Inherent Vice

Inherent_ViceInherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

I have had to reluctantly admit that I just don’t particularly care for Thomas Pynchon. Even though I should! Even though his books are full of absurdity; even though he’s the godfather of post-modernist fiction; even though he is beloved by most of the literary and intellectual sources I go to for recommendations. I just *sigh* he just doesn’t work for me. Sometimes that happens I suppose. I know I should! I’m not hostile towards him; I think he’s talented in his way. The books just don’t resonate with me.

Crying of Lot 49 was fine, but I won’t say I thought it was that amazing—I can barely remember what it was all about. Mason & Dixon, a 784-page doorstop of a book, is one of the few books I stopped reading once I’d started. I just realized I had so much life ahead of me, and I couldn’t waste another day trying to make it through that incredibly boring book, no matter that others had declared it “gorgeously funny”, “sublime fiction,” or “as poignant as it is daring.”

Inherent Vice is no Mason & Dixon. It’s about 450 pages shorter, for one, and it’s readable, for another. The book was a type I should like—satirical, set at the tail end of the 60s (1970ish, seems to me) California, with a drugged up, hippie, private eye. In just bare description it seems almost like if Hiassen wrote about 1970 Southern California instead of 2000s south Florida.  It sounds as if it should be fantastic. And yet for me it never really landed. The tone seemed slightly off; the absurdity either not quite absurd enough or not quite real enough, I’m not sure which. I started to get into a bit at the end, as I was pulled into the mystery, and got more used to the tone of the book and the writing, but even then it was still just fine, just interesting enough, not amazing.

Pynchon is beloved, and I suppose there’s a reason for that. You should give him a try, if only to try to figure out what so many people are on about. But he just doesn’t do it for me. I suppose it’s back to Eco and Vonnegut for my postmodernist fix.

 

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Bad Monkey

bad monkeyBad Monkey, Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen has really become a genre unto himself. Let’s call him FloridaMan. Hiaasen looks at Florida with a highly critical and satirical but loving eye, one that really only makes sense to those of us who lived down here for decades and love the place. It’s southern gothic by way of Douglas Adams and Quentin Tarrantino, only before he was doing his thing. And as someone who grew up on the South Coast of Florida, let me assure you that Hiasen’s fiction is only slightly exaggerated. I had a teacher who dove into a canal to fight an alligator for his pet dog, we had honest to goodness PSAs in my hometown about watching out for needles on the beach, and I marched in the Shrimp Parade several years in a row.

After a bit of a slump (Star Island was sort of a phoning it in, by the numbers, book, I would say) Hiaasen is back in form in Bad Monkey. Not that this novel isn’t still well within the Hiaasen formula. A South Florida cop has rubbed people the wrong way and pushed on the wrong issues and has been busted from homicide to “roach patrol”, searching out roach violations. But when he finds a severed arm in a restaurant freezer, he can’t help but revert to form as a detective and search out the solution, even after being asked to drop it. We’ve all been here before, right? And the book includes the other standard Heinlein characters—evil developers (being from Florida, I entirely agree with his caricature of developers), Medicare fraud (did you know our current governor has one of the largest fines for Medicare fraud on record? It’s true! He’s also a big Trump supporter), and the people who just want to enjoy their small house, fishing and sunset.

But with Hiaasen it’s never so much the characters or the plot but the spirit of the thing. It can easily become mean spirited or overly cynical, as some Hiaasen imitators—and his lesser books—are, but this one remains in the realm of fun, satirical, detachment and stays a very enjoyable read. You’re never going to pick up Hiaasen for deep thoughts or enlightenment, but if you’re looking for a fun read, and a pretty good understanding of the weirdness of Florida, you can’t really do much better than a good Hiaasen novel. Pick this up for your next trip to the beach or Disney. You won’t regret it.

Something Rotten

something rottenSomething Rotten, Jasper Fforde

We return to Thursday Next after little more than two years have passed since her adventures in the Well of Lost Plots. She’s had a successful, if brief, tenure as the Bellman running Jurisfiction in Book World, but now feels its time to head home, with her toddler, Friday, in tow. She still has a few things to take care of, such as the fact that her husband, Landen, is still eradicated in this time stream, Yorrick Kaine, an escapee from Book World, is poised to possibly take control of the country and is whipping up dangerous anti-Dutch sentiment, and her son should probably learn about the RealWorld. As if that wasn’t enough, she also has to deal with a host of William Shakespeare clones, a highly-skilled assassin known as The Windowmaker (a newspaper typo that stuck), a rogue Minotaur, and make sure the Swindon Mallet’s win their croquet game and fulfill St. Zvlkx’s seventh revealment, or else the Gloliath corporation can continue to rule the world.

