Thursday, March 31, 2011

100 Books 22 - (Super-Secret Beta Reading!)

I've got a lot of beta-reading on my plate this spring, entire novels in the rough that I'm examining for their authors (I have a lot of friends who are authors or inspiring authors). I'm going to count them toward my 100 books, but I can't really blog about them for obvious reasons.

Book 22 is a secret. I finished it yesterday and sent it back to its daddy with many notes. It's a sci-fi/horror hybrid I'd been not-so-patiently waiting for ever since its author told me of the idea he had for it, and it was lots of fun, but since I take my beta-responsibilities very seriously, it was also a lot of work.

It's gonna be good, I can tell you that.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

100 Books 21 - Christopher Priest's INVERTED WORLD

I tore through Inverted World as if the world was falling apart behind me, swept along with the City of Earth on its rails. It's one of the most peculiar, brain-hurting novels I've ever read, more akin to a Douglas Hofstadter treatise or an extended thought experiment than an ordinary genre tale, but more, rather than less engaging for this fact.

It snuck up on me, though.

I took this one up for two reasons: I like Christopher Priest and the old-school British science fiction writers like he and John Wyndham represent, and I've developed a curious fascination with a very specific and peculiar sci-fi trope of which Inverted World seems an early (1974) example: the railroad in perpetual motion, pulling up its tracks behind it and building new ones ahead, on and on perhaps forever. This peculiarity appears in the culmination of China Mieville's Iron Council, in which the convict laborers building a railroad through the badlands of Mieville's baroque and unsettling fantasy universe of Bas-Lag seize control of the works and turn the train and the railroad into a perpetually moving city that disappears into the physics-defying Cacotopic Stain; it shows up again in Alastair Reynolds' Absolution Gap (Revelation Space) in the form of a parade of mobile cathedrals traveling a planet's equator in order to keep an astronomical anomaly always in view. It's a deeply weird thing and if you, my few but wondrous readers, know of other examples, please share them!

The perpetual railroad in Inverted World carries a whole city on its back. It both is and isn't what you are thinking now; the city contains a few thousand inhabitants and is a multistoried warren, but it's built mostly of wood in various stages of weathering. When finally seen by an outsider, it's a bizarre and baroque monstrosity. The city, which the inhabitants refer to as Earth (sometimes specifying Earth city as opposed to Earth planet, on which they do not believe they live and from which they continually await rescue), moves along at a pace of about a mile every ten days, in fits and starts. Tracks are pulled up and moved to the front and then vast winches within the city's structure pull it forward. Occasionally this is delayed when natural obstacles like rivers appear, when a crack team of bridge builders hurries to construct a suspension bridge that can bear the city's weight, which bridge is then just as quickly torn down that its materials may be used in the next bridge.

The city moves in pursuit of the ever-receding "optimum," a locus in their world at which time and space behave normally. This is vastly important because time and space manifestly do not behave normally elsewhere; north of optimum, bodies (living and otherwise) lengthen and thin and the subjective time of a visitor speeds up so that weeks spent north of the city pass as mere hours back home. South of optimum, bodies broaden and splay (even mountains flatten out into something that can be clutched in one hand as one hangs off the ground, feeling gravity as a pull southwards rather than down) and time slows so that a few weeks spent south pass as months or years (or actually "miles" as the city measures time; hence our protagonist starts his tale as a young man of 650 miles old). The sun and the world (which can be seen in its near totality from the northern and southern extremes of the city's route) appear as hyperbolic solids rather than spheres.

And the very ground is moving, too, southward, it too pulled by the same "centrifugal force" that pulls on the poor man hanging on to those tiny, flattened mountains by his fingertips. If the city stops chasing the optimum, it will be destroyed by this force and all will perish.

Within this universe is contained only a slight narrative; we experience the plight of Earth City through the aformentioned youth, who rejoices in the hilariously apt name of Helward Mann. Following in his rapidly aging father's footsteps, he becomes a member of the guild of Future Surveyors, those who travel north and scout out the city's route. In doing so, he becomes privy to the nature of the world he inhabits in the way most other residents of Earth City do not, for it was decreed long ago that it would be best of ordinary citizens were kept ignorant of the city's true plight. No windows look outside of the city at the hyperbolic sun, and children are still taught that they live on a spherical planet.

The crisis of this civilization does come as a result of our hero's actions, as well it should in anything that could claim to be a novel, but as I said before this book really isn't about the plot. An explanation is eventually given for why Helward's world is so deeply weird (and the theory I developed as I read turned out to be wrong, but the "truth" was better than my theory, so I was satisfied) and I finished Inverted World quickly but sorry to see it end. My pulse did not pound, I never feared for the hero's safety, there was no romance, but the mystery of the inverted world obviated the need for these and kept me turning the pages just as quickly as one might in a cracking good suspense novel.

