Monday, July 13, 2009

Trimming the Canon

A group of contributors at The Second Pass have compiled a list of ten books that should be stricken from the canon. As it says in the introduction, this ‘is a list of ten books that will be pressed into your hands by ardent fans. Resist these people. Life may not be too short (I’m only in my mid-30s, and already pretty bored), but it’s not endless.’

Among the list are several books I have read, and I have to agree that some of these choices seem justifiable to me. For example, I really did enjoy Don DeLillo’s White Noise when I read it about ten years ago, but it read as
dated even then. Sure it’s prescient, but when what it was prescient about is itself old news, perhaps it isn’t a crime to skip this.

Also must concur with the elimination of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I only read this novel because a friend of mine told me it was the best novel he had read that year (2006, I bel
ieve). As The Second Pass notes, the plot is secondary and the characters so vague that they can be nothing but archetypes. The prose can be commended separately I suppose, but when putting it in service to such a mediocre tale, it makes a person wonder what the point is.

Perhaps a bit more surprising is the inclusion of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which I read in high school and thought was for the same sorts of people who thought ‘enlightenment ala Robert Pirsig’ was cool. Maybe I just don’t get the Beat writers. But the exclusion of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was quite shocking. Not so much because of the call for decanonization, but instead that it is part of the canon in the first place. I really liked the book when I read it last month, but would I have classified it as a must-read? Of course not.

I’ve begun to wonder what other books might be excised from the foreboding list of all literature that you must read. The Merry Wives of Windsor for sure, as well as Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, a novel I found so incredibly overrated that it put me off of later-Roth for the better part of a year. The poetry of Sir Philip Sidney. But with the loose definition of canon used by The Second Pass, perhaps it wouldn’t actually be that hard to get rid of things, even books I loved. Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was fantastic, but no one is going to read that in fifty years.

I suppose lists of ‘canonical’ books are interesting because they give a reader a place to start, but as the piece points out, the lists are so long that one has nowhere near the amount of time to actually make it through everything (even leaving out the great books that would be written between now and the end of that reader’s life). So the impulse to throw out some of the ‘canon’ to make it more manageable makes sense, but somehow I doubt throwing out ten books really makes all that much of a difference.

A question: which books have you read that you would consider recommending against and adding to the list?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Better by Atul Gawande

If we wanted to save more patients’ lives in the medical system, is it more important to fund research that could perhaps find cures, or would it be more appropriate to invest time and money in improving the standards already in place? The tendency for us to say ‘more research’ is almost a given, but Atul Gawande, surgeon and staff writer for The New Yorker, argues that the later can have far more drastic effects.

In Better, Gawande explains that in medicine, as in nearly all human endeavors, variations in performance create a bell curve where most participants are merely at or below average. In this collection of essays, he studies this idea in the medical community and looks to find what separates the positive deviants from the rest.

Gawande writes about such the importance of hand washing, something one would think is a given in hospitals and doctor’s offices, yet shockingly staph infections in hospitals are transmitted to 30% of patients, a number that could be reduced dramatically using tools already in place. T
he doctor also covers ethics in medicine, from the use of chaperones when examining patients of the opposite gender and the role of doctors in capital punishment.

In covering medical interventions in slightly abnormal pregnancies, he makes a strong case that many caesarian sections are given when the old method of using the clamps on an infant would work just as well with an equal or better chance of complications. When studying the differences between a first class treatment center for cystic fibrosis and an average one, Gawande argues that the main difference is the ability of the medical staff to treat the person more than the disease and to be willing to think outside the box when it comes to diseases with which we have made relatively little progress on a cure.

In a stirring conclusion in which he offers five pieces of advice to medical students on making a difference in patients’ lives, Gawande says that it ‘often seems safest to do whatever everyone else is doing, but a doctor must not let that happen—nor should anyone who takes on risks and responsibilities in society.’ Technology provides many solutions and enables advances in areas previously thought impossible. But it is human ingenuity that underpins technological advance, and sometimes it is simple human practices that have the biggest impact.

