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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.

Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers:  Congratulations! The writing style is evocative of the best elliptical, modern writing! I would peg the book somewhere in between David Foster Wallace (and Roberto Bolano – loved Infinite Jest and 2666) and Don DeLillo (I didn’t care much for Underworld). Although the plot is generally of the implied variety – forward movement is achieved by simply having historical events sweep over characters – Ms. Kushner does animate her protagonist. She doesn’t simply reacts – but her plans and personality does change in response to what happens around her.

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I read a really engaging book from Alan Sepinwall: The Revolution Was Televised. I became aware of his work through Grantland, which mixes up culture and sports in a fantastically smart and enjoyable way. The book is an ode to the current “Golden Age” of of television, exemplified by shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire, where viewers are essentially treated to a unified form of story telling, over years, and that broke the convention of simply resetting the table after the episode ends.

In other words, the Golden Age is synonymous with the novelisation of television.

I never cared much for movies or shows, mostly because I am enamored of depth. My issue with television and movies as a medium to convey important information is best summed up by the criticism of Neil Postman. Visual medium appeals to emotions readily. Memorable images lingers; narrated text does not. The speed of the medium also discourages single, static shots. I mean, the most ludicrous example I can think of are the edits made to dance shows, like So You Think You Can Dance. By definition, dance is movement, and yet we are still subjected to dramatic cuts – different angles, facial shots, and different zooms – as if the very moves in the dance are not sufficient to maintain our interest.

Visual media are geared for high-impact by engaging multiple senses, in the shortest amount of time. Even in seminars, the advice I’ve received all suggest reducing the amount of information in slides. This either means editing out all the secondary points, or, in a much more difficult way, condense the information. The former everyone should be able to do; the latter practically merits a course – Or at least this set of books (1, 2, 3, 4). Verbally, we keep to the point, refer to the point, and ideally, repeat the point using simple language.

Each form of communication has its strengths and weaknesses. Postman’s criticism of television is nuanced: supposedly similar forms of media (like a YouTube video of a seminar) may not be so similar (i.e. the “real” seminar). Hijacking one medium known for short form, highly dynamic images and aural stimulation (i.e. TV) to engage in long form discussions about government policy or presenting scholarly works may actually lead both to suffer.

In other words, Postman felt that the real problems arose when we try “translating” the medium to do other things. Postman enjoyed television: as entertainment. He worried about the misguided attempts to make TV good by simply having it broadcast educational material. In this sense, he felt fine with arguing that, quite possibly one of the worse development for television is the rise of PBS. This allowed people to mistake TV as a medium for all purposes – from entertainment to a learning forum.

I think the issue is even more nuanced than how Postman described it. I think he focused too much on how medium limits the audience, but ignored the adaptability of the viewer. For a start, the viewer can just select another medium. He can pick up a book. While TV (and movies, and music) implies a broadcast, with a single emitter but multiple receivers, we, as the audience, might become amenable to altering our expectations. It may be that, properly done, there is no such thing as too long (the trick is editing down to the proper length).

It wasn’t until I was moved to think about Sepinwall’s observation that I began to appreciate how different the current television landscape is from when Postman made his criticisms. Sepinwall points out that over the past 10 years, the audience and television writers have implicitly altered their viewership/producer pact. Instead of expecting things to reset week after week, with no overarching development of characters, the audience now is willing to accept more openness and lack of episodic resolution – in expectation of a payoff for the story. It is now de rigeur for shows to tackle big ideas, or at least have complicated plots, to make things interesting. As many writers have noted, what we saw in Breaking Bad is really a 13 hour miniseries, broken up into 1 hour bits. The seasons are really chapters in the story of Walter White.

By altering TV in this way, television can in fact invade the space occupied by writers: we can know what the characters are thinking.

The sea-change is that we get to know what they are thinking the same way that humans understand and empathize with one another: by inference of intent from word and deeds, a bit at a time. Isn’t the hourly appointment viewing almost like seeing a friend once a week and catching up?

The novel does not work like that. Its form is highly stylized, where the novelist needs to specify much more information to build the world-context so that she can put forth her true point. Gorgeous verbosity continues to appeal to me, but dramatic depth is no longer owned by novels.

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On Salon, Laura Miller writes about “What makes a book a classic“. The “problem” Ms. Miller describes is an old one, and is certainly not resolved in her essay: No one argues that there is such a thing as a classic, but issues arise when your classics do not match my classics.

