Archives for category: Books

The Dervish House, Ian McDonaldThe setting is seven days in Istanbul just a few years from now. Turkey has finally joined the European Union. This is my latest read from Ian MacDonald, The Dervish House.

The story begins with a death– a suicide bomber on a crowded tram. But the attack has no victims other than the bomber. The ramifications of that attack will stretch out across the whole city. And we observe it through the points of view of half a dozen characters whose lives connect in one way or another with an old dervish house in run-down and unfashionable quarter of the city.

Necdet: Necdet is on the tram. He sees the bomber’s beatific expression as she triggers the device. And shortly thereafter, he starts seeing djinns and saints until he finds himself turning, against his will, into an Islamic holy man.

Can: Can is a nine year-old boy with a curious medical condition that confines him into a muffled apartment without sound or shock. Stimuli can kill him. So he explores greater Istanbul through an amazing transforming robot that can take on the form of bird, rat, snake or monkey at will. He witnesses the bombing through the robot’s eyes. He also spots another robot spying on the aftermath of the bombing.

Georgios: Can shares his discoveries with Georgios, an old Greek academic. Georgios spends his days with other old Greeks in the coffee house across from the dervish house, until he is unexpectedly invited to join a strange think tank being set up by his old academic rival.

Leyla: Leyla, who also lives in the dervish house, is caught up in the traffic chaos following the bombing. This causes her to miss a job interview. And as a result she takes a sketchy job drumming up venture capital for a sketchy nanoware start-up company run by a relative. This quest brings her in contact with one of the biggest financial institutions in Istanbul.

Ayse: Ayse owns a specialist antique shop near the dervish house. She accepts a strange commision to find a Mellified Man– someone who was reputedly mummified in honey. At first convinced this is a fool’s errand, she eventually finds herself drawn into the secret history of Istanbul.

Adnan: Adnan, Ayse’s boyfriend, is a trader in the commodities market at that selfsame financial institution that Leyla approaches. But Adnan has bigger plans, with three colleagues he is planning a massive fraud involving black-market Iranian gas.

This is postcyberpunk literature at its best. McDonald delivers his story mostly just assuming the technology that supports the landscape– and then weaves a complex character- and culture-driven story within that assumption. Characters don’t just live within the science fiction, but also within the history, cultures and traditions of the setting.

X Saves The World, Jeff GordinierJeff Gordinier wrote a feature for Details magazine in March, 2006 titled “Has Generation X Already Peaked?” His editor had called him with the idea that the magazine should weigh in on Generation X. What happened to them? What had they accomplished? This was even a question, because of the precarious position Generation X holds sandwiched between the world-swallowing leviathan of the Baby Boomers and their offspring, the Millennials. You may know them as Generation Y if you’re sympathetic to GenX, or my favorite descriptor, the Echo Boomers. By 2006 all of the short-lived lustre of GenX’s media closeup had warn off. We held the limelight for maybe three years? 1993-1996. Maybe? From the end of the first Iraq War to the moment the world discovered the Internet. Whatever.

For the next two years, Gordinier expanded his article into a book, X Saves The World. As he explains when promoting its publication he originally intended for the book to have the more melancholic tone suggested in the title question of his Details article. Yes. The answer is yes. We’re done. We’re over. We’ve been snuffed out. And besides that, we’re not even supposed to be here, today. Gordiner writes:

Because we’re said to be the defiant demographic, dedicated to shredding whatever raiment the marketing apparatus tries to drape us in; because we’d prefer not to be categorized at all, thank you very much; because, like one of those unmarked speakeasies on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, we’re not even supposed to acknowledge that we exist– coming right out and calling yourself Xer has always seemed a bit too, I don’t know, Andrew McCarthy. Too obvious.

But as he worked on the book and interviewed people, his position changed. The fatalistic impression faded and he was able to more than just a catalog of contributions Generation X has given to society, but a cultural mindset– a generational personality. A way of doing things that is hopeful without preening.

Gordiner argues Generation X developed an in-betweener, middle-child sensibility: detached, skeptical, quiet, questioning. This is in strong contrast to the polished mythology of the Boomers who preceded us. His neat and ironically-articulated example:

I am Steve Jobs, soothsayer for humanity.

Boomers are all about the collective, and so are the Millennials. We did this. We changed the world. We saved you. You’re welcome. To Generation X, that just rings false. It’s a varnished mythology of so much shamelessness and unnecessary self-promotion.

