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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Da Vinci Code

Da Vinci Code
Dan Brown
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385504209

If for some reason you haven’t heard of the Da Vinci Code before now, I have no help for you. I live under a fairly substantive rock, and even I had heard of this book to death. I had even attempted to read it once or twice, during my stint at Waldenbooks, but couldn’t really get into it. So I gave up, and decided to relegate it to the same place as Titanic and Forrest Gump—works of popular culture that I have no interest in, and therefore, will not partake of. But a good friend finally broke my will, and I borrowed a copy from my local library before setting out for the Thanksgiving holiday.


So what did I think of this incredibly popular, highly controversial work that sold literally millions of copies, spawned a movie, and produced comments from the Vatican itself? In a word, it’s bad. Other appropriate single words might be awful, atrocious, terrible, or abominable. Other similar synonyms can be found here.

The Da Vinci Code is a combination of bad writing, shoddy history, poor plotting, and unconvincing characters that blends together to form a barely readable work. The fact that anyone took this work seriously in any capacity is amazing to me. The characters are flat, boring, and none of them exceed two dimensions at best. The “history” is so riddled with holes as to be completely unbelievable to the semi-alert observer (my favorite part is the explanation of how the Church’s desire to destroy the “sacred feminine” is responsible for Orthodox Jews and devout Muslims barring women from certain rites.). And finally, the plot just makes no damn sense. Even the much vaunted puzzles are fairly trite, and usually explained so quickly that it’s barely worth thinking about. The final puzzle that the main character is faced with is so mind-bogglingly obvious that anyone who knows how to draw a Magen David (Star of David) can figure it out instantly.

So the question for me became this: given how awful this book is, why the hell is it so popular? I can offer the following explanations/observations.

First off, Brown employs a clever (and I use the term loosely) narrative structure in which he ends every single chapter on a cliffhanger. This forces the reader to continue reading, hoping to reach a payoff or stopping point that is never quite realized. Thus the reader keeps going to the next chapter, hoping to finally hit a point where the story will relax, only to discover that the story never really relaxes. It just plods relentlessly forward, like the Terminator chasing Sarah Connor with a SuDoKu puzzle.

In a similar vein, Brown keeps his chapters short. In fact, I’ve read verse poetry that was longer than some of the chapters in this book (and considerably better written). This helps the reader feel as though they are making progress, because they’re suddenly on Chapter 44, and can reach Chapter 50 with only a few extra minutes of reading. Hooray for the short attention span.

Likewise, Brown taps into some popular political and historical fallacies that are guaranteed to make him well-liked. Namely that the Catholic Church is an evil conspiracy (Christianity is one of the few religions it’s still ok to hate in this day and age, after all) and the notion that ancient Europeans were all ecologically conscious, goddess-worshipping pacifists until the evil patriarchy destroyed their Edenic culture. And hey, both of those are popular, if totally un-nuanced and historically questionable viewpoints, but shoddy history is always popular with the masses. The popularity of this book is proof enough.

Knowing that I’m one of the last people in the United States to have read this book, I can hardly imagine my recommendation can save anyone at this point, but on the off hand chance it can—don’t read this book. It’s a waste of time. At the very least, take it out of the library so you don’t put more money into the pocket of an author of questionable talent. There’s much better writers in this world.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller Jr.
Publisher: Spectra; Reprint edition (September 2, 1997)
ISBN: 0553379267


The atomic Flame Deluge was over. The earth was dead. All knowledge was gone.
In a hellish, barren desert, a humble monk unearths a fragile link to 20th-century civilization. A handwritten document from the Blessed Saint Leibowitz that reads: pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.


The jacket description is somewhat accurate, if a bit misleading. In fact, the young monk in question discovers not just a scrap of a grocery list, but rather a small fallout shelter which contains a number of documents penned by an obscure twentieth century engineer that has become the (un-canonized) patron saint of the Order of Leibowitz, a group of Christian Monks devoted to preserving scientific knowledge after the nuclear holocaust. The book proceeds to trace the history of the Order, and of mankind, through three different periods in man’s future history. Along the way, it wrestles with a number of themes, most prominently being that of the constant rise and fall of civilization, and the question of whether or not mankind can really break out of that cycle. There’s also a great deal of Catholic imagery and scripture, which I am, truth be told, too ignorant to entirely understand or appreciate. 

It’s a fantastically well written book. Miller builds a very rich and detailed world inside the abbey of the Order of Saint Leibowitz, and his characters are quite memorable and lively. Like many classic works of science fiction, this book is more concerned with ideas than it is with individual characters; unlike some of those classic works, the characters in this book are still fun and worth reading about.

I really have only one complaint: there’s a character who appears throughout the book, whose purpose and reason for existence is never made particularly clear. At least, it wasn’t clear to me. I’m willing to admit that I may have missed something, especially given my poor knowledge of the Catholic religion. But overall, it’s a fantastic, if somewhat low-key book. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Spinneret

Spinneret
Timothy Zahn
Publisher: Baen; Reprint edition (November 15, 1986)
ISBN: 0671655981

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m quite the Timothy Zahn fan. I can’t entirely explain why, save that his writing style and plots tend to hook me, and keep me hooked, through most of his stories and novels. Even his weaker offerings (like Outbound Flight), still keep me pretty well entertained. There’s not a lot of authors I can say that about.

Spinneret is one of Zahn’s older novels, and one I knew almost nothing about before reading it. I’m not even sure where I got it. It was interesting going into a novel totally blind, especially when it’s by an author that I’m such a huge fan of.

The setup of Spinneret is both straightforward and complex at the same time. It’s the year 2016, and humanity has finally made it to the stars. What they’