this space intentionally left blank

April 2, 2008

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Shelf: Nerds Like Recursion Edition

So here's another small gripe in an otherwise happy experience: Kindle OS updates bring with them new screensaver images--the pictures that take over the screen when the Kindle is locked. Many of these have been of famous authors. Of those, only one of them (Maya Angelou) has been a person of color, and all of them (as far as I can remember) have been from English-speaking countries. This is a little bit unfortunate on an e-book platform where the back of it has been plastered with letters of about a million alphabets, paying homage to writing systems all over the world.

The reason for the title of the post, of course, is that there's a certain redundancy to reading David Anderegg's Nerds in electronic form. Anderegg, a child psychologist, basically takes a look at the concept of "a nerd," how it affects children, and what people can do about it. It's not a bad book, and raises some interesting points, but it's also a little fluffy and scatterbrained in parts. My favorite chapter was the discussion of autism, Asperberger's, the misdiagnosis and overmedication of both in children, and their usage as signifiers of unhealthiness and sickness on the part of nerds.

Grey, by Jon Armstrong, is a weird book. It's also free from publishers Night Shade Books, so it has that going for it. I can't necessarily recommend it, but at this price all you've got to lose is your time. So if you think you might like a dystopian sci-fi fashion-centric family drama, it might be worth checking out.

Adam-Troy Castro's Emissaries from the Dead is somewhat like the Takeshi Kovacs books I like so much--a murder mystery in a sci-fi, slightly transhumanist setting. The resolution of the actual mystery could stand to be a bit more satisfying, but the pace moves briskly and it has a few twists and turns up its sleeve. The book is billed as "an Andrea Cort novel" which I assume means that sequels will follow. I'd probably give one of them a shot.

On a much more grounded note, I highly recommend Bob Harris's Who Hates Whom: Well Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up - A Woefully Incomplete Guide. It's a world tour of conflict and war, essentially. Harris is a former Jeopardy champion and comedian, the latter of which gives the book the light touch that's needed to keep it from being a mindbogglingly-depressing 200 pages. I felt a little bit guilty about laughing at it sometimes, honestly. But the historical perspective is quite well done. It's amazing to read (or to be reminded) how many countries have been undone by the legacy of colonial invaders who simply redrew borders on a whim.

Polaris, by Jack McDevitt, is another sci-fi mystery (sensing a theme?), but adds a dash of archeology. Notable mainly because the protagonist, pilot Chase Kolpath, is basically a Dr. Watson figure: she's the assistant for the sleuthier character, and that changes the tone from the average potboiler. Well written, but it telegraphs its twist from a mile away. I've read other McDevitt books before, and they always strike me as solid but not earthshattering.

One of the best observations in Jennifer Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles comes early: "Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie," Lee points out. But there are more Chinese restaurants in America than there are McDonalds, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined. "How often do you eat apple pie?" she asks. "How often do you eat Chinese?" Although I could pick structural nits (the book reads more like a series of magazine pieces loosely tied together), overall it's both thought-provoking and deftly told (see her comparison of Chinese restaurants and open-source software). A cool look at a cuisine that's American in everything but name.

Shopping for God, by James Twitchell, is a look at the commercialization of Protestantism in America--both in terms of megachurches as well as the degree to which our religious culture is a marketplace. Along with digressions into artifacts like those movable-letter church signs (which are both a decent business as well as a marketing tool for individual churches), Twitchell spends a lot of time explaining church history through an economic/branding lens. I probably would have found this more captivating if I were the kind of person who's nostalgic for the classic small American church tradition.

I suspect that David Mamet may be insane, but I've enjoyed a few of his films, so during a local non-profit's bookstore partnership day, I bought Bambi Vs. Godzilla, which is Mamet's guide to the film industry. It consists of roughly four equal parts: Jewish trivia, lessons in filmmaking, film criticism, and madness. About what you'd expect, in other words. Say what else you like about him, but the man can certainly write, and it might be worth purchasing on that strength alone.

February 14, 2008

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

The Digital Shelf

In which I make a few specific observations about the Kindle, and also briefly glance over my reading material therein:

I still don't have any problems with the buttons at all, so I don't know what your problem is, butterfingers. But I do have a couple of gripes. First, it would be nice, once I've decided from a sample book to buy the full version, if the Kindle would get rid of the sample for me, instead of making me delete it manually. Also, the selection is getting better, but I still can't guarantee that if I see something great in a bookstore that I'll be able to buy it digitally. Other than that, still a great experience. Let's move on to the reviews.

