Saturday, August 30, 2008


I have been volunteered for an exciting new study that Google is running: how quickly can they turn off their most dedicated users?

So far it seems to be pretty effective. Since 2005 I've been a happy user of iGoogle, Google's take on the ubiquitous web portal. It had a few things going for it that I liked: a good variety of different modules available, skinnable themes (I started out with a cityscape, then switched to one by a New Yorker artist, before landing on Radiohead's), and snappy responsiveness. It was also very easy to customize, though I rarely needed to tweak what was on it, and unlike other portals at the time, it had absolutely no advertising.

My first clue that anything was wrong came last week when I started getting chat messages in iGoogle. I was nonplussed at first. I hadn't been expecting to chat, and actually had to get some work done... iGoogle just happens to be the first window to show when I open my browser. I made apologies and signed off, making a mental note to come back and figure out what the heck was happening.

Essentially, it seemed like my page had been vandalized. There was this big ugly yellow and white strip along the left side, listing what modules I had already installed (?) and inviting me to sign back in to chat. It got worse, though. I was no longer able to pop open individual email messages in a new tab. I could no longer press on those nifty "+" signs to read the first paragraph of a story. Instead, Google now wanted me to click on a module, then patiently wait for a few seconds while my browser screen turned white and the content slowly loaded in that screen, obscuring everything else. This would happen even if there wasn't enough content to fill the window.

After playing around with it for a bit, I decided that enough was enough and I was ready to have my old iGoogle back again. No such luck! It turns out that Google is rolling this experiment out to some users, and once you get tapped, there's no way to un-volunteer. And I'm far from alone in my frustration - check out this awesome thread of more than 500 people responding to the experiment. What stuns me is that this dates back to early July, and the very first victims - er, I mean subjects - have exactly the same complaints as me. Which means that Google has been doing two very non-Google things: 1. Refused to make things better, and 2. Continued rolling out an inferior product. Maybe they're hoping that eventually it will reach people who really like it? I dunno.

I can't put ALL the blame on Google. I did sign up for their experimental labs program, and have enjoyed some of those changes. It makes sense that I have to take the bad with the good. But it utterly perplexes me that they aren't letting people opt out of this. It seems likely to (in some miniscule way) hurt the company - a lot of the people who sign up with these programs are early adopters, and Google risks turning them off in a big way. Not, I hasten, by making a sub-par product, but by being so peculiarly unresponsive and inflexible about it. (The only way I could get rid of this would be to create a new Google account, but then I would need to sign out and switch accounts any time I wanted to check my mail - blech.)

As a result, for the first time in my life, I'm moving from a Google product back to a Yahoo one. Lord knows I've made plenty of moves in the other direction - back in the day I had Yahoo email, used Yahoo maps, checked Yahoo weather, etc. After an absence of about three years, I'm now moving from iGoogle back to My Yahoo. I must say, it has gotten much better in my absence. They've adopted the RSS-centric module orientation of iGoogle, and even have a GMail item available. Granted, they don't have the cool artists series of iGoogle, but there are some nice customizable options available, and the overall look is clean and friendly. After using it for a few days, I'm ready to switch my Firefox home page on all 4 of my computers.

That said, since I'm making a change anyways I'm willing to look elsewhere. If anyone out there has an awesome portal that they really like, please let me know what it is and why you dig it. It feels a bit sad to be leaving the Google garden, but since I'm moving out, I want to move into the best place possible.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Let's All Read The Time Thief Again

Pratchett marches on! "The Thief of Time" is the latest of his Discworld novels to fall before me. I think I'm well past the halfway point now, though it's hard to tell for sure. Reading these books is a rather complicated affair, and I have yet to decide whether "Wee Free Men" and "The Science of Discworld" and other tomes should be part of the official count.

Nonetheless: I've now read all the "adult" Witches books, nearly all of Rincewind, and thanks to "Thief," all of Death. I've been purposely holding off on the Watch, given that those are my favorites. It's sad to think that soon I will have caught up.

So, where does "The Thief of Time" fit into all this? It's a solid entry. Susan makes a reappearance; she's one of the best characters, and gets some more development in addition to face time. And who doesn't love Death? I've found that a useful, albeit crude, measure of quality is how much of a book takes place in Ankh-Morpork. Here, a decent fraction does, and as a result it's a fine book.

It's interesting to read this immediately on the heels of a more hard-core fantasy novel like Fatal Revenant. Discworld is nominally fantasy, but it becomes more and more clear as you go through it that it's ultimately a satire on contemporary society. Past books have done really interesting things with the concepts of capitalism, religion, race relations, democracy, and war. Pratchett also has a wonderful humanistic streak, and can be quite tender (yet funny) when he looks at our relationships with family, with death, individual ambition, even love. (Vimes' courtship and marriage is simultaneously the least romantic pairing in all of fantasy, and the most sweetly powerful for how realistic it is.) Pratchett uses the tools of fantasy - strange creatures, magic powers, medieval weaponry - to set up situations between his very human characters and explore them.

So what is this book "about"? Well, duh - it's about time. He brings back the History Monks, who have made brief appearances in earlier novels, and puts them in the center of the latest threat to the Discworld. You might assume that this means the book deals with time travel, but that's not the case. Those who have mastered Time do not reverse its flow - rather, they have gained the ability to slow it down or speed it up. A master can "slice" time, freezing the world in place (or, really, slowing it to a crawl), while he moves about at normal speed; thus, relative to the world, he appears to be moving at a blinding fast pace.

One of the things I most enjoy about Pratchett is how he explains things and sets up his world as a cohesive place. He doesn't just wave his hands and say, "Time monks! Special powers! No questions!" No: a sort of version of Newtonian physics is applied to time on the Discworld: the total force has to remain the same, even if individual objects alter their movement. The secret is to balance things out. So, if one part of the world needs to be slowed down, then another needs to be sped up. The history monks can borrow time from places that don't really need it, like the ocean, and apply it to places that do. The monks explain that this is why people will often feel that time hasn't been consistent, and you get expressions like, "Wow, can you believe it's Thursday already?" and "Man, this week has just been crawling by."

There is a deeper idea in the book to, one that I think was never totally reconciled with the earlier one but which is more intriguing (if less original): the idea that there is a smallest divisible amount of time, the atom of time if you will, which is the briefest instant in which it's possible for anything to happen. Furthermore, all of history consists of these moments connected to one another. Continuity is a human illusion that we impose on these moments: in reality, the universe is destroyed after each moment, and completely rebuilt in the next. We are not the same people we were in the last second - our very molecules have been taken away and replaced - but it happens constantly, and so we have the idea that we are the same people and time is moving forward.

This is a somewhat familiar idea. I think I first ran across it in an old Twilight Zone episode, where the universe periodically stops and some engineer grunts need to rebuild it. It's also similar to the very cool and too-rarely-seen movie "Dark City," which also deals with a city that is periodically stopped, dismantled, and then started back up again. I kind of doubt that Pratchett was deliberately echoing either of these works, which makes it all the cooler - either there's a common philosophical origin for all of them, or it's just a really compelling idea that talented creators have independently stumbled upon.

