Archive for March, 2012

Review: Oliver Twist

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

I have not read any Dickens for a fairly long time, and it seemed like a good time to read one.  Oliver Twist showed up in my trip through the Kindle Store, and it was hard to resist.

Dickens is Dickens, of course.  He tells a rollicking, twisty, yarn populated with larger-than-life characters using clear, crisp, expressive writing.  In the midst of all of that he fires up beautiful sentiment and clear ideas.  He’s easy to enjoy.

For better or worse, he is a product of his time.  Fagin, the criminal mastermind of Oliver Twist, is supposed to be reprehensible – Dickens says so in his introduction – but it grates on modern ears to hear The Jew constantly used as a synonym for Fagin.  I have no idea if Dickens was more or less anti-semitic than his contemporaries, but this is pretty jarring.  But there is a lot of this era that confuses me.  Why does everyone talk like Elmer Fudd?

Dickens’s sarcasm is unmistakable in any time.  He deploys it mercilessly throughout when describing the hardened criminals of London who heedlessly crush the bodies and  souls of anyone near them as well as when painting the self-serving church members who claim to be helping the poor.  This is high test, industrial grade irony and sarcasm, and its impressive that he is able to deploy so heavy and blunt a hammer with the skill and artistry he displays.  The compassion that underlies his rage here makes his anti-semitism more discordant.

I was also surprised at how passive a protagonist Oliver turns out to be.  “Refraining” and “fainting” are some of the more active verbs that Oliver is the subject of, but he does attract a formidable cast of villains and helpers, so the plot does move forward with Dickens’s highs and lows, false hopes and surprising reversals that keep readers engaged.  He does not waste any characters either.  Virtually every one introduced plays some role in the story, believably or not.  It’s not called Dickensian coincidence for nothing.

Overall a good yarn.

Strongly recommended.

Review: I’m Starved For You

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

I’m Starved For You is a Kindle Single published by Byliner Originals, who specialize in short pieces from great authors.  It is also from Margaret Atwood, and I’ll read almost anything she writes.

I found it enjoyable, but surprisingly it felt a little rushed.  Atwood often bases her worlds on simple ideas taken to their extremes, and I would have expected the simple ideas to be more compelling in a short story than in a novel. Somehow the simplicity of the underlying idea stuck out more here.  Questions about the logistics and motivations of the system that I often don’t consider came to me in the shorter form.

I think this is because Atwood’s novels often move at a slower pace, bringing the ideas and the characters out into focus slowly, drawing the reader toward exactly the way she wants you to see them.  In the shorter form, she wasn’t able to exert the same kind of control.  At least that was the impression I got from this piece.

While I don’t think this is the best example of Atwood’s writing, it certainly has its merits.  She brings ideas of how humans react to even self-imposed confinement with desperate passion into play in distinctive, powerful ways.  And those are not the only ideas she lofts onto the table in a few pages.

Overall, I prefer other things she’s written, but this is a fine way to spend some time.


Review: Dune

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

Frank Herbert’s Dune was one of my favorite books growing up.  I recently took the opportunity to read it again, partially as an excuse to buy it on the Kindle.  It remains a great and unique space opera.

Dune is frequently praised as a skillful exercise in world-building – and it certainly is – but on rereading it I was struck by how few details outside those necessary for the advance of the story are there.  Despite spawning an enormous number of (impressively inferior) sequels, the novel does not read as first book in a series. Herbert has a beginning a middle and an end, all the thematic and plot arcs wrap up and if you never read a sequel you are left with a great story set in a believable world (or three).  It is a lean bit of storytelling.

I won’t recoup the plot, but Herbert makes the action large enough and the stakes high enough to hold a reader’s attention throughout, while brushing up against many interesting ideas about nature and nurture in becoming who we are, the limits of foresight and the size of events that can alter destiny, and other interesting stuff.  If that’s not of interest – and if not, why are you over in the science fiction section – there’s still a rollicking political and action thriller here.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Mythical Man-Month

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

Fred Brooks’s The Mythical Man-Month is a book that software designers often hear mentioned in respectful tones.  This is Fred Brooks, one of the architects of the old mammoth IBM operating systems of the 1970’s discussing his lessons learned from those projects and applying them to general software engineering.  It is rightly praised for spending the lion’s share of its content on coordinating people rather than coordinating computers.

