Breakthrough Pain

On September 3rd, my dad died due to a very agressive and rare cancer of the kidney called collecting-duct carcinoma just six weeks after first experiencing symptoms. This was nine months to the day after my mom died from metastasized breast cancer two years after her initial diagnosis.

I've learned a lot from witnessing their deaths.

I learned that when someone is in the last stages of cancer, pain management is at two levels, a base amount of pain killer, and a supplemental medication - hydromorphone in my experience - that is given for breakthrough pain. Hydromorphone, commonly called hydromorph, is administered via a butterfly IV in the upper arm area, which will be clearly labelled as there is likely another IV on the opposite arm for other drugs - sedatives, or anti-seizure medication that becomes necessary when there are metastasizes in the brain.

I learned that there is a moment when the person you know as your mother or father is essentially gone, and you are sitting with them waiting for their body to die. You begin to talk more openly with siblings about their passing, about after, though seldom with bare words like die, which is a word that sits heavily in the room whenever uttered.

I learned that you sit, and you wait, and you start to learn about how approaching death smells bad, that you will involuntarily recoil from their breath as you lean forward to whisper what may be a final goodbye and wonder if they will be gone before you come back the next day, and part of you hopes that maybe they will be, as there is no hope left beyond the hope for this all to end.

I learned that the death rattle is real.

I learned to say thank you when people express their condolences, and to wish that there was something to be done when they ask if there is anything they can do.

I learned that sometimes the person having a really bad day is me, and that I can be the person distractedly texting while walking down the street, and maybe it is true that everyone is fighting a hard battle, even the irritating ones.

I learned that it is far, far better to have asked the hard questions when you have the chance so you aren't left guessing when there are hard choices to make.

I learned that my family are an amazing bunch and will somehow make it possible to get through this, even though it's hard and there are moments when everything hits me all over again like a forgotten memory, and I just want to go sit slightly apart from the rest of humanity for a while.

One of the things about this kind of education is that it's mostly about itself - all I'm learning to do is how to grieve these particular deaths. There are no shortcuts.

Reading: January & February 2011

Rather than a ridiculous year-end summary as I did for 2010, I'm going to try and do one every couple months. On to the books!

Accelerando by Charles Stross

I described this to someone as a pretty boingboingy book, and I stand by that description. There's lots of gee-whiz stuff about uploading and replicating your consciousness and it gets a bit eye-rolling in its technophilia at times. The book rolls along because Stross knows how to plot, but the characters didn't feel very human.

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

I took a break from this book half-way through for a few months, but eventually came back and finished it. It's a bit hard to describe the plot, as I'm not sure the plot was a strong consideration for Lethem - it doesn't have the genre structure holding it up as in his earlier books, so the focus is really on Lethem's obsessions, the top one being New York city itself. The writing needs to carry this book, and it does - the characters are very well drawn, and the sci-fi elements (I refuse to use the term magical realism) are rendered in an almost deadpan way that fits the tone of the book.

Everything Matters by Ron Currie Jr

A boy is born knowing that the world wil end in exactly 36 years, 168 days, 14 hours, and 23 seconds. The novel tells the story of how he copes with this knowledge, his damaged family, and love.

I really loved this book. It has great imagination and energy, and the writing is wonderful.

Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things by Gilbert Sorrentino

A savage and raunchy novel about the literary world of New York in the 50s and 60s. I was surprised that this was from 1971, as its style was very current-feeling, with many flourishes that had a post-modern feel to them: the author addresses the reader, acknowledging that these are characters he has created, there are argumentative footnotes disputing points in the text by a Zuzu Jefferson, and you are generally never left to forget that this is a literary creation. This sounds like something that would come across as perhaps precious, but Sorrentino's acuity and passion for artistic truth keeps it grounded and real.

Plus, every once in while he pops out a line like 'they looked like the Bronte sisters arguing over a dildo,' and you keep reading to see what he'll do next.

Pastoralia by George Saunders

Saunders can pretty much do no wrong as far as I'm concerned, and this short story collection certainly didn't change my opinion. Saunders' usual set of concerns are here: corporate culture, authority, consumerism etc, and the usual imaginative settings for exploration of those concerns. The stories never feel planned, though, in that whatever ideas are being explored seem to organically reveal themselves from the characters and settings Saunders creates. If you haven't read Saunders, I mean c'mon. Read his latest in The New Yorker , and get with the program.

Star Island by Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen's Florida crime novels are pretty dependable: wacky characters, despair over environmental destruction, etc. Nobody is raped to death by a dolphin in this one, though.

Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender

Book of short stories by the author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which was one of my favorites from last year. While a lot of people seem to prefer her short stories over her novels, I liked Lemon Cake a bit more than this collection - the short stories can feel almost brutally schematic in their approach, such that the characters don't come alive as much as in the novel setting. That said, I still enjoyed the stories - there is something about Bender's use of mundane surreality that reminds me of George Saunders.

