Archives for category: Books

Okay, so that was interesting. As tempted as I am to talk about the various plot developments that took place in A Clash of Kings, I’m going to leave off and just encourage you to pick up this series for yourselves and enjoy it.

I truly think there is something in this series for everyone. Just don’t demand that any one character remain alive, intact or unmoved. George R.R. Martin made no such promises with the first book, and he reiterates the point with dramatic success in the second. And now, we move onto the third installment.

A Storm of Swords is the third of seven planned novels in the fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire. The Seven Kingdoms are in the grip of civil war. Five Kings simultaneously fight for control of a continent: Robb Stark, Balon Greyjoy, Joffrey Baratheon, and Stannis Baratheon. But those are not the only armies in the field: winter is coming and ominous signs light the sky. Monsters walk the earth, or at least the earth beyond the Wall.

I was amused to read Martin’s comments after A Storm of Swords lost the 2001 Hugo Award for Best Novel to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He said: “Eat your heart out, Rowling. Maybe you have billions of dollars and my Hugo, but you don’t have readers like these.” Is it a bad thing that I’m a huge fan of both authors? Must I choose?

So I recently found myself asking myself, “What do I do when I finish the end of the first volume of a huge multi-volume fantasy epic and the author has just beheaded the oh-so-noble-minded protagonist?” Should I throw the book into the fire in despair, join an online forum and curse the author’s sudden but inevitable betrayal? Or should I just turn the page and find out what happens next? I chose the latter course. And before you consider posting your own angry, anonymous screed in response to my alleged spoiler with that first sentence, let me gently remind you of two things: First, A Game of Thrones was published fifteen years ago. Fifteen years. Second, the first season of the HBO series Game of Thrones concluded a week ago. The first season very closely matches the story of the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s ever-growing, multi-volume epic. Besides, Benioff and Weiss took Stark’s head off the week before in episode 9.

Ned’s dead. He wasn’t alone. It happens. What now? — After all, that’s really the point. To learn what happens next. To turn the page and continue the story. Because like it or not these books are not about one character. Or even one family. They’re about hundreds — thousands — of major and minor characters caught up in intrigue and magic and mystery well beyond most of their understandings. And likely beyond even the capacity to fully comprehend for the best of players.

Publisher’s Weekly writes:

The novel is notable particularly for the lived-in quality of its world, created through abundant detail that dramatically increases narrative length even as it aids suspension of disbelief; for the comparatively modest role of magic. […] Here, he provides a banquet for fantasy lovers with large appetites—and this is only the second course of a repast with no end in sight.

I am completely hooked by this series, Mooch’s warnings be damned.

A team of neurosurgeons out of Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf have completed a comprehensive study on traumatic brain injury in the Asterix comics. I know this because they wrote a paper about it and had it published. The title of their paper is “Traumatic brain injuries in illustrated literature: experience from a series of over 700 head injuries in the Asterix comic books”. The publisher is the European journal of neurosurgery, Acta Neurochirurgica, the official journal of the European Association of Neurosurgical Societies (EANS). They publish papers on clinical neurosurgery: including diagnostic techniques, operative surgery, postoperative treatment and results.

And on at least one occasion they publish galgenhumor.

I have not read Asterix in twenty years or so. I remember them as being very funny. I first encountered the comic while living in Germany. I mostly read English and German translations. But there was a time when I tried my hand at reading the native French edition of the book as a way of supplementing my French coursework at the Tübinger Volkshochschule. That was funny, too.

(For different reasons. No, je ne veux pas besprechen.)

Now I want to get my hands on this paper. If it is anything like the abstract, I’m sure I’m going to find it hilarious.

Background: The goal of the present study was to analyze the epidemiology and specific risk factors of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the Asterix illustrated comic books. Among the illustrated literature, TBI is a predominating injury pattern.

Methods: A retrospective analysis of TBI in all 34 Asterix comic books was performed by examining the initial neurological status and signs of TBI. Clinical data were correlated to information regarding the trauma mechanism, the sociocultural background of victims and offenders, and the circumstances of the traumata, to identify specific risk factors.

Results: Seven hundred and four TBIs were identified. The majority of persons involved were adult and male. The major cause of trauma was assault (98.8%). Traumata were classified to be severe in over 50% (GCS 3–8). Different neurological deficits and signs of basal skull fractures were identified. Although over half of head-injury victims had a severe initial impairment of consciousness, no case of death or permanent neurological deficit was found. The largest group of head-injured characters was constituted by Romans (63.9%), while Gauls caused nearly 90% of the TBIs. A helmet had been worn by 70.5% of victims but had been lost in the vast majority of cases (87.7%). In 83% of cases, TBIs were caused under the influence of a doping agent called “the magic potion”.

