2005: 2nd Quarter [23]

Varley, John. Mammoth. NY: Ace, 2005.

It’s one of the tropes of time-travel novels: A guy finds a time machine in the present, then travels to the past and leaves it there so it will be found in the present, so he can travel to the past, etc. So, who invented the time machine? Is there even more than one in the universe? In this case, the finder is Howard Christian, eccentric multi-billionaire, sort of a cross between Howard Hughes and Bill Gates, and the time machine — an array of colored marbles in an aluminum briefcase — is discovered next to a frozen Pleistocene mammoth in northern Canada. To get the machine to work again, Howard hires Matthew Wright, genius mathematician and world expert on theoretical time travel. Matt, a true geek, nevertheless hits it off with Susan Morgan, elephant trainer and DVM, who’s involved in another of Howard’s projects, trying to recover viable mammoth sperm from the frozen specimen. And then things get crazy, the time machine activates itself (maybe), and suddenly Los Angeles is knee-deep in big, hairy pachyderms. Not much of this novel is really “science” fiction, being concerned more with the personalities of and interactions among the three main characters, the nature of large, intelligent mammals, and the more fanatical side of the “animal rights” movement, with a passing jab at government interrogation methods under the Patriot Act. I like Varley’s work but he does much better when he sticks to his Heinleinian “Eight World” novels. This one is okay, but not at all up to his standards. (6/30/05)

Swanwick, Michael. Tales of Old Earth. Berkeley, CA: Frog Ltd, 2000.

Generally speaking, I like Swanwick’s stuff — Jack Faust and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter are among the best SF I’ve read in many years — but I’m afraid I wasn’t very impressed with this collection. The first story, “The Very Pulse of the Machine,” about time travel and dinosaurs, is really pretty good — but it’s also the basis for a chapter in his latest novel, Bones of the Earth (only slightly rewritten) so I already knew where it was going. “Mother Grasshopper” didn’t make a lot of sense, nor did “In Concert,” nor did “Ancient Engines.” I couldn’t even finish several of the others. “North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy” was more straightforward, but the author was trying too hard with that one. Maybe the best thing in the volume, actually, is “Radiant Doors,” about time-traveling refugees from future fascism (maybe) and whether people get what they deserve. Everyone’s entitled to an off day, but I think I’ll just stick to Swanwick’s novels hereafter. (6/24/05)

Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. NY: Random House, 2003.

Christopher Boone is a fifteen-year-old high-functioning autistic living in Swindon with his blue-collar Dad (his mother having apparently died) and his pet rat, Toby. Christopher is also a math near-genius, but that’s largely because of his “unnatural” ability to concentrate on something to the exclusion of the rest of the world. He’s frightened of crowds (too many strangers) and places he’s never been before (too much new information to assimilate all at once), he’s very literal about what people say, and he doesn’t like things that are brown or yellow. Or his food touching on the plate, or various other imperfections that turn up in his world. He mostly recognizes his own social limitations (such as not understanding metaphors), so with the help of Siobhan, a particularly good teacher at his special school, he’s developed a number of coping strategies. But this isn’t to say that he’s mentally deficient in any way: He has an eidetic memory back to age four, and he’s been studying for his maths A-levels, fully expecting to get an “A” grade. Though his assumption that he’ll someday be a scientist may be wishful thinking — or maybe not. And many of his odd perceptions are perfectly logical, when he explains them. But you learn all these facets of Christopher’s personality and the world in which he exists while he relates the mystery he has decided to solve: Who killed the neighbor’s poodle with a gardening fork? His detecting leads him into discoveries of things he might be better off not knowing. And so Christopher has to be brave and undertake a journey on his own to London, he has to cope with very different people and places and situations, and even though he’s frightened most of the time, he handles it all pretty well. I found it easy to empathize with this kid as I have a few borderline tics similar to his (no one in my house knows how to properly load the dishwasher but me), but I’m not sure I could do so well if I were in his situation. I also like his thoroughly objective view of the world, which is actually more accurate than that of most people. Chapters 139, 163, and 199 (in which he explains in the simplest language why believing in God is stupid) are excellent. I don’t know what Haddon has in mind for his next project but I would certainly like to see a further volume in the life and adventures of Christopher Boone. (6/25/05)

Reid, T. R. Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us about the West. NY: Random House, 1999.

