The Library of Babel: August 2002

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

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October 31, 2002

Trust Me On this by Donald E. Westlake. I read this when it first came out, back in 1988, but hadn't re-read it since. I saw it at the library a week or so back, and picked it up. This book introduces the characters of Sara Joslyn and Jack Ingersoll, the reporters from Baby, Would I Lie?, which is one of Westlake's best, and the one that should be made into a movie.

In Trust Me On This, Sara has just hired on at the Weekly Galaxy, a tabloid paper of the very lowest sort, where she joins Jack's team of writers. The editors (Jack, the hapless Binx Radwell, and the loathsome Boy Cartwright) are required to present the owner/ publisher Bruno DeMassi ("Massa") with thirty story ideas at each morning's editorial meeting. this leads to a certain... casualness regarding, well, facts.

"'The Galaxy Clones a Human Being.'" Awed, he looked down the table at Jack. "We do? We could do that?"

"I'd need help from the science staff, of course," Jack said. "It might--"

"Which human being?" Massa asked. "Man or woman?"

"Well, I was thinking of a man originally--"

"Where's the cheesecake?"

"We could do a woman, of course," Jack conceded. "But remember, sir, it's going to be a baby for--"

"You mean we got a baby around here for twenty years?"

"Well, we don't have to--"

Binx, who at odd moments tried to help other people even though no one ever tried to help him, said, "It might be a mascot, sir."

"Oh, no," Massa said, with a negative wag of the beer bottle. "We had that goat that time, and it didn't work out. A baby isn't gonna be better than a goat."

Not a whole lot to say about this one, really. More Westlake, which means you pretty much know what you're getting. The plot in this one is actually slightly clumsy, being mostly a series of tacked-together episodes in the manic life of the Galaxy, loosely tied together with an unsatisfying murder mystery. It has its moments, but it's not his best work.

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October 27, 2002

Summerland by Michael Chabon. It probably says something about Michael Chabon that he chose to follow Wonder Boys, a sprawling novel about a middle-aged college professor with writer's block with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a sprawling novel about the epic adventures of comic book writers. What it says, I'm not sure. Nor do I have a clue what it says about Chabon that he followed Kavalier and Clay with a 500-page kids' book about Norse mythology, the end of the world, and the mythic significance of baseball.

Summerland is the story of Ethan Feld, an eleven-year-old resident of Clam Island, WA (nowhere near Athos), and possibly the worst baseball player ever in the history of the island. Which makes it especially mysterious that a tribe of ferishers (don't call them "fairies") comes looking for Ethan when they need a champion baseball player to help thwart an attempt by the evil (or at least maliciously mischievous) demigod Coyote to destroy the entire Universe (an event termed "Ragged Rock" in the fractured mythological terminology of the Summerlands). Along the way, he encounters, defeats, or is aided by a bizarre assortment of characters: two giants, one gigantic, the other miniature; the Home Run King of three worlds; an aging Negro League pitcher and hero scout; a baseball-playing Sasquatch; various figures out of American folk tales; and an oracular clam.

This sort of funhouse-mirror mythology is strongly reminiscent of Neil Gaiman, down to this passage which closely echoes the bit I quoted when I booklogged Coraline:

"Excuse me, sir?" Ethan said to the old man with the ponytail. "What did you just say?"

"I was merely observatin', young man, that sooner than you think you goin' to find yourself in the game."

Ethan decided that the old guy was joking, or thought that he was. An informal survey that Ethan has once conducted seemed to indicate that fully seventy-three percent of the things that adults said to him in the course of a day were intended to be jokes. But there was something in the man's tone that worried him. So he adopted his usual strategy with adult humor, and pretended that he hadn't heard.

It's not entirely clear to me who the audience for this book is supposed to be. The tone is that of a YA book throughout, as is most of the writing, but the obsession with baseball, and the numerous in-jokes about the game will probably fly over most children's heads (as a casual fan at best, I'm sure I missed quite a few). Plus, it's five hundred pages long, and the plot is incredibly tangled and myhtology-laden (though looking at the last Harry Potter book, length is no real obstacle...). On the other hand, it's exactly the sort of odd, quirky fantasy novel I like (it reminds me a bit of Will Shetterly's Dogland, which I really must re-read one of these days), so I should probably leave the marketing worries for the folks at Miramax Books, and just enjoy the story.

