Jul 24, 2008

Glenn's Hiro

Approaching the dog days of summer, with several of us already gone on vacation, Glenn readied his home and welcomed a smaller-than-usual contingent Tuesday night. Well, on second thought, he apparently didn’t ready his home. With his nicely furnished patio still awaiting its bluestone installation, and with a step riser that would have intimidated a Chinese gymnast, Glenn dared us to complain. And none did, as we were much too preoccupied with his food and drink and company to care. Thank you for hosting, Glenn.

Without our resident chemist (Roy went to Hawaii to avoid reading this month’s selection), the drink was merely fine. The food, however, deftly mirrored Uncle Enzo’s fare in Snow Crash. But with delivery by Pico instead of Hiro, taste and texture were both outstanding. As were the vanilla and blueberries suffused with raspberry liqueur. Not content with these amuse bouches, Glenn introduced us to his excellent friend, Judd, an import from Mill Valley who admitted to a fondness for SciFi but who proved to be no Stephenson apologist.

These acknowledgments wouldn't be complete without saluting George's impromptu discourse on the re-creation of an ancient Athenian trireme. He promises more at his upcoming lecture at the St. Francis Yacht Club. And we remain impressed by Glenn's passionate embrace of all things robotic (and that is NOT a reference to Jana, his lovely and intelligent wife).

The Book
Stephenson’s first breakthrough novel, Snow Crash, challenged us. Ostensibly about a not-too-distant society whose culture and institutions have been overtaken by monopolists and hegemonists, Snow Crash describes a real world that is threatened by its parallel, virtual world. The book is long, peopled with techno-thrill junkies, freighted with a mixture of tech talk and Sumerian myth, and it features a plot that could have been served up in half the pages. Did I say it was long? (Editor’s Note: Having read only 230/470 of this novel, I’m still confident I absorbed enough.)

Let’s start with the positive. First, George read it and then convinced his 14-year old son to read it. As a group, we weren’t as impressionable as Evan, but several of us felt rewarded by the effort. Those who liked it tended to be steeped in SciFi, although some had their quibbles with Stephenson’s lengthy, digressive, and slightly baroque style and structure. Larry, who proudly read this precocious digital age novel on his Kindle, described it as “The DaVinci Code on steroids.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement (though Larry might try re-reading The DaVinci Code on his Kindle to see if it's the digital medium that adds the steroids). John, on the other hand, was impressed with Stephenson’s ability to construct a virtual world that extends and distorts our physical world (e.g., the actual replication and manipulation of viruses, language, and even human behavior by virtual means). Judd, who confessed to reading Stephenson’s massive Cryptonomicon (easily twice the length of Snow Crash) and also meeting Stephenson at Book Passage, admitted that Stephenson’s writing has matured since his early efforts. Indeed, Judd’s assessment of SciFi literature validated my own sense of the genre: despite a soaring imagination, the writing quality can be quite uneven.

Everyone who read Snow Crash (and that includes Jack and Dean, who each claimed to have reached p. 63) found Stephenson's 1992 novel amazingly prescient. His Metaverse is eerily similar to the virtual worlds that now populate the cyberspace we’re familiar with. As Glenn noted, the avatars adopted by our children in Club Penguin are just a half step away from the characters’ avatars that fill Stephenson’s Metaverse. And the regular blurring of Metaverse and Reality in Snow Crash is not only intentional, but may be yet another example of Stephenson’s prescience.

In the end, Snow Crash had its adherents but it failed to stimulate a strong response. Our rating of 5.8 puts it below the middle of the pack.

Next Up
Since we are taking August off, we agreed to Doug’s suggestion that we share titles that make for ideal summer reads. No literary awards, no moody narrators, no big words—just easy, uncomplicated stories that read well on the beach or in the mountains. I wish I could capture some of what was said about the titles that were proffered, but instead I’ll trust you to remember and reach for the books that you found most intriguing. So, in no particular order and without referencing authors, here are the titles I was able to scribble onto my Post-It: Any book by Lee Child, The Alchemist, Blood Sucking Fiends, God’s Middle Finger, The Call of the Wild, The Old Man and the Sea, Into the Wild, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Nature Girl/Tourist Season, Blink, North Dallas Forty, Richistan, Stiff, Bonk, Peyton Place, Endurance, Into the Void, and Three Cups of Tea.

For September, Terry gave us three distinct choices: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (Hunter S. Thompson), Ironweed (William Kennedy), and High Jinx (William F. Buckley). Without Terry present to both defend and proselytize, we bickered over page length, topicality, relevance, and even (sacrilegiously) asked ourselves if we could pick a different book altogether. Tom rushed to defend the integrity of Terry’s list and we quickly fell in line. By the narrowest of margins, Kennedy’s 1984 Pulitzer winner won out over Thompson’s 1972 political screed. Ironically, Kennedy and Thompson were quite close friends. Maybe that’s why we had such difficulty picking one over the other. We’ll find out in September if our choice is vindicated.

Jul 21, 2008

Book suggestions for September

I have 3 suggestions, each quite different from the other.

First, one of my favorite fiction authors for his Blackford Oakes novels is William F. Buckley. Who else could write a sex scene that involves Queen Elizabeth (not the book I'm recommending). So, if the closest you ever get a conservative is to check the next box over on the ballot, try the novel, High Jinx, by William F. Buckley.

Or, if light and action packed isn't your cuppa, how about Ironweed by William Kennedy. It will remind you why you don't live in Albany, NY.

And, rounding out the trio with a political campaign themed read is Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail by Hunter S. Thompson. It's a Gonzo-journalism fueled coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign between Geo McGovern and Richard Nixon. I was inspired by seeing the portrait of Thompson's life at The Rafael last week.

I won't be at the club meeting Tuesday (son's 18th birthday) but will deputize Glenn to defend my honor and book choices.