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Who am I?

You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Mon, 07 Mar 2005

Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk
Picked this up in my big library trip of a couple weeks ago. Again, recommended by a friend. Plus, I've been curious about Palahniuk since seeing Fight Club. I really like his stylized writing in a lot of ways, and it's easy to see the resemblance to the style of Fight Club. I didn't really connect to any of the characters, though, so I didn't get into it as much as I do some other fiction. For me, fiction is all about identifying with characters, I think. The early years of Buffy, when the Scooby gang were all high school outsiders? Total identification. Gilmore Girls with Lorelai's mother issues? Yup. Miles Vorkosigan's brand of demented genius. Ender's loneliness and supernatural observation skills. Pretty much all of the fiction I like has a central character that I identify with strongly. So when I don't connect to the characters, I tend to feel eh about a book, no matter how beautiful or creative the writing. I'm just not enough of a literature geek yet, I guess.

posted at: 22:36 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 26 Sep 2004

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
As previously noted, I picked this up after reading a book of Wallace essays and enjoying them quite a lot. It's an enormous book, 980 pages with a further 100 pages of end notes. I've been slogging through it for the past six weeks after borrowing it from the library, and finished it yesterday.

It's a sprawling book. And yet, none of the dozens of characters end up being well-developed. There's not a single character that I feel like I "know" them after reading this book, the way I do in character-based fiction like the Vorkosigan series or the Stephanie Plum series. There really isn't a plot to speak of. The ending just kind of fizzled out without ever following up on events that are mentioned earlier. There's some interesting digressions, but it's hardly worth reading the entire novel for. Maybe I'm missing something, but it really seems like Wallace is an excellent short-form writer who strung together some brilliant observational essays interspersed with hundreds of pages of relatively uninteresting events. Wallace's random one-liner observations about people are often far more interesting than the actual episode surrounding them. I was pretty disappointed by the experience, obviously.

The digressions I liked included:

Anyway. I think I might pick up some more of Wallace's shorter works, fiction and essays, because I do like his writing and his sharp eye for absurdity. But I'm going to steer clear of the novels in the future.

posted at: 13:10 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 13 May 2004

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
I never got around to reading Ayn Rand in college when everybody else did, but I was going away for a week on business, and wanted something long but compact to read, so I picked this up in paperback form at the used bookstore. Her basic thesis of Objectivism is that reason and egoism should be the principles upon which society is based. In particular, capitalism is the ultimate economic system because rational self-interest will cause great things to happen. Rand also has a view of the world where there are great heroic humans that we should not hold back. From the Ayn Rand Institute webpage, "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

Atlas Shrugged is a morality tale, expounding the dire consequences that would occur if we went down the road of communism rather than capitalism (the book was written in 1957, so this was a relevant question). I think she takes things to too extreme a level, but her ideas are interesting. And I can definitely see why many nerds take up the banner of Objectivism so enthusiastically in college. Early on, she captures the feeling of being surrounded by people who don't get you, who prattle on endlessly about meaningless topics, which is a feeling that nerds are all too familiar with when trapped in parties with people talking about fashion and the like.

She also makes a pretty compelling case to me of the result of truly following the concept of "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." She talks about the inevitable race to the bottom that would occur if such a philosophy were truly put into place as each person tries to outneed the next, and the corruption that would be endemic to such a system. Not a bad description of what happened in the Soviet Union, from what little I know. She also emphasizes the total disincentive for people of ability to work under such a system. In fact, the whole book is a novelistic exploration of what happens when the heroic producers go on strike against such an unjust system.

All in all, I think she makes a lot of good points, especially given the era in which she was writing. The novel definitely drags in places (1000+ pages), especially where she inserts multiple page soliloquys about the horrors of a communistic system and how it holds the true heroic producers in shackles. In fact, I skipped the final 50-page long speech by John Galt, because I just couldn't take it by that point. But it was worth reading, and I have to admit that my personal philosophy has a lot of similar elements to objectivism. And the novel was persuasive enough that even though I think she goes too far, I spent some time thinking about what she had to say and trying to figure out why I thought she was too extreme. And a book that makes me think is always a good thing.

posted at: 08:30 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Wed, 10 Sep 2003

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling
It's a Harry Potter. What more needs to be said? It's a honker of a book - 900 pages. But fairly entertaining. And darker. Definitely the Empire Strikes Back of the series. Although my first guess as to what was going on was incorrect, alas.

posted at: 16:58 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 28 Jun 2003

John Henry Days, by Colson Whitehead
I really liked Whitehead's first novel, The Intuitionist, so I'd been meaning to read his follow up novel for a while. There's a nice writeup of it, including an excerpt, at Random House's website. I finally got it from the library a couple weeks ago. Whitehead is a really good writer. His observations of modern life are interesting, and his descriptions are often sumptuous. He still needs a bit of work on plotting - the vignettes on the lives of peripheral characters were often more interesting than the main story line. Recommended.

