Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Big U, Neal Stephenson

The Big U
Neal Stephenson

Another one for Jeremy, but this time only because of the college setting, not because of anything specific. In fact he's expecting only one book from me, not two. (That surprise will be spoiled now if he reads this... I doubt it, but with Jeremy you never know.)

Anyway... The Big U is a farcical view of college. The setting is a major urban university. The entire place is contained in one vast building - the plex - in which myriad crazy things happen. Jeremy will not recognize the place personally as his school is nothing like the one described here at a physical level. But the people, well, I hope he will have some laughs.

Stephenson's writing is light, even when things take a serious twist. His vision of human affairs in the vast place he describes is both funny and poignant. Things just happen here, usually with no repercussions. Pianos are thrown onto distant roofs, people are factionalized in crazy ways, drugs and booze run rampant, and actions rarely have any basis in reality.

Jeremy, I hope your college days are a lot better than this. Have fun, but stay sane my friend. And be sure to avoid the Crotobaltislavonians!

Doorways In The Sand, Roger Zelazny

Title: Doorways In The Sand
Author: Roger Zelazny
Rating: Good

As some of you may know, I teach stone carving. Something close to five years ago we had a high school student join the class. This was a new experience for me - the class is generally directed at adults - but Jeremy was a great addition. I learned a lot from him, and he added quite a bit to the classroom experience.

This year saw him graduate and go off to college. Over the years we've watched him get ready for this and now seen him leave. I always told Jeremy he should milk his college days as much as he can. If he needed 3 PhD degrees and a 20 year post doc, for example, he should do that, and all on his parent's dime. He says that won't happen, but in the spirit of the idea I am sending him a copy of Doorways In The Sand.

In it, the hero has managed to stay in college for something like 14 years without graduating. He gets close at times, but always changes majors or otherwise manages to escape. The reason is that his uncle's estate pays for his college education until he graduates, but doesn't contain a time limit. As you can imagine, Jeremy needs to read this. The USPS will deliver a copy to him shortly.

As books by Zelazy go, Doorways In The Sand is good, but not one of the greats. It's fluffier than something like Lord of Light, and lacks the grand sweep of the Amber Chronicles. Still, it's fun and well written. Definitely worth your time if you're into lighter SF.

The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone

The Agony and the Ecstasy
Irving Stone

It's been months since I had the time for any reading. In fact, I was nearly finished with The Agony and the Ecstasy when the job started, and though I finished it shortly thereafter it has been a long time since I've posted here, so this review is long overdue.

All I can do now is recommend this book highly, particularly if you're a student of the arts or an artist.

Stone's research is good, and though I cannot tell you where he veered into fiction, I can tell you that I enjoyed this work a lot.

Michaelangelo is one of my favorites, and an inspiration to me as a sculptor. I learned a lot about him and his time from this book, and highly recommend it.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Happiness Hypothesis, Johnathan Haidt

The Happiness Hypothesis
Johnathan Haidt

This is a tough book to review. Early on Haidt had me hooked. I felt like he was heading in the right direction and that things were making sense. Then it got derailed. I suspect that was my fault, though. I choked on what I view as his overly generous and accepting position towards religion.

The first half or more of the book seems to be well supported in terms of research. If there's a problem there it's in Haidt's use of excerpts from various ancient sources - mostly religious - without a lot of context and background. That, for me, is something of a no-no, as quotations need to come with context if they are to be taken seriously. The Bible is a violent book when viewed as a whole, and extracting a few peace loving lines out of it doesn't change that, nor does it put those lines in the proper context.

But I got past that because it looked like Haidt was saying something like "Ancient source X says this semi-mystical thing Y. Modern research shows that Y is correct in the following way." (Sometimes Y was incorrect, by the way.) Given that presentation I let things slide.

Then, however, I got to the latter portion of the book and things just started to grate on my nerves. Haidt winds up making the claim that we are ultra social, somewhat hive minded organisms. Like bees in some ways. Now, I recognize that there are some interesting evolutionary drives, and maybe, in some ways, a few aspects of human behavior are similar to those of bees or ants, but we aren't all the way to a hive organism as I see it, and while I'm sure he wouldn't say we were either, he thinks the bits that are similar are a lot more important than I do, or than he justifies as far as I could tell.