Better is an entertaining and informative collection of essays with lessons that go beyond the specifics of practicing medicine. I look forward to reading more from Dr. Gawande in the future.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Losing the Peace by William Leisner

As has been noted numerous times in this space, I was not a fan of the universe-changing Destiny trilogy. However, I have found the follow-ups to put an interesting spin on said events, so I was looking forward to reading the first full story centering on the Enterprise after the devastating Borg attacks, Losing the Peace by William Leisner. Full disclosure necessitates that I note that while Leisner and I have never met, we do have a friendly relationship on several Trek discussion boards and are mutual friends on LiveJournal.

Being refitted at McKinley Station, the crew of the Enterprise awaits their orders while taking leave. Un
surprising to anyone, the fact that the Federation is not in a position to send the fleet into unknown space becomes clear when President Bacco informs Picard that his ship will be needed close to home.

The refugee crisis is impacting several planets, especially the ocean planet of Pacifica, which
you will of course remember is home of the Selkies, the race of Aili Lavena of the Titan. Beverly Crusher and Commander Kadohata lead a team to assess the refugee situation and provide what assistance they can. Leisner’s depictions of the refugee camp don’t really evoke the sort of crisis he trying to convey, but later in the novel, the reactions of outsiders to the 70,000 people stranded and living in tents does a lot to drive this home. But this situation overall serves not only a critique of the limitations of bureaucracies, but also of the very people those bureaucracies serve. Too often we think of government as the solution to our problems, as if there is a button on their desks they need merely press to provide assistance. The tension between the refugees and residents of Pacifica make this point without overstatement, and Leisner should be lauded for pulling this off.

However, the personal fallout from the crisis fails to be effective, but honestly this isn’t really the fault of Leisner. Instead, it is a result of the overall planning of Destiny and its aftermath; rather than seeing Earth or Betazed destroyed, we get Deneva. So the brunt of the crisis falls to seconday characters and cameos rather than squarely on the shoulders of the characters we have spent over twenty years investing emotion in. We first see this in the novel through the eyes of Arandis, the Risian played by Vanessa Williams in the worst episode of Deep Space Nine ever conceived. Risa was destroyed in the invasion, so it works pretty well to use her as a perspective to the crisis, but again it is hard to really feel the impact when the character is merely a guest star.

The invasion of the Borg wiped out the family of security chief Jasminder Choudhury, but she is such an undeveloped character that it is hard to empathize. In addition, the slimmest chance that her family is still alive is unrealistic to her for her family was apparently so good that they would never take a seat on an evacuation if it meant someone else would be unable to go as well. In fact, we later find out that her whole region was apparently saintly, for they left dozens of seats open rather than evacuate. I think that Choudhury’s struggle to deal with the deaths of her family might have been more compelling if she wasn’t all that close to them in the first place. Is she hadn’t spoken to her parents in years and wasn’t really upset about that situation, then the regret of never being able to make amends if she wanted to one day would be nonexistent.

Geordi deals with survivor’s guilt towards the beginning of the novel, but in unrealistic fashion apparently confronts these problems and heals himself in about fourteen seconds. The scenes as written work pretty well, but I kept feeling that these issues could have been drawn out over the whole novel, not only adding another subplot, but making the reader really see how characters they have invested in are suffering.

As the novel progresses, Picard disobeys orders only to have the clich├ęd result of that disobedience being the solution to greater problems. Admiral Akaar makes the brief but compelling case that the chain of command exists so that the wisest and most intuitive are at the top issuing orders, but that Picard obviously knew better in this and other situations so he is going to be promoted. His new position: director of relief efforts concerning the Borg invasion. But as must happen in order for the stories to continue, he turns down the promotion.

