Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

O Pioneers, O Readers

April 18, 2012 - 2:35 pm 1 Comment

I mentioned on Twitter a few weeks back that I’d picked up Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! at my local library for the simple fact that it had no cover. Apparently, there was a huge hole in my literary experience; I’d never even heard of Cather and I’ll admit it, because I have no idea how it happened. Within moments – and I do mean moments – I got at least three tweets back asking, telling, wanting to discuss Cather’s works, and I’d never read any of them. It seemed to me that everyone had been made to read My Antonia in high school, and I use the term “made” loosely: after reading My Antonia almost all of those who tweeted at me had gone on to read O Pioneers of their own accord.

I can see why.

When I was a little girl, I did love Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Let’s be honest, though, even in the nineties I didn’t know two many kids my age who didn’t. O Pioneers hearkened back to all that, the simplicity of living off of the land, the love of nature, of the animals, and of the communities and dynamics of the people who live there. Cather goes deeply into the interactions of people from incredibly different backgrounds and how that affects their relationships while they try to eek out a living from the wild land. The family the story mostly follows, The Bergsons, are Swedish immigrants. Immediately you know these are practical people, willing to do whatever they have to to get what they need. They aren’t cold, but they aren’t flamboyant. Alexandra, the business-minded daughter and sister has only her family’s best interests at heart.

As the book progresses, we’re introduced to many others living on the prairie. Marie Shabata nee Tovesky is a Bohemian girl who is Marie’s best friend and her polar opposite, falling head-over-heels in love with the first man who comes along, a source of conflict later on. But I won’t go into that. It’ll ruin the surprise. Those in the French community are the antithesis of the Scandinavian families, eager to embrace anything new, eager to dance and sing, eager to live life to the fullest and practicality be damned.

The story spans four parts and changes greatly among the years that pass between them, but oddly enough, it’s not the story that keeps you reading this little novel. It is the character of the prairie as a whole, the characters of the people who live there, and how they strive to work together despite their differences of the people they were and the differences in the people they become. I didn’t expect to get as emotionally involved in this book as I did, but part IV had me feeling everything: anger, sadness, loneliness, resolution. There were passages where I wanted to argue openly with characters, wanted to shake my head and ask them how they could possibly feel that way, after all they had seen, and done, and said.

Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! is perfect late-spring reading. It’s easy to fall into, quick to read, and will have you thinking for hours after you turn the last page. It’ll have you staring wistfully out of the window and onto the breezy street and even though a century of years and miles of space separate you and that open, lonely Nebraskan prairie, you’ll share something with it. You’ll understand. I did.

Ever in Your Favor

March 29, 2012 - 10:18 am 1 Comment

You’ve probably all read or seen or read and seen The Hunger Games by now, I’m sure.

If not, I have one question for you:

Why. Not.

I don’t really keep up on what’s new and hip in literature. I read what I like, when I like, and as a result, this blog is rarely if ever relevant. It took me until two weeks ago to read The Hunger Games.

This is probably the best thing I’ve read in years.

For those of you who have been living in a cave, The Hunger Games is a book about a distopian future, where the citizens of North America has rebelled against the government, referred to in the books ominously as The Capitol, and the citizens have lost. The result is Panem, a nation divided into districts, technically Districts 1 – 13, but District 13 has been bombed into oblivion, so only 12 districts remain. As punishment for their uprising, the Capitol now selects a male and female tribute, one of each from every district, and makes these tributes, ages 12 – 18, fight to the death. The Hunger Games are over when only one tribute remains.

If that doesn’t make you angry, I don’t know what will. In fact, the whole reason I finally decided to read The Hunger Games was because the premise made me so angry. You can’t help but immediately sympathize (or even empathize) with the districts. You can’t help but immediately hate the Capitol, though of course it’s much more complicated than that, a fact which becomes abundantly clear the more you read.

