The Latest “Checker Charley” – or something more ominous?

A week from this Thursday I’ll be attending the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club meeting to discuss his first novel, Player Piano. I’ve already posted about the book, which anticipates a future where the scale is about to tip in favor of the machines of the world, but coincidentally I’ve also learned this week of a new, real life “challenge” to human-based intelligence.

An IBM supercomputer dubbed “Watson” is going to play a game of Jeopardy against two of the game’s greatest human champions. This is reminiscent of the Kasparov-Deep Blue chess matches (and – perhaps less so – the appearance of “Checker Charley” in Vonnegut’s book), but this is also different. Chess and Checker playing programs are able to use “brute force” calculating power to defeat their human opponents. “Watson” must be able to use language recognition and other skills further up the artificial intelligence food chain.

IBM was running commercials this past weekend during the NFL playoff games and will no doubt get tons of publicity as a result of this event. I know I’ll be tuning in next month to watch, and I know who I’ll be rooting for. But… Just like watching Kasparov and other chess grandmasters face off against computer programs in the 90’s, I know that – even should one of Watson’s human opponents win – it’ll still be just a matter of time before the computers will overtake “us” in this field of competition as well.

I cant help wondering this morning what Kurt Vonnegut would be thinking about this. I also wonder what he thought about the computer vs. Human chess matches years ago. I’m going to have to do a little research on the latter, as I’m sure he would have had something to say about that.

Below is a link to an article about the match. It seems Watson has already won the practice round…

http://www.technewsworld.com/story/Mild-Mannered-Watson-Skewers-Human-Opponents-on-Jeopardy-71651.html?wlc=1295218211&wlc=1295352224

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240 Minutes with Paulo Coehlo’s “Eleven Minutes”

I’ve struggled with how to write about this book. As I mentioned in a prior post, this was a “new to me” author, and I ignored the advice of the person recommending him to me by choosing this book instead of The Alchemist. One of the reasons I chose this one was it’s brevity – only 215 pages in my edition – and frankly the subject matter seemed to be more likely to “grab me.” Its the story of a simple girl, Maria – from the Interior of Brasil (I’ll spell it the way she, being a native, prefers) – and her journey of discovery. Discovery of herself and of the very nature of love. How’s that for a tall order!? This book is a quick read (it took me just about four hours – 240 minutes 🙂 ) but is NOT for young readers due to it’s graphic descriptions of “sexual activity”…

Maria’s early encounters with love do not end well, and each one teaches her another “lesson” about love, which she accumulates as her young life progresses. After one early experience, she memorably says that she “began to associate love not with someone’s presence, but with their absence.” Of course I don’t mean by this that she loved it when they weren’t around, but rather how she felt when they were absent was what could tell her if she was in love or not.

A remarkable thing about this book (well, I’ve noticed this in many other books, but it always amazes me that writers can pull it off) was that, though it was written from a young woman’s point of view, it was a man who did the writing. This might be even more remarkable in this case since much of the action is of a very sexual nature. ****Minor Spoiler Alert**** The protagonist visits Rio de Janeiro on a holiday, and ends up signing on with a man from Switzerland who needs ‘dancers’ for his club back in Geneva. Maria is still rather naive and goes off with the smooth talker and works in his club for awhile, but is dismissed for a trivial reason. Although she gets a nice “severance” check she realizes she will need money and eventually turns to prostitution, which gives her a crash course about the ways of life and love and SEX of course. Throughout all of this her dream remains to make enough money to return to Brasil and buy a farm for her parents.

