sat, 31-mar-2007, 14:41

the road

the road, cormac mccarthy

Books Acquired

  • Jim Crace. 1999. Being Dead.
  • Dave Eggers. 2006. What Is the What.
  • Kazuo Ishiguro. 2005. Never Let Me Go.
  • Cormac McCarthy. 2006. The Road.
  • Tom McCarthy. 2005. Remainder.
  • Scarlett Thomas. 2006. The End of Mr. Y.
  • Dave Eggers. 2002. You Shall Know Our Velocity.
  • A. L. Kennedy. 2005. Paradise.

Books Read

  • David Mitchell. 2004. Cloud Atlas: A Novel.
  • Zadie Smith. 2000. White Teeth: A Novel.
  • Cormac McCarthy. 2006. The Road.
  • Dave Eggers. 2006. What Is the What.
  • Scarlett Thomas. 2006. The End of Mr. Y.
  • Tom McCarthy. 2005. Remainder.

I haven’t decided if I really like the Hornby format or not. I like that it provides a nice monthly summary of what books I’ve read and picked up, but a month is a pretty long time to remember enough about a book for me to adequately say what I think about it. The books I didn’t like so much sort of fade by the time the end of the month rolls around.

Cloud Atlas

I had a hard time getting into this one, mostly because the first (and last) story in the book wasn’t very compelling for me. The concept of the book as a set of mirrored and weakly connected stories through time (the pattern is abcdefedcba) was kinda cool, and Michell does a great job at switching genre from one story to the next. The problem with the book, however, is that once you’ve seen the structure and appreciated the skill involved, how does it really add to the novel as a whole? I didn’t find much in the way of an overall theme that connected the stories together, so it was easiest to just read the book as a set of six short stories, split in half. As such, I really enjoyed the middle three, and especially liked the replicant’s story (e) and the language she used (AdV for TV, Corpocracy for the government). Hopefully not as prophetic as it seems at this moment.

White Teeth

I’m really not sure what all the excitement was surrounding this book. The characters behaved in really strange ways, many of them weren’t fleshed out at all (Archie, Clara, Irie, specifically), and I thought Smith could have done a lot more with the "experiment" of sending Millit back to India while Magid stayed at home. Maybe the point was that it doesn’t matter? I did enjoy the Iqbal’s and their relationship seemed the most formed, realistic, and humorous.

The Road

Now that Oprah has selected it for her Book Club I probably don’t need to go on and on about this one, since everyone and their brother will be reading it now. But in case a nod from Oprah is a negative for you, let me say that this is a stunning work of prophetic fiction. I was amazed at how clearly I could picture (and still can several weeks later) the places and action from the book. It’s not the world we live in now, but it’s uncomfortably close. You won’t soon forget it.

Like this reviewer from the California Literary Review, I read it in one sitting. I didn’t fix myself a stiff drink afterwards, but I understand the sentiment expressed in the review:

I read this book in one take late at night and immediately headed downstairs to kick up the fire and drink some bourbon. I was cold, chilled emotionally, stunned, awe-struck by McCarthy’s words. I mentioned The Road to a singer/songwriter friend and all he could say was “That one put me off my feed for a few days.”

“Put me off my feed” is such a great expression.

what is the what

what is the what: a real, sewn hardcover

What Is the What

If The Road is an all too likely post-apocalyptic nightmare, What Is the What is the all too real nightmare of so many places in the world right now. The surprising thing about this book for me was that despite all the horrors Valentino lives through and recounts during the book (boys getting eaten by lions and crocodiles, villages burned and pillaged, slavery, starvation, years and years of boredom waiting to leave the refugee camps, etc.), the book isn’t at all depressing. The voice Eggers gives Valentino (presumably his real voice) is so matter of fact, and at the same time somehow optimistic and funny that the book was a genuine pleasure to read.

