Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections

the-corrections-jonathan-franzen

This might be the most devastating book I’ve ever read. At the same time one of the most amazing. He has such amazing insight. A most accurate and extremely sharp mirror he holds up to society and its ills but on a micro-level. Human miserable existence as it grows from the individual, from our families, our relationships.

Our foibles, jealousies, ambitions, best of intentions all conspire to make us miserable – prisoners of our own feeble bodies, longing for understanding, relationships, power. We’re all like children not quite sure what we’re doing, just trying to survive even though all of it is possibly against us. Needless to say this is not an uplifting inspirational novel. More like a medieval treatus on the sins of humanity and how we are destined for hell. But more of a Sartrean hell where it is us and each other.

On the other hand this is a writers and a readers novel – some of the passages are just expertly writ. Beautiful poetry. There are quite a few characters here, both genders in all stages of their lives and not a moment feels false – their external actions, dialogues and internal motivations all ring true and all feel like reflections of ourselves or those who are closest to us. Throughout I marveled at Jonathan Franzen’s skill, and kept asking myself how did he do it, truly amazing.

Dreamland

dreamland_david_randallAdventures in the science of sleep, indeed. David K. Randall’s book, is the usual pop-sci romp through a topic of interest, but a fun one. As he states many times in the book it is a subject many of us know precious little about and it is just the same for the scientists even thought we spend up to a third of our lives sleeping.

I think the most shocking part of the book was regarding the fact that it is possible to murder someone while sleepwalking. And not just accidentally for example a hit and run, but actively murder them without knowing what happened. The legal system is a long way off from understanding this, and in fact different jurisdictions will treat a sleepwalking murder completely differently – Randall has examples of being acquitted and also put away for murder.

Valis Philip K. Dick

Something tells me this is not the best starting point to enter the Philip K. Dick universe. By that I mean, the written book universe, I am familiar with the film adaptations of his universe. Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly. Hard to find a through-line in those, perhaps because each director had a strong vision of his own?

That was one reason I never picked up a Philip K. Dick Novel, the other was his extreme popularity. Can’t trust an author who is too popular. I was also under the impression that his vision fell more in the fantasy camp than hard-core sci-fi, and I was absolutely sure (based on his popularity) that he could not compare with my all time favorite sci-fi author, Stanislaw Lem. I like as much science and philosophy in my sci-fi as possible, a popular populist fantasier just won’t do. Maybe too, I had always thought of Philip as a hippie for some reason. Not a big fan of new-age fantasy I am.

So why did I pick up this book? I think of myself as open minded, and I need to act on that if I am to continue to do so. Also, I never actually read one of his books so I can’t continue to judge them. I picked it up, but the back of the book was no help at all:

“What is VALIS? […] a beam of pink light begins giving a shizophrenic man named Horselover Fat (who just might also be known as Philip K. Dick) visions of an alternate Earth where the Roman Empire still reigns.”

If that doesn’t sound hippie-dippie enough on it’s own, you can also add historical fiction to the mix? Ordinarily I would say no thanks!, but to uphold my personal creed, I disregarded the back and dove right in.

Mostly I kept reading, because when I started, there was no science fiction to be found. Just a story about drug addiction and a character named Horseloer Fat, which is intriguing in it’s own right. It was well written and the story pulled me in, but where is the sci-fi? This is the famous sci-fi writer? And then it got dense. Really deep (bit new-age-y, but intriguing) sh!t, hard to slog through and make sense of, started assaulting me. And it kept going like that, alternating between a well written story that pulls you in – intertwined with grandiose world cosmological answer to the universe type stuff. Then there was the pesky fact that Horselover Fat and Philip K. Dick might be one and the same, meaning the author is in there, certainly elements were autobiographical. Suddenly it was intriguing, fantastical, and philosophical. And I kept turning the pages. And suddenly it was over.

So all this, is just part one, of a trilogy? Also this is one of his last books? written right before he died? Perhaps they are just rantings of an old man? Also, this dense theologically-bent drug-inspired conspiracy rambling is the stuff super popular science fiction is made of? Ergo, my conclusion at the beginning of this post.

Maybe some of my assumptions re: Philip K. Dick were not that far of, but I won’t pass judgement until I read one of his other novels, and even then—just like my feelings about the book based on reading the description on the back—maybe the assumptions are correct but the conclusions are not.

