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Books–Archived

Forever Odd. Dean Koontz

This is the second of Dean Koontz’s two books about Odd Thomas, a young man who can see ghosts.  The first novel is a little more interesting.  This one seems to be a short story packed into a medium-sized book and makes me wonder if Koontz writes this particular series as part of National Novel Writing Month. 

I have enjoyed the sometimes-guilty pleasure of a Koontz novel literally dozens of times, and I must say that there are a few that I have felt guilt over but little pleasure.  This particular one I found maddening.  Last summer I read two books while in California on vacation.  One was Intensity, and the other I can’t recall the name of but was about an alien invasion that starts with a torrential rainstorm, a woman looking at wolves or coyotes on her deck.  Yeah, that one.  Anyway, his writing can really take you away sometimes.  So it is really hard to understand the prose in this particular book.  For example:

“Loving is as essential to Terri Staumbaugh as constant swimming is essential to the shark.  This is an infelicitous analogy, but an accurate one.  If a shark stops moving, it drowns; for survival, it requires uninterrupted movement.  Terri must love or die.”

The phrase “infelicitous analogy” seems like it has been designed by a team of the most skilled German engineers as a speed bump for readers.  It’s like Koontz wants us to pause, for some reason.  I can’t imagine why a writer would want readers to pause over such a paragraph, because it certainly doesn’t bear close scrutiny well. 

Now I understand that these words are supposed to come from the very quirky narrator, Odd Thomas (yes, this is his legal name).  But it seems like you can make a character quirky without making readers gag.  Another example:

“Clean-cut young men, neatly barbered and beardless, are not readily suspected of nefarious activity.  I am not only barbered and beardless but have no tattoos, no earring, no eyebrow ring, no nose ring, and have not subjected my tongue to a piercing.”

The first part of that sounds almost like Nancy Drew.  But the rest of it is far too verbose and points to a new tactic for those of you struggling to finish your 1667 words per day for NaNoWriMo.  Simply list all of the things that don’t characterize your main character (well, all of your characters, I suppose).  Let’s call it a constructivist approach to character:  I am neither tall nor particularly short, athletic nor sedentary, rich nor poor, blind nor deaf, stupid nor smart, nor am I a Republican nor a Democrat.  I bow to no man, no leopard, no iguana, no whippet, no australian shepherd, no civet, no fruit bat, no rhododendron, no salamander . . .  You get better and faster at this as you go along.

So I’m wondering if this type of thing is appealing to some sort of demographic.  Perhaps it is like rap music or hip hop or something and I’m just not clued in to it.  It would really surprise me though. 

A Man Without a Country. Kurt Vonnegut

Unless you are a real fan like me, this book will probably disappoint you. It seems to be an extremely pessimistic work that repeats some sentiments, anecdotes, statements, and stories he has already put in print in earlier books and essays.

A Man Without a Country is mainly a contemplation of the current state of the world and there is a little bitterness in it, bitterness that I cannot recall seeing in his other works. I don’t think of Slaughterhouse Five as a particularly pessimistic work, for example. And yet, as I think about it, the firebombing of Dresden is about as sad a thing as you could possibly write a novel about. His pessimism has a deep taproot, possibly several of them. Here’s one source:

“Many years ago I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.

But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts us absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many lifeless bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.”

Now it would be easy for those who support the military to bristle at such a statement. Take the Kerry incident that preceded last week’s midterm elections, for example. John Kerry, one of my State’s two Senators, floated a lame joke in a speech. Apparently he forgot (in some Freudian slip) to aim the joke at the President and it turned into a moralistic and elitist screed about the ability of educational opportunity to keep our sons and daughters out of the War. Although he probably didn’t mean to say what he said, most people think that he believed it nonetheless.

Kerry’s Ivy League degree didn’t keep him out of his generation’s war because he volunteered. It would be easy to believe that doing so had more to do with the knowledge that serving in the Navy would make him seem even more like J.F.K., would help his political career immeasurably in the future. Regardless, to say that education will keep you out of a war is like saying it will somehow make you smarter.

I’m not knocking education or educational opportunity. Education will help those who want to be “educated;” It will help them earn a college degree, for example. It will probably, almost certainly, help them learn valuable skills of some sort. For those who want to serve in the military an education might help them to become officers. It might give them different perspectives on military service. If anyone has any research about whether educated people, ceteris paribus, are less likely to join the military (adjusted for the fact that to be in college you have to postpone service until you are older and cannot serve while in college) I’d really love to see it. You can just cite it, of course, because I have excellent access to a wide variety of online journals to which my University subscribes.

