The Library of Babel: August 2002

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

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September 20, 2002

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. This is another "plot-heavy, moderately literary, not at all experimental historical novel about entertainers" (to lift a phrase from Steve Cook), in the same basic mode as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (occasional bits also resonate (unsurprisingly) with Christopher Priest's The Prestige). It tells the epic story of Charles Carter ("Carter the Great"), a magician of some renown, who invites President Warren Harding on stage during his signature illusion (which gives the books its name) one night:

Carter, Harding, and the Devil retired to the poker table, where a deck of oversized cards awaited them. Harding gamely tried to shuffle the huge cards-- the deck was the size of a newspaper-- until one of Carter's assistants took over the duty. As the game progressed, the Devil cheated outrageously: for instance, a giant mirror floated over Carter's left shoulder until Harding pointed it out, whereupon it vanished.

Carter had been presenting his evening of magic at the Curran for two weeks. Each night had ended the same way: he would present a seemingly unbeatable hand, over which the Devil would then, by cheating, triumph. Carter would stand, knocking over his chair, saying the game between gentlemen was over, and the Devil was no gentleman, sir, and he would wave a scimitar at the Devil. The Devil would ride an uncoiling rope like an elevator cable up to the rafters, out of the audience's sight. A moment later, Carter, scimitar clenched between his teeth, would conjure his own rope and follow. And then, with a chorus of off-stage shrieks and moans, Carter would quite vividly, and bloodily, show the audience what it meant to truly beat the Devil.

Carter's programs advertised the presence of a nurse should anyone in the audience faint while he took his revenge.

Of course, Harding's presence leads to some changes in the act, and a few hours later, the President is dead, setting into motion the main arc of the plot. Which I won't attempt to describe here-- this is a jam-packed book. Famous historical figures galore drop in for cameos, interacting with a host of invented characters. I can't speak for the accuracy of the historical information, but it's certainly a colorful cast, and a lively story.

The cover of the book is eye-catching, and I must've picked it up a dozen times in the bookstore. I always put it back, though, due to a general lack of interest in historical novels, and a specific lack of interest in historical novels featuring important historical figures as characters. Finally, a handful of positive comments, including Steve Cook's review quoted above, convinced me that it'd be worth giving it a try.

I'm glad I picked it up. It hit a rough patch toward the middle (when Philo Farnsworth first turned up-- I feared it was headed completely off into left field at that point), but the action starts to heat up not long after that, and builds to a satisfyingly baroque climax. The author cheats a little at one point in the climactic show, but then it's only fitting for a book about a great magician to palm a card or two to help build suspense.

It's a very busy book-- toward the end, it gets downright frantic-- but well done all the same. Amazingly, this is Gold's first novel. I'll be very interested to see what he does next.

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September 15, 2002

Amphigorey by Edward Gorey. This is a collection of fifteen small books worth of Gorey's oddly Edwardian drawings, and the warped little fragments of poetry and prose that accompany them, such as:

From Number Nine, Penwiper Mews,
There is really abominable news:
    They've discovered a head
    In the box for the bread,
But nobody seems to know whose.


A beetling young woman named Pridgets
Had a violent abhorrence of midgets;
    Off the end of a wharf
    She once pushed a dwarf
Whose truncation reduced her to fidgets.


The FETISHIST gets out the hassock,
    turns down the lamp, and bolts the door;
Then in galoshes and a cassock,
    He worships It upon the floor.

(The first two are from The Listing Attic, the third from The Fatal Lozenge.)

Actually, other than quoting various bits (and I could continue, from The Curious Sofa, a Pornographic Novel by Ogdred Weary, which opens "Alice was eating grapes in the park when Herbert, an extremely well-endowed young man, introduced himself to her," and gets sillier from there, or The Gashleycrumb Tinies, probably his best-known work "M is for MAUD who was swept out to sea/ N is for NEVILLE who died of ennui," or any of the others), I can't really say much of anything coherent about this book. And even quoting bits isn't that effective, because the drawings are what really make the whole thing work-- they're simple, faintly cartoonish, complettely distinctive, and utterly bizarre. Most of them are faintly sinister, and seem British for some reason I can't quite put my finger on, but others (those in The Bug Book, The Curious Sofa and The Wuggly Ump) are whimsical, but no less obviously the product of the same deranged mind.

