December 18, 2013

The title of the thing is “Dissident Gardens”.

This is not just the setting, but the place in Queens is a character in itself.

I find that when you can say that about a novel, you have a heavy burden to populate that setting with interesting characters.  I think Lethem failed on that account.  

The novel covers three generations of leftists who live in the housing complex, focused on one family.  It opens with about eighty pages of a mother and a daughter arguing.  I had trouble figuring out who was who.  Then it switched places and time and looked at this other guy, then this other guy, and then finally this other guy.  

There’s a part where a character hallucinates that she is part of Archie Bunker’s crew hanging out at the bar.

In the span of three pages, Lethem kills off three characters with only a later elaboration on what happened. 

You start to care about the characters, and then he switches from their narrative.  It is only much later in the book when it starts to come together, but buy then I was reading to finish the thing and not to enjoy it.  I read this book over the course of three or four weeks, and I wouldn’t have finished it if not for the fact that it was a library book that was coming due.

And it is a shame, because in earlier – less ambitious – works I loved the city and the characters and the story that Lethem created. 

He doesn’t do that here, and that’s a shame.

December 17, 2013

A Personal Reflection on Religion

We were never part of one denomination.  My dad was raised catholic, but isn't religious as far as I know.  We moved a lot and went to mainline protestant churches.  I don't ever really remember believing, but that may just be looking back and creating new memories. 

I do remember sitting and church, and being young, and during silent prayer, thinking how absurd it was that I was silently talking into my hands.  That may have been first or second grade.  The last time I can remember even praying was about 4th grade, hoping to win a football game.

In late middle school, I was taken on an ice skating trip with a friend's church.  i was angry that no one told me that there was a religious ceremony beforehand.  I was "Saved" that day, but looking back, I think the lightness I felt was one more of relief, when your anxiety is proven to be baseless -- or resolved (I felt the same way as if I had received punishment, I knew the answer).  That led me to read the whole of the bible, in a modern translation.  I was trying to recapture that feeling, the affect of the whole thing but it was gone.  I started to recognize religion as much as a cultural thing as a spiritual thing.   I continued going to church, thought I hated it, mainly because my friends went there.  I stopped going once I left the house.

That emotion I felt I have replicated in a way.  In college, I was taught Buddhist meditation.  Later i was a teacher at a Catholic school, and we said the rosary once a month for about an hour with my home room.  There's a lot to be said for that mindset.  It focuses you and takes you away from the  mundane.  But for me, it was more about the process.  It feels good, but not good enough that I have sought it out in the last five years.  It is comparable to some drugs.  Sometimes, with the right people, and the right mood, and the right substances you can capture that.  I understand seeking that feeling of lightness, but it's not the supernatural.

I was never a strong believer, so I don't feel like I left anything.  The only thing I feel I lose without a church of some type is the sense of community.  Learning about the world, through science or the arts widens your view and makes accepting the culture you were raised in more difficult to do without thinking critically about it -- the standard religion is just one aspect of it. 

On a more personal level, I have never been able to resolve the theodicy argument.  Why is there bad and evil in the world.  I lost two close friends when I was young.  Allison was 12 when she was hit by lightning at a church softball game.  Tamra was the most pious woman I have ever met, and she was struck down at 20 with leukemia that came back.  If that was the work of God, I wanted no part of his world. 

I try to be moral in my everyday life.  I feel I am not as vocal as some atheists I know, but I think a lot of people are reactionary.  There was no big turning away for me.  Religion is not a part of my life, but I recognize that it is a part of the culture I live in.

December 11, 2013

Rob Delaney: No Filler (Reading the Book by the Comic)

I only know of Rob Delaney because of Twitter.  He is one of the funniest people I have come across.  He is able to pack a lot into those 140 characters. He’s a little raunchy on there, so don’t let your kids follow him.
On that site, he has been promoting his book.  Heavily.  I figured, since I like what he does with the short form, I’d read what he has to do with the long form.

