Archive for August, 2014

Review: Kalpa Imperial

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

Argentinian writer Angelica Gorodischer has put together a winning collection of short stories in Kalpa Imperial.  As with much interesting writing, the genre defies easy classification.  If you’re a SF reader, these might be light fantasy; if you’re more literary, they might be stories of magical realism.  I came to them from a recommendation from Jo Walton, so someone thinks they’re SF.

Regardless of which genre bucket you put them in, the stories are rewarding and enjoyable.  Each is a tale of some facet of an imaginary Empire told by a different anonymous storyteller.  Gorodischer gets the most out of those constraints, showcasing different storytelling styles and kinds of stories.  Each storyteller is different, and visible in the text, though how and why differs widely.  Most tellingly, each has a different reason for telling the stories.  There are compelling reflections on the reasons we tell stories and methods we tell them.

The stories range from the personal to the political.  There are stories of individual lives that shaped the Empire and histories of cities that make it up.  Each has a point without being overly didactic.

The writing itself is beautiful.  There are well-turned phrases and perfectly textured paragraphs embedded in these well told stories.  Ursula Le Guin did the translation, and did the writing justice.


Next Steps Toward Steps

Sunday, August 17th, 2014

Since I started my soul searching, I’ve made a few decisions and started making progress toward making those plans real.  Here’s a brief update.

I’m pretty sure my next bike will be a Surly Long Haul Trucker. Most of my biking friends agree that it will do what I think it will do, and that it’s a good, well made machine.  I’ve definitely noticed that everyone I’ve met who owns one loves the bike.  I’m looking forward to having one.  I’ve talked to the folks at Topanga Creek Bicycles and set up a time to get sized and get the bike set up for me. Topanga Creek comes recommended by a friend, and I’m impressed by any store that requires an interview before purchase.

I’m also getting set to get back in the water via the Culver Plunge.  I’ve read up on their policies and etiquette and that all sounds fine to me.  I’ve got a new suit and goggles, and I’m ready to show up as soon as my doctor says I’m good to go.

Speaking of my doctor, I had an appointment earlier this week, and the current timeline is to be off crutches in mid-September.  That’s almost a month sooner than I thought, primarily because I counted months instead of weeks and used the high end of the estimate.  This is a more accurate assessment, and I’m delighted by it.  Moving the date up has given me a nice prod to get these other plans moving a little faster.

That’s the state of my plans today.

Review: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikrey

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

I wasn’t very far into The Storied Life of A. J. Fikrey before I expected to hate it. Set on a small island off New England, a widower book store owner is presented with a set of unlikely challenges that push him back into the life of his small community with his only asset being his dormant love of books. It is perhaps the most twee set-up for a novel one can write, and I haven’t even mentioned the adorable, precocious moppet.  I don’t like twee, predictable books, but I liked this.

Gabrielle Zevin has done an impressive piece of writing here. Everything about the plot and the character summaries is predictable and right out of the first literary novelist’s playbook. And there are no tricks.  The plot never twists so much as it turns like a well lit country road.  While there is a pleasure seeing what’s around each bend, there are no sudden wrenches of the wheel, or hard leans to take a surprising turn.  The reader ambles along a conventional plot.

Without propulsion from the plot or novel skeletons for the characters, it’s hard to see what’s interesting about Fikrey.  Zevin writes beautifully.  The meat she puts on the bones of her characters turns them into interesting folks to spend time with, even if their CV’s are pedestrian.  There are not a lot of phrases that provoke fireworks here, but all the writing engages the reader, making them see the characters’ world as the characters do.  Whether our CV’s are unique or common, we are all the stars of our own lives and that’s the impression Zevin creates here.

In addition, Zevin’s love of reading and storytelling is evident throughout. Given the set-up, she wants to comment on how books and stories influence our society.  Though the environment cries out for blunt commentary, Zevin never quite overplays her hand.  She does create a world of readers – some of them unlikely ones – and just lets them speak.  The result is more heartfelt than preachy.

Taken together, all this results in a very unlikely thing: a hangout book.  I’ve heard a hangout movie described as one that you watch to spend time with the characters, not to see the plot resolve.  You can put a hangout movie on in the background and enjoy your favorite parts without focusing how the characters you enjoy get out of a particular jam.  Fikrey is very much that kind of book for me.

Strongly recommended.

Review: If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

I love Kurt Vonnegut’s work.  At his best he sees the world with surprising clarity and expresses those sights with simple, clear language.  He can make the problems with the world look simple and comprehensible.  Not prefectable, or even improvable, but tractable.

