Friday, January 29, 2010

Invisible Library

Well this is just all kinds of fun. Click here for an article on the Invisible Library blog and how it got started. I noticed this right off:
"The genesis of the library was very simple," says Stahl. "I happened to read Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Graham Greene's The End of the Affair in quick succession, and was struck by the number of nonexistent novels mentioned, and at times even described in each book."

Since I've been going through Nabokov's works recently I'm going to use this as the deciding factor for his next book to put to the top of the TBR pile.

Click here to go straight to the Invisible Library blog.

(hat tip: Schmells)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Cake Is a Lie!

She's baaaaaaaaack! And Still Alive!

Mr M recently downloaded the Xbox LIVE arcade game Portal: Still Alive. Portal has been featured here at sgwordy before and for good reason. This game is more awesome than Captain Awesome (though it can't compete with his abs)! The reasons are too numerous to list here (maybe our resident gamer can link to his thoughts on Portal in the comments so you all can learn those reasons) so I'll just focus on GlaDOS. (And yes, it is the GlaDOS of quotable fame at the top of this blog header.)

GlaDOS' part in this game is to screw up things for the test subject as she tries to escape. Part of GlaDOS' strategy is to talk lots of shit in an attempt to demoralize the test subject. She's damn funny and just one of the details that sets Portal above and beyond the typical video game. For instance, take this scene featuring the demise of the Weighted Companion Cube (btw, I luuuuuuuuurve the Weighted Companion Cube).


But joy! I came across this video saving the Weighted Companion Cube!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

In Addition to Basic Fairness

Same-sex marriage appears to prevent divorce! Click here for a simple statistical rundown on divorce rates per state as compared to the state's same-sex marriage policy.  A short quote from the article:
As is somewhat visually apparent, those states which have tended to take more liberal policies toward gay marriage have tended also to have larger declines in their divorce rates.

Of all the weak-ass arguments against same-sex marriage, preserving the "sanctity" of heterosexual marriage has always been the worst fucking one (how people I don't know getting married is supposed to affect my own marriage is a mystery that continues to confound). And yay! Now there appears to be data that show just how stupid that argument is! It's important to note though, that, in the end, it really doesn't matter: whatever data are uncovered and however they are presented current laws are unfair and that's the real problem.

(hat tip: Mr M)

Mary by Vladimir Nabokov

Title: Mary
Author: Vladimir Nabokov (translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny)
Publisher: McGraw-Hill International, Inc (1970)

Mary was the first novel written by Nabokov (so the cover tells me) and originally published in 1926 (so the introduction tells me). This is the second of Nabokov's books that I have read and it won't be the last. I didn't like this title (or the other for that matter) as much as I wanted to but the writing keeps me turning pages. The characters have only been just engaging enough to keep me interested and what I'm really waiting for is a plot I can get excited about. Hmm, a plot... why don't I get to that.

Mary is set in Berlin at a lodging house that caters to Russian expatriates. We get to know all of the lodgers but the story mainly centers around Ganin. Ganin is in his mid-20s, not currently working, and dissatisfied with his relationship with his girlfriend. He has tried to leave her several times but is apparently incapable due to his lack of initiative - or maybe follow-through, it was hard for me to decide which. A surprise revelation by one of his housemates triggers his memories of a childhood sweetheart eventually leading to an upheaval of his inertia-controlled life.

One can probably gather from what I said above that it is Nabokov's writing I find so appealing. He has a very distinct style that I can't quite find the words to describe. Instead I will describe how I feel when reading. Often times there's a definite rhythm that I find myself pulled into, then a smirk finds it's way to my face and all of a sudden I find myself laughing out loud at a situation that would not normally make me laugh. So I stop and try to figure out why I'm laughing. Am I laughing at the character, the words, a private joke, laughing with the character? Honestly I can never really decide and I find that fascinating.

One beef I have is that sometimes a huge, jizztastic wrench is thrown into the whole business by a complete loss of rhythm in the writing. And do believe me, I mean a total loss! There were several times where I experienced a serious mental lurch that completely tossed me right out of the story. I found these to be mostly when the POV or situation was changed. Rather than a smooth transition taking the reader to the next locale, it's about three paragraphs of confusion until you figure out just what the heck is now going on. I'd rather demonstrate with a quote but it'd be almost page-length so instead I'll try to describe one of these bizarre "transitions."

