July 31, 2005

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, July 2005

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
My mother has enthused about this book for as long as I can remember. (The title was a family catch-phrase I often heard as boy.) She was, of course, right...
Brian Stableford, The Last Days of the Edge of the World
A very charming little novel of the end of magic. (I can only imagine how many volumes would be taken to tell this story nowadays.) " 'Vanity,' said the mirror in tones of mild reproof, 'is not nice.' "
Sebastiano Timpanaro, On Materialism (London: New Left Books, 1976)
(Not an actual quotation:) "Comrades? We need to talk. I'm a European scholar of the humanities and a revolutionary Marxist like the rest of you, but I'm very concerned that you're all succumbing to bourgeois idealism — yes I know you're calling it 'structuralism' now, and 'critical theory' and so forth, but it's still the same old nonsense underneath. And no, pretending that external reality is just a product of human praxis, rather than of human thought, isn't an improvement. And you can't go on dismissing every scientific attempt to understand how human beings work as 'vulgar materialism' or 'reductionism' forever, comrades, or else you'll just end up looking ridiculous. After all, since Darwin we know that nature is historical, and as materialists we should be committed to the continuity of human and natural history, should we not? Comrades? Are any of you listening to me at all?" (Evidently not.) — But I must object: Anyone who takes seriously the prospect that the Earth will in the distant future become incapable of supporting life (true enough!) has no business dismissing interplanetary travel as "science fiction". More importantly: it's hard for me to respect the political views of a Leninist, especially when he talks, in the 1970s, about how capitalist democracies are inevitably abandoning the "democracy" part and descending into barbarism, and how the People's Republic of China represents a great hope. (If this be social-democratic reformism, make the most of it.)
Elizabeth Moon, The Deed of Paksenarrion
Or: Learning about courage from Dungeons & Dragons. I feel a bit ashamed of enjoying a 1000-page novel which leans so heavily on the game that (once upon a time) I could've told you which pages of the rule books to look things up on, but it did pass the time, and once the story turned darker, about two-thirds of the way through, gives a sense of the higher quality of story-telling evident in Moon's latter science fiction novels. (So far as I know, those owe nothing to any role-playing game.)
Bernt Oksendal, Stochastic Differential Equations: An Introduction with Applications
One of ten Springer books I picked up in Beijing, in apparently-authorized local reprint editions, for about \$70 total. (I didn't have the gall to ask my hosts if they also called Springer math books "the yellow peril".) It probably says something about me that I'm excited to have finally found an SDE text which is compact, readable, and connected to non-mathematical reality. Judging by the number of editions it's gone through, many people have gotten here before me.
Alan Furst, Dark Star
I have nothing to add to Brad DeLong's remarks. Well, except that Furst reminds me of pre-war Ambler, only with some sex (which is not really an improvement), and a certain difference in tone which I can't help but feel comes from knowing how the war is going to go — at once a bit more ironic and a bit more complacent.
Isabel Glass, Daughter of Exile and The Divided Crown
Half a recommendation. These read like Glass is trying to do something new with heroic fantasy — it's definitely not, thank God, another generic trek through fantasyland — and there's some good characterization and invention. But parts of the plots were serious strechers, especially in the second book (royal courts without factions? a king has magicians to serve him, but when he starts a war he not only doesn't tell them, none of them know?). Most of all, the language stayed too flat and prosaic for the magic to be convincing — too much Poughkeepsie and not enough Elfland, as Le Guin might say, and this didn't seem to be to make a point, say that not even Elfland is Elfland. Still, parts were quite good (say the first half of the first, and the portions of the second told from the viewpoints of the secondary characters), and I'd read more. (Thanks to Holtzbrinck Publishers for the unsolicited publicity copy of Divided Crown, which prompted me to finally read them both.)
A. Lee Martinez, Gil's All Fright Diner
B-movie monsters in middle-of-nowhere Texas foil a break-out from what Terry Pratchett would call the dungeon dimensions. Very funny.
Charlie Stross, The Family Trade
Trust a Scotsman to see the ability to move between time-lines as a business opportunity. Actually, this was quite good, and I'm very impatient to lay my hands on the sequel.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur

Posted at July 31, 2005 23:59 | permanent link

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