Books of 2015, #10: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

No, I’m not late to the party; this is a re-read. Frankly, I almost never do this, but I was so underwhelmed by The Goldfinch that I bought a new copy of History — a fancier, literary edition, compared with my falling-apart paperback from 20+ years ago — to bask in what I remembered as her best work.

I did this with some trepidation, obviously. Often we go back to works we though amazing, only to discover our tastes have changed, or that we remembered it better than it actually was, or some combination thereof. I’m happy to report that I wasn’t disappointed here, though — frankly, the book is probably better than I remembered it. I’m certainly better educated at 45 than I was at 22, so more of her classical references landed with me the second time around.

This isn’t to say it’s not a LITTLE precious. The book does a sometimes-delicate, sometimes-clumsy dance between being timeless and being rooted quite seriously in its era. Her cadre of isolated classics students dress and act as though they could belong to any decade back to the Jazz age, or even the Victorian era, but for occasional references to cars or planes or politics. Their instructor is similarly unmoored in time, in a way that I think academics might envy.

Tartt’s recurring themes and traits are of course here: envy of easy privilege, wastrel figures with big trust funds and family money, an uneasy orbit of New York and wealth, all seen from an outsider who is from the hinterlands and cursed with an inconvenient poverty. Richard is very, very like The Goldfinch’s Theo in all these ways (and, we wonder, not unlike Tartt herself, who left her native Mississippi to attend Bennington, the school that is the transparent inspiration for History‘s Hampden).

The prose here is a bit overwritten, but not in a clangy way, and we would do well to remember how young Tartt was when she wrote it. It’s not really a problem. And you’re made of wood if her descriptions of ur-collegiate Hampden don’t make you nostalgic for your own college years even if you went somewhere not comprised entirely of northeastern university stereotypes.

The story itself has stood up well. It’s not a whodunnit at all; the murder is front and center from page one. The story is how they GET to the murder itself, and remains solidly captivating the whole time. As with my first run through this book, I read it nearly compulsively and finished it in about two days.

I’m rambling, but the point here is that it’s still a solid book well worth your time. I kind of sorry she didn’t get better notice for this one, because I see it as a superior work to Goldfinch despite the latter’s prizewinning resume.

In Which We Bitch About Name Collisions

I’m planning to upgrade my laptop this year, as is my custom. I do so every three years, give or take. Mrs Heathen usually takes my old one as hers for light duty (email, web, the odd Office doc), which also serves as my “emergency backup” machine until it’s recycled or donated when the next new machine enters three or so years later.

Laptops have gotten good enough that the three year cycle is starting to seem a LITTLE extravagant, but two things drive the upgrade this time:

  • First, I’m about to be out of warranty, and it’s my work machine.
  • Second, I have no backup, and haven’t since 2012. That year, we were robbed, and they got my then-2-year-old machine. A month or two later, the then-5-year-old prior machine gave up the ghost as well. We got Erin an 11″ Air, but I can’t work on that for lots of reasons.

There’s actually another factor, too: it seems like CPU power might finally have come to the point where I could buy something other than the top-of-the-line full-size Macbook Pro. Time was, a 4.4 pound laptop was svelte, but that’s just not the case anymore; the 13″ Retina Macbook Pro is a full pound lighter. (The Air and the newly introduced just-plain-Macbook are nonstarters for technical reasons.)

That said, I do worry a little: the 13″ laptop ships with a fast CPU, but it’s only a dual-core chip. The 15″ machines have quad-core chips, meaning they effectively have four CPUs while the smaller one has only two. And it’s not at all clear to me how much difference this makes to me.

I feel like my machine is only rarely CPU-bound despite its fairly heavy duty cycle — lots of Lightroom, plus I run a Windows VM all day every day. Memory is likely the bigger problem, plus I/O. But that’s a hunch, and I don’t want to marry a laptop on a hunch.

Turns out, there’s a tool I could use to watch my CPU usage over the course of the day. It’s an old-school command-line Linux-heritage tool called “sar,” but it comes with OS X. There’s lots of examples online of how to use it, but as is often the case with command line utilities, it looks like there’s some serious differences between the Mac version of sar and the Linux version.

