The Library of Babel: November 2001

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

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January 1, 2002

The Science of Discworld by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen. While this shows up in the log as the first book of 2002, because I finished it in BWI airport on the way back from a New Year's party, it's really the last (well, tied for last) book of 2001. It's fitting that this book should occupy such a liminal position, as it's an odd sort of in-between book...

This is not, as the authors take pains to point out, a book which explains how the various absurdities of Discworld are possible through the judicious application of science. As they note:

We could have taken this approach. We could, for example, have pointed out that Darwin's theory of evolution explains how lower lifeforms can evolve into higher ones, which in turn makes it entirely reasonable that a human should evolve into an orangutan (while remaining a librarian, since there is no higher life form than a librarian). We could have speculated on which DNA sequence might reliably incorporate asbestos linings into the insides of dragons. We might even have attempted to explain how you could get a turtle ten thousand miles long.

We decided not to do these things, for a good reason... umm, two good reasons.

The first is that it would be ... er ... dumb.

And this because of the second reason. Discworld does not run on scientific lines. Why pretend that it might? Dragons don't breathe fire because they've got asbestos lungs-- they breathe fire because everyone knows that's what dragons do.

Accordingly, the authors have set out to write a book which uses the wizards of Discworld to illustrate points about how and why science works in our world. This is accomplished by splitting the book into two parallel threads: a Discworld story where the usual collection of batty wizards fiddle around with the "Roundworld Project" in which rocket wizard Ponder Stibbons (soon to be named Head of Inadvisably Applied Magic) creates a pocket universe which strongly resembles ours, alternating chapters with a non-fiction explanation of the scientific reasons behind the odd real-world phenomena which baffle the wizards. As such, it's sort of two half-a-books: a minor Discworld story, and a mostly unexceptional pop-science book.

This is actually probably a fairly effective approach for the target audience-- SF readers who are likely to buy Pratchett anyway, and who are likely to have an interest in scientific matters, but not that likely to have a strong technical background. This is clearly a book written by and for SF fans, both from the number of references to SF works or concepts (much is made of the idea of "space elevators," and Arthur C. Clarke rates a half-dozen mentions), and also from the fannish tendency to slightly over-emphasize ideas which are on the fringes of scientific acceptability, but would be really, really neat if they turned out to be true.

As a very technical boy (to shamelessly crib a phrase from William Gibson), it doesn't entirely come off for me. The science bits are mostly good, though there's some dodgy stuff in the physics sections (perhaps not suprising, given that it was written by a mathematician and a biologist). It sort of meanders for a while, touching on a variety of topics, before finally getting into a decent groove by focussing on biology and evolution (see aside above). The writing is generally good, and the explanations clear if not deep. They had a few amusing things to say about physics, and I may crib an analogy or two for teaching purposes, but as pop-science books go, it's nothing too spectacular.

As a book to learn about science from, it's not that great. As a clever way to hook Discworld readers into thinking "Hey, Science is Cool!", it's better.

December 31, 2001

Tolkien: A Celebration, edited by Joseph Pearce. Strictly speaking, I haven't really finished this, but I've more or less decided to stop reading it, which is close enough. As it's a collection of essays, skipping a few here and there doesn't really invalidate any comments I make about the ones I did read, so I'm putting it up here anyway.

I don't generally read much literary criticism, but this book (a collection of critical essays about Tolkien's work) was loaned to me by the priest in my parents' parish (who waited in line to get tickets for the very first showing of The Fellowship of the Ring), so I felt I should give it a look, especially since I've had rather a lot to say about Tolkien in recent months (book log entries for The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, plus full reviews linked from those entries, and movie comments below).

Unfortunately, this book is an excellent reminder of why I generally don't read much literary criticism. The critical essays are overwrought in that peculiar way in which literary criticism is always overwrought-- there are hardly any adjectives which aren't superlatives, and no specific statements where sweeping generalizations are available. The majority of the essays focus on Tolkien's Catholicism (unsurprising, given the source of the book), and you'd think he was the greatest thing since Saint Thomas Aquinas from some of the things they say.

The best of the essays in the collection are probably the ones which have some biographical component, providing a bit of information about the man and his life outside the books he wrote. These, however, generally run afoul of one of the great pitfalls in literary biography-- authors tend to be just plain weird, and not always in a way that enhances one's enjoyment of their work. Tolkien comes across as more than a little daft, and the liberal quotes from his personal letters which are scattered through the book only enhance my earlier impression of his anti-modernism as more cranky than thoughtful, and his Catholicism strikes me as rather dogmatic. Elwin Fairborn's essay J. R. R. Tolkien: A Mythology for England particularly highlights Tolkien's Englishness (which he took great pains to distinguish from Britishness), which unfortunatley provides a real-life echo of the obsession with bloodlines which I find so creepy in The Lord of the Rings. (Please note, I'm not claiming he was a N*zi or anything of the sort-- just that the obsessive drawing of arbitrarily rigid ethnic distinctions is something that I, as an American of Polish, Irish, and a bit of German ancestry, find deeply unpleasant.)

