The Library of Babel: August 2001

This page contains the archived copies of book log entries for August of 2001.

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August 31, 2001

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin. What a wonderfully written book this is. If only I had the foggiest idea what it was about...

OK, that's not quite true. It appears to be about a lot of things: love, loss, time, winter, magic (subtle and otherwise). It's a love song to New York City, and a story of an attempt to storm the gates of Heaven. It's a story of the passing of an era, and the birth of a new age.It's all of those things and more, it's just not very clear about which of those it really wants to be in its heart of hearts.

Which is forgivable, for the sake of the writing:

The horse could not do without Manhattan. It drew him like a magnet, like a vacuum, like oats, or a mare, or an open, never-ending, tree-lined road. He came off the bridge ramp and stopped short. A thousand streets lay before him, silent but for the sound of the gemlike wind. Driven with snow, white, and empty, they were a maze for his delight as the newly arisen wind whistled across still untouched drifts and rills. He passed empty theaters, countinghouses, and forested wharves where the snow-lined spars looked like long black groves of pine. He passed dark factories and deserted parks, and rows of little houses where wood just fired filled the air with sweet reassurance.... But he kept away from the markets, because there it was noontime even at dawn, and he followed the silent tributaries of the mains streets, passing the exposed steelwork of buildings in the intermission of feverish construction. And he was seldom out of sight of the new bridges, which had married beautiful womanly Brooklyn to her rich uncle, Manhattan; had put the city's hand out to the country; and were the end of the past because they spanned not only distance and deep water, but also dreams and time."

Lengthy descriptive passges in this vein abound (and I do mean "lengthy"-- I elided four or five sentences of things that the horse passed...), and would probably be susceptible to parody (as it is, they dance along the sheer cliffs above the drop into self-parody) if they weren't so much fun to read. This is a book by a man drunk on words, and the intoxicating quality carries through to the reader.

The plot is a somewhat different matter. It's never entirely clear where it's heading, even after it has (apparently) gotten there. It also jumps from one thread to another in a confusing manner-- it opens with something of a crime story, then turns into a love story, then the two lovers drop out of the story after two hundred pages, not to be seen again. It all gets tied back together, sort of, but the effect is rather like reading an omnibus edition of a Robertson Davies trilogy-- the various plots are clearly tied together in some way, but the first two are only loosely connected until you read the third.

(You can tell that Helprin had a capital-L Literary audience in mind for this from the start-- had he been a genre fiction author, he would've added a hundred pages or so of padding, and published this as a trilogy...)

This book really belongs as a Paired Reading with John Crowley's Little, Big: Both are beautifully written books, both feature wonderful alternate versions of New York City (though Crowley refers to it only as The City, it's clearly New York), and equally wonderful magical small towns. And I can't for the life of me figure out what Frederick Barbarossa was doing in Little, Big, nor what really happened at the end of Winter's Tale. If the fall term didn't start Monday, I'd launch right into the Crowley...

August 27, 2001

Sidhe Devil by Aaron Allston. This is the sequel to the previously mentioned Doc Sidhe, read because it was the book best suited to sitting around on my porch reading over the weekend (Saturday and Sunday were very nice, and I'm still enjoying the novelty of having a porch upon which to sit...). This more or less picks up where the first book left off, and it may actually have suffered somewhat from being read so close to the original.

A couple of things bothered me about this book, chief among them being that it re-hashes the "person from our world crosses into fantasy world to serve as a naive foil for infodumping about local customs and politics" device used in the first, by taking a minor supporting character from the first book, elevating him to protagonist status, and transporting him to the "fair world" in the company of the Intrepid Hero and Heroine from the original (who have become supremely confident and competent in the gap between books, but then this is a pulp homage published by Baen...). Which means that, for the benefit of the new Intrepid Hero (and presumably new readers of the series), we're treated to another of lengthy lectures on alternate history and politics (and fashion, and measurement systems, and weapons, and...). This was forgivable in the first book, but got on my nerves in the sequel.

The plot's a bit more complex in this one (somewhat to its detriment), forcing Doc Sidhe and his stylish band of associates to first thwart a mad bomber in their home city of Neckerdam, and then travel to Europe to block the schemes of the local Hitler-analogue (history in the fair world lagging sixty-odd years behind our history, but following the same geenral pattern). Zeb Watson, the new protagonist (who happens to be black), is entered into a sort of Ultimate Fighting Championship to play Jesse Owens in the fair-world equivalent of the Berlin Olympics.

