Monday, January 26, 2015

Your Call Isn't Really That Important To Us, Now That You Mention It

So apparently my cell phone is really more of an anchor for miniature boats.

I hate having a cell phone.  I’ve never found one that actually gets a signal and the fact that I am constantly reachable sort of grates on me.  If it weren’t for the fact that I have kids and you never know when you will need to call someone in an emergency I’d probably have abandoned the whole cell phone idea as a bad move long ago.


But I have one nonetheless, and I pay money for the service.  Therefore I expect it to work.

My cell phone provider – who, for the sake of not being sued, I will refer to as Sexually Inexperienced Mobile Company USA – does not share this expectation.

Now, it could be that they are just trying to get rid of me.  I can understand this, actually.  I have one of those grandfathered plans where you pay so much up front and they charge you as you go to whittle that pile of money down.  And if you don’t whittle it down in a certain period, you still have to re-up every so often or they just declare the account dead.

I get charged 20 cents/minute for all calls, incoming and outgoing, and last year I think I managed to spend almost $30 total.  They can’t be making any money off of me.  I just don’t make that many calls, and I find texting to be an unmitigated nuisance with no redeeming value whatsoever.  I will actively avoid sending or reading texts if there is any possible way to do so, and there almost always is.  Most people I know are aware of this, which means that the only texts I get are ones I have no need to look at anyway, such as notifications from SIMCUSA about the wonderful things that they would be doing for me if only their service worked.

I’ve been trying to use the cell phone more this year, though, since the simple fact is that you have to put in so much money every time you re-up and it’s been piling up a bit.  This means having to find somewhere with a half-decent signal and someone to call and time to call them, three things that rarely line up.  Sometimes they do.  I still have a lot of money in the account left to go even so, though.

Which brings me to my current situation.

On Friday I attempted to make a local call.  SIMCUSA refused to allow this, informing me by recorded message that I did not have enough money in my account to make this call.  I checked my account.  There was $52.99 in there.

Query: is there anywhere on earth I cannot call from Wisconsin for less than $52.99?

Answer: no.

So I spent an unhelpful quarter hour on the phone with a SIMCUSA operator who, ironically enough, was clearly not anywhere in the USA, though I have no information on their sexual status nor do I really want any.  I have no idea where their call center is located but my guess is they have far more interesting food than we do.  What they don’t have is any actual clue what is going on, as we all agreed that I had plenty of money to make any call I wanted and yet no calls could be made.  The best this person could come up with was that I should always dial the area code even for local numbers.

That was about as effective as you’d imagine.

So two days later I was back on the phone with another SIMCUSA operator whose basic argument was that there was tower maintenance in my area and therefore I was being unreasonable expecting my phone to actually make phone calls.  The fact that I had tried to make phone calls from places beyond my home tower did not seem to move him.  That was his story and he was sticking to it.

Let me tell you what an entertaining half hour that was.  You can take the boy out of Philadelphia but you cannot take the Philadelphia out of the boy, and it is my fond hope that his ears are still ringing from the rather pointed denunciations of his company and the general nonsensical nature of his advice that he was favored with during that call.

I did get some financial recompense for the fact that I cannot use a service for which I am paying, and my plan is to burn through that within a week or two once I can make calls again, which the last SIMCUSA operator assured me would be no later than February 6, probably, if all went well and the telecom gods were properly propitiated with sacrifices of Sexually Inexperienced Actual Humans or, failing that, lemon meringue pies or other sweet pastries.  And once my balance is whittled down to something I feel I can afford to lose, well, there are other cell phone providers who would no doubt be willing to provide an actual service for the money I feel constrained to give them for a device I'd rather not have in the first place.

So if I have your phone number, perhaps we'll be talking soon.

Friday, January 23, 2015

News and Updates

1. I find that I am always cold these days.  I don’t know why, as I have always liked cold weather and it has not been especially cold of late anyway.  It does give me an excuse for more tea, though, so that is okay.

2. There are a lot of similarities between birth and death – ask any poet, or get people to start singing from The Lion King if you doubt me – but the one that has struck me most this week is that both create a kind of null space in the world that puts you on one side and pretty much everything else on the other.  I remember having this feeling when Tabitha and Lauren were born like, “Why is the rest of the world proceeding on as usual?  What on earth could they be doing that is that important?”  It’s been like that here for the last week.  And if it has been like that for me, an old friend 4000 miles away, I cannot even imagine what it has been like for Julia’s family.

3. Unfortunately the rest of the world continues to roll on and make demands.  The semester starts up on Monday and I still have syllabi to complete.  At least I figured out the trick to making setting up online discussion areas a whole lot simpler.  So there was far less obligatory profanity and whiskey consumption than usual during the set-up process, and in context this is probably a good thing.

4. I got my car back today.  It was icy a while back and Kim ended up sliding into the back of a minivan while stopping for a red light.  Fortunately the main injuries were to the vehicles involved and the city rescinded the ticket for unsafe driving, admitting that the conditions really did not allow safe driving at any speed, but it is astonishing how much damage one can do to a car at 4mph.  I finally took it in to get fixed this week.  It spent a few days in the shop while I drove the loaner they gave me.  The loaner was essentially a stripped down version of my car, which was nice since all of the things were in the same place and I didn’t have to figure out how to turn on the wiper blades from scratch.  It was entirely manual, though – windows, door locks, side mirrors, everything.  This fascinated my children and their friends.  “Oh!” said one friend, looking at the window cranks.  “So energy efficient!”

5. Lauren insisted the loaner car smelled like a bowling alley.  I kept telling her it just smelled like a clean car and not seven years’ worth of accumulated cracker crumbs.

6. I am thinking that I will completely revise my World History to 1500 class this fall to match the wonderful framework I found in a book Kim gave me for Christmas.  I even emailed the author about it, and he graciously responded with more information.  So now I have another project, because I clearly don’t have enough projects.

7. Lauren spent last weekend at a bonspiel.  Tabitha spent last weekend studying for midterm exams and Skyping with friends.  We never saw either of them.  It’s such a different thing, having older kids.

8. Applejack sours: the universe’s way of letting you know that it sympathizes.

9. For all those who are still sending out Christmas cards, we give thanks and rejoice that we are not the only ones.

10. I have discovered Welcome to Night Vale.  HP Lovecraft writes A Prairie Home Companion – why did I not know about this sooner?  “Look to the north.  Keep looking.  There is nothing coming from the south.”

Friday, January 16, 2015

Julia

Her name was Julia. 

It is important to remember her name, I think.  Names matter.

She was 48 years old.  She had a husband and two children.  She spoke with an accent somewhere between her native America and her adopted Britain.  She studied Old Icelandic sagas, earned an MBA, and at one time ran a consignment shop for children’s clothing.  She made her own homemade jellies, kept chickens for a while, and lived in a 350-year-old house full of books.  She usually ended phone conversations by saying “Bye for now!”  She died today. 

She was my friend.

I met Julia at the tail end of ninth grade.  She went to the other high school in my district, the one Matt had switched into after middle school because he had moved out to that end of the township.  I was sufficiently nerdy that I took a day off from my high school to walk around his, and my parents were confident enough about my educational prospects that they said I could do it.  Matt and I ran into her in a hallway.  I remember exactly what he said to me as she walked away.

A little over a year later Julia and I found ourselves at a party together.  She was getting over a bad experience with a guy and had pretty much sworn off the whole notion of love – the sort of grand gesture that comes easily to sixteen-year-olds.  I remember thinking that this was a shame, that this woman would make such a decision, and trying to talk her out of it.

We were together for about three weeks after that.  That turned out to be a surprisingly long and complicated story that would benefit nobody to tell at this point, but we remained friends for more than thirty years after it was over. 

This photo is from that summer.


I’m on the left, in my short-lived bandanna phase.  Julia is in the middle, obviously.  That’s Jacob on the right, one of my best friends at the time and a key player in the weirdity that marked that summer’s story.  We’re at a church-league softball game, where I had talked the both of them into playing for my team.  I know why Jacob has the cast on his hand, but I don’t remember whether we won or lost the game.  It didn’t seem important even then.

I am the only one in that picture still alive, which is a strange thought indeed.  Jacob died about four years after this photo was taken.  The ghosts accumulate as you get older. 

Julia moved to Connecticut at the end of that summer and we wrote long letters back and forth, letters I still have.  I remember the first time she called just to say hello.  It surprised me that you could do that, make a long-distance call for no other reason than to talk to a friend.  Long-distance calls were unusual then.  The following spring Sharon, Jill and I went up to visit her there – three high school students on our own on the Northeast Corridor Amtrak line.  We had a grand time.  I still have the copy of Letters From the Earth that I bought when we visited Mark Twain’s house on that trip.

