Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Of Mice and Men & Cannery Row - John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men (1937) and Cannery Row (1945). Author : John Steinbeck. 306 Pages (OM&M - 107 pgs; CR - 195 pgs). Genre : American Literature. Overall Rating : A.
.    This "twofer" book was published by Penguin Books in 1986. It's a nice pairing. Both stories are set in the same place (Northern California), the same time-period (1930's), and have the same theme - a bunch of "less fortunates" and the ruts they're stuck in. But the stories also nicely contrast each other. OM&M is a darker, tragic study of the hopelessness of trying to escape that rut. CR is a lighter, comedic study of a group of people who don't regard their situation as a rut at all.
.What's To Like...
    The storylines are good, all the characters are engaging (even the bad guys), and there's quite a bit of character development in these relatively short tales. Steinbeck's literary description of California in the 1930's is masterful. Both stories are the proper length. These would suck if they were 500 pages long.
.What's Not To Like...
    Not much, since I give this an "A". There is some cussing that might offend the faint-of-heart. That's not a problem for me, but it grates my soul when Steinbeck uses the ...ahem... N-word. I know it was commonly used in the 1930's, and I am dead-set against censorship, but I can't help it. That word offends me. Can't we just replace it with "black" in stories like these?
    Oh, and I got quite excited when I found that someone was selling this book for $190 on eBay, since I had picked it up for $2. Visions of untold wealth danced in my head. Alas, that $190 asking-price had the curious acronym PHP after it. It turns out that stands for "Philippines Pesos", and the PHP:USD exchange rate is about 41:1. Easy come, easy go.
Is the phrase "American Literature" an oxymoron?
    Being a biblioholic means reading a lot of "C-to-B-minus" books. After a while, one's expectations get lowered. Anything that rises a smidgen above humdrum is cause for a minor celebration. Furthermore, I'm not a big fan of any American Lit BV (before Vonnegut). So this book was a pleasant and unexpected treat. I don't know that I'm prepared to tackle Steinbeck's longer stuff (Tortilla Flat, The Grapes of Wrath), but I may have to give some of his other less-than-250-pages books a try.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Dogs of Riga - Henning Mankell

1992 (Swedish); 2001 (English). 324 pages. Genre : Murder-Mystery. Overall Rating : B-.

    A life-raft floats up onto the Swedish shore. Inside are the bodies of two men, shot through the heart after being tortured and then dapperly dressed. There's no ID on either man, and no markings of the origin of the life-raft. With almost nothing to go on, Swedish detective Kurt Wallander tries to solve the case, which sudsequently leads him to Latvia, which is enduring the last throes of the Soviet Union.

.What's To Like...
    The emphasis here is on Wallander's (and several of his coworkers') plodding perseverence. No brilliancies; just dogged detective work. The plot unfolds beautifully as they try to determine the nationalities of the victims and the origin of the life-raft. It (naturally) quickly becomes clear that the two murders are simply a small part of a more complex plot.

.The Swedish ambiance is a welcome relief from that "bubbly buxom blonde girls skiing around as ABBA music plays in the background" scenario. Swedish winters are gray, cold, and like our Phoenix summers, seemingly never-ending. When Wallander travels to Riga, everything only gets grayer, colder, gloomier, poorer, and darker. Kewlness.

.Best of all, Wallander is a polar-opposite to a literary "Mary Sue". See here for Wikipedia's offering on Mary Sues. More about this in a bit.

.What's Not To Like...
    The plot unfolds nicely, but its resolution seems hurried and forced. For 200+ pages the sleuthing creeps along, then suddenly there's a 007 shoot-em-up, where a bunch of good guys get offed, while our hero amazingly gets neither a scratch nor caught. Kinda reminds me of The Last Samurai, where a couple hundred Japanese warriors get chopped into hamburger meat by machine guns, while Tom Cruise somehow handsomely survives.

.    While the Latvian ambiance is great, Mankell doesn't seem to have done much detailed research. For instance, when Wallander has to flee beyond Riga's city limits, all Mankell says is that he goes into various unnamed towns that Wallander never learns the names of. Sloppy, sloppy.

.    Finally, the translation (which Mankell had nothing nothing to do with) just sucks. There are spelling and grammar errors, and some clunky sentence structures. One wonders if this is a much better read in the native tongue.

