New thoughts on e-reading & e-readers…

There is an interesting article on today about e-readers in general and the Kindle specifically.  (Funny, the nook ® reader from Barnes and Noble – which I hitched my wagon to back in February – is not mentioned by name at all.)

I have to admit it’s pretty tempting just to buy one of the new, “cheap” (at $139) Kindles to add to my arsenal of readers, which currently includes my Nook ®, my iPhone, and my iPad – the latter two of which have apps that will also reader B&N and AMazon content.

I have also been dabbling in reading via the iBooks app on my (relatively) new iPad the past couple weeks.  I have to say it’s a pretty easy reading experience.  I don’t feel like ‘reading with a flashlight shining in my eye’ as Amazon’s boss (and iPad detractor) says, but I also haven’t read for long sittings on my iPad.  You can adjust the brightness of the screen for reading at bedtime, and you can also ‘freeze’ the iPad’s automatic rotation of the screen if its accelerometer senses the device is tilted beyond a certain threshhold.  The ease of note-making and highlighting and bookmarking on the iPad is quite appealing too.  A couple things I don’t like are (1) it is significantly heavier than the nook ®, and (2) the ‘cheesy’ highlight appearance to make it look like a real highlighter has been swiped on the page – it shows a ‘rough’ edge – to make it look more like real highlighting I guess.

I still like my nook ® and have read thousands of pages on it since I bought it in February.  It’s light, and small enough I can slide it into some pockets – depending on what I’m wearing.  It’s my favorite reading method if I’m slouching down into an easy chair in my favorite coffeehouse.

I’ve heard that the Sony e-Reader allows you to check out electronic copies of books from the library.  I haven’t looked into this possibility too much with mine yet, or researched if it’s available in other readers as well.  Does ‘anybody out there’ have any expertise on this issue?

I welcome any comments on your experiences with e-reading and e-readers.

Finished a couple books…

I’ve just recently returned from vacation and been a little too busy to post, but did want to say That I finished One Hundred Years of Solitude (planning a saturday post on this) and also – FINALLY – finished the history book, The House Divides, about the years leading up to the US Civil War. I’ve moved on to Stonewall Jackson: Portrait of a Soldier, which I am really enjoying; more later once I get caught up with things.

More on Profile of a Prodigy

This book is the story of Bobby Fischer. The often brilliant and just as often bizarre former World Chess Champion.  It begins with one of my favorite quotations from James Joyce:

A man of genius makes no mistakes.  His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”  (from Ulysses)

That’s a good one, and I think quite often true (though not always true).  I would counter it with another favorite quotaton of mine – this one from Carl Sagan:

“Intellectual genius is no guarantee against being dead wrong.”

I may be paraphrasing a bit, but this was heard in his epic PBS Series “Cosmos” back in the ’80s.  I think sometimes too much allowance is given to the ‘geniuses’ – excusing poor, antisocial or malevolent behavior.  Perhaps this is why  Bobby Fischer still has so many ‘fans’ to this day.

Fischer is such a fascinating character, and I’ve received so many views of my other post about him that I thought I’d link to a few videos (below) for those interested in hearing more about and from him.

A nice short video about Fischer’s 1972 match against Boris Spassky can be found here on YouTube.

Another video features a somewhat engaging Bobby Fischer on Dick Cavett show.  Although perhaps the hints of later troubles are there, such as his constant ‘fidgeting’ and ‘restless leg’ and laughingly dismissing questions about his prior ‘bad behavior.’

And finally, another video of Jeremy Schapp of ESPN’s encounter with Fischer in Iceland years after Fischer had ‘gone off the deep end’.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

This novel has a huge promotional engine behind it, and movies are planned for the series.  The web site is here if you’d like to take a look.

For my part, I guess I expected more.  From the tremendous amount of hype, I gathered this book would be the greatest thing since sliced bread.  It wasn’t for me.  I did enjoy reading it, I guess.  It was a fast-moving story and a relatively easy read (at 800+ pages (that’s nook ® pages) it’d better be).  But I was relatively disappointed overall.  I guess I found it to resemble too much a cobbled together post-apocalyptical effort, much of which I’d “seen before” in other works.  (Stephen King’s The Stand, and parts of the Dark Tower come to mind, as does the movie “The Road Warrior”).  I even had some flashbacks to The Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boule, or rather Beneath the Planet of the Apes, where the characters discover the post-nuclear vaporized remnants of New York City.

