Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reading Update #8a and Book Hunting!

Another incomplete reading update. Since the last update I did what I normally don't do and read the same book every time I had a chance to read, no matter the location. This way I finished Ceres Storm by David Herter and I got to page 285 in A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain. There it said END OF VOL. I. So, I've decided to put it aside for now and read VOL II, the second half of the book, at a later date.

As threatened, on our drive to Asheville to visit the in-laws we listened to A History of the English Language by Michael Drout. We only made it half way through the fourth lesson (of 14) but everyone is enjoying it. I missed the beginning of this conversation, so I don't know how it came up, but it was gratifying to hear my seven year old son explain to his grand father that the Japanese use three alphabets. So he is picking some of this up as well.

We arrived in Asheville Tuesday evening. After eating out we were driving back to house when my father in-law took some back roads that brought us into the back entrance of a shopping center. This shopping center had a book store that was not here the last time we visited. I had not planned on doing any book shopping until Friday, but it was about 8:15 and book store was open. I had them drop me off and leave me there (which, believe me, seemed perfectly normal to everyone). After taking everyone else back to the house my father in-law had to run back out to get something and then he picked me up at 9:00. Luckily the store is only about a mile from their house.

The store in question is Mr. K's. For those of you who have book shopped in Nashville, Knoxville or Chattanooga, TN, this store is remarkably like the McKay's you have there, just smaller. I didn't find very much that I was actively looking for, but I did buy: The Grand Wheel by Barrington J. Bayley, Brand of the Werewolf and Lost Oasis (Doc Savage books 4 and 5), Orbital Decay by Allen Steele and Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science and Literature by L. Sprague de Camp.

On Friday I made it to the Holy Grail of book stores in Asheville, Downtown Books & News. I love this store because paperbacks are 1/2 cover price, even the old 35 cent paperbacks. I bought The Triumph of Time by James Blish and Station in Space by James Gunn, both for 18 cents. Doctor to the Stars by Murray Leinster for 20 cents and Bettyann by Chris Nevile for 38 cents. Bette Farmer was good friends with Chris' wife Lil, and she has asked me a few times over the years if I had ever read anything by him. Now I'll get the chance. I also bought a trade paperback of Off the Wall at Callahans's by Spider Robinson. This is a collection of quotes from the series and might just be the perfect bathroom book. I also bought a trade paperback of The Anubis Gate by Tim Powers, which comes highly recommended by Win Scott Eckert.

My next stop was Books by Linda. I've been here before and didn't have high hopes as it has a very small science fiction section (a fraction of the size of the romance section) but I did get lucky and find Earth Invader by Randall Garrett. I've only read his Lord Darcy series and the short story collection, The Best of Randall Garrett but he is an old friend of Phil Farmer's (he actually lived with them for a while) and I'm always looking for his older books.

Overall the book hunting was ok. Having been through the same stores around Atlanta over and over I was really looking forward to visiting stores I haven't been to in a couple of years. If I'm lucky there is another store or two that we might hit on the way back to Atlanta this afternoon.

Which of these will I start reading when I get back home? I have three slots to fill and no idea where I'm going to start. It might not even be any of these as I still have plenty of books at home I can't wait to read.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reading Update #8

As you know if you've been here before, I like to read more than one book at a time, keeping books in different locations instead of carrying one book around with me everywhere. Sometimes however, books I start reading in one place get moved to another location so I can read them more quickly.

In the downstairs bathroom: I'm switching up the order here because I finished The Forest of Peldain by Barrington J. Bayley so I moved Ceres Storm by David Herter downstairs. I started them at about the same time but got through the shorter Bayley book much more quickly.

In his recommendation of Barrington J. Bayley, Rhys Hughes said, "Popular writers of fantastical fiction give the reading public one or two 'ideas' per book. We are comfortable with such paucity because it doesn't challenge us. We can't really stand what Bayley offered -- dozens of ultra-clever original high level IDEAS per chapter -- though we always claim that's exactly what we want! Bayley was a high concept writer who worked out his amazing conceits in the guise of hardish science fiction."

