Friday, August 27, 2010

Book Review: Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Kay’s latest history/fantasy mashup takes the reader to a simulacrum of Tang Dynasty China, with all of the flowery, evocative prose that could be expected from such a journey. Under Heaven drew me in quick, and I finished it with the wistful satisfaction that is the hallmark of a good story. Somehow, though, I think I wanted just a little bit more out of this book.

The book begins on the haunted shore of a lake called Kuala Nor, in a mountain valley on the border between the nations of Kitai and Tagura. For two years, Shen Tai has toiled alone to bury the bones of dead soldiers from past battles in valley. Tai, an ex-soldier and former Kanlin Warrior-in-training (think Shaolin monk), chose this penance as mourning and tribute for his father, a renowned general with an uncharacteristic pacifist streak. His willingness to live and work among the shrieking ghosts of Kuala Nor has attracted the attention and awe of both nations, which typically spend their time staring at each other and waiting for another war to start. As the story opens, the Taguran royalty (which happens to include a Kitai princess) chooses to reward Tai’s perseverance and respect with an unthinkably lavish gift: 250 Sardian horses, the graceful mounts from the far west that inspire art, poetry, and legend among the Kitai. Before Tai can even begin processing such a gift, he finds himself fending off an unexpected assassination attempt. Reluctantly, he journeys back into the empire of Kitai, in order to discover who wants him dead and why. However, his herd of horses gives him a newfound wealth and power that makes him a new player in Kitai politics, which have taken a dangerous turn since his self-imposed exile.

Though the story lies on the framework of the An Shi Rebellion's beginning years, the novel’s focus remains squarely on Shen Tai, the people he cares about, and the people who have a newfound interest in him and his game-changing horses. Under Heaven is a story about people, who do the best they can when plunged into events they have no control over. In this, Kay does a fantastic job; Tai’s moments of danger and self-discovery dovetail nicely with the occasional bit of omniscient narration highlighting the capricious nature of history and the important role that chance plays.

Honestly, though, the actual plot threads felt like they were tied a little loosely. The plights of the various characters sometimes don’t quite intersect with the main story. This is a conscious choice of Kay’s, as a major theme here is how quickly we can be swept up in the current due to seemingly insignificant choices. However, the subplots that get left unresolved or abruptly halted can be jarring. The pacing gets odd, as well, with the middle being considerable slower than the first act, and the climax appearing almost out of nowhere. Well, not out nowhere, I guess, since political intrigue stories always end with some real shit going down, but I had some sort of cognitive break between the setup and the delivery. I think less time could have been spent on walking from place to place, and more on some of the family intrigue that gets constructed so nicely in the beginning and then oddly short-changed as the story unfolds.

The characters are occasionally unsatisfying, as well, for all that this is a character piece, with many of them needing just a little more nuance and depth; Kay utilizes takes the same “epic archetype” approach to characterization that he did in Tigana. Strangest of all, though, are the characters that are introduced for no real reason. Some are redshirts that are killed off after a few pages of intricate backstory, and one (a courtesan near the beginning) actually takes control of the narrative for part of a chapter, and is subsequently never heard from again. That, in particular, was weird. I spent the rest of the book wondering why I was supposed to care about her. Again, I’m pretty sure Kay did that on purpose- one of those philosophical interjections at the end muses on the truism of incidental, passing characters in history playing out their own dramas and tragedies. Still, it bugged the hell out of me.

But it also made me think of the Chinese epic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, with its cavalcade of minor characters contributing to a more complicated tapestry. Kay researched epic Chinese poetry when writing this, and it shows in these seemingly random intersection of characters, as well as in the attention to beautiful details in the setting and the pensive melancholy that pervades the entire affair. And I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker for epilogues. Seriously, every time I’ve seen people moan and complain about epilogues that are too long or too sappy, I end up loving them when I read them. The epilogue here was the same. I was so satisfied with and emotionally moved by the way in which Kay wrapped his story up that it quelled the growing discontent I was nurturing after getting through the second act.

Overall, this is a beautiful story. Definitely worth looking into if you are interested in historical fiction (the fantasy elements are fairly light, here) or in Asian-inspired fantasy. I don’t find myself quite as awed by this one as I was by Tigana, and I hear that if I liked Tigana, I need to read Kay’s other, better works. However, from a strictly aesthetic standpoint, this is a wonderful elegy that is worth reading simply for its abstractly gorgeous imagery, and for the mood it sets.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I was 1337. But then they changed what 1337 was.