It’s that kind of complexity, that kind of not-quite-one-sidedness, that made me truly enjoy this book. There’s a little bit of good and bad in everyone, and I do mean everyone, throughout the entire story. No one is perfect, no one’s allowed to be perfect, no one is capable of being perfect. The Capital is not entirely evil, the tributes not entirely pure (or, as some cases may be, entirely sinister).

Your main character, the narrator, is Katniss Everdeen, voluntary tribute for District 12 and her imperfection is immediately obvious, though she’s a better person than she herself chooses to acknowledge. She carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, or at least the weight of her entire family. She is the sole provider for her sister and mother, her father having died in a coal mining accident years before. Her mother’s imperfection becomes obvious at this point, too: upon hearing of her husband’s death, Katniss’ mother completely shut down, becoming almost catatonic for a long period of time, a time wherein Katniss nearly gave up and gave in, until she was saved by Peeta Mellark, the boy who would be District 12’s other tribute, a boy to whom Katniss feels forever indebted. I’m holding my tongue here because I don’t want to give too much away, but the characters in the story are so deeply interwoven it’s hard to mention one without mentioning the others.

There are moments when it’s painfully obvious that this is, in fact, young adult fiction. Cringe-worthy moments, actually. But that’s simply what this novel is: young adult fiction, and you have to accept that. That said, the plot is deep enough, dark enough, the characters real and powerful enough, to carry the heavy story without stumbling too much.

The film did a pretty good job of capturing this, too, though I’m saying this with the knowledge of someone who had read the novel before hand, and almost immediately before hand at that. In my own view, the film was powerful and beautiful and held its own. The changes that were made were gentle and made sense; it was clear why back stories were shortened, altered, or left out, and despite this, the movie stayed true to the original character of the book. Characters that were added were clearly added with purpose… even if that purpose wasn’t immediately evident.

I went to see the movie with @wackfiend, who had not read the books. He mentioned something I had not even considered: that there was no clear villain. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say that the characters of Seneca Crane and President Snow were clearly amped up in importance in the film to give The Capitol a definite face, a definite sense of evil. They were basically meaningless characters in the book because The Capitol itself was the villain, and that was so easy to discern. The Capitol was doing this. The Capitol was the reason that every year, twenty-three children were sent to the slaughter out of a need to instill fear – and hope, in that one of the tributes lives – in the citizens of Panem, to make them easier to control. The movie gave us two faces, one wholly malicious in President Snow, and one nearly sympathetic in Seneca Crane. While I, as someone who had read the book, was basically unfazed by the upped importance of these characters, having that hatred in my heart for The Capitol going into it, @wackfiend was unmoved. I can see his point, and almost wish I’d waited to read the book so I could have gone in as a clean slate. But a clean slate I was not and I will confess that I spent nearly 25% of the movie utterly in tears and nearly the remaining 75% on the verge of tears, either out of anger, or frustration, or absolute sadness.

But then, I had read the book. I had those stories and characters already inside me, I knew about Panem, I’d been there, I knew that injustice, and I survived the games.

Yes, I had read the book.

And I loved it.

Fucking Higgs Field, How Does It Work?

October 24, 2011 - 8:16 pm No Comments

Lots of questions must be answered. What are the properties of the Higgs particles and, most important, what is their mass? How will we recognize one if we meet it in a collision? How many types are there? Does Higgs generate all masses or only some increment to masses? And how do we learn more about it? Since it is Her particle, we can wait, and if we lead an exemplary life, we’ll find out when we ascend to Her kingdom. Or we can spend $8 billion and build us a Super Collider in Waxahachie, Texas, which was been designed to produce the Higgs particle.

The above excerpt comes from a little book called The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? by one Leon Lederman. In an older blog post, I mentioned a book called The Universe on a T-Shirt. The God Particle is the book you wanted to read instead. Or, at least, it’s the book I wanted you to read instead.

