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The Tapir's Morning Bath (Elizabeth Royce): Nonfiction. Journalist spends a year in and out of Barro Colorado Island, studying the scientists. Subtitled, "Mysteries of the Tropical Rainforest and the Scientists Who Are Trying to Solve Them", which is the most ponderous part of the book, right there, so the rest of the narrative can leave that behind and be charming and light and interesting. Somehow, Royce manages to write about the bugs, the spiders, the experiments, and and the weather, and still make this an interesting read. Good for Nonfiction Lite reading, when you're not feeling up to heavy contemplation.

I reread Downbelow Station (C. J. Cherryh) for the first time in years. Intentionally or otherwise, Cherryh created a universe peopled by people that feel more damaged, bitter, and uncontrollable than my relatives at their worst, then wrote stories about how these characters shook worlds and brought economic empires to their knees. And this is getting a separate post, because I'm three disorganized paragraphs in, and haven't really said what I want to. So I'll toss out this thought instead: Lois Bujold talks about doing the Worst Possible Thing to her characters; discussion on the LMB mailing list suggested this might be modified to, "the Worst Possible Thing the character(s) can learn from." Cherryh pushes her characters just a little... bit... farther. Oops. Since I was introduced to the two authors' works within a year and a half of each other, they've sort of formed a continuum of good intentions and bad consequences. Downbelow Station was one of the first three Cherryh novels I read, the other two being Cloud's Rider and 40,000 in Gehenna (Yes, I read the Rider books out of sequence), and so made the greatest impression on me. I was fascinated by the Mazianni's unapologetic evilness, and the continual falling to new lows: just when the characters thought things had settled, someone sprang new and unpleasant events on them, until climatic spoiler moment ). And after the battle's lost and won, and there's a nice little dinner party/celebratory feast, the book just stops, which left me going, "but wait! Whiplash!" and I was well and truly hooked. I didn't so much "get" Downbelow Station as it got me.

A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens): Probably not a proper novel, but rather a novella, by today's standards, but what the heck. Dripping with a sensibility that wavers between witty side-notes and obnoxious sentimentalism, A Christmas Carol is exactly the sort of story we're all glad was made into a Disney movie many years ago. All the story plus Scrooge McDuck. If this seems flippant, well, remember that I thought the most interesting characters in A Tale of Two Cities were Sidney Carton (until he got all noble) and Madame Defarge.

Anansi Boys (Neil Gaiman): "Fat" Charlie Nancy's father dies. Fat Charlie's brother (the one he didn't know about) arrives at his flat one crimson dawn. British slapstick ensues. Cut for length and low taste in exemplar quotes. No real spoilers. )
Nonetheless. While liking the novel less than the vocal fangirls, I still liked it. A little predictable, once you set your mind to Monty Python, but worth picking up at the library.

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen): Girls meet boys. Mother of girls goes into flutters. P&P gets a lot of good press among the bibliophiles I know, but I'm not much for regencies or romances. I must confess that I still am missing the innate attractiveness of Mr. Darcy. Favorite character: the deadpan Mr. Bennett. I enjoyed Austen's dry wit, but the book is more fun, in a mannered sort of way, than deep, and so suffers easily from overblown expectations.

One final book of note: I am not done with Alan Lightman's The Discoveries, but I've stalled on it, and I can't let it go back to the library without comment. When the author's intent is to present what he thinks are the 25 most important papers of the 20th century, with some background about the author, the paper's context, and lay interpretations of the more technical bits, it seems to me that it flies in the face of the author's stated purpose to cut parts of the papers because he believes them to be irrelevant to the paper's scientific import. It doesn't work that way: you have to do the tedious, niggling, absolutely nit-picking work to prove that your hypothesis both explains the available data and that no other theory you are aware of explains that data as well. So cutting the "yes, it's not [list of alternatives] because [experimental data]" saves you space and lay boredom, but it misses the point in ways that - self-evidently - drives me up a wall. Not counting in my '05 stats because I may get take another stab, but I feel like this is aimed at the Book World audience who wants to feel educated and cultured, without doing the dirty work of deciding on their own what parts to skim.

Year-End Stats: Counting anthologies as "one book", 55 total, 34 fiction (including 10 rereads and 2 graphic novels), 21 nonfiction. Since last year's not-resolution was "less! And more nonfiction!" (or see version 1.0, bottom of post, with 2004 stats), I think I can consider 2005 a literary success.

2006 ambition: Peg reading increases to nonfiction increases, and maybe diverify a bit, get some non-science history and such in there. Balance with academics.
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So. November. At least it's not February. And I read an awful lot of the Post. I still feel like I didn't get a lot read this month. Possibly because I was, you know, doing homework. Details, details.

Strange Destinations (Tim Powers): Anthology. After two or three stories, you begin to notice some trends: white men who done wrong by a woman, matter-of-fact magical intrusions into reality, bourbon, cigarettes, acknowledging that you were sort of a jerk to your (often dead) woman. After six stories of this, you don't care how nifty the fantastic elements are, you're bored with Powers. The end.

Fifty Degrees Below (Kim Stanley Robinson): Second book in the Science in the Capitol trilogy. This is fun because it's applied science, but the applied science goes a little too smoothly for me to buy into it as more than a happy pipe dream. There is - forgive me - a lack of stupid egos and pork barrel projects grinding Our Protags' agendas to dust.

