Thursday, December 31, 2015

Books and magazines read, 2015

This is my reading list for 2015. An asterisk means I was re-reading a book rather than reading it for the first time.

Once again I didn't read as many books by women as I'd intended to, just 31 out of 86. 86 is a sharp decline from last year's 132, but in April I bought a PlayStation 4 and in September I got a smart phone, so the surprising thing is that the count isn't lower.

I've added quick notes at the end of each month on certain books from the first half of the year. A lot of these books were review copies; you can read my reviews on Amazon here.

January
1. Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America
2. Laurie R. King, The Moor
3. David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
4. Laurie R. King, O Jerusalem
5. Sharma Shields, The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac
6. Laurie R. King, Justice Hall

The Mary Russell novels aren't exactly any good, but they're very readable, and there's a certain fascination in how staggeringly implausible a character Mary is, how obviously she's a hybrid of a plausible apprentice for Sherlock Holmes and an author surrogate for Laurie R. King. Frankly, the books would be more plausible and more enjoyable if King dropped the Holmes baggage and wrote about a globe-trotting theologian.

I can't say I was blown away by Cloud Atlas. The nested narratives are appealing, yes, and Mitchell writes competently in a variety of styles. But he's not quite breathtaking in any of them, and the narratives don't connect or illuminate each other except in incidental or trivial ways. I'm sympathetic to the larger humanist message, but the play with genre conventions means that none of the characters feel grounded enough to make that message more than a platitude. This is snobbish to say, but if they can make a blockbuster movie that fully captures what's going on in your novel, it's probably not a work of great profundity.

February
1. Peter Carey, Amnesia
2. Judith Claire Mitchell, A Reunion of Ghosts
3. Kirker Butler, Pretty Ugly
4. Dave Barry, Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster)
5. K. J. Parker, Academic Exercises

K. J. Parker really is rather good, and the short stories are an accessible introduction to his sensibility. "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong" is a small masterpiece of ironies and moral turnabouts, which are Parker's specialty; under a broad sense of humor (he also writes comic fantasy under his real name, Tom Holt), he has as cynical a view of human nature as any writer of "grimdark."






March
1. Daniel Handler, We Are Pirates
2. Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread
3. Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife
4. Neal Stephenson, Seveneves
5. Kerry Howley, Thrown
6. David Gates, A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me

I love Daniel Handler's work in general, both under his own name and as Lemony Snicket, but We Are Pirates didn't work for me. One of its narrative strands felt like a generic male-inadequacy narrative, for which I have limited patience, and the other went to dark and unusual places but then fizzled out in a weirdly pat resolution.

Thrown is a very amusing piece of "creative nonfiction" that simultaneously satirizes and expands the academic study of violent sports, and also offers an insightful and melancholy portrait of the mysterious isolation of driven athletes.

April
1. Brian W. Aldiss, Finches of Mars
2. Chris Beckett, Mother of Eden
3. K. J. Parker, Sharps
-. K. J. Parker, The Two of Swords (Parts 1-3)
4. Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
5. P. D. James, The Children of Men
6. Ben H. Winters, World of Trouble

I was on a dystopian kick at the end of April, apparently. Station Eleven is a lovely and sad novel, Shakespearean in more ways than one, layered with coincidence and irony, tragedy and rebirth. Not perhaps a work of great thematic complexity, but it's one of those case where the execution gives it great emotional impact all the same.

I don't know quite what to say about The Children of Men. Honestly, my clearest recollection is of how pointless and distracting the shifts between first-person and third-person narration were. The concept is compelling, and the first half gets the melancholy of a defeated world quite right, but it peters out into a chase narrative that's well-executed but meaningless.

World of Trouble is a great conclusion to a great trilogy. They're all tightly-constructed, but only the first in the series really worked as a mystery; the real subject of the series is the portrait of the stages of grief of a doomed planet, and of a man whose need for order persists even in the face of something that will shatter all theories of meaning.



May
1. Sue Grafton, E is for Evidence*
2. Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game*
3. Stephen King, Revival
4. Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution
-. K. J. Parker, The Two of Swords (Part 4)
5. Jesse Ball, A Cure for Suicide
6. Mary Rickert, The Memory Garden
7. Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Lovers on All Saints' Day
8. Karen Joy Fowler, Black Glass
9. Lyndsay Faye, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson
10. Stephen and Joyce Singular, The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth
11. Sophie Jaff, Love is Red

The Karen Joy Fowler collection is seriously good stuff, and will surprise those who only know her from more accessible and straightforward work like The Jane Austen Book Club and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

June
1. Robert Aickman, The Strangers and Other Writings
2. George Orwell, All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays
-. K. J. Parker, The Two of Swords (Part 5)
3. Thomas Mallon, Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years
4. Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors
5. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
6. Edwidge Danticat, Untwine
7. Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword

The Mallon novel is great, cynical and gossipy yet never cheap, researched but never dry. I have no idea if it's accurate or realistic or whatever other label, but regardless of how well it captures Washington, it expresses something real about how people can be vastly yet casually self-centered.




