Books of 2015, #51: “A Fire Upon the Deep”, Vernor Vinge

I’m a little bit behind. OK, a lot—I read this back at the end of September.


I don’t actually remember when I first read A Fire Upon the Deep; probably 20 years ago or so. I’ve read it three or four times since—maybe more—but it’s been a while since the last time.

It’s a better than average adventure story. It features a lot more alien aliens than most similar material, it doesn’t hinge on anyone being particularly stupid, and while there is, arguably, a deus ex machina, it’s virtually laid out as such on the first page, so I’m not sure it counts.

Still, I find its nominal prequel, A Deepness in the Sky to be superior.

These days, though, it mostly makes me remember Usenet, because the idea that any sort of interstellar network would end up looking like Usenet makes a lot of sense—bandwidth would be expensive and relatively scarce (not unlike the state of networking when Usenet was started), so messages aren’t going to be holograms and audio, but some sort of text-analogue.

As an aside, I had long forgotten that Usenet originally developed just up the road(s) as a way to link UNC Chapel Hill and Duke…until last year when I had the unexpected opportunity to meet Steve Bellovin at a conference my wife was attending in Berkeley, and his mention of his connection to UNC reminded me.

Anyway, I remember first reading Usenet using a spectacularly bad newsreader on an IBM mainframe in 1990 or so. It was an amazing revelation, really: while the web was non-existent, and the Internet was, generally, far far smaller then than it is now, Usenet was already sprawling. There were topics for everything. I suspect I hung out mostly in groups that were concerned with the Atari ST I had at the time, though I know at some point I downloaded the source to the last version of Conroy’s microEmacs, because I hacked on it some while I was still in school.

It was, in fact, around this point I stopped doing so much with Borland products—and gradually the Emacs keystrokes supplanted their WordStar equivalents in my muscle memory. These days, I have absolutely no memory of what they were.

I was on Usenet fairly often for about the next ten years; even after the Atari ST died and bought my first IBM PC, I was still quite involved—first in the ReXX and OS/2 communities, and then, before long, in the Perl and Linux communities.

I remember seeing dozens of copies of the “Green Card” spam, which is generally considered to be the first commercial spam, in 1994.

And then in 1999, I moved, got DSL, and no longer had easy access to any sort of Usenet server—I had been using the one provided by my dial-up ISP in Miami, but Verizon had no such setup. Sure, there were public NNTP servers of certain limited sorts, but the fact was it was becoming a less and less interesting place to be. So I stopped.

I’m sad to say that I think Usenet dying was always in the cards—I don’t see how it couldn’t have succumbed to the tragedy of the commons. There’s simply too many people for whom the value of the community cannot—especially when they’re not part of it—outweigh some potential personal benefit.

The problem, though, is that the alternative seems to be the commercial walled-garden model, so that the owner can fund policing it, and I don’t find that compelling—because to get any penetration, the service has to be “free”, but as they say, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.

While there have been several attempts to create federated systems that allow for personal, decentralized discussions and the like, none have really succeeded. And that’s sad. There is so much amazing stuff in the world, but it can be surprisingly hard to find.

We all had favorites, right? Right?

There’s an old Tom Waits quote (that I can’t seem to source) about the Chamberlin: “It’s a beautiful instrument that dies a little every time you play it.”

When I was growing up, vinyl had a special place in the house—because, like a Chamberlin, every time you played an album, you deformed the record groove just a little bit; whether from too much down-force on your stylus, or the uneven force applied to the inside and outside of the groove when using a fixed tone-arm, or dust or fibers getting in the way, not to mention the possibility of scratching it taking it out of the sleeve, or even a strong enough jolt near the record player causing it to skip.

I was taught at perhaps six to use the Discwasher D4 to clean each album before each use. There was an even more obscure process—I forget the name of the product—that was supposed to be done before the first time you played an album that supposedly protected it in some way I don’t understand at this point.

Anyway, all this ceremony around vinyl was almost a sideshow anyway, because the real principle was that you Didn’t Play The Vinyl. It’s like living off a trust fund, where you Don’t Touch The Capital.

No, vinyl was expensive source material, that you played only once, to record it onto cassette tape, which had the virtues of being both more portable and relatively easily replaceable.

Actually, you played the album twice: the first time watching and adjusting the level meters on the cassette deck to make sure that the peak loudness on the album went right up to, but did not exceed, the clipping point for the cassette.

You never used Dolby B, because that just made it sound like crap, and you didn’t use Dolby C because that was only on crazy high-end tape decks, and sounded like crap if your deck didn’t have it.

And you sure as hell never bought pre-recorded cassettes, because first, they probably used Dolby B on it (see above), and second, cassette tapes are actually a stupidly delicate medium—even more delicate than vinyl!—so why would you want your primary copy of something on a medium that you know from the get-go is going to die before long?

In college, I always looked down on my friends who obviously lacked the self-respect to not buy pre-recorded cassettes. Sorry guys; I got better. Mostly.

Anyway, all this is to say that I had neurotically intimate knowledge of blank cassette tapes in the early- to mid-80s. I obsessed over the purported difference in frequency response of various formulations of ferrous particles on the tape, while still paying attention to the aesthetics of the shells. I had preferences based on whose insert card I found was better at letting me write down what was on the tape, for crying out loud!

(Am I better now? No, not really.)

So imagine my simultaneous joy and horror at seeing this catalogue of blank cassette tapes show up on Boing Boing. Of going back and seeing the still-familiar-labels-30-years-later of my favorite cassette types (BASF, mostly—we were living in Germany during most of this, after all—with a turn toward TDK at some point). Of seeing some of the early Sony tapes that my Dad would send back from South Korea when he was stationed there in 1974/1975, and that I would thoughtlessly repurpose for music five or six years later.

And, ultimately, of realizing how much better off I am now.

Although I still carry around some of the neuroses—I rarely buy tracks digitally, really only when they offer FLAC as a source format, or maybe some situation where I truly only want to own a particular single, preferring to buy the CD and rip and encode it myself—I must also say that I cannot imagine where my 1000+ albums would live if they were on vinyl, and it would take a lot of cassette tapes to hold the 16K tracks on my somewhat hot-rodded circa-2007 iPod.

That is the size of a cassette tape.

Books of 2015, #50: “The Three-Body Problem”, Cixin Liu

I have a hard time articulating my reaction to this novel.

Something about this book evoked the late-90’s “Otherland” series by Tad Williams for me—I’m not entirely sure why, insofar as the narrative trope of having events in some virtual world paralleling and ramifying out into the outside world verges on hard to avoid these days, and that’s about all the connection I can make between them.

On the one hand, I found myself drawn in by the plot and intrigued by the way society seemed to influence characters’ outlooks and behavior in ways that felt very different from the norms to which I am accustomed. Interested enough that I intend to read the second book in the trilogy soon.

On the other hand, there is a particular quality to some of the characters—their desire to be subjugated, their almost nihilistic conviction that anything must be better than the slice of mankind they are familiar with—that fills me with this almost surreal revulsion.