The God Particle is an incredibly clear and witty overview of particle physics from an experimenter’s point of view. Where as most of the books I’ve mentioned before have touched on the modern physics field (ha, it’s a pun) as a whole, this book sticks to the small stuff, and due to its directed nature, paints a really clear picture of quantum physics. You will learn things if you read this book, I promise. You might even understand quantum electrodynamics by the time you’re done (that’s a lie, no one understands quantum electrodynamics). The God Particle also eventually gets to the point: talking about the Higgs boson and its field, the search for it, why it’s so hard to find, and what it does, all of which was briefly and humorously touched on in the quote above.

Unfortunately, what was also touched on in the quote above was the ill-fated Superconducting Super Collider, a particle accelerator which was meant to be the United State’s 2000s-era foray into the very small. It was to be finished around the year 2000 and was pretty much for two things: to replace the Tevatron at Fermilab and to find the Higgs boson. This book was written in 1993, just before the SSC was scrapped (due to, you guessed it, budgetary concerns) with just about 20% complete (as I understand it, there’s still a giant hole in the ground in Texas where it was meant to go). However, the intro to the book, added in 2006, acknowledges this foible and introduces the reader to the Large Hadron Collider which, yes, is looking for the Higgs boson and, yes, as of this writing, no one has found it. So every time the SSC is mentioned in Lederman’s The God Particle, just replace it in your mind with “LHC” and you’re on the right track.

If you want to know more about the Large Hadron Collider and what it’s doing to find this mysterious God Particle, you can refer to a book I mentioned in my post You Can Read These Books with Strings, a Death Cab for Cutie joke none of you were cool enough to get. (I’m a hipster physicist: I want to know about the universe before it was cool.) (Alright, I’ll stop.) The title of that book was A Zeptospace Odyssey, a book I still consider to be the best layman’s physics text ever written for reasons I already mentioned.

If you want to know more about the characters involved in the great story of physics, I recommend The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek. The book does go into some great detail about the search for dark matter, dark energy, and other things no one really understands, but the best part about it is how deeply it looks at all the people who have devoted their lives to finding out all the things that allow me to write these ridiculous blog posts. And believe me, there are some great personalities in there. As an added bonus for you math-averse readers, there’s nothing in The 4% Universe you won’t understand. It is quite actually a book everyone can read, and it contains a good base of scientific knowledge as well. That said, it’s definitely told in such a way as that it kind of expects you to know what’s coming, glossing over major events in an effort to get into the dark matter/dark energy situation. You won’t be missing anything, but unless you know a little bit of physics history, you might start to wonder what the point of it all is.

So there you have it. Two more books which attempt to explain literally everything and which come pretty close, at least for the average Joe.

One last thing: I’ve added a new category to the blog! It is, simply, “Science,” since I realise my last few posts have been pretty much… well, yeah. I may make an attempt to move out of my comfort zone and actually explain some science here! On this blog! Or I may just continue to read things that other people would never consider making a joke about and then make some jokes about them.

[A note on the title: I was originally going to call this post, "Fucking Quantum Electrodynamics, How Does It Work?," but then I realised I had already made that joke on Twitter.]

You Can Read These Books with Strings

August 3, 2011 - 11:08 pm No Comments

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of physics, and for some reason that intimidates people.  I have a new nickname at work, which has been used in jest, in earnest, and in mockery all: Lil Miss Science, usually followed by “over there”.

But here’s the real secret:

You can be too.

If you’ve ever logged on to my Goodreads account, you’ll see a slew of books on the subject, especially regarding physics of a quantum nature (though recently I’ve been branching out into pure mathematics and even geometry, Euclidian and non- both, but that’s a blog for another time).  Most of them have five stars, few of them have three or less.  And I am about to tell you which ones you can read off the bat, knowing only the maths you learned in high school.  Don’t scoff.  I failed algebra.  Twice.

In the Beginning:

If you really want broad, sweeping strokes, only touching on hard physics to get you prepared, start with Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Ah, I can see you being intimidated again, stop that.  I read this one over the course of a week while on vacation in North Carolina (because that’s what you do on vacation).  Not only will this book brush you up on your physics, the title is not really a lie – it’s got a little bit of everything in there, though it’s steered mostly toward the natural sciences.  And it’s clever.  And you’ll enjoy it.

For a more focused but still broad overview, try Simon Singh’s The Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe.  This was something I read in college while sitting alone in the cafeteria, busily not making friends.  Everything is explained clearly, and while it does get into a few technicalities, there are helpful pictures and charts, and if you don’t follow the math exactly (fuck, no one does) that’s perfectly okay, you’ll get more than the gist of it.

I Have the Science Channel and I Have Seen The Universe:

So you actually know what I’m going on about when I say quantum entanglement and dark matter.  Then you should read A Zeptospace Odyssey: A Journey into the Physics of the LHC by Gian Francesco Giudice.  Do not take it lightly when I say I have not been this impressed with a book – nonwithstanding a technical book – since I read House of Leaves.  And Maker above this is about nine trillion times easier to understand.  Giudice ties everything to easy-to-understand concepts and even popular culture, from Sherlock Holmes to the power output of the engine in a Ferrari Scuderia (he uses that last one for the mass to energy ratio, you’ll like it).  And you’ll get to learn fun facts like, if the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) was constructed entirely out of Swiss chocolate, it would have cost the same to build. This is what would happen if I was actually a physicist, binged on Top Gear, and then wrote a book.  Except you can actually understand A Zeptospace Odyssey. I laughed.  Out loud.  While reading this book.  To make it all the more impressive, this book was written by a native speaker of Italian.  In English.  You may commence feeling like a failure… now.

And if you haven’t already, read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell.  There are not difficult books.  I promise.  And if you get the fancy version, they have really nice pictures.  And Star Trek references!

I Have Made a Schrodinger’s Equation Cake:

No, really.  I have.

And if you’re like me, you’ll want to read Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law.  You may begin to feel a little intimidated, and this time it’s justified.  I’ll admit, there were parts of this book that I skimmed, but it’s not hard to get what the author, Peter Woit, is saying at all.  Though the math is a bit weeooweeoo scary, the points are clearly and concisely covered, and with a tinge of dark humor as well.  It’s always good to understand the alternate theories in physics today, if you’re interested in any of them, and string theory, despite its myriad Nova Science Now specials, honestly does come up a bit short.  Should we entirely discount it?  I don’t know, read the book and decide for yourself.

I Breathe Math:

I don’t.  This one was beyond me but there was so much good stuff in it I plowed through until I simply felt like taking a bath with a hair dryer: Nothingness: The Science of Empty Space by Henning Genz starts off easy-peasy, but about halfway through I knew I’d gotten everything out of this book I possibly could.  It starts pretty much where all the others leave off: the details.  I believe particle spin is introduced in chapter 2 or 3 and while I have a (tentative) grasp on that, there’s a point where even I shake my head, sigh, and make a special, defeatist library trip.  That all said, what I did understand was definitely worth the trouble.  It’s fascinating to learn about all the weird things that happen in what we considered to be The Vacuum of Spaaaaaace.  If you’re into that, give it an honest effort.  I did.

So there you go.  Physics is phun.  I swear.  And hell, you might even learn something.

The Universe on a T-Shirt

July 17, 2011 - 7:20 pm No Comments

The Universe on a T-Shirt by Dan Falk is a book which starts at the beginning and ends at the present, telling the story of the famed Theory of Everything, a theory – first in religion and now in quantum physics – which should be able to explain everything ever, quite literally, with an equation short enough to fit on a t-shirt.  However, in its quest for simplicity, the theory so far has failed.

And so has this book.

