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Activities for a Wasted Day


I'm spending today avoiding work on a paper, and as part of that I decided to tally up my books and classify them as fiction or non-fiction. I've heard from various sources that men generally prefer non-fiction and women generally prefer fiction, so I decided to test my bookshelf out and see where I fell.

I started out just marking books as either Fiction or Non-Fiction. Then I encountered some classification problems. What about cookbooks? Manuals for role playing games? City guides? I decided to create a broad "Instructional" category to encompass those books that are probably technically non-fiction, but which I don't think of when I think of non-fictional books. This is easier than, for example, classifying cookbooks I use regularly as Non-Fiction, while classifying cookbooks with elaborate recipes requiring ingredients from five different ethnic grocery stores and from which I have never cooked a recipe as Fiction. So: Cookbooks, RPG manuals, computer programming primers, style guides, and, most significantly, legal texts are all instructional. This might somewhat throw off the results, since the legal texts are arguably non-fiction, but whatever.

The other classifying problem I had was with books that straddle the line between fiction and non-fiction. What to do with Chretien de Troyes's Arthurian Romances, written as fiction but which I read primarily for its historical value? What about books written in the middle ages as histories, but filled with fantastic and implausible happenings, such as Gregory of Tours's History of the Franks and Galbert de Bruges's Murder of Charles the Good? And what of credulous histories like Herbert Asbury's The Barbary Coast, which is ostensibly a history of criminality in San Francisco during the Gold Rush but which consists primarily of breathless retellings of apocryphal anecdotes? How, not to put too fine a point upon it, should I classify the Bullshit Histories? I decided to create a category for Dubious Non-Fiction and leave it at that.

Finally, how do I classify my copy of the Bible? Fiction? Non-Fiction? Dubious Non-Fiction? I decided to mark it down as Instructional and side-step the whole issue.

The final tally came out to 86 Fiction, 32 Non-Fiction, 93 Instructional (give or take; I estimated how many law books are sitting in my locker right now), and 4 Dubious Non-Fiction. This tally includes only those books to which I have easy access here in New York, not those in storage with my parents. The lion's share of those instructional books are law books, which might throw the ultimate Fiction/Non-Fiction balance off kilter, but I feel they shouldn't count since I don't really own them of my own free will. I made an exception for those law books I purchased for non-law school reasons, like G. Edward White's Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: Law and the Inner Self and Lawrence M. Friedman's History of American Law. I feel my classification is relatively fair.

So, once again I defy expectations, at least in terms of book tastes. Take that, gender essentialists!

Serious Libraries

From a New York Times article on the book collections of CEOs:

"Ken Lopez, a bookseller in Hadley, Mass., says it is impossible to put together a serious library on almost any subject for less than several hundred thousand dollars."


Book Review: Farthing


This novel is for everyone who has ever studied any monstrosity of history, with the serene satisfaction of being horrified while knowing exactly what was going to happen, rather like studying a dragon anatomized upon a table, and then turning around to find the dragon's present-day relations standing close by, alive and ready to bite.

-the preface to Jo Walton's Farthing

Farthing, by Jo Walton, is an English murder mystery set in an alternate history universe. In the world of Farthing, several months into the Battle of Britain, prior to Germany's invasion of Russia, a faction within the British Conservative Party successfully negotiated a peace with Hitler behind Churchill's back. The novel takes place in 1949, in an England that has learned to peacefully co-exist with the evil that rules the Continent.

Farthing is the name of the country estate where most of the novel takes place. It is also the nickname given to the politicians who gather there, the "Farthing Set", who were responsible for making peace with Germany. As the novel opens, the Farthing Set is gathering at the estate for the weekend to prepare for an important party vote. Among the guests is Lucy Kahn, nee Eversly, the daughter of one of the more influential members of the group, and her husband David, a jewish banker whom the members of the set, including Lucy's parents, openly despise for his race. During the night Sir James Thirkie, the man who personally negotiated the peace with Hitler, is murdered. He is found in his bed, his shirt stained with blood, a knife protruding from his chest. He is pinned with a yellow Star of David badge, of the kind Jews are forced to wear in Europe. David Kahn is immediately taken as the prime suspect.

