Books of 2017, #10: One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band, by Alan Paul

I was born in the South, and I have lived most of my life in the South, but I moved around as a kid, and lived other places besides, so I think it’s fair to say that I’m not really “of the South”.

I suspect one of the better arguments bolstering this assertion is that I never listened to the Allman Brothers Band until I was in college. And while they’re still not a band I listen to on a daily or even weekly basis, I own their core albums, and know most of the material pretty well…even if I first knew “Whipping Post” as a Frank Zappa performance.

Anyway, I feel kind of fortunate that all the “oral histories” I’ve read over the years have generally been pretty good—and this is no different; it’s well edited, so that there’s a sense of narrative, rather than things just rambling all over the landscape, it attempts, when possible, to get all sides of the story.

I think what I take away from this on is that the band may never have really recovered from Duane’s death. I mean, yes, they produced Brothers and Sisters, but against the backdrop of the rest of their career, that seems like a heart continuing to beat for a while after brain death.

Without someone to lead them who afforded everyone a chance to also be themselves, they never quite found the true vision of what they wanted again. They let themselves become distracted, and even when they brought in capable new people…it was never quite the same.

All that said, obviously I wasn’t ever in a position to see them with Duane; in fact I never saw them at all. In retrospect, though, I suspect I would have enjoyed seeing one of the shows they put on this century; it seemed like—even though it apparently required throwing one of the original members out of the band—that they found their way back to some of the sympatico that marked their early work.

Books of 2017, #9: The Case Against Sugar, by Gary Taubes

I am well aware that there are plenty of people who think Gary Taubes is bad at what he does—that his writing is too biased (such that it displays the same failings of fitting evidence to theory that he calls out in others), or that he is out-and-out untruthful, whatever.

On the other hand, I’ve now read all of his books regarding diet, and I find his writing to be open and honest about the possibility that he has incomplete or incorrect information, and that his hypothesis does seem to represent far simpler and more believable explanation for—to borrow one of his book titles—”why we get fat”.

In the end, the arguments against his hypotheses remind me of epicycles, the ever more elaborate explanations for observable movement of the stars and planets in a geocentric model. They had to become more and more elaborate and complex because they were working from a flawed premise that was dictated and enforced by the power structures of the day (the Catholic Church in this case), that the solar system is geocentric, not heliocentric.

When I then consider the simple observation that over the course of my lifetime—which roughly corresponds to the rise of the low-fat approach to diet—my peers and my country have become enormously fat, and that I can easily observe in my own body the effects of consuming carbohydrates and especially sugar…well, “Eppur si muove.”

All of that material is in his prior books, too; what distinguishes The Case Against Sugar is that it also goes into greater detail about the actions of the sugar industry—which shared both tactics and even actors with the tobacco industry. This new material is interesting…but at this moment in history, demonstrating the malfeasance of corporations and people in their employ is shooting fish in a barrel. It’s also a little dispiriting.

So if you haven’t read anything of his, I would stick with Why We Get Fat, which is short and to the point—an uplifting book trying to show a path forward. This is more like horror, showing the unfortunate things taking place around us.

Books of 2017, #8: Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon, by Peter Ames Carlin

When I read about people whose work I admire, I am almost always reminded of the Buddhist admonishment, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”; which in this instance I think of as reminding us that the person is not the teaching or the product, and it lives independently of them.

To say that I admire Paul Simon is an understatement.

I’ve seen him perform three times: during the 1991 Born at the Right Time tour, in Birmingham, Alabama; in 2011, during the tour behind So Beautiful, So What; and then in 2014 during the On Stage Together tour with Sting. I haven’t seen anyone more than that, and although there’s a few other acts I’ve seen that many times—Concrete Blonde, King Crimson, Adrian Belew are the only ones I can think of right now—none of them hold quite the same place in my heart.

I have memories associated with his music—both as part of Simon and Garfunkle and as a solo act—that are so strong that when I listen to some tracks, it’s like being transported back in time. One of the first two albums I ever owned was his Greatest Hits, etc., and I still have it, though it probably hasn’t been played in 25 years. For that matter, I realized on my birthday last year marked exactly 30 since my parents had bought me Graceland.

So of course when I saw there was a biography of Paul Simon, especially one published just last year, I was going to read it; I didn’t consider it terribly dangerous, given that I already knew that he was an imperfect person—the truth is, his failures as an individual are well-documented; his tempestuous relationship with Art Garfunkle, his long but ultimately broken relationship with Carrie Fisher, questions of credit with Los Lobos and others.

If you look beyond, or perhaps just around, those imperfections, his life is fascinating; being a teenager at the beginning of rock and roll, finding a temporary niche in the folk movement, which parlayed into pop stardom, which led to an unexpected prominence in world music, which led to spectacular failure on Broadway.