.Mary Sue, Where Are You...
    If you're tired of too-perfect heroes, Kurt Wallander is for you. He's middle-aged, somewhat overweight, and average-looking. He drinks too much alcohol, even by Scnadinavian standards. He smokes too much and is addicted to lousy coffee. He's divorced, and frankly his ex is doing better without him. His father lays guilt trips on him, and thinks Wallander made a dumb mistake by joining the police force. So far, there's nothing to prove that wrong. His (grown) daughter barely tolerates him. He hates his job, but finds that he doesn't have any alternatives. His romantic charms are non-existent. In the previous book, he threw himself at the beautiful female lead, only to have her threaten to bring a sexual harassment charge against him. Here, he falls for a murdered-Latvian-detective's widow, and while she appreciates his solving the case and saving her life, she prefers to remain "just friends".

.    Nevertheless, I've enjoyed both Kurt Wallander books that I've read. I think Mankell is more concerned about giving you a gritty, true-to-life picture of Sweden (and in this case, Latvia as well), letting you know of some of the serious social issues there, and having you become friends with Wallander, his family, and his fellow detectives. Now if he'd just pay more attention to the plot itself...

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Canticle for Liebowitz - Walter Miller

1959; 313 pages. Genre : Post-apocalyptic fiction. Awards : Hugo (1961). Overall Rating : B.

    .A Canticle For Liebowitz chronicles a monastery in the futuristic American Southwest, and is divided into three parts : Fiat Homo ("Let There Be Man"); Fiat Lux ("Let There Be Light"), and Fiat Voluntas Tua ("Thy Will Be Done"). The first part takes place in the 25th century, as mankind struggles to survive in the aftermath of a devastating 20th-century nuclear holocaust. There are mutants, wolves and brigands, and a potent anti-knowledge movement which executes all intellectuals and burns all books.

   .The second part takes place 600 years after the first (3174 AD); when technology is being re-learned, for better and for worse. The third part takes place 600 years after that, (3781 AD) when galaxy-travel has been perfected, and when a nuclear holocaust again is a distinct possibility.
What's To Like...
    The emphasis is on historical reflection here, not on thrills-&-spills action. Miller explores the "history repeats itself" motif : Holocaust, Dark Ages, Renaissance, Holocaust, Dark Ages, Renaissance, and so on. He also looks at the inherent conflict between Scientific Knowledge and Church Dogma, and the respective roles of Church and State on issues such as Euthansia. And he focuses on the contributions (past and future) of monasticism to civilization - copying books and preserving knowledge when no one else is/was there to do it.

   .There are a number of interesting characters. Brother Francis, who stumbles upon pre-holocaust relics. The wanderer who manages to show up in all three books. And the Poet, who's a man after my own heart : quick of wit, and short of common sense.

    .Oh yeah - and there's "booklegging". The art of locating, smuggling, copying, and preserving books, for the sake of Knowledge, even at the cost of one's life. Hey, every bibliophile should aspire to this noble criminal activity, should worse come to worst.

What's Not To Like...
    The characters may be interesting, but except for the Wanderer, they all die off within 100 pages/600 years. So don't get too attached to anybody.

    .There's an abundance of Roman Catholic-sounding Latin throughout the book. I hate Latin. If you saw my grades in it from Junior High, you'd understand why.

Those who don't learn from History are condemned to repeat it.
    A Canticle For Liebowitz received mixed reviews when it came out. Some loved it (hence the Hugo); some hated it, including the Catholic Digest. Miller joined the Catholic Church in 1947 (prior to that he called himself an atheist), and there is an aura of Catholicism througout ACFL.
    The Catholic Church didn't like ACFL, because there are a lot of theologic foibles here. For example, "Saint Liebowitz" was in fact a Jewish engineer. And some of his "relics" revered in the monastery, are things like a shopping list ("pound pastrami; six bagels") and a cover page for an intra-office memo. Then there's the canonization of Saint Liebowitz, due to ailing penitents who swear they prayed to him, and were healed.

.   This novel took a huge toll on Miller. Prior to this, he was a prolific short-story writer. Indeed, ACFL is actually three of his short stories, re-worked and synchronized into a coherent novel. Alas, after this, he suffered from depression and writer's block; and he never had anything else published during his lifetime. He devoted himself to writing a sequel (technically a "midquel") to ACFL. In 1996 (that's 37 years later), when the midquel was just about done, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. A Miller-appointed author-successor, Terry Bisson, put the finishing touches on the midquel.
    In closing, this is a great book for when you want to reflect upon history, mankind, and "the big cosmological picture". However it's not a good choice if you're in the mood for the clichéd Starship Troopers action-hero-against-the-monsters sci-fi tale. Read it to muse, not to be amused.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Holidays On Ice - David Sedaris

1997, 134 pages. Genre : (Semi) Non-Fiction, Humor. Overall Rating : C+..

