Archives for category: Books

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.

I’ve been patiently waiting for someone to publish the second and third volumes of the Suzanne Collins‘ Hunger Games series in paperback. I read the first volume in the series back in June and figured that with the success of the film, the paperback editions would come out shortly. I was wrong. A simple bit of research shows that an initial paperback edition was published, but was quickly sold out and not republished. I was patient. I waited.

In interim Whirl picked up the first book and tore through it. Before I knew it, she had returned from the bookstore with the hardback editions of the second and third books, explaining “I’m sorry, babe. I just couldn’t wait to read what happens.” She offered me some cool consolation, “You can read them right after I’m done?” I’d waited this long, I could wait a little bit longer. I didn’t have to wait long at all. Whirl finished the series with her characteristic speed and efficiency. Less than a week later and I had Catching Fire in my hands.

Catching Fire picks up six months after the ending of The Hunger Games. Like the first book, this one is told from a first-person point of view. Without giving much of the plot away, I will say that this book portrays a much broader picture of the world in which the characters live — geographic, political and social distinctions are all described. As a result we meet a number of new characters, and catch up with several who survived the first book. Some are more intact than others. The stakes are higher, the drama escalates appropriately and I’m still not sure who is wearing white hats and who is wearing black. And I appreciate that immensely.

Shortly after I started reading this volume, we watched the film adaptation of the first novel directed by Gary Ross and starring Jennifer Lawrence as the protagonist Katniss Everdeen. I quite enjoyed the film and am looking forward to the subsequent installments in the series. I think the inclusion of Suzanne Collins in the screenplay adaptation helped considerably in the transition from a first-person narrative to a limited third-person, cinematic perspective.

Funny story. I’ve been patiently waiting for A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book from George R. R. Martin‘s Song of Ice and Fire series, to come out in paperback. Originally it was scheduled to be published in mid-August. My friends and I anticipated picking it up. But as the date grew near, suddenly the publication date was pushed back to March of next year. Oh no! I had a choice. I could purchase the book in hardback. I could finally break down and get an e-book reader of some sort. Or I could wait until March. I came home from work and explained the situation to Whirl. She said, helpfully, “Oh, I bought that in hardback a long time ago. Read that.” Now I didn’t particularly want to read it in hardback, because it is a very large book. I mean physically. It’s big. It’s a big book. Hauling it around to and from work, or swim practice or on the bus or wherever– it’s just not the sort of volume one thinks of when describing something as portable. It comes in at over three pounds and over a thousand pages. (Incidentally, the other paperback volumes in the series are not particularly smaller in the size department, but every little bit helps, I guess.)

But I didn’t have to worry! Whirl had already purchased it. I would just have to be careful, but I could read it.

A couple days went by and I had become distracted by other things. Eventually I returned to wanting to start A Dance with Dragons. So I looked around the house for it. We have quite a few books around the house, but we’d recently gone through the task of returning them to some semblance of order. Finding this big book shouldn’t have posed a problem for me. But it did. So when Whirl got home I asked here for some assistance. She said, “Oh! You want to read that one? Sure! Just a minute.” And sure enough, a minute later she handed me The Wind Through the Keyhole. “Here you go.”

The Wind Through the Keyhole is the latest novel by Stephen King and is a very recent addendum to his seminal work, The Dark Tower series. Roland is there. Sussanah. Eddie, Jake, Oy. The novel is set between the end of book four, Wizard and Glass, and book five, Wolves of the Calla, and is made up of a story within a story within a story– all tied together by a fantasical weather phenomenon of Mid-World, the starkblast. When Whirl handed me the volume, I rejoined, “Babe, I do really want to read this. But I don’t think this has much to do with Westeros.” She smiled, shrugged her shoulders.

I’m sure I’m not the first reader to notice King’s dramatic presentation House Stark’s words, “Winter is coming” with his starkblast. But that was a realization I made only after a couple hundred pages in.


Rudyard Kipling published The Jungle Book as a collection of short stories in 1894. He would go on to win the Nobel prize for literature in 1907. Neil Gaiman published The Graveyard Book as a novel in 2008. The Graveyard Book won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, Newbery Medal, and Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book in 2009, as well as the Carnegie Medal in 2010.

Each of the eight chapters is a short story, each set two years apart as the protagonist grows up. Gaiman’s chapters have analogues to Kipling’s stories. A commonly cited example of this parallelism is the Graveyard chapter “The Hounds of God” and the Jungle story “Kaa’s Hunting”. Parallel characters reimagined by Gaiman include:

  • Mowgli: Nobody Owens
  • Mother and Father Wolf: The Owens
  • Bagheera: Silas
  • Baloo: Miss Lupescu
  • Shere Khan: Jack
  • The White Cobra: The Sleer
  • Bandar-Log: Ghouls
  • Chil the Kite: a night-gaunt
  • Hathi: Elizabeth Hempstock

Gaiman continues to write fantastically imaginative stories that appeal to me on a number of levels. He worked on this novel off-and-on for over twenty years, and his affinity for the inspiration as well as the depth of his own creativity is obvious.