There’s a fine balance between simplicity and too little information.  Parallel with today’s Theories of Everything, this book just doesn’t quite cut the mustard.  There are places where Falk seems to go on for days about things we learned in middle school – possibly because they’re simple to understand.  And then there are places where the sheer simplicity of the book in its efforts to mirror the ever-elusive ToE is simply too simple.

Now, I’m not so hot at math, but in layman’s terms, I’ve wrapped my head around a good deal of physics, from spin to quark flavors to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  I would go so far as to say that on a basic level, I understand quantum theory, from physics to electrodynamics to entanglement.  In fact, I think anyone could if they just sat down and watched as much of the Science Channel as I have found possible to do.  However, while reading Universe on a T-Shirt, I was confused – honestly confused – by Einstein’s relativity.  Now, these days, this is high school stuff.  And the problem wasn’t me, trust me.  It was the absolute dumbing-down of the content.  In his attempts to cut out the mathematical fat, a thing which, trust me, I very much appreciate, Falk has cut out the core of the theory.  I read the same three pages over and over, saying to myself, “No, but wait, I know this already…” but in the first-grade manner in which it was presented, I really couldn’t understand it.  Too much was left out, too much was simplified, and too much was just told wrong.  That there is the best example I can give of the overall presentation of the information in Universe on a T-Shirt.

Perhaps it’s ironic (or perhaps it isn’t) that it was Einstein himself who said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”  This book is courageous, I’ll give it that.  But it’s sure not genius.


June 12, 2011 - 1:05 am No Comments

Since I last updated this blog,

I have incurred over $21 in library fines. I will pay them off, I promise.

I got a new job, which didn’t at first leave me much time for updating this blog.

I received over 1600 emails, about three of which I’ve read.

I have not checked Facebook more than thrice.

I became addicted to a certain series of video games which I’m sure will work their way into this blog.

And so on.

What I have been doing, aside from playing said video games, is reading like a fiend.

Kristen, who makes myriad appearances within the text of this blog and even more within the context of my life, convinced me finally to watch BBC’s Sherlock.  It being streaming on Netflix didn’t hurt either.  Suffice is to say, I fell in love.  But what does one do when one is faced with a series containing only three episodes?

One reads the books one should have read as a child.

And that’s what I’ve been reading.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s collective works are now lodged firmly at the top of my Kindle’s list, right underneath Thread Words (it’s a real problem).  I read at least one of the short stories every day, mostly on the bus to work (which, I confess, was initially a plot to stop people from talking to me on the bus.  It didn’t work).

But what do you say about a century-old series of short stories which everyone knows and no one has read?

You say how funny they are, how the clever interjections Holmes makes and the first-person narrative of the keen Watson hold up to a century of hype and expectation.

You say that the absolutely logical deductions that Holmes makes are typically neither far-fetched nor impractical and that if you yourself were capable of such leaps someone would have created dozens of television programs loosely based on your life as well.

And you say that if such crimes really ever took place the world would be a more interesting place to live.

So that’s what I say, in brief.  I also say that everyone should be forced to read Sherlock Holmes and I also point out how Wishbone cleverly forgot to mention all the cocaine Holmes jammed into his arm.

Funny thing, that.

50 Book Challenge

January 6, 2011 - 3:41 pm No Comments

So, Angie (you’ll remember her from previous posts) challenged me – and herself – to read and review at least 50 books this year, and of course, I accepted.   I figure it’s a good way to get more active on the blog and be more social in the literary community, so keep an eye out for at least 50 more posts this year!

(Speaking of being more social, I’ve currently joined up on Goodreads, so if you want to friend me there to check out what I’m reading as it happens, find me as  – you guessed it – Paperclippe.  Let me know who you are and how you found me and I’ll happily friend you right back!)

Already this year I’ve finished 4 books and will probably be blogging about at least half of them.  They are (were)

  • Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds
  • The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker
  • Skeleton Crew by Stephen King
  • Audition by Ryu Murakami

And I finished a good few during the holidays (thanks to my shiny new kindle oh my god it is more awesome than I ever could have imagined) but unfortunately those don’t count toward the 50 book challenge.  They may, however, get blogged about at some point.

