beyond recognition if they have to, and they manage to live and find good in living. She's an amazing writer.

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks - Ken Jennings I found this book great reading! Entertaining, funny, and just right for dipping into on and off. I'm sad it's over. I loved the description of geocaching, and I'm tempted to tru that myself, perhaps a few of the easier ones, since I don't get around as well as once I did. Turning the world into a place of hidden treasures is such a great idea. The book is about all different sorts of map geeks, all brilliantly nerdy and fun. Makes me want to pore over my last road atlas, bought in the 90s, again... or to spend a few hours browsing Google earth.
Malafrena - Ursula K. Le Guin I don't know what I think about this book. I've had it for years but never tried to read it until recently, which is odd since UKL is one of my very favorite writers. I think perhaps I don't yet "get" this one. It was hard for me to get into. The characters weren't compelling for me. Rather than quit reading, I decided to skip over chunks of it to see if it pulled me in later on, then I could go back and fill in the blank spots once it had my interest. Only it never really captured my interest. Other people, it seems, find it their very favorite of all her books. So I'm convinced something important and good is there, but I just don't know how to see it yet.

Another book of hers I didn't respond to much was The Dispossessed, which other people I've talked to have passionately loved. And there are some similarities between these two books, I think. They're both basically about worldsaving, idealism, activitism, people trying to shape their societies to be more amenable or conducive to whatever it is that the human heart craves and needs most: Freedom, maybe, or perhaps Justice, or maybe just a true Community of living souls. They involve power and how it's used to control or restrict others, how it's experienced by different members of a community. I think this is a really important subject, and I can't at all put my finger on why the protagonists of either story never stirred my emotions and got me involved in their troubles.

That's a kind of magical thing that good authors do, get you to care about what happens to the characters, and it often happens right away, on the very first page or two of a novel. But I haven't heard many ideas of how exactly it's done. Somehow, though UKL's characters nearly always do grab me, in this book they never did. I skipped rather large chunks two or three times, and never got to the part that made me care.

I know when I first read the Earthsea trilogy (as it was then), my very first books by UKL, I went all the way through without getting them. I then talked about them with my brother who had recommended them to me, and realized I had totally wrong expectations from the start. He was so adamant that the series was extremely good that I read it again and that time it got me. I think the whole series is great and have read it many times since. So, for The Dispossessed and now Malafrena, are they just awaiting another read through before they yield to me this delicious fruit that other readers talk about? Or do they just not have the power to speak to me, by some quirk or other of who I am? Risk another read? Yes or no? You guys decide for me.

The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith

The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith - Joanna Brooks I enjoyed this memoir immensely. Joanna is awesome. I learned a little more what it's like to grow up in the church I chose as an adult. We share the condition of being liberal and feminist in a church that swung a long way into conservative territory around the turn of the 20th century, and clings to patriarchy still today in the 21st. You'd think people like Joanna and me could just leave the church, but there's so much more to it than that. For Joanna, she has her whole pioneer family history, her whole experience of growing up. For me it's only the Restored Gospel, which is the worldview (and partnership with a living God) that unlocked my joy and gave me courage, energy, freedom, abundant life, and realms in which to exercise them.

Joanna feels that too, as is obvious, and it's given her the courage essentially to take on the whole patriarchal structure of the church. She declares herself who she is, a child of God, and reclaims the Restored Gospel from those who would try to say that LGBTQ people, liberals, intellectuals, and feminists are enemies of the church. She's become the human face of Mormonism to a wider public, lately, a political commentator and translator of the Mormon Experience into the American vernacular, into plain human terms. I think we couldn't have a better representative! Hooray for Joanna!

The 2nd Law: Energy, Chaos, and Form (Scientific American Library Paperback)

The 2nd Law: Energy, Chaos, and Form - P.W. Atkins Just reread this book from the early 80s, published as part of a series from Scientific American. I remember thinking it was super profound and important when I read it the first time. This time it seemed to go way too slowly and didn't contain anything surprising. So maybe I remember every single thing I learned from it and all of it stuck. I may also have a shorter attention span now after a decade or two of internet surfing. I do think I took time to enjoy a book more back then. Has anyone else noticed a change in their book-attention-span from being online a lot?

The cellular automata which were pretty cool back then seem much tamer now but still a great way to illustrate the principles involved. I probably would've given this book 4 stars, and maybe even 5, when I read it back when it first came out. The information in it is still true and still fundamental to an understanding of physics, cosmology, technology, and energy use. So it's still highly recommended to anyone who's interested in that sort of stuff. But I wasn't thrilled and riveted this time like I remember from before. Sad when that happens.

Souls Grown Deep, Vol. 1: African American Vernacular Art of the South: The Tree Gave the Dove a Leaf - William Arnett, Paul Arnett Gorgeous book documenting some of our country's most transcendent artists. I particularly love vernacular art, sometimes called naif or outsider art, because it truly just springs up straight from the human spirit in sometimes inhospitable settings. As such it speaks a pure language that's immediately understandable to everyone who's human.

