Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age, Volume 1 by Michael Stutz (2011)

I got a copy of Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age, Volume 1 by Michael Stutz (2011) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Somehow, its algorithm looked into my past and realized that I was once a modemer and that parts of this novel might click with me.

Stutz gives us the story of Raymond Valentine, his childhood, his family, his hobbies, his life, and the impact that the new-on-the-scene home computer had on all of them. Volume one starts us at the beginning, with a young Raymond fascinated by telephones, experimenting with chemicals, and immersing himself in books. Soon video games and then home computers hit the scene, and Raymond knows he must have one. He fills notebooks with practice programs before he ever gets a computer of his own, and once he does his friend's parents are asking him for help and advice. And then he gets his modem hooked up. And after hours of phreaking the system to get the codes to make free long-distance calls, the world's BBSs are his and he is no longer the geeky guy at school with no friends, instead he is The Wanderer with lots of friends and secrets, online.

I was certainly no mega-geek, but my family got a Commodore VIC-20 in the early 80s and my sisters and I spent a lot of time carefully typing in programs to get a little ball to bounce around the TV screen and playing shareware games from audio cassettes (I distinctly remember being fascinated by one that analyzed your biorhythms even though I had no idea what a biorhythm even was). Later I moved on to text based adventure games (Go left. Get trunk. Look trunk. Get key. Syntax error.), then Prodigy, and then, when I was about 15, I discovered it: modeming.

There was a local BBS in Lincoln, where I am from, called Cyberspace. It had ten lines, which meant 10 people could be on at once. You could chat live with the other people who were online or read and contribute to discussion boards. They also had some basic games, and a once a week live trivia that was hard to get into since the lines would all fill up. My handle was Omar (named after Omar and the Howlers, but mostly because I thought the name was funny). It kind of hid the fact that I was a girl, which sometimes worked to my advantage. By the time I was 16 a bunch of Cyberspace modemers would get together for midnight coffee on Saturday nights. We got kicked out of two different Perkins restaurants, and eventually moved to a rather shitty diner by the airport and later a late-night cool coffee shop downtown. I was working at a Barnes and Noble at the time and I'd get off at midnight and head straight to modemer coffee. I was in heaven -- all these people were friendly and fun and nothing like the people in my high school or my family. I was one of the only women and by far the youngest person, but I'd usually go with a good male friend who was a couple years older than me and I never had anything wildly inappropriate happen. When Stutz described Raymond's feelings of belonging and knowing something that his friends at school didn't know, I knew exactly what he meant.

However, while Stutz can bring back the era and write some compelling characters, he often gets lost in a lyrical narrative style that does not do his novel any favors:

The men we knew so many years ago as boys are far away. With a hand we wave to nothing but the wind, our cries have been deserted by the deaf, the blind will never see; a lion sleeps in gloom and there is a wounded whale plunging far below the ocean depths. (p. 169).

There was a change and it was sensed in confounding, unspoken ways: it was in the steady tick of time, it was in a speck of tockled time that ticked, and it was in the scattered moments that formed the broken sediment of ages -- the little things that slipped away, and sunk, and had drifted down into the rimings of a dark and deeper past. (p. 203)

In fact, the first chapter of the book is pages and pages of this lyrical style and I almost had to put the whole thing down. I'm glad I persevered, because there is a lot of good here, but I wish that Stutz had had an editor that would call him on his poetic prose and get him to tone it down a notch.

One other quibble: Raymond grows up in a state called Sohola, which is obviously Ohio (a teacher even refers to shooting of protesting students at "Sohola's Duke State University"). I don't have any idea why Stutz made up a fake state name when the rest of the book takes place in reality, and none of the other states have fake names.

Still, if you can get past a sprinkling of purple prose, this book is worth checking out if you have some memories of life before the World Wide Web. Not strongly recommended, but it did help scratch an itch I didn't even know I had...

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Family Handyman Whole House Repair Guide edited by Ken Collier (2012)

Now that I am a homeowner (one whole year, whoop!), I have a good excuse to read this kind of book, although I'll admit that I've always had a fascination for checking out "how to" and "helpful hint" books even when I didn't have anything to which I could apply my new found knowledge. In fact, even now that I own a house, I'd probably only attempt a small subset of these repairs myself -- things that involve an investment in tools, a large investment of time, or that could go horribly wrong if they aren't done right are the kinds of things that I'd rather hire someone to do for me. Still, this kind of book is helpful even for book-learning handywomen like me since it gives me a good idea of what would be involved in a wide variety of repairs even if I don't end up doing the repair myself.

