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December 2008

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Dec. 29th, 2008

Reading Jacob

They are always coming

Iron Council Iron Council by China Miéville


My review


rating: 5 of 5 stars
Gods and Jabber, I don't know why I love this one the most. It's not necessarily better than the other Bas-Lag Books (don't you dare call them a trilogy, don't you dare. Old China may write other books but he says he'll always come back to this; there's more to come), and it's nowhere near the worst. There's just something about this that feels so radically different, so alien,so apart from the others. Perdido Street Station was new and fresh and amazing, yeah, but it felt familiar enough--while still being strange and fantastic, of course--that you still felt just-so comfortable reading it (or as comfortable as you could be reading about sex with bug-people), and The Scar was a fun old adventure story, exotic and equally fantastic but still an ab-sequel to PSS.

But here, here, Iron Council rips us away from mid-1700s (Anno Urbis) New Crobuzon and tosses us thirty, forty years into a New Crobuzon that barely remembers the Midsummer Nightmares, and what's this? No more constructs? Jack's dead? Ben Flex is just a name? The fucking Militia's out?

You want the same old city, you wish it could stay frozen in time, but New Crobuzon is different. Changed. It's darker, uglier, more cynical. And even when Cutter and the others escape, chasing Judah on his quest for the Iron COuncil, the city still clings to them like an oil slick. The city in Isaac's day was hardly bright and cheerful, but back then it still echoed with adventure. Now the militia are out, and everything else had to go into hiding. It's time to go west to bring the Iron Council home.

That long out-west adventure/quest itself, and the long-ago middle piece detailing the long gestation and sudden birth of Iron Council, make up the bulk of the story, mixed with snatches of back-home reports of the small revolutionary movements taking place in the city, and this jump back and forth from cynical near-despair to hopeful optimistic questing is what makes this a hard, weird novel. It jumbles in places, it tosses about; it's not always a pleasant read, or an easy one. It's tougher, more political, more insistant. But it's so good. So rewarding. And even the end, that fat and unnatural anticlimactic-climax, that so-wrong final meeting of the Council and the City, even as you want to yell "that is not how it should have happened!" you cannot help but think "Yes, yes, that is how it was, how it is, how it should be." There is something strange and wonderful about Mieville's works that both frustrate and inspire.

Mieville likes playing with cities. New Crobuzon is exotic enough already, and the ship-city of Armada from TS was plenty awesome. Here we have Iron Council itself, the perpetual train, ungrateful child of New Crobuzon. Makes you almost giddy wondering what Old China will give us next.

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Dec. 22nd, 2008

Reading Jacob

Waste of time

The Plot to Save Socrates The Plot to Save Socrates by Paul Levinson


My review


rating: 1 of 5 stars
So. Twenty minutes into the future, a graduate student named Sienna receives part of a dialogue between Socrates and a supposed time traveler trying to save his life, which leads her to a hidden time machine in London where she sets off on her own journey through history to find out the truth.

You'd think with a premise like that, this book would be awesome, right? Right? Yeah, so did I. What we get, instead, is a weak, boring, convoluted story almost completely lacking in character development and plot. The setting is just barely defined (we get section headings like "Athens, 404 BC" and little else), and combined with the rest of the narrative (characters mostly talk for a while, then do stuff in short bursts) makes the story read like a half-assed movie script. It's a dialogue-heavy script--er, book--which I wouldn't mind so much if the dialogue was natural. And interesting. But all the characters sound awkwardly formal, with no change in voice from character to character. The whole book reads like a Socratic dialogue. That might be intentional on the author's part, but it doesn't make the story any more readable.

As for characterization--well, what characters stand out are either historical figures, which means they're ill-defined and completely static (sole exception being Alcibiades, who mostly just does stuff when the story calls for it) or the cast of main characters who are even less interesting: Sienna, the main character, passively reacts to events surrounding her--including death-- and shows up in various periods without her personality (oops! Must've forgot it in Athens!); Thomas, her mentor, who occasionally shows up with information but does little else (and when his character is finally fleshed out at the end, the facts are as dull as the rest of the book); and Heron, whose motives are never entirely clear. What's he doing now? Why's he helping them. Now why is he trying to stop them? Huh?

As for Socrates...well, considering the plot revolves around him, he only shows up near the end, where he completely nullifies much of the plot with his decision, and the ultimate revelation of Andros, the time traveler in the dialogues, comes with zero shock. Less of a bang, more of a halfhearted deflated sound. "Oh, that's how it is. Meh."

Basically, a huge disappointment. I can't really say why I suffered through this thing, except that it was a mercifully short read. Although the beginning was rather weak and rushed, I think I figured it would eventually get better. How wrong I was. By then, though, I was halfway through the book and figured I should finish. If anything, it provided a small history lesson to help me brush up on my knowledge of the trial and death of Socrates--although I imagine The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone, which was mentioned a few times in this book, will help much better.

