The Library of Babel: January 2002

This page contains the archived copies of book log entries for January of 2002.

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January 29, 2002

Cobra Trap by Peter O'Donnell. From Raymond Chandler, on the highest heights of pulp writing to... points of lower elevation:

"You're right up there in her class when it comes to action, but like her you've got muscles in your head, too, and that's where it counts." He studied Willie curiously for a few seconds. "It's strange. I thought when you started making your mark that some of her top men might get jealous, men who've been with her from the start-- Krolli, Nedic, Sammy Wan."

Garcia shook his head. "But it didn't happen. They respect you, Willie, but they like you, too, and we're men who are pretty choosy about who we like." He shrugged and made a small gesture with an open hand. "Maybe it's because you respected them and never got pushy, never traded on that time you dropped Saafi during the fracas with his mob down in El Golea when he was set to blast her with an Uzi. Or maybe it's because they know you're her man, just like they are. That's important to us, Willie."

I've heard the name "Modesty Blaise" bandied about quite a bit when discussions of caper novels come up, and a recent group of entries in David Dyer-Bennet's book log finally provided me with an author name and a few titles to look for. I got this one out of the library (it was the only one they had) to check it out.

I just can't get past the bottom-of-the-barrel prose stylings of this stuff. The plots are entertaining enough in outline, once I realized that they were, in fact, superhero comics in prose (the "About the Author" note confirms that Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin were originally comic book characters). But the writing is stunningly awful-- tin-ear dialogue, "As-you-know-Bob" exposition by the bucketload, clumsy references to past adventures (as in the above excerpt, which suffers unfortunate resonances with the Airplane! movies... "Over Macho Grande? I don't think I'll ever be over Macho Grande."), and dreadfully hackneyed descriptions. Not to mention the less savory attitudes reflected in some of the material-- did somebody really publish a book in 1996 referring to an "Oriental houseboy" in such Fu Manchu-ish terms? Or which attributes the abilities of a human bloodhound to the fact that he's an "Abo" from Australia? And then there's Willie's now-you-see-it-now-you-don't Cockney accent, and...

Feh. This is a late entry in the series (presumably the last book, actually), so maybe this is another tragic victim of the Brain Eater that seems to plague elderly authors. But I think it more likely that this is just more proof that the overlap between my tastes and David's is nearly zero.

January 27, 2002

Trouble Is My Business by Raymond Chandler. As the song says, there ain't nothing like the real thing:

I was just thinking about going to lunch when Kathy Horne came in.

She was a tall, seedy, sad-eyed blonde who had once been a policewoman and had lost her job when she married a cheap little check bouncer named Johnny Horne, to reform him. She hadn't reformed him, but she was waiting for him to come out so she could try again. In the meantime, she ran the cigar counter at the Mansion House, and watched the grifters go by in a haze of nickel cigar smoke. And once in a while lent one of them ten dollars to get out of town. She was just that soft. She sat down and opened her big shiny bag and got out a package of cigarettes and lit one with my desk lighter. She blew a plume of smoke, wrinkled her nose at it.

It's hard to explain what about Chandler's prose works so well. He absolutely nails the tough-guy thing-- indeed, he sets the standard to which people like Robert B. Parker aspire-- but at the same time, even basic character descriptions let you know that, under Phillip Marlowe's tough talk and snappy banter, he wants to be a knight in shining armor (If that's not obvious enough from the writing, this volume's closing image of Marlowe throwing pearls into the sea drives it home...). Nobody else quite manages the same combination of hard case and man of honor.

This is a collection of four short pieces Chandler wrote for pulp magazines in the '30's (with an introduction by the author containing one version of the "when in doubt, have a man with a gun come through the door" line). It's one of the books I usually keep in my car for times when I stop for lunch on the road and need something to read.

The title story has Marlowe (who, as described in the books, doesn't look much like Humphery Bogart) sub-contracting to help clear some gambling debts for a rich man's son. "Finger Man" opens with Marlowe having just finished testifying before a grand jury in a political murder case. The last two stories both involve pearls-- in "Goldfish" (from which the quote above is taken), they're incredibly valuable stolen pearls which Kathy Horne thinks she knows how to find; in "Red Wind" they belonged to a woman who turns up in Marlowe's building after he witnesses a murder. Of the four, I probably like "Red Wind" the best for what it does with the character. All of them are good work, though, and could serve as a good introduction to Chandler's world. Or, for that matter, as a good way to pass the time while waiting for and eating uninspired Mexican food.

January 26, 2002

Dungeon, Fire, and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades by John J. Robinson. In Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, one of the characters, shortly before embarking on the project that gets them entangled in an international conspiracy, lays out a taxonomy by which all of humanity can be divided into cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics. Of the last, he says:

The lunatic is all idee fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.

