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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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Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for April 2016

Novel streak!

The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

I happened across a positive review of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun and decided to check it out. As it happened my local library branch did not have that particular work, but did have some more recent of his novels. I was honestly unsure what to choose, so after some jacket perusal I went with The Land Across. It is the surreal story of a travel writer stranded in a generic eastern European nation. Grafton suffers successive misadventures at the hands of the bureaucracy and the occult. Let the reader decide which threat is more dire.

Now I'm not one to put much stock in review blurbs. However, Gene Wolfe has the amazing distinction of being called the sci-fi/fantasy community's Melville by Ursula K. LeGuin. I was sold.

The Land Across is one of those novels where I have a particular issue: I really enjoy my reading experience, but I progress slowly. In this case I dragged through and eventually took a break to read My Struggle Book Four. Then I picked Wolfe up again and finished it. I love Wolfe's voice and I love the tone of this book. But for some reason I was not compelled to turn pages. Gass is another author with whom I had this struggle, but later enjoyed tremendously. So I'll try another by Wolfe, maybe the original recommendation.

Assumption by Percival Everett

After Glyph I went directly back to the Percival Everett well. Assumption is comprised of three novellas centered on the same small town policy deputy in the U.S. Southwest. Now I'll give this note in hopes it'll save another reader the confusion I suffered: Assumption is three discrete stories, not three acts in the same arc. I was confused in reading because I was looking for a link from the first story in the second before I more-carefully read the back cover description.

Do you like detective stories? Do you like deconstructing detective story tropes? Check it out. I really enjoyed it. Recommended.

Periodicals

  • Harper's March 2016

Readings for March 2016

I have gotten into a streak of reading novels, which is nice.

Glyph by Percival Everett

Everett is one of the authors I had on my "to try" list, so I grabbed a Glyph, a slim, fairly-recently published work. It is the farcical story of a an infant prodigy who doesn't deign to talk, but writes with a skill both startling and amazing to the adults in his world. Needless to say this draws interest from a number of fronts, and before long we're treated to the literary version of a baby outsmarting his kidnappers, a la the "Baby's Day Out" film. But it's better than that, of course. Really Everett draws together themes of childhood, race, and parental love to provide a rich subtext for the zany antics.

I'll recommend it, especially for its brevity, as an easy way to step in to Everett. I've already logged another by him, as you'll see next month.

My Struggle: Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I am one of those shameless Karl Ove Knausgaard fans of whom it has become hip to make fun. I discovered that the fourth installment of My Struggle had been published in English, so I took a detour on the way to another meeting to pop into Powell's and purchase it. I was late to the meeting. I suppose that means I'm an addict, as the Knausgaard habit is affecting my responsibilities in the rest of my life.

The theme of this work is so simple: a young man trying to get lucky. At first it seems so cliche for a memoir, but then it really is foundational to the ego of a young man, isn't it? This volume interweaves the Quest with his last two years of secondary school and a year working as a teacher in Northern Norway.

As always, Knausgaard's recollections have the effect of stirring up my own memories of my youth, sometimes dredging up things I haven't recalled for years. On the whole it is a good thing, but can be uncomfortable as well. And zooming in to a young man's first year of independence - and the seemingly-boundless potential lying ahead - has the peculiar effect of forcing the reader to also consider "what could have been"?

Recommended of course, and I can't wait until the next volume drops. Maybe I'll be the only one in a tent on the sidewalk, waiting to buy it on its first day.

Readings for February 2016

In which I enjoy some pop novels.

Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

When in doubt, Brandon Sanderson. Shadows of Self is the next installment in the Mistborn series, and the second in the Wax and Wayne cycle: you know, magic in a steam-punk setting. And I'm OK with that. Sanderson in this novel is showing his increasing command of comedy - I had some honest guffaws. He also managed to find a way to write novels (for some series) which do not stretch the technology of book binding, so that is a plus. Recommended.

The Martian by Andy Weir

I saw the film The Martian in the theater with a friend and loved it. My wife picked up the novel recently, and it was even better. I really devoured it (and so did she, after I relinquished it). Most of the time I don't put too much stock in "real science" sci-fi, because to me the storytelling is ultimately more important than the genre bonafides. This story managed to blend both to perfect taste. Recommended, and I hope the author Andy Weir writes more to enjoy in the future.

Periodicals

  • Tin House #62

Readings for January 2016

Getting caught up on periodicals feels good. Getting deep into long books feels good too, though they don't show up in the ledger in a timely fashion.

Periodicals

  • Harper's January 2016
  • Harper's February 2016
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Readings for December 2015

In which our hero realizes that life changes have made reading more difficult by observing his end-of-year reading stats.

Basically I lost a long train commute which afforded a lot of reading time and on top of that had a baby. It was my lowest total since 2010, when I had my first son.

The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul

Considered by many to be Ellul's magnum opus, The Technological Society did not disappoint. It is the full exposition of the thinking of Ellul which I had only seen in small bits previously. Reading his account of technique will change how you perceive the world in a fundamental sense. Or at least it has for me.

I left many dog-ears in my copy, and I keep saying I'm going to a post expanding on my observations there. For the most part his observations are prescient and still relevant to this day. One fascinating angle in the work is that he wrote at the height of the Cold War, at a time when it was not clear how it would pan out.

