Sunday, August 4

The haul at today morning's farmers market.
The haul at today morning’s farmers market.

That right there is a picture of today morning’s haul at the Campbell farmers’ market. The fact that I haven’t been to this market in two years — rather, I hadn’t known of its existence — was of some severe discomfort to me a couple weeks ago, when I happened on it by sheer accident. There were two kinds of people in downtown Campbell that morning: one kind was scarfing down Starbucks’ ill-named chai tea lattes and devouring stacks of pancakes. The other was browsing multiple blocks’ worth of offerings on fresh fruit, vegetables, homemade pastries and other ridiculously specialized edibles. This latter group was the one interested in the farmers market and made me feel like a bad Californian, so I rectified that today morning.

I got out of the first yoga class I’d been to in months and walked down, and there was all this stuffDid I need quirky new earrings, yet another membership to the Santa Clara library system, or Paleo-friendly awesome-sauce? No, but it was pretty hard to admit that to myself. What I’ve got there is, clockwise from top:

  1. Apple Cider – deliciously concentrated apple juice in this case, which I have to drink diluted a little and still tastes great.
  2. Kimchi, which I have drool-worthy intentions for involving udon noodles and possibly miso paste. I have neither but do have white rice, so I’m set.
  3. Four white peaches. I think. I’m not quite sure, all I know is that they looked summery and tasted crispy and sweet. I may pair Number 2 with vanilla ice cream. Number 1 has already been consumed.
  4. Six coconut macaroons. There’s really nothing else to be said.
  5. Tofu, fresh and firm. I have big plans for these, which start with marinating them in soy sauce and chili flakes.

The thing about yoga is its deceptively mild nature. It goes from smoking-a-pipe Gandalf (“take deep, deep breaths… greet each other with Om…”) to roaring-at-Balrog Gandalf (“warrior pose 2! hold for one more breath… and one more…”) so insidiously that you don’t even notice your body responding until you realize you’re dripping sweat and panting.

What I love about it is that you’re working with your entire body, feeling your muscles responding to each other and the stresses you put them through. After a month of doing reps at the gym in very controlled, specific ways (and there’s another blog post’s worth of stuff there), I can see why a) you’d focus on free weights and not on the machines, and b) why you’d abandon all that to do yoga. It’s also far less tedious to move through poses at your own pace as opposed to doing rep after rep, although that might be an indication of what I’m doing wrong. I think the gym’s a good place to focus on specific muscle groups; yoga reminds me of all the ones I’m forgetting about.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore

I first read the short story version of this novel a year or so ago. It features a witty young man crammed into an old bookstore whose patrons make less than no sense to him, and who discovers a giant secret about his place of work, his employer, and the history of literature itself. I thought the original short story was close to perfect: there was a wonderfully sympathetic mishmash of history and mystery, of the brand-new (in the shape of an organic Google complex; no, not organic in the overused sense of pompous menu items, but in the literal sense of non-metallic, carbon-based structures) and of the future.

The novel keeps all these elements and adds to them a proper plot, rounding out our protagonist’s tale and adding some enjoyable details regarding his life and his friends. This doesn’t dilute the story much except possibly in the middle a little, which was my main worry.

Robin Sloan does two things I really like in this book, and which completely sold me on his short story to begin with. For one, he introduces fairly unorthodox technical terms (to a layman, anyway) in a fairly straightforward way. And he does something with them that I like very much, which is to introduce a touch of whimsy to their descriptions.

“It’s software – it breaks a big job into lots of tiny pieces and spreads them out to lots of different computers at the same time.” Hadoop! I love the sound of it. Kat Potente, you and I will have a son and we will name him Hadoop, and he will be a great warrior, a king!

…King Hadoop’s army is on the march again… “It’s called Mechanical Turk. Instead of sending jobs to computers, like Hadoop, it sends jobs to real people. Lots of them. Mostly Estonians.”  

She commands King Hadoop and ten thousand Estonian footmen. She is unstoppable. 

The other thing Sloan does that I appreciate is making this connection between history and technology. It’s certainly not original, but it’s the first novel I’ve read that connects old text and new knowledge in such an appreciative way. The computations of Mr. Penumbra are not evil or Terminator-like ; they are not smugly superior over books and ink, either. Instead, Sloan posits the theory that a slavish adherence to any technology, old or new, isn’t in anyone’s best interests. The protagonist is probably the best example of this: a man who studied art history and who writes code to create a 3D representation of a bizarre bookshop.

Speaking of characters, I wanted my favourite to be the eponymous Mr. Penumbra. And while he’s fun – a mix of Dumbledore and Mr. Norell, maybe – I felt always that he lacked a certain depth. “Here’s this sweet little crazy old man belonging to a weird collective of individuals!” Sloan tells us. But despite the almost-comical instances where Penumbra is dejected, amused and so on, I never felt as though I received a deeper, clearer picture of the man’s history and present. Sloan’s characterization is otherwise satisfying, especially the smart, driven, futuristic Kat Potente.

Ultimately, I would say: read this book, if you can.

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