The Library of Babel: March 2002

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

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March 28, 2002

Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link. This is a collection of short stories, which I picked up based on a recommendation by Nathan Lundblad, and on the strength of glowing blurbs by Jonathan Lethem, Neil Gaiman, Tim Powers, and Sean Stewart (as well as a host of other authors whose books I haven't read). As you might expect from that cast, the writing is dazzling, but the stories are odd:

There are Cinderella's two stepsisters, who cut off their own toes, and Snow White's stepmother, who danced to death in red-hot iron slippers. The Goose Girl's maid got rolled down a hill in a barrel studded with nails. Travel is hard on the single woman. There was this one woman who walked east of the sun and then west of the moon, looking for her lover, who had left her because she spilled tallow on his nightshirt. She wore out at least one pair of perfectly good iron shoes before she found him. Take our word for it, he wasn't worth it. What do you think happened when she forgot to put the fabric softener in the dryer? Laundry is hard, travel is harder. You deserve a vacation, but of course you're a little wary. You've read the fairy tales. We've been there, we know.

The stories tend toward the experimental, and several have a horror-ish tone to them (most notably "The Specialist's Hat" and "Water Off a Black Dog's Back" read sort of like Jonathan Carroll). Others have the same interest in the nature of stories, and playful attitude toward myth as Neil Gaiman's best stuff ("Travels With the Snow Queen" (from which the above excerpt is taken), "Shoe and Marriage" and "Flying Lessons" (which might be my favorte of the whole collection)). A couple are just plain weird-- "Louise's Ghost" and "The Girl Detective" read like excerpts from The Girl With Curious Hair drawn from an alternate universe in which David Foster Wallace is female (the former in particular seems to have been written primarily in order to have a story where the two main characters have the same name, which is the sort of "Am I cute enough to hug, or what?" game I expect from Wallace or Dave Eggers).

This is impressive stuff, on the whole, and even those stories which don't quite work fail more due to an excess of literary ambition than a lack of ability. The best stories are very good indeed. If you're allergic to stories which are consciously Literary with a capital "L", look elsewhere for your reading, but if you like weird mainstream fiction or high-end literary fantasy and horror, pick this up.

March 26, 2002

Tiger Cruise by Douglas Morgan. The story of this book's pseudonymous writing is almsot as good as the book itself, but it's not mine to tell. I'm not even sure if the author wants his real name known, so I won't give it here (though several attempts to locate this book failed because I couldn't recall the pseudonym...).

As with the previous entry, I don't disagree with what Kate said. I read about two-thirds of this book on airplanes, making my exhausted way back from Memphis on Sunday, and it was pretty much the perfect book for that. The plot moves along briskly, but skirts the edge of cliche closely enough that it doesn't require too much concentration to follow it. Morgan provides some of the same gadget-geek kicks that you get from the better Tom Clancy books, while having actual writerly gifts to lift the book above the Clancy level. And there are some nice little touches thrown in (I liked H. L. Morrison a lot), to keep everything interesting.

Nobody's likely to mistake this for Great Literature (I was sort of glad, in a book geek way, that the now typo-free cover is done in dark colors so the other passengers were unlikely to be able to tell what I was reading), but it's not trash, either. Good, solid, genre fiction, in a genre that frequently lacks goodness and solidity.

March 25, 2002

Not Quite Dead Enough by Rex Stout. I spent the weekend in Memphis for a two-for-one bachelor party (I'm getting married in June, another friend from college is getting married in May). As you might expect, between the setting and the current hoops frenzy (Fear the Turtle, and all that), I didn't have a whole lot of time to read. I did find an hour or so Sunday morning while waiting for other people to wake up so we could go to Al Green's church (Reverend Al does a damn fine service), during which I finished this.