Conclusions: Although over half of patients had an initially severe impairment of consciousness after TBI, no permanent deficit could be found. Roman nationality, hypoglossal paresis, lost helmet, and ingestion of the magic potion were significantly correlated with severe initial impairment of consciousness (p ≤ 0.05).


This past weekend I picked up the first volume in epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. I doubt it will surprise anyone to learn that I did this after enjoying the first few episodes from the HBO series that named after first novel: A Game of Thrones. After looking them over in the bookstore this past weekend I came to realize that I had seen this series before. There are four novels in the series published so far: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows. Each is nearly a thousand pages. A fifth book, A Dream of Dragons is scheduled for publication in July of this year after a six-year interval and I have seen mentions of a sixth and even a seventh addition. The earlier books in the series have been around for serveral years — Game of Thrones was published in 1996. For whatever reason I never picked one up. Maybe it was Mooch’s insistance that I read Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Mars Trilogy.

In his 2005 review of A Feast of Crows for Time magazine, Lev Grossman declared Martin the American Tolkien and described Martin’s voice in this way with impressive praise:

What really distinguishes Martin, and what marks him as a major force for evolution in fantasy, is his refusal to embrace a vision of the world as a Manichaean struggle between Good and Evil. Tolkien’s work has enormous imaginative force, but you have to go elsewhere for moral complexity. Martin’s wars are multifaceted and ambiguous, as are the men and women who wage them and the gods who watch them and chortle, and somehow that makes them mean more. A Feast for Crows isn’t pretty elves against gnarly orcs. It’s men and women slugging it out in the muck, for money and power and lust and love.

So I’m looking forward to digging into this lengthy epic series. What I’ve read so far, combined with what has been adapted to the HBO television series has whet my appetite. I’m glad to hear there is plenty more out there: thousands and thousands of pages more.

The Chicago Public Library has spearheaded the “One Book, One Chicago” program for ten years this year. Twice a year in the spring and the fall, the library selects a book for the entire city to read and then sponsors a wide array of events associated with the book. Discussion groups, guest lectures, theatrical productions. I’ve participated in the program at least once every year, and read books I would not have chosen otherwise.

The House on Mango Street, The Long Goodbye, Go Tell It On The Mountain, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich are four such unfamiliar books.

The Spring 2011 selection is quite familiar to me: Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman. I first read Neverwhere in the Fall of 2002. It was my introduction to the author. Since then he has become one of my favorites. Gaiman originally conceived Neverwhere as a television series, and later completed a novelization of the story that avoided the more unfortunate business of writing for television.

I describe Neverwhere as a modern-day fairy tale. I’ve heard it categorized as fantasy, “a postmodernist punk Faerie Queene,” urban fantasy, and “Narnia on the Northern Line”. Most of the action is set in the magical realm of “London Below,” a parallel environment alongside the more mundane — some might say real world, normal London we’re familiar with — “London Above”. Characters include knights, noblemen, rat-worshipers and an angel. I’m loathe to title him a hero so I’ll settle for describing Richard Mayhew as simply the protagonist. Richard quickly learns that no good deed goes unpunished and finds himself propelled alongside a wonderfully imaginative allegory for a more modern age.

Besides re-reading the novel, I participated in two associated events as part of the “One Book, One Chicago” program. Friday night, Whirl, T and I went on a Neverwhere-themed tour of “Chicago Below” exploring the Chicago pedway. Last night, Steamboat and Hurricane joined Whirl, T and me to attend the conversation on imagination and creative with Gaiman and Audry Niffenegger at Harold Washington Library.

At the top of the agenda was establishing a connection between the book’s origins and Chicago. Gaiman summarized what he’d written earlier in a letter:

It was a quarter of a century ago, about 1986. I had recently read a book set in Chicago called Free, Live Free by Gene Wolfe (he’s local to you; the Washington Post has said Gene Wolfe may be the best living writer America has) and I had started thinking too much about cities.

What I had started to think about was that some cities were also characters. Chicago was, in Free, Live Free. It was drawn in such a way that it had become almost magical, and was as much of a character in the book as any of the more human people who walked around in it.

The two authors exchanged anecdotes before taking questions from the over-capacity audience. The estimated attendance was announced north of 700 people. The auditorium only seats 385. It was crowded. I took that as a good sign. Gaiman told a hilarious story about the creation of Coraline, including a reference to some advice from Larry Niven to “treasure your typos.” I found the insight he presented about his fascination with the House on the Rock refreshing. Gaiman featured the House prominently in my favorite of his novels, American Gods.

