Friday, October 5, 2012

For a Change, Let's Talk About Actual Books (part 3)

It's time once again to look at what non-pony reading I'm currently engaged in!  I really enjoy doing these posts; they always seem to inspire some interesting discussion, I often add a book or two to my "to-read" list after looking through other people's comments, and because a post like this is relatively quick and easy to put together, I'm left with more time to eat an entire bag of candy corn-flavored M&Ms while watching football start reading It Takes a Village so that I don't have to post an entire week of filler before I get to reviewing it be a productive member of society.  Look below to see a list of what I'm reading at the moment, what I think of it, and maybe to judge my taste in books while we're at it.

The Illearth War, by Stephen R. Donaldson

What it is:  The second book in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.  Last time I talked about books, I mentioned I was re-reading all the Covenant books; I'm most of the way through this one, after which I'll be moving on to The Power that Preserves.

How I'm liking it:  The Illearth War is kind of a strange bird; while the other two books in the original trilogy focus exclusively on Covenant, large sections of this one focus on Hile Troy, another person from the "real world."  On one hand, Hile Troy is one of my favorite characters, combining as he does a willingness to fight against impossible odds, and the all-too-rare ability to see when a battle is lost and how to minimize losses, rather than blindly (heh) moving forward on principal.  On the other, the fact that the narrative follows him, even in Covenant's absence, serves to undermine the fundamental tension of the story: the reality/unreality of The Land.

Recommendation:  I recommend you go read Lord Foul's Bane before tackling the sequel, obviously.  That said, The Illearth War is probably my favorite book of the original trilogy.

The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas

What it is:  If you need me to tell you what The Three Musketeers is... I don't even know how to finish that sentence.  Let's move on.

How I'm liking it:  To be honest, this is perhaps the sixth time in the last couple of years that I've picked up this book, and I've yet to make it more than fifty pages in.  What can I say?  I just haven't gotten far enough to get hooked, and then I always set it aside, see it again a few months later, and say, "Oh yeah, I was gonna read that."  Then I crack it open, and the cycle repeats.

Recommendation:  Clearly, I haven't gotten far enough into this one to offer a personal recommendation.  Luckily, it's a classic piece of literature, so if you're wondering whether it's worth reading or not, you can probably find an intelligent, useful opinion elsewhere.  And for the record, it took me multiple tries before I penetrated the first few letters of Bram Stoker's Dracula, and I ended up loving it.  So just because I'm having trouble getting started, don't take that as a criticism of the story.  At least, not yet.

Temperament, by Stuart Isacoff

What it is:  A study of the history of equal temperament in western music (for non-musicians: you know how on a piano, the distance between each note (each key) is exactly the same, sound-wise?  If you didn't, now you do.  Well, that equal spacing between notes is called "equal temperament," and it's not the only way, or even the best way in some cases, to tune).

How I'm liking it:  I'm really enjoying it.  This is a fairly technical piece, but it does a great job of explaining theory and terminology to musicians without much grounding in tonal theory.  I'm learning a lot, and the subject is fascinating.  The question of temperament consumed some of the greatest minds of the Renaissance, and both the passion of equal temperament's supporters and detractors, and the theoretical and musicological underpinnings of both sides' arguments, are enlightening.

Recommendation:  For anyone interested in musical theory, musical history, or why things sound the way they do, this is a great book.  That said, I wouldn't recommend it to non-musicians.  While it doesn't require any advanced knowledge, the author does assume a certain level of fundamental musical familiarity from the reader.  If you took a year of band in high school or took piano lessons as a child you should be fine, but if not then I imagine Temperament might be more frustrating than enlightening.

Carry On, Jeeves!, by P.G. Wodehouse

What it is:  A series of stories about Bertie Wooster and his incomparably shrewd, intelligent, and diabolically helpful manservant, Jeeves.

How I'm liking it:  Quite a bit.  I've read a couple of Jeeves and Wooster stories before and found them to be clever and hilarious in equal parts, but reviewing The Rummy Business of Old Blooey a little while back inspired me to pick up some more of the real McCoy.  Who says pony fiction creates bad reading habits?

Recommendation:  I highly recommend Wodehouse in general, and his Jeeves and Wooster stories in particular, to readers looking for a brilliant mix of highbrow comedy, clever writing, and the occasional pratfall.

The Music of Pythagoras, by Kitty Ferguson

What it is:  A detailed history of Pythagoras and the Pythagorean Brotherhood, the mysterious group often credited with introducing to the western world such fundamental concepts as the rationality of the universe and the ability of numbers and equations to represent natural laws.

How I'm liking it:  To be honest, it's a little on the dry side.  One of the major problems this book runs into is that very little is definitively known about Pythagoras and his Brotherhood, so a great deal of text is spent parsing the validity of various third-hand sources.  That said, the subject matter is intriguing, and is presented with clarity and depth--too many histories end up sacrificing one at the alter of the other, but this book is clear, informative, and extremely detailed.

Recommendation:  Definitely an accessible yet not dumbed-down piece of writing, I think readers who don't mind the occasional over-long dive into comparative minutiae would enjoy this combination biography/history.

In the Company of Crows and Ravens, by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell

What it is:  A complete guide to corvids (crows, ravens, grackles, etc.), from their history to their diet to their social life and intelligence.

How I'm liking it:  The writing isn't really very good.  Both authors are scientists, and I think this book would have benefited from some assistance from a professional author; the sections on man's interactions with corvids throughout history, for example, are painfully repetitive and frankly dull.  When the story shifts to the biologists' bailiwick, it becomes very interesting.  Their observations about corvid intelligence, painted against the birds' increasingly clever ways of avoiding the pair's crow traps, strike just the right balance between educational and entertaining.

