Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark

An interesting novella. Her typical sharp sentences. A complex theme. A disastrous ending. Africa? My question reading it: Apparently she wrote this aged 82…. so, is it just confused, slapdash, but it comes across (the repetition) as profound? Did her publisher just say, “Muriel, whatever, your readers will love it and it’s another vacation cottage for you (and me) so who cares if it makes sense?!” Or is incredibly dense, and if you were a PhD you could do text analysis of the repetitions and “see” underlying layers of complexity that are riffing on the simple story?

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Burn-In, by P.W. Singer and August Cole

Over the last few days I read Burn-In, by P.W. Singer and August Cole. The pretension is a “realistic”-likely sci-fi thriller of the U.S. around 2040, with lots of AI automation, and the social reaction to that displacement. The prose is clunky- an odd paradox that despite million-fold improvement in computing power, most humans still cannot write good literature! Anyway, while provocative, and probably good for teaching, I found it pretty humdrum as a thriller.

The blurbs from famous creatives on the front and back cover are so over the top, it is one reason to not buy this book. Pure marketing gimmickry. The book may be worth borrowing from the library.

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Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs

I read about half of Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs and then stopped. As usual, the writing is witty and insightful. But the story, of an undergraduate working as nanny for a flamboyant college-town chef with a handsome, elegant husband… well, I just lost interest.

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The Virgin in the Garden by A.S. Byatt

A.S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden is an involved, minute look at the lives of several characters in an English town on the eve of the coronation of the queen in 1953. The characters are connected, directly and indirectly, to a playwright and a play, about Elizabeth I. In is very erudite, very literary. Most of the characters are tightly bound by social and class constraints. Some yearn to be free, some yearn to be anything but what they are. Ultimately, after slogging halfway through it, I gave up. Apparently I am not the only one. Tough novel to “enjoy.”

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On the Black Hill, by Bruce Chatwin

Another novel I could not finish. I had wanted to read some novels set in Wales, and this was first on many lists. To me, it started out interesting and complex, but then when the twins take over, with a little bit of magical realism and a lot of heavy-handed descent into tragedy (the auction scene in particular) I just gave up and read the Wikipedia summary of the plot (rather abbreviated). I wanted to like it, but something about the prose- is “florid” the right word?- put me off. I didn’t care to follow the trajectory of the twins, and the father (Amos) limitations I found a bit odd.

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Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe by George Eliot

Got about halfway through this and for some reason had a hard time continuing. The realism and alienation of Silas Marner’s early life was bracing, but the interaction between Godrey and Dunstan Cass I found clumsy. I think Trollope and Dickens did those kinds of “small gentry” better, maybe? Anyway, read the Wikipedia plot summary for the ending and don’t think I missed that much by not continuing.

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Did The Day After change anything?

Listening to an 80,000 Hours podcast with Bear Braumoeller, a political scientist speaking about war and conflict. Braumoeller dropped an aside in the podcast, mentioning that there are many ways to reduce the probability of war, and especially of escalation, and giving as an example the television move The Day After. The movie aired in 1983 on ABC, and supposedly had an audience of 100 million. According to Braumoeller, “It really brought home the dangers of nuclear war. You could tell, for a while at least, it had an impact on society. It was all anybody talked about. If I remember correctly, it was even before social media, and it was clear that everybody was talking about it everywhere.” We all say things we regret in causal conversations, and maybe this one will haunt Braumoeller? I am speaking of: “If I remember correctly, it was even before social media…” Maybe he was an early user of The Well?

But let me get to the point. I was like, “huh?” How could one know whether the show had an impact? Admittedly, there was careful wording by Braumoeller: “You could tell, for a while at least, it had an impact on society.” If society is defined loosely, then the fact that maybe 100 million people watched at least some of the movie, meant it had an impact on how they allocated their time across channels? “It was all anybody talked about.” Again, 100 million people “talked” about what channel it was on, or should they change the channel, or the movie was good but now they wanted to go to sleep, perhaps? But Braumoeller presumably meant more! So I put it into Google Scholar. And WOW it turned out there were dozens of studies of before-after, and all kinds of stories. The TV movie produced a lot of academic and journalistic discussion about its impact, for sure (but is that the same thing as an impact?). After skimming abstracts for a dozen of the studies I gave up… not very convincing. Sure, the day after watching a movie about nuclear Armageddon, you might reply to a survey question that you were concerned about nuclear war. But three days after? Thirty? Isn’t that what we mean by impact?

