Sebastian Kirsch: Blog

Wednesday, 05 July 2006

Charles Stross: The Atrocity Archives

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 01:11

[cover]Hm. Seems like I slacked during these last few months with my book posts – they’re piling up here, and the last post in the books section was in April. So let’s get this over with.

I liked it.

That was easy!

OK, I think I can do a few more words.

The basic premise of The Atrocity Archives is that magic is not, well, magic – instead, it is a branch of mathematics that was discovered by Alan Turing shortly before his death. This discovery was kept secret from the public, and there is a branch of the British government, the Laundry, with the task of ensuring its secrecy, and of defending the United Kingdom from magical threats.

And of course, modern magical agents do not do magic with secret ingredients and incantations, but with the help of computers. And other highly unusual methods.

One can almost predict where the story leads from there. Rogue magical agent, agent meets girl, agent falls in love with girl, agent loses girl, end of the world etc. But told in a highly entertaining fashion, so …

… I liked it.

Monday, 17 April 2006

William Zinsser: On Writing Well

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 13:44

[cover]For German, one of the definitive style guides for journalists is Wolf Schneider’s Deutsch für Profis.

Zinsser’s On Writing Well is not its English-language equivalent.

Zinsser’s book is as much about writers as it is about writing. It does not address the minute details of language and composition – rather, it tries to illustrate the power of language as well as the challenges of being a writer. Zinsser makes his points mainly by quoting examples and citing his own experiences. The book is subdivided into four parts: Principles, where he briefly touches upon subjects such as style and audience; Methods, which contains a short introduction to composition; Forms, an overview about different genres of non-fiction writing; Attitudes, which is all about the writer himself and his relation to his work.

I found this last part the most salient one, even if it is one of the shorter parts of the book. There are much better guides to style and composition, but Zinsser is unique in his treatment of the writer and the relation to his work. This is also a subject that I have grappled with during my own stint as a technical journalist, and while writing scientific papers and theses: Where does the writer come in? How does he address his audience, and how does he make his own voice heard without distracting from the subject of his work?

Traditional scientific writing is dreadfully impersonal; it mostly tries to convey the notion that the author is completely inconsequential, and all that matters is the subject. But this purported objectivity is a sham – every piece of science is determined by the personal interests and the modus operandi of its researcher. The same holds true for t echnical writing: When I wrote technical articles, the first and hardest lesson was that the passive voice was banned. You were not allowed to use the passive voice. Every action has a subject and an object, and they need to be named clearly in the article. I once argued with my editor for half an hour about a single sentence in the passive voice, until he grudgingly conceded that in this single special case, it was indeed the best solution.

Zinsser also has other encouraging words for aspiring and seasoned writers – for example about the difficulties of starting from a blank page, and the inevitable writer’s block (he mentions that one will never do as many trips to the water fountain or to the loo than while having to write.) These are the points that make the book worthwhile to me. Zinsser does not tell you in detail what to write and how to write, but he does tell you that writing is hard work, and he makes you feel a little better when you have spent another day in front of a blank page, without writing a single sentence. And it feels even better when you spent a day rewriting and rewriting each sentence in order to make it even more understandable to your readers.

By the way, the English language equivalent of Deutsch für Profis would probably be Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. But I will write about that one another time.

Sunday, 16 April 2006

Armistead Maupin: The Night Listener

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 23:25

[cover]No, it is not that I have not read anything in the last four months. I just could not find the time to write anything about it. So, in order to clear my backlog, I will start with the easiest book – which is also one of the most recent ones I have read.

The Night Listener is Maupin’s most mature book yet, and also the most auto-biographical one. From noticing that “his lover Terry Anderson” is omitted from the blurb in this book and reading about the elderly writer who breaks up with his much younger, HIV positive lover, it is just a small step to realizing that the main characters are actually Maupin and his lover, and that they indeed broke up recently. (As confirmed, for example, by this interview.) But we never find out how much is fiction and how much is autobiography in this book.

The Night Listener as a whole is lacking conclusions. But perhaps the message is that we do not always need proof beyond all reasonable doubt – sometimes it is better to trust one’s instincts and one’s knowledge of human nature, instead of trying to cover all possible angles. This was a very worthwhile message for me, and Maupin conveys it with a light hand.

Saturday, 25 February 2006

Bücher abzugeben

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 21:02

In meinem Bücherregal wird’s momentan wieder mal sehr eng, und deshalb habe ich aktuell einen ganzen Stapel Bücher abzugeben. Die komplette Liste findet sich hier. Wer davon welche will (und mich zumindest semi-regelmäßig trifft), der möge mir eine Liste mit den gewünschten Titeln per Email schicken.

Über einen kleinen Obulus würde ich mich insbesondere bei den großen Bänden freuen; bei den Taschenbüchern muss das nicht unbedingt sein.

Warum ich das über den Blog mache? Weil es man solche Bücher bei Antiquariaten praktisch nicht los bekommt, eBay sich vom Aufwand her nicht lohnt, und ich sie auch nicht wegschmeissen will. Das sitzt bei mir vielleicht zu tief drin – Bücher sind etwas wertvolles, bewahrenswertes, was man nicht einfach wegwirft.

Und deshalb gebe ich euch nochmal die Chance, ein paar davon abzugreifen, bevor sie im öffentlichen Bücherschrank auf der Poppelsdorfer Allee landen.

Sunday, 04 December 2005

Yann Martel: The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 18:12

[cover]This book is a collection of early short stories by the author of “Life of Pi” (winner of the Man-Booker Prize in 2002.)

