Tag Archives: book thoughts

I can’t shake Charles Stross’s The Annihilation Score; what happens when James Bond is married? How does he deal with office politics when he has a license to solve problems with extreme prejudice? What if he were a she – where gray hair and distinguished are never used to describe her?

Imagine Lord of the Rings, but if everyone worked for the DMV, with the office politics of The Office. The name of the game is that higher mathematics result in invocations that summon demons (i.e.  “computational demonology”). The consequence is that any sort of algorithms and programs that run in silico and in vivo might end up with big bites out of the machines or the unfortunate human who thought deep thoughts. What has always been fantastic about this series is as much time is focused on the minutiae of form filling as it does on translating Tolkien onto LEAN project management speak. Probably the epitome of this came in the previous book, The Rhesus Chart, where a high-powered scrum ops manager was let loose into the Laundry, possessing the corpus of a sub-committee as smoothly as a demon summoned without the requisite containment wards.

In this novel, we get something even more unique: a woman who is having a midlife crisis. The combination of wielding a demonic weapon, doubting her choice in life partner, being the ace assassin/fixer for the Laundry, and being saddled with greater responsibilities as part of her leveling up – this is all enough to induce a nervous breakdown.

About that part of her being an assassin: her name is Dominique “Mo” O’Brien. She was a tenure track academic in music. Her ability to parse music at both the technical level and at the multiverse level (imagine music as a platform for emotional, reptilian brain programming, and what did we say about programs?), coupled with reasonable skills with a violin, made her an obvious choice to wield a powerful asset possessed by the Laundry: an Erich Zahn violin, which is made from human bones and infused with a demon as its power source.

Her husband, Bob Howard, has been the only protagonist in this series, until now. We see Mo’s side of her life. Before we get there, we should digress into Bob’s background.

Bob is the prototypical nerd made good. He has the usual toolkit of being fairly attentive to technical details, a deep understand of IT arcana, lacks social skills, and did well enough to be promoted to assistant to the demon known as Eater of Souls. Luckily, that guy has decided he rather be on Team Flesh during the upcoming apocalypse, codenamed CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. In this world, algorithms are the key to summoning big nasties in a multiverse. In the modern world, the population growth and Moore’s Law basically means that computational power is increasing towards a singularity. As more and more computers come online, the natural process of thinking will result in more and more breaches across the walls that segment the multiverse. Coupled with the looming spectre of the stars coming right, resulting in the fabric of our reality thinning and opening into other worlds. Score one for the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics! You won’t have time to collect the Nobel as multi-eyed, tentacled nasty burst forth to eat you.


The image we have so far is that of the poor-sod Bob. The put upon IT guy who basically does support well. Lacks motivation to move up the career ladder, but through sheer competence, people just hand him jobs of increasing responsibility. We see him as the nerd who lucked out and wound up with a first class mate: brilliant, witty, beautiful woman who, again, is one of the top assassins in the organization (she would be a double-O). But, he does nerd things; goofy side projects, never really separating play from work, fairly focused on the task at hand, definitely closer to the Asperger end of the spectrum – you get the idea.

Except, by focusing on Mo in this novel, Stross has the opportunity to retcon the entirety of Mo and Bob’s marriage. In the past, we see Bob as a fairly nice guy. Mo’s assignments is to meet horrors and then commit even ones in the name of protecting Her Majesty’s Government. When Mo comes home from one of these missions, Bob picks up the psychic pieces. These novels also have the conceit of being after-action reports, written to build up the institutional knowledge base. As far as these reports go, Bob writes about his mission, the fallout from Mo’s secretive missions (which we may or may not hear about), and Bob making tea and holding Mo if she breaks down following a rather trying mission.

Let’s just say that Mo has different thoughts on the marriage.

Cracks can always be seen, albeit from Bob’s view. The superficial reading, before The Apocalypse Score, is that Mo has been fairly condescending to Bob, especially in how an argument about the potential for vampires played out in the The Rhesus Chart. But I thought that was likely due to the difference in rank, responsibilities and backgrounds of the pair. At any rate, I did not think too much of it.

By the end of the book, it is clear that Bob has done some personally questionable things: to wit, he realizes the optics of having an ex come back into his life and then working rather closely with her. Remember that high-powered ops manager? Mhari happens to also be Bob’s ex (from hell). The whole thing seems rather muted; not much was said about whether Mo had issues or not. As a matter of fact, it seemed implicit that Mo did not see this as a threat. Let’s just conclude that Bob is  capable of self-delusion and, in Charles Stross own comments on his blog, Bob might be classified as an unreliable narrator.

That’s the long way of saying that, Bob glossed over whatever comments and feelings Mo may have had, about Mhari coming back to The Laundry, and possibly about how his and Mo’s conversations played out. Considering how readily Mo drew her weapon on Mhari, near the end of The Rhesus Chart, it’s clear that something was festering and that Bob just might have elided.

Now, there was a perfectly good reason why one might stash a beautiful blonde in one’s home. Mo’s and Bob’s home is an official safehouse. Given the infiltration of Laundry HQ, and a subsequent plan to use the vampiric assets as bait, leftover vampires were sent packing to simplify the field op. Since Mhari was not used as bait, Bob decided to send Mhari to his house.

But considering that a) Bob did not let Mo know, b) Mhari is pretty and c) one of the benefits of being a vampire is having charisma and glamour that can’t be turned off and Mhari now would make supermodels feel like they should hide from cameras, optics might be murky. Especially if the wife gets an emergency call for extraction from her mission, is worried about an infiltration of HQ, this action takes place late night, and having been dismissed as everything was “under control”, she goes home to find… a gorgeous woman in her home.

