Came back from picking Viv up at the airport to find a neighbor’s delivery truck had popped the cable-company line to our house. Since we haven’t used cable services since we bought the house it was mostly a hassle in figuring out how to deal with the line in the road.

The original install had routed the house-side stay around a telephone line that appears to have been routed under our vintage vinyl siding, so I had a tiny cardiac moment in fear our DSL and land line were out, but they proved to be fine.

The real hassle started when I tried to get ahold of someone at Comcast (er, Xfinity) to report the downed line so that they would come and get it. There was no way to interface directly with Seattle-local CSRs, and the offshored CSRs could not file a report unless I had a customer number. I just hung up on the nice Ukranian lady who was telling me this in the middle of her family’s night.

I hopped in the car and drove up to the cable offices, not too far away, where I took a number and waited for forty minutes for a two-sentence interaction with the in-person CSR. She told me unambiguously that the downed line was being reported and that a technician would take care of it.

The interaction was so short I was not sure if she had even actually recorded my contact information, so after I got home I called Seattle City Light and discussed things with them too. I ended up filing a ticket with them as well, although the phone rep there said she thought SOP would be that the City truck would come by, the dudes in the truck would verify that it was not a City line, and that would be the end of it.

Instead, the City truck rolled up just after five and the dug in the truck was awesomely helpful and immediately took the line off just below the hanging lines on the pole. We joked about copper theft and in the end decided against putting a sign on the cable advertising it as free.

A few minutes later, a Comcast truck actually showed up! The cable guy was bemused but not unhappy that the City had already taken care of it.

Sadly I had to miss going to see Bill Vollmann read from his latest, “The Dying Grass.” Viv was not ready to eat when she normally is and felt her blood sugar was running high, so I just waited it out before serving. Unfortunately, that meant we did not finish eating until seven, when the event was slated to begin in downtown Seattle. There was no realistic way to expect being able to arrive there before seven-thirty and of course parking is another matter entirely.

The phone rang three times yesterday when I was unable to get to it and as it rang I knew it was Bill; it rang once more today at five or so and again I was unable to reach it. So I suppose I’ll drop a quick note. I am genuinely bummed about missing the reading.

Strange links

A couple links to critical material on Norrell & Strange:

Cynn Corvus, a series of personal essays on the book, essentially an enthusiastic and literate reader’s reflections, basically an internal monologue, on the book. Includes an essay on Clarke’s short stories as well, which I skipped in order to permit me to read them fresh when I pick up the book.

Corvus fails to tease out the intended etymology of d’Uskglass but effectively disembowels the stated heritage of the name.

Crooked Timber’s online “seminar,” conducted with the participation of Ms. Clarke in late November 2005.

Starstruck update

Update to my posts of a week or two ago.

In the interim of buying a new set of the original Epic run on eBay and the new copies arriving, I, of course, found the missing box of comics that contained the original copies. It turns out I had not picked up one of the original issues when I was a kid, and it was one of the issues that was expanded for the new collection.

I think it’s a good idea for me to review the original incarnations soon.


Listening to William Gibson on the radio, I suddenly remember buying the paperback edition of Neuromancer at Left Bank Books in the Market. Thinking about it I realize I may have bought it new, on initial publication. After looking up a bibliography of his stuff, I am surprised to see he published consistently in Omni throughout the 1980s, and therefore I realize I was familiar with his short story work before I picked up the book.

I clearly remember finding the book on the shelf and deciding to buy it without knowing who the author was.

Here is a signed first edition of the book, in the same cover dress as the one I recall buying, for sale at the reasonable price of $750.00.

Holy crap. I guess I should see if I still have it.

UPDATE: Predictably, it is not on the shelf. Curiously, I could not find any of the early edition Gibson paperbacks I know I once had. I suppose in a moving frenzy I put them in the cull pile and hauled them down to Twice Sold.

On the good side, that sets me up for some catalog chasing along the lines of what I pull with Wolfe, Vollmann, Aldiss, and Moorcock.

ex gReader PM weighs in on UI redesign

Brian Shih on the new gR UI:

Reader redesign: Terrible decision, or worst decision?

Google released the previously announced set of changes around G+ integration and UI updates today, and boy is it a disaster.

…it’s as if whoever made the update did so without ever actually using the product to, you know, read something.

When you log into Reader, what the hell do you think your primary objective is? Did you answer “stare at a giant header bar with no real estate saved for actual reading”?

Anyway, yeah, what he said. When I dropped into Reader via browser this afternoon I was, uh, disconcerted to see only the first ten or fifteen unread items in my list. I poked around looking for a way to invoke a higher-density screen view but there was no obvious way to do so. With the navigation elements showing a displayed article occupied less than a quarter of my screen real estate, and any articles which included inline graphics were cropped mid-image.

Hitting “F” zapped all the chrome and presented the selected article, one at a time. There was no reasonable way to view the article content in conjuction with a generous list of other article headers

I strongly suspect this implies similar inbound downgrades of information density in gmail’s default view, which would be shitty as hell.

