Archive for April, 2009

Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

This was high up on the list of Books I Really Should Have Gotten Around To Reading By Now. (The next highest book on the list is probably Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.) All I really knew was that it was about a hermaphrodite, which indeed it is, but there’s actually a bit less of that than I expected. First of all, the novel starts out with the narrator’s grandparents, and doesn’t even get to the narrator’s own life until maybe 40% of the way through the book – and then only really follows that life until the age of 15 or so. So we get a lot of entertaining background (though the background is interesting and continues to shed light on the narrator’s own experiences throughout the book), and then we get the narrator’s life up until the point that she 1) discovers that she’s not totally a she and 2) decides he’s a he, but there’s disappointingly little about his life after he decided how he was going to live it.

I still enjoyed it; I like these multi-generational family epics, and the science and sociology of Calliope’s condition was interesting and well written. The artistry that is put into every sentence was especially obvious since I came to this book straight from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books, which were written extremely straightforwardly (not that I had a problem with that). One thing that I particularly appreciated although I bet many other readers found it a little annoying was Eugenides’ willingness to make explicit the themes that kept cropping up. Oh hey, yeah, I guess the burning of Detroit does recall the burning of Smyrna 300 pages ago, now that you mention it, thanks for reminding me. I’m sure the actual literature readers roll their eyes at the author’s assumption that the reader needs these correspondences spelled out, but it worked well for me.

Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize, and I must admit that having picked it up with Pulitzer-size expectations I felt that it didn’t totally live up to them. But it was still an excellent book, and I’m happy to have read it for reasons other than just being able to cross it off the list.

Another Spewer: Frank Zappa

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

To recap, Spewers are artists who are

  • incredibly prolific
  • awesome at their best
  • but with a nonexistent quality filter
  • largely intuitive in approach, as far as I can tell
  • even the best works are big messes (in a great way) rather than tightly constructed jewels
  • apparently wide-ranging in genre
  • but with enough tics that their work is instantly recognizable

So far the category has consisted of Jack Vance, Robert Pollard, and William Vollmann, and I just thought of another: Frank Zappa.

I’m very ambivalent about Zappa. He’s clearly a genius, but the juvenile humor and lack of quality control (e.g., long annoying spoken word interludes) are real strikes against him for me. I think We’re Only in It for the Money is 90% absolutely incredible and 10% repellent. Lumpy Gravy didn’t make much sense to me when I first heard it, but I tried again today and it held together better than I expected. The only other albums I have of his are a two-fer of Apostrophe and Over-Nite Sensation, which I recall finding okay but nothing special, although a bit more research today indicates that those records, while relative hits, aren’t really regarded as very high up in his creative output.

I’m going to explore Zappa a little more, starting with the early Mothers of Invention records, which seem most likely to be up my alley. Further findings will be posted here.

(By the way, this Crossfire episode with Zappa about music censorship is awesome. If you have 20 minutes to spare they will not be wasted if you spend them on this.)

Brandon Sanderson: Mistborn; The Well of Ascension

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

I don’t like reading series until they’re finished because I want to know that I can read all of the books in a row. This is mostly due to my lousy memory; when I get to book 3, I don’t want to have to either reread books 1 and 2 or muddle through not remembering who anyone is. I was trying to save the Mistborn trilogy until the last book comes out in mass market paperback on April 28, but I recently had a cross-country flight and the first volume looked like a good airplane book.

And it was; I read half of it on the plane, and when I arrived at my destination I bought the second one at a bookstore just to make sure I wouldn’t run out on my flight back. I’ve now finished the second book and unfortunately have to wait a couple of weeks until I can read the third.

So what’s so good about them? Well, they’re not great literature or anything, but they’re crafted really well. The plot, the world, the rate at which information about the world is doled out, and even the character development (for the main two characters, at least) are handled expertly. They’re great page-turners, and the fact that I want yet more pages after turning 1400 of them so far is pretty compelling evidence.

The writing is perfectly competent, and I don’t really mean that as a slight. Sanderson is more of a draftsman than a painter, and he realizes what his strengths are. He doesn’t try to be that poetic or to write particularly virtuosically; he just describes what happens and trusts that that will be sufficient, and it is. It was honestly kind of nice to read prose that is optimized for clarity.

Especially after reading Black God’s Kiss and noting from afar the recent “racefail” explosion, it was interesting to me that the main character is a teenage girl (which, obviously, Sanderson is not), and as far as I can tell is drawn very well and sympathetically, not as either a girly girl or a boy in skirts. He specifically thanks a woman in his acknowledgments for help in building her character, and it seems to have helped.

Another cool thing about Sanderson is that he has been putting up extensive annotations to his book on his website, similar to what I’ve been doing intermittently here with my songs, detailing the reasons for the decisions he made or pointing out things that he thought did or didn’t work. It’s illuminating and a nice use of the modern ability to communicate outside of the historically normal channels.

The third and final book gets 4.5 stars on Amazon so at least I can be pretty sure that it is not a precipitous drop in quality from the first two. You can be sure it will show up here shortly after it shows up in stores.

The language of chess

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

There are many things that appeal to me about chess, and perhaps in some future post I’ll list them all, but one of the most important is the way that it creates a whole new sophisticated language, with inflection and shades of meaning, that doesn’t map to English (or whatever human language you care to choose) at all.

