Pratchett, Terry. Night Watch. NY: HarperCollins, 2002.
It’s instructive to read the Discworld series more or less straight through, starting with Colour of Magic nearly thirty years ago, which allows you to observe the development of Pratchett’s talents. His early efforts were funny and original but the humor and the characters were pretty obvious. The plots were rather superficial, heavy on wizardry and on exploring the strangeness of Discworld itself. There were hilarious asides in footnotes and horrible puns, which the Brits seem to commit better than anyone. Over time, though, Pratchett became much more skilled and the Discworld became usually just the backdrop for more complex plot lines and much richer character development. The latest half-dozen in the series, of which this is one of the best, are no longer just high-quality fantasy or well-reviewed teenage stories — they’re beautifully written novels, period. Pratchett also has opinions about our own world and he uses his fiction to get his point across. This time, Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork, Commander of the Watch, a thoroughly self-made man, is in pursuit of a completely insane and very intelligent killer when magical circumstances propel him and his quarry some thirty years into the city’s past. It was a bad time. The Patrician in charge was worst than most, unrest was increasing, and the secret police were rampant. Vimes, who is a very competent man and is (almost) never at a loss, quickly finds his way back into uniform, this time as a senior sergeant, where he not only has to hunt down the killer while trying to deal with the coming revolution, but also take his naive younger self under his wing. Along the way, we learn about Lord Vetinari’s roots and the early history of many of Vimes’s subordinates on the Watch. We also are treated to the author’s views on the nature of government, the futility of revolution, and especially what makes a good copper. The wizards are very much in the background for most of the story and the topography of Discworld scarcely enters into it at all. Vimes is a fully realized human being, while Carcer is a fully realized monster. I hope Pratchett can keep up this pace for many, many years to come. (12/30/04)
Pratchett, Terry. Going Postal. NY: HarperCollins, 2004.
Funny thing: As the Discworld series goes on — and this one is somewhere around No. 28 — the peculiar mechanisms of Discworld itself figure less and less in the plot and the focus is more and more on skillfully portrayed characters of great depth and subtlety. Pratchett has long since ceased to be only a cult author. The story this time is about Moist von Lipwig, swindler and con man extraordinaire, who is finally caught and hanged by Lord Vetinari, Tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, Discworld’s largest city. But the hanging was only to get Moist officially dead and fully within Vetinari’s grasp — upon which he’s offered the job (an offer he can’t refuse) of rebuilding the city’s moribund Post Office, which has been put out of business by the invention of the Grand Trunk, a network of high-speed, day-and-night semaphore towers that can transmit messages across the disc in a matter of hours. But Reacher Gilt, a swindler perhaps even greater (and certainly greedier) than Van Lipwig, has taken over the Grand Trunk, intent on maximizing profits at the expense of safety and maintenance. Each of them recognizes the nature of the other, but Vetinari, himself a surpassingly subtle creature, understands them both. There’s also a love interest, of course, in the person of Miss Dearheart, a heavy smoker of spiky personality known to her friends as “Killer,” and whose mission is to assist in the graduated liberation of the golems — who are very patient individuals, but being made of clay helps. Pratchett gets in his licks on the essentially inhumane nature of corporations, explores the psychology of collecting, expounds delightfully on the hacker mentality, and makes a great case for the necessity of maintaining Hope. The wizards of Unseen University appear only as supporting players in the last stages of the story and DEATH gets only a thin paragraph, but the series only gets better and better. (12/28/04)
Gaiman, Neil & Dave McKean. Black Orchid. NY: Marvel Comics, 1990.
This book, published originally in three installments, is regarded as a turning point in graphic fiction, like DARK KNIGHT and WATCHMEN, but I just don’t see it. Generally speaking, I like Gaiman’s story lines, but this time it’s all just confusing. The title character, a crime fighter superhero trying to infiltrate a mob, is killed in the first few pages — but there’s more of her back in the greenhouse so all is not lost. Or something. A newly hatched flower-woman, who seems to share some of the dead one’s memories, sets out to uncover her identity. I think. The mob is run by Lex Luthor (why?), who wants to capture her and/or her little sister (or whatever) for dissection. But Carl, just out of prison, who used to work for Luthor and who previously murdered his wife, upon whom the orchids were based, can’t get his job back and wants to get even with everyone. This guy is a loser and screw-up — but suddenly, in the last installment, the action having relocated to the Amazon Basin, he becomes a very talented and successful jungle killer. (How?) Other people from the back-story weave in and out of the plot, including one who became the Swamp Thing, but none of what they say or do makes much sense. And why does Batman get a cameo? (Not to mentioned assorted bad guys from Gotham?) McKean’s artwork is interesting for its own sake, owing more to oil painting than the usual sort of airbrush work, but all in all, I have to give this a shrug. (12/27/04)
Stephenson, Neal. The Diamond Age; or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. NY: Bantam, 1995.
