Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Imager (Fantasy Novel)

I was searching for a book about imagination when I came across Imager by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. I almost forgot what a joy it is to start reading a new series, watching how the various conflicts and storylines are set into motion. There are so many little presents to unwrap in the novels to come. My dominant feeling was curiosity as I turned the pages.

Imager starts out with Rhennthyl choosing not to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a wool merchant. Instead he apprentices with a portrait artist. While Rhenn has some differences with his master and the Guild, he is a very good artist and is almost ready to earn the title of master when tragedy strikes. His master is killed in a mysterious fire. Rhenn wonders whether he unknowingly contributed to the fire because moments earlier, in a moment of frustration, he had imagined the explosion. Unable to find another master to allow him to complete his training, Rhenn explores his ability to manifest things using his imagination. --While an apprentice he had been able to move areas of paintings with his thoughts. – Satisfied that he has talent, Rhenn goes to study with the imaginers, people trained to manifest object with their minds. They are both valued and feared. He quickly advances through the levels, but not without incident. In self-defense, he kills one man and seriously disables another, the son of a powerful man. Rhenn soon is the object of assassination attempts. In addition, other young imagers are being murdered. By the end of the first novel, Rhenn has collected more than his share of enemies. The plotline contains a changing political situation that could lead to war. But, no series is complete without a good love story. Rhenn’s family pressures him to find a suitable wife. He meets Seliora while he is still an artist’s apprentice. She saves his life early on in his career as an imager. While her family embraces him and his calling, it becomes obvious that they have ulterior motives.

The world of Imager feels very real. While it is clearly fictional –it has two moons– it has elements of the Victorian era. The apprentice systems are well thought-out. The actions of the characters are consistent with their environment. So far, I think that I have found a nice series to follow. I have had just enough ponderable moments to fulfill my intellectual needs. I like the characters. The plot is not overly demanding for quick before bedtime reading, yet it is still interesting. As we approach a potentially long winter, I always feel better having a series to set some sort of rhythm through my weeks.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Things a Little Bird Told Me (Non-fiction)

Some of Biz Stone’s words of wisdom from Things a Little Bird Told Me:
If you take an idea and just hold it in your head, you unconsciously start to do things that advance you toward that goal. It kinda works. It did for me.
Real opportunities in the world aren’t listed on job boards, and they don’t pop up in your in-box with the subject line: Great Opportunity Could Be Yours. Inventing your dream is the first and biggest step toward making it come true. Once you realize this simple truth, a whole new world of possibilities opens for you.
Rose-colored glasses tint the world with false beauty. But an open, curious, optimistic mind yields solutions, and has a better time along the way.
Creativity is a renewable resource. Challenge yourself every day. Be as creative as you like, as often as you want, because you can never run out. Experience and curiosity drive us to make unexpected, offbeat connections. It is these nonlinear steps that often lead to greatest works.
I haven’t used Twitter in years. So, when I recently received a tweet, I was a bit clueless. When I went to my local library, instead of finding a book on how to use Twitter, I managed to bring home a book on one of the co-founders of Twitter. I swear I enter an alternate reality every time I go to the Library. When I get home, I often just stare at the contents of my backpack. After five weeks of ignoring Things a Little Bird Told Me by Biz Stone, I finally read the book in a long afternoon. Why did I wait? It is a delight.

Things a Little Bird Told Me is a first person account of Biz Stone’s life leading up to the creation of Twitter, during his time at Twitter, and after leaving Twitter. Biz Stone is somewhat of a free spirit. He has been fond of breaking rules that don’t work for him, yet he has a strong moral compass. He understands that technology is really about people. His book is wise, witty, fun, and inspiring.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Novel)

Books. A Mystery. A Secret Society. A Font. Technology. The Singularity. Friends.

Yesterday was my official “be nice to Kata day.” I drank a white chocolate latte, ate a chocolate croissant, and read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Life was very, very good: long, contented sigh. Mr. Penumbra was the perfect book for the day. It falls into many of my favorite categories: “I get by with a little help from my friends,” “Helps you forget your troubles for an afternoon.” “Quirky but likeable characters,” “Down on his luck rises to the occasion,” and “Some things to make you think.” It is a novel with a mystery element to it. The juxtaposition of 15th Century printing with 21st Century technology makes the novel fresh and interesting. It is a novel that was easy to fall into, but when I was done I wasn’t hyper from an adrenaline rush.

