Saturday, August 29, 2015

Soothingly mature

Okay. I think I get it now.

A lot of the Dickens I've read in the last year is of the mawkish, syrup-sweet variety that's basically impossible to read with a straight face. It's been a long time since I've read Hard Times and a longer time since I've read A Tale of Two Cities so I haven't seen the good side of Dickens in a while. But David Copperfield fixed that.

This is a wonderful coming-of-age story, and it's full of love and loss and realistic pain that reaches out and touches the reader. It has none of the over-the-top picturesqueness of The Old Curiosity Shop and isn't quite as focused on plucky, stupid, stolid women as Bleak House or Little Dorrit. David Copperfield is full of characters who ring true, who make mistakes that are honest and avoidable and frustrating instead of, say blindly perusing a law suit for decades or protecting a grandfather who relentlessly gambles away his savings. The characters in this story made me groan in sympathy at their misfortunes and mistakes instead of making me bang my head on my desk out of frustration with their plain masochism and inability to learn from experience.

What a relief!

And that's what I get, that's what I needed reminding of. Dickens isn't just about grimy descriptions of London or hilarious character names or relentless mockery of the Victorian educational system (though, yes, that gets its share of poking here too) - Dickens also wrote about people who were vulnerable and weak and depended on the kindness of others and were sometimes hurt by that. Dickens cared deeply about children and the future and the damaged world he was living in and Dickens wanted to make that world a better place. And he did - writing about what he wrote about, even if it included the ridiculous Little Nell and a whole bevy of insipid pedestal-standing straw-women, taught his readers to keep an eye out for the filth they had been blind to and to try to be kind where they could.

And the message still stands - clearer in David Copperfield than in any of his other books that I've read - that it's up to those who have the liberty to be kind, generous, and patient to be kind, generous, and patient with everyone they can.

     - Alli

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Modern Library Classics. New York: New York.
     2000. (1849-50).

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The ethics of hacking

After my adventures with reading real stories from World War II (Going Solo and Maus) I decided that I needed to participate in some fictional interaction with the war to end all wars. I know I probably should have looked into more memoirs and histories and soberly and seriously reflected on man's inhumanity to man and all that jazz, but I was just emotionally exhausted and needed some unambiguously good guys to kick ass so I reread Cryptonomicon. It doesn't hurt that the fictional WWII good guys are geeks, and that the fictional modern good guys are focusing on preventing future holocausts either when it comes to feeling better about reading some heavy shit. I'm not sure how much of that last sentence made sense, so I'll just say I like geeks and am very glad that many varieties of geek seem to give a shit about the world.

Which is kind of the defining geek characteristic that's explored through a number of different characters in Cryptonomicon. Geeks are people who notice something wrong in the world (whether it's issues of InfoSec protocols, a poorly programmed operating system, free speech, or the shaky physics of Iron Man) and won't shut up about it until it's fixed, and frequently won't shut up about it until they do the fixing themselves.

Cryptonomicon is a book that it - unsurprisingly - largely about problems of privacy. Stephenson does a really fantastic job of exploring what a dual-edged sword privacy can be; half of his characters are invested in code breaking for what's basically the good of the entire world but who all recognize the issue of applying these same techniques to individuals. The book makes its case for strong crypto but also makes the argument that it's wrong that individuals have to rely on strong crypto or be subject to the same treatment as, say, Nazi communications were in 1940. I'm not going to lie, there's some cognitive dissonance in that. There is a character who cheerfully discards the idea that gentlemen shouldn't read one another's mail because reading each other's mail is how the Allies won the war; he's presented as repugnant, and the idea that a government would examine its citizens private communications is repugnant (and, unfortunately, just the world we live in now), but the point seems to be that cracking is a last resort and the sorts of people who are GOOD at cryptography should keep in mind that they are handling the weapon that could next be turned against themselves.

Which makes it a really good thing that Stephenson (Stephenson in particular, not that anyone else could have done it, but that his name is attached to it as a geek himself and as the author of one of the first major books about web culture) wrote this book. Stephenson is one of the five authors who the majority of my tech friends always bring up (Gibson, Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury are the others) as their favorite authors. The InfoSec crew I hang out with have almost all read the tremendous brick that is Cryptonomicon even if they aren't really into reading. It's one of those books that's talked about using the same reverent tones that Christians use when talking about the Bible - it's a must-read, a guiding star, a moral code, an inspiration, and wonderful entertainment to everyone who's ever looked at a computer and seen something wrong that they must make right.

