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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books of 2015, #22: Seveneves, Neal Stephenson

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

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

Also (SPOILERS!) they both have cannibals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, their actions have consequences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for the book….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this really the civilization we’re creating?

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

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

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

I should probably back up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The narrative style is interesting-ish.

The narrative…I have problems with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bleh. Ima go read some technical books now.

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.

Books of 2015, #6: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

It is a very weird thing, my relationship to Neil Gaiman’s work.

More specifically, the fact that his novels often leave me pretty cold, but I find his short story collections to be wonderful.

I mean, how could I like an author as much as I like him, and yet I have read his second novel Anansi Boys precisely once. For me, that is seriously weird—I am inveterate re-reader. There are books I own that I haven’t read at all, but the list of books I’ve read just once is very, very short. The only list that’s shorter is the list of books that I didn’t finish.

Anyway, I find Trigger Warning to be eminently worth the time. The stories are varied in style, even if all of them have a certain darkness to them. The introduction, which walks you through them, is almost a bonus story in itself.

I have a particular affection for “The Lunar Labryinth”, whose homage to Gene Wolfe I believe I would have seen even without the introduction. It reminded me quite strongly, in fact, of Wolfe’s story “The Tree is my Hat”, which, in turn, has a Gaiman connection.

“Orange” just makes me giggle a little bit to think about. The unconventional structure reminds me a little bit of the organizing principle of one of Steven Brust’s early Vlad Taltos novels, that prefaced each chapter by an entry in a (literal) laundry list that ended up referencing some event in the chapter.

“Nothing O’Clock” reads like the 11th Doctor story it is.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle” was simply unexpected.

“Black Dog” was a good story—much like “Monarch of the Glen”—about a character for whom I feel no affinity; again, it’s that weird thing about his novels, and though I’ve read American Gods a few times, there’s still something about it, and its lead character, that just doesn’t do it for me.

There’s several more stories in it, and I enjoyed all of them to a greater or lesser extent, but I don’t want to go point-by-point to talk about each of them: just buy or borrow it and read them yourself.

Books of 2015, #5: The Deep by Nick Cutter

Reading, say, one of the Jack Reacher books is interesting to me, as someone who once tried his hand at writing fiction, in that they are relentless, always pushing forward at a fever-pitched break-neck pace, but they never feel monotonous.

(Though there’s a whole essay to be written about how that thriller genre, and its close relations, are the real “adolescent male power fantasies” that, for my money, demonstrate actual comic books for the utterly benign influence they are.)

Sadly, I cannot say this of The Deep.

Closer, genre-wise, the more specific book I constantly found myself thinking of, while reading it, was Stephen King’s It. I have to assume this was intentional, because I cannot imagine that an author of nominal-horror novels could otherwise have a book that references: a monster in a stand-pipe, clowns, an ancient evil that afflicts a child, that ancient evil revisiting that child as an adult, a confrontation in a labrynthine rat’s-nest of tunnels, an abusive parent…I suspect I could find another couple at least if I were willing to waste my time on it.

Now I know that many people think that Stephen King is in perpetual need of a strong editor, but I wonder to what extent—when his novels work well, at least—his successes are because he takes long breaks from the action, because he attends to things other than the mechanics of the immediate plot, because he discurses like crazy.

Ultimately, I wonder whether this discursiveness simply sets up something in contrast to the horror that may be the central plot of the novel—and which, in the absence of such contrast, would just become boring and monotonous.

Which The Deep was—oh, God, I just wanted it to be over.

I’m not saying it justifies every word, but would It be as compelling if it didn’t show both the horror being visited upon the town of Derry, and the ways these children are tormented by it, as well as the sheer joyful experience they have of finding one another? They may bound together by necessity, but their bond transcends that—they become friends. They care about one another, but they also just go out and to the stupid shit kids do. It’s ultimately what brings them back to finally put things to rest.

I wonder, were I to go back and re-read Dr. Sleep, if I wouldn’t find that the reason that I found it less-than-compelling wasn’t the mildly paint-by-numbers horror of the antagonists (how many flavors of supernatural horror can you have, anyway), but the simple fact that Danny Torrance has so little in his life that brings joy. I mean, I’m glad he hit bottom and cleaned up, but the simple fact that so much time is spent on that, it feels like he has so little to lose—whereas in The Shining, the stakes are higher because what he’s losing is his father, who, however flawed, he loves unconditionally.

