Dec 13

MaddAddam – Margaret Atwood


MaddAddam is the final book in Atwood’s speculative fiction trilogy of the same name. She’s one of my favorite authors and I was highly anticipating the publication of this book (I briefly mentioned this trilogy in a review of another of her books this past summer). I’m happy to say it didn’t disappoint! Each of the three books in the trilogy look at roughly the same set of apocalyptic events from the perspectives of different sets of characters. In addition, each book furthers the broader plot, with this final book reaching a satisfying, if somewhat poignant, conclusion. Overall, highly recommended!

The source of the apocalypse in the book is rooted in biological engineering. There are many elements related to this topic, including the brief mention of a video game called “Intestinal Parasites”. What’s interesting though is that someone actually created a real-world version of the game – you can go check it out in the Apple App store. Enjoy!

Dec 13

NW – Zadie Smith


This book was recommended to me by Donna. She had previously read Smith’s White Teeth and On Beauty, both of which she also recommends (especially White Teeth).

I quite enjoyed the book. Structurally, it was very interesting – each section had a different style and flavor. The current Wikipedia article on the book sums this up nicely:

The novel is experimental and follows four different characters living in London, shifting between first and third person, stream-of-consciousness, screenplay-style dialogue and other narrative techniques…

The content primarily focuses on issues of class. It explores the lives of two main characters who grew up in the NW London projects and later went on to cross class lines as they worked their way up the social and economic ladders. Much of the tension in the book revolves around the ideas of who you were then vs. who you are now (and to what degree this separation is intrinsic or self-imposed).

Finally, having come from a somewhat modest background myself, I saw aspects of my own life reflected in the themes of the book, which made it that much more interesting.

Nov 13

The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov


As mentioned in an earlier post, there were quite a few books from NPR’s list of Top 100 SF & Fantasy Books that I wanted to get around to reading. I’ve always liked Asimov as an author but have never read any of the Foundation books, so the original trilogy seemed like a natural place to start. Unfortunately, despite being a classic, almost foundational series in the genre (see what I did there!), I found it to be a little disappointing.

The first book, Foundation, was engaging and I liked the premise: the galactic empire is on the decline and mathematician Hari Seldon has developed the science of psychohistory, which claims to be able to predict the coarse-grained future based on societal trends. Based on these predictions, Seldon believes the period of chaos following the inevitable collapse of the empire can be minimized to no more than 1000 years. To help shepherd the galaxy through this period, he establishes two Foundations at “the opposite ends of the galaxy”. Their nominal missions are to carry on the work of Seldon and hasten the end of the post-imperial period of disorder.

Foundation goes on to describe the series of events following Seldon’s death and focuses on the efforts of the first Foundation. The plot skips ahead in generations, each of which has to deal with a particular “Seldon Crisis” that threatens the planed transition to a stable future within the 1000 year timeline. Overall, a fun read.

The second book, Foundation and Empire, was a terrible slog for me. Its plot revolved around an unpredictable character called “The Mule”, whose very existence threatened the Seldon Plan. The first 80% of the book seemed to be aimless hand-wringing around this point, but the last bit picks up some as all the threads are drawn together and a resolution is reached.

The final book in the original trilogy, Second Foundation, shifts focus to the nature of the mysterious Second Foundation. It regains a bit of the pace of the first book and progresses the overall plot in a satisfying and intriguing fashion. However, we still haven’t made our way out of the post-imperial phase, though I’m not planning on reading the remaining Foundation books to see what happens.

There were a few things that stood out for me while reading these books:

  • The fact that Asimov started writing the original Foundation stories when he was 22 seems pretty impressive. While nominally SF books, they’re really just about politics and intrigue (as is much SF or general story telling, under the covers). For being relatively young, he does a good job of spinning a credible tale of long-term political maneuvering.
  • The miracle technology that the empire is built upon, and which differentiates the strength of various factions, is nuclear. This pretty clearly reflects the post-WWII cultural fascination with nuclear technology, but comes across as a bit dated.
  • And speaking of period-specific cultural fascinations, everyone in the galaxy is constantly smoking! I’m sure this is just a reflection of the societal norms of 40’s-50’s America, but the extent to which people are smoking in all sorts of situations is even more jarring than the thought of handheld, nuclear-powered can openers.