I picked up StarCraft II a few weeks ago, and am leisurely making my way through the single-player campaign. I am in no hurry to play people online, though. I’m a decent RTS player, but even if I were great at this, past experience with playing StarCraft online has taught me that I’ll still spend most of my time frantically trying to churn out units – anything at all – while some Korean kid is leisurely humping my leg with a few Hydralisks. I’m perfectly happy with my illusory bubble of PC game proficiency, especially considering that this is the first PC game I’ve spent any time with since… well, since the last Blizzard game.

I feel increasingly guilty about that, for some reason. I cut my gaming teeth on the Atari 2600 and the NES, but for many years, I was solely a PC gamer. At some point, though, I strayed off that path. The benefits of playing on specific types of hardware got lost somewhere in the avalanche of legal tender necessary to reap those benefits.

Take shooters, for instance. I play a lot of Team Fortress 2, and while I’m not the best player around, I can hold my own. Ask the guy I played with last weekend. He started bugging me on mic about how bad of a sniper I was until the teams were eventually reassigned, whereupon I gave him repeated opportunities to reassess his opinion, until he finally ragequit after the sixth or seventh headshot. The thing is, I play it on Xbox 360. I would get chewed up and spit out by people playing on the PC, because a mouse is simply better for twitch than a controller. Not to mention the fact that the PC players get content updates and I don’t. Grumble mumble I never get new hats grumble.

These are things I already know. I don’t need to be lectured by some seventeen-year-old ball of forehead grease who thinks he’s the first to figure that out. I remember the Wolfenstein 3D shareware, son. I made Doom WADs. I am not impressed by how much Modern Warfare 2 has taught you about the first-person shooter genre.

Back then, though, the effort needed to get these games to run was spent in DOS, not on the motherboard. I remember saving up to buy a 8MB RAM SIMM (I wanted to upgrade my 486DX rig. Sixteen whole megs of memory! I could rule the world with that kind of computing power!), but that was the extent of the hardware barriers I had to cross. Any time a game wouldn’t run, I would spend hours in DOS tweaking settings and rewriting config files, which became almost as fun as the game itself. Especially when the payoff came, because I’ll tell you something: I could get that bastard to run nine time out of ten.

Around the time Quake was released and my beloved adventures games started to die out, though, something changed. That stuff didn’t work anymore. DOS went away and Windows, an operating system I hated from day one, took its place. Game files became more cryptic and hard to access. And the solutions for running games increasingly became homogenous: spend a couple hundred dollars on a new video card, because holy shit, water effects! Pfft.

It eventually got to the point where I had built a brand new computer out of top-of-the-line components that wouldn’t run a new game I wanted, because it needed the newest version of some Radeon card that had been released a month prior. Screw that business. I started playing Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64, instead.

Three prebuilt PCs later, I’ve never really looked back. I like my consoles. The games I want to play will always work on them, and work the way that the developers intended. Considering that I have a full-time job, a kid on the way, and a mortgage to pay, that kind of security is very attractive to me. Never mind the extra money spent on upgrading every few months; I don’t have that kind of frigging time to invest in my entertainment.

But I do miss the superiority of PC gaming. I sunk months into Diablo II. I’ve dipped my toes back in with Warcraft III and Guild Wars. I figured that StarCraft would be a safe bet, and worth the potential headache. My laptop is fairly beefy, and I figured that I wouldn’t have any problems at all unless I tried to run it at top settings. Naturally, I realized my folly when I played it for the first time, and the game politely suggested that I turn all of the graphics settings down to the lowest possible level, with a barely concealed snicker at the sheer foolishness of trying to run it on an integrated video card. Even after an hour or two of experimenting with the settings and twiddling with the config file (old habits die hard) until I managed to get it both playable and somewhat attractive, it still occasionally asserts that I would be much happier in the newb section, where the blue squares fight the purple squares and I won’t have to worry my silly little head over things like “textures” and “shadows.”

I completely expected this, and I can still play around on the backend until it works. And it does work, which is a marked improvement from the way things used to be, where a game would simply not install or run if it didn’t meet specs, didn’t have twine and chewing gum applied to the config file, and/or didn’t have a boot disk to ensure that it didn’t have to compete with any other programs. Even though I can’t get advanced creep lighting (whatever the hell that means), I can get to the core gameplay. And that’s the important part. This game doesn’t disappoint; it has everything that made the first game so addictive, along with the nice storytelling and even some of the gimmicky stuff that made Warcraft III so fun (though, truthfully, I’ve always preferred Warcraft to StarCraft). I’m having a blast, even though I apparently don’t get the eye candy that the “preferred” player does.