Well, if the lack of a sense of things-to-be-lost was a problem in Dr. Sleep, The Deep suffers from elephantitis of unhappiness. If there are more than a handful of sentences in the entire novel mentioning positive moments in the protagonists life, I must have skipped them as I became less and less engaged. Otherwise, it’s a shitty, malignant childhood, a broken adulthood, a global humanity-threatening pandemic (!) and ancient horrors.

Yeah, you know, I’m realizing that in addition to its lack of shading, it’s also lacking in coherence. Too many big chunks of undercooked plot left out in the open to rot and stink the place up. You could have excised at least two of that laundry list of Bad Things and come up with a much stronger novel. As it is, unless you’re just a devotee of horror for horror’s sake, please avoid The Deep.

Books of 2015, #4: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky

I generally enjoy these sorts of books—the sort of things Bill Bryson specializes in, where he choses some through-line that gives him a lens for presenting some particular view on a bunch of events through history.

And in fact Mark Kurlansky’s Cod is a great example of the genre.

To say that all of the things mentioned are a direct consequence of the great durability and fecundity of cod would be to take things too far—but its influence seems clear, and while there may not be causation, there certainly seems to be correlation.

So perhaps it’s not unreasonable to say that cod is the reason we live in the United States of America.

Books of 2015, #3: Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan

There’s not many things that I fear, at least in terms of things that could happen to me; in fact, the only one that really scares the hell out of me is losing my sense of self.

My fear is, I know, partly grounded in the fact that it’s almost certainly in my future; though only one of my grandparents has passed away as a direct consequence of Alzheimers, it lurks in the background.

Or I could develop an autoimmune disorder that attacks the fundamental structures of my brain, destroying my personality and plunging me into a stew of paranoia and incoherence that, untreated, would lead to long-term disability and possible death.

The difference between me and Susannah Cahalan, of course, would be that doctors are now more aware of the disease, and there’s a protocol for testing that well understood, so you’ve got at least a marginal chance of being diagnosed in a timely fashion, and people understand how to treat it—though it does often come with a side-order of benign cancer.

To call the book harrowing is to simultaneously overstate and understate the case. Becoming ill, even with an exotic—and potentially fatal—disease is a terrible thing, bug the therapies for the condition, while no picnic, aren’t all that arduous or exotic.

On the other hand, to have your condition be completely opaque to the medical community, to have someone tasked with evaluating your mental health dramatically overstate your alcohol consumption in order to fit their preconcieved notion so that it that much harder to get you into a facility that could start to take care of you…these solvable, these avoidable things are the really dismaying part.

Anyway, the text itself is well written, and even more interesting given that despite it being written by the person to whom it happened, much, even most, of it had to be reconstructed from interviews and watching recordings and reading records.

Books of 2015, #2: Silver Screen Fiend, by Patton Oswalt

I picked this up because it was indirectly referenced in a blog post of Chet’s.

I think the first time I ever saw Patton Oswalt was in a review of Young Adult on Roger Ebert’s show. Prior to that my only conscious knowledge of him was through Ratatouille. Until I read this, I still only really knew him from that and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I find his subject—the period of years where he was obsessed with watching movies—interesting in large part because it’s simultaneously so antithetical and yet still related to my own relationship with movies.

I regard film as a medium for entertainment, full stop. If a film can transcend being entertainment and show me something profound about a group of characters, I’m all for that—as a recent example, I would, in fact, hold up American Hustle as a film that proves that that is possible.

Call it the celluliod version of the Pre-Joycean Fellowship. I care not a whit for film for film’s sake. I would, honestly, rather read Roger Ebert writing about most films—especially “serious” films—than watch them.

So had I known him at this time in his life, I suspect I would be one of the people he looked at with blank incomprehension, unable to understand how they couldn’t recognize the importance of his obsession.


I am also the guy who picks all those same facts about the movies, the stars, the deals that went down, the films that were never made. All the things he felt he was boring people with at this time in his life, those I would have found interesting. The films, though? Not so much.

