Sunday, February 26, 2012

Book Review: The City and the City, by China Mieville

I won't give away the central premise that drives The City and the City, because one of its main draws — something that blew me away as I read it — is the genius with which Mieville subtly introduces it. Unless you read the back of the book (and if you haven't yet, don't), you'd never know that anything was amiss for the first few chapters. Then it slowly becomes clear that this is no ordinary setting. Even the very first line of the book seems conspicuously trivial until you go back and read it later.

Setting aside, The City and the City is a police procedural murder mystery in structure. It starts with a body, and Tyador Borlu, detective of the Extreme Crime Squad in the ailing European city of Beszel, follows a series of clues to find the killer. However, the plot is more of a frame to hang the setting on than the central draw of the book. The path to resolving the murder mystery is one that passes through many of the peculiar implications of the peculiar setting.

The writing style is sparse but descriptive, with plenty of evocative neologisms ("topolganger") and clever phrases ("Schrödinger's pedestrian") that show off Mieville's writing chops. Dialogue is particularly well done, with characters speaking like they do in reality: interrupting themselves, trailing off, implying more than they're saying.

If I had to breach my unqualified praise, I would say that the subtle exposition of the setting gives way to heavy-handed over-explanation near the middle of the book. We already "get it" by that point, and it starts to drag as it loops over the same territory several times. Maybe it's to pander to people who would find the premise confusing, but anyone capable of thinking and reading at the same time should be able to follow along just fine. The weak middle makes the novel feel longer than it is.

It's a minor complaint though, and as I said, generally the ideas at play here are mind-blowing. The setting will have you thinking long after you put the book down. Was this a fantasy novel? Could a place like this actually exist? With our arbitrary cultural conventions and taboos, are we already living in it?

This is one of the best novels I've read in a long time. I highly recommend unseeing the real world for a while to explore the crosshatched streets of The City and the City.

If you wanna support this blog and are gonna buy this book anyway, get it from the links below and I'll get a cut:

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Tweeting With the Stars Volume 8: Derek Mears

This is Derek Mears:

He was a predator in Predators, is Kickpuncher, and is best known as the latest Jason Voorhees.

He is a badass.

Derek Mears is also hilarious on Twitter.

There is something amusing and encouraging about people who don't seem normal actually being really normal. Like when 50 Cent used to chatter away on Twitter like a teenage girl.

And seriously, restaurants gotta stop that shit. Better yet, just make all bathrooms gender neutral. Why is every bathroom door a magical time warp to a time when segregation of genders was good and wholesome? If we want to get rid of society's stupid-ass hangups about gender, maybe we should start with equality on the ground floor, where we are at our most human, squirting out our waste products.


See also:

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer

Memory is often taken for granted in a world where paper and transistors store information better than neurons ever could. Moonwalking With Einstein shines a much-needed light on the art of memorization. It could have been a dry collection of basic science and light philosophy on the subject, but Foer makes it riveting by telling the story of his own head-first dive into the world of memory as sport.

I had no idea this went on, but every year, there are regional and worldwide memory championships in which people compete to perform seemingly superhuman feats of memory, such as memorizing decks of cards as fast as possible, or recalling hundreds of random numbers. After covering one of these events, Foer became so curious that he began training to participate himself.

What he discovered is that these impressive acts of memorization actually boil down to a few simple tricks that anyone can learn. While not a how-to manual, the tricks are simple enough that anyone can pick them up just by reading about how Foer learned them. I can still recall a list of 15 unusual items (in order) that Foer's mentor, Ed Cooke, used to first teach the memory palace technique. It's only a matter of practice and refinement for anyone, no matter how forgetful, to memorize several decks of cards.

This humanization of the extraordinary carries throughout the book. Foer himself keeps a modest tone about his damn impressive accomplishments, emphasizing that he's just a regular forgetful dude who lives in his parents' basement. The other memory championship contestants, too, can do amazing things during the contest, but it's clear that the ability to memorize a poem doesn't translate to a successful personal life.

In fact, Foer is critical of those who do profit from using memory tricks. His contempt for Tony Buzan, the entrepreneur who makes millions on books and sessions related to memory, comes through every time Buzan's name comes up. He might as well add "coughBULLSHITcough" after every claim of Buzan's. More substantially, a tangent on savantism takes a strange turn when Foer begins to suspect that one self-proclaimed1 memory savant, Daniel Tammet, may have more in common with the memory championship contestants than with Rain Man2. When Foer confronts him about it directly, things get a bit uncomfortable.

By wrapping fascinating facts and anecdotes about memory up with his own story, Foer keeps it riveting throughout. This is one of those books that I literally had trouble putting down. Anyone with even a passing interest in the human mind should remember to stick Moonwalking With Einstein in their brain hole.

1 And expert-proclaimed; psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (yes relation) studied Tammet and was more convinced of his traditional savantism.

2 The inspiration for Rain Man, Kim Peek, also makes an appearance and is more convincing as having freakish memory naturally.