Stephenson is one of those rare, extremely original authors whose work always repays periodic rereading. I first read this epic when it first appeared nearly a decade ago, and I’m sure I’ll read it again in another decade. The time is a century or so in the future, when the relative plenty provided by ubiquitous and extremely cheap nanotechnology has brought an end to the Age of Nation-States, which have been replaced by tribal societies based on ethnicity or religion or synthetic affiliations. John Percival Hackworth (“Percival” as in the Grail Quest, “Hackworth” as in a worthy hacker) is an engineering near-genius of the neo-Victorian “phyle” of Atlantis, situated on artificially created land just off the Chinese coast. Lord Finkle-McGraw has engaged him to produce an interactive learning system (to greatly understate the Primer’s functions) for his seven-year-old granddaughter, Elizabeth. Hackworth also has a young daughter, Fiona, for whom he would do anything, so he endeavors to also make an illegal copy of the Primer for her. Things go awry, of course, and the stolen copy ends up in the hands of Nell (as in “Little Nell,” a melodrama heroine), who is a deprived cast-off loved only by her semi-shady brother, Harv. And that’s where the book *really* starts, with Nell delving into the world of make-believe (but not really), learning over the next ten years of her life to be not only a Victorian lady but the queen of a new tribe — which is also created (sort of) by the actions of Hackworth’s Primer. But that’s only a single plot line in this complicated but never confusing epic of technological imperialism, ancient Chinese destiny, personal fulfillment, and the pending arrival of a post-nanotech world society. Stephenson’s characters, as always, are a combination of archetype and off-the-wall originality. His understanding and social application of cutting-edge technology will fascinate you. His descriptive powers will hold your attention and his mastery of the language will excite your admiration. A damn fine piece of work. (12/21/04)
Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. NY: Doubleday, 2003.
Okay, I agree, this book is a marketing phenomenon, nearly two years on the best seller lists, and Brown is to be congratulated in having turned the public’s willingness to believe anything into a tidy fortune. He wrote the book to make money and he has succeeded, I’m sure, beyond his dreams. But as an intelligently crafted novel, this thing sucks pond scum. Brown writes prose so purple it’s practically ultraviolet. There are huge lapses of sense in the plot, even in the set-up in the first chapter. (I mean, rather than arranging his dying body in a symbolic posture and smearing arcane symbols in his own blood, why doesn’t Sauniere simply write the name of his murderer?) The rhetorical formulae and clichés drip thickly from every page. The monodimensional characters have as much life and personality as a flock of tailor’s dummies. The dialogue is painfully melodramatic. There’s also far too much coincidence in place of properly thought out plot action. Worse, people I talk to seem to believe, against all sense, what the author claims as fact in this book, the same way people believe in newspaper astrology columns. You’ll find more dependable history in the “Indiana Jones” movies. I should add that I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and I’ve been a fan of Robert Anton Wilson for decades, so I’m perfectly prepared to willing suspend my disbelief in the cause of a good story. But this is in no way such a story. The only good thing I can say about this book is that it seems to have frightened and enraged both the Catholic Church and the Protestant fundamentalists — which is never a bad thing. Nevertheless, it’s a bad book. Not immoral, nor sinful, nor “wrong.” Just bad. Very, very bad. But as Mencken pointed out, “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people.” (12/17/04)
Laubier, Gillaume de. The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World. NY: Abrams, 2003.
Speaking as a professional librarian for more than three decades — someone who upon visiting a city for the first time usually seeks out the main library for a look around — there are libraries and then there are libraries. Even those in major U.S. cities tend to be utilitarian first (sometimes utilitarian only). Those dating from the 1950s and ‘60s are generally pretty ugly, as well. For richness and beauty, you have to go overseas to find libraries constructed in an earlier time, when architecture and ornamentation was an end in itself. Except for the small collections kept by monasteries, the library is pretty much an invention of the Renaissance and the Age of Reason. The National Library of Austria, in Vienna, is gorgeously Baroque, with allegorical paintings on the ceilings and narrow staircases concealed behind hidden doors in the stacks. The ever-suspicious Vatican Library still locks its bookcases, filled with bibliographical relics of incalculable value. The Senate Library in Paris is a blend of Neoclassical and Italianate, but it’s very much a working library and the old card catalogue has been replaced by computers. I was privileged many years ago to visit the breathtaking library at the Abbey of Saint Gall, home of probably the world’s most important collection of surviving incunabula. The curving bookshelves of inlaid wood, the hundreds of carved portraits, arms, and both religious and secular symbols are just incredible. And there’s the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the first-ever university collection. And there are more than a dozen others in this beautifully produced volume, of which only three in the United States were deemed worthy of inclusion: the Library of Congress, the New York Public, and the Boston Athenaeum. All of which are practically new buildings compared to the others, but the same principal is at work — to house knowledge in artistically serene surroundings. Remember the overhead shot of the LC’s main Reading Room in All the President’s Men? That says it all. (12/13/04)
Baker, Nicholson. Checkpoint. NY: Knopf, 2004.
