An incomplete year in reading.

by waxbanks

Like everyone else, I stopped reading for pleasure in grad school. A few years later I picked up a novel again and realized how much of myself I’d lost by giving up fiction. For the last few years I’ve tried to wean myself off quick-fix Internet browsing and build up a book-reading habit.

Last year I decided I would read 30-50 books. I no longer read anywhere near as quickly as I did in high school. I remember devouring the thousand-page Dragonlance Legends trilogy in a bit more than a day while working my first job at a year-round Christmas shoppe; now I don’t have the time or the attention span for that. But I’m getting there.

I made it through 28 books.

A couple of months into the year I took on a book-writing project, which I’m finishing this month. I ended up reading in an entire shelf of books for reasearch, without reading any of them cover to cover. Back to grad school habits. I’ll talk about that reading somewhere else. I also rooted around in another shelf’s worth of roleplaying game books. RPG stuff is almost impossible to read front to back, because it’s almost all shit. Quick responses to RPG reading at the end of this post.

I ‘reviewed’ each book as I went, generally within minutes or hours of finishing. Here’s how that went.

The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction

Dry as dust, but this subject is important, not just to me — the origins of Christianity are the origins, or at least a major inflection point, for much of what we call ‘the West.’ The complex relationships between the Jesus cult, Judaisms apocalyptic and otherwise, and imperial Rome and its various Mediterranean franchises (and tributaries) are essential to understanding how the central myth of the West took shape.

Closer to my heart is the idea of early alternate or ‘lost’ Christian beliefs. Forget New Age goofery about the Gnostics or the Gospel of Judas media sensation — texts like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the unrelated Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Mary can give us an expanded vision of the visionary Jesus, beyond even the nervewracking contradictory figure found in the New Testament. The best thing I can say about this enjoyable little book is that it made me want to run out and buy an anthology of noncanonical early Christian writings [which I did, several times over; compulsively, you might say –wa.], to dig deeper into this fascinating corner of historical scholarship.

And no, not just because mystery cults and apocalyptic visionaries are perfect fantasy/RPG source material…

The Nazi Occult (Ken Hite)

I’ve gone on about Hite before: he may be the best RPG writer there is, the Suppressed Transmission is the most amazing RPG-related writing yet, his castoff ideas are more exciting than the most fully worked-out worldbuilding of any dozen RPG designers you’d care to name, &c., &c., &c. The Nazi Occult is low-hanging fruit for Hite, and covers ground he broke long ago in supplements like GURPS Weird War II. This book is an odd addition to his fast-growing bibliography: a ‘nonfiction’ work for Osprey (beloved military history specialists) covering Nazi magic, superscience, and other fantastic weirdery. Hite’s singular mix of rigorous history and irresponsible fancy is perfectly suited for the task — this is one of the books he was born to write — and its only shortcoming is its brevity; 80 pages is 300 pages too few.

A compelling, inspirational example of how to write works of historically-grounded fantasy in a ‘scholarly’ tone without getting addicted to the research (or disappearing up your own paranoid-conspiratorial ass like so many of the folks Hite himself reads, e.g. Peter Levenda). Compare to Monte Cook’s general-audience writing for an uncharitable laugh.

Another Green World (Geeta Dayal)

I know Geeta from MIT, and only read the book because her name’s on it. I’m glad I did. I recently heard Another Green World for the first time — inspired by the book, which I’d picked up at the library months prior but hadn’t yet read — and felt ambivalent toward it; on one hand, the sonics are rich and pleasant, and irritants like ‘Sky Saw’ (and Eno’s limp voice) are balanced out by the gorgeous refrain of ‘Golden Hours’ or the tiny epic ‘The Big Ship.’ I’m not sure how I feel about Eno in general; much as I love Fripp/Eno stuff for background music, I dislike the repetitive, condescending gimmickry of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts [most of the time –wa.] and find his latter-day production work inoffensively samey (even if bands like Coldplay and U2 obviously benefited creatively from collaborating with him)…

…but Geeta’s brisk, intellectually satisfying book makes it clear that Eno isn’t just ‘Eno,’ the avant-egghead personage who comes through his experimental work, and it doesn’t make any difference ‘how I feel about Eno in general.’ Listening to the album repeatedly over the last few weeks, it’s gone from sounding ‘pretty’ to being perversely fun — ‘alien,’ in Geeta’s smartly-chosen term. Eno knows just how much (how little) technical facility he has as an instrumentalist and singer, and he seems to have figured out ages ago that with the right methodology (and crucially the right collaborators) he could make music far more sophisticated than his fingers and voice were capable of on their own. Geeta has ably traced the conceptual and cultural sources of Eno’s solo work, but she’s also painted a picture of Eno as a clever man trying to work around his own cleverness — an oddball inventor of possible musics rather than the heremetically-sealed aesthete I’d mistakenly pictured all these years.

I still don’t particularly enjoy ambient/electronic music except as background sound — but engaging with Eno’s work, and with this book by a connoisseur of experimental/ambient/electronic music, has made clear to me that the ‘pure sonic’ experience of intentional sound design resides in a separate aesthetic category from my preferred forms of live acoustic/electric humane performance. And while I hate almost everything about the monstrous looming machine-hell to which our braindead consumerism is rapidly dooming us, I’m perfectly happy to enjoy the sound of a Frippertronic echo in my own private world/mind, and not make a big deal out of it. After all, the same guy who gave us Music for Airports also gave us the long fade into ‘Where the Streets Have No Name,’ which is about as humane as a song gets.

Kudos to Geeta for fitting so goddamned much research and insight into 100 pages of decent-sized type with plenty of whitespace. (Dig on the not-even-slightly-random chapter titles, too.)

