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Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily

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January 2017

We Are Legion (We Are Bob)

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor

I’ve read science fiction since I was a pre-teen and it’s still something I’d rather sit down with than any other kind of book. But as Theodore Sturgeon said: “90% of science fiction is crap.” (He continued “but then 90% of everything is crap.”)

I have had to think about what it is in science fiction that I love that makes it stand out from the rest and I think there are some essential rules. The primary key is like any other piece of fiction: It was to be well written. That means characters that are internally congruent, not likeable necessarily but don’t suddenly do something out of bounds. The writing has to be tight and the dialogue has to be realistic. Technical details, if any, have to grow out of the narrative and not be shoved in to satisfy another purpose. Perhaps most important, there should be something underlying just telling a story. It can be ethical, political, sociological, but the narrative should tackle a human (or human via alien) issue.

The best science fiction also offers a sense of wonder new interesting beings, new worlds, new technologies that bring a sense of awe.

They don’t have to do all of this at once. In fact I’d say that several favorite science fiction writers weren’t particularly interesting writers. Asimov was a king of new ideas and breadth of interests but he wasn’t a really exciting prose master. Philip K. Dick had often strange characters and odd ideas of the future (taking the rocket from Ontario, Oregon to Boise, Idaho and having trouble finding a pay phone) but the ideas he tackled were amazing. Heinlein will almost always have an old geezer who  explains everything but he also took on great ideas.

All that said, it seems like I’ve been trolling the 90% recently and it’s wonderful to hit a few books that stand out in some way. This book by Taylor is one and on another day soon I’ll look at A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

Taylor’s book is one of the funniest (did I mention authentic humor helps?) I’ve read in a few months. It deals with a software engineer who has arranged to be preserved after death and a short time later dies after being hit by a car. When he’s brought back to life it’s not as he hoped but as a disembodied entity suddenly in competition to pilot a Von Neuman probe to find a new planet to which humanity can flee. (A Von Neuman probe is a theoretical machine that can use minerals found in asteroids and planets to duplicate itself or can use those materials to expand and improve as it travels.) It’s no spoiler to say he succeeds, is launched as the artificial intelligence of the probe, and begins to create clones of himself. However, due to “quantum effects” no two Bob’s are quite a like. Each one takes on a new aspect of his personality or dreams. Some are introverted, one models himself after Homer Simpson. This helps the book touch on some issues of philophy. Is this Bob the same one who was in a human body? Are the duplicates truly him or unique individuals? Some philosophers ask if we’re even the same person, literally, that we were when we were 8 with an entirey different set of cells and experiences.

He has been launched by a theocratic government which rules part of North America. He is being persued by similar probes launched by the Empire of Brazil. Bob is a wonderful character. The writing is fresh and fun. The narrative shifts neatly back and forth among several iterations of Bob keeping the action compelling.

Taylor has his own web site and says other books are done and ready to add to what he calls the Bobiverse. If they’re as fun, interesting, and well-written as this one I’m sure I’ll be hooked on as many as he wants to produce.

Narconomics

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright.

There are few enough rational actors in the real world, let alone the world of politics. We tend to establish our prejudices and build supportive evidence around them. It’s odd, then, in a country where so many puritan prejudices have faded away, that we still manage to maintain a puritan perception of crime and punishment. Crimes, self-inflicted or otherwise, are still seen as failures of character. This is probably one of the main motivations for the many ways our state and federal governments work to punish drug users. We extend their prison terms, take away their franchise, and keep away benefits all in an effort to, apparently, shame drug users into moral behavior.

This really excellent book by Tom Wainwright tries to reframe the “war on drugs” through the eyes of an economist. What drives the drug marketplace? What actions have a true impact and are cost effective?

Many of the answers are provided in the first few chapters followed by supporting evidence and a summary of suggested solutions. The key, says Wainwright, is to focus on the supply side of the drug industry. In dealing with the buyers of drugs, through therapy and regulation at the “point of sale” drug cartels will fall apart by robbing them of the billions of dollars in income that make their operations worthwhile.

Wainwright compares the drug world to Walmart, a major retailing enterprise with it’s own issues of competition, supply chain management, human resource issues, and issues with diversification. The industry has become such a force that the United Kingdom has calculated that drugs and prostitution are now greater combined financial forces than agriculture.

