About Me

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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Updates (For the Win)

I recently finished reading Cory Doctorow’s For the Win.

Among its strong points are the quick and vibrant character-building (who can’t like a Jewish American teenager who adopts his online persona Wei Dong, or a tough preteen girl from a proto-industrial slum near Mumbai who adopts the online-gaming moniker “General Robotwalla”?), including some quite late in the book who just take off (the autistic gamer-mathematician cum Coke executive, the sexy/subversive Chinese talk-radio host) and like fourth members of a relay squad, finish the race at full steam.

For the Win is also relentlessly political. Few of the white-hats are right more than a little of the time, and some of the black-hats change headwear at some point, in a quiet corner of the stage. I liked that about the book. The politics were pretty unequivocal, and much to my liking:  anti-authoritarian, collectivist, gradualist. The characters navigated their worlds as  explorers, sometimes bold and reckless, sometimes cowed and cautious, from world-changing/life-or-death decisions to choosing the right words for talking to a loved one.

The action swirls around the online gaming industry, and it is presented very much as an industry. For outsiders, the initialism MMORPG, for Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, is a more accurate term than online game, which could be pinochle or chess or Global Thermonuclear War. It gets to be an industry because, in order to seduce more players to join and spend real cash, the game companies entice them with prizes. Players exchange prizes for in-game currency. They also exchange prizes AND in-game-currency for IRL (In Real Life) currencies. On exchanges, with millions of IRL-rupees and drachmas and dollars traded from IRL hand to IRL hand.

So what happens when a lot of money changes hands quickly? Organized crime/industry. China and India are (in the story and, presumably, IRL, but that’s one of the things I like about the book – I can’t quite tell where fantasy and reality diverge) major centers of industrial-scale “gold-farming.” The MMORPG game worlds spawned a class of players who tried to trade in-game rewards for enough money to live by, or even get rich by. These were the original gold farmers. But where there’s money, there are bosses, and the bosses pounced on the gamers in internet cafes all over the world, recruiting/intimidating them to join their companies, with conditions closely  mirroring those of sweatshop laborers in the same countries.

This is one of the main connections of the book, and it’s an interesting one. I have never been to an internet café, and aside from a text-only MMORPG in the mid-90s and a very short dalliance with Apocalypse Online, I am not an online gamer. I don’t know if this is true, but it reads really well, and that’s the point. That, and the fact that Doctorow weaves in cogent economic and cultural descriptions and explanations, as well as dialog in a few scenes (in the film studio trailer in Mumbai, for one) which make the case for a strong parallel.

This is well worth reading, and you can legally own it for free. You can also buy a copy. Doctorow, who as far as I know makes a living from selling the books that he writes, also gives all of them away for free. He advocates permanent, flexible ownership of the electronic files by whoever wants them, free of charge. He argues that piracy is less of a threat to him than obscurity. And he makes the cogent point that, for a few bucks, people who enjoy his books can have nice printed copies of them, if they so choose. Should we check back in a few years to see how this plan is working for him? In the meantime, he has half a dozen books out, and based on the strength of this one, I’m setting aside a few bucks for deployment in the battle against Cory Doctorow’s obscurity.

My cute cat died at the beginning of the year. Sophy was a flame-point Siamese, with a nice, round head (none of those anteater-snout Siamese for us!), a loving felinality (she groomed everyone and everything), and pale blue eyes. She was 11, and died of kidney failure. I’ve let the book reviews slide for a bit, even though I’ve still been reading.

Also read recently:
  •  The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex: an audaciously funny and imaginative book that made me laugh out loud so much my older son stole it from me and read it, laughing out loud quite a bit. Then I got sidetracked, and only got around to reading it now. I laughed out loud some more. The Boov am your friends!
  • Among the Brave, by Margaret Peterson Haddix: grim and getting grimmer… the main recommendations for this are that it gets the narrative back to an already-introduced character, moves the plot along toward final conflict, and more finely describes the world changes. Maybe the next and final volume of the series will be uplifting.
  •  “Pip and the Fairies,” by Theodora Goss: a cleverly planned and neatly executed fantasy in the Wildside Press collection, Fantasy: the Best of the Year 2006.
  • “Three Urban Folk Tales,” by Eric Schaller, in the same collection: classical ideas in a surprising structure

Reading now:
  • Dorothy Hodgkin: a life, by Georgina Ferry: I hate books with titles like this, or rather, the titles themselves. This is turning out to be a surprisingly good read. I am wrestling with the sense that young Dorothy Crowfoot is leaping from log to log as a logjam sprints through some rapids on the way to a huge waterfall. How the heck did she get anything done? Makes my troubles seem small, but there’s nothing condescending to the reader or hagiographical toward the subject in Ferry’s narrative so far. If nonfiction were generally this good, I might never have discovered Doctorow.
  • General Chemistry, by Linus Pauling: yes, Hodgkin was a chemist, and no, that really has nothing to do with why I’m reading both now. I actually wanted to read about Hodgkin for awhile, and I never understood chemistry, so when I found Pauling’s book at the store (Border’s in Emeryville), and found it so well organized and easy to read, I snapped it up. Not a cover-to-cover experience.