Time for me to write that Phish book.

[So inspired, I did indeed pitch a 33-1/3 book on Phish. It comes out in October. I’ll note that my original intention was to self-publish a book on Phish’s 12/30/97 show at Madison Square Garden; I finished several chapters and was feeling good about the project. But the challenge of writing for a more general audience was too interesting to pass up. –wa.]

Wittgenstein’s Mistress (David Markson)

For perhaps 200 pages this seems, or in any case seemed to me, to be a beautiful, melancholy, intimidatingly learned, surprisingly funny (like laugh-out-loud funny) experimental novel set after the end of the world. Perhaps other readers simply accept the jacket-copy stipulation that the narrator is mad. I didn’t — or rather, I simply accepted that she had gone mad after the end of the world. Despite that being, of course, completely impossible.

I don’t think it’s silly is my point. I think it’s beautiful, and a perfectly natural thing to do. Particularly if the world has ended. You’d go mad too.

(The rhythm of the prose is an intoxicant, and I won’t even try to avoid imitating it. It’ll have worn off tomorrow, I imagine.)

200 pages or so. Anyhow. And you can see why High Readers flipped for it all those years ago, David Foster Wallace among them. You can see right away. Because as I said: learned and funny among other things.

But then things begin slowly and irresistibly to change.

The final 40 pages of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, like the last 50 pages of Little, Big, will never leave me. I already know. If you have children, especially, the end of this book may destroy you.

Lucien would have been almost twenty by then at any rate, and so well on his way to becoming a stranger.

Well, or perhaps not yet twenty.

And perhaps not at all on his way to becoming a stranger.

It’s silly to call a novel ‘perfect,’ but the word fits here. There isn’t a single slip in 240 pages, not a single moment that isn’t perfectly of a piece with every other. And then that ending. I had no idea. I had decided to read one kind of story. And then another kind of story snuck into me and killed me a little. It is perfectly itself. Maybe that’s what the word means. That’s not at all silly, I think. No moreso than anything else.

This book gives me hope. It is unbearably beautiful.

Castle Waiting Vol. 1 (Linda Medley)

I’ve owned this for a long time but for some reason never got around to reading it. That was a mistake. In many ways this is the opposite of the cagey, experimental Wittgenstein’s Mistress: an open-hearted, straightforward tale with no formal pretense or occlusion whatsoever. It’s called a feminist tale; at first I didn’t know what that meant. It can mean a lot of things, not all complimentary. Here: beautifully written and drawn by a woman, with women POV characters, sure — but its ‘feminism,’ I realized quickly, was in the utopian character of the storytelling as much as (or more than) the content of the tale.

Castle Waiting‘s community of equals simply goes about its shared life, not without conflict, but without manufactured conflict. The women and men (and birds, horses, and demons…) of the Castle carry on living with a goal (peace) in mind, and while the characters are tested by circumstance, the tests aren’t there to show us Good Guys and Bad Guys — they arise naturally and slip quietly by, part of the community’s life, which is larger than the story.

The notion of ‘protagonism’ comes to mind — Medley seems at times to consciously reject it. Like My So-Called Life, another microworld famous for its depiction of female friendships, Castle Waiting plays out melodramatic clichés in a world that would still go on without them. The characters weren’t made for the story, it seems; we look in on their lives for a bit and are reminded that there’s much more to each of them. The Castle included. That’s the utopian ideal, I think: a world where no life is lived for show, where there are no supporting characters.

The art is beautiful, seemingly effortless, and the writing never falters or cops out for even a single frame. I couldn’t bear to put it down once I started reading — I started leafing through it and found myself 170 pages in before remembering that I had things to do (and wasn’t wearing my reading glasses). A magical, deeply human book.

I can’t wait to read Volume 2. [Still waiting. –wa.]

I’ve been very fortunate in the books I’ve read so far this year!

Over Sea, Under Stone (Susan Cooper)

I read the entire The Dark Is Rising sequence in middle school, and can clearly recall being blown away by it, though I remember nothing from the books now but the rhyme that’s repeated throughout the series, something like: ‘When the dark is rising, six shall turn it back — three from the circle, three from the track.’ I wasn’t alert to what nominal grownups call intertextuality then, so I recently decided to pick up the series again.

This first volume was published in 1965; the next (The Dark Is Rising itself) took eight years to appear, then the other three appeared in rapid succession. This one very much felt like a prequel to Will’s story when I was younger, and it does seem…slight, now. And innocent, the way kids’ books tend to be, which disappoints me a bit. The creeping darkness of the story, its wild pagan energy, seems to want to serve a different, less cut-and-dried story than this comfy-cozy children’s adventure. (It’s not like the Arthurian source material is light’n’fluffy in tone!)

Cooper’s Cornwall is beautifully evoked, though at times I could’ve done with a bit less beach and a bit more everything else; there are several surprisingly lengthy ‘the sea smelled like XYZ and the sound of the waves was ABC’ interludes mixed in with the efficiently-rendered action (mostly chases on foot), which combines awkwardly with Cooper’s repeated insistence on (not quite evocation of) the Haunting, Inexplicable Aura of Power possessed by the various immortal beings running around on said beach. If Over Sea weren’t part of a grand mythic saga I’d’ve spent more time rolling my eyes at Cooper waving her hands frantically at various allegorical Signs and Portents. (Compare to the metaphorical/mythological richness of the grownup fantasy Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which evokes another pagan Old England that resists domestication and familiarity.)

