Tag Archives: 1440 books

What seems insane to one generation

That Aziz Ansari wrote a book is no surprise.  The comedian is at that stage of his career where a book is almost required. That he wrote about contemporary romance is also no great shock as his current series is about life and relationships. What is unique is how he went about doing it.

Instead of simply sharing his own romantic misadventures as most comedians would have, he partnered with a sociologist to conduct a thoughtful, in-depth study of the evolution of romance and relationships in the 20th century and the changes and challenges unique to the current age. The result, Modern Romance, is a fascinating blend of humor and science, with Ansari’s wit serving as a vehicle to deliver factual information.

Admittedly, dating and relationships aren’t front-and-center in my life–having been blissfully married for some time now–but I did, in fact, meet my wife via an online dating site, a fact made more interesting because…

between 2005 and 2012 more than one third of couples who got married in the United States met through an online dating site.

We fall neatly into that bucket, so the validation that we are painfully normal in that respect was nice to hear. Less nice to hear were Ansari’s comments directed at people like me:

Okay, why are you even reading this book about relationships? So you can see what mistakes sad, lonely people are making to cause them to have so much shittier lives than you?

Point taken, but I have a number of friends on the dating scene now, and I found this window into their challenges fascinating.

Ansari provides a cogent analysis of how expectations have changed from generation to generation, driven largely by the shift of women into the workforce, but especially eye-opening are the sections on how recent technology shapes relationships–things like texting, Tinder, and sexting that didn’t exist in any meaningful way even ten years ago (when I started my own journey into online dating) and are now seen as integral components of romantic life.

He made me realize that my attitude towards these things have been shaped more by ignorance and prejudice than a realistic assessment of how they can (and arguably should) fit into a relationship.

For example, at the end of the section on sexting, Ansari shares one woman’s explanation about how she feels about sexting (and the attendant risks) that concludes:

“So when I sext with my boyfriend…. it’s also my little way of reassuring myself that I decide what to do with my body, and I get to decide which risky behaviors are worth taking.”

Ansari follows that by suggesting that…

For the generation that grew up in a smartphone culture, sexting has become a common step in the journey toward becoming sexually active. Along with a first kiss, now, at some point, there is often a first sext…. And, as we’ve seen with other aspects of modern romance, what seems insane to one generation often ends up being the norm of the next.

Where initially, I would have said he and the woman he quoted were being foolish or, to use his own words, insane, by the end of Modern Romance, I had to grudgingly concede the point.

Seeing how profoundly dating and relationships have changed in the last twenty years (let alone fifty years) forces me to face the fact that my children’s romantic lives will likely be far outside my own experience (How soon is too soon to jack your brain directly into your significant other’s to share your senses? Is virtual reality sex with someone else cheating?).  So while Modern Romance is a little late to help me with my own romantic life–and it turned out just fine, thank you very much–it gave me some much needed perspective for when my children turn thirty and I give them permission to date.

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Burning holes in the pockets they wished they had

Sometimes, you can, in fact, judge a book by its cover.  I offer up Day Keene’s Home is the Sailor as today’s exhibit:

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See that gorgeous cover by R. B. Farrell and Gregory Manchess? That’s what you get. The book delivers exactly what that image and those words promise.  If that sort of hard-boiled, film noir, pulp goodness doesn’t appeal, just walk on by.

Fortunately, this gift from a good friend was right on the money. I couldn’t eat this meal every day, but it was a tasty snack filled with lines like…

Her eyes were gray and smoky, like ashes over a wood fire. They made me feel like a fool.

and…

I found one [a turnoff] a quarter mile down the road and followed it to the crest of a high bluff overlooking the sea, with a silver moon laying a course along the thirty-fourth parallel for China.

Or this description of a street scene in Mexico…

Most of the kids were a little high, their money burning holes in the pockets they wished they had, buying junk in the cheap stores, having their pictures taken on burros. Mixed in with the crowd were a few uniformed cops and a scattering of Mexican streetwalkers. With something else to sell. The cops kept their eyes on the streetwalkers. The streetwalkers kept their eyes on the sailors. The sailors kept their eyes on the streetwalkers. Everybody happy.

