The Library of Babel: October 2001

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

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October 31, 2001

Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong. I First thought of picking this up a few months back, when two successive books (Guy Gavriel Kay's brilliant Lord of Emperors and Thomas Harlan's alternate history/ military fantasy The Gate of Fire) featured characters who were transparently modeled on the Prophet Muhammad. I realized that, while the events of the books were clearly intended to parallel actual history in some way, I had no idea what the actual history was. (Kay had earlier (with Sailing to Sarantium driven me to read John Julius Norwich's A Short History of Byzantium, because I didn't know anything about them, either... He's a good one for exposing gaps in my education...) I realized that such a lack of knowledge of the origins and traditions of one of the world's great religions was fairly shameful, but didn't get around to actually rectifying the problem until recent world events unleashed an incomprehensible flood of "Shia," "Sunni," "Wahhabi," "Kharajite," and other hard-to-spell religious terms.

True to its sub-title, this is a short history. Excluding the (somewhat spotty) appendices and index, it covers 1,300 years of history in 187 pages. It tends to gloss over entire dynasties of rulers in favor of descriptions of arcane sectarian distinctions, many of which are extremely hard to follow. (But then the same can be said of the equally arcane Christian theological disputes described in Norwich's book-- from my comfortable position in modern secular Western culture, it's mind-boggling to think of bloodshed over such issues...) This focus on theological matters tends to sweep aside whole chunks of potentially interesting narrative-- Muslim Spain, for example, barely gets mentioned-- but does do a nice job of laying out the basic elements and evolution of Muslim doctrine. Of particular interest these days is:

In some circles of the West, the Taliban are seen as quintessential Muslims, but their regime violates crucial Islamic precepts... The Taliban are typically fundamentalist, however, in their highly selective vision of religion (which reflects thir narrow education in some of the madrasahs of Pakistan), which perverts the faith and turns it in the opposite direction of what was intended. Like all the major faiths, Muslim fundamentalists, in their struggle to survive, make religion a tool of oppression and even of violence.

This is much more a work of religious scholarship than actual history-- Armstrong's primary concern throughout is with spiritual matters, and there's a charming sort of naivete in her evident dismay whenever political considerations caused leaders to go against the noble and egalitarian precepts of Islam as originally conceived. But this does work well (as far as I can tell) as a quick primer on how the world got to where it is now.

October 30, 2001

The Green Hills of Earth by Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein is another author (like Tolkien) who I really loved back in junior high and high school, who hasn't aged well for me. He's endlessly debated and fanatically defended on Usenet and elsewhere, and it was a real shock to me when I picked up my well-worn copy of Glory Road after one pass of the Roving Heinlein Flamewar, and found that somebody had replaced it with an all but unreadable facsimile. I used to love this book, but after fifty pages of tedious political asides and leisurely action, I just couldn't take it any more. Societal commentary that once seemed trenchant now sounds like bumper-sticker sloganeering.

I went home this past weekend to visit my parents, and cleverly neglected to bring anything to read. Faced with my usual near-insomnia in the absence of reading material (ironically, one of the bits I fondly remember from Glory Road describes just this condition), I cast an eye over the remnants of my SF collection which still reside in my parents' basement, and decided to give Heinlein another shot. I grabbed this book (a collection of short stories) for two reasons: 1) anthologies make better bedtime reading than novels, because they provide convenient stopping points, and 2) the short-story form is less likely to support the sort of long political digressions that annoyed me on my last attempted Heinlein re-read.

The result was sort of a mixed bag. Reason 1 held up just fine, but Heinlein thwarted theory 2 by the simple expedient of writing some whole stories that are nothing but political digressions (the chief example being "We Also Walk Dogs," which reads sort of like Ayn Rand with a less turgid prose style...). Still, they were, by and large, less preachy than much of his later material.

They were also generally in the "not my bag" category. "Logic of Empire" manages to make a tale of interplanetary slavery incredibly dull (and also pointless, since nothing has really changed when the story ends). The title story verges on cloying, and the "songs" quoted in it are the same borderline unsingable lyrics you get from most prose writers. Heinlein was big on the "noble self-sacrifice" thing, with two of the protagonists dying of radiation poisoning while saving others, one of them already having been blinded by radiation in the course of saving others... For the most part, the characters are interchangeable (you need to keep careful count of the lines in long passages of dialogue, as that's the only way to keep track of who's talking...), and more detail is generally lavished on problems of physics than actual character development. The best story in the lot, for my money, is probably "Ordeal in Space" which is actually a nicely understated little character sketch, with the protagonist being the only character to approach full three-dimensionality.

