Category: Books

Live events, the final frontier

Yesterday I spoke with former federal prosecutor David Locke Hall about his new book “Crack99: The Takedown Of A $100 Million Chinese Software Pirate” for a WAMU event at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle.

I was nervous about getting out from behind my keyboard and doing a live event in front of people, but I genuinely believe this is what public media needs to be doing in order to stay relevant in this flattened age of ours.

There are only a couple events left in our initial run, but I trust there will be a Pt. 2 and I’m excited to be part of it.

Blook Back: Pump Six And Other Stories

Pump Six and Other StoriesPump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What words would one use to describe this collection of Paolo Bacigalupi’s short fiction? Dystopian? Cynical? Grim?

I’m onboard the adjective train until that last stop. While Bacigalupi paints a picture of a future wrought sectarian violence, chemically-mutilated gene structures, economic collapse, widespread drought and famine, and sinister corporate dominance, I don’t think he ever tips over into the realm of the negative.

It’s perhaps best realized in the titular work, Pump Six. Humanity is reduced to a bunch of hormonally-wrecked layabouts good for little more than eating and screwing. But at the core of the mess is an eminently human narrator, completely overwhelmed with the task at hand, but resolved to try and find a way to fix it.

The allegory for a modern activist, particularly in the environmental realm, is obvious. Our challenges are the consequence of dealing with human nature, but they are not insurmountable.

After all, if we don’t deal with it, who will?

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Blook Back: Inferno – The World At War

Exactly what I was looking for in a sweeping history of World War II: an unflinching view of the great war from start to finish that focused principally on the perspectives of the “little people.”

Probably the most significant thing I drew from it was the actual nature of the war. In hindsight, history often treats major decisions and campaigns as deliberate, precise and calculated. In fact, they are usually operated in a bumbling, haphazard fashion that costs thousands of people their lives.

As an American, I also noted interesting parallels to modern times that we are not often told. Most notably, that the American public was even then extraordinarily impatient and intolerant of casualties. Hawks in Iraq and Afghanistan often bemoan the American peoples’ impatience with war as though it’s a product of Walter Cronkite during the Vietnam War. Hastings conveys the fact that western democracies have always been that way.

It also dovetails into the way Hastings says we fought the war — which is principally with the use of total air superiority and with a ridiculous overindulgence in artillery. Even with those deficiencies, the United States still made a significant contribution to the Allied victory by virtue of its industrial might.

It makes one wonder, though, with our greatly diminished manufacturing capacity, how we would wage a real war today? American fighting doctrine relies almost completely on advantages we’ve had on the battlefield since 1943. If our war machine sputtered and we lost control of the skies, the prospects for the American military would not be fantastic.

Such flights of intellectual fancy are why I read works like Hastings’. Fantastic stuff.

Blook Back: The Wise Man’s Fear

Another absolutely ripping yarn from the pen of Patrick Rothfuss. I was led to believe that this second installment was a failure because it does little to advance the story of Kvothe the Bloodless, but I have to heartily disagree with that sentiment.

In The Wise Man’s Fear, Kvothe takes his first serious sojourn into the wider world since he took resident at the University. My biggest criticism of the last book was that the adventures away from the school felt like tacked on filler. Not so in this work, as Kvothe’s adventures under the Maer, hunting bandits, cavorting with Felurian, studying at Ademre, and finally returning home show us some of the truth behind this bloated reputation of a virtual living god that we’re introduced to in the first book. We finally learn that, while there is a hard nugget of truth to Kvothe’s reputation, it is largely hot air.

It’s hard to express what a relief this is. Another one of my complaints about the last book was a displeasure at being told that a protagonist was super gifted at everything he tried, just like EVERY other protagonist in pulp sci-fi and fantasy ever. Oh, he’s a child prodigy who is great at the lute, and fighting and magic and thieving and memorization and woeing women and on and on? What a relief that he’s also the result of a bunch of rumors and hearsay.

In any case, this series has so far been very much about the ride, and not the destination, so unlikely many others, I’m not dissatisfied with where it ended. I can see why some are concerned, since there appears to be an inordinately large period of time to cover to stitch together the two narratives in the final book of what has been described as a trilogy. I’m confident that Rothfuss will either split out the series into another book, or failing that, rely on ebook publishing to give us a 2000-page monstrosity next time.

I know I will be lined up (at my computer) to buy it!

Blook Back: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the more interesting reads I’ve undertaken this year. I decided to read  it because of the enduring cultural legacy of the book more than anything. It’s a work that is widely credited with helping the abolitionist cause, and cultural echoes of it continue to this day.

What I found most interesting, however, was not that it was a study and criticism of slavery and pervading attitudes amongst slave owners of the time, but as a work that presents a very utilitarian and uplifting view of Christianity as a slave religion.

When I was in college, I found Frederick Nietzche’s argument that Christianity was a slave religion incredibly persuasive. It’s a value system that encourages men to turn their will to power in on themselves. It celebrates the meek, the patient, and the martyr. In the figure of Christ on the cross, it tells humanity that suffering is the natural condition of life, and discourages man from seeking to better his situation through force by dangling the carrot of immortal bliss in the afterlife.

