My 52 book challenge : February

I’m trying to finish 52 books this year. One a week was the plan. So far its working out rather well, as I’m up to 26 books. My reads, or audiobook listens, this month are:

Starship troopers cover14 Starship troopers by Robert Heinlein

A complicated book. I didn’t enjoy it as a fiction, but I did enjoy the author’s craft in the writing. I can see all of the little hooks he has laid down, to get the reader to bite and go “I agree!”. Although, no, I don’t agree, its one of the most interesting apologetics for militarism  I’ve read. A set of book club discussion questions is available.

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Forever War cover15 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Now, this is an excellent book. In this setting, soldiers sent to the interstellar war suffer time dilation, so when they return home, decades have passed. Haldeman is using this social dislocation as a commentary on how veterans coming back from Vietnam found an America which was unrecognizabls. His take on anti-Malthusian homosexuality was pretty radical stuff in its time.  I really should do a set of book club discussion questions for this book.

Cover for In the Fog16 In the fog by Richard Harding Davis

This was a Librivox recording. Bob Gonzales, the reader, does a great job. It is a set of  mystery stories set in a gentlemen’s club. A visitor to the club recounts a story in which, the previous night, he was lost in the fog after witnessing a murder. The other members try to tease out other points of view, and a solution. Not fair as a puzzle, but good as a yarn. A quite brief work, as many early detective stories were.

Cover of Neuromancer novel17: Neuromancer by William Gibson

This was first great hit in the cyberpunk genre, and a book I’d always meant to read, but never had. I suppose as a teen I was more interested in less gritty SF, and then it just went off my radar.  Decades on, Neuromancer still holds up as a story, although there are parts of it where Gibson’s vision doesn’t seem as extraordinary as it did at the time, because modern interface designers have taken his ideas, and modern film makers have stolen his terminology and character types.

There are little pieces where you see Asimov’s electronic slide rule. People keep music and data on tapes, all phones have cords, 3 megabytes of hot RAM is a big deal. None of these are particularly striking, except that the first image in the book. The sky is the colour of a television channel with no signal. Now, I have a digital TV, and the no signal colour in my brand is blue. I know he meant static snow, but that’s an artefact of an outmoded technology.  So, over time, Neuromancer is going to be a bit like Jules Verne, I believe. People will need footnotes to know what he’s taking about when he mentions snow and tapes.

An intriguing read, nonetheless, although I wish I’d read it when it was breaking new ground, rather than now, when I’ve seen so many derived works and imitations.

Princess of Mars cover18: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I decided to read it before the film (called John Carter) comes out. Somebody seems to have sold me a western with green people in it. I listened to this one via Librivox, and the reader has done a remarkably good job. There are two LV recordings: look for the one with a single reader, because Bob Gonzales does a great job.  Alternatively, library copies are also available.

19. How to balance your life

The basic problem with James O’Loghlin’s book is that the premise seems false for anyone who works in retail-style customer service. Its that if I work 10% harder, I can go home 10% earlier, and so spend more time with my kids.  Alternatively, I might get promoted, so I don’t work as much overtime.  The time-saving tips in it might work really well for some people, but O’Loghlin does say his system won’t work for bus drivers, waiters or people like them.

I’m like them. If I found a way to work 10% harder, I wouldn’t get home a minute earlier, or have a cent more.  It’s a pity because he isn’t trying to sell his system, his read of the audiobook is  good, and the idea that if you just put your head down and work harder you get to spend more time with your kids is charming. In case you work in an industry like mine, just be aware that’s the central thesis before you commit to the book.

This is the first book I’ve downloaded through our new Bolinda direct download service. It’s easy to set up, provided you already have WinZip, or something similar, installed.  I’d like a phone app (or to work out how to unzip files on my phone…I must pay attention long enough to work it out). I can make it work by downloading it onto my PC and having WinAmp wirelessly sync, but that seems like a bit of a workaround. Still, far smoother than OverDrive.

20: iDRAKULA by Bekka BlackiDRAKULA cover

A reworking of Dracula, interesting due to its relation to electronic media. I have reviewed it more fully in another post.

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21: The fearsome island by Albert Kinross Fearsome island CD cover

A short book, which is part advanture novel and part horror novel. After listening to it from Librivox, I can recommend its reader, Ruth Golding, as a brilliant, but I’m not sure the story quite hit the mark for me.  I was never really on the edge of my seat for it. Then again, this month I’m being fussier with books and audio than usual, so perhaps I’m in a fickle mood.

