November 06, 2008

Books: Twilight

Warning: spoilers ahoy.

I can't believe I read the whole thing.

The Queen is also unable to believe I read the whole thing. She reacts to bad literature the way most do to curdled milk, spitting it out the moment she realizes what she is imbibing. And so, 30 pages into Twilight, she tossed the book over to my side of the bed and announced her intention to never touch it again.

So, I read it. And ... uhh, whoops.

Twilight, for those who don't keep their finger on the pulse of teen-girl trends like I do, is the newest YA Lit phenom, selling thirty-seven klonktrillion copies and spawning a movie that promises to be bigger than Jesus and The Beatles and Chez-Its combined. The plot, such as it is, revolves around beautiful (but doesn't know it!) Bella, who movies to Forks, WA, and meets Edward. (Or possibly "Edwin"--thankfully, the details are already beginning to fade). Ed is exquisite and dark and moody and sensitive and thoughtful and heroic and dangerous and did we already mention exquisite? Did we already mention exquisite 430 times? Great! Only 212 more mentions to go.

If you still want to read the book after seeing this picture, then I'm afraid there's no helping you.

Ed's fantastic looks, it turns out, are a result of his deep dark secret which Belle figures out in about 30 minutes: he's a vampire. He and his family (vampires all) live in Forks because it is perpetually cloudy, thus ensuring that they won't be exposed to direct sunlight. And it's imperative that Ed avoid direct sunlight because, when it hits him, he becomes EVEN MORE GORGEOUS. I am so totally not making this up. Also, he's a good vampire, insofar as he doesn't eat people. But he really, really wants to. Hence the brooding. And to make matters worse, he wants to eat Belle more than anyone, because apparently she has great smelling blood. But he's also in love with her, you see. Oh my goodness, what a pickle! It's as if you or I were dating an apple fritter.

Now, in my day, when you were tormented by Rampant Teen Love™ you lay on your bed in a dark room and listened to a Siouxsie And The Banshees album. But Belle and Ed are even too emo for that, and apparently LiveJournal isn't available in Forks, so Belle just gushes over Ed's exquisitability while Ed bellyaches about his colossal case of vampiric blue-balls.

That goes on for about 300 pages. Then, suddenly, the book becomes a thriller. And I'm not kidding about the "suddenly." New characters are introduced and, just like that, you are reading another novel, all in the space of about two pages. This abrupt shift in tone might have seemed jarring or forced in the hands of a lesser writer, but fortunately Stephanie Meyer eases the transition by having it happen during a game of baseball played by the undead in a remote clearing of a dark woods. So, you know, you hardly even notice that there was NO FORESHADOWING WHATSOEVER.

Anyway, long story short: if you're a fan of Sweet Valley High books and the line of Goosebumps novels, but wish someone could save you some time by combining them into a single series, then Twilight might be just the book for you! Or you could just watch the first two seasons of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, which covers the same ground with twice the aplomb and half the paeans to flawless cheekbones.

June 24, 2008

Books: The Ruins

There are many qualities for which one might recommend a novel . Profundity. Innovation. Eloquence. Erudition. A book may skimp in one nor two elements, but make up for it by excelling in other areas. Take, for instance, The Ruins by Scott Smith. Here's a book which, on a scale of 1 to 10, scores about a 2 in every conceivable category, except for "readability" where it clocks in at about a 27.

Seriously, this book is like a 48-hour meth addiction. I bought in from a grocery store one morning when I had a one hour wait before me at had forgotten to bring a book along; I finished all 528 pages of it at 11:30 PM the following day. These were work days, mind you, so it's not like I was sitting in the back yard under my apple tree all day; I was reading the book over my lunch "hour", on the stationary bike at the gym, at stoplights ...

Which isn't to say it's a great novel. Far from it. There's not a whole lot of profundity or innovation or eloquence or erudition. Think early Stephen King without the character development. Just a lot of page turning and wondering where the hell Smith is going with this.

Smith previous penned A Simple Plan, a fantastic thriller that was turned in an equally riveting film. Apparently they also made a movie of The Ruins, but ... well, let's just say it hasn't been as well received. Frankly, that doesn't surprise me, as the allure of the novel is precisely in it's Summer Bookability. This is the quintessential airplane book, something to cleanse you palate between "good" books or just get lost in for a day or two. That would be damning with faint praise perhaps, if The Ruins aspired to be more than that. But it does not. Judged by the goals Smith clearly had in mind--to write a compulsively readable thriller--the novel is an unqualified success. And if that's all you go in expecting, you won't be disappointed.

April 29, 2008

Things I Learned About My Dad (in therapy)

Things I Learned About My Dad (in therapy), a compendium of essays on fatherhood headed up by Dooce's Heather Armstrong, hits stores today. I contributed a chapter, with the caveat that it not follow any of those of the other writers (as they are all so astoundingly talented that mine would pale in comparison), and also not come first. I'm not sure how Heather pulled this off. Stayed up late last night, printing out copies of my piece from her home PC and stapling them to the back covers, is my guess.

January 16, 2008

Books: A Day In the Life

So I'm at a get-together the other day, and someone mentions The Beatles, and someone else asks, "When did 'The Beatles' really start to exist? Is it when Ringo joined the group? When John, Paul, and George got together? When John and Paul met?"

And I said, "Really, The Beatles, as an entity, consisted of five people, and would be 'The Beatles' in name alone without any one of them. Those five people were John, Paul, George, Ringo, and George Martin, who produced most of their albums, as well as scoring the orchestral backups and often playing instruments on individual songs. Martin enters the equation in 1962, and The Beatles' first recording session with him was in November of that year. One month later the "Love Me Do" single was released. So, in my opinion, The Beatles, as we now know them, began in late 1962."

Whoa! Check out the big brain on Baldwin!

It helped, I suppose, that I'd just finished reading the book A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles the day prior to this conversation. Truth be told, a month ago I knew pretty much nothing about The Beatles. I was born a year after McCartney announced the dissolution of the group, and although I owned the White Album while attending college (as required by law), never really listened to it much.

In fact, it was the commission of a mortifying Beatles-related faux pas on my part that inspired me to read the book in the first place. I casually mentioned that I thought "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" was pretty catchy and received a fusillade of derision, with comments ranging from "you know, that's pretty much universally acknowledged as the worst Beatles song" to "I really like McCartney, but that one makes me want to beat him with a tire iron."

Humiliated, I resolved to listen to hundreds of hours of The Beatles compositions until I, too,developed a highly refined appreciation of their discography and legacy. Or, read a book about them. One of the two.

Fortunately, in opting for the latter option, I picked a book that served as a passable substitute for the former. Author Mark Hertsgaard bills A Day In the Life as the only book that focuses foremost on the music, rather than the celebrity, of the Fab Four. He does this by alternating between chapters devoted to specific albums and chapters covering some other aspect of Beatology. For example, chapter 13 covers the Rubber Soul album, chapter 14 discusses the role George Martin played behind the scenes, chapter 15 looks at the 1966 release Revolver, 16 investigates their drug use, and so on.

Though the topics are arranged semi-chronologically (their experimentations with mind-altering drugs really did began between their Rubber Soul and Revolve LPs, for instance), each chapter is largely self-contained. Thus, the book reads like a collection of essays rather than as a single narrative, a format I preferred. It's unlikely I could have pulled off that "let me tell you a little something about George Martin" stunt if all of the information pertinent to my argument has been strewn over 400 pages instead of confined to chapter 14.

Hertsgaard sometimes gets a little carried away in his enthusiasm for the band--reading some of his fervent descriptions of their early pop singles and then listening to the songs in questions is like a summer of overhyped blockbuster movies that fail to meet you wildly unrealistic expectations. And his "album-chapters" occasionally got a little too in-depth for my liking, sometimes going so far as to rhapsodize about a single note or passage in a song. And yet the non-album chapters were uniformly riveting. In fact, A Day In The Life was a compulsive read for me. When the fractures between The Beatles began to appear, I was less sad that the band was going to break up than I was that the book was going to end.


October 15, 2007

Books: Red Mars

Red Mars, the first book in Kim Stanley Robinson's sprawling epic about the terraforming and colonization of Mars, is epitomized by two passages.

The first is found on page 102, shortly after the first settlers arrive on the barren planet:

The stacked crate walls made a ramp to drive the tractor off the lander. They didn't look strong enough, but that was the gravity again.

Nadia had turned on the tractor's heating system as soon as she could reach it and now she climbed into the cab and tapped a command into its autopilot, feeling that it would be best to let the thing descend the ramp on its own, with her and Samantha watching from the side, just in case the ramp was more brittle in the cold than expected, or otherwise unreliable. She still found it almost impossible to think in terms of martian g, to trust the designs that took it into account. The ramp just looked too flimsy!

Any author, writing about Mars, would describe the physical aspect of low "martian g," with astronauts bounding about and lifting enormous enormous crates with the greatest of ease. So too does Robinson. But he delves much, much deeper than that, exploring the psychological aspects of martian g. The ramp just looks too flimsy!

Robinson hasn't just written a saga about people who go to Mars; he contemplates what it would actually be like to live there. Each of the book's eight parts are told from the point of view of one of the "First 100," the team that makes up the initial landing party. Made up of geologists, biologists, physicists, architects, agriculturalist, and others (there's even a psychologist to keep them sane), the First 100 is tasked with paving the way for future settlement, by transforming the planet into something habitable (if only bearly) to humans. This project is so monumental that only the first stages are documented in Red Mars; the sequel is called Green Mars because of the establishment of flora; and the thickened atmosphere gives the final book, Blue Mars, its title.

Here's the second passage, which appears two pages after the first:

Now [Nadia] could wander in the dim ruby light of sunset, her old jazz collection piped from the habitat stereo into her helmet headphones, as she rooted in supply boxes and picked out any tool she wanted. She would carry them back to a small room she had commandeered in one of the storage warehouses, whistling along with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, adding to a collection that included, among other items, an Allen wrench set, some pliers, a power drill, several clamps, some hacksaws, an impact-wrench set, a brace of cold-tolerant bungie cords, assorted files and rasps and planes, a crescent-wrench set, a crimper, five hammers, some hemostats, three hydraulic jacks, a bellows, several sets of screwdrivers, drills and bits, a portable compressed gas cylinder, a box of plastic explosives and shape charges, a tape measure, a giant Swiss Army knife, tin snips, tongs, tweezers, three vises, a wire stripper, X-acto knives, a pick, a bunch of mallets, a nut driver set, hose clamps, a set of end mills, a set of jeweler's screwdrivers, a magnifying glass, a11 kinds of tape, a plumber's bob and ream, a sewing kit, scissors, sieves, a lathe, levels of all sizes, long-nosed pliers, vise-grip pliers, a tap-and-die set, three shovels, a compressor, a generator, a welding-and-cutting set, a wheelbarrow ...
This is an extreme example--there's only one other itemized list like this in the novel--but, even so, long tracts of the book feel similar. The research Robinson put into this book is staggering, but it's as if he feels compelled to recount every fact he uncovered in his studies, and at times this makes for a volume as arid as the Martian landscape. (And lest you think "It's okay! I'm a big science nerd! I'd love to read a detailed explanation of how they sprinkle black dust on the Martian poles to raise the albedo and melt them!", be forewarned that Robinson goes on at length about every aspect of Martian settlement. For example, thirty pages are devoted to psychological theory and the intricate relationship between introverts, extroverts, stable, and labile personality types. No kidding.)

Despite Robinson's occasional bouts of logorrhea, I quite enjoyed Red Mars. One thing I noticed: as the chronology of the book got farther and father from the present, Robinson has to rely more on imagination than research, and the novel feels less and less like a textbook. Thus, about halfway through, the nitty-gritty of terraformation begins to take a backseat to the politics of the burgeoning Martian society. By the final 200 pages, it's almost pure space opera. "Science-fiction" is not only the genre to which the novel belongs, but an apt description of its progression: it starts as science, and slowly slides across the spectrum to fiction.

Written in 1993, some of Robinson's predictions already look naive in retrospect. The chances of us settling Mars by 2026, for instance, are slim indeed. But in other ways, the book feels perfectly suited for the times. Much of the book grapples with the positive and negative effects of globalization (though the "globe," in this case, is only half the diameter of our own). Not to mention the difficulty imperialistic powers have in occupying a distance, sandy land occupied by people who object to the interference of outsiders and trans-national corporations. The book would be an allegory for the early 21st century, were it not written in the late 20th.

In many ways, Red Mars reminds me of its fantasy counterpart, The Fellowship of the Ring. To appreciate both, you have to wade through a lot of sometime laborious backstory, and many times you can't help but think that you'd rather have read the book than to still be reading it. But your appreciation for the sheer amount of effort and inventiveness the author put into the story keeps you turning pages, and, by the time you're done, you feel like the novel was more of an experience than just a read.

Or perhaps it's just enough to say this: though getting through the first 600 pages of the Mars trilogy was sometimes a chore, I am still eager to read the remaining 1,400. That's saying something right there.

September 13, 2007

Book And Movie: The Prestige

Some people like books about cats that solve mysteries. Some people like books about rugged individuals wandering post-apocalyptic America. Me, I like books about magicians, escape artists, and mediums, set in eras when such professions were respectable. Thus my fondness for The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Carter Beats the Devil, Girl in the Glass (and why I will presumably love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, if I can ever overcome my crippling fear of its sheer enormity and actually attempt to read it).

So picking up The Prestige was a no-brainer. Feuding magicians in the late nineteenth century, each desperate to discover the secret of his rival's greatest illusion? What's not to like?

After a brief introduction set in modern times, the novel is epistolary, supposedly the journals of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, illusionists who plied their trade in turn-of-the-(last)-century London. An altercation between the two men in their youth snowballs into lifelong tit-for-tatism, each oscillating between desire to see the other ruined and remorse over how prolonged and petty the grudgematch has become. Each man has a signature trick that involves teleportation: in The New Transported Man, Bordon steps into one cabinet and instantly emerges from another across the stage; during In A Flash, Angier disappears in a surge of electricity and re-enters the theater moments later, from the back of the galley. Though the tricks are nearly identical, their central mechanism are starkly different; the crux of the book is that each man is ignorant of how the other does his version of the illusion, and is haunted by the knowledge that his opponent might have a "superior" method.

Having quite enjoyed the novel, I picked up the DVD for the 2006 film and prepared for disappointment. Surprisingly, the movie was as good as the book, as the screenwriter and director chose to adapt the story for the screen, rather than slavishly adhere to the source material. The framing device for the book (a man in contemporary time who is given the journals to read) is jettisoned entirely, and some aspects of the relationship between Borden and Angier and changed as well. I wouldn't say that the film's revisions were necessarily better, but they are certainly more cinematic. Thus, neither pales in comparison to the other, as both are sufficiently distinct to stand on their own.

Still, despite their difference, both the novel and the film tackle the same central question: what will a man do to be the best in his profession? In the case of Borden and Angier, it's not only a question of what they will sacrifice to perfect their own illusions, but to what lengths they will go to destroy their rivals. Like master magicians adept in misdirection, both author Christopher Priest and director Christopher Nolan have crafted thrillers that keep you so engaged that you don't even realize the profundity of the questions they explore, until you find yourself ruminating about the story in the days and weeks to follow.

June 13, 2007

Mad Tausig Vs the Interplanetary Puzzling Peace Patrol

Hey, great news! My pal Goopymart--the guy with whom I collaborated on Files Are Not For Sharing--just illustrated a new book: Mad Tausig Vs the Interplanetary Puzzling Peace Patrol.

Actually, two (count 'em: two) of my friends were involved in the creation of this book, as another buddy of mine, Darkpony is a co-author. Sweet.

The book is full of puzzles for kids: crosswords, anagrams, cryptograms...even some newer kinds like Sudoku, and a bunch of original kinds too. A little advanced for Squiggle, but the sort of book I would have loved when I was nine or ten (as a devotee of both GAMES magazine and science-fiction). Readers work to unravel riddles and stop the Mad Tausig (holder of the world record for "Most Evil Inventor") from hatching his master plot. And, of course, Goopy's drawing are hilariously absurd, as always.

Fun stuff. Check it out.

[ link | Books]

February 27, 2007

Books: March

There's a whole subgenre of literature starring minor characters from classic works. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Wicked. Wide Sargasso Sea. And, of course, my novella "Alive In Here," which retells Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope from the point of view of the Garbage creature (available upon request).

Likewise, Geraldine Brooks' latest novel tells the tale of Mr. March, a character plucked from the pages of Little Women. In Alcott's novel, March has left his four young daughters in the care of his wife, Marmee, while he fights for the Union in the civil war. The girls bravely soldier on in his absence, their spirits occasionally buoyed by his inspiration letters. In March, we learn that those letters are little more than fictions. Yes, the events Mr. March writes about are real, but the optimism that infuses every word is something that he no longer feels.

As in Little Women, Peter March is here portrayed as a preacher, and it is his firmly held beliefs as an abolitionist that lead him join in the battle against the confederacy. The courage of his convictions, however, is battered as he reaches the front lines and witnesses the true horror of war. Worse still, he finds few of his comrades-in-arms share his idealism--most fight not out of revulsion of slavery, but simply because they have been at war for so long that they've forgotten how to do anything but.