Reid has been a journalist for the Washington Post and a columnist/commentator on NPR for a number of years now, and he’s a thoughtful observer who always has something interesting to say — even when you don’t agree with him. Having lived in Japan off and on since the 1970s, he’s also in a position to report to us the things we ought to be paying attention to regarding the way things are done in East Asia, although his loyal criticism of America sometimes gets him labeled “un-American” by the right wing in this country. This book resulted from a stint as Tokyo bureau chief for the Post, during which his wife and two young daughters lived there with him, attending the schools and visiting Korea, Malaysia, and the other economically high-powered states of the coming “Asian Century.” His principal thesis is that while the Japanese “economic miracle” has received much attention in the West, their “social miracle” is at least as important. Japan is now the world’s second wealthiest nation, but still one of the safest, most civil, best educated, and most stable nations in the world — unlike the U.S., with a crime rate a hundred times worse than Japan’s, declining education, and increasing economic disparity between the top and bottom of society. He attributes all this largely to the degree to which Confucian values permeate every facet of Japanese life — and his chapter on just what those values comprise is one of the best and clearest I have ever seen. His chapter on the Japanese system of lifetime employment, though, is more problematic. The idea of major corporations sacrificing efficient production for a more stable society is also Confucian at its heart, and Reid explains it all very well. But while that system as still going strong in the mid-1990s, Japan’s economy continues to sag, and they may not be able to keep it up; I wish he would do an updated edition on that issue alone. Excellent reading, though. (6/22/05)

Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist — the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

People who read Dickens or Austen or Trollope or the Brontës for the first time, and who have only the shakiest acquaintance with British life of 150 years ago (i.e., high school and college students) are likely not to enjoy what they read because they don’t understand most of the cultural references. Like, what is a maid of all work? What’s this about eating at an ordinary? Does a priest “taking orders” mean he’s waiting tables? All these things were everyday, commonplace knowledge at the time, but the world has changed a great deal. Pool does a very commendable job of answering those questions, conducting the reader on a tour, in the first half of the book, through the basics of English society (currency, calendar, measurements); the public sphere of titled folks, Society with a capital S, the workings of power, status, and the Establishment; transportation (horse, carriage, coach, and railway); life in the country (including fox hunting); the private world of family relationships, servants, clothing, and food; and the “grim world” of work, disease, death, and being orphaned. I know quite a bit about all this, actually, but I still learned a few things — such as the fact that a valet often ironed his master’s newspaper not because it was wrinkled, but because the paper usually was delivered with the ink still damp and smudgy. The second half of the volume is 150 pages of glossary, with short definitions of terms like ague, knacker, growler, marchioness, and mangle. But keep in mind that Pool wrote this book to assist readers of Victorian fiction, not as a general history. You won’t find much about factory conditions or the Crimean War, for instance, because those topics were never the subject of the great novels. There’s also a pretty good brief bibliography, for those who want to pursue further some of the subjects treated. My only gripe, actually, is the author’s sometimes annoying style. He sometimes seems a bit full of himself, with a tendency to show off his arcane knowledge, and he’s addicted to the hedge-word “apparently.” What’s wrong with a simple declarative sentence? (6/20/05)

Morimoto-Yoshida, Yuko. Culture Shock! Tokyo at Your Door. Portland, OR: Graphic Arts, 2003.