The cover story is about ayoung man dying of AIDS after a blood transfusion – a very sad story, and definitely not for the faint at heart. In order to cheer his dying friend up, the narrator makes a pact with him, to tell each other stories, one for every year, starting in 1901, and always inspired by an event in the year. The choice of event chronicles the mood of the protagonists – sometimes they will choose the invention of the zipper, sometimes the atomic bomb. I guess there is no shame in admitting that this story made me cry. It is certainly the best and strongest story in this collection; the others pale beside it.

“The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton” is not as long as its title would suggest; it’s a story about the hidden talents among us, in this case an unrecognized composer of classical music. “Manners of Dying” is a letter by prison official, informing a mother about the last evening before her son is hanged. There are nine variations of the same letter, differing in the events before the hanging – sometimes the son is up-spirited, sometimes depressed, sometimes in fear, etc. A rather morbid theme. The last story, “The Vita Æterna Mirror Company” is a short fable, mainly interesting because of its use of typography.

Friday, 02 December 2005

Wannabe fodder

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 01:48

A friend of mine asked me about books today – specifically, which books would make a worthwhile addition to a hacker bookshelf. Of course, there are lots of them, so I will have to tackle this subject in installments. The first installment today will be about wannabe fodder.

Wannabe fodder isn’t about hacking, or about stuff hackers enjoy. It’s about other hackers. It’s what wannabe hackers read for role models.

[cover]Steven Levy: “Hackers” chronicles the development of the hacker culture. It starts with the original hacker culture at the MIT (at the AI Lab and the Tech Model Railroad Club), introducing figures like Marvin Minsky, Richard Greenblatt, Bill Gosper or Tom Knight, including the development of the Lisp Machine. The second part of the book describes the development of the culture centered around home users with small 8-bit computers like the Altair, which eventually led to the development of the Apple ][, including a description of the Home Brew Computer Club. The last part is about the rise of computers as gaming machines and the resulting culture. An epilogue depicts Richard Stallman as “the last true hacker". “Hackers” was published in 1984, and of course doesn’t include the recent rise of hacker culture in the form of the open source movement. It is a good documentary about the early hackers, and about where the culture comes from.

[cover]Clifford Stoll: “The Cuckoo’s Egg is the story of Stoll’s hunt for German hacker Markus Hess, told in his own words – a hunt which began with a 75 cent accounting error and ended with Hess’ capture and conviction. Stoll describes his run-ins with several three-letter agencies (CIA, FBI, NSA etc.) and his explorations into the maze of computer networks and phone systems, in order to trace the intruder from his systems to his lair. This book, published in 1989, is one of the first and few first-hand accounts of a hacker hunt. While the perception of a need for computer security measures has since increased, it is still a worthwhile read – because it reads like a well-written thriller.

[cover]Tracy Kidder: “The Soul of a New Machine” is a documentary about the development of the Data General Eagle, an 32-bit minicomputer which was a direct competitor to DEC’s VAX and was released in 1980. It is written from the perspective of a complete outsider (Kidder’s previous books had been about building a house or about a class of schoolchildren.) While Kidder tries to get the basic facts about the machine right, the main strength of this book is the portrayal of the people behind this new computer: The engineers and designers behind it, their personalities, their relationships and their working styles.

[cover]Douglas Coupland: “Microserf” is the first fictional book in this series. Published in 1995, it is a story for the dot-com era, about the dream of the successful start-up. Daniel Underwood, bug-tester at Microsoft’s building seven, quits the company to form a start-up with several of his co-workers. They work on OOP!, the quintessential eye-candy software, a software for the boom. While developing this new product, the group itself develops and matures: From their “larval stage” in the corporate environment, they set out to discover love, sex, freedom, self-determination, and ultimately themselves.

[cover]Karla Jennings: “The Devouring Fungus” is a collection of folk tales, anecdotes and legends of the computer age. It sometimes reads like an amalgam of stories from alt.folklore.computers, and indeed a collection from this newsgroup is a good substitute for this book. I mainly included it here for the sake completeness.

This entry concludes my list of wannabe fodder. The next installment will follow when I have culled a few books from my bookshelves; I intend to focus on books not about hacking itself, but about things that tend to interest hackers. One of them I already featured recently: The Computational Complexity of Nature by Gary William Flake. But I think I have a few others that I have not written about yet.

Monday, 28 November 2005

J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire/Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 15:49

[cover][cover]Harry Potter books are like popcorn. You start with a page or two, and before you know it, you have read two books and 1500 pages. And you have no recollection at all as to what it all was about. It was exactly the same with Harry Potter 2&3, which I read some 5 years ago – within two days.

The girth of the Harry Potter books has since increased, the content has stayed the same. Two notable exceptions: Harry Potter is discovering the opposite sex – but this was deemed unimportant enough to warrant only a few furtive glances in HP4, and a single, prematurely terminated date in HP5. I guess that if more space had been devoted to this topic, it might have gotten in the way of some very important heroing or worldsaving or darklorddefeating. The second exception is that Ginny Weasly is maturing into a real character – she even speaks and has her own opinions! She is a valuable addition to the cast, and in difference to Harry, she doesn’t have any problems with the opposite sex: By the end of HP5, she already has her second boyfriend.

Saturday, 26 November 2005

Gary William Flake: The Computational Beauty of Nature

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 16:36

[cover]This is one of those rare, wonderful science books. It covers lots of fascinating and advanced subjects. It treats them in such a way that an amateur can understand and appreciate them, while giving more advanced readers enough material to further explore the subjects. The descriptions do not gloss over details. And in addition, there exist example implementations of all the concepts presented in the book, allowing the reader to play with the topics.

