The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Readings for July 2017

Shadow and Claw by Gene Wolfe

After getting a taste of Wolfe in The Land Across, I finally decided to get to his magnum opus in Shadow and Claw, which are the first two volumes of The Book of the New Sun. I was by no means disappointed. Wolfe is an excellent writer. He is up there with LeGuin in bridging the literary/genre divide. The prose is carefully crafted, and that makes for a great reading experience - though you must read carefully!

How to summarize this novel? Severian is an apprentice torturer who puts his guild to shame and is sent away on a long journey into the North. His world is Urth, which is really our Earth, but many millennia in the future, after mankind has attained and then lost interstellar travel. The setting is excellent, the characters are compelling, and the story is riveting. I reached the end of this book being quite excited that I already had the concluding volumes Sword and Citadel.

I recommend this to you, if you love yourself. A note of caution: some have accused Severian of not being a wholly trustworthy narrator. And there is a transition between the two volumes in this book which is a bit jarring, but do not despair at any confusion which arises.

Periodicals

  • Harper's May 2017

Readings for June 2017

Among the Gentiles by Luke Timothy Johnson

You know what I like? A book which has 40% of its page count taken by end notes. If you like that sort of thing too, then Among the Gentiles by Luke Timothy Johnson may be just the book for you. I picked this up from my church library and really enjoyed it, though it was a bit of slow read due to Johnson's dense scholarly language (again: love it).

The basic topic of this work is the Greco-Roman religious context of early Christianity. I have read quite a bit on the Jewish context of the church's beginnings, but honestly knew very little about what "paganism" was really all about. Johnson helpfully distills ancient Greek and Roman religious practice in to four broad categories. He then points out where both Judaism and Christianity may have rubbed shoulders with the religion of the empire during their development.

Spoiler alert: the conclusion is not "Christianity is a thin veil over paganism", as cover-story pop scholars will be disappointed to hear. I heartily recommend it, but I suggest you have some experience in reading academic texts in Christian history.

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

When I heard the next Colson Whitehead title had been published, I was ecstatic. However I must confess that when I heard that Underground Railroad had been selected for Oprah's Book Club, I got worried. Could it be that one of my favorite authors had become a commercial sell-out? How could an author as special as Whitehead gain traction with the wider audience such an endorsement bring?

I was wrong to despair. Underground Railroad is a good book, and more importantly, it is a good Colson Whitehead novel. It even won the National Book Award. Yes it got the Oprah nod, and I hope that the increased sales and publicity keep Whitehead clothed and fed long enough to pen many more books.

Another spoiler alert: the twist in this novel is that there is a literal underground railroad. As in, there's a ladder hidden under a trap door in someone's barn, and beneath there is a train platform, where a locomotive pulls in and carries runaway slaves to points further North. But that's not really what the book is about. You'll read about the horrors of slavery and the triumph of humanity in spite of that horrid institution. Recommended so that you too can run away with Cora to freedom.

Readings for May 2017

The Kingdom of God is Within You by Leo Tolstoy

This was my third read-through of Tolstoy's great work of Christian anarchism. It is stimulating to use this book as a way-point to see how my views have developed over the past decade or so. It is also a useful correction for the natural march to conservatism which middle class life brings. Tolstoy's vision may not be achievable or entirely consistent, but it is a challenge which I must consider.

Take The Kingdom of God is Within You, put it in a blender with Ellul's The Technological Society, Hays' The Moral Vision of the New Testament, and Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, and you'll get a taste of the intellectual storm which has been spinning in my mind and heart these many years.

Yes, recommended, though once again, not for neophyte Christians.

Periodicals

  • Harper's April 2017

Readings for April 2017

Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra

Vikram Chandra is the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, Sacred Games. He's on the informal list of authors whom I periodically check up on in the book store to see if they have anything new. Well recently I did find a new work, Geek Sublime, which was serendipitously filed in the literature section rather than in the proper non-fiction section (where I would have never seen it).