With the Big Ideas out of the way, shall we move on to the plot? Here are some:


I like Susan as a teacher even more than I liked her as a governess. It's a perfect environment for her, and I really enjoyed every aspect of it: her relationship with the administration, her field trips, the transformative effect she has on young minds.

Lobsang was fine, although in comparison to Susan he came off as very two-dimensional. Jeremy was more compelling, as was Lu-Tze. It's fun to consider that the most extreme degree of sanity is virtually indistinguishable from insanity. Lu-Tze was just a lot of fun - he's an archetype, but with enough quirks to seem fresh.

The Auditors make fine villains, though I think new readers to the series who had not encountered them before would not really grasp their sinister aspect. They're too insubstantial early on, and too easily defeated towards the end. That said, the final section of the book has incredible fun with them.

As is always the case with Pratchett, there are no true villains.... after several appearances we can say "The Auditors are evil," but then he'll show us one in a sympathetic light. Again, I give a lot of credit to Pratchett's humanism, even when applied to non-human subjects. In his stories there can be conflict, and the reader can heartily disapprove of individual goals and motivations, but the actual person proves hard to dislike. Sooner or later everyone stands before Death, and they're all equal at the end.

I don't think I need to dip into Mega Spoilers... I will say that I called the Fifth Horseman early on, and enjoyed the battle with the Auditors, and call it a wrap.


There's no more Pratchett immediately on my radar, but with a diminishing set of unread books left, it's getting easier to pick my next move. I'm looking forward to plunging onward. As a side note, I've had trouble plugging a few holes - in particular, my library doesn't carry the original illustrated version of "Eric", and I can't seem to find the "Science of Discworld" books either. I may hit ebay at some point for these, but if any readers have other tips on how to get these books, I'd love to hear them!

Monday, August 25, 2008

A New Covenant

As promised, I soldiered on through "Fatal Revenant", the second book in the third Thomas Covenant series. I'm glad that I did. While it does not get rid of all the things that annoyed me in the first book, it does offer far more good material for me to appreciate, and marks a return to form for the author.

Donaldson's writing style is still overly wordy and jolting, but by now I've gotten more used to it and can start to enjoy the ride. At first I felt like he has a thesaurus that he relied on overmuch, but the standard purpose of a thesaurus is to keep an author from needlessly repeating words, and Donaldson repeats gleefully. I felt like "percipience," "argent," and "puissance" appear on every page, as though through sheer force of repetition he could turn these into mainstream English words. This used to bother me in the first book; now I just sort of grin, shake my head, and move on.

The book doesn't start off all that promising. After an intriguing finale at the end of the first book, the second starts with more of the same: endless passages of people standing around asking each other, "What is happening? I don't understand! Tell me something I can know!" But it slowly starts to shift into gear. There is a particular moment (described in more detail below the spoilers tag) where I realized that I was actually excited by what was happening: a genuine plot climax, with a tangle of raw emotional rage, a furious epic battle, and a cacophony of cinematically rendered explosions. I checked the page number and thought, "Finally! It only took 800 pages into the series to get to a part I actually enjoy!"

That's a BIT overly harsh - there have certainly been other moments that I've appreciated before this - but this was the first full-bore exciting moment, the first time I felt like the story was being driven by action and not complaining. It was an auger of things to come. I think Donaldson finally hits his stride several chapters into this book, and once he reaches the second part, his confidence enables him to push into a more thrilling stage of storytelling. That isn't to say that he gets rid of exposition, but by now he's explained most things that he can think of, and further exposition is dropped in at opportune times rather than used throughout.


I do think that Donaldson sometimes shows his weaknesses as a writer, particularly related to foreshadowing. The faux Covenant could have been a really cool angle that ratcheted up Linden's sense of hopelessness and betrayal, but Donaldson insists on overly projecting his falseness. Nearly as frequently as he uses the word "percipience," Donaldson will talk about how this Covenant seems different from the one Linden knew, or how he seems to be lying, or how his eyes seem to be flaming. If he'd dropped each of these hints once, that would have been cool - it would give readers a chance to get ahead of the story and figure out what is to come. Since he constantly is talking about how something is wrong here, though, the element of surprise is lost, and we're just left with annoyance at how thick Linden is to not notice that something is wrong.

While it was clear that this wasn't Thomas, I was a bit unsure at first just who he was. My first thought was that it was the Despiser, especially when the author started harping on his flaming eyes. After they meet Berek, I developed an alternate theory, one that I still think would be pretty cool: the Theomach was actually the Despiser, and Covenant was Covenant, but the wrong one - Roger. I do like the Theomach-as-Despiser angle: we know that Lord Foul was hidden during this time, influencing events in the Land without revealing himself, and wouldn't it be totally sweet if he had basically founded the High Lords and set the direction of the Land just to orchestrate the despair of Kevin Landwaster and set up his ultimate victory? I was wrong about the Theomach, but right about Covenant. Still, while Roger was at the top of my list, I can't claim to have been 100% sure of his identity, which means that I could feel at least a little surprise during the Big Reveal.

Linden really should have known something was up. I guess she did know that SOMETHING was wrong, and knew it very early on, when she elected not to talk with Covenant about his messages through Anele. And in some ways that makes it even worse that she gave so much to him. During this section of the book I was regularly reminded of the heroine in Donaldson's "Mordant's Need" books, and wondered if this reveals some specific prejudice the author has. These two series are the only one of his I've read that feature female protagonists, and in both cases, the women make horrible, horrible decisions based on misguided love for a man who betrays them. It just seems a little odd, and in both cases it's hard to keep from yelling, "No, you stupid person! Don't you see that this person is mistreating you?"

I do have more sympathy for Linden than Terisa, though. Covenant is very specifically trying to disguise himself as something he is not, even if he does a rotten job at it. I can't claim that I would do a much better job if a doppelganger came into my own life.

When the truth comes out and all the betrayals are clear, it's still a treat. I think the battle beneath Melenkurion Skyweir is just fantastically done. Donaldson has ratcheted up an extreme emotional intensity going into the conflict that colors everything which follows. As I've previously complained, I tend not to be a very visual reader, but even I could get a very clear mental picture of the various stages of the struggle: Linden bracing herself for power, staff tip dipped into the Earthblood, bellowing in rage as she sends waves of pure power crashing into her foes; Linden striding through the caverns, routing those before her as the mountain crashes down around her. It's all thoroughly satisfying. There were battles before this - clashes with the Kresh, the hopeless fight against Demondim, the skirmish on the edge of Garroting Deep - but this felt like the first battle that actually mattered, where it has earned an emotional investment from the reader.

There's a good clip of battles through the rest of the book as well. Even beside those battles, the book got me on its side deep below Melenkurion Skyweird, and I started enjoying the "quieter" moments as well. The meeting with the Forestal was poignant and powerful. The sequence with the Mahdoubt went on for a few pages too long - people talking about themselves in the third person can become tiring, double so if the narrator notes that they're doing it - but given the story aspect of this I was more than forgiving. When they finally approach Andelain towards the end of the book I'm ready for more conflict, and not disappointed with the advent of the skurj and the much-appreciated reintroduction of Giants. By this point the book is moving confidently from scene to scene, carrying the reader rather than making the trek a chore.

