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The Library of Babel: A Book Log

"This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences." -- Jorge Luis Borges

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Private Eyes, They're Watching You

Lest it be thought that I haven't read anything that I liked recently (other than, you know, the few reviews before those last two), I should throw in three books that actually did provide exactly what I expected from them: Sleeping Beauty and Find a Victim, both by Ross Macdonald, and The Only Good Lawyer by Jeremiah Healy. These are all novels in what I think of as the hard-boiled mode: first-person narration by private eyes who are quick with a snappy response, and find themselves involved in cases that are far more complicated than they first appear.

The two Macdonald books both feature Lew Archer, and pretty much everything I said about him earlier this year still applies. I was a little surprised to find that the two books are separated by almost twenty years, as they feel very similar. Archer apparently exudes the same sort of time-distortion field as Nero Wolfe, as it seems to be perpetually 1949 where he is. These are as close as I've found to Raymond Chandler, though-- the language doesn't soar in quite the same way, and there's a bit of psychobabble in all of them, but other than that, they nail the atmosphere.

Healy's books, featuring John Francis Cuddy (Start with Blunt Darts), are more a tribute to Robert Parker than Chandler or Hammett. This means that they're considerably bloodier, but this is Parker re-written to involve actual human beings. Cuddy pays a price for what he has to do in a way that Spenser never does, but there's a little of the same righteous vengeance element to the stories. It's a slightly different mode of private eye novel, but still enjoyable.

The plots of these books really don't bear description. They're too tangled to be summarized in a concise way (writing jacket copy in this genre must be absolute torture), and they're enough in the mold of their respective series that it's sort of pointless to repeat the descriptions.

All three were perfectly good entries in their respective series, and if you like the other books by those authors, these scratch the same itch.

Posted at 8:52 PM | link |
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I was actually tempted to combine this review of Jo Walton's Farthing with the preceding review of Point of Honour. This might not seem to make much sense (Kate was certainly baffled by the suggestion), but they have a fair bit in common from my perspective: they're both set in alternate Englands (the Regency for Robins's book, the late 1940's for this one), they're both putting a twist on a genre I don't normally read, and neither really worked for me.

I feel even more awkward saying that about this book than the previous one, since I know Jo better than I know Madeleine Robins, and especially because the book isn't actually out yet, which means she's probably in the "oh-God-this-is-the-worst-thing-ever" proof stage of the process, and my comments won't help. So, a disclaimer: the following remarks should not be taken as being in any way indicative of the general quality of the book: it's just that I am probably about as far as you can get from the ideal audience for this book.

Farthing is set in an alternate England, in which WWII fizzled. A group of politicians, known as the "Farthing Set" for the country manor of one of their leaders, made a separate peace with Hitler in 1941, leading to the ousting of Churchill's government, and the end of the war. The book takes place several years later, when one of the Farthing Set is found murdered during a party at the eponymous manor.

Fundamentally, there are two things that keep me from liking this book. First, the class politics get up my nose even more than they're intended to-- this is largely a personal issue (as noted previously, I have a hard time reading Tolkien for similar reasons). Second, I don't really buy the premise, largely because of what happened with East Asia-- I have a hard time believing that the nasty proto-fascists of the Farthing Set would be as happy to reach a mutual accomodation with the Japanese as with the Germans.

(There's a third element that bugged me-- namely, that there's one Big Dark Secret too many-- but that comes late enough in the book that I'm not sure my judgement is to be trusted.)

The book is basically a cross between two genres that I don't much read: alternate history, and English mystery. I read it on the theory that maybe the combination of the two would be more enjoyable than either of them alone. In the end, though, neither element worked for me, which meant that the book as a whole kind of fell flat. As with Point of Honour, it's very well executed, and if you like either of those sorts of novels, you'll probably like this. I don't, and I didn't, and that's all there is to it.

Posted at 8:09 PM | link | one comment

Point of Honour

Point of Honour by Madeleine Robins is pitched as a "hard-boiled Regency." I don't generally read Regency novels, but it's a concept that seemed worth a try (in the same way that Trollope-with-dragons is interesting to me, while regular Trollope isn't really), and it does boast a wonderful first sentence:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Fallen Woman of good family must, soon or late, descend to whoredom.