Nov 13

Do You Think You’re Clever? – John Farndon


Before I talk about this book, I have to talk about “The Microsoft Interview Question”. There was definitely a time (and maybe there still is?) when the Microsoft-style puzzle / brainteaser interview was en vogue. Basically, the interviewer asks you some to solve some bizarre problem which sometimes has a non-obvious (and perhaps elegant) answer. They then observe you as you flail work through the problem, trying to determine if you were Microsoft material. In theory, this can be a useful way to get a sense of how a candidate approaches and deals with tricky problems. In practice, there are too many unsophisticated interviewers who treat these as “gotcha!” questions; they put the candidate on the spot and only look for the “right” answer versus using it as an opportunity to get a feel for the person’s interpersonal style or other, more intangible attributes. This practice was in place prior to my joining Microsoft in 2001 and was certainly in the popular culture in the early and mid-2000’s (see 2004’s popular title “How Would You Move Mount Fuji” for an example). However, I was happy to see that this style of interview question actively discouraged during my time there as a manager.

Anyway, when I first noticed “Do You Think You’re Clever” on the shelf of my local, independent bookstore, I flipped to the table of contents and immediately (and sarcastically) thought “Great, another compendium of Microsoft-puzzle-style interview questions”. And to a certain degree, I was right! Some of the questions had, in fact, made appearances in Microsoft interviews. However, it turns out that this book more broadly covers “The Oxford and Cambridge Questions”. These are questions that have been asked of candidates applying for entry to Oxford or Cambridge and a few things stood out for me. They seemed to be asked in the true spirit of this kind of question; in an attempt to get a feel for how a candidate approached and dealt with the question, not whether they got the “right” answer. Also, the types of questions went beyond the mathematical or logic-based you might see in a tech company interview and delved into other interesting, more humanities-based areas. For example, some of the questions that seemed intriguing enough for me to end up buying the book were:

  • Do you think you’re clever?
  • Are you cool?
  • Should someone sell their kidney?
  • Can history stop the next war?
  • Where does honesty fit into law?
  • What books are bad for you?
  • Why isn’t there a global government?
  • If you’re not in California, how do you know it exists?
  • Chekhov’s great, isn’t he?
  • Why do so few Americans believe in evolution?
  • Would you say greed is good or bad?
  • Is there such a thing as ‘race’?
  • What makes you think I’m having thoughts?

Of course, this book isn’t just a list of questions – the author takes a stab at answering the questions himself. I particularly like Farndon’s approach of pointing out that there aren’t necessarily right answers in many cases, but he puts forth what his answer would be and why. Many times the most interesting reading was the supporting background information he gives for his opinions. Overall, I found his style to be thoughtful and engaging, which made for good reading even in the cases where I found myself disagreeing with him.

Oct 13

I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman


I think I first heard of Chuck Klosterman on Facebook. Specifically, people were answering his 23 questions (feel free to Google it). I found the phenomenon mildly interesting, but I became more curious once I did a little research and found that he’s also the current Ethicist for the New York Times Magazine. Anyway, some time later, I was browsing my local brick-and-mortar bookstore and noticed a copy of the recently published I Wear the Black Hat. The dust jacket promised an exploration of the nature of evil, what it is that makes certain people evil (Bernie Goetz) but not others (Batman), etc. Sounded like a good opportunity to check out Klosterman in more detail, so I grabbed a copy.

The book turned out to be a solid ‘OK’. He does explore some interesting ground on the nature of villainy in our current cultural context, often pointing out thought-provoking inconsistencies and contradictions. Early on, he proposes a theory of the villain’s defining characteristic (‘They know the most but care the least’) and proceeds to build up evidence for it through the rest of the book. It generally makes for good reading; I like his overall philosophical approach, though his style (see the 23 questions mentioned above) gets a little mechanical and becomes less charming (and more grating) the longer it goes on.

Aug 13

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination – Margaret Atwood


While similar in certain ways to the Gibson and Stephenson books I recently read, In Other Worlds – SF and the Human Imagination is a different kind of book. It’s generally a collection of previous articles, reviews and lectures by Atwood but is thematically focused on the history, development and influences of SF (again, the discussion of ‘science fiction’ vs. ‘speculative fiction’ comes up).

The book is divided into three sections. The first section explores three specific elements of SF: alien beings, why fantastic fiction shifted to outer space (vs. the old mythological and religious settings) and fanciful locales (other planets, dimensions, etc.). The second section is a series of essays and reviews of various major works in the history of SF, which interestingly includes Orwell and Huxley. In fact, a main theme that Atwood explores is the notion of Utopias and Dystopias and how each often has elements of the other (she coins the word Ustopia to represent this notion). This is not too surprising, since one of her books sometimes characterized as SF (The Handmaid’s Tale – recommended, BTW!) is pretty dystopian. I personally read it sometime during the second Bush administration and it felt uncomfortably close to being a potential reality! The final section of the book consists of brief bits of SF she herself has written, often found embedded in other books of hers.

