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In other news, yesterday I read George Pendle's Strange Angel, a fun biography of Jack Parsons. I'm assuming the Parsons fans on my Flist know about this book already ([ profile] head58, I'm looking at you), but if not, high thee to a library. Parsons is a great character: rocket scientist, wife swapper, black magic cultist extraordinaire. When L. Ron Hubbard is calling you loopy and Aleister Superfreak Crowley writes you from England saying, "Uh, maybe you ought to lay off the black magic for a while for a while, Jack--you're weirding me out" it's time to at least consider a sabbatical. But no, Jack summoned the Scarlet Woman of Babylon, then blew himself up.

One random tidbit I'd never heard about Crowley, from a life made up of random tidbits: in 1913, the Great Beast led an all-female string septet called the "Ragged Ragtime Girls" on a disastrous tour of Russia. What do you suppose that was all about? Game ideas featuring Crowley in an insane Some Like It Hot / Road To Tunguska mashup involving some combination of Tony Curtis, Tsar Nicholas, Jack Lemmon, Lenin, Rasputin, and Marilyn Monroe are left as an exercise for the reader.


Dec. 23rd, 2006 11:30 am
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X-posted to Old is the New New.

Tags: All reading for fun at Fessenden, our quirky electronic childhoods, the great American elevator inspector novel, I find I don't know Dick.

It's year in review time, Loyal Dozens, that magical time of year when we review the year that went by since the last time it was time to review the year between the times when it's time to review it. I'll dispense with such fripperies as the year in movies, music, or current events, but I read a lot of books and every year I like to take some time to record a few that stayed with me, both for their own merits and for vaguely autobiographical purposes. (I try to associate the subjects of books with the places and times where I read them. Even though you can find a copy anywhere, for instance, it's cool to me that I bought Colson Whitehead's old weird NYC novel The Intuitionist, along with Ann Douglas' Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, at the awesome Strand bookstore in Greenwich Village. Or that I read Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon while actually en route from Paris to the moon.) This is made easier this year by the LibraryThing account I started last December. Most people use LibraryThing to catalog the books they own, but I use the library so prodigiously that my the set of books I possess bears only a passing resemblance to the set of books that have passed under my eyeballs. Instead, I used LibraryThing to catalog books as I read them, regardless of their provenance. You can, if you care, see all the books I read in 2006 here. But here are some highlights, starting with fiction first.

Read more... )
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I was going back and forth on whether this was too flimsy to post at 20x20' Room but it seems TypePad is down today, so that makes my decision easy. (Karma for Six Apart and the pain upgrading MT is currently giving me, heh heh heh--oh wait, this also inconveniences me! Damn you, Six Apart! Now watch my LJ implode.)

Primetime Adventures players take note! And see if you can follow along: The title story in Kelly Link’s new collection, Magic for Beginners, is about (I’m quoting a review in The Believer) “a TV show called The Library, a teen drama whose cute, hormonal, conspicuously quotable friends are devoted fans of a TV show called The Library, a paranormal, ass-kicking series of mysterious provenance that pops up without warning at ungodly hours on random cable stations. … The hero, Jeremy, is a sentient TV character, obsessed with Fox, a character on the show within the show within the story, who turns out to be real.” A show within a show within a story, eh? If this is anybody but Jorge Luis Borges…

I’m thinking of taking Primetime Adventures with me to Florida over the holidays, where I’ll be with most of my family. They’re a mix of non-RPGers and long-ago-RPGers, but I might be able to get them to give it a whirl. (We typically play a lot of board games when we all get together, but bulky board games will be a hassle to lug down to the Sunshine State on a pre-Xmas post-Patriot Act plane.) Anyone reading this ever tried PTA with a group of non-gamers? Or does anyone have alternate suggestions of easy-to-transport board/card games or newbie-friendly one-shot RPGs?

See, my subject line is like an answer to the "Central Question" at the top of the Believer review, and there's this old joke, and...
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Somewhere on the hard drive of my old laptop is an unfinished blog post praising the Kazuo Ishiguro novel The Remains of the Day, which I read over Canadian Thanksgiving or maybe Christmas two or three years ago. It was brilliant and heartbreaking. I never actually posted about it, though.

