Familiar

I don’t know if any of you who knew me as a kid recognize these, but Benji’s new passion, which has even surpassed strawberries, is my old Matchbox truck collection. He lines the cabs and trailers up, then moves them all to a different place and starts over again. This occupies him for, I kid you not, hours.

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When not doing this, he goes into the library and I hear him turning pages and “reading” aloud to himself. I can tell what book based on his self-dialogue – vrooming must be Things That Go; cawing like a crow must be the birds book, etc. He’s meticulously careful and never rips pages.

Gee, could he be my son?

My Favorite Books are All Sad

Day’s Verse:
The Word was first,
the Word present to God,
God present to the Word.
The Word was God,
in readiness for God from day one.

John 1:1-2

Ian is reading The Passage, by Justin Cronin. I read this book last year (ish), and suffice it to say the descriptions of vampires had me turning on all the lights in the house before I walked around after dark. Creepy. Just the fact that Ian’s reading it gives me the shivers when I remember it.

I, on the other hand, just finished Portrait of Dorian Gray and have started in on The Sparrow. I’d never read Dorian Gray before, and I enjoyed the writing, of course, although I found the philosophy espoused revolting. I have nothing thoughtful to say about Dorian Gray, I’m sorry to say.

The Sparrow I read once before, some years ago. It’s the type of book I find myself drawn to, even though I can’t bear to read it more than once every few years. Books of inexorable fate slowly bearing down on the characters, regardless of their choices, behavior, or struggles; books in which the characters’ interpretation of events, reactions, and misunderstandings drive them to their fates, one inexorable step at a time; in short, tragedies. Last January I described that very type of book. Lo and behold, The Sparrow has that sense of inevitability and deep characterization that I find myself drawn to. It’s melancholy, but beautiful. Usually those types of books leave me thoughtfully pondering their themes much longer than otherwise.

I aspire to one day write a story that leaves the reader feeling the way she does at the end of The Sparrow, Time Traveler’s Wife, The Giver, or Wreck of the River of Stars.

Anyway, after this, I may need to read something cheerful and upbeat. Any recommendations?

What I’ve Been Reading

Day’s Verse:
Jesus’ refusal was curt: “Beat it, Satan!” He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.”
Matthew 4:10 (context)

I’ve read a bunch of books in the last week and a half, in an attempt to avoid the reality of High Pass Challenge and the join-a-bicycling-team decision. I have read:

Sworm of Swords and Feast for Crows, books 3 and 4 in the Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin
House Justice, by Mike Lawson
Disturbed, by Kevin O’Brien

Hmm, was there something else? I can’t remember if there was another paper book, but I also just finished Call of the Wild on our Kindle, which makes it not feel like a real book somehow. In total, I’ve probably read 3,500 pages or so in the last 10 days. That’s not so much, actually. Felt like a bit more. Here’s my take on the books.

Ice and Fire series: It’s starting to feel too much like Wheel of Time* to me. Proliferating numbers of characters, plots of Gordian knot-like complexity, excessive attention to details of clothing and scenery (important, yes, but honestly, sometimes it just drags things out unnecessarily). I like his propensity for killing off characters unexpectedly — keeps the reader interested — but honestly, this series is feeling increasing like a “till death do us part” commitment on the author’s part. Even so, the writing quality and character development remain better than your average fantasy book. Likelihood I’d reread at some point: 90%.

House Justice: A mashup of John Grisham and Michael Crichton. Actually pretty well written, engaging, with characters of some depth and a reasonably entertaining (if somewhat excessively convoluted) plot. The annoying thing about this book was that it involved previously-established characters, so it felt like I was missing quite a bit of the back story, and his attempts at filling in that back-story were fairly heavy-handed. Likelihood I’d reread at some point: <10%. Disturbed: I can’t even remember the title of this book most of the time. It had that uncomfortable feeling of the reader missing some crucial information, like the author assumed you knew something he didn’t tell you. The writing quality was chatty and not overly educated, but not bad. He did a fairly good job with the teen’s perspective, but the plot was fairly obvious. Likelihood I’d reread at some point: 0%.