I'm left with a few specific questions at the end that will require the next book to explain. Of course, the big issue is the resolution of the Worm of the World's End and what its awakening will cause. Linden has once again made a high-profile foolish choice, but will clearly have some chance at redemption - I think we've been promised two more books before the end. (I should also note that I wasn't really surprised by this. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant have a traditional pace to them: a minor victory ends the first book, a major defeat ends the second, and an ultimate though slightly ambiguous triumph caps the series. Whatever other changes may have taken place, Donaldson has kept this rhythm.) And the most immediate question is Thomas Covenant: what is his power? Has he been removed from the Arch, and if so, is it weaker than before he joined? Who now owns the white gold? Almost as important, Anele has been set up as the ultimate hero of this saga, and it'll be interesting to see what role he plays. Finally, I wonder whether Linden will continue narrative ownership, or if it will shift or be split to other characters.

One final unresolved question: who the heck do you think is on the cover of the book? I wondered this throughout the entire time, and never found a character who matches the description. The closest I can come is Caerroil Wildwood, given the tree in the background, but even that doesn't make sense, since the clothing is completely wrong. Clothes are also too simple for the Harrow, and the character description doesn't match that of the Theomach. He's too old for Covenant, and too strong to be Anele. It's far from the most important mystery, but still one that will bug me.

And, a final note: "Theomach" is way too clever of a character name. I mentally groaned the first time I heard him named. Donaldson does tend to play around with names - skurj, Harrow, etc. - but Theomach is a bit too precious for me.


All told, this was a fine book that is far better than its immediate predecessor. I can't claim to like it as much as, say, George R. R. Martin's books, but it has recaptured the raw hurt and intensity that I remember from the earlier Thomas Covenant books, and as such I certainly will make room for it and the sequels.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Weird Water Exposition: Raw

Wow! A twofer!

After writing at such great length about how rare it is to find a well-written and genuinely strange book that is set in the "real world," I have managed to find two in a row. Coming up on the heels of "Atmospheric Disturbances" is "The Raw Shark Texts," which is arguably even odder and more hallucinatory than the other entry.

I honestly don't remember where and what I've read about TRST previously. I do know that it came out last year, well before Atmospheric Disturbances, and it sounded sufficiently intriguing to make my list. However, it did suffer from the New Author Curse - I'm generally less motivated to pick up a book by someone I haven't previously read than someone who has already gotten their hooks into me.

I guess the most important word I can apply to TRST is "creative." The author, Steven Hall, really goes all out in doing unusual things with the book. Not only is the story intriguing, but the framing device is unique as well, as are the modes he uses for expanding the narrative beyond the predominant first-person. The most unique element will need to lurk behind a SPOILERS tag, but let's just say that I've rarely seen typography put to such effective use in a novel before, and I do not envy the work necessary to convert this story into a paperback.

I just recently finished the book and my mind is still kind of swirling with reactions to it, so I'm just going to toss out things as I think of them. Apologies for the even-greater-than-usual lack of focus that this will cause.


This book is fundamentally ABOUT language in a way that's very common among postmodern writers, but in a way that feels fresh and original. The sheer power and vitality of Hall's literary vision lifts it beyond the stage of merely being clever and brings a nearly physical force to the writing. Early on in the book you learn that the shark is a creature of the mind - but not the individual mind; rather, it swims through the realm of collective thought, carried along by books and emails and newspapers and letters. Because of the nature of the threat, much of the book is devoted to explicit reflection on writing itself. The shark tracks Eric through the media of the world, seeking out his scent through his encounters with texts. To thwart the shark, Eric works hard at developing avoidant techniques: a false identity to confuse the shark; mountains of postal mail to throw off his scent; chattering recorded voices of strangers to form an impenetrable wall of misdirection around himself. Eric doesn't come up with these techniques himself; or rather, he sort of does: the instructions are delivered in letters written by himself before his mind was taken. Words link himself to himself, and he tried to tie the self he is with the self he once was.

Like I said, this book is about language and writing. It's impossible to read TRST and not think about the curious streams formed by the written word, which forms a creek in the fourth dimension extending into the future. Thousands of years ago someone writes holy worlds down in a book, and those words shape minds and lives and societies, perpetuating themselves forward and washing against our everyday lives. I read about California's early settlers and I am somehow connected to that time hundreds of years ago, the words carrying thoughts and images and attitudes forward to me across the centuries. Have you ever gone back and read something that you wrote years ago? Maybe a short story from elementary school, or a term paper from college, or even a blog post from last year? I tend to feel a sense of strangeness when I do this. I feel like the author isn't exactly me even as I recognize shades of my own voice in it. The words help bind my old self to my new, illustrating the differences even as it affirms our commonality.

In some ways, TRST is that same feeling taken to the extreme. Eric has lost ALL memory of past, and so the writings from "The First Eric Sanderson" really do come from a stranger. There are some parts of the book that might be maddening to some readers: interspersed with what I think of as "the shark passages," which are incredibly kinetic and exciting, are "the Greek passages," which by comparison seem completely same. They talk about walks on the beach, conversations between two lovers, the little pieces of happiness and crisis that make up our lives. You may be tempted to skim over these intermezzos, but their existence is really profound, because these are the real memories of the first Eric Sanderson, and are valuable beyond measure to the second Eric.

(In a very subversive twist, the last such passage we read casts doubt on their value. The original Eric has re-read these writings and become dismayed at how inadequate they are... they seem to describe him and Clio, but he realizes how incomplete the accounts are and how language cannot help him close the gap. By pretending to be accurate they conceal the real, not including the most mundane and unpleasant activities that make up the bulk of our lives. Again, this is something that feels very familiar to me... sometimes, I'll be surprised in re-reading a piece of my writing, and curious why I chose to emphasize one particular part or omitted another. I'm not sure what the take-away from this final reversal should be.... I like to think that language is inadequate, but it's all that we have, and we need to do the best we can with the tools we are given.)

And how about that shark, huh? I thought this was just incredibly fun and cool. It reminded me of ASCII art, but taken to a whole other level. There's a weird sort of pointillism about it as well. You turn the page and see the shark, but then you look closer and start reading the words that make up the shark. They don't make sense, not exactly, but they do contribute a mood and sense of unease. I'd be very curious to hear where Hall came up with these - are they fragments from his own writing? Random words he developed just for the shark? I also loved the excerpt from Eric's quest to find Dr. Fidorous where he comes across a representation of a virus mosquito, who is rendered in recognizable source code. Very cool touch.

I found myself briefly thinking about the one and only James Michener book I've read. I've long forgotten the title, but it dealt with four interlocking stories in the literary world: an Amish author, his agent, the publisher, and the critic. One of them interacts with an up-and-coming wunderkind author who uses special quality paper in order to render a technically complex and interweaving story. Anyways, I thought that Steven Hall could be a good stand-in for that author, even though the Michener book was written long ago.