I’m being too hard on the book. I loved it as a kid, and really liked it as an adult. But I’m realizing that Manichean fantasies of destiny, immortality, and royal lineage have to clear a much higher bar with me than they used to. Luke Skywalker chooses to become a monk and suffers mightily for it; Cooper’s kids have pluck, but they’re kids, and theirs is a kids’ story. I can’t go back. I can’t quite get back there.

As with the Harry Potter books, I imagine the series takes off in the next couple of volumes. I look forward to them. But I think I’ll read something else first.

Live From New York: An Oral History of SNL

A pleasant diversion. I’m jealous of the early casts, and in awe, a little bit; I feel nothing for the later groups, except Phil Hartman. I couldn’t put the book down. Oral histories are good business.

If I hear another sketch comedy writer describe his work as ‘like going to war,’ I may throw something or someone out a window.

Based on her contributions to the book, I imagine I’d have the same reaction if forced to spend time with Janeane Garofalo.

Beginning Ruby (Peter Cooper)

I decided it was time to reencounter the web programming framework Ruby on Rails, years after my first attempts at coding up my ill-fated WaxNomic project; this article reminded me that I’d never really learn Rails without shoring up my Ruby knowledge. I worked my way through the suggested Ruby book in a few days, writing a minimal text adventure engine and an Eliza-style chatbot in the process. An enjoyable, no-nonsense book — not as snarkily overwritten as the Missing Manual book I read, nor as manic and ridiculous as the Head First books I’ve looked at (O’Reilly is embarrassingly overcompensating for its workmanlike, hardcore-users-only reputation with these ‘playful’ texts).

Ruby is a gorgeous language; writing Ruby code is the most proselike coding experience I’ve had. (Inform, the radically ‘natural-language’ interactive-fiction language, falls right into the uncanny valley and never climbs out. I prefer the C++-like TADS.) I know it’s ad-copy cliché at this point, but the ability to write (and more importantly read) this…

5.times(puts “Hello”)

…is genuinely exciting. The feeling of the machine (or rather Ruby’s beloved language designer, Matz) meeting you halfway. My first ‘real’ programming language was Scheme, a LISP variant. The same code in pseudo-LISP, remember, goes something like this:

(loop for i from 1 to 5 do (print “Hello”))

That’s beautiful too, in its way, but it’s also faintly ridiculous — after writing Ruby it feels like a relic of an older time, like ‘SPEAK FRIEND AND ENTER.’

Up next in my self-instruction course is either HTML5/CSS or Rails itself. Then, per the linked article, maybe a trip through Eloquent Ruby. Suddenly the idea of coding for money seems almost…pleasant.

Easy for a dilettante to say, of course.

A Game of Thrones (George R. R. Martin)

[I read 2.5 volumes of this series just after grad school. I adored them, then lost interest. Volumes 4 and 5 came out, I never picked them up, and then the TV show reminded me how much I’d enjoyed the story, and after poking around on the ASOIAF wiki, I picked up my trade paperbacks and dove in. –wa.]

The War of the Five Kings is pointless.

That might well be the whole point of Game of Thrones, which functions like the first four episodes of Deadwood, establishing one kind of (narrative, social) order only to set about dismantling it book by book as the real story (a magical world war) begins to unfold. Indeed, both Deadwood 1×04 and Game of Thrones end with the sudden, stupid, thoroughly avoidable deaths of the older men who appeared to be set up as their main characters — and those deaths, in turn, clear away something of the Old World, so that (after a period of violent adjustment) a New World can be built on its ruins.

But Deadwood is ultimately the story of a struggle toward dignity and freedom; Game of Thrones surprises me with its willingness to descend into the muck.

Martin neatly captures the heroism and lunacy of the individuals caught up in the War of the Five Kings, and his battle scenes are darkly thrilling, but in contrast to, say, Lord of the Rings (with its purely noble Manichean conflict between, basically, the Dark Side of the Force and Gandalf’s Jedi), Game of Thrones is merciless in its criticism of warmongers and power-hungry nobles, who make up a good portion of the book’s cast. The War — which, as the book’s title reminds us, is merely an extension of the Game — ultimately becomes a scramble for the throne, which certainly looks like a grand prize, though the presence of the Others and of Dany’s dragons diminishes the throne’s appeal.

But what kicked off the war in the first place? The murder of the King’s Hand, Jon Arryn? The capture of Tywin Lannister? The assault on little Bran Stark (over so small a thing as a bit of incest)? Robb Stark’s decision to march on the Lannisters, or his bannermen crying ‘The King in the North’? Cersei’s backstage maneuvering? Did Robert Baratheon’s mad vendetta against the Targaryens doom the kingdom? Or…was it all Ned Stark’s fault? He should have claimed the kingdom for himself after the Rebellion, should never have been appointed Hand, should never have accepted the job, and had a thousand chances in that job to bend, to keep from breaking as he finally did — though as usual it’s economics, Robert’s beggaring of the realm, that leaves the kingdom hopelessly indebted to the Lannisters in the first (excuse me, ‘first’) place…

Crafty of Martin to give us a powerless detective-protagonist who ultimately dies for a secret he doesn’t actually possess…

This first volume of A Song of Ice and Fire presents an extraordinary tangle of shortsightedness, selfishness, bloodymindedness, misbegotten righteousness, and (at the edges of the tale) genuinely magical goings-on — but beneath the convoluted plot is the ultimate, damnable truth that none of it needed to happen, not a bit of it, and the entire isle of Westeros is likely to burn (or freeze) for it. That’s a heck of a dark premise for a good-vs-evil heroic fantasy saga, wouldn’t you say? Assuming the war against (or between) dragons and Others turns out to be anywhere near as simple as good and evil, which eagle-eyed readers say isn’t likely.