Aside from the grating repetition of the informative lectures from the first book, and some heavy-handed stuff about racism, this is an enjoyable read. The two halves of the plot don't fit together that well, but they rattle along amusingly enough, keeping the book entertaining all the way to the end. If you've got a sunny afternoon to kill, and a porch to sit on, you could do much worse.

August 24, 2001 (part 2)

Better Than Sex by Hunter S. Thompson. Every now and then, when politics gets too complicated, and you find a smirking chimp in the White House (having replaced a smarmy weasel), there's nothing to do but grab a cold beer, sit on the porch, and unwind with insightful political commentary like:

There are too many whores in politics these days, but the night of the whore-hopper is coming. Many will be called, and 9 out of 10 will be chosen-- to be herded down the long slippery ramp and into the bottomless sheep dip, where they will wallow and struggle helplessly (some of them drowning) until their bodies are disinfected by powerful acids, vapors, and the fumes of terrible lice medicines that will fry their brains like bacon left too long in the microwave....

The end will not come quickly, like it says in Revelations 22:7. First will come the shit-rain, then the sheep dip, and after that, the terrible night of the whore-hopper, which might last 1,000 years.

Actually, I don't have the foggiest idea what that means, but it sure is colorful...

I'm really not sure what else to say about this book. It's been on my "to-read" shelf for quite a while, since I grabbed it off a remainder pile back in DC, but I've never quite been in the mood for it. I really should've read this back in November or December, when the stench of politics was thick in the air, like a skunk had been hit by a semi, and my very name was the subject of more lame jokes than I could shake a high-caliber weapon at. But I didn't pick it up until today, when I rifled through the "unread books" box in search of something amusing to read while sipping a few beers on my porch, enjoying the tail end of a beautiful afternoon.

Actually, the quote above is probably the best single bit in the book (save maybe the Nixon obituary he wrote for Rolling Stone, which is tacked on at the end). The book consists primarily of faxes which purport to have been sent to various journalists and Clinton campaign staffers back in 1992 (it's hard to tell what's real with Thompson), strung together with odd bits of columns and a loose narrative describing things that Thompson may or may not have done during that campaign season. As such, it's less a book of articles than a stream-of-consciouness portrait of a gonzo journalist in full meltdown. Wild paranoia, bizarre theories, and quasi-biblical prose are the rule throughout. Which is entertaining, but I'm not sure it has any significance beyond that.

This is far from Thompson's best stuff-- one of the Fear and Loathing books would take that title-- but it is amusing, in an unhinged sort of way. It was worth the five bucks I paid for it on that remainder table, but faced with paying full price, I think I'd've bought another copy of The Great Shark Hunt and a sixpack of good beer instead...

August 24, 2001

House of Stairsby William Sleator. Another childhood (or at least early-adolescent) favorite. Sleator wrote a whole bunch of YA science fiction/ horror novels, most of which I read at one point or another. The best of the lot, as I recall, were this and Interstellar Pig (which I found in a used book store earlier in the summer, and re-read then).

This is from that creepy subgenre of YA fiction in which sinister government conspiracies do horrible things to teenagers in the name of science, or politics, or whatever. See also I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. All this time, I've been blaming Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Oliver Stone for the conspiracy fetish of contemporary American society, and it turns out the roots lie in children's literature...

Anyway, this is the story of five sixteen-year-old orphans at some unspecified time in the future, who are taken from their state-run homes, blindfolded, and thrown into a bizarre environment-- a seemingly infinite room containing nothing but endless flights of stairs, small landings, and bridges between landings. All brightly lit all the time, with the monotony broken only by a toilet/ drinking water source in one place, and a strange machine which sometimes dispenses food. If they behave appropriately.

I remember this as being a whole lot creepier than it was on re-reading, but that's an inevitable function of my being ten years older, and already knowing how it ends. It's still a deeply creepy book, just not as affecting as it once was. The ending is also a little too talky, spelling things out in a bit too much detail. Still, the setting (inside the house of stairs and out) is sketched out nicely, as is the gradual degradation of the subjects. The only real problem with the characters is a general lack of sexualization, which is probably due to the fact that the book is pitched for a younger audience than the characters it describes...