For work, I’ve been repeatedly reading, analyzing, and revising short books for struggling older readers. Our leveling process is regular, research-based, and made of familiar components, so our new and revised books will useful to reading teachers. The process also tires me out. My appetite for reading and writing away from work has diminished a little.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

Two or three months ago, I had not heard of China Miéville. For much of December, I traveled footsore and unsheltered through New Crobuzon, gawking at the scale of the place, retching back its fumes and toxicity, cowering from the menaces great and small that stalk its crumbling alleys and corridors of power, and gradually incorporating a handful of its residents into my real-world-view. I was never sure if the city was Babylon or Bangalore, Paris or London, none or all. For a while, the city seemed to be the main character of the book – certainly New Crobuzon is more than a setting. I think by the end, I have figured out who the main character is, and accepted it – this is a remaining tradition inside the fluctuating field of storytelling conventions Miéville has assembled, the one that the main character of a novel learns from mistakes.

The one who made the biggest mistakes and lived is the main character.

The work is monumental. Bas-Lag strikes me as a parallel to Middle-Earth, aimed at older readers in the current century, but as rich, textured, surprising, and merciless as Tolkien’s creation. It is so large, and in the remainder of Miéville’s works, populated by only one minor character from Perdido Street Station, that I am too daunted to pick up Iron Council or Scar. But it is a work of monumental creativity, of intimate detail and broad sweep, of great weight and light and variation. What daunts me as well – as a wannabe writer – is the thought of my world and my characters and my scenes placed alongside these.

My first impression of New Crobuzon is that too many of its residents are adjectives. I was able to forgive the city this impression, however, when I realized how much work these often-denigrated citizens contributed in the story. The world is so large, detailed, and central to the main characters’ understanding of what’s going on, and consequently the reader’s, that less description might leave the reader guessing and filling in gaps with assumptions not suited to the plot. In fact, I found myself struggling to throw off the oppressive yoke of a few misperceptions as I read through the book.

The names of things are so evocative, cat-and-mousey crisscrossed references and dead-ends in half a dozen real and imaginary languages, archaic words with real meaning strewn misleadingly among them, I give myself a break on the misunderstandings. I read of the garuda, and pictured ganesha, and had to unpicture elephants for hundreds of pages. I had New Crobuzon organized like Paris, and never rid myself of the scale, barely overcoming the east-west transposition (the rivers in NC flow west to east through the city). Neighborhoods, rivers and train lines sound like absurd cognates and mistranslations, mondegreens, or the results of auditory processing disorder –  Salacus Fields, Bonetown, The Canker, Griss Twist, Sobek Croix, Spit Hearth…

I don’t know if the cleaning construct had eyes.

My misunderstandings pile atop one another. I think I have a mental image of the khepri, and then I google people’s drawings of them, and I’m astonished all over again. I had been thinking of Lin as cute, seeing increasingly through Isaac’s eyes…

I actually finished the book days ago – a week, maybe, and at the bookstore this weekend, I almost bought The Scar, also set at least in part in Bas-Lag, like a junkie unable to let the feeling die away completely before the next hit. (Don’t worry, mom – that’s only a literary reference.) It scared me a little to try to write about it. At a distance, having finished two other books and read hours aloud to my younger son (no, not PSS, but Karen Hesse’s unconventional Stowaway, very appropriate for kids a couple of years older than him, and not too bad for him), I thought I could observe more about it, or at least admit to being overwhelmed.

The only real observation I have is a political conjecture I’m far from answering. I know Miéville ran as a socialist MP in England, but I can’t decipher whether Perdido Street Station is a warning tale of the slippery slope of tolerance (with a very long fall, I thought more at first, less as I read past the halfway point), a celebration of anarchy, or unrelated to the spectrum of human political alignments – on earth, that is. New Crobuzon seems to get by on a mixture of totalitarianism, corruption, and momentum.  The mayor (with the great name Rudgutter, and a gruesome and sad method of dealing with a medical problem) strives to rule with an iron fist, but corruption is… the adjectives “rife” and “endemic” need to be blended and raised exponentially, and true to a French historical annaliste worldview, which I suspect Miéville at least partly shares, the majority of events and situations proceed without deference to authority.

I will probably have to read this again someday, and I both dread and look forward to the dangers that entails. Just in case, I’m bringing along some scissors.

Oh, and here's a great fanart of Isaac dan der Grimnebulin, the fascinatingly flawed protagonist, by an artist posting as Evan Dahm.

Friday, January 7, 2011

reading the Constitution

Having actually done this, I was of several minds when the new Republican majority in Congress decided to spend the public's time doing this in front of cameras. I think Americans should read an annotated copy of constitution, showing and perhaps explaining the amendments. I also think the Tea-Party caucus chose to do it for the purest of motives, short-term political gain.
- From the Government Printing Office
- All text included (without annotation) from 'Lectric Law Library, also other great links
- From Cornell Law, with annotations and web-friendly organization

- From Yale Law, in web-friendly organization, with great links to other founding documents

There's a NY Times editorial from today on it, criticizing the decision to read only the current version, and leaving out the excised portions.

Oh, and happy new year. I finished reading two books, and I'll write something about them soon.