That said, it's a really fun pipe dream. Spoilers Lite and mostly fluffy. )

Next month: Barro Colorado Island. Also, I grabbed my copy of Downbelow Station from dad's over Thanksgiving, so there's the possibility of a reread. I haven't done a full page-the-first to page-the-last reread since I was 17, so it'll be interesting to see if it stands up. Right now I'm stuck in the first twenty or so pages; if you know the book, I just got to Elene and Estelle. And so far, the book is even more grim than I remember it. I'm impressed, in a, "maybe after finals" way. On the other hand, I did some of my best time management when Watchmen was my bedtime reading, so maybe unremitting character torture would concentrate my attention in the academic here-and-now. We'll see.
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A Slight Trick of the Mind (Mitch Cullin): I've read maybe two Arthur Conan Doyle stories in my life, but I keep picking up the ancillary fanfic fiction. This is emotionally awful - I don't care who you are, being 92 is a rough thing on a good day - and reasonably good fiction.

Future Washington (Earnest Lilley, Ed.): Lilley stood up at a WSFA meeting and said, "wouldn't it be cool if there were a collection of SF stories about Washington, DC?" This collection is the result. I am captivated by the central conceit, because DC is the city I've orbited since I was six, so of course I grabbed this as soon as I could. It's not as good as the anthology I read last month, but it includes several stories that made me very intellectually happy. So between the good, the bad and the joy of analyzing the downright ugly (see below), I think I got my money's worth.

The good: humans follow ants, an epistolary story that did not suck, overenthusiastic sociobiology. )

The ugly: Punctuation has migrated to friendlier climes. )

That was the good, and the ugly. The merely bad included "A Well-Dressed Fear" (B. A. Chepaitis), which I challenge anyone familiar with fanfic to read without whispering, "Marissa Amber Flores Picard!", and Thomas M. Harlan's noir-ish "Hothouse", which had me cheering for the Black Hats.

Minor notables in the collection: Joe Haldeman's "Civil Disobedience", which demonstrates what control of narrative pacing can do, has a little local color and includes a nicely ambiguous protagonist; "Hail to the Chief" (Allen M. Steele), an ironic, brutal little piece about the end of the two-party system.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Marjane Satrapi): Autobiographical graphic novel. Living in Tehran after the revolution seems to be a universally miserable experience for women.

Wizards at War (Diane Duane): One day, I will learn my lesson and stop reading books in one day. Really. Promise. Until then, the flaws will stand out more than the good bits.

Spoilers, with minor Bujold reference. )

Next month: bio nonfiction, hopefully. Also, much physics nonfiction, in the form of Serway's "Physics for Scientists and Engineers, Vol. 1". The class is - well, you've heard how the class is - but the textbook is shockingly good.
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In September, I finished one book. One. On the other hand, it was good stuff.

So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy (Nalo Hopkinson, ed, and Uppinder Mehan, ed): If ever there was an anthology I should not have been allowed to read, "So Long Been Dreaming" is probably it. I don't care how cool the main title is, the "postcolonial" part of subtitle means I probably can't appreciate it on its own terms. But since when has that stopped me? So there was less with the contemplation of how "...the simple binaries of native/alien, technologist/pastoralist, colonizer/colonized are all brought into question by writers who make use of both thematic and linguistic strategies that subtly subvert received language and plots", and more of me asking:

Are the ideas compelling?
Do the plots interest me?
Is the spelling and grammer readable?
Have the spelling and grammar been mangled for good reasons that support the idea or plot?

Actual words about words. Condensed: I liked it. )

I also reread fragments of many things:

Tam Lin (Pamela Dean), which used to give me bad dreams. This semester, I'm taking enough credits that I don't feel like a slacker compared to the characters. Also, the book includes physics hate, which is a great comfort. Beauty in tidepools, yes; beauty in physics, not so much yet.

Much Bujold, particularly "The Mountains of Mourning" and "Cordelia's Honor". And wow. This is why I love LMB's works. You could have had a happy man, but no, you had to fall for the breathtaking beauty of pain. At least I won't just tilt at windmills for you. I'll send in sappers to mine the twirling suckers, and blast them into the sky. I am my lady's dog. You're off your meds!

I miss Bothari. You may now cart me off to the madhouse.

Bujold's been doing "nice" books lately - everyone gets their just desserts, though they may take some suffering and requited-but-unconsummated romance to achieve. I miss people dying for stupid reasons, like their clone-brother's stunts getting out of hand.

I think I also perused some other books, but time has wiped my rereads from my memory.

Next month: the Future Washington anthology for certain. I've only got a novella and one short story left.
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Instead of reading books I read the paper and did logic puzzles. I am hopeless at Sudoku, so my reading list lost a lot of ground to the numbers 1-9.

Garlic and Sapphires (Ruth Reichl): LA Times restaurant reviewer switches coasts to become the NY Times restaurant reviewer. If books could be foods, this might be a meringue. ) Recommended for light reading.

The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. Le Guin): Reread. But this time, I got it. )

Califia's Daughters (Leigh Richards/Laurie R. King): I didn't like it. )

In related news, King is working on a Kate Martinelli/Sherlock Holmes novel. I'm desperately trying to reserve judgment until I've actually read the book.

A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (Ursula K. Le Guin). Reread. I vaguely recalled some short stories about FTL in the Hainish universe, eventually remembered which volume I'd read them in, and finally got a copy via ILL. It's a short, small collection, so rereading the entire thing wasn't too time-consuming. Le Guin was herself; "The Rock that Changed Things" is a nice, rock-ish parable. "Newton's Sleep" fails to move me. It's the triumph of the Message over logic, plot, and simple coherence. "The Shobies' Story" and "Dancing to Ganam" need to be remixed for increased perception screwiness and didactism effacement. "Another Story"/"A Fisherman of the Inland Sea" is fairly minor, but pleasant. The remaining stories failed to move me to more than passing irritation or fleeting amusement.