Sadly, by my reading at least, it's more Regency than hard-boiled, and just doesn't work for me.

The interesting thing about this is that it turns on a really small detail: the narration is a rather mannered tight third-person voice, while I expect some variant of First Person Smartass from a hard-boiled novel. I do realize that Dashiell Hammett is one of the fathers of the hard-boiled genre, and wrote most of his books in third person (indeed, the end of Point of Honour is very much a tribute to one of his books, which Kate won't let me name). The thing is, I don't actually like Hammett that much, either, and I suspect it's for the same reason.

Really, there's not much else to say about the book. It's very well executed, but it's not what I was expecting to get, and once I realized that it wasn't going to become what I hoped for (about a third of the way in), I didn't care all that much any more.

I feel a little bad saying that, as Kate and I had a very nice conversation with Robins at Worldcon, and some of the things she said about the sequels sounded like really interesting ideas. Ultimately, though, the setting just doesn't do it for me, so I'll probably give them a pass.

Posted at 7:47 PM | link | no comments

Monday, September 20, 2004

Hugo Exposition

I've refrained from comment on the Hugo Awards, despite having watched them live (on closed-circuit tv from the bar in the ConCourse), largely because voting for two of the four fiction awards went almost exactly opposite my preferred order. It strikes me as slightly unseemly to gripe about this while so many people are busy celebrating the winners, so I've been keeping my mouth shut. Mostly.

The issue keeps circulating in my mind, though, because the reasons I voted the way I did explain a lot about the ways in which my tastes and Kate's diverge, and collide interestingly with some things said by smart people at the exposition panel we went to at the con. I'm not sure anyone else will find this interesting, but I'm going to type out my thoughts on the subject here, to clarify matters for myself, if nothing else.

Also, please note that while I will make every effort to talk around the major points, the following post may contain spoilers for the works of Lois McMaster Bujold, Steven Brust, and J. K. Rowling. I'll post another notice in front of anything that I consider a massive book-destroying spoiler, but as some people are exceptionally sensitive to this issue, it's only fair to warn you up front.

The specific problem here is that I thought Paladin of Souls was the weakest of the four Best Novel nominees that I read, by a significant margin. Explaining this requires me to back up a bit before I go on, as it's impossible to disentangle my reaction to Paladin from my history with her other books.

Bujold is (for the sake of those who have spent the last couple of decades as stylites in the wilderness of Anatolia) probably best known for the Vorkosigan series, a bunch of swashbuckling small-scale space opera stories about Miles Vorkosigan, a dwarfish noble of an interstellar empire, who gallivants around known space having adventures. They're terrifically entertaining books, and have won her a fistful of awards (including one inexplicable Nebula, for what's widely regarded as the weakest book in the series).

Unlike a lot of people, though, I've never really seen these as award-worthy books. I've frequently referred to them as "James Bond in Space," as, like Connery-era Bond films, they're wonderfully paced, with a nice blend of action and wit. And there is never one minute in the course of a single book in which I actually believe that when the story is over, Miles (like Bond) will fail to come out on top.

There are a number of reasons for this, but one of the big ones has to do with the way exposition in the books is handled. People, gadgets, and cultural traits have a habit of turning up in just exactly the right spots to give Miles a way out of whatever predicament he finds himself in. I can't always predict the exact manner in which some new bit of information will save him, but again and again, some new fact about the world is introduced in the first hundred pages or so, and I say "A-ha! That's the key to the ending right there..."

The most egregious example is probably Memory (SPOILER AHEAD), several books into the series, in which the office of Imperial Auditor appears for the first time. Once the office and its powers were laid out, I knew exactly how the book would end: with Miles redeemed from the idiotic blunder he made at the beginning, and made a full-time Imperial Auditor. From that point on, it was just a matter of following the plot along to that inevitable end. Which was very entertaining, don't get me wrong, but it was entertaining in the same way that a mystery novel is entertaining when you already know the end.

