Sunday, May 31, 2009

How the Irish Saved Civilization - Thomas Cahill

1995, 218 pages. Full Title : How The Irish Saved Civilization, The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. (Whew!) Genre : Non-Fiction; History. Dewey Decimal Number : 941.501 C119H. Overall Rating : B-.

   .I read about one non-fiction book a year; so this is my 2009 quota. Cahill's premise for the unlikely scenario of Ireland saving Western Civiization goes something like : After the fall of Rome, the barbarians took over all of Europe, plundering and pillaging and destroying libraries. People were more concerned with staying alive than reading Greek and Roman literature, and books were great for kindling a fire to keep warm. Except in far-flung Ireland, where newly converted monks went on a classic literature copying craze, at least until the Vikings showed up a couple hundred years later.

What's To Like...
    Cahill builds his story nicely. He devotes a chapter to the fall of Rome; another to Saint Augustine of Hippo, another to Saint Patrick, another to the development of Irish monastic life, and the final one to those monks evanglizing all over (northern) Europe, all the while copying ancient manuscripts, and dueling to see who could paint the fanciest opening letter in a book.

.If your history teacher was like mine, the Dark Ages got short shrift. Something like : "Rome fell in 476 AD. The Dark Ages hit. Charlemagne was crowned king of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD. William the Conqueror defeated Harold the Saxon at Hastings in 1066 AD. "

.600 years, covered in maybe one class period. Really, how much more from these 6 centuries do you remember? So HTISC casts a prolonged and fresh light on a truly under-told period.

.Unfortunately, Cahill never actually proves his hypothesis. The fact that the Irish monks traipsed all over barbarian-ruled Europe seems clear enough. But Cahill's assertion that they had gobs of books hanging from their belts and a passion to share them with the mainlanders requires a leap of faith.
.Cahill's translations of early Irish manuscripts are fascinating. He paints them as wild and wacky folks, quite a contrast to the urbane and Romanized Augustine. OTOH, he gives four pages of Plato's philosophical mish-mosh, and they were sheer tedium.

.A few notes on Thomas Cahill...
    HTISC is one of a series that Cahill calls "Hinges of History", by which he means turning points that no one has ever considered before. Two other books in this series are : "The Gifts of the Jews - How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the way Everyone Thinks and Feels", and "Mysteries of the Middle Ages - The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the cults of Catholic Europe". So if you're looking for "Alternate History" in it's literal sense (not to be confused with the fiction genre with that name), Cahill's 'da man'.

.I give How The Irish Saved Civilization a B-. This is good stuff if you're a History enthusiast (I am) or if you're Irish and/or Catholic (I'm not). But the book does drag in spots, and if you don't fall into any of those categories, you may want to give this a pass.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Pyramids - Terry Pratchett

1989; 323 pages. #7 in the Discworld series. Genre : Fantasy. Overall Rating : B+..

Teppic is an apprentice in the Assassins' Guild in Ankh-Morpork. He is also the son and heir-apparent to the God-Pharaoh throne of Djelibeybi, a long, narrow, desert kingdom along the Djel River. Which takes precedence when Pops passes on and needs a pyramid built for his mummy.
What's To Like...
   This is a fairly early book in the Discworld series, which means it is full of zany metaphors and similes; and lots of wit. There are some great characters - Teppic, Dios (the chief priest), Ptraci (a handmaiden, whatever that is), and the world's greatest mathematician (who likes to chew his cud).

.As usual, Pratchett spoofs a bunch of themes here. Among them are : pyramids (naturally) and Egyptology. The latter includes both ancient practices like burying food in the pharaohs' tombs (a lot of good that did), and modern New Age silliness, such as wearing little pyramid hats to give your brain good vibes. Hey, I've taken part in psychic fairs - people really do wear those contraptions. Pratchett also takes on Greek philosophers and Quantum Mathematics.

.On a slightly more-serious note, Pratchett explores whether people (in the book, or in the past/present real world) truly would want whatever god(s) they follow to come down and dwell with among them. An interesting question.
There really aren't any negatives to Pyramids. The storyline and ending are good, and even the bad guys have redeeming qualities. The worst I can say is don't make this your first Discworld book. Pyramids is sort of a blind alley for Pratchett - ANAICT, all of the main characters are here only for this one book. They never turn up again in the 20-odd Discworld books that follow.
.We'll close with an excerpt (opening sentence, actually), which gives one example of Prathchett's funnybone-tickling similes (or are they metaphors?) :

"Nothing but stars, scattered across the blackness as though the Creator had smashed the windscreen of his car and hadn't bothered to sweep up the pieces."
Yeah. Milton would be jealous.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Rusty Nail - J.A. Konrath

2006; 386 pages. Genre : Slash, gash, and stash. Third book in the Jacqueline "Jack Daniels" series. Overall Rating : C+..

    A psychotic killer roams the greater Chicago area, kidnapping people loosely associated with an earlier Jack Daniels case, playing "Operation" on them, and sending Jack snuff tapes of the ordeals. Jack's partner, Herb, is on the disabled list throughout the story, so she reluctantly finds herself using the services of a pair of PI's - her ex-partner, Harry McGlade, and his eager-to-please fiancée, Holly Frakes.