And, like, wow. Cyteen sequel in the works. Original announcement on Cherryh's journal/ progress report,
August 25 '05. Given the decade of rumors preceding this, I'll believe it when I am holding the hardcover. (And yet. Posting about it - you really can't kill hope.)
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Counting rereads, I plowed through 16 2/2 books in July. (The 2/2 are two partial rereads.) To save my f-list from my spam, I've split by week and backdated the posts.

Dude. I need to get a life. Or a paying book review gig.

One: Chanur reread, Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, Kirstein reread
Two: Locked Rooms, Four Loves
Three: Deep Survival, Q's Legacy, HP6, The Call of the Wild, The Raging Quiet
Four: The Maltese Falcon, The Dispossessed
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The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett): Sam Spade acquires a client, loses a partner, and plays all ends off the middle. The narrative "voice" is fascinating - it's entirely exterior. And eventually get around to massive spoilers, ) In short, cool stuff. (7.26)

The Dispossessed (Ursula K. Le Guin): A scientist from a desert moon colonized by anarchists visits the stately, capitalist homeworld. This is Le Guin at the top of her game - the worldbuilding is great, the plot resonates with the theme, the didactic prose fits with the subject under examination. I'm still very glad that I had my filters set for Le Guin, but at least the prose and attitude didn't throw me out for once. Both societies shown are sufficiently carefully crafted that I'm willing to suspend disbelief - neither is perfect, and both are shown at their stress-points, which is where interesting stories generally happen. The first chapter was a struggle, but after that I was in the groove and loved it, especially once I noticed the plot enacting Odo's statement about departures and returns. It's been a while since a science fiction novel made my brain glow with such cerebral delight, so I'm going to suggest everyone set their reading glasses for Le Guin and read it. (7.31)

Posted and backdated August 4th, 2005
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Temp: 98 degrees.
Heat index: 106 degrees.
Humidity: 42%

These are the days when I take the college bus down the hill, to stay out of the humidity for an extra 30 seconds. Fortunately, a cold front should come through tonight and cool things off. We hope.

Strangely, reading The Maltese Falcon is great prep for The Dispossessed. At least, tD was more engaging than irritating. (I'm skimming [livejournal.com profile] coffee_and_ink's journal for Le Guin comments; she notes that Le Guin is a didactic writer. And that explains so many quibbles I have with her novels.) I've never read anything of Le Guin's that I've enjoyed as much as the original Earthsea trilogy, and I keep coming back looking for that spark.

Or maybe the heat's fried my brain into seeing stuff that's not there. Ah, summer.
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Deep Survival (Laurence Gonzales): Nonfiction. Some people survive in situations - blizzards, rock climbing accidents, sailing accidents, airplane crashes - that kill others. Why? Gonzales examines survivors' experiences and neurology to describe behaviors and underlying brain actions that explain why some people live through disasters while other people in the same situations freak out and die. Using strong emotion to fuel but not overpower reason may be important. Fairly lightweight, and more wincing at broken bones, motorbike spills, & etc. (7.18)

Q's Legacy (Helene Hanff): I have read pieces of this before. I recognize the words, I know the story before I turn the page. Bizarrely, I remember it being an online piece. Narrative about the fallout from blind curiosity and correspondance. Autobiographical? Anecdotal? Hanff wrote to Marks & Co asking for books, and started a friendship-by-correspondence with the store's owners and employees. The letters became 84 Charing Cross Road after the shop closed. 84 Charing Cross Road spawned a sequel, a BBC production, and stage productions in London and New York. All of which began with Hanff checking out The Art of Writing, by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, from the Philadelphia Public Library at the age of eighteen. Hanff follows the fallout of that event through the Depression to the '80s. I am most shaken by Hanff's love of books as physical objects: it is not enough to possess the content; the ideal book has properties unique to it. For Hanff, they're "...old, mellow leather-bound books with thick cream-colored pages, but not so opulently fine as to make me feel guilty if I underlined a phrase here (in pencil) or made a margin note there when I felt like it. They didn't have the look of rare or fine books, they looked like the friends I needed them to be." This is a sentiment that requires no imagination on my part to understand. I have a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse (Ed. Arthur Quiller-Couch) that fills a similar comforting niche on my bookshelf. (7.19)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (J. K. Rowling): The juggernaut of the kid's fantasy field. Previous brief and spoilery comments here and here; I think I've gotten though this without actually mentioning any new plot info (shock!). It's almost, like, a meta-review. If I keep this up it's only going to end in tears and the Washington Post Book Review.

I am a geek; if I need to prove my fan cred I submit the annotated Star Wars screenplays sitting on my bookshelf. There's an anecdote in the RotJ section about George Lucas fiddling with 3x5 index cards written with plot points, like "Yoda dies", or "Luke tells Leia they're family." Joe Straczynski kept a binder of episodes when he was working on Babylon 5. (Most relevant comments on it here, and an earlier post relating to the next point here. I love usenet archives.) Certain stuff "had" to happen, to satisfy narrative convention, but the writers were still at liberty to decide what relationship those events will have - near, far, whatever. Since HBP was the sixth installment in a seven book series, fans "knew" that certain events were extremely likely in this book, or almost inevitable in the seventh. So the mad fannish speculation - in fic, essay, and list form - pretty much killed the surprise of the major narrative shock-points.