The most concise description of this I can give would be that it's really not my bag. It does shed some light on the man's life and work, but not in a way that improves anything for me. To strain an analogy, it's the sort of flickery fluorescent light that you really don't want to encounter at the bathroom mirror in the morning.

December 28, 2001

The King's Name by Jo Walton. Jo Walton is unique among published SF authors in that I've not only met her, but also indirectly obtained a very good recipe for macaroni and cheese from her. I'm sure that dozens of authors are clamoring to enter this exclusive company.

The King's Name is Jo's second novel, the sequel to The King's Peace, a sort of alternate-Arthurian fantasy following the life story of Sulien ap Gwien, a sort of female knight who joins up with the High King Urdo (the Arthur-analog) as he attempts to wrest a new order from the chaos which reigns in Tir Tanagiri after the fall of the Vincan Empire. This latest volume starts with a bang, an opening sentence which may be one of the all-time greats:

The first I knew about the civil war was when my sister Aurien poisoned me.

Urdo, with the help of Sulien and a number of other knights and warriors, has forged a new Peace, and established the rule of law in Tir Tanagiri, but Peace isn't sitting easily with the warlike kings of the island, and a combination of religious tension and moustache-twirling evil manipulation has brought the island to the brink of civil war. Sulien, who for five years has been ruling her ancestral lands as Urdo's vassal, must take up arms again and help save the land the law, and the Peace.

This is a very nice piece of work. Sulien's voice is extremely well done (the framing devices is that she's writing all this down many years later, to let future generations know what things were really like), dancing the fine line between properly reflecting her knowledge of later events and maintaining some suspense in the narrative. The plot moves along very briskly, and it's easy to get carried along with it. The story follows the broad outlines of the Arthur legends, so there's an air of familiarity to the whole thing, but the actual plot is different enough to remain intersting. And the book manages to convey a sense of coarse and grubby realism without revelling in the dirt.

My one complaint is with the introduction, a bit of faux-academic prose purporting to introduce a translation of the so-called "Sulien text," an ancient document of questionable provenance. As a general rule, I hate this device, and wrapping it around a "what has gone before" summary of the first book doesn't make it go down any easier. Happily, it's only seven or eight pages, and not connected to the main text, so I can treat it like the tedious foreward to The Fellowship of the Ring and simply pretend that it doesn't exist.

December 26, 2001

The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett, illustrated by Paul Kidby. Also a cheat, in a different sense-- I bought this book as a Christmas present for Kate, then I went and read it before she did...

This entry actually has more in common with the previous entry than you might think. In both cases, another artist is given a chance to depict characters and settings from well-loved books visually. Peter Jackson put Tolkien on film, Paul Kidby puts Pratchett on paper in a different sense than usual.

This is an illustrated book in the same basic class as Neil Gaiman's Stardust or The Dream Hunters. While I suppose you could read just the text of the story, it just wouldn't work half as well without the pictures. The story is good (Cohen the Barbarian sets out for the home of the gods ("Dunmanifestin") with a keg of explosives, to "return what the first hero stole"), but the illustrations lift it to a higher level than it would otherwise achieve. The excerpts from the notebooks of Leonard of Quirm alone make this worth picking up, and the pictures of the Librarian are terrific.

December 22, 2001

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, a movie by Peter Jackson. OK, this is cheating, because it's a movie, not a book, but it is based on the book, and I did review the original book, so I figure I might as well throw in my comments on the movie, which I saw a few days after it opened, back home in Scenic Whitney Point, New York.

In a word: Wow. What an amazing piece of work this is. It's not just a good adaptation of a book, it's a good movie. Jackson does a brilliant job of putting the story on screen-- the story's adapted well enough to please most casual fans of the books (the hard-core fanatics won't be pleased with anything...), and comprehensible to non-fans (we saw it a second time over New Year's, with a friend-of-a-friend who hadn't read the books, and she followed it with no trouble). It's got action, good acting, spectacular effects and sets, and a palpable sense of menace. I'm amazed at how sinister they managed to make an unadorned gold ring...

As with any adaptation of a cherished book, most of the talk among fans centers on what was changed in the transition between media. Which, to be fair, is a pretty substantial list. But on the whole, I think the changes are entirely necessary to make the story work as a movie, and actually improve upon the book in some respects.

For one thing, the early part of the plot has been greatly streamlined. The stop-go-stop-go structure has been tightened up through the removal of a couple of pastoral interludes (Tom Bombadil among them, thank God), giving the movie a real sense of dread and building tension that isn't quite there in the book. From the first appearance of the Ring right up to the showdown with the Nazgul at the Ford of Bruinen, the movie keeps building momentum. Even on a second viewing, the Nazgul scenes are tense (and I knew how they ended before the first viewing...). The effect is heightened by showing Saruman's treachery directly, rather than having Gandalf tell the story at the Council of Elrond. The dreaded "Arwen, Warrior Princess" scenes actually work moderately well, hampered only by a slightly wooden reading from Liv Tyler, and basically kills two birds with one stone, keeping the size of the cast down by having Arwen fill the role of Glorfindel, and addressing the romance issues I talked about in my comments on The Return of the King.

