Bragan Reads on in 2019, Pt 3
Join LibraryThing to post.
OK, I am back with my post for the third quarter of 2019. I was going to do what I did last time and include a "story thus far" listing of what I read earlier in the year, but LT didn't seem to like me dumping quite that many touchstones on it at once, and I didn't have the patience to force it to, so I'm just going to jump in with my first book for this half of the year. If you want to see my previous six months' worth of reading, you can find them here and here.
For now, on with the books!
53. On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
This is the autobiography of neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks. Although it should maybe be noted that he glosses over his childhood pretty quickly, having already turned that into a memoir with Uncle Tungsten.
What's most striking about this account, really, is how surprising the portrait of Sacks' youth is. I've seen this guy on TV and heard him talk on podcasts and such, and he always came across as shy and a little dorky, in a sweet way, as a brilliant but perhaps slightly dotty old academic fascinated by brains and books and classical music and about as tame and unhip as a human being can get. So it was interesting and a little amusing to read about how he spent his younger years setting weightlifting records and speeding around the US on his motorcycle and having doomed gay love affairs and taking disturbing amounts of amphetamines. Just goes to show that you should never judge anyone by appearances, and to remind us that every quiet, sweet old person was younger and wilder once.
Mind you, I found these accounts of his youth interesting mainly in that they were amusingly unexpected, rather than because they were fascinating in themselves. The book, on the whole, is a fairly disjointed series of personal recollections which range from only very mildly interesting to somewhat intellectually stimulating or rather touching, with those last two becoming more common later in the book. His accounts of his research and writing are, unsurprisingly, the most engaging parts, or at least they were for me, as they make a nice (if not really necessary) supplement to his other books. I'd say if you've read those and want a little bit of a personal, behind-the-scenes perspective on them, or if they've made you curious about the person behind them, it's may be worth picking up.
If you haven't read them, and are at all interested in medicine, the brain, or how human being beings work, I recommend some of them very strongly. There is a sense of intelligence, humanity, and deep curiosity that comes out even better in those, perhaps, than in this autobiography, and the subject matter is weird and wonderful and incredibly thought-provoking. Start, I'd say, with either Awakenings or The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It's worth it.
54. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
It's been nine years since a super-flu pandemic essentially wiped out the world, but Hig has survived. He lives at what was once a small airport in Colorado with a gun nut he maybe can't exactly call his friend, his aging dog, and a small plane that he still flies regularly, even though there are a very limited number of places to go.
This is definitely on the literary end of the post-apocalyptic subgenre, full of all kinds of highly affecting emotion: pain, grief, numbness, hope. The writing is terrific, in a way that calls to mind the old adage that you can break all the rules, if you know what you're doing. Heller very much knows what he's doing, and he makes this feel, for the most part, like an effortlessly believable look inside his character's head.
I will say that I found the first half or so of the novel better than the second half, just because when Hig finally meets some other human beings, there's something about them that doesn't ring quite as true to me as Hig and his partner-in-survival do. Which is probably the only reason I'm giving this four and a half stars instead of the rarely-bestowed five.
55. The Rift by Rachael Craw
Black Water is an island that's home to some kind of interdimensional rift, an ancient herd of magical deer, and a hereditary line of rangers with supernatural powers who are sworn to protect them. But the deer have a substance in their antlers that can be used to make powerful medications, so representatives of a pharmaceutical company are allowed onto the island once a year for a cull.
It seemed to me like an interesting genre-blending set-up, but I was rather disappointed by how little the novel does with it. The more real-world-feeling side of things is hugely underdeveloped, and the pharmaceutical company and its methods themselves are more magic than medicine and more plot device than either. There is a lot of scope here for some interesting themes about magic and science and capitalism and human need vs. environmental preservation, and such, but none of it really gets explored.
What we do get is readable enough, I guess. There's some action, some revelations, some romantic tension. But I have to say, none of it really gripped me at all. In the end, I'm mostly left with the feeling of a potentially interesting concept that didn't really go anywhere, or, more charitably, of a work by a writer who was interested in entirely different things about it than I was.