I'm disappointed that I didn't take this more slowly; one of Rowling's strengths as a writer is her persistance at picking a plot arc and forcing the novel to fit into that arc. This means that HBP should reward closer attention than I gave it. (Someone commented once that "rewards close attention" sounds like lukewarm praise at best, but I like books like that.) Things like Arabella Figg's behavior, Remus Lupin's name (gee, much of a lypocanthic hint?), and the RAB thing in HBP mean that mad fannish plot speculation might be worth the effort. The problem is that Rowling's got a narrow focus for details, and the parts she's less interested in get shafted. For examples of this, go to a large HP board and look for old posts or threads about the population size and sociological underpinnings of the wizarding world. So as a book it is profoundly mixed; as an addition to the HP canon this fangirl thinks it was great fun, even if she still doesn't understand why it was so long.(7.20/21)

The Call of the Wild (Jack London): St. Bernard/shepherd mix Buck is kidnapped to Northern gold fields, mastering the bloody, ruthless life of his ancestor/cousin the wolf. Most immediately striking is the characterization - Buck is nicely emoted, but doesn't feel overly anthropomorphized. Also nice is the evocation of the Alaskan/Northern Canadian wilderness. And I totally would have missed the thematic stuff if I hadn't read the introduction. So it's nice, but possibly better if you have an English prof around to help provide context. (7.21)

The Raging Quiet (Sherryl Jordan): I first ran into Jordan's work in middle school or early high school, when I pulled Winter of Fire off the library shelf and loved it. So when I noticed that she had more I had to grab it, hoping for something like the evocative, low-key worldbuilding and interesting female protagonist I remembered from her first novel. Unfortunately, no luck. At some point I stopped wishing for plucky, independent heroines and started longing for plucky, self-possessed heroines who got along with people. It would save ever so many witch trials if Ms. Plucky (& Slightly Anachronistic) would tell people what she was up to, instead of leaving them to guess and gossip. The disappointing fallout from this slight work is the shadow it casts on my memories of the other novel: if I read Winter of Fire today, would it still be as readable as I remember? (7.22)

Posted and backdated August 4th, 2005
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Locked Rooms (Laurie R. King): In all my griping about plausibility and suspension of disbelief, it's easy to forget is how fun the Holmes/Russell books are. Deep? Reflective? Heck no. On the other hand, Erratic spoilers. )

Someday, there may be WWII!Russell books. Scary thought. And that's as profound as I'm going to get. (7.13)

Four Loves (C. S. Lewis): Nonfiction. Lewis examines several categories of human interaction - affection, friendship, romantic love, charity - with an eye to their similarities to and impediment of relationship with the Divine. Several years ago I saw the book mentioned in someone's attempt to clarify character relationships and decided I wanted to try reading it. Stalled three pages in on someone else's copious underlining and my complete incomprehension of Lewis' central thesis. I think my personal history with God (or rather, the complete lack thereof) continues to explain most of my difficulties with this book, a state of events that says more about me than about Lewis' thoughtful and reasonably readable work. Lewis' control of his words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters awes me, since I can't consistently start and end livejournal entries where I intend to. (7.16)

Posted and backdated August 4th, 2005
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Two series rereads, one short essays-make-good-chapers nonfiction.

The Pride of Chanur, Chanur's Venture, The Kif Strike Back, Chanur's Homecoming (C. J. Cherryh): Reread. A human staggers into an alien Compact and nearly blows it to pieces. Twice. The Chanur series never clicked with me the way some of Cherryh's other novels have. I always felt the Venture/Kif/Homecoming trilogy was an expansion of the original Pride plot, and didn't do much except make everyone crazy stressed for all of The Kif Strike Back (which always disappoints me when no one's frozen in carbonite). It's a bad sign when you find yourself skimming the part where the protagonist digs information out of people, waiting for her to package it for the benefit of other characters. Lazy and all. I like the mahendo'sat much more than they probably deserve. Note that I said "like", not "trust"; it's Cherryh, there is a difference.

To balance the list of complaints - there's something very intellectually fun about the inversions in the Chanur series. A lone human in a sea of aliens, dominant females, the PoV underdog conservative species in a powerful Compact. There's probably more poking of the tropes than I've noticed, but those are the most obvious to me. It seems to me that the great fun in the Chanur series is noticing stuff like that and discussing it, making it a stronger "ideas" or "plot" book than "character" novel.

Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science (Atul Gawande): Nonfiction; loan from one of my school friends. Medicine as seen by a surgical resident. Mishaps, inexplicables, and surprises. Medicine is always improving, but remains a chancy field. The book uses an ice cube/hurricane metaphor: is patient assessment more like diagnosing ice cubes in a fire, or hurricane landfalls? The book rests on this awareness of uncertainty. Where do medical mistakes come from? How do we deal with the surprises patient bodies throw at doctors? And how can patients work through the uncertainties of treatment in an era when ethics places the burden of decision on them? Gawande uses anecdotes and statistics pulled from the medical journals to try to illuminate what's going on in the hospital's collective brain. And what colorful anecdotes. I think the necrotizing fasciitis is going to hold a special place in my memory. Unless the hyperemesis, um, sticks. Though there's always the nasty death-on-a-ventilator... anyway. Very accessible style, and a fast read, but I was squirming a bit imagining the surgical bits.

Further inappropriately lighthearted notes - medical jargon seems to be more hyperspecialized than cell bio jargon. I can generally figure out what article titles in cell bio journals mean at this point, but the medical article cited at one point was entirely past my parsing. Science fiction fans might find themselves in sympathy with "Nine Thousand Surgeons", a chapter on the annual American College of Surgeons convention.

I reread the first two books in Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman series - The Steerswoman and The Outskirter's Secret - pieces of The Lost Steersman, and most of The Language of Power. If you're playing the "pick more information out of the series" game, it's more effective to just do a search on the series in the usenet archives, but the novels stand up to rereading fairly well. Full series spoilers. )

I think the interplay of what the readers know, but the protagonists don't, and what neither readers nor protags know, is one of the niftiest things about the Steerswoman series. My two cents.