Back to Vonnegut’s book for a moment, and the roots of his pessimism. A Man Without a Country takes issue with the Iraq War and with a number of other things, including the Bush Administration.

“George W. Bush has gathered around him upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka Christians, and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or PPs, the medical term for smart, personable people who have no consciences.”

The title of this slim volume makes a certain amount of sense. You see, Vonnegut feels that politicians should be ashamed of themselves for not speaking out against the war, and other injustices, global warming, etc., more vehemently. And that this country is different from the one he fought for because nobody is ashamed of not doing the right thing anymore.

I have to admit that my glee over the rascals being thrown out of control over Congress is tempered by the knowledge that a different set of rascals is now in control, the set of rascals who, in the main, lacked the courage to take a stand against the ones who stampeded toward war in the first place. So I’m not optimistic that we will see much of a difference with the changing composition of Congress.

I couldn’t help but wonder when things will change, if they will ever change. And then I thought that maybe there has to be some moment when somebody takes a stand and says “you should all be ashamed of yourselves.” And then this made me think of the Army McCarthy Hearings (1954?), in which on national television somebody asked the Wisconsin Senator “have you no shame?”

So what’s different now? What’s different is that there is no such thing as television in the way it was back then. Our President seems to have no problem with lying about things. I was listening to NPR the other day and heard him equivocating about statements that he made about Rumsfeld during the campaign. He knew that he would be exiting the Cabinet, but during the campaign he claimed, nonetheless, that Rumsfeld would stay until the end of his administration. It’s a small and innocuous lie, when you compare it to some of the whoppers that came out of the last six years. But his explanations seemed to justify the lie in a way that was really pathetic—that was the campaign.

But NPR is not national television. Everybody does not listen to or watch the same channel anymore. A few weeks ago I went to hear a friend of mine, Doug Muder, talk about blogging. I came away from that feeling a little more optimistic about the state of this thing, this difficult-to-grapple-with manipulation of Americans (not me, of course, just the rest of you) by corporate media. Today I cannot remember where that optimism came from. But I wish that I could make Mr. Vonnegut feel better about some of this on his eighty-fourth birthday. So many times he has made me feel like life is indeed worth living.

Another Bullshit Day in Suck City, by Nick Flynn, who I’ve never read before.  And I guess I should explain a little about the title, because there isn’t really any explanation in the book about it, other than dark hints in an afterword about how it might affect sales of the book.  In Massachusetts the word “bullshit” has a different meaning than in other parts of the known universe.  In fact, it is actually a different part of speech.  Everywhere else in the U.S. the word is a noun.  It is what the politician just uttered, or what someone’s argument amounted to.  In Massachusetts it is an adjective adverb meaning “angry to the point of near-insanity.”  An example sentence might look like this: “He went completely bullshit.”  The meaning of the title of this dark memoir is thus not entirely clear to me, although it comes from the mouth of the author’s alcoholic father about two-thirds of the way through the book.  I thought at first that Suck City was Boston, but I’m not really even sure about that anymore. 

The book’s about Nick’s family.  His Mother committed suicide, and perhaps he blames himself.  His father left his life early on and he later encountered him as a homeless person while he (the author) was working at Boston’s Pine Street Inn (a shelter).  He has a variety of odd experiences and abuses alcohol and other drugs, goes to college for a while. 

I should say that I really liked this book, in case that doesn’t come through in this post.  (This happens to me quite frequently.  I seem to separate my analysis from my actual consumption of a book without even thinking about it.)  The author has that skill that seems absolutely necessary in writers who chronicle their upsetting lives, which is the ability to watch a train wreck and not just stare emptily but take it all in and remember parts of it very clearly.  As he puts it in the work itself in a scene where one of his Mother’s boyfriends is showing him and his brother a photographs album:

“on the next page a village is on fire.  Corpses next, pages of corpses, bodies along a dirt road, a face with no eyes.  As the stories of what he’d done unreel from inside him, my brother stands up and walks into his room, back to his wall of science fiction.  I look at the photos, at Travis, look in his eyes as he speaks, somehow I’d learned to do that, like a tree learns to swallow barbed wire.”

The writing is very lucid except for one part.  At one point it lapses into a re-worked King Lear, and I must admit I found myself completely verstiegenheit throughout it.  And please do not write me to tell me that if I didn’t understand that I didn’t get the main point of the book itself.  Perhaps I don’t know Shakespeare well enough to understand it.  Perhaps I’m not, as I have mentioned before in this space, the most careful reader of fiction in the entire world.  I just thought the book could have done without it.