What's this book about? Well, that's not exactly straight forward. It's a reflection on beauty in computer programming. If this isn't your field, you may have never heard of "clean code" and "elegant solutions", but for people who make a living instructions machines and have an aesthetic taste, these are valued.

This concept is presented beside a primer on Sanskrit poetry. Wait, what? Why? Well, Sanskrit has a reputation of being a more formal than natural language (due in part I believe to being held in a static form by tradition, and the nature of its grammar - though I cannot comment directly on either of these). The surprise is that this formal language has produced some beautiful poetry - hence the comparison with "the beauty of code."

Do you like computer programming? Are you curious about Sanskrit poetry? Recommended for you.

Readings for March 2017

A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman

A Failure of Nerve was assigned reading for my church vestry. It's looks like the type of pop-psychology nonfiction book I would typically steer clear of. Basically Friedman addresses the topic of leadership and its various dysfunctions. His primary emphasis, and one that I have taken to heart, is that we should never discount emotional aspects of social systems.

In reading I found there was a lot which felt true, but which I did not particularly like. Friedman treats the leadership mandate as a given in the text, and so labeling all resistance "sabotage" does not feel right to me. I also came away with the impression that "if this is what good leadership is, sign me up for anarchy." Well, I take it a bit too far here, so forgive me. I would not particularly recommend this work.

Periodicals

  • Harper's February 2017*

Readings for February 2017

Alone Against Tomorrow by Harlan Ellison

I first encountered "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" in video game form. I am not sure if Harlan Ellison's seminal short story of the subjugation of humanity to technological society was made into digital form ironically or not. The game is an oldie, having been published in 1995. But it looked really compelling, and seemed to have a cult following. But I put off buying the game, even for cheap.

In reading Neil Gaiman's non-fiction anthology I learned a bit more about Ellison, and decided to finally read the story which was the source for such an intriguing game. Alone Against Tomorrow is the anthology in which it is published. Hoo boy, what an read.

I don't mean to sound dramatic, but the stories in this collection really gave me a sense of dread about the balance between humanity and its technology. They were so good, and memorable. I recommend it if that is what you are into.

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías

Have you ever experienced a library serendipity? I just so happened to have been reading a review of a new novel by Javier Marías entitled Thus Bad Begins in Harper's when I found the same on a the new fiction shelf at my local library. Of course I had to check it out!

And I don't regret it. First off: the novel is in translation from Spanish, but I did not feel any bad effects from this. And I got to learn a lot of perspective about Spanish history, a topic which is often overlooked for American students learning the broad brushstrokes of Europe. But enough about that.

What charmed me about Thus Bad Begins is how squarely it sits in the center of what a literary novel should be. It looks at relationships and events and gives us a glimpse not only of the characters, but of ourselves - as is an end of all good fiction. In this case the story centers on the chilly relationship between a film director and his wife, and the observation of that relationship by the director's young assistant, who narrates. There is a good progression of the story, with the necessary intrigue and surprises to make it worth reading.

It is a novel which is not pretentious about it, and for that I'll give a positive recommendation.

Periodicals

  • Harper's January 2017

Comics

  • Briggs Land #4
  • Briggs Land #5
  • Briggs Land #6
  • Serenity: No Power in the 'Verse #2
  • Serenity: No Power in the 'Verse #3

Readings for January 2017

The reports of the demise of this blog have been somewhat exaggerated.

The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

You know what? I like Neil Gaiman. I already loved his fiction, and with the collection The View from the Cheap Seats, I've come to find that I love his non-fiction as well. This is a collection of stuff. All kinds of stuff. Introductions, biographies, speeches, remembrances, etc.

I came away having learned quite a bit about Gaiman's early work in comics. I recommend it if you have a random urge to read a bunch of bits of interesting. Also, it could lead you to make new discoveries . . .

A Contract With God by Will Eisner

. . . like the art of Will Eisner.

As noted previously, I have recently developed an interest in comics. But it was not through this interest that I found Will Eisner. No, it was through Neil Gaiman's aforementioned non-fiction.

A Contract With God makes a bold claim: that it is the first graphic novel. I don't know how to judge that claim, but it is the first proper graphic novel that I have read. Really it is four short stories in a single volume. But they are each powerful stories.