Though most of the novel parallels the events of Little Women (Mr. March occasionally stops to write letters, allowing the reader to gauge where he is, chronologically, with the narrative in Louisa May Alcott's book), it doesn't confine itself to the same time frame. In fact, much of the book takes place when Mr. March was but a traveling salesman, long before he met Marmee and sired his gaggle of girls. Brooks also tweaks some of Alcott's characters--not revising them per se, but adding additional depth. In Little Women, the mother was always around her children, and behaved accordingly; in March, there are a number of exchanges that take place exclusively between husband and wife, and well as scenes from their courtship, that cast Marmee in a new light, and show that she, like Mr. March, often put up a brave front to shield her daughters from her true feelings.

Having never read Little Women, I was worried that I wouldn't "get" most of March (as might be the case if you read Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead without knowing the basic outline of Hamlet). As it turns out, the story is so distinct from Alcott's novel--in terms of tone, explicitness, and its account of Mr. March's time away from the family--as to seem almost unrelated to the classic that spawned it. Brooks' novel so completely transcends the high-concept premise as to make the back-references to Little Women seem as more of an afterthought than the original motivation.

At any rate, don't let unfamiliarity with the source material deter your from from reading the Pulitzer-Prize winning March. It's a brutal account of two concurrent wars: the American civil war, and the clash between Mr. March's deeply-held idealism and the sobering reality in which he lives.

January 17, 2007

Books: Yendi and Teckla

In the week since I finished Jhereg I've plowed through the next two volumes in the Vlad Taltos series. I'm not really a "two books in a week" kind of reader these days, but as each of the novels is just a shade over 200 pages and written in the same breezy, compulsively readable style of the first, getting these two off my "to read" pile was as easy as knocking back beers.

Yendi manages to avoid seeming like a sequel in a couple of ways. First, it is set a number of years before the events of Jhereg. Second, it doesn't duplicate the plot of the first book, instead spinning a more straightforward adventure / fantasy yarn: Vlad, a younger man and still fairly inexperienced in the business of organized crime, finds himself in a turf war with a neighboring Boss trying to horn into his territory. And, third, the narrative actually has a romance component. The story lacks some of the inventiveness of Jhereg, but the first set the bar on "clever" pretty high, so it can certainly be excused for failing to clear it.

Teckla, the third book in the series, takes place after Jhereg. This book does suffer from some sequel-itis -- the central story is about yet another turf war, just as Yendi before it. It's also the gloomiest of the three by far, with Vlad moping about for the final half of the story. I hated the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books for exactly this reason, but at least when Vlad gets depressed he goes around stabbing people in the heart with stilettos -- a vastly superior coping mechanism to whining, if ya ask me.

As I mentioned before, each of the books is entirely self contained. You could read them in reverse chronological order and everything would still make perfect sense, though Jhereg is indisputably the best introduction to the series. And all three can be found in a single volume, called The Book of Jhereg. If you're like me you'll have a hankering for more Brust the moment you finish Jhereg, so you may as well get the compendium to ensure that you don't go hungry for a moment.

January 10, 2007

Books: Jhereg

One nice thing about getting older: it's easier to pick out a book that I know in advance I'll enjoy. I just select any novel that I read before 1997 and vaguely remember liking the first time; my lack of long-term memory (which appears to max out at about a decade) ensures that the ending will still be a surprise.

And so I recently reread Jhereg. Actually, I was doubly sure I would enjoy it, as I'd read it twice before -- once shortly after its initial release in 1987, and a second time in the Peace Corps, some 10 years ago. It's not one of my all-time favorite works of literature or anything, but it certainly lends itself to rereading: it's short, it's funny, it's clever, and, despite the fact that it's the first in a series of novels, it's self-contained.

Though set in a fantasy world (and fond in the "Fantasy" section of your local bookstore), Jhereg is more of a mystery novel. In fact, it's really two separate mysteries. The first revolves around a thief named Mellar, a former member of the Jhereg high council who embezzled an obscene amount of money and then promptly vanished. Another member of the council contacts the book's protagonist, Vlad Taltos, and charges him with the task of tracking down the missing man and funds. Though this proves to be fairly easy, Vlad must still unravel the intricacies of the heist, to learn how and why Mellar committed the crime.

The second mystery is inverted and stacked atop the first. Because, you see, Vlad isn't a private detective -- he's an assassin. He has been hired to bring Mellar to the authorities, but to very publicly kill him, to ensure that no one ever dare steal from the Jhereg again. To that end, Vlad must endeavor not to solve "the perfect murder," but rather to plan an execute it. And Mellar does his best to make Vlad's task difficult, setting up a Doomsday device of sorts, which prevents Vlad from striking even though he knows exactly where to find his target.

The is a rich backstore to Jhereg -- about the 17 ruling houses, the difference between sorcery and witchcraft, and a complete bestiary of exotic creatures that inhabit the world -- but author Steven Burst only reveals what you need to know to understand and enjoy the current chapter, never letting the narrative get bogged down in lengthy exposition. There is plenty of humor in the story (mostly witty repartee between Vlad, his assistant, Kragar, and his familiar Loiosh) but this isn't one of those "comic fantasy novels,' a la Terry Pratchett or Piers Anthony -- though the characters joke around, their work is (literally) deathly serious. And Burst has written each of the nine books in the series such that no one book is a prerequisite for another, and each can be read, understood, and enjoyed independently.

I'm not really a huge fan of fantasy novels, so don't let the genre deter you. Jhereg is a light, funny, inventive, and engrossing book, and one I look forward to reading again in 2017.

June 28, 2006

Books: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Shortly after Mr. and Mrs. Girl visited Seattle, Maggie wrote about her husband's hithertofore secret addiction to Harry Potter on her website. I dropped her a note to sympathize:

Me: If we'd known our spouses shared the same affliction we could have gotten them going on Harry Potter and then slipped off to catch a movie.

Maggie: The Queen too, eh?

Me: And how. Fortunately she has lots of friends who also suffer the ravages of Pottermania, so I am spared the coerced conversations. But if she ever decides to attend an event that starts with some word coined by J.K. Rowlings and ends in "-con," we should get together, the four of us, and stage a group intervention.

Maggie: If you think Bryan would help us stage a Potter intervention, you're nuts. They'd be much more likely to overcome us, tie us to a sofa, and read aloud until our eyes glazed over.

Me: No no, by "group intervention" I meant you and I could get intervention for both of them at the same time. I figure we could get better rates that way.

Maggie: Bulk-rate Harry Potter intervention ... now there's a potential gold mine.

Me: Hey, yeah. We could stage a fake convention called MuggleCon or ConWeasley or somesuch, and people would urge their Potter-addled loved-ones to get all dressed up and go. And then, after everyone arrives, we would seal the doors and have a bunch of specialists would come in and intervene the shit out of everyone. PROFIT!

Maggie: However, as a conscientious business partner, I should point out that we could make a lot more money just organizing Mugglecon, and then robbing people blind for stuffed toy owls and boxed lunches. Of course, it would be tough to shower away the stench of shame afterwards...

The sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, had been released at the time I wrote this, but I hadn't read it. Nor did I plan to. I'd read the first five books, but Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix was so dreadful that I swore off the series forever.

But then I found myself between novels, and Half-Blood Prince was laying around our house, and I figured I'd just read a few chapters to tide me over until my next trip to the library. And then ...

Um, intervention for three, please.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is easily the best of the series, and the first I thoroughly enjoyed reading. And I'll tell you why, too: J.K. Rowling's publisher finally decided to assign her an editor. Her fourth and fifth books (Goblet of Fire and the aforementioned Order of the Phoenix) were released at the height of her popularity, at it was clear that no one dared edit The Sacred Word of Potter; as the result the books were long, rambling, unfocused, and boring. Worse, Rowling decided to make Harry act like a teen in the last few books, apparently forgetting that everyone hates teens for good reason. Half-Blood, on the other hand, while only slightly shorter in length than the previous book, has a much tighter narrative, one in which every scene actually advances the storyline (unlike earlier novel, where entire chapters could have been excised). And Harry stops acting so insufferable, so the whole thing doesn't come across as a 800 page LiveJournal entry.

I'd recommend you read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The problem is that I cannot, in good conscious, recommend you read all the books that come before it.

So here's my Harry Potter Reading Plan, similar in spirit to my How To Watch The Star Wars Prequels primers.

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: The book is relatively short and you'll breeze through it in a couple of bus rides, so you might as well read it. It's enjoyable in a "kids book" kind of way, even though I was pissed that the "logic puzzle" the kids have to solve doesn't make a goddamned bit of sense. The movie was also okay, though if you've seen any of the Lord of the Rings flicks you are bound to be disappointed. Just read the book, you pansy.
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: If you read the first novel, you've already read this one too, as it has pretty much the same plot structure. The film too is rather lackluster. My advice: skip them both, read the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Wikipedia entry and call it a day.
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: I actually liked this one quite a bit, and it was my favorite before I read Half-Blood Prince. Rowling starts introducing darker themes, and drops the standard Scooby-Doo plotline that she structed the first two novels around. The film is also pretty good, so take your pick.
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Oh dear, here's where everything goes pear-shaped. Entirely too long and utterly lacking in internal consistency, Goblet of Fire contains a couple of important revelations, but the story arc as a whole is sound + fury = nothing. Paradoxically, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the best of the four movies, so watch that instead.
  • Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix: AVOID. There's no film yet but the Wikipedia page is exhaustive, so just read that.
Follow the above steps, read the surprisingly, um, readable Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and against your better judgement you'll find yourself actually looking forward to the next and last book in the series, due to be released next year. I know I am.

Now, if I could only get this stench of shame out of my clothing.

February 20, 2006

Books: Hard Case Crime

Last year I embarked on an ambitious project to read the finest contemporary fiction, an endeavor I dubbed The 2005 Booklist Project. And it worked, for a while: I read House of Leaves, perhaps my favorite book of the last decade; I read other experimental fictions such as Cloud Atlas and The Time-Traveler's Wife, as well as more traditional narratives such as Blindness and Oracle Night. And I loaded up my bedside table still more recommendations; Wicked, Gilead, Life Of Pi, etc.

And then, like a drinker who resolves only to drink only the finest Bordeaux and Pinot Noir, I rediscovered the joy off getting buzzed off of a $4 bottle of drugstore merlot. Or, in this case, I discovered Hard Case Crime.

Hard Case Crime is relatively new publishing house, one that specializes in new and vintage "hardboiled" pulp fiction novels. I've always been a fan of the genre (as a teen I read scores of Earl Stanley Gardner and Mickey Spillane), but, in the last decade, I had found my noir in cyberpunk, steampunk, Frank Miller comics, and films in which the cinematography is best described a "caliginous." Hard Case Crime novels, though, are the real deal, full of deeply-flawed protagonists who reach for a .45 or a fifth of whiskey at the drop of a hat, and make unironic references to molls and mooks.

About half of the books in the series are reprints of classics for the form, and the others are brand new works by contemporary authors (though typically in the classic hardboiled era and tone). As most Hard Case Crime novels are around 200 pages, full of dialog, and compulsively readable, I can usually plow through an entire title in two evenings. Here are the five I have read since discovering the line:

  • 361 by Donald E. Westlake: 361 was my first, and a perfect introduction to the series. It's a reprint of a classic by one of the masters of the hardboiled form, and served as a good primer on the genre. The hero finishes off a bottle of liquor on about every third page, tangles with the mob, and carries around a piece as nonchalantly as you or I might carry around orange Tic-Tacs. 361 isn't especially well written, but I was nonetheless putting holds on every available Hard Case Crime novel at my local library moments after finishing it.
  • Plunder of the Sun by David Dodge: I don't know if it's because I spent a few years in South America, or because I had never read a "treasure hunt" novel before, but I enjoyed Plunder quite a bit. Like an Indiana Jones sequel written by Raymnd Chandler, Plunder has an archeologist hiring a petty criminal to help him locate a lost Incan fortune. Dodge manages to cram a surprising amount of ancient South American history into the book, too -- enough that you feel like you're learning something, but not so much that the story ever becomes academic. Plunder is a reprint, and recommended.
  • The Colorado Kid by Stephen King: Yes, that Stephen King. Apparently the editors at Hard Case Crime sent a few novels to King and asked if he would supply cover blurbs; instead he said he opted to write an book for the series. Colorado Kid is polarizing -- lots of people hated it, many thought it pretty good. I'm in the latter category, though I'll concede that the book is essentially a 70-page (and perhaps 20-page) short story padded out to 180 pages, the first third of which is undisguised throat-clearing.
  • Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block: Block is one of my favorite modern dark mystery writers, but, honest to God, I can hardly remember a thing about this book, even having read it only few months ago. I don't recall disliking it, but I don't recall thinking it was anything special, either (despite its winning an Edgar award). Chalk it up as forgettable -- though that's not exactly a scathing indictment in a genre as light as this one.
  • Fade To Blonde by Max Phillips: The copyright date on Blonde in 2004, but Phillips has the classic noir style down so pat that I had to double-check online to convince myself it wasn't a reprint. He's especially skilled at writing snappy patter, and the characters routinely exchanged banter that made me wish I was even half as clever with my own ad-libs. The story is kind of weak (and falls apart near the end), but the atmosphere, pacing, and dialogue are top-notch.
I get most of my Hard Case Crime novels from the library, but the books are exclusively paperback and typically only cost around $6, so I've purchased a few as well – and then, having read them, immediately give them to friends I thought would appreciate them. Hard Case even has a subscription program, where you get two novels a month for seven bucks. (I would sign up for that in a heartbeat if I hadn’t joined one of those “12 CDs for a penny!!” deals as a youth and found myself hounded by Columbia Records for years thereafter, instilling within me a lifelong fear of commercial “book clubs.” Man, there’s a Hard Case Crime novel idea right there: “CLUBBED TO DEATH: He signed on for the twelve CDs ... and he never knew peace again!”)

September 21, 2005

Books: The Time-Traveler's Wife

Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.

The Time-Traveler's Wife is full of surprises, but three of them are exceptional.

The first comes a few pages into the novel, when you discover that the titular time-traveler isn't some aging jock reminiscing about the glory days or a widower who often gets lost in memories of happier times, but a man who can literally travel through time.

"Oh," you say upon this realization, "Judging from the cover and the blurb on the back, I thought this was contemporary fiction or romantic drama, and that the phrase 'time-traveler' was metaphorical. But apparently not." So you shift gears and adjust yourself to the fact that you are reading a sci-fi book.

The second surprise comes 100 pages later, when you realize that The Time-Traveler's Wife is an contemporary fiction / romantic drama, in addition to being a sci-fi novel as well. "That's certainly ambitious," you think. "But there's no way the author will be able to pull it off successfully."

The third surprise is that, somehow, she does.

Henry De Tamble is the time-traveler, albeit an unwilling one. At seemingly random moments in his life he is abruptly flung to some other date -- usually in the past, occasionally in the future -- where he arrives, naked, onto or close to some scene relevant to his own life. Sometimes he winds up in his own house, and whiles away a few hours hanging out with a younger version of himself. Sometimes he goes far enough back to visit his own mother, who died when he was a boy. Usually he goes back and meets up with one Clare Abshire, the woman he will eventually marry.

He rendezvous with Clare so often that her entire childhood comes to revolve around his visits. Then, iat the age of 20, she bumps into the real-time Henry and, recognizing him as the man who will some day become her husband, invites him out for drinks. One thing leads to another, and the two are eventually hitched.

I'm a sucker for time-travel stories, but only those that get it right. By that I mean that the story needs to have an internally consistent set of rules that the universe adheres to, even when folks are popping into the past and theoretically influencing their own present. Sadly, very very few time-travel stories have met my high standards -- Twelve Monkeys is honestly the only one that leaps to mind. In most, the sort of causal loop described above (Henry and Clare get married because Clare knows that she will eventually marry Henry) would pretty much torpedo the entire premise.

But author Audrey Niffenegger has done the near-impossible with The Time-Traveler's Wife, writing a near-flawless time travel novel that sets ground rules and then scrupulously sticks to them. I would have liked it for this alone, and the fact that the literary romantic fiction half is pretty damned good too is icing on the cake.

Best of all, this is the kind of book that can be safely enjoyed by pretty much anyone: those who typically steer clear of sci-fi will appreciate it as contemporary literature; those who favor Greg Bear over Don DeLillo will groove on Niffenegger's intriguing and well-executed ideas. In fact, I can see The Time-traveler's Wife becoming my default suggestion when asked for a recommendation, and one that I foresee loaned out more often than it sits upon my shelf.

Counterpoint! The Queen's succinct review: "The frickin annoying love story ruined the book for me." Such a romantic, that gal o' mine.

July 26, 2005

Books: Blindness

After I raved about House of Leaves, a reader suggested I check out Blindness by Jose Saramago, describing it as "another freak-out book." I wasn't really in the mood for another freak-out book, honestly, but I found Blindness at the library and brought it home with the intention of putting it on the bottom of my "to read" pile. But then -- whoops! -- I read the first chapter, and all of my queued up books were forgotten.

Blindness tells the tale of a great epidemic that sweeps through a small town (and perhaps the world, though the scope of the book is provincial), leaving its victims sightless but otherwise unaffected. The first few chapter trace the web of contagion as the disease is transmitted from one person to the next; then, about a third of the way through, the focus shifts to a small group of the infected who are struggling to survive while quarantined in an abandoned mental institution along with scores of similarly afflicted inmates.

The book was originally written in Portuguese, and translated into English. And I have a confession to make: I have an irrational aversion to translated novels. No matter how accomplished the "About The Authors" blurb claims the translator is, I always feel that I am missing out, that something must have surely been lost in the shuffle. Why can't these author just learn to speak English as second language more fluently than most of us speak it as a first? You know, like Nabokov did. That said, the language in Blindness is rather stark and straightforward, almost Hemmingwayian, so this aspect of it didn't bother me as much as it otherwise would.