Rating: a slightly apologetic 2.5/5
(Note: This was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book.)
56. No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin
A collection of short essays -- originally blog posts -- from the late, great Ursula Le Guin. These cover a wide variety of topics: aging, writing, feminism, the state of the world, the antics of her cat, how to eat a soft-boiled egg. Some are serious, some slightly playful, a few just a little bit curmudgeonly, but, unsurprisingly, they're always thoughtful and well-written.
57. Arthur C. Clarke's July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century by Arthur C. Clarke
This book was published in 1986, and marked SF author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke's attempt to imagine what life and technology might be like, well... today. It's presented partly as straightforward speculation, and partly as semi-fictional scenes of future events or imagined future histories.
I picked up my copy in 1986, or possibly early 1987. In any case, I was a teenager at the time. I read it with some interest, and then made an improbable pact with myself: I would re-read it on the date it purported to to represent -- the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing -- and let the unimaginable middle-aged future me see what she thought about its predictions and their relationship to reality.
I'm pleased to report that I have, in fact, kept that pact, although I must say that unimaginable middle-aged future me is mostly just a little bemused, really.
Like most attempts by smart people to imagine the future, this is a combination of the oddly prescient, the way off-base, the almost-but-not-quite, and the just plain bizarre. There is a lot more of that last thing the further the book goes on, I think. Clarke increasingly seems to engage in weird fights of fancy, some of which seem to be intended mainly to provoke or shock. At least, I see no other explanation for things like the implication that necrophilia is likely to become a socially acceptable practice, now or ever. I mean... what?
To the extent that it is trying to be serious and thoughtful, though, I'd say most of the predictions have the not-uncommon problem of being wildly over-optimistic. Some of the technologies he imagines being fully mature by now are still very much under development, and others have never materialized at all. Our understanding of genetics has come a long way, for instance, but we have definitely not yet reached the point where doctors are basically predicting an infant's future medical history and best career choices at birth. We're also not hooking VR machines directly into our brains, or regularly flying around the world at supersonic speeds, and we haven't effectively eliminated rote, dehumanizing jobs. Nor do we yet have a base on the moon, something Clarke describes as having taken longer than anticipated, but still a reality by 2019.
But that's hardly a surprising mistake. Futurists have almost always been wildly optimistic about the future of human space flight, even when they think they're being pessimistic about it. Meanwhile, they seldom seem to have put much thought into imagining the possibilities of robotic space exploration, which, in reality, have been quite impressive.
Actually, robots are something that futurists have always just been kind of weird about, and Clarke is no exception. He scores an impressive point by stating that the future of household automation will consist not of robot butlers, but by a collection of various intelligent appliances. But he then goes on to lose that point again immediately by mostly describing, well, robot butlers. At least he does kinda-sorta predict the Roomba!
He does pretty well with a few other things, too. He's basically right on the money about the rise of HDTV, for instance. Actually, the chapter on the future of movies and television is particularly interesting, because it's just about a 50-50 blend of "Wow, that was uncannily insightful and accurate!" and "Wow, this guy has absolutely no idea what's coming."
No idea, of course, because like most people at the time, he just couldn't quite imagine the internet and its overwhelming significance to the world to come. There are times when he seems to be groping all around the idea. He talks about increased availability of knowledge and the educational possibilities of watching lectures given by teachers halfway around the world. He imagines being able to call your home computer from work to give it orders. He even mentions online support groups that existed on platforms like Compuserve at the time, in the context of a (very strange) chapter on the future of psychiatry, but seems mostly unable to see the larger potential in such things.
Which isn't to berate Clarke for literally not being able to see the future, but it certainly does point out how ultimately futile such attempts pretty much always are.
I thought it might be fun to conclude by quoting a passage that I think captures the experience of reading this sort of thing charmingly well. It's about future cars, from the chapter on transportation:
On-board navigation will make it impossible to get lost. The car will be able to locate its position using satellite navigation systems and show it on a color video map display. This TV display -- located on the passenger side, not the driver's side -- will store an atlas of maps on a videodisc.