What it is about the style of Will Eisner? It definitely is "cartoony", but in a way which serves his storytelling. Some seemingly simple line drawings can go a long way when illustrating a powerful story. I really enjoyed this and recommend it to anyone who wants to try out reading a graphic novel.

New York: Life in the Big City by Will Eisner

I liked my first taste of Eisner so much, I reserved a second volume from the library and went straight through it. Life in the Big City is a volume with four parts. There is some basic illustration of the city, some stories intertwined around a common setting ("The Building"), a series of vignettes about city people, and "Invisible People", another compilation of shorter stories.

I've been in New York City for a sum total of about 12 hours, so I cannot judge the authenticity of the work, but I can tell you that the quality and charm are outstanding. Need a second dose of Eisner? Recommended.

Periodicals

  • Harper's December 2016

Readings for December 2016

Another year, another year. In 2016 I added a comic book habit which I'm not sure will continue into 2017. I have at least one series I'd like to continue. I may pursue the hobby primarily through graphic novels and trades from the library.

Arabella of Mars by David Levine

This is the "fiction" entry of the semi-random selection from the library's "new books" shelf. This appears to be Levine's debut novel, though he has credits in the Wild Cards series among others. He happens to be a local author (from Portland, OR), so that is cool.

Arabella of Mars was a delight to read. The premise is a genre mash-up of science fiction and regency, with a touch of steam-punk: in Victorian era man has discovered how to make great ships buoyant and can thence take ships aloft and sail them to other planets, including Mars. Yes you heard that right, you can sail to Mars. Which implies there is no vacuum of space, just a big atmosphere throughout the cosmos. The alternative reality works really well, I found, and I had no trouble suspending disbelief in service to the story.

Young Arabella Ashby finds herself in need to abscond to Mars to stop an insidious plot by her unscrupulous cousin. She does so by presenting herself as a boy and gaining passage by working as a deck-hand on an interstellar ship. Adventure ho!

I liked just about everything about this novel. The only issue I had was a bit of cliche at the end which I wonder if it may be a sort of requirement of the regency genre (I've not ready any before, so am unsure about what to expect). But the setting, characters, story, structure, pacing, were all great.

It is setting itself up as a possible series, so I'll be following up. Recommended.

Censored 2017 edited by Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth

I had never heard of "Project Censored" when I saw this title at the library. In the wake of the 2016 elections I had been feeling a bit conventional in my political thinking and wanted to branch out some more, so I grabbed this title.

The structure is this: a list of what a panel deems were the "most censored stories of 2016", followed by a series of essays, mostly on media criticism. I read with great interest, but ended up abandoning the book after the first section.

A few of the stories seemed very interesting: I had not read anything (or very little) about them, and they were quite consequential. For example, there was a report on how many nations in the world in which US special force had training or combat operations in 2015 (over one hundred). Or the existence and operation of the so-called US vaccine court, which is not widely advertized due to fear of abuse.

But many of the stories seemed to have been absent from mainstream media coverage not because they were censored, but because they were boring or silly. For example, the idea that "climate change will have disproportional effects on women" turned out to be totally pointless, because as the summary noted, this was a side-effect of existing social structures and had absolutely nothing to do with climate change.

Insert a number of other boring or non-sequitur stories, and this was not the subversive reporting I had been hoping for. Not recommended.

Life, the Universe, and Everything by Douglas Adams

"Surreal" was the word of the year for 2016 according to at least one authority. World news, and especially politics, made everything seem so bizarre that I could think of no finer way to end 2016 than by reading a Hitchhiker's novel.

Life, the Universe, and Everything fulfilled everything I was looking for. Of course it did. I heartily recommend it, of course after you read the previous installments.

Fittingly, I seem to have logged 42 entries on my 2016 reading list (see summarys below). As for 2017, I've decided that my theme will be to throw myself at the ground . . . and miss.