What I did find somewhat irksome -- until I grew accustomed to it, at least -- was Saramago indifference to punctuation and grammatical rules. Entire conversations in Blindness are often contained in a single sentence, written in a "He said this and then she said that and then what do you mean?, he replied" manner that eschews quotation marks or any other devices that would aid the reader in determining who said what. Some have pointed out that this style mirrors the plight of the protagonists -- that we, the reader, must suffer like the sightless, unable to determine where those voices are coming from in the absence of any visual cues.

Much of the novel plays out like a modern-day adaptation of Lord of the Flies, when men, severed from their old lives (here by the loss of a sense, rather than geographically) revert to their bestial natures. Indeed, the middle third of the book is mighty grim, so much so that, at one point, I almost abandoned it, wondering why I was voluntarily subjecting myself to something so depressing. Fortunately, the story already had its hooks in me, leaving me no choice to persevere.

I did not find Blindness to be a "freak-out book" -- not on par House of Leaves, at any rate. For one thing, I was unable to suspend my disbelief enough to completely buy into the premise. But, to be fair, Saramago doesn't try to make the narrative believable, choosing instead to write the story more as an allegory. (None of the characters have names, for instance.) Consequentially, I felt a few steps removed from the action. And while it bummed me out at times, freaked out I was not. Still, an excellent and gripping read, and one I would recommend.

June 13, 2005

Books: Gringos

Gringos is a novel. It is by Charles Portis who lives in Arkansas, where he was born and educated. Thr book is about brightly painted walls and men in hats reading books. Just regular men wearing hats, not the 80's pop group "Men In Hats." If I had to describe Charles Portis I would agree with Ron Rosenbaum of Esquire who called him "perhaps the most original, indescribable sui generis talent overlooked by literary culture in America." Though, to be honest, I have no idea what "sui generis" means ...

Okay, okay. I didn't finish Gringos like I said I would. but that's okay, because you didn't either. So everyone gets another week before the review -- huzzah!

June 06, 2005

Books: CivilWarLand In Bad Decline and Eastern Standard Tribe

Note: These reviews are part of the Booklist 2005 Project.

The Queen read CivilWarLand In Bad Decline before I did, and when I finished the first short story in the collection I was eager to discuss the book with her. "What did you think of it?" I asked her.

"Eh," she said. "It was kinda repetitive."

"Repetitive?!" said I. "Are you kidding? This is one of most original books I've read in a long time, and the author, George Saunders has a remarkably distinctive voice. I'm really enjoying it."

The Queen just shrugged -- her way of saying, "Come talk to me again when you realize I've won this argument."

So I read the rest of the stories. And, yeah: kinda repetitive.

The stories in CivilWarLand remind me of those found in Barrel Fever, the first book by humorous David Sedaris. Before he started writing exclusively about himself and his family, Sedaris cranked out a couple of very funny fictional stories (including one of my all-time favorites, "Glen's Homophobia Newsletter Vol. 3, No. 2"), full of cynicism and characters that act in widely inappropriate ways. But unlike Sedaris, most of Saunders' narratives have a science-fiction cast, set in a near future where business life and American life have become synonymous and the public vernacular has become infested with self-help affirmations and corporate jargon.

In almost all cases, the protagonists in the tales are average people struggling to stay afloat in Saunders's dystopia. And while each provoked me to laugh out loud a time or two, I did feel like I was reading the story over and over again by the time I reached the novella "Bounty." It didn't help that, halfway through "Bounty," I realized that I had read it before, ten years ago when it first appeared in Harper's.

An reviewer advises suggests that you read no more than one CivilWarLand story per month, and while that might be a little overboard, I'm inclined to agree that spacing them out somewhat is probably wise. Still: very funny in small doses.

Also set "five minutes in the future" is Cory Doctorow's Eastern Standard Tribe (which you can read for free, along with all of his other works, at While humorous, the setting for EST is much less absurd than that found in CivilWarLand, and the author seems more intent on provoking thought about the ramifications of our current technology than in waylaying the reader with non sequiturs in the hopes of generating belly laughs. But then, having laid the groundwork for a philosophical thriller, the book abruptly becomes conventional, alternating between a rather standard swindle story and a conundrum lifted straight from 'Catch-22' (so much so that even the novel's main character remarks upon the similarity).

EST is short, which is both its failing (in that it doesn't deliver on the promise of it's opening chapter) and its saving grace (as once the plot devolves into something unremarkable, the hasty conclusion keeps it from outstaying its welcome). I quite enjoyed Doctorow's writing style and there were plenty of great ideas to be explored in this book (even if, ultimately, I felt like they got the short shrift), and I look forward to reading more by him. If Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom is as good as I've heard, EST will have served as a nice appetizer.

May 27, 2005

The yeti Book Club

As I mentioned in my House of Leaves review, the Booklist 2005 Project is going swimmingly. So in case anyone wants to play along at home, here's what's next:

  • Gringos by Charles Portis, to be reviewed on June 13;
  • The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, to be reviewed in late June.

[ link | Books]

May 25, 2005

Books: House Of Leaves

Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.

Wow, the Booklist 2005 Project is working out great for me. It's led me to three of the best books I've read in years: Cloud Atlas, Oracle Night, and, most recently, House Of Leaves. In fact, House of Leaves has hit the "favorite books of all time" list, right up there with A Prayer For Owen Meany and The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

House Of leaves is a bit hard to describe -- not only because if defies description, but because it's one of those "revealing anything about it reveals a lot about it" books, and you want readers to go into it cold if at all possible. It is often compared to The Blair Witch Project, as both are about fictitious documentary movies that start out mundane and then abruptly veer into the weird and supernatural.

Another reason why House of Leaves is hard to describe because it contains an almost sadistic number of levels. Let's start at the innermost one. Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Will Navidson decides to make a documentary about his family's move into a new home, and, to that end, wires the whole house up with cameras and audio equipment. Later, after the house's bizarre qualities have been revealed and documented, Navidson splices together his footage into a full-length motion picture called The Navidson Record. Several years after the movie's release, a man by the name of Zampano writes a scholarly examination of the film, drawing on the documentary itself as well has hundreds of secondary sources to completely analyze the events depicted. Zampano never publishes his work, but it is found posthumously by a young punk named Johnny Truant, who then heavily annotates the manuscript, supplementing the tex not only with additional information about Navidson and Zampano, but about his own life as well. Truant eventually gets this version of the book published -- complete with all of Zampano's and his own footnotes intact -- and this is the book that we, the readers, are supposedly holding: a book about a book about a movie about a house. And then, having built all that up, the foundation is removed: one of the things that Truant reveals in his footnotes is that Will Navidson and The Navidson Record don't actually exist.

I'm one of those people who loved The Blair Witch Project, because I totally bought into it. One of my superpowers is the ability to completely suspend my disbelief when the circumstances warrant it, and I managed to convince myself that I was watching an actual, terrifying, found documentary film. A know a lot of people who hated Blair Witch, and I sympathize with them. I can't imagine enjoying the film if I hadn't swallowed it hook, line, and sinker -- it would have seemed pretentious, gimmicky, and obnoxious.

I've heard a lot of people use those same three words to describe House Of Leaves. And it seems like half the people who start the book give up on it before the end. Again, I understand completely. I would have done the same thing, if I hadn't been utterly ensorceled by the premise. Despite the fact that author Mark Z Danielewski put four layers between me and the house at the heart of the book and went on to emphasize that the house was fictional even within the context of the story itself, I was still riveted. I read House of Leaves every chance I got: before going to bed, on lunch breaks, even at stop lights when I had the book with me in the car. In the first case, when I'd read House of Leaves at night, I would often lay awake and think about the book for a while before drifting off to uneasy sleep. I mean, I'm not kidding: I loved this book. And I'll probably read it a second time before the year is through.

As with movies, there's an order of magnitude between books I'd rate a 9 and those I'd give a 10, some magic line that separates the "great" from the "holy smokes amazing!" It's not for everybody, but, for me, House of Leaves fell squarely in the latter category.

April 06, 2005

Books: Oracle Night

Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.

I hailed Cloud Atlas as "the best book I've read in years." For a week, at least. Then, seven days later, I finished Oracle Night by Paul Auster, and that novel usurped the "best book" title. I'd never heard of Auster before, but after mentioning my admiration for the novel to some friends, they replied knowingly that he's one of the best in the business. I'll have to read a few more tomes by the guy to determine if I agree with that assessment, but I was certainly taken with the the way Night was written.

The story is set in 1982, with protagonist Sidney Orr recovering from a near-fatal illness. An author by trade, Orr has been unable to muster the energy or inspiration to write during his recuperation. But his muse returns in force after Orr wanders into a paper store and purchases a mysterious blue notebook. Here the focus of Night shifts to the story-within-the-story, as it devotes several dozen pages to describing the narrative that Orr is jotting in his notebook. From this point on the novel switches back and forth between Orr's reality and the fiction he is penning (and sometimes even to stories within Orr's story), and curious parallels between the two begin to emerge. That an author's work would mirror his own life is of course unsurprising, but the stories that Orr writes in his blue notebook are not only reflective of his past, but, in some cases, also eerily predictive of his future. In fact, soon after he resumes his craft, Orr's life becomes as convoluted and intriguing as that of the characters he's created.

Oracle Night is written in first-person, as if in a journal or a letter to a friend, with Orr relating the tale several decades after the events occur. This informal tone makes the book feel unusually intimate. Though the story is rife with odd coincidences and forces that appear to be borderline supernatural, we understand that Orr is providing us with an honest -- albeit subjective -- account of the events, and that he has no more insight into the strange occurrences than the reader does. Perhaps this is why I enjoyed the unresolved ambiguities in Night, whereas I criticized Cloud Atlas for same. Night is like a ghost story told to you by a friend -- you don't know whether to believe every element of the tale, you only know that he believes them all. And this aspect adds yet another layer to a book that already has more levels than a parking garage.

One thing I disliked: the book is infested with copious footnotes, some of which run for several pages. I guess they were intended to further the illusion that Orr was providing us with as full an account as possible, but they only served to pull me away from the main story and send me off on tangents. And I didn't have the willpower to simply not read them. Aside from that, though, I thought Oracle Night was fantastic, and I look forward to reading more by Auster. If his other novels are as good as this, I'm sure I too will be raving about him in the near future.

March 01, 2005

Books: Cloud Atlas

Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.

In case you missed it, Cloud Atlas won the The Morning News' First Annual Tournament Of Books. As a contributing writer for TMN, I was asked to participate in the tournament, but I declined because I had an upcoming trip to D.C. on my calendar, and assumed I'd be too busy to read. As it turned out, I spent pretty much the entire trip devouring the very book I would have been reading otherwise. I started Cloud Atlas on my flight East, read it during every available moment while there, and finished it on the plane home. Something of a page-turner, that book.

Cloud Atlas a book of short stories, or a novel, or maybe both at once -- it's hard to tell. It has a very peculiar narrative structure, that much is certain. The separate stories (or are they separate stories, hmm?) take place in different time periods, and each is told in the tone and vernacular endemic to the era: the first story, set in the 19th century, has an ornate, Heart of Darkness feel to it; a later story takes place in the 1970's, and bears a striking similarity to the pulp thrillers of the era; and so on.

What's amazing about Cloud Atlas is that each story seems completely authentic for its time period, and (with the exception of one misfire) each is enthralling. The voices of the stories are so distinctive that, were the names of six authors listed on the cover instead of just David Mitchell's, the reader would never suspect that they had all come from the same pen. It seems more like an anthology than the work of a single, amazing writing.

Unfortunately, the sum is somewhat less than the parts. I don't want to go into too much detail about the "peculiar narrative structure" I alluded to above (although I will in the comments), but it hints at a much bigger payoff than the book ever delivers. My assumption was that all of the stories were in the service of the structure, and that the connect between them would ultimately be revealed; alas, in the end the mystery is not only unsolved, the reader is left wondering if there ever was any mystery at all, whether the structure was a means to a deeper novel or simply an if end in itself. Or as one character puts it, "Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished." I'll confess that I did not know when I finished, but the more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to believe it's the latter.

Even so, it's one of the better books I've read in a while, despite the disquieting feeling of disappointment I felt as I neared the end and realized that the questions it raised were not going to be answered, or even addressed. But make up your own mind. Revolutionary or gimmicky? You won't know until you're read it yourself.

February 24, 2005

Books: The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time and Vernon God Little

Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.

Note: This review contains minor spoilers for Curious Incident ... but you may enjoy the book more for knowing them.

Do you ever do that thing where you make a to-do list, and you intentionally include a few tasks that you have already completed so you can have the satisfaction of crossing them off immediately?

I do that. In fact, I did it just last week.

When I recently groused that "I can't say that I read any particularly outstanding fiction books in 2004" and asked for recommendations, so many people mentioned The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon that I felt obligated to add it to the Booklist 2005 Project. This, despite the Curious Incident is one of the books I read last year that left me undazzled, thus inspiring the B2K Project in the first place.

Christopher Boon is a 15-year old boy with a form of autism known as Asperger's Syndrome. Unable to relate to human beings, Christopher has a special affinity for animals, who don't baffle him with the subtleties of facial expressions, voice inflections and body language. So when a neighbor's dog is brutally murdered and he is initially accused of committing the crime, Christopher resolves to apply his (overly) analytic mind to the task of deducing the killer's identity.

Curious Incident is written in first person -- at one point, a teacher suggests to Christopher that he keep a journal of his investigation, and this book is the supposed result. Haddon does a remarkable job of showing us the world through Christopher's eyes, while still allowing the reader glimpses of how someone without Asperger's would see the situation. As Christopher interviews his neighbors, for instance, it becomes clear to the reader that many of them know much more than they are telling, even while Christopher -- unable to spot or even suspect deception -- takes their statements at face value. The author does a masterful job of weaving together these two concurrent two stories -- how Christopher sees things and how everyone else sees things -- into a single, cohesive narrative.

So I loved this book, right? Well, I did ... halfway through. At that point I told The Queen that Curious Incident was the best book I'd read in years, and that I couldn't wait to finish it so she could have a crack at it. [Spoilers begin] But shortly thereafter Christopher suddenly abandons the mystery and sets off on a journey by himself, thereby eliminating the two things I had been enjoying most: the aforementioned "parallel stories" (once he's on his own, it's pretty much all Christopher's POV all the time), and my curiosity as to how the crime was going to be "solved". Worse, Christopher's Asperger's becomes heightened as he becomes increasingly anxious during his travels, which means that the story becomes ever more packed with trivia and tangents. I appreciate that Haddon was trying to convey to the reader how the autistic mind thinks (Haddon has real-life experience working with autistics, so presumably knows of what he writes), but at one point Christopher laments about his obsession with minutia, and by then I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly. [Spoilers end]

I didn't dislike Curious Incident, I just felt a little cheated by a perceived bait-and-switch. But if you ignored the spoiler warnings and read the above paragraph, you may be avoid my fate and love the book as much as most other people appear to. (Though, truth be told, I think I would have found the last 50 pages a tad boring under any circumstances.) Recommended, if only because it's well-written and an interesting experiment.

As as long as I'm damning books that invite comparisons to Catcher In The Rye with faint praise ...

Vernon God Little caught my eye because it won the 2003 Man Booker Prize and because a blurb on the cover compared it to the movie Rushmore. It's not a bad book, but by the end I thought both the award and the comparison were unjustified.

Also written in first person, Little follows the adventures of Vernon, a teen whose best (and perhaps only) friend just went on a Columbineesque shooting rampages and killed 16 classmates before turning the gun on himself. Without a living person to blame for the atrocity, the town starts casting about for a suitable substitute, and much of the story revolves around Vernon's efforts to avoid becoming the designated scapegoat.

In many ways Vernon is as inept at dealing with people as Christopher, though his anti-social tendencies seem the result of choice rather than biology. Written in Vernon's voice, Little is full of slang and the obsessions of young males -- at one point the word "panties" appears on eight consecutive pages. This makes for some tough reading -- it's no A Clockwork Orange, but turgid nonetheless. And if it has been the same length as A Clockwork Orange (i.e., 100 pages shorter) it might have been worth the effort. Instead, it feels somewhat rambling and unfocused. And author DBC Pierre can't seem to decide how broad to make his satire, so the book oscillates from subtle social commentary to situations so hyperbolic that they could work as second-half-of-the-show Saturday Night Live sketches.

As with Curious Incident, I didn't dislike Vernon God Little. But I finished both in 2004, and my assessment that I read no "outstanding fiction" that year stands.

February 16, 2005

The Booklist 2005 Project

In the past, this has been my method for determining my reading list:

  1. Go to library
  2. Wander over to "new releases" section
  3. Judge books by cover
This has led me to some great stuff. Unfortunately, it has also resulted in long stretches of mediocrity.

One of those stretches was the year affectionately known as 2004, and I said as much in my annual recap. But then, as an afterthought, I asked readers to send me recommendations for future reading.

And boy-howdie, did I get 'em. And it would be a shame to let them go to waste. So this year I'm going to try the Booklist 2005 project, and try and plow through the majority of the books that were endorsed by dy readers. And although I was terribly lax about writing book reviews last year, I intend to comment on every B2K Project novel I read on these virtual pages.

Here is my current list of a dozen (Update: now 20) books. Below it are some 25 more, that I will add to the list if they receive seconds from commenters. And if you know of something that really, really ought to be on here but isn't mentioned at all, you can put that in the comments as well. (Although, given the rate at which I read books, the list as it stands is probably sufficient to keep me in fiction until 2008).

