One more novel finished

All of a sudden, I had the urge to visit Barnes & Noble yesterday afternoon. M agreed and we bought three novels, after which we had a mediocre dinner at a nearby Mad Mex. But the really memorable thing is that I started one of the novels yesterday and finished today, which is pretty fast for me. Also, I finished it with tears in my eyes. The reviewer in The Guardian thinks The Absolutist is too direct and possibly more apt for young readers than mature ones. This made my day: I am in some sense young enough to get such a big emotional charge from this novel, then! I highly recommend it. The author, John Boyne, already has had a mega-selling success with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I can imagine reading that one soon, too. Even if it is more explicitly a Young Adult novel. Especially because of this, in fact.

Finally finished reading The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

This is the third time I am blogging about The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. You will have to excuse this short, silly little post, though. After finishing this amazing novel, I am too much in awe of its language and intellectual scope to dare add my own reflections. Perhaps I will feel up to it in a few days. I am just very thankful that Benjamin Hale delivered to the reading world this masterpiece that feels as though it was written by some supernatural combination of Shakespeare, Nabokov, and Jane Goodall.

Reader who chances upon this post (and so few of you there will be): take my advice, read this book, and marvel.

An eloquent ape comments on human nature

I mentioned earlier that I had begun reading The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, a rather astonishing novel. I picked it up again today after a few weeks’ absence and I just have to share this short bit of monologue by Bruno, the eloquent ape, delivered in the midst of his reminiscences about arriving in New York and meeting a Diogenes-the-Cynic-like man, and from the point of view of a Sheakespeare-quoting ape who, having learned to speak and read and having conducted a self-directed education in a  library, oftentimes views the world from the perspective of a human, only to quickly remember the preeminence and pride of his animal nature.

I really wish I met just one person whose utterances were as mellifluous as Bruno’s are in real life; what would it be like? And if I can read this type of stream-of-consciousness in a novel, why on earth would I try (for the nth time) to read James Joyce’s big, fat account of a story that begins with a certain stately, plump Buck Mulligan coming down the stairs? No. Bruno’s story is much, much more engaging and unbelievably intelligent.

Back in Plato’s selfsame ancient Athens, Diogenes went naked and lived in a bathtub, urinated, defecated, and masturbated in public, and denounced all laws, religions, governments, and good manners. People called him “the Cynic” because the word means “doglike” in Greek, because Diogenes lived like a dog. He wasn’t offended, though; he liked it. You’re damn right I live like a dog, he said to them. Alexander the Great returned to Athens fresh from conquering the known world and found Diogenes, naked as was his fashion, sunning himself on the steps of the Acropolis. Alexander stood before him and said, Ask any favor you choose of me. Name anything, because I am Alexander the Great and that basically means whatever it is, I can get it for you. Diogenes looked up at him, squinted, maybe gave his scrotum a lackadaisical scratch, shrugged, and said, Get out of my sun. Can one help but admire that? We are animals who like to constantly congratulate ourselves on all our sweetness and light and triumph of spirit, and nobody is supposed to choose to live like a dog. I’ve always admired this man, his presence at the same place and time as the birth of philosophy, like a voice crying, not in the wilderness, but from the wilderness in the human heart, in the midst of civilization. The solemn golden machineries of politics, learning, thought, goodness and grace and virtue and art—especially art—all we call our society, needs Diogenes in the middle of it, a human proud and content to live like an animal, to remind us not to mistake the frippery of human civilization for anything too distant or distinct from what’s already there in pigs and monkeys and dogs, to remind us that for all the sweetness and light of our great cities and great machines and great art, we are nothing terribly more magnificent than apes with clothes on our bodies, words in our mouths, and heads inflated with willful delusions.

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale, Twelve (a Hachette company), 2011, pages 413-414.

Books finished and in progress

Don’t worry, I won’t write here about all the books I am currently supposed to be reading. I just want to mention a novel I actually finished (this happens all too rarely lately with novels) and one I am reading avidly.

The one I finished is The Missing Shade of Blue, by Jennie Erdal. The Guardian liked it, but not as much as I did. It was the strong review of it in the Economist that I read some weeks ago that made me get it in Kindle ebook form, and I think of the book as highly as they did. Then again, I always fall for discursive books on philosophical topics, which is not to imply that this book has no action at all. It just has a lot of thought-provoking observations and dialog, in addition to action, and paints vivid pictures of characters, moods, and locations. I brought the book to Bermuda on our recent trip along with many others on my Kindle, but only read about half of it there; today was the day to finish it, made propitious for this by the necessity of spending more than three hours at the car dealership waiting for some routine car maintenance to be performed.

The one I will be finishing soon is The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale. I got that at the airport in Bermuda, right before going in to board the plane back to Philadelphia on Thursday. It caught my eye in the little airport bookshop. I remembered having seen good reviews but having thought that the title promised too weird a book. Well, I was wrong then! This is a fabulous book! Nabokovian use of language joins an intellect well-versed in literature, painting, linguistics, anthropology, and even economics to make a book so marvelous and unique that “unique” is rendered an inadequate descriptor, as is “marvelous”. I can see that I will be finishing it before the weekend. I will also have to stop myself from starting it all over again when I finish. There is work to be done this summer, after all, and work I very much want to do, at that!