And as he gets closer to these more speculative leaps the number of end notes and referenced studies goes down, just as the number of anecdotal reports goes up. (Note: I could be wrong about this. I'm documenting my response to this book, not writing a detailed study in which I count end notes, cited papers, and so on. Still, I think my conclusions are probably sound.)

In addition, Haidt - despite claiming to be an atheist himself - glosses over a bunch of problems with religion. Maybe they just aren't relevant to his conclusions, but I found the act bothersome.

I give him credit for trying to synthesize something of this scope, and there are useful bits in here. For example, he makes a good case that the question "What is the meaning of life?" is pointless. "How can I live a life full of meaning?" is a much better question, and he gives some help in here if you're stuck on that issue. Not a lot of detailed help, mind you - meditate, make use of cognitive therapy, or take Prozac is the gist - but enough to maybe get you talking to someone who can move you along one of those paths. If you decide you need to.

Overall I guess this book was OK. Not stellar, not life changing, at least for me, but OK. Maybe that's because I am (I think) a relatively well balanced person who is pretty happy most of the time. If you are perpetually unhappy you might find something more useful or meaningful here than I did.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Perfect Spy, John Le Carre

A Perfect Spy
John Le Carre

This one came off my shelf to make some room, as it's a moderately hefty hard back tome. My previous time with Le Carre has been OK, and I guess that's what I'd have to say about this one.

A Perfect Spy is essentially an exercise in back story and character development. In large measure, nothing really happens in here, and I found that a bit off putting. It wasn't terrible, but I did spend a bit of time wondering if anything - other than the rather predictable ending - would happen.

In previous books I've reviewed by Le Carre I've seen an odd problem: at times he randomly changes the point of view. It can be a bit bizarre to suddenly realize that we've gone from omniscient narrator to the limited point of view of some body guard. Thankfully I didn't note that in A Perfect Spy. Instead I had different problem.

The main character, Magnus Pym, has a somewhat split personality. In his role as narrator he regularly refers to himself as if he was someone else. This gets confusing and it took me nearly 100 pages to catch on. I kept wondering if there was some other character present that I'd somehow missed. Finally, though, I got it. I may be more than a bit dense - others might have recognized what was going on a lot faster - but it really slowed me down until I figured it out.

Other than that, I didn't really note anything all that good or bad. As I say, the ending was fairly predictable, but once you meet Pym and get the gist of where he is in life the ending is just about a given.

If you're into cold war spy stories you might enjoy this. If that isn't your bag, then you can probably give this one a pass.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ringworld, Larry Niven

Larry Niven

Ringworld is probably Larry Niven's most famous work, having won both the Hugo and Nebula awards back in 1970 when it was first published. My previous experience with Niven's work, though, has left me cold. He's a hard science fiction writer and his characters have been very flat, to say the least. I hoped that Ringworld would be different.

It isn't.

It appears as though Niven had the idea for the ringworld and forced some characters and story together to give him a reason to write about the toy he'd invented. For me the result simply didn't work.

The toy itself - the ringworld - is an interesting idea, but other than some math about dimensions and spinning it to create gravity, everything else about it is pure, unadulterated fantasy. There are all kinds of impossible things going on here in the guise of "science": impossibly strong and thin wire, materials impervious to just about anything, multiple forms of FTL travel, unexplained failsafe systems, life extending substances, stasis fields, transmutation of one material into another, alien species, etc. One or even a few of these things would be fine in a science fiction work, particularly with some background and explanation, but Niven piles them up thick and just keeps going.

In short, he made up anything needed to let him talk about the idea of the ringworld itself. Everything other than the ring - characters, physics, story - was essentially superfluous. If he was a better writer I might have suspended disbelief, but that never happened. Not once.

Even worse, there were several places where the writing is so bad - or the copy I have is so poorly transcribed from the original - that after rereading a few paragraphs several times I had to give up and move on. Some things just didn't make sense at all.

In other places, despite the fact that the words and sentences held together, Niven didn't adequately describe the situation or action. After a while you just wind up accepting that he's not going to explain things well enough to make sense and forget about it. Not a good sign.

For amusement you can look it up on Wikipedia and read about other technical problems. There are quite a few.

I don't know why this book won any awards. It's not very good. My perception of Niven as a writer remains unchanged and I will avoid his work in the future. Too bad.

Bear v. Shark, Chris Bachelder

Bear v. Shark
Chris Bachelder

I have no idea now where the recommendation for this book came from, but I am afraid I am going to disappoint someone.

