“American Nerd”

May 13, 2009 at 8:40 am | Posted in Nonfiction | 3 Comments

Which is nerdier – writing a book like American Nerd, or reading it in one sitting?

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Benjamin Nugent achieves the sublime: this nerdy book about nerds sounds like a Saturday Night Live joke, yet it’s also compulsively readable.  It’s a study of what makes a nerd, as opposed to any other social category.  Admittedly, I have been wondering about this question since I was no older than nine, so I was quite intrigued with Nugent’s analysis.

It’s not a memoir or a celebration of nerdiness, not to say that I wouldn’t read one of those.  It’s a sociology thing.  I would rank it right up there with Freakonomics and Blink for its engaging take and fresh insights.  Plus it’s short.

“Disquiet”

May 12, 2009 at 10:56 am | Posted in Fiction | 3 Comments

Disquiet is, without a doubt, the absolute creepiest non-supernatural book I have ever read.  Hooray!

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Fans of horror tend to get a bit jaded.  It takes more and more to impress us.  Yet this itty-bitty book acted on my system like a bee’s stinger – just as tiny and just as potent.  Its measured pace and refined setting serve to deliver the dreadful stuff all the more effectively.

I hesitate to admit that I enjoyed this book as much as I did – and when you read it, you’ll understand why – but it was stunning.  I’m going to look for Julia Leigh’s previous book, The Hunter, and wait eagerly for her next offering.

This Week’s Daisy Chain

May 8, 2009 at 2:04 pm | Posted in Daisy Chains | 1 Comment

A few days ago I posted about what I called an “idea chain.”  Rebecca at The Book Lady’s Blog pointed out that she had done a post on the same topic last summer, and she used the name Daisy Chain, which I like better.  It’s sort of summery, you know.

The goal is to take note of anything that seems like a funny coincidence, though I suppose it would also be funny to link things deliberately.  My reading is pretty random because I just read whatever shows up on the hold shelf at the library that week.

I’m going to experiment with different ways of recording my daisy chain every week, and now that I’m thinking about it I’m going to try to keep notes while I read.  It would be fun if a lot of people did this. 

I Don’t Believe in Atheists -> The Crow Road – atheism

The Man in the Picture -> The Crow Road – missing persons

More Information Than You Require -> American Nerd – personal disclosures of authors with similar experiences as nerdy kids

As I’m doing this, I’m realizing that a) I know I haven’t captured everything and b) there are certain commonalities between books that aren’t interesting enough to record.  For instance, two of the books I read both had scenes set in rooms with antique furniture.  *Yawn*  The “pay dirt” I’m looking for is more related to shared vocabulary – I swear there was a really strange Scots dialect word I read in two different books this week, but I can’t remember now what it was – or things like minor characters with the same unusual job.  Or name.  Or something.  The coincidences are going to be in the eye of the beholder, anyway.

Whichbook.net

May 8, 2009 at 1:33 pm | Posted in Book Services | 1 Comment

Have you played with whichbook.net lately?  I love it.  What it does is help you come up with book recommendations based on a blend of features.  You can move a slider bar back and forth between these pairs of opposed qualities:

Happy/sad

Funny/serious

Safe/disturbing

Expected/unpredictable

Larger than life/down to earth

Beautiful/disgusting

Gentle/violent

Easy/demanding

No sex/sex

Conventional/unusual

Optimistic/bleak

Short/long

You can focus on just one quality, or pick several.  Is there something wrong with me that I tend to be more interested in the right-hand side of the spectrum?

There’s also a button for “change to character, plot, setting.”  You can look for books set in a particular part of the globe, or with a character of a preferred race, age, sexuality, or gender.  The best part is the plot.  Do you like success against the odds?  Conflict?  Lots of twists and turns?  Unfortunately you can’t say “yes to all of the above”… Not yet, anyway.

Part of what I love about the site is that it recommends more than just the current season’s books.  It includes anything in paperback in the English language since 1995.

The other thing I love is that whichbook.net is a republic – all the selections are made by a team of 150 people.  Isn’t that an improvement over user-controlled ratings systems that give Twilight and Great Expectations both four stars?  Incidentally, I ran a few titles that interested me through Amazon.com, and they were consistently highly rated by users there.

There really is a certain genius to whichbook.net.  Choosing only fairly recent books assumes that we already have a list of classics to work from.  I played around with it a bit, and found only a scant handful I’d ever heard of, much less read already.  It’s terribly exciting, and a bit addictive.

Idea Chain

May 7, 2009 at 10:11 am | Posted in Book Blather | 6 Comments

Have you ever noticed that you’ll read something in one book that instantly reminds you of something you read in a different book shortly before?  For instance, a word you see only rarely stands out in your mind, but then it mysteriously pops up again in the next thing you pick up?  I know there is a name for this principle, whereby the more you notice things, the more you notice them.  (I just can’t think what it is).  Still, I think it’s interesting when it happens.

For instance, this week I read I Don’t Believe in Atheists, and then I started The Crow Road, which involves a long-standing argument between characters about… atheism!  I had no idea what the novel was about when I picked it up, because I avoid reading reviews or book jackets.

My man Rocket Scientist and I were sitting side by side on the couch reading a few months ago.  He asked me what a particular word meant.  I told him, and we went back to reading.  Three pages later, I encountered the same word in a different tense in my own book!  I showed it to him without comment, and he said, “No way!”

During the Read-a-Thon a few weeks ago, I found myself reading the phrase “He mustered relish” while eating a veggie hot dog with mustard and relish.

So I have two questions.  One, what is the best way to keep track of these funny reading coincidences?  And two, are they more likely or less likely to happen the more one reads?

