Dunning, John. Booked to Die. NY: Scribner, 1992.
Being a lifelong book junkie, I read this first-rate mystery yarn when it first came out. With two new entries in the series now, it seemed like time for a re-read before I got hold of those. Cliff Janeway is a tough, no-time-for-bullshit homicide cop in Denver who also has a passion for collecting first editions of contemporary American literature. He’s been working for two years on a way to nail an arrogantly violent sleezeball when circumstances combine to cause him to lose his cool, and he beats the bastard to a pulp in a fair fight. And, of course, gets himself suspended from the force, and sued for ten million. Time to quit the cop business and sink his savings in a bookstore of his own. But his last case, the apparently senseless murder of a local bookscout, comes back to haunt him when more murders occur — including the young woman he had recently hired to help out in the shop — and he locks the door and sets out to solve this thing before anyone else dies. And he’s on his own time now, not limited by professional restraints. The plot is nicely worked out and you won’t get the final answer to the mystery until the last paragraph of the last page, but I was just as taken with Dunning’s portrait of the real world of bookmen, where money and bibliophiliac mania run neck-and-neck, where Janeway finds himself trying to balance his old instincts as a cop and his obsession with good books with his newly found love for a beautiful and wealthy woman who is also a consummate bookman herself. A deeply involving story. (3/29/05)
Gibson, William. Idoru. NY: Putnam, 1996.
Rei Toei, the “idoru” (the Japanese pronunciation of “idol”), is a Tokyo pop star who exists only as a software agent — until now. Chia McKenzie, fourteen-year-old Seattle fan of the rock group Lo/Rez, has heard a rumor that lead singer/philosopher Rez plans to marry the idoru and her online buddies arrange to send her to Tokyo on a rescue mission. The other branch of the converging plot features Colin Laney, whose talent is perceiving and interpreting the patterns people create in the datastream, and who is hired by Rez’s security chief to investigate the same rumor. This not-quite-sequel is set in the same future as Virtual Light, with Yamazaki as a major supporting character and Rydel in the background, but the focus is on Laney’s attempts to deal with an extremely strange world and on Chia’s coping with the real Japan and the virtual Walled City. Again, Chia is a marvelous and perfectly believable character. It might be surprising that someone as technophilic as Gibson is so successful in painting portraits of adolescent girls, but I suspect he’s incapable of hitting a wrong note. He just keeps getting better and better. (3/25/05)
Gibson, William. Virtual Light. NY: Bantam Books, 1993.
Gibson is possibly the most consistently original of any sf author of his generation. In this world of our near future (2005, according to the flap copy, but I don’t think he’s that explicit in the text), almost everything has been privatized, the U.S. has devolved into independent region-nations, and wealth and power enforce the divisions in society. Berry Rydell, a young ex-cop from Knoxville, is working for a private “armed response” outfit in Los Angeles until he screws up and is sent off to San Francisco as a driver for a skiptracer. Mr. Yamazaki, a Japanese student of social psychology and anthropology, is fascinated by the squatter community that took over the Oakland Bay Bridge, which was abandoned after the big quake. One of the bridge’s residents is Chevette Washington, a bike messenger in the city, who looks after one of the aging pioneers of the bridge community — but she also screws up, lifting what she thinks is just an expensive pair of shades from an annoying guy at a party. The glasses embody a secret that would destroy a lot of careers and Rydell’s employer wants them back. Chevette is a marvelous character, as is Yamazaki, who enables the reader to see things from a truly foreign perspective. Gibson, a master of metaphor, never wastes a word. A terrific read. (3/22/05)
Takahashi, Rumiko. Ranma 1/2, Vol. 1. San Francisco: Viz Communications, 1993.
I wondered what the “1/2” business was all about — and now, having finally read this first volume (out of more than two dozen), I know! Akane Tendo is the youngest of three daughters of the proprietor of a martial arts school in Tokyo. Her father’s old friend, Mr. Saotome, is returning from a visit to China, accompanied by his very eligible son, Ranma; both of them are, of course, masters of an assortment of martial arts of the most dramatic kind. The two fathers have already arranged that Ranma will marry one of Tendo’s daughters in order to assure the continuation of the Tendo school. But the Saotomes have this problem: Having fallen into a cursed Chinese spring in the midst of a sparring session, Ranma now turns into a girl (cute, too) when splashed with cold water and switches back to a boy when doused with hot water. (His father switches from irascible middle-aged man to irascible middle-aged panda.) This leads to a very strange relationship with Akane, who hates boys (she says). The byplay between the two is a gender-bending hoot, and so is the self-centered upperclassman Akame has to fight every morning before he switches his attention to cold-water Ranma (and I know he has his own curse to deal with later in the series). There’s also the revenge-seeking fighter from Ranma’s old school who has no sense of direction whatever. I especially like the way they’ve translated the “sound words” into English as well as the dialogue. This is first-rate comic manga and I can see I’m going to have to hunt up the rest of the series. (3/19/05)
Rucka, Greg & Steve Rolston. Queen & Country: Operation: Broken Ground. Portland, OR: Oni Press, 2002.
This is an “adult” graphic novel, not in the sexual-content sense but because the plot does not involve superheroes, fantasy, or magic. In fact, it’s much more gritty and topical than even most adult thrillers I’ve read. The Secret Intelligence Service, based in London, is (apparently) an MI-6 kind of operation, chartered to carry out assassinations and other operations abroad but whose agents are not even allowed to be armed at home. Tara Chace — “Minder Two” — is their best shooter and the story opens with her involved in an unauthorized Special Operation in Kosovo to take out a rogue Russian officer now running with the Russian mafia. Her success, followed by an iffy escape from the scene, leads the Russians to put a bounty on her head — and to fire a shoulder-launched rocket at the SIS headquarters, just to show they can. Paul Crocker, Director of Ops, wants not just to catch the perpetrators of the attack, he wants them dead. The Kosovo operation was a favor owed to the CIA, who now decline to help in his vendetta. And so on, in a nicely complicated plot that revolves on personalities and the rules of the game in a changed world as much as on action sequences. The art is straight black-and-white line drawing that emphasizes facial expression and body language — which fits well with the rather talky style of the narration. My only complaint is that the story doesn’t so much end as simply stop — obviously only the first episode in a continuing series (which I haven’t seen any sign of). (3/18/05)
Waid, Mark. Ruse, Vol. 1: Enter the Detective. Oldsmar, FL: CrossGeneration Comics, 2002.