Periodicals

  • Harper's November 2016

Comics

  • Poe Dameron #8

Year-end stats

In 2016 I read:

  • 12 periodicals
  • 17 books
  • 13 comic books
  • 7,634 pages
  • or about 21 pages per day

Readings for November 2016

Something long, and something new.

Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

I feel like I am becoming something of a broken record in these Wheel of Time reviews. I bogged down and took long breaks from this novel to get through it. It just seemed like every time I picked it up, the same characters were in the same places, ruminating over the same problems, with nothing ever changing, chapter after chapter. "Marking time" was the description I used in my last review.

If Lord of Chaos was employing this slow-down for character development, I think it would be OK. However there's no amount of character development which could justify this volume of text. Once again it could have been four or five hundred pages shorter and done better by me as a reader.

At this point I am not recommending the series except to die-hard readers, and perhaps to those who want exposure to an important piece in the history of the fantasy genre. I will of course be continuing.

And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind by Bill Streever

And now for something completely different. I love libraries, don't you? One of the best parts of a library is the "new books" shelf, which at the local library I have been haunting has one side dedicated to fiction, and the other to non-fiction. On a recent visit I chose one from each side. The fiction entry will be covered next month, but for non-fiction, it was Bill Streever's And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind.

This book is about wind as a natural phenomenon, but mostly about the history of weather forecasting. It is the sort of casual non-fiction book which I have in the past enjoyed very much but lately had mostly given up on, for whatever reason. It was fully of interesting stories and delightful discoveries and was just plain fascinating.

My only criticism has to do with the structure of the story. Streever frames his delivery of the material on a sailing voyage he undertook with his wife. The voyage itself is mostly boring and a bit anticlimactic (hey, not everything is drama), so while it did provide for topical jumping-off points, it was mostly pretty dull.

Still recommended.

Comics

  • Serenity: No Power in the 'Verse #1

Readings for October 2016

Something . . . unexpected happened with my reading in October. It all started in Disneyland. We had just finished riding Star Tours and landed in the gift shop. I saw there were some Star Wars comic books there, so I took a look.

One or two caught my eye. I had some pocket money, so I picked up a one-off issue for C-3P0. I read it back at the hotel and was surprised how much I had liked it. In my other recent forays into comics, I had not really thought the experience was worth the money. But for some reason this time, I thought it was pretty great. The story was decent, and the art was engaging.

So two days later, finding myself again in the same gift shop, I picked up another comic, in the Poe Dameron series. I read it and enjoyed it too.

Back home, I took a big step in nerdiness - I visited my local comic book shop. I nervously asked the attendant for some recommendations - and didn't really like any of them. And here I discovered my previous trouble with comic books: I don't really like superheroes. But I found I did like other stuff, like Star Wars, Back to the Future, and a realist drama Briggs Land.

So I tried a few things. And then came back and got some more. Then I started looking at the library for trade paperbacks. And things got out a hand a bit, and I did not complete anything else other than comics in October.

I have kept up the hobby a bit, but it doesn't have the same intensity (surprising nobody since I am pretty fickle in my hobbies). Whether or not I continue on, it was fun for this month at least.

Comics

  • C-3P0
  • Poe Dameron #4
  • Poe Dameron #5
  • Poe Dameron #6
  • Poe Dameron #7
  • Back to the Future: Citizen Brown #1
  • Back to the Future: Citizen Brown #2
  • Briggs Land #1
  • Briggs Land #2
  • Briggs Land #3
  • Neil Young's Greendale by Josh Dysart and Cliff Chiang

Trump as Tragedy, Clinton as Farce

In December of 2015 I made the following quip:

The above applies all the more since we have Donald Trump instead of Jeb Bush!

Cynics like myself ought to admit that we experience a bit of glee when our expectations are fulfilled. And oh how they have been fulfilled! Trump v. Clinton is truly a ludicrous contest for choosing leadership for the United States of America. What's more, they are almost meant for each other, because neither would be competitive against a different opponent. A neo-Shakespeare in coming centuries is destined to dramatize this affair.

I will now provide my own account, dear reader, not with the subtle rhythm of a bard, but with my own meager faculties, because I feel the need to summarize my thoughts on this matter. And hopefully through summary comes serenity.