Wainwright traveled throughout Europe, South America, North America and Asia to document how drug cartels operate. He interviews people from coca farmers to end users and the many middle-men along the way.

From these he shows how we are failing in our goals to decrease drug use. We spray herbicides over coca trees, harming agricultural families with few other choices or sources of income, while hypocritically maintaining our position as one of the great markets for cocaine and other drugs. He contrasts this approach to the fight against heroin in Switzerland, where the use is regulated through doctors who can work with addicts to provide safe drugs by prescription. Because addicts often finance their habit with street sales this is dramatically lowered the number of new addictions while also providing a situation where drug users have better opportunities to reduce their habit or kick the drug entirely.

He also discusses states like Colorado where drug arrest and incarceration have been lowered dramatically while the state still learns to better regulate the supply side of marijuana use.

Wainwright also discusses the comparative costs of imprisonment and rehabilitation in a country where the cost to keep an individual in prison is comparable to a year’s education at Oxford.

The book overflows with interesting stories and economic insights. Anyone interested in public policy, or just wanting supporting information in dealing with their national, state, and local politicians get a wealth of data here.

The Urban Monk by Pedram Shojai

The Urban Monk: Eastern Wisdom and Modern Hack to Stop Time and Find Success, Happiness and Peace, by Pedram Shojai

There was a time in my life when I read a lot more self-help books but after a while became more and more bored with the basic “maintain a good attitude” approach. I also started getting irritated with a lot of the unfounded or unsubstantiated claims in many of them. But I do like a book that offers some practical tips for change and this book did offer quite a few.

I recently finished Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which was VERY much needed and helped quite a bit with practical suggestions. (Clothes stage done, scary book state in progress.) I think that helped keep me open to picking up this book.

The full title of the book is The Urban Monk: Eastern Wisdom and Modern Hack to Stop Time and Find Success, Happiness and Peace. As they say these days, the subtitle sells the book and there’s nothing like an extravagent promise.

The book centers quite a bit on qigong, which is something I began reading about several years ago. As a full confession, I was born clumsy. From childhood well into my thirties I could be blissfully walking along and suddenly find myself nose-to-nose with the pavement. No reason, just fell. I ran across a book on qigong, read more, and found some training DVDs (there weren’t any trainers in town at the time) so that I started practicing mornings before work.Within a few months I realized I had a lot of increased energy and, best yet, had stopped falling for no reason. Other than some slips on the ice that’s stayed with me since. It’s not why I started qigong but as a side-benefit I was very pleased.

The book covers a lot of ground, starting with basic qigong and moving on to areas like diet, meditation, changing your relationship to stuff, and practical tips for staying more centered in the modern world. Some tips are useful, some I may never adapt unless I’m kicking and screaming the whole way. (Really? Give up coffee?)

If you Google Pedram Shojai you’ll find that he has put a lot of energy into self-promotion. You’ll find lecture and training tapes, book offers, and seminar offers. Before you invest in the book it may be worth checking out some free stuff to find out if he’s the guru/trainer/life-coach for you. The book takes a conversational tone and along the way a lot of impolite language. I swear like a sailor who hammered his thumb but it’s not for everyone. He’s the only other person I’ve run across to use the word “shitshow”, which I first learned from an Italian priest artist friend describing the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

I nearly tossed the book early when he used the often-quoted figure that the CDC estimates that 90% of doctor visits are based on stress-related causes. I decided to check it out. There is a peer-reviewed paper from the 80s from a Kaiser physician making this claim, itself using data from a paper from the 40s. It’s far from something that’s been recently checked in any kind of systemetized way, and I really do wonder how you would test it. But at least he hadn’t pulled it out of his ass like figures used by other authors (“we only use 2% of our brain” is one of the most irritating.) I’m glad I stayed with it and I’ll see what I can adopt into my own life.

Reading

I read. A lot. And sometimes with friends it seems embarrassing. A book or more a day seems abnormal in a world with so many different opportunities to be distracted. The embarrassment generally comes when a friend tells me about a book she has decided to read and I’ll buy it, read it, and then wait impatiently for them to finish so I can talk about it.

