Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

The Brief History of the Dead is a highly original novel that alternates between chapters about a female wildlife specialist in Antarctica who may be the last person alive on the planet following a viral pandemic and chapters featuring a city where the dead continue to live as long as someone on Earth remembers them.

The book's author Kevin Brockmeier is a very gifted writer and his skill is evident throughout the narrative. The conceit of the necropolis, though, doesn't hold up through the length of the text, and as the link between the two storylines becomes clear, the plot drags toward its inevitable terminus.

I also struggled a bit with the book's apocalyptic setup of a virus that kills everyone on the planet. Even assuming the most virulent strain of a mutagenic virus, it seems incredibly unlikely that a virus would kill off an entire host population. Perhaps if Brockmeier had offered up explanations as to why the virus didn't mutate into less virulent forms or why no one was immune, this questionable plot construct wouldn't have stood out so much.

Despite these points, it's worth repeating how inventive and well-written The Brief History of the Dead is. I look forward to reading more from Kevin Brockmeier in the future.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Ravenweb 2006 Year in Review

As 2006 is closing down, I thought I would highlight some of the major Ravenweb posts from the past year. 2006 was really the first full year I maintained a blog, so I'm pleased (and a little surprised) I posted regularly throughout the entire year.

Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed the past twelve months of Ravenweb, and I look forward to posting more in 2007.

Ravenweb 2006 Year in Review
  • Cecily and I visited Santa Fe, New Mexico. The visit inspired a slideshow and a column.
  • I reread Elie Wiesel's Night.
  • IE7 is released.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

Rubyfruit Jungle is Rita Mae Brown's milestone novel about growing up lesbian in America.

I first read this over fifteen years ago and remember feeling a strong connection with the Molly Bolt character, who never apologized for who she was and refused to buckle to the world's sexism and judgements.

Reading the text again so many years later, I was pleased to discover just how well the book held up and that my initial impression was unchanged. I found that Molly was still a great, feisty character, and that the novel was fairly timeless.

This is because, ultimately, Rubyfruit Jungle is a simple and honest story about self-acceptance and coming to terms with one's sexuality that's just as true now as it was twenty or thirty years ago.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

New GTI

I'm thrilled to report that we now have a new 2007 Volkswagen GTI!



We picked it up a few weeks ago, and it has proven to be a wonderfully designed, feisty vehicle. The GTI is equipped with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine featuring direct injection and a single turbocharger. This translates to 197 horsepower at 5100 rpm and 207 pound-feet of torque at just 1800. So we can now get to 60 mph in about seven seconds.

The only problem with the new ride is that both Cecily and I want to drive it all the time!

A Charlie Brown "Scrubs" Christmas

I'm not sure how old this is or how it hit the net, but here's a link to a great YouTube video featuring the cast of Scrubs voicing and re-imagining the classic "A Charlie Brown Christmas".

According to some blogs, the cast made this video for a Christmas party and it has since found it’s way onto the net.

Lucky for us!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Don't Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff

Don't Get Too Comfortable is a funny and sharp collection of essays that skewer current bourgeoisie cultural excess. The essays include inventories of Hooters Air and a cryogenics storage facility, critiques of Paris couture and Beverly Hills "re-facing" salons, the author's observations while working as a cabana boy at a plush South Beach hotel, and more.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Stumbling on Happiness is an insightful and accessible book that attempts to explain why people do such a poor job at predicting what will make them happy.

Armed with both scientific research and funny anecdotes, author Daniel Gilbert shows that when people try to imagine the futures they would like, they often make some basic and consistent mistakes, similar to the errors of omission that occur in memory.

This book won't necessarily arm you with the tools to make yourself happy, but it will help explain why some of the decisions we make in the present don't always turn out as we expect or want in the future.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Being Poor

If any of you have not yet read John Scalzi's "Being Poor" post, this is a good a time of the year to reset it.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Bad Place by Dean Koontz

The Bad Place is an SF horror novel about an amnesiac man who teleports when he falls asleep and a married detective team that tries to help him.

I don't read that much horror, so I can't comment on how this novel compares to other texts in the genre, but I found The Bad Place entertaining, and a fast-paced, light read. The conceit was a little too outrageous for me to suspend disbelief, but the pacing and supernatural imagery were effective and fun.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Tryptophan

First, the definition:

Main Entry: tryp·to·phan
Pronunciation: 'trip-t&-"fan
Variant(s): also tryp·to·phane /-"fAn/
Function: noun
Etymology: International Scientific Vocabulary tryptic + -o- + -phane
: a crystalline essential amino acid C11H12N2O2 that is widely distributed in proteins

Source: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Tryptophan and turkey:

This snippet from a Wikipedia entry on tryptophan offers some evidence that tryptophan in turkey is not likely the soporific that it's commonly believed to be.
According to popular belief, tryptophan in turkey meat causes drowsiness. Turkey does contain tryptophan, which does have a documented sleep-inducing effect as it is readily converted into serotonin by the body. However, tryptophan is effective only when taken on its own as a free amino acid. Tryptophan in turkey is found as part of a protein, and, in small enough amounts, this mechanism seems unlikely.