The way Bob wrote the Rhesus Chart report, of course it is favorable to him. He was somewhat busy and didn’t have a chance to call Mo; to be fair, nothing happened. Although Mhari did attempt to seduce Bob (magically, and by turning on the charms) as a way to recruit more vampires to help her execute a coup within the Laundry (or to at least clear the way for her to make bank before leaving). And somehow, Mhari was also somewhat confused by Bob’s insistence that she spend the night at his safehouse (there was one more vampire who needed sheltering). There was some canoodling attempted, but Bob put the kabosh on that. But the fact that it got that far is somewhat suspicious.

Mo was not in the mood to hear all that. All this is complicated by Mo’s weapon. The demonic violin has plans of its own. She might be losing control. Surprisingly, Bob was able to stop the demon in the violin. What’s strange is that Bob writes as if he was the wronged party and he was the one who needs protecting; he felt unsafe and decides to move out.

This is all important for The Apocalypse Score.

Mo apparently needed some time away from her work, and a diplomatic mission doubled as a much needed vacation. She did not really miss Bob, or wished they could share this moment. It was during this soiree that the events of The Rhesus Chart happened. While her first question is whether Mhari slept with Bob, it immediately becomes clear that things haven’t been right in the O’Brien-Howard household. Projecting back, it is unlikely that Mo took the re-appearance of Mhari in stride, in The Rhesus Chart. Bob probably played down drama.

Getting Mo’s point of view is therefore important.

This is the first Laundry novel narrated by someone other than Bob. Mo, at this point in the series, is an accomplished assassin of the possessed and the damned. Mo has never been anything less than stellar in her work. While we all show up to see how the world of the Laundry meshes with the world that we know, what moved me about this novel is that Stross focused on Mo’s unraveling: of her personal life, her ability to carry on her work, and the crisis of being an aging woman.

Now, I can’t say whether Stross portrayed a woman well; I have no experience. What I can say is the novel is sympathetic to Mo’s plight, presented her point of view in a fair way, and I can at least recognize that as a person, Mo seems to respond in a reasonable manner. At the least, it seems like her words and deeds had some consistency to expressed desires and motives, and possibly in the nebulous realm of inter-personal cost-benefit analysis. Stross successfully grounds Mo emotionally, but without lurches in action that might tempt some to say Mo behaved capriciously. Mo behaves like a rational and emotional adult, making choices that make sense.

If you can’t tell, I really liked what Stross did in The Apocalypse Score.

The slick thing about this novel is that it allows us to re-interpret previous novels (esp. with regard to Mo) with knowledge from Mo. In previous novels, Bob certainly appears to be your prototypical aging geek. He has enough toys at work and projects at home to keep him busy, but the impression is that the traditional home structure is inverted. Mo is the specialist; she’s called in to do the dirty work no one else can do. Bob naturally would feel subservient; what also comes across is that Mo might condescend to him and his little worries – as seen by Bob. Bob is a fairly simple guy. As the Laundry Files is written from the perspective of a narrative after-action debrief-slash-diary, we do get some sense that Bob generally is a straight-arrow. He has the usual self-deprecation of being a geek/IT guy. He does not do well in social settings.  While endearing to the presumed audience, look at it from Mo’s angle.

They are going on a decade of marriage. It isn’t obvious that their professional circumstances have changed all that much. Both note that their social circle is diminishing (but of course that’s fine by Bob). The routine seems to be, from Bob’s perspective, Mo comes home and decompresses. He’s there to listen, complain about the bosses together, and fetch her tea. Rinse, and repeat. It might be that the best way to sum up what Mo feels is that she needs to be a vibrant human, not someone who clocks-in and clocks-out. From that one simple idea, the complications of Mo’s life and personality follows.

Because I bought into the Bob as considerate geek trope, I fell into the wrong way of thinking about their relationship. If we take Bob’s point of view, it does seem Mo was unseemly fast in moving on from Bob. Again, since Stross is fair in his portrayal of Mo, we see that maybe, Bob isn’t offering much in the relationship department. She and Bob have been diverging for some time. In which case Mhari showing up in their home is simply the most recent insult.


You might ask, so what? Well, one can’t help but map the beats in the novel to one’s own relationship. In my case, my wife and I are going on 15 years of marriage. I can see myself in Bob, and most importantly, I don’t really want to fall into the standard geek trope of worrying more everything but people. While my wife and I are pretty solid in the family unit type of activities, it does take a bit more effort to that something extra into the marriage. That might be what people mean when they say the romance is gone. That extra bit of effort falls by the wayside, as family life takes over.

Bob clearly failed at that. At some point, standard doesn’t cut it. I think Stross did a fantastic job describing how the relationship is breaking apart, and that’s what stuck with me. It isn’t that Mo needed romance, but I can see why feeling wanted or special might be nice. The Bob mentality is selfish in the extreme; he has his work, and then his hobby – which looks a lot like work. I think it is supremely unfair to just assume that the spouse needs to dote on the geek, because geek hobbies can appear to be harmless. As a matter of fact, one might easily argue that some geek hobbies are actually productive. But that’s not the point. The phrases “golf widow” or “football widow” doesn’t refer to the jerk who fantasizes about being the jock:  it’s that the jerk indulges in his hobby to the exclusion of everything else. It just might be that Bob needs to stop taking Mo for granted.


Lolita it is not. Joel Dicker’s novel, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, is an effective thriller. Its closest match, I think, is more a Law and Order episode, or even a video game, than a P.D. James novel. Naturally, this can be a good or bad thing, depending on what you are looking for in the read.