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Dec. 12th, 2008

Reading Jacob

They call him Mister Tibbs

In the Heat of the Night In the Heat of the Night by John Ball


My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
A murder occurs in a small Southern town of Wells, and the first suspect, a black man who just happens to be in the wrong place (the town of Wells) at the wrong time (after the body is found), turns out to be Virgil Tibbs, a homicide investigater from California. It's a small embarrassment for the police that's made only worse when the friends and family of the murder victim request his help to catch the killer. Virgil Tibbs is just the man Wells needs, but definitely not the man police chief Bill Gillespie wants.

It's a good book and a good mystery (and interesting enough to add the rest of the Virgil Tibbs mysteries to my reading list), but as much as I hate to admit it, this is one occasion where I liked the movie more. The mystery here is woefully placed in the background, especially as three other suspects after Tibbs lead the police and the reader off the trail, so the revelation of the real killer is sudden and extremely unexpected.

Officer Sam Wood is by far the strongest character in the novel--rightly so, considering his is the main viewpoint--but the main reason I prefer the movie more is because it brings Tibbs up front and center. Here in the novel, Tibbs is mostly a passive background character, doing much of his investigation off the page while the white cops work to solve (and bungle) the case. In a sense, he seems to act like the "Good Negro," unusually educated but mostly subserviant to Wood and Gillsprie, either politely deferring to the two men or quietly investigating on his own, careful not to disturb the white folk in their peaceful little town, only showing up to interrupt when he has to.

It may just be that Tibbs knows enough to keep his head down in an unfriendly place, but I still prefer the aggressive and hotheaded character from the films more. Tibbs seems to passively accept all the racism and abuse hurled at him in the book, whereas he resists it--famously so--in the movie.

That said, it's still a good book, and the number of changes made in the film helps the book stand on its own. Very interested in the rest of the series.


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Dec. 5th, 2008

Reading Jacob

I should just turn this into my Goodread-affiliated reading blog

The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century: Stories by Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Finney, Joe Haldeman, Ursula K. Le Guin, The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century: Stories by Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Finney, Joe Haldeman, Ursula K. Le Guin, by Harry Turtledove

My review


rating: 4 of 5 stars
Very good, very varied collection of storis. There were a few I didn't care for: "Timetipping" by Jack Dann was just weird, and I couldn't really get into Robert Silverberg's "Sailing to Byzantium," as well as one or two other less-impressive ones, but overall the stories varied from entertaining to excellent: "I'm Scared" by Jack Finney was especially good, as well as "A Gun for Dinosaur" by L. Sprague de Camp (more on that below), "The Man Who Came Early" by Poul Anderson, and "Rainbird" by R.A. Lafferty. But it was "The Price of Oranges," a powerful little gem by Nancy Kress, that really made the anthology. That had to be the best one.

I wasn't surprised to find Ray Bradbury's story "A Sound of Thunder" here, but I wasn't impressed either. This is the famous story in which a single mistake in the past ends up dramatically changing the future--that is, by fixing an election and ruining spelling bees forever. Never liked that story.

Butterfly effect or not, it always seemed to me the highest form of vanity to assume that the actions of a single human being can alter the next sixty-odd million years so much. I know, I know, it's time travel. But while it makes perfect sense to apply the butterfly affect to human history, because human history is just so brief (and, for that matter, it's easy to look at any chain of events in the recent past and find plausible ways to alter them), you can't expect me to believe that one tiny event deep in the past can change the course of tens of millions of years in such a radical way. Apparently humans are just that special, but I don't buy it. That's why I was surprised and pleased to read de Camp's story "A Gun for Dinosaur." Took a far more realistic approach (as realistic as time travel can be) to the matter: do what you want in the past, because there's too much time in the past for us to ever screw up. Not the greatest message either, especially in this fragile age of environmentalism, but at least it recognizes that humans aren't as special or as influential as we like to think we are.

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Nov. 4th, 2008

Default Jacob

Fuck yeah!

Hey, cool.

I guess this means my ever-lingering cynicism and doubt was all for nothing. Boy, is my face red.

But hey, President Obama has a nice ring to it.

Fuck yeah.

Oct. 10th, 2008

Grim Reaper Jacob

October Surprise--The Musical!

What a week. The stock market's crashing and we're all going to die. But hey, gas is $3.19 $3.09 $2.99/gallon! I gotta say, I'm almost tempted to vote Republican--except, well, I wasn't thinking clearly the other day when I registered and voted absentee for Obama. I guess I got hooked by that message of Hope and Change when I should've been thanking Our Republican Masters for cheap oil.