We traded a lot of visits over the years, Julia and I.  I went back to Connecticut for two of the Medieval Feasts that she held in her back yard and we spent a fair amount of time picking far more strawberries than anyone could possibly eat, which is easier to do than you’d imagine.  When we were in college I went up to New York for a weekend walking around her campus, and she came down to Philadelphia to return the favor.  My first trip out of the US was to Cambridge University, where she was a student in the early 90s and where I first met Richard.  Julia and Richard got married not far from where she was living when I met her in ninth grade.  It all goes ‘round in circles.  Kim and I took the girls to visit them in the UK in 2004 and 2012.  They came here in 2005.

She always knew it would be her brain that would get her in the end, though I don’t think she saw cancer as the way it would choose to do so until it happened.  When I saw her last, in 2012, we talked about her fears that her family history of dementia would circle around to her at last.  We spoke on the phone a fair amount after her diagnosis, though, and she never did forget who I was.  Nor I her. 

If you knew her on Facebook you saw how she was open and honest about her diagnosis and treatment, a mark of bravery or perhaps just the studied inquisitiveness she brought to all things.  Maybe both.  She spoke of small victories and frustrations, of worry and hospital stays, of walks and hopes and concerns.  Eventually, as always happens with her diagnosis, she spoke of the transition from curative to palliative care, though the British are far more up front about such things than Americans are.  “Terminal,” they call it.  And so it was.

I have never really figured out how to stop loving anyone. 

I don’t think I will start now.

Love changes, of course.  It grows, it evolves, it becomes new things and takes new shapes even as it remembers the old ones.  If you are very lucky in this world you will find people to share that with, even as their part in your life moves from one role to another, even as physical distance tries to keep you separate, even as the years lengthen on and the memories and stories recede into the past until there is nobody left to tell them to except each other, all those old tales of drama for stakes no one recalls but you.

No, I don’t think I will start now.  I do not.

Her name was Julia.  She was my friend. 

And I will miss her.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cheesesteaks and Conversation

We’ve had real Philadelphia cheesesteaks here in Wisconsin for the last two days.

You would think that in a state full of beef and cheese getting a decent cheesesteak would not be a problem, but you would be wrong.  Nobody in the midwest knows how to make a crusty roll.  Nor do they know how to prepare the meat.  It’s not a complicated meal, but it does have to be done right.

Fortunately, there is Havertown Pizza, my new favorite restaurant in the entire world. 

I spent this past weekend visiting my parents, because I could.  As you get older and busier you realize that you want to do that more and opportunities to do that are fewer, so when they arise you should take them.  Plus my dad’s birthday is around now, close enough to count anyway, and that was all the excuse I could possibly need.  I would be on my own on this trip, as the girls are back in school and Kim had to be on campus, but there you have it.

So I packed up my bags, hopped in the car, and headed east, staying just ahead of the snowstorm that followed me across the country like a Congressman looking for a handout.

It was a glorious weekend.

My brother came down from New York, so it was the four of us once again.  We watched football games (yes, the Dallas Cowboys got completely jobbed by that call; no, I’m not upset about it), ate cheesesteaks, and generally hung out as we did back in the 80s before anyone had moved out into the world on their own and far away.  And when Jenny, whom I have known since high school, came over for a brief visit, it just made the feeling that much more so.  It was lovely to see her as well.

When my family gets together we like to eat and talk.  We’re good at it.  We enjoy it.  We look forward to it.  The big meal this weekend was Saturday night, when Keith and I took our parents out for my dad’s birthday.  If you’ve ever wondered why it is that you have a job and have to get out of your nice warm bed on cold dark mornings, remember that one reason is so that you can do things like that.  We had a grand time.

But mostly we hung out at home, enjoying each other’s company until it was time to go.


On Sunday I stopped over at Havertown Pizza to pick up cheesesteaks for lunch – they make a fantastic cheesesteak, trust me on this – and got to talking with the guy who I think owns the place.  I’m pretty sure he was surprised to see me, since I had just done the same thing not 24 hours earlier, but I explained that I was stocking up on my hometown foods since good cheesesteaks are nowhere to be had in Wisconsin.  Ah, he said.  If I wanted him to, he’d fry up the meat and package it separately from the rolls and the cheese and I could make them when I got home.  “Just freeze it all and let it thaw while you drive and you’ll be fine.”

How can you turn down an offer like that?

They kept just fine while I drove across Philadelphia and stopped overnight to see Mike, Krista and Eli in Pittsburgh – another fine evening of eating and talking among good people.

They kept just fine while I drove from there to Wisconsin.

And then we ate them and all of the good times of the last few days were there with us even as new good times came about, because that is what good food does.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Books Read in 2014, Part 4

And that about wraps things up.  Stay tuned for next year!


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The Big Over Easy (Jasper Fforde)

DI Jack Spratt has a problem.  He’s the head of the Nursery Crimes Division of the Reading Police, a career-killing assignment that he shares with his staff of misfits and officers who have crossed the powers that be (notably DCI Friedland Chymes and the Guild of Detectives), among them Constable Baker (a hypochondriac), Constable Ashley (an alien), and Constable Kandlestyck-Maeker, who questioned Chymes once too often and was dumped into the NCD as punishment.  When Sgt. Mary Mary gets assigned to this crew, it just makes things complicated.  There has been a murder – Humpty Dumpty has been found in pieces below his wall, and the trail of skullduggery extends throughout Reading – to the halls of Spongg Footcare, Reading’s premiere industry; to the Most Worshipful Guild of Detectives, who are more concerned with publication stats and narrative structure than with actual police work; and even to St. Cerebellum’s, the local mental hospital.  Spratt and Mary must figure out whodunit whle carefully avoiding being done, and must navigate the moral slopes of the Guild of Detectives.  Fforde is an astonishingly referential writer – almost every line in this book is an allusion to something, either a nursery rhyme or a noirish detective hero or something else – and the plot flows quickly.  It’s a biting satire of detective novels and the culture that make them up, and in some sense it’s also an interesting take-down of the publish-or-perish world of academia, though I don’t know if Fforde intended that.  Lauren and I read this as a bedtime story, because she’s old enough now to enjoy real stories.

Tigerman (Nick Harkaway)

On a doomed island in the Indian Ocean there is a sergeant and a boy.  The boy is a local, nicknamed Robin, and a fountain of pop culture.  His friend the sergeant – Lester Ferris, late of the British Royal Army – has been put out to pasture there after his service in Iraq and Afghanistan, declared to be the Brevet-Consul representing Her Majesty’s Government, and told mostly not to bother with doing too much before the island is destroyed.  Because the island will be destroyed – thanks to a roiling pot of chemical and biological nastiness created out of industrial waste that has already devastated the island, the world has declared that it must be razed to the waterline.  This creates an odd, self-contained little world just beyond legality, and the Fleet – a vast patchwork of ships anchored just offshore – takes advantage of this extralegal space to offer a wide variety of services that would otherwise be frowned upon.  There is also an international force – NatProMan – headed by an American named Kershaw, a team of Japanese scientists whose leader Kaiko Inoue, provides some glimmer of romantic possibility for Sgt. Ferris (or as much as two representatives from famously self-effacing and polite societies can manage in that direction, at least), a former Legionnaire named Dirac, and a local bartender named Shola.  And into this mix comes Tigerman – a hero for our times.  The fact that our times are bleak and screwed up, that nothing ever quite works out the way it does in the comic books, is just how it goes.  This is a more straightforward book than Harkaway’s earlier novels and a darker one, but his usual glorious prose slides you right along.  Harkaway is one of my favorite writers, just for how he writes sentences.

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (Randall Munroe)

Randall Munroe draws the webcomic XKCD, which is deservedly famous among a certain kind of internet nerd as one of the best bits of science humor out there, but prior to that he was a genuine NASA engineer and he uses his scientific training and research skills to answer what are, on the face of them, genuinely stupid questions.  The result is both fascinating and weirdly funny.  Have you ever wondered what would happen if a pitcher threw a fastball at 9/10 the speed of light?  Munroe actually gives you a serious scientific answer (the stadium and everything in it would be vaporized, and – in accordance with the rules of Major League Baseball – the batter would posthumously be awarded first base for being hit by the pitch, in a rather broad sense of “hit”).  He walks his way through any number of such questions, and by the time you are done you are both educated and kind of shellshocked that people would ever think to ask such things. 

