Sunday, October 20, 2013

Blackout / All Clear : Connie Willis

All Clear
By Connie Willis

A refreshing combination of sci-fi and historical.

Historians in Oxford in the year 2060 are able to travel back in time to see what life really was like in-person. The plot centers around three protagonists: Eileen, Polly and Mike, who have gone back to the Blitz in UK during WWII and begin to have troubles returning to their regular time.

The novels are rich with historical details of what it was like in England during WWII: of having to go to bomb shelters, of working in department stores, of working as ambulance drivers, of hearing V-1 bombs drop from the sky etc.  Willis certainly has done her homework in this regard, and if  nothing else, one can learn more about history from these novels.

I also liked the sense of fear, uncertainty, and later, desperation that the main characters must face and the extent to which Willis does not let readers off the hook to this either.  Too often, you know that protagonists will survive, completely unscathed, with a happy ending.  Here, there is a sense of the characters not knowing what will happen and not knowing whether they made the right decision or not, which is more similar to real life and is refreshing.

Lastly, it's great to have both female and male characters, who are relatively fleshed out and where no manufactured love story plays a major role.

A few dislikes:

* The multiple mentions of Agatha Christie books - One of the characters is a fan of Agatha Christie and mentions that she always amazed by the reveals, since she has been thinking about the who-done-it situations wrongly.  These mentions setup expectations for the Willis novels that there will be an marvelous reveal for how things work out.  While the ending is certainly well-thought out, the reveal is still a bit of a let down, especially because of these build-ups.

* Lack of emotional back-story so the reader can empathize with the characters.  Willis does a great job of placing you where the protagonists are: conveying what they are feeling at the moment, understanding their brief emotional bonds to the people they meet and the conundrums they feel knowing some of the future.  But there is not as much coverage of each protagonists' memories or personality quirks or some attribute that allows you to root for their survival.

That being said, overall, the novels were quite enjoyable and certainly I will have no problem picking up another Connie Willis novel again.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Banquet Bug : Geling Yan

The Banquet Bug
By Geling Yan

The protagonist, Dan Dong, a simple man from a village, accidentally stumbles into a corporate-sponsored banquet, where he finds out he can get paid to eat delicacies that only the rich elite of the nation get to enjoy. Enamored with the luxurious food and easy money, he decides to fake being a reporter, coming up with a dummy business cards and reporter credentials.  Unfortunately, with such wide disparities between the have's and the have-not's in Chinese society, the poor and powerless start to demand that he use his position as a reporter to write about their situations and speak out against the corruption that cripples them. 

Dan is a simple-minded character, who is simply unable to control any of the situations he gets into, simply because those around him are more ruthless, smart, passionate, demanding and/or political than him. In this respect, it captures how a Westerner might initially feel when living in China, where the culture is more relationship-focused and where situations can get complex quickly.  Dan does get into situations, where construction workers go unpaid for their work, where real-estate moguls fleece buyers of their money without finishing their purchased condos, where sex-workers struggle for money, all while the rich and powerful enjoy rare delicacies at banquets, so this does seem like a somewhat broadly accurate depiction of China in the recent past and now.

My problem really was the lack of depth to the characters.  Dan is an exagerratedly passive, spineless and not that bright cartoon character.  Other characters play out stereotypical roles - a ruthless, hard nosed reporter, a sex worker with a heart of gold, a demure wife, etc.  If this novel was purely for entertainment, the lack of characterization might be less noticeable.  But when trying to point out social injustices, it felt like when a comic-book like the X-Men tried to address serious issues.  It's feels a bit clumsy and it's difficult take the issues serious with such broad writing.

All in all, I made it through the novel, but I'm not sure I'm much more enlightened after reading it. 

Note: this was Yan's first novel in English, which is not her native language.  Certainly, that is an impressive feat by itself and I'm a little curious to pick up one of her novels that she wrote in Chinese and was translated to see, whether or not language was partially the issue.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Running with the Kenyans : Adharanand Finn

Running with the Kenyans
By Adharanand Finn

Finn moved his wife and three children to Iten, Kenya, in order to train with Kenyan runners and understand why there are so many great Kenyan long-distance runners.

Refreshingly, this book is not like an extended Western-culture-centric,  running magazine article that proclaims "The secrets of Kenyan runners that will enable you to achieve your personal record!"