Subtler changes also worked well. The Sam-Frodo relationship is vastly less annoying in the movie than on the page-- they still play up the class difference by having Sean Astin affect a goofy pseudo-English accent, but at least he's not cloyingly servile. Sean Bean does a wonderful job with the role of Boromir, which has been subtly re-written to flesh out the character. Some of the re-written or re-arranged dialogue is used to great effect-- in particular, moving the "many who live deserve death" from Bag End to Moria is a very nice touch. And the comic relief bits are integrated into the main action much, much better than in the book, where they tend to be both jarring and unfunny.

There are bits that don't work, to be sure. The temptation of Galadriel was a bit over-the-top, and the wizard duel between Gandalf and Saruman is awfully cheesey. And, somewhat ironically given the nasty things I've said elsewhere about Tolkien's poetry, I wish they'd kept a few of the rhymes in the book (the full poem about the rings, and the "All that is gold does not glitter" verse, in particular...). The sinister choir chanting the Ring verse in the language of Mordor (during the Council of Elrond scene) is a nice touch. And yes, I'm a geek for recognizing that.

All in all, this was a fantastic movie. Jackson did a better job of it than even I had hoped. And the abrupt ending takes me back to the days when I was nine years old, and walked out of the theater after hearing Darth Vader say "I am your father." I want the other two movies right now...

December 20, 2001

The Long Run by Daniel Keys Moran.

Once there was a thief, and the thief was God.

This is one of my all-time favorite books. I'm cheating a little by posting this now, because I haven't actually finished the current re-read, but I'm leaving town for a while tonight, and won't have much chance to update this log later. And anyway, it's not like I don't already know how it ends...

I know I said I was going to read good solid non-fiction next, and I did start a non-fiction book. But 1100-page history books aren't the sort of thing you want to be reading while sitting around the waiting room of a car repair shop, and I was still in the mood for good, well-written, fun SF. Hence, The Long Run.

Graydon Saunders (I think) once said that the characters in Brust's Vlad Taltos series (see: Yendi or Orca) "ooze panache." Compared to Trent the Uncatchable, the lead character of this book, Vlad Taltos is a gibbering madman with no sense of style. This is an incredibly fun book to read-- part caper novel, part adventure yarn, part political tract, part sci-fi epic. And Aaron Sorkin wishes he could write dialogue this snappy.

"[W]hen I take something that belongs to, say, a Player whose behavior I find inappropriate... I've touched that person. They can't ignore what I'm saying to them. They can't."

Denice stared at him. "You mean-- you steal things-- so people will listen to you?"

"No, no," said Trent impatiently. "Don't be silly. Nobody ever listens anyhow. Mostly I steal things because I get paid for it." He grinned at her. "But isn't that a great explanation?"

Denice smiled slowly, reluctantly. "Oh, Trent." She shook her head slowly, the smile fading. "I never did know when to believe you."

"Believe everything I say," said Trent.


"Or nothing. The results are the same."

"What results?"

"Chaos usually. But only because most of the people I hang out with have no sense of humor."

At the risk of sounding like a drooling fanboy, Trent rules.

It's not like the book is Great Literature, or anything, or a towering and influential Classic of the Genre-- for one thing, the setting is completely daft (in the early 21st century, the UN seizes control of the entire world. In the ensuing war, most countries are badly damaged (America and Japan are reduced to occupied territories), leaving the French as Evil Overlords of most of the world, via the Unification. Yes, the French), and many of the props seem a bit silly, too (telepaths, ultra-cool hackers, nearly invincible elite cyborgs), but it's carried off with such style and verve that you hardly notice. It's neither literary nor influential, but I'm hard pressed to think of another book I've enjoyed reading (and re-reading) half as much.

The hell of it is, The Long Run is long out of print, save for expensive small-press editions (available through Moran's web site), and will probably remain that way due to a combination of the vagaries of publishing, and the fact that Moran appears to be a bit difficult to work with. Even more annoying is the fact that he has more books in the series written, and can't get them published. It's maddening.

Barring some sort of miracle which shakes Players: The AI War loose and gets it into print, The Long Run is the only book out there about Trent the Uncatchable, and it's a hard one to find. But it's well worth scouring used book stores for a copy, and might even be worth the price of the vanity press edition.

December 18, 2001

The Naked God (Part 2: Faith) by Peter F. Hamilton. In talking about the first half of this volume on Usenet, I flippantly referred to it (with a tip of the hat to Sluggy Freelance) as Game Called On Account of Naked God. I had no idea how eerily accurate that description would turn out to be. The plot doesn't so much get resolved as get whistled for illegal procedure, five-yard penalty, repeat second down.

Of course, the fact that the back cover copy features the phrase "Deus Ex Machina" in great big letters probably should've been a hint. Somebody really ought to tell the marketing people at Warner/Aspect that, in literature, a deus ex machina is rarely a positive feature. (Additionally, they really ought to fire the morons from the* Usenet hierarchy who did the copyediting-- "loose" is consistently used for "lose" throughout, and late in the plot, the Chief Satanist revels in his plan to loose (heh) "dark angles" upon the world...)