A more-likely hypothesis is that the ingestion of large quantities of food, such as at a Thanksgiving feast, means that large quantities of both carbohydrates and branched-chain amino acids are consumed. Like carbohydrates, branched-chain amino acids require insulin to be transduced through the myocyte membranes, which, after a large meal, creates a competition among the amino acids and glucose for insulin, while simultaneously creating tryptophan's reduced competition with other amino acids for the Large Neutral Amino Acid Transporter protein for transduction across the blood-brain barrier.
In other words, Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Gary's Blog

My friend Gary — who is now living in Japan with his wife — has recently started a blog chronicling his adventures in Japan.

His posts are very readable, with a distinctive style. He's also uploaded many pictures that illustrate the places and events described in his posts.

Gary's Blog is at http://kimmelhurt.blogspot.com/.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Casino Royale

I went to see Casino Royale last night and very much enjoyed the idea and most of the execution in bringing the Bond franchise back to its roots, with an origin story and a young and untested Bond.

Daniel Craig was great as the young Bond and deftly plays the character as an intense and strapping agent, clearly skilled but learning his way and prone to arrogance and errors in judgment.

The film was a bit long and could have used some additional editing, but it was certainly the most enjoyable Bond film in recent memory and infuses the franchise with some desperately needed originality and charisma.

F.E.A.R. Extraction Point

F.E.A.R. Extraction Point is an expansion to the original F.E.A.R., and provides many of the same creepy visuals and breathless gun battles that were prominent in the original game.

The continuation starts right after the original game ends, amid the wreckage of the Black Hawk helicopter that was ferrying you to safety. Your point in the expansion is straightforward: to battle through an army of replicants and other foes and reach an extraction point and helicopter to fly you out of the immediate danger zone.

As PC shooter expansions go, F.E.A.R. Extraction Point delivers and provides about 6 hours of memorable firefights, advanced artificial intelligence, and effective horror atmosphere. The game also includes a few new weapons, including a bullet-spitting chaingun and deployable gun sentries. New environments introduced in Extraction Point include a subway level and some new office interiors.

The plot doesn't really go anyway and at best can be described as an extended epilogue to the campaign in F.E.A.R. Ultimately, this isn't a problem though as Extraction Point is really all about the visceral firefights. Fortunately, in this area, the game soars.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Put on Your Scrubs!

For those of you who haven't heard, Scrubs will be back on NBC this season. The latest news from NBC is that the show will begin airing on November 30 and then thereafter every Thursday night, in the 9:00 - 9:30 (EST) time slot.

If you haven't watched Scrubs in a while and need to get back in the mood of the show, you can catch it now on Comedy Central, where it airs Monday through Saturday, two or four episodes per day, depending on the day.

If you need more Scrubs, check out this expansive Scrubs fan portal, where you will find everything from news and faqs about the show, a listing of songs that aired in the episodes, and links to other Scrubs websites. While you're there, be sure and take the Scrubs Personality Test to see which Scrubs character you most resemble.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A New Hope?

While the Death Star hasn't been destroyed yet, it seems with the likely Democratic Senate victories in Montana and Virginia, that the Jedi X-Wings have finally launched and are preparing for their attack runs.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Chanur's Venture by C.J. Cherryh

Chanur's Venture is the sequel to Cherryh's popular The Pride of Chanur, and continues the spare opera of the lionine hani in a future confederacy of alien races bound by trade.

As with the first novel, I enjoyed the story in Chanur's Venture but struggled with Cherryh's prose style. I won't repeat the points I raised about Cherryh's writing that I made in my capsule review of The Pride of Chanur, but, suffice it to say, in the end, I was only able to gleam all the text's hazy plot points after I skipped ahead to the next novel in the series and read the synopsis of what had gone before.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Welcome to Ravenweb

Ravenweb is a blog devoted to texts, movies, television, PC games, people, popular culture, and writing. Here you will find postings, short reviews, and related links about these subjects.

Ravenweb is derived from my current home website, http://www.ravenweb.net/, and will pull in and reflect much of the content currently available there.