I guess it’s a testament to the delivery in the text, but something about the behavior of some of the characters simply set me so on edge that I felt as if I were to ever actually meet one of these people, I would be driven to physically assault them—to somehow try to beat humanity back into them.

It was weird and disturbing, and I still don’t know where it came from. Even just thinking back on it is hard to process—I don’t remember ever having such a visceral reaction to a book.

Books of 2015, #49: “Make Me”, Lee Child

For about the last year, I’ve been trying to understand why I have taken the time to read all 20 books in the Jack Reacher series.

They’re competently plotted. The execution is fine. The characters—even the title character—aren’t usually all that deep, but Jack Reacher does have an interest in the trivial that appeals to me: it’s present in the first book, where he gets off a bus because he dimly remembers that the town it’s stopping in is where Blind Blake died, and it’s present here, where he gets off the train because he wonders about the origin of the name of the town in which it’s stopping.

Ultimately I suspect it’s my need to have words on a screen to read like a shark needs water to swim through, combined with a certain appreciation for the “Jack blows into town, stumbles on bad stuff, justice is done” plotting. I continue to enjoy superhero comics, after all.

But at the same time, as I alluded to in my review of The Deep in February, I find this genre to be a disturbing reflection of our society.

Probably the scene in The Wire where Bunk and Omar agree that “A man got to have a code” is the best known instance of that idea—it’s certainly the one that seemed to get referenced most when Sandor Clegane said the same thing in Game of Thrones—but one of John Wayne’s characters said roughly the same thing. It’s not a new thought.

What it is, though, is a reflection of a notion on masculinity—because you’ll notice that everyone who says it is inevitably male—that asserts a right to act in ways that are explicitly, egregiously, counter to any sense of respect for the law.

Sure, in most of the fictional instances, there’s always that sense put forth that the law is insufficient, or it is corrupt, or incompetent: that they only way to find true justice is through this extra-legal “code”.

But that’s a fucking frictionless slope.

Are we really going to pretend that these stories don’t help convince people that they only way they’ll get “justice” is to take it into their own hands? What if their idea of “justice” involves punishing people for rejecting them? Or simply punishing the world for their own sense of failure? Or seeking confrontation over some besmirching of their honor?

I’ve been in the back seat of a car when a friend of mine—incidentally, built a lot like Jack Reacher is described in the books (which is the very amusing opposite of Tom Cruise in the movie)—decided that someone in another car had been disrespectful to him, executed a quick turn and then floored it to catch up to him and…what?

I’m going to guess that involved the gun—that is still the only firearm I have ever held in my hands—that he had stashed under his front seat. Or perhaps it was just going to be a round of at least intimidation, or maybe actual force, to garner an apology.

Either way, redress for the imagined slight on his honor was something that his code demanded, and if there hadn’t been three of us to talk him down from his rage-high, who knows what might have happened.

It is certainly true, guns don’t kill people, people kill people—but we have created a society that tells itself stories constantly about how your only option is to fend for yourself, to take matters into your own hands, to “do what needs to be done”—and then we make it easy for things to go wrong by making guns easy to get.

Books of 2015, #44-48: The “Tiffany Aching” Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett

  • The Wee Free Men
  • A Hat Full of Sky
  • Wintersmith
  • I Shall Wear Midnight
  • The Shepherd’s Crown
I’m writing this on a laptop named ‘aching’. The routers in my house are ‘weatherwax’ and ‘vetinari’. My local server is ‘carrot’, and my prior laptop was ‘ogg’.

I have named cloud servers I manage after guitarists I admire, but my home machines are all Terry Pratchett characters.

I haven’t written any “book reports” in two months because the prospect of writing this one was too depressing—until reading his last book, I could always pretend that Terry Pratchett wasn’t gone, that the world wasn’t a poorer place for his absence.

Some time mid-to-late 1990, I did something rare and amazing: I stopped by a professor’s office. I don’t actually remember what the precipitating event was—I’m not even 100% sure what the class was, but odds are very good that it was Shakespeare—but as I was sitting there, my professor, Matthew Winston, pulled a copy of Sandman #19—”A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—from between some other books on his office’s capacious shelves, I assume in order to illustrate a point about Shakespeare’s continuing influence.

I picked up “A Season of Mists” #0 the next time I was in my local comic shop, and worked my way back a couple of issues—including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—but this was a series that was just beginning a run of dominance in the form, and older issues were starting to be priced beyond what I could justify at the time.

And then, one day that fall, I saw Neil Gaiman’s name on a book in the Waldenbooks in the mall—the best outlet for books we had in that impoverished time and place. That book was Good Omens.

From there I started picking up Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels—first, Mort, I think, then perhaps Wyrd Sisters. Pyramids was in there somewhere, Reaper Man, definitely Moving Pictures. Basically anything I could get my hands on…which, it’s funny to realize, wasn’t all that much—for the first ten years or more, Terry Pratchett had a US publishing deal that, for whatever reason, meant that the Discworld novels didn’t make it to the US for up to a year after their initial publication in the UK.

Understand: Terry Pratchett was the UK’s best-selling author of the 1990s. He was only unseated by someone you probably heard of: J.K. Rowling. But for half of that decade, you had to work surprisingly hard to buy his books here in the US.

I cannot understate my glee when, upon moving to Massachusetts in the late fall of 1992, I discovered that there was a most amazing bookstore near Harvard Square, Wordsworth (sadly long closed), that actually imported the UK editions. They were right there on the shelf.

Even more importantly, this seemed to coincide with Terry really figuring out his own voice; if you go back and read the earlier books, they’re not without some commentary on the real world, but they still read as mostly light-hearted—the characters a little lacking in bite, the scenarios a little light on consequence. Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards! start to hint at something more, but they never quite fulfill their promise.

And then there’s Witches Abroad and Small Gods.

The best way I can characterize the difference between them and the books that come before is that Terry Pratchett no longer worries about letting you see his anger. Moreso in Small Gods—a book that seethes—but Witches Abroad has some of it, certainly more than I remember in anything that preceeds it.

It’s an anger at all the ways that we, as humans, choose to do the wrong thing, for the wrong reasons—or even the right reasons. Or the ways in which we are simply thoughtless toward one another. The ways in which we sell one another and ourselves short. The ways in which we fail, and then fail all the harder by not trying.

From there, well, it’s not that there are no missteps—honestly, Rincewind was never my favorite character, so Interesting Times and The Last Continent aren’t my favorites—but I find the characters become more compelling. The best of them are fueled by the flaws in themselves of which they are all too aware. All of them acknowledge the relentless hamster-wheel that is rising above your basest desires—just how easy it would be to quit caring about others, about yourself, about anything.

And then, 12 years ago, he introduced Tiffany Aching.

I didn’t initially pick up the Tiffany Aching books, because they were characterized as Young Adult, and when the first one came out, well, no one knew how little time Terry had left. When the stream of books—which had often been two a year when I first started reading them, but had at least been a consistent one a year—suddenly dried up after Snuff in 2011, I decided to get my fix wherever I could.

