quarta-feira, dezembro 31, 2014

2014: My Reading Year in Review

And the year ends once again...

Without further ado, my crème-de-la-crème was the following:


  • What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe;
  • Adrift in the Noösphere by Damien Broderick;  
  • Feynman Tips on Physics by Feynman, Gottlieb and Leighton;
  • After the Apocalypse: Stories by Maureen F. McHugh;
  • Lamentation by J. Sansom;
  • The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel;
  • The Folding Knife by K.J Parker;
  • Everyware:The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing by Adam Greenfield;
  • The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups by Ron Rosenbaum;
  • Medieval Shakespeare: Pasts and Presents by Ruth Morse, Helen Cooper, Peter Holland;
  • World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters;
  • How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig;
  • Luther: The calling by Neil Cross
  • Greg Egan by Karen Burnham;
  • A Man: Klaus Klump by Gonçalo M. Tavares (trans. Rhett McNeil).

In the spirit of Science then, on to the numbers!

  • Read at least 52 books (1 per week) – Check (71 read)
  • Read at least 12 non-fiction books (1 per month) – Check (20 read)
  • Read at least 12 Science Fiction books (1 per month) – Check (15 read)
  • Read at least 24 Speculative Fiction books (2 per month) - Check (29 read)
  • Read more on Physics and Computer Science – Check (5 of each read)
  • Read at least 12 essay books (1 per month) – Failed (6 read)
  • Read at least 12 fantasy books (1 per month) – Failed (0 read)
  • Read more short-story collections – Failed (read only 2)
  • Read more books published 2014 than books published in previous years - Failed (“2014”: 42.2%; “<2014”: 57.8%)
  • Read the 2 volumes of Heinlein’s biography – Check
  • Write a review for every book read – Check (71 books read71 reviews written)

Not bad altogether…

Books read in 2014: 71 (1.36 books read per week; 5.9 books read per month)

Fiction: 51 (71.8%)
 - Crime: 25
 - Science Fiction: 15
 - Historical: 1
 - Mainstream: 5
 - Horror: 4
 - Spy: 1

NB: Speculative Fiction = 15 + 4 = 29 (no Fantasy again…)

Non-Fiction: 20 (28.1%)
 - Biography: 2
 - Essay: 6
 - Physics: 5
 - Computer Science: 5

Collections of short stories: 2

Published in 2014: 30 (42.2%)

Published in 2014: 41 (57.8%)

Number of words written in the 71 reviews: 41728 (average 588 words per review)

Number of pages read: 21876 (421 pages per week; 1823 pages per month):



Reading Chart per Month (July and December with 10 books read):


My reading challenge:


My blog hits around the globe (Booklikes):


And only 71 books? In 2013 I read 91! Already the impact of having a little gadget on the way is making itself clear. But I did better at reading things published in 2014 than I'd feared, although I still felt quite a bit behind the curve there. I haven’t got high hopes for 2015 though, because the little gadget will make his appearance in the beginning of the year.

Goals for 2015:

Read more altogether, keep on reading my Rowse (my "Shakespeare in a Year" project will probably be still on hold), read more Dark Fiction, read more non-fiction, ... you get the drift...



terça-feira, dezembro 30, 2014

Crime Fiction from Down Under: "Hell to Pay" by Garry Discher

Hell to Pay - Garry Disher
Published 2014.

For me, one of the wonders of exceptionally wonderful writing is its ability to take something I’d would just steer clear of in real life, and transform it into something I can read with deep interest. This is even truer in Crime Fiction due to its sometimes graphic nature.

Before getting into the meat of it, yes, what I’ve just read was Crime Fiction and not Mainstream literature, in case you’re wondering:

“Kropp himself seated at a large table at the head of the room, trying for smiles and patience and genial common sense. But the crowd would not have logic or patience on its side, only heat and hurt. One by one they would stand, awkward men and women who’d felt fine and flashing moments before but now, in the spotlight, tripped over their words and lost the threads of their accusations. A disordered atmosphere, the crowd blurting accusations that trailed into nothing or were overheated or roamed off the point [ ].”

For Crime Fiction this is not your usual run-of-the-mill sentence. It works by bringing me away from my own world and into the one Discher built. This is not mere intellectual transportation, but it made me feel off kilter, and out of joint. Hirsch, the book’s main character, is not very talkative. Although the novel is not in first-person narrative, through this sentence we can “see” Hirsch. True to form, Discher is not very keen on personal description. By using this kind of sentence structure and, I’d say, “lyrical” description, we see and sense a different kind of narrative.

Discher has the ability to use an economical and sparse style that allows him to set a scene to absorb the reader, though here the terseness often draws attention to itself. Dialogue-wise he’s also up there with the best. The characters, especially Hirsch, behave much more differently from Americans than do the Swedes in those Stieg Larsson books. For those of us not accustomed to this it feels rather odd. On top of that the re-imagining of The Queen’s English provides a very specific Australian flavour, which to my European ears was very appealing.

This is my first foray into Australian Fiction. I’ve been hammered by my reader friends to read Peter Temple, but I thought I’d start with someone not so well know and discussed: Garry Discher, and I’m glad I did. This doesn’t mean I won’t read Temple, but I’m saving him for another occasion.

Writing of this quality does not come along every day.

