Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

Some books

Posted by Russell on June 30, 2010 at 4:42 p.m.
I've had unusually good luck picking books to read in the last few weeks, and I thought I would share my thoughts about a few of them. I don't really want to review them, because I think reviews are boring. If you want to know what a book is about, then read it. These are my unsubstantiated opinions.
  • The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi

    One of the most interesting and difficult challenges for contemporary science fiction writers is imagining the world after oil. Paolo Bacigalupi offers what I think is probably the most serious effort so far, though I think his calibration of technological progress (or lack thereof) is based more on media zeitgeist that anything else. Bacigalupi imagines an energy economy that has collapsed to human muscle power set alongside biotechnology of almost arbitrary power. It makes for a very unique world, and he accomplishes some pretty excellent storytelling. The story layers melancholy reflection with fast-paced action, but remains tightly cohesive.

  • Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi

    Ship Breaker seems to be set in the same world as The Windup Girl, but follows a single protagonist, rather than a cast of characters. Ship Breaker paints Bacigalupi's imagined history in clear strokes, whereas The Windup Girl paints it with hints, unexplained references, and frayed ends that the reader must patch together on their own. Ship Breaker is more brutal but less bleak.

  • For the Win, Cory Doctorow

    If you've ever played video games, you need to read this book. If you've ever read anything by Howard Zinn, you need to read this book. If you were paying any kind of attention to the Financial Crisis, you need to read this book.

    For the Win is a battle between two brilliant economists, a labor organizer from India and a Stanford-dropout quant from America. Doctorow highlights the astute observation that game economies are steadily becoming larger and more sophisticated, while the proliferation of credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations and other various unregulated instruments have made our financial system more like a giant video game. They are linked; Doctorow merely imagines the link has grown deeper and more complex. The battleground of the book is the murky, crime-ridden middle ground shared by hedge fund managers, dark knights, child laborers, derivatives traders, Chinese crime bosses, bored American teenagers, and hundred-foot-tall zombie death robots. It's brilliant.

  • Generation A, Douglas Coupland

    I never know if I should classify Coupland with Don DeLillo or with Neal Stephenson. His books thrive on the knife's edge between postmodernist absurdism applied to reality, and literate, profane realism applied to science fiction. Postmodernism places the rupture with reality in the interpretation of the world, and science fiction places the rupture in the world itself. Coupland's narratives exist somewhere between these two, and the effect is like looking into someone's eyes from up close, when the parallax is big enough that you waver from one eye to the other. The rupture slips back and forth between the interpretation and the world, and the effect is delightful.

  • City at the End of Time, Greg Bear

    This book is worth reading for the atmosphere alone. The plot is an introspective adventure across dreams and time, and but the texture is what really sells it. If you appreciated the textured melancholy in Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, then City at the End of Time is definitely worth reading. Greg Bear raises the stakes and invokes the senses in a very different way, but the mood is like a Tolkien piece.

    A common theme in literature is the cruelty of time and decay. City at the End of Time confronts this directly, emphasizing the joy of time and change, and the horror of the alternative. Like Tolkien, the atmosphere creates a kind of intense nostalgia for the here and now.

  • The Android's Dream, John Scalzi

    John Scalzi must have enjoyed writing this book enormously, and it shows. Every couple of pages culminates in a laugh-out-loud idea. It's brazenly ridiculous, but isn't as manic as Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. Scalzi seems to enjoy building up his absurdities into towering edifices, rather than sprinkling them around. They're not just funny in themselves; they're funny because Scalzi manages to pull them off.

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

    This is probably one of the most important books of the year. Rebecca Skloot is thoughtful, compassionate and brilliant, and she put more than a decade of work into this slim little book. If it were fiction, it would be a brilliant accomplishment, but this is as real as it gets. This is a beautiful personal narrative, an ethics lesson, a call to action, a carefully documented historical account, an adventure, a science lesson, and a cogent critique of the culture of medical practice and research. If Skloot had pulled off only one or two of those things, this would still have been a brilliant book.

    It is clear that she cares deeply about the Lacks family, and when you're done with this book, so will you.

Good luck, whoever you are

Posted by Russell on June 08, 2010 at 3:54 p.m.
Last week, I got an urgent call from the National Marrow Donor Program. Somewhere, there is a girl about to go into chemotherapy, and my tissue type matches hers. They needed to run some more detailed tissue typing, and screen for infections diseases. The NMDP sent a kit to the UC Davis student health center (the new building is right next to my house), and I had my blood drawn this morning.

I hate giving blood. They didn't need very much, but I don't get along very well with steel needles. I count it as a major victory that I didn't barf until I got home.

Now we all wait for the results.

Good luck, whoever you are.