I decided to mirror my website postings in Blogger so as to take advantage of the system's easy-to-use administrative, archiving, and publishing features. Blogger templates and information display are also pretty pervasive on the web now, so I wanted to give interested users the option to access my content through a familiar Blogger site template and feed if that is their preference.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips

American Theocracy is a sobering examination of the real possibility that the U.S. may be a fading power.

Citing the downfall of great societies in history, author Kevin Phillips argues that, due to our reliance on dwindling oil, unsustainable credit, and the imperious influence of radical religious politics, the U.S. is facing the possibility of its own collapse.

A thick book — both in terms of size and prose style — I don't know that everyone will have the stamina to get through American Theocracy. Still, even for those readers, the points in the text are urgent enough to take notice, even if it's only to read part of the book, tell others about it, or support it in some other way.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

IE7

IE7 does a decent job of adding browser features introduced and popularized by Firefox, but the new IE adds nothing innovative to web browsing and is at core a product geared at catching up on web interface standards and emerging technologies.

I recently installed IE7 on my work laptop. This addition was not from any driving inclination but because I need to have a working instance of all major production browsers for work to test and evaluate public website code.

Anyway, it's okay and does a decent job of adding browser features introduced and popularized by Firefox — such as tabbed browsing — but my major reaction is the question: this is it, this is the best the wealthiest software company in the world can come up in the four plus years since IE6 was released?

I think I would have looked more favorably upon the effort if Microsoft just took the time to make IE7 an easy to add and remove stand-alone program, like Firefox. As it is, it's still integrated far too much into the OS, and the required Windows Validation will likely annoy a lot of people who have copied a version of XP onto a second computer and can't install the program.

For those who are interested, additions in IE7 included tabbed browsing, new security, built-in anti-phishing site recognition, RSS support, and better adherence to W3C standards.

Bottom line: To date, I've seen nothing in IE7 that's not already available natively in Firefox or through a Firefox extension, so, unless you're a web developer who needs to test pages in all modern browsers or you just enjoy trying out and using multiple web browsers, I don't know that I would recommend it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Which Superhero Do You Most Resemble?

Are you more like Superman or Spiderman? Wolverine or Batman? Take the Ravenweb Superhero Survey to find out which superhero you most resemble.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

The Player of Games is an SF novel set in Iain M. Banks' Culture series that tells of Jernau Gurgeh, the Culture's greatest game player, who travels to the Empire of Azad to participate in a complex competition that is ultimately a contest between two galactic civilizations.

The text flows well and is very engaging as a straightforward SF adventure story. Beyond the surface plot, The Player of Games is thought-provoking and rewarding as an examination of the contrasting values and shortcomings of the Culture and the anti-utopian Empire of Azad.

Initially, Banks appears to set the Empire of Azad as an exotic and vibrant anti-utopian alternative to the Culture, with its belief in its own moral perfectibility and willingness to lie and manipulate to shape the galaxy. Further exploration, though, reveals the empire to be depraved and terrifically unjust, recasting the Culture in a better moral light.

I definitely recommend The Player of Games.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Ravenweb Column Airs on Radio

My column "Rob" aired the morning of October 3rd on WBFO 88.7, the NPR radio affiliate in Buffalo, as part of its "Listener Commentary" series.

I've included links below to the WBFO page with audio clips of the recording and the Ravenweb page that originally featured the column.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Pride of Chanur by C.J. Cherryh

The Pride of Chanur is a space opera set in the Compact, a loose confederacy of alien races bound by trade.

The story centers around the unexpected appearance of Tully, a human alien belonging to a previously unknown species, who stows aboard the titular vessel with its lionine hani crew and captain, Pyanfar Chanur. Tully is fleeing the kif, a treacherous species given to thievery and warlike behavior.

While the story is entertaining with much to admire, I struggled with Cherryh's writing throughout. To me, Cherryh's prose style feels very rushed and jagged, with too many lengthy sentences stuck together with comma splices, colons, and em dashes. This mars the book's pacing and takes attention away from the story, placing focus instead on the writing construction. Call me a purist, but I still favor simple, declarative sentences.

That said, I recognize that prose style is a matter of taste, and I'll admit that I just might not get Cherryh. Certainly, The Pride of Chanur is one of the most beloved books in the SF canon and Cherryh has long been a perennial fan-favorite author. So maybe it's me.

Still, The Pride of Chanur is worth reading for its superlative SF story, even if, like me, you find Cherryh a much better storyteller than writer.

Bush, Civil Liberties, and Comics

Civil War is a 2006 Marvel Comics mini series that centers around the introduction into the United States of the Marvel Universe of a Super-human Registration Act.

The conceit is, a super-powers tragedy precipitates a bill requiring the registration, unmasking and regulation of all super heroes -- signed into law by GWB. Some heroes, led by Iron Man, approve of the measure, bringing them into armed conflict with those who see it as a disastrous assault on civil liberties. Leading the charge against the Bush measure: Captain America.