And thus ends 2014.

NB: I’ve taken half a star because of the book’s moronic title: “Hell to Pay”. For goodness’ sake! I could come up with two or three better titles myself.

segunda-feira, dezembro 29, 2014

Postmodern SF: "Adrift in the Noösphere" by Damien Broderick

Adrift in the Noosphere: Science Fiction Stories - Damien Broderick, Paul Di Filippo, Barbara Lamar
Published 2012.

The Noöpshere as metaphore for SF.

Information domains. We have several for all tastes and preferences: Noösphereinfosphere,cyberspace. Generally speaking what differentiates them? They are all about information, and they aim to reflect the different kinds of technological and organizational developments we aim to achieve. Are they just different takes on the same thing? Nope. Cyberspace is the most technological. Noösphere is the most ideal, in the sense that we don’t have it yet. About cyberspace nothing new to be said. I’ve said plenty in my reviews for the past few years. Infosphere is an extension of the Cyberspace, ie, it comprises the latter, plus Information Systems that are not part of the Internet, eg, media, non-electronic libraries, etc.

What about the Noösphere (I’m using Broderick’s term with the umlaut)? It’s the most abstract. It comes from the Greek word “noos”, which means “mind”. Vernadsky/De Chardin first coined it in 1925 (I know, I looked it up). In his view, the world first evolved as a geosphere, and next a biosphere. What we now have is a global communication circuit, which is really a global-circling domain of the “mind”, giving rise to a sort of planetary consciousness. If I wanted to use an Huxley term I’d say the Noösphere is some sort of “living thought”. The Noösphere is thus the last stage of the informational domains: Cyberspace -> Infosphere -> Noösphere. The Noösphere can then be interpreted as being the total sum of all human thought, knowledge, and culture, or as Broderick says in his introduction, “Noösphere is today given literal expression in the global skein of billions of messages flung through space, wires, and cables, tying humankind into a kind of emerging hive mind.” This idea is teeming with SF concepts, because it resonates with a lot of things in SF, namely its underlying “sense of wonder”, which Broderick explores to the hilt here. Each and every one of the stories is embedded with this kind of wonder. For me SF is about the endless, ever-evolving search for transcendence: “We’re adrift, like voyagers on a raft, carried into strange seas by currents we can barely identify – adrift, indeed, in the Noösphere!” There’s no better way to define SF, if such a thing is possible.

First let me tell that I’m pretty biased towards Broderick’s work, starting with the“The White Abacus”. I love the way he uses allusiveness when creating new things. “The White Abacus” is just one hell of an example of that (a SFional version of Hamlet). It’s always a tight rope working like this: how much can be hinted at, how much can be openly said, how much can the writer assume from the part of the reader to understand the allusions? Broderick’s best work can be seen as having a dual behaviour, ie, both as a successful story on its own terms and at the same time deepening our understanding of past works (be it SF or otherwise).

This collection is a prime example of that, albeit in short form. It gives a glimpse of how Broderick has evolved over the years. Almost all of the short-stories are top-notch (even Broderick’s first story “The Sea’s Furthest End” is quite good). The best stories here are “Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone” (written with Barbara Lamar; it’s also where I first encountered the word “teabagging”, which I wasn’t familiar with... The story is beautifully written, with the closing stages shifting underneath the protagonist’s feet. It’s one the best short stories ever written. Period) and “Under the Moons of Jupiter” (the solar system rewritten by Singularity-grade entities…).

I’ve read only two short-story collections this year: “After the Apocalypse” by Maureen F. McHugh and now this one. Both are superb works of fiction.


domingo, dezembro 28, 2014

Raw Feynmanese: "Feynman Tips on Physics"

Tips on Physics: A Problem-solving Supplement to the Feynman Lectures on Physics - Richard P. Feynman, Ralph Leighton, Michael A. Gottlieb

Published July 31st 2005


I’ve read almost everything Feynman related. A few still remain to be read: Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters, Feynman's Thesis: A New Approach to Quantum Theory, and Feynman Lectures on Computation.

My first contact with Feynman happened in my first year of college. My physics’ teacher at the time was responsible for that. He introduced me to the marvelous world of The Feynman Lectures on Physics, and I was never the same. I used the 3 volumes for all of my physics classes (Mechanics, Electromagnetism, Thermodynamics, etc). I still remember my math classes (Infinitesimal Analysis I, II, III, IV) also gained immensely by my immersion in Feynman’s lectures. For those of you who aren’t familiar with The Bible, it’s full of tips and tricks, ie, short-cuts to able to get to the solutions faster than it’s normally possible. My grades in all of these classes greatly benefited. The Feynman lectures shouldn’t be used as a primary textbook for Quantum Mechanics, Mechanics, or Electromagnetism. Not because the 3 volumes are technically difficult, but because it's not very useful for learning technique. For that I used a more prosaic textbook. I don’t recall which one, but I still remember the Feynman Lectures.

Why is that you wonder? Feynman was unique due to his explanatory and not-trivial approach to Physics. Leighton beautifully summaries what made Feynman one of a kind teaching-wise (I’m not getting into his contributions to Physics in terms of QED, Quantum Mechanics and so forth):

“Feynman has a peculiar property, which is that at the time he’s explaining something, it appears very clear and transparent – you can see how everything fits, and you go away feeling very good about it. [ ]And two hours later, like what they say about Chinese food, it’s all gone and you’re hungry again. And you don’t remember quite what happened.”