One other problem with the argument is that, apparently, and rather glibly, one might observe that four years later a miniseries, Amerika, about a Russian takeover of the United States, was one of the biggest miniseries in television, reaching, also, an audience of 100 million! This show was the polar opposite, presumably inducing digging in of heels and escalation-itis…. “Our values are worth fighting for, no matter the sacrifice!”

Anyway, this kind of cultural event study or propaganda mass media event study is interesting and worth pursuing. Just thinking aloud, I recall the Birth of a Nation paper, the Father Coughlin paper, the Radio Milles Collines paper… Personally, I’ve always had a back burner interest in Bob Dylan and Joan Baez’s tour influence, and also the influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (“So you’re the little lady who started this great war,” Lincoln famously uttered). And the Trump rallies followed by greater arrests of Black motorists is a related example. One of these days.

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On the Steel Breeze, by Alastair Reynolds

Sometimes I have a small craving for science fiction, and it kicks in especially when reading regular fiction drama (in this case Lorrie Moore, in one of her slightly more serious novels, which I am 3/4 way through and was just getting depressed and not looking forward to reading, so I decided to switch). I randomly picked up On the Steel Breeze, by Alastair Reynolds, at Recycle Books in San Jose, our local used bookstore. My assessment: it definitely was a break, but frustrating. poorly written and poorly plotted, this space opera has a lot of interesting elements (3 clone central character, several levels of AI interacting with humans, super-advanced but silent “alien” intelligence). But the science, the character development, the plot, were all underwhelming, and I found myself engaged in reading drudgery that quickly leads to skipping. So, a decent airplane or resort sci-fi if expectations are low, but this is no Ted Chiang. The readers of Goodreads appear to have liked it more than I did.

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Un échec de Maigret, by Georges Simenon

Another nice police procedural. This one a bit more psychological as Maigret confronts someone from his childhood. As usual, great insights into 1950s France, at least one perspective. The descriptions of Paris in rainy/foggy weather, with everyone in the Palais de Justice sick from colds and flu, resonates! Also definitely next visit to Paris I am going to Parc Monceau. By today’s standards, the whodunit is pretty “blah” but it is good to see some of the origins of the genre. You could see this particular plot being recycled for any current detective series.

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The Female American: Unca Eliza Winkfield

The Female American: Unca Eliza Winkfield, is a re-edition of an anonymous proto-novel published in 1767, in a new edition edited by Michele Burnham. Super interesting novel about a “mixed” early American, daughter of native American princess and son of governor of Virginia (it is fiction). She ends up abandoned on a deserted island, Robinson Crusoe-style. hijinks and adventure. A bizarre mix by contemporary standards. But if Gulliver’s Travels was your model… Lots of great insights into social relations during those times.

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La colère de Maigret, by Georges Simenon

La colère de Maigret, by Georges Simenon. Great cinematic descriptions of Montmartre strip clubs of the 1950s, and their denizens. Spoiler: The corrupt defense attorney picked easy cases, but told clients he needed a very large bribe to seal the deal. Nice asymmetric information setup.

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Stefan Zweig’s short novella The Burning Secret

Stefan Zweig’s short novella, The Burning Secret. A powerful literary experiment in point of view (from 1913!). Zweig slowly swings from the Baron to Edgar, the 12-year-old who desperately wants to know the secret. Set in an Austrian hotel over three days. Highly recommend.

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The Peripheral, by William Gibson

A friend loaned me The Peripheral, by William Gibson, a couple weeks ago. I started it, and within 50 pages the adjective “propulsive” came to mind, because I had this feeling the author was propelling me along and it was hard, each evening, to stop. I definitely found myself a couple times at 2:30 am saying STOP. That said, at the end I was a bit disappointed. Everyone lives (complicatedly) ever after, happy for at least the interlude of the ending? The klept world had a logic of social interaction that was barely addressed, in terms of the massive technological and social change. If there are so few people, and assemblers can build anything, why don’t Wilf and Aelita just do whatever they want? It is not clear why the barons are bothering to control the others. Just a great game? Some introspection about the post-scarcity world would have been interesting. Why not assemble interstellar travel. Perhaps the idea is that the baron’s world is a stub like any other, and a different timeline is manipulating it? But that is never really developed. Also, why not have Hamed be “the” peripheral… that would have been more interesting if he had been a sentient AI leveling up? There were hints about AI sentience but it was not developed as a theme. These qualms are because this was good sci-fi, in that it provokes many questions about social organization in a reasonably possible future (well, if information transmission between continua is something that could happen in 1000 years…).