Recommendation:  This isn't a great book, and I've ended up skimming significant portions of it so far, but it does have its moments.  Anyone with a serious interest in corvids might consider it, but I don't think I'd recommend it to a general reader.  There are some excellent excerpts, though.


  1. A small question - did you read Lem's Solaris?

    1. No--in fact, I had to look it up. But it sounds like my kind of book (as if that were an exclusive category...).

    2. [apologies for any lingual mistakes, tyro on English here^^]

      I know these words may sound plain frothy, in the mouth of random anonymous commenter like me - but I think Solaris may really be one of your best shots ever :)

  2. What I find most entertaining about the Three Musketeers is that since it was first published serially, it reads a lot like most fanfics do nowadays. Most chapters end in cliffhangers, it spends forever setting up events that don't happen, things occur with no sort of foreshadowing, and there is a RIDICULOUS plot hole in the middle of the story.

    1. Not to mention that d'Artagnan, historical character or not, is kinda of a Mary Sue.

    2. It was also written in large part as a comedy. The 1977 film version came closest to capturing the tone of the book.

  3. I must say, 'Temperament' sure does sound interesting. I am aware that other world music traditions (such as Indian Classical music) have closer musical intervals than the western semitone, but I hadn't thought about how people would've agreed on a regular interval to separate distinct pitches. If I get the chance, I'll pick up a copy of that book. Thanks for the recommendation!

  4. In the last sentence of the paragraph about how you're liking The Music of Pythagoras, that should be "too many histories," not "to." You wouldn't believe how much I struggled to understand you before I realized it was a typo

    I'll check out the aforementioned book and Temperament. If you haven't already, I'd highly recommend reading Alan W. Pollack's Notes On... series, preferably on Soundscapes

    1. The Notes On... series is indeed great for light study.

      Also, I went ahead and added an extra "o" for you, though I think the way that I had it written originally gave the sentence a lot more character (it's about the letters I DON'T type...).

    2. Forgive this poor plebeian (redundant much?) for not understanding your artistic vision. Clearly, you're the George Harrison of wordsmiths

    3. Sure, "light study..." Certainly not the type of thing one might spend hours reading every day :)

  5. Did anyone else forget It Takes a Village is a fanfic? Sorry for unfairly judging you, Chris

    1. Shoot, I didn't even remember that Hillary had written that until you mentioned it.

    2. Don't you mean "took credit for," seeing as Barbara Feinman wrote it?

  6. Hmm... I would say the books (I only read fiction) that have had the greatest effect on my imagination are:

    The Xenogenesis Trilogy by Octavia E. Butler
    The Sector General series by James White
    The Talisman by Stephen King

    1. Butler's books are the only ones of those that I've read--I'll need to look into the others!

    2. Having looked up that trilogy, it sounds intriguing, if only because I've had a similar idea. My only experience with Butler was the Parable of the Sower, which was my ex's favorite book, but it too was thought-provoking and quite excellent.

    3. OOPS: The Talisman is by Stephen King and Peter Straub

      Chris: Glad to know someone else who has read them (Xenogenesis).

      Present: Xenogenesis is simultaneously terrifying and alluring. If I had to make a fandom comparison, it would be "The Conversion Bureau" but done "right". Which is one of the reasons I am so dismissive of The Conversion Bureau sub-fandom.

  7. I've been meaning to ask, if you've read it, what do you think of Michael Crichton's work?

    1. Hmm. It's probably been close to a decade since I read anything of his. I enjoyed Jurassic Park and The Lost World as light reading, and although I don't remember much of The Andromeda Strain, I do remember being extremely disappointed with how abruptly it resolved--I think it spent only about half a dozen pages wrapping everything up, though maybe I'm exaggerating. Those are the only books of his I've read, and like I said, it was a good while back.

  8. Hey Chris Hey Chris hey Chris!
    I've got a totally unrelated inquiry for you.

    Have you heard of this show on Everfree radio called Reading Rainboom? They do readings of fanfics. Well right now they seem low on submitted fanfics and I'm gonna try to save their bacon.

    You've read a lot so I'm asking you (and anyone else who by chance reads this) because you seem to read a lot of fic, can you recommend some good fiction that falls within these parameters?

    2000 words < fic > 10,000 words
    not too many characters. Like.. probably no more than 6.

    1. Memories of Those Friends Who've Gone Before Us by WTFHIW

      Beat ya to it, Chris!

    2. How about Memories of Tho- dammit!

      Okay, stories that fit the above requirements, which might translate well to spoken word? Let's start with a few that I've previously reviewed:

      Celestia's Teeth

      Forever (the one by Bobcat, not to be confused with Forever! by Chengar--that one probably has too many characters)

      Tonight I Shall be Laughter

      And of course, Fallout: Equestria

      ...Okay, maybe not that last one. I also recently read a set of "Equestrian Folktales" called Gobbling and Other Traditional Pursuits, which it seems to me would work very well in an audio format.

      Anyway, those are just off the top of my head. I'll have to go see what they're all about, I suspect!

    3. Heh, I knew that one would rise to the top of the list.
      Regardless, thanks a bundle.

    4. Hey Chris, hey Chris, hey Chris!
      On another totally unrelated note,

      As I was looking up Tonight I shall be Laughter, I noticed that you said Frigid Winds and Burning Hearts won't be appearing because it's not complete. Well now it IS complete, and I'm sure a couple other stories fall into the same situation. What to do? What to do? Think think think...

      But more importantly, Frigid Winds in particular, that story... oh man... it was... I mean... That is... you wouldn't believe... It was just soo....
      Well, this is why I leave the opinionating to people like you. I'm no good at it. I can say it left an impression on me.