Archive for March, 2009

Catherynne M. Valente: Palimpsest

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

I discovered Catherynne Valente through her Orphan’s Tales books, which were an amazing blend of beautiful poetic prose and cerebral puzzle-box structure.  If I make a Top Ten list at some point they’re going to be contenders.

Palimpsest is her newest novel, and it is once again full of beautiful poetic prose, though my left brain missed the more intellectual pleasures of those other books.  Four people, all with tenuous and diminishing connections to the real world, find themselves able to visit a dream city named Palimpsest, though only by having sex with others who, like them, have had mysterious maps of areas of the city appear on their skin.  The plot of the book mostly concerns their attempts to become permanent residents, though the plot is a little beside the point compared with the overflowingly rich descriptions of the gorgeously grotesque Palimpsest and its inhabitants, and the exploration of the characters’ attempts to find there what they’ve lost in this world.

It was interesting to read a book with so much sex (it is, after all, the way that the characters travel), presented in a manner that, while often emotional, isn’t overly erotic or titillating.  And I appreciated the matter-of-factness in which couplings of various gender-parities and sizes are presented without either excuse or special attention.

I don’t want to give too much away, but the plotting element does pick up as the book proceeds, and the arc that it follows to the conclusion is well constructed and gripping, making Palimpsest more than just the collection of beautiful dream sequences I was initially concerned it might be.  Although The Orphan’s Tales are still the books of hers I’m going to press on people first, this is a good intro to Valente’s writing for those who don’t want to commit to a thousand-page epic.

Lars Bo Hansen: How Chess Games Are Won and Lost

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

I already have far too many books like How Chess Games Are Won and Lost, holistic tomes that attempt to somehow improve your chess game across the board by dispensing a couple hundred pages of advice. But this one has gotten a bunch of great reviews, so I gave in.

It’s actually a very good book, although the title is misleading.  It’s not so much a manual as it is a collection of stuff Hansen has learned over the course of his career, supplemented with examples from his games (and some other games that he learned from).  So don’t go in expecting to see a theory of chess improvement presented and supported, as you might with Silman or Rowson.

That said, this is a very entertaining book.  I hesitate to grade the instructional value of any book, since I have read dozens of books in the last 15 years but my 1800-ish rating has not budged, so clearly they’re all useless.  But Hansen does say a lot of interesting things, and his annotations are excellent, at exactly the right level of detail for my class A brain.  (For the non-chess-players, that’s class A as in “one level below expert, which is one level below master, which is still way below grandmaster”, not class A as in top-notch.)  I think it would be useful for players down to the 1600 level or so, with the caveat that some of the things he’s saying are really aimed at a higher level of player than you or me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if even a 2200 learned something, although what do I know.

I read the whole thing (and if you read chess books, you know that actually reading a book cover to cover is high praise indeed), and was sufficiently impressed by his writing and analysis to consider reading his other two books as well.

Songbook: Hit On You

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

“Entangled” is the second song on the new record, but Greg wrote it, so I’m skipping to number 3, “Hit On You”.

This album is light on the “funny ha ha” songs, as people have noted, and this is probably the only outright example.  I’ve always been a fan of songs in which the backing vocalists seem to have their own personalities – “With a Little Help from My Friends” is the best example I can think of offhand.  Something about the other singers referring to me in the third person, as if they’re ambassadors or live translators, tickles me.  And then it was natural to have them veer off in the third chorus into their own completely parallel commentary, warning the listener of the ulterior motives of the lead singer.  Your mileage may vary, but I think “Pretend you’re gay / or you have the flu” is freakin’ hilarous.  (I think this is largely because it’s fitting into a fairly tight rhyme scheme that has already been established.)

The form is kind of unusual: Verse, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Chorus.  It’s unusual in modern pop music to never come back to the verse after the beginning of the song, but it was a standard technique back in the days of “standards” (Porter, Gershwin, etc.) to have an intro section that never returned, and you encounter it in many early Beatles songs as well, for example “Do You Want to Know a Secret” and “If I Fell”.  I wasn’t really thinking of those sorts of songs as a model, though – mostly it was just that I already knew I needed three choruses (one without backing vocals, one with backing vocals added, and one where the lyrics diverge), and probably a bridge, so those were already eating up a fair amount of time, and (probably due to the fact that the choruses are different each time) I didn’t feel like it was getting too samey if I didn’t throw another verse in.

