This book is not very deep. It has little artistry. It will not make you a better person. It will not attend our sorrow. It will not console our child...moreThis book is not very deep. It has little artistry. It will not make you a better person. It will not attend our sorrow. It will not console our children. It will not be able to help us.
But holy crow is it fun.
This is, for my money, the most sheer fun I've ever had reading a book. It's absolute popcorn fare for the dorkiest gamer, trekkie, cosplayer, or other form of geek with which you might be familiar. It's pure fan service. In addition to the sheer indulgenece of the setting (a nerdtastic mixture of the Holodeck and GenCon), there's the undeniable message: victory, in the end, does not go to the swiftest, the strongest, nor even the fastest. It goes to the min/maxer. The rules-lawyer triumps. May the best gamer win. The future belongs to the munchkin.(less)
Confession: I got a 790 on the 'logic' section of my GRE. That's a near-perfect score. I'm not bragging - most hyperlogical people, self included, can...moreConfession: I got a 790 on the 'logic' section of my GRE. That's a near-perfect score. I'm not bragging - most hyperlogical people, self included, can be complete bores. I'm bringing it up just to make a cogent observation: I can understand this book.
But I choose not to, because most of the prose is drop-dead awful. Hofstadter is not doing his field many favors with the bulk of this book, unlike other popular science writers (Sagan, Lewis Thomas, and Gould come to mind. Not Dawkins; too cranky). Except...
...the dialogs. The dialogs between Achilles and the tortoise provided my sixteen-year-old brain enough meaty puzzles and paradoxes to significantly alter how I thought about information, system design, and paradigms. Without them, I might be even more inflexible than I am. Even at my advanced age, they provide cogent metaphors for how every system is open to fracture both from within and without, and how even the most complex can be modeled. Recursion, self-contradiction, definition of terms...many of the essential structures of my brain were given first voice here.
So. As I told my son when I offered him my copy: read the dialogs. Skip the rest. (less)
True Story from a Life in Books: While working on my Master's degree at the University of Virginia, I took a class on fin de siecle literature. Natural...moreTrue Story from a Life in Books: While working on my Master's degree at the University of Virginia, I took a class on fin de siecle literature. Naturally, one evening, talk turned to the eruption of the gothic mode at the end of the 19th century. As we discussed whether or not Oscar Wilde's fantasies could be considered properly "gothic," I posited that the difference between, say, Wilde's Salome and a true 'gothic' like Castle of Otranto was the locus of the horror. "Stephen King makes a distinction in his extended essay Danse Macabre that horror can be divided into the 'democratic' and the 'republican,' internal and external sources of the horrific."
Dead silence. Finally, someone tittered into her hand. She was one of those rarified creatures who had done her undergraduate work at Harvard, who could drop names like 'Derrida' into casual conversation, and who I was always trying to emulate. "I'm sorry," she said gently. "I thought for a moment you said 'Stephen King.'" General merriment ensued at the notion, heh heh, that someone would bring up Stephen King in a *literature* class, at a *University*, doont-chew-know.
"Uh...yes. I did say Stephen King."
The conversation devolved from there. Upshot: Danse Macabre is pretty dated now, and horror afficianadoes who don't remember what the genre was like before the late 90's/early-2ks, and the infusion of Asian horror and 70s nostalgia, will likely not find much here that's familiar. But that doesn't matter. The ideas remain strong, and if King paints with a bit too broad a brush, and his usual self-indulgent jocularity, it's still a lot more takeable than the airy, meandering thoughts of most of the literary establishment, who still look at horror as an anomolous genre.
Once upon a time, before he began to believe his own press and mistakenly think he was a novelist, Neil Gaiman wrote comic books. The important thing...moreOnce upon a time, before he began to believe his own press and mistakenly think he was a novelist, Neil Gaiman wrote comic books. The important thing was that while Gaiman has done nothing for prose writing but become a bad parody of himself, his effect on comics was immeasurable. While most of the decision-making folk at DC and Marvel were still plotting heavy-handed soap-operas between flying folks in long underwear, Gaiman hit the quiet shelves of the nearly unknown Vertigo line like a molotov cocktail tossed into an oil refinery. The shrapnel is still cascading down in the form of those darker, more interior-monologue-laden works which now come out of the major comics houses and which can be traced on the big screen in movies like The Dark Knight.