So if you’re interested in seeing a retired Swedish sailor blow his chance to go home to Hibbing, find a nice girl, and settle down, instead becoming a murderer and outlaw  because of a woman who is as much trouble as she is beautiful, pick up Home is the Sailor.

And next time I’m in this mood, I’ll check out some more of the fine catalog of Hard Case Crime.

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It ruthlessly steals your essential things

I’m not sure where I first heard of Jonathan Carroll, but I’d guess that he was mentioned by some other author I respected (probably Neil Gaiman). I picked up The Land of Laughs and was thrilled by my first encounter with his unique brand of magical realism (or is it magical surrealism?) and his deeply engaging characters. Each of his works touched me in different ways: The Land of Laughs enthralled and infuriated me (I threw it across the room at one point); Bones of the Moon delivered a fantastical world rich in whimsy and sorrow; A Child Across the Sky was creepy and dark and began my lifelong interest in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

I developed a ritual for each new book. I would set it on a shelf and hold off reading it until I had a full day or more to myself. Then I would make coffee, put on the Inspector Morse soundtrack (a mix of classical, opera, and incidental music that set a quiet, haunting mood), and read until I finished the novel–usually late that night with the coffee replaced with a beer.

The last of his books I read was Glass Soup in 2005.  I missed 2008’s The Ghost in Love, and then there was a long dry spell until his most recent, Bathing the Lion (2014) that I recently finished.

I found myself once again enthralled with his vividly drawn characters and the almost mystical way Carroll describes the ordinary magic of love beginning…

In the beginning of their relationship, both women proceeded as if they had entered a very dark room and were sliding their hands hesitantly up and down all the walls, feeling for a light switch while at the same time afraid they might touch something sharp or dangerous.

…ending…

…her life had capsized and suddenly she was hanging on to a piece of shipwreck in the middle of a vast and dangerous morning.

…and left behind…

…those nice trips, nice meals, and nice years when they had been genuinely happy together were like Confederate Army money now: they looked pretty but were worthless.

But as I read on, the joy wore off. Perhaps it’s because I read the novel in a more ordinary fashion. The first half, I devoured in large chunks as I traveled, but the last half came in small bites before going to sleep at night–pretty much how I do most of my reading these days. Perhaps, Carroll is not as strong a writer as he used to be, although my reaction to the first half suggests that’s not true.  More likely, I’m at a different point in my life and his writing doesn’t speak to me the way it used to.

Carroll writes mostly of relationships and couples, love passionate, romantic, and companionate. He writes of experiencing life in a world of rich senses, exotic travel, fine foods, and finer moments. He blends it all with quirky metaphysics and surreal action that takes his characters to emotional extremes. They are haunting and beautiful tales that spoke to me when I was younger, when I traveled, and when I wrestled with relationships.

Now I am older, married, and have two young children. Travel, exotic locations, free time to pursue fine cuisine or leisure activities are not parts of my life. The world that Carroll describes doesn’t resonate the same way. Magic in my life comes in the form of my children, who bring wonder, imagination, and their own unique brand of surrealism to every day. I hadn’t realized until now, but children feature in only limited ways in Carroll’s books–frequently as McGuffins or pawns or angels and demons in disguise, rarely as real characters.

So while I enjoyed Bathing the Lion, there was a melancholy aspect to that enjoyment, a nostalgia for the way he used to sweep me away, that left me feeling slightly dissatisfied at the end. Ironically, there’s a lovely line in the novel about time that speaks to this feeling:

Time doesn’t fly, it steals. Like some skilled pickpocket or magician, it gets you to look the other way and when you do, it ruthlessly steals your essential things—memories, great moments that end much too soon, the lives of those you love.

It seems time may have stolen my deeper connection to Carroll’s work, leaving only ordinary enjoyment in its place.

