2004: 3rd Quarter [27]

Gaiman, Neil & Terry Pratchett. Good Omens. NY: Workman, 1990.

At their best, and for those American readers willing to attune themselves to it, British authors can produce a particular kind of laid-back, raised-eyebrow, highly literate humor that is a joy to read. Especially Terry Pratchett: As any wife of a fan of the Discworld novels knows, one experiences an unavoidable urge to quote out loud from his work at length. Neil Gaiman, on the other hand, is known not for humorous writing but for his rather dark Sandman comics — and yet the two make an admirable team. Putting it briefly, the plot here is about Armageddon, the end of everything. Crowley (whose name used to be “Crawley,” back when his job was being the serpent in the Garden) is a general stirrer-upper based in London, especially by designing infernal highway systems. Aziraphale is an angel (unfallen) whose original job was to wave a flaming sword and chase Adam and Eve away from the Garden, but he’s now a rare book dealer. Like competing undercover agents everywhere, the two long ago reached an understanding by which neither of them rocks the other’s boat too vigorously and everybody gets along. Besides, both rather like the human race and neither wants to see a final end to the world. Things promise to get dicey, however, when the Antichrist is swapped out for a human newborn — except that the satanic nun in charge of the operation (i.e., Sister Mary Loquacious) screws up and the wrong infant leaves the hospital designated as the son of Satan. The real changeling, whose name (of course) is Adam, grows up as an almost ordinary boy in the village of Lower Tadfield and is now eleven years old. Which also happens to have been the home, three hundred years ago, of Agnes Nutter, witch, and the author of the only absolutely accurate book of prophecy ever published. Who is the ancestor of Anathema Device, present-day psychic newly come to Tadfield to try to sort things out. Who gets involved with the somewhat pathetic but well-meaning Newton Pulsifer, a private in the two-man Witchfinder Army. There’s also the Four Motorcyclists of the Apocalypse (Death speaks all in CAPITAL LETTERS — obviously Pratchett’s contribution), and the Hound of Hell, who becomes a small, scruffy mongrel at the insistence of his master and rather enjoys it. All in all, it’s hard to imagine a more delightful, more whacked-out, more determinedly irreverent antidote to LaHaye’s “Left Behind” series. (9/30/04)

Winspear, Jacqueline. Birds of a Feather. NY: Soho Press, 2004.

I was taken with Maisie Dobbs, the first book in this new series, not so much as a mystery novel but as a portrait of England, especially London, at the end of the 1920s and the lingering effects of the Great War on the survivors of that generation. Maisie is a sort of combination consulting detective, practical psychologist, and freelance social worker. She takes a holistic approach to her cases, insisting that everything, including all personal relationships, be wrapped up to her own satisfaction, not merely to the client’s. Her methods often are what we would think of as New Age, and one almost expects her to begin quoting from Madame Blavatsky — a part of her personality I could do without, frankly. This time, Maisie’s looking for the thirty-year-old daughter of a grocery store magnate who has fled her father’s mansion, and not for the first time. She eventually locates the young woman, who has sought refuge both from her father and from her own past, but she also comes to realize that the case is connected to a recent murder and another death which appears to be a suicide. And then a third woman dies gruesomely, and Maisie must protect her subject, who might be next on the killer’s list. Again, it all goes back to the War, this time focusing on the “White Feather” girls, whose thoughtless pseudo-patriotism brought grief to many families, including that of Maisie’s client, and also of her assistant, Billie Beale. There’s more “mystery” in this installment than in the first book, but Maisie still grates a bit. She’s awfully goody-goody and I suspect trying to be friends with her could be a trial. Still, I’ll be looking forward to Winspear’s next effort. (9/26/04)

Thompson, Craig. Blankets. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2003.

Question, upon first picking up this massive volume: What kind of graphic novel runs 582 pages? Answer: In this case, a great one. The narrator (who happens coincidentally) to have the same name as the author) is a thoughtful and artistic young man in rural/small-town Wisconsin who tries hard to make sense of the world, and whose early response is to be “saved” — which is an easy decision, considering his family and community. He has a classic love/hate relationship with his younger brother, with whom he has to share a bed when he’s little, and he finds himself the target of the huntin’, fishin’ crowd in school. At church camp one winter, he meets Raina, a Michigan girl of similarly outsider persuasion, and the two come together like magnets. That winter, he goes to visit her for two weeks and they fall in love, though they don’t (I think) quite become actual lovers. It’s a very sweet time, even though Craig has to adjust to the dynamics of a different sort of family, one with two “challenged” adopted children in it, in which Raina’s parents are on the brink of divorce. And when he returns home, things are never quite the same. In fact, life becomes rather sad. Even his breakup with Raina is sad. Craig is a very likable character, though his answer to inner turmoil seems to be to burn his past. Thompson’s art is simple black-and-white, but very nuanced and very affecting. His storytelling is subtle and quiet but it will take control of your heart and mind for awhile. But he doesn’t pull any punches regarding the trauma of growing up. He also makes an excellent case for the insidious effect of early indoctrination in narrowminded fundamentalist Christianity in producing either flaming hypocrites (i.e., most of Craig’s peers) or, if they’re as reflective as the narrator, burned-out apostates. I’m going to be thinking about this wonderful story for a long time. (9/22/04)

Clowes, Daniel. Ghost World. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 1998.

This slice of late teenagehood is not your typical graphic novel. Enid is a profane and not terribly attractive girl filled with self-loathing, subject to mood swings, fits of punk-ism, and a two-minute attention span, who is obsessed with her non-boyfriend, Joshua, and her own unappeased sexuality. Rebecca, her lifelong best friend, is much prettier, less volatile, and pretty much lets Enid run her life. They observe and discuss the people they know, reflect on their childhood memories, and avoid discussing what their lives might be like without each other. It’s almost like a reality show — but much better. (9/21/04)

Keillor, Garrison. WLT: A Radio Romance. NY: Viking, 1991.