Exactamundo!

This book can be regarded as a complement to the Red Books:  It contains four previously unpublished lectures that Feynman gave to students preparing for exams.

“And you can re-create the things that you’ve forgotten perpetually – if you don’t forget too much, and if you know enough. In other words, there comes a time – which you haven’t quite got to, yet – where you’ll know so many things that as you forget them, you can reconstruct them from the pieces that you can still remember. It’s therefore of first-reta importance that you know how to “triangulate” – that is, to know how to figure something out from what you already know. It’s absolutely necessary. You might say ‘Ah, I don’t care; I’m a good memorizer! I know how to really memorize! In fact, I took a course in memory!’ That still doesn’t work! Because the real utility of physicists – both to discover new laws of nature, and to develop new things in industry, and so on - is not to  talk about what’s already known, but to do something new – and so they “triangulate” out from the known things: they make a triangulation that no one has ever made before.”

This was Feynmanese at its best. In other words, you don’t need to memorize stuff to do well in school. I followed this to the letter. That’s why when I was in college my notes were very sparse. I very much preferred to listen in class, taking a few notes here and there. When the going got tough, ie, when taking the exams, I was almost always quite in good shape. Unfortunately this approach didn’t quite work out in subjects different from Physics, Math, etc…For that I’d need memorization, which I quite hated, and I still do. In math and Physics classes when I needed a particular formula and I didn’t know it by heart, as it was almost always the case, I’d try to deduce it from first principles or somesuch. Sometimes I’d get far behind in the exam, but most of the the time I’d plenty of time to spare when using this approach in each exam.

Since the lectures in this book as supplement are introductory, everything in here just becomes second nature, ie, it doesn't matter that they are vintage. The old stuff should just be easier, because it’s already out there. If one finds something in the Feynman Lectures and in this book which isn't completely obvious, one should study it until it is obvious--- there's no barrier, the things are self-contained. And I still think that the Red Books and this supplemental volume can give us a different perspective on how to learn physics in a different way, because everything is worked out from scratch. This makes them very interesting, because you learn how the discovering gets done, the type of reasoning, the physical intuition, and so on.

If you're into Physics and Science in general, it doesn't get much better than this.

sexta-feira, dezembro 26, 2014

The third-leg of Speculative Fiction: "Borealis" by Ronald Malfi

Borealis - Ronald Malfi
Published October 1st 2011

Talking with some friends of mine about books, I came to understand that “Horror” is pretty much a pejorative word. On the other hand, “Terror” is always seen as a respectable word for “horror” (I still remember Boris Karloff preferring his work to be described as such…).

“Horror” as a genre is where SF and Fantasy are nowadays, ie, enclosed in tired bathos appealing to a conservative readership which wants more of the same and are hostile to any attempts to try something different ('that's not real Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror).

Are really the so-called "literary" and "genre" fiction been at odds with each other? Literary writers increasingly try do deploy imagery from genre, while genre writers have upped their game considerably in terms of complexity, with moral resonance and style.
But “Horror” – the third leg of "speculative fiction" – has had markedly less success. There’s a bunch of “new” writers out there worth reading. Some of them not so new, but I say they’re new, because they bring a “new” approach to Horror): Stephen JonesThomas Ligotti, Ronald Malfi, just to name the ones I think are making the difference nowadays.

With “Borealis”, we just have a glimpse of what Malfi can do. He’s a truly gifted storyteller, who can spin sentences and pace action like a true master of the form. As pieces get picked up it’s when Malfi goes into high gear; sometimes the endings of the storylines are left open, with possible destinies the reader can only begin to imagine.

I’ve read elsewhere that literary fiction is “driven by the ideas, themes, and concerns of the novelist, often producing a narrative that is at times controversial.” It’s a good thing that never happens in SF (smile).

Go and read Malfi, Ligotti, Stephen Jones. You won’t regret it, even you’re not particularly favourably disposed towards Horror (notice the use of the term “Horror” instead of “Terror”; they’re two different takes on this theme).

The Borealis might have stopped cruising, but the characters go on in your mind (I'd love to see this turned into a full-length novel).

SF = Speculative Fiction

terça-feira, dezembro 23, 2014

Vintage and eschatological SF: "The Black Cloud" by Fred Hoyle

The Black Cloud by Hoyle, Fred (2010) Paperback - Fred Hoyle
Published 1957

I read this book in my teens. Since then I hadn’t read it. The only things I remembered was that there was a Cloud hurtling toward the Sun, there were Americans and British involved, and that there was a lot of formulas, diagrams, and lengthy expository footnotes on several pages…

After re-reading it, the book’s central question is still the best of it:
“What is the nature of human intelligence?”

The Cloud answers by saying that one should attach labels to one’s neurological states, be it anger, headache, embarrassment, happiness, or melancholy. These states could then be interpreted as being just labels. If someone wished to tell someone else that he was suffering from any kid of ailment, he should make no attempt to describe that particular neurological state. What he should do was to display the label in question. Communication would be just label swapping between two entities.

