2006: 2nd Quarter [35]

Mankell, Henning. The Dogs of Riga. NY: New Press, 2001 (orig. publ. 1992)

This is the second novel (I think) about Swedish police Inspector Kurt Wallender, and the third one I have read, and it’s by far the most harrowing. Wallender is going about his business in Ystad, on the far southern coast, when a report comes in about a life raft that was washed ashore nearby with two well-dressed corpses in it. The investigation leads back to Riga, capital of Latvia, on the other side of the Baltic from Scandinavia, and the always overworked Swedish police are relieved when the case and the corpses can be turned over to the Riga police. But a Latvian police major who had come to Ystad to sort things out is killed the same day he returns home, and Wallender’s assistance is requested in Riga in order to solve the murder. Of course, 1991 was a time of great turmoil in the Baltic states, as it was everywhere in the collapsing Soviet empire, and Wallender finds himself caught up in the nascent Latvian independence movement — and also emotionally involved with the late major’s widow, Baiba Liepa. Wallender is not, in his own mind, an especially courageous man; he’d rather be investigating bank frauds, he thinks, than mucking about in political killings. But even he makes numerous human errors, he acquits himself very well. He’ll never really understand Latvia, though. At one point, he inquires of a high-ranking Latvian cop what the penalty would be for the murderer, if they were able to catch him. “I would expect him to be shot,” he’s told. “Personally, I think that would be an appropriate punishment.” Wallender is speechless. “That he was in a country where they executed criminals was so horrific that he was rendered temporarily speechless.” (I wonder what Wallender would think about American judicial customs?) Mankell, who admits he knows probably less about Latvian politics than even Wallender, probably would do better to stick with pure cop/detective plots, rather than edging over into quasi-spy stories. Nevertheless, he paints a vivid portrait of a gray country and society at a turning point in its history. (6/24/06)

Mankell, Henning. Faceless Killers. NY: New Press, 1997 (first publ. 1991).

Inspector Kurt Wallender is a good cop in a small city in the far south of Sweden. As a man, though, he has a wide assortment of problems and failings, from having been left by his wife and being semi-estranged from his daughter, to eating too much and drinking way too much, to feeling left behind as Swedish society changes for the worse. He feels guilty about not visiting his increasing senile father often enough and not staying in touch with his sister. He gets annoyed at the media and at his boss, and the impending cancer death of his closest colleague has him thoroughly depressed. But as an investigator, he’s nothing if not dogged. In this first novel in the series, an elderly farm couple are brutally murdered in what turns out to be a robbery, which somehow gets blamed on “foreigners.” Sweden’s policy on accepting refugees in search of asylum is extremely loose and very badly administered — the immigration people and the police are constantly at loggerheads and blaming each other as things drift further out of control. This brings out some of the right-wing, ultra-nationalist, xenophobic crazies — the Swedish version of Klansmen, as Wallender thinks of them — and an innocent Somali man in a refugee camp is shotgunned to death. Now there are two crimes to solve, and maybe more to come if the immigrant-haters can’t be stopped. Mankell, though, is about as far from Agatha Christie as it’s possible to be. The reader will spend a lot of time looking over the shoulders of Wallender and his colleagues as they compile evidence, pore over the possible interpretations in their daily meetings, occasionally go around in circles trying to make things fit, and still try to lead their own individual lives outside the station house. Christie would slyly insert a clue early in the story, which Miss Marple would wave in your face at the end, but that isn’t how real cases are solved and that isn’t how this author deals with reality. Luck plays a big part, truth and lies sound equally believable, the wrong suspects are accused until their innocence is demonstrated. The cops become frustrated with the lack of good leads, go on to other cases, and go back to the murders when new evidence turns up. Just like real life. (6/18/06)

McCafferty, Megan. Charmed Thirds. NY: Crown, 2006.

It would be easy to dismiss this third book in what apparently has become the “Jessica Darling” series as “just a YA novel.” But that would be so, so wrong. For one thing, good fiction that appeals to adolescent readers is very difficult to write. For another, McCafferty has gone way beyond any genre limitations. This is simply a very well-written novel, period. In fact, there may be too many layers here for less thoughtful, less intellectual teens. I didn’t think there would even be a third volume since the second one ended with Jess leaving (fleeing) high school in New Jersey and heading for Columbia University. But “J.” as she’s known to her new friends and acquaintances hasn’t finished growing up, . . . as much as any of us ever do, anyway. We start the story the summer after her freshman year as she’s waiting to get back together with Marcus, now at an unaccredited Buddhist school in California. We learn what her friends and enemies have been up to — and all of them are four-dimensional, entirely believable characters — and we notice that the protagonist is just as unpredictable and self-analytical and occasionally self-destructive as ever. She’s franker about sex now — her language is certainly more adult — and (sometimes) savvier about the world. She’s a very winning person and you’ll care what happens to her. By the time we reach the story’s end, its Christmas of 2005 and Jess is graduating a semester early, mostly to save on tuition money. Though she was a psych major, her old creative writing teacher (now a best-selling novelist) is encouraging her otherwise. Besides, she says she doesn’t like people very much, which would be a distinct handicap for a shrink. And since the author says she’s working on the next installment in the series, I expect we’ll be following her to her first job soon. I’m looking forward to it. But don’t even consider trying to read this book without having absorbed the first two. (6/14/06)

Mankell, Henning. The Man Who Smiled. London: Random House, 2005 (first publ. 1994).

Sweden used to be a pretty safe country. People didn’t plant bombs in your car or mines in your back garden. By the early 1990s, however, as Inspector Kurt Wallender notes, “Crime became more frequent and more serious: Different, nastier, more complicated. And we started finding criminals among people who’d previously been irreproachable citizens.” And the Swedish police haven’t dealt with the change very successfully, not even in Ystad, the town at the very bottom of Sweden where Wallender is the star of the local police force — until the previous year when he was forced to kill a man. Wallender is a very human, very believable cop. He worries about screwing up, he gets frightened when he discovers he’s being followed, he sometimes drinks too much (and then feels guilty about it). But he has no patience with incompetence or back-biting among his colleagues. (You *really* don’t want to rub him the wrong way, and with good reason.) He’s also willing to bend the rules if necessary in his attempts to suppress true evil. And the Bad Guy in this one really is evil! Mankell supplies a lot of detail about Swedish police methods and the restrictions of bureaucracy in a semi-welfare state (though that status is changing), which is interesting if you’re only familiar with American and British procedurals, and the translation is very competent. This is the fourth in the Kurt Wallender series (not the author’s only series, either), so I’m going to have to go back and find the first three. (6/12/06)

Ottaviani, Jim & Leland Purvis. Suspended in Language. Ann Arbor, MI: G.T. Labs, 2004.