And the giant generation behind us, what about them? Gordiner is equally critical. Here’s a summary.

The Millennials speak with none of the doubt and skepticism that have marked — and hampered — Generation X. They just love stuff. They love celebrities. They love technology. They love name brands. They love everything. [...] So what if they can’t manage to read anything longer than an instant message? — That’s okay! If anything, it’s an advantage. Because literacy leads to self-reflection and critical thinking, and self-reflection and critical thinking open the door to doubt and skepticism and stuff like that just gets in the way.

So continue your Boomer parade. Let the band play on. Millennials, post your selfies to Instagram. Try the rose-colored filter. Use the hashtag #timeofmylife.

We’ll just be over here, keeping the lights on.

Chronicles of Amber, Roger Zelazny

With the debut of the Paul and Storm song, “Write Like the Wind” and the predictable response from George R. R. Martin upon hearing it at w00tstock 5.0 at San Diego Comic-Con, my friends and I started thinking about various other fantasy epics that span multiple books. We discussed each of the inclusions at least somewhat. But it was not until the next day that I realized we’d left one off entirely that really ought to have been there. One that I thoroughly enjoyed when I read it twenty years ago. And that’s the ten-book epic, The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny.

If you consider the other suggestions we did take up, the significance of our oversight on this is pretty astounding. We talked about all of these series, but not Amber.

  • The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkein
  • The Dark Tower, Stephen King
  • The Harry Potter Series, J.K. Rowling
  • Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin
  • The Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
  • The Cthulhu Mythos, H.P. Lovecraft
  • The Mars series, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • The Belgariad, David Eddings

I have no defense. I don’t understand it myself. It’s not like the conversation was a contest whose favorite was the One True Epic. This was more a free exchange of suggestions. Zelazny wrote with a particular noir, hard-boiled aspect in Amber that isn’t present in the others. It’s immortality and power without falling into the anguish and anxiety of the contemporary vampire series. It mythology without dogma. They get to the action more quickly than Martin can. It’s good stuff. I remember that. Now.

So I pulled down the paperbacks from the shelf and started in tonight with the first of the Corwin series, Nine Princes in Amber. This should hold me while I wait for winter to come.

Tubes, Andrew Blum So after four full days of discussing enterprise networking at Cisco Live, the last thing you’re likely to suspect I want to do is read still more about networks. You’d be wrong. Well, no. You’d be partly right. My brain was pretty full of technical information from the various sessions I attended, but networking is still a major part of my life and my interest in it happens on a number of levels.

While wandering around Orlando International Airport killing time while the thunderstorms blew over, I ran across the book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum. Blum writes as a correspondent at Wired magazine. And in this book, he engages on a tour behind the scenes to identify the address of the Internet. Okay, that sounds a bit overly dramatic, given that the Internet is both everywhere and nowhere. It’s a concept, and an interconnected set of disparate systems. Blum’s goal is to try to gain access to some of the physical characteristics of this global phenomenon as possible.

“An engaging reminder that, cyber-Utopianism aside, the internet is as much a thing of flesh and steel as any industrial-age lumber mill or factory. It is also an excellent introduction to the nuts and bolts of how exactly it all works.” The Economist

This is a book about real places on the map: what those places sound like, what they smell like. Who lives there. Blum describes the history of the locations he visits– from converted telegraph exchanges in Manhattan to freshly-constructed datacenters in the American west to the cool rationality of Frankfurt’s Internet exchange. It’s a travelogue, certainly. But it’s a travelogue to a find the location of a place that for most of us, most of the time, is ephemera. Quixotic, enigmatic, and often essential ephemera.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is the Fall 2012 selection for “One Book, One Chicago”. Narrated by Death and set in Nazi Germany, this award-winning novel, chronicles the story of the titular character a girl named Liesel Meminger. Originally intended as a novel for young adults, its selection by the Chicago Public Library has elevated its status– at last in my eyes– as something that can (perhaps ought) to be read by everyone. As art should, the novel raises important questions about how we pursue our lives:

  • What choices do we make about groups we will belong to?
  • What groups do we belong to without choice?
  • What are the consequences of belonging to groups?
  • How do we show courage? Or cowardice?
  • Who has power? How do we come by it?
  • Can words give us power?

