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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

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

Readings for July 2016

In which I go obscure and mainstream.

Advances in the Study of Greek by Constantine Campbell

I don't believe I had read any new Greek books after grad school until now. Seeing as I had a bit of a gap, Constantine Campbell's Advances in the Study of Greek seemed like a perfect way to catch up. The scope of its advances are mostly in the time-frame after I last did academic study, so it really was quite helpful.

The book is organized into various fields of Greek, with a survey of the various subjects of recent inquiry and a summary of the various positions where there is controversy. There is not too much wading into the weeds, except in the case of aspect - which I think can be forgiven given the author's stake in that subject.

It felt good to read up on recent topics and realize that I haven't gotten so far behind in spite of being about three years behind in reading JBL. Recommended for everyone who wants to stay abreast of Greek scholarship.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

The unexpected release of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman created a lot of media buzz and was a smashing success. I randomly encountered a pile of five of these in the stacks of my local public library after the frenzy had died down, so I decided to snag one. After all, I should try to read mainstream literature from time to time, right?

What was this novel's relationship to the To Kill a Mockingbird, that cornerstone of the American literary canon? It is set in the same universe as it were, with the same characters in the same town, only later. It was marketed, implicitly at least, as a "sequel", though Watchman was written first. However there happen to be a couple continuity issues, as my wife noticed in a back-to-back reading of the two. The other thing she noted is that a few passages are lifted verbatim, which serves as evidence of an emerging consensus: it was a first "draft" which was later reworked into Mockingbird.

"First draft" seems like a bit of a stretch, because that implies that Watchman became Mockingbird through revision and editing, which is absurd given that the finished products are distinct enough that one can be claimed to be the sequel of the other. But Watchman was definitely the precursor, though initially rejected.

One wonders about the wisdom of publishing works which were rejected or abandoned. My most memorable encounter with this practice was with Michael Crichton's Pirate Latitudes, which was discovered and published posthumously. That novel, while an amusing diversion from Crichton's normal genre, was a half-baked mess. Crichton probably left it in the drawer for a reason, and in my opinion his literary estate stained his legacy a bit by releasing it.

I don't think Watchman fits into that mold precisely. However it is true that the structure is not traditional for a novel. It is basically a series of a few recollections from Scout's past, accompanied by relatively few scenes of dialog and soliloquy. The recollections are, by the way, quite enjoyable, especially Scot and a friend playing "church revival."

Finally there is the matter of the "controversial" reveal of Atticus Finch being a segregationist in late life. I happen to not find anything controversial about good character development. I was somewhat disquieted by Scout's reaction to the bigoted reality of her hometown.

I will not recommend this one. If you'd like a good read, proceed to To Kill a Mockingbird.

Readings for May 2016

I continue to invest time in Gravity's Rainbow but have nothing yet to show for it.

Periodicals

  • Harper's April 2016
  • Harper's May 2016
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