To his colleagues, Niels Bohr was the “Pope of Physics.” Razor-edged minds like Dirac, Franck, Frisch, Gamow, Klein, Mott, Oppenheimer, Pauli, Planck, Schrödinger, and others — many of whom would later become Nobel laureates themselves – were proud to say they had studied with Bohr. He was a poor lecturer because he never knew where his thoughts would take him and would often stop in the middle of an explanation when a new idea bubbled up. Without him, there would be no modern physics, no quantum mechanics, no basic understanding of the atom. And while Bohr sometimes entertained theories that turned out to be wrong — which he was the first to admit — even Einstein was wrong in areas where Bohr was right. Ottaviani is a very uneven graphics chronicler of modern science and scientists, but this is a very well thought out book, as successful an attempt as I have seen to explain Bohr’s thought (as well as his humane and internationalist personal beliefs) and the basics concepts of quantum physics. (6/09/06)

Ottaviani, Jim. Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards: A Tale of Edward Drinker Cope, Othniel Charles Marsh, and the Gilded Age of Paleontology. Ann Arbor, MI: G.T. Labs, 2005.

Ottaviani has good ideas and an interesting narrative sense, and his attempts to bring to popular notice via graphic novels some of the less well-known people in the recent history of science are certainly laudable, but his execution never seems to be up to his intentions. Here he recounts the history of the infamous “Bone Wars” of the late 19th century between rival American paleontologists Othniel Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, which greatly entertained and greatly annoyed their colleagues (and sold lots of papers for James Gordon Bennett). The competition was virulent, with vituperative personal attacks, “salting” of scientific digs, bribery of workers, spying, and violations of Indian lands. Marsh, the first American professor of paleontology (at Yale), could be brilliant, but also was capable of dynamiting sites to keep other researchers from exploring them. Cope, probably the better scientist of the two, was also brash, melodramatic, and a bit paranoid. Together, the two men gave American paleontology a bad reputation elsewhere in the world that took several generations to undo. Ottaviani’s story isn’t nearly that clear, however. The book would have benefitted from a dramatis personae at the front, to give the reader a sporting chance at following things. (6/08/06)

Gibbons, Dave. The Originals. NY: DC Comics, 2004.

This very well plotted and very well drawn black-and-white graphic novel is about a couple of young wannabe punks in a retro-futuristic Britain where Hovers are like motorcycles with antigrav plates instead of wheels, where a huge protective dome over a reservoir also provides an enormous recreation area, where the Originals and the Dirt are violently rival gangs not unlike the Mods and the Rockers of the early 1960s. Lel and his black buddy, Bok, make it into the gang and are introduced to drugs as well as the lifestyle they yearn for — until an encounter with the Dirt gets out of hand. The characterization is quite good, the dialogue is believable, and there’s actually a Beginning, a Middle, and an End — unlike so many graphic novels. (6/07/06)

Silva, Daniel. The Unlikely Spy. NY: Villard Books, 1996.

It’s the spring of 1944 and planning for the invasion of Europe is well under way. But where will it take place? At Calais, the closest point to England, where a good harbor exists to handle the millions of tons of supplies necessary? Or down the coast in Normandy, where no harbor exists? Hitler and his advisers are expecting the former, even after the disastrous Dieppe raid. But the Allies have decided to land in Normandy, and to answer the lack of a harbor by bringing their own. That’s Operation Mulberry, an extraordinary construction project — but it’s too large to be kept completely under wraps from German agents. Enter Arthur Vicary of MI-5, ex-professor and master of the double-cross — turning captured German agents and using them to funnel misleading information back to the Abwehr. (Even though they’re really nothing alike, Vicary brings up thoughts of George Smiley a generation later.) Enter, too, Catherine Blake, a German sleeper living and working in London since before the war, and part of a spy network completely separate from the others, and therefore unknown to the British. Can she make the right contacts, discover the truth about Mulberry, and get it back to Germany? Can Vicary stop her? Or manipulate whatever she passes back to her controllers? As in any good spy story, there are wheels within wheels to the plot, which is very complex but the narrative is carefully controlled and the reader shouldn’t have any problems following what’s happening. But you aren’t likely to catch on to everything that’s happening until the very last chapter, when the biggest wheel of all is revealed. Silva seems to have problems with verb tenses sometimes, and occasionally makes weird word choices, but the story is inherently exciting (even though you know the invasion will be a success) and his narrative and characterizations are dead on. This is the best spy novel I’ve read in many years. (6/06/06)

Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. NY: Viking, 1999.

I’ve never before read anything by Coetzee, who is very highly regarded in his native South Africa — but this rather short novel won the Booker Prize, and I’m prepared to accept that as a serious recommendation. In fact, Booker winners are almost always serious works of literature, and this one is no exception. The story-line involves Prof. David Lurie, a disengaged English professor, twice divorced, and a lifelong practicing Don Juan. Affairs with women, almost always brief, are an adventure to him, an accepted part of his life. Then an entanglement with one of his students forces him to resign, to leave Capetown, to retreat to the small farm run almost singlehandedly by his lesbian daughter. When the house is attacked and she’s raped by a group of three black men, David is powerless to prevent it, and incapable of understanding Lucy’s reaction to it all. Is there a justifiable parallel between David’s nonviolent serial seductions and the attackers of his daughter? And also to the machinations of the employee/neighbor, Petrus, who covets Lucy’s smallholding? Another parallel lies in David’s attempt at writing an opera based on the life of Byron in Italy, when he seduced another man’s wife. I have to say, I can understand David’s attempts to puzzle out his own personality, but I don’t understand Lucy’s attitudes at all, her apparent acceptance of the notion that all the remaining white residents of South Africa will eventually be killed off by the country’s black majority. If that’s really the case, then it’s a very dark place. The book, nevertheless, is extremely tightly written, the characterization clear and sharp. (6/01/06)

Barnes, John. Gaudeamus. NY: Tor, 2004.