I wish she spent a bit more time developing the throwaway comment that books may remain a classic even if a large minority (or perhaps even a majority) of readers do not like it. That, I think, sums up the disagreement between the popular sentiment (i.e. sales) and the critical and historical context that surrounds a book.

Recent, visible battles between Jonathan Franzen and the duo of Jennifer Egan and Jodi Picoult. Frankly, each camp has a point: good books need not imply a poor sales record, nor is every novel penned by a Brooklyn resident an instant classic.

I generally see arguments boil down to “sales should at least allow me to enter the conversation” and “proles are the worse judge of quality”.  Both arguments – and I wouldn’t even call them that – are bad, arrogant, and lacking sufficient humility.

The difficulty isn’t trashing something; it is much more difficult to defend an affirmative statement. What makes something good despite flaws? Why, despite the imperfections, should we continue nurturing an audience for that book?This is inherently an uphill battle, because the marginal effect of finding something bad in the good is greater than finding something good in the bad. This asymmetry in value perception comes about because in the former case, we start at what we term the summit and move away from it, with every flaw. In the latter approach, we are literally trying to bring something closer to “good”.

To actually write a compelling piece supporting the value of a good book means that we need to expend energy on salesmanship. Um… and no, a cluster of adjectives and superlatives does not cut it. I’m looking for detailed contextual arguments (how it relates to contemporary literature), how it extends and responds to previous works (i.e. the historical arguments), and, frankly, how well it reads. Sorry: this isn’t Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, where, to hijack his satirical comment, every (“literary”) writer is above average. The understanding that, even if we gave it our best, some readers will simply not agree, and I will guarantee that their reasons will not be objective.

It is that element of salesmanship that must be borne by critics, authors and those who are forever trying to define a Hall of Fame for books. What? Muck around, perhaps even beg for attention, so that you can convince the unwashed masses why they ought to put down their JD Robb, Danielle Steele, James Patterson, and Robert Ludlum? Precisely. Because, as I keep pointing out, we aren’t a literary culture. We expend more energy reading about starlets entering rehab and not novels about our humanity, discussing the artistry in computer games and movies, and most distressing for the literary novelists – having our brilliant critics devote their time to wax eloquently about the prestige, televised “novels” than on the latest from authors who are on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize.

Going back to Grantland, it is telling that they find the intersection of sports and culture to include movies, television, music and games. Sure, these guys are fantastic writers who love to read, but they talk about books peripherally, in support of their social commentary and critical efforts*.

*By the way: read this “mailbag” feature by Andy Greenwald at Grantland. One reader asks

During the first season of The Bridge, I devoured Charles Bowden’s Murder City (on your very astute recommendation) and so I was wondering what novel/work of nonfiction might pair well with the upcoming second season of The Americans? For context, I am about to begin Nic Pizzolatto’s Galveston, which I hope pairs well with True Detective. In the past, I barreled through the A Song of Ice and Fire series and two of Elmore Leonard’s Raylan novels for Game of Thrones and Justified, respectively, so I’m eager to hear your take on the issue of book/TV pairings.

To me, the question and Mr. Greenwald’s answer exude a healthy love and appreciation for print and other media. This is what I want my book culture to look like, integrated into readers’ lives and not set off in an increasingly distressed mansion on a hill.

Why am I harping on this? Grantland is bait for the coveted male, 18-42 demographic. Where they go, so goes the money. People like Franzen can continue to live in a bubble, pissing on people who dare to sell things and make money so they can support the cozy, insular culture of the dwindling number of editors, publishers and authors. Where is the value in literary novels about a family of assholes?

The literary authors’ competition isn’t the group of top-15 Amazon bestselling authors: their lot is competing with documentarians and longform article writers. What conceivable value is there in reading characters in invented, mundane problems passing for insight into the human condition? I’d rather focus on real people.

And Ms. Egan and Ms. Picoult don’t have to worry: they write books people enjoy reading. Even though I haven’t read them, how do I know? Because people keep buying their books despite the finger-wagging critics.

 

 

I am a scientist, and as such, I generalize my observations into models of “How things work”. In short, people like me try to place our results – hopefully, they are technically sound – into the context of existing models and our colleagues’ findings, thereby adding to our knowledge.

Nothing high-handed; this is the “industry” of academia. I do not mean this as a good or bad thing; it is what it is. Businesses make profit; they are judged by that. No amount of integration into a community or charity giving matters if the company can’t make payroll or pay rent.