Call of the Wild: I’m hardly qualified to review a classic author like Jack London, so I’ll just say that I enjoyed it. I don’t think I’ve read Call of the Wild before, but I’m familiar with Jack London’s style in general, so the overall writing and plot styles matched my expectations. What I didn’t expect was for Buck’s human to get killed and for Buck to basically shrug and then happily join up with the wolves. The title tells you that Buck will end up running wild, but he’s pretty cavalier about his beloved person dying.

Anyway, reading is one one of the non-bicycling activities I’ve done lately as the oft-promised OSPI trainings for PE teachers continue receding, mirage-like, into the future. I am going to try to do NaNoWriMo again this year, too, and my goal (in a dramatic departure from my previous NaNo novels) is to write an actual quality book — or the start of one.

* Full disclosure: I have not read all the Wheel of Time books to date. I’ve read up through book 10, Crossroads of Twilight. The problem is that I keep forgetting what happened and have to start all over again, and then by the time I get through all those previous books to the next book I’m so annoyed I don’t even want to read any more Wheel of Time, ever.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Day’s Verse:
Keep me safe, O God, I’ve run for dear life to you.
I say to God, “Be my Lord!”
Without you, nothing makes sense.

Psalm 16:1-2

I just read Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss, courtesy of Rachel Klas. The book opens:

Either this will ring bells for you, or it won’t. A printed banner has appeared on the concourse of a petrol station near where I live. “Come inside,” it says, “for CD’s, VIDEO’s, DVD’s, and BOOK’s.”

If this satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes causes no little gasp of horror or quickening of the pulse, you should probably put down this book at once. By all means congratulate yourself that you are not a pedant or even a stickler; that you are happily equipped to live in a world of plummeting punctuation standards; but just don’t bother to go any further. For any true stickler, you see, the sight of the plural word “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated. First there is shock. Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain, and pain to anger. Finally (and this is where the analogy breaks down), anger gives way to a righteous urge to perpetrate an act of criminal damage with the aid of a permanent marker. (1-2)

When I read this, I laughed aloud; then I snuggled down in my fluffy chair and settled in for a good read, because I’d found a book clearly written just for me. A bit further on, Truss describes the grammar stickler beautifully:

Part of one’s despair, of course, is that the world cares nothing for the little shocks endured by the sensitive stickler. While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on around us, blind to our plight. We are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we see dead punctuation. Whisper it in petrified little-boy tones: dead punctuation is invisible to everyone else — yet we see it all the time. (3)

Partway through the apostrophe section, I had to laugh again. Truss describes my feelings exactly:

To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. (43)

SO TRUE. I have to almost physically restrain myself from saying something when I see this grammar error — and I see it all the time, alas and alack.

I finished the book in an afternoon of reading: What a delightful, unexpected, and clever approach to typically dusty and dry subject. A number of time Truss alludes to furious disagreements between grammar sticklers over such issues as whether to include a comma before the “and” in a list (called an Oxford comma; example: red, white, and blue vs. red, white and blue), and here’s the thing: I completely understand what she’s talking about.

When I worked at Charles River, I kid you not, we in the medical writing department had bitter arguments over style guide minutiae. Commas, semicolons, n- versus m-dashes, number of spaces following a period, hyphenation of specific words — these things comprised my world. I adamantly fought for my way, which I always backed up with the appropriate style guide. This predilection for sticklerism, however, is something innate in me that my scientific writing job simply allowed out to romp around for a bit. When I switched to the AmeriCorps position, I had to bottle the stickler up again, but it’s still there, twitching and tingeing at every comma splice and misplaced apostrophe.

I would probably be very happy as a copy editor.

Accidental Poetry

Day’s Verse:
Better a bread crust shared in love
than a slab of prime rib served in hate.

Proverbs 15:17

Back story: My co-LCI on the Bike Alliance trainings* said she always brings an extra wheel to classes. I asked if it was necessary for our trainings, since the schedule was so tight and we didn’t have time for fix-a-flat. When I received her reply, I couldn’t help but read it as poetry. She wrote, with this exact formatting,

I will bring one or two along. My usual way of handling
It is to leave it to the end for those who want
To stay and learn. Sometimes a few want it,
sometimes not.