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt

I'm a big fan of Oswalt's standup, so I was really looking forward to this book, which I can best describe as an episodic memoir. That one of the best segments in the book is, oddly but somehow not unexpectedly, takes place where I grew up is a special bonus - I have zero problems believing that the nadir of his professional career would take place in Surrey (specifically Whalley, for those that are familiar). My only complaint would be that I wished the book was longer - it's a pretty quick read.


Some other long pieces of writing that I've enjoyed in the past couple months:

Year In Reading 2010 (non-fiction)

As promised! I read a lot less non-fiction than fiction this year, but I seem to have made up for it by highlighting favorite passages a lot more.

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky

A road trip with David Foster Wallace in 1996. Essential if you’re a DFW fan.

how other people regard you does not have enough calories in it, to keep you from blowing your brains out

That I think a lot of people feel—not overwhelmed by the amount of stuff they have to do. But overwhelmed by the number of choices they have, and by the number of discrete, different things that come at them. And the number of small … that since they’re part of numerous systems, the number of small insistent tugs on them, from a number of different systems and directions. Whether that’s qualitatively different than the way life was for let’s say our parents or our grandparents, I’m not sure. But I sorta think so. At least in some—in terms of the way it feels on your nerve endings.

I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy. When in fact there are parts of us, in a way, that are a lot more ambitious than that.

So I think it’s got something to do with, that we’re just—we’re absolutely dying to give ourselves away to something. To run, to escape, somehow. And there’s some kinds of escape—in a sort of Flannery O’Connorish way—that end up, in a twist, making you confront yourself even more. And then there are other kinds that say, “Give me seven dollars, and in return I will make you forget your name is David Wallace, that you have a pimple on your cheek, and that your gas bill is due.”

we’re gonna have to build some machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this. Because the technology is just gonna get better and better and better and better. And it’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right. In low doses, right? But if that’s the basic main staple of your diet, you’re gonna die. In a meaningful way, you’re going to die.

Psychotics, say what you want about them, tend to make the first move.

Because I’d like to be the sort of person who can enjoy things at the time, instead of having to go back in my head and enjoy them then.

These really—the really commercial, really reductive shows that we so love to sneer at. Are also tremendously compelling. Because the predictability in popular art, the really formulaic stuff, the stuff that makes no attempt to surprise or do anything artistic, is so profoundly soothing. And it even, even the densest or most tired viewer can see what’s coming. And it gives you a sense of order, that everything’s going to be all right, that this is a narrative that will take care of you, and won’t in any way challenge you. It’s like being wrapped in a chamois blanket and nestled against a big, generous tit, you know?

American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot by Craig Ferguson

Memoir by the late night talk show host. Ferguson is a pretty good writer, and has had an interesting life (well, interesting if you enjoy alcoholic redemption stories). Slight tendency to the sentimental, but I enjoyed it.

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

The story of the recent financial meltdown told through profiles of people that actually saw it coming and bet on it happening. Lewis makes writing clearly about complex topics look easy, and the stories he’s found of the contrarians who bet against the tide are compelling. Highly recommended.

“The single greatest line I ever wrote as an analyst,” says Eisman, “was after Lomas said they were hedged.” He recited the line from memory: “‘The Lomas Financial Corporation is a perfectly hedged financial institution: it loses money in every conceivable interest rate environment.’ I enjoyed writing that sentence more than any sentence I ever wrote.”

An investor who went from the stock market to the bond market was like a small, furry creature raised on an island without predators removed to a pit full of pythons.

Dorkismo: the Macho of the Dork by Maria Bustillos

A book about the pleasures of being an unabashed enthusiast.

It was ok, if you’re into that sort of thing. [rimshot]

I actually really liked this book; Bustillos makes a strong case for loving what you love. (Which, can be hard to do, no?)

PS - Bustillos writes regularly for The Awl, and all her pieces are worth reading.

Pity by contrast the poor avant-gardist, trapped in a permanent state of bilious disapproval, straitjacketed into his world of safe little hatreds. Nothing surprises, excites or delights him. His world-weariness has slowly eaten up his whole personality until he cannot dare to admire so much as a pair of tennis shoes, for fear they might be the wrong kind. He never permits himself to say, “Wow!” anymore, let alone shriek “ENGAGE!”, or anything else, on an airplane.

In case the reader is not familiar with the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett, they are full of the absolute wickedest people murdering babies and having incest on the q.t., while the novels of Ronald Firbank (if you could call them that,) featuring such characters as the King of Pisuerga getting “an impression of raised hats” really are camp as tits, which is a phrase I heard this Scotsman say one time.

If to be hip means to know what is au courant from what is “so five minutes ago”—to have the highest, strictest standards for such things—then necessarily, the less you love, the better you are.

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

The story of the discovery of how cholera is communicated. Well-told, captures the London of the time quite well. Kind of felt like an extended magazine article.

The collecting of human excrement was a venerable occupation; in medieval times they were called “rakers” and “gong-fermors,”

Help by Garret Keizer

As will be obvious from the number of quotes that follow, I fell in love with Keizer’s prose reading this book, an examination of the subject of help: giving it, receiving it, refusing it. Keizer’s range and subtlety of thought is impressive, as is his ability to turn a phrase.