July
1. Thomas Mallon, Watergate
-. K. J. Parker, The Two of Swords (Part 6)
2. Gregory Maguire, After Alice
3. Joe Abercrombie, Half the World
4. Joe Abercrombie, Half a War
5. Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver*
6. Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell*
7. Lucius Shepard, The Dragon Griaule

Shepard's stories about the Dragon Griaule are extraordinary metaphors for obsession, or fate, or social control, or all three. Either way they're peerless examples of a kind of psychologically dense, atmospheric weird fiction.


August
1. Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord
2. Harry Turtledove, We Install and Other Stories
3. Robin Hobb, Fool's Quest
-. K. J. Parker, The Two of Swords (Part 7)
4. Lauren Redniss, Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future
5. Helen Phillips, The Beautiful Bureaucrat


September
1. Linda Nagata, The Red: The Trials
2. See the Elephant, Issue One
3. Clifford D. Simak, I am Crying All Inside and Other Stories
4. William Boyd, Sweet Caress
5. Patrick Modiano, So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood
6. Sue Grafton, F is for Fugitive*
7. Matt Bell, Scrapper
8. K. J. Parker, The Two of Swords (Part 8)
9. K. J. Parker, Colours in the Steel
10. Deanna Raybourn, Silent on the Moor
11. John Banville, The Blue Guitar
12. Tessa Hadley, The Past


October
1.  Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here
2. Umberto Eco, Numero Zero
3. Tom Hart, Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir
4. Ann Leckie, Ancillary Mercy
5. Colum McCann, Thirteen Ways of Looking
6. William H. Gass, Eyes: Novellas and Stories
-. K. J. Parker, The Two of Swords (Part 9)
7. David Mitchell, Slade House
8. Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Stairs
9. Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo's Calling
10. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, Welcome to Night Vale

November
1. Patrick Ness, More Than This 
2. Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Blades
-. K. J. Parker, The Two of Swords (Part 10)
3. Judd Apatow, Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy
4. Daniel Handler, The Basic Eight*

December
1. China Mieville, This Census-Taker
2. D. G. Hilton, Biddy Debeau Rides for His Life
3. Louise Penny, Still Life
4. Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
-. K. J. Parker, The Two of Swords (Part 11)
5. Anne Perry, The Cater Street Hangman
6. John Donvan and Caren Zucker, In a Different Key: The Story of Autism
7. Peter Dickinson, The Yellow Room Conspiracy


Monday, December 21, 2015

The "I don't have to have a topic" show: Bloodborne edition

I couldn't come up with a real topic for a post today, and I spent so much time tonight playing Bloodborne that I don't have the energy to write a real one anyway. So here is a description of what I did in Bloodborne tonight.

I started off at the Nightmare Church lamp in the expansion, because I took a few first shots at Ludwig last night. What a miserable fight that is: the size of a giant boss and the speed of a hunter. His combos keep killing me before I can do anything. Eventually I'll have to learn some actual strategies, but for tonight I put that aside in favor of stuff from the main game.

I had gotten to the area before Mergo's Wet Nurse and hadn't really expected to fight it any time soon, since I still have the expansion and some miscellaneous collecting and grinding to do before I want to be forced into New Game +, and I figured once I started the final chain of bosses I'd decide to finish despite that. But then I found out they'd added the Blood Rock to the Insight shop, and I really wanted to +10 my Holy Blade. I used the one you find in the Nightmare of Mensis to +10 my Saw Cleaver, because it had been my main weapon for most of the game and I'm fond of it, but at my current level the Holy Blade is objectively a better option. And you can only buy Blood Rocks with Insight after you defeat the Wet Nurse, so the choice was clear.

I was talking about the game with a friend at work today and he told me it was an easy fight. I thought, Well, maybe for you, because I tend not to do well with giant enemies. But no, he was right: it's surprisingly easy. I have no idea why the official guide lists it as an S-ranked fight. Those melee combos are vicious, but it's so slow that getting behind it and hacking like mad is no problem. I died once because I tried to attack while the clone was out instead of just dodging (and because I still had my triple-stacked Moon runes on instead of the defense and HP boosters I use on bosses), but the next time it went down without much trouble. It only even used Nightmare Veil once. Which makes sense, as something that blinds you more than it does your enemy is a terrible attack. I almost felt bad for it watching it flail around halfway across the room.

