Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Color of Magic - Terry Pratchett


1983; 210 pages. Genre : Comedic fantasy. Awards : #93 on the "Big Read", detailed here. Overall Rating : B+..

    This is the book that started it all - Terry Pratchett's initial Discworld offering. An inept and cynical wizard is forced to safeguard the health of a visiting and very naive tourist. Their (mis)-adventures cause the capital city of Ankh-Morpork to burn to the ground. This is followed by a trip to the lair of an unspeakable evil; then to a dragon-kingdom; and finally to the very edge of the (disc)-world.

What's To Like...
    There are endearing characters, such as : 1.) Rincewind, the wizard who only knows one spell and can't use it. 2.) Twoflower, the tourist who wants to see barroom brawls, fire-breathing dragons, and the rim of the world, and does it all without ever having a sense of danger. 3.) "The Luggage", a hundred-legged trunk that's a devoted bodyguard to Twoflower, and who will devour anyone it perceives to be a threat to him.

    .This was our introduction to Pratchett's zany wittiness. Here's one example, being Rincewind's description of Twoflower :

    ."Let's just say that if complete and utter chaos were lightning, then he'd be the sort to stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armor and shouting, 'All gods are bastards'." Oh wow! A cross between Sylvia Plath and Douglas Adams.

    .My only complaint is the relative shortness of the book, and the fact that Borders wanted to charge full-price ($6.99) for it. Fortunately, it showed up at the used-bookstore for $2.00. Also, this is a "to be continued" tale - I now have to hunt down Book #2, The Light Fantastic. Assuming it is of similar length, then why weren't the two books combined into a single 400-page volume?

The Secret to good Fantasy-Writing...
    I read once that Tolkien's endeavor, when he wrote The Lord Of The Rings, was to simply not have any "dead spots" in it. It seems Pratchett follows this philosophy. I don't think a page goes by here without some sort of mayhem arising. Which makes sense - if you're writing a fantasy, why should there need to be more than a couple paragraphs before something wicked this way comes?

   .In the end, Discworld books are now "three for three" with me. I'd give this an "A" except for its brevity and the annoying need to now find the sequel. It appears a weekend trip to the library is in order.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Journals of Sylvia Plath - Sylvia Plath


1982; 355 pages. Edited by Ted Hughes & Frances McCullough. Genre : Non-Fiction. Overall Rating : D (but see last paragraph)..

    After immensely enjoying The Bell Jar, I picked this up with the idea of getting a better understanding about what drove Plath to her suicide attempts. Alas, TJOSP sheds little light in that regard.

   .There is now an "Unabridged" version of this book, so this particular edition is rendered essentially superfluous. And it needs to be kept in mind that I'm sure Plath never intended these musings to be shared with the general public.

   .This book was heavily edited by Plath's "quasi-ex" Ted Hughes, and her mom, with whom she had a complex love-hate relationship. One gets the feeling these two (especially Hughes) did some significant cutting to make themselves look good. For instance, there is nothing here about the "Bell Jar" breakdown years (allegedly, those journals just up and disappeared). There is nothing negative about Hughes here at all; and there is nothing here about the final months of Plath's life, after she and Hughes had separated due to his infidelity. (Hughes admits destroying the final two of Plath's journals).

   .What you do get is an open and often unflattering self-portrait of Plath. She has caustic comments about almost everyone she meets (although she finally breaks this habit in the last 30 pages of the book). She also is jealous about her authoring "rivals", especially when they get published before she does. And she is vain about her looks, considering herself to be a sort of disdainful man-eater.

.   Plath also seems to have set her life goals unattainably high. She is determined to be the best author   ever, and anything less than that causes grave self-doubts, insecurity, and bouts of depression. In college, she fears that she'll get trapped in a 50's marriage that will squelch her writing goals. Ironically, she marries Hughes who, for whatever his personal drawbacks, was a brilliant poet/writer. Plath "praises" his successes, but one gets the feeling her teeth were gritted when she wrote those entries.

What's To Like...
    There is a certain self-honesty about these journals, even if they show Plath in a less-than-favorable light. Two examples :

."If only a group of people were more important to me than the idea of a Novel, I might begin a novel." (pg. 320). "Feel unlike writing anything today. A horror that I am really at bottom uninterested in people : the reason I don't write stories." (pg. 324).

.And then there are the descriptive passages, throughout the book, of which Plath was a master. For instance :

."The wind has blown a warm yellow moon up over the sea; a bulbous moon, which sprouts in the soiled indigo sky, and spills bright winking petals of light on the quivering black water." (pg. 31) Oh my, That's beautiful!

    .Perhaps it might be said that Plath's real strength lay in being a wordsmith. She struggled her whole career to create plots for her marvelous prose. Even The Bell Jar, her magnum opus, is more an autobiography than a novel, and therefore needed no plot. I suspect that she is best-suited as a poet, not a story-writer. We shall see. Ariel is sitting on my TBR shelf.

    .In conclusion, I struggled to complete this book. Thank goodness for OCD. I can't recommend TJOSP to most readers; I got tired of Plath's endless verbosity about writing, editing, submitting, re-editing, rewriting and re-submitting all the poems and stories she worked on. However, those who are writers might rate this book much higher, even moreso if they can relate to Plath's bipolarity.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Fantasy Gone Wrong - Edited by Martin Greenberg & Brittiany Koren


2006; 16 stories; 309 pages. Genre : Fantasy. Overall Rating : B..

    Hey, is that a cool bookcover or what?! Sixteen authors were asked to write tales with humor, irony, and unexpected twists. At an average length of 19 pages, things like depth and development of characters are forgivably non-existent. As with any anthology, some stories were excellent; others were so-so.

    .My only gripe is with the last one ("Is This Real Enough?"), and that's only because of its sloppy spell-checking. "Deity" was repeatedly spelled d-i-e-t-y, and the name of one of the characters, Mirri, was occasionally spelled with only one "R". My normal review format doesn't work well with anthologies, so here's six of the stories that I liked.

01. Goblin Lullaby. It's elves and mankind versus witches and goblins, but this one's told from a goblin nursemaid's perspective. My personal favorite in the book.

.02. The Rose, The Farmboy, and the Gnome. Jed (the farmboy) owes 1000 gold pieces to the pixie underworld; or else Uncle Gotti and his femme fatale daughters are going to start slicing off various parts of his body. A nice, unexpected ending.

.03. New Yorke Snowe. A village whore (yes, there are adult themes and cussing in these stories), finds that a magic unicorn is inexplicably tagging along with her, which is interfering with her livelihood. Some nice twists, and a non-stereotypical stepmother.

.04. The Hero of Killorglin. A Tolkienish doggy faery tale. Short on the humor; long on the beauty.
.05. Finder's Keeper. Kinda like the Sorcerer's Apprentice segment in Fantasia, save that here it's the mage's pet wyrm and an animated spell book.

