The Book Thread, April 2006

Time for the monthly thread. What have you been reading?

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

This was pretty well hashed out in this thread. I thought the book was a page-turner, but ultimately unbelievable (made the worse by being billed as a true story), overly sentimental, melodramatic, and hamstrung by a horrible writing style that pretty much ignored most of the more important conventions of proper English.

Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson

Brilliant! Everyone on this board should read this book. It’s about how the vessels of pop culture --mass media like TV shows, video games, and the Internet in particular-- have grown steadily more complex and cognitively demanding over the last 30 years. What’s brilliant about Johnson’s arguments is that he divorces them from discussions about the content of the media as well as its artistic or moralistic merit. You have to look a the cognitive demands of the game and how it encourages the player to learn absurdly complex rules and follow them along while using cognitive functions relating to spatial intelligence, memory, and logical reasoning. What’s more, Johnson actually makes a pretty good case for how media like video games and television are, on average, actually making us smarter instead of dumbing us down. I also really liked his discussion of how reality TV shows like The Apprentice actually stress and strengthen our emotional intelligence (i.e., how well we can read the mental states and emotions of other people, track relationships between and within groups of people, and use that information to understand and predict what people will do). I highly recommend this book.

Chance: A Guide to Gambling, Love, the Stock Market and Just About Everything Else by Amir Aczel

A little primer on probability theory. Very direct and utterly devoid of any fluff, it’s a quick read and very approachable for anyone with a high school level education in math.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Never read this one in high school, but I think I was supposed to. Very good, very epic. Also makes you feel badly for that whole class of people who flooded into California to work awful jobs for next to no money. You know, the ones that are still around, just speaking with a different kind of accent now?

Down Under by Bill Bryson

An amusing travel diary about Austrailia by the same guy who wrote the outstanding “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” I love Bryson’s style and plan to read everything he’s written. Up next is his travel diary about England.

The Five People You Meet in Heavan by Mitch Albom

One benefit to checking out books on CD from the public library is that you can take a chance on something you’d never pay for, and sometimes you end up loving it. But of course, sometimes it turns out to be godawful, which is more the case here. This book is SO sentimental, so ham-fisted in its moralizing, and SO poorly written I only stuck it out and finished because it’s really short. What’s worse is that the audiobook version is constantly bringing up these violins --VIOLINS-- in the background at the most sentimental and nakedly emotionally manipulative parts. Which is to say, constantly. It’s also full of weird phrases that make no sense, like “Sometimes when you sacrifice something, you don’t lose it. You just give it to someone else.” Which, you know, sounds an awful lot like exactly the same thing as losing something.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

I picked up the Foundation series (the first trilogy to start with) by Asimov. I’m not normally into hard science fiction, but this series keeps getting lauded as teh best sci-fi EVAR so I thought I’d check it out. I’ll post thoughts next month once I’ve had time to read the other two books.

Sounds good:

Brooklyn Follies - Paul Auster
I’ve been a long time fan of his work, though not a lover of all of it. I enjoyed his last book, Oracle Nights, but was not wowed. I look forward to this book, though from what I’ve read it’s more of a mainstream nod type book. I don’t think I’ll mind all that much.

System of the World - Neal Stephenson
My wife got me the last one in hardback so now I can finish the whole long drawn out affair. I found the last book, The Confusion, to be much more focused and readable than Quicksilver, so I’m hoping for a strong finish. Wait… It’s Neal Stephenson… Nevermind.

Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon - Spider Robinson
Not sure why I picked this up at the thrift store book section, I think I had some sort of name recognition, but it’s a fun little collection of fantastical short stories in a saloon I wish was down the street from me.

Question though. Opinions on Johnathan Raban. The wife and I have really taken to his travel writing style. Wondered if others here had read anything by him.

Oh and on the Foundation books - Stop after the original trilogy. It just goes downhill from there. But the original trilogy really was quite fun reading. Nothing deep, but a lot a fun.

Finished Wolves of the Calla by Stephen Somethingorother

I didn’t give up on it which I guess says something about a 1,000 pager that is about the build-up to one event. Not sure if it was because its the Dark Tower series or what. King still can tell a story and keep you interested even if there is no one to trim the fat of his writing indulgences.

Now:

Calculus of Angels by Greg Keyes, 2nd book in THe Age of Unreason

Really liking this series and I am not one for alternate history stuff. Maybe I will be now.

Waitng for those damn Bakker books (2 and 3) to go paperback in the states. I know I can order them from the Great White North, but I ain’t gonna.

Everything Bad Is Good For You, eh? Does he go into Twinkies and cigarettes? I haven’t had a smoke in six years and am dying for one!

Sometimes when you sacrifice something, you don’t lose it. You just give it to someone else."

like when I sacrificed my virginity… oh, wait.

Three words.

Baen Free Library

Just finished The Postman by David Brin. This was the book that the Kevin Costner movie was (extremely loosely) based on. Pretty good, too.

Just picked up Fear and Trembling / Repetition by Soren Kierkegaard.

If the book is as good as the movie was bad, I’d be willing to give it a shot.

The book has its problems, but it’s approximate 8,535% better than the movie.