Flake tackles a number of topics which count among the most interesting, but also the least accessible in computer science today. Among others, he talks about Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and incomputability, fractals, chaotic systems, cellular automata, self-organizing systems, neural networks, and adaptation. All material is presented with precise formulas and derivations, as well as examples and motivational sections. Every chapter is accompanied by a “Postscript” which expands the topic of the preceding chapter.

I’d already known the author from his work on self-organization of the web and detection of communities on the web. After reading this book, I must say that I have the utmost respect for him, not only for his technical abilities, but also for his writing skills. In all the technical discussions, he never loses his voice; his personality always shines through the subjects he discusses. He manages to excite and interest his readers, because of his own passion for the subjects. It’s a marvelous book.

This book would have been the perfect companion to the lecture on artifial life I took a couple of years ago. It contains a description of most of the topics we covered, and the software would have given a hands-on experience of the topics, without having to re-implement everything.

For further information about the book and its author, visit the book’s homepage, and the author’s homepage.

Ona related note, the book’s title reminds me of “The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants", a seminal book in artificial life by Aristid Lindenmayer and Przemyslav Prusinkiewicz. I’ve been coveting this book for years, and today I finally found it for an acceptable price on abebooks. So when it arrives, you will get a review of this classic book.

Sunday, 09 October 2005

Christopher Rice: A Density of Souls

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 23:24

[cover](an open letter to Christopher Rice)

Dear Christopher,

I would love to like your books. I really would. You’re a prodigy. You’re the son of Anne Rice and Stan Rice. You published your first book when you were just 22. You’re openly gay. And you’re not looking too bad, if I may say so. You have everything it takes.

Then why do you keep on writing drivel like this? Even if one disregards the absurd and convoluted plot, the non-existant character development, the badly motivated actions, the failed literary devices, the frequent use of improbable coincidences, even if one disregards all that – the language alone is so overdone as to turn me away from your writing.

Just some examples, picked from random pages – to show that there’s awful language on almost every page:

  • “Meredith burped slightly, the acidic flavour of vomit blossoming in her throat” (p. 81)
  • “Jordan felt a twinge of disappointment tug at his shoulders.” (p. 161)
  • “Jordan clutched to the post, pressing his forehead to the metal, as Brandon’s body drifted down Jackson Avenue in an eddy of flotsam.” (p. 257)
  • “In one week, Stephen had developed a type of penetrating gaze that comes out of a fine silt of resignation that settles upon the soul.” (p. 24.)

There were worse expressions, but I failed to note them down while reading the book – and I do not want to have to read it again. Once was plenty.

Who taught you to write like that? “vomit blossoming in her throat"? “silt of resignation"? “an eddy of flotsam"? Your creative writing classes? If so, please forget everything you learned from them – and leave that kind of flowery writing to authors who know when and how to use it. Liberally sprinkling convoluted similes and descriptions over a an awful plot does not make a good book.

Some people have compared you to Bret Easton Ellis. I contend that this comparison is ludicrous. Ellis’ writing is a careful dissection of the horrors that lurk beneath the surface of modern life. Your writing is simply needless, uncalled-for and illogical gore.

One could claim that “A Density of Souls” is your first book, and you can still improve – but I did read “The Snow Garden", and it’s just as bad. You have so much room for improvement. Why don’t you use it?

I’m sorry,Christopher, but I don’t think it’ll work out between the two of us. I think we should go separate ways.

I wish you all the best with future books.

Love, Sebastian

Saturday, 20 August 2005

Armistead Maupin: Maybe the Moon

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 19:26

[cover]Most people will know Armistead Maupin from the hugely successful “Tales of the City” series, a kind of poor man’s “Sex and the City” of the early nineties.

The author with the unpronouncable first name (allegedly a mangled version of the German “Darmstadt") wrote another, less well-known book at the same time: “Maybe the Moon” is the fictional diary of one Cadence Roth, actress, and all of 31 inches tall. Cadence is the world’s smallest actress; her star role was the lovely elf Mr. Woods in a fantasy blockbuster – hidden under a latex costume and uncredited. Her diary chronicles her attempts to gain recognition as an actress in an industry that has no need for dwarves and freaks. The tone is much like the Tales of the City – funny, sympathetic, and strong.

The real-life inspiration for Cadence Roth was Tamara De Treaux, who helped operate the E.T. puppet in Steven Spielberg’s movie, but was only credited as “Special E.T. Movement", not as an actress who portrayed E.T.

Tuesday, 09 August 2005

Mark Haddon: The curious incident of the dog in the nighttime

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 21:06

[cover]I am finishing so many books at the moment that I hardly find time to write about them all. So in order to catch up on my backlog, the next few review will be rather shorter.

Mark Haddon’s “The curious incident of the dog in the nighttime” is a detective story – but a rather unusual one: It is written from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s syndrome.

Asperger’s syndrome is usually described as a “mild form of autism". People with Asperger’s usually have extreme difficulty in social interaction, up to the complete inability to see a situation from another person’s point of view, or complete lack of perception of other people’s feelings and state of mind. Even a slight change in the daily routine may provoke a mental breakdown. At the same time, they are often highly skilled at maths and analytical thinking, which led Wired to label Asperger’s “the geek syndrome”. A flurry of reactions ensued, leading to many people recognizing themselves in the symptom lists and diagnosing themselves as “Asperger"; the most well-known example is Bram Cohen, author of the peer-to-peer filesharing program BitTorrent.

Anyway, back on topic. Christopher is 15 years old, likes order and numbers, especially prime numbers, does not like the colours yellow and brown, and classifies days as “good", “super-good” or “bad” depending on the cars he sees on his way to school. When the neighbour’s dog is brutally murdered, he goes on a journey to find out the miscreant – but which leads him much further, to London by train, and eventually to a reunion with his mother, thought dead for many years.