I wouldn't say this book is for everyone, but it was definitely for me.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

100 Books 20 - Brand Gamblin's THE HIDDEN INSTITUTE

As I was finishing up Brand Gamblin's follow-up to the excellent Tumbler, a thought kept occurring to me that I couldn't shake: If my buddy Brand (for buddy he is, on Twitter and from Balticon) keeps it up, he could be a 21st century L. Frank Baum. I can think of no other writer whose work can beguile a precocious pre-tween and a cynical old grown up to this degree. And I have evidence: my friend's ten-year-old daughter has read Tumbler at least three times since I gave to her in December, and all of my grown up friends who have read or listened to it seem to enjoy it just as much.

The comparison doesn't stop there, though. Brand tells charming and fanciful stories with a lot of wide-eyed innocence and just a smidgeon of jeopardy -- and the jeopardy is as likely to be social as it is physical. That's as true of Tumbler as it is of The Hidden Institute, though they are otherwise very different books: Tumbler concerns a young woman struggling to make her way as a beginning asteroid miner, while The Hidden Institute concerns a young man dealing with a more earthbound -- but also more fanciful -- situation.

At the heart of The Hidden Institute is a chillingly possible (and becoming more so almost daily) future society in which our own near class-wars have been mostly settled and the extreme divide between the haves and have-nots has gelled into what amounts to neo-feudalism. A new cadre of aristocrats has seized control of the economic and political levers of a neo-Victorian society that may remind readers of that in Neal Stephenson's staggering The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, but has a heaping helping of a slightly grittier version of Baum's Land of Oz thrown in.

Our hero is Cliffy, an extremely lower class youth who blunders into a bizarre chance to better himself when he witnesses and records what appears to be a murder at the hands of an aristocrat. To hush him up, the seeming criminal gives Cliffy entree into a special, extremely secret, school (no, not Hogwarts) where he can train up to be a gentleman, then seek placement as a higher-level servant in an aristocratic household -- even though even these rather menial posts are reserved for the lower nobility (in this world, aristocrats' servants must be nobly-born or at least ennobled by the King. And yes, this takes place in America!).

Cliffy's journey through the school, with his lessons in history and culture, his deportment lessons (one day it takes three hours to get through a bowl of soup!), self-defense classes, and his foray into bear polo -- hold the phone! BEAR POLO -- it's exactly as it sounds, it's polo played riding bears instead of horses! -- is peppered with very acute observations on what it really means to be an upperclass gentlemen: obeying your servant is at least as important as learning to affect that je ne c'est quoi.

And Cliffy's interactions with his servant Whister, a seemingly omnicompetent robot valet, that give The Hidden Institute most of its Ozziness. I couldn't help picturing Tik-Tok, though Whister does not seem to share in any of his predecessor's limitations; say half Tik-Tok, half Tin Woodman, yet never fearing water or rusting. Such a robot is probably impossible any time soon, but Whister is totally plausible within the narrative because he's just part of the craziness of the story.

But what happens, you might ask, besides the school thing? Quite a lot. Cliffy runs afoul of not one but two conspiracies, either of which could quite easily get him killed. I won't spoil these except to say that fans of the podcast have already nicknamed the distaff conspiracy the "Silk Goon Squad."

The only thing that spoils this delightful read (and this is only problem if, like me, you're sensitive to usage/grammar issues), is a problem that I cannot 100% lay on Gamblin's door because I strongly suspect it's a technology issue. While yes, there are occasional flubs that illustrate again how completely the English language's many homophones are the bane of modern writers who rely on computer spellcheckers("discrete" is used where "discreet" is meant a couple times, with unintentionally humorous consequences), what really drove me nuts is the preponderance of the wrong "its." Every instance I found where either "it's" or "its" might appear, it was always the former, the contraction for "it is" rather than the latter, the possessive form of "it" -- and usually it was the possessive that was wanted. It's a small quibble but it highlights something I think lots of writers and aspiring writers need to be wary of.

I'm not certain that Gamblin has an iPad but he runs with an iPad-loving crowd, and I know a lot of them enjoy writing novel drafts on the device. That means, of course, that a little feature, much complained of, called AUTOCORRECT is a factor, and one of that feature's most annoying habits is always insisting on changing "its" to "it's" because, you know, it knows better than you. I curse it often when I send tweets via my iPod Touch and shudder at the thought of trying to compose a novel-length piece while constantly fighting it off. This is just my theory about what happened though.

The screechy brake sound my brain made whenever I encountered that small issue (and I'm sure your brain has made it in some point reading this blog entry; I type really fast and don't always see my errors until after I've hit "publish") notwithstanding, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Read it yourself and give it to a ten-year-old. Talk about the bear polo and you might even get your teenager to read it. Then you can all have a good sit-down and talk about economic injustice, opportunity and the importance of a good education. Bravo!

A final note. Gamblin has been hinting to me via Twitter that he's contemplating a sort of companion short story or novella centering on a doping scandal in the wild and wooly world of bear polo. If you're at all fond of me, or if you read this book and enjoy it, please join me in urging Gamblin to stop teasing and write the damned thing.