John J. Robinson has written an entire book about the Templars. I'm not sure whether this makes him a lunatic or not (there are a few passages that may hint in that direction, and his other book is about the Freemasons, a staple of American lunacy), but sane or not, it's a fine read.

I almost bought this book when I first read Foucault's Pendulum, as I'm rather fond of this kind of narrative history (John Julius Norwich's A Short History of Byzantium is another good example), and Eco's capsule history of the Templars made me want to know more. Unfortunately, while I like the sweep of good narrative history, I'm not that good at picking it out from the dry and footnote-ridden academic sort of history when faced with bookstore shelves, and the $30-$40 they wanted for hardcover copies was more than I care to gamble. When I saw it in the Book Barn for $10, though, I grabbed it (in a strange British edition, with a brightly colored painting and all the outside jacket copy appearing right on the binding, with an identical picture and identical copy on the dust jacket as well).

Robinson covers a span from 1052 to 1314, from shortly before the first Crusade to the dissolution of the Templar order in a shameless land-grab by the Pope and Phillip IV of France. The writing is brisk and eminently readable, with the dry wit one expects of a good historian. Of the end of a particularly nutty grand master of the Templar order, he writes:

The Templar grand master, with his growing madness now in full flower, refused to leave the battlefield until there was a complete Christian victory. All alone, he brandished his sword and shouted out his challenge to the entire Muslim army. The Muslims watched him for a few minutes in amazed amusement, then easily made him their prisoner. Saladin didn't waste his time on conversation or even on comment. He simply ordered the grand master's immediate execution. There are those who feel that the death of Gerard de Ridfort made a significant contribution to the turnaround in the Christian fortunes, and especially in the conduct of the king, who for the first time in his entire reign was without the advice of his wild-eyed counselor.

He's helped in his task by a great choice of subject matter. Not only are the Templars, with their high founding ideals and ignominious end, a great story, but their story is all bound up in the story of the Crusades, one of the best eras for narrative history. The cast of characters is a veritable "Who's Who" of medieval history: Frederick Barbarossa, Richard the Lion-Hearted, Saladin, Genghis Khan, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Louis of France, innumerable Popes and princes-- there's even a cameo by Marco Polo (passing through en route to China). And the events have everything you could want in a history: huge battles, shifting alliances, shocking atrocities (the Mongol horde is the most bloodthirsty force in the book, but not by much), base treachery and surprising nobility, greed, lust, sanctimony, political machinations and duelling excommunications, military genius and utter stupidity (Muslim sensibilites aren't the only reason President Dubyah should've avoided calling the current "War on Terror" a "Crusade"-- the Crusaders were some of the least competent and least successful warriors in history...). There are elements of the tale that are moving, and parts that are shocking, and a sort of blackly comic element to the whole thing that makes it very appealing to me.

Robinson paints a very good picture of all of this stuff, and does an excellent job highlighting the way that even very remote events had a profound effect on the history of the Crusades. The constant scheming by Popes and princes on both sides of the near-constant warfare is well drawn, which serves to put the various absurdities of the Crusades in proper context.

Toward the end of the book, when writing about the ultimate destruction of the Templar order, it's a bit too obvious that Robinson writes as a man who is captivated by the story of the "warrior monks." His contempt for Phillip of France and Pope Clement V is palpable, and may brand him a lunatic after all. But if so, it's a brilliant sort of lunacy, and this book is well worth reading.

January 21, 2002

Making the Most of College: Students Speak Out, by Richard J. Light. This book, consisting of the author's findings based on years of research interviewing students at Harvard about what they thought of the college experience, was sent to all new faculty this past fall, courtesy of the Deans. This makes it a work-related book, so I waffled about whether to include it in the book log (I decided a while back that I wouldn't list material read for work, lest this turn into a Halliday, Resnick, and Walker log...). I've stalled for a few months now on the grounds that I haven't actually finished the thing, but as I've bogged down in the middle of the platitudinous concluding chapters on "diversity", it's pretty clear both that I've wrung as much useful information out of this as I'm likely to, and that I'm never really going to finish the damned thing. So I flipped a coin, and decided to list it.

I should probably say up front that elements of this book have proven very useful. I got a couple of decent suggestions out of the teaching advice sections, and have found them helpful in my classes.

That said, I have a number of problems with the book. It's not entirely clear who it's for, for example: some sections seem aimed at teachers, some at students, some at parents, and some at college administrators. The (apparent) intended audience seems to shift from section to section, meaning that whole chapters will come off as totally irrelevant to some readers. There's also a slightly smarmy tone to the whole thing that begins to grate after a while. I think that's a problem endemic to the whole "advice book" genre, though, and though I'm not quite sure who it's advising, this is definitely a book of advice for somebody or another. There's also the fact that many of the teaching techniques suggested are laughably inappropriate for the physical sciences (though, to his credit, the author does provide a subsection on ideas specifically aimed at the sciences).

