Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Book Review Index

Since I bother to rate my enthusiasm for the books I review, it will be helpful to both of my readers to get a feel of my tastes. Here's the index since 2004, when I started keeping it. I omitted books that I either couldn't remember well enough or reviewed too poorly to re-grade. I also omitted most of anthologized shorts, and all of the world-events and opinion stuff I read when I am supposed to be working (and of course the technical stuff I read when I actually am working).

The grades reflect my subjective enjoyment more than any objective evaluation. (How else to explain how Conrad did so poorly? Tuan Jim just didn't have the snappy move-along plot I needed at the beach that summer.) The grades may seem to be on a curve, but I think that's less due to inflation and more to my care in choosing reading material.

  • Anderson, Poul Operation Chaos (B)
  • Bellairs, John, The Face in the Frost (B+)
  • Benford, Gregory Cosm (A)
  • Blake, Katharine The Interior Life (B)
  • Blish, James A Case of Conscience (A)
  • Bourdain, Anthony, Kitchen Confidential (B)
  • Brown, Dan Angels and Demons (C+)
  • Bujold, Lois McMaster Diplomatic Immunity (A-)
  • Carroll, Jonathon After Silence (A)
  • Carroll, Jonathon Sleeping in Flame (B+)
  • Chabon, Michael The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (A+)
  • Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood's End (B)
  • Clarke, Arthur C. Rendezvous with Rama (B)
  • Coatzee, J. M., Elizabeth Costello (A)
  • Conrad, Joseph Lord Jim (B)
  • Dahl, Roald The Roald Dahl Omnibus (B-)
  • Davies, Robertson, The Rebel Angels (A)
  • Daniel, Tony Superluminal (B+)
  • Dean, Pamela The Secret Country (B+)
  • Dean, Pamela The Hidden Land (B)
  • Dean, Pamela The Whim of the Dragon (B+)
  • DeLillo, Don Underworld (B+)
  • Eco, Umberto Baudolino (C)
  • Friesner, Esther Wishing Season (C+)
  • Gaiman, Neil Anansi Boys (A)
  • Gibson, William Idoru (B+)
  • Gibson, William Pattern Recognition (B+)
  • Gibson, William Neuromancer (B)
  • Goldman, Willian, The Princess Bride
  • Greene, Brian The Elegant Universe (B)
  • Greene, Graham The Power and the Glory (A)
  • Harris, Bob Prisoner of Trebekistan (B+)
  • Helprin, Mark Winter's Tale (A-)
  • Holman, Sheri The Dress Lodger (A-)
  • Juster, Norton The Phantom Tollbooth (A+)
  • Kay, Guy Gavriel The Last Light of the Sun (A+)
  • King, Stephen Wolves of the Calla (A-)
  • King, Stephen Song of Susannah (B+)
  • King, Stephen The Dark Tower (B+)
  • Kushner, Ellen Swordspoint (B+)
  • LeGuin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed (A)
  • LeGuin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness (A)
  • LeGuin, Ursula K. The Telling (A-)
  • Levitt, Steven and Stephen Dubner Freakonomics (B+)
  • Lieber, Fritz The Big Time (B+)
  • McCarthy, Cormac The Road (A)
  • McEwan, Ian Saturday (B)
  • Mirrlees, Hope Lud in the Mist (A-)
  • Morrow, JamesTowing Jehovah (B+)
  • Nafisi, Azar Reading Lolita in Tehran (A-)
  • Noon, Jeff Vurt (B+)
  • O'Connor, Edwin The Last Hurrah (A)
  • Park, Paul Celestis (B+)
  • Park, Paul Soldiers of Paradise (A)
  • Patterson, James and Andrew Gross The Jester (C)
  • Powers, Richard, The Echo Maker (A-)
  • Powers, Tim The Drawing of the Dark (B)
  • Powers, Tim Declare (A)
  • Powers, Tim Last Call (A+)
  • Pratchett, Terry Maskerade (B)
  • Pratchett, Terry Soul Music (B-)
  • Pratchett, Terry The Wee Free Men
  • Pressfield, Steven, Gates of Fire (B)
  • Priest, Christopher The Separation (A)
  • Robbins, Tom Jitterbug Perfume (B+)
  • Roberts, Keith Pavane (B+)
  • Ryman, Geoff Air (A)
  • Saberhagen, Fred The Berserker Throne (B)
  • Stephenson, Neal Zodiac (A-)
  • Stephenson, Neal Snow Crash (A)
  • Stephenson, Neal Cryptonomicon (A)
  • Stephenson, Neal The Diamond Age (A-)
  • Stewart, Jon Naked Pictures of Famous People (B)
  • Stewart, Sean The Night Watch (B+)
  • Swanwick, Michael Bones of the Earth (B)
  • Tolstoy, Leo War and Peace (A)
  • Twain, Mark Letters from the Earth (B)
  • Varley, John The Golden Globe (A+)
  • Varley, John Millenium (B-)
  • Vinge, Vernor Across Realtime (A-)
  • Vinge, Vernor Rainbows End (B+)
  • Vinge, Vernor Tatja Grimm's World (C+)
  • Vonnegut, Kurt Cat's Cradle (A-)
  • Vonnegut, Kurt Jailbird (A-)
  • Westlake, Donald E. Bad News (B+)
  • Westlake, Donald E. Drowned Hopes (B)
  • Williams, Walter Jon City on Fire (B+)
  • Wilson, Robert Charles Blind Lake (A)
  • Wilson, Robert Charles The Harvest (B+)
  • Wilson, Robert Charles Spin (A+)
  • Wolfe, Gene The Knight (A-)
  • Wolfe, Gene The Wizard (A)
  • Wolfe, Gene Nightside of the Long Sun (A)
  • Wolfe, Gene Lake of the Long Sun (A)
  • Wolfe, Gene Calde of the Long Sun (B+)
  • Wolfe, Gene Exodus from the Long Sun (A)
  • Wolfe, Gene On Blue's Waters (A)
  • Wolfe, Gene In Green's Jungles (B)
  • Wolfe, Gene Return to the Whorl (A)
  • Wolfe, Gene Soldier of Sidon (A)
  • Zelazney, Roger Changeling (D)
  • Zelazney, Roger Damnation Alley (C-)

