Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ms. Chumlig’s Wisdom (Rainbows End)

In Rainbows End, a science fiction book by Vernor Vinge set in the near future, Ms. Chumlig is a teacher at Fairmont High, a sort of tech school for not so successful teenagers and for older adults. (See My November 29th Blog on Rainbows End.) Although she is fictional, her wisdom is relevant to adults in the real-life job market today.

The first bit of advice could come straight out of a Seth Godin book or blog entry:

Some of you think your hand in life is all deuces and treys. But I have a theory of life and it is straight out of gaming. There is always an angle. You, each of you, have some special wild cards. Play with them. Find out what makes you different and better. Because it is there, if only you can find it. And once you do, you’ll be able to contribute answers to others and others will be willing to contribute back to you. In short, synthetic serendipity doesn’t just happen. By golly, you must create it.
After talking with my fifth grade teacher hostess on Thanksgiving, I am convinced that most middle-aged and older adults could use some classes to update their skill sets:

Administration has changed a lot—Okay. So we have to learn some new tricks—Yes …That’s an important point. This class is about search [web searching] and analysis, the heart of the economy. We obviously need search and analysis as consumers. In almost all modern jobs, search and analysis are how we make out living. But, in the end, we must also know something about something.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Rainbows End

Chocked-full of interesting ideas. Fast-paced. Intriguing. Feel-good. Rainbows End, the 2007 Hugo award winner by Vernor Vinge, is a techno-fiction novel that takes place in the near future.

Two worlds collide. The first belongs to Alfred Vaz, who has developed some new YGBM (You-Gotta-Believe-Me) technology, mind control he plans to unleash worldwide. “Then he would be in control. For the first time in history, the world would be under adult supervision.”

The second world belongs to Robert Gu, a once acerbic, world renown poet, who almost succumbed to end-stage Alzheimer’s disease, but with the help of some new medical breakthroughs has been restored to the capacity of a young adult. Many of his other illnesses have also been reversed. Robert, with the help of his not always so loving family and some friends, tries to maneuver the new, technologically enhanced, world that he finds himself in. Not entirely known to Robert, his chief ally is Miri, his teenage granddaughter. Most of the world is “wearing:” they have hoptics, a type of contact, and wearables, clothing with technology embedded, that allow them to see overlays of information on top of the physical world and communicate with each other without using voice or keyboard. Robert and a band of his old group of friends from the university unknowingly become cast as stooges in Vaz’s plot.

The novel is so filled with ideas that I find it difficult to isolate just a couple for discussion. The novel made me think about technology, about people, and about my own future. For me, this is the mark of a good novel.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Classic Science Fiction. The 1970 Hugo and 1971 Nebula award winning novel Ringworld by Larry Niven contains sexy babes, quirky aliens and strange worlds. The mission is to explore the huge ring that surrounds a distant star. For the most part, the novel is light and fun.

One serious note does weave itself through the novel: What does it mean to be lucky? Teela, one of two human on the exploration, is a twenty year old who was bred to be lucky. Her luck isn’t always so lucky for those around her.

I encountered something interesting as I read the book. When I really put effort into visualizing the characters, as if I was watching a science fiction movie, I found the experience quite fun. If I just read for plot or to find some profound insight, I was a bit bored.

Ringworld, which is the first in a series, is part of our science fiction heritage. It is one of those “must reads” and now I’ve read it. I am on to some more modern science fiction for the next few days.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving Conversation (Evolution of Fifth Graders)

The hostess at our Thanksgiving dinner yesterday was a fifth grade teacher, who has been teaching elementary school students for over three decades. In between eating wonderful food, including a chocolate pumpkin bread pudding that was so good that it must have come down from heaven, she told me that fifth graders are biologically different than they were when she started teaching school.

The discussion started with food allergies. Years ago a teacher might have a couple of kids who had to be watched so that they didn’t eat peanuts. In recent years, children have become more sensitive to allergens and more children are affected. My hostess described some of the precautions that the teachers now have to take, including making sure that they don’t have peanut residue on their hands when they correct papers.

Later on my hostess described some of the changes that she has made in her classroom. She has gotten rid of the desks and traditional chairs and replaced them with beanbag chairs and stability balls, with the kids using lap desks. The small movements required for children to balance on the balls help them to focus. I have heard this before with regard to kinesthetic learners and some hyperactive kids. She continued talking about how because kids are exposed to so much digital media, especially computers, their brains are physically different from earlier generations. They process information differently. She explained that schools need to adapt their teaching methods to these changes.