    Six Christmas-themed stories (3 new, 3 previously-published) by David Sedaris. Among them : an over-the-top Christmas letter, a review of the neighborhood kiddie Christmas pageants, and a Christmas-is-Giving rivalry between two famiies that gets out of hand.

.What's To Like...
    Sedaris' wit is dry and hilarious. I kept laughing out loud, which isn't always desirable when one's spouse is trying to sleep. It's a quick, easy read. If, on December 30th, you realize you're still one book short of your reading goal, Holidays On Ice is your answer.

   .The best of the six stories is Santaland Diaries, recounting Sedaris' job at 33 years old of being a seasonal "Santa's Elf" at Macy's. The Christmas Pageant Review story, and "Dinah, the Christmas Whore" are good as well.

.What's Not To Like...
    The Christmas Letter story is a bit too in-your-face, even for me. Somehow, a tale with a dead baby (Spoiler alert : "I said WATCH the baby, not WASH the baby!) in a Christmas book is just inappropriate. The "Christmas is Giving" story goes on way too long. Overall, this is an uneven set of stories, and not a good choice as your first Sedaris book. Finally, this book sold for $8.99 new?! For 134 pages?! What a rip.
"Congratulations, Mr. Sedaris. You are an elf!"
    There apparently is some controvery about Sedaris' books. The NYT lists them in their Non-Fiction list, yet it is alleged that some of his essays are ...erm... hyperbolized. I've read three of his books so far, and all I can say is : I certainly hope Sedaris availed himself to hyperbole. If not, he was raised in the most dysfunctional family imaginable, and half the people he's met in life are shoe-ins (shoo-ins?) for the loony bin.

   .In closing, here are two quick teasers from the Santaland Diaries. If you find them funny, you'll enjoy David Sedaris. If not, Art Linkletter books are still around.

."A spotted child visited Santa, climbed up on his lap, and expressed a wish to recover from chicken pox. Santa leapt up." (pg. 25)
."Today a child told Santa Ken that he wanted his dead father back and a complete set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Everyone wants those Turtles." (pg. 30)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Bourne Betrayal - Eric Van Lustbader

2007, 717 pages. Genre : Action. Overall Rating : C.
When Arab extremists kidnap his only friend in CI (Covert Intelligence), it's up to Jason Bourne to find and rescue him. But the kidnappers have already invaded Bourne's mind, and they are able to anticipate his every move.

What's To Like...
    The book is constant action, so at 717 pages, you're certainly getting your money's worth. There's a plethora of plot twists to keep you reading. As with any Bourne novel - there are well-described locations (Ethiopia, Odessa, Istanbul) to fall in love with. There are four major plotlines going on at the same time, yet you have no trouble keeping track of them.
What's Not To Like...
    There's a lot of action, but not much progress. The core of the trilogy written by Robert Ludlum - the inner struggle between the assassin Jason Bourne and the "normal" David Webb - is missing here in book #5. Only Jason Bourne exists.
.The technical portions of the story will strain your limits of believability. EvL's attempt to write ebonics is just irritating. Then there are all those spy-novel clichés.
.Three clichés I've had my fill of... (and they're all here!)
1. Western Girl falls in love with Arab terrorist. This is always the kiss of death. If the evil BF doesn't kill her first-hand, he betrays her and the last thing she sees is his uncaring face. Just once I'd like to see a different ending. Maybe she betrays him. Maybe she perishes, fighting by his side. I don't care. Any new angle will do.
2. The hero mistakenly thinks he killed an innocent bystander. Of course, he didn't. Evil people did and made it look like he did. For goodness sake, Bourne's an assassin. There is bound to be some collateral killing. If he wants to cry in his beer afterwards, so be it. But enough of the "only evil bullets kill innocent people" concept.
3. The Ultimate Evil deliberately lures the hero to his central headquarters so he can finish him off. This sounds like something out of a bad Austin Powers movie. Folks, if I'm the UE, there's no way I'll ever let the hero get within 100 miles of my HQ, let alone show him the way. If we're going to duke it out, we'll do it out in the boonies somewhere, so that if/when the hero kills me, my evil plan will still go forward.
Overall Rating : C
    In retrospect, this story should not have had the Bourne name associated with it. There's nothing inherently wrong with clichés and unbelievable technology. Clive Cussler enthusiasts have enjoyed them for decades. But the Ludlum-penned Bourne trilogy doesn't rely on Batmanesque gizmos, and is really about one man's reconciling his polar-opposite inner beings. The Bourne Betrayal has strayed a long way from Ludlum's premise. It is a decent read, as long as you are able to think "Dirk Pitt" instead of "Jason Bourne".