It's still a well-done book, and it's very short, so I'd say it's worth a look if you're a person who likes slightly dark YA books. I'm definitely picking something cheerier to read next, though...

August 23, 2001

Doc Sidhe by Aaron Allston. Back to the pulps with this one, in more ways than one. It's a SF romp in homage to the Doc Savage stories of the 30's or thereabouts. I haven't actually read the original stories, so I'm sure I missed a lot of in-jokes and suchlike, but the basic idea is pretty clear. The book follows the adventures of Harris Greene, a down-on-his-luck professional kick-boxer who finds himself caught up in the interdimensional adventures of Doctor Desmond "Doc" MaqqRee, international man of mystery on an alternate world that is basically the classic Faerie of so many fantasy novels crossed with the Art Deco world of the old pulp magazines. Doc and his associates live in a skyscraper, ride around in gigantic plush cars, and battle evil with a combination of sorcery and tommy guns.

Though the book is really about as serious as that description sounds, Allston's done a bit of thinking about the way his alternate Earth works, and has even come up with a hand-wave or two to explain the similarities between the worlds (an important step, that, given that most of the population of either world remains unaware of the existence of the other...). The characters cruise along from gunfight to spellfight to gunfight again with style and flair, and despite the odd clunker in the prose ("'Doctor Desmond MaqqRee, founder of the Sidhe Foundation,' He pronounced it 'She Foundation.'" Well, of course he did-- that's how it's pronounced. Why would the POV character make a note of that, unless he's reading the text in subtitles?), it's a fun read most of the way through. There are some slapdash elements to the ending, and the reach for pathos doesn't really come off, but it was an enjoyable book.

I picked this up together with its sequel (Sidhe Devil), and while this wasn't quite good enough to make me want to plow right on into the next book, I'll definitely read it, and probably any more that he writes. It's not the deepest story out there, but it's got style, and makes for a good way to pass an afternoon sitting on the porch reading.

August 22, 2001

Straight Man by Richard Russo. Having completed the move to Schenectady, my self-imposed book-buying ban (anything I bought, I'd have to move...) has been lifted, so on a bookstore run over the weekend, I bought this and Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys. Only later did it occur to me that, mere days from starting a new job in academia, I was loading up my reading list with academic satire...

Happily, like most comic academic novels, this book pokes fun at the humanities (the only academic novels which leap to mind as mocking physicists are Lethem's As She Climbed Across the Table and Stephenson's The Big U), specifically the embattled English faculty at West Central Pennsylvania University, where the interim chair, William Henry Devereaux Jr. (who seems never to be serious about anything) is having the worst week of his life.

I'm trying (with little success) to find something concise to say about this book that doesn't sound like cover copy. This is a terrific book. It's got some satirical bite, without sacrificing realism (Hank, his family, and his colleagues are all eminently believable). There are genuinely touching bits, as well as moments of broad slapstick. It kept me up late reading, and there aren't that many books which can do that. If Russo's other stuff is half as good, it'll be worth checking out.

August 20, 2001

Lord of the Fire Lands by Dave Duncan. Looking at this list so far, you may note that it's tended toward books that are, if not "fluffy," at least lightweight. This is almost entirely due to the fact that I've been in the process of moving from New Haven to Schenectady the whole time this log has been running (the actual "load-the-truck-and-drive" day was August 15, accounting for the big gap in this log...). After a long day of packing boxes, hauling furniture around, or driving all over the Capital District of New York looking for furniture to buy, you just don't quite feel like curling up with Crime and Punishment for a searching examination of the dark side of the human soul.

What you want is, well, Dave Duncan. Generally straightforward adventure type stories, written with a minimum of stylistic fuss, and a good dose of inventive world-building. His stories are always clever, generally move along briskly, and draw you in enough to make wonderful reading material for times when you just need to unwind. _Lord of the Fire Lands_ is no exception-- swashes are buckled, dastardly plots are schemed and foiled and all's well that ends well.

With one catch. It ends well, but it's the second book in a (loosely connected) series, and the ending directly contradicts a number of facts learned toward the end of the first book in the series. There's a forward from the author which basically consists of "Yes, I know these two books contradict each other. I did it that way on purpose. You'll have to buy the third book to make it all make sense. Nyahh, nyahh."