I had the same reaction to this that I have to some modern art, like a canvas painted all one color. I thought "I could write this. I could write a lot better than this guy did."

Nearly the entire book consists of very short (1-2 page) chapters describing the story of the Norman family as they travel to watch the second bear/shark battle. This is a parody of America, though, so while most of what we see is familiar, it's all deliberately exaggerated to the point of silliness.

In an attempt to heighten the effect, most dialog isn't quoted, characters talk past each other, and all kinds of events aren't really explained. Then end result is a ball of semi-related things that sort of make up a story, but a story without any reasonable ending. In fact, it's rather like the author couldn't come up with one, so he decided to leave it open and let the reader imagine his own.

In any case, I didn't find it funny, though others apparently do. It does contain a lot of social commentary, but only of the most blunt kind.

This is the author's first novel. I have no desire to read anything else by him, and I can't imagine why a publisher would spend money on this book. Not recommended.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Black Hole War, Leonard Susskind

The Black Hole War
Leonard Susskind

Some time back I read two books on string theory by Brian Greene. Both were interesting, well written, and managed to explain complicated physics in a manner that made them somewhat easier to understand.

It turns out that a lot has changed in physics since those books were written, or that those books don't cover a bunch of things going on in the field. The Black Hole War describes many thing Greene doesn't, but does so in passing, as it tells the story of a significant disagreement over the fate of information that gets sucked into black holes.

The resolution of that argument took a long time. Susskind describes a meeting in 1981 where Stephen Hawking made the claim that any information entering a black hole is lost forever. Susskind and Gerard 't Hooft were bothered by this - it violated a fundamental principle - and began trying to prove it incorrect. It took until 2007 before Hawking admitted he was wrong.

In those 26 years physics saw huge changes. String theory, among other things, made a big impact. But many other discoveries were made as well, and a lot of physicists were involved. Susskind describes all kinds of interesting physics in this book, and credits many other physicists with important discoveries that helped make his case.

Overall The Black Hole War is a good read, and it explores some fascinating ground, but there is a problem. Maybe it's that Susskind has too many things to cover to make his case, so he cannot cover individual topics in enough depth to make them clear. I suspect, though, that Susskind isn't quite as good at explaining these non-intuitive concepts as Greene is.

For example, a few hours after finishing the book I couldn't explain the holographic principle to my wife, and it's a key element of the proof Susskind is making.

Perhaps the failure is mine, or the material is so strange that it doesn't make sense to humans given the way we've evolved, but I think it could be described more clearly, even without resorting to the incredibly complicated math that backs it up. At least I hope so.

In any case it is clear that there is a lot of current physics that I don't understand, and didn't know was being researched before I read this book.

Recommended, but I hope that Warped Passages by Lisa Randall - when I get to it - provides a clearer explanation of at least some of the underlying physics.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

James Herriot's Animal Stories, James Herriot

James Herriot's Animal Stories
James Herriot

A very short collection of stories extracted from other books by Herriot, with some nice illustrations and a brief introduction by Herriot's son.

These are probably among the heart warming best from the entire series. Nice - particularly with the illustrations - but there's nothing really new here if you've read the other books.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood

The Robber Bride
Margaret Atwood

I didn't get this book. Of 466 pages it seemed as if 460 were back story, and there was little action of any kind. Instead we get a pseudo-drama, expressed in the thoughts and discussions of three women: Tony, Charis, and Roz. What little story we get revolves around a fourth woman, Zenia.

The three main characters are actually too well drawn. We don't need to know every little detail about their lives to understand why they might be reacting this way, but we get that detail in any case. And more. And still more.

Tony's a history professor with a specialization in battles. She's a fairly ineffective and self effacing person as well. Her real name is Antonia.

Charis is another ineffective character, but this time with no real talents she can earn a living from. She does, however, have a spiritual side that "works". Her real name is Karen.

Roz is a business woman - someone with power and money - but who is also hopeless in her own way. In this case it's her marriage she cannot manage. Her real name is Rosalind.

None of these characters has it all together. In fact, though they could each potentially be interesting in some sense, collectively I found them pretty annoying. They whine and worry but rarely do anything, and when they try they fail. Every time. Then they whine about failing. Roz's twin daughters are a lot more interesting than anyone else here, and they're only bit parts.