I admit, I’ve gone full-on drooling fanboy for this book, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. I’m even excited for volumes 4 and 5, the widely-criticized middle portion of the series-long story, which set up the magical war that’s been brewing since the first page of the first volume. I wanted a great big complicated fantasy world full of weird magic and flesh’n’blood human beings. A palce I could get lost in. This is it. It’s genuinely fantastic. It’s magical.

That’s high praise for a ‘fantasy’ novel, you know. To be able to say without reservation that its magic is actually magical, its fantasy authentically weird. Well, here it is. A whole world.

The Ruby on Rails Tutorial (Michael Hartl)

Much clearer than the Agile Rails tutorial from the Pragmatic Programmers, which is the default text on the subject for most beginning Rails folks but which has grown, honestly, a little mannered. Irritatingly so. I actually jumped from the PragProg book to this one, and am glad I did.

Hartl’s book (which I read for free at his website) is admirably clear, straightforward, detailed, and breezily written. And it works perfectly to spec, minus some under-the-hood changes to {Model}.all. I breezed through it in the matter of a few days, and now feel I can move on to more complex treatment of Rails in another text. Though I may just dive into a long-dormant project instead. It’s not a terribly complex project; it’s time I just knocked it out and moved on.

I didn’t work through the RSpec testing material; that’s a problem, I know. Maybe my next Ruby/Rails book will be about testing. I’ve got to read one eventually, anyhow.

A Clash of Kings (George R. R. Martin)

Less starting than the first volume, and the Danaerys material drags somewhat, but this sequel is dark thrilling stuff. The Battle of the Blackwater is vividly, expertly rendered, as are Bran’s warg dreams — Martin does a great job evoking the direwolf’s thoughts. A serious Empire Strikes Back vibe here: at the end of the novel our heroes are dying faster than ever, dispersed all across Westeros, and villainy is everywhere. Unbelievable darkness and vileness — and it only gets worse in the third volume, as I recall. ‘Only Cat,’ not to mention the Red Wedding and the torture of Theon Greyjoy…I’m looking forward to it (Arya’s ‘valar morghulis‘ upon killing the guard made the hair on my neck stand up), but the depravity is multiplying fast, and ‘sympathetic’ characters are dropping like flies…

And the mysteries that drive Game of Thrones only deepen in this volume. Who paid Bran Stark’s would-be assassin? Who killed Jon Arryn? What really happened the day King’s Landing fell to the Lannisters? Who’s Jon Snow’s mom? They get more and more interesting as the plot wheels turn and new character perspectives are revealed. I’m spoiled for some of these questions — but the ease with which Martin lays ‘mythology’ matters into the plot inspires my professional envy. That he works without an outline, meanwhile, is just infuriating…

I love these books. I said it earlier but it’s even truer now: full-on drooling fanboy. I’ve rocketed right up to the ‘ancillary materials’ stage of fandom, where you track down all kinds of supplementary texts like world maps and fan theories and oh god help me.

[The fandom is just what you’d expect, and I’ve managed to keep out of it. –wa.]

A Storm of Swords (George R. R. Martin)

Theon Greyjoy is not in fact tortured (‘onscreen’) in Storm of Swords.

But he’s pretty much the only one.

Structurally, Storm is the end of the first movement of the series: it resolves the War of Five Kings, more or less settles or at least stabilizes matters in the East (tying Daenerys to Meereen and committing Stannis to holy war against the Others) and the North (the wildling threat is ended and the Starks are dispersed), and establishes an uneasy and surely temporary peace in King’s Landing with Cersei as Queen Regent. Westeros remains on the edge of disaster and war as usual, but ASOIAF has come to be built in three parts, perhaps in an accidental extrapolation from the original planned trilogy(!), and the long oddly-proportioned interregnum that is Feast/Dance separates the long setup (the War of Five Kings) from the cosmic war that will presumably make up the rest of the Song.

I wrote before that the War of Five Kings is futile — a massive waste of life at a moment when the Seven Kingdoms should be preparing for cosmic war. (I keep using the word ‘cosmic’ partly because what I want most from v6-7 is an apocalyptic world-shattering conflict between some icy thing and some fiery thing.) But between the Illyrio/Varys conspiracy, which ticks away in the deep background of Storm, and the slow introduction of Dorne and the Tyrells, I’m starting to think otherwise. The first three volumes depict the aftershocks of Robert’s Rebellion (seemingly the end of the Targaryen dynasty), and point toward a final reckoning between the champions of the post-Rebellion kingdom and the champions of an older world — Targaryens and dragons out of Valyria, White Walkers from the uttermost North. Varys schemes on behalf of a Targaryen prince; the Tyrells and the Red Viper seem to represent a different world within the Seven Kingdoms, so I assume they’ll be moved more or less aside as a threat by the end of Feast/Dance, to be absorbed into the greater scheme of Seven Kingdoms (Andals) vs the various manifestations of the Old (the ‘Other’) World.

The Tyrells are politics; Daenerys is magic. Joffrey is politics; Melisandre is magic. It’s clear that Jon is magic. The various political/military goings-on that fill the first three volumes are a sorting process by which the eventual representatives of the World of Mere Men are chosen, as the Ancient World irrupts around (and increasingly within) it.

I’m willing to bet we all know how these stories end: the river of magic overflows its banks, the world is nearly washed away, and eventually a modern world will stand in its place, finally rid of magic. That’s my best guess — it’ll all end in the titular Ice/Fire song, the end of which is the start of a new modern world. The final efflorescence of magic before mundanity settles in.