I’ve read all of Baker’s fiction and many of his essays and (except for his screed against periodicals on microform) I’ve enjoyed them all. He’s inventive, he has a real ear for dialogue, and he’s just weird enough to always keep your attention. Having said all that, I don’t quite know what to make of this novel. Actually, it ought to be classified as a “novella,” since it’s only 112 very small-sized pages, but let’s not be picky. The whole thing consists of a dialogue between two old friends, Jay and Ben, in a Washington, DC, hotel room sometime in the summer or early fall of 2004. Ben is an academic, apparently (or occasionally) a college instructor, with an interest in 20th century political history. He’s reasonably successful, judging by his comfortable lifestyle, and he has a wife and kids. Jay, who is divorced with kids, seems to be a drop-out of some sort from academe who has spent the past couple of years doing manual labor, including both the construction trades and commercial fishing. Ben is a pretty normal guy. Jay is a nutcase. Jay has decided George W. Bush needs assassinating, mostly because of the horrors he has inflicted on women, children, and other innocent civilians in Iraq, but also because of his general attitude toward the world. He has summoned Ben to hear and tape his explanation, so there will be a record of his motives. Ben, naturally, is fearful of being labeled an accomplice and being hauled off to Guantanamo himself. The assassination is supposed to be accomplished with “special bullets” that Jay bought by mail for $150 each. Along the way in their extended conversation, they discuss digital cameras vs. film, how to get what you really want from hotel room service, the sins of Wal-Mart vs. Target and Old Navy, and why all the U.S. presidents since Eisenhower (plus Lynne Cheney) have been no good. Well, okay. They both make a lot of good points. But what’s the point of the book? When I got to the last page — it doesn’t actually “end,” it just stops — I actually turned back a bit to see if I’d missed something. Nope. Very strange and self-indulgent. On the other hand, I wonder how long it will be before Dubya has Baker declared a danger to the public good and locked up without a trial. . . . (12/10/04)
Forsyth, Frederick. Avenger. NY: St. Martin, 2003.
This author’s method is to lead you into the story small detail by small detail, revealing characters’ personalities and histories as needed, and — in this case — giving the reader a short course in the appalling history of the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the mutual genocidal efforts of most of its ethnic groups. Ricky Colenso is an teenage idealist, scion of a wealthy U.S./Canadian family, and his desire to make a difference leads him to volunteer as an aid worker in Bosnia over the summer. Then he disappears (though the reader knows what happened to him before the other characters do) and his wealthy grandfather, a veteran of the Battle of Britain, pays a man known as the “Tracker” to uncover his fate. Later, he will also pay another specialist, the “Avenger” to bring Ricky’s killer to justice. That would be the formula for a harrowing tale of revenge all by itself, but there’s more: The targeted killer is being assisted by someone high up in the CIA as a matter of “the lesser evil for the greater good.” And all this is taking place in the summer and early fall of 2001. Forsyth leaves you to wonder whether a righteous attitude toward justice is necessarily the best way to go, knowing what we now know. This has the potential to make a terrific film. (12/04/04)
Stradley, Linda. I’ll Have What They’re Having: Legendary Local Cuisine. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Pr, 2002.
Foodies who travel a lot are always on the look-out for local or regional specialties when they visit a new area. Like Ropa Vieja or a Cuban Sandwich in Miami, or Cincinnati-style chili (always “five-way”), or a Garbage Plate in Rochester, or a Beef on Weck in Buffalo, or a Hot Brown in Louisville. I think I would argue that some of what the author considers “local cuisine,” though, is too widely available to qualify — like Chicken-Fried Steak (which originated in south Texas but you can get it anywhere in the western half of the country), or breakfast tacos (now ubiquitous, even in supermarkets). She organizes dishes by courses, but there’s a regional index in the back. Each recipe is introduced by a sometimes lengthy sociological essay. I have to say those for gumbo, muffulettas, and king cakes were pretty good renditions (though, naturally, everyone has their own “best” version). I believe I’ll pass on the “prairie oysters” and the Hangtown Fry, though. (12/02/04)
Keillor, Garrison. Lake Wobegon Days. NY: Viking, 1985.
In 1985, Keillor had been doing Prairie Home Companion for nearly a decade and this volume was a semi-novelization of the stories he was telling about his mythical home town on the show’s “News From Lake Wobegon” segment, frequently the best part of the show — not because it was funny but because it was (and is) funny-sad, funny-sentimental, funny-bizarre, and funny-ludicrous. Another twenty years have now passed and we’ve come to know the characters of Lake Wobegon intimately: the locally wealthy Krebsbach family, Pastor Ingqvist and Father Emil, Herman Hochstetter and the annual Living Flag, the Sons of Knute, and the rules for visiting on front porches. But this book is where you’ll find the multiethnic history of the town, how tiny Mist County was formed, and why neither of them appear on any map. Did you know the local paper, the Herald-Star, got its name because it was bought by Harold Starr? Or why a Lutheran upbringing is likely to cause emigrants from Minnesota to compose their own Theses and look for a door to nail them to? (You’ll find a hilarious and largely true list of ninety-five of them here.) Keillor has the gift of taking the small and ordinary, approaching them in a profoundly sympathetic yet skeptical way, and making them universal in their strengths. (11/30/04)
Wadsworth, Richard. Incident at San Augustine Springs: A Hearing for Major Isaac Lynde. Las Cruces, NM: Yucca Tree Press, 2002.