Neverwhere made me a fan of Gaiman’s work. Having the opportunity to see him speak was delightful. It’s exciting for me to see the book featured so prominently by the library — for so many people to be exposed to an incredible, wickedly creative author.

Dan Simmons likes to write about writing. But he does it in a way that I can’t call academic — even though I know there is a considerable amount of academic legwork that goes into each of his novels. Simmons is a storyteller; he’s a storyteller that likes to tell fictions that are “mostly true”. Which is say, not true at all. But it resembles the truth. Or casts a shadow of truth behind it somewhere. Simmons writes about what he knows and Simmons knows authors. Earnest Hemingway, John Keats, Mark Twain— they’ve all made appearances in Simmons novels. Drood features Charles Dickens described with an unsteady hand by Dickens’ unreliable contemporary and friend, Wilkie Collins.

The setup from the back cover reads:

On June 9, 1865, while traveling by train to London with his secret mistress, fifty-three-year-old Charles Dickens — at the height of his powers and popularity, the most famous and successful author in the world — hurtled into a disaster that changed his life forever.

Simmons has talked about writing this novel for almost a decade. He originally considered the title, The Great Oven. In the intervening years the structure has changed and the plot focused upon the last five years of Dickens’ life and Dickens’ own uncompleted work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Those last five years shroud a sharp shift in behavior from the world’s most popular author. It makes a fantastic setting for a mystery. Dickens, Collins, Simmons investigate the worst slums of London. The Whitechapel of Oliver and Jack.

And a ghoulish figure named Drood.

Whirl recommended the recent Stephen King novel to me, Under the Dome. As the book weighs in at just around twenty-five pounds, I’m somewhat concerned that she may be trying to throw my back out as I haul it around. — Okay, it doesn’t weigh twenty-five pounds, but this book is big. This book is heavy. There is no mistaking this for anything other than a book. A very big book.

The premise is simple: On an entirely normal fall day, a small town in Maine (of course) is suddenly and inexplicably sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field. King gleefully, masterfully provides over a thousand pages to tell you what happens next.

In May, 2009, six months ahead of the publication of Under the Dome, Dan Simmons mentioned receiving the manuscript from King as a gift. Simmons’ reaction:

What’s amazing to me is that Under the Dome is the kind of huge, generous, sprawling, infinitely energetic novel that we (or at least I) associate with gifted young novelists in their 20’s—all energy and enthusiasm, the young author having not yet learned a long-distance novelist’s greedy trick of holding back characters or plot or techniques for future novels—and yet here with a master’s total control of the telling, myriad of characters, tone, and effects.

Do I have your attention now?

The latest novel from Douglas Coupland opens with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut. Coupland takes the quote from the commencement address Vonnegut gave to the 1994 graduating class at Syracuse University.

“Now you young twerps want a new name for your generation? Probably not, you just want jobs, right? Well, the media do us all such tremendous favors when they call you Generation X, right? Two clicks from the very end of the alphabet. I hereby declare you Generation A, as much at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago.”

Fifteen years later and Vonnegut was right. The name didn’t stick, but Vonnegut’s claims were spot on. All the claims about triumphs and failures have come true since 1994. Certainly the part about jobs was true. The less predictive elements about jobs are true again at the end of the first decade of the third millennium. A curious anecdote: most people I talk to directly attribute the title “Generation X” to Douglas Coupland and his first novel of the same name. Sure, Billy Idol’s punk band had the name fifteen before the novel, but it didn’t stick. No, it’s Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture that fixed the label.

Coupland has checked in on his generation many times in the intervening years. Microserfs gives his vision of us working in the venture-capital driven days of the first dotcom boom of the early 90s. JPod chronicles the everyday lives of a group of six GenXers and Millennials working at a video game company in 2005. The protagonists are grouped together in a pod of cubicles, all their last names beginning with “J”. These short one- and two-sentence summaries do not do justice to the aptitude Coupland has with recognizing the pulse of time and culture on people. I want to use the adjective “uncanny” and then find myself consumed with uncomfortable laughter at the irony of that description. Coupland does that to me. There has not been a book of his that I have not thoroughly enjoyed. I cannot wait to read his latest.

From the back cover:

Generation A is set in the near future in a world where bees are extinct, until five unconnected people all around the world — in the United States, Canada, France, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka — are all stung. Their shared experience unites them in ways they never could have imagined.

Generation A mirrors Coupland’s debut novel, 1991’s Generation X. It explores new ways of storytelling in a digital world. Like much of Coupland’s writing, it occupies the perplexing hinterland between optimism about the future and everyday apocalyptic paranoia. imaginative, inventive, and fantastically entertaining, Generation A is his most ambitious work to date.

