The Library of Babel: August 2002

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

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August 28, 2002

Blunt Darts by Jeremiah Healy. The other Mary Kay Kare recommendation, mentioned in the previous post. Blunt Darts is the first of a series of books about John Francis Cuddy, a former insurance investigator turned down-on-his-luck private eye (he was fired for refusing to falsify a report, shortly after the death of his wife).

This is much more in the Robert B. Parker (see, for example, Looking for Rachel Wallace) vein than Who in Hell Is Wanda Fuca?. It's set in Boston, with a very strong sense of place, the narrator lovingly describes his workout routine, and the investigation is pretty much a thud-and-blunder job, with a minimum of other characters. In fact, the author acknowledges his debt to Parker in a more direct manner than you usually see:

The red light on my telephone tape machine was lit, but I decided it could wait until after dinner. I washed the chicken down with two Molson Golden Ales and settled into an easy chair with one of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels. I had read four pages when a telephone in the novel began ringing. Memory jogged, I put the book down, walked to my telephone machine, and replayed the short message. I replayed it several times. The muffled voice on the other end said only the same one word each time:


That's vintage Parker, down to naming the brand of beer, and throwing in a direct reference to Parker in that scene was extremely odd.

This is more than just Spenser Lite, though. For one thing, Cuddy's not as preposterously macho as Spenser is-- he does beat a couple of people up, but he also gets pushed around a fair bit, something that hardly ever happens to Spenser. He's also considerably more human in his reaction to people and events in the story.

A major element of the plot is reminiscent of a Chandler novel, but it would be a spoiler to explain how, or say which one (if anyone's interested, post a comment, and I'll explain it there). As a private eye, Cuddy is also considerably closer to Marlowe than Spenser is. Sadly, the prose doesn't sing the way Chandler's does, holding much more to the sparer style used by Parker. Still, it was a good read, and I'll check out some of the other books in the series. Mary Kay is two for two...

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August 25, 2002

Who in Hell Is Wanda Fuca? by G. M. Ford. When writing up The Big Sleep, I mentioned that I've long been searching for some other author who pushes the same buttons that Chandler does. In the comments following that post, Mary Kay Kare recommended a couple of authors, and I picked up the first books in their respective series when I hit the library before leaving for Montreal.

Who in Hell Is Wanda Fuca is the first of several books about Leo Waterman, a private eye in Seattle who, despite being from a prominent local family, barely scrapes by on a series of oddball cases solved with the help of a sodden set of Baker Street Irregulars:

Harold Green, Ralph Batista, and George Paris had, like Buddy [Knox], once been local people of some note. The four of them shared the enormous front room of a rooming house up the hill on Franklin. Last time I'd had business cards printed, I'd briefly considered changing the logo to read Waterman and Associates. I did, after all, use these guys quite a bit. Maybe they deserved billing. Sanity prevailed. I stuck with Waterman Investigations. God forbid anybody wanted to meet the associates.


I often used Buddy and his friends as field operatives. The destitute and the homeless had become so prevalent and so bothersome in Seattle that they were able to operate under a cloak of cultural invisibility. They were there, but nobody saw them. They could hang around places for days at a time without being noticed. It was as if they had their own little socioeconomic force field. Even better, they took great pride in their work and didn't require much in the way of fringe benefits. When they worked for me, they stayed relatively sober. When I paid them, they got drunk. It worked.

In this episode, Leo is hired to find the runaway granddaughter of a reclusive gangster who was close to Leo's father. She's a real piece of work, as the phrase goes, and has taken up with a violent fringe environmental group. Our intrepid hero has to find her, separate her from the group, thwart any nefarious plans they may have, and incidentally figure out who's behind the illegal dumping of toxic waste on an Indian reservation, a secret they're willing to kill to protect.