The Current List
(i.e., books that received a second and/or intrigued me)

  • Annals of the Black Company, Glen Cook [Read first 20 pages, didn't like. May try again later.]
  • Civilwarland in Bad Decline, George Saunders [Done!]
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell [Done!]
  • The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon [Done!]
  • Eastern Standard Tribe, Cory Doctorow [Done!]
  • The Elementary Particles, Michel Houellebecq
  • Freedom & Necessity, Stephen Brust and Emma Bull
  • Game of Thrones, George Martin [Have -- trying to find a sufficient block of time to read]
  • Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
  • Gringos, Charles Portis [Don't like -- abandoned.]
  • Hardboiled Wonderland And The End Of The World, Haruki Murakami
  • House of Leaves, Mark Z. Dainielewski [Done! One of my favorite books of all-time!]
  • An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke
  • Oracle Night, Paul Auster [Done!]
  • Oryx and Crak, Margaret Atwood
  • Thief Lord, Cornelia Funke [Yeah, it was okay ...]
  • The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon [Enjoyable, but not fantastic]
  • The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger [Done!]
  • Wicked: The Life And Times Of The Wicked Witch Of The West, Gregory Maguire

(i.e., books in need of a second)

  • The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
  • Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  • Dirt Music, Tim Winton
  • The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, Minister Faust
  • Facing the Music, Larry Brown
  • The Fermata, Nicholson Baker
  • Little Children, Tom Perrotta
  • The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
  • McCarthy's Bar, Pete McCarthy
  • The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Pattern Recognition, William Gibson
  • Pest Control, Bill Fitzhugh
  • The Plot Against America, Philip Rothv
  • Seven Types of Ambiguity, Elliot Perlman
  • Sock, Penn Jillette
  • Star of the Sea, Joseph O'Conner
  • Sunshine, Robin McKinley
  • The Towers of Trebizond, Rose Macaulay
  • When the Nines Roll Over, David Benioff

P.S.1. These are all fiction recommendations, because that's what I specifically asked for in my recap. But, if suggesting brand new titles, non-fiction is also welcomed.

P.S.2. Feel free to warn me away from any books I am considering if you're so inclined. You guys are picking these, so the more input the better.

October 18, 2004

Books: Stiff

"Hey, whatcha reading?"

"Oh, you know: a book about corpses."

I'm tempted to immediately reread this, just so I can keep saying that.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is 300 pages about dead people. Or, rather, it's not about the people at all, but what they leave behind. In fact, one of the first things author Mary Roach does is emphasize the distinction between the quick and the dead.

But once she has made her point -- that that "dead people" are best regarded as 100% dead and 0% people -- she launches into a gleeful account of what ghastly things are done to their remains. She begins by covering what most people think of when they consider life postmortem: medical research and organ donation. But from there she catalogs some of the more exotic adventures a cadaver could undertake during it's detour from the morgue to the graveyard. Car manufacturers, for example, have yet to build a crash test dummy that simulates a human body as accurately as a, well, a human body. And when trying to determine what kind of footwear mine sweepers should use, nothing works quite as well as an actual, severed foot.

The most interesting chapter, to my mind, covers about the role in corpses in determining the cause of plane crashes. By noting the composition (and decomposition) of the bodies, investigators can infer a remarkable amount about what transpired in the final moments of a doomed flight. If some (but not all) of the cadavers have burns, for instance and they can identify the remains, the can use the blueprint of the plane and the seat assignments on the tickets to determine where the charred passengers were located, and perhaps pinpoint where an explosion or fire began. And did you know that people who fall from a certain height or higher will have all their clothes knocked off when they hit the ocean, while people who fell from below that height will be recovered clothed?

Despite the macabre nature of the subject matter, Stiff is remarkably funny. Yes, you heard me: funny -- even, at time, snort-out-loud-while-riding-the-bus funny. Throughout the book, Roach employs a tone that's breezy and matter-of-fact, and throws a joke or two into every paragraph. But this doesn't mean the book is light: in fact, it struck me as so meticulously researched that I found myself questioning the sanity of any author would delve into a subject to such a depth. But by injecting liberal amounts of humor into her narrative, Roach makes what could have been a grim and depressing tome into a eminently readable page-turner, the kind of book you could read and enjoy on vacation. (In fact, I took Stiff along during my recent trip to D.C., and even wound up reading the chapter on plane crashes while on the plane.) More impressive still is the fact that the use of humor in no way detracts from the profound sense of respect for the people who donate their bodies that the author manages to engender in the reader.

By the end of Stiffed I kind of felt like Roach was padding the book a little (a chapter on cannibalism goes into an extended digression of how the author was sent on a wild goose chase by an urban legend, for instance), and the humor occasionally gets a little wearying, like reading a forensic textbook written by Dave Barry. But by and large Stiff manages to blend informative and entertaining prose into an engrossing read (emphasis on the "gross"), and it's the best non-fiction book I've read this year.

July 07, 2004

Books: Choke

Say you arrived at work one morning to find a dead critter in the parking lot of the office building. A possum, let's stipulate -- one that had perished recently, but not too recently. Morbid curiosity might get the better of you, and you might stop for a moment to look at the corpse, maybe even going so far as to turn the thing over with your foot so as to see it from all vantages. But would you then go into the office and urge your friends and coworkers to go outside and check it out? Probably not.

Likewise, I find it difficult to recommend Choke by Chuck Palahniuk, one of the most aggressively unpleasant books I've read in a while. Seriously, portions of the book caused me to physically wince as I read them. It was one of those novels where, when I read it on the bus, I would turn the book so the spine pointed at the person sitting next to me for fear that they might glance over, inadvertently see the wrong passage, and quickly transfer to another seat, as far as way as possible. But despite (or, reluctant though I am to admit it, perhaps because of) this -- I plowed though the novel in record time, reading it at every available opportunity.

The story revolves around Victor Mancini, an unlikable loser who depends on the kindness of strangers; specifically, he pretends to choke to death in restaurants and allows people to "save his life." Afterwards his would-be rescuers feel personally responsible for Victor's life (such as it is) and often start sending him checks to make sure he's doing okay. Much of the money he makes from this scam he uses to keep his debacle of a mother in hospice care -- though, when someone at the hospital proposes a treatment that might extend his mother's life, he adamantly rules it out. In his spare time he frequence sex-addiction recovery groups in search of one-night stands, and hangs out with his pal Denny who has an unhealthy predilection for rocks.

All of this would be practically unreadable were it not for the author's ability to turn a phrase -- occasionally, while rooting around in the muck of Choke, you unexpectedly discover a jewel. While I'm not convinced that Palahniuk is a stellar writer, several portions of the book -- such as his description of prayer chains as "a spiritual pyramid scheme. As if you can gang up on God. Bully him around," and a revolting yet curiously inspiring bit about a man, a monkey, and some chestnuts -- made the whole thing worthwhile.

It even got me wanting to read some other stuff my the guy, though a friend of mine, who has read many of Palahniuk's works, told me not to bother. "They're all pretty much the same book," he said. Indeed, just having viewed the Fight Club movie, I could see how much Choke had in common with this earlier work, with self-help groups, railing against conformity, and the good vs. bad duality of the pro/an tagonist. But I may read Fight Club all the same, because it ooks like it shares a virtue with Choke -- they're both relatively short. And those snappy little soundbites Palahniuk employs are as addicting as potato chips.

June 22, 2004

Books: The Last American Man

I haven't really been keeping up with my book reviews, but since I recommended The Last American Man over at The Morning News a few weeks back, I figure I could at do the same for my readers over here.

Those of you unfortunate enough to be adults may remember a spate of books released in the mid-90s that purported to tackle the thorny issue of "masculinity." The tomes tended to come in two varieties: those that analyzed the issue from a feminist perspective and urged readers to identify their masculine side and then quash it in favor of nurturing their inner womyn, and those that warned that the former were turning us into a nation of simpering nancyboys and encouraged men to combat this creeping menace by making more of an effort to behave like an asshole.

Since I was at Evergreen during the throes of this trend, it was pretty much inescapable for me. And, consequentially, I have an irrational fear of any book that has the word "masculinity" anywhere near it. So the only thing that's more amazing than the fact that I picked up The Last American Man from the library is the fact that I then went on to read it, despite a blurb on the front cover that declared it to be "the finest examination of American masculinity since Into the Wild." And hey, you know what? It was great -- best nonfiction book I've read so far this year.

The Last American Man is the biography of one Eustace Conway, written by his good friend Elizabeth Gilbert. Conway was literally the stuff of legends. As a teen he decided to forego a comfortable existence and live in the wilderness, surviving off what food he could catch or grow, fashioning his clothing out of buckskin, and eschewing even the luxury of matches. Unlike many hermits, though, Conway's desire was not to get away from people -- in fact, he was an extraordinary public speaker, and early on decided that it was his life's calling to proselytize this lifestyle, urging city folk to ditch the suburbs and come join him in the forest. In that end he established the Turtle Island Preserve, where he gave workshops and mentored those who wanted to learn how to live a "traditional lifestyle." He also travelled to schools and conferences as a handsomely paid guest speaker. And, between gigs, he found time to hike the entire Appalachian Trail and ride across the nation on horseback.

In chronicling the life of Conway, Gilbert makes little effort to hide her affection for the subject matter: she freely admits that she's a friend of the protagonist and is obviously not immune to his considerable charms. Even so, she's not afraid to tell it like it is when it comes to Conway's many failings. Gilbert makes it all too clear why a man of Conway's charism nonetheless winds up alienating his friends, family, lovers and apprentices. Indeed, Conway come across less as a paragon of manhood and more like a greek god: larger-than-life, but with a flaw for every virtue. That Gilbert is able to navigate the tightrope between objectivity and personalization is a credit to her skills as an author.

And while I haven't rushed out and purchased a copy of Iron John just yet, I will say that The Last American Man went a long way in destigmatizing treatises on masculinity for me. Better still, I found it an engrossing, funny, and thought-provoking book, one perfect for summer reading on the beach. Or in the middle of a rainforst, whichever you prefer.

April 19, 2004

Our Father, Who Art On CD

I spent the weekend listening to the 16 CD James Earl Jones Reads the Bible Deluxe Edition. What a disappointment. Nineteen straight hours of almost complete silence, occasionally punctuated by the soft rustle of Jones turning a page.

[ link | Books]

March 30, 2004

Books: Never Threaten To Eat Your Co-Workers

Wow, this Best of the Blogs book is pretty good! In fact, I'll go out of a limb and say that of all the books I have reviewed here on defective yeti, it's the one I am the most in.

But don't let my staggering lack of impartiality dissuade you from buying several dozen copies. After all, my posts only comprise, like, 1/300th of the text. The bulk of the book is made up of entries from a bevy of my favorite blogs, such as Choire Sicha and Dooce and What's The Fuss. (The only bummer about being in a book with Choire and Heather and Mrs. Kennedy is that the book is not erotica.) And I've had these sites on my sidebar since forever, right? So, in a sense, it's as if I endorsed this book way before it became wildly inappropriate for me to do so.

Plus, it's got Wil Wheaton in it, the guy who was in that one movie you saw that one time! And if this book sells really well maybe they'll turn it into a movie and cast Wil Wheaton in the role of me, although I guess he would be busy playing the part of himself unless they got another actor to play the part of Wil Wheaton, maybe George Clooney, which would be totally cool because I've always wanted to be in a movie with George Clooney, except I guess I wouldn't technically be in the movie since Wil Wheaton would be playing ... okay, now my head kind of hurts.

In summary: purchase!

[ link | Books]

August 25, 2003

Books: Fair Play

A month ago I raved about Steven E. Landsburg's first book The Armchair Economist. I found the book so engrossing that I was disappointed when it ended, so I picked up Landsburg second (and most recent) effort, Fair Play, hoping for more of the same. Unfortunately, Fair Play doesn't exactly pick up where Armchair left off. While a quite enjoyable read, I thought Fair Play left something to be desired.

The problem lies with the subtitle: "What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics". It's not so much what the subtitle says, it's that there is a subtitle at all. The beauty of Armchair Economist was that it was free-ranging, dashing hither and yon covering a variety of economic topics. Better yet, it was one step removed from the reality. The "rational riddles" pondered in Armchair were first distilled to abstraction, and then examined using economic theory. Landsburg reminded readers again and again the many of the assumptions underlying his analysis are simplifications (e.g., all people share common preferences) but his point wasn't to provide definitive answers to the given conundrums but to demonstrate the logical process that economists use when contemplating such questions. Although the author's personal beliefs were occasionally injected into the narrative, the economics always came first.

In Fair Play, on the other hand, Landsburg's worldview seems to be driving the economics. In particular, two of his passions -- love of his daughter and dislike of progressive taxation -- provide the framework for the discussion. The central conceit of the book is we need only look to children to discern the basic economic principles that should guide our society. It's a rather gimmicky premise, but one that makes intuitive sense; if humans are essentially economic creatures, then we would do well to look at those least tainted by society to see how we should behave. Unfortunately, Landsburg is inconsistent in how he employs this economics-via-children stratagem. Sometimes he says we should look to how children act instinctively for clues as to what's "fair," saying "if this is the way we're wired, it must be a for a reason". But other times he cites how adults tell children to behave as a guide to how we should behave ourselves, implying that the standards of "fairness" we set out for our children ought not to differ from those we adhere to ourselves. By trying to have it both ways, Landsburg undermines both arguments.

The subtitular "Look To The Children" theme is then largely abandoned in the middle third of the book (an extended critique of our system of taxation), and then hastily readopted as he brings the book to a close. Scattered throughout the work are snippets cribbed from his regular Slate Everyday Economics column. The overall effect is of a recipe with a few too many ingredients.

If I'm critical of Fair Play, it's because Landsburg's first told me to do so -- now when I read economic writing I am always looking for the flaws and contradictions. Even so, Play is an fun read and left me looking forward to his next offering. If you haven't ready either of Lansburg's works then The Armchair Economist is the way to go; but if you've already devoured that one and are hungry for more, Fair Play is a worthy, if somewhat unsatisfying, follow-up.

August 04, 2003

Books: Complete And Utter Failure

When faced with crushing, humiliating defeat, some people shrug and move on while others are prone to dwell. Author Neil Steinberg is a dweller. It helps that the failures he focuses on are (mostly) not his own. Complete and Utter Failure: A Celebration of Also-Rans, Runner-Ups, Never-Weres and Total Flops tells the story of those who have reached for that brass ring and toppled out of their chairs trying.

The first chapter sets the stage by chronicling the history of product failure: items enthusiastically thrust onto the marketplace, only to be greeted with apathy or derision. One vignette recounts how toymaker Ideal bought a proposal for a line of cute dolls with fluttering wings called "Fairies". One of the Ideal honchos, however, just had to put his mark on the product before it hit the shelves, and insisted they add halos and rename the dolls "Angel Babies". Unfortunately, no one would touch the dolls when they premiered at the New York Toy Fair. All the toy buyers raised the same objection, one which had never occurred to anyone at Ideal during the development process: "So let me get this straight," the buyers said, "These are dead babies?"

That's one of many laugh-out-loud anecdotes collected in this slim volume. Subsequent chapters discuss the various attempts to scale Mt. Everest before Sir Hillary actually made it to the top, the quixotic pursuit of perpetual motion and cold fusion, and the effect that Bad Timing can have on someone like Elisha Gray, who invented the telephone but filed for a patent two hours after Alexander Graham Bell registered his own, less elegant device.

Complete and Utter Failure, while enjoyable throughout, is something of a hodge-podge. At times it comes close to becoming just another Litany Book, where an author purports to "investigate" a phenomenon but actually just fills 300 pages with examples of the phenomenon (James Gleick's Faster and Randall Kennedy's Nigger are prime examples of the Litany Book.) Elsewhere, it strays pretty far afield from the theme -- I don't see how the burning of the library of Alexandria can really be chalked up as a "failure," per se.

The section on the National Spelling Bee, however, largely makes up for the deficiencies in the rest. (Complete and Utter Failure was recommended to me by a yeti reader in the Spellbound thread, by the way). This chapter is more like what I wish the whole book had been -- an in-depth look at an event that is structured in such a way that failure is a foregone conclusion for virtually everyone who competes (despite the demonstrably false announcement, at the beginning of each and every round of the National Spelling Bee the bee, that "everyone who has gotten this far is a winner"). This chapter weaves together interviews with bee participants, first-hand accounts of the event, and philosophical musings on the nature of failure into a neat little essay on the subject. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this chapter was written first and the rest of the book built around it.

The remainder of the book is quite fun to read, due to Steinberg's great (and relentlessly self-deprecating) sense of humor, and because he amusingly compares the history of failure with his own personal experience in this particular realm. (Steinberg's first brush with failure came after being hornswoggled by Captain Kangaroo). So while somewhat uneven, Complete and Utter Failure fails to live down to its title. It is an enjoyable treatise on a subject most of prefer not to dwell upon.

For a sampler of Steinberg's writing, check out his regular column for the Chicago Sun-Times.

July 31, 2003

Books: The Armchair Economist

I love riddles. I don't mean the Laffy Taffy "What kind of shoes do ghosts wear?" kind (well, actually I love those too), but the non-funny kind that crop up in daily life and require a heapin' helping of lateral thinking to unravel. This is why, a while back, I got obsessed with Traffic Flow Theory: the study of how people behave in traffic.