But "deus ex machina" pretty much sums up the conclusion to the Oversexed Space Pirates saga. After a few thousand pages, the whole plot is wrapped up when that most intrepid and dashing of heroes, Joshua Calvert, obtains godlike powers, and just... fixes everything. Well, isn't that special. What a stupendously bad decision that was on the part of the author. It's not even entertainingly bad, it's just plain bad.

For close to seven hundred pages, this was a very entertaining read. The "science" had a certain Flash Gordon quality to it (nattering on about "energistic states"), but actual scientific terms are abused with such flair that it's actually sort of fun-- all it needed was for someone to suggest reversing the polarity of something as a solution to the whole crisis. Then the wheels come off. Well, actually, they'd started to come off a hundred-odd pages earlier, when the Valisk subplot went all wonky, but everything goes to hell very rapidly at the end. Previously interesting subplots (Al Capone and his Organization) dissolve into baffling anticlimax, previously uninteresting subplots (Valisk) entwine unconvincingly with the main plot line, tantalizing hints of some actual depth (Norfolk after its removal) are tossed aside like so much trash, and then it's deus ex machina time, seasoned with some utterly daft mumblings about entropy and the "Omega Point." And to top it all off, when the major characters pair off at the end, they get it all wrong.

The real shame of it is that, for all my snide comments about the 'Bot Fodder nature of these books, there's an interesting idea at the core of the whole thing. Pared down by about a thousand pages, and stripped of some extraneous subplots, this could've been a fascinating story. I don't know if there's an editor out there with the superhuman powers needed to wrestle the existing books into shape, but I wish that one of the numerous people thanked in the acknowledgements had said "Do you really think this is part of the same story? I mean, it's a neat idea, but it really doesn't have much to do with the plot..."

Feh. I'm going to go read some history, or something. Good, solid non-fiction, I think, to try to clear that ending away.

December 16, 2001

The Naked God (Part 1: Flight) by Peter F. Hamilton. This is Volume 3A of Oversexed Space Pirates vs. the Living Dead, the three horse-choking hardcovers of the original printing having been split into six horse-choking paperbacks (the paperback is 775 pages, about the same number as one of the hardcovers) in the US. Think how much better the world would be if this sort of literary loaves-and-fishes act could be performed on better books...

I've been warned that the third book takes an awful turn, and retroactively ruins the story for some people. I have no idea what effect that will have on my enjoyment of the books, as I'm mostly in this for the MST3K kick of the just-bad-enough-to-be-funny writing and plotting. Anyway, the weird turn, whatever it is, doesn't occur in the first half of the third book, which lurches along in more or less the same manner as the previous two volumes.

Which is not to say that there aren't annoying elements here. I was particularly bugged by the "Nice Possessed" subplot, featuring a bunch of Living Dead who are actually Real Nice People slogging across the landscape of a section of a possessed planet which is coming under attack from a liberating army of biological constructs. It's not as effective as the author thinks at generating sympathy for the plight of the Living Dead, and the Austin Powers dialogue of the hippie possessor is excruciating. I also grew a bit tired of the way Hamilton drove home the alien-ness of the alien generation ship by constantly having characters remark to one another that the ship really wasn't anything at all like a human ship...

The scenery continues to be impressive (the Kiint home system is a nice bit of invention), but very little of it stands up to the slightest scrutiny. I don't know whether to be charmed by the naivete of an interstellar empire in which antimatter is the ultimate military tool, and is only available to pirates and rogue states, or to feel like my intelligence has been insulted (I'm leaning toward the latter...). The shadowy cabal ruling Earth is unintentionally hilarious in the same way that the conspiracy elements of The X Files are funny, and the when the curtain concealing the inner workings and rituals of the Interstellar Church of Satan is tugged aside, they, too, are revealed to be more daft than sinister.

There are some good bits here: the space battles are fun, the futuristic harware is cool, and the book narrowly avoids taking itself too seriously. "Lagrange Calvert meeting an actual God," remarks one character, "We ought to be able to see the clash of egos from this side of the nebula." The books get sillier with every passing page, but through three-and-a-half volumes, it's still entertainingly bad, at least.

We'll see what happens in the final installment.

December 13, 2001

Headcrash by Bruce Bethke. This book is pretty much what you'd get if you took all the Sumerian lingustics out of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and filled the gaps with material from the Bastard Operator From Hell files. Both Snow Crash and Headcrash are over-the-top lampoons of many of the tropes of "cyberpunk" (a term Bethke claims to have coined), and feature something of a geekly apotheosis (this leads one to idly wonder if there's a book on the way to complete the "Noun Crash" trilogy...). Additionally, Bethke and Stephenson obviously both graduated from the same School of Unsubtle Satire (see my comments on The Big U)-- when Bethke starts in on corporate culture, it's even less sporting than shooting fish in a barrel. It's more like trout fishing with tactical nuclear weapons.

Still, the book is mostly a fun ride. The humor gets a bit sophomoric at times (the "ProctoPod" interface was a bit much), but there's something sort of contagious in the author's evident enjoyment of the story he's writing. It drags you along through some slow and silly passages, but it's worth riding out the stranger bits for the sequence where they hack into the personal virtual reality simulations of the king of all hack authors.