I have to assume, at some level, that he felt there was nowhere futher to go with The Lancre Witches themselves—he hadn’t written anything with them since 1998—and so they become a backdrop for his new character. And to say I was inordinately pleased that Granny Weatherwax was present is an understatement. But that would have just been fan-service, if it weren’t for the fact that these books also presented something new: a portrait of a young girl learning—and as often as not, teaching herself—how to become a good, responsible, compassionate person.

They say that girls develop faster than boys—well, this is the ultimately more sophisticated sibling of Harry Potter. There is less adventure, there are few confrontations and even fewer battles. The focus in not on what happens, but why and how it reflects and ramifies out into character. In this respect, they remind me of Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander series, which will regularly spend pages and pages (let me be clear: delightful pages) on minute observations of life on extended sea voyages, and then a couple of pages on a major naval battle—the action is there just to make sure the characters don’t get bored.

And then Prospero drowns his books.

In the end, the only way to truly allow Tiffany Aching to stand as her own person was to allow her to succeed Granny Weatherwax, and the only way that could happen is if Granny Weatherwax is no longer there.

As a result, the first fifth? quarter? of The Shepherd’s Crown is an extended goodbye. Knowing, as we do, that this was his last book—and his editor includes a note in which he is quite clear that Terry wrote it entirely himself, but didn’t have as much time to refine and rewrite as he generally would have, which suggests that ultimately, he knew it was his last book—this is a punch in the gut.

But, ultimately, I would have expected nothing less. To live a life worth living will ultimately involve loss.

What ‘Internet K Hole’ does for me…

So if you haven’t browsed through Internet K Hole (Occasinally NSFW), and you are more or less of an age with me, you should seriously consider it.

More than anything, for me it has caused years of self-doubt to vanish in moments.

While I might have, at the time, regretted not being particularly cool—not investing heavily in any particular trend, not spending time trying to achieve some particular “look”—in retrospect, this seems like the sanest possible path.

Books of 2015, #43: Farthing, Jo Walton

I will always be grateful for Jo Walton, because it was her reread for of Patrick O’Brien’s “Master & Commander” series that finally got me to read them, and I enjoyed them immensely.

I read her Hugo-winning novel Among Others when it came out, and while I enjoyed many parts of it—it is, after all, a love letter to the genre of SF—it didn’t quite hit for me.

So I’m uncertain why I picked up her earlier novel Farthing, but I did, and I’m glad.

Imagine if Gosford Park (I was of course tempted to use Mr. Fellowes’ more recent and better-known work as a referent, but Gosford Park fits better) was set in an England that had successfully negotated peace with Nazi Germany. The murder is political, rather than personal, and British politics have become corrosively anti-Semitic and anti-Communist, while keeping the same streak of homophobia that led to Alan Turing’s demise, and the class system remains ever the same.

The whodunit is really secondary—the interesting bits are the characters, and the way they co-opt or chafe against the milieu in which they are force to exist. Against my expectation, it worked quite well.

Books of 2015, #42: The Book of Speculation, Erika Swyler

Two books in one year with “of Speculation” in the title. Weird.

Remember what I said about not quite buying the fated aspects of Rose Red and Snow White’s relationship when talking about Fables? I have the same sort of reaction to this novel.

The prose is lovely, the atmosphere is interestingly off-kilter, the central narrative conceit—a narrative of the lives of two late 18th century carnival performers and their early 21st century descendent—is interestingly done…and yet the central action seems set up to make a lie of the title; there’s no speculation here. It’s ultimately all about fate, and even the defeat of the heavy hand of fate ultimately leaves me cold.

I wanted to like this much more than I actually did.

Books of 2015, #40-41: Stay & Always, Nicola Griffith

A consistent—and in most cases spot-on—criticism of comic books is that Nothing Ever Really Changes. Characters of any significance have too much economic value to risk alienating their audience by having them change signifcantly. More ambitious authors may make some changes, but when they move on, the narrative always seems to muddle its way back to the status quo.

Thus Wolverine, having “died” near the end of 2015 will almost certainly be back, no matter Joe Quesada’s assertions of “Dead is Dead”; in fact, by any strict interpretation he’s already back, insofar as there’s a…nah, I don’t want to get into that.

In many ways, this is the same for Lee Childs’ “Jack Reacher” novels; they jump forward and back in relationship to one another, and his circumstances may be different in some ways, but by the end of the novel, he’s generally back to the same situation he started in. He certainly hasn’t changed or grown as a character—still an amoral, violent, near super-human instrument of retribution.

One day before long I will re-read Patrick O’Brien’s “Master & Commander” series, and I wonder if I will find that they break out of this pattern of long-running series’, or not.

Aud Torvingen, on the other hand, changes.

In fact, the two sequels to The Blue Place show a character who is broken and isolated and decides to heal and engage. Not always well—sometimes with an excruciating level of obliviousness—but motivated.

As whatever-sort-of-novels-these-are, they seem to work well enough: character is injected into extraordinary events in others lives, takes action, occasionally fucks up, eventually resolves problems. The difference is that you can see how the events act on the character, not just the other way around.

It’s an interesting strategy.

Books of 2015, #39: Fables, Bill Willingham & Mark Buckingham & others

My first actual memory of Bill Willingham dates back his work with TSR—1982 or so for me, I think; Wikipedia has the evidence, as usual. I liked his style, and his signature was distinctive enough that I kept noticing it in the intervening time.

I remember reading at some point the Green Lantern Corps story he did with Alan Moore; perhaps in 1987 when it first came out.

And then as far as I was concerned, he disappeared. It doesn’t hurt that for the period between 1996, when Sandman ended, and 2003, when The Sandman: Endless Nights was published, I didn’t set foot in a comic shop.

But when I did, Willingham had just recently started Fables, and it was recommended to me, along with Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man. Y finished up long ago, and BKV drifted away from comics for a while, before coming back strong with Saga, which is definitely superior fare.

Fables, though, finished up last month, with a thoroughly deluxe-sized issue #150. Being who I am, I started from the beginning, and read it through in its entirety, along with the various additional books associated with the main series, the Cinderella minis, and Fairest. I did not re-read Jack of Fables because it annoyed the piss out of me the first time around.

I think it’s only because my first issue was Fables: The Last Castle that I kept with it. If I had been there at the very beginning; well, let’s just say that the first trade’s worth of issues are not as strong as you might like, or even as you might remember them. It’s definitely a rocky start.

Animal Farm is much stronger, in part because of the arrival of Mark Buckingham. Intending no slight to Lan Medina who was there at the start, or the other artists who drew this universe at various points, I think Buckingham’s slightly more cartoon-y take on things work better than artists who play it straighter.

It can be easy to forget how for the first few years, Fables moved fast. Boy Blue starts his journey to the homelands at the 3 year mark. The war with The Adversary starts 3 years after that…and then things start to stumble, in my view.

Oh, how “The Great Fables Crossover” destroyed the momentum of Fables with a mediocre story in the service of the infinitely inferior Jack of Fables. Re-reading it all in one gulp, I was amazed at the magnitude of what a misstep it was.

