2012年12月19日 星期三

Best of this Semester

4 Books I Read This Semester That I Thought Were Great

1. George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire (all of them)

Simply epic, almost flawless, and meticulously thought out fantasy series.  Anyone who thinks they don't like fantasy books really needs to check these out.  Can't wait for the next one!

2. "Cities of the Plain" by Cormac McCarthy

A meditation on age, the vanishing Old West, and love.  It takes a wonderful left turn at the end.

3. "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac

The book that almost invented the 60s.  A bit repetitive, but of enduring historical value.

4. "Lord of the Flies" by William Goldman

A bunch of kids get stranded on an island.  Top shelf writing.

5 Albums I Heard This Semester That I Thought Were Great

1. Soundgarden - "King Animal"

A return to form, and even better than "Down on the Upside."  Chris Cornell shrieks satisfyingly, Kim Thayil smashes you over the head with his guitar, and the other two guys also come ready for trouble.  A couple of songs are missteps, but altogether a great album.

2. Behemoth - "The Apostasy"

Really loud and really Polish.  "At the Left Hand ov God" is an amazing song, and everything after that is good, too.  The first two tracks were a little too late-era Celtic Frost for me, but most of this album is certainly good enough for Satan.

3. Gorgoroth - "Antichrist"

These guys are even more evil than Behemoth, and their metal has a uniqueness that few other bands can touch.  Their music is a lot less busy than Behemoth's, and their singer sings in an excellently evil fashion.

4. Steve Reich - "Music for 18 Musicians"

 Some might say this is monotonous, but I like it.

5. Destruction - "Eternal Devastation"

One of Germany's classic thrash bands.  I spent a week or so shouting "Life Without Sense" in my living room..

3 Movies I Saw This Semester That I Thought Were Great

1. The Company Men

Great movie about the downsizing of America.  Ben Affleck, who I still haven't entirely forgiven for "Daredevil," is terrific as an out-of-work software executive.  Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Costner also shine in this one.  Reminded me of so many people and places.

2. The Amazing Spider-man

Yeah, I waited a long time to finally see it.  To my surprise, it was a good movie up until maybe the very end.  The Lizard might have looked a little too much like The Hulk, but Andrew Garfield makes a good Peter Parker.

3. The Human Centipede (first sequence) 

It's so disturbing it'll have you up nights.  Not as graphic as the sequel, but more psychologically effective.

4. Cabin in the Woods

This movie is a little bit H.P. Lovecraft, a little bit Friday the 13th, and a little bit The Matrix.  More intelligent and funny than your average horror movie.

2 Books That Suck

1. "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel

Boring and anachronistic.  A real struggle to get through.

2. "Mid-Flinx" by Alan Dean Foster 

One of the worst books I have ever read.  I simply can't imagine reading another of Alan Dean Foster's books.  I'd have to be in prison.  Or in an insane asylum.  Or in an antarctic outpost, without anything else to read.

...and with that I will leave off writing this blog for the remainder of fall semester.  See you in February, after Chinese New Year!

"Speaker for the Dead" by Orson Scott Card

I normally refrain from including a lot of biographical information on authors, but in Orson Scott Card's case I feel the need to state that he is a practicing Mormon.  He has also publicly opposed gay rights, and marriage rights for homosexuals; he believes that global warming may be a hoax, and he has emerged as an advocate of Intelligent Design.  While some of these fantastic notions might label him a great fit for the fantasy side of sci-fi/fantasy, one wouldn't expect rigorously scientific explanations from someone who believes in the Book of Mormon, literal interpretations of Genesis, and in the erroneous nature of evolutionary theory.

Many of the attitudes and opinions described above can be glimpsed throughout "Speaker for the Dead," which is a novel he wrote in 1986.  "Speaker for the Dead" won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for science fiction, and is part of the "Ender's Game" series of novels.  Whether this novel's enormous popularity speaks to the widespread ignorance of the American reading public, or whether this book is proof that an author can transcend his ideological shortcomings, I leave to you, the reader, to decide.

I haven't read "Ender's Game," but apparently that book was about the extinction of an alien race at the hands of Ender Wiggins, a single human being.  In "Speaker for the Dead," a group of Portuguese (Brazilian?) colonists is dealing with the discovery of a second extraterrestrial lifeform, and the Starways Congress is determined not to allow a second "Ender's Game" to occur.

I've got to say, this book doesn't make a lot of sense from the get-go.  The two colonists in charge of studying the "piggies" are pursuing some kind of non-intervention doctrine, but somehow fail to understand that their mere presence among the aliens is itself a kind of intervention.  For some unexplained reason, it's OK to teach the aliens our language, but not OK to give them any indication of our level of technology.  They seem to think that the act of learning English (Stark) wouldn't speak volumes about our culture.  They seem to think that the act of interacting with us wouldn't be undo influence by itself.  What's more, the observers seem unduly constrained in their methods of observation, and are somehow unable to view the "piggies" from orbit, use concealed cameras, or even use the most rudimentary radios or mobile technology.  Even in the late 80s, somebody had to be wondering how these observers could travel to other star systems, and yet fail to invent the cellular phone.