I haven't read comics in years but I find the idea for this series very interesting and may check this out if it's released as a graphic novel.

Thanks to A. R. Wolff for alerting me to this comic series and for providing the summary that I've reproduced in this posting.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Ireland Visit

I had the opportunity to visit Ireland recently and have detailed some of my impressions from the trip.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

High Fidelity is one of my all-time favorite novels and easily my choice for best contemporary male relationship novel.

The novel tells the story of Rob, a thirtysomething pop music junkie just out of a long relationship, who uses music to define and measure his life.

Hilarious and true to life, High Fidelity deftly captures the disorientation and actions following the end of a relationship: how Rob reorganizes his record collection in an effort to find security in the familiar; how he reassesses his past relationships and contacts old girlfriends; how he fumbles in his efforts to win back his ex-girlfriend, Laura; how he tortures himself with thoughts of Laura and her new lover; and how ultimately he gets it right when he has an opportunity to reconcile with Laura and does.

The novel inspired the film of the same name, starring John Cusack.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Failed States by Noam Chomsky

In Failed States, Chomsky examines the notion of failed or rogue states and argues convincingly that the U.S. fits the definition of such a state.

Defining such states as those "that regard themselves as beyond the reach of domestic or international law, and that suffer from a 'democratic deficit', having democratic forms but with limited substance", Chomsky provides significant evidence in support of his argument, including the U.S.'s lawless military aggression, self-exemption from international law, propping up of anti-democratic dictators, and indifference to the opinions and wishes of the majority of its population.

If the text and Chomsky fall short in any area, it's mostly that the author is all argument and evidence, and he provides few practical ideas for moving forward and affecting change from within the power-based systems he critiques. Still, given what most Americans regularly digest as news, this should be required reading for every citizen.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

9-11 by Noam Chomsky

This text comprises Chomsky's thoughts on the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Collected from interviews that Chomsky gave during the first month following the attacks, Chomsky discusses the attacks, Osama bin Laden and the root causes, historical precedents, and possible outcomes.

Like much of Chomsky's political writing, 9-11 is frank and revealing, with detailed information about US policy decisions and actions from the past 20 years. The text is definitely worth reading.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey is the sequel to the original The Longest Journey, widely considered one of the best PC adventure games ever made.

Like its predecessor, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey is a deftly conceived and well designed speculative fiction adventure game.

The game gets a lot right and boasts a provocative story, memorable characters, beautiful presentation, and a fantastic musical score and voice acting. As good as the game is, though, it's not perfect. The puzzles and combat are very easy and will pose little challenge for veteran gamers. There are also too many sequences in the game for my comfort where control is taken from the player and the story is instead moved ahead though lengthy cut-scenes. Finally, the end of the game feels very rushed and leaves many loose ends untied.

Overall, though, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey is a worthy sequel to a beloved adventure game classic and will satisfy fans of the original and entertain newcomers to the series.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger

Everyone Worth Knowing is a trashy, junk food novel about an ordinary woman who joins a Manhattan PR and event-planning firm and subsequently becomes immersed in the superficial, VIP party world.

I decided to try this novel after having seen and enjoyed the film The Devil Wears Prada. Just a few chapters into this novel, though, and it quickly became evident that my enjoyment of The Devil Wears Prada was likely more due to the film's director and actors than the text source.

Everyone Worth Knowing is a purely formulaic, forgettable novel. The characters are not believable, the writing and grammar are poor, and the plot twists are predictable and cliched. What's worse, the novel is essentially exactly the same as The Devil Wears Prada. Just like the earlier novel, Everyone Worth Knowing features a young, naive girl who joins a high-profile Manhattan company and experiences the trappings, transformation, and toll of surrendering yourself to an all-consuming profession.

Final recommendation: skip the novel and wait for the film adaptation.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

What Happens When We Die by Sam Parnia

What Happens When We Die purports to provide and summarize new scientific findings and research about Near Death Experiences (NDEs).

While the text at first seems promising, it becomes apparent midway through that author Sam Parnia has relatively little to say. Instead of substance and fresh objective research about NDEs, Parnia provides little more than summaries of previous NDE studies, anecdotes, and his own speculations about future NDE and consciousness experiments. As an example, the book is so thin on content that the author resorts to devoting nearly an entire chapter to his difficulties securing funding for an NDE study.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent

Self-Made Man is one of those rare, insightful books that lives up to and even exceeds the hype.

Recounting the year and a half in which author Norah Vincent disguised herself as Ned in order to observe the world of men as an insider, Self-Made Man is at once a fascinating piece of immersion journalism and a serious analysis of gender and gender roles in America.