Nietzsche makes an excellent case that this has the effect of making virtues of weakness and cowardice. He says that Christian morality sets up artificial boundaries intended to tie down the strong-willed by undermining their natural proclivities. Man as a species cannot achieve its true potential while saddled by needless ideas like guilt and humility.

For a long time, I too was willing to cast aside Christian morality as well, principally because it’s far from clear that the religion passed from the apostles all the way to the modern church has anything to do with the actually teachings of Christ, but also because I recognized and accepted Nietzsche’s contempt for a system that seeks to constrain my natural urges and desires.

Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however, opened my eyes to the sheer power of Christianity. I had taken to think of the term “slave morality” in a disparaging light — as though adhering to it reduces one’s circumstances to that of a slave. That turns on its head though when the person espousing the belief actually IS a slave.

In the figure of Uncle Tom, you see a man who would have been utterly destroyed if he did not have this faith promising him an eternal reward for his good deeds. Stuck in circumstances for which he would never be able to break free, Christianity was as a salve that kept him alive. It’s hard enough to live day to day as an atheist, but to be a slave to another man’s will without even the promise of an afterlife to redeem one’s suffering? That is just unimaginably dark.

A society governed by this morality remains deficient in the ways outlined by Nietzsche, but it’s now clear to me that the religion of the downtrodden serves more of a purpose than mere sedation.

Blook Back: 11/22/63

When it comes to books that are straight-forward plot, nobody does it better than Stephen King. He’ll never set your soul on fire with an electrifying turn of phrase, nor are you liable to lay awake at night, rolling a moral or metaphysical quandary from one of his works around in your head in order to discern some higher truth. At the very least, he always entertains.

Which I guess is the biggest problem with 11/22/63. I’ve always been a huge fan of time travel as a storytelling device. It’s an instrument of sci-fi pornography, one that allows a diligent writer to weave a metaphysical net in which to snare his reader. The possibilities are endless with a straight-faced time travel story. I presumed, wrongly as it turns out, that in his old age King would ascend his usual plot-driven mediocrity to the heights afford him by this sub-genre.

Instead, what he did was drag time travel down so that he could use it for his own devices. Instead of an intricate tale that leaves the reader wondering about things like chance and the presence of a higher power, 11/22/63 is essentially several smaller King novels smashed together, with the time travel used a convenient device to get his narrator comfortably back in the late 1950s.

By the time you’ve limped to the end of this absurd, over-wrought tale, you’ve read a horror-tinged murder mystery, a light travel story, an old-fashioned domestic romance, and a detective novel, tied together with a time travel shtick that would fit quite concisely into an episode of the Twilight Zone. Some of the light research he did about the Kennedy assassination and Lee Harvey Oswald was interesting, since it’s been a while since I saw that Oliver Stone flick, but it stands amidst a desert of too-convenient plot turns explained away as the resonance of time travel.

I suppose, in the end, my disappointment with this book stems principally from my own benighted expectations. If you can read Stephen King and happily consider it high art, you can mark this one five stars before you started. Just don’t be fooled as I was, thinking that King had finally raised his game.

Blook Back: I Am Legend

By my reckoning, a book like I Am Legend, a post-apocalyptic bit of vampire fiction, has only a few different tacks it can tack to be considered a success.

The first and most obvious would be to use the scenario — the last man on earth amidst a hive of vampires, to construct an allegory that informs the reader about humanity.

The second is to craft a compelling main character, in whom the reader can invest his emotions and occupy the fictional space vicariously.

The third is to tell a gripping narrative, full of twists and turns that, perhaps a bit shallow, forces the reader to race through the story to arrive at a gripping conclusion.

Matheson’s book does none of these things. There’s a brief moment of reflection at the novel’s end where the narrator reflects on who is the real monster, but it’s hardly a revelation. The main character is a cardboard cutout — the only things I can recall him doing was spilling liquor constantly, punching walls, and being stoic. And as for story… well, nothing really happens, in truth. There is no catharsis. I learned nothing.

This should have been a short story at best, and yet, it was the inspiration for Night of the Living Dead. Go figure.

Blook Back: The Hobbit

For my money, no book better typifies the finer qualities of the fantasy genre than J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Don’t get me wrong, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are both sprawling works of vast complexity that breath life into a world that is realized more completely than almost any other in fiction. For all that, though, they lack the richness and warmth that makes The Hobbit one of the best works of fiction of all time.

Each one of Bilbo’s adventures, from the trio of trolls to Gollum’s riddles to the battle of the Lonely Mountain is realized more effectively than the collective canon of many authors. Where LOTR often loses you in the thousands of years of backstory and lineages that require dutiful study, The Hobbit leaves you to immerse in a rich, verbal stew, the simplicity of which allows you to savor the flavor.

Forgive the food analogy, I must have gone a bit hobbit there for a second.

More than anything though, I think it’s the presence of the narrator, whether one chooses to believe that it is Tolkien or not, that really pushes the book over the edge into greatness. The amusing asides, carefully sprinkled backstory and wry tone of the narrator is the most frequent source of humor and amusement in the book. It is a work of children’s literature, after all, and in reading the book it feels like a kindly old gentleman is recalling the story to you out loud over a campfire. You can almost feel the warmth of his voice.

For that reason, and many others, this is one of my favorite books of all time.