The Library of Babel: June 2002

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

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June 28, 2002

Not Quite Scaramouche by Joel Rosenberg. This is a direct sequel to Not Exactly the Three Musketeers, and follows pretty much the same pattern. It follows the continuing adventures of three characters who were thrown out of a Black Company novel for being too cheery, but brought their brutality and gritty realism with them. There's not much here that resembles Scaramouche (at least as Kate describes it, and nobody does the fandango, either), but there's plenty of action as our Intrepid Heroes once again find themselves caught up in the political intrigues of the nobles they're sworn to protect.

This book is lightened somewhat by the greater involvement in the plot of a number of the original Guardians of the Flame characters, most notably Walter Slovotsky, whose First Person Smartass narration provided the series's high point to date:

It would be infuriating to a lesser man that the emperor didn't see things his way all the time.

But Walter Slovotsky wasn't, at least in his own opinion, a lesser man. Besides, life would get boring if everything was easy. Life wasn't boring. Life was, sometimes, far too much the contrary.

(Annoyingly, however, Walter Slovotsky rates the signal honor of being referred to as "Walter Slovotsky" nearly every time he appears in the text. Other characters who sport two names tend to be referred to by one or the other, but not Walter Slovotsky, no, Walter Slovotsky is "Walter Slovotsky" always, never just "Slovotsky" and only rarely "Walter" (generally when speaking), instead of the full "Walter Slovotsky."

(This gets old. Fast.)

The origin of the series is one of those "fantasy gamers cross into fantasy world" stories, and Walter Slovotsky is the sort of character you expect to see played by a smugly superior Unix geek. He's entertaining for a while, but a little too good to be true. His role here is fairly limited, but readers bothered by omnicompetence should be warned.

Three or four days ago, it was so brutally hot here in Schenectady that I went out to have dinner in a restaurant just to be in an air-conditioned room for a little while (given that all the lights in the apartment flicker when the compressor in the refrigerator starts up, I'm not going to trust this wiring with A/C...). On the way out the door, I had picked up John M. Ford's The Last Hot Time, but stopped myself, saying "No, no-- it's too hot for this. I want genre trash." I went back and grabbed Not Quite Scaramouche instead, and it worked perfectly. That pretty much sums it up.

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June 25, 2002

I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away by Bill Bryson. Having complained about logging only mediocre books by favorite authors, and taken a small step toward rectifying that, I find myself doing it again. Bill Bryson's travel books have become a staple of my comfort reading since I picked up The Lost Continent on the basis of someone's .sig quote dissing Nebraska, and they're reliably entertaining, even on a re-read. This book, though, is a collection of newspaper columns, and not quite up to the level of A Walk In the Woods. It's not bad, by any stretch, and some bits of it are great, but it's a little too Dave Barry.

Bryson was born and raised in Iowa, before moving to England, marrying a local, and spending the next twenty years as a journalist and author. Somewhere around 1995, he moved back to the US, and was asked by a colleague back in Britain to do a weekly column on life in America. The collected columns make up this book, edited somewhat to remove long explanations of things which would be incredibly obvious to an American audience.

This is largely a celebration of the quirky and quaint in American life:

The many good things about America also took on a bewitching air of novelty. I was as dazzled as any newcomer by the famous ease and convenience of daily life, the giddying abundance of absolutely everything, the boundless friendliness of strangers, the wondrous unfillable vastness of an American basement, the delight of encountering waitresses and other service providers who actually seemed to enjoy their work, the curiously giddying notion that ice is not a luxury item, and that rooms can have more than one electrical socket.

Those bits are mostly very good, as are the bits where he rants about the inconveniences and obstructions of daily life. The weekly column format drives him to try a bit too hard to be clever, though-- Bryson's travel books are at their best when he feels free to ramble on about odd features of exotic locales, and strange experiences on the road, and falter when he tries to pack too many jokes into one section. The majority of the columns in this book suffer from the "too many jokes" bug, as he tries to pack in enough funny things about a narrow topic to make a decent column.

I picked this up the other night, rather than any of his other books, precisely because it's a collection of columns, and thus provides many convenient stopping points. I planned on reading a few of the columns while lounging on the back deck, then moving on to other things, but I wound up finishing the whole book, so it's obviously a decent enough read. I wouldn't recommend this book to someone who hadn't read Bryson before, though-- either A Walk In the Woods or Neither Here nor There would be better, and Notes From a Small Island is pretty good as well.

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June 23, 2002

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn. I saw this performed in a restored old vaudeville theater here in Schenectady a few months back, but have only just gotten around to reading the text of the play. It's hard to imagine that a play about a meeting and argument between a couple of European physicists could win a Tony Award, but that tells you something about the interesting historical and ethical questions which the play covers. (If you're interested, there's a wealth of material online, including the transcription of a symposium at the Neils Bohr Institute...)

The play revolves around the mysterious visit made by Werner Heisenberg to Neils Bohr in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen in 1941. Nobody is entirely sure what Heisenberg meant to accomplish through the visit, and the explanations offered afterwards by the participants are mutually contradictory. Bound up in all this are questions about the atomic bomb: Was Heisenberg trying to get Bohr to help him build a bomb for Germany? Was he trying to pump Bohr for information on the Allied bomb project? Was he trying to get Bohr to send a message to the Allies? Was he even working on a bomb at all, or was he secretly resisting the Nazi regime, and sabotaging the project from within?

Whatever went on, the friendship between Bohr and Heisenberg was never the same afterwards. The play depicts a meeting between Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and Heisenberg in the afterlife, where they try to reconstruct what happened:

Heisenberg: Now we're all dead and gone, yes, and there are only two things the world remembers about me. One is the uncertainty principle, and the other is my mysterious visit to Neils Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941. Everyone understands uncertainty. Or thinks he does. No one understands my trip to Copenhagen. Time and time again I've explained it. To Bohr himself, and Margrethe. To interrogators and intelligence officers, to journalists and historians. The more I've explained, the deeper the uncertainty has become. Well, I shall be happy to make one more attempt. Now we're all dead and gone. Now no one can be hurt, now no one can be betrayed.

The play goes on to re-enact the crucial events three times, presenting different reasons for the visit, and exploring the different possibilities for what might've happened. It's rather talky, but then it is a play involving nothing more than three people in a room talking... Along the way, they discuss a lot of the great moments in the development of quantum mechanics, and some of the weighty ethical questions that faced scientists who worked on the bomb in both Germany and the US.

It never really reaches a definite conclusion about what happened in Copenhagen, but then it's really not possible to say anything definite about what went on there, especially with the participants in the meeting muddying the waters at every chance. The comments on the history of quantum mechanics and the personal conflicts which went into the development of the theory are fascinating, though, and while the play reaches a bit too much in trying to draw a parallel between Heisenberg's physics and the mystery of his trip to Copenhagen, the end result is surprisingly moving. There's even a Postscript in which Frayn outlines the historical and scientific issues involved, and shows a reasonable grasp of both.

I'm pretty much the ideal audience for this book, given that I think quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle are about the coolest ideas ever. QM is in large part responsible for why I do what I do (and it's provided me with the title for the general web log I just started...), so I'm hardly reluctant to read books about quantum mechanics. And, of course, this is subject to the usual caveats about the advisability of reading drama (especially since the play itself is only 94 pages-- not a lot for $12). I'd definitely recommend seeing it performed, and then afterwards you can decide whether to read it.

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June 21, 2002

The Hunters' Haunt by Dave Duncan. Some time ago, I was cleaning up the Author Index for this book log, and noticed that a number of authors I really like were getting short shrift. Rex Stout, for example-- most of the Nero Wolfe books I've logged have been fairly minor ones, for the simple reason that I've already read them, and Kate and I owned copies before I started this book log. The Nero Wolfe books I've added to the book log have been the minor, hard-to-find ones that we've only managed to find recently, after much searching. Eventually, I'll get around to re-reading the best of the novels (the Zeck books, for example), but until then, there are more dismissive comments than glowing ones regarding Stout.

Dave Duncan is another of these. Duncan is reliably entertaining, in a not-exactly-highbrow way. When you pick up a Duncan book, you can quite reasonably expect to see swashes buckled in the service of a fast-moving and lively plot, with just enough inventiveness and moral weight to keep the books from being junk. Many of them are actually quite good for what they are, and I'll buy any new Duncan book in paperback (people like Joel Rosenberg (another of his is in the queue) and L.E. Modesitt, Jr. fill a similar niche, and Lois McMaster Bujold plays the same role on the sci-fi side).

Unfortunately for Duncan (and I'm sure he's losing sleep at nights thinking about this), I've only read two of his books since starting this, one of which ended in a dreadful cliffhanger, while the other just ends horribly. This doesn't give the most accurate impression of my real opinion of him.

When annoyance over the useless framing story in The House on the Bordeland drove me to look for a book where the framing story serves some purpose, then, I decided to kill two birds with one stone, and dug out The Hunters' Haunt. This is one of two books featuring the exploits of Omar the Storyteller, who may or may not be immortal (he's trying to avoid finding out) but certainly is colorful:

The trouble arose because the innkeeper, Fritz, motivated by unseemly greed, had rented out even his own quarters the previous night. He had chosen to sleep in the hayloft overhead, from which he had a clear view of my window [which Omar just snuck out of].

The stable door gave me a little trouble. Then it swung open, freely and quietly on well-oiled hinges. I stooped to lift my bundle, and when I straightened up I was exceedingly surprised to discover myself facing what appeared to be a haystack.

I have often been complimented on my expertise in animal husbandry. I am well aware that general practice is to put the livestock on the ground floor and the fodder in the loft. It is a technical matter of getting them up ladders. In this case I could not see why Mine Host Fritz might have reversed the normal filing system. Then I realized that what I was seeing was Mine Host Fritz himself. He had no shirt on, which is what had confused me. when I tilted my head back, I discovered his face, higher up.

On that occasion, Omar is set to chopping wood under the watchful eye of Fritz's gigantic dog. Braining the dog with an axe, he runs off, never to return to the Hunters' Haunt. Or so he thinks. The action picks up when Omar returns to the inn, quite by accident, in the middle of a raging blizzard. While Fritz plans to throw Omar back out into the storm naked, the other guests propose a story-telling contest, in which Omar can save his hide by telling stories to top those told by each of the guests, in turn. The entire tale (including all the individual stories) is being related later, by Omar, for the benefit of the reader.

It's a very nice set-up, with echoes of both The Canterbury Tales and The Thousand and One Nights, and of course the tales told by the guests end up having a deeper significance than any of them suspect at first... While Omar's delivery isn't quite as mastefully hypnotic as his oft-cited reputation would suggest, he is an engaging narrator, and the book is, as I expect from Duncan, lively and entertaining. I picked this up the other night thinking only to kill an hour or two while Kate typed up Bar Review materials on the computer, and wound up reading the whole thing.

There are, as I said, two Omar books that I know of. The other, The Reaver Road isn't quite as cleverly structured, but is still an enjoyable read. The two books stand alone (indeed, they seem to contradict each other at times, which, as an Author's Note points out, won't bother anyone who hasn't read the first one, and won't surprise anyone who has), and I'd recommend them (this one in particular) as examples of Duncan at his best. I have no idea whether Duncan intends to write more Omar stories, but if he does, I'll buy them.

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June 20, 2002

The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson. This is another oft-cited book, originally published in 1908 (it's pre-Disney, and thus long since passed into the public domain, if you'd like to read it online). It's hailed by the cover copy as "one of the greatest fantasy tales in the English language," and compared to Poe and Lovecraft, among others.

Unfortunately, it doesn't really do it for me. For one thing, it uses the standard nineteenth-century device of introducing a couple of characters who serve to frame the narrative. They find a manuscript while exploring the ruins of a giant house in rural Ireland. The "manuscript" turns out to contain the actual story, while the fishermen are there just to... um, elevate the story to the level of an urban legend: "See, this really happened to a couple of guys who are friends of a friend of mine, and they had this book. Honest." They add nothing to the story, except for an irritating quote-mark at the beginning of every single paragraph in Chapters 2 through 21.

As far as I'm concerned, the abandonment of this device (which is very common in older stories) is one of the most positive developments ever in the history of literature.

On a less petty level, though, the book isn't really all that coherent. It's got some nice brooding passages, and in a couple of places hints at psychological depths which would be improbable for a book of this era (but would've been a much better story), but the story really splits into half a dozen more or less discrete chunks with not that much connection between them. The narrator moves into the eponymous house, and has a strange vision. Then he and his trusty dog are assaulted by half-human half-pig monsters, which he fights off. Then he explores a bottomless cave under the house. Then he has another vision. And so on until the end.

The swine-men appear as an entirely physical menace, and never re-appear. The bottomless cavern floods (no, that doesn't make any sense to me, either...), and isn't mentioned again. One of the many visions is presented only in fragments, while the others just don't make much sense. And it's not at all clear where the final eldritch horror came from, or why it's attacking-- I suppose that's just what they do. The end result is that the whole thing feels like a fix-up novel, with several independent stories (or fragments thereof) clumsily pasted together.

As I find myself saying with disturbing regularity here, this just really isn't my thing. The Lovecraft comparisons probably should've been a tip-off, in retrospect-- I wasn't all that wild about Lovecraft, either. If you like Lovecraft, this book may work better for you.

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June 19, 2002

The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand. This is one of the classic books on urban legends (possibly the classic book). It contains everything from alligators in the New York subways to sightings of Jesus hitchhiking in the Southwest, to hoary old ghost stories that were considered silly even when I was first hearing them (around the time this book was published):

"...over the radio came an announcement that a crazed killer with a hook in place of a hand had escaped from the local insane asylum. The girl got scared and begged the boy to take her home. He got mad and stepped on the gas and roared off. When they got to her house, he got out and went around to the other side of the car to let her out. There on the door handle was a bloody hook."

It's a little amazing to think that this was ever actually passed off as true. I first heard it from a cousin who quite clearly pronounced it to be just a story, and I can't recall ever encountering anyone who thought it had actually happened. The same is true of quite a few of the urban legends collected here, actually-- I've heard the "Vanishing Hitchhiker" story of the title, but as a pop song from the 50's, and the "Runaway Grandmother" story I've only seen as a plot point in National Lampoon's Vacation.

Then again, the "Red Velvet Cake" tale recounted here famously resurfaced as a circulating email about expensive cookies from Neiman-Marcus (I got ten copies of the damn thing in 1996...), and I recall a classmate telling me the "cat in a microwave" story as if it had happened to somebody in the next town. I guess it's possible that all of these were presented as true at one time or another-- in a world where people apparently fall for the Nigerian money-laundering spam email, nothing's too stupid to be passed off as true.

While the tales themselves are fairly amusing, I'm not sure whether to be amused or appalled at the level of documentation and analysis provided by Brunvand and others. He quotes at least fifteen versions of the "Vanishing Hitchhiker" story, and presents snippets of analysis that are hilarious in their humorless approach to even the story of "The Hook":

Dundes, taking a Freudian line, interpreted the hook itself as a phallic symbol which penetrates the girl's door handle (or bumps seductively against her window) but which is torn off (symbolic of castration) when the car starts abruptly. Girls who tell the story, Dundes suggests, "are not afraid of what a man lacks, but of what he has"; a date who is "all hands" may really want to "get his hooks into her." Only the girl's winding up the window and insisting on going home at once saves her, and the date has to "pull out fast" before he begins to act like a sex maniac himself.

To which my immediate response is "Dundes clearly needs to get himself a girlfriend or boyfriend, and stop spending his nights in the Folklore Department..."

We picked this up while making a last sweep through Bryn Mawr Books in New Haven. It was an amusing enough read, but given that most of the stories are presented in equal detail and more recent versions on the Web (the site linked above is a great repository of them), I wouldn't recommend going to much trouble to find a copy.

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June 18, 2002

The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett. Billed on the cover as "The Master Storyteller's First Novel," this is actually a sort of collaboration, between Terry Pratchett and, well, Terry Pratchett. It seems that when he was approached about reprinting his first book (for those Americans who don't know this, in the YooKay, he sells like Steven King), he re-read the book (which he wrote when he was seventeen), and found he didn't agree with a number of things that it said. So he re-wrote it.

In many ways, this is a red flag. First of all, early books that are published solely because the author is now famous tend to be dreck-- back when I read Piers Anthony, I was burned by this a few times. More importantly, previously published early books that are re-printed after tinkering by the author also tend to be regrettable-- my stock example of this being the "uncut" version of Steven King's The Stand, where all the "restored" bits identified in the Author's Note really should've been left on the cutting-room floor. I'm sure it's possible to do this well, but I can't really think of a good literary example. To make a music analogy, it's probably possible, in theory, for an author to re-invent an old book successfully, the way Bob Dylan turned "It Ain't Me, Babe" into a wistful country-ish tune at the concert Kate and I saw, but all too often you end up with the Police and their execrable remake of "Don't Stand So Close to Me."

It's a credit to Pratchett's abilities that this came out readable at all-- it's sort of the "Unplugged" version of "Layla" by Eric Clapton: a perfectly adequate song, but nothing all that special (the crucial difference being that I know the original of "Layla" is fantastic, while the original of The Carpet People is unknown). There are nice bits here, as when one of the characters is talking to a wight (wights being a mysterious race who can remember the future):

"We need help," said Snibril in a frantic whisper. "What's Fray? Where can we go to be safe? What should we do? Can't you tell us?"

The wight leaned closer.

"Can you keep a secret?" It said, conspiratorially.

"Yes!" said Snibril.

"Really keep a secret? Even though you'd give anything to tell other people? Even though it's like trying to hold a hot coal in your hand? Can you really keep a secret?"

"Er... yes."

"Well," said the wight, leaning back again. "So can we."


"Enjoy your meal."

This is clearly the work of the same mind that gave rise to the Discworld series, but just as clearly an early work. There's something of the same inventiveness in the setting (a miniature fantasy world located within the confines of a carpet), but it doesn't really hang together. Not that the Disc makes a whole lot of sense, mind, but this makes less sense than the Disc-- if the thickness of a penny is a frighteningly tall cliff for the characters, the threads of the carpet should be bigger than the moderate-sized trees they're depicted as, and why would they know mangled English words for things? This has the ring of juvenalia about it-- an idea that sounded really cool to a teen, but hasn't been fully thought out, like the French ruling the world in Daniel Keys Moran's books.

It's also screamingly obvious where the older Pratchett has inserted his humanistic philosophy into what started out as kings-and-battles fantasy. This also probably led to the lame deus ex machina ending, which serves to trivialize all the kings-and-battles stuff that the younger Pratchett found cool but his older self disdains...

All in all, I think I'd rather have read the original. This isn't a bad book, really, but it's a shambling Frankenstein monster of pieces stitched together by an apprentice Igor-- it lives and breathes and shuffles around, but it's not quite everything you'd like it to be.

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June 13, 2002

The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson. As I noted when I reviewed Connis Willis's Passage, reading this book makes this one of the rare years in which I've read a majority of the books nominated for the Best Novel Hugo. Of the Hugo-nominated novels I've read (American Gods, Passage, and Curse of Chalion being the others), this is the best of the lot, and would get my vote were I a Hugo voter (and not just because I know the editors).

Though the cover copy gets a few details wrong, the basic premise is laid out well on the book jacket. Sometime around 2021, a mysterious blue crystalline pillar appears in the jungle in Thailand. It's a gigantic monument commemorating "the surrender of southern Thailand and Malaysia to the massed forces of someone (or something) called 'Kuin'"... in 2041. In the months and years that follow, more monuments appear, some in the wilderness, others in the middle of cities, all chronicling the expansion of the seemingly invincible 'Kuin'. The arrival of a Chronolith is as devastating as it is inexplicable:

The incidental light created by the arrival was a curtain of quickly shifting color, blue-green deepening to red and violet, hovering over [Jerusalem] and filling the room in which we sat with eerie shadow.


Then the Chronolith was simply and suddenly present.

It flashed into existence beyond the Dome of the Rock, taller than the hills, grotesquely large, white with ice under a brittle moon.

"Touchdown!" someone at the consoles announced. "Ambient radiation dropping. External temps way, way down--"

"Hold on," Sue said.

The shockwave flexed the window glass and roared like thunder. Almost immediately the Chronolith vanished in a white whirlwind, moisture gigged out of the atmosphere by thermal shock. A few miles away, temperature differentials cracked concrete, split timbers, and surely destroyied the living tissue of any creature unfortunate enough to have strayed into the exclusion zone. (There were a few: cats, dogs, pilgrims, skeptics.)

A wave of whiteness rayed out from the central storm, frost climbing the Judean hills like fire, and a host of urban lights dimmed as power-grid transformers shorted in fountains of sparks. Cloud engulfed the hotel; a hard, fast wind rattled the windows. Suddenly, the room was dark, console lights quivering like stars reflected in a pond.