The Outsourcerer’s Apprentice (Tom Holt)

How exactly would a fairy-tale kingdom actually function?  What are the economics of dragon slaying?  If all you have in your area are kindly woodcutters, who’s buying all the wood and why are they doing so when they could just walk out of their house and pick it up for free?  Buttercup is this land’s version of Little Red Riding Hood, except she asks the hard economic questions and she’s getting tired of slaughtering wolves every day.  Sir Turquine sells dragon carcasses to the king for bulk meat.  And as for Prince Florizel, well, he’s kind of a lost cause.  Literally lost, in this case, since he’s actually Benny Gulbenkian, graduate student in physics and party crasher into this world.  He’d like to get back to our reality, except that requires a donut or other food with a hole in the middle and such things are violently taboo in this world.  As for Benny’s uncle, well, it just gets more complicated from there.  In this sharp satire of fairy tales and wizard stories (there’s a spot-on parody of the whole Moria sequence in The Lord of the Rings, for example), Holt explores the idea of what would happen if we could outsource our jobs to alternate realities and the results – while occasionally laugh-out-loud funny – are all too sobering.  One gets the impression that this is a sequel to something, and now I suppose I need to find it.

The Fourth Bear (Jasper Fforde)

The Nursery Crimes Division is not a place where you find the normal, the mundane, or even the sensible, as DCI Jack Spratt well knows, and in this story he will find his expectations fulfilled in many ways.  It opens with Goldilocks – a reporter and a Friend To Bears – on the trail of a story involving giant cucumbers (a trail littered with bodies, it turns out) – and winds its way through a murderous baked good (the Gingerbreadman), a self-repairing car purchased from a salesman named Dorian Gray, a half-built amusement park called SommeWorld, and a fair amount of conflict with the sentient bear community of Reading, Berkshire, UK, before ending on a more or less happy note, depending on how one defines things.  Along the way DCI Spratt will confront new neighbors (Punch and Judy, whose second career is a bit of a shock), his very angry wife, and a psychologist who admits that he is probably better at his job for not being quite sane but still has to go through the motions of analysis anyway.  There are side stories involving DS Mary Mary and her tentative relationship with the alien PC Ashley (whose family is trying to be human and not quite succeeding), a long-lost scientist named McGuffin, and a near disaster of a sting operation meant to catch the Great Long Red-Legg’d Scissor-Man, a figure out of British nursery rhymes who snips off the thumbs of children who won’t stop sucking them.  In other words, it is a fairly typical romp through the cluttered and fascinating mind of Jasper Fforde, and Lauren and I enjoyed it thoroughly together.

Fragile Things (Neil Gaiman)

This collection of short stories and poems demonstrates once again what a skilled writer Neil Gaiman is and how rare that can be in the SF/F genre.  Following an introduction mostly devoted to explaining the circumstances under which each piece was written, Gaiman reels off story after story, interspersed with poems, each one crystalline and cutting, most of which stay in your head long after you’re done.  My favorite line in this book came from one of the poems, actually: “Do not fear the ghosts in this house; they are the least of your worries.”

The Eye of Zoltar (Jasper Fforde)

The story of Jennifer Strange – teenaged orphan, indentured servant, chief operating officer of Kazam Mystical Arts Management (the finest purveyor of magical services in the Ununited Kingdoms of Great Britain) – continues in this third installment that has all of the wit, allusions, and breakneck pacing of the first two (The Last Dragonslayer, and The Song of the Quarkbeast).  Fforde is clearly tiring of the constraints of Kazam and is moving Jennifer’s story further afield.  Little of this book actually takes place in the Kingdom of Snodd (somewhere in what is now western England).  Instead, very early in the book Jennifer and Perkins, one of her sorcerers and potentially a boyfriend, are tasked with going into the Cambrian Empire (more or less Wales).  There are three reasons for this.  First, they need to ransom the Once Magnificent Boo from the clutches of Emperor Tharv (kidnapping is a thoroughly bureaucratized and routine function of the Cambrian government, and it is all strikingly aboveboard and rule-bound).  Second, the Mighty Shandar has ordered Jennifer to fetch the Eye of Zoltar – a jewel of immense magical power – from there or he will kill the last two remaining dragons.  And third, the queen of Snodd has switched her spoiled, bratty daughter’s mind into the body of a servant (Laura Scrubb) and asked Jennifer to teach her some humility and usefulness, so she comes along as well.  The princess, it turns out, has an MBA-level understanding of finance, which is just one of the odd little things that occur in this book.  Cambria makes most of its money from jeopardy tourism – tour guides quote fatality rates for each option you choose.  There is a railroad militia war that occurs precisely on time with carefully scheduled breaks.  Cambrian fauna defy logic.  It’s a sprawling, at times deeply funny book, and it clearly sets Fforde up for the next volume in this series, a volume I will purchase at the first opportunity.

Technology Matters: Questions to Live With (David E. Nye)

One of the down sides to agreeing to help out a friend by giving a guest lecture is that you have to do the readings that the students have for that day, and when your friend is a philosopher rather than a historian, well, there’s no way that’s going to end well.  This well-intentioned but ultimately deeply frustrating book sets out to address the issue of technology and human society – what it is, how it shapes our culture and is shaped thereby, and how we ought to be dealing with it – and it is arranged in a series of chapters each focusing on a single question.  I knew I was in trouble when the first chapter – “Can We Define ‘Technology’?” – declared that the answer to that question was effectively “no.”  This made the rest of the book kind of pointless, really, but I slogged my way through to the end and did my best to expunge its contents from my head the moment my guest lecture concluded.

A Slip of the Keyboard (Terry Pratchett)

Terry Pratchett has spent his entire life writing, first as a journalist and then as one of the best satirists and moralists (two categories with a significant amount of overlap) in the English language.  And he’s funny, too.  This is a collection of his non-fiction pieces – talks given, letters published, articles written, and so on – that spans much of his life and is organized into three broad categories.  The first is generally focused on writing, and contains more than its fair share of humor and observation.  The second, similarly well-written and entertaining, is more generally focused on his life and opinions.  The final section is more pointed – the reactions and exhortations of a man diagnosed with a rare and early form of Alzheimer’s Disease who knows his time is limited and would like that time to be spent well and to end when he wants it to end.  It has its humor as well, but as you would expect it is a section more raw and angry than the other two.  I have long loved Pratchett’s writing because it is extremely well written and makes me laugh and think at the same time – a combination more uncommon than you’d think – and this collection was no exception.

The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed (Patrick Rothfuss)

This is a picture book, but as the shiny gold sticker on the cover says, “This shit is not for kids.  Seriously.”  Rothfuss has a great deal of fun subverting the conventions of children’s books with what at first seems a fairly conventional tale of a princess and her stuffed animal, who live alone in a marzipan castle.  The ending (well, the final ending, as there are three) can come as rather a surprise if you’re not paying attention.  I bought this at a reading given by Rothfuss and read through it while waiting for him to begin his presentation.  I was happy when he chose to spend the first part of the evening reading this and then pointing out that he was “not some hack writer who would spring a twist ending on you,” by going through the artwork and writing to show you how what might seem like a surprise ending is actually there from the beginning for those who are willing to see what is in front of them rather than what they expect to see in front of them.  The second time you read the story through, he said, it is a very different book than it is the first time.  And that is a lesson worth learning.

The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Dark Deep Below (Patrick Rothfuss) 

The second installment of this series is a bit longer and more complicated and introduces a new character to the mix – the princess’ brother.  How exactly she has obtained a brother is left unclear and after the events of the first book this is not something I choose to dwell upon for long.  But there he is and, in the way of all baby brothers, he is deeply, deeply aggravating to the princess.  But when he falls afoul of the goblins in the deep dark cave, the princess will spring into action.  As with the first one, this is not a children’s book so much as a commentary on the genre, and it is a lot of dark fun.

Necrophenia (Robert Rankin)

Like all Rankin books, this is a cheesecake kind of novel – dense, rich, delicious, and extremely filling.  You read one and you’re good for a while, no matter how much you look forward to the next one.  Rankin is also extremely British and makes few concessions to his American readers.  This is one of his more deliberately absurd books, written in a style that starts at “arch” goes through “deadpan,” and ends up somewhere in a collision between “vaudeville” and Waiting for Godot.  The story is told as a memoir by Tyler, who starts out in the early 1960s as a schoolboy and member of the rock band The Sumerian Kynges and then proceeds through most of the pop culture of the late 20th and early 21st century in a Zelig sort of way.  Elvis has a big role, for example, as does Mama Cass, George Formby, and Mick Jagger.  Tyler spends much of his life being manipulated – first by Mr. Ishmael, and then by Keith Crossbar, whose relation to Tyler is only gradually revealed.  There are long scenes in bars and even longer jumps – years – where Tyler has no memory and the narrative dissolves from one era to the next.  It’s the story, as he says, of how Tyler almost saved Mankind, and if you are willing to get into the spirit of it and enjoy the flow of the language, it’s a wonderful experience.  If you’re not, well, it will just be weird and awkward.