.What's To Like...
    Konrath sticks to his tried-and-true formula - a strong, no-nonsense, female-lead, clever one-liners mixed with in-your-face violence, a fast-paced story, and a stubborn, mind-of-its-own cat.
.There is an abundance of clichés. The psycho just feels compelled to try to snuff Jack; Jack's burnt out and tired of living alone; and everyone that's friends with, or related to her can pretty much count on being assaulted somewhere in each book. Especially anyone who goes out with her. I'm still not sure whether Konrath's obsession with these clichés is deliberate satire or uninspired story-telling.

.Ms. Daniels hasn't changed one bit since Book #1; and the baddies are stereotypical nutzos. OTOH, Herb and Harry are fleshed out a bit; both showing a bit of noble character that we hadn't seen thus far.
Going to pieces over mutilations...
    Ultimately, your enjoyment of these Jack Daniels books will probably depend on your GQ (Gore Quotient). Konrath keeps those scenes textually short, but they're a bit too graphic for my taste. The book was a page-turner, partly due to the non-stop action; partly due to wanting to rush through the gore as quickly as possible. We'll give it a C+, and hope that the fourth book, called Fuzzy Navel and sitting on my TBR shelf, isn't just more of the same.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Hominids - Robert Sawyer

2002; 413 pages. Genres : Mostly sci-fi (parallel universes), but it drifts a bit. Awards : 2003 Hugo Award. First book in the "Neanderthal Parallax" trilogy. Books 2 and 3 are titled "Humans" and "Hybrids". Overall rating : C.
Physicist Ponter Boddit's quantum computer project goes awry, transporting him into a parallel universe where incredibly, the slow-witted and long-extinct gliksins still exist. They seem equally amazed to see him, since he's a Neanderthal. And the primitive gliksins are ...well... us.
What's To Like...
Hominids examines what would've happened if we Cro-Magnons had died out, and the Neanderthals became the dominant species of man. He's the first author to portray them as evolving into a race every bit as intelligent and advanced as us. Previous novels, such as Auel's Clan Of The Cave Bear and Crichton's Eaters Of The Dead, invariably present them as brutes. Gifted brutes, perhaps. But brutes nonetheless.
Sawyer does a nice job of fleshing out the modern Neanderthal world. Homes have mossy floors; woolly mammoths still roam the countryside, and the Neanderthals haven't discovered the splitting of the atom. Their world isn't utopian - they have a flawed judicial system, and believe that the best deterrent to crime is to monitor every person 24/7. They have pet wolves, and the hominid population size is kept in check by unwavering adherence to the rhythm method that would bring tears to the Pope's eyes.
The book really drags when Sawyer steers it away from sci-fi. There is a tepid romance thread that runs throughout the book, as "our" Mary Vaughan interacts with Ponter. The romance is still in the "wishful" stage at the end of the book, but it isn't hard to see where its going, given the title of the third book in this series.
Even worse is Sawyer's "preachiness". The lectures about the Big Bang Theory, the existence of God, our faux pas of allowing all sorts of animals to become extinct, etc. are frankly boring and ill-fitting.
Worst of all is Sawyer's pre-occupation, bordering on obsession, with anything to do with reproductive organs. There is a graphic and gratuitous step-by-step rape at the beginning which is unnecessary and without any redeeming value. Crime in Neanderthal-land is punishable by family castration. Time is measured by a synchronized, world-wide menstrual cycle. I cringe to think of what similar surprises await the reader in the next two books.
I go, Hugo, we all go for Hominids...
For all its minuses, I still enjoyed the story. I just kinda tuned the philosophical blather out, and tiptoed through the gratuitous scenes as quickly as possible. The Alt-Universe portions of the book are excellent. But reviews of the two sequels to this indicate Sawyer isn't finished telling me his opinions on everything in life, so I doubt I'll read the rest of the trilogy We'll give Hominids a "C", and wistfully muse on how good it could've been if the author had taken a cold shower and put his philosophy discourses in a different book .
P.S. Note to Robert Sawyer. On page 353, one of the characters wants to stink-out a building. You rightfully have her reject Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) because it might kill everyone. Unfortunately, you therefore have her choose Ammonium Sulfide (ASD). Very, very bad move. ASD is nearly as toxic as H2S. I should know. My company produces ASD. Substituting ASD for H2S is about the same as getting shot by a 18-man firing squad instead of a 20-man one. In spite of the decrease in lethality, you're still gonna end up quite dead.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Two for the Dough - Janet Evanovich

1996; 312 pages. A Stephanie Plum novel. A "Lula" recommendation, which is much more reliable than an "Oprah" recommendation. Genre : Crime; Beach Novel. Overall Rating : B..