No problem, right? Just ask Google, and be sure to specify the version of OSX!

Well, turns out, that doesn’t work so well.

Screen Shot 2015 04 09 at 9 19 13 AM

Tomorrow should be a holiday

I’ve long considered celebrating anything about the Confederacy to be morally questionable if not outright obnoxious, but I could make an exception for this: Make the Confederacy’s Defeat a National Holiday.

There’s no escaping that those who fought for the South were committing treason at every turn — and were doing so in defense of slavery. They didn’t want to be part of a country where all men were created equal, and so they took up arms to attempt to force the issue. They failed. And we should celebrate their failure.

Tomorrow marks 150 years since Lee’s defeat at Appomattox. Raise a drink to the Union.

Thanks, John.

This is a good man.

IMG 2904

He was only my stepfather for something just over 19 years, but I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know him. It was a smallish town. He and his family lived around the corner, and his youngest was one of my brother’s earliest and best friends. We all went to the same country club on Saturdays, and the same church on Sundays. In season, we hunted the same dove fields. Dad took care of the Green animals, and Doc took care of the Farmer eyes.

Eventually, everyone got divorced, because it was the 70s and such things were mandatory. (My parents liked it so much they did it again, even.) Eventually, though, everyone was single. And then, at some point — I can’t recall exactly when — mother and John began dating. I don’t know if it was before my father died or not, but it didn’t become a serious Thing until fairly late in high school for me. They took their time with it, for sure. I think, by the time they married in 1996, they’d been dating for over a decade. The six kids all sort of assumed they’d do it as soon as the youngest two left home, but Frank and Mary Beth matriculated at their respective schools in the fall of 1993, and they waited another 2+ years. Old people, man.

John was, without a doubt, the best thing to ever happen to my mother. Frank and I were grown and gone by the time they married and combined households, so he was always more “our mother’s husband” than “father figure,” but that didn’t stop him from treating us as his own in every way. And we loved him for it, and especially for how he treated our mother.

Our mom is tough and solid and no-nonsense, because she had to be as single mother in the 70s and 80s. She was a single mom twice, really, first because of the divorce, and then in a much more serious way after dad died in 1986. She was due some easier years, and some time being taken care of, and John gave her both. He doted on her, cared for her, and made her happier than I ever remember seeing her. They traveled together — big, fancy trips! — and they loved it, but I’m not sure they didn’t love spending time on John’s tree farm more. It’s quiet there, and peaceful, and serves as a fantastic antidote to loud, chattery modern life. They knew what they wanted in a marriage, and how to do it and take care of each other. In that, they have been especially inspiring.

John turned 80 this fall — he’s a bit older than Mother. I guess we all knew that, well, 80 is getting up there. Something might claim him. On the other hand, he’s traditionally been hearty, hale, and healthy kind of guy — he split his own firewood until fairly recently, and was fond of long hikes in his woods, so even as we knew he was 80, I don’t think any of us quite accepted that he was, like all of us, a fragile human.

Last October, just before his birthday, he was diagnosed with inoperable metastatic cancer. Given the particulars, he refused any but palliative care, figuring that for him and for his family, getting the most GOOD days beat out simply living longer in a medical haze.

We had a wonderful birthday party for him the next month — there are pictures. The holidays were as rich and delighful as I ever remember them being in Mississippi. Erin and I got to spend a lot of time there, just being with him and with mother and with our shared, extended family. There are pictures of that, too.

After the holidays, he began to dwindle. Hospice care began.

This morning, about an hour ago, mother called me. John Green, one of my favorite people ever, has passed away. He was 80. We will miss him terribly.

IMG 6671

Today in GPS Amusements

At the Tour de Houston afterparty, a friend noted that, when his wife had a season-ending crash on the TdH last year, her GPS track showed it quite clearly. We checked the track for my last November ride, and sure enough, it’s pretty clear for me, too:

Screen Shot 2015 03 15 at 3 54 16 PM

Heh. I dunno if someone thought to stop it or what, but I remain surprised that the track doesn’t show the part with my bike in the car post-crash.