The basic premise for the Cloud is that intelligence is based on our usage of language, which is most simplistic with its focus on on/off states (eg, being a headache one the examples Hoyle uses). Intelligence of far greater depth would ask for more, because communication cannot be based on just 2 states due its complexity. If one would want to characterize the actual neurological state producing an headache, that device/being would have to possess a more sophisticated communication (the device would have to pass Turing’s Imitation Game to be able to mimic intelligent life). As a side note, the way Hoyle found to instantiate the communication between the Cloud and us was to devise an audio/video system to relay the cloud’s responses into readable text. Quite ingenious at the time…

I didn’t really care for the rest of the plot: Cold War interactions, American vs British, etc. On top of that the characterization is very weak, but that’s normal for the time the book was written (Arthur C. Clarke a fellow Brit is better than Hoyle, but characterization-wise he’s not much better than Hoyle).

57 years later since its publication what can we say about the book? First and foremost it has to be read under the lens of time. We have to put ourselves in the 50’s and imagine what it would have been like to live in that époque. Seen from today’s standards the novel has dated pretty badly. It’s full of stereotypes and idiosyncratic scientific debates. What saves it are the philosophical questions revolving around the cloud’s intelligence and basic human similarities to the scientists who are eager to understand it, ie, Hoyle’s philosophical debate revolving around the nature of human intelligence is the book’s best feature.

I still remember Carl Sagan saying that we were made of star-stuff… And that’s one of the coolest things I ever learned in science.

Bottom-line: If you’re interested in vintage SF, by all means read it. If you’re interested in eschatological fiction (the fate of the world, etc), it should be read as well. If you’re interested in the History of SF, it’s also compulsory. If you couldn’t care less about these aspects, avoid it.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

sexta-feira, dezembro 19, 2014

Proust Comes to the Rescue: "Why Read?" by Mark Edmundson

Why Read? - Mark Edmundson
Published September 5th 2005.

One of my favourite movies is Good Will Hunting. There’s a fine dialogue from the movie that popped in my mind when I was reading “Why Read?”. It goes something like this (it’s not verbatim):

Sean: Do you have a soul mate?
Will: What’s that?
Sean: A soul mate is someone you can relate to.
Will: Yes, I have lots.
Sean: Well, name a few.
Will: Shakespeare, Frye, Blake (I don’t remember the actual writers that were mentioned, but I’m pretty sure Shakespeare was one of them).
Sean: Wonderful, but they're all dead.
Will: Not really. At least not to me.
Sean: First off, you can't have a dialogue with them.
Will: Not really. If I get hold of a heater and some serious smelling salts, I surely can.

So. To cut to the chase, I do believe that I can have a dialogue with a writer. As it should be, otherwise there’s no point in reading him.

Edmundson basic assertion relies on Proust’s vision of what it means to read, which I quite agree with: “I should ask whether the words that they read within themselves are the same as those which I have written”, ie, what Proust is saying is that reading is always, or should be, an act of self-discovery on the part of the reader (in this case me). When I immerse myself in a book, I may encounter aspects of myself that have perhaps been “out there” for a long time, ie, in a certain sense they’re unknown to me. In this sense I learn the language of myself. If I quit on a book, whose fault is that? Whether it's the book's or mine is still debatable. Maybe the fault is not in our stars (the book), but in me, so to speak, ie, what flaws of character does that dislike point up in me?

“Some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better, they came to have more sympathy with me and to understand my hidden meanings. Their nature is such that out relationship has been very intimate.”(Lionel Trilling). I’d add that sometimes and with some books we never outgrow our own limitations, ie, the book always look as boring as hell!

Edmundson also touches on a point very dear to me. A few years ago I attended a class on English Comparative Literature at Universidade de Letras in Lisbon. My teacher, Vicky Hartnack, introduced me to the New Criticism concept of “Close Reading”, which I’ve been following ever since, and I’ve been mentioning it ad nauseum in a lot of my reviews. To find out things about what I’m reading, I’ve to scrutinize the page in front of me with very exacting care (“new critical” stance).

Another one of Edmundson’s assertions with which I quite agree with is that TV Culture directly opposes Book Culture. At my present age I am just old enough to sense, with a surmounting panic that I really could waste my entire existence with a life caught up in TV Culture.

Edmundson also says that the ultimate test of a book, apart from the test of time, is the difference it would make in the way I conduct my life. Extreme I’d say. On second thoughts, maybe it’s not so extreme. I think Edmundson is on the right path. The older I get, the more I come to appreciate the spiritual imperative that what really matters is not to be passive (in front of the TV), but to be active (with a book in my hands). The kind of dialogue I can have with a book is something entirely different from the one I have with TV, if I can call it that (I'm talking about TV shows and the like here).

Another contention I hear a lot is “I don’t have time to read”. I bet the people who say this are still willing to watch at least an hour of TV a day. If you can find time for that surely you can find time to read. I work at least 50 hours a week, but I always find the time because I truly enjoy reading, even if it’s only 30 minutes before I go to sleep. “If only I could find the time to read” exists only in our heads. It’s not real.