The biggest problem, though, is the overall... academic-ness of the whole thing. The book is riddled with classic academic biases, and also turns cartwheels to avoid staking out policy positions of any kind. For example, there's a long section extolling the virtues of extra-curricular activites in enhancing student enjoyment of college, and attempting to persuade faculty and students alike that extra-currcicular activities are a Good Thing. It concludes with:

With the exception of intercollegiate athletics, no extra-curricular activity is associated with lower grades. Intercollegiate athletes at [Harvard] have slightly lower grades on average than non-athletes. From explorations on other campuses, I believe this finding is widely true. Among athletes, there is also a modest but clear negative relationship between hours spent on sports and grades. It is important to mention one fascinating trade-off here. While varsity athletes have slightly lower grades than average, they also are, as a group, among the happiest students on campus. They have many friends and feel closely bonded to the college.

That's the sum total of the material dealing with athletics, leaving unanswered a whole slew of questions: how much lower are the grades? How "modest" is the negative relationship between sports and grades? Why is it that athletes are happier than non-athletes? What does this suggest about the role of athletics in the modern college or university? Should a student seek out or avoid participation in sports? Should a faculty member encourage or discourage participation in intercollegiate athletics?

None of these questions are addressed, though attempting to answer them would likely be more interesting than much of what follows. One gets the sense that the questions simply aren't interesting to the author-- athletics are casually dismissed as unimportant, with the curious footnote that the students who participate in intercollegiate athletics are happier than the rest of the students. A similar problem afflicts the chapters on diversity: diversity (ethnic, racial, religious, and whatever else) is generally held to be Good, and anecdotes are cited to support the claim, but there's no attempt to go beyond bland reporting of the opinions expressed by students. If diversity is Good, what does that imply for, say, Affirmative Action? Should a diverse student body be a goal? How important a goal is it? What measures should be taken to ensure positive diversity? Is diversity more or less important than sports? (Well, OK, that one's implicit in the fact that sports rates one paragraph, while diversity gets two whole chapters...)

This could've been an interesting and provocative look at the modern college and university system. In the end, though, the author's unwillingness to make definite suggestions leaves the reader with little more than a warm haze of platitudes. An attempt to grapple with some of the issues hinted at in student comments might've led to a book which would serve as a real guidepost toward "Making the Most of College," both on an institutional and an individual level. Instead, it's just sort of wishy-washy.

January 20, 2002

The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski. Like Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (which it cites several times), this is a book about books, though it comes at the subject from a different angle. Fadiman writes about books from the perspective of a reader, talking about the ways people interact with books. Petroski writes as an engineer (he's a professor of engineering at Duke), and talks about the ways books and book storage systems have been designed through the years.

Surprisingly enough, there's a fair bit of evolution there. Looking at books sitting on bookshelves, it seems immediately obvious that the arrangement of vertical book on horizontal bookshelf is a sort of Platonic ideal of bibliophilic organization. As Petroski shows, however, book storage went through a lot of stages before arriving at the system now in general use. Books were kept in locked trunks, chained to lecterns, chained to shelves and shelved with the spine toward the wall for hundreds of years before settling on the modern system of shelving books standing vertically with the labelled spine facing outward.

That's an interesting thing to learn, and the reasons behind the move from one scheme to another are also fairly interesting. (Basically, as books became more common, they became both less intrinsically valuable and more difficult to find room for. As books ceased to be hand-copied (and thus individually priceless), people bought more books, and needed to take fewer precautions in storing them.) Unfortunately, that's about all there is to the book, outside of Petroski's exhaustive documentation of each of the stages of book storage. Which, in the end, becomes, well, exhausting.

The book is perhaps best summed up by the appendix, which attempts a comprehensive list of those schemes by which books may be arranged upon shelves: by author's last name, by title, by subject, by size, horizontally, by color, by hardbacks and paperbacks, by publisher (hey to Mike Kozlowski), by read/unread books, by strict order of acquisition, by order of publication, by number of pages, according to the Dewey Decimal System, according to the Library of Congress system, by ISBN, by price, according to new and used, by enjoyment, by sentimental value, by provenance, and by still more esoteric arrangements. Listed out like that, it's sort of amusing to look at, but reading a detailed description of each method quickly becomes tiresome.