It is one of those rare, dark books that will find you at the end being very glad that your life is not all that interesting.  And it’s a great read, but I don’t really know what it all adds up to.

At the Mountains of Madness, by H. P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft is amazing.  I thought a lot while I was reading this book about the writing process, since I am seriously considering writing a novel in November for NaNoWriMo.  Lovecraft couldn’t have possibly read the same book that I read on plotting, but he reminds me of it nonetheless.  I read this old book I found in the library written by a guy who only identifies himself as Foster-Harris.  (I don’t know whether that’s a first name spatchcocked to a last name with a hyphen, or whether he thinks his first name isn’t important, or what.)  Anyway, this guy’s advice was pretty kookety, and I’ll post more about it maybe during November.  “At the Mountains of Madness” reminded me of Foster-Harris’s advice that you take the central conflict in your story and make it more and more difficult for the protagonist.  Make it so difficult that it looks to be simply impossible for some sort of positive resolution.

Now in terms of plot, Lovecraft’s stories are nothing like that.  But he seems to sometimes accept a similar sort of challenge.  It is as if someone said to him when he was writing this “H.P.  I think that you could not possibly make penguins scary or creepy.  Penguins are too cute and goofy.  They look too happy-go-lucky.  I’ll give you ten thousand bucks if you can make some scary penguins without screwing up your story.”  And then H. P. rose to the challenge. These are, I should note, six-foot tall, sightless, albino penguins.  And they are not the main villains of the story; they may not be villains at all.  But still, if you can mak penguins creepy and then later in your story make them seem a welcome sight by comparison, you are the best. 

Far worse than the penguins are the Shoggoths, which were originally engineered by the Old Ones, the Elder Gods of the Cthulhu mythos.  They appear in this story as creations that have gone out of the control of their makers.  These creatures remind me a little too much of the final scenes of John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” which veered substantially from the original movie.  I see from the wikipedia entry on this book/story that Carpenter was fascinated by Lovecraft, and of course both stories take place in the arctic. 

At the “Mountains of Madness” is the longest story in this collection of four stories at about 110 pages.  The shortest in this book is five pages long.  It also contains “The Shunned House,” “The Dreams in the Witch House,” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (the five-page one).  All are excellent and creepy.  Perfect reading for the end of a New England October.  I wish I had a few more on hand.

The Necronomicon, by The Mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred

This one, purchased at Crow Bookshop, in Burlington Vermont, is apparently by someone who called himself The Mad Arab, or so I am led to believe.  I first became interested in The Necronomicon by reading the works of H. P. Lovecraft, who refers to the book’s writer as Abdul Alhazred.  I didn’t ever expect to see the book itself, because Lovecraft claimed that there were only one or two copies in the world, and many others claimed that it never existed.  The book itself is much more interesting in Lovecraft’s novels, partially, I think because of his prose style and instincts for mystery and horror.  The editors of the issue in my possession (copyright 1977 by Schlangecraft, Inc., and printed as an Avon Paperback) do not claim to know the name of this Mad Arab.

At any rate, the editors claim that this book is in the tradition of a grimoire, a book of spells for a sorceror, and that you should be a pretty accomplished magician to attempt any of them without the requisite background knowledge.  Indeed, they claim that they were visited by poltergeists and had horrible things happen to them while they merely edited and typeset the thing.  More recent sources about all of this stuff disagree (and here, too), concluding that it is more of a history, and perhaps complete balderdash.  So I guess that’s how I’ll have to read it. 

Even as a history there are some things that trouble me about this work (well, duh, right?)  First there is the matter of Alhazred’s motivation.  If this is a history, starring Alhazred and the weird mythos of demons and old ones, etc., then I should be able to understand Alhazred’s motivations.  And he tries to explain them in his introduction, claiming that he “learned the names and properties of all the demons, devils, fiends and monsters listed herein, in this Book of the Black Earth.”  And he “learned of the powers of the astral Gods, and how to summon their aid in times of need.”  These, you’d think, are good things to know, although they are somewhat vague.  I mean, it’s not clear what needs Abdul would have.  Did he need more goats?  He claims that he did not marry, so if he needed a wife or whatever, he did not use their help for that.  So much of the things he learned seem to be unpleasant.  Is it just my modern sensibilities and outlook, or is it a mixed blessing to learn “of the frightful beings who dwell beyond the astral spirits, who guard the Temple of the Lost, of the Ancient Days, the Ancient of the Ancient Ones, whose names [he] cannot write here”?