One final piece of advice. Nowadays everyone talks about going digital. On top of that, people are also going terrible lazy. That’s what TV does to us all, and that’s why I don’t watch it. I only watch stuff I really want to see (movies, some series, Benfica's football matches, Opera). No point channel hopping when there is nothing worth watching on.

quinta-feira, dezembro 18, 2014

Wallander in the Twilight: "An Event in Autumn" by Henning Mankell

An Event in Autumn: A Kurt Wallander Mystery (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Original) - Henning Mankell
Published August 12th 2014

“It was the stillness of Autumn, the Scanian Autumn, waiting for the onset of Winter.”
As I was reading this book, Goethe’s “Eine sich ereignete unerhörte Begebenheit” came to mind (I know, I know. It’s weird, but I’m just wired that way…). It means literally “An event unheard of has taken place” or more to the point “an unprecedented event”, which I think is a more apt translation.

Herbsstag” by Rilke also comes to mind. It’s all about The Fall, and it’s quite appropriate for this time of year:

Herr, es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren lass die Winde los.
Befiehl den letzten Früchten, voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin, und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

Goethe, Rilke, Mankell, Autumn, roasted chestnuts, Andreas Scholl singing “Ich habe genug”. What’s more to ask for? It was the perfect day…

The most interesting part of this Wallander short piece is the afterword by none other than Mr. Henning Mankell himself. In this afterword we come to know how Mankell came up with the name and character of Kurt Wallander. We have a few other goodies. To wit: how he came up with the stories behind the first few books, and that there won’t be other Wallander stories, being “The Troubled Man”, which I haven’t read yet, be the last one (alas the trunk is empty…):

Wallander will soon retire and cease to be a police officer. He will wander in his twilight land with his black dog Jussi. How much longer he will remain in the land of the living, I have no idea. That is presumably something he will decide for himself.

Fortunately Mankell doesn’t rule out that somewhere in the future he might feel the need to continue Linda’s story. Let’s keep one’s fingers crossed….

domingo, dezembro 14, 2014

Thoughts on Translation: "The Strange Library" by Haruki Murakami

The Strange Library - Haruki Murakami, Ted Goossen
Published December 2nd 2014

My first Murakami experience.

I’ve always avoided Murakami. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I don’t read Japanese. Or maybe it’s because I’m very particular about the use of stream-of-consciousness and magic realism in a story. Saramago is to stream-of-consciousness what Borges is to magic realism. José Saramago is for me the Nirnava when it comes to the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique and Borges is the magic realism counterpart. Everyone else I always found wanting when it came to these two types of narrative.

Unfortunately this vignette is not a good example of stream-of-consciousness, due to the fact that it’s very short. This story is another thing altogether. What we have here is something Kafka would have liked (or not) to have written. It’s nightmarish, haunting, and very peculiar indeed. Setting: a library posing as a torturous entity, a “sheep man”, a mysterious girl, a dog, and an old man. As with Saramago, we have lots of symbolism and imagery, ie, there’s a lot of meat to sink your teeth into. Putting all this imagery and symbolism aside, at the end of the day, it’s about a boy imprisoned in a library, but underneath it all, it’s a tale about loss, fear and loneliness. I’ve been ranting lately about the short-story being a superior kind of story when compared to the longer forms (eg, the novel). This short-story, because that’s what we are really talking about here, has much more to it than meets the eye, ie, stuff to be discovered and pondered over. I’m planning on reading it again very shortly to discover its inner workings.

I’m always a sucker for translated fiction, mainly because of its tendency to defy expectations. Sometimes it’s even better than reading it in the original, because if the translation is good, we have a dual interaction with two authors: the one writing it, and the one doing the translation (in this case Ted Goossen). We have wonderful examples of this tandem work in translation: Rilke vs Mitchel (into English), Rilke vs Vasco Graça Moura (into Portuguese), etc. I still remember one of Gass’ translations of Rilke where he struggled, I think in the Elegies, with the concept ofInnerweltraumWeltraumRaum in English. Gass’ struggle was palpable and sometimes painful to read (his overblown style of translating does not sit well with me).

I’ve read all of Rilke in German. Then I started getting curious on well he would be translated into another language, in my case, English and Portuguese. After reading him in translation I came back to reading Rilke in the original, but I still maintain that we learn a lot by reading him in two (or three) different languages. This duality, German vs English/Portuguese, is very enriching. It allows different takes on the same piece of text, because reading something in a different frame of reference that every language implies makes all the difference at the end of the day. What I wouldn’t give to be able to read Murakami in Japanese…

I firmly believe Rilke is impossible to translate. Rilke in translation is another thing altogether. Is it the same with Murakami? I need someone who reads Japanese to answer this…

As a bonus, the coloured pages and the design makes it also worth reading.

quinta-feira, dezembro 11, 2014

Rampant Geekery: "What If - Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions" by Randall Munroe

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions - Randall Munroe
Published September 2nd 2014

I wasn’t familiar with the XKCD's web comic website. Now, I know better… I'm already a fan.

This book will be better appreciated if one has some kind of scientific background and a somewhat superficial understanding of Physics (at least a basic knowledge). A cursory reading of the book is not enough. If one does fulfill this two prerequisites, one must be prepared to have to look up quite a few things elsewhere. I think science geeks and general readers with an interest in scientific concepts won’t have any problem tackling it.

