2001: 1st Quarter [12]

Willis, Connie. Bellwether. NY: Bantam Books, 1996.

This one is much more the modern, fully developed Connie Willis, firing her wit at your boots to keep you dancing. Chaos theory, the origins of fads, Dilbertesque management methods, sheep, and fashion impairment, Alexander Fleming, latte, Winston Churchill, pineapple upside-down cake, this book has it all . . . even though, in many ways, it’s more of a very long short story than a novel. Sandra Foster is the fads researcher, Bennett O’Reilly is the chaos-driven sheepherder (sort of), and everything comes out all right in the end. A light, fluffy read — but lots of fun, with the author’s usual great grasp of characterization and some interesting points to make about the nature of scientific discovery. (3/22/01)

Willis, Connie. Lincoln’s Dreams. NY: Bantam Books, 1987.

I’ve enjoyed everything by Connie Willis that I’ve ever read . . . so how did I miss ever reading her first novel? I dunno, but I’m glad I noticed. This is a beautifully conceived, quietly lyrical story of love and loyalty. Jeff Johnston is a young Civil War researcher working for an historical novelist, who meets Annie, who has been having Robert E. Lee’s dreams (so the general can get some rest), and he becomes her protector and facilitator. And he eventually finds out just how he himself figures in her dreams. The anxiety and tension build so slowly, you won’t notice at first, but by the time you’re three-quarters through the book, you won’t be able to put it down, not for a minute. And the tragic closing line is the most literally stunning I’ve ever read. Her grasp of the relevant minutiae of the War is flawless, too. There’s a reason Connie has won six Hugos and six Nebulas, as well as the Campbell Award for this very book. (3/20/01)

Russo, Richard. Straight Man. NY: Random House, 1997.

William Henry “Hank” Devereux, Jr., interim chairman of the English Department at West Central Pennsylvania University, has a lot of enemies — which is understandable because he goads everyone, constantly. He goads his colleagues on the English faculty and in other departments, he goads the Dean of Liberal Arts, he goads the upper levels of the university’s administration, he goads his oldest friends, he goads his wife and his daughter and his son-in-law. As Dickie Pope, the campus executive officer notes, he just can’t help it. But Hank is pretty much incapable of anger, and he does indeed have a rapier way with words. However, things are getting really dicey lately, with the state legislature apparently about to institute massive faculty cuts, and the faculty union circling the wagons; a pox on both their houses, is Hank’s attitude. (3/12/01)

Benford, Gregory. Eater. NY: HarperCollins, 2000.

I’ve enjoyed some of Benford’s stuff in the past (especially his “Galactic Center” series), but I couldn’t get more than halfway into this one, about an intelligent mini-black hole entering the solar system and observing/threatening Earth. Some of the astronomy is interesting, but I’m not a scientist and Benford allows too many very specialized techy things to go by without elucidation. He somewhat reminds me here of an updated Fred Hoyle (not a compliment). (2/25/01)

Rendell, Kenneth W. Forging History: The Detection of Fake Letters and Documents. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Rendell, Kenneth W. History Comes to Life: Collecting Historical Letters and Documents. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

Rendell is undoubtedly the top living expert in the field of autographs, collectable historical handwriting, and the forgery thereof (always a popular pasttime among a certain sort of literary fanatic). For whatever reason, I enjoy studying the signatures and penmanship of famous people — Lincoln’s carefully legible and businesslike hand vs. Washington’s rather ornate, almost frilly style or Lyndon Johnson’s straight-ahead signature, Prince Metternich’s determined, saber-like name vs. Hitler’s totally illegible chop. Rendell was also instrumental in uncovering and demonstrating the falsity of the Hitler diaries (in half an hour, after Stern magazine and considered them genuine for many months), the Jack the Ripper diary, and the “White Salamander” letter, supposedly written by Joseph Smith (and which made the Mormon establishment very nervous). If this is the sort of thing you’re interested in, as they say, then this is the sort of thing that will interest you. (2/15/01)