posted at: 05:35 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 31 May 2003

The Getaway Man, by Andrew Vachss
I really like most of Andrew Vachss's work, especially the Burke series, so I had to buy this. It's a throwback noir novel, in a style appropriate to the 1930's or so. What's interesting is that the protagonist, Eddie, is a pretty simple fellow, as opposed to the street intelligence of Burke. Eddie gets caught up in schemes beyond his comprehension, but concentrates on doing his job as the driver, and ignoring what he doesn't understand. Eventually, he gets caught too deep, and has to make some choices of his own. I wouldn't say it's Vachss's best work, but it's definitely interesting.

posted at: 08:27 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Wed, 07 May 2003

The Cheese Monkeys, by Chip Kidd
Subtitled "A Novel in Two Semesters", this book tells the story of a freshman arriving at college in 1958 with no real idea of what he wants to do, and his introduction to the world of art. Chip Kidd is apparently a graphic designer of some renown (according to one cover blurb, "Chip Kidd altered the face of publishing with his revolutionary book jackets"), but this is his first novel. Some of the most interesting sequences occur in the second semester of the book, where our protagonist is taking a graphic design class from a decidedly unorthodox teacher, who, one would assume, is the teacher that Kidd wished he had. I picked it up completely at random from the new books section of the library because it had a striking cover, and I'm glad I did.

I really liked reading this - I ended up finishing it in a morning, partially because it was due back at the library soon, but also because it was just fun to read. There are several entertaining quirky characters involved in improbable situations. Plus there's some meditations on what it means to be an artist, and how to get your message across, which is self-referential to Kidd trying to get his own ideas across here, of course. And I really like the tone of the book, which is best demonstrated by including an excerpt here, for which I'll probably get sued, but what the heck.


Two days later, we were on our way to the Hutzle Union building to renew Mills's campus parking sticker when suddenly she chirped, "Hey! It's the Happy-Clappies! Let's go give 'em a spark."

As you've no doubt deduced by now, Miss Dodd had a rather thorny view of religion, which was best summed up by the fact that she got thrown out of vacation Bible school at age eleven for making a St. Sebastian toothpick holder in Crafts.

Every now and then, walking past Old Main, one would spot the Campus Crusaders, a flock of prematurely Redeemed Souls who felt it wasn't enough that God was your Crater, he also had to be your Pal.

"Look at them. It's illegal to be that happy."

A chunky girl in a red plaid skirt who appeared to be completely normal casually walked up to Himillsy and asked, just a little too loudly, "Did you know that Jesus loves you?" She handed us a pamphlet with a cartoon drawing on the front of the crucified Savior, bleeding like new dungarees in the wash. He looked ecstatic, as if he'd just won the Lottery. Hims took it and used it to fan herself, even though it was just below freezing.

"Of course, dear, and we're just dying to get married, but Mummy is dead set against it." Hims leaned into her, very conspiratorial, "He's N.O.K.D., and if we elope she'll cut us off."

Our little Merry Magdalene didn't seem to understand. She turned to me, on to her next mission, and said, now a tad unsure of herself, "God loves you too."

"Obviously," I said. "I'm white, I have a penis, and fabulous taste."

Himillsy's surprise had just the right note of archness. "Darling! A penis? Really! Why didn't you tell me? Whose is it?"

"Not sure. I haven't opened it yet."

"Oh come, let's do!" she said, taking my arm. "You must really rate! All I got was a slash that smells like carp and leaks blood every month!" She winked at the girl - whose face was as blank as her checks to the Church.

We skipped away, arm in arm. Hims looked back to the group, right before we made the corner, and shouted, "Praise Him!"

posted at: 01:21 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 05 May 2003

Girls' Poker Night, by Jill Davis
I saw this book at Borders one evening on my walk through San Francisco. Since I've been getting into poker recently, the title intrigued me. I read the first 10 pages or so in the store, and I really liked the tone of the writing. A wry edge to some humorous observations. But I wasn't willing to pay full price for it, so I didn't pick it up then. I looked for it at the library, which didn't have it, so I ended up tossing it into my next Amazon order, a fact which I hesitate to admit since the book screams Sex and the City to me (single gal moves to NYC, starts up a poker night where she and her friends discuss the state of their lives and their boyfriends). I did enjoy reading it, though. Entertaining anecdotes, and a strong narrative voice which keeps things light-hearted.

posted at: 23:51 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 24 Mar 2003

Shopgirl, by Steve Martin
Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) wrote this little novella about a shopgirl in Los Angeles and her affair with a successful older businessman. In some ways, it's a more meditative and thoughtful version of his movie, LA Story, focusing more on the isolation and desperation of those who came seeking their fortune in LA and have settled for much less. And it explores the different relationships we can have and the different reasons we pursue them. A quick little read, but with some interesting thought behind it.

posted at: 13:36 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal