Books I've started and stopped lately

* John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River. His newest book is better, at least in its first 50 pages, than the abysmal Until I Find You, but still doesn’t that umph that animates The Hotel New Hampshire, Garp, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, which seem to me his best books, although I still haven’t read The Cider House Rules. Yet.

* Nicola Keegan’s Swimming, which has an interesting premise about a rising Olympic swimmer and her obsession with the pool and, presumably, how that does and doesn’t translate to dry land. Only the dialog is rendered in annoying italics (a minor point, but still), and, at least in the early sections, too many parts say things like, “The window sits still, boring a hole in the flat sky. Why are you mean to me all the time?” Overall, Swimming is tough to get into and awakens a strong, almost irrepressible urge to read Lolita instead, which is perhaps the ultimate novel dealing with obsession (among other things). Really, why resist?

* Robert Kaplan, Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts. An up-close look at the parts of the military that work, and probably a useful corrective to hit’n’run media coverage of foreign places (Yemen is in the news again! Give me a 30-second soundbite!). As with Imperial Grunts, Kaplan delves deep, but stretches read like the spec sheets in Tom Clancy, and I’m looking for more… what? Synthesis? Something like that? Tough to say. The book isn’t bad, but it doesn’t feel essential, as something like Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience does, although that covers a wholly different subject.

I’d write more, but I just can’t summon the energy for it. As Orwell said:

[…] the chances are that eleven out of the twelve books will fail to rouse in [the reviewer] the faintest spark of interest. They are not more than ordinarily bad, they are merely neutral, lifeless, and pointless. If he were not paid to do so he would never read a line of any of them, and in nearly every care the only truthful review he could write would be: “This book inspires in me no thoughts whatever.”

I don’t think of myself as a reviewer—I prefer to imagine myself someone who happens to like to write about books—but the truth is that the works above inspired few thoughts in me whatsoever. None is outright bad. They just leave me… unfeeling. Too many books leave me feeling, or at least knowledgeable, to spend a lot of time on those that don’t.

Books I’ve started and finished lately:

* Francine Prose’s Touch and Goldengrove. Why didn’t I read these earlier?

* Most of Alain de Botton’s oeuvre, including On Love, The Architecture of Happiness, and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. This is half pleasure—everything de Botton has written, except The Romantic Movement, is enormously pleasurable—and half for a project I’m working on.

* A.S. Byatt’s Possession, as discussed at the link.

Mid-September links: Kindles, swimming, Chile, and programming

* According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Kindle-dominated world would mean, um, something new. But what?

* The 2008 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest results are in, and the winner offers a typically horrendous opening that is paradoxically special in its own way:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.”

I just got inspired to send an entry for next year’s contest as I wrote this entry. Watch this space for more.

* By way of Paper Cuts, In literature, as in life, the art of swimming isn’t hard to master. I mentioned the issue previously at the bottom of this post.

The follow-up about running is here. Yours truly comments in both threads.

* Funny: Bruce Schneider wrote a post for Wired about creating fake identities and the increasing tenuous and yet important link between us and the “data shadows” we generate:

It seems to me that our data shadows are becoming increasingly distinct from us, almost with a life of their own. What’s important now is our shadows; we’re secondary. And as our society relies more and more on these shadows, we might even become unnecessary.

I say “funny,” because I just finished the second draft of a novel that plays with these very ideas. While on the topic of Schneider, he also asks, who needs reason regarding Homeland Insecurity when we can have a culture of perpetual fear instead?

* Speaking of ideas regarding identity, the digital world might be transforming Latin America. In Chile, the New York Times reports a sexual revolution of sorts among the young, driven by technology and connectivity. I wonder what Roberto Bolaño would say.

* Want to be a good programmer? Consider reading.

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