I don't think this book fits his description very well. First it was more fantasy than hard science fiction. While it did have a lot of interesting ideas or inventions, for the most part they were extensions of the same idea. However it did surprise me more often that the typical fantasy novel, even those that turn out to have scientific underpinnings instead of magical. There were many places I knew something was coming, but I was never able to accurately guess what it was.

Despite this book not living up to my expectations I rather enjoyed it and I look forward to reading more by Bayley. Now, I really wish I could find some Rhys Hughes at the local bookstore.

In the bedroom: As I mentioned above, I was reading Ceres Storm by David Herter here but I shifted it downstairs where I seem to have more reading time. So far I have only averaged about a dozen pages a day over the last two weeks. I can't say if I'm not finding it compelling because I'm reading it so slow, or if I'm reading it so slow because I can't get into it. As I said last week, the author doesn't give you a lot of information as he goes along. Sometimes you read something that tells you what happened twenty pages before. Only when you were reading twenty pages back, you had no idea you missed something.

I'm not sure what to make of this book. One thing is for sure, I never have any idea what is going to happen next. Not the slimmest clue what I'll find on the next page. It is just completely alien. Which, if you think about it, science fiction should be. This book is set in our far distant future, things should be hard to grasp. I'm assuming it will pay off in the end, I will let you know.

I haven't decided what I'm reading upstairs next. I have dozens of books near the top of my "read next" list and I'm hoping some others will arrive in the mail today.

At the office: I'm still reading A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain. I'm going to bring this home next week and take it with me when we go to Asheville for five days over Thanksgiving. I haven't been to Asheville in a few years but they have a number of really good bookstores. I've been hording my cash and updating the list of authors I am hunting for and hope to leave a lot of cash behind me up there. I'll let you know in my next update.

In the car: I finished Super Crunchers : Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart by Ian Ayres but I was not hit with any further inspirations, either work related or story related. The book did make me want to read and/or listen to more books that are math related.

Yesterday I picked up A Way with Words: Writing, Rhetoric, and the Art of Persuasion by Michael Drout. I'll start this tomorrow but I don't think I'll finish it before we leave town. The plan for the nearly four hour drive is to listen to A History of the English Language also by Michael Drout. I just finished it last week but I really want my wife and kids to listen to it.

These are both part of the Modern Scholar series of college lectures on cd. If you have access to these through your library (and not just Michael Drout's) I can't recommend them enough. Especially if you have kids. Let your 8th grader get a taste of what a really good college professor can do.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Reading Update #7a

I'm calling this update #7a instead of #8 because, even though it has been a week, I haven't finished anything I was reading at this time last week! I'm still reading Ceres Storm by David Herter upstairs, The Forest of Peldain by Barrington J. Bayley downstairs and A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain at work.

I did however finish A History of the English Language by Michael Drout, in the car. As I said before I'm going to listen to this again when we drive to Asheville for Thanksgiving as I think my wife and daughter will get even more out of it than I did.

Since then I've been listening to Super Crunchers : Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart by Ian Ayres. The neat thing about listening to this book is that while I am coming up with ideas for the company I work for on how we can use our customer data more effectively; more importantly I am getting ideas for stories!

The first one he hand feeds the listener. He talks about how the IRS has so much information about us that if they decided to start super crunching and then providing that data to us, they could become the Information & Revenue Service. Imagine getting a letter in the mail from them telling you that couples with your income and your amount of consumer debt are 57% more likely to get divorce in the next two years than couples with no debt. The possibilities are endless. Or perhaps a story where the government secretly compiles all this data and uses it to finally figure out how to effectively govern. I'm sure I can find a moral dilemma or two in there somewhere.

I wrote about a story idea before, with computers predicting the future (just not in real time so far) but as they get more data, and faster processors they get better and better at it until they can see the future completely. Things in this book have been tickling at the edges of that story idea. Whether it's just providing some of the details along the way, or actually changing the story remains, to be seen.

Unfortunately listening to this in the car means I didn't write down a couple of germs of ideas it gave me. Hopefully they will come back to me as I listen to the rest of the book.