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? is a short collection of graduation speeches that Vonnegut gave.  It’s a good format for him.  He comes out, gives a bit of pithy advice and wishes the graduates good luck in this horrible and wonderful world.  He also keeps it short.  Lovely little mini-essays.

What’s probably most surprising are the mid-2000’s speeches that make many direct comments on current events.  I think of Vonnegut as a timeless figure, and hearing him bitch about US foreign policy brings him surprisingly down to earth.

A lot of this material is available on the web and other places, but I found the collection worth a couple dollars on Amazon.


Review: Will Not Attend

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

Will Not Attend is a well composed set of personal essays. Adam Resnick tells each story with a careful pacing and a clear narrative.  They have tone appropriate to the incidents and he tuns many clever phrases.  These are beautifully written memoir essays.

While I got a lot out of the collection, I never got to the point where I was rooting for Resnick.  These are all necessarily told from his point of view, but I really can’t call him a protagonist.  Even after spending a book with him, I never come over to his side.

I also get the feeling this may be intentional.

He writes so well, that he may be trying to make these the memoirs of an unlikeable man just to show he can.  That’s not easy to pull off.  People want to be liked. Writers know how to manipulate sympathies.  If he indeed set out to write these pieces to achieve that effect, it’s an impressive feat.

I’m impressed, but not delighted.

Review: Worst. Person. Ever.

Monday, August 4th, 2014

It didn’t take long to read Douglas Coupland’s Worst. Person. Ever. He has a breezy, snarky style, turns a clever phrase, and keeps his plot twisting and turning alluringly.  The short chapters are like potato chips, easy to down and pick up the next. It would have been a great book to have on a transcontinental flight.

There are a lot of similarities between Person and Irvine Welsh’s Filth. Both feature reprobates from the United Kingdom.  They take some joy in taking the reader on a tour of the seedy side of their point of view character’s psyche, and both take no prisoners doing it.  Coupland, however, is writing a more superficial book.  There’s none of the subtext and misdirection that turns Filth on a dime in the last third.  None of these characters change meaningfully, nor do they ever garner much sympathy.

There are pleasures to be had in Person, for sure.  This is some quality snark and some snappy dialogue. The coincidences bring a demented bit of Dickens into the mix, and there are moments of enjoyable satire.  But as a whole, Coupland’s targets are a bit to east to skewer and his brush too broad for me.

More importantly, his characters are all pretty insufferable.  While it’s always clear who he’d like us to be rooting for, I wasn’t ever convinced.  I didn’t connect with any of these characters.  Hiaasen also writes some broad and often unlikeable characters, but he always sinks enough of a hook in me so that I have a stake in their fate.  I don’t much care what happens to any of the characters in Person.

I don’t regret reading Person at all – it was good fun while it lasted.  I suspect I won’t remember it in a month, though.

Soul Searching

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

Since I hurt myself again, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I bike and what I can do to avoid being laid up again in six months, assuming I go back to doing it.

There are two main things I like about biking: I like getting out and seeing the world and I like the hard work. Since I’ve been biking regularly, I’ve really come to love interacting with the west side of LA from a bike. The scenery can be heart-stoppingly beautiful.  I usually ride in sight of the Pacific Ocean for a couple hours and other times along a path through the recently restored Ballona Creek Wetlands. I’ve seen glimpses of nature great and small that I would not have believed.  The other part of West LA that I enjoy is the people. I’ve chatted with many a fellow cyclist, seen crazy hobos running through traffic, heard the most unlikely pairs chatting about the Lakers, and generally been part of tiny slices of life that make my home real.  And I like not burning gas to get around most of the time. I’m addicted to all of that, and I don’t want to lose it.

The other reason I ride is to work my body. I like the feeling of pleasant soreness that comes from dragging myself and my bike a couple tens of miles a couple times a week.  I’ve got a pretty sedentary job and it’s a good feeling to know that my muscles can still do something.  A workout regimen can slip away from you easily, and before I’d taking biking back up, I’d let my other workouts slip to the point where they weren’t working.  Biking is a good workout because I can start from my house every morning and I know I’ve done work because I went somewhere and came back. It does not admit easy excuses or easy delusion.

These two aspects can be contradictory.  Getting a good workout can mean spending more time thinking about form and pushing your body than looking around, and vice versa.  I had definitely noticed that I was feeling more self-imposed pressure to push myself than to look around.  I don’t remember my accident, but I know I was trying to make good time getting home. Also, while biking is great fun, it’s not exactly a balanced workout.  While my legs and cardiovascular system were getting a great workout, I was neglecting my upper body.