This is one of those books that makes you drive your friends and family nuts because you keep pestering them by reading passages out loud to them. I mean: “For a guy who puts that much science into books, you don’t remember it very well.” “Actually, the problem is I always remember more than I ever knew.” Or: “So, call me a wimp—” “Wimp.” “Call me a coward—” “Coward.” “Oh, god, call me a cheap slut sex poodle, that’s my favorite.” Just tell your spouse to ignore you howling in the other room. Okay, John Barnes — the author, also the narrator — has this friend-since-college named Travis Bismarck who is a champion storyteller. Travis is a PI, specializing in industrial security when he can get the gigs, and he knows every roadhouse and fat woman in the Mountain States. He gets a contract with an extremely high-tech company outside Denver that’s convinced the competition is somehow swiping its ideas and research. This leads him to a grad student in physics who’s making good money as a prostitute (an “incall”) — except she seems to be using that to cover up an even larger income dealing some strange new drug — except she also seems to be using that to cover up her corporate espionage business. The drug is called Gaudeamus, and it maybe causes telepathy. But there’s also a web cartoon called Gaudeamus that contains clues about things its creator shouldn’t know. But there’s also a very simple little machine called Gaudeamus that can do practically anything. Gaudeamus turns out to be one of the eight basic technologies for all intelligent species in the universe. Confused? Good! The thing is, Travis relates all this long, complex, fascinating, and very funny yarn to his good buddy John Barnes in several installments, liberally interlarding it with equally fascinating digressions and asides on such subjects as performance art, the beauty of Gunnison, USAF projects, college theatre departments, the ethics of conquest and colonization, driving on mountain roads at night, the differences between deer and elk, successful arson, clown suits, bad rock bands, semiotics, the purchasing habits of science fiction fans, cattle mutilations, and trustifarians, and that’s only off the top of my head. Not to mention the aliens purchasing the Earth for the galactic equivalent of $24 in beads and blankets. How does it all turn out? We’ll have to wait until February 4, 2011 to find out. The Denver Post apparently compared this book favorably with Heinlein’s juveniles. No way! (Robert Anton Wilson, maybe.) In the meantime, “if you’ve got that cat about smoothed out, how about getting on with the story?” (5/30/06)

Doctorow, E. L. The March. NY: Random House, 2005.

Sherman’s march to the sea — actually, from Georgia to Savannah and up through the Carolinas — is one of those near-mythic historical episodes whose deeper meaning depends almost entirely on whose eyes you see it through. To a Southerner, even a non-redneck, non-Confederate-flag-waving Southerner, Sherman probably is regarded as an unfeeling monster who cut a swath of death and destruction through the civilian countryside of three states, burning cities and farms, and raping wives and daughters. To a thoughtful Northerner, Sherman’s march was the first modern instance of “total war,” regrettable but necessary in removing the Confederacy’s will and ability to continue the fight. To the newly-ex-slaves, who followed Sherman’s armies by the tens of thousands, it was both freedom and getting-even time. Doctorow manages to cover all these viewpoints, all of them believably, from tired and bedraggled infantrymen on both sides to officers both professional and vainglorious, from the innovative European-born army surgeon whose personal coldness alienates even those who admire his professional skill to the young “white” slave girl who recreates herself as a nurse and whose psychological development serves as a continuing thread in the novel. Army officers and civilians, combatants and journalists, all come on stage for awhile, then leave, often being unexpectedly killed. That’s war. The author’s method, in fact, is largely to lead the reader through a series of vignettes, sometimes connected, sometimes not, with only Sherman and a small handful of others surviving the whole march. Much of the story is still inexplicable, but at least Doctorow shows you why. My only personal complaint is his dislike of quotation marks to identify conversations or soliloquies, which sometimes makes for difficult reading. (5/20/06)

Wilson, Robert Charles. Spin. NY: Tor, 2005.

Imagine that one October night, maybe next year, the stars go out and the moon disappears. The sun that comes up the next morning is a simulacrum, providing light and warmth, but obviously not the real thing. Panicked investigation shows that the rest of the universe is still there, but Earth is shielded from it — and that time on our planet had slowed to one-ten-millionth of what it should be. Among other things, this means the sun is (from our perspective) aging far more rapidly than it was and stellar death is only forty or fifty years away. Jason and Diane Lawton, the former a certified genius, are young teenagers when all this happens, as is their friend, Tyler Dupree, son of their housekeeper, and all of their futures will be determined by the Spin, and their lives wrapped tightly around each other by their interrelationships. Why was the Earth locked down? Is there an intelligence behind it, malevolent or otherwise? And how can Earth’s people survive the heat-death of their sun? As always in his extremely well-written, humane, and intellectually challenging novels, Wilson is no slacker when it comes to the scientific and technological underpinnings of his story, but he’s even better at constructing three-dimensional characters you will care about. (5/18/06)

Westlake, Donald E. Money for Nothing. NY: Warner, 2003.

Westlake may be the best ever at writing caper and heist stories that are both beautifully written, nail-bitingly exciting thrillers and also hilariously, literately, outrageously, off-the-wall funny. This time, the unwilling protagonist is Josh Redmont who, seven years ago, when he was working as an office temp in New York, began receiving monthly thousand-dollar checks from an uncontactable source for no known reason. He kept them and banked them — money for nothing. Now, he’s an advertising copywriter with a wife and young son, and the thousand dollars isn’t such an important part of his income. And then, during a summer when his family are out at Fire Island during the week, a man comes and hands him a much larger check and tells him he is now “active.” Yep — Josh was a sleeper for an ex-Soviet republic and didn’t even know it, mostly because he was part of a scam organized by Mr. Nimrin, late of the Soviet espionage service, to feather his own retirement nest. But Nimrin got in trouble himself, lost control of his scam, and now his higher-ups want their American agents-in-place to perform for the payments they’ve been receiving, i.e., by facilitating the assassination of a visiting bigwig in New York. And just to make sure Josh does his part, they grab his wife and son. For a nonaggressive sort, Josh manages pretty well, especially after him manages to team up with Mitchell Robbie, small-time method actor, and another unintentional sleeper; Robbie has the self-confidence Josh lacks, plus a knack for doing other people’s voices. Anyway, like most of Westlake’s marvelous stories, this would make a terrific film. (5/15/06)

Podrug, Junius. Dark Passage. NY: Forge/Doherty, 2002.

