The Library of Babel: August 2002

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

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November 29, 2002

The Wide Window by "Lemony Snicket." The third book in the Series of Unfortunate Events series.

After So Like Sleep, I needed something cheerier to read, so I picked this up. "Why," you ask, "Why would a reader in search of enjoyment turn to one of the miserable tales of the unlucky Baudelaire orphans?" Obviously, you haven't read the books, or you'd know that the reason is passages like this one:

The three Baudelaire youngsters looked at one another surreptitiously, a word which here means "while Aunt Josephine wasn't looking." None of them had ever heard of a person who was frightened of realtors.

There are two kinds of fears: rational and irrational-- or, in simpler terms, fears that make sense, and fears that don't. For instance, the Baudelaire orphans have a fear of Count Olaf, which makes perfect sense, because he is an evil man who wants to destroy them. But if they were afraid of lemon meringue pie, this would be an irrational fear, because lemon meringue pie is delicious and has never hurt a soul. Being afraid of a monster under the bed is perfectly rational, because there may in fact be a monster under your bed at any time, ready to eat you all up, but a fear of realtors is an irrational fear. Realtors, as I'm sure you know, are people who assist in the buying and selling of houses. Besides occasionally wearing an ugly yellow coat, the worst a realtor can do to you is show you a house that you find ugly, and so it is completely irrational to be terrified of them.

Other than noting that Mr. Snicket has obviously not read either The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death or Sluggy Freelance, I have nothing more to say.

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November 27, 2002

So Like Sleep by Jeremiah Healy. The third John Francis Cuddy novel (after Blunt Darts and The Staked Goat), and the first of a slew of "next in the series" books I read over Thanksgiving. This got to be first because I had lunch in a diner on that Wednesday (I gave my final exams on that Tuesday, so I stayed home Wednesday to relax and take care of some housekeeping stuff), and I'm just vain enough that I wasn't going to bring a Lemony Snicket book with me...

The first two books (particularly the second one) are closer to adventure novels than classic "whodunnit" detective stories. This is the most mystery-ish of the bunch so far, with Cuddy taking up the seemingly hopeless case of a young black man who confessed to killing his white girlfriend while under hypnosis in a therapy group. The kid confessed in front of witnesses, had the murder weapon in his possession, and isn't interested in Cuddy's help, but he agrees to take the case in order to repay a debt, and something about the therapy group seems fishy.

This book managed to be both less and more twisted than I expected from the early chapters-- or, put another way, the plot is disturbing, but not in the way I expected. It's reminiscent of Cast in Stone by G. M. Ford, actually, a book that in many ways would be more at home in the Cuddy series than the Waterman one.

There's some good stuff here, with the other members of the therapy group being well drawn, and some good material involving Cuddy's relationship with his dead wife. The resolution of the plot isn't pleasant for anyone, though.

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November 26, 2002

The Old Gods Waken by Manly Wade Wellman. This is (according to the cover) the first "Silver John" novel, about the wandering musician featured in John the Balladeer. I picked this up one night a week or two back, to suggest to Kate when she was looking for something more pleasant than whatever it was she was reading at the time, but wound up reading it myself. As noted in the entry for that earlier book, these are good "comfort reading" books, as the narrator is a pleasant person to spend time with.

This book finds John paying a visit to Mr. Creed Forshay and his son Luke, who find themselves in a dispute with two foreign brothers regarding the boundary between the Forshay's land and the neighboring plot which the Voths have taken over. The particular patch they're arguing over has an odd stone figure on it:

It was something to see. Big stones, boulders you might say, had been fetched together to make the outline. I should reckon it would be forty feet up and down the slope and twenty from side to side, a chunky body of bunched arms and a head on top, and short legs and long arms a-hanging down. Those stones were bigger than the monkey=faced ones in the patch the quarrel had been about. Without having aught of a way to be sure, I made a guess that some stones in that figure were tons heavy. And they must have been carried long ways from yonder here and there, especially to get them in the right shapes, chunky ones to lay close together for the body part, lean ones end to end for arms and legs.

Such a remarkable figure is bound to have some sort of mystic significance, and it rapidly becomes clear that John and the Forshays have stumbled into a sorcerous plot. The Voths are Druids from the British Isles, come to seek an unholy alliance with the dark powers on Wolter Mountain. It's up to John and his friends to thwart them.

The story is fairly typical of Wellman's work, as John and company fight the Voths with an odd mix of sturdy Christian faith and miscellaneous folk wisdom. Despite the longer format, the novel contains about the same number of events as one of the short stories in the collection mentioned above (maybe a few more), but the tale unfolds at a more leisurely pace. It actually works pretty well, as the casual flow of the story suits the narrator.