Posted and backdated August 4th, 2005
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You may all mock me, because the first thing I finished in June was the Revenge of the Sith novelization (Matthew Stover). No real comments, other than noting extended universe nods (and I actually noticed. Paraphrasing other people's words, I have hit the rock bottom of embarrassment and am drilling for humiliation oil) and admitting I was still desperately trying to force a convergence on the movie in my head and Lucas' script and failing miserably.

The novelization is slightly kinder Padme's character than the movie, because Padme gets to do a little - a very little - backstage political maneuvering, and sort of encourage the nascent Rebellion. But she's still a fool for love whenever Anakin's around. Also, the opening battle takes even longer than it does in the movie. At least, it feels that way.

(Do you know what's kind of ironic? The natural pool of rebel talent is - the Separatists. Who many of those high-level someday-Rebel leaders just spent two or three years fighting. That this isn't noted at all in the movie or novelization is an interesting oversight.)

To expiate my trashy novelistic sins, I plunged back into Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (Richard Dawkins), Dawkins' attempt to explain the beauty of science. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy totally got that point across to me when I was young and feckless - okay, younger and feckless - so the book sort of undershot me*. Rainbow still a rainbow after Newton, gotcha. I'm still likely to remember this book fondly for Dawkins' candor about statistical analysis and errors: the common type 1 and type 2 and Dawkins' type 3 error, "in which your mind goes totally blank whenever you try to remember which [kind of error] is of type 1 and type 2." (Chapter 7, "Unweaving the Uncanny", p171 HC). So been there.

*KSR has a talent for describing things in ways that mesh with how I make the text visualize. Red Mars made me desperately want to see sunset on the red planet. "The Scientist as Hero" in Green Mars just makes me happy. Science = things making sense.

"However many ways there may be of being alive, there are almost infinitely more ways of being dead." (Chapter 8, "Cloudy Symbols of a High Romance", p206 HC)

I was pretty bored by the end, because I know this stuff, but if you were any sort of geek other than a science or science ficton nerd this might be a more enlightening and entertaining book.

Then the library called to say Reading Lolita in Tehran (Azar Nafisi) was on hold for me, and would I like to pick it up sometime in the next seven days? I went to a talk Nafisi gave last October, and decided I sort of had to read her book. I really liked it. Nafisi is an English professor at Hopkins, and loves the field so passionately even I begin to appreciate its merits. The narrative's discussion of what it's actually like to live under a crushing totalitarian regime is also enlightening.

Continuing my penance for my earlier novelistic sins, I jumped into Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA (Brenda Maddox). Franklin gets a fairly bum rap in The Double Helix, James Watson's account of the heady DNA days, and Maddox tries to redress things. Many tangential and subjective comments on on Wilkes, working women and the process of science. )

Thus ends the science rant. Back to the bio.

Maddox convincingly draws a picture of Franklin as a tough, complex woman - a meticulous scientist, a loving daughter and sister, a fierce opponent. I think some of her evocations of other personalities are a little weaker (at least, I occasionally forgot who someone was), but she does a great job of fleshing out a scientist who seems to have been at her most unhappy during the DNA years. I'd recommend the bio in a flash.

Work Clothes: Casual Dress for Serious Work (Kim Johnson Gross, Jeff Stone, text J. Scott Omelianuk, photos Robert Tardio): Useless fluff. I wanted a book on how to keep ironed shirts unwrinkled and what a basic work wardrobe should include, and I got fashion advice circa 1996. Pretty clothing pictures, but not a good resource.

City of Diamond (Jane Emerson/Doris Egan/[livejournal.com profile] tightropegirl): reread. Not quite as clever as I recall, but still good stuff. If you haven't read it, CoD is a fun little 500-odd page novel of political intrigue and romance as two religious city-state starships search for a McGuffin that will give the owner major points with the general population. This lets the good guys prove their goodness, the bad guys torture people and be self-serving, and the reader enjoy the ride. Stands alone well, for the first of a never-completed trilogy.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke): Clarke revels in novel-expanding tangents and embedded stories. Somewhere within JS&MN's 782 pages, a really excellent 500 page novel is struggling to get out. There are fantastic moments, but the book entire needs someone to edit it with a machete. Possibly I missed some subtle, clever play on Regency novel conventions, but the first quarter of the book dragged. I was spoilers. )

Once Strange is onstage, things move much more nicely. Norrell and Strange are foils, so this is as it should be. It's a shame it took Clarke 250 pages to even introduce the guy. And after that the magic system is clever in vague ways, the visual moments of magic at work are startlingly clear, and I like the novel much more.

But I still miss that editorial machete.

Finally, I skimmed large parts of Cyteen (C. J. Cherryh) after getting some paperwork from my mother. Cyteen has held a special place in my heart since the events preceeding the 2000 Chicago Worldcon, when I got to a stopping point, put the book down, and thought, "I'm not letting my mother screw up my Worldcon plans." And since then, it's been my dealing-with-craziness book. It's dense, distracting and speaks to my Inner Bitch. Other than that, almost everything that can be said about Cyteen has been said elsewhere: anyone who thinks it's a murder mystery isn't paying attention (and that said, we'd still like to know who the murderer was), intelligence vs. happiness, wow those are some screwed up interpersonal relationships (why don't more characters try to run away to Novgorod and get away from their parents?), character studies of Amy Carnath might be interesting. Nevertheless, comments encouraged, because I missed most of the rec.arts.sf.* discussions. Darnit.
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The worst part about these long entries is spellchecking them. Apparently I am incapable of implementing the "i before e" rule with any sort of consistency. And in my defense, I finished four of these after finals. I still need to get out more. To save people's friends pages, I'm cutting for length. No spoilers under the cut unless noted.