I'm lucky enough to have two pieces by Lonnie Holley, one of the artists who's featured here, and who lives in my community. Some of his stuff in our local museum's permanent collection is just breathtaking, but his work is also exhibited in places like the Smithsonian and all over. I love that art, like God, is no respecter of persons, and brilliant talent and transformational work is to be found in all communities.
The Uses of Haiti - Paul Farmer, Jonathan Kozol, Noam Chomsky Dr. Farmer here documents how the interests of the rich and powerful, including the U.S. Government, have maneuvered to keep Haiti's people weak and destitute throughout the history of the small nation. It's very difficult to read these things. I feel inside me this vast upwelling of rage at the injustice. Dr. Paul, to his credit, simply reports the situation, tells the tale, without any overt anger or outrage, just as an anthropologist reports his or her findings. Like all his books I've read so far, it's a very unsentimental account, rendering the plain facts to us in a simple and straightforward manner.

Father Aristide strikes me as a person very much in the mold of Gandhi or MLK, one whose absolute courage and determination in the face of injustice is beyond human, is divine in nature. The thugs and bullies, they can kill, maim, torture, but they can't change the immutable truth. Father Aristide is one of those who simply, quietly, keeps pointing out the injustice, keeps calling for things to be made right, in the face of death, over and over, with godlike calm, with the implacability of the universe going about its age old multibillion year business.

Does it make it easier or harder to help once we learn our representatives, supporting our interests, have been complicit in exacerbating the problems we want to alleviate? Does it make it fraught with dangers, of doing more harm than good, of continuing to perpetrate the same injustice in the name of its opposite? Or is it even more compelling, the need for us to repudiate the past and make up for wrongs done?

All I know is that the truth matters, reality matters, and information is ever more accessible in the modern technological world, so that the powerful can no longer play the game of stalling, manipulating, blustering, obfuscating while they transfer ever more wealth from poor to rich. The truth will out.
Dostoevsky Reminiscences - Anna Dostoevsky I'm enjoying this book so much. Anna is a really good writer. She portrays her husband in quite sympathetic terms, and obviously loved him dearly. For a memoir, the book has a really good plot. They meet, fall in love, have successes (finish the book on time, manage to get married), setbacks (relatives who act badly, compulsive gambling), joys (little Sonya born), sorrows (Sonya's death), illness (epilepsy), and health (condition improving). I'm quite caught up in the story, even though I more or less know what happens. I like Anna a great deal and think she's more than a little responsible for the fact that Fyodor Mikailovich's genius is known to the world. I was pleasantly surprised that the book is so readable and well-written. I usually prefer to read books rather than books about books, and I'm much more interested in artists' work than their lives, usually. This one is exceptional, though. Highly recommended for fans of Dostoyevsky.
A Ride On The Red Mare's Back (Orchard Paperbacks) - Ursula K. Le Guin, Julie Downing A beautiful story with action, magic, and cleverness enough to satisfy any child. The pictures are beautiful and the story is told simply in UKL's spare poetic language. The protagonist is a girl, something that's still all too rare among kids' stories. She's clever and intrepid and, with the help of her toy who magically comes to life for a single night, wins the day and brings her lost little brother home from his abduction by trolls. Not only are women given full stature as characters, but the work done by women in this story -- knitting, baking bread -- is given the same weight and meaning as the work done by men -- carving, hunting. Stories such as this one are how we remold the world, remake our brains, into nonsexist ones. But most important of all, far more important than any idealogical lessons, is the fact that this is simply a very good story well told.
The Road to Reality - Roger Penrose This book is too sprawling to wait and review all at once at the end, so I've decided to do it little by little as I go along.

I thought the prologue sucked, but immediately after that it became deeply fascinating, so don't get discouraged. I guess I should say why I hated it, though. It seemed as though he was judging former times and societies through a "presentist" lens, as though all people have always and only been scientists since the start of time, only they were really bad at it back then. It's kind of a scientist's way of ignoring everything else about reality besides science, and made me a bit nauseated, thinking "oh no I hope he's not going to be this dumb all the way through." Luckily, he quickly transitioned to extreme brilliance, in which he's jaw-droppingly continued since then. Even though he's talking so far about seemingly simple stuff, he keeps knocking me for a loop with his deep insights which I've never considered before.

Only in chapter 3 so far, and discussing integers, irrational numbers, and the real numbers. I keep having to stop and think hard about the things he's saying. He asks the question if we lived in a universe where things were an amorphous soup would the integers exist there. He also points out that calculus (and stuff like momentum, velocity, and many of our physical concepts depend on calculus) is defined on the real numbers. If it turns out that the universe is discrete at the tiniest level, this math won't apply anymore (except as an approximation). However, he also observes that the real numbers first invented in Euclid's day when we had physical evidence spanning only some 15 orders of magnitudes (the smallest to largest distances known) are still going strong now when our knowledge spans something like 150 orders of magnitude, so they aren't doing too badly! These are the notions of someone who has thought deeply about how math and physics are intertwined. I keep being dumbstruck with things he casually asks about things that are ostensibly simple which I've known forever but never thought to ask that. Really important stuff. He is breathtakingly brilliant! I'm so glad I'm reading this book!