***Spoiler Alert*** Stop reading now if you plan to read the book yourself and don’t want to learn of any plot details.

So, what’s new about this book that would make me recommend it?  Well, in this novel (the first of a promised trilogy) the ‘apocalypse’ is wrought by escaped vampire-like creatures who began as a government life-extension experiment.  In this case, the army has infected twelve subjects with a virus discovered on a scientific expedition in South America (which the reader only has a tantalizing brief glimpse of near the beginning of the book) which turns them into, well, a kind of vampire (called “virals“ in the novel).  Oh and the twelve “volunteers” for this?  They’re death row inmates who supposedly have nothing to lose so decide to participate rather than be executed.  In other words, the cream of the crop…

Something goes wrong (surprise!) and they escape their confinement in Colorado, wreaking havoc across North America, while the rest of the world considers quarantining the U.S. and leaving it to its own demise.  California secedes from the union and creates its own republic, since the virus hasn’t spread there yet (as does Texas, we later find out).  Details are few on what happens in the world immediately after the escape of the twelve, however.

Also present at the installation where the twelve were being kept was a little girl, Amy, who has some vague ‘special powers’ like the virals, but remains basically human and “good,” however.  A kind-hearted government agent, who has recently suffered the loss of his own young daughter bonds with Amy and flees the installation and ‘hides out’ in the American Northwest to avoid the Armageddon as long as possible.  The first section of the book ends rather abruptly when the man dies, and Amy wanders south to California.

Here the book suddenly, disorientingly jumps ahead about 90 years, where a settlement of humans endures in a walled city, brightly illuminated at night to ward off the “virals.”  The reader is drowned in a tidal wave of new characters, all introduced within a relatively short span of pages.  A whole “new society” has developed in this colony to cope with the unique situation civilization finds itself in.  Technology is largely forgotten, except for a few citizens who keep the power plant and batteries running.  Time is running out for them, though, as the batteries are beginning to fail and no one there now knows how to fix them, and they cannot be replaced.

The girl (ninety years later, she’s still a young girl) Amy one day wanders up to the city and is taken in.  (She’s a “Walker” as they refer to those who somehow have survived outside the protective walls of the settlement).  A few of the residents sense her special power, and the “doctor,” Sara, finds that Amy has an implanted chip in the back of her neck, which one of the technologically savy citizens analyzes and finds it includes data of readings on her physiological condition taken at regular intervals, which allow him to ‘do the math’ and find out how old she must be.

A few intrepid members of the walled settlement (some of the few who know the batteries will eventually fail and thus “the clock is ticking” on the settlement as to how soon it will be until the virals overrun them) decide to try to take Amy back to Colorado, as a message within the chip has instructed.

The rest of book deals with their trek across Nevada, Utah, & Colorado and the challenges they encounter (somehow gas and vehicles are still available – maybe even more plentiful than in the Mad Max movies).

Mel Gibson (before we knew he was such an angry man…) “and friend” in the Road Warrior.

They eventually find the sender of the message (who we first met early in the book), but “all hell breaks loose” when one of the original twelve virals and the thousands he has infected (this process works like the traditional vampire conversion one as far as I could tell) track them down.

Too many details to relate briefly, but the climax of the encounter with “Babcock” and his minions reminded me a little of the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes.  In that story, astronaut Brent spends basically the entire time trying to find Taylor (Charlton Heston in the movie) and when he finds him what happens?  Well the whole world gets blown up.

James Franciscus and Charlton Heston from Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

That doesn’t exactly happen here, but the encounter was similarly disappointing to me.  Well I’ll leave it for you to read if you’d like…  I don’t know if I’ll read the follow ups or not.  I would guess that they would make good ‘blockbuster movie’ material, though.

Gulliver’s Travels makes an Appearance on Jeopardy!

I was watching Jeopardy! last night, and there was a “Brit Lit” category in the double jeopardy round. The first ‘answer’ to be selected: “He visited the floating Island of Laputa on one of his many ‘travels’…”

OK, that was a bit of a softball and the first contestant to buzz in got it correct. I wonder though if it might have just been an educated guess due to the phrasing of the ‘answer’ (inclusion of ‘travels’) or the fact that Laputa sounds quite similar to Lilliputian, but either way it was good to see Mr. Swift find his way onto this popular program.