Maria is a beautiful girl and has no shortage of customers, or of those who want to marry her and “take her away from this life.” All this time she is still trying to determine the true nature of love and throughout the book continues to come to conclusions that determine her future behavior. Sometimes these conclusions are overruled by subsequent discoveries and sometimes they are amended, but in the course of just about a couple years, she has become a very wise young woman indeed.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the occasional sprinklings of excerpts from Maria’s diary and the end of chapters (actually, I don’t think there really are distinct chapters in this book). These excerpts give the reader insight into what she was “really thinking” during her encounters and frequently left me wondering about what an advantage it would be in romantic encounters if one or both knew what the other really wanted or really thought. My recent “Deal me in!” reading project has gotten me thinking in terms of poker and – in a way – romantic encounters are somewhat like that game: how we can’t always see what cards the other person is holding, and if we did we might play our hands differently. Or how, sometimes we think we have deduced what the other is holding and act accordingly, but we may be totally wrong. AND we sometimes may play our hands a certain way, based on an erroneous assumption and yet have things work out anyway. Maybe this means that one could view love as a big gamble? This feels about right to me. 🙂 (sorry, end of digression)

After awhile, i feared Maria had become over-analytical of everything and was threatening to make the book become tiresome. Thankfully this doesn’t quite happen, and eventually Maria meets a couple men of a different type (“special customers” as her manager describes them) that lead her to even more discoveries and a choice between paths she might take as she prepares to return to Brasil. I won’t spoil it further for you by saying how things end up; you should read the book for yourself.

One final thought and then I’ll let you go: as I mentioned in an earlier post, I took a break in my reading of John Irving’s book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, to read this book, and when I returned to Irving today I was struck by a similarity. Both books are about characters who are on a voyage of discovery in learning the ways of life, but Maria really had only herself and her feelings to guide her while Owen Meany and Johnny Wheelwright had each other as they tentatively took their steps toward growing up. Both journeys are intriguing and remarkable, but Maria had to “go it alone” and for that reason, my hat is off to her.

How I learned of writer Paulo Coehlo

Note: names of people and places have been purposefully removed or embellished in the following post in order to “protect the innocent” 🙂

I admit it, I like coffee shops and bars. I like going into them – usually by myself – and leisurely hanging out for awhile reading or browsing the internet (it’s better – though not cheaper – than staying at home where the tv is a constant temptation; why I don’t just get rid of my tv, I don’t know). If the bar has the Buzztime Trivia Network, then of course I will stay longer than I should, trying to make or even “dominate” the local leader board. I will happily talk to fellow patrons or staff of these establishments if they initiate conversation, but I am equally content to just keep to myself and my reading/browsing/trivia playing. In the past eight months or so (or my “iPad Era” as I like to call it) I am often approached with questions about my iPad- “Ooh, is that an iPad?”, “So, how do you like your iPad?”, “Don’t you just love your iPad?”, ad infinitum. I’ve even joked that my iPad is my new “wingman” due to all the attention it draws.

So, that was a long preamble I guess, but this is kind of how I learned of the writer Paulo Coehlo last week. I was in a favorite downtown Indy bar Tuesday after work; the weather was bad, and the place was relatively deserted. I was talking to the bartender – a friend of mine – and she introduced me to their new employee. After awhile, I hear “new employee” ask, “So, how do you like your iPad?” (see option 2 above). I go into my usual spiel about how I’m on it for hours every day, and mention that a large chunk of that time is spent reading e-books since “I have an app that let’s me access books I’ve purchased on my e-reader,” etc. She says, “Oh, you have a Kindle?”

I explained that I don’t have a Kindle but a Nook. It turns out that “new employee” is a fellow books & reading addict. So I show her the app and my library of e-books that I’ve already purchased, and she’s read a surprisingly large number of them too. She asks about the author Paulo Coehlo, mentioning that he’s one of her favorites and “have you read anything by him?” I cringe as I don’t know that name and fear I have been exposed as a cultural illiterate. She mentions some titles (“The Alchemist? Yeah, I’ve at least heard of that!” slightly redeeming myself.). She says Coehlo reminds her somewhat of Gabriel Garcia Marquez whose One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of her favorites. I admitted I enjoyed that book (“even if I didn’t completely understand it”) and said I liked Love in the Time of Cholera much better. She’d read that one too. I asked which Coehlo book of the ones she mentioned I should start out with, and she said “probably The Alchemist,” (but I ended up reading “Eleven Minutes” this week instead).