22: Headlong Hall by Thomas Love Peacock

Is it cheating if you helped record the book? Headlong Hall was performed as a dramatic reading by Librivox, and I narrated. Like many people who listen to their own recordings, I think my bits the worst of the lot. It sounded fine on my own equipment, but through the $5 bud headphones I’m using on my phone (since the ridiculously expensive ones that came with it gave up the ghost) my part’s terrible. You can tell I have a mic that’s too powerful for the room, because there’s a lot of “air”. around my voice. I just get away with it because I’m the narrator, but if I was having conversations with people it wouldn’t work.

Recording technique aside, I like Headlong Hall. The author is charmed by large, bouncy lists of words, and they are great fun to perform. He’s also rather anti-intellectual, and although I often find that an annoying form of treason again the fundamental nature of humanity, on this occassion he’s going after gently pretentious hypocrites, so I’ll forgive him.

Trivial pursuit cover23 Trivial Pursuit by George Megalogenis

An essay on the role of polling in current political life. Incisive and interesting. I’m very pleased we are now receiving Quarterly Essays in audio form through the direct download service from Bolinda. Regardless of your agreement with any particular essay, they are some of the best political writing in a country whose political discouse is heading into the sad, tribal territory of American soundbite campaigning, and so are of enormous interest.

At this point the cover art stops because we don’t have a license for the images.  8)

24 How to listen to music by Henry Edward Krehbiel

This is a Librivox recording. It is well done, and better than a book because it has people demonstrating described concepts on the piano, but I felt it was a bit too advanced for me. The author assumes I know what the average (liesured?) person knew about music in his time, and I know substantially less than that.

25 Selections from Travels in Asia and Africa by ibn Battuta (H. A. R. Gibb translation)

I enjoyed this, but have the niggling feeling it has been abridged precisely the opposite way to the way I’d like. That is, Gibb has taken the ten-volume work of Ibn Battuta (who is a medieval Arabic traveler) and has cut it down while attempting to retain the name of every place the writer claims to have gone. In doing so, he cuts out all of the weird folklore I was hoping for. It makes it a bit of a sterile list of places, IMO, compared to what one must assume has been lost in the other 90%. I’ll need to get an alternative translation.

26 Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

An excellent book with an ending I couldn’t quite get behind. Basically it has a surface level and a deeper level. On the surface it is a cyberpunk story. The main characters are a  sword-weidling pizza delivery guy who works for a Mafia owned franchise which has many of the rights of a sovereign state, and a teenage skater who works as a courier, using a magnetic harpoon to get lifts along highways, and an almost magical skateboard ot get herself out of trouble. In their spare time, both seem to work for the Library of Congress, which is now operated by a commercialised version of the CIA. So, that’s all great fun.

The deeper level is about hacking the human mind through language, and is really well done, right up until the end. Here I feel it sort of let me down with a thump, and an advert. The ideas are fun. Even the very talky chapters where the main character lays the whole plot to the other characters seem to hold together. The problem is that the final scenes don’t really, to me, seem to reward on an emotional level. That’s a very personal call, of course.

Books I started but did not finish this month:

Uusally I don’t do this.  Usually I soldier on.  This month though I’ve been quite impatient with books that sag in the middle or start badly.

Brave New World.  By the time John the Savage was introduced, I decided I had no particular sympathy for any of the characters, or desire to see how it turned out. The first section, with its bold calls on the shape of future society, was interesting, but not enough to carry the book.

The New Jerusalem. I usually find Chesterton interesting. This book, though, has aged as the political landscape about it has changed. It still has some interesting insights and skilled turns of phrase, but for that I could just read a better Chesterton.  I gave it up in the last third.

The Lusiads (Burton translation): Takes too long to crack on.

Mr Midshipman Easy: Filled with tiring puns using the name Easy during the first few pages. I know its a shallow reason not to read a classic of a genre I enjoy, but there you are…there’s a lot else to be going on with.  I’ll give it another chance in a few years.

The Pickwick Papers: For Dickens’s birthday I tried to listen to this in audiobook.  The female reader just didn’t get the rythmn of Jingle’s speech, so that things were only funny in hindsight, as I thought back over what he had said. I’ll give it another go, later, or look for an alternate recording.

Kings in Grass Castles: I gave the audiobook two hours.  It didn’t grip me.  It could be my own family background is too similar, so it seems utterly unremarkable so far. People keep telling me its an Australian classic.  Some other time I’ll give it another chance.