Rightly or wrongly, the academic model has a shorthand for “knowledge” or scholarship – scientific articles.  While our accomplishments are not as clear cut as “profit”,  under the publish or perish model, it does provide a convenient metric – quantification – as to our productivity. Anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit will seek to respond to this incentive in the best way she knows how.

So what does all this have to do with a recently released translation of a turn of the 20th-century, piece of Turkish literature?

Well, let’s get this out of the way: the novel is fantastic. What makes Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s The Time Regulation Institute so appealing is how recognizable the characters and situations are. The hallmark of a classic is that we can see ourselves in the characters, find parallels in their circumstances, and resonance.

This novel is rife with those happy contrasts.

The first thought I had, and this is to bring it back to my reference to my day job, is that, science works by taking a fair number of observations and distilling from it a generalizable fact. In fiction, it works not just backwards but also flipped around.

The author’s work is singular. It has a specific plot, lively characters, with perhaps a dash of history. Despite its uniqueness, good works tend to sell – think Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Its heroine is memorable, and I – along with a great many others – couldn’t get enough of her. But by no means is that book a classic.

What separates classic literature from a run-of-the-mill good book is resonance. Despite the peculiar circumstances, I find myself drawing parallels between events and people in the great books and my own life. The Time Regulation Institute is such a book.

The joy in encountering a great book is that I so enjoy thinking about it, even as I interrupt my reading so I can get things done. For the record, I am male, was born in Hong Kong, immigrated to the USA with my family when I was 7. I consider myself essentially a Westerner. Let’s just say that this point was brought home to me when my parents and I had chats, sometime after college, about how I am simply too individualistic for their tastes. Imagine my surprise (well, I just hadn’t thought about it) when I finally realized that, although I probably rated as a “good” American boy, I was found wanting in many departments if looked through lens of Chinese culture.

So I am aware of tension between a First World/developed world view and a more traditionalist one. All this is to say that, of course I understand I might be talking out of my ass when I talk about literature and art, let alone of non USA provenance. With that said, my essays on literature has always been opinion.  To me, great literature has resonance because, once we go beyond cultural details, social mores, and vernacular, deep down they speak to the great similarities between the author and reader. The only thing I can hope for when I write these essays on novel appreciation is that such play, or re-mixing, or interpretation does not mangle or warp the author’s intent too much.

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There are multiple layers to Tanpinar’s work. It is an absurdist comedy. It is commentary on the clash of the modern and the traditional (and dare I say a clash of civilizations?) It is a satire on bureaucracy. It is a trenchant observation on cultural inertia. It decries the inhumanity of the modern. It is a comedy. It is a drama. (For a proper critical take, please check out Martin Riker’s review in the NYT Book Review.)

I think it is fair to say that the book is recognizable to a modern audience, and that the themes have relevance.

The book is structured in a way that reminds me of the very tension it seeks to highlight. Our hero, Hayri Irdal, is flotsam, barely able to make ends meet. He and his family suffers indignities because they rely on the good graces of others. For a bit more than half the book, we have Hayri’s reminiscence of his life before heading the Time Regulation Institute. We might as well be sitting in a coffeehouse and listening to Hayri, because he takes his time. The pace is indicative of life where there really is not much else going on, and the only thing that matters is to converse and build relationships through trading stories. The rise of the Time Regulation and its dismantling occurs rapidly in the denouement.

A surprising amount does happen around Hayri. I am not sure how much he is supposed to represent the group of Turkish men who grew up at the transition of Turkey into the modern world, but one can’t help but see Hayri as part of a class of men who are poor, without prospects and about to be tossed aside because they cannot meet the ever accelerating and wild pace of modern life. In the end, I do not think Tanpanir is saying there is much different between the modern and traditional man. The same pressures of finding work, keeping a home, and getting enough to eat are eternal.

What does change is his fit into the social order.

I would say that Hayri’s problems and stasis are caused mainly by the people surrounding him. While everyone knows each other’s business, no one helps. There’s a bit of the malicious  that marks dramas about the provincial. Although Hayri did not not excel at his studies or in his apprenticeship to a watch repairman, he seemed to be in the same circumstance as a fair number of males. It does not help that strong personalities around Hayri have dominated and bullied him about.