All this from Thanksgiving dinner with extended family! Oh, and I ate pickled watermelon rind for the first, and hopefully not last, time.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Satisfying--like the sensation you get after finishing a wonderful dessert or the perfect cup of coffee--describes how I felt after I finished reading the 2006 Hugo winning novel, Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. It had just the right combination of character development and science. I liked how the plot, using two different timelines, continued to introduce questions for the reader, answered some questions while introducing more questions, and finally answered the overarching questions of the novel. I felt rewarded when the two timelines finally merged.

The story is told from the view point of Tyler Dupree, who is friends with twins Jason and Diane. At the beginning of The Spin they are 12 and 13, just being kids one night when all of a sudden all the stars disappear. In time, they learn that a temporal barrier has been place around the earth; one second on earth is equivalent to 3.17 years in the rest of the universe. The story goes on to chronicle how The Spin affects the friends’ lives for the next few decades on earth.

The style of the book reminds me of Robert J. Sawyer’s The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy: both focus on the characters, take place--more or less--in the present, have a strong “what if this happened” element, and extrapolate from some interesting science. The writing is very good and tight; many of the descriptions are used to either further the plot or to develop the characters.

The “chocolate sprinkles on top” for me was when Wilson alluded to Robert Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land, the 1962 Hugo winner. Once I finish reading the Hugo winning novels I definitely want to read more of Robert Charles Wilson’s novels.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Journey into Hugo’s World—Background

Journeying. Journaling. Exploring. Attempting to find a path through a wild country. These are some of the words that describe my experience of reading Hugo winning novels the last few months.

Since my return to reading fiction a few years ago, I have turned into a bookworm. I read when most people are watching TV. On Sunday afternoons, I literally feel disoriented if I am not in the middle of a compelling book. In June I felt restless. I had read mainly silly mystery series in the beginning of the year. Suddenly nothing seemed interesting. I searched the internet to find suggestions. As I was walking back from the library one day a thought popped into my head, “I could read Hugo winners this summer.” In retrospect, this must be a lot like deciding to move to another city for a summer or to take a gap year. I didn’t realize the ramifications of what it would mean to me.

Books, books, and more books. Even as I type, new books are being written, published, put on library and bookstore shelves. Choosing to read the Hugo winners has given me a sense of structure—a path through the wilderness of titles, but it has also required commitment. Friends don’t quite get it. They don’t understand why I don’t stop midway through a book that I don’t particularly like. One suggested that I had an obsessive compulsive disorder. I mostly get blank looks. They don’t understand the satisfaction I feel when I finish reading a book and enter the title and author into my little moleskin notebook, like having a passport stamped.

Like any good journey, I am learning a lot. Each book changes me a little bit, but the books cumulatively are changing me. I am between a third and a half of the way through the list of Hugo winning novels, not necessarily taking the books in order. I can hear the opening lines of Star Trek in my head. My journey isn’t into space, but instead into the culture that produced over five decades of science fiction and into my own experience as a reader and a human being.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Forever War

The Politics of War. Perspective. Centuries contrasted with the critical, minute actions of a life. These are some of the thoughts that went through my mind the day after I finished reading the 1976 Hugo and Locus Awards and 1975 Nebula Award winning novel, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. In a nutshell, the novel is the story of William Mandella, from his basic training and combat in the first real battle in the war against the Taurans (an alien species) to his—and the war’s—final battle over a thousand years later. Due to time dilation caused when the troops travel through space, decades and even centuries pass between each battle and between Mandella’s communications from earth. This gives Mandella and the reader the unique opportunity to witness the radically changing cultural and social norms on earth.

I enjoyed The Forever War much more than an earlier Hugo winning war story, Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. I found I could much more easily care about Mandella, even though at times I was irritated by some of his homophobia. While the novel was written partially as a response to Vietnam—in which Halderman served, it still speaks to the experience of war today. I was painfully reminded of the way US troops are deployed repeatedly to Afghanistan and Iraq during the current war. Because I am not a person who would normally read a war novel, The Forever War helped to expand my awareness of the troops who have fought and continue to fight in wars.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Christmas At the Mysterious Bookstore

Secondary Audience. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed many—if not most-- of the short stories in Christmas At the Mysterious Bookstore, edited by Otto Penzler. I loved "The Lesson of the Season" by Thomas H. Cook because it spoke to my experience as a book—sometimes mystery—reader. I especially enjoyed "The Killer Christian" by Andrew Klavan and "I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus" by Ed McBain; both included endings that were emotionally touching. But I could not relate as much as I would have liked to many of the stories because I was not the primary audience: a mystery bibliophile, a New Yorker, a serious mystery reader, or, especially, one of The Mysterious Bookstore patrons. I, on the other hand, occasionally read quirky mystery novels to forget my troubles for a few hours and have never even been to New York, though I have worked at a bookstore.

