The Library of Babel: December 2003

This page contains the archived copies of book log entries for December of 2003.

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February 28, 2004

The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket. The seventh in the Series of Unfortunate Events.

This is just a teensy bit of a mood shift from the previous book, but in a weird way, it suffers from the same problem: it's part of a series, and either you're reading them, or you're not. If you're not, you probably don't care to hear about this volume in detail.

So, I'll just provide a silly quote, and then move on. Sadly, Kate beat me to the silly quote I would've liked to use, but I'll quote the author's opening advice to readers:

No matter who you are, no matter where you live, and no matter how many people are chasing you, what you don't read is often as important as what you do read. For instance, if you are walking in the mountains, and you don't read the sign that says "Beware of Cliff" because you are busy reading a joke book instead, you may find yourself walking on air rather than on a sturdy bed of rocks. If you are baking a pie for your friends, and you read an article entitled "How to Build a Chair" instead of a cookbook, your pie will probably end up tasting like wood and nails instead of like crust and fruity filling. And if you insist on reading this book instead of something more cheerful, you will most certainly find yourself moaning in despair instead of wriggling in delight, so if you have any sense at all, you will put this book down and pick up another one.

The Events that follow are Unfortunate, but also silly, and part of a Series. And that's all you need to know.

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February 24, 2004

House of Chains by Steven Erikson. The fourth book in the Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, all of which are thick enough to require such a grandiose series title. Previous books are Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates, and Memories of Ice.

I picked this up at Boskone, along with a bunch of other stuff, and read it immediately. As you can, it only took me a week or so, which means it moved right along for a thousand-page paperback.

I've spent a fair amount of time trying to think of a concise way to sum this book up, and I've finally decided that it's just not worth the effort. The plot is too involved, and too bound up in the overall structure of the story to allow sensible description. And, really, either you're reading these, or you're not. If you haven't read the first four, this would be a terrible place to start.

So, I'll leave it at this: The gigantic, sprawling story continues without significant loss of quality or unresolved plot lines. It's really good over-the-top high fantasy, with Mel Gibson levels of bloodshed and suffering. If you like that sort of thing, it's excellent. If you don't, read something else.

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February 19, 2004

Sethra Lavode by Steven Brust.

This isn't actually out yet, so it might be considered tacky to discuss it in detail, or gloat about having read it. Then again, Teresa gloated about having finished copies, and she's cooler than I'll ever be. So, nyaaah nyaaaah.

It's very good. Really excellent stuff. Brust-as-Paarfi wraps up the story of Khaavren and his companions very nicely (complete with some nifty unreliable-narrator games involving events we've already seen from another point of view), and swashes galore are buckled.

The only problem with it is that there won't be any more Paarfi books.

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February 12, 2004

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The classic dark-superhero comic, a work of impressive scale.

I was moved to pick this up by a combination of disappointment in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume 2 and curiosity after reading Jim Henley's comments (that's one of several posts, picked because it includes Jim's Grand Unified Theory of superhero comics). Having finished it, I can say two things with confidence: first, that this is a much better book than the League sequel, and second, that Jim is absolutely cracked when it comes to his theory of the pirate comic. Eve Tushnet is right about what it means (though I might add that the story might refer to Rorschach as well as Veidt).

(On a flippant note, I should point out that the kid reading the pirate comic must be the slowest reader on the planet. There's not really enough story there to fill more than a single comic book, and yet he's shown reading it every day for a week before he finishes...)

For those who've never read it, this is a story of a world in which costumed superheroes became a part of the real world (to a greater degree than Angle Grinder Man, that is...) somewhere around the point where superhero comics took off in our world. For the most part, they aren't really superheroes-- just ordinary humans becoming masked vigilantes-- and this being a dark sort of comic, they come with a full set of psychological issues and hang-ups. There's only one true superhuman in the book (there's a second who's close), and he's as messed up as everyone else.

This is very much a Cold War story. The threat of nuclear war hangs over the whole thing, and there's a sense of impending doom from the very first page. The presence of the godlike Dr. Manhattan completely changes the course of the Cold War, of course, and in some ways the story is all about how the presence of masked heroes changes the way the conflict plays out. More specifically, it's about a particularly horrifying way to bring that conflict to an end.