The Stupidest Angel (Version 2.0) (Christopher Moore)

It’s Christmas in Pine Cove, and it will be one to remember, or perhaps not.  The evil developer Dale Pearson (generally described as such) is harassing his ex-wife Lena Marquez.  Tuck Case is in town with Roberto, his talking fruit bat.  Theo Crowe – former hippie turned well-intentioned lawman – is trying to keep a lid on things.  His wife, a former B-movie action star named Molly Michon whose mental state is precarious at best, is off her meds and slowly losing the distinction between her actual self and the barbarian warrior princess she used to play on the screen.  And the angel Raziel is about to grant a Christmas miracle, except that he is, indeed, the stupidest angel in the heavens and what he thinks people want is not actually what they want.  It’s a swirling mix of murder, mayhem, love, action, and more than a few laugh-out-loud funny bits – as one would expect from Moore – and the “2.0” at the end is a little epilogue that gives you a look at the characters a year on, when a new threat to Pine Cove appears.  Not one of Moore’s best, really, but well worth reading anyway.

Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America – An Evangelical’s Lament (Randall Balmer)

I should really know better than to read books like this one.  It’s not like my blood pressure isn’t high enough already.  Balmer is a committed evangelical Protestant who refuses to accept the stranglehold that the Religious Right has on his fellow evangelicals or the ways in which that stranglehold has destroyed most of the claims those evangelicals have on their own past or even, at times, the very notion that they are Christian at all.  In a few short, well-documented chapters he outlines the history of the Religious Right in the US – a history that begins with a spirited defense of segregation and racism and only gradually expands to include more socially acceptable issues such as abortion, which evangelicals initially held rather pro-choice views upon – and the damage that history is doing to both the US in general and to American Christianity in particular.  It is impossible to read this book with anything approaching an open mind and still believe that the right-wing extremists masquerading as conservatives in America today have any moral legitimacy whatsoever or that they speak from any real sense of what the Good News of Christ actually was.  The fact that so many people in the US continue to give them that legitimacy and listen to their views speaks volumes about the sorry state of the American mind and the even sorrier state of American morals and faith.

Bridge of Sighs (Richard Russo)

Books like this are what the words “big-hearted” and “shambling” were created to describe, though that would shortchange the complex, multi-layered structure of the book.  Told in a series of overlapping narratives – several in the present and one more as memory – this is the story of an ordinary life and the extraordinary events it can contain.  Lou C. Lynch (forever known as Lucy, thanks to a teacher’s imprecise diction and the attempted cruelty of his classmates) is a boy in Thomaston, a town in upstate NY that is slowly withering.  The tannery is poisoning the creek, and the old jobs are disappearing.  When Lucy’s father impetuously buys a corner grocery, he ties his family to the town.  It’s a story of Lucy and his father – warm-hearted, innocent, decent people.  Of Lucy’s mother, Tessa, and his eventual wife, Sarah.  Of Bobby Marconi, who flees the town to reinvent himself as Robert Noonan, an artist in Vienna.  It’s a memoir of Lucy’s youth and a bittersweet, melancholic reflection on his present.  Characters come in, play their roles (Lucy’s uncle Declan is a particularly interesting figure), and then disappear, sometimes tragically and sometimes quietly.  Life happens, and then it stops.  It’s a compelling and well-written tale of a quiet life full to the brim with stories.



Total Books: 66 to 74, depending on how one counts
Total Pages: 24,026
Pages/day: 65.8

Happy Reading!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Books Read in 2014, Part 3

The story continues!

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Absurdistan (Gary Shteyngart)

Misha Vainberg is a Russian Jew stranded in Leningrad when this novel opens.  He’s fat (a fact to which he alludes on nearly every page of this 1st-person narrative), wealthy, and the son of Boris Vainberg – noted Jewish dissident from Soviet times, gangster in the post-Soviet era, and 1,238th richest man in Russia.  Misha just wants to go back to New York, his home for years before the novel opens and the place where his girlfriend lives, but the Americans won’t let him back in the country because his father killed an Oklahoma businessman.  So he sits in Russia with his American expatriate friend Alyosha-Bob, bemoaning his fate.  When his father is assassinated it sets off a wild and chaotic chain of events that eventually leaves him in Absurdistan, a former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea where Misha plans to buy a Belgian passport and use it to get back to New York.  But when the Absurdis fall into perhaps the most inept and cynical civil war ever perpetrated things spiral out of control even further and Misha finds himself stranded once again.  This is indeed an absurd novel, part Catch-22, part Portnoy’s Complaint, parts of many things, deliberately ironic and off-kilter, and at times very funny (the grant application Misha writes to try to get a Holocaust museum built in Absurdistan is priceless).  There is a lot of sex in here, much of which is accompanied by a great deal of overthinking on everyone’s part, and a fair bit of violence.  One of the more interesting running jokes of the book is the off-stage character Jerry Shteynfarb – clearly modeled on the author and treated with dripping contempt throughout.  It’s a strange novel and inextricably bound up with its Russian Jewish point of view, but a fun one.

True Brews (Emma Christensen)

This is a recipe book and a guide to making hard cider, mead, sake, and other fermented beverages at home.  It’s pretty straightforward, really – there’s a general introduction, written in the relentlessly perky style of someone who has an obsession they’d like you to share, followed by several sections of recipes.  Each section starts with an interview with a professional in that particular field, followed by a base recipe and then a number of variations.  One of my goals this summer was to learn how to make mead, so this may or may not have been a good book to have, depending on whether I ended up destroying the house or not.

Futureshocks (Lou Anders, ed.) 

There is only so much dystopian science fiction you can read before it all begins to blend together.  This is especially true for short stories, which simply don’t have the room to maneuver that they need to differentiate themselves from the herd.  Thus this collection.  Each story is set in a world not that far removed from ours in time, space, and/or culture, but with a few things amped up or altered to provide a grim future for the story to occur within.  Each story is well written, nicely plotted, and generally of the high quality that you would expect in an anthology edited by Anders.  And none of them are particularly memorable.  They slide from one to the other, interesting enough to read but not incisive enough to get past the level of general entertainment.  Perhaps some of them may one day be expanded into a novel-length story, and at that time they might become more individual.  I’d read them then.

Wolf et al v. Walker et al (Barbara B. Crabbe)

I’m never sure whether to include judicial decisions in these reports, but then it’s my list and I can do what I want with it.  This is the decision of the US District Court for Western Wisconsin that overturned the Wisconsin laws and constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.  There has been quite a kerfluffle over this decision, as you would expect, but my guess is that few if any of the people loudly protesting the idea of civil rights for gay people have actually read what they’re protesting about, and thus it is my considered opinion that they can shut up now.  I’ve read it.  It is a carefully considered, fairly cautious decision that simply notes that the “defendants are making the same mistake as the Court in Bowers when they frame the question in this case as whether there is a “right to same-sex marriage” instead of whether there is a right to marriage from which same-sex couples can be excluded.  … The question is whether the scope of that right may be restricted depending on who is exercising the right.”  And the answer, of course, is no it may not.  Constitutional rights are not subject to the whims of legislatures or rogue regimes, no matter how far they have subverted the machinery of state government.

Doctor Who: Volume 1: Fugitive (Tony Lee [writer], Al Davison and Matthew Dow Smith [art])

A friend of mine bought us an entire raft of Doctor Who graphic novels as part of a Humble Bundle promo, so despite the fact that I’m not much of a comic book reader I figured I’d download them and try them.  This is the first volume, and it was an entertaining read.  The Doctor (clearly David Tennant’s 10th Doctor) finds himself in 1920s Hollywood, where things quickly go wrong and he ends up in a rigged interstellar court headed for a bad end.  There are adventures galore – and not a few silent film references – and then it all ends with the sort of cliffhanger that you would expect it would.  It’s a colorful story and reads quickly, but I suspect that the best part of it is a bit wasted on me – I’m the sort of person who reads the words and barely skims over the artwork, and I would not be surprised if I missed a few critical things.  But it was fun, and I’ll get to the rest of them eventually.

One Summer: America, 1927 (Bill Bryson)

The title of this book is somewhat misleading.  While Bryson maintains a focus on the events of the summer of 1927 – a busy summer, by all accounts – he mostly uses it as a prism to examine the US throughout the tumultuous decade of the 1920s.  And the sections – organized by month and theoretically focused on a specific individual (Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge, Sacco and Vanzetti) – actually double back on each other and contain all sorts of digressions into other figures such as Philo T. Farnsworth and Kennesaw Mountain Landis.  All this is to the good, though.  If you’re looking for a light, fun, fascinating history of the 1920s you should pick up this book immediately.  It’s typical of Bryson’s style – full of dry humor and “wow, I didn’t know that!” facts that even this professional historian found surprising now and then – and you will emerge from it both enlightened and entertained.