Okay, what else. The technique of including non-narrative passages has been around for a long time - my favorite examples being the wonderful faux-digressive passages in "Moby Dick" that veer from biological textbooks to a powerful Shakespearean drama. In modern times, there are terrific stories by Borges and other writers that masquerade as being something entirely different from stories - a cookbook, say, or a newspaper article or a piece of literary criticism. Hall is therefore in a great tradition when he breaks out the primary first-person narration to include journal passages, letters, notebooks, and more. But I still think the shark is a great invention. Yeah, I'm guessing a lot of people will view it as indulgent and silly, especially in a passage where he devotes more than a view pages to showing it swim towards the reader. (I couldn't help myself: I went back to the beginning of that passage and flipped through it while humming the theme from "Jaws," flipping faster and faster as it reached the climax.)

It isn't silly, though. I have to confess that this book frightened me more than anything I've read in a long time. Part of it may have been the mood - I seemed to always land on the most intense passages just before going to bed - but I mainly attribute it to Hall's terrific skill and powerful vision. The sense of menace he creates is almost palpable - after the first shark attack I actually felt a little short of breath, and after the encounter with Mr. Nobody I felt a little ill. Which is all the more impressive when you consider that the things it describes feel utterly fantastic. Before reading this book, I'd never worried about a mind shark eating my brain; there wouldn't seem to be a hook to hang that fear on. What Hall has done, though, is what I most love from my fantasy authors: he has created a whole system, a mutually reinforcing and fully realized world with believable logic and explanations. The little details and the powerful writing combine to create something that feels real, and because of that realness it's a little terrifying. How often can you say that you've had a hard time falling asleep, not because a movie has imprinted you with fear of harm to your physical body, but because a book has imprinted you with fear of harm to your memory?

One thing this book shares with AD is that a lot of reviewers think that it is a powerful love story, while I view that as only an incidental factor. That probably says more about my prejudices than it does about the book. I think it is valid to read both books this way... one can consider AD as a meditation on the constantly changing nature of love, can point to Rema's determined pursuit of Leo even as he falls apart, and find the end of the book to be a universally valuable reflection on the choices we make in love; similarly, TRST's overall plot can be read as a romantic description of the eternal power of love, how its emotions even survive death, and its ending can even be seen as a kind of fairy-tale resolution. Again, I can see these explanations, but to my mind, they kind of miss the point. The love interests add drama and motivation and complications, but to me they're mainly building blocks, the trees and not the forests... the love stories aren't what's original and compelling about these books, and focusing on them too much risks pulling the book into a Hollywood mode and losing what's so terribly unique about them.


That Jaws boat was really cool, wasn't it? I still haven't seen the movie but now want to more than ever. Which brings up another interesting idea - how our collective media can extend itself through society as well as through itself. Even though I haven't seen the movie I recognize the Richard Dreyfus role being played in front of me, and recognize the boat although I've never seen it. This has been a lifelong thing with me: I could carry on conversations about the X-Men in elementary school despite having never read an issue, and thanks to The Summer of Blood I feel like I know Jason and Freddy and Michael and Leatherface. How often have you quipped a catch-phrase and gotten a laugh, despite the fact that neither you nor your listener have actually seen the source?

The "water" in TRST isn't just text. It isn't just words. It's thought, it's our consciousness, spreading out through the whole human race and connecting us all together. That's what's most intriguing to me, the cusp between scratches of ink on a piece of paper, and the thought it evokes in our mind. I think that's the real lesson behind the glass of "water" that Eric must learn to drink. The task seems absurd, but really, is it any more absurd than all the other ways that words impact reality?


I feel like a very poor critic, since seemingly every review I write ends with "This is a good book! People should read it!" That said, I get to cheat: because I'm not a real critic, I can just read what I want, which generally means books that have already come highly recommended and that sound like things I would like. Again, my opinion is only valuable if our tastes overlap, but if you like strangely excellent writing that will challenge your ideas about what a book should and can be, I can whole-heartedly recommend The Raw Shark Texts.

Epilogue: Will this ever become a movie? I found myself wondering that with surprising frequency while reading this book. Surprising because, on its face, no book is less adaptable to the screen. I mean, come on: this is literally a book about the printed word. That just wouldn't work. And yet, in a weird way I wanted to see a movie version of this. I think that's my standard response when I read a book that is very kinetic and exciting. While reading, I came to the conclusion that doing a straight adaptation was impossible, but that I would love to watch a movie inspired by the book - one that took its themes, but used film as the subject and the medium instead of the printed work. It's a bit less universal, and you wouldn't be able to work in the awesome Bushi warrior story, but it would be more appropriate.

However, when reading through the Acknowledgments at the very end, I was surprised to read an oblique reference to someone working on a "celluloid" version of the Ludovician. That suggests to me that the effort may have started in earnest, if just in an underground way. I'm fascinated and troubled to see what comes next.

Monday, August 11, 2008


I think that this is the second time I have read a book primarily due to a favorable review in "The New Yorker". Given that I have been a happy subscriber for about four years, that isn't such a good record. However, given that these two books have been among the best I've ever read, it's a phenomenal record.

The first was for Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore," a mind-blowing book that has not only established its place on my all-time favorite list, but also opened up an entire collection of books that can keep me happy and busy for years.

The second is Rivka Galchen's "Atmospheric Disturbances." It cannot emulate the first discovery, because this is a debut novel, and so there are no other stories I can turn to now that it's done. However, it is like the first in that it seems to have been tailor-made to please me.

After you've heard me talk about books for long enough, you'll get a really good idea of what sort of things I enjoy. The same words will keep cropping up: "strange," "funny," "bizarre," "atmospheric," "dark," and "disturbing" probably top the list. You can get some elements of these in most fiction, but it's extremely rare for an author to go full-bore on the weirdness factor... most authors seem to believe that a little strangeness can add mystery and drama, but that too much will alienate the reader, and so they inevitably shirk back from truly exploring the limits of what they can do. This is probably a perfectly sound judgement on their part, even if it isn't what I want... I'm almost certainly in the minority when it comes to taste in literature, and most people probably have limited tolerance for aggressively odd writing.

There are just a few people who can really pull it off. The original and most natural land to explore is that of fantasy... if you're writing about a different universe, then you're free to invent your own rules and to revel in the ways the world is unlike our own. Sadly, most fantasy authors are lacking in imagination or writing ability or both, and so their books become a chore rather than a celebration.

Once someone decides not to write in the fantasy idiom, they are implicitly casting their lot in with our own universe, which has rules and standard that we all know. Within this context, how can you do something truly creative and boundary-breaking?

The most widely practiced style is what usually is called "magical realism." These are stories that are told in a straightforward manner and set in the real world, yet contain events that both the author and the reader know are impossible. This creates a kind of meta-tension, in that the reader is not certain how to react to these events, how they are meant to understand the story. Is it a dressed-up fantasy? An allegory? Something else? I do enjoy these tales, and admire the primarily Hispanic authors who come up with them.

In a pinch, you could fit Murakami into this category, although in my opinion he is operating on another plane. Still, the one-sentence distillation of his method is "impossible things happen to boring people," and so if you're looking at plot as opposed to style, he fits right in.