Something Rotten is probably my favorite of the Thursday Next books. Fforde’s ability to keep so many disparate threads going is unparalleled (each of those plots up there has its own grouping of subplots—to win the croquet game they need help from the Neanderthals, but Thursday’s friend Stig can only convince the other Neanderthals to play if they go to the original cloning facility to find the gene sequence once again allowing them to reproduce, which entails sneaking across the Welsh border), and his world building is awe-inspiring. But much of my time reading the first two books was just trying to keep track of all of the different pieces. Fforde throws us into his books from the beginning with an expectation we’ll know what’s going on, and it takes a few books to really catch up on the rules about home-cloning, what’s going on in the Crimea, and just how the Toast Marketing Board fits into all this. Having finally more or less gotten myself acquainted with those bits, I was really able to immerse myself in this world.

Here we also see a bit of the darker side of this particular universe and Goliath’s actions, as they return to some of their original cloning facilities. It may seem odd to say we’re finally seeing a darker side—after all, they eradicated Thursday’s husband, have tried to take over all of book world, and killed more than a few people and characters—but the tone there has always been on the lighter side. For a short section it’s a bit more somber, and one can see the beginnings of the plan for the world of Shades of Grey.

Something Rotten shows off Fforde’s attention to detail and sense of humor to his best. This sort of world building can only really work if you’re 100% committed, and Fforde is throughout. Friday is learning to speak, but as a toddler can only speak Lorem ipsum for now. Hamlet is as moody as you’d expect. And there is more than one seemingly throwaway line at the beginning that ends up being crucial at the end, with clues sprinkled throughout the book. Nothing Fforde does is ever truly a throwaway line, and every character or action will follow the principle of Chekov’s gun, which is part of what makes his books such a delight to read. This isn’t the type of series you can just pick up and try to follow, but it is very much worth the effort to understand. Definitely one to sink your teeth into and laugh along the way.

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes

don't sleepDon’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazon Jungle, Daniel Everett

In 1977, Daniel Everett and his family went to live with a remote Amazonian tribe to translate the Bible and convert the people. Instead, Everett came out an atheist and challenging all of the standards of linguistic orthodoxy. This is his story.

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes is part memoir, part scientific explainer, part anthropological study. Everett himself is quite an interesting character. He had an unstable and challenging childhood, but in high school met a girl, Keren, from an Evangelical, and former missionary, family. He fell for her, converted, and the two of them decided to also become missionaries. They joined a group called SIL International with a particular missionary tactic, dedicated to sending missionaries out to stay with uncontacted people, learn the language, and translate the Bible. Everett showed an amazing aptitude for languages, and by all accounts, even those who disagree with his theories, he is a uniquely gifted linguist. SIL noticed this and after their studies were complete he and his family were sent to live with the Pirahã (pronounced “Pee-da-han”), a remote tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, speaking a language that was connected to no known living language and that had stymied other translators they’d sent.

 

I remember Everett’s work making a bit of a splash when it first came out, even in traditional news sources. Well, okay, nerdy ones like NPR, The New Yorker, and The Economist, but still. Everett became the first outsider to be fluent in Pirahã, and, indeed, fluent in their culture. And here is where he began to challenge both traditional linguistics and, through his immersion in their culture and resistance to conversion, to lose his own Christian faith. It’s the linguistics part that got him the most attention. I am not a linguist, but will try to walk briefly through the debate.

The prevailing theory of linguistics, and practically the only one at the time of Everett’s studies, is that the basic structure of language is something that humans are born with. Looking at the similarities in languages, how all children acquire them automatically with no effort, at roughly the same ages, and how the complexities in our language are unique to humans and not to be found in other species that communicate, there is something specifically human about language and a ‘language center’ in our brain.

So far, this doesn’t seem like it should be controversial. Obviously, there’s something that makes us ‘different’. What starts to be a problem is that this theory, which originated with Noam Chomsky, holds that there are building blocks that will be found in absolutely every language, and that we can understand language best by studying these innate traits in very language. And that there is no need to correspond with culture or the society in which a language developed, because the same tools will be found in each. Like tenses, basic descriptive words, abstractions, and something called recursion, the ability to imbed one thought in another. An example would be, “The girl, who wore a red dress and was drinking coffee, entered the bookstore and browsed the mystery section.” In theory, you can use recursion to imbed almost infinite ideas and write Faulkner length sentences. According to Chomsky, this is one of the building blocks of human languages and must be part of a human language center, every language would have it.