While browsing through me e-library, she noticed all the Kurt Vonnegut titles and asked, “Are you a Vonnegut fan?” I said yes, and she said, “Did you know there’s a new Vonnegut Library right here in town?” I said “of course,” and she said “I live right across the street from it.” Now, this was starting to feel a little like fate, so I promised myself that I would (A) read a Coehlo book and (B) report back to her later. I’ve completed (A) and hopefully (B) can be accomplished on my next visit…

Sent from my iPad

Writer Paulo Coehlo:

TBR list hijacking reported

Dateline: Indianapolis/(Bibliophilopolis)
Local TBR residents are in an uproar after the latest in a series of TBR hijackings. Local reader and blogger “Jay” has once again blatantly ignored the rights of the books that are currently on his TBR list in favor of a book he just heard of this week. Fortunately, the immediate damage was over quickly as the interloping book in question, Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coehlo, is short and was read and gone from the TBR list in under 48 hours. The psychological damage may take longer to heal, however, as many have pointed out that this is not the first time this has happened to Jay’s TBR list.

Owen Meany (the title character from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany) was perhaps the most disturbed by this incident. Having spent almost a year on Jay’s TBR list and – just in the past week – finally gotten started (up to page 162) was unceremoniously pushed aside in favor of the Coehlo book. “I MEAN, IT’S NOT FAIR!” Meany was quoted as saying, “I’VE SPENT FOREVER ON THAT LIST, AND IT PROBABLY WOULD’VE BEEN EVEN LONGER IF HIS BOOK CLUB HADN’T PICKED MY BOOK! AND WHAT DOES HE PICK INSTEAD? SOME ‘SMUT BOOK’ JUST BECAUSE ‘SOME GIRL IN A BAR’ RECOMMENDED IT? COME ON!”

Jay could not be reached for comment, although a spokesman for his estate commented that Mr. Meany’s book would still be read – and be read in time for the book club meeting on the 27th, thus making any agreement or understanding between Jay and Mr. Meany properly fulfilled. Asked if Jay would be reading other books by Coehlo, the spokesman replied “I’m really not at liberty to say,” adding later that Jay planned a blog post about “Eleven Minutes” in the very near future and that, after reading, he was sure the citizens of Bibliophilopolis would understand.

Sent from my iPad

Today I drew the six of diamonds… (week 3 of Project: Deal Me In!)

Tobias Wolff’s short story, “Hunters in the Snow”

This is the third short story in my “Deal Me In!” reading project for 2011. This morning I drew the six of diamonds from my deck of cards, and then checked my list to see which story that meant I would treat myself to today. I was taken a little by surprise in that I drew a card for a story I don’t currently own a copy of. Dang! I had hoped for a little more time to fully stock/(stack?) my deck, but not to worry, I had my Nook and Nook App for the iPad, and I can buy practically any book from either of these in a matter of moments. But alas, I searched on Barnes&Noble.com assuming I’d find a collection that includes it, but nothing. Then I thought, “well, I’ll just stop in Borders when I’m downtown later today,” but also wondered if they’d even have it. So I did a little research on-line and what do I come across but a free copy(!) It’s at http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/huntsnow.html If you’d like to read it too.

It’s only just under 6,000 words so I “read it immediately.” It’s an odd story, in which several things aren’t immediately revealed. There are three main characters, Kenny, Frank, and Tub. None are really described physically, although Tub is confirmed to be overweight first by context and later by dialogue. The story begins with Tub waiting (for over an hour, in the cold) at the side of the street form his friends to pick him up so they can go hunting. Without the descriptions, I at first thought Tub was a youth (I mean aren’t young people more often “waiting on a ride” than adults?) Later his troubles getting across/through a barbed wire fence and his struggles to keep up with his companions confirmed for me that he was supposed to be overweight. (As if his very name couldn’t have clued me in – duh! Real sharp there, Jay) Anyway they begin their hunt and an “accident” happens.