There are some weird bits here that don't really go anywhere, and a few plot threads get dropped without much explanation, but all in all, this is a fun little book. I generally don't care much for baseball-- I'm terrible at any game requiring me to hit a ball with a stick, and don't go in for the level of stat-wanking that goes on in baseball ("He's got an 0.036 ERA against right-handed batters with blonde hair and mustaches, but a 3.57 ERA against bearded brunettes...")-- but reading this book got me to tune in for a few innings of a World Series not involving the Yankees. That counts as high praise indeed.

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October 16, 2002

Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold. This is a loosely-connected part of the Vorkosigan series (see Diplomatic Immunity), but it doesn't feature any actual Vorkosigans. Which is both good and bad-- in Miles's absence, it's less of a "James Bond in Space" sort of story, but being in the same setting, it winds up as a variant on the fish-out-of-water adventure tale, sort of a more serious version of The In-Laws.

The eponymous Ethan is Dr. Ethan Urquhart, Chief of Biology at the Severin District Reproduction Center on Athos and naif extraordinaire. Ethan is a Very Nice Guy, and as always happens to Very Nice Guys in these sorts of stories, he finds himself caught up in a web of interplanetary intrigue, pursued by cold-blooded killers, and aided by a beautiful agent with an agenda of her own. As an adventure tale in this general mold, it works very well.

The twist-- and there had to be a twist-- is in the nature of Ethan's job and mission. You see, there are no women on Athos, the planet having been colonized by men of a particularly odd religious bent. Reproduction is handled by means of the uterine replicators that are Bujold's signature bit of future technology, and mediated by the doctors of the Reproduction Centers, who carefully select eggs from ovarian cultures brought to the planet by the Founding Fathers a couple hundred years earlier, to be fertilized by the sperm of the father-to-be. Unfortunately, the original ovarian cultures are running out, so Athos is forced to buy more. When their order (from the shady laboratories of Jackson's Whole) turns out to be myeteriously vandalized, Ethan is sent to Kline Station, the nearest contact with outside civilization, to find out what happened, and obtain new ovaries. Hijinks, as they say, ensue.

The biggest flaw in this book is that set-up. The whole Athosian system has the ring of an author trying to Make A Point, rather than a real society, which leads in turn to some awfully clunky passages:

Women. Uterine replicators with legs, as it were. He was not sure if they were supposed to be inciters to sin, or sin was inherent in them, like juice in an orange, or sin was caught from them like a virus. He should have paid more attention during his boyhood religious instruction, not that the subject had ever been anything but mysteriously talked around. And yet, when he'd read one [Betan] Journal [ of Reproductive Medicine] edited of names as a scientific test, he'd found the articles indistinguishable as to the sex of the author.

This made no sense. Maybe it was only thier souls, not their brains, that were so different?

When the story sticks to adventure and intrigue and spy stuff, it's very good, but I had a really hard time getting past the set-up. It's still a fun milieu, and it's a nice change of pace to see Bujold's universe through the eyes of someone who isn't cheerfully Machiavellian, but I found myself rolling my eyes whenever the story drifted back to Athos and the Issues involved. It's not a bad book, but it may be the weakest in the series.

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October 14, 2002

The Bum's Rush by G. M. Ford. This is the third Leo Waterman novel (after Who in Hell Is Wanda Fuca? and Cast in Stone), and by this point, you pretty much know what to expect. This book isn't as dark as its immediate predecessor, and is a little less focussed, having a surfeit of subplots (with one of Leo's sometime employees landing in rehab, as well as two independent cases to work on: finding a librarian who's on the lam after playing Robin Hood with official funds, and checking into the recent death of a brilliant young musician, who may have been the son of a homeless woman encountered in the course of yet another case). Like The Staked Goat (see below), it also uses the dubious device of having some seemingly significant actions turn out to be unrelated to the actual case at hand.

This is probably the weakest of the three books I've read, but it's still a fun read. And it contains a dead-on description of Internet addiction:

I had, during these past months of inactivity, become addicted to surfing the World Wide Web, spending entire days exploring odd topics, decoding pictures of dubious moral merit, and conversing about absolutely nothing with other similarly disposed idlers from all over the globe. I was a hopeless case now. A shambling ruin of a man. The Internet and I were stuck with each other in perpetuity.

I clicked open my mail software, pasted in the address, and typed Tim everything I had on Karen Mendolson. Send. I watched, mesmerized, as the bar filled the little box and the message went through. Good thing I'd discovered the Web a long way past my five-joints-a-day period, or I would surely have been found in some dank cellar, gaunt and wasted, staring moronically at some particularly galling dialogue box.

Good thing for Leo that this was written in 1997, well before web logs...

