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.