There's nobody named Wanda Fuca in this book-- the title is drawn from an incident where one of the irregular foursome mis-hears the place name "Straits of Juan de Fuca," and that pretty much tells you how the publisher has opted to market these. It's not entirely accurate-- the book is a bit darker than that, but there is a fair bit of lovable eccentricity to the characters. The end result is a little closer to Bernie Rhodenbarr than Phillip Marlowe-- Waterman is Marlowe after a few more years of hitting the bottle, only with a softer heart and more colorful friends. It's a good read all the same (and much better vacation reading than Radiance...)-- I like Block's Burglar books, after all. I'll definitely read more of these.

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August 23, 2002

Radiance by Carter Scholz. I looked at this book several times before I picked it up from the library last week, trying to think of where I'd seen that name before. Eventually, it leaped out at me from Patrick Nielsen Hayden's weblog-- Carter Scholz was one of the authors in the excellent collection Starlight 1, and the similarly excellent Starlight 2, both of which you should buy at once via Patrick's web site.

I didn't remember Scholz's stories in any detail, but the subject matter of this one seemed promising, so I picked it up on the pre-vacation library run. It's a story about physicists doing weapons research at a thinly disguised Lawrence Livermore Lab (referred to only as "The Lab" throughout):

J Section. Research And Development In Advanced Nuclear Concepts. Concepts as in weapons. Advanced as in not working yet. Radiance's charter was to develop energy weapons of all types, but Highet's hope and pet was the Superbright: an orbiting battle station of hairthin rods webbed around a nuclear bomb. The bomb's ignition would charge the rods with energy, focused into beams that would flash out to strike down enemy missiles, all in the microsecond before the station consumed itself in nuclear fire.

So far the beams flashed out only in theory. The theory, originated by Null, seemed to Quine sound, but the more he studied his computer model, the less he understood why any of Null's tests had ever produced the ghost of a beam. Yet the farther tests fell behind expectations, the more strident became Highet's public claims. Warren Slater, in charge of testing, had resigned in protest. His letter of resignation was classified and squelched. Bernd Dietz was given interim charge of testing, and to Quine fell the task of finding in disappointing test data any optimism about the promised results.

Not the best vacation reading material, really, but I read about two thirds of it before we left, and only finished it on vacation.

The first section of the book is very good, covering a sort of mid-life crisis of conscience for Phillip Quine, who sort of blundered into the strange and tangled world of the Lab, and is beginning to have doubts about his career path. Not only because he questions the morality of weapons work, but because the crazed funding-based culture of the Lab, encouraged by its ambitious director, Leo Highet, is pushing their work from sound science, into shaky science, and eventually outright fraud. It's a good sketch of the culture of Big Science, particularly on the government side. I've never worked in Big Science per se, but even on the small scale on which my old group at NIST worked, budget pressures were fairly significant. On the billion-dollar scale where nuclear weapons work is conducted, it's easy to see how the need for funding could warp the whole scientific process, and Scholz's picture of it rings true.

Unfortunately, Scholz has some stylistic tics which mar even this section (the use of dashes to indicate dialogue, rather than quote marks, is the most annoying). And the other two sections become thoroughly unpleasant.

The middle third (roughly) of the book is from Highet's point of view, and aims to show how he's as much a product of his environment as a monster of his own making. It's not entirely successful in this-- he comes off better than some of his loathsome backers (some of whom are engaged in funneling nuclear technology to China and North Korea), but is still a complete cad. It's vaguely interesting to see things from his point of view, but this section doesn't really improve my opinion of him.

At least Highet's section has some funny bits. The final section is pretty much unremittingly depressing. It goes back to Quine's POV, and shows him becoming completely compromised by the Lab and its culture. He doesn't become quite as bad as Highet, but this bit ends up destroying most of the respect the character earned in the first third. Which leaves the reader with nobody remotely admirable to root for-- Scholz is fairly clearly on the side of the anti-nuclear activist Quine starts dating, but she's awful, too. What started off as a nice satire of Big Science and weapons research devolves into an unpleasant story of corruption involving a large cast of unpleasant characters. That sort of thing is vaguely interesting, intellectually, and often impresses literary critics, but it generally leaves me cold.