I'm not sure I'd recommend scouring the Earth to find these books, but I do enjoy them as comfort reads. Wellman's magical Appalachia is an interesting setting, and the narrative voice is both distinctive and enjoyable (to me, at least-- I'm sure the dialect will grate on some nerves). At the very least, though, they're worth a look if you run across them.

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November 25, 2002

Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure by Alexander Wolff. Readers of my other weblog will no doubt be thrilled to know that the basketball content will be extending to the book log as well. What can I say, I'm a hoop junkie.

As noted a while back, there seems to be some inverse correlation between the pace of a sport, and the quality of the literature surrounding it. A good example in support of this would be the fact that there aren't really any great novels (that I can think of) about basketball (though Bruce Brooks's The Moves Make the Man is a pretty good YA-ish book).

The game has, however, produced some very good non-fiction books. John Feinstein's A March to Madness, describing a season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and his The Last Amateurs, about a season in the smaller Patriot League, are examples of good writing about a great game. Feinstein's prone to repetition-- you can never really lose sight of the point he has in mind for one of his books, as he repeats it every three pages or so-- but as sports writing goes, they're excellent books.

Into that same category, I'd insert Big Game, Small World. A hoop junkie like myself, but a journalist by trade, Wolff set out to investigate the state of basketball around the world, visiting sixteen different countries, from Canada, where Dr. James Naismith (the inventor of the game) was born, to Bhutan, where the king has a daily pick-up game with the Royal Guards, to Angola and Bosnia, where the games go on in spite of bloody civil wars.

Given that context, it was particularly surprising to find a mention of my home town, when Wolff visits a Gus Macker 3-on-3 tournament in Florida:

Trolling through the courts, I found a team to follow. The Whitney Point Eagles came from a town of about 1,000 on the southern tier of New York State. They'd qualified for the nationals by winning the 11- and 12-year-old girls' division at the Macker in Norwich, New York, back in July. To fund their trip, the Eagles had spent the intervening months raising more than $3,000 with car washes, bake sales, and raffles, and "by returning a lot of bottles and cans," according to one of the girls' moms, all of whom had made the trip. (The dads were back in Whitney Point, making do with delivered Domino's.)

(I have two quibbles with the last aside: first, as far as I know, Domino's won't deliver to Whitney Point, and second, there's better pizza available in town...)

It turns out that I actually sort-of-know one of the girls mentioned in the book (I've played pick-up games with her father, and she and her father used to borrow my father's gym keys on a regular basis so she could practice). They're only in the book for a page or two, but it's a decent description, and more than Whitney Point usually rates. And it's a kick to see girls my father used to coach mentioned in the same book as the basketball-playing Bhutanese royal family.

The pieces are generally very good, but the book is subject to the general flaws that plague sports writing. First, Wolff has a tendency to try to stretch for a Larger Meaning. This is particularly pronounced in the sections on Angola and the former Yugoslavia, where he tries to present basketball as some sort of metaphorical alternative to warfare. I found this a little grating; someone from one of those countries might find it downright insulting.

He also has a tendency to overreach slightly in the writing. Sometimes, this works-- his description of Tokyo ("If the good folks who bring you The Shaper Image catalog were to design a theme park, this would be it") is dead on, but the same impulse that leads to the occasional brilliant metaphor can also lead to some jarring errors in word choice: in the same piece as the Tokyo line, about a female star who became a cloistered nun, he describes a trip to Las Vegas where the future Poor Clare "cleaned out every basketball arcade game [at Circus Circus] and headed to the Strip, where she plied kids with the stuffed animals she'd just won." He's stretching a bit, to sound more impressive, but "plied" has a sleazy, "hey, little girl, I've got a candy bar," connotation that's probably not the sort of thing he was shooting for. Those sorts of "That doesn't quite means what you think it means" slips are pretty common, both in this book, and sports writing in general.

(I should note that the mention of the Poor Clares interacts... oddly with The Apocalypse Door...)

Those are just quibbles, though. On the whole, it's a very good book, at least if you're a fan of the game of basketball. I'm not sure whether I'd recommend it to people who don't already like the game.

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November 18, 2002

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. I've been beaten to this by Pam Korda, Mike Kozlowski, and Martin Wisse, so there's really not a whole lot to say that one of them didn't say. Not that that ever really stops me.

This is probably the least overtly funny Pratchett book I've read in a long time-- the manic tone of some of the other Discworld books is scaled way back, in favor of a much more serious, almost pensive approach. Which is fitting for the subject, as Sam Vimes finds himself sent back in time to the days when he was just starting out on the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch, and has to work hard to avoid disastrous changes to the space-time continuum, and all that. There are funny bits, to be sure, but all in all, the book is a serious one, about power, responsibility, revolution, and the way experience changes a person.