I’m a lifelong fan of time travel stories and I hate to admit I couldn’t get even a hundred pages into this overwritten yawner, but there it is. Islamic terrorists (all bad guys are “terrorists” since 2001) have gone back through a hole in time (or something) to take the crucifixion of Jesus out of the Christianity equation by killing him first. Leaving aside how such an act would also adversely affect the invention and spread of Islam seven centuries later (never discussed) and the assumption that the crucifixion even ever took place (prove it), Podrug shows himself ignorant of more than half a century of time travel fiction and the Big Questions that have been asked in the genre and the answers that have been attempted. Plus the characters are laughable, especially the three purported heroes: A self-centered movie actor who used to be both a Navy SEAL and a CIA field agent (no way he’d pass the psych screening); an ex-nun who now ministers to prostitutes in Marseilles by dressing sexy, and who speaks fluent Aramaic and displays the stigmata as well (must leave a lot of stains on those slinky outfits); and an Israeli engineer who went to prison for blowing up his own bridges (or something), which only shows Podrug has read The Fountainhead. I’m told Salome is a major character later on, but I didn’t get that far. Save your time. (5/12/06)

Clarke, Arthur C. 2001: A Space Odyssey. NY: New American Library, 1968.

2001 (the film, that is) came out while I was in grad school, and I still clearly remember how the audience of mostly students came out of the theater flushed and excited and yearning for the wonderful future in space that we all knew was coming. And not long after that came the Moon landing, which we all stayed up late for, watching in amazement (and more than a few joyful tears) as the next step was taken. Now it’s almost thirty years later, and we’re not even as far along as when Clarke was writing this short novel from the screenplay he co-wrote with Kubrick. What the hell happened? (*sigh*) But I rewatch the film every couple of years, and I reread this book afterward, and I enjoy both, though for somewhat different reasons, because this book is not merely a “novelization” of the movie. They’re two different types of media, and you can do many things in each that you really can’t do effectively in the other. The opening section with the man-apes being tweaked is considerably different, being largely intellectual and therefore not very cinematic. The second section, with Dr. Floyd going to the Moon, follows the same action, but this time the film was superior, in showing the commercialization of space transport — a startling idea in 1968. And the long third section, Discovery’s voyage to the outer planets is the most different, with the book depicting much less of the film’s horror plotline as HAL becomes twitchy. Dave and Frank never have the opportunity, in the book, to consult about HAL away from his oversight — Frank is just suddenly gone and Dave is alone. There’s also a lot more explanation of why all this is happening. And, of course, Discovery is headed not for Jupiter, but only slingshots around it to acquire extra velocity for a rendezvous with one of the moons of Saturn. Finally, the closing “Starchild” sequence, which was the film’s weakest point when we all first saw it, is handled much more expertly in the book. It’s interesting to see how Clarke varied the plot details in his two narratives — as well as his technique, because the book is largely third-person-omniscient, a definite no-no in screenwriting. If you enjoyed the film, you must read the book. (5/11/06)

De Laurentiis, Giada. Everyday Italian. NY: Clarkson Potter, 2005.

I watch the Food Network a lot and Giada’s program is one of my favorites — not only because I love Italian food, but because she works hard to make it as uncomplicated as possible. Besides, Giada’s adorable and a delight to watch. This is her first cookbook and it’s pretty good, offering 125 recipes grouped the usual way: antipasti, sauces, pasta and polenta, entrées, vegetables, and desserts. Some, like sauce arrabbita, are pure Italian; others, like Vodka Sauce, are very Italian-American. She’s not too proud to use store-bought ingredients like fresh cheese tortellini in broth — who wants to make something like that from scratch when you’re fixing supper for two? — but she’ll also walk you through the steps of key dishes like Basic Risotto. While Fried Polenta probably is not something I would want to make (or Spaghetti with Clams, for that matter), I have found several dishes that have already gone into my recipe box: Chicken Saltimbocca, especially, and Verdure al Forno with zucchini (also good with cauliflower). While this isn’t going to take the place of your favorite basic Italian cookbook, it’s well worth going through. Some reviewers have complained because there are so many incidental glamour shots of Giada in the kitchen, but what the hell — she’s certainly worth looking at while you cook! My only complaint might be the relative paucity of color photos of the dishes under discussion. (5/08/06)

Geissman, Grant. Foul Play! The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics! NY: Harper Design, 2005.

In the 1950s, while the other kids were ooohing-and-ahhhing over Superman and the Green Lantern, we few proto-geeks were absorbed in MAD Magazine and the equally lunatic E.C. monthlies, especially Tales from the Crypt, Creepy, Haunt of Fear, Weird Science, and the SuspenStories series. Nobody could keep your eyes glued silently to the page like Jack Davis, Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein, and their cohorts. Some of the stories were original, some were adaptations of authors we also doted on. (Ray Bradbury was a favorite source, and you’ll find his classic story “Touch and Go!” here, which I clearly remember reading when it appear in 1953.) This lavish volume is partly a history of that genre and partly a collection of full-length, photoreproduced stories — plus an original, “Wanted for Murder!,” written by Johnny Craig for E.C.’s “picto-fiction” magazine, Crime Illustrated! (which was actual typeset text — no balloons — overlaid on the black-and-white artwork). This is a great book for fans of the days when they published real comic books! (5/07/06)

Levinson, Paul. The Plot to Save Socrates. NY: Tor, 2006.