The story is told from two perspectives. Chapters alternate between a first-person narrative written by Lucy Kahn and a third-person narrative focused on Inspector Carmichael, who is sent by Scotland Yard to investigate the murder. It's an interesting technique that allows the reader to get a more full view of the main characters, by letting us see them as others see them and as they see themselves. At times it's a little jarring, though never obtrusively so, to skip back and forth between two very different characters with very different styles. Mrs. Kahn has a highly prolix and discursive style. Inspector Carmichael's chapters have the matter-of-fact brusqueness of a police procedural. Both, however, are lovingly written and intimate; it is a tribute to how well the characters are developed that every time you finish a Carmichael chapter you feel vaguely annoyed to be leaving him for Mrs. Kahn, and every time you finish a Kahn chapter you feel annoyed to be leaving her for Carmichael.

This novel is published by Tor, a science fiction label, and is to be found in the science fiction section at bookstores. Yet it is as much an English country house murder mystery as it is alternate history. The characters do not spend a lot of time chatting about the recent past; the events of the prior nine years are casually mentioned as they come up naturally in the course of the novel, but we are never plunked down to a history chapter on What Went Differently. The novel is written as a mystery novel first, and it is the murder that absorbs the characters's attentions throughout.

Yet it would be inaccurate to say that this is simply a mystery novel that happens to be set in an alternate timeline. The alternate history is more than a setting, it's an important element in the novel's development and larger themes. The book isn't just science fiction and it isn't just a mystery; the two genres are so seamlessly integrated that classifying the book as one or the other seems to do it a disservice.

The novel is rather brief, 320 pages in a hard-bound book with fairly large print, and makes for quick reading. The chapters are short, ten pages on average, and the story is absorbing. I read nealry the entire book in the course of a pair of several-hour sessions; I found it very difficult to tear myself away from it once I had gotten involved in it.

Right now the book is only available in hardback, for a fairly steep $25. Nonetheless, it is good enough that I'd recommend the hardback edition as well worth the price. It was released fairly recently, so I don't believe a paperback edition is forthcoming anytime soon.

A word of caution: The world of the book is frightening in its realism. Walton does an excellent job of showing us how we accomodate evil in our daily lives by showing us how the England of Farthing has just sort of learned to live with Nazi Germany in its backyard. She does everything very subtly, never jumping up and down or beating us over the head with it. The characters in Farthing, even the pure ones acting from righteous motives, never stop and say "I can't believe we've allowed this incredible evil to continue!" They just sort of accept it. Reading Farthing forces the reader to think hard about what sort of evils she might have just learned to accept, as though there were nothing wrong with them.

In any case, Farthing is an excellent, thoughtful novel, well-written, and worth picking up. I highly recommend it. I would argue, however, that Farthing is not, perhaps, the best novel to be reading on the eve of an election about which one is particularly nervous.


I came upon a great passage in The Red and the Black that seemed worth sharing. This comes from the Lloyd C. Parks's translation published by Signet:

"Following I don't know what notion, derived from some account of high society, such as the old surgeon major had seen it, wherever Julien happened to be with a woman, he felt humiliated as soon as there was silence, as though it were his own particular fault. This sensation was a hundred times more painful during a tete-a-tete. Filled with the most exaggerated and Spanish ideas about what a man ought to say when alone with a woman, his imagination had nothing to offer him in his perplexity but inadmissible ideas. His head was in the clouds, and yet he could not find a way out of the most humiliating silence. Thus, the stern look he wore during his long walks with Mme. de Renal and the children was accentuated by the cruelest suffering. He despised himself horribly. If unfortunately he make himself speak, it occurred to him to say the most ridiculous things. To crown his misery, he was aware and had an exaggerated idea of his own absurdity. But what he couldn't see was the expression in his eyes. They were so handsome and revealed such a fiery soul that, like good actors, they sometimes gave a charming import to words that had none at all. Mme. de Renal observed that, if alone with her, he never said anything well, excepting when, distracted by some unforeseen occurrence, he was not thinking about how to turn a compliment. Since the friends of the house did not exactly spoil her with new and brilliant ideas, she took great delight in Julien's flashes of wit."

I'm quite enjoying The Red and the Black, to the point where it's interfering with schoolwork. This weekend, every time that I meant to read for Corporations or start cite-checking sources for the Science and Technology Law Review I found myself picking up Stendahl instead. Now I'm wondering if I can get away with sneaking it into class and reading it under the desk while pretending to take notes. Or, to avoid arousing suspicion, I could read the book surreptitiously while pretending to play computer solitaire. If I looked like I was actually taking notes and paying attention to the professor somebody would think something was up.