I also have not lost my hair or any of my teeth, which another singer, James Brown, claims are the main things a man needs to hang on to. (I assume that is especially true if the man is James Brown.)

I can imagine God as a pure altruist, but I have trouble imagining a human being purified of all self-serving without also imagining a human being who thought he or she was God.

Small wonder, finally, that self-help literature can seem like so much masturbation.

If we loved symmetry more than hope, we could say that help is like the swinging door of human experience: “I can help!” we exclaim and go toddling into the sunshine; “I was no help at all,” we mutter and go shuffling to our graves.

I recognize, as Dante did, that the only help for someone lost in his own dark wood may be a willing descent into his own hell.

Along with the fight-or-flight response we have to danger, most of us have what might be called the cynic-or-sucker response to need.

Whether we were “made to suffer” or not, it would seem that we have but three basic choices with regard to deciding whether someone else was made to suffer. The first is to say that yes, he was. Either he was or I was, and the choice is in my hands. Therefore I choose to inflict suffering in the hopes that those afflicted will be rendered powerless to afflict me.

in time my shoulders broadened and whiskers darkened my chin, disco came and went, a space probe shot beyond Mars, and then my middle broadened and my beard turned gray—but those little children in Africa are still there, still watching me eat my dinner. Should I tell him that seeing yourself in your coffin is not nearly so bad as seeing yourself in hell?

Maybe I also cite it as a warning against the danger of inferring that God is trying to tell you something when it is merely your human limitations talking, and what they’re saying is that you have human limitations.

the life of a bohemian free spirit always depends on the willingness of at least a few squares to provide the free rides

Kissing a leper for his edification is a bit like riding a unicycle in front of a quadriplegic for his amusement. You had better be a saint to try a stunt like that.

To disparage an act of altruism because “it made you feel good” is like disparaging the birth of a child because the parents enjoyed conceiving it.

Perhaps that is “mission” in the fullest sense, to make music in a dark wood and to be answered by a different music, by a mating call that invites us—not to take liberties but to move a little closer.

We think of ourselves as a hedonistic society; would that we were. Hypocrisy is not hedonism. Our hypocrisy is to hoard our private pleasures and feel guilty about them at the same time, instead of relishing them in such a way that we wish—and work—for all to have their share.

Of course if everyone did what anyone did, the world would be miserable.

When you’re young, you think the best way to have literary conversations is to get a job in a bookstore; after a summer of selling cat books, you’re cured of that.

She quoted an obstetrician who had once served as her mentor: “The uterus can humble any man.” She concluded by acknowledging the paradox. “Confidence and humility may seem diametrically opposed, but the very best people have both, all the time.”

Human beings may find it difficult to feel gratitude without recalling the anguish of the moment in which they needed the assistance for which they are grateful.

We also need to recognize that an apparent lack of crisis is our crisis. That we live in “a period which must be reckoned as an exact and prolonged antithesis to a moment of truth” (John Berger), when “advertising agencies now present buying a particular model of car or acquiring a certain computer as a revolutionary gesture only slightly less radical than the storming of the Bastille” (David Rieff). We labor under the illusion of inconsequence; we’re not sure if we could find our way to hell even if we were bent on going.

Instead, I want to retort: Who are these people, Katie Carr included, who can overlook every excess and negligence performed in the name of personal fulfillment or creative expression but whose noses twitch like a diviner’s rod at the slightest eccentricity in the struggle to save human beings?

On some level we need the poor to be blameless so that, in the inevitable discovery that they are not blameless, we can be free to loathe them again. And hold ourselves blameless in our loathing. Not giving a shit, in other words. I’ll tell you what we really need. We need them not to be poor.

It is only to the innocent that the devil speaks of new knowledge and forbidden fruit; to the rest of us his undying refrain is “Cut your losses.”

That we are quicker to admire the good heart than to help it. That in the end we regard it as no less expendable than the poor.

If we fear that systemic justice will abolish mercy, then something insidious has already abolished our imaginations.

Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker by Anthony Lane

Collection of reviews and essays from The New Yorker film critic. Lane is the kind of critic you almost want to dislike movies, because he is so incredibly witty in his dislike. He can also be very playful, like in his review of the movie Yes, which he played off the movie’s use of verse for all the dialog by writing his own review in verse. (Sadly, not collected in this volume.)

Very enjoyable, and good for reading an essay at a time, although it can be hard to stop at just one.

As a rule, writers should be treated like rubber plants—lightly pruned, occasionally watered, but basically left to do their own thing in a corner, away from direct sunlight.

Obviously, I could never meet the guy; his sensitivity and height suggested someone who dealt with unappreciative critics by holding up their hearts, still beating, in front of their bulging eyes.

The primary task of the critic, (and nobody has surpassed the late Ms. Kael in this regard), is the recreation of texture—not telling moviegoers what they should see, which is entirely their prerogative, but filing a sensory report on the kind of experience into which they will be wading, or plunging, should they decide to risk a ticket.

I am as corrupt as the next man, but, I must admit, the notion that you could trim your critical opinions to accord with the fizzy water in which you recently dipped your ass had, until then, never occurred to me, and it still strikes me as impractical today.