And here is the problem, what made such a splash when Everett started publishing his work. The Pirahã do not have recursion. In their language, there is no way to write the above sentence. Instead, they would say, “There is a girl. She has a red dress. She was drinking coffee. She entered the bookstore. She looked at the mystery section.” Only they wouldn’t really say that, because the other key issue that Everett focused on in his linguistic and cultural studies is that the Pirahã don’t include abstract concepts.  And so they don’t have color words. They would say, “There is a girl. She is wearing a dress the color of ripe passion fruit.”

It seems like this element of recursion is a relatively small thing, but in fact, it was, and still is, controversial. Pirahã is the only language that doesn’t seem to have this. It also, as mentioned, doesn’t include abstract concepts, and so there are not descriptive words, such as colors, that exist unto themselves, only comparisons to other things. They do not have numbers other than one, two, a few, or many, something that they do share with a few other languages. Their tenses are limited, as they place an importance on immediate and personal experience, which is rather unique among culture as well. There are other pieces that make Pirahã a particularly challenging language. Pirahã also has very few phonemes (think the parts of a word that make syllables, every unique sound). Everett counts 11, the smallest known number. It’s also a highly tonal language, that can sound like singing, and indeed, much of the language can be communicated through whistling due to the importance of tones. And it is one of the few languages to have a male and female version—not male and female words like “la casa” and “los banos” the way many Latin languages do, but separate ways that a woman would talk and a man would talk. But while all of these make it a difficult language to learn and translate, it is the lack of recursion or abstraction that challenge existing theories.

The discussions on language were quite interesting. What Everett focused on, and what I was surprised to learn most Chomskyian linguists refuse to consider, is that culture informs language and language informs culture. What comes first can be a chicken of an egg question, but they both work with each other. If there isn’t an importance for something in a language, the people won’t have a word for it. And if there isn’t a word for it, people won’t identify it as important. This seems to me, as someone who’s done a good deal of social science work, as obvious, but apparently Chomsky’s emphasis on the linguistic center of the brain and commonality have suggested that language exists independent of other human experience and has nothing to do with culture. It seems as if it is a lone holdout in the sciences that hasn’t caught up to our post-Skinner world.

This book, however, goes beyond language. Everett focuses on how the lack of numbers, abstraction, tenses, etc. stem from a couple of unique aspects of the Pirahã. One of them is that they are fiercely isolationist. They have no interest in anything from an outside culture, and this includes missionaries. They trade with some individuals along the Amazon for liquor and a few other select items, but for the most part have no interest in anything brought by outsiders, including new languages, clothes, maths and sciences, or religions.

The other, as mentioned above, is their focus on immediate experience. They don’t dry fish or fruit or otherwise plan for the future (something that couldn’t exist in a northern culture, but works out in the tropics), they make planes when one comes to the village but otherwise don’t make art, they don’t have abstract words, such as colors, but would compare one thing to another—the color of a papaya, for instance, instead of pale green, and are one of the few cultures with no origin story. Everett says that when he would try to explain Jesus they would ask if he had seen Him, or if his friends had. When Everett said it was just passed down in books, they lost all interest.

Seeing how the Pirahã had no interest in Jesus or Christianity is what Everett to eventually lose his faith, and his marriage. His former wife Keren still lives in Brazil as a missionary. Everett, however, struggled on how to break through to the Pirahã and was ultimately struck by the simple fact that they didn’t seem to need Christianity, because they were fine without it, and so he turned away as well.

Don’t Sleep was incredibly interesting throughout, but I found that I had far more questions than answers in the anthropology type sections of the book than the linguistics. When describing his life with the Pirahã, Everett repeatedly says that they are the happiest people he’s ever met, which may well be true, and how wonderful their lives are. And he is clearly comfortable and at home in their life and culture, which shines through in the book. Where I think he breaks down is that he is constantly seeming to sell this life, again and again emphasizing how happy they are, how independent, how peaceful. Except that he also recounts how he watched a woman die in childbirth in the river alone because no one went to help her, independence being one of the traits of the tribe. And a harrowing story of how the tribe got drunk one night and talked about killing Everett and his family which was only averted because they didn’t realize how much of their language Everett had understood. Or the tale of one Pirahã woman who had married outside her tribe, and the other Pirahã had killed her husband and she had been forced to return. And again and again and again.