Mr. Alhazred, according to the book’s editors, wrote this all down at a time when things were not going well for him.  And they claim that he was consumed by these forces and didn’t get to end the book in the traditional manner, signing it with his name and the names of his ancestors.  Indeed, this seems to be the tone of the work, as Alhazred claims that “the Maskim nip at [his] heels, the Rabishu pull at [his] hair, Lammashta opens her dread jaws, AZAG-THOTH gloats blindly at his throne, KUTULU raises his head and stares up through the Veils of sunkun Varloorni, up through the Abyss, and fixes his stare upon me . . .” 

He starts the work by noting how he first came upon this strange knowledge, and it is a riveting and weird story.  But again, there is the problem of motivation to deal with.  He is sleeping in the desert near a rock and is spooked by some strange sights and noises.  Then he rolls into the grass, thinking that it could be robbers.  He sees a weird sight, some people in hoods performing a weird rite near the rock, and the rock rises up.  He screams and one of the hooded figures runs after him.  But he apparently interrupted something in their ritual, and all of these figures are consumed, or possibly melted, by something.  He decides he must find out more about this stuff.  Why?  I am interested in finding things out, but I guess I like to think that much of my self-education tends towards the utilitarian.  If I can’t figure out how to use something, to make my life better, or someone else’s life better, I tend to forget it anyway.  So it seems like a waste of time to learn it in the first place. 

Possibly this is how Alhazred met his end, attempting to remember trivial arcane rituals (although out of self-preservation he might have been more careful, I suppose).  He writes “My fate is no longer writ in the stars, for I have broken the Chaldean Covenant by seeking power over the Zonei. . . . The lines of my life have been obliterated by my Wanderings in the Waste, over the letters written in the heavens by the gods.  And even now I can hear the wolves howling in the mountains as they did that fateful night, and they are calling my name, and the names of the Others.  I fear for my flesh, byt I fear for my spirit more.”  Well, why were you seeking power over the Zonei, then, Abdul?  I really do want to know. 

Left Behind, by Peter and Patti LaLonde

Boy, do I feel stupid.  I am a member of Paperbackswap.com and bookmooch.com because I read a lot.  Anyway, I ordered this book, thinking that it was fiction.  Apparently there is more than one book about the end of the world called Left Behind.  (Apparently I wanted the one by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, the first in a series of fictional works that has been very popular.  It may also suck, but at this point I do not know that for sure.)  The one I ordered is called Left Behind, by Peter and Patti LaLonde.  I’ll review it to spare anyone else the torture of this book.

Imagine a book about biblical events like rapture and the time of tribulations written in the second person in a style that begins as a story, but almost immediately becomes a sort of FAQ.  Now imagine that it was written by people with a loose grasp of how the different tenses of Standard Written English may be used.  Yes, it makes some difficult reading.  Not that they had an easy task before them. 

The book starts out as a sort of extended letter from a couple who was swept up in the rapture to all those unfortunates who remained behind.  But as an evangelical work, its main goal is to convince the reader to accept Jesus as their personal savior before it is too late.  Thematically it is grounded in the here-and-now.  In terms of plotting, it takes place in the future.  But since it was written in the early 1990s, much of its “future” is actually our past, or possibly our present.  Much of the book’s “support” comes from biblical sources and biblical “scholars” like Hal Lindsey (who I always confuse with TV’s Barney Miller, Hal Linden).  So you have to add at least two temporal modes and you have to be really careful with the originals.  The writers did not take such care. 

And the chapter titles and subheads often take you out of the action entirely and are sometimes simply pointless.  Consider my personal favorite subheading of all time: “We Say All That To Say This” (37).  I’m going to modify that one and use it in my correspondence from now until the end times as a replacement for my frequent ellipses. 

Another problem is the writer-based prose.  The title of chapter five is a good case in point for this.  Chapter five is called “What Are Some Of The Excuses You Will Hear For The Vanishing?”  Now if this were really intended to be a FAQ-style document, the title should be “What are some of the excuses I will hear for the vanishing?”  But that shouldn’t side-track us from the fact that this simply is not one of the questions I would ask anybody.  There are chapters devoted to Star Trek and Whitley Strieber as well.  Not really what I’d be thinking about w/r/t the end times.  But I say all that to say this: Do not buy this book, even if you believe in this stuff.  I’m sure that there are books that are much more accessible and less confusing. 