I will lead with some criticism, but honestly, I thought the book was a good, fun read.

Here is the bad: the novel is surprisingly without tension; sure, there is the matter of 15-year old Nola Kellergan’s death, but everything else that happens isn’t all that surprising. Take Marcus Goldman; he’s a young writer, looking to avoid becoming a one-hit wonder. But he is having trouble starting his second novel. Considering that his mentor from college, Harry Quebert, is charged with Nola’s murder and that Quebert’s masterpiece happens to be about an illicit relationship, it takes him a surprisingly long time to be moved to write about this affair. Although Marcus’s investigation into the murder is a plot device to move the story forward, it still would have been nice to have the plot unfold and not feel like the writer is trying to hit all the right beats before the next commercial break.

There is a surprisingly lack of friction in the novel. It just feels like the story and twists will all unfold. That’s why I say it’s like a TV show; actually the pacing makes it like a game. Every interview with a witness, every scene with him looking around, reminds me of Sierra On-line games (wow… is that dating myself… games like King’s Quest, Gabriel Knight, and the whole genre of pixel-clicking adventure games). Because adventure games are generally not about reflexes, they generally let the player has as much time as she needs in the scene. Marcus gets to hang around until he extracts enough information.

One thing that will draw attention to the story is that before each chapter, we get treated to a scene where Quebert gives Marcus writing advice. The advice itself isn’t controversial, but the fact that these tips are here invites comparison to the actual writing in the story.

Yes, we are treated to a meta-story, and again, we are left to ruminate on the possibility that Mr. Dicker might have had a similar struggle, having achieved a measure of literary fame before The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. The parts about writing as craft and as a calling are actually rather interesting.

And despite the lack of dramatic tension, the novel definitely has provenance.  I think the twists and turns are generally justified and logical. It does not feel like the twists come from nowhere. The novel has a fairly sunny disposition; it isn’t dark and moody. If anything, the most cynical parts of the book deal with commentary on public perception and not on human nature that seem extremely comfortable with crime.

 I was happily surprised that the novel did not veer into the salacious, despite the many ways in which it could have turned in that direction. All this is to say that the novel was rather enjoyable.

Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down is good survey of literature about the science of failing, resilience, and success. Books of this sort, written for popular consumption, generally suffers from the three ring binder effect; it’s a loose collection of research and interviews, organized by themes. In some cases, the research has been presented in other contexts, both by the researchers themselves (Daniel Gilbert and Jonathan Haidt) and by other popularizers of behaviorial science.

Luckily, Ms. McArdle’s approach is disarming and charmingly self-deprecating. Her binder, as it were, ties together her own failures to the research she presents. Her failure to find a job, her inability to move past a relationship, and her experience combating 9/11 Truthers provide a human face to the statistics of neuropsychology research. Most importantly, she demonstrates the power inherent in recognizing when a path is failing and taking action to shut it down. Loss aversion supplies a  motive in maintaining status quo, and variations on this theme are explored.

As with such popular science books, there is a hint of the prescriptive in her book. Ms. McArdle supports a more generous approach to mistakes and wishes that political forces would stop moving towards harsher punishment for any mistakes.

Despite the compelling theme, and one that I tend to agree with it, I find these books shallow. To Ms. McArdle’s credit, I would absolutely love for her to expand on just about every chapter. As it is, she combines general lessons learned from both investigators and from her life. It is effective. Take it for what you will; if you want more, follow up on her bibliography. The book is compelling.

I found useful lessons, especially with emphasizing the need to give kids a safe place to fail. Ever since I became aware of research regarding the contradictory effect of praising intelligence rather than effort (actually, pointing out anything aside from effort), I’ve focused on the process. (There’s actually new research suggesting that merely visualizing directions – up versus down, flying versus digging – might affect cognitive tasks due to the emotionality of the visualization.)  It’s actually nicer and easier in some ways, because it gives adults cues to talk about specific things about the child’s project (“Oooh! I like how you did the trees and arranged them according to perspective!”).

Ms. McArdle’s book reminds us that it is not only OK, but necessary to identify faults. Especially when younger and with lower stakes; the kids can immediately see where they went wrong and they can correct it. The key is to be gentle enough to call attention to the mistake but not dwell on it. Make it feel like a bump; comment and move on.

Although I wish Ms. McArdle spent more time on developing the idea and presenting more research, I agree with her that the ability to remain calm and not focus on the emotional sting of shame and feelings of failing is absolutely crucial to moving on. Perhaps becoming accustomed to the iterative process of failing/identify/improve will help desensitize kids to the emotional turmoil of being wrong so they eventually focus on the substance of criticisms.

I happen to think there’s a lot to learn from Ms. McArdle’s book, and I can draw many parallels to the process of science. My colleagues and I have joked that we are in an asymmetric relationship: the science has all the power. We work, but our feedback is generally negative. Our advisors and supervisors simply give comments for improvement (ask anyone about the process of writing a grant or manuscript), only to receive more feedback upon submission – the paper is rejected/won’t fit our journal. If accepted provisionally, we will get more feedback from reviewers. Grants also get scored and we receive comments.

But we all understand this is the process. The worse comment for a grant is no comment at all. The grant being so bad that it was not worth the reviewer’s time to improve on it.

And of course, a lot of our time is spent on dealing with no or opposite results: no change where change is expected. Change were stasis is expected. The effect is too small or opposite what you predicted. And things break and stop working all the time. A lot of these errors come down the the experiments and analysis (perhaps an incorrect baselining or normalization.)