As interesting to me as the riddles themselves is the fact that most of us (myself included) don't even recognize them as riddles until someone calls our attention to them. Why, for instance, do we have traffic jams? It seems like a stupid question -- traffic jams results from too many cars on the road, duh -- but Traffic Flow Theory illustrates that jams are not inevitable, but occur because people behave in very specific (and often counterproductive) ways. The trick to these real world riddles isn't so much figuring out the answer as realizing there is a question worthy of investigation.

Another fascinating (to me) "no-brainer" is: "Why do people stand on escalators but walk on stairs?" As with the traffic jams conundrum, it's not even obvious that there is any behavior worthy of research here -- if people stood on stairs they would never get to the top, duh -- but that didn't stop a bunch of economists at the University of Rochester from looking into this very puzzle. Some of the hypothesis those economists cooked up were summarized here by Steven E. Landsburg.

This is just one of many issues that Landsburg has explored in a regular Slate column entitled Everyday Economics. My interested piqued by the escalator question, I went back and read his entire series of articles, which tackle pressing societal issues ranging from how to win Ebay auctions to why tall people make more money to, my favorite, why people peel bananas with the stem-end up. (Monkeys peel 'em the other way, you know.) Eventually, though, I ran out of articles, leaving me with no option but to read his book, The Armchair Economist.

Written before his tenure at Slate, The Armchair Economist serves as a perfect lead-in to his column. It comes complete with a primer on economics, gives you some idea of Landsburg's worldview, and then tackles a few "Rational Riddles," such as "Why do movie theaters charge more for popcorn?" (Oh, you think you know why theaters charge more for popcorn? Well, tough guy, what if I told you that the chapter in which this is discussed is entitled "Why Popcorn Costs More At The Movies And Why The Obvious Answer Is Wrong" ...)

When not demonstrating that the obvious is incorrect, Landsburg also takes great joy in demonstrating that some plainly ridiculous ideas are, in fact, quite sound: the best way to make drivers safer is to take away their seat belts install sharp spikes on their steering wheels; a city that spends $10,000,000 to build a free aquarium may as well buy $10,000,000 of gold bullion and dump it in the ocean; and it is posible to build a factory that converts corn into automobiles.

For me, personally, The Armchair Economist was especially valuable, because many of the myths is sets out to explode are those that I (as a self-described progressive) hold dear: one chapter is entitled "Why Taxes Are Bad," another is called "Why I Am Not An Environmentalist." He even makes a remarkably convincing argument that bipartisanships in politics is something to be feared rather than welcomed. While I often read writers with beliefs counter to my own, I rarely come across an author who not only challenges my convictions but ponies up the logical arguments necessary to make me think "holy smokes, maybe he's right!" That's what made this the best non-fiction book I've read this year, and one that I recommend highly.

July 30, 2003

Read Moby Dick

David Sedaris says he read Moby Dick. The liar. Well, I assume he's lying, because (a) he's a humorist (i.e., professional liar) and (b) it's well known that 71% of all Moby-Dick-reading claims are lies. But Sedaris provides a fairly believable account of how he managed to pull it off, so, I dunno -- maybe he did read it. It's possible, I guess.

In any case, even if he tried he probably got further into the book than I did. Earlier this year I, too, decided that, at long last, I would tackle Moby Dick. So I checked it out from the library, brought it home, and then assiduously ignored it for a few weeks while I read Nero Wolfe mysteries and graphic novels. Finally, one evening, I decided to bite the literary bullet. As I lay in bed before turning off the light, I picked up the well-worn volume, turned to Chapter One ("Loomings"), and prepared to fulfill a lifelong goal of mine.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely --having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me ...
Wait, what? Driving off the spleen? Whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me?

Unnerved, I pressed on.

... whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
I put the book back on my bedside table, turned to The Queen, and said "Hey, just FYI: I am not going to read Moby Dick. Like, never, in my entire life."

The Queen gave me the briefest of glances, shrugged, and went back to reading her own book. This is why I married her.

I enjoy crossing things off my "To-Do In This Life" list, and I've been x-ing out a lot of them in the last couple years. Not accomplishing things and then crossing them off, oh no; just attempting (or mentally reevaluating) them and then announcing "Yeah, that's not happening." Like, I always wanted to run a marathon. And, point in fact, I'm sure I could do the Seattle Marathon in November if I wanted to. But I recently ran a half marathon and, oh brother, whatta freakin' drag. By mile 8 I was totally bored. By mile 10 I was wishing I'd brought a magazine. The idea of running 13.1 miles twice -- hell, if I wanted that kind of excitement I'd buckle down and read Moby Dick. Which I could also do. If I wanted to. Which I don't.

Ten years ago, if you asked me if I had read Ulysses, I probably would have just scoffed "of course" or hedged with an "I've been too busy reading Milan Kundera" or whatever. Now, at the age of 32, I not only lack the initiative to read boring classics or run marathons, I don't even feel the urge to lie about it any more. "Never read Ulysses and never will," I'm likely to say today. "I got shitfaced in an Irish bar once, and I figure that's close enough."

Some people might say that lowering your standards is no way to meet your life goals. But those people are a bunch of 20-something Moby Dick liars, so, seriously: who cares what they think?

June 05, 2003

Book Review Roundup

Here are some books I've read in recent months that I thought were too short or too disappointing to merit a full-length review.

Silverwing: I can just hear the pitch for this book: "It's like Harry Potter meets Watership Down meets Incredible Journey -- kids will love it!" Kids probably will love it, and I didn't find it half bad either. The heavily anthromorphisized critters of Silverwing are bats, and our hero is the newborn Shade, the runt of the litter who is determined to prove himself but is separated from his migrating clan and forced to blah blah blah ... Well, needless to say there's nothing new in regards to plot or characters -- in fact, as I was reading this aloud to The Queen, I would occationally introduce a new character and have her say "oh, this is Professor Snape" or "aha, I knew Draco Malfoy would be in here somehwhere!" But while I'm not one to typically recommend a book on the basis of its unoriginality, Silverwing is at least as interesting as J. K. Rowling's novels (and, at 200 pages, about a third as long), so it might just be the perfect thing for you or your youngster if you need a Harry Potter fix before Order of the Pheonix is released later this month.

A Wizard of Earthsea: And speaking of Hogwarts ... After recently reading several of those wordy-to-the-point-of-prolixity Harry Potter books -- not to mention rereading the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in all its verbosity -- my initial reaction to this was one of disappointment. A Wizard of Earthsea tells the tale of Ged, an usually gifted young magician who is coming to grips with his powers on a world where dry land is few and far between, and every region is an island unto itself. Ursula K. Le Guin writes the novel in a manner so devoid of description that it seems almost curt. The book was short enough to keep me reading, though, and by the midpoint I was surprised to discover that I had come to appreciate the style. Le Guin is a storyteller in the truest sense of the term: she concentrates solely on the narrative and only gussies things up with description when necessary. The result is less a story less you'd find in a 600 page tome and more like what you'd hear told around a campfire. By the end I decided that I'd quite enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea, and I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.

Legacy: I'd never read a James Michener novel before and, given that this one only runs about 150 pages, I guess you could argue that I still haven't. (Don't be fooled by the "288 pages" listed on the Amazon page; in addition to Legacy the book also contains the entire text of the Constitution of the United States and a 30 page preview of another novel entirely.) Written in 1990, the story traces the lineage of several generations of "patriots," beginning with Jared Starr (who was present at the signing of the Constitution) and ending with Major Norman Starr (who is about to be called before a Senate investigation to account for his role in the Iran / Contra Affair). I found Legacy to be entertaining, but I can't say that I feel any burning desire to grab one of Michener's 1000+ page opuses as a result. I did appreciate that the central character, Major Normal Starr, was portrayed as deeply conservative and reverential towards the Reagan Administration; as a lefty-progressive, it was nice to get a peek into the mind of "the other side".

To Say Nothing Of The Dog: I spent much of this book thinking "Wow: this sure reminds me of Bellwether." And it wasn't until I was nearly two-thirds of the way through it before I had my big d'oh! moment, realizing "no wonder: the author of To Say Nothing Of The Dog is -- d'oh! -- the same person who wrote Bellwether". The problem, unfortunately, is that Bellwhether was quite a bit more enjoyable than this congenial mess. To Say Nothing Of The Dog starts out as a book about time travel (cool!), but then becomes a book about the Victorian Era (less cool) and remains so throughout most of the middle (zzzzzzzz) before, at the very end, abruptly transmorgifying back into the science fiction novel it had promised to be. That the author tries to shoehorn a mystery story in as well doesn't help. Willis has plenty of clever ideas about time travel, but they are largely wasted in what is primarily a comedy of errors and manners. The whole thing comes off as a nice try, but Bellwhether is a essentially a refinement of the ideas within and a vast improvement over the somewhat muddled plot to be found here.

May 21, 2003

Books: Look At Me

(No, it's not another weblog handbook ...)

Looks are everything. That may not be the take-home message of Jennifer Egan's Look At Me, but it's the philosophy guiding the novel's myriad of characters.

We first meet Charlotte, a model whose trade is her face -- at least until said face is crushed in a car crash and has to be reassembled with the help of 80 titanium screws. Now a woman who was recognizable to complete strangers has to identify herself by name to those she's known her entire life.

We later meet Moose, a professor hovering over the line of insanity, whose dissertation examined the invention of clear glass. When glass allowed the populace of the middle ages to see into the dirty corners of their homes and view their own visage in mirrors, and Moose argues that the result was a radical cultural transformation as society became abruptly obsessed with appearances.

Nearly everyone else who traipses through the pages of Look At Me illustrates some aspect of image consciousness. A high school student seems to be a normal teen but is actually living a dangerous double life. The identity of a teacher is a complete fraud -- in truth he is a cipher with a mysterious past. A husband works as a marketer, inventing stupid products that Americans will impulse-purchase at first sight.

By the midpoint of this book, I was ready to declare it "The best book I've read since The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay!" But my enthusiasm waned somewhat from that point on. Egan's writing is engaging, and she skillfully creates a host characters that come across as both illustrations of her central thesis and as human beings, but after spending the first half of the novel establishing them she doesn't do a whole lot with them thereafter, with the plot aimlessly zigging and zagging its way to a finale that could have come 100 pages sooner.

But despite these flaws, Look At Me is an excellent book about an fascinating topic, and is, yes, the best book I've read since The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Egan has somehow managed to write a remarkable deep book about the perils of superficiality.

This is a brief and mostly spoiler-free interview with Jennifer Egan.

This Slate article reveals some of major plot points, but does discuss a rather astounding aspect of this book's timing that I, ever the spoiler-phobe, opted not to mention here.

April 09, 2003

Books: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Our modern idea of the cape, cowl & tights superhero is often traced back to the 1938 debut of Superman. There were plenty of "superheroes" before then, of course, but we didn't recognize them as such: Zorro, Gilgamesh, Hercules, etc. But clever, clever Alan Moore has rounded up a bunch of these pre-Superman fictitious heroes and given them their own comic book entitled The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; the first six issues of said series (which constitute a complete story) have now been compiled into a trade paperback, which I read over the weekend.

And what a great read it was. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen begins in 1898 (one century prior to the comic book's publication), and the "heroes" are taken from the literature of the time: the swashbuckling Allan Quatermain, the mysterious Mina Murry, Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin, and both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (If some of those names fail to ring a bell, don't worry: half the fun of the story is discovering who each person is as the tale progresses.) The five are recruited by Campion Bond, agent of English Intelligence and emissary of a cryptic figure known as "M", who has assembled the team to save Britain from a threat as dangerous as it is enigmatic. And so begins a series of adventures which brings the team into contact with Auguste Dupin, Fu Manchu, and a host of other characters throughout the Europe of the late nineteenth century.

The wonderful thing about the heroes in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is that few of them are heroes, and most don't even qualify as "gentlemen". Quatermain is an opium fiend; Mr. Hyde is a (literal) monster; Hawley Griffin is, frankly, an asshole. They act not for love of England (Nemo, in fact, loathes the Empire and all it stands for), but for private motives and personal gain. In other words, the characters in the comic books are every bit as complex and interesting as the literary figures they are based on. Furthermore, the story told in the first six issues is what would have been called a "ripping good yarn" at the time, full of humor, drama, and more twists than the Thames river.

I have quite a few graphic novels and trade paperbacks on my bookshelf, but most date back to the era when I was an avid comic book reader: The Dark Knight Returns, Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunter and the like. In the last ten years I have picked up a few more, but it's been rare to find one as good as the Silver Age classics (although a few have qualified, such as Kingdom Come and the Astro City compilations). And none that i have acquired in recent memory have risen to the level of The Watchmen and V For Vendetta, my two favorites. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, however, now joins their ranks, giving Alan Moore a hat trick as he sweeps my top three. If you are a comics fan -- or even if you once were and want to re-experience the thrill you used to feel when reading a first-rate series -- this is one to pick up.

Postscript 1: Quick! If you're gonna read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, do so now, before the movie comes out and fucks it up!

Postscript 2: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is only one of a number of new series that Moore is writing for America's Best Comics, and I have read the trade paperbacks for a few of the others. Although none were as marvelous as League, I would still recommend Tom Strong, which is something of a homage to the golden age of Superman. I wasn't gaga over either Top Ten or Promethea, though.

April 02, 2003

Books: The First American

When strangers on the street approach and demand that I list my heroes, I can usually only cough up Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and The Guy Who Got Into The Guinness Book Of World Records By Eating a Bicycle before I start to founder and resort to fictitious characters like The Powerpuff Girls and God. But thanks to The First Amercian, I can now tack one more name onto the litany: Good Ol' Benjamin Franklin.

The First American is a book about Franklin, but it's also a book about the creation of the United States -- indeed, it would be impossible to write one story without telling the other. Franklin was born in 1706, at the moment in history when the first fissures of discontent were beginning to appear between Britain and her New World colony; he died in 1790, shortly after the Constitution of the United States had been ratified. Franklin almost seems like the physical embodiment of the revolutionary spirit, the very incarnation of America's evolution. Had Franklin not existed, historians would have had to invent him as a literary device.

But Benjamin Franklin was very much a flesh-and-blood human being, and his world apart from politics was as fascinating as his role as statesman. Author H. W. Brands covers all aspects of Franklin's life: his siring of an illegitimate son (who later went on to give Franklin an illegitimate grandson), his rise prominence through his work with electricity, his assorted occupations (printer, postmaster, diplomats) and inventions (the lightening rod, bifocals, daylight savings time), all the way up to the various medical afflictions that plagued him over the last years of his life. All this serves to portray Franklin as a human rather than simply a mythical figure. The Queen recently started reading the acclaimed biography John Adams, but soon gave up, complaining that author spent so much time lauding the man that she never felt like she got to know him. This is not a flaw that The First Amercian shares.

In the epilogue, Brands points out the the title of the book has a double meaning. Franklin was the "First American" chronologically, because he was perhaps the first person in a position of power to recognize that the United States would eventually have to break it's bonds with the Old World. But he was also the "first" in the sense of being "the first among equals," a man committed to egalitarianism despite his extraordinary gifts. Franklin was the prototypical Amercian writ large: intelligent (though sometimes too clever for his own good), proud (sometimes to the point of arrogance), steadfast (sometimes to the point of stubbornness), convivial (sometimes to the point of carnality), and, above all, protean enough to take everything fate handed him and maintain a sense of humor.

I've always had an affinity for Bennie F., because, of all the forefathers, he always struck me as the most accessible to an everyday shmoe like me: Washington seems too militant and noble, Jefferson seems entirely too smart, John Adams seems a bit too politician-ie, etc. But in Benjamin Franklin we have a man who not only served as midwife to the nation, but also wrote folksy almanacs, coined (and often stole) clever sayings, and was always willing to admit his character flaws even while urging others to overcome their own. Franklin may have been a great thinker and unparalleled diplomat, but he was also America's first "guy". That's someone I'm happy to cite as a hero.

March 25, 2003

Books: The Forever War

The Science Fiction Book Club recently named their "50 Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years". Now, I know as well as you do that these "Best Of!" lists are totally bogus, but I've been in the mood for lighter reading recently, and when I saw Joe Haldeman's novel parked in the top half I recalled how many times this particular novel had been recommended to me over the years. Plus, given the current geopolitical situation, this seemed as good a time to read a book entitled The Forever War. So I picked it up.

As with most "classic" sci-fi works, this book has a gimmick, albeit a rather modest one. True to the name this is indeed a war novel, where the combat taking place is given as much ink as the characters. But the humans enbroiled in the The Forever War's interstellar struggle have to consider some elements that twentieth-century strategists were never forced to grapple with. Humans, it seems, have perfected near-light speed engines, and have discovered a network of wormholes which allow their fleets to travel instantly (from their point of view) to various points in the galaxy. Unfortunately, the theory of relativity mandates that while the troops may only experience a few months' travel as they voyage to their destination, years will have passed in "real time". A soldier might travel through a wormhold on a supply mission, drop off his cargo, return home through the same portal, and find that the Earth has utterly transformed during his "four month" sojourn.

The story centers on William Mandella, a reluctant and mediocre soldier who is among the first drafted and sent to fight the mysterious race of Taurans. As one of the few of the initial force to survive, he returns to an Earth where dozens of years have passed and finds himself heralded as one of the most senior veterans in military service, despite the fact that, to his mind, he's only spent a year or so in uniform. He also finds that the war has become increasingly absurd, as generals try to deal with enormous complexities of waging a relativistic war. Troops, for instance, are routinely shipped out with state-of-the-art weapons, only to discover, upon arrival at the battlefront, that so much "real time" has passed during their journey that their technology has become laughably out-of-date.