Various textbooks previewed for 20th-Century History Class (note: each of these I read about 100-200 pages of before making a decision and moving on to the next book)

The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century (David Reynolds)

This book seemed to promise a general analysis of how WWI – by any account the single most important event of the 20th century – shaped and determined nearly everything that came after it.  But it was heavily focused on the UK and, honestly, rather plodding – it never really seemed to get started.  So I set it aside and went to look for other, more useful things.

The Oxford History of the 20th Century (Michael Howard and Wm. Roger Louis, eds.) 1

This had an interesting thematic approach but at the expense of a useful structure for the class.  Plus a book that is well over 300 pages of agate type is both intimidating to students and hard on the professor’s eyes.  Possibly useful as supplementary reading, if I scan and enlarge it.

A History of the Twentieth Century (Martin Gilbert)

The polar opposite of the Oxford History, it has almost no thematic history whatsoever – indeed, it is little more than a catalogue of events, one after the other, for over 700 pages (impressive, considering this is actually “the concise edition” of the original work).  At first this is rather dull, but as you read along it acquires a certain narrative force.

The Crowfield Curse (Pat Walsh)

William is a lay brother at the Crowfield Abbey in mid-14th-century England – an orphan taken in by the monks in exchange for his labor.  One day out in the woods he comes across an injured hob – a fay creature, normally invisible to humans – and takes it back to the abbey for treatment.  Somehow this gets tangled up in a different story of an angel buried in the forest centuries earlier after a confrontation with the Dark King of the fay, an angel sought by the mysterious Jacobus Bone and his companion Shadlock.  There’s a lot of moving pieces in this YA novel, and Lauren and I enjoyed it together as a bedtime story.  It leaves a lot of room for a sequel, and perhaps we will seek it out.

Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor)

In a desert Africa sometime in a future not too far from ours but far enough that today is neither remembered nor missed, the Nuru people are exterminating the Okeke.  Out of a brutal Nuru rape of an Okeke woman comes a half-blood, an Ewu, named Onyesonwu (which translates to the title).  Onye, as she is called, will be an outcast, a sorceress, and – eventually – a figure of great power.  In this book she will discover who she is, why she is, and what it means to rewrite the Great Book.  This is a violent, intense, passionate story full of life and death, sex and rage, magic and physical reality.  It is a story that deals head on with issues such as rape, female genital mutilation, and genocide, but also with love, friendship, and loyalty.  It is a story that will stay with you, and – while not for everyone, perhaps – it is a story that deserves every award it has won.  Okorafor’s voice is rich, vibrant, and deep.  The story of Onyesonwu, Mwita, Luyu, Dita and Binta carries the reader across the African deserts, though a cultural landscape few Americans understand, and into a place that rewards close reading.  One of the best books I’ve read in a while.

A Tourist Guide to Lancre (Terry Pratchett, Stephen Briggs and Paul Kidby)

After the intense experience of Who Fears Death, I decided I needed something light, and what could fit that bill better than a few Discworld Mapps.  This one covers Lancre, the mountainside kingdom whose main export is witches.  It comes with a handsome map (or mapp, as the title insists) and a small booklet introducing the place as written by Gytha Ogg (one of the Lancre witches) and Eric Wheelbrace, a parody of the sort of English gentleman whose main joy in life is walking through the countryside and across the rights of way that he insists exist wherever he wants to walk.  It’s a fun little book.

Death’s Domain (Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidby) )

Very much like A Tourist Guide to Lancre, this booklet-and-mapp collection focuses on the house and land of Death, who lives outside of time and space, thus making this mapp a bit more conceptual than most.  It’s hard to describe a place that exists mostly because its resident insists that it should (what need has Death of a bathroom, for example? – this gives the bathroom a certain “almost but not quite” quality perhaps best exemplified by towels that are rock hard but are there because bathrooms should have towels.  The character of Death has always been one of my favorites in Discworld, in part because of his gently mystified view of humanity and in part because of his willingness to be exactly who he is.

The Compleat Ankh-Morpork City Guide (Terry Pratchett) 

If you’ve ever seen a 19th-century city guide – the kind that nearly all American cities of any size at all issued nearly annually in those days before telephone directories – you’ll know exactly what this book looks like.  It is a comprehensive guide to the leading city of the Discworld, complete with a large (roughly 30” square) and detailed double-sided map of the city.  The city guide includes long sections discussing lodgings, pubs and restaurants, clubs and societies, temples, guilds, and so on, as well as an exceedingly fine-grained street index and a long directory of merchants of every kind.  All of these sections – even the street index – are annotated and speak to a depth of creation unusual in any secondary world.  Plus, if you look carefully, there are all sorts of references and jokes ranging from allusions to the Discworld novels (Ronnie Soak is listed in the merchant directory as a dairyman with no further explanation given) and beyond (there are apparently two goldsmiths in Ankh-Morpork: a Mrs. Niebelungsson and a Mr. Sauron [“rings resized”]).  It is a strangely absorbing book that way.

Under the Shadow: The Atomic Bomb and Cold War Narratives (David Seed)

What is it about literary theory that turns fascinating subjects into dreary slogs?  This should have been a much more interesting book than it was.  Seed looks at some of the atomic bomb fiction that was produced in the second half of the 20th century (nobody could possibly look at it all – believe me, I’ve tried) and tries to fit it into a larger framework of the Cold War.  He does a nice job of introducing a number of works, some of them more famous (those, such as Fail-Safe, he tends to hang chapters on) and others less so (often used as examples to flesh out the chapters, though Mordechai Roshwald’s now-neglected Level 7 does get a chapter of its own).  And he has a lot to say about them.  But even for this historian who teaches a class on the atomic bomb and who reads thoroughly in the subgenre of science fiction under discussion here (few of the books Seed mentions were new to me), this was a heavy and often ponderous book to read.

The Magician King (Lev Grossman)

Quentin Coldwater and his friends Eliot, Janet, and Julia, are now kings and queens of Fillory, the magical world they managed to break into in Grossman’s first book in this series (The Magicians).  It was a costly victory, but they have now settled into lives of ease and luxury.  Naturally, Quentin is restless.  When an encounter with the Seeing Hare goes horribly wrong, he decides to go on a voyage to the Outer Island, for no other reason than the fact that it isn’t just hanging around the castle doing what he’s been doing, which hasn’t been much.  And at that point things get complicated.  There are side trips to Earth and to the Neitherworlds – a portal plane between worlds – and a long quest to collect seven golden keys that will save magic and, with it, Fillory itself.  But there is a cost to this.  The hero is not the one who triumphs, Grossman says several times in the book.  The hero is the one who pays.  Woven throughout this novel in alternating chapters is the backstory of Julia and how she became one of this group without going to Brakebills, the school of magic that provided entry into this world for Quentin and most of his friends.  Julia’s story is dark, painful and angry, a bleak counterpoint to Quentin’s life, and is as much a focus of this novel as Quentin’s own story.  A minor character in The Magicians, Julia is in fact a far more compelling figure here than Quentin, though he has matured and deepened also.  And when it all converges at the end, as it must, the hero is indeed the one who pays.  Yes, there is magic, Grossman says, but it is neither pleasant nor free and those who tangle with power must pay the price whether they win or lose.  A much more complex, nuanced, and thoughtful book than The Magicians, this is the rare middle volume of a trilogy that easily surpasses its predecessor and recasts it in more a more favorable light.

The Toyminator (Robert Rankin)

Reading Robert Rankin is the literary equivalent of eating cheesecake – very good but very rich, and not something you’re going to do as often as you think you will when you start.  Some authors are potato chip writers – you can snork down book after book.  Others, like Rankin, you read one book at a time and then take a break.  This is because Rankin writes with such density and has such fun with the language.  His dialogue is wry and often absurd. His plots are thick with detail.  And his books teem with references unhighlighted that the aware may enjoy and the unaware pass over.  In this book – the sequel to The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse – there is trouble in Toytown.  Former mayor Eddie (a talking teddy bear) and his human (“meathead”) sidekick Jack reunite to form their old private investigation team and are immediately drawn into a web of crime and deceit that will eventually lead them through the portal and into a version of Los Angeles that has clearly been set up as a jaundiced Englishman’s takedown of American culture – everything from television and movies to UFOs and a cutting satire of the American Dream.  Plus, there are evil chickens.  It’s a hard plot to explain and really there is no need – the joy of Rankin is in the writing and the ideas.

Fish (Gregory Mone)

Maurice – Fish, to everyone including his parents – lives on a farm in Ireland sometime in the indeterminate past when horses drove agriculture and pirates roamed the Atlantic.  His family is poor and Fish hates farming, so when the family horse dies and he is sent to the city to be a messenger boy for his Uncle Gerry, it’s almost a blessing for him.  But when a delivery goes terribly wrong, Fish finds himself pressed into the crew of the Scurvy Mistress, where he learns to become a pirate.  This will involve making a few friends among those of similar age in the crew (Daniel, Nate, and Nora), figuring out a mystery that has eluded Captain Cobb, and trying to survive a mutiny among the crew.  It’s a fast-moving and generally good-hearted YA novel that Lauren and I enjoyed reading together at bedtime, and we were sorry to see it end.