Absurd events happen to him: a rich aunt dies and his father inherits her legacy… only to lose it all when she wakes up as she’s being buried. Hayri despairs and is powerless to change his fate. Of course he wants more, but he has no prospects to reinvent himself. At one point, we see his pride rise after being accused of hiding riches and stealing from his father-in-law. Hayri hadn’t, of course, but a series of misunderstandings and malice led his brothers-in-law to assume that there was a large inheritance. His outburst against an accuser gets him sent to  see a psychoanalyst.

Hayri, for all his lack of ambition and poverty, he seems free with his time. He is fully embedded into society, and while his spirit is relentless crushed by those around him (everyone is a frenemy, and his second wife is more concerned with her own life). Mostly, he wanders, sits in coffeehouses, and generally lounges about with other men who seem complain a lot about having no jobs. Nevermind that his wife is stuck at home with their daughter. Ermine, Hayri’s first wife, seems nothing more than a device to show that Hayri has something good in his life – and a psychic refuge against the world.

There are a number of details of Turkish life – both in its Ottoman and modern incarnation – that Tanpinar takes time to spoof. Psychoanalysis is seen as black comedy, where craziness is defined by someone who looks to interpreting dreams for diagnosis and treatment. Bureaucracy grinds excruciatingly slowly. Justice works on a personal level, such as the more relatives you have in the courts, the better off you’ll be. Being embedded into society means that there is little privacy – gossip is the main business of family and friends. Again, it’s not too much different from what one might find in a drama about small-town America.

And the modern Turk, represented by Hilat Ayarci, is a whirlwind of activity, where it isn’t clear if, once he has stopped, he was any better off than before. Where Hayri has a fatalistic worldview, which may have hindered his advancement through life, Hilat represents the proclivity of modern man to simply redefine problems and reinvent himself. In fact, there are no problems, only opportunities. None is more clear than a simple conversation between Hilat and Hayri, where Hilat promises to actualize Hayri’s sister-in-law’s singing career. To be frank, the girl has no talent, but Hilat simply spins is around so that she occupies a unique niche in the world of Turkish songstresses.

Needless to say, she is a success.

And these schemes only become more outlandish, like a whole housing development built on air. The Time Regulation Institute is only the epitome of Hilat’s ability to instantiate thoughts. The whole premise is absurd. The Institute exists to force Turks to keep time – to recover “lost seconds”. Hayri also publishes a biography of a non-existent patron of time – Ahmet the Timely. In reality, it seems the institute exists to keep Hayri and his extended family and friends (even he was surprised at how many relatives he had) in jobs. In the end, the dream crumbles. About the last service Hilat does for Hayri is to build a department precisely to wind-down the Time Regulation Institute.

Modernity, it seems, is running in place on a treadmill.

Probably the more interesting themes in the novel do deal with time. Hayri’s day expands to fill the time; the Time Regulation Institute seeks to divide time into allotments. Even if time cannot be controlled, it can be neatened up, so to speak. The concern with productivity and how time can be lost is a huge contrast between the modern and traditional. Hayri mentions that, despite being raised in poverty, he was happy because his time was his own. In some ways, that is all he would have had. The modern need to account for every second amounts to a judgment: you have a defect in personality if you waste that second.

I read a recent Joe Posnanski essay that emphasizes the Old World and New World differences in time perception and usage. Americans, it seems, have a hard time with leaving quantities alone. As soon as a metric is devised, we immediately rank and judge, having found some way to validate our opinions. As Posnanski describes, this concern with time and faux precision has more to do with an American’s inability to deal with the sense of a thing. A hard number – or a firm line in the sand – allows for even more subjective contortions so that our actions fall on the correct side of the line.

Posnanski’s example as an American football game. The details aren’t important, but it involves time running out on the last play of the game. The success of that play will determine who wins the contest. The play failed, but wait – there were penalties. The type of penalty is important, because it will either grant an advantage to a subsequent play or force the players to redo the play. Since the clock read zero, it would have been better for the failed team be awarded a second try; there can be no subsequent play, as there is no more time. Obviously, that essay wouldn’t have been written if the play were redone. To compound this drama of semantics – the wrong penalty was called.

In contrast, with soccer, time seems to flow more freely, embodied by the concept of injury time. Time continually runs down, but the firm end of the game will not happen until some remediation has occurred for the dead time during the game. And generally, the game will not stop during a play with potential for a team to score. That last American football play would probably have been allowed to continue and develop properly, had it been a soccer game.

