Category Archive 'writing'
For some reason I decided to go through all our loose change. I ended up with $65 in US quarters, about $10 in miscellaneous failed US large denomination coins (three kinds of dollars and several Kennedy half-dollars), a small bucket of Canadian coins, and lots of foreign, rare and non-coins.
I’m going to post about the interesting ones.
As a kid I was into coins. Grownups knew I liked coins so they often gave them to me. Now as an adult I travel a certain amount, and so does Dan, which means we’ve accumulated quite a collection of our own. (375 Deutsche marks, really?)
In the 80s we lived in an apartment above some guy in the Air Force, and I think a number of these Asian coins came from him. I have a soft spot for all coins with animals on them.
This was actually the first year Singapore issued its own currency (as Singapore dollars and cents). The pattern was discontinued in 1985, replacing the seahorse with the jasmine plant. Lame.
My mom went to Italy as a teenager but that wasn’t 1971 so I’m not sure of the origin here. I do think that more coins should contain butts.
The coin is made out of an alloy of stainless steel used only for the Lira, called Acmonital. I’ve been unable to figure out who Mr. Butt is supposed to be.
When I was young I found this in a purse that belonged to my grandmother. She wasn’t from France so I have no idea where it would have originated. I love that it’s in good condition since it was basically untouched for 50 years.
This coin is an aluminium-bronze alloy, part of a wartime effort to reduce the use of more valuable metals. Before 1920, the 2-franc coin was silver. Despite its age it’s pretty valueless, but it’s cool.
More in a later post.
“It’s not a rip-off, it’s an homage.”
The second of my BEA haul, this alternately frustrating and compelling fantasy novel aimed at the NPR set is getting a major publicity push, with not just an official website but also multiple fictional ones as well. (The fan art could be more believable — where are the air-brushed animals with women’s boobs? — but the fake university site is quite clever.)
The story concerns a teenage misfit genius who is mysteriously whisked off to magic school. A huge chunk of the first third of the book is so entirely like the Harry Potter novels that I stayed with it only because the high quality writing suggested it had to be going somewhere. The middle third is written, I think, with the intention of subverting much of those boarding-school-wizard expectations, and then the last third, cheerfully spoiled by the back cover so don’t read it, is the most nuanced.
There are some really standout scenes: the guy with the branch, the thing with the geese — you’ll know when you get there. And then a lot of characters sitting around chatting like normal college kids. And in another 100 pages or so, another awesome scene. I didn’t mind hanging around waiting, but it felt like a real wasted opportunity.
(Speaking of which, Grossman, who is slightly older than me, has his supposedly dissolute post-adolescents hosting elaborate dinner parties and sipping fancy after-dinner liqueurs. I know young people are ever-more sophisticated, but those are activities I do for fun now. When I was 22 I drank Midori Sours and ordered buffalo wings by the dozen.)
It’s not totally a success, but I’m glad I read it and I do recommend it. It’s been more than a month now and some scenes continue to stick with me. On sale August 2009.
I went to Book Expo America this year and mailed back two boxes of books just like I did at the American Library Association conference last year. I think this year’s crop will be less fruitful than ALA’s, but I know I got a few good books already, and one of them is the new Miéville. I got it signed for Dan and then promptly confiscated to read first. Miéville has a lot of adoring female fans who wear glasses.
I read both Perdido Street Station and The Scar and enjoyed them, but I’m not enamored of his flowery language. The City & The City is in a completely different deliberately hard-boiled style and for me that was a big win.
I prefer my sci-fi and fantasy crossed with some other genre. Here it’s police procedural. That’s obvious from the first page; what I couldn’t tell for some time was whether the book really was fantasy or sci-fi at all. I certainly won’t spoil that. Most of the intrigue in the first half is in understanding the world model; to ruin that would be tragic.