Unfortunately, Bethke also seems to have looked to Stephenson for guidance on how to end a book. The roller-coaster ride doesn't so much come to an end as jump the tracks, slam through a comcession stand, and splash down into a duck pond. The plot, while silly, proceeds in a fairly reasonable manner for a little over 300 pages, then takes a sudden left turn and just... stops. The last few chapters read sort of like one of those story-by-committee deals, where a bunch of well-known authors take turns writing a chapter each, and trying to stick the next person in line with an impossible situation. Or possibly it's some sort of bindery screw-up out of If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, and an absurdist novel of some sort has mysteriously found itself with an ending that makes sense...

This book wouldn't be able to reach Great Literature on a satellite phone, but it's a fun read for 320 pages. If it weren't 342 pages long, I'd recommend it without hesitation.

December 10, 2001

Fen Country by Edmund Crispin. A collection of Gervase Fen detective stories, plus a number of stories featuring other characters. I've actually had this book sitting in my office since August-- you can see it on the shelf behind me in my picture on the extremely slow to load department web page (along with a bunch of other books, an empty water bottle, and a few pictures of Kate...), and have been reading a story or two at a time, when I have time to kill.

This is a very lightweight collection of stories. They tend to fall into the subgenre of overly clever mysteries, where the solution turns on the detective noticing some odd little quirk which solves the case provided you know a bunch of other information already. One of the last few stories in the book, for example, requires the reader to know that Americans write dates in the form mm/dd/yy, while Europeans write dd/mm/yy, and also that pubs in Wales are closed on Sundays, not to mention that the sixth of May in the year in question heppened to be a Sunday.

There's a long tradition of this sort of thing in the mystery genre, mostly due to Arthur Conan Doyle. It really doesn't do anything for me. Given the too-clever quality of the stories, and the fact that their ultra-short length (few were longer than three or four pages) prevents them from building up the sort of zany momentum that made The Moving Toyshop fun, the overall effect left a lot to be desired.

December 9, 2001

Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America by Robert Hughes. Robert Hughes is an Australian and noted art critic, as well as the author of a couple of books on history. This book is patched together from a set of three lectures that he gave on the "culture wars" in early 1992, with the usual editing that accompanies that process, as well as the addition of some material about the 1992 Presidential election. While he carefully avoids making it explicit, he's clearly trying to play Tocqueville here, as the foreigner whose outside perspective allows him to see more clearly than the natives. To some degree, he succeeeds, and the result is one of my favorite political (loosely speaking) books ever. I grabbed it off a remainder pile a few years back, having seen it recommended on Usenet, and enjoyed it tremendously. That original copy having gone walkabout (as they might say in Hughes's native Australia), I recently bought a new one in a used book store in Boston.

This is, if such a thing is possible, a centrist polemic. Hughes is fairly obviously a bit left of the American center, but in this book he unleashes a savage attack on both the "politically correct" Left and the "patriotically correct" Right. He slams the most sacred of conservative cattle ("With somnabulistic efficiency, Reagan educated America down to his level. He left his country a little stupider in 1988 than it had been in 1980, and a lot more tolerant of lies."), and turns withering sarcasm on the absurdities of the academic left ("When feelings and attitudes are the main referents of argument, to attack any position is automatically to insult its holder...; every argumentam becomes ad hominem, approaching the condition of harassment, if not quite rape. 'I feel very threatened by your rejection of my views on [check one] phallocentricity/the Mother Goddess/the Treaty of Vienna/Young's Modulus of Elasticity.'"). In many ways he comes off like a more mannered Hunter S. Thompson. Referring to Jesse Helms's outrage over the Robert Mapplethorpe photo exhibit, he writes: "[w]hen the dewlaps of his wrath began shaking outside the Corcoran, it caved in and cancelled the show." While "dewlaps of his wrath" isn't as colorful as "the night of the whore-hopper is coming," it's a funny and vivid image.

The book is divided into three sections, roughly corresponding to the original lectures. The first, "Culture and the Broken Polity" attributes much of the breakdown in American politics (increasingly shrill rhetoric from both parties, general voter apathy, the dumbing-down of politics) to the "culture of complaint" and the recent sanctification of victimhood and therapy (which is not solely the province of the Left: "With so many crooks queuing up to be washed in the blood of the Lamb, it's no wonder that the poor creature is looking a bit pale"). The second, "Multi-Culti and its Discontents" focuses on the academic battles over the "Western Canon" ("Those who parrot phrases like 'dead white male' would do well to remember that, in literature, death is relative: Lord Rochester is as dead as Sappho, though by no menas as moribund as Brett Easton Ellis or Andrea Dworkin"). The third, "Moral in Itself: Art and the Therapeutic Fallacy" focuses on the politicization of art, and the attempt to overthrow ideas of quality in art as "oppressive." Not surprisingly, given his background as an art critic, he saves some of his most passionate writing for this section:

The catalogue convention of the 90's is to dwell on activist artists 'addressing issues' of racisim, sexism, AIDS, and so forth. But an artist's merits are not a function of his or her gender, ideology, sexual preference, skin color, or medical condition, and to address an issue is not to address a public. The HIV virus isn't listening. Joe Sixpack isn't looking at the virtuous feminist knockoffs of John Heartfield on the Whitney wall-- he's got a Playmate taped on the sheetrock next to the bandsaw, and all the Barbara Krugers in the world aren't going to get him or anyone else to mend his ways. The political art we have in postmodernist America is one long exercise in preaching to the converted.