There is another approach to the problem of strangeness: make your book primarily about writing instead of about a story. This is known as postmodernism, and can be a lot of fun. This style has a kind of hyper-awareness about it, where the author and reader both become characters within the story, and the story becomes about itself. Because the story isn't really about the world, the author is freed to do whatever he wants without penalty; think of Vonnegut walking into the cocktail bar in the climax of "Breakfast of Champions." As a reader, we smile at these impossibilities (or, okay, sometimes rage), because the author has let us in on the joke. The "real world" is revealed to just be fiction, and so the only rules to break are those the author chooses.

I'd argue that we can have still one more escape from the problem of predictable books, one that is similar to but distinct from postmodernism. For lack of a better phrase, I'll call it "exuberance": an author who is so impassioned and takes such obvious delight in his words that they rush onto the page in a gleeful torrent. My favorite example of this style is Neal Stephenson. His science fiction books were obviously set in a future world, and so he could make silly plot choices (hacker pizza driver for the mafia who wants to be a concert promoter) with impunity. When he turned to early modern Europe for the Baroque cycle, he no longer had that easy out, but he just breezed on: when he thought something would be especially cool, he just tossed it into the book, no matter how strange it might seem. He never apologizes by inventing painful excuses for why they happen, nor does he broadly wink at the reader and say "You and I both know that this is absurd and not really part of the story;" no; you can practically hear him saying, "golly, wouldn't it be cool if...!" and then putting pen to paper. And so we get pirate kings sailing galleons made of gold, a tulip fortune that topples the King of England, and more delightful digressions than I've seen anywhere else.

And that's it! A grand total of four, more or less, ways to write a really fun, unhinged book. Otherwise you always keep one foot firmly planted in the real world and leave Chris unsatisfied.

Except now there are five. "Atmospheric Disturbances" creatively circumvents the normal boundaries, and manages to come up with a story that is filled with exciting fantastic details WHILE FULLY BELONGING TO OUR REAL PRESENT WORLD. How does Galchen accomplish this? To answer, I'll courteously dip into some


The solution is obvious in retrospect: she uses an insane first-person narrator. I don't know if anyone has done this before... it seems like they must have, but other than Joyce and Poe I can't think of a good example, and they didn't put it to as rich of use as she has. For a full 250 or so pages, every word we hear comes from the splintering, rationalizing mind of Leo, a New York psychiatrist who has cracked.

While I never would have read this book if it hadn't been for the New Yorker, I do kind of wish that I hadn't read the review, just because I'm curious how long it would have taken me to catch on to what's happening. Leo is highly educated and at least slightly sympathetic; given that this is a novel, I would probably have bought into his declarations for at least a few chapters. Still, the book is undeniably strange from the very first sentence, when Leo encounters a woman who looks, sounds, and acts exactly like his wife. I was wondering, "Why does he think that she is NOT his wife," whereas I think a normal reaction of mine would have been to wonder, "What happened to his real wife?"

I think that it would ultimately have been Leo's interactions with other people that tipped me off, and not the incredibly dense and paranoid monologues that he delivers directly to the reader. I'm used to eating that stuff up whole, but when a person starts saying strange things, mishearing others, spilling stuff, and jumping to conclusions about people he just met ("That man is walking dogs? Maybe he is sleeping with my wife!"), it gives me more pause.

I did find myself thinking back to my abnormal psychology class a lot during this book. Sanity in general is an interesting topic to me, and I find myself where the boundaries lie between "normal," "eccentric," and "insane." In my abnormal psych class, the professor explained all psychological disorders in terms of how they affect interpersonal relationships. The "normal" person can fully experience and enjoy a full range of emotional and casual relationships; the "neurotic" person functions well in society but has trouble in a few discrete areas (like romance or family ties); the "borderline" person is generally fragmented and has difficulty with all their relationships; and the "psychotic" person has a terminal break with reality. I really liked this way of looking at disorders, since it doesn't try to peer into the mysterious inner workings of the mind, but rather at the observable and verifiable behaviors that a person engages in.

Within that framework, I'd say (as someone who is grossly unqualified to evaluate others' mental health - hooray for having taken a grand total of two semesters of psychology!) that by the time the book starts Leo is a stage 5 psychotic with paranoid delusions; but this wasn't a huge shift. As the book goes on he occasionally talks about his earlier life, and you can see (and sympathize) that he was never all that well to begin with. Other than Rema, he doesn't have a single friend in the whole world; as far back as college, he was awkward and unsatisfied in his relationships. Even now, he utterly refuses to think about his father at all, and while he justifies every action he ever makes, it's pretty clear that he does not have a strong track record of making good decisions.

Hmm, I didn't mean to write so much about sanity. It's really interesting, but what I especially love within this book is not just the thing itself, but the door it opens. Paranoid schizophrenics live in our world, but their minds are not limited by our world, and so if you put one in the driver's seat, there are no limits to what can happen.

It's a really interesting tension, actually. Leo thinks and experiences many things that never happen, but also many that do, and it's a fun puzzle to try and disentangle what's real from what's not. At times I was reminded of C. S. Lewis's "The Screwtape Letters," a book that was very different from this, but that required a similar amount of diligence on the part of the reader: the narrator is your adversary, and at the same time your only source of information, and so you must take everything they say and carefully sieve it for the right meaning.

And just what fun bizarre stuff happens in this book? Well, a lot of it doesn't get cranking until near the end, so let's call these


If there's one thing I love more than a bizarre story, it's a bizarre story with a conspiracy theory; preferably a shadowy secret society that means to control the world. Ergo Thomas Pynchon's permanent position on my list of favorites. Well, this is right in keeping with most schizophrenics' world view, and so the fractured plot of this book deals mainly with a sinister secret organization, and a corresponding heroic public organization that opposes it.

Galchen gratefully pays homage to Pynchon: her secret group is called "The Quantum 49 Fathers." She could have chosen any number, or no number at all, but in this context one immediately thinks of "The Crying of Lot 49," and gives props. In that book, part of what was so wonderful about Pynchon's secret society Tristero was how it was simultaneously sinister, specific, and mundane. When people invoke secret societies, they tend to go the opposite route: think of the Illuminati, which people are very vague about, except that it controls the world. In contrast, Tristero had a very specific and no more comprehensible identity, one that orbited around arguably the most banal activity in modern society: the delivery of postal mail.

The Quantum 49 Fathers occupy a similar sort of well-defined role: they are very specifically seeking to control the weather. While their goals are simple (manipulate crop futures and make lots of money), their methods are anything but, and involve extra-dimensional shenanigans. Standing opposed to the Quantum 49 is the Royal Academy of Meteorology. In one of my favorite details in this book, the "good guys" in the Academy have the responsibility of increasing chaos in the world: where the Quantum 49 seek to turn the weather into a deterministic and controlled system, the Royal Academy fights to preserve the unpredictability and randomness of our world. I just love that! It's also yet another tip of the hat to Pynchon, whose writings are all so involved with the concept of entropy.