Reflecting on some books I actually finished this summer

All of you, dear readers, know how terrible I am at finishing books. This has only been exacerbated since I started reading on my Kindle DX (and on the Kindle app on the Mac and on the Galaxy Tab).

And yet, I did manage to read a few to the end recently. One was James Gleick’s The Information: A Theory, a History, a Flood. I started reading this on the Kindle, and it was handy on a train trip in April to have it along with a few other things without carrying a heavy book bag. (It was also handy to have it at the car dealership while waiting for a multi-hour repair to be done.)

But the book was so excellent, so engaging, that I could not stand the idea of reading the rest of it in the Amazon-enforced one font and with substandard graphics. Halfway through, I bought it again as a hardback and finished it the old-fashioned way, holding a nicely produced book in my hands.

What was so good about the book? The same qualities that distinguished the other book by Gleick I read (several years ago, that one), Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. Gleick’s books, on the evidence of this two-point data set, are deeply researched but written with novelistic pace. You just know that the limpid explanations you are reading get the science correctly. You also can’t wait to continue reading, because the next amazing thing is lurking in the next page (or screen). The Information, for example, starts with a disquisition on the language of African drums. Not what I expected, and I couldn’t have expected it anyway, as I was totally unaware of everything about African drums as communication media except the bare fact that they exist.

The more I kept reading, the more I realized how much Gleick was teaching me about aspects of information theory that I had absorbed (badly) by osmosis in my general restless reading over the years. This continued throughout the book. Revelation was followed by revelation: a much clearer understanding of what entropy has to do with information transmission (along with a nice mini-biography of Claude Shannon); how Turing’s revolutionary work fits in; the amazing telegraph networks built in Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s; the story of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage and the famous Babbage adding machine; and much more (it’s telling that I can remember these examples without consulting the book now, some two or three months after I finished reading it).

Having given this glowing recommendation to The Information, I turn now to a novel I finished exclusively on the Kindle and various Kindle apps: Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. I had some trepidation to start this one, even though I read good reviews, because it is about the Balkans and would stir up old resentments in me. So it did. It reminded me of the huge backwardness of the culture there, especially outside major cities. It reminded me of the unbelievable small-mindedness of nationalism and war-making. It… but enough about the bad reminders.

The book rose above all the negatives. I kept turning the virtual pages. I was even undeterred by a certain fabulistic (“magic realistic”) element. I just wanted to finish. So I did. And many of the book’s scenes got engraved in my mind almost as though I saw a movie (I bet one will be made soon, but I don’t know if I will see it; I think I would rather keep the memory of the movie that formed in my own mind as I was reading). Everything Obreht wrote (how can she write so well, so vividly, at such a young age?) rang true to what I remember from growing up in the Balkans and hearing stories from elders who grew up in villages. I am glad for Obreht that she did not stay stuck in that part of the world and I am glad for English readers like me who have more books from her to look forward to.

Finally, for now, I want to talk a little about Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall. I got this one from one of the Atlantic bookstores that serve the New Jersey shore resort towns during our shore vacation this July. I just finished it a few days ago. I bought it in the first place because I had really loved Cunningham’s The Hours, another book I read some years ago. By Nightfall starts well and builds up the story even better. It also makes a movie in one’s mind, maybe less vivid than Obreht’s but a movie still. The main characters are a couple in their mid-forties living a fine second-rung existence in the art community in New York City and the wife’s much younger brother. I liked the ruminations about life in general and the allusions to other books and works of art (I am sure I missed many of these, too).

On the topic of allusions, I accidentally read a scathing review of By Nightfall in The Guardian that laid into Cunningham for overdoing the allusions, especially in the last chapter. After some thought on this, I decided to take Cunningham’s side. The narrator lives in his mind among worlds of different arts; he gives meaning to his life this way, and it is entirely in character that he would go off the rails and overdo it in the emotionally charged end of the novel.

At the end, I came away from By Nightfall with not quite the great impression that The Hours left me with. I just could not really identify with the growing obsession of the main character. Of the three books I talked about in this post, this would rank third but it still was one I liked. Of course I did, you will say: I finished it!

Now let’s see how long it will take me before I write another post here. I keep vowing I will make it a habit to write at least a little something at short intervals. All I can say now is, we’ll see. Meanwhile, O Gentle Reader who read all the way through to the end of this mammoth post, thank you.

Update on owning a Kindle DX

I like the bigger screen, even as the device is correspondingly heavier than the 6-inch Kindle. Naturally, I suppose, having a Kindle has done nothing to correct my tendency to start reading too many books almost at the same time. I am currenttly reading a novel and three non-fiction books on the Kindle… I am incorrigible.