Memory is an extreme example, but this is a flaw common to a lot of her books. It doesn't really detract from the enjoyment of reading them, but to my mind it does keep them from reaching the level of Best Novel of the year. I'm not saying we should reserve the Hugo for Serious Books of the type likely to end up on summer assigned reading lists, but at the same time, I'd prefer to give the big prizes to books that have the ability to surprise me.

Paladin of Souls is only the second book in the Chalion setting, so it doesn't have the same sort of track record as the Vorkosigan books do. The overall history with the author does carry a certain weight, though, and there were a number of plot points that removed essentially all of the suspense from the book. (BIG SPOILERS HERE:) First, there's a mention early in the book of a major demon incursion in a neighboring country, which told me immediately that the plot would end up there. Then there was the revelation that priests of the Bastard are responsible for dealing with demons (which I don't recall being mentioned din the first book), which told me which of the gods would be involved in the story. Finally, there was the protagonist's repeated insistence on having nothing whatsoever to do with the gods, which was the equivalent of a grizzled movie cop talking about how he's one week from retiring. Throw in the knowledge of how the first book ended, and fifty or a hundred pages in, I knew exactly where it was going. The other big revelation, regarding the connection between two knights, was also telegraphed, though I don't remember exactly what tipped me off there.

Again, I'm not saying that this made Paladin an objectively bad book, or that I didn't enjoy reading it. I stayed up late to finish it, and enjoyed the whole thing. But it does drop it to a level below the other nominees, each of which retained a greater ability to surprise me: Singularity Sky had a manic sort of energy that made it hard to predict what would happen next (though the eventual resolution was clear); I finished Ilium, and I still have no idea where it's headed (though that is a cheat, as it's not a complete work); and with Blind Lake I didn't really have a clue where it was going to end up until I was almost finished with it, and Wilson still managed to bring it to a satisfying conclusion that felt like the only possible ending for that story.

So what does this have to do with the "As You Know, Bob..." panel? The connection is in a remark by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who said that good exposition tells the reader everything they need to know about the world in question, but that writers should avoid giving the reader more information than they need. In particular, she noted J. K. Rowling as someone who does a good job of doling out information about her world exactly as it's needed.

And that's where we hit the problem. Rowling's exposition has exactly the same problem, for me, that I've just described with regard to Bujold's books. Both of them do a good job of presenting new information exactly when it's needed; however, they both do so in a manner which makes me say, "Oh, you're just making this shit up as you go..." And that's a significant weakness in their books, for me, a weakness that prevents me from holding either the Harry Potter or Miles Vorkosigan stories in as high regard as Kate and many other do. Both worlds have a sort of stage-set quality to them: because essential facts about the world aren't revealed until it's absolutely essential, I don't feel much of a sense of depth. It's even worse that, though: the way it's handled makes me suspect that nothing exists beyond what we actually see until the author needs to show it to us. Call it "quantum theater."

I can't quite nail down exactly what it is about Bujold and Rowling that makes me so convinced that they're making it up as they go, but I can suggest an example of someone who handles a major revelation more smoothly: Steven Brust. Namely, the gigantic shocking revelation at the end of Orca. If you haven't read Orca, be warned that there are massive book-destroying spoilers in that review. I'll talk around the details here.

The revelation in question at first seems to come from even farther out in left field than anything that Bujold or Rowling ever pulled out, but if you go back and look at the earlier books, there are hints here and there that something fishy is going on. Some of them are mentioned in Orca, others become clear on re-reading. What seems like an odd fact pulled out of nowhere ends up feeling like an integral part of the world, that you just haven't been shown. (It also helps that the big revelation is pretty much incidental to the actual resolution of the plot-- it's a fact that comes out in the course of the story, but it doesn't end up being the fact that saves Vlad.)

But here's the kicker: I have it on excellent authority that Steve Brust does just make shit up as he goes (not that specific bit, but plenty of other things). If you look closely at his books, particularly the Viscount of Adrilankha trilogy, you can see him doing it. And yet he manages to give his desperate retcons and smirking just-to-mess-with-the-fans insertions a sense of deep reality. If I could figure out how he does that, well, there's got to be a way to use that information to become fabulously wealthy.