So after the fight I went directly to the Insight Shop, bought the Blood Rock, and perfected my Holy Blade. Then I used all my collected Coldblood items to augment the 72,000 echoes you get from the Wet Nurse, and leveled up three times to reach Level 100. (Yes, I am kind of overleveled. I like it that way.) For a long time I was doing a very balanced physical build, with equal amounts of Vitality, Endurance, and Strength, moderate Skill, and low Bloodtinge and Arcane. But the more I used the Holy Blade, the more helpful extra Skill became, and lately I've started thinking it might be nice to use the Threaded Cane in New Game +. So I've started boosting Skill as well. Right now my Vitality, Endurance, and Skill are around 30, while my Strength is 36. Bloodtinge and Arcane are all the way down at 11. I keep wanting to add some, but by now it's like, what's the point?

Then I approached Gehrman, in theory just to watch the cutscene and get a sense of how he moves. But I was able to do so much damage with each combo that I thought, Maybe I could win this tonight, and in fact I did just that on my third try, the first in which I took him past phase one. It was a close thing, though: I had no vials and about 20% HP when he took the final hit. In some ways, the first phase was actually the hardest for me: it's tough to gauge when he's using that hook maneuver, and those combos are brutal. When he pulled out the gun I thought, I'm doomed. But while I got hit a lot (I don't know how to dodge bullet spreads in this game), it never did much damage or delayed me while I was close enough for him to attack. And his forward rolls kept putting him in an ideal position for me to get off a nice combo. The third phase was brutal: I never worked out how to dodge the midair attack, so if he'd used that after I ran out of vials I would have died. But at the end he stuck to basic melee attacks, and while he staggered me twice I had just enough time to dodge away before he could hit me with a visceral. Also, I just kept hitting him while he built up that area of effect attack, not even bothering to dodge, and while I took a lot of damage that way, I could heal and he couldn't.

So Gehrman died, and I quit out immediately before the Moon Presence could kill me and take my Echoes. Which turned out not to exist. I didn't realize the game withheld the ones Gehrman drops until you kill the Moon Presence, although it makes a lot of sense. I didn't try the Moon Presence at all, because I definitely don't want to get caught up in fighting it, win, and wind up in New Game + before I'm ready to be there.

I did some other, less interesting stuff tonight, including checking out how boring it was to grind for Blood Stone Chunks using the Scourge Beasts in the Upper Cathedral Ward (answer: very). But this post is already long enough, and of no interest to most of you anyway. So I think I'll just call it a night.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Wunderkind(a)

This New York Times article about Theranos is interesting in a couple ways. For one thing, it's an example of how to write journalism that is scrupulously neutral in sentence-by-sentence wording and yet obviously slanted in total effect. The narrative has turned against Theranos, so even "objective" outlets will have their thumb on the scale. But the fact that the narrative was ever in favor of Theranos says a lot about our fascination with the idea of the wunderkind, and about how someone can be seen as an innovative genius while reaping the benefits of a life of privilege. The wealthy are evidently so eager to get behind the next Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/Mark Zuckerberg that they'll back any bright kid with an eye-catching idea... and the connections to get their attention in the first place.

There's no denying that Elizabeth Holmes is intelligent (although the markers of intelligence in our society are not entirely separate from social and financial privilege either). But there's something very contemporary about the idea that a person with a bright scientific idea should immediately become the CEO of a company built around that idea. It suggests the extent to which high finance has little connection to reality. Money isn't real to begin with, and amounts in the millions and billions are especially unreal; for those with the right connections, they're self-generating, feeding on air as chameleons were once thought to. It's taken over a decade for it to be noticed that Theranos doesn't actually do much of anything.

Holmes might yet surprise us all and produce results to match the image. Or she might turn out to be in over her turtleneck. Either way, the idea that because she had a sharp scientific mind she should run a major business reflects the common delusion that intelligence is infinitely transmutable. It's the same notion that puts Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker in the public eye, pontificating on subjects about which they know nothing because they happen to be very good in certain highly-specialized areas. But scientific specialists don't automatically make good public intellectuals, and it seems that they don't make good CEOs either.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

"Go see a Star War."

I haven't seen The Force Awakens, but I have thoughts about it.