The book is hugely entertaining and very much worth reading. You'll laugh at loud, be inspired to talk about the topics raised by the author, and think and reflect long after you finish the text.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Dispatches from the Edge by Anderson Cooper

Dispatches from the Edge is journalist Anderson Cooper's chronicle of the big-story news events he has covered as well as his own tragedies and demons.

Cooper's text brings together his reflections about Bosnia, famine-wracked Niger, Baghdad during the Iraq War, and the large-scale tragedies of 2005: the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in the US.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

The Last Kingdom is a rich historical adventure novel set in ninth century England about an aristocratic English boy, Uhtred, who is captured and raised as a Dane following a Viking incursion into northern Britain.

As the novel progresses, Uhtred grapples with divided loyalties, torn between Ragnar, the Danish warrior who raised him like a father, and England, the land of his birth and ancestry.

I have to admit, I was skeptical when I started the novel. Ninth century England? How could it not be gloomy? But Cornwell's penchant for historical verisimilitude and fast-paced action make for a very engaging and fun read.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a timeless story of childhood and family relationships.

Set in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn in the early 20th Century, the novel is primarily the story of Francie Nolan, an imaginative and resourceful child, who, though often poorly treated by fate and people, plunges forward, indomitable and courageous.

This is one of the best and most honest novels I've read and deserves its place among the ranks of perennial American classics. I highly recommend A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser

A modern-day muckraking text, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal is an unflinching look at fast food, the values it embodies, and the world it has made.

Examining fast food as both a commodity and a metaphor, Schlosser reports on everything from the poor wages of fast food employees, rising obesity in the US, working conditions in meatpacking plants, and the relationship between fast food business practices and the malling and sprawling of America.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Clerks II

Though not as good as the original, Clerks II is funny and clever (not to mention rude and offensive) more often than not.

The film catches up with Dante Hicks and Randal Graves ten years after the original Clerks, where they've laterally moved from convenience and video store clerks to workers in a fast food restaurant.

What follows include episodes of slacking, riotous nerdboy debates, screwing with customers, and, surprisingly, change, with the prospects of marriage, adulthood, and friendship all in the balance.

Clerks II works and is a worthy sequel because it represents a satisfying return to roots for Kevin Smith, with good dialogue, comedic timing, purity, and themes of male friendship that were so strong in his early films.

The Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol

The Shame of the Nation delivers a devastating expose of the de-facto segregation in American public schools.

Author Jonathan Kozol pulls no punches as he reviews the segregation of students by color and income and sums up the reality as a "restoration of apartheid schooling in America".

This book will and should make you uncomfortable. Fifty years removed from Brown vs. Board of Education, The Shame of the Nation reveals overcrowded classes in rotting school buildings, promising students forced into menial job training courses, and the obscene funding differences between rich and poor schools.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Night by Elie Wiesel

Night is the recounting of Elie Wiesel's experience when he and his family were taken from their home in Transylvania in 1944 to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and then to Buchenwald.

Unbelievably powerful and painful, Night serves as a testimonial to what happened in the camps and is one of those few books I think everyone — everyone — should read.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Sin Episodes: Emergence

Sin Episodes: Emergence plays like a poor man's Half-Life 2, but that's not all bad as the game offers fun, action-packed episodic SF shooter game play.

The game features by-the-numbers shooter sequences and uses the Half-Life 2 engine. Released as the first episode of the new Sin Episodes game, it takes about four to five hours to complete the single player chapter.

Good graphics and a reasonable budget price make it worth checking out for those who enjoy shooters.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Zodiac by Neil Stephenson

Zodiac is a very fun eco-thriller about hazardous industrial waste and an environmental action group that exposes polluting companies.

The lead character is Sangamon Taylor, an improbable anti-hero who inhales nitrous oxide for kicks and rides around Boston Harbor on a 40-horsepower Zodiac raft, scouting for toxic sludge and other evidence of pollution.

Richly set in Boston, the novel is a great ride in the tradition of a fast-paced thriller. Beyond that, it is also funny, with humorous dialogue and unconventional characters. Finally, beneath the action and the humor, the text makes its point, about the all-too-conceivable dangers of unchecked industrial pollution.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

The Ghost Brigades is Scalzi's fast-paced sequel to Old Man's War.

The novel follows Jared Dirac, an altered Special Forces clone of a military scientist who betrayed humankind to alien aggressors, who is created to provide insight into the original scientist's mind and strategic information for the human alliance to use against the alien enemies.