Crimes in Southern Indiana

(I expect that I will post this on my own blog as well. I use the formal “Mr.” convention here for reasons I hope are obvious.)

A few weeks ago I noticed a flutter in the twittersphere concerning a just-released book, Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana.

(Mr. Bill maintains an active blog at Frank Bill’s House of Grit.)

Preveiwers were generally excited about the book, and reviewers have also been kind. Here’s part of the publisher’s blurb:

Welcome to heartland America circa right about now, when the union jobs and family farms that kept the white on the picket fences have given way to meth labs, backwoods gunrunners, and bare-knuckle brawling.

Bill’s people are pressed to the brink–and beyond. There is Scoot McCutchen, whose beloved wife falls terminally ill, leaving him with nothing to live for–which doesn’t quite explain why he brutally murders her and her doctor and flees, or why, after years of running, he decides to turn himself in. In the title story, a man who has devolved from breeding hounds for hunting to training them for dog-fighting crosses paths with a Salvadoran gangbanger tasked with taking over the rural drug trade, but who mostly wants to grow old in peace. As Crimes in Sourthern Indiana unfolds, we witness the unspeakable, yet are compelled to find sympathy for the depraved.

Honestly, how could I not read this book? I already see the hilly forested hills of my native land as a heart of darkness. Here is someone looking to write that myth in the form of pop fiction. I tweeted about it, think I mentioned it on Facebook, thought I had mentioned it here. That last, I never did. I am remedying that right now.

Bill Zink, a faithful correspondent and sharp critical mind, followed up on my lead and read the book and posted about reading it on his blog, The Death of Everything. He took as his starting place Mr. Bill’s use of music in the book, and noted that the specific artists cited – Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” in one scene and Dock Boggs’ “O Death” in another – took him out of the narrative because it was improbable that these specific pieces of music would have been easily available as broadcast or ambient sound in the time and place of the narrative.

The Cash is cited in a tavern just before a fight breaks out and here I’ll disagree with Mr. Zink: that cut has been on jukeboxes since it was released, and Mr. Bill places his stories in time dispersed from the postwar ear to what appears to be the present day. The other citation, “O, Death,” I recall as described as coming from a radio as well, and here I concur with Mr. Zink in his critique of the song as unrealistic.

There’s one other reference to music in the book. A supporting character is described as wearing a worn Drive-By Truckers tee shirt. Here again, that is a reference beyond the probable horizon of the character in question.

I’m pretty sure these three referents are intended both as scene-setting for the audience and as signposts to some of Mr. Bill’s influences. Additionally, the use of period-and-setting inappropriate music in the context of a film is a useful and effective technique to add atmosphere and expand the referents of a scene. The bar fight in Kathryn Bigelow’s wonderful Near Dark, for instance, is set to the Cramps’ “Fever.” The viewer imputes the tune as coming from the jukebox, and in 1987 backwoods bars definitely did NOT have cuts by the Cramps on the jukebox.

I don’t feel like I need to expand on why someone with an interest in writing backwoods noir would be interested in the work of Johnny Cash or the Drive-By Truckers, and I probably don’t need to explore the use of Dock Boggs either, but that last one is a thread worth expanding anyway. I would also venture that the films “The Dancing Outlaw” and “The Wild and Wonderful Whites” are also influences.

The book is a collection of short stories set mostly in far Southern Indiana, along the northern bank of the Ohio. The stories overlap in characters and setting and occasionally in narrative events. Without a detailed knowledge of the original publication order of the stories, my own sense is that the book presents them in roughly the order of creation. The very first story cycle concerns a blood feud between two hillbilly outlaw families and the prose is florid. My impression was that the language in these three stories reflected a young writer and could have benefitted from more-rigorous editing. In particular some repetitions in the prose did not appear to me to serve a clear aesthetic purpose, although I can see where repetition in prose concerning meth users could serve a useful purpose.

After that set of tales, the author’s use of language generally tightens up, and an outline of a project begins to glimmer though the blood and the bodies. It seems like Mr. Bill is looking at the body of American Appalachian folklore, very definitely including the amazing American murder ballad tradition, as a sort of foundation for the stories he’s creating.

One of these tales features the murder of a spurned lover literally in the waters of a river, which is of course one of the great wellsprings of these murder ballads.

The initial trilogy of tales concerning feuding hill clans is an old trope in American fiction and beyond, of course. It looks to me as if he pulled back from writing about the mythical hillbilly other to write about experiences that are closer to a livable, reportable experience – a good two-thirds of the stories in the book, I estimate, include viewpoints alongside law enforcement personnel.

Toward the end of the book, he reintroduces some of the characters from the clans at the start of the book and looks to be working his way back to them.

There is a split in the prose throughout the book. When Mr. Bill is writing about the ‘other,’ which I hasten to add may not actually be his perception of the hillbilly crankers, his use of words gets, I dunno, overenthusiastic. Confused somehow. Metaphors compressed down to literal actions, reactive verbs transformed into active verbs. When he writes about the more prosaic actions of an officer of the law, clarity comes into the writing. Thinking about this, I wondered if that reflected reportage versus imagination or memory, and I think that’s a reasonable thesis.

