Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Algebraist

The grandiloquent Iain M Banks is a science fiction sensation in the UK. His is the kind of space opera that picks up where Frank Herbert left off, with the brand of byzantine politics done so well in the Dune series. Banks' latest, published three years ago, has so far not grabbed me, not like his earlier work, Feersum Endjinn. He has a poetic style that reminds me of my friend Jeff Overstreet's style, only here tasked to a galactic scale. The flights of language are wonderful, but where Jeff's plotting is easy and satisfying to follow, with Banks I am struggling to comprehend what exactly is going on.

Thursday, December 20, 2007



Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Hanging Garden

Doesn't everybody love the Cure at some point in their life? 1995: listening to Pornography every day, "What does it matter if we all die?" My cheeks were stained with tears of boiling pitch.
Which really has not much at all to do with the popular Rebus series, by Ian Rankin, other than the title of the latest I'm reading and perhaps a bit of the angsty pop soul of the author.
Everything revolves around Edinburgh in these books, and I think that's a huge part of their appeal. Works for me. Back in 2003, during my brief visit, the tight closes and corners of the city seemed a perfect setting for what is commonly regarded as the local genre, Tartan Noir.
The intrepid John Rebus is the other common thread. I don't he ever listens to the Cure (unless he does in this book and I've not gotten to that part); he's a Stones and Zep fan.


Mr Samuel Beckett, personal secretary to James Joyce during the late years of that great author's life, has a raft of novels that were not discovered until the success of Waiting for Godot. Like Joyce, he displays unholy adoration for minutiae, a literary styling that would later be termed "hysterical realism" when it reached full flower with David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. There is much to be amused by here, as we enter the short unhappy life of a manservant in Dublin. Watt considers endlessly the causal relations between possibilities and things, leading to such excursions as a five-page unbroken paragraph exploring one Irish family, the Lynches, and the various diseases and malformations that each of the more than two dozen members suffer from. Strangely enlightening.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Brothers Miser

My friend Katy Shaw has the coolest Christmas ornaments on the planet: the Miser brothers from "A Year Without Santa Claus"!

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath

Even as a teenager, this passage terrified me, the image especially that Lovecraft paints, of shuffling, chaos-gnawing collossi ranging behind the mountains in a red-tinted, non-euclidean gloom; a totally absurd passage (monsters wearing mitres?) made all the more frightening by its absurdity and the shattering silence in which the tableau is beheld:

Carter did not lose consciousness or even scream aloud, for he was an old dreamer; but he looked behind him in horror and shuddered when he saw that there were other monstrous heads silhouetted above the level of the peak, bobbing along stealthily behind the first one. And straight in the rear were three of the mighty mountain shapes seen full against the southern stars, tiptoeing wolflike and lumberingly, their tall mitres nodding thousands of feet in the air. The carven mountains, then, had not stayed squatting in that rigid semicircle north of Inquanok, with right hands uplifted. They had duties to perform, and were not remiss. But it was horrible, that they never spoke, and never even made a sound in walking.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cat's Cradle

In Kurt Vonnegut Jr's seminal novel of WASP SF (the ivy league version of Star Trek), many new phrases and words are introduced to the English language, not least among them:
A union of two souls achieved by placing the soles of two people's feet together. It is a Bokononist ritual that is taboo and forbidden on the island of San Lorenzo, referred to as "footplay".
Isn't that beautiful? What follows are more pertinent entries, all relevant to Vonnegut Jr's invented religion, Bokononism, which is really humanism-in-a-leotard:
The sun.
The moon.
A karass made of two persons. "A true duprass can't be invaded, not even by children born of such a union." Members of a duprass usually die within one week of each other, as shown in the book Cat's Cradle.
"Harmless untruths" (e.g., "Prosperity is just around the corner"). Bokonon describes his own religion as foma, created for the purpose of bringing comfort to the people of Bokonon's island. The people of San Lorenzo live under a poverty-stricken Third World dictatorship, but thanks to the comforting untruths of Bokonon's foma, they are better equipped to face reality (following Vonnegut's early theories about the true usefulness of religion).
A false karass. People who identify themselves by state or country of origin or in other various ways to form a group, when in reality such people may have very little in common or even turn out to be enemies or ideological opposites. There is much granfalloonery in the world. To quote the book, "If you wish to study a granfalloon, just remove the skin of a toy balloon."
The instrument which brings you to your karass.
A group of people who, unbeknownst to them, are collectively doing God's will in carrying out a specific, common, task. A karass is driven forward in time and space by tension within the karass.
Tendrils of life that intertwine with other Karass member's tendrils.
A person who wants all of somebody's love. Bokononists believe love should be freely shared.
The force that first pushes a person in the direction of accepting Bokononism
An object which is the focus of a karass; that is, the lives of many otherwise unrelated people are centered on a wampeter (e.g., a piece of ice-nine in Cat's Cradle). A karass will always have exactly two wampeters: one waxing, one waning. The term first appears on p. 52 of Cat's Cradle (in the 1998 printing by Dell Publishing). It is analogous to a MacGuffin.
"A person who steers people away from a line of speculation by reducing that line, with the example of the wrang-wrang's own life, to an absurdity." In the book, the protagonist begins to speculate that everything may be meaningless and take the first steps toward a belief in nihilism. But he encounters a nihilistic wrang-wrang who commits actions so repulsive and horrific to him that he subsequently wants nothing to do with nihilism.
"Fate - inevitable destiny."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Coenenberg Film

Last night finally got around to see No Country for Old Men -I say "finally" because this has been in theatres far too long (two weeks, at least) unseen by me, a dyed-in-the-wool maniac for film just like this. Plus I read the book and heard this was a good adaptation, maybe even better than Silence of the Lambs.