Rexing for Indexing

May 6, 2009 at 11:21 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 4 Comments

Our library card catalog is down.  They had some kind of major equipment failure.

This is driving me up a tree.  I went online last night to reserve a book, and assumed I was just having network problems when it didn’t work.  It’s still out, and they have no idea when it will be up and running again.

How am I supposed to reserve books?  What if I hear about a new book and I want to see if they have it in stock?  Waaaah!

Yes, I am old enough to remember old wooden drawers full of typed index cards.  Yes, I know having electronic records is an improvement over that.  But you see, I’m an addict now and I want accessibility.  Schnif.

“Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”

May 6, 2009 at 5:15 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

I had planned to introduce this post by jokingly referring to the Viking Anti-Defamation League.  Imagine my surprise when I found there actually is such a thing!  Perhaps they may find this post and send me a membership form.

Anyway, I’m here to write about the title story of Wells Tower’s collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.  We start with the title itself, an indication of the belief that Viking culture revolved around pure destruction.  While this is an exciting myth, the Norse also invaded other lands as settlers, building farmsteads.

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One of the reasons this worked so well was that the Norsemen, who bathed, laundered their clothes, changed their underthings, bleached and styled their hair, and trimmed their beards, were quite enticing to the local ladies.  Tower has a Norseman wearing a “wool coat stiff with filth” and hair that is “heavy and unclean.”  This could perhaps identify the odd greasy character, but “Gnut” is the only Viking in the story whose cleanliness is specified.

Names are another area where the Viking-age historian must take issue.  Early Scandinavians revered the written word and carefully preserved their histories, including lengthy catalogues of settlers and their names.  So when we see names like “Pila” and “Djarf” we can look them up to see if any other living Norse people had names like that.  Nope.  They are fantasy-style barbarian names.  Why not a nice Sigurd or Brynhild?  The two English characters also have post-period names.  The name Bruce is not documented before about the 14th century, and Mary was not commonly used in England until the 12th century.  Why not Alfred and Wulfrun?  Or need I ask.

There are some basic historical gaffes that I must, in all good conscience, pick out.  These Vikings drink “potato wine” – I think we normally call it vodka – yet the potato was not introduced to Europe until 1536 – looong after the end of the Viking era (8th through 11th centuries).  They also row from Hedeby to Lindisfarne, which is sad because the longships were made effective by their… sails.  I don’t know how to calculate nautical miles, but I’d hope anyone who planned to row from Denmark to Britain remembered to wear gloves.

It’s fun to pick on Vikings.  I mean, really.  “Pillage first, then burn!”  There are few groups that a Caucasian person can mock while retaining political correctness, and I believe they are limited to: Vikings, pirates, Scotsmen, New Yorkers, and Midwesterners.  Australians and Canadians are game, too, but they’re not quite as funny.  I like doing accents as much as the next person.  In spite of that, I still feel it’s my duty as a crank to try to inject a bit of seriousity into the record.  Savage Norsemen need love, too.

Being an amateur historian is a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Dork Secrets

May 5, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 6 Comments

I have a secret.  My man Rocket Scientist has no idea.  I couldn’t help myself, really; I’d been thinking about it off and on for a long time, and finally my willpower cracked.  I don’t know why I did it, really.  I have no idea how I would explain it to him if he ever found out.

I set up a LibraryThing account for him and started logging his books.

I guess I’m curious whether we would be “book friends.”  It’s entertaining to see whether I can remember all the books I’ve seen him read since we met, and all the books he’s mentioned reading in the past.  I wonder, too, whether my memory will exceed the 200 titles in the free account.

So there you go.  Some people have Dark Secrets; I have a Dork Secret.

“Genesis”

May 4, 2009 at 10:37 pm | Posted in Fiction, Science Fiction | 4 Comments

Genesis is a little marvel of a book.  What seems like a fairly standard sci fi “alternate future” turns out to be an utterly unpredictable stunner.

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There are only two things I can really tell you about this book without spoiling the story.   One is the fact that it’s really short and you can read it in a couple of hours.  The other is that, while it should be a movie, I don’t think there would be any way to pull it off.

Pick up Bernard Beckett’s book.  First, you can check out his cuuuute author photo.  Then you can enjoy an exciting exploration into some pretty cool concepts.

Botched Book Club

May 1, 2009 at 4:12 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 6 Comments

My book group met on Wednesday.  Normally we do Thursday nights.  I was sick last time, so I was a bit out of the loop, and I wasn’t totally prepared.  I sat up to finish the book late Tuesday night.  I realized Wednesday morning, when I went to cross the title off my list, that

I read the wrong book!

[cue theme music from Psycho]

We chose The Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, which won the Pulitzer prize.  What I actually read was The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai, which won the Booker Prize.  They were adjacent in my Reading List spreadsheet.  Is it just me, or was this a fairly reasonable mistake?

The sad part is, The Interpreter of Maladies is not only about 50% shorter, but it’s also a collection of short stories.  I knew this, and as I was reading The Inheritance of Loss I kept wondering why it wasn’t considered a novel.  You’d think something would have tipped me off sooner.

There’s a darker undercurrent here, though, than having to go to book group after having read only a couple of short stories over lunch.  That is, evidently in my mind I tagged these two terrific books as “India books.”  There seems to be a tendency to shop for multicultural books to make a well-rounded reading experience.  To me there’s an element of, I don’t know, trivialization or commodification here or something.  Like if I wrote a memoir, it would be “another one of those ‘triumph over adversity’ things.”  It’s certainly not that I think my book group does this – I’m just worried that I did.

So anyway.  I can heartily recommend both books.  I can also recommend actually writing things down rather than trying to memorize them.

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