January 15, 2002

Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb. I actually picked this up because of an argument other people were having about it on Usenet. The book is about a murder which takes place at a sci-fi convention. Mixed in with the murder mystery plot is a parody of the sort of people who go to SF cons. Predictably enough, this sparked a heated debate on rec.arts.sf.written about whether it's an accurate portrayal of a certain set of con-going fandom or a mean-spirited hatchet job. Having read a few of the posts, the title caught my eye when glancing over the shelves in the local used book store, and I figured it would be worth $2 for a chance to form my own opinion. I also liked the mild irony of reading this book a day or so after sending off a check to register for a convention in Boston. Yes, I'm easily amused.

Having read the book, it seems to me that both sides are badly missing the point. Whether it's an amusing satire or a vicious hatchet job is unimportant, next to the fact that this is a surprisingly badly written book. Worse yet, somebody gave the damn thing an Edgar award.

A large part of the problem is that the author can't seem to decide what the book is. The mystery takes 110 of the book's 212 pages to arrive, and utterly fails to be mysterious, but the mystery is the only thing tying this together into anything approaching a coherent story. Worse yet, she can't seem to decide who the main character really is, bouncing between the nominal hero, Prof. James O. Mega (aka "Jay Omega", author of Bimbos of the Death Sun), his girlfriend (Dr. Marion Farley, of the English Department, and a former SF fan), two of the conference organizers, a handful of con attendees, a hapless Scottish folksinger on tour (winning the "what are you doing in this novel?" prize), and the murder victim, the loathesome author Appin Dungannon. Which character's thoughts get shown to the reader is apt to change from one paragraph to the next. To top it all off, not only is the motive for murder utterly daft, the big showdown at which the identity of the killer is revealed is reached through having "Jay Omega" act completely out of character.

As for the fandom aspects, some of the confusion over whether it's a hatchet job or not probably stems from the fact that the author hasn't really decided, either. This is well illustrated by the completely superfluous plot thread involving the massively obese fan Brenda Lindenfield and her dalliance with the titanically boring Richard Faber. The description of her life story at one moment seems to praise the inclusive tendencies of SF fandom, for accepting Brenda, then turns around and lambastes her for being gigantically fat. I can't quite figure if her cynical conquest of the socially retarded Faber is supposed to be touching or loathesome (though I'm inclined toward the latter...).

A similar pattern holds throughout (insofar as anything in this erratic mess can be said to hold to a pattern). Con-going fandom is alternately celebrated for its more inclusive aspects, and attacked for its lack of social graces and personal grooming (a bold call, coming from a woman with scary Lewinsky Hair...). The unpleasantness of the characters extends beyond the merely physical, too: the men are all clueless louts, the women all gold-digging harridans. The main gimmick of the plot is that everyone at the con would've been happy to kill Dungannon-- by the time he actually buys it, this reader at least would've been happy to kill everyone in the novel.

The only reason I can imagine for giving this book an award would be some sort of misguided attempt by mystery writers to write themselves in atop the geek hierarchy. Which seems to have brought us full circle (the thread cited above having been kicked off by a mention of the hierarchy), so I'll stop here, and find something more worthwhile to read next. Which shouldn't be difficult...

January 13, 2002

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. As threatened in the last entry, I've gone back to re-read Susan Cooper:

When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return and one go alone.

Iron for the birthday, bronze carried long;
Wood from the burning, stone out of song;
Fire in the candle-ring, water from the thaw;
Six Signs the circle and the grail gone before.

Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold
Played to wake the Sleepers, oldest of the old;
Power from the green witch, lost beneath the sea;
All shall find the light at last, silver on the tree.

This is a dangerous book for me to re-read. I devoured these books when I was a kid, and a few years ago, I picked this one (the first of the really good books in the series) up on a whim. Fifty pages in, I went back to the bookstore and bought the next three (Greenwitch, The Grey King, and Silver on the Tree), and re-read the whole bunch. That was recent enough that I think I can resist a complete re-read (though The Grey King may sneak in here before long...).

These are marvelously well-done books, both in having some of the best prophetic doggerel anywhere in fantasy (I'd pit the above verse and the "day of the dead" rhyme from The Grey King against anything in Tolkien) and in having depth beyond the merely juvenile. As a kid, I really liked the wish-fulfillment aspect of these: young Will Stanton, on his eleventh birthday, discovers that he's not just an ordinary British pre-teen, but he is in fact the last and youngest of the Old Ones, a mystical order of immortals with magical powers put on Earth to fight for the Light against the forces of the Dark. This idea plays wonderfully with every eleven-year-old out there who would like to be something grander than just another kid in a small town.

