Acknowledgment

A package arrived at the office Friday containing the latest edition of a psych textbook, hot off the presses.

Psychology Applied to Modern Life

It’s Psychology Applied to Modern Life by Wayne Weiten, Dana S. Dunn and Elizabeth Yost Hammer. That’s right, my boss is one of the co-authors. We (meaning her staff) knew a little something about this book, because we were with her through every step of the writing process. No drama, however small, was left unexplored. We shared her pain at every excruciating deadline. But it’s all good, because look at the acknowledgments.

Acknowledgment

Famous at last. OK, there are too many “finallys,” but still it is always nice to be acknowledged, and even nicer in hardcover. When Olivia saw this she was so happy she showed it to everyone on our floor.

Note that I am listed as “challenging.”

Celebrating Saturday, Morning and Night

Saturday morning I was out early conducting a short tour of the Lafitte Corridor. I was skeptical about how many people would be up for a hike at 8:30 on a Saturday morning, but pleasantly surprised when a dozen people showed up, plus a half dozen more who joined us in progress.

Edgar & Vance

Hike

Lindsay & Helen

We walked from Sojourner Truth Community Center to Bayou St. John and back. Actually we had to turn back before we reached the bayou. I was worried I wouldn’t have folks back to Sojourner Truth in time for the main event, namely the Walk and Roll Louisiana Summit 2010. I was supposed to be on a panel at the summit titled “Building successes from the ground up: The legacy of walking and cycling advocacy in Louisiana.” But thankfully I was able to get one of my esteemed FOLC board members, namely Edgar Chase, to represent us.

See, I couldn’t stick around for Walk & Roll because I had a prior commitment. The second Saturday of the month is my book club. Don’t get me wrong, I think Walk & Roll was a fantastic event, and bike/ped issues are near and dear to my heart. But I’ve been going to this book club for almost ten years now. I’ve missed a few meetings here and there because of levee failures and the like, but as a rule I do my best to be there. Second Saturdays are sort of sacred to me.

Drawing boundaries like this is important to maintaining my sanity and my sense of balance. There are many needs in this community, and I try to do my part, but in order to stay happy and healthy I have to know where to draw the line, to say “sorry” and enjoy my personal pleasures as opposed to serving the elusive public good.

(As another example, I was recently asked to serve on some neighborhood committees. I was on the verge of saying yes when I remembered that in 2008 I essentially made a vow, to my wife and my daughter and myself, to limit my involvement to one organization only. I chose Friends of Lafitte Corridor and resigned from two other boards. It was a good decision, one I need to continue to honor, so instead of serving on one of those committees I made a counter-offer. I’m going to recruit someone else as a Greenway Liaison for Mid-City. I suspect there’s a FOLC member living in Mid-City who’d like to get more active with FOLC and/or MCNO. This might be the perfect opportunity for getting started. I’m hoping that this will be a way to expand the circle of neighborhood involvement for a net gain.)

So that’s what I did Saturday morning, and I’m glad I did. I really enjoyed talking about Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others with my fellow club members. Even so, I felt slightly guilty about not being at Walk & Roll to show my support, and about not being home to help with chores and looking after my daughter, especially after being gone most of last week.

But only slightly.

Actually, that may have added to my enjoyment. I felt like I was getting away with something.

I’m still planning to write more about the trip to St. Louis, by the way.

Saturday night, Xy and I dropped Persephone off with a sitter and celebrated — I wasn’t sure exactly what we were celebrating, but we had a good time which included dinner at Crescent Pie & Sausage. It wasn’t until Sunday that I realized it has been a year and a day since we closed on our new house. I wonder when we will stop calling it “new”?

Dark Green Religion

Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary FutureDark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future by Bron Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here’s a rarity — an academic book that is also a page-turner, at least for me. I couldn’t put it down. This is a broad survey of an emergent global phenomenon which might be called earth worship or nature spirituality or “dark green religion.” Bron Taylor defines religion broadly and looks a range of cultures and subcultures, from radical environmentalism to surfing to Disney films and many more. I was a bit disappointed that contemporary Paganism got such scant coverage — only about two and a half pages plus some scattered references. Perhaps that’s because Taylor seems preoccupied with folks who don’t explicitly consider themselves to be practicing “religion” in the most familiar sense of the word. The term “dark” in the title is supposed to connote a sense of potential peril, but according to the author that mostly seems to be in the eyes of Abrahamic practitioners. He hints early in the book that he might examine the potential dangers of ecofascism, but this is never really explored in depth. I suspect there may be a resonance between racism and “dark green religion,” especially in Europe, that bears a closer look. But I quibble. This is a good one which I recommend to anyone interested in ecology or religion.