How maddening. I'm going to have to bury myself in something else, fast, before I cave in and run out to buy the third book in hardcover...

August 14, 2001

Magi'i of Cyador by L.E. Modesitt. This is one of the latest books in the open-ended and possibly unending "Saga of Recluce" begun with The Magic of Recluce lo these many years ago. The early books in the series follow a very clear pattern: Callow youth finds himself unhappy with his society and his role in it, and sets out into the world, where he learns a trade, discovers he has the ability to manipulate order and chaos (the source of magic in this universe), and shocks the world by thwarting the evil ambitions of chaos-mages.

Later books have diverged from this formula in a predictable enough way to constitute a new formula: Callow youth sets out to make his way in the world, and joins the local order of chaos mages, where he learns to do magic, and struggles to keep from being killed by the handful of Evil Chaos Mages who hold all the power in the order, and are setting themselves up to be Thwarted good and hard by a callow youth from some other segment of society (either the hero of the current book, or the hero of an earlier book).

As you can guess from the descriptions, these aren't Great Literature. They actually ought to be awful, given the formulaic plotting, odd stylistic quirks, and the use of the Dreaded Apostrophe in names ("Magi'i" is an idiosyncratic pluralization of "magus"...). But there's something very enjoyable about them-- but for Modesitt's tendency to use mildly irritating literary devices (present-tense narration in the current book, along with the excessive onomatopoeia that is the hallmark of the series), they're a very easy read, and provide lots and lots of detail about whatever trade it is that the protagonist finds himself learning (woodworking, metal-working, engineering, order-magery, or chaos-magery). They're sort of soothing, though I wouldn't buy them in hardcover...

This latest is a perfectly good addition to the series. It'd be better than most, if not for the present-tense narration (there's something indefinably annoying about that carried to book length, though it's de rigeur for stories told in bars... ("So I says to the guy, I says...") Go figure.) The current protagonist is better than most in the series thus far, in that he starts out fairly competent, and is never really a whining git the way some of the earlier protagonists have been.

One minor complaint, (which I ought to direct to Tor, but whatever) about the packaging: The books jump around in time quite a bit (this one is set several hundred years before the first in the series), but they all feature the same map in the front, which was drawn in the first book. Which is a bloody nuisance, since there are countries on the map which simply don't exist in the book itself, and all the landmarks cited in the text have been obliterated by the time of the story for which the map was drawn.

August 13, 2001

A two-fer over the weekend:

1) The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin. I looked for this based on an off-hand mention of one of its sequels on Usenet, and bought it because of the disclaimer at the start:

None but the most blindly credulous will imagine the characters and events in this story to be anything but fictitious. It is true that the ancient and noble city of Oxford is, of all the towns of England, the likeliest progenitor of unlikely events and persons. But there are limits.

It's a comic mystery set in Oxford in the 1930's, featuring an eccentric don of a detective (Gervase Fen), a jaded poet protagonist, a mysterious toyshop which moves from one side of town to the other, and a host of heirs identified by reference to the comic limericks of Edward Lear. There are multiple murders, numerous betrayals, chase scenes featuring whole armies of undergraduates ("assembled by a means peculiar to Oxford-- vague promises of excitement accompanied by more definite promises of drink"), bizarrely self-referential moments ("Let's go left,' Cadogan suggested, 'After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.'"), and comic moments aplenty. Not being British, I'm sure I missed a lot of jokes, but it was definitely a fun read, and I'll try to locate the others in the series.

2) The Chessmen of Doom by John Bellairs. Some years back, my sister and I went on a tear where we read just about everything that John Bellairs wrote. These were mostly short "Gothic" novels for the juvenile market, concerning the adventures of young-ish misfit children (generally bookish and unathletic, frequently orphaned) who find themselves caught up in supernatural events.

In light of the recent Harry Potter craze, I started re-reading a few of these recently. This one is one of the few I hadn't read before. I was surprised to note that the copyright date on this one is 1989, given that, like all the books, it's set sometime in the Fifties (the protagonist of this particular series, Johnny Dixon, lives with his grandparents because his father's a pilot in the Korean War). It's not my favorite series in the set (I like the Lewis Barnavelt books better), and it's not a stunningly good example from this particular series, but it's a fairly solid piece of work. The writing is pitched right about at the level of the first Harry Potter book, the setting is well sketched out, and the supernatural menace is, well, supernatural and menacing.