Somewhere in one of my old notebooks is a page or so of scribbled thoughts about Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, which I read over American Thanksgiving or maybe Christmas last year. When We Were Orphans hit me even harder than Remains of the Day, which is saying something. I powered through the book in two flights and a layover, then walked around in a daze for most of the next week. But I never did get around to typing those scribbles into my computer.

So this year I’m going to get this down before I forget to do it: We went up to my parents for Thanksgiving this weekend, and in between the big dinner and the hike up Foley Mountain and the all-camp Cranium championship, I was lost to the world in Ishiguro’s latest novel, Never Let Me Go. There must be something about his tragically deluded narrators and slow sickening reveals that goes with turkey dinner like cranberry and stuffing. Which is not to say that the big reveal to the reader is the point—in all three books, it’s the moment when the narrator figures everything out that kills you. And what’s worse is the subsequent realization that they’ve probably always known.

There are lots of other things I could be posting about on this Thanksgiving Monday. Lots of bigger things to be thankful for. But my little shoutout to Ishiguro’s sparse little masterpieces of delusion and grief has been postponed long enough.

Edit: How topical am I? The Booker Prize for 2005 was announced today, and Never Let Me Go was on the shortlist. OK, it didn’t win, but Ishiguro already has a Booker—and my little blog post will no doubt mean just as much to him as Britain’s most influential literary award.

Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome.
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More goodies from the Closet of Christmases Past. I don't expect these things to get the same visceral reaction from everyone as the gaming stuff, but they're a fun nostalgia trip for me personally. And if you happen to see anything that intrigues you, speak up.

I wanna publish zines, and rage against machines )
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"See all that stuff inside, Homer? That's why your robot never worked!"

A quiet Sunday reading the paper, and books, and other nonelectronic things, and copying Season 2 of MI-5 from TiVo to VHS for [ profile] jeregenest, who was in a scary and freakish and random accident. It sounds like he's going to be OK, mercifully, but he will, I assume, be convalescing for a while. (On reflection, odds are good that Jere's already seen the MI-5s, but it's nice to have a project.)

I was amused by this quote in the Sunday Book Review:

Here's the problem with 'Write what you know': What too many aspiring writers know, it turns out, is that a suburban American adolescence causes vague feelings of sadness—especially when one's formative years include a dying grandparent or housepet.

Yes, indeed. Substitute "Canadian" for "American" in that sentence and I know that problem all too well. (See, Homer? That's why my novel never worked...) The review in question goes on to say "It's the lucky writer whose story is familiar to himself and exotic to his readers," which then made me think of The Russian Debutante's Handbook, a bit of a trendy must-read novel a few years ago that I had somehow missed. L gave it to me over the holidays, and it was great. Highly recommended. One of the funniest books I've read in a long time. The feckless Gen-X hipsters therein reminded me an awful lot of me and my own friends in the PC 1990s, at least until the Russian mob shows up and starts breaking their kneecaps. That didn't happen to me and my friends as far as I can recall. (See how my uneventful Canadian adolescence has prevented me from being a literary prodigy? Oh the pain.)

I posted another rambling essay today about Ben Franklin and the Turk and 18th-century robotica over at my big boy website. Halfway through that post I mention that I have "another cool anecdote about the Imperial Academy of Science in St. Petersburg in the 1700s that I want to tell you." I know, I know, most people would be content with just one such anecdote in their life, but you are blessed with me as a friend, so you might as well enjoy it. Check this shit out: Peter the Great, Tsar from 1682 to 1725, was a passionate collector of monsters. In the 1690s, he began assembling a collection of anatomical and zoological monstrosities and abnormalities, living and dead. In 1704, he ordered that midwives throughout Russia were strictly forbidden to kill or hide newborn children with deformations. All "monstrous" births were to be turned over to the clergy, who would deliver them to his Cabinet of Monsters in St. Petersberg. After Peter's death in 1725, the Cabinet came under control of the Imperial Academy of Sciences.

"Cabinet of Monsters." Nice ring to that. Well, I doubt I have to tell you what I'm thinking: If those "monsters" were not giants and hermaphrodites and hydrocephalic kids but actually, you know, monsters... you could have a crazy 1700s Russian League of Extraordinary Gentlemen adventure, or some very cool backstory for the Russian version of the BPRD in a certain long-threatened Soviet Hellboy Delta Green game.