I lied. This is the final note. If you are e-book challenged, you can stil enjoy this one, either as a free audio podcast at the author's website or you can order a copy on dead tree HERE. It says pre-order but I got mine right away.

Friday, March 25, 2011

100 Books 19 - Sakyong Mipham's TURNING THE MIND INTO AN ALLY

My good friend Isoban Valian (aka Christopher Butler) has observed that meditation will make you feel like crap and I'm often inclined to agree. I first dipped my toe into these weird waters about a year ago, and began an earnest effort to practice regularly maybe six months ago, and I still don't feel like I know what I'm doing most of the time, except falling very briefly asleep and having intensely bizarre and imaginative dreams before a hypnic jerk and a guilty start brings me back to watching my breathing.

Why bother? What's it for? My mother wanted to know last visit. And I had a tough time answering her. But the title of this book, Turning Your Mind Into an Ally, given as a hostess gift by a very dear friend last summer, that's what I'm hoping for. That's what I want.

I didn't learn from this book how to get it, but then, despite the title, I didn't expect to. I've read and watched the Dalai Lama enough, read enough other books about religion and spirituality (a non-believer myself, I still find the topic endlessly interesting. Ask me about the astonishing array of Christian heresies I've studied -- but only if you really want to know) to be pretty sure that a how-to book on Buddhist practice is an all but oxymoronic notion. This is no step-by-step guide to enlightenment or inner peace or perfect accord or any of that bulldada.

What it is, is a kindly intended, gentle and slightly amusing excursis on a lot of the basic tenets of Buddhism and how they relate to the practice of meditation. A lot of it explores what it means to suffer because of attachment to things or ideas or people, because of resistance to change. Digging in your heels and gritting your teeth and trying to push against the forces of time and circumstance burns up a lot of energy and can do physical harm (ulcers, migraines, high blood pressure, actual physical energy from temper tantrums -- myself I tend toward migraines, the kind that last three days and are so debilitating my only relief lies in turning off all the lights and sitting in a hot shower in the dark -- conditions which I tend to try to simulate when I sit down to meditate. Aha!). If we can learn to let go, Mipham and his fellows advise, accept what has happened, not worry too much about what's going to happen, just focus on things as they are right now, we have a far better chance of reducing our own suffering and maybe that of others. Maybe.

From what I see in other reviews, a lot of meditation books out there are loaded with jargon and what the skeptic community loves to deride as "woo-woo." Turning the Mind Into an Ally is not one of these. Sakyong Mipham comes from a line of Tibetan Buddhist teachers who are held in great reverence by their community, but he writes like an ordinary American, friendly, familiar with our pop culture and our folkways and our struggles and fears, and relates to these as he discusses how, not to resist these blandishments and detours, but accept that they are there and try just to be anyway -- without ever resorting to a paternalistic or patronizing tone. He comes across as a patient and true friend, who may know more than we but is not going to emphasize it or even acknowledge it unless we insist.

I don't know that I'm any better at meditating than I was before I took up this book, but I'm more comfortable with the idea that that doesn't matter. What matters is I'm taking the time, letting things go and have reached the point where I look forward to doing so. No, I've never achieved that kind of high serenity that Isoban mocks in his post, but friends and colleagues have noticed that I'm a lot more relaxed and subdued and open, nicer to be around -- and I think I'm getting more stuff done in a day than I used to.

Not bad!

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Matt Taibbi was an old hand at documenting the rape of a national economy long before most of his current readership had ever heard of such exotica as Collateralized Debt Obligations and Credit Default Swaps. Spending most of the 90s in post-Soviet Russia watching a handful of well-positioned would-be oligarchs either collude with or just plain swindle the Russian government and the western "privatization experts" who swarmed to help in the full-scale conversion of the biggest experiment in command economies in history to a market economy.

His forehead-slapping account of that wholesale fraud, which left ordinary Russians going for month or years without receiving their salaries and, in the provinces "eating each other out of boredom" is colorfully recorded in his and Mark Ames' The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, a delightfully profane, entertaining and, above all, clear and comprehensible read if ever there was one.

I wonder if he suspected, as he and Ames penned that blood- and cash-soaked opus, that someday he'd more or less be writing the same story about his home country.

Griftopia is essentially a sequel to The Exile with further biographical details removed; Taibbi's a married man now and presumably doesn't spend his leisure hours in appalling dive-bars-cum-whorehouses like Moscow's infamous Hungry Duck. Presumably. What he has continued to do is exercise superhuman patience in unraveling fiendishly complicated legal and financial dealings and the backstories of the masterminds behind them and reweaving the threads into a fairly elegant tapestry that conveys a lot of information simply and extremely entertainingly.

My readers have probably figured out by now that I have a sort of sick fixation on reading about the various ways in which we are screwing ourselves, or allowing ourselves to be screwed. I've read a lot of books that essentially warned of the financial crisis we're currently still experiencing (the best of which is Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century), and some good ones that dissect and lay out what happened and how (Daniel Gross' Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation and Michael Lewis' The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine being two I would recommend to anyone, and would have called my favorites before Griftopia hit my Kindle). I feel decently informed but there's still always more to know, and Griftopia satisfied that need, but it also satisfied something else.