Anyway I enjoy the hell out of it every time I read it and every time I read it it makes me think very seriously about the questions currently surrounding privacy, intellectual property, liberty, free speech, and generally not living in a police state. It's not really what you could call an easy read, it's got some not-too-complicated but decidedly tedious discussions of math, crypto, and random numbers scattered throughout. But those things are all worth reading because it makes you want to be better at the things under discussion (and it's not like it's something as detailed, complicated, and terrifying as the orbital mechanics lectures in Anathem).

So if you're even slightly inclined to check out this odd book about computer geeks, please do. If you're a computer geek who wants to consider yourself a hacker it's almost a moral imperative that you read this book. But don't read it because of that - read it because it's fun.

     - Alli

Stephenson, Neal. Cryptonomicon. Avon Fiction. New York: New York. 2002. (1999).

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Mourning and laughter are both valuable

I decided I wanted to cry basically forever so I sat down and reread Maus this weekend.

Look, I know I harp on a lot about comic books but Maus may be objectively the best comic book ever made. It's Art Spiegelman's masterpiece in which he tells the story of his father's experience of the holocaust. Spiegelman does this deftly and touchingly, interweaving his own experience of telling the tale and arguments with his father into the narrative of the horrors experienced by one family during the worst period in human history.

It's the first graphic novel to have ever won a Pulitzer Prize. Maus is the reason I want to make comic books. It's the model that all other serious biographical comics have followed since because it (if it didn't create the genre) tells its story with such honesty and delicacy that NOT attempting to live up to that standard is frankly not acceptable. And in spite of the fact that it's a graphic novel that deals heavily with suicide, digs into the author's strained relationship with his father, and is about the holocaust and literally illustrates cute animals hanging in concentration camps, Maus is often very light and sweet and funny. The book focuses on the human elements of tremendous tragedy, the pettiness that mutual sufferers can exhibit toward one another, the joy found in small respites from torture, the kindness of strangers - all of these things are put on display frequently because they not only make the painful story more bearable, they're what makes the story important. We see silly exchanges between cousins and love affairs and old jokes and goofy misunderstandings because the lighten up a heavy load but they also remind us that this, the simple contact of humans and their relationships, is what was being exterminated.

Maus is painful to read but it's important to read. In a world full of memoirs of pain and biographies of suffering it's vital that the memory of laughter not be lost, because we need those memories to act as signposts to prevent such a terrible loss from ever happening again.

     - Alli

Spiegelman, Art. Maus. Pantheon Books. New York: New York. 1997. (1973, 1986).

Going home is the best part of Going Solo

You can't understand how wonderful a book like Matilda is unless you were a lonely, bright child with very few friends. I mean everyone can appreciate that it's a sweet, cute story about success and beating the odds and tricking the corrupt leader, but until you've set aside your worn copy and stared so HARD at a pencil, struggling to see if you just might be magic like Matilda, then picked up the book again (disappointed in yourself but happy to keep reading and quietly muttering "it's okay, it's just a story") you can't understand how great the book is. It makes me question physics. As an adult. Who is pretty fucking into physics. Because maybe someday I'll feel those little hands pushing out of my eyes and making the world come to life for me. Maybe. Not likely, though.

Anyway, Matilda is the first Roald Dahl book I ever read. I've also happily consumed stories about Willy Wonka and a certain Big Friendly Giant. There were others, I'm sure (I know I at least glanced through The Twits and hated it at 10, but that was the same day my mother had a heart attack so maybe I just wasn't in the mood for a story). I probably should have read Boy before Going Solo, but Going Solo was the book I had so it's what I read.

Roald Dahl makes me feel pretty useless. In fact I'm pretty sure that most RAF pilots make most people feel pretty useless. Especially if they were WWII fighter pilots, because I try to make a difference in the world but I've never literally stopped Nazis from killing people. Which is really the meat of Going Solo. There are quite a few amusing anecdotes that introduce us to the young Dahl in the beginning of the book but by the halfway point you are solid into Nazi fighting. And getting into Nazi fighting actually makes the memoir more pleasant - the amusing little anecdotes have a lot to do with imperialism and covering murder, so it makes the people under discussion a little hard to like.

Dahl comes up looking pretty good through most of the story, and like a prince at the end. Of course it's his book and he was a tremendously talented writer, but it's very much the story of a young man out of this depth who is frustrated and terrified by the world around him and trying to muddle through anyway. His affable voice and self deprecation through the nightmarish things he lived through are bracing and sad at the same time. The final chapter, his homecoming and reunion with his worried mother, was heart-wrenching and is what really made me glad to have read this odd little book.

     - Alli

Dahl, Roald. Going Solo. Puffin Books. New York: New York. 1999. (1986).

OMFG this could change everything

Guys. Guys. You guys. Holy shit. I'm so fucking stoked.