Rather, this is really a memoir of Finn's and his family's experience moving to and living in Iten, Kenya.  Finn does learn factors that contribute to Kenyans' success with running, but these are bundled into the larger experience of learning to live in a new country.  And that is what is really enjoyable about this book: you get a sense of the novelness of moving a new location, of meeting new people, uncovering differences in cultural norms and eventually the comfort of settling in.  And running just happens to be one large aspect of the culture there.

Finn does organically piece together a number of different factors that contribute to the Kenyans' success in long-distance running. But in the end, he concludes that many of these are are inherently linked to location (ex. high-elevation) and culture (ex. Kenyan children run barefoot to school when they are young / running as the only way out of poverty) and are not transferable elsewhere, much like how the charm of Parisian cafes or the success of Silicon Valley have not been duplicated in other locations. 

Finn ends up organizing a team to train for and run the tough, local Lewa Marathon, which serves as an end focal point for his narrative.  But it's really the descriptions of Finn's tough training runs, of his conversations with local coaches and successful athletes, and other colorful anecdotes of living there that make this such an enjoyable read.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Underground : Haruki Murakami

By Haruki Murakami

On Mar 20, 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, released sarin, a poison gas, on subway lines in Tokyo. 5,510 people were brought to hospitals - thirteen died, over 1000 had serious injuries.  

Murakami interviewed the victims, to understand who they were, what the day of the attack was like and how they were affected by the attack.  You get a sense of what it was like being on one of the affected subways and the extent of the confusion at what was going on (many victims continued to work, despite symptoms and only later realized they should head to the hospital).   Since Murakami talked with a range of people, in different professions and with different personalities, it's very easy to imagine what if it was me, or one of my family, or one of my friends, who had been on those subways...

Months after the attack, nearly all of the interviewed victims were still affected: fatigue, worsened vision, worsened memory, to such an extent that some could not continue their previous jobs.  It's just such a devastating, in-depth look into how just being in the wrong place at the wrong time can affect you so much.

After the original interviews, Murakami later added a section, interviewing members of the Aum Shinrikyo group, to understand who they were, why they joined Aum, what they did in the group and how they felt about the subway gas incident.  Many of the members had been struggling with bigger philosophical questions, felt lost as a member of "normal" society, and found that Aum was a place they could explore their spirituality.  Murakami strived to understand the members as people, probing deeper than the news media, who generally seemed to dismiss those in Aum as "others" (those crazy cultists).  That's not to say that he sympathizes with the Aum folk, but he was trying to understand how it is that people who felt lost in the cracks could be convinced to do such a destructive act, in order to form a better support network for similar people going forward.

Murakami does a really fine job questioning and probing not only to understand the event itself, but also the larger surrounding societal context as to how an event like this could happen.  While this event occurred in Japan in 1995, given events and the overall security-sensitive mood here in the US, over the last ten years, this book is still relevant and poignant.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Eleanor Rigby : Douglas Coupland

Eleanor Rigby
By Douglas Coupland

Liz Dunn is a lonely, obese woman who goes through life with a casual sense of  resignation.  One day, she receive a phone call and ends up meeting her son, Jeremy, who she had given up for adoption when she was in her teens.  Although he has Multiple Sclerosis and has gone through 17 (don't remember the exact number) or so foster parents, his sense of humor and strange visions shake Liz out of her mundane life.

Liz knows that she conceived with Jeremy during her high school trip to Greece, but does not exactly remember who with or the exact circumstances.  The novel hops back between the Liz's time with Jeremy, her memories of a high school trip to Greece and then later on, her involvement with a pseudo-criminal investigation in Europe related to her trip.

There's a sense of flippancy throughout the entire novel.  Liz is lonely, but always has a self-conscious sardonic view on her feelings.  Similarly, Jeremy shows his humor when things get too serious with his condition. It makes them more realistic characters, like some folk I've met (strangely, it particularly reminds me of New Englanders).  However, the trouble is that when the story does wrap up, there's not really any emotional impact.

All in all, this is a book that cruises forward and is entertaining enough, but I'm not sure I'll remember this a few months later.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals : Hal Herzog

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals
By Hal Herzog

As a meat-eating foodie, having read some of Peter Singer's publications on the ethics of animals, I've mentally wrestled with whether the ethics of eating meat. And really, I've made no headway into coming to a practical and consistent way of thinking about animals. i.e. I still eat all kinds of meat and find it delicious.

Well, if I was morally confused about animal rights, eating meat and how people treat animals before, I'm even more so after reading this book.