Think of the worst possible reason that John Singleton might have had for calling his new movie Poetic Justice. Now make it worse. And again. You still won’t be close to the truth, so here goes: the main character is named Justice, and she writes poetry. Get it?

It appears to be based on the principle that nothing is as scary as hitting a drum apart from hitting it harder

The Fugitive represents quite a jump for Andrew Davis; until now, his most successful work has starred Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris, both of whom look as if they only just discovered fire last week.

Zoran is possibly the least mercurial boy in the history of movies. He is stubborn, solid, gullible, and about as elfin as a dump truck.

This movie is so insistently heartwarming that it chilled me to the marrow.

Once Murron is dead and avenged, the film gathers pace, following what sounds like a plot but is in fact an anger-management session attended by approximately ten thousand people.

Roland Joffé’s film is, in the words of the opening credits, “freely adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne,” in the same way that methane is freely adapted from cows.

I’ve eaten bowls of spaghetti that were more tightly structured than this picture;

Kilmer has many qualities, but the wholesale abandonment of ego is not one of them.

I am a major Foster fan, but one thing is perfectly clear: Ellie does not need a long trip into space. She needs to get (1) a square meal inside her, (2) some rest, and (3) laid. As a matter of fact, she does get laid, early in the film, but only by Matthew McConaughey, and that doesn’t count. It certainly has very little effect

An alien watching modern movies would think that human intercourse consisted of nothing more than two faces approaching and docking in horizontal silhouette.

Richard Burton took a rockbound Bavarian fortress with the calmness that comes only to those who have previously stormed Elizabeth Taylor

it isn’t every day that you get a chance to deliver the line “My pajamas are all tailored.”

The time is then. The place is Egypt. The boy is born. The prognostication is dodgy. The answer is bulrushes. The boy is launched. The boy is found. The adoption process is unimpeded by interference from government agencies. The dad is Pharaoh. The brother is Rameses. The stage is set. The day is dawning. The bush is burning. The bush is talking. (“I am what I am.” The bush is Popeye?) The message is clear.

One shouldn’t make a fuss about this, but, still, if I go to see a movie entitled The Mummy I feel that I have a democratic right to expect bandages.

Cruise spends so long in the air, getting his little legs ready for the killer kick, that his opponent could easily wander off, have a cup of coffee and a doughnut, and still make it back in time to get it in the neck.

At the time, most critics scorned the picture as deafening and dumb; in retrospect, it feels like a mature, even witty, exercise in self-reference, considering that the effect of watching a Michael Bay film is indistinguishable from having a large, pointy lump of rock drop on your head.

There was even a birdbrained screen version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which a friend of mine, ignoring all warnings, paid to see. A fortnight later, he was sitting up and back on solids, but it was a close thing.

In his last two books, Jurassic Park and Rising Sun, the issues raised were, respectively, “Look out! Raptors!” and “Look out! Japs!”

The result, in the case of The Day After Tomorrow, is not so much a novel as a six-hundred-page fact sheet with occasional breaks for violence, cunningly arranged to give readers the illusion that they are in the holy presence of truth. Hence my favorite moment in the book, the most exquisitely boring clause to be found anywhere in the bestsellers: “Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt.”

“Sexual activity almost always occurs in private and is usually talked about in highly routine and nonrevealing ways,” they say. To which the only possible reply is: Fuck off.

Lear, with his connoisseur’s palate for oddity, would have appreciated the shameless way in which Levi arrives at afterthoughts without appearing to go via thoughts.

The first time Erica sees him, she knows that he is the one. You can tell this from the sudden, mad zing in the prose: “Another thing that was interesting about him was the structure of his face.” How can she resist it?

When Rand writes of one character that “the oval of his chest and stomach sallied forth, flying the colors of his inner soul,” what she means is “He was fat.” But that would never do.

Karl, meanwhile, made steady headway through a pile of frankfurters with a side dish of mustard. He might as well have hung a sign over his head saying “I’m still German.”

Marxist dialectic would dismiss all this as commodity fetishism, but the trouble with Karl Marx is that, through no fault of his own, he never saw Helena Christensen wearing a flame-colored, rhinestone-studded bikini thong.

a room of those exquisite Indian miniatures in which the woman’s calm, otherworldly gaze suggests not that she is nearing climax but that she is trying to remember where she put the keys to the elephant.

On Some Faraway Beach by David Sheppard

Fairly exhaustive biography of Brian Eno. If you’re interested in Eno, I’d recommend it. If you’re not, not so much.

Role Models by John Waters

Collection of essays from the director. I’m not the hugest John Waters fan, and this didn’t really change my mind. Waters can be provocative, but he can also try too hard to be so.

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein

Speaking of trying too hard - Adelstein has a great story to tell, about covering the crime syndicates in Japan as a foreign reporter, and having his life threatened for uncovering some of their secrets, but his over-excited prose got in the way for me—you don’t need to oversell this story, but it felt like Adelstein did time and time again with language so hard-boiled it neared parody.