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October 12, 2002

The Staked Goat by Jeremiah Healy. Astute observers will note that the date of this entry isn't the same as the calendar date. I've developed a backlog on the book log, due mostly to having too much actual work to sit down and type up new entries. Though, oddly, I've still managed to read a bunch of books in the past week or so...

This is either the second or third installment of the John Francis Cuddy series, begun with Blunt Darts. I can't quite tell from the cover copy and "Other Books by this Author" list. As with Blunt Darts, this is much more Spenser than Marlowe-- if anything, the body count is high even for a Robert B. Parker book, the key difference being that Cuddy doesn't come off as quite as indestructible as Spenser does.

The plot has some minor similarities to the first Lethal Weapon movie (which didn't actually suck)-- a murder is committed in the mid-80's that sets a detective on the trail of a dark conspiracy stretching back into Vietnam; bloodshed ensues. This isn't a buddy-cop, things-go-fast-and-blow-up sort of book, though. It's not even that much of a mystery-- it's mostly a payback story. Somebody kills an army buddy of Cuddy's, and he sets out to discover who's responsible, and even the score.

The revenge plot is fairly straightforward, but the story as a whole is complicated by the addition of a bunch of other subplots, involving the dead man's widow, her friends and neighbors, Cuddy's gradual coming to terms with the loss of his wife, and an arson/ murder investigation back in Boston. The last one could've been cut out without damaging the book, in my opinion-- it sets up a convenient death in the middle of the book, and provides a symbolic sort of close to the book, but the mid-book death is needlessly baroque, and the ending is a bit too drawn out.

Not a cheery book by any stretch, but a fast, reasonably diverting read.

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October 11, 2002

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. It's been several weeks since I posted here, but I'm not dead. It's just that a combination of factors worked to keep me from reading a lot of books in September: a busy stretch at work, our decision to buy a house, and The Years of Rice and Salt.

As you probably know unless you've been hiding in a cave to avoid reading any book reviews, The Years of Rice and Salt is an alternate history, taking off from the question "What is the Black Plague had killed 99% of the population of Europe?" In Robinson's alternate world, Christianity is essentially wiped out, leaving the world to Islam and Buddhism, and he follows the resulting history over several centuries. He maps out a generally plausible history for the rise of technological civilization over a span of many centuries, from the re-colonization of Europe through the discovery of the New World (by the Chinese), through the present day.

This wasn't an especially easy book to read, even in those rare stretches when I had time to spend on it. The story is told in an episodic manner, following the same small group of souls through a series of reincarnations, and using them to chronicle crucial moments in the history of the world. We see the reincarnated souls (conveniently identified by first initials-- one has names that begin with "K", another with "B", a third with "I") as explorers, adventurers, scientists, scholars, soldiers, and politicians, and each time at a pivotal historical moment. It's an interesting device (if maybe a hair too clever), but it makes the book a little disjointed, as you're thrown into a completely new set of circumstances every time the scene changes. It may be smoother than if he'd done it with entirely new characters in each scene, but then again, I found myself being a little distracted by looking for the signature names, and trying to match them up with previous chapters.

The book does at least avoid most of the pitfalls of alternate history. It's not entirely successful-- you can sometimes see the hand of the author manipulating events to get something similar to our own history, even if he does avoid the cutesy tactic of having major real-world historical figures make cameos in the vastly changed later stages of the history (mostly by virtue of having wiped Europe and European history off the map...). Still, there are occasional slips-- he makes reference at one point to Tokugawa Ieyasu and the closing of Japan to the outside world, which I'm pretty sure was at least partly due to the presence of Christian missionaries in Japan. In a world without Europe, I would've expected the Tokugawa shogunate to have a different form.

A somewhat different problem is that Robinson is fundamentally an optimist, even if he does drag his WWI analogue out for sixty years. His belief in the better angels of our nature (as it were) leads him to throw in a couple of plot points that strained my ability to willingly suspend disbelief.

Ultimately, I think this book goes into the damning-with-faint-praise category of "impressive achievement." I'm deeply impressed with the care Robinson lavished on developing his alternate history. He's obviously done a careful job researching the major cultures appearing in his tale, and some quibbles aside, he plots out a reasonable history of how they might have interacted in the absence of European powers. It is, as I said, an impressive achievement, but not a novel I'm likely to read again.

(John Novak also has a booklog sort of review of this, and I would've sworn I read comments about it from Trent Goulding, but I don't see it in his archives. Trent should definitely read it, though, because he knows a whole lot more about Chinese history and culture than I do, and is thus in a better position to assess Robinson's presentation of them.)

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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