Making Comics, by Scott McCloud

Making Comics, by Scott McCloud, is as brilliant as every says it is, of course.  I read his first (non-fiction) book some years ago and was clotheslined by it.  This one is, I think, even better.  I am going to slice this review thing into several different posts, because there is a lot to talk about in this book. 

First thing, and most obvious, is that I’ve wanted to draw a comic strip for many, many years.  It goes all the way back to junior high school, in fact.  I was relatively new in the (no longer) small city of Folsom California.  I met two fellow trumpet players in the band and we became great friends for more than a decade.  I have since lost touch with both of them, since they never seemed to feel the need to keep up what became in 1992 an increasingly long-distance friendship.  I hear about them periodically through other friends with whom I half-way keep in touch.

At any rate, both of these guys could draw.  And I could not.  One of them drew really cool superhero-type people and later became even more proficient with his art.  The other one had unbounded talent.  He could do caricatures, he could come up with plot-lines on the fly.  He was extremely smart and funny.  He never did anything with that talent, though.  I think that I am one of the few people who really got a glimpse of what he could do.  It’s not that I think he wasted his life because he could have made a living at drawing, illustrating, cartooning, whatever.  He certainly could have.  But it is a shame that he did not at least show his work to more people.  With the new free hosting of blogs and websites, he could have a huge audience.  He could make the world a slightly better place. 

I’m not going to name him here, but I will show you one of his pieces, created during the 50 minutes of a chemistry class, somewhere around the time that Reagan was shot.  The idea is stolen from a Saturday Night Live bit, if I remember correctly, a Canadian musical version of Alice in Wonderland called Nannette in Fantasticland.  The people are recognizably friends of ours and people in classes with us, or band.  I cannot recall which one was supposed to be me.  But I married Nannette.  I am a lucky guy.

nannette-med.jpg Click on this stupid thumbnail to see the picture. 

Anyway, McCloud’s book has piqued my interest in starting a comic strup once again.  And this time I’m going to do it.  It will be in this blog, I think.  And that’s anywhere near the end of what I have to say about McCloud’s book.  So stay tuned for that.

Just coming off reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time I have been doing some thinking about autism.  Oh, and Coupland’s JPod had me thinking about it as well (because of one of the characters’ assertion that her coworkers were all a type of high-functioning autistics).  I read in Boing Boing last week that there was a recent study showing that there is a new take on autism, that it is not so much a disorder as a new type of person.  At any rate, I’ve been thinking a little about it and now I happen to read Making Comics.  The main character in The Curious Incident has memorized a few drawings of facial expressions so that he can tell when people are happy or angry and that sort of thing.  Scott McCloud’s new book, Making Comics, comes with an excellent guide for such things, showing you how to draw various facial expressions, which he claims are all combinations of six different basic types:

  1. Anger
  2. Disgust
  3. Fear
  4. Joy
  5. Sadness
  6. Surprise

What does it say about the human condition that there is really only one positive emotion represented there.  Anyway, McCloud asserts that there is a continuum between strong and weak varieties of these, and that if they are combined, in groups of twos, threes and whatever, they create more complicated, and natural emotions.

So disgust and sadness create “pain empathy,” joy and sadness create “faint hope,” and so on.  This book is a joy to look at because all of these are depicted in there.

It occurs to me that McCloud elaborates on adult facial expressions, which he claims are predominantly formed by efforts to mask the emotions they actually feel.  Mea culpa, I guess.   I saw, back when my son was intensively focussed upon dinosaurs, the series Walking with Prehistoric Beasts, which ends with a close examination of the development of humans.  There is in that video a whole sequence on the evolutionary aspects of facial expressions that had me thinking at the time that most of our expressions evolved out of flight, fight, or knuckle-under reflexes.  Not a lot of call, from the perspective of evolutionary biology at least, for smiles and other types of “positive” expressions.  That’s a pretty anthropocentric view of this, I suppose.

I guess I should mention here that McCloud is on tour with his family and blogging about the tour, and he has a nice website as well.  Anyway, his sections on facial expressions, body language, and emotion are the ones I have learned the most from in this wonderful book.  But again, the ones that I have found validating and the ones I find myself thinking about the most are concerned with rhetoric and consciousness. 

One of the primary difficulties everybody faces, and one that is getting much worse because of the internet, is the simple fact that we are drowning in information.  If you don’t find yourself constantly struggling to filter out superfluous information, you are doing it unconsciously. 