It’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog with what I’m reading. My current book comes courtesy of a suggestion from my 13 year-old niece when we were together in late March. She was quite effusive with her praise of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. And so I picked it up.

I knew nothing of it, recognizing the title from the media blitz accompanying the film adaptation, and so I went to read a bit more of what the book was about. My niece had given me a basic plot synopsis: the Capitol of the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem demands an annual tribute of twenty-four boys and girls from each of the feudal districts to compete in the Hunger Games, a battle to the death until only the victor remains. “And! There’s a love story,” my niece confessed casually.

Okay, interest piqued. I read a bit more about it.

When the book was published in 2008, Collins stated in an interview with Publishers Weekly that the idea for her world came during an evening of channel-surfing between a reality show competition and Iraq war coverage. “I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way.” She also cited the Greek myth of Theseus, where Athens is forced to send 14 young men and women into the labyrinth in Crete to be sacrificed to King Minos’ son, the Minotaur — in some versions of the story Minos conquers Athens by deception, in others by more traditional martial prowess.

Now I’m even more interested. Social commentary, Greek legends. And there’s a love story.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson, is over twenty-five years old. It won the Hugo, the Nebula and the Philip K. Dick awards — the first novel to accomplish such a task — and forever changed science fiction.

I read Neuromancer for the first time my sophomore year in high school. That was 1986 for those of you keeping tabs on my arrested cognitive and emotional development. In the intervening twenty-five years I have watched, and even participated in realizing, a number of the technological and socio-cultural changes speculated upon in Gibson’s work. So perhaps we do not yet have corporate arcologies, or Squids. But we have decks, and cyberspace. And we call Ono-Sendai “Apple”. Or “Google”.

I’m rereading this book for the first time since high school first to see how well it holds up. And second to see how well I’ve held up in the face of such overwhelmingly disruptive change.

Six weeks ago NASA concluded its final shuttle mission, STS-135. At the time, I found myself rather conflicted about the whole thing. Space and all the things that go along with that — rockets, exploration, astronauts, the planets, moons and asteroids — have fascinated me from an early age. (That and dinosaurs, of course, but near anyone knows, there are no dinosaurs in space.) So to see NASA give up the last remnant of human spaceflight was saddening. No more rocket launches.

And yet, I’ve grown increasingly critical of the shuttle program since the Challenger explosion in 1986. I never quite understood why we were investing so much time, money and effort into a program that was I believed was essentially a pick-up truck to low-earth orbit. Of all the places we could possibly go in the solar system, low-earth orbit has got to be one of the most boring. I now count going back to the moon to be a close second place. — At least from LEO, you’re halfway to a huge number of very interesting places. I think of LEO as something like the St. Louis, Missouri of the high frontier. It may not be particularly interesting or exciting in its own right, but you do have to go through it if you’re headed out to the territories. And the territories are exciting.

So I tend to view the Space Shuttle program as a very expensive, somewhat unreliable ride to St. Louis in a pick-up truck. I can think of far more exciting trip to take.

Like Mars.

The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must is a detailed examination of manned space exploration of Mars by Robert Zubrin. It was first published in 1996. Now, fifteen years, three presidents, and a number of successful robotic exploratory missions later we have a wealth of additional information about the viability (both technical and political) of a manned mission to Mars and Zubrin has updated and republished his book with those additions. The book details Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan for manned exploration of Mars. The plan utilizes existing technology currently ready-at-hand for a budget a fraction of original NASA proposals for the first human landing on Mars. The plan focuses on keeping costs down by making use of proven automated systems, and chemical processes via in-situ resource utilization.

Like Buzz Aldrin, I am critical of NASA’s goal of sending astronauts back to the moon. Aldrin said it was “more like reaching for past glory than striving for new triumphs” and has advocated for his own Mars to Stay program of human space exploration.

So it is now, that the albatross of the Shuttle program is off our neck that I hope we may be able to refocus human space exploration onto a goal that is challenging, rewarding and ultimately possible. Let’s go to Mars!

Okay, okay, okay. I know all I’ve been doing on this blog is writing on and on about this incredible series of books by George R.R. Martin: The Song of Ice and Fire. I just finished the third book last night and picked up volume four, A Feast for Crows, on my way home tonight. I have just a few words to say about the last book, because I really want to get to reading. So, here you go. All you need to know about A Storm of Swords is summarized in one scene: The Red Wedding.

Remember how you felt about poor Ned’s beheading way back around page 700 of A Game of Thrones? Yeah. The Red Wedding is better.

And now here I am, almost 3000 pages into this epic, and I’m not even halfway done! All kinds of people are dead. Characters that I thought were wearing black hats are actually wearing white hats. Characters I thought were undoubtedly wearing white hats have traded them in for black ones. The cast has swelled tremendously. Dickens would eat his heart out. But Dickens never had dragons running around his Great Oven.

I gotta go!