I have no idea how this stuff got published in the first place-- it's like a collection of New Yorker cartoons for the clinically insane, or a collection of primers for the Addams Family, and it's hard to imagine a great demand for either of those-- but I'm glad they collected a bunch of these together. It's odd, but almost hypnotically so, and serves as good material for flipping through in idle moments to say "What in hell is that supposed to be?"

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September 8, 2002

Put a Lid On It by Donald E. Westlake. This is sort of an oddly packaged book. The covers hails Westlake as the author of The Hook and The Ax, while the "About the Author" note mentions only the books he wrote as "Richard Stark." That would tend to lead one to believe that this is one of the darker Westlakes, and yet, it's a funny book. It's not a manic farce like the Dortmunder books, but it's closer to those than the "Stark" books (from what I know of the latter). Kate spotted this in a bookstore a while back, and didn't buy it precisely because it looks like one of the unpleasant Westlake books, not a funny one. I suspect that somewhere there's a Stark fan saying "Bloody hell-- it's a farce..."

The confusion is probably because the hero of this book, Francis Xavier Meehan ("Meehan" to friends, "Francis" to some, but never "Frank") is a more hardened criminal than the cuddlier brand of thief in the Dortmunder books. Still, the situation he gets into is vintage comic Westlake, and many of the supporting characters would be right at home in a Dortmunder novel.

Meehan is awaiting trial in the Manhattan Correctional Center ("the Bastille writ small, the runt of the same litter") on a Federal charge for hijacking a mail truck when he's visited by a bumbling political operative named Jeffords, and his superior Bruce Benjamin, who make him an offer: steal some incriminating evidence about the President from his political opponents, who are planning to use it as an "October Surprise", and they'll make all the charges go away. It's a nice offer, but Meehan's reluctant to do the job (he doesn't work with amateurs), until he finds an angle for himself:

"I go in, even without you people watching me, I go in and I get your package, and while I'm there I pick up some stuff for myself."

Benjamin said, "You're telling us you mean to commit a burglary! And you're telling us!"

"Mr. Benjamin," Meehan said, "it was always gonna be a burglary. Didn't you know that? Somebody breaks in and takes away something doesn't belong to them, that's a burglary."

"But not for profit," Benjamin insisted. "What we're talking about is politics."

As with Bad News, the most recent Dortmunder, this is an amazingly mellow caper novel. Meehan moves coolly and professionally through his new world of bungling politicos, noxious contributors, and odd-couple secret agents, and goes about the whole caper in a rather businesslike manner (accompanied at times by his lawyer). There are a couple of surreal moments, but nothing as frantic as in the Dortmunder books. To use a movie analogy, it's The Score, not Heist.

And as I said regarding Bad News, the level of craftsmanship in this book is really impressive. It's not High Art, and it's not even trying to be-- the characters are basically two-dimensional, and the plot is a little silly-- but it succeeds marvelously at what it's trying to do. And along the way, there's hardly a page that doesn't include some gem-- a sharp little observation from Meehan, one of his "ten thousand rules" for life in prison, a snippet of snappy dialogue, a clever image in setting the scene. It's a nicely put together little book.

Of course, a less charitable interpretation of the same material would be to say that Westlake is just coasting, and not trying all that hard. There is a certain effortless quality to the book, but I wouldn't stretch that to "half-assed," even if the spy subplot doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I suspect he wrote more or less exactly the book he was trying to do. Sure, it's mellower than his best comic novels (though not much lower-key than Baby, Would I Lie?), but cut the guy some slack-- he's been doing this for nigh on forty years.