I can’t help but read this the same way I’d read a haiku. And frankly, although I gave you the background, it really stands alone.

And, in other literary news, Ian and I received our copy of A Wise Man’s Fear. To forestall the inevitable fights over who gets to read it first (I hate having to beat Ian up; it’s so bad for our marriage’s morale), we’re reading it aloud. We did this successfully with the final Harry Potter book back in 2007, taking a total of 19 hours over 2 days to read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows aloud in its entirety. Unfortunately these days we have other claims on our time, so we haven’t blazed through A Wise Man’s Fear at quite that blistering pace. We’re making respectable headway, though, enough to give Patrick Rothfuss credit for writing a sequel that lives up to the first book. Most sequels don’t.

Speaking of books that don’t live up to my expectations, I just received Revelation Space from the library. I got it on the recommendation of a bookstore employee, and I waited a while for it. Now, frankly, I’m disappointed. It’s hard sci-fi and the blot is complex, to say the least, both of which are OK. Unfortunately the book lacks anything to help the reader bond with the characters, and the author heavy-handedly conceals important plot points from the readers until it’s time for the astonishing reveal. But since the reader generally knows as much as the characters do, those omissions feel kludgy. Actually, it’s like an exceptionally complicated Isaac Asimov book in many respects. I’ll finish it because I want to know what happens, but I probably won’t pick up another book by the author.

Finally, I have You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto waiting in the wings. More on that when I finish Revelation Space.

*The first of which is coming up next week in Lynden. This time I made a list and am much calmer.

Historical Novel, Circa 1994

Day’s Verse:
When you’re kind to others, you help yourself; when you’re cruel to others, you hurt yourself.
Proverbs 11:17

Back in college I took a history class called US History through the Novel. In it, we read such cheerful novels as McTeague, House of Mirth, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets, and (if I recall correctly) Frankenstein; we read with an eye towards what the books told us about the culture and history of the time, rather than for literary analysis. This way of approaching history by looking at what novelists capture in their verbal snapshots of a time continues to interest me.

Recently I started reading Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland. You can read the first chapter or so at the Wired archive, where it was originally published as a short story. The interesting thing about this book is that it, like McTeague or House of Mirth, captures a historical moment. Written in 1994, this epistolary story follows a group of Microsoft programmers as they try to start up their own company in Silicon Valley. Because technology permeates the book completely, it has become historical in well under a generation. Technology has advanced so far since this book was written in 1994 that it’s hard to wrap my head around it.

Remember 1994? (Read the link. It’s Dave Barry’s year in review for 1994*. So worth it. I’d totally forgotten Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding/the Norway Winter Olympics, OJ Simpson, and the Shumacher-Levy asteroid, but it’s all coming back to me.) That’s 17 years ago, although when I hear the date I don’t think of it as that long ago. It was before the prevalent Internet, before the .com bubble, before most people even had computers. The “information superhighway” was going to be really cool. “Multimedia” was the bandwagon to jump on. Use of the terms “nerd” and “geek” began expanding dramatically. The average age of tech people hardly ever exceeded 32 years. It was before even this phenomenon.

So I’m enjoying the in-depth reminder of what the tech world used to be. Despite its historicality (?), Microserfs covers some pretty thought-provoking territory. For example, at one point he says:

“I wonder if I’ve missed the boat on CD-ROM interactive — if I’m too old. The big companies are zeroing in on the 10-year-olds**. I think you only ever truly feel comfortable with the level of digitization that was normal for you from the age of five to fifteen. I mean sure, I can make new games workable, but it won’t be a kick the way Tetris was. Or will it?” (143)

Thought-provoking for me. Am I already 10 years past my technology-assimilation prime?

Check back in 17 more years. The future is never what we expect.

Edited @ 6:35 pm, 01Mar2011, to add a few more thought-provoking quotes. Microserfs, far from being about technology, is really a philosophy book thinly disguised as a nerd book. Part of its appeal as a historical novel is its predictive nature, too. The characters are future-focused and constantly speculate about the future — which is happening now. They never got close to iPhones. Quotes:

1. Theory that one of the characters suggests and I find interesting: We store memories in our bodies, not just our brains. The character says it’s actual memories; I’d say we seem to store something in our physical bodies. Why else do we need a massage after a long, stressful day?