What else? Oh yes. [ profile] bryant's Best Movies of 2004 post is up, which is great, and relieves me of having to write one. I spent a lot of 2004 passing off a combination of Bryant and Anthony Lane's opinions about movies as my own, so it seems appropriate to just link to his Best Of list now. My only gripes with his list? I'd drop Sky Captain. I found it dull and disappointing, and I can't help thinking that caffeine and a sense that "I should like this" is deluding Bryant and my other geek chums who still champion the film. And where is the love for Napoleon Dynamite? But other than that, yeah, yeah, yeah.
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What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.
Herbert Simon, way back in 1971

When I admitted to [ profile] jeregenest that I still haven't read word one of the Harry Potter books or seen any of the movies, this poll occurred to me. There's actually a number of geek culture touchstones that have slipped by me. Not because I'm avoiding them, just because I haven't gotten around to them yet. But time and attention are scarce: so I invite you to help me be a better, more efficient geek in 2005. (I've given you check boxes rather than radio buttons, but please use them judiciously. If you just click on everything, you haven't made my life much easier at all.)

[Poll #412488]

Thank you for your support.
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I have often admired [ profile] narcissime's method of organizing his bookshelves not by subject or title or author, but by color, a system that renders his bookshelves beautiful yet largely useless.

What if you organized a whole bookstore that way?

(McSweeney's explains.)
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Today is the first day of Passover, which seems like a good opportunity to say something about Douglas Rushkoff's book Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism. I read it a few months ago. I think it comes out in paperback this week.

"I desire macaroni pictures! And those little shaker things where you put beans inside of paper plates that are glued together! And let us put patterns of glue on the outside of those paper plates so we can then pour glitter on them so they look nice and sparkly!"

A couple of years ago, I read a book called The Talmud and The Internet, which seemed like a painless way for a guy like me to learn a little more about his (then future) wife's religion. There were some nifty stories in there about the Talmud and its recursive hypertextual nature. For instance, there's a tract where the Talmudic Rabbis discuss how God spends His days. They decide that, among other things, God spends three hours each day studying the Talmud. In other words, the Talmud is so vast and complicated that even God Himself must study it daily. And—how's this for freaky movie-within-a-movie action—this discussion of the Talmud is contained within the Talmud itself. Whoa. But I don't really recommend that book to you if you have any more knowledge of computers than, say, my grandmother. I had the distinct impression the author got most of his information about the internet from Parade Magazine or something similar. A lot of the book was just "Computers! Are they good for the Jews?" if you know what I mean.

Douglas Rushkoff, on the other hand, knows from cyberculture and Judaism both. And Nothing Sacred, originally subtitled "The Case for Open-Source Judaism," is a pretty cool combination of the two:

An open source religion would work the same way as open source software development: it is not kept secret or mysterious at all. Everyone contributes to the codes we use to comprehend our place in the universe. ... An open source Judaism is not Judaism-lite, but a commitment to know the religion as deeply and profoundly as its original programmers.

Let me clarify that my own understanding of life, the universe, and everything is and remains entirely atheistic, secular, and non-religious. Indeed this has sparked minor arguments between L & I. She's really not religious either, but is more likely than I am to admit that organized religion might occasionally have some small redeeming qualities. What I realized when we had those arguments, though, was that when she said "religion" and thought of Judaism and I said religion and thought of, you know, whatchamacallit, that building with the lower case 't' on it, we were starting in two rather different places.

I'm not converting any time soon, but I gotta give big Sammy Davis Jr. props to the Jews. I've gone to High Holiday services with Lisa and I think it's fantastic that they have a question and answer session where people debate the Rabbi's sermon. I think the rule that you can't even read the Torah without ten people present to discuss it is wild—it's like a built-in inoculation against fanaticism. Think of how much less impact some idiotic TV ad has when you watch it in a group of ten or more people. Imagine a world in which it was forbidden to watch TV without at least nine friends there to discuss it.