This book is a very minor entry in the Nero Wolfe canon-- Kate's comments are spot on, as usual. The stories are interesting mostly for the daftly showy patriotism-- Stout turns back flips to pump up Wolfe and Archie as true red-blooded Americans. They're chomping at the metaphorical bit to go off and fight some Germans, and only the fact that Uncle Sam needs Wolfe's unique talents at work in New York City solving homicides keeps the pair together. The idea of Nero Wolfe in training to enlist in the Army is so astonishingly silly that even Stout can't do much with it.

The overall effect is sort of like what you find in Warner Brothers cartoons of the same era, where Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck spend four and a half minutes running around trying to kill each other, before a newspaper turns up announcing war in Europe, and they march off arm in arm to enlist and, presumably, stuff gigantic sticks of dynamite down the pants of the bumbling members of the Wehrmacht. The message is so heavy-handed, earnest, and yet silly-- Victory is assured through the co-operation of lunatic waterfowl and lisping hunters-- that it seems like the work of the Institute for Official Cheer. These stories, like the cartoons, are the work of someone with an essentially frivolous job trying to make himself useful to the War Effort.

(This is probably the same instinct which led to the latest blight on the airwaves from CBS. I can just see the pitch meeting for this one, probably on October 15th or so-- "People like the reality shows, and the military's popular right now, so how about a reality show about the military?")

This isn't an easy book to find, but only Nero Wolfe completists should really be looking for it.

March 21, 2002

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistresss by Robert A. Heinlein. A recurring problem I have with literature is that I have a hard time with the idea of the infinite variability of literary tastes, at least when it comes to people I like and respect praising works I don't like. When someone whose tastes I generally admire praises a book, I want to see in it what they see in it, and often I can't. But I keep trying, and so when I re-read Tolkien, I strain to see what Jo Walton sees in the poetry, when I read Lois McMaster Bujold, I try to see the same dark psychological issues Graydon Saunders does, and when Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor editor and guitarist extraodinaire) praises Heinlein at Boskone, I want to take another look. And the ending is always the same: two-thirds of the way through The Fellowship of the Ring I can't take it any more, and start skipping any passage in italics; Miles Vorkosigan remains James Bond In Space (though not in a Doug Bell (Space Bang !) sense...); and, well, this review.

This problem is especially troubling in the case of Heinlein because, well, I used to like Heinlein's books a lot (as I said when I wrote about The Green Hills of Earth). I tore through most of them back in the day (though I somehow missed Starship Troopers), and even enjoyed parts of The Number of the Beast (the fact that I was fourteen might've had something to do with that). I clearly recall checking this one out of the high school library and reading it in an afternoon.

Having decided to try Heinlein just one more time, I picked this particular book for two reasons: 1) It seems to be widely held to be one of his best, with most of the good features that drew fans to him back in the day, and relatively little of the self-indulgent crap which ruins his late works, and 2) It only cost a buck and a quarter at the local used book store. Also, my impression of the book from that earlier reading was generally good, and I didn't already own a copy.

Starting with the positive features, there's plenty of imaginative stuff here. For those who've been living in a cave for the last fifty years, the book is the story of the Revolution which transforms the prison colony on the Moon into Free Luna. A great deal of thought has clearly gone into the details of how the colony is arranged, what living in that environment would be like, and how to handle the transportation issues between Earth and the Moon. There are some howlers on the computer end (Heinlein seems to greatly overestimate what you can fit in 10MB of data storage, and computers are the size of whole rooms in 2276), but as I said in my earlier comments, you've got to admire the sort of optimism that had us conquering space with 1966 technology... The narration is done by Manuel O'Kelly Garcia Davis in an invented pidgin, and while this means the book suffers the usual problems of books written in dialect, Manny is an interesting character, and his narration is probably as close as Heinlein ever came to following the old writing dictum to "Show, Don't Tell."