I'm not saying that a casual mention of Imperial Auditors in Barrayar, or a foreign demon incursion in Curse of Chalion would've made Memory and Paladin of Souls award-worthy in my eyes, though either would've helped quite a bit. But I do think that the fine line between "showing only what's necessary" and "just making shit up" is a big part of the problem I have with Bujold and Rowling, and an important caveat to TNH's suggestion about exposition.

Posted at 7:48 AM | link | 2 comments

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Summer Reading Lists

As mentioned in my other blog, the Washington Post has a couple of pieces about summer student reading lists in the Book World section this week. They also include a composite list from DC-area schools. Just for the hell of it (and to save the list from paywall obscurity), I'm going to reproduce the list here, with some comments.

Books that I read for one class or another will be marked in bold face, books that I read for fun will be highlighted in red. Books that I read for fun before having them assigned will be highlighted both ways. The really remarkable thing about this list is just how many of the books I've never even heard of, let alone read.


All the King's Men , by Robert Penn Warren
As I Lay Dying , by William Faulkner
Benito Cereno , by Herman Melville
Bless the Beasts & Children , by Glenson Swarthout
The Bluest Eye , by Toni Morrison
Brideshead Revisited , by Evelyn Waugh
A Canticle for Leibowitz , by Walter M. Miller Jr.
Catch-22 , by Joseph Heller
Cat's Cradle , by Kurt Vonnegut (I wish I went to a high school cool enough to assign this...) Ceremony , by Leslie Marmon Silko
Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier (One of these days, I really ought to read this.)
Cry, the Beloved Country , by Alan Paton (AP English)
Dancing on the Edge , by Han Nolan
The Da Vinci Code , by Dan Brown (Oh, gag me. Foucault's Pendulum would be such a better choice.)
Devil in a Blue Dress , by Walter Mosley (The Denzel Washington movies is pretty good, too.)
The Diagnosis , by Alan Lightman
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood , by Rebecca Wells
Dubliners , by James Joyce
El Bronx Remembered , by Nicholasa Mohr
Ethan Frome , by Edith Wharton (Run awayyyy!)
A Farewell to Arms , by Ernest Hemingway
The Farming of Bones, by Edwidge Danticat
Five Quarters of the Orange , by Joanne Harris
A Girl Named Disaster , by Nancy Farmer
Home of the Braves , by David Klass
Interpreter of Maladies , by Jhumpa Lahiri
In This Sign , by Joanne Greenberg
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
The Joy Luck Club , by Amy Tan
Jubilee , by Margaret Walker
"King Lear," (and "Hamlet" and "Macbeth") by William Shakespeare ("King Lear" was for AP English, the other two were part of the regular curriculum.)
The Kitchen God's Wife , by Amy Tan
Love in the Time of Cholera , by Gabriel García Márquez
Lucy , by Jamaica Kincaid
Madame Bovary , by Gustave Flaubert
Native Son , by Richard Wright (I'm actually not sure about this one. I might've read it, but as I recall nothing about it, I'm going to guess that I didn't.
On the Beach , by Nevil Shute
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich , by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
A Passage to India , by E. M. Forster
Portrait in Sepia , by Isabel Allende
A Prayer for Owen Meany , by John Irving
Ragtime , by E.L. Doctorow
Return of the Native , by Thomas Hardy (Aieeeee!!! I started this, and decided that I would rather claw my eyes out than keep reading it.)
Rule of the Bone , by Russell Banks
Rules of the Road , by Joan Bauer
Running Loose , by Chris Crutcher
The Samurai's Garden , by Gail Tsukiyama
Shane , by Jack Schaefer (Is this as in "Shaaaane!!! Come back!!!", or something else?)
Shogun , by James Clavell
Siddhartha , by Herman Hesse (We had to read Beneath the Wheel in 12th grade English, which pretty much put me off Hesse)
Song of Solomon , by Toni Morrison
The Sound and the Fury , by William Faulkner
The Stranger , by Albert Camus (I hated this book...)
Stranger in a Strange Land , by Robert A. Heinlein (Even in my Heinlein-fan phase, I thought this was kind of a mess, which is really saying something.)
The Sun Also Rises , by Ernest Hemingway (I made it to senior year of college before reading this...)
A Tale of Two Cities , by Charles Dickens
Things Fall Apart , by Chinua Achebe (This has become a staple of required-reading lists, but after my time.)
The Time Machine , by H.G. Wells
True Grit , by Charles Portis
Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water , by Michael Dorris (I just want to highlight this one, because not only have I never heard of this book, I've never heard of the author... What is this?)