I can't imagine Kevin Phillips or Daniel Gross or Michael Lewis calling former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan "the world's biggest asshole," for instance, though they have and did highlight Greenspan's huge role in the systematic dismantling over most of my adult life of as much as possible of the legal and regulatory architecture that has sheltered us from the large-scale disaster we're all now experiencing. Regulation throttles progress, he and his "greed is good" followers insisted, managing in the process to persuade a huge swath of the middle class, the ordinary small businessmen of this country who should have stood with the little people through all of this that the kind of local red-tape crap that made it hard for them to do business was exactly the same as the anti-trust regulations and close monitoring of derivatives trading and prohibition of insider trading and needed to go! It's breathtaking, and it's still going on; the Tea Party and its allies, little people who think they're one plugged toilet or new refrigerator sale away from joining the millionaire's club, still side with the fat cats and even now hiss and spit at the slightest mention of regulation. It's revolting, and yes, I think Alan Greenspan may well be the world's biggest asshole, as Taibbi says.

It's amazing what a little deregulation can do, not just in the derivatives market, where the resulting follies are well-documented in those other books I've mentioned and are probably familiar by now to anyone with enough interest in what's happened to us to tune in to Planet Money or read a blog once in a while, but also, and this shocked me though it shouldn't have in hindsight, in the commodities market, where a speculative bubble just as bad as the more famous internet and housing ones, drove prices on vital stuffs like gasoline and food way, way up, and forced ordinary people to the brink of starvation. The ridciulous "health care reform" bill we know as ObamaCare, which reformed health care financing only in that it made it easier for insurance companies to make more money, also comes into Taibbi's crosshairs. I'm in danger of straying into paraphrasing and spoiling his arguments here, as of just hitting you with a lot of raw text from the book -- Taibbi is highly quotable on these subjects and more, in his pitchfork-waving way -- and doing so would spoil a lot of the fun of reading Griftopia (imagine that! A fun book about the financial crisis!).

Fun though this book is to read, though, it's fun in the way that I refer to as triggering John Trent laughter (John Trent is the protagonist of John Carpenter's H.P. Lovecraft-inspired In the Mouth of Madness, the final scene of which features Trent watching a film of himself experiencing all of the horrors he thought he'd escaped from; his laughter is bitter and despairing and wholly familiar to people who have been forced to contemplate how badly screwed we are). Taibbi quite rightly points out that modern electoral politics are an irrelevant and distracting side-show, two parties, both far more answerable to Wall Street (source of campaign war-chest money) and other corporate interests than to the actual voters, duking it out over pointless culture war crap like abortion and who is really patriotic and how unfair it is that we can't teach Christianity in public schools. He ends on that depressing note without even trying to propose a way out of the mess, but I won't.

I'm pretty sure my former U.S. Senator, the highly quotable (and also occasionally profane -- I like my public figures salty, I guess) Alan Simpson, was as guilty as anyone currently in office of serving his paymasters first and the voters who put him in a position to serve those paymasters second while he was in office, but in his emeritus years he has embraced a cause that is quite dear to my own heart, and that is public financing of campaigns. Probably too little, too late now that the Supreme Court (in Citizens United vs the Federal Election Commission) has joined the "hand everything over to corporations because some animals are more equal than others and corporations are the biggest animals on the farm" parade, but it may not be too late. Have a look at Common Cause just to humor me, why don't you. It may be the best idea we've got left, though it's perhaps a mistake to try to do this from the top down. For one thing, a reform this major to how we elect the President of the United States would have to go through Congress, and the corporate/financial industry interests who call Congress's tunes won't like the measure and will put up an ungodly fight. No, we might have to start doing this at the local level. An ordinance in your city, establishing a common fund for city council candidates and requiring them to use their allotment from it and no others in running for office could just be doable, some places. And successes can spread. Just maybe.

We allowed Griftopia to swallow our polity, but maybe we can yet administer an emetic. What have we got to lose in trying?

Friday, March 18, 2011

100 Books 17 - John Urbancik's SINS OF BLOOD AND STONE

I am not a Catholic, but I bet John Urbancik is or was; his novel is so completely steeped in Catholicism (at least to my Protestant-raised atheist eyes) that I feel I should be wandering the nearest catacomb singing Gregorian chants and bashing myself over the head with my copy.

Ordinarily this might be a complaint, but in this case it is praise, for Sins of Blood and Stone makes Catholicism everything it should be in fiction: dramatic, dark, ritualistic, earthy, sexy and above all romantic, romantic in the old-fashioned art-historical sense, in which strong emotion is its own aesthetic expression and imagination triumphs over all.