Once it’s over, things do eventually get back on track, but it’s never quite the same. The momentum seems to have dissippated, and storylines seem more apt to spin their wheels. Not in a huge way, but there’s a few arcs that seem like they could have been cut a little bit shorter (Witches, Rose Red, Super Team) to keep things moving. I mean, the book takes two and a half years, all told, to deal with Mr. Dark and the resolution there ends up feeling awfully Deus Ex Machina.

As soon as Mr. Dark is disposed of, the Cubs’ storylines—while bleak in many ways–are nonetheless compelling, and Bufkin and Lily as the backup story helps balance out the gloom of the main story; sweet without being saccharine.

And then…I dunno. It still feels like the last three years wandered pretty far afield. I remember reading it as it came out in single issues, and feeling like I didn’t understand where it was going. In hindsight, you can see how a lot of it was setup leading to the end, but as the production schedule seemed to get more erratic, it got harder to hold the thread. Perhaps in a couple of years I’ll re-read it all and it will seem to hold together better.

Which brings us to the end.

Actually, it brings us to the penultimate issue—whose content I flat-out didn’t remember because of the enormous gap between it and the last issue, and the aforementioned wandering quality to what came before—which ended up feeling gut-wrenching: the sudden deaths of Ozma and Beast startled me in a way they hadn’t the first time around.

Did the end succeed, though? Mostly.

I agree that the resolution to the Snow White & Rose Red situation “worked” within the framework that had been set for it—but it’s predicated on you buying Rose Red’s storyline leading up to the conflict, and I didn’t, entirely. Perhaps in time, and with re-reading, I’ll be able to perceive the build-up better, and it’ll seem more natural. But as I finished the book, I wasn’t fully invested in the end.

I did love some of the “Last story of X” vignettes. Prince Charming, Beauty and her daughter, the Cubs.

I was disappointed with the revelation of the Fables to the Mundy. There’s just no way you can spin that outcome that I am likely to enjoy. Oh, well.

Anyway, it took a while, and I am not entirely without complaint, but Fables was worthy of my time, from beginning to end. Perhaps it will be worthy of yours as well.

Well, I had no idea…

The other day, on a lark, I picked up a copy of David Lee Roth’s Crazy from the Heat, which I first bought on vinyl Holy! Fuck! 30 years ago.


Anyway, the bit that I had thought most surprising until just now was the roster of backing musicians: Wikipedia has the run-down, of course.

To be clear, it’s not so much the calibre of people who are involved, which is unsurprising—given that DLR was, at that point, an incredibly high-profile rock-and-roller—it’s who.

Specifically: Edgar Winter.

I mean, yeah, Sid McGinnis and Willie Weeks, and these-days-composer James Newton Howard (whose bio as a performer I wasn’t familiar with, and is its own interesting story), and Carl Wilson and Christopher Cross as backing vocalists on “California Girls” are all interesting people to have show up, but at least the first three were primarily studio sidemen.

Edgar Winter, though. The only thing that surprises me more than his presence at all is, shall we say, the distance between “Frankenstein” and “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody”.

Books of 2015, #38: The Cartel, Don Winslow

I am given to understand that this is a big book; I don’t actually know, because it’s the same size as all my other books, because I have more or less given up on reading things printed on paper.

It certainly didn’t feel like a big book, because I zipped through it in, I think, three days—it was more or less impossible to put down.

Its compelling nature is surpassed only by its depressing nature, because this book is bleak as fuck. While not quite an “everybody dies” narrative, it comes pretty damned close (though I’m willing to guess that you’d be surprised by some of the handful of characters who make it out the other side, you will be saddened by many of the ones that don’t).

I think it cements my feeling that David Simon has it correct: if you really want to know what started our society on this careening path of horribleness that we seem to be Hell-bent on pursuing to its end—where incidences of police killing civilians (particularly those of color) occur with distressing frequency, where even the rights and freedoms of even the upper (largely white) classes are abridged as a matter of course by programs of surveillance and law-enforcement overreach, where you have to take off your shoes to fly on an airplane—it’s hard to argue against the War On Drugs as being a significant factor.

I mean, we have a natural experiment at our fingertips: simply consider, today, how many people enrich themselves through the illegal sale of alcohol?

Virtually none, and although the jokes about the questionable behavior of large corporations that are heavy-hitters in that arena write themselves, I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that no one’s doing so in any big, organized way.

When alcohol was forbidden during Prohibition, though, that drove up incidents of domestic terrorism, fostered a culture of pervasive official corruption both politicians and police, inured people to the idea of criminality by making illegal what had long been perfectly acceptable behavior, and generally fucked things up until we came to our senses.

And now we’ve got the War on Drugs—recapitulating all these issues, without even having gone through the process of ratification; simply declared because…well, it’s an interesting question. Presumably nothing so silly as Nixon being pissed off at the Hippies, but you never know.

Anyway, read this novel—so much of which is rooted in and resembles actual events in Mexico—and you have to wonder if there’s any possible way that it could be worth it.

Books of 2015, #37: The Annihilation Score, Charlie Stross

So, the latest of the Laundry Files novels.

The Annihilation Score is certainly of a piece with the others, though it does distinguish itself by having a different narrator— which is, as you could probably infer from my comments regarding the prior books of the series, a fine change in my view.

I think Stross’ recent observation on his blog of the need to move beyond the starting templates he worked with for the first few books—Linux, bureacracy and otherworldly horror—is well taken, and I’m interested to see where things go, but I do not feel immediate warmth toward this installment.

Whether its intended (and it might be, as it is certainly an aspect of its super-hero source material) or not, the narrative’s pace feels…weird. Although we’re told otherwise, it feels like it takes place in its entirety in maybe a week—big things seem built up and then torn down at absurdly superhuman speed. I mean, it’s good to have a narrative that moves, but the pace here is so fast that everything felt somehow…inconsequential.

In terms of the overall narrative arc, some things change, and they’re not insignificant, but it doesn’t feel like it advances that much. Which may be perfectly OK—we are given to understand that CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is truly starting to ramp up, and it feels like things are going to keep getting stranger before they start getting outright bad. Again, perhaps this is intended to reflect the source material, where you can have a character exist for 50 years without those years ever catching up to them.

I also wonder, given his well-documented problem with tapping into the zeitgeist so thoroughly that others pull the same idea out of the air while he’s in the middle of a book, I do wonder whether he already planned to reference The King in Yellow, or his only-barely oblique reference to True Detective is meant to indicate that that’s why he made the choice.

I dunno; in the end, I would probably put this relatively low on my list for this series. I wonder though whether it’ll stay there—I suspect it will depend somewhat on what happens next; I like many thing about the book, but it is clearly a transitional book, arguably following another transitional book (The Rhesus Chart does some big things to the status quo); if they’re resolved next go ’round, perhaps this book will rise in my estimation.

Books of 2015, #32-36+: The “Laundry Files” novels, Charlie Stross

  • The Atrocity Archive
  • The Jennifer Morgue
  • The Fuller Memorandum
  • The Apocolypse Codex
  • The Rhesus Chart
  • Short Stories/Novellas: Down on the Farm, Overtime, Equoid

I think it had been pointed out to me before, but for the first time I seemed to notice for myself—while being utterly unsurprised—that, in a series of books that mix Technical Neepery–specifically of the Linux variety—Bureaucracy, Lovecraft and Espionage, the initials of the main character’s Nom de Sysadmin are BOFH.