So to gain an audience, whether it is in some sort of writing at work, or performing, or gaining and keeping friends, you have to make sure that you don’t send too many messages that you don’t intend to broadcast, because these increase the ratio of noise to signal.  And they make everyone’s information management problems more difficult.

Think, for just a second, about how many Web 2.0 technologies exist only to help us to filter our information more effectively.  Bloglines (or other RSS reading mechanisms) allows us to take weblogs that may have radically different facades and make them appear more uniform so that we can extract the actual content from webposts, rather than getting distracted by the appearance of that post and that blog.  Google and other search engines filter out sites when we are looking for information.  Flickr sets up tags so that we don’t have to (mostly) look at thousands of pictures that we are uninterested in.

Or think about this:

“[I]t is possible to process at most 126 bits of information per second, or 7,560 per minute, or almost half a million per hour.  Over a lifetime of seventy years, and counting sixteen hours of waking time each day, this amounts to about 185 billion bits of information.  It is out of this total that everything in our life must come–every thought, memory, feeling, or action. ”  –Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990.

Or take it from Scott McCloud:

“Your readers are humans, just like you and me, and we all sort information in the same way.  Every day our five senses take in an overwhelming amount of information, yet we quickly sort out what we care about from the chaos and direct our attention toward it.  And at the end of the day, it’s the flow of selected moments that we remember–and all those other sensations are left on the cutting-room floor.”

So you are engaged constantly, as the day progresses, in creating a narrative of that day, a flow of events that makes enough sense to you that you will remember it as a story. 

For Csikszentmihalyi, this constant decision-making process is called “attention.” 

“Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated.  We create ourselves by how we invest this energy.  Memories, thoughts, and feelings are all shaped by how we use it.  And it is an energy under our control, to do with as we pleasse; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.” Flow, pp. 33.  (This forms a part of the context for my other blog, in case it wasn’t obvious already).

McCloud’s advice about how to get rid of extraneous information from cartoons and how to think about composition in this medium is a better, more helpful guide to rhetoric in any medium than I have seen in books posing as guides to rhetoric.  And part of the reason he gets these messages across so forcefully is that he does it visually (a big part, too, is that he is passionate about the importance of this stuff.)   Whether you are constructing a comic book or making sense of your day, McCloud is in invaluable explainer.

I might have more to say about McCloud as I continue to ponder this book.  For now all I can say is, in the words of Patrick McDonnell’s cartoon dog(?) character in Mutts: “I bow to your wow.”

The Last Continent. Terry Pratchett–I had a lot of trouble with this one, despite the fact that Pratchett writes really well and I have actually read this one before.  In fact, I read all of the Discword books during a 6-month period of 2005, just after Jon Carroll mentioned them in his daily (more or less) for the San Francisco Chronicle.  Thus, I may have not internalized them as much as I would like to have done.

Anyway, this one features Rincewind, the wizard who cannot actually do magic.   (Other wizards living on Discworld do not do magic, mostly, but could, if they really had to.)  For some reason that I cannot immediately recall, Rincewind is on Fourecks (XXXX) which is like Australia.  The other wizards of unseen University are attempting to find him, but they are searching in the wrong time.

Mainly, unfortunately, the book’s humor centers to a large extent, upon knowledge of Australia that I simply do not possess.  I know this because I just looked up the book on Lspace.  Perhaps it would be funnier if I had such knowledge.  But when you have to have the jokes explained to you it kind-of kills the humor.  And the Rincewind novels have never been my favorites.   I much prefer the novels centered on Sam Vimes, or on the Witches of Lancre, or on Death and his adopted family.So, if I ever read this again, I’ll be sure to visit Lspace for a basic primer a few weeks before.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Mark Haddon–And we continue with this string of very positive reviews.  This book is unbelievably good, and for a large number of reasons.  First, it is smooth story-telling, well written and engaging.  Then there are the themes.

The narrator is autistic teenager attemting to solve a mystery, which is that somebody killed his neighbor’s dog with a pitchfork.  He is extremely skilled at mathematics, and there are interesting explications of such things as The Monty Hall Problem, and chaotic population behavior over time (for which see the chart I created this morning based on the equation he gives in the book, below).

pop.jpg

The population density looks like it is going to stabilize in that weird problem, but I ran this out to t=60 and it looks wildly different.  And the equation is incredibly simple, not like wrapping your head around cellular automata (yes, I know this stuff is supposed to be simple, but try explaining it to a non-mathematician). 