Science is the keyword here. I’ve always been a seeker of knowledge. I’ve always wanted to know what was going on beneath the surface of everyday things. That’s why I’m a big Feynman fan. As far as I can recall, I got the science bug by reading Feynman in high school. Feynman was always looking for answers to trivial and mundane things. He was also known for back-of-the-envelope calculations. They were also an important part of my science and engineering education. I started to get hooked on things that wouldn’t bother mere mortals. It made me see things in a different perspective. The answers to why everyday things happen must be scientific, ie, logical and accurate. In this book I didn’t find any kind of pop-science answers. Nothing left me unsatisfied. Instead what I got were explanations to (almost) everything under the sun.
This is not a textbook, by all means. It’s not a book for kids. It’s a fun book for grown-ups. It answers real questions that were put forth by real people. Some of the explanations require, at least to me, a sort of Gedankenexperiment, as Einstein would have put it.

This book is also not about facts. You’ll not find answers to questions like “Who invented this…?” or “What is a…?”. The fun comes from understanding, not from the collection of facts. That’s TV. Here Munroe wants to tackle physics. Not trivia, even though some of the questions made me laugh out loud (eg, “Is it possible to cry so much you dehydrate yourself?”). The world is a complex web of inter-related things, and nothing happens for a single reason. In physics, every answer uncovers new questions, and no explanations can ever be complete.

I’ll just give three teasers of what you’ll find in this book:

  1. “What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?” (My favourite question);
  2. “What if a glass of water was, all of sudden, literally half empty?”;
  3. “Assuming a zero-gravity environment with an atmosphere identical to Earth's, how long would it take the friction of air to stop an arrow fired from a bow? Would it eventually come to a standstill and hover in midair?”

If the answer that Munroe gives to the above-mentioned questions won’t get you hooked on science forever, I don’t know what will.

That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know, going in.”
Keats was in on the secret, and you should too, if you attempt reading this wonderful book.

domingo, dezembro 07, 2014

The Operating System Wars: “Learning Old School Linux” by Edward Harnett

Learning Old School Linux  - Edward Harnett
Book published on the 23rd of November 2014.

My reviews can get quite philosophical at times. Not so here. What you’ll get here is a nuts-and-bolts review…This book is about Operating Systems (OS), Unix Culture, sed, find, and curses, and a lot more in-between. Read at your own peril, if your natural disposition does not tend to keep these matters at a distance…

I’ve always been immersed in a Unix/culture. I didn’t know any better.

I first came in contact with Unix in 1986 in a VAX-System at the university. It was my eureka moment. Since then I’ve come a long way. I’ve tried lots of other OS (windows, FreeBSD), but to me the way to go is the Unix/Linux way.

Professionally speaking, I’ve lead projects in Delivery and Service Management with Windows, Midrange, Mainframe in scope, but my OS of choice will always be Unix/Linux.

Is this book for anyone? Nope. It’s not light literature. Maybe it's not even literature. It’s written for geeks, sysadmins, IT project managers, and the likes. There’s a bunch of gold nuggets here, under all the praise of the Unix/Linux-related culture, and the bashing of the Windows frameworks.

In later years, I’ve come to know the Windows culture and its technology a little better. Not all is bad. As with any other commercial product, there’s always a downside to the creation of an Operating System, and that downside is the fact that the company in question wants to make money out of it.

If you’re of a geek persuasion, this book is unputdownable. Really. The geeks will carry on reading it through everything: breakfast, lunch, dinner. He or she will probably cut off people in mid stride to ask things like "Could I use sed to this and that?" or "How can I use emacs to this and that?" (let’s admit the person reading it is a geek, but his mindset is not very Unix/Linux-oriented).

What I’ve always complained about Windows, was its lack of out-of-the-box scripting tools (I’m not including here something like “Windows Scripting Tools”, because it’s not native to the OS).  For me the power of Unix/Linux does not rely solely on the awesomeness of each tool doing one thing very well and combining all these little tools to achieve my objective. It helps but it’s not the point.

Back in the day when I was a SysAdmin, I used to surprise my Windows friends with some voodoo incantations. I asked them to give me the files in any form they liked (usually ascii files), and I’d do my magic on those files, and I was able to produce anything they wanted, usually some kind of statistical output. I made a few “friends” this way…lol. As long as anyone makes the effort to learn a few of the basic Unix/Linux tools, the sky is literally the limit. Not so with Windows. Proficiency of a few simple Unix/Linux tools allowed me do everything I wanted. At the time I used to hear guys complaining about the Unix/Linux’s steep learning curve. What utter nonsense! Personally, I find the existing number of Windows tools a high learning curve. Between Python, gawk, diff, find, sort, regular expressions, and a couple of minor utilities or built-ins, I could literally rule my world, ie, I could do everything I wanted.

With Windows most of what I needed to do hadn't been anticipated by the suppliers of Windows programs. Schadenfreude on their part! I still think Windows lacks orthogonality. And this reflected on the way we sometimes needed to install n-tools to achieve what we really wanted. Not so with Unix/Linux; it’s all in there. We just had to “learn” how to read a freaking manual and implement it!

Nowadays I’m more open minded when it comes to discussing the “best” OS in the market. Back in the day not so much. I think there’s room for everyone. Of course, my preference is, and always will be for the Unix-Linux OS.

Harnett’s book is very readable and addictive. Harnett’s belongs to the SysAdmin lineage that assumes what they do is somehow pretty important to Western civilization. I wouldn’t be able to disagree. In fact I quite agree with him (smile).