A quote from page 200 of the hardcover:

It was a broken world, I knew then, that would allow a boy such as me to bury a boy such as William K. [Note: They’re seven years old when William dies of starvation on the way to Ethiopia]

One other note: the hardcover is published by McSweeney’s, and is a real hardcover with sewn sections and everything. The last hardcover book I bought that wasn’t just a paperback with hard covers pasted on, was the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Brothers Karamazov, published by the now defunct North Point Press (oh yeah, and the books by Edward Tufte, published by Graphics Press). I plan on buying more McSweeney’s books, if for no other reason than to support the idea that a $20 - $30 hardcover really should be a well-produced, durable book, rather than a cheap paperback styled to look like a hardcover. Like Against the Day, they’re not doing numbers right, and the looped characters (lower case d, q and p especially) look a little funny, but other than that, it’s a really nicely produced book.

the end of mr. y

the end of mr. y: bad body font

The End of Mr. Y

I had high hopes for this one, and I really enjoyed it for awhile. But some of the exposition was too drawn out, almost like Thomas was trying to teach us something by leading the character to a conclusion through a dialog with another character that already had the idea. As the book progressed, I also grew more and more tired with the fantastical aspects of the book. One very interesting idea I’d never though about was that if the uncertainty principle governed the first particle of the universe before the big bang either God observed it, causing it’s state to be known and triggering the big bang; or there was no observer, the particle’s state at the time was governed by a probability function, and the big bang happened at any and all of the infinite states the particle could have been in, resulting in a multiverse. So: God or multiverse? My vote is for the multiverse, including the World Without Shrimp.

I also got a nasty stomach flu right in the middle, so some of my bad feelings might be because my reading was forcibly interrupted for several days in the middle of the book.

It is a book of ideas, though, and this means that I will probably enjoy her other books. I’ve got PopCo in my queue, and I expect I’ll like that one more because it appears to dispense with the fantastical.

Also: terrible typography. The body font was horrible. What’s next, Comic Sans or some Brushscript font? Give me Minion, Garamond, Sabon, Caslon or something actually designed for easy, comfortable reading. Not something designed for decorating someone’s Christmas newsletter or part of a ransom note.


A lot to like, especially the idea that re-creating events in every detail could make living the event more real than the first time around because you can consider the events more carefully as they’re happening again. Sort of like forcing the eternal recurrence without dying. Unfortunately the main character is a sociopath, and as the book progressed, he became harder and harder to understand or figure out what the hell he was thinking. Maybe he thinks he’s become the Nietzschen Übermensch, but as interesting a concept as that is, I wouldn’t want to meet him, and reading a book from inside his head wasn’t very enjoyable.

tags: books 
sun, 04-mar-2007, 12:40

Books Acquired

  • Sam Harris. 2004. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. (gift)
  • Peter Hessler. 2001. River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. (gift)
  • J. Anthony Lukas. 1997. Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America.
  • Zadie Smith. 2000. White Teeth: A Novel.

Books Read

  • Thomas Pynchon. 2006. Against the Day.
  • Audrey Niffenegger. 2003. The Time Traveler's Wife. (gift)
  • Peter Hessler. 2001. River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. (gift)

I finally finished Against the Day after three months of deliberately working my way through it. I took copious notes (filling two and a half sections of a journal book) and both contributed to, and benefited from the wiki devoted to the book. I'm not exactly sure what to make of the book now that I'm finished with it. It was a great book, but it's always hard to read a book when you feel like you have to study while you're reading. There were days when I came home from work, and just didn't feel like investing the energy it would take to read, write, and cross-reference so that I could get as much from it as it deserved.

I'm often called on to describe (often, defend) why I think Unix, and Unix tools, are better than the more popular alternatives. The point I always try to make is that Unix is an expert system, meaning it takes expertise to use it, and because of the richness and complexity of the system, there's always something more to learn. For a beginner, they're a pain to use because there's such a steep learning curve. But once you've learned enough to go forward, it is much easier to apply what you've learned to new, unique, and difficult tasks that are impossible in the simpler, restrictive box that a non-expert system places you in. Pynchon is the literature version of an expert system. It's a lot of work just to read it, but it's obvious once you do that not only have you gotten something unique out of it, you will get much, much more when you read it again.