The Deal From Hell, James O'Shea Two months after I stopped working for Tribune Company, David Carr published his takedown in the New York Times, “At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture”. Ten days later, Chief Innovation Officer Lee Abrams, resigned after continued boorish behavior. Three days after that, CEO Randy Michaels resigned at the request of the board of directors. Busy few weeks there at the Tower. But it really wasn’t that simple. And it’s only with a bit of distance away from it that I’m starting to piece together the various elements.

Enter James O’Shea.

To be more accurate, O’Shea had been there all along. He’s an accomplished journalist, serving as the editors of both the Tribune Company flagship newspapers: the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. The Deal From Hell is O’Shea’s riveting frontline report about how news industry executives and editors made a series of decisions that systematically endangered journalistic credibility and drove the papers to bankruptcy and quite possibly the brink of extinction. I’m not reading this out of spite or to dance on any graves. My three years working at Tribune were some of the most influential and beneficial years of my career. The people I worked with day to day, the opportunities I was afforded, the self-confidence the experiences engendered– for these things I am forever grateful.

It is because of that gratitude that I am so curious to learn just what the hell happened. I’ve continued to inform myself over the years: “News War”, Page One, Jim Romenesko, LA Observed and a number of other sources have all fed into my amateur attempts to make sense of it all. I am thankful to add James O’Shea and his highly informative book to that list.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline For many of us that grew up in the 80s, the video game arcade holds a special allure. The one I haunted at our local mall was appropriately named “The Goldmine”. I spent hours in there playing all kinds of games. And then came home to spend even more time playing on the Atari 2600. Games have always fascinated me: video games, board games, role-playing game, card games. All kinds of games, but especially the sorts of games that were published during my youth in the 80s. So when Smokes recommended that I read this book based on the premise that a quirky billionaire has created a contest based on the details and the spirit of those games, I was intrigued. Ready Player One is the first novel by Ernest Cline. I’ve read a number of various descriptions of the book: quest novel, love story, nostalgia, dystopia, “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix“, and virtual space opera are just a few. Set in a universe where spell-slinging mages battle giant Japanese robots, Ready Player One is a critical mass of 80s pop-culture. The geekier the better.

Perhaps even more interesting is the game within the book itself. Cline’s own obsession with the 80s is manifest in his project car. In an interview with Stephanie Carmichael of VentureBeat, he describes the car this way:

“I have modified the car so that it matches the DeLorean driven by the protagonist in my book. I’ve added personalized license plates that read ECTO88. I’ve also outfitted the car with a KITT scanner from ‘Knight Rider’, an Oscillation Overthruster from Buckaroo Banzai, a large array of Ghostbusting equipment, and a Flux Capacitor. So now it’s a time-traveling, knight-riding, ghostbusting jet car. Probably the geekiest vehicle in history. I love it.”

But he didn’t just build one of these cars. He built two. One is for himself — and occasionally he allows friends to sit in it. The other is a prize to the first reader clever enough to solve the series of puzzles within the novel itself.

It’s a fun book. If you’ve ever enjoyed a game of Dungeons & Dragons, a John Hughes film or an Oingo Bongo song, I guarantee there will be something in it for you.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while now, you may have heard this story before. Here’s the short summary. Man is out and about doing something totally mundane– walking home from a friend’s house or ferrying garbage and laundry across a lake in a small boat at the end of a summer vacation– when he suddenly and violently strikes his head. He is rushed to the hospital and falls into a coma. Meanwhile, the wife, not present at the scene, rushes to her husband, and waits. Because that’s what you do when someone you love is in a coma. You wait. The patient either comes out of it or doesn’t. In our story, the man does eventually awaken from the coma. Although it’s straining credulity a little bit to say he is the same person as he was before.

This is the story of traumatic brain injury. It is what happened to Alan Forman in the summer of 1996. And it is what happened to me in the beginning of 2005. Where Is the Mango Princess? is a non-fiction account by humorist Cathy Crimmins. Alan is Crimmins’ husband. His head was run over by a speedboat while the family was on vacation in Canada. The book is an intimate account of the effects of traumatic brain injury, not only on the direct victim, but on her, their daughter and every aspect of their lives.