The Forever War is a rather simple book, refreshingly so. I've grown so accustomed to sci-fi novels cram-packed with throw-away ideas that it was nice to read one that set out to explore all of its ramifications of a single, clever conceit. Haldeman is clearly a man who knows a thing or two about military matters, and his depiction of battle, fanciful though it is, comes across as unnervingly accurate. He uses the chronological chaos to illustrate what the soldiers in the field unquestionably feel as they march into combat: that much of "military planning" hinges on hunches and hope. By pointing out the absurdity of trying to fight an intergalactic war, Haldeman points out the absurdity of war itself, but does so in a way that suggests that war may sometimes be necessary all the same.

I don't know if The Forever War is one of the most "significant' science fiction books I've ever read, but it certainly numbers amongst the most enjoyable.

March 04, 2003

Books: Empire Falls

I talked The Queen into seeing Spirited Away, and she loved it even though she doesn't much care for anime. She returned the favor by convincing me to read Empire Falls, even though it appeared to be exactly the kind of book I try and avoid. Set in the tiny burg of Empire Falls, starring Mr. Nice Guy, and written by an author with a long string of "relationship novels" to his name, this looked, to me, to be little more than a novelization to some "Hallmark Feelgood Family TV Special". But it did win the Pulitzer Prize, and I reckoned that the entire Pulitzer Prize committee and my wife couldn't both be wrong. So I decided to give it a whirl.

The first third, however, seemingly confirmed my fears. As the story opens, we are introduced to Miles, a put-upon, heart-of-gold sad-sack who is in the midst of a divorce, father to a teenage girl, and indentured to the town matriarch. He also runs Empire Falls' only diner, which means that he (and the reader) is in constant contact with the city's zanier denizens, including The Silver Fox (owner of the local health club and fiancé to Miles' soon-to-be ex), the obligatory corrupt cop (who was once one of Miles' best friends), and the town's ne're-do-well layabout (who also happens to be Miles' dad).

Small town + divorce + raising a teen + cast of quirky characters tends to = a book I'm not going to wind up loving. But love it I did. Eventually. I henpecked the novel for weeks as I eked my way through the beginning; I got hooked by the midpoint; And I was sprinting to the finish line by the time I hit page 300.

Unsurprisingly, it's those very things that made Empire Falls so hard to "get into" -- namely, the voluminous backstory and meticulous explanation of the mosaic of relationships -- that make the finale so rewarding. Author Richard Russo clearly has a gift for making his characters almost unsettlingly realistic, and, thankfully, he is not afraid to expose the "flaws" in his ostensible good guys. When the book begins, for example, you can't imagine why Miles' wife wants to divorce him, as he seems to be the nicest guy in the world; as the story progresses, however, it becomes increasingly unclear which side of the line between "nice" and "willfully naive" Miles is on, and you start to wonder what took her so long to dump him. Likewise, Miles' daughter is often shown to be petty, selfish, and entirely too concerned with her current social standing. She is, in other words, portrayed as an honest-to-God teen.

It occurs to me, in retrospect, that many of my favorite books tend to share this quality: they start slow, they heap on the backstory, and they eventually make you care about the characters to such a degree that the finale pays you back with interest on your investment of time. But even recognizing this, the sad truth is that I usually need some external motivator encouraging me to see such books through too the end. In the case of A Prayer For Owen Meany, for example, it was my prior knowledge that John Irving novels are worth the effort. For The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay it was my love of all things Houdini that got me through. And it was The Queen's endorsement of Empire Falls that prevented me from putting it down after page 100. Thank goodness she recommended it so highly. And now I do the same.

December 17, 2002

Books: Carter Beats the Devil

Prior to our Thanksgiving Extravaganza, The Queen announced that she was in need of a book. I immediately went out and procured a copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the best thing I read in 2002. Then, wishing I could read K&C again for the first time, I looked it up on Amazon and noted the "People Who Bought This Also Bought" section; number one amogst the titles listed was (at the time) Carter Beats The Devil. And since I see no reason to doubt the judgement of a bunch of amalgamated consumer data, I picked up a copy of Glen David Gold's first novel for myself.

It's easy to see why fans of K&C would also enjoy Carter, because both books are aimed squarely at the Houdini-phile. Set in the 1920's, the story traces the career of Carter the Great, a professional prestidigator in the Golden Era of Magic. Carter begins as a second-rate act in a third-rate circus, but soon claws his way to the top, making lifelong friends (and enemies) along the way. As Carter grows in popularity, he finds himself grappling with love, rival magicians, the FBI, and even a band of pirates. And, at some point, Carter the Great finds himself in the middle of an war for the biggest technological advance of the age.

The detail that Gold uses in describing the mechanics and execution of the protagonist's illusions are a real treat, making the reader feel like he is sitting in the theater and watching a master of the conjuring trade at work. In a few cases the author reveals how certain tricks are done, but he's usually content to simply report what a viewer would see, allowing you to be another bedazzled member of the audience. The whole tale is infused with the excitement and wonder that magic itself generated at the time, before TV showed up and turned us into a nation of jaded bores.

Although I enjoyed Carter Beats the Devil, my impression, two-thirds of the way through, was that Glen David Gold had read Kavalier and Clay, exclaimed "I want to write that book!," and then took a stab at doing so. As Carter was published only one month after K&C this could hardly be the case, but that didn't stop me from thinking that this was a Solaris to Michael Chebon's 2001. Although it evoked the same general atmosphere as K&C, it seemed somewhat thinner and less authentic. By page 400 my main complaint was that, while the plot was engaging, the world and people were a bit two-dimensional.

But the advantage to using slightly abstracted characters is that you can put them in larger-than-life situations and still pull it off. This is what allows Gold to give his novel what both Solaris and K&C lacked: a rollicking, action-packed finale. The final 150 pages of Carter were spectacular, and so cinematic that, while reading it, I was already eagerly anticipating the movie which will inevitably be based on this work. [Google says ... well, nothing on, yet, but I did find this.]

If you've never read either Carter Beats the Devil or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the latter gets the nod. And if you've read K&C recently you might want to wait a spell before digging into this one -- they are similar enough in tone that you would be plagued by literary deja vu. But if you enjoyed Kavalier and Clay when it first came out and are looking for something in a similar vein, Carter Beats the Devil is as fine a read as you're likely to find.

November 06, 2002

Books: American Gods

Have you ever finished a book and immediately thought "Man, I want to read that again!" That's not how I felt after reading American Gods, the Hugo award winning book from Neil Gaimen. Instead, I though "I should read that book again -- because I wasn't really paying that much attention the first time".

Although this is the first Gaiman novel I've read, I owned and enjoyed the entire run of Sandman back in the day. Based on that, I kind of knew what I was getting into: something mystical, something humorous, something with great ideas to spare. And American Gods is all of these things, no doubt about it. But it still failed to really grip me like I wanted it to.

Our protagonist is Shadow, a man released from prison only to discover that he has nothing to return to. Now direction-less, he is immediately enlisted up by a couple of guys who may be grifters or ancient gods or both. One of them, Mr. Wednesday, claims a huge, metaphysical shitstorm is coming, and needs help with some logistical details; seeking funds and a purpose, Shadow swears allegiance to Wednesday and soon finds himself enmeshed in a theological scrimmage.

American Gods reads a lot like Stephen King's early stuff, and I mean that as a compliment. (Snobs like to dismiss King's work as pedestrian, but there's no doubt that the guy is eminently readable). But like King (and Tolkien, for that matter), Gaimen tends to be a bit prolix -- at 600 pages, this book should have been two-thirds as long, perhaps halved. It starts out slow, then picks up steam, then goes into a 150-page holding pattern about halfway through. Although intermittently riveting, it took me weeks to get from one end of the book to the other. Part of the problem was my schedule (my stint on jury duty was going on at the time, leaving me intellectually exhausted every evening), but some of the blame must be attributed to American Gods' sheer verbosity.

This would have been a perfect vacation book, something to devour over a few airplane rides when you have no alternative (except SkyMall) to soldiering on through the dry patches. And although I found myself vaguely disappointed at not being fully engaged, I could see myself reading it again at some future date when I have the mental resources to give it my full attention. As it stands, I recommend American Gods to those who have the time and wherewithal to read 600 pages of book to enjoy and darned good 400-page story.

October 31, 2002

Books: The Good, The Bad, & The Difference

I've just about had it with advice columns. Especially those sex columns that now appear in every newspaper, weekly, and quilting magazine in America. All they do (it seems) is answer the same question month after month after month, namely "Is it okay to cheat on my partner under the following circumstances?" And the columnists usually say no, and sometimes say yes, but inevitably respond in terms of consequences: your husband will leave you, you life will improve, etc. They rarely talk about the more fundamental question of whether such action is ethical in the first place.

Randy Cohen, on the other hand, tackles nothing but these puzzlers in his column The Ethicist. Not only does he dispense advice a bit more practical than "don't sleep around," he also tackles just about any dilemma that could cause a person distress, and does so with aplomb and humor.

I have been an avid reader of The Ethicist ever since I came across it in The New York Times Magazine about a year ago. So when I saw that Cohen had released The Good, The Bad, And The Difference -- a compendium of his writings for The Ethicist -- I snapped it up as quickly as I could. And I found it to be an enjoyable read, despite the fact that, Ethicist addict that I am, I had read most of it before.

I say "enjoyable read" rather than "enlightening read," because most the time Cohen only tells you what you already know, although you often don't realize (or want to admit) this fact. Indeed, Cohen is an expert at discussing everyday ethics in a manner which feels comfortable; it's not as if he is some omniscient being handing down moral edicts but that he's only pointing out the ethical nuances that you already sensed but couldn't quite articulate. In this way he is unlike, say, a manners columnist, who looks each question up in Ye Big Book Of Correct Behavior and announces which fork to use for the salad. Cohen freely acknowledges that there is no guidebook when it comes to these matters, and that he's just a guy whose gotten good and mulling over and writing about these commonplace conundrums.

This accessibility is not by accident. Cohen does not have a degree in philosophy or, you know, ethicsology or whatever. He was, in point of fact, a writer for Late Night With David Letterman prior to becoming a columnist. The New Yorks Times Magazine hired him for the job not despite his credentials, but because of them: because he was a guy who could (and would) think about ethical qualms in the same way you and I do. His dual roles as "Ethicist" and "Everyday Joe" make him a figure you can immediately relate to.

Furthermore, Cohen clearly thinks these questions all the way through, instead of just offering the pat answers. Take this question, found in the chapter Civic Life

My neighbor, a 20-something and quite good looking, never draws his blinds. The view from my apartment is extraordinary. Every night at 8:15 he returns from jogging to shower and prepare for bed, which I enjoy watching. What should I do?
Of course the obvious (unthinking) answer is "Never look," and that's certainly the one that most columnists would provide. But Cohen takes a different stance.
If the dreamboat across the way forgot one night to draw his blinds, you should respect his privacy: it would not be right to exploit a moment's carelessness. However, if he leaves them open every night in a big city where he obviously has neighbors, you can assume he knows what he's doing ... So enjoy! It would be almost insulting to avert your glance.
It's this "going beyond the easy answer" that sets this advice book apart from the countless others on the market.

Of course, I don't always agree with his answers. Cohen, recognizing that reasonable people can disagree on some of the thornier issues, provides space in his book for rebuttal and "Guest Ethicists" to weigh in. All this makes The Good, The Bad, & The Difference vastly more interesting than a dry compendium of dos and don'ts, and makes for one of the more entertaining books I've read all year.
October 14, 2002

Books: How To Think About Weird Things

Mr. Companion, my eighth grade social studies teacher, was convinced that aliens had build the Egyptian pyramids. "They know for a fact that it was aliens," he informed us, "because in the middle of the biggest pyramid there's a room, and in this room there's statues of all the races on man -- Caucasian, Mongoloid, Negroid, Eskimo, all of them. And since the Egyptians had obviously never seen Eskimos, it must have been been aliens. You see?" He also helpfully stocked the shelves in his classroom with copies of Chariots of the Gods, and encouraged us to "check them out".

I thought about him a lot while reading this book.

How To Think About Weird Things is a primer on critical thinking skills. And by "primer," I mean it is suitable for someone just begining to fully appreciate their faculty for reasoning, such as a high school student or college freshman. So how did I wind up reading it? Beats me. I don't even remember putting a hold on it. But when Nice Librarian Lady handed it to me last week, along with my stack of other reserved books, I figured that a refresher course in critical thinking couldn't possibly be a bad idea.

As it turns out, Weird Things was an enjoyable read, even if repetitious and too basic to be of much use to me. The author, Theodore Schick Jr., explicates critical thinking in three broad sections. First, he spends a few chapters reviewing why we humans are so susceptible to logical pot-holes. One of the main reasons, Schick postulates, is our inability to intuitively grasp probability, which leads us to routinely over- and underestimate the likelihood of various events. You think of a friend and, 10 minutes later, that friend calls. What are the odds? It must be ESP, right? Well, the "odds" aren't that bad, Weird Things points out, when you calculate how many times a month you think of your friends, and chart that against how many phone calls you receive from friends in a given 30-day period.

Another font of problems is our unreliable perceptions and memories. The human brain, when faced with random or unknown input, does it's best to make sense of the data, and this sometimes leads it to "see" or "hear" things that aren't there. You look at a crater on Mars and you see a smiley face, or a cat yowls next door and you hear your late grandmother calling from the foyer. Furthermore, human memories are infamously unreliable. (Less than a month after the 9/11/01, studies showed that many people who had watched the attacks unfold on tv were already confusing the chronology of events, claiming, for example, that the Pentagon had been hit first.)

If we can't trust our own eyes and recall, what can we rely on? Schick reassures us that there are things we can ascertain, facts that can be discerned by studious application of the scientific method. You state a hypothesis, you amass evidence, you apply the data and see if it confirms or negates the initial proposition. This isn't just the formula white-coated astrophysicists at NASA should be using, these are the tools that each of us should be hanging onto our belts every morning as we head out the door.

Schick then examines (and eviscerates) a number of popular parapsychological topics, ranging from Homeopathy to UFOs to Near Death Experiences. In each case he rigorously applies his recommended criteria and finds them wanting.

It's fair to call How To Think About Weird Things a treatise on skepticism. But while chary of topics such as dowsing and channeling, Schick does not employ the all-too-common double-standard and call such things 100% false. He acknowledges that stating with certainty that Astrology is false is just as faith-based as believing in it wholeheartedly. But Schick makes a very convincing argument that we do ourselves a disservice when we put stock in beliefs bereft of supporting evidence. Astrology may not be false, but given the preponderance of evidence against it you would be foolish to embrace it.

As Weird Things is clearly intended to be a textbook, it is somewhat difficult to read recreationally. For one thing, he tends to tell you what he's going to tell you, tell you, and then tell you what he told you -- useful when preaching to a student who is reluctantly plowing through your book, but terribly redundant for those who are reading out of an interest in the topic. Furthermore, no depth is plumbed too deep. He mentions a smattering fallacies in the appendix, for example, but doesn't detail them in the way that, say this book would. But as a general introduction to the principles of critical thinking, How To Think About Weird Things is an fine work. I honestly believe that the world would be a better place if a book such as this was required reading for every high school student. And Mr. Companion.

September 30, 2002

Books: Culture Jam

A third of the way through Culture Jam: How to Reverse America's Suicidal Consumer Binge -- And Why We Must (a book only slightly longer than its title) I was ready to write it off. Which came as a surprise, since the author, Kalle Lasn , also founded Adbusters, which I quite like. But the first 100 pages of Culture Jam suffered from something I used to call Everyone Outside Of This Room Is Stupid Syndrome.

Later I discovered that this ugly bit of sociological hoohaw has an official name: Groupthink. But when I was in college, "Everyone Outside Of This Room Is Stupid Syndrome" seemed the perfect moniker for the phenomenon. It would start with someone wondering aloud about the cause of a social ill, and end with the entire class denouncing "Them" for their boneheadedness. "The reason television programming is so bad is because the American public just swallows whatever crap they dish out!" would be announced, to a chorus of head-nodding. Or "We can build all the bicycle lanes we want, but the masses are too dependant on their cars to ever use them!" Or "We understand the value of the old growth forests, but society at large is more interested in cheap burger and unlimited napkins!" The Public, Society, Americans, They -- everyone not sitting here and participating in this very discussion is responsible for whatever problem we currently face. If only the People Outside Of This Room weren't so darned Stupid, everything would get better.

That's an apt summary of the first half of Culture Jam. Worse, Lasn writes most of it in second-person, so it's really more like: "Everyone Outside Of This Room Is As Stupid As You".

A Day In Your Life:

8:00 AM: You are biting into a hash brown patty at McDonalds. The grease shines on your chin like baby oil. You are reminded of your childhood ...

9:30 AM: You are pushing a cart down the aisle of your neighborhood supermarket, past pyramids of shiny apples and peppers .. what you don't know: these vegetables were pumped full of chemicals to enable them to grow in poor soil and survive the voyage to market ...

6:00 PM: The frozen dinner you're about to heat up in the microwave looks virtually the same as the meal you had on the airplane last night

It goes on and on like this. You, the reader, are a mindless drone. God alone knows how you wound up reading this book -- presumable a bookcase fell on you, and, as you lay trapped beneath its weight, you are skimming the pages of a volume that lies open before you.

This whole section is filled with so many contradictions that it's almost self-negating. People will always be hopelessly enslaved to advertising, and yet we should work to help them think for themselves. People who eat whatever they want are rampant consumers and should be condemned, but those who watch their weight have been suckered by the Ideal Body-Size Myth. People who spend their days in front of a computer are losing touch with reality, and if you want to learn more about the problem you can visit us online at www dot adbusters dot -- you see the problem?