The Penguin History of the 20th Century (JM Roberts)

After having read a number of these histories for my class this fall, this was clearly the best of the bunch and the only one I managed to read all the way to the end.  Granted, this may be damning with faint praise, but still.  Roberts is a good writer and his chapters are well organized and can sustain longer arguments than simply “This happened which made that happen.”  I did actually learn a lot, and once in a while – once in a very great while – he’d sneak in something funny, in an exceedingly dry British sort of way.  I can assign this book to my students without regret.  The fact that this is a British book had some other interesting consequences as well.  The US is not the center of attention, for one thing.  And one of his running themes is the declining importance of faith and religion in the Western world, an argument that can only be made outside of the US and which shows just how bizarre the US is on that score compared with other similar nations.

And If I Perish: Frontline US Army Nurses in World War II (Eveylyn M. Monahan and Roesmary Neidel-Greenlee)

US Army nurses served in all of the major campaigns in the ETO during WWII, but received little recognition for it.  Their rank was honorary only.  They were paid half what the men were paid.  They were not counted as veterans until the 1980s.  This book seeks to bring their service back to the forefront, and it does a very nice job of it.  Based on archival research and interviews with many surviving nurses, it runs through the North Africa campaign, the invasion of Italy (Anzio was particularly hellish), the Normandy invasion, and the conquest of Germany, as seen through the eyes of the nurses.  It is filled with compelling details and stories, and by the end you find yourself with a new perspective on WWII, which for a professional historian is sometimes a difficult thing to achieve.

Imperfect Birds (Anne Lamott)

I’m not really sure why this book didn’t do much for me.  I normally enjoy Anne Lamott’s writing, and the story was well told.  Rosie is a teenager.  Her mother and stepfather care for her but don’t really understand her problems, and her problems are getting out of hand.  I suppose there would have been further explanation and resolution had I continued, but having just finished a long book I was required to read, slogging through another one that didn’t do much for me that wasn’t actually required didn’t appeal to me, so I stopped.  It was good, though, so perhaps I may get back to it when I am in a more receptive mood.

The Human Division (John Scalzi)

In this installment of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe, things are not right in the human part of the galaxy.  The Earth is not happy about the fact that the Colonial Union had kept them in the dark about so much of the rest of the universe for so long and used them as a breeding pool for colonists and farmers.  The Colonial Union, while contrite, is not happy about having to deal with an Earth that remains fractious, suicidally self-interested, and generally unable to grasp any larger point about the universe at all.  Meanwhile the Conclave – an alliance of some 400 of the 600-700 known alien species – is working to limit humanity’s reach, and possibly destroy it altogether.  Into this comes “the B team” – Ambassador Abumwe, of the Colonial Union diplomatic corps, and her assistants and attached personnel, notably Hart Wilson, Lt. Harry Wilson of the Colonial Defense Forces, and – eventually, Captain Sophia Coloma of the Clarke.  There will be plots, twists, skullduggery, and action aplenty in what is clearly part one of a longer story.  It’s typical Scalzi – well written, fast-paced, light reading, with a few nods to a larger 21st-century humanistic morality and a few more to the golden age of science fiction (tm), circa 1960.  It’s not the most profound thing I’ve ever read, but it was a lot of fun.

Mainspring (Jay Lake)

Hethor Jacques is a man with a problem.  A clockmaker’s apprentice in New Haven, Connecticut, he has just been visited by the Archangel Gabriel who has commanded him to find the Key Perilous and wind the Mainspring of the world.  On a planet where the earth is visibly clockwork – where the brass gears of God spin the planet along its track by meshing with the Great Southern Wall along the equator – this is no small charge.  Hethor’s journey will take him far from New Haven – to Boston, where he will meet the Viceroy who, even in 1900, rules America in the name of the British crown; to Her Majesty’s Ship of the Air Basset, a Royal Navy fighting airship; and – eventually – to the Great Southern Wall itself.  Along the way he will find friendship and enemies where he least expects them, learn about a world more complex and troubled than he ever imagined, and maybe, just maybe, find love in the bargain.  Lake’s clockwork world is made of brass and oil and no small amount of sweat – it is a steampunk vision of faith and politics, complete with a Brass Christ and a theological argument that runs its entire length.  I bought this because it looked interesting, but held off reading it until he finished the series.  When Lake died recently I went back and checked and, sure enough, he had.  So now I have all three volumes, and all I can do is regret that he won’t be around to write more fascinating stories like this one.

Escapement (Jay Lake)

Hethor Jacques does not appear in this second installation of the Mainspring universe, except once or twice in passing reference.  Instead, the focus of attention shifts to three other characters – two returning faces from Mainspring, both minor characters in that book, and one new one.  Thus we greet again Chief Petty Office Threadgill Angus al-Wazir, late of Her Majesty’s Ship of the Air Bassett and now tasked with the unenviable mission of keeping watch over Doctor Ottweill, a mad and maddening engineering genius whom the British government has commissioned to drill a hole in the miles-high Wall that girdles the Earth at the equator.  Thus also we meet Emily McHenry Childress, Librarian at Yale and the person who sent Hethor on his way several years earlier.  Through a series of actions she will end up on a Chinese submarine masquerading as a much more important person than she actually is and hoping that she can stave off a dire threat to the world.  And, most intriguingly, we meat Paolina Barthes, a teenaged girl growing up on the Wall (a Muralha, in her native Portuguese).  Paolina is a genius, a wonderworker, and an independent spirit who has had it Up To Here with the shiftless, brutal men who run her little village.  When she creates a Gleam – a mechanical device that allows her to tap into the rhythms of Lake’s clockwork world – she flees her village and sets off a chain of events that will eventually draw all of the characters into the larger narrative.  Fast-paced, fascinating, and a good set-up for the third volume of this series.

Pinion (Jay Lake)

The cast increases severalfold in this concluding volume of the Mainspring universe, and the action spreads out across the globe.  Paolina, Childress, and al-Wazir are all back for more and Hethor Jacques makes a reappearance as well.  Other old characters – Kitchens, Boaz – reappear as well, promoted to major character status, and new major characters (Wang, Gashansunu) appear as well.  There are a lot of balls in the air, in other words, and only once – and only for about half a chapter – are they all in the same place at the same time.  Mostly the reader is left to follow their adventures separately, each with their own subtitled sections of chapters, as the action gradually builds to a conclusion.  The major empires of the Northern World are now at war, and this sets in motion a dizzying array of plots, sideplots and counterplots – if there is a flaw in this book it is that the kaleidoscope of viewpoints obscures the narrative flow (the drilling project so central to the previous book is largely relegated to insignificance here) and does not reward a reader who can devote only so much time per day to the book.  New and other central characters who don’t get their own subsections weave their way through the plot as well.  The plot soars through theology, politics, love and identity, and Lake does a reasonable job of tying together most of the loose ends, though he is not above leaving a few of them dangle or resolving them with rather swift brutality on occasion.  This is the weakest of the three books in this series, but still a very good book.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Books Read in 2014, Part 2

Part next!

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Divergent (Veronica Roth)

Beatrice lives in a Chicago that is a long way away from the one we know.  Much of it is abandoned.  Lake Michigan is a marsh.  The inhabited areas are surrounded by a fence.  And the people living there are divided into five Factions – Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, and Candor.  Those who do not fit in – the factionless and the Divergent – are outcasts and threats, respectively.  Beatrice is a member of Abnegation but her tests reveal her to be Divergent, something she must hide if she wants to survive.  On selection day, she chooses to be Dauntless, leaving her family for the chance to be initiated into a new faction and taking “Tris” as her new name.  There she will find friendship, love and cruelty.  She will find the courage of the Dauntless, and receive and dispense the violence that the faction practices as its trade, upon itself and others.  And when things go horribly wrong, she will be called to make her stand.  I started reading this because it is a favorite of both my daughters – the new hot YA series now that The Hunger Games has moved on to the later stages of its lifecycle – and it is a brisk and fairly entertaining read.  It’s rather straightforward, in a simplistic sort of way, and it leaves a great many gaping questions unanswered.  But the action moves along crisply, the characters are thin but still feel real, and I can understand why it’s so popular.  On to the next volume of the trilogy.