Some books

william zinsser writing well

On Writing Well

Oddly enough this got added to my reading list, because a developer/programmer recommended it. I’m surprised it was never required reading in any of my classes. It seems like a must read for any of us, seeing how we’re always communicating using the written word, and any one of us can be blogger or twitterer. We’re always writing but are we any good at it? The book is focused on writing books, but can apply to anything if you just follow his simple rules. Which can be boiled down to – edit, rewrite, rewrite. My favorite part was a re-print of an early version of the very chapter in the book I was reading, complete with all of his edits. This guy (William Zinsser) shows his work!

jennifer egan visit form goon squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Not sure what to think of this. Especially the format is a little hard to figure out. It reads like a collection fo short stories, with some of the characters intertwined. Don’t forget, Jennifer Egan also throws in a chapter in the form of a powerpoint presentation. I did enjoy her vision of the future, last chapter, which seems spot on and very likely to come true. Thought the picture it paints does not seem very pleasant, I’m sure the kids won’t mind it as they don’t in the book, just simply accept it as normal.

italo calvino invisible cities

Invisible Cities

Always wanted to read this, it’s been on my to read list for a while, people always recommend Italo Calvino, and this book in particular. I’m happy to check it off my list, but I’m not sure I loved it. A little too repetitive, but amazing to see all of the worlds he is able to conjure up. It was kind of like reading a painting.

The Voyeurs

I’m very picky about my graphic novels*. Drawing style is most important for me.  I usually flip through and soley based on the look of the panels make a decision.  Probably not the best way to choose reading materials but that’s the way it is for me when it comes to this genre. I wasn’t familiar with  Gabrielle Bell’s work before, and The Voyeurs almost made it to the discard pile. But I pressed on, I was thoroughly intrigued based soley on the first story, which at first I assumed is what the whole book was named after.

I am glad I pressed on, as Bell’s stories are thoroughly engaging, heartfelt and raw.  She gives a really great look into the life of a creative person, the life of someone who lives in new york, the life of someone brushing against personal fame and success, and the life of someone struggling with the daily minutia of life.  These are all one and and the same for her, and she has no qualms about laying out her insecurities and personal quirks for our inspection and perusal.

For example, she has an extreme ability to stay indoors and away from people, likewise she has an extreme ability to distance herself from those around her, no matter the situation.

In the end we are the voyeurs encroaching on Bell’s life and all of her personal moments and inner thoughts full of self-doubt, introspection, and awkwardness.

* Incidentally I learned form this book that among writers (drawerers? j/k) of this genre, Comics may be the preffered term, as “graphic novel” sounds too much like marketing speak and they really see themselves as comic artists.  I always thought graphic novels distinguishes it from the likes of marvel comics and other such things I would like to distance myself from, when I mention to people one of my favorite genres, but perhaps I’m just pretentious.  I still feel it is an important distinction but I’m open to discussion.

Nature of Technology

I was really surprised to find I never posted a review of this book. I finished it a while ago, and it really is quite fascinating. I keep thinking of it, especially whenever the question comes up of how technology evolves and changes over time. I wanted to look up my thoughts on it but alas, no posts.

I really recommend this book to any technologists out there. The subtitle of this book is “What it is and how it evolves” and W. Brian Arthur really tries to answer that question. But for me the word Nature in the title is the key, in this book. W. Brian Arthur applies somewhat of a biologists view to all of the technology around us and puts forth a thesis for how the evolution of technology works.

There are some stumbles a long the way, a lot of the book is very repetitive, and because he has a very specific thesis of how it all works he does a lot finagling of facts and ideas and examples to fit into a nice tidy package. For example the distinction between science and technology, and how scientific explanations/theories are cousins to technology but not actually technology. On the other hand, his explanation of how sometimes new technology can arise without scientists first deeply thinking about it, just by combining existing solutions is an exciting and novel idea.

His basic thesis is that technology evolves when a new novel combination becomes commonplace and stable enough to become a component in a new higher up more complex and abstracted solution. And on and on it goes. Makes sense. Once in a while an entirely new component becomes available, that is based on a new understanding of the universe and on harnessing and or exploiting new previously undiscovered phenomena. In time, as they become miniaturized and super stable, these too just become cogs in the progression.

I often think about this in terms of the web, of how each layer of abstraction still exposes all the layers underneath. jQuery is a nice framework, a great abstraction that lets you get things done quickly, but there is nothing stopping you from tweaking the underlying javascript. You can always tweak the php, or your data calls, circumvent any framework you use. The whole web is still the basic elements, css, html js. This is great for ad hoc solutions and infinite customization but in terms of super fast paced evolution, it hinders us, because we never get to the level of interchangeable components that can evolve in the way that W. Brian Arthur proposes.