Making the Nose


Lately I've been reading The Shy Single, a book by Dr. Bonnie Jacobson, Ph.D. on dating for shy people.

For a while I've felt that I've been spending too much time home alone and not enough time going out and being sociable. But I've sort of always fallen back on the assumption that I just really don't like people and don't enjoy social interaction. So I've been vaguely dissatisfied with the way I've been handling life, but not sure that doing anything about it would make me any happier. Then I spent this last weekend with Dianna, of Snoqualmie fame, and it's somewhat altered my way of thinking about things. I quite enjoyed all the time I spent with her, even though nearly all of it was spent in conversation, which I normally find exhausting after an hour or two.

This makes me think I can enjoy socializing, and that I'd like to know more people and get out and do more things. And it also makes me think that, having been single for about a year and a half now, it's time to move on and start dating in earnest again.

Because I am a dork, my current situation reminds me of some dialogue from the British Science Fiction TV show Red Dwarf:

HOLLY: I was thinking it might help pass the time if I created a perfectly functioning replica of a woman, capable of independent decision-making and abstract thought and absolutely indistinguishable from the real thing.

LISTER: (Sitting up eagerly) Well why don't you, then?

HOLLY: Because I don't know how. I wouldn't even know how to make the nose.

Dating is something I'm eager and excited to try, but I don't even know how to make the nose. All of my experience, really, comes from the first few months of college, which was over five years ago now. I don't really know what to do or how to do it.

So, in line with my general modus operandi, I have turned to books in the hopes that they will provide the answer. And thus: The Shy Single. It's written by a Manhattan therapist who apparently specializes in group and individual therapy for shy people, with an emphasis on helping them with dating. Jacobson delineates three distinct elements of shyness, and focuses chapters no each: First, the fear of initiating contact with others, which leads the shy person to avoid socializing entirely. Second, fear in the midst of conversation that the shy person is making a fool of herself, leading her to either sit in silence listening to others talk or babble incessantly out of nervousness. Finally, there is the recrimination and self-criticism that follows social contact, which leads the shy person to over-analyze every element of her performance and reach the conclusion that everyone involved now hates her for what an ass she made of herself.

I'm not very far in the book, but so far it's been an eerily accurate description of my own feelings about informal social contact. Hopefully it will prove as astute in its advice as it is in its observations. It seems as though it mostly states the obvious (that the only way to get more comfortable with dating is to force yourself to do it) and provides advice on coping with anxiety, both in terms of internal mental techniques for getting through the ordeal and in terms of strategies for making the whole experience less stressful.

My plan is to put some of the book's initial advice into practice this weekend and actually go out in search of some sort of social contact. I'm not entirely sure that I know what I'm doing, but I suppose I have to go out and get some experience with this sort of thing if I'm to know how exactly to go about it.


This started out as a post about a book I'm reading, and is now turning into, not one, but TWO posts, one about the book, the other about an Amazon review of said book. Watch for them!

Stories of Your Life


I can't believe I've been blogging nearly a year and haven't yet talked about Ted Chiang.

Ted Chiang is my absolute favorite science fiction short story author. He's won three Nebulas, a Hugo, and has been nominated (though he turned the nomination down) for a second Hugo. This is pretty amazing when you consider that he's written a grand total of nine stories. He may have the best works-to-awards ratio of any author in science fiction.

A lot of his work deals with the mind and neuroscience. Predestination, Free Will, Perception, and Faith are major recurring themes. I've shown his book to a Berkeley neuroscience professor who enjoys science fiction, and the science is both plausible and at the cutting edge of current understanding. At the same time, Chiang writes in a very understandable way, such that, even without a science background, you feel yourself informed about the subjects without being lectured. Chiang does an excellent job of explaining the science, where it's going (or has gone, by the time of the story) and then moving to the human implications of these changes.

Nearly all of Chiang's short stories are collected in a single volume, Stories of Your Life and Others. The one that isn't in that volume can be found here. Chiang is not, to say the least, prolific, having produced nine stories since he was first published in the early 90s. What he's produced is all good, though; while not everyone loves all of Chiang's stories, I know at least one person who loves each of them. And the advantage of such a sparse library of stories is that you can read one volume and say that you've read his entire body of work.