But when experiments start pulling together and a paper is eventually accepted, it is exactly like the first sunlight after an arctic winter. The rest of the time, it’s that arctic darkness.

Sorry; do I sound bitter?

I’m sure authors/writers/reporters all have analogous stories. The point is that success is more about attrition and self-selection. The people who thrive and have careers all continue to produce and deal with failures as if they are minor. They integrate criticism, iterate, and improve. So yes, I pretty much buy into Ms. McArdle’s thesis.

One thing I like about the book is that she tackles the issue of normative errors and accidents. The distinction is important to make, even if the definitions are not necessarily clear cut. Accidents are events that occur and couldn’t really be accounted for in the planning and execution. The operative word is could. Many things can and do happen, but the definition of those accidents happening is that it is coincidental, with the unfortunate victim falling prey to a low probability event.

Normative errors arise during process and execution, due to missed steps. The word here is should. Generally, there are a few things that should have been done, but weren’t. The two seem separated by degree; I suppose if you find yourself linking a series of events – if only I had walked a few steps quicker or slower, I would have turned the corner and seen the the guys backing out with the large pane of glass instead of walking into the glass – this probably is an accident.

A mistake can probably be traced to something one did or didn’t do, and a compounded mistake just means many people failed down the line. I can see how some readers might want clearer explanations.

But the point of the book is not explicitly about mistakes, but how we recover from them.

Ms. McArdle put together a rather compelling book. She connects threads in research on attention, motivation, and economics and drew new observations. I especially liked her chapter on tunnel vision (“inattentional blindness”). She starts with the description of Daniel Simons’s and Christopher Chabris’s experiment with having students score the number of times a basketball team, in a video. Afterwards, they ask the students about the number of passes – and whether they saw a gorilla mascot run threw the middle of the court, between the players. She seques into an analysis on the Dan Rather/President G.W. Bush National Guard story that cost Mr. Rather his job. Dan Rather made the mistake of defending his decision, rather than simply working to figure out whether something went wrong.

There were apparently a whole chain of mistakes, but the point is that there is power to simply acknowledge he could have been at fault. The proper play would be along the lines of Ira Glass’s signing off on Mike Daisey’s Apple story, where Mr. Glass admitted he was wrong and then spent a subsequent hour on analyzing the mistakes he and his team made – while rectifying the original story. A hot-of-the-press example is in how Bill Simmons dealt with the Dr. V’s Magical Putter story.

I do hope people read Ms. McArdle’s book. I think she has a talent for providing proper context and tackling the best and most relevant arguments between opposing views (see her chapters on bankruptcy, welfare reform, and moral hazard.) For the short length of time reading the book, I think readers will gain an immeasurable sense of well-being as they learn to love mistakes.

I have an idea for a short story; the premise is an innkeeper is tired of heroes tramping through his part of the countryside on their way to yet another world shattering showdown with yet another magic-wielding villain. The line between good and bad is besides the point; when the cost of saving the world is to scorch half of it, it seems that the tension isn’t between the good and bad, but between those who have powers and those who have not. My story would simply be a monologue, with the old man just tired of cleaning up the common room and making sure his daughter does not catch the wandering eyes of the heroes. I guess it could also be summed up as Occupy Middle Earth.

The well of this idea comes from how I see sorcerors and wizards. I think they have an element of the technological Singularity, despite authors treating power magicians as like us, but with more power. Alien, in the fantasy world, tends to look like Sauron – they are recognizably ambitious, power hungry, and selfish. I haven’t really seen magic approached in the same way as hard Artificial Intelligence, in an analogous way to Charles Stross’s Eschaton series (Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise) or Accelerando. I haven’t seen enough written about magicians as being so different that they might as well be from other worlds; instead, we get absent minded old men whose heads are on “serious matters”.

And while we are on the subject, I find it unrealistic (ha!) in fantasy stories that, even if we accept the premise of these authors (and of course I am not disputing that part of suspension of disbelief), it seems strange that, by accident, those who tamper with such powers haven’t rent the world asunder. I am not quite complaining about the contrived plot devices, where the Evil Magician requires some long lost trinket to seize ultimate power. But confrontation happens to scale linearly, not exponentially, despite there being no real reason against it. For example, we wouldn’t expect a firefight in a Tom Clancy novel to escalate from knives to guns to rockets and then nukes. The problem is that generally, there is no such inherent, infrastructure based constraint on magic use. Each magician has the potential to be a nuke.

The solution is a trope. The magician hero is usually a neophyte. The exploration of the mechanics of magic is part and parcel of the fun in a fantasy novel, but I haven’t seen a compelling reason for why the magic the hero uses at the final showdown could not have been used sooner. Aside from the contrivance of the magician having to learn that particular skill or spell.  I think another reason is literary: the audience can relate to the neophyte, since the fantasy novel is an escapist-empowerment fantasy. We want to have the option of imagining that we can get that power. And so we don’t really get novels from the point of view of Gandalf. We follow the Hobbit, in this case a literal small person.

This is interesting, because the experienced wizard is generally relegated to a teacher and mentor role. The fact that authors generally choose someone less powerful or less experienced suggests that they do see a disconnect between the audience and if the story was explicitly about someone much more powerful. Why not carry this through and treat the all powerful magicians as something with motivations that we can’t comprehend? Instead, we generally get a dotty, absent-minded old man.

The other approach is to make the magic more mundane and familial, as in Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. At heart, this novel plays out like a family drama, albeit with a bit more of smoke and mirrors. The story starts with Nora, (yet another) dissatisfied graduate student working on her dissertation, whose life seems to be at a low. Her adviser is no help, and her ex had unceremoniously “traded up” and is now engaged to Nora’s replacement. She decides to lose herself in the festivities of a friend’s wedding in the Hamptons. Nora passes through a crack in our world and finds herself in Ors.