In the case of soccer, players and the game are the master and time is subservient. Posnanski had a beautiful line about how soccer is generally officiated in a “literary” way, where the enjoyment, flow, beautify and “sense” of the game is more important. Of course, soccer also has ties, which says something else about the sensibilities of sports fans in the USA and outside of it.

But I think there is a difference in how time is viewed. Either people worry immensely about time, efficiency, and its usage or they don’t. It probably falls across a developed/undeveloped country divide – basically places without factories.

Another telling metaphor is in Hayri’s work at a watch repairman’s shop. Hayri did have skill in diagnosing broken watches, but alas he does not have the steady hands need to correct defects. There is an obvious parallel in how Hayri can only fix time, not create it.

I think a fair number of Tanpinar’s points, although they sound like tropes to modern ears, were forward thinking in his time (the novel was first published in 1962.) I think his most indicting criticism of modernity is that it is without substance, or at the least, considers only progression without attending to the emotional needs of the people who, by definition, are then traditional and backwards looking.

In this sense, I think perhaps this novel is more tragedy than farce or comedy. In the end, I can’t say that there is a difference to the type of life that Hayri would lead in Ottoman or in modern Turkey. In either world, he would remain destitute, surrounded by men like himself, and without prospects. The only difference is that the modern world is inscrutable to him. However well-intentioned and whimsical Hilat is, there is the sense that he is all words. Through force of personality, perhaps everyone will ignore the underlying reality. In the traditional world, Hayri at least recognizes the people and setting around him. It is as apparent to him as the innards of a watch, with every gear and spring in its place.

Disclaimer: City of Lost Dreams is pretty much in my wheel house. The book has a neuroscientist traipsing through Vienna and Prague, alchemy, Beethoven, and fantastical elements. Me: my doctorate is in olfaction neurophysiology, I spent a year studying biochemistry in Germany and my favorite city from that time happens to be Vienna, and I love Romantic era piano pieces (I took up piano in high school because I wanted to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.)

So yes, you might say I identify with Sarah Weston, the heroine of the novel – minus the fantastical elements. I don’t know any 400 year old dwarves.

All that aside, the book is a fun romp through modern day Prague and Vienna. Sarah Weston is in Prague to help her friend Pollina, who suffers from a terminal illness. She travels to Vienna in a quest to find her a cure, which might as well be the alchemical  Philospher’s Stone. Barring that, the Golden Fleece might do. Long dead saints reappear and people who can help Sarah and Pollina go missing or are killed.

The great thing about the book are the characters. Frankly, the females run the show; aside from Sarah, there’s her rival in love and a mysterious dark lady who seems to be thwarting Sarah’s attempt to help Pollina. All three are quite fascinating in their own right; all of them are at turns lusty, saucy, and introspective. The three have surprisingly realistic motives and are all sympathetic. Make no mistake, though, this story is a quest story and needs only be exciting and breezy, which it is.

No one asked, but if I had to peg the level of writing, it is fine. The language does not detract from the story, and I find various scenes memorable. For an example of a good novel, I would suggest Karen Engelmann’s The Stockholm Octavo, a piece of lushly written historical fiction that weaves a compelling cast of characters around real events, with just the faintest breath of magic.

I mention this because, of course I read a fair amount of fun, genre novels. We only ask that they be well made, even if they are essentially disposable entertainment. But I like it when authors are ambitious and interjects moments of observation and clarity that makes the book memorable.

In City of Lost Dreams, the scene I most enjoyed is one with Max and Pollina. Max is the once and future love interest of Sarah. Pollina is a precocious musical prodigy. She knows she is dying and is rushing to finish her magnum opus before she does. During a brief interlude, she comes upon Max drinking brandy. She asks for a taste, because sick people in stories are always being told to have a swig, to warm up. Max casually dismisses her out of hand, as an adult to a child, by simply saying that she isn’t that sick. But she is. A beat passes as he reconsiders, realizing that of course she knows she’s dying, and what’s the harm, really? So he gives her a snifter and shows her how to go about tasting brandy. These little beats and moments in the story really make the story come alive. Timing and pacing matters as much as the language.

The authors, Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch, who write under the pseudonym Magnus Flyte, have created a wonderfully vibrant world, and I eagerly await another tour through it with Sarah and her friends.

Disclaimer: I was given an advanced copy – and no other compensation –  by Penguin Group for the essay.

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.

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