View all my reviews

Connect the Dots

Some people criticize the green movement for being almost like a religious faith. Others say the green movement has lost touch with its spiritual roots. Now Dark Green Religion by Bron Taylor has landed on my reading list. I’ll report back if I figure anything out.

Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry

I recently finished Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry by Arthur Zajonc. Here are a few brief notes.

It’s rare for me to finish a book and immediately think I need to start over at the beginning and read it again. Yet that’s the case here. I found this book engaging and compelling yet increasingly challenging. I’m convinced there is real value here, but I am equally convinced that I have not assimilated it wholly.

Zajonc begins with some persuasive arguments in favor of contemplation, urging us to take (or make) the time for daily practice. He then gives an overview of the path as he sees it. This is given in simple terms so that even people unfamiliar with meditation can follow it. (By way of reference, perhaps I should mention that I have practiced only the simplest sort of breathing meditation, very erratically, for many years.) That accounts for the introduction and the first chapter. The remainder of the book is devoted to examining steps along the path in greater detail. Perhaps it is unavoidable that each chapter is more esoteric than the one before it. It is a credit to Zajonc’s lucid writing style that this never lapses into incomprehensibility, despite the increasing subtlety of the subject matter.

One of the most praiseworthy aspects of this book is the care the author takes to distinguish the essential nature of his subject from various religious traditions. This is a delicate balancing act. Zajonc connects various aspects of meditation to explicitly spiritual perspectives from around the world, including the “usual suspects” such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, but also Native American spirituality and anthroposophism — without ever committing to one of them. Zajonc also notes that religion “has become an obstacle to many.” It is left to the reader to locate his or her practice within a religious context — and a thoroughly secular reading is also possible.

I also appreciated the many connections drawn between contemplation and social justice. King, Mandela and Gandhi are cited repeatedly. Zajonc is a physicist, and we get some Einstein quotations as well. These were amongst my favorites.

I feel compelled to offer some sort of criticism so this review doesn’t seem overly gushing. All I can say is that, from my personal standpoint, Zajonc seems to articulate a very “solar” perspective. I feel that I need something somewhat more “lunar,” if that makes any sense. I’m sorry I can’t express it better than that. I don’t really know what I mean, as it’s just something I intuitively feel. But perhaps that’s just a matter of locating my practice in my proper religious context — once I figure out what that is.

Perhaps most importantly, this book is convincing. I am both persuaded and inspired to incorporate some form of contemplative practice into my daily life. I look forward to reading this book again.

Perils of Reading

I wanted to write something here about how to enjoy a book, novels in particular. I’ve touched on this before, but I wanted to expand on that theme.

It’s not enough to read for an hour or so before you go to bed. Read when you first wake up in the morning. Read at lunch time. Read when you get home from work or school. Intertwine your reading with your daily activities, until you are thoroughly immersed. Soon you will be living in two worlds, thinking of that fictional world constantly even as you navigate the real one.

I was going to write something like that. I was thinking about this as I rode my bike to work the other morning — when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a man walking down the bike path and reading a book.

Reader

I was so stunned I had to take a picture. I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing. What was going on here? Was this some sort of gag? Was I a victim of some kind of psychic-powered hidden camera TV show?

No. This guy was just really into his book. He was so immersed in what he was reading, that he couldn’t put the book down even as he walked through the neighborhood.

And that’s kind of cool…

Reader

…but perhaps this guy was taking it to far.

I gawked in amazement as he walked across Tulane Avenue. Barely a glance at the oncoming traffic.

Reader

As you can see, he survived. But yeah. Definitely too far.

When I related this encounter to my boss, she told me Stephen King was struck by a car while walking and reading a book at the same time.

I think the moral is clear.

Reading and walking don’t mix.

Actually, according to an interview in the Bangor News, King wasn’t reading the book when he was struck. But I still don’t think it’s a good idea. Personally I am way too much of a klutz to walk and read at the same time. I would surely trip and crack a tooth.