There's a touch of what we commonly think of today as romance as well in this tale of a nameless former official of the Spanish Inquisition (I'll pause for a comfy pillow joke of your choice here) whose uncommon zeal led him even to put the mother of his child to death (and yes, this even though he was a priest) as a witch and later left him imprisoned for eternity in the body of a gargoyle. That's a pretty good yarn right there, but it's only the back story, for the gargoyle, after 500 years of immobility, suddenly realizes he can move the very day a dead ringer for his dead lover shows up in the New York City church he guards (how he travels from Spain to New York City is left a mystery, but several European buildings were moved entire from the Old World to the New under the auspices of the Vanderbilts and J.P. Morgans of the Gilded Age, so why not a soul-imprisoning gargoyle?).

The narrative that unfolds has a slightly unreal quality that adds to its devil-soaked spookiness. The gargoyle's "angel" (for so he dubs this woman, who rejoices in the vividly unusual name of Neve Spirito - Snow Spirit) has feet of clay and was involved in some unsavory doings that leave her haunted by a ghost and hunted by a demon - Catholic monsters made real, but it takes more than a rosary and some holy water to defeat them. Lots more. The gargoyle, convinced that Neve is his own descendant, is ready to do that more, whatever the consequences, for he believes that if he saves her he will be released from his strange bondage.

The prose style relating all of this is very restrained, even delicate. Urbancik is also a photographer of no mean skill (check out his photostream at Dark Fluidity), which informs his treatment of things and surfaces and scenes; he paints with words but uses a subdued palette and subtle brush strokes, wisely leaving the reader's imagination to rush in and fill the gaps he leaves to tantalize it.

The result is a short but very enjoyable read for fans of dark fiction, urban fantasy, and stories of spiritual doubt and challenge. A pleasure.

Bonus note: Urbancik has just published a new novella, Quicksilver, which, he says, has a cameo from a character from Sins of Blood and Stone. Ebook only for now, but I'm sure a dead tree edition is not beyond the realm of possibility. I sort of resolved that my 100 books would also be by 100 different authors so, strictly speaking I ought to leave it for later but I did snag it -- it's only $2.99! -- and, well, we'll see...

Friday, March 11, 2011

Awesome Old Television

Like my little GoMiso widget in the right-hand column of this blog announces, I like to watch. I've adopted a semi-pomodoro way of getting my work done at home -- what Paul calls "orbits" -- which requires frequent concentrated breaks of sheer entertainment interlarded with pegging away at various writing/homeowner projects.

I don't have cable, though, and don't want to allow all that drek into my home, especially now that I needn't; Netflix, Hulu and other resources mean I can watch what I want pretty much when I want. I'm very close to realizing the "teleputer" of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest fame; a vast array of television and cinematic history is available to me on demand. It's damned amazing.

So right now, I'm watching some old stuff. Recently I took in the marvels of Poldark , for instance, a great BBC adaptation of an extensive series of novels concerning a British veteran of the American Revolutionary War and his homecoming to the amazingly romantic locales of Cornwall. I watched this with my mother as a kid on my local PBS station, but so much of it went over my head at the time that I basically came to it this year brand new. I devoured both series in short order, captivated by the scenery, the rich Cornish accents and the intense soap opera plots -- Ross Poldark, nearly disinherited, takes back his legacy and struggles to make it work, loses his fiancee to his cousin, marries the kitchen maid he originally took in as a charity case, battles an upstart banking family who is swallowing his county and enclosing the commons, rescues his best friend from a French jail, duels, serves in Parliament, etc., etc., glorious etc! I studied this closely as a lesson in how multiple plots can all serve one another as each one-hour episode moves briskly along. Cracking good television, that!

Meanwhile, my good friend and co-author, Adam Christopher (with whom I am writing a supernatural western novel, working title GODLESS), has developed an obsession with Dark Shadows that has proven highly contagious. Again, I sort of desultorily watched bits of this -- more accurately, of the "revival" series starring Ben Cross -- as a young'un with my mother, but it didn't really catch my attention until Adam caught and passed the fever and the original series showed up as available for streaming on Netflix. Alas, as I discovered, the first episode that streams is the 209th, in which all the supernatural stuff in the show starts happening with the release from his grave of troubled vampire Barnabas Collins. There are six months of daily episodes before this happens, however! And I am a completist purist nutjob in the modern manner, and so must abandon the ease of streaming for more conventional means to watch from the beginning. I watched the very first episode last night, vastly amused as governess-to-be Victoria Winters ignores all good advice proffered by the citizenry of Collinsport, Maine and prepares to join the spooky, gloomy household at Collinwood. At this stage, I'm not sure what I love more, the theramin-tastic soundtrack, the eponymous cinematography or the very much stock characters, sinister Devlin, impenetrable Elizabeth, stolid Victoria. This is going to be fun! My plan now is to watch just one episode a day, the way folks originally had to when it was airing, but I doubt that resolve will hold out for long.