We meet Klara, a lodger and friend of Ganin's girlfriend, for the first time at the top of a paragraph that immediately follows a section about Ganin and his girlfriend in the girlfriend's room. Klara is not in this room, or indeed even in the building, but we are suddenly in her head as she thinks about the girlfriend recounting her dates with Ganin. This moves immediately into her crush on Ganin which would all be very well and good but then we move on to the lunch seating assignments in the lodging house and the landlady's tendency to be quiet during lunch and simply ensure that the cook brings the correct dishes to table. Next paragraph Ganin is entering the dining room at lunch, on a different day, mumbling something to his fellow lodgers and where the heck Klara is at this point is anyone's guess. It made my brain fizz a bit. During these oddball transitions it's much like all the walls in Berlin have a stream-of-consciousness output that Nabokov tuned in for and then used periodically in the book.

I'm hoping that the aforementioned lurches are due to this being a first novel and that subsequent books will be a bit more polished. As I said, the writing is so intriguing to me that I'll definitely read more of his books even if this one did not blow me away story-wise. I even think the characters can be improved with a bit more polish. Nabokov does an excellent job of fleshing them out but just when I felt I was really getting under their skin suddenly I was going through one of those stilted transitions and so I had to stop thinking about the characters and try to sort out where I was now located in the story. I'm hoping this aspect of his writing is limited to this book so that I can look forward to his entire backlist for my future reading.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Saturday, January 16, 2010

GMOs: To Eat or Not To Eat

Tip of the hat to Schmells for sending me this article describing "new" data that indicate GMOs (genetically modified organisms) might be bad for your health. Here's a link also to the 2009 International Journal of Biological Sciences paper (pdf format) upon which the news article is based. Schmells asked for my scientific opinion on the article's validity and, for what it's worth, sgwordy
(whose background is not in this topic) says...

So the first thing I'll say because I think it's the most important, pertinent, and relevant is that the last paragraph (unfortunately last as most people don't read to the bottom of an article) is the thing we need to be thinking about the most:
"...ecological effects are also in play. Ninety-nine percent of GMO crops either tolerate or produce insecticide. This may be the reason we see bee colony collapse disorder and massive butterfly deaths. If GMOs are wiping out Earth's pollinators, they are far more disastrous than the threat they pose to humans and other mammals."
This, to me, is way scarier than any implications for human health. I'm personally not that worried about the health effects of GMOs but I'm for damn sure worried about the collapse of ecosystems as I'm pretty sure that'd be pretty fucking bad for my health.

Second thing: I don't think the news article made clear that the researchers in the IJBS journal only RE-EVALUATED previous data. The opening of the article is pretty much straight-up bullshit:
"In what is being described as the first ever and most comprehensive study of the effects of genetically modified foods on mammalian health, researchers have linked organ damage with consumption of Monsanto’s GM maize."
Maybe it's being described that way but I would imagine only by someone that did not actually read the journal article. The 2009 article does NOT include raw data collected by the researchers. And the experimental design for the raw data under re-evaluation is terrible! I mean, awful! That shit would not fly if it was to be published in a high-impact, peer-reviewed science journal. (I'm not entirely surprised by this since I gather a lot of money can make up for bad data when one is trying to bring something new to the market, call me jaded but that's my opinion.)

So what does this mean? It means that the conclusions of both parties (Monsanto and the 2009 researchers in the journal) are pretty much useless. Monsanto could be right that there are no problems or the new researchers could be right (which they do admit in the 2009 journal article). The salient point being made by the 2009 journal article is that these data are shit and properly designed experiments need to be conducted. As in, they would like the three strains of maize to be taken off the market until proper experiments can be done.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale

I've said before that there's no such thing as a bad Laura Kinsale book and with Lessons in French the streak continues! I got my hot little hands on this book Monday and couldn't put it down. Ah well, getting enough sleep is overrated... especially when the alternative is a delightful cover-to-cover read of the latest Kinsale.

It's pretty bold of me to attempt a review after only one reading (a Kinsale can rarely be fully appreciated without at least two readings) but I'm gonna give it a go.

ETA: Ah, the hubris! You really can't do one of these after just one reading and now that I've finally finished my second read-through I'm back to make some changes. Actually, additions as it feels like cheating to change what I originally said but I think my interpretation was off. It's part of the spoiler stuff though so I'm adding it at the end of the post under cover, scroll down and highlight if interested.