Re-reading the books more recently, I really enjoy the way that the magic works. This is a "collect the Magic Plot Tokens and win valuable prizes!" fantasy quest, as Will's first task as an Old One is to collect the six magical Signs mentioned in the verse above, but Cooper constructs a Celtic-influenced magic system around this which has a nice feel to it. She never goes into too much depth in discussing the magic, and drops enough vague hints at powers and wonders as yet unseen to give the impression of something vast and, well, magical lurking behind the scenes. The rules (those we're told, anyway) are nicely arbitrary (magic shouldn't be engineering), but the rules apply to both Dark and Light. And Cooper does a nice job of setting up the idea of the impartial Wild Magic (represented in this volume by Herne the Hunter and the Wild Hunt), which serves neither Dark nor Light, but may be used by either and will decide the ultimate fate of all.

There's also some nice ambiguity in the treatment of the warring sides. The Dark is protrayed as ultimately evil and destructive, but the Light doesn't shy away from win-at-all-costs tactics, either. And those tactics do sometimes blow up in their face. Cooper does have an unfortunate fondness for wiping clean the memories of supporting characters, but that aside, it's a surprisingly balanced treatment of good and evil for the level it's written to.

There's other good stuff here. The book is set at Christmastime, and does a nice job of capturing the sense of wonder that the holiday holds for kids Will's age. Will jumps back and forth between Old One and Regular Kid throughout, and both are handled well. There's also a nicely creepy sense of foreboding as the forces of the Dark gather about the Stanton household. The book isn't as dark as Elidor by any stretch-- for one thing, Will himself has significant power to resist the approaching evil, where the children in Elidor are well out of their depths-- but it has a little of the same feel in places. And a vastly more satisfying ending, even though it's an early book (the first, by some reckoning) in the series.

Of the other books, Over Sea, Under Stone is widely held to be the weakest (I don't even remember it that clearly, and I generally don't re-read it...), and The Grey King the strongest. Silver on the Tree, which concludes the series, rubs many people the wrong way, so be warned.

January 12, 2002

Elidor by Alan Garner. I picked this up on the same bookstore run that netted Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson, having previously spotted this in the store, and obtained this rave review on rec.arts.sf.written. It seemed a fitting follow-up, and turned out to be short enough that I finished it while waiting at the barbershop.

This book would make a nice back-up argument to Terry Pratchett's claim (supported by his own YA books) that "young adult" novels can be much darker than "adult" books. Which is not to say that this is actually some sort of nihilist tract, but it's pretty dark for a book which seems pitched to a fairly young audience. (To be fair, the ads in the back of this copy (from 1965) also pitch Frank Herbert's Dune and one of Fred Saberhagen's Empire of the East books, so it's not like it's really packaged as kiddy lit. But the protagonists are children, and the writing is simple in a manner that screams "YA book!" to me...)

The story is set up as a fairly standard crossover/ quest fantasy. Four children (Nick, David, Helen, and Roland) in post-WWII Britain (the date isn't specified, but there's still unrepaired bomb damage in the cities) are poking around a ruined church in Manchester and stumble into the magical world of Elidor, which is under threat from a creeping Darkness. Three of its four golden castles, and three of its four magical Treasures have fallen to the darkness. The children from Earth, Roland in particular, must save the day and restore light to Elidor. At which point, you're thinking, "This is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" or Red Moon, Black Mountain, or whatever your favorite crossover fantasy story is.

Only it takes an odd turn. The Treasures are recovered, and, pressed by the Darkness, the children return to Earth. Where they hide the Treasures (now shabby in appearance), and try to forget about Elidor. Until the Darkness from Elidor comes looking for them...

There are some delightfully creepy passages as the hunters begin to close in on the children and their family, but the real world somehow seems more menacing. The dreary and peculiarly British suburbs (why on Earth does the post office deal with tv reception problems?) in which the children live seem more sinister than any evil from another world. Garner does a nice job of capturing Roland's fear of having Elidor, which even in shadow is more interesting than Manchester, slip away from them. The ending, though, is surprisingly unsatisfying. It comes on very quickly (the whole book is only 158 pages, and the type is large).

This is another "Ennh" book. It's good at what it does, but I wasn't blown away. The creepy ambience is done well, but it's not really going to change my view of the quest story forever. Maybe I was too taken in by the "facile surface", but its main effect has really been to make me want to re-read Susan Cooper, through some sort of "peculiarly British semi-real-world fantasy with young protagonists" resonance.

January 11, 2002

Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson by George Alec Effinger. This is a collection of short stories chronicling the various adventures of Maureen "Don't Call Me Muffy" Birnbaum, a preppy high-schooler who finds herself sucked into the worlds of various classic SF novels, where she becomes, well, a barbarian swordsperson, and defender of the downtrodden. There's a bit of a fixup aspect in the introductions to the stories (which are all "as told by" Bitsy/Betsy/Elizabeth Spiegelman/Speigelman-Fein/Speigelman), putting the stories in a definite sequence, and chronicling the life of the narrator, who continues to age while Maureen remains a circa-1982 preppy high school junior. I think these are part of the original stories (there are other intro comments, clearly inserted for this collection, betwen stories), but I'm not entirely sure.