Bart: "Rabbi, did not a great man say, and I quote, 'The Jews are a strange bunch of people. I mean, I’ve heard of persecution but what they went through is ridiculous! But the great thing is, after thousand of years of waiting and holding on and fighting, they finally made it,'."
Rabbi Krustofsky: "Oy, I never heard the plight of my people phrased so eloquently! Who said that, Rabbi Hillel?"
Bart: "Nope."
Rabbi Krustofsky: "It was Judah the Pious."
Bart: "Nope."
Rabbi Krustofsky: "The Dead Sea Scrolls?"
Bart: "I’m afraid not, Rabbi. It’s from 'Yes I Can' by Sammy Davis Jr. An entertainer, like your son."
Rabbi Krustofsky: "The Candy Man? If a performer can think that way maybe I’m completely upside down on this whole problem."

Rushkoff basically argues that Judaism is not a religion, but rather the historical process by which humanity is evolving out of its need for religion. Which is the kind of religion I can get behind. So for him, the Exodus commemorated by Passover was not a historical event, but an allegory for the liberation of Jewish thought from the idolatrous death cults of Egypt. Each of the plagues of Egypt is a symbolic desecration of one of the old gods or religious practices of the Jews themselves. That's the Jewish gift to the world, Rushkoff says: their millenia-long exodus away from superstition. And the point of the book is to urge Jews to keep pushing along that path: to hold on to their traditions of debate and iconoclasm (Rushkoff has described Judaism as media literacy in the guise of a religion) while abandoning their tribal or possessive instincts, indeed abandoning the whole idea of being a chosen people, to create an open-source religion available to all.

Elaine: "David, I'm going to Hell! The worst place in the world! With fires and devils! Don't you have anything to say about that?"
Putty: "It's gonna be rough."

Now, the reaction to Nothing Sacred showed that my man Dougie might have underestimated the continuing appeal of tribalism. Everywhere he went to promote the book, he got called a God-killer or a Holocaust-denier or an anti-Semite. You can almost track the deflation of his optimism by reading the blog entries from his book tour last year. Even L didn't quite accept the whole argument of the book, though she thought parts of it were pretty cool. "God loves you best," is a pretty durable meme, I guess. At least as powerful as "You are forgiven," "There's a big payoff in this for you at the end," or "You kick ass."

But whatever your religion or lack thereof, Nothing Sacred is worth a look. Rushkoff is just such a cool and optimistic thinker. I don't always agree with him, but I always want what he's saying to be correct. In Rushkoff's cyberpunk Judaism, God is not a supernatural entity, but an emergent property of the religion itself. God is not to be feared or obeyed or even worshipped, but continually questioned, challenged, and revised. In fact, this very process is all that "God" is. Nothing more or less than people thinking for themselves about their duties to one another:

In a world where God is an emergent phenomenon, the entire premise of good and evil is a meaningless duality. Abstract monotheism insists that there is only one thing going on here: God. He has no antithesis, no evil twin. There is only good and the absence of good—the places where good has not yet spread. It is akin to the way a physicist understands the concept of cold. There is no such thing as cold. It is not a force of its own. Cold is not an energy. It does not exist. There is only heat. What we think of as "cold" is merely the absence of heat. Likewise, what we think of as "evil" may better be understood as the absence of good. ... Just because a candle can be blown out does not mean that darkness is an energy of its own.

(Head-bending stuff. Makes me wish it was the late 1990s and I was tweaking to trance music at [ profile] gammafodder's, clenching my jaw and gabbling to [ profile] sneech515 at a mile a minute.)

Masel Tov!

P.S.: I made a nice big pork roast for tonight.

ARFFF 2004

Feb. 1st, 2004 03:54 pm
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Like every writer, he measured other men's virtues by what they had accomplished, yet asked that other men measure him by what he planned someday to do.
—Borges, "The Secret Miracle"

Me read lots of books! Me read these books in January! Interesting to you? Me not know! But cool for me to look back in future, see books me read!

Me not get out much! )
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This weekend's reading:
Douglas Thomas' Hacker Culture,
Ron Rosenbaum's Little Blue Box article,
Larry Lessig's The Future of Ideas,
Stephen Usselman's Regulating Railroad Innovation,
and Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT.

What do these have in common? Read more... )
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ARFF! = All Reading For Fun! was the name of some demented little reading encouragement program we had back in elementary school. All I really remember about it was that, for about a week leading up to it, there were cryptic signs all over school saying "ARFF! is coming!" It was the "All Your Base Are Belong to Us" of Ancaster in the early 1980s. But our teachers were absolutely mum about what ARFF!* was going to be. ("The first rule of ARFF! is: you don't talk about ARFF!")

I don't mind telling you, that was one of the longest fucking weeks of my life. Man, I was whipped into a frenzy of anticipation. I was peeing. "ARFF! is coming! ARFF! is coming! ARFF! is coming!" I couldn't have been more excited if you'd told me Spider-man and Fonzie were driving through town in the General Lee. It must have been that extraneous exclamation point after ARFF! that did it. "ARFF! don't care about grammar! ARFF! is breaking all! the! rules!"

Anyway, I'd like to say that when the big canard was unveiled, I learned a valuable lesson about media hype and the inevitable let down that follows. I'd like to say that, but let's face it, I was the sort of dorky kid to whom All Reading For Fun! actually was worth getting that excited about.

And I still am, apparently. So here's a little of what I've been reading lately. (For Fun!)

(I'm going to split it into multiple posts—and take advantage of the fact that LJ Friends pages are down to reverse the order so you don't have to read them backwards.)

Survivor, by Chuck Palahniuk
I feel like I'm coming to the party late on this one. This is the first Chuck Palahniuk book I've read, and I really dug it. The last survivor of a suicide cult (a cult that is also a domestic slave ring and pyramid scheme) becomes a TV messiah, then hijacks a plane. Plus a killer who lives at Ronald McDonald House, a psychic girlfriend that ruins the Superbowl, and a suicide hotline that encourages callers to commit suicide. What's not to like?

The NYT called Palahniuk's work "intelligent pulp" or "pulp with flashes of brilliance" or something along those lines, and that seems about right to me. Reminds me of the way people used to talk about Quentin Tarantino. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if many of the Fight Clubbers over at were former members of the Church of St. Quentin. I got the same vibe from Palahniuk, of technical virtuosity gleefully devoid of moral sensibility, that I got from QT back in the day. High INT, low WIS, you know? So you're taken by the writer's skill and audacity yet you don't feel the presence of an entirely adult mind. I'll probably start reading Lullaby tonight.

*Oh man. Like this whole ARFF! flashback wasn't gooney enough. It just came back to me. This fiendish bit of memetic manipulation took place at Fessenden Elementary (named, in patriotic Canadian fashion, for a guy who moved to the United States and didn't invent the radio). And that means the slogan was actually All Reading For Fun... at Fessenden. Not ARFF! but ARFFF!
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Narcocorrido, by Elijah Wald
Here's how smart I am. I thought narcocorrido was Spanish for "drug smuggler," and that this book was about the world of drug trafficking on the U.S.-Mexican border. I picked it up at the library on a whim. (For Fun!) But as anyone with the slightest knowledge of Mexican culture or even grade school Spanish probably could have told me, a corrido is a song, and narcocorridos are songs about the drug trade, a monstrously popular genre of romantic ballads about drug kingpins, crooked cops, and botched smuggling runs. Which is actually a lot cooler. I told you I was smart.

The book was just so so. It's a loving celebration of the music and the people who make it, which is fine, but it seems like it could have gotten into the whole grit and grime of the drug trade a bit more. Still, I love discovering a whole pop cultural niche I knew nothing about. Like when you first discover wuxia. Or German mountain climbing movies. Or Thai unicycle porn. One of the funny things about narcocorridos is that, even though the people featured in the songs (often the people who finance the recordings) are clearly some bad fucking hombres, you get the distinct impression that the songs themselves are kind of hokey. A lot of accordions and brass horns and ay-ay-ayeees. It's like if there was a whole genre of polka songs about Russian mafia assassins. Maybe there is.
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"Remember Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie, and Spud? Well, they're back, and in POG form!"

Porno, by Irvine Welsh
Well, OK, they're not actually in POG form, but it was fun to catch up with everybody's favorite Scottish junkies and marvel at the fact that any of them were still breathing. This is the sequel to Trainspotting, ten years down the road (and yes, it really has been that long). As the title suggests, there is a little less heroin and a lot more sex this time around. Strangely, this made the events in this book seem far more sordid for me than in Trainspotting. Maybe it hit closer to home because I rarely shoot heroin, but I do have sex from time to time. Trainspotting made the former seem fun and hip; Porno makes the latter seem squalid and dirty. Or maybe it's just because our heroes are not getting any younger. Are any of us? Reading this book was a little like going to one's own ten-year reunion. Who are all these old gummers pretending to be the people I used to know? (I liked the quote [ profile] wordwolf had (possibly quoting someone else?) about his ten-year reunion: "It was just as if everyone had swelled.") Anyway, good wholesome reading for you and the kiddies. Lots of sick laughs, lots of squirmy situations, lots of thick Scottish dialect ("It's goat her shitein hersel...") you have to read aloud to make heads or tails of.

p.s. In contrast to the slick content portal and community nexus at, check out Irvine Welsh's utterly slapdash and largely content-free web site. Hee. You get the distinct impression Welsh had Spud throw half of it together before fuckin oaf to the pub fir a bevvy.

Edit: Comments disallowed on this entry as the book title has attracted LJ spammers. Maybe I should have called it Pr0n0. (Weird: I didn't know they could comment without me getting an email notice. Clever spammers.)
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The Arrogant History of White Ben, by Clemence Dane
This is an odd one. Cited by the Great and Terrible Ken Hite in his Suppressed Transmission column about scarecrows, it's a weird forgotten novel from 1938 in which a scarecrow comes to life and becomes the King of England. The scarecrow's name is White Ben, and entirely by coincidence, Ben is also the name of the Scarecrow Who Would Be King in our Unknown Armies game. So obviously I had to track this down.

It is a strange book, musty and seemingly out of its proper history, not unlike good old Harry Smith's anthology. I think I was the first person to check it out of Widener since the late 1940s. In the book, there is a war on, and has been for as long as anyone can remember. With Germany, one presumes, though it might as well be the Hundred Years' War—nobody remembers what the war started for and nobody expects it to come to an end anytime soon. It's just something that England endures. Then Ben, the scarecrow, comes to life. And he hates crows. That's pretty much his sole motivating passion. But when he talks about killing crows, everyone assumes he's talking metaphorically about whoever it is in society they don't like. So they believe he's giving voice to all their hatreds and prejudices, and they love him for it. It's like the Anti-Being There. White Ben is the evil opposite of Chance the Gardener. Ultimately, they make him King or something and he presides over a bloody holocaust where everyone suspected of being a "crow" is killed. It has a storybook quality to it that is a little reminiscent of Oz, but it's dark as hell.

"The night was a noisy one. More were killed than even Ben had proscribed, in his astonished anger that there still existed such monsters, scums, filths, dwarfish horrors. In short that there existed people who would not agree with him. … Ben's plan for testing a crow had become known, and many were flung from roofs and windows to die slowly on the pavements or to be trampled under the looters' feet. Houses were set on fire, and men and statuary shot to pieces. Nevertheless there was a certain good-humoured regret about the business, a general feeling that the fun couldn't last forever."

I must admit I didn't make it cover to cover. I read to page 182, but that took weeks, then skimmed the rest. The musty unworldliness of it all put me to right sleep within pages every time I picked it up. As occasionally happens with books of this sort, the fact that the book exists is probably cooler than the actual activity of reading it. (But I haven't returned it to the library yet—so if anyone local wants to take a crack at it...)
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The Last Lonely Saturday, Jordan Crane
An indie mini-comic by a local 'toonist that Lisa gave me for my birthday. A little old guy visits his wife's grave, remembers happier times, writes her a letter about how much he misses her. It made me cry. Seriously. In my defense, it was my birthday, I'd been working mad hours, I finished my dissertation draft, then we had a full day in Salem with L's parents, then there was the great power blackout (don't know why that should've made me emotional—I'm just setting the scene, ok?), and basically by the time we got home I was insanely tired. Still. I bawled like I was at a Bette Midler movie. Powerful stuff.

This is the panel that really started the waterworks. It may not seem like much out of context, but trust me. If you'd read it, you'd be mewling like a Swede too.


