The Library of Babel: August 2001

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

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September 30, 2001

A Right to Die by Rex Stout. Nero Wolfe meets the Civil Rights movement.

I'm not entirely sure, but I believe I've read all the Nero Wolfe novels. I know there are a few stories I haven't read, but I think I've read all the novels, and Kate and I have managed to obtain copies of most of them. This week has been a banner week for the book collection, in that we managed to locate two of the few books we didn't own (this one, and Please Pass the Guilt, mentioned below). There are enough books that I've actually taken to carrying a small scrap of paper with the titles of the books we don't already own (the sort of small detail that would set off a long and involved investigation, were I to succeed in entering Archie Goodwin's Manhattan and get myself killed in a mysterious hit and run...).

Anyway, we stumbled on this in a New Haven bookstore, and grabbed it. After This Immortal, I needed some lighter reading, so I picked this up. It's a good one, with some classic banter between Wolfe and Archie (well, Archie cracks wise, and Wolfe bellows), and one of the most surreal set-ups you'll find in a series novel: the case is kicked off by the arrival at Wolfe's brownstone of Paul Whipple, who as a college student-slash-waiter helped Wolfe catch a murderer in the classic Too Many Cooks, who has managed to acquire a bunch of wrinkles and a twenty-four year old son, while Wolfe and Archie (and Saul, Fred, Orrie, Fritz and Inspector Cramer) have seemingly not aged a day in the intervening decades. Clearly, there's some sort of group photograph of Dorian Gray in the basement of that house...

Like many of the books, this one seems to have been written primarily to allow Rex Stout to forcefully express (through Wolfe and Archie) his opinion on the great matters of the day. It works much better than the wartime stories do, or the anti-Communist tales of the Fifties, probably because the question of race continues to be a vexing one.

On a positive note, though, it's interesting to note that the more enlightened and open-minded characters in this book (with the exception of Wolfe himself) discuss racial issue in more or less the same terms as my less enlightened and open-mided relatives do today ("colored" this and "Negro" that, and interracial marriage is just plain icky). That's progress for you.

September 29, 2001

Two books today (one read in its entirety, one started earlier but finished today):

The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs. As far as I know, this is his only non-juvenile book. He wrote seemingly dozens of kids' books, but this is his only "adult" novel. Of course, your mileage may vary-- it opens with:

Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn't matter, there was a tall, skinny, scraggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you're thinking of, either.

That's one of my favorite opening sentences ever, both for sheer cleverness and for so perfectly setting the tone for what follows. It's one of my favorite books of all time, and a great "comfort book." The story actually gets fairly dark, as Prospero and his friend Roger Bacon find themselves confronting an evil sorceror bent on taking over the world, but it always retains an air of silliness that keeps it from being oppressive (on realizing that Roger plans to turn a pumpkin into a coach for their trip, Prospero exclaims "You can't be serious!" Roger replies "If I were serious, I would never have become a wizard, would I?" and proceeds to charm a squash into an Amish coach using a double dactyl about Byzantine clergymen...). It's an utterly charming little book, and well worth seeking out.

September 29, 2001 (part two)

This Immortal by Roger Zelazny. Also known as ...And Call Me Conrad this is widely regarded as one of Zelazny's best works. It won awards, back in the day.

Not unlike the other really highly acclaimed old Zelazny book that I've read (Lord of Light), I can't quite figure out what I really think of this book. Mostly because I'm not sure it knows what it wants to be. It veers from post-apocalyptic travelogue to adventure yarn to shaggy-dog story, and back. There isn't any moment as cringe-inducing as "then the fit hit the Shan" from Lord of Light, and it's probably a more coherent story, but both books are very much of a (hard-to-place) type. They both mix mythic elements with science fiction (to varying degrees of success), to tell interesting adventure stories in an off-beat way.

I don't quite know what else to say about this book. It's a little too melancholy to really be a Fun Read, but it's a little too jokey to qualify as Deep. I think I like the Amber books better, but it's been years since I read those.

September 26, 2001

Please Pass the Guilt by Rex Stout. As a native of New York State (born and raised near Binghamton, recently returned to live and work in Schenectady), I've always been sort of ambivalent about The City. While I take some pride in having one of the world's great cities in my home state, and I root for and rant at its sports teams, I've never been entirely comfortable with New York City. Despite the fact that I can't quite imagine living in a place where you can't get Thai food, I'm basically a country boy at heart, and New York has always had its shameful side as well (crime, dirty politics, etc). I've never really lived there, and I suspect I'd be miserable if I tried living there, but on some level, I've always wanted to live in Manhattan.