But seriously, I voted Obama. Congratulate me if you will, but I mostly voted for him because he seems better than McCain. Too cynical for Hope & Change & Stuff. Didn't think it would matter much anyway--I guessed way back in January that it would come down to Obama and McCain, and that McCain would win: no matter how much Obama inspired young voters, we're still outnumbered by the baby boomers, and I always had a feeling they'd be more comfortable with McCain. Adding Palin to the ticket only guarantees the crazy religious vote, which makes me even more pessimistic...

...but I noticed that Obama's ahead in the polls, so maybe All Is Not Lost? Hard to say. There's another month of this depressing election bullshit to slog through, but [eople aren't so charmed by Palin anymore, and Obama hasn't revealed himself as the Antichrist yet. So he could win. I'm willing to admit that: Obama might just win.

But it's October, and October is a time for surprises. Something could happen to fuck up the campaign and doom us all. But short of Obama's absent father turning out to be bin Laden, I can't think of anything. Palin either scares or amuses people, and nobody seems to care about Obama & that Ayers guy. Even if B. Hussein Osama Obama is exposed as a secret Muslim, I doubt much will change; the people who believe he's a terrorist already have their minds made up. But surprises could happen. And at this point, it'll have to take a really big surprise for McCain to win. Something huge. Something like...

The assassination of Levi Johnston.

Think about it. Here's this young all-American boy, Alaska's favorite son, Bristol Palin's high school sweetheart. (Really! They love each other--that is, he knocked her up--and they're going to get married. With a moosegun at their back, but whatever. He's a young man with a bright future ahead of him--he'll be a Palin!--and, I predict, a promising future in politics) Unfortunately, for McCain to win, he'll have to die.

[DISCLAIMER FOR THE FBI: THE FOLLOWING HYPOTHETICAL SITUATION IS ENTIRELY FICTITIOUS. I AM NOT INVOLVED IN ANY PLOT TO MURDER LEVI JOHNSTON OR ANY MEMBER OF THE PALIN OR MCCAIN FAMILIES. THIS IS A TEST. I REPEAT, THIS IS ONLY A TEST. WILL I BE ALLOWED TO BRING PERSONAL ITEMS TO GUANTANAMO?]

Picture the scene: a giant McCain rally barely a week before the election. John McCain is there, with wife and family. Sarah Palin is there too, with hubby and family, Bristol and Levi looking either scared or in love. The Palin fans are going nuts, speaking in tongues (ironic, isn't it, that "Drill, baby, drill!"--probably the very words that got him into this mess in the first place--are the last words young Levi will ever hear?), while McCain's supporters just look embarrassed. Suddenly, a shot. Maybe two. People scream. Someone falls. And in the chaos that follows, the shooter escapes.

And then, a shocking revelation: Sarah Palin and John McCain are unhurt, but Alaska's Golden Boy is slain. His wife-to-be Bristol is widowed, his unborn child will never know his father. The Palins withdraw to Alaska to mourn, and McCain suspends his campaign (again), this time out of respect for the dead. But in an act of sympathy for the GOP's fallen hero, the American public, shocked and saddened by this terrible, terrible loss, nonetheless gather together to elect McCain and Palin to the White House. It is a landslide victory, and Barack Obama returns to Chicago to do whatever it is that community organizers do. Whether the killer meant to shoot Palin and/or McCain, or really intended to hit Levi all along, is irrelevant: it's a brilliant stroke of luck, and the country can look forward to a golden age of government in Washington with those two mavericks in the White House.

Glory, glory hallelujah.

The real question is: Who shot Levi Johnston?

Whodunnit?Collapse )

Sep. 24th, 2008

Grim Reaper Jacob

WIN

Is it just me, or did today play out like the climax of your average street basketball movie, where the basketball comes to a halt at the hero's feet, there is an epic pause, doves take flight, and people realize that this it it, man? Only there was no basketball. Just the election.

OBAMA: Hey, John, let's work together to save the economy, k?

MCCAIN: Sure!

(PAUSE)

MCCAIN: Hey! Everyone! I've decided to suspend my PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN--yeah, my CAMPAIGN to become PRESIDENT--so I can SAVE THE ECONOMY. Let's forget about Friday's PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE and the fact that I'm running for PRESIDENT because I CARE about SAVING THE ECONOMY more than I care about RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT. This is not about the ELECTION. I want to SAVE the ECONOMY.

(PAUSE)

MCCAIN: Oh, and Obama can come too.

(PAUSE)

OBAMA: ...

EVERYONE ELSE: *Holds breath*

OBAMA: I'm sorry, you can't be president.

MCCAIN: *melts*

KARL ROVE: *bursts into flames*

PUPPIES AND ANGELS: *Descend from Heaven*

EVERYONE ELSE: *Orgasm*
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Sep. 13th, 2008

Reading Jacob

A Sorry Attempt at a Book Review: "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson

The Lottery: And Other Stories The Lottery: And Other Stories by Shirley Jackson


My review


rating: 5 of 5 stars
Haven't read all the stories here: I checked this book out from the library to read "The Lottery," and that story alone was so good I can't really justify reading the rest for free. This is something that needs to be bought, owned, and given a place of honor on one's bookshelves.

This is the first time I've read "The Lottery," and it feels like I'm about six years too late--from what I hear, this story tends to get read in high school English classes; if any of the courses I took in high school had provided this as reading material, I would've loved it. That's not to say I didn't like it now, but--after hearing about this story countless times since I left high school, and not having read it until now--the subtlety and the terror of "The Lottery" feels rather diminished by the fact that, before I even read the first line, I knew what it was about.

That doesn't mean the end isn't chilling ("It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.)--don't get me wrong, it may be one of the best damn endings I've ever read--but, to tell the truth, I really, really, REALLY wish I could read this completely ignorant of what this "lottery" everyone is so excited about really was.

Great story, yeah. I just wish the ending could be the best-kept secret in English literature, only known to those who have actually read it.

Did anyone else have that problem?


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Sep. 9th, 2008

Flashy Jacob (Animation)

Um.

So. Um. I had this dream last night. And, um, Barack Obama stopped on the campaign trail to, um, participate in, ah, a cabaret show for charity.

And I must say, he looked pretty good in fishnet stockings, doing the can-can.

At least it wasn't the other candidate. Thank you, subconscious!

Sep. 7th, 2008

Reading Jacob

A Sorry Attempt at a Book Review: Jean Valjean's Excellent Adventure

Les Misérables Les Misérables by Victor Hugo


My review


rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm hopeless at writing book reviews. Completely hopeless. Can't do it to save my life. I usually end giving too much detail in the summary and then stumble through a dissection of the theme. What a way to butcher a book. And with a book as great as Les Misérables, I doubt I could really do it justice. Besides, I probably can't say anything about the book itself that hasn't already been said before, so I'll offer some personal reflections instead. Hopefully that works. And here we go!

When I was about halfway through Les Mis, I came across an abridged version in a local bookstore. My copy, unabridged, is 1,463 pages. The abridged copy? Less than 500. I was shocked. Even though I could tell, from my reading, that it was entirely possible to cut out nearly a thousand pages, I still read the entire freakin' book.

And so should you! Because any publisher worth his weight, and any reader worth his spit, should know that this is not "Jean Valjean Goes to Paris." This is not a jolly little story about a guy who has a handful of adventures after he gets out of jail. This is Les Miserables--Les Freakin' Miserables, a title that cannot be translated into a wimpy language like English without looking incredibly stupid--and if you want the abridged version, go see the damn musical. Which is amazing, by the way.

But whether you've seen the musical or not, if you want to read the book, you will not read the abridged version. Don't you dare consider it. Yeah, I know, Victor Hugo frequently turns away from the main narrative to focus on side characters, historical events, religion, philosophy, and other subjects. That's why this isn't called "Jean Valjean's Excellent Adventure." Victor Hugo had more than a story to tell--he had an entire world. To cut all that out, so you just have the barest amount of the original story--well, I can't even imagine what that's like.

Yes, I'll confess, my eyes occasionally glazed over during some of Hugo's lengthier side narratives. Yeah, I started to get a bit frustrated when, about 800 pages in, Hugo was still introducing characters (the middle part, that great hump, is the hardest part to get through, but after all, it was the halfway point, and Marius wasn't exactly my favorite character). And, I'll admit, I got a bit frustrated during my final 2-day, 400-page marathon for the end when, during the more exciting parts of the story, Hugo took a step back from the barricades and the escapes and the recovery to focus on, say, the history of the Paris sewers.

But despite all that, I loved the entire thing. I couldn't help myself. This fantastic novel was never intended to be a thrilling action book. If I wanted to read something quick and exciting, I would happly grab any one of those grocery store books with a two-week shelf life. But Les Mis< isn't a couple of cliffhangers and a cookie-cutter ending. This (here's where the attempt at legitimate review comes in) is a story about Life, about death, about love, about loss, redemption, faith, hope, dreams, freedom, despair--hell, this is a story about Humanity in all its glory and ugliness. And to paraphrase a certain Monsieur T., I pity the fool who thinks he can get all that in the abridged version. 500 pages? Dubya-tee-eff?

I knew, when I picked this one up, that I wanted to read something big, lengthy, and dense. I knew it would be a challenge to finish in a reasonable time, but I wasn't worried. I had plenty of free time, wanted to lose myself in a good book, and Les Mis seemed the perfect book for the occasion. And I gotta say, I was right.

Now, on to War and Peace!

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