Unfortunately, his every instinct is to Tell rather than Show. And Tell, and Tell, and Tell some more. This is an incredibly talky book, with long sections (of a fairly short book) that are little more than characters holding forth on issues of political philosophy. There are some good scenes buried in there, but the bits in between are a hard slog. There are at least three detailed descriptions of the full organization of the Revolution (one setting up the cell structure used, another describing refinements to it and putting in names, and a third description of the provisional government set up after the Revolution), for example, each of which stops the story dead in its tracks for longer than really necessary. There are grand political manifestoes declaimed on a couple of occasions, and other sections of dialogue that read like Plato's dialogues (in the sense that one character is only there to say idiotic things and make Socrates look good). The book is mercifully too short to allow a sixty-page John Galt speech (and I think Heinlein had more sense than that), but that's the only thing it's lacking in the "talk-talk" department.

The biggest problem with the book, though, is that it cheats (and not just because the Revolution has a self-aware supercomputer running the show). And it cheats in a way that makes the long political sections fundamentally uninteresting to me.

There's an old, old joke in physics geek circles about a farmer who can't get his cows to produce enough milk. He goes to one expert after another, to no avail, finally turning to his friend, a theoretical physicist, in desperation. The physicsist listens carefully to the description of the problem, goes away thinking, and calls his friend back the next day saying "I've got the answer." "Great!" says the farmer, "What do I do?" "First," says the physicist, "we assume a spherical cow..."

This book, like most tracts of political fiction, is like reading about spherical humanoids (they're probably frictionless, too). The Revolution, and Lunar society in general, works because the characters in the book just happen to behave in exactly the correct manner to allow the society to work like its creator wants it to. Everybody's absurdly rational, the revolutionaries are all gallant and noble and selfless, nobody's out for personal gain above principles, and the enemies on Earth bluster and blunder and twirl their moustaches evilly. It's a ridiculously slanted field, and moreover, I don't for a minute believe that real human beings in that situation would behave anything like the characters in the book do (if nothing else, I can't swallow the idea that a committed socialist would ever be swung around to believe in "rational anarchism" through a single bull session, as occurs early in the book...).

This is, as I said, a general problem with political fiction (I had the same problem with The Cassini Division)-- probably because the people who are inclined to write political fiction tend to do so because they're True Believers of one sort or another, and they write it in a manner which makes their political faith look good and their enemies look bad (Is Jack Ryan Pope yet?). It's a problem with political theory as well-- I agree that a Libertarian society would be a wonderful place to live if real people behaved the way they need to to make a Libertarian society function, but I also think that a socialist state would be a nice place to live if real people behaved the way they need to to make a socialist state function. If men were angels, or angels governed men, life would be wonderful.

But men aren't angels, any more than cows are spheres, and, indeed, the most interesting parts of humanity are precisely those parts where we deviate from the spherical, frictionless, angelic ideal. I agree that the principles of Libertarianism are good ones, but the interesting question is what happens when those ideals collide with the real world. Politics is a fascinating subject precisely because it deals with that collision, with the question of how you preserve as much of your high ideals as possible while accounting for deviations from ideal behavior. How does Communism accomodate greed, or Libertarianism irrationality? Political theory, dealing as it does with idealized cases, is not that interesting to me, nor is political fiction about characters who are spherical and frictionless in just the right ways to make the fictional society work.

Real politics is all about compromise (a point often missed in the deification of America's Founding Fathers-- yes, they had high ideals, and grand theories about the role of government, but they were also realists, and willing to compromise to make a Republic that worked, however non-ideal its structure may have been), but compromise in Heinlein's fictional politics is too often compromise in the "Let's put aside our petty differences and all agree that Socrates is a genius" sense. While this is a form of compromise much beloved of the current occupant of the White House, it's bad politics, and bad fiction. This book, like most of Heinlein's other work (and Ayn Rand's, for that matter) compounds the annoyance of the bad politics with the smug superiority that's Libertarianism's most annoying trait-- the heroes of the revolution are noble and selfless and good, their enemies are bulies and charlatans and incompetents.