I enjoyed Effinger's Marid Audran series of Islamic cyberpunk private-eye novels (When Gravity Fails, A Fire in the Sun, and The Exile Kiss: they're unique, and better than that description suggests), but other than that, I haven't read much of his work. I've heard about these particular stories many times-- they're apparently somewhat legendary in fannish circles, so when I stumbled on the collection (in a local used bookstore, whose owner lamented the condition of "my poor SF section" to me...), I grabbed it.

The stories are generally parodies of specific genre tales: the first two dump Maureen into the worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Barsoom and Pellucidar, respectively), the others, in rough chronological order, into the worlds of Robert Adams's Horseclans, Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall", Robin Hood, the Holy Grail, and Lovecraft's Cthullu. These mostly seem to have been done at the specific request of some author or editor. The closing story (or "lagniappe" as Effinger puts it) is set on the Moon, and not an SF world I recognize.

They're also generally in that sub-category of parody which is funny primarliy to people who are fans of the original work. Which hurts the collection badly, in my case, as I don't know the Burroughs or Adams works which are parodied well enough to catch the in-jokes. Outside of presumably humorous references to specific elements of the originals, there's only one joke here, and preppy humor was sort of passe by the time I graduated high school, lo these many years ago.

As for the stories whose antecedants I recognize, the "Nightfall" story has potential, but pulls its punches too much, presumably out of respect for Asimov. The Robin Hood tale (in which Maureen encounters Robin, Marian, and Little John in the Sherwood Forest Mall) reads sort of like second-tier John M. Ford (in his "Scrabble With God" mode), and is sort of cute. The Holy Grail story takes a broad whack at the Grail tradition through the addition of a rather humorless feminism-- it's a story that wants to be A. S. Byatt's "The Story of the Eldest Princess," but doesn't quite get there. The best piece in the collection is probably "Maureen Birnbaum and the Looming Awfulness" which benefitted from the fact that I've not only read Lovecraft, but also lived in New Haven, Connecticut.

All in all, this rates an "Ennh." The stories are clever enough in their way, but nothing all that stunning. I can see why it'd be popular in fandom, but I'm not enough of a fan of the specific works in question to be amused by such mild parodies.

January 10, 2002

The Lady's Not For Burning, by Christopher Fry. I first encountered this in Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, where the fairly theatrical main characters spend a bunch of time talking about it, and I think it's staged at one point. I don't really recall, as I generally disliked that book for other reasons (short version: While you might think I'd be a sucker for a book which lovingly describes the experience of being at a small liberal arts school, like the one I work at, but unfortunately the description is from the point of view of the sort of people who really bugged me when I went to one.). This didn't leave me inclined to hunt the play out.

Happily, Kate did hunt it down, and read it, and some time later (i.e. late last year) urged me to read it. I got around to that a few days ago, and have taken advantage of my busy schedule to buy myself a few days to think of what, exactly, I want to say about the play. It's good, and very smartly written, but I'm a little ambivalent about the plot, which is a little odd.

The play is set entirely in one room, in the house of the Mayor of Cool Clary, a small fifteenth-century town in Europe somewhere, and concerns the odd sequence of events which follow the arrival of a young man demanding to be hanged. Followed closely by the eponymous Lady (Jennet), who is accused of being a witch. Hijinks, as they say, ensue.

Part of the problem I had reading this was that the text is oddly formatted. It has line breaks and so on as if it were Shakespearean verse, but with a decidedly modern cast to the dialogue, and no obvious meter:

MARGARET:   Where are you taking Alizon, Nicholas?

NICHOLAS:   Out into the air, mother

MARGARET:                                    Unnecessary.
          She's in the air already. This room is full of it.
          Put her down, Nicholas. You look
          As though you had come straight out of a wheelbarrow;
          And not even straight out.

NICHOLAS:                              I have to tell you
          I've just been reborn.

MARGARET:                              Nicholas, you always think
          You can do things better than your mother. You can be sure
          You were born quite adequately on the first occasion.

(I've kludged this up in HTML to reproduce the spacing and line breaks, with a few changes to the style sheet. It looks fine in the browsers I have available to check it, but if it comes out ugly on yours, email me and I'll see if it can be fixed) In addition to being witty in an Oscar Wilde-ish sort of way (sharp, but also mannered and somewhat artificial), this looks like it wants to be Shakespeare, but I couldn't see any particular logic to when the line breaks came in the middle of a sentence. I found this very distracting, for some reason.

