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.

Books of 2015, #11: Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

A few years ago, for my birthday, some friends of mine got me a t-shirt that bears the inscription, “The book was better,” because I’m that kinda guy.

I would, in many cases—perhaps most—rather read Roger Ebert writing about movies than see the actual movies. Sadly that option is now only historical.

The only Bond novel I ever read was For Special Services by John Gardner when I was, I dunno, 13 or 14. I remember, 5 or 7 years later, being surprised that this same guy wrote Grendel.

(Hint: It’s not. These things were less easy to find out before Wikipedia.)

Anyway, I figured that the Bond books would be a fun little stroll to pad my books/week numbers (finally up to 1:1 and gaining)…and by the end found myself thinking, “The movie was better.”

It’s funny because I have found myself at odds with some of Chet’s reviews because I feel they fundamentally misunderstand the books in question, generally as a result of the intervening decades—I’m thinking specifically here of The Forever War and A Fire Upon The Deep, about both of which I feel he was terribly wrong.

And yet, here I am, saying that 60 years later, this Bond doesn’t hold up.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

I mean, the story does well enough that the basic structure served to create a film that truly revitalized a moribund property. But even with the crutch of first-person narration, intentionally blunt instrument or not, Fleming cannot possibly make me believe in this character.

It’s not even the sexism-verging-on-mysoginy; in fact, quite the opposite—it’s the mooning teenager, “Oh, I’ll ask her to marry me,” that’s necessary to set up the ending that left me speechless with its ineptitude.

I figured there would be antiquated stuff, and I was actually prepared to scoff more at the different economics of the time, and the Cold War mentality—I went in thinking I knew how much the Bond mythology is more a product of the movies than the books.

I was wrong.

Books of 2015, #10: On Writing by Stephen King

Even in college—as I was using fiction and poetry writing classes to maintain the possibility of graduating—I think I knew I wasn’t going to be a professional writer. It was a few years out of college that I realized I wasn’t even going to be an part-time writer: I can crank out a hell of an email, perhaps even a worthwhile blog post now and again, but my expectations of being paid to put words in a row are, at this point, zero.

It’s still fun to read about it, and think about it, though, and I was looking for something non-fiction to read, so I picked up On Writing.

As a guide to writing…ehh. Much of the advice it provides are things that you can find elsewhere as well. Interesting to read again all these years later, but hardly revelatory.

And a lot of it is only indirectly about writing, and mostly about Stephen King. Which I am sure disappoints some of its prospective readership, but I found perfectly engaging.

What I did find intriguing, though, find his discussion of story vs. plot to be interesting. I would (over-)simplify it to say that he argues that story unfolds, while plot must be driven. Or perhaps that story arises out of consequences of an event, and thus should flow naturally, while plot attempts to force events to occur. He talks about his process often beginning with a simple statement of a situation, like “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I found this resonated with Neil Gaiman’s comments about where some of the ideas that made their way into Sandman came from, perhaps the most ironic being at a comic convention and idly wondering, “I wonder if serial killers have conventions?”

Anyway, if you go into reading this with eyes open, it can be a fun read, and sometimes what it really takes to get you to do something is to hear someone say something you already know in a different way. Nothing in it is profound, but sometimes that’s what you need.

Books of 2015, #9: The Monopolists by Mary Pilon

Two of my primary sources for books to read turn out to be my friend Chet, and NPR.

Last Monday, I think, while driving in to work, I heard part of an interview with Mary Pilon regarding her book, which concerns itself with laying out the rather byzantine origins of the game Monopoly—and since I could just about visualize the text from the pamphlet included with the game that described how Charles Darrow single-handedly created it…I was hooked.

The tracing of its history is kind of fascinating: although there was a commercially produced version of its ancestor, The Landlord’s Game, the game of Monopoly as we know it today was treated more like samizdat, passed from person to person over a period of years, accumulating little modifications or errors in the process, before being passed to Charles Darrow who—with no money, and a permanently disabled child to try and care for in the depths of the Great Depressions—sold it to Parker Brothers.

I wonder if the fact that it was not really his to sell bothered him—I could imagine that perhaps initially he didn’t think it would become such an ubiquitous thing, and thus the scope of his crime would remain small; a few hundred dollars to help sustain his family. Or perhaps he felt that others lack of interest in making money off it left him open to do so.

What I find telling is the utterly amoral behavior that Parker Brothers displays. They had evidence that the game existed before Charles Darrow, including early competitors who told them how it came to them, and yet they were perfectly happy to direct the weight of their legal team against them to stifle competition.

In fact, the whole story is bracketed by the experience of one game creator in the early ’70s that they tried to strong-arm—although the details are, in fact, a little different from the earlier incidents—and who decided to fight back. He won, but the legal fight took 10 years, and cost him just about everything.

Ultimately, it leads me back to my firm belief that corporations are a stratagem for people to disclaim responsibility for their actions and should be strictly limited in their scope and power, because it is very hard to trust people when they do not have to suffer consequences for their actions.

Books of 2015, #8: Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio

I’ve been amused by Phil Foglio’s work for more than thirty years—back to the strip “What’s New with Phil and Dixie” that appeared in the back pages of Dragon magazine in its heyday of the early ’80s.

I’ve known about Girl Genius for several years at this point; I think I ran across it while looking for a way to acquire the remainder of the Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire series from the early ’90s, because I never got to find out what happened to The Winslow.


I read the first several pages, but, honestly, the idea of plowing through hundreds of pages of webcomic was too much—and the story felt a little involved to be able to just pick up in the middle…and at the time, I don’t think they had a bookmark capability.

A couple of years ago I noticed that there were actual print editions, so I would acquire them now and again, but never really got around to reading them; the truth is, at this point, I don’t read a whole lot of stuff that’s actually printed on paper.

Cut to the wrong end of my snow-filled February. I had finished off Trigger Warning and read the entirety of The Martian in between bouts of snow shovelling, but now my tablet was in dire need of recharging—and although I do actually keep a travel battery around, it was going to take some time. I didn’t want to commit to anything too serious, so I started on my stack of Girl Genius collections.

Having subjected you to all that preface, my actual review is, “It’s fun.”

I find it hard to describe it any other way. A perhaps inadequate analogy might be the Thin Man movies—yeah, there’s some plot in there, but most of it’s either improbable as hell, or unrepentantly ridiculous, but it absolutely doesn’t matter because you get to watch William Powell and Myrna Loy engage in amusing banter.

Seriously, if you haven’t watched them, you should—there is something about the sound in movies of that era that I find very grating and uncomfortable to listen to, such that I just don’t watch many of them, but I will happily sit through anything with the two of them.

I mean, I could talk about Agatha Heterodyne, the titular Girl Genius, and the love triangle she finds herself embroiled in, as well as her improbable heritage, her claim to power, her period of posession by her mother, so on and so forth, but really the only thing of consequence I want to point out is the hilarity of creating a whole class of characters who are collectively referred to as Jaegermonsters and speak with cliche’d Eastern Europeaen accents.

Go to, read a few pages. It starts out a little slow, but picks up speed pretty quickly. If anything about it appeals, continue. Or, if you enjoy it enough, and have a tablet that’s a good size for reading such things, you can pick up the (DRM-free!) PDF editions. Or get the print versions at Amazon.

I guess it’s worth mentioning…at the same time Phil was producing the aforementioned Buck Godot, he was also writing XXXenophile, which I suspect is the only ever sex-positive trans-species erotic comic. Girl Genius is not that, but there’s probably some stuff you’d have to explain to kids. Fair warning.