The venue for all these fireworks was Gaiman's "Sandman." The best of "Sandman" is this, the second volume in the series.
Robert R. McCammon published his first novel in 1978: Baal, a straightforward spin on the then-popular anti-Christ story. Five more novels were publis...moreRobert R. McCammon published his first novel in 1978: Baal, a straightforward spin on the then-popular anti-Christ story. Five more novels were published between '78 and 1984, ranging the gamut of traditional bogies from ghosts (Bethany's Sin, '80) to zombies (Night Boat, '80) to vampires (They Thirst, '81). He wouldn't hit werewolves until The Wolf's Hour (1989), but before that, a funny thing happened: Robert McCammon struck gold.
1987's Swan Song was picked up by Pocket Books, who slapped the lengthy (960 pages!) post-apocalyptic tale into a mass-market paperback. The novel, a post-apocalyptic road-trip across a broken American landscape populated by irradiated survivors and madmen, won the Bram Stoker Award, and made the short list for the World Fantasy Award. It was lavishly praised by established horror icons like Dean Koontz and Stephen King (whose The Stand had toured the same landscape in 1978), and spent week after week climbing the New York Times bestseller chart. Soon there wasn't an airport in the U.S. which didn't boast a rack of copies, lengthy, dense fare perfect for extended travel. I read my own copy trekking through Germany with a high-school club the summer after my high-school graduation. A spate of modest successes followed, and then some real literary recognition in the early nineties, as McCammon turned from supernatural horror to character-driven, introspective picaresques. He won two more Stokers, and after two more nominations, finally picked up that World Fantasy Award. There were more bestsellers. Critics who had once shunned his novels for their lurid content began comparing him to Steinbeck and John Irving. Literary reputation, commercial success, the approbation of his peers...Robert McCammon had it made.
Poof. Gone. Vanished. Pulled a Houdini (or more properly, a Salinger) and vanished off the face of the literary map, with no explanation. There was speculation and a bit of nasty accusation about his publisher's treatment of his later, more literary books, and questions about the marketability of "pure" horror fiction, but McCammon never shed much light on the subject. He just split. Ten years later, he resurfaced with a strange hybrid creation: Speaks the Nightbird, a tome of a book which had to originally be published in two volumes. Set in the colonial period, the book is a Crucible-esque story of hauntings and witchcraft, but the antique language and thought processes of the characters allow McCammon to indulge in lengthy internal monologues and character studies typical of his less supernaturally driven works in the 90s. As of this writing, McCammon has returned in force to publishing.
For a fairly long writing career, therefore, it’s not too hard to have read every single novel the man has ever written. That’s not to say there’s not significant variety. There is, and McCammon himself acknowledges (insists on, even) a great deal of growth in style and variety between his earlier straight-up horror genre writings and his later literary stylings. So, if you're going to read Just One Book to get a sense of Mr. McCammon's work, which one should it be? An early potboiler? McCammon himself has disavowed his first four novels, claiming they are too deficient in style to represent his later development. Tough nuts, Mr. McCammon, everyone has to embrace their past.
But... Swan Song is not really a good index of McCammon’s other writing. It’s a great book, but it doesn’t give you the acid flavor of humor he developed in Gone South, nor the gritty, tough-guy heroism of the protagonist of The Wolf’s Hour. It’s epic, prophetic, poetic...and not at all what you’ll find in the rest of McCammon’s work.