Like its predecessor, The Ghost Brigades is fast and fun, and combines taut military action with moral questions about eugenics and technology. Definitely recommended.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich

Bait and Switch is Barbara Ehrenreich's loose follow up to her celebrated Nickel and Dimed, and is about the problems faced by unemployed white-collar Americans looking for new jobs.

In this volume, Ehrenreich goes through the process of building up a resume, meeting with career coaches, attending networking events, and sending out her resume, all for the purpose of landing an executive position in the corporate workplace.

I hate to say it -- because I love what Ehrenreich did with Nickel and Dimed -- but Bait and Switch is very disappointing. The text offered limited insights about the struggles of unemployed white collar workers beyond what has already been reported or published.

The author's process for trying to find a job also seemed more about gathering material and padding the book than in replicating the steps a real unemployed person would take. I found myself wondering at many points in the text why the author didn't just set up a meeting with a staffing agency or a headhunter instead of bouncing off so many clearly inadequete coaching consultants.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Buried Deep by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The fourth Retrieval Artist novel takes the series to Mars and an investigation to examine skeletal remains recently discovered on the red planet.

The investigation soon leads to the discovery of a mass grave and complications with the resident Disty aliens, who hold long-standing and rigid beliefs that death and dead bodies cause extreme contamination.

Buried Deep is another well-written soft SF novel that fans of the Retrieval Artist series will likely enjoy.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Consequences by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Consequences is the third novel in the Retrieval Artist series and, like its predecessors, is a cross between light speculative fiction and a police procedural thriller.

The plot of this novel centers around a murder investigation in the Moon colony of Armstrong and the connections between the murder and an escalating political crisis.

The novel, though well-written and a fast read, is at times weak in its character and future-world believability. This is most noticeable with the Retrieval Artist character Miles Flint, who Rusch imbues with such overwhelming computer skills that he is able to bypass any security or firewall so as to advance the plot.

Despite the reservations, the novel is more fun than it is contrived, so I would recommend Consequences to fans of the Retrieval Artist series and readers interested in a fast SF thriller.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Extremes by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Extremes is the sequel to Rusch's The Disappeared. Like the original novel, the sequel blends speculative fiction with a police procedural, detective storyline.

However, unlike the first Retrieval Artist novel, there are no aliens; the events and plot are tightly contained around an all human cast and a murder investigation at the annual Moon Marathon.

Overall, the novel is weaker than The Disappeared: the lack of aliens and inter-species cultural conflict bleed the speculative world of some of the verisimilitude Rusch crafted in the introductory novel, and Miles and some of the other characters seem a little too contrived.

Still, as with all Rusch novels, the writing is so good that it is transparent and the experience of reading her prose is light and relaxing. So, I would recommend Extremes to dedicated Rusch fans or those readers interested in a fast, well-written but at times contrived speculative novel.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

My Name Is Frank

This column was inspired by true events and the NBC television show "My Name Is Earl", and is about being delayed at the airport and the powerful influence of karma.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Disappeared by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The Disappeared is a very good speculative fiction novel that blends nicely with a traditional police procedural, detective storyline.

The plot is tight and fun, and the characters are well-drawn and interesting. And while the book doesn't extend into hard SF, the science that's there supports the story enough such that the extrapolated future feels very real and believable.

I definitely recommend The Disappeared.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man's War is an engaging, fun military SF novel, in the tradition of Heinlein and Haldeman.

With moments of great action, believable characters, well-reasoned physics, and moral complexity, the text provides an excellent and fresh perspective of a classic SF sub-genre.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Half-Life 2: Episode One

Half-Life 2: Episode One advances the Half-Life story and launches the first in a new, three-part series that leads far beyond City 17.

Episode One offers a new single player experience, and is designed to be four to six hours in length. Stepping into the hazard suit of Dr. Gordon Freeman, you face the immediate repercussions of your actions in City 17 and the Citadel. Alyx Vance and her robot, Dog, will accompany you in your efforts to aid in the human resistance's desperate battle against the totalitarian alien menace of the Combine.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Underworld by Don DeLillo

DeLillo's Underworld is a long, dense novel that is not for everyone but rewards those who enjoy the author's dry humor and signature vignettes.

The text begins on October 4, 1951, the date when Bobby Thompson hit the home run in the ninth inning, thereby winning the pennant for the Giants against the Dodgers. This was on the same date, by coincidence, when the Russians exploded their first nuclear bomb.

These two themes, baseball and the Cold War, run throughout the book as dozens of characters and hundreds of incidents intersect and nearly connect but never quite fit together.

Ultimately, for me, the book didn't work. There were quite simply too many characters and too many shifts in narrative time to process for one novel. I ended up lost in the pages - in the cacophony of historical events, human emotions, and snippets of dialogs.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop is a sparsely beautiful novel that tells the story of two Catholic priests in New Mexico.