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August 17, 2002

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami. Haruki Murakami is one of those authors I always vaguely feel like I ought to read, but never quite get around to picking up. I wound up getting this because, well, it was available used for five bucks (it's a hardcover), and seemed worth a shot.

I'm not really sure what to say about this book. It's one of his earlier books, first published in the mid-80's in Japan (which accounts for some odd touches, like the lack of CD players in a book that's set in the future), and is split into two parts, following different stories that initially don't appear to interact. In one, the "hard-boiled wonderland" part, the narrator is a nameless Japanese Calcutec, who makes his encrypting information for other people by running it through his subconscious. In the other, the "end of the world" section, the nameless narrator finds himself in a very allegorical-feeling walled Town, in which he's separated from his shadow, has lost his memories, and must "read old dreams" from a library of unicorn skulls.

Eventually, these two plot lines come together, in a manner which is probably screamingly obvious from the description above: the strange town at the end of the world is a construct of the subconscious of the narrator from the hard-boiled wonderland. There are a number of possibilities of where the story can go from there, so I won't spoil it further, should you want to read the book to find out where he goes with it.

And that's fundamentally the problem with the book. The narrator is so unengaging that almost the only reason to keep reading the book is a vague curiosity to see which of the handful of possible directions the story will take. Not only does he not have a name, he doesn't have much of a personality, and sort of drifts serenely through the plot as if none of it really matters. The book's chock full of pop-culture references, most of the Western, that attempt to stand in for a personality, but fail, and while there's some nicely surreal bits in the plot, the lack of emotional involvement on the part of the narrator makes it hard to really care about those.

The book is peppered with clever little images and vignettes, as when a salesgirl describes Bob Dylan's voice as "like a kid standing at the window watching the rain," or this bit:

When at last I awoke, it was half light out. The clock read six-fifteen, but I couldn't tell whether it was morning or evening. I pulled on a pair of slacks and leaned out my door to check the neighbor's doormat. The morning edition was lying there, which led me to conclude it was morning. Subscribing to a paper comes in handy at times like this. Maybe I ought to.

but these bits are scattered enough that one wonders if he wouldn't be better off writing haiku:

Clock says six-fifteen,
But morning? or evening?
Look on the doormat.

(Yeah, yeah, yeah, it doesn't mention nature, so it's a senryu... I never said I was Basho.)

The plot might've seemed more inventive in 1985-- it's tough to say. I couldn't help feeling, though, that I've seen the same basic idea done elsewhere, and with better characters.

Annoyingly, the fact that this is an early novel means that I still probably haven't given Murakami a fair try, and I'll continue to feel guilty whenever I pass over one of his books in the store. Maybe I'll check his new short-story collection out of the library, or something...

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August 12, 2002

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. I did a bit of a hatchet job on the Lord of the Rings trilogy back in October (follow the link, and scroll up for more), but didn't re-read The Hobbit at that time, for two reasons: 1) I didn't want this to be an "All Tolkien, All the Time" book log, and 2) I didn't own a copy, and couldn't be bothered to buy one. Kate has a copy, though, a big coffee-table sized edition with illustrations from the daft Rankin-Bass cartoon version, and when I cast an eye over the shelves after a couple of long days of moving, it stuck out (literally-- the other books near it on the shelves are much smaller).

In a lot of ways, I liked this better than the more famous trilogy. The tone is much more consistent, for one thing-- it's a children's book throughout, and maintains an appropriate note of mild whimsey from the very beginning:

All that the unsuspecting Bilbo saw that morning was an old man with a staff. He had a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which a white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots.

"Good Morning!" said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

"What do you mean? he said. "Do you mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"

It also lacks the extremely grating Sam-Frodo relationship, and while the poetry that does appear is cringe-worthy, there's less of it, which is a net positive. It's a very well put together story, and I enjoyed this re-read a good deal more than October's re-read of the trilogy.