What I liked about this book is that it is so intimate. Our first introduction to Ors is through the group of beings known as the Faitoren (as we find out later.) They are beautiful, glamorous, sexy, and carefree. Just the type to seduce Nora to a life of dissipation. However, it isn’t long before the veneer cracks, and we find the group exposed for what they are. Naturally, Nora is rescued by a wizard – Arundiel.

What follows next is positively domestic. The setting here is medieval, with the attendant relegation of women into subservient roles. Nora is a stranger in a strange land; to fit in, she begins serving as a help to Arundiel’s houseservant. We learn about the world in, I think, a realistic pace. I think one could argue it is slow, I enjoyed learning about Ors by seeing how Nora interacts with the world. We see Arundiel perform sorcery, but for a long time, Nora remains skeptical about the things she sees. For almost half the book, Nora has no powers. We actually see her cleaning the kitchen, learning to read, and trying to stay out of trouble.

No such portal fantasy could be complete without a ball. Arundiel, who holds land but is naturally has higher stature due to his power and experience, must attend court and wished to take Nora with him, if only to marry her off and have Nora out of his life. Once the costume party is past, the novel begins in earnest. It seems that Nora, in her time with the Faitoren, actually was married to one of them. Nora was to be a broodmare, and frankly, it is positively quaint how even the monsters did not want a child out of wedlock.

In the second half of the novel, we begin to see the martial nature of Ors: the Faitoren have power, but the humans and Faitoren have a treaty, enforced by the magic of Arundiel. The Faitoren generally accomplish their feats through magic enhanced beguilement; they want to leave their enclosed space and rule the world. With this promise of an eventual showdown, Nora begins to learn magic. We begin to explore the limits of magic and also find out why Arundiel and Ilissa, leader of the Faitoren, bears such ill will towards each other. (Hint: the reason would fit right into a soap opera.)

As I had said at the beginning, we generally find a linear progression in the types of magic being used. The neophyte eventually taps into great power. We seem to avoid that here. One thing Ms. Barker does well in her novel is to keep the scale small. For example, a large battle is comprised of a few hundred combatants. In this context, Arundiel is powerful, but not ludicrously so. In general, the magic Arundiel used at the end was similar in scale and magnitude as what he showed in the beginning. In this sense, I think Ms. Barker avoided that common pitfall of simply cranking up the stakes at each and every confrontation between Ilissa and Arundiel.

The book is set up for sequels, and it is a slight problem because it’s so obvious. Or, alternatively, one can look at it as a set of dropped plot threads at the end. But there are so many nice touches: how Nora’s frustrated ambition and struggles translated into a medieval setting, how she applied small bits of magic to earn money, and how she gave voice to basic ideas about how language can easily be used as a tool to weaken social standing of outcast groups.

I really enjoyed this novel, as it provided some balance to the more conventional, and muscular, points of view that I’ve seen in the fantasy genre. I came across an essay at the New York Times by Ms. Barker that shows how differently she thinks about magic as used in fiction. While the novel might not break free from normal dramatic tropes (Nora loves to compare Arundiel and Ors society to Pride and Prejudice), it does offer a different take in the fantasy genre as well as being a fun read.

Buy this book. Please.

Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman collaborated on this anthology (Mr. Mazari told the stories to Mr. Hillman, who then reshaped and crafted them into The Honey Thief, and then confirmed by Mr. Mazari that the book is faithful to his words, motifs, and themes.) In the process, they created a work of simplicity, beauty and great emotional power. This book is the embodiment of a romance and a deep love for Afghanistan that Mr. Mazari possesses. This book is also a testament to the power of Mr. Hillman, in which he  captured the words and beauty that Mr. Mazari imparted to him.

The book is a collection of short and medium length stories (frankly, they were all too short – I truly wanted each to last), threaded by some common characters. The main character is the story teller, whom we do not encounter in the stories, but whose voice we hear. And hear I did; I was entranced from the first sentence. I could imagine myself in the towns, fields, and mountains that Mr. Mazari speaks of, in the afternoon, passing time while tending to a flock of sheep or taking respite from farming.

The stories unfold like parables, with the elegance and directness of a child’s bedtime stories, all the while describing the  horrors and atrocities of inflicted on Afghans as they take part in civil wars and in wars to repel invaders. Mr. Mazari is of the Hazara, what we would dryly describe as an ethnic and religious (they are generally Shiite Muslims in a predominantly Sunni country) minority living in Afghanistan. They have different physiognomy, possessing Asian features that set them apart.

Despite the violence and darkness encountered in these stories, what shines through is resilience. Part of that is the adaptability of humans; I mean, circumstances are dire, but if all you know is what’s around you, and you need to work to subsist, let alone thrive, then it might provide enough motive to just slog through. I am not saying this is desirable; in the worse case, this is fatalistic and nihilistic… work just to survive with no measure of joy or dignity. But in the best case, and what Mr. Mazari emphasizes, is simply that one must move on, bide time, and then take advantage of the bits of happiness that one encounters.

We see this in the stories that Mr. Mazari tells. These are not traditional Afghan tales, but ones concocted by him. The tales are woven with bits of history; even in the stories where atrocities are featured prominently, he never lets that overwhelm his characters. So I think that it was effective in sketching the backdrop against which his people act, rather than his characters serving as the window dressing on Mr. Mazari’s airing centuries old grievances. In other words, the story is what matters, and everything else should act to strengthen it.