There might be something important about the fact that Tony, Roz, and Charis all operate under something other than their real names too, but if so I can't tell you what that might be.

Zenia is something else. She's a liar and a thief, and ruthless about getting whatever it is she wants - including the man each of the three main characters loves - but that's about all we learn of her. She's the central mystery around which the book is written and we never figure her out. Never.

The story is told mostly in flashbacks - sometimes nested - and it can be a bit hard to keep track of if you set the book down at the wrong point. Unfortunately I found it easy to set it down just about anywhere given the vast back story. Complicating matters, at least for me, is that I didn't really relate to any of the characters. They were either boring or irritating, but never become important or interesting.

The only reason I continued reading The Robber Bride is because I've read other work by Atwood and really enjoyed it. This one, however, just didn't work, at least not for me. It needed both something significant to happen and a resolution.

Oh, and I didn't like Charis's spiritual muck. Or rather, the fact that it "worked" in some way seemed wrong. If she'd believed in it but nothing had come of it, fine. Instead we get a couple of mystical but completely unexplained incidents that make no sense. Then again I'm less spiritual than most bricks, and such tripe is liable to irk me in any case.

Perhaps Atwood is making some feminist point, but if so I missed it, along with just about everything else.

If you want to read something good by Atwood, try The Handmaid's Tale, or Oryx and Crake. I'd skip this one.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

On Writing, Stephen King

On Writing
Stephen King

I have never been a Stephen King fan. As part of some class in high school I had to read a short story about a possessed dry cleaning machine (or at least that's what I think it was) and that put me off him forever. It wasn't the writing - I probably couldn't have identified good or bad writing at the time - it was the subject matter. I was not interested in horror then, and still don't care for it now. In fact it generally irritates me.

In hindsight, that judgment - made when I was about 15 - might be too harsh. Maybe that story was simply a poor example of his work, or I woke up on the wrong side of the bed that day. Whatever the case, I am forced to reevaluate King now.

Those who know me well know I have a desire to be a writer. I suffer from some of the usual writer's problems, though, and haven't done enough writing to make me happy as a result. (That said, this blog is an excuse to write, so I am at least making strides in the right direction.)

Recently I decided to chase this dream a bit more aggressively, and this book came up as a recommendation. I'd never heard of it - I'd ignored King for roughly 25 years - but sometimes a search engine can point you in a surprising direction.

In On Writing King gives us several things:
  • The experiences in life that made him the writer he is.
  • Some tools (his metaphor) you need to write: vocabulary, grammar, etc.
  • How to write. The actual day-to-day process of writing and editing, discussed clearly so you know what you're in for.
  • An example manuscript before he edited the first draft and what the marked up pages looked like.
  • Permission to read and write 4 to 6 (or more) hours a day.
All of this is useful information, at least to me. The craft of serious writing is one of those things whose attraction may not survive my actual attempt to pull it off, but King gives me information, permission, and hope.

Anyone looking to write should consider reading On Writing. And I will reconsider King's work. Anyone want to give me some recommendations for things that aren't horror?

The Essential Spinoza, edited by Michael L. Morgan

The Essential Spinoza
Michael L. Morgan

I did not and will not finish this book. Sorry.

Baruch Spinoza - an important philosopher - lived between 1632 and 1677. This book is a translation of at least some of his major works.

I've read or heard tidbits about Spinoza over the years and thought he sounded interesting. I should have read the Wikipedia page on him rather than tackle this muck head on, however.

I have come to the belated conclusion that reading philosophy is just not for me. In too many cases I catch the authors playing word games. In the worst example I know of - in Being and Time - Martin Heidegger used a word to mean one thing when it was capitalized and something else when it wasn't. I went nuts trying to figure out what he was babbling about.

Much more common is simply creating a new definition for a word, one that has nothing to do with normal usage. Spinoza (or his editor) plays that game here, and I find it idiotic.

Worse, though, is an apparently rigorous approach to things, reminiscent of mathematics. At the beginning of each major section of the book Spinoza sets out a few definitions, followed by a few axioms - things he takes to be true without need for proof or argument. From this basis he puts forward a series of propositions, each followed by a "proof". Sadly I have to use the scare quotes. I found most of what I read to be lacking in rigor, and much of it to be unintelligible.