There is a visual nod to Silence. Did you catch it?

I also saw what I thought was an homage to Warhol, to his Elvis print specifically, the one where the King is duded up in cowboy gear and brandishing a pistol. It's the shot in the film where Ed Tom Bell is looking into the hotel room where (no spoiler) was killed, headlights behind him casting a double shadow on the blood-splattered wall.

Lots of blood gets splattered in this film.

I don't think it's a better adaptation than Silence -a film that captures the source novel to perfection- mostly due to choices by the Coen Brothers. They want so very much to be making a David Cronenberg film that it creates a weird style melange onscreen; the cold clinical Cronenberg imported for scenes of brutal body horror. These scenes are not native to the Coens, and they put them to excellent use.

Nevertheless I had this nagging feeling that I'd seen this film before. It wasn't until morning that I realized what had been bugging me, that in many ways No Country is not only an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel but it also seeks to transmute Cronenberg's A History of Violence.

Laudable, to be sure, but distracting.

My highest praise for the film is the very effective "capture" of being in a McCarthy story, of being in his universe, as it were. Environment is paramount to everything in his work. The apocalyptic imagery (burning cars, corpse-strewn roads) and great sweeping cosmic emptiness found there is translated brilliantly by the Coens, to such effect that you feel the author's entire philosophy of art and existence coming across.

Chigurh choking on candy is a very nice and totally genuine Coens' touch.

And Stephen Root! A man born for the Coens, and one of my favorite actors working today.

And I love the dog chasing Llewelyn down the river, a scene which I alone in the crowded auditorium found worthy of an outloud laugh. So it was.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Written in 1960, Cordwainer Smith's charming (and only) SF novel, Norstrilia, might contain the first usage of "Instant Messaging". Wouldn't surprise me. There's so much in the book, amidst the cat people, thousand-ton sheep and assassin kookaburra, that is out of step with the times -stepping forward from the times- that the author pulls off a very convincing performance as prestidigitator.
He coins instant messages as "instantaneous, interplanetary communications," which is sort of similar to what we have on the 'net today. Not yet between planets, but instant nonetheless. They are mentioned twice, hardly a major plot point.
Prognostications aside, I do recommend the book to fans of the serious-minded SF, for elements of future politics and economies. While not aspiring to space opera, like Asimov or Herbert, elements of galactic adventure are plentiful. Mostly it's a tale of a boy who buys the planet Earth and his encounters with colorful characters who would be at home in a romp, Douglas Adams-style.

Friday, December 07, 2007

International Sister Celebration Day

This morning I woke up and decided that today I was going to celebrate International Sister Celebration Day, whether today is actually that day or not (or even if such a day exists, and if it doesn't, it should). Let the world join together as one and join me in celebrating she who is the one I call... sister.

"So, you have a twin sister..."

"Sorry to interrupt, Darth, but actually um no, she's not my twin, not technically at least, but I love her anyway."

One of the things I really appreciate about Rachel, she who is my one sibling, my one copatriot, is every time she leaves a voicemail, it always starts with a quote from that 1984 scifi cheesefest The Hidden; she asks, "Yo, hippy, what kind of dude are you?"

Well, Rachel, I googled that question and here's the first thing I got:
That's just the kind of dude I am, I guess. Here's to you, sister!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Nextgen Vince Guaraldi?

As my friend Jonathan Marzinke points out, there's a contender for best yuletide soundtrack. I have to agree; this multidisc offering from Sufjan Stevens is essential.

Book Update

Changed the title from "Total Mass Retain" to...


Doesn't that sound more marketable?

How I Know I'm a Yankee

We United States folk have our identity tied up in so many different beautiful things. At the yuletide season, one of these beauties in particular stands out, something without which the season would be barren: the music of Vince Guaraldi.

I've never asked any of my friends abroad if they listen to Guaraldi during this time of year, though I feel like the answer is that they do not. After all, why would they buy into the idea that piano jazz is the best music for winter solstice; accompanied by a children's choir, no less? Add in that the music is soundtrack music for an animated television special and you have a uniquely "new world" concoction.

Listening to the ever-optimistic Guaraldi might be the nearest to a patriotic sensation I feel this year.

