Bookshelf

  1. Currently Reading:
    Cover of Contact

    Contact

    by Carl Sagan
  2. Currently Reading:
    Cover of She Who Became the Sun

    She Who Became the Sun

    by Shelley Parker-Chan
  3. Currently Reading:
    Cover of King Lear

    King Lear

    by William Shakespeare
  4. Cover of A Master of Djinn

    A Master of Djinn

    by P. Djèlí Clark
    ★ ★

    A Master of Djinn

    by P. Djèlí Clark
    ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

    I decided to read this novel for two reasons: First, I'd read and generally enjoyed P. Djèlí Clark's previously Hugo-nominated short story The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington and the previously Hugo-nominated novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015, which is set in the same fantasy alternate-history Cairo as A Master of Djinn. Second, I'm shooting to read all the Hugo nominees this year, something I haven't done for a while, but which gives one a great feeling of being a part of something that matters.

    While the indirect prequel The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is certainly fairly light popcorn entertainment, I enjoyed the unique world and the relatively understated characters and conclusion. Well, A Master of Djinn keeps and even dives further into the popcorn, but it loses the understatement, with a world-threatening cartoon supervillain and characters drawn cartoonishly broadly.

    Actually, let's focus on the word cartoon for a moment. Throughout the time I was reading this novel, I kept thinking that the writing felt somehow less mature than what I think of as Hugo Award faire, though it's a trend I seem to detect in several of the nominees of late. I suggested to my wife that they feel like YA novels, but she shut that down, correctly pointing out that many YA novels are dark as all getout and often have a surprising amount of character depth and meaning. It was only when I made it to the pew-pew-stop-the-world-from-ending climax that it hit me: This feels like an actual cartoon. Maybe like a classic Saturday morning action cartoon or possibly even more like a Dreamworks animated tentpole (not near enough texture or emotional depth to be compared to Pixar).

    And since this seems to be representative of a whole wave of popular scifi and fantasy, it set me to wondering, is this something like a Marvel-effect, where popular entertainment aimed at twelve-year-olds is informing all the stories we tell as a culture? Or is it something else about this cultural moment that is focusing our stories on elements other than textured and deep characters? I think it might be a little of both, really, but I want to dig into the latter just a bit.

    Something undeniable about the current wave of popular sci-fi and fantasy is that there is a strong focus on inclusive stories by diverse authors, which is wonderful. But I hypothesize that there might be something of a Mary Sue phenomenon at work (or might I call it the Rey-from-the-new Star-Wars-movies phenomenon?), where we want to show that lots of different types of people can be great protagonists, but in our desire to show how awesome they are, we shy away from giving them the foibles and conflicts that create truly deep characters and nuanced situations. I could be way off here, but it's a thought.

    Which brings me back to one of the things about this novel (and these kinds of novels) which doesn't work for me. All of the central protagonists are just far too nice and understanding of each other. Sure, there are some extremely shallow moments of temporary disagreement, but it's always resolved in no time flat. Not that I want miserable characters who hate themselves and everyone else, but there's a level of mature interaction that is extremely lacking. This is a story that nominally follows the structure of classic hard-boiled noir detective fiction. But when no one gets any emotional scrapes

  5. Cover of One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America

    One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America

    by Gene Weingarten
    ★ ★ ★

    One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America

    by Gene Weingarten
    ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

    I picked up this book because, as a history fan, the idea of looking at a single day in history seemed intriguing. For me, history is a tapestry of interwoven strands, all affecting the others. And it seems probable that any random moment in time can be examined to find important moments on a thread.

    It was something of a disappointment, then, to discover that this book isn't really about history at all. Weingarten does indeed examine one randomly chosen day, but he's less interested in examining how the the events resonate down the strands of history, and more interested in simply finding juicy stories (with a few historically relevant gems sprinkled in along the way).

    And don't get me wrong, Weingarten is very good at telling his stories, as it seems that so many journalists are when they turn to longer form writing. It's just that his interests aren't as aligned with my own as I wanted. In fact, there are a couple of chapters centered around sports stories that I skimmed or skipped altogether. At the end of the day, a fun read, but not a high ranker.

  6. Cover of Twelth Night

    Twelth Night

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★

    Twelth Night

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
    Classic Shakespearean comic tropes, deftly executed. Not one of my favorites, but plenty enjoyable.
  7. Cover of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #3)

    The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #3)

    by Arthur Conan Doyle
    ★ ★ ★ ★

    The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #3)

    by Arthur Conan Doyle
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
    Holmes makes me happy every time. Delightful.
  8. Cover of Foundation's Edge (Foundation #4)

    Foundation's Edge (Foundation #4)

    by Isaac Asimov
    ★ ★ ★ ★

    Foundation's Edge (Foundation #4)

    by Isaac Asimov
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

    As fun, compulsively readable, and original as Asimov's other works. My only note is that, for me, the ending feels just a bit too pat. It's a quality of the earlier Foundation novels as well that the brilliant hero masterminds events just so, but in this one the plan of Gaia feels more like a scheme of the author's than something that is totally believable within the world of the story. Overall, I still loved it though; minor complaints only.

  9. Cover of Much Ado About Nothing

    Much Ado About Nothing

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    Much Ado About Nothing

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    One of the best comedy plays, with a rather intricate plot and little of the formula that governs most of the others. I read the scenes between Beatrice and Benedick as a forerunner to the screwball comedies of the early twentieth century. And the character of Dogberry is a sort of silly that is timelessly funny,

  10. Cover of Stand on Zanzibar

    Stand on Zanzibar

    by John Brunner
    ★ ★

    Stand on Zanzibar

    by John Brunner
    ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

    I didn't finish this book. The reasons I picked it up were that it won the Hugo award for Best Novel in 1969 and that Jo Walton, in her An Informal History of the Hugos, gives it a lot of praise. And based on those factors I stuck with it until about halfway through (of a fairly long page count), but ultimately I couldn't do it anymore. I understand why it impressed people when it came out.

    The tone of hip cynicism is very representative of the time it was written, and the slightly psychadelic found-text montage style is unique and again very of it's time. But the point of view and culture it depicts are downright nasty. Every nonwhite character is invariably refered to by their race as defining characteristic whenever they are mentioned. All females are referred to entirely as sex objects. A riot starts in a black nieghborhood simply because the locals are stirred up by a white man walking through. On top of all that, the none of the protagonists have any redeeming qualities and the plot is vague and meandering. I don't have to have my characters and stories easy to swallow, but there has to be something to make me want to keep reading.

    I doubt I'll pick up another Brunner novel any time soon.

  11. Cover of Oil!

    Oil!

    by Upton Sinclair
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    Oil!

    by Upton Sinclair
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    I really enjoyed reading Sinclair's The Jungle when I was in high school, but had never yet gotten around to any of his other works. Then a few years ago I watched Paul Thomas Anderson's brilliant and chilling There Will be Blood, which I learned is loosely inspired by this novel and its seemed like the perfect excuse to get back to Sinclair's work.

    The first thing I have to report is that the writing is superb. Lovely prose, fantastic structure, characters you can believe, sardonic humor, and messaging that is (almost) never heavy handed. I mention messaging because this book is all about capitalism versus labor (and socialism and communism). Written a hundred years ago, all the big questions it asks are still shockingly relevant today. How do we know who's version of events to believe? Where is the line between getting things done and cheating the system? How do you find balance when your beliefs are opposed to those you love most?

    It's a very long book, but one that kept me hooked the whole way through.

  12. Cover of Othello

    Othello

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    Othello

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    I've always enjoyed Shakespeare's villains. He paints them with such texture, such depth. You can really revel in Richard III's Machiavelian scheming or feel yourself sinking into Macbeth's guilt-haunted madness. And I enjoy Iago as well, but Othello is the most painful story to witness.

    Shakespeare starts the play by showing you an unlikely couple who struggles against difficult odds to be together, only for us to watch Iago destroy them both utterly, without mercy or even much explanation beyond his own slighted ego. And it's all the worse because every other character believes him to be the most trustworthy and honorable of friends.

    So perhaps of all the Bard's tragedies, this is the most tragic. It's also among the best paced and best structured. And Act IV Scene III is among the most emotionally gutting things ever written.

  13. Cover of What Technology Wants

    What Technology Wants

    by Kevin Kelly
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    What Technology Wants

    by Kevin Kelly
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    What Technology Wants is a book after my own heart. It looks deeply at the nature of not only technology, but of the trajectory of life, the universe, and everything. Much of what Kelly observes and posits runs parallel to my own ideas about how technology fits into the past, present, and future of the world, but he examines the issues with far more detail and nuance than I ever have.

    This book is dense with ideas—reading it, I probably highlighted more frequently than in any other book I've read—and many, many of them caused me to drastically reconsider or reframe the way I look at something.

    I'm demanding that my book club take this one up as our next read just because I want to see what others have to say about these big concepts.

  14. Cover of As You Like It

    As You Like It

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★

    As You Like It

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

    I'd consider As You Like It to be one of the best of the comedies. It certainly features some of the Bard's most famous turns of phrase and most eloquent speeches. The plot does meander quite a bit, but, with the help of an actual deus ex machina, everything comes together at the end and none of the threads are left dangling.

    Among the most interesting aspects of the play is Shakespeare's particularly meta-level play with gender. Toward the end, you have the boy actor who would have played the female Rosalind, masquerading as male Ganymede (a name with homoerotic mythological origins), who is play acting as a female love interest for her own unwitting lover, whilst also becoming the love interest of a female character (again acted by a boy). One can't help but wonder whether Shakespeare was just having fun or there was more behind it. (Given his sonnets, it's not unreasonable to guess that there might be.)

  15. Cover of I'm Waiting for You and Other Stories

    I'm Waiting for You and Other Stories

    by Bo-Young Kim
    ★ ★ ★ ★

    I'm Waiting for You and Other Stories

    by Bo-Young Kim
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

    A collection of four novella's is a strange format for this Korean scifi luminary's debut English-language book, but, I have to say, the stories are great. I've said before that my favorite scifi is the kind that has big ideas and wild creativity on display, and this book delivers. My only editorial note might be that the stories could probably stand to be trimmed just a bit, but the depth of exploration and humanity of the writing vastly outweight this quibble.

  16. Cover of Henry VIII

    Henry VIII

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★

    Henry VIII

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

    This one is a very middle-of-the-pack Shakespeare work. There are plenty of dramatic scenes and arresting turns of phrase, but there's really no character central enough to be considered a protagonist, no one to whom the audience ever really feels a sense of attachment. It's as though you can feel the Bard treading ever so gingerly through the messy tale of Queen Elizabeth's parentage, lest he should run afoul of his sovereign's good graces. Indeed, the play's end leans heavily into Elizabethan propaganda.

    Not that I blame Shakespeare for that. His shrewdness was certainly a part of his success. But it does mean that this particular play is more interesting as a historical artifact than as a work of drama.

  17. Cover of The Vignelli Canon

    The Vignelli Canon

    by Massimo Vignelli
    ★ ★ ★ ★

    The Vignelli Canon

    by Massimo Vignelli
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

    This short book is a great little manifesto detailing the values and methods of a master designer. The central lessons are Vignelli's emphasis on deliberate decision making, care with details, and value for simplicity.

  18. Cover of New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual

    New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual

    by Massimo Vignelli
  19. Cover of Second Foundation (Foundation #3)

    Second Foundation (Foundation #3)

    by Isaac Asimov
    ★ ★ ★ ★

    Second Foundation (Foundation #3)

    by Isaac Asimov
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
    Continuing my journey through Asimov’s Foundation series, this one continues adding complexity and questions onto the original premise. And it’s just so readable, with a plot that twists and turns.
  20. Cover of The Merchant of Venice

    The Merchant of Venice

    by William Shakespeare
  21. Cover of Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization

    Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization

    by Edward Slingerland
    ★ ★ ★
  22. Cover of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Tales of Terror

    The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Tales of Terror

    by Robert Louis Stevenson
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Tales of Terror

    by Robert Louis Stevenson
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
    I hadn’t read this since I was maybe twelve years old, and I was really surprised at how much the details and even the specific words resurfaced in my memory as I read. A classic for a reason, I enjoyed this every bit as much as when I was young.
  23. Cover of Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1)

    Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1)

    by Iain M. Banks
    ★ ★

    Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1)

    by Iain M. Banks
    ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
    This one was rather disappointing, and I confess that I didn’t make it quite all the way to the end. Too episodic. Too cartoony. Not enough depth.
  24. Cover of Design Elements: A Graphic Style Manual

    Design Elements: A Graphic Style Manual

    by Timothy Samara