All for now.  Keep an eye out, I don’t plan on being as big of a slacker as I’ve been lately (but how many times have I said that before).

It’s time for SCIENCE!

December 2, 2010 - 5:08 pm No Comments

Well, almost.

First I’m going to share with you a delightful but simple wintertime treat (for those of you north of the equator) that you should enjoy while reading this blog.  I hope you like coffee.  And joy.  It doesn’t have to be covered in bees.

FIRST!  Set a cup of coffee to brew or press it or use your espresso maker or however ya fix your caffeine fix.

Get a cup, a teaspoon of sugar, and a packet of cocoa.  Preferably with marshmallows.  Dump cocoa and sugar in cup.  Pour coffee on top.

Scrape marshmallows off of top, eat, mix thoroughly, be happy.  Oh, yeah, then read the rest of this blog.  Which starts now.

I. Love. Science.  I was an English major with a creative writing concentration, I only took my mandatory amounts of science in high school I belonged to the English, drama, and jazz clubs, and I. Love. Science.  You will never not find me watching The Universe or crushing on Michio Kaku or wearing my Periodic Table of the Elements shirt or reading about Einstein.

Which brings me to installment’s book: The Quotable Einstein collected and edited by Alice Calaprice.

This is a quick read.  Yes, yes, it’s several hundred pages long, but it’s exactly what it purports to be: a collection of quotes by the man himself, Albert Einstein, who was generally a great guy except he was really bitter about women so don’t take anything he says about us at face value.  He was also a friend of Sigmund Freud so let’s blame his mom and move on (I’M KIDDING).

This collection paints a deeper picture of Einstein as a man who realised he was just a man and did his best to quell any sort of belief that he was anything more than human.  It also portrays how firmly Einstein stuck to his beliefs, many of which were unpopular at the time.  He believed women should be allowed to have abortions up to a certain point, much as we do now.  He believed homosexuality should not be punished, he loved America but saw how it suppressed it’s minorities and spoke out against it, and he was an avid pacifist, believing only in violence when it was to protect oneself.  This isn’t surprising giving the atmosphere he grew up in: pre-WWI Germany was already a hotbed of conflict, more so than many of us realise, and for Einstein, himself a Jew, it was imperative he leave that behind.  Indeed, he rescinded his German citizenship and became a Swiss citizen very early in life, before he was naturalised in US many years later.  For many of these beliefs, though weak and obvious they may seem now, he was suspected of Communism and questioned in the McCarthy hearings, to be subsequently dubbed by Mr. McCarthy as an “enemy of America.”  Incidentally, that was about the time that America decided they weren’t buying that shit anymore.  Einstein had already said previously in a letter, “I have never been a Communist.  But if I were, I would not be ashamed of it.”

The book also delves into more personal subjects: Einstein had an amazing sense of humor, loved music, played the violin, and enjoyed the company of his family pets very much.  Once, during a particularly bad rainstorm, his tabby “Tiger” was upset that he could not go outside.  Einstein commiserated with the creature, saying, “I know what’s wrong, dear fellow, but I don’t know how to turn it off.”  (That’s right, Doctor.  Everyone talks to cats.)  The volume also includes snippets of his letters to his first and second wife, including the period in between where his first marriage was falling apart and he sought comfort in an affair with his soon-to-be second wife, Elsa.  Clearly he was not a perfect man, but if he was, I doubt half of us would be able to relate to him at all, for as hard as that can be already.