45 & a small, good thing

It’s my birthday. I’m 45.

This year has had some really good things in it — another MS150, a great summer and fall of cycling, a great cruise, wonderful visits with friends and family, and Erin got a new job! — but some pretty serious rough spots, too. Obviously, I broke my hip in November, and that’s been a long haul, but around the same time my stepfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

I had thought, years ago, that this year would be one I threw a big party. 45 is a big number, and it’s one of those rare years when my birthday falls, as it did in 1970, on a Friday. Widespread uncertainty about my leg kept us from planning anything — we didn’t get the “yup, fracture’s healed & gone” report until Wednesday — so it’s turned out to be a low-key year instead, for that and lots of reasons. I’m a little bummed about that, but not a lot.

But there’s one more than that puts me in a good mood about it today, and it’s an example of a kind of enduring friendship we probably don’t give enough credit to. In elementary and middle school, one of my best friends was a guy named Paul. Paul and I were in the same scout troop, took the same smart-kid classes, and lived reasonably close to each other. In high school, we moved in somewhat different directions, but we’ve always been friends. I remember, on a whirlwind trek from Tuscaloosa to UVa one weekend in 1990 (to help a buddy see a girl), I dropped in on him to say hi. And that may be the last time I saw him in the flesh, which makes the rest of this even more remarkable.

Paul’s not on Facebook or any social media I’m aware of. We don’t email, or really communicate outside the following. But for the last 7 or 8 years, Paul has called me on my birthday every year, without fail. He’s a busy guy — so am I — and we live very different lives now. Paul’s a cardiologist, recently moved from New Orleans to Nashville, and is the father of quadruplets. Obviously Heathen Central is a nerd lair of the first order, and features cats, not kids. But he remembers, and calls, just to wish me a happy birthday.

It’s a nice thing, and it’s the sort of thing that reminds me to be grateful for the life I have, bumps and all, because it has so much joy and happiness in it even when things seem tough.

Happy birthday to me. Cheers. Know that I am insanely grateful for you all.

The CIA is the enemy

They’ve been working for YEARS to break into Apple’s devices, going so far as to try to infect the tool chain (i.e., the software development tools).

As Marco Arment points out:

What would you call a targeted attack on one of America’s most successful and beloved companies in history in order to break security protections, spy on millions of citizens, intercept their communications, and steal their data?

Unpatriotic? Absolutely. Terrorism? Maybe. But those don’t quite capture what this really is: war.

The United States intelligence agencies are at war against all U.S. citizens.

Seen at physical therapy: March 11

  1. A Rolls Royce. There are plenty of super fancy cars in Houston, but seeing an actual Rolls is still pretty rare. I’ve seen more Lambos than Rollses. Very shiny. Possibly related to items 2 or 4 below (or, well, 3 for all I know):

  2. Josh Hamilton. I had no idea who he was. He stopped to talk to my therapist Chris — who is, apparently, also his therapist — and they looked briefly at some footage of him batting in a cage as part of his rehab program. The hits sounded solid; I said so after he’d walked away. Chris, realizing I had no idea who he was, enlightened me once Hamilton was out of earshot.

  3. A likely Holocaust survivor. Well, either that, or a very, very old man of obvious European extraction who just randomly had a number tattooed on his forearm.

  4. Seattle Seahawk Earl Thomas, whom I also didn’t recognize. Chris pointed him out after telling me who Hamilton was.

That’s a damn good question: Why DOES the FBI go manufacturing terror plots?

The Intercept asks a question we should ALL be asking: ?

The FBI and major media outlets yesterday trumpeted the agency’s latest counterterrorism triumph: the arrest of three Brooklyn men, ages 19 to 30, on charges of conspiring to travel to Syria to fight for ISIS. As my colleague Murtaza Hussain ably documents, “it appears that none of the three men was in any condition to travel or support the Islamic State, without help from the FBI informant.” One of the frightening terrorist villains told the FBI informant that, beyond having no money, he had encountered a significant problem in following through on the FBI’s plot: his mom had taken away his passport. Noting the bizarre and unhinged ranting of one of the suspects, Hussain noted on Twitter that this case “sounds like another victory for the FBI over the mentally ill.”