On the whole, a fairly soul-crushing list of stuff. Even the ones I read on my own were pretty heavy going. But that's nothing compared to the non-fiction list:


Among Schoolchildren , by Tracy Kidder
Angela's Ashes , by Frank McCourt
Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer , by E. Ethelbert Miller
Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters' First 100 Years , by Sarah and Elizabeth Delaney
Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America , by Nathan McCall
My Bridges of Hope: Searching for Life and Love After Auschwitz , by Livia Bitton-Jackson
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats , by T.S. Eliot
Profiles in Courage , by John F. Kennedy
There are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America , by Alex Kotlowitz
Up From Slavery , by Booker T. Washington
The Water Is Wide , by Pat Conroy

OK, I haven't actually read any of these, but just looking at the titles makes me want to walk in front of a bus. I realize that these weren't all assigned by a single school district, but can you think of a list of books that's more likely to suck all the fun out of a summer? (Books by a range of authors, that is-- "The Collected Works of Ayn Rand" is cheating.)

If the only summer reading I did as a high-schooler was drawn from these lists... Well, I'd probably really be into reality shows right about now.

Posted at 10:52 AM | link | 3 comments

Wednesday, September 15, 2004


As alluded to in the previous post, Carl Hiaasen has, in fact, written a kids book (it skews a little younger than YA). This might come as a surprise to someone who has only read his adult books (Skin Tight, for example), but Hoot turns out to be pretty good, and nobody dies a bloody and horrible death.

The book tells the story of Roy Eberhardt, a middle-schooler who has recently moved to Florida from Bozeman, Montana, and isn't all that happy about it. He spots a barefoot boy running down the street one morning on his way to school, and becomes intrigued. Meanwhile, a hapless patrolman becomes obsessed with a series of acts of vandalism at the future site of a Mother Paula's All-American Pancakes franchise.

The barefoot boy ("Mullet Fingers") turns out to be a sort of junior version of the psychotic ex-governor character, "Skink," who appears in several of Hiaasen's other books. And, surprising no one, he turns out to be involved in the Mother Paula's vandalism cases. Roy gets drawn into a complicated plot involving school bullies, corrupt Florida politics, environmental activism, and some hilarious pranks that are vintage Hiaasen.

I read this on a plane coming back from a weekend in New Orleans, because it was just about exactly the right level for the state I was in at the time. Reading bits over again before writing this, though, it holds up pretty well to non-hung-over inspection. If you enjoy well-done kids' books, or Hiaasen's adult novels, give it a look.

Posted at 10:06 PM | link | no comments

So Yesterday

Scott Westerfeld is the author of a Space Opera duology that wasn't intended to be two books. I had heard good things about it, but unfortunately didn't hear them until the books were into that weird limbo between hardcover and mass-market releases, and I couldn't find them in the stores. I eventually got the first one out of the library, only to find that 1) It stops just about mid-sentence, and 2) The Schenectady County Library doesn't have the second book. Bastards.

I met Westerfeld at Worldcon, where he helpfully suggested a number of ways I might seek retribution from Tor for splitting his book in a bad place. He was also plugging a new book, So Yesterday. I decided against violence at the Tor party, but did buy the book, which I read the other night as a nice change of pace from Light and Only Forward.

So Yesterday is a YA book, following the adventures of Hunter Braque, a 17-year-old "Trendsetter," who gets paid to do market research. He falls in with Jen James, an "Innovator," who invents new trends (mostly unconsciously), and together they stumble across a mysterious plot involving kidnapping, brainwashing, and a number of mysterious fake products.