In the end, it's probably one of Pratchett's best books, though it wasn't quite what I was expecting when I started it (I've got a wretched cold, and was expecting something a little more madcap to take my mind off the virus of the moment...). It's definitely not a good place to start reading, though-- the story relies rather heavily on the established character of Sam Vimes (one of my favorites, and one of Pratchett's favorites as well, I think...), and also on some of the well-known features of Ankh-Morpork. Kate's standard recommendation of a starting place is Small Gods, and Guards! Guards! is the book which introduces Vimes.

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November 10, 2002

Dragon by Steven Brust.

"Well, Vlad," he said, "Are you prepared to strike another blow for freedom?"

"Is that what we're doing?"

"No, but it sounds better than helping a wealthy and powerful aristocrat maintain his wealth and power."

This was the first book I ever ordered from Amazon, in case anyone cares-- I was in Japan when it came out, and it had been long enough since the last Vlad book that I wasn't willing to wait until my return to the US to read it.

This book tells the long-awaited story of the Battle of Baritt's Tomb. If you haven't been awaiting this story, you shouldn't read this book-- start with Jhereg or Yendi, and work your way up to it. If you have been awaiting this story, well, you know pretty much what you're getting. Sorcery, skullduggery, major-league ass-kicking, psionic wisecracks, and snappy dialogue galore. And clever games with the narrative-- this is a Brust book after all.

There's not much to be said about the plot without spoiling it, so I won't say much. Instead, I'll just quote the scene most appropriate to this setting, where Vlad is browsing in Morrolan's library:

Loiosh informed me of his approach just before he said "You may borrow them, if you wish," so I could avoid letting him startle me.

"I'd like that very much."

"I should warn you, however, that I have several volumes devoted to curses for people who don't return books."

"I'd like to borrow those, too."

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November 7, 2002

The Apocalypse Door by James D. Macdonald. James Macdonald is one of the authors of the Mageworlds series (see A Working of Stars), as enjoyable a space opera as you're likely to find anywhere. In this book, he turns his hand to something a little different-- a hard-boiled story about a good man fighting the forces of Evil. Peter Crossman's not your average PI, though:

Yeah, I'm a Knight of the Temple. We didn't go away in the fourteenth century, no matter what Phillip the Fair tried to pull. The Order has a mission and we're carrying it out. To protect holy places, travelers in holy places, and certain relics. Straightforward. You'd think that people would let us just get on with it.

But no. Warrior monks make too good a target, especially when they've got a lot of assets and the King of France doesn't. So it was accusations of witchcraft, sodomy, and sacrilege; confiscation of worldly goods, the thumbscrew and the stake; and time for all good little Templars to find urgent business abroad. But that's all ancient history-- Anno Domini 1307, to be exact-- and this story is about now.

The premise alone is worth the price of the book. As a bonus, it's also a pretty good story, adding a rivalry with the Teutonic Knights, an order of assassin nuns, and evil relics dredged from a Russian lake. Not to mention plenty of James Bond gadgetry, and great caper scenes. Things Go Fast, they Blow Up, and a Dark Menace of indeterminate origin is defeated.

The only thing that doesn't quite work is a plot thread tying the present-day action into the narrator's obligatory Dark Past, but even that is mostly well executed. And again, the premise alone is enough to make this a fun read.

Apparently, some short stories featuring this character have been published in various anthologies. One more thing to add to the list of things I look for in used book stores.

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November 4, 2002

The Reptile Room by "Lemony Snicket." The second book in the Series of Unfortunate Events series, this is no less silly than its immediate predecessor. If anything, Mr. Snicket has probably increased the level of humor that will be appreciated mostly by adults:

"Ackroid!" Sunny said, which probably meant something like "Roger!"

Is the sort of line that's sure to have many a parent snickering, while their children look at them oddly. There are also some gloriously deadpan asides to the reader (even if some people manage to miss the point):

It is now necessary for me to use the rather hackneyed phrase "meanwhile, back at the ranch." The word "hackneyed" here means "used by so many writers that by the time Lemony Snicket uses it, it is a tiresome cliche." "Meanwhile, back at the ranch" is a phrase used to link what is going on in one part of the story to what is going on in another part of the story, and it has nothing to do with cows or horses or with any people who work in rural areas where ranches are, or even with ranch dressing, which is creamy and put on salads.

This is not your average children's book. Thank God.

As to the plot, well, there's not much to say that Kate and Pam haven't already said. The Events are Unfortunate, and part of a Series chronicling the unfortunate story of the unlucky Baudelaire children.

I wouldn't pay ten bucks to own this, but it's a fun read out of the library. And I'll definitely read more of these.

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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.

The comment feature is provided by YACCS, and is dead simple to install. If you're looking to add comments to a weblog, it's a good way to go.

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Begun: 7 August, 2001