Everett tells us how happy and peaceful and content the Pirahã are, and then shows us the complete opposite. I don’t mean at all to suggest by this that the Pirahã are uniquely terrible or should be converted. Only that he seems to be somewhat blinded by his love of the culture and comfort in their society. A society that is probably on par with others in terms of misery and cruelty and violence—I mean, hey, we all have problems. I’ve since read that Everett has been criticized for being too close with the Pirahã to be truly independent in his field work, and I find that believable in terms of anthropology, although I’m not sure how much it would change his linguistic works or ability to translate.

All in all, though, while I question some of Everett’s conclusions or evaluations of the society, the book itself was fascinating on all levels. Everett is a skilled writer, and the topics here are ones that are incredibly unique and not often covered. He also, as mentioned above, touches on such a wide variety of topics that there is something for everyone, whether looking for linguistics, a travelogue, anthropology, or memoir. It’s stuck with me for a while, and that’s always a good quality in a book.

Sourcery

sourcerySourcery, Terry Pratchett

After a detour to learn about witches and spend some time with Death, Terry Pratchett returns to Rincewind and the wizards in Sourcery. A very distinct field from wizardry, mind you. It is part of the lore that that wizards must be celibate, but it has never been explained. And now we learn why—while the eighth son of an eighth son will be a powerful wizard, the eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son will be something even more powerful, a sorcerer. A power that creates magic, rather than just learning of it and casting spells, and a power that will be tempted to take over the world and, according to prophecy, just might kick off the aprocaplypse. (An apocryphal apocalypse).

An eighth son of an eighth son has left he world of wizarding to go off and get married and have eight sons. As his last son is born, he cheats Death by putting himself into his son, Coin’s, staff, there to grow his son’s power, train him, and whisper into his ear about using that power to take over wizardry and the Disc.

In this, the fifth Discworld novel, Pratchett decides to listen to my earlier complaints, leave off some of the explaining and scene setting, and dive right in. Gone are the descriptions of how dawn doesn’t break but rolls leisurely around on Discworld, due to the odd effects of Magic on the Disc. The description of the Great A’Tuin is there, naturally, but without the musings about how with infinite possibilities such a world was bound to develop sometime. And, while I don’t mind some of Pratchett’s more preferred phrases being gone, I do miss some of the stories of the stranger religions and myths that are always provided as side bar in the novels.

When you’re as prolific as Pratchett, you’re bound to have a miss or two, and unfortunately, that was Sourcery. The book isn’t as fleshed out as the others, and not just in terms of the missing call-backs to how Discworld works. I didn’t quite understand why the wizards were all fighting each other, and I’m still not clear on how sorcery becomes such a problem. Or why Coin’s father became so malevolent. Or how the whole thing resolved in the end? The book flowed on quickly, and never seemed to explain itself, and I’m left rather unsatisfied with the plot itself. When I was almost to the end, I was still waiting to see when the book was going to really get started and explain itself.

Which isn’t to say it’s not a fun read. It is Pratchett, after all, who has barbarian maidens who dream of being hairdressers but are constantly compelled by their genetic calling to conduct feats of heroics instead. And the wonderful orangutan librarian, one of the great heroes of the books. The creative descriptions of the Disc and the characters keep the book moving. And Pratchett’s humorous, light writing, and delightful descriptions are always fun. Each paragraph is great to read on its own. They just never seemed to come together to make one story for this one.

The Big Over-Easy

the+big+over+easyThe Big Over Easy, Jasper Fforde

Humpty Dumpty was pushed.

Or maybe not. But the mystery of how, exactly, Humpty Dumpty came to be splattered on the bottom of that wall, and who, if anyone is responsible, is at the heart of this whodunnit from Jasper Fforde.

The Big Over Easy takes place in the same universe as the Thursday Next books, a connection which becomes clear in The Well of Lost Plots, but rather than involving tales of classic literature, this case, in the Nursery Crimes division, takes place in the world of public domain poems. Jack Spratt—whose first wife died of health complications after only eating fat—is called in to investigate the Humpty Dumpty case, with his new assistant, Mary Mary. William Winkie, whose usually up at night, is the main witness. And Humpty Dumpty lives in a crowded boarding house run by Mrs. Hubbard.

