The Library of Babel: February 2003

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

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March 26, 2003

I'm Just Here for the Food by Alton Brown. One of the surest signs that I'm aging is that I've actually started watching some of those old-people cable channels. The Food Network, for example-- I still don't get the whole Emeril Lagasse thing, but while it may brand me a geezer to say it, they run some good stuff.

Well, OK, they have two good shows, and one of them (Iron Chef) is enjoyable mostly for camp value. The other, though, is Good Eats, one of the rare shows that manages to be both entertaining and informative. This book is host Alton Brown's foray into cookbook writing.

Of course, if it were just a cookbook, it wouldn't make it onto the book log. In much the same way that if Good Eats were just a cooking show, it wouldn't make it into the regular viewing rotation. The book, like the show, is as much about the why of cooking as the how, which explains its appeal. It's sort of a cross between Julia Child and BoingBoing:

I am sitting here in a 28-foot Ambassador-class Airstream trailer. Constructed of shiny clean aluminum in 1978, its curvy interior, overhead storage, and pop-out tables epitomize modern design. I am typing on a Macintosh G4 Titanium Powerbook, which is roving through my MP3 collection like a digital whirling dervish. When I need to speak to someone, which isn't very often since the G4 is wirelessly connected to the Web through a device in the house, I do so on a Nokia cell phone capable of trading files with my Palm V, which I really should replace since it's so 1999. When I need a break, I torture my dog by tracing designs on the wall with the mini-laser pointer on my key chain. Soon, though, I will go outside and set a fire in a contraption that looks like Sputnik, and cook a piece of cow. The point is: I am a modern guy but the cooking I enjoy the most is the kind that's been around the longest-- over fire.

He goes on from there to describe the chemistry and physics of fire, the history of barbecue, how to light charcoal, what the best kind of grill to use is, how to convert a Weber charcoal grill into a blast furnace, how to use ice cubes to find the ideal temperature for grilling, and, oh yeah, how to grill a really good steak. Other sections describe the chemical reactions involved in frying, the physics of heat transfer in roasting, and why braising gives such good results.

The book alternates very readable sections on food science with extremely geeky sections on food gadgetry, and funny stories about odd ways of cooking things There are also a fair number of recipes mixed in, from old favorites like shrimp scampi and chicken piccata to improbable-seeming creations like pork chops breaded with salt-and-vinegar potato chips.

We haven't tested all the recipes in the book, by any means, but the recipes we have tried are very good indeed. And even beyond that, his explanation of the basics of cooking is wonderful. Even if you're not likely to re-wire an electric fry pan for finer temperature control, or roast chicken inside a giant terra-cotta planter from Home Depot, this book is an excellent guide to how to get great-tasting food with nothing more than meat, heat, and kosher salt.

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March 25, 2003

Flim-Flam! by James Randi. This is a fairly old book-- copyright 1982, printed in 1986-- that I picked up when we cleaned out Ralph Alpher's office. I actually finished this quite some time ago, reading it in bits and pieces during idle moments at work, but I've completely forgotten when it was, so I'll throw it in here.

"The Amazing Randi" got his start as a stage magician, and later moved into a career of debunking various fraudulent psychics. He's got his own foundation now, a standing offer of a million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate supernatural powers (the offer was ten thousand dollars at the time of this book's writing), and what is evidently a lucrative career as an author and lecturer. He's most famous for his lengthy legal battles with the spoon-bender Uri Geller, but will take on pretty much any form of pseudoscience.

I grabbed this from Ralph's collection of books because I've seen Randi speak on a couple of occasions, and he's a very entertaining guy. He feels no qualms about laying into those he feels are defrauding the public-- Erich von Daeniken, for example:

Erich von Daeniken is a Swiss author who has become one of the most widely read authors of all time. He earned this distinction by selling some 36 million books, and he sold them because they pandered shamelessly to the public taste for nonsense. The only facts in his four books-- Chariots of the Gods, Gods From Outer Space, The Gold of the Gods, and In Search of Ancient Gods-- that I depend on are the page numbers.

For fifteen years, he has perpetrated on the reading public what I characterize as a literary diddle of enormous scope. A simple examination of his work will demonstrate this. In fact, any reasonably intelligent person with access to a public library can disprove such nonsense quickly and easily.

Sadly, while this approach is entertaining in an hour-long public lecture, it starts to wear thin over the course of a 300-page book. At points, Randi gets to be downright snotty about his skepticism, and rather insulting toward the believers, many of whom are more to be pitied than scorned.

Individual sections of this are quite good, and valuable reading for anyone who might find themselves debating crazy people about the nature of the Bermuda Triangle. Taken as a whole, though, it eventually becomes fairly tiresome, as most such books do in the end. I wouldn't put too much effort into trying to find a copy of this.

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March 24, 2003

The Rifter's Covenant by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge. The fourth book in the Exordium series, and the main reason I can't recommend these as enthusiastically as I might: this book got caught in some sort of publishing eddy caused by the collapse of the independent distributor system, and is incredibly difficult to find.

(Of course, "difficult to find" here means "difficult to find by the sort of casual searching Kate and I tend to do." It's a mass-market paperback, so even though relatively few copies were (apparently) produced, there were still a lot of copies of this printed, so it's hardly "difficult to find" in a rare-book-geek sort of sense. Still, you're not likely to turn up a copy while idly trolling through used book stores, which counts as "difficult to find" in my book...)