And what have I been reading lately that got me thinking about this in the first place? I got finished with When Gravity Fails earlier than expected, so I had some extra reading time. I decided to tackle The Book of the Short Sun at long last. Took me about a month and a half, and I’m still digesting it. After that, I read Blindsight which served as a sort of bracer, and I finished it just in time for today’s book club discussion. Now I’m partway through Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry by Arthur Zajonc, which is providing a fantastic counterargument to some of the anti-consciousness arguments of Blindsight. Some Borges is up next. It’s interesting to me how each book we read informs those before and after it.

Air in the Paragraph Line #13

As if I didn’t have enough problems, Air in the Paragraph Line #13 recently landed in my lap. It was sent to me by a distant acquaintance with dubious motives. I consider it nothing less than an all-out assault on my mental health. I didn’t know quite what to make of this thing when it arrived — and I still don’t. At first glance it might seem to be some sort of artsy literary journal. I mean, it has art on the cover, nice typographical layout, a perfect bound volume of 200+ pages with short stories by over a dozen authors. But upon further inspection, it reads more like a zine, full of the sort of deranged rantings I’d expect in a photocopied DIY punk publication from the 1980s (with the sort of proofreading that implies). So what the hell is this thing anyway? According to the official website it’s “a print journal of absurdist and outsider fiction.” I don’t really know what that means, but as I read through these selections randomly, I seemed to encounter all the “outsider” stuff first. At least I assume that’s what it is. These stories definitely run counter to the highbrow literary expectation one might have expected from the cover. They are low-down and gritty. Not gangster-fantasy noir-gritty, but real-life gritty. Many of these stories are bleaker than bleak, the sort of thing I imagine Samuel Beckett or Thomas Bernhard would read when feeling just a little too hopeful. There is also some humor here and there, but of course it is of the darkest variety. Then I encountered some of the “absurdist” pieces, and I really don’t know what to say about those except that I may have permanent brain damage. Approach this one with extreme caution. You can get it online cheap. But don’t say you weren’t warned.

Ten Years of Issa Online

Dear Issa,

Of all the projects I’ve worked on in a decade of such work at the University, one of the very first remains one of the very best. I’m talking of course about the website, Haiku of Kobayashi Issa. Through this project I learned plenty about scripting search queries and managing Japanese character encoding. But more importantly I was introduced to haiku and to you, Issa. It has been a great honor to be involved with this project. When David translates his 10,000th haiku, perhaps it will be his turn to don the party clothes.

With much respect and affection,
Editor B

Books vs. TV

I am pretty excited about HBO’s new series, Tremé. I still haven’t actually seen it yet, but I feel like I have, almost.

It premiered Friday night, and I had a couple invites to see it in some venues that would have been fun. (Like the Charbonnet Funeral Home in Tremé. That would have been a trip.) But the time-slot was late, and there’s no way I was going to keep my girl up past her bedtime. So that meant either Xy or I could see it while the other person stayed home and played the responsible adult.

I got stuck being the responsible one.

Since we don’t subscribe to cable television, I couldn’t watch the show, but I did “tune in” to Twitter where I watched a veritable deluge of commentary pouring forth — thousands of tweets, far too many to read in real time. I’d say comments were 90% positive, but it is hardly a scientific sample.

In the other 10%, one remark in particular caught my eye, from local author and luminary Poppy Z. Brite:

Read a Book

As noted, I don’t quite share her perspective — but I respect it. And in fact I think it provides the perfect springboard for a workshop I’m doing next week on Goodreads.

Different media have different affordances. Despite the convergence exemplified by technologies like the World Wide Web, there are still some relevant distinctions to be made. You can’t beat television for live coverage of a sporting event, for example; I’d argue that’s the ultimate application of that medium. You just can’t watch the game on a book.

As for dramatic narrative? That’s one reason Tremé is interesting to me, as it seems to be a best-case scenario. It’s not an adaptation of a book but a dramatic narrative straight-up written for television, involving lots of very talented people who have a great track record. If it’s anywhere near as good as The Wire I’m sure I’ll love it.