Well, that's not quite true. As I realized when I picked this up in a local used book store, what I've always wanted is to live in Archie Goodwin's Manhattan. The Manhattan where you can always get to where you wan to go, and you know all the good restaurants, and can always get a table at Rusterman's (the best of the lot, so it's said), and there's always snappy banter to go around, and the cops are gruff and blustering but always honest and good-hearted, and you've got ready access to all the sporting or cultural events you could ever want, with dancing at the Flamingo to follow. As opposed to the real Manhattan, where it takes me an hour with the Zagat guide to decide where to have dinner (and the restaurant turns out to be closed, full, or just not that good), doormen and cabbies snarl at me for having the effrotery to not already know how to get from one place I've never been to another place I've never been, and everything is priced well beyond my budget... As someone else once noted, half the point of reading the Nero Wolfe books is the chance to enter into that world. To know that the boss can't be disturbed from nine to eleven and four to six, that there's no business discussed at dinner, and that Fritz Brenner will be cooking dinner.

This is a late Wolfe book (next to the last, I think), and Archie's idyllic world is starting to show cracks (Fred Durkin's daughter may be smoking pot, for example), but it's still a treat to drop in on West 35th St. In most respects, this is a fairly minor book- the mystery isn't that mysterious, the clients and characters aren't all that memorable, and the banter, while snappy, is nothing truly exceptional. But then even minor Wolfe is a fun read.

September 23, 2001

The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse. One of the best bumper stickers I've ever seen featured the familiar fish outline, augmented with a top hat and bow tie, with "JEEVES" written inside the fish. It appeared to be a promotional item for a DC-area PBS station (and no doubt part of the reason Newt Gingrich and his ilk regularly attempt to slash the budget for PBS...), a tribute to the BBC series, one of the few television productions to really nail the spirit of the books it adapts. Hugh Laurie's pop-eyed performance as Bertie Wooster is absolutely perfect, and Stephen Frye is equally perfect in his portrayal of the utterly unflappable Jeeves. It's an especially appropriate sticker, for, as Gussie Fink-Nottle has it, early in this book:

"I had a spiritual rebirth. Thanks to Jeeves. There's a chap, Bertie!"


"We are as little children, frightened by the dark, and Jeves is the wise nurse who takes us by the hand, and--"

"Switches the light on?"


This is regarded by many as one of the best of the Bertie Wooster stories, and it's certainly an example of Wodehouse at the height of his powers. The latest adventure of Bertie Wooster and his gang of loopy aristocratic friends with daft names finds Bertie trying to save the engagement of the aformentioned Fink-Nottle (to avoid finding himself engaged to the frightfully soppy Madeline Bassett), while also trying to pinch a ghastly silver cow-creamer from his host, Sir Watkyn Bassett, on behalf of his Aunt Dahlia ("If I had my life to live again, Jeeves, I would start it as an orphan without any aunts. Don't they put aunts in Turkey in sacks and drop them into the Bosphorus?" "Odalisques, sir, I understand. Not aunts." "Well why not aunts? Look at the trouble they cause in the world"), while trying to find a way to keep both his own neck and Gussie's safe from the throttling hands of the hated and feared Roderick Spode, the would-be Dictator who arrived to Fascism too late for any of the good fashion choices, and founded an organization known as the Black Shorts ("Bare knees?" "Bare knees." "Golly!"). Further complications pile up along the way, in the way that only Wodehouse can manage, but everything is sorted out quite nicely with the aid of the inimitable Jeeves.

I've spoken elsewhere of my fondness for "First Person Smartass" narration, when done well. Bertie is the ultimate example of "First Person Nitwit" narration, and it's handled masterfully. He's a wonderful literary creation, and the books are a delight.

September 22, 2001

Sky of Swords by Dave Duncan. This is the concluding book in Duncan's series about the King's Blades (the previous book, Lord of the Fire Lands appeared in this log on August 20, 2001). As promised, the book resolves the blatant contradiction between the ending of the previous book and the last section of the first book. Unfortunately, it does so in a manner that's roughly equivalent to "And then she woke up, and it was all a bad dream."