This volume is a compilation of the first six issues of a comic from the highly-regarded Waid, who has done a ton of stuff for Marvel. The setting is the city of Partington in the world of Arcadia, which strongly resembles late-Victorian London — with the addition of live gargoyles and a touch of the supernatural. The story revolves around Simon Archard, a not very personable Holmesian sort of detective who seldom finds a challenge in the crimes and puzzles he investigates. His assistant (or junior partner, depending on who you ask) is Emma Bishop — who is not the retiring Doctor Watson sort and is nearly as quick-witted as Simon, and who has (unbeknownst to him) the ability to freeze time. Emma don’t get no respect, though. And there seems to be some kind of cosmic game or field study, or something, going on with her but, unfortunately, it’s never explained. Not in this volume, anyway. Into the picture comes the mysterious and dangerous foreign baroness, Melinda Cross, with plans to control (through drugs) the city’s social and political elite, and Simon and Emma have to find out what’s going on and how to stop it. The fifth chapter has Simon mostly off somewhere on his own (at Reichenbach Falls, maybe?), leaving Emma to solve a streetwalker-murder case. And the sixth and last chapter goes off in an entirely different direction, bringing in Simon’s earlier partner, presumed dead, but actually just pathological. The book ends there, just as the new story arc is getting started, which is annoying (they should have restricted this volume to only the first five issues), but the byplay between Simon and Emma is enjoyable, the plotting is over the top in true Victorian fashion, and the realistic art style is terrific. (3/17/05)
Poitras, Gilles. The Anime Companion: What’s Japanese in Japanese Animation? Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1999.
My kids were adolescents back in the ‘80s, when Japanese animation began to be seen on American TV, and for a long time — even though I’d been interested in modern Japanese literature since college — I unconsciously equated “anime” with Speed Racer. Then I learned better and became a semi-fan, enough to rent several of the best-reviewed series from Blockbuster. But I had never sat down to learn the milieu of the art form until I came across this author’s two books on the subject. He covers a very wide range of Japanese cultural “stuff,” from names of historical periods and the different types of bells you find in temples, to major writers whose work has been adapted in anime and the reason for the big-eye-pink-hair thing. You’ll no longer wonder why guys in Japan get nosebleeds from looking at girls, what the sound of cicadas in the background is intended to imply, and why you shouldn’t be upset that some anime meant for kids includes mild nudity. For that matter, he goes into the sexual psychology of various other Japanese folkways, too, with no embarrassment or leering, which supplies the cultural context you really need if you’re going to understand this stuff. Actually, this book would be useful not only to would-be otaku but to any westerner puzzled by various aspects of Japanese society. There’s a new, thicker edition coming out soon and I’m definitely going to have to acquire it. (3/16/05)
Lenkov, Peter M. Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Comics, 2003.
I picked up this small-sized graphic novel (actually, a compilation of a four-issue comic book) because I have a longtime interest in Charles Fort and “Fortean phenomena” generally — but it’s not really about that. It turns out to be a rather pedestrian, very derivative, anoyingly unimaginative superhero tale in the “Twilight Zone” mold, in which Fort (an employee of the New York Public Library) welcomes a visitor from space who is on the trail of an escaped monster-virus killing off New York’s business elite (why just them?). Gov. Theodore Roosevelt has a supporting role, as does a young H. P. Lovecraft (who did not live in New York as a child), plus a couple of others who are never explained. (I wonder if this was meant to be part of a longer story?) Don’t waste your time or money on this one. (3/15/05)
Toth, Emily. Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
I was an proto-academic in another life (back when the world was young and there wasn’t an oversupply of would-be professors with graduate degrees in the humanities), and I wish I’d had this book when I was attempting to make my way as a very junior faculty member. Because, even though Emily Toth gives special attention to the problems of women in combating the many variant forms of sexism (from mere idiocy to outright harassment), much of what she has to say regarding survival is just as valuable to the guys. Following the third-person style of Miss Manners in a column she originally began writing for the MLA periodical Concerns, she starts with advice for graduate students preparing for the job interview, goes on to the first year as a newly-hired Ph.D., the “perils and pleasures” of actually teaching, the pursuit of tenure (practicality reigns here, as distasteful as that might be in the ivory tower), what to do once you’ve achieved it, and so on — right up to the emeritus years. She begins each discussion with actual letters from readers but often goes far afield in prescribing advice. The mordant humor and twinkling cynicism make the medicine go down a treat. (3/15/05)
Poitras, Gilles. Anime Essentials: Every Thing a Fan Needs to Know. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2001.
I’m too old to have discovered Japanese manga and anime in my youth, but I’ve made up for that the past few years. Being interested in Japanese culture and literature generally, I had some understanding of why anime is the way it is, and why it’s so much different from American or European graphic art, but reading this well-written book, I found there was a great deal I had missed. Poitras writes from the fan’s point of view, so he knows what questions he should be addressing — everything from the “big eye” mania, to the difference between hentai and mainstream manga, to the nervousness among the U.S. morals police about “foreign” art, to actually setting up and publicizing a fan group, plus the ins and outs of model kits, imported publications, and so on. There’s also an excellent rundown of recommended anime titles and series, which I’ve photocopied as a checklist. This book doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, but it’s a good place to start. (3/14/05)
Fusilli, Jim. Tribeca Blues. NY: Putnam, 2003.