The number of people he has worked with—whether their partnership panned out or not—the number of people he was associated with early in their careers, the number of people he got to know, the sheer breadth of his place in music, it’s all fairly breathtaking (I will note for at least one person’s benefit that there is a citation for The Real Frank Zappa Book, regarding one encounter between Frank Zapp and Simon & Garfunkle).

Anyway, Carlin strikes me as even-handed: while he’s unstinting in recording the places Simon seems all too willing to act without regard for his partners and collaborators—a pattern that starts at the very beginning and continues on to pretty much the present day—he leaves you wondering if the sort of drive it takes to excel in this field isn’t all too likely to lead one toward this sort of behavior; not excusing it, but explaining it.

Maybe you don’t actually need to kill the Buddha—maybe you just need to cross over to the other side of the road, and let him keep his distance.

Books of 2017, #7: Babylon’s Ashes, by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse #6)

If you got to #5 of this series unsure if you want to continue, I’m not going to convince you.

The vast majority of this book is a great example of the Space Opera genre in action—I literally found myself unable to put it down even though I really, really needed to get to sleep.

But it doesn’t quite stick the landing, IMHO: even though the authors had carefully set up the scenario that allows our heros to triumph in the prior book, it ultimately feels a little too Deus Ex.

And even if it didn’t, while many of the plot threads that came into play in the prior book get wrapped up, the ones that are left too obviously end up feeling like they’re leading up to The Next Book; it looms just a little too large.

But man, until that last 30 pages or so, it’s a nailbiter, and well worth your time. The question in my mind at this point is whether they can sustain the energy for #7.

Oh, and Clarissa becomes an official part of the crew!

Books of 2017, #6: Nemesis Games, by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse #5)

Yeah, it’s all about the characters.

Which is to say: my ambivalence about various of the viewpoint characters in the last two books made them both feel like something of a slog. On the other hand, the use of Amos, Alex and Naomi as viewpoint characters helped make this book zip by—and it’s not just that I care about them, but that they are voices that I’m already accustomed to.

As for the what happens…I’m interested to see where it’s going in the long haul, beyond this book and the next. It’s interesting to realize that the seeds of many of the plotlines that drive this book were baked into the first couple of novels—clearly Abraham and Franck have had a larger plot planned out.

For instance, it seems clear the Martian commander who has an important, but off-camera role in this story is the same one who was involved in attempting to create the protomolecule soldiers in Caliban’s War.

Similarly, the past Naomi has always hinted at comes to a head, and some interesting plot points spin out of that…but at the same time, some of it doesn’t quite ring true to me. I understand the way that our old patterns resurface when we find ourselves back in those contexts, but Naomi seems weirdly naive for much of the beginning of the book, which just feels wrong since she’s a badass basically every other moment.

Undoubtedly the parts of the book that I most enjoyed were Alex and Amos’ elements. Alex’s is fun for a lot of reasons, including the fact that it brings back Bobby Draper, and they have a bit of a caper to solve.

Amos, on the other hand, takes a surprising detour, and ends up picking up Clarissa Mao…and she becomes an incredibly interesting character, because she seems to have truly embraced being a better person, being a more aware person, and ultimately making thoughtful choices. And the authors avoid it being pure Mary Sue…by making Holden consistently and forthrightly unhappy about her presence.

Anyway, much more fun than the last couple of novels, and a good setup for the next entry.

Books of 2017, #5: Cibola Burn, by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse #4)

Cibola Burn is my least favorite book in The Expanse.

I think, in the end, it comes down to the primary antagonist, Murtry—he’s not just an antagonist, he’s a villain; too obviously a psychopath, too mustache-twirlingly pleased with behaving in an almost inhuman manner.

Even Captain Ashford in Abaddon’s Gate is clearly…well, at this moment in time, I have to say, he’s Trumpian—obviously mediocre but placed in high position for reasons other than competence, and thus given to defensive, authoritarian, megalomaniacal behavior, because he mistakes being a strongman for being strong. It’s ugly, but it’s all too understandable. Also, he’s just not in the story that much, so you don’t have an opportunity to get tired of him.

Murtry, on the other hand, quickly outstays his welcome.

But his malign presence did make me start to think a bit; if you look at who the villians are—as opposed to merely antagonists—they’re generally corporations and their representatives: Protogen, Mao-Kwikowski, and Royal Charter Energy. Is that simply because, in our post-2008 crash world, the amoral venality of corporations is the evil most visible to us?

And what does that say about our current President?

Anyway, while I found the first half of the book fairly interminable, it does pick up the pace somewhat in the last half. We do see the last of Miller, which is perhaps a little sad, but also, I think, a necessary precondition to moving on to stories set in a somewhat different arena.

One more to re-read and then on to new material.

