Reading for April and May 2007

In April I picked up Disgrace by J M Coetzee, which won the 1999 Man Booker prize. It is written very sparsely — so much so that significant racial distinctions between the characters are not clear at the outset — and the story is rather grim. The Man Booker people sure do love their post-Colonial fiction.
In May I read Howard’s End by E. M. Forster (#38 on the Modern Library list). This book was published in 1910, and at almost one hundred years old it is difficult to say in what ways the story is still relevant. One really has to read this book alongside other Edwardian Era/End of the Century novels (say, The House of Mirth and The Magnificent Ambersons) to get a feel for the period and its social mores.
Also read: Life of Pi by Yann Martel. This is another Man Booker winner, and one of the more readable (and enjoyable) Booker selections I have come across. A bit unpolished, there are a couple of devices that could’ve been worked in a little better, like the reason for there being 100 chapters, or the parallel narrative that disappears after the first section.
In progress: I also picked up a copy of Pynchon’s newest novel on May 24.

If you are searching for 2H7XX8

or A4O0YC, I have blacklisted all *.se domains from submitting comments.
This appears to be a new spam tactic, or combination of tactics. The first is to submit a meaningless string in a comment, which is used with a search engine to find sites where previous spam messages have been crawled. The second tactic is to link to seemingly harmless urls which are actually spam farms full of PPC crap (Porn, Pills, & Casinos).

Attention Shoppers and/ Car Burglar

I found this hand written flyer posted in the underground garage of my local grocery store:

Attention Shoppers and/ Car Burglar

On Wednesday April 25th between 8:30 and 11:30 someone stole two center caps off my aluminum wheels. I have a silver ‘06 GMC pickup – tricked out – lowered, fully customized. Those center caps have “GMC” emblazoned on them. If you’ve seen anyone missing center caps on their wheels who routinely parks down here and now suddenly some shows up thats our guy.

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Reading for March, 2007

Saturday (2005) by Ian McEwan. “Henry Perowne is a contented man, a successful neurosurgeon, the devoted husband of Rosalind and the proud father of two grown-up children, one a promising poet, the other a talented blues musician.” Bleh. Just a total bleh.
In progress: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.


Casual Gameplay (formerly Jay Is Games) had a game design competition. The winner was Sprout, a cute little game with a simple play mechanic. (Make sure you ignore the insipid commentary by the CG staff.)

Reading for February, 2007

Choke (2001) by Chuck Palahniuk. Chuck is something of a cult phenomenon, so I figured I should sample his work. For all the perverse goings-on in this book — sex addiction, drug users, mutated chickens — the central storyline is surprisingly sentimental: a narrator trying to cope with the loss of his mother. Take away the style and you have a middling novel by Douglas Coupland. Could it be that the primary features of Gen X literature are going to be nothing more than drawn out emotions and nostalgia? Let’s hope not.
That was the only complete novel I read this month. I have two books still in progress: Henderson the Rain King (1959) by Saul Bellow, and Saturday (2005) by Ian McEwan.
I have also been perusing The Jester by James Patterson and Andrew Gross (Patterson writes the outlines, the ghost writer fleshes out the chapters) which was a NYT bestseller in 2003. I wanted to know what it was like to read something from the Patterson francise, and it is pretty much Goosebumps for the business traveller — about a ninth grade reading level, with no chapters longer than 4 pages. This one is supposed to be an historic adventure set during the Crusades, but the narrative voice is unflinchingly modern:

Beside the tree, I saw my staff. It must have toppled there in my fall. I reached for it, though it wasn’t much of a weapon.
I stared at the angry, snorting boar. “Come at me, offal. Come at me! Finish what you started.”

A national bestseller.
Also during the past month, I started to read the first book of Robin Hobb’s new trilogy, Shaman’s Crossing. After 200 pages it is, alas, not interesting enough to finish. A pre-industrial world where artillery weapons are being perfected, a socially rigid culture attempting to expand its empire, an oppressed and dying native population with mysterious magic… the narrative of a teenage son who heads off to a military academy founded by his father, a former officer turned into a nobleman. And in 200 pages there are only faint whiffs that something interesting is going to happen. Skimming ahead, the boy clashes with the older nobility, life is hard, plague strikes, and the future is no longer certain.
Nine books ago Hobb (Megan Lindholm) made a name for herself with Assassin’s Apprentice. Now she is simply cranking out the words to keep the publishers happy.

Reading for January, 2007

Atonement by Ian McEwan. See my comments here.
The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever. Number 63 on the Modern Library list.
The last 50 pages of An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. Number 16 on the Modern Library list. I started this book in July 2005, then stalled at the halfway point for about a year. Somewhere in the middle, before Clyde commits his crime, there are about 150 pages where Clyde continues to string Roberta along and nothing much else happens, and that is where I and probably half the readers get stuck.
The second half is interesting in that the narrative shifts into a procedural investigation by the district attorney. The character of the DA is so relentless that it makes you sympathetic to Clyde, though you know he is guilty and quite doomed.
One indicator this novel has earned a significant place in literature is the reaction it continues to produce, from Ayn Rand’s angry condemnation to the pathological defense of capitalism by the “Brother’s Judd”. These criticisms never address the story itself, they simply attack its thinly veiled premise — that untempered ambition is a destructive force.

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21st Century Novels v0.5.0 / Help requested

Handicapping the Great 21st Century Novels v0.5.0 – an interactive experience
I have made some updates to the interface and the data set.
One major change is that the list is limited to two books by the same author. Now all those pesky NYT bestseller writers won’t clog up the list so much. (This will be a configurable feature in the future.)
Authors can now be scored on origin (US or non-US) and historical generation. See the “Author” category for the new options. Want your list to only include Baby Boomers (1946-1960)? Looking for books by young, non-US authors? Dial away.
Also, authors are categoried by year of first publication: those published before 1991, from 1991 to 2000, and since 2001. This allow you to select “new” authors”, or select “established” authors, and so on.

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Handicapping the 21st Century Novel

Now that 2007 is well under way I thought it was time to look back at this new century and its literature. What are the great novels of the 2000’s?
Handicapping the Great 21st Century Novels – an interactive experience (special pre-Alpha preview)

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“Superb”… “magnificent”… “The best thing he has ever written” — the kinds of things that are said about almost every book that is published these days, from James Patterson to Mo Willems. Yet when I heard these same things said about Atonement by Ian McEwan, I somehow thought such praise was well-deserved.
Silly me.
The overall narrative is fairly light. There is the tale of Robbie and Cecilia (two star-crossed lovers), and the personal struggle of Briony, and then a handful of plot-driven characters in the background. The story spans five years or seventy, depending on whether you include the final section.

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