My only complaint with the collection is that, in an effort to be thorough, Ms. Calaprice has included several iterations Einstein made of the same quote.  While it’s good to see an attempt to be sure that the most important quotations were included, there are several occasions where this gets distracting.  This is perhaps most obvious in the case of the “God does not place dice” quote.  While it is true that this is something Einstein believed firmly and repeated so often that Niels Borh was prompted to respond, “Stop telling God what to do!”, it is not necessary that the reader see every single instance wherein Einstein restated his belief.  The most eloquent or succinct iteration would have been just fine, and this is a problem which occurs with several other quotes in the book.  It is a problem which becomes very distracting very quickly, causing the reader to pause and say, “Wait, I caught that and the editor let it slide?” which is never something you want to hear said about a book.

Beyond that, though, the book is a good, clear insight into the mind of Einstein through the man’s own words, and I recommend it to anyone interested in his science, life, or personality.

With that, I leave you with these choice Einstein-ian quotes (and hopefully some of that cocoa left over):

  • “With fame I become more and more stupid, which of course is a very common phenomenon.”
  • “Personally, I experience the greatest degree of pleasure in having contact with works of art.  They furnish me with happy feelings of an intensity such as I cannot derive from other realms.”
  • “I have no special talents.  I am only passionately curious.”
  • “That worst outcrop of herd life, the military system, which I abhor…  this plague-spot of civilisation ought to be abolished with all possible speed.  Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism – how passionately I hate them!  How vile and despicable seems war to me!  I would rather be hacked into pieces than take park in such an abominable business.”
  • “I do not believe that civilisation will be wiped out in a war fought with the atomic bomb.  Perhaps two-thirds of the people on earth would be killed, but enough men  capable of thinking, and enough books, would be left to start out again, and civilisation could be restored.
  • When asked why people could discover atoms by not the means to control them: “That is simple, my friend: because politics is more difficult than physics.”

Love to Hate

October 3, 2010 - 12:31 am 4 Comments

I made my tri-weekly library trip a little while back and picked up some new books, all of which I have currently set aside in favor of reading (or at least giving enough of a chance to) the ones I can’t renew anymore (see: at Carnegie Library, you can only renew books twice, for a totally of nine total weeks of check-out).

I’m currently really digging A Monster’s Notes by Laurie Sheck, which is sort of an experimental novel that poses the premise that Mary Shelly did not invent Frankenstein and his monster, but instead met the creature when she was young.  It’s a very esoteric collection of letters, journal entries, and notes, from the monster, Mary, her family, and other people encountered throughout the monster’s life.  It’s extremely literate and references many historical events, persons, and philosophies, especially those popular in the Victorian era.  It’s a big, thick book, but like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a great deal of it is dramatic white space.  That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s quick to get through.  Much of the subject matter – leprosy, miscarriages, the deaths of children, a ship’s crew lost to die in the arctic – has kept me picking up the book, reading for hours, and putting it back down for days to digest.  Fans of horror or literary analysis, pick this up.

I also picked up Love Will Tear Us Apart by Sarah Rainone which tells a story of a group of friends through some popular alternative rock (hence the title).  It’s a good book, so far, but it brings me to the topic of this blog:

What do you do about characters you hate?

There’s a character in the novel who is exactly the kind of person I can’t stand.  He’s rude, crude, un-clever, doesn’t seem to care too much about women, and furthermore, he hates hockey.  The way the book is written, it gives brief insights into the mind of each character as first-person narrative, and every time it gets to him, I have to admit, I don’t really read anymore.  I skim the way you skim paragraphs in a math book before the actual explaining is done, the way you read the introduction of an anthology.  And I can say, it doesn’t make the book better for it.  It’s to the point where I very nearly am compelled not to pick this book up again (and probably wouldn’t if the concept weren’t so… me).

So what do you do about books you like with characters you hate?

Finally, a short list of books which I’ve read since my last book blog and feel are suggestion-worthy:

The Moon Opera by Bi Feiyu, translation by Howard Goldblatt – A very tiny book about a woman with a dark past and a big voice.  Xiao Yanqiu destroys her career in opera by throwing boiling water in the face of her understudy.  Twenty years later, when the opera is restaged, a wealthy benefactor insists Xiao Yanqiu return to the role that destroyed her.  A very quick read, extremely emotional, extremely dark.  Triggering themes, mostly self-destruction.  Graphic.