This book is well organized with a broad coverage of common repairs taken from the pages of Family Handyman magazine. Each repair is nicely illustrated and gives you a good idea of the tools, skills, and time needed to complete it. While all of this information is also available for free on the old internet, I like having a reference book like this to refer to, especially if I need to use it for a project away from the computer. There are a lot of books like this out there, but this one did the trick for me.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Reavers of Skaith by Leigh Brackett (1976)

To round out the three-part adventures of Eric John Stark on the planet of Skaith (previously reviewed here), the ever-wonderful Leigh Brackett brings us The Reavers of Skaith (1976). While there is no way that the cover could match the perfect science fiction vision of the second book in the series, the third volume is much more satisfying both in terms of its action and in its use of the main female character, the seer Gerrith, who is once again part of the action and not just along for the ride.

Stark and his compatriots find themselves betrayed at the start of volume three when the freelancing starship captain who had promised to take their delegation back to Pax double-crosses them, ransoms the party, and begins attacking and pillaging the defenseless planet.

As an off-worlder, Stark is seen by many as the cause of their misfortunes, and while he sets off on a cross-planet quest to reach a transmitter and call for inter-galactic help, he and his followers find themselves besieged by all forms of the inventively weird people that inhabit the dying planet of Skaith.

And Skaith, by the way, is really really dying now. Summer was extra short and winter blows into the far north and south with a vengeance. Crops die and workers and Farers surge into the cities and the fertile belt around the equator looking for food and shelter. Looks like Stark's ships and promise of transport to another planet are really going to come in handy for the people of Skaith -- if they can just hold on that long.

Brackett's combination of old-school science fiction adventure and 1970s environmentalism doesn't disappoint. Even though the second volume in this trilogy was a little weak, I'd highly recommend all three to any science fiction fan. And while the connections were a little lighter in the second volume, I stand by my assertion that these novels must have been an inspiration for George R. R. Martin. Winter is coming, indeed.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)

Back in 2008, the lovely Joolie lent me a copy of Jeffrey Eugenides' book Middlesex, and I liked it quite a bit. Five years later, a friend at work lent me her copy of Eugenides' most recent book, The Marriage Plot (2011). I've got quite the Eugenides racket going on...

The Marriage Plot is, much like the plot it references, a bit of a love triangle. Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell are seniors at Brown in 1982. Madeleine is in love with Leonard, the very smart and interesting scholarship student from Portland, who is also manic depressive. Mitchell is in love with Madeleine, the super smart and beautiful, upper-class English major from New Jersey. No one is really in love with Mitchell, the super smart religion major from Michigan who is exploring his spiritual side. The book alternates between all three characters' perspectives, spending the majority of the time with Madeleine and Mitchell, and takes us into their first year as "adults" after graduation.

While I liked Middlesex quite a bit, I'm more mixed on The Marriage Plot. This book is peppered with references to literature, literary theory, and academia. I can see how that would be a turnoff for some readers, but I found it pretty well done and consistent with the Ivy League intellectualism of the main characters. What was a bit of a turnoff for me was the narcissism, elitism, and general unlikability of all three of our heroes. They are all, of course, meticulously developed, well-written, and sympathetic, but spending an entire book with them takes a lot of energy.

Honestly, much of the narcissism and unlikability of these characters is because they are in their early twenties, and part of my like/dislike of the book has to do with all the uncomfortable early twenties feelings it brought up in me. I had a good time in college, particularly my senior year when I finally felt comfortable and smart and had some friends, but it was also an awkward time, fraught with self-consciousness and bad (or no) dates. That same kind of intellectual openness and romantic confusion is splayed out all over The Marriage Plot, and it rings very true. Having lived with and loved more than one person diagnose with manic-depression made the portrayal of the disease and those who live with it and who live with them equally filled with memory bombs.

So maybe the weird feelings about this book just have to do with me and my weird life, but I'd still recommend it to frustrated English majors and anyone who has finally bid their twenties goodbye.

Now all I need to do is find someone who can loan me The Virgin Suicides, and I can be a Eugenides completest!