Books of 2017, #4: Abaddon’s Gate, by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse #3)

So here’s the thing: when you have books that, in order to really justify being re-read, are dependent on the characters being compelling enough that they will minimize visibility for the plot happening, you damn well better make each and every one of those characters awesome.

Now The Expanse has compelling characters—I could read about Holden and his crew for extended periods without any complaint. And Bobbie Draper and Chrisjen Avasarala are a similar delight to read. Clarissa Mao starts to get interesting, but mostly right at the end of the novel. Pastor Anna and Carlos Baca…just aren’t.

What that means is that something like half our narration is focused on people who just don’t hold your attention the same way the second time around, which means you end up staring at the plot happening, and that makes things a lot less interesting.

Sure, Bull is smart enough to understand the politics that put him where he is, and how to at least attempt to leverage whatever he can to get a good outcome, and owes Fred Johnson…but that isn’t enough.

And Pastor Anna is obviously a good person, and asks us to think about WTF does the idea of meeting actual aliens would mean for humanity, and provides wonderful contrast to Amos, our endearing, light-hearted psychopath. I mean, it makes for some wonderful copy…
“Killing people won’t make him feel better,” Anna said, regretting the words the second they left her mouth. These people were going to be risking their lives to protect her. They didn’t need her moralizing at them.

“Actually,” Holden said with a half smile, “I think it might be for him, but Amos is a special case. You’d be right about most anyone else.”

“God damn, Red,” Amos said, putting his hand on hers. “You must be hell on wheels as a preacher. You’re making me feel the best and worst I’ve felt in a while at the same time.”

Good-hearted unrepentant killers were not something she’d had to fit into her worldview before this, and she wasn’t sure how it would work. But now she’d have to try.
…but it ain’t enough.

All of which feels a little bit like nit-picking, insofar as it’s a still a fun read, but it just doesn’t feel like it’s going to hold up like the first two novels—I found myself putting it down far more than the first two books because I could too easily find something more interesting to do.

That said, plot-wise, it is a big shift for the universe of The Expanse, and opens up a whole lot of new possibilities to be explored (at least through book #9).

Books of 2017, #3: Caliban’s War, by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse #2)

I’ve read critiques of Leviathan Awakes that felt the Noir backdrop for Miller didn’t work, and that they were happy he was gone by the end of the first book.

Although I certainly found the crew of the Rocinante more fun, I still kind of liked Miller; still if we had to lose him, could we do better than gaining Chrisjen Avasarala and Bobbie Draper? Easy answer: No. Especially Avasarala:

“They’re all fucking men,” she said.

“Excuse me?” Soren said.

“The generals. They’re all fucking men.”

“I thought Souther was the only—”

“I don’t mean that they all fuck men. I mean they’re all men, the fuckers. …

Whatever my feelings about the plot and in some cases character changes they made in the TV show, the only thing that really hurts is that Avasarala simply can’t be so casually foul-mouthed on basic cable.

Or just some of the text that comes along with her:

She’d stopped looking tired a while ago and had moved on to whatever tired turns into when it becomes a lifestyle.

Still, Amos does ultimately win the quotability competition:

“When it comes to scrapes, I’m what you might call a talented amateur. But I’ve gotten a good look at that woman in and out of that fancy mechanical shell she wears. She’s a pro. We’re not playing the same sport.”

Or:

He turned toward the galley, but the conversation wasn’t finished.

“If I had. If I had done those things, that would have been okay with you?”

“Oh, fuck no. I’d have broken your neck and thrown you out the airlock,” Amos said, clapping him on the shoulder.

“Ah,” Prax said, a gentle relief loosening in his chest. “Thank you.”

“Anytime.”

At least as far as my enjoyment goes, it’s important that these two compelling characters get added for this second book, because on re-reading, it feels like the gears of the plot are clanking just a little bit in the background—I feel like there’s some manufactured conflict that doesn’t play out as smoothly as it should have.

Still nothing more than typical sophomore slump, and not anything like, say, the second book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey & Maturin series, where things totally go off the rails before he figures out how to manage the whole notion of a sequel.

I also book-ended this with the short story The Butcher of Anderson Station, which gives some background on Fred Johnson and how he got his sobriquet, as well as the novella Gods of Risk, which is what Bobbie Draper does on her summer vacation. I think the interstitial story strategy is a pretty brilliant one—it lets the author address things that add some richness to the main line of stories without having to have an awkward flashback or play stop-the-world for an awkward infodump.

Books of 2017, #2: Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse #1)

By any measure, I was late to the party with The Expanse. I hadn’t heard of the author (either pseudonymously or individually), the books, or the SyFy Channel adaption until it was well underway—and I assumed, since SyFy hadn’t done anything of interest to me since before they changed their name, that it was probably going to be crap.

Still, I saw a review at Tor.com that was quite complimentary, so I set the TiVo to pick up everything and waited for the earlier episodes to come back around, and then started watching.