The novel's impact is in how it is as much a story about the priests spreading their faith as it is a living marker of the historical American Southwest, that vast territory of red hills, arroyos, and unforgiving desert.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Condemned: Criminal Origins

Condemned: Criminal Origins is a survival horror first-person action game that casts you in the role of a detective tracking a serial killer who is killing other serial killers.

The game boasts astounding, creepy presentation, and it plays like a gritty police procedural that is more like "Seven" than "CSI". The game departs from the traditional action shooter in that more often than not you do not use firearms but instead whatever instruments you can find to engage in close quarters melee combat. Weapons include pipes, axes, crowbars, two-by-fours, and the occasional pistol or shotgun. This results in a visceral, even unsettling, game experience where the combat feels as desperate as the condemned buildings through which the story leads you.

The story is well-plotted but doesn't quite deliver the revelatory moment or satisfying climax to which it builds. There's also a fair bit of repetition in the game's uniform dark and dreary levels.

Overall, though, Condemned: Criminal Origins delivers as expected in providing an unsettling first-person horror action experience.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Big U by Neil Stephenson

The Big U is an early Stephenon novel and is definitely not his best, but the text does provide an energetic and inventive satire of 80s university life.

What's most interesting about the book is coming across the many rough ideas in their incipient states that Stephenson would go on to flush out in some of his later, more polished works.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The End of Oil by Paul Roberts

The End of Oil provides a compelling analysis of the current oil and coal dominated energy industry and a stark preview of the looming energy revolution.

Roberts examines all aspects of energy, from the peaking of oil reserves, to the relationship of energy resources and geopolitics, to the effect of current energy consumption on global climate, and to the political and economic challenges in transitioning from oil and coal to alternate energy sources.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

Use of Weapons is set around the edges of Banks' utopian star-civilization the Culture and focuses on Cheradenine Zakalwe, an elite agent of the Culture's Special Circumstances division and a tortured soul, haunted and scarred by his past.

The novel explores the layers of Zakalwe by shifting between a traditional forward timeline narrative in which Zakalwe undertakes a political stabilization mission for the Culture, and a second timeline that moves steadily backward in time, following Zakalwe's career as an agent for Special Circumstances, back to his recruitment by Special Circumstances and early war experiences, and, finally, back to his formative years.

The net effect is a stellar, literate SF novel. Definitely recommended.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Go Ask Alice

Go Ask Alice is a classic diary by an anonymous teen about the pressures of adolescence, drugs, and sex.

The text, presented entirely as a series of diary entries, chronicles the unnamed diarist's experimentation with drugs and sex, her eventual drug addiction, and the consequent exalting highs and excruciating lows she experiences.

Go Ask Alice was first published in 1971, and though there is still some question as to whether this diary is real or fictional, the continued popularity of the text indicates that it has made a profound impact on millions of readers during the more than 25 years it has been in print.

Monday, April 03, 2006

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

Four suicidal depressives, meaning to do themselves in, meet on the roof of Topper's House — a traditional London suicide haunt — and instead form a pact in author Nick Hornby's comic fourth novel.

What follows is a narrative of the next ninety days in which the four would-be suicidals become friends (sort of) and stay involved in one another's lives. At its heart, this novel is not about suicide but what happens when you don't kill yourself, and the well-executed and thoughtful tale Hornby tells never digs too deep and simultaneously doesn't denigrate the seriousness of its characters' dilemmas.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick

This volume gathers twenty-one Dick stories, including "Faith of Our Fathers", "Paycheck", "The Minority Report", and "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale".

This is a good, representative Dick collection that spans some of his early works to his later classics. All of the famous Dick tropes are in this collection: paranoia, shifting realities, pulp culture, dystopia, authoritarian states, and machines.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin

Tehanu is the fourth novel in the Earthsea Cycle and is more of a simple and understated story than the previous Earthsea novels.

The story revolves mostly around Tenar, now a widow facing obscurity and loneliness, who rescues a badly burned girl from her abusive parents. Ged, now broken and without magic, seeks refuge with Tenar and attempts to learn how to live with the great loss he suffered at the end of the trilogy.

Overall, while I appreciate Le Guin's attempts at infusing new threads of feminism into the Earthsea series, I found the novel a bit boring and bland.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman

The World is Flat has been over-hyped a bit, but I think overall the text is well-researched and provides a good overview of globalism and the implications of a global, flat world.

Friedman does maintain a clear technological determinist bias throughout the text, but I think he's pretty upfront about that and does a good job at presenting contrasting viewpoints to his arguments.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Imperial Ambition by Noam Chomsky

Imperial Ambition includes a collection of Chomsky interviews with radio journalist David Barsamian.