I would particularly recommend, incidentally, the stories "Understand," "Hell is the Absence of God," and "Liking What You See: a Documentary." The last one is my favorite Chiang story; it's organized as a documentary and explores the implications for college students at a Berkeley-esque school in the near future of a technology that allows you to turn off the part of your brain that tells you whether people are attractive or not. You still recognize how people look, and, on some intellectual level, you can piece things together to determine who's attractive and who isn't, but it won't be a gut instinct. For you, the concept of attractive and unattractive will no longer have meaning. The story is rich with ideas and explores all sides of the argument for and against the procedure. It raises interesting questions that it never answers and leaves to the reader to puzzle through on their own. When I finished reading it the first time, I set the book down and was temporarily dazed as I swam in ideas about perception and the mind and society. It took hours for me to return to the real world, and that, I think, is the sign of a good science fiction story.

Book Review: Daughter of the Empire

Daughter of the Empire is the first book in a three-book collaboration between Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.  The book's set in the Kelewan Empire, the parallel-universe antagonist from Feist's Rift War novels.  No knowledge of Feist's other works are necessary to understand Daughter; I went in knowing nothing of the Rift War series beyond the title.  The gist of the larger plot is that the Kelewan Empire exists in one universe, Midkemia in another, and there's a magical rift between the two.  Kelewan is a synthesis of various Asian cultures and empires, while Midkemia, I get the impression, is analagous to medieval Europe.  Kelewan is invading Midkemia through the rift, and the war has apparently gone on for some time.

But the war is just distant background.  Daughter is a novel of politics.  The book begins with a betrayal that kills the lord of the ancient Acoma clan, along with its sole male heir.  Rulership passes to Mara, the dead lord's daughter, who must establish control of the clan, rebuild its strength, forge alliances to ensure its continued survival, and exact revenge against the enemies of the Acoma.  The focus of the book is on relatively small-scale conflicts between clans and vassals.  There are a few armed skirmishes in the book, but for the most part Mara's victories are won in drawing rooms and reception halls. 

Feist and Wurts handle Mara's sex skillfully.  They don't take any easy outs by, for instance, making the Kelewan Empire tolerant of female rulership; Kelewan is as patriarchal as its real-world analogues in the Middle Ages.  Mara is placed in a position of simultaneous dominance and submission.  She rules her clan absolutely, and her fellow rulers make superficial gestures of respect.  Yet there is an undercurrent of bemusement.  People play along because tradition requires them to, but nobody considers her a serious threat. 

There's an interesting reversal mid-way through the book, when Mara marries and loses control her her household.  Even with an incompetent husband, her powerlessness is absolute, and it is nearly a year before she can wrest even a modicum of control over the Acoma back from him, and then only by his grudging concession.  It's interesting to contrast Mara before and after the marriage; she goes from being a shrewd and competent leader, managing the house with skill and intelligence, to essentially not a human being any longer.  She no longer has even the power to manage her own life, let alone her house. 

The book is a fun novel of politics in its own right, and provides interesting insights into female rulership, a topic oft neglected or glossed over in fantasy novels. 

At the same time, it has a few failings.  The writing is serviceable, but often repetitive.  In the space of a single chapter you will be told a dozen times that "the fate of the entire Acoma clan rested on (the events of the next few hours/what would happen beyond that gate/what would transpire in the dooryard)."  It's also a little irksome how often we hear about all the emotions the characters aren't showing.  The writing works for the most part, but there are those few ticks that irritate.

More substantively, the plot is a tad episodic.  Within a few chapters a formula is established: A problem arises that requires shrewd negotiation, Mara goes to some hostile lord/bandit/queen, Mara successfully tricks the rival into doing what she wishes, Mara returns triumphant, ready for her nxt advanture.  This changes with the marriage, which forms the most interesting part of the book, but the rest gets a bit monotonous as the format keeps getting repeated.

Mara also tends a bit to the Mary Sue-ish for my taste.  She seems just a little too clever and too perfect.  This isn't to say there aren't unexpected twists that redound to her disadvantage, but generally Mara always makes the best choice in any given situation, and Mara always wins.  After a while, this gets boring.

Nonetheless, it's a lot of fun overall.  The political machinations are interesting and the way that the various parties exploit the ancient forms is subtle and devious.  The book's entertaining throughout, and I would recommend it.

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