Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Kindle for iPhone update 1.2

The latest update to the Kindle app for the iPhone (version 1.2) has a welcome addition:  one can now add notes and highlights directly on the iPhone, and they will synchronize with the Kindle.  Previously, it was a bit frustrating to be reading a book on the iPhone, come across a memorable phrase or a thought worthy of notation, and find the app crippled in that respect.

This advance makes me look forward to the upcoming Kindle computer application.  I wouldn't expect to spend a lot of time reading on the computer, but the idea of having a book I'm reading available on whatever device I happen to be using is compelling.

Happy reading.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Unseen Academicals

Terry Pratchett's latest, Unseen Academicals, is a great read on the Kindle, or even, I'd imagine, in old-fashioned book form.  It takes place, of course, in Ankh-Morpork, the chief city of Discworld.  If you haven't read Terry Pratchett and don't know what Discworld is, it is an alternative world balanced on the back of a turtle where science really is magic, or perhaps the other way around.  It is, of course, our world seen through a funhouse mirror.

In this installment of the chaos that is Discworld--and by the way, you can pretty much jump in anywhere--the wizards of Unseen University find out that in order to maintain an extremely important bequest, which finances their meals and elaborate between-meal snacks, they have to field a football (that is, soccer to us Americans) team.  Since the wizards' previous exercise mainly involved running to wherever the food was to be served, this challenge of course presents a problem.  Combine this plot with a touching love story and a couple of other subplots, including one where self-knowledge gained leads to a real transformation, along with Pratchett's sharp sense of humor and ear for the absurd, and you have a winner.  I've read several of the Discworld series, and in my opinion this is one of the more successful stories.  $14.95 on Kindle.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I opened my copy of Wired today, and...

found that the Kindle 2 has been selected the "Mobile Device of the Year."  This is a very significant development as the Kindle had some stiff competition--the iPhone 3gs, the new generation of hand-held HD camcorders, and popular netbooks such as the MSI Wind, to name a few.  And a device for reading -- which no one supposedly does anymore -- won.  That's good news for books in general and e-books in particular.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol: You May Feel Guilty

Dan Brown, semiotician for the common man, brings us a fun page-turner (button clicker?  e-book readers need to coin a new word) in The Lost Symbol-- just don't get too hung up on, you know, facts.  It's all in fun, and there's a lot of that to be had.  But don't look at it too hard.  

The Lost Symbol is almost the definition of a guilty pleasure.  As the plot kicks off, Robert Langdon is on his way to Washington,  DC, to substitute, he believes, as a guest lecturer for his friend and mentor Peter Solomon, a wealthy academic and high-order Mason.  Solomon has, in fact, been kidnapped by an animalistically strong, heavily tattoed antagonist who, it turns out, had previously invaded Solomon's home seeking a Masonic artifact.

The subsequent plot involves races against time and a few cryptic puzzles to solve in a Washington, DC transformed into a puzzle composed of Masonic symbols.  While Langdon races to decode these Masonic secrets to save his friend, other interests work to prevent those same secrets from being found.

I found that this novel is a mix of pros and cons, and that my enjoyment of it was directly proportional to my willingness to suspend disbelief.  At it's best, The Lost Symbol is an intriguing and fun page turner.  The book introduces, then dismisses, some of the more common whacked theories about Masonry, such as that the word "Mason" is encoded on the back of a dollar bill.  This is used in a rather delightful bit of misdirection (literally).  Of course, this technique also imparts a patina of reality to the other mystical and conspiratorial ideas put forward in this novel.

At it's worst, the writing is kind of a soup of easy-on-the-mind cliches.  Poisons are deadly (What else would they be?), heroines become breathless, hands tremble, cold air blasts, etc. etc.  I think it's fair to say that discerning literary readers will not be satisfied with the prose; this is a book for those who enjoy getting wrapped up in the suspense of the plot, not the style of the writing.  One has to suspend a fair amount of disbelief, not the least of which is treating the metaphysical or possibly pop science field of noetics as hard science.  

To the extent that one can lose oneself in the intricacies of the plot and take some delight in solving some (not too difficult) puzzles, the book is a fun read.  I find myself less able to take seriously, except as a kind of fun fictional trope, the purported challenges to accepted ideas about the design of Washington, DC, the founding of the country, and the structure of reality that form the philosophical fabric of the book.

But I had fun reading it, and I refuse to feel guilty.

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