Back in the late ‘60s, I did a master’s degree in U.S. history and my research dealt with several aspects of the Texas invasion of New Mexico under Col. John Baylor and the humiliation of federal troops at Mesilla in the summer of 1861. Naturally, I’ve been interested ever since in anything published on the subject of the Civil War in the southwest, so I hunted down this self-published volume, even though I finally had to go through Interlibrary Loan to get it. I’m not sure I should have bothered. Maj. Lynde was an incompetent who abandoned his post under threat from a much smaller Texan force, and who then allowed his troops to string themselves out during their flight up into the Organ Mountains — with whiskey in their canteens instead of water, though Wadsworth doesn’t seem to know about that, . . and I helped dig up the empty bottles at the fort one summer. This idiotic behavior allowed Baylor to roll them up as he caught up with the straggling column with only one shot being fired. Wadsworth seems to think most of this was the fault of Lynde’s superiors and subordinates, but there’s plenty of blame to go around. In any case, one need only imagine the result if the two commanders had been switched — if Baylor had been in command at Fort Fillmore. Is there any doubt the defenders of the fort would have sent their attackers packing? Or that the federal assault on the town of Mesilla would have been successful, had Baylor been the one leading it instead of resisting it, instead of the disaster it actually was for the Union troops? But interpretations aside, my biggest gripe about this exercise in special pleading is that Wadsworth seems never to have heard of the two standard books and more than a dozen journal articles on the subject written by Martin Hardwick Hall. The late Dr. Hall was my thesis advisor (and I was his R.A. for awhile), and his work is still important in any discussion of Baylor, Mesilla, or the Confederate Territory of Arizona. (And incidentally, it’s “San Augustin Springs,” without the terminal “e.”) (11/24/04)
Walsh, Robb. The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos. NY: Broadway Books, 2004.
I grew up in San Antonio and spent nearly forty years in Dallas, and I’ve been a devotée of Tex-Mex food all that time. This amazing, engrossing, mouth-watering volume is far more than a “cookbook,” the modest title notwithstanding — it’s a history of why Texans eat the way they do, why most Mexicans south of the Sonoran desert are contemptuous of chips-and-salsa, and where chile con carne really began. There are decades of photos of the best chili joints and upscale restaurants in the state, many of which I’ve eaten at over the years. The frontispiece is of the gondola at Casa Rio, where my high school senior class held parties, and there’s even a picture (along with a bit of oral history) of Lucille Quiñones (whose family owned El Rancho restaurant), and whom I also knew in high school. (She went to Incarnate Word and many of the guys from my school dated girls there.) The chapter on the “chili queens” is fantastic and exceedingly well-written. The lengthy discussion of the “myth of authenticity” is spot-on, absolutely accurate, and will upset some self-righteous Texans, but who cares? The great food is the thing! And the recipes themselves, scattered among the history and the pictures, are excellent, including the classic method of making chili gravy at Molina’s in Houston, and the pre-yuppified cheese enchiladas at Larry’s down in Richmond, and the swooningly delicious version of chiles rellenos at Darios in Austin, and the justifiably famous puffy tacos at Henry’s in San Antonio (where they were invented and don’t let anyone tell you different). And if you want to know what Chicano rights protestors thought about the Frito Bandito commercials, or how David Pace got his salsa company started, or why the five Cuellar brothers let themselves be photographed in business suits and kitchen aprons, this is the place to come. In fact, Walsh, a noted food writer from Houston, has produced what is sometimes an almost scholarly work. I’m a pretty fair cook and I read a lot of cookbooks, but most of them come from the library and I buy very selectively. Five minutes of browsing through this one, though, and I had my credit card out, and now it’s on my bedside table, filled with bookmarks. If you love serranos and combination plates and “true” Texas chili the way I do, you must own this book! (11/21/04)
Wilson, Charles. The Harvest. NY: Bantam, 1992.
I like various of this author’s other books, but I’m sorry to say I couldn’t get more than halfway into this one, at which point I gave up. The slow, almost plodding pace reminds me of Clifford Simak, but without the poetry. It’s sort of an “after the apocalypse” story, but only one in ten thousand of the Earth’s inhabitants don’t welcome the end of the world as we know it. They’d rather have near-eternal life, even if it means fundamental changes in the meaning of “humaness.” In fact, it’s hard to see just what the handful of holdouts object to; most of them are loser-types and not typical of the species. But the real problem is that Wilson spends far too much time and energy developing minor characters, and the major characters aren’t all that believable in their response to Contact. Hardly compelling reading, regardless of what Walter Miller’s jacket blurb says. (11/20/04)
Rankin, Robert. The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse. London: Gollancz, 2002.
This is the first of Rankin’s books I’ve read and I only picked up this one because of the title. (Looking at his list of previous works, he obviously goes in for flaky titles.) My response to the first couple of chapters was, “He’s trying too hard.” I’m a longtime fan of Terry Pratchett, and that level of inspired and highly literate looniness is very difficult to attain, and maintain, without going overboard. But I stuck with it and I gradually found myself caught up in this tale of Jack the fortune-seeker in Toy City, his partnership with Eddie (who until recently was the teddy bear of Bill Winkie, private eye), and their efforts to catch the serial killer who’s knocking off the Old-Rich human nursery characters in the city. The kindly, white-haired old Toymaker in his house up at the top of Knob Hill might be a god, or at least an assistant to one of the gods. And there’s Jill, a scrumptious hooker with a heart of not-quite-gold, and Tinto, the clockwork bartender who is actually something considerably more. Like Pratchett, Rankin also takes the opportunity to get in some digs at the world we humans inhabit — especially late in the book, when the truth about the present U.S. mis-administration comes out. Rankin is especially good at description and dialogue and I expect I’ll try to hunt up some of his earlier books. (11/18/04)
Irving, John. A Widow for One Year. NY: Random House, 1998.
John Irving is one of my most favorite “serious” authors because, in addition to telling a story in which both the plot and the characters monopolize your attention from the first paragraph — as this one certainly does — he also tells you things about the world in general and the people in it that require you to think. But his plots and characters definitely are complex, many-layered constructions, impossible to summarize in a review. But what the hell. Ruth Cole is a critically and financially successful novelist — far more so than her father, Ted, a writer of rather creepy children’s books and serial seducer of young mothers. The story begins in the summer of 1958 when Ruth, age four, is about to be deserted by her mother, Marion. The Coles had lost their two teenage boys in an automobile accident five years before (Ruth was an ill-advised attempt to replace them, sort of) and Marion is afraid to love another child. Ted makes it easy for her by hiring sixteen-year-old Eddie O’Hare from Phillips Exeter Academy as his “writer’s assistant” for the summer. Eddie falls in love with Marion, they have a torrid three-month affair, and Eddie’s life pattern is fixed. And the way Irving lays all this out, it’s completely convincing, even though many of the other characters themselves raise their eyebrows at Eddie’s fixation on older women.
But that’s only the beginning. Other major themes include squash as a metaphor for more profound psychic competition, and the nature of bravery and “domestic heroism,” and the nature of sexual accountability and of prostitution, and the connection between justified anger and revenge, and the life and fiction of Graham Greene (of whom Irving is a noted admirer). The author delves deeply into how a writer becomes a writer and what that does to perception of other people and of the world in general. It’s been my experience that women authors generally do better with male protagonists than male writers do with women. Irving seems to be the exception, though, because Ruth Cole is so convincingly portrayed — as a woman — that you tend to forget the gender of the author. One of the most fascinating parts of the story is the genesis of Ruth’s new novel during her book tour at the Frankfurt Book Fair and in Amsterdam: The gradual growth of the main plot in her unconscious, her search for the right protagonist and the best motivation for her actions, her understanding that she won’t have a choice, in many ways, about how the book comes out. “I’m a comic novelist,” she thinks during one of her readings. “Half the audience will take this to mean that I am not a serious novelist. But comedy is ingrained. A writer doesn’t choose to be comic. You can choose a plot, . . . you can choose your characters. But comedy is not a choice; it just comes out that way.” Notwithstanding that perceptive statement, this book contains some very comic scenes. Ted Cole’s panicked flight on foot from his latest conquest in her big black Lincoln, which ends with him signing books, tattered and bleeding, in the local bookstore (a sanctuary reached by way of a privet hedge) verges on slapstick. And Ruth’s careful dismantling of a violent lover with his own squash racket will have the women in the audience cheering.
However, something else comes of her visit to Amsterdam and her tentative research for a new novel, which ends in one of the most baldly-narrated scenes of horror I’ve ever read. Foreshadowing is a useful technique for heightening tension, but it’s difficult to do well, without giving away too much too soon. Irving, though, is a master of foreshadowing. There are perhaps a half-dozen major plot points in the story and while in each case you’re aware that something is coming, you won’t know what until you get there. Except for the Amsterdam section of the story. That one caught me completely off-guard. Almost everyone in this book loses someone. Even before the story opens, Ted and Marion have lost their sons. Ted loses his wife. Ruth loses her mother. Eddie loses the only woman he will ever love. Sergeant Hoekstra loses both his friend and the witness to her murder. Then Ruth loses her husband. Almost everyone, male and female, is in some sense a “widow.” This is one of those novels that will sit quietly on my shelves from now on, waiting for a periodic rereading — which I promise it will have. (11/12/04)
Lee, Don. Country of Origin. NY: Norton, 2004.