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Crossroads of Time - Andre Norton

170 pages; 1956. Genre : Sci Fi (Young Adult). Overall Rating : A- to C+.

.   By having a premonition to help someone out, Blake Walker finds himself drawn into dimension-travel, and the tracking down of a rogue who's importing sophisticated weaponry into less-advanced dimensions for personal gain.

   .Andre Norton (1912-2005) was one of the top Sci-Fi authors in the 50's/60's. While she didn't introduce the concept of time- and space-travel, she popularized it by using it as a repeated theme in her books. TCoT is one of her earlier stories, which she then developed into a 4-5 book series.

What's To Like...
    This is a perfect story for a young teen boy. There's a fair amount of fighting and killing; and no yucky romance. Parents will appreciate that there's no sex or drugs. The bad guy is a UE (Ultimate Evil), but at least he's resourceful and cunning. And our hero doesn't start out as a perfect defender-of-all-that's-good. Indeed, he's as much of a liability as an asset in this present UE-hunt.
    I like Norton's treatment of our timeline. All too often, Alternate History authors portray our particular time/space continuum as being the most advanced there is. We boldly go where no one has gone before, benevolently enlightening the rest of the Cosmos.

   .No so here. Our dimension comes off as being quaintly naive, psionically primitive, and dangerously prone to violence. Just the sort of place a UE would want to take over. That's a refreshing viewpoint.

What's Not To Like...
    Not a lot. Norton doesn't spend a lot of time fleshing out most of the alternate worlds here, but I suppose that's to be expected in a 170-page book. And I swear, although every Norton book ever issued has at least two completely different bookcovers, none of them (including the one shown above) have anything to do with the story itself.
What If...
    Norton's general hypothesis here is that an alternate timeline spins off at every critical juncture in history. Thus you end up with thousands of parallel universes.

   .The one that Norton does take some time to explore here is a world where Hitler wins the Battle of Britain. The remnants of the British army and government flee to Canada, and the main phase of World War 2 consists of Germany and Japan besieging North America from both coasts. The effort eventually fails, but at the cost of tremendous destruction and anarchy in the United States. TCoT is set in the present (well, mid-1950's), and while Blake and his associates try to catch the UE, a few plucky, local New Yorkers are trying to re-establish civilization.
Overall Rating : Adults : C+; Young Adult : A-
    In the end, the plot is just a bit too straightforward to keep an adult reader's interest. And it has to be asked just how the universe decides what constitutes an critical juncture, worthy of an alternate world spin-off. But for a kid into science fiction, this should be a fun story. And it is cool to read someone who blazed the path for present-day Alt-History writers.

Friday, August 1, 2008

What's So Funny? - Donald Westlake

2007, 401 pages. Genre : Crime Comedy. Overall Rating : B-.

   .This is the latest (#13) in Westlake's Dortmunder series. John Dortmunder is a lovable galoot of a burglar, who here is blackmailed by a retired detective into masterminding a heist of a jeweled chess set, originally earmarked for the Czar of Russia.
What's To Like...
    WSF? is a fast and fun read. Dortmunder and his associates are slow-witted but persistent, true-blue to each other, and lovable New Yorkers through-and-through. They are all proficient at their purloining profession, and take great pains to plot each caper carefully. But their best-laid plans inevitably go awry.

What's Not To Like...
    According to Wiki, the books are formulaic. The heists are always ethically-justified (the chess set here was already stolen property); meticulous plans are laid; things always go wrong; the gang is nevertheless muddly successful; yet in the end the goods somehow elude their grasp, ending up in some noble and charitable person's unwitting possession. Oh, and no one ever gets killed.

.I'd probably go batty if I had to read all 13 of these, but since this is only my 2nd Dortmunder book, the "formula" is still interesting.
Less interesting is the first third of this book. The ex-cop forces Dortmunder to take the job by means of an incriminating photo of him at an earlier burglary scene. Okay, that's a plot device, and I can accept that. But the chess set is in a heavily-guarded vault, and for the first 150 pages, all Dortmunder does is sit, think, meditate, and conclude that a break-in is impossible. It would've been a better pace to spend the first 125 pages detailing the circumstances of Dortmunder getting caught on camera, allow 25 pages for "It can't be done", then move into the "Oh, things have changed. Here's how we're going to do it" stage.
Overall Rating : B-.
    We'll call What's So Funny? cotton-candy for the mind. There's nothing heavy or substantive here; it's all-too-soon done and gone; yet in the end you're happy for having partaken of it. It's a good choice for when all you want is some "Lit Lite".