Herzog has been in the anthrozoology field, the study of human-animal interaction, for 20 years and over those years, his conclusion appears to be there humans universally are inconsistent in how they treat animals.  He goes into example after example of research on meat-eating, vegetarianism, pets, fears of animal, cock-fighting, use of animals in research and other moral and ethical dilemmas and each seems to show people being completely irrational about how they think about and treat animals of different species.

* Nazi's - for all of their brutality towards fellow human beings actually had a fairly extensive animal rights protection policy.
* Arguably a chicken might suffer less if being trained to be in a cock-fight than reared to be food.  Cock-fighters rear their chickens with much care, exercising them daily, feeding them premium food, and giving them extensive room in cages, while the chickens reared for food, generally are raised in extremely cramped spaces, small enough that sometimes they're forced to sit in their own feces.  Yet cock-fighting is banned and is generally judged to be inhumane.
* Context affects how we view animals - Herzog's child had a pet mouse who the family fed and cared for.  Eventually, the mouse passed away and they held an emotional funeral.  Less than a week later, they discovered a wild mouse in their house and their reaction was to set up traps to kill it.  It was same species of animal, but completely different reactions to it.
* 47% of people surveyed felt that "Animals are just like people in all important ways," yet "half of [those] favored the use of animals in biomedical research, 40% of them thought it was OK to replace diseased human body parts with organs taken from animals, and 90% of them regularly dined on the created they believed were like humans 'in all important ways.'"

All in all, this is a really thought-provoking book, that clearly covers an expansive amount of topics related to how humans interact with humans.  I occasionally wished certainly topics could have been covered in more depth, but the breadth of topics and research is extensive and written in such a way that non-scientists can understand and discuss the ethical questions raised.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Gilligan's Wake : Tom Carson

Gilligan's Wake
By Tom Carson

I sometimes find myself in conversations with folks, whose depth of knowledge in an area so far outshines mine that even if I recall 1% of what said person talked about, I'm 300% more informed on the subject.

And while this is still a fiction novel, Gilligan's Wake is chock full of historic and media allusions and I'm quite certain that some of them went over my head (Certainly never having watched a single episode of and being completely ignorant of Gilligan's Island didn't help).

The novel gives a fictional (and sometimes wacky) background to each of the characters from Gilligan's Island, where each chapter is narrated by the character.  Each character are intimately linked with people who had a large influence on American history and as a result the novel ends up giving a personal narrative to some significant American historical events:

* Skipper - doing navy duty with JFK
* The Millionaire - friends with Alger Hiss
* Eunice? - daughter of a suffragette
* Ginger, The Movie Star - Arranged to meet with Frank Sinatra, JFK and Sammy Davis Jr.
* Professor - involved with the Manhattan project and various conspiratorial political events
* Mary Ann - travels to Paris, where she dates a movie reviewer "Jean Luc"

Carons does a great job, setting a unique tone for each character/chapter.  He also has sly minor interactions between the characters (ex. Skipper doing navy duty with JFK and JFK showing up later with Ginger) and is slightly obtuse about his historical allusions:
...An utterly unheralded tribune, he promptly started juding my life if not summer. When he wasn't doing that, he wrote about movies, although he hoped to make them himself someday.
  His name was Jean-Luc something. It's sad, but all these years later, I can't even remember the first initial of his surname.
Carson does get a bit serpentine with his words.  I found that I frequently had to re-read sentences more than one time.
True, he did go through a mildly rebellious phase, during which he lurked about in blue jeans, white T-shirt and red windbreaker to an oddly John Philip Sousa-esque effect - while swigging milk directly from the bottle, an animalistic sight no doubt deliberately calculated to arouse more true horror in aging parental bosoms than would stealing strangers' cars or knifing unknown West Side Puerto Ricans.
But in the end, I really liked the playful narratives to American history and culture that he provided.  I was struck by one particular line in the book, which was a kind of meta-reference to what Carson was doing.
...the true story of history isn't what occurs, which is often perfectly haphazard, but how and by whom its events are turned to advantage.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Dreaming of Babylon : Richard Brautigan

Dreaming of Babylon
By Richard Brautigan

I get a kick out of inanity and Brautigan writes it as well as anyone.  Here's how the novel kicks off:
   January 2, 1942 had some good news and some bad news.
   First, the good news: I found out that I was 4F and wasn't going off to World War II to be a soldier boy. I diidn't feel unpatriotic at all because I had fought my World War II five years before in Spain and had a couple of bullet holes in my ass to prove it.
   I've never figure out why I got shot in the ass. Anyway, it made a louse war story. People don't look up to you as a hero when you tell them you were shot in the ass...
The novel is a humorous rendition of a hardboiled detective story.  The detective has gone dirt-poor, because he constantly daydreams ridiculous scenarios of himself in Babylon.