.06. Food Fight. A guy can hear food talking to him. The opening line is "My coffee keeps insulting me". Hilariously witty, although the storyline lags a bit.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Thief of Time - Tony Hillerman


1988; 325 pages. Genre : Murder Mystery. Made into a movie for the PBS series Mystery!. Overall Rating : B-.

   .An anthropologist vanishes among Anasazi ruins. A flatbed trailer and backhoe are stolen. Three murders rock the remote 4-Corners area of the Southwest. Navajo Tribal police lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and officer Jim Chee have to find the connection in all this, find the killer(s), and find the missing anthropologist.
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What's To Like...
    The list of suspects are all "gray"; none jump out as the obvious bad guys. The solving of the case comes from dogged and determined detective work, not from some too-good-to-be-true stroke of luck.
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Hillerman uses real-world settings, usually in the Native American regions in the Southwest. Since I live in Phoenix, this was a close-to-home story. He also focuses heavily on the daily lives of the Native Americans, and their sturggle to maintain their cultural identity. Chee and Leaphorn are a nice study in contrasts. Leaphorn is modernized - Navajo traditions don't bother him, and he doesn't believe in witches. Chee is a "singer" - kind of a junior shaman for his clan. Finding bodies calls for a ritualistic cleansing just as soon as the policework is done.

   .That being said, there is a bit too much emphasis on the cultural issues here. A bit more time might have been spent on smoothing out the storyline. The ending seems contrived and just a bit abrupt. Oh yeah, and we have yet another burnt-out cop here (Leaphorn). Is it too much to ask just once to have the main cop be well-adjusted and happy to go to work each day?

On writing Murder-Mysteries...
    I have a feeling this is a tough genre to write. Somebody gets killed early on. Somebody else spends most of the book searching for clues and trying not to be offed or fired as he/she closes in on solving the case. At the end, there needs to be an exciting climax, with the perpetrators getting their just desserts. There's not much room for variation in this format, and how many thousands of murder-mystery books are there out there?
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Adieu, Tony Hillerman...
    Tony Hillerman put his unique stamp on the murder-mystery format by imbuing his books with a heavy dose of Southwestern Native American history & culture. I've read that among the Hopis, Navajos, etc., he is held in high esteem for this. Tony Hillerman passed away last October 26, at the age of 83. While I'm not a big fan of this genre, it seemed appropriate to read one of his books.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Code of the Woosters - P.G. Wodehouse


1938; 222 pages. Genre : British comedy. Overall Rating : A.

   .O Happy day! My local library has a veritable trove of P.G. Wodehouse books! I can see me going on a "Jeeves" kick in 2009.
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    The Code Of The Woosters is a more typical Jeeves book than The Return Of Jeeves, reviewed earlier here. TCOTW is told in the first-person, and by Jeeves' usual employer, Sir Bertie Wooster.

   .Bertie and Jeeves are guests at a neighboring estate, and Bertie is being blackmailed by three different relatives, each of whom wants him to purloin a cow creamer from there for them. The task is complicated by the fact that the present owner and his goose-stepping bodyguard already suspect that Bertie is a thief. It gets worse when someone pinches the local constable's helmet. Suspicion immediately focuses on Bertie, and inexplicably, said helmet keeps showing up in his room.

What's To Like...
    This is vintage Wodehouse. Besides the plethora of threads, there is a recurring theme of Bertie & Jeeves confidently "taking care of everything", only to find themselves in deeper doo-doo five minutes later when something inevitably goes awry. When they take care of that new challenge, another unforeseen twist immediately shows up, landing them in an even stickier wicket.

    .The book is well-written, quite funny, and full of Britishisms. It also is notable that Wodehouse takes some political jabs at Fascism in the book, save that here the brown-shirts are replaced by black-shorts. This buffoonery was quite brave, given that Wodehouse wrote this in 1938, when Hitler and Mussolini were on the rise in Europe. In the end, all turns out well, and the Code of the Woosters remains intact. I highly recommended this book, especially since it's probably available at your nearby library.

A few words on cow-creamers...
    Maybe I've led a sheltered life, but I had never heard of such a thing as a cow-creamer. I could of course, deduce what it was. Still, it was nice to find that Google Images has dozens of pics of them, one of which is to the right.
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    Amazingly, the source of all my knowledge, Wikipedia, does not yet have an entry about cow-creamers. They give one short sentence about them bring a favorite Wodehouse prop, and that's it. So if you're yearning for instant fame by writing an article for Wikipedia, here's your opportunity.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Thud! - Terry Pratchett


2005; 382 pages. Genre : Fantasy. Overall Rating : B..

    Thud! is the name of a board game played in Discworld. The pieces/sides are dwarves and trolls, and the game is unique in that you have to successfully play it from both sides in order to win the game. Thud! is also the sound Grag Hamcrusher's skull made when someone bashed in the deep-down dwarf's head . With a club.

    Possibly the troll's club found beside the body. It's now up to Sam Vimes and the City Watch to solve the murder before the Trolls and Dwarves turn Ankh-Morpork into an urban battleground.

What's To Like...
    The Wodehousian influence is readily apparent in the tangle of plot lines going on here. Besides the murder and imminent ethnic warfare mentioned above, there's the first vampire to join the City Watch; a huge painting done by a deranged artist that just might hide some clues about some secret or treasure (a Pratchett tweak at the Da Vinci Code); a nasty "dark" monster that I swear was also in The Wheel of Darkness, reviewed here ; and last but not least, there's Sam Vimes hurrying home each night to read "Where's My Cow" to his son.

   .All these disparate lines get nicely tied together by the end of the book. Oh, and for you romantic types, there's even a love story between one of the guards, Nobby, and a sweet young thing named Tawnee. Yes, she's a pole-dancer, but is that any impediment when it comes to true love?
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    This is something like #34 in the Discworld series. The only other one I've read is #8, Guards! Guards!. (I must have a thing for exclamation marks in titles). Thud! doesn't pack as many laughs-per-page as G!G! did. It kinda reminds me of the TV series M*A*S*H in its latter years. Less yucks, more message.

    Thud! does take on some serious themes - racial prejudice, affirmative action, and religious fanaticism, to name a couple. Yet at its core, it's still a light-hearted, fun-to-read fantasy.

   .It is interesting to note that subsequent to this book, a real-world board-game "Thud!" was developed. And "Where's My Cow?" was developed into a real-world children's book. In the end, this is a good read, although it probably shouldn't be your introduction to Discworld. I did find the very first Discworld book, The Color Of Magic, at the used-bookstore; and I'm looking forward to reading the "genesis" of this decades-popular series.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Stranger - Albert Camus


1946; American translation by Matthew Ward - 1989. 123 pages. Awards : Camus won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957. Genre : Classic Lit. Overall Rating : B..

    There is a plot, but really The Stranger (better translated as "The Outsider") is a philosophy/character study, where the events serve merely as background. The spotlight here is on Absurdism, and you're welcome to read the Wikipedia article on that here.