The book is fascinating in that it allows one a glimpse of what an aspie’s mind might be like, how he might feel like: An entirely logical and literal mind, without feelings or compassion. This view on human customs and behaviour puts many thing into perspective that one takes for granted. It was also a very fast read, since it is written at, well, the mental level of a 15-year-old – so even if you do not enjoy it, it will not take you very long.

Saturday, 30 July 2005

Will Self: Dr Mukti and other tales of woe

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 21:25

[cover]This book contains one novella ("Dr. Mukti"), measuring 130 pages and thus accounting for one half of the book, and four short stories (the “other tales of woe"), each about 30 pages in length, which make up the rest.

Dr Mukti is a middle-aged psychiatrist practicing at St Mungo hospital in central London. A second-generation Indian immigrant, he had a brief brush with western civilization in the guise of a blonde, english bride, but soon returned to the Indian ways. He married an Indian bride, and had his home filled with Indian relatives.

Will Self asserted his acclaim as a master of language even on the first page. He describes Mukti as a “man of modest achievement but vaulting ambition", a perfect description for a man who studies medicine to escape the pressure of his father’s expectations, but just ends up internalizing them. Mukti’s closest friend is David Elmley, hinge designer. The only thing bonding these two men is long acquaintance and mutual dislike.

When Dr Zack Busner, eminent psychiatrist at the nearby Heath hospital, starts referring patients of his to Mukti for a second consultation, Mukti’s initial appreciation quickly turns into distrust. He sees himself in a battle with the famous, older, Jewish colleague, wielding patients like weapons. Mukti becomes afraid that in the next round of the battle, Busner might be “wielding an assistant, or a nurse” instead of just a patiens – even though the duel proves more harmful to Busner than to Mukti, when Busner is asssaulted by one of Mukti’s patients.

The climax of the novella is Mukti’s investigation of a “satanistic blood-letting cult” – ostensibly a trap set by Busner in an attempt to dispense of his younger colleague. But in the final pages of the novella, and the final scenes of Mukti’s death, it is never quite clear whether his delusions are speaking out, or whether he was really the victim of an absurd, but deadly plot.

I already mentioned Self’s mastership of language – I am afraid that the same cannot be said for his plots. After finishing the novella, I was disappointed that the story was already at an end. I felt that there were enough themes in there to promise a full novel or two – Mukti’s ambitions, his Indian family, the loving but asexual relationship with his wife, the hinge-designer’s fate, and more. But instead Self chose to end the story quickly and abruptly, leaving the reader with a lot of loose ties. One is left with a feeling of vaulting ambition, but modest achievement – material that was destined for a novel, but only made it to a novella.

The four short stories fit their format much better. “161″ plays a young hoodlum against a pensioner, an encounter that results in an exchange, not of ideas but of spirits: While some of the pensioners sedentary life rubs off on the hoodlum, the pensioner is in turn invigorated by having a new influence on his life. “161″ is also one of the two stories in this book that do not end with a violent death.

“The five-swing walk” tells of a divorced father’s day out with his children. This story drops hints for the reader like breadcrumbs, or pieces of a puzzle, leaving him to piece them together and discover the true motives and motivations of the protagonist. A worthwhile read for fans of this kind of story.

“Conversations with Ord” is the story of a man’s planned departure from life, executed with a certain style and flourish.

The last story, “Return to the Planet of the Humans", picks up some themes from Self’s earlier novel “Great Apes". I’d previously read “Great Apes", a fascinatingly surreal novel about a painter who one day wakes up in a world where primates make up the dominant species, and where humans are kept as pets in the zoo – a new take on an old concept, but very well executed nonetheless. “Return to the Planet of the Apes” puts Simon Dykes, the painter, back
into the human world – after having been convinced of being an ape in “Great Apes". Now he suffers the same fate, just in reverse: He is an ape in a world of humans, again left in a world he does not understand and which does not understand him.

While the novella suffers from some problems of scope and plot, I enjoyed the short stories, and I think they are where Self’s talents shine.

Monday, 20 June 2005

Douglas Coupland: Eleanor Rigby; Chuck Palahniuk: Diary

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 00:07

Two books which I bought on an impulse because I knew the authors – both of which turned out to be less than spectacular, to say the least.

[cover]“Eleanor Rigby” is the first recent Coupland book I have read, and I honestly have to say: If this is the direction Coupland’s writing has taken in the last ten years, it it may very well also be the last. I read his first four novels (Generation X, Shampoo Planet, Life after God and Microserfs), and was a committed fan afterwards; every single one of those novels was great.

But not so “Eleanor Rigby". Coupland has forsaken his hallmark of being a “zeitgeist chaser” (after all, he popularized the term “Generation X", essentially writing a “bible” for an entire generation.)

The story is quickly told. Having put him up for adoption shortly after his birth, Liz Dunn meets her own son, Jeremy, after twenty years. Liz is plain, fat, and single; Jeremy is good-looking, charming, and a lady’s man – but there is a catch: He has multiple sclerosis, and will die a few months after their first meeting. Of course, he gives Liz a whole new direction in life. Years after his death, by an entirely unlikely coincidence, Liz gets to meet the father too – who knocked her up when she was on a school trip to Rome. This individual, of course, turns out to be good-looking, charming, and a lady’s man too: Those genes have to have come from somewhere. They live happily ever after. The End.

That is it in a nutshell. There are also some visions thrown into it for good measure, and a radioactive meteorite, but that’s the story.

I know that one can ruin any story by telling it in this way. But that is all there is to the book. The writing is as dull as the protagonist is made out to be, there is hardly any atmosphere to speak of, and character development is virtually nil (the book is told in the first person, in flashbacks.)

