Sunday, June 29, 2014

On "The Sweethearts" by Hans Christian Andersen (803 words) ***

Arguably a seize-the-day tale, this story recounts the life of a top and a ball. The ball is too stuck up to marry the top, and then, years later, when the ball is past its prime and ready for a relationship, the top no longer has any interest. Cynical Andersen strikes again. Read the tale here.

On “The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner ****

This has been on my list for years, but our local library doesn't have it. Not long ago, a coworker of mine was talking about the book, and he had a copy, and he loaned it to me. The idea of the book is what drew me to it, and no doubt others, since it became a best-seller. Weiner travels to various countries to find out what makes the people in these places happy (or unhappy). I found the idea to be slightly more interesting than the execution. Weiner is an NPR reporter, and the chapters feel very much like a sort-of-tongue-in-cheek NPR report, the kind that's both engaging and annoying. I guess I was wanting something a bit more methodical; instead, Weiner sometimes often goes off on tangents--intriguing, but not necessarily germane to the point at hand.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. It definitely got through it quickly and had, at times, a desire to read past my daily allotment of time and pages. The book also made me think a bit about my own happiness or lack thereof and the places that I have lived. Weiner says that happiness tends to hit highs in childhood and old age; I'd heard that happiness, rather, builds with age, which means I should be happier in my forties than my thirties than my twenties, and so on. The point of this is that when I think of California and my childhood, I do indeed think of those days with a great amount of pleasure. I also think highly of Mississippi and of Georgia. The only place I did not enjoy my life in was Texas, and even there, I look back on those harder times with a certain fondness for the very hardness of them.

But of those places, in which was I happiest, and where would I choose to live if I could be in any one of them? The latter is what should be used, Weiner says, to declare “home.” I'm not sure I agree with that. Right now, I'd choose to live in Georgia, as I do. But there are circumstances and reasons for such thinking. Were resources not an issue, California still holds a great appeal, but partly it holds appeal for my history with it. Would I really want to live there? I love the town I live in currently, and most of my friends are here. I can't go back to the California of my childhood. In fact, I'd return to something more like the California of my young adulthood, where I increasingly felt that I didn't fit in. That is not a place I'd want to live in.

Recently, I married. I still love the place I live, but I have come to see it in some ways as having less importance than it once did. No longer single, I'm not as dependent on my network of friends; in fact, I rarely see them anymore. The need for places to go by myself is no longer there. Were circumstances to work out, I could see moving again. I see such with trepidation, given how happy I have been here and how connected to the community I feel, but my bride and stepchildren do not have that same connection (yet) and that in turn affects, to an extent, my own feelings about my current abode (though I can't say I have much desire to move to the snowy northern Midwest either).

Weiner's tour of countries starts off with those near the top of a list of the happiest nations on Earth. The Netherlands, where the study/survey was/is tabulated, ranks as the happiest of all, and it is there that Weiner begins, interviewing the professor responsible for starting happiness studies. Why, Weiner asks, do the Dutch rank as so happy? Perhaps it is the permissiveness of the culture? But then he goes to Sweden, a more uptight country, and finds people there quite happy as well. A trip to Qatar shows that money isn't everything in terms of happiness, as does its opposite, Bhutan, a relatively poor country I'd barely heard of that ranks relatively well on the happiness scale. The key for the Bhutanese is to not desire too much. A trip to Moldova is a trip to a supposedly very unhappy place, where everyone feels poor (perhaps, the key with riches is not to feel poorer than those around you, and poor Moldova rests within a sphere of richer countries--it also had a recent period of relative ease that it's lost out on; indeed, it is easier, I think, to be happier never having had most of the time than to have had and lost, though not always, since sometimes having had an experience is enough to make us happy simply to have had it and allows us to move on). Iceland is a country of heavy drinking and little sun, but people there are happy. British mask their happiness in a quietness and ease. In India, Weiner goes to an ashram and an anti-ashram to see what exactly such things have to do with our happiness. And finally, he returns home, suggesting that Americans are perhaps less happy than they should be because they move around too much (ironically, he suggests that people's ability to move is what makes for happy people in his afterword). The epilogue does a nice summation of all that Weiner has presented, and if you don't want the colorful human interest tales, it might just be enough to show you all of Weiner's findings.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

On "The Traveling Companion" by Hans Christian Andersen (7456 words) ***

In the tradition of the bloodier fairy tales out there, this one tells the story of a man who happens upon a very helpful friend with magic powers. In the course of the tale, the man also happens into a village with a beautiful princess who also happens to be a witch. Each suitor has to answer of her three questions correctly, and she will be their spouse. Otherwise, they die. And many are the skeletons in the castle. She's really beautiful apparently, because the man decides to go for her regardless. Behind her power, we learn, is a horrible ogre. Things don't look so good. Sounds like a fairly typical attempt at a relationship. Read the tale here.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

On "The Body" by Julianna Spallholz (498 words) ****

This short piece seems more a poem than a story to me. But either way, what makes it special is the way the Spallholz makes me reconfigure and reconsider the world by putting everything not in an identity but in a mere body. Suddenly our physical presence seems to hold the most reality. Read the story here at Noo Journal.

On "Neuromancer" by William Gibson ****

On sentence level, this is one of the best-written books on my science-fiction reading list. Gibson seems genuinely interested in writing pretty words. I have on some level intended to this this book for decades, but on another level, it's always scared me a bit--seemed a bit too dry and detailed--and so I've stayed away. I'm glad I finally dared get past the first few pages. It is dense, but it's also a great read.