There are a number of serious problems with this book, making it the first major stumble for Duncan in my experience. The previous books were told from the point of view of members of the King's Blades, an order of highly trained warriors who are magically bound to serve and protect the King (or a chosen ward) by a sword stroke through the heart. The Order is a wonderful idea, the sort of clever invention at which Duncan excels. Other than that, the setting is fairly generic and medievaloid-- there's a chivalrous court, a nation of Viking-analogues, evil sorcerors, scheming nobles, and all the rest. It makes for some wonderful swashbuckling stories, but the setting itself isn't that interesting.

In the first two books, swashes galore are buckled, and the stories move along nicely. The first book (The Gilded Chain) has a somewhat episodic adventure plot, following the life and career of Sir Durendal, one of the greatest Blades in the Order's history (who had rashly chosen the name of the Order's founder for himself), as he rises from being a private Blade for a useless fop, to a member of the King's Guard, to Chancellor of the kingdom. Lord of the Fire Lands tells the story of Radgar AEledding, a prince of the Baels (the Viking-analogues) orphaned as a young man, and sent to Ironhall to be trained by the Blades, as he returns to Baelmark to claim his birthright. There's more politicking, and less sword-swinging, but there's enough derring-do to keep the story moving along.

Sky of Swords squanders a wonderful title (the image refers to the ceiling of the great hall at Ironhall, from which the swords of hundreds of honored Blades of the past are hung) on the story of Princess Malinda, a bit player in the previous two books, following the murder of her father at the end of the second book (which contradicts the first book, in which King Ambrose lives another thirty-odd years). There's swordplay in this, and there are Blades aplenty, but the focus is shifted away from them and onto the political machinations and personal life of the Princess. Which is not to say that the politics are badly written-- like all Duncan's books, the plotting is fairly tight-- but it's not as much fun as the previous books, and the story has shifted away from the most interesting element of the world in which it is set. Add in a framing device which sucks all suspense out of the political action (the story is told in flashbacks in between scenes of the Princess being interrogated by a kangaroo court set up by the usurper who stole her throne), and a hard-to-swallow romance (Duncan should just not write about sex...), and it's a far weaker book than the previous entries, even before you get to the horrible deus ex machina ending.

I'm not sure what prompted this lack of judgement, but I really didn't like where Duncan went with this one. It's still competently written, and it wasn't throw-it-against-the-wall awful, but it's a real step backward. I hope his next book (which I will certainly buy and read) does better.

September 16, 2001

Burglars Can't be Choosers by Lawrence Block. There was a bad moment toward the start of this one, when Bernie Rhodenbarr, narrator and burglar extraordinaire, reflects on the view of the World Trade Center from his apartment. Eek. That passed pretty quickly, though, and once it was gone, the book burbles along nicely, like all the Bernie books.

This is the very first Bernie Rhodenbarr novel, so it technically established the formula, rather than following it: Bernie breaks into an apartment, and stumbles into a murder. With the aid of his superlative burglar skills, his native wit, and occasional help from Ray Kirschmann, the best cop money can buy, he has to find the killer and unravel a mystery in order to avoid being blamed for the murder.

The book suffers a bit after reading the others, mostly because some of the familiar touches from later books aren't there: for example, Ray is described in later books as "wearing a suit that looked like it was expensively tailored for somebody else" (a wonderful description), but in this book, he's a uniformed patrolman (who presumably gets promoted at the end of the book). The most important defect with respect to the later books, is the absence of Carolyn, the lesbian dog groomer who is Bernie's best friend and trusted confederate.

These are minor complaints, though. Like God Save the Mark (reviewed below), this is a book which hasn't quite achieved the full comic brilliance the author will later master, but clearly shows signs of what's to come. It's a fun book with which to pass an afternoon.

September 14, 2001

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. As I said below, different people deal with grief in different ways. Terry Pratchett, oddly enough, is one of my fall-backs. The last couple times I've had close relatives die (a favorite uncle in 1997, my grandmother in 1998), I've gotten through the next night with the help of Pratchett books (Lords and Ladies and Reaper Man for those who care). It's a little weird, I guess, but there's a serious heart underneath the silliness of most of his books (especially those two), and a sort of essential humanism and decency that I find very comforting.

I was reminded of Good Omens while reading about the police and firefighters who lost their lives in Tuesday's attacks. Specifically, this quote:

And just when you'd think [humans] were more malignant than ever Hell could be, they could occasionally show more grace than ever Heaven dreamed of. Often the same individual was involved. It was this free-will thing, of course. It was a bugger.

