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30
Jun 13

Distrust That Particular Flavor – William Gibson

distrustThatFlavor

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.


29
Jun 13

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal – Mary Roach

Gulp

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.