Suppose you had access to a time machine and could go back to Athens in 399 BC and save Socrates from the mob’s death sentence by hemlock. Suppose Socrates had his own philosophical and political reasons for not wanting to be saved and refused to cooperate. That’s the underlying premise of this complexly plotted novel by an author I’ve never heard of before. The narrative is determinedly nonlinear, the action jumping back and forth among 5th century BC Athens, 4th century AD Alexandria, Roman England, 19th century London, and two different periods in the 21st century in several locations. Some reviewers have complained that this makes the story hard to follow, but I think the author was right in showing just how complicated time travel is (or would be) and how difficult to sort out cause and effect. Unfortunately, Levinson really isn’t that good a writer and his prose is very badly in need of editorial assistance. He frequently makes poor word choices and the awkwardness grates. His characters are also pretty one-dimensional, acting erratically and unpredictably, which gives the reader no grasp on the continuity of the story. Sierra/Ampharete, especially, seems very casual about jumping into bed with another man shortly after her fiancé is murdered. Socrates seems not nearly so noble in his motivations as his admirers seem to regard him. And I find it very unlikely that so many people at so many periods of history would so casually accept the reality of time travel from a stranger. (The general response to being told about it, from Alcibiades to a Victorian publisher, seems to be: “Really? You don’t say! Okay, let’s go!”) Several plot threads are left dangling, too: How does Sierra escape death in Alexandria? And what the hell happened to Heron, last seen smiling enigmatically? If you want to see how to handle a truly complicated time travel plot, peopled with rounded characters, read David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself. (5/07/06)

Waldrop, Howard. Going Home Again. NY: St. Martin, 1997.

Years ago, back when Howard Waldrop and I both lived in the middle of Texas, I made it a point never to miss ArmadilloCon in Austin. All the Texas science fiction writers were there, plus writers from Oklahoma and New Mexico and Louisiana (there were, and are, more of them than you might think), and the climax of the weekend was always The Howard Waldrop Show. Howard would read a recently-completed story (which might have taken a decade to write) to an SRO audience, complete with costumes and visual aids. In addition to always being great fun, you could absolutely count on hearing a story that was never less than superior. It has been argued by folks who ought to know — many of them other writers — that Howard Waldrop, the Trout-Hunter, is among the very best science fiction writers of his generation. The problem is, most fans of hack writers like Robert Jordan have never heard of him. The problem is, Howard’s rate of production makes a glacier look like an Olympic sprinter. He’s written one novel and co-authored another in the past thirty years (he has two more he’s been working on for several decades), but his forte is the short story, of which this volume is the fifth collection. All the nine stories here are well worth reading, though my favorites are “Scientifiction” and (especially) “Flat Feet!,” which combines Hollywood, Attorney General Palmer, and Oswald Spengler. Waldrop is droll, arcane, erudite, and extremely inventive, and his stories require some knowledge and participation on the part of the reader; maybe that’s why today’s younger sf readers don’t appreciate them. But they don’t get much better than this. Long may he wave. (5/06/06)

The Complete Guide to Kitchens. Chanhassen, MN, 2004.

Out house is now about twenty-five years old and we’ve recently begun overhauling and replacing a lot of stuff. Painting is easy, and laying tile isn’t too difficult to learn, but tackling bathrooms and kitchens is notoriously difficult. This volume in the “Black & Decker” series is pretty good, walking you through all the pats of the kitchen — cabinets, countertops, fixtures, appliances, floors, lighting, etc — identifying the options for each, and showing you how to calculate costs. And, for that matter, helping you decide which parts you can probably do yourself and which you really want to call on a professional for. (Personally, I’m not about to take on electrical or plumbing systems!) There are a huge number of detailed color photos, especially for key operations like leveling tile, floating a floor, and installing under-cabinet lighting (something my wife really wants). They’ll also show you which specialized tools you really need to use. An excellent book in an above-average series. (5/05/06)

Liles, Jean Wickstrom (ed). Southern Living All-Time Favorite Pasta Recipes. Birmingham, AL: Oxmoor House, 1996.

Pasta is one of my favorite comfort foods, which means I favor simple recipes that don’t require a long list of difficult-to-find ingredients and take four or five hours to make. I also read a lot of cookbooks — I check out the majority of new ones from the library — but I buy very few. This one is on my shelf, though. There are excellent, easy recipes for Shrimp and Pasta, Chicken Lasagna Florentine, and Lemon Vermicelli, which are the three that led me to buy the book. Even the Turkey-Noodle-Poppy Seed Casserole was quite good. The few to be avoided in this collection include those involving mustard or collard greens with pasta — that’s just my taste — and the several kinds of fish lasagna, which is plain weird, but most of the approx. 175 are winners. There are also many color photos, which I always appreciate in a cookbook. (5/05/06)

Silva, Daniel. The Confessor. NY: Putnam, 2003.

This is one of those contentious novels whose plot — whose very assumptions — force the reader to take sides. The question is, did the Vatican have knowledge, during World War II, of the German “final solution” regarding the Jews? (Absolutely.) Was the Church actually complicit? (Very possibly.) Did the Church assist high-ranking Nazis in fleeing Europe after the war? (Yes, and it’s heavily documented.) Do Israel’s leaders continue to press for the facts? (What do you think?) Okay, here’s the fictional part: Gabriel Allon, talented art restorer, talented though somewhat reluctant Mossad agent, is looking into the murder in Munich of his old friend, an historian researching an explosive new book on the Church and the Holocaust. This leads him step-by-step into the uncovering of new evidence providing direct links between the Third Reich’s leadership and the Vatican Secretariat of State, plus proof of the murderous methods of “Crux Vera,” one of the most secret of antisemitic, right-wing Catholic political societies, in suppressing anything they think might threaten the Church. The other major player is Pope Paul VII, successor to “the Pole,” who played an on-looking role as a young boy in that evidence. (The real successor pope, of course, Benedict XVI, is straight out of the Curia and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he were a supporter of whatever secret society “Crux Vera” is a placeholder for.) There’s a fair amount of physical action, a fair amount of shoot-’em-up, and a concluding chase scene right out of the Mission Impossible movies, but much of the “action” in the story is actually cerebral and moral. The characterization is pretty good, especially of Gabriel and of the cold-blooded freelance assassin called “The Leopard.” (5/04/06)

Lanning, Michael Lee. The Battle 100: The Stories Behind History’s Most Influential Battles. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2003.