The other alternative, of course, is that this is a story of the return of magic to Westeros, which I doubt. The apocalyptic overtones of the story have been there from the start.

I want to nerd out about this book for hours and hours. I loved it. It’s too long, of course, though the parts I’d shorten (the endless Arya/Hound travelogue, the equally endless ‘watch proud Theon get emasculated’ plotline) are setup for deeper transformations to come. I’m spoiled, alas; I know Arya becomes a magical assassin, and Theon loses various appendages and becomes ‘Reek.’ It’s hard to fault Martin for problems with chapter-to-chapter pacing when he’s playing one of the few truly successful long games in genre fiction.

The last 200 pages of Storm of Swords are incredibly satisfying. A lesser book would end with Jon’s election to Commander; the stunning final scene at the Eyrie seems too abrupt by half, but it’s also a violent reminder that absolutely no one in these stories (except Bronn, maybe) gets a happy ending.

Oh, and: Tyrion’s revenge on Jaime — lying about who killed Joffrey — is the saddest moment in the series so far.

A couple of days later: I’m hesitant to start Feast/Dance because I know I won’t be able to stop…and also, a little, because I’m afraid I will want to stop when things aren’t terribly exciting. I’ve heard some dire things about these two books, Dance more than Feast I think. Oh well.

The Montauk Project (Preston Nichols w/Peter Moon)

If you care about the idea of eliptony, eventually you have to deal with the fact that most of it is written not as ironic play but as po-faced crazy talk. I really wanted this not to be that, but it inescapably is. In the end, as fascinating as this proto-X-Files proto-Donnie Darko eliptonic nexus is — as ably as it connects every paranoid post-Watergate conspiracy and fringe myth from grey aliens to the Philadelphia Experiment to shadow governments and rampaging beasts and psychic powers and black helicopters and oh my god — it’s a terrible piece of writing that loses a lot of its charm when you realize that Nichols apparently believes it. (He would never have written something this humourless and mundane in its presentation if he didn’t.)

You start to feel a bit like a rubbernecking misery-tourist. Here’s this out-of-work paranoiac who thinks his memories have been overwritten by the government, an engineer who fantasizes that Von Neumann is alive and remembers and respects him. Nichols even casts himself as the thinker-hero who saves the secret military base from a 10-foot-tall otherworldly creature sprung from his psychic best friend’s uncontrolled id — a creature he himself created, though within one paragraph that detail is forgotten. The book slides from oddball psychogeography that carelessly evokes every known conspiratorial trope to the depressing story of one mentally ill guy obsessed with scrap radio parts.

All that said, I’m curious about the rest of the series, not for Nichols’s story, but for Moon’s contribution: the mythos. This first volume leaps haphazardly from one eliptonic trope to the next in a nudge over 100 pages (plus appendices), but the second pulls in L. Ron Hubbard (Moon is a Scientologist), Jack Parsons, and Aleister Crowley. That’s the stuff, right there: the mythos as skeleton key to late-20C High Weirdness, the mythoamerica that mixes hippie counterculture and right-wing paranoia. I wish I could get back the sensawunda that the idea of the Montauk Mythos has long given me — which the laborious prose itself has largely taken away.

Well…I can always read volume 2 and see what happens. I bet it’s a lot better. At a minimum, I bet it’s less ‘crazy.’ Crazy makes me too sad.

I wouldn’t recommend the book itself. But definitely read up on the Mythos. (Especially if you’re into the Fortean/paranoid X-Files, which takes place in this exact universe.)

Make-Believe Town (David Mamet)

If you write essays, if you care at all about the form, read David Mamet.

There’s little else to say. His writing about poker, hunting, scotch tasting, and especially the Theater is indispensable. He’s had an enormous effect on my writing; when I’m doing well, when I’m striving to tell the truth about something beautiful, I find myself moving into his register somewhat. I’m pleased to do so for a minute, when I can.

Y’know, when I’m not aping DFW or whoever.

Mamet’s politics are ugly, and have been that way for a while, but he’s one of the best essayists we have. I love this stuff.

King City (Brandon Scott Graham)

These dense imaginary cities full of offhand weirdo geektrope mishmashes and punning allusions are basically the hidden contents of my brain, so this was perfect. Hilarious, endlessly imaginative hiphop-inspired brilliance. I mean this sincerely: this is one of the most imaginatively-free comics I’ve ever read. A little too ‘Nice Guy(tm)’ at times, if you catch my drift, but that’s OK.

It feels a lot like LA, by the way, or the LA of my imagination. But it’s its own thing. I just love it.

Javascript Pocket Reference (David Flanagan)

I read/skimmed much of this in an afternoon/evening. I’ve been learning web development lately (cf. earlier Rails/Ruby books) and needed to nail down some of my imprecise understanding of Javascript. Flanagan’s Definitive Guide is 1,100 pages long; this is a 200-page distillation of that much more discursive volume, with none of the API/library stuff but lots of extensively-commented code to study. Flanagan is dead solid; this is a fantastic little resource, and though it is indeed pocket sized, it’s far more than a reference: rather, it’s a super-concise teaching text for folks who already know other languages.

I’ve ordered the companion pocket guide to jQuery, which is also extracted from Flanagan’s book; I imagine it’ll be equally useful. [It’s not. –wa.] I seldom miss the great big Rhino Book at all.

(I keep looking at Crockford’s Javascript: The Good Parts but it always manages to put me off.)