The book, despite being published in 1993, has aged fairly well. A few sections have gotten dated, and he was way off on many of his predictions for the Clinton era (then again, so was everybody else...). But many of the themes he raises here still resonate-- the "culture wars" are as heated as ever, and while the stakes are a little higher, some of the broadsides here could just as easily apply to the catfight in the commentariat following the September 11th attacks. Of the many authors I've read on the subject of the culture wars, Hughes comes closest to matching my own take on the matter (and, indeed, provides invaluable rhetoric for use in arguing my version. I wish this perspective got more play in the media, but as he points out:

Radical academic and cultural conservative are now locked in a full-blown, mutually sustaining foile a deux, and the only person each dislikes more than the other is the one who tells both to lighten up. Such is the latest mutation of America's Puritan heritage."

December 8, 2001

The Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F. Hamilton. The second 800-page volume chronicling the epic battle of the Oversexed Space Pirates against the Living Dead.

I finished this book last night, and spent this morning loafing around the apartment watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 on tv. This is not entirely coincidental, as the same impulse which leads me to watch a truly dreadful movie (Space Mutiny) spliced together from extra Battlestar Galactica footage and actors too wooden for dinner theater (with added commentary by Mike and the 'bots) is what leads me to enjoy these books. I really do hope that Hamilton, unlike the people who perpetrated Space Mutiny, isn't actually serious...

I mean, consider the new direction the plot takes in this volume. A new threat, greater than any other (except maybe the Head Satanist, Quinn Dexter), emerges from the beyond, and organizes the possessed into a fighting force which threatens all of human space. The leader and architect of this new invincible Organization? Al Capone. That's right, nearly eight centuries of human histories have passed, and of the millions if not billions of souls in the beyond, including (presumably) military leaders, mass murderers, tyrants, and religious zealots, there isn't a one more effective than a Chicago gangster from the Prohibition era.

In fact, this book suffers very badly from the Star Trek syndrome: any possessing soul who turns out to have had any significance in life comes from Earth, and from the twentieth century or earlier. One of the possessed who changes sides and acts to save Louise Kavanaugh (one of the many love interests of the dashing Joshua Calvert) turns out to be Fletcher Christian of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. In another scene, the returned Elvis gets in a fight with a returned Elvis impersonator... While there are at least a few examples of possessors who lived during the eight centuries separating the setting from the writing, none of them have turned out to be historically notable. And a very large majority of the possessed who are described in detail are from the twentieth century or earlier (including one Woodstock-era hippie who comes off as sort of a horny Shaggy from Scooby-Doo...).

There are absurdities piled on absurdities in this book: The battle for a bitek habitat somehow hinges on New Age mystcism. In addition to Capone's fearsome organization, we see the birth of the Deadnights, a galaxy-spanning movement of disaffected teens who are duped into running off to volunteer to be possessed (drawn by the apparently incredible charisma of Marie Skibbow, the femme fatale from the last book). Several of the possessed who have been captured demand and get a hearing in open court, which predictably enough leads to a massacre (I'm sure this scene will be cited in John Ashcroft's next press conference...). A different group of disaffected teenagers manages to outwit ace agents from the intelligence agencies of at least two galaxy-spanning empires, and spirits off Sensitive Mad Scientist Alkad Mzu, inventor of the eponymous Alchemist (an Ultimate Weapon of sorts).

The setting and background are really fantastic, and Hamilton tosses around the trapping of Space Opera with a casual and playful inventiveness to rival Iain M. Banks (It's hard to avoid using exclamation marks to desfribe them: Powerful Enigmatic Aliens! Gigantic Engineering Projects! Devastating Ultimate Weapons!). But "daft" doesn't begin to describe the plot. Which, it should be noted, ends (in this book) on a cliffhanger that would make George "I'm Your Father, Luke" Lucas hang his head in shame. If you read this, even if it's just for the sheer MST3K kick of it, don't reach the end without Book Three (The Naked God) in your possession.

December 6, 2001

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman. This is a collection of essays about books and the people who love them. I've waffled about whether to pick this up or not for some time, but haven't felt like springing for the hardcover. It's out in paper now, so I bought it.

It's easy to see why I wanted to get this from the opening sentences of the first essay in the book:

A few months ago, my husband and I decided to mix our books together. We had known each other for ten years, lived together for six, been married for five. Our mismatched coffee mugs cohabitated amicably; we wore each other's T-shirts and, in a pinch, socks; and our record collections had long ago miscegnated without incident... But our libraries had remained separate.

We're not actually married yet, and Kate and I haven't lived together for any significant length of time, but we've actually talked about the issue of combining libraries. Yes, we're geeks-- of course, you knew that already thanks to the book log thing...