Like a true detective story you don’t get into the head of the first-person narrator much, except obliquely. I didn’t really connect with the secondary characters either. Both choices seem deliberate. This is an ideas book, not a character one. I spent a lot of time imagining how it could be adapted into film. I think it could be done right, but failing to do so would be spectacularly bad.
The book isn’t totally cerebral either. There’s action. There’s murder! By the end, I was turning pages to get to the resolution, even though I was pretty sure how things would end up (I was right). There’s a good mix of tied-up and loose ends. Recommended.
At the end of 2008 a number of book blogs published their best-of lists, and whenever I had a spare minute I made a point of hunting down the Amazon Kindle sample chapters. Netherland came up repeatedly, and when it made the news recently (the president is apparently reading it) I started the sample. By now I was a little tired of back-to-back stories set in 19th century London anyway. (I was surprised to discover it’s possible for me to get sick of them, even if they do have zombies.)
Free sample chapters are, to my mind, the greatest thing about the Kindle, way cooler than e-ink or free wireless. Sampling has changed the way I choose books in the way that digital purchasing changed the way I consume music. I reject more books than I buy after checking out the samples, but I churn through books much more quickly. Amazon doesn’t care which books I buy, as long as I buy many, so this is a mutually beneficial relationship.
Anyway, Netherland was one I bought immediately after finishing the sample. This first-person narrative is told from the point of view of a European expat in contemporary New York. I’m not sure I’ve read much in the way of non-American perspectives on living in the US that weren’t explicitly political or satirical. I’m not a New Yorker either but I’m in the city quite often (I wrote this on the train home from there, in fact), so New York is perpetually
both familiar and alien.
I don’t do plot in my writeups, generally, and I won’t start here.
The reason to read this book is for its lyricism anyway.
The week before, Jake and I had played in his grandparents’ garden. I raked leaves into piles and he helped me bag the leaves. The leaves were dry and marvelously light. I added armloads to the red and brown and gold crushed in the plastic sack; Jake picked up a single leaf and made a cautious, thrilled deposit. At one point he put on his superhero frown and charged a hillock of leaves. Wading into its harmless fire, he courageously sprawled. “‘Ook, ‘ook!” he screamed as he rolled in the leaves. I looked, and looked, and looked. Fronds of his yellow hair curled out from the hood’s fringe onto his cheeks. He wore his purple quilted jacket, and his thermal khakis with an inch of tartan turnup, and his blue ankle boots with the zip, and the blue sweater with the white boat, and — I knew this because I had dressed him — his train-infested underpants, and the red T-shirt he liked to imagine was a Spider-Man shirt, and Old Navy green socks with rubbery lettering on the soles. We gardened together. I demonstrated how to use a shovel. When I dug up the topsoil, I was taken aback: countless squirming creatures ate and moved and multiplied underfoot. The very ground we stood on was revealed as a kind of ocean, crowded and immeasurable and full of light.
This book clearly was written for only one person — me — and yet it’s been enormously popular and has already landed its author lucrative book and movie deals. I’m happy for him, because even though I thought the novel was ultimately a disappointment, I still smile when I think about it.
Like many Onion articles, the title is the best part and then the story is unevenly funny the rest of the way through. To recap if for some reason you haven’t heard, the novel is at least 80% original text (heavily condensed) and 20% “bone-crunching zombie mayhem.” Your mileage may vary, but for me the zombie mayhem didn’t work as often as it should have.
I suppose “spoilers” follow.
Some things slot in nicely — the soldiers are garrisoned at Meryton to repel not the French but the undead menace. Elizabeth Bennett’s friend Charlotte agrees to marry the odious Mr. Collins because she’s already infected by the zombie plague. (If you want to read that as a feminist metaphor about brainwashing otherwise intelligent young women into loveless marriages, I won’t stop you, but it’s probably overreaching.) And perhaps the most perfect scene in the book is Darcy’s first declaration of love, the original dialogue interspersed with Elizabeth physically kicking his ass:
“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared the slightest grief which I might have felt in beheading you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.”