Books of 2015, #8: The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

I rarely read fantasy, but after meeting Rothfuss on the nerd cruise I decided I’d make an exception and sample his trilogy. I say “trilogy,” but only two books yet exist, with legions of geeks clamoring for more.

It’s okay. The tale, at least in the first volume, is really two stories: Kvothe, a hero famous in his world, is in hiding as a pub owner, but has been found by a royal Chronicler and cajoled into telling his story. AT the same time, though, Creeping Evil is threatening the land, as is so often the case in such stories. We get very little of the latter story in The Name of the Wind; just enough to set the stage. Mostly, we’re concerned with how an orphaned child manages to become this known-and-feared character.

We don’t get very far here, I’m afraid, but it’s not for want of pages. Rothfuss, like so many of his contemporaries in fantasy, seems to mistake volume for quality. There’s a much more agile book, no less interesting, lurking inside hundreds of extraneous pages. Kvothe’s rise is inevitable, given the framing story, so an endless litany of ups and downs is, beyond a certain point, really just plate-spinning. I was reminded of Gravity, and not in a good way, because you know very well that nothing bad is going to happen to Sandy Bullock. The filmmakers just needed 91 minutes of stuff to happen before she could be safe.

I sorta feel like Rothfuss thought he needed several hundred pages of stuff here before he was willing to let the plot move, and that’s not necessarily so. Kvothe is an interested character, but I’m not sure I’m signing up for the rest of the trilogy unless I hear he’s hired a better editor.

Here’s something I wonder.

This weekend marks 50 years since Selma.

I know lots of folks from Mississippi and Alabama who are 70 or older. Every time an anniversary like this comes up, I wonder “what were YOU doing then, when these folks were beaten on the bridge?”

History is judging the anti-civil-rights crowd very harshly, but don’t those who sat it out bear some responsibility, too, for not helping? To what degree is “I was in school” or “I was busy” an excuse?

And then I wonder: what am I sitting out, or not noticing, or not helping with today, that my nieces and nephew will wonder about in 20 or 30 years?

I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s Microsoft, after all.

I keep my personal calendar information separate from my corporate calendar. Work stuff is in an Exchange calendar, and personal stuff is in Apple’s iCloud calendar. Since the native Mac calendar can read from both servers, I can easily see my whole calendar there. Ditto on my iPhone and iPad.

However, heretofore, I haven’t bothered trying to show my iCloud calendars in Outlook 2010. It’s been a nagging thing-I-need-to-investigate for a while, but what pushed me over the edge was scheduling snafus brought about by the sudden influx of daytime medical appointments (scheduled, naturally, on my personal calendar) that were invisible to Outlook. See, 90% of the time, the calendar I consult before accepting a business appointment is the sidebar (“To-Do Bar”) calendar in Outlook.

That Outlook can’t see dinner parties is one thing. That it couldn’t see midday physical therapy sessions was becoming a problem. So, today, I went looking for a way to show all my cal data in Outlook, too. Turns out, getting that data in Outlook is pretty simple — you just download iCloud for Windows from Apple, and like magic you can see your contacts and calendars from iCloud in Outlook. Nice.

But because this is Microsoft, and they hate you, there’s a grotesque limitation. Sure, you can SEE your non-Exchange data in the Calendar mode in Outlook, but the To-Do Bar — which is the only calendar I ever use in Outlook — is limited to your DEFAULT calendar, and cannot show data from any other calendar, either from Exchange or another data source.

WAT.

This makes utterly ZERO sense, because even if I kept my personal calendar data in Exchange, it’d be in another calendar, not co-mingled with every business appointment ever. Having NO WAY to show a real and accurate sidebar calendar in Outlook is just baffling. Or, rather, it would be baffling, if it weren’t from MSFT.