Edited to add: Not a bit of nonfiction this month. Have no fear: by the end of June I should have finished Unweaving the Rainbow, another Dawkins book. (And much lighter than The Selfish Gene. I'm not sure if I'm relieved or disappointed.) By the way, is there a Stephen Jay Gould book that won't insult my intelligence? I stalled in the preface to Full House around the fifth assurance that the "disappearance of the .400 batting average in baseball" would be explained later in the book. I would've settled for the one paragraph explanation of batting averages and a footnote explaning why I should care.

Anyway. On to the actual content.

A Darker Place (Laurie R. King): Alternative religions expert Anne Waverly gets around to integrating her shattered personality during an undercover investigation of a religious community.

Minor spoilers. )

If you like LRK, you'll probably enjoy this. I can't speak to mystery readers in general, since I don't know how well this conforms to or defies the tropes of that genre.

The Knight (Gene Wolfe): Our boy Able chases cloud castle out of America and into seven worlds of legend and myth. Interesting worldbuilding, everything else take-or-leave. )

I reread The Beekeeper's Apprentice (Laurie R. King) instead of packing for a wedding and studying for my evolutionary bio final. Since I got an A in evol bio and I was still packed (late) Friday night, I don't feel that bad about the wasted time. Its charms and flaws remain as they always have; great comfort reading.

Swords in the Mist (Fritz Lieber): Continuing my gradual assimilation of the "Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser" series. Two adventurers meet strange (yet alluring) women and go questing in ancient Earth history. The prose is deliciously purple, the plots absurdly direct, and the essentially serial nature of the stories baldly apparent. Great school-season reading: you can say, "gee, it's late," and put it down. Try doing that with Tolkein or Bujold. (By the way, may I just say how relieved I am that Hallowed Hunt came out after finals?) One mistake: don't rush it. I tried to hurry the last few pages one night and it just fell apart.

People are getting so psyched about the Miyazaki adaptation of Howl's Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones) I snagged a copy for plane reading. I can see why they're buzzing. )

Folly (Laurie R. King): A crazy woman, a house, a tragedy and a granddaughter. Think A Darker Place with multi-generational family issues and a history of mental illness. There's a heavy investment on the theme of folly instead of alchemy, obviously, with somewhat less subtlety. I don't know that psychological thrillers are really my thing; I keep waiting for things to start blowing up. And I'm not talking about the psychological stuff.

The Hallowed Hunt (Lois McMaster Bujold): Ingrey kin Wolfcliff is charged to convey a murdered Prince's body and the subdued murderess to the Weald's capital. Easy, right? If only life could be that simple.

Fairly random comments follow, because I am definitely still in the ponder-and-reflect reaction stage. Comments even more strongly encouraged than usual.

'Wild accusations,' murmured Lewko, 'a questionable source, not a shred of material proof, and the third highest lord in the land. What more joys can this day bring me? No, don't answer that. Please.' Spoilers ho! )

Overall, I think this is my favorite book in the Chalionverse/Five Gods universe. I like my plots twisty, oh yes.
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This nearly wound up the Bujold I Didn't Actually Care About, Thanks Much. I genuinely did not like Hallana. So I was a much happier reader by the end of chapter six. Later I came to forgive her, um, extraordinary achievements *cough*Sueness*cough*, as they are much easier to take when her overly cheerful self isn't bustling about onstage and when other characters are treating her with reluctant respect - from as far away from her as they can get. Also, for some reason thinking "double PhD" (near the top) works better in my mind. Blame too many nasty overpowered fantasy Sues. And the mid-chapter seven introduction (she says vaugely) made me all sorts of happy. I like my characters ambiguous at best, and two pages into chapter nineteen I am loving the battles of wits. Who's-got-the-real-information stories make me a happy, happy reader.

Summation: it gets better after chapter four. If you're tempted to bail before then, hang in until chapter eight. Then reconsider bailing.
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One book a week. I think that's a happy medium. I would like to note the unprecedented and shocking fact that nonfiction outnumbers fiction.

The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi (William Scott Wilson): Nonfiction. Life of famous shugyosha (swordsman) and artist Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi lived in the late 1500's to about 1645, so the scholarship relies on some fairly limited and unreliable documentation. The careful notes of significant contradictions were nice, but confusing, because I missed the frontispiece note listing the sources referenced in the bio. In fact, the attempt to balance prose flow with flow-killing reliability analysis - "well, text A says this happened in 1605, and text B describes a similar event, but in 1607..." - sort of didn't work at all for me. Also, diagrams of family trees would have been helpful. The material is interesting, and I don't regret being exposed to it, but I might suggest people look for other books on Musashi if they want a more engaging read. N.B.: this was my primary reading on the plane to and from the [livejournal.com profile] jkling/[livejournal.com profile] mareklamo wedding, so external factors may have caused my attention to suffer. So it might not be the book, it might have been O'Hare.

The Child That Books Built (Francis Spufford): Bibliomaniac talks about his childhood of compulsive reading, a topic close to my heart. I suspect I'd really enjoy talking to this guy, but the book felt unbalanced - not really a biography, not exactly a book about books, not at all about child psychology and development. Not what I was expecting, but still useful for random Narnia and Little House tidbits. (Apparently I am the only child in the world who totally missed the allegorical aspects of the Narnia series. In my defense, the most active Religious Ed teachers at the Unitarian church my parents chose to attend were the burned-out Christians and the practicing Wiccans. I think this explains a lot about my knowledge - and ignorance - of the contemporary religious scene.)

