Tuesday, August 7, 2012

On Hiatus

I have no internet connection at home presently, as I have sold my house and am in a short term rental until the new one is finished. In the interim I can't post any reviews. Stay tuned, new posts should start showing up in September.


Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pattern Recognition

William Gibson

After reading Distrust That Particular Flavor, I felt a need to catch up a bit on William Gibson's novels. Pattern Recognition is the first in a series of novels set in a weird Gibsonian version of the, post 9/11, present. Gibson's protagonist, Cayce Pollard, makes her living by being psychologically allergic to corporate hyperbole. She is a consultant to advertising agencies, on what is going to be the next cool thing to take advantage of and what is creepy about their advertising campaigns. She is in London at the beginning of the book, passing judgement on the newly designed swoosh logo of a sneaker manufacturer which shall remain nameless.

Gibson  built this novel around a concept which he calls the "Garage Kubrick." Keep in mind that the book was published in 2003, before the advent of YouTube. The "Garage Kubrick" working alone with a personal computer, is able to create a feature film by manipulating bits and pieces of footage, making a movie pixel by pixel, mixing in dialog and music, then releasing the film by uploading it in bits and pieces, to various websites.

Cayce Pollard, who follows the release of the various bits of "the footage" and discusses them on a dedicated online forum,  is hired by the mysterious  Dutch advertising executive Hubertus Bigend, to track down the creator of the footage, the "Garage Kubrick." The action and adventure that ensues is due to her pursuit of that goal. I hate to release any spoilers but rest assured there is plenty of action and adventure.

All of the technology in the book was current, or at least possible, in 2003. Pixar was creating digitally animated films which were quite sophisticated. It was possible, at that time, to imaging one that looked like live action. This year, of course, we saw the release of  Tintin, which appears to be about 95% of the way to that goal.

I am working my way through Spook Country, Gibson's next novel in this series, on my way to attempting Zero History, which came out in 2010. Expect to see more of Gibson on these pages, soon.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Distrust That Particular Flavor

William Gibson

Writers tend to accumulate a lot of stuff, short pieces that they wrote for this or that publication, or for no particular reason. After a while all that stuff can be swept together an become a book. This book is William Gibson's stuff.

Gibson is an odd, quirky kind of thinker, so his stuff is pretty interesting. The first piece "African Thumb Piano" is about how he set about learning to write fiction, science fiction, of course. He had a hard time at first with the cool technologies that were supposed to make his stories fit that genre. What do they do and what should he call them? "My wife parodied them all, not unkindly, as 'His long green ears quivering, Fino slipped from the rig.' Today this reminds me that I was having trouble with character names. At one point I seriously considered borrowing them from products in the IKEA catalog. But there was always something akin to 'the rig.' Some unimagined (by me), hence unnamed, element of technology." Later Gibson got very good at imagining and naming things, like "cyberspace," his invented term for an extension of the internet into a live space occupied by the minds of uber-hackers of the near future, who no longer had much interest in their physical bodies. Now we think of cyberspace as the world wide web.

In this book, Gibson reviews a record or two, visits Singapore (Disneyland with the Death Penalty), explains why he is fascinated with Japan, loves London and Tokyo, disparages the internet as a waste of time, becomes an eBay addict and visits the set of his own movie. It is a hodgepodge of "non fiction" writing by a master writer of fiction.

He predicts (12 years ago) that computer chips will indeed be implanted in peoples heads, for medical reasons and that they will rapidly become obsolete. I heard a piece on NPR just this weekend about a paraplegic, experimentally, controlling a robot arm through the use of a brain implanted chip. Twelve years from now we may see paraplegics walk again, using lab grown neurons implanted in their bodies to bypass the damaged spinal chord. Who needs a chip?

Some pieces have already been bypassed by events. Gibson includes a 1999 piece about digital film making: how it could someday be good enough to supplant real film. Hardly anybody makes movies on film anymore, it's too expensive and limited. The pace at which real technology now overtakes the imagination of science fiction writers is kind of scary.

I'm unsure which flavor I am instructed to distrust in the title of the book. Cappuccino Crunch?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Forest Unseen

A Year’s Watch in Nature

David George Haskell

A standard exercise in undergraduate  environmental science classes is to assign each student to go out and throw a hula hoop on the ground and then write a paper on what is to be found inside the circle of that hoop. I’m sure professors hope nobody will go out and do a report on a small part of an asphalt parking lot. Professor Haskell has taken this assignment to it’s logical extreme by visiting the same small patch of ground, on a mountainside, in an old growth forest near where he teaches biology in Tennessee, every week or two for an entire year.