I've also taken up a new-to-me discovery, The Onedin Line. I have a great fondness for tales of the sea (part of why I took up and put up with Moby-Dick!) and of scrappy tales of bootstrappers, so this story of the founding of a Liverpool shipping dynasty is right up my canal. You've got to love the story of a man who gets married to obtain a boat and makes the marriage work brilliantly (especially given that the marriage was her idea -- he approaches her to buy her father's boat and she, fearing penury once her father dies, says she'd rather have a husband than the price of the boat, and Onedin agrees!). Commercial scheming and wheeling and dealing aren't usually my thing, but there's something incredibly appealing about watching this protagonist think. Most of the time he's winging it, so in his way he's every bit as dashing as Ross Poldark, and just as fun to watch!

I've only seen one episode, so far, of my other new-old TV obsession, The Sandbaggers. This and The Onedin Line I owe to my Twitter friend Mike Cane. I think he found The Sandbaggers in the throes of withdrawal from the short-lived but amazing Rubicon, but I might be mistaken. Certainly I detect a similar flavor in the two shows, concerned as they are with state security, espionage and secrets. Sandbaggers is older, though, and very British, with the amazing Roy Marsden riding herd on a small team of elite intelligence units and, it seems, defending them from misuse by the British government and its allies. The premiere episode, which I took in last night, was one of the most intense hours of TV I've ever seen, and did not wind down as the episode closed; rather, Marsden's character all but declared war on the his pushy Norwegian counterpart, whose impatience put Marsden's men in harm's way behind enemy (Soviet!) lines. I was breathless!

So you can have your Being Human and your V and your 24 and all that modern dreck that Hollywood and the Beeb think we'll put up with for want of alternatives. With all of TV history at my virtual fingertips these days, my patience for bad writing and acting and stale scenarios has diminished to near-zero.

And there is an unbelievable volume of Dark Shadows alone to be had. I'm terribly curious to see if it can hold my interest the way it held so many others' in days of yore, on a daily basis for years. I also really want to see how they did it!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

100 Books 16 - Whedonistas

My review of the 16th of my 100 Books this year will not appear on this blog for a while, since it was a preview copy of a book forthcoming from Mad Norwegian Press, Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Universes of Joss Whedon Written by the Women Who Love Them. My review will appear soon over at Guerilla Geek, which is also re-running my reviews from here. It's a great site for all things Geek and especially for Doctor Who freaks, who should love the ongoing "Annotated Doctor Who" series analyzing the adventures of the 11th Doctor. Go check them out!

UPDATE: My review is now live at Guerilla Geek.

Monday, March 7, 2011

100 Books 15 - Ken Follett's WORLD WITHOUT END

I was just 19 years old when Ken Follett's hernia-inducing tome, The Pillars of the Earth was published, a languages and literature major at Beaudacious Bard College with more important things to be doing with my spare time, but I eagerly borrowed my mother's copy as soon as she was done with it and devoured it anyway. I had recently enjoyed Edward Rutherford's equally weighty and sprawling Sarum: The Novel of England and wanted more of the same. I only approximately got what I wanted, but I was satisfied nonetheless. Pillars of the Earth was, if nothing else, a good historical soap opera that happened to contain a whole lot of juicy detail about gothic architecture and stonework. I enjoyed it and forgot about it, as one might who still had the likes of Thomas Pynchon and Jorge Luis Borges and John Barthes in store for her (and that all in just one class!).

I was, therefore, a little bewildered when many years later the book suddenly started turning up everywhere, in the hands of the same people I'd sadly watched devouring the likes of Dan Brown and feeling that they had thereby been imparted special knowledge. I had one of those weird cognitive shake-ups I occasionally have, when deja vu gets inflated to something way beyond just a nagging feeling and becomes an undeniable in-my-face elephant in every room. It wasn't a new book. I was sure of it. I had vivid memories of reading it as a teenager. Had I somehow imagined it? Was I having my own Philip K. Dick experience of bleed-over from an alternate universe where it had emerged in the late 80s but was actually new in this one? I walked around bibbling my lips in confusion for a while -- until I learned that no less a literary lion than Oprah herself had instructed her minions to go forth and read it and give Follett their money. Follett was annointed and worthy.

And Follett is no fool. His goose was laying golden eggs again. Better get a gander and see if he could breed her and make another one.


If you think I approached this much-belated sequel to Pillars of the Earth with more than a little cynicism, you are right. I still taste the ashes of Katherine Neville's ill-advised and horrible sequel to The Eight, a vastly entertaining chess-themed thriller (I won't even name that horrible sequel here; I refuse to take responsibility for anyone's being subjected to it).

I'm relieved to say that World Without End is nowhere near as bad as that, but it's really not all that wonderful either.

Set some two hundred years after the concluding events of Pillars of the Earth, it's only kind of a sequel in that regard. We're more or less concerned with the descendants of the prior novel's protagonists, some of whom have continued to hold the Earldom of Shiring, two of whom are more or less duplicating the experiences of their illustrious ancestors, Jack the Builder and Lady Alieana. And here's where it's mostly a satisfying sequel, I suppose, if by "sequel" one means "the mixture, same as before, with only small dollops of novelty added at rare intervals." Lovers kept apart by mighty circumstances of church and state, check. Plucky female who wants to be more than just a wife, check. Bigoted clergy, OH MY GOD check. A big architectural challenge that only Jack, I mean Merthin, can possibly tackle, check. Petty squabbling rivalries, check. Royal intrigues warping the lives of ordinary folk, check. Yawn, check.