The novel does end up following a more traditional detective plotline, which is somewhat conventional and transparent, but really the absurd humor of Dreaming of Babylon is more than enough to make it an enjoyable read.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Open City : Teju Cole

Open City
By Teju Cole

Meditative, reflective, introspective, Cole quietly and perceptively touches upon and probes a swath of cultures, philosophies, and issues.  It's actually quite astounding not only the breadth of topics Cole gets into, but also that he seems to to have a depth of knowledge and thoughtfulness on each.

The novel is relatively unstructured, jumping from narrative to memory in a sometimes jarringly non-chronological manner.  There is no arc to the narrative and the prose is dense with observations, bringing to mind a mood of sitting in a cafe and observing all people and details around you.

The protagonist, Julius, is a German/Nigerian psychiatrist and there is a good amount of thought on the culture and history of some African countries, something I appreciated.

I'll also quote a few passages, which stuck out.

On the nature of mental illness
   There is a long marriage between comedy and human suffering, and mental illness, in particular, is easily played for laughs. But I had dozens of cases that would have been ill-suited for that purpose, and sometimes it is hard to shake the feeling that, all jokes aside, there really is an epidemic of sorrow sweeping our world, the full brunt of which is being borne, for now, by only a luckless few.
Julius has visited Brussels for a month and ends up talking with Farouq, a Morrocan, about his beliefs and of Islamism and 9/11 (not quoted).
   Farouq... continued as though there had been no interruption at all... We were supposed to choose between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and I was the only person who chose Malcolm X...  I chose him because I agree with him, philosophically, and I disagree with Martin Luther King. Malcom X recognized that difference contains its own value, and that the struggle must be to advance that value. Martin Luther King is admired by everyone, he wants everyone to join together, but this idea that you should let them hit you on the other side of your face, this makes no sense to me.
   It's a Christian idea, I said. He was a churchman, you see, his principles came from the Christian concept. That is it exactly, Farouq said. This is not an idea I can accept. There's always the expectation that the victimized Other is the one that covers the distance, that has the noble ideas; I disagree with this expectation.  It's an expectation that works sometimes, I said, but only if your enemy is not a psychopath. You need an enemy with a capacity for shame. I wonder sometimes how far Gandhi would have gotten if the British had been more brutal. If they had been willing to kill masses of protesters. Dignified refusal can only take you so far. Ask the Congolese.
Race in the US is frequently examined in a pretty nuanced way.  Below is probably the least subtle of his examinations, but is something that I've personally felt many times in my life.
Again the oboist played an A, and this time the woodwinds tuned, and they were joined by a flurry of strings. At last a signal came from the stage, and a hush fell on the hall. Almost everyone, as almost always as such concerts, was white. It is something I can't help noticing; I notice it each time, and try to see past it. Part of that is a quick, complex series of negotiations: chiding myself for even seeing it, lamenting the reminders of how divided our life still remains, being annoyed that these thoughts can be counted on to pass through my mind as some point in the in the evening. Most of the people around me yesterday were middle-aged or old. I am used to it, but it never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to leave the hybridity of the city, and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tell, causes no discomfort to the whites in them. The only thing odd, to some of them, is seeing me, young and black, in my seat or at the concession stand.  At times, standing in line for the bathroom during intermission. I get looks that make me feel like Ota Benga, the Mbuti man who was put on display in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. I weary of such thoughts, but I am habituated to them. But Mahler's music is not white, or black, not old or young, and whither it is even specifically human, rather than in accord with more universal vibrations, is open to question.  Simon Rattle, smiling, his curly hair bouncing, came onstage to applause. He acknowledged the orchestra, and then lights dimmed further. The silence became total and, after a moment of anticipation, Rattle gave the downbeat, and the music began.
 All in all, I really enjoyed this one and I'll be on the look out for any other works Cole writes.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Transition by Iain M. Banks

By Iain M. Banks

Transition switches between multiple character's parallel narratives that eventually intertwine.  Initially, it was promising, since the writing style for each character seemed quite distinct and I was hoping what would emerge was differing, in-depth characters coming together in a unique way.

But this did not happen.  Moreover, halfway through, I was not sure I should continue.  Overall, this just did not do it for me.