Which, in some way, sums the whole thing up. I can hardly begin to imagine the soul-deep perversion needed to hijack a plane full of innocent civilians and crash it into an office building full of still more innocents. But neither can I ever fully grasp the depth of character and selflessness required to go into those buildings, knowing they were going to come down, to try to save others. The actions of the subhuman monsters behind the attack make me want to curse the first hominid to pick up a stick and see it as a tool; the nobility of the firemen who gave their lives trying to save what they could restores my faith in the species.

In the book, Armageddon is averted because the Antichrist, rather than growing up thoroughly Evil and diabolical, grows up thoroughly human, and as a result chooses to prevent (rather than bring about) the destruction of the world. Unlike the tone-deaf chucklehead into whose hands the reins of power have fallen, I find no solace in trite religious phrases from millennia past. But Gaiman and Pratchett's core belief in essential human decency is a comfort to me; the fact that they, and the millions of my countrymen who have donated food, money, and blood to the relief effort, can make me believe it too is something to cling to on days like these.

September 13, 2001

God Save the Mark by Donald E. Westlake. Thank God for Donald Westlake. After two horrific days glued to the television, watching the video of the planes hitting the World Trade Center over, and over, and over (I saw the second tower collapse on live tv, but I'll see the ground-level footage of the impacts in my dreams for years to come), I decided I needed to kick myself out of the rut of thinking about Tuesday's monstrous events.

I opted for going out to a Chinese place, and finishing this book (which I'd started Monday night). Everybody handles grief differently (more on this later, maybe). This is one of Westlake's earliest novels (I think it won a prize of some kind, based on his recent "About the Author" notes), and was pretty much what I needed for the evening. It wasn't as laugh-out-loud funny as, say, What's the Worst That Could Happen? (the book-- there is no movie of this book...), largely because Westlake was still finding his voice as an author (which isn't in the first person), but it's very good.

The book follows the adventures of Fred Fitch, the single most gullible man in all of New York, after a rich uncle he'd never met dies and leaves him a substantial sum of money (nigh on half a million dollars in 1967). It turns out the uncle was a successful con man, and he didn't just die, he was murdered. And the killers may be after Fred, who has to stay safe, solve the crime, and avoid being fleeced of his new riches by every two-bit con man in New York City.

As I said above, it's an early Westlake, but it has wonderful charming moments, a nice light tone, and the good guys win in the end. And like nearly all of Westlake's books, it's suffesed with a love for the rougish heart of New York City, which is pretty much what I needed to read this week.

September 9, 2001

Mirabile by Janet Kagan. I picked this up at Kate's suggestion, to serve as light reading during breaks in drawing up lecture notes. What a fun little book.

It's slightly strange that I like this, given that the book is guilty of several of the sins I've slagged other books for in the past, the dodgy science chief among them. But it throws the preposterous scientific concept in question (the nested encoding of genes for several other species within frozen embryos of a given species) out there with such glee, and such a clear sense of "I'm doing this for the sheer fun of the stories I get to tell," that it's hard to resist. And the payoff for rolling with the premise is good enough-- tulip bats, frankenswine, and the Loch Moose Monster-- to make the whole trip worthwhile.

The stories occasionally strive to make a serious point, and if I stopped to really think about the omnicompetence of the protagonists, it'd probably irritate me. But the lake monster really is priceless, so I'm willing to roll with all the rest.

September 7, 2001

The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World by Harry Harrison. This is one of a great many pulp-ish novels in a long series of books that fall into the class of things I don't so much want to read as want to have read. They seem to be widely loved in SF fandom, or at least widely fondly remembered, and the title character, "Slippery Jim" DiGriz, is often compared to other First Person Smartass narrators from books I've enjoyed.

I can't swear that this book is representative of the series as a whole (I grabbed it on a whim in the same used book store swing that netted the Roger Rabbit book, and chose it from a handful of other titles in the series on the basis of being the oldest of the Harrison books that they had on hand), but sadly, it lived down to the impression of the series I'd developed previously. It didn't help its cause by using the "man from distant future returns to contemporary society and makes snarky comments about how primitive everything is" plot device, which was tedious the first time I encountered it, and hasn't improved with repetition.