A brief history. “Each year, for the past 17 years, Otto Penzler [Owner of The Mysterious Bookstore] has commissioned an original story set during the Christmas season by a leading mystery writer, with some of the action taking place in The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. These stories were then produced as pamphlets, 1,000 copies, and given to customers of the book store as a Christmas present.” The book contains those short stories. This venerable store sells mysteries of all kinds and features rare and collectible hard backs.

While I am glad I read the book, I missed many of the allusions to famous mystery writers and the Mysterious Bookstore, and I occasionally felt like a dilettante. (This happened more with the stories written in the earlier years.) My guess is that the more the reader relates to the original audience of the short stories, the greater their enjoyment of the book will be.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Lesson of the Season

The short story "The Lesson of the Season" by Thomas H. CookChristmas at The Mysterious Bookshop, edited by Otto Penzler.—touched my heart like few stories have. It was like someone lovingly looked into my soul and smiled. The plot is simple: a man comes into a bookstore at Christmas time, and a clerk offers to help him find a book that he might enjoy. I saw myself reflected in both characters.
But saddest of all, Veronica thought, was that Harry never bought a good book, and thus had yet to experience the actual thrill of literature, the way a fine passage could lift you high above the teeming world, give you focus and a sense of proportion, allow a small life to expand.
Harry explains to Veronica why he buys pulp crime novels:

“They’re like a scotch to me,” he said.
“A scotch?”
“You know, like when you come home at the end of a bad day, and maybe your wife is waiting for you, and she gives you a scotch.”
Harry goes on to explain how reading these unsophisticated crime novels saved his sanity. Veronica has been reading the book The Measure of Man and by the end of the story understands in her heart the quote she has been repeating in her head: “We live in the echo of our pain.”

Monday, November 15, 2010

Le Guin on Science Fiction

The introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness—I have the 2000 Ace trade paperback edition—is a “must read” in itself. In it Ursula K. Le Guin talks about Science Fiction:
though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn’t the name of the game by any means. …a lot of…science fiction [is] a thought-experiment …. The purpose of a thought-experiment…is…to describe reality, the present world.
Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.
Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists say.
In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find—if it’s a good novel—that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have changed a little…

The Left Hand of Darkness

Vulnerability. That was the first word that came to mind this morning when I was thinking of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. The book earned both a Hugo and a Nebula award. I won’t even pretend to write a review; hundreds, if not thousands, of people have done it before me. But I can tell you my particular experience with the book.

The Left Hand of Darkness was yet another step in my goal to read all the Hugo winners between 1959 and the present. I found the beginning cumbersome. I had a hard time getting into the setting and the story. Winter, a planet in the middle of an ice age, is inhabited by androgynous people who go through kemmering once a month. During this time they experience a type of estrus and may temporarily become male or female, depending upon circumstances at the time. Most of the plot revolves around Genly Ai, a male envoy sent to Winter, as he tries to understand the culture of Winter and attempts to convince the governments to join the Ekumen, a collective of worlds. I was lost in names, places, folk stories and terms. Ursula K. Le Guin, as I remember form reading her books years ago, has a great talent for creating a world; but it was not my world, and I was confused.

Towards the middle of the book, the story came alive for me. When Ai and Estraven, one of the people of Winter, are traveling through one of the uninhabitable parts of the planet, during the coldest season of the year, I was fully engaged. This is the part of the story that I will remember because it brought out the vulnerability of both the man Ai and the genderless Estraven. The potentially lethal environment, politics and culture, biology, trust and their relationship to one another all add to their vulnerability. While this was the part of the book with which I resonated, I am sure that other readers connect with other aspects of the story.

I plan to read The Dispossessed, also by Le Guin and also part of the Hainish Cycle, before the end of the year. I will be interested to see how my experience of that book is influenced by The Left Hand of Darkness.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Stranger in a Strange Land

Provocative… After almost 50 years, the 1962 Hugo Winner, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, is still provocative, withstanding the test of time.

Stranger in a Strange Land tells the story of Mike, who is raised by Martians, after his parents, the first explorers to Mars, are killed. The book chronicles his life on earth after he is brought back by the second group of explorers to Mars. Mike is a human bred, Martian nurtured being. The book explores his escape from the prevailing powers, his nurturing by Jubal—a kind, cynical, and wily man, and his experiences living in the real world. It explores issues of religion, social structure, and our limitations as human beings.