First, there's a sense of smugness to when characters explain what's going on.  One particular chapter sounded like a freshman, taking a philosophy class, knowingly lecturing to his friends about a mode of thought.
Solipsism, he told us, was in a sense the default state of humanity. There was, arguably, a kernel of us that always believed that we personally, our own individual consciousness, was the only thing that really existed and that nothing else mattered. That feeling we have - certainly that behavior we exhibit - of utter selfishness as a child, absolutely demanding...
Blah, I can't even finish quoting it. The writing goes on and on about, excitedly, about a pedestrian idea that could easily have been done in a few sentences and any other explanations have that feel to them as well.

Secondly, the male characters seem to be astoundingly obvious projections of the author's desires.  The male characters here are just so awesome, one with a talent that has never before been seen, that the two beautiful, intelligent women main characters recognize this and offer themselves (of course sexually) to them.  Uh huh. There's more emotional authenticity to Penthouse letters - the reader knows they were made-up, but  understands there's an entertainment purpose to the fakeness (like WWE).  Here not so much - I wouldn't be surprised if Banks thinks he's a ladies' man in real life.

Lastly, I give you Bank's attempt to be edgy.  I need only give a quote:
I do not like to question females. The rather obvious reason would be that their screams remind me of those of my mother when my father raped her on that never-to-be-forgotten night following her return home after the birth of my sister.
Ick.  Banks is on my never-read-again list.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Wild : Cheryl Strayed

By Cheryl Strayed

I was late to the Dear Sugar columns, really only hearing of them after she revealed herself as Cheryl Strayed, but after reading a column, I ended up going back and reading all of them.  In the columns, she had an uncanny knack for identifying hidden, underlying issues that the reader asked about and for elucidating and illuminating these issues and emotions, many times, in quite astonishingly beautiful ways.

Many of the characteristcs that made her columns so great are evident in this memoir.  I think it's easy for authors of memoirs to shoe-horn their past into widely accepted cultural stories, in a way deceiving themselves into romanticized versions of the past and of their flaws.  Strayed has an emotional courage to her, delving and needling into really uncomfortable and painful emotions.
The last couple of days of her life, my mother was not so much high as down under. She was on a morphine drip by then, a clear bag of liquid flowing slowly down a tube that was taped to her wrist. When she woke, she'd say, "Oh, oh." Or she'd let a sad gulp of air. She'd look at me, and there would be a flash of love. Other times she'd roll back into sleep as if I were not there. Sometimes when my mother woke she did not know where she was. She demanded an enchilada and then some apple-sauce. She believed that all the animals she'd ever loved were in the room with her-and there had been a lot. She'd say, "That horse darn near stepped on me," and look around for it accusingly, or her hands would move to stroke an invisible cat that lay at her hip. During this time I wanted my mother to say to me that I had been the best daughter in the world. I did not want to want this, but I did, inexplicably, as if I had a great fever that could be cooled only by those words. I went so far as to ask her directly, "Have I been the best daughter in the world?"
   She say yes, I had, of course.
   But this was not enough. I wanted those words to knit together in my mother's mind and for them to be delivered, fresh, to me.
   I was ravenous for love.
While much of the memoir focuses on Strayed's experience hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, she sets up the tone of the book with the loss of her mother.  And there is this subtle transition from the emotional impact of passages like the above one to nitty gritty details and stories that make outdoor expeditions so interesting, reflective and unpredictable.  By the end of the novel, the reader has become so immersed in the storyline arcs of hiking, that you realize that Strayed has gotten past some of the emotional turbulence she was initially struggling with.  But that movement was not a cathartic one that you see in generic movies, but rather subtle, gradual day-after-day one.

A very book, one that I suspect would be as good on a second read.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Inner Ring by C.S. Lewis

The Inner Ring by C.S. Lewis. A marvelous description of a social phenomena that is as apt today as it was when Lewis wrote it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Pandora's Star / Judas Unchained: Peter Hamilton

Pandora's Star
By Peter Hamilton

Edit: Finished Judas Unchained.

Overall, I liked this.  Despite introducing two major imagined technologies, worm-holes and virtualization of people's memories, Hamilton goes into almost obsessive detail of the effects of imagined technology to the point where they come across as mundane, similar to how any new technology, which once was amazing, becomes accepted and implicit in one's lifestyle going forward (think of how amazing smart phones would appear to someone just 20 years ago vs today).

For example, with the ability to virtualize their memories, humans are able to live forever by re-downloading their memories into a new body.  He covers the technology's effect on people's thoughts on children, on legal handling of murder, fugitive activity, on risk-tolerance for dangerous activities, etc.  He does a good job of thinking this through, which generally is my sticking point with sci fi.