***Spoiler Alert***

After Tub misses some obvious deer tracks (and is teased about that) the hunters encounter a “No Hunting” sign but decide to go to the owner of the land’s house and ask permission to hunt, which is then granted. As they begin, they are hounded by the owners very old dog and Kenny begins to act strangely. First, he eyes an old post and says, “I hate that post,” and promptly shoots it. Then he points to a tree and says “I hate that tree,” and shoots it too. Then, as the old dog increases his barking, he says, “I hate that dog,” and I’m thinking “no, come on, now,” but Bam! he shoots the dog dead too. (Now I’m mad.) The others protest – especially Tub, who says “what did that dog ever do to you?” at this point Kenny says to Tub, “And I hate YOU.” Tub is no idiot (well, maybe he IS a bit of an idiot) and “knows” what is coming next so shoots Kenny first in “self defense.”

Kenny protests that he “was only kidding around,” and is bleeding profusely from the abdomen. Kenny’s bullying of the others (naturally) ceases, and they carry him back to the truck and go back to the house of the farmer who owns the land they’re on to call an ambulance. None are available and the nearest hospital is fifty miles away. Tub “confesses” to the farmer that “our friend shot your dog,” but learns that the man had asked him to, since the dog was so old and the farmer couldn’t bring himself to do the deed himself. Kenny’s not having let his friends in on the knowledge of this request is apparently typical of his prankish behavior.

The story turns a little surreal at this point, as Frank and Tub seem to lack any real since of urgency about Kenny’s condition. They write down directions to the hospital

and set off with Kenny stowed away in the bed of the truck. It’s almost as though – with Kenny’s more powerful and overbearing personality removed – they no longer know how to act. Frank “confesses” that he is in love with his fifteen (but, soon to be sixteen – Frank knows the date and time down to the minute) year-old babysitter, while Tub confesses that he is “secret eater” – even though people think he’s dieting, he has food cached away everywhere (earlier, on the hunt, when the three eat together, he has a hard-boiled egg and some celery, but later when they are separated for awhile, he eats the two sandwiches and cookies that he also brought).

As they talk, they decide to stop at a roadhouse to warm up (the windshield of the truck has a hole in it which makes those in the cab just as cold as poor Kenny, who they nonchalantly leave bleeding in the bed of the truck while they go inside for coffee). Tub leaves the directions to the hospital behind when they go, but Frank thinks he remembers them. The story ends with Kenny, whose head is toward the front of the truck, watching the north star in the space between his feet in the back of the truck. The North Star is also the direction of the hospital. They took a wrong turn and are driving in the wrong direction…

Tobias Wolff was suggested to me by Chelle at http://www.theprairielibrary.com/

I can’t say that I fully understood the deeper meaning behind this story, but maybe some of my thoughts above are “close.” What about you? Have you read this story – or any others by Tobias Wolff? What were your thoughts and reactions?

Author Tobias Wolff

Top Ten Bookish/Blogging Resolutions

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  Click on the link to see all the participants’ resolutions…

1. Blog more frequently – Eleven days in and I’m averaging a post a day. I’ll never keep that up, though I’m pretty sure I’ll beat last year’s total.

2. Comment more frequently – especially on the blogs of others who comment here. It’s only fair, right?

3. Proofread posts more carefully before posting – I am really bad about this. Maybe it’s because I get so excited that I’ve actually finished writing a post that I want to publish it immediately.

4. Learn more about wordpress & widgets & things – I’m a technological ignoramus at this point when it comes to blogging; how do add a “followers” section? how do I do a ‘meme?’ – if I ever wanted to, etc. Maybe I can knuckle down this year and learn.

5. Read more books than I buy. (Yeah, good luck with that one)

6. Link more often to other blogs in my posts – if they have a great post – let my readers know

7. Create a page (or even just a post) about all my fellow bloggers with “Biblio” as part of their name
or url. – There are a lot of them out there, and every time I see one I think “I need to create a directory of all of us…” Maybe call it “The Biblio Files?” hahaha

8. Try to write a post about every book – or story – that I read. There were a lot of books I read last year that I never posted about, and some of them really deserved a post (The Warded Man and The Gargoyle to name just a couple)

9. Do NOT obsess about checking my blogs stats (BUT a goal of 20,000 page views this year would be nice – and reasonable if one were to project out the increasing activity that I’ve had since I started)

10. Update my “about” page

Well, that was kind of hastily put together, but it’s been awhile since I’ve participated, and I wanted to join in the fun once again…  So, what are YOUR bookish/blogging resolutions?