Anytime you put together a list of the “100 Most” anything, you can expect to start arguments, and this collection of two- and three-page summaries of military and naval engagements is no exception. The coverage ranges from Megiddo, around 1479 BC, to only one more recent thatn the Golan Heights in 1967. All the obvious choices are here, including Gettysburg, Inchon, Trafalgar, Plassey, Normandy, Stalingrad, and Hastings, but many others are probably new even to many military history buffs, like Alexander’s victory at Arbela-Gaugamela in 331 BC, which spelled the end of the Persian Empire, or Muhammad’s success in battle at Mecca in 630, which virtually guaranteed the continued existence of Islam in the Near East, or Yenan in 1934, where Mao Tse-Tung ended the Long March by destroying the Nationalist Chinese army and ensured the survival of the People’s Republic of China, with enormous repercussions on the second half of the 20th century. However, Lanning shows an uncomfortable America-centrism in ranking battles. The Number One spot goes to the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 — which, while a key event in establishing the United States as an independent nation, may turn out to have been considerably less important if it’s looked back on a thousand years from now. On the other hand, without Charles Martel decisively bringing to a halt the Muslim advance into Western Europe at the Battle of Tours in 732 (only no. 24 on his list), Medieval and Renaissance Europe would never have taken place and the entire cultural and philosophical milieu which gave rise to the American Revolution — or even, perhaps, to the colonization of the New World in the first place — would never have happened. I count twenty-two battles in the list — nearly a quarter of the total — in which the U.S. or the American colonies played a major role, and that’s far too many when you consider the whole history of the world. While I don’t see any important engagements that were omitted, some, like San Jacinto (which is certainly important to Texans like me), are much too minor on the global scale to be included on this list in the first place. Likewise, Desert Storm in 1991 is turning out to be much less significant in the long run than the present U.S. administration would like us to believe. (5/01/06)

Harris, Robert. Enigma. NY: Random House, 1995.

This is an engrossing novel about an amazing wartime secret — the decipherment at Bletchley Park of the German military, air force, and naval codes by a gang of eccentric cryptanalysts laboring under depressing, exhausting conditions for months on end. Tom Jericho is a Cambridge mathematician with an extraordinary talent for problem-solving, who loses his heart to Claire Romilly, a clerk-typist in another section of the project. Then Claire goes missing, as do a handful of transcribed ciphered intercepts. Of course, all is not what it seems. Why did Berlin order a change in the code, and can they crack it before too many more men are lost in the North Atlantic? Why did the order come down not to decipher those particular messages? Is there a spy at Bletchley Park? Harris also makes it clear that the folks back home in dreary, shortage-ridden England were every bit as courageous, and suffered just as much, as the soldiers in the line of battle. You’ll stay up late to finish this one. (4/30/06)

Tinniswood, Adrian. The Polite Tourist: Four Centuries of Country House Visiting. NY: Abrams, 1989, 1998.

Tourism in Britain started with pilgrims seeking out the tomb of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury, expanded with a renaissance of topographers and antiquarians poking into odd corners of the country, and broadened again with the arrival of foreign visitors in London on the Continental Grand Tour. But the heart of this lovely book is the practice in the 18th and 19th centuries by owners of stately homes of allowing visitors to inspect the premises when they (the owners) were not in residence. (Think Elizabeth Bennett’s first encounter with Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.) The Victorians also loved mysterious and romantic locations like Stonehenge and the Roman baths at Bath, and they loved to listen to (and frequently accept uncritically) the bizarre legends associated with them. (No, Julius Caesar did not build the White Tower!) Like all books I’ve read that were published by the National Trust (without which most of these tax-heavy properties would probably have been torn down decades ago), half the enjoyment is in the hundred-plus illustrations and the seventy color plates. A beautifully produced addition to English social history. (4/27/06)

Burns, Charles. Black Hole. NY: Pantheon, 2005.

In general, I like graphic novels (as opposed to a republished comic book series) when they’re done right. The combination of well-written story and well-drawn art can be vastly entertaining on multiple levels. This one is huge — it’s unpaged but it’s got to be 350-400 pages — but it makes little or no sense. About one-third of the way through, I began skimming, hoping to catch on to the storyline, but it never happened. The plot, which apparently has to do with a bunch of high school students, who engage in all the often risky behavior teenagers engage in, contracting some sort of strange disease (or something) that leads to peculiar facial growths, skin-shedding, appearance of tiny mouths on the throat, and other weirdness. Moreover, the drawing style is a heavy black-and-white that (usually) doesn’t allow sufficient detail. (4/25/06)

Barnes, John. The Merchants of Souls. NY: Tor, 2001.

This is the third in the series, and the weakest entry so far. It begins immediately after the end of the second book, with the OSP having to deal with the political ramifications accompanying the shocking loss of an entire world, and with Giraut having to deal with being used by his friend and boss, Shan — although Giraut seems to react pretty emotionally for an intelligence agent. In fact, only the last third of the book contains any amount of action or plot. The first two-thirds is divided between back-story — how Giraut acquired his close group of friends in boarding school, plus a series of isolated anecdotes (mostly involving his wife, Margaret) set in the decade between the first and second books — and a deep psychological dissection of what it’s like to have a dead friend’s personality living in the back of your brain for a couple of years while his cloned body is grown and made ready for his reoccupation. Barnes also uses the rather thin ostensible plot — protecting these “canned” personalities from commercial exploitation for entertainment purposes — as an excuse to explore Earth’s own society, and to show that it’s just as bizarre as any frontier world in human-occupied space. While all this is fascinating in itself, it doesn’t make for much of a story. And when the real action begins, with a very public assassination, the plot that unfolds turns out to have had nothing whatever to do with anything we were told earlier in the book. Talk about left field! (4/24/06)

Barnes, John. Earth Made of Glass. NY: Tor, 1998.