The most interesting element of the book was that it's so dated, or, rather, the way in which it's dated. The stories were all written in the Forties, and boy, is this a Forties future. Despite the great concern all the spacegoing protagonists have with their limited air supplies, everybody smokes, and they all drink heavily. The communications and navigation technology are strictly WWII vintage, and one story relies on a trajectory calculation (which is probably a two-minute job on a Pentium) needing to be radioed ahead to be entered into a supercomputer on the Moon.

As I said about Mission of Gavity it's sort of amazing to think that people really believed we could (and would) colonize the Solar System (and the Galaxy...) with this stuff.

October 27, 2001

The Final Reflection by John M. Ford. I have a general disdain for the Star Trek franchise, though I admit I watched the show fairly regularly back in college (long after the days of James... Pause... Kirk, but before "Deep Space 9" started boldly sitting in one place where no-one had sat in one place before...). On top of that, I generally dislike franchise or tie-in novels (having been badly scarred by some execrable TSR fantasy product back in the day).

Given those constraints, the fact that I actually own two Star Trek novels is a testament to the abilities of their author, John M. Ford. He's pretty damn good, and the books are not in the least what you'd expect from Star Trek. One is a slapstick musical comedy novel (How Much for Just the Planet?), while this book has the depth of worldbuilding and character development that you expect from an actual novel, but not so much from afranchise book. It steps back to the days of William Shatner and female ensigns in go-go boots, and explores the internal politics and organization of the Klingon Empire and its relationship with the Federation. According to Ford (in a chat on the Well), this book drove Paramount to apply vastly more restrictive rules on their franchise writers, which reflects poorly on them.

Of course, I shouldn't oversell this book either. It's still fundamentally a Star Trek book, with all the dodgy science and silly story conventions that implies. But I think Ford pushed the form about as far as it can be taken-- it's not a patch on, say, Growing Up Weightless, but it's as good a Star Trek novel as you're likely to find.

October 25, 2001

Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones. This book already appeared on Kate's book log, and she's the one I borrowed it from. In form this fits in one of the classic YA-ish categories, namely the College Novel. Granted, the College in question is the Wizards' University, and the students featured in the tale are a hodge-podge of fantasy types: a griffin, a dwarf, a few children of various types of royalty, and so on.

Unfortunately for my reading enjoyment, it's a College Novel written by someone who must've hated college. The professors aren't just bunglers (as required by the form), they're small-minded and mean-spirited, and only interested in their own research, and blindly plugging through a dull curriculum riddled with errors and utterly lacking in value. They don't care about their students at all, and actively impede their attempts to learn. Even the senior wizard brought in at the end to save the day resents the fact that she'll have to take up teaching again, ick.

As one who actively sought out a faculty job at a small liberal arts college in order to be able to both teach students and do a bit of research, I found this a little hard to get past. Granted, she's ham-handedly spoofing the large research university, not a small college, but it still rubbed me very much the wrong way. And as is usual in such cases, this magnified all the other flaws in the book-- the crashingly unsubtle characterization of those who were Bad, the too-pat ending (also an obligatory part of the YA form, I know, but it was rushed and overly neat even for that), the three or four excess subplots that serve no real purpose...

Bleagh. This probably would've been a fun read had it not had such an unpleasant attitude toward the college environment. The plot does move along, and there are a few amusing set-pieces. But the funny bits were hard to hear over the screech of axes being ground, and I hate that sort of thing.

October 22, 2001

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. While I am glad to have obtaned a pre-movie edition of this book (so I didn't have to wander around with Michael Douglas peering off the cover of my book), I probably wouldn't've bought it without the movie. It's vaguely ironic-- I don't want to look like I only read this because of the movie, even though I only read this because of the movie...

As you might expect the biggest change in the book-movie transition was that the lead role (Grady Tripp, the blocked pothead writer and professor) was softened a bit. He didn't turn into a Typical Michael Douglas character (indeed, that's part of the attraction of the movie-- Douglas playing against type), but he took a step in that direction on the way to the screen. The ending was also re-shuffled a bit to make it more upbeat.

(As an aside, I noticed that the physical descriptions given of the characters in the book really don't fit the actors chosen to play them. I can't help wondering if, somewhere out there, there's a mainstream-lit fanboy community wailing and gnashing teeth over the departures from Chabon's text the way the Tolkien fans howl about casting choices and suchlike in the upcoming Lord of the Rings movies...)