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A bleeding metaphor with all its bones broken

I’ve always been more of a fantasy reader than a science fiction reader.  However, in recent years, I’ve found myself drawn to the over-the-top contemporary space opera by the likes of Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds, and M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract books.  But head of the pack is Peter Watts.

I’ve described his novel Blindsight  to friends as  what you’d get if Cormac McCarthy and Iain Banks collaborated on Guardians of the Galaxy.  It’s a tale of first contact, damaged yet hyper-functioning humans, space vampires, and the future of the human race packed with searing prose and delivering a dizzying and ultimately bleak analysis of the evolution, function, and value of consciousness.

I recently finished the sequel, Echopraxia. Once again, Watts delivers a fast-paced, meticulously-researched, outrageous adventure. This expedition sees an old soldier, an unmodified human biologist, a desperately-obsessed pilot, a pseudo-religious hive mind, their translator, and the obligatory space vampire encountering an alien artifact that could be the answer to all their prayers or damn them all and humanity with them.

Both Blindsight and Echopraxia are impossible to finish without calling into question concepts you’ve taken for granted all your life. Where Blindsight looked at consciousness, Echopraxia wrestles with issues of autonomy, belonging, reality, (trans)humanity, and the existence of God. Watts bases all of his science fiction in real science–his books end with thirty page essays explaining the sources of the concepts the populate the novels and sharing what is speculation and what is current state. He packs all this information into the body of his story and does it without being pedantic or boring.  There are no lectures or overlong stretches of exposition.

Part of his success is his mastery of pacing, but most of it is his vivid and savage language.  Even the simplest discussions by his characters are peppered with gems like:

You could resort to analogies, I suppose. Force transhuman insights into human cookie-cutter shapes. But most of the time that would just get you a bleeding metaphor with all its bones broken.

Or this exchange as one character tries to understand the transhuman hive mind Bicameral Order:

“They micromanage tornadoes, Lee. They turn people into puppets with a wink and a wave, they own half the patent office. They’re about as helpless as a T. rex in a daycare center. So why haven’t they been running things for years?”

“That’s like a chimp asking why those hairless apes aren’t slinging bigger feces than everyone else, if they’re so damned clever.”

And yes, he just had a character use an analogy to explain transhuman insights after having another character criticize the practice, calling into question the entire second exchange while acknowledging that the only way we can understand something as alien as the Bicamerals is through analogy.

Kind of hurts my head, but in a good way.

This is exactly the reason why I read Watts.  He makes me think and pulls no punches doing it.  Yet at the same time, he delivers the action, adventure, adrenaline, high technology, and speculation about the future that I expect from the best of today’s science fiction.

But be warned, he’s not for the faint of heart.  His vision of the world is bleak.  One review on Goodreads called Blindsight the best book they’d ever read, but one they were unlikely to read again. The clearest warning I’ve seen is reviewer James Nicoll’s comment (which is prominently-displayed on Watts’ own web site):

Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts.

It’s a serious warning and should be taken that way.  But if you’re willing to look into the abyss and want to be challenged while being entertained, you can’t do better than Watts.

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2015 Year in Review

The 1440 books project began with a projection of how many books I had left to read in my life.  This was based on an average of about 44 books a year.  This last year put a real dent in that plan, as my reading rate plunged to 25 books.  Still, I’ll stay optimistic and hope that somewhere in the future, I’ll make up for lost ground.

In the interim, I thought it would be a good time to look back at what I read in 2015.  I posted about a number of them, but there are a few that I didn’t post about that are worth mentioning–and worth your time.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is the best cyberpunk novel I’ve read in years.  Just replace “cyber” with “water.”  Set in the southwestern United States in a depressingly-near future, The Water Knife tells about savage fights for water rights between barely-united states.  Full of politics, technology, and predictions of our bleak future, at its heart, the novel is a rocket-paced thriller with well-crafted characters that builds to a satisyfing conclusion.