The novel is structured nonlinearly, with many characters following different storylines in a really expansive manner.  The different storylines end up converging on a common thread, in not too simply or unrealistically of a way (like say the movies Go or Crash).

One of my main issues with both books was that Hamilton gets overly obsessive on details, to the point where I felt like skimmed through 30-40% of text to get to the main gist.  Perhaps in another author's hands, some of these details would come across as beautifully descriptive of the environment; but here the details come across as a descriptionary chore:
The train started moving, pulling away from the platform and out into the spring sunshine. All Dudley could see through his window was the industrial landscape of the station yard, where hundreds of tracks snaked across the ground, crossing and recrossing like some vast abstract maze. Single wagons and carriages were being moved about by small shunting engines that coughed out thick plumes of diesel exhaust. The only visible horizon seemed to be made from warehouses and lading bays, where a spidery gridwork of gantry cranes and container stackers wove through every section of the big open structures.  Flatbed carriages and fat tankers were being readied or unloaded within the mechanical systems that almost engulfed them. Engineering crews and maintenancebots crawled along several tracks performing repairs.  
This guy needs a much more dedicated editor.  Honestly, there's really was no need for both books to have been so long.  I think it would have been possible to put this all into one novel, (although if one was cynical, perhaps locking in a sequel book meant a better economic payoff for the publishing house and author.)

The second issue I took was that Hamilton is not that skilled at capturing character's emotions.  As such, many of the characters (man or woman) feel like the same hyper-rational, smart, and capable protagonists that are so common in sci-fi.

Despite my complaints though, the positives did outweigh the negatives and overall, it was an enjoyable read.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Great Bridge : David McCullough

The Great Bridge
By David McCullough

A fantastic read and impressive in its thoroughness in covering the technical, political, historical and personal aspects in the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge.

It largely follows the two Roeblings who were the main drivers in the Brooklyn Bridge being built: John Roebling, the man who drew up the main designs of the Brooklyn and his son, Washington Roebling, who spent 14 exhausting years as the chief engineer during its construction, after his father died of tetanus.  The book tracks the personal backgrounds of both characters: John Roebling's emigration from Germany and establishment of a town in New Jersey, his building of other bridges, his engineering philosophy, etc. and Washington Roebling's role in the Civil War, his education of caissons in Europe, his meeting and relationship with his wife Emily Roebling, etc.

This more personal perspective into the bridge engineers really helped anchor this reader, especially when later, the Bridge Company was beleaguered by issues of fraud, politics and public perception.  

There is really detailed technical coverage of the bridge itself, which got fairly dense at times (the illustrations helped immensely), but it certainly gave a wonderful portrait of how giant the scale of the project was and the uncertainty of new 'technology' at the time (ex. the caissons were extremely new and men working in these high-pressure environments encountered the bends for the first time.)

Of particular interest to me was reading about how politics and media butted into the project, which I think would be familiar to any engineer who has worked at a sufficiently large organization

All in all, this was a wonderful book, which now makes me wish I could visit the Brooklyn Bridge in the near future.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Blood, Bones and Butter : Gabrielle Hamilton

Blood, Bones and Butter
By Gabrielle Hamilton

Really liked this.

Marvelous writing that shows great insight into someone who truly loves  food but also touches upon:

  • Being a chef / owner of a restaurant
  • Being a successful chef who just happens to be female 
  • Having started loving cooking and food, before all the money and marketing came into the picture
  • Having a problematic relationship with your mother, who instilled your love of food 
  • Having a problematic relationship with an Italian husband, yet being completely in love with her mother-in-law's spirit and cooking prowess
Hamilton believes in the necessity of getting her hands dirty.  For example, the restaurant space that she eventually set up her own restaurant in had been abandoned years ago by a restaurant that had gone bankrupt.  When she first opened the doors, she described having to dispose of all the remaining ingredients that had been abandoned, having to clean up the rat shit that had accumulated and patch all of the holes that the rats came through and having to clean up human feces on the stoop of the restaurant.   As such, the memoir not only gives a realistic look at working in the industry (unlike say the food shows that edit only the flashy parts), but also this philosophy spills over to providing (one would think) a fairly realistic self-portrait of herself, splaying details of her personality that are both positive and negative.  

As a final note on the ending, I suspect those expecting a redemption or a feel-good story will be disappointed.  However, for those who recognize that Hamilton is trying to get as close to the truth as she can,  it's in line with her philosophy and the rest of the memoir.  I will say, that I would like to try out restaurant next time I am in New York.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Watsons : Jane Austen

The Watsons
By Jane Austen

I've never read any of Jane Austen's works and was curious to see why they are considered classics.

The Watsons was an unfinished fragment and was published postumously along with the other two pieces in this book.  Emma Watson returns to her home and poor family, after living with her more well-off aunt, who has just passed away.  After attending a ball, she attracts the attention of the well-off Lord Osborne, as well as the ladies' man, Tom Musgrave.  However,  she finds herself attracted to the more modest, Mr. Howard.

I certainly understand now, why Austen was so respected.  She has a knack for describing the nuances of a person and a situation.  For example, though he is well-off, Lord Osborne is clumsy and insensitive with his remarks to the poor Watson family:
  'Ladies should ride in dirty weather. - Do you ride?'
  'No my lord'
  'I wonder every lady does not. - A woman never looks better than on horseback. -'
  'But every woman may not have the inclination, or the means.'
  'If they knew how much it became them, they would all have the inclination, and I fancy Miss Watson - when once they had the inclination, the means would soon follow.'
   'Your lordship thinks we always have our own way. - That is a point on which ladies and gentlemen have long disagreed. - But without pretending to decide it, I may say that there are some circumstances which even women cannot control. - Female economy will do a great deal my Lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one.'
  Lord Osborne was silenced. Her manner had been neither sententious nor sarcastic, but there was a something in its mild seriousness, as well as in the words themselves, which made his lordship think; - and when he addressed again, it was with a degree of considerate propriety, totally unlike the half-awkward, half-fearless style of his former remarks. - It was a new thing with him to wish to please a woman; it was the first time that he had ever felt what was due to a woman, in Emma's situation. - But as he wanted neither sense nor a good disposition, he did not feel it without effect. 
I also started to read a bit of Sandition, but did not find myself as interested in it as The Watsons.

I will note that with this particular edition, the introduction and notes were interesting and educational, providing the meta-context around the unpublished nature of the works, as well as providing historical context for the characters in the works and modern interpretation of some vocabulary/phrases.

The Inverted World : Christopher Priest

The Inverted World
By Christopher Priest

I liked this enough that I'll probably pick up more of Christopher Priest's works.

Helward Mann was born into a city that is governed by a guild whose purposes and actions are secret.  Helward joins the guild and along with the reader, slowly learns the the whats and the whys.

The good:

  • The question of whether the actions of the guild should remain secret is well-written and certainly remains quite relevant today with government actions.
  • Science and mathematics have a way of getting into mind-bending areas, challenging common sense and intuition.  Priest touches upon one of these areas - I mean, what other sci-fi book  depends on hyperbolas and mathematics for its explanation of oddness.
  • The slow reveal of information is very realistic in how people become very adamant about their beliefs.
  • Switches between 1st-person/3rd-person.  Not sure whether I should put this in the Good or a nit-pick.  The parts alternate between written in 1st person and 3rd-person  (Part 1 in 1st person, Part 2 was in 3rd person, Part 3 in 1st, etc). I understand the switch for Part 4, where it focuses on a different character, hence the need to switch to 3rd person, but Part 2, it was a little jarring and since we were still following Helward, struck me as a bit strange.
  • Part 1, where Helward joins the guild and partakes in his first mission (winching) was overly long.  I'm not sure if Priest was trying to really put the reader into Helward's shoes, where he gets lost into the minutia of his new job, but midway through the first part, I had questions that don't get addressed until well into Part 2.
  • The ending was a bit of a letdown.  With a flick of a switch, everything is back to the normal perspective.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Lifecycle of Software Objects : Ted Chiang

The Lifecycle of Software Objects
By Ted Chiang

I've really enjoyed all of Ted Chiang's short stories that I've read.  They've featured wonderful writing and well-thought out ideas and structures.

But I was not as much of a fan of this novel.  The novel is set in the near future, where software and hardware have matured the idea of Tamagotchi to a much fuller extent: people can have virtual pets, who have their own personality and intelligence.  They initially exist in the equivalent of MMORPG's, but later on can be downloaded to robot hardware, so also exist in the real world.