Garrison Keillor is without doubt one of the great American storytellers of our tellers. But he doesn’t just spin yarns — he relates entire short stories, with fully developed characters, proper pacing, and slyly nuanced dialogue. He’s also a master of the dryly witty digression. Most of his fans know him from Prairie Home Companion and “The News from Lake Woebegon,” but this book — arguably his best — shows another whole side of his talent, focusing on the obvious love of his life: radio. The interwoven chapters of this book, in fact, originally appeared as short stories. They tell of the founding of Station WLT in Minneapolis by the Soderbjerg brothers in 1926 in an effort to boost patronage of their luncheonette, how radio took over their lives once they reluctantly accepted commercials, how the Golden Age of “radiation” in their rented studios in the Hotel Ogden made them wealthy, and how an entire generation of performers, announcers, engineers, writers, and office workers spent most of their lives there, loving the job and hating it, and loving and hating each other. Some scenes really stand out, like Dad Benson’s handling of the news from Pearl Harbor in 1941; Francis With, fresh from North Dakota, landing a job as general flunky; Francis’s encounter in the Green Room with child star Marjery Moore; the depiction of the antics in the baseball field press box; the reactions of a group of performers to a very suggestively written script; and, finally, the brainstorm of an ambitious biographer in the very last chapter. The fifty years of friction between Ray and Roy Sr. is a hoot, the imaginings of Patsy Konopka about her upstairs neighbor are delicious, and the adventures of the gospel-singing Shepherds on a punitive road tour are both sad and hilarious. Some readers have been upset by the discovery that Keillor actually knows some profanity and considers sex funny, but that’s a very shortsighted view. But these are just people and you can’t help liking most of them, even the venal ones. The author knows the truth, too, about the demise of radio: “Radio was a dream and now it’s a jukebox. It’s as if planes stopped flying and sat on the runway showing travelogues.” Great stuff. (9/16/04)

McHugh, Maureen F. China Mountain Zhang. NY: Tor, 1992.

This book had been on my “to read” list for some time, but it moved to the top of the list after a co-worker, a rabid right-winger, read it and then fulminated against the notion that the U.S. could ever become a socialist state. The First Amendment doesn’t protect anti-Americanism, he said, and the book should be banned and the author arrested. Actually, I believe he would have been quite comfortable in the authoritarian future America in which Zhong Shan Zhang lives and works. “Zhong Shan” translates to “China Mountain,” but it’s also the Mandarin version of the Cantonese name “Sun Yat Sen.” It’s like an American being named “George Washington Jones.” Zhang is an ABC — an American-born Chinese — who gets by, barely, as a Construction Tech in New York. More important, he’s only half-Chinese; his mother was Hispanic, but his genetic inheritance from his Chinese father was enhanced by gene-splicing. Since all the best jobs and top corporate positions go to Chinese (the most racist people in the world), every little bit helps. But even more important than his problematical background, Zhang is set apart by being gay — in a world in which deviance is dealt with by exile to the Mars colony or by a bullet in the back of the head. The plot line is really pretty simple: Zhang loses his job after his boss tries to fix him up with his extremely ugly daughter (who doesn’t know about his sexual orientation), he takes a job in semi-desperation as the only Construction Tech at a research station above the Arctic Circle (where he learns to value the dawn after five months of darkness), he parlays his hardship assignment into admission to Nanjing University to study engineering (where he finally begins to flower as a Daoist engineer/architect), and he returns to New York in search of long-delayed professional success and personal fulfillment. It’s the richness of the author’s portrayal of a possible, quite believable future that make this book so fascinating: The details of kite-racing, the fundamental differences between Chinese and Western attitudes (McHugh studied for some time in the PRC), the mix of very high-tech and very low, the internal politics of a commune on Mars, and the sheer prosaic-ness of people just trying to get by, to survive in a largely uncaring world. Zhang is a fully realized character, but so are his friends and acquaintances. And so are the other major characters in New York and on Mars, all of whose stories gradually come together late in the book. This is a beautiful piece of writing. (9/09/04)

Moody, Rick. The Ice Storm. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994.

In the late fall of 1973 I was a twenty-nine-year-old librarian in Dallas, cheering on the downfall of Richard Nixon and learning to write book reviews. As Moody says, it was a very, very different time — so different I doubt anyone under thirty-five can even imagine it. No call-waiting, no cable TV, no cell phones, no AIDS or HIV, no home computers, no laser printers, no CDs, no Reagan Revolution. The names Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin still meant something. We knew who Rose Mary Woods was, too. But still, New Canaan, Connecticut, was a very different place from north Texas. That fall, Benjamin Hood and his wife, Elena, took the final step toward the break-up of their shaky, unhappy marriage. Wendy Hood, age fourteen, was becoming known as a slut, though she wasn’t a bad kid and it wasn’t entirely her fault. Her brother, Paul, wasn’t having much fun as a seventeen-year-old preppie, either. It was the year the key party came to the upscale suburbs. None of the characters in this painful-to-read novel are particularly likable. You might feel sorry for them, at least some of the time, but you wouldn’t particularly want to spend time with any of them, or at least I wouldn’t. But Moody keeps you reading, wondering how they’re going to screw themselves up next. Making an engrossing story out of unpleasant people and distasteful situations isn’t easy, but he manages it. (9/06/04)

Heinlein, Robert A. Tunnel in the Sky. NY: Scribner, 1955.

Except perhaps for Citizen of the Galaxy, this is Heinlein’s best juvenile, and one of his best novels of any sort. Rod Walker is in high school, preparing himself for some kind of career in the Outlands — the newly-discovered, newly-settled worlds now so close at hand through hyperspace gates. That means a bare-hands survival course with a final exam in which the class is dumped on an empty planet to survive however for a week or so. But something goes wrong with the gates, and nearly a hundred high school and college students are stranded on their test-world, perhaps forever. Setting up a new society, virtually a new civilization, won’t be easy, but it gives Heinlein the opportunity to show the reader how he thinks it ought to be done. This is well-written, thoughtful adventure and the author avoids (for the most part) the syrupy overwriting of which he was often guilty in his later work. The portrait of Rod learning to cope, finding himself, and discovering what makes him happy, is very, very well done. (9/04/04)

Keillor, Garrison. Wobegon Boy. NY: Viking, 1997.

Garrison Keilor is the modern master of the narrative digression, musing on life and what is does to people. The person most being done to here is forty-three-year-old John Tollefson, refugee from Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, running an NPR station in a college town in upstate New York. He’s an intelligent, quiet, reflective guy, trying to be a Happy Lutheran even though he has dark opinions about talk radio. He falls in love with Alida, a history professor at Columbia, and they see each other one weekend a month, which maybe is preferable to marriage. He has an idea for a “garden restaurant,” which ends up a money pit, thanks to the mismanagement of his lawyer, Alida’s brother, and the chicanery of an ex-hippie contractor. But, as in most of Keillor’s writing, the plot is the least part of the book. The best part is always the telling of tales about family and friends by everyone in the little town, the spinning of yarns about ancestors, the sometimes dark but generally tolerant and amused interweavings of personalities at the Chatterbox Café and the Sidetrack Tap. The author himself, of course, is in many ways very much like the characters he portrays, relating the adventures of John’s great-uncle, the snake-oil medicine man who served four terms in Congress, and his Aunt Mildred, who flim-flammed the bank where she was a teller and decamped to Buenos Aires, and his own adolescent adventures tipping privies and trying to pick up girls at the roller rink. The set piece is John’s coming home for his father’s funeral, the gathering of the clan, the service itself, led by his pastor brother-in-law, and the drunken wake at the Sidetrack afterward. As we discover, there are just as many oddballs per family in Lake Wobegon as anywhere else, probably more, and Keillor paints them vividly in more than three dimensions. This is the sort of book that could never be made into a film, but which you will drive your spouse crazy reading aloud passages from. (9/03/04)

Heinlein, Robert A. Podkayne of Mars. NY: Putnam, 1963.

I started reading Heinlein’s juveniles in the mid-1950s, when he was still producing them. I have read enormous amounts of science fiction ever since, but I still go back and re-read one of his adolescent adventure yarns now and then. They’re good for what ails you. Some, admittedly, are overwritten and too sweet, but this story of a very bright girl in her early teens and her younger, brilliant brother is actually pretty well done. Podkayne is a native of Mars, the descendant of intellectuals and others shipped off to a prison colony for their political opinions, on the Australian model. Her mother’s an engineer, her father’s a historian, and her Uncle Tom is a hero of the Revolution and a Senator-at-Large of the Martian Republic. Uncle is going (very quietly) to a triplanetary conference on Luna, by way of Venus, and Poddy and her brother, Clark, are along for the ride — and to provide protective coloration, though they don’t realize it at first. She learns how to manipulate the younger officers on the star-liner, Clark smuggles aboard a bomb (we’re never quite sure why), and nefarious doings are afoot by the political opposition. Heinlein had a knack for projecting likely technical advances of the future (even though Clark still carries a slide rule), but his grip on social change is far less sure. In her attitudes, and those of society, it’s as though the Feminist 1960s and ‘70s never happened. And Poddy at (I think) fifteen is much less sophisticated than the average American twelve-year-old today. Ah, well. Heinlein was incapable of writing anything, even a kid’s novel, without including his own social and political opinions, but they’re less obtrusive here than in some of his other books. For that matter, Heinlein actually was an ethical and social relativist who loved to contradict himself from book to book, so don’t be too sure you know what he actually thought! (8/30/04)

Amis, Martin. Night Train. NY: Harmony Books, 1997.

By and large, I like Martin Amis’s work. He’s inventive and witty and a master of the English sentence. But his actual novels don’t always work, and this one is less successful than most. Homicide detective Mike Hoolihan is a world-weary female city cop somewhere in (I think) the American Midwest. She’s a recovering alcoholic, she was abused by her father, and she has lousy taste in men. She would also do anything for Colonel Tom Rockwell, her mentor and ex-boss, now high brass in the department. And when Colonel Tom’s daughter, the beautiful and brainy Jennifer Rockwell, apparently shoots herself in the head (three times), she has to carry the news to the unbelieving father. And then she has to investigate the incident at his behest to make sure it really was a suicide. Mike talks like a parody of the streets but she’s an intelligent and experienced, though somewhat bigoted cop (as they all are, she says), and her inquiries lead her only to the reasons Jennifer might have killed herself. Except Amis never quite makes this clear, and the last couple pages rather baffled me. Maybe I missed something here — but I really don’t thing so. But there’s one other major problem with this book, a very jarring problem, something that keeps me from enjoying it as much as I believe I would have. How can someone with Amis’s gift for language, someone whose father was an expert in English usage, be so totally unaware of American idiom? The very opening line is “I am a police,” which he seems to think is a common construction in this country. This continues throughout the book and it throws me every time I see it. Then there’s the use of purely Brit terms like “semi-detached house,” which few Yanks comprehend, even those who read British mysteries. And there’s that whole thing of referring to the police department as the “CID.” Isn’t that also a British thing? I’ve never heard the usage in this country. And Mike mentions a city cop who “took a bullet for the State.” No, he didn’t, because the U.S., unlike the UK, does not have a unitary governmental system. He took a bullet “for the city” — except I can’t imagine any cop would think like that. And there are lines like “The science crew come and go.” Does he really not know that in American English collective nouns are considered singular? (I assume “science crew” refers to the forensics team, and I’ve never heard that term either, but who knows?) I’ve read that he was somehow running a riff on American society, but if so, he’s awfully vague about it. My puzzlement about the resolution (or not) of the plot aside, this short novel would have been far better had the author set it in London or Manchester. (8/28/04)

Grimwood, Ken. Replay. NY: Arbor House, 1987.

I first read this book shortly after it was published. I recently ran across a paperback copy in a used-book store, remembered how much I had enjoyed it (though I had forgotten most of the details), and picked it up for a re-read. And I’m glad I did. Grimwood (now deceased) wrote a few other novels dealing with time-traveling and ultra-long-livedness, but none of them enjoyed anything close to the success of this one, and that’s a shame. The “what if” premise is very simple: What if death, for a very few of us, isn’t permanent? What if you get to try again? Jeff Winston is in his forties, the news director of a small Florida television station, stuck in an unhappy marriage. And one day, while on the phone to his wife, he falls face-down on his desk, dead of a massive heart attack. And then wakes up, confused and extremely disoriented, to find himself back in his eighteen-year-old body at Emory in 1963, but with his full adult memory. He has a journalist’s grasp of the public history of his own lifetime, including the winners of major sporting events, and a couple of shrewd bets on the Kentucky Derby and the World Series sets him up for life. Knowing what the social and technological trends are going to be, he makes all the right investments. The one thing he can’t do, though, is relate to the people he used to know as though he were still eighteen, and that includes the girl with whom he was in love at the time, and the young woman who later became his wife. Worst of all, when he reaches that fatal day in 1988, he dies on schedule — and has to start all over again. What’s the point? Why bother trying to accomplish anything? The author examines all the aspects of this unique sort of futility, which becomes almost a Kubler-Ross “stages of acceptance” process. And then Jeff’s situation changes. He’s not the only “replayer.” Grimwood has an excellent grasp on events and trends of the 1960s and ‘70s and how they might be taken advantage of with foreknowledge, which I found particularly fascinating because the main character and I are within two months of being the same age. Though I have to say, he paid more attention to what was going on in the world than I did as an undergraduate. I’m tucking my copy of this one away for another re-read in a few more years. (8/26/04)

Keillor, Garrison. Love Me. NY: Viking, 2003.

Some people (like my wife) have no appreciation of Garrison Keillor. I, on the other hand, have been known to temporarily absent myself from a family barbecue and go out to the car so I can turn on NPR and catch the latest news from Lake Woebegon. He is without doubt the most hypnotic storyteller in America today. But if your only exposure to his stuff is Prairie Home Companion, if you’ve never read his novels, then you don’t know that Keillor also has a salty side. My personal favorite is still WLT: A Radio Romance, but this latest offering ranks high on the list. Larry Wyler of St. Paul (Keillor’s hometown and his Everytown) has an English degree and the ambition of being published in The New Yorker and living the Good Life. Iris, the love of his life even when they’re semi-separated for years, is a no-nonsense do-gooder who doesn’t approve of conspicuous consumption. Larry tries hard to come up with the Great Midwestern Novel, but his writing is just too self-conscious and mannered. Finally, spurred by How to Write Your Novel in Thirty Days (we’ve all read books like that), he cranks out an action-adventure potboiler, sells it within weeks for a big advance, and hits the best seller lists. His ship has come in. He’s in demand on radio and television. People line up for his autograph. His publisher advances him a quarter-million for his next book. And all Larry can think about is escaping St. Paul and moving to New York for an office at 25 West 43rd Street, the Mecca of all serious American writers. Of course, his move is spurred also by Iris’s discovery of his two almost casual infidelities. And Iris has no interest in New York, so off he goes. He becomes sailing buddies with Bill Shawn, Salinger drops by to chat (in between appearances on TV game shows), Updike tells him about the pistol in his desk drawer, Kael takes him to the movies (and brings her own popcorn). And Larry can’t write another damn thing. Blocked like an ailing colon. In desperation, and because he needs the income, he takes on a twice-weekly advice column, “Ask Mr. Blue,” for the Minneapolis newspaper, which he delivers by email while remaining in his tiny New York apartment. But that’s the only bright spot in his life now. His second novel is a pretentious bomb, immediately remaindered (Barnes & Noble removes the security tags so as not to discourage shoplifters), the only good thing he writes gets left on a train, and he’s drinking and gaining weight. But things will brighten up eventually — sort of. To me, the strongest part of the book is the resilient relationship between Larry and Iris, their crowd of odd friends, and the behind-the-scenes look at the New Yorker staff (to look at them, you’d never know they were all Sicilian and that the publisher was a Mafioso). The letters Mr. Blue receives and Larry’s replies — his only writing that seems to come easy — go a bit over the top, I think, though they also serve as markers in his own life. And I would have left off the Epilogue entirely; it’s way too much of a downer and threatens to spoil the essentially hopeful thrust of the rest of the book. Still, Keillor is mostly successful, as he mostly always is, and I shall be looking forward to his next. (8/22/04)

Holland, Cecelia. The Firedrake. NY: Atheneum, 1966.

As any regular reader of my reviews knows, I’m a great fan of Cecelia Holland’s historical novels. I even collect her first editions. This is her very first, written as an undergrad and published just as she was starting graduate work at Columbia and working at Downtown Brentano’s. I was also in grad school and I read it avidly the same year. She chose for her first excursion one of the key events in Western European history (and therefore in our own history on this side of the Atlantic): The last phase of the rise of William of Normandy as a charismatic figure of major influence and the decisive day of battle near Hastings that completely changed the course of everything having to do with England. But that’s only the final few chapters. We start with the journey of Laeghaire (pronounced “Lear”) of the Long Road, an Irish knight with Viking ancestors (making him kin to William himself), a berserker fighter who builds a reputation to silence those beside whom he fights. Laeghaire has fought for pay all over Europe for nine years and now, fleeing the vengeance of a stingy Thuringian lord, he heads back to the court of the Count of Flanders, Duke William’s father-in-law. He leads the Flemish contingent in the Norman conquest of Maine, where he comes to William’s notice in both good and bad ways. The Irishman is touchy of his honor and reputation, a free knight who doesn’t take orders easily, an intelligent and literate man with a gift for languages who is uncommonly useful to his employer. He acquires a woman, and a son, and begins to care about someone other than himself, until Hastings comes and reorders his life yet again. Laeghaire would not be an easy man to be around, but he’s certainly a man you would want to be sure was on your side. All the elements of Holland’s very personal approach to medieval military history are here — the lesser figure as viewpoint who mixes with the great and powerful, the use of vivid colloquial English so carefully crafted you’ll think you’re eavesdropping on the original vernacular, the spare prose that doesn’t describe every tree and field but that points up the occasional crucial detail as a key to mood and character. The author also relies on short, simple declarative sentences — a style which was somewhat overdone in this first book but was modified somewhat in her subsequent work. With all the reading I do of new releases, I manage always to salt my list with re-reads of Holland’s best half-dozen novels every few years, as a matter of balance. (8/20/04)

Lynn, Elizabeth A. The Sardonyx Net. NY: Putnam, 1981.

I first read this affecting novel twenty years ago and large parts of it have stayed with me every since. It’s long out of print, but I hunted until I found a copy — and I know now, again, why I remembered it so well. Lynn is known mostly for her high-concept fantasy, but this one is “what if” science fiction of the best sort. It’s sometime in the unknown future and humans have colonized dozens of worlds, aided by the discovery of the “Hype” — a parallel hyperspace route between stars, navigated by starcaptains, latter-day bravos with their own traditions and culture. The four worlds of the Sardonyx Sector got together a few generations ago to set up a prison world called Chabad, not unlike Britain shipping off its felons to Australia. But now Chabad is a colony world, too, with its own exports, and nearly everything is powered by the slave labor of the convicts. Lynn is careful to make her version of slavery as humane as possible: After their sentence is up, slaves are freed, their property is returned to them, and they can either leave Chabad or become free citizens. They’re depersonalized, but not tortured. If they have useful skills, and if their owners are sensitive people, they may experience something like contentment. But they aren’t free. And many, perhaps most, slaves are kept dosed on a tranquilizing euphoric drug called dorazine to keep them controllable. Of the Four Families that run Chabad, the slave system is in the care of Family Yago, and especially of Domna Rhani Yago, head of the family, and her brother, Zed, who is both a Senior Medic and Commander of the “Net,” the toroidal starship that collects the prisoners from the other worlds of the sector and brings them to the slave auction on Chabad. Add an interplanetary antidrug police force trying to keep dorazine from being brought to Chabad, and all the elements are present for a complex, involving plot. But the real focus is on the personalities of Rhani, a reasonable, fair-minded woman who has been blinded by her upbringing and position, and of Zed, a sexual psychopath and thoroughgoing, self-aware sadist. And, finally, of Dana Ikoro, young starcaptain trying to bring off his first successful dorazine smuggling run, who gets caught and falls afoul of Zed before becoming Rhani Yago’s slave-pilot — and confidant, and lover. And there are more than a dozen other carefully-drawn characters in the supporting cast, all of which makes this a thoroughly fascinating book. I’ve read other reviews by readers — probably much younger ones — that have been knee-jerk dismissive of this novel because it seems to approve of slavery, . . . which it doesn’t. Lynn seeks only to examine the possible effects of its use, which she does very effectively. Those other reviewers seem to adhere to absolutist standards of ethics and morality and seem not to understand that history (even when it’s future history) is what happens, not what should happen. Both attitudes are foolish. But then, most long-time science fiction readers learn early to become tolerant ethical relativists. (8/14/04)

Grafton, Sue. R Is for Ricochet. NY: Putnam, 2004.

Grafton is far from being the best mystery writer around, but just the same, like everyone else, I wait for each new entry in the series. Eight more to go. This time, Kinsey Milhone, California PI extraordinaire stuck in the late 1980s, is hired by a rich man to go and fetch his wayward daughter when she’s released after two years in prison. Reba is untrustworthy and selfish, but she’s also likeable and engaging, and Kinsey finds herself getting more involved than she had intended. Because Reba went away ostensibly for stealing from her employer, a crooked property-developer, but (naturally) there’s a lot more to it than that. If the actual plot were all there was, this book would fit nicely into 150 pages instead of 350. What pads it out is all the usual subplots involving the love-life of Kinsey’s octogenarian landlord, Henry, his equally elderly-but-spry siblings, and her own newly-begun relationship with Cheney the vice cop. Another fifty pages could have been saved by not detailing each move our heroine makes. I mean, she drives up to the curb, parks the car, turns off the engine, removes her key, gets out, locks the door, walks up the sidewalk, opens the gate, closes the gate, approaches her front door, gets out her house key, etc, etc. This gets really old for me really quick, . . . but that’s Grafton’s style and her loyal fans expect it. So, the verdict? This isn’t the best in the series, but it’s not bad — especially if you enjoy detailed character development. (8/11/04)

Truss, Lynne. Eats Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. NY: Gotham Books, 2004 (2003).

I’m not sure what all the fuss is about this little book. I read nearly every new grammar text, Fowler-and-Follett usage guide, and style manual published. I edit, and it’s my job. A few are pathetic, most are okay, and some are excellent — and the latter I add to my reference shelf. But almost none of them become bestsellers with the general public. Okay, the author is an experienced editor (of the journalistic, not book-publishing, variety), and she shows a witty turn of phrase. But advice she offers, while generally sound, is nothing new. Moreover, the brief table of contents is cute and useless and there’s no index, so you can’t look anything up, either. Also, Truss is a Brit and shows no awareness of the occasional but real differences in usage on the opposing sides of the Atlantic. (Some of her jokes will leave American readers blank-faced for the same reason.) Finally, I have to point out that — at least in the U.S. — good practice would require a hyphen between “zero” and “tolerance” in her subtitle. I’ll pass. (8/10/04)

Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage. NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Okay, I admit it: I’m one of those people who reads for pleasure fat tomes like Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Follett’s Modern American Usage, and Bernstein’s Dos, Don’ts and Maybes of English Usage. But I’ve been a freelance copyeditor for a couple of decades, so I’m entitled. I fell in love with Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage when it appeared in 1998, and the present volume is mostly a (renamed) complete revision and updating of that. He also wrote the standard “Grammar and Usage” chapter for the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, and a number of books on legal style and writing, so he’s certainly qualified. Perhaps more important, his own writing style is crystal-clear, conveying exactly what the reader needs to know in making writing choices. (I met him once in Dallas, and I have to say he speaks as clearly and judiciously as he writes.) Some of the entries are very timely (“Ground Zero”), while some of the mis-usage problems he identifies have been around for some time and probably aren’t going away soon (“cohort” and “decimate”). Some, I didn’t realize were problems, like the plural (or not) of “gyros” and the proper designation for residents of Hawaii, but having read the entries, I shall remember them in future. And for some issues, Garner calls out the big guns, such as the struggle to make people use apostrophes properly. (Apostrophizing a plural should be a felony, especially when it appears on a public sign or in a newspaper!) There are very few gaps in the coverage, so up-to-date is he. Though I did note that in the discussion of the ellipsis, attention is given only to its use to indicate an omission in a quotation — not to the equally valid use to indicate a pause in narrative or dialogue, . . . which, after all, is probably its principal nonacademic usage. But any serious writer or editor will want a copy of this volume on his Ready Reference shelf. (8/09/04)

Kenny, Glenn (ed). A Galaxy Not So Far Away: Writers and Artists on Twenty-Five Years of Star Wars. NY: Henry Holt, 2002.

I was just out of graduate school and working in my first professional position when the first Star Wars movie (now known as “Episode 4”) came out. I loved it. I had been a confirmed pulp-sf addict since the mid-1950s, and I was predisposed to enjoy the film for what it was, not for what the critics thought it was (and what they apparently wanted me, as a card-carrying intellectual, to believe it was). But I’m not too proud to admit that I also loved 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind when they came out. I mean, this stuff is great fun, right? The stuffier film critics, though, decided that George Lucas had killed the movies — just as there were cries of anguish back in the late ‘20s, when the movies began to talk. Yes, the Star Wars universe has had a great influence on culture, and not just “pop” culture, but so have Gucci and Ronald Reagan and McDonald’s. Most of the contributors to this anthology are of an age to have grown up on Star Wars, and the distinction can easily be made between those who don’t take it, or themselves, too seriously (Jonathem Lethem, Neal Pollack, Erika Krouse, and Elwood Reed), and those for whom Lucas is Evil incarnate (notably Arion Berger and Tom Carson). The book is an interesting read for those, like me, with an interest in film-making and screenwriting that goes beyond just sitting there with a bag of popcorn, but I could only shake my head at some of the breast-beating Jeremiads. (8/08/04)

Lethem, Jonathan. As She Climbed Across the Table. NY: Doubleday, 1997.

Is this novel “science fiction”? Maybe, maybe not. But then, in this author’s world of the university campus, almost everything comes in twos — interdisciplinary anthropologist Philip Engstand and particle physicist Alice Coombs, with whom he is deeply in love; the black-and-white blind men, Evan and Garth; competitive academics Soft, the resident Nobel laureate, and Braxia, the visiting Italian physicist; outside temptors Cynthia Jalter, a specialist in dual cognitive systems and obsessive coupling, and the Lack — with whom (or which) almost everyone wants to pair up. Especially Alice, who has transferred her love away from Philip. But Lack, created in one of Soft’s experiments, is defined only by his choices of what objects to accept in his field. Argyle socks and light bulbs, yes; bow ties and scrambled duck’s eggs, no. This sounds confusing (as most of Lethem’s novels do when you attempt to describe them), but he has the knack of leading the reader neatly through the most bizarre settings and action while strewing the path with quirky, witty dialogue and sneakily astute observations. Each of his books is different from all the earlier ones, and each is difinitely worth the time-investment. (8/06/04)

Cockey, Tim. The Hearse You Came In On. NY: Hyperion, 2000.

It’s always nice to discover a new mystery-writer, and Cockey’s new series about Hitchcock Sewell, small-time blue-collar undertaker in Baltimore, shows great promise. Hitch, like many of us, is a mixture of idealism about people in general and cynicism about actual individuals. He’s still friends (and occasional bed-partner) with his ex-wife, a very free artisitc spirit. He keeps getting caught up in slightly bizarre Little Theatre productions, much against his better judgment. He’s a bemused regular at the Screaming Oyster Saloon, run by his ex-in-laws. And in this first installment, he loses his heart to a female police detective who’s had a very poor life and now is in very big trouble and considerable danger. Most of Cockey’s characters, especially Hitch and his closest friends and associates, as well as the assorted political miscreants, ring true. Kate the cop doesn’t, however, not quite. (I have to wonder about the Baltimore PD’s psychological screening program.) It takes a little while before the plot begins to assert itself — fair enough, the author has to establish all those new characters first — but when the murders and misdeeds begin to pile up, you’ll find yourself thoroughly engrossed. (8/03/04)

Lethem, Jonathan. Girl in Landscape. NY: Doubleday, 1998.

Lethem is nothing if not inventive; each of his novels is different from all the others, and they seem to have only superficial similarities with anyone else’s work, too. Thirteen-year-old Pella Marsh, just edging over the cusp into womanhood, is the oldest of three children of Clement and Caitlin — the former a failed politician in a post-enviro-catastrophic America, the latter now dead of cancer. They’ve transplanted themselves to the over-bioengineered World of the Archbuilders in order to escape Earth, but our world’s most basic interpersonal problems have accompanied them. The Archbuilders — those few who remain after the great bulk of them went off into deep space — are quiet, gentle, curious polylinguists whom the humans don’t really understand and probably never will. There are only a handful of other families in their little town-without-a-name: The Kincaids, with a son Pella’s age, the drunken Grants with their two socially warped offspring, a lesbian couple with a baby, and a few bachelors. But one of those is Efram Nugent, the personification of violent inadaptability whom Pella sees as part of the rock of the new planet, almost an undeniable force of nature, and whom she alternates between fearing, loathing, and idolizing. Perhaps it’s really the Planet of Efram. And he’s far more adaptable than anyone could know, because he, like Pella, declines to take the drug that keeps him from inhabiting the “household deer” in his sleep and speeding and spying across the valleys, witnessing all the personal human things that no one else should see. There’s a certain titillating Nabokovian flavor here (though without his humor) but don’t let that distract you. The story is mostly a bleak but moving look at human inability to be anything other than human, regardless of the landscape. (7/29/04)

Moore, Alan. Top 10: Book Two. La Jolla, CA: America’s Best Comics, 2002.

Time was, superhero comics were about characters who possessed super-powers and were heroes. They strived against their counterparts, the super-villains. It was all pretty much black-and-white, even after the retooling of superheroes by Marvel Comics in the 1970s. Then Alan Moore came along with Watchmen, and Frank Miller with The Dark Knight series, and the genre changed overnight. People with super-powers were still basically people, with all the angst, uncertainties, and domestic issues of other people. Like previous generations of super-types, they fell mostly into three categories: “science-heroes” (created by technology, deliberately or otherwise), the supernatural (minor deities, demons, and whatnot), and aliens, but now there were a lot more of them and they showed a lot more variety. In this series, Moore posits the city of Neopolis, created after World War II as a more or less benign ghetto for Earth’s supers, now hooked into an interdimensional network culture with its own police force. Earth — Precinct Ten — is pretty far down the social scale, but bad things happen in Neopolis just like anywhere else, and the cops are kept busy. These cops, however, include officers who can fly, a sergeant who half-resembles a Great Dane (and half a robot), a “Nubian” with peacock feathers who communes with Satan (but he’s a good, caring family man), a middle-aged captain who’s gay (and living with a retired super-hero), and an AI who has a terrific way of dealing with prejudice. The bad guys, naturally, are just as bizarre — and just as similar to the bad guys in our own world. The incidental images scattered throughout the book will get your attention, too; I especially like Will Shakespeare wearing a backward baseball cap. (And I have a feeling some of the carefully drawn figures in the crowd scenes are inside jokes, recognizable to other comic book artists.) I’ll be watching for more of this series. (7/26/04)

Baker, Nicholson. The Fermata. NY: Random House, 1994.

In 1994, very shortly after this lark of a book appeared, I picked it up on a whim at an airport bookstore just before embarking on a long overseas flight. It was the perfect choice, but my companion didn’t think so; I kept interrupting her own reading to share choice passages, whether she wanted to hear them or not. It’s just that kind of book, if you’re the sort of reader who loves original and creative use of the language. Bostonian Arno Strine, reader, writer, and all-round intellectual, has made a career for himself as an office temp, simply because there are more important things in his life: Namely, the ability to drop out of time, to stop the world and get off, to escape the noise and bustle for the silence and solitude of the Fold. When the power is on him, he can cause the entire universe to come to a halt (via various mechanical and psychological mechanisms that vary over time), allowing him to go where he likes and do what he likes with no one the wiser. But Arno being Arno, rather than using this ability to become wealthy, or snoop into international secrets, or wield unlimited social or political power, he mostly just takes women’s clothes off, and hides in their clothes hampers while they bathe, and writes personalized erotica (or “rot”) for them to discover when time restarts. He’s had plenty of “normal” relationships with women, but his one attempt to tell a woman about his activities outside of time was not a success. However, the story line is just Baker’s excuse to indulge himself in highly creative (and often pornographic) flights of fancy in Arno’s voice, who seems almost incapable of sticking to his subject. But there are plenty of quotable lines here, like “Each woman inspires her own fetishes” (which is very true when you think about it), and “Temps are prima facie alienated by virtue of their vocational rootlessness.” Arno is also extremely analytical, not only of himself but of everything around him, including the impact of masturbation on carpal tunnel syndrome, social interaction between temps and full-time workers, the sexual impact of removing one’s wristwatch in public, and the rotational capabilities of various types of centrifuge. Even his fantasy life is extremely detailed. At base, Baker is a hoot and you can’t take him too seriously — but on the other hand, probably you should. As in all his work, you know for sure he’s paying attention to what’s really going on. (7/24/04)

Holland, Cecelia. The Earl. NY: Knopf, 1971.

I’ve been a great fan (and avid collector) of Holland’s historical novels for a couple of decades. This is her sixth, and still one of her best. As usual in her earlier work, Holland shows you great and dramatic events through the eyes of a minor figure. This time, the drama is the late stages of the civil war in England (c.1150) between Stephen of Blois (who had himself anointed king by his brother, the Bishop of Winchester) and Henry Plantagenet, son of the Empress Maud (who was the daughter of King Henry I and had been designated his successor). The viewpoint-character is Fulk de Bruyère, Earl of Stafford — an Honour which didn’t exist at this time, but easily could have. Fulk is a very intelligent, complex, shrewd man who worries about his sons, sometimes acts impulsively, is able to laugh at himself, and is quite aware of his own failings. Prince Henry, very learned at a young age, is also very full of himself but his blazing charisma and psychological subtlety overshadow most of the warrior aristocracy. The earls of Chester, Pembroke, and Leicester (especially) are very individual in style and personality, and so is Fulk’s son and heir, Rannulf. Only Fulk’s outlawed uncle, Thierry Ironhand, never quite comes completely alive for me, perhaps because we only see him through Fulk’s eyes — and Fulk hates him. Holland does great battle scenes, especially on a small scale, which are noted for their bottom-up viewpoint and understated verisimilitude, but her real joy is the convolutions of medieval politics, of which she displays a very sure grasp. (A taste I share, which is partly why I like her stuff so much.) Holland is known for her spare, unadorned, incisive narrative style, filled with physical, emotional, and intellectual tension. Her unblinking grasp of the often harsh details of life in the distant — or recent — past is impeccable and her depiction of it is meticulous. She has the knack of showing how even the strangest of strange worlds makes perfect sense to those immersed in it. Her characters always converse in a semi-colloquial English rather than the self-conscious antique style of Sir Walter Scott, giving the reader the impression of listening in on a conversation in the speakers’ own vernacular. Only occasionally in this book are you told, subtly, that Fulk and his fellow earls are (of course) speaking French. Every few years, I work my way once more through this author’s mostly extraordinary body of work again, and every time I find something new to appreciate. (7/18/04)

McEwan, Ian. Atonement. NY: Doubleday, 2001.

I read a lot of fiction, and some of it is almost immediately forgotten, and some of it stays with me for awhile. This book is going to be in the back of my mind for a long, long time. There are three distinct sections, the first set in 1935 at a semi-stately family home in Surrey. Briony Tallis, from whose viewpoint we see things (and frequently misunderstand them), is thirteen and a precocious and overimaginative writer. Her sister, Cecilia, has just finished university and is sort of marking time while she waits for the next stage of her life to begin, whatever it might turn out to be. There’s also a brother, Leon, only a couple years older than Cecilia, to whom she is very close. And then there’s Cecilia’s counterweight: Robbie Turner, the charlady’s brilliant son, just down from Cambridge with a first-class degree and Mr. Tallis’s assurance that his education will continue to be paid for. Robbie and Cee grew up together, but they’re destined not to be pseudo-siblings, thanks to a broken heirloom vase and a fountain. But there are also the young cousins from an about-to-be-broken home, and a budding chocolate magnate visiting in the company of Leon, and what happens in the interval between one morning and the next will ruin two lives and cause radical change in several others. And Briony will be mostly to blame. This first act builds slowly and the characters reveal themselves bit by bit until you know them inside and out. The second section jumps ahead five years to the British army’s retreat before the Germans in France and its convergence on Dunkirk. Robbie, a private soldier (because he has no choice), is stumbling through it himself in the company of two corporals and, even though you know what will happen in the larger picture, the suspense of wondering whether Robbie will make it out is excruciating. McEwan does an amazing job of recreating the insanity and chaos of that rout, seen close-up. What keeps him going is the thought of a return to prison and never seeing Cecilia again, and the reader can feel his agony clearly. In the third section, Briony, now eighteen, is a probationer nurse in a London hospital preparing to receive the army’s thousands of wounded as they return across the Channel — and again, McEwan’s depiction of the girl’s attempt to atone for the pain she has caused, her weariness both in body and in mind, is overwhelming. Even though you know what she has done, you can’t help but feel sorry for her. Finally, in a brief coda set in 1999, Briony, now an elderly and accomplished author, has just finished the book we’ve been reading; it’s her truthful account — maybe — of what actually happened that summer night in 1935. It’s her final act of atonement. And she lets us know in only a few sentences that maybe the lovers weren’t actually reunited as she has described. And that would be heartbreaking, but there often is no happy ending in a McEwan novel. Throughout the book, the authors — both Ian McEwan and Briony Tallis — weave a web of description and gradual understanding that keep the reader’s attention riveted. Many times, I found myself rereading paragraphs aloud just to hear the shape of the prose. An outstanding piece of work. (7/10/04)

Doctorow, Cory. Eastern Standard Tribe. NY: Tor, 2004.

It’s a horrible thought, but “cyberpunk” is getting a bit long in the tooth, for all that Gibson and Sterling and Stephenson keep writing great books. In his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Doctorow (who is no relation to E. L. that I know of . . .) showed that he was well on the way to reinvigorating that subgenre. This time, he turns his attention again to the very near future, to a world where the personal computer, the Internet, and the cell phone have all come together in the “comm” — the ultimate communication, information, and security appliance. The society constructed around the comm, though, is much more difficult to describe. A “tribe” is less than a nation (in the traditional geographic sense) but much more than an affinity group, a societal segment of like-minded people pursuing common ends — more or less. And because of the inescapable circadian rhythms of our lives, these groups become defined by the time zones in which they primarily reside, even though they’re all linked instantaneously by their comms. Art Berry, a loyal member of the tribe based on the U.S. east coast (though it extends all the way to his hometown of Toronto), is a talented user-experience consultant who spends his time and talents in the laborious search “to find the obvious way to do things.” But beyond that, he’s also a secret agent of the ESTribe working for (and undermining) a conglomerate in the UK. He has a friend and business partner who is also his handler, and he has a semi-flaky girlfriend from L.A. whom he ought not to trust. Actually, I’ll stop there since it appears that an adequate description of this very readable, very fun book would require a review longer than the original text. And you can even download it (and all Doctorow’s other work) from the author’s website! (7/01/04)

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Published on 22 November 2009 at 12:28 am  Leave a Comment  

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