This is the stuff of great SF, the pure product. The central idea is great, and while there's some nutty stuff on the fringes (the "tau turbulence" business is a bit goofy), it sets up some interesting speculations about the nature of time, space, history, and causality. Better yet, the characters are well-drawn (the book is narrated by Scott Warden, a mid-level failure who gets drawn into a government project studying the Chronoliths through a combination of chance (he was an ex-pat beach bum living near the site of the first Chronolith) and alumni connections (he was at Cornell with the lead scientist on the project-- I think I'd prefer it if Williams just hits me up for money...)), the writing is clear and engaging, and the author has clearly thought carefully about how the pieces of his story fit together.

Better yet, he does all the little things right. The future world Wilson presents has a convincing texture-- not just the big societal things, but in the little details. The narrator tosses off pop-culture references to non-existent sitcoms and musical groups (mostly avoiding the Star Trek "three gets you two" trap, where at least two of three historical or cultural references will pre-date the time of the story's writing), and while some of the environmental problems referenced are sure to make the right-wing members of the reading public twitch, they're presented in an off-hand and believable manner, as you would expect of a memoir written years after the fact. Wilson mostly avoids the temptations to grind political axes or bore the reader with infodumps which showcase his clever world-building.

To be sure, there are some flaws in the book. The biggest being a minor problem with the overall premise, which assumes the Chronoliths are sent by Kuin himself, twenty years in the future, rather than his more distant descendants, which strikes me as more plausible (there's a techno-babble handwave to cover this, and good plot reasons why it was done, but it still strikes me as a weakness in the idea...). The history between the events of the main plot and the time of the narration is also slighted-- I would've liked to see more about this period. On a more petty level, the narrative voice is slightly odd, with most of the action described in past tense, as a memoir of sorts, but with occasional references to "this week" or "here" when talking about events in the past. Wilson also betrays his Canadian upbringing in a couple of places, as when the narrator (who's supposed to be from Maryland) says he met his wife "at university".

On the whole, though, this is a terrific book. I recommend it highly, and hope it wins the Hugo. Wilson does all the good things in SF right, and avoids the small but fatal pitfalls which trap many other writers. I haven't read any of his other books (subconsciously, I keep linking him with Robert Anton Wilson of the Schroedinger's Cat Trilogy, which isn't my thing), but I'll definitely check some of his other books out now, and I'm interested to see what he does next.

(Interested readers can also check out Trent's comments about this book. He's less impressed than I was, but still generally positive.)

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June 10, 2002

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Having started the academic year by reading a whole host of academic satires (see Straight Man), I might as well close it by reading another one. This is, based on the scholarly introduction to a recent printing I was thumbing through a couple of weeks ago, one of the most-respected academic satires ever, and one of the classic novels of post-war Britain.

Jim Dixon, the title character, starts the novel as a downtrodden grad student (I think-- it's a bit tough to identify the exact analogue to his position in the American system) in a second-rate university somewhere in England. He has a neurotic drama-queen semi-girlfriend, an addled and fatuous academic advisor, and he's surrounded by a host of other horrible people, ranging from the his advisor's pompous ass artist son (who unaccountably has a much nicer girlfriend than Jim does) to his weaselly oboe-playing housemate. He hates his job, and his whole station in life, but can't quite work up the energy to change his position (mostly because he can't think of anything better to do). The novel is the story of the complicated and farcical series of events which takes the decision out of his hands, and changes everything for the better.

The writing here is top-notch, with some lovely passages of humorous description:

The dancers were trickling away on to the touchlines of the long dance-floor. The walls were decorated with scenes from the remoter past, portrayed in what was no doubt an advanced style, so that in the one nearest Dixon, for example, some lack of perspective or similar commodity made a phalanx of dwarf infantrymen (Spartan? Macedonian? Roman?) seem to be falling from the skies upon their much larger barbarian adversaries (Persian? Iranian? Carthaginian?) who, unaware of this danger overhead, gazed threateningly into the middle distance.

as well as dead-on depicitions of a certain kind of impotent rage:

Dixon waited, planning faces. He looked round the small, cosy room with its fitted carpets, its rows of superseded books, its filing cabinets full of antique examination papers and of dossiers relating to past generations of students, its view from closed windows on to the sunlit wall of the Physics Laboratory. Behind Welch's [Jim's boss] head hung the departmental timetable, drawn up by Welch himself in five different-coloured inks corresponding to the five teaching members of the Department. The sight of this seemed to undam Dixon's mind; for the first time since arriving at the College he thought he felt real, over-mastering, orgiastic boredom, and its companion, real hatred. If Welch didn't speak in the next five seconds, he'd do something which would get himself flung out without possible question-- not the things he'd often dreamed of when sitting next door pretending to work. He no longer wanted, for example, to inscribe on the departmental timetable a short account, well tricked-out with obscenitites, of his views on the Professor of History, the Department of History, medieval history, history, and Margaret [his sort-of girlfriend] and hang it out the window for the information of passing students and lecturers, nor did he, on the whole, now intend to tie Welch up in his chair and beat him about the head and shoulders with a bottle until he disclosed why, without being French himself, he'd given his sons French names, nor...

If this sounds like a corrosively cynical book, well, it is. I first read this while I was living in Japan for a few months during grad school, and found it tremendously appealing (despite the fact that my advizor was neither addled nor fatuous, I recognized some types from around campus). Gradutating, getting a Real Job, and getting married have made it somewhat less appealing, though two recent events have re-lowered my opinion of humanity (but not of Kate) enough for me to appreciate most of the book. And it does have a surprisingly happy ending for such a generally cynical book...

This reads something like a Wodehouse novel filtered through Bill Hicks. It's a terrific little book, but not to all tastes (it's very much Not Kate's Sort of Book, for example). If you like this sort of thing, though, I recommend it highly.

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June 7, 2002

The Waterworks by E. L. Doctorow. While this book was published a bit before Caleb Carr's The Alienist, the two will likely be forever linked in my mind, as sort of "period thrillers." Both are set in New York City near the end of the nineteenth century (The Alienist nearer the end than The Waterworks), both have strong detective/ police procedural aspects, and each book paints a very vivid picture of life in The City at that time (though The Waterworks is more grimy and realistic).

Other than that, though, the two are very different books. The Alienist is a novel about the hunt for a serial killer, and contains all the requisite elements: clever deductions, rudimentary psychoanalysis, and suspenseful chase scenes. It's also tarted up with the obligatory Famous Person cameos I griped about in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay-- Theodore Roosevelt plays a prominent part as a sort of swashbuckling deus ex machina.

The Waterworks, on the other hand, is a much more... sedate book. The set-up is nicely sinister-- a freelance newspaper writer spots his deceased father riding with other old men in a carriage, and then disappears, drawing his editor and the one honest cop in New York into a search for an enigmatic doctor and a malevolant conspiracy which reaches to the highest levels of the Tweed Ring which dominates the city--but somehow the pay-off isn't quite there. The climactic scenes aren't as suspenseful as I would've liked, and the characters never quite connect.

Part of the issue is that the story is presented as the long-after-the-fact reminiscences of the editor in question (a Mr. McIlvaine, whose first name I never caught), and Doctorow has gone for realism there, with plenty of digressions, and long sections where the narrator expounds on issues of the day. Part of it is an odd distancing quality about the writing, as in this passage talking about the Forty-Second Street reservoir:

But I happened to be present the day it was dedicated, a July Fourth. It had taken years for our incorruptible government to bring it to us-- you need the money to flow freely before the water can-- years of men in top hats poring over blueprints and raising their arms and pointing and giving instructions to the stolid engineers awaiting their pleasure... blastings, the ring of pickaxes on the Manhattan schist... dray teams groaning with loads of rubble... Years of this... inverted temple building... And now here is young McIlvaine in his first months on the job as a reporter of monumental news. His lean face is unlined and shining; he does not at this time require spectacles. It is Independence Day, 1842. The War Between the States is two decades ahead..."

(The ellipses in that passage are all present in the original. The man abuses punctuation even more than I do, which is saying something...)

There's some nice imagery in there, and a reasonable enough flow to the whole thing, but there's also a sort of dreamy quality that prevents the plot from ever having any immediacy. You just sort of float along with the narrative, and the events which are meant to be chilling just wash over you without much impact. It's a good plot idea, but in many ways it would've been better served by a writer of trashy genre fiction.