  • Tuesday, August 22, 2006

    Book Review: Freakonomics

    Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics (B+)

    I am somewhat torn about this book. On one hand, I'm always in love with the idea of debunking stupidly held conventional wisdom. I've opined before that "correlation does imply causation" is a valuable lesson for anyone, but for those who shape opinion or craft public policy, it should chanted hourly as a mantra, warding off the evil spirits of rushed judgement and horrible, expensive legislation. The authors stress this distinction early and often and I like that. On the other hand, when someone starts strutting their certitude around like a smug little rooster, my big temptation is to knock them down. Levitt and Dubner ultimately appeal more to the former sentiment than the latter, but their admonition to always question the data applies to their data too.

    Well, it applies to Levitt's. Dubner seems to be the prose stylist of the pair, and does a good job of reinterpreting Levitt's technical work with accessible and humorous style for the brighter-than-average everyman. (Conversational science reporting is a style category that is every bit as hackneyed and necessary as noir, technical writing, pulp, whatever. It succeeds when it's effective, but many of these nonfiction books are told in interchangeable voices.) I could have done without opening each chapter with a fawning editorial about Stephen Levitt.

    An expert demanding distrust of experts, Levitt sets a high bar for himself. Though he presents them as off-the-wall, his ideas tend to be more interesting than controversial. He goes on a bit that people will cheat with the proper incentives, and that you can't fake your values as parents. Neither is surprising. He also describes how economic achievement correlates with, but isn't caused by, race. I thought that was the conventional wisdom, but I was pleased to read a discussion of data which bear that out.

    Probably his most contentious essay is the one in which he suggests that legalizing of abortion in the 70s was a major contributor to the drop in violent crime in the 90s. He draws an interesting correlation between these data sets, advances an interesting theory, and provides a reasonable counterexample (abortion instantly made illegal in communist Romania) that supports his idea of causality. But he also rolls over some of monster holes. He dismisses incarceration rate as accounting for only a third of the drop, and that crime rates have a 1:1 linearity with unemployment rates, also ruling out an improving economy as a factor for major crime reduction. It's brazen to weight things this precisely when you're doing epidemiology, and worse, Levitt provides no citation while assuring us that "studies show…" He likewise glosses over the causes of the increased crime rates in the 1960s in the first place (I suspect that more inclusive definitions of crime, especially drug crime, was a big factor), and he fails to address whether the lower socioeconomic sectors are more likely to have abortions (I expect it more appeals to people who are comfortable going to doctors).