For the most part, there is much happiness and beauty in these stories, even in those that address the violence suffered by Afghans. My favorite stories are “The Richest Man in Afghanistan”, “The Behsudi Dowry”, “The Snow Leopard”, “The  Music School”, and the two stories about the life and death of Abdul Khaliq (well, that’s about half the stories. I can’t really decide among them, although “The Music School” does have a perfectly phrased ending.)  In each of these, I would argue that rather than showing us an Afghan sensibility, we are shown a very humane way of engagement with the world, one that should appeal to a broad audience. The modern and the old coexist; people, foreign and native, come and go, moving freely and leaving behind stories. The tension is never about the Hazara and the outside world, with Afghans towards foreigners (i.e. invaders). One phrase that popped up in my mind in describing this anthology is “Hemingway-esque”;  grace under fire matters. How well one carries himself is the point; life happens regardless of who you are, the only thing you can control is how you behave.

Through it all, Mr. Mazari’s memorable characters behave with honor and dignity, making decisions that represent those the best of us would make. It is because of this that I say the stories are romantic; there are really no unhappy ends. Sure, terrible things happened to the characters, but that is mostly in the stories’ past. Good behavior does not lead to tragedy. One might say that this removes much needed dramatic depth, but isn’t it just as contrived to see our heroes mired in melodrama, only to come through at the end? After all, not everybody dies. Most people make do.  I choose to think that we are simply hearing some of the tales where people overcome rather than are overwhelmed. 

There is a bit of agility in the way Mr. Mazari constructed the tales; there are equal parts fancy, history, and modernity in them. His tales move freely among different epochs, in a world where supercomputers can coexist with the rhythms of a simple shepherd’s life that has remained unchanged for thousands of years. This is a book for people who see magic in the world, are cognizant of the past, fully immersed in the present, and hopeful for the future. The stories are for people who see and accept the world as is and not wishing for something different; they are for people who are philanthropes, who sees a thread of humanity and dignity binding us all. I must admit, by all rights the book should be angrier. But as Mr. Mazari’s characters might note, what does that leave us? Anger takes from the world; anger wielded against anger is a tragedy made double.

Virgin Soul is Judy Juanita’s first novel; it is, at heart, a conventional coming of age story despite taking place in 1960’s San Francisco and Oakland, during the rise of the Black Panthers. What gives the book its center is that it does feel, to me, more like Judy Blume than Ralph Ellison. This is not meant as a negative. What I mean is that, this novel is not about the larger events, but about a woman coming into her own in this turbulent time. Yes, the heroine becomes involved with the Black Panthers, but this novel is more about her thoughts and struggle to move forward. In this way, Ms. Juanita is able to integrate into the novel a  discussion about the role of revolution and the form of social change.

The story opens with Geniece Hightower entering a 2-year college. She recognizes that it is the best path for her to progress to a 4 year school, in terms of what was available to her and what she can afford. The first part of the book deals with fairly mundane… bourgeois… concerns. The novel is elegant in how it portrays the varying pressures on Geniece; despite the general sense that Geniece is doing the right thing, there’s a fair amount of negativity in the comments her family makes to her. But what carries Geniece through is that she can distinguish between talk and action. She sees enough acquaintances who have tried and failed to move up, and she sees relatives who are actually successful. She later realizes that talk is just that; she understands that’s the type of person her Aunt or grandmother may be. If they are jaded it may be because their experience has taught them to put little faith in the process.

Another aspect of the book that I liked is that it is filled with the details of living. We see Geniece form friendships and think through day to day problems. There’s enough money issues, finding work, making sure she had enough to eat, and juggling school work so that she can attain her prize. It would have been easy to recount the list of injustices that blacks have faced,  but Ms. Juanita chose to approach it from the bottom up. I happen to think that institutional difficulties are easy to dismiss because they are victims of their own generality. It is almost like knowing a story third or fourth hand, where someone knows someone who might have passed by a person who had the problem. Instead, the sum of the novel is a collection of the difficulties that a poor, black person, let alone a woman, would have faced.

The presentation here is masterful; we simply see a woman we grow to like, encounter trouble and soldiering on. Another fine touch is to show that, her most immediate problems stem from people around her, who happen to be her peers and from members of the Panthers.  I think to highlight the massive scale of injustice, perpetrated not even by whites, but by institutions set up by whites, would have detracted from the story of Geniece’s growth and also the power of the novel.

Geniece is a subtle character; she is strong in the least obvious way: she knows herself. In her interactions with  men, she comes as an equal. Her relationship begins as an infatuation, turns into one of mentorship, then into love. She eventually outgrows Allwood. It is with Allwood that Geniece comes to witness the rise of the Black Panthers.

Through  Allwood, we begin to see the complex interaction of bottom up and top down revolutionaries. The characters have it wrong. While the Black Panthers and other such movements are populist, the goal might have been to impose change by cutting off the head of the existing power. Hence revolutionary change. The bottom up way is the change by evolution. Geniece is only one example. Allwood is another. An interesting point in the book is that Allwood eventually  accepts a scholarship to Caltech, leaving the militant brotherhoods behind. It is a focal point for one of these arguments: the revolutionaries want people with guns and the threat of violent upheaval. The threat of societal upheaval is the only way to move the powers that be. Allwood simply states that you can’t replace engineers, doctors, nurses, accountants, and businessmen unless you actually have engineers, doctors, nurses, accountants, and businessmen. The brilliant move here is that Ms. Juanita simply has each party go their separate ways.