There are some differences, but sadly they are what almost ruins the book, not because they depart from the prior book's successful formula, but because they are so far-fetched as to be rather ridiculous. As in two defenseless nuns traveling through war-torn France in pursuit, "I WANT MY TWO DOLLARS" style, of their bishop and happening to witness the Battle of Crécy ridiculous (and by the way, said battle has been pwned for all time by Warren Ellis and Raulo Carceres in their graphic novel Crécy . Nobody else should even try!). And here more than ever before, author Ken Follett succumbed to the temptation to attribute nearly every innovation his chosen historical period achieved collectively to the uncommon brilliance and spirit of his protagonists. His Alieana substitute, Caris, is pitted single-handedly against the medieval medical establishment's reliance on ancient sources and scholasticism -- and she wins (despite charges of witchcraft, which she defeats by agreeing to become a nun, the better to fight the system from within and pine for her sweetheart for several hundred pages). His Jack the Builder substitute, Merthin, is the only builder/mason in all of Christendom who can figure out why an old bridge collapsed and why a hastily added tower to the town's cathedral is destined to follow suit. Caris transforms the town's wool industry by being the only person in it bright enough to think maybe they can make red cloth, too, by golly. Etc.

We won't even talk about the clergy, portrayed to a man as spineless, hidebound, sneaky, cowardly and power-mad. They might as well all have been given big black mustaches to twirl.

All this and an extraordinarily lame narrative McGuffin, to boot. Our protagonists and a peasant friend and Merthin's brother witnessed an attack on a knight in their youth. The knight bore a letter with a big secret and buried it. Nearly a thousand pages later we find out the secret and it has -- wait for it -- pretty much nothing to do with anything that has happened in the intervening story. The secret could have been pretty much anything and made no difference at all! That it actually contained kind of a radical idea about the history and origins of the reign of Edward III and posed an interesting question to ponder still had NOTHING to do with the story being told at all, really, except for explaining why one character was present, and that character's importance to the actual story was miniscule. Cheat!

Edward Rutherford, what do you have for me next?

100 Books 14 - Caleb Carr's THE ITALIAN SECRETARY

I have not taken the time to become an expert on Sherlock Holmes like so many have, but I may call myself an enthusiast. I have read all of the original stories and novellas at one point or another, have enjoyed all of the great detective's cinematic and television incarnations up to and including the brilliant re-imagining that was last year's Sherlock and even took a stab at writing Holmes fan fiction as a little girl. But I cannot quote the tales chapter and verse, have never donned Victorian drag and played at being a Baker Street Irregular, have not written minute analyses of Holmes' methods or literary antecedents or linguistic patterns as some have done.

No, I do not claim to be an expert on Sherlock Holmes, but I still feel justified in observing that if there was any living writer whom I would want to try to tackle writing more of this oeuvre, that writer would be Caleb Carr, and I was clearly not alone in this, for it was no less a person than Jon Lellenberg, the U.S. representative of the Conan Doyle estate, who set to work persuading Carr to do so.

I'm so very glad he did!

The Italian Secretary is that rarest of books, one that delivers precisely what the reader most hopes for an expects. It is a further adventure of Sherlock Holmes in every way, right down to the proud bafflement of its narrator, Dr. John Watson, M.D., who spends much of the novel trying not to put too much stock into Holmes' declaration of his belief in the power of ghosts but is bothered by it all the same as the famous duo unravels a double-murder at Holyrood House, the Scottish palace that was, in the heyday of Mary, Queen of Scots, the scene of a grisly murder of one David Rizzio, an Italian secretary to the palace. Has this modern killer or cabal of killers taken this famous old murder as inspiration for modern misdeeds -- or is it, as many locals believe, the work of a vengeful ghost? A mysterious presence seems to haunt the older parts of Holyrood House at night and is heard plaintively singing in Italian -- but Holmes quickly discovers that the aria are from Verdi, whose life and work occurred centuries after the Italian Secretary's murder.

So yes, there is an inevitable Scooby Doo quality to the unraveling of the mystery even as the story also takes on some high gothic overtones -- as how could it not, in such a setting? We are not only solving a pair of murders and preventing more, as we tag along with Holmes, Watson and Holmes' brother Mycroft, but also doing a fair bit of mythbusting. I can imagine Carr winking at us all and daring us not to think of a certain Great Dane and his friends as the criminals' ghastly modus operandi are revealed.