Outside the U.S., my two favorite cities in the world are London and Tokyo, and it’s far more difficult to find reliable, up-to-date information on the latter, especially with the economic ups and downs Japan has experienced in the past decade. (London mostly just keeps on keeping on.) This series is aimed not at the tourist but at the person who expects to be living, and probably working, in a new cultural environment for an extended period. Sure, you want to know about restaurants and what sights to see, but of more immediate importance is discovering how you go about getting the electricity turned on, and figuring out the subway system, and — especially in a non-European country like Japan — knowing how not to look like an idiot and avoid offending your host. The author covers all those things and many more, with sections on introducing children to Tokyo (they’ll learn the language much more quickly than you), transportation (forget buying a car), the health care system (keep plenty of cash on hand for emergency medical treatment, because most hospitals and clinics don’t take plastic and hardly anyone in Tokyo accepts checks), and many other subjects of interest to the new arrival. My only complaint is that the book received insufficient editing; there are far too many typos, missing words, and awkward sentences. And the index, frankly, is pathetic. But what the author actually has to say is very much worth hearing. (6/19/05)

Duncan, Andrew. Village London: A Guide to London’s Neighborhoods. Lincolnwood, IL: Passport Books, 1997.

From the subtitle, I thought this was going to be about the districts that make up Metropolitan London itself — Chelsea, Islington, etc — but it’s not really that. Of the twenty-five communities covered, only a few, like Chiswick and Hempstead and Kensington, are actually in the area I think of as “London.” The rest are out in what used to be called the Home Counties — although all are (I think) on the Underground. The author selected his villages based on what there was to see on foot; the walk he lays out for each varies from less than two miles in Harrow-on-the-Hill to more than four miles in Dulwich, which still isn’t very far by American standards. The sights he wants you see show quite a bit of variety, from the parish church in Kensington and Gentlemans Row in Enfield to Anne Boleyn’s Well at Carshalton and a boatyard on the Thames at Isleworth. It’s a nice mix of history and architecture and popular culture, and if you’re in London for more than a week or two, you could do a lot worse than to vary your diet of urbanity with a stroll through a few of these small towns. (6/13/05)

Swanwick, Michael. Bones of the Earth. NY: HarperCollins, 2002.

Swanwick is a gifted, provocative writer (I loved The Iron Dragon’s Daughter), but he can also be challenging and not terribly forgiving of the reader; you have to pay attention. Several times in the first third of this book, I nearly gave it up as a bad job. (Even terrific writers have bad days.) But I reconsidered and decided to be patient, and I’m glad I was. I’m a fan of time-travel plots, but the skeins of causality and chronology are incredibly tangled here. The subjects are paleontologists — bone-hunters — who have suddenly been invited by the Pentagon, in the year 2012, to join in an intensely secret project to study first-hand the dinosaurs, ranging over a period of several hundred million years, via the time travel technology to which they inexplicably have access. I thought, “What?” Does anyone believe the government, least of all the military, couldn’t come up with more important (to them) uses for time travel than pure scientific research? (Patience; all will be revealed.) The author does a brilliant job of letting the major characters develop in wholly believable ways, of showing how a changing combination of personality and circumstances can produce highly varied results. Because everyone exists in several different “plies,” different timelines, depending on decisions made or not made. Richard Leyster, not always the most brilliant scientist but a very, very good paleontologist nevertheless, is the most sympathetic. Gertrude Salley, on the other hand, can be positively loathsome in her selfish arrogance and manipulative attitude toward the world — but she has a purpose in the story, too, and she’s not all bad. Griffin, the consummate bureaucrat, is the most complex and to some extent the least understandable — but that’s the kind of person he is. Apart from the fascinatingly complex human interactions which alone would make this a very readable book, Swanwick knows and communicates a great deal about the way science works and how scientists think, plus shrewd speculation about saurian behavior. The jargon and overuse of taxonomy is a bit overwhelming at first — but this is also deliberate, to immerse the reader in the paleontologists’ mental universe. And he also gets in his licks at the religious fanaticism of faith-oriented thinking, so alien to the scientific mind, by convincingly (and chillingly) describing the terrorist activities and mind-set of “deep creationists” — anti-evolutionists so convinced of their sole access to Truth, they construct a jihad and throw bombs. (Yes, there really are people like that in contemporary American society, plenty of them.) What I first was afraid would represent a narrative failure turned out to be one of this author’s most affecting books. Read it. (6/12/05)

Hargraves, Orin. Culture Shock! London at Your Door. Portland, OR: Graphic Arts, 1997.

