Books & Mags Read Recently

It’s been a while since I’ve updated this, so while I’m in a procrastinating mood, I figured now’s a good time to get to it.

Here are the books and magazines I’ve read in the first nine weeks of 2008:

1. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen: Okay, so, like so many productivity people, he’s a cult member. I hate to break it to you, but cults don’t really look so much wackier to me than mainstream religions — just more intensely so, and slightly more exploitatively so. Reading this was certainly less culty than reading anything at all by C.S. Lewis.With that out of the way: I found this book interesting less for the specific algorithms in it than for the notion that we can streamline human productivity by taking the strain off intermediate-term memory. (A term Allen himself doesn’t use, and which I don’t think has come into use in cognitive sciences, but which was argued for eloquently in Merlin Donald’s A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness.)Anyway, the idea that streamlining the process of life management can help reduce one’s stress makes simple sense. The problem is getting it started. I’ve got this big box in my office-room now, full of all kinds of junk. When I look at it, I don’t want to deal with it. But I think I’ll give it a go. And get myself a filing cabinet, for sorting things, because sorting stuff as I put it away is one thing I desperately need to be able to do.If you feel like your life is disorganized, this might be a good book for you. And it was a gift to me, from a blogger whose blog is now gone, so I’ll just say thanks, Cuccu!

2. The Snow by Adam Roberts: I’ve mentioned before how Adam Roberts is a difficult author for me to appreciate. His stories never quite satisfy me, even the wonderfully-imagined Stone for some reason I cannot perfectly articulate disappointed me (as I discussed here).The Snow is not an exception. Roberts’ craft is obviously excellent — the man can write. He chooses interesting worlds, has interesting ideas on what to do with them — though he also seems slightly fond of springing twists at the end, and of certain stylistic or structural conceits that to me sometimes don’t come off just right. (Like footnoting Stone and treating it as a translation from some foreign language, or the construction of The Snow as a bunch of classified documents that just happen to be collated in precisely the right order needed to completely misdirect and mislead readers.)And as some reviewer put it, the book does get hijacked in the middle by a rather deeply unlikeable fellow. And, near the end, Roberts plays — as he so often likes to do — the postmodernist litcrit card and has his primary narrator suggest that she has been untrustworthy all along about all kinds of details, maybe. Or maybe not. There are all kinds of ways to have a narrator be interestingly untrustworthy, but to have her question herself about the nature of narrative trustworthiness at the end of a text is just annoying.That said, it was still a pretty interesting book, and I have no idea why but I do feel driven to read the last Roberts book that is on my shelf — On.

Do you, dear readers, have an author like this, whom you read faithfully but who somehow rubs you the wrong way in minor, but important, ways? I respect Roberts as a stylist, and some of the stories he thinks up blow me away, but I still can’t quite

3. Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson: This book happened to be in the pile of free-for-borrowing books at the place where I stayed in Luang Nam Tha, Laos, a place called “The Boat Landing.” I grabbed it on the first day and could not put it down. (I returned it within a day or two, which is very fast for me.)In some ways, it could be interestingly compared with Roberts’ The Snow, in that the book is presented as a collection of texts written by different characters in different points of time (and with different biases), and in that there is a bizarre event/phenomenon that several of the different authors in the book attempt to explain.But missing in the Robinson is the “Ain’t I Sly!” wink-and-nudge in The Snow, and it’s much better for it. Not that Icehenge is the best book ever: it’s quite obviously an early effort, and though I haven’t read Robinson’s most famous trilogy, I know from The Years of Rice and Salt that he has grown a great deal as a writer since. But for a few hours entertainment, it’s a fine piece of writing, interesting and occasionally surprising.

4. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: There’s not much I can say about this except, wow. No, I’d never read it before, I think because I’m Canadian, and so as a high school student I ended up reading the Canadian authors who tried to emulate him, mostly rather poorly.Reading this novel, it hit me what I don’t like about so much non-SF these days: it’s all about relationships. I mean, yes, fiction is often all about relationships. But it’s not ONLY about relationships. The Grapes of Wrath is about a society is massive transition, about dispossession and rage and how people feel about what is happening in the world around them. I am pretty sure Rohinton Mistry writes novels in this mode, but so many of the non-“genre” novels I’ve picked up, yawned at, and put down again simply don’t. It’s like 3rd person navel gazing, with a lot of books.Anyway, a really great, angry, hard, powerful novel, which also manages to be compassionate, sometimes whisper-quiet, and often very moving. I loved it.