One thing that impressed me while reading this book is that there’s a lot of classical SF out there that I’ve never quite gotten around to reading. When talking to Donna about this, she forwarded me a link to NPR’s recent list of the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books. Turns out I’ve only read 19 items out of that list, but I’ve subsequently added quite a few of them to my queue.

It also turns out that the final book of Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood) is due out September 3rd. Plus, she’s speaking at Seattle Town Hall on October 4th. I actually have two tickets for the talk, though we’ve ended up booking our upcoming DC trip over it. Let me know if you’re interested in going in our stead 🙂


Jul 13

Damned – Chuck Palahniuk


So, I’m killing some time the other day, browsing for bookspiration in a Barnes and Noble when I come across Damned prominently displayed on a table of suggested reading. The book is by the author of Fight Club (it says so right on the cover!). I’ve never read anything by Palahniuk, though I enjoyed the movie version of Fight Club well enough. Scanning the back cover, the book promises to be a “dark, hilarious, and brilliant satire about adolescence, Hell, and the Devil “. Despite the gratuitous use of the serial comma in the claims, I decided to give it a try. It turned out to be a mixed bag.

The Bad

The story is about a 13 year old girl who nominally dies of a marijuana overdose and wakes up in Hell. Palahniuk’s style is ‘quirky’ and I felt he relied too much on gimmicky structural tricks, constantly repeated throughout the book. Cute after the first few instances, annoying thereafter. The main character is written as smart and sassy, but the dialog becomes repetitive and shallow, never quite achieving the edginess I think he may have been trying for. There are explicit references to, and plot developments inspired by, The Breakfast Club, plus each chapter begins with a Judy Blume-like paragraph that starts “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison”. Overall, too gimmicky for my tastes.

The Good

Palahniuk’s vision of Hell is kind of interesting. Also, there was some metaphysical commentary around the nature of life and death that was pretty engaging. However, despite these interesting elements and some nicely dark humor, I don’t think it managed to come of as anything other than a curiosity for me.

I noted that the book ended with a “To be continued…” line. Checking the Interwebs, I see that this book (published in 2011) is the first of a trilogy. The next book, Doomed, is due out in October 2013. I think I’ll be taking a pass.



Jul 13

Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing – Neal Stephenson

NealStephensonI just finished reading (and reviewing) a collection of essays by William Gibson and have now moved on to Some Remarks,  a collection of essays by Neal Stephenson. So of course, the natural question is “In a fight between Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, who would win?” As it turns out, one of the articles in this book is a reprint of Stephen’s 2004 Slashdot interview, where he answers exactly this question (see the interview’s question #4 for a highly entertaining answer).

This book is a collection of 18 articles by Stephenson, ranging from 1993 to 2012. Unlike Gibson’s book, these essays have been edited to remove many of the passages made stale by history, as Stephenson notes in the introduction. Given this transparency and his straight-forward motivations, I suppose I can’t fault him for this.

The essays tend to be pretty short, readable and engaging, with the possible exception of a 118-pager in the middle of the book, ‘Mother Earth, Mother Board’ – a Wired Magazine article from 1996. It’s a ‘hacker tourist’ travel documentary exploring the physical world of the Internet’s trans-oceanic cabling. It reminds me of Andrew Blum’s 2012 book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, except it’s much more readable (Blum’s book was a slog of poor organization and self-indulgent writing). However, even with Stephenson’s superior style and perspective, I think the physical and political details of the Internet may simply be fundamentally boring.

As I enjoy both Gibson and Stephenson as writers, I was curious to see how reading these two books back-to-back would shift my opinions. If anything, I’ve shifted slightly more towards the Stephenson camp. I think there are a few reasons for this:

  • Stephenson’s a bit closer to my own age – he’s 10 years older than me while Gibson’s 10 more. I don’t have any concrete examples to back up why this might make a difference, but his perspectives seem to resonate more for me.
  • Stephenson has more hard technology cred than Gibson. By his own admission, William Gibson is a bit of a technology luddite despite his position in the pantheon of SF (he even coined the term ‘cyberspace‘!). However, Stephenson walks the talk and is more in touch with the actual technology of the present. For example, check out the excellent (if a bit dated) In The Beginning… Was The Command Line.
  • Gibson’s writing tends to be a little darker and and more literary in my mind. Stephenson often tends to inject more humor and chooses to opt for good ol’ storytelling over subtlety at times.

