Saturday, September 19, 2015

Light reading round-up

As always, the peaks and troughs of joy and anxiety - I will never again find a good novel to read, this novel's amazing, this novel's OVER and what am I going to read next?!?

Some Nordic crime fiction: Jussi Adler-Olsen's new Department Q installment (I can't get a handle on the tone of these, but they're not bad); two pleasantly bland Icelandic crime novels by Yrsa Sigurdardottir; Camilla Lackberg, The Drowning (well-written but wildly implausible, and I am annoyed to realize I have come very late to this series, I would have been better off starting at the beginning of the sequence but I didn't like this one so much that I really want to go back to the same characters years earlier); Kristina Ohlsson's The Unwanted (the best of this batch I think, and I am going to order the next one right away).

A fun novel in Sandman Slim vein, Chris Holm's The Collector. (Covers are wasted on me, but this design is very charming, and the book was well-written - second installment already downloaded.)

A high fantasy novel I found remarkably good (hugely impatient now for next segment of story!): Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. So good! (Robert Redick is the other author in not dissimilar vein that I've read recently with comparable enjoyment.)

And two absolutely delightful novels in a subgenre that's a favorite of mine, near-future Gibsonesque surveillance-society noir: Paul McAuley, Something Coming Through and Edward Ashton, Three Days in April. I thought both of these were extremely good - fresh voices, appealing characters, funny and interesting writing. One has aliens, one doesn't, but the literary DNA is similar in either case....

Mail order

Economics of the dark web. (Shades of Lee Child's new Jack Reacher novel!)

Plague, pestilence

What was the plague that hit Athens in the summer of 430 BCE?

Veils of technology and speculation

At Public Books, N. Katherine Hayles on narratives of human extinction by Neal Stephenson and Kim Stanley Robinson.


Sending a potato in the mail.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Cintra Wilson is a genius!

I've been looking forward to this book for a long time (here's where I first heard about it from Cintra) and it did not disappointment. This is as funny as her still-underrated novel Colors Insulting to Nature and as smart and sharp as her best political writing. I loved it and didn't want it to end! In my mind, the best sections are the ones on Beltway fashion (a must-read!), Utah and the women of the south - in some sections of the book, the integration of the old Critical Shopper columns feels a bit awkward, as they are very funny and full of aphoristic zingers but don't tend to have the depth of some of the newer analysis written specifically for the book - but it is altogether a wonderfully intelligent and funny comment on contemporary American culture.

Here's the Southern Belle bit excerpted at Salon; here's a good interview at WWD.

Closing tabs

School started!

It's tiring but exhilarating: certainly my favorite time of year. Just teaching one class this semester due to extensive committee responsibilities (interesting ones, not tedious at all): the eighteenth-century novel survey. Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year is up first: this is an incredible book, everyone should read it....

Closing tabs:


It's on my "bucket list" (I hate that expression, but it's unavoidable!) to publish a book with Graywolf.

A nice interview with the author of The Three-Body Problem.

"Black Chronicles II": photographs of people of color in Victorian England.

Duane Swierczynski on M. Night Shyamalan's latest.

Death of a white alligator.

Sisyphean Funtime! (Via Jonathan L.)

Wish I could be in Dublin to see this.

Colum McCann on the tunnels beneath NYC.

Light reading:

I read so many lightweight novels last week that I experienced a sudden and intense and altogether uncharacteristic revulsion towards all fiction! Individually a number of these were very good, but the cumulative effect was slightly sickening (a-la Double-Stuf Golden Oreos).

Seanan McGuire's new October Daye novel, A Red-Rose Chain (very satisfying installment in good series, though her Mira Grant books are more exactly to my taste);

David Lagercrantz, The Girl in the Spider's Web (very good, certainly up to standard of the original series - probably better than installments 2 and 3);

Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown (enjoyable but light; suffers from the inevitable comparison to Susanna Clarke, and also gives me that feeling - most Regency pastiche does this to me - that Georgette Heyer has a lot to answer for! Naomi Novik was wise to take Patrick O'Brian as her Austen-via influence rather than Heyer for the Temeraire books);

Terry Pratchett's final Discworld installment, The Shepherd's Crown (I think the Tiffany Aching books, together with the "Death" subset of the Discworld books, are really Pratchett's most sublime accomplishments - plus Good Omens of course - some of the recent Discworld books have felt pretty thin/overly ideological [trains! progress!], but I very much enjoyed this one);

Nancy Kress, Yesterday's Kin;

Mary Robinette Kowal, Shades of Milk and Honey (not the author's fault, really, but I know Austen's work too well to enjoy this kind of pastiche - this was the one that tipped me over to feeling that many moons would pass before I would again pick up a fantasy novel set in this period!).

Brief turn to nonfiction: Richard Lloyd Parry's gripping People Who Eat Darkness and also Cintra Wilson's new book, which deserves a post of its own.

Really I can't stay off the fiction for long, though: I very much enjoyed Christopher Barzak's Wonders of the Invisible World, and then of course - red-letter day! - Lee Child's new Jack Reacher novel, Make Me. Wildly implausible of course in all sorts of respects, but I love these books so much, and I thought this was a very good installment: the writing is focused, energetic in a way that not all of the recent books have demonstrated.

Finally, I fulfilled the terms of an old promise to B. - that I would watch all of season I of Orphan Black so that we could watch the second season together (he having correctly assessed it as belonging to the small subset of television that I would particularly enjoy).

Monday, September 07, 2015

"An aliquot of gefilte fish every waking hour"

In his last days, Oliver Sacks rediscovered the pleasures of a food of his youth. (Via Becca.) Shades of Lear here: "Men must endure. Their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all."

Also: Jerome Groopman on Sacks' autobiographical writings (with some especially interesting thoughts on what happened when one of Sacks's older mentors plagiarized extensively from his work on migraines after discouraging Sacks from publishing such "trash"):
Sacks attributes Friedman’s bad behavior to a role reversal of the “youthful son-in-science” outshining “the father.” I take a less generous view. Serving on grant review committees, I have observed senior researchers who are fair and well-intentioned, but also those who slam proposals from creative investigators, then steal their ideas. Similar fratricide occurs with submitted manuscripts, with reviewers denigrating competing research so it is not published. There is an ugly side to the scientific hierarchy that comes from unchecked lust for success and fame.
I have been thinking very strongly, over this last week or so, about the fact that while it is easy to descend into a swirling array of plans for self-improvement amidst lashings of self-criticism, I could really boil down my remaining life goals to one thing: to make sure that everything I write from now on aspires to whatever I can muster of the spirit and kind of Sacks's best writings!

Friday, September 04, 2015

The sorrows of gin

My former student Siobhan Phillips on women and the gin market.

Values of the 19th century

At the Guardian, Stefan Collinis diagnosis after reading the latest volume of Isaiah Berlin's letters:
Berlin’s admirers are prone to say that there is mean-spirited, reverse snobbery at work in criticisms of his constant hobnobbing with the rich, powerful and well-connected. But the justifiable charge against him here is not that he liked the company of such people: it is that his cultivated intimacy with such circles habituated him into thinking of himself as being on the inside, able to pull strings and to drop a word in the ear of those with one kind of power or another without having to mount a properly argued case in public, which might then have been open to challenge. He enjoyed his insider status and he liked his opinions to have influence, but he hated to have to acknowledge them publicly or to be drawn into controversy over them. He undeniably possessed a streak of deviousness or even cowardice, and his genuinely liberal principles were often in tension with his equally deep need to be liked and admired.