All the threads of the first two novels about Terry Orr come together here in a (more or less) satisfying resolution, which means you definitely do not want to read this book first. It’s really almost a single long novel, and you’ll have to start at the beginning. It all starts with the death (natural) of one of the major supporting characters, with the informal will the deceased leaves behind, and the back story of his exile in New York from south Louisiana. Terry has to see to it that his late friend’s wishes (on behalf of another close friend) are fulfilled, which involves a couple of trips to New Orleans. Now, Fusilli’s work is noteworthy for the sense of place he gives to New York City — a place I have never lived — but I have to say he also does pretty well by New Orleans and Thibodaux — a part of the world I know very well. The details and place names he drops are accurate and well directed. (Though I also have to say he perhaps makes more of the local humidity than necessary. On the other hand, I’m originally from south Texas, which may be even soggier than the bayous. . . .) But the real plot interest for fans of the series is Terry’s discovery that everything he thought he knew about his late wife, about the nature of his marriage, and about the schizophrenic whom he believes killed his wife and son — all of it is fundamentally incorrect. And other people who sympathize with him knew it all along. Five years of his life wasted. Five years when he should have concentrated much more on his adolescent daughter. The resolution of his conflict with The Madman is cinematic in its “rightness,” and it wraps up the trilogy rather nicely. But, perhaps unfortunately, there’s now a fourth novel out about Terry Orr; having resolved the tensions in Terry Orr’s life, what is the author going to do with him now? I’ll keep my fingers crossed. (3/14/05)
Fusilli, Jim. A Well-Known Secret. NY: Putnam, 2002.
For someone only on his second novel, Fusilli certainly has it nailed. Terry Orr, historian turned private detective, lost his wife and infant son four years ago when a madman (whom he thinks of as The Madman) pushed them in front of a subway train. Now he obsesses on revenge, to the detriment of his career, his friends, and (sometimes) his precocious daughter, Bella. The plot this time revolves around a thirty-year-old mugging that became a murder, and the death of the newly-released woman who went to prison for it. Everybody in the case has secrets, not least of all the Mango brothers, who are a good deal more scary than in Fusilli’s first book. Terry works things out in a wholly believable manner, partly by research, partly by instinct. The subplot, about Terry’s buddy, rock critic Dennis Diddio, and his hopes for an industry award, is funny and compassionate. So is his struggle to deal with the attentions of Julie, a very nice ADA who believes in him. But arching over everything else is New York City in the aftermath of September 11th, when Terry’s personal loss is overshadowed. Fusilli’s work has great specificity of place — you could walk through the city, book in hand, and see every detail he talks about — and that’s what makes this a standout piece of writing. (3/10/05)
Fusilli, Jim. Closing Time. NY: Putnam, 2001.
To those who don’t live there, New York can seem a dangerous place. Its inhabitants know it is, but they also know how to deal with it. Sometimes. In the case of Terry Orr, respected writer of popular history and husband of a highly-regarded Italian artist, the death two years ago of his wife and infant son on a subway platform at the hands of a crazed derelict has changed his entire world, even in ways he hasn’t yet realized. Now, having given up writing for a PI’s license, he tries to learn how to find and (perhaps) take revenge on the killer. Rather than explaining all of that, though, this first in the series begins in media res, revealing the back-story bit by bit, through Terry’s letters to his late wife, through his largely hostile sessions with a psychiatrist, and through the words and actions of his circle of supportive friends. The two cases he undertakes here involve the murder of a black hack driver whose body he discovers while jogging, and the bombing of the art gallery owned by his wife’s agent. The two plots are uncomplicated but realistic, the sort of thing that happens all the time in the Big City, but the real story centers on Terry’s inner turmoil and on his relationship with his very bright twelve-year-old daughter, Bella. Fusilli is a music critic (like Terry’s close friend, Diddio the pothead), but this is his first novel. He shows great talent in delineating his vividly three-dimensional characters: Automatic Slim, the ex-con basketball artist; Montana, a street kid on the way even farther down; Sol Beck, derivative artist with nowhere to go; Jimmy Mango, general hustler, and his brother, Tommy the Cop; Luther Addison, homicide lieutenant with thinly-stretched tolerance; and perhaps the most important character of all — New York City. (3/06/05)
Klein, Norma. That’s My Baby. NY: Viking, 1988.
I’ve always enjoyed reading well-crafted, non-formulaic YA novels (I’m also recommending them to my grandkids these days), and Klein is always a dependable author. She was something of a groundbreaker in the 1970s, but by the late ’80s, when this one came out, teenage culture had changed radically. (Now, with the country sliding back into intellectually repressed puritanism, maybe she’ll become a retro-groundbreaker.) Anyway, Paul Gold is a senior in an arts TAG high school in New York. He’s a talented writer who dreams of someday seeing his plays produced on Broadway, but he’s also in most ways your basic eighteen-year-old. A one-nighter with Sonya, his best female friend, which they both sort of fell into unplanned, and her recriminatory attitude afterward, lead him to write a play about the incident for production at school. (It’s all grist, folks.) But then Sonya gets together with Wolf, Paul’s best male friend, and the balancing act becomes painful. But that’s only part of it! When Paul takes a job walking the small, ancient, ugly dog belonging to married, twenty-two-year-old Zoe, a warm, conflicted, sweet young woman you can’t help but have feelings toward, they begin an affair that they know can’t last, and it doesn’t. But what could have been merely a late-adolescent fantasy in other hands, becomes a charming, bittersweet love story under Klein’s guidance. She knows how complicated life really is. Nice ending, too. (3/02/05)
Busiek, Kurt & Carlos Pacheco. Arrowsmith: So Smart in Their Fine Uniforms. La Jolla, CA: WildStorm Productions, 2004.