Joe Hill touches on the Kingiverse. Joe Hill mentions Pennywise and Midworld and holy shit are you fucking kidding the Treehouse of the Mind is in the same universe as Derry? That makes so much sense on so many levels but brings up just a ton of questions. Hill and King are very different writers and as much as I love King (I really do, he's wonderful and he's written books that have become such good friends over the years) I'm feeling really, really into Hill. But does Hill even want to go there? Was this just a gimme to people who are reading because they're fans of his dad but maybe not all that into him? I really hope not. I hope Hill gets a chance to expand this universe with his own twisted imprint and make it just all kinds of awesome.

Really. Please, please, please, it's so fucking good!

Anyway. NOS4A2 kind of fucking rules. I kept being surprised by this book in just the best ways - as I thought I was closing in on the ending (it seemed like I'd read through the right amount of action to be moving into a final act) I realized that I was only about halfway through the book. There was a SHITLOAD more where that came from and I was thrilled. Characters kept doing and being so much more than I had anticipated, and Hill wasn't scared to be cruel to his readers. NOS4A2 kept slamming that fact home to me - this isn't some kind of post-close-encounters-Spielberg storyteller where the kids are always alright, this is a dude whose favorite movie is Jaws and you know he loves it when the Kintner kid gets eaten. This book is visceral in that it's full of viscera - guts and gore slide and explode all over the place and make you giddy and sick as a reader. It's good shit.

I really want to tell you A LOT of what happened, I want to go over the story in depth, but the book feels a little too new to comfortably dig deeply into. Suffice it to say that Hill does an admirable job of exploring nontraditional families and that I was startled and pleased to read a horror novel that passes the Bechdel test so many times over. And I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that the Hilliverse leaves doors open to the Kingiverse and vice versa - both men are tremendously talented and engaging writers and I think it would be delightful to someday read their stories interacting with one another.

     - Alli

Hill, Joe. NOS4A2. William Morrow. New York: New York. 2013.

July Book Roundup

Friday, August 14, 2015

Cultural criticism

There's something to be said for being of a generation that has birthed the connoisseurship of irony. It made it a little easier for me to read Tabloid Culture, at any rate. It's a book that's deeply engaged in criticizing powerful institutions for their criticism of populist media, but it does so in a remarkably sanctimonious and impenetrably academic style. I'm a smart lady, and I've done my time as an academic, but I had a lot of trouble making the connections that Kevin Glynn strives to make and I struggled to make myself give a shit about what Baudrillard would have to say about Maury Povitch.

Which is not to say that Tabloid Culture is unreadable or worthless or not totally engaging in a lot of ways. It's just, you know, kind of snooty about it, which is to be expected in what started as a dissertation written for Duke University.

The book talks a lot about postmodernism and the fact that even postmodernist thinkers can't agree on what postmodernism is, but I'm guessing that that whole argument exploded at some point in the early 2000s, before cell phones had cameras on them and before the question of "who watches the watchmen?" had been resoundingly answered with "everyone." It's fascinating to look at a book on media that essentially predates the internet (at least the modern internet) and talks about the democratizing influences and postmodernist flavor of reality TV before Survivor first hit US airwaves. I want to know what Glynn thinks of the Kardashians. I want to hear Glynn talk about Ferguson. I kept reading this book and page by page thinking "wow, the shit that's been going on in the last fifteen years must have blown this guy's mind." And I probably could learn what he thinks about a lot of those things, but I don't feel like going to New Zealand for a seminar would be worth it.

I read this book because I spent a long time as a journalism major and because it seemed interesting and kitschy. It looked like a time capsule, and that's exactly what it was. Glynn had a lot of very insightful things to say about a lot of media that had died off. He was also pretty significantly ahead of the curve on discussion of things like white fragility and trans issues, though his discussions of these topics also date the book (for instance it's pretty clear that the self-selected pronouns issue wasn't as settled in 2000 as it is today). Sometimes I found myself nodding along and thinking "yes, this is still relevant today, this is important, this is USEFUL" and then I would get to a page that went in-depth about the disassociation of the bodies of network broadcasters and realized again and again that the world has changed. Fifteen years has been enough to completely transform our media landscape, for better and for worse, and as much as I enjoyed (and was frustrated by, and was bored by) reading Tabloid Culture it's written for a world that doesn't exist anymore. Still. If I gave stars for my reviews this fascinating book would sit at four out of five. Check your local guide for showtimes.

     - Alli

Glynn, Kevin. Tabloid Culture: Trash Taste, Popular Power, and the Transformation of 
     American Television. Duke University Press. Durham: North Carolina. 2000.