The narration is breezy to the point of conveying essentially no descriptive information, the various plot hurdles are overcome mostly through revealing one new previously unmentioned secret gadget after another (at least James Bond movies have the decency to introduce the gadgets he'll be using early in the story, so we know what to expect...), and the already somewhat shaky situation dissolves into complete incoherence when the narrators wife Angelina appears. The whole thing felt rather like a James Bond movie slapped together by Mystery Science Theater standby Roger Corman.

I can sort of see where the character comparisons come from-- ignoring chronology completely, the narrator desperately wants to be Vlad Taltos or someone like him. But the book just doesn't have enough style to compete. It was worth the buck and a half I paid for it, but not much more.

(I might be convinced to try another book in the series, if a convincing argument is made that this one was just a stinker, and I can find a copy of a better one cheap. But I suspect this just isn't a series that's going to work for me...)

September 5, 2001

Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary Wolf. I saw this in a used book store a week or so ago, and vaguely recalled hearing it mentioned in one of those "The movie was better than the book"/"The movie ruined everything good in the book" debates that crop up every now and again. The movie was mildly amusing fluff, which was about what I've been in the mood for (this college prof thing is a whole lot more work than it looked like when I was a student...).

It's tough to decide what to say about this book. Mostly because I can't quite figure out why it even exists. The set-up is clever enough, but not that much is really done with it. There aren't that many 'toon characters, and those who do appear don't have the same manic energy as those in the movie (which was about all the movie had going for it...). There are a few nice riffs off classic private eye novels, but those don't really go anywhere, either. There's a throwaway attempt to make an analogy between the second-class citizenship of the 'toons and Real World racism, but that's discarded as (apparently) a bit too dark.

Other than the set-up, there just isn't much to this book. The movie invented an entirely new plot out of whole cloth, keeping little more than the names and the basic set-up, and for once Hollywood made the right call.

September 1, 2001

Yendi by Steven Brust. As I indicated at the end of the last entry, I really don't have time for long books at the moment. I finished Winter's Tale last night because, well, I'd been reading it piecemeal for a while now. With classes set to start on Monday, I'm slowly working myself into a panic at the thought of my debut as a Professor of Physics, and tempting as it might be, I just can't spare the mental energy for John Crowley right now.

Part of the cause for panic is the fact that the class I'm teaching (Physics 15, for those who care) will be meeting at 8:20 in the morning. While I know at least three people who wake up more slowly than I do, it would be a fair statement to say that I am not a morning person. In much the same way that it would be a fair statement to say that molten steel is a tad bit warm.

In an effort to overcome this, I've been attempting to train myself to get up earlier. Which is more or less working, but I don't want to let it lapse over the weekend. Thus, my alarm went off at 6:30 this morning. On the other hand, I don't want to do actual work before noon on a weekend. Thus, Yendi.

Yendi is one of the early books in Brust's Vlad Taltos series (second in publication order, if I recall correctly) about a wisecracking assassin in a fantasy world, and his wisecracking telepathic flying lizard sidekick. Later books have added considerable psychological depth to the series, but this one is something of a fun romp, aptly summed up by the teaser on the cover:

In which Vlad and his jhereg learn how the love of a good woman can turn a cold-blooded killer into a real mean S. O. B....

I say "something of a fun romp," because this is, after all, a book about a man who kills people for money. Which it's easy for the reader to forget, given the wonderful First Person Smartass narration, and the fact that most of the characters, to lift a phrase from Graydon Saunders, simply "ooze panache." Re-reading this (something I do every so often-- if I'm still doing this log a year from now, expect to see it again) in light of the later books, though, it's clear that Brust himself never forgot what it's really about. There are an impressive number of little touches which hint at the darkness to come.

There are also a number of clever little touches which play off things in the previous book (at one point, Vlad swears that when the current mess has ended, he'll build the best spy network the Jhereg crime syndicate has ever seen, a network which was in place in Jhereg, published first but which falls later in the internal chronology), as well as the linked "Life is like an onion" passages which open and close the book, which might be my favorite bit of Brust's writing.

I was surprised to learn from Brust's web page that it's his least favorite of the Vlad books. Personally, I think it's the most fun of the lot, and I was impressed on this re-read with how well the plotting is handled--Vlad's knowledge of the schemes in which he's gotten tangled builds slowly and convincingly, and the reactions of the various characters are well handled. I would unhesitatingly recommend this to anyone looking for a fun, fast read (it's short, too), and would probably stop just short of kidnapping people and forcing them to read it (but only because holding a gun to their head would make it difficult to read over their shoulder...).

Begun: 7 August, 2001