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. NY: Scribner, 2000

I read a lot of books on writing techniques, character development, plotting, and all that sort of thing — not because I expect to become Stephen King, and not even because I actually do some writing myself, but because I have an analytical turn of mind and I like to understand what’s going on behind the scenes, in the author’s mind. (I read screenplays for the same reason.) Some how-to books are much better than others, naturally, and King rather surprised me with this one. The man is not only a very talented writer, he’s a very good teacher, too. On Writing is actually part writing manual and part semi-sardonic writer’s autobiography. He describes how he grew up with the writing bug, how he got started and figured out what he wanted to do, how he actually learned how to do it . . . and how he sometimes screwed up. He certainly doesn’t spare himself. King was an alcoholic and druggie for nearly two decades, but that apparently never got in the way of the creative process. Although “There’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing,” he says. And several of the darker characters in such books as Misery and The Tommyknockers were very much himself. He finally got rid of that baggage through his wife’s firm intervention. King is a very generous person when he talks about other writers, though he doesn’t hesitate to explain where and how even the best sometimes have a tin ear. His notion that a book is not created from nothing, that it’s really a sort of fossil, to be excavated and exposed, is not entirely original with him, but he lays out his reasons very persuasively. Even though he taught high school English in his early career, he doesn’t believe grammar should be seen as a straitjacket. And his books are almost entirely character-driven; he does almost no plotting in advance. (That’s nice to hear because my mind works much the same way, but I feel guilty when I just let the story take off without having plotted and outlined it in advance.) The last section of the book talks about his near-fatal pedestrian encounter with a recklessly driven van in the summer of 1999 and the part that his return to the keyboard played in his continuing recuperation. Best of all, King writes nonfiction in much the same straightforward, unaffected way that he has produced more than forty bestselling novels. (2/07/01)

Gibson, William & Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. NY: Bantam Books, 1991.

I acquired a copy of this book almost immediately after it was published, partly because I’m an avid fan of alternate histories and partly because I was an acquaintance of Bruce Sterling, one of the cofounders of cyberpunk. That is, I knew him to talk to because he was an Austinite and always came to ArmadilloCon, and he sort of knew who I was (though he made no pretense of remembering my name each year). He was pleased to sign my copy — and changed the copyright date on the title page to 1855!

And why do I especially like this book? It’s the first instance I remember of what soon came to be known as “steam-punk.” A technology-based yarn, but with Victorian techno, not computers. Not exactly. There are three principal characters here: Sybil Gerard, daughter of Walter Gerard, the great Luddite agitator and orator; Dr. Edward Mallory, dinosaur-hunter, afficionado of steam-gurneys, and stalwart of the Industrial Radical Party; and Laurence Oliphant, who pretends to be only a somewhat adventuresome journalist-cum-diplomat but who is actually a top intelligence operative and handler for Her Majesty’s government. And then there’s Inspector Fraser, part of the very Special Branch, as well as a number of nicely realized supporting characters. But, of course, the story is really about the world of 1855 in which Charles Babbage was very successful in developing his mechanical computer, a marvelous Engine (always capitalized here) of wheels and rods and gears and punch cards that has put Britain well on top of things, and the government in many ways well on top of its citizens. The device that gets things going is the theft of a box of punched Engine cards, the purpose of which is never quite divulged — though we know the program they contain is Important. It’s all a great deal of fun in the Idea-as-Hero tradition. Gibson and Sterling (mostly the latter, I think) have definitely got the feel of the times and the city of London, immersing the reader in authentic jargon and cant, but without casting you adrift. In fact, my only real complaint is in an area where Gibson’s hand definitely shows, and that’s the ending of the book. Actually, it doesn’t really end; it just stops, and with a bit of Gibsonian mysticism regarding the set of cards thrown in. (1/30/01)

Tucker, Wilson. The Year of the Quiet Sun. NY: Ace Books, 1970. (Boston: Gregg Press, 1979.)