Would I prefer another What's the Worst That Could Happen? (which somebody really ought to think about making a movie of...) to this book? Sure I would. Until Westlake decides to write another one, though, this is a perfectly enjoyable way to pass the time.

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September 6, 2002

Cast in Stone by G. M. Ford. This is the second Leo Waterman novel, sequel to Who in Hell Is Wanda Fuca?, and it opens with Leo keeping an eye on a used-car salesman's annual excursion into debauchery (having been hired by his wife to make sure he gets home safe). Some thugs interrupt, and Leo rides to the rescue, ending up with a closer look at Tony Moldonado's world of sleaze than he would've liked:

The room smelled like a stable and looked like a back room at Central Casting. Costumes of all types were scattered about the room. A pink leotard and tutu, size fifty-two stour. A sawed-off canoe paddle with a taped grip. A World War I leather helmet, complete with goggles. A yellow plastic miner's hat. A pair of white, woolly chaps, with matching vest. Swim fins. Swim fins? Jesus. Whatever his myriad failings, the man led a rich fantasy life. You had to give him that.

The relevance of this scene takes a while to become apparent (I spent a lot of the book waiting for the two thugs to resurface, but that's not it). It does eventually fit in, though, and it turns out to be an appropriate opening.

The main story concerns Leo's effort to trace the daughter-in-law of his old friend Heck Sundstrom. She's presumed dead, with her new husband, in a boating accident on their honeymoon, but Heck didn't believe it, and was run down by a truck while looking into her past. With Heck in a coma, his wife hires Leo to carry on the investigation, wherever it may lead. It leads into some pretty sordid stuff, by the end of the book.

As in the previous volume, the writing is clever throughout, the characters are interesting (this book introduces the legless technical whiz Carl Cradduck, who provides some amusing interludes), and the plot is nicely inventive, as Leo traces the mysterious "Allison Stark" back through a long string of ruined lives. Leo's drunken associates are also back to help with the legwork and provide comic relief, though they don't fit quite as well into this story. He ends up using them on the case, but their involvement seems forced, as if Ford got two-thirds of the way through the story before realizing that he needed a role for his signature weirdos to play, and just jammed them in. It's the only shaky point in an otherwise well-thought-out plot.

This isn't as amusing as the last one. Toward the end, it actually gets pretty creepy, and the last few pages are downright nasty. Not entirely in a bad way, though-- this one's a little closer to Phillip Marlowe than Bernie Rhodenbarr, and makes it clear that while the basic concept (hard-boiled PI with homeless drunks for assistants) might tend toward pure comic fluff, Ford has other plans for the series.

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September 5, 2002

The Alchemist's Door by Lisa Goldstein. John Novak commented on this back on August 11 (you'll have to scroll down, as his permalinks are busted. Luckily, he hasn't updated in weeks...), and I really don't disagree with his comments.

Goldstein is one of those excellent writers who inexplicably seem to cruise along just under the radar. She's written some brilliant stuff (Tourists is probably her best, and The Red Magician is also excellent), and generally draws critical praise, but somehow she just fails to explode into huge sales (at least not obviously so-- she must sell reasonably well, as Tor keeps printing her books in hardcover...).

This latest book follows the story of Doctor John Dee, an English astrologer, mathematician, and man of what-passes-for-science-in-the-sixteenth-century, and his assistant, Edward Kelley, who sees angels in a crystal ball, and dabbles in other magic:

"What is the price for knowledge?" Kelley said again, much louder this time. "How much will you pay? Anything?"

Was this part of Kelley's ritual? Would he pay anything? To know, to finally see the angels...

Another part of his mind told him to stop, to say nothing. There was something wrong with Kelley's question, something he would understand if only he had time to think... But Kelley importuned him again. "What price?"

"Anything," Dee said quickly, before he could change his mind.

"Good," Kelley said. "The angel comes to me. You will see him soon."