(While I'm making lengthy asides, I'll also note that this is one of the most typo-ridden books I can recall reading-- lots of homonym substitutions, "and for "an," and similar errors. I don't know if that's a coincidence, or a side effect of whatever it is that makes the book difficult to find, but anybody who might be thinking of reprinting it should hire a copy editor first...)

Other than those asides, I don't have much to say. It continues both the strengths (good plotting, inventive worldbuilding, some nice character touches) and the weaknesses (the weird fascination with 19th Century European politics, the worst fake curse words ever, and villains who are Eeevil, well, just because they're Eeevil. It doesn't have to make sense, OK?) of the previous books. It's not as good as the previous volume, but it's very good Space Opera all the same.

I'm eagerly awaiting the fifth volume. Especially since the series is titled "Exordium" and I can't recall the word "Exordium" appearing anywhere in the text to date, and I'm dying to know what it has to do with anything that's happened in the books...

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March 19, 2003

A Prison Unsought by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge. The third book in the Exordium series. As Mike Kozlowski has already discussed the problems of book-logging series novels that nobody else has read, and Kate has talked about those problems in relation to this specific book, there's really not a lot for me to say.

There's lots of Space Opera goodness here, with whiz-bang action, political maneuvering galore, and plenty of plot twists. There's even some political-philosophy content that manages not to be incredibly irritating (consisting mainly of mediations on the nature of power, this material is probably somewhat applicable to recent events, but then that's a topic for another blog...). The spooky mystical stuff becomes a bit more prominent in this book, and I still don't entirely see where that plot is headed, but it remains fairly interesting.

And the ending of this is great. Of course, nobody other than Kate has read these, and it's plot-driven science fiction, so I can't really talk much about it here...

Here's hoping that some publisher or another will bring these back into print, so I can enthusiastically recommend them with a clear conscience.

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March 8, 2003

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About by Mil Millington. At this point, of course, my web-savvy readers will be saying "Isn't that a web site?" Yes, yes it is. Apparently, it's also a novel.

Well, sort of. It's a novel in the sense of being a bound collection of pages describing a series of fictional events, but really, it's mostly an excuse to present a large number of set-piece arguments like those on the web page. They're very entertaining, if you're entertained by that sort of thing, and Millington does a good job with the unique world view of his main character, Pel Dalton, who feels that his girlfriend Ursula lives in a world where

"Everything's had the fun taken out of it, right across the board. Okay, look, for example, take our car alarm, right? There's a little fob on the key ring and you push a button to activate or deactivate the car alarm. This is brilliant. You can fire it backwards to activate the alarm as you walk away from the car, even over your shoulder. And when you're coming back to the car, it's even better. You can see how far away you can be and still manage to get a hit-- sometimes, right, if you hold the fob way up in the air, you can deactivate it from right across a parking lot! Or you can wait until you're closer and just-- pow!-- fire from the hip; I wish we had central locking, so I got a fantastic 'Chunk!' when I hit the target. Draw! Fire! Chunk! Brilliant! I've watched Ursula turn the alarm on and off, though, and it's like she's getting no buzz out of it at all. Imagine having to live in a world like that?"

Not that I identify in any way with what he's describing here. Not at all.

Anyway, the plot, such as it is, reads very much like a Neal Stephenson novel without the cool gadgets. It involves house-hunting, academic incompetence, the Triads, weapons of mass destruction, the media, computer geekery, and skiing in Germany. It also doesn't really end, so much as it jerks abruptly to a halt like an exceptionally stupid and excitable dog reaching the end of its rope at full speed.

If you enjoy the material on the web page, you'll get a chuckle out of this book. Just don't expect it to make a whole lot of sense. If the web site leaves you cold, the book won't really improve on it, so go read something else instead.

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March 7, 2003

Last Ditch by G. M. Ford. Another Leo Waterman novel, and maybe the best to date.

This book finds Leo settling into domesticity with his long-time love interest, County Medical Examiner Rebecca Duvall. Part of the process involves fixing up his parents' old house, and tidying up the grounds. Unfortunately, in the process of cleaning things up, they discover a human skeleton buried beneath an old greenhouse. The skeleton turns out to belong to a famous muckraking journalist (who unfortunately shares a names with an NFL wide receiver-- that put a weird spin on the book), and would-be nemesis of Leo's famous father.

The zany antics are toned down a fair bit in this one, and the characters start to acquire a bit of depth. We find out quite a bit more about Leo's family, who have always floated around the edges of the previous books, and we start to see some depth to Leo's sodden Baker Street Irregulars as well. There's lots of material here about seedy political corruption, as befits a hard-boiled private eye novel, and it's handled pretty well. The actual corruption plot may be a bit too tangled for its own good, but it's still simpler than The Big Sleep, so it's probably not all that bad.

The series has certainly developed in some interesting directions-- it could've just been a collection of goofy semi-comic mysteries trading on the idea of homeless drunks as investigators for cheap laughs. Ford has recently started a new series (with Fury, coming soon-ish to a booklog near you), and there's only one more Waterman book that I haven't read yet. I'm not sure whether he drew the series to some sort of conclusion, or just got tired of writing the same characters, and decided to do something new. Either way, these are pretty good reads, and I look forward to the next one.

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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.

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Begun: 7 August, 2001