Clay is a down on his luck geek who takes a job at a 24-hour bookstore, where he works the nightshift. His job has some odd responsibilities. He is required to keep a detailed log with descriptions of the bookstore visitors. He waits on odd visitors, members of a secret organization to which Mr. Penumbra belongs, who check out books that are written in code. The bookstore has very few actual customers. Clay decides to enlist the help of technology savvy friends to find out what is really going on. His actions change the lives of his friends, Mr. Penumbra, and members of the secret club, as well as Clay himself.

I feel like Goldilocks in the Three Bears: this novel is just right. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is thought-provoking without being too deep. It is interesting without making me pine for a sequel. The book is quirky without being overly silly or being “adult-rated.” It contains a bit of menace without having any real violence. It contains images that dance in my head but don’t haunt me. I guess the big drawback for me is that I don’t know a lot of people who share the same quirky set of interests that I do, who would share my delight in the book. Maybe I need to add still another category for novels, “technology with a big a heart,” so that some geeks can more easily find this book 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

No Novel October (Scattered Thoughts)

I was more than a little shocked when I recently opened the little Moleskin notebook where I keep a list of all the books that I have finished reading. For the first time in at least five years, as far as the notebook goes back, I had not finish reading a single non-fiction book in a month, October. This from a woman who in 2011 had months in which she finished reading ten novels. What happened? Yes, the whole Pulitzer Prize reading thing took away some of my enthusiasm for reading novels. Yes, for the first time in my life I had cable TV and a DVR. Yes, I read quite a bit of non-fiction. But, no novels at all? What was going on?

Recently I was having coffee with a friend of mine. She was enthusiastically talking, and I was doing a lot of nodding. I like her. The coffee was great. The wall next to us was covered with a collage of interesting photographs. The conversation turned to her concern about a difficult situation. Her actions had the potential to force a person to give up a long-held identity. All of a sudden I heard myself interrupt, “People change identities. It is just part of life.” Uncharacteristically, I felt no sympathy for prodding someone to shed an overly worn identity. I went on to describe some of the highlights of my reading about Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky, a man who helped change the way we think about art.

Kandinsky was partially responsible for my lack of novel reading in October. Yes, novels saved my life, but biography can have a powerful influence, too. Book by book the life of Kandinsky has been changing the way I think. Since July, I have read The Noisy Paintbox by Barb Rosenstock; Kandinsky A Retrospective by Angela Lampe and Brad Roberts; Kandinsky Watercolours and Other Works on Paper by Frank Whitford; and Kandinsky: Absolute Abstract Edited by Helmut Friedel. Each book gave me more of a feeling for the life of Kandinsky. Here was a man who moved back and forth between Russia and Germany and spent his final years in France. Sometimes his moves were brought about by his own interests but other times they were forced upon him by the politics involved in two Worlds Wars. Here was a man who knew great wealth, but he also knew great poverty. His only son died partially as a result of starvation. Yet, here was an artist who continued to evolve his style almost up to the time of his death at 77. Here was a man who thrived as an artist in his fifties and sixties, when many people are coasting in life. Despite having to change identities and experiencing various hardships, Kandinsky became a catalyst for new ways of thinking about art. At a time when I could not bring myself to read one more Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who wrote about the military and war, Kandinsky inspired me.

When all is said and done, I seriously doubt Kandinsky will turn out to be my favorite artist. Kandinsky also had his share of flaws as a human being. But, his life made and continues to make a powerful statement. A few days after our coffee, my friend said to me. “I got. What you said about Kandinsky helped me see the situation in a totally different way.”

So I am back to my routine. Some of my favorite cable shows are on fall break. If I include Nightmare Before Christmas –okay it took under ten minutes to read—I have now finished reading three fiction books for the month, and I have another two from the Library waiting in my backpack. I feel better about trying to read more Pulitzer Prize winning novels with the understanding that I allow serendipity and my long-term favorites to shape my reading choices. And, yes, I brought home a very slim book about Kandinsky.