So read it, by all means. Just don’t use it to judge rest of the man’s writing. (less)
Perhaps because her philosophy is so dismally stupid, Rand's protagonist is not a terribly interesting fellow. But the supporting characters in Founta...morePerhaps because her philosophy is so dismally stupid, Rand's protagonist is not a terribly interesting fellow. But the supporting characters in Fountainhead include some really memorable creations, most notably Ellsworth Toohey, who is, in his way, a villain worthy of the ranks of Hannibal Lecter and Keyser Soze. There's an early establishing scene in which the young Toohey hears a priest expounding on the theme of "What profits a man to gain the world and lose his own soul," and this nasty little kid goes up, all Damien like, and earnestly asks "then to be truly wealthy, I should collect souls?"
The other great invention of The Fountainhead is the failed protege, Peter Keating. This is the guy who serves as the front-man for Howard Roark's designs, because Keating is a Golden Boy, and in later work, Rand would firmly place him in the camp of The Looters, and he'd simply be a despicable villain. Happily, though, this is pre-Atlas Rand, and she doesn't F* the character up. Keating smirks because he knows damned well the world is perfectly designed for a Nice Guy like him, a Team Player, who's Going Places, and we can't really dislike him for it. Then, in one of the most godawful, tragic scenes in American literature, Keating suddenly realizes how his entire life has been a sham, how he doesn't have any real talent. And he shows this vulnerability to Roark, and Roark just stands there, pitying him. It's awful. The world will keep giving this schmuck money and praise, but it's ashes in his mouth. It's the type of sincere moment that Rand would prove incapable of in Atlas Shrugged, because she could no longer conceive of an obstacle to her characters which wasn't Capital "E" Evil.
So there are merits to Fountainhead as a novel. Skip the tedious courtroom speech in the penultimate chapter, and it's a fair book. (less)
Full confession: I was a teenage Randite. I can not excuse myself any more than by emphasizing that first word: teenage. All teenage boys are poisoned...moreFull confession: I was a teenage Randite. I can not excuse myself any more than by emphasizing that first word: teenage. All teenage boys are poisoned by testosterone. Add to that the fact that I was a nerdy kid growing up in rural Oregon, rasied by libertarian-hippies-turned-plutocrats and you have a recipe for a sense of disenfranchisement which would make a die-hard separatist blush with shame. I was convinced, absolutely, that the world was not giving me my due, that I was owed more by virtue of my stellar brain, my clear superiority, and by golly, once I ruled the world those who had disempowered and bullied me would be first up against the wall.
Giving Rand to a boy seething with that much anger was like pouring thermite on a forest fire. I burned for revenge against the hated parasites I saw in every nook and cranny. I read my copy five, eight, twelve times through, reveling in the clear distinctions, the moral certainty Rand brings to her allegorical universe, certain at last that here was the map which would guide the world towards a better future, if only I could convince people of its obvious, logical rightness. I regaled friends and family at length, quoted long passages from memory, certain that in Rand's novel I'd found inescapable Truth.
I read The Fountainhead perhaps 6 times between the ages of 15 and 21. But Atlas Shrugged? God, I must have swallowed that load of manure whole fifteen times or more, and licked my lips each time. I can still quote whole chunks at will, like some kind of literary acid flashback. Or reflux.
I grew up.
Looking back now, I am embarassed at the jack-booted little whiner that was my teenage self. For three or four years, I strutted around, righteous as the Pope and twice as judgmental. I must have been insufferable. I'm amazed nobody actually clocked me, or at least tossed me into a fountain so I could cool down.
What it took, of course, to clear my head was falling in love, finally caring about someone else as something more than a complement to my vision of myself. That's the cure. Understanding blossomed at once: oh, now I get it, people actually function better, become their best selves, when they are thinking cooperatively. Search history for the works of nomads living alone and independent of society in the wilderness and you'll find nothing at all. By contrast, cooperative effort is what got us out of the caves, allows us this lovely society in which we live, and has been the source of every human achievement.
And of course then I could look at Atlas Shrugged and see the gaping holes in the writing (it's wordy) the aesthetic (too preachy) and even the logic of the storyline. Where in the hell are these SuperMen going to get food if they've alienated and dismissed all the working class? Are we really to believe that someone's money is an accurate measurement of someone's efforts and worth when Paris Hilton exists? And what will happen when the residents of Galt's Gulch get older? They can't have children, as having a kid means giving up parts of yourself without expectation of reward, a complete impossibility in Rand's psychosocial schema. So this is a society doomed to rapid extinction. Madness.