I still re-read bits of Microserfs and Life after God regularly, so I am quite sure that it is not my tastes that have changed – Coupland’s writing has gone downhill.

[cover]“Diary” is my first “real” Palahniuk (when I read Fight Club, I lamented that I could not judge it accurately, because the impressions from the movie were too overwhelming.)

So I can judge Palahniuk properly now, and the judgement is, I am afraid, not a positive one. Between Diary and Eleanor Rigby, Diary is definitely the better book – but still not good enough.

Diary is, as the title says, has the form of a diary, written (ostensibly) for a coma patient, so he can catch up with the world after he wakes up. It is written by the protagonist in the third person, occasionally addressing the intended recipient outright.

Misty Marie Kleinman, student at a small arts college, is lured away to Waytansea Island, with the promise of becoming the next artist of the fabled “Waytansea school". But years later, she is working as a waitress, has a young daughter, and her husband is in a coma after a suicide attempt. As her situation and her health decline, she starts to paint again, spurred on by her moether-in-law, her physician, and the rest of the island community.

True to the adage that all great art comes through suffering, her paintings get better the worse her health becomes. A grand art show is planned to celebrate her 100th painting, but little does she know how the Waytansea school of painting is supposed to bring prosperity to the island …

I will not spoil the ending, which will come as a surprise. Suffice to say that Palahniuk did not convince me.

Monday, 16 May 2005

Robert Rankin: The Fandom of the Operator

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 14:33

[cover]This is the second Rankin book I’ve read, and it somehow reminded me of the literary equivalent of fast food – McDonald’s, to be precise: Looks close enough to the real thing, but not really appetizing, and leaves a vaguely unsatisfying feeling in the stomach.

The jokes that were funny when I read them for the first time in “The Witches of Chiswick” just seemed stale now, the plot … well, there wasn’t much of one, to begin with. It seemed as if Rankin had written another novel around the jokes from the first one I read.

A quote from the Daily Telegraph on the front cover said, “Everyone should read at least one Robert Rankin in their life.” I think they wanted to say “at most", not “at least".

Saturday, 09 April 2005

Andy Behrman: Electroboy

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 13:05

[cover]I’m reading at a quite prodigious rate at the moment – I covered about as many books in the first three months of this year as I did in the whole last year. It’s not that I have too much free time on my hands at the moment, rather that I need something to take my mind off things in the evening.

So, what about Electroboy? The book is subtitled “A Memoir of a Mania", and that’s what it is. It’s the autobiography of one Andy Behrman from New Jersey, movie producer, art dealer, public relations agent – but also male stripper, hustler, hardcore drug user, and convicted felon for selling counterfeit art. Driven by an intense manic depression that went undiagnosed and untreated for a decade, he attained ever greater heights, securing millions in PR contracts and art deals, working 22-hour-days. But he spends the money as soon as he takes it in, on shopping sprees (spending 6000$ for pullovers because he thinks they’re all so wonderful), flying from Zürich to the Bahamas and back, to balance the cold and hot weather, flying to Berlin to see the fall of the Berlin Wall, storing his money in wads of 25.000$ in his freezer till he feels the compulsion to take it all out and spend it.

Behrman is the “real Americal Psycho” – a real-world version of Bret Easton Ellis’ protagonist. Outwardly, he is hugely successful, fitting right into the crazy world of 1980’s New York art scene. But he is also driven by an intense mania, over which he has no control. He craves the thrill of his manic episodes and will do anything to experience more of them.

And – much to the dishonour of the psychiatric profession – his illness is not properly diagnosed for more than ten years, even though he is almost constantly in some kind of therapy. But this may also be due to him only seeing a psychiatrist for his depressive episodes, not for the manic episodes. He is almost addicted to his mania, and sees no reason to stop it. He only seriously persues therapy when in addition to mania and depression, he experiences psychotic episodes. In the end, one psychiatrist finds a drug cocktail that, combined with electroshock therapy, seems to help him and make him sane again.

What are the implications of this book?

I think it reminded me that the playing field is level for all of us. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

In our youth, we all have idols – people we admire, people we envy, people we strive to be. But you also have to be aware of what you have to sacrifice in order to attain that kind of life. If you find someone who excels in one field, chances are he had to give up other things – things that may be very important to you yourself. And if you stumble upon a career that seems to be too fabulous to be true, perhaps the person had to sacrifice something equally fabulous, like his own sanity. Everyone has to find his own mix, everyone has to find out which elements of his life are important to him.

I have been in situations that demanded that kind of decision – decisions about which kind of person I want to be. I declined some opportunities that, perhaps, would have led me to a much more exciting life. Perhaps not, perhaps I’d have failed the challenges. But in the end, I found my own way of life, found out what’s important to me and what challenges I have to overcome in order to get happy. I made some wrong decisions, but also a lot of right ones. I learned a lot. I found out a lot about what makes me happy. I think that some of these revelations would have taken a much longer time, had I chosen a different path through life.

If you want to know more about the book, Andy Behrman also has a web site about Electroboy. German news magazine Der Spiegel published an article about Behrman in february.

Monday, 04 April 2005

Samuel R. Delany: Empire Star

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 23:09

[cover]Empire Star is the novella that started my interest in Samuel R. Delany, many many many years ago. As a teenager, it fascinated me, it opened up a whole new view of what a writer could do with language and story-telling. The story of “Comet Jo” stuck in my mind, who has to go on a journey to discover his true self, and meets himself again at the beginning of his journey. The circular nature of the story captivated me, and the frequent hints that all may be more complicated (or multiplicated) that it seems at first glance held my interest.

For a long time, Empire Star was out of print. It has now been published again together with Babel-17, because at about 90 pages, it is too small to be published on its own. I’m very glad to have it in my bookshelf again. I originally read it in a dreadful german translation, and have since lost the book that contained it.