So much for at-a-glance functionality. If I’ve gotta switch modes to see my days, I’ll just turn off calendars in Outlook entirely and use the Mac calendar instead, because this is some bullshit. It’s also bullshit that gets WORSE in Outlook 2013, since the To-Do Bar has apparently been significantly dumbed down there. More reason to eschew that particular upgrade.

Your Monday Morning Random Fact

Owing to the appearance of the Cradle of Love video (which is fun for lots of reasons, not the least of which being the prominent placement of both a cassette deck and an ancient Macintosh) in this morning’s drink-from-the-Internet-fire-hose, I’m now in a position to remind you that David Fincher directed a shit-ton of pretty iconic music videos in addition to the “Cradle” clip before he started making movies, from artists like Paula Abdul’s (“Straight Up”, “Cold Hearted”), Madonna (“Express Yourself”, “Vogue”, “Bad Girl” (which featured Christopher Walken)), Don Henley (“End of the Innocence”), Aerosmith (“Jamie’s Got A Gun”), George Michael (“Freedom ’90″), and others.

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging

While Lenovo has made some noises about understanding what a giant shitstorm they’re in, their erstwhile partner Superfish has doubled down on the bullshit and continues to insist they did nothing wrong DESPITE universal condemnation from security experts.

I repeat: every single person involved in the decision to inject fraudulent certificates as part of their install should be blackballed from any industry that even touches computers forever.

Did you buy a Lenovo? You may be fucked.

That’s blunt, but it’s really about the size of it. Lenovo included a particularly shitty form of ad-ware called Superfish on some of their laptops that watches what you do online and serves ads targeted based on that data. The trouble with that approach — and I mean that from the perspective of the ad people, not you — is that secure browsing sessions can’t be watched, and for privacy reasons MANY sites are going to https-only. (This is a good thing, unless you’re a creepy ad person.)

Well, Superfish decided to “solve” this “problem” by fundamentally breaking certificate security. The mechanism here is fairly technical, but I break it down for you in lay terms, I think.

  • When you use a secure web site (i.e., https and not http), you’re using a technology called “SSL”.

  • SSL relies on special bits of data called “certificates”.

  • SSL certificates do two things: They encrypt your traffic between your browser and, say, Chase.com; and they verify to you that the site you think is Chase.com really is Chase.com. This second part sounds insignificant, but it’s a HUGE deal because, for technical reasons, it’s terribly feasible to masquerade as a site on the Internet. Or, potentially worse, pretend to be the real site while watching the traffic for interesting bits (e.g., credit card numbers and passwords) while still sending the traffic on to the “real” destination. This approach is called a “man-in-the-middle” attack. (More about this from Ars Technica, if you’re interested.)

  • Certificates are issued by generally-trusted security authorities, though there can be a chain of trust, from A to B to C.

What Superfish did was insert its own certificate as a trusted authority on affected laptops. This is absolutely worse than the Sony rootkit fiasco of a few years ago. It’s mind-bogglingly stupid and awful, and the situation is made worse by both Lenovo’s and Superfish’s utter refusal to recognize how badly they’ve fucked up. Lenovo’s initial response even included a line about how their analysis showed no security vulnerability, which was manifestly untrue and they knew it. It’s since been edited.

Superfish, on the other hand, still says they create no vulnerability. Honest to God, every single person involved with the decision to do this deserves to be drummed out of the software and IT industries at a bare minimum. Absolutely blackball these fuckers.

If you’ve got a Lenovo, you should absolutely remove the Superfish software AND the certificate. Just zapping the software won’t do it alone; you have to kill the cert, too.

If you do not do this and you are affected, it’s the same as not using encryption at all, so every banking session, every shopping session, and everything else you do on your computer is effectively public. I am not exaggerating.

If all this seems technical, you’re in luck: Lifehacker has an “am I infected?” test link up.

It’s a shitty decade that has no Hunter Thompson in it.

And we just finished the first of many. Hunter S. Thompson, 7/18/37 – 2/20/2005.