Anyways: that's enough for a gripping good yarn, isn't it? Even the outlines of the plot can mirror that of a more conventional story: Leo starts out skeptical of the Quantum 49, and increasingly "uncovers evidence" that shows that they are behind the "disappearance" of Rema, and gradually grows committed to his cause and even heroic in his own twisted way. You, as the reader, get to enjoy the story from both angles: one where it's a mystery/conspiracy tale, and one where it chronicles a man's spiralling descent into madness. Both are fun, and they support each other throughout.

Oh, and I should mention that not only does this book have an awesome plot and a really cool framing device: it's also really well written. Galchen's prose is sharp and effective, and she makes Leo's rambling mind utterly believable and entertaining. Again, it's a little frustrating that she hasn't written anything else, because I'm curious how much of this book is really "her" style, and how much it is driven by her interpretation of the character's voice. After a debut like this, I imagine (hope!) that I won't need to wait long for a second book to answer that question.

One thing I really appreciate about the book, and that is fully appropriate, is that it does not solve all the mysteries. Leo makes certain discoveries, and you as the reader can figure out more, but the book opens more questions than it answers. Some of these are deliberately unknowable - for example, whether Rema's father left or was abducted. (Tangent: I LOVE the recurring thematic meditations on the theme of disappearance, and especially Leo's angry rejection of that work - it's interesting how often we say "disappear", when of course things don't really disappear, they just are moved while we are not observing them.) More tantalizing are some things that it seems like we should be able to figure out, but I at least cannot do so. Some of the biggest ones that come to mind are:

1. Who are Leo and Harvey corresponding with under the monicker "Tzvi"? My working theory had been that he initially was writing the real Tzvi, and after the rejection, Leo developed a split personality and wrote the replies himself. Obviously, this isn't possible if Tzvi is dead, and if it wasn't Tzvi in the first place, then it could very well have been the same impostor throughout. Was it always Leo? Harvey's observations about Tzvi sounding like Leo would lend credence to this, but it doesn't explain why the initial message was negative and the last were autoreplies. Always Rema? I do like this idea, but there's little evidence to support it, and I don't see her encouraging Harvey to go work on his own. Some random person whose email they stumbled across? An intriguing idea, but again, it's hard to reconcile the shift in voice between the early emails and the later ones.

2. Who was Leo really speaking with when he thought he was talking to the Royal Academy? At first I'd wondered if the entire conversation had been invented, but the scene in the park towards the end indicates that there was at least a kernel of reality there, one that he built a fantasy around. I should probably re-read his account of the conversation about the job; perhaps he dialed through to a real person in the real Academy, picked up on some phrases, and invented the rest.

3. On a similar note, who called Leo and said they were from the Academy? It seems very possible and even likely that he hallucinated the content of this call - throughout the book, Leo mishears what people say - but it would be intriguing if it was not. The "fight" over the phone is equally interesting. I have to wonder if Harvey was somehow involved.

4. Speaking of which, while there may not be anything more to know about Harvey, I still get the feeling that he may not have said everything. How did he get from Oklahoma to Argentina? His mystery is tied up with Tzvi's, who is the bond that brings doctor and patient back together, making it all the more important to discover who he is.

5. On a meta-level, I'm still trying to decide what Rivka Galchen meant by creating and naming Tzvi Gal-Chen. Is Tzvi meant to be the author? Such a move would strongly align her with mainstream postmodernism. Or is it more of a meta joke? That would put her more in the company of exuberant writers. Would she claim that it doesn't mean anything? That would be disappointing and distracting.


What's the takeaway? If you're part of the tiny minority of people like me who enjoy reading odd books, and think that stranger is always better, than I can enthusiastically endorse this book. It's also a good read if you're interested in talented modern fiction technique, in psychological fiction, or enjoyed "The Crying of Lot 49." If you aren't sure - well, it's just about 250 pages and a quick read, so you could do far worse. It might mess with your head, so that's either good or bad based on your tastes. Personally, I enjoy going down the rabbit hole, and look forward to doing it again.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Books Books Books

For reasons that may or may not be obvious to you, I've lately had far more time for reading books than writing about them. This is probably a good thing for everyone. For the sake of posterity, I wanted to jot down a few brief thoughts about the most recent.

"The Great Awakening" by Jim Wallis. I really admire Wallis, and have tremendous optimism that he will help us find a way forward in America that allows us to transcend bitter partisanship and hold on to our souls. He gets pigeonholed as a "liberal Christian", but as with all labels that one is profoundly inadequate to describe the man. If you want to be brief, it's much more useful to call him a 19th-century evangelical, as he tongue-in-cheek refers to himself, or as a red-letter Christian, a term that I've embraced for myself.

This book follows on "God's Politics," and is more optimistic and encouraging than that book. God's Politics was written during the darkest days of the Bush presidency when an American theocracy bent on war was ascendant, and Wallis was a lonely voice in calling for a return to our core national and theological values. "The Great Awakening" is far more encouraging because, written only a few years later, it includes incredible stories about how the tide is starting to shift in America. He can point to increasingly compassionate young Christians who are expanding their mission to truly serve the world, and talk about people in our government who seem to "get it" when talking about values.

All in all, it's a really thoughtful and engaging read. If you follow Sojourners or the God's Politics Blog on Beliefnet, a lot of the material will seem familiar, but it's still refreshing. The book should be especially valuable to those who wonder what Christians are doing to make the world a better place.

"Small Gods" by Terry Pratchett. In so many ways the opposite of the above book! It's one of the most thoughtful and critical looks at faith that I have ever read. I was slightly reminded of His Dark Materials in that the book's blasphemy doesn't come from denying God; rather, the atheistic (I'm pretty sure) author accepts God (or in this case, Gods) as being real within the framework of the story, and then shows how horrible they can make the world.

In Small Gods, while deities bear some blame, the fault definitely rests with the institutions. The subversive argument Pratchett makes here is that, as a church grows larger and more powerful, its God becomes less and less important. People begin to worship the church rather than worship God. The book does carry through some cliches - most notably, religious leaders whip their followers into a frenzy and start a holy war in order to expand their influence - but it's done in a much more interesting fashion than I'm used to reading.

"After the Quake" continues my march through the Murakami canon. This has been on my radar for a while now, most especially since I got to see the theatrical production in Berkeley last year. As I've discussed before, Murakami's short stories are just as wonderful as his novels, while certainly being their own thing. This collection had the touches that I love in his stories, especially the sense of brushing up against an incomprehensible supernatural reality, but they also carried a sense of... yearning, I guess, a sense of searching and wondering and unfocused desire. There's a beautiful story about a man who builds bonfires out of driftwood on the beach. Nothing particularly exciting or shocking happens in the story, but it's a wonderful and quiet exploration of his character, the woman who befriends him, and her loser boyfriend. They stand around the fire, watching it burn, and he quietly talks about a recurring dream he has which explains why he does not own a refrigerator. In the hands of a lesser author there wouldn't be a story there, but Murakami draws out the tentative impulse towards companionship, when the most solitary and lonely people find ways to make connections, and use their passions to bring light and warmth into the world.