   .The central character is Meursault (his first name is never given) and his approach to life can be seen in a couple of quotations :

"...my nature was such that my physical needs often got in the way of my feelings..." (pg. 65)

"My mind was always on what's coming next, today or tomorrow." (pg. 100)
    .In a way, Meursault reminded me of Homer Simpson, albeit without any comedy. "To be or not to.... oooh, look! Doughnuts!" He must have been a handsome devil, because he certainly didn't have a romantic bone in his body. When his GF Maria asks him if he loves her, he says :
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"I told her it didn't mean anything but that I didn't think so. She looked sad." (pg. 35).
     Well d'uh!, Meursault. Shortly thereafter, Maria asks if he wants to marry her (she's a slow learner), and he replies, "I said it didn't make any difference and that we could if she wanted to." (pg. 41). Yeah, we have a real Romeo here.

What is Absurdism?
    The central theme of this philosophy is that the world is absurd. Not as in Three Stooges absurdity, but in the sense that it is an indifferent, uncaring universe. There is no such thing as karma; good things happen to bad people, and vice versa.
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    If this is so, Camus offers three reactions; two of which he regards as unsatisfactory. First, you can commit suicide ("life isn't worth living if there isn't any meaning to it"). Second you can embrace a theological rationalization ("if there is no God, I guess I'll have to invent one to bring meaning to life").

   .The third alternative, adapted by Meursault and the only one advocated by Camus, is to be indifferent to the events in life. Thus, Meursault has little or no reaction to his mother dying, and likewise little or no reaction to his boss's proposal of a key promotion involving the desirable perk of moving to Paris. These are no more important than the sun beating down on his head, or him eating something because he's hungry. Alas for Meursault, this means he is equally indifferent to killing a man, which results in his trial, conviction (he is an absurdly incompetent defendant), and sentence to death via guillotine.

   .At the end, Meursault becomes aware of his impending demise, and in the last couple pages, breaks out of his indifference. Personally, I would've liked the narrative to continue right up to the point where the blade is about to fall, but I suppose Camus knows better than I when to end a story. This is a very interesting book, but only when you're in the mood for philosophical musing, not an event-packed storyline.
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What is Existentialism?
    Absurdism is an offshoot of Existentialism, and The Stranger is frequently said to (also) be an existential story. Everything I know about Existentialism comes from reading Waiting For Godot and Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead, and the philosophical outlook in those two plays is markedly different. Beyond that, Existentialism is a vaguely-defined entity that no two people seem to agree on ("Progressive Music" is like that, too), so we'll have to wait until I re-read (or someone else reads) WFG or R&GAD for a lively discussion of that.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Return of Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse


1953; 176 pages. Later renamed "Ring For Jeeves". Genre : British, light humour. Overall Rating : B.
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P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) was a prolific British writer, best-known for his "Jeeves" series. Jeeves is a butler, somewhat in the style of "Benson", if you remember that TV show. Wodehouse is known for his satirical wit, and his stories usually have gobs of threads going on, which somehow all get resolved by the end of the book.
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In The Return of Jeeves, the 9th earl of Towcester (pronounced 'Toaster') has fallen upon hard times, having money only for a few servants, one of which is Jeeves. He's trying to sell the family mansion, and is moonlighting as a bookie. Alas, the bookmaking falls victim to someone winning on long odds, forcing the earl to welsh on his paying-off. He flees to the mansion, where an ex-flame shows up to buy the estate. So does the irate bettor, who is secretly in love with the ex, which ticks off the earl's current betrothed, whose father wants to horsewhip the earl, but finds he has to borrow the earl's horsewhip to do so. Meanwhile, the earl's sister and brother-in-law show up; the latter of which has the marvelous talent of saying the worst thing at the worst time. Confused? Don't be. It's all quite easy to follow in the book.
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What's To Like...
The humor is great yet somewhat subtle. Jeeves is wont to quote Shakespeare and other classical authors. The threads described above just keep getting more tangled, and it is a marvel to see how they all get tied up in the last couple chapters.
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There's only about 4 settings in the book, which would make this ideal to stage as a play. The story is mostly wordplay, so this isn't a book to read if you're a-thirsting for action-packed thrills.
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"England and America are two countries, separated by the same language." {George Bernard Shaw}
One of the real joys of reading The Return of Jeeves is that it's written in "British", not American. There were a slew of words and phrases that just aren't used on this side of the pond. Some examples :
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"bally", as in 'a bally palace if I ever saw one'.
"brass up", as in 'you mean he can't brass up?'.
"S.P.", as in 'the chaps have a big S.P. job on for the Derby'.
"scrag", as in 'Set on him, you mean? Scrag him?'.
"napper", as in 'swat Mrs. Spottsworth on the napper with a blackjack?'.
"by Clarkson", as in 'a vague, unidentified figure in a moustache by Clarkson'.
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P.G. Wodehouse was despised by the British "upper crust" because he portayed them as bumbling boobs. But authors like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett have acknowledged his influence on their writing style. So if Discworld or HHGTTG are your kind of humor, and you find the King's English a bally fine thing, you might give Jeeves a try.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Brimstone - Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child


2004; 726 pages. Genre : Mystery-Thriller. Overall Rating : B.

   .A charred body is found in a house on Long Island. It appears to be a case of SHC (Spontaneous Human Combustion). None of the surroundings are burnt - just the victim, but he appears to have been fried from the inside out. Oh, and there's the small matter of a cloven hoof branded into the floorboard.

   .After a second murder under similar circumstances, FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast and detective Vincent D'Agosta work to find a connection and a motive, and to see whether this is the work of natural or supernatural forces.

What's To Like...
   
Preston & Child have the thriller motif down pat; this is another good effort by them. There's lots of action, no slow spots, a bunch of threads to follow, and a couple red herrings to keep you on your toes.
.Pendergast and D'Agosta are a knock-off of Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson. Indeed, Brimstone reminds me of The Hound of The Baskervilles, with maybe a dash of "Wild Wild West" thrown in.

What's meh...
    At 720 pages, this could've been downsized a bit. And the characters seem a bit two-dimensional, although maybe that's just because I read this immediately after The Grapes Of Wrath. Finally, there was one short burst of preachiness in it - aimed at the Fundamentalists. And while I pretty much agree with the sermonette, it nevertheless seemed out-of-place and uncalled for in a mystery novel.

Bottom Line...
    Brimstone is the fifth book in Preston & Child's Pendergast series. I've read #1, #5, and #8. Although they follow the same formula, there is still enough variance in the plots to where they don't become stale. And despite being the first book in a "trilogy within a series", this is a stand-alone story. I like that. It's much less aggravating than some series, such as Robert Jordan's The Dragon Reborn, where you work your way through a thousand pages, only to discover that nothing gets resolved. We'll give Brimstone a solid "B", and recommend it especially to Arthur Conan Doyle fans.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck


1939; 581 pages. Genre : American Literature. Awards : 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Novels. John Steinbeck received the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature. Overall Rating : A.
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    Steinbeck's masterpiece, which chronicles the journey of a family of sharecroppers who, having been forced off their Oklahoma farm, travel Route 66 t0 California, in search of the Promised Land.