The next book I read was The Time Traveller's Wife, and I enjoyed it so much, I was tempted to start reading it all over again right after I finished it. Not because a second read would be all that much more revealing, but because I wanted to be back in the world of Henry and Clare. It was the perfect antidote to Against the Day, yielding rich rewards with the simple effort of reading.

I finished the month out with Peter Hessler's memoir of his time teaching with the Peace Corps in China. I'd read some of his writing in The New Yorker and was a little worried that the book might seem too much like a series of columns in book form, but that wasn't the case at all. The Hessler who starts the book upon arriving in China is very different from the guy at the end, and the journey from one to the other was very entertaining. I also feel like I learned something about what makes China so different from the United States. The way the Chinese government deals with their own troubled history and the conflict between "Communisim with Chinese Character" and capitalism is pretty interesting when viewed from a rural backwater like the small town Hessler taught in.

tags: books 
mon, 15-jan-2007, 11:14


Still working my way through Against the Day. I'm averaging a little over nine pages per day (instead of twenty), so I won't finish the book in time for the Pynchon-L group read. In fact, I probably won't finish it until April. That's OK, though. I'm very much enjoying the book, and I think if I was reading it faster, I'd miss more of what makes the book great. I've been collecting quotes and character names in my notebook sections, and more of those quotes may appear in future posts. Here's a good one from page 415:

Once we came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that the Earth's resources were limited, in fact soon to run out, the whole capitalist illusion fell to pieces. . . like religious Dissenters of an earier day, we were forced to migrate, with little choice but to set forth upon that dark fourth-dimensional Atlantic known as Time.

Serious stuff. Don't think the fourth-dimension is currently open for travel, though, so for the time being we're stuck with the world we've made.

There's also a lot of humor in the book, not the least of which is the names Pynchon gives to his characters. Anyone who read Mason & Dixon remembers the Reverend Cherrycoke. Funny character names from Against the Day include Heino Vanderjuice, the law firm of Somble, Strool & Fleshway, Dodge Flannelette, Tansy Wagwheel, Alonzo Meatman, Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin, Thrapston Cheesely III, Yup Toy, and many others. Often Pynchon combines two words to make a funny sounding, and perhaps even meaningful name.

I wrote a little Python script to generate these sorts of names. You can download it here: ( Just change the value of the WORD_DICTIONARY variable to where the wordlist is on your computer. Some good ones it came up with: Tweedyblore, Untarnubbin, Quiapoundcore, Cuskgluteus.

Gotta go get my nine pages in before it's time to plow the driveway.

tags: books  writing 
sat, 02-dec-2006, 13:46

lap desk

desk on my lap

When I started reading Mason & Dixon several years ago I spent the first half looking up all the obscure references, keeping track of all the characters; trying to figure out exactly what Pynchon was saying in the book. Eventually I got tired of this approach and just wanted to finished the damned thing. So I abandoned all my research and read it as I would read Nick Hornby or any of the other books you buy at the airport to get through your flight. But since I never really "got" the second half of the book, I want to re-read it again and catch up on all the things I missed.

Since that book, which I finished in 2000, I've read a lot of books with historical context, most recently William T. Vollmann's Europe Central. The Internets (tubes, not trucks, don't 'cha know), especially the Wikipedia, really bring a lot to reading books like this if you have the dedication to look up the historical references and learn the context surrounding the story the author is telling. For example, the Warsaw Riots were mentioned by one of the characters in Europe Central, so I read a little of the history. I also read Antony Beevor's Stalingrad to fill in those gaps in my knowledge. And the Warsaw Riot section of the Wikipedia linked the movie The Pianist (which I'd watched on DVD several years ago) to what I'd been reading. Dmitri Shostakovich is one of the characters in the book, so I downloaded his Seventh Symphony (part of which was written during the siege of Leningrad) and several Shostakovich pieces mentioned in the book. All of these connections were made because I took the time to look away from the pages of the book and fill in the details on my own. And now I have a much fuller understanding of what World War II was like and what the consequences were on the people who lived through it (or didn't, I suppose).