    It would have been a ballsier enterprise for Levitt to correlate crime rates with national opinions about the country say, from these ubiquitous right course/wrong course surveys. Certainly that was tanking in 1968, and, despite what Newt said, topping out in 1999. He does hint that white collar crime rates appear to change with current events.

    But all that said, I accept that legalized abortion may well be a contributing factor to reducing crime, and I expect that Levitt has over-emphasized it for the purposes of being clever. That's one problem with iconoclasts. The other problem with iconoclasts is that they can be every bit as full of shit as the spewers of conventional wisdom. Just because someone's a smartass, doesn't necessarily mean they're smart, and Levitt's advice to look at the numbers is well-advised to anyone who tries to make opinions.


    Sunday, August 20, 2006

    Remedial Dexteity (Mandolin)

    I've been doing a horrible thing on the mandolin, or, depending on how you look at it, I've always been doing a horrible thing. (No, I don't mean playing one. Shut up.) In a bold stroke, I've gone and demoted myself back to the level of rank beginner, and it's really taken a lot of the fun out of playing as I pick along like a palsied, club-handed child--missing strings, playing unintentional ones, all at a pace that would bore a the crap out of the calmest yogi.

    I'd been struggling with my right hand technique for some time anyway. I knew I should have been more observant about pick direction for one thing, and knew in an abstract way that pinning my right hand was bad, suspecting that this was why, counterintuitively, my right hand was often slower than my left. I pin my hand differently than most people evidently do--the very back edge of my palm wants to sit on the strings just behind the bridge, sometimes using the upper corner of the bridge itself as a sort of pivot. They say that pinning your hand ultimately makes you slower, and pinning it there also compromises my tone sometimes, as my hand can sneak over the boundary and muffle the strings.

    Careful observation of my picking has also led me to note that although I don't swing my wrist much at all when playing melody, I certainly let it go when I play rhythm, and also when playing leads that are heavy on multiple strings. For these broader motions, I hold my pick more loosely, whereas on melodies it's tight, and for those melodies the motion is like a scoop, always plucking at the strings and in, a rotary motion primarily, that is inherently slow.

    The nail in the coffin though was getting out and seeing some really good performers play. Armed with my usual, "why the hell doesn't mine sound like that?" I grabbed Dad's binoculars and scoped out the pickers. Well, mine didn't look like that either. There were some occasional pinners, sure, but their wrists were still much more fluid than mine. There were some players that were a lot more rhythmic-looking too--the great Sam Bush looks like he's swinging a big beat pretty much the whole time, but he jams a lot more notes in there. (Somehow. I couldn't see half of them; I am thinking it may have been telepathic.)

    Something had to be done. To even begin floating my wrist I had to crank it almost unnaturally around, but immediately got more swing and a few plucks this way revealed a big new brassy tone (a mixed blessing, but I'm finding I can control it if I release my death grip on the pick). Then I came home I came across a post here (though I can't find it now, of course), which mentioned in a brilliant aside that the right hand is the big motor that drives the tune, that's all the rhythm's in that right wrist, and that a good player will build melody around the fundamental rhythmic motions. (In that analogy, the left steers.) Well, well, that's probably why my melodies rarely gel either. Damn.

    But I've got the tools, right? I can play rhythm, and I can free up the wrist when those circumstances demand more motion. So why does it seem so fucking unnatural? Playing so badly and slow is hurting my motivation after making so much progress in the last year. I long for someone to reassure me it'll get better soon, to keep at it. I'd also happily settle for reassurance that it's fine to go back to the old pivot. (I play faster than ever with that tight wrist. I've checked a few times, just for that warm fuzzy of slight competence.)


    Wednesday, August 16, 2006

    Adventures in the Slushpile: Writing Advice

    For the first quarter of 2006 (or so), I invested some effort in the hopes of publishing some of my short fiction. I have some people on the Slate Fray to specifically thank (or blame) for that, for either nipping my ass in just the right (lupine) way or for (water) buffaloing me with well-timed encouragement. This effort drew me away from the acerbic bosom of the Fray, however, into the realms of typewritten rejection, and ultimately into other forums through which I hoped to sell one of my bombs.

    (Pathetic reach-outs: I also read some of this guy's stuff, and this guy's, who belongs in the blog roll. Also some stuff here and here, which are not blogs.)

    I was lucky enough to find a publishing experiment: an interactive slush pile. For those who aren't familiar, the slushpile refers to the stack of unsolicited manuscripts sitting on an editor's desk. (The origins of the term are apocryphal, and it may refer to its habit of piling up on the floor of weary assistant editors' offices, or it may just have something to do with quality.) Anyway, since short stories do not take very long to read, it's not generally advised that you get an agent for their submission, and this publication took it one idea further and spread out the editorial task further. They made the submission public, with all other submitters free to comment as a first cut.

    Although not an editor, and (still) never having published fiction, I think I did a pretty good job in my brief stint as a reviewer, and learned some lessons that would have otherwise been difficult to pick up. Among them, I learned that I don't want the assistant editor's job. Keeping up with only a couple or three stories a day was enough to burn me out in just a couple of months, and distracted me from my other reading pleasures. A lot of submissions were outright bad, but many were decent enough to scrape a positive comment or two to lead my critique.

    Since this introduction is in danger of becoming boring, let's move along to the actual advice I generated from the experience:

  • The market matters. Although pretty much any editor wants a good story above all else, I found that these editors (and other users) pretty much ignored the pieces that attracted me (including my own), and lionized the crap I found dull. There wasn't much room for darkness and introspection in this publication, and it ultimately drove away a lot of my interest. That and an assistant editor called one of my stories icky. Ouch.

  • Bad formatting and bad spelling are huge warning flags. (Some forms of bad formatting are worse than others, though. An absence of paragraph breaks is absolutely criminal.) It's like submitting a resume. This slush reader is impatient to weed out the unredeemable submissions, so just give me an excuse...

  • On the other hand, any indication at all of narrative flair in the first couple of paragraphs and the prospective author got spotted a whole page or two to catch my interest. I have preferred more creative prose in general (a little metaphor wouldn't kill), but really, any manner of spark is good. A "literary" voice isn't strictly necessary, but it's absolutely critical that it sounds like the author's own voice. A lot of the styles I read were a pastiche of a hundred tired fantasy conventions.

  • More on that: standard modifiers are absolutely a disease on genre fiction. In sf, glinting eyes, raven locks, and hilt-fingering suck away my attention like a vampire. High-tech warriors have different mannerisms, but the same problem is the same. They can pet their horses and fondle their pistols all they want--still not interesting. Furthermore, any technology presented has to be really mindbogglingly clever to carry a story (and I've never seen anyone who's not Hal Clement pull that off, frankly). Weapons get way too much attention. A pistol under the pillow is a lot more intriguing than the mechanics of firing a XJ-27 energy neutralizer.

  • Still more on modifiers: wading through slush, I got a good chance to observe what the editors complain about about in this regard. Too many adverbs are bad. Too many dialogue tags are also bad. They tend to read like filler words in a high school composition for one thing, and they tend to dilute from important things like plot and character and setting.

    So show, don't tell, advise the editors, but you have to be careful there too. There's a host of uninspired facial cues that are almost as bad as adverbs. Widened eyes, frowns, drumming fingers: use these things just as sparingly. Because you can kind of tell when they've been thrown in only as a thesaurus-ized substitute for an adverb. Yes, it's hard to write without them all these sorts of modifiers, but it's much too easy to use them as lazy formulas. Rule of thumb: keep the gestures when they feel organic, keep the modifiers when they're natural in the flow of the text.

  • Reading the slush pile gives you a good idea of how important beginnings are. It's not so much important to throw a curveball on the first pitch, but it's necessary to to frame the expectations of the story quickly, especially for short fiction. And of course failing to nail that first paragraph is a good excuse to put your entry down and move to the next on the pile.

  • Short stories long enough to need multiple-part submissions are usually bad, but I tried to give the parts 1 an honest start. My reading time has shrunk as an adult, and I've grown to admire concision. Length is not necessarily bad, but bloat certainly is, and for a trial reading…again, give me an excuse.

  • The editors had their own beefs about story types, and reading random selections made it clear enough that certain forms generally correlated with badness. They suggested to avoid "woke up" stories (Bobby woke up one morning and everything had changed…); avoid stunts; avoid present tense. Yeah, maybe yours is the rare exception (I still like my stunt, but the advice to first succeed at conventional storytelling is well taken.) I'll add to their list: your warriors are not interesting because they are warriors, and fishing the first first thing out of the standard bin of stoic badass traits doesn't really cut it; fights are likewise boring unless you care about the characters, no matter how many fencing moves you may know; supernatural life allegories are inherently uninteresting, especially when they're asked to carry the whole story; feudalism is uninteresting in the way that fighting men are uninteresting--you have to tell a story around it, and the dwelling on the heirarchy usually correlates with the absence of one.

  • The neophyte screams that pros break these rules constantly, and he's right. They are more like guidelines than rules. But keep in mind that the exceptions are fairly rare, and the timing of when to bust through is every bit as important as in the delivery of a joke.

    My final advice, of course, is to keep writing, at least until your old stuff looks sort of inadequate to your own eyes. Keep in mind that before long, your new stuff will too.

  • Friday, August 11, 2006

    Book Reviews: I. McEwan, J. Stewart (updated)

    Ian McEwan, Saturday (B)

    Saturday is a rather eventful day in the life of a stolid, though somewhat dreamy, surgeon. It's not quite held together enough event-wise (or thematically) to stalk out a normal novel. But this one's not really about moving the story along--McEwan dissects this man's day almost moment-by-moment, or at least includes all the moments that lead off to thought digressions. The cascade from thought to thought comes off with impressive verisimilitude--it's similar enough to my own daily mental excursions--and may be an example one way an essayist could turn into a novelist. Most of his digressions are suitably interesting.

    While the drifting course of subjects works as a reasonable thinking model, it's less effective as a storytelling medium. The density of asides doesn't always match the intensity of the moment. This could be acceptable in a different frame, but I don't really need those long, dull stretches parsed out by the instant.

    It's important (on the story's terms) to remark that Saturday is set around the 2003 buildup to the Iraq war (a lumped-together code phrase that's every bit as annoying as 'the events of 9-11'). McEwan stages a demonstration near the protagonist's home, and a couple of soliloquies and an external argument debate the issue for the reader. Now, fiction in general presents arguments about real-life issues on some level, which is what makes it relevant, an extra layer of meaning that separates a serious the good from the great in many cases. Often, this discussion is thematic, implicit, and usually it's about the deeply personal, or the deeply philosophical.

    It's best when these discussions are broad-based and subtle. As the scope of the central argument narrows to the specific, it begins to look like a polemic. When it becomes explicit, even more so. McEwan tries to paint a fair view of the Iraq war, but he's got the benefit of hindsight (his characters sure look prescient), and is inevitably stacking these argument in his favor. His arguments were not even particularly novel, but a rehash of the prepackaged synopses out in the media then and now. I felt mildly insulted as a reader. (Thankfully, there was more to the novel than this.)

    McEwan also lost half a grade for his use of the present tense. It can generate a flow, but it's always disrupting, and I don't see how it was added much here.

    Jon Stewart, Naked Pictures of Famous People (B)

    The only way these two books became a paired reading is that I bought them both in the airport.

    I love Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, and it's hard to not read his essays in the light of his other gig. It's not a favorable way to look at it, because most of them would have benefited his comic delivery. The funniest of the bunch are the ones that read most like short stories.

    Also, written in 1998, the subject matter can be a little weak. A guy like Stewart may need to reflect the shine of weightier real-life farce. Stewart is funniest when he makes you cringe a little bit too. Making fun of a dumb Gerald Ford (suspiciously like current Bush caracitures) just doesn't hit very hard.

    (It's possible that I just wasn't in the mood.)