Hunter s thompson liebowitz

I posted this before, the day after he died (this site is old, yo), but it’s worth reading again. For my money, it’s one of his best passages; it generally surprises folks when I tell them what book it’s from:

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history,” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what’s actually happened. My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights — or very early mornings — when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L.L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was. No doubt at all about that . . . There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave . . . So now, less than five years later, you can go up a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eye you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

It’s Friday. You need some new music.

You should totally pick up on Zoe Keating.

Keating plays the cello, which is awesome from the getgo, but what she does is way more amazing than just that. She builds a composition in real time using only her cello and her laptop, using loops to create remarkable and amazing landscapes of sound. Her work is beautiful and haunting and absolutely worth your time. I’ve been a fan for years, and then had the fantastic good fortune to see her live on the JoCoCruise back in 2013. Here’s video of that performance, from YouTube:

I’m picking this video (and there are lots; Keating is savvy about internet fair use) for two reasons: one, Mrs Heathen and I were there watching (see here), and two, at that moment Keating was unaware of the terrible, rough road that lay ahead of her.

Soon after the end of the cruise that year, her husband Jeff was diagnosed with cancer. Her tangles with her health insurer made plenty of news, and should terrify everyone, but the real point is that in addition to dealing with her spouse’s life-threatening disease, she also had to force and shame her insurance company into covering his care. Oh, and raise a toddler. There’s that, too.

Keating’s husband had ups and downs in his treatment, but the initial diagnosis was pretty dire and included multiple metastasis sites. That’s a shitty hand to be dealt, and the endgame was probably already set before they even knew what was happening.

That end came yesterday.

It’s because of the peculiar nature of the JoCo cruise that I can tell you that yes, Keating is a terribly nice person, as was Jeff. If what you see and hear in the video above appeals to you, please consider buying some of her music today. They could use the help.

So, about that SNL 40 Afterparty

First, HOLY CHRIST MAN THAT SOUNDS AWESOME.

The best part is set up by this:

“They have a stage set up with just instruments: drums, mics, guitars, bass, keyboard, but no band,” Fallon said. “Just a set up in case anyone wants to get on stage and jam.”

Second, pretty much only Fallon could tell that story and not come off like an asshole. You still get the idea that he cannot believe his immense good fortune. For him, part of it are just a story about his friends (when he references cast members), but in the rest of it he’s just as starstruck as anyone else would be.

(To be fair, Seth Meyers gave a shorter recap, and he’s equally amazed and charming — and points out what Fallon kind of buries, which is Jimmy’s key role in making the jam happen.)

Dept. of Next-Level Crafting

Over at this Reddit thread, you can see a dress a woman made herself, from scratch.

By “from scratch” I do not mean a Simplicity pattern and fabric. I mean she started with a sheep, sheared it, combed the raw wool, then spun it into yarn, then wove the yarn into fabric, and then made the dress.

Oh, and she made the tools she used, too.

Books of 2015, #7: The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

I actually bought The Shining Girls last year, but for some reason my initial sampling of it didn’t hook me, so I put it aside and forgot about it until the JoCo Cruise this year when something else (which I won’t name) proved too awful to continue. Since I was on a boat in the middle of the ocean, my options were limited to what I had on the Kindle app of my iPad, and so I took another run at The Shining Girls.

I’m glad I did. It’s not great literature by any stretch, but it’s definitely inventive and definitely well crafted. I don’t want to give too much away — it’s very much an Idea book — but the gist is that there exists a sociopath who happens upon a house that allows him to travel through time, and that seems to compel him to seek out and viciously kill certain young women. Working against him in this is the inevitable sole surviving victim, who is (sadly, I must admit) also spunky young newspaper intern whose interactions with her superiors are distressingly predictable (see here and here and here, and I’m not sorry for sending you to TVTropes).

Even so, it’s a fun read, and turned out to be just the thing to read on vacation. Give it a spin.

Books of 2015, #6: The Widening Gyre, by Robert B. Parker

Parker may be dead, but Spenser lives forever. Or, at least, for me he lives until I run out of Spenser novels. This one‘s an early one — the 10th in the series, published thirty-odd years ago. All the right elements are there, though, and even though it’s quite a bit more by-the-numbers than the later novels, it was still a fun afternoon read. How do you NOT love a detective novel named from a Yeats poem?