Dude, look at that fucking TITLE. If you're in college and you're ever stuck for a title on your paper this is the PERFECT, PROTOTYPICAL format. Take a two-word title and follow it with a subhead that has three ideas, the first two of which are in some way repetitive (alliteration or rhyme) and the third of which breaks pattern. So, for example:

Walk Hard: Short Steps, Heavy Hearts, and Community Healing in Remembrance Walks.
Heavy Petting: Friendly Felines, Doting Dogs, and the Spread of Domestically Hosted Parasites.
Tour Talk: Lies, Sighs, and the Truth about Groupies.

Pro-tip: Don't fuck with this style too much. I once called a paper "Faceted Franklin: Four Faces Formulated for Founding a Functional Federation" to snark at the idea of formulaic title construction and got called on it by my professor. The only marks I lost on that paper were for the snarky title. Academia wants what academia wants.

I've got a fever...

That can only be cured by reading more about nightmarish infectious diseases.

I'm not good at science. Well, I'm good at some parts of science like attempting to maintain objectivity when discussing the physical universe, respecting well-constructed studies over anecdotal evidence, and changing my mind when I'm presented with solid evidence that contradicts my previous knowledge, but the actual nitty-gritty math and numbers part is what I'm bad at (though now that I've discovered Stats with Cats that may change) and that makes it difficult for me to study science the way that I would like to.

The frustrating part about not knowing a ton about the hard sciences is that it's hard to get into the hard sciences without running into some very, very shitty (and hardly readable) science. After reading The Hot Zone this weekend I ended up on Amazon looking for more books about virology (probably my favorite branch of bio science) and ended up getting lots of recommendations for books that examine the link between vaccines and autism. Fuck. That's not what I'm looking for AT ALL. I want more stories about virus hunting, examinations of infection rates, and explorations of all the creepy crawlies that fill up the invisible world. Basically I want another fifty books like The Hot Zone, because goddamn is that a good book.

I know I read at least part of this book in high school. I vividly remember sitting in the school library and reading about Major Nancy Jaxx's highly unusual (and ill-advised) method of opening a can of green beans. But I'm not sure I read much beyond that because I had no recollection of the rest of the events of the book and considering what happens in the rest of the story I'm pretty sure I'd remember it. It's scary as fuck.

I kept reading passages out loud to my husband as we sat on the patio until 4AM, him messing around on the computer and me being alternately fascinated and repulsed by Preston's gripping storytelling and arresting prose. Honestly reading anything about Ebola is interesting but the way that Preston was able to get the facts from his correspondents and weave them into something that was more of a thriller than an after-action report was mind-boggling. He did a fantastic job of bringing bio-hazard containment to life and making it pulse-poundingly exciting (something that I'm positive many bio-hazard containment specialists find incredible).

But. Um. Don't read this book if you're squeamish. About pretty much anything. Aside from the discussion of a highly transmissible hemorrhagic fever and all the associated nastiness there's also a lot of discussion (though not many descriptions) of trapping, housing, and euthanizing monkeys for medical research that I'm sure will make this book unreadable for a lot of people (though, hey, bonus, because of the events in the book the US made its monkey importation and housing standards much more strict which means life got a lot better for a lot of monkeys). And if you are at all microphobic DO NOT READ THIS BOOK. Seriously. Do Not. I've got a healthy fear/respect for germs and yes everyone should get vaccinated, wash their hands frequently during cold and flu season, and stay away from potentially rabid animals, and observe good sterile procedures for stuff like tattoos and handling open wounds, but if you're the kind of person who needs to wash your hands once an hour this book is going to scare the living shit out of you in a potentially very literal way. Which is why I like it, but why you probably won't.

Anyway, I had fun with The Hot Zone. You might too, if it doesn't give you the screaming mimis.

     - Alli

Preston, Richard. The Hot Zone. Anchor Books. New York: New York. 1995. (1994).

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Shadow knows

While my husband and I were working on my car last weekend I found myself with some downtime, filthy hands, and nothing to do. Since the garage is where my book case lives I decided to tidy up my grubby mitts and sink into an easy read while I was waiting for parts to arrive.

Long story short I ended up spending a pretty significant chunk of time reading American Gods instead of finishing my engine.

This really is a delightful book. It's a quick read but the world is so full of depth and history and mystery that it feels like you're living the same time as the characters - only a couple hours pass in real life but you end up aging yourself months every time you read this story. It's so whole, so full, that you have to pull back from your perceptions and wonder about the world anew every time you pick it up.