In the end, I still enjoy both writers, despite my (now infamous?) dissatisfaction with Stephenson’s Cyrptonomicon – I felt it rambled on waaay too long, though after reading it I felt a compulsion to encrypt all my shit. On the flip side, Snow Crash is one of the best SF books I’ve read. Anyway, if you like Neal Stephenson’s work, this collection of articles should be a nice treat.

Jun 13

Distrust That Particular Flavor – William Gibson


While taking a walk down to Ballard, I popped into Secret Garden Books for some reading inspiration. I wasn’t feeling quite like taking on anything too weighty, so I found myself drawn to an couple of interesting looking books of collected essays: Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson and Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing by Neal Stephenson. As I like both authors, it was a tough decision of which book to buy. For some reason, I thought Gibson might be more interesting so I went with his book. I later bought  a copy of the Stephenson book during my recent Santa Fe trip, but I’ll cover that, as well as a comparison of the two authors, in my next review.

This book is a collection of 25 of Gibson’s essays and talks, spanning the years 1989 to 2010. Many of the pieces are fairly short and they cover a pretty wide range of topics, though there tend to be recurring themes on the craft of writing as well as reflections on Asian technological society, which holds a certain fascination for Gibson and is the  inspiration for the background setting of many of his books.

I found it interesting that he chose to reprint the articles without editing / updating them in any way. While they tend to capture the feeling of the time in which he wrote them, they surprisingly don’t come across as too dated, especially given the technological focus of much of his work. At the end of each article, Gibson provides a few contemporary comments, where he gives some additional context about the piece and reflects on different aspects of it. I found these post-article comments to be one of the more interesting aspects of this collection.

I also learned a lot more about Gibson from having read this book. Specific items that stood out for me were:

  • He’s both older and less Canadian than I’ve tended to consider him. Turns out he was born in South Carolina in 1948 and was pretty heavily into ’60’s counterculture. In 1967, he moved to Canada, nominally to flee the draft. He continues to live in Canada, but maintains dual citizenship.
  • Despite having coined the term ‘cyberspace’ and being so heavily connected to Internet culture, he’s surprisingly non-technical, to the point of being a self-described Luddite. It’s interesting reading some of his early essays where he talks about the Internet and then hearing him admit in the contemporary notes that he had practically no idea about what he was talking about!
  • He’s a big Steely Dan fan. One of the articles in the book is a fairly rapturous meditation on the synergistic magic the results from the collaboration of Becker and Fagen. While not much of a Steely Dan fan myself, I did enjoy this portion of the essay:

… I have often raised an eyebrow at hearing him sing, as I push a cart down some Safeway aisle, of the spiritual complexities induced by the admixture of Cuervo Gold, cocaine, and nineteen-year-old girls (in the hands of a man of, shall we say, a certain age). At which point i look around Frozen Foods and wonder: “Is anyone else hearing this?” Do the people who program these supermarket background tapes have any idea what this song is actually about? On this basis alone I have always maintained that Steely Dan’s music was, has been, and remains among the most genuinely subversive oeuvres in late twentieth-century pop.

I found this collection to be an interesting retrospective on Gibson as a writer and cultural influencer. If you even have a passing interest in his work, I think you’d enjoy it as well.

Jun 13

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal – Mary Roach


If you’re a fan of fart jokes, like me, then you’ll love this book. Gulp takes a holistic look at the entire process of eating, with each chapter touching on some aspect of the process. And of the seventeen chapters, fully three of them are more or less about farting.

The book wasn’t organized quite the way I expected. I kinda assumed it would be a little more focused and scientific, following a linear path from the mouth to the butt. However, rather than taking this direct approach, Roach rather uses it as a baseline to head off on interesting tangents – the chemistry of spit, can animals or people survive being swallowed by other animals, the mechanics of smuggling contraband with your ass, etc. I suppose I should have expected this, since it’s the same approach used in the other book of her’s I’ve read, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

I like Roach’s mix of science, humor and her eye for the bizarre. She also makes liberal use of footnotes, many of which are used to insert humorous asides. For example, in the chapter where she explores if it’s possible to survive being swallowed by a whale, she has the following footnote following a sentence about the possibility of a sailor being swallowed by a sperm whale:

I challenge you to find a more innocuous sentence containing the words sperm, suction, swallow, and any homophone of seaman. And then call me up on the homophone and read it to me.

So yeah, pretty entertaining.