In his blurb for The Builders by Daniel Polansky, Myke Cole says “The Builders is Redwall meets Unforgiven, combining the endearing wit of Disney’s Robin Hood with all the grit and violence of a spaghetti western.”  If that appeals, just buy it now.  Trust me.  If it doesn’t, then you’re going to miss out on a gem.  I’d call this novella delightful if it weren’t so dark, but one can’t help but enjoy language like this:

The two old friends stood silently in the fading light, though you wouldn’t have known it to look at them.  That they were old friends, I mean.  Anyone could see it was getting dark.

The Shadow of the Ship by Robert Wilfred Franson and Lords of the Starship by Mark S. Geston were both “forgotten” classics of SF that I learned about at a conference many years ago and finally got around to reading.  Both delivered concepts and stories that would never sell today, but that I found deeply engaging.  Franson’s vision of subspace travel on roads of color and the quest for a ship that can go “off road” is a psychedelic odyssey in the vein of M. John Harrison’s science fiction.  Geston’s Lords of the Starship is less a novel than a work of imaginary history that rolls along nicely before suddenly, surprisingly, becoming a totally different novel at the end–in a way not everyone will appreciate, but I enjoyed.

Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin is exactly what it claims to be, but Goodwin makes vast swathes of time go down easily with evocative prose:

As rough country people whose women went unveiled, they preferred holy men who knew how to keep up to the supple intellectuals of the old cities. Tramps and wanderers they liked, fierce talk and wild habits; madmen with their plausible but unexpected utterances, whose ravings were the scorching words of God, direct and necessarily hard to understand.

For the curious, the full list of books for 2015 is:

  1. Batman: Year 100 by Paul Pope
  2. Faded Steel Heat (Garrett P.I., #9) by Glen Cook
  3. World War One: A Narrative by Philip Warner
  4. In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman
  5. Wildwood (Wildwood Chronicles, #1) by Colin Meloy
  6. The Golden Age Hawkman Archives, Vol. 1 by Gardner F. Fox
  7. The Whispering Swarm (Sanctuary of the White Friars, #1) by Michael Moorcock
  8. Nation by Terry Pratchett
  9. A Red Herring Without Mustard (Flavia de Luce, #3) by Alan Bradley
  10. Angry Lead Skies (Garrett P.I., #10) by Glen Cook
  11. The End of the Story by Clark Ashton Smith
  12. Climbers by M. John Harrison
  13. The Shadow of the Ship by Robert Wilfred Franson
  14. Dune by Frank Herbert
  15. Speaking from Among the Bones (Flavia de Luce, #5 ) by Alan Bradley
  16. Isle of the Dead by Roger Zelazny
  17. Night of Knives (Malazan Empire, #1) by Ian C. Esslemont
  18. The Getaway Man by Andrew Vachss
  19. Maske: Thaery by Jack Vance
  20. Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel
  21. Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin
  22. Lords Of The Starship by Mark S. Geston
  23. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
  24. The Builders by Daniel Polansky
  25. Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure by Cecil Castellucci

Look forward to new books in 2016 and, hopefully, a few updates on my own writing.

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“Step into the gap, soldier.”

Steven Erikson is a genius. His Malazan Books of the Fallen are the only books I’ve read that rival–possibly exceed–Tolkein for the sheer weight of imagined history.

But Erikson eschews Tolkein’s formality. His characters live and fight and die in the muck and dirt. Generals and soldiers, gods and monsters, ancient races and undead warriors, they all tread the same dusty roads as the rest of us. They feel like real people in a way the Riders of Rohan and the defenders of Gondor, for all their glory, never do. I care about these characters, and I’m excited when a favorite turns up–or is even just mentioned in passing–in one of the novels.

And yet for all that they are military fantasy and dwell on the fate of armies and empires, a streak of incredible compassion runs through Erikson’s work. He’s written some about it here, and I freely admit that Reaper’s Gale is one of the few books in the last ten years to make me tear up.

So I’ve wanted to check out Ian Esselmont’s Malazan books for a while. He and Erikson created the world and many of the characters together, and Erikson’s success provided a springboard for Esselmont to sell his own novels. Having read all of Erikson’s books, I wondered if Esselmont’s would scratch that itch for more.