Sunday, 03 April 2005

Kochbücher: Encyclopédie de la cuisine asiatique

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 21:19

[cover]L’encyclopédie de la cuisine asiatique (Linda Doeser)

Mein dickes asiatisches Kochbuch. Hier kommen die ganzen (oder die meisten) leckeren asiatischen Rezepte in meinem Blog her. Laut Impressum die Übersetzung eines englischen Kochbuchs (The Ultimate Chinese and Asian Cookbook), aber ich habe nur noch die französische Übersetzung gekriegt. Eine deutsche Übersetzung scheint nicht zu existieren.

Die Enzyklopädie ist ein reines Rezept-Buch, kein Koch-Buch: eine Sammlung von 400 Rezepten auf 500 Seiten, mit vielen Bildern. Über die Qualität der Rezepte kann sich ja jeder hier in meinem Blog selbst überzeugen – ich habe auch das Gefühl, dass ein paar der Rezepte vielleicht “ursprünglicher” sind als in anderen asiatischen Kochbüchern, oder ich sie zumindest in anderen Kochbüchern noch nicht gelesen habe.

Das Sprachproblem hat sich auch als lösbar herausgestellt, mit französischem Wörterbuch und diversen Internet-Wörterbüchern. Und wenn man partout was nicht versteht, dann improvisiert man halt. Wie immer beim Kochen.

Wednesday, 23 March 2005

Jan Weiler: Maria, ihm schmeckt’s nicht!

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 09:40

[cover]Und schon wieder ein Buch fertiggelesen. Diesmal war es ein echter Quickie; den Grossteil habe ich am Sonntag auf der Bahnfahrt von Frankfurt gelesen. Nur das Aufschreiben hat ein bisschen länger gedauert.

Weiler erzählt in diesem Buch lustige Episoden, die sich um seinen italienischen Schwiegervater und dessen Sippschaft drehen – angefangen von der Verlobung über die Hochzeit, Reisen nach Italien bis zu Beerdigungen. (Was davon sich zugetragen hat, und welche Teile nur der Fantasie des Autors entsprangen, wird natürlich nicht verraten.) Diese Episoden fand ich teilweise zum Schreien komisch – ich musste mich im Zug zurückhalten, um nicht laut loszulachen.

Im letzten Drittel des Buches wird ein eher ernstes Thema angeschnitten: Die Jugend des Schwiegervaters, wie er als Gastarbeiter nach Deutschland kam, und seine deutsche Liebe gefunden hat. Für sich gesehen interessant, gelingt dem Autor hier der Spagat zwischen Komik und Ernsthaftigkeit leider nicht; im Kontext des Buches wirken diese Episoden eher aufgesetzt. Die letzten beiden Kapitel danach sind leider nur noch ein müder Abklatsch der Form, die im ersten Teil des Buches vorgelegt wurde.

Wie dem auch sei, eine Zugfahrt ist mit diesem Buch schnell und kurzweilig rumgegangen.

Monday, 21 March 2005

Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 14:57

[cover]I did finish it after all. I skipped some of the sex and torture scenes in the later part of the book, because they were just too gruesome.

“American Psycho” is the story of a psychopathic murderer. Written in the first person, it recounts the life of Patrick Bateman, a young, wealthy investment banker. His life revolves around the right choice of clothes, the right choice of restaurants, the right kind of shaving mousse, aftershave and hair lotion, going to the gym, watching videotapes on his expensive a/v system, and going out with his yuppie friends – who are so wrapped up in their own life that they sometimes mistake him for one of the other cookie-cutter yuppies. Coming from a wealthy family, Bateman does not have to work for a living, but he maintains the façade anyway, because his life would be even emptier if he did not.

In order to vent the frustration of his conformist life, and to pierce the boundaries of civilised life around him, he starts torturing and murdering people – starting with a bum that he slashes on the street, and progressing to more and more elaborate torture scenes and murdering more and more in the open. His surroundings completely fail to notice anything out of the ordinary about him. In one scene, he tells a female acquaintance that he works in “murders and executions", and she thinks he said “mergers and acquisitions".

The torture and murder scenes are described in excruciating detail and form a stark contrast to the empty shell of a life that Bateman leads otherwise. The terror of the book does not arise from the descriptions of the murder and torture scenes, but from their contrast to Bateman’s mundane life.

Is it a good book? Some people praise it as a modern classic, some say that Ellis should have put it on the shelf for another ten years. I think it is an important book – it captures an important aspect of the society in the eighties and early nineties, the yuppie culture, and the terror that can lurk behind civilised society. I’m glad I read it.

Oh, and I’m reading Electroboy at the moment.

Friday, 18 March 2005

Jasper Fforde: Lost in a good book

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 00:49

[cover]I’ve already finished another three books, and haven’t found the time yet to write a review. Apparently, I have too much time on my hands at the moment; I read as many books in the first three months of this year as I had in the whole of last year.

As I predicted, the middle book of the trilogy is better than the first, but worse than the second. Fforde’s writing is slowly picking up speed, and the ideas are slowly getting more absurd.

I don’t know whether I’ll read the trilogy again – the first two books were a disappointment, and all in all, Fforde is no match for a Douglas Adams or Robert Pirsig.

Friday, 04 March 2005

Jasper Fforde: The Eyre Affair

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 11:45

[cover]This one is Fforde’s first book in the Thursday Next trilogy; I had read the third one (“The Well of Lost Plots”) previously and then decided to get the other two as well.