Insurgent (Veronica Roth)

The second installment of this series begins about an hour after the first one left off, and as with all middle volumes of trilogies it has the unenviable task of picking up a story and then dropping it off without either starting or ending anything too critical.  In this Roth largely succeeds – the clashes get bigger, the stakes get higher, and in the end she has set herself up for the third book nicely.  That said, the book is surprisingly thin and shrill at times.  There is an awful lot of over-emotional relationship crisis in here, as you would expect from a book aimed mostly at teenagers.  For all the bows made toward the notion of greys the basic moral framework of the book is simplistic and loaded with Big Words.  And – one thing that niggled at me throughout – the characters suffer all sorts of injuries over the course of the action-packed narrative yet seem to heal with miraculous speed.  Not completely, of course – the pains are always there to be exploited for dramatic tension – but these characters are physically capable of doing things almost immediately that nobody with those injuries could actually do in that time frame.  You notice this sort of thing when you get to be my age.  Overall this is clearly the work of a young writer (a quick Google search confirms that she was 24 when this was published) with big ideas and small experience.  That she can pull off this series as well as she has speaks to a good bit of talent, though, and I look forward to reading her work as she and her stories mature.

Allegiant (Veronica Roth)

The final volume of the series also picks up an hour after its predecessor, which makes this more of a single story carried over three publication dates rather than a trilogy, but trying to get a 1600pp YA novel published would probably have been more trouble than it was worth.  So, volume 3.  It is astonishing just how American this entire series is in its general attitude – nobody has sex, but everyone has a gun.  In this book Roth will attempt two things, one successfully and one not.  On the plus side she widens out the focus of the story from the claustrophobic confines of what is left of Chicago to the vistas of the wider world in which it is set.  Here we learn what the society of the factions is really about, and we get to debate whether it should continue to exist or not – a debate complicated by the goings on within the city itself even if those goings on are rather distant from the narrative.  On the down side, Roth splits the POV of the story.  The previous two books were told from Tris’ point of view, and if the characters all ended up speaking with more or less the same voice then you could attribute it to that.  With every other chapter told from Tobias’ point of view, however, it is clear that Roth has yet to learn how to tell a story in multiple voices – the chapters sound exactly the same, and often the only clue to the identity of the narrator is the subheading at the beginning.  The story moves along briskly for that – Roth is nothing if not generous with bloodletting, both physical and emotional – and the quiet, reflective ending is thus somewhat redemptive.  There’s a reason why the POV splits, it turns out.  It’s not a bad series, though if you’re going to compare it to The Hunger Games – which everyone seems to do almost reflexively – it will come up a bit short simply on the merits of its writing.

The Books of the South (Glen Cook)

Shadow Games

When The White Rose ended, the Black Company was down to its last seven men – eight if you include Lady (no longer THE Lady).  With nothing left to accomplish, the senior surviving officer – the physician and annalist Croaker – decides to seek out Khatovar, where the Black Company originated, somewhere deep in the south of the world.  This is the story of their journey.  At first the story alternates between the difficulties of their trip (notably the competing responsibilities burdening Lady and the borderline-pathological clumsiness of the mating dance between her and Croaker) and another story centering on three grifters (Swan, Cordy, and Blade) in a town called Taglios.  Taglios is on the Black Company’s way, and it is threatened by the Shadowmasters – faceless, vague evils commanding very real forces.  As with all Black Company books there is adventure and combat aplenty, challenges faced and won, and challenges faced and lost.  The Black Company will grow to thousands, and shrink again.  Old evils will reawaken and new ones join them.  Through it all the most compelling character remains Lady – struggling to find herself in the wake of past events and discovering a complexity that largely eludes the other characters.  Cook is a fun writer with a sharp eye for a story, though not necessarily a profound writer.

Dreams of Steel

Following immediately upon the catastrophe that ended Shadow Games, this book is essentially three different stories.  The first belongs to Lady, who takes up Croaker’s old role as Annalist in order, she says, to set things straight in her own mind and document her determination to avenge Croaker’s death at the hands of the Shadowmasters.  Along the way she finds herself ever more entwined with the cult of Kina, whose devotees have all sorts of horror in store for her.  The second belongs, oddly enough, to Croaker, who isn’t actually dead.  Captured by Soulcatcher and turned into a pawn, he spends much of the book gathering himself and – eventually – the remnants of the Company for the resumption of his original mission.  And the third, interwoven with both, is the story of Swan, Blade and Cordy, grifters turned stalwarts, as they navigate between the various forces who would do them in.  The Shadowmasters threaten both offstage and, in the person of Longshadow, onstage.  Old nemeses reappear, new allies continue to make their presence known, and it all ends on an ominous cliffhanger, though one that I figured out chapters beforehand.  It was still fun watching the characters catch up, though.

The Silver Spike

This isn’t so much a Black Company book as it is a chance for Cook to tie up a number of loose ends from previous books.  Part of the reason he has to do this is that between the sorcery and the deceptions it is damnably hard for some of his characters to stay dead, and several of the main characters in this one have been reported so previously only to have those reports turn out to be exaggerated.  At the end of The White Rose the essence of the Dominator was imprisoned in a silver spike embedded in a sapling of the tree god of the plains, and human nature dictates that where anything valuable is, there too shall be petty criminals looking for an easy score.  That part of the story belongs to Smed, Tully, Timmy, and Old Man Fish – the last named being clearly more than he says he is, but the others just your basic neighborhood mooks.  A second part involves Darling, Silent, and – eventually – Bomanz,.  Another part involves Raven and Case, first as they journey to find Croaker in the South and then as they head back north with Darling’s crew to the town of Oar, where the spike has been taken.  And finally there is the Limper, or what is left of him, a seething force of hatred and destruction who also wants the spike.  They all collide in Oar, with catastrophic results for most of them, and then Cook spends a page or two explaining what happened to the characters left over.  It’s an odd book for the series, but a good one.

The Return of the Black Company (Glen Cook)

Bleak Seasons

Listen – Murgen the Annalist has come unstuck in time.  He spends the bulk of the first part of this novel flitting about between the besieged town of Dejagore, where so much of Shadow Games and Dreams of Steel took place, and through a Taglios that may or may not be anywhere near there in time.  And when he finally does settle down in one chronological location, he learns how to ride the spirit of the comatose wizard Smoke across time and distance so he can travel again.  This is a tricky book to follow in many ways, and clearly an experiment in form for Cook.  The book also covers – from Murgen’s perspective – some of the same events as Shadow Games and Dreams of Steel, and delves into the history and culture of the Nyueng Bao, a people trapped with the Black Company and the natives in Dejagore but utterly apart from both.  Eventually Murgen will find – and lose – a wife.  He will get caught up in the larger machinations of the ongoing war between the Black Company, Longshadow, and the Deceivers – a war with so many different angles and subplots that keeping it all straight can be hard even for the main players.  And through it all Cook will continue to tell his story of hard men hard used but carrying through anyway.

She is the Darkness

Picking up immediately after the events of Bleak Seasons, the Black Company continues its war against Longshadow and its quest to find its origins at Khatovar.  The book divides its time between the Company and its auxiliary forces of Taglians and Ngueyan Bao, who are camped outside of Overlook, besieging Longshadow inside his fortress, and Murgen, who spends much of the book outside of his body, either surfing with the spirit of the old wizard Smoke or dreamwalking on his own.  Murgen is the perfect spy, and he discovers quite a number of things that are useful, surprising, or both.  Eventually the Company will make its long-awaited assaults – first on Overlook, and then on the Shadowlands themselves, where things will go horribly wrong (as they tend to do at the end of Black Company books, though not often in the ways you expect) and everything will get set up for the next volume in the Glittering Stones subseries.  One of the more intriguing questions in this book is just who the “she” is of the title.  It could be Lady, whose role in this series grows ever more complex and intriguing.  It could be her sister, Soulcatcher, a force for chaotic evil that even Lady can’t predict effectively.  It could be the dark goddess Kina, a menacing presence mostly offstage.  Or it could be Croaker and Lady’s daughter, who seems to combine most of the features of all of the previous characters in one small but powerful child.

The Battle of the Labyrinth (Rick Riordan)

Percy Jackson’s story continues to get darker and more intense as he, Annabeth, Grover, and Tyson are sent out on yet another quest, this one into the Labyrinth of Daedalus to thwart an imminent invasion by the forces of Kronos.  Along the way there will be betrayals and battles, new allies and old enemies.  Nico di Angelo’s continuing struggle to come to grips with the death of his sister – a strange struggle, given his parentage – plays a part in this, as does the unusually perceptive mortal Rachel Elizabeth Dare, whose interest in Percy is probably more than friendly and definitely causing issues with Annabeth that Percy at 14 or 15 is too dense to figure out.  The stakes and the costs get higher, the action gets more focused, and Riordan sets himself up well for the final volume of this entertaining series.