This sequel begins twelve years after the end of the first volume (in what now appears to be a planned series of five). Giraut and Margaret have been professional diplomats for more than a decade, on a number of worlds, and in situations that varied from tedious to way too exciting. They specialize — officially — in culture and tourism, and they know how to do their jobs, but this time that won’t be enough. Because they are also agents for the Office of Special Projects, a shadowy bureau whose job is to reunite far-flung humanity in preparation for the inevitable first contact with aliens (whom two dozen known artifacts demonstrate are definitely out there). Briand is a frontier world with only two cultures, both of them “artificial”: A Tamil city filled with ornate temples where everything revolves around the traditional medieval literature of south India, and a Mayan city, also filled with temples, where everything is as close as possible to the traditional subsistence agricultural society of ancient Central America. No problem — except volcanic eruptions have forced the two to share a much small space than originally intended and centuries of increasingly violent ethnic hatred are proving impossible to overcome. The story gets darker as it progresses and the not-happy ending is extremely pessimistic. Or maybe just realistic. In addition to Barnes’s proven anthropological talents, there’s a lot of personal psychology here, too, as Margaret finds she can’t come to terms with her husband’s nostalgia for his lost youth and seeks solace elsewhere. (Which comes as a shock to Giraut, though it was telegraphed to the reader pretty early.) In fact, one of the overarching themes of this volume is betrayal: Personal, professional, political, and ethnic. I’m happy to say, in any case, that this one doesn’t suffer from sequel-itis. And I’ve already started on the third volume. (4/22/06)

Barnes, John. A Million Open Doors. NY: Tor, 1992.

I’m aware that Barnes has built quite a following and a reputation, but I had begun a couple of his more recent novels and they just weren’t my kind of thing. However, a friend whose literary opinions I respect insisted this one was different, and worth the effort. I’m pleased to say he was right. The author has a real ear for what makes a society work. His comparison here between Nou Occitan on the planet Wilson (a sort of Portuguese-Catalan-Renaissance Italian mix, heavy on sexism and dueling, where Art is the most important thing) and Caledony (a Stalinist approach to Presbyterianism overlaid by strict — and mandatory — mathematical rationality) invites comparison to LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, even though the two styles are entirely different. Giraut Leones, who travels from the first society to the second as part of a diplomatic mission from the Council of Humanity, the semi-governing body of the Thousand Cultures, and who is the lens through which Barnes refracts the two world-views, is a decent human being who gradually realizes his own previous cultural blindness and learns to appreciate the differences in others. I have to say the last few chapters were somewhat rushed in bringing everything together — the author perhaps should have stretched out and explicated the plot for another fifty pages — but I definitely enjoyed this. Since it turned out to be the first volume of a trilogy, I know what my next two books are going to be.

There are some great quotes here, too: “People who put principles before people are people who hate people. They won’t much care about how well it works, just about how right it is . . . they may even like it better if it inflicts enough pain.”

Or, regarding politicians: “. . . like any group of people selected for ambition and nothing else, they turn out to be a pretty bad lot. Like mandarins in China, colonial administrators in the British Empire, lawyers in old North America, or the reconstruction agencies after the Slaughter — individually there are decent people who do some good, but as a class they’re amoral, vicious leeches with a good cover story.”

Or: “They’re so dedicated to logic and reason that common sense hasn’t got much to do with it.”

Or: “I know I pretend to be the apolitical businessman a lot, but the reality is that like anybody who’s interested in getting people together with the things they need and want, I have an agenda. I want people to get what they want, and I want them ideally to get it from me, but most of all I want them to be free to want it and to make offers to get it. Those poor stupid fanatics have been sold on the idea that what they want is the ability to give themselves a little priggish congratulations over having done the right thing. They’d rather be right than happy. More importantly, they’d rather that I be right than happy and they’re not about to leave the choice up to me. I say, let ‘em die, and I hope it’s slow and it hurts.” (4/19/06)

Eisner, Will. The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. NY: Norton, 2005.

Eisner was perhaps the greatest narrative graphic artist of the past half-century. Especially in his later years, he didn’t do comic books but novels in pictorial form, with plots drawn from centuries of Yiddishkeit. This was his last work and very possibly his most important, tracing in detail the origins of the basest and most enduring blood-libel of the 20th century. The protocols were fabricated by extreme elements of the czarist government in 1905, in an attempt to keep the weak-willed Nicholas II in line and away from liberal influences — which they accomplished by arranging the forgery of a purported blueprint for Jewish world domination, playing on the near-universal Russian antisemitism. That, in turn, was heavily plagiarized from a French political novel of forty years earlier, written as an attack on the dictatorship of Emperor Napoleon III. It’s rather a complicated story but Eisner follows each link clearly and forcefully. The most depressing thing about the story, of course, is that the falsity of the Protocols was exposed in the London Times in 1921 — and over and over again in the years since, including via a U.S. Senate committee report — but every year there are new editions published not only all over the Arab world (no surprise) but also in Japan and throughout Latin America (where they often have been assigned reading in Catholic schools, also no surprise). As long as there is irrational hatred and fear of the Other, the Protocols probably will survive, unfortunately for the human race. This clear, rational treatment of very ugly recent (and continuing) history should be required reading in all American high schools. (4/17/06)

Sawyer, Robert J. Iterations. Calgary, Alb.: Red Deer Press, 2002.

Sawyer is best known for his novels, especially the “Neanderthal” trilogy. While I have mostly enjoyed most of his longer work, he does have a tendency to over-explain and to bring in too much detail about our present world, which means part of each novel dates rather quickly. He also displays a somewhat naive enthusiasm and occasional didacticism (with a decidedly Canadian flavor) that reminds me of Heinlein. In any case, his short stories often are better written than his novels. There are a number of award-winners and nominees among the twenty-two stories in this collection, which were published over a period of two decades, but to my mind the best of them are “The Shoulders of Giants,” a paean to the spirit of adventure and discovery, “Lost in the Mail,” about correcting people’s life-choices, and “Stream of Consciousness,” which is a hard science first-contact yarn reminiscent of the heyday of ANALOG. And “Star Light, Star Bright” is an interesting take on the consequences of living inside a Dyson Sphere. But the very best is “You See But You Do Not Observe,” a very original and well realized story involving Sherlock Holmes and Schroedinger’s Cat. “The Hand You’re Dealt,” on the other hand, is a murder mystery written for a libertarian-theme anthology, but the philosophical underpinnings get very little time and the solution to the mystery comes out of nowhere. “Just Like Old Times,” which won a number of awards, takes a good idea and waters it down. “Peking Man” is kind of a cute riff on vampirism, but goes nowhere. “Wiping Out,” about the psychological and moral effects of total interplanetary war, is pretty thin. “Last But Not Least” has no science fiction element at all that I can see. And the title story, about killing off alternate versions of yourself whom you don’t approve of, simply wasn’t very successful. The others in the collection, some of them very short indeed, are minor works. (4/15/06)

Cooke, Darwyn. DC: The New Frontier: Volume One. NY: DC Comics, 2004.