I read this book when it first came out, thirty years ago, and I’d forgotten most of the details. But I remembered enjoying it a great deal, so I set out to find it again, and Inter-Library Loan came through. (They usually do.) It’s only 250 pages, a pretty fast read — and now I know why it stuck with me all these years. Brian Chaney is an epigrapher in Hebrew and Aramaic documents, translator of a recently discovered scroll at Qumran which has upset a lot of people. He’s also a demographer and futurist and has written a report for the government laying out probable trends for the near future. (The story begins in 1978, which was also the near future for Tucker, who feared the repressive trends he himself observed in the late Sixties.) Chaney gets drafted for a secret project run by the Bureau of Weights and Measures (a nice touch), which has managed to build a forward-traveling time machine. He and his two colleagues — a no-nonsense Army major and a freewheeling Navy Commander — will journey to the end of the 20th century to see if those trends have panned out, to bring back information to allow the government of 1978 to lay its plans to deal with future problems. But the President, naturally, sets the target of the preliminary field trial at 1980; he wants to know whether he’s going to be reelected. Oh, yes, the politicians will never hesitate to take over science for their own ends, and Tucker knows it. Then there’s Katherine Van Hise, known as “Katrina,” who is more or less the managing director of the project at the local level. Chaney is very attracted to her, and so is Commander Saltus. And so they make their jumps, singly and one at a time, to 1999 and to 2000 and to sometime in the 2020s (I think) . . . and nothing is as they thought it would be. This is an intimate drama of Armageddon in Illinois, a reduction of global catastrophe to manageable proportions. The style is quiet and perfectly straightforward, the imagery is both subtle and apocalyptic. And the three time travelers — and Katrina — will turn out to be unexpected heroes.

Arthur Wilson Tucker, known throughout science fiction fandom as “Bob,” was not a scientist like Asimov or Benford. He was, in fact, a motion picture projectionist from Illinois who wrote mysteries and science fiction stories and novels on the side, beginning in 1941. This book and The Lincoln Hunters are certainly his best (and best known) work, but there was another whole side to him — the raconteur and off-center wit who hung out with the “ordinary” fans at WorldCons, and who held forth at hotel room parties on the benefits of bourbon (“Smoooooth!”), and who cheerfully distributed business cards with only his name on one side and the words “Natural Inseminations” on the reverse. (I still have my card from MidAmericon in 1976.) The fans loved him and he loved them. In fact, Bob Tucker was the first Fan Guest of Honor at a WorldCon (Torcon in 1948). And when the room parties burned themselves down to glowing coals in the small hours, you could find him on someone’s balcony arguing literature and political theory and social dynamics as astutely as any Oxford don. He had a longtime interest in Near Eastern archaeology which is obvious in this book. I expect most younger sf fans have never heard of Tucker, and that’s their loss. (1/24/01)

Westlake, Donald E. The Hook. NY: Mysterious Press/Warner Books, 2000.

No doubt about it: Westlake is a master of the oddball plot. This one is perhaps even stranger than The Ax, which I read last year (and reviewed here). This time, we’re dealing with two New York novelists: Bryce Proctorr (why the double-R?), a very successful A-list writer with a multi-million-dollar contract and a summer place in Connecticut, and Wayne Prentice, a fading author who’s running out of pseudonyms and whom the marketing computers have consigned to Purgatory. They were acquainted in the old days, and now they happen to meet again, doing research at the library. And Bryce confesses that he’s been blocked on his current novel since his particularly nasty divorce began, largely because his not-yet-ex will get fifty percent of the $1.1 million he’ll receive for the finished book. Wayne, on the other hand, has a perfectly good completed novel at home that he can’t sell. So, . . . what if Bryce were to take that unsold manuscript, rework it little (to make it his own work, sort of), and send it in under his own name? And pay Wayne half of that $1.1 million? Wayne has been getting more and more desperate — not just because he needs the money (which he does) but because he’s a novelist, and this is what he does. The only problem is, if Wayne gets half the book money, and Bryce’s wife gets the other half, that doesn’t leave much for Bryce. So, . . . the wife will have to go, right? Can Wayne handle that part? I won’t give away the story any farther, except to say that the twists and turns in the plot, and in the two men’s lives, are cunningly fashioned and delightfully Hitchcockian. How great is the price one should be willing, or at least able, to pay for success? The ending is rather abrupt — but, then, the ending is rather abrupt. I’m waiting for Westlake’s next one! (1/14/01)