However, I still think theater and cinema and books are better venues for dramatic narrative. Television can aspire to the same level of quality as the best of those, but can it do anything unique? Is there anything a TV series can do that a film or a book can’t do? I don’t think so — beyond perhaps a heightened sense of social immediacy.

And that’s where Goodreads comes in. It adds that dimension of social immediacy to the reading of books. Or you can just use it to keep track of what you’ve read and what you want to read. I think it’s fairly handy, and of course, I’m on there so feel free to add me as a friend.

I’m curious to know what others think about dramatic narrative on the small screen. Is there anything a TV series can do that a film or a book can’t do better?

Hundredth Book

95 Mostly sci-fi books

Tomorrow at my book club we are discussing our hundredth book.

We have been reading together since the summer of 2001, when we got started with Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.

Since then we’ve been through an awful lot, including the flooding of our city as well as the death of our founder. But we’re still going, stronger than ever in fact.

We select our books by a simple method: Each person takes a turn selecting three books on a theme. Given the current size of our group, two years or more may elapse between turns.

This club is perhaps the single most enjoyable and completely stress-free activity I’ve had over the past decade. That’s why I’ve stuck with it, I suppose.

Actually it’s no longer as stress-free as it once was. It is more difficult to carve out that monthly time-slot since becoming a father; I feel a little guilty sometimes; and despite my repeated pleadings Xy doesn’t seem to respect my desire to have this one little bit of “me” time held sacred and inviolate. As a result, I’ve had to bring my daughter along to a couple recent club meetings, with varying degrees of success.

Yet still I persist. I’ll extract my revenge on Xy some day.

Here’s a spreadsheet listing all the books we’ve read, in order.

I see I’ve failed to mention one defining fact: We are a science fiction club. We read science fiction almost exclusively. I say almost exclusively because we have veered into fantasy occasionally, and we have read some books which many people, including our club members, would not consider science fiction. We have had many interesting conversations — I almost said “debates” — on the definition of the genre. In fact our very first meeting started with that question and it still comes up almost every month. I’m happy to report that we don’t appear to be in any danger of discovering a definitive answer.

If you’re interested in science fiction you should join us. We meet on the second Saturday of every month at 10:30 AM. (Except, obviously, this time; we’re meeting on a Sunday because of Carnival.) Location: Octavia Books. (Speaking of Octavia, our most-frequently read author to date is Octavia Butler.) You don’t have to be some kind of hardcore science fiction fan to attend. You don’t even have to know what science fiction is. Just bring an open mind.

Oh — our hundredth title? The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K. Dick.

It was OK. But I wouldn’t call it science fiction.

The City & The City

Title: The City & The City
Author: China Miéville
Published: 2009

When I saw that China Miéville had a new book out, I snapped it up. He’s one of the few authors I’ll spring for without even knowing anything about the book. I rarely have time to read above and beyond my book club, but I do sneak one in now and again.

I’m generally a slow reader, and as I got started with this book I made a deliberate effort to stay slow. I enjoy Miéville’s prose, and I wanted to savor it. But I was hardly able to put this book down, and so I ended up finishing it in a week, which is pretty remarkable for me.

I enjoyed the novel immensely. It’s quite a departure from Perdido Street Station or The Scar, a hardboiled noirish police procedural set in what seems to be our real world — sort of. I’ll admit the characters are thin and the plot is somewhat conventional. The main interest here is without question the setting: a fictional city somewhere in Eastern Europe, I think. Actually not one city but two, twin cities in fact, and it’s the nature of the relation between these twins that drives the whole book along. I can’t really say more without spoiling the wondrous sense of discovery Miéville so skillfully evokes. I found the premise utterly beguiling, all the more remarkable because there is no recourse to the fantastic. Actually, that’s just my interpretation; I’ve poked around on the net and found other reviews which indicate other people read it differently and see elements of the fantastic where I saw none. But that’s just an indication of the subtlety of Miéville’s approach.

Alas, the story falls just short of greatness, as the conventional plot (a murder mystery) somehow manages to overwhelm everything else as it lumbers to its conclusion. But the basic conceit of the book remains fascinating, highly original, enormously evocative and well worth the price of admission.

Catching Up

Lots of stuff going on lately, and so little time to write. The days slip away uncounted. I can’t stand that. So here are some things that have gone down over the last five days or more.