At odd intervals Spinoza makes use of additional concepts and terms - undefined - as if they were intrinsically obvious too. New axioms on the fly. How handy.

The resulting hodgepodge isn't interesting or illuminating, at least not to me. I found it frustrating and garbled. In just 50 pages I lost all desire to learn more, began skimming, and gave up.

Elsewhere I read that Spinoza concluded that God exists as a sort of impersonal thing, a part of nature, but perhaps not all of it - see the Wikipedia entry on him for a bit more. Clearly such a God is nothing like the one his Jewish community envisioned. Nor did his views sit well with any organized, European religion at the time. He was excommunicated - in a writ if cherem - by the Jewish community, and at least some of his work was published only after he died.

There was promise here, but I simply couldn't get past the writing. If there's something important or relevant in this I will never know it directly, and probably not at all. I wish that wasn't the case.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Steering The Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin

Steering The Craft
Ursula K. Le Guin

I've read a few books on writing over the years. Some were just too silly (write words and draw arrows between them) or were focused on things I honestly don't care about (writing as therapy, or finding my inner whatever).

The things that interest me are:
  • How do I make my writing better?
  • What are the ways that various writers find that let the be effective at it?
Steering the Craft falls squarely and wonderfully into the first camp.

Le Guin presents a series of exercises along with supporting text and descriptions that drive home specific points about writing well. In addition, she discusses some of her own opinions about a few things in the writing field. It turns out she's simply a practical writer with both a great feel for language and an excellent ability to distil that knowledge into usable tools and techniques.

This isn't a long book, but it is quite clear to me that if you follow though on it by doing the exercises and evaluating the results honestly - possibly with a group of like minded people - you have a good shot at becoming a better writer.

I've begun that process, and I look forward to following it all the way through.

I expect Steering the Craft will be an excellent resource.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

God Emperor of Dune, Frank Herbert

God Emperor of Dune
Frank Herbert

God Emperor of Dune is the fourth book in the Dune series, and my second favorite of the bunch. Only Dune itself is better.

In God Emperor we find ourselves following Leto Atreides's life something over 3000 years after Children of Dune. Yes, he lives that long and it's not horribly contrived that he does so. In fact it was setup during Children of Dune and Herbert is simply following the plan he laid out there. But ruling a multi-galactic empire for over 3000 years is not a simple thing, and Leto's got reasons for everything he does. Those reasons are impressive. I like what Herbert says about humanity here. Leto makes the ultimate sacrifice to save us from ourselves.

In addition to Leto we have a few other major characters: Moneo, Leto's majordomo; Siona, Moneo's daughter; and Duncan Idaho, the most recent in a long line of gholas with their memories restored from the first Duncan, who died in Dune.

I have to give Herbert credit. He can write with a huge scale in mind and pull it off. Sometimes I feel that Leto's words are a bit thick, but on reflection they're actually right for a character of his age and experience, and if I was a deeper reader I might not feel that way.

Another important point is that God Emperor isn't classic science fiction in the usual sense. Oh, it's a classic, but it's not a space opera full of ray guns and space battles. It's mostly conversation and description, as much of the drama is in relationships, so the interactions among characters are key.

If you liked the first three Dune books you'll probably like this one too. I know I do.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Children Of Dune, Frank Herbert

Children Of Dune
Frank Herbert

Children of Dune was the first "end" of the Dune series. At this point there are a lot more books in that series, but this is where the original work stopped.

I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. It's better written than Dune Messiah, and has more content. In it, Paul Atreides' son Leto takes up his destiny. Preborn - having access to all the memories of his ancestors from conception - he finds himself following in his father's footsteps. And going well beyond them.

Some of what Herbert proposes about human nature in Children of Dune is quite interesting. Leto's "solution" is quite unique as well.

While it's still not quite the grabber that Dune itself is, this is a good book, and recommended.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert

Dune Messiah
Frank Herbert

Dune Messiah is volume two in Frank Herbert's Dune series, and I am of mixed mind about it on this reread.

On the good side, there's more here than I remembered from previous readings. Yes, it's still a short novel - just 256 pages - but it has more plot than I gave it credit for in my memory. Herbert's voice is still here, and the world is still rich and interesting.

I like the way Paul continues to struggle with escaping his vision of the future, and it feels believable, though there is less descriptive language about his actual visions this time. I also like Hayt's role and what he becomes. Those who've read farther into the series know he's going to be around for a very long time.