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier

The story of Frazier falling in love with the idea and reality of Siberia. He is so detailed and evocative on the horror of Siberian mosquitoes in summer that I don’t quite want to go there, but I certainly felt like I learned what it would be like to visit, plus a whole bunch of incidental Russian history. Recommended.

“Why did I come back here?” she repeated. “This place is insane. The women’s bathroom is totally insane.” “Why is the women’s bathroom insane?” “In the women’s bathroom there is a woman doing her dishes. Where could she have come from? I have no idea. There are dishes and pots all over. She is scrubbing away. There are chicken bones on the edge of the sink.”

I was made a bit nervous, however, by the resort’s manager, a large, blunt-featured man in a thigh-length sport shirt, and especially by his habit of carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle everywhere he went. He carried it any old way, however he happened to have last picked it up—by the barrel, by the butt, by the strap—as if it were some miscellaneous object he was bringing in from the car. Once passing by the dining hall I saw him clearing tables after breakfast as his Kalashnikov leaned muzzle-down against the wall nearby. Also, several horses roamed the resort grounds, and they loved to knock their heads against the cabins. You’d be taking a nap and—thunk—the head of a horse just outside would hit the wall.

The smell of America says, “Come in and buy.” The smell of Russia says, “Ladies and gentlemen: Russia!”

Learning Russian (or trying to) showed me that in my everyday life, perhaps like many adults, I use my brain mainly for scheming.

Year in Reading 2010 (Fiction)

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One of the really nice things about the Kindle is that it's a lot easier to know what books I've read this year. While it's not exhaustive, as I still have a hardcopy book habit going on, the Kindle took over a lot of my reading. The kindle website also makes it pretty easy to pull out a list of what you've read and any highlighted passages and notes.

What follows is a brief summary of all the fiction I read on the Kindle - I may go back and add some physical books I read as well as I remember what they were (all I really remember is Sophie's Choice, but I'm sure there were others). All quoted passages are ones I highlighted as reading - the number of quotes is probably some indication of how much I enjoyed some of the writing in the book.

I'll be adding non-fiction (a somewhat shorter list) in a future post.

The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott

I enjoy Elliott's unadorned style, which feels very honest and open. The book is a mix of memoir and true-crime book as Elliott becomes obsessed with the Hans Reiser murder case while also suffering from a bad case of writer's block. He totally nails the technical details when explaining what a file system, which is always nice to see in a non-technical book. Recommended.

And if you're like me, that's going to be a time when you're making your living selling drugs out of your freezer, living in a squat a bullet away from Cabrini Green. You'll have to represent something, like the other side of the tracks, but safe. Someone who, when the time comes, when the party's over, she can turn around and guide to a place where life is a little more predictable. But when the party was over I didn't want to turn around. I didn't want to go to law school or get a real job or love only one person forever though in many ways she was the most loveable person I was ever going to meet. It didn't matter. I had to test my dissatisfaction.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Stephenson is one of my favorite authors, so I was well prepared to be totally into this book. Ultimately, though, my feelings on it were mixed. Some of this was probably due to the made up word problem, but I think the overall issue was that the emphasis was ultimately too much on world-building, not enough on exploring the world. There was still lots of great writing and enough of a narrative drive to get me through all 960 pages, so maybe I just need to try again?

"Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs,"" I said. "We have a protractor."

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

Loved it. Can't say enough good things about Lipsyte. If funny and profane writing is your thing, you owe it to yourself to read everything he's written. (I am totally serious).

All was peachy and near utopic until I rose for a beer. At that moment the knowledge just disappeared, tilted out my earhole. I'd have to start again, or else concede my memory palace was a panic room.

There was Bernie on the sofa, watching his favorite show, the one where children mutated into gooey robots, sneered. It was like a parable from a religion based entirely on sarcasm.

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

As will become abundantly clear, I went on a major Stross bender this year. I go through an on-again, off-again relationship with sci-fi, and Stross flipped the bit to fully on. I first came across Stross because of his blog, and I've now bought enough of his books that the royalties should cover at least a month of hosting.

This book is the first in The Laundry Files series, and I think it's a good starting point to get into Stross (this or Halting State) as it plays to his strengths as a writer: funny, deeply and knowledgeably geeky, strong and clever narrative. The Laundry Files concerns a secret British spy agency called The Laundry that deals with a Lovecraftian underworld of magic, zombies, demons, and other nasty stuff that the general population would rather not know about. The funny comes in large part due to The Laundry also being a horrendous government bureaucracy that the geeky hero (Bob Howard) has to navigate while trying to prevent the destruction of the known universe.

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

An intertwined story of people reinventing their lives. It's well written and the story pulled me along with its whodunit-level urgency, but it hasn't really stuck with me. This may be due to a general resistance I have to stories where unrelated characters end up being 'unexpectedly' involved with each other - while this can be a reliable way to keep up narrative drive, as you get to see the connections before the characters do and want to see how the stories ultimately join, it tends to make me think too much of the structure underlying what's going on, and once I'm paying more attention to the architecture, I start to see the characters as less alive.

See this for an alternate view - it's what convinced me to read it, although I ultimately ended up not agreeing with their take.

