2003: 3rd Quarter [30]

Grimes, Martha. Foul Matter. NY: Viking, 2003.

It’s not part of her long-running Richard Jury mystery series, but this droll and sparkling satire has so many facets, it’s sort of difficult to write a coherent review of it. Let’s do it by character: There’s Paul Giverney, a best-selling author with a guaranteed million-copy sell-through — but actually not a bad writer for all that — and he’s thinking about going with a new publisher. But before coming aboard Mackenzie-Hack, he has some conditions that involve Ned Isaly, and that’s what gets everybody else’s balls rolling. Ned, a writer very highly regarded by the critics, is also incredibly naive about the nuts and bolts of big-money publishing. He lives inside his current work so completely, he’d wander into traffic if his friends didn’t keep an eye on him. Saul Prouil, independently wealthy and Ned’s neighbor and close friend, published only one novel, a decade ago, because he just can’t make himself quite finish all the books he has written since then. But that may finally change. The third writer in the trio is Jamie, a successful writer of genre fiction (any genre) who cranks out two and somethimes three novels a year. She’s not “literary” but she’s probably the hardest working of the three. And then there’re the people on the publishing side, especially Bobby Mackenzie, a shark with no morals or ethics, who hires a couple of hit men to (he thinks) carry out Paul’s wishes regarding Ned. And there’s Clive Esterhaus, a senior editor at M-H with minimal talent but at least a conscience, and also Tom Kidd, the house’s best literary editor — the best in New York, maybe — who can do whatever he wants because all the prize-winning authors would follow him unquestioningly to whatever publisher he chose to work for. And Sally, Tom Kidd’s assistant, who has kind of a thing for Ned. And not to forget Candy and Karl, the aforementioned hit men, who have to research and approve the subject of any contract before they’ll carry it out. And Mort Durban, top author’s agent and general jerk, and Sammy Giancarlo, mob figure and author (now in the witness protection program in Chelsea), and even more. Even Swill’s and The Old Hotel make great characters. This is simply a marvelous book which, with the right screenwriter, could also be a terrific film. Especially the clown-car antics in Pittsburgh! (9/27/03)

Znamierowski, Alfred. The World Encyclopedia of Flags. NY: Lorenz Books, 1999.

I’ve been interested in flags since childhood (it later led to a similar interest in heraldry), I naturally have long been a fan of Whitney Smith’s “Flags Through the Ages and Across the World,” a book remarkable especially for its large-format color art and its depiction of flags in their accurate dimensions — but that was published in 1975 and a lot of new countries with new flags have come into existence in the past quarter-century. Znamierowski is a longtime leading figure in vexillology whose artwork has appeared in scores of books and encyclopedias. He also has designed a number of corporate and municipal flags (and arms) himself and is the founder of the Flag Design Center. There are several introductory chapters on the development and early use of flags, flag customs and etiquette, and the various traditions in government, military, and national flags. Then he describes the flag “families”: The cross, the crescent, the Union Jack, the many varieties of tricolors, the pan-Arab colors, the red banners, the Latin American revolutionary flags, and so on. The second half of the volume is a world survey of national (and sub-national) flags by continent, followed by a discussion of international flags, regional and local flags, religious and church flags, and the flags and banners of social and political movements and causes. As in Smith’s earlier book (which this author several times quotes), the flags depicted here, both historical and current, are absolutely accurate in color and dimensions and the detailed history of each design and its local cultural meanings is excellent. This is also a heavy volume, printed on paper of high quality — and considering all that, the price (the equivalent of two good hardback novels) is very reasonable. This one now sits next to Whitney Smith on my reference shelf. (9/24/03)

Ottaviani, Jim. Two-Fisted Science: Stories About Scientists. 2d ed. Ann Arbor, MI: G.T. Labs, 2001.

All the stories in this collection of “graphic fiction” were written by Ottaviani, but the artwork was supplied by ten artists, including Bernie Mireault and Scott Saavedra. The stories are based on real events (reportedly real, anyway) about Einstein, Russell, Bohr, Heisenberg, and others — and especially Richard Feynman, who was not only one of 20th century physics’s major minds but an amateur locksmith, talented musician, social philosopher, and world-class storyteller as well. Some, like “turtles all the way down,” are smile-inducing classics, while others, like Heisenberg’s approach to Bohr on behalf on the German nuclear effort in World War II are somber and reflective. Feynman’s own recounting of his brief, tragic marriage during the Manhattan Project is especially affecting, and the tale of his safe-cracking activities at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge are a hoot. Oh, and you’ll even learn some physics theory along the way, or at least get a taste of how physicists view the world. I hope another volume like this is in the works. (9/19/03)

Bushnell, Candace. Trading Up. NY: Hyperion, 2003.

This is the first of Bushnell’s books I’ve read, . . . which is perhaps just as well, considering the maelstrom of divergent opinions her work seems to stir up. New York is a strange world, and life there is as alien as on Saturn sometimes — even to most of the city’s inhabitants. After more than a decade of impecunious struggling to establish herself as an actress/model (indeed, as anything she can make a living at while making the splash in society she thinks is her due), the stunningly gorgeous Janey Wilcox finally has landed a contract with Victoria’s Secret. Suddenly, New York is her oyster, she has some money, she has influential and wealthy friends, she’s being pursued by middle-aged men with serious money. She has problems, though, like her habit of interpreting the world in a self-reassuring way, and assuming sycophants (or those who want her body) are telling her the truth and not handing her a line. The plot — which follows Janey’s progression into and through a mistake-marriage and her side adventures along the way — is too complicated to try to detail here. But I will say that Bushnell is devastating in depicting the way the Fifth Avenue/Park Avenue Axis works and the sort of assertively self-centered people who inhabit it. The thing is, however dislikable they often might be, the characters she creates are not simple caricatures. They have reasons for being the way they are and behaving the way they do, the result of which generally is that they are both more understandable and more believable, even to those of us who will never approach within a light-year of the circles in which they move. (9/17/03)

Schott, Ben. Schott’s Original Miscellany. NY: Bloomsbury, 2002.

This is a highly idiosyncratic and thoroughly browsable collection of the sort of miscellaneous information that most people would label “trivia,” but which is highly prized by reference librarians. (We used to love David Wallechinsky’s The People’s Almanac and Book of Lists series for the same reasons.) I mean, where else are you likely to find the color code for lighting the Empire State Building, or a schematic of Dante’s Inferno, or the “Victorian Timetable of Family Mourning”? Some of this stuff, though, is easily available in other common sources — birth stones, the UN Secretaries General, the Fahrenheit/Celsius conversion formula, the Dewey Decimal system. And some are too incomplete or outdated or “casual” to be of much actual use (except to the reader who has never heard of the World Almanac): a short list of medical terminology, a handful of quotes from Winston Churchill, a list of a dozen (!) chemical compounds, and so on. Still, Schott has said that he simply collected what personally interested him — take it or leave it. Given that standard of inclusion, it’s an interesting few hours’ browsing. (9/16/03)

Kursmark, Louise. How to Start a Home-Based Desktop Publishing Business. 2d ed. Old Saybrook, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1999.

I ran a part-time book indexing and copyediting business as a sideline source of income for about fifteen years, and when I retired from my “real” career a few years ago, I expanded and got more heavily into other areas of writing and desktop publishing. Whether you’re just starting out as a self-employed person or you’re expanding, as I did, this excellent book will give you plenty to think about. Much of it is applicable to any small businessman — figuring out your abilities and skills, laying reasonable and practical plans, writing a business plan, scoping out your market and the competition, marketing yourself, and so on — but the author slants all of that to the would-be DTP professional. Rather than just give information and supply lists (though there are plenty of those), she also explains the WHY of things: Why you shuldn’t be bashful about setting your rates near the top of the market, for instance, and why you shouldn’t overestimate the number of hours you can actually spend working for clients. Much of the computer-related advice, not surprisingly, is four years out-of-date in its details, but her general comments are still good. I’ve read a number of how-to books recently on the DTP business, and this one is the best I’ve seen yet. (9/07/03)

Miller, Michael. Absolute Beginner’s Guide to eBay. Indianapolis: Que Publishing, 2003.

I’ve been a small-time bookseller on eBay since shortly after it started up, and it took awhile to figure out just what I was doing. I wish this book had been available then! Actually, it’s become more difficult — not easier — to make a go of it because so many newbies think all they have to do is post a picture of a piece of garage sale junk and the world will beat a path to their computer, cash in hand. It’s becoming difficult for the rest of us to talk through the noise to increasingly skeptical and cynical customers. MIller does a good job of explaining the best way to approach things, dealing with the eBay Establishment, handling deadbeats and frauds (buyers and sellers), playing the feedback game, and trying to decide if you can actually make a living from this thing. (Probably not for most booksellers, not without a real-world location to work from.) The chapter of shipping tips is especially worth reading. Of the half-dozen recent books about eBay I’ve read recently, this is probably the best. (9/09/03)

Tolkin, Michael. Among the Dead. NY: Morrow, 1993.

Frank Gale, the less successful of two brothers who are co-owners of a record store chain in Southern California, is tired of cheating on his wife and carefully crafts a confessional letter. He figures he’ll give it to her at exactly the right moment on their Mexican resort vacation, when things will fall out so that she’ll forgive him. Then, having been delayed by a break-it-off lunch with the Other Woman, he misses the plane, calls her at the airport to say he’ll catch the next flight — and finds she’s already discovered and read the letter. He’s messed everything up again. And then, while he’s waiting for the next flight, he gets word that the plane his wife and daughter were on has crashed with no survivors. How does he deal with this? Well, he has to think about it awhile. As he thinks about everything in his life, constantly, fantasizing highly detailed alternate histories and futures for himself. How his homosexual brother is the better businessman. How he shouldn’t have married Anna to begin with. How his mistress, Mary Sifka, could have been attracted to him at all. What the real motivations are of the airline’s grief counselors. Which lawsuit against the airline he should join. Why his father is such a disappointment. Why he has never been able to make friends with musicians. But things can always get worse: The letter to his wife turns up at the crash scene in San Diego and is published. Tolkin’s first novel, The Player, was a bit blood-curdling, but this one often is simply painful to read. Not because the book is badly written. The writing, in fact, is wonderful — probing, deeply colored, with extraordinarily realized characters portrayed in at least four dimensions. (Although the description of the survivors’ tour of the roboticized morgue, complete with bins of matched body parts, is quietly horrific, too.) But because Frank is so pathetically manipulative, . . . or would be, if he could do anything right. Worse, as he slowly becomes unwound, he’s fully aware of the grotesqueness of his own shortcomings. But he’s such an unmitigated schmuck, you can’t even really feel sorry for him. Essentially, a really terrific novel about a really worthless human being. (8/27/03)

Kraft Kitchens. Dinner on Hand: Easy Everyday Recipes You Can Make Tonight. NY: Clarkson Potter, 2002.

I enjoy food and I don’t mind cooking — but, like many working people, I often don’t have the time or the energy for anything elaborate. Nor do I care to eat out (or bring in) every night, even if I could afford it, so I tend to rely on a limited number of easy-to-fix dishes that I know so well, I don’t even have to refer to a recipe. Stuff like spaghetti bolognese, or red beans and rice, or tuna casserole, or sloppy joes, or any of a dozen dishes involving boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Which is all well and good, but even those become boring after awhile. This inexpensive book offers quite a few appetizing solutions, all of them quick and easy, and many of them based on whatever you have on hand (assuming you take care to routinely keep certain kinds of things on hand). The ones I really like are constructed like the proverbial Chinese menu: Pick a meat from Column A, a sauce or an add-in from Column B, a veggie from Column C. Like boil some macaroni and make a skillet-dish with chopped chicken (adding Italian-style cheese, stewed tomatoes, and thmye), or ground beef (adding pepper cheese, salsa, and chili powder), or tuna (adding cheddar, sliced celery, and Italian seasoning), etc. Special attention is given (naturally) to Kraft products, but you’re under no obligation. (8/21/03)

James, Ewart. Contemporary British Slang: An Up-to-Date Guide to the Slang of Modern British English. Chicago: NTC Publishing Group, 1999.

Anyone who reads English mystery novels or who watches British TV series (especially those intended only for domestic viewing, where the writers haven’t made allowances for a residual U.S. audience) occasionally runs into slang and cant that is part of the mental furniture of most Brits but which can be puzzling to Americans. I imagine everyone knows what a “lift” or a “lorry” is (neither of which is included in this book), but where in the world is “Honkers”? And what are “maggies” or “nadgers”? Having spent some time in Britain, and counting a number of Brits among my friends and colleagues, and being a student of language (I’m an editor, among other things), I’m always interested in books like this — but this one is a decided disappointment, lacking in many areas.

First: There are many words and phrases here that aren’t exclusively, or even predominantly, British, including “graft,” “grand” (meaning a thousand dollars or pounds), “gold widow,” “push-start” (referring to an automobile), “foodie,” “take a pew,” and “the mind boggles.”

Second: The author includes words that are certainly British but are not slang in any sense of the word, such as “longstop” and “googly.” These are simply technical terms in cricket — and the author doesn’t both to explain what they actually mean, or their derivation, in any case.

Third: There are quite a few good inclusions for which a simple meaning is provided, but which really ought to have had more etymological detail. What is the “spanner” that gets in the works? Why is a convertible automobile called a “drophead”? Where does the “spare” come from in “go spare”?

Fourth: There’s far too much rhyming slang in this slender volume — maybe a third of the listings — and the majority of them aren’t even close to being “contemporary,” as the title claims. I ran a number of these laborered constructions past my Brit friends, and they had never heard them, either. Does anyone who isn’t being self-consciously cute refer to a waistcoat as a “Jimmy Prescott”? Does anyone outside Ascot even wear a waistcoat? And I note that the crude term “Kermit,” meaning a Frenchman (a “frog,” that is) is also described as rhyming slang, which it isn’t.

Fifth: I know no such compilation could ever be complete, but I was able to think almost immediately of a number of reasonably common, non-obvious terms you won’t find here, such as “Oz” for Australia, “dropsy” for a bribe, and “lifted” for being arrested. Also, James includes “go down a treat” (speaking of food) but makes no mention of the more threatening (and more common) “do you a treat, mate.” There’s no information regarding the author’s background for this sort of assignment, but it can’t have been much. (8/20/03)

Hoffman, Alice. The Probable Future. NY: Doubleday, 2003.

Probably, no one would call Hoffman’s work great “literature,” but she certainly writes terrific books. I’ve read them all, over the years, and I’ve enjoyed them all to a greater or lesser extent, but this one may be her best. Still, it perhaps ought not to be the first one you read; it seems almost as though all of her previous books have led up to their culmination in The Probable Future. Hoffman has a knack for writing so matter-of-factly about magic and the supernatural as to make them seem perfectly normal, or at least acceptable, in the contemporary world. Jenny, coping with a failed marriage and holding down a boring office job in Boston, accepts her ability to dream other people’s dreams. Her mother, Elinor, can always tell a liar. Her thirteen-year-old daughter, Stella, an increasingly wild child with an eye for slinky black dresses and scarlet lipstick, has to deal with the unwanted gift of seeing other people’s deaths. But all the Sparrow women of Unity, Massachusetts, of whom Stella is the thirteenth generation, have some kind of gift that first appears on the morning of their thirteenth birthdays. As you learn about the three women and the men and boys with whom their lives are entwined, you learn also about Unity, which drowned Rebecca Sparrow as a witch in the 1680s, but which all the women in the family have nurtured and given much of their lives to. You learn to appreciate their home, Cake House. And you learn to see how people can change completely, given the proper motivation at the right time. There’s a murder in the story, too, though not a mystery, exactly; it’s the catalyst that brings Stella and then Jenny back to Unity, to rediscover the directions in which their lives are destined to go. Hoffman also has a knack for spinning out descriptions of people and places in an almost 19th century way — until Stella dyes her hair and all her clothing black, and other bits of contemporary business jar you back into the present. Magic and magical. (8/19/03)

Fodor’s Exploring London. NY: Fodor’s, 2000.

I won’t be going back to Britain this year (or probably anytime soon, unfortunately), but I’ve been a London junkie for a couple of decades and I’m always interested in what travel books and touring guides have to say about the city. Of course, everyone wants something different from a travel book. I’m mostly interested in historic locations and rubbernecking generally, not in where to eat and sleep and shop for souvenirs, so the balance among types of information in the Fodor’s “Exploring” series suits me just fine. First, there’s a good general introduction on politics, recent immigration, styles & trends, and London’s apparent rush to knock down its history in favor of turn-of-the-21st-century garish architecture, followed by a short but equally good survey of the city’s cultural and social history. At the back is a very brief guide to accommodations, dining, shopping, and “travel facts,” but you’re usually better off with an annually updated quick guide for assistance in those areas. (Take a look at schedules and reviews in the Saturday Times and the Sunday Evening Standard, too.) It also would have been helpful to include addresses of a few of the many official and commercial trip-planning web sites for London that are now available. (Try London.net.) The bulk of the book is organized by neighborhood — thirteen of them, so there’s quite a bit of detail wherever you might be spending your day. Sidebars throughout provide information on such things as the role of gentlemen’s clubs, regularly scheduled arts festivals, and the history of “Bedlam,” which is exactly the kind of thing my sort of visitor finds fascinating. There are also plenty of detailed street maps, though you will definitely want to acquire a proper fold-out map, plus a London Transport map (because even native Londoners can get lost in the twistier areas). To pick nits: I wish they had included more about the Underground system and its history instead of just describing the fare-zone system and advising you to use a Travelcard and to avoid the rush hour. And how could such a history-heavy guide omit London Stone and the Roman wall? Nevertheless, this is an excellent and well-written guide. Also, Fodor’s used to skimp on photos, and what they did include were generally in black-and-white, but this volume is packed with artfully cropped and arranged pictures on heavy, slick paper. Very nice indeed. (8/16/03)

Bryson, Bill. Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right. NY: Broadway Books, 2003.

As a freelance book editor for the past two decades, I’m one of that rather small, self-selected group of people who are likely to read grammar texts and style guides for pleasure. My copies of Follett and Partridge are well-thumbed, but I’m always willing to peruse a new effort. Bryson started out as a copyeditor for the Times of London, and was the compiler of The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words (of which this is actually a 2d edition), and he has a proven and felicitous writing style, so the book is both useful and a pleasure to read. Which is not to say that I don’t have some nits to pick. Some of the problems he addresses are obvious, like the increasingly common disregard for the difference between “its” and “it’s,” and the bugbear of ending a sentence with a preposition. Then there are less commonly discussed screw-ups that, personally, make me wince when I hear or read them, like a car having a “collision” with a tree, or something being in “close proximity” with something else, or the difference between a meteor and a meteorite, or the insistence that “noisome” has something to do with noise. And he handles all of those well and wittily. But many other entries seem to be spacefillers or else were carried over from a much more specialized list from his newspaper days. For instance, I’ve never had occasion to worry about the proper spelling of the Nullarbor Plain in Australia, or the Welsh word eisteddfod. And how many writers confuse cord and chord? And an author or editor is expected to check the spelling of names like coelacanth and Amelia Earhart and Alfa-Romeo and Meriwether Lewis anyway. I can also think of a number of commonly misused words and terms that Bryson did not include, and for which a discussion would have been useful, such as the colloquial use of “ain’t,” and why bugbear has nothing to do with wildlife. I won’t be adding this one to my ready-reference shelf, but it’s worth a read. (8/15/03)

Le Carré, John. Single & Single. NY: Scribner, 1999.

Ten years ago, many of us were concerned that the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union would also spell the end of Le Carré’s masterful stories of international subterranean intrigue and mischief. We needn’t have worried. We forgot that that there’s just as much venality and disregard for law and civilization in the West as there ever was in the East. Le Carré’s earlier work has reached its inevitable end, but the saga of George Smiley has been succeeded, if not replaced, by a series of individual tales featuring characters like (in this one) Nat Brock of the Customs Service, pursuer of the launderers of illicit offshore wealth in the hands of drug lords, arms dealers, and the Russian Mafia. The laundry being the House of Single, under the proprietorship of “Tiger” Single, who expects his surviving son and junior partner, Oliver, to someday succeed him. Oliver becomes closely acquainted with the Orlov brothers and their billion-dollar schemes, learns to fear the Georgians and their henchmen, and finds his view of the House of Single changing more than he would like. Being young and recently called to the law, he can take only so much before he peaches to the authorities in the person of Brock. And Brock, who can barely contain his glee, trains the young turncoat in undercover work and puts him back in his father’s House as a mole. This is not quite what Oliver had in mind and, after causing his father considerable financial grief, he finally flees the whole scummy mess, preferring to hide out in a seaside resort as a children’s party clown and magician. Then the Russians become more than Tiger, in his straitened circumstances, can successfully deal with, and Oliver is swept up in the acceleration of events. As always, Le Carré’s characters are four-dimensional and utterly believable. His narrative proceeds on several lines at once, in both the past and the present, which will keep you busy sorting out what has happened and guessing what is about to happen. This is his best work in several years. (8/14/03)

De Hartog, Jan. The Centurion. NY: Harper & Row, 1989.

While I’m aware of who the author is, I’ve never read any of his stuff, having a very limited interest in fiction about World War II. But this one caught my eye because I definitely do have an interest in historical novels about the ancient world. Martinus Harinxma, Dutch oceangoing tugboat captain and the protagonist of several of De Hartog’s earlier books, is now in irascible retirement in the south of France, driving his wife and grown kids crazy, unable quite to come to grips with the lack of physical action seemingly incumbent on a man in his seventies. On a trip to Canada and the U.S., he somehow gets involved with dowsing and turns out to have a great knack for it. His wife suggests he combine his new-found talent with his longstanding interest in Roman military history, which leads them both on a sort of guided tour of southwest England in the present — and also sixteen hundred years ago. Praepositus (“colonel,” sort of) Mellarius, adopted son of the centurion of the title (the old man with whom Martinus seems to be linked), leaves the Rhine in the summer of 368 A.D. as part of an expedition to pacify a revolt in Britain, a campaign which will lead him to question his lethal way of life and which will end up being the death of him for political reasons. We watch the Colonel’s weary trek while learning a good deal about the real and thoroughly unglamourous life of the middle-rank Roman army at a time when Christianity was becoming a major (and generally detrimental) influence on the empire and its governing institutions. And we watch while the Dutchman in 1987 asks the wrong questions of his pendulum, misinterprets the visions he receives, and refuses to believe anything that goes against his own prejudices. This book is somewhat more than that surface story, though. Mellarius and Martinus are each on their own quests, to “find themselves,” as we used to say, to figure out where they belong in their respective worlds. The Colonel worries about having been an insufficiently good son to the adopted father he literally worships, while the tug captain worries about having been an inadequate father through all his lengthy absences at sea. De Hartog’s style is one of simple narrative combined with highly evocative description, but he certainly understands character, as well as Roman Britain. (8/08/03)

Powers, Tim. On Stranger Tides. NY: Ace, 1987.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been re-reading all the earlier Tim Powers novels — the yarns that got me hooked on his writing in the first place. He has a way of interweaving tidbits of “real” history with fantasy and mythology, resulting in a “secret history” novel that can have you questioning what’s really real. In this one, John Chandagnac, son of an itinerant French puppeteer, most recently a bookkeeper in London, discovers that his late father’s brother is a wealthy merchant in Port-au-Prince because he embezzled the elder brother’s inheritance. John intends to journey to Haiti, get his late father’s money back, and see his crooked uncle hang. And the transatlantic voyage is made more enjoyable by meeting young Beth Hurwood and her father, a one-armed Oxford don. But then life takes a turn. The merchant vessel is waylaid by pirates — and Hurwood turns out to be in league with them. John is pressed into the pirate crew, is renamed “Jack Shandy,” and discovers why Blackbeard twisted smoldering slow-match in his hair and beard. Then the plot really starts to move, with pirates who make everyday use of voodoo (now virtually extinct in the Old World), and a quest for the Fountain of Youth, and a quest to rescue Beth from her father’s evil designs, and a renewed quest to even the score with his uncle Sebastian. The last third of the book is narrated at a dead run, as everything comes together and explanations are made for some of the story’s more puzzling earlier events. And Jack’s skill as a puppeteer comes in very useful indeed. This is one of Powers’s best. (7/29/03)

Azzarello, Brian & Eduardo Risso. 100 Bullets: The Counterfifth Detective. NY: DC Comics, 2003.

I read almost every non-manga graphic novel I can find, so I have a basis for comparison when I say that their quality adheres to the classic bell curve. Some are pretty good, some are pretty bad, but the majority are merely mediocre — and this interesting but confused effort fits right in the middle of the pack. “100 Bullets” is apparently an ongoing series of which this is just one installment, but I haven’t seen the others, so I can only say that the set-up — the old man with an attache case containing a pistol and a hundred guaranteed untraceable slugs for it — doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And about one-third of the way through, the attache case ceases to have any part in the story anyway. So what do we have? We have Milo Garrett (whose name actually might be Lewis), a faceless, alcoholic private detective with a bad attitude who likes to start fights. “Faceless” literally, because he was in a car wreck and has his face swathed in bandages for most of the book. Then there’s an art theft, a number of murders, a number of bad guys — badder than Milo, that is — and a lot of sometimes well-written dialogue and interior monologue that borrows heavily from Raymond Chandler. While the separate scenes are usually pretty well done, the overall plot, as noted, wanders all over the place. I never have quite figured out what the ending meant. The design and drawing, while eye-catching, isn’t all that original. So, a very average piece of work. (7/28/03)

Trillin, Calvin. Feeding a Yen: Savoring Local Specialties, from Kansas City to Cuzco. New York: Random House, 2003.

I began reading The New Yorker in college, back in the early ‘60s — mostly for the cartoons, I admit, but it wasn’t long before I discovered the often witty and always beautifully written essays of Calvin Trillin. As a food-lover, I especially enjoyed his culinary pieces, since collected in three volumes beginning with American Fried in 1974. The last, Third Helpings, appeared in 1983, so it’s been a long dry spell, but now he’s back with a new series of adventures that will make you salivate. The chapter in which he tries to get his daughter to promise she’ll move back to New York from San Francisco if he can find a dependable source of pumpernickel bagels makes him sound Manhattan-centric, but he also writes a paean to boudin (which, even living in south Louisiana, I confess I don’t care for at all), and another to the posole found in Taos (which I like very much). And there’s a chapter on nutria sauce piquante that’s a real hoot (if you’ve never heard of nutria, think sheep-sized, swamp-dwelling rodents). And there’s San Francisco burritos, and Casamento’s oyster loaf, and fried fish in Barbados, and pimientos in Galicia, and a number of other foodstuffs to be considered. This is a great book to read when you’re sitting in the break room at work, munching mindlessly on a homemade tuna sandwich and a bag of Fritos. (7/27/03)

Walbaum, John T. The Know-It-All’s Guide to Life. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press, 2003.

There seem to be a lot of these semi-bizarre “how-to” books being published these days. Maybe they’re a spinoff of reality TV. Like most, this one is a mix of genuinely interesting information (“How to hire a contractor” is good, as is “How to conduct like Toscanini”), misguided or inadequately informed recommendations (“How to make great grilled chicken” is simply a recipe for beer can chicken, which isn’t at all the same thing), and tongue-in-cheek throwaways. (Under “How to become a billionaire,” you find J. Paul Getty’s line: “Rise early. Work late. Strike oil.” Droll, but not useful.) Some sections are much longer than others, and some rate a “DUH” — the paragraph on “How to improve your public speaking,” for instance, is simply a recommendation for Toastmasters International. And “How to ace an interview” assumes you’re an executive (or new B-school grad) trying out for a standardized corporate position, with very little relevancy for those of us in civil service or academia, to say nothing of applicants at Microsoft. “How to train a basset hound” is obviously a humorous paean to the author’s pet, drawings of whose mug are scattered throughout the book. But the essay I personally found most informative? “How to select a single malt scotch.” (7/24/03)

Kovel, Ralph & Terry Kovel. Kovels’ Bid, Buy, and Sell Online: Basic Auction Information and Tricks of the Trade. NY: Three Rivers Press, 2001.

The subtitle of this slender volume is a bit misleading: There’s plenty of good, basic information for the auction novice, but there are very few “tricks of the trade.” I’m also not sure why any book published these days that has anything whatever to do with the Internet still feels it necessary to explain what a browser is, and how to click on the PRINT button in order to print something, and all that. (A book on writing style isn’t going to teach you how to type first.) That nitpick aside, the Kovels walk you through the basics of the online auction world, especially Yahoo, Amazon, and (naturally) eBay. Most of their examples have to do with egg plates and Limoges and other Kovels specialties, but their recommendations on writing lot descriptions and headlines are excellent marketing. They also strongly recommend the use of escrow services as protection against “buyer’s remorse” and credit card fraud, which I have to agree with — at least when the amount of money involved becomes substantial. The “Buyer’s Diary” and “Seller’s Diary” sections will be familiar to anyone who has bought and sold on eBay more than a few times, too! On the other hand, nobody I know uses a Polaroid these days instead of a digital camera, so some parts of this book are quickly sliding out of date. As long as you note the word “basic” in the title, this is a reasonably useful and well-written book, though only one among many. (7/23/03)

John L. Sorenson & Martin H. Raish. Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas across the Oceans: An Annotated Bibliography. 2d ed. 2v. Provo, UT: Research Press, 1996.

I first became interested in the “pre-Columbian exploration” problem in college, back in the early ‘60s, and I’ve been reading in the field ever since — and also collecting published works and building a bibliography. What got my attention, actually, was not so much the question of whether or not Europeans (or Phoenicians, or Africans, or the Chinese) visited or explored or colonized the Western Hemisphere before 1492 — though I do find that a fascinating problem — but rather the open warfare in the historical profession between the diffusionists and the “independent development” people on this issue. Historians who on any other problem could disagree, state their reasons, and go on to the next point of debate, become dogmatic and vitriolic over the question of whether Columbus was the first or simply the latest non-Amerind to wander to the New World — what has been called the NEBC, or “No Europeans Before Columbus” principle. When I first heard about this massive bibliography, I was two minds: I wanted to see what had been published that I might have missed, but I also had had vague thoughts of publishing such a work myself some day, perhaps accompanied by an extended essay on the history of the historiographical brouhaha. On the other hand, these two volumes cover more than 5,100 books, articles, and papers, and my own list includes “only” a little more than half that number, so I doubt I’ll ever catch up.

The first thing I noticed, though, is that Research Press is the publishing arm of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. We all know that the Latter-Day Saints take as an article of faith the ancient migration of certain Israelite groups to the Americas, even considering them the progenitors of the American “Indians” (against all anthropological sense, I have to add), so is there a predisposition here to one side of the argument? Well, having worked my way through the majority of the annotations, I’m relieved to say that does not appear to be the case — even though the authors were at BYU when they began this project. The coverage and the annotations both seem evenly balanced.

While the annotations themselves vary greatly in length, detail, and utility, they don’t seem to have left out any books that I am familiar with, except for those 19th century publications which apparently don’t meet the current standards of scholarship (but which are of interest to me for different reasons, as noted above). They even included what they call “weird” publications, though they passed on Atlantis and VanDanikenesque speculations (which is okay by me). They do say they deliberately excluded newspaper articles because of the difficulty of locating copies — though I have scores of photocopies in my files from the popular press over the past 150 years, mostly obtained with no difficulty though Inter-Library Loan.

My major complaint with this project, and I say this as a professional book-indexer and editor of two decades’ experience, is the very poor index. Sorenson goes to some length in describing how they compiled it (with their word processing software, apparently), but he seems not to understand the difference between “index” and “concordance.” Using such terms as “Mexico” and “transpacific” and “diffusion,” and then following each with as many as several hundred undifferentiated locators is pretty useless. Since the annotations themselves are arranged strictly by author, not subject, this is even more of a problem for the user. I could also wish there were a title index.  (7/22/03)

Homes, A. M. The End of Alice. NY: Scribner, 1996.

It’s hard to know how to write a review of such a strange and disturbing book. I can start with the “abouts.” It’s about a convicted pedophile and killer who has been in prison in upstate New York for twenty-three years, a deeply bent personality, but also a tragic figure. He’s nameless, an untrustworthy narrator with a confused memory of events and a sometimes very shaky grasp on reality. It’s also about Alice, his twelve-year-old victim, who may have been to some extent complicit in her own death — if the narrator’s tale is to be believed. And it’s about a college girl, also nameless, who corresponds with the prisoner, describing her own pedophilic activities and asking his advice — although it’s unclear how much of what she tells him actually happened, how much is her imagination, and how much is simply his imagination. Homes does an astonishing job of leading the reader to question what “normal” really means, and her masterful control of the narrative brings out the distasteful depths of all the characters. There are no “heroes” in this book, believe me — not even the narrator when he wreaks a satisfying revenge on a tormentor in the shower. In many ways, to many readers, this will be a horror story, but the truly horrifying thing is that it could very easily all be true. (7/19/03)

Silverberg, Robert. Roma Eterna. NY: HarperCollins / Eos, 2003.

Several reviews I’ve read online of Silverberg’s latest work compare it to Bruce Sterling’s recent Years of Rice and Salt, implying that somehow Silverberg “stole” Bruce’s idea of a grand alternate history progressing from ancient times to our (alternate) present. This is simply silly, since all of these stories except the “Prologue” were published previously, several in anthologies, though most of them are somewhat changed in this volume to aid the historical and narrative flow. I very much enjoyed Bruce’s book, but neither of these guys has to lift ideas from the other, believe me. Anyway. The Point of Departure — as Alt Hist buffs refer to the crucial dividing line between our “real” history and what might plausibly have happened — is the failure of the Hebrews to escape from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Which means no chance for Christianity to develop. (I’m sure the fundamentalists out there will accordingly regard this book as blasphemous. . . .) Silverberg takes this to mean that Rome has the opportunity to continue as a world power indefinitely. Not that the Empire doesn’t have its ups and downs, though, its good and bad centuries. After Constantine founds Constantinople and divides the Empire between Western and Eastern emperors, the stage is set for a Latin-Greek tug-of-war that will last for two millennia and several of the stories are about various stages in that rivalry. The best of these, I think, is “Waiting for the End,” in which Rome, having wasted its substance on a disastrous series of attempts to conquer the New World, is simply outflanked by the Byzantines and the final, but quiet, fall of the Urbs Roma is witnessed by a Romanized Greek bureaucrat and his girlfriend. “Via Roma,” about the bloody establishment of a Second Roman Republic, is also very good, and so is the award-winning “A Hero of the Empire,” in which a minor Roman official in Arabia Deserta has to decide what to do about a potentially dangerous rabble-rouser named Mahmoud. But there’s a problem with setting stories in the far future of a world in which the Point of Departure occurred in its distant past: Much of the enjoyment in reading stories like this is in seeing what happened to figures from our own timeline had circumstances been even a bit different. (E.g., Lincoln survives the assassination attempt, is later impeached, and retires to Chicago.) Once you get a few centuries down the line, though, the divergence is so great that all the characters are pure fiction with no connection to our own world, and you lose much of the “alternate history” aspect. That’s what happens with most of the later stories in this volume. They’re generally quite good as stories but the “what if” ingredient becomes pretty thin. (7/17/03)

Scarborough, Elizabeth Ann (ed). Past Lives, Present Tense. NY: Ace Books, 1999.

This anthology centers on an interesting idea but the execution is problematical. The set-up is in the introductory story: If you can locate a few scraps of DNA from any deceased individual — Leonardo da Vinci, Anne Boleyn, your own father — the personality of that person can be “injected” into you by broadcasting it into your eye and thereby into your brain. Scarborough never goes very far into just how this is done, which is okay. She’s much more interested in exploring the effects of having another personality either piggy-backing your own or being fully integrated into yours. So a modern-day inventor enamoured of perpetual motion uploads Leonardo, but is distracted when he begins to view the rest of the world through the eyes of a Renaissance man. Or, a shallow tycoon acquires the skills of an Elizabethan fencing master so he can show off at the local SCA faire, but hasn’t expected the Elizabethan religious values that accompany them. All the stories are pretty much like that, the moral apparently being that you never get quite what you expect to get. (Sounds kind of like Forrest Gump. . . .) There are some very professional writers here, including Elizabeth Moon, Kristine Rusch, and Carole Nelson Douglas, which makes the generally mediocre plotlines and two-dimensional characterizations especially disappointing. (7/16/03)

Doctorow, Cory. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. NY: Tor, 2003.

Consider a sort of libertarian, sort of syndicalist near-future world in which voluntary combines — “ad-hocs” — run everything by internal consensus and personal reputation — “Whuffie” — is apparently the only medium of exchange. Moreover, through advanced methods of human cloning and the ability to back up one’s personality and memory, personal immortality is practically guaranteed — after a fashion. Jules is part of that world, still a young man at more than a century of age, and a resident and cast member at World Disney World. He’s been accepted into the ad-hoc that runs Liberty Square and he has a very satisfying relationship with Lil, born in the Park and an expert in the Hall of Presidents and the Haunted Mansion. But the purity of the rides is threatened by a very high-tech ad-hoc fresh from Disney World Beijing, and Jules tries to lead a fight to defend the status quo — even though he gets murdered by the opposition, which really makes him angry. All in all, this is a fun read with an appealing style and a lot of intriguing ideas, though the author glosses over far too much to make the establishment of this world believable. For one thing, the Powers That Be of the early 21st century would never allow the revolutionary Bitchun Society to simply take over a university by socio-philosophical pressure, as Doctorow describes; the National Guard (or the Canadian equivalent) would be called out and the gutters would run with blood. Neal Stephenson or Bruce Sterling would have done a much better job of this. Perhaps, since the book only runs 200 pages anyway, Doctorow should have worked at it a while longer. (7/12/03)

Lovisi, Gary. Collecting Science Fiction and Fantasy. (Instant Expert series) Brooklyn, NY: Alliance Publishing, 1997.

First of all, I have a problem with the notion of becoming an “instant expert” in any field, merely by reading a single, rather slender book. And, since this volume is tall and narrow (presumably to fit in one’s inside coat pocket), its 136 pages really equal only about 70 — less than that if you discount the large amount of space consumed by b/w reproductions of color book covers (which don’t add much value, either). Second of all, the opening chapter is devoted to cover art rather than the contents of the books, which seems odd. I personally own quite a few large-format volumes of the work of sf artists whom I admire, but I’m a reader first — and some of the best novels have had terrible cover art, including those of Asimov and Le Guin, and the hardcover edition of Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. Next, the author’s list of “15 top collectible authors” does not include founders of the genre like Hugo Gernsback, but does include folks like Joe Lansdale. My inherited copy of Ralph 124C41+ had a lot to do with my discovery of science fiction as a kid, and I expect other old-timers could say the same — and while I like Joe’s stuff, his popularity is based primarily on his Elmore-Leonard-like East Texas crime novels, not on his small early output of science fiction. Then Lovisi refers to “about a thousand other fine writers who are also very collectible,” with the implication that collecting should be a function of market value, not of one’s personal fannish interests — an attitude with which most serious book collectors would strongly disagree. The author does have some useful things to say about the budgeting of one’s collection purchases, and about standards of condition, and he provides a short list of terminology, but these apply to collecting in any field. I already know all those things; I picked up this book to see what it had to say about collecting science fiction and fantasy specifically. The most useful section of the book — it takes up more than one-third of it — is the “Brief History of Collecting Paperback SF/F/H,” which gives quite a good overview of a highly idiosyncratic field. Throughout the book, Lovisi seems to equate “science fiction” with “paperback” (not even “original paperback”), but nowhere on the cover or the back copy is this limitation specified — even though someone like Lovecraft is far more valuable in hardcover. Finally, the author’s quoted market prices are way off the mark: He claims a price of $165, for instance, for Neuromancer, but a quick online check shows several fine paperbacks for half that, while the first hardcover edition goes for $1,000 and up. Maybe we could get someone like Barry Levin to write a proper book on collecting science fiction. . . .  (7/10/03)

Cherryh, C. J. Merchanter’s Luck. NY: DAW Books, 1982.

Carolyn Cherryh has the true storyteller’s knack of being able to approach a huge, sprawling, complexly plotted yarn in terms of its constituent characters and events. But where Downbelow Station — which you really ought to have read in order to grasp all the back-story and milieu of this future — is a tangled skein, Merchanter’s Luck is a single twist of two threads. Sandor Kreja is the only surviving member of the trading family that operated and lived aboard Lucy, a down-at-the-heels merchant ship not unlike a tramp steamer, carrying small cargoes and unfussy passengers and getting by on the margins of life. Allison Reilly, on the other hand, is a promising member of the large, wealthy mercantile family that inhabits Dublin Again, a name to be reckoned with and respected among the stations whose ports it frequents. But that’s just the problem: The Reilly family is too large. Allison is likely to be on rejuv herself by the time she climbs the advancement ladder far enough to be able to sit the bridge. They meet happenstantially, Sandy is completely taken with the tall, beautiful, regal Allie, and when Dublin goes off to Pell on the next leg of her trading loop among the stations, he pilots Lucy through a series of jumps singlehandedly in order to follow her. One thing leads to another, and when his past, checkered like that of all marginers, leads to potential major troubles with the Alliance and with the ominous Captain Mallory of the warship Norway (a shiver-provoking force in Downbelow Station), Allie jumps in to help him — and, not incidentally, herself — by leaving her family with a few like-minded cousins and making a crew for Lucy. But now, Sandor has to learn to trust others with his ship and its ghosts, and the Dubliners have to learn to trust someone who’s not one of them. Cherryh is also expert at divulging her characters’ minds and motivations through telling detail, so everyone you’ll meet here is fully realized. And their story becomes the kind of tale merchanters, and even stationers, will tell each other for many years in the portside bars of Pell and Viking. (7/08/03)

Basbanes, Nicholas A. Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book Hunter in the Twenty-First Century. NY: Henry Holt, 2002.

Reading Basbanes is like engaging in a long, relaxed conversation over coffee in your living room with a very knowledgeable friend. In this third volume of his slightly rambling but always fascinating and well-informed discussions of books, book collectors, booksellers and dealers, and all the peripheral subjects they engender, he combines advice on bibliophily in the age of the Internet with reminiscence on how collecting used to be done, and what the old and the new still have in common. As a small-time collector of limited resources myself, I enjoy reading about the fabulous collections built up by those who not only have money to spend but also the intelligence and passion to add value to what they hunt down and acquire by adding to the accretion of knowledge. In fact, as Basbanes makes clear, becoming personally involved with books and other “stuff” is what separates collectors from mere accumulators. In fact, I find I have also become a collector of Nick Basbanes. . . . (7/06/03)

McCafferty, Megan. Second Helpings. NY: Three Rivers Press/Random House, 2003.

In this terrific sequel to Sloppy Firsts, Jess Darling alternately barrels and wanders through her senior year at Pineville High School, unsure where she’s going to college, unsure whether she should keep running track, unsure whether she’ll ever be able to talk to her parents, unsure whether she’ll ever have a boyfriend she can deal with successfully (and lose her virginity to). Paul Parlipiano introduces her to Columbia, which entrances her — but the events of September 11 throw her into a turmoil about moving to New York. She finds herself somehow hooked up with co-brainiac Len Levy — but he gets highjacked by the class whore. She’s drawn ever more strongly to the apparently reformed Marcus Flutie — but can she trust him, given his manipulative history? Things turn out okay, of course, but McCafferty gives nothing away until it happens, creating fully-formed four-dimensional characters who will keep you involved in the story. It seems unlikely there will be a third volume to this series, since Jessica is entering a whole new chapter in her life (having firmly shut the door on the old one), but I’ll be interested to see what the author turns to next. (7/03/03)

Southern Living Homestyle Cooking. Birmingham, AL: Oxmoor House, 2002.

Now, this is my idea of a cookbook! Four hundred recipes culled from several thousand community cookbooks, which are an excellent source for “real” recipes, as opposed to the elitist, artsy concoctions of chefs in expensive restaurants. I.e., this is the sort of regional comfort food I not only like to eat, but am also capable of preparing: Peach Cobbler, Pecan Pie, Country-Fried Steak, Honey-Baked Chicken, and all that good stuff. On the other hand, I’m really not an okra person (my wife is), and I have no use at all for greens of any kind. But you’ll also find Curried Chicken Salad, Three-Pepper Frittata, and Orange Hummus here, none of which I would consider “Southern.” The Beer and Tomato Hush Puppies turned out really good, and so did the idea of making French toast with English muffins (never thought of that). Shrimp Manale (with garlic and white wine) is a very simple dish, but excellent, and the Catfish Classique, made with vermouth, whipping cream, and chopped scallions, was a very interesting take on a South Louisiana staple. I don’t know about making “quick” beignets from frozen dinner rolls, though. I got this book from the library, but I think I’m going to have to buy my own copy. (7/01/03)

Published on 22 November 2009 at 10:17 am  Leave a Comment  

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