This is funny. Other stuff, not so much. I could not buy the Bennett sisters (and even more, Lady Catherine de Bourgh) as karate masters. Zombie Charlotte is funny when subtle but gets increasingly less so. The arc of the story and its ending aren’t subverted in any interesting way. And I definitely didn’t need all those ninjas.
But complaining about the book feels churlish. It’s a funny concept. The cover art is great. Someone will take this idea and execute it better, maybe even Seth Grahame-Smith.
Everybody was talking about Bolaño this year because of 2666, but Dan got 2666 for Christmas and I got The Savage Detectives. We started reading them around the same time, and despite the fact that 2666 is at least twice as long, I finished a month later.
I’m not sure what my problem is with Latin American literature. These two books weren’t written in the same language, much less from the same country, but there’s something about them both that just made reading a grind. Maybe it’s wading through all those names.
There are extraordinary passages in The Savage Detectives, though, and I knew that the ending would be transformative. I’m glad I read it. I just don’t think I got it.
Magical realism is exactly the kind of genre I should like but for some reason I just don’t. I want more magic or more realism and less of both (here it was the “magic” that was lacking). Again, there were individual scenes and even whole chapters in Dona Flor that were funny and incisive and great, but the story wasn’t propulsive for me. I could stop reading this and have no particular motivation to pick it up again. I do want to learn more about Bahian cuisine, though, which sounds fantastic.
I’m watching the dog chew on a stuffed hedgehog. “I wonder what stops her from doing this to our faces while we sleep.”
The dog noses inside the toy and disembowels it. Stuffing is strewn all over the rug.
“I’ll take first watch,” Dan says.
You just don’t. Nobody does.
People like to speculate on the IQ of various celebrities. A popular one recently was Sarah Palin (“likely somewhere between 110 and 115“). We may also have “learned” that Beyonce’s IQ is 124 (or is it 110?) And nobody can agree on Einstein’s putative IQ, except that it was somewhere between “only” 160 and 250 or more.
Online, I’ve seen the same group of nerds who enjoy self-diagnosing Asperger’s report their IQ scores as 180 or more (200 is a popular number). There are two possible reasons a person might say this:
- They took some fake test on the web.
- They are making it up.
Whatever you happen to think about the intrinsic worth and predictive ability of psychometrics, real IQ tests are based on math. The math expresses how many other people in their sample population achieved the same raw score that you did, by percentile. Ideally, this sample group is a cross-section of the population that’s representative of the subject’s environment.
The most popular and reliable IQ test for adults is the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, or WAIS, now in its fourth edition. It was normalized against a sample of 2,200 adults. Keep that number in mind.
This graph should be familiar to most people. It’s a Gaussian curve, or normal distribution, of performance on a properly normalized IQ test like the WAIS. Each color change represents one additional standard deviation from the mean.
It’s instructive to look really closely:
Each standard deviation in the WAIS is 15 IQ points further from the mean of 100. Because performance is normalized, only 0.27% of those taking the test are expected to fall outside of 3 standard deviations — in the WAIS this translates to scores above 145 and below 55.
If you take the WAIS and achieve a raw score comparable to only the top 0.135% of the original sample of 2,200, it means your performance is measured relative to 3 people. Score 4 standard deviations above the mean (IQ >= 160) and you’re being compared to just 0.065 other geniuses. In other words, it’s highly likely that no one in the WAIS sample scored as high as you. Congratulations, you are “only” as smart as the lowest estimated IQ of Albert Einstein.
Above (or below) a certain threshold, IQ performance is simply noise. If you extrapolated all the way to IQ 200 (and if you were that smart, you understand why you can’t), you’re scoring a whopping 6 standard deviations above the mean and will have to look elsewhere for your intellectual equals. Since 99.9999998027% of a normally-distributed group falls within 6 standard deviations, the number of members of your uber-Mensa is 6. In the entire world.
