Please bear with the length of this delayed double feature.
AUGUSTFire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara (Colleen Morton Busch) (2011):
Nonfiction. During the California 2008 fire season, a Zen retreat was evacuated under threat of fire. Ultimately, five long-term residents remained to defend Tassajara from the Basin Complex fire. ( Better than nice. )
This was a quick, easy read: I picked it up Friday morning and finished it in Saturday afternoon. I felt like it added to my sense of Bay area community. Recommended if you're interested in Zen practice or fires. Proust was a Neuroscientist (Jonah Lehrer)
(2007): Nonfiction. Essays on the link between 19th and 20th C artists' insights and early 21st C scientific research. Walt Whitman, George Eliot, chef Auguste Escoffier Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne's paintings, Igor Stravinsky's "riot" of Spring, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and neurophysiology.
The first essay, on Whitman, was surprisingly entertaining. (Full disclosure, I loathe Whitman's writing. High school english inflicted "Song of Myself" on me during my period of vigorously rejecting all things transcendentalist.) This would have been better if I'd spaced out the essays; trying to read all of them without a break emphasized the collection's limited scope and Eurocentrism. It also suffered from trying to bridge science and the arts: with a foot stretching into each sphere, it did a very incomplete job rooting in either topic. Fullmetal Alchemist, v.9-27 (Hiromu Arakawa) (2004 - 2010):
EPIC WIN. I wanted something absorbing and fun for my train reading, and this fit the bill. My enjoyment makes it hard to write up: good entertainment is something I know when I see it. How do you pick out the components of pleasure when your brain is caplocking with happy reactions?( Thumbs up for awesome female characters, complex plot, detailed and coherent worldbuilding, and shades of moral gray. )Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (Jon Krakauer) (2003)
: Nonfiction. Interleaving of the 1984 murder of Brenda and Erica Lafferty by Brenda's brothers-in-law with a history of Mormon faith contributing to the environment that let men think God wanted them to commit murder. ( The book has a weird depth (or shallowness?) of focus on one murder and all the history of fundamental Mormonism. )Under the Banner of Heaven
is interesting, but deals with people's cruelty in the drive for power, which makes for stressful reading. It's also sharply dated by its references to 9/11 and the absence of references to Prop 8. Worth reading if you're interested in the intersections of organized religion, power, and violence, but pack a strong stomach. When Gravity Fails (George Alec Effinger) (1987)
: Fiction. A 22nd century Arabic punk gets the noir treatment. I will save the cognitive dissonance of the shift from FLDS to erratic Islam and the hilariously long list of novels I thought I'd picked up for another time. (This wasn't hard SF, Jerusalem Poker
, or Srs Lit Bzns. Moving on!) I enjoyed the setting and atmosphere of the novel, without any particular attraction to the plot or protagonist, Marîd. Marîd suffers from saying he is a loner, relying on his native cunning to survive, between scenes of Marîd interacting with his girlfriend, buddies, and wider social network, and adjusting to some heavy-duty cyberpunk wetware upgrades with barely a pang. (Well, the denouncement with Hassan and Okking may be the pangs.) If I have to question whether the character's words and actions are congruent, and the book is not going for an unreliable narrator schtik? You're doing something wrong.
On the other hand, Marîd's low-brow 22nd century is an entertaining mix of bypassed cyberpunk and predictive power. Everyone has something like a cell phone, and information is power. The fringe elements that make up Marîd's social circle include transsexuals for whom somatic alteration was not cheap, but was possible; the surprise isn't that a female stripper used to be a boy, it's that she was a rich
boy. The cyberpunk elements - wetware modifications that allow users to utilize personality modifications and knowledge add-ons - are one of the coolest elements in the story, cleverly and maddeningly presented as so mundane no one really thinks
about what this means for the human condition, even as doctors evolve more sophisticated variations on the "moddies and daddies" theme. Such mundanity leaves the sense of wonder entirely in the reader's hands and mind, for a mixed experience.
Numbers game: 23 total finished. 23 new, 0 rereads; 20 fiction, 3 nonfiction; 19 graphic novel-ish, 1 essay collection.
SEPTEMBERDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick)
(1968): If PKD's purpose in writing this was to convince me Rick Deckard is Stanley Kowalski without the animal magnetism, it succeeded. If it is to set forth an argument that human beings will be petty and venal in most circumstances, it succeeded. If it's to envision a bleak postapocalyptic San Francisco, win. It's a venal story whose redeeming qualities are the local color (SF = love!) and curious reflections of 1968's nightmares. Robots are evil! In the future, Earth will be overrun by mechanical facsimiles of animals! And robots, too!
Every now and then, someone suggests PKD's fiction in my hearing, and I make the mistake of listening to them. PKD writes well-crafted stories I dislike, and I don't see a good reason to read any more of them at this time. Fledgling (Octavia Butler)
(2005): Octavia Butler writes a Mary Sue vampire novel. Seriously! Shori's an amnesiac genetic engineering experiment who can walk in the day, has the strength of grown vampire men, is 50 years old and looks like a 10-year old African-American human, and oh yes, survived the slaughter of her entire vampire family as well as all their human symbiotes.
As you may have gathered, this isn't my favorite Butler novel. It plays with power dynamics in Butler's usual mode, but in a "vampire novel!" context, exclamation point mandatory. Vampires are not my thing. Erotic relationships between adults and apparent children are really
not my thing. Butler's usual writing talents couldn't overcome those handicaps to make this book interesting or memorably enjoyable for me.The Outskirter's Secret (Rosemary Kirstein)
(1992): Reread. If I won the lottery, there are two writers I could try to endow. Kirstein would be one of them. (Doris Egan is the other. Lois Bujold doesn't need my endowment; she regularly publishes in hardcover already.) I love the Steerswoman series for its worldbuiling, the protagonists, and general enjoyability. The Outskirter's Secret
has my favorite worldbulding and a really fantastic Rowan-and-Bel travelogue. A Fire in the Sun (George Alec Effinger)
(1989): Sequel to When Gravity Fails
. Marîd Audran, now one of underworld kingpin Freidlander Bey's lieutenants, visits his mother, investigates a murder, and foils a plot launched by Bey's major rival. Marîd continues to puzzle the reader with questionable characterization, grumbling about his lack of freedom while lapping the cream of servitude from his whiskers. The characterization seems inconsistent; it feels like Effinger had a Better Idea between When Gravity Fails
and A Fire in the Sun
, but didn't manage to completely integrate the retcon. The worst part for me was the giant brother-gun Effinger put on the mantlepiece early in the novel, which he never bothered to fire. Whether that was just sloppy writing or sequelitis in the works, it was poorly handled.
Numbers game: 4 total finished. 3 new, 1 rereads; 4 fiction, 0 nonfiction.