That's an impressive prediction! Although perhaps not an entirely surprising one, since if there's anything Clarke did understand the possibilities of really, really well, it's communications satellites. It would be petty to ding him for not predicting the exact placement of the GPS screen, or even for not considering the possibility that the machine would give verbal directions. It seems like an awesome success of a prediction! At least, until you get to the very end. Videodisc, forsooth! Oh, bless.
Well, hey, I suppose if the future were easy to predict in detail, it would be much less interesting to live in.
Rating: Honestly, how does one even rate this? I think I'm going to give it a 3/5. Which is a bit on the low side, as my ratings go, not because he failed to sufficiently predict the future, but mostly just because of how off-the-rails some of the later chapters get.
>5 bragan: Amazing that you got this book so soon after it was published and then re-read it on the date of the predictions. I wonder how many other people have done that?
>6 baswood: I was kind of wondering if anyone else had. I kind of doubt it, though, because honestly I can hardly believe I did it. And it's not like it's an extremely well-known book or anything.
>8 rhian_of_oz: Not everyone can say they keep their promises to themselves! Well, I can't always say that, either, I suppose -- there's a reason I stopped making New Year's resolutions -- but, hey, at least there's one instance where I can. :)
I don't think I ever actually read Profiles of the Future, but I've been wondering if that might be interesting to check out, too.
Just admiring your 30 year pact that you kept. And I’m entertained by the predictions vs reality.
>10 dchaikin: Possibly both of those things are about equally entertaining in my mind. :)
58. Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell
Pietro Brnwa -- aka Peter Brown -- is a former mafia hitman who has entered Witness Protection and is now a doctor in an appallingly terribly hospital. And someone from his past has just checked in as a patient.
It's a fun story, full of cynical humor and violence and weird bits of medical trivia, but I found it just a little too over-the-top (particularly one especially grotesque scene towards the end), and it's maybe trying just a little too hard to be clever. The result is mostly enjoyable, but not quite as thoroughly so as I'd hoped.
Just got back from vacation, during which I finished a couple of books.
59. The Waste Lands by Stephen King
Book three in the Dark Tower series. So far, I am finding this series more agreeable as I go along. King is definitely a better writer by this point than he was when he wrote The Gunslinger, and, unlike the second book, this one is mostly lacking in things that make me look a bit askance. But, man, is it still unfocused and rambly, and I can't see any reason why this series needs to be anywhere near this long. It also ends in an unsatisfying place, even when you know going into it that it's going to be very much "to be continued."
And I increasingly find myself wondering whether the storytelling mechanisms King uses -- the emphasis on fate as a reason for things working out the way they do, the echoes between the world most of this is set in and our own -- are interesting worldbuilding choices or just lazy writing that allows King to justify any coincidences and deus ex machinas he wants.
Still. It was a fairly quick read for its length, and, like much of King's work, I found it an ideal kind of book to take on vacation: engaging enough to painlessly while away a long plane flight, but not so much so that it's hard to put down when you land.
60. Recursion by Blake Crouch
People have suddenly started falling prey to something called False Memory Syndrome, in which they appear to recall alternate events and lives they never lived. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that the reason for this turns out to be pretty much exactly what you think it is, if you have any experience with science fiction at all, but the details are rather interestingly twisty. Also utterly ridiculous, as nothing about how any of it works makes any sense whatsoever, and the more Crouch tries to explain it "scientifically" the less sense it makes. It's nice and fast-paced, though, with lots of crazy timey-wimey fun, and I give Crouch some points for being willing to follow his premise to some interesting extremes.
>16 bragan: If you think the series feels longer than it needs to be already, I'll certainly be curious to see how you find the next book.
>18 valkyrdeath: Just looking at it sitting on the shelf is slightly daunting to me, to be honest. But I will get to it eventually.
> Enjoying your reviews in this thread. I'll go back and look at your earlier threads from this year.
Your comments about the Clarke book reminded me of a conversation I had with my nephew when he was around 13 or so (he's in his 30s now). He asked me how the world was different than what I thought it would be like when I was his age. I thought, "What a great question!" My answer was that we thought of the things we already knew of getting better, but there was a lot that we never imagined, the things we had no clue about. We had cars, so we imagined flying cars. We had TVs, so we imagined really big TVs that took up the whole wall. But nobody I knew imagined home computers or the internet. Obviously, somebody imagined them, as here they are. But not the average schmo walking down the street.