I'm currently reading Against the Day. Having a comfortable place to read the book, keep track of all the details, and be able to look stuff up will make getting through my twenty pages a day a lot easier. We've only got one comfortable place to sit in the house, so I'm reading the book on the couch, listening to music on the stereo. My laptop is next to me on the end table with the Wikipedia, an online dictionary and the Pynchon wiki open in Firefox.

To make it easier to take notes and read a book that weighs as much as a brick, I'm going to build a lap desk. Jefferson used one of his own design so he could write wherever he went, and wrote the majority of the Declaration on it. I've styled mine (with help from a fellow Galoot on the OldTools List) more along the lines of a Shaker lap desk. The photo shows the prototype I built from scrap pine. When I get around to building the real version I'll use some walnut that's been sitting in the garage for six or seven years waiting for the right project.

I also thought about what sort of notebook to use while reading. I could make a blank book, but I don't know how many pages I'll really need, so I'll make the notebook a section at a time, and after I've finished the book, bind the sections together. I used six sheets of paper, folded in half, and then sewn once through with linen thread. When the time comes to bind them together, I'll remove the existing thread, punch new holes and bind it. Because the sections are almost completely loose, they're easy to handle on the desk and lay flat for easy writing. I'm currently 60 pages into the book and have filled five pages. If I keep up that pace, I'll have a 90 page notebook when I'm finished (four sections). If you're thinking about doing this for your reading, keep in mind that you can't use normal paper for this because the grain of regular paper is going the wrong direction (up and down, or long-grain). You need short-grain paper in order to fold it in half and get pages that lay properly and won't curl.

Broken Social Scene and Swan Lake are cued up on iTunes, so it's time to get to my twenty pages. Last time I learned about the Haymarket Riot and Maxwell's Equations. I wonder what I'll learn today?

tags: books  make  writing 
mon, 27-nov-2006, 16:32

1.5 kg

My copy of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day showed up today, two days earlier than Amazon promised (I actually tried to buy it in town, but the local independent bookseller said he didn't think anyone would buy it (gasp!), and Barnes and Noble had 15 "on order" but none on the shelf). I've been looking forward to it for a couple months after catching the accidental Amazon blurb Pynchon wrote. Since then, I joined the Pynchon-L mailing list and they've fueled the fires of my interest in the new book, and Pynchon in general.

I never managed to finish his masterwork, Gravity's Rainbow, but I really enjoyed Mason & Dixon, to the point that I saddled several family members with it. "Happy birthday! Here's a huge, complex, difficult book for you to struggle with . . ."


Against the Day is a heavy book, 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds), and it looks nice. Too bad the binding (like most modern hardcovers) isn't a sewn binding, but is a "perfect binding" with colored headbands to hide the fact that it's flexible glue holding everything together instead of linen thread. Oh well. The typography is pretty good, Baskerville according to one of the P-Listers, and the pages are thin but nice and smooth. For some reason they used titling figures in the text, which is odd. As Robert Bringhurst says, "However common it may be, the use of titling figures in running text is illiterate: it spurns the truth of the letters." (The Elements of Typographic Style)

I plan on reading it fairly deliberately, around 20 pages a day, hopefully. That way I can finish it by the time the P-Listers have an organized re-reading. If you're contemplating the book, check out the Pynchon wiki, which should help flush out any references that aren't clear at first. They've got a "spoiler-free" annotations by page section that should be really helpful.

Tom Waits on the stereo. Time to get started.

tags: books 

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