It’s 1915 and World War I is raging in Europe while America sits it out, . . . only this is a world where weapons are thaumaturgical, the volunteer Overseas Aero Corps flies without planes, the Bosch call up trolls and demons, and the Northern Gods are becoming disgusted with the whole thing. Fletcher Arrowsmith, son of a small-town blacksmith with isolationist tendencies, seeks not just glory but the chance to do something, to take part in the battle against evil. He and a friend leave home, enlist, enter training, and are shipped off to the front — where they learn what war is really like, and that even the good guys are capable of bad deeds. This graphic novel is a first-rate combination of thoughtful, even profound storytelling, detailed setting (back story courtesy of Lawrence Watt-Evans), and artwork that absolutely glows. There’s a hint at the end that Fletch’s adventures aren’t finished — they’re about to ship out to Verdun — and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. (2/27/05)
Harrison, Kim. Dead Witch Walking. NY: HarperCollins, 2004.
I’m not ordinarily a fan of witchcraft/vampire novels, but this one is a considerable exception. Picture an alternate version of the world, very much like our own — except that bioengineering took the place of space flight as a matter of international political competition, and that a certain bug got loose from the labs in the form of a genetically modified tomato and killed off a substantial fraction of the human race. Only the witches, vampires, were-creatures, pixies, fairies, and other non-humans among us (they’ve always been there) weren’t affected at all, and now they make up half the population, more or less. Rachel Morgan, a Cincinnati cop (and earth witch) for the nonhuman part of the government, is on her agency’s blacklist (we’re never really told why) so she quits to set up her own detective (“runner”) agency. Her boss is glad to see her go — but his top runner, Ivy Tamwood, a very high-caste vamp, leaves to join Rachel, who thereupon finds a price on her head. You don’t quit the agency if they don’t want you to. To buy her freedom from assassination, Rachel decides to get the goods on Councilman Trent Kalamack, a suspected drug lord. But Trent, to whose handsomeness she is reluctantly drawn, is much more than that. And that’s the plot, such as it is. Actually, I found the action here less interesting than the setting and the characters; Ivy’s struggle to be a “good” vampire is fascinating, and Jenks, Rachel’s pixie backup, is a lot of fun. The problem is, the first two-thirds of the book depicts Rachel, who has something of Stephanie Plum about her, being constantly frightened of absolutely everything and everyone (especially Ivy) while still insisting that she’s a talented and skilled runner. I don’t find this entirely believable. When she gets trapped in the form of a mink, the story becomes much more involving, and her fight with the demon is very well done. On the other hand, the author’s sometimes jarring and even incorrect word-choices would have benefitted from the attention of a good copyeditor. (Hint: In this country, it’s “railroad trestle,” not “railroad trellis.”) There’s a sequel out now, but all the unresolved and unexplained bits and pieces pretty much guaranteed there would be. (2/27/05)
Holguin, Brian. Aria: The Soulmarket. Orange, CA: Image Comics, 2002.
This is an above-average graphic novel concerning the ancient death gods from a variety of cultures (they just aren’t what they used to be), a group of Celtic heroes and demi-deities (who basically hang out and go shopping), and Robin Goodfellow (he hates to be called “Puck”), who’s a real piece of work in any era. Kildare is the center of things in her New York townhouse, throwing dinner parties and trying not to think about her once-lover, Thomas, the mortal knight to whom she behaved so badly. Then a huge black knight comes looking for Puck and the story gets complicated. Of the characters, I especially like the artist whose portraits are so real, they even capture the subject’s soul. Holguin’s story is terrific, but the art, while generally quite good, is sometimes less than adequate in depicting facial expressions, especially those under stress. (2/26/05)
Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books, 2004.
A few years ago, Chabon wrote a well-received novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, about two comic book impresarios in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Their greatest creation was the Escapist. It’s only fitting that the fictional character of a fictional author in a fictional comic book come to life in a real book. A dozen or so writers and artists come together to present a series of stories from the Escapist’s career, rendered in the styles of four or five decades, and Chabon and Malachi Cohen surround them with relevant history and literary/artistic criticism. One of the main supporting characters, Luna Moth, also gets a couple of stories. The best thing in this volume, though, is “The Lady or the Tiger,” supposedly published in 1976 — and which Glen Gold’s introduction makes clear was the literary peak of the (fictional) series. Finally, the classic comic book “advertising” on the back cover is a hoot, especially the bit on bar codes! (2/25/05)
Willingham, Bill. The Sandman Presents: Taller Tales. NY: DC Comics, 2003.
This droll, witty collection is based — very loosely and kinda sideways — on Neil Gaiman’s darker “Sandman” series. All the stories are themselves about storytelling, the first being the not entirely trustworthy account by Merv Pumkinhead (Dreamland’s janitor) of his exploits in recovering stolen dream-dust and (of course) saving the world in the process. He’s a James Bond clone in his own mind, with a bit of Agent 86 thrown in. The second piece, which should appeal to my fellow librarians everywhere, is “The Further Adventures of Danny Nod, Heroic Library Assistant,” about the perils of recovering checked-out library books. It’s kinda weak, though. The last piece is a catch-all sort of visual narrative FAQ about why dreams work the way they do. But in between is the meat of the book, a four-part yarn centering on the last of the Thessaliad witches, her quest to do unto the ancient death gods of various cultures before they do unto her, and her possible involvement with a nice-looking but ghostly fetch (called Fetch, naturally). On the surface, Thess is a cute, bespectacled college student in pink bunny-slippers and a teddy bear backpack, but underneath she’s a cold-blooded survivor who’s not afraid of anything. People tend to die around her, innocent civilians included, but that’s not (usually) her fault or her problem. Willingham writes a good story and Shawn McManus is a terrific artist of the realist persuasion, just right for this sort of story. (2/24/05)
Ford, John M. The Last Hot Time. NY: Tor, 2000.