I liked the book - much better then the Costner “adaptation”.

Finishing up “The Bonehunters” here - If you like Erikson and have not run out and bought this do so as soon as possible.

This is why I love these threads. I didn’t realise The Bonehunters was even out. Or almost out around here. Amazon has it listed for a 4/25 release. Anyway thanks, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the next Malazan book.

Anyway, I just finished up China Mievilles collection of short stories, Looking for Jake. Not bad. Mostly good but a few in there that I though were not up to par.

On deck is Tobias S. Buckell’s Crystal Rain.

Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson
Haven’t read anything of his since the Mars trilogy and I’ve got to say this has all the hallmarks of the Mars trilogy (a new world, different factions, a bit of man vs. nature compounded with factions screwing with each other, and a final environmental synthesis where society learns that we have to live with nature instead of despite nature), but it’s 1/3 as long, includes some of the history of Antarctica, and the cool fact that Robinson actually went there as part of an arts grant (referred to as a “woo” because there’s scientists, support personnel, and the “woo woos” who have no good reason to be there). A good, quick read.

This is not a Game by Dave Szulborski
A guide to ARGs written by a guy who’s made five of them. Another quick read that starts out all scholarly, but then gets down to Dave talking about games. He started out playing Majestic in the beta, began making his own side plots using minor characters, the developers liked his stuff so much that they started a program for players to generate content, then Majestic went bust, some other stuff happened, and finally he realized that he didn’t need EA’s infrastructure to make and run an ARG, so he started running them himself using the characters he started with in Majestic. Eventually he left those behind (probably a good idea, and if he’d ever made any money, EA could’ve brought the hammer down) and developed his own stuff from scratch (Chasing the Wish and Urban Hunt).

Digital Storytelling by Carolyn Handler Miller
Just started this today. It’s designed to be a textbook, but so far it’s just a survey of the history of various interactive media. She was a screenwriter who got involved in some of the early CD-ROM stuff in the 90’s so we’ll see where it goes. The jury’s still out.

Just finished the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books 2-5. I hadn’t read most of them in 15-20 years. Adams was a genius at coming up with the absurd and amusingly complex, far less so at charater. Almost none of the characters changed or gained any insight over the course of the books. Also, there was a strong streak of fatalism and melancholy throughout the books that I just didn’t recall on the original readings. Could it be that Adams eventually came to resent his most popular creations?

I just delved into Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained. Pretty good semi-hard sci fi; plausible world building and interesting (thought not terribly detailed) characters. I don’t read sci-fi much any more (since most of it is utter crap) so this was a nice change of pace.

Currently I’m now reading American Theocracy, which you can find thoroughly hashed out on most political type blogs if you care to. It’s pretty good and fairly damning.

Finally finished Murakami’s ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’, after a handful of aborted starts. Meh. Taste is highly subjective of course but if this book is indicative of his work, I don’t understand why he’s so well received.

The end of System of the World is easily the best ending to a book Stephenson has ever written.

It is certainly not “hard” sci-fi and I would not call it the best evar but it is a good introduction to some of the more important concepts one can address with the genre.

I strongly recommend that instead of reading any of Asimov’s later sequels, you instead (if you are still interested in the ideas the books discuss) pick up Donald Kingsbury’s Psychohistorical Crisis, which takes Asimov’s ideas to refined heights he never thought of.

Wait - Stephenson wrote a book with an ending?

I’m still working through Dungeons & Dreamers. After that will probably read this book of Fritz Leiber Fafhrd & Grey Mouser stories my brother got me.

Also been thumbing through Gore Vidal’s essay collection “United States” lately.

Not one of his best, but if you don’t like it then you probably won’t like his others. I think his most accessible, and my favorite, is Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, so maybe try that.

His books also seem to build on each other so reading them in order probably helped my appreciation. Though none of them have the same characters, the main character is every book probably essentially the author and you can see him working out problems in his (commitments, family responsibility, etc).

I just finished The Colorado Kid, by Stephen King, the first book by him that I’ve read in maybe ten years. It was ok; I’m surprised that he has developed into a better writer. I would think that writing several books a year for 30 years (or however long) would sharpen your prose. But I guess it doesn’t (cf Tom Clancy).

Regarding Bill Bryson… man he’s an entertaining writer, but his first two books, Mother Tongue and Made In America are so rife with errors (obvious enough that even I noticed) that I can’t bear to read his other work.

Watership Down by Richard Adams
Saw the movie on a recommendation here, then went and got the book. It’s a very good book, for what it is. I got quite annoyed by the complete pacification of the does, of course, but I suppose that is to be expected.

Kamikaze Girls by Novala Takemoto
Well, no pacified girls here. This was also picked up after seeing the movie, which was awesome in many ways. It’s about two Japanese girls, radically different from one another, one follows the Lolita fashion and lives according to a Rococo philosophy and the other is a biker gang member who believes in physical work and honesty and all that.
The biker girl starts hanging out with the Lolita girl and they learn to face life… sort of. I think the movie may have added something to it, just because of the style of it, which had a high tempo and zanyness that fit the story so well. And two extremely charismatic actors.

I’ve also been on a Kurt Tucholsky kick.