What's To Like...
    What can I say? The book is worthy of the accolades that have been heaped upon it. Steinbeck demonstrates his storytelling skills in the chapters dealing with the Joad family; then demonstrates his writing skills in the intermezzo chapters that step away from the narrative and give you a more direct relating of what was going on in America during the Dust Bowl era.
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    I especially liked the attention Steinbeck gives to minor characters. Like the cook and waitress (Al and Mae) at a nondescript truck stop in Chapter 15. Any other author would've just given them cursory attention, but Steinbeck makes them come alive. Indeed, the character development throughout TGOW is superb. These aren't two-dimensional people; they change and evolve throughout the book. Pa may lead the clan at the beginning, but by the end, it's Ma who is holding the remnants of the family together.

What's Not To Like...
    If you're president of a bank or own a thousand-acre farm in California, you probably won't like this book. Indeed, such people raised a furor when TGOW was first published. It was banned in some places, and burned in others. Which is of course ironic, since it is well known that public interest in a book is directly proportional to the number of times it is requested to be banned.
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    Also, you can tell after 50 pages or so, that this is not a sunshine-and-puppy-dogs, happy-ending book. Finally, at 581 total pages, this is not a book to start on Sunday night, when you have a book report due on Monday morning.

What makes The Grapes of Wrath something special?
    In 2009, it will be 70 years since TGOW was first published. It isn't showing its age at all. The poor and the displaced are still with us, and are still getting shafted by the rich and the powerful. And those who help the have-nots will receive their share of the oppression.
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    Casy the Preacher in the story gets labeled a Socialist and/or a Communist (and loses his life) merely for trying to organize the farm workers. Steinbeck got called the same things in real life in the 40's. Curiously, in the 60's, it was the left who called him a turncoat because he was sympathetic to the war effort in Vietnam.

   .In truth, Steinbeck was a populist. He supported the powerless, and whatever it took to enable them to live decent and happy lives. The personal cost was enormous. Besides being slandered and labeled a Commie, the FBI kept tabs on him for years.

   .In the end, things haven't changed much in 70 years. If you stand up for the little people, you must be prepared for the inevitable smear campaign. You will be called a Socialist, an elitist, an Al-Qaeda operative, a Muslim, an Arab, and a collaborator with revolutionaries. Just ask our president-elect.
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    To close, this is a great book. It spotlights the plight of the have-nots, provokes thought, encourages activism, and oh-by-the-way is a literary masterpiece. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 7, 2008

I'm a Stranger Here Myself - Bill Bryson


1999; 288 pages. Genre : Comedic Narrative. Overall Rating : B-.

    Bill Bryson returns to the USA after spending 20 years in England. He buys a house in rustic, Newhartesque New Hampshire, and shortly thereafter, a journalist friend talks him into writing a weekly article for a British magazine called Night & Day; loosely themed around readjusting to American life. IASHM is a collection of 70 of those articles.

What's To Like...
    It has the typical Bryson dry, self-deprecating humor. Since they are weekly articles, all 70 chapters are essentially the same length - about 4 pages each. The topics vary widely, so if one doesn't float your boat, be of good cheer, you'll shortly be reading about something completely different.

    .It is obvious that Bryson reads a lot, and oftentimes that spawns the weekly topic. You will learn things like the origin of Drive-In Theaters, and that computer hackers successfully breached the Pentagon's security systems 161,000 times in 1996. He's possibly the only person I know that can write four pages about cup-holders (in the car and on the PC) and keep you interested. To appreciate that, try putting out four witty pages on that subject yourself.
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What's meh...
    While you'll catch yourself laughing out loud at times while reading IASHM, this is an easy book to put down. The problem isn't Bryson; it's the format. Being limited to four pages means none of the articles have any depth. One of the chapters deals with inherently good- and lousy-sounding words.

     Kewl beans and something I'd really enjoy, but just as soon as the chapter got rolling, it was done.
.The other format problem is the weekly deadline. It must be difficult to be newsworthily witty once a week, every week, for several years. What do you do when your Muse takes a couple weeks vacation? Some of the topics seem to suffer in this manner.
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Uncle John, you have competition...
    It took me a lot longer to get through IASHM than I anticipated. After reading a half-dozen chapters in one sitting, they all start to blur together. I think it would be better to use this book as a Bathroom Reader. We'll give it a B-, and recommend that this not be your introduction to Bryson.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Whiskey Sour - J.A. Konrath


2004; 289 pages. Genre : Murder Mystery. Overall Rating : B-

    .A serial killer is abducting young women, playing Operation on their torsos, and dumping their naked bodies butt-cheek-upwards into local 7-11 dumpsters. Police Lieutenant Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels tries to find the common link, and catch the self-dubbed Gingerbread Man before all of Chicago goes into a panic.

What's To Like...
    If you like James Patterson's "Alex Cross" detective novels (that's before he went all sucky with his "Maximum Ride" stuff), you'll like J.A. Konrath. The killings are tastefully lurid (which is probably an oxymoron), and Konrath also mixes in a bit of punnish humor. Jack Daniels is non-stereotypically middle-aged and average-looking.

Excerpt...
    An example of the Whiskey Sour wit :

"He may be disfigured or disabled. He might have severe acne scars, or scoliosis."
"That's a curvature of the spine," Dailey added.
"Is that a hunch?" I asked.
"Just an educated guess."
I thought about explaining the joke to them, but it would be wasted.


On the other hand...
    There are several places where you just go, "Am I expected to believe that?" For instance, our protagonist's police car is broken into, and a bag of candy is left on the seat. Suspicious? Nah. Daniels' partner tears into the bag without any hesitation and falls for the old razor-blade-in-the-candy-bar trick.

   .Then there's the "lucky break" itself. Interviews of the victims' family and friends get the usual response : "So-and-so was just the sweetest person around. We can't think of anyone who would want to kill her." Yet when the connecting link is finally found, it's something that even a remote acquaintance would recall and instantly think of as a motive for murder.

Then there's the clichés...
    The books is riddled with them. Some, such as the two clueless FBI agents with their computer-generated profiling, are obviously deliberate. Ditto for the doughnut-loving partner of Daniels, who IMHO is ripe for killing or severe-hospitalization is some sequel.

    .But the not-so-deliberate clichés can be annoying. The oh-so-confident psychopath decides to also include our heroine on his hit-list. Gee, that's worked what - zero percent of the time - in the past? This naturally results in our heroine being pulled off the case. Which of course never stops any cop from staying involved one bit. Then there's the poor schluck who goes out on an arranged date with Daniels. Yeah, that's a ironclad guarantee for bodily harm by the jealous stalker.
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    Finally, there's Daniels herself. She's a burnt-out, workaholic, insomniac whose marriage was ruined by her devotion to the job, and who drinks way too much. Sometimes I think that is de rigeur for fictional detectives .
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A little bit about J.A. Konrath...
    Konrath's website is at http://www.jakonrath.com/. His bio claims he wrote nine novels and received more than 500 rejections for them before #10 (Whiskey Sour) was finally accepted/published. He has done 612 book-signings in 28 states, and has sent 7,000 letters to libraries touting his books. I'd say he paid his dues.
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    If you visit his website, you'll be able to read the first seven chapters of most of the books in his Jack Daniels series (5 of them, I think). Except for Whiskey Sour itself, whch you can download in its entirety as a pdf file. Gotta love that.