-Jay

Prince Otto: A Romance by Robert Louis Stevenson

Yesterday on my lunch hour I completed my first book of the new year. (I have a couple more ‘in progress’ that should be done in a week or so, so I’m not off to as slow of a start this year as that sounds.) I wrote earlier that I picked this book in part because of its brevity and the name of the title character, but there are other things to recommend it.

The title character is the monarch of an imaginary European “country” (Grunewald – by which Stevenson’s descriptions is painted as a classic, idyllic setting) at an undetermined point in history. Prince Otto is a pleasant enough fellow, and somewhat easy for the reader to like. His problem is that he hasn’t much interest in his princely duties and would rather spend his days hunting and leaving the matters of state in the hands of his beautiful wife, Seraphina, and his scheming minister, Gondremark.

My favorite character in the story, however, was the courtier, Madame Von Rosen – a veteran in the ways of courtly intrigue AND manipulations of the male of the species. Indeed, it was unclear to me for most of the book just “whose side she is on.” I admit also that I didn’t find the first half of this book especially gripping, BUT when the intrigue steps up the novel becomes quite the page turner.

If there is one theme of the book that struck me, it is that many of the characters are deluded in how they think they are viewed by others, and much of the book is a series of revelations and realizations by these characters. I think Stevenson wraps it up nicely, though, and I’d like to think the characters have settled into their true natures (and awareness of them) by the end of the book.

I’m contemplating an additional post on this book relating to some of the additions to and strengthening of my vocabulary which it wrought. That’s another great thing about older works – you are introduced to, or reminded of, so many great words that have fallen out of common usage.

I’ve also written before about how much I enjoy visiting these “lesser known” (to us non-scholars anyway) works of famous authors. If you’ve read them and enjoyed them, it’s almost as if you have a “secret friend,” and that you are one of only a select few who have known the pleasure of their company. But you know others would like them too if only they were introduced. So, readers, may I present to you “Prince Otto of Grunewald…”. 🙂

This book is in the public domain and can be found free on the Internet in many places. One of which is below:

http://www.bibliomania.com/0/0/46/89/frameset.html

Xenophon’s Anabasis

Great. Now I have “homework”

Somehow, while browsing around the blogosphere, I happened upon a site called “the classics reading circuit” where there is a monthly(?) topic, and participants pick related subjects and write a post about them over the course of a couple weeks. The classics tour is hosted by Rebecca at the following address:

Classics.rebeccareid.com/

And this month’s topic? The Greek Classics! Aha! Now there’s something I can sink my teeth into. I was a History major in college and a Classics minor (isn’t that the path all Accountants take?!), so here’s an opportunity not only to learn a little more about a favorite subject (I’ll be posting on February 4th about Xenophon’s Anabasis – a classic work that I have somehow escaped reading for “all these years”), but to also enjoy the thoughts of my fellow bloggers regarding works I have venerated for years.

Of course now, though, the pressure is on. I have a deadline , which is not something I’m used to. Fear not, though. I am sure once I join Xenophon on his journey deep into exotic Asia (well, Persia at least) I will get caught up in the story and find inspiration. Stay tuned…

-Jay

Fair Extension – a novella by Stephen King

This is story #3 from King’s latest book, Full Dark, No Stars.

Short and (not so) Sweet is how I’d describe this story. I liked it better than story #2, but not as much as story #1. This one felt like it was straight out of a Twilight Zone episode…

****Spoiler Alert****
Dave Streeter has terminal cancer. We first join him in this story as he is puking up his last meal. (Nice, Mr. King…) He is on a little-traveled road driving alone and “thinking” when he spots a roadside vendor selling “extensions.” The odd man’s name is George Elvid (yes, I immediately re-shuffled the letters of that last name too). He offers to sell Streeter a fifteen-year life extension. Streeter, at first assuming the guy is mentally ill, plays along and says something like, “What’ll it cost me? My soul, right?” The new twist on the story, however, is that it won’t cost Streeter his soul. He’ll only have to transfer his “misfortune” to someone else – and transfer 15% of his annual income to Elvid’s offshore bank account. I think we’d all agree to the latter in that situation, but how about the former?