I’ve seen this “contemporary fantasy” (as the cover copy calls it) compared to the Borderland series, but it’s not that except in the most superficial background sense. Elfland has reappeared in our world from its parallel dimension to the general detriment of human society. Danny, nineteen years old, a trained EMT, and too bitter for his age, journeys from Iowa to the nearest point of contact with the Shade, in Chicago, where he becomes part of the entourage of Mr. Patrise, a partly bent, partly noble power in this new world. There he becomes Doc Hallow, repairing wounds caused by gunshot and other, less Worldly forces in the struggle between Truebloods and humans. And that’s about all the real plot there is. The real point in reading this darkly magical book is to experience the characters who inhabit it, to enjoy the interplay among them, to observe what magic does to people and non-people alike. Doc has his own deep secrets that keep him from loving, but he also has a strain of glowing personality that leads people to defer to him unexpectedly. Ford is an artist with fairy dust on his brush. (2/19/05)
Williams, Stephen. Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
I’ve been closely interested in the “pre-Columbian exploration” debate for several decades, and I’m well aware that most traditional archaeologists approach the subject prejudicially; they’re convinced any evidence that the Vikings or the Romans (or Phoenicians or Africans or Chinese or Welsh) visited North America before 1492 must be fraudulent because they already “know” Columbus was the first. It’s an article of faith and they can be quite sneering about it. So I admit I opened this volume with some trepidation. However, Williams, Peabody Professor of American Archaeology at Harvard, does a pretty good job — though he’s still quite conservative. He manages to question the truly questionable without casting personal aspersions or heaping ridicule. There have been out-and-out frauds for gain, like the Cardiff Giant, and frauds for fun, like the Davenport Tablets and (probably) the Spirit Pond Rune Stone, and notions now considered laughable, like the Land of Mu. But there are also issues like the Mormon conception of the origins of the American Indians that really are articles of faith, And there are topics of extended scholarly contention, like the Kensington Rune Stone and the Vinland Map, in which each argument advanced by one side may be countered by a balancing argument from the other side. (Williams denounces the Kensington Stone as the product of Scandinavian ethnic pride in response to the Columbian Quadricentennial celebration in nearby Chicago. He assumes the Yale map is a fake because of the tests carried out in the late 1980s but much more advanced and subtle tests performed in recent years have put the map question back on the table.) Taken as a whole, the author does a pretty fair and balanced job and his style is certainly very readable. (2/19/05)
Kirino, Matsuo. Out. NY: Kodansha International, 2003.
First published in Japan in 1998, this psychological thriller won the Naoki Prize, a major literary award. (She was also nominated for the Edgar in 2004.) What amazes me is that none of the reviews I’ve read mentioned the book’s thoroughly Hitchcockian atmosphere and plot development. You can see things coming that make you wince in anticipation. And you sometimes want to yell at the characters — especially the selfish, self-centered Kuniko — “Don’t be stupid! Don’t do it!” (Can’t wait for the movie!) Kirino, who used to work as a club hostess herself, reveals a desperate, gritty world of female night-shift workers and gambling clubs and small-time hoods, none of which are the slightest bit romanticized. Families won’t speak to each other, husbands drink to submerge their depression, women drown in their own desperation. And Yayoi, a young, beautiful wife and mother, passes the last point of patience and strangles her womanizing husband who has thrown away their life savings. She turns for help to Masako, strongest of four friends on the night shift at a boxed lunch factory, and after that there’s no turning back for any of them. These are not the quiet, giggling childlike women that writers like Kawabata and Mishima insist are unique to Japan; they’re real people not subject to traditional sentimental male values and prejudices, and they have far more in common with ordinary women in other cultures than Westerners would have thought. And Kirino’s willingness to say so has had a groundbreaking effect on Japanese literature generally. But this is not to slight her other characters, especially Jumonji, the on-the-make loan shark who wants to recruit Masako as a business partner, and Satake, the disturbingly bent ex-con who has killed for love — sort of. In fact, the only thing wrong with this book is the rather flat, uninspired translation, but even that won’t keep this story from gripping you by the throat. (2/15/05)
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. NY: Doubleday, 1999.
This novel is something of a departure for Lethem, all of whose previous work has been experimental and occasionally bizarre in structure, theme, and characterization. It’s nearly a traditional straight narrative — and a good one, too. Four somewhat inept orphans from St. Vincent’s Home for Boys in Brooklyn — the “Motherless Brooklyn” of the title — are taken under the wing of Frank Minna, local fixer and small-time hood, who becomes the center of their universe. And fifteen years later, the “Minna Men” are still in thrall, carrying out shady errands under cover of being operatives of a detective agency. One of the four is Lionel Esrog, the narrator, who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. His uncontrollable outbursts and tics are tolerated by his peers and by his acquaintances in the neighborhood from long habit, but everyone seems to equate his behaviors with a lack of intelligence. Lionel, mostly self-educated and far from stupid, is in fact a very perceptive and self-aware person. Then Frank is murdered almost under Lionel’s nose and he must try to find the killer and exact vengeance while struggling to control his Tourette’s. His quest through the web of unexpected relationships and parts of Brooklyn he never knew make for a riveting story. But the real star here is Lionel’s own interior self, his painfully developed coping skills, his constant self-observation. Lethem is always masterful in his use of the English language but he excels in letting Lionel’s syndrome reveal his thoughts. This is a highly original author’s most mature work to date. (2/10/05)
Pratchett, Terry. Thief of Time. NY: HarperCollins, 2001.