I don’t really come from a reading family. My mother read a lot. My father probably didn’t read more than a shop manual until he was in his thirties. Mom read a lot of John McDonald types of books. But my grandmother kept hundreds of books, with shelves filled two layers deep. Her daughter, my favorite aunt, was the first in our family to attend a university and also filled rooms with books.

I tend to be a compulsive reader. My favorite job for reading was at a state hospital in my 20s. I worked a swing shift from 3 in the afternoon until 11. At 9 in the evening the residents were put to bed. I could start in on the book I brought when things were cleaned and quiet.  I could take that home and keep reading until 3 or 4 in the morning, finish the book and sleep until noon, then start all over again.

More normal work schedules interfered with my reading. Then, about eight years ago, my wife of 20 years became critically ill. We were in a position where I could quit work to take care of her 24/7. In part to keep from going stir crazy I started reading heavily again and continued after her death at the end of 2015.

I try to read a variety of things. I have a preference for science fiction, mysteries, and history. To keep from becoming stagnant I try to mix things up. I’ve had a great time getting through classics that I passed over when I was younger, digging into new areas of interest.

Along the way I’ve had friends ask what I’m reading or ask for recommendations, which I would happily do except for a horrible memory for titles and authors.

So I talked about doing a blog like this to keep friends up with what’s sliding under my eyes and so that I can go back and refresh my own memory about what I’ve read.

I picked the name of the blog because I’m sometimes … no, frequently … irritated with things I read and while I’m reading I tend to have one-sided arguments with the authors about what they write, how they write, and the politics and perceptions they bring to their writing. And I’m stubborn enough to tough my way through books I don’t really enjoy, probably because I enjoy the arguments.

As I go, I’ll post links to Amazon if you decide you want to join me. The few pennies sent my way will help pay for this site and feed the monkey. I’ll also try to keep a list of things that have piled up waiting to be read.

You’re welcome to argue with me as long as you’re not too much of an ass about it and I’ll promise to be open in response to polite opinions.

Some basics

I tend to buy books because it supports authors. I used to buy science fiction paperbacks in grocery stores specifically to encourage the distributor to stock more. I love libraries, but even at the rate that I read it’s pretty confining for me to finish something on the library’s schedule. As it is I may dig around for something that caught my attention a year or more ago that I’m finally getting to. What for me has been a recent electronic revolution has been a Godsend because now instead of overloading my nightstand I can overload my Kindle. I haven’t had to move for years but to me it’s totally brilliant to have 500 books in an electronic reader rather than 70 boxes. (Yes, I have moved that and more.) I’ve also become quite an addict at Audible books, so there may be mentions of a particularly good or bad narrator in an Audible edition. Also, Audible now has items from The Great Courses. I may treat one of these as a book. Before going to Italy last summer I went through a couple of these on European history along with Tomasi’s The Leopard: A Novel and three volumes of Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. (The Renaissance is almost entirely about Italy.)

I read books on religion occasionally. I am Roman Catholic by adoption but do like to read things about other religions. I don’t care if you’re religious or not. I trod toward the “one true church” for nearly 30 years before finally joining and I don’t plan to change. Anything I write about religion or politics is a reflection of my own interests and not an attempt to convert you. Oddly, a few science fiction books that I cherish helped push me in the RC direction after some flirtations with Buddhism and Taoism, not the least of which was A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller, a book I reread every few years. Politically I’m what some would call a liberal though I get irritated with my side nearly as often as I do with the right. None-the-less, I doubt you’ll see books by Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly making my reading list any time soon.

Poetry: You should read more poetry. Non-fiction introduces you to new ideas, novels introduce you to varieties of human existence, but poetry alters your perception of your own language and expands the soul.

Links on titles will generally take you to  Amazon. If this thing gets enough readers with a Barnes and Noble fetish I’ll be happy to adjust.

Talk to me if so moved. I’m cranky and introverted, but I do like mail.

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham

I’ve been reading Somerset Maugham since high school and always had an affection for his works. The characters are fascinating. The locales are exotic. The plots seem real enough to be more like reporting. Somehow I never picked up this book and wasn’t even familiar with the title. It’s been made into a movie twice, once with Garbo and in 2006 with Naomi Watts as Kitty, the main character. I can’t picture either and I’m glad I didn’t see either movie before reading it. There are times I was glad I saw the movie first, especially with books like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. The films were good representations of the novels and reading them was like watching the movie with extra detail.