Night of Knives came close. The novel tells of a pivotal event that closely precedes the start of Erikson’s books. It takes place in the course of a single night and focuses largely on two new, minor characters–a young thief named Kiska, desperate to get out of a town she sees as a dead-end backwater, and a veteran soldier named Temper, semi-retired but unable to let go of old loyalties. Both find themselves caught in a conjunction of powers far beyond their understanding, but both play a key role in the events that follow. Readers familiar with the Malazan mythos will know how the night ends, but not how we get there and who pays what price in the conflict.

Esselmont isn’t the storyteller Erikson is. The prose drags at time. The characters are interesting, but not quite as engaging as Erikson’s. But it’s his first novel. And looking back with honesty, Erikson’s first novel–Gardens of the Moon–has some pretty clunky bits. He honed his craft pretty heavily between that and Deadhouse Gates and continued to grow as a writer throughout all ten Malazan books.

Esselmont has an advantage, though. Where Erikson was introducing readers to the world, Esselmont gets to leverage the weight and gravitas that Erikson has built up around their shared characters. Names like Kellanvad, Dancer, Surly and Tayschrenn still resonate, and when these iconic characters appear and interact with the new characters, the frisson of recognition and wonder is right there.

In the end Night of Knives comes close enough that I plan to pick up the second book and give him another shot.

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That sensation which tells you this is something you’ve always known

A group of us got together recently to watch Jupiter Ascending, the recent effort from the Wachowskis. We were less than impressed. The weak characters with unclear, shifting motivations and a non-sensical plot could not be saved by the gonzo world and over-the-top visuals. But the stunning imagery and story revolving around warring family members in a culture that was an odd blend of the mercantile and medieval got me thinking about Frank Herbert’s Dune, and so I picked up the Kindle version of that classic novel and gave it a re-read.

I don’t think I’ve read Dune since 1984 when the David Lynch movie came out and blew my young mind.

Lynch’s Guild Navigator

I still remember how they provided a glossary of terms to the audience. They needed to.  New concepts and terms come at the reader fast and furious–Gom jabbar, Bene Gesserit, Kwisatz Haderach, sietch, Fremen, Landsraad–each evoking the exotic setting.

From Mark Molnar’s Concept Art Project (worth checking out; every painting is a gem)

This time round, I noticed Herbert’s effective use of 3rd person omniscient, a point of view that is largely out of favor these days.  It is often associated with novice writers who just don’t understand point of view, but Herbert uses it to great effect (much like Louis L’Amour, but that’s another post).

Trust and betrayal are central themes of the novel. Because Herbert moves seamlessly from one character’s thoughts to another, you get a conversation between a traitor and the soon-to-be betrayed where you see how much and how foolishly the traitor is trusted or a confrontation between two people who suspect each other of being a traitor, when neither is. And the dinner party scene with the local notables and the Duke’s household is like watching an eight-way fencing match.

Knife fights in space!

Herbert’s style is spare, which leaves our minds to fill in the imagery.  And boy do they.  No description could convey the majesty, wonder, and strangeness that resonates with the reader and finds answer in their imagination.  Artists and filmmakers through the years have felt that call and done their best with depictions of strange worlds…

The Atreides homeworld of Caladan by Angelitoon (from deviantart)

…advanced technology…

A spice harvester and escort by Brad Wright (from deviantart)

…exotic heroes and villains…

Character studies for Jodorowsky’s ill-fated Dune movie by the comic artist Moebius

…and the worms.  Everyone loves the worms…

Also from Mark Molnar because his work is just that good

…except this poor donkey.  He doesn’t love the worms…

It’s probably clear that I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading Dune and firmly believe it’s time someone tackled it with a new and faithful movie.  Maybe a trilogy.  Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and the new Star Wars films have all paved the way, and the popular audience is ready for the majesty and mystery of Herbert’s imagined future.

(All images copyright their creators or owners and are shared because Dune, and their work depicting it, are visually stunning.)

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