The Library of Babel: November 2003

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

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November 29, 2003

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton. A Victorian sentimental novel, with dragons as the main characters.

At Albacon, Jo explained that this book grew out of the realization that many Victorian novels (she specifically cites Trollope's Framley Parsonage) would make a whole lot more sense if they were written about a different species. As with Trent's review of Quicksilver, this comment really nails the source of my dislike for Victorian novels. It's nice to know smart people who can figure these things out for me.

Happily, while I don't really care for most Victorian fiction that I've read (not a great amount of it, to be fair), I found this book utterly charming. The plot is fairly standard stuff-- issues of money and matrimony, mixed with worries about social class-- but the species change puts a new spin on everything. Weak dragons are in constant danger of being devoured by stronger ones (though civilized custom keeps things somewhat in check), which gives new meaning to the class struggle, while dragon betrothal involves visible physical changes in the female (dragon maidens have their scales turn from gold to pink on getting engaged), which makes many Victorian conventions make considerably more sense.

The dragon-culture is fascinating, and there are hints about the world that suggest real depth. And the writing does a marvelous job of playing off the conventions of the source material:

It has been baldly stated in this narrative that Penn and Sher were friends at school and later at the Circle, and being gentle readers and not cruel and hungry readers who would visit a publisher's offices with the intention of rending and eating an author who had displeased them, you have taken this matter on trust.

The only problem with the book is that the happy ending (you didn't think it would end in tears, did you?) arrives perhaps a bit too abruptly. But that's a minor complaint, as the process of getting there is delightful. This is another terrific book-- Jo's four-for-four at this point.

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November 7, 2003

St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies by John Bellairs. I found this in the dealers room at Albacon, and waffled for a little bit before actually buying it. Why did I plop down $25 for a 123 page book of Catholic jokes?

St. Fidgeta is the patroness of nervous and unmanageable children. Her shrine is the church of Santa Fidgeta in Tormento, near Fobbio in southern Italy. There one may see the miraculous statue of St. Fidgeta, attributed to the Catholic Casting Company of Chicago, Illinois. This statue has been seen to squirm noticeably on her feast day, and so on that day restless children from all over Europe have been dragged to the shrine by equally nervous, worn-out, and half-mad parents. Though no diminution has been noticed in the fidgeting of those children, the feeling is that the restlessness will at least be converted into meritorious work by the action of the saint. On this point see Tertullian, who proves that fidgeting is (or can be) useful unto salvation. Also, see Gregory of Mopsuesta, on fidgeting as a prelude to mystical experience.

If you're Catholic enough to find that passage hilarious, you'll probably enjoy this book (and understand why I bought it). Unfortuantely, you probably won't be able to find it. So go read The Apocalypse Door instead.

If you're not Catholic enough to get the joke, well, you won't mind that I have a copy and you don't. And you should go read The Apocalypse Door anyway.

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November 5, 2003

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. The mammoth brick of a book that has occupied the vast majority of my reading time for the past month. It's not that the book is dull, or a hard slog, or anything like that-- in fact, it's a compellingly readable book. It's just long-- better than nine hundred pages-- which makes it a slow read, no matter how enjoyable the story. (It's also not the sort of book that lends itself to reading in five-minute chunks, between interruptions by a needy dog...)

The scary part is, it's actually only the first third of a whopping huge novel. It cuts off in mid-plot (mid-flashback, even), and two more books of similar size are expected to follow. 2003-4 is going to be a bit short on the booklog count, I think...

I've thought a lot about what to say when booklogging this, and it's really hard to come up with anything sensible. The plot is too complicated to describe, and anyway serves mostly as an excuse for Stephenson to show off both his extensive research and his flair for writing slightly overheated prose. Probably the most valuable service I can provide to prospective readers of the book, then, is to post an extended excerpt from the book. Thus, the following passage, describing Daniel Waterhouse's life with his arch-Puritan, former pamphleteer father, in London during the plague year of 1666:

The goal of all persons who had houses in those days was to possess the smallest number of pieces of furniture needed to sustain life, but to make them as large and heavy and dark as possible. Accordingly, Daniel and Drake ate their potatoes and herring on a table that had the size and weight of a medieval drawbridge. There was no other furniture in the room, although the eight-foot-high grandfather clock in the adjoining hall contributed a sort of immediate presence with the heaving to and fro of its cannonball-sized pendulum, which made the entire house lean from one side to the other like a drunk out for a brisk walk, and the palpable grinding of its gear-train, and the wild clamorous bonging that exploded from it at intervals that seemed suspiciously random, and that caused flocks of migrating waterfowl, thousands of feet overhead, to collide with each other in panic and veer into new courses. The fur of dust beginning to overhang its Gothick battlements; its internal supply of mouse-turds; the Roman numerals carven into the back by its maker; and its complete inability to tell time, all marked it as pre-Huygens technology. Its bonging would've tried Daniel's patience even if it had occurred precisely on the hour, half-hour, quarter-hour, et cetera, for it never failed to make him jump out of his skin. That it conveyed no information whatever as to what the time actually was, drove Daniel into such transports of annoyance that he had begun to entertain a phant'sy of standing at the intersection of two corridors and handing Drake, every time he passes by, a libel denouncing the ancient Clock, and demanding its wayward pendulum be stilled, and that it be replaced with a new Huygens model. But Drake has already told him to shut up about the clock, and so there was nothing he could do.

If you find that entertaining, and would like to read nine hundred more pages written by the mind behind it, go read this book at once. There's more where that came from, including a number of lengthy letters, a few plays, and one rather surreal musical number.

If you read that and think "Aiieeeeee!!!! Horrible compound run-on sentences!!!" stay very far away from this book.

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November 2, 2003

The Man With the Getaway Face by "Richard Stark" (one of Donald Westlake's pen names). This got the dubious honor of supplying my reading material on the way back from my trip to DC. Given that I was running on about three hours of sleep, and a mild hangover, it's a miracle that I was able to focus my eyes to read, but I did, and finished the book shortly before landing.

This is the second novel in the Parker series (right after The Hunter, which 1) was the source for the Mel Gibson movie Payback, and 2) I haven't been able to find. I'm baffled by the latter-- the movie didn't do all that badly, and I would've expected at least a paperback tie-in, but no...

There are a number of slightly odd things about this book. For one thing, at that point in the series, these were clearly being treated as a much more tightly connected series. It opens shortly after the events of The Hunter (by inference, anyway), with Parker waking up in Nebraska with a new face, courtesy of a very discreet plastic surgeon. Now safe from the Outfit, he returns to work, pulling an armored car heist in New Jersey.

The heist isn't actually that much of a heist, which is the second weird thing about the book: it's actually two half-stories pasted together. There's the armored car heist, and the inevitable double-cross, and there's also a story about the plastic surgeon, and Parker's concerns about the Outfit.

The two don't fit together perfectly, but they're individually well done. The heist is relatively straightforward, but described with Westlake's characteristic eye for detail. The double-cross and the plastic surgery plot lead to a few deaths, but they're not especially nasty, and a kind of justice is done.

This was an enjoyable book, even in my sleep-deprived state, and I'll pick up another one on my next bookstore run.

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Begun: 7 August, 2001