2. “I’m coming to the conclusion about the human subconscious… that, no matter how you look at it, machines really are our subconscious. I mean, people from outer space didn’t come down to earth and make machines for us… we made them ourselves. So machines can only be products of our being, and as such, windows into our souls… by monitoring the machines we build, and the sorts of things we put into them, we have this amazingly direct litmus as to how we are evolving.” (228)

3. “Identity. I go by the Tootsie theory: that if you concoct a convincing on-line meta-personality on the Net, then that personality really IS you. With so few things around nowadays to loan a person identity, the palette of identities you create for yourself in the vacuum of the Net — your menu of alternative ‘you’s’ — actually IS you. Or an isotope of you. Or a photocopy of you.” (327) About this: I heard a fascinating segment on KUOW about Second Life addicts, and another segment a while ago about peoples’ behavior online (this may’ve been it and I just internalized it inaccurately, or it could be that amalgamated with this spot). What I took away was that people often tend to let out the worst of themselves online, or tend to be more unrestrained. In-person interactions you have the expectations and responses of actual people to gauge your behavior, and you tend to behave according to some kind of group norm. Online, those restrictions tend to be stripped away, even in places like Facebook where the real you is connected to other people you know in real life. The Second Life people took this to an extreme: They had affairs with other people in Second Life, or played characters who were the opposite gender and child-aged.

4. “‘…what does all this stuff tell us about ourselves as humans? What have we gained by externalizing our essence through these consumable electronic units of luxury, comfort, and freedom?'” (356)

* They should make a Dave Barry history book that’s a compilation of his year-in-review articles.
** That was ME!

Talking Like It’s 1844

Day’s Verse:
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”
Matthew 6:34

One thing I haven’t mentioned about reading The Count of Monte Cristo: The language. After reading it, I kept finding my language use tending toward the archaic and elaborate. This happened mewhen I read Tale of Two Cities, too, but to a lesser extent due to that book’s length. I spent a couple days with Tale of Two Cities; I spent a couple weeks with The Count of Monte Cristo. Language use I keep finding myself tending towards:

  • Lots of semicolons used in bizarre ways. Here’s a fabricated example of what semicolon use as you might see it. “‘I have so long desired to make your acquaintance;’ she said, inclining her head toward him; her lustrous eyes veiled and downcast, unable to meet his penetrating gaze.”
  • Very long, elaborate sentence construction. Real example from page 193 of the book: “Had a thunderbolt fallen at the feet of Dantès, or hell opened its yawning gulf before him, he could not have been more completely transfixed with horror than at the sound of words so wholly unexpected, revealing as they did the fiendish perfidy which had consigned him to wear out his days in the dark cell of a prison, that was to him as a living grave.” Or take this example, from page 848: “I am fond of these jars, upon which, perhaps, misshapen, frightful monsters have fixed their cold, dull eyes, and in which myriads of small fish have slept, seeking a refuge from the pursuit of their enemies.”
  • Use of vocabulary words and phrases. The previous quote included a couple in a row: fiendish perfidy. Then there’s “calumny,” or derivatives like “caluminator,” which appeared a number of times, and innumerable uses of words like “sojourn,” “peristyle,” “extricate,” not to mention impressive phrases such as “invisible, impalpable agent of celestial rewards and punishments,” “stimulated by an invincible curiosity,” and so on.

In short (too late!), my perusal of The Count of Monte Cristo has imbued me with the unquenchable desire for prose both convoluted and lengthy, unknown and unrivaled by writers for the previous century but much-beloved by those of earlier, long-passed eras.

…which is why I’m now reading a book written in 2008, This is Not a Game, in the hopes that I’ll quickly recover my propensity for 21st Century language.

PS – Today’s looking gorgeous for a bike ride: Clear skies and dry ground, which means I can ride Lucy. On the schedule: 55 miles, 4800 feet of climbing. I’ll probably end up doing a few more miles than that but since last week kicked my butt, I’m not planning on pushing the hills.