Anticipating a common objection, I know that the society in the book doesn't end up holding to the "rational anarchist" ideal set up early on-- throw-away lines at the start and end of the book indicate that they've fallen into the swamp of government and taxation (oh, the horror). I can't help thinking, though, that the more interesting story, politically, is glossed over in those few lines. (Also, I don't buy the Lunar society before the Revolution...)

Having expended countless electrons in the course of damning the political elements of the book, I'll close by lamely saying that the rest of the plot is pretty good. The success of the revolution is a little too dependent on everyone in power on Earth acting like a complete idiot, but the bits with the actual action are well done, if scarce. Heinlein clearly thought about the possibilities of the computer system he used (daft though parts of it seem today), and while the bombing of Earth contained more information about ballistics than really necessary (he says, at the end of a term spent teaching Newtonian mechanics), it's a nifty idea. I just wish more time had been spent on those bits, and less on frictionless politics.

Maybe I just need to drop back farther into Heinlein's career to find more enjoyable and less political books, but I suspect that he just doesn't do it for me any more. Hopefully, typing this whole rant in will serve as reminder enough of why I don't like these books that I won't be tempted to re-read more.

All the Cool Kids Are Doing It...

Since I generally like the idea, I'll try adding a comment function to this booklog. I can't swear this will actually work right off, since I'm no great HTML ace, but it seems pretty simple. Here goes nothing.

It looks like it's working, and the test comment showed up fine. If anybody reads this log, send me a comment, and let me know. If you have a strong preference for having the comments appear in a pop-up window, let me know that, too.

March 18, 2002

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson. The problem with 900-page paperbacks is that, no matter how enjoyable the book is, they take forever to read. Especially in early March, when my basketball addiction reaches its full fever pitch, and my reading time diminishes in the face of Championship Week and the first rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

This book is the sequel to Gardens of the Moon, reviewed earlier, and the second of something on the order of ten books to come in the "Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen". It's not that direct a sequel, however, a fact which many readers will find off-putting. Having spent nine hundred pages getting to know a cast of dozens in the previous book, all but a handful of the Bridgeburners are left behind as the story moves to a different continent, and a different set of characters.

The early part of this was hard going, as one of the viewpoint characters (Felisin of House Paran, sister of one of the main characters from the previous book) is thouroughly unpleasant. As the story progresses, though, she becomes somewhat less prominent in the plot, and the book consequently becomes more enjoyable.

As with the previous book, a coherent summary of the plot is almost impossible. The most compelling of the several lined plot lines involves the warleader Coltaine, leader of several clans of horse-warriors who have signed on with the Malazan Empire, and his attempt to march tens of thousands of refugees across an entire hostile continent after the long-prophesied Apocalypse has been declared. The battle scenes are very well done, and I was carried through whole chapters of less interesting material from a desire to find out what would happen next to the Chain of Dogs. The whole affair is astonishingly bloody (in a manner reminiscent of some of the history in Dungeon, Fire, and Sword), and the conclusion is appropriately epic in scale.

The other stories fare slightly less well. The jailbreak story was a drag on the plot for much of the book, and I never really figured out what was up with the shapeshifters and the Path of Hands. The bits with the Corporal Kalam of the Bridgeburners are entertaining, but feel a little too much like they were stuck in to provide a more obvious link to the previous book. It's a good story, in a slightly overdone way (Kalam is just too good), but it feels like it should be in a different book (preferably one with a better ending). The various subplots all good stories, and the story of Icarium and his daftly-named companion, Mappo, is very well done, but the Chain of Dogs is the best of the lot.

As with the previous book, the plot threatens to spin out of control, but doesn't quite. That aside, there are some clear positive signs for the series as a whole in this book. It actually fills in some of the blank spots in the previous book, and while it raises a host of new questions, it does so in a consistently entertaining manner. The characters are quite well drawn, and other than Felisin, sympathetically portrayed (this one is somewhat better in that respect than the previous tome). The scale of events continues to be huge, and the plot and setting are fascinating. This isn't your father's generic medievaloid fantasy novel.