The fact is, most adults simply do not know their IQ. Bright children are rarely tested as a matter of course (although some private schools do it). In general, a child is given an IQ test when their school record is lacking, usually because there’s a disparity in expected versus actual performance. IQ testing is a good way to reveal that an otherwise smart kid has a particular learning disability. Psychologists typically do not care whether your IQ is 130 or 145. They want to know if your non-verbal IQ is high but your reading score is below-average; you may have dyslexia and need special educational strategies to succeed.
But the real benefit of IQ is knowing that when someone quotes you a number and it’s greater than 145, it’s safe to assume they’re not as smart as you.
I have a feeling that these are some of the last of the good books in my haul from ALA, but I plan to dig through the pile once more and survey the wreckage.
The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
This is a young adult novel being marketed as adult fiction, but that’s no complaint. It’s a hugely fun book and I’m glad I read it. I’m sure the film rights have been snapped up already.
Kids rarely want to read about other kids their own age (most “teen” books are read by precocious 10-12 year-olds). In this case, the main character is twelve but much of the plot might be lost on children younger than that, so I’m not sure what age I’d recommend it for. Probably I am being a stuffy grownup; my favorite book when I was 12 was 1984.
Anyway, most stuffy grownups with affection towards adventure stories will enjoy this too. It’s well-written with memorable characters and a satisfying fable-like ending.
The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan
It takes a certain dedication to read a 600-page historical novel about India from a first author with no reviews or even a back-cover blurb as a guide, but I have that moral fortitude. Also if I hadn’t liked it after 20-some pages I would’ve given up. I liked it, so I finished it.
The inter-generational story is sprawling, slow at times, and messy — all in an appealing way. It opens in 1896 and marches on through the years. Without a synopsis I didn’t know how far into the future it would progress, which lent a nice tension. Although there are characters who strive for modernity — especially those appearing after the 1930s — none felt anachronistic. In fact, I spent a lot of time wanting to slap some sense into these people. But when it was over I was sad to leave them behind.
The Black Tower by Louis Bayard
I think that I like historical fiction, but maybe I really don’t. There are a number of things that are almost inevitably true in historical fiction that drive me absolutely up the wall:
- There’s always a character (often the protagonist) who is wise beyond his time period
- Someone famous wanders through the plot, no matter how improbably
- No one really sounds like they’re actually from the period in which they’re living
The Black Tower is about an amazingly prescient proto-detective and his amazingly prescient doctor sidekick who uncover a plot to kill Louis XVII of France, who had been presumed to have died in prison during the Revolution. I enjoyed it in a goofy way for awhile before it totally went off the rails.
One of the reasons I liked The 19th Wife was that the author took pains to make the first-person historical narrative feel like it was contemporary to the period. Having a real contemporary account to base it on certainly must’ve helped. I can’t say the same for Bayard, but if you’re on vacation and have a thing for French history (and no hangups on historical accuracy), you might enjoy it.
City of Thieves by David Benioff
I just now skimmed through some reviews in the mainstream press and most of them
begin like this one in the New York Times: “I want to hate David Benioff. He’s annoyingly handsome.”
I thought this historical fiction novel was great.
The writing is bleakly funny and totally appropriate for a story about a starving city full of cannibals. While I don’t know anything at all about Russia or Russians, I believed that the characters might have existed and might’ve talked like that. The level of detail — real or imagined — felt perfect. Nobody famous blunders into the story; presumably Stalin had already purged them.
I had only one complaint, also mentioned by several reviewers, about the ending being too pat, but it’s forgivable. Highly recommended.
I’m not sure what it says about my state of mind or the global economy but I immediately followed this with The Road by Cormac MacCarthy, which I bought on my Kindle. This was my honeymoon vacation reading.
(NPR has excerpted the first chapter of City of Thieves, although this part is literally like none other in the book, as the entire remainder of the story is told in the past.)