The main annoyances to be found in re-reading this come from the less than perfect mesh between this book and the books that follow. Gandalf is a much different figure in this book than later on, and it's a little hard to reconcile his character with the much wiser and more powerful Gandalf of later books. There are also all sorts of odd gaps in the knowledge of various characters. They need Elrond to translate the runes on Orcrist and Glamdring, which Gandalf ought to have been able to do, and Elrond in turn seems not to know who Durin was. There's an odd reference to lands where no-one had heard of the king, at a time when there wasn't a king at all, especially in that part of the world. And the elves of Rivendell are insufferably twee (downright Bombadillian, really), while the wood-elves of Mirkwood seem too rustic to have produced Legolas for the trilogy. Reading this after the much darker trilogy is decidedly odd.

These are minor quibbles, though. It's a very well-done story (though like all children's books, you're better off if you don't think too much about the setting), and stands on its own quite nicely. The humorous bits are a bit stuffy and, well, English, but the adventure bits are good, and it's an enjoyable read all around.

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August 10, 2002

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie, and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying.

When it comes to tough-guy stuff, this is the real thing, the pure product. I picked this up when I was in Japan, running low on reading material, and looking for something, anything, in English. I don't think I made it past those first two paragraphs before I was completely hooked. None of the other tough-guy writers quite measure up to Chandler-- his eye for detail, his way with a phrase, the deep sense of affronted dignity that Phillip Marlowe carries around with him. This isn't a subtle book-- just in case the second paragraph above doesn't make Marlowe's role clear enough, he later looks at a chess board and thinks "The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights."-- but it's beautifully done.

The plot is famously convoluted (owing in part to the badly hacked version presented in the Bogart movie), but it actually does all make sense in the end. Marlowe is hired by the crippled General Sternwood to investigate a man who's attempting to blackmail one of the General's daughters, but he gets drawn into a deeper and more tangled mess than anyone would've expected. It's a classic of the genre-- one of the originals from which all the private-eye cliches are drawn-- and despite Chandler's oft-quoted line about having a man with a gun come through the door whenever he got stuck, the plotting is quite careful and detailed. On re-reading, it's fascinating to watch all the pieces fall into place, as one thing leads inevitably to another, until Marlowe's left alone in his armor to survey the wreckage.

This was very much a comfort read-- it's a wonderfully diverting book, and reads easily enough to fit in around the labor of moving my stuff from one apartment to another. If you haven't read it, I can hardly recommend it enough-- some of the attitudes are a bit dated, and most of the people Marlowe deals with are unpleasant, but if you like tough-guy fiction, it doesn't get any better than this.

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August 7, 2002 -- Anniversary Note

One year ago today, I started this book log (just after Kate started Outside of a Dog). I was half tempted to re-read Bujold's The Curse of Chalion as a tribute, but, well, I didn't feel like it. It's interesting (to me, at least), to go back and look at the posts from August and September, to see how much my approach has changed-- the older posts are much shorter, and much less likely to feature a representative quote from the book. It's also worth noting that I was packing for a move (from New Haven to Schenectady) then, too, though this is an anniversary tradition I could definitely do without...

A quick and unscientific survey of the index puts the count for the year at 126 books (and one movie). That's a bit more than one book every three days, though it's tailed off a lot recently. The vast majority of those are genre fiction of one sort or another, mostly SF and some mystery, with the balance being an odd mish-mash of non-fiction and mainstream fiction. Most of those were also new to me, with only a handful of re-reads of old favorites.

The book log has had some impact on my reading habits. (I like to kid myself that it hasn't affected my selection of books, but it probably has...) I tend to read a little more carefully now than I did in the past, as I know I'll need to say something sensible about the book later on. I also tend to keep an eye out for especially good quotes that I can pull out for the book log entry-- of course, when I go back for the inevitable re-read of Raymond Chandler, this last habit may slow me to a crawl... I'm also fairly happy with the format I'm using these days (general comments, quote from the book, specific comments), which I think works pretty well, and provides the information I'd want in a review of a book. Your mileage may vary, and all that.