No, that’s not what bothers me. What bothers me is the fact that the default solution for the gamer in the know is now “buy more crap” instead of “learn how to tweak your system.” I mean, you can still play around with the software. I did. But there doesn’t seem to be much pride in that anymore, because it’s nowhere near as important for being a top-notch PC gamer as having a perpetually-updated rig, on which you have spent over four thousand dollars of your Applebee’s paychecks. It’s the curse of technological advancement, I suppose. I’m remembering a time when people would case mod and overpower their computers just to show off, kind of like the mooks that put a purple light kit and rims on a family sedan. These days, though, it’s like you need to invest in and install a better engine every time you want to drive to the store.

I just don’t want to do that anymore. I’ll be getting Diablo III and Guild Wars II at full retail price, but will probably have to settle for dumbed down graphics on those, too. In the meantime, I’ll still be playing console games with no extra assembly required.

Even so, there’s a part of me that really wants to make sure my laptop can run anything. Or to go all Original Digital Gangster and build and mod my own rig, instead of settling for a prebuilt machine that will always be underpowered somehow. I like to joke about how sixteen-year-old grunge kid me would snarl at me now for living in the suburbs and listening to NPR; it’s a safe assumption that 13-year-old me, who once spoofed his way into an online gaming network for free, would have a similar reaction to settling for grandma’s computer and playing with the Madden meatheads’ game toys.

Too bad I pay the bills, and he doesn’t.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Writing Excerpt: "Sir"

From a short story that's been skulking around in my notebooks for a while.


“Got a lot going on today, Rich?” I asked, not entirely sure why I was giving him an opportunity to annoy me. But he just shook his head slightly, still facing his computer screen.

“Ah. Awful quiet over there, that’s all,” I tried.

“Unh.” Rich sounded startled. He was still glued to his computer, but from what I could see, he didn’t have any work open on it. He was gripping his mouse and apparently staring at nothing.

“Unh,” he said again, and stood up suddenly. He wasn’t looking too good. His usual demeanor, complete with a weird little smile that I always found a little creepy, was gone. His face was dull and carried no expression at all. He was pale, and noticeably sweating.

“Hey, are you okay?” I asked. I didn’t like the guy, sure, but something seemed wrong. “Do you need any…”

“Going t’lunch,” he mumbled, and walked towards the office door. He limped, or swayed, or… something, as he went. There weren’t any of his usual awkward invitations to come with him. He lurched out of the office without another word or backward glance.

I thought about going after him. I went back to work, instead.

It was on my own lunch break when I finally noticed that something was really off. I left my building attached to my cell phone– Laura hadn’t answered my message about lunch, and I was leaving her a message to let her know where I was going in case she wanted to meet up.

I was already on the sidewalk outside when I looked around and took in how quiet it was. Aside from one or two lonely cars, there was nobody driving downtown. It was never as busy on the grid streets in the afternoon as it was on the highways in the morning, but I can’t remember ever seeing downtown that slow.

Though the occasional driver trundled sluggishly past, nobody at all was walking on the usually crowded sidewalks. I made my way towards my favorite Thai restaurant, a little confused. Was my lunch hour really that late? I checked my watch, and as I did I noticed the smell for the first time. Not the usual mélange of piss and dumpsters that graced the urban concrete, but something else that I couldn’t place. Acrid and smoky, but something of the synthetic, too. Electric. Unnatural, somehow. Like rotting plastic, or a hospital fire. Not too strong, but just enough to make me wonder what it was and where it was coming from.

I started walking a little faster, without really meaning to.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

This book is tailor-made for people who love to read. Strictly from a story perspective, The Thirteenth Tale tends to take itself a little too seriously at times, with the author's writing occasionally veering into the territory of pretentiousness. But despite the overblown moments that someone with an eye for criticism could take issue with, I savored every moment of this book.

The book establishes itself in the tradition of a gothic mystery, and a very obvious homage to Regency tales. Vida Winter, England's most celebrated novelist, has spent her life eluding those who want her life story. Each interview results in another tall tale. As she approaches the end of her life, though, she contacts Margaret Lea, a seller of rare books who has a marked preference for old tomes to actual people. Vida promises to tell her real story, if Margaret will faithfully record it. But as Margaret begins to transcribe Vida's tale of dark family secrets, fey twin girls, and a declining, haunted estate, deeper mysteries begin to appear. Not only does Vida's lost and elusive Thirteenth Tale start to emerge, but Margaret delves deeper into her own tragic history, as well.