The third book in the series (Memories of Ice) is out in the UK, though none of them seem to be published in the US as yet. Which is a pity-- the sheer size of the books alone is enough to drive some readers away, but if Big Fantasy Novels are your thing, it's hard to find anything better. These are Epic Fantasy in the same way that Iain M. Banks's Culture books are Space Opera-- inventive, smart, and bloody. I'll buy the third on sight.

For now, though, I'm going to read something much shorter.

March 13, 2002

Pandora by Holly Hollander by Gene Wolfe. Gene Wolfe is one of those authors who manages to be both intimidating and enjoyable. I've liked all of his books (except Peace which I didn't get very far in before misplacing my copy for a while and moving on to other things), but it's always hard to gear myself up to read a new one. The books are always good, but also demanding-- he never seems to tell a simple story when he can play some complex game with the narrative, and books like Soldier of the Mist display a frightening level of erudition (in a Tolkien sort of sense, reeking of careful research in dusty tomes, rather than the scintillating pop erudition of a John M. Ford or a Neil Gaiman). I have to be in exactly the right mood to tackle a typical Gene Wolfe book (if such a thing can be said to exist-- sequels aside, none of his books are really alike), and it's not a mood that comes around often.

This book is either that rarest of rarities, a lightweight Gene Wolfe book, or something so subtle that I can't pick up the deeper meaning. It's an engaging piece of work, narrated by Holly Hollander, a young woman from a wealthy family in Barton, Illinois:

Maybe this is where I should write a transition. You know, "The big yellow summer sun grew brighter each new day. Me and Leslie and Megan, and Kris and Adam and John lolled around our pool and Les's pool and the pool in the park. Locusts buzzed in the elms like spaced-out doorbells, and the hamburger smell from the fast-food joints up on the highway came drifting through the shadows like smoke."

There-- I knew I could do it. What I'm really trying to say is that summer dragged along like it usually does. On TV, reruns of utterly ghastly shows got pushed aside by first runs of the most utterly god-awful summer tryouts the world has ever seen. I went on strike about Elaine wanting me to drop karate. Everybody was sick to death of movies, but it wasn't nearly time to think about the homecoming dance yet.

Holly's father runs a large lock-making company, and the book tells the story of the antique wooden box found by Holly's mother. The box has "PANDORA" carved into its lid, and despite the sage advice of Aladdin Blue ("if those people built a solid, clearly expensive chest and wrote Pandora on the lid, I wouldn't advise anyone to open it-- and particularly not at the urging of a woman-- unless he was quite confident he knew what was inside"), the right to open the box is raffled off at the Barton Fair. When the box is open, an explosion kills several people, and Holly (reader of many a mystery novel) and Aladdin Blue (a professional criminologist she met on a train) set out to find who is responsible.

Holly's narration is remarkably breezy, and the book is sprinkled with the sort of playful touches you'd expect from a man who published a short story collection titled The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (containing "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories," "The Doctor of Death Island," and "Death of the Island Doctor"). Holly provides deliberately overwritten transitions which are followed in turn by idiosyncratic but no less overwritten transitions, lots of knowing references to the way people act in mystery novels, and little asides on all sorts of topics. The mystery itself is nothing too special-- one gets the sense that the book was written just so Wolfe sould try his had at writing from the point of view of a high school girl (never having been one, I can't speak for the absolute accuracy, but he seems to do a decent enough job)-- but it's an enjoyable story.

This isn't a stunningly brilliant book, like some of Wolfe's other work, but it's a good, solid character study, and an enjoyable light read from an author who's rarely a light read.

March 8, 2002

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore.

"I could kick that punk's punk ass," the angel said, jumping on the bed, shaaking a fist at the television screen.

"Raziel," I said, "you are an angel of the Lord, he is a professional wrestler, I think it's understood that you could kick his punk ass."

When I looked at his web site to check the link for the entry on Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story, I was delighted to learn that Moore had a new book out-- I had no idea one was even due. I wish I had Kate's book-sensing abilities.... I made a bookstore run the next day to grab a copy.