>20 rocketjk: Yeah, that's often struck me reading other past attempts to predict the future, too. Your imagination is always very much limited by your current experience, so it's easy to predict that current trends will continue, but almost impossible to predict the giant, game-changing shifts. (Heck, for a lot of them, if you could, they might have happened earlier.)
Something else I've noticed is that even when predictions about where technology is taking us are actually reasonable, nobody ever seems to fully grasp the sociological changes that will come with them. Clarke may have vaguely understood that we'd be doing more things online in the future than we were on Compuserve in 1986, but he, unsurprisingly, failed to understand what that would mean to our everyday lives, grossly underestimating the way it would change everything from commerce to politics. And if I had a nickel for every 1950s SF novel I've read in which we already have household robots and regular commuter flights to Mercury by 2019, but women are still confined to the kitchen, well, I might be able to buy one of those flying cars we're supposed to have by now.
>21 bragan: "And if I had a nickel for every 1950s SF novel I've read in which we already have household robots and regular commuter flights to Mercury by 2019, but women are still confined to the kitchen, well, I might be able to buy one of those flying cars we're supposed to have by now."
Yes, excellent point.
A bit more trivial, but still interesting, is the ways in which old and imagined technologies are sometimes mixed. I recently read the beginning of an excellent SF series in which pilots have ports in their brains to which they can hook cables that allow them to interact organically with their aircraft. Still, though, phone booths. And it's not like Maxwell Smart wasn't talking into his shoe in 1966!
>22 rocketjk: Oh, yeah, those can be really entertaining. I remember reading one or two instances of people using slide rules on interstellar flights.
61. The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
A detailed look at the ways in which large groups of diverse people acting or thinking independently can, in aggregate, sometimes be much better at decision-making and problem solving than individuals or small like-minded groups. (Think, for instance, of the way that polling the audience on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire pretty much always results in the right answer.)
There wasn't a whole lot in here that was particularly new to me, and I don't find all of it equally compelling, but it is a decent overview of the subject, with lots of examples. Interestingly, Surowiecki seems to spend almost as much time talking about the ways in which this sort of thing can go wrong and the conditions under which it doesn't work as he does on the ways in which it can be effective. Which I think is extremely important, actually, because otherwise it might be far too easy to take a shallow and naive reading of Surowiecki's arguments and end up subscribing to some familiar but misguided conclusions, like the idea that experts are completely useless (a notion he explicitly disclaims in the afterword to the edition of the book I have).
It's also worth mentioning that this was originally published in 2004, so it now feels rather dated, certainly in its examples, if not in its conclusions. I often found myself wondering how differently it would have been written today and whether events like the subprime mortgage crisis or the 2016 election would have changed the author's thinking any, or provided him new material to work with. I especially find myself wondering if the ways in which we've come to use the internet over the past fifteen years might have actually undermined our ability to make our individual decisions independently, something Surowiecki identifies as a key component of effective collective decision-making.
62. Year's Best SF 6 edited by David G. Hartwell
The year in question here is the suitably science-fictional-sounding 2000.
I'm afraid that I seem to always approach anything with "year's best" in the title, whatever that year might be, with a little too much optimism. There's something about it that just seems to promise a cavalcade of top-notch gems, and the reality almost always ends up being slightly disappointing.
Sadly, that's true of this volume, too. There are certainly some very good stories in it. Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Birthday of the World" is a standout, as is Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters." (I'd just recently encountered the latter elsewhere, as it happens, but it was worth re-reading here, too.) But as far as I'm concerned, most of the stories sit somewhere between decent but forgettable and just plain dull. Likely that's due in part to a bit of a mismatch between the editor's tastes and mine. Hartwell seems to lean towards the hard SF end of the spectrum, which is something I find myself less and less interested in as time goes on. Increasingly, I find myself thinking that if I want to read a science lecture, I'd much prefer to read one about real science, which is often quite fantastic enough. And a few too many of the pieces in here have interesting ideas, but don't bother to include very much in the way of actual story. Which is something that can work in SF, but it isn't as easy to pull off as some authors seem to think.