This is good stuff. The plot has some nice satirical elements worked in, and Westerfeld has a keen eye for social detail. And the snappy dialogue is terrific:

"Look, Jen, most jobs are weird. My dad studies people sneezing on each other, and my mom makes smells for a living. People get paid for writing down gossip about movie stars, or judging cat shows, or selling pork-belly futures. And I'm not even sure what pork-belly futures are."

Jen raised an eyebrow. "Aren't they an option to buy pork bellies in the future at a certain price?"

I opened my mouth and found it empty of sound. This was my stock speech, and no one had ever called me on the pork-belly futures thing before.

"My dad's a broker," she apologized.

If you want to mix and match plots to get a description, this is William Gibson's Pattern Recognition as written by Carl Hiaasen doing a YA book (about which more later). It's got snappy writing, sharp social observations, very little teen angst, and a plot that's just predictable enough to be sort of comforting, but just novel enough to be surprising.

It's a fun read, and I recommend it to anyone who's ever really wanted to be cool.

Posted at 9:15 PM | link | 4 comments

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


Light by M. John Harrison was another Worldcon acquisition, this one a publisher freebie handed out at the early-Sunday-morning "Best Books of 2004" panel. It was nice timing, too, as I had heard enough good things about the book in the course of the con that I was planning to buy it later that day...

As with Only Forward, I don't really know what to say about this book. It's blurbed by all sorts of cool people (Neil Gaiman, Iain Banks, China Mieville, Michael Marshall Smith), and boasts rave reviews from some media outlets. And it deserves a lot of those accolades-- it's just hard to say what it's about.

There are three threads to the plot, and the book cycles through them a chapter at a time. In one, a more-or-less present day man named Michael Kearney is on the run from a mysterious entity called the Shrander, and his own past. Another follows the adventures of the rogue "K-Ship" captain Seria Mau Genlicher, who has joined her brain to the alien circuitry of the White Cat, and become a pirate on the edge of the mysterious Kefahuchi Tract. The third picks up the adventures of Ed Chianese, a former explorer of the Tract, who has retreated into a virtual reality world. Only, some sinister people want something Ed knows, and come looking for him. All of these plots eventually come together, in a way that's clever, if not entirely satisfying.

There's a lot of stuff here, but it takes a while to figure out what's going on. Teresa Nielsen Hayden, in the exposition panel, repeated the theory of exposition arithmetic. That is, you're allowed to add a large number of unexplained items to your story, as long as you never multiply one by another. There are points in this book where I swear Harrison is raising unknown things to powers of each other.

And yet, it works. Mostly. Some bits of the story really are wonderful, and the writing is superb throughout. I didn't really like the way he tied things up at the end, but it was fun getting there.

It was certainly worth more than the price I paid for it, and it's worth a look if you like complicated and experimental literary SF.

Posted at 8:50 PM | link | one comment

Only Forward

I picked up a copy of Michael Marshall Smith's Only Forward in the Dealer's Room at Worldcon. It's a book that I've heard about for years on Usenet and elsewhere, but it's printed by Bantam Spectra, which means it stayed in print for about fifteen minutes ten years ago, and I've never seen a copy before.

This is a hard book to describe. The narrator, a fellow named Stark, is a sort of freelance consultant private-eye type in a future London which has been broken up into capital-N Neighborhoods, each dedicated to some particular interest:

The streets were pretty quiet, which was nice. They're always quiet here at that time; you have to be wearing a black jackest to be out on the streets between seven and nine in the eveneing, and not that many people in the area have black jackets. It's just one of those things. I currently live in Color Neighborhood, which is for people who are heavily into color. All the streets and buildings are set for instant colormatch; as you walk down the road they change hue to offset whatever you're wearing. When the streets are busy, it's kind of intense, and anyone prone to epileptic seizures isn't allowed to live in the Neighborhood, however much they're into color.

Other Neighborhoods include Sound and Cat, along with quite a few whose names require more explanation. This, I want to stress, is a good hundred and fifty pages before the book gets weird.

It starts off as fairly standard private-eye stuff, aside from the setting: an important Someone has gone missing, and Stark is hired to find him. Once he does, the situation turns out to be more complicated than he was led to believe, and he has to start improvising.