Another odd little story concerns a man who may or may not have been immaculately conceived. He follows the man who might be his father through a warren of an industrial block, loses him when he emerges into a hidden ballfield, and ends the story dancing by himself on the pitcher's mound. Again, in terms of plot there isn't much to recount, but within a handful of pages Murakami has done the impossible and caused us to feel like we KNOW this man - the burdens he inherited from his strange mother, his slightly skewed social mores, his mix of indignation and longing. He feels abandoned but cannot reconcile his anger with his desire to know what's happening.

This is as good a point as any to mention that, while the earthquake is tangentially mentioned in each story, it never plays a crucial role in the plot. Rather, what Murakami is interested in is catching the sense of the national psyche in the wake of this horrible destruction, and so the emotions evoked by these stories can very accurately be seen as echoes of Japan's response to the quake. At least, that's my thought as a know-nothing gaijin.

I have to admit that the two stories which were adapted for the play, "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo" and "Honey Pie," are the best. I might be biased - the play was wonderful, and that surely colors my reaction - but they also benefit from being among the longest stories in the book, and so have even more time to develop and grow. I was utterly shocked by how faithful the play was to the source material. I haven't seen a script, but I think that the dialog was more or less taken verbatim from the book. In a weird way, I think that the play even gave these stories a little more space to breathe. In particular, I was surprised by how brief Honey Pie felt when I was reading it... the play didn't add anything to the story, but by intercutting it with Super-Frog and making each story a meditation upon the other, I think Frank Galati really expanded the psychic space that these works occupied.

I did discover something sad while reading this collection, though - I'm not really a visual reader. When reading those two stories, I easily and immediately projected the play's characters onto the book's, borrowing from real images when constructing the fictional ones. For the rest of the book, while I greatly enjoyed the stories, I just didn't have the same level of visualization... I felt like I knew the characters, but couldn't picture their faces, or imagine the sound of their voice. I feel like this is a shortcoming of mine as a reader, but it's probably too late to do anything about it.

"The Runes of the Earth" by Stephen Donaldson. I have a really tough time placing Donaldson. The brief way to describe his work is "Fantasy for grown-ups," though that doesn't really prepare people for what they're about to encounter. I can't say that I enjoy him as much as Tolkien or Martin, or even early Jordan, but I have incredible respect for him. He's a very careful author, one who focuses on his characters, as opposed to most other great fantasy authors who focus on their world.

Not to say that his world is lacking. The Land is a rich invention, and Donaldson's skill is evident by the way he can break your heart when it is desecrated. But even The Land doesn't feel as fully realized as Middle-earth; rather, its power comes from the reactions it creates in his heroes. If Covenant wasn't a leper, not only would he be less interesting, but so would the Land. Many fantasy novels use characters as stand-ins for the readers, so they can gape in wonder as the author describes this fantastic world. Here, the characters are truly transformed by their world, and form passionate bonds with the Land and one another.

It has been... gosh, probably 15 years or so since I finished the second trilogy of Thomas Covenant. They were excellent books, but not the sort of thing I would want to read again. Like I said, I admire him more than I like him. Since then I had read the two-book cycle "The Mirror of her Dreams" and "A Man Rides Through," which I enjoyed a great deal, even though I spent most of the time screaming at the heroine not to be so stupid.

Anyways, after an extremely long absence, Donaldson has returned to the Land and to his core readers, offering the "Final Chronicles" of Thomas Covenant. The result is... interesting.

Like I said, I don't really want to re-read the old Covenant books, but I am tempted to do so now, just to see whether Donaldson's prose has always felt this awkward. I wouldn't be shocked if it has, and it wouldn't be the first time that I discovered a beloved childhood series was actually pretty bad. Still, the whole experience just felt odd. It isn't exactly like Donaldson is being a bad writer, more that he's after a very specific voice, and that voice happens to be stilted.

Not to be mean, but virtually every dialog in the book reads something like the following:

"Linden Avery, you do not understand the way things are. Falooble stands between Lord Foul and the minions of Akarata.

"If you want to save us, you must accept this quest."

Linden paused, thinking on what had been said. Every sentence offered more questions. Who was Falooble? And what was Akarata? But there was no time to find the answers. Perhaps there would be time later. She decided to try a different tack.

"Why did you call out to Baranaga on the plains of Senefele?

"I must soon learn the answer, for I am Linden Avery, the Chosen."

And on and on and on. Way too much of the book is spent with characters spitting proper nouns at one another and Linden failing to understand what is going on. With all that, though, it isn't really a bad book. There's a great little kernel of a mystery that pulls the story forward, and in the final third of the book things actually start to happen and get exciting. But still, I feel like the book grinds to a halt whenever people open their mouths and start declaiming to one another.

That said, this first book was enough to hook me. It was a quick read, and I'm hopeful that Donaldson was able to get all the exposition out of the way. I hope to pick up Fatal Revenant soon, and if that book's even decent, I'll continue through.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Baghdad by the Bay

I love San Francisco.

Even when it tries to kill me.

My routine is quite a bit different now than it was a month ago. The day still starts at 6AM, but instead of a 35-minute bike ride, my transit now starts with a light rail hop, then an hour on Caltrain, then a mere 5 minutes or so on bike. And that riding feels incredibly different. This is the first time in my life that I've ridden in a strongly urban area, let alone during rush hour.

But it isn't bad, of course. Not even close. Just different. My rides used to be pretty solitary. In those 35 minutes, I sometimes would not pass a single other rider. By contrast, the area around the station is simply teeming with activity. From the moment my wheels touch pavement, I am constantly within sight of at least several other riders, sometimes an entire pack. That does wonders to offset the stress I feel from crumbling pavement and a steady stream of automobiles. I feel more visible and, in a weird way, empowered than I am used to feeling. By now San Francisco drivers are well trained to expect bikes on the road, so they tend to look out for us, and even if they don't, it's good to know I have potential help around if I need any.

The amount of support around here is really interesting. Bicyclists form a very politically powerful group in the city, and make their influence felt through both hard and soft power. In hard power, they can put pressure on the city to enact policies that support their goals, such as increasing the number of bike lanes, shutting certain streets to auto traffic, etc. And, simply by having a large and passionate group, they are able to make even more important changes on their own. One of the best examples is the free bicycle valet parking at the San Francisco Caltrain station. I'm still amazed that this even exists. For no charge at all, you can bring your bike in to a tiny store located immediately adjacent to the Caltrain station, and they will store it away for you. The process is incredibly quick. If nobody else is in line, it takes about 15 seconds to drop off your bike, and maybe 40 to get it back. On the few occasions when there has been a line, the patrons have been extremely kind, and will let someone cut in line if they need to catch a train that's about to leave.

I really want to do something for these guys. It's a private enterprise, albeit one providing a public service, and they evidently make their living through operating as a real-life bike shop. They mainly sell foldable bikes, which are very popular among commuters, along with a small but thorough collection of cycling accessories like rain gear, helmets, etc. Probably the best idea/service they offer is a tune-up shop. You can drop the bike off, ask for what you need (derailleur adjustment, flat tire repair, whatever), and it will be done when you come back and pick it up.

