Mad Times

“To be sane in a mad time is bad for the brain, worse for the heart.” – Wendell Berry

December 31st, 2006 at 10:46 pm

2006 in review

In 2006 I read only 31 books (a couple of reviews aren’t up yet). This is even worse than the 36 I thought was so scandalously low last year. All the same reasons apply.

We did do some pretty cool things this year that might have eaten some of my reading time.

We also watched a bunch of movies, so like I posted last year, here’s what we saw and what we thought of them.

The notes are about where we saw the movie and who saw it. “T” indicates we saw it in the theater. Other letters indicate who attended. The default is Becky and me. If only R appears then Rachel saw it with us. If just “J” or “B” appear then only the one of us saw it. “B, R” means I skipped that one, etc.

rating Title Notes
**** Capote
**** The Fifth Element repeat
**** The Ice Storm repeat
**** An Inconvenient Truth T Karen, Erik
***+ Breakfast On Pluto
***+ Brick
***+ Broken Flowers
***+ Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
***+ Match Point
***+ Wordplay
*** The Aristocrats
*** Batman Begins
*** Brokeback Mountain
*** Cars T B
*** Charlie and the Chocolate Factory R
*** Clerks 2
*** Donnie Darko
*** Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
*** Friends With Money
*** Hard Candy
*** Iron and Silk
*** King Kong T R
*** Little Miss Sunshine T Steve, Hazel
*** The Matador T
*** My Neighbor Totoro
*** The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio
*** Proof
*** Reefer Madness
*** Saved!
*** Shadow Voices: Finding hope with mental illness
*** Shopgirl
*** Sin City J
*** Slacker repeat
*** The Squid and the Whale
**+ The Bishop’s Wife B
**+ Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) repeat
**+ Calendar Girls
**+ Casanova T B
**+ Code 46
**+ Connie and Carla
**+ Corpse Bride R
**+ Dickie Roberts B
**+ Duck Season
**+ Elizabethtown
**+ The Family Stone B R
**+ Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle
**+ I Am Trying To Break Your Heart Rod
**+ I’ll Take You There
**+ In the Realms of the Unreal
**+ Junebug
**+ Memoirs of a Geisha
**+ Monster House T Steve, Hazel, Rosalind, R
**+ Night And Day B
**+ Prairie Home Companion T
**+ Sketches of Frank Gehry
**+ Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
**+ Something New B
**+ Super Size Me
**+ Thank You For Smoking
** The 40 Year Old Virgin
** Art School Confidential
** For Your Consideration T Larry, Ann
** Freeway
** Fun With Dick and Jane
** People Will Talk B
** Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest T R
** Reefer Madness 1936
** Scotland, PA
** Stage Beauty
** Superman Returns
** Topper Returns B
** Topper B
** The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
** X3: The Last Stand
* The Brothers Grimm R

That’s 75 movies (only 10 in the theater) and doesn’t include everything we watched that we’d seen before. We don’t actually use stars when we rate movies, we use words. I’ve translated our “Don’t Miss” to ****, “Pretty Good” to ***, “Okay” to **, and “Don’t Bother” to * if that helps you make sense of this. If you’re wondering whether you’d like something on here, leave a comment or send email and I’ll blather on.

December 31st, 2006 at 7:39 pm

Blindsight by Peter Watts

shiny things hovering in the void over a scary black thingThere’s been a recent surge in interest in this book, but I want to make sure I get all possible cred for being in the know by pointing out that I got it out of the library after reading about it in James Nicoll’s blog back in early November. The surge of buzz is due to the fact that Watts has posted the whole book under a Creative Commons license on his website (he did this because the book has been released into a kind of perfect storm of lousy sales which you can read about (at length) on his blog). And in the interest of full disclosure I have to come clean that even though I got it out of the library, I never got around to reading that copy, just kept it for a month and turned it in late without ever having cracked the cover. Instead, I downloaded the novel after he posted it and read it on my Palm.

I really liked the book. It’s refreshing to read such an idea-based hard science fiction novel after the recent rash of disappointing Endeavour hopefuls (Blindsight isn’t eligible since Watts lives outside the Pacific Northwest). In particular, Blindsight builds up to one rather disturbing big idea, but if I told you that (like many other reviewers apparently do), I’d be subverting the whole reason for this book’s existence and you don’t want that, do you?

Fortunately there are a bunch of other fascinating smaller ideas in the rest of the book that I can reveal without particularly spoiling anything. Blindsight is what Alien might look like if it had been written by Oliver Sacks. There are neurological fringe cases all over the book. The point of view character had a radical hemispherectomy as a child to address a seizure disorder. One of the characters has an intentionally induced multiple personality (to better use her brain’s capacity), another has had his brain rewired to extend his sensory range and ability to use telepresence equipment. Another principal character is a vampire.

I hesitate to even mention the vampire connection since it’s mostly a peripheral issue. This isn’t a vampire book in any traditional sense. Watts seems to have included them more as a lark, but he does some very interesting stuff to make his vampires somewhat plausible within the existing vampire mythos as well as showing how their existence might be useful to the rest of us.

So what the book is about is an alien first contact. And it’s a nice scary creepy what-the-heck-are-they-and-what-do-they-want kind of first contact novel rather than the tiresome humanoid-meets-humanoid kind.