Anyway, the book, to me, right now, is about how most people in positions where they do most of their work writing or thinking or at a computer are what a character in Douglas Coupland’s latest book Jpod calls “high-functioning autistics.”  Perhaps I am some sort of mental hypochondriac, but I found endless parallels between the way I think and the way this teenage autistic Brit thinks.  Particularly (and Coupland draws some pretty convincing parallels to tech workers) periodic feelings of sensory overload:

“I see everything.

That is why I don’t like new places.  If I am in a place I know, like home, or school, or the bus, or the shop, or the street, I have seen almost everything in it beforehand and all I have to do is to look at the things that have changed or moved. . . .

But most people are lazy.  They never look at everything.  They do what is called glancing, . . . And the information in their head is really simple.  For example, if they are in the countryside, it might be

  1. I am standing in a field that is full of grass.
  2. There are some cows in the fields.
  3. It is sunny with a few clouds.
  4. There are some flowers in the grass.
  5. There is a village off in the distance.
  6. There is a fence at the edge of the field and it has a gate in it.

And then they would stop noticing anything because they would be thinking something else like, “Oh it is very beautiful here, or “I’m worried that I might have left the gas cooker on,” or “I wonder if Julie has given birth yet.”

But if I am standing in a field in the countryside I notice everything.  For example, I remember stnding in a field on Wednesday, 15 June 1994, because Father and Mother and I were driving to Dover to get a ferry to France and we did what Father called Taking the Scenic Route, which means going by little roads and stopping for lunch in a pub garden, and I had to stop to go for a wee and I went into a field with cows in it and after I’d had a wee I stopped and looked at the field and I noticed these things

  1. There are 19 cows in the field, 15 of which are black and white and 4 of which are brown and white.
  2. There is a village in the distance which has 31 visible houses and a church with a square tower and not a spire.
  3. There are ridges in the field, which means that in medieval times it was called a ridge and furrow field and people who lived in the village would have a ridge each to do farming on.
  4. There is an old plastic bag from ASDA in the hedge, and a squashed Coca-Cola can with a snail on it, and a long piece of orange string.
  5. The northeast corner of the field is the highest and the southwest corner is lowest (I had a compass because we were going on holiday and I wanted to know where Swindon was when we were in France) and the field is folded downward slightly along the line between these two corners so that the northwest and southeast corners are slightly lower than they would be if the field was an inclined plane.
  6. I can see three different types of grass and two colors of flowers in the grass.
  7. The cows are mostly facing uphill.

And there were 31 more things in this list of things I noticed but Siobhan said I didn’t need to write them all down.  And it means that it is very tiring if I am in a new place because I see all these things, . . .”

And he has a lot to say about those who go through life thinking they are “normal.” Example:

“Mr. Jeavons, the psychologist at the school, once asked me why 4 red cars in a row made it a Good Day, and 3 red cars in a row made it a Quite Good Day, and 5 red cars in a row made it a Super Good Day, and why 4 yellow cars in a row made it a Black Day, which is a day when I don’t speak to anyone and sit on my own reading books and don’t eat my lunch and Take No Risks.  He said that I was clearly a very logical person, so he was suprised that I should think like this because it wasn’t very logical. 

I said that I liked things to be in a nice order.  And one way of things being in a nice order was to be logical.  Especially if those things were numbers or an argument.  But there were other wyas of putting things in a nice order.  Ant that was why I had Good Days and Black Days.  And I said that some people who work in an office came out of their houses in the morning and saw that the sun was shining and it made them feel happy, or they saw that it was raining and it made them feel sad, but the only difference was the weather and if they worked in an office, the weather didn’t have anything to do with whether they had a good day or a bad day.”

More later . . .

The Diamond Age, or a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.  Neal Stephenson.  And I actually finished this one Sunday, October 1. This is also a re-read.  The first time, though, I was doing something like three books a week, minimum, for graduate school.  And it came out in paperback in 1995-6, which was a time when I was still attempting to impress my professors and maintain a 4.0 average.  So I guess I didn’t pay that much attention.  Stephenson writes lucidly and it is possible to enjoy his books without getting too wound up in the plots.  Indeed, this work is so rich in themes that interested me at the time (social thought and possible future societal structures, nanotechnology, education, etc.) that I completely missed some of those that I find more interesting today (social thinking, nanotechnology, parallel processing, intuition, the wisdom of the crowds, and something that didn’t exist in the mid-1990s, Web 2.0).