Aside: The more I read the more sure I am that Platonic essences exist independent of the nature of physical reality, and independent of their instantiation in some physical reality.

Spent some time going over familiar ground in the complex plane. It's been long enough since I studied or used this stuff that it's quite enjoyable and satisfying to do that. I think I've settled on the slow savoring method of reading this book rather than the quick devour. This review's going to be very long, but I hope it'll admit of savoring a bit as well. =)

In Chapter 5 now, and talking about e and logarithms, I wondered why it is again that e is a more natural base for logarithms than any other number. So I spent some time adding it up from the formula e = (1/0!)+(1/1!)+(1/2!)+(1/3!)+(1/4!)+(1/5!)+... and watched the digits slowly materializing 2.7182.... so I believe that much. =) Next I'm reading again how e originally came up in playing around with logs and powers. This book has that effect that it makes me think again about stuff that I haven't thought about since I was young. I would really like to feel I understood what we know of reality inside and out when I'm done. I want to see the whole chain starting from one cow, two cows on up to the standard model and beyond. It's always been an obsession of mine just to understand how things freaking work, what the universe is like, what nature is based on, and I have this feeling I could get much closer by going through this volume carefully. The title keeps reminding me of the Royal Road to Geometry, which Aristotle reportedly told Alexander the Great did not exist, so that's some kind of warning, hah!

So far I've resisted the urge to jump ahead, except for reading the section called "beauty and miracles" near the very end. You have to admit that's an attractive section name! Alas, I understood it only in the broadest way, that beauty (mathematical elegance) and miracles (seemingly crazy mathematical coincidences such as all the complicated terms happening to drop out or whatever) act as a powerful but not unfailing guide so far to finding theories that fit how nature behaves. At that moment, my dear kitten Alai jumped up and sat right on the book, as if to say, "you want beauty and miracles? Just look at me!" As I pet him, I kept saying "beauty and miracles" affectionately.

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1) - James S.A. Corey Enjoying the heck out of this and really delighted that my old friend is such a good writer. Funny and clever and action-packed science fiction. And it has vomit zombies! What could be better? I can't wait for the sequel!

The Last Ringbearer

The Last Ringbearer -  Кирилл Еськов,  Yisroel Markov, Kirill Yeskov I want to thank Terence for putting his soul in my soul's stead, so to speak, by finding and reading this book for me, so I don't have to. His analysis is so accurate and detailed (though I did bite the bullet and read it myself last night) that I won't even try to go into any depth about it, other than to say I completely agree that this isn't worth reading, and that the story isn't really worthy of the grandeur of the setting, and could easily have been set in any other fictional world like Dumas' France or indeed Le Carre's England.

But, for me there's a but, because I read the guy's article about why he wrote it first, and came to like him from that, I read it not as I read a book by a new author but something like the way I'd read fanfic written by a friend, with much, much lower expectations, in other words, and on that level I found it clever and funny. I interpreted the over-the-top metaphors as deliberate parodies of pot-boiler writing style, and cracked up about them. The juxtaposition of spy thriller style with Tolkien characters I found fairly entertaining for most of the book.

I did have a hard time keeping the characters straight mostly because their internal voices seemed identical to each other man, troll, or orc. The creepy attitude toward women is what I'm guessing bad potboilers display, since the main love interest is very clever and powerful, and not a dumb blonde type, so it doesn't seem to be coming from the author.

There was one theme with which I did resonate, and which made me feel that some book of this sort this wasn't out of place: namely Tolkien didn't like technology, or rather, he liked technology right up to what existed (I'm guessing) in rural England in the time of his youth: waterwheels, wheelbarrows, hand tools, umbrellas, and not at all anything that came later such as the internal combustion engine (for those of us without handy waterfalls). He was quite against, say, the use of bombers in WW2, and thought the very idea was horrific, like the winged mounts of the Nazgul or something, as he wrote to his son Christopher.

And that needs an answer, I think. All the baddies in Tolkien's books use engines, steam, higher technology, and the goodguys have magic, sweetly babbling brooks, and such for their weapons of defense. Our world here has definitely plumped for the higher-tech vision, and I wouldn't have it any other way. So I liked the fact that science, which is really such a glorious pursuit, so much higher than the magic which was its predecessor in power in our human minds, perhaps, I liked that it was cast as the good-guy in this manuscript.

As for the rest, well I spent one night at it and didn't count it wasted. I think this was way better than, say, David Brin whose dreck I tried to wade through a while back; a terrible writer! But I can't actually recommend it to anyone else. As an amusement between friends I thought it was funny and clever. I did want to know what happened. But compared with real books by real writers, not so much.