On his blog, he’s recently posted links to a spot of autobiography, in We Brought Tomorrow Until Today Was Gone, and to the Granta-published online-only The Heartland: Ten Years After 9/11, which is reportage. In the autobio, there are recongnizable antecedents to characters seen in Crimes in Southern Indiana.

One last note: MFT member and Southern Indiana songwriter John Terrill, Bloomington author Bill Weaver, and New Orleans based DJ and guitarist Matt Uhlmann are all from Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which is on the northern bank of the Ohio. All three have close ties to the music scenes that spawned MFT. I was curious if Mr. Bill’s settings or life experiences might have crossed ways with these guys, but apart from Mr. Bill’s mother being named Sue Weaver, it seems unlikely.

Mr. Terrill may share a sensibility with Mr. Bill, though, as evidenced by this Rosebloods track, Whiskey River. I couldn’t figure out how to embed the song here for one-click play, my apologies.

Zero History

Finally started Gibson’s Zero History, which I had been putting off for months. I’m happy to report it is entertaining me very much.

The book is about industrial espionage in the global clothing industry. A major supporting character is introduced wearing a ridiculous suit in International Klein Blue, and the hardback’s boards are this color. This little joke make me smile every time I pick up the book and, distressed, note my oily finger stains here and there on the spine.

An aspect of the book I find very peculiar is that it feel tremendously nostalgic to me – Gibson has allowed his futures of the past to merge with ours, and rightly so. Reading his earlier stuff always felt like some sort of message from a prophet as he described various improbable ways of navigating a comprehensively networked world. Well, now we live in that world, albeit without widespread use of wetware jacks and eye-glasses based HUDs.

I have developed a fascination with Japanese pro baseball in the wake of the Tohuku quake, and have been flabbergasted at the ease and accessibility of any given thing to do with it. Mind you, not via completely constructed tollways.

There’s no automated crossposting of NPB team goods from the primary site of the Japanese ecommerce giant (and Tohoku Sendai Golden Eagles team owner) Rakuten, but it’s trivially easy to view any given subsite on Rakuten in English, if machine-translated.

Likewise, only the tiniest amount if imagination and investigation was required to find unofficial internet relays of any given live Japanese (and Taiwanese) baseball game, the largest challenge being staying up lat enough to watch the games. I have mostly been watching them, as I did the tsunami, on my iPhone.

The Sun that Burns

On Saturday, I spent the whole day sitting on the beach near the San Onofre nuclear plant, reading. The whole day was cool, and the morning, from 10 to 1 or so, was grey and misty, quite pleasant.

Just as the clouds pushed back offshore, the Goodyear blimp mosied on by, headed south at about 800 feet. I friended it on Facebook and said “hi” on its’ wall as it passed.

I was finishing Harold Dick’s memoir of his time working in Freidrichshafen on behalf of Goodyear-Zeppelin during the rise of the Nazis and had just finished the book when the ship flew by.

I then picked up Gary Shteyngart’s recent and widely-praised “Super Sad True Love Story” and read it through at one sitting. Much of the novel’s intended amusement factor stems from the author’s satirical visualization of virtualized socialization and workflow in the context of an apocalyptically dysfunctional state. I had heard the author in a couple of interviews during his book tour and he was incredibly funny, as were his readings from the book, so I cracked the book with high hopes.

Instead, although I have no specific grounds to critique the experience on, I was sort of disappointed. I did, it must be noted, read the whole thing in one sitting, without even tottering across the burning sands to take a potty break, so it is empirically inarguable that I found the book engaging. I even feel a sort of bemused guilt that I didn’t like it more.

I mean, come ON, highfalutin’ litt’ry dystopian satirical SF? Christ, it’s the genre I should be praying for, if I were to take religious precepts with any kind of seriousness at all. And I will say this: while Shteyngart leaves a couple plot points dangling, and acknowldges them as such in the context of the book, taken as SF, it’s pretty good.

But I guess I had formed the idea that I would bust a gut reading the book. I still feel like I should have – Shteyngart is merciless, showing little sympathy for his characters or their (our) culture, and this is my favorite style of comedy, the Coen Brothers at their most contemptuous or Dan Clowes in high, self-indulgent dudgeon.

So I don’t quite get it. Shteyngart should be my new BFF. But my strongest reaction to the book was a kind of bemusement; I couldn’t figure out why wasn’t really digging it. it was, um, OK. It was alright.

I mean, it’s tight, it’s fluent, it’s clearly the work of a really gifted writer, someone hitting on all cylinders, from command and craft of language to plotting and subtheme. But instead of getting excited, and laughing or yelling or crying or wanting to talk about the book once I finished reading it, I was sort of puzzled by my lukewarm reaction to it.

However, I will likely long remember reading it, because my traveling companions at the beach that day did not bring any sunscreen, and I was too absorbed in reading to think about it. The net result? Full-on second-degree burns on my legs, from above my knees to the middle of my feet. I’m learning a lot about burn care.