I wanted to read Gibson's work on the science fiction list in part because it is considered, so far as I understand, seminal in the creation of the cyberpunk genre. I never quite knew what that was, but now that I've read Gibson, I think I have some understanding. We're talking Matrix here, and indeed, much of what would later show up in those Matrix is anticipated here in Gibson, who himself writes of the Matrix and of people living in and out of a cyberspace world. Amazingly, this book was written back in the mid-1980s, when the Internet was the playhouse mostly just of the military and of a few true computer geeks (like some of my friends were).

The story revolves around a man named Case, who once did some high white-collar crimes, bilking companies he worked for of millions with savvy computer hacking. He might have had loads of money, but his accounts were frozen and the companies fried his brains to ensure he never worked in computers again. When we meet him, he is a drug dealer and a drug addict hanging on the streets of Tokyo.

Someone wants him to go to work for them. They want him badly enough that they offer to pay for surgery to correct his brain ("offer" may be a light word here--they more or less insist). In exchange, Case has to do some computer work for them. As it turns out, this computer work involves a lot of hacking into alternate cyberspace worlds, monitoring others, and searching for something. This is where things are a bit murky and dense and why Gibson's work demands close or second readings. Case doesn't know exactly who his boss is working for--and thus who he is working for--so he goes in search. In part, this is because the correction to his brain is temporal; if he quits, toxins will be released that will return him to his fried-brain state. Eventually, Case figures out that he's working for an artificial intelligence (that's right, for a computer), called Wintermute. Wintermute's got designs on the human race, on computer's generally. What exactly they are never became clear to me. At points, the narrative shifts so often between the computer world and the real world that the two begin to blur.

Nevertheless, it's a fun ride.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

On "Rolls" by Alexa Mergen (1184 words) ***

This short piece excels in description. Having spent the first half of my life out west, it was wonderful to read someone's account of that fine desert and of those little far-out places in between the big cities. Perhaps I've read and seen a lot of disturbing pieces lately, but I felt a certain menace under the events here. A young adult takes a trip back across the country and gets stuck, the result of a car too old (been there!). Luckily, there are a few rolls to keep the person alive. Read the story here at Jenny Mag.

Monday, June 9, 2014

On "The Metaphor Pusher" by Aaron Fox-Lerner (6:36 seconds) ****

The second of two stories featured in this edition of the monthly audio literature magazine Bound Off, Fox-Lerner's piece is about a man coming to grips with a disappointing trip to Asia and about how literature can find a home even in our day-to-day experience. A street-side vendor pushes not watches but metaphors. (Reminds me a bit of a man back in California who would offer to write a poem for people: that was what he was selling on the street.) Listen to the story here at Bound Off.

On "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card ****

This one came highly recommended by someone when I noted that I was going to do a classic science fiction list. No doubt, this is one of the newest books on said list, but I did want some newer contemporary writers represented. I can see why the book was recommended. It's a great book in terms of propelling one along as a reader to want to read more and more.

The story is essentially that of Ender Wiggin, a child who is drafted into the army at the age of six. This is a world that is looking for a superhero, and Ender is just that, as were potentially his two siblings, Peter and Valentine. The problem was that Peter was too violent, Valentine not quite what the bigwigs wanted either. So Ender is it. He's a third, in a world where couples are allowed only two children, so he's already known as an outlier. This in turn means that he's likely to be beaten up by other kids--and by Peter.

One day, faced with a mob, Ender beats up the lead kid, beats him up so badly that the kid will never threaten him again--nor anyone. That's the goal. But he feels guilty about treating others like so, the way Peter would. So Ender has, in addition to proclivities to violence, a kind of empathy to tame it.

Along come the generals to take him off to battle academy. The academy essentially consists of playing battle games in zero gravity--something akin to laser tag of sorts. In between, there are classes and video games. As technically too young for the school, Ender is again an outsider, prone to getting beaten up. However, he's savvy, knows how to work the politics so that he gets what he wants, over and over. And he's good at the games too, which lends him respect, even when he's told, for example, not to fight.

Eventually, he works his way up at the school and then is promoted to commander school, where the battles become huge simulations of actual battles with the buggers, as they are known.

This is why Eros (i.e., Earth) needs a superhero. Twice, the buggers tried to invade Eros, and both times they barely were repelled. Unless humans prepare for the next onslaught and have a brilliant commander, there is no hope. Ender is that hope. And with each command battle, Ender proves why he is.

There are a few tricks Card drops in near the end of the book that I won't reveal here. Suffice to say that the ever-feeling Ender is a reluctant warrior.

Card treats his children like adults--or in other words, he writes them as if they are adults. They are precocious, and they aren't allowed to be children in this particular world, but still, they don't come across to me quite the way kids would, and in that sense, I had something of a hard time with the characterizations in this book. But if you can accept that or get beyond it, the story is an intriguing one. And the characters were well enough drawn that I actually found myself caring about them, despite how fantastic they seemed.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

On "The Guava Tree" by Darshan Baral (1755 words) ***

Mrs. Uprety has a tree that she takes much pride in, so much pride that she doesn't allow anyone to touch it, not even her husband. The results of this pride come to full bear when some neighborhood boys decide to eat a few pieces. Read the story here at Jenny Mag.