The angel, of course, turns out to be a demon, bent on destroying Dee and his family. Fleeing the demon, Dee and his family wind up in Prague, where their story becomes intertwined with that of Rabbi Judah Loew, and the Jewish tradition that the safety of the world is secured by thirty-six righteous men. If any of those men should die before their appointed time, the world as we know it will end.

Dee and Loew (it's tempting to make a hip-hop joke here...) are both historical figures, though the tiny bit I know about them is due only to other fiction (Dee turns up in John Crowley's Aegypt and Love and Sleep, while Loew is famed for creating a golem (with Dee's aid, in this book), which figures prominently in the early bits of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. That makes for a slightly odd reading experience-- I feel like I know something about these characters, but what little I know is really only about other author's interpretations of these characters. It's very... meta. Or something.

This book doesn't match up to Tourists or The Red Magician, but then few books do. There's something weirdly distant about the character of Dee, which kept me from getting too involved in the story. The characters also seem a touch too modern in their sensibilities, though I can't put my finger on anything specific that gave me that impression.

Still, a mediocre book by Goldstein would be a triumph for many other authors. And this was an enjoyable read-- the plot seems like an unfocused mess for a lot of the book, but everything does come together in the end, in a generally satisfying manner. The very last scene is a touch cheesey, but not too bad. If you like fantasy fiction in the just-this-side-of-magic-realism vein of Crowley and Peter S. Beagle and James P. Blaylock's ghost stories, give Goldstein a try.

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September 3, 2002

Why I Hate Canadians by Will Ferguson. I've wanted a copy of this ever since I saw the title in the "About the Author" blurb on Hokkaido Highway Blues. A quick bookstore run on the last day of our visit to Montreal finally provided the opportunity to get one.

The book is a rambling collection of essays about various aspects of Canadian identity, and some of the inherent absurdities of Canadian life (most notably the fact that they allow the continued existence of a political party whose stated goal is the dissolution of Canada). The combative title (and a few harsh remarks about various Quebecois leaders) aside, it's actually a fairly positive book. What Ferguson hates about his fellow Canadians is largely the fact that they've failed to be quite everything they could be-- he vehemently denounces the treatment of Native Canadians, and some of the sillier excesses of his countrymen, but doesn't hesitate to point out the positive bits, as well. He rants and raves about Canada and Canadians because, deep down, he loves the place, and would like to see it be even better than it is. (I'm not psychoanalyzing the author here-- he basically says this outright in the last chapter...)

Some bits of his rants, particularly those about Natives and multi-cultural issues, could apply equally well to the US, and, indeed, I was a little surprised that he passed up the opportunity. But then this is an unapologetically Canadian book, and not one interested in taking pot-shots at the United States. It makes for a slightly odd reading experience for an American-- while many things seemed familiar, a large number of the political and pop-culture references flew over my head.

The bits that I did get included some delightful broadsides, like this:

The three great themes of Canadian history are as follows:

  1. keeping the Americans out
  2. keeping the French in, and
  3. trying to get the Natives to somehow disappear.

These three themes represent the political/social mission of Canadians. Americans: out. French in. Natives: invisible. If Canada were a hockey team, this would be our chant.


There are other minor themes as well: Sucking Up to the Royal Family; Waxing Poetic About Nature While Huddling Inside Shopping Malls; Electing Boneheads; Trusting Authority; Avoiding Extremes; and Resenting Success. All of which are played out against the larger Myth of Niceness.

and this:

Our feelings toward America are complex, but they can be summed up in the following five (5) axiomatic propositions of Canadian Nationalism vis-a-vis the Americans:

  1. Boy, we hate Americans.
  2. We really do.
  3. Really.
  4. I'm not kidding. We really hate them.
  5. So how come they never pay us any attention?