    .In conclusion, this was a bit of enjoyable light reading. It doesn't strive to be anything more than an entertaining story, and to that end, it succeeds. We'll give it a B- and hope that the sequels have a few more twists and a few less stereotypes.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison


1970; 160 pages. Genre : Modern Literature. Awards : Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993; The Bluest Eye was selected for Oprah's book club in 2000. Overall Rating : B.

   .11-year-old Pecola Breedlove has been taught that she is ugly. Rejected by both parents; abused by white folks and black, and by friends and strangers; her fervent wish is for God to give her blue eyes so she can be beautiful.

.What's To Like...
    The book is a masterful effort, which is all the more surprising since this is Toni Morrison's debut novel. The formatting is unique - each chapter starts with a happy little "See Dick and Jane" snippet, which stands in stark contrast to the bleakness in Pecola's daily world.
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    The overlying theme of the book is people and circumstances allying to make a person believe that he/she is ugly. Being black in Pecola's world (Lorain, Ohio in 1941) is not beautiful, and if you were born that way, it was ingrained in you to marry someone mulatto, or at least lighter-complexioned than you. Frizzy hair and/or a wide nose was ugly, and your beauty was defined by how much you conformed to the standard of the white world. The brainwashing process started at an early age for girls - when they were given a white-skinned doll to play with.
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Be Forwarned...
   
This is a coarse, gritty book, devoid of hope and without a happy ending. There is child-abuse, pedophilia, and rape. The only "shades" of character in the various people in the book is in the degree of hatefulness and uncaring they have. I have to question whether life for anyone, even for a black child in the 1940's, was as bad as Morrison paints it. I certainly hope not.

    .An Excerpt that sets the tone...Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs - all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. "Here," they said, "this is beautiful, and if you are on this day 'worthy' you may have it.".

On The Matter of Censorship...
    A while back, a high school teacher in Bakersfield, California assigned The Bluest Eye to be read by a 12th-grade student. The topics apparently shocked the kid, who showed the book to his parents, and a brouhaha ensued. You can read details about it here.
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    Now, I am completely against book-banning, which was what the parents sought. However, I question the judgment of the teacher here in making it required reading for a teenage kid. Is parental-rape is suitable subject at that age? I for one would have found this book shocking and revolting when I was 17, and I would have resented any teacher telling me to read it. In the end, the school district voided the assignment, but refused to remove The Bluest Eye from the school library's shelves. It's nice to see that every once in a while, the authorities get it right.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Wheel of Darkness - Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child


2007; 385 pages. Genre : Thriller. Overall Rating : B..

    Someone has stolen the Agozyen {"Darkness"} from a remote Tibetian lamasary. NBD, except that it has the power - indeed it has the destiny - to annihilate mankind from the face of the earth so that the world can begin anew. That's a bummer for us humans.

   .FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast and his ward, Constance Greene, need to track down the thief and recover the purloined power object. They end up on a luxury liner, where things go amok when they realize that the "darkness" has already been unleashed.
What's To Like...
    The plot is action-packed and fast-paced. There are several unexpected twists, including the "Hero vs. Ultimate Evil" confrontation. The plot is a bit formulaic (a bunch of terrified people trapped in a confined space, with a monster rampaging about), but it is convincingly done. There is even some Holmesian logic involved, as Pendergast has to somehow quickly and deductively narrow the suspect-list down from the 2700 passengers on board.

    .The negatives are few and mere trifles. There's a certain bumblingness (I doubt that's a real word) about the monks. The monster isn't all that scary. Then there's a small incident that piques one of my literary peeves. To wit...
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Just once I'd like to see...
    The commander of the ship, Commodore Cutter, is a real butthead. That's fine. A "Caine Mutiny" situation develops, and he is subsequently relieved of his leadership role. Later on, for reasons I won't give due to spoiler concerns, it is expedient that the crew again avail themselves of his services. They find him sulking in his quarters, and with gritted teeth, offer him his job back.

   .Alas, Commodore Cutter has no redeeming qualities. He spurns the offer, leaving the crew to a seemingly hopeless fate. My peeve is this - how come 99% of the characters in Action/Thriller/Alt-History stories have to be either black or white? Just once I'd like to see some "grayness". It would've been nice here to see Commodore Cutter accept their offer and contribute to the resolving of the issue, albeit without stealing the spotlight from our intrepid hero. If nothing else, it would've added a bit of complexity to him.

   .But I digress. The Wheel of Darkness is a worthwhile thriller; keeping me on the edge of my seat and turning the pages as the situation became more and more dire. This was my second Preston & Child book {"Relic" was the first} , and it is obvious that they make a good team for writing contemporary novels in this genre. I'm sure I'll be reading more of the series.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Playing For Pizza - John Grisham


306 pages; 2007. Genre : Fiction. Awards : #1 New York Times Bestseller. Overall Rating : C..

    Rick Dockery is a bench-warming 3rd-string quarterback on the Cleveland Browns, until Fate and injuries-to-others deal him a disastrous performance in a playoff game. He is figuratively run out of town, and ends up playing the next season for the Parma Panthers in an Italian Football League. There he learns some of life's lessons about loyalty, friendship, and dedication, and also gains an appreciation for the culture of a foreign country.

What's To Like...
    It's an easy, pleasant read. It screams to be made into one of those Sunday night Hallmark Special made-for-TV movies. It's got a smidgen of romance for female readers, and lots of football for male readers.
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Replaying for Reheated Pizza...
    Although the book has a logical climax (the league's Super Bowl), Grisham leaves a number of important loose ends dangling. I presume this is deliberate, and that we'll be seeing a sequel to this in a year or two.

   .Reading this book, I couldn't help but think that Grisham wanted to vacation in Italy, and decided to charge it to the publishers as "research". His descriptions of Italian churches, countryside, and cities all sound like they were taken from a tourbook. If you're a Grisham fan (and I'm not), you'll probably find P4P a disappointment. There are no legal themes, no complexities, and no deviations from a predictable plot. It is safe to say this made it to #1 on the NYT bestselling list by virtue of the author's name.
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    Nevertheless, this is a decent book if you're looking for some "Hallmark movie" relaxation, so we'll give it a "C". But you can be sure that the next book I read will have killing and mayhem in it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Galileo - Bertolt Brecht


1966; 150 pages {8-41 : Introduction; 42-129 is the play itself; 133-150 : "Writing The Truth - Five Difficulties", an essay by Bertolt Brecht}. Genre : Dramatic Play. Overall Rating : C+ (the play rates a "B"; the rest rates a "D").

