I wasn't invited to this party, I guess. I love Woolf's essays and her ideas about fiction, but, with the exception of Mrs. Dalloway, I've never beenI wasn't invited to this party, I guess. I love Woolf's essays and her ideas about fiction, but, with the exception of Mrs. Dalloway, I've never been able to stomach her actual novels. It's not their interiority - it's that her characters are all such hopeless middle class British twits. I don't WANT to spend all this time inside these people, it's like being force fed nothing but cold, milky tea all day long. It's a kind of Downton Abbey of the soul, except that the servants have no inner lives at all. Joyce's great gift was to give us the inner lives of two men - one who was enormously self-absorbed and one who wasn't at all, and thus begin to sketch how varied human consciousness is. If only Woolf could have had more breadth along with her depth......more
OK, she let me down. The great tragic satire begun in How the Dead Dream somehow became just another run of the mill, overstretched, unconvincing contOK, she let me down. The great tragic satire begun in How the Dead Dream somehow became just another run of the mill, overstretched, unconvincing contemporary novel. Bringing back characters who were ciphers to begin with does not deepen them, and the terrific theme is cheapened into contrivance. There are still some nice passages (the ending sequence is lovely; it should have been part of a whole nother book) but Yoknapatawpha County this ain't. ...more
I’ve been hoping to find a contemporary US fiction writer like Lydia Millet -- although I haven’t been looking very hard, I guess. I’ve realized that,I’ve been hoping to find a contemporary US fiction writer like Lydia Millet -- although I haven’t been looking very hard, I guess. I’ve realized that, almost alone among my bookworm friends, I just don’t read that much contemporary fiction, and I’m not likely to change now. Cervantes said the point of literature was to “please and instruct” equally, and I have to say I’m just not feeling that from my compatriots much these days. But exceptions prove the rule and so (thanks to a goodreads connection!) I stumbled on Lydia Millet. And found, in addition to great prose - which, in spite (or maybe because) of all the MFA polishing, isn’t common - a compatible sensibility, which I realize is a personal thing and has nothing to do with whether a piece of fiction is good or not. But that’s what really caught me: Morality without sentimentality. As in none. A sense of humor and a sense of horror that isn’t cheap exploitation in either case. Beckett had it. Graham Greene, at his best. Evelyn Waugh. Fay Weldon. Paul Theroux, at his best. But Millet is unique, as far as I know, in seeing the importance of the animal world, and human isolation from it, as a key lens for understanding our reality. This book, and How the Dead Dream, which I also loved, are all about the loneliness of being human - a self-imposed loneliness because somehow we’ve forgotten that our cousins are all around us.
A lot of contemporary fiction writers get that our reality has become perverse, so they create exotic, twisted, hyped or counterfactual mirrors for it – vampires, dybbuks, time travel, psychosis, sexdrugsandrockandroll (yawn), genre pastiche, mash-up (it’s Kafka meets Worldwide Wrestling!) postmodern wtf word-worlds. Millet’s the only one I’ve found who seems to have realized that there is an intimately close, quotidian, flesh-and-blood world that is still cognitively infinitely far away – and physically disappearing over the horizon now almost at the speed of light – and that is the animal world.
Analogues are scarce but noble: Moby Dick is one, at the macro end. Kafka’s "A Report to the Academy" is another, at the opposite end of the prolixity scale. But she’s doing her own thing, and it works for me. ...more
Nope. It had its moments... but you've got to stomach that post Plague San Francisco is the gentle city (or rather a village now) of artists and mystiNope. It had its moments... but you've got to stomach that post Plague San Francisco is the gentle city (or rather a village now) of artists and mystics, watched over by a guardian angel, and Oakland, that BAD place, is ruled by violent motorcycle gangs... and you realize just like Callenbach with his laughable description of Oakland as "Soul City" in Ecotopia, you're dealing with more silly elitist futurism. Sociologist Mike Davis called it on the post-apocalyptic genre, he said it was often used as a way to imaginatively cleanse a feared underclass population from a fictional landscape, and he is, unfortunately, quite right. ...more
Just wasn't in the mood this time. Even back when I read The Last Unicorn and A Fine and Private Place, I had to get myself past Beagle's jokey classJust wasn't in the mood this time. Even back when I read The Last Unicorn and A Fine and Private Place, I had to get myself past Beagle's jokey class clown style narrator to appreciate his stuff, but then, of course, I was captivated. But that was a long time ago now. Maybe you can't go home again.
Still, I'll always have a place in my heart for American Fantastic. Steven Millhauser, Shirley Jackson, William Kotzwinkle, John Crowley, Charles Finney, Mark Helprin, Colson Whitehead, James Thurber (the fables). We need more fabulists.