Lisa Countryman, one of the three POVs in this troubled novel, is a multiracial doctoral student at Berkeley who is working as a club hostess in Tokyo. She has a larger agenda, but it will take the reader awhile to figure that out. She becomes involved with various questionable men, including a local CIA spook. The other gaijin protagonist is Tom Hurley, a junior diplomatic officer who’s just floating through life. Then there’s Kenzo Ota, a not very competent police inspector who becomes involved in trying to find out what happened to Lisa when she disappears. For some reason, the story is set in 1980, and easily the best part of the book is the look Lee gives us at the shadowy world of the Tokyo sex trade — though the Japanese have a much more tolerant attitude toward such things than Americans. The plot, however, is perfunctory through much of the book, with absolutely no foreshadowing, so when Lee begins wrapping things up in the last couple of chapters, the solutions he springs on the reader are a series of rather unsatisfying surprises. Lisa herself is the only character toward whom one can feel any sympathy. Hurley is a total schmuck completely lacking in redeeming qualities. Kenzo is a naive, neurotic loner without a clue about the society in which he lives, and the spook is simply manipulative, as are many of the supporting cast. The background is interesting but the ideas are poorly developed and the author’s style is almost amateurish. (11/05/04)
Isaacs, Susan. Any Place I Hang My Hat. NY: Scribner, 2004.
Isaacs’s novels aren’t mere replays of one another. The protagonist of each is a woman, but they’re not “women’s novels” — or not merely that, anyway. This one isn’t a mystery, as some of her best have been, but it’s certainly suspenseful. Thirty-year-old Amy Lincoln (“no relation”) is a more-than-competent New York political analyst and journalist at IN DEPTH, a magazine so serious it doesn’t run pictures at all. Despite her degrees from Harvard and Columbia School of Journalism, she grew up in the projects, the daughter of a mostly likeable but only semi-successful small-time criminal and a mother who disappeared when she was a few months old, dumping her in the reluctant lap of her Grandma Lil, a part-time leg-waxer. Her background left her with a rather confrontational style and very chary of commitment in relationships, even though for two years she’s been with the pretty much terrific John Orenstein, a documentary film maker who pushes all her passion buttons but with whom she is convinced she ought to break up. But all that is just the background to this multilayered story. While covering a private money-raiser by a presidential candidate, she witnesses a young, personable gate-crasher’s claim to be the senator’s illegitimate son. As she gets involved, against her better ethical judgment, with his quest for acceptance, she comes to the realization that she must also uncover the truth about her own mother and the theft of a diamond ring that sent her father to jail for the first time. She’s an expert researcher and (speaking as someone in a similar line of work) I found the process fascinating. But Amy’s search is only the means to discovering who she is, whether she’s really her mother’s daughter in terms of bent psychology, and what to do about John. The story is set, rather pointedly, against the backdrop of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, but I’m not sure I see the relevance. And there are also frequent flashback references to the events of September 11, as is probably inevitable for any future novel set in present-day New York City, but at least they play some part in the characters’ personal lives. This certainly isn’t a “funny” book, but Isaacs’s dry wit and droll capsule descriptions add a leavening of humor that keeps things on an even keel. And her spot-on depictions of the supporting characters are marvelous. Every novel this author writes is better than the one before. (10/30/04)
Swanwick, Michael. Jack Faust. NY: Avon, 1997.
As he showed so expertly in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, industrialism and medievalism are two sides of the same rusty coin. Here, he takes the semi-legendary 16th century seeker after truth, Johannes Faust of Wittenberg and Nuremberg, and imagines an alien, trans-dimensional “demon” whispering in his ear, handing him on a platter the secrets of the universe. His fellow scientists are more interested in protecting their own positions than in learning new things, so instead of becoming a proto-physicist, Faust becomes a Promethean engineer. Before you know it, Germany is crisscrossed by telegraph wires, an ironclad Spanish Armada faces off against a missile-armed English navy, and industrial pollution is everywhere. Faust is in exile in London, separated forever from Margarete, the love of his life — who has become a corporate CEO to be reckoned with. The irony throughout is dark and delicious, the style is triumphantly nasty, and the experience for the reader is extremely satisfactory. (10/27/04)
Lindsay, Jeff. Darkly Dreaming Dexter. NY: Doubleday, 2004.