   .The book's plot centers around Galileo's invention (or more accurately, his plagiarism) of the telescope, and the impact this had on himself and on various institutions.

What's To Like...
    Brecht gives a very even-handed presentation of Galileo-the-scientist, and Science-the profession. Being a chemist, it was interesting to me to see these two topics in such a light. In the play, there are a wide variety of responses to the introduction of the telescope.

    .For Galileo, it starts out as simply a money-maker. He is told about the Dutch already producing small telescopes, and he duplicates the design and sells it to the city of Venice as if it were his own idea. Later, he uses it to observe the moon and planets, and discovers that Aristotle was wrong - the earth revolves around the sun; not vice versa.

   .The city officials are only concerned with its marketabiity. It is seen as an amusement at best, or else a device for Peeping Toms. The government sees it as a military breakthrough - they will now be able to spot enemy fleets hours before those fleets see them. The church couldn't care one way or the other, unless it contradicts Scripture, and their interpretation thereof. The latter of course leads to a sharp conflict between the Astronomer and Rome.

What's Not To Like...
    In a word, the Introduction, written by one Eric Bentley, sucks. Here's his first sentence :

    "Brecht was all wrong about the seventeenth centruy in general and about Galileo Galilei in particular."
    Wow! That really makes you want to read the book, eh? Bentley then spends 40 more boring pages, using Miltonesque verbiage, telling you why he's miffed at Brecht. In the end, it boils down to this : Brecht's Galileo isn't noble enough for Bentley. This one is a plagiarist, naive, and when it comes to facing the Inquisition's "methods", quite the coward.

    .Sorry, Eric. In Galileo, Brecht is exploring the inevitable tension between dogmatism and the search for truth. It's not meant to be historically accurate, any more than, say, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Get over it.
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    Oh, and the epilogic essay by Brecht is boring too.
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A word or two about Bertolt Brecht...
    Brecht (1898-1956) was born in Germany and was a lifelong Marxist and outspoken anti-Fascist. The latter appellation became hazardous to his health as Hitler came to power in the 1930's. So he chose to emigrate, but Hitler kept invading countries, necessitating multiple moves by Brecht. He went from Germany to Denmark, then to Sweden, then to Finland, and then to the USA. Here, as a self-proclaimed Marxist, he ended up being a target of the House of Un-American Activities. So his final move was (back) to East Germany. All because of his beliefs. Which is quite sad. Freedom-of-thought is ever the bane of dogma.
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    But I digress. I enjoyed Galileo, and even read it twice. Partly to better grasp the themes of the book, and partly cuz it was only 80 pages long. If you believe the Pope is infallible, or that Seeking After Truth is as noble an endeavor as you can have (and I fall into that latter category), then this book will challenge your beliefs.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Guards! Guards! - Terry Pratchett


1989, 355 pages. Genre : Comedic fantasy. Awards : #69 on the BBC's "Big Read" List. Overall Rating : A.

    .In the city of Ankh-Morpork, a secret society of bumblers figure out how to summon a big, nasty-tempered, fire-breathing dragon. As it turns out, that was the easy part. Much more difficult is how to get rid of the beast once you're done with it. This is a job for Captain Vimes and his Night Watch guards, who unfortunately have the mentality of the Keystone Kops.

What's To Like...
    This is part of Pratchett's Discworld series, which is in the same genre as Piers Anthony books, save that, whereas the latter's works feature lots and lots of puns; the former chooses to use lots and lots of groan-inducing metaphors. One quick example (from page 55) :

    "He was a small, bandy-legged man, with a certain resemblance to a chimpanzee who never got invited to tea parties."

   .The plot is good and there are lots of likable characters. The writing is witty and had me laughing out loud. Pratchett's books are a spoof of fantasy novels in general, with each book then also lampooning various smaller topics. Guards! Guards! takes a laugh at things like Secret Societies, Dog-Breeding (here it's Dragon-Breeding), and how to properly build your own dungeon. The book's an easy read, but I found myself going slowly anyway, just to soak up the pervasive humor.

An Introduction to Discworld...
    Discworld is your typical fantasy universe (trolls, dwarves, dragons, wizards, etc.). The world is flat and ...um... shaped like a disk. The disk is held up by four cosmic elephants, who in turn stand on the back of a great turtle. There are (so far) 36 novels in the Discworld series, and although a lot of characters do go and grow from one novel to the next, you don't need to start with Book #1 to enjoy the series. For instance, Guards! Guards! is the eighth Discworld book, but was personally my first Pratchett encounter, and the storyline flowed just fine.

What is the "Big Read" List?
    In 2003, the BBC conducted a survey to determine the 200 most-popular books in the UK. Guards! Guards! came in at #69. Terry Pratchett had 5 books in the top 100, and 15 books in the top 200. You can find the complete list here. FYI, #1 was Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. No real surprise there. #2 was Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. That's quite a swing from LOTR.
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    To close, Terry Pratchett and Discworld were a pleasant discovery for me, and Guards! Guards! was a very nice "light" read. After the darkness of The Bell Jar, it was just what I needed.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath


1971; 200 pages (216 if you include the biographical note). Genre : Autobiographical fiction. (Is that an oxymoron?) Overall Rating : A-

  ..The Bell Jar was originally published in early 1963, and is Plath's only novel. It is a thinly-veiled autobiography of her summer internship at Mademoiselle Magazine in 1952, followed by her mental collapse when she returns home.
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What's To Like...
This is a beautifully-written novel, which is a rare treat. We have lots of great story-tellers nowadays (Dan Brown, James Patterson, Steve Berry, etc.); but frankly, they're not good writers. Plath paints stunning images, even when describing mundane things. A couple examples :
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"He had a big, wide, white toothpaste-ad smile." Kewlness. Or :
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"It's like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction - every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it's really you getting smaller and smaller, and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and that excitement at about a million miles an hour."
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    The 200 pages are divided into 20 chapters, and they almost all are exactly 10 pages long. One wonders if Ms. Plath also suffered from OCD.
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So what was Sylvia Plath's problem?
    Some think she was manic-depressive, but I doubt it. She had no "up" periods. Those who think she was clinically depressed are on the right track. Here's a glimpse (from page 2 of TBJ) into her world, describing her summer in NYC :

."I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn't get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo."
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    In the whole book, I never found Plath to "feel" anything. At one point, she remarks that she hadn't felt happy since she was nine. She supposes she'll fall in love and get married someday, but you can tell she's never going to feel "love". She enters into her first sexual encounter the same way she approaches electro-shock therapy : "Let's get this over with." Indeed, those five words might sum up her entire outlook on life.
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    Sadly, although I felt like I grasped Plath's mental issues, I can't think of a solution for them. The electro-shock therapy seemed to help, but subsequent events prove this either was an illusion, or was temporary. While "playing the game" of getting well, she discusses various methods for killing oneself with her similarly-afflicted friend, Joan. And when Joan hangs herself in the woods, you still don't get the impression that Plath "feels" anything.
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    To close, The Bell Jar is a fantastic read, but it is broodingly dark and sad, without an uplifting paragraph anywhere in it. It gave me a great deal of insight into the world of depression, but I still can't say I understand it, nor would I know how to talk someone who's depressed out of suicide. The world was too soon deprived on Sylvia Plath's literary excellence, and 45 years later, we still don't have any answers for her plight. In February 1963, one month after The Bell Jar was first published, Sylvia Plath turned on the gas, and stuck her head into the deepest part of her oven.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Life & Times of the Thunderbolt Kid - Bill Bryson


2006; 268 pages. Genre : Fiction. Overall Rating : A..