The verses are mostly in 6/4, and I was trying to get our drummer Bill to bring that out with a really emphasized

Drum part

which he did once and then collapsed cracking up. Uh, why is that, Bill? Oh, yeah, it’s exactly the same as the verses of “Heat of the Moment” by Asia. OK, never mind.

The bridge moves to another key and then back, which is a technique I really like. “Your body’s hotter than the deepest deep-fat fryer” also cracks me up. See, deep-fat fryers are really hot, and this one is even deeper, even though that makes no sense! Is that one of those jokes that becomes less funny when you try to explain it? Sigh. The harmonic transition from F to Ab for the bridge is super abrupt, but I’m really happy with the Ab -Db – G – C – Bb – F sequence (under “I’ve got to buy myself a new pair of pants ’cause my loins are on fire”) that accomplishes the return to F.

This was not a sure bet to make it onto the CD. I was worried with this song, as I always am with the funny ones, that it wouldn’t work well on record, that it’s mostly good for playing live, where people can react to the jokes in real time instead of hearing them over and over; also, because of the laid-back nature of it, it has the potential to sound kind of limp if we’re not really tight. But it ended up sounding really good, and in our final flailing song-ordering pass, I said, “You know what? We could put this right up front,” and I think it works really well there.

Brian Moore: The Magician’s Wife

Friday, March 13th, 2009

#3 in the list of books that have been sitting on my bookshelf for too long.

I bought this a while ago and I can see why: it has lots of positive blurbs.  Yet the reviews on Amazon are pretty mixed (average of 3.5 stars).  Who’s right?  In this case I agree with the Amazon customers.

This is a historical novel taking place largely in French Algeria in the mid 19th century, told from the point of view of the dissatisfied (sexually, socially, etc.) wife of an esteemed illusionist.  To my mind it is basically a short story, or movie screenplay, extended to novel length; there’s one actual interesting moment in it when the protagonist makes a real choice, and it is indeed interesting, but we didn’t need to have 150 pages leading up to it and 50 pages of repercussions.

The prose is such that if I liked it I would say it had “limpid grace” or something, but I didn’t, so I’m calling it flat instead.  I felt a little like I was reading a young adult novel.

Everything I’m saying here is negative, but it’s not like I particularly disliked it; I just never felt that engaged with it, and I don’t think it’ll stick in my mind for long.

Iain M. Banks: Consider Phlebas

Monday, March 9th, 2009

I am a sucker for series of books rereleased in handsome matching trade paperback editions, and Orbit Books seems to know it, because that’s what they’re doing with Iain M. Banks’ science fiction novels. Another one of my foibles is that if I am presented with such a collection of books, I have to start by reading the first one, even if they’re only loosely related (as with murder mysteries) and there’s no particular reason to start from the beginning. So this is the first of his Culture books, of which there are now seven (ranging in publication date from 1987 to 2008).

It’s a total space opera, flinging its protagonist, Horza, from world to world across the galaxy.  In fact I could have used a little less flinging and more of a regular plot arc; there are a bunch of set pieces on various worlds that do contribute a little to our understanding of this universe and Horza, but largely feel like they had been kicking around in Banks’ head for a decade and, this being his first and I suppose at the time possibly last science fiction novel, he had to shove them all in while he had the chance.

But they are pretty cool set pieces, except for one which intentionally stepped over the genre line into straight-out horror fiction, which squicked me pretty bad.  And all the action scenes at the end were really well done.  Because of my lack of visualization ability, and my tendency to accelerate through a book so that I’m reading fastest just as the amount of action demands fuller attention, big science fiction action scenes tend to sort of whiz past me in a blur, but I didn’t have trouble keeping track of everything going on here, and it stayed interesting.

One nice thing (perhaps the main feature of the book) is that there is lots of moral ambiguity.  People and aliens on both sides of the greater conflict are drawn sympathetically (and unsympathetically), which is a lot more interesting than some humans-against-the-bugs scenario, or even good-humans-against-the-bad-humans.