My friend, Princess, told me about the book when we were talking about her senior level physiology class she’s taking this quarter at Northwestern. Part of this class comprises a disease symposium. Students group up and research a given topic. She has chosen traumatic brain injury and using the Forman case to present for the symposium. I’m reading the book for more personal reasons. I have a strong personal interest in TBI. Whirl is concerned that it is causing me distress to read this book. I admit there are a peculiar number of similarities in the cases. The sections about recovery and therapy have been the most troublesome for me, bringing up echos of my own anger and sense of helplessness at the time. Crimmins writes with a voice that is at once deeply personal, gut-wrenching and often hilarious. I applaud her for that.

When I’m finished with this book, it will stand alongside My Stroke of Insight, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Brainlash and Your Miracle Brain as part of my ever-growing library about scrambled eggs.

When I told Mick that I was reading the fifth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin he offered to save me the trouble of wading through the 1000 pages to find out what happens, “everybody dies.” Mick is like a number of people I’ve met who started reading these books early. Years ago. They are interested in the series, and invested in the story. You have to be invested after 5000 pages of text about a very rich and interesting world and set of characters.

But there have been some significant delays in getting the story out of Martin’s head, onto paper and into the hands of readers. The first three books came out in pretty short order. Three books in about four years. Then it was five years before the fourth book. And five more years for the fifth, A Dance with Dragons. Martin has publicly committed to writing a sixth book, The Winds of Winter, but with no date attached to it. And there have been rumors of a seventh and even an eighth volume. When a fan started to become restless about the interval between the fourth and fifth books, Neil Gaiman came to Martin’s defense on his blog, upbraiding the reader directly:

George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.

Mick’s complaint is that the story doesn’t have an ending. It’s not that Martin doesn’t know how to end it. It’s that Martin has created something that is essentially lacks the capacity to be ended– and certainly not ended in a satisfying narrative way. Or I should say, not a way that is satisfying to Mick. I haven’t had a particular problem with the story abruptly breaking off at the end of the various volumes. I enjoy the telling of it. I’m less interested in the final destination, at this point. I have faith that Martin will resolve some of the large story items, as he has done in the past. Battles will be fought. Primary characters that have been with us for some time get a spotlight– and often as not, as Mick addressed, a death scene. That’s okay with me. I like it. I enjoy it.

So when Whirl finally gave up waiting for the paperback edition of A Dance with Dragons to come out and acquired the hardback edition, I picked it up, nearly dropped it, and began lugging it around. I joked that the volume was doubling as some strength training exercises for swimming. It’s a very big book. The other day after Sunday swim practice, I stopped by Eppel’s for a delicious breakfast. I had the book with me. I was planning on reading some of it while I sipped my coffee and ate. My waitress saw it and immediately started talking to me about it. She has been a fan of the series since the first volume was published back in 1996. She said she was one of the fans who would rush to get the next volume on the first day it was published. So she was acutely aware of the five-year breaks that have occurred with the last couple installments.

I’ve kept up with the HBO television adaptation. And more recently have played the second edition of a wonderful board game based on the series with Hurricane, Steamboat and Whirl a couple of times. The first game, a 4-player game, I played House Stark, came close to winning, and lost to Greyjoy. The second game, a 6-player game, I played House Martell, came close to winning despite the repeated treachery of my child bride as House Tyrell, and lost to Greyjoy again. There may just be something to that family’s penchant for sociopathic ferocity. It’s a beautiful, brilliant game. If you are a fan of the book or television series and of board games, I highly recommend it.

But for now I must settle down and finish this volume, so that I can wait with my fellow fans for the next one. Someday.

Alright, so that went fast. It took me just two short days to finish Catching Fire, and now I’m already deeply into the third and final volume of the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay.

No doubt my enthusiasm to jump into the next book was fueled by the cliff-hanger ending of the second book. Fortunately for me, Whirl had already acquired the third book, and all I needed to do was put down book two and pick book three to continue reading.

Once again, Collins has expanded the scope of the story. Characters we met early in the series have grown to become icons, symbols and archetypes in a much broader conflict. Questions of true motivations, loyalty, trust and integrity all have greater meaning and consequence. Her interest in Greek mythology is most obvious in this book — and not just because two of the new characters are named Castor and Pollux. Rather it is in her use of characters to take on the ornamentation of concepts larger than themselves, to become living symbols or ideals. And always, because they are also human, to be flawed. I appreciate that touch in these novels. — And while the plot may stumble here or there on a particular obstacle, that larger point remains intact, propelling both the narrative and the associated messages along with it.

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