Not surprisingly I get most of my ideas for science fiction stories, when I read about science, not when I read fiction. You'd think I would read more science books because of this...

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Taking book recommendations and reading update #7

While I love talking about books with anyone and everyone, and I'm always recommending books to people, I'm often surprised when they recommend them to me. My first reaction is usually to think, "Wait, you're telling me what I should read? You're confused, that's not why we're here." I try to catch myself and get my head of out my, um library, when I do this, but its funny how often it happens.

Not to say I do this with everyone. Mostly it happens with people who come to my house, see all the books and have an appropriate look of awe on their face. There are many people who recommend books to me and I eagerly follow their advice. I mention this today because a lot of my reading at the moment is based on recommendations.

In the bedroom: I finished The Last Colony by John Scalzi. At first I wasn't overly impressed with this third book in the Old Man's War series. But then he pulls the rug out from under you and things get very interesting. You know how you're reading a book, or watching a movie, and you think, "Why doesn't he/she just tell so and so this or that, then it will all work out!" But they never do? I was thinking along those lines in this book...and then they did! I was rather surprised. Its not every day I read a book and it ends the way I would have ended it. In fact that almost never happens, to me anyway. As you will see below, I think I'm enjoying Scalzi so much because he thinks like I do.

I've since started reading Ceres Storm by David Herter. This author comes highly recommended by Christopher Paul Carey. Although not the titles he specifically recommended, Ceres Storm is one book I happened to find while trolling used book stores last week. I haven't gotten deep into the book yet, but so far the only thing I have noticed is that he is very understated. I find myself learning something in a scene that tells me I have to go back in fill in the blanks in a previous scene because something happened there that I didn't realize.

In the downstairs bathroom: Two Fridays ago (I think), Your Hate Mail will be Graded arrived in the mail from Subterranean Press. I finished it yesterday. This is a random selection of posts from John's ten year-old blog, Whatever. I enjoyed the vast majority of the book, only skimming over several entries, while amazingly finding myself agreeing with John's opinions on the majority of them. Its almost like he is what I would be like with a better vocabulary and an extroverted personality.

I just started another book that comes to me via an author recommendation. This time it comes from Rhys Hughes about Barrington J. Bayley, an author I had never even heard before he passed away a couple of weeks ago. The Forest of Peldain was the only other book I found while out book hunting last week (along with Ceres Storm), so I decided to take it as a sign and read both of them. I don't read two science fiction books at the same time if I think there is any chance I will get them confused because of similarities. I don't think I need to worry about it in this case, but I'll let you know. I'm still hunting for The Anubis Gate by Tim Powers, a recent recommendation, through this blog, by Win Scott Eckert.

At the office: I'm still reading A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain. I may be reading this for a while as I've only made it into the office two days a week lately (working from home the other five days of the week). Although I may shift this book to another location if this continues. I'd rather not take two months to read anything.

In the car: I'm currently listening to A History of the English Language by Michael Drout. This is part of the Modern Scholar series of books on cd I have mentioned before. I am enjoying this so much I am going to listen to it again over Thanksgiving when my wife and kids and I drive up to Asheville North Carolina. I know that my wife will grasp much more of it than I have since she is much better at spelling, grammar, etc... I think my 13 year old daughter will pick up enough from it to have an impact on her English courses through the rest of high school. Hopefully my seven year old son won't go too insane with boredom. Although he may enjoy the third and fourth lectures on Phonetics and Phonology. Who knows, listening to a college course while he's in the first grade might have an impact on him as well.

Drout has three other Modern Scholar lectures I am looking forward to listening too:
A Way with Words: Writing, Rhetoric, and the Art of Persuasion
A Way with Words II: Approaches to Literature
A Way with Words III: Understanding Grammar for Powerful Communication

While the Heath Ledger movie, A Knight's Tale is one of my all time favorites, I can't promise that I will listen to Drout's: Bard of the Middle Ages: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. I'll probably start it, but I can't say I'm optimistic about finishing it.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Listening to books

First, I am thinking about renaming this blog "Mike is thinking about books but he's too busy to blog about it." But since my original blog title was already a bit too long I guess I'll refrain. I am disappointed I only managed four blogs through the entire month of October, and none in the second half. Let's see if November is any better.