The Language of Power (Rosemary Kirstein): Fourth in a series. Steerswoman Rowan continues to pursue information that might lead to the wizard Slado and his sinister plans. This is one of those extremely linear series where it's a really good idea to start at the beginning with The Steerswoman's Road and avoid spoilers. But this is great stuff. Not exactly literary popcorn, but maybe literary grapes: very sweet, tends to go fast. Huge spoilers for the entire series. )

Genes, Girls and Gamow: After the Double Helix (James D. Watson): Nonfiction. After the great "aha!" of DNA, people get very excited about RNA. And Watson tries to get hitched. Really tries. For fifteen years. Nattering. )

As reviews go, that's a fairly terrible one. Second try. It's easy to compare this to The Double Helix and have GGG come up short. (GGG! That's a - let me check - glycine codon! [/geek] [geek]And Richard Feynman was gly in the RNA tie club! [/geek]) tDH focused on a relatively small number of people tracking down one structure. GGG is a lot more amorphous: many more people wander in and out, and there is no satisfying "and then we discovered the One True RNA Structure, submitted to Nature, and were feted by our collegues" wrapup. (Because, of course, there is no One True RNA anything. There are at least six true RNA things, and Heaven help you if you mix up snRNA and snoRNA on a test.) If this were fiction, I would say the plot is really loose, and poorly wrapped up: the two major threads are RNA research and Watson looking for a wife, and both reach their logical climaxes in the epilogue. Further, the Geo Gamow of the title sort of wanders back toward physics about two-thirds of the way through. So I got huge kicks out of the scientific stuff, and the gossip about who was or wasn't doing what with whom. It's a light read, and fairly fun for the science crew, but if you're not into following the names you're not going to like this so much.
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Four books. Four. Including spring break, where inroads were minimal. Bummer of a book month. But I finally finished The Selfish Gene, so I can't say I really care about the count.

The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester): Reread. Because, as we all should know by now, Bester's two Golden Age novels are the best that era has to offer. (His '80's work is considerably less fun, alas.) So you all know what I'm going to say, right? About love for the genre and how much stuff is of its time and how if you think about the '50s, the themes of conspicuous consumption - Victorianism - tenacity - restraint - losing restraint (also sometimes called self control) seem to say less about where '50s America was going than where it was. But blood and money are universal agents of corruption - the trappings of The Stars My Destination may be dated, but the themes at the heart of the novel still speak to the attentive ear.

The Graveyard Game (Kage Baker): Reread. Fourth novel in the Company series: Joseph and Lewis search for the missing Mendoza and poke at the curious life of Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax while the world quietly crumbles toward the Silence.

Spoileriffic worldbuilding criticism is a terrible thing. Notice how much this is stopping me. )

Other than that, the book is very good. Fast moving plot, vivid characterization, blackly amusing extrapolation of contemporary coddling and PCness into a hyperhygenic ubervegan world where booze and chocolate are illegal. Still very much looking forward to the sixth book.

The Lost Steersman (Rosemary Kirstein): Third book in the Steerswoman series. Definitely not a good place to jump in. If you haven't read the first two, find a copy of The Steerswoman's Road before trying The Lost Steersman. Blurb: back from the Outlands, Rowan searches the disarrayed Steerwoman's Annex for further clues of the wizard Slado's history and plans.

Reactions: Spoilers for the series up to book 3. Kirstein is wandering towards Fat Fantasy Epic territory, but so far I'm suffiently amused to trail along and poke at things. )

[Edit: Spoilers for the fourth book, The Language of Power, in comments. Avoid the "Re: The Lost Steersman & The Language of Power" if you want to remain unspoiled for tLoP.]

I would like to note that I started reading a copy of the second edition of The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) in early January, and finished it at 8:20 AM on March 30th. It was worth it: The Selfish Gene is a lively, detailed argument for the operation of natural selection at the genetic level, a brain-bending concept in chapter one, but eloquently illustrated by the end of the book. Dawkins, a noted evolutionary biologist, politely disagrees with group selectionism and occasionally slams the notion that "contraption contraception is bad" with great ill-will. In the '89 edition, there are also cool "followup" footnotes clarifying concepts and touching on new research (naked mole rats!). There are also two chapters of extra new material, including the "extended phenotype" chapter. (The entire concept is either on crack or possibly very useful. Or maybe both.) The enire book makes me want to dig up early ground-breaking evolutionary bio papers and books, and look at newer research to see what's been done since The Selfish Gene was published. I would encourage anyone who's interested in bio to take a stab at this, because it's interesting, and because it's seminal: my bio prof is basically recapping The Selfish Gene this semester. It makes a fairly painless course very, very easy. Yay Dawkins! And three cheers for my sister, who made me read this.
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This very nearly wound up titled "Geniuses and Megalomania", because there seemed to be an awful lot of that this month, but the entry wound up bookended by lighter stuff. Thank goodness.

Monsoon Diary (Shoba Narayan): Autobiography about life as the bright daughter of a large South Indian family that loves food. Very lightweight, good bedtime reading - as long as you don't go to bed on an empty stomach. Food is a major focus of the book: common breakfasts, memorable feasts, a well-intentioned but fairly disastrous charity dinner; love expressed through lunches. The author includes recipes at chapter ends. It tempts me to cook, which I consider a good thing.

Cold Tom (Sally Prue): Tom of the Fae is - horrors - enslaved to humans by love. YA fluff with one interesting idea (love as a chain) and a whiff of Tam Lin. It suffers from the cuteness and over-tidiness seen in a lot of YA books - very small cast, who all wind up in close happy relationships - and the central theme's pretty standard YA stuff, but the perspective twist is kind of cool. Worth the dollar it cost at a library sale, but not necessarily worth the full price.

The Life of the World to Come (Kage Baker): Fifth novel in the Company series. (Finally!) It moves things along very nicely. Document D, Alec Checkerfield, time travel, weird and possibly metaphorical prophetic dreams. Things go boom! in bad ways, as they tend to around the botanist Mendoza.