The truth is that Lasn has about 100 pages worth of stuff to say in this book, and the first half ain't it. In fact, the first ten chapters (each of which clocks in at about 6 pages) are essentially the same essay, each with a different wording but all driving home a point (unchecked consumerism = bad) that anyone who is voluntarily reading the book already knows. Worse, he offers no remedies for the problems he lists, content to just sadly shake his head at the state of America. It's like listening to your grandpappy go on and on about how much better things were in his day.

Fortunately, Lasn does offer some hope in the latter half of the book, where he outlines some concrete steps that the reader can take to wean themselves off the corporate culture. But even here he has a lot less to say than he has pages to say it in. Don't be so concerned about being "cool". That's good advice, if so-broad-to-the-point-of-being-useless. Ride a bicycle to work. Okay, yeah, that's fine. Circulate an online petition. Uhhh, hmm. Liberate some billboards. What the - Liberate some billboards?! What about credit cards? Don't you think one of the first steps in counteracting a consumer culture is to teach people the true costs of a life lived on debt? Lasn apparently doesn't - credit cards are never once mentioned. What about donating to public television and public radio, or using public transportation? Where's the practical advice about how to stop junk mail and end phone solicitation? Sadly, Culture Jam mentions none of this. But it does give you the ad rates for CNN in case you want to produce an anti-consumer commercial and put it on the air. All the tips tell you how you can go directly from being part of the problem to being one of those intolerable people who self-righteously boast about knowing the solution.

I can't believe I'm panning Culture Jam, actually, because I honestly agree with 93% of what Lasn says. And I think he's a great guy - Adbusters has done more good that I ever will. But this book is not the anti-consumer guide that it purports to be. It's more as if, instead of really wanting to solve the problem, Lasn just wants to invite you into the room to join the others for grousing and self-congratulation.

August 26, 2002

Books: The Botany of Desire

I have this rule. The rule is simply this: I'll abandon a book if, after reading a third, I find that not enjoying it. There is just too much good reading material out there to waste my time plowing through the final 600 pages of Underworld. On the other hand, I force myself to at least read a third, even of something that doesn't immediately float my boat. I may well miss out on some terrific novels that happen to get interesting 2/5 of the way through, but I'm comfortable with that.

The Botany of Desire is divided into four sections: Apple, Tulip, Marijuana and Potato. After finishing section one, I was ready to return Desire to the library unfinished. But, in accordance with my rule, I decided to read at least until the 1/3 point, and then opted to go ahead and finish the second chapter. I finished section two on my morning bus ride and decided to give up on the book, but then Some Random Guy In An Elevator talked me into finishing it. I entered the car carrying the Desire, he glanced at it and said "Oh wow, I just finished that and it was great. How far are you?" I said I had just finished "Tulip". He said "That's just where it starts to get really good!" Dad nabbit!

So, yeah, I read the whole thing. And, in retrospect, I'm glad I did. The problem I was having with The Botany of Desire wasn't that I found it poorly written or uninteresting, but simply that it wasn't what I wanted it to be. Picking up the book at the library, I had assumed that it was going to be a book about, well, botany - that is, the science and evolution of plants. And it even bills itself as such, claiming to take "A Plant's-eye View of the World". I had imaged something akin to Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene, a story told entirely from the point of view of an organism's genetic matter, being passed down from generation to generation. And according to the introduction, this is the book that Michael Pollan set out to write. But he fails, and instead resorts to telling the tale of these plants from a human's point of view - and sometimes seems to forget about the plants altogether.

Take the first chapter, "Apples" -- the one I almost quit after. He starts out talking about how the apple first reached the shores of America, and how they were propagated throughout the land. This story cannot be told, obviously, without mention of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. But as soon as Johnny strolls into the picture, he becomes the focus of Pollan's writing. Pollan occasionally remembers that he's supposed to be talking about fruit, but the "Plant's-eye view" is dropped almost from the get-go. Halfway through I flipped to the "About the Author" section to see what else this guy had written, only to find that he's not a science writer by trade. He is, in fact, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. And that's what these chapters seem to be: essays written on the topic of plants, but certainly not scientific investigations.

Worse, when he does spell out the science, he often gets it wrong. Take this passage, explaining why cloned apple tress are at risk from new preditors:

The problem very simply is that apple trees no longer reproduce sexually, as they do when they are grown from a seed, and sex is nature's way of creating fresh genetic combinations. At the same time, the viruses, bacteria, fungi and insects keep very much at it, reproducing sexually and continuing to evolve until eventually they hit on the precise genetic combination that allows them to overcome whatever resistance the apples might have once possessed.

Of the four predators listed -- viruses, bacteria, fungi and insects - the first three reproduce asexually (although fungi have been known to shack up from time to time). Lines like this drove me crazy.

But once I accepted the fact that Pollan wasn't a scientist and I wasn't reading a scientific book, I came to enjoy Botany of Desire a lot more. Take as essays, each chapter is quite enjoyable. Pollan is a fine writer, and it's clear he has done his research -- if not into the science of each plant, then at least into the people who work with them. So pick it up if you're interested in Science Lite Lite. If you're looking for anything deeper, you'll find Botany leaves something to be desired.

[ link | Books]

August 19, 2002

Books: Reinventing the Wheel and Supercade

In the last week I have read two Coffee Table books, each by a collector, each about the history of an interactive device. The first was Reinventing the Wheel, a book I picked up after Jason Kottke declared it "highly recommended". But while I don't doubt that Kottke actually enjoyed the book, my guess is that most people purchasing Reinventing will not read it themselves, but instead give it as a gift or throw it onto an endtable to impress houseguests.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I, personally, only read half of it before my interest petered out. Reinventing The Wheel is a compendium of photos and descriptions of "Wheel Charts" -- those cardboard calculation tools used to determine what color goes best with your bedspread, what stars you should see in your nighttime sky, and which ingredients you'll require to whip up some Devilled Crab. The book opens with an fascinating introduction covering the invention and evolution of these wheels (called "volvelles" in earlier times). It's an excellent essay, one that whet my appetite for the 93 pages of plates to follow.

But after looking at only a dozen of the plates -- each showing a photograph of a specific wheel and offering a complete description of its creation and function -- I felt like a guy at a party, cornered by someone going on and on about their hobby. (If you've ever had the misfortune of hearing me get going on the Evils Of The State Lottery or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you are painfully aware of the feeling I am trying to describe.) The Wheel Charts are ingenious and involved, but, taken as a whole, it was a bit like reading every bus schedule at the station. Eventually I put this Coffee Table book on my coffee table, and later thumbed through it a few more times while waiting for various levels of my video game to load.

I felt no such apathy towards Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age. This was a book I simply couldn't put down (except when I had to, because the sheer weight of it was making my arms tired). Unlike Reinventing, the introduction here was a bit extraneous. Author Van Burnham traces the genesis of the video game to the creation of the atomic bomb, which is as intriguing as it is arbitrary -- you get the feeling that she could have just as easily tied the origin of the video game to the transistor, the television, or the invention of fire. But the plates in this book -- wow! Nearly very major arcade game from the years 1971 - 1984 is shown, each accompanied by a description of game play, mention of the game's evolutionary ancestors and descendants, and an account of how it fared on the market. Although the focus is on upright "cabinet" games, Supercade also reviews the major home systems of the era: Atari, IntelliVision, ColecoVision and so forth.

It took me a few hours and a couple of beers, but I read every damned page in Supercade -- this despite the fact that I was already intimately familiar with nearly every game depicted, having played them all as a kid (and then watched them all played on Starcade). Some of the Supercade reviews on claim that the text in this book is all cribbed from other sources, but it was new to me and I wolfed it down.

So, what am I saying, here? That I recommend Supercade and give a thumbs down to Reinventing the Wheel. No. Technically, Reinventing is the better of the two -- the writing is more polished, the lay-out is superior (Supercade, like the games it covers, is terribly busy, almost on par with Wired magazine), and if you were to throw both onto your Coffee Table, more people would probably pick it up for a skim. But Supercade pushed all my buttons, and Reinventing left me cold. But it's worth noting that in neither case did I read the book the way it was intended to be read. Books like this are designed to be leafed through by guests to your homes as they wait on a couch or sit on the john. They are also designed, from a marketing stand-point, as "gift books" -- you don't have a present for Kevin's birthday, you run to Barnes and Noble, you think "Kevin likes Playstation, so I'll get him this book on video games" and you purchase it, despite the fact that you've not read it yourself nor heard it endorsed. Frankly, as "gift books" you probably can't go wrong with either of these. (If the Birthday Boy is, in fact, a boy, and in his 30's, Supercade is almost a sure thing. It's also an expensive thing, at $50 to Reinventing's $25.) It just a matter of asking yourself which the the recipient be more likely to have: a paper cut or Nintendo thumb. Choose your book accordingly.

August 08, 2002

Books: Interview With a Vampire

I don't like chess. That is to say, I love the idea of chess -- the idea that it is essentially a mathematical battle, with every move changing the equation of possible moves and strategies -- but I find playing chess a bit of a bore. Apparently I have similar feelings about vampires. I'm a big Buffy buff, and I love the idea of vampires. But when it comes down to reading an entire book about 'em, I get bored quickly. I didn't know this when I picked up Anne Rice's Interview With a Vampire. In fact, 30 pages into it I told my wife that I was already so engrossed that I expected to finish it in a day or two. Three weeks later I trudged to the end.

The problem with Interview With a Vampire is that it is -- surprise! -- about vampires. Not about exciting vampiric adventures, or about people who fight vampires, or about the relationship between vampires and mortals -- no, it's just about run-of-the-mill vampires and their everyday (or, rather, evernight) lives. The whole book revolves around one completely unremarkable vampire, and reads like a biography of some ordinary schmoe off the street, if said schmoe were to suck blood and require sunblock SPF 94.

This is the part in the book review where I generally talk a bit about the plot. But, man, I'm serious here: not a whole lot happens. In fact, if you want a good synopsis of the few bits of action, I'd heartily recommend renting the movie, which I quite enjoyed. The film, bereft of (interminable) internal monologues, is exactly what I'd hoped the book to be. And Tom Cruise is surprisingly good.

So now allow me to qualify everything I've said thus far by adding that Interview is actually a very well-written book. I picked it up expecting a poorly-written pulp novel and found it to be the exact opposite. And if I were really into vampires -- instead of being the goth-poseur that I apparently am -- I would have loved it, would probably be halfway through the third in the series by now. So before opting for Interview, ask yourself this: do you like vampires, or do you just like the idea of vampires? (If you answered "neither" then what the hell are you doing even reading this? Besides, you're a liar: everyone loves the idea of vampires, at the very least.) If you fall into the first category then, by all means, read Interview -- it gets a hearty and sincere recommendation from me. But if you, like me, prefer your vampires one-dimensional and perpetually either on the giving (Blade) or receiving (Buffy) end of an ass-kicking, you may want to steer clear.

For the record: I thought the book Dracula was pretty pointless as well. So my track record with the undead is pretty weak all around.

[ link | Books]

July 22, 2002

Books: Color of Magic

After reading a book about death, a book about fraud and a book about the history of mathematics, I figured I was due a little summer reading. So I asked a friend for a recommendation, and he suggested Terry Pratchett. And I replied with a "maybe, maybe," with no intention of taking his advice.

The truth is that I have always been a wary of Pratchett and his whole "Discworld" series, despite the fact that I had never read any of the books. Back in the day I had been a huge Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fan, but I made the mistake of rereading that book a few years ago and found the humor (or, rather, "the humour") entirely too obvious for my adult tastes. I therefore concluded that I would not enjoy Pratchett, since I believed "Discworld" to be little more than an amalgamation of Hitchhiker's Guide and Piers Anthony's excruciating, pun-ridden Xanth novels.

But the next time I saw this aforementioned friend he handed me The Color of Magic, and since I had yet to scare up any other summer reading I decided to give it a whirl. To my surprise, I found it to be exactly the book I'd been seeking: light, inventive, and (most of the time) funny in all the right ways.

The Color of Magic is the first book about Discworld, a world so-named because it's, well, a disc -- which sits atop four gargantuan elephants, which stand atop a galactic-sized turtle, who trundles through the universe toward some unknown destination. (Yes, I know: you're already wincing and thinking, as I did, that all this sounds dreadfully absurdist.) The setting is Standard Fantasy -- swords and sorcery and everything in between -- and the stories revolve around Rincewind, a failed wizard who knows but one spell, and Twoflower, a visitor from a far-away nation on a site-seeing excursion around the world. In following their misadventures, we become tourists ourselves, seeing all the lunacy that Discworld has to offer.

The humor is pretty even-keeled -- Pratchett can't seem to resist the British predilection for puns, but he keeps them to a minimum. What sets The Color of Magic apart from other parodies is the author's seemingly endless font of ideas. Despite the fact that Discworld is a hodge-podge of themes and archetypes cribbed from the fantasy genre, Pratchett tweaks them enough to make them fresh, interesting, and often quite amusing. Take "Hrun the Barbarian," for example. While trapped deep in a dungeon, Twoflower asks Hrun what he thinks will happen next:

   "Oh," [Hrun] said, "I expect in a minute the door will be flung back and I'll be dragged off to some sort of temple arena where I'll fight maybe a couple of giant spiders and an eight-foot slave from the jungles of Klatch and then I'll rescue some kind of a princess from the altar and then kill off a few guards or whatever and then this girl will show me the secret passage out of the place and we'll liberate a couple of horses and escape with the treasure." Hrun leaned his head back on his hands and looked at the ceiling, whistling tunelessly.
   "All that?" said Twoflower.
See? Funny. This whole story, in fact, is a skillful parody of an H. P. Lovecraft story -- something I wouldn't have thought possible.

Anyhow, yeah: if you've steering clear of the Discworld series for the reasons I mentioned above -- or if you're just in the mood of a fun little something to devour over bus rides -- do what I did and give The Color of Magic a whirl. It ain't John Irving, but hey: immediately after finishing Magic I went to my library's website and reserved the next book in the series. That oughtta tell you something right there.

[ link | Books]

July 18, 2002

1-Star Reviews of Classic Novels

Excerpts From Actual 1-star Customer Reviews for Radcliffe's Top Ten Best Novels

1. The Great Gatsby: "If Fitzgerald had written this book properly ... it would have been EXACTLY two sentences long - 'I'm rich' and 'Oh, boo hoo'. The plot line resembles an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 (namely 'Let's sit around and whine about being rich. Next we'll get drunk and call each other names, fight, and run each other over!' SHUT UP ALREADY!) I can rarely can say this, but I HATE HATE HATE HATE this book! FOR YOUR OWN GOOD, STAY AWAY FROM THIS BOOK IF YOU CAN HELP IT!"

2. Catcher in the Rye: "I'm not the kind of person who reads a lot of books and this book is a reason why."

3. The Grapes of Wrath: "Unfortunately i had to read this book for my american literature class. it went on and on and on about absolutely nothing!yes mr. steinbeck is verydescriptive, by he goes completely overboard in almost every chapter. i mean, does it really take a whole chapter to describe a turtle?!!"

4. To Kill a Mockingbird: "I'm sorry everyone. I don't see why this book is so fabeulos. I would give it a zero. I find no point in writing a book about segregation, there's no way of making it into an enjoyable book."

5. The Color Purple: "This book is the collection of sick perverted ravings of Alice Walker. I started reading the book thinking it had to be great to win the Pullitzer Prize, but I couldn't even finish it because it was so grossly sickening. I urge you to not read this book because it will subvert you and defile your mind with unwanted perverseness."

6. Ulysses: "It is the only book I can think of where the reader deserves more credit for finishing it than the author."

7. Beloved: "Toni has a comon failing among female writers, unfocused ideas and flat characters. the subject matter wasnt something that particlarly intrested me. I guess it would be possible to like this book, but someone like me, I think Ill stick with sci-fi."

8. The Lord of the Flies "I had to read this book for literiture class I hated it. my teacher rattled on about the symbolizm in this book.It was so boring and kinda gory. Plus no girls, wasnt they susposed to repopulate the world after nuclear war so not possible wih only boys. The one thing i found interesting was how they acted like wild animals after they had been on the island a while.that was kinda cool.But it was to confusing."

9. 1984: "The fall of Communism has erased nearly every trace of relevance this book may once have had. "

10.The Sound and the Fury: "What was up with all the words in italics?"

Update, 10/31/06: Hi! A lot of folks are coming to this dusty old entry from a link on Boing Boing. Just so you know, I wrote a second (and better) installment of this for The Morning News.

[ link | Books]

July 10, 2002

Books: Drake's Fortune

I first heard tell of Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World's Greatest Confidence Artist in the virtual pages of Salon, which reviewed two books dedicated to the art of the scam. And as I have a soft spot in my heart for hucksters, I picked up the (reportedly) better written of the two.

Zowie, whatta great book! Which is to say: what amazing subject matter. Drake's Fortune is well-written, and author Richard Rayner has the good sense to avoid two problems which seem to plague biographies: he stays focused on the subject matter and he keeps it brief (200 pages). This makes for a riveting work, one that that I plowed through in two days and would have read cover-to-cover had I started it early on a weekend.