Music is the most obvious other abstract system like this. Music has a whole theory of meaning and communication, of what the composer is “saying” to the listener over the course of a piece, whether that is setting up expectations and fulfilling or dashing them, or getting a reaction out of a unexpectedly piquant chord or melodic leap or rhythmic displacement or what have you. There are a few obvious correlations to “actual” semantic meaning (major is happy! minor is sad! fast is exciting!) but largely music remains an abstract closed system. It mostly doesn’t refer to anything outside of itself (tone poems aside), and although it can be analyzed and frequently is, it has to be analyzed on its own terms, and not by “translating” it; it has some sort of “meaning” in the same way that English sentences have meaning, but there’s no mapping between the two spheres. (If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I highly recommend Leonard Meyer’s Emotion and Meaning in Music.)

Anyway, this post is supposedly about chess, not music. My point is that chess games and positions also carry some sort of untranslatable-to-language abstract semantic content, and that the richness of this content and the fact that it has no linguistic analog is one of the things that makes chess so aesthetically appealing to its devotees.

It’s so abstract it’s hard for me to put into words, but a chess enthusiast gets a certain feeling when he or she glances at a board and sees an open position as opposed to a closed or semi-closed one; or looks at possible pawn breaks; or notices that one player has sacked material for the initiative; or sees a fianchettoed bishop, or the possibility of a standard Bxh7+ sac, or a “bone-in-the-throat” pawn on e6, or Alekhine’s gun lined up, or a good vs bad bishop, or… I could name dozens of these, but the point is that they are supremely meaningful to me (in that they literally have meaning) and probably mean nothing to you. Not everything about chess always appeals to me — the competitive aspects, the need to calculate extremely accurately and to memorize openings and endgame techniques — but I will never tire of this aesthetic aspect of it.

(As I was writing this, I found an interesting attempt to make connections between two of these “languages”: Haskell Small’s “A Game of Go”, a musical accompaniment to a classic game of Go (about which I could say many of the same things). It’s a really cool idea, although it doesn’t get much past some basic correspondences (ko fights are tense! things wind down in the endgame!). I suppose that if it had been easier to make one-to-one correspondences between Go and music, my whole point that they are interesting and unique complex systems would have been undermined.)

Junot Díaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Monday, April 6th, 2009

This novel won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, and unsurprisingly it was great. The narrative voice is quite in-your-face and virtuosic, which I could understand turning some people off and judging from the Amazon reviews it did, but I dug it. It jumps around in space between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic and in time between the mid and late 20th century in an effective way, the plot expanding outwards in all directions (time and space) from an 1980s New Jersey core.

There are already a million reviews of this book so I don’t feel the need to say anything in particular for the million and first time, but one sort of interesting aspect jumped out at me. I’m used to historical novels covering the history behind the novel rather implicitly; you’re supposed to either already know the historical background or pick it up by reading between the lines as you see how it affects the individual people of the story. Dí­az on the other hand is unafraid to insert lengthy (though informal) footnotes, David Foster Wallace-style, about the history of the Dominican Republic all over the place to make sure you understand everything he is trying to get across, but on the other hand peppers the narrative throughout with largely-unexplained SF allusions and metaphors. I have to admit that it was pretty neat to see him make some offhand reference to Morgoth or Tracy Hickman or the gom jabbar and get that feeling of “Hey, I understand that, all of my past reading has paid off” in the way that I usually only get when someone is compared to Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary or something. It made me realize that genre literature can actually be a fairly rich source of references, so kudos to Dí­az for being willing to use it in a work with real literary pretensions.

Plus I learned a lot of interesting things about the D.R., largely because he is so generous with those explanatory footnotes. Hopefully the next time I read a Latin American book, I will have another “Hey, I understand that, all of my past reading has paid off” moment.

C. L. Moore: Black God’s Kiss

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

I didn’t really discover pulp fantasy until a couple of years ago. Fantasy fiction these days tends to be epic fantasy or urban fantasy. Epic fantasy is where heroes save the world from Great Evil, preferably over the course of three or more books; as you might have guessed, Tolkien is the unwitting root of it. Urban fantasy is magical realism that gets shelved in the genre section instead of the literature section. Pulp fantasy, on the other hand, is what most fantasy was until the 70’s or so. The archetypal pulp fantasy hero is Conan – the Conan of Robert E. Howard’s books of the 1930’s, not the movie. He isn’t saving the world; he’s just looking after his own hide, spending most of his time in search of loot or wenches.

Paizo Publishing, best known for formerly publishing the Dungeons & Dragons magazines Dungeon and – wait for it – Dragon, has started publishing old pulp fantasy and science fiction books under their Planet Stories imprint. C. L. Moore looked like an interesting place to start exploring, given her status as the first woman pulp fantasist of note.

Black God’s Kiss collects her six Jirel of Joiry stories, featuring an impetuous, passionate, ass-kicking heroine in medieval France. They were plenty of fun in a pulp fantasy way. Were they special because of the gender of the author? I dunno. Jirel is definitely a woman; she goes around kicking butt, but she also has men issues. If these stories were written by a man about a woman hero, would I be rolling my eyes at how clichéd she was? Maybe. I’ve read romance novels written by women and had the same reaction, but if they keep writing characters like that then I guess there’s something to it. I have to admit that nothing jumped out at me as being something I would never see from a male author, but my reaction might have been different in the 1930’s, when the alternatives to Jirel were Conan and Cthulhu.

The writing was enjoyable – as usual with pulp, it’s long on description and atmosphere and action and kind of short on character development – but didn’t really grab me beyond that, not that I expected it to; I read pulp for the description and atmosphere and action. I have to admit that my interest perked up the most when I got to the last story and Moore’s regular science-fiction hero, Northwest Smith, time-traveled back to 16th century France from his usual haunt on Mars where he had been passing the time knocking back Martian cocktails with his Venusian sidekick. But maybe that’s just because I’m a guy.