A couple of gripes: Banks starts out with one point-of-view protagonist (except for some interludes), and then slowly starts to occasionally give us other POVs.  It’s kind of jarring, especially when the reader has already been experiencing some suspense precisely from not knowing just what the other characters are thinking exactly, and when he starts sliding back and forth within sections it gets even more so.  There’s also a sassy robot who resents being forced to act as a servant, a la Marvin from the Hitchchiker’s books, who is probably supposed to be sort of comic relief but which I found wearying.  I am starting to feel that this is a peculiarly British trope (they already having a tradition of servant-based humor).

Overall, it was very good.  Just when I was getting tired of Horza bouncing back and forth from adventure to adventure (around a third of the way through), the strands started weaving together, and the last half of the book had a nice direction to it, all the way to the end.  I’ll definitely read another one, and naturally, it’ll be the second in the series.

Warning if you read this book! There’s some supplementary material at the back, including what he calls a Dramatis Personae, that is not actually intended to be consulted while reading the novel, contrary to most SF appendices.  For example, the so-called Dramatis Personae in fact details what happens to a selection of the characters after the book ends.  So don’t read any of that stuff until you get there.

William H. Gass: Omensetter’s Luck

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Another entry in my list of books that have been languishing on my shelves for ages that I’m reading this year.

This was kind of tough.  It’s written throughout in a style that I would say is reminiscent of Joyce, although apparently (from reading other people write about it) if I had ever read Faulkner I would say it’s reminiscent of him.  Total stream of consciousness, with no distinction made typographically (for example, using something so mundane as quote marks or even Joyce’s dashes) between description or dialogue or imagined dialogue or inner monologue.  In fact, a fair bit of effect comes from the fact that the protagonist of most of the novel is going nuts, and you can’t tell whether a lot of his dialogue is imagined or not, but probably he can’t either.

I’m all for postmodern, but this felt more High Modern to me, in a way that made reading sort of a chore.  Also, the main character is an archetype – man of God fighting off the evil in his breast – that means a lot less to me, a happy atheist, than it probably does to many others.

Around a quarter of the book (an extended interior monologue by said reverend) was a real slog, but after that an actual plot did appear, and there was certainly some striking imagery and turns of phrase, and it did end up exploring some interesting questions, and I did feel like I had gotten somewhere by the end.  But I would not really classify it overall as an enjoyable experience, and I don’t think Gass’s magnum opus, The Tunnel, is going to add itself to this year’s list of long-neglected but finally-read books.

Things we have called our dog

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009
  • Bad Dog
  • Baked Potato
  • Breadbasket
  • Captain Underfoot
  • Chicken Tender
  • Clotheshorse
  • Crumpet
  • Curly Fry
  • Cutie Patootie
  • Cutus Patutus
  • Dogbreath
  • Dogfish Head
  • Doglet
  • Face
  • Facebook
  • Face Face
  • Fang
  • Forest Ranger
  • French Fry
  • Good Dog
  • Good Girl
  • Greeting Card
  • Henrietta von Düsseldorf
  • Kibble Breath
  • Killer
  • Magnificent Muffin
  • Noodle
  • Noodle Nose
  • Nose
  • Party Pooper
  • Peabrain
  • Peanut Butter Face
  • Peppercorn
  • Perfect Potato
  • Pigeon
  • Pocket
  • Pocket Protector
  • Pocket Watch
  • Pointy Head
  • Potato
  • Potato Skin
  • Pumpkin
  • Pumpkin Doodle
  • Purple Princess
  • Rib-Eye
  • Rib Roast
  • Sir Sniffsalot
  • Skinny Puppy
  • Smell-o-vision
  • Sniffy Face
  • Snifter
  • Snow Shovel
  • Stupid Dog
  • Sweet Potato
  • Tailspin
  • Terrible Dog
  • Triangle Head
  • Twice-Baked Potato
  • Veezeen
  • Vision (actual name)
  • Visionary
  • Wagster Wiggins
  • Wigwam