He does pretty well, but I have to warn you.  The book is funny.  But that’s not all it is.  It is deep and thoughtful and poignant.  Delaney writes with the best of the comic memoirists of the past couple of years: Oswalt, Silverman, Brand, and Fey.  What makes these people tick, to generalize is often more interesting than the short things that you see that make you laugh.  Their lives have created the angle in which they see the world and explain it to their audience.

This book is more than funny because Delaney opens up his life to the reader.  He is honest about his faults: the bed wetting; the substance abuse; the hooking up with and falling in love with random Dutch women. And through this, he is able to bring light to his humor.

It is, broadly, a narrative about addiction and recovery, but it isn’t heavy-handed or cloying.  Delany’s smart, and funny, and you should read his book.  You might just see some of yourself in it.  Or you might not.  Either way, you will laugh.

Some notes.  It is relatively short, so if you’re like me and you start reading and you can’t put it down, you won’t stay up all night.  Finally, the subtitle is misleading.  I found no references Delaney being a Cabbage, and unfortunately there is no index to verify my misgivings. 

November 24, 2013

Jeff Smith's "RASL": No Bones About It

RASL means “Romance at the speed of light”.

That’s not shown until the end, so maybe me telling you that now is a spoiler.  If that is true, I apologize.  I don’t think so, because for me, that was just a throw-away line, but Smith uses it as the title of the book.  I’m not sure what to make of RASL the concept, nor RASL the book.

I liked it, but that’s incredibly subjective.  I read the whole thing pretty much in one sitting, so the story pulls you along.

There’s just that thing.

It’s not Bone.

I loved Bone.  I wouldn’t have read this if it were not for the author’s previous work, but had I read it in a universe where Bone did not exist I might be judging it differently.  Fortunately, I don’t live in that universe. I made all my friends read Bone.  I don’t think I’ll do that with RASL.

And that’s a shame for Smith, because that is going to be the point of comparison for this book, until he tops it.  I’m glad that this is so different in a way.  It shows that Smith is a powerful creative artist who can switch genres easily, even if that switch is from fantasy to science fiction.   He’s awesome, he created Bone.  And RASL.

So here’s the bottom line.  Read this book if you like science fiction, with a heavy dose of Tesla thrown in.  There is a good melding of the actual past with the possibilities that we search for in the lab and in our imaginations.  The characters are interesting and the work is nicely self-contained. If you were hoping for Bone II, this is not it.

There’s no rat creatures.  Stupid, stupid, rat creatures. 

On Brian Vaughn's "Saga", so far

A couple of weeks ago, I heard that Neil Gaiman had a new Sandman book out.  I don't fancy myself a comic fan, but I have read a lot of comics for someone that doesn't claim to be a comic fan.

Basically, I'm telling you this because I didn't go into the store with the intention of buying this book.  The Gaiman book was sold out, and I left my first visit to a comic store in maybe ever empty-handed.  I was walking away, trying to think if there was a place to buy the newest Harvard Business Review and lamenting that the local chain book shop closed two years ago.  Needing something to read while I ate lunch, I went back to the shop.

Talking to the comic book guy, I asked him for a recommendation of a book to read, specifying that I wasn't into superheroes.  There was a display up front, where some issues were being sold for a dollar. The first issue of this Saga was what he grabbed, telling me that this is a book enjoyed even by people who don't read comics.

I saw the name Brian Vaughn on the cover and I asked the guy what else he had done.  I knew the name from somewhere.  It turned out that he was the guy behind Y: The Last Man.  Because even though I don't read comics, I had read the whole run of that particular series.

So I bought that issue.  Then I got the collected volume one and two from my library, and read through them.

I like the series so far.  It is star-crossed lovers, in space with magic.  The problem is that I don't really know where it's going.  The main characters are objectors who come from races that have been at war a long time, and it is narrated by their daughter who is born in the first issue.  It is a nice set-up, but there is so much that can go wrong that I am wary of too soon proclaiming this genius.  I'll hedge, and say it is pretty good, so far.

November 16, 2013

I like my coffee to taste like coffee

Our city water is over-chlorinated. When we bought the Mr. Coffee machine, it came with a built-in water filter. With every day use, it's efficacy declined, but it was still better than the water, which lowered the quality of the coffee that is the desired output. After a week or so of using, I can say that these equal the original filter that came with the maker when we bought it in the spring. The original said that you should replace it every month, and it took five months of daily use for me to notice that it wasn't up to the original standards. I can't give these as much credit, but the build seems the same.