The thing is, the moment one peels off the blinders of self-impressed exceptionalism, the moment one realizes the world is populated by other actual people, not just extras in The Big Movie of which You are the Star...in short, the moment one grows up...it's immediately apparent that Rand has holes in her arguments you could throw Descartes through, with room left over for Kant, Mother Theresa, and a camel.
Nobody sane actually swallows her pap. She is used as a touchstone of sorts, a reference point for some folk to say "I tend towards a certain flavor of extremism." But nobody actually embraces the wacky itself who has enough understanding of other human beings to actually get along in polite society.
In the end, I have to rate the book an exact middle-of-the-scale "3." When I was young and foolish, this was my Bible, and it will likely continue to be the Bible of many angry testosterone-poisoned youths who think that the world would be better if everyone but themselves just disappeared. As an adult, it's a hateful, hateful example of the worst humanity has to offer: a sneering justification for tossing away all that has made our species survive and flourish, our very best selves.(less)
Allow me to elucidate. Doug Adams book. Funny? Sure. Satirical? Check. But would you have guessed intricately plotted?
Adams, who practically invented the vein of British literary humor now being minted hand-over-fist by Terry Pratchett, is in fine form with this novel, his major work outside the Hitchhiker's universe. We get the same bumbling protaginsts, the gently affable quasi-villain, the apocalyptic-threat-which-is-not-a-threat, the deft one-sentence-paragraph narratorial asides. Check, check, and checkeroo.
But we also get something we can't have gotten in Hitchhikers, which was written in sometimes lightning-round single drafts, sometimes mere minutes before the radio-plays would hit the air. Under those circumstances, there was no way for Adams to think too far in advance. It had to be joke, bang, plot, joke, action, joke, exposition...and it shows in the number of times he wrote himself into a corner and then had to pull a Deus-ex-Machina out of the sky to save the narrative.
Not so in Dirk Gently, where tiny throw-away details become massively essential plot points late in the book, and all of the little details together topple into a eperfect, crystalline structure by the end of the story. The perfect example is the bit about the couch. At the beginning of the story, we see our poor schlepp of a protagonist working his way over a couch which has gotten wedged in his stairwell. Cute bit of physical humor, and in a lesser book, that would be the end of it. Instead, long about the penultimate chapter, the couch problem becomes a part of the solution to the whole messy apocalyptic threat mentioned earlier. It's a breathtaking bit of plotting, and I can't help but think Adams revelled in the chance to prove that his gift was not just the ability to make up rapid-fire absurdity, but to really master a novel, show it who'se boss, in a way which is entirely satisfying to the reader. (less)
Well, what can we say? Seminal work. Essential reading. Changed the world. Needs an editor.
HE wanted it in there so HE put in all the g*d*mn sections...moreWell, what can we say? Seminal work. Essential reading. Changed the world. Needs an editor.
HE wanted it in there so HE put in all the g*d*mn sections about plants HE made up for a world only HE had ever seen in his head, and which only ever makes a difference, story-wise, to HIM.
It's crummy writing. Good writing is driven by the audience, not the author's ego. It's the same reason Moby Dick didn't sell (and still isn't read much except by crusty buffoons in English departments), while those 'damned scribbling women' made a mint selling bodice rippers which people actually wanted to read.
Jackson did Tolkien a huge favor by reducing all that botanical folderol to visual shorthand. LotR films > LotR books.
Every time I've made the mistake of reading Tolkien, I've felt like a hungry chocoholic being force-fed a dump truck full of cabbage just so he can get to the single Hershey's kiss buried beneath the dross.
I tend towards Samuel Johnson's take in "Rasselas": the author's description of a flower must be specific enough that readers will visualize a flower, but not so specific that they could only try to visualize that specific flower only the author has seen, a task at which they must fail. Tolkien violates the second clause.