I try to avoid plot summaries, but will try to construct one here that doesn’t give away much.  Society has continued to fragment.  Many successful people react to the breakdown by forming their own societies and adopting stringent moral codes.  Relationships between these disparate groups are mediated by a worldwide economic protocol.  A very powerful member of one of the most powerful of these, the Victorians, is disgusted by the way his kids turned out.  They don’t think subversively, they were beaten down by their strict Victorian upbringing.  They will never be the kind of entrepeneurial pirate that he respects.  So he has someone create a powerful book (the primer in the title) to lead his granddaughter along a more subversive path.  The designer of the book makes a copy for his daughter (stealing), and it is, in turn, stolen.

Traditional Chinese society at this time is suffering under the yoke of economic hierarchies maintained by others, and the cultural system that comes with it (cultural, technological and economic imperialism).  They use the theft of the book to gain leverage on its designer and attempt to secure his help subverting the existing order. 

So that’s the idea, but the whole thing is bound up with the story of a waif whose brother stole the book and her surrogate mother, an actress who interacts with her through the book.  The result is an engaging meditation on the power of narrative and a good read.

Anansi Boys. Niel Gaiman–Just finished reading this one this morning.  Anansi Boys is your typical book about a guy who finds out that he is a god, rather late in life, and that knowledge leads to all sorts of eerie and troubling plot complications and an eventual happy ending.  I really liked this one, to the point where it made me wonder why I didn’t like American Gods.  I can still remember quite vividly sections of that book.  And the characters were very memorable, too.  But by the end I had trouble following the plot. (9-27-06)

Now that sort of thing, my inability to remain interested in a complex narrative, has not really troubled me in quite a while.  Many of Terry Pratchett’s books, particularly those featuring Rincewind, leave me behind.  But that doesn’t detract much from the experience.  I’ll chalk it up to my training as an economist during the Reagan Era, where complexity was only good if it was of the mathematical sort.

Oh, and in the final sequence of events the villain (we’re back to Anansi Boys here) is a Tiger, which brings to mind weird comparisons with The Life of Pi (see below), and the Complete Calvin and Hobbes (where the cat is both a trickster and the capricious six-year-old’s superego.)

The Life of Pi.Yann Martel–An amazing story.  It is about a sixteen-year-old boy, the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India.  His father doesn’t like the fact that P.M. Gandhi has annexed their state and decides to sell all of the zoo animals and move to Canada.  Their ship, containing all of the animals, sinks.  Pi (short for Piscine) is the only human survivor, and he lands in Mexico more than 200 days later. Some of the attraction of the book is a longstanding attraction I have to shipwreck stories, being from a sailing family.  I read a book called, I think, Survive the Savage Sea, about a family whose boat was destroyed by whales, when I was maybe nine-years-old.  And I was hooked.  But it is also a beautiful and strange book and a joy to read. (9-23-06)

Comments»

1. Stiletto Girl - January 28, 2007

I haven’t finished reading through your entire book selection but I wanted to say – I thought the Necronomicon was fake and entirely made up.

2. caveblogem - January 28, 2007

It may be entirely made up, and fake as well. But I do have a copy, I couldn’t resist when I saw it in that bookstore.

It looks as if there are thousands of copies out there, too. If you type the name into Librarything you can see a picture of the cover, and you can also see that almost 150 other users of Librarything have copies of it. Only three reviews, I see, mine included. One claims that he has used it as material for a BS magical rite of some sort. Doesn’t say why this was necessary, but it is clearly pretty useful for this sort of thing. Lots of scary nonsense-syllables (unless they are actually magical, of course). If it is actual magical spells, I’m wondering to myself, and he used them in a fake magical rite of some sort, would the elder gods have responded (presuming there are such entities) or would they have realized he was full of it? Or would that have made these elder gods angry enough, the impertinence of bs-ing his way through some sort of magical rite, to melt his face, or something?

I’m afraid I have more questions than answers about this stuff, SG.

3. Stiletto Girl - January 28, 2007

I think I had a copy when I was a teen-ager. There is a picture of me holding up two books – one is The Satanic Witch and I think the other is Necronomicon. Now I must look!

And now I must do more research on this book. Man, if I am holding up a copy, I would love to scan a pic but unfortunately my scanner is not working.

4. Stiletto Girl - January 28, 2007

Yes, I am! I Just found the pic! I should stop by Kinkos and scan it when I get a chance. I am holding Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible and in other hand, the Necronomicon! In the background is an AC DC poster. Classic!

5. caveblogem - January 29, 2007

SG,

Sounds like somebody stopped for some light reading on the highway to hell.

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