So... what are you reading?
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Seems like I've read a bunch of books about Japan lately, or rather a couple of books about Japan and a couple more about Westerners with various Japanese obsessions. Zeitgeist, my favorite Bruce Sterling novel, is not about Japan, but it does have a good line in it about the Japanese author Haruki Murakami. A character in the novel says that if you are Japanese, reading Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is "a scarifying, transformative cultural experience," but if you're not, "it reads like fifty kilos of boiled radishes."

Well, I'm sure not Japanese, but I do like Murakami—in fact, we read him at our wedding—so I think boiled radishes are a little harsh, but the three hundred pages of Wind-Up Bird where the narrator is stuck in a well are admittedly slow going. I used to recommend Hard Boiled Wonderland as the Murakami gateway-drug, but from now on I'm going to have to push David Mitchell's Number 9 Dream. Mitchell is a Gen-X Brit who lives in Japan and Number 9 Dream is pretty self-consciously Murakami-esque. It's also probably the best novel I've read this year.

The back of the book says Number 9 Dream is "a Far Eastern, multi-textual, urban-pastoral, road-movie-of-the-mind, cyber-metaphysical, detective-family chronicle, coming-of-age-love-story genre of one." Which turns out to be about right, except that if you count Hard Boiled Wonderland, it's really a genre of two. Number 9 Dream is nominally about a Japanese boy from the sticks who comes to Tokyo to find the father he has never met. It's great. It's funny, it's smart, it's sad, it's sprawling, it's confusing, it's hypercool. Tokyo is a living, breathing presence in the novel, and it feels absolutely authentic (of course, what do I know?), yet at the same time it's dripping with all the exotic gimcracks that we Western Japanophiles realize probably aren't really a big part of real life in Tokyo but deep down want to be: Bladerunner-esque cityscapes, pink love-hotels, Yakuza organ harvesters, Matrix-y action, hedonist club kids on Akira motorcycles, World War II human torpedoes, island thunder gods, and nuggets of zen wisdom.

It does, I admit, have the same kind of irritating fade-to-white ending as Lucky Wander Boy, a far lesser novel on some similar territory that I mentioned a few months ago, and also as Tokyo Suckerpunch, an even flimsier Japan-for-gaijin mystery I read but probably didn't mention. (Tokyo Suckerpunch did have a great opening line, and that goes a long way with me: "I'm hardwired for geisha.") But Number 9 Dream is so good I forgive it this one thing. Highly recommended. (There's a grumpy review here and a long excerpt here, but they don't do justice to the book.)

Still with me? Heading over to the non-fiction shelf, I also got a lot out of crunchy bits out of The Great Wave, by Christopher Benfey, which Lisa was reading but I kept stealing. William Gibson wrote a column for The Guardian a few years ago about Japan being "the global imagination's default setting for the future." It included this terrific paragraph on Meiji-era Japan:

The techno-cultural suppleness that gives us Mobile Girls today, is the result of a traumatic and ongoing temporal dislocation that began when the Japanese, emerging in the 1860s from a very long period of deep cultural isolation, sent a posse of bright young noblemen off to the West. These young men returned bearing word of an alien technological culture they must have found as marvelous, as disconcerting, as we might find the products of reverse-engineered Roswell space junk. These Modern Boys, as the techno-cult they spawned came popularly to be known, somehow induced the nation of Japan to swallow whole the entirety of the Industrial Revolution. The resulting spasms were violent, painful, and probably inconceivably disorienting. The Japanese bought the entire train-set: clock-time, steam railroads, electric telegraphy, Western medical advances. Set it all up and yanked the lever to full on. Went mad. Hallucinated. Babbled wildly. Ran in circles. Were destroyed. Were reborn.

The Great Wave is about that period, and specifically about the curious symbiosis between the Gilded Age Americans who "discovered" Japan in this era—many of them Boston Brahmins like Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Harvard History Department's very own Henry Adams—and the Meiji-era Japanese who simultaneously "discovered" America. Of course the things about Japan that the Americans fell in love with were exactly the things that the Japanese were trying to get away from, and vice-versa. But the two groups worked together quite ingeniously. It's interesting how a very small group was basically responsible for engineering the American image of Japan and the Japanese image of America.