I count these changes as positive effects, and on the whole, running this book log has been a positive experience. I enjoyed it enough that I started a non-book web log elsewhere (which usually isn't quite so full of political ranting as it is right at the moment...).

As for the books themselves, it's hard to pick favorites. Of the new-to-me novels, my favorites are probably The Eyre Affair, Winter's Tale, Straight Man, and The Chronoliths, but ask again later for a different list. Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others would be on the list of best story collections, no matter how many times you ask. Of the non-fiction, Nine Crazy Ideas In Science and Dungeon, Fire, and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades were the most fun, though Miss Manners On Weddings was enjoyable for other reasons.

Anyway, it's been fun so far, and I have no intention of stopping. So far, it's failed to garner me media attention, great riches, or numerous free review copies of books, but there's always next year...

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August 4, 2002

Looking for Rachel Wallace by Robert B. Parker. More Spenser. This time he's hired to protect a radical lesbian author, who's the very embodiment of the Onion headline "Feminists Declare Humor Strike." Still, she's getting death threats, and her publisher decides to hire Spenser to protect her, even though he's pretty much her worst nightmare.

"You look good in most ways," Ticknor said. "You've got the build for it. People who should know say you are as tough as you look. And they say you're honest. But you work awfully hard sometimes at being a wise guy. And you look like everything Rachel hates."

"It's not hard work," I said.

"What isn't?"

"Being a wise guy. It's a gift."

"Perhaps," Ticknor said. "But it is not a gift that will endear you to Rachel Wallace. Neither will the muscles and the machismo."

"I know a guy would lend me a lavender suit," I said.

Spenser gets the job anyway, and predictably enough, Rachel hates him. She fires him for beating somebody up, then promptly gets kidnapped, and Spenser rides to the rescue.

This was another in-traffic read, when we got stuck on the way into downtown Boston. Kate asked "Are you really in the mood for tough-guy stuff?" Well, yeah, I was. And what could be more appropriate than tough-guy stuff set in Boston?

In mystery terms, the plot is nothing very special. The kidnapper is moderately obvious from the start, and the book is padded out to 219 pages only by the inclusion of lots of banter between Spenser and his girlfriend (sadly, Hawk doesn't appear in this one), some unhelpful busting of heads, and a thick lump of psychobabble. The snappy dialogue is as good as it gets in these books, though, and there's enough action (however pointless) mixed in to make it an enjoyable read when you're in the mood for tough-guy stuff.

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August 2, 2002

Dave Barry Does Japan by Dave Barry. Dave Barry's a pretty hit-or-miss writer-- only about a third of his jokes are actually really funny. He makes up for this with volume-- he packs ten jokes into the space some writers would use for three, so there's usually three good jokes in the standard three-joke space. He sometimes undercuts himself by trying way too hard, but his stuff is usually amusing in the end.

This book is exactly what the title suggests-- Barry, his wife, and his son spent three weeks touring around Japan, and he wrote a book about the experience. I picked this up after I returned from Japan, in part because a few people I met there had praised it for nailing some of the sillier points of the country and culture. It certainly does that, and some of the absurdities of life in Japan are nicely skewered (the bit about the Japanese obsession with packaging is very good, and he does a nice job with their tendency to use nonsense English phrases for decoration). I like Hokkaido Highway Blues better in the "Japan nostalgia" category of literature (Barry's a little too manic), but this is a fun book.

I keep this in the car for reading material when we get stuck in traffic, and, indeed, that's why it's going up on the book log: I read it while Kate was driving on our weekend trip to Boston.

I'd quote a snippet to give you an idea of the flavor of the book, but, well, I left it sitting on my desk at work, and I'm too lazy to go back and get it. Upon reflection, though, it's really not necessary to post a quote. If you've read any Dave Barry before, you should know exactly what to expect. If you haven't, well, it's like this, only with more toilet jokes.

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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