Setterfield's writing is decadent. The prose is deliciously purple; the narrative frequently invites the reader to get lost inside descriptive passages with rich metaphors and evocative language. Mood is king, here. I immediately saw each setting as it was described, and felt each turn of melancholy as the characters did.

Speaking of the characters, those that inhabit the immediate story are somewhat pale and bland in comparison to the characters that sweep through Vida Winter's recollections. Though a number of small mysteries pop up throughout the book, all of the real suspense lies in how the strange, wild residents of Angelfield connect to the present. This mystery is drawn out just the right amount, and resolved in just the right fashion. The pace gets odd and jerky in places, but I was willing to forgive because I was lost in the haze of storytelling that Vida Winter insists upon.

It must be said that Setterfield herself doesn't quite live up to the mythology of her character, Vida Winter. Vida is set up as a literary wizard, which is a dangerous thing to do, because it feeds a certain set of expectations. When Setterfield harps upon a tired "twins are one person" motif or has her rich descriptive language fail her at key dramatic moments, as occasionally happens in this book, it makes me disbelieve Vida. And, thus, disbelieve the ponderous seriousness of this whole book.

But for me, that was a trivial and occasional problem. This hit all of the right notes for me. It was a Gothic mystery that was subdued and cerebral without being boring. A character study that didn't want for action or suspense. A Regency tale without all of the stilted bullcrap that Regency fans seem to love so much. I can see why some might be turned off by the melodrama of this whole affair, but surprisingly, I ate it up. This one goes on the favorites shelf.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

Thursday, August 5, 2010

On turning 30 and being stupid.

I’m turning 30 this coming Sunday, and I’m surprisingly cool with that. Granted, my attention is more focused on the impending arrival of a shiny new human to feed and clothe, at the moment. But I’m fairly comfortable with the idea of being an official grownup, and I think it’s because I’ve come to terms with how much I don’t know.

A longtime friend of mine shared this link the other day, and the salient points within unearthed flashbacks of library school. This is usually the exact same jag I go on when somebody makes a flippant joke about needing a Master’s degree to shelve books; my job is not to provide answers, but to figure out what the question is. People generally operate within the confines of that first “educational ideal” pie chart, placing emphasis primarily on what they know and how to add to it. There’s no easy way of addressing information that you don’t know you’re lacking, however, and so I often have to tease out what the real information need is. A question about parenting could really be about child psychology. People who need information on a specific battle of a particular war will often just ask me where the history books are. I remember one person a while back who asked for exercise books, and as it turned out, she needed information on anaphylactic shock. She was following what her own experience told her, and honestly didn’t know where else to look or how else to ask for that information. Most of what a librarian does from day to day consists of asking questions and searching repositories of information to help someone sort out the difference between what they do know they don’t know, and what they don’t know they don’t know.

Of course, there are plenty of days where that sounds like bright-eyed nonsense. Particularly since the time spent on the glorious quest for knowledge is generally overshadowed by countless hours showing people how to use the printer, placing holds on the latest fad novel, and foiling people who concoct elaborate schemes to bypass their fines in order to continue their important work playing solitaire on our computers. But in a general sense, the heart of what I do is discovering the unexpressed information need behind the initial question, because for various reasons, there always is one.

The beneficial side effect of all this is that I appear to know what I’m doing. As that article points out, though, I spend most of my time feeling just about as clueless as the people who are asking me questions. I feel like a fraud sometimes, finding information through the same channels that they could have used, and being thanked effusively for it, as if I had doled out my tidbits of wisdom from on high. Scraps of knowledge from the Elysian table of your public library. Computer wizardry!

Though, I do learn something new every day through my patrons’ questions. So, that’s nice.

Anyway, I’ve become used to the idea that sitting underneath an “Information” sign doesn’t mean I know everything, or even most things, I’m asked about. I think that’s why I’ve taken such a cavalier attitude towards the slow encroachment of middle age. Although my adorable larva will spend eight to twelve years taking my parental omniscience as a given, I feel like I’ve finally been let on to the big secret of adulthood: we still don’t know what we’re doing. Probably never will. And it’s cool, man, it’s cool.