5. Analog March 2007: This was a rather old issue, one I picked up during a trip, and which waited on my sheld for a long time. I brought it along with me to Laos, hoping to get some good reading done during plane rides. Unfortunately, this issue didn’t do much for me. Schroeder’s serial (the first installment of four for “Queen of Cadesce”) was serviceable but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d have liked it more if I’d read his earlier works set in the same world. Amy Bechtel’s story “Trucks” worked for me, though, and David Bartell’s story was alright, if a bit stylized for my taste in spots. As for the remainder of the stories, I noticed something of the same issues that in my opinion plagued early Asimov: slim characterization and a scarcity of believable female characters. Surely this is not the cost one must pay for stories to be “hard SF”? I think not… passionately, I think not.

6. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins: Yeah, I don’t get it why so many people are down on this book. I’ve seen plenty of relatively sane atheists — people I respect, generally — claim to “abhor the method of Dawkins” — but frankly, having been through a long-term attempted brainwashing, and living as a godless freethinker for many years now, I’ve noticed that Dawkins is much calmer, much less foaming-at-the-mouth than even mainstream religion is when it comes to atheism.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Dawkin’s arguments — especially the one that low-level, moderate religious belief is kind of an enabler for extremist religious belief, which I think is partly true but also partly flawed. Certainly, people who respect belief are likelier to refuse to judge religious nutters, at least until they kill someone.But I think the freedom some people have in terms of religion is, in some ways, extreme. There are good reasons for that, but I think I’ll save it for a post unto itself, except to say that yes, labeling children by the religion of their parents — and allowing their parents to do it — strikes me, now that Dawkins points it out, as a kind of child abuse. Not that I’ll go on Sally Jesse Raphael about it, or anything, but the kind of pain, difficulty, and distress that so many people go through when they leave the religions their parents have brainwashed them into — the kind of pain friends of mine have described to me, and which I have experienced — make me very critical of raising a child within any given religion.

Anyway, I think there are plenty of insights in Dawkins’ book. And if you want to see examples of how religion can twist the thought of what could have been sane, rational, even intelligent human beings, they’re never too far away. Religion doesn’t make all people crazy — trust me, I know this — but it makes most people more tolerant of all kinds of insane behaviours or beliefs and I’m pretty sure it causes a lot more social harm than we’re willing to (or than we dare to) admit. On this point, Dawkins is absolutely correct, whatever else he might have simplified. (No great or unusual crime, mind: science is constantly oversimplified or misrepresented in the press, and at least we have demonstrable, visible evidence for scientific claims.)

Anyway, I think Dawkins’ idea about why we need to be honest and up-front about the social ills caused by religion, and why the indoctrination-like experience of growing up as a “religious child” could reasonably be considered a form of child abuse, is a very interesting and insightful one, based on my own experience and that of many friends. (Not that I think people should whine about it on talk shows or sue their parents — it’s not as extreme as physical or sexual abuse — but I do think it is a kind of widespread, and inisidious, child abuse, that it damages some people rather profoundly, and that we need to think about how we raise our kids more carefully.) I’ll illuminate this point further in an upcoming post.

7. Blankets by Craig Thompson. A lovely graphic novel dealing with how beautiful relationships can be, and how sometimes they just have to ebb away and die. The story tells of two relationships. One is a first love, and the other is the boy’s religiosity, in other words, his relationship with the religion his parents pushed down his throat from childhood. It’s a beautiful story about letting go of both, about how direly necessary it can become to do so. Touching graphic novel.

8. Asimov’s SF, July 2007: Through no fault of the magazine, it took me forever to get through this: I ended up halfway through Nancy Kress’s novella on the day I was leaving for my trip to Laos and Thailand, and it sat waiting for my return. (I didn’t want to bring it along since Kress’s story was the last I hadn’t read.) It was worth the wait, as “The Fountain of Age” was quite enjoyable. The other standout was “Roxie” (by Robert Reed), a great, quiet, personal apocalypse. Stableford’s contribution was also respectable, though personally I’m a bit bewildered at how many SF stories about Alzheimer’s (or wacky treatments for it) are floating around these days. Maybe the genre’s showing its gray hairs? Or maybe it’s just some of our authors are?

I should also note envy and a sense of challenge that I felt reading Chris Robertson’s contribution, “The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small,” as I, too, am kicking around the idea of an alternate history focused, in part, on China. Mine’s very different, but Robertson obviously knows his stuff, and extrapolates how a world-shattering scientific discover could have reverberated through the Chinese Imperial bureaucracy — in a world where China goes a much more wide-ranging imperial route than it did in our own world. Now I have a worthy competitor in the Chinese-alt-history field, and someone of whom I ought to make sure I keep track.

