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.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Days of Infamy - Harry Turtledove


2004; 520 pages. Genre : Alternate History. Overall rating : C.

   .In DOI, Turtledove examines an alternate timeline where Japan, instead of just raiding Pearl Harbor on 07 December 1941, successfully invades and occupies the islands of Hawaii. DoI is the first of two books on this (does that make it a 'bilogy'?), covering the invasion and about 12 months after that.

.What's To Like...
    Turtledove is at his best when he's describing military stuff - the planes, the ships, and the strategies that would be involved in conquering Hawaii. But beyond the fighting, he also looks at a number of other topics. Among them are : the racial stereotyping that both the USA and Japan were guilty of; the Hawaiians yearning for their own sovereignty again; the pull that one's homeland has, even when one has lived for decades somewhere else; the role that oil played in Japan's decision to attack the US, and how transient basic supplies are when 99% of life's necessities and luxuries are imported from overseas.

   .Turtledove creates some interesting characters to follow. There's a Zonker-type surfer dude who doesn't let something like a war interfere with his catching that perfect wave. There's a Japanese father who finds an insurmountable generation gap between him and his two Americanized kids. Also, the Japanese fighters are not mindless zombies; nor are the American soldiers John-Wayne clones. Even the lackeys are shown to have redeeming points.
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What's Not To Like...
    The characters may be interesting creations, but they don't progress at all. The surfer and the fisherman go out to sea. And catch fish. Again and again. And again. Then there's the haole civilian woman who is forced to plant a turnip garden. Follow her adventures as she rakes, hoes weeds, battles bugs, and eats turnips. Again and again. And again. What fun.

   .Also, while Turtledove does a good job examining the Japanese and American psyches, he doesn't create any Hawaiian characters, outside of a few royalty figures making cameo appearances. That's a significant omission, given that the setting is Hawaii.

   .To steal a punchline from Ambrose Bierce, "The covers of this book are too far apart." Only about 20% of the book is Alternate History. The rest is character study. If I wanted character study, I'd be reading Tolstoy or Hawthorne or Steinbeck or something.

What if Japan had conquered Hawaii?
    Well, I suppose I'll have to read the sequel to this to get Turtledove's opinion. But I'm betting Harry has us Yanks tossing them war-crimes-committing, Japanese so-and-so's back into the Pacific to become shark-food.

   .And frankly, that would be my take on this Alternate Timeline as well. The dynamics of the Pacific fighting in WW2 would've been different, but not the outcome. In the long run, America's industrial might, larger population, and safe homeland means that we wouldn't lose.

    .Personally, I think Japan could not have made a bigger mistake than attacking Pearl Harbor. If the Axis were going to win World War 2, instead of attacking the USA possessions, Japan should've invaded Siberia. Make the Russians fight on two fronts, and keep (or at least forestall) America from entering the war. After Russia and Great Britain fell, who cares what the USA does? But this is speculation for some other time.
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In summary, this is a typical Turtledove book. The concept is great, but there's too much drama, and not enough Alternate History. The plusses pretty much balance out the minuses here. And I'm beginning to come to the conclusion that certain literary genres are inherently only worthy of a "C" rating.