For people unfamiliar with Kage Baker's novels: the Company series focuses on events in the lives of certain time traveling immortals who steal great cultural works and to-be-extinct species from their doomed fates and stash them in improbable places for the edification of future generations and profit of Dr. Zeus Inc., the company that created the immortals. Only there's a few hitches, like that distressing "things go boom! around Mendoza" pattern. Sometimes there are also little gray men. If someone wants to explain what was going on at the end of Graveyard Game (or send me a copy of the paperback), email or indicate spoiler-ness when commenting.

The style is fun, the plotting multi-novel, and attention to detail sometimes is really rewarding. Hooked? Find a copy of In the Garden of Eden and start catching up.

Do you know how hard it is to talk without spoiling left, right and center? )

Reread bits of Cyteen. It's a stress thing.

Watchmen (Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons): Notable '80s graphic novel, noted for being an "adult" comic back when they weren't so much. Edward Blake, ex-superhero, is killed. Those who try to find out why discover they've got a thread into a Gordian knot of trouble.

It's, um, well. Picking this up for some light bedtime reading was really a mistake. (I have this problem quite often when I'm trying to read comics. Which is probably why I don't read them much.) There's an awful lot of blood and violence, I can't think of a major protagonist I'd want to spend time with, the art does what it's supposed to, the blocking is striking, and the plot is fabulous. All the byzantine twisting of now, history, minor characters, world events, and even interesting use of the use/abuse of power theme. It's cool. It's intricate. It's just... did Moore really have to throw someone out a skyscraper on the first page?

So. Major points for fabulous plotting, but... don't read this if you're convinced the world's in bad shape.

A Beautiful Mind (Sylvia Nasar): I really liked it. )

I also reread Mirabile (Janet Kagan) in random chunks. Comfort reading, With silly puns, off-the-wall biology, and nice characterization. Everyone means well, and it generally works out.

My last-weekend-of-the-month binge was Hellspark (Janet Kagan). Mirabile is a short story collection, and Hellspark I believe a first novel, and I think the difference shows. In brief, Tocohol Susumo, a red-haired golden-eyed Hellspark trader with a Really Special extrapolative computer, is asked to solve a murder and a question of sentience. I'm glad I read this when I was younger and less jaded by fandom, because I would've tossed this as a Mary Sue-ish if I'd read it after reading all that bad fic. I would have missed a very entertaining story that's just a bit larger than life, in that nifty space opera way. My other quibble with the book is the way everyone's good intentions work out for the best, but after some of the other stuff I read this week I can't say that's a bad thing, in fiction.

In February I read an awful lot of the fiction on the weekends, when I slept late and failed to get anything done that I'd planned on. I can either blame this on a disinclination to get up when it's cold out (and the circulation in the house is terrible; the upstairs is always ten degrees warmer than the downstairs) or my disinclination to do my homework. One of these can be solved by a heater. The real problem probably can be solved by willpower, or going to the school library, out of reach of all that pesky fiction.
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Not a high pagecount, but good stuff. Expect even less in February, since I sort of compulsively read novels when I'm the most stressed and it's the least best idea in the world.

One of these days I ought to have a read-a-thon for a "send [livejournal.com profile] ase to college!" charity drive. Chill out at dad's and try to persuade people to give me one cent for every page I read in a week. (Let's see. Say 300 pages a day, times seven... that's a lot of bad fantasy.) The entire concept works better if the money were headed for people with cancer, or tsunami victims, or generally anywhere but to a lazy college student.

Anyway. This year's reading resolution: less! And more nonfiction!

(We'll see how long that lasts.)

Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynn Truss): My first attempt went badly. )

I reread Forty Signs of Rain (Kim Stanley Robinson) because it was sitting on the library shelf and I really liked it the first time. I'm a sucker for that whole, "yeah, I've been there... and there... and that's where? Hey, I walked past that!" sensation.

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (James D. Watson): How to get a Nobel Prize while still meeting girls. )

Finally - totally irrelevant moment. Is it just the sideburns, or does Paul Bettany sometimes look an awful lot like the guy on the right, Francis Crick?

(I said it was irrelevant, didn't I?)

The Steerswoman's Road [The Steerswoman, The Outskirter's Secret] (Rosemary Kirstein): Omnibus of yet another out of print series initiated in the '80's, revived fifteen years or so later. The premise focuses on a Steerswoman, a sort of information collector and disseminator, whose minor research project evokes an unexpected response from the Wizards, whose agenda is unknown.

The worldbuilding is fairly standard, other than the order of the Steerswomen. They're required to answer any question you ask them, but you have to answer any and all of their questions in turn. The presentation, however, is really nicely done.

The coolest part is definitely the major plot and worldbuilding spoiler. )

Also, Kirstein does a nice job of keeping up the inter-novel tension. It looks like the third book deals with an event set up in the first novel. I have a sneaking suspicion there's a twisty connection to the events of the first two novels. At least, I hope so.

As in all books, the story breaks down in a few places. Some of Rowan's actions in "The Steerswoman" hit an irrational personal narrative dislike, and made that part hard for me to read. The Outskirts food chain in the second book feels really wrong to me. Look, ma! Ecology rant! Also vaguely spoilerish. ) It drives me slightly crazy, but I understand why Kirstein chose to do it.

Next month: well. I've got a copy of Watchmen sitting next to my bed at home... maybe I'll even start it before it's due back... Wednesday?

Or maybe I'll shell out for a copy of The Collected Short Fiction of C. J. Cherryh.

Or... nonfiction. Anyone interested in comments on my organic chem book?

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