Elvid begins by asking Streeter who he hates. Streeter claims he has no enemies but when pressed admits he “hates” his lifelong “best friend,” Tom Goodhugh. Elvid is, of course, delighted and grants him his extension. The actual source of Streeter’s “hatred” is more envy and jealousy. Goodhugh stole Streeter’s first love, married her, and has been living happily ever after.

After his encounter, Streeter pays his doctor a visit and – guess what?- his tumors are rapidly shrinking. Soon, of course, Elvid begins to subject the Goodhugh family to a Job-like crash course of suffering and misery. The first lesson involves Goodhugh’s wife getting and dying from breast cancer, and it goes downhill from there. While reading, I kept thinking that somehow things would bounce back on Streeter, but they never do. I would have thought the death of his former love would at least trouble him, but no. His wife feels sorry for the Goodhughs and says as much to Streeter, but he rationalizes that it’s only “fair.” They had their time of fortune and now it is his turn. He gets promoted at his job several times, and dutifully forwards his 15% to Elvid’s account. Their children also prosper as Goodhugh’s suffer. An unpleasant story, overall, made more so by Streeter’s unapologetic acceptance of the new order of things in his world…

This is Story 2 from my “Deal Me In!” Short Story Reading Project for 2011.

For me, it’s the WORDS

News came out this past week about how, for the first time, e-books on the best seller list outsold their printed counterparts. The reason was known – and kind of obvious when one thinks about it. Many readers found a little something extra under the Christmas tree this year in the form of a Kindle or Nook (or other e-reading device). And lo, what else did Santa bring them but gift cards for Amazon.com, b&n.com, etc. Armed with these weapons in hand, what do you think these readers did? They purchased and downloaded tons of e-books, of course! Well, what would you have done in the same situation? Me too…

In my personal experience, I’ve encountered a lot of resistance (I don’t want to use the word “hostility,” but sometimes it feels that would be more appropriate) to the concept of e-reading from incredulous people who ask, “Don’t you miss the ‘feel’ of a real book in your hands?” Well, maybe sometimes I do, but I find that it’s less and less as time goes on. In fact, now that I’m primarily an e-reader, I also experience the reverse. I miss the feel of my iPad or my Nook in my hand. Or more to the point, I miss being able to quickly highlight a passage, or find a passage I’ve already highlighted, or jot down a quick note.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a distinct aesthetic pleasure (which I also experience) in holding or looking at a well-made book, and one feels a great sense of pride or accomplishment in looking at a shelf full of books that one has read. I don’t think I’ll have the same sense of pride in looking at the “my library” display on my Nook app on my iPad. I’d argue, though, that this pleasure is an entirely different thing than reading the book itself. Anyone can buy a printed edition of On the Road or East of Eden and, yes, it will look good sitting on your bookshelf, but what really makes me feel good is knowing that I have read THE WORDS in those books and that they have left their mark on me. The words (i.e., the ideas) should stand on their own regardless of the medium in which they are delivered to the reader.

I think there is a virulent strain of technophobia involved here as well. I feel that some readers who oppose the e-reading medium and e-books themselves view themselves as “martyrs,” defending the honor of a long-cherished medium (indeed, how long has the printed book held sway? Wasn’t Gutenberg a 15th century printer? And before then there were hand-printed books which, thanks to legions of lonely monks and others, were works of art as well). It’s personal to them, and I guess I can understand that. To me, though, it’s the words that shouldn’t ever change, not the medium. But that is sadly happening too. Also in the recent news..

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/45645-upcoming-newsouth-huck-finn-eliminates-the-n-word.html

I know many other book bloggers have already spoken out against this, and I won’t echo their comments here, but I feel this is clearly wrong.

How do you feel about the e-book vs. printed book issue?

Sent from my iPad

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