Stranger in a Strange Land is definitely not one of my favorite books, but I am glad that I read it. On one hand, it is sexist, homophobic, and way too long for my tastes. I read the original uncut version, making matters a bit worse. On the other hand, Mike and Jubal are likable characters, the ideas make me think, and I feel richer for having read a book that influenced a lot of the thinking of the 1960’s.  “You Grok?”

Monday, November 8, 2010

Light Boxes

Light Boxes, by Shane Jones, is a fascinating hybrid between a fantasy novel and a poem. The imagery is both beautiful:

Selah painted an intricate intertwining of kites on Bianca’s hands and wrists, the tails extending up her forearms and around her shoulders.
And terrifying:

Caldor Clemens was hanged by his neck inside a hollow oak tree. His flesh had been torn open, and birds had made nests inside his stomach, chest, and neck.
The novel has multiple levels of meaning. On the surface it is the simple story of a town that is punished by not only being banned from any sort of flying—even the bees can’t fly-- but also by having to live constantly in the month of February. But much of the meaning is communicated through the symbolism: the girl who smells of honey and smoke, the Solution who wear bird masks, balloons, mint, the light box, even the month of February.

Is this a book about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), depression, pervasive pessimism in a community, something else entirely; or is this just a simple story?

I read the book twice and would read it a few more times if I didn’t have to return it to the library. This would be a great little book to use in a class or a book group because it is so open to different interpretations.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Election 2010 & Yin Yang

As a person who has practiced Tai Chi--almost every afternoon--for over ten years and read books on Taoism, the current political climate is beyond frustrating. The country is so polarized. Conservatives and Liberals are pointing their fingers at the other and calling them names and refusing to play remotely nice. Democrats vote as a block. Republicans vote as a block. Whoa to anyone’s political future if they cross the line. This is turning into national suicide. –-I will cease my rant here. You’ve got the idea.
The Tai Chi—yin/yang-- symbol has been used for millennia to describe life. Life contains opposites: yin and yang, “male” and “female”, expansion and contraction, etc. According to the symbol, even the most yang has a little bit of yin and even the most yin has a little bit of yang. The symbol tells us that everything that exists was created by a dance between these opposites. Martial arts are based upon this principle. In Tai Chi practice those principles help us balance as well as prepare to fight an opponent. For many centuries in the East this principle was used as the basis for medicine and philosophy. The point is the dance, the interplay.

I personally believe now is the time for the United States to use the principle of the yin and the yang. The polarization needs to stop being a static barrier and become a dance. We don’t need partisanship. We don’t need compromise. We need the two sides to come together to create new solutions that neither could arrive at by themselves. We need to work with the good from both sides and create something unique and perhaps surprising. The two sides need to dance, wrestle, argue, and brainstorm with one another until they create something that no one could ever have expected.

[A few wild guesses to some new directions: Increase economic stability by nurturing and encouraging relatively small, very flexible and mobile companies that can change directions rapidly. Build industries that use the extreme weather the world has been experiencing—and will continue to experience—as an economic opportunity. Help reduce healthcare costs by making outdoor activities fun and trendy again. Help reduce healthcare costs by creating a patriotic incentive for fast food restaurants to get people hooked on nutritionally rich/calorie sane foods—think sweet potatoes and carrots glammed up.]

I am not a political person. I just want to read my mystery and science fiction books, practice Tai Chi & stay healthy, and make a living. I hope this is my last political rant.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bryant & May Off the Rails

What a fun, fun ride!! Bryant and May are back.

Of Bryant:
With increasing age, the grace notes of temperance, balance, harmony and gentility are supposed to appear in the human heart. This was not entirely true, however, in Arthur Bryant’s case. He remained acidulous, stubborn, incentive and opinionated. In addition, he was getting ruder by the day…
Of May:

Whenever May felt that his life lacked order, he redressed the imbalance by sprucing up.
Bryant and May Off the Rails, the latest novel in the Peculiar Crimes Unit Mysteries by Christopher Fowler, lived up to all my expectations. Right from the beginning, I was laughing. At a couple of points, I was yelling at the characters. [If people can yell at football players, I am allowed to yell at characters in a mystery.] Bryant is as quirky as ever. I was engrossed, trying to figure out who the killer(s) was/were, up to the end. Fowler’s wordsmithing is enviable. And, I furthered my education of London, this time the subway system and anarchy. What more could a woman want? My only teeny, tiny, perhaps whiny disappointment was lack of a strong story lines for some of the minor characters in the PCU; the drawback to writing a series.

Suggestion: For anyone who has not read the series, consider reading Bryant & May On the Loose first. While not a requirement, it fills in some of the motivation.