Of the fifteen or so books I’ve read in the Discworld series, this is the most esoteric and metaphysical — and, perhaps for that reason, it tends to drag in the middle, when Pratchett is having to come up with explanations and the main characters are mostly on the road. The plot revolves around the Monks of Time, ensconced in a monastery way up in the high mountains near the Hub. Their job is to see that things happen. Not merely the “right things” — just things. They’ve learned how to move time from slack periods in history to those points where it’s really needed. And perhaps the most important person in the monastery is not the 800-year-old abbot (presently enduring an infantile reincarnation) but the 700-year-old lowly sweeper, Lu-Tze, who takes under his wing a novice named Lobsang, an orphaned ex-thief from Ankh-Morpork, who turns out (of course) to be very important to the survival of Time itself. Because there’s a young clockmaker in the city who is about to construct a crystal clock with the ability to stop the progress of time. All this happens because the non-human Auditors want everything nice and tidy. My favorite character this time, though, is Miss Susan, whom we’ve met before. She’s DEATH’s granddaughter and she shares a certain number of his abilities (even though she’s adopted, but genetics works in more ways than one), which she uses mostly in her job as a grade-school teacher. This is not one of Pratchett’s best efforts, especially for his later work, but it’s still far, far from being a waste of time. (2/08/05)
McFarland, Gerald W. A Scattered People: An American Family Moves West. NY: Pantheon, 1985.
McFarland is a professor of American history at UMass with several volumes on 19th century political history to his credit, but here he turns his attention to a subject much closer to home: The migration of his mother’s family from the east coast just after 1800 to the west coast c.1900. The various lines began in western Connecticut and in Rensselaer, New York, and in western Virginia and North Carolina, and they followed the paths trod by many thousands of frontier families (including most of my own lines), along the lower margin of the Great Lakes and down the Ohio River and across the Midwest. One branch of the family finally moved in the 1870s and ‘80s through Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado into northern California and then to Oregon, while another headed down through Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona into southern California. From the Atlantic to the Pacific in a century — that is, in large part, the American story. The author is fortunate in that his ancestors were avid correspondents (and, later, photographers) so he is able to combine primary family source material with the contextual secondary sources available to all historical researchers. He also takes the opportunity to weave into this family narrative what he knows about contemporary events in the wider world, so this book is considerably more than “merely” genealogy. He also possesses a smooth and felicitous writing style and I do not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone interested in grass-roots American history or in a broader approach to family history. (2/01/05)
Pratchett, Terry. The Truth. NY: HarperCollins, 2000.
As always in his later novels about Disworld, Pratchett mixes wit and word-play with often very pointed commentary on some aspect of our own world. This time, he takes on the Fourth Estate in the person of young William de Worde, idealistic younger son of Lord De Worde, a very unpleasant and rather fascist leader of a cabal attempting to overthrow Lord Vetinari, the Patrician who runs Ankh-Morpork with an astute and even hand. William, who has been sending out occasional newsletters to foreign decision-makers of local events of interest, manages to invent not only the newspaper but journalism itself, discovering along the way that what people need to know generally isn’t what they want to know and that tabloidism outsells News any day. Pratchett is more sympathetic to newspaper people than to those who read their work. Of course, William uncovers the facts about the plot — gets personally caught up in it, in fact — and must decide just how much of his father’s son he really is. And Commander Vimes of the Watch (one of my two favorite recurring characters, the other being Lord Vetinari) must deal with the discovery that freedom of the press impinges on his own occasional urges. The practical Mr. Goodmountain, dwarf typesetter and owner of the actual press, is a nice balance to William’s zeal, as is Sacharissa, natural newswriter. And Otto, the vampire iconographer. Most unsettling, perhaps, are Mr. Tulip and Mr. Pin, the former a combination of enraged thug and art connoisseur, the latter a cold-blooded “arranger” for hire. I hope Pratchett lives another few decades and keeps this stuff coming. (1/31/05)
Rankin, Ian. Resurrection Men. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002.
John Rebus, Detective Inspector in the Edinburgh CID, is only nominally one of the good guys. He’s not bent — not on the take, anyway — but he’s crossed the line many times in his career, and not always in the pursuit of subjective justice. He’s been sent back to the police academy for professional rehabilitation after a tea-mug throwing incident, and is put in with a small group of other questionable coppers trying to keep their jobs by undergoing “resurrection.” Only (of course) there’s a lot more to it than that. When the “Wild Bunch” are given an old murder case to investigate as a team-building exercise, it’s one Rebus was involved with in a way he’d rather no one else knew about. But he’s really there as a mole at the behest of the high-ups, who suspect some of his colleagues of involvement in another drug-murder case. And Siobhan Clarke, newly promoted to Detective Sergeant and Rebus’s sort-of protege, has her own case to manage. Then all three murders begin to come together. This one was recommended to me as one of the best in the series of more than a dozen, and while Rankin does a good job of filling in some of the many characters’ shared background for the reader’s benefit, it’s obvious one needs to go back to the beginning and read them all in order to really get Rebus’s measure. The style is as gritty as the back side of Edinburgh itself, the characters are believable as real people — not a stereotype among them — and the plot itself is well drawn, with nothing given away and no trick ending, but with lots of well-crafted suspense. An excellent read. (1/26/05)
Cook, Corinne. Extra! Extra! Read All About It! Memphis, TN: Starr-Toof, 1995.
Everyone reads their local daily newspaper in a different way: Comics, then Sports, then Obituaries. Or, in my case with the Baton Rouge Advocate, it’s Comics, then Editorial, then the Food Section, where Corinne Cook has had the “Gourmet Galley” column every Thursday for more than a quarter-century. She grew up in southwest Louisiana, but her tastes and interests are much broader than that. (The celebrated food culture hereabouts includes a lot more than just po’ boys and gumbo!) This volume includes some 220 pages of favorite recipes from her column, so her fans can throw out all those tattered clippings. The Artichoke & Bacon Appetizers are one of my wife’s favorites, but I prefer the Mushrooms Burgundy, which simmer all night long in the slow cooker (and will give you very interesting dreams as the aroma permeates the house). Her Asparagus & Leek Soup is a very simple recipe that’s great in the winters, and the Shrimp Potato Salad has been popular at several family reunion picnics. And the Pasta Asciutto with Chicken Breasts has impressed several people who didn’t realize how easy it was to fix (and I didn’t tell them). (1/22/05)
The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker. NY: Black Dog & Levanthal, 2004.