I’ve mentioned before that Fforde’s books are the type of crazy, crowded, books, with almost too many conceits going on, that they could easily become terrible, too wrapped up in their idea to be any good. But he is such a talented writer that that never happens. The world of Nursery Crimes is convoluted, to be sure, and I had to be on my toes to keep track of what was happening here. But even while fully committed to its premise, and the character we should expect of the nursery characters, The Big Over Easy also works as a proper whodunnit, a suspenseful mystery in its own right, with twists and turns that might make you need to read the book twice, but make perfect sense within the world.

The Big Over Easy is somewhat easier to follow than the Thursday Next series, even though it’s in the same world. Being fully in the Nursery Crimes city, without having to jump around to different stories, or different times, the book makes far more sense immediately upon reading, without having to keep notes like one does when first introduced to Thursday’s world.  Personally, I prefer the Thursday Next novels, with their craziness, a momentum that feels it’s always rushing forward, and the fun of trying to keep track of all the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. But these are still a blast to read, and probably a good option for anyone who enjoyed the cleverness of Thursday Next but got lost and wants to ease their way in.

And, really, anyone who likes books and nerdy sci-fi and Douglass Adams or Terry Pratchett is going to enjoy Jasper Fforde. He’s a great writer, his books are clever, and they’re littered with enough allusions, call-backs, in-jokes, and obscure references to make anyone in the know feel very smug.  He should be the first choice of nerdy English lit hipsters everywhere.

Artemis

ArtemisArtemis, Andy Weir

Artemis, Andy Weir’s second novel, takes place a little closer to home than The Martian, but not very.  The novel takes place in the first (and so far only) city on the Moon, the titular Artemis, a necessarily small society that subsists primarily on tourists. Our protagonist, Jazz, is a brilliant, stubborn 20-something woman who lives at the edge of society and dabbles in illegality, who gets pulled into one big score. It turns out to be more than she bargained for, and she’s between forces in a massive and terrifying conspiracy, and needs a band of plucky friends to save the day—you know the drill.

Artemis was an entertaining enough read, but the book doesn’t play to Weir’s strengths. The Martian didn’t have the most creative of plots—someone is trapped, others must save him—it was told in a creative way.  Weir did a massive amount of research to make (most) of the science work in The Martian and managed to make it interesting. The book was basically describing how someone else solved a massive Odyssey of the Mind puzzle, and it takes skill to make that as readable, entertaining, and fun as The Martian was. Hard science fiction is still Weir’s strong suit, and when he veers into that, discussing the mechanics of how Artemis exists, or even the combination of scientific reality and economics that made Kenya rich by building Artemis and are driving the conspiracy, are incredibly compelling.

The problem is that Weir then decides to try to make this more of a story, with a complicated plot and characters interacting with one another and all that and, well, to be generous he could use a bit more practice. The plot was sort of a standard in-over-your-head criminal type thing, which is fine, but not revelatory. And the story clearly owed a debt to several places. The plot, as mentioned, was a standard one. Much of it could have been tracked down a path on TV Tropes.*  As could the characters. And the main character, for me, got to be a bit grating. I think Mark Watney would get to be a bit much after a while, but at least we had a break from him every now and again. Jazz is the only narrator. Her voice is all we get. And it was exhausting.

And now is the point where I defend Andy Weir, even while agreeing with some of the criticism. Weir has gotten a lot of flak for the way he wrote Jazz, with people complaining that he couldn’t write a female character. Firstly, I appreciate that Weir tries to make his worlds diverse, plenty of men and women in both, and he includes multiple races and ethnicities. It might not always work, but it does feel that he is trying authentically. And I give him much credit for writing a female protagonist, something that would never even occur to a large number of male authors, especially in the sci-fi space. So major credit for that.

Then there is this. Everyone being critical of the way Weir wrote Jazz needs to recognize that Jazz is basically Mark Watney, but with a few changes. Weir is not bad at writing female characters. Weir is not great at writing characters. Period. There is no shame in this for a sci-fi writer! Asimov was one of the greats, but read anything beyond a short story and its clear his strength was science and stories, not individuals. Heinlein married a chemical engineer and was famously supportive of women’s equality and liberation, yet if you read his books you’d swear he never actually interacted with a woman. In fact, go read the classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (to which Weir clearly owes a debt, even though his moon society is quite different) and tell me any of those characters are more realistic.

Artemis isn’t as amazing as The Martian, but it was still an entertaining read and I breezed through it in the afternoon. It’s as worth your time as whatever standard action movie you were going to pick up to watch. But Weir’s talents lie in the hard science and problem solving and big picture sci-fi stuff. Here’s hoping he figures that out for book three.