08 October 2014

2014 reading list, July - Septemeber

Miss Peregrines’ Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs. Philadelphia: Quick, 2011.

In this New York Times best-seller, a high-school boy goes looking for the childhood home described in his late grandfather’s fantastical stories.

He finds it, beginning an adventure continued in Hollow City. With teen angst and rebellion, time travel, and an inter-generational love triangle, Miss Peregrine’s Home makes everyone welcome.

Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1947.

Nabokov’s first novel-in-exile reads like a Nabokov novel: word play, unexpected descriptions, and an inter-mingling of reality and dream-states are all familiar to readers of Lolita, Pnin, or Pale Fire. Also familiar is Nabokov’s conflicted view of his homeland.

Krug, the nominal protagonist, is a philosopher in an unnamed, newly-minted, revolutionary country. As that internationally-recognized figure, he is invited to join the revolution as newly-appointed head of the University. Bend Sinister follows his crisis of conscience, and ends with an authorial intervention much like Vonnegut’s appearance in Breakfast of Champions. While far from his best, Nabokov’s unparalleled prose still makes this a worthwhile read.

The Good Spy: the life and death of Robert Ames, Kai Bird. NY: Crown, 2014.

This book should make you angry. As the title suggests, it is the biography of a Central Intelligence Agent, a Middle East expert who was killed in the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing.

Bob Ames seems to have been a good human being who was good at his job--hence, “the good spy.” Ames was a big, friendly guy who lead his college team to an NCAA basketball title in 1954 and often wore cowboy boots. This made him stand out, physically, in his Middle Eastern assignments, but his approach to spycraft is what really made him different. Ames studied Arabic and wanted to learn, and he was willing to listen to anyone who could help him understand the situation he was studying. This lead him to associate with, and become friends with, some unsavory characters--which gave him the first American contact with the nascent Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Ames developed some of the CIA’s most valuable intelligence assets, but his hopes that this might lead to a lasting peace in the middle East have, alas, yet to be realized. Seeing the string of blunders that derailed the peace process, and their consequences, is heart-wrenching.

Ted Kosmatka, The Games. NY: Del Rey, 2012.

What is sentience? What is alien?

If science fiction is supposed to address big questions--while still providing an escapist entertainment--The Games is top-notch sci-fi.

Set in the American Southwest, in the near future of the 38th Olympiad, Kosmatka gives us the tale of a genetic engineer and the computer-designed gladiator he builds. The creature is completely new: Olympic rules disallow any human DNA in this event, which has only one other rule--survive. Most countries combine animal genomes for their contestants. This creature, however, is designed from amino acids up as a more perfect being, as the computer’s manifestation of self. It wants to live. And reproduce. And exterminate humanity.

Theodore Sturgeon and Don Ward, Sturgeon’s West. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973.

The is an odd collection of stories from Sturgeon because, as the title suggests, it is comprised of Westerns, rather than science fiction. Odd, not because the stories aren’t delightful little pieces of tasty Sturgeon, but because he is so closely identified with another genre.

It is unusual to see established authors in one genre move into another, but it shouldn’t surprise us. One complaint critics offer about genre fiction is that it is formulaic, that by following certain conventions, anyone can produce passable work in the field. Well, writers can feel the same way--doing the same thing over and over, no matter how well one does it or is compensated for it, eventually gets boring. Applying well-developed skills in a new arena is one way to break out of that rut, and that is what Sturgeon has done here.

It really isn’t much of a stretch for him, either. Sturgeon’s work is much more dependent on his characters than his settings, and his eye for telling detail is sharp. In these stories, we meet people who could be at home on the range--but, also, in the boardroom, on a spaceship, or hunting wooly mammoths. Where they are and what they do for money isn’t important; what matters is how they--how we--interact with others.

Each story presents a problem for its protagonist, and each protagonist responds like a typical Sturgeon character. Sometimes there’s killing, sure, but these things happened sometimes in the West. There is always a recognition of and respect for what is right.

Sturgeon didn’t do much in the Western genre--eight stories in this volume and one novel--but what he did only confirms his talent. 

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Henry Fielding, The Adventures of Tom Jones

Moving has required an unusual amount of time in the car lately, and this time has been going to audiobooks. These aren’t commercially-prepared disks or downloads, though; they’re text-to-speech conversions of free ebooks from Project Gutenberg. Performed, on demand, by an iPhone app.

VoiceDream is the name, and it costs $9.99, which is a lot for an app. This isn’t a game, though. VoiceDream will convert text--from epub, PDF, and other formats--into voice using top-notch software. While it isn’t perfect, and comically robotic mus-pronunciations or inflections do crop up, the accuracy is enough that following even prose as dense and subtle as Conrad’s is easy.

Additionally, both voice tone and pitch, as well as speed, are adjustable--and a wide variety of alternative voices, including British, Australian, American, male, and female options, is available for in-app purchase.

Another feature is that the app will highlight through the visible text as it reads, so the user can follow along. This isn’t useful while driving, but suggests that VoiceDream could be a handy tool to teach reading, by associating symbol and sound. It might be especially good for adult and second-language learners.