    Fledgling bounty hunter Stephanie Plum has two jobs : looking for bail-jumper Kenny Mancuso and finding 24 stolen bargain-bin caskets. Joe Morelli and Ranger are around for hunk-appeal. Lula finds filing at Vinnie's better than walking the streets. And Grandma Mazur packs a pistol, appoints herself Stephanie's partner, and becomes the worst nightmare for all funeral parlors in New Jersey.
What's To Like...
    If you enjoyed One For The Money, then you'll happily find 2FTD is more of the same. There's witty banter; a couple of plot twists to keep you on your toes; a realistic bounty hunting portrayal (lots of sitting and waiting), and a plucky heroine determined to make it in a tough neighborhood. The sexual tension between Plum and Morelli flows nicely through the whole book, without ever sinking into "Chick Fic" territory. There is the obligatory nude scene with an unexpected climax. Finally, there is Grandma Mazur, a spinster with a 'tude, and who frankly steals the show.

.OTOH...Most of the role players here are black or white. If they don't hit it off with Stephanie, you can pretty much write them down as being baddies. There are some believability issues (repeated appendage slicing at the funeral homes; the bad guys missing Granny's concealed weapon, etc.) and some unresolved loose ends (Steph's jeep gets stolen, stays stolen, and no one seems too concerned).
I'm going to the beach. What book should I take?If James Patterson's Alex Cross books are airport novels, then Stephanie Plum books are beach novels. Something to pass the time while working on one's tan. There's nothing deep, but it is satisfyingly entertaining. Ten years from now, you won't recall any of the details about Two For The Money, but you will remember that you enjoyed it.
An excerpt...
"Bars, funeral homes, bakeries, and beauty parlors form the hub of the wheel that spins the burg. Beauty parlors are especially important because the burg is an equal-opportunity neighborhood caught in a 1950's time warp. The translation of this is that girls in the burg become obsessed with hair at a very early age. The hell with coed peewee football. If you're a little girl in the burg, you spend your time combing out Barbie's hair. Big gunky black eyelashes, electric-blue eye shadow, pointy outthrust breasts, and a lot of platinum-blond phony-looking hair. This is what we all aspire to." (pg. 149)

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Snow - Orhan Pamuk

2004; 463 pages. Translated by Maureen Freely. Genre : Contemporary Literature. Awards : One of the NY Times "10 Best Books of 2004"; Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature. It was the first Nobel Prize in any category ever awarded to a Turkish citizen. Overall Rating : A-.

    .An exiled poet named Ka returns from Frankfurt to Kars, a small, impoverished city close to Armenia in eastern Turkey. His official reason is to do investigative reports on the upcoming local elections and the wave of suicides by teenage girls reportedly protesting the head scarf ban. But he also wants to look up an old flame, Ipek, now recently divorced from an Islamist. Things get complicated when a touring actor, along with a hometown Colonel, stage a local coup and begin arresting anyone who isn't a loyal nationalist.

.What's To Like..
    .The character development is excellent. Our hero Ka, for instance, is a mixture of dark and light. He is artistic and idealistic, yet naive and not very loyal. He can manipulate disparate factions into signing a proclamation protesting the coup, yet is equally manipulated by the Islamists, the coup leaders, and the secret police. He's handsome and charming enough to convince Ipek to move to Germany with him, yet his idea of "love" is for him to enable Ipek to go shopping for western clothes in Frankfurt, at the cost of her being hopelessly dependent on him because she's so far removed from her family in Turkey.
The story subordinates to Pamuk's look at the deep and varied issues and forces that pull at modern Turkey. The forces include militant Islamists, Kurdish separatists, secularists ("atheists" if you aren''t one), the Army, the Secret Police (which isn't the same as the military), the Attaturk nationalists, and the family unit. The issues include the wearing of the head scarf, suicide as an unpardonable sin in Islam, finding God, "east versus west", the hopeless plight of the Turkish poor, the widespread wiretapping and bugging of Turkish citizens, and something we in the USA can't relate to - how to live with recurring military coups.

.Amazingly, Pamuk treats all these forces and issues impartially. None are "all white"; none are "all black". If anything, he succeeds in painting them all the same shade of gray. You won't find any answers here, but you will gain deep insight into the complexity that is Turkey.

.We're Not Stupid; We're Just Poor.I have present- and past-life ties to Turkey, so I found Snow to be fascinating. It reminded me of Toni Morrison's Beloved though. If you can relate, it's great. If Turkey and head scarves and Kurds and modern-day Islam don't hold much interest to you, then this may be a slow and tedious read.

.An excerpt...
"People might feel sorry for a man who's fallen on hard times, but when an entire nation is poor, the rest of the world assumes that all of its people must be brainless, lazy, dirty, clumsy fools. Instead of pity, the people provoke laughter. It's all a joke : their culture, their customs, their practices. In time the rest of the world may, some of them, begin to feel ashamed for having thought this way, and when they look around and see immigrants from that poor country mopping their floors and doing all the other lowest-paying jobs, naturally they worry about what might happen if these workers one day rose up against them. So, to keep things sweet, they start taking an interest in the immigrants' culture and sometimes even pretend they think of them as equals." (pages 298-99)