I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-ha Kim, translation by Chi-Young Kim – A disturbing, gripping tale of sex and suicide, of how lives are tangled up together even when they seem unfathomably far apart, and the people who can’t bear that tangle anymore.  As you might have guessed, very bleak, but impossible to put down.  Triggering themes are prominent.

The Trade by Fred Stenson – If you enjoy historical fiction at all, you have to read this book.  It’s the story of the Hudson Bay Company, the leading enterprise from England involved in the Canadian fur trade and how the wilderness, the native peoples, and the unforgiving winters shaped the lives of the (real, but fictionalised) people who lived it.  This is one of the most compelling things I’ve ever read, and it’s completely out of my usual favorite genres.  This is a masterpiece.

So go get your read on.

The Accidental Time Machine

July 30, 2010 - 1:48 pm No Comments

Having mentioned this book in my last post, I thought it might be a good idea to actually, you know, talk about it a little more.  What a wild thought.

Image credit to

Joe Haldeman’s observantly funny style, as I mentioned in the previous post, remains true in The Accidental Time Machine, despite having been written in 2007, nearly 40 years after The Forever War.  It’s the tale of a graduate student at MIT whose calibration machine, meant only to release a proton at particular intervals, seems to be able to travel through time.  First, it disappears for less than a second, then a slightly longer flash, then a few minutes, a few days, and then, he decides to go with it.  Hijinks ensue.

My favorite parts of the novel were not, however, the hijinks, at least, not on the whole.  It was the views at so many different distopian futures.  In one, our hero Matt Fuller travels to MIT nearly a thousand years in the future, and finds it having reverted to a beat-down, wild-westian religions waste land where MIT is now the Massachusetts Institute of Theosophy, and technology on the whole is considered evil, except when considered in context of God and his greater plan.  Here Matt meets a young woman, a nun of sorts who is herself a graduate assistant (which now means something more akin to servant and is a position that only women are lowly enough to hold).  He takes her farther into the future to escape the religious hell and eventually winds up in New Mexico with a woman called La, a sort of projection who is the spirit, or more, the collective consciousness and sometimes god, of  Los Angeles: LA.  But La’s intentions are not pure (are they ever?) and Matt soon discovers through a series of questionably Christian visions of Jesus (despite that Matt is a non-practicing Jew) that La wants the time machine for herself.

Don’t worry.  It all makes sense.

This is much more a quick read than The Forever War; its simplicity, however, is not in the details but in the viewpoint.  The novel starts (pretty much) in the here and now, so Matt’s thoughts are all very understood by someone else coming from the same mindset: you and I.  There’s very much less back-story and more descriptions.  It’s a lighter read in that the story is shockingly linear and for most of the tale there is one character.  There are no losses stylistically, though: given the less-involved plot, Joe Haldeman uses the space to add little tie-ins to everything.  Off-the-cuff comments and characters come full circle and sometimes even become the point of the thing.  The last few pages are a karmic reprieve like no other, a glorious bow on top of the package you wouldn’t even known was missing if it wasn’t there because the stuff inside the box was so good anyway.

Image credit to

I’ve also just finished My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr which I first discovered on The Book Project.  I won’t go into it
too much since the book itself is so short, but its the story of a young girl, Ellen, trying to understand the relationship between her brother, Link, and his best friend, James.  Are they gay?  Does it matter?  And what is gay, anyway?  It’s a very sweet, understanding story about family, friends, and the relationships we share with them.  It’s also a pretty accurate, unbiased view of the teenage mind.  Give it a read if you like young adult lit or LGBT literature at all.  It’s short and sweet.

As you may also have noticed, I’ve change the theme.  The skinny column was getting on my nerves.

So? Have you read any good books yet this summer?  Let me know about it in the comments!