Now, I’m just an IT Service Manager, and I just don’t do this sort of thing for a living anymore…Just at home, which isn’t the same at all.

sexta-feira, dezembro 05, 2014

How old SF can be as crappy as new SF: "Rite of Passage" by Alexei Panshin

Rite of Passage - Alexei Panshin
Book published in 1968.

After finishing “After the Apocalypse” by Maureen F. McHugh, I wanted something from the good old days. With some serendipity involved, I read “Rite of Passage” by Alexei Panshin, which I read in my teens. My memory of it was at best very hazy. The only thing I remembered was that I didn’t like it at all at the time.

So much junk published is called SF (“Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, “His Dark Materials” by Philip Pullman, etc) and it’s very difficult to find decent reading stuff. I wanted to know whether my memory was playing tricks on me after 30 years (it wasn’t).
To start at the end, I still don’t like it.

At the end we have one of Shakespeare’s sonnets:
They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

If Panshin’s goal was to build a novel around this sonnet, his effort is a clear miss. On top of that, I‘m not sure whether this book saw the hands of an editor. One example: In the beginning, the main character, Mia, is in her apartment, she sees Jimmy around her apartment and they start arguing. At the end of the quarrel they’re in a classroom. WTF??

Somewhere after this, Mia states that it’s the first time she’s meeting Jimmy; What? Same mistake again?? They’d been together in a classroom just a few pages earlier.
Now, let’s go to the meat of it: (1) Ordinologists vs synthesists. I can see and understand that both are professions which are highly regarded; unfortunately I never saw any evidence of the professions at work. What’s paramount instead is politics. Ordinologists and Synthesists never come to the fore fiction-wise; (2) Nowhere could I discern how two intellectuals, no matter how much their professions were respected, would be able to influence a generation; we don’t get any clues in the novel as how this could come about; (3) The novel’s society is entirely intellectual, ie, they don’t have wars; how does it make sense to have a Trial to separate the weak from the strong? On the basis of what? The so-called Trial is just plain innocuous. It looks good as a concept, but its relevance here is non-existent; (4) it’s stated many times that this society’s primary goal was to guard the scientific and cultural knowledge of Earth. Because of that they go to an agrarian world to survive?

Much as I hate a bad book, like this one, what I really hate is when someone uses Literature to give me a lecture. And this happens often in the novel. Panshin writes lengthy infodumps about rules of survival, the human circulatory system, the rules of football (called soccer here…), etc. In the art of infodumping Neal Stephenson is the only master I can vouch for; the rest just forget it.

This proves that sometimes we like to call something “classic SF” just because it’s old. In this case it’s just plain crap.

SF = Speculative Fiction

sábado, novembro 29, 2014

Phildickian SF: "After the Apocalypse" by Maureen F. McHugh

After the Apocalypse - Maureen F. McHugh
(#60 - 2014#). Published in 2011.

This kind of book epitomizes the reason why I prefer SF above anything else, reading-wise.

In my last book review ("The Burning Room" by Michael Connelly), I ranted about the likeness of (some) novels in the SF field.

Most of the novels of today are dull, uninspired, lifeless and more-of-the-same. This is the state of the art nowadays. And then there are short stories…

If books were bricks, short stories would be pebbles, every one of them totally different. A pebble can be polished until it becomes a ruby, and each one is unique, just like a short story.

I’ve always thought writing short stories is more difficult than writing novels: word for word, page for page, they are just far more difficult to write (I’ve got a writer-friend,Álvaro Cordeiro, and I’m always amazed at the way he produces short story prose out of the blue; his short story prose is always asking for something more, ie, we can sense a novel wanting to come out).

The feeling I have while reading McHugh, Cadigan, Shepard, and Cordeiro tells me there’s something here to be learned. In a short story every word is paramount; every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph. Because they are short, this kind of stories have to be polished until “perfection” is within reach. Such “perfection” is much more difficult to attain with novels, where writers can easily afford to waste words, to go in pursuit of the writing Nirnava. That’s why we have bloated novels. The writer of novels is more prone to get lost, because he goes wandering away for several pages, even chapters (I could name a few books, but I won’t…), before returning to the story.

With every passing year, novels grow longer and longer, their themes and ideas stretched ever more thinly. SF novels are beginning to resemble real bricks.

Maureen F. McHugh belongs to the Pat Cadigan, Lucius Shepard, and Greg Egan lineage. They write short fiction of the best kind (even though they also write wonderful novels).

I’m a huge fan of clean, evocative prose. A killer eye for detail is not to be dismissed as well. McHugh’s sympathetic, and humorous view into the human condition, gave me a crafted work of speculative fiction about what humanity might stand to lose (or maybe gain), when we are faced with the burdens of the end times already rearing their ugly heads. Her characters are astute, funny and absolutely believable.