There are a whole bunch of problems with the story if you try to think too much about it. Eve notes in her essay that the villain's grand scheme really doesn't make that much sense, but really, it makes as much sense as anything else in that world. In particular, I have a hard time with the idea that Dr. Manhattan could be revealed in 1960, and yet we still end up with Nixon in 1968. But then, that's a problem I have with alternate history in general.

There are a lot of things that could be said about this book, but I'm trying to keep things relatively spoiler-free. Also, my thoughts on the book remain somewhat unfocused. It's a very powerful story, with lots of different elements, and even though this is the third or fourth time I've read it, I'm still not sure what I really think about how it all fits together.

Anyway, if you haven't read this, I do recommend it. If you're not the sort who normally reads comics, don't be put off by that. I'm sure there are some references that would make more sense to someone with a greater familiarity with the superhero comic genre, but the core story works just fine without them, and it ranks right up there with any other story you'll find in SF, or literature in general.

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February 7, 2004

Monster of God by David Quammen. I was happy to find this book in the library, not only because it lets me add a "Q" category to the Author Index for this book log (recommendations of authors whose surnames begin with "U," "V," "X," and "Y" are welcome in the comments), but because it's been highly praised as one of the best science books of the year.

This book falls into the general category of "Smart People Books," a subset of non-fiction in which a Smart Person sets out to explore all the various aspects of some particular phenomenon. Examples previously logged here would include Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris and Henry Petroski's The Book on the Bookshelf (books and bibliophiles), Alexander Wolff's Big Game, Small World (basketball), and Jon Ronson's Them (nutjobs). Bonus points are awarded these books for travel to exotic locales, and erudite references to literary works. The main point of a Smart Person Book is to draw the reader's attention to otherwise unconsidered details of the phenomenon in question, or to point out odd parallels between different manifestations. This can be fascinating, or just plain silly, depending on how strained the comparisons are.

Monster of God takes up the question of large predators, specifically "man-eating" predators, and scores very highly on the Smart People scale. Quammen travels the globe to study predators in their natural habitats-- lions in India, crocdiles in Australia, bears in Romania, and tigers in Siberia-- and compares them to literary models ranging from religious texts (the book of Job) to ancient oral traditions (Gilgamesh and Beowulf) to the local multiplex (the eponymous Alien).

On the whole, it's very well done. The travel bits are engaging, and he does a nice job of sketching the history of the areas he studies with an eye toward the impact of history on predator populations. His sketches of the various eccentric characters he meets on his travels are quite good, and he does a reasonable job of laying out the issues of population biology without making the details too numbing. (I can't speak for the accuracy of these bits, as I Am Not A Biologist, but nothing he said about the animals struck me as ludicrous.)

There are some flaws, though. The literary parallels range from slightly weak to ridiculously strained (the bit where he tries to draw a comparison between Nicolae Ceausescu (a "megalomaniacal little Communist martinet who required underlings to load his rifles and stretch his pelts") and either Gilgamesh or Beowulf is just silly). His conclusions are also fairly unsurprising-- large predators in the wild are vanishing, humans are to blame, and this is Sad. The one slightly unexpected conclusion is the suggestion that regulated hunting and trade in predator parts may be the best method to preserve these species (though he later gloomily concludes that this is not enough to save them).

My biggest complaint with the book is slightly petty: seldom have I read a book that so desperately cries out for illustrations, and fails to provide them. There are maps of the relevant bits of the world, but the animals themselves are described only in text. A few photographs mixed in with the text would be a dramatic improvement. (This is nowhere more ridiculous than when he writes of the Paleolithic paintings in Chauvet Cave: "Wherever the cave is described or discussed, in articles or books, you can expect to see the Lion Panel reproduced." "Except here," he fails to add... Happily, the cave has a slick official web page, and less flashy but more helpful collections of images have been posted by private citizens.)

I'm told that it suffers somewhat in comparison to his earlier The Song of the Dodo, but I haven't read that, so I can't say. I do wish I'd picked it up at a point when I had more time to devote to reading it-- it's not well served by being read in small chunks before bed or between interruptions by a needy dog-- but all in all, this is a book worth reading.

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Begun: 7 August, 2001