No, actually, they're not about the new movie, but about Star Wars as a whole and what, exactly, it's good for. One of the common criticisms of The Force Awakens is that it's basically a pastiche of A New Hope. (See this article for a detailed explanation; no explicit spoilers, but I wouldn't read it if you want to be totally surprised going in.) And I definitely get where that argument is coming from. But at the same time: what else is Star Wars going to do?

Everybody hates the prequels. I didn't love them myself, although with the exception of Attack of the Clones I didn't think they were especially bad as that sort of thing goes. Their biggest sin was not making people feel like twelve-year-olds again, a sin the plot of The Force Awakens is aggressively, not to say cynically, trying not to commit. But when I try to think about why I didn't particularly like the prequels, I realize that it's because they were trying so hard to feel like part of an epic, carefully-realized science fiction universe, with fake science and details of planetary government and masses of stormtroopers. And that's not really what the original films were about. They were a fairy tale in a futuristic universe. Their world-building existed on the level of magical vistas, grimy taverns, and giant monsters. They even took place when and where all fairy tales do, long ago and far away.

The problem is that the fairy tale structure doesn't really lend itself to extension. Once you hit "happily ever after," the fairy tale is over; when you've bowed, you leave the crowd. And George Lucas' explanation after the prequels for why he wasn't going to make a sequel trilogy still rings true: the first six episodes feel like a complete story, the rise and fall of the Empire, and the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. Of course you can do other things with the surviving characters, but how do you maintain the feel of the original trilogy without doing what The Force Awakens does and remaking it with some elements reorganized? I'm sure there's a way, and there's hope that the remaining episodes of this trilogy will show it. But even apart from the financial benefits of playing it safe, there are reasons the people who made this movie did what they did.

Friday, December 18, 2015

On Martin Shkreli

Obviously the arrest for securities fraud of Martin Shkreli, whose company raised the price of an AIDS drug from $13.50 per pill to $750, has an air of poetic justice about it. But there are a couple ways in which that air is misleading. It's not so much a matter of karma as of one kind of ugly behavior leading to another. Corporate fraud is not simply something that accompanies corporate greed; it's an inextricable part of the process. High finance deals in amounts of money so large they have no real meaning, which makes for a system that's easy to game in a variety of ways. There is no  sense in which any drug is worth $750 per pill, and forcing hospitals to pay that much is no less fraudulent in essence than the Ponzi scheme Shkreli allegedly set up at two of his previous corporations. It's simply an acceptable fraud.

And here's the thing: Shkreli made headlines not because he's a big part of these problems but because he isn't. The Daraprim hike was an eye-catching story, but it's not as if Shkreli invented inflated medical pricing. His quote about "charging Toyota prices for an Aston Martin" was callous-- we're not talking about cars but about lives. And yet that attitude toward healthcare is an inevitable result of leaving so much of it to private enterprise. And while $11 million, the amount of the alleged fraud, is big money by my standards and probably by yours, in the world of high finance it's a drop in the bucket. The people who should be arrested for playing games with others' money won't be, because they're too big to jail. Shkreli's arrest is a sideshow, something that will create the impression that the government is tough on corporate fraud without actually inconveniencing anyone who might be a big donor in an upcoming election. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies will continue to charge inflated amounts for drugs, and much of that cost will be borne by taxpayers. A system in which governments buy vital services but have limited control over their prices may not seem to make sense, but for the people who profit from it, the logic is all too clear.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Cater Street Hangman

This is the first book in Anne Perry's long-running Thomas Pitt series, but it was conceived as a standalone novel, which is a key aspect of its unusual tone. The detective and eventual series protagonist is at best a secondary character. The focus instead is on the Ellisons, who live in a neighborhood where a serial killer is targeting young women. The detective element is played down; there's much emphasis on how impossible it is to investigate this kind of insanity-driven violence with the tools available in the late 19th century. Possible suspects are gradually eliminated by the absence of opportunity, but The Cater Street Hangman is not so much a murder mystery as an exploration of the effects of proximity to murder on a late Victorian family. On those terms it's an enjoyable if slow-paced novel.

The brutal fact of violent crime is bound to shatter the hypocrisy and secrecy on which the patriarchal order of the Victorian household was based. The Ellisons are forced to confront the possibility that one of them might be a murderous lunatic. This acceptance of the ugly side of life forces to the surface several smaller secrets and buried conflicts, leaving the family raw... and yet, perhaps, better off than they were before. Perry does a fine job of elaborating the constricted emotional lives of Victorians, and in particular of Victorian women, without reducing any of the characters to caricature. The father is no demanding ogre but an ordinary man raised with deeply sexist and authoritarian expectations. Even the sharp-tongued grandmother, something of a stock figure in contemporary 19th-century stories, is not without her pitiable side, though the austere and arrogant vicar remains one-dimensional.