    I'd describe Bill Bryson as a kinder, gentler David Sedaris, although there is still a lot of hyperbole and caustic wit to go around. TL&TotTK is a series of memoirs about Bryson's boyhood days. He was born in 1951, so this is primarily about life in the late 1950's to early 1960's, growing up in Des Moines, Iowa.

What's To Like...
    Simply put - this is as hilarious of a book as I've ever read. From cover to cover, I kept laughing out loud, which was distracting to Liz as she read.
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    And since I was born within a year of Bryson, a lot of his boyhood memories are also mine. Things like : silly putty and slinkies; lincoln logs and model airplanes; Sky King and Roy Rogers; bumper cars and fig newtons; wearing galoshes to school and being sent to the cloakroom; and the widest selection of comic books that any generation ever enjoyed. Last but not least, the stupidest, annoyingest, inanest game/toy that was ever invented - electric football.
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What's Not To Like...
    Not much, since I give this an "A". Most of the negative reviews seem to come from dittoheads who are irked that Bryson at times reminisces about the political foibles of that time period. Yes, we had hula hoops and TV dinners. But we also had a House of Un-American Activities Committee; rampant segregation, and A-bomb tests in the Nevada desert that spewed radioactive fall-out all over the country. Sorry, guys. That's part of this era as well.

   .The other negative that got cited a lot - and I happen to agree with this - is that Bryson sprinkles the book with a few too many 4-lettered words. I have no moral objection to that, provided it serves a purpose. Here, it seemed to be forced and unnecessary.

    .Finally, while those aged 50-65 will relate to this book, there may be a bit of a disconnect for anyone younger.
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Where's Billy?
    For a popular author with a dozen books to his credit, finding Bryson's books in a bookstore is a daunting challenge. Yeah, I could ask the help desk, but where's the sport in that?
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    You'd think his books would be filed under "Humor", but neither store did that. TL&TofTK was over in the "Literature" section at Borders, but that was the only Bryson book there. This past weekend, I found a stash of his other books at the used bookstore under "Travel". They're still written in Sedaris-style, but deal with living in England, hiking the Appalachian Trail, and/or traveling around Australia. He has a couple linguistic-themed books to his credit, and I still haven't found where either store stashes those.

   .I don't think I've enjoyed a book this much since Slaughterhouse Five. I can see me going on a Bryson kick for the next few months. If you want to get a feel for the bright side of the 1955-65 decade, this is as good as it gets. As for its darker side, well, that's what the book I'm reading now is all about.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pirates of the Universe - Terry Bisson


1996; 285 pages. Genre : Post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Awards : A New York Times 1996 Notable Book of the Year. Overall Rating : C+..

    In an energy-depleted world, the Ranger "Gun" hopes to make one more space-harvest and earn admission into the fantasy-park retirement-community owned by Disney-Windows called "Pirates of the Universe". Unfortunately, his bank account's been frozen; his e-mail is blocked; his brother's a runaway convict; and his family's being forced out of their home. Plus someone wants him to join a revolution, although Gun's not sure exactly who, and what it is revolting against.

What's To Like...
    It's set in a post-apocalyptic world; it has dimension-travel (one of my favorite pastimes); and Gunther's spaceship is the U.S.S. Penn State, named after one of my alma maters. Kewlness.

.A subtle humor permeates the book. For instance, the pricey virtual ...um... pleasure girl (who is accessed via a potent opiate) is copy-protected. So you can cyber-enjoy her company, but you aren't allowed to retain her image in your memory.

.You run into a host of new terms here - Peteys, Gens, Doggits, The Tangle, the Overworld, Softies, Rangers, Sierras, Fundamentals, the Protocols, The Three, Disney-Windows, et al. Bisson's style here "assumes" you are already familiar with these. Some, like D-W, are easy to deduce. Others...

What's Not To Like...
    POTU is a slow-read. You spend a lot of time trying to figure out all those new terms. I'm still not sure what a gen is. Neither is Gun.

.   The bigger weakness is the storyline itself. It's kinda like the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The book keeps plodding along, right up until the very end. Then the "this changes everything" moment occurs, and... and... and then the book (or movie, in the case of CEot3K) ends. What a letdown. Some of us like to read/see the other side of "this changes everything".

This was the NYT's 1996 Notable Book of the Year??
    Terry Bisson is the author who finished Walter Miller's sequel ("midquel", actually) to A Canticle for Liebowitz, when WM had the misfortune to pass away after spending several decades getting the midquel about 95% done. I still haven't found that one, and POTU was the only Bisson work the used bookstore had.

.   According to Wikipedia, Bisson mostly does short stories. He's won a Hugo and a Nebula Award. He's only written a couple full-length novels, one of which is POTU. Frankly, this would've been better done as a short story. The 225-page build-up - while amusing, well-written, witty, and oozing with satire - could've been distilled down to 50 pages, followed by a 50-page boffo climax.
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    Still, it is reasonably well-done, with lots of things to chuckle at and to puzzle out. And, like A Canticle for Liebowitz, POTU is done in a very unique style. That makes it a worthwhile book for Sci-Fi fans and people interested in unusual literary techniques. For everyone else, this might be an "optional" read.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Thunderstruck - Erik Larson


2006; 392 pages. Genre : Animated Non-fiction. Overall Rating : B..

    Thunderstruck combines two stories - one technical; the other sensational. The technical tale tells about Guglielmo Marconi and his work to develop "wireless telegraphy". The sensational tale concerns one Hawley Crippin, a diminuitive henpecked husband who one night decided "Enough is enough", and... well, we'll leave that as a teaser. The setting for both tales is London around the dawn of the 20th century. The tie-in between the two tales doesn't become evident until about 75% of the way thru the book, but it's there.

What's To Like...
    Larson meticulously researches both stories. He includes a separate Notes section at the close of the book, in case anyone wants to check his sources. The whole thing is well-written, and in a unique style. More on that later.

.The chapters/subsections jump back & forth between the two stories, which some may find confusing, especially since the timelines don't exactly match up with each other. But I've read some Alt History books that try to carry a dozen simultaneous storylines or so (yuck!), so only two tales is childsplay to me.