  • Xy made a trip to the north shore with Persephone and Daisy and Lavender to visit the splash park there in old Mandeville. They also stopped by a furniture store in Slidell; while Daisy was shopping Xy gathered some tadpoles and aquatic snails. Next thing I know she’s set up an aquarium on our kitchen table and added some goldfish and water plants. I said, “You’re turning this place into a frickin’ menagerie! Wasn’t the rabbit enough?”
  • Our former neighbor Jesus replaced our screwed-up lattice panel near the front door of our house. He said he would do the job two months ago, and I had kind of given up hope. And to top it off he also installed a door there — that door has been missing for years, since old Dan’s crucifix-rig disintegrated some time after Katrina, I think.
  • Xy tried her hand at painting the posts under the deck. Unfortunately she’s kind of sloppy — splatters and drips everywhere. I’m not the most fastidious person, but I’m taking the paintbrush back. I did the second coat myself and also got the new lattice work painted. I like bold rich colors but this is a pale lavender, so pale it’s almost gray.
  • Speaking of Lavender, we celebrated her first birthday Sunday. There were pony rides on the neutral ground. Persephone wasn’t terribly interested in the ponies, strangely enough, but it was still a fun party.
  • I gave a talk and led a walk along the Lafitte Corridor to about 30 kids as part of a summer program called Job One, run by the Alliance for Affordable Energy and the Louisiana Green Corps.
  • I’ll admit I get a little misty-eyed when remembering the moon landing. It’s not nostalgia, exactly, as I was only two when that happened. It’s more the grandeur of human achievement or something like that. Yet at the same time I do have mixed feelings about the whole space program. I’ve heard a bunch of lunar-themed songs lately, as DJs commemorate the event, but I think the best one is Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon, which expresses my misgivings eloquently and is a hoot to boot.
  • Aftre three weeks of bureaucratic delay, I finally got my annual letter reconfirming my employment. Hooray, I still have a job. Even got a decent raise. In this economy that’s saying something.
  • I do occasionally read books outside of my club selections. It took me a few months, chipping away at lunch time, but I finally finished Goth: Undead Subculture which the library purchased on my recommendation. Fascinating stuff. It’s the first and only collection of serious academic essays on the subject. I don’t usually read much academic writing, and this was heavy going in some places, but overall I think it’s pretty accessible. I think what I found most provocative is simply the idea of subcultures themselves as somehow resisting mainstream culture. I don’t know if subcultural studies is an organized field of study, but I think I’d like to learn more about it.
  • In case you’re in the mood for a weird link, here’s Oxidation Paintings by Mambo.

Also, the weather has been lovely for this time of year, by which I mean highs in the upper 80s and humidity below 50%. Is this really July in southern Louisiana?

The Long Hard Summer

I’ve been in a book club for eight years now. We read science fiction and meet on the second Saturday of each month at Octavia Books. It’s a lot of fun. We select our books by a simple method which was established by our club’s founder, the late Scott Speake. Each person takes a turn selecting three books on a theme. Given the current size of our group, two years or more may elapse between turns. But at last my time has come again.

For my theme, I chose hard sf. This is often labeled a subgenre but might best be understood as a tendency or continuum within speculative fiction. A lot of people don’t like the term for a variety of reasons, many of which I consider legitimate. The label conjures up a kind of macho mystique which isn’t very helpful. But I do think the concept has some value in understanding the history and breadth of “our special literature,” as Poul Anderson calls it.

The “hardness” of any given fiction can be understood in two different ways: 1) how seriously the story takes its science, or 2) just how “hard” that science is, physics being “harder” than psychology, for example. Thus hard sf will rarely feature people zipping around the universe at speeds faster than light.

(A brief digression. Explicating the above concept has led to some interesting conversations. When we took my boss out to Drago’s for her birthday, we talked about this in the context of two very popular and iconic franchises. I opined that Star Trek is an example of “soft” sf, while Star Wars is not sf at all, but a fairy tale with sf trappings. That’s not a dis to either, but I’m willing to defend this distinction extensively over beers to anyone who cares to foot the tab.)

After making my choices, I was surprised to discover an entry in an old journal of mine, from ’85 or ’86. I was living in Sweden at the time, and my parents had sent me a care package containing the novel Sentenced to Prism by Allen Dean Foster. “Hard sf,” I complained. “It figures.” I preferred New Wave stuff then; I still do, but I’m at a point now where I take a bit more interest in hard sf, as I discovered when we read Blood Music.