It's not the best Bellairs book around, but it was an amusing enough way to pass a couple hours. I'd have no problem recommending it to someone looking for reading material for young kids, or to an adult who enjoys well-written kids books, though I think I'd press The House With a Clock in Its Walls on them first.

August 10, 2001

The Odd Quantum by Sam Treiman. I don't intend to add books to this that I read solely for professional purposes, but while there was some element of professional interest in this, I did pick it up mostly out of curiosity. It's been serving as occasional before-bed reading for a couple of months now, but I finished it last night (most of my books are in boxes, pending the move to Schenectady, which means my current reading is an odd assortment of things that I've been partway through for a while, and things acquired since the boxes were taped shut...)

Treiman has set himself a difficult task with this one. The book attempts to set out the basics of quantum mechanics on a level somewhere between the math-intensive standard undergrad textbook, and an equation-free pop-science treatment. The intended reader appears to be someone who's had calculus, and survived it well enough to not run screaming at the mere sight of an equation, who wants to know a little bit about how quantum mechanics works, but not enough to really calculate anything.

It's an interesting idea, but not an unqualified success. He makes some odd decisions about what to explain and what to gloss over, but the book proceeds more or less smoothly through the first seven chapters or so. He sort of loses it in the last few chapters-- he rightly regards quantum field theory as the absolute pinnacle of scientific accomplishment, but the mathematical constraints he's placed on the explanations are too tight for the explanation to really work. A veritable zoo of subatomic particles are introduced with only the sketchiest explanation of what they do, and the explanation of field quantization and Feynman diagrams was confusing to me, and I already know a bit about the topic.

He does a nice job explaining the reasons for and basic workings of quantum mechanics, and nicely highlights some of the weird and fascinating consequences of the theory. The last few chapters are sort of dizzying, though.

August 8, 2001

Not Exactly the Three Musketeers by Joel Rosenberg. Rosenberg is probably best known for his somewhat open-ended series of fantasy novels about a group of modern American college students whose interest in a D&D style role-playing game turns real, as they're sent into the world of the game by an evil wizard who's dsguised himself as their professor and GM. The early books are about as fluffy as that description sounds-- you can practically hear the dice rolling in the background-- but Rosenberg has clearly put some thought into how best to employ modern knowledge in a fantay context.

This is the seventh or eighth book in the series, and it's changed a good deal in the fifteen or so years since the first books. For one thing, he's killed off a bunch of the original main characters; for another, the focus has shifted from the original survival plot, through a bit of warfare and empire-building, to fairly standard political machinations and relatively minor questing. He also appears to have been reading a lot of Glen Cook's Black Company books, because the level of gritty realism is starting to become a little ridiculous.

The series hit a high point a few books back with The Road to Ehvenor, largely because of the First Person Smartass narration by Walter Slovotsky. Subsequent books haven't been quite as good, as he casts around for some other character to focus on. This book is the first (unless I missed one) to focus on a trio of "ordinary" soldiers in the service of the Empire founded by the original characters from our world. Of course, they're really not "ordinary" in any meaningful sense (hence the title), and their simple errand turns out to be complicated and more important than they realized at the start. It's not Great Literature by any stretch, and the attempts at gritty and realistic detail are somewhat overdone (there's more defecation in this book than a whole season's worth of South Park), but it's still a fun read.

August 7, 2001

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold. I'm cheating a bit, because I actually finished this over the weekend, but I haven't had a chance to a) start this page up, or b) finish anything else since, so it'll do as the first entry. Bujold is, as her publisher is more than happy to tell you, the owner of more Hugo Award stauettes than just about anybody, most of them for her continuing SF series about Miles Vorkosigan, a sort of diminutive, hyperactive James Bond in Space.

The Curse of Chalion is a bit of a departure from her usual work. It's a stand-alone fantasy novel set in a different universe from any of her previous books, which draws some inspiration from Spain during the Reconquista. It's described in more detail, albeit with spoilers, in the review linked to above. The quickie description: The world is fascinating, the plot didn't quite work for me, but it was a fun read all the same.

Begun: 7 August, 2001