There are a few things on the not so good side, though.

Most importantly it seems possible that Herbert became enamored of some things that weren't mentioned or present in Dune itself. The planet Tleilax, for example, gets a brief mention in Dune as the source of twisted mentats and another when Barron Harkonnen says he needs to order a new mentat. That's it. In Dune Messiah, however, things are very different. We encounter the name "Bene Tleilaxu" with no explanation, and they have a long history. Several of their creations - Gholas and Face Dancers among them - play major roles in the story. Why did we have no hint of this in Dune itself? Is it possible that Herbert was asked (told?) to "write more Dune!" and turned out Dune Messiah too quickly as a result? I honestly don't know, but I find the way the Bene Tleilaxu are played up a bit bothersome. They are powerful enough they should have had a bigger role before.

As additional evidence for the possible "hurry up and publish it" idea, I give you the book itself. My copy of Dune is nicely typeset, Dune Messiah, on the other hand, was clearly rushed to press. As with Dune, each chapter starts with a quote, but no one bothered to start each quote on a new page. As a result some of these introductory quotes cross pages, which looks very odd and supports my theory that the entire enterprise of writing and publishing it was rushed.

There are some plot issues as well. When Paul took the water of life, whether or not he was presented with all of his ancestors (male, female, or both) is never made clear. We know that Jessica and Alia have an inner dialog with their ancestors, and I know we learn in the next book that the same is true for Ghanima and Leto, but we never find out if that's true for Paul. Why not? Again, I doubt Herbert was given the time he needed to get the book written.

And the link between Paul and Leto at the end is never explained. That may be a bit picky on my part, but I don't know what allows it to happen. An explanation would have helped me.

In all, Dune Messiah was better than I remembered, but still not nearly as good as Dune itself.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dune, Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert

There are very few books that grab me the way Dune does. It's an amazing work of science fiction, and among the best books I've ever read, possibly the best.

I read Dune the first time at roughly 15 years of age, the age of Paul Atreides as the book begins. Whatever was going on in my life then, it let this book sink into me in a way few others have, and despite 30 years and innumerable re-readings, it continues to satisfy.

At one level, Dune is a science fiction story. It has a hero and a complex set of characters set against a backdrop that is foreign but understandable. At another level, Herbert went way beyond what anyone had done before. Written in 1965, Dune is an ecological novel, telling the story of an entire planet and the people that live upon it. I understand that Herbert did something like ten years of research before writing Dune, and it shows. This is a work well ahead of its time.

A quick synopsis: Paul Atreides is the son of Duke Leto Atreides. Duke Leto has been instructed by the Emperor to take possession of Arrakis, a desert planet and the only place where the spice, melange, is found. Melange has several properties, but most importantly it extends life, and it is a drug allowing altered mental states in some. For Space Guild navigators, it allows them to see far enough into the future to permit faster than light travel. For the Bene Gesserit, it permits and inward transformation so their members can access past memories.

Duke Leto, however, is opposed by Baron Harkonnen and others. Leto is killed leaving Paul and his mother to find shelter with the native inhabitants of Arrakis, the Fremen. There Paul comes into adulthood in a hostile environment and sets about taking back that which his father lost, and then some.

With Dune, Herbert hit a peak that I am not at all sure he ever reached again. Subsequent books in the series - Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, and others were OK, but don't measure up in my estimation. Dune is a singular achievement, and stands alone.

A brief story about the first time I read Dune: It turns out that my mother was reading it while I was in school. I came home and read in the afternoons and evenings when time allowed (often) and one night found me nearing the end of the book. Dune is large - my paperback is 537 pages - but I literally let out a cry of anguish when I learned the book ended some 50 pages shy of the cover. There were appendixes of various sorts after that point, but no more story. In the kitchen, though, I heard my mother's knowing chuckle. She'd finished the book a day or two before and knew what happened.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Rereading an old favorite

This is what happens when you still have the first copy of a book you love after almost 30 years and many re-readings:

The cover comes off and gets taped back on, the spine is mangled, and there are pages that may fall out at any time. A book gets like this for being loved, and Dune is one of my all time favorites. Very few things have ever come close. Written a year after I was born, it's held up really well over the years, and it's time to read it again.

I need to be careful, though. I have a tendency to gulp it down in one or two sittings, failing to savor the concepts and prose in favor of diving headlong into the plot.