99 Coffins is a sequel to David Wellington's first novel, 13 Bullets. It's billed as a "historical vampire story," which I guess is true, and the historical twist is fairly clever. That said, I should still have my head checked out for reading vampire fiction. The mutilation fetish in these kinds of books gives me the willies.

The Automatic Detective seemed like a cute idea: a robot death machine changes its mind about the whole "lead the army of doom" idea, becomes a cab driver, gets entangled in a kidnapping mystery. But that's about all it ends up being: a cute idea, supported by a lot of well-meaning fluff. For better future noir, I always recommend Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music.

Or you could read Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, including Broken Angels and Woken Furies. The Kovacs books hew closely to a lot of noir conventions, like the constant abuse taken by the hero, and then throw a loop at it: they're set in a future where people are backed up into chips and can just download into a new body when they die, or whenever they feel like it. What I like about these books, especially the first, is that they're detective/adventure novels first and transhuman gobbledygook second. Unlike a lot of entries into this subgenre, Morgan isn't trying to make his characters into some kind of new creature, as often happens to Charlie Stross or John C. Wright. Anyone who's read Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler would recognize Takeshi Kovacs and the various players he encounters. People just die a little harder this time around.

After Dark, Haruki Murakami's most recent book, is a pretty slight little story about a Japanese love hotel, a pair of sisters, and a genial trombone player. It kind of wanders around, and in the end I'm not sure it actually went anywhere, but like all Murakami it's deftly written magical realism and some good dialogue. If you're new to his work, I'd recommend Norwegian Wood instead.

My father suggested J. Maarten Troost's The Sex Lives of Cannibals, and it is indeed pretty good. The memoir of a post-graduate slacker who ends up traveling to a tiny island country in the Pacific when his girlfriend gets an aid job there, it's written with a kind of dry conversational humor that's consistently funny, and sometimes hilarious. The sections on Troost's attempts to spay his adopted cat and dogs, in particular, had me laughing out loud until Belle demanded to know what was so funny.

At the other extreme of climate and tone, The Terror is a fictional account of a real historical expedition that went searching for the Northwest Passage and never returned. The crews of two ships are stranded in the ice, unfamiliar with their surroundings but too proud to turn back until it's too late. The familiar stories--desparation, disaster, mutiny, and even cannibalism--all crop up, exacerbated (and here's where it tips from historical fiction to horror) by a huge, white monster stalking the dwindling party. It's a grim read, but compelling. Having read Simmons' Hyperion books, I knew he could do gothic horror, and The Terror doesn't suffer from the outlandish plot twists that rendered The Fall of Hyperion nearly incoherent.

The less said about The Swarm and Ill Wind, the better. Both are pulp, which I happen to particularly enjoy (the action movies of literature, I believe), but both are also pretty bad at it. The Swarm makes the mistake, early in its eco-thriller plotline, of repeatedly invoking movies with similar plotlines, like Deep Impact, Armageddon, and The Abyss. It's a bad idea to remind the reader that there are other, better versions of your story out there--and when one of those involves Ben Affleck and Michael Bay, that's saying kind of a lot.

As for Ill Wind, it annoyed me by using one of the tropes of lazy writers everywhere--a Hispanic character with a fiery temper who tosses a couple of Spanish words into every paragraph, just in case we forgot that they are, in fact, a spicy Latino stereotype. Those unfortunate enough to have read one of William Shatner's ghostwritten Tekwar novels (cut me a break, I was thirteen and worked in a used bookstore) will recognize this age-old device common to writers who have never actually met a Hispanic American. I realize I'm not reading War and Peace here, but I don't think a hint of self-awareness is too much to ask.

Finally, the best deal I've gotten on the Kindle so far has also been one of the better books I've read. Since I've been enjoying The Wire, I figured I'd try some of writer/producer George Pelecanos' crime novels, starting with The Night Gardener. At $3.99, it's about $3.50 off the paperback price, which is not bad at all. The story starts off looking like a typical serial-killer stomp set in 1985, but then jumps ahead to the present day and proceeds to continually subvert the expected narratives. Over and over again, Pelecanos raises a standard detective novel cliche (the charismatic rebel cop hero, his by-the-book partner, the killer with a gimmick, the old cop obsessed with his last case) and then obliterates it so gently that you might not even notice until you've finished the last page.

Oh, late addition: I almost forgot that I got halfway through Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia before I had to just give up on it. It is a nice feature that the Kindle will always remember my bookmark, even if I delete the book, in the unlikely event that I ever decide to return to it. But until there's also a feature in the software that will make Sacks' book something other than a list of quirky headcases, one after another, I doubt it'll come to that. I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat while I was in college and don't remember it being this tedious, so either that was a really good lecture or Sacks' writing style has really taken a turn for the worse.

Future - Present - Past