Crombie, Deborah. Dreaming of the Bones. NY: Scribner, 1997.

I haven’t generally gone in for English mystery series, the sort of thing with continuing characters and starring a Scotland Yard investigator, nor have I read any others in this series. But I can see why this novel was voted a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and why it was nominated for both the Edgar and the Agatha. Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid has been divorced for twelve years, his life is ticking right along, and he has a nicely developing romance with his sergeant, Gemma James. And then he hears from his ex-wife, Victoria, now a professor of modern English poetry at Cambridge, who has been researching a biography of Lydia Brooke, who died in what Victoria has come to believe are suspicious circumstances a few years before. She wants Duncan’s help, and he agrees, to Gemma’s consternation. Sounds like a pretty routine plot, doesn’t it? It’s not, believe me. Where most writers in this genre concentrate on the plot, with characters who are less than three-dimensional, or (like Martha Grimes) develop wonderful characters but tend to stint the mystery itself, Crombie succeeds very well at both. Duncan and Gemma and Victoria all come alive, as do the supporting players, and you won’t guess at the solution to the mystery until the denouement, either. By the end of the book, Duncan’s life has become permanently more complicated, and I want to know what happens next! (Obviously, I’m going to have to go back and read the first four books in this series before tackling the sixth one.) (1/12/01)

Prose, Francine. Blue Angel. NY: HarperCollins, 2000.

I usually like “academic” novels, those set within a college faculty — especially such classic works as the “Small World” series by David Lodge. But such books are usually wry comedies. Even though Prose frequently has an arch turn of phrase, this one is decidedly not funny — and yet it’s frequently hilarious, and a lot more. Swenson is professor of creative writing at a small college in northern Vermont, middle-aged, rather dull, and very faithful to his wife. But it’s been years since he actually has produced a novel of his own, and his editor back in New York has given up on him. It’s been even longer since a student in one of his classes showed even a glimmer of real talent. And even academia, increasingly smothered and stultified by political correctness, isn’t what it used to be. Then Angela Argo shows up in Swenson’s class, complete with facial piercing, tattoos, punk/gothic outfits and a true gift for writing fiction. Swenson is overjoyed, he waits anxiously for each new installment of her novel-in-progress, he tries to coach her development, he sees her appearance in his life as almost a justification for his continued presence at the school. And Angela seems to blossom under his ministrations, . . . but, as we find out, she has her own agenda. The author’s name is quite apt: She is, indeed, a master of prose. The ending of this book rather depressed me, but it was supposed to, I’m sure. (1/09/01)

Macaulay, David. Building Big. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

There’s not really much I can say about Macaulay’s latest book, except that it’s just like all his previous books, and just as interesting and entertaining. His first book was Cathedral, a mix of how-to and the author’s precise and extraordinarily detailed artwork (all in pencil) which became a hit television special on (I think) PBS, but he’s done similar slender architectural history volumes on Roman city planning, a medieval castle, New England water-powered mills, what’s under the streets of New York City, and many others. Kids probably know him better as the author of the How Does It Work? books. And there’s also the slyly hilarious Motel of the Mysteries, which requires a bit of background in the history of archaeology to truly appreciate. This volume is also meant to accompany a television series and is divided into sections on bridges, tunnels, dams, skyscrapers, and other “big” architectural themes. (1/02/01)

Published on 22 November 2009 at 2:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

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