I’ve been all over this type scenario for years, but when the Federation is in a time of dire crisis and the powers that be have selected Picard as the man to lead the efforts in rebuilding, he feels no impetus to do so, no patriotic obligation to serve where he might most be needed. It’s not that I want Picard to no longer be in command of the Enterprise, rather I am tired of him being offered promotions that require the lack of verisimilitude when he turns them down. The impetus is to present Picard as a true explorer, but to me that doesn’t ring true with the character as presented. If he played his cards right, Picard could be the next president of the Federation; am I supposed to believe that someone isn’t whispering that into his ear?

Despite the main crux of this review, I think Leisner did a pretty good job with showing the fallout of the war. Without the overarching and strict plot structure, he is able to provide what amounts to a character piece. As the immediate aftermath of Destiny passes and the Federation gets ready to deal with the new threat of the Typhon Pact, it is nice to get such an intimate look at these characters and the aftermath of the Borg invasion.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Reading List: June 2009

I feel as though I have wasted the past month. I have written little, whether here or for school, and much of my reading has been confined to comic books. While I do have a paper in mind analyzing the layouts of Brian Michael Bendis, I am not sure that I can really call much of what I did read 'research.' As much as it pains me to admit, I am not sure that I work all that well alone. Rather, I tend to be much more productive with tight deadlines and when I am attending class where I can bounce ideas off and gain new insights by listening to my colleagues. Last summer was quite unproductive as well, but since I am done with classes forever, or at least until I pursue another degree, I need to learn how to get some real work done.

Anyway, the library turns out to be a great source of comics. Since I started using it as my main source for obtaining books, I've read at a much quicker pace than I usually do. Of course, it helps that I can just sample things without shelling out a penny. Minus the large amount of taxes I now pay, of course.


Continuing my quest to actually recommend something for you, I would have to say that Bill Bishop's The Big Sort was by far the best book I read this past month. I intended to write up some thoughts on it, but it all just seemed to be summarizing Bishop's arguments. Along with the work of Ken Robinson and a timely trip home to see my family, this book made me not only better understand the environment I was raised in, but has caused me to question in what sort of environment I want to raise my own children. Bishop argues that our immediate culture (neighborhood, peer group, church, etc.) have become homogenized over the past thirty years as people purposefully though often unconsciously move to be with people that think the same way they do. Check out the review on the New York Times website.

In the month of June, I completed 26 books and/or graphic novels:
  • The Push Man and Other Stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  • Ultimate Spiderman: Public Scrutiny by Bendis & Mark Bagley
  • Sleepwalk and Other Stories by Adrian Tomine
  • Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff
  • Ultimate Spiderman: Venom by Bendis & Bagley
  • The Chris Farley Show by Tom Farley, Jr. & Tanner Colby
  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Decimation: X-Men: The Day After by Peter Milligan, et al.
  • Civil War by Mark Millar & Steve McNiven
  • Shards and Shadows edited by Margaret Clark & Marco Palmieri
  • The Big Sort by Bishop
  • Batman R.I.P. by Grant Morrison & Tony S. Daniel
  • Sin City: Hell and Back by Frank Miller
  • Ultimate X-Men: New Mutants by Bendis & David Finch
  • Ultimate Spiderman: Irresponsible by Bendis & Bagley
  • Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Tatsumi
  • Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson
  • Ultimate Spiderman: Cats and Kings by Bendis & Bagley
  • Ultimate X-Men: The Tempest by Brian K. Vaughan & Brandon Peterson
  • Ultimate X-Men: Cry Wolf by Vaughan & Andy Kubert
  • X-Men: Deadly Genesis by Ed Brubaker & Trevor Hairsine
  • Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
  • Remix by Lawrence Lessig
  • 52, Volume One by Geoff Johns, et al.
  • Ultimate Spiderman: Ultimate Six by Bendis & Hairsine
Seeing as I am still not using this blog in the way I had intended originally nor the way I had thought of going a few months ago, I have no idea whether or how often I will post here again. I wait until something strikes me, but you see how productive that has been. Questions, comments, etc.