>28 dukedom_enough: I dunno, this one was 498 pages, which isn't too bad, and it did have a couple of novella-length things. And some of the best "year's best" anthologies I've read have actually been some of the shortest. I think the last one I read was The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 -- I never seem to read them when they're actually new -- and that one was fairly short, but the selections were fantastic.
Based on the Dozois anthologies I've read, though, I do seem to find him way more in tune with my own tastes. I've still got a couple of those sitting on the TBR shelves looking forlornly at me, but the fact that they are so big makes them a little too easy to keep putting off.
>29 dukedom_enough: A delightful example!
>27 bragan: I guess the more accurate title Our Editor's Favourite Stories Out of the Ones We Could Get The Publishing Rights For wasn't quite catchy enough. I do have mixed experiences with best of collections but occasionally there's a great one, and there's usually at least a few stories that make the books worth reading for me.
>31 valkyrdeath: Calling them that would probably greatly help to manage my unreasonable expectations, but I suppose you do have a point. :)
And, yeah, it's the very, very rare "best of" anthology that doesn't have a least a couple of stories I agree fully deserve to be there, whatever I might think of the collection as a whole.
Catching up, and was interested in your review of the Oliver Sacks memoir as I've enjoyed some of his writing in the past and have had my eye on this one. Sounds like a fun read.
>33 AlisonY: I'd say it's certainly worth a look if it sounds interesting to you!
64. The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
Australian lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne is quiet, withdrawn man, damaged by his experiences in WWI. He can't believe his luck when the lively Isabel decides to marry him and join him on the remote island where he was previously stationed all alone. But things change for them when a boat washes up on the shore of the island with a dead man and a live infant in it, and Isabel, devastated by a series of miscarriages, begs him not to report the incident and to pass the child off as their own.
It's mostly a very quiet sort of story. There is some tension in it, as you know right from the beginning that the choice Tom and Isabel make is going to have some painful consequences. But mostly it's quiet, and slow, and rather melancholy. Which makes it a good book for when that sort of thing is exactly what you're in the mood for, and, fortunately, I think I read it in very much the right mood.
>35 bragan: I've always thought this sounded a great read, but from memory I think a lot of the reviews I've read of it have not been positive. However, your review makes me want to still try it.
>36 AlisonY: I can see why it might not be to everyone's taste, as I suspect if I weren't in just the right mood for it I might have enjoyed it a lot less and maybe seen a lot more flaws in it. But as it was, I'm pleased by how well it worked for me.
>21 bragan: In the film of Fahrenheit 451 there is a cabled phone handset in every room, so you can walk around the house while you make a phone call...
>36 AlisonY: and >37 bragan: There was a lot I liked about this but I didn't like Isabel and the choices she made. I wasn't sure whether she's supposed to be a sympathetic character - I think because I've never wanted kids I couldn't understand or have empathy with how she was feeling, and therefore didn't believe she was 'justified' in her behaviour.
>40 rhian_of_oz: I had some interesting mixed feelings about her, really. I do think her choices are believable as the sort of thing a person in her position might do. All the rationalizations to justify doing what she wanted, all the emotions overriding common sense, all the leaping to the worst possible conclusions about her husband late in the story... They seemed very much like the sorts of things real people do in situations that emotionally complicated, even though we all want to think we're better than that. On the other hand, even if her emotions and thought patterns seemed realistic to me, I didn't exactly find them easy to relate to, being myself someone who genuinely just does not understand why on Earth anyone would even want kids. Which means, I think, that to the extent that I felt sympathy for her, it was a very abstract sort of sympathy. But I think that was enough. And I did feel real sympathy for Tom, to whom I could relate a bit more easily even if I have (fortunately!) not shared most of his experiences.
Sympathetic or not, though, I don't think we're really supposed to think she's "justified." What she does might be understandable, but justified is another matter entirely.