Emergence – Steven Johnson

Wow, note to self: never write a book about the internet, the near future, or any kind of technological speculation. You just can’t ever predict what will or won’t happen.

On that note this book from 2001, didn’t age very well. Some of it’s predictions never came true, while other things heralded as the the next big thing have already come and gone.

But those are just unfortunate side-effects of writing about technology. The subject matter is still just as fascinating today as it was 10 years ago, and it seems it still hasn’t been explored and exploited enough, even though scientists have been studying the emergence phenomenon for years.

In science some headway has been made in understanding the self-assembly and self-organization of some biological systems. But in the tech sector, we are only now seriously beginning to use the logic of emergence for things like neural nets, pattern recognition, face tracking and learning networks.

The full title is Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. And the author does a reasonably good, thought not very deep, job on the first two or three points, but it’s the last part where too much speculation makes the book more of a sociological artifact on how people perceived the future of tech 10 years ago, than giving any real insight into software and technology. Thought as I said some of the broader implications of emergence are only now gaining wide adoption and watching little dots on a screen self-assemble without any explicit instructions to do so, is just as amazing today as it was then.

This book has been on my to read list for a while. Guess I should have gotten to it earlier.

At Home – Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson does it again. This book is chock full of interesting tidbits. Just endlessly fascinating and covers a wide range history as usual. There are just so many things in here I’d never heard of, but am now fascinated by, things like Skara Brae, the Crystal Palace, Addison Mizner, Edison’s concrete houses, coade stone.

Even things I knew about I have completely new appreciation for now. Things like the Erie Canal, the Monadnock in Chicago, the salt and pepper on our tables, even rats! This man cannot contain himself. He set out to simply write about the things around his home, but each knew item opens a pandora’s box of history behind it, and I’m glad for it and Bill is there to explain it all.

We go from room to room in a Victorian parsonage in the English countryside and wind up learning about the entire world. Even the introduction where I side with Bill on his guestimate of how many people are buried in the Church graveyard, only to find out that the Church is literally buried in the sheer numbers of people who have lived and died in this little “un-interesting” area of England, instantly captivated me.

The book is sub-titled “A short history…” thought that must be only by Bill’s standards. I’m sure he could have written a multi-volume work, for me it was just long enough at 512 pages.

Daybreak

The best zombie themed graphic novel I’ve ever read. Uniquely for this genre you are immediately thrust into the action, and the story unfolds from there. A Natural progression and journey with a few surprises here an there.

This book borrows freely from the mechanics of a first-person shooter video game, especially the good one’s like Half LIfe which additionally are excellent at telling a story. Some of the themes and and the story arc borrow almost too much, enough to make me possibly uncofortable in the copyright department.

Brian Ralph’s offering could have been extremely boring if it was indeed just a video game in graphic novel form, the lack of interactivity would have doomed it. Instead it offers an extremely engaging story that pulls you along to the end with a few haunting images in between and implicating you in an action that you yourself the reader may or may not have taken.

the weird disturbing fascinating and hard to put down Jason –

I’ve only read two so far, but enjoyed both very much. First off the stories are interesting and often have odd twists and even odder details. Second the drawing style just really jives with me. Wikipedia says he’s “influenced by Hergé’s ligne claire” drawing style, so, being a Tintin fan perhaps that is why I like it. The cute anthropomorphic characters really add to it, especially when juxtaposed with some of the morbid and odd situations they are in. All of this wrapped with some pretty sparse dialogue. Perfection? Pretty close.

Isle of 100,000 Graves

A training school for executioners? Pirates? Need I say more? Odd premise, odd but likeable characters, and what do we get? (see post title)

I Killed Adolf Hitler

Aside form the based-on-the-title storyline, which btw involves a time-machine, and a right from the start things don’t go the way you might think twist, this is also a very moving love story, although still very much Jason (see post title). And just so you know, since there are a lot of hitmen around, despite these being cutesy animals, there are a lot of bullets going into animal-people heads. You can see more for yourself and read an excerpt here.

I am very much looking forward to reading more of Jason, there are quite a few titles to choose from, all with tantalizingly peculiar titles:

Hey, Wait…
Sshhhh!
The Iron Wagon
Tell Me Something
You Can’t Get There From Here
Why Are You Doing This?
Meow, Baby!
The Left Bank Gang
The Living and the Dead
The Last Musketeer
Pocket Full of Rain
Low Moon
Almost Silent
Werewolves of Montpellier
What I Did