Grap release

June 10th, 2020

If you’re looking for another harbinger of the End Times, consider this grap release. The changes are minor, but the code is now available from github.

Enjoy!

Review: Station Eleven

June 6th, 2020

Station Eleven comes with an excellent pedigree. Emily St. John Mandel’s novel was nominated for many awards – winning several – and got a shout out from the folks at Make Me Smart. It’s partially based in a post-pandemic world, which resonates with the current times pretty strongly.

Even without the timely topical resonances, it’s quite a good book. She’s written a nice combination of plot-driven mystery in the vein of Crash or Magnolia, post-apocalyptic page turner, celebrity send-up, and meditation on the role of art in societies both pre- and post-industrial. That’s a lot of balls to keep up in the air, and she does it with brio.

The structure is impeccable and the writing is quite lively. There’s a lot to like here, but beyond the resonances with my current safer-at-home perspective, it never caught fire for me. That’s strange and frustrating for me to conclude. Analytically, I can point at a lot of great features of this book, but nothing brought it alive for me. I guess I chalk it up to the magic of art. If it does sound like something you’d life, do give it a try. As I say, I think it’s very well done. It may pop for you in a way it did not for me.

Recommended.

Review: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

May 24th, 2020

Carlo Rovelli wrote a series of short essays on physics for the European press recently that Seven Brief Lessons collects. They are very short – a few pages each – but do a remarkable job introducing and motivating the ideas for a lay audience. I think I have a reasonable grasp of physics for a lay person and I got a couple new insights on the ideas and their importance.

If you’re even mildly curious about physics, these are a nice introduction to some of the exciting and evolving areas. They’re small enough to read in a few minutes each, which makes Seven Brief Lessons is a tasty physics appetizer.

Strongly recommended.

Review: VALIS

May 24th, 2020

VALIS distills a lot of the themes that draw readers to Philip K. Dick. It’s an amazing mix of personal experience, paranoid fantasy, speculation, analysis, research, and gnostic epistemology. That sounds impossible to pull off, and it is. And it’s a classic.

It has its flaws. There are parts that are primarily street preacher rantings. There are parts that are droning exposition. There are parts that are pages of unorthodox interpretation of meticulous religious scholarship. There is a bit of internal self-therapy.

And yet, a shape emerges from this oddly formed piece of writing that wormed its way into my psyche and stuck there, probably permanently. Some of it is the creative interpretation of philosophical and Fortean ideas. Some of it is genuine insight into the workings of our imperfect minds. Some of it is the bold honesty of projecting his life onto the page. Dick presents ideas and connections between ideas in ways that ring powerfully when struck by conventional ideas.

That’s not a great capsule for people deciding whether to read it or not. I think if your path has led you to VALIS, you should read it and it may connect. If not, I wouldn’t go looking. It’s the kind of book that finds you.

Strongly recommended if it does ring your doorbell.

Review: What’s Wrong With The World

May 9th, 2020

One of these days I’m going to send a forensic team in to figure out how these sorts of random books show up in my library wish list. I suppose it would be nice if there were some sort of elves in the stacks tagging e-books for me, but I think it’s just random late night browsing.

This is G. K. Chesterton opining on the state of English society in 1910 or so, and it’s massively frustrating for me. He consistently writes concise, charming sentences that invite novel thoughts but they connect to reach conclusions with which I disagree. For instance, he writes in support of the position that women should be restricted to domestic roles because that strengthens society. I dropped three or four of his supporting sentences into my quotes file because they make fun of patriarchical structures in society and men’s bluster in support thereof, but I think those structures are anachronistic.

I actually hope that this is satire and I’m missing the point.

It’s a good reminder that great writing does not imply support for my values.

Recommended.

Review: University Park, Los Angeles: A Brief History

May 2nd, 2020

I keep picking up Chris Epting books from the various Los Angeles libraries. This time my local county library enticed me into it.

University Park is very much in the same vein as Victorian Los Angeles. It is driven by the architecture of the area Epting is looking at. That approach has its power; he’s described several places I plan to visit on future jaunts around LA. However, the narratives and personalities of the history makers get less attention that I prefer in a history.