Each chapter is derived from one such visit, starting in early January and running until December 31st. On every visit he sees something different, something timely and something interesting.

Haskell goes into extreme detail about the plants, the soil, the tiny springtails, the fungus, spiders and insects found in his square meter of ground. He also looks up to see the trees, the song birds and the deer, coyotes and raccoons that are in the surrounding forest.

Haskell’s small patch of ground is in and old growth forest, but human intervention is everywhere in his patch. Acidification caused by coal burning power plants, golf balls driving from the top of a nearby cliff by wagering golfers, global climate change. He has one chapter about the eradication of eastern timber wolves and their gradual replacement by coyotes migrating from the west and one on the effect of farming and timbering on the deer population.

As I am soon going to move in to a small patch of reasonable aged regrown forest I was drawn to this study. I sort of doubt that I will spend my retirement studying my local nematodes, but now, at least, I will know that they are there.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Rope

Nevada Barr

The Rope is the eighteenth book in Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon series of crime novels. As has become the norm in crime fiction, the reader is invited to become involved in the life of Anna Pigeon through this series of books. The gimmick, if I may use that word, is that Anna Pigeon is a National Parks police officer and each book is set in a different park. Anna Pigeon novels are a guided tour of the National Park system.

This book is a bit different. It is a flashback to the beginning of Pigeon's career in the Park Service. It gives the reader a lot of background, filling in Anna's history. It's like the birth of the Lone Ranger episode that used to air once a year, which every child waited for with anticipation.

The setting is Glen Canyon National Park and whiffs of Edward Abbey are in the air. Lake Powell laps at the beautiful, stark sandstone sculptures carved, by the wind and the Colorado River over millions of years. Human waste and toilet paper blossoms dot the small beaches found far up side canyons, where houseboaters stop for a night of two of partying. Silt slowly piles up in the bottom of the lake.

Anna Pigeon is introduced as a seasonal park employee assisting a more senior seasonal, in cleaning up the mess left by the partying boaters. Of course there is murder and mayhem. Anna is right in the thick of it, not as an investigator, but as a potential victim. Through grit and determination she manages to survive. What she doesn't do is solve the crime, which is left up to the surprising perpetrator's own mistakes. Nevertheless, there are plenty of clues thrown out and misdirection to keep you guessing.  There is even a kind of Alfred Hitchcock moment when you want to shake Anna and tell her to run, as she cluelessly walks into a trap that is obvious to the reader but not to her.

In the end Anna decides that she wants to become a full time Parks employee - in law enforcement. Better to be the cop than the victim. She says that more women should think of themselves as dangerous. I thought everyone knew that women were dangerous.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Space Chronicles

Facing the Ultimate Frontier

Neil deGrasse Tyson: edited by Avis Lang

Space Chronicles is a collection of Tyson's most recent writing cleverly assembled by Avis Lang into a coherent book with one central theme. Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go back to the Moon. He wants to go to Mars. He wants to visit asteroids and he wants to do these things with Astronauts, not just unmanned robotic probes. Why? " . . . the sheer joy of exploration and discovery," for one thing, but also survival: survival of the human species in the event of another, eventually inevitable, extinction level asteroid collision with the Earth, and the survival of the United States of America as a technological, political and economic world leader.

Tyson takes ancient China as an example of decline.

" . . . in the late 1400s, China turned insular. It stopped looking beyond it's shores. It stopped exploring beyond it's then-current state of knowledge. And the entire enterprise of creativity stopped. That's why you don't people saying "here's a modern Chinese answer to that problem." Instead they're talking about ancient Chinese remedies. There's a cost when you stop innovating and stop investing and stop exploring. That cost is severe. And it worries me deeply, because if you don't explore, you recede into irrelevance as other nations figure out the value of exploration."

China, incidentally, is back in the game now. China has a manned space program aimed at putting a Chinese man on the Moon. The solar panels your neighbor put on his roof were probably built in China.Pretty soon a modern Chinese solution to any knotty problem may be the best, cheapest way to go.

Why a manned space program? It's way more expensive to send people into space than machines. The Mars rovers were a spectacular success. The Hubble Space Telescope was an absolute triumph. Tyson's answer is inspiration. The Apollo program inspired many young people, including Tyson himself, to pursue science as a career. This meant studying the hard math and science curricula in school. It meant building a telescope and staying up late nights looking at the stars from a rooftop in the Bronx. It meant having two technologically literate generations of Americans to give us the kind of lifestyle we take for granted now, at the beginning of the twenty first century. Tyson believes that a manned Moon/Mars program will revitalize that inspiration. Oh, and then there's spinoff technologies that nobody has though of yet, which will create the new economy of the twenty first century.

Or we can just buy stuff from China until the money runs out.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Way of the World

 A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism
Ron Suskind

I found this 2008 book, by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Ron Suskind, a bit problematical. Written near the end of the Bush/Cheney second term, it blatantly characterizes George W. Bush as a bully, not in some policy sense, but personally, as the kid who picks on smaller kids in the schoolyard and takes their lunch money. This is a postulate, unsupported by any evidence. Perhaps Suskind had already made that case in a previous book but, if so, he made no reference to it.

Suskind follows several people in the book, in a novelistic sort of way. Are these real people doing and saying real things? Wendy Chamberlin, certainly, is a real diplomat, now at the Middle East Institute. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen actually was a top CIA employee and now works at the Kennedy School of Government. But how about Usman Khosa, from Pakistan or Ibrahim Frontan, a high school exchange student from a small village in Afghanistan? Suskind reports extensive private conversations between these people and friends in Pakistan, Washington D.C., Colorado. Pennsylvania. Did he interview Khosa's sister about what they talked about during a visit to Lahore for a family wedding? Did he talk to the other kids in Frontan's two high schools? I don't know where the reporting leaves off and the fiction begins in The Way of the World. I didn't see much hope in the book, though, even were it one hundred percent truth.

The lesson driven home is that the Bush administration manipulated public opinion and lied about the cause for war in Iraq. We already knew that. Suskind suggests that the U.S. be humble in our policy regarding the Middle East. That hardly seems possible. Do we apologize and pull all our troops out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Oops, sorry, our mistake. Politely ask Israel to give Jerusalem to the Palistinians? Not likely, unless we want the Taliban back in Kabul by fall and massive Israeli lobbying against whatever administration took Suskind's advice.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is in the book looking for a way to energize the search for stray nuclear material throughout the world. His chapters are frightening and not hopeful at all. Wendy Chamberlin, I think, is the model on which Suskind would like to build a new American foreign policy. She worked on Arab/Israeli relations for the State Department, became the UN High Commissioner on Refugees where she attempted to rally assistance for South Sudan and Darfur. Wouldn't it be great if we could just give food and medicine to everyone in need and not worry about Alkaida, North Korea, Iran or a dozen othe sources of potential chaos?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Feast Day of Fools

James Lee Burke

The latest in James Lee Burke's Hackberry Holland series finds the nearly eighty year old west Texas sheriff involved with the kidnapping of an engineer who has the entire plan of the Predator drone in his head. From this improbable premise a mountain of improbabilities is built, which the reader may scarcely notice, while the suspense rolls on.

The idea that one person could sit down with a pencil an a piece of paper and draw out a set of plans which would allow Alkaida to build it's own homemade Predator, which Noeie Barnum is purported to be capable of, is an absurd idea. This provides the motivation for the FBI, a familiar Russian crime boss, the son of a former US Senator and a couple of Mexican coyotes to cause a lot of chaos in Hackberry Holland's county. Everybody is looking for this guy. Most want to sell him, and his talents, to the highest bidder.

It takes a while to find him, of course, because he is hiding out with the equally improbable Preacher Jack Collins, Holland's nemesis, a scruffy mad serial killer who lives out of dumpsters and goodwill stores, and, by the way, is a very rich man, with no explainable means of support, that can have a new Toyota delivered to him at a truck stop and hire unreliable Mexican criminals to screw up his plans, whatever he needs.

Three quarters of the way through the book, Burke seems to tire of Noeie Barnum as a device and summarily dismisses him from the story. By this time, another character "La Magdelena," a Cambodian woman who runs a way station for illegal aliens who have just crossed the border, has been kidnapped and taken to Mexico by the Russians, who plan to trade her for Barnum, who is now being held in "protective custody" in Holland's jail. Holland, turns Barnum loose and tells him to hitch hike out of his county, teams up with Jack Collins to invade their heavily guarded compound and rescue her, thus ending the book on a highly ambiguous note.

Feast Day of Fools is highly flawed and illogical. It is also a great page turner, full of unspeakable violence, if you like that sort of thing.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Man Who Found Time

James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth’s Antiquity

By John Repcheck

Perseus Publishing 2003

James Hutton [1726-1797] the Scottish born & educated medical doctor is regarded, by Mr. Repcheck, as the father of the modern study of geology. This is the story of the formulation, dissemination, and gradual acceptance of Hutton’s geological theory: that the Earth was much older than the “6,000 years since Creation” as The Church steadfastly maintained at the time.

Using his powers of observation and logic to explain the geological evidence bared by Scotland’s harsh climate, Hutton applied something like scientific method to explain phenomena like the existence of marine fossils far above sea level. He proposed that the earth’s crust was cyclically thrust up- and much later- down by the earth’s inner pressures and heat over remarkably long [Hutton could not say how long] periods of time. As a member of what came to be known as The Scottish Enlightenment, Hutton regularly met in Edinburgh with the likes of Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Adam Smith, Joseph Black, and other thinkers. These men were, at the time, known as philosophers. The term scientist, Repcheck tells us, would not be used until the 1830s; but their thinking further fueled The Enlightenment’s
departure from the religion-based view of the world. Today’s scientists fix the age of the world at 4.6 billion years, a far cry from the 6,000 years held by Biblical scholars of Hutton’s time.

The Man Who Found Time is a good tale, reasonably well told. The author takes occasional tangents, some of which were interesting and informative. Overall, I found the book slow going; but worth the effort.

This guest post was written by Johnson Fortenbaugh, a gentleman and a scholar, who is at risk for cranial sunburn.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Wayward Saints

Suzzy Roche

I first encountered The Roches on vinyl around 1984, when I began hosting a folk music radio show at the surprisingly powerful high school station, WKHS. Warner Brothers sent me their first three albums, The Roches, Nurds and Keep On Doing in a neatly wrapped package. It was one of my first acquisitions from a record company. I was using a pile of old LPs borrowed from storage a friend's barn for most of my music.

I played the grooves off of those three albums. Their clever lyrics with their smart humorous tales of life for three young sisters in New York, trying to break into the music business, were priceless. Having left the radio game now for more than a decade, (where does the time go?) I had lost track of Maggie, Terre and Suzzy, the three sisters from New Jersey that I loved so much. So I was surprised to see this book on the new books display at my local library.

The cover art shows the silhouette of a skinny girl with an acoustic guitar over an orange psychedelic vortex, with a smaller silhouette of a woman in white gloves in front of a row of lime green identical suburban houses in the corner. The first chapter, featuring a punk rock band just formed in England, and filled with f-bombs, almost made me close the book and return it. I was afraid that it was going fantasy nightmare of sex, drugs and rock and roll with intimate scenes on the tour bus.

After what, to my relief, turned out to be a short bit of exposition, the novel moves on to the later life of Mary Saint, former punk rocker, living in San Francisco and working in a coffee shop, and her mother, living alone in quiet suburban upstate New York.

The book is a story of forgiveness and redemption and is quite touching, while still gripping. There are lots of colorful characters from the music business, from San Francisco's tenderloin and from the small, imaginary,  town of Swallow, New York. I particularly liked Mary's San Fransisco roommate, Thaddeus, who is described as a "chocolate tranny." Thaddeus works at the coffee shop but also dances at a storefront non denominational church of vague theology. Thaddeus is a big hit in Swallow New York. He is one of two possible incarnations of the virgin Mary in the book. All done very tastefully, of course.

Yes, there is a big concert at the end, in the auditorium of Swallow, New York's high school. This concert is the vehicle by which Mary and her mother are reunited. In the real world a concert of songs like The Back of My Ass and Tom's Dick and Harry would never have been allowed to happen. Instead it would would cost the high school English teacher that thought of this bonehead idea his job. Fortunately this is art.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Machine Man

Max Barry

A friend mentioned this book and it sounded interesting enough to me to remember to go to Amazon and one click it to my Kindle.  I’m not sure of the genre it might be science fiction sort of, but it’s set in what feels like the present, there are no flying cars. I think of it as dark humor, a twisted Michael Crichton novel perhaps.
Barry explores the soulless military industrial complex and the mind of a brilliant engineer/scientist with no life aside from his employment with a large high tech company.  Due to an accident in the lab, caused by distraction over his misplaced phone, Charlie the protagonist loses a limb. While in the hospital he falls in love for the first time ever with the physical therapist that’s helping him to learn to use his prosthesis. 

Being brilliant and unsatisfied with his prosthesis, Charlie, unauthorized and ignoring all other duties at work makes himself a better leg.  Soon he becomes acutely aware of the deficiencies of his other limb and makes a decision.  His second trip to the hospital is not well received by the hospital staff but by this time his employers see the value Charlie may bring to their military products.  The cold hand of corporate personhood becomes more involved while Charlie struggles between reinventing himself and seeking affection. Some of the human parts of the corporate body suffer the consequences of their determination to exploit Charlie as does Charlie’s love interest.

But it doesn’t end all that well, Charlie’s girlfriend survives but Charlie finds himself somewhat reduced. 

I was entertained and given cause to speculate on how far away some of things imagined in this novel actually are. 

This, the first guest review on I'll Never Forget The Day I Read A Book, was written by Mark Bjorke. Mark is the older, wiser brother of this blog's publisher.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Just Kids

Patti Smith

Celebrity autobiographies are an iffy proposition. This one grabs your with the first sentence and never lets go. No wonder it won a National Book Award.

Patti Smith arrived in New York on a Trailways bus with only a few dollars in her pocket and an old address of some friends she hoped to stay with. Instead she found Robert Mapplethorpe, then an unknown young aspiring artist. Together they worked their way up from homelessness to fame, or at least noteriety, and relative affluence.

You may recognize Robert Mapplethorpe's name. He was the artist who's work was used as an justification for an attack on the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989, led by then House Speaker and now Presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich. Mapplethorpe never received any NEA money. The controversy over an exhibition of his work that resulted in cuts to the NEA budget erupted about four months after Mapplethorpe's death.

Mapplethorpe's photographs were a deliberate attempt to make pornography an art form. His awakening to his own homosexuality, as well as the development of his artistic vision are central to this book.The opening chapter, as well as the end of the book deal with Mapplethorpe's death from AIDS. Smith does not attempt to gloss over or sugar coat his, or her own, participation in the sexual revolution that took place in the 1970's, or it's consequences. I'm sort of glad that I was so clueless that I missed the whole thing. You may want to have a serious conversation with your middle school age child before giving her this book to read.

Patti Smith came to New York believing that she was an artist, or maybe a poet. It was only through a series of accidents that she came to realize that she could be a rock star. Her musical debut occurred when she brought her friend, Lenny Kaye, along to play guitar at one of her poetry readings. She continues to produce drawings and publish poetry along side her musical career.

Smith and Mapplethorpe lived together in a room at the Chelsey Hotel in New York for a couple of years. At the Chelsey they met such people as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and saw Salvadore Dali stroll through the lobby. Many opportunities came to them through their association with the Chelsey.

Just Kids is not a "how I became a rock star" pot boiler. Smith's attention is very much on Mapplethorpe and the intense, if odd, relationship she had with him. Her premise is that the growth of his art, and hers, came directly out of this relationship. I get the impression that she feels it was worth the price of admission.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Leftovers

Tom Perotta

My cousin, DeAne, who teaches at St Olaf and writes interesting things here, suggested that I read The Leftovers. I guess I should assure you right away that this is not a book about the contents of someone's refrigerator on the day after Thanksgiving. You must be thinking of a John McPhee book.

Something has gone wrong with the Rapture. One day, shortly before the story begins, people all over the world, some small but significant part of the population, simply disappeared. The problem is that it appears that this was a random sampling of humanity. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, posibly even a few Unitarians, all were among those that departed. They were not all pillars of the community, some were philandering husbands, others were small children. Nothing makes sense.

One character in the novel, a former minister, who believe he should have been first in line for the Rapture, publishes a scurrilous newsletter, exposing the sins and the foibles of those who went. He is trying to prove that the departure was not, in fact, the Rapture.

Several cults have arisen, members of one, The Watchers, follow people around, wearing all white, not speaking, and try to remind their victims, as if they could forget, that they have been left behind. Another paint bulls-eyes on their foreheads and party like there is no tomorrow.

I am not surprised by Perrotta's inexplicable rapture event. I was taught that we mortals should not expect to understand God's plan. If there were to be a Rapture I would expect it to be inexplicable. This, to me, is just another way to say it would indeed be random. One can not explain the reason for a random event.

The people in The Leftovers are like the survivors of a disaster. Everyone has lost friends and family members in a single world wide event. One one level is a very naturalistic book about the way we deal with grief. Most of the characters in the book are residents of the fictional town of Mapleton and they carry on with their daily lives despite the unexplained disappearance of many of their fellow townspeople.

The rise of these various cults is a second theme in the book, again, excluding the root cause of their rise, it is a realistic seeming look at how cults arise. "Holy Wayne" is a man who tries to help people by offering to take their pain, by giving them hugs. He gives only momentary relief to any individual, yet a cult of personality forms around him until, like Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. He finds himself living in a compound in Idaho with armed security patrolling the property and a harem of underage "spiritual wives."Incidentally, I'm sure that Tom Perrotta didn't realize that he gave "Holy Wayne" the same name as the former Congressman from the first district of Maryland, the honorable Wayne Gilchrest.

I won' give away the ending - it is either a surprise which brings all of the themes together in a sudden and satisfying way (my view) or a cute but cynical cop out. See for yourself. Just don't read the last page first.