Another thing that got me about this book is how absorbed with religion everyone is.  Would they really be arguing about Calvinistic predestination in the future?  Would Catholicism be as convincing on other planets?  I think that at best these creeds would have to be reformulated for such a future society, and what one sees in "Speaker for the Dead" is just a little too much like the same backwards religions seen on Earth.  I'm not saying that in the future people won't go to church or believe in God, but given that the world of "Speaker for the Dead" features not only space exploration, but also the discovery of multiple alien intelligences, one has to wonder why the Christianity of yesteryear wasn't reinvented to meet the challenge.

I know that there are a lot of Orson Scott Card fans out there, and mine is probably going to be the minority opinion.  Even so, if this is/was the best he can do, then consider me disappointed.  This work of "science ficition" isn't even remotely scientific, and moreover pales in comparison to other works by Asimov, Clarke, Herbert, and other sci-fi greats.  I wouldn't even group him with B-list writers like Simak and Pohl, because both of those authors displayed a consistency that "Speaker for the Dead" lacks entirely.  As it is, it might explore its characters fully, but some of the underlying ideas have been treated in the laziest manner possible.  Orson Scott Card might believe in Intelligent Design, but I don't.  I haven't found evidence of it in the world outside my door, and I haven't found evidence of it in "Speaker for the Dead."

2012年12月17日 星期一

"Lord of the Flies" by William Golding

"Lord of the Flies" was first published in 1954.  It has been adapted into a movie three times.  Two of these movies were Western productions, while the third was made in the Philippines.

I assume that most people are familiar with the story.  A planeload of young boys crashes on a remote tropical island, and the boys struggle against both the elements and their own fears.  These fears are embodied in Simon's "Lord of the Flies," a creature that he hallucinates into existence halfway through the book.

Most of the action revolves around the triangle of Ralph, Jack, and Piggy.  Ralph is the oldest boy, and is elected Chief early on, but his lack of intelligence often works against the best interests of the tribe.  Jack is the hunter, and is not above using violence and intimidation to achieve his aims.  Piggy is the the brains of the tribe, but his awkward physical appearance often make his rational advice ineffective.

Anyone reading this has probably seen one of the film versions, but the book is still worth reading.  Due to the fact that any film based on "Lord of the Flies" features children, certain parts of the book are invariably omitted, or at least glossed over.  This is unfortunate, because many of these parts are what make "Lord of the Flies" so real, so essential, and so continually popular.

It's a good book.  I am just surprised it took me so long to read it!

2012年12月12日 星期三

"Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman

This book was published last year.  I got about 1/4 of the way through it and gave up.  The author won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002, but this book is solidly within the field of Psychology, not Economics.

The author goes on and on and on and on and on and on with an exposition on the subject of two cognitive systems within the human mind, which he refers to as System 1 and System 2.  The first system is our more reactive self, given to acting on emotion and instinct.  The second system is our more intellectual self, given to the slower processes of analysis and reflection.

I think good benchmarks for a book like this are:

1) Was it enlightening?  Did it help me understand something?
2) Was it interesting?  Did it answer question(s) that were important to me?
3) Was it useful?  Did I use the knowledge gained within this book in my daily life?

And with such benchmarks in mind, this book seems flimsy and overwritten, full of examples that lead nowhere.  I failed to see how the author's System 1 and System 2 were any improvement over previous psychological models of the human consciousness.  This book was also deeply repetitive, and thus boring.  This book gave me nothing at all to use in my daily life, even though I am a teacher, and always looking for some insight into how people learn and think.

But maybe this book got really interesting towards the end.  Maybe it grew more insightful.  Maybe it offered ideas that would have revolutionized my understanding of the human mind.

I will never know, because I failed to read it all the way through.  I turned instead to other books, perhaps more frivolous in nature, but infinitely more entertaining.

2012年12月6日 星期四

"Skinny Dip" by Carl Hiassen

After reading a book as memorably retarded as Alan Dean Foster's "Mid-Flinx," any other book is going to seem brilliant by comparison.  I probably could have picked up a copy of Dr. Seuss, and been struck by his mastery of prose, his deft pacing, and his rich sense of irony.

So take what I have to say about "Skinny Dip" with a grain of salt.  Upon further reflection, this book might be much worse than any comments below lead you to believe.  It might even be a terrible book, but it's still better than "Mid-Flinx," and that's saying something.

It was first published in 2004.  The author lives in Florida, where the novel is set.  He is passionate about the Everglades, and has written four other novels, all firmly within the mystery/suspense genre.

And as I've stated before, I'm not a big fan of this genre.  The plots of most suspense novels seem very contrived to me, and the characters in them tend to behave in wooden, even unnatural ways.  Worse still, there's usually some detective on hand who makes unbelievable associations, and it is these associations that end up cracking the case.  "Oh wait!" says the detective, "The killer left his note in crayon, so that must mean he works in the crayon factory!"

Skinny dip doesn't try to avoid any of these pitfalls, but at least it tries to be funny.  I say tries.  It doesn't always succeed. The characters often find themselves in ridiculous situations.  Some of these situations are almost funny, but Hiassen expends so much effort maneuvering his characters into these situations that any suspension of disbelief falls by the wayside.  Worse still, the intricacies of his plot often make the characters seem inconsistent.  I had trouble believing that an ex-cop would really help a complete stranger fake her own death, or that the falsification of water readings could really be the motive behind a murder.

Anyway, you could read it if you don't have anything better on hand.  It's certainly better than other things I've read recently.