When I saw Chuck Klosterman last year he was promoting his novel Downtown Owl but his reading was from the as-yet unpublished collection of essays, Eating the Dinosaur. That was alright. I picked up the novel and waited for the collection to be published. Somewhere along the line I must have gotten distracted by shiny things and forgotten all about the other book. (I’ve noticed that happens to me a lot. The distractions and the shiny things, I mean.) So when I was at the bookstore the other day picking up Rework I noticed that not only had Eating the Dinosaur been published, but it was out in paperback as well. The dinosaurs followed me home.

Along with the essay I heard Klosterman read last year, “The Passion of the Garth”, a criticism of Garth Brooks’ alter ego project, Chris Gaines, Eating the Dinosaur contains twelve other previously unpublished essays about pop culture. And in typical style they run the entire spectrum from insightful to silly. That’s sort of the appeal for reading Klosterman. There is a criticism of laugh tracks in sitcoms, an analysis of time travel that pays particular attention to one of the most interesting science fiction films I’ve seen in a long time, Primer by Shane Carruth. Klosterman covers a huge selection of topics. He writes about basketball, Nirvana, the Unabomber and ABBA. There’s a piece titled, “The Best Response” that imagines what the best response would be to archetypical controversial situations, usually involving some sort of duplicity upon the adoring public.

And then there’s the first essay, “Something Instead of Nothing”. This exploration of the journalistic interview is conducted as a set of interweaving interviews itself, peppered with some reflection. After discussing the difficulties both journalists and subjects have in portraying the truth about anything through an interview, Klosterman spends some trying to discover an answer to the question: Why do it? Why succumb to interviews? The essay outlines several different answers to that question before moving on to what I think is the more interesting question. How does this apply to normal people? People who have no celebrity, the millions of unfamous. Chris Heath a British writer starts with an interesting answer that Klosterman picks up and carries to a telling conclusion:

Heath: We are used to the idea of giving witness to one’s life as an important and noble counterpoint to being unheard, especially when applied to people in certain disadvantaged, oppressed or unacceptable situations. […] I’m not sure that we aren’t seeing the emergence of a society in which almost everyone who isn’t famous considers themselves cruelly and unfairly unheard. [….] And so, the cruelly unheard millions are perpetually primed and fired up to answer any and all questions in order to redress this awful imbalance.
Klosterman: There’s a lot of truth in that last bit. Contemporary people are answering questions not because they’re flattered by the attention; they’re answering questions because they feel as though they deserved to be asked. About everything. Their opinions are special and so they are entitled to a public forum. Their voice is supposed to be heard, lest their life become empty.
This, in one paragraph, explains the rise of New Media.

Naturally, once I had read that exchange, I felt an overwhelming compulsion to write about it in my obscure little blog on the Internet. It was beyond my control.

Rarely do I read business books. When I read something work-related, it is often technical: a manual, a white paper, a discussion of specific principles or process. Alternately I choose a more journalistic discussion of a catastrophic failure. The Moment It Clicks will serve as an example of the former; The Smartest Guys in the Room, the latter.

Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson is something different for me. Superficially, this is the sort of book that attempts to explain how to be a successful businessman. The sort of books that pack the stores at airports. Certainly not my usual fare. But then, Rework is not filled with your usual advice. In fact, Freid and Hansson actively argue against the conventional wisdom of writing a business plan, studying the competition, and seeking outside investors in order to be successful. The eighty-eight included essays (each two or three pages in length) address simple maxims learned from ten years of sustained business success in a software development company, 37 Signals. These short essays have titles like: “Learning from mistakes is overrated”, “No time is no excuse”, “Focus on what won’t change”, and “You don’t create a culture”.

I first came across 37 Signals a few years ago when we began using their product, Basecamp, to manage projects and information regarding our building. More recently, as my colleagues and I were attempting to navigate the the volatility surrounding working for Tribune Company, Rework was one of the books that garnered my attention when Konkol discussed it at lunch. What Fried and Hansson reiterate is all that really needs to happen is to stop talking and start working. Much of the matieral was first introduced on the Signal vs. Noise blog — a fact they acknowledge in the book itself when discussing the value of production byproducts. Much like sawdust is a resalable byproduct of a lumber yard, the book is a byproduct of their own experiences running a successful business.

Jason Fried and David Hansson follow their own advice in REWORK, laying bare the surprising philosophies at the core of 37signals’ success and inspiring us to put them into practice. There’s no jargon or filler here just hundreds of brilliantly simple rules for success. Part entrepreneurial handbook for the twenty-first century, part manifesto for anyone wondering how work really works in the modern age, REWORK is required reading for anyone tired of business platitudes. — Chris Anderson