Anyway, having devoted all this space to me, let me now say that the book is entertaining, and yet transcends entertainment, in the way that most people’s attempts to understand themselves are able to do. It’s funny, but with only a couple of moments that made me laugh out loud—but those were really good: Louis C.K.’s comments on how to approach visiting Amsterdam, and his brother’s description of a scene in The Phantom Menace that continues to make me laugh just thinking about it.

Books of 2015, #1: Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, by Jon Ronson

Unlike the other books of Jon Ronson’s I’ve read, this is a book of discrete essays, without a specific central theme. However, if I were to try to sum it up, I would try something like, “Oh, what inventive ways we humans have invented to interact with the universe, often thereby doing badly by one another.”

Perhaps not surprising from a guy who wrote a book titled The Psychopath Test.

His voice is engaging, if perhaps a little more neurotic than I can entirely empathize with, but that’s OK: I remember seeing him on The Daily Show a few years back, and can easily visualize his weedy, twitchy look.

Really, the through-line on all these essays zigs and zags a bit. I mean, from Juggallos, to a the scandal that inspired Slumdog Millionaire, to a fairly brutal illustration of income inequality, to the first disappearance from a Disney cruise ship.

I think the only one I truly enjoyed—that being a very distinct thing from my reaction to most, which was a sort of horrified-by-the-traffic-accident fascination—was the one on Stanley Kubrick’s boxes and boxes and boxes of research material.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s all worth reading, but it’s not necessarily going to make you happy.

Books of 2014, #11: The Phoenix Guards, by Steven Brust

Some days, you just need you some Dumas pastiche. Or, at least, I do.

I’ve read this, and its immediate sequel, 500 Years After a dozen times since it first came out. My affection for it runs deep and wide. If it is not a profound work of literature, it is an exemplary entertainment (which, really, I would say about Steven Brust’s entire oeuvre).

That said, there is An Incident that this book will always remind me of.

Many years ago—understand, this is before the Internet had made it into maintstream consciousness, and even somewhat before Sir Tim had a first implementation of the World Wide Web—if you were a fan of any sort of Science Fiction or Fantasy literature, the place to be was on an online service called . This was because GEnie had the SFRT—the Science Fiction Round Table. Actually, there were four of them, because they quickly outgrew the first one.

If you go read the page on Wikipedia, you’ll notice there’s a disproportionate amount of verbiage dedicated to the SFRT. This is not an accident. Other RT and other services were popular, but the SFRT was a community with a real presence.

(Incidentally, I actually think one of the things that made GEnie very attractive was that they provided, gratis, software (called Alladin) for easy offline reading of new messages—and they even had a version that supported the Atari ST that I had at the time. This meant you could participate without breaking the bank at a time when an hour of access at 1200 bps cost $6.)

So, anyway, there was lots of activity on the SFRT, and, more to the point, there were lots of writers. Pros. For instance, Neil Gaiman, then just coming into prominence with Sandman, was on a lot—I remember him announcing the birth of his daughter Maddie on the SFRT, for instance. This is where I first became acquainted with Patrick and Teresa Neilsen-Hayden.

Anyway, lots of pros. Including Steven Brust.

So, I can only hope that the message in which I once explained to him how I thought a twist in the plot was “unearned” has disappeared into nothingness, as GEnie and the SFRT are gone, gone, gone.

But other than that one incident, the SFRT was a wonderful place to hang out. I miss it, except of course for the fact that I wouldn’t have time ot keep up with it today.

Books of 2014, #10: Locke & Key, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

I suppose you could say that I’m cheating a little bit here, insofar as Locke & Key is a comic book. But at this point it’s finished—36 issues from beginning to end—and I read it through in its entirety.

I’m definitely going to recommend this book; I only picked up the first volume a few months ago, and I’ve been waiting for the conclusion to be collected ever since.

The story builds methodically from page one. In re-reading the earlier collections, I was impressed with how dense it actually is—in this era of decompressed storytelling, there is no filler here. I suspect that on future re-readings, I will continue to notice more subtle details from the beginning and middle that have ramifications for—or are referenced in—the end.

This is a book that is chock-full of character and story.