Despite the title, the protagonist ('antagonist,' really) is Oscar Merrill Hartzell. The titular "Drake" refers to Sir Francis Drake, a British admiral from the 1500's who plundered the Spanish Armada and returned to England with a bounty of gold. After the Queen took her share from the The ill-begotten trove, the rest sat in probate awaiting a heir to claim the remains. And there the untold riches sat, for hundreds of years, as the legal questions surrounding the gold's rightful owner grew ever more complex. Anyone who could sort out the genealogical riddle stood to make a killing: they would receive the entire fortune, plus centuries' worth of interest. This is the task Hartzell undertook, but he knew it wasn't going to be easy or cheap. Indeed, no one man could possibly afford all the legal fees required to untangle this legal morass. So Hartzell asked ordinary citizens for donations, and promised that, once the estate was his, he would return their investment 1000%.

It would have been a win-win situation for everyone involved, if not for one troublesome detail: there was no Drake estate. Yes, Sir Francis Drake had returned to the motherland with a boatload of booty, but every doubloon had been distributed -- nothing remained to be claimed by anyone. But this didn't stop Hartzell from selling "stakes" in the estate all the same. In fact, from 1920 to 1933, he bilked thousands and thousands of people out of millions and millions of dollars -- this despite the fact that the nation was in the midst of a Great Depression! And what's even more astounding is how little effort it took him: Hartzell rarely even bothered to pretend like he was really pursuing an estate, instead running the entire scheme off of his winning charisma and his superhuman ability to lie like a rug.

Drake's Fortune is an unnerving book. But the scariest moment, for me, came when I realized why I get so much spam email. Who could possibly believe that a Nigerian official wants to transfer billions of dollars into their bank account? Who could possibly believe that they could lose 30 pounds in seven days? Who could possibly believe that there's a pill that will increase the length of your penis overnight? You read Drake's Fortune and you begin to understand that the world is filled with people who can be made to believe anything, and these dupes would go right on believing even if The Truth came over to their house and slept on their sofa for a week. I am not overly concerned by the idea that there are con men in the world, but when I think about the hoards of suckers these guys prey upon, I can't help but shudder.

Read this book. It's great.

[ link | Books]

June 10, 2002

Books: Journey Through Genius

In a desperate attempt to appear "hip,' to "connect" with his teenage students, my high school math teacher compared geometry to Dungeons and Dragons. "You all love D&D, right?" he said, assuming we all did since, in 1987, it was the fad du jour. "Well, geometry is just like that: it starts as a few, basic, fundamental rules, and then builds a whole bunch of secondary rules to handle special cases. So in D&D you have basic rules for fighters, thieves, wizards and whatever, and in geometry you have rules for circles, squares and triangles. And from there you build more and more guidelines until you have an entire system!"

At the time I hated math, so I rolled my eyes at this amazingly lame analogy right along with everyone else. But now, years later, I can't help but wonder if he might have been on to something. In the decade since high school I have become fascinated both with games and math, and I now understand that the two are intimately connected. Indeed, reading Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics was a lot like reading a rule book for the natural world.

Author William Dunham chose a dozen or so theorems, each of which advanced -- and, some cases, revolutionized -- the world's understanding of mathematics. It starts with the ancient Greeks and the problem of "squaring" various shapes. (One "squares" a figure by turning it into a square with sides of a known length, which, in turn, allows you to determine the area of the original shape. "Squaring the circle" was, for quite a while, the holy grail of mathemastics, until it was proven to be impossible.) The first Great Thereom demonstrates how to square rectangles, then pentagones, then hexagons, and so forth. This discovery paved the way for such other revelations as Pythegoras' Theorem (a2 + b2 = 2) and the value of pi, which, in turn, served as building blocks for still more profound insights. Journey Through Genius almost seems like a mystery novel, where clues are slowly revealed and more and more conclusions are drawn.

The most fascinating part of the book, I though, was the depiction of mathematicians as gunslingers in the 17th century. Up and coming mathematicians would challenge established scholars to "duels," where the participants would swap tests and see who could stump whom. He who could crack most of his opponent's questions would become (or remain) Mathematics Fastest Gun; the other would be shot down in ignominy. An unfortunate consequence of this institution was that mathematicians who discovered new methods of solving problems would be reluctant to share their secrets, instead hoarding their knowledge and using it to win in these gun fights. Who knew that Math Guys could be so ruthless?

I freely admit that I didn't really follow the Theorems presented in the last four chapters, although Dunham still explained the role and importance of each. Overall I found Journey Through Genius to be a fascinating read, and one -- like all the books on mathematics I read these days -- which made me wish I had cared more about this stuff when it was being taught to me to free. Criminey, if I had listened to my geometry teacher's advice and treated mathematics like D&D, I could have been a Level 13 Trigonomiter with a +2 Slide Rule of Sharpness by now. Ah, wasted youth.

[ link | Books]

June 03, 2002

Books: A Fire Upon the Deep

About halfway through high school I finished reading my 87,000th crappy sci-fi or fantasy novel and decided that I'd had enough. From that point on I have avoided the genre entirely, except to read books that (a) have won an award, or (b) are personally recommended to me by friends with trustworthy judgment, or, preferably (c) both. Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep fell into the former category -- it won the Hugo Award in 1991 -- but if you'd like that recommendation I'd be happy to provide it myself.

The novel is set in the far far future, and the events take place in a region called The Beyond. The galaxy, we are told, is divided into four distinct "Zones of Thought" like the areas on a bullseye: The Unthinking Depths are in the center, The Slow Zone is the next ring out, The Beyond falls on the fringes of the galaxy and surrounding everything is The Transcend. Each region has its own physical laws. So in The Slow Zone (where our own Earth resides), the "Nothing Faster Than the Speed of Light" limit reigns, but in The Beyond this prohibition is lifted. No one really knows what The Transcend is like because creatures who manage to get there become godlike Powers and generally stop giving a rat ass about mortals.

Our story begins with a ship's crash landing, stranding two human children on a planet inhabited by sentient wolves. Each individual wolf is not very intelligent alone, but they all possesses the ability to "hear" the thoughts of other wolves in about a 10 meter radius. Groups of four to eight wolves, then, come together in packs to become a "person," with a group mind and a single identity. These "people," called Tines, can then use their four to eight mouths in collaboration -- all controlled by the group mind -- to manipulate their environment as skillfully as humans can with their hands. One disadvantage of the tines, though, is that they are unable to come within 10 meters of one another without their thoughts intermingling -- an occurrence which could result in confusion or even loss of identity, The tines are wonderfully well thought-out and described by Vinge, although their unique sense of personhood does lead to some bizarre sentence constructions. (E.g. "Afraid of the noise, he sent some of him to peer over the ridge while other parts of him cowered on the ground.")

The rest of the book is pure space opera: a malicious, virus-like Power called The Blight is quickly taking over the galaxy, enslaving trillions of beings and killing all those that stand in its way. There may be a "Countermeasure" to defeat The Blight, but nobody knows for certain; and this Countermeasure, if it exists at all, is on the ship that crashed into Tines World. A small band of people (two humans, two tropical plant-based aliens) set off to rescue the children and find The Countermeasure, but soon find themselves pursued by an entire fleet of The Blight's minions.

Any one of these ideas -- the group-mind Tines, the Zones of Thought, The Blight -- would have been enough to build a novel around; the fact that Vinge threw them all into the same 600-page work shows that this is a guy with creativity to spare. The writing isn't the best I've read, but the scope of the story and the striking originality of the concepts make is clear why this one snagged Science Fiction's highest award.

[ link | Books]

May 06, 2002

Books: The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

It has probably not escaped your attention that, in recent days, defective yeti has been yammering on and on about comic books. It may surprise you to hear, then, that I don't actually read comics books -- not any more, at any rate. But as noted before, I love the idea of comic books, and love the four-color champions documented therein. And this superherophilia was recently brought to the fore by the excellent novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the newest book by Michael Chebon and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Having narrowly escaped Prague in 1939, Josef Kavalier teams up with his cousin Sam Clay in New York to fight Hitler in the only way he can: through the use of comic books. The two young men, capitalizing on the popularity of the then-novel "Superman," convince a local publisher to sponsor a monthly comic book entitled "The Escapist" which chronicles the adventures of a Harry Houdini-like hero who has sworn to "free those who languish in tyranny's chains!" Kavalier and Clay are content to fight (and defeat) the Axis each and every month for a while, but soon both the war and the comic book business take a turn for the worst. At the dissolution of their comic book partnertship the men strike out in their own directions, but they never forget the two-fisted tales that brought them together as a team.

Chebon (pronounced "SHAY-bon," I've discovered) writes exactly the kind of novel I like: a lyrical history of a few memorable characters on their voyage from youth to adulthood. (Not unlike another of my favorite authors, John Irving's, as exemplified by World According to Garp and Ciderhouse Rules). This style, combined with a subject matter I already adore, made this one of the best fiction books I've read in years. A very satisfying story, and one that I would heartily recommend to anyone who enjoys comic books, the idea of comic books, or just a damned fine yarn.

[ link | Books]

April 15, 2002

Books: The Undertaking

I can't recall exactly what possessed me to place a hold on The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. But apparently I wasn't alone in wanting to read it, as it took over six months for my library's to scare me up a copy. The author, Thomas Lynch, is a man of many hats, including those of "Funeral Director" and "Poet," both of which were firmly perched upon his head when he penned this lyrical little book. In fact, the author does a pretty good job of demonstrating that excelling in undertaking requires the same mindset as poetry: a love of the living, a respect for the dead, an attention to detail, a willingness to ponder the unthinkable, and the understanding that passion and humor are not mutually exclusive.

Undertaking starts out as a treatise on the profession of funeral direction -- a book to to serve as a counterbalance to American Way of Death, I suspect -- but sashays into the realms of autobiography and philosophy by the midpoint. While not the most consistent book in tone or subject matter, it's an excellent read all the same. Since most of us only think of death in terms of it being Something We Don't Much Want To Experience, Lynch, having of necessity put a lot of thought into this subject, has come to many conclusions that we might not have the wherewithal to come to ourselves. For example, Lynch remarks on all the folks who approach him and announce that, when they die, they just want to thrown in the cheapest of pine boxes and buried without pomp. "You won't be swindling my relatives out of their hard earned money!," these people tell Lynch. "I'm going to the grave as the model of minimalistm" But as Lynch points out, none of these people live their lives according to this anti-consumer philosophy -- oh no. Instead, they have decided to wait until they are dead -- wait until they no longer care, in other words -- and then become the poster-child for simplicity. It's nothing but a last-ditch effort to be remembered for virtues you never actually possessed, and to do so my denying those do care -- the family and friends -- the chance to see you off in a manner that would best aid them in the coping of thier loss. Far from demonstrating selflessness, this common desire is selishness taken beyond the grave.

Remarkably, "The Undertaking," while not exactly a pick-me-up, manages not to unduly depress. There's something refreshing about a guy who just comes right out and says "look, friend: you're gonna die and there's nothing you can do about it. But here's a thing or two you might like to know about the process before it actually comes to pass." It makes you wish that more things in this world were as certain as your own demise.

I got my copy of The Undertaking from the Seattle Public Library.

[ link | Books]

April 08, 2002

Books: Whispers on the Color Line

I first heard tell of Whispers on the Color Line in a Slate article entitled Consumer Rumors which discussed how unsubstanciated alligations about companies spread differently in different communities. As a case in point, the Slate author discusses the long-standing rumor that Snapple (the beverage that was such a rage ten years ago) is owned or at least funded by nefarious groups. Oddly, in white communities the belief was that Snapple was affiliated with anti-abortion groups while in black communities the story insisted that Snapple was owned or funded by the Ku Klux Klan. (You can read the report on this urban legend here.) This is what the book's authors call a "Topsy/Eva Rumor' -- a myth that has different antagonists depending on the race of the community in which is spreads.

I picked up "Whispers on the Color Line" beecause I have long been fascinated by the origin and dissemination of urban legends. The text is a very interesting read, if a bit dry at times and occasionally guilty of straying from it's premise. It begins with an overview of how rumors get started, how they are propagated, and how they get modified with transmission. Now, everyone thinks they know how rumors get started, because everyone has played the old game telephone: person A says something to person B, person B repeats it to person C but -- due to a misunderstanding or a misremembered word -- alters it a tiny bit, person C tells a very slightly modified version to person D, and by the time person Z hears it it's an entirely different phrase. The authors concede that misunderstanding is one way that rumors begin, but the focus of the book is more on intentional (if subconscience) transformation. When repeating something that they've heard, a person will often (perhaps unwittingly) embellish and change facts to fit their preconceived notions. For example, person A tells B that someone in town was shot by some people in a car; person B tells C that someone in town was shot by some gang members in a car (because this person assumes that anyone conducting a "drive-by shooting" must be in a gang); person C tells D that someone was shot by some black gang members in a car (because D believes that all members of a gang must be black) and so on. Pretty soon you have an urban legend urging you never to flash your headlights at someone driving with their lights out.

Injecting racism into stories as we retell them serves two functions, claim the authors. First, it allows us to express our racism in a socially acceptable way: after all, you're telling an absolutely true story rather than expressing an opinion, so no one can call you to the carpet. Secondly, these stories reinforce our own comfortable (if incorrect) stereotypes: if you can convince yourself that the story is true, it will serve as further "proof" that your deeply held convictions are well-founded.

Say that you are a black man, and you strongly suspect the powerful factions in the "white-run US" are plotting to eradicate African Americans. Then someone points out to you that the popular beverage Tropical Fantasy is only being sold in black neighborhoods. You combine this curious fact with your own suspicions to come up with the idea that the KKK is putting a drug in this drink to sterilize black men. Now you can tell this to other people without sounding paranoid because it's "true." And, knowing that it's true, you can feel justified in your own paranoia. Likewise, whites who warn others about black gang-members gunning down innocents feel justified in their beliefs that blacks are inherently violent, because they have "first-hand" knowledge of this "true" event.

Whispers on the Color Line studies racial rumors about consumer products, morality, violence, crime and genocidal conspiracies. The book ends with some "Tips on Coping With Rumor," although anyone interested enough in either urban legends or race relations to read this book probably doesn't need the advice. (On the other hand, you can probably never be told not to believe everything you hear too many times.)

I got my copy of Whispers on the Color Line from the Seattle Public Library.

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March 25, 2002

Books: Word Freak

It takes Stefan Fatsis 114 pages to acknowledge what readers have already come to suspect. "Right now," he writes, "Scrabble is the most important thing in my life." He's got plenty of company. In "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players" Fatsis documents the lives and travails of those for whom Scrabble-playing is a way of life. That alone would make for an interesting read, but what makes "Word Freak" even more compelling is that, well before the midpoint of the book, Fatsis has already joind the ranks of the Scrabble-obsessed.

Competitive Scrabble, it becomes rapidly apparent, is a wholly different game from that which families play on their dining room tables. For one thing, it's always a two-player, head-to-head affair. For another, the World Famous Crossword Game isn't really about words once you reach the upper echelons of play -- it's more about memorization, visualization and the ability to do absolutely astounding anagramation on the fly. Because players aren't required to know the definitions of the words they play, they often make no effort to do so and instead opt to simply memorize the thousands and thousands of letter combinations which just happen to be in an approved dictionary. Really, the "words" could just be string of numerals -- it would all be the same to these guys.

It also becomes clear that the best Scrabble players in the world are not just really good causal players -- like chess grandmasters, these folks are a breed apart. What do you make of a group who, in their free time, hang out in cafes and challenge each other with anagrams. ("What's TRANSMEDIA plus a V?" cries one. "MAIDSERVANTS!" a second replies a few moments latee.) They play and discuss and analyse and ponder Scrabble to the exclusion of just about everything else, using their spare moments to reviews lists of five-letter words and recreate historical Scrabble matches on their computers. Indeed, it's unlikely that Fatsis could have found a more colorful cast of characters in any sport as he found here.

Although I am a board game enthusiast, I do not much care for Scrabble (or word games in general). But, even so, I quite enjoyed this book. Fatsis is a very good writer, and is introspective enough to recognize and report his own strengths, weaknesses and emotional upheavals as he participates in tournaments alongside the masters. At 350 pages the book is perhaps a little overlong given the subject matter, but is generally a fascinating and enjoyable read.

I purchased by copy of Word Freak from

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March 04, 2002

Books: the His Dark Materials

The surest way to find out if someone has read the His Dark Materials series (short of asking them outright) is to start raving about Harry Potter; If the person has read this trilogy by Philip Pullman, sooner or later they will give an exasperated sigh and announce that while Harry Potter is a fine (if light-weight) diversion, The Golden Compass is so much better.

The Golden Compass is set in a world which could be mistaken for Earth until about page seven, after which a host of subtle and not-so-subtle differences start showing up. In the latter category is the fact that the souls of people do not reside inside their bodies, but rather manifest themselves as external and distinct entities in the forms of animals. Also curious is that the theologians of this world are preoccupied with something called Dust: a kind of physical, magical, or religious particle which seems somehow tied to conscienceness. Much of the story revolves around the quest to discover the true nature of Dust and the journey of the young Lyra as she travels across her world and into others -- including our own.

It took a while for The Golden Compass to hook me -- two-thirds of the way through and I still could have put it down forever. But once the hook took hold, I devourer the rest of the novel and tore through the next (The Subtle Knife). Unfortunately I found the third book, The Amber Spyglass, to be something of a disappointment. While the first two books seemed meticulously plotted, many of the major plot points in Spyglass did not strike me as being thoroughly thought through. (A friend and fellow enthusiast of the series hit the nail on the head when he describe the final book as feeling "rushed"). But even so, the His Dark Material series is an involving and though-provoking read, and one I highly recommend.

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