I was never much of a fan of superhero comics as a kid; it took the reinvented “Dark Knight” version of Batman to really get my attention. Still, I know the origin stories of the Justice League characters and this first volume rings some interesting changes on them. The setting is smack in the middle of the Silver Age of comics — the 1950s of the Korean War and McCarthyism — and Superman is a flag-waving conservative working for Eisenhower and Nixon in southeast Asia. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, is an Amazon-sized feminist. The others in the story, though — the OSS colonel from World War II now in the thick of the space race, the Yaeger-like test pilot, etc — are not nearly as interesting, even they get a lot more page-space. And Cooke tends to draw them so similarly, it’s difficult to tell who’s who (for me, anyway). Finally, the plotting is so scattershot, I have no idea where the story arcs begin or end; that might have been handled by publishing the probable two volumes of this series in a single volume. (4/13/06)

Garten, Ina. Barefoot Contessa Family Style. NY: Clarkson Potter, 2002.

I like to watch the “Barefoot Contessa” show on the Food Network, even though she tends to concentrate on party food — like canapes and fondues, the staples of her store in the Hamptons — which I never fix. She’s also big on chowder and other New England stuff. But she’s fun to watch. This book, her third, is a bit of a disappointment, though. There are lengthy sections on meal-planning, table settings, “team-cooking,” family traditions, and other tangential topics. Among the recipes, there are very basic ones like Zucchini with Parmesan or Sauteed Carrots (which hardly require a recipe), and strange ones like Tuna Tartare (yuck) or Scrambled Eggs with Caviar (double yuck), and complicated ones like Montauk Seafood Salad (shrimp, mussels, and champagne, among a long list of ingredients). It’s also irritating that she specifies brand names (I never heard of “Frank’s Hot Sauce,” but it’s not going to convince me to give up Tabasco in any case), even in her list of essential kitchen tools (why a Braun electric juicer, particularly?). And a zest-rasper is not “essential,” folks. Get this one at the library if you’re interested and save your money. (4/10/06)

Martin, George R. R. A Feast for Crows. (A Song of Ice and Fire, 4) NY: Bantam Books, 2005.

This epic is now up to some 3,000 pages and it becomes more involving and fascinating with each installment. Apparently, this fourth volume was twice as long as any of the others, so it had to be cut in half for publication — which is fine, but the publisher committed a grievous tactical error by slicing it lengthwise instead of crossways. Instead of the next round of adventures and trials of all the characters, each in its series of cycling chapters, with another batch to follow next year, we have instead two volumes worth of story about only half the characters. This makes no sense — and it means the reader will have to remember the details of what has occurred with Cersei, and Jaime, and Brienne, and Sansa, and Sam the Slayer for at least two more years. Dumb, very dumb. However. With the death of Lord Tywin Lannister — a hard, cold, calculating man, but very intelligent and extremely effective — Cersei, the widow of King Robert and regent for both her sons in succession, makes error after error in attempting to rule the kingdom as the son she thinks her father wanted her to be. And that seems to be her doom. (Taena, the Myrish wife of Lord Merryeather, has a larger part in the Queen Regent’s downfall than we have so far been told, I’m sure.) Brienne the Beauty, who only wants to be a knight, ends the book with a hangman’s rope, but I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of her. Jon Snow is now in charge on the Wall, and command is changing him, but he’s obviously a hero well into the making. Jaime, having lost his sword hand, is undergoing a character shift which may result is his being a repentant and reluctant hero as well. Sansa Stark is finally growing up the hard way, as the concealed ward/hostage/tool of Lord Littlefinger. Arya has entered yet another stage of her young life, with yet another false name, and the author leaves her hanging from a cliff as well. We have also, for the first time, become involved in the affairs of House Martell of Dorne, which has managed to stay out of the wars thus far. Likewise the Iron Islands, ruled (for the moment) by the Greyjoys. And the Vale and House Arryn may have a larger part to play in future, under the manipulative hand of its Lord Protector. So what’s up with Bran in the far north, and the Queen Across the Water, and King Stannis on the Wall? And where did Tyrion the kinslayer get off to? We’ll have to wait for the next volume to find out — but we already know which plot threads are likely to be wrapped up and which have frayed into new subplots, because of that peculiar publishing decision. And I still prefer geopolitics to magic and witchcraft (and the frankensteinian experiments that Qyburn seems to be pursuing), but there’s still plenty here to enjoy. (4/08/06)

Martin, George R. R. A Storm of Swords (A Song of Fire and Ice, 3) NY: Bantam, 2000.

This third installment in the epic is stronger than the second. Some of the plethora of intertwining plots are neatly wrapped up, others spawn new branches or jog off in unexpected directions. As before, Martin has no hesitancy about killing off some of the major players, even those with whom the reader is most likely to be in sympathy, but other characters who appear headed for the headsman are saved (one way or another) and we’ll have to wait for the next volume to discover what happens to them. Young King Robb is gone, murdered by treachery and in violation of guest-right (which I suspect will come back to haunt the Freys), Arya acquires a couple of new aliases and seems to be headed for the other side of the sea, the Night’s Watch holds back the first onslaught by the Wildlings (or Free Folk, depending on your own politics) but there will be other attacks, we know. The Wall finds a serious defender from an unexpected direction, and Jon Snow, having spent some time unwillingly with the Wildlings, takes another step toward his destiny. And young Bran Stark is obviously headed for an important role in the story. Jaime Lannister’s horizons grow shorter, however, and he seems to be undergoing a shift in character, while Tyrion the dwarf may have escaped yet another of his sister’s attempts to see him dead. On the other hand, there’s considerably more magic and sorcery in this volume than in its predecessors, which I have to say doesn’t do much for me; if you’re inventing magic, you can do pretty much anything you like with it. People, on the other hand, are always people, and I much prefer the many-layered and conflicting relationships, the psychological development of the players, and the world-spanning politics. (4/04/06)

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Published on 21 November 2009 at 5:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

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