I'm sure that reading this would be a vastly different experience for an actual Canadian, as opposed to merely an American who happens to know a number of Canadians. Still, even if you don't get all the references, this is a fun read in the same way that, say, Bill Bryson or Joe Queenan is a fun read. It's a snappily written collection of slightly over-the-top cultural criticism, with a fairly serious point at the core. If you like that sort of thing, you'll probably enjoy this book, even if you don't know who Farley Mowat is.

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September 1, 2002

Admissions Confidential: An Insider's Account of the Elite College Selection Process by Rachel Toor. College admissions is a topic much on my mind at the moment, because classes start in a little more than a week, and for the first time, I'll be acting as an advisor to a bunch of incoming freshmen. We've gotten a barrage of emails recently about the qualifications and character of the incoming class, but I'm a little worried about what, exactly, I'll say to them, which will depend in part on where they come from.

With that sort of thing on my mind, this book caught my eye on a recent library run. I wasn't foolish enough to think that it would convey any deep insight into the nature of the students I'll be dealing with (after all, Toor is a former admissions officer, having left after three years, and she's writing about her experiences circa 1999, in a much different setting), but it is tempting to get a look inside the black box of the college admissions process. Things probably don't work the same way at my school, but they're also probably not a whole lot different (indeed, most of what Toor has to say fits with my general impression from things the admissions people tell us...).

Refreshingly, this is not one of those books whose real goal is to tell a student how to game the system and get into a very good college. In fact, it's a brutally honest description of the vagaries of the process:

MY experience as an admissions officer at Duke showed me the arbitrariness of the process, from all sides. From the way that kids decided on their "perfect school," the way parents pushed them in their applications, and most especially, the way decisions about applicants were made. The process is brutal, stressful, not always meritocratic, and rarely fair. But overall, it is just human, all too human. Ecce homo.

There's some great stuff here-- anecdotes about pushy guidance counselors, desperate students, irritating parents, and quirky admissions officers. There are excerpts from particularly good essays, some of which were startlingly good, and interesting tidbits about the emphasis put on various aspects of the application by the people who read them, and some damning commentary about the role big donations play in the process. There are also a number of recommendations, not for students trying to game the system, but for administrators or admissions officers who might be seeking to improve the process (something that I like to see, even if I don't agree with the specific recommendations-- I like to know that the author has enough confidence in her opinions to present concrete ideas about how things could be better).

There's also a lot of personal content, some of which is very good, some of which counts as Too Much Information. There's some nice material about what it's like to be in an academic setting without being an academic, but there's a fair bit of stuff about ex-boyfriends of the author, which I didn't really need, and each chapter begins with an excerpt from a column the author wrote for a magazine, some of which are of dubious relevance. It's very much a personal testimonial in the Salon mode, rather than a scholarly investigation, which sometimes makes for awkward reading. Even if that sort of thing bugs you, though, I'd recommend pushing past it, because the meat of the book is well worth reading.

I do sort of wish that she'd been writing about experiences at a different school, however. My exposure to Duke University is primarily through the world of college basketball, where the Blue Devils boast some of the most irritatingly smug fans in the world. This means that my initial reaction to Toor's description of some students as "bright, but not the sort of student's who'll make it into Duke" was along the lines of "Oh, hell. Another goddamn Dukie..."

(There was also a little bit of incredulity whenever the "good, but not Duke material" designation came up-- while they do rate highly in the infamous US News rankings, I'm not used to thinking of Duke as an "elite" school. It was certainly never on the radar when I was a student considering "elite" colleges, back in the day, but then I'm fundamentally a small liberal arts college kind of guy. Also, there's some regional bias at work-- Washington, DC (where I went to grad school) is the last bastion of Yankee-dom, and it was as Southern as I ever want to deal with... Still, my impression of Duke was and remains "It's a good school, for a Div. I basketball power...")

Anyway, I enjoyed this. It's nicely readable, and contains lots of interesting information (which will probably eventually lead to a long post on my other web log...). If you have any interest in looking inside the sausage factory that is the college admissions process, I'd recommend checking it out.

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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.

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Begun: 7 August, 2001