But it helps that I share the general opinion expressed in that article. I love discovering more about what I don’t know. It always ensures that I have another book to read, or another hobby at which I can be a fumbling beginner. That feels to me like the true hallmark of wisdom, rather than amassing a collection of facts (so wipe that smug smile off your goddamned face, Ken Jennings). It’s a hard sell for most people though, because acknowledging the vast ocean of stuff we don’t know makes us feel stupid. And if public service has taught me anything, it’s that people don’t like feeling stupid. The more stupid someone feels, the more likely they are to insist that the stupidity lies elsewhere. Seriously. The only people who ever get in my face at work are the ones who realize that I have caught on to, and am wholly unimpressed by, some ridiculous effort of theirs to work the system. But, you know, I’m the stupid one. For having those stupid rules they got caught breaking in the first place.

That’s an extreme example, but really, I see it all the time. People who need information and realize that they don’t really know what they’re looking for or how to find it come in two varieties. The first group is friendly, chatty, and is actually having fun trying to puzzle out what it is they need. The second group is visibly embarrassed, irritated at the library because this stupid building doesn’t have what they’re looking for on a dais at the entrance, and impatient with my dumb questions, because how are they supposed to know what they need? Isn’t that what I’m there for? Blargarabble taxes pay your salary blargh!

It’s taken me nearly 30 years to move from the second group into the first group. I’ve always placed so much importance on knowledge that I spent my formative years feeling inadequate if I didn’t have enough of it. Which, in turn, has led to all sorts of interesting scenarios that I kind of wish never happened. But I’m good, now. I’ve adjusted my pie chart, just in time for the gray hairs to start appearing.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Book Review: The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith

All right, I admit it. I cheated with this one. This was the July selection for a Mystery Book Club that I head up, and we started our discussion of it by watching the first hour of the HBO televised version to compare. Naturally, in a respectful homage to my high school days, I forwent the written word in favor of passively soaking in the delicious cable goodness. I liked it enough to feel guilty for my transgression, and picked up the book afterward, but I think I’ve fallen prey to that time-tested warning against straying into bibliophile heresy: I saw the filmed version first, and I liked that version much better.

This book, the first in a fairly sprawling cozy mystery series, doesn’t seem to operate on a fixed, linear plot. Each chapter is its own self-contained story, with the only connection between each being a simple (and sometimes tenuous) chronological one. Precious Ramotswe sets herself up as the first and only woman detective in Botswana, defying traditional expectations after escaping an abusive marriage and mourning the death of her beloved father. A few chapters give some backstory, but the book largely lives in the present; she rents a building, hires a secretary, and begins solving the day-to-day mysteries of her friends and neighbors. There is one overarching plot thread revolving around a missing boy and a possible murder, but it can only be called a plot thread in that it’s introduced in the beginning, referred to a couple of times in the middle, and resolved (rather abruptly) at the end. While I’ve read and enjoyed other collections of vignettes that weave around a central story, this one never felt like it connected those loose ends; Precious gets established, cracks a few cases, and calls it a day.

Which is not to say that it isn’t an enjoyable read, if you’re looking for a short, light, tongue-in-cheek sort of mystery. I think the pull of this book (or any cozy, for that matter) is in its calm, affirming nature. For the most part, Precious doesn’t tackle anything dangerous or unusual. She is asked to discover relationship statuses, and help fellow business owners find proof of fraud. Her appeal as a heroine lies largely in her homespun approach to solving mysteries, which is a combination of feminine wiles, lifelong curiosity, and studious attention to an encyclopedia for amateur sleuths. The overall tone of the book places the thrill of the chase firmly in the backseat, and focuses more on the virtues of helping one’s community, finding validation in one's own skin, and simply caring and doing what one can. But I’ve never been too big on these sorts of literary homilies; the “oh, silly men” and “fat girls rule” themes have their audience, but didn’t really hook me for obvious reasons. This, combined with the lack of any central story, made the whole read more than a little boring. Again, though, most cozy mysteries are pleasantly boring. Which is why I don’t usually read them.

But there is a treasure trove of fun accent notes here, which the filmed version that I shamefully watched first and enjoyed more pulled out and focused on. The characters themselves are wonderfully fleshed out, and the novelty of an amateur detective agency in Botswana remains consistently interesting. Even though the mysteries themselves border on dullness, they resonate with verisimilitude, and are quick and sweet like the confections they are meant to be. While I was less than moved by the book on the whole, I can definitely understand why people like it.

Verdict: 2.5 out of 5