I suspect, from the reviews I’ve seen, that New Yorker cartoons are an acquired taste, like British TV comedy. Some people get it, some just don’t. When I first began working in public libraries, back in the late ‘60s, and I was covering the Reference Desk at night, I used to go down to the periodical stacks in the basement and pull an old bound volume of New Yorker, just so I could browse through the cartoons. (I used to haul out old volumes of the late lamented Saturday Review, too, for the Double Crostics.) That’s where I first came upon Sam Gross’s oddball mind, and George Booth, who practically invented the curmudgeon, and Charles Saxon’s highly original take on almost everything, and the consummate artist Saul Steinberg, and all the others. They were seldom “hah-hah” funny but I always sat there grinning my head off at the drolleries and the artists’ highly original views of life. Some cartoons are pretty Gotham-centric, but not really that many — not if you pay attention to anything outside your own little corner of the universe. This being a literary magazine, the humor is more often written than visual — this ain’t Beetle Bailey — but there are plenty of examples of pure comic art with no text at all. This massive volume, which takes two hands to lug around, was my Christmas present to myself, and after a fast cruise from cover to cover (which still took three days), I’ve settled in to an extended perusal. Maybe I’ll even build this monster its own mahogany reading stand. Two CDs are included, with all the cartoons in PDF files, searchable by artist and subject. There’s a certain amount of variability in the quality of reproduction (in the book itself occasionally, too), but that’s a very minor complaint. (1/20/05)
Pratchett, Terry. Guards! Guards! NY: HarperCollins, 1989.
In some ways, it’s undoubtedly easier to keep track of events in Discworld if you read Pratchett’s books in order, but jumping back and forth in the series is probably more in the spirit of things. This one is the first to feature the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork, Capt. Sam Vimes commanding. I had just finished reading The Fifth Elephant, written more than a decade later, and I have to say there are a few continuity errors — but who cares. Here, we get to observe Vimes’s first meeting with Lady Sybil Ramkin, breeder of swamp dragons and his future spouse, and we get some insight into the personality of the Librarian of Unseen University. We also meet Carrot, the six-and-a-half-foot-tall adopted dwarf, on his first introduction to the Watch. We see just how thorough and careful a hold Lord Vetinari has on the city. And we learn about the actual workings of dragons, how they create that fiery breath and so forth — and why they so often have an abbreviated life span. As always, the author combines peculiarly bent Brit humor with a wise and witty take on serious social issues (in this case, the tendency of the People to go along with the loss of their own freedoms in embracing monarchy). However, as a lifelong librarian myself, I’m annoyed that Pratchett saw fit to reveal to the uninitiated the nature of L-space. (1/15/05)
Pratchett, Terry. The Fifth Elephant. NY: HarperCollins, 2000.
Regular readers of Pratchett’s droll accounts of life on Discworld will be unsurprised to discover that there is, in fact, no literal elephant in this book at all. There are, as we all know, four very large elephants supporting the flat circularity of the world, who themselves stand on the back of an even more immense turtle swimming through space. The extra pachyderm referred to in the title is metaphorical, being the supposed origin of the huge, economically important, fat deposits that lie beneath Uberwald, providing employment for the mining skills of that country’s dwarfs (though dwarfs have trouble with metaphors) — who share the land (very carefully) with aristocratic vampires and werewolves. Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, cognizant of his city’s ever-growing need for high-quality lard and candles, sends as his ambassador to the coronation of the new Low King of Uberwald none other than His Grace Sir Samuel Vimes, Commander of the Watch. Sam, a copper’s copper, naturally becomes involved in an attempted assassination of the not-yet-installed new king, which ties in with the murder of a rubber condom entrepreneur back in the city. Captain Carrot, Vimes’s second-in-command, goes off in pursuit of his lady love (also a werewolf), leaving the Watch in the gloriously incompetent hands of Sgt. Colon and Crp. Nobbs. All of this gives Pratchett the perfect stage to air his opinions on the peerage, social conservatism, fascism, perceptions of race, the difference between officers and noncoms, and perhaps what it really means to be human. As the series goes on, Pratchett just gets better and better. (1/13/05)
Sutherland, Daniel E. Americans and Their Servants: Domestic Service in the United States from 1800 to 1920. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Except for the very wealthy, the only picture most modern Americans have of live-in house servants comes from watching Upstairs, Downstairs. But up until the First World War, it was common for even modestly middle class families to have at least a full-time “maid of all work” — a job that could use you up in a short time but which was frequently the lot of girls under the age of twenty. The “servant problem,” as Sutherland convincingly shows, was a constant subject of conversation and correspondence in all regions of the country and in every decade of the 19th century, although most complainants seemed to think things were better elsewhere or at an earlier time in our history. A great many servants came from among the crowds of newly arrived immigrants, who were considered inferior by Anglo Americans in any case, and who bolstered the need of the theoretically democratic to be superior to someone. And while having servants was partly a matter of status, it was mostly a practical necessity: No housewife, especially with children, had the time nor the strength to singlehandedly cook, clean house, raise kids, and deal with merchants. The arrival of vacuum cleaners and other labor-saving inventions in the early 20th century took the pressure off, and the competitive rise in industrial wages meant additional economic options for the laboring classes. This is a fascinating, well-written, thoroughly documented study, especially for a converted doctoral thesis. It should be of interest to any student of American social history. (1/12/05)
Linklater, Andro. Measuring America. NY: Walker, 2002.