Dexter Morgan is a thirty-year-old blood-spatter specialist working for the Miami-Dade police crime lab. He’s an expert at his job, liked — or at least accepted — by most of his coworkers, and a person of interest to several women, including incompetent homicide detective LaGuerta. He’s also a fully self-aware and quite inhuman monster, the product of some undescribed familial trauma in his early youth, who has spent his life learning to fake the emotions he doesn’t possess naturally. He was coached in this by his foster father, Harry, a highly-regarded cop who recognized what young Dexter really was and taught him to turn it to positive uses. Now, when the Dark Passenger who resides in his mind decides, periodically, that it’s time to come out and play, Dexter always has someone lined up who deserves to die slowly. Perhaps a child-killer, or a pathological hospice nurse who’s too free with the morphine, or simply a warped priest. Because Dexter does his best not to harm the “innocent.” He also tries to help his foster sister, Deb, a lusciously-built vice cop who doesn’t really know how to be a girl, feels comfortable only in a blue uniform, and wants more than anything to graduate to Homicide. She also seems to have unspoken suspicions about her brother’s ability to predict how killers will think and act. Now there’s a serial killer on the loose — another one besides Dexter, that is — and Dexter is fascinated by his artistic technique and longs to meet him, even though he’s also worried. Especially since he seems to know too many details about his rival. What if the Dark Passenger is more in control than he thought? What if Dexter himself is the other killer? This appears to be Lindsay’s first novel and it’s an extremely original, beautifully thought-out thriller. Dexter is not Hannibal Lector and the reader will quickly become sympathetic and anxious for him to survive — before being brought up short by a reminder of just what his hobby interests consist of. Dexter’s self-deprecating interior monologues, his ruminations on his own nature, his memories of Harry’s careful training, all are delightful, thought that hardly seems the word that ought to apply. And, finally, that last chapter is a pip. There’s a sequel in the works and I can’t wait. (10/18/040
Lively, Penelope. The Photograph. NY: Viking, 2003
This is quite an extraordinary gallery of interlinked portraits. There’s Glyn Peters, British landscape historian and television-academic, a man who has to know, in all cases, exactly what happened and why. There’s his deceased wife, Kath, a woman of unnatural beauty to whom almost everyone was attracted and who lived her own life exactly as she wanted to, never planning ahead (and never had to), never working at a steady job, and who was the despair of her much older sister, Elaine. Because Elaine is a hyper-organized and very successful garden designer, the sort of person whose life is defined by her work and who has no understanding of, nor sympathy for, people — like her sister, Kath, like her husband, Nick — who don’t approach life that way. There’s Polly, daughter of Elaine and Nick, a very “here and now” young woman working as a web designer who rather takes after her mother but who also doted on her radiant, fun-loving aunt. And there’s Oliver, Nick’s ex-partner in their failed specialty publishing firm. It was Oliver who innocently took the photo that showed Nick and his sister-in-law secretly holding hands, which he forwarded to Nick, which Nick sent on to Kath — assuming she would destroy it. But Kath thoughtlessly tucked it away to be found by Glyn years later. And Glyn now has a new research project: Assembling all the data he can ferret out on his late wife’s life while he was away attending conferences and doing research. Were there other men in her life besides Nick? It doesn’t matter that it all happened fifteen years ago: He must know. And the repercussions of his investigation on all involved are considerable. But it appears that no one who knew Kath really knew her. Lively’s exquisite, highly readable style is guaranteed to keep you glued to the page and thinking about her characters and their stories while you’re supposed to be doing something else. (10/21/04)
Gerrold, David. The Man Who Folded Himself. NY: Bantam, 1973.
When this time-travel classic first appeared thirty years ago, I was a grad student in history and my mind was full of the academic debate over the nature of causality — so Gerrold’s thoughts on the subject made quite an impression on me. I stole his arguments shamelessly for use in the TA lounge. I had met him at a con a couple of years before, when his reputation derived almost entirely from tribbles, and I believed at the time that he was going places. Sadly, he never quite made the big time and I imagine most younger discoverers of science fiction have never heard of him. Still, any fan of time travel fiction knows this book well and I doubt anyone can ever match the psychological and philosophical complexity of Dan Eakin’s life in possession of the Timebelt. This artifact is the only one of its kind (logically, when you think about it) and so Dan is the only time traveler, . . . but there’s plenty of him to go around, because time travel is actually the creation of alternate realities. There are young Dans and old ones, hetero- and homosexual versions, even male and female. Some go insane, some become degenerate. Some find love, some lose it. But Dan is his own universe: “I am a circle, complete unto itself. I have brought life into this world, and that life is me.” If you’re looking for a Time Patrol adventure yarn, this isn’t it. (There isn’t even all that much plot in the usual sense.) But if you want to think about the consequences of personal, individual time travel, you can’t do any better than this one. (10/16/04)
Sargent, Pamela (ed). Conqueror Fantastic. NY: DAW, 2004.
I picked this up thinking it was a collection of original alternate history stories, but it’s not quite that. Many of the stories do involve “what-if” plot points, but they’re rooted in fantasy — but not of the Tolkienesque variety, either. In Stephen Dedman’s “Twilight of Idols,” for instance, Adolf Hitler kills a dragon straight out of the Niebelungen, making him more or less invulnerable (how do you think he escaped injury from that bomb?), but the rest of his career fits more into the “secret history” category. Michelle West’s “To the Gods Their Due” is a cautionary tale about Alexander and the price to be paid for quasi-immortality, and while it’s a well-written story, there’s nothing especially “fantastic” about it. (I don’t think access to a soothsayer counts.) “Intensified Transmogrification,” by Barry Malzberg and Bill Pronzini, is a brief alternate history about LBJ with no fantasy element that I can discern. (Schizophrenia is not fantasy.) And so on. There’s some pretty good writing in this volume, but not much thematic consistency. (10/15/04)
Homes, A. M. Music for Torching. NY: Morrow, 1999.