I'm giving myself this treat - rereading Dune after several years - because the other things I am reading at the same time are going to be tough sledding. I'll have to ration it out carefully, and work at limiting my time with it. If I don't it will be done in a few hours and nothing else will have advanced at all.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World, Francis Wheen

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World
Francis Wheen

I am of decidedly mixed mind about this book. Part of me absolutely loved it and wanted to stand up and cheer many times while reading it. Another part of me, though, found it meandering and somewhat unfocused. Looking at Amazon's reviews, I see they are mixed two, with an average of about 3.5 / 5 stars. I'm not all that surprised.

The subtitle of How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World is "A Short History of Modern Delusions". I'm not exactly sure how I encountered this one, but it was an interesting if frustrating read. I'll divide my review into the good and the bad, as my mixed feelings above make plane.

On the positive side, Wheen tackles a bunch of sacred cows, and he doesn't particularly lean towards the left or the right. In reality, both sides are full of idiocy, and it was amusing to watch them skewered in this way. Starting with Thatcherism and Reagan, he heads into politics with no compunctions. He has direct (and I think mostly correct) things to say about both Bush presidencies (and presidents), Clinton, and various candidates from both sides, along with leaders and politicians from many other countries as well.

He similarly goes after business. He's particularly hard on everyone who thinks (or thought) that the Internet and the so called "new economy" are actually any different from the old economy and environment. He has some enlightening quotes from Keynes and others showing how people thought very similarly about the world a long, long time before computers were even invented. Some of his examples - of company founders, lauded as new visionaries who then fell flat on their faces and of companies (like Enron and Global Crossing) that were corrupt, stupid, or both - are great reading.

Some time is also spent at the end on the left's apologetics around religion and 9/11 in particular. That was interesting reading for me, and the chapter titles ("Voodoo", early on about Thatcherism and Reaganomics, and "Voodoo Revisited" about the left's irrational reactions to 9/11) were well chosen.

From my perspective, though, his best attacks are against religion. He spares no barbs here either, and I think the hypocrisy exposed is a good thing. Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade, and Wheen does so. Here, for example, is a quote from Thomas Jefferson:
Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity... Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.
You can find Jefferson's full text here, if you're curious:

And some people think the US was founded as a Christian nation. Clearly not.

All of that said, there are some problems with Mumbo-Jumbo that irritate.

First, Wheen seems to have a strong belief that Keynes got it all right and every economist since has gotten it wrong. I appreciate the sentiment in some ways, and I long ago lost my faith in the completely unregulated market. All humans are actually irrational consumers at some level, and we often won't make the "economically optimal" choice even if someone threatens us with a gun should we screw up. But it doesn't follow that since Friedman was in error Keynes is the end of the story, and I'm not sure that Wheen is open to that.

More of a problem - at least for me - was the meandering narrative. There are many great quotes in here, and a lot of interesting facts and stories, but somehow they don't add up to something more. It might be compared to a museum exhibition of paintings selected from all cultures and periods of history, but where they are all jumbled together, so that no indication of the path through history is obvious. Even if all the works were definitively the greatest ever made, the viewer could walk away without learning much about art over time. In a similar way Wheen's point gets lost in the shuffle.

On a smaller scale, some of Wheen's chapters wander off topic as well. So a chapter titled "The Catastrophists" starts out discussing wacko predictions of the end of the world but also discusses things like government support for complementary and alternative medicine. Huh? An editor would have tightened up the focus of each chapter - possibly adding more chapters in the process, where the focus can legitimately change radically - and the result could have been both more directed and cohesive.

The biggest issue, though, is that there are no prescriptions here, and no real hope either. The last chapter attempts to call for a return to Enlightenment principles, but is so wound up in arguing against the far left's view of 9/11 that the message is lost. Even more sadly, Wheen's readers won't include those who need to hear his message. The first chapter - on Thatcher and Reagan - will even drive off quite a few moderates based on its tone alone.

So what can I say in summary? I learned quite a few things from How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, but I am not convinced it's the right vehicle for the author's message. It's both fun and annoying at the same time.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Word For World Is Forest, Ursula K. Le Guin

The Word For World Is Forest
Ursula K. Le Guin

It's hard for me to believe this short volume won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1973. It seems to be well received, with good reviews on various book review sites. As usual, though, I went the other way. I found it predictable, lacking any credible hero or heroine, and the villain is so simplistic he might as well be a cardboard cutout.