The subtitle of this highly readable book is a bit purple — “How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy” — but what the author has to say makes a good case. It’s also an amazingly action-packed adventure story. Any genealogist learns early the practical ins and outs of frontier settlement and the titles, grants, and other documents that land claims inevitably produce. In this country, there are two distinct methods of recording those claims: “metes and bounds” in the original colonies and some of their western lands (such as Kentucky) and in Texas, which describe the boundaries of one’s land in terms of the points at which it adjoins or “meets” a neighbor’s land, and the rectangular survey system developed for use in the public land states created from the nation’s later territorial acquisitions. The latter is far more rational and allows a claim to be filed based on geographical location without having actually set foot on the land — but it also requires preliminary measurement by a party of government surveyors. Linklater lays out in much detail, and with colorful anecdotes, how the first surveys were decided upon and carried out (more or less) in the Northwest Territory, and later in the Plains states and the West. He describes how, thanks to the efforts of Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. nearly adopted a rational metric system early in its history (which in France and Prussia was an instrument of centralized government policy), and how that goal was waylaid by clinging to Edmund Gunter’s English chain/furlong system, which had the virtue of being easily understood by semi-literate surveyors with minimal mathematical skills. He relates the part played by rapacious land speculators (most of them members of the old aristocracy of New York, Massachusetts, and the Carolina low country), by frontier town-builders enamored of rectangular blocks (and why Manhattan has narrow, skimpy blocks compared to Philadelphia or Chicago), and how the railroads used the land-survey system to open up the continent while amassing enormous wealth. Though this volume is intended for the popular market, it also includes endnotes and a good bibliography. (1/08/05)
McDevitt, Jack. Polaris. NY: Ace Books, 2004.
McDevitt is capable of turning out thoughtful, literate, involving science fiction novels of very high quality indeed. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them. This is a not-quite-sequel to his excellent A Talent for War, in that it is set in the same future and shares some of the same characters several thousand years from now, in a diverse, dispersed human galactic civilization. A space-going yacht, Polaris, accompanies a group of scientific research ships to witness and record a rare stellar event. Aboard are half a dozen scientific, philosophical, and political luminaries. And they never return, though the ship itself is found, mysterious empty of life. Sixty years later, the disappearance of the passengers of Polaris is still one of the great modern mysteries. Alex Benedict, now a prominent antiquities dealer, acquires a number of the personal possessions found on the derelict ship — just before the rest of the artifacts are destroyed in an explosion. And now someone, or some organization, is trying to kill him off, too. What does he unknowingly possess that could be that important? Well, McDevitt never quite makes it worth the reader’s while to want to find out. The minutiae of life in his future are interesting at the beginning and help supply verisimilitude, but it gets a little old to be reading detailed descriptions of the lives of very minor characters when you’re three hundred pages into the book. Also, it’s an old sf device to casually mention the names of future historical figures in the company of names we would recognize from our own times, but McDevitt does this far, far too often — and usually without giving any hint of who these great figures are. I’m prepared to believe, I guess, that a civilization that could produce a “quantum drive” (an improvement on mere FTL) still can’t extend the human life span beyond 130 or so years, but that ought not to have become the centerpiece of the plot. And I’m not willing to accept that ordinary people with only a basic education in that future are so conversant with the details of history and everyday life thousands of years in their past when few Americans in 2005 could pass a test on the lives of their ancestors only a couple of centuries ago. There’s some good ideas and good writing here, but ultimately, this book just doesn’t work. (1/06/05)
Moore, Alan & David Lloyd. V for Vendetta. NY: DC Comics, 1988.
This is some of Moore’s earliest published work, but I’ve somehow missed it until now. The setting is Britain near the end of the 20th century (as seen from a grim, antidemocratic present when Margaret Thatcher was in power), a future in which a limited nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviets has made much of the planet uninhabitable and a fascist takeover of Orwellian proportions has rid the UK of “undesirables.” One man, a survivor of medical experimentation in a concentration camp, is getting even with those who shot him full of drugs and hormones. This revenge-seeker, known only as “V,” is not a superhero but he’s a lot more on top of things than his enemies. Sixteen-year-old Evey, who botches her first desperate attempt at prostitution, becomes a fixture in V’s life, and finally his heir. The plot, though, is complex and subtle, much more dependent on the text than the art, with deeply developed characters and a good deal to say about the nature of freedom and making an excellent case for anarchy (which is not the same as chaos). It doesn’t move as well as Watchmen, but it’s certainly worth a careful read. (1/06/05)
Slott, Ed. The Retirement Savings Time Bomb . . . and How to Defuse It. NY: Viking, 2003.
I’m an historian and archivist with a “humanities mind,” whereas my wife is a mathematician with a knack for anything financial. Our arrangement has long been that she keeps track of our investments (also those of her parents and most of her siblings), works out what to do about them, and then explains it all to me (and them). But she still insists that I make an attempt to understand what’s going on, and to that end she hands me books like this one. I have to say that, except for a sense of humor that tries too hard, Slott is better at providing a clear explanation of tax law and financial decision-making than many similar books I’ve waded through. His specialty is IRAs and similar retirement arrangements, and since I’ve just turned sixty, I’m paying attention to this stuff. After an introductory section explaining the jargon and describing the theory behind traditional and Roth IRAs, he launches into the details of his “Five Easy Steps”: Timing (when and how much to take out of your IRA, including both the legal requirements and your own strategic needs), life insurance (to cover the taxes your beneficiaries will have to pay when they inherit your IRA), stretching the payout period (selecting a child as a beneficiary can keep the distributions going for decades after you’re gone, allowing your bequest to keep growing), converting to a Roth IRA if possible (a great tax deal, especially for the beneficiaries), and avoiding estate taxes. Although he calls it “death taxes,” a partisan pejorative term I despise; there’s far too much concentration of wealth in this country already. He also waxes on about the unfairness of the IRS and the tax code, forgetting the basic principal: Taxes aren’t intended to be “fair,” they’re intended to raise money for the government. Anyway, he does a good job of explaining the options the retiree faces at each step and in each new or variant situation, and he does it with resorting (much) to unexplained bizspeak, which certainly increases its accessibility for most of us. I’m told the regulars on Morningstar’s Vanguard discussion board — a group which has included John Bogle, Larry Swedroe, Rick Ferri, and other Big Names — think highly of Slott’s take on things, and you probably can’t do badly if you follow their advice. (1/01/05)