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.