There's some brilliant images here, as when Jennet recounts the charges against her:

JENNET:   They also say that I bring back the past;
          For instance, Helen comes,
          Brushing the maggots from her eyes,
          And clearing her throat of several thousand years,
          She says "I loved..."; but cannot any longer 
          Remember names. Sad Helen. Or Alexander, wearing
          His imperial cobwebs and breastplate of shining worms
          Wakens and looks for his glasses, to find the empire
          Which he knows he put beside his bed.

The speech about her alchemist father (too long to reproduce here) is also very good. But as for the story...

All in all, I enjoyed this. I'm too much of a sucker for witty writing not to enjoy this. And yes, I see how this fits very nicely into the Tam Lin story, which I still don't like for other reasons. But somehow, the main story here just never grabbed me the way it should've. This may just be the usual difficulty with reading drama, though.

January 6, 2002

The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker. Back when I was in Japan for a few months, I very quickly burned through all the books I had brought with me on the plane (reading the previous entry should give you a hint as to why). Thus, I found myself at the mercy of the English-language section of Kinokuniya Books in Shinjuku (and, later, Good Day Books in Shibuya). Their selection was a bit... eclectic, but for whatever reason they were well supplied with hard-boiled private eye novels.

To that point, I had never read Raymond Chandler, but from the first few chapters of The Big Sleep, picked up in desperation, I was hooked. I'd read and heard thousands of parodies and pasticjes of his style over the years, but actually reading the real thing was like my first taste of Bass Ale after thinking Coors was pretty good beer. He had an incredible way with words, writing wonderful tough-guy banter, fantastically tangled plots, and those fabulous descriptive phrases which so lend themselves to parody (I was shocked to find that "She was a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window" was an actual sentence from a Chandler novel).

Sadly, he only wrote half a dozen novels. Since exhausting those, I've been looking, off and on, for something similar enough to fill that role. Alas, Chandleresque books-- really Chandleresque books-- are in short supply. Dashiell Hammet doesn't quite work, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on. The Archie Goodwin narration of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books comes close (though I've more or less run out of those, too...). Jonathan Lethem does a nice Chandler pastiche in Gun, With Occasional Music, and Motherless Brooklyn is Chandler in a funhouse mirror. Glen Cook does some Chandleresque things in his Garrett, PI fantasy novels, along with a few other mystery authors.

Robert B. Parker is the latest attempt. I've read one of his books before (Double Deuce if memory serves), about ten years ago on a college road trip. The Godwulf Manuscript seems to be the first of his series of novels about the Boston PI named "Spenser" (the character who was the basis for the Robert Urich TV show "Spenser for Hire"). Despite having written his own Phillip Marlowe novel (I was shocked to discover in a used bookstore) and "co-written" a book with Chandler (I assume this means he finished an incomplete manuscript found in Chandler's effects), he also fails to nail the Chandler vibe.

The manner of the failure can be guessed from the hilarious author photo on the back of the new paperback edition I picked up the other day. Parker's a big burly guy with a moustache, standing in front of an old-looking building in dark glasses, a Red Sox cap, and a black leather jacket, and holding a black dog on a leash. It's the most overdone "macho" shot I've seen in quite a while-- he looks like he wants to be G. Gordon Liddy.

For all the tough talk and street life in the Phillip Marlowe books, there's also a sensitive core to them. Marlowe isn't just a stand-up guy with a gun and a PI license, he's a man with a real sense of honor, a sense that's affronted by the corruption and squalor of the world he lives in, but somehow still keeps the books slightly above the level of the swamp. Parker dives headfirst into the swamp and rolls around-- he's kept the snappy banter and the gun, but lost the heart. He does a better-than-most version of the prose style:

Inside all the lights were on. The first thing I saw was Dennis Goldilocks lying on his back with his mouth open, his arms outspread, and a thick patch of tacky and blackening blood covering much of his chest. Near him on her hands and knees was Terry Orchard. Her hair was loose and falling forward as though she were trying to dry it in the sun. But it wasn't sunny in there. She wore only a pajama top with designs of Snoopy and the Red Baron on it, and it was from her that the faint kitten sounds were coming. She swayed almost rhythmically back and fortth, making no progress, moving in no direction, just swaying and mewing.

But there's something clipped and trying-too-hard macho about it, which sort of ruins the effect. Of course, strictly speaking, he's not trying to write Chandler, but I'm hoping to read Chandler, and what he's doing isn't quite what I'm after.