Bangkok 8 & Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett

Detective novels set in Bangkok. As I read the second one, you can surmise that they're not horrible. As I didn't read the third, you can surmise they're not fantastic. Burdett gets a lot of mileage from his atypical detective, a half-Thai buddhist police detective named Sonchai Jitpleecheep, and the lurid Bangkok setting. Not that I think Bangkok is lurid, but when your main character is the son of a prostitute and partner in her new bar venture, lurid is kind of what you get. Sonchai's buddhism is rendered respectfully and with some depth, but there's a certain level of belief that must be suspended to think this is a very true representation of how a Thai character might think, constant references to the reader as Farang aside.

If you can get past the problematic issues of representation of national character by a non-native, the books are fun, and do contain what would seem to be a certain insider knowledge of the prostitution game in Thailand.

The City & The City by China Mieville

Loved it. Somewhat of a departure for Mieville, as it's as much a detective novel as a sci fi novel. The setting for the novel is the SF part: a city that is actually two cities at once co-existing with each other by means of 'unseeing' the inhabitants and buildings of the other city. It's a rich premise that I could imagine being the basis of a Saramago novel, but in the case it's the setting for a murder mystery that has a cynical detective moving between the two cities to attempt to solve the case.

Highly recommended.

Infected & Contagious by Scott Sigler

Horror sci-fi. Liked it enough to read both. Completely genre, but not generic.

Deliverance by James Dickey

Basis for the movie, which is mostly famous now for Dueling Banjos and Ned Beatty squealing like a pig. I decided to read it because of Dwight Garner's 40th anniversary article, and am glad I did. Garner notes that it does seem to be a type of book that isn't really written any more, and I would tend to agree - manliness is not the same thing it was 40 years ago, culturally speaking.

Time-capsule nature aside, this is a pretty great book. Dickey's characters are real, and his eye is fantastic.

A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge

One of the classic space opera novels. It is kind of fun to note how the usenet-like news communication system dates the novel in certain ways, as I don't think this aspect would be constructed in the same way were it to be written today. This is not really a criticism, just an observation as to how the technology of the day can fix even the most forward looking novel to a particular time and place. I'm sure the space operas of today will look weirdly web-centric in 20 years as well.

That observation aside, this novel is a lot of fun, and has a crazy amount of imagination and verve in the world building. One example: one of the worlds involved in the main plot is dominated by a dog/wolf-like race where an 'individual' is actually formed from at least 3 separate creatures that communicate via high-frequency sound. The ramifications of this are well integrated into the story and fun to figure out.

The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

The third Laundry Files novel. Recommended.

Glasshouse by Charles Stross

My least favorite of the Stross novels I read this year. The basic idea of consciousness that can be transferred to different bodily forms is fun enough, but the basic engine of the plot - main character ends up in a simulacrum of present day culture, and mayhem eventually ensues - fell flat for me, and I could see all the cultural commentary coming from a million miles away: sexual hang-ups, misogyny, etc. etc.

Halting State by Charles Stross

From my least favorite Stross to one of my favorites - as mentioned above, I think this is a good starting point for Stross. Set in a near-future of pervasive augmented reality and seriously massive multiplayer games, it follows three main characters as they try and solve a massive theft from a MMO. Tons of fun, well-written, and soaked in some serious nerd cred.

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

Look, I know it's Young Adult ok? At the time, I needed something non-taxing, and for some reason a tween-oriented running game dystopia seemed like the way to go. Recommended if you want to have something to talk about with your 12 year old niece or some-such; judging by the sales figures they've all read these. And at least with these you don't have sparkly vampires.

Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross

Sequel to Singularity Sky. Great space opera fun.

The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross

Second book in The Laundry Files series. Great fun.

Kraken by China Mieville

Neverwhere + The Laundry Files + Cthulhu = pretty great, actually. All hell breaks loose (literally!) when a preserved giant squid is stolen from a London museum. You can tell Mieville had tons of fun writing this.

The Master And Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

One of those classic novels I've always been intending to read. Now I have. Really liked it.

The Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross

Multiworld alternate history high fantasy that is ultimately about developmental economics. Tremendous fun, and Stross' ability to develop the ramifications of his ideas is fantastic. This is a six-volume series, but they're pretty quick reads, and now that they're all published there's no worries about cliffhangers that won't be resolved for a year.

If that's not convincing enough, how about the fact that Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman is a huge fan?

Newton's Wake: A Space Opera by Ken MacLeod

I certainly didn't intend for this to be The Year I Read Space Operas, but here we are. As a bonus, this one also covers the Singularity, a popular feature of the genre. I enjoyed it, and you will too if the terms Space Opera and Singularity are meaningful to you.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Lovely and sad novel about a girl who can taste other people's emotions through the food they make. I hadn't really known of Bender before coming across an interview that made me curious about her work, and I'm sure I'll be reading more. Bender has a very observant eye, and uses the fanciful well in exploring her character's emotions.

Find a Wife hadn't been on any visible list, but he'd proposed earlier than most of his peers and something did seem to get checked off inside him once they were married.

Mom's smiles were so full of feeling that people leaned back a little when she greeted them.