Academically, it lives up to its reputation quite well.  The edition I have includes retrospective chapters written 10 and 20 years after the initial publication.  In one of these Brooks mentions asking an airplane row-mate who did not know him and was reading The Mythical Man-Month what the fellow thought of it.  The fellow replied that there was nothing in it he didn’t already know.  While Brooks is disappointed, I think it is high praise.  He has taken an arcane topic and made it accessible to the point where readers think they’ve had all these ideas themselves.  By and large they haven’t.

While it is well worth reading and understanding this book if you have any interest in managing large scale creative endeavors there is no question that it is a product of its time.  Discussions of productivity are given in terms of machine instructions and cautions about overflowing resident memory abound.  PL/I is put forth as the only viable operating system programming language.  For the student of computing it is a fascinating look at how these technologies – many of them obsolete – were viewed by their contemporaries.  While these examples may confuse modern readers, the fundamental ideas are put forth with such clarity that the ancient examples are more an interesting side light than a barrier to understanding.

It is also amazing to see how Brooks unapologetically refers to the Bible and religious teachings.  He advocates two-person superior/subordinate programming teams and while he makes an excellent technical argument for the arrangement, it is jarring to see the topic annotated in a summary with “Note God’s plan for marriage.”  The technical arguments do not rest on theology, but it is surprising to modern eyes to see the references.

Overall, this is a classic that deserves its reputation and adds the joys of a unique voice and  historical perspective.

Strongly recommended.  (A must for software people.)

Review: The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of Its Most Curious Provisions

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

I heard about Jay Wexler’s interesting The Odd Clauses through Lowering The Bar, an entertaining and accessible blog of legal humor.  Anyone who enjoys Lowering The Bar will enjoy The Odd Clauses.

Now that aficionados of legal blogs have stopped reading, I should say that Wexler picks 10 of the least exercised constitutional provisions and both explains their face meaning and application and uses them to illuminate the overall document. He picks the clauses from recent events, which both makes them more relatable and shows that even the oddest corners of the Constitution are relevant today.  Now, some of the examples have been thrown out in debate rather than brought before the Supreme Court, but it would be a sadder world in which a discussion of Ron Paul’s suggestion to issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal was dismissed on such a technicality.

Wexler does a nice job at making his discussion both accessible and informed.  The reader can see the research habits of a lawyer influencing his preparation and structure, and the phrasing and timing of a presenter in his prose.  The result goes down easy as it covers all the bases.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Best American Noir of the Century

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

The Best American Noir is a pretty sizeable sampling of hard-boiled stories that is largely very entertaining with a few real gems.  The editors, James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, argue at some length for a broad definition of noir.  This is not the sort of broad inclusion that means “anything we like is noir.”  Their definition is broad, but excludes more than it includes.  It is reasonable and they stick to it.  They include a few stories that are outside of my characterization of noir, but there’s nothing in here I would not feel comfortable defending as noir.

While sticking to a definition is all well and good, my point is that the stories in here are different enough that you never know quite what you will be getting.  That is largely good.  Any collection will have highs and lows, but this one has many more hits than misses.  And several of the hits are outstanding.

In particular, I found James Crumley’s “Hot Springs” to be breathtaking.  Every sentence seems cut like a diamond for maximum sparkle and precision of meaning, and each is integrated into a seamless propulsive narrative.  Brilliant work and I will be looking for more.  Elmore Leonard does not disappoint with his “When The Women Come Out To Dance,” a tour de force of dialog and spare prose.  Dennis Lehane’s “Running out of Dog” is atmospheric and sad, and Tom Franklin’s “Poachers” has a strong sense of place.

Several of the stories here are more experimental than noir’s usual reputation.  I thought Joyce Carol Oates’s  “Faithless,” Bradford Morrow’s “The Hoarder” and especially Christopher Croake’s “All Through The House” did unexpected things well.  Croake’s horror story told backward in time is particularly compelling.  I liked Harlan Ellison’s “Mefisto in Onyx” and Chris Adrain’s “Stab” less.  Even for the stories I didn’t like, it was more a matter of not being won over, not of thinking that the work was badly done.

As with many of the things I read these days, I read this on the Kindle.  I found the OCR to be noticeably bad.  Most stories have at least one word break that is confusing in them.  And Joyce Carol Oates’s name is misspelled – an “O” taken to be a “D”.  The prose quality is high enough that this was never more than an annoyance, but if you notice these things you’ll be annoyed.

Strongly Recommended.