For a short time, Geniece sides with the revolutionaries. As many have pointed out, it is amazing how revolutionaries talk of change while always ignoring half of their constituents: the women. Despite all the meetings that Geniece attends, women generally remain in the kitchen and service the men, both as maids and as lovers. Geniece is actually ignored, and in one instance with Allwood, he was all but told to control his woman. Here is where some of the weakness in the story comes through. There’s generally a bit of reworking history so the author can inject herself into significant events via the proxy of Geniece. So we see her sitting in on Black Panther meetings, meeting Huey Newton, hosting Stokely Carmichael, and having Elridge Cleaver complementing her work and installing her as the editor in chief of the Black Panther’s newspaper.  **

** A huge mea culpa. In my research, I found that Ms. Juanita was a member of the Black Panther party, but I missed that she became the editor-in-chief of the Black Panther Intercommunal Newspaper (see comment by arthouseflower. See this interview and this essay by Judy Juanita that  came out after I filed the story and after I left for vacation.) Although I had thought that this “authorial indulgence” was a negative (and I had to look hard to find the one thing that bothered me about the book), it clearly… isn’t. Ms. Juanita had an insider’s perspective on the BPP, and so this segment of the  novel actually carries the power of the autobiography. Let’s be clear, though, I am not confusing this element with an actual work of documented, non-fiction. I am simply recognizing that there is great power in “writing what you know”, and, in this case, what one did.

There are some interesting things to come out of this part of the book. We see the marginalization of women in this revolution. Again, it is because of the idea that war is looming. No thought really is given to a continuation of society, or even what to do once the war is won. The pie in the sky idea is that somehow, everything will continue as before but with more blacks involved.

So we see Geniece come to a nuanced understanding. We see her rage building, but it is telling that Ms. Juanita has her continuing to compile credits. She will finish, but she is torn; it seems like she will conform to the system if she gets her degree. She even exploits the 2% rule, which was in place to allow some flexibility in the allocation of matriculation spots. Why not use this rule to admit black and underprivileged students? So at the same time she is fomenting change quickly, she is also enabling a true bottom up movement. The most obvious point is that, we need a feeder system to create a professional class of blacks. Even if change happens overnight, who will be a proficient doctor when that spot opens up?

To my mind, I think the most significant point is that she spends a lot more time ruminating on what makes for successful social change. Yes,  Ms. Juanita’s makes sharp observations about the  marginalization of women in “revolutions”.  But the strongest indictment of revolution is that the talk and action are easy. Stealing from whites, white gratifying, is in the end stealing. If the point of the revolution is to force whites to understand that blacks are equal and deserving of dignity, destroying their property, stealing from them, and threatening them with violence seems to be a counter message. This seems obvious: pleas for humanity and dignity from a hooligan is ironic to say the least. 

 One final note about Geniece; when she started college, of course she was more concerned with finding friends than with movements. Generally, she falls in with black student societies, all with a liberal bent. Until we arrive at her Junior year and her awakening of social injustice, I did not see rage and anger. At one point, Ms. Juanita has Geniece reflecting on how her anger had caused her to seek out these outlets, and drove her to set a goal of getting a bachelor’s degree. I’m not sure; I really think the first part of the book revealed much of Geniece’s upbringing and development. I would not count anger as the main tone. It is refreshing in that she had a fully formed goal of getting a degree, that her writing heroes were mostly white, and that she really had what we would might describe as a bourgeois/middle class intellectual upbringing. It is this self that meets the revolutionary persona, and the second half of book explores how Geniece reconciles the two. In this sense, it is a classic coming of age story.

There is much to recommend about the novel. However, I think the nuanced portrayal of a woman coming to terms with the world is what sets this novel apart.

When an author writes that he will tell you the truth and nothing but the truth, and rather helpfully frames his novel with meta-analytical comments throughout, you know you are in for a time. The only thing I had hope for is that the book is entertaining. Luckily, Ron Currie’s novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is in fact hilarious, dark, and observant of both external appearances and internal motives. I really liked it.

To begin with, though, there were a couple of novelistic ticks that red-lined my BS meter, even before the first chapter. Instead of an epigraph, we have an ironically pretentious discussion of why Currie avoided using a pretentious quote from Nabokov. Well, it’s more a justification for using a quote from the movie Rocky. The main character is named Ron Currie, and shares a similar biography, if not the same one, with the actual author. But why does that detail even matter for fiction? Yes, it’s that type of novel.

Oooh… that sounds bad. Let me start again. I mention the writing because, it’s the type of thing that can turn me off. However, Currie writes with a real brio and panache and makes the book work. The writing is compelling; there are enough chuckles in the beginning to capture the reader.

I thought the book essentially deals with the self-loathing, and if not that, then at least the self-destructive tendencies of the Ron character. The book moves along in a series of vignettes. Each scene offers as much exposition as it does thoughts and discussions. He jumps around in time; we know that he is narrating after the events in the novel. He writes about his time in New York, with his true love Emma, with his island drinking partner Charlotte, and with various island locals. Most importantly, at some point, he found it easier to leave his life behind. He fakes his own death. The novel is an attempt to frame Ron’s life in the context of this act.

The book works a lot like the movie Memento. Everything presented can be described as factual, but the order in which facts are revealed does matter. This is clever of Currie. Each scene or chapter is self-contained. Ron, the character, will tell us his thoughts or his version of events; one can imagine Ron just speaking, in a bar, over some beer or whiskey. He starts with some funny observations, and talks about island time and the locals; he tells us he’s following the love’s errand Emma sent him on; and he portrays his love for Emma as, ultimately, unrequited. In this way, we build up more sympathy for Ron than we otherwise would have. In short, Ron is an alcoholic and an asshole, who was not in a place where he could appreciate the good in his life. He takes more away from the world and the people around him than to add.