Anyway, this re-reading was all lead in to the new release, The Annihilation Score.

Having not previously read all of these books in quick succession like this, I must say, I was ecstatic to have new narrator for the latest installment, because, taken in a big gulp, one becomes painfully aware of all the verbal tics of the narrator that make annoyingly consistent appearances in the prior installments.

I realize that at least some of it—the endless callbacks to the nature of pure mathematics relationship to magic, the origin of the Laundry, etc.—is intended to let people start in the middle of the series without being totally lost, but I’m not convinced that that is necessary or beneficial to restate so many things almost verbatim—I’ll point to Steven Brust’s Taltos novels as an example that does not display this behavior—or at least not quite so baldly.

I still enjoy them, but I will have to remember to pace myself should I ever undertake a front-to-back re-read again.

Anyway, I would say that the low point for me is definitely The Jennifer Morgue; the Bond referentiality just doesn’t quite work for me. The Fuller Memorandum and The Apocalypse Codex are probably the best of the list, with everything else occupying a still-enjoyable middle ground.

Books of 2015, #31: The Blue Place, Nicola Griffith

I guess this falls in the same basic genre as Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels, though I’m not 100% certain what that genre is: Crime Fiction? Thriller? Vigilantism?

Regardless, having plowed through Child’s oeuvre last year—and it being the only real example of the genre I’ve read—I cannot help but make comparisons between Aud Torvingen and Jack Reacher.

Both have that air of almost-super-human competence coupled with extraordinary physical conditioning and a capacity to absorb punishment. Both have a companionable attitude toward violence. Both are situated so that there are few long-lasting consequences to their actions; Reacher by being rootless and drifting, Torvingen by being independently wealthy.

The difference, I would say, is that as would seem to befit a male character in this category, Reacher is effectively amoral. He is less a character than a force of nature. He does what he does, with little consideration for other human beings, positive or negative—if he aids someone it is because it pleases him, not because of any particular notion of right or wrong.

Torvingen, on the other hand, gets involved. Things become personal. Is it a cliche that a woman would become attached? Perhaps—I guess it will depend on how it ramifies out through the two following novels whether it ends up seeming necessary.

The prose is generally well done, but it is a first-person narrative, and there are very few authors who can pull off such a thing without annoying me at some point or other—and Griffith isn’t one of those, at least not in this book. If absolutely nothing else the sex in the novel—whether necessary or not—reads just as eye-rollingly overdone as any Reacher novel: it is, almost by definition, somewhere the narrator inevitably ends up telling rather than showing. I don’t know what’s going on in your head when you’re having sex, but I hope for your sake it’s not narrative.

I guess, in the end, it was good enough that I’ll stick around for the next two, to see where it goes, but if I were a less compulsive reader, I might just say this was enough.

Books of 2015, #30: The End of All Things, John Scalzi

So, John Scalzi and Tor decided to once again serialize his latest Old Man’s War novel—as they did for The Human Division a couple of years ago—though into rather fewer installments this time; 4 versus 13. So I really started four weeks ago, and just finished this past Tuesday.

As you might expect given that I re-read the entire series in the run-up to the release of this new book, I find them enjoyable.

They’re light, but not necessarily fluffy: some of the questions the narrative asks are not easy questions, and some of the answers that some of the characters give may take a form that surprises you, even if the general thrust of those answers is entirely expected

Some minor characters take some unexpected turns…and there’s one moment that just didn’t work for me. At all. Not because it was beyond the realm of possibility, or out of character, but because it seems to me to require blinders on a lot of characters to succeed. My suspension of disbelief goes far, but not that far.

Still, all’s well that ends well, and I think this dials back the conflict that has been central to the last four books in the series, such that the next book—for one has been promised—can focus on other things. It will be welcome.

I’ve started another novel, but now I’m wondering if I need to re-read The Laundry Files series in anticipation of the release of The Annihilation Score next Tuesday…

Books of 2015, #29: Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell

The truth is, I didn’t know a damned thing about Hawaii’s history other than the fact that it was “discovered” by Captain Cook, and it was made a state in the same year my wife was born.

I was, in some ways, happier not knowing anything more than that—since to know more than that is to have to once again face the realization that the United States of America is not Reagan’s “shining city on a hill”, so much as (pardon the mixing of metaphors) a fucking lighthouse warning people away from the headlands of that famous road to Hell. You know, the one paved in good intentions?

80 years, roughly—that’s how long it took for Protestant missionaries and their avaricious children to steal a country away from its people, all the while telling everyone that they were doing it for their own good.

And make no mistake: it was stolen. At the time of the first Treaty of Annexation, the majority of citizens were documented as rejecting it. God love ’em, the Democrats at the time defeated it…though only because they were bigots worried about the possibility of enfranchising inferior races. Sometimes if feels like we are conceptually incapable of doing the right thing for the right reasons.

So it became a territory under the table, in a joint resolution that should never have been binding—Hell, I’m almost surprised the Republican party didn’t take up the cause of reversing Hawaii’s statehood as illegal and a grave injustice done to a soveriegn people, as a real way to claim President Obama wasn’t a citizen.

Of course, that was only the final act in a multi-decade con in which supposedly God-fearing New Englanders systematically manipulated the rulers of a relatively isolated and unworldly kingdom for their own venal ends; although from this modern perspective—and, admittedly, with the aid of someone building a narrative on it—you can see them telegraph every move, I have to imagine that it unfolded in real time much more bewilderingly for the ruling family.

I thought the reward for a good life for Christians was supposed to be the Kingdom of Heaven, not the Kingdom of Hawaii. Feh.

Books of 2015, #28: Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, Josh Karp

There is plenty of interesting information and history here, but in the end I didn’t quite find it compelling—hence (as I alluded to in the last entry) taking five days to read five other books in the middle.

I think part of it is that there is some definite fat that could have been removed—there’s a few anecdotes repeated almost verbatim, and there’s a lot of repeated verbiage that could easily have been cut.

But I’ve ready plenty of books that could have been tightened up without it feeling like quite such a slog.

I think a lot of it is a combination the verging-on-hagiographic tone, where everyone involved clearly and undeniably thinks that Orson is a stone-cold genius who is doing things that have never been conceived of, much less executed, in cinema before. And the constant observations about how his abilities are so incredibly advanced, no one else can see where he’s going with some technique until he gets there and suddenly it is revealed as cimenatic genius that will change the face of cinema once others see it.

Maybe he is—I am not really a cinephile, I don’t have much of an opinion one way or another.

What I can tell you is that he seems like a self-sabotaging fuckup—Someone who doesn’t have the discipline to create the structure he needs in order to do what they want to do; based on some of the things in the book, it sounds like Citizen Kane only got made because of Welles’ partnership with John Houseman, which he then promptly burned to the ground.

And I’ve got little interest in reading about fuckups, brilliant or not.