Something like four episodes in, I bought all (at that time) five books, and devoured them all in short order. But I had utterly lapsed in tracking my reading by that point, so I never mentioned them here.

With the knowledge that the second season of the TV program is coming up, and the advent of a sixth novel being published last December—and knowing cramming down five novels in a couple of weeks doesn’t necessarily lead to the greatest retention of the material, so I didn’t want to start it and be confused—I decided to re-read them. And just for good measure, I decided to re-watch the first season of the show.

Whew, that’s a lot of preface.

I think the most interesting thing for me is really the contrast between my experience of this, and Last Year.

This is so unambiguously what I was thinking of when I talked about a plot-driven book.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some extremely likable characters, of whose interactions I am delighted to partake, whether it’s Miller in all his dourness, or Holden in his occasionally moronic idealism, or Amos in his…Amos-ness.

But in the end, the focus is ultimately on “what happens”—you can see the strings pulling the characters along. It’s not even enough that they simple witness the action, they have to play their part and read their lines so that Stuff Can Go Down. When the book ends, it’s hard to imagine these characters continuing narrative.

All of which sounds terribly pejorative, which isn’t really my intent—I’m not here to run these books down at all: I really enjoyed them the first time around, and I think I enjoyed them even more this time. But it’s a very different experience.

And the text is done with plenty of skill and attention. It is far more quotable than Last Year. To pick out a few things that I highlighted during this read:
The circle of life on Ceres was so small you could see the curve.
All the energy he’d put into holding things together—Ceres, his marriage, his career, himself—was coming free.
He changed to a competition show with incomprehensible rules and psychotically giddy contestants.
The second most interesting thing for me is the difference between the book at the TV show.

I hadn’t quite paid enough attention to the finer details of things the first time around, I guess, or maybe it was just lack of familiarity such that I didn’t notice it, but the way things play out in the book at the TV show are very different.

Some of it, I’m sure, was to keep production costs down—the escape from Eros, for instance, has a lot less going on in the TV show, and some of it is probably about things that would be a lot harder to present without requiring more telling and less showing—I’m thinking of the mechanism that brings Miller and the crew of the Rocinante to meet for the first time.

There were a number of things that were setup for events that happen in later books (I’m thinking of Naomi and Fred’s interactions here), and introducing Chrisjen Avasarala earlier was something of a no-brainer given how great she is in the books, and how important she becomes.

But the way they present Amos, or even, to a lesser extent, Chrisjen, ends up being less nuanced, and even hints and distorting the characters in a way that starts to remind me of what Peter Jackson did to Faramir the The Lord of the Rings—and that is the single thing about those movies that still sticks in my craw nearly a decade and a half later.

What I would really love to see, I think, would be an analysis by Todd Alcott, (or someone like him) who was both very familiar with the source material, and with what things work and don’t work in the visual medium, to perhaps try and understand why some of the changes were made.

Books of 2017, #1: Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson

I didn’t expect to make a first post in this series this quickly—but I started this book around 6pm yesterday, and ended up finishing just after 11pm. A little late for me, but I wasn’t inclined to stop.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised—I’ve found most of Robert Charles Wilson’s books compulsively readable, and one of their virtues is that they don’t carry a lot of fat; although reading ebooks can obscure relative length, he simply doesn’t do doorstops.

It’s one of the several ways they’re not your average Science-Fiction novels.

If you read the synopses you could be forgiven for thinking they were plot-driven; certainly they all start with some relatively high-concept plot: Spin – the Earth has been enclosed in a bubble that retards time. The Chronoliths – mysterious monuments start appearing from the future. The Affinities – humans can be classified into 22 distinct groups.

But they’re not plot-driven, or at least they bury the mechanics of their plot deep within the organic choices of their characters. Specific individuals, who get caught up in events; often through relationships, sometimes because small actions of theirs pull them in, or perhaps because their action is an unintended precipitating incident.

In the case of Last Year, Jessie Cullum is in the right place at the right time—twice in fact—and his life is upended. Again.

Another distinctive feature of his stories is that their ends are…hard to describe. It’s tempting to call them messy or ambgiuous, but that isn’t quite right—it brings to mind authors who can’t stick the landing, where the book ends because they just ran out of stuff, or got tired of typing.

It’s a little more like they’re open-ended, except that’s not really it either—although Spin did end up with a sequel (though it was more a book in the same universe), that’s the exception rather than the rule.

I guess the best way to describe it is that the characters rarely feel like they quit existing the moment you turn the last page—that they have more life ahead of them, and more stuff is going to happen to them; it may be epic or mundane, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that while this particular story may be done, while this particular segment of their life may be finished, it’s neither an end nor a setup for more.

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.

Anyway.

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 tor.com 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.

Welp.

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.