This is sort of a mixed bag. Fadiman definitely describes a recognizable type of reader and bibliophile, and there are strong similarities between some of her experiences and some of the things that I do. But there's also a level of ostentatious erudition on display here that's sort of hard to identify with-- her essays are laden with citations of the sort of thing (one imagines) Harold Bloom reads to unwind, while the other purchase I made on the bookstore run which netted this book was volume three (in two garish paperbacks) of Peter Hamilton's Oversexed Space Pirates trilogy...

There's some good stuff here: I liked "Marrying Libraries," knew six of the arcane words mentioned in "The Joy of Sesquipedalians," enjoyed the essays on plagiarism and compulsive proofreading ("Nothing New Under the Sun" and "Inset a Carrot" (plus proofreading marks correcting it to "Insert a Caret", which I can't replicate in text)). The concept of an "Odd Shelf" is useful, and "Secondhand Prose" captures the spirit of those who haunt used book stores (though some of us go there looking for space pirates rather than Charles Lamb...). I also liked the essay on reading aloud ("Sharing the Mayhem").

A few of the others are sort of amusing, though also sort of pointless ("The Catalogical Imperative" and "The His'er Problem"). The rest are either too personal or too specific to really be interesting-- never having written bad poetry, or been inclined to do dramatic readings of books in the places they depict, I don't get much from "Scorn Not the Sonnet" or "You Are There", and I think my Y chromosome prevents me from really enjoying "True Womanhood" (straight line left as an exercise for the reader...).

It wouldn't've killed me to go without reading this book, but it had its moments. I don't think I'd recommend buying it, unless your literary tastes are much loftier than mine, but anyone who reads this book log (does anyone read this book log?) would probably enjoy reading a few of the essays in the store.

December 4, 2001

Don't Ask by Donald E. Westlake. It's funny how things work sometimes-- I re-read Bad News only because I was out shopping, got hungry, and it happened to be in the car when I stopped to get something to eat (if I go to a restaurant alone, I always bring something to read. It helps offset the feeling that I've wandered into that Steve Martin movie where the guy dining alone has a spotlight put on him...). That kicked me into the recent run of lightweight comic novels. Mostly because Bad News is remarkably sedate for a Dortmunder novel, and only made me want more. So sedate Dortmunder begat early Rhodenbarr begat YA Pratchett, and finally, to satisfy my jones for light reading and caper novels, I went back to the source: more Dortmunder.

This is relatively recent, as the series goes (published in 1993), and much more manic than Bad News. The plot is tangled in the way only Westlake can manage: Dortmunder and friends are approached by diplomats from one of the two feuding pieces of a dissolving Eastern European country (Tsergovia, ancestral homeland of Tiny Bulcher), and asked to steal a religious relic (the thighbone of Saint Ferghana) from the embassy of the other (Votskojek), as possession of the relic is needed to gain admittance to the United Nations (the decision on which of the two proto-nations to recognize having been placed in the "palsied but capable hands" of a very biased archbishop). A foolproof plan is concocted to steal the bone, but the plan turns out not to be Andy Kelp-proof, and the bone is confiscated by the DEA, while Dortmunder himself is captured by the Vostkojeks. After escaping, Dortmunder must find a way to recover the bone for Tsergovia, while exacting revenge on his former captors; this involves Chinese water torture, kidnapping, and the theft and return of six million dollars worth of art.

Reading this, it's easy to see why people insist on trying to make these books into movies. The plots are delightfully silly, the dialogue has the zip of the very best movie banter, and the heist scenes have the complexity and clockwork precision that comes off really well on the screen (think Entrapment or The Thomas Crown Affair). It's also easy to see why they fail to make good movies. There isn't just one heist scene per book, but three or four, and they depend on a huge cast of characters. Also, one of the things that makes the later books such a treat is the way the jokes revolve around the familiar quirks of the returning characters-- regular readers of the series will take great delight in Stan Murch's arrival in a stolen motorboat, proclaiming "So what I did, I came around the Brooklyn side of Governor's Island, because that way you don't have the Statue of Liberty ferry to contend with, but then I came over to the Manhattan side before the turn for the Williamsburg Bridge..." but it's a little hard to set that joke up in a movie. Also appearing in this book are the painting from Nobody's Perfect, a bunch of private security guards who have been victimized by Dortmunder and company three or four times, a couple of the daft lockmen from previous books, Arnie Albright the annoying fence, J.C. Taylor the queen of mail order, and a whole host of other returning characters. There's just too much stuff here to make a movie of reasonable length.

Anyway, this is a terrific book. It's worth a look for the biography of Saint Ferghana alone ("Prayers to Saint Ferghana are said to have proved efficacious in a number of areas, particularly for those seeking inexpensive lodging. The hawthorne is associated with the saint, God knows why."), and for the Latin motto from the Dortmunder family crest: "Quid lucrum istic mihi est?" ("What's in it for me?" a vastly more sensible creed than "Carpe Diem" (which is also inferior to the WRFC's "Nihil in Moderato"...)). If you're in the mood for comic caper novels, Westlake can't be beat, and this is one of his best.