And then it gets weird, in a "myffic" sort of way.

If I had to compare this to something else, it would be sort of a cross between Jonathan Letham and Cory Doctorow. It's not quite as manic as Doctorow, and not quite as ostentatiously experimental as Lethem can be, but it's got the same kind of bizarrely inventive energy that you find in their work. I'm not entirely sure I like the ending, but I'm not sure I like any of Lethem's endings, either, so at least the analogy hangs together.

I definitely recommend reading it, if you can find a copy.

Posted at 8:28 PM | link | no comments

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Non-Fiction Wrap-Up

During the Great Booklog Hiatus, I read a number of non-fiction books, which I'll group together here for convenience. I'm no longer even sure what order I finished them in, so we'll just go from most annoying to most enjoyable.

First up is Robert Wright's Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny, which is a "Smart People Book" in two senses: first, it appears to have been written in large part to show how smart the author is, and second, it's the sort of book that I read, and it makes me feel much smarter. Not because of the vast amount of knowledge transferred from the author to me, but because I find myself saying "Yes, thank you, I got that point fifty pages ago. Say something new, damn it..." Apparently, I'm a whole lot quicker on the uptake than the target audience for this book.

The basic idea Wright's trying to get across is that human culture can be viewed as a non-zero-sum game, in which cooperation between different individuals and groups can lead to a situation in which everybody wins. He illustrates this with analyses of societies from the Paleolithic to the post-modern, and the point is always the same: through cooperation between larger and larger groups of people, the general lot of mankind is steadily improved. It's sort of Guns, Germs, and Steel crossed with Sesame Street.

I'm being a little snarkier than the book really deserves-- he clearly worked very hard to assemble as much evidence as possible, and other than a tendency to overuse the irritating neologism "meme," he writes clearly and persuasively. But ultimately, it mostly just bugged me. I read it over a period of a couple of months, reading a few pages every morning at breakfast, and the repetition still bugged me. Had I tried to read it all in one sitting... well, I don't think I would've finished it.

A book which I actually finished was David Sedaris's latest collection, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Mike Kozlowski pretty much nails this book: if you've read his other books, this is at more or less the same level of quality, and if you haven't, well, he's a funny guy:

While eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our Christmas story remains relatively dull. Santa lives with his wife in a remote polar village and spends one night a year traveling around the world. If you're bad, he leaves you coal. If you're good and live in America, he'll give you just about anything you want. We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly hairier story to relate, telling his children, "Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before going to be. The former bishop of Turkey will be coming tonight along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you in a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don't know for sure, but we want you to be prepared."

This is the reward for living in the Netherlands. As a child you get to hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it. As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution-- so what's not to love about being Dutch?

Most of the essays in this collection lack the emotional punch of the stuff in Naked, probably because he's exhausted most of the really powerful family history. Also, his relatives have obviously gotten more canny, as several of them are quoted as expressing reservations about appearing in his books. Still, this is good stuff-- always funny, and occasionally moving.

The final book in this entry is Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman. This is a collection of pop-culture essays (it's subtitled "A Low Culture Manifesto"), and it's hard to imagine a book more squarely pitched at me. Take this bit from an essay on Fake Love:

I once loved a girl who almost loved me, but not as much as she loved John Cusack. Under certain circumstances, this would have been fine; Cusack is relatively good-looking, he seems like a good guy (he likes the Clash and the Who at least), and he undoubtedly has millions of bones in the bank. If Cusack and I were competing for the same woman, I could easily accept losing. However, I don't really feel like John and I were "competing" for the girl I'm referring to, inasmuch as her relationship to Cusack was confined to watching him as a two-dimensional projection, pretending to be characters who don't actually exist. Now, there was a time when I would have thought that detachment would have given me a huge advantage over Johnny C., inasmuch as my relationship with this woman included things like "talking on the phone" and "nuzzling under umbrellas" and "eating pancakes." However, I have come to realize that I perceived this competition completely backward; it was definitely an unfair battle, but not in my favor. It was unfair in Cusack's favor. I never had a chance.