The book is, as the title would suggest, a version of the Gospel story, as told by Levi bar Alphaeus, who is called "Biff" ("from our slang word for a smack upside the head, soemthing that my mother said I required at least daily from an early age." It seems the Powers That Be have decided the time is right for a new Gospel, so Biff was raised from the dead by the semi-competent angel Raziel, and set to writing down his story in a modern hotel room. The story is mostly set in the first century AD, following the life of Christ (called "Joshua" or "Josh" throughout, in what's either a nod to historical accuracy, or a desperate attempt to throw the Jack Chicks of the world off the trail ("This here book says it's about Jee-zus, but there ain't nobody but this Joshua character in it...")). It covers the adventures of Josh and Biff from the time Josh and his family move into the neighborhood, having just returned from Egypt, through the missing years skipped over by the Gospels (which time was spent hunting down and learning wisdom from the Magi), and then the famous ministry and passion.

This is a fairly uneven book. There are some wonderful bits in the early going, as Josh and Biff are growing up and getting in trouble in Galilee. The tone changes when they leave for the East, however, as Moore sets out to show the similarities between Christianity and elements of various Eastern religions (exemplified by the three Magi, who Josh and Biff visit in turn). This necessitates a good deal of preaching, and the humor (particularly the sex jokes) starts to seem forced. Things get a little better after the return to Judea, when covering well-known Bible stories from a different angle, but by that point the looming Crucifixion is casting a long pall over the jokes, particularly the sex jokes, which have really worn thin by the end. There are some great bits even toward the end ("Josh, faking demonic possession is like a mustard seed." "How is it like a mustard seed?" "You don't know, do you? Doesn't seem at all like a mustard seed, does it? Now you see how we all feel when you liken things unto a mustard seed? Huh?"), but knowing where the story is going tends to undermine the humor value.

To his credit, Moore makes some good and serious points about religion, but he doesn't integrate them with the funny bits as well as Pratchett and Gaiman do in Good Omens. More could've been done with the modern sections, too-- the story of Biff and Raziel in the present day is confined to occasional quick sketches at the start of longer chapters. For a while, it looks like there will be two parallel threads, covering the events of Biff's Gospel, and his reactions to the other four, but that drops out about a third of the way through the book, which is unfortunate.

This is certainly Moore's most ambitious work to date, and it's well worth reading just for the John the Baptist bits, and Biff's brief career as a professional mourner. I wouldn't say it's his best work, but it's interesting.

March 5, 2002

Ceremony by Robert B. Parker. More Spenser (see also The Godwulf Manuscript and A Catskill Eagle). It was a near thing as to whether I'd finish this first, or the new Christopher Moore. Parker won, mostly because it's a paperback, and I could carry it around to read in my spare time.

This one is really a mixed bag. The banter between Hawk and Spenser is still good, but this one has more of Spenser's girlfriend Susan Silverman than A Catskill Eagle did, and she's prone to lapsing into laughably bad psychobabble. It also contains one of the lamest attempts ever at setting up a moral quandary and resolving it in a provocative and thought-provoking way.

The fundamental problem is, as I said about The Godwulf Manuscript that Parker is trying to write amoral Raymond Chandler novels. Phillip Marlowe's tough-guy patter works because it's a brave facade over an extremely moral core. Spenser doesn't convey the same sense of deep committment to a personal code of honor, and disgust at the state of the world-- Parker tries occasionally, but it never rings true.

There's an H. L. Mencken quote I like which runs: "The difference between a moral man and a man of honor is that the latter regrets a discreditable act, even when it has worked and he has not been caught." It's not entirely accurate to call Spenser moral and Marlowe honorable, but it's close enough to justify dragging out the quote.

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.

The comment feature is provided by YACCS, and is dead simple to install. If you're looking to add comments to a weblog, it's a good way to go.

Obligatory silly little counter:

Begun: 7 August, 2001