Aside from a few howlers in the dialogue (and "But it wasn't sunny in there," which got a snicker), it's not bad. It's not great, but not bad--read for the snappy banter and not the plot or prose, these could be enjoyable. I'm told that they get better later on, with the addition of Susan Silverman and the big enforcer Hawk (who I recall from my earlier read), so I'll probably give one of those a try.

My, what a long entry. I'll stop now.

New Year's Note

Having entered a new year, it's worth a quick look back at the log so far. Since starting this book log in early August, I've logged (by a quick and possibly inaccurate count) 61 books, a hair more than a dozen books a month. The bulk of these, some 40 books, were science fiction or fantasy, with five mysteries, four comic novels, eight non-fiction books, and three mainstream literary books rounding out the collection.

I suppose this explains how I got all these books which are cluttering up my apartment, doesn't it? Sixty-one books in five months works out to a bit more than 140 books a year, and relatively few of those 61 were re-reads or borrowed books.

I think the list thus far is genuinely representative of my tastes in reading material. I don't think I've really skewed my reading habits to make this log look more impressive-- not consciously, anyway. Keeping this log has made me pay closer attention to my reading, though, and I tend to think more carefully about the books that I read now, since I have the self-imposed duty to say something witty about them on the web. So logging my books has proved to be a suprisingly useful and enjoyable experience thus far (even though it's sometimes a hassle to keep this updated, particularly when I leave town for a couple of weeks and have to add four books and a movie on my return...).

Anyway, that brings down the curtain on 2001, which has been one hell of a weird year. Here's hoping that 2002 is better for everyone. Happy New Year to all, and to all a good, um, year.

Now I'm going off to find something to read.

January 1, 2002

The Science of Discworld by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen. While this shows up in the log as the first book of 2002, because I finished it in BWI airport on the way back from a New Year's party, it's really the last (well, tied for last) book of 2001. It's fitting that this book should occupy such a liminal position, as it's an odd sort of in-between book...

This is not, as the authors take pains to point out, a book which explains how the various absurdities of Discworld are possible through the judicious application of science. As they note:

We could have taken this approach. We could, for example, have pointed out that Darwin's theory of evolution explains how lower lifeforms can evolve into higher ones, which in turn makes it entirely reasonable that a human should evolve into an orangutan (while remaining a librarian, since there is no higher life form than a librarian). We could have speculated on which DNA sequence might reliably incorporate asbestos linings into the insides of dragons. We might even have attempted to explain how you could get a turtle ten thousand miles long.

We decided not to do these things, for a good reason... umm, two good reasons.

The first is that it would be ... er ... dumb.

And this because of the second reason. Discworld does not run on scientific lines. Why pretend that it might? Dragons don't breathe fire because they've got asbestos lungs-- they breathe fire because everyone knows that's what dragons do.

Accordingly, the authors have set out to write a book which uses the wizards of Discworld to illustrate points about how and why science works in our world. This is accomplished by splitting the book into two parallel threads: a Discworld story where the usual collection of batty wizards fiddle around with the "Roundworld Project" in which rocket wizard Ponder Stibbons (soon to be named Head of Inadvisably Applied Magic) creates a pocket universe which strongly resembles ours, alternating chapters with a non-fiction explanation of the scientific reasons behind the odd real-world phenomena which baffle the wizards. As such, it's sort of two half-a-books: a minor Discworld story, and a mostly unexceptional pop-science book.

This is actually probably a fairly effective approach for the target audience-- SF readers who are likely to buy Pratchett anyway, and who are likely to have an interest in scientific matters, but not that likely to have a strong technical background. This is clearly a book written by and for SF fans, both from the number of references to SF works or concepts (much is made of the idea of "space elevators," and Arthur C. Clarke rates a half-dozen mentions), and also from the fannish tendency to slightly over-emphasize ideas which are on the fringes of scientific acceptability, but would be really, really neat if they turned out to be true.

As a very technical boy (to shamelessly crib a phrase from William Gibson), it doesn't entirely come off for me. The science bits are mostly good, though there's some dodgy stuff in the physics sections (perhaps not suprising, given that it was written by a mathematician and a biologist). It sort of meanders for a while, touching on a variety of topics, before finally getting into a decent groove by focussing on biology and evolution (see aside above). The writing is generally good, and the explanations clear if not deep. They had a few amusing things to say about physics, and I may crib an analogy or two for teaching purposes, but as pop-science books go, it's nothing too spectacular.

As a book to learn about science from, it's not that great. As a clever way to hook Discworld readers into thinking "Hey, Science is Cool!", it's better.

As I'm not as ambitious or conscientious as Kate is, this isn't using any weblogging software at the moment-- I don't figure it will be updated regularly enough to require automatic archiving and the like.

Begun: 7 August, 2001