I listened to two books on cd this past month that drove home a point I already knew. There are three types of audio book readers:

1. The author

2. A professional reader

3. A celebrity, usually an actor

And that is the order of preference. Believe me. It doesn't matter how bad, how unmelodious, nasally, gravelly or shrill, an author's voice is, no one will read their book better than they do.

For example, one of the first audio books I ever did was an abridged* version of Foundation by Isaac Asimov. At first I couldn't believe what I was hearing. A stereotypical Brooklyn Jewish accent was not setting the tone for far future galactic empires. Then I flipped the case over and saw it was Asimov himself doing the reading. Ok, fine, I thought, but he really isn't any good.

When I finished the tape I went back and got the next book in the series. This was read by a professional reader. Ah, good I thought, this is much better. For about five minutes, then I missed Asimov! As good as the reading was, it was just flat and emotionless compared to what Isaac brought to it.

Here's a more recent example. Last month I listened to Sex, Drug & Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman, read by the author. As you will see if you listen to this sample excerpt, your first thought won't be "wow, what a great voice." But listen to the stress he puts on words like "completely," "vaguely," "feels," and "ever" in that short passage. Listen to the longer pauses, where I'm pretty sure you will find commas instead of periods of you were reading this. No professional would read it exactly the same as Chuck did and he's the one who knows how it supposed to sound!

Here are two examples from the other end of the spectrum, celebrity readers. With all due respect to John Ritter, Rip Torn and too many others to list, if you are not a regular audio book listener and you recognize the name of the person reading the book, skip it. Assuming its not the author of course.

I did a Dave Barry collection one time, read by Dave Barry himself and it was hilarious. Several months later I found another Dave Barry collection but this one was read by John Ritter. As it turns out there were a few articles that appeared in both books, so I could really compare apples to apples. There was one about some guys who participate in parades as a group on their riding lawn mowers. When Dave read this it was funny, certainly funnier than if you just read it yourself. When John Ritter read it, it was actually unfunny. And not just because I'd heard it before and I knew the punch lines. In fact there was one particular line I was waiting for, perfectly timed and delivered by Dave, that Ritter read straight through like he was trying to finish the paragraph in one breath.

And that is the essence of my next complaint. I mentioned recently that I listened to A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut, read by Norman Dietz--more on him in a minute. I just tried to listen to Armageddon in Retrospect, also by Vonnegut. This however was read by Rip Torn. A fine actor, but he sure seemed to be in a hurry while reading this. I'm guessing he was paid a flat fee and not by the hour. I just had the feeling he was trying to get the whole thing done as fast as possible or they offered him a bonus if they could fit it on four cds and save money in production. I actually gave up on it and couldn't finish it.

Ok, back to Norman Deitz. Let me just say right here that Recorded Books needs to do the world a service and hire him to read every single word Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut have ever written. If you listen to this sample of Huckleberry Finn or this sample of Tom Sawyer you'll see what I mean. He isn't just reading the book, he's performing the book. And performing it brilliantly.

There are some exceptions, there are a few professional readers that I just can't listen to. But there are many readers who are so good that I'll get a book just because they are reading it, even if the book itself didn't look that interesting at first. Besides the aforementioned Mr. Dietz here are some strong recommendations: Michael Pritchard (especially reading Rex Stout and Clive Cussler), Simon Prebble (Dick Francis), Frederick Davidson (P.G. Wodehouse), Mark Hammer (the only way to do Faulkner), Barbara Rosenblat (Dorothy Gilman) & George Guidall (too many to list!).

I know I am leaving many out others, I will try and compile a more comprehensive list in the near future. In fact, talking about audio books was one of the first reasons I ever thought about doing a blog. I also wanted to talk about something else I'm currently listening to, but I guess I'll save that for Thursday.

*Note: abridged books are a travesty and should be illegal. I only listened to them at first because I didn't know any better and I was paying for them; the longer the book, the more it cost. This was before I discovered our local library system has more audio books than the store that was renting them.