By and large, this is an excellent series for moving beyond the usual sort of travel book and getting a look at what makes a city or a country work elsewhere in the world. I spent some time in the UK about forty years ago, got thoroughly hooked on London, and have made several visits back there since, but I was never able to figure a way to move there permanently — or I simply never quite worked up the nerve. Whatever. The Thatcher years changed the city enormously and mostly not for the best, and the Blair years (which this book doesn’t cover, obviously) probably have changed things yet again. But the root condition of “London-ness” hasn’t changed in centuries, and the author does a very good job of communicating what that is, from the day-to-day workings of the “nanny state” and the natural civility and courtesy of most Londoners (most of them, most of the time) to thumbnail descriptions of the Metropolitan Area’s neighborhoods and why you really don’t want to own a car there if you can help it. Hargraves is a Yank who spent seven years living and working as an almost-ordinary bloke in London, and his perspective, leavened by dry wit, make for very engaging reading. (6/09/05)

Stuart, Alexander. The War Zone. NY: Doubleday, 1989.

There are two adversaries in the war being fought here: Tom, the narrator, allied with his violent rebelliousness, and his older sister, Jessie, who is having sex with their father (at her instigation). Caught in the middle are their mother, and the new baby, and the local biker scumbags in the small Cornish town to which they have moved from the train wreck of London. Jessie, who is carnality personified, insists there must be nothing she would not do, while Tom, who hates his sister and adores her in equal measure, isn’t nearly the bad boy he wants to be — or thinks he ought to be. Stuart’s prose is intensely vivid and impossible to glide over, no matter how uncomfortable you become at some of the scenes he paints. A book that is meant to be disturbing and succeeds. “Brilliant,” as Jessie would say. (6/08/05)

Davidson, Martin. A Visitor’s Guide to A History of Britain: Locations from Five Thousand Years of History. NY: St. Martin, 2002.

This is the small companion volume to the BBC/History Channel TV series, which I really enjoyed. It’s less of a picture book, though, and more of a glove-compartment guidebook, with information on some 800 historical locations in England, Wales, and Scotland (including the Orkneys) — but not Ireland, for some reason), only a few of which were in the series. Photos are included for maybe twenty percent of the sites listed, and the short annotations often are only teasers; i.e., you have to go there and look for yourself. You can’t fairly criticize a book for not being what it was never intended to be, but I do wish there was a large, coffee-table volume for the series filled with glossy pictures. (6/07/05)

Benedict, Elizabeth. Slow Dancing. NY: Knopf, 1985.

I don’t know how I missed knowing about Benedict all these years. She’s been an award-winning novelist for two decades but I only just recently discovered her. This was her first novel, nominated for the National Book Award, and it’s set during and just after Reagan’s election in 1980 — which seems like the Paleolithic now (Bush Minor having brought us up to perhaps the Neolithic). Lexi Steiner is a New York girl transplanted to Southern California, an ambitious immigration lawyer whose best friend (alter ego, actually) is Nell, a writer. The two of them have followed each other around the country since college, being constantly together, sometimes sharing bedmates, and always telling each other absolutely everything. But at the age of twenty-nine, their shared life as “refugees” is beginning to wear thin; maybe love and caring about someone isn’t such a bad idea after all. Then there’s David Wiley, semi-fanatical hard-news reporter who’s really tired of living in hotels and airports. Lexi and David get together for dinner at just the right moment in both their lives, and you sort of know where things are headed. First they have to figure out how to be a couple, but it’s like slow dancing: You just stand close together and move your feet a little. This is really a well-written story and even in her first novel, Benedict shows great expertise in character development. The unsettling thing is how different the times were in 1980, how “quaint” Lexi’s and Nell’s sexual adventures seem, how naive David’s daughter, Louise, is at twelve and fourteen. It makes you realize just how far the country has backslid in the past decade; I expect high-top shoes and buggy-whips any day now. You forget what “liberal” used to mean, before the Right turned it into a swear-word. Terrific book, though. (6/05/05)

Dunning, John. The Sign of the Book. NY: Scribner, 2005.

Okay, it’s the fourth book in the series and we all know by now what sort of person ex-cop book dealer Cliff Janeway is, which allows Dunning to concentrate on the plot. In that regard, this one is better than the last one, with a straightforward story of fraud and murder. At least, it starts out as a straightforward story, but there are plots within plots involving an autistic boy and an almost unbelievably bad-guy sheriff’s deputy. And, of course, Janeway gets to throw his weight around and threaten people, which is becoming tiresome. (Dunning seems to think behavior that would be criminal in a cop is okay in a private citizen, especially when he is, by definition, wearing the white hat.) Dunning is going to have to come up with something different the next time around, some way in which his characters mature, or I’m likely to lose interest. (5/30/05)

Benedict, Elizabeth. Almost. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

“Low tide. Piping plovers. Sanderlings with their toothpick legs, skittering over the shoreline like wind-up toys on speed.” Putting it simply, Benedict is a master of the language. The way she can nail a character, or describe a room, or evoke an emotion with a few very choice words tells you everything you would ever need to know about writing first-rate fiction. This one takes place all over a single very long weekend, beginning with 48-year-old Sophy Chase with her lover in New York when she receives the phone call from the police that her husband, from whom she has been separated for three months, has been found dead back on the island where they had become full-timers. Maybe he committed suicide. If so, maybe it’s her fault. It’s an apocalyptic catalyst for change in Sophy’s relationships with her grown stepdaughters and her lover’s Vietnamese adoptees, in the way she sees her own life, where she’s been and where she’s going. The plot-threads of her intermittent alcoholism, her longing for children of her own, her dependence on a gay male friend, her discovery that she’s being upstaged by another friend on the island whose perfect life is facing a marital disaster of his own — her neediness in general — all these create a rich narrative fabric. It’s often a funny story, but in the sense that the human condition is often funny, if you pay attention. And her characters absolutely ring true. I confess, it’s hard for me to read a book like this one without trying to cast it as a film. But with the right screenplay, it would be a terrific flick. (5/27/05)

Bridgeford, Andrew. 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry. NY: Walker, 2005.

When I was living in Europe as an army brat in the late 1950s — a period that cemented a deep interest in history, which became a career — I had the opportunity to spend an entire day studying the 300-foot-long embroidered panels (miscalled a “tapestry”) that is almost our only near-contemporary source documenting the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England. I’ve been fascinated by it ever since, I read everything published about it, and about the Conquest, and this is one of the best studies I’ve ever seen. The author is an English attorney, not an academic historian, which means this is not a scholarly publication, but it’s nevertheless a very well written, thoroughly judicious, extremely well-informed treatment of a well-trodden subject. He begins at the beginning, with the first scene depicted on the tapestry: King Edward on his throne, followed by Duke Harold (he was actually an earldorman, but this is a French work, after all) and the beginning of his visit to the Continent that would lead to the battle at Hastings. Bridgeford summarizes all the past interpretations of depicted events and weighs each in the light of later discoveries, notes the effect of 19th century repairs to the needlework which “rewrote” some of the tapestry’s scenes, and discusses the accuracy (or not) of the later ballads and poems. He also makes an excellent case for the tapestry being in part a piece of pro-French (not pro-Norman) propaganda. Two extensive sets of color plates — of the tapestry as a continuum and as a series of key scenes — make the text very easy to follow. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the Conquest. (5/26/05)

Baker, Kage. The Life of the World to Come. NY: Tor, 2004.

This is the fifth novel in Baker’s “Company” series about Dr. Zeus, Inc., which operates as a massive plutocratic conspiracy down through history. It’s certainly the best since the first two, The Garden of Iden and Sky Coyote. The frame story is about the immortal Mendoza’s imprisonment on Santa Catalina in the Back Way Back of 150,000 years ago, and the sudden appearance of Alec Checkerfield, 7th Earl of Finsbury, in a stolen time shuttle. Of course, he’s the image of Nicholas and Edward, her two lost loves of the first two books. So what’s going on? Telling that takes up the rest of the book, and it’s based on Baker’s preparatory short story, “Smart Alec.” Actually, this book stops just before what I expected was going to be the big climatic scene, so I shall have to wait impatiently for the next (and probably last) volume. Alec is certainly a fascinating character, a manufactured hero who outsmarts his makers through the help of an AI he modifies by removing its moral restraints, and which eventually becomes an equally powerful opponent to Dr. Zeus. The “pretend Inklings” of the 24th century, who constitute a small circle of idea men for the conspiracy, are also much more convincingly portrayed than in the last couple of volumes, where they had an annoying comic book, straw-man quality. Baker is an uneven writer — but when she’s hot, she’s smokin’. (5/25/05)

Willis, Connie. To Say Nothing of the Dog. NY: Bantam, 1998.

People always ask, “What is this book about?” Well, this one is about self-correction in chaotic systems, feline dietary habits in 19th-century England, cathedral architecture, true love, and psychic research. It’s also a marvelous homage to both Jerome K. Jerome and the English mystery novel. Got all that? Really, the plot is so convoluted and multi-layered — even for a time travel novel — that it defies short description. But Connie is a dab hand at managing such things, and you’ll never lose track of what’s going on. (Though you may be glad she also follows the convention of The Detective Explains All at the End.) Her dialogue is delightful and her droll descriptions of Victorian manners owe something to Oscar Wilde’s playwriting, her characters are a hoot yet sympathetic, and she is (as always) a master of telling detail. The future is the same as in her earlier Doomsday Book and Fire Watch, but with less seriousness and a lot more fun. And now go back and read Three Men in a Boat! (5/19/05)

McHugh, Maureen F. Half the Day Is Night. NY: Tor, 1994.

McHugh has a great knack for taking ordinary people in ordinary places, putting them in not extraordinarily stressful situations, and producing out of all that a really well-told, well-paced story with characters you care about. She did this very,very well in her first novel, China Mountain Zhang, and she does it almost as well in this one, her second. She also doesn’t make the mistake of stopping to explain when and where the story is set, explaining how history has created this particular future: She just does her narrative job and lets the reader figure it out, bit by bit. In this case, we’re a couple of generations into the future, when an undersea colony built by the United States in the Caribbean has won its independence. But that was sixty years ago, and now Caribe is just another Third World Latin American dictatorship run by a president-for-life, with an upper class who are very rich and an underclass who are very poor. Jean-David Dai, a young French ex-soldier wounded in the South African wars, has come to try out for a security job looking after a bank officer named Mayla Ling, a naive member of the “haves” who has been targeted by a political underground. David’s trying to escape his past and his nightmares, and he’s not sure this job is the way to do it, but he agrees to give it a shot for six months. Then things get out of hand, naturally. Mayla’s house is bombed, David disappears, the bank is sucked up by a neighboring conglomerate, and things become very uncomfortable. The setting is fascinating; think Colombia or Guatemala, but 250 meters under the seabed, with a police force that does things its own way and citizens who know better than to argue, where business is routinely done with bribes and kickbacks, where internal combustion buses operate in defiance of good sense — this being a closed system where air has to be recycled and the lower levels of society never get enough oxygen. Mayla has never known anything different, and comparing her comfortable view of this world to David’s reaction to the cold and the dark makes you really pay attention. A quiet, thoughtful, convincing novel. (5/19/05)

McEwan, Ian. Saturday. NY: Doubleday, 2005.

Ever since First Love, I’ve become a fan of McEwan and Atonement is one of the best things I’ve read in the past decade. So this rather sloppy novel is a considerable disappointment. It’s the story of one day in the life of London neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, who has pretty much everything a man could want: A career he’s very good at, a wife he loves, successful children (poet and blues guitarist, one each), a nice house, a very nice car, and every reason to be satisfied. The day in question is February 15, 2003, when several hundred thousand Brits took to the streets to protest Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq — which Perowne rather approves of, having heard about Saddam’s atrocities from a patient’s first-hand experience. But Iraq and 9/11 are only a distant backdrop and you begin to wonder where the novel’s conflict will come from — at which point Perowne has a minor auto accident with Baxter, a small-time hood. The description of the collision and the characterization of Baxter (whom Perowne diagnoses on the spot with Huntington’s disease) are the best things in the book, actually. Everyone else is pure cardboard, including Perowne’s father-in-law, a famous poet named Grammaticus (say what? As in “Saxo”?), and his daughter, Daisy, and his too-good-to-be-true wife, a corporate media lawyer. Also, how could a professional man, a product of the English university system, never even have heard of a major literary figure like Matthew Arnold? And the reappearance of Baxter at the evening’s family reunion, which could (and should) have been an example of McEwan’s skill with narrative tension, is instead an embarrassing exercise in bathos. Every writer, even one as good as McEwan, is entitled to an occasional stumble, and I await his next effort — but it had better be better than this one. (5/09/05)

Stephenson, Neal. Cryptonomicon. NY: Avon, 1999.

I read a lot, a whole lot. I first read this monster from the library the month it came out, decided (after I had recovered from the experience) that it was probably the best thing I’d read in the whole of the ‘90s, went out and bought a hardback for myself (not a cheap decision, given its sheer size), and set it in a place of honor on my shelves. Nearly six years on, I find that aging has only improved it. I’ve been working my way slowly through Neal’s recent trilogy, and that’s really good, but Cryptonomicon is still better. His characters exist in at least five dimensions and will stick with you for a long, long time. There’s Lawrence Waterhouse, math prodigy and buddy of Alan Turing, who becomes one of the key codebreakers of World War II. There’s Marine raider Bobby Shaftoe, a survivor of everything the war can throw at him — except heroism. There’s Randy Waterhouse, Lawrence’s equally nerdy grandson, master Unix hacker, and generally nice guy. There’s America Shaftoe, part-Filipino granddaughter of Bobby, master deep diver, and all-round tough cookie — which doesn’t keep Randy and Amy from falling in love. There’s Avi, Randy’s best friend and front-man in all their business ventures — in this case, building the world’s first politically independent data haven, much to the dismay of the world’s major governments. There’s Lieut. Goto Dengo, engineer for the Nipponese army and builder of the primary hiding place of Japan’s stolen billions in gold bullion. And, moving like mist between the two separate generations, there’s the eminence gris Enoch Root, Catholic priest, doctor, cryptographer, conspirator, and take-no-prisoners philosopher. Add to this list several dozen supporting players, all equally well realized, and the richness of the narrative texture is unbelievable. Besides the sheer enjoyment you get from Stephenson’s Roman-candle style, his highly original metaphors and similes, and his ironic sense of humor, you’re gonna learn a lot about cryptography (both the wartime vintage and the present-day digital variety), and about irregular warfare, and a score of other subjects. Yes, it’s a huge book — but it has to be. The heft also allows space for the author’s sprawling digressions on topics as diverse as jungle survival, the similarities between computers and church organs, granny-grade furniture, U-boat life, several Holocausts, imprinting of sexual fetishes, Finnish psychology, the neuro-sociological origins of the ancient Greek pantheon, how to fairly divide up an inheritance, the socioeconomic underpinnings of paper currency, and the proper way to eat Cap’n Crunch. It doesn’t all advance the plot, but don’t worry about it. Every single paragraph in this thing is worth reading, savoring, and storing away for later rethinking. I’ll be reading it again in another decade. (5/07/05)