Several of the girls at the party had had sex, something which sounded appealing but only if it could happen with blindfolds in a time warp plus amnesia.

Red Lightning by John Varley

Second book in the Red Thunder trilogy, this is Varley in nearly full-on Heinlein mode. (thankfully not late Heinlein, either). Enjoyable, but thin. Haven't picked up the third in the series yet, as there seem to be some diminishing returns.

Saturn's Children by Charles Stross

Speaking of late Heinlein modes... ok, yes, this is novel about an obsolete sexbot. Stross mostly avoids the misogyny, at least, and crafts an entertaining novel about, yes, an obsolete sexbot (humans are extinct) attempting to carve out a life for herself in a plot that stretches across the solar system.

Savages by Don Winslow

Picked this up because of a rave review, but was not similarly blown away. It's a supercharged crime novel, and while it certainly has a high energy level, I actually found the characters thin and unlikeable - often just barely functional as schematics in the plot. Maybe I've been away from the crime genre for too long, or read this when I wasn't in the right frame of mind for it - Winslow has lots of fans, and there was a lot done right.

The Siege by Helen Dunmore

Unsentimental but beautiful story of surviving the siege of Leningrad. Oddly, this kind of made me want to visit Saint Petersburg, as it does such a great job of generating a feeling of place that I'd like to find out if it matches.

Singularity Sky by Charles Stross

Space Opera! Singularity! Stross! Need I say more? (I really liked it. Treading some common paths, but with a hell of a lot of flair.)

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

The story of how Skippy, well, dies, amidst the chaotic world of a Catholic boys' school in Dublin. Very ambitious, funny, and ultimately sad. Murray can turn a hell of a phrase.

Wherever he goes it is with two or three bodies' worth of empty space around him, as if he's accompanied by an invisible retinue of pitchfork-wielding goblins, ready to jab at anyone who happens to be harbouring an impure thought.

Dennis, an arch-cynic whose very dreams are sarcastic, hates the world and everything in it, especially Ruprecht, and has never thrown himself into anything, with the exception of a largely successful campaign last summer to efface the first letter from every manifestation of the word 'canal' in the Greater Dublin Area, viz. the myriad street signs proclaiming ROYAL ANAL, WARNING! ANAL, GRAND ANAL HOTEL.

Afterwards, the team huddles shivering by the doorway of the changing room, hands pressed under armpits. When you get out of the water the air feels cold and nothingy. Your arm moves and it moves against nothing. You speak and the words disappear instantly.

It's no secret that Father Green hates teaching, and he especially hates teaching French. Lessons are frequently suspended for tirades -- usually directed at Gaspard Delacroix, the unfortunate exchange student -- on the subject of France's decadence. He seems to believe the language itself to be morally corrosive, and most of the class is spent doing grammar, where its grossness can be partly contained; even then, those languorous elisions, those turbid glottals, enrage him. But what doesn't enrage him? Air particles enrage him.

'Violence solves everything, you idiot, look at the history of the world. Any situation they have, they dick around with it for a while, then they bring in violence. That's the whole reason they have scientists, to make violence more violent.'

Sleepless by Charlie Huston

A post-apocalyptic world without zombies - is that allowed? Apparently yes! 'The Sleepless' of the title are the victims of a disease that robs them of the ability to sleep, so while zombie-esque, they have none of the typical zombie traits (violence, face-gnawing). On top of this milieu is a crime thriller that's ultimately about trying to find hope in a hopeless situation. Nicely done characters, tightly plotted, recommended.

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

After a generally well regarded debut novel, Then We Came to the End, this one really seemed to divide people. The main driver of the plot is the main character's periodic uncontrollable urge to walk. On this somewhat silly-sounding premise, Ferris builds a melancholy tale of love and loss that definitely wouldn't work if Ferris wasn't such a compelling and controlled writer. I found myself drawn into the world and characters, and felt the melancholy of the ending well-earned. Recommended.

Winner of the National Book Award: A Novel of Fame, Honor, and Really Bad Weather by Jincy Willett

Also winner of the title of the year. Darkly funny story of two sisters that are pretty much the opposite of each other. Not going to say more, as I'm just going to say it's a lot of fun.

Mother lived in a magical world, where the unbearable was blinked away even if it was ululating and pointing and hopping up and down in front of you, and the past was always rosier than actual experience.

Committees turn these things out. They probably had some kind of poster contest, and this won. A group of educated adults decided how many tens of thousands of these things to create, and how to disseminate them, and of course the government's in on it, and it's a federal offense not to put this up on a restaurant wall, and every day millions of people look at it, whether they realize it or not, and the real message comes through, sinks in, we absorb it like trees absorb carbon dioxide, and the message is: THERE IS NOTHING SO OBVIOUS SO NATURAL SO INSTINCTIVELY RIGHT THAT IT CANNOT BE SPELLED OUT AND MADE SIMPLE ENOUGH FOR A MORON LIKE YOU.

