All posts tagged books

Recent Reading

FWIW, some thoughts from the latest batch of reading:

  • A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith
  • The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Set in a decaying Californian wasteland, PKD dedicates his novel to friends lost to “slow death”, fictionalized as the narcotic Substance D.

An undercover cop Fred poses as small-time dealer and burnout, Bob Arctor. The cop/Bob’s personality cracks after the police task Fred with surveilling himself. Fred must bug his house and analyze recordings of himself/Bob through “a scanner darkly.”

His schizophrenia is intensified by wearing a scramble suit, an outfit that loops “a million and a half physiognomic fraction-representations of various people” and projects all the variations of eye color, hair, facial structure, etc. so that “the wearer of a scramble suit was Everyman.”

Suffering from the psychological demands of auto-surveillance and the physical pains of Substance D withdrawal, the police ask Fred/Bob why he does this line of work. To which he responds, perhaps channeling PKD on why he wrote this novel, “On a horrible positive reason: to have watched a human being you loved deeply, that you had gotten real close to, head and slept with and kissed and worried about and befriended and most of all admired–to see that warm living person burn out from the inside, burnt from the heart outward. Until it clicked and clacked like an insect, repeating one sentence again and again. A recording. A closed loop of tape.”

Definitely a good read, albeit with some disturbing misogynistic undertones.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Crime novels are difficult to describe without giving away too much, but this book earns its praise as a page-turner even if it won’t win a spot on literature lists.

A not-so-newly-wed couple move from NYC to the husband’s hometown in Missouri in search of brighter job prospects. Matrimonial disharmony ensues. Each chapters reveals more knotted coils in the relationship and all the ways the couple will try to sever/untangle/tighten the knot.

It’s a crime novel that manages to be fun to attempt solving while also capturing the little moments between people in love, and in hate, with one another: “Maybe he understands that you’ve made a witty remark, but, unsure of what to do with it, he holds it in his hand like some bit of conversational phlegm he will wipe away later.”

Could be a fitting way to describe finishing this book, too.

NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith takes us through a concatenation of events in NW, the North West of London, a neighborhood years ago could be described as “well-appointed country living for those tired of the city.” Now “Fast forward. Disappointed city living for those tired of their countries.”

The novel is anchored by two NW childhood friends, Leah and Natalie, who now struggle with adulthood. “Overnight everyone has grown up. While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.”

Not knowing much about the real NW, I can’t attest to the novel’s verisimilitude, but little descriptive bits color it well. (The local accent “drops their aitches”, for example.) By trying to compare descriptions of NW with other neighborhoods, one realizes how comparison itself is a central theme of the novel. Leah vs. Natalie, Natalie vs. her husband, haves vs. have-nots, happy vs. sad.

The characters are always measuring themselves against one another, deciding that, for example, “marriage is the art of invidious comparison” or more tellingly, that “happiness is not an absolute value. It is a state of comparison.”

One can’t help compare NW with other Smith novels, and while this one was a good read, I prefer The Book of Other People and have heard White Teeth is probably her best.

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

This story follows Loeser, a set designer/dilettante, who in 1931 leaves the wild warehouse parties of Berlin for Hollywood in pursuit of the seductive Adele Hitler (no relation).

Loeser is enamored not only by Adele but by a legendary Venetian tinkerer, Lavincini, who built beautiful stage sets and a teleportation device, which “magically” delivered actors from one part of the stage to another. The device was used once, in Paris, in front of Louis XIV.

With the device, Beauman draws an arc from Venice to Paris, to Berlin and Hollywood. And with it follows the debate about special effects: “Enlightened critics [in Venice] complained that genuine dramatic values had been surrendered to this obsession with ‘the marvelous’, continuing a debate about the overuse of special effects that had begun with the Reformation and would presumably last until Hollywood fell into the San Andreas fault.”

In a novel about theater, the theme of masks can’t be far. The main character Loeser is fascinated by Carnival in Venice during which everyone wears a mask so one doesn’t know a prince from a pauper. To Loeser, “the glamour and intrigue of the old Carnival were nothing compared to its unacknowledged political radicalism.” Although he remains pathetically apolitical throughout the novel.

All in all, the book was enjoyable and not a typical of stories set in Germany in the 1930′s. Even now it’s hard to decipher what, if anything, Beauman is saying about that period and just used it as a backdrop.

What else

Any good reading recommendations?