I'm a big fan of Caleb Carr. I even sort of liked his mostly ill-received foray into science fiction, Killing Time, which was imaginative and entertaining if also flawed and didactic. But of course, it's for his first two novels, The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness that I really celebrate him, for in them he created mysteries and narratives every bit as compelling as Conan Doyle's but narratives that were every bit as deeply and informedly American as Conan Doyle's were British, and which, in many ways, plumbed the very idea of crime in much greater depth; while Conan Doyle's Holmes is a scientist and observer of outward minitiae, Carr's Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is all of these and more -- a psychologist marvelously unafraid to explore the inner workings of depravity and compulsion that Holmes and Watson would likely never even consider. Carr benefits, of course, from a century's advances in all of these fields (and a thorough study of them, as well as a profound knowledge of American history and law -- he is now a professor of same at my own alma mater, Bard College; I regret that he joined the faculty just a few years after I graduated!) as well as an increased hunger on the part of his reading public for just the kinds of inner and outer details his hero reveals. He succumbs to the common historical fictioneer's temptation to attribute a vast array of innovations and discoveries to his protagonist-detective's invention, cooking down a vast and varied array of individuals' contributions to the field of what we now know of as forensic science to the solitary brilliance of one pioneer, but I'm inclined to forgive him this as he's done so in such compelling surroundings (as you will probably see in my next entry, I do not always give writers this pass).

I imagine writing The Italian Secretary was rather a refreshing exercise for Carr, therefore. It is pure Holmes, an exploration of physical and circumstantial evidence only, an exercise in observation and deduction and of motives no more depraved, really, than greed. After the archetypal horrors of the Kreizler books, and the need to re-create the world of 19th century New York out of raw research, dabbling in this other canon has, I think, to have been an easier and very pleasant experience. Dare I hope he will undertake it again?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

100 Books 13 - Tyler Cowen's THE GREAT STAGNATION

The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History,Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better:A Penguin eSpecial from Dutton - Tyler Cowen

There's a wee bit of monomania going on in The Great Stagnation, which kind of befits its subject, the current economic downturn and how it is unlikely to really end anytime soon. Cowen's fixation as he ponders our plight is on the idea of "low-hanging fruit" and what it means when it's all gone. It's interesting to contemplate and Cowen makes a lot of good points with it but it's also pretty simplistic, and the resulting book suffers from a lot of confirmation bias.

What Cowen means when he refers to low-hanging fruit is the idea that, as a (North American) society, we've exploited all of the easy answers to our economic problems to the full: cheap energy, automation, global transportation, getting everyone into a public education system, abundant and unspoiled land, etc. From his perspective of omniscient hindsight, all of the innovation we've achieved to date has been easy*; it's future innovation that's unthinkably difficult because we've done it all, used it all, tapped it all out.

Married to this idea, Cowen pronounces what amounts to doom for our recovery from the current crisis, seeing even the signs of hope and change like the internet in the most negative light possible. For instancewhile it's nice that people are finding non-material ways of satisfying themselves, he says, that satisfaction does not help the economy -- but his reasoning here seems flawed. The fun we have on the internet (and he focuses unduly on the internet as a source of fun and maybe, occasionally, of education and collaboration. Maybe), you see, is really hard to measure using conventional statistical tools. It doesn't show up on old-style measures of productivity, for instance, and its effect on things like Gross National Product as currently evaluated is close to invisible. Rather than calling for new tools or new measures, though, Cowen simply pronounces our intangible internet fun an economic dud. The low-hanging fruit is gone, but don't look for a ladder.

Cowen also seems to be ignoring something else I see every day on the internet, which is innovation. When I go surfing, it's hard not to encounter an elegant new idea for managing riverine pollution, say, or a device that can allow its owner to tote hundreds and hundreds of books around in an object that weighs less than a single paperback. Cowen dismisses these as mere attempts to squeeze more juice out of the low-hanging fruit; I see them as ways that more people can benefit from it than currently do, an issue he does not bring up at all. In his world, there is only the West and its only our needs and our growth and forward progress and increase in living standards that matter. I find this more than a little reprehensible. But maybe, you know, I just don't get it and it's really great that we're worrying about how we're not as rich as we thought we were while there are still lots of people in the world who like both kinds of food, rice and rice.

Microfinance doesn't count as an innovation, either. Or portable water purifiers.

What's really good about this book, though, is the argument Cowen makes about the tendency in the West to use intellectual property laws and copyright to stifle others' efforts to improve their living standards. Whether it's hamstringing gadgets and content with DRM and other means of creating artificial scarcity to protect legacy businesses or banning age-old practices like seed saving, these kinds of practices can and do hold everyone back except for the elite few who benefit from them and have the resources to persuade political authorities to keep them in place. That doesn't just retard our Western GNP growth, but our future as a species.

On the whole, though, well, I'm glad this book was short. I'm loath to put books aside this year as I plod towards the 100 books goal, but were I not feeling self-imposed pressure to finish what I start no matter what, I might have given this one up, not due to its difficulty or its dullness (for it is not a dull book) so much as to my having read it all before. There are lots of books out there to explain the financial crisis and tell us we're stuck for a while and this is not a standout in that field for me. *I've got to wonder, though, what, say, Edison or Ford or George Washington Carver would say, if told that their innovations had been so easy or obvious!