The Painted Veil involves a woman in England between the wars. She has been putting off marriage for several years and accepts a proposal from a government bacteriologist/MD named Walter Fane. She’s motivated when her younger sister gets engaged and she feels pressured to get married by her mother and the fear of aging out of a time when she’ll stay as attractive to men as she’s been since being “presented”. He’s introverted and distant and she doesn’t feel any real attraction for him. He takes her to Hong Kong where he’s accepted a government posting and Kitty starts an affair with a married man.

Most after this point would act as a spoiler, which I won’t do to you. There are a few things I needed to look into. The word “tiffin” was one. I found it on WikiPedia which defines it as: “Tiffin is an Indian/English word for a light midday meal (luncheon). When used in place of the word “lunch”, it does not necessarily mean a light meal.” It’s one of those Raj imports and I’m surprised Tolkein didn’t manage to incorporate it with “elevensies” and other meals Hobbits hate to miss.

A key reference near the end of the book is a poem by Oliver Goldsmith. It’s not one I was familiar with called Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog. At a key moment Walter quotes the last line. Here’s the poem, again to save you from looking it up yourself:

Good people all, of every sort,
Give ear unto my song;
And if you find it wondrous short,
It cannot hold you long.

In Islington there was a man,
Of whom the world might say
That still a godly race he ran,
Whene’er he went to pray.

A kind and gentle heart he had,
To comfort friends and foes;
The naked every day he clad,
When he put on his clothes.

And in that town a dog was found,
As many dogs there be,
Both mongrel, puppy, whelp and hound,
And curs of low degree.

This dog and man at first were friends;
But when a pique began,
The dog, to gain some private ends,
Went mad and bit the man.

Around from all the neighbouring streets
The wondering neighbours ran,
And swore the dog had lost his wits,
To bite so good a man.

The wound it seemed both sore and sad
To every Christian eye;
And while they swore the dog was mad,
They swore the man would die.

But soon a wonder came to light,
That showed the rogues they lied:
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died.

So there you have someone so morally corrupt that when bitten by a mad dog it’s not the man who dies but the dog. Given what Walter pushes Kitty to do in the book the poem makes perfect sense.

Excellent book. In the intro of the edition I read Maugham says he approached the writing differently. Rather than imagining a character and letting that character move through events, in this book he imagined the story and found model characters to fit the story. His first book Of Human Bondage had autobiographical elements, and in many of his stories and novels he seems to be taking part in the story as an observer. In this one as more of a fly on the wall. It was realistic enough that he had to change the book twice due to defamation suits, once to change the names of the main characters and again to move it out of Hong Kong. The litigants are dead, the original was restored.

 

 

Three Young Adult Books

I didn’t intend to start reading in some type of theme but for some reason I ended up reading three YA/children’s books, so I thought I’d combine them into one posting.

Jackaby by William Ritter
Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle

My reading habits as a child and teenager were very different. Even as a pre-teen I was fascinated with science fiction and was already a fan of Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury, so that didn’t change. But most of the books I received as gifts were non-fiction books. Actually, it was a pretty weird collection now that I think about it. One aunt had let me hang out with her at an astrology reading and knew I was interested in odd occult topics, so I also had a collection of books on things like astrology, numerology, and I Ching that she was sure I’d enjoy. My other aunt, the college graduate, bought me things on science and space and history for children (Genghis Khan cutting parts off of the conquered) with a smattering of traditional children’s books like Dr. Seuss. The Scholastic Books program was also a thing so I’d bike home at least once a year with a basket of books that I got to choose myself.

In my early teens I was introduced to The Hobbit, which altered my tastes quite a bit, and also developed a taste for some poets like Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath.

I managed to miss a lot of traditional books that I’ve caught up with as an adult like Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Pinnochio, and similar books. This is probably because I am pretty sure my mother stopped reading to me at age 3-4 when she found out I could read for myself, so I depended on what was given and personal interests.

