I picked up two more of Iain M. Banks’s “Culture” novels: Consider Phlebas and Player of Games. CP was the first “Culture” novel, and PoG was also one of the earlier ones. Both were reasonably big books, but I basically inhaled the both of them, hardly even breathing (according to Anne) until they were done. That shouldn’t be too surprising, considering that I was staying in a mountain cabin with three readers and a bunch of books, but they were both captivating and really, really good. Strangely, their reviews, and the blurbs on their backs, were, strictly speaking, accurate, but the stories themselves caught me by surprise — I suppose I expected them to be boring or twee, and they were neither.
- Category Archives cultural ramblings
Books, movies, music…
I brought two books along on
vacationour travels: Jeffery Pomerantz’s little gem Metadata, and Mountains Piled Upon Mountains, a collections of stories, poems and essays about nature in the Appalachians. I finished Metadata yesterday, which was a quick re-read, and started Mountains last night.
Whoo, what an intense book! I’ve always found Appalachia — people, places, plants and animals — to be deep: primal, spooky and beautiful. These writers obviously feel the same way, and are more than capable of evoking the feeling in their work. I’ve had to read it in little sections…
Meantime, my sister-in-law just finished the third book of the Cormoran Strike mystery series (by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling). There are four books in the series; I read the first three over the past few weeks and Anne has the fourth on Kindle so I may check it out. It may be a while though, since I burned myself out with the first three: the first two were page-turners, but by the third — which was also a lot creepier than the others — I was spotting some plot formulas and other common bits that kind of detracted from the story, and struggled to finish. Still, they were all pretty good books.
We went down to visit Ben & Candace in Philly on Monday. We took a walk around Bartram’s Garden, grabbed some lunch downtown, and made our traditional trip to Penn Books — they may not be there much more longer, so it was good to get in one last visit. I got a few SF titles, and already finished one: Jeff VanderMeer’s The Strange Bird. This is another story in the “Borne” universe, and I think it’s by far the best story in that universe, though it probably can’t stand on its own – it needs those other stories to make sense. Still, it’s got my recommendation.
Last night was a poetry reading at the library: a public reading of Leaves of Grass in honor of Walt Whitman’s birthday. Anne read a poem, as did our friends Matt (poet/librarian), and Sarah, and many others. Very fun!
Another book from the library; I finished this one a week or so ago. This was by Robert Jackson Bennet, the same guy who wrote Foundryside, but it was a very different book: set in an almost post-apocalyptic, Depression/Dustbowl-era America, it’s the tale of strangers who join together to hunt down a killer. It’s full of stories within stories, as they, and the people they meet, tell their tales — very Americana Gothic, with a bit of Cormac McCarthy thrown in.
There’s an element of fantasy, or the supernatural, thrown in just at the very end, and I think it actually detracts from the story, but not enough to ruin it. I really liked this, it was world-building as historical fiction, and world-building at its best.
I haven’t posted much lately about what I’m reading. That may be because my recent reading list has not been especially interesting, but there were a few gems in there:
- Pastoralia, by George Saunders: I got this while we were in Vermont, but I had to put it down for a bit, it was just too intense and disturbing. It’s from about 2000 and is basically a bunch of short stories, one of them more like a novella, that start out in the stressed-out mundane but then take a turn into surrealism or horror. Really good, very intense; not for reading just before bed.
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick: Another vacation purchase, but I finished it while we were away. A fast read, and the inspiration for “Blade Runner” (though it was very, and surprisingly different), this was the story of yet another dystopia, and though parts seemed hokey and dated, the story stuck with me.
- The War of the Gods, by Poul Anderson: Not a gem. I got this at the library and am almost done, and I can’t wait for it to be finished. It’s supposed to be a retelling of some Norse saga, but it manages to be incredibly tedious. The book is also inconsistent: it drags out, for pages on pages, with some things that should have been covered in a paragraph, then cuts some crucial scenes, down to a sentence or two, that would have been been better served by a few pages of elaboration. I’m now down to about 30 pages and will finish, but it’ll be a chore.
- Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennet: I’m just starting with this one, and it seems OK so far though it reads like YA literature. At least it’s not a chore…
I’m blogging from the library right now, where some doofus keeps making noise by moving his chair and bumping into the heat vents, another keeps coughing, and there’s a constant chatter from somewhere near the front. Whatever happened to quiet??
Meantime, my book quest continues. I got a recommendation for local author Carmen Machado, but the library doesn’t have her, so I picked up War of the Gods by Poul Anderson and Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett; neither book is on my “recommended” list, but both authors have books on the list, so I guess that’s close enough… By the way I returned Surface Detail today, mostly unread.
I’ve been on another sci-fi binge lately, going through the “suggested reading” list I keep on my phone, and getting what books I can from the library (or, failing that, checking out books by the same authors). So far it’s worked out pretty well:
First on my list was Daniel O’Brian’s Stiletto, which read like a more comic version of China Mieville, or a supernatural detective/spy thriller, or even a “buddy movie” kind of story: a quick, fun, “chewing gum for the brain” kind of read. (“Fast-paced romp” is also a phrase that comes to mind, and I might have even seen it on the book jacket.) It’s a sequel, which I didn’t know, and it seemed a disappointment to reviewers who read the first book; maybe that means I have another, even better book on my radar.