Wonderful Myth from the Catskill Mountains

When re-reading the Washington Irving story, Rip Van Winkle, for my book club’s annual ‘Short Story Month,’ I serendipitously came upon the following myth in a post-script to the on-line copy of the story I happened to read:

“The Kaatsberg, or Catskill Mountains, have always been a region full of fable. The Indians considered them the abode of spirits, who influenced the weather, spreading sunshine or clouds over the landscape, and sending good or bad hunting seasons. They were ruled by an old squaw spirit, said to be their mother. She dwelt on the highest peak of the Catskills, and had charge of the doors of day and night to open and shut them at the proper hour. She hung up the new moon in the skies, and cut up the old ones into stars. In times of drought, if properly propitiated, she would spin light summer clouds out of cobwebs and morning dew, and send them off from the crest of the mountain, flake after flake, like flakes of carded cotton, to float in the air; until, dissolved by the heat of the sun, they would fall in gentle showers, causing the grass to spring, the fruits to ripen, and the corn to grow an inch an hour. If displeased, however, she would brew up clouds black as ink, sitting in the midst of them like a bottle-bellied spider in the midst of its web; and when these clouds broke, woe betide the valleys!”

I love this!  Especially how the old squaw spirit “hung up the new moon” and ‘cut up the old ones into stars.”  What a wonderful image.

Below: Thomas Doughty’s “In the Catskills’  (I suspect the height of the mountains is somewhat exaggerated…)

Progress Reports

The Passage

I’m over one-third of the way through Justin Cronin’s book, The Passage, now and well into the post-apocalyptic world he has created.  I must say it was a bit disorienting for me, the reader, when about 275 pages into the book, we suddenly leap forward 90 years and are bombarded with a whole new set of characters with no knowledge (yet) of what’s become of Amy, the key character from the first part of the book.  I supposed I should (and will) remain patient, as I’m sure all will be explained in due time.

I find I’m still enjoying the book though, and will report back when completed…

The House Divides by Paul Wellman

Yes, I’m still slogging my way through this history book about the years leading up to the Civil War.  I got a big chunk done last night, though.  I’m anxious to complete it and move on to my biography of Stonewall Jackson, though, as book 7 of Project: Civil War.

The Wisdom of John Steinbeck

I think the truly great writers are the ones to who have an ability to touch on ‘great (or universal) truths’ that maybe readers have always subconsciously known but never expressed, or never thought to try to express.  While working my ‘day job’ this week, I was reminded of a passage in Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley.  It’s about a third of the way through the book, when the author contemplates going into Canada, but is thwarted by some problem of his not having the proper certificate of rabies vaccination for his dog (the titular Charley).  He becomes exasperated with the customs people.  He says:

“I guess this is why I hate governments, all governments.  It is always the rule, the fine print, carried out by fine-print men.  There’s nothing to fight, no wall to hammer with frustrated fists.  I highly approve of vaccination, I feel it should be compulsory; rabies is a dreadful thing.  And yet I found myself hating the rule and all governments that made rules.  It was not the shots but the certificate that was important. And it is usually so with governments – not a fact but a small slip of paper.”

This is often true in the workplace – especially at unfortunate companies (like mine) which are now bound by the regulations of the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act. (By the way, thanks, Enron!).  The intent of the act is good and sound, the execution of it sometimes devolves into the equivalent of Steinbeck’s “certificate” and “small piece of paper.”  In the world of SOX, it often becomes not the control that’s been put in place or its effectiveness that‘s important, but the simple fact that “Yes, we have a control, and yes, we’ve checked it off.”

“Hnuy illa nyha maiah Yahoo”** (Gulliver’s Travels – Part 4)

**take care of thyself, gentle Yahoo

Finally, the concluding part of this epic work!  Once again, Gulliver is off to sea – this time leaving his wife (“big with child”).  How considerate of him.  Just like always, however, Gulliver does not have good luck in his ship, crew, and voyage.  (he has the seafaring luck of a Mario Andretti at Indianapolis).  This time, his crew mutinies and maroons him, making off with his ship.  Later in Part 4, Swift explains – through the mouth of Gulliver – what kind of people comprised his crew:  “they were fellows of desperate fortunes, forced to fly from the places of their birth, on account of their poverty or their crimes. Some were undone by lawsuits, others spent all they had in drinking, whoring, and gaming; others fled for treason, many for murder, theft, poisoning, robbery, perjury, forgery, coining false money; for committing rapes or sodomy, for flying from their colours or deserting to the enemy; and most of them had broken prison; none of these durst return to their native countries for fear of being hanged, or of starving in a jail; and therefore were under a necessity of seeking a livelihood in other places.” I get the feeling that this was not an altogether uncommon demographic for merchant sailing ships of the era..