Prologue: Concerning Character

Much of my prior reflection on presidential politics has centered on the policies of candidates, and not on their character. I suppose this is a side-effect of the times in which I have come of age. After four terms of the Presidency being free from the blight of personal scandal, we Americans thought perhaps we had moved on from those historical messes. But alas, here we are, with "temperament" and "character" and "trustworthiness" taking a prominent place in the campaign.

I will not comment on the character of the candidates below, but will leave this observation: the hypocrisy of the partisan system with respect to sex scandals has been laid bare by scandalous videos and accusations against Trump. Everything the Republicans said to attack Bill Clinton the Democrats have charged against Trump. Every defense offered by Democrats has been issued by Republicans.

I do think character matters, but that's not the context of this reflection.

Trump as Tragedy

Donald J. Trump is something like a dream deferred for political reformists and radicals. He is a candidate from outside the political class who holds ideas which are genuinely contrary to the status quo. Trump even goes so far as to break with the bi-partisan consensus on global trade and foreign policy.

(I happen to agree with relatively little of Trump's proposals - prominent exceptions being his seeking to reform global trade and his criticism of the Iraq War. Nonetheless his ideas are important because they differ from bi-partisan consensus.)

This of course has drawn the ire of the elite (yes, there really are an "elite") who have targeted Trump this past year with an unprecedented barrage of Op-Eds and cross-party support. Yet in spite of his distinct lack of newspaper endorsements Trump's candidacy remains alive. Being criticized by the right people has done much to bolster his campaign.

Facing a genuine threat to established political order backed by a growing popular movement, one would expect the leaders of both parties and the media to make every effort to discredit and disqualify Trump before he has a chance to gain power. That they did, but the ammo was fully supplied by Trump himself, and in abounding quantities.

I will not rehearse the whole infamous list of his outrageous statements here, but suffice it to say that Trump is a wicked man who is running on a platform which appeals to the worst aspects of our political natures. It is fair to say in some cases that his words and actions have been unfairly portrayed by his opponents. But the preponderance of evidence is clear: he really is not the type of person whom you want leading our great republic.

Now imagine someone who espoused Trump's contrarian policy ideas but had a personality like John Kasich. I doubt that candidate would even make the "main" GOP primary debate stage, and instead be relegated to the "under-card" debate. In other words our political environment seems to only reward reformist policy with attention in exchange for Trump-like behavior. Not only does he want a radical halt to immigration, but he says that many immigrants are rapists. Not only does he say the Iraq war was a mistake, but he adds that the U.S. should plunder their natural resources. Not only does he argue for a constructive relationship with Russia in the middle east, but he praises the autocratic Vladimir Putin.

The establishment really received a boon. They were tasked with de-legitimizing the fringe candidate, but Trump mostly take care of the job himself. When it comes to protecting the insular status quo from new ideas, you could hardly script a better defense: "novel is crazy." However we may find that in 2016, the year of Brexit, voters do not care to listen to the intellectual wings of the political parties. In other words, Trump might win in spite of himself, or perhaps to spite the elites.

My primary concern with Trump is not the scandals but his avowed desire to be the strong-man. As he said in his nomination acceptance speech at the convention:

I alone can fix this.

This is obviously outside of the spirit of American republicanism. Let us contemplate for a moment how Republicans mocked the young Democrats who put near-salvific hope in Obama. Let the GOP recall that it is the party which had decried the expansion of the power of the Executive Branch to interfere in all areas of life. For there is no way for the leader to fix everything but by the erosion of local control.

Trump is casting himself as the autocrat and the hero. He is already making threats to use the power of the office of the President to settle personal scores and punish his rivals. He unashamedly calls for unspeakable conduct in war. He should not be our President.

Clinton as Farce

Hillary Clinton's nomination as the Democratic candidate for the presidency has been fore-ordained since her loss to Obama in 2008. She is the chosen one. As private correspondence (which was stolen and made public) has shown, she was the preferred choice of the Democratic National Committee, which it was assumed should be neutral until the nomination was complete. Clinton's lock was so secure that only a no-name and a radical even bothered challenging her in the primaries.