Javascript: The Good Parts (Douglas Crockford)

Lives up to its reputation as a weirdly abusive (toward Javascript and, implicitly, its creator Brendan Eich) but essential guide — not so much to the ‘good parts’ of Javascript as to the bad. Crockford hits hard on Javascript’s weird and downright dangerous language features, and presents a subset of the language that’s compelling and effective. His insistence that Javascript is basically Scheme wrapped in C-like syntax is perverse, but the fact is, since this book was published, a whole library of how-to books has appeared (not least from his publisher O’Reilly) presenting Javascript best practices that are right in line with Crockford’s (re)conception of the language.

The Good Parts is a poor choice for a first Javascript book, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone already writing Javascript code.

A Feast for Crows / A Dance with Dragons (GRRM)

I finished these several weeks ago; after a period of obsessive chewing-over I’ve started to move on to other stories, though Westeros and Essos are richly alive to me. These books took ages to read as you’d expect. Neither is slim, and I read them as you must — as a single ebook which alternates chapters from each volume, preserving each individual volume’s chapter ordering with only a couple of exceptions (to preserve the reveal of Quentyn’s mission, which probably wasn’t worth the trouble I took to reorder and rename the chapters in the !@#$! epub file…).

The series really does split neatly into three acts, with these two volumes as an oddly-shaped interregnum between the War of Five Kings (consequential primarily in that it will determine who’s on the hook when the Others arrive, otherwise a gigantic stupid waste of life) and the coming cosmic war of dragons, zombies, Azor Ahai, the children of the forest, a variety of sorcerous seekers, and of course the millions of poor bastards stuck in the middle. The war’s over, King’s Landing reels from the (literal) devolution of ultimate power into Cersei’s hands, and with Littlefinger and Varys temporarily out of the picture, an ineffectual government makes a series of deeply boneheaded moves leading to Cersei’s downfall at the hands of the newly (inexplicably!) rearmed Church.

These books reveal that Martin is a much better writer (in every sense) than he’s given credit for — for all their limitations, not least of pure prose style, his books take their subjects seriously.

Martin’s done a brilliant job of sloooowly teasing out the theological crosscurrents at work in Westeros, and now he gets to pay off that well-paced development with a richly-deserved comeuppance, not only for Cersei, but for the self-dealing swine she surrounds herself with (her actual sin, vastly more troubling here than incest). [Is it weird that Cersei/Jaime is one of the few semi-healthy relationships at court, at least for a while? –wa.]

The Daenerys material threatens to get boring, but Essos is every bit as lively and complex as Westeros — hey it’s almost like Martin’s working thematically here, huh — and its own Game of Thrones gets more interesting when the knives (or poisoned fruits) come out…at which point the dragon takes off, Barristan Selmy is revealed as the world’s greatest badass (I’d read a trilogy just about him), and we get an unexpectedly thrilling climax to the unjustly-derided Saga of Barely Governing the Ungrateful Heathens.

Daeny’s chapter out in the world with the dragon is a triumph for Martin, testament to his underappreciated strengths as a writer (beyond his obvious mastery of pacing and ‘worldbuilding’): its tone is subtly unlike anything else in the book, dreamlike and childlike and eerie. While Meereen explodes, Daeny’s off in a one-woman play in a surreal fantasyland, and Martin grants her new depth here, tying together her whole five-volume story (one of the few hero plots in the series, even if her chief motivation for much of it seems to be the deranged notion that she is magically entitled to rule all mankind — it’s a Darth Vader story!).

Indeed, it’s Jon Snow whose story is least immediately compelling here, which is too bad — he and Daeny have neatly parallel plots, and they end the same way in a sense (well-intentioned but misbegotten leadership of a ‘savage’ people leads to magical death/rebirth, ironically through betrayal by trusted allies). The final scene in the great hall is stirring and horrible; Jon’s death would have been a completely shocker if I weren’t spoiled on that topic years and years ago.

‘You have to remember your name‘: OK, Theon made me cry. Nothing more to say there. I couldn’t understand why Martin was spending so much time on that nightmarish plot thread, except that — silly me — it isn’t its own thread, it’s just part of the broader (uneven but also unjustly derided) Iron Throne material. Theon is a crucial link between Old Wyk, the North, the Wall, and now the daft quest to woo/capture Daenerys in the east. Why put the reader through that torture? So Theon can arrive, after literally thousands of pages of horror, at this:

‘You have to remember your name.’

It’s impressive that these books, long described as ‘realpolitik Tolkien’ (Martin has talked about his frustration that Aragorn never really had to rule, that it was automatically easy for him because of blood), are building to what would otherwise be a classic Manichean epic-fantasy climax — a cosmic wizard war! — but by the time we get there, there will be no telling who the actual ‘good guys’ are. (It’s clear who the villains are — but then Tywin Lannister really did seem to be the best-qualified claimant to, if not the Throne itself, definitely the Handship, even if he was a vile bigot atop everything else.) It isn’t just the politicking that’s more ‘realistic’ in these books…the final godswar will be fought by very human beings with extremely mixed agendas. Who the hell knows what Jon and Daeny are about to become? There’s no reason to believe they’re going to return from their sojourns Beyond as the ‘good guys’…we just hope so, because that’s what Westeros needs, and Westeros doesn’t feel like the setting of the titular Game, it feels like a continent of living breathing human beings who deserve something better than whatever’s marching south (or flying west) to get them…

I haven’t even touched on Arya’s transformation, or the weird love story of Jaime and Brienne, or Sansa turning (in the blink of an eye!) into the most complex, compelling character in the whole saga…but there’s no need to summarize it all or mention all the plots. It’s all part of one tale; inside the supernatural stuff it’s about a continent rebuilding itself after a period of uneasy political stability and ‘moral’ (but very deadly) rebellion. It’s about the wake of World War I, maybe — GRRM’s ‘representative’ war, remember, the one he wishes folks would read about instead of the ‘good war’ WWII — and maybe a little bit about Pynchon’s post-WWII Zone. The weird depolarization that happens, the way odd crystal formations (and other, scarier creatures moving about of their own free will) arise in the criscrossed field left in the wake of upheaval.