.Larson gives you a fabulous feel for life 100 years ago. This is the third book he's done in the 1890-1910 era, and they all immerse you that period. Also, his character development is top-notch. In their own ways, both Marconi and Crippen are flawed characters. Indeed, you may find more empathy for the latter than the former.
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What's Not To Like...
    To fully enjoy this book, you had better like both the "True Crime" and the "Technical Science" genres. That narrows the target audience down quite a bit.
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    It must be said that Thunderstruck is a slow-read, especially the technical parts. Oh, and a word about the 50 pages of notes. That's a lot of pulp-&-paper used up for the sake of them. Why not post the notes online? 99% of us don't give a hoot, and the 1% that does will hopefully be internet-literate. The Trees thank you in advance.

.A unique style...
    I struggled to think of an apt descriptor for this genre, until I read a review that calls it "animated non-fiction". Ça marche. I've read works of fiction where the author endeavored to make it read like it was real. This is just the opposite : non-fiction where the Larson makes it read like it's a novel. He "invents" dialogue and deduces moods and emotions. Presumably all of this is a consequence of his researching.

    .He employs this same style in his three most-popular books. I don't know of anybody else that uses this format. Of course, I don't read that much non-fiction, so who knows. FWIW, the intertwining tales in the other two books are : The development of the US National Weather Bureau coupled with the killer 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston (6,000-12,000 dead) ("Isaac's Storm") ; and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair coupled with a serial killer named H.H. Holmes ("The Devil in the White City"). I recommend all of these, provided that you like the disparate genres.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Traveller - John Twelve Hawks


2005; 480 pages. Genre : Dystopian Sci-Fi. Overall Rating : B..The plot is easy to summarize : The Orwellian Big-Brother types (the "Tabula") are trying to exterminate the Dimension-Hoppers (the "Travelers"), who are protected by Highlander-type Ninjas (the "Harlequins").
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    Actually, the Tabula have pretty much won already. There are only 3-4 Harlequins left alive, so we follow one of them - a young, beautiful Ninja babe named Maya - as she tries to keep two sons of a Traveler alive long enough to determine whether they inherited the gift.

What's To Like...
    There's lots of action; there's decent character development; and there's some nasty mutant killer-animals called "splicers". There are some good points about how thoroughly we are monitored nowadays (surveillence cameras, credit cards, and hey, even library cards), and it is interesting to see what steps Maya takes to avoid detection.

   .Although the bad guys are pure evil, Maya isn't your perfect Mary-Sue. And of course, there's dimension-travel. Twelve Hawks apparently uses a Buddhist model for this. There are six dimensions here - Gods, Demi-Gods, Humans, Animals, Hungry Ghosts, and Hell.
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What's Not To Like...
    The storyline is fairly obvious. It turns out this is Book One of an intended trilogy, and I can pretty much tell you how the relationship between Maya and the two brothers is going to end. BTW, Book 3 isn't out yet, and Book 2 is reportedly lots of action and no plot-advancement, so my fear is that Twelve Hawks is setting this up to be more than a trilogy.

    .Considering it's a central point in the book, there's not a lot of dimension-traveling here. The only other plane that is visited is the "Hungry Ghost" one, and that world is given only shallow treatment.
.Twelve Hawks is a pseudonym, and apparently there is much speculation as to his/her identity. This seems like publisher's hype, or maybe J12H just doesn't want to do the endless promotional stuff that goes with hawking one's novels. No matter. The story may be compelling, but the writing itself feels high-schoolish. Like something James Patterson would pen. And that's not a compliment.

Personal Security vs. Privacy
    I watched a commercial yesterday - by Duracell, I think. Mother and child are at the park, when Mom suddenly realizes that Junior isn't around. She panics, then realizes that she's got a GPS locator, powered of course by a Duracell battery. She presses the button, the GPS gives her the location of Junior, and there's a happy ending as she goes to the indicated place and finds him.

   .I wonder if there was a subtler message being given in that commercial. The GPS thingy (IIRC) hung around Junior's neck. But we already implant GPS microchips in pets, and I predict it won't be long before a movement is made to do the same to/for our kids. The premise will be that if someone snatches him/her, they can be traced and rescued. The kidnappers can easily detect and dispose of a GPS worn around the neck. But locating it under the skin - not so easy.

   .That sure sounds parentally praiseworthy, but the flipside is that any child with an implanted locator can then be monitored and tracked for the rest of his life by anyone with access to the GPS signal. Like the parents. Or the government. Or one's employer. Which leads to the question - how much privacy are we willing to forego in order to have more security? And in the end, do we really gain any more security at all?

    .But I digress. The Traveller is a decent book, and beyond the story itself, gives us some chilling insight into how easily we could find ourselves in a world where we are constantly monitored. However, it won't be displacing Brave New World or 1984 when it comes to the standard in dystopian novels. It held my attention okay, but when I saw Book 2 (The Dark River) at the used-bookstore yesterday, I didn't have any great urge to buy it.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? - George Carlin


2004, 295 pages. Genre : Stand-up Comedy. Overall Rating : D+..

    WWJBTPC? is the last of three books that Carlin put out between 1997 and 2004. It also happens to be his last book period, since he passed away last June. It is the first Carlin book I've read, and is also available as an audio book, with Carlin himself doing the reading.

    .WWJBTPC? is a plethora of Carlin sketches, some of which are transcribed from his recent stand-up acts. It is less witty than I remember his performances. Wikipedia claims that he chose the title because it offends three major religions. Somehow, that seems to sum up the tone and intent of this book.

What's To Like...
    If you have ADD, this is a great read. The maximum length per sketch is about three pages. If he wants to expound on a longer theme (for instance : "euphemisms"), he breaks it down into smaller parts and distributes it throughout the book.

   .There are some funny parts. One of the best is the recurring "Bits & Pieces", which is simply a couple pages (each) of one-, two-, and three-liners. Here's one of them :

    "When it comes to God's existence, I'm not an atheist and I'm not an agnostic. I'm an acrostic. The whole thing puzzles me." Good stuff from the man who invented the term "frisbeetarian".

   .Oh yeah, Wal Mart initially refused to sell this book because it was too offensive. And the fundies are disturbed by it. Those are two good reasons to read it.

What's Not To Like...
    Frankly, 95% of WWJBTPC? isn't funny. Or even witty. It's just bitter. I know this is "shock comedy", and I know Carlin was heavily influenced by Lenny Bruce. But to be honest, I never found Lenny Bruce to be funny either.
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.Here's an example :
    "Incredibly, there was no Hitler. There is no record of any such person. It's true, there was a little German man with a small moustache who combed his hair to one side and started World War II. He also killed six million Jews. But he was not Hitler. He was, in fact, a shoemaker named Hank Fleck."
If there is redeeeming virtue and/or humor in that little diatribe, I can't find it.
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Talibanderson
    Maybe the audio book is more humorous. Other reviewers say his earlier two books, Brain Droppings and Napalm & Silly Putty, are better. I guess I picked the wrong book to get introduced to Carlin.
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    In the end, too much of WWJBTPC? just isn't funny. And reading a stand-up comedy book that isn't humorous is like watching Pamela Anderson do a Baywatch episode wearing a burqa. Both are pointless. Skip this one, but if you come across either of his other books, they may be worthwhile.