A note. I couldn't find these in person, so I came to Amazon. The site sells a filter set-up that has the frame and the filter. That is unnecessary. If you keep the frame that came with your coffee maker, you just need these thin, flat discs. If you follow the guidelines, it's pretty cheap. I won't follow the guidelines on replacement unless absolutely necessary.

I am a fan of: The Band "Japanther"

Japanther is one of the top five bands to ever put down chords, with a beat in the back, and to lay lyrics all over the whole thing. That so few people know this fact is a travesty. This album is one of the stronger of their albums, in my opinion. It is only surpassed by their earlier "Dump the Body in Rikki Lake," and equaled by the more contemporary "Tut, Tut, Shake your Butt". For an arty two-piece from New York, they know how to rock, but more importantly, they can write interesting songs.

I'm a big fan of: The 2014 Rocksmith video game

Here's the long and the short of it -- Rocksmith, in this and in the earlier edition, makes its easy to practice your instrument. I bought a guitar and I was working my way through chords from a book, but it was taking forever. I also had no confidence. I bought the previous edition of this game, and everything picked up. I was on chords and arpeggios and was rocking.

I liked it so much, I bought a bass, and I have been playing that along with my guitar (don't let anyone steer you otherwise, the bass is the instrument of the Gods). The old version worked, and made me want to play, but this one is even better. The songs are different, the interface is better, and it learns along with you. It is both a game and the ultimate teaching tool. If it weren't for this game, I wouldn't be looking for another guitar to replace my cheap beginner axe, nor would I ever have bought my bass.

Rocksmith is the ultimate game. Not only is it entertaining, but you learn while using it. I am old enough to remember the early computer games that tried to make typing or math fun. They didn't really work because the endeavor at the base was not inherently fun. That's the difference here. Rocksmith quantifies your abilities, and pushes you, and you get better every time you play. My wife earlier today said that she was thankful that this was the game that I wanted to play (as opposed to popular war sims etc). I'm thankful that Rocksmith exists for me to play.

November 5, 2013

Hard to read for interesting reasons: Reading Barthes's "Mythologies"

I found these kind of hard to read.  Not hard in the way that a lot of philosophical texts are in that they drop a lot of jargon on you that the author created to define terms that other authors have already defined but that you are unaware of because you had not gone through your first round of reading the whole of philosophy yet; more like hard to read because of boredom.  I couldn’t figure out why.  They are short little texts, no more than ten pages.  The premise is sound, basically pulling apart the mythos behind everyday objects.

Doing some thinking led me to think of a couple of major reasons.  First off, the essays in the book are a touchtone for some very mid-century French objects and ideas.  If I was familiar with most of what Barthes writes on, it is only in passing and some of my favorite writers are his countrymen from this period.  It felt disconcerting, but it is what I image it will be like to read a Chuck Klostermann book fifty years hence – familiar but uncanny.  Basically, my only context for what he is writing about is what I am reading at the moment.  That fact does not allow me to see anything from a new angle; it is only from Barthes’s angle that I see it.  By not being able to create my own interpretation of the validity of Barthes’s ideas, I am left alone to trust that he knows what he is talking about.

And I’m pretty sure he does, because in the texts that are unmediated solely by a Barthes’s eyes, he does have some unique insight that I have not thought about on everyday objects.  There is an essay on cleaners that is rightly noted, and I think my explanation earlier serves a reason that it is noted.  There is a later essay on cars that rings the same bell.

The other reason that this felt hard to read is that what he is doing is no longer new, if it ever was.  The edition I had ends with a long theoretical essay on “Myth Today” that explains his approach, which is adding another layer to Sausseaurain semiotics.  The problem with reading such an essay and the derivative works is that now Barthes’s influence is such that it doesn’t feel new at all, and is part of the discourse.  Overall, I’m glad I read it, and I am happy that I read it now instead of back in graduate school as an assigned text.