For the past week, I was in New York as one of the advisors at the National Model United Nations conference. Our team represented Botswana (and South Africa on the Security Council), and I was very pleased with their performance.
However, being at the conference also means that I was not spending much time finding new things to recommend. So, this week is late, and it will be short, and one of the things I’m recommending will be unavailable to most people (including me). But there you go.
Book: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
The jacket copy for this book makes it sound a bit more like The Da Vinci Code than it actually is, though it does have some of the same appeal. For one thing— not surprisingly— the writing is much better, and for another, it does not make the same effort to raise the stakes to fate-of-the-world levels, which is one of the things that makes Dan Brown’s book seem less plausible, even as you’re reading it.
It’s about a design-school graduate named Clay who, after losing his first real job when the techy startup he’s working for folds in the Great Recession, gets a job at a 24-hour bookstore next to a strip club, run by a twinkling old guy named Penumbra (it is half the book before you find out his first name). The store seems to have very few customers, and those it does have don’t actually buy anything; instead, they exchange one book for another from the store’s 3-story vertical shelves. Clay is instructed to write down everything he can about these people in a logbook, including not only which books they exchange but their demeanor, what they’re wearing, etc. Needless to say, their’s a story behind all this, and Clay uses his background in technology— as well as the talents of several friends, including a special-effects guy from ILM and a girl who can bring to processing power of all of Google to bear. This approach brings unexpected results and a great deal of disruption to a world that Clay did not know existed.
A few months ago, there was a little buzz on literature blogs and websites about the idea that contemporary fiction ignores technology out of a fear of dating itself. Robin Sloan clearly has no such fear. Not only does he have a MacBook and a twitter account and write code in Ruby, much of the book (seems to) turn on the power of Google, what it can accomplish and what it can’t. In a way, I suppose this will date the book, in the basic sense that you will always know when it was written. But it also roots the story in this particular time and place, and that is not a bad thing.
This is the one substantial bit of reading I did over the past week, and the fact that I was able to finish under the circumstances is good evidence that it’s a quick read and an engrossing story. It’s also touching on some big themes, but it does so in a light, non-intrusive way, so that as a whole it feels substantial but not freighted with to much of a sense of its own importance.
Coffee Shop: Blue Bottle Coffee
These guys are only in the Bay Area (San Francisco and Oakland) and New York, so if you (like me) live anywhere in the vast in-between that is most of America, you are out of luck (though they do do mail-order from their website). But it seems reasonable to recommend thing from my trip, even if it is not widely available).
I am not really a big coffee guy, and I’m not therefore equipped to make any kind of useful comparison between this place and other well-regarded coffee shops. I am mostly therefore recommending it because of their caffe mocha. I had a latte there as well, which was very good, but the mocha is of a whole other order. Most of the time, a mocha tastes like coffee with Hershey’s syrup mixed in. This one tasted like someone had melted an expensive bar of very dark chocolate into it. Excellent.
So, that’s it for this week. Hopefully next Friday I will be less exhausted and back to (more or less) normal.