2002: 2nd Quarter [14]

Oliver, Michael. Five-Minute Pasta Sauces. NY: Crown, 1996.

I’m a food person, I love pasta, and I often am short of time to do much cooking, so this book seemed like a natural for me: 80-odd pages of recipes designed to be put together in the time it takes to actually boil the pasta. The recipes include detailed instructions, good illustrations, and by-the-way comments on preparation of ingredients. The problem is, you have to maintain a significant stock of ingredients you’re unlikely to use otherwise (or I am, anyway), like capers, pine nuts, prosciutto, heavy cream, and Gorgonzola. Also, many of the ingredients, like asparagus and shrimp, are supposed to be fresh — so how are you supposed to keep them handy? Finally, while there are some interesting recipes in this collection, some are downright weird: I mean, fresh figs, cream, and vodka? (6/27/02)

Benford, Gregory. Artifact. NY: Avon, 1985.

Benford can be infuriatingly inconsistent in the style and quality of his writing, but the occasional winner keeps me reading his stuff. This one is a combination of speculative particle physics (pretty good), Mycenaean archaeology (acceptable), and neo-fascist Greek machismo politics (mediocre). Claire the archaeologist and John the mathematician are both reasonably well-drawn, but the character of Kontos, the Greek archaeologist-cum-colonel, is grotesquely overdone. Unlike most adventure novels, the latter part of the book is actually better written than the early part. (6/22/02)

Miller, Laura (ed). The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors. NY: Penguin, 2000.

Like most inveterate readers (especially readers trained as librarians), I collect lists of books and authors and I’m a fanatical reader of book reviews. For that reason, I collect recommendary volumes intended for reading groups and book clubs. The Salon web site (Miller was one of its founders) is opinionated and juicy, always worth browsing, and this fat volume maintains that course. Coverage is limited, more or less, to post-1960 authors writing in English, mostly “literary,” but also including including writers like John Grisham, Stephen King, and Amy Tan. All their works are listed, the more important ones are discussed in some depth (by more than eighty reviewers), and there’s a useful “See also” list at the end of each essay. And there are a number of sidebar book lists by the writers themselves. And an excellent introductory essay by Miller on the recent course of English-language literature. My copy is already filled with marginal notes and checkmarks. (6/15/02)

Delacorte, Peter. Time on My Hands. NY: Scribner, 1997.

If you had access to a time machine, and you could go back to any period in the 20th century to preemptively clean up one of mankind’s messes, who would you choose to visit? Hitler, maybe? Actually, physicist Justin Hudnut, who has the machine, considers just that — but he doesn’t speak German. The obvious second choice is to go back to Hollywood in the late ‘30s and derail Ronald Reagan’s political career. Yeah, it raised my eyebrow, too, though I’m certainly in favor of anything that would eliminate the Gipper from our history, and Hudnut makes an excellent case for the expedition. But he can’t go himself, so he recruits travel writer Gabriel Prince. Gabriel undertakes the mission, landing in Malibu only a few years off the mark, immediately falls in love with Hudnut’s gorgeous cousin, Lorna, and shortly becomes a screenwriter by cribbing the plots of the great movies of the 1950s. And he discovers he rather likes “Dutch” Reagan. The young actor from Illinois is naive and not very bright, but he’s personable and his liberal credentials are solid. (This was before Nancy Davis’s conservative family got hold of him.) Then, of course, things go badly wrong and Gabriel has to try to correct his mistakes by returning to his own time, . . . only the machine’s accuracy is several years off again, and the situation is only exacerbated. All in all, this isn’t a bad story, though it’s somewhat overwritten in the early and later chapters. I’m not sure the author’s theory of how the time-stream works holds together, either. The picture of the Warner Brothers studio is good, though, and so is Prince’s take on the studio system, and his commentary on the great stars of the day. The subtitle is “A Novel with Photographs,” but there aren’t very many of them — not like Time and Again. (6/03/02)

Lodge, David. Thinks. . . . NY: Viking, 2001.

This is Lodge very nearly at his best (and I say that having – I think — read every word the man has ever written). Ralph Messenger is a professor, a philospher by training, but now head of the Centre for Cognitive Sciences at the University of Gloucester. He has a solid rep in his field, with past positions at Cal Tech and MIT. He’s also tall and good-looking, just turned fifty, and is a dedicated womanizer. His Californian wife, Carrie, is aware of his tendency to sleep around when he’s off at conferences and such, and she tolerates it — as long as he doesn’t do it in their own backyard. (But there’s a lot more to Carrie than this, as any fan of Lodge’s knack with characters would expect.) Enter Helen Reed, middle-aged London novelist and recent widow, who has come to the University to teach a creative writing course for the spring semester. Her background is intensely literary and she and Ralph disagree about almost everything — but they manage to form a relationship anyway. Lodge apparently recently discovered the whole field of cognitive research and he uses Ralph’s explanations to Helen to summarize what he’s learned. Fortunately, he does this in an interesting and often witty way — lots of nice quotes here — so the reader might actually come out of this book with a surreptitious education in the subject. But Ralph and Helen and Carrie are the focus, of course, and you’ll get to know and like all of them, and understand them, even when you don’t entirely approve of some of the things they do. (5/30/02)

Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Years of Rice and Salt. NY: Bantam, 2002.

This is one of the best alternative history novels I’ve read in quite some time. We’ve seen the premise before — what if the Black Death that struck Europe in the 14th century wiped out 99.9% of the population instead of “only” one-third? — but it’s what Stan does with it that makes this a book to read slowly and then re-read. The first section is about Bold, a common soldier in the Golden Horde, who is one of the first to discover the desolation of the Magyar Plain and the emptiness of the lands to the west of it. He has his own adventures, though, being sold into slavery and ending up working in a restaurant in Hangzhou, and then becoming a groom for the emperor. When Bold meets his unexpected end, we discover one of the principal themes behind the book: What happens in the bardo, the anteroom to the reincarnative process. Then we meet Kokila, a low-caste Indian girl who tends to take matters into her own hands. (Back to the bardo.) Bistami is a young Sufi who meets a friendly tiger, then becomes a confident of the Emperor Akbar, then finds himself in Mecca, and then journeys to al-Andalus (what used to be Spain) where he becomes part of the Moslem resettlement of Europe. This is one of the best sections of the book. A few centuries later, Admiral Kheim leads a Chinese invasion fleet against Japan, but they get blown far to the east and discover the New World. What’s more, they make it back home and this opens the way for China to take the exploitative role in America that Spain took in our own history. Later, in Samarqand, a failed alchemist and a Tibetan glassblower kick-start the Age of Science — and much good it does them in the short run. (Back to the bardo, of course.) The scene shifts briefly to the Onondaga and their League, and to a charismatic samurai who comes among them, but then it’s back to China. The book goes on this way, mostly alternating narratives with different sets of characters who are mostly the same people recycled, to see if they can get things right this time around. And there are revolts against the gods when the reincarnated finally have had enough. One of my other favorite sections is about the Kerala of Travancore and the foundation of the Indian League, which is also the beginning of decline for Islamic civilization. The description of the Travancori soldiers dancing in ranks is marvelous. Actually, I didn’t find the last quarter of the book so appealing, with its sixty-seven-year “Long War,” and what comes after, but that’s just me. The story ends in what would be the mid-21st century in our history — but even with his closing sentence, Stan reminds us that the bardo is always there. (5/22/02)

Foy, George. The Shift. NY: Bantam, 1996.

Alex Munn is a sort-of-television producer for X-Corp., a Hong-Kong-financed major player in New York a few years from now. Through unprecedented computer power, X-Corp. has developed an extremely lifelike virtual reality system, user access to which ranges from ordinary 2D television to immersion of the consumer and wide control of the story’s development, depending on how much the consumer wants to spend. Alex considers himself an artist and he hasn’t much use for Real Life, the sappy product he’s being paid to develop, but it’s hard to give up the money — though he’s already lost his wife, a soap actress on one of his earlier projects. Alex has been working quietly on a much better application of the VR technology: Munn’s World, set in the New York of 1850. Where Real Life ignores plot in favor of showing off the technology, Munn’s World is gritty and involving . . . and almost too real, for a Nativist killer who stalks the old city, butchering the hated Irish, seems to have edged over into the “real” New York. Foy is extremely knowledgeable about his city of the present and the past (or else he’s really, really good at faking it), and he has a serious gift for characterization, intricate plotting, and descriptive writing generally — and a terrific ear for Nooyawkese. He puts you inside the protagonist, especially, and his take on Riker’s Island is terrifying and unforgettable. I don’t know how I managed to miss hearing about this when it came out, but I’m glad I found it! (5/12/02)

Bester, Alfred. Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester. NY: Vintage Books, 1997.

Bester is one of those science fiction mainstays whom everyone of a certain age read back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and who is almost totally unknown to younger readers who were raised on the Cyberpunks. But I have to admit that the settings and language and cultural furniture of most of these stories haven’t worn very well, unlike the work of Heinlein or Clarke — or even Bester’s own classic novels, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. The “messages” in most of these pieces are also pretty trite, but that was never the point of reading Bester anyway. The man was a master of oddball style, eerie description, and droll dialogue, and you can have a really good time chuckling your way through “Will You Wait?” or appreciating the chill of “Fondly Fahrenheit,” or picking out all the references in “The Flowered Thundermug.” (5/05/02)

Mitchell, Kirk. Cry Dance. NY: Bantam Books, 1999.

Emmett Q. Parker, a criminal investigator for the BIA, is descended from Quanah, and Anna Turnipseed of the FBI is the great-great-granddaughter of Captain Jack of the Modoc, and even though the former is a very tough old veteran and the latter is still a rookie, you don’t want to mess with either of them. Mitchell, who is well experienced at plotting blood-freezing action plots, does it again in this story of southwestern Indian casinos and Jamaican posses and psychotic killers, but he also does an excellent job of putting you inside the head of the lead characters (including the bad guys), letting you find out why they are who they are, how they relate to each other, and how they deal with being Indians in a mostly white world. And some of it is pretty horrific. But this isn’t Tony Hillerman and there’s not much romanticism in modern Indian life. An excellent piece of writing. (5/01/02)

Snicket, Lemony. The Bad Beginning. (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 1). NY: HarperCollins, 1999.

Quoting from the opening of Chapter 7: “There are many, many types of books in the world, which makes good sense, because there are many, many types of people, and everybody wants to read something different. For instance, people who hate stories in which terrible things happen to small children should put this book down immediately.” And they certainly do. The Baudelaire children — fourteen-year-old Violet, twelve-year-old Klaus, and their infant sister, Sunny — are off at the beach one day when Mr. Poe the banker comes to tell them that their loving parents have perished tragically in a fire and that their mansion has been utterly destroyed. They will have to go and live with Count Olaf, their (geographically) nearest relative, until Violet is old enough to inherit. He’s a horrid, dirty, smelly, scheming, dangerous man, and an actor to boot. Their life there is terrible, even with the kind Justice Strauss and her lovely library next door. And then Count Olaf begins making plans to get his hands on their fortune. The author (whose real name is Daniel Handler) is obviously perverse and possibly deranged, and I love his work; it’s hard to tell, sometimes, whether he’s really writing for kids or for weird adults. This is the first of a projected thirteen volumes, and all of them are going on my Edward Gorey shelf. (4/25/02)

Field, Syd. Going to the Movies: A Personal Journey through Four Decades of Modern Film. NY: Dell, 2001.

Field is probably the country’s current best analyst of screenplays and teacher of the theory and mechanics of screenplay-writing, and I own all his previous books. This one was a bit of a disappointment, though, being heavy on self-conscious, egocentric autobiography and light on analysis of the films he discusses as being “turning points” in his development. (And he uses that phrase way too often.) Though he purports not to believe in luck or coincidence, he does seem to have been in the right place at the right time far more than most of us — a crawl-on role in Gone With the Wind as an infant, nephew of one of the great cinematographers, student at Berkeley when Jean Renoir was Writer in Residence, buddies at the UCLA film school with the niece of Sam Peckinpah, first job at David Wolper Productions when it was just beginning, and so on. Oddly, in between the fits of ego and overwriting (“this is how I invented/discovered . . .”), there’s also a lot of “aw shucks, little ol’ me”-ness. For this kind of thing, I think William Goldman’s two (so far) volumes of Hollywood autobiography are much better. (4/23/02)

Ferber, Edna. Roast Beef, Medium: The Business Adventures of Emma McChesney. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001 (orig. publ., 1913).

I bought this reprint because of the James Montgomery Flagg illustrations, but I enjoyed the story a great deal. Emma is a “drummer” in her mid-30s, an agent to retail stores throughout the Midwest of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company. She’s a woman in what was, before the Great War, decidedly a man’s world, but she beats most of them at it all hollow. She’s claimed to be the first businesswoman in American literature and she serves as a mouthpiece for Ferber’s feminist politics and her Progressive attitude toward the commercial world. This was the first of three collections (all made up of stories serialized in magazines) and they were immensely popular in their day — especially with women, though Theodore Roosevelt was a fan. too. In fact, Emma was Ferber’s first real hit and paved the way for her prolific later career. The style, of course, tends somewhat to effusive overwriting, but you get the same in almost any popular literature written at the turn of the century. Good stuff! (4/19/02)

Bisson, Terry. Johnny Mnemonic. NY: Pocket Books, 1995.

I’m generally a fan of Terry Bisson’s work, especially his short stories, but this novel-based-on-a-movie-based-on-a-short-story is embarrassing. The film was a mostly incoherent rendering of William Gibson’s very good story; I suspect Bill’s stuff just doesn’t translate well to the screen. This novelization (why bother?) has all the film’s confusion and none of Gibson’s trademark style and atmosphere. Worse, Bisson throws in some minor bits and pieces of his own invention. I couldn’t get more than one-third into this before quitting in annoyance. (4/15/02)

Priest, Christopher. The Extremes. NY: St. Martin, 1998.

This is a rather frustrating book — generally well written, filled with interesting ideas, but sometimes inconsistent and sometimes simply unbelievable. Teresa Simmons and her husband are trained FBI field agents in what seems to be our present, except that both were trained with the help of an extremely sophisticated virtual reality system that put them into various roles in a wide range of historically-based “killer” scenarios. Through repeated insertions into each scenario, they had to learn to react appropriately and to survive the situation. (The process seems extremely wasteful of personnel, not to mention impossibly expensive.) Anyway, her husband is killed in the line of duty in a small Texas town and Teresa, trying to cope with her loss, discovers a similar mass killing took place at the same time on the same day in a small town in the south of England. So, naturally, she goes off to Sussex to look around. (Huh?) Then she begins patronizing the local virtual reality provider and discovers a whole new kind of “shareware” virtual experience. (If she’s so well trained and informed, why had she never heard of this before?) The overlap between the incidents in Texas and England become more pronounced and Teresa’s virtual experiences become more complicated, until everything comes to a head in a scenario within a scenario . . . sort of. The problem is, Priest assumes that a woman experiencing a man’s role in virtual reality — including sexual activity — won’t react any differently than she had as her own self. This seems extremely unlikely. And he has a very shaky grasp of what West Texas is like, even though he was previously married to Texan author Lisa Tuttle. And nothing is ever really resolved. It’s like he was three-quarters of the way through writing and re-writing the book, and just stopped. (4/07/02)

Published on 22 November 2009 at 1:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

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