In the country of the Houyhnhnms (I don’t believe Swift gave it any other name than that).  Gulliver learns finally how ‘pathetic’ the human race (known there as “Yahoos”) is compared to a truly an advanced race – in this case, a race of intelligent horses.

Gulliver stays longer here than on any of his other stops, and truly grows to love it there, but is eventually sent away since the race of Houyhnhnms find his presence disturbing (since he resembles the vile Yahoos of that land).

Read the rest of this entry »

Gulliver’s Travels – Part 3

Well, part 3 is a little weaker on the ‘adventure’ side (at least I would say so; I mean, it’s hard to top being a giant in Lilliput and a curiosity in Brobdingnag, isn’t it?) but maybe a little heavier on the thought provoking front…

Gulliver visits several different kingdoms this time (after once again having poor luck in his sailing choice – this time pirates).  The first is the ‘floating island’ of Laputa.

Descriptions of his first sight of the island are quite compelling and somewhat reminiscent to me of those scenes in the sci-fi movie, Independence Day, when truly gigantic spacecraft hover over our pitiful cities.  The inhabitants of Laputa are perplexing to say the least.  They are obsessed with math and music, almost to the exclusion of all other things.  They become so engrossed in their thoughts that they require special assistants to nudge them back to reality when they need to speak or listen.

In another section, in chapter 3, in which the means of propulsion and movement of Laputa are “explained,” I found the details strikingly similar to some of the attempts by the UFOlogist pseudo-scientists to explain the locomotion of flying saucers.  Laputa uses a gigantic lodestone and magnets, switching ‘on or off’ in certain directions.  Quite amusing.  I wonder if the modern day UFO people had subconsciously adopted Swift’s Laputan flying machine’s mechanics…  Swift spends a lot of time explaining this in part 3.

Maybe the most fascinating section of Part 3 was Gulliver’s visit to Glubbdubdrib (or “The Island of Sorcerers or Magicians”) where the ruler has the power to summon up the spirits of the dead to converse with (!)  How convenient.  Gulliver goes through a whole laundry list of famous historical characters, learning much along the way about history not always being the same as what is actually taught.  The Governor of Glubbdubdrib advises Gulliver that the spirits will always tell the truth since “lying was a talent of no use in the lower world.”  This section is again replete with references to Classical authors and works – much more so than Parts 1 and 2.

A new meaning of a word I learned in these two parts is “compass.”  I had always only know the common meaning of a device to “tell which was is north” but a couple times Swift uses it differently as defined by Merriam

1 a : boundary, circumference <within the compass of the city walls> b : a circumscribed space <within the narrow compass of 21 pages  c : range, scope <the compass of my voice>
Increasing my vocabulary here…

One of Swift’s use of this word was when the Governor was advising him to confine his questioning of the spirits to “the compass of the time they lived in.”

The other favorite section of Part 3 for me was the discussion of the immortals or the “Struldbruggs” of the land of the Luggnaggians.  When Gulliver first learns of these immortals he is very excited that “every member of the race is born with at least a chance of becoming immortal.”  In Chapter 10, Gulliver launches into a long description what he would do if he were fortunate to be one of the immortals, starting with the accumulation of as much money as he might need for immortality, etc. His hosts let him go on and on, but finally break the news to him that immortality is a curse and not a blessing.  They do not age to immortality in youthful bodies, but continue to become more & more decrepit and more and more misanthropic as they age.

The function of the Struldbruggs in their society is to serve as an example to the people that they need not fear death if the state of these pathetic immortals is the alternative.  Very interesting stuff.

I’m reminded of a great line from an episode of Star Trek (yep, semi-Trekkie/Trekker here) in the original series.  A human who has become immortal but is marooned on a largely lifeless planet says to Kirk, “Believe me, Captain, immortality consists largely of boredom.”  🙂

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