9. One Million AD edited by Gardner Dozois: The standout of this book is the opening story, by Robert Reed, titled “Good Mountain”: it is incredibly imagined, skillfully conveyed, movingly told, and deeply weird. I couldn’t even tell if it was going on on a massively-wrecked Earth, or on some faraway world. The power of this novella blew me away. In fact, of all the fiction I’ve read in the last year or so, I think this story is the one that has most profoundly raised the bar of my expectations, both for what I’m reading, but also for my own writing.

Nancy Kress’s story was also quite good, though I didn’t feel the vast gulf of time between the setting of “Mirror Image” and our own world like I did in the Reed story. (It could have happened 500,000 years from now, instead of a million.) Still, the notion of a computer system woven into the fabric of the universe was cool, and the way it impacts the story generally was interesting. Charles Stross’s story — which I hadn’t read free, online, though you can here — is a bizarre little piece of deep-future madness, with the Cold War, alternate history, buggy aliens, and more all tossed into a space blender but whirred only long enough to get messy, not pureed. Good fun. Greg Egan’s “Riding The Crocodile” was one I read elsewhere — in an Australian year’s best loaned to me by my friend Ian while we were in Seattle — and while I enjoyed it, I didn’t reread it. The story has a warm, deep-future, holy-shit aura in my head, and that hasn’t faded in ages. (I think I will reread it soon, though.) Alistair Reynolds’ piece, “Thousandth Night,” was a clever SF-sleuth piece, but like Kress’s, didn’t seem to me to be set in a world so absolutely faraway that it had to be nearly a million years from now, and I was surprised by some of the inconsistencies in the story — logical inconsistencies, that is, which, while they’re common in SF, always bug me. (I sincerely doubt we’ll be doing interstellar travel at all, ever, but if we do work that out, I seriously doubt we’ll do it without some kind of complex biological modification, such that things like, say, poison will not hurt us. Scientific extrapolation could suggest alternative ways of killing off enemies, but Reynolds’ priority seems to be making a fun, not-too-alien future backdrop for his mystery. As I say, it was fun, but it didn’t raise the bar for me the way that Reed’s story did.)

As for Silverberg’s contribution, “A Piece of the Great World,” I must confess I couldn’t finish it. It seemed a lot more like fantasy to me, perhaps because of the somewhat dated social structure that permeates the story, and as I forced myself through the first third, recalled something that editer Gardner Dozois wrote in the introduction to the book, about how few writers, even in SF, have the visionary and poetic skill to write stories about how radically different humanity will be in a million years. Silverberg’s tale described a world that seemed way too familiar to me, and while maybe I didn’t hold out long enough, I think Reed’s story was really just a tough act to follow, and Silverberg’s use of the familiar was even more disappointing after the extreme alienness of the world in Reed’s story.

5 thoughts on “Books & Mags Read Recently

  1. You’re welcome, and I’m sort of back.

    And I hope it’s useful for you. Allen has said (not in the book) that it takes about two years for a person to fully implement their system, and in my experience, that’s about right. It’s probably faster if you start weekly reviews right away.

  2. I’m glad you write these posts. To be honest, not so much for your opinions and reviews per se, although I do read them and enjoy them, especially on the rare occasions I’ve read or watched what you write about myself. More because it convinced me to write my own list at the beginning of 2008. I’ll never have the time and patience to write about them as much as you do, although I will put up the 2008 list at the beginning of next year, but the actual physical process of writing everything I write and see down starkly shows to be how little of either there is, and the mind-numbingness of most of them. Feeling embarassed about my choices, you’ve inspired to dig myself out of a cultural hole I’ve dug for myself the past 5 years or so!

  3. Cuccu,

    Cool, and thanks aghain. I think it’ll take me more than a couple of years. A nice clean break might be the way it really takes root. I’ll have to move at the end of this contract, so I imagine I’ll have gone through all my crap by then. That’s a big start!

    James,

    Thanks, I’m glad this was an inspiration to someone. To be honest, the reviews are something I may cut back on… to save my time, I may just review the really noteworthy books and films. But listing is a really cool thing… it really does make one stop and think about time-wastage.

    I think everyone feels that Way about his or her reading. well, everyone who reads at all. I always feel frustrated with what a slow reader I am!

    By the way, one of the books I’m now reading is one you recommended on your site: Education Fever. It’s fascinating stuff.

  4. By the way, Lal! Thanks for your comment — it ended up in my spam, who knows why. I’ll probably read On anyway, but now I know to expect what I already expected. And I will look forward to Swiftly!

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