Books of 2015, #23-27: The “Old Man’s War” novels, John Scalzi

I was travelling last week (to Berkeley then Sonoma, and yes it was very nice except my first ever time in Oakland saw the rental car’s passenger window get smashed while the car was parked in broad daylight on a major thoroughfare in front of the coffee shop in which Anne and I were having coffee) and I was a little bored with the book I had started—which I have subsequently finished and will be #28—and the first of four new novellas in the “Old Man’s War” series was to be released on what was then the next—but is now this past Tuesday—so I decided to indulge in a little lightning re-read to prepare myself.

My relationship with the military is not entirely usual, in that I never served, but for as long as I can remember, my father was in the USAF, so I had a lot of contact with it growing up.

Even while knowing it wasn’t for me—I am probably not meant for an organization where shouting at your superiors might get you thrown in jail or shot—I have a lot of respect for it as a calling, and I am as clear as I think a lifelong civilian could be about the sacrifices that it involves…which is, I think, a large part of why I look with utter, complete disdain for people who gin up talk about military solutions to world problems (e.g. Republicans).

At the same time, I could also write a long apologia for Starship Troopers, which I don’t actually regard as a particularly militaristic novel—I think it’s far more interesting in its views on the necessity of participation in a civil society. But as much as anything, I suspect that viewpoint is grounded in my exposure in my youth to the actual military.

Which obviously brings us to Old Man’s War and its follow-ons.

Scalzi is a contemporary, and I think that’s a large part of why his writing feels very natural to me—we speak in a similar vocabulary of layers of irony and snark over often heartfelt convictions. If it’s easy to read, it’s also fairly economical—unlike, say, Neal Stephenson, I can blow through a whole novel in a few hours, no problem.

I will say that on this time through, I did notice more places than I remembered where certain phrases clanged—not that they were wrong per se, just that they felt awkward, or that there might have been a better word.

Regardless, all five novels are entertaining, and if there’s occasionally a certain breeziness to them, well, I’m not going to complain—I expect Scalzi to deliver something that has an entertaining diversity characters and a good story; if I want something heavier, I know where to look.

Books of 2015, #22: Seveneves, Neal Stephenson

The first two thirds of this book—the near-future bits—feel incredibly fast-paced, which always feels surprising in Stephenson’s novels since, as one reviewer put it, he does seem in love with describing things.

The book that that first two thirds reminded me of was Larry Niven &
Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer, which is perhaps not entirely surprising—it’s a late 70’s disaster novel involving a comet that hits the Earth and the scrambling of various people to survive and even rebuild society. Seveneves is that writ somewhat larger, since it takes the human population and reduces it to a couple of thousand, and it’s from nearly forty years later on, which means it actually gives a lot of women actual agency, even as it recognizes that they need to make lots of babies to restart the human race.

Also (SPOILERS!) they both have cannibals.

The last third does drag a bit; the story is interesting enough—it had some distinct surprises for me at least, though it doesn’t hold a candle to the first two thirds—but yeah, I started to glaze over at the pages and pages of description. It is the “John Galt’s Speech” of descriptions of orbital habitats and the like: even the first time you read it, you only skim it.

Whether you will enjoy this will probably come down to whether you like any of Neal Stephenson’s books at all: if you do, you should certainly enjoy the first two thirds. If, on the other hand, you actually enjoyed Anathem, you might well enjoy the last third as well. Otherwise consider simply stopping when you get to the “Five Thousand Years Later” bit and reading a synopsis elsewhere.

Books of 2015, #21: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande

This was actually been book #20. Or maybe book #19. I let myself get behind on writing these entries, and thus they have ended up out of order.

I remember reading, several years ago, the New Yorker article on Geriatric Medicine that serves as the basis for an early chapter in this book. I remember it in part because it started to transform my yoga practice.

I have now spent many years learning to do ridiculous circus tricks—and don’t get me wrong, I still adore them; when I had hernia surgery a couple of years ago, and a bunch of them were no longer accessible, I started marking time until the day that I was able to do them again. It took a couple of years, but I’m once again able to do all the same silly stuff as before.

After reading that article, though—and while still working on my stunt yoga—I started thinking more about how I could use the practice to help me cultivate strength, mobility and balance thirty years from now. I’m a lot more aware of when I’m starting to push beyond where my body is realistically capable of going—it’s not to say that I stop, but that I try to approach such things more slowly, because even at this point in my life, injuries will take longer to heal, and chronic conditions can start to take hold more easily.

Because what that article convinced me of, and this book reinforced, is that a large part of my quality of life later in life is going to be grounded in my physical capacity; the longer I can be independent and mobile, the longer I feel like I’m able to actually participate in my life, the happier I will be.

So take the time to keep yourself healthy. Work on your posture and your physical mobility. Start creating habits now, because it’s only going to get harder.

The other thing that he emphasizes is cultivating a awareness of what things make life worth living for you.

Certainly nothing is perfectly predictable, but odds are that at some point, you will face a choice: do something that may extend your life for some period of time—maybe months or even years—but that will turn your life upside down: it may severely curtail your ability to do certain things, or it may demand certain up-front sacrifices or what have you.

If you’re lucky, whatever you’re being asked to sacrifice won’t be terribly important to you, and you can easily choose. But more likely, your choice will be harder, and you will have to weigh your options carefully. And the medical professionals you’ll be working with are as human as anyone: they don’t want to tell you bad news. They suck just as badly at taking a hard look at the numbers and saying that, really, your chances are crap.

Your only truly useful guide is what matters to you. If your idea of a good day is to sit in the sun in the window and while away the time reading books and listening to music, then maybe a procedure that radically curtails your mobility is a reasonable thing (as long as you have a place to live that will actually support you in doing these things).

If, on the other hand, you’re a supremely active person, and you’re faced with a treatment that might eke out six more months of life, at the cost of spending that time sick to the point of immobility, maybe you should skip it. Do what you makes you feel whole and damned if you might not actually live longer, too.

Hell, you could do worse whether you’re facing down old age or illness or you’re young and healthy.

Anyway, I can’t recommend this book enough. Mortality is an uncomfortable subject for most of us, but it’s one we’re gonna have to face sooner or later. Start preparing in little ways now, and it can all be easier later.

Books of 2015, #20: Radio On: A Listener’s Diary, Sarah Vowell

The Wordy Shipmates was a book I enjoyed immensely, as was Assassination Vacation. The piece that Sarah Vowell did on This American Life regarding the “victory lap” Lafayette’s did of the US 50 years after the revolution—that is presumably the basis for her new book coming out in October—moved me to tears. She’s always a fun guest on The Daily Show.

Radio On was a bit of a slog, though not without points of interest.

I think it’s because so much of it just sounded…irritable. Annoyed. Even when the annoyance is understandable, it doesn’t necessarily make for fun reading—and I don’t really care enough about radio to necessarily even find her annoyance understandable, so at times it just grates.

Still, this book is an interesting time capsule for a number of reasons.

I guess the most significant is that towards the end, Sarah is there around the creation of This American Life.

But long before that—happening before the start of the book, and hovering over it like, well, a ghost—is the suicide of Kurt Cobain the year before; an event that I also felt pretty acutely. I can remember quite clearly staying up all night watching MTV for news about it. It was, coincidentally, the first time I saw the video for Nine Inch Nails’ Closer, because MTV would even only show the blurred-out version late, late at night.

