Nota Bene #124: I'm a Doctor, Not an Engineer

“I don’t believe in this fairy tale of staying together for ever. Ten years with somebody is enough.” Who said it? Continue reading

The road to Hell is paved with good travel writing

#26: Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism by Thomas B. Kohnstamm (2008)

I don’t know much about Brazil beyond the fact that the Creature from the Black Lagoon lived there on some branch of the Amazon. I also know that a different branch of the Amazon, the River of Doubt, nearly killed Teddy Roosevelt. And I know Rio is there, but what happens in Rio stays in Rio, so I don’t know many details.

So when I stumbled across Kohnstamm’s book about being a travel writer in Brazil, I thought it would be a good chance to learn something about the country. The book looked interesting, too, because it implied a good ethics lesson: Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?

Well, I didn’t learn much about Brazil, and I didn’t get to ponder writerly ethics so much as a get a pretty explicit lesson on what not to do, but Kohnstamm kept me entertained with his Thompsonesque antics. This was “travel hedonism” at its gonzoest. Continue reading

Edward Abbey's uncompromising voice in the desert

#7: Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)

Once more, I feel late to the party. I had no idea who Edward Abbey was, yet nearly every nonfiction writer I’ve read so far has referenced him. The only one who hasn’t was Thoreau, and that’s because Abbey hadn’t been born yet—and wouldn’t be for another sixty years after Thoreau’s death.

Abbey and Thoreau still share a connection, though: Novelist Larry McMurtry has apparently referred to Abbey as “the Thoreau of the American West.” Even the dead guy has a link to Abbey. Damn.

I stumbled on Abbey completely by accident. A blurb on his book Desert Solitaire described it as “an account of Abbey’s seasons as a ranger at Arches National Park.” Having just spent this past summer as a National Park ranger, and contemplating a similar writing project, I thought Abbey might be of use.

Boy, was he. Continue reading

Nota Bene #123: Behold the Chickenosaurus

“There ought to be limits to freedom.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #121: Birds of an Ancient Feather

“Television is an invention whereby you can be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your house.” Who said it? The answer is at the end of this post. Now on to the links! Continue reading

9/11 and the lessons of Three Wise Men

by Matt Gallagher

I slept through 9/11.

When people hear or read that statement, they tend to think I’m speaking metaphorically. “Ahh,” they say. “Weren’t we all?” While I do appreciate my words being consumed as literary insight, and there’s certainly a great deal of truth to that particular interpretation, I mean that as literally as possible. As in, I was drooling on my pillow after staying up too late playing video games during my first week of college when my roommate, a native New Yorker, woke me up in time to watch the South Tower collapse.   Continue reading

Kindles, books and libraries

OK, so I got a Kindle. This is a major step, for someone who is as much of a book junkie as I am. Actually, more like a book magnet. And after decades of buying books, they add up. Especially since I’m a packrat, as Mrs W never tires of pointing out, and living in a flat with limited space, it leads to books three deep in the bookshelves, that sort of thing. Of course, there’s the occasional cull, but that just clears out space for a while that fills up again. Then there’s the feeling that while I’m not likely to read any Dan Brown ever again—once was enough—there’s still no reason to believe that a single tree should ever be sacrificed for a Dan Brown book, as Mrs W once commented. Elitist, I know, but there it is.

So I thought about this for a while, and a couple of years ago we borrowed one for a long weekend from the son-in-law, and Mrs W really liked it, but that was in the US, and for a while there the availability of titles in the UK was pretty sparse. Continue reading

Aliens and the Imagination

What is an alien? Someone not of my own species? Of my own country (cue political flatulence)? Of my own neighborhood? How about of my own planet? How have governments used UFOs? All of these were subject to lively (but short) series of talks this evening at the British Library, where tonight’s talks focused on Aliens and the Imagination. We had a pretty good line-up—fantastic, in fact: Gwyneth Jones, one of my all time favorite SF writers; David Clarke, who among other things is the UFO consultant to the National Archives here; biologist and mathematician (and science and SF writers) Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart; film director Gareth Edwards, who brought us Monsters; and writer Mark Pilkington, who also helps run the Strange Attractor blog. As usual, I thought the problem was too many people and not enough time—but these are all really interesting people, and I could have sat there all evening. Too bad there was no time at the end for the speakers to ask each other questions, or for questions from the audience.
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Utopias and other imaginary worlds

What makes a good Utopia? Are there minimum critical success factors that would allow the vagaries of human nature to be overcome? Does it mean a four day work week and personal jetpacks? A permanent rustic rural retreat, with all necessary services being provided by elves? A socialist workers’ paradise—ie, where no one expects to actually have to work? Is one even possible without robots to do all the gruntwork? Is there even a good definition of Utopia? Does it need to accord with John Rawls’ definition of a just society? Do we know what we’re talking about here anyway?