It gets much darker than simply gallows humor. Oh, Ron does seem to walk a fine line between being a downer and being outright nihilistic. The most symptomatic of this is that he treats his island housemate and erstwhile lover, Charlotte, badly. Here’s the thing: at some point, I forgot that he was writing about a time when he was in a relationship with Emma. His being on the island isn’t their being “on a break” or anything like that. Emma told him to wait while she finalizes her divorce and tie up loose ends. Sure, it is an overly long separation, but there was no question that she will join his life as soon as she works to close the current chapter. Ron just makes it out as if Emma will bail on him.

When we were introduced to Charlotte, he was more or less setting up Emma as an ice princess, as someone unattainable (more on this later). Emma was the manipulator and instigator, not a bystander or victim. When Ron wound up cohabiting with Charlotte (Ron makes sure to let us know that it’s her doing), it began as a drinking relationship. Due to her efforts, however, he does eventually enjoys her physical charms. His relationship with Charlotte, and its placement in the novel, makes for a fuzzy timeline as to what his precise status with Emma is. That’s a bit of good writing, I think. Random details are a setup, resurfacing later to give the lie to Ron’s story.

The story is structured to show two things: 1) that Ron hates himself, unwilling to invest of himself in order to better avoid being hurt,  and 2) that Ron cannot understand that Emma might need to work things out, independent of where they are in the relationship. To be fair, a lot of this book can be interpreted as either men not understanding women or as a cynical, male commentary on relationships. I see it as something more simple; Ron is self-absorbed, he requires of others that which does not himself offer. He does not want the doubt, the possibility that Emma has her own mind and may in fact choose a life without Ron. It isn’t that she would, but that there is the possibility. He refuses to accept that Emma is not simply a lover, but is an actual autonomous being.

Throughout the novel, Currie name checks Vernor Vinge and the Singularity. I don’t know what the reader’s background is, but it’s a simple take-home idea. At some point, the density of computing power will become so high, and so connected, that it may be able to contain and allow  for alien, superhuman intelligence to arise. Alien because its motives will be distinctly non-human understandable. This intelligence might be some mutated form of simple or weak “artificial intelligence” bots, to engineered, pseudo-intelligent decision-making algorithms. Regardless, it is possible that these programs may behave in a manner that feedbacks positively upon itself, and because of the speed of computational cycles, the generation time is much shortened and algorithmic evolution will be exponential.

True AI will arise, and we won’t know it nor can we stop it: it will process much faster than the human brain can. There are all sorts of attendant mythologies related to what happens when such super intelligences arise, but it is possible that humans will be 1) be unaware, left behind and wither away, or 2) be killed in some machine-engineered apocalypse. Regardless, we will not understand it, because the intelligence is hyper-intelligent and/or alien. There is a line of sci-fi writing that talks of humans transcending, a rapture of the nerds*, if you will, where humans will be able to engage the alien/artificial intelligence by uploading their thoughts into the computational network.

*Charlie Stross has written much about the silliness of the Singularity being a happy event for humans, let alone actually occurring. Stross can’t help but notice and poke at the undertone of the uploading into a mind-hive is actually quite similar to the mythology of a Christian Rapture. See Stross’s blog, here and here.

This is a long way to go to say, that, in the face of such potentially catastrophe for humans, Ron (and Currie, the author), invokes the Singularity as a way for humans to upload into the ether, instantiate as a part of the collective mind, and be able to offer its human life for computational forensics. Perhaps as a case for why humans were superceded by a superior intelligence form. In other words, the dream of Ron may be to be able to consider his relationship with Emma, such as it as, in perpetuity, by his uploaded mind or by the other aspects of the AI. It is a solipsist heaven.

That’s really also the novel’s main motif, I think. Ron is wrapped up with his thoughts and interpretation of events. Sure, perhaps Emma doesn’t help matters when she does also have an emotional distance. In fact, one might argue that she is the female Ron. She too cannot engage on a deep emotional level with Ron, perhaps because she is strongly independent. But I am unsure if we can blame that, as it might be that she realizes Ron isn’t the most reliable type.

This is the weird thing: what level of relationship does Ron need? At some point, it isn’t about the woman, but about Ron. It is his actions, his feelings, his hang-ups, his depression, his alcoholism that interferes with Emma. In the end, she does come to him. They spend time on the island. They are intimate. But he turfs it all, as if he can’t stand the “happily ever after” part, which he knows isn’t simple. He knows that work makes relationships work, not the romance and drama. His is unable to live in this moment, since he knows that the next bit of drama, the next moment, will be a break-up. That’s really the only next movie scene available. He sure as hell can’t enjoy paradise in the arms of a hot woman, forever. I can see it as a pre-emptive strike. Or it could just be his inability to deal. Either way, that’s the bit of ambiguity left for us to mull over; the fact is, motive almost doesn’t matter. He messes up the happy ending.

It’s the usual novel of the human condition, but it’s a really fun read. There’s a great courtroom scene (you didn’t think that faking one’s own death would be painless?) Reading this trial, I can’t help agreeing with Currie that events would unfold precisely in this manner. He also gives a resounding defense of the need for fiction in society; it’s a painless way to engender empathy. It might not sound like it’d fit, but it does.  The magic of the novel is that, although it is funny and dark, Currie treats each separately. It’s not a confused smear; it is comic and deep in equal measure, dosed out at the proper times. Something that Ron can learn from.


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