The other thread of events that run through the whole book that I remember clearly is the fallout from the midterm elections in 1994—Newt Gingrich and the “Contract for America”, and the government shutdown, etc. It was annoying to see the same sort of crap play out last year.

Plenty of other people and things pop up that I wouldn’t have known then that I know now. David Sedaris is mentioned. The Internet, or at least the World Wide Web, is a very new thing, and there’s a couple of passages that effectively presage blogging, which is incredibly amusing in hindsight.

I dunno if I can really recommend it. It’s not bad, but it’s also not a strong narrative; it’s a diary, and it shows.

Books of 2015, #19: The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin, Elio Garcia, Linda Antonsson

I think you have to be a very particular kind of person to think reading something that’s fundamentally intended as a reference book can be edifying.

I picked this up on a lark—I have, in the past, read and even enjoyed reference works on other sprawling fictonal worlds (I’m thinking Middle Earth and the universe of Dune here), why not this one?

It took me a couple of sprints—both associated with trips that involved medium-ish flights and occasional bits of downtime to fill—but I finished it. That doesn’t really say much, though: I can still count the number of books that (as an adult) I’ve started but not finished without taking my shoes off.

I guess what it comes down to is that while I am still that person—after all, I am not accosting you with all of the damned technical books and papers I read (often repeatedly) at a rate of roughly 1:1 (or maybe a little higher) with mainstream fiction and non-fiction—I don’t care enough about this world to enjoy wading through a book like this.

It’s not that it’s bad—and many of the pictures are very pretty indeed—it’s just that I was bored out of my skull.

And yet I finished it anyway. What does that say about me?

Books of 2015, #18: The Affinities, Robert Charles Wilson

First, a side note: I am always a little bit surprised at the consistency of Robert Charles Wilson’s authorial voice.

Most authors find consistent voices at the cost of being idiosyncratic, or put more kindly, “instantly recognizable”.

On the other hand, Robert Charles Wilson voice is so neutral it disappears…and yet, of his novels that I’ve read, I couldn’t tell you with certainty which were written in the first person and which were written in the third—in memory they feel far more similar than they could ever be different.

I suppose much of it comes from the fact that his narratives are generally about witnesses—whether a first-person recollection (as The Affinities is), or third-person centered around a main character or characters who are involved but not prime movers in great events (as in Burning Paradise), they are more about how the characters are changed by the world and less about how they change the world.

And yet, their actions have consequences.

I read a review of The Affinities just before it came out that left me with lowered expectations; and yet, it was wrong. Although I understand that the book probably isn’t for everyone, I find it an interesting meditation on what it means to belong to a group, and what it means to identify completely with such a group, and what it means to a society when people no longer identify as part of the larger polity.

I suspect that some will find the subject uninteresting, but I believe the question of our investment in the greater society in which we exist is an important one. It’s not too much to say that the U.S. has come to its current political impasse precisely because people no longer think of themselves as part of anything other than the tribe they happen to have chosen.

Not that this is a “message” story—really it’s just a story of families, and what you do when your family rejects you, or you reject it—but if science fiction is defined by using the idea of something that isn’t in order to sharpen and refine our view of what is, I think this novel has to be called SF even when there’s nothing very outre happening.

Books of 2015, #17: Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice

If you want to know how much the internet has changed things, simply consider that until last week—when I looked this novel up on Wikipedia, while re-reading it for the first time in two decades—I had no idea that Claudia was in part inspired by Rice’s own daughter, Michele, who died of leukemia at age 6.

There were certainly avenues through which that information was available, but they were fewer and much more dispersed. It was an interesting moment of contrast.

As for the book….

The text is a little more florid than I remember, but not so much that I got annoyed at a textual level—there were passages that I certainly skimmed through, but there’s no John Galt radio addresses or anything. Being a first-person narrative, there is a certain tell-don’t-show quality that can get tiresome, but I also don’t know how else it could have been written—it is ultimately a monologue of someone’s experience.

When I last read it, I was in my early 20s. At the time, I remember it mostly as scene setting for the much more dynamic books that followed it. This time…Louis is certainly more interesting. The question of our place in the universe is that consumes him resonates more for me. His initial desire to use his immortality to try and be a more perfect mortal—the way he is entranced with the natural world around him—is, in a way, more surprising, because now I feel I can understand it better.

So I probably found it of more value than the last time I read it, but ultimately, it’s kind of unsatisfying. It’s not that it lacks substance or potential, but it’s like a fine steak awash in too much of some sort of hideous cream sauce that succeeds in hiding, rather than enhancing, its flavor. It has a wonky sense of time’s passage, and while its relative floridity didn’t clang and annoy, it does mean that probably 10% of the words in the book could be left out while simultaneously enhancing the quality of the text.

I guess in the end, the single most damning statement I can probably make is that despite my slightly OCD tendencies when it comes to book series—if I start at one end, I generally find myself making it to the other—I don’t have any intention to pick up The Vampire Lestat or anything else for that matter. I don’t feel any excitement, just a sense that it would eventually turn into a slog.

Of course, now I have to figure out WTF to read…

Books of 2015, #16: Without You There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, Suki Kim

This was a Daily Show pickup. Totalitarian regimes have always fascinated me—too much reading about the Russian Revolution while acquiring my Political Science degree, I guess.

The setup is simple: Korean-American woman talks her way into the faculty of a college set up and run in North Korea by an Evangelical church in order to (covertly) observe and report. After roughly 9 months—a summer term and a fall term—she can’t take it any more.

I have observed that many people I know who lived through abusive childhoods have a sometimes slippery relationship with truth. Not so much about objective facts—though sometimes that’s an issue—but more about their relationship with the world and how they feel. I assume it’s a habit deeply ingrained, from a time when they needed to present a certain impression even as their lives were full of abuse.

Imagine a whole country that is driven relentlessly to that sort of behavior—that is so xenophobic and isolated that it can almost, but not quite, be made to work; so the mask slips only occasionally.

The book is well written, and absolutely bleak as fuck. There is not a smidgen of suggestion that things are going to get better any time soon. I appreciate the honesty and forthrightness that represents, but it doesn’t make for happy reading.

Books of 2015, #15: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I would be just as happy if you didn’t go searching for some of my earliest public emails. I know they’re out there, and while I’m sure many of them are fine, I also have clear, visceral memories of being embroiled in any number of flame wars. I’m not even going to try to suggest that I didn’t know better at the time—I did, and I’m not proud of my behavior, and I try to do better today. And still sometimes I fail.

Ultimately, though, those were arguments on technical mailing lists, with at least a genesis in technical questions: whatever I dished out, I got right back, and it was all, ultimately, retail abuse.

What Jon Ronson chronicles in his book—the fascination with destroying people that social media platorms seem to be enabling, with the spectacular lack of empathy that demonstrated by those involved, and the enormous destructive potential it presents—is strictly wholesale.