Monday, December 03, 2007

History of the Thirteen

Honore de Balzac is said to have died from drinking too much coffee. Perhaps there is a lesson in that for all of us. He had only recently married his lover, to perish five months later.
His working style was unique. Balzac ate a light meal in the early evening, retired until midnight, then rose to write for periods of up to fifteen hours straight. He kept this routine for most of his life, and we can see the benefit in his epic catalog.
The Balzac legacy is intimidating; over a hundred works compose his study of Parisian life, La Comédie Humaine. The author, no stranger to ambition, proclaimed that in fact all of his writings could be lumped under the banner of the Human Comedy. Without Balzac, it is arguable that Marcel Proust, no stranger to cathedral-like prose, would have lacked the necessary precedent in literature.
Balzac was influential in various institutions, not least among them philosophy. Frederich Engels said of him, "I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together."
The last person to see him alive was Victor Hugo, another promethean of letters, though it is not extant whether Hugo shared Balzac's taste for the bean.
As a former barista, I suppose it's only fitting that I read this author. If I start keeping weird hours, you'll know why.

Hallowe'en in the Golden State

Here is Charlie as "Pirate Muzzeel Garden", quite the fierce buccaneer. He impressed me by knowing his Hallowe'en limit: with candy bag barely a quarter full, the hook-handed avenger of the high seas said he was done for the night and wanted to go home. "Other kids need candy, too," he explained, showing himself to be that rare pirate with a heart of gold.

Here's Papa D and Celia, with a strange wafer-like object that is often seen affixed to the end of a camera lens. Thought this was a sweet image.

And below we can see a mustachioed Anna, who had us all in stitches with her poker-face and greek sailor's cap; for the record, her original intent was to be Donnie Brasco; she was somehow waylaid down by the docks and ended up portraying a Trotskyite stevedore. In escort we find perhaps the true inspiration for Anna's lip rug, her father, and someone dressed as Spider Man who perhaps hasn't seen the films or read the comics; otherwise he might know that Spidey usually travels sans trunks.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

God Bless You Mr Rosewater

The other day I found a slip of paper crammed into an old paperback and on it was a reading list from over a decade ago. Besides being impressed by how many books I had read over the summer of 1997, it struck me that such an artifact served a purpose. It was fun to revisit what might have passed as a legitimate pursuit of serious reading. Whether or not I am still capable of such seriousness is up for debate.
In the spirit of that wayward scrap of personal history, I thought why not start up a fresh list and once again track my reading. After all, I'm still an avid bibliophile, though perhaps not with the same fervor as former days. Who knows: in the wake of a breakup and working on an odd schedule for the holiday season, I may be planting my nose in more books than ever before.
A lot of my friends were rabid for Vonnegut when I was in college; he seems to have that particular sardonic voice that suits life in the early twenties. I'll never know if it suited mine, however, having come to him very late. Maybe this will serve as some kind of "second spring" and rejuvenate halcyon dreams as once were so rampant in my head.

Those Magnificent Dalrymples

I'm way overdue posting this: at the end of October it was my great pleasure to visit the pride of California, my dear friends Doug&Anna, and their kids Charlie and Celia, otherwise known as "those magnificent Dalrymples." They live in Campbell, just outside San Jose. It was a balmy 75 degrees outside when I arrived. Coming from the Pacific Northwest, this was a welcome change in climate.
Ostensibly the reason for my visit was to celebrate Hallowe'en and to see my family (mom and sis live in nearby Palo Alto). Since I was down for a week, I had ample opportunities to also go exploring with those magnificent Dalrymples. A highlight was the Rosicrucian Gardens.
A little background: there was a time in life when I dabbled with Rosicrucianism. It was a brief dalliance that didn't stick. Nevertheless, it came as something of a shock to learn of the existence of the Rosicrucian Gardens. How had I missed learning of the existence of this incredible landmark? As soon as Doug suggested we visit, I leapt at the chance.
The first impression, especially on a balmy autumn afternoon so endemic of central California, was of an idyllic zone in the midst of exurban density. You can't see it in these images: the Gardens (and Egyptian museum and planetarium (the latter of which was closed, much to our collective dismay)), which take up a city block, are hemmed on four sides by tight residential plots and a high school. Still, not a bad addition to the neighborhood.
Charlie, who is nearly five, rambled and romped all around the gardens, ranging across the ample verdant lawns and casting fusillades of fallen leaves into the air. Sister C in the meantime exhibited a predilection for roaming
in the direction of whatever might be most dangerous for a two-and-a-half year old: the "ancient pool of reflection," for instance. Either way, Anna and Doug were on the move and watching out nearly constantly.

Childhood looks a lot different from the other end of the telescope. In memory, I am hard-pressed to recall an image of mom chasing after me when I was a toddler, though I'm certain she must have. One of the hidden benefits of parenthood is definitely cardiovascular in nature.
Papa D, in between episodes of pursuit, managed to capture some great snaps, some of which you can see here. Though he is far too humble to say so himself, Doug is a very talented shutterbug; by God, but I've been an avid fan since we were in college together.
This was one of the best days of my weeklong visit, and a fine flashback to days of spiritual exploration. Even better was Hallowe'en itself, more of which later.