Special extra bonus points to Mrs Heathen for finding me this first edition in a used book shop a while back!

Books of 2015, #5: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

I should just come right out and say that I’m a David Mitchell fan. Having enforced downtime is great for some things, and one of those is reading serious books; Mitchell qualifies.

The Bone Clocks is a tremendous joy, but if I’m honest I also admit that it’s got its flaws. Possibly chief among them is that the warring factions here — without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the key conflict is between two groups of differently-immortal people who are, of course, on the down low — are each retreads of similar ideas from books I read previously.

The good guys here are very similar to the eponymous group from The Incrementalists, whereas our bad guys are even MORE similar to Doctor Sleep‘s True Knot. I’m not saying Mitchell cribbed either, but the resonance is too huge to ignore, and I found it a little offputting.

That said, the book is still really delightful for at least 2/3 of its volume. Mitchell delights in clockwork-clever asides and references (to his own work as well as popular culture and other writers’ works), and they’re out in force here, but subtly enough that they don’t detract. His plots, too, can be so intricately planned as to make a mystery writer weep, and that, too, is a delight — the final reveals here are really stupendous without being cheap. But he still kinda whiffs the last quarter of the book, in my opinion.

Also troublesome to me is his return to what is by now a pretty well-worn near-future trope: broad economic collapse based on climate change and drastic shifts in geopolitical power. I understand why this idea is compelling to some people — it’s part of our global anxiety about the future — but it’s hard to do without feeling preachy. Mitchell fails that test here, I’m afraid, and so that segment ends up being kind of a slog.

Fortunately, the book has many segments, taking place in many time periods, all generally touching on the same people at different points in their lives, and they work together to tell the story. Mitchell is kind of obsessed with time and long-form plots; if you take Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas together, you get the idea he’s working towards becoming a sort of paranormal Centennial-era James Michener, and I don’t mean that as a slight. Telling an epic story is a great goal, even if this time around Mitchell fails to meet the mark he previously set with Cloud Atlas.

Well, 40 years is a long time.

Last night, NBC ran the October 11, 1975 premiere of Saturday Night Live. I was struck by a few things in particular.

First, the tone and rhythm of the show is very different — pacing is weird and more haphazard, for example, which makes sense since the show as brand new and running at a time when they could generally assume almost no one was watching. It’s also way more of a variety show than the pure sketch show it became. George Carlin has several segments of standup, and the two musical guests — Janis Ian and Billy Preston — each get two songs. Jim Henson’s Muppets have a bit, even.

Second, there’s a LOT more show. The show as broadcast last night seems completely uncut; this may be the first time I’ve seen ALL of the first episode. There seem to be many, many fewer commercial breaks, and they’re shorter when they happen. I knew commercials had become more pervasive in my TV-watching life, but it was gradual. Seeing an example of 1970s TV today, complete with period breaks, is pretty shocking. (I’m willing to stipulate that 11:30 on a Saturday may not have been particularly appealing ad time, so maybe the first SNL has fewer breaks than a prime time show of that era would’ve had, but the difference is still shocking.)

Finally, well, you can’t help but notice how many folks in the first episode have died. Because I’m morbidly curious, I made this list of the dead people I saw, in the order in which they appear:

  • Michael O’Donoghue (1994, 54)
  • John Belushi (died in 1982 at age 33)
  • George Carlin (2008, 71)
  • Billy Preston (2006, 59)
  • Gilda Radner (1989, 42)
  • Andy Kaufman (1984, 35)
  • Jim Henson (1990, 53)

It’s sad to see that, of these, only Carlin lived past the three score and ten we think of as a “normal” life before dying of heart failure. Belushi of course did himself in, but the rest of them passed naturally despite their relative youth.

All of the surviving original cast is north of 60 now. The oldest, Garrett Morris, is 78. Dan Ackroyd and Laraine Newman are the babies at 62.

(Update: Alert reader F.D. notes that my order above was off; O’Donoghue appears in the first sketch, but I didn’t realize that was him.)