His prose is crisp as usual and clearly, Chiang knows his stuff about the software development process, which is referenced throughout the book.  However, my main issues are that:

  1. The setting is not that far-off.  AI creatures in video games now, while not as advanced as what Chiang has in the book, do exhibit behaviors that people interpret now as personalities.  There are pretty sophisticated robots being developed.  As a result, this reads pretty realisitically, almost like a magazine article covering people, who are into a particular niche, like MMORPG's.  Which isn't bad by itself, but combined with the following points:
  2. Surface exploration of the conflicts.  Chiang's asks a good (albeit not-new) question:  if we've developed AI that has consciousness and is self-aware and sentient, what rights does it have and how do we interact with it for its best interest?  But he just doesn't go deep enough into the two areas he does cover: should we educate the virtual beings?  Is it ethical to give virtual sexual desires to satisfy human sexual needs?   To go into this, Chiang really needed to plumb and elucidate the human psyche more: why do people have pets, what's the result of education of a bot, what goes into people's sexuality?  And he doesn't touch this at all.  As a result, the issues seem quite superficial.  Particularly, the sex one comes across as: Is it okay to use the bots as sex toys?
  3. Character development -  There really is none.  Which is much needed.  The story itself references that the main characters care about something niche (virtual pets), so insight into their personality would help the reader to understand the niche.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Valentine : Lucius Shepard

By Lucius Shepard

Really liked this.

The narrator, Russell, and his former lover, Kay, by coincidence, happen to stay in adjoining rooms in a hotel in a small town in Florida.  They get trapped by a hurricane and rekindle their relationship.

The narrator, is a writer and the story is a letter, a valentine of sorts, to his lover (addressed to as 'you').

Shepard uses mouthfuls, to describe the environment, the setting, the protagonist's lover and their love, with prose that is beautiful and lyrical.
   You were nibbling a slice of pineapple.  The breeze handled your hair, lifted the collar of your blouse, and your left hand was posed in a mudra against the lap of your tan slacks.  I had a sense I had caught you in a private mood, one I had not seen before, that perhaps no one had seen.  There was a calmness collected in your eyes, in the sculpture of your mouth, that seemed altogether unfamiliar, of such magnitude and concentration I didn't believe it would manifest if you were distracted by the presence of a companion.  It was though you had floated away from me, and I was spying on you from cover...I remembered watching a jaguar come down to drink at the margin of a jungle lake in Guatemala, watching a drunk young girl dancing by herself to a jukebox romance in a Guayaquil bar, and other glimpses of the kind, those sudden, secret observances that stay in our minds and somehow connect and sustain the rest of life, as if life were a fabric and they were pins it was stretched between.  It was like that watching you as I sipped my coffee, on the bench besides you, hidden from your sight.
The story is set within a span of a few days and the characters spend most of the time, making love, talking and occasionally going out to see the sights of the small town: mini-golf, etc.

Interestingly, towards the end, Shepard injects a sliver of doubt into the entire story and on the reliability of the narrator.  Is this entire valentine an elaborate love story that the narrator has created?  Or did this really happen and because it's a story of love, it has details that are one in a million odds?

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Blind Date : Jerzy Kosinski

Blind Date
By Jerzy Kosinski

When I was a kid, I went to a library book sale and picked up a couple of books from Frank Garrett's Killsquad series.  They focused on a group of military outlaws (kind of like the A-Team) except with passages of violence that tried to max out on the 80's action awesomeness extreme.  I still remember one sentence that went something like: He grabbed the guy's balls and crushed them into a fine powder, enjoying hearing him scream like a little girl.

I bring this up, not because Kosinski writes that hilariously awfully.  Kosinski actually has quite a succinct writing style and the novel is structured as a sequence of very very short episodes, which makes it  very easy to read.   However, the actual content comes across as awfully adolescent, in that Kosinski seems to want to cover a check-list of sexual taboo subjects:

  • Incest - The protagonist has a sexual relationship with his mother on page 9! 
  • Rape - As a young teen, the protagonist befriends a rapist and goes on, himself, to use his friend's techniques to rape a fellow summer camp girl he's been eyeing.
  • Racial stereotype of Asian submissiveness - A friend and the protagonist trick an Asian woman escorted a group of Asian politicos into being their sex slave for a few days
  • Prostitutes/Transexual - The protagonist gets into a relationship with a prostitute, only to find out the prostitute just an operation to remove his/her 'tumor'
On top of that, the protagonist is a sort of James Bond-like political crusader.  He creates and plants a bomb to kill a Prime Minister that tortures political scholars.  He sends a message / gets revenge on the powers that spied on and killed his world-class Olympian fencer friend, by tying up one of their members and sticking a sword up his butt.  Oh and he manages to be in the network with this very rich, powerful people.  

This also reminds me of Frey's Million Little Pieces, in that it made me wonder whether Kosinski was projecting all of the things he, himself, wanted to do onto this character.