Which leads me to the following three selections. We already discussed the first book in June, but please feel free to join us for books two and three as the summer gets hotter.

Title: Mission of Gravity
Author: Hal Clement
Published: 1953

The only way you can get Mission of Gravity is in the anthology Heavy Planet, a print-on-demand book which is only available thanks to the efforts of the New England Science Fiction Association.

I chose this book because it’s an undisputed hard sf classic. The story concerns a huge planet which spins very fast on its axis; gravity is three times Earth normal at the equator but something like 700 times at the poles. There are some humans visiting, but they are offstage or peripheral for the most part, with the main players being the small centipede-like natives who are perfectly at home in gravity that would crush us. One might assume such creatures would be very strange and alien, but in Clement’s story they play out like humans in disguise. That seemed rather unlikely to me, but this is not a work of great psychological depth. Indeed, many traditional literary elements such as character and style are somewhat underdeveloped; the plot chugs along and unfolds at a steady pace, but it’s all in service to something else, namely, speculation on high-gravity physics. Clement’s reverence for the scientific method is palpable.

This is one of the geekiest books I’ve ever read. (Slide rules are deployed with reckless abandon.) It’s somewhat quaint, rather strange, even charming in its way. While I can’t recommend the novel solely on its merits, I have no reservations recommending it to anyone interested in the history of science fiction. It’s a seminal work. It represents an early effort to distinguish science fiction as something more than adventure fiction with ray guns, something more than space opera. Clement injects a healthy dose of intellectual rigor into the genre. I especially enjoyed his essay “Whirligig World” (included in this volume) which is about the process of writing Mission of Gravity and reveals some of his underlying motives.

Title: Beggars in Spain
Author: Nancy Kress
Published: 1993

By way of contrast, I chose Beggars in Spain for the book we’ll discuss in July. It’s set in the near future, on Earth, and revolves around genetic engineering rather than planetary physics. It’s also of considerably more recent vintage and written by a woman, both of which might serve to counter Clement’s perspective (masculine, 50s). I am only a few chapters in, so I can’t comment on the book as a whole, but so far it is engaging and nicely paced. Indeed, she wastes no time in unfolding the main premise: What if we could flip a few genetic switches and make babies who don’t need to sleep? From such simple speculations can great sf grow. There are less-than-subtle hints of Randian philosophy, which could grow tiresome, but this story won both a Nebula and a Hugo, so I figure it’s gotta be at least a decent read. My advice: Buy it, read it, and join us to talk about it on July 11th. You could do worse.

Title: Revelation Space
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Published: 2000

Our August selection brings us into the new millennium. I haven’t even cracked the cover yet, and I’m not sure what it’s about. I actually wanted something by Greg Egan, who is probably the primary exponent of hard sf writing today, but his most recent novel seems to have underwhelmed reviewers, and his better recent work is out of print already, sad to say. But Alastair Reynolds is supposed to be pretty good, pretty hard, and a scientist to boot.


It’s my hope that by reading these three books I’ll not only visit some strange and interesting imaginary futures, but that I will broaden and deepen my appreciation for speculative fiction. It’s my belief that sf is simply the most interesting and relevant literature of our day, and understanding hard sf is key to understanding the genre as a whole. Let the hard times roll!

Three Books

These are not reviews — more like reading notes.

Title: Gods Behaving Badly
Author: Marie Phillips
Published: 2007

When I heard of this book, featuring the gods of ancient Greece living in modern day London, I knew I had to read it, mainly because Persephone has a key role.

Promising premise. Alas, I just wasn’t feeling Ms. Phillips’ take on the concept. It’s mighty silly, and I was hoping for something slightly more serious. I have to agree with a reviewer on GoodReads, this is “Fluff with a capital F.” Possibly a good beach book, especially if vacationing in the Greek isles. But like American Gods, this novel treads in a realm where I have my own fictive imaginings, and nothing I read in this regard seems to please me. I suppose I need to shut up and write my own novel.

Title: Wizards
Author: Gardner R. Dozois (Editor)
Published: 2007

This is an anthology of stories aimed at the young adult market, on the theme of wizards. I was a little disappointed that the notion of wizards was not more broadly conceived. Most of the interpretations seemed to fit into the traditional European folk archetype. There’s a story here by Gene Wolfe, who is surely a great author, but I found his contribution underwhelming.

Title: Escape from Earth
Author: Gardner R. Dozois (Editor)
Published: 2006

Another young adult anthology, edited by the same folks, only with a broad theme of travel in space. (I don’t ordinarily read “young adult” fiction, nor was I aware of how well-defined this category has become, but these two books were selected by my club.) Of the two I thought this one was superior. The stories are longer, fewer, and better. They are written in frank imitation of the old science fiction “juveniles” by authors such as Heinlein. As such, they’re fun, but definitely aimed at the adolescent reader.

Bookbook

A friend of mine quit Facebook earlier this week. Said he wanted to spend more time reading. Someone else suggested he needed a Bookbook application, which I thought was pretty funny. (But, come to think of it, maybe that’s a better name than GoodReads or LibraryThing.) (Though I don’t think Facebook is dominating my mental panorama so completely, I have to admit it’s been worming its way into more aspects of my life. In fact, I’m doing a presentation on Facebook next month.) While Facebook may not be putting a dent in my reading time, this did get me to thinking about what it means to really enjoy a book. You can rake your eyes across the pages but not really get much out of the text. To really immerse yourself in a novel is something different. You walk around for days only half there, because the fiction transports you to another time and place. It’s slower but more powerful than the more immediate experiences of cinema or television. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that.

The Atrocity Exhibition

These are not reviews — more like reading notes.

Title: The Atrocity Exhibition
Author: J. G. Ballard
Published: 1970

The Atrocity Exhibition was originally published in 1970, but it was shredded by a distraught Nelson Doubleday, or so the story goes. It was published again by Grove in ’72 under a different title, and then again in 1990 by Re/Search.

It still reads like it was shredded. The text is composed of paragraph-sized chunks, more or less disconnected from one another and not building any kind of linear narrative. This was my biggest problem with the book. I couldn’t make any connections or trace any developments. The author actually recommends dipping in and reading at random, which I eventually did. The simultaneous advantage and disadvantage of this method is that you can never really tell when you’ve read it all, and consequently can never know if you’re done. Conversely no one can say you haven’t “finished it.” I don’t think I read the whole thing, but I don’t think that matters.

Or maybe it does. Maybe I missed all the good parts. But in my random sampling, all parts seemed generically equal, and as mentioned I couldn’t connect to any of it. My eyes moved mechanically across the text but I didn’t seem able to hook on to anything, and therefore absorbed nothing. I felt like I was ice skating.

I do feel like my cognitive bandwidth is somewhat reduced these days by the demands of parenting. I don’t have as much uninterrupted time to devote to a book. But in a sense that fractured mindset would seem perfect for reading a work like this.

Much is made of the violent and sexual content of this book, but I didn’t even notice that. To me, the form seemed to overwhelm the content entirely. On the one hand I found it interesting to encounter such an experimental approach, especially since I’m fiddling with a nonlinear narrative in a top-secret side project. But on the other hand I found the result soporifically boring. I’d call it a failed experiment.

This Re/Search edition features a commentary on the text by the author himself, running in the margins alongside the original. I found these comments paradoxically engaging.

And, given the accompanying illustrations and the intro by William S. Burroughs, I’d have no problem recommending this edition to anyone interested in avant-garde literature. But it’s not my cup of tea.

334

Once again, these are not reviews, just some scattered reading notes.

Title: 334
Author: Thomas M. Disch
Published: 1974

Like Nova, this is a good novel by an author capable of greatness. I admire Disch, and was saddened when he took his life last year. I have a collection of his stories, entitled Fun with Your New Head that is amongst my very favorite books.

334 is called a novel, but it fits that descriptor loosely. It reads more like a collection of interrelated stories. (And indeed my friend Frank described it as a classic example of a “fix up” novel, since some of the stories were published separately first.) I’d describe it as five short stories followed by a fugue-like novelette.

It’s bleak stuff, or at least it seems to be so intended. Disch envisions a very near future which is not so much a dystopia as a triumph of mediocrity. I found one sentence on page 102 that seemed to encapsulate the spirit of the whole book:

Smells filmed every surface like cheap skin cream.

