Another Year Older

Yesterday I had about as low-key a birthday as I can recall having. Last year we took the day off and drove up to Cal Academy, but this year I didn’t even take the day off. Well, I did take it off from going to the gym, and went this morning instead.

In the morning I opened presents (yes, I still get presents!), which was a nice set of stuff. One thing Dad gave me was a DVD set of the Doctor Who Black Guardian trilogy (which includes one of my five favorite stories, “Mawdryn Undead” – man I wish they could release Paddy Kingsland’s music from that separately, as it’s amazing). But when I opened it I noticed it included two copies one one of the three DVDs in the box, and none of “Mawdryn Undead”! Some sort of assembling problem where the DVDs are made, I guess. Fortunately, Amazon has a straightforward exchange system, and they sent me a new copy of the set which arrived today – and I didn’t even have to return the old one!

I had something of a blah day at work, unfortunately, as I was juggling a bunch of different projects, and that sort of juggling isn’t exactly what I prefer to be doing. Maybe I should have taken the day off after all.

Along the way I got a call from Dad, and about 50 happy birthday wishes on Facebook. I wonder how many I got last year?

In the evening we went to Sundance the Steakhouse for dinner, which was yummy as always. I was good and didn’t indulge in too much food during the day so I was able to enjoy all of my dinner. Though I was still too full at the end to get dessert!

Not perhaps the most memorable birthday, but I didn’t feel like making a big fuss this year. Maybe next year.

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

My alternate name for Cloud Atlas is “six stories in search of a novel”. It’s a series of six novelettes, each one nested inside the previous one. The six are ordered chronologically from the 19th century to the future, but each one is interrupted in the middle so the next one can begin. Moreover, the previous one appears in some form (usually as a book or film) which the characters in the next one encounter. Once the sixth story runs to completion, the stories unwind with each previous one being resumed and running to its end.

As a structure wonk, this intrigued me: What sort of larger story is Mitchell telling here? How can he wrap everything up when the end of the book is chronologically the earliest story? And the answer is: There is no larger story, and each story is effectively discrete from the others. The structure is merely a gimmick, and the book would have been perhaps only marginally less effective had the six stories been told in their entirety in sequence (mainly because the cliffhangers in several stories make you look forward to getting back to it).

So the structure was very disappointing. The movie Memento raises similar questions due to its structure, but uses its backwards-running format to great advantage rather than as a trick. (If you haven’t seen Memento, do so. You could argue it’s Christopher Nolan’s best film and I’m not sure I’d disagree.)

Not that the stories in Cloud Atlas themselves are without interest, but some reviewers’ claims I’ve read that Mitchell is writing each story in a different style are, to my mind, overblown. With perhaps the exception of the last story, which takes place in the far future, all of the stories seem clearly written by the same person, with very minor – if any – stylistic differences. It’s nothing like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion when it comes to showing off writing chops.

Considering the six stories on their own, the last one, “Sloosh’a Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ after” is the best one, occurring in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii where humans are trying to survive, and a ship with advantage technology comes by every so often. I’m a sucker for these settings, and Mitchell portrays this one very well, without even making the affected English of the characters annoying. And the ending is satisfying, too. The earliest stories – about an American notary touring the South Pacific and a disowned would-be composer in 1930s Europe – are the least satisfying (which makes the novel’s ending even more frustrating). The other three stories are all enjoyable enough, but nothing special, I felt. For the most part I found them enjoyable stories but not particularly notable, so I have little to say about them.

I’ve read reviews about thematic connections among the stories, but I think those connections are pretty weak, and at best fairly obvious observations about common characteristics of human nature. And the book makes so much out of its structure that it suffers a serious blow in that it doesn’t really do anything substantive with that structure.

All things considered, I’m not sorry I read it, but I can’t really recommend it, especially to anyone interested in it from a science fiction perspective. There’s probably a great novel to be made out of this structure and approach, but this isn’t it.

Holidays’ End

Hey, it’s a new year!

We had a nice New Year’s Eve visiting some friends and their kids; the kids conked out around 10, but we made it to midnight (despite plenty of alcohol earlier in the evening), and then somehow managed to stay until 1:30 in the morning. We quit drinking around 9:30 so we weren’t at all tipsy, though we were pretty tired, but the roads were quiet and we got home without incident.

New Year’s Day we met Nadyne and her husband for lunch, having all been communicating online for a number of years (not to mention living just a couple of miles apart), but we’d never actually met, so that was great to do, and they’re both very nice people (which we knew!). I guess this means we can invite them to our open house this year!

Debbi and I actually went back to work on Thursday, but our offices were both very quiet as most people took Thursday and Friday off to extend their holidays. I think we both got some stuff done, but it was not a fast start to the year.

Friday night we went to Cascal for dinner, and then we mostly had a quiet weekend. On Saturday I read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane on Saturday (I don’t often read a book – even a short one – in a single day). And we watched the football games. I was indifferent towards most of them, but I did root for the Niners over the Packers in the Really Cold Bowl today. The Niners won by a field goal, but it felt like they should have won by more given how the Packers defense (wasn’t) playing. Still, a win’s a win.

We also took down our Christmas trees. It’s nice to have the living room back to its normal state, but I do enjoy having the trees up for 1/12th of the year. We decided to leave the outside lights up for another week, which will probably make us about the last people in the neighborhood to take them down. But, not a big deal.

Hard to believe another holiday season – and another calendar year – is behind us.

All I want for this new year at this point is some rain. Northern California just completed its driest year on record, and the snow packs which supply a significant fraction of our water are at 20% (or less) of average for this time of year. Unless the next three months are a significant turnaround, it looks like it’ll be a water-rationing summer. And frankly I’d rather have the frigid temperatures the midwest is getting this week.