BTW, two episodes into the amazon prime series: it is fine, not following the book plot (same characters though) at all it seems, which is fine by me.

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

My book club, the 200 club (because we only read books under 200 pages), suggested Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote from 1958. Wow. The casual racializing is somewhat breathtaking. Here on full display is unreflective presumption. Capote wrote this novel well after the publication of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952) and Native Son by Richard Wright (1940) and he surely must of been aware of the novels and (hopefully?) he read them. many passages in Breakfast at Tiffany’s you want to interpret as bracing realism accented by the detached tone of young infatuation, a meta or self-aware ignoring of responsibility…. but in the end, you know there was no such intent, the author is himself revealing, without a care, his ignoring of responsibility, his inability to think outside of a certain milieu, his inability or unwillingness to take another perspective. Or a kind of craven catering to his perceived audience. Maybe a literary scholar will suggest my reading is wrong, that his work is broader and more nuanced. That his intent is indeed more subtle and engaged than comes across. But I did not see that. Interestingly, almost all I see online are references to the movie, dealing with the Mickey Rooney character (who is quite incidental in the book). But there must be something insightful to read?

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Beyond Heaven’s River, by Greg Bear

I liked on the the goodreads reviews: “nearly a complete failure by any literary standard.” Indeed. Science fiction often gets a pass if it has a clever or compelling vision of the future, but this was a mash-up of stereotypes, juvenile Foundation-style sociology/psychology, and incoherent plotting. Avoid unless humans develop cell-regeneration technology and you, dear reader of the future, are looking at an infinite lifespan and you are already really bored.

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Infinite Detail, by Tim Maughan

Dystopian novel set in Bristol. Uses a parallel before/after structure. A computer virus permanently destroys all the connected software of the near future, global supply chains quickly collapse, social order breaks down. Ten years later a community in Bristol turns out to be central to a possible hopeful restart of a socially connected global community, this time decentralized rather than corporatized.

A daydream, really, and several awkward plot devices. Very readable, despite the occasional diatribes and too much redundancy (definitely an editor could have cut 1/5 without harm). I enjoyed it, but don’t think it will stick.

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Vladimir, by Julia May Jonas

My sister passed on to me this novel, Vladimir, by Julia May Jonas. As an extremely literary novel whose central character is a professor of literature at a small rural liberal arts college, it hits a nerve of recognition. The writing is good, though the first person narration didn’t draw me in. The novel takes an abrupt detour about 2/3 in, and the ending is a downbeat. I appreciated the many, many insights about self-esteem, sexuality, and relationships.

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A House Between Earth and the Moon, by Rebecca Scherm

I am beginning to feel that the algorithms are indeed writing fiction and making art. This novel, A House Between Earth and the Moon, by Rebecca Scherm, was enjoyable to read for awhile, until it starting feeling like a paint by numbers… like as if an algorithm itself had written it. It had all the plot elements and good writing of fiction, but it struck me as missing something. I still cannot pinpoint why I ended up being disappointed in it. Maybe it ended up being “too small”? Normally that is a virtue, but in sci-fi the reader is primed for the novel to go big. Why read sci-fi if it is just a domestic drama about adolescence, conformity, compromise, corporate control, etc? I can just watch Terrence Malik for that “feeling” if I need a fix… No slight to put Scherm in the same company as Richard Powers’ The Overstory, to which I had the same reaction. (Plot: Corporate-controlled space station where researchers are trying to develop fast-growing beneficial algae while climate-changed Earth is falling into disorder and disaster.)

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Matrix, by Lauren Groff

Really enjoyed Matrix, by Lauren Groff, but found myself unable to finish, for some reason? I got within 30 pages of the ending and put it down one night last week, and each time I tried to finish I said to myself but why, just 30 more pages of the same. It was super-good, but it did drag, in the sense that there was no real plot arc to resolve. She evolved, but goodness by the time you are 40 or 50 and have been the abbess/prioress for 30 years… is there really much room for “revelation”?

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Fugitive Telemetry, novella in the series The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells

Fugitive Telemetry, novella in the series The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells. breezy but philosophical sci-fi, with a realistic portrayal of bots having a range of consciousness and sentience. Perfect relaxing reading for a couple of nights. This novella is a very standard detective novel… could be Elmore Leonard.

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