...Actually, maybe I'm going to take that back. Looking at the list of contemporary slipstreamers that comes up as recommended on this page, I realize we may now have an overabundance of fabulists, each more twee or gothic or wtf than the last. And yet I'll bet you nobody'll be reading them in 50 years' time. I guess I'll stick with my old friends after all....more
Apparently some say that scientifically, the 20th century will be known for three things: relativity, quantum theory and chaos theory. It didn’t makeApparently some say that scientifically, the 20th century will be known for three things: relativity, quantum theory and chaos theory. It didn’t make this book any less revelatory, to me at least, that it was written almost thirty years ago. Gleick’s tour through the discovery of the principles of chaos theory was as exciting to read as if it had happened yesterday. It was an astounding discovery: that even the most basic dynamic system – from water flow to a heartbeat to the orbit of a star - is never simple, no matter how orderly it seems. It is always a complex mixture of order and chaos continually arising from one another - and therefore its predictability has sharp limits. But I was ultimately left with a sense of dismay, thinking about where we are now. I’d thought the main lesson of the discovery was humility: in spite of how far science had come down the millennia, nature was still far ahead – building in redundancy and a functionally incalculable amount of complexity was the best way to make systems that worked beautifully and efficiently, that were both dynamic and durable. And we might spend generations contemplating and respectfully trying to mimic or reciprocate with them. But the anti-reductionist paradigm that found the dance of chaos and order in all systems, biological, physical and chemical, large and small, has not really changed the way science is done very much. We all know about fractals now, and the butterfly effect, but chaos theory’s real world, human scale applications seem to have been mostly in trivial stuff like creating cool computer graphics for movies – or in helping develop more sophisticated oil drilling techniques. Two examples from the book were particularly disheartening: a psychologist talking about how what chaos theory meant to the study of the brain is how wrong-headed drug therapy was for mental disorders – how it could never solve the problem. But since then drugs have been relentlessly promoted for an exploding array of disorders. Another scientist says “we’ve learned that God does play dice, but they are loaded dice… Now, how can we make them work for our own ends?” We are so clever, but still not very wise. ...more
Mostly useless, and hopelessly past its sell-by date - the empire has struck back, and postmodernism (the (il)logic of late capitalism - Jameson is stMostly useless, and hopelessly past its sell-by date - the empire has struck back, and postmodernism (the (il)logic of late capitalism - Jameson is still right) is no match for it. Good for its take-down of Lovelock, but offers such a ludicrous alternative way of thinking about nature ("postmodern associationism" - now there's a term bound to leap to your lips) that I hope it will remain rightly ignored. Why don't those who are so concerned about developing non-hegemonic concepts of nature ever take indigenous peoples' philosophies seriously enough to examine them? As the only human societies that have ever existed in a relatively stable and harmonious state within their surrounding ecosystems, you'd think they would be an obvious choice. Vine Deloria, Jr tried to make this case for decades, but the academy continues to stick its silly postmodern fingers in its ears. ...more
4 for clarity and subject matter, ideas it provoked, 3.5 for conclusions she derived about the significance and practice of modern physics. Could have4 for clarity and subject matter, ideas it provoked, 3.5 for conclusions she derived about the significance and practice of modern physics. Could have used Kuhn or Feyerabend's help maybe... I'll know more about that after reading them. ...more
Too mathy for me (although I appreciated his lack of condescension in presenting the math clearly and cogently for the general public) but I'm interesToo mathy for me (although I appreciated his lack of condescension in presenting the math clearly and cogently for the general public) but I'm interested in all current non-theist, and preferably non-metaphysical attempts to speculate about the origin and destiny of the cosmos. So I can now add conformal cyclic cosmology to my collection: an infinite series of universes whose endings merge into the beginnings of the next through a matching low entropy and absence of structure and mass. (Even though the Second Law of Thermodynamics says entropy always increases, Penrose says that at a spacetime near infinity all matter will have collapsed into black holes, which he says will then evaporate, destroying entropy... I have to say it all sounds a bit wishful thinking-y when you put it like that. And of course we're no closer to knowing the mechanism by which this transition from the almost infinitely large to the infinitesimally small happens. Also some key evidence he thought he had in the cosmic microwave background radiation has been disputed... But anyway, that's just where theoretical physics is at these days - it's not a consensus sort of place. In fact, physicists can't even seem to agree if it's the best of times or the worst of times for cosmology.) ...more
The more I read of Lee Smolin, the more I appreciate him. This book was his warning cry that theoretical physics was entering a cul de sac, and riskinThe more I read of Lee Smolin, the more I appreciate him. This book was his warning cry that theoretical physics was entering a cul de sac, and risking having nothing meaningful to say about the nature of reality because of its infatuation with elegant mathematics over testable hypotheses.
I was struck by his using the term "postmodern physics" to describe this situation. Indeed, the faddish, fragmented, highly abstract world of contemporary physical theory has its parallel elsewhere in academics. We're all living in the enormous aftermath of some hope for a grand synthesis that never happened.
Why would anyone who's not a scientist care about these things? Because science, particularly theoretical physics and evolutionary biology when taken together, is attempting to give us our origin story and our place in the scheme of things without the kind of social coercion and enforced ignorance that political ideology or religion do. It's a tremendously worthwhile thing - if it doesn't become another unaccountable priesthood in its own right. And if it is honest about its limitations - its ability to create useful models of reality, but not to duplicate or replace it.
But if science is becoming its own Church, full of careerism, orthodoxy, and arrogance, then its helpfulness is reduced and its danger is increased. Physics has obtained too much power over the physical world not to be humble. Smolin's is a welcome voice of caution and hope from the inside. ...more
A good introduction to a great California writer. With a biography that makes him an amazing literary character in his own right. Why did it take so lA good introduction to a great California writer. With a biography that makes him an amazing literary character in his own right. Why did it take so long to find him?...more
Not terrible, but the Pynchon and Delillo comparison is just marketing. Those men are masters of prose style, for one thing, and he's all right but noNot terrible, but the Pynchon and Delillo comparison is just marketing. Those men are masters of prose style, for one thing, and he's all right but not that good. As far as worldview's concerned, he fits more with David Foster Wallace and Mark Danielewski, without all their belabored technical hoo-haw. His mythology, like theirs, is really reducible to late 20th century White American Male Angst - obsessed with the broken family, the broken couple, the only social units they really care about. History, politics, all that stuff, just seems to exist to get in the way of men and women loving each other and knowing what right and wrong means anymore. It's not surprising that a whole generation of writers who grew up without having to take political upheaval seriously because it was remote from their own lives would turn it into a kind of ghoulish, eroticized carnival. Pynchon and Delillo know better. ...more