The emphasis on emotional nuance and on slow-building despair mean that this is not an especially lively novel for those who don't enjoy simmering interpersonal tension as much as I do. But Perry's simple yet graceful prose sustains it, as does a comic subplot involving one daughter's pursuit of a marriage proposal from a rakish gentleman. Indeed, this is as much an unconventional romance novel as an unconventional murder mystery. That very difficulty of classification is part of the charm of The Cater Street Hangman, which offers the pleasures of period mystery, period romance, and period drama without becoming too bound by the formulas of any. Whether further volumes in the series will maintain this unique character I can't say, but on its own terms this is a surprisingly taut and engaging novel.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Telltale's Game of Thrones, Until Dawn, and the Illusion of Choice

In theory, the option to replay with different decisions is a big part of the appeal of choice-based, story-driven video games. In practice, though, you're better off not replaying, because to do so is to discover how little your choices actually matter. There are solid practical reasons for this; a full branching narrative, rather than dozens of inconsequential dialogue choices, would greatly increase the size of the game. Even two or three genuinely major choices would have a balloon effect as permutations increase. But there's an argument to be made that such an approach-- few and meaningful decisions-- would be more satisfying in the long run.

I don't have much patience for Game of Thrones as a TV series. It's done a remarkably consistent job of adapting what's dull and pedestrian about George R. R. Martin's novels and omitting what's atypical and, by the standards of mass market fiction, interesting. So I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Telltale's video game in the setting. At first it seemed to be doing a better job than the TV show of avoiding unnecessary "look how grim and edgy this is" scenes, though that was less true during the later episodes. And the major choices felt very dramatic in the moment, even when you could see in the immediate aftermath how the game was designed to discount some of your decisions. It was only with the ending that you realized how little anything you did mattered.

To some extent this is tied up with the ways in which the ending fails as a narrative resolution regardless of the matter of choice. Whatever its reputation, Game of Thrones isn't an endless slog through misery for all the likable characters. Some of them suffer devastating reversals and permanent losses, yes, but so do the villains and the ambiguous protagonists. The individual novels and season, whatever their other flaws, strike a good balance between "down" and "up" moments. Telltale's story, on the other hand, has a serious shortage of ups, and eschews any kind of resolution in favor of more cliffhangers per capita than A Dance with Dragons. It doesn't matter how well you marshaled your resources at Ironrath or played the game in King's Landing; you're going to get basically the same results, a setup for a season two that, for reasons of branching complexity, probably won't even focus on these characters. There are some very effective individual sequences in that final episode, but the overall effect is a serious anti-climax.

For most of its length, I thought that Until Dawn was doing a better job than the Telltale games of making your choices actually matter. The sales model certainly ought to have made that easier: releasing the whole game at once allows the designers to make the flow of choices organic, rather than be obligated to squeeze six into every episode for those buying the game piecemeal. And let's face it: controlling who lives and who dies in a horror movie scenario has obvious appeal. The existence of missable collectibles provides another incentive to replay. And the butterfly effect system, which shows cause-and-effect of choices in a direct, constantly-updating manner, puts your sense of your influence front and center. But it still is only a sense of your influence.

You control who lives and who dies, yes, but the basic story is the same no matter who's alive and who's dead. And when you investigate how and where significant branching occurs, you realize how often it involves only the immediate lead-up to a death. There are a couple cases where it's more complicated than that, but they're the exception rather than the rule. And those cases don't change large portions of the gameplay; they involve an isolated choice in, say, episode three, and an isolated result in episode seven. So you can end up doing a lot of replaying for a relatively small tweak to the end result. And since the gameplay consists of navigating stiff, slow-moving characters down a series of linear corridors and completing viciously-timed QTEs, replaying generally feels like a chore.

My point here isn't that these are bad games. I enjoyed both of them, Until Dawn a bit more than Game of Thrones because horror is more my thing and because the overall production values are higher. But I do wonder if it's a mistake to bombard the player with choices that produce ten seconds' worth of minor difference. These eat up production time that might be better spent creating meaningfully different results based on a smaller number of decisions. Four or five endings that take the characters to radically different places would be far more likely to encourage replays than hundreds of permutations of the same basic denouement. Too often, branching in video games is like when a DVD's special features promise an alternate ending, and deliver the original ending with a couple different camera angles. That's nice if you're really enthusiastic about the property in question, but it leaves the rest of us wanting more.