Dunno about you but I’m rooting for the North.

SAGA, volume 1 (Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples)

BKV’s one of the best comics writers, and this is wonderful stuff. Fiona Staples’s art is weird, personal, and nowhere near as precise and physically grounded as Pia Guerra’s. Kudos to them for telling a young-parents story with heart, soul, and wit. Can’t wait to read volume 2.

[I eventually did read the giant hardcover collection, ‘Book 1’ I think; and *Saga just keeps getting stronger for at least that long. BKV/Adrian Alphona’s Runaways was one of my favourite comics. This involves a completely different style of storytelling despite the tonal similarities. It’s a wonderful book.*]

How Right You Are, Jeeves (Wodehouse)

Late-period Jeeves. Familiar, comfortable, gentle, and inconsequential — even anticlimactic. I laughed aloud more than I had at any other Wodehouse novel, though. His mastery of voice and scene construction has me in awe. There’s no setpiece on the order of Gussie Fink-Nottle’s famous drunken speech — oddly/cheekily, Wodehouse teases a climactic speech from the vile Aubrey Upjohn throughout the book, then dismisses the possibility with a couple of offscreen conversations.

The overall effect is that Bertie is more hapless than ever, his complaints more casual. There’s no urgency or suspense to the narrative, of course, and Jeeves is around for the entire final act, so there isn’t even quite that sense of last-minute deliverance from evil as in previous volumes. It’s just joyful nonsense, the feeling of lateness not at all cumbersome. It feels like a pleasant evening’s stroll with beloved friends, nothing at stake. Earlier Jeeves stories had a mild satiric edge, however gentle, playing with the fact that nothing was at stake for these rich idiots; here there isn’t even that. Wodehouse is just too affectionate. Nearly everyone here is a decent guy, deep down, and Upjohn himself doesn’t really get a comeuppance; though Aunt Dahlia’s phone conversation with him is the closest the book comes to a retributive climax.

I adore these books. Wooster is one of my favourite human beings. If I can only read one more writer in my life, probably it’s Joyce or Pynchon or Shakespeare or (I dunno) James Merrill or Robert Penn Warren or even Philip K Dick…but y’know, it might be Wodehouse.

World War Z (Brooks)

Diverting until about 2/3 of the way through, at which point it became a slog. I’m not sure what the turning point was, but by the end I was utterly bored and just wanted it to finish.

It’s not like I don’t know what the problem is. Brooks is hopelessly tin eared, can’t write distinct voices to save his life, so the entire book is pitched at a kind of sub-Clancy thriller-speak level despite its nominal ‘oral history’ premise. That would be tolerable if the plot weren’t directionless and anticlimactic — there’s no shape to the emerging story beyond ‘they killed us and it was bad but eventually the army figured it out and we killed them.’ That anticlimactic quality is built into the premise (it’s a story of postapocalyptical reconstitution), but a fizz doesn’t feel like a pop just because you’re working in a genre where pops are rare.

So I was bored for the final 100+ pages. Before that the book held out the promise of a big build, big finish, and I was riveted when I wasn’t rolling my eyes at the characterological limitations. Oh well. I’m not sorry I read it, but I wouldn’t be sorry to have read something else instead.

Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 and Winter 1152 (David Petersen)

I’ve been meaning to read this series for a while — I own the original Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game and it’s heartbreakingly beautiful, so I was excited to take a look at the comic itself.

It starts awkwardly — clunky writing, poor pacing, nothing in the story to match the gorgeous visuals. But by the time Winter rolls around (with a closing ‘Winter is coming’ to set geek hearts aflutter), Petersen has hit his stride and found his voice. The dialogue is still cringeworthy and the pacing is still awkward, but the Winter story moves swiftly and builds excitement for the next part of the evolving tale. It all reminds me of Castle Waiting in its sweet domesticity and subtle heroics, though the Mouse Guard are more the boys’-adventure types (as you’d expect), and the Black Axe bit would never survive Linda Medley’s cheerful satiric bladework. (It also reminds me of Bone, very much so, though Jeff Smith’s series is far more professional(?) and omnicompetent from the jump.)

I enjoyed Mouse Guard and feel no overpowering need to read more of the series. But now I would like to play the game.

We Did Porn (Zak Smith)

[I wrote a tortured, ambivalent capsule review of this memoir+artbook but don’t wish to share it. I’ve not revisited it since doing so. I enjoyed parts of We Did Porn.]

Echo: The Complete Edition (Terry Moore)

I devoured this 600-page comics collection in one sitting, which is recommendation enough. The art is quietly compelling: an enormous array of facial expressions and body types ably rendered, the movement and direction clear as day. The ‘superhero’ bits are surprisingly effective, as are the sudden eruptions of gore. And the central relationships — Annie/Julie/Dillon/Ivy and their friends and loved ones — are beautifully drawn too. The dialogue’s smart and funny in a Brian K Vaughan way; I got a strong Runaways vibe from the internal dynamics of the growing Scooby Gang. (And yeah, more than a dash of Buffy in the central premise and metaphor-ready silver breastplate.) (Plus I was reminded strongly of Concrete, which I haven’t read since just after college and now want to seek out again.) The biblical stuff doesn’t come to anything, the SF elements would be more intriguing without the metaphor-laden ‘here is why nonscientist Terry Moore is intrigued by phi‘ infodump in the middle, and the ending is somewhat abrupt and vague. But Echo is a swift, engrossing tale, the Julia/Annie character(s) are its big beating heart, and I think it will stay with me. I’ve never read Love and Rockets. Maybe it’s time.

