July 29, 2010

Passage **

** Passage, Connie Willis, 2001

It is with a heavy heart that I give this book two stars, having been so taken with To Say Nothing of the Dog. I was prepared to like this book, expected to like it. But pretty much all it had going for it was a very clever premise. At 780 pages, it is at least 400 pages too long, if not 500.

It's kind of like this. What if someone wrote a book in which:

The first 250 pages describe someone trying to remember where she put her car keys, and then when she finally figures it out, the next 300 pages describe her trying to remember why she wanted the car keys. Mixed in with all this are hundreds of trivial details irrelvant to the stakes of the story, many of which are cyclical or maddeningly repetitious events.

Then 20 pages of frantic attempts to locate a person to tell him why she wanted the keys, with a rehash of all the distractions and dead ends that have been going on for 550 pages, culminating in a shocking event that seems like it should end the book, but on a completely unsatisfying note. But it doesn't end. There are still 220 pages to go, enough to make a decent, if small, novel.

And what happens in the last 220 pages? The second person tries to reconstruct the movements/ideas the first person did/thought during the middle 300 pages in an effort to figure out why she wanted the car keys.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Exactly.

July 27, 2010

Writing on the Air

Occasionally I am a guest on a program called Writing on the Air on local radio station, KOOP. (Listen at 91.7 FM or koop.org.) I'll be on tomorrow, Wed 7/28/2010 from 6-7pm CDT, reading excerpts from some works in progress and talking about writing stuff, in general.

I also discovered they have my last appearance in the archives. Also, I sat in on Daniel's appearance on Jul 7.

July 24, 2010

Poncho and Lefty

When are you going to cover it?

Townes Van Zandt

Willie and Bobby

Steve Earle

Hoyt Axton

July 22, 2010

To A God Unknown **

** To A God Unknown, John Steinbeck, 1933

I have two authors for which I keep a steady backlog on the To Be Read shelf - Dickens and Steinbeck. Occasionally I dip into the reserve and read one. Thus To A God Unknown arrived on my nightstand.

It is one of his earlier novels and definitely not my favorite, but was an interesting read and held together well. I'm not a big fan of Steinbeck's depressing novels (The Red Pony, The Pearl) and this falls in that category. But some good characterization.

July 17, 2010

I Write Like

Kelly hipped me to I Write Like, a website that applies a Bayesian classifier algorithm to the text you key in to match it to text from the 50 writers in its database. It's mainly based on vocabulary, sentence length and punctuation and doesn't account for style, voice or tone, so it's basically useless, but entertaining.

I pasted in Chapter 0 of my current work in progress that is in need of a good title. It came back with Stephen King. Interesting. Chapter 1 came back as David Foster Wallace. Hmm, never heard of him.

I went back to Endless Vacation draft 3 and analzyed each chapter separately, all 46 of them. (Yes, I know I have no life. So sue me.) It came back with 15 authors: Arthur Conan Doyle, Chuck Palahniuk, Dan Brown, David Foster Wallace, Ian Fleming, Isaac Asimov, Jack London, James Joyce, JK Rowling, Kurt Vonnegut, Mario Puzo, Raymond Chandler, Stephanie Meyer, Vladimir Nabakov, and William Gibson. The winner was David Foster Wallace, for 17 of 46 chapters, Brown and Chandler trailing with 8 and 6 chapters, respectively.

Then I went back to where it all started, Welcome to Fred, again all 30 chapters. This time only 9 authors, but a couple of good ones that weren't on the EV list: Arthur C Clarke, Chuck Palahniuk, Dan Brown, David Foster Wallace, HP Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Stephanie Meyer, Stephen King, and William Gibson. But Wallace was still the winner with 11 out of 30 chapters, Lovecraft trailing with 6 chapters. Evidently a third of my work uses the same vocabulary and sentence length as Wallace. I guess I'll have to check him out.

I wish he had the list of authors in the database. I'm guessing PG Wodehouse isn't in there, or Christopher Buckley.

July 15, 2010

Wry Martinis ***

*** Wry Martinis, Christopher Buckley, 1997

Since my discovery that what I've been writing the last few years is much in the vein of Buckley, I've been gradually acquiring his backlist. This one landed the upstairs bathroom reading slot because it's a collection of essays, most of them short and suitable for situations where a few minutes is appropriate.

Buckley is clever, but we knew that. This collection also gives us some insight into his history. It's a good read. Probably good with martinis, although I didn't try, given its location.

July 8, 2010

Mere Churchianity ****

**** Mere Churchianity, Michael Spencer, 2010

I've been following Michael Spencer aka the Internet Monk, since early in the milleniuim. I was even, for a few brief delusional months, a Boar's Head Tavern fellow, recommended by Jack.

This is the first 4-star book of the year. I don't recommend it for the brilliant writing, although Michael is a gifted writer. I recommend it for the content. Michael wrote this book to those who have left the church, or who are about to. It's not an admonision to get your butt back in the pew. It's a call to finding, in his words, a Jesus-shaped spirituality, whether you stay or go.

If you want to get a flavor of Michael's writing, you can check out some of what I consider his best stuff from InternetMonk.com

Michael was a remarkable guy. This is his first and last book. He died of cancer before it was released. A lot of folks are still pissed off about that.

July 1, 2010

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable ***

*** The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2007

I was hipped to this book by a day-job client, Sean O'Toole of ForeclosureRadar.com. (By the way, incredible software those guys have. Just amazing.) I was so intrigued, I grabbed a copy for reading while working out. It passed the elliptical test with flying colors.

It's a book about prediction and how completely inept we are at doing it, even experts. Especially experts. It's about how watching the news actually makes you less informed. It's about the various ways in which we convince ourselves that "evidence" and "history" and "narratives" allow us to know what's going to happen, when it's impossible for us to know.

Here's an early example (page 40):

Consider a turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird's belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race "looking out for its best interests," as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.

He points out the futility of paying attention to predictions regarding things like the stock market or social phenomena when we can't even get basic construction estimating right, such as the astounding case of the Sydney Opera House.

While Australians were under the illusion that they had built a monument to distinguish their skyline, what they had really done was to construct a monument to our failure to predict, to plan, and to come to grips with our unknowledge of the future--our systematic under-estimation of what the future has in store.

The Australians had actually built a symbol of the epistemic arrogance of the human race. The story is as follows. The Sydney Opera House was supposed to open in early 1963 at a cost of AU$ 7 million. It finally opened its doors more than ten years later, and, although it was a less ambitions version than initially envisioned, it ended up costing around AU$ 104 million.

There's tons of good stuff in there, but that's enough to give you the idea. In case you're wondering, it does have a happy ending:

I am sometimes taken aback by how people can have a miserable day or get angry because they feel cheated by a bad meal, cold coffee, a social rebuf, or a rude reception. Recall my discussion in Chapter 8 on the difficulty in seeing the true odds of the events that run your own life. We are quick to forget that just being alive is an extraordiary piece of good luck, a remote event, a chance occurrence of monstrous porportions.

Imagine a speck of dust next to a planet a billions times the size of the earth. The speck of dust represents the odds in favor of your being born; the huge planet would be the odds against it. So stop sweating the small stuff. Don't be like the ingrate who got a castle as a present and worried about the mildew in the bathroom. Stop looking the gift horse in the mouth--remember that you are a Black Swan. And thank you for reading my book.

And here's a nice quote from the acknowledgements: Standardizing editors have an uncanny ability to inflict maximal damage by breaking the internal rhythm of one's prose with the minimum of changes.