64. The Nice and Accurate Good Omens TV Companion by Matt Whyman
I absolutely loved the recent Amazon TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens. And what do I do when I absolutely love something? That's right, I buy books about it! So, of course, I had to pick up this companion book, which features a look behind the scenes, including interviews with pretty much everybody both in front of and behind the cameras.
I have to say, the text isn't all that impressive. There's not huge amounts of substance to most of it, and often feels like it's trying to hype the show as much as it is to bring us into the making of it, which just seems totally unnecessary. There are also a lot of little factual inaccuracies, in things like the descriptions of what happens in particular scenes. Nothing glaringly horrible, but it does rather give the impression that the author hadn't actually watched the show. Although that perhaps ought to be forgivable, seeing as the book was almost certainly in the works while the series was still being made, so presumably he actually hadn't had the chance to watch it first.
On the other hand, though, visually and physically the book is really nice. Hell, I'd say it's almost worth it just for the wonderful cover art, but there are also lots and lots of pictures, some of which help give you a really good sense of just how rich and detailed the sets were. Indeed, the parts of the text that I found far and away the most interesting had to do with the set design. The production designer has some fascinating things to say about the visual themes he used on the sets, and his attention to detail is just staggering.
So, while I can't remotely call this a must-have for fans of the show, it was at least worth a look, and I'm sure it's going to look very, very pretty on my bookshelf.
>42 bragan: What are you trying to dooo to me (plaintively)? You already got me with a BB for The Quite Nice and Fairly Accurate Good Omens Script Book and here you are at it again?
>44 bragan: Merciful providence! Actually it would have taken quite a lot of persuading to get me to buy that. I think TP is a great writer (and Gaiman's pretty good too), but 295 quid? No way!
>45 haydninvienna: Yeah, even I have my limits. And there's nothing wrong with the copy of the novel I got for pennies at a library sale in 1991! (Well, OK, it's missing the dust jacket. And lacks pretty, pretty, pretty pictures of David Tennant and Michael Sheen. But still.)
>46 bragan: Having bought the script book in Brisbane last Tuesday, and read it on the flight home, I'm now watching the show. At last something useful out of the Amazon Prime membership I accidentally bought a few years ago. Tennant & Sheen really are pretty, aren't they?
I did like the mini-series, although I was disappointed that my favorite characters, the next four motorcyclists of the Apocalypse, didn't make an appearance.
>47 haydninvienna: Reading the script book first is definitely doing it backwards, but, hey, whatever works! And I only got Amazon Prime myself because the free shipping pays for itself for me, but being able to watch stuff like this is a nice, nice bonus.
And, yeah, they're both very pretty, and do an amazing job, too. They've basically got chemistry oozing out of their pores. I would happily watch another six hours of nothing but those two characters hanging out together, even if they're just eating lunch.
>48 RidgewayGirl: They were supposed to be in the show. They were in the original script, and had even been cast already and everything, but they ended up being cut, I think for budget reasons. Which disappointed a lot of people, but Neil Gaiman's comment, I think, was that something had to go, and he felt better cutting something he'd written than something Terry Pratchett had.
65. The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde
In this kids' novel (or maybe it's YA?), set in a world where magic isn't what it used to be, young Jennifer Strange acts as a manager for a group of once-powerful sorcerers who now use what's left of their power to do stuff like unclogging drains. Then she's told that she is actually the Last Dragonslayer, and has a predetermined appointment to kill the last dragon, something that might have an effect, good or bad, on the state of magic. But she really doesn't want to do it.
I liked the story here, even if it does end a bit abruptly with a lot of exposition. But I found the world annoyingly hard to suspend my disbelief for, since it features a Great Britain composed of tiny independent kingdoms and an alternate magical history, but also things like modern real-world car models and trivia questions about General Patton. And the humor sits, I think, right on the borderline between amusingly quirky and slightly too silly, coming down a little too often on the "slightly too silly" side of the line for my taste. Although that might not be entirely the book's fault. I think maybe I just wasn't in quite the right mood for that particular brand of comedy. Or maybe not quite the right age for it, as I suspect I would have enjoyed this at least twice as much when I was twelve.
This topic is not marked as primarily about any work, author or other topic.