I was somewhat disappointed in this one; it seems that Fforde is only getting up to speed for the other two parts of the trilogy. In comparison to “The well of lost plots", “The Eyre affair” is rather tame, and not as surreal or phantastic. The story takes place before the protagonist (literary detective Thursday Next) gets transferred permanently to the BookWorld; it describes her first journey into “Jane Eyre", in pursuit of a master criminal who holds Jane for ransom.

It is basically a detective story with some science-fiction/alternate reality elements. But the detective parts are not very good, and the science fiction elements aren’t very convincing either. The pacing of the story did not win me over either; this is something you do not notice in the third book, but becomes readily apparent when the surreal elements are lacking.

A good introduction to the storyline, but I’m counting on the second part of the trilogy to make up for it.

Sunday, 27 February 2005

Kochbücher: Die grosse Schule des Kochens

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 15:13

Ich koche normalerweise relativ wenig nach Kochbüchern. Meistens koche ich aus dem Gedächtnis, oder koche etwas nach, was ich schon einmal gegessen habe – oder ich koche etwas ganz neues, von dem ich mir vorstellen kann, dass es gut zusammen passt. Manchmal klappt das gut, manchmal nicht …

Wenn ich doch mal ganz genau wissen will, wie man etwas kocht, oder Inspiration suche, habe ich natürlich auch ein paar Kochbücher, in die ich reinschaue. Ich will diese nach und nach hier vorstellen; den Anfang macht mein Standard-Kochbuch:

[cover]Die grosse Schule des Kochens (Anne Willan)

Dieses Buch ist ein Kochbuch im eigentlichen Sinn des Wortes, kein Rezeptbuch: Hier liegt der Schwerpunkt nicht auf einzelnen Rezepten, sondern auf der Vermittlung von Grundlagen über Zutaten, Kochtechniken und Grundrezepte. Dabei werden wirklich alle Bereiche abgedeckt: Angefangen von Kräutern und Aromazutaten über Milchprodukte, Fisch, Gemüse, Geflügel, Fleisch, Teigwaren, bis zu Desserts und Backwaren.

Der Inhalt der über 500 großformatigen und dicht bedruckten Seiten lässt sich nicht in ein paar Zeilen wiedergeben; ich glaube, alles was man jemals über das Kochen wissen möchte, findet sich in diesem Buch. Die Rezepte orientieren sich dabei hauptsächlich an der französischen und europäischen Küche, bei den Zutaten wird aber auch auf viele exotische Gemüse und Früchte eingegangen.

Die Auswahl der Techniken scheint sich nicht nur an einer Privatküche zu orientieren, sondern auch an der Gastronomie und am à la carte-Geschäft. So finden sich Beschreibungen, wie man praktisch jedes kleinere Geflügel, Fische, Krustentiere und Wildtiere zerlegt, wie man Gemüse tourniert und verarbeitet, wie man Braten zubereitet, wie man Schokolade und Zucker im Konditor-Bereich verarbeitet wird, … Die Fülle an Informationen ist einfach unbeschreiblich.

Ich benutze dieses Buch hauptsächlich als Nachschlagewerk – egal, welche exotische Zutat man gerade beim Chinese gesehen hat, für welches Standardgericht man ein Rezept braucht, über welche Gemüsesorten oder Fleischgerichte man einen Überblick will, hier findet man alles.

Monday, 21 February 2005

Hunter S. Thompson kills himself

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 13:58

The author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson was found dead last night (Reuters story). A news overview is on Google Groups.

Thompson is best known for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which he describes a booze- and drug-filled journey to Las Vegas, undertaken by Thompson’s alter ego Raoul Duke, and his attorney Dr. Gonzo. It was made into a major feature film, starring Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke.

A fitting end for a great writer.

Saturday, 19 February 2005

Jasper Fforde: The Well of Lost Plots

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 18:23

I actually finished this book a couple of days ago, but the last week (and the week before) were murderous, work-wise, so I didn’t have the time and patience to write a review.

Fforde reminds me of Douglas Adams and Terry Prattchett at their best – the same boundless creativity. The difference is that whereas Adams and Prattchett write in the science fiction or fantasy genre, Fforde practices a kind of literary navel-gazing: He writes about the fictional “BookWorld” that exists only in books. In this world, the inhabitants of the books enact the scenes in a book for the readers. An Outlander (from our, “real” world) transfers to a detective novel that is in the process of being written for some holidays; but since she is no ordinary mortal, but a literary detective and member of the JurisFiction (the BookWorld police), she has to manage all kinds of adventures and save the day before she can get her well-deserved rest.

The book is the third in a series, but the story didn’t depend crucially on the events of the first two books. The BookWorld is wonderfully described, and the author is very inventive as regards the details of life inside a book. Numerous characters make guest appearances, for example Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Falstaff, the Cheshire Cat, the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland.

I think I’ll go to the bookstore on monday to get the other two books in the series.

Saturday, 12 February 2005

Still more of the same theme

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 00:54

Three weeks ago, I remarked that all the books I was reading at that time seemed to be about mental illnesses.

Well, I went to the bookstore today to pick up a few novels. I had just finished my seminar and felt in the mood for buying some light reading to distract myself. And promptly, I gravitated towards The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. After finding out that the protagonist is suffering from Asperger’s syndrome (which is a mild form of autism), I put it down again – and picked up Will Self’s Dr. Mukti. Reading something about psychoses on the cover, I put that one back as well.

And I already have Andy Behrman’s Electroboy on my amazon wishlist, which is about manic depression. (Behrman has also been nicknamed “the real American Psycho".)

As this theme of mental illnesses keeps reoccurring, perhaps I should just give in and reserve one bookself for my “psychotic department". And try to read the books one after the other, just not four of them at the same time.