This is all prompted by the highly entertaining and interesting discussion this evening at the British Library, part of their discussion series that goes along with their Science Fiction exhibition. Tonight we had the redoubtable Iain M. Banks (and not, thankfully, Iain Banks, who writes different sorts of books entirely); Gregory Claeys, who has written extensively about the notion of utopias and whose Searching for Utopia has just been published; and Francis Spufford, general racounteur and author of three terrific and totally unrelated Continue reading

Who owns the story of the future?

Back to the British Library this evening for another interesting panel discussion as part of their Science Fiction series, this one on “Who owns the story of the future?” Given the extent to which we’ve seen the media get compromised by corporate ownership over the past two decades, at least in the US, this turns out to be a really good question—where do the narratives come from that we tell ourselves to make sense of the world as it is today, let alone of the future. And one that people seem to be interested in, given that it was literally a full house. Part of that may have been the fact that two of the speakers were William Gibson and Cory Doctorow, who have clearly thought about these issues in some detail. Plus, they’re old hands at this sort of thing. The other panel members all looked just as interesting, all being writers on what the future may or may not hold.

First, Jon Turney, the moderator, has edited The Rough Guide to the Future. Mark Stevenson has written An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. And economist Diane Coyle has just published something that is sure to go on my reading list—The Economics of Enough (reviewed here by Fred Pierce). I haven’t read any of these, I have to say, so this was a bit of an adventure—going to talks with people you’ve never heard of can be a dicey proposition. On the face of it, Coyle appears to be genuinely frightened of what the future might hold, whereas Stevenson, I imagined, might be pretty chipper about things, a representative of the Matt Ridley view of the world.
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Out of this world

The good folks over at the British Library, bless their hearts, are having a substantial exhibit that starts today on science fiction—Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it. This looks great, and it has barely opened. As part of the show, there will be, as is usually the case with any British Library show, a series of events, ranging from talks by interested parties and scholars, to films, to musical events —including George Clinton.

The talks look excellent, and if this evening’s was any indication of how these will go, I expect to have a really good time attending some of them and providing updates. This evening’s session, with the same title as the exhibit but the subtitle “Why Science fiction speaks to us all,” had a stellar line-up: Erik Davis, China Miéville, Adam Roberts, and Tricia Sullivan, all moderated by Sam Leith, the former literary editor of The Telegraph. Continue reading

Albums you should listen to: Are We Dead Yet? by Starlight Drive

Jared Featherstone is developing a long history as a musical artist, first as a member of D.C. indie darlings Washington Social Club, and more recently as leader of Starlight Drive, a project he pursues when he can spare time from his “day job” as writing center coordinator at James Madison University. The Starlight Drive project has yielded two albums: 2005’s Beautiful Accidents and this 2011 release, Are We Dead Yet?

Featherstone’s approach on this album is darker than either his work with Washington Social Circle or on Beautiful Accidents. The material explores the problems of relationships – romantic, social, and professional – from an existential position somewhere slightly bleaker than Sartre’s. Continue reading

On Richard Pryor: It was something he said

Richard PryorThe great medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer created timeless characters in his Canterbury Tales; archetypal personalities such as the Wife of Bath and the Miller endure to this day. Through them Chaucer could readily celebrate, criticize and satirize different aspects of the society of his time. Additionally, Chaucer, as a public servant and man of the people, preserved a vernacular that may otherwise have been lost.

The late Richard Pryor, often hailed as the greatest comic to ever take the stage, is the American Chaucer. A master storyteller in the grand tradition of West African griots, fired by passion and pain, possessed of keen insight, he was also a brilliant impersonator with amazing range, an intuitive actor who never got his due, a social critic, a writer, a folklorist, a philosopher, and, most importantly, one funny motherfucker… Continue reading

Mike Keefe, S&R contributor, scores a Pulitzer

Mike KeefeCongratulations to Denver’s own Mike Keefe for winning the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. It’s a well-deserved accolade; Mike is one of the best in the business and has been for a long time.

S&R readers may recall that Mike submitted a wonderful, amusing piece to the Harvey Pekar artists’ tribute we hosted late last year. Mike was one of the first names we thought of when we were planning the series; we were honored, needless to say, when he accepted our invite… and bowled over by what he so generously contributed.

Congratulations and continued success to Mike, and if you’re new to his work, do yourself a favor and bookmark him here.

Two and a half cheers for World Book Night

So Saturday was World Book Night. It was actually an all day thing for most of us, and really started Friday night at Trafalgar Square. This was a big deal—giving a million books away free. What a great concept. I stumbled across this a couple of months ago, I can’t even remember where—probably on one of the SF writer blogs that I hit regularly. So I went and signed up to give away books, free, to anyone I felt like—friends, neighbors, complete strangers. There was a list of 25 books, selected by a panel, and I picked one of my favorites—Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I love the idea of this. Yes, it’s probably at root some marketing thing from the publishing industry, but, at the same time, I don’t care. Just the idea of giving one of your favorite books to someone you know or don’t know, and not knowing what the reaction will be. Continue reading

SciFi day at Imperial College

So on Saturday I wandered over to Imperial College, because the student science fiction association was putting on its annual fest, Picocon, complete with invited writers. And I really wanted to hear Paul Mcauley, of whom I am a fan. I don’t know how many Americans have hung out at Imperial, but it’s the functional equivalent of hanging out at MIT or Cal Tech. Now imagine the kids there who read lots of science fiction, and you’ve got the idea. The day went well, except for, well, the other writers, of whom there were two. Each give a little talk for an hour, and Mcauley’s was the most interesting–writing a novel backwards. He described how he came to write his two most recent novels–The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun (both highly recommended). What he did was start out looking at all those great pictures of Saturn’s moons that were being sent back from the Cassini Solstice Mission. So Mcauley started wondering how could people live on these moons? Continue reading

Remembering Edward Said

The recent popular democratic movements in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa would have delighted the late Edward Said, although he would also be properly appalled by the most recent events in Bahrain and Libya. Long a critic of Western paternalism towards the Mideast, he would have been charmed by the fact that the Egyptian people basically overthrew a dictatorship without outside help, and largely non-violently to boot. Of course it’s not over yet, the army is still in charge, and who knows how this will play out. But it’s a vindication of one of the major preoccupations of Said’s intellectual and cultural career—the relationship between Western imperialism and its cultural legacy of hostility to non-Western cultures. That he was able combine this career as a political and cultural activist, particularly on behalf of Palestinian statehood, along with a distinguished teaching career at Columbia (one of his students was Barack Obama), and along with a distinguished career as a music critic, and the creation of one of the most remarkable symphony orchestras in history, is a testament to a remarkable intellect and a remarkable man. Continue reading

The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter with Twain's Huck Finn

Mark Twain is rolling over in his grave. I should know: he’s buried not too far from where I live.

NewSouth books has announced that it will publish a censored version of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, paired with Tom Sawyer, that eliminates “the N-word.”

That’s “nigger,” in case anyone doesn’t get it.

I find the word offensive. Nearly everyone I know finds it offensive. But what I find more offensive is the notion that it’s okay to censor art. I find it offensive to revise history. I find it offensive that the Thought Police can bully people over free speech. Continue reading

Review: The Box by Günter Grass

Part fiction, part memoir, Günter Grass’s The Box is an account of the Nobel laureate’s personal life as told by his eight grown children.

The Box has been billed as a sequel to his 2007 memoir Peeling the Onion, a book that focused on Grass’s life up to the publication of his famous novel The Tin Drum in 1959. In Onion Grass said, “the temptation to camouflage oneself in third person remains great.” In The Box, he camouflage’s himself in first person—nine first-persons, actually: his own voice and the voices of his kids.

The book’s conceit—Grass’s grown children gather for a series of reminiscences captured on tape—gives Grass the chance to ruminate on his own life from a safe distance. It all feels just a little too self-indulgent, though, but then again, that’s one of the themes of the book: Grass is always “working something over in his head” as a writer, and this book is just one more way for him to do that. Continue reading

Pekar Tribute 12, the Finale: Bill Alger

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