There's even a best-selling paperback novelist living in Frome, Dante Minuto, whom none of us has ever seen, who writes Ludlumesque thrillers with Ludlum-esque tides, like The Marchpane Cicatrix and The Wiesenheimer Punctilio.

they were encapsulated in that aura of intimacy and exclusivity that young couples cast about themselves like a toreador's flashy cape. She was playing wife, he was playing husband, and they were both full of shit.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Sequel of a sorts to Oryx and Crake.

Atwood writes great dystopias, and this continues in that tradition. While not at The Road levels, you shouldn't look to this to cheer you up, unless considering the all-too-possible self-annhilation of the human race really does it for you.

A Farewell

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There's a species of cat owner that is convinced that their own personal feline is pretty much the best on the planet. For the past eight years I've been that kind of cat owner, as I shared my life with Mrrt, who joined us as Felicia from my sister, but quickly found a new onomatopoeic name thanks to her regular chatter. She's been a constant and welcome presence in my life as the us became just me, and it got to be impossible to imagine my apartment without her in it. Sadly, I'm going to have to start doing just that, as she died on Wednesday after a long decline from kidney problems. I am constitutionally allergic to being maudlin in public, but for her I'll make an exception: thanks for being part of my life. I'll miss you and always remember you fondly, and you really were the best cat on the planet.

PS: A big thanks to West King Edward Animal Clinic, who were always friendly and helped me keep her healthy for a long time.

So very sorry

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It's true, I have removed my copy of the beloved DFW commencment speech. As I thought might be obvious, the recent publication of the text in book form brought a stern copyright enforcement letter to my door. I lack the time and money necessary to fight such a thing, so, as much as it meant to me to play a small role in making it known to people, I won't be hosting it any more.

Happy googling.

Weschler on Trevor and Ryan Oakes

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Lawrence Weschler, who is pretty much my favorite writer of non-fiction at the moment, has an article in the latest issue of Virginia Quarterly Review. It examines the art of Ryan & Trevor Oakes, who are doing some really fascinating work with perspective. You should read it.

There were the conversations as well in which they began to take note of the curious way in which their noses severely narrowed the expanse of their depth of field. They became convinced that a person's nose, even though usually occluded by the operations of his visual cortex such that it tended to disappear from view, served to anchor the scene before him, though not in the way one might expect, as a beacon pointing the way ahead right down the middle of his visual field. Rather, it might be more accurate, in considering bifocal vision, to think of the nose as appearing doubled to either side of the visual field, as if it were bracketing or bookending the scene before us (blocking the right eye's leftmost view, and the left eye's rightmost). And this was a phenomenon, they came to feel, with implications not only for vision generally but for art-making in particular. One day Ryan was studying a recent suite of abstract paintings by Trevor and, never one to accept the arbitrary nature of anyone's mark, he took to focusing in particular on a seemingly recurrent triangular motif off in the lower corner of several of the paintings. "Wait a second, Trevor," he announced exultantly. "That's our nose!" Such shapes appeared not only in Trevor's paintings but in those of other students as well. And indeed, come to think of it, in those of all sorts of other, far more accomplished artists.

The Chicago Reader did a long piece on them last year; it also details how Weschler's relationship with them formed - he actually played a small but significant role in the development of their careers.

Captured Time

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This bit from the film Spectre of Hope has been on my mind recently:

This notion of capturing the world in what is cumulatively a very small amount of time is interesting to me, and I realized that, given that all of my digital photos record the exposure for each frame, I could calculate exactly how much actual time I have recorded. I wrote a script (details on that after the jump) to do just this for all the photos I've taken since I got my first camera in 2002, and the total exposure time for 27611 images is 2360.473 seconds, or a bit under 40 minutes. That I take the occasional long exposures inflates this figure to a certain extent, but even with that it's a small amount of time for something that feels a lot longer.

By the way - Spectre of Hope is currently available in its entirety on YouTube in 5 parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

Item the first: Popular article where you should absolutely read the whole thing: Wall Street on the Tundra.

Walking into the P.M.’s minute headquarters, I expect to be stopped and searched, or at least asked for photo identification. Instead I find a single policeman sitting behind a reception desk, feet up on the table, reading a newspaper. He glances up, bored. “I’m here to see the prime minister,” I say for the first time in my life. He’s unimpressed. Anyone here can see the prime minister. Half a dozen people will tell me that one of the reasons Icelanders thought they would be taken seriously as global financiers is that all Icelanders feel important. One reason they all feel important is that they all can go see the prime minister anytime they like.

Secondly - Late to the party award, I just read Hiroshima, by John Hersey. One of the more famous pieces of journalism to come out of World War 2, and deservedly so. I am in awe just thinking about what it must have been like to do the reporting for this.

Lastly - Apparently when I’m not being paid to code, I code for free, hence a new little thing I’m calling Twitter Day. Of interest only to people that know and use Twitter. (And quite possibly not even then.)

Outtakes

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I took both of these shots in London last year. Even though the focus is better in the first shot, I like the second shot a lot more: no other people, better composition, and a more intimate pose. It's the one I ended up posting to flickr.

I felt more comfortable taking shots like this in London than I typically do here; there was a much greater feel of anonymity.

This is marginalia.org, a weblog by Bill Stilwell. I take the occasional photo.

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