Anyway, this is an excellent book, with a nice mix of humor and pathos, and while Grady does literally need to be smacked upside the head before he Gets It, he eventually does reform, a bit. Like Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, the book mostly consists of a trip inside the head of an unlikeable character, so if you don't do that sort of thing, I wouldn't recommend the book, but if you enjoy watching a personal transformation from the inside out, it's a fun read. There isn't as much academic satire as the subject matter might lead you to believe (a good thing, since parts of this term have been rather too much like Russo's Straight Man for my tastes).

As for the inevitable book-movie comparison, I was impressed after reading this by what a good job the adaptation was. They kept most of the good bits of the book, and nailed the spirit of the piece. In some respects, the movie was actually better-- mostly because the time constriants force the filmmakers to focus a little more, removing bits like the extended visit to Grady's soon-to-be-ex in-laws' house for Passover. The scene in the book was funny, and drove home Grady's problems with committment and all that, but it takes a lot of time, and sort of sidetracks things for fifty pages or so. All in all, a good movie, and a good book. I'd recommend both without much hesitation.

October 15, 2001

Under an English Heaven by Donald E. Westlake. This is, believe it or not, a work of non-fiction from the great comic crime novelist. I had never even heard of this book before I saw it on the shelf in a New Haven bookstore, and said "A Westlake I've never even heard of? This I have to see..."

The front cover bears the subtitle "Being a true account of the events leading up to and down from the British invasion of Anguilla on March 19th, 1969, in which nobody was killed but many people were embarassed." Which is as good a description of the subject matter as you could hope for. Also dead-on is the back cover blurb, which includes:

Donald E. Westlake, a comic novelist who had been content to invent his own absurdities, took a proprietary interest in the Anguillan affair, since he considered the British action a flagrant and unwarranted competition with his own comic fiction. After a study of the matter, he came to the conclusion that the actual winner of the Battle of Anguilla was Anguilla; only now [1972] are the British coming to understand the magnitude of their defeat.

This is also a very good description of the book-- even had this been written by some other author, it would've had a certain Westlake cast. The chain of absurdities and miscommunications that leads up to the invasion is just about silly enough to be fiction. It reads rather like a more upbeat version of Kahawa. (Indeed, before writing this, I searched the Web for confirmation of the events, just to be safe. I found the book praised on an actual Anguillan Web page, so it must be good...).

A very enjoyable read. The story moves along nicely, with plenty of the clever quips and asides one would expect from Westlake, and the characters are as daft as any of John Dortmunder's acquaintances. The fact that they're real people only enhances the story.

Anniversary Note

Having passed the two-month anniversary of this log, I'm amused to note (glancing over the archives) that I read and logged exactly thirteen books a month-- thirteen in August, and thirteen in September. I'm not sure there's any global meaning to that, but it's interesting in a vaguely numerological way.

Of course, a better way of looking at it might be to consider the number of books read in the first full month after the founding of the book log, and the second full month after the founding of the log. In which case, the totals creep up to fifteen and fifteen. Spooky.

I guess I'm nothing if not consistent...

October 9, 2001

The Reutrn of the King, by J. R. R. Tolkien. I'm half ashamed to admit that long before I read this for the first time, I had seen the Rankin-Bass animated version. Seen and heard, actually, since my sister and I liked the cartoon enough that my parents went out and bought it on record (you remember those big black vinyl discs, right?), which we played over and over until the grooves started to wear out. For years afterwards, whenever I'd hear Ray Bolger (Actually, that's not the name of the guy. Damn. I should check the IMDB before posting these things...) doing voice-over in a car commercial, I'd think "Gandalf!"

As a result, my earliest impressions of this book were quite strongly colored by the animated version. In a limited sense, that's still true today-- there are a few scenes which were re-arranged for the cartoon which still catch me off guard when I hit the original version.

Anyway, this is the final volume of the series, comprising Books V and VI of the internal ordering. Book V is mostly great fun, containing a bunch of really cool battle scenes, Book VI is less amusing, containing as it does the long depressing slog through Mordor, followed by a few quick scenes of triumph, then a long drawn-out ending. Then a hundred-odd pages of Appendices.