This is a very dense work, so it takes commitment to complete. Recommended if you have the will to get through it. Perhaps warm up on some shorter articles or interviews to find out if you have the taste for Ellul.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Walker Percy has a boisterous following, and some thinkers I respect are among them. The Moviegoer won the National Book Award and therefore in some sense is a part of the American literary canon. Yet it is in a realist school which I find a bit tiresome. I felt as I did after reading The Sun Also Rises, that nothing important had really transpired in the course of the novel. Yeah, I probably didn't read closely enough, and missed the point. But this one did not inspire close reading for me.

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman's The Sleeper and the Spindle is a delightful short story which springboards from a certain well-known (but never explicitly named) fairy tale. The version I read was made even more delightful by the inclusion of fantastic illustrations by Chris Riddell. I got through it in a single sitting, and I do believe it has re-read value (once I get it back from a friend to whom I lent it). Recommended.

Periodicals

  • Harper's October 2015
  • Harper's November 2015
  • Harper's December 2015

Year-end stats

In 2015 I read:

  • 14 magazines
  • 18 books
  • 7,874 pages
  • or about 22 pages per day

Much less than last year, as discussed above.

Readings for November 2015

We happened to welcome a new baby to our family near the end of the month, so I feel lucky to have completed what I did.

Xenocide by Orson Scott Card

XenocideAs I began Orson Scott Card's Xenocide, third in the Ender series, I quickly fell into the same joy which accompanied Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, the first two books in the series. Card's craft is storytelling first and science fiction second, as it should be. In this novel I particularly appreciated the mixing of religion (not just religious themes, mind you) into science fiction.

Card sets the stakes high in this novel, with the opening plot on a course to the destruction of a planet full of colonists along with two (or three?) entire sentient species. The addition of a new characters on another world - some obsessive-compulsive whose attention to detail is put work in service of an empire - adds a good counter-balance, keeping Ender's universe from becoming too in-grown.

What spoiled the book for me, to a degree, was Card reaching too deep into fantastic world-building in order to elucidate the mysterious connection between Ender's mind and that of the Hive Queen, the Pequeninos, and Jane - the ghost in the machine of the interplanetary communications network. It's not that Card's plot device is too fantastic, it's that it arose in a series in a way in which I feel it violated the reader's expectations. Card set the stage one way, and dramatically shifted it later. Probably the brightest spot coming out of this plot shift is that we get to see a bit of Mormon theology shining through: namely the implication of the pre-existence of souls.

As anyone can tell by reading the front-matter, the Ender saga is far from over. However I think I'll leave it here. It has been quite enjoyable, but it is time to move on to new stories.

Anarchy and Christianity by Jacques Ellul

I have probably read three or four works on Christian anarchism, but Jacques Ellul's Anarchy and Christianity is now my favorite. This is definitely a good read with its emphasis on nonviolence and neither seeking nor serving political power.

I have slowly been making my way through his seminal work The Technological Society. Once I complete that, I am planning on putting together a "Quotable Ellul" piece with quotes from each of these works.

Readings for October 2015

I promise, I have a bunch of longer books going. I promise.

Periodicals

  • Harper's August 2015 - I found it fascinating to read about the Parsis of India in Nell Freudenberger's article "House of Fire".

  • Harper's September 2015

Until next time.

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Readings for September 2015

In which I discover that reading on an e-reader may lead to you to forget the name of the novel you are reading.

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

I was planning what to read for our family's vacation and wedding travel this May when I decided to read the next volume in the Wheel of Time saga. Luckily my wife had already bought me the paperback, so I grabbed it off the shelf and started reading a night or two before the trip. In the course of reading the first chapter I was getting the most incredible sensation of deja-vu, and upon starting the second it become clear: I was accidentally re-reading the preceding book in the series, which I completed in February 2014.

Well, that was somewhat embarrassing, because I was the one who told the wife which book to buy. The day before the trip, I walked to Powell's from work to get The Fires of Heaven, the fifth book in the series, and the actually correct one. And they literally had every single book in the 14-book series except this one.

With no time left, I decided to try something new: I purchased an electronic copy for reading on my wife's e-reader. That was quite the experience. I really enjoyed not having to lug around a big heavy book, and liked that I could customize the font, the size, and what headers and footers to include (or not). As I alluded in the introduction, I actually forgot the name of the novel by the time I finished it, partly due to a long break in reading, and partly due to never seeing the cover. Ultimately I won't invest more in e-books, since I don't like the terms of service and digital restrictions management which go along with them. Maybe someday the great technology will be partnered with new content without draconian protections.

Great story about e-readers! What about the book? Well, I have to say this was not the greatest read. It felt like Jordan was marking time in this book, not progressing very quickly at all. I feel like it could have easily shed 400 pages and still covered all of the pertinent plot points and character development.

But am I ready to quit the series? Not exactly. I've already invested so much in it, and in a 14-book series, you're allowed to have a stinker or two.

Readings for August 2015

In which I made progress on long books but did not finish anything.

Periodicals

  • Harper's May 2015 - You know when you think you lost an issue of a magazine, but you find it under a pile of stuff? That's pure joy.
  • Harper's July 2015

Until next month.

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