End of Summer Reading

Summer has come and gone, but it didn’t leave without a few good reads. I’d just like to share some books; you might find them a worthy consolation for the departed sun.

  • Zoo City by Lauren Beukes. Picked up this South African sci-fi/crime noir thanks to a BoingBoing recommendation. It takes place in a corrupt, near-future Johannesburg whose downcast residents are punished with animal familiars and magical tendencies. It’s all darkly gripping as the heroine Zinzi December and her sloth try to solve a case and escape the dark Undertow.
  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. This beautiful “sextet with overlapping soloists” spans six nested stories, told from different points of view. It spans a voyage across the Pacific, a journalist on the verge of a volatile scoop, a troubling totalitarian corpocracy in future Korea and beyond. Mitchell certainly has a way with words, and the film adaptation will hit theaters this fall.
  • Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. I was a bit hesitant when starting on McDougall’s breathless, sports-magazine-style account of an ancient Mexican running tribe. But I was hooked after being introduced to a cast of characters including Barefoot Ted the ballsy pioneer of barefoot running in the US, Caballo Blanco a lone Gringo living in Mexico desert canyons, and of course the Tarahumara tribe, a peaceful people known for racing over 100km wearing little more than huarache sandals. An epic race pits the Tarahumara against the fastest (read: craziest) ultrarunners from the US, and the book not only relates who crosses the finish line first, but throws in some interesting theories on humans’ capacity to run extreme distances by design. I confess, after reading this book, I was so amped up about running that I started doing 20km routes on the weekend.
  • I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron. I hadn’t heard about Ephron, the writer of ”When Harry Met Sally”, until listening to a heartfelt obituary for her. It prompted me to try out her collection of essays. She’s a witty New Yorker who “tells it like it is” about aging and womanhood. It’s a light enough bundle of urban anecdotes, if you’re in to it.
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. In this novella, Barnes uses exactly the right amount of words. The narrator, Tony Webster, recounts his youth and then, as an old man, soliloquizes about time, memory, and the subjectivity of history. You’re taken on a wonderful meander through the mind, and it’ll only take you one sitting to read.

Have you read anything good lately?

Kindle-Powered Summer Reading

This is a short post, but just wanted to share a few good reads picked up this summer and why I’m enjoying them on the Kindle.

Why the Kindle rocks

The Kindle, which I’ve been using heavily since January, has definitely help speed up reading, thanks to several key features:

  • mobility (duh)
  • adjustable font size (I have crappy eyesight, especially at night)
  • range of texts available (in case you weren’t in the mood for that novel you schlepped, there are other things read)
  • free sample chapters (to bypass guilt-reading a book I bought but then didn’t enjoy)
  • instant new material (to immediately dive into the next book when you’re zooming through them)

Some summer reading recommendations

  • For the Win by Cory Doctorow. A fast novel about how the internet could lower the transaction cost to form a global labor movement, led gold farmers and other virtual game workers. The plot spans internet cafes in China, Singapore, India and the US with plenty of Doctorow-esque trivia and asides (including how to cozily cross the Pacific in a shipping container, how to calculate Coase cost, and a glimpse into virtual world markets).
  • Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem. A detective novel taking place in the near-future where evolved animals and hormone-treated “babyheads” roam the streets and the state doles out free “make”, a drug that placates the population so that it can be controlled by Inquisitors. The protagonist, an old school detective, tries to solve a murder and crack open the twisted system despite being as addicted and as part of the crazy world as anyone else.
  • Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. A poetically written story about a boy Kafka who runs away to the island of Shikoku, trying to escape his Oedipal fate. His journey is paralleled by an odd old man who can talk to cats. It’s all a bit bizarre but enjoyable to read.
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Spanning 13 chapters all told from the perspective of different characters, it first sounded like this novel would be a headache to keep track of. But the stories all interweave in a lovely way, and Egan draws the characters so well. The book feels very modern, especially of course the famed Powerpoint chapter, which was easy enough to read on the Kindle and definitely proved that slides can be vehicles of literacy art. Or at least entertaining stories.
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. This book digs deep into a nuclear family and a love triangle carried over several years. It studies the emotional paralysis and, at times, depression and self-pity arising from the “freedom” of modern America and the suburban family.