Of course it’s hard to sustain interest over the length of a novel in characters who are thoroughly unsympathetic. My objection is that the most oppressive force in the book would seem to be the author himself. His loathing for humanity somewhat overwhelms the characters themselves. I imagined that after the final page, once the author was done, things would have to get better for most of them. In other words, I didn’t find his vision thoroughly convincing.

The tales in Fun with Your New Head are bleak too, but with a darker, more horrific edge. Both books are suffused with despair, but I found 334 subtler, more realistic, and a bit of a snooze. The problem with a thoroughly realistic bleakness is that it’s not very much fun.

Nova

Title: Nova
Author: Samuel R. Delany
Published: 1968

Nova is a seminal work by one of my favorite authors. It’s a relatively short novel, written in an easy and accessible style, with poetic flourishes that don’t overwhelm, beautiful imagery, iconic characters, and just a dash of of avant-garde ambition.

And I liked it OK. I mean really, it was pretty cool. But I don’t feel it’s Delany’s best work. For an “accessible” Delany story, I’d point people to Empire Star or Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones.

We read Nova in my book club as the first of three New Wave entrees, and it serves that function well. Counter to most of science fiction’s New Wave, Nova reads like a classic old-style space opera. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. So it comes off as very old school in some ways, but the seeds of the new school are strewn throughout — though you might miss them if you’re not familiar with the history of the genre.

For example, the characters have some ethnic diversity. It’s not a big deal but it’s there. At the time this was published, that in itself was somewhat revolutionary. But more to the point, there’s one character who is forever making notes on a novel he intends to write. He’s made thousands of notes but hasn’t written one word. He’s given to holding forth extemporaneously on various literary problems. Reader of the genre were not unused to spontaneous exposition, but usually the topics were scientific. I think Delany was pushing the envelope, shifting to a more introspective focus that might be considered a hallmark of the New Wave.

The novel is peppered with brilliant and bizarre ideas that leave you scratching your head. For example, did it ever occur to you that the future might be filthy dirty? Think about it.

There was a thousand-year period from about fifteen hundred to twenty-five hundred, when people spent an incredible amount of time and energy keeping things clean. It ended when the last communicable disease became not only curable but impossible. There used to be an incredibility called ‘the common cold’ that even in the twenty-fifth century you could be fairly sure of having at least once a year. I suppose back then there was some excuse for the fetish: there seemed to have been some correlation between dirt and disease. But after contagion became an obsolescent concern, sanitation became equally obsolescent. If our man from five hundred years ago, however, saw you walking around this deck with one shoe off and one shoe on, then saw you sit down to eat with that same foot, without bothering to wash it — do you have any idea how upset he’d be?

He drops little mind-bombs like that without warning.

Also, Nova has one of the best concluding sentences I’ve read in a novel. Given how disappointing endings can be, that is nothing to sneeze at.

PS: Speaking of science fiction, here’s a new blog by a fellow New Orleanian and co-worker of mine: Sci-Fi Lessons.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Title: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Author: Michael Chabon
Published: 2007

Here’s a rare book that I’ve enjoyed (so far) but probably won’t finish.

Today, my book club is discussing the book. I’m missing the meeting because I’m staying home to take care of the girl while Xy is at work (a professional development day).

And so, a dilemma. If I take the time to finish the book now, I will fall behind and not finish next month’s book in time.

The premise of this novel is that a Jewish homeland is established on American soil, in the territory of Alaska, back in 1948. It’s set in our day, as the homeland is set to be dissolved and the future of the Jewish people living there is very much in question. And to give it a pop twist, it’s also a murder mystery, a hard-boiled detective story. Or maybe soft-boiled. I didn’t get far enough to know.

Despite being generally impressed by the quality of the writing, my bookmark is only at page 83. I just haven’t found it a quick read, and life’s been keeping me busy. Looks like I’ll just have to wait for the Coen brothers’ film adaptation.

Since I can’t really comment on the story, I should at least make mention of the physical design of the book. It rocks. Will Staehle’s work is absolutely gorgeous. And apparently it has attracted some attention. It’s not just a good-looking book, it’s a pleasure to hold and read.

Maybe if I’d spent less time admiring the book and more time reading it…