So if a claustrophobic, talky, space-based, first contact novel with neurologically marginal but interesting and realistic characters sounds like fun to you, go buy Watts’s book. Or if you’re a cheap bastard like me, get it from the library or download a copy. And when you’ve read it, send me an email and let’s talk about that big scary idea.

December 30th, 2006 at 6:16 pm

Nathan is 1!

Nathan is 1!, originally uploaded by Jeff Youngstrom.

Can hardly believe that it’s been a whole year since my nephew Nathan came on the scene. My dad took this great picture.

December 30th, 2006 at 5:05 pm

Have a Mice Meal

cat on paper by xmas tree

Theo sitting on the paper one of his Christmas presents came wrapped in. Thanks, Grandma.

December 30th, 2006 at 4:10 pm

Shadowed by Wings by Janine Cross

woman kneeling beneath a big scary dragonAnother one I read for the Endeavour Award. I came awfully close to flinging this one against the wall, but it’s a library book so I didn’t.

It doesn’t help that I came to this saga with the second book, but I don’t think much of anything would have helped me like this book. Cardboard characters, cardboard setting, cardboard plot. Over-zealous use of the thesaurus coupled with way too many made-up words.

I came to think of the book as an attempt to write a woman character in a setting like the Conan the Barbarian books, but that makes it sound interesting. The protagonist is a woman in a male-dominated society who’s become addicted to dragon venom which when ingested is a stimulant and hallucinogen. She’s also being nagged by the ghost of her mother who appears to her in the form of various flying creatures when she is in mortal danger and tries to get her to go searching for her long lost sister. She has talked a dragon master into taking her on as an apprentice despite the fact that women don’t do that (something about a prophetic scroll here. sigh.)

She faces all kinds of humiliations. When complaining about the book to Becky and Rachel I called it “dragon porn”. This is another description that makes the book sound interesting in a way that it’s not. The book opens with the protagonist being flogged. And not nice cuddly consensual sexy flogging, but the nasty version inflicted by someone who’s hurting her just cause he feels like it. That’s just the beginning of the series of degrading and life-threatening treatments she undergoes. I’m sure there are people who’d enjoy the fantasy of this sort of treatment, but they’ll have to overlook all the cardboard to get their kicks. I can’t imagine that it would be worth it.

December 30th, 2006 at 4:09 pm

The Last Mortal Man by Syne Mitchell

Guy looks across the water at a city on fireI’d picked this up at the library before I found out I’d be reading it for the Endeavour Award. I picked it up because I’d read Mitchell’s End In Fire for last year’s award and enjoyed her evocative depiction of micro-gravity environments in an interesting plot.

Unfortunately, this book doesn’t share the setting or the accomplishment of End In Fire. Last Mortal Man is set in a world where nanotechnology has been successfully applied to the aging problem (among other things). The technology is controlled by one man, Lucius Sterling, who is essentially the business manager for the ivory tower type who made the actual breakthrough. The book opens with an attempt to assassinate Sterling told from the point of view of one of the assassins. She gets cold feet at the last moment and manages to save his life. In exchange he whisks her away from the crime scene and puts her back together (the weapon was a disassembler). During her convalescence she manages to talk him into hiring her as his personal body guard and giving her the expensive full-body makeover that makes her effectively immortal. In exchange she becomes his indentured servant for quite a long time (250 years? can’t remember).

With those preliminaries out of the way, the book hares off into ever more improbable territory. My gripe with the book is that the rules of the nanotech make no sense. First the stuff is ubiquitous, then there are ways to avoid it. The title character is deathly allergic to the stuff so he has to wear an isolation suit which is somehow self-cleaning without having any technology included. In general, the plot moves in just the way that it seems Mitchell wants it to with increasingly little regard for logic or consequences. I could overlook a lot of this, but when it’s coupled with cardboard characters I just give up. Be afraid, because this is marked “Book One of the Deathless”.

December 30th, 2006 at 4:06 pm

Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear

Guy talking to a library lionIt’s really amazing how many good books have been written using the Arthurian legends as their base material. And here’s another one. This one keeps things fresh by mixing the Arthur stuff up with Faerie and the eternal Seelie vs. Unseelie court intrigue. Along with that leavening, Bear’s book also brings the story to the current day and puts part of it on the streets of New York City.

It took me a few pages to get used to Bear’s slightly heightened style. She uses lots of adjectives (usually color-related) and novel similes that made sentences stick and require rereading until I got used to the style and was able to trust that she really did write the surprising sentence I thought I read. This makes it sound as if the book is full of awkward sentences, but they read so smoothly (once you stop trying to second guess them) that they belie their complex vocabulary. I read a few passages aloud to B and was surprised each time at how smooth and rhythmical they were when spoken. Lovely.

I really liked how all the characters felt like they were in over their heads, but went ahead and did the best they could under the circumstances. It would be easy in a story like this for events to seem arbitrary, but Bear managed to make everything that happens clearly result from a decision that some character plausibly thought was a sensible course of action.

I only wish we’d gotten to see a lot more of her Merlin.

December 22nd, 2006 at 9:46 pm


cat on couch with feet folded under and cheek laid down

December 17th, 2006 at 8:41 pm
December 17th, 2006 at 7:14 pm


cat on a lap in a house without power

The power went out early Friday morning and it’s still out. This was taken in the early hours of the outage when the house was still pretty warm. It’s down in the mid-40s (F) now. I’m writing from my dear sister-in-law’s house where there’s light and heat and (most importantly) wireless internet.

output here