Very good for an architecture-driven history.

Review: Agency

May 2nd, 2020

Agency takes place in the same continuity as The Peripheral, and it surprised me again. This time the surprise was how resilient the setting turned out to be.

Gibson has often turned his mind toward anthropomorphizing artificial and collective intelligences. He has a remarkable skill at making that dry idea engaging and entertaining. He makes robots human like no one else.

His artificial intelligence is the star of the show and he primarily uses the thriller plot of Agency to illuminate that intelligence’s emergence and maturity from multiple perspectives. One of the things that delights me about this is that he makes his human characters real and interesting enough that their perspectives are authentic and enhance his ideas about artificial life.

Beyond this extended character study, Gibson is an SF master who also cheerfully throws out other ideas to play with along the way. He’s also quite good at constructing the thriller that underlies all of this.

While I liked it quite a bit, I don’t think it’s his most profound work. It is very entertaining and very engaging – emotionally and intellectually – but he has been even deeper. That may say more about how I rate the quality of his other work.

Recommended.

Review: The Body

April 4th, 2020

Bill Bryson turns a beautiful phrase. He also organizes a great book and executes it quite brilliantly. He’s funny and informative and as a writer has few equals.

I particularly love his travel writing and his memoirs. They’re warm and funny and informative.

His science writing tends to leave me cold. I think I miss the personal connection of lived experience that he brings to his other writing. The Body isn’t for me.

Review: In The Dream House

March 22nd, 2020

Carmen Maria Machado has brought a remarkably powerful work into the world with In The Dream House. Any short summary would belie the honesty, power, and craft she employed. That said, it’s a memoir of her years as a victim in an abusive relationship.

Abuse is complicated, layered and yet invites simple judgement from us. Everyone has preconceptions about what it is and perhaps insight from being involved. Whether the reader believes that one brings it on oneself or that the abusers are possessed by overriding malice or many many other explanations, each person and relationship differs.

Machado tells her story in tiny, bite-sized chapters that slowly cohere into the narrative. They also cohere into an introduction to her remarkable mind. She has dissected her experience deeply from many angles. Each chapter is a facet of those thoughts, captured at different moments in time and reflecting aspects of the situation. That creates bounds around her experience that neither define or encapsulate it. Other people’s experience is never our own, and Machado doesn’t let us believe so. The corral she draws around the thing clarifies it remarkably.

She attacks the thing from so many perspectives. She is a scholar of the literature and the statistics. She is a queer woman living with her understanding of others’ assumptions and judgements. She has dug deeply into how those preconceptions have shaped her own ideas of her identity. She is a hurt child. She is a Star Trek fan. She is a literary scholar. She is a young, sociable college student. She is a writer. And so, so, much more. She is a human, and one I find remarkable.

I have to stress hat last facet – being a writer – because she is a remarkable one. Each of these facets is a gem in itself. The memories are evocative and poetic. The musings are clear while capturing the thoughts that led her to them. The scholarship is professional. And the whole thing intertwines in ways that make it all more of what each is.

A must.

Review: To A God Unknown

March 22nd, 2020

To A God Unknown contains a simple narrative presented with all the complexity and style that literature can muster. I have not read a lot of Steinbeck, and I’m surprised how much of the human condition he can illuminate with his spare, direct prose.

Unknown lays out the characters and their lives without obvious artifice, but it’s pretty hard to miss the symbolic role they are to play. Everyone is iconic here, and the stakes are both trivial – a single family ranch in Central California – and monumental. The ranch is nothing to the world and everything to these people. The events are pedestrian in that any rancher can relate and lyrical in that no one can explain them. The characters play their literary roles in the drama without deviation while stinking of humanity.

The result is a powerful concoction. I didn’t wind up caring a lot about what happened to these characters, but I did come away with a lot of empathy for the people whose lives are at the whims of the ineffable.

Steinbeck also opens the door to think about how people think about and try to bargain with the ineffable. No conclusions, but lots to think about, if you are of that mind. And I certainly am.

Recommended.