December 3, 2001

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett. This is a sorta-kinda Discworld novel: It's set in Pratchett's signature universe, but is a YA novel, and not part of the main line of the neverending Discworld series. How can you tell it's a YA book? It's divided into chapters, which Pratchett's "adult" books aren't, and the story is much darker than the usual run of Discworld books (comparable to Lords and Ladies or Reaper Man, which not coincidentally are two of my favorite Discworld books...).

I borrowed this from Kate, and while I agree with her comments enough to shamelessly steal the last two sentences of the previous paragraph from her, I wasn't as bothered by the plot. There's a clue in the text that I think serves to explain the element she found lacking, and while it's not the best explanation ever encountered, I think it's sufficient.

This isn't really Pratchett's best work, even in the YA form (the Johnny books (Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny and the Dead, and Johnny and the Bomb) are better, I think because the English teenagers of those books are more convincing than the talking rats of this book). The set-up is great (a bunch of sentient rats and a talking cat team up with a stupid-looking kid to run a Pied Piper scam, which works well until the rats discover ethics...), and there are some very nice bits, but relatively few things that are laugh-out-loud funny. It's a decent enough book, and mediocre Pratchett is still better than most, but I don't think he was really on his best game with this one.

December 2, 2001

The Burglar in the Closet by Lawrence Block. I read a bunch of books over the weekend, which I'll add to the log in approximately the order in which they wee finished. First up was the second book in Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr series, about a burglar who manages to blunder into murders about as frequently as Jessica Fletcher in the old "Muder, She Wrote" tv series (though at least Rhodenbarr wasn't invited into the homes of any of the people whose muders he's forced to solve... The real mystery in the tv show was why people kept inviting Fletcher to their posh homes, when she might as well have a valet tagging along behind her with a big roll of that "Crime Scene" tape...). I stumbled on this not long ago, and lacking more Dortmunder to re-read, I went for the next best thing. I though for a moment that I'd read it before, and just didn't remember it, as the first chapter seemed awfully familiar. Turns out the first chapter was stuck in as a teaser in one of the later volumes, to boost sales of a reprint edition...

As with Burglars Can't be Choosers, this book suffers from the lack of Carolyn, whose banter with Bernie is one of the real joys of the later books. Other than that, it's got everything I want in a Rhodenbarr novel-- lovingly described burglaries, amusing characters, and police corruption in the person of Ray Kirschmann. The plot isn't anything all that exceptional-- I figured out who done it fairly early on-- it's watching Bernie break and enter his way to the resolution that's interesting.

December 1, 2001

Bad News by Donald E. Westlake. This is the most recent in Westlake's ongoing series of novels about the hapless burglar John Dortmunder and his eccentric cast of friends. Unlike the previous book in the series, What's the Worst That Could Happen?, which has never been made into a movie, this is a fairly small caper, as Dortmunder stories go. Nothing in it can compare to the casino robbery in What's the Worst..., or to the helicopter raid on a police station in The Hot Rock (the first Dortmunder, now back in print). It opens with Dortmunder narrowly escaping capture in a camera robbery, moves on to grave robbery and an Anastasia scam, sees the comission of the perfect crime, and then unravels in the trademark Dortmunder fashion.

What's really striking about this book, and all Westlake's recent comic work (I haven't read The Axe or The Hook) is the level of craftsmanship in the writing. This book is marvelously well put together-- from the opening line ("John Dortmunder was a man on whom the sun shone only when he needed darkness") right through the final chapter, there's something good on every page, be it a snatch of description (a "vast blacktop shopping mall in deepest New Jersey, very near Mordor"), an amusing pop-culture reference (a lawyer encountered mid-book is tall, pale, dresses in black, and bears the name "Max Schreck"), a piece of astute observation ("since, at the age of fifty-seven, he had been elected to the bench, he had come to realize that all the training and all the experience came down to this: It was his task in this life to acknowledge and then punish stupidity"), or some of the snappy dialogue at which Westlake excels:

"John, it's the easiest grand we'll ever take in."

"It's manual labor," Dortmunder said.

"Yes, I know," Kelp agreed, "that's the downside. But look at it this way. It's also illegal."

Or this one:

"We're here to burgle the place."

"Or rob," Tiny suggested, and heaved himself to his feet. "When is it, do you happen to know, Dortmunder? When is it you burgle, and when is it you rob?"

"When I get the chance," Dortmunder said.

This is a much less manic book than many of its predecessors, but it's a very nice piece of work all the same. While it doesn't have any scenes that were quite as hilariously funny as the aforementioned casino robbery, or a running gag as good as the "third-rate burglary at the Watergate," every chapter had at least one bit that made me chuckle, and once things are set into motion, the story never flags. Nobody is likely to mistake this for Great Literature, but it's wonderful writing all the same. There's not much flash and dazzle here, just good, straightforward story telling, with every paragraph serving to move the story along, and keep the reader laughing. Westlake is the unquestioned master of the comic caper novel, and it's a pleasure to watch him work.

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.

Begun: 7 August, 2001