Doctorow is one of those authors whose books I see in stores all the time, and never quite get around to buying. They look like the sort of thing I think I ought to like, but there's also something off-putting about them. I'll probably give him another shot sometime, but if this is typical I'm probably destined to keep putting them back on the shelves.

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June 5, 2002

Homunculus by James P. Blaylock. Blaylock's fantasy novels can be divided into four rough categories: the Jonathan Bing novels (see The Disappearing Dwarf, reviewed earlier), eccentric Californian novels (The Paper Grail and The Last Coin being good examples), ghost stories (The Rainy Season), and Victorian scientific romances (of which this book is a good example). There's some overlap between all the categories-- the ghost stories are Californian, and the Jonathan Bing books have a Victorian sort of feel-- but it's usually clear which of the four a given story belongs to, and from that you can sort of know what to expect.

In the case of the Victorian novels, what you should expect is a little swashbuckling, a little off-kilter history, a reference to the works of William Ashbless, and a little weird science, all wrapped up with a bunch of utterly daft characters:

"It's a little-known fact that the equator, you see, is a belt-- not cowhide, mind you, but what the doctor called elemental twines. Them, with the latitudes, is what binds this earth of ours. It isn't as tight as it might be, though, which is good because of averting suffocation. The tides show this when they go heaving off east and west, running up against these belts so to speak. And lucky it is for us, sir, as I said, or the ocean would just slide off into the heavens."

St. Ives nodded, licking grease from his fingertips. He washed a mouthful of the dark sausage down with a draught of ale. "Got all this from Owlesby, did you?"

Only bits, sir. I do some reading on my own. The lesser known works, mostly."


"Oh, I ain't particular, sir."

This is the story of Langdon St. Ives and his colleagues in the Trismegistus Club, and the odd events of 1875, when they find themselves caught up in the evil plots of the deranged, hunchbacked, genius Ignacio Narbando, his disgruntled assistant Willis Pule, the evil millionaire Kelso Drake, his thuggish henchman Billy Deener, and Shiloh, the New Messiah. The plot revolves dementedly around a set of cunningly carved wooden boxes containing a gigantic emerald, a perpetual motion machine, a chlorophyll-powered oxygenator, an eight-inch immortal space alien with magical powers, and a child's toy. There's also a blimp with a skeletal pilot, an alchemical process for raising the dead (it involves glands from carp), a veritable army of zombies, the dreaded Marseilles Pinkle (about which the less said the better), and a rocket ship which meets a messy end in Lord Kelvin's barn.

No, it really doesn't make a whole lot of sense, laid out like that. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense when you read it, either, but it is fun. I generally don't much care for stories of Victorian England, but this is good stuff-- a sort of genteel farce involving Wodehouse characters in a Robert Louis Stevenson plot.

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Personal Announcement

Kate and I got married.

I cast around for a while to find a way to give this some sort of literary relevance, but, well, it's hard, and Kate already beat me to the idea. I'm not real big on poetry, so it's hard to think of good verses to quote, and while most of what I know about romance is drawn from song lyrics , those tend to lose something when quoted without the music. And even with the music, they tend to range from the sublime to the ridiculous, to the not-in-polite-company. Not to mention the fact that even weirdly inappropriate songs (or cover versions thereof) can have personal significance when played at a wedding reception.

As for books, well, literature (especially the sort that I read) tends to be a bit short on really positive love stories. The great classic romances, or romances in the classic mode, tend to be of the depressing one-or-both-end-up-dead sort, or at least somewhat tormented and operatic, with maybe an element of noble self-sacrifice. The genre fiction I favor, on the other hand, tends to involve romances which are incidental, accidental, inexplicable, warped, or just plain weird. Not to mention offstage, stilted, and all-but-nonexistent (and possibly unconsummated, depending on how you read things...). I'm not sure I'd want any of these as a role model.

Anyway, we're married now, and settling into domesticity at the moment. Opening and unpacking dozens of boxes of stuff (not to mention the actual wedding itself...) has cut into my reading somewhat, and we haven't yet gotten to the point of merging libraries. We won't be merging booklogs, though, and more stuff will be posted reasonably soon.

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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