My next recommendations were books by the author Iain M. Banks. The library did not have any of the specific books recommended to me, but I found a few others (Transition, Look to Windward, and Matter) and really liked them.
I am now reading his Surface Detail, and unfortunately I don’t like it nearly as much as the others. Some of this may be that I read so many of his books at once that they became too much of a good thing, or maybe it’s just that some of the premises of this book are annoying — the story involves people whose personalities have been posthumously uploaded into a digital afterlife, including punishment in a digital “Hell,” and I have never been able to suspend my disbelief that a copy of someone, no matter who it thinks it is, is the original person: the transporter on Star Trek is a killing machine, and Roko’s Basilisk is a meaningless thought exercise. Surface Detail does seem to have a theme, or motif, of people being punished for the crimes of others, so I still have to see where this all goes.
I’ve also been doing a bit of nonfiction, including a bit of local history as well as some STEM things (data science, etc), though these have been dryer and less interesting than I expected. All in all though, it’s all been better than the hate-read of H.P. Lovecraft’s collected works I put myself through last month.
We watched the lunar eclipse the other night, going out every half hour or so for quick peeks — it was cold out! — until just a little after midnight. We used binoculars to get more detail, and we had a perfect view. We caught the very first appearance of the shadow, watched the gradually growing coverage until it was complete and the Moon was a dark red ball, and finally saw the shadow begin its retreat before we called it a night. (We saw photos later where the occluded Moon looked blue, but for us it was red, a deep and rusty, almost brownish red.) The show was awesome in all senses of the word, and “Superwolf Bloodmoon” sounds like a great name for a band — maybe names for two bands…
Updating The Databases
I’ve been updating my Sals trail map in QGIS, and I think I now have most of the new trail name/blaze changes, definitely all the changes I could verify on the ground, documented. I’m working on actually making a big paper map from all my data, which requires that I now learn some actual cartography skills. I put that project away to let it simmer for a while, and went back to my list of trail amenities.
In terms of actual, usable data, that list is a hot mess: restaurants and bars have closed or changed names, new establishments have opened, many long-established places were still missing from the list (because they were never on OpenStreetMap, my primary source), and, worst of all, most of the amenities had no other information than name and location. I spent a good part of the last few days adding and removing establishments, and finding phone numbers and other contact info, and generally updating the list. I still have a ways to go, but Bethlehem is starting to look complete.
The final database update was for my family tree, which I maintain in GRAMPS genealogy software. (The problem was that I might have “intercalated” an imaginary person into the tree: there is a Dorothy Murphy in my database, a distant cousin who might have had a niece Dorothy Mahoney, and either Dorothy Mahoney married Tom Hagenberg, or Dorothy Mahoney never existed and it was Dorothy Murphy who married Tom Hagenberg. My database had the “Dorothy Mahoney is real” version.)
This issue came up a few years ago in conversation with my parents, but I never got around to fixing it in GRAMPS, and eventually forgot which version was correct. I happened to be looking at old photos the other day though, and there was Dorothy Hagenberg, handing out cake at a child’s birthday party in the late 1940’s, and the whole thing was back in my face… A little email correspondence this week with Mom got the family tree straightened out, and fixing it in GRAMPS was surprisingly easy — Dorothy Mahoney is no more. There’s a lot of missing information in this database as well, but at least that one known error has been corrected.
My cello playing has been coming along, not in leaps and bounds but I am progressing… I’ve got a few songs under my belt now, and I am working on possible duets with Anne, and my lessons are starting to get beyond the very basics — I’m now working on the regular basics…
The Roxy Music song “Avalon” just started playing on the radio, just as I was drifting through Wikipedia from Arthurian legends (mentioned as a 13th-century development in that Medieval Europe book I’m reading), to Celtic Languages, to Hallstatt and La Tene cultures. I was looking at the city of Hallstatt, Austria and thinking “what a lost paradise that must have been,” when the song came on, and it reminded me of the scene in World War Z where the college students held out against 10,000 zombies. Nothing really special or insightful, just some things that came together to make a moment.
We got out for some walks a few weeks ago, and one of the walks took us through Nisky Hill Cemetery. This is one of the places where our friend Deb does her “walkabouts,” hiking around town and taking photos — she’s a prodigious walker with an enormous stride, and she has an incredible, artist’s eye for great shots. I might not have her skill or her eye (I don’t even walk that fast), but if you put me in the right place with a camera, even I might come home with a couple of keepers. Here are my favorites from that walk:
The old Bethlehem Steel mills and blast furnaces look like they’re practically on top of the cemetery, but they’re on the other side of the Lehigh River. (By the way, this “looking down the hill at a giant industrial site, in a valley by a river” is a very Pennsylvania thing for me.)
We took another walk a few days later, up the hill and through the University, up stairways past ancient stone buildings and frat houses, and at the top we explored Mr. Imagination’s sculpture garden, now starting to fall apart in the woods.