The Many Deaths of the Black Company  (Glen Cook)

Water Sleeps

It’s been a few years since the Captured were entombed beyond the Shadowgate, and the remnants of the Black Company toil in secrecy in a Taglios firmly under the control of the Protector – their old nemesis Soulcatcher.  Led by Sahra (as always, it is incredibly hard to actually kill characters in these books, and they often come back to play significant roles) and Sleepy (the narrator of this book), guided by the free-flying soul of Murgen and the now aged and diminished One-Eye and Goblin, and containing the up and coming wizard Tobo, the shadows of the Black Company do their best to stymie the Protector while at the same time furthering their eventual goal of returning to the plain and releasing the Captured.  Meanwhile the old Deceiver, Narayan Singh, and the Daughter of Night (nicknamed “Booboo”) are also out there, trying to get their plans for the Year of the Skulls rolling.  These books can start to sound a little stilted when you try to summarize them, but Cook keeps them lively and remarkably down to earth, with none of the insufferable posturing that the genre can fall into at its worst.  Mostly he’s telling a story of hard men and women, hard used and hard working, trying to do what they think is best in a world that doesn’t really care.  Eventually they will make an ally of a demon, journey across the plain to a place that might be Khatovar, and wait for the final volume of the saga to complete their story.

Soldiers Live

The concluding volume of the story of the Black Company – and one of the longest books in the series – opens with the Company coming off of a period of relative peace and prosperity in a different world from the one they started in, so many stories ago.  They are across the Glittering Plains and through the Shadowgate, and for four years nobody has died.  This, of course, cannot last, and the Company must journey back across the Plain to settle old scores in their home world.  Along the way they will acquire new enemies and allies – notably several young wizards from a family known as the Voroshk, from a different world yet again – and they will battle both Soulcatcher and the Daughter of Night for both the survival of the world and the prize of Taglios.  This series got progressively more mystical as it went along and I think I liked it better when they were just a mercenary company trying to survive in a brutal and violent world rather than as avatars of gods, but the writing remained entertaining and the stories were more complicated than they might seem on first glance.  There are few outright villains – most of the characters outside of the Company (and some inside) can be found on any number of sides as the story progresses – and Cook mostly keeps the focus on the characters and how they would react to things rather than letting the story being driven by the needs of plot alone.  Eventually it ends up as any story of war and soldiers must, with few left standing to tell the stories of those who have fallen, and an overtone of regret and pain throughout.

The Serpent of Venice (Christopher Moore)

Moore’s novel Fool tells the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear from the perspective of the titular fool – an orphan named Pocket – and in this book we get a new chapter of Pocket’s life.  He has been sent to Venice as an emissary of the Queen of England to stop a Crusade being plotted there against the Muslim world, one that would enrich Venice but impoverish almost everyone else.  When he is drugged and nearly killed in the first chapter, his story becomes one of revenge and low comedy in equal proportions.  Combining Lear, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello into one bizarre mash-up, and bringing in Marco Polo and a Chinese dragon as major characters, this is one of Moore’s more far-ranging books.  It takes a while for it to get going, but by halfway through it is rolling along with Moore’s signature blend of deft plotting and cheerfully vulgar humor.  This is not a book for the delicate of sensibility, but for the rest of us it’s a lot of fun.

The Last Olympian (Rick Riordan)

The final book of the first Percy Jackson series finds our heroes in dire straights.  The Titan Kronos is moving steadily toward his goal of overthrowing the Olympian gods, and with the gods preoccupied with fighting Typhon as he works his way across the US the demigods at Camp Half-Blood are all that stand in his way.  The book opens with a disastrous raid on Kronos’ ship in the Atlantic, and then spends most of its time on the final battle for New York City (where modern Olympus rests).  It’s a darker and more serious book than most of the others in the series, and more tightly focused.  But Riordan makes it work, and for the moment all seems right with Percy Jackson’s world.  And then there’s the next series, which Lauren and I may get to soon. 

Raising Steam (Terry Pratchett)

This is another of Pratchett’s “how X came to Discworld books,” a subgenre that runs the gamut from the very good (The Truth – how newspapers came to Discworld) to mostly forgettable (Unseen Academicals – how soccer came to Discworld) with a few stops in between.  It’s hard to say where this one fits on the scale of Pratchett’s writing, because for long stretches of the book I wasn’t sure if Pratchett was actually the one writing it.  I know that his health has been poor and that his daughter is the officially designated heir apparent to continue the series once he can no longer handle it, and there were long stretches of this book – especially toward the beginning – where it felt like someone was doing a reasonable but not very sophisticated impression of Pratchett’s style.  It does get better as it goes, though, so either she is picking up the skill fairly rapidly, or Pratchett himself takes over, or Pratchett was writing all along and the book simply gets better for other reasons.  Hard to say.  Now that Watch Commander Vimes has moved offstage as the main voice of the Ankh-Morpork-based stories, the central focus of books set in that city has become Moist von Lipwig – forcibly reformed con man, basically good hearted fellow, entrepreneur extraordinaire, and a man about to branch out from previous successes with the post office, Royal Bank, and “clacks” (the Discworld equivalent of telegraphs) to bring the railroad to Discworld.  Train engineer Dick Simnel has invented the locomotive and wants to build the railway.  Sir Harry King has more money than he knows what to do with and would like to branch out from his night-soil business to fund something more respectable.  And the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, would like a rapid form of transportation that could bring him to Bonk, in Uberwald, both to see his consort there and to have someone head off what eventually becomes a rebellion among the dwarfs.  It takes about half the book before it finds its stride, as noted, but after that it is a typical late-Pratchett romp – solidly entertaining though not among his best.

Rule 34 (Charles Stross)

Charles Stross’ head must be an interesting place to live, if his writing is anything to go by.  I found him through his Laundry Files books and enjoyed one of his hard-SF space thrillers a while back, but this book is part of yet another series.  It’s something of a near-future SF-noir police procedural, and it takes place in the same world as Halting State, only a few years later.  It’s a swirling kalaidascope of a story – Stross is the only author I’ve ever seen successfully (or, for that matter, unsuccessfully) pull off a book with multiple second-person narrators – centering once again on the efforts of the beleaguered Edinburgh police force in a now semi-independent Scotland where law enforcement takes place almost entirely within the digital confines of CopSpace.  There’s old-fashioned legwork aplenty, of course, but everything is logged, filed, and distributed in real time through digital glasses and high-bandwidth networks.  At the center of this story are DI Liz Kavanaugh (now treading water, career-wise, in what is unofficially known as the Rule 34 Squad, monitoring the internet for perversions that cross whatever line has been drawn most recently), Anwar Hussein (small-time con artist, parolee, closeted gay family man, and for much of this book the sole employee of the Consulate of the Independent Republic of Issyk-Kulistan, a breakaway region of Kyrgyzstan), and John Christie (not his real name – the sociopathic agent of an organized crime outfit called the Operation, in Edinburgh on business).  Throw in a semi-sentient monitoring program designed to cut crime, a long-running plot by the Kyrgyz government to break the Operation, and a large and increasing number of bizarre homicides across the world, and it all gets fairly complicated.  This is a demanding but rewarding novel, and well worth the effort.

The Wanting Seed (Anthony Burgess)

This is a book that does not quite know what it wants to be.  It’s billed as dystopian comedy – the London Times Literary Supplement called it “wildly and fantastically funny” when it came out in 1962 – but that only proves that humor does not age well.  There are parts of it that call to mind Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, with its grim portrayal of totalitarian society.  There are parts more akin to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, with its drastic solutions to famine and poverty woven through.  There are bits of Orwell sprinkled here and there.  And the last third or so reads like a particularly bleak version of Carry On, Sergeant.  The whole mix really does not hang very well together, and it was a book I was glad to see the end of.  It’s set in a future Britain where there is no crime, war, or disease, and as a result there is horrific overpopulation and almost no food.  Religion has been banned, and the State controls all of society.  Tristram is a history teacher, spouting off his theories of social cycles – society, he says, cycles between a Pelagian period of liberal faith in human nature, an Interlude period of violence, an Augustinian period where humanity is viewed as corrupt, and then back to Pelagius.  His wife Beatrice-Joanna (always referred to by her full name) is bored and having an affair with Tristram’s brother Derek.  The book opens with her taking her dead son to the proper office to have him recycled into fertilizer, and quickly becomes a farce when she then becomes pregnant again – an illegal and defiant act.  Eventually she flees Greater London (a city occupying most of what is now England), and when the social order implodes Tristram is jailed and eventually shoveled into the newly reconstituted Army.  Religion is restored, food seems to reappear as if by magic (although it’s painfully clear where the meat comes from), and a new Augustinian age dawns.  The last third is mostly Tristram’s army story, a bitterly bleak tale of betrayal and perhaps redemption – Burgess leaves that hanging.  This scattershot mess clearly wasn’t the novel that secured Burgess’ literary reputation.