What did I buy in the end? I did find something lighter: The Well of Lost Words by Jasper Fforde. My bookstore was offering a pack of three of Fforde’s books for €14.80, but I chickened out and bought just one of them. That probably means that I’ll pay more for the other two …

Tuesday, 01 February 2005

David Sedaris: Naked

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 23:29

Another collection of essays, basically the same as “Me talk pretty one day”. Same comments apply. On the upside, I didn’t spend much time on this one.

Monday, 31 January 2005

Matt Ruff: Ich und die anderen

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 01:29

Matt Ruff’s “Set this house in order” (german title: “Ich und die anderen") is giving his writing a new direction and will certainly endear him to an audience that dismissed him before: He leaves the science fiction and fantasy genre behind and writes a novel without dragons, without fairies, without submarines and androids – exploring a much stranger place: the human mind.

STHIO is about two people with multiple personalities, or, in current psychotherapist lingo, suffering from dissociative identity disorder. One of them – Andrew, the narrator – is in therapy, but he is content with having multiple personalities. One of his personalities has been assigned “housekeeper", keeping the others at bay and assigning each soul its share of “body time". The other – Penny – is still unaware of the fact that she’s multiple, and suffers from frequent blackouts when other souls take over.

The meeting with Penny prompts Andrew to further investigate his past and find out more about the cause for his multiple personalities. A nervous breakdown sends both of them on the road from Seattle to Michigan, Andrew’s home, in order to finally settle the accounts and “set this house in order".

The book is extremely well written, and Matt Ruff certainly has a knack for telling complex storylines while causing a minimum of confusion. The portrayal of the two bodies with their numerous souls, each with its own unique character, is very sympathetic, and more often than not with a tongue in cheek. As regards realism, the author himself describes the book as a kind of what-if scenario: What would it be like if multiple personalities worked in such and such a way?

I found the book thoroughly enjoyable. Many thanks to my uncle Peter, who gave it to me for christmas; he did a very good job when picking this book.

Thursday, 27 January 2005

Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 15:05

Unfortunately, watching the movie first ruined the book for me. Oh, I do not say that the book is bad, or that it is so much worse than the movie. The problem is that the book and the movie are so much alike that I cannot judge to book on its own merits: I always heard Edward Norton’s voice when reading the book; every time Tyler Durden was mentioned, I had a mental image of Brad Pitt, Big Bob looked like Meat Loaf, and Angel Face looked like Jared Leto, complete with bleached hair.

I have rarely seen such a complete adaptation of a book; congratulations to David Finch. But I will have to read another one of Palahniuk’s books until I can really judge his writing.

Sunday, 23 January 2005

Chuck Palahniuk in Cologne

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 17:46

Chuck Palahniuk, University of Oregon graduate, author of Fight Club, is reading at the lit.Cologne festival on wednesday, march 16th. Details are here.

Thursday, 20 January 2005

A common theme

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 21:27

It occurred to me yesterday that all the books I’m reading currently are about (or contain) mental illnesses and psychoses. I didn’t plan it that way, I wasn’t even aware of this fact when I bought the books, found them or when they were given to me as a gift:

  • Matt Ruff: Ich und die anderen (Matt Ruff: Set this house in order) was given to me by an uncle of mine for christmas; it’s about two people who suffer from dissociative personality disorder, ie. they have multiple personalities.
  • David Sedaris: Naked details the author’s obsessive-compulsive childhood, among other topics.
  • Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club was made into a major movie starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. The story revolves around a disillusioned young insurance clerk meeting a guy named “Tyler Durden", who introduces him to various “fringe activities", leading him from harmless pranks to a full-scale terrorist attack. In the end, “Tyler Durden” turns out to be a facet of the protagonist’s own mind.
  • Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho is already a classic, giving a first-person account of the life of a serial killer: Well-to-do yuppie, works on Wall Street, murders people at night.

Seperately, all those books are a good read, but all four at once are pretty hard to stomach. I picked something lighter to read in addition to those four, and I’ll put some of them on hold, I think.

Saturday, 15 January 2005

David Sedaris: Me talk pretty one day

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 22:33

Hm, that was a quick read. I got that book yesterday afternoon, and I’ve already finished it.

Imagine part “My big fat greek wedding", part Armistead Maupin and part Matt Groening. The result would be almost, but not quite, totally unlike David Sedaris.

I have to admit that I never really got what is so funny about Mark Twain, or Dave Barry, and the whole concept of a humorist somehow eludes me. That someone can write about everyday things, and it is supposed to be funny because he is writing about it – that concept is somehow alien to me. Sure, Sedaris’ book is funny. Kind of. Interesting. A light read. And I’ll probably read the other one I have here ("Naked") too.

But he does not provoke quite the kind of howling laughter that Robert Rankin does, not the quiet chuckles of Stephen Fry, not the delight of Douglas Adams.

Wednesday, 12 January 2005

Michael Marshall Smith: Spares

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 20:55

A very dark book about a future world where clones are bred as “spares” and kept on farms for the event that the original has an accident and needs a transplant. A former cop decides to free the spares on his farm and teach them to speak, to read and write, in order to allow them to lead a somewhat normal life.

When one of his spares is supposed to be operated on, he flees from the farm and takes the spares with him. Lots of violence ensue, a clash with his old enemies, death, destruction and carnage, and a happy end after most of the characters are dead.

The first half of the book was a pretty long read; it gets better after that.

Saturday, 08 January 2005

Stephen Fry: The Hippopotamus

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 00:02

Crusty old hippopotamus of a poet laureate Tedward Wallace goes to East Anglia to solve the case of his godson’s alleged miracles. Curious writing style that switches from letters to first-person narration to third-person narration. Mystery is not Fry’s strong side, but the wonderful language makes up for that.


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