Title: Lessons in French
Author: Laura Kinsale
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca (2010)

Callie is a shy and awkward heiress more comfortable with cattle than with people. She's been engaged three times and each time her fiance has backed out. She's accepted her future as a Singleton and is happy enough in that role as long as she has a place to keep her animals. Trev, her childhood sweetheart (and partner in mischievous deeds), has returned to England after a nine year absence to care for his ailing mother. Callie has kept close ties with Trev's mother and continues to help upon his return. When the pair find themselves partners in yet another scheme (involving a wayward bull, local law enforcement and the county fair) their feelings for each other are rekindled. But Trev has secrets he must keep and neither of them are who they were nine years ago so they are each determined that this will be one final escapade together before they part again.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Title: The Club Dumas
Author: Arturo Perez-Reverte (translated from the Spanish by Sonia Soto)
Publisher: Vintage (1998)

I think The Club Dumas was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the popular serial form used by Alexandre Dumas. As a Dumas fan, I was pretty excited to read this. Admittedly, it’s been a few years since I read The Three Musketeers, which is the Dumas book this title references most often, but I’m pretty sure this book falls quite short of the goal. The serial was originally intended for popular consumption of light entertainment with an exciting – and possibly contrived – event occurring at the end of each portion of the serial. Characters were often larger than life, twists were almost expected, and heroes were easy to identify. The Club Dumas was extremely amusing but I don’t think the author was hoping the reader would be laughing at the book rather than with it. The only reason I finished this book was because I couldn’t believe it could get any shittier. Yet, it continued to do so and thus became a source of light entertainment. Since this author clearly did not work very hard on his book,* I am also going to take the lazy route with a bullet-point style rundown.

Friday, January 8, 2010

I miss FJM

And so to sooth my achey breaky FJM-missing heart I'll just trundle over here to read my favorite FJM post again!


Friday, January 1, 2010

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

I thought I might try to be a little more consistent in my layouts when I do reviews (excepting of course when I'm doing mass reviews of awesomeness:) for a little more structure in those posts. To that end, please enjoy this review with the new format.

Title: Prodigal Summer
Author: Barbara Kingsolver
Publisher: HarperCollins (2000)

Prodigal Summer is set in Zebulon County in southern Appalachia and tells three stories as they occur over one summer. Each story unfolds as the season progresses, the protagonists connected by the relentless demands of nature and the farming community in which they live.

A bountiful summer serves as the backdrop for the characters' lives whose stories are woven seamlessly with a wealth of natural science. The language is rich and evocative. Kingsolver is also able to introduce people in a way that immediately engages one's curiosity. She beautifully parallels the blossoming of the natural world in the slow unfolding of a character's personality and desires.

Getting to know the women in this novel was a treat. That's too tame, actually. Getting to know them was like a fresh, delicious chocolate croissant that flakes perfectly on your tongue and leaves traces of butter to be licked up on your fingers. I especially loved Deanna in contrast with Lusa. Deanna has a pretty good idea of who she is and what she wants but then has an unexpected encounter. Lusa is learning how to reconcile what she thought she wanted, and who she thought the people around her were, with the reality of her new situation. It is fitting to the theme of nature's beauty and bounty that we meet these women with partners and see how their lives are changed because of them.

The perfect descriptor for this novel is sensual. There is such a powerful sense of the raw magnetism of nature, and its relentless drive to reproduce and survive, that the reader is caught up in an almost erotic sensation of relentless tension. But at the same time that the novel elicits a visceral response it is candidly scientific. The beauty of nature's cycles are equal parts worshiped and dissected.

While I definitely give this book a sound recommendation it does have a few flaws that some readers might find more annoying than I did. It only takes a couple chapters to figure out how everything will end. I am not sure if that was deliberate or not but I found the end to be pretty obvious. Of course, it can be a comfort to know exactly where a story is going (and in another parallel to nature, the outcome of any life is pretty obvious). Also, the science works well with the story but there is a preachy sort of tone at times. I think too, depending on one's background, a lot of the science will not be new so the long preachy sections might become tedious.

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Additional comments:
I loved reading the farming arguments between Nannie and Garnet. I particularly liked Nannie's argument that "modern" farming [in this case, natural pest control, fertilization, etc] is really just "original" or "old-fashioned" farming. It's a lovely reminder that new and synthetic are not always superior to simple solutions in concert with nature. Now, I'm no Luddite (obviously:) and am thrilled with technology and innovation but not at the expense of longevity and sustainability. Technology and innovation are useless without vision and careful application.