Impressions from my first TEDbook

As of yesterday, I have a Kindle DX; my choice of (slightly early) birthday present. Yes, I gave up waiting for the new iPad, or a really good Android tablet, at least for e-reading. Today I bought and read a Kindle single, as they call them, from the newly launched series TEDbooks, which are short books, 5,000–30,000 word length, which in the case of TEDbooks are written by authors who have given TED talks.

My first reading was Homo Evolutis, by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans. At the price of $2.99 it was an easy impulse purchase. I read it in about an hour and a half, not so much because it is short, which it is, but because it is written in a very jumpy style that made me think I was reading the text dump from a computer slide presentation. The style made the book feel overly energetic, hectic even, but the authors do provide more than 100 endnotes with links to literature that supports their claims. They also promise a longer version, in hardback, and have a website at www.homoevolutis.com.

Let others discuss the elegance or not of the “home evolutis” neologism. The main impression I got was that of a couple of frantically hyperactive salesmen selling me, with considerable urgency, the idea that humans are still evolving. Many species of humans may coexist right now, they claim. It helps this claim that the definition of “species”, as the authors point out, is fluid and not universally agreed upon. We evolve, they claim, because of all the changes in our environment, such as the huge populations of bacteria we carry in our bodies, but also because of our own actions, botox injections included, as well as many human-improving (at least so intended) medical interventions. I am glad I read this booklet, since it had interesting tidbits and was entertaining. I am also glad that it taught me that I can avoid the time investment needed to read their hardback version, if and when it appears.

So that you don’t think I called the authors frantically hyperactive salesmen out of sheer jealousy for their engaging writing ability, I finally note that they co-founded Excel Venture Management and are clearly in the hunt for untold riches. Gullans has a more academic pedigree, with a Ph.D., and served as a professor of Harvard Medical School for 18 years, so there is this bit of information to suggest that Homo Evolutis, the breathless tract, actually does convey some scientifically sound ideas.

Books I read recently

The semester is over and finally I can read books outside my required reading list for work. I have managed to read two books cover-to-cover:

  • Bursts, by Albert-László Barabási, and
  • How the Economy Works: Confidence, Crashes and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies, by Roger Farmer.

The first is from the former physicist who made his name with some incisive work on the growth of social networks, followed by his very popular book Linked. His latest, Bursts, is even better than Links in how it tells the story. The story is based on Barabasi’s latest research. It talks about the predictability of our decisions. For instance, it explains why the time intervals between repetitions of an action (say, sending an email or making a phone call) do not follow the standard Poisson process that many events in nature follow. State this way, the book appears boring, but it is chock-full of great examples and stories and you would enjoy reading it just for those.

The second is from the chair of the UCLA department of economics. It is the second of two books by Farmer, both of which appeared in the last couple of months. In this one, Farmer presents his theory of macroeconomics that attempts to understand economic crises like the Great Depression and the recession of 2007-????. His theory is well presented, with a nice overview of standard macroeconomics given first to provide background. If there is a book that the average non-economist should read to understand what macroeconomics has been up to in the last century or so, this is it. It did make me buy his other book, which presents the technical version of his theory; currently it is on top of one of the two tottering piles next to my bedside.

The threat of closed digital devices, iPad version

Today the lame jokes about Steve Jobs being Moses carrying the iTablet down from the mountain turned quickly to much lamer jokes about iPads and feminine hygiene. But I think the name was not the only reason for this negative response. There are various ways that the iPad delivered less than was expected and definitely less than it could have. Instead of an open platform, like Apple’s superb Mac line of computers, it is an overgrown iPod Touch. It restricts you to the applications Apple approves. I don’t care that there are 140,000 of them; I care about the ones that will never be because of the Appstore Cerberus. Also, what’s with the refusal to allow multitasking? Under the constraints of a device as small as the iPhone, this is perhaps acceptable (but why can Droid phones do it so easily?) but for such a device it seems like a really stupid restriction.

What’s much worse, in my mind, is that the iPad may succeed wildly (Dave Parry, @academicdave on Twitter, tweeted today: “The problem with the iPad, is it just might succeed. http://bit.ly/c1DUPo (via @Chanders)”). Then we will have DRM’d e-books all over the place, competitors will try to have the same closed mentality embedded in their devices, people will begin to forget the freedom to install any program on your computer. I fervently hope we are not witnessing the beginning of the end of the consumer-oriented computer as an open platform.

Apple did choose temptingly low prices for the various versions of the iPad and I can see lots of attractions for students and book/textbook publishers. The device is not all bad. It’s truly tempting me, which made me sit down and articulate the above to stay level-headed.

Ideas for the above, and lots of good discussions, can be found at createdigitalmusic.com, siliconAngle, Ars Technica, CNET, the New York Times, and Gizmodo on (more than) eight things that suck about the iPad.

UPDATE: See this post for the point that the iPad does allow unrestricted Web apps, and these are truly open with HTML5 and other free technologies. Point taken, but why only web apps are unrestricted?

Incidentally, I am going to pay attention to the State of the Union Address, which is on right now, but not by watching it. My desire to hear oratory, even excellent oratory from people I respect, is non-existent any more. When it’s all summarized in a newspaper online so I can get the main points in less than five minutes.