The stories included in this collection are:

The Naturalist”: Zombies in Cleveland. The story is far above the quality of most zombie fiction I’ve ever read elsewhere;

Special Economics”: Not much originality here but the execution is top-notch;

Useless Things” (perfect Story; the best short story in the collection): An unnamed woman builds “reborns,” dolls that look like newborn infants. “The point is to make them look almost, but not quite real;

The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large”: Dissociative fugues. Fugue states in fiction. One word: “wonderful”;

The Kingdom of the Blind”: AI is rampant here. Wonderful characterization. When a cold backup restore takes place, this fact alone will be apocalyptic to an AI machine. The most interesting part of the story is the interaction between the female programmer and the men around her;

Going to France”: Borges' magic realism raises its head here. One of the best treatments of magic realism in SF I’ve ever read. A woman who gives aid to some folks “flying” to France;

Honeymoon”: The destruction of dreams on a devastating level;

The Effect of Centrifugal Forces”: Families may not be able to look after parents as their mental faculties disintegrate. This is a powerful and sad story;

After the Apocalypse”: It’s about biding ties that sometimes fail to bind.

For me there’s always something of Philip K. Dick about the way Mchugh writes fiction. For starters McHugh does not write about heroes, and she doesn’t go for the unexpected twist, so common in fiction nowadays. By just introducing a minor reality displacement to her ordinary characters, going about their business, we are able to read something truly different. McHugh’s minimalist style, grounded in reality is what makes the difference for me.

There really isn’t a bad story here, which is extremely rare for a collection of short stories (be it SF or otherwise).

I’ve always believed that SF is not (only) about the future. “After the Apocalypse” is about what comes “after”, ie, it’s all about us.

This is the kind of book that still makes me believe there’s Story in SF.

NB: Too bad Maureen F. McHugh isn’t more prolific. For me, she’s got a 2 out of 2 5-star rating review (the other being “China Mountain Zhang” – vide review here).

SF = Speculative Fiction.

domingo, novembro 23, 2014

Everybody counts or nobody counts: "The Burning Room" by Michael Connelly

The Burning Room (Harry Bosch, #19) - Michael Connelly
Published on the 3rd of November 2014.

Publishing editors come and go. They move to different companies, they take over several different lines. Some who run SF and Crime Fiction lists know nothing about SF or Crime Fiction and care even less, but they usually move on editing other kinds of book.

The greatest obstacle to novels becoming identical is the fact that every author is different, every book he or she produces is different. Or they should be. This’s what the word “novel” means. Something which is new.

Unfortunately authors are discovering that the easiest way to book publication is to produce something which is exactly like another, either the kind of thing which they have done before or that another writer has done before. Publishers want books which are “in the tradition of this” or “will be adored by readers of that” or “are the latest in the bestselling series of…”

For a writer, novels are a great investment of both time and effort. They have to make a living, and they cannot afford to write books which will not be published. The result is evidenced by what can be found on bookshop shelves. More and more writers are producing books which are written without heart and without soul. Dull and uninspired, lifeless and identical. These are the bricks of the trade.

I’ve stopped reading most of SF and Crime Fiction because of this. I can’t stand the déjà vu feeling…for the publishing industry, everything would be far simpler if all novels were just identical.

I’m not sure whether this is what readers want (I sure don’t!). Do they buy “bestsellers” because that’s what they wish to read, or because advertising and promotion makes such books seem so attractive? Is the pressure for “more of the same” from publishers or the readers? Readers can’t buy what publishers don’t publish. On the other hand, publishers won’t produce what they believe readers don’t want to read.

This long preamble sets the scene to the Michael Connelly novels. Do the Connelly novels belong to the usual book fodder? Nope, nope, and nope. I was not surprised to see “The Burning Room” ranked 4th in the NY Times. Connelly is writing what he does best. Bosch is one of the icons of Crime Fiction, and rightly so.

Bosch has evolved. In the beginning he was a loner. The novels reflected that. Now, he’s no longer that. Connelly had also to evolve to make Bosch evolve. After the 19thBosch novel, we can see this evolution. The Bosch novels are not the same. They show us that, despite the fact the setting is essential the same (LA; Hong Kong doesn’t count…), what we get is always different. The kick I get each time the newConnelly, Sansom, P.D. James appears in the bookstands, is not equal, in terms of quality, to much of what’s being published nowadays (please another final Daglishafter “The Private Patient”, before the curtain closes.  There’s a rumour The Baroness is working on another Daglish, but they’re just that. Rumours).

Connelly has spent so much time, so many years developing the Bosch character and he’s been able to get into his skin so thoroughly that the novels are utterly convincing and addictive.

What have we got in “The Burning Room”? A new sidekick (Soto) which reflects the way Bosch is getting older (The Old - Bosch vs The New - Soto), and two crime threads, and a Finale that will move Bosch to different territories.

Why is so difficult to translate Bosch onto the screen?  That’s not surprising. I have serious doubts on how well the Bosch novels would translate onto the silver screen: Bosch is obsessive, his backstory is interesting, but his personal life is not that engaging (he’s a widower, raising up a daughter and his work precludes any lasting relationships, the crimes he gets into are sordid and horrifying and there are no car chases and very few shootouts). That’s why we so far haven’t seen any Bosch on the (big) screen, because this kind of Crime Fiction is not good at the box office (as soon as I finish writing this, I’ll watch the pilot of the TV Series “Bosch” starringTitus Welliver as Bosch. Is Welliver a credible Bosch…? That’s the crux of the matter).

For me Bosch has evolved into something more like a personal acquaintance than a fictitious character. After having read “The Burning Room” I just wanted to pick up the phone and have a conversation with him. That's what sets Connelly's writing above the norm for me.

SF = Speculative Fiction.