The Library of Babel: September 2003

This page contains the archived copies of book log entries for September of 2003.

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September 30, 2003

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. After winning prizes with Motherless Brooklyn, and taking a turn for the weird with This Shape We're In, Lethem returns with another mainstream-ish novel, also set in his home borough of Brooklyn.

I'm not sure why it is that this book reminds me of Don DeLillo's Underworld. It's a whole lot shorter, after all (three hundred-odd pages shorter, in fact), and where DeLillo's book sprawls to cover a cast of thousands, Lethem's is tightly focused on one boy growing up in Brooklyn in the 70's, and the cynical man he becomes. They're not really similar books at all. And yet, they have something of the same feel-- of Serious Authors taking on Big Issues. DeLillo's book covers the entire Cold War, while Lethem's sticks to Race in America (as it might be called in a CNN graphic), but you get the same sense of an author out to explore every aspect of his chosen question, even if it requires bending the characters in weird directions from time to time.

This volume follows the life story of Dylan Ebdus, son of a hippie-ish idealistic mother and a distracted artist father, after his family sets up as one of the first white families in the Gowanus neighborhood that gentrification would later re-name Boerum Hill. Dylan grows up in a strange world-- a whiteboy in a black neighborhood, and (as his mother proudly notes), one of only three white students in his entire school. After his mother leaves, and his father recedes even further into obsession over his hand-painted abstract film, Dylan is left more or less on his own. A precarious position for a fragile boy, but he's saved by an odd friendship with Mingus Rude, the son of a washed-up soul singer who moves in down the block. Mingus comes to dominate Dylan's life, even long after they've stopped seeing each other regularly (Dylan goes off to school in Manhattan, Mingus begins to sink into drug abuse).

The main story is told in two sections. The first is a hazy third-person recollection of Dylan's childhood, up until he finishes high school, the second a much sharper first-person narration from Dylan, later in life, as a jaded and semi-successful music writer. A number of reviews I've seen have criticized the abrupt change of voice (see, for example, the discussion in Slate's "Book Club"), but I actually thought this was well done, and probably essential to the story. The only mis-step in this regard is one section, late in the book, told from Mingus's point of view-- I didn't really care for that.

As a mainstream exploration of racial issues in America, it's a pretty good book. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the urban sections (being a country boy myself), but it feels real, and Lethem does a wonderful job with the bits I can recognize (his evocation of the mindset of a terrorized middle-schooler is great, and some of the college bits are dead-on as well).

The big problem with the book is that it doesn't stop there. There's also a weird magic-realist sort of plot, involving a magical ring Dylan obtains from a bum. The ring grants the wearer the power of flight, and Dylan sets out (eventually enlisting Mingus's help) to become a costumed superhero. There are wonderful bits here (the way they end up finding crimes to fight is terrific), and somebody could make a really fun novel (or, perhaps more appropriately, a comic book) out of the concept, but this plot doesn't really fit well with the other. It's not really integrated with the coming-of-age story at the heart of the book, and the attempts to integrate it all feel badly out of place.

This was a decidedly odd reading experience, which has helped delay this book log entry by a few weeks, as I struggled to find something coherent to say about it (the Wonder Dog hasn't really helped, either-- it's hard to type when a really cute dog keeps nudging your arm to ask for attention). There are some wonderful pieces here (Dylan's father's career as a Hugo-winning artist is wonderfully entertaining if you lived through the Usenet debate over Lethem's opinions on SF cover art), but the attempt to make them fit together isn't entirely successful, and ultimately lessens the impact. It's still a very, very good book, and worth reading, but in the end, it's fundamentally flawed.

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September 20, 2003

Bitter Waters by Wen Spencer. The third book in the Ukiah Oregon series, sequel to Alien Taste and Tainted Trail.

I read the first two of these back-to-back, and they flowed pretty easily. Kate had mentioned that the third volume isn't as self-contained as the first, though, so I held off reading it for a while, thinking that I would wait until the next volume came out. After a couple of weeks of class, though, I decided I needed something diverting to read that wouldn't require much in the way of mental effort, and picked up the third book.

The wait may have been a mistake, as my memory is apparently better than that of the target audience. Huge amounts of time are spent re-capping the events of previous books. Had I waited a year between books, and had I the long-term memory of a cantaloupe, this might've been valuable. As it was, it was just a bunch of clunky as-you-know-Bob dialogue rehashing events that I could remember perfectly well. Had I read it in a rush with the others, I probably would've skipped over those bits, but after time spent away from the books, it was annoying.

Which is not to say that it was a bad read. As with the previous volumes, the plot moves along nicely, and save for the Captain Recapitulation bits, keeps you from thinking about how daft the premise is. It served its purpose well.