The author’s last book, and the first one of his I’d read, was The End of Alice, and it was, well, not exactly fun, but kind of weird and definitely interesting. This one is also weird, but not nearly as interesting. I picked it up because a friend saw me reading The Ice Storm and recommended this as a contemporary novel of the highly dysfunctional family. And the Weisses are certainly that. Paul and Elaine, both forty-ish, swing between passionate sex and sniping based on mutual loathing. In a fit of psychic panic (or something), they collaborate in tipping over a charcoal grill and setting fire to their house, after which they pack the kids in the car and hightail it to a motel. But the house is only damaged, not destroyed (denying them their new start), and they have to stay with their perfect neighbors. Or not-so-perfect, actually. And Paul discovers the luxury of sleeping in a lacy nightgown. And Elaine discovers lesbian sex. And their twelve-year-old son begins collecting evidence of the arson. And there’s The Date, who frequently calls on Paul’s cell phone, and Paul’s ill-conceived tattoo, and some truly strange commuters on the train. And all of this should lead to fascinating, culturally illuminating characters and situations, but that somehow never happens. Too bad. (10/14/04)
Barry, Dave. Tricky Business. NY: Putnam, 2002.
Big Trouble, the columnist’s first novel, was a whacked-out cops-and-robbers escapade filled with his trademark off-the-wall sense of humor. This second novel may lose him some of his readership — those who expect him to write only silly stuff. Because this caper yarn, while funny in places (especially the ongoing jokes concerning the suicidal TV newsroom and the Hawaiian infomercials), is also somewhat darker and more grown-up. It all revolves around an oceangoing South Florida casino and the nefarious uses to which its owners put it. Spiraling in to the climactic events on the Extravaganza of the Seas are the members of a band of low expectations (especially Wally, the lead guitar), two elderly refugees from a retirement home, a stressed-out bar hostess, a tall blonde with digestive problems, a ship’s captain trying to live down his past, a guy in a pink conch costume, a psychopathic drug-runner, and an assortment of professional heavies, many of whom won’t be returning to Miami. If Barry continues developing in this direction, he’ll be giving Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen a serious run for their money. (10/10/04)
Barry, Dave. Big Trouble. NY: Putnam, 1999.
As the many readers of his column know, Dave Barry has a sideways sort of sense of humor. And, as much as he loves Miami, he’s certainly not blind to the failings of his home town, where gun-ownership is a given. His first novel is part Marx Brothers, part Carl Hiaasen, part Goofy-on-dope, all set in the Miami suburb of Coconut Grove. Eliot Arnold is an ex-newsman struggling to make it with his small advertising agency, while his teenaged son, Matt, plays “Killer” with squirt guns. Matt’s intended victim, Jenny, is the daughter of Arthur Herk, vice-president and bag man for a thoroughly corrupt and murderous local corporation, whose days may be numbered as a result of his not-bright embezzling. And there’s Puggy, a street person living in a tree in the Herk’s walled yard, who has a thing for their illegal maid, Nina. Puggy also works (sort of) for two Russian ex-army chislers who own a run-down bar as a front for their arms-dealing operation. And there’s Snake and Eddie, small-time grifters who decide to make a big score — bigger than they know, unfortunately. And there’s FBI agents and assorted cops and several overlapping love stories and a very suspicious metal suitcase. (Now I’ve gotta see the movie!) (10/04/04)
Busiek, Kurt. Astro City: Life in the Big City. La Jolla, CA: Homage Comics, 1995-96.
I’m a fan of superhero-type post-1970s comics, especially when they’re compiled in graphic novel form (so you don’t have to wait for the next installment), but I prefer the “realistic” school invented in Watchmen and The Dark Knight series over the Marvel variety. Stories in which the hero isn’t necessarily all that heroic, set in a grubby sort of world not unlike our own. Sort of an alternate universe in which superheroes or extraordinary mortals can exist. That’s what Busiek says he’s after here, but he’s not all that successful. This may have to do more with the fact that the seven stories in this volume each center on a different hero and don’t adequately relate to each other. The focus is very fuzzy. There are too many references made to events and people the reader knows nothing about, if he hasn’t already read all the original comics. And the characterizations are rather trite, too. Samaritan is a workaholic, Winged Victory is a go-it-alone feminist, Beautie is a Barbie doll (literally), Crackerjack is a jerk, and we learn nothing at all about Starwoman, the Deacon, the Furst Family, or most of the other walk-ons. The best story in the book, almost by default, is “Safeguards,” about a woman from a Third-Worldish corner of the city where ghosties and ghoulies still survive, who is trying to make a career downtown. This whole thing could have been much, much better. (10/03/04)