Even if I hadn’t managed to injure myself, I would have been wise to think about how and why I was working out.

Given all that, I think it’s time to get back in the pool.  I swam competitively for years and I really like that kind of workout.  I know how to create my own and how to work myself at it healthily.  It works the whole body, and it is low impact so I can ease back into it as a recovery exercise for my hip.  Basically every other time I’ve broken a bone, it’s been my exercise of choice.  There’s every reason to think I can get my workout fix this way.

The question I’ve been pondering with respect to swimming is whether or not to find and join a Masters team.  Masters swimming is competitive swimming for people beyond college age. On the one hand I like the idea of tapping some expertise and the idea that a commitment will make me more likely to stick with it. On the other hand, I have no desire whatsoever to compete.  At some point I’ll probably go to a meet to get some official times, but I really don’t want to race; I just want to work out.  And most of the Masters teams I’ve seen are pretty competitive.

Right now my plan is to start working out on my own at the Culver Plunge.  Assuming that I can get part of a lane there, that’ll be all I need to get my workouts in.  I’m also a member at the Culver City Y, but there’s a lot fewer lanes there.  More info on this as I actually start exploring.

Even with workouts coming in the water, I want to keep riding.  I think mentally separating the workout part from the transportation part will help, but I’m also looking to get some new equipment that will help me stay on the straight and narrow.  I love my old Sanwa road bike, but it doesn’t seem to be keeping me healthy.  It may just be that I ride it too fast because I like to and it will go somewhat fast.  (It’s not a super fast bike – it is 30 pounds or so of steel frame).  It’s also been crashed a few times and I’m not certain that it’s as stable as it once was.  30 years is 30 years, no matter how you slice it.

So I’m considering a new bike that will be more stable and discourage my inner speed demon.  This means a modern commuter bike that favors stability over speed with some wider tires to help keep its feet and slow it down.  Since I’ve been stuck indoors, I’ve been looking and asking around.  Right now I’ve been looking at some of the Surly bikes.  There are a couple interesting machines there, but I’m leaning toward the Long Haul Trucker.  I’ve also gotten a good recommendation for the Trek CrossRip, which also looks like the right kind of bike.  Sporty, but not too sporty.  Sturdy and admitting some larger road-gripping tires.

Since looking at the Long Haul Trucker, I’ve run into several people who own them and the owners absolutely love the thing.  That says good things about a bike.  The crossrip is probably easier to lay hands on, but I have heard that the aluminum frame is rough riding.  And aluminum is light, which does go against some tenets of the project.  (The LHT is steel, and heavy).

So that’s what I’m thinking.  If you’re read this far and have opinions about the bikes or the pools (or anything else I mentioned), I’d love to hear them.

Review: Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

Samuel R. Delany’s Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand is a classic of SF that I hadn’t read.  It was nice that Jo Walton reminded me it was out there and added her compelling thoughts on what makes it worth reading. I recall seeing it as a kid, but didn’t know anything about it beyond the evocative title.  And it’s evocative indeed if I remembered it after 30 years.

Delany builds a truly alien society in Stars and drops us into the middle of it to slowly sort it all out. It’s alien across the board, from the species co-existing on the worlds, to the mores of the societies, to the use of pronouns.  I’m not going to get into more plot details or specifics than that, because the disorientation of working through the setting is a considerable amount of the experience.

I’m oversimplifying when I say Delany builds an alien society.  He actually builds multiple distinct alien societies that his protagonist takes us through.  That protagonist is a diplomat, which means Delany gives the reader more of a drive-by view of the societies, but the reader always gets the impression that there is a full society that underlies the glimpse.  One feels that there is a galaxy (or more) of people who interact.

The plot turns on some fairly world-shaking events, and should one focus on the galactic politics one suspects that there is plenty to ponder –  Jo Walton says this is a book that rewards rereading – but I found myself more consumed by the interplay of customs and interpersonal interactions.  “Interpersonal interactions” covers everything from professional negotiations to the inevitability of a hookup to the possibilities of love to welcoming a stranger to a beloved passtime. Similarly “customs” covers everything from the formal etiquette of an alien state dinner party to wondering if a particular visual tic is a subconscious comment or an explicit insult.

This focus on the interplay of characters and customs forces one to reflect on the analogues in one’s own society.  One of the great powers of SF is to lead a reader to see the world we do inhabit in a new way, and Stars did that for me spectacularly. Despite the disorientation of being dropped into a world where he and she work differently, the changes always led to interesting patterns of thought about our world and our people.  This is SF that makes you think about people, not equations.

I suspect that there is more here to find on a rereading as well.

Strongly recommended.