The story is part of Le Guin's Hainish cycle, which includes The Dispossessed. Here we see the introduction of the ansible (a faster than light communications device) during a tale of human exploitation of another world and another culture.

It's all stuff you've read before, no doubt. Peace loving natives are enslaved by the rapacious humans coming to take the world's raw materials. There is a vile military man (the source of many of the problems and the above mentioned cardboard cutout), a human who fights for the natives, and a native who befriends that one friendly human. Everyone else is essentially unimportant.

You can probably envision the central conflict of the story at this point.

Usually I like Le Guin but this is both too simplistic and simple minded.

Those who follow Le Guin will feel the need to read The Word For World Is Forest, but I don't think there's much here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Just Call Me Mike, Mike Farrell

Just Call Me Mike
Mike Farrell

Just Call Me Mike is the autobiography of Mike Farrell, actor, star of M*A*S*H, and citizen activist. Farrell gives us enough back story to set the stage, and then proceeds to tell us what he's done between his birth in 1939 and 2007 when the book was published. In truth, it's an interesting story for its scrupulous honesty. Farrell often feels he's not in control of his own life, and we see get a sense of that (and recognize the same thing in ourselves) as we read.

M*A*S*H is covered very quickly, just a single chapter and a mention or two in other places. Clearly he loved working on the show and admired all involved, but his family and activism mean a lot more to him than M*A*S*H. I found that refreshing.

Farrell has been a champion of many causes, including exposing (and opposing) our government's role in various countries in South America, opposing the death penalty, supporting labor unions, and others. He's a man of principles, and he doesn't come across as a member of the left or the right. Others might try to pin him to a particular political agenda, but I don't think that's what drives him. Instead what matters to him is doing the right thing, setting an example.

I cannot quite claim to agree with every stance he takes - though in fact I agree with most of them - but I admire his honesty and willingness to say what he thinks is right. In my opinion, America would be a lot better place if more of us were like him. You get the sense that for him confrontation isn't the goal, reasoned conversation is. In this age of talking (screaming!) heads and sound bites, Farrell's openness is a breath of fresh air.

There isn't anything huge and earth shattering in these pages, but they're definitely worth reading. For someone with only a high school education, Farrell's made a difference, and we can all learn from his example. Recommended.

The Prestige, Christopher Priest

The Prestige
Christopher Priest

Netflix is an interesting thing. You view a movie or two and its recommendation engine gets going. The next thing you know you've got fifteen movies in a row all starring Raquel Welch, or some such.

In my case, it all started with Batman Begins, which lead to a string of movies staring Christian Bale. Among the things I wound up watching eventually was The Prestige, a movie about a pair of feuding magicians in the late 1800s. The movie is pretty dark, and there are some very interesting twists in it as well. David Bowie as Nikola Tesla was a great surprise.

At some point I learned that the movie was based on the book of the same name by Christopher Priest. I wanted to read the book because the movie is pretty convoluted. I thought I might learn a thing or two I'd missed in the movie. Also - as those who've read my reviews know - I am always curious about the adaptation process. Going from book to movie isn't always straightforward.

And so it turns out in this case. The Prestige isn't quite as distant from its book ancestor as Blade Runner is from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but it's pretty far from the original. And, in all honesty, I'm still trying to decide which one I like more.

The book has additional characters - set in the present - who are looking into their ancestors. Beyond that, though, the book is mostly in the form of long extracts from the diaries of the two main characters: Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden. Nikola Tesla does appear in the book, and performs essentially the same task, but other characters, though present, are different in various ways.

The book is even darker than the movie, and more of a fantasy as well. At times it borders on horror. The cause of the bad blood between the magicians is entirely different, and various details about the apparatus created by Tesla are different as well. The diary extracts are very different in the two versions of the story, and to my mind the movie did a slightly better job there.

If I have a gripe with the book, it's that the diary extracts get a bit long at times, leaving the reader a bit unsure of where things are in time. That, however, is a minor issue. The story definitely still works, and the book won both the World Fantasy Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for best fiction in 1996.

This is one of those cases where the book and the movie are so different that they don't impinge on each other, at least for me. Which one you like more is entirely up to you, of course. I find them both interesting and thought provoking, thus, both are recommended.