It should have been a fairly clear warning sign that the Democrats had decided on a damaged candidate when a self-described socialist who honeymooned in the Soviet Union gave her a run for her money in a long and close primary race. Were the party elites really so blind to her weaknesses as a candidate? Or did they have a fatalistic commitment that she had to be nominated no matter what?

Hillary Clinton was already one of the least liked and least trusted politicians in the country. She was a carpetbagger. She voted for the Iraq War. She favored bombing Libya. She was paid ludicrous sums of money to regale bankers with her lackluster public speaking skills - what only the most naive would deny was a bribe. She had the liability of donations to their family foundation from questionable sources. She had the private email server. It was shown via leaks that her campaign thought of the press as a wing of their campaign communications team. And so on, and so on.

Of all the Democratic politicians in this country, it had to be her? It's farcical.

I personally do not find any one of those scandals extraordinary per se. I would not be caught chanting "lock her up!" Still, Clinton has managed to accumulate a rather impressive stable of scandals. But the central issue I have with her candidacy is not about her scandals, but about her relationships:

It is not appropriate for the close relation of a President to subsequently become President.

Republicans are loathe to bring up this criticism for the obvious reason of their recent electoral victory of a President's son. This has happened in the past, and the United States has survived it. However I would venture that when we were looking at the possibility of choosing between either the wife of an ex-President, or the man looking to be the third president in his nuclear family, the danger is getting acute. This nation is a republic, and political power is not supposed to be preserved in a family as in a monarchy, nor shared among a few as in an oligarchy.

Hillary Clinton is well-qualified but damaged goods. Her identity rather than her strength as a candidate was the primary criterion in her nomination. It is best to avoid the consolidation of power in a few families, therefore Hillary Clinton should not be the President.

Conclusion

Our free and mostly-fair nominating processes produced two really bad candidates. How does that work out for your democratic ideology?

I left the U.S. President portion of my ballot blank. I felt like the best way to deal with that question was to not dignify it with a response. Others may prefer to vote third-party or vote for a registered write-in candidate. Those are all great options.

The point is: if you think this situation is ridiculous, make it known with your vote (or lack thereof). But don't settle for just voting. Discuss it with your friends and family too. We are going to have to get over some social discomfort if we want to escape this ridiculous partisan circumstance.

If I am being honest, I would prefer Hillary Clinton to win. The simple reason is this: Assuming the worst on both sides, I believe that our republic is better able to cope with a corrupt politician than with a nationalist autocrat.

We'll see what happens. I am not too worried. More than likely in either case the winner will not be as bad as opponents claimed. But even in a worst-case scenario, people do not have to lay down and let terrible things happen.

Readings for September 2016

In which I read a stage play.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorn, and John Tiffany

There seems to have been a bit of marketing confusion for this book which must be cleared up right away - this is a script for a stage play. It contains stage directions and dialogue. Many people I spoke to thought this was a novel. It is indeed "the eighth Harry Potter" story, but it is a play. I have not seen the play, only read the script.

The verdict is: it's not bad. I worried that after the magic of the initial Harry Potter sequence nothing will measure up. See the Star Wars prequels for an example of this. Luckily the story starts with a very compelling premise: it is rumored that Voldemort left behind a child, and the paranoia introduced by this produces some great drama.

Somewhat unfortunately, a lot of the plot is driven by time travel. That was used with decent effect in the third Harry Potter novel. But as so often happens with time travel, the plot gets burdened with the weight of its pure plottiness, and many, many distractions are introduced to the reader in the form of continuity questions. These didn't ruin it for me, but it did cause me to question whether the conclusions of the story really ring true.

One thing I can say is I really would like to see this production live one day. The stage craft implied by the stage directions is really amazing, and I'd love to see how they pull everything off. I am sure it will go on tour someday, but it may be a decade before it comes to Portland.

If you are a Potter maniac I'll recommend it. Though if that is the case you've likely already read it.