The net effect is that this feature has allowed me to commute a very far distance with extremely low stress. Bicycle cars on Caltrain tend to be extremely crowded, and sometimes the conductors have to turn people away. I'd be happy to rent a locker, which you can find at every Caltrain station, but supply has not kept up with demand and all the major stations are sold out. If it wasn't for the good folks at Warm Planet, I'd need to wrestle my bike on and off the train every day - make that TWO trains, both the Baby Bullet and the VTA - and generally need to lug around a chunk of metal for not much added benefit. As it stands my bike stays in the city, I use it exactly how I want to, and can blissfully enjoy the rest of my commute.

It isn't for nothing that San Francisco was recently ranked America's #2 "Green City". I think it takes a whole lot of different factors acting in concert for a green city to really become possible. On the one hand, you do need public infrastructure in place - we individuals work through the government to set up systems of trains, parks, recycling programs, and other massive efforts. Entrepeneurial businesspersons can add to the party with flexible work schedules, innovative new technologies, energy efficiency, "green housing," and kick off economies of scale. Ultimately, it is a region's individual citizens who must make the lifestyle choices within the framework provided by the region and decide to ride the train, take the job close to home, start a compost pile, or replace their light bulbs. Individual action is necessary, but only becomes feasible if the local environment supports it. That's what's so special about the Bay Area: it's a perfect storm of big socialist government (San Francisco), genius tech-savvy business (Silicon Valley), and left-wing tree-huggers (Berkeley).

Oh, yeah: I had my first near-accident in the city. How exciting! It happened - or rather, ALMOST happened - at the intersection of 8th St. and Bryant. This is a funky traffic circle, where five streets come together with stop signs and traffic runs one-way within the circle. I was actually doing the right thing - I came to a complete stop, pulled in, and started doing the circle to the right, though if this was a standard intersection I would simply have turned left. As I was passing the second intersection in the circle, I realized that (a) this huge car had come up behind me; (b) this huge car was passing me; (c) no: this huge car was attempting to exit the traffic circle by passing through the space that I, the lowly cyclist, would momentarily be occupying in my orbit.

There wasn't any time for rational thought. I think I tacked a bit to the left, and stopped pedaling, though I don't think I actually hit the brakes. I remember thinking "Oh, no..." and being convinced that I would slam into the side of this car, my only consolation being a nice marker left in the metal side. I was fortunate, though, and missed it by an inch. I continued along the traffic circle, wobbily, and made my desired exit onto Townsend.

Since then things have been pretty smooth - knock on wood - and that experience seems to have been an aberration. After some contemplation over the best lesson to take from it, I've decided to keep my existing route. I remain convinced that following traffic laws and acting like a car should still be the safest thing to do, as opposed to turning into traffic or riding on the sidewalk. However, I do now check over my shoulder a few times as I ride the circle, and I now ride closer to the middle of the lane. If I'm feeling charitable, I think that the driver believed that I was going to exit at the same spot as him, in which case there would have been plenty of room and no collision. I'm trying to be more visible and make it clear where I'm getting off.

Cycling aside, the city is treating me well. I still just feel like I'm only experiencing a tiny slice of it, the industrial region that stretches from 4th to 9th in SOMA. Still, even in there, there's an energy and vibrancy that feels wonderful to me. Example: at my previous job, if we ever wanted to get food for lunch, we would need to pile into cars and drive for several minutes. Here, we just head out the door, and have decent options within a single city block, and great options within a three-block radius. There are lots of cars out there, but even more pedestrians, many other business folks rushing around to do their important businesslike things. Even going to Trader Joe's feels weirdly fulfilling. They have a TJ's, which is on the ground floor of an incredibly dense commercial block, right next to the three-story Mercedes Benz dealership. I dunno, I guess it's a little thing, but it makes me happy to go there.

I do need to find more excuses for staying in the city and/or exploring other places. After three years in the region I have a decent grasp of the city, but still nowhere near what I would want. Hmm... I guess I would break it down like this:
Neighborhoods that I know well and can navigate without a map:
North Beach
Mission Beach

Neighborhoods that feel familiar and comfortable, but I haven't traveled well in:
Inner and outer Richmond
Nob Hill
Russian Hill
Tenderloin (not so much "comfortable")
Pacific Heights

Neighborhoods that I feel like I kind of know, even though I haven't really spent much time there:
The Mission
Inner and outer Sunset
Portrero Hill
Twin Peaks

Neighborhoods I don't know well at all:
The Marina
Cow Hollow
Noe Valley
Hunters Point

There's a lot to learn!

Lately, I've been feeling like I'm a horrible person because I get happy when I read about the housing market. I do feel bad for the people who are being caught by this mess, but at the same time, part of me wants prices to crash down to a reasonable level so I can buy a nice little Victorian place in the city. Hey, I'm just sayin'.

At the same time, I'm learning to be a little more... realistic about what to expect. While I still love the idea of living in the city, I'm also recognizing the advantages of San Jose. Besides the obviously lower cost of living (hah! I never thought I would get to write that), San Jose also is sunnier. It's also warmer, although that's kind of a wash for me - during the summer months, it would be pretty nice to take 15 degrees off the top. On the other hand, there are other benefits to the city that are hard to take advantage of from afar but that would be quite nice if I lived there - a ton of free and cheap options for music (something that sadly isn't part of my life right now), the possibility of being even more car-free, more cultural institutions, and general coolness.

It's also been interesting to think about the differences between cultures. I think this is true of almost anywhere in the country, but societies that seem homogeneous from the outside seem anything but once you get closer. For example, in my present situation, I'm used to (and guilty of) people talking about "the Midwest". Well, as Midwesterners know, there's a world of difference between the average person from a small town in Missouri and the average person from Chicago. And an Illinoisian (? what's the word for this?) would recognize a big gap between Wheaton and Chicago. And a Chicagoan would scoff at the idea that someone from the North Shore would have anything in common with someone on the South Side. And on and on.

Northern California is just another example of that. From my old perch in the Midwest, I had this fuzzy idea of the "West Coaster," who was a friendly and laid-back person. Generalizations are fine, but people from Silicon Valley do seem to be more result-focused, more likely to be obsessive about a few particular topics, and more likely to enjoy their toys. San Franciscans appear (in general!) to be more idea-focused, more likely to pursue a wide range of interests, and more likely to enjoy socializing. In all honesty I'm probably more of a SV person at heart, but I enjoy SF people.

Back to the commute - it's interesting all the little ways that it affects my lifestyle. Because I get home so late, I need to be really careful about what and how I eat, because I have a lot fewer hours now between supper and bed. Making dinner is now out of the question, so I do my cooking on the weekend and heat leftovers during the week. The overall rhythm is the same as before, the difference is just that now I need to plan ahead a little more.

I'm also reading even more than usual, which is good. It's an eclectic blend of stuff... novels and nonfiction from the library, news on my iphone, and occasionally a newspaper that someone left lying around. I recently acquired a MacBook, so it will be interesting to see how that affects things. I might try and do some more writing, or maybe experiment with tethering my iphone and do some work that way.

Anyways, that's it from me for now. Apologies for the long gap between posts - as you may expect, life has been a little hectic. Hope everyone is doing well! Enjoy the few remaining months before the election!