That said, I’m not yet certain that they stick the landing. Most of it flows with the sort of inevitability that a horror story needs to not feel gratuitous, but there’s one reveal that didn’t work for me on the first read. It may be that when I go through it again, it is set up better that I realize this first time through; I would certainly believe it, as even this second read-through has let me see many more subtleties than the first time.

Oh, and that’s all ignoring the absolutely brilliant art by Gabriel Rodriguez. It reminds me of a more traditionally cartoon-y relative of Marc Hempel’s art from Sandman’s The Kindly Ones. It has a clean line with lovely detail, and that’s even before he does his Bill Watterson tribute.

Books of 2014, #9: The Rapture of the Nerds: A tale of the singularity, posthumanity, and awkward social situations by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross

I guess you could say this was a guilt read.

I read Cory Doctrow’s first three novels (Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Eastern Standard Tribe, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town) and found them all perfectly enjoyable…but I’ve never re-read any of them, which is actually very unusual for me; I’ve even been known to re-read books I didn’t like the first time around. Anyway, something about them just doesn’t inspire a desire to re-experience them in me.

I have read everything Charles Stross has written except for his Merchant Princes novels, of which I read the first two. With the exception of The Laundry Files novels, which I adore—how could you possibly beat Linux + Lovecraft + Bond—I find most of them to be perfectly fine on the first read, but either uninspired or maybe even a little grating subsequently.

(I cannot stress this enough: I re-read books all the time; I am like a fucking shark, perpetually swimming through a sea of words to stay alive—but I’m not always up to taking on the nearest orca)

Still, I enjoy both of their web presences immensely, and think they’re both smart, talented guys, whose books I generally like—so how could I not read a book they collaborated on?

At the risk of sounding like I’m trying to be snide—which I’m not—this is exactly the book that I would have expected the two of them to produce; it is manifestly the melding of their authorial voices and the ways in which they approach plot and the sorts of ideas they explore. As obvious as the cat flap.

And as a consequence, while I don’t begrudge the time I spent reading it—it was amusing and enjoyable—I don’t know that I’m going to pick it up to re-read it any time soon.

Oh, and if you care: I would characterize it as a post-singularity picaresque, with a teeny-tiny bit of homage to Robert A. Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice (which is itself influenced by Robert Branch Cabell’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, which I have read, and from which my frequent response of “I’ll try anything once” is taken).

Books of 2014, #7: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell

So, I am on record as being somewhat skeptical about Malcolm Gladwell’s books: with with a style that demands that he work to demonstrate his thesis across a broad set of subjects some of which his knowledge must be necessarily shallow…it is perhaps unsurprising that on subjects where I have deep knowledge, I often feel like he has let a desire to fit his thesis distort the facts. Probably not intentionally, but it still feels like it means you must take all of it with a grain of salt.

So why ever read another one of his books?

Well, first off, I, too find some value in having a broad exposure to stuff, even if much of that exposure is relatively shallow.

But more importantly: even when his theses are applied overly broadly, or when he blows some basic fact, it doesn’t mean that it’s without value. Having a wide array of mental models you can consider in different situations makes you more versatile, more able to be responsive rather than reactive. The only danger is when you allow yourself to be come dogmatic in your devotion to a paticular model.

So, what is the takeaway from David and Goliath?

Stated most generally, I would say, “Question the assumptions the system hands you, and see what you can do to confound them.” Whether it’s the clash in the “cover story”, or the question of the “best” college education, or how to succeed in basketball when your newer to it and don’t have the same level of skills, try to be the one to set the terms of the engagement, rather than doing what everyone else is doing.

It’s not necessarily the easiest path, but it is one that may have greater potential for success, however you define it.

Books of 2014, #6: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

My e-readers says this book is nearly 400 pages. That sounds improbable to me, since I think I read the whole thing in no more than 6 hours.

It is a perhaps telling irony that I started reading The Fault in Our Stars in the same week that my Mom started chemotherapy for a recurrence of the breast cancer that had been in remission for nearly 15 years.

Anyway, it is sad, funny, impossibly earnest, full of lies and woven through with truths. I know that it’s positioned as a Young Adult novel, but I think that’s a lack of imagination on the part of reviewers as much as anything—the idea that any book featuring teenagers could be anything else being hard to process.

I recently saw the trailer for the movie they’ve made of it. I fear that it will fall short of the beautiful story that the book is.