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September 10, 2003

Paragon Lost by Dave Duncan. Another book in the King's Blades series (see also Lord of the Fire Lands and Sky of Swords).

This is pretty much exactly what I expect from a Duncan book. Swashes are buckled, dark and inventive magics are deployed, and noble heroes win through without being all that seriously threatened.

This particular volume tells the story of Sir Beaumont of the King's Blades, the "Paragon" of the title, and the most exceptional of that order. He's smart, charming, a fantastically deadly swordsman, and basically a pseudo-medieval James Bond. He finds himself sorcerously bound to an unlikely ward, and sent to a distant land to fetch a bride for the King. Of course, the plan goes horribly and bloodily awry, and Beaumont must scramble to survive.

After the gross mis-step that was the ending of Sky of Swords, this is a refreshing return to form. There's no real suspense in the book, both because Beaumont is simply too good to lose, and because of the awkward framing device used, which makes the bulk of the story an extended flashback. Still, the adventures are cool, the swashbuckling is fun, and there are some nice bits of scenery-- the mad Czar and his court are nicely done.

Not a great book, by any stretch, but not a bad way to pass an afternoon or two, either.

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September 5, 2003

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. This is on the (very) short list of books I've bought because I had to read them for a class, and enjoyed them. Though, oddly, it took another class assignment to get this onto the book log-- as mentioned on Uncertain Principles, I re-read this because I had volunteered to lead a discussion of it.

It's easy to see why they would assign this as summer reading, because the book offers a lot of discussion fodder. It's about Vietnam, always a good conversation-starter, and it's not only a work of fiction, it's one of those slippery meta-fiction deals that play fast and loose with reality. The book is written by a guy from Minnesota named Tim O'Brien who served in Vietnam in a unit called Alpha Company, and it tells the story of a guy from Minnesota named Tim O'Brien who served in Vietnam in a unit called Alpha company. Only, they're not the same guy. Spooky, huh?

I've actually heard O'Brien read from this book, and talk about the stories (part of the class in which it was assigned), and he told a "true" version of one of the stories. I put "true" in scare quotes because it's not clear that that version was really the truth, either. He's a complicated guy.

But, as he says in "How to Tell a True War Story," the centerpiece of the book (in some sense), "Absolute occurrence is irrelevant."

A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it's a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, "The fuck you do that for?" and the jumper says, "Story of my life, man," and the other guy starts to smile but he's dead.

That's a true story that never happened.

Absolute occurrence aside, this is an incredibly powerful book. O'Brien's writing is wonderfully evocative, and the stories feel true. I'm not a big reader of Vietnam books, so I can't say for sure that it's the best ever written, but I have a hard time imagining a better, truer, war story than you'll find here. This is a fantastic book.

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September 2, 2003

Witpunk edited by Claude Lalumiere and Marty Halpern. I seem to recall reading somebody panning this anthology, but I can't recall who. I thought it was Dr. Pam, but I can't find it listed in her archives, so I have no idea.

Anyway, when I saw this in the library, I dimly recalled somebody panning it, but the list of authors on the cover-- James Morrow, Bradley Denton, Cory Doctorow, Dave Langford, William Browning Spencer-- looked too promising to pass it up. So I checked it out, which was a mistake.

This started off as badly as any anthology I can ever remember. First, there's a manifesto of sorts, never a good sign. Then there's an Allen Steele story that takes way too long to deliver on a premise that amounts to a lame joke. Next up is Ernest Hogan's "Coyote Goes Hollywood," which takes the "Native American trickster god in the modern world" premise of Christopher Moore's Coyote Blue and does less with it. Then there's one of a series of one-sentence pulp novels by Jeffrey Ford, which are too cute to amount to much, and finally "Auspicious Eggs," a stunningly bad James Morrow story featuring a postapocalyptic version of Catholicism that reads like a cross between Monty Python's "Every Sperm Is Sacred" and a Jack Chick tract. Had I had other options more entertaining than listening to Kate talking on the phone with Verizon's tech support, I would've pitched this out the window.

It does get a tiny bit better later on. The stories by Doctorow, Langford, Pat Murphy, and Robert Silverberg are all good, and Paul DiFillipo's story would. Be good. If it weren't. Written in fragments. For no good reason. But the first stories pretty much set the tone-- a bad mix of stories that aim for "transgressive" and end up just gross, too-obvious Twilight Zone horror, and ham-handed satire. This was Not a Good Collection.

The worst part is, I'm far enough behind on the book log that by the time I got to writing this entry, the book was overdue, so I actually had to part with money for reading it.

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Begun: 7 August, 2001