In these exchanges, Chomsky offers his views and analysis on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, US propaganda, and the US doctrine of preemptive strikes against so-called rogue states.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

My Friend Leonard by James Frey

You can likely read My Friend Leonard as a true-life story, a wildly embellished memoir, or as a work of pure fiction, shamelessly masquerading as a memoir.

Ostensibly a continuation of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, My Friend Leonard focuses on Frey's attempt to start over after rehab, and his relationship with Leonard, a classic Italian impresario who Frey befriended in rehab. The problem with the text is not in the writing or the story -- the text is engaging and evokes emotion, although it lacks the edge of A Million Little Pieces. No, the issue with the book, at least for me, was that I found it impossible to separate the narrative and story from the recent revelation that Frey embellished many details in his writing.

One of the inside pages in My Friend Leonard states in very small type that "some details and sequences of events have been changed". That added to what we know Frey altered made me wonder while reading the text what really happened and what was made up. Was there really a Leonard, and if so, how much did he resemble the charismatic figure in My Friend Leonard? Some might argue that the distinction is irrelevant. Fiction is filled with made up characters that none-the-less come alive and evoke sympathy, pathos, and feeling. If one can make that leap for fiction, why not for a memoir that may be doing the same thing, but to a lesser extent? I guess for me it comes down to the fact that with fiction I know the characters are made up from the start. With a memoir, I expect more, from the text, and especially from the author.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov (1920 - 1992), was the author of the speculative fiction classic Foundation Series, and hundreds of other books, spanning nearly every subject, from fiction to science to history to humor.

http://www.ravenweb.net/writing/isaac-asimov/

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Ranting Nerd

Ranting Nerd is a blog with rants about science, technology, politics, science fiction, and whatever else comes to mind.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin Yalom

The Schopenhauer Cure is a wide-ranging and exhilarating exploration of psychotherapy, philosophy, and humanity.

The plot centers on Julius Hertzfeld, a successful therapist in San Francisco, who is shocked to learn that he suffers from terminal cancer. Moved to reassess his life's work, he contacts Philip Slate, a former patient who he was unable to cure of sex addition.

Much to Julius's surprise, Philip has become a philosophical counselor and requests that Julius provide him with the supervisory hours he needs to obtain a license to practice. In return, Philip offers to tutor Julius in the work of Schopenhauer. Eventually they strike a bargain: Julius agrees to supervise Philip, provided that Philip first joins his therapy group. What follows is Philip's entrance into the weekly therapy group and a gripping exploration of loss, suffering, sexual desire, death, and the search for meaning.

Throughout the novel, Yalom weaves Schopenhauer's life and work into the narrative. In addition, a parallel biographical account of Schopenhauer's life sheds light on the philosopher's intellectual triumphs and emotional difficulties.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Dame Edna

The Tony Award winning comedic stage show Dame Edna was in Buffalo this past week, and I was fortunate enough to attend one of the shows.

For the unfamiliar, Dame Edna is one of the alter egos of Australian actor Barry Humphries. Edna's humor is decidedly British in its acid-laced, sugar-coated content. Edna does a great job of interacting and playing to the audience, including calling out latecomers, bantering with the crowd, and bringing a couple onstage for some marriage counseling. In the end, it was all silly, hilarious fun.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Consider Phlebas is the first of Iain Banks' speculative fiction Culture novels. It is space opera on a grand scale, set in the middle of an immense war between two galactic empires, the Culture and the Idirans.

The plot centers around Horza, a humanoid shapechanging agent of the Iridans, who undertakes a clandestine mission to a forbidden planet in search of an intelligent, fugitive machine whose actions could alter the course of the conflict.

The book is very compelling, in large part because it is morally ambiguous. While Horza despises the machine intelligences and moral laziness of The Culture, his embrace of and alliance with the Iridans reveals them to be intolerant, racist, religious zealots.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Feminist Author Betty Friedan Dies at 85

Betty Friedan, whose manifesto "The Feminine Mystique" became a best seller in the 1960s and laid the groundwork for the modern feminist movement, died Saturday, February 5, her birthday.

Friedan asserted in her 1963 best seller that having a husband and babies was not everything and that women should aspire to separate identities as individuals. The feminine mystique, she said, was a phony bill of goods society sold to women that left them unfulfilled, suffering from "the problem that has no name" and seeking a solution in tranquilizers and psychoanalysis.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Quake 4

Quake 4 is an enjoyable shooter with a very lengthy single-player campaign that delivers level after level of solid PC shooter action.

Though its storyline was not as immersive as the recent outstanding shooter, F.E.A.R., I would recommend Quake 4 for anyone looking for a fast-paced, satisfying action game.