Since then YA Lit has been a nice break from other books. Series like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Emergent have drawn me in.

Jackaby

Jackaby is the one new book on the list.Written in 2015 it’s the first in a series of books with the same main character. Set in the late 1800s in New England, Jackaby is a detective with supernatural abilities. He can see supernatural beings that are invisible to almost everyone else. If I were pitching a movie he would be “Sherlock Holmes meets Dr. Who”. His Watson is Abigail Rook, a woman in her late teens to left England (absconded with her education funds) to seek out a life of adventure. Landing in New Fiddlesham she runs into Jackaby who eventually hires her as his assistant.

There are pluses and minuses to both lead characters. Jackaby is sort of fun but could be more fun. He’s quirky but stiff. Along with Holmes and The Doctor there’s a touch of Spock in his character that reduces his charm. Abigail is spunky and, as Lou Grant famously told Mary Richards, “I hate spunk.”

I have to say that the version I read was on sale at Audible and narrated by an English woman that was pretty wretched with American accents (they all sounded the same, unlike the British and Irish characters) and made Jackaby sound as stiff and unlikeable as a person possibly could.

I can’t see a teen or younger falling in love with the books but there are banshees and unusual creatures, and a mystery that worked in this first book. The book itself received a lot of reviewer attention, hitting several top ten lists for the year. I may try another but it will be a day when I’m really short on better choices.

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood

I have been a Robin Hood fan my entire life. I was glued to the 50s series with Richard Greene (also a Zorro fan at the same time) and still watch the Erroll Flynn movie with awe every few years. Pyle’s book, written in 1883, synthesized a lot of the older Hood stories and ballads and was one of the sources for the Flynn film among others.

The stories themselves have some charm but it’s definitely a dated book in several ways. Most notable is that Robin and his band do a damn lot of making merry, which mostly seems to consist of loafing in the forest, making sport in which they split up to have concurrent merry-making adventures, stealing from the rich (anyone they decide deserves robbing) and splitting the take into thirds where the poor and the merry men get a take and the owner gets to keep a third of the original. There is a lot of forcing people to exchange clothes at sword-point and other felonious behavior. The book is less clear on the evils of those being opposed and Hood originally goes into hiding in Sherwood Forest after killing a man who refuses to pay off on a bet. (Sure, the man shoots at Robin first, but he also is drunk and misses.) Pyle toned this down from the original ballad in which Robin kills 14 people.

The language is also a barrier to any modern reader. The “olde English” is stilted and, worse for me, innacurate. You/ye was used in formal settings, thee/thy/thou for informal, much like Usted/tu in Spanish. It was the Quakers who spoiled this for everyone by calling everyone from the king to the town knacker as thou. To differentiate themselves everyone else relied on you and it became standard. Hyde also uses the word yeoman frequently and indiscriminately. A yeoman was a land owner who farmed his own land. Everybody is a yeoman (usually a stout or right lusty one) in this book unless they are fair maids. The history is also way off.

Those flaws aside, it might be a fun book to read aloud or for someone charmed by, say, White’s The Once and Future King to take a stab at solo. I’m not sure I could have put aside my adolescent disdain for almost everything to get through the book until I was older.

Peter Pan

I wasn’t a great fan of the Disney version or the musical but was curious about the book. And there are parts of this book that live up to its reputation as being cringe-worthy racist and just downright painful to read from a modern perspective.

Those things aside, the book offers a lot of lovely things, Wendy’s eccentric parents, Nana’s view of her job of protecting the chlidren, and an ending that made me weepy. I’m not even sure what there was about Peter staying the same age and coming back to an aging Wendy and then her children and grandchildren. Partly their sense of loss as Peter forgets them but also just the empty life of an eternal child. People are meant to age. It’s part of the human experience and Peter’s decision to never age robs him of that somehow.

I would share this book with any interested young person after some talk about words like redskin and pickaninny and how times have changed for the better. I am not the kind who thinks books should be kept from others because of their faults or dangerous ideas. These are moments in which we learn to think critically. What does the N-word mean in Huckleberry Finn? What does the word mean today? What does it say about the time in the book and the people who used it, or who still use it? If your children don’t do things in a vacuum … books, television, or video games … it offers an opportunity to talk values.

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