This is right up my alley: funny, cynical, and loaded with pop-culture references from the 80's and 90's. If he threw in some quantum physics, he'd be me, only, y'know, cooler. Which is precisely why he doesn't talk about physics. But you get the idea.

Other essays in the book talk explain the unappreciated genius of Billy Joel, the equivalence between the Dixie Chicks and Van Halen, and the secret connection between The Empire Strikes Back and Reality Bites. I don't always agree with what he says, but it's always written in an entertaining manner-- his essay about the evils of soccer is both stupid and very, very funny (and not because it's stupid).

If you like the pop-culture stuff I write here and on Uncertain Principles, you should read this book, because my best stuff wishes it could be half this good. If you find my pop-culture stuff a little too cute and reference-heavy, give this book a wide berth.

Posted at 8:13 AM | link | one comment

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Budayeen Nights

This is a small-press collection of George Alec Effinger's stories about the "Budayeen," a pleasure quarter in an unnamed city (it's apparently modeled on New Orleans, but I have to take people's word for that. It's also the setting of his best-known work, the Muslim cyberpunk novels When Gravity Fails, A Fire in the Sun, and The Exile Kiss-- the first two were finalists for Hugo and Nebula awards, the third sank more or less without a trace (I think it was Emmet O'Brien who saw a copy of The Exile Kiss in my car and said "Oh, so you're the other person who bought that..."). That's what he gets for abandoning the Dylan theme.

I really enjoyed the novels, which are first-person narrated by Marid Audran, who isn't exactly a hard-boiled private eye, but tries to be at times. He begins the books as a shiftless loser, and ends up being drawn into the orbit of Freidlander Bey, a devout Muslim and a towering figure in international crime. Marid is lifted out of the Budayeen through a combination of his own efforts as an investigator and Bey's double-edged generosity, which improves Marid's status, but cuts him off from his friends. They're sort of reminiscent of Walter Mosely's Easy Rawlins books (Devil in a Blue Dress and sequels) in this uneasy upward mobility.

It's a fascinating setting, combining cyberpunk elements (people regularly "chip in" personality adjustment modules-- at one point, Marid is Nero Wolfe for a few pages) and Arab culture (which is rarely used so effectively in SF). When I saw this collection in the library, I grabbed it right away.

Unfortunately, the collection was somewhat disappointing. Effinger led a complicated life, and was in very poor health for a long time. On top of that, he suffered from crippling writer's block (in this setting, at least) for the last dozen years of his life. As a result, the collection is oddly sparse. One of the "stories" is really the first few chapters of A Fire in the Sun, another ("Marid Throws a Party") is the first two chapters of the unwritten fourth Marid Audran novel (they're excellent chapters, written in 1990 and never taken any further before the author's death in 2002), while a third ("The Plastic Pasha") is a fragment of a story started two weeks before his death. They're tantalizing hints of what might have been, but, well, the word "tantalizing" derives from a man condemned to hell, so you can sort of see where this is going...

The completed stories are a little better, but also maddeningly inconsistent. "Schroedinger's Kitten" won a fistful of major awards, and it's very good (the lecturing on quantum theory was a little annoying to me, but other readers might not be botehred). "Marid and the Trail of Blood," on the other hand, is kind of weak, while "The World as We Know It" feels like another unfinished tale. "King of the Cyber Rifles," about a simple soldier holding a pass with automated weapons, was excellent, "Slow, Slow Burn" about a VR porn star is good but not great, and "The City in the Sands," a much older story which introduced the Budayeen setting, was so dull I ended up just skimming it (also, the book was due back at the library).

The collection and each of the stories is introduced by Barbara Hambly, who writes very nice and heartfelt things about the various stories and their origin. Put together, these clearly point to a very troubled author. Which is really a shame, as when he was on his game, he was an excellent writer.

In the end, I'm perfectly happy to have gotten this from the library. The only really essential story here would be "Schroedinger's Kitten," which has undoubtedly been collected elsewhere. I do recommend the novels, though, particularly When Gravity Fails.

Posted at 9:00 PM | link | 5 comments

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