It feels really, really good to spend a night reading instead of futzing with a computer screen. [Reading on a screen resembles reading the way video poker resembles poker, i.e., hardly. –wa.]

A Little History of the World (Ernst Gombrich)

It’s actually a little history of Europe with bits of Asia and a couple of mentions of America thrown in for flavour.

It’s an extraordinary piece of writing and a work of deep humanity and empathy. I can easily imagine kids (and adults) being swept up by this story. It’s made me want to read a ‘grownup’ history (I’ve got the Penguin History of the World lined up) but I’m already sad that whatever I read next will be less delicate, less hopeful, less passionate than this book. Grownups can be so boring.

It’s a book of its time. Well: just like every other book ever written. Its limitations are only a problem if it’s the only book of history you ever read with/to your kids. So don’t do that. But do read it to them. This is the kind of book that could change a little kid’s life.

It was a gift for my son from his uncle, my brother. His dedication reads, in part:

Be a good boy. Remember the past. Remember it isn’t everything.

Lovely, no? And true.

London Under (Peter Ackroyd)

Like Hawksmoor, which I abandoned after maybe 100 pages, this book goes from a fascinating tour of both London and a slightly dark psyche to an exhausting, somewhat repetitive tour of same. I finished it, though — it’s a quick read. Maybe psychogeography is nicer in theory than in practice? Either way, this is close to the perfect topic for a book, from my perspective, and Ackroyd’s probably a fine writer, but you wouldn’t know it from this volume, which hits one note (the underground is a dark creepy place onto which London/Ackroyd can project all manner of dark creepy thoughts) all the way through. The travelogue bits read like phone book tours, at times, listing rather than evoking. An obviously lived-in book, and I highlighted dozens of passages to come back to (it’s a very gameable book), but while I do look forward to reading Ackroyd’s London or Albion someday, I do so hoping (and assuming) that they’re more varied in tone, and dense in description, than this slim volume.

Put it this way: if I wasn’t hardwired to adore the subject, I’d have given this one up after 40ish pages. I’m glad I read it, but I hesitate to recommend it, except perhaps as a companion to a full-dress book on London in general, which is presumably how/why it was written. Wish I’d realized. Ackroyd is a fine writer but it’s death to (or by) a book to close it and say ‘So what?’

RPGs

Kevin Crawford continues to do the most consistently excellent work in ‘old-school’ gaming. His Red Tide (core setting, Crimson Pandect, and An Echo, Resounding) and Stars Without Number lines set the standard for anyone making tools for ‘sandbox’ campaign play.

Graham Walmsley’s Stealing Cthulhu is a handy guide to Mythos gaming; his Play Unsafe is one of the canonical works on improvisation in running RPGs.

James Maliszewski’s long-awaited and much-derided Dwimmermount is way better, and more ‘sword & planet’ in tone, than the playtest reviews led us to expect; Macris and Allison did a bang-up job turning a megadungeon that reeks of ‘frustrated novelist’ into a uniquely structured gaming artifact.

I finally spent some real time with Traveller (both the original Traveller Book and Mongoose’s updated line). It’s impossible to imagine a dryer collection of RPG books, but its scope and pseudotechnical presentation compel me. And despite Marc Miller’s hopelessly misguided efforts, the system’s dead simple. I’d love to take it for a spin. Maybe a series of quickie adventures this summer.

The 3rd edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting is perhaps the canonical example of Misplaced Priorities in RPG Design; it’s also one of D&D’s best-loved setting books. Go figure. Jeff Grubb’s original Manual of the Planes extends dungeoncrawl mechanics to cover magical combat in Hell — a well-intentioned bad idea that not even the great Grubb can save, though this is one’s still fun to dip into for ideas. In some ways this is the book that fills out AD&D’s promise — moreso, certainly, than Deities & Demigods, which is a dream book for kids but has given generations of gamers Dumb Ideas about incorporating gods (as big monsters) into fantasy RPGs. That said, it’s less self-deceiving and more competently organized than the original Dungeon Masters Guide.

D&D 5e came out. The playtest game bored me to tears on the page and no one in my group felt any inclination to play. It’s fated to be a lot of players’ second-favourite edition, which makes sense: it’s built like a streamlined do-over of 3e that hews close to 1e/BECMI in spirit, with 4e design tech sensibly deployed. I like it a lot, especially the deceptively dense DMG, and look forward to playing more of it.

This year I read (some portion of) a bunch of Pathfinder books. Ultimate Campaign indulges Paizo’s mechanics-fetish to mixed effect, but it’s a superb idea for a book, and smartly extends the d20 system. The Gamemastery Guide mixes hugely useful setting-gen advice and aleatoric gaming tools in equal measure. But focused, thematically-rich flavour books like Fey Revisited and Distant Worlds are the best thing about Pathfinder, to my mind — especially if you’ve read D&D material before, as PF’s mission is basically to redo D&D 3.5 with everything turned up to eleven. I tend to think the game’s existence is unnecessary and even weirdly sad, but it’s better than its source game in every way that matters to me. The Inner Sea Campaign Guide is a wonderful advertisement for Paizo’s in-house setting: a pitch-perfect ‘take what you need, leave the rest’ supplement. That said, it’s safely within the ‘D&D fantasy’ envelope, so forget about groundbreaking weirdness or bold new visions for RPG settings. Pathfinder is nothing more than better D&D.

Et cetera, et cetera.

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