Harrison, Kim. The Good, the Bad, and the Undead. NY: HarperCollins, 2005.

Harrison’s first novel, Dead Witch Walking, introduced Rachel Morgan, sort-of cop turned sort-of private eye, in a decidedly different Cincinnati, where witches, vampires, werewolves, and other nonhumans are just part of everyday life. With her partner, Ivy, a living vamp (not yet graduated to the fully dead state, that is), and Jenks, her attitude-laden pixie back-up, Rachel is trying to bring down Trent, one of the leaders in the local underworld — but this installment in the series leads to the discovery that even in Rachel’s world, things aren’t as black-and-white as they might seem on the surface. The plot is very nicely developed and you’ll care about the characters, even when they screw up. Rachel’s encounter with master vampire Piscary, who’s as bad as they come, is especially jolting. But, as with her first effort, Harrison is badly in need of a developmental editor to hold her hand. She frequently makes egregiously bad word choices that cause an attentive reader to wince, and there’s no excuse for her frequent lapses in spelling and grammar. The next in the series is due out later in 2005 and I’ll be watching for it. (4/14/05)

Dunning, John. The Bookman’s Promise. NY: Scribner, 2004.

It’s been a long wait for the next Cliff Janeway mystery, but it was worth it (mostly). During the intervening years, the author must have discovered Richard Burton (“the explorer, not the actor”) because his enthusiasm for the great man is obvious. Janeway, of course, becomes kind of an instant an expert on Burton while wondering what to spend his windfall on from the Grayson case in the last book, and his successful purchase of an important volume at auction gets him on NPR, which leads to a lot of correspondence from nutso types, which leads him to the accidental discovery of what Burton was doing in this country during the lost three months of 1860. Which leads him to involvement in a death, a murder, and a rather vividly violent run-in with a Baltimore hood. The description of Charleston is pretty good but I think Dunning may have made a structural error by including the first-person mini-memoir of Charlie Warren; it was rather jarring. Still, the plot is pretty good and it looks like maybe Janeway will actually get the girl this time. (4/06/05)

Dunning, John. The Bookman’s Wake. NY: Scribner, 1995.

As good as the first Cliff Janeway novel was, this second installment is substantially better. Perhaps it’s because Dunning doesn’t have to spent so much time establishing the back-story and the milieu, and instead jumps right into things. Janeway is approached by another Denver ex-cop — one he had no use for on the force and even less now — who wants him to take on a semi-bounty-hunter job, escorting a girl back from Seattle to Taos to face charges of burglary and possibly ADW. Ordinarily, he’d laugh at the notion, . . . but the case involves a mysterious fine press edition of Poe’s The Raven produced twenty years before by Darryl Grayson, a genius designer and pressman, and there’s a hint of an unknown second edition that draws Janeway in against his will. When he makes contact with the girl, and with her family — all of whom were Grayson confidantes — he knows he’s not going to bust her. But then things turn ugly, the girl flees in terror, people die, and Janeway’s cop talents are required to not only relocate the girl but to keep himself out of jail long enough to figure out what’s really going on. The mystery is more finally tuned and even better paced than in the first book, and the characters are beautifully drawn. The atmosphere in the rainy northwest is nicely noir and Dunning again tells you a great deal about the worlds of rare books and fine printing. I can see this on the screen and I don’t know why someone hasn’t done a screenplay. (4/01/05)

Published on 21 November 2009 at 10:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

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