As others have said—and I can’t find a specific source on Google—we should not be defined by the worst thing we ever did. Especially if the worst thing we ever did was to, say, make a joke (crude, dumb, perhaps insensitive, but not aimed at anyone) to a friend. But there are people whose lives the denizens of social media have chosen to destroy who are guilty of nothing more than that.

Is this really the civilization we’re creating?

Books of 2015, #14: A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment by Scott Carney

In April, 2012, Ian Thorson died near the site of an ongoing three year Buddhist retreat in Arizona. His wife, until recently the leader of the retreat, watched as he became more and more ill, waiting until too late to call for help.

I caught part of an interview with the author on NPR a week ago, and i had to pick up this book, because…well, I wanted to find out if the author had an explanation for how people who belong to organizations like the one Ian Thorson belonged to, end up giving up their autonomy so completely as to die for their belief.

I should probably back up.

For most of a decade, I studied extensively in a school of yoga called Anusara. I took thousands of hours of classes, went to weekend workshops and weeklong trainings around the country—I had an extensive network of people I was acquainted with as a consequence, all across the US and even in Europe and Asia.

Anusara Yoga was founded by John Friend in 1997, and became well known in the overall yoga community, though, I should say, not always entirely positively—there are rivalries even in the yoga community, and Anusara was making a big name for itself, and some thought it was doing so by inappropriate means. Regardless, Anusara teachers were responsible for things like some of the large yoga in Central Park events, and were early players in the Wanderlust festivals and the like. John Friend was featured in the Planet Yoga feature in Vanity Fair in 2007, profiled in other venues, and so forth.

I never spent a huge amount of time with John—unlike my teachers, who had been there when Anusara was small enough that everyone knew him fairly well—though I did study with him for a couple of hundred hours over several years, and when he did an event in our area in 2009, we had him—and all the other Certified Teachers who were attending—over for dinner at our house.

Just a year later, cracks started to show in the Anusara community; some senior teachers had some hard discussions with John about how he was conducting his personal life at the annual Certified Teachers retreat (which was also held in our area), and though it was tense, it seemed to go well.

And then midway through 2011, the exodus began—a trickle of senior teachers started to distance themselves from Anusara and John. There was some scuttlebutt of inappropriate disciplinary action being taken against some of them. Rumors started to circulate. And then, in February 2012, allegations of personal and business impropriety started to surface, and all hell broke loose.

Ultimately, none of it really surprised me. Although I had maintained an affiliation with Anusara for several years, I’d never pursued a more formal relationship with much fervor—although there were many things I loved about the school, and I dearly loved the community that it represented…well, John Friend had eaten at my table, and I was not terribly impressed. And when the truth started to come out, I quietly resigned my affiliation and kept teaching just as I had been, and kept attending classes with my teachers, and kept up with the people I knew from the community, etc.

What startled me were the number of teachers—some of whom had been teaching longer than John Friend—who, upon dissolving their relationship with Anusara, found themselves admitting that they had long disagreed with one or another part of the Anusara system, but had never wanted to voice their disagreement. I was not a senior teacher by any measure—at that point I’d been teaching for 5 years, and some of these people had been teaching for 20 or more—but I never felt willing to give my free will and my good sense over to someone else’s keeping. I think that was, at an unconscious level, part of why I never went for teacher certification; I was never going to set aside my own sense of what was right to satisfy someone else’s notion of what I should be doing.

Which brings us back to Ian Thorson, and, in some ways more interesting, and more important, to the story, Michael Roach.

Because while Ian Thorson is the one who died, it was Michael Roach and his ex- (and Thorson’s then-) wife Christine McNally who set the stage for his death. With their brand of rah-rah Buddhism—that, I have to say, displays a lot of the same tropes as John Friend’s rah-rah Yoga—they created an environment that encouraged the credulous, the lost, the seeking to give themselves over to whatever they were told to believe. The improprieties and irregularities were all there for those that chose to see…but so many choose not to.

I just don’t understand, and the author doesn’t have any answers, either. But I’m ultimately not surprised—these sorts of behaviors on the part of humans have always been among our most baffling ones.

Anyway, the book presents a lot of interesting background on Buddhism, specifically the Tibetan kind, its long and strange relationship with the West, the odd and often sad ways that spiritual leaders play out their stories, and the tragic and ultimately unnecessary death of Ian Thorson. It’s an worthwhile read; not exactly uplifting, but if you’re anything like me, the myriad of ways that humans approach the question of whether there’s anything other than what we can see and taste an touch, is endlessly interesting.

Books of 2015, #13: Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests by James Andrew Miller, Tom Shales

I originally read this not too long after it first came out in paperback—so probably a decade ago.

In anticipation of SNL’s 40th Anniversary, the authors added a not insubstantial amount of additional material representing the ten years since its initial publication.

I think it should be obvious that an oral history like this can’t really be expected to present some sort of objective truth—at the very least, some of the recollections contradict one another, so someone has to be wrong. Whether they’re wrong because it was a long time ago, or they were over-indulging in recreational drugs or they’re recounting events whose narrative they’ve gradually re-shaped to make themselves look better, it’s impossible to know.

It is interesting to see the different ways that people, whether cast members, hosts or network executives, interact with, and, ultimately, relate to, Lorne Michaels. For obvious reasons, he’s the thread of continuity that ties together the whole narrative and I think it’s fair to say that no two people have the same take on him. Some regard him as some sort of taste-maker for comedy, while others think he’s a fraud. Some see him as independent, some see him as a tool of the power structure. Some see him as daring, others see him as fundamentally conservative.

One suspects that the truth is somewhere in the whirling, uncertain middle.

Anyway, it’s a fun read if you care about the subject matter at all. The new material is hardly earth-shattering, but there was some fun stuff that I hadn’t realized or remembered, like the fact that Bill Hader’s character Stefon originally appeared (and went nowhere) in a sketch, before becoming a hilarious staple of Weekend Update.

Books of 2015, #12: Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill

The narrative style is interesting-ish.

The narrative…I have problems with.

I think the question upon which my level of dislike hinges is, “Am I supposed to think that the narrator is suffering a period (perhaps years long) of some sort of mental illness?”

The narration moving from a fairly conventional first person, to a profoundly dissocciative third-person—wherein the narrator, who I think is intended to be the same person throughout, begins to refer to herself as “the wife”—and then, in the last few pages, back to first person, coupled with repeated references to medication, would seem to imply both the period of illness and recovery.

If that’s the intention…I dunno, it makes for a weak narrative. That is not to discount the plight of people who suffer from such things, but this fictional narrative of it fades into the deep background compared to, say, Brain on Fire, which was pretty damned compelling.

Maybe the intention is to equate being in a dysfunctional relationship is like being mentally ill? Sure, I suppose—if you consider the loss of a sense of agency (and perhaps even actual agency), I can see the parallels—but then the end where everything magically gets better falls flat.

Or could it be new motherhood that makes her crazy, and her husband’s philandering is all imagination?

Finally, even if I set aside my issues with the presentation of the narrative arc—and, I should mention, the relative flatness of the characters that seems a direct consequence of that choice—I question the need for another book about someone helpless in a bad relationship.

Bleh. Ima go read some technical books now.