Periodicals

  • Harper's August 2016
  • Harper's September 2016
  • Harper's October 2016

Whew, all caught up!

Readings for August 2016

Summer reading, in force!

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

I'll begin by giving the Recommended tag. Stardust is a delightful little tale which shows Gaiman at his best. I may even read this one again one day.

It is always pleasant when as I reader I wonder to myself, "how did the author come up with this?" Novelty, not in a jarring sense, but in a way which works within the terms of the story, is what I love about this tale. Like all good modern fairy tales, it reacts to and plays off of common tropes, but enhances them with a twist.

Do yourself a favor, read Stardust.

My Struggle: Book 5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Zadie Smith is quoted as saying:

KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD. MY STRUGGLE. It's unbelievable. I just read 200 pages of it and I need the next volume like crack.

I'm in the same boat, Zadie. And I got my fix this month, as the fifth volume of Knausgaard's My Struggle has arrived in English hardcover. As has become my custom I bought it immediately on discovering its availability, abandoned what I had been reading heretofore been reading, and devoured it.

Book 5 is worth it - I think it is my favorite since Book 1. Books 3 and 4 had gotten into a more pure narrative recollection of Knausgaard's childhood. While this was interesting reading, it lacked the interludes and flash-forwards of the first two volumes which I loved so much. This book launches the young author's writing career and fills in the history of his young adult life, which had been covered obliquely in the prior works. There's a number of "a ha!" moments and moments which add richer detail to already-covered anecdotes.

Then there is a fairly significant story near the end which I'll not spoil. It adds some poignancy to the author's departure from Bergen and the dissolution of his first marriage. It was heavy, and emotional for me as a reader. All of this makes good writing.

Heartily recommended, and I can't wait for the final volume!

The Telling by Ursula K. LeGuin

LeGuin: she's so great she can make you love the "anthropologists in space" premise. The Telling relates the tale of an outsider - Sutty from earth - who comes to the planet Aka to observe and catalog the practices of the locals. While she was in her long interstellar flight the planet had a cultural revolution, so much of what she came expecting to find has been forced underground.

Our heroine finds her way out of the officially-sanctioned, government approved activities to visit people in the back country who still practice their ancient cultural traditions undercover. This centers on "The Telling", which is some part wisdom tradition and perhaps another part religion, but it eludes Sutty's attempts at definition. The search for truth leads her deep into the mountains, but also enlists her hosts in danger of reprisal from the central government. It's a pretty good yarn.

LeGuin deploys a trick that I love which works so well in the context of this novel. In a secret meeting place Sutty is experiencing a ritual when she observes something impossible, something supernatural. Yet nobody else truly acknowledges it, and she is left wondering if it was not some trick of perception in the poorly-lit room. This episode is left mostly unresolved for the reader, so you are left to ponder just what the nature of "The Telling" is. Recommended.

Periodicals

  • Harper's July 2016

Separate php-fpm pools for great victory

Let's say you use a pretty standard Nginx/PHp-fpm/Linux/Mariadb ("nephilim"?) stack for hosting web applications. On most distributions you'll have a single php-fpm pool which spawns workers to execute tasks handed to it by the web server, either via a POSIX or TCP socket. That's great for simplicity's sake.

But what if you have some web-app you want to run but don't really trust. HINT: You shouldn't really trust any internet facing application. If there's a remote code execution flaw in the code for webapp foo, an attacker then assumes the security persona of the entire php-fpm pool, including access to other applications' memory, file-system space, and databases. Yikes!

Nothing in the below is particularly novel, but it may be useful nonetheless. There's also the container approach to solving this, which is probably more secure overall, but is not available to everyone. The context of the examples below is running GNU Social on Centos 7. (On Centos 7, nginx runs as the "nginx" user, and php-fpm runs by default as the "apache" user, the same as httpd normally runs as).

Separate Databases

Each application should have its own database with its own unique username and password. I think most people know this, but stating it here for good measure.