Shadow is such a great entry into this world. He's a perfect blank in so many ways, which means you get to look through his eyes and feel his confusion and feel at home in the story because he's the main character and he's even more lost than you are. And he's sweet. And hurt. And sad. I love reading Shadow because he takes so long to get to know but once you know him you can't help but admire and pity him. He doesn't know what's going on, he doesn't know his place in the world; he's just a shadow looking for substance.

Anyway, if you're into fantasy, mythology, contemporary American stories, or just looking for some wonder in the world American Gods is a good place to find all of those things.

     - Alli

Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. Harper Torch. New York: New York. 2002. (2001).

Enjoying fragments over finish

I am well aware of the fact that I'm a grumpy motherfucker. I'm pretty well-known among my group of friends (yes, I do actually have those!) as the one who can gripe about any given subject for half an hour at a time at the drop of a hat. I am the epitome of the "feminist buzzkill" stereotype.

And I love it.

So, anyway, Wieland is another one of those books written in the eighteenth century where the story basically wouldn't happen if people weren't so focused on controlling women and their sexuality. Which made me grumpy for most of the time I was reading it, of course.

When I first read (most) of this book it was for my 400 level Early American Lit class in college. We didn't have to read the Memoirs chunk at the end of the book but the longer novel (sometimes described as the first Great American Novel) was mandatory reading. When I started rereading the book I realized that I remembered essentially nothing about it at all except that the dude who had presented on it at the end of the quarter gave his presentation as a puppet show, which seemed funny at first and quickly became strained. And I seem to remember that he got expelled for plagiarism, so fuck him anyway. But I digress.

The story is narrated by Clara who, SPOILERS, is left alone in the world after her brother goes crazy and murders his wife and children because this random dude, Carwin, who happens to be a ventriloquist, accidentally convinces Wieland (the brother) that he's hearing the voice of God.

A lot of the drama that occurs in the story is as a result of Clara having to try to resurrect her reputation after Carwin pretends to have seduced her. Wieland might not have had an opportunity to kill just freaking everyone if Clara hadn't had to go rabbiting after Pleyel, who might have stayed behind and been a defender of the wife and kids (who are such unnecessary acted-upon-but-never-acting characters that they may as well not have names (though the wife's name is Catherine and the murdered lodger who is also in this story for some reason is Louisa)).

Clara almost gets killed at the end because she was misinformed about how bugshit insane her brother has gone - seems like some kindly males wanted to protect their delicate weeping flower from the knowledge that a maniac was attempting to murder her. Of course when she becomes aware of that fact she's suicidal anyway because what even is the point of living unless it's for the love of Pleyel who doesn't respect her at this juncture because she is such a potentially fallen woman, or the brother she serves as a substitute mother to, or the sister-in-law who is such a perfect model of femininity that I'm not actually sure she speaks a single line or does anything other than literally sit and look pretty in the book, or the nieces and/or nephews who act as good surrogate children and allow Clara to display her maternal instincts without the complication of her ever having touched a penis to infringe on her innocence and trustworthiness as a narrator? Why would Clara even want to exist if she couldn't be a model for or learning from a model of some variety of idealized femininity, right?

But that's okay. Clara gets a happy ending because Pleyel forgives her once he's given proof from someone with a reliable penis that Clara isn't a whore (wouldn't do to believe Clara herself, of course), and Pleyel's wife, whom he has married after deciding Clara was a whore, conveniently dies young enough that Pleyel is still an attractive marriage prospect. Yay.

But that wasn't even the woman whose sexuality I was talking about controlling! Funnily enough if Judith, Clara's housemaid, hadn't had to hide her affair with Carwin pretty much nothing in the story would have happened. Everyone would have known who Carwin was and he wouldn't have been able to get away with sneaking and tricking and hiding in closets so Pleyel never would have doubted Clara, the two of them would have been around to call for help or prevent Wieland from killing his family, and Clara wouldn't have ended up writhing with guilt over feelings of self-preservation when facing down her criminally insane brother.

But, you know, you can't let the maids hand out "buttermilk" to just anyone. What would the neighbors think?

The Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist are a bit more interesting to me and less irritating than Wieland. There's no gendered element of innocence in Carwin, he's just young and stupid and has too much talent and trust for his own good. The story of Carwin doesn't finish and you sort of have to piece it together from passing references in Wieland and fill in the gaps with your imagination and everything seems to indicate that Carwin's self-satisfaction combined with the arrogance of youth came together to fuck up his life.

And that's the kind of story I can get behind - it's got a great element of exceptionalism thwarted by tripping on straws. Carwin wasn't quite enough to offset Wieland for me, but I had a much better time reading it than I had reading the longer work.


Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist. Penguin Classics.
     New York: New York. 1991. (1771).