I've never been entirely sure what to make of the Appendices. To paraphrase Bill Bryson, I have the utmost respect for the effort that went into it, but I'm just not sure what it's for. Most of the relevant bits are sketchy, and what isn't sketchy is mostly irrelevant. It's nice to know that Tolkien had everything plotted out as thoroughly and precisely as he did, but frankly, I don't care, so long as the published story works. I tend to skip more or less all of he Appendices, and I also try to pretend that the horrible pseudo-academic "It's all a translation of the Red Book" device doesn't exist at all.

As for the story, well, it's the payoff for all the rest. Battles are fought, evil is vanquished, Good rules the day, and everybody makes it home safe thanks to Tolkien's favorite deus ex machina Gwaihir, the king of the Eagles. It's mostly very good, though there are a few flaws which push this book down below The Two Towers. (As usual, I've posted a more complete review elsewhere).

All in all, an excellent set of books, though they're not really novels. And I'm looking forward to the upcoming films, which have the chance to be excellent as well. (I'm probably looking forward to them more than most hard-core Tolkien fans, as I feel no special affection for his dialogue, or the scenes and characters which have been cut...).

October 6, 2001

The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien. Again, I've posted more complete comments elsewhere.

It's sort of interesting to note that, in the two formative trilogies of my youth (The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars), the middle works are the best works on their own merits. The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie of the three original Star Wars flicks, with the characters and actors having become more assured, and the story deeper, than in the first movie, but without the crass commercialism (in the form of the plush-toy Ewoks) that mars the third.

Similarly, I think The Two Towers is the best book in its own right. The story moves along much better in this volume-- particularly in the Rohan sections, but even the "slogging through the wilderness" travelogue that Sam and Frodo find themselves in is well done. It's got battles and heroism and treachery paid back, and also dark sorcery, sinister scenery, and a suspenseful ending brought on by more treachery The battle scenes are as good as any in the books, and it's not hampered by the slow beginning of the first book or the drawn-out ending of the last.

Some things still grate, particularly the interaction between Frodo and Sam (not aided at all by the suggestion made elsewhere (not by me) that their relationship is actually a depiction of a closeted homosexual crush... Gives new meaning to the scene where Gollum returns to find them dozing, with Frodo's head in Sam's lap, let me tell you...), but I found nothing on a re-read to change my past impression that this was the best book of the three. We'll find out for sure, when I tackle The Return of the King next.

October 4, 2001

The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien. With hype for the upcoming movie(s) starting to build toward the usual Hollywood fever pitch, it seemed like time for a re-read of the series. It's been seven or eight years since I last re-read the whole series (as opposed to dipping into the books briefly to find a passage to make a point, largely because on my last complete re-read, I was badly disappointed.

There's a lot to say about this book, so I'll post more complete comments on my Reviews page. It's not the first invented-world fantasy, but it was the first huge commercial success in the field, which counts for something. And as a work of world-building, it has no peer-- Tolkien worked on the background for years and years (leading to the seemingly endless series of volumes compiled from scraps of paper found in his desk...), and the depth of the history, language, and myth underlying the story is unmatched.

While this depth, and the work behind it, is far and away the books' greatest strength, in an odd sense it's also the greatest weakness of the series. Put another way, Tolkien was fundamentally not a novelist; he was a linguist and medievalist who happened to write a novel in his spare time. Which means that while I'm still floored by the manifest virtues of the books as a piece of world-building, I'm less impressed with the books as novels.

There are grievous problems with the pacing of the story, particularly in this first volume. The plot takes forever to get going, and then moves in fits and starts for most of the book. There's the Birthday-Party sequence, then Gandalf makes some ominous remarks about the Ring, then seventeen years pass, then we get more ominous remarks about the Ring, and the stage is set for actual plot, then we wallow in Edwardian pastoralism for another twenty pages or so. The Hobbits set into motion, and encounter a Black Rider, allowing actual suspense to creep into the tale, and then we have an odd interlude involving a visit to a farmer, followed quickly by the even odder Tom Bombadil interlude (what was he thinking?), and so on. The story doesn't manage to sustain any momentum until after they leave Bree, and then it bogs down again in Rivendell. And so on.

The core of all the problems I have with this book is probably that I am very much a late 20th century American, while Tolkien was, well, very much not one. This shows up most strongly in the relationship between Sam and Frodo, which I'll discuss at length elsewhere, because this is already running a bit long. Suffice to say, I am awed by the work that went into the background for this, but I think the novel in the foreground (as it were) is not of the same order of genius.

Begun: 7 August, 2001