Separate User

Each web application should have its own local unprivileged user account. If that account never needs a shell environment, it is best to not give it a login shell either. GNU Social requires a shell to run its queue daemon scripts, so here is how I did it:

useradd -m -s /bin/bash social

Assuming you have "PermitEmptyPasswords no" in your sshd_config, you don't have to set a password. Otherwise set a very strong one. It'll never be used under normal operations.

A note specific to GNU Social: the queue daemons should run as this user as well. We're in a systemd world now on Linux, so see an example of a unit file for queue daemons. You'll want to set the user to set:

User=social
Group=social

Separate File-system Path

Take note of the group your webserver (nginx in my example) runs as. In Centos it is "nginx", in Debian derivatives it appears to be "www-data".

You've extracted your web application's files into /var/www/social.example.com/ . You'll want to lock this down so that only the application pool user and the webserver can have access:

chown -R social:nginx /var/www/social.example.com/
chmod -R o-rwx /var/www/social.example.com/
# Also follow GNU Social's install instructions for setting
# write permissions on avatar/ file/, and the base directory so
# config.php can be written by the installer

This way the web server can read the application's root contents (e.g. php scripts and static files), and the php-fpm pool for your application will have write access (for writing the configuration at install time and uploading files). Other users should have no access to this location (go ahead, test it).

When you create a separate php-fpm pool below, you'll need to provide a session and cache path which are writable by the social user:

mkdir -p /var/lib/social/{cache,session}
chown root:social /var/lib/social/{cache,session}
chmod 770 /var/lib/social/{cache,session}

Separate php-fpm pools

Pools for php-fpm.d are typically found in /etc/php-fpm.d/. Your mileage may vary based on distribution, etc. Take a look at the default pool to see how it is configured.

Depending on the resources of your system, you may want to reduce the value of pm.max_children (and relate settings) to make room for your new pool. This can be tuned depending on the relative resource demands of your pools.

Now copy the default pool to a new file in the same directory called social.conf and edit it. Below are the required edits:

  1. Give the pool a unique socket, either a different path for a POSIX socket, or a different port number for a TCP sockets. Assuming everything is on a single server, I recommend the POSIX socket, e.g. "listen = /var/run/php-fpm-social.sock"
  2. Set "user = social"
  3. Set "group = social"
  4. Set "php_value[session.save_path] = /var/lib/social/session"
  5. Set "php_value[wsdl_cache_dir] = /var/lib/social/cache"

Configure your nginx configuration file for the site to use the unique socket listed above:

fastcgi_pass unix:/var/run/php-fpm-social.sock;

Now you are ready to restart php-fpm and nginx and your queue daemons. If you run the following, you should see some php-fpm workers running as social:

ps aux | grep php-fpm

If there is trouble, there are a few places you'll want to look:

  • nginx error log
  • nginx access log
  • php-fpm error.log
  • php-fpm www-error.log

Assuming that worked, you've got a separate, more-secure install of GNU Social. I did the foolish thing and changed the configuration after installing the site. I don't recommend it, unless you want an exercise in rapid troubleshooting. ;-)

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Category: ktl Tags: technology

Voting is the Act of an American

Erick Erickson this evening published a series of messages summarizing his stance on why voting for Donald Trump as the lesser of two evil is by no means compulsory for Christians. I must admit that in the past my previous conception of Erickson was more or less as a partisan hack. However in this election cycle he has been an unwavering pillar in the Never Trump movement. This has gained my attention. The below excerpt has earned my respect.

When I was working out my thoughts on non-voting in 2008, the idea seemed beyond the pale to many of my acquaintances. In 2016, given the preposterous choice set before the American public, non-voting is becoming more and more attractive to the general public. In particular it appeals to those conservative Christians who once felt comfortably at home in the GOP but now are alienated by the strongman who won that party's nomination.

Erickson is right in that pocket. In another message he cites his seminary education in the recent years has forced him to rank politics and religion, and we can see from the above which one came out on top.

Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton is a crisis for our republic, but a useful one. There have been many times throughout history when the faithful have worried about a friendly political status quo giving way. And yet the church persists. This is of course not to say that such epochal changes are without undesirable consequences. But part of the vocation of Christianity is courage.

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