Lisa wanted more Japan in the book and less Boston, and I guess I have to agree, but there are still some good stories in there. One involves Theodore Roosevelt, that Boy's Own Adventure! president, who was of course captivated by the martial arts of the Mysterious East. While president, he took weekly jujitsu lessons in the White House, and Benfey tells of Teddy bounding into a cabinet meeting one day to announce with glee that his jujitsu instructor was "so powerfully developed that it is impossible for any ordinary man to strangle him!" "This was peculiar news for a cabinet meeting," Benfey continues, "and Secretary of State John Hay copied it down in his diary." Hee. Go Teddy.
robotnik2004: (Default)
His book is more than a history of science; it is a tour de force in the genre ... With polymathic zest, Galison explains the century-old but still confusing special theory of relativity through the cultural history of technology.

Einstein's Clocks, the book I spent a summer researching for one of my advisors, is out, and boo-ya, it landed a rave review and the cover of the New York Times Sunday book section. (Free registration required to view site, I think.) Astonishingly, the reviewer does not mention the dedicated and strikingly handsome research assistants that made it all possible. Nevertheless, it is great buzz for a brilliant book.
robotnik2004: (Default)
Speaking of cool looking paperbacks, and of old friends of mine named Sean, I also just picked up Lucky Wander Boy, by D.B. Weiss. It's a first novel, who knows if it will be any good, but it's about a guy in search of a surreal video game he remembers from his 1980s childhood, and the cover blurb says "D.B. Weiss does for video games what Michael Chabon did for comics." So you know I had to check it out.

My only regret is that it wasn't written by my other amigo Sean (who is not the one I was talking about in my last post). If anyone was going to write the Great American 1980s Video Game Novel, I always figured it would be him. Although Sean is actually Canadian, and as far as I know, the Great Canadian 1980s Video Game Novel remains to be written. So there's still hope, as long as Jim Munroe doesn't beat him to it.


And speaking of friends of mine, go visit my friend Chris' weblog, if you haven't already. (Or just add the [ profile] gammafodder RSS feed to your friends list.) He just started it and is lonely for comments. He's a techno DJ by night and runs a nuclear power plant by da— well, actually he does both those things by night. By day, I think he sleeps, or maybe plays "Crazy Taxi." Anyway, unlike me, he has more to talk about than just geek games and books he's reading.
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I just got a strange and terrific present from my old amigo Sean, who lives among the Ewoks on Vancouver Island. He was buying a trade paperback of The Invisibles at a used bookstore, and the guy there told him they had "the original novel the comic book was based on." And so Sean bought and sent me this groovy little pulp paperback, published in 1971 by one Bernhardt J. Hurwood, and called, yep, The Invisibles.

Now I think the bookstore guy was having Sean on. I've been an Invisibles fanboy since 1995 and I've never heard anything about this book. And frankly, if Grant Morrison had been inspired by a semi-smutty drugsploitation novel from the 1970s, I don't think he'd be shy about admitting it.

And yet... the novel is about a two-fisted psycho-pharmacologist, a kind of Indiana Jones meets Timothy Leary type, who acquires psychic powers from experiments with psychotropic drugs, and then uses those powers to fight a globe-spanning conspiracy of evil, and also to have a lot of uninhibited 1971-style sex. It doesn't strictly mirror the plot of the 1990s Invisibles, but the whole vibe just screams Morrison. So who can say?

(The vibe also screams The New Know Nothings, which adds another level of weird synchronicity to this. Sean was the original creator of that Mage campaign I just posted about, with its whole 1970s Gothic Funk gestalt. I only took up the reins when he traipsed off to Vanuatu. Yet he must have bought and mailed the book just days before I dragged that old game summary up into the light.)

A little googling informs me that the euphoniously-named Bernhardt J. Hurwood was a "sexologist, sometime film critic, coattail-jumper, and definitive Burt Reynolds biographer," who also wrote The Bisexuals, The Girl, The Massage, and Everything, and the long-running Man From T.O.M.C.A.T. series (from which you will surely remember The Ominous Orgy and The Dozen Deadly Dragons of Joy). See what I mean about the Morrison vibe?

My working theory now is that Hurwood—the name is clearly a pseudonym or maybe even an anagram for something—actually was Grant Morrison, who, while writing the comic in the 1990s, projected himself back in time to the 1970s and wrote the Invisibles novel just to play with my head.


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July 2014

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