Filter Failure

Clay Shirky suggests that there’s no such thing as information overload, only filter failure. This is a very modern response to an older question. Futurist Alvin Toffler warned us about information overload, popularizing the phrase. It’s an extension of the idea of sensory overload, the idea that too much input could overwhelm and paralyze you. This is based on the faulty assumption that brains are information processing machines, and that we can overwhelm and crash them. …

Knowledge is too big, messy and wildly unsettled, just like the internet. “For every fact on the internet, there is an equal and opposite fact.” David [Weinberger] warns that there is nothing we all agree on – you can find someone willing to argue that 2+2 is not 4 (and, indeed, a quick Google search shows this to be true.) We don’t agree about anything, and David warns, we never will. “This doesn’t mean there are no facts – but it does mean that people are going to insist on being wrong.”

“Networked knowledge may or may not be truer about the world, but is is truer about knowing… This crazy approach to knowledge feels familiar to us, because it’s how we tend to know.” [Weinberger] closes with an observation that’s both hopeful and unsettling: “What we have in common is a shared world about which we disagree, not a common knowledge we share and can collectively come to.”

— snippets from Ethan Zuckerman’s heroic liveblogging during the book launch of Too Big to Know by David Weinberger.

Read/Writing

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying.

Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

— Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book. via Brainpicker

Caterina Fake’s copy of Ulysses, which inspired the founding of the reading & annotation community Readmill by Henrik Berggren. CC BY NC SA 2.0

Marginalia in Merckwürdige Nachricht aus Ost-Indien, Reise- und Missionsbericht by Heinrich Milde (1676-1739). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Julius Caesar marked up by students and teachers using co-ment.

Giant Golden Buddhas and the Importance of Data Journalists

In the 1980s the Internal Revenue Service underwent a controversial rebirthing. Turning away from its paper-laden, human-eye examiners, it looked to become a more automated, “noncompliance-seeking” (read: for-profit) outfit. The process, termed “the Initiative”, serves as the backdrop of Dave Foster Wallace’s self-described nonfictional memoir, The Pale King[1].

It’s also a fitting case study of why we need data journalists and good data designers.

According to DFW, the system-wide restructuring of the IRS was, obviously, massive. It affected every American and held great repercussions for business and the role of the state. But as Wallace reports, the Initiative was never investigated deeply by journalists.

Why? Despite the Initiative’s far-reaching impact, the actual material recounting the IRS’ changes was never read. But not because an extensive public record wasn’t available (it was). Rather the written proceedings, in their mountains burocratese, were so utterly mind-numbingly boring that no one could bear plowing through them. The public record was solid rock.

…one of the GS-11 Chalk Leaders in our Rote Exam group, a man of no small intuition and sensitivity, proposed an analogy between the public records surrounding the Initiative and the giant solid-gold Buddha statues that flanked certain temples in ancient Khmer. These priceless statues, never guarded or secured, were safe from theft not despite but because of their value—they were too huge and heavy to move.

This is a brilliant insight. As DFW argues, we shouldn’t underestimate government’s reliance on this very strategy, the intentional opacity of the public record to discourage journalistic investigation. Secrecy invites curiosity and scandal — yet monumental dullness will pass unexamined.

It’s striking how relevant this chapter is to the world of open data and journalism today. More and more data is being created and released. More and more journalists are expected to have data literacy. But without tools that support sensemaking and parse databases, the public record will remain unyielding and under-reported.

[1] Footnote HT to DFW.  Mid-book, he slips in an author’s forward that counters the boilerplate disclaimer publishers are legally obliged to include: “all characters and events in this book are fictitious”. Instead, Wallace asserts that nearly all of the book’s content is true, documented from his year in exile at an IRS examination center in the Midwest. You get in a nice tangle trying to sort whether his statements about the book’s authenticity, which occur after the disclaimer, are in fact subject to the blanket disclaimer about everything in the book being fiction. And so on. “Believe nothing, O monks, merely because you have been told it,” says Buddha.

Image: The Buddha King of Angkor Wat by Stuck in Customs / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

On Books

At this point the best thing the web and the book could do for one another would be to admit their essential difference. This would allow the web to develop as it wishes with a clear conscience, and for literature to do what it’s always done in periods of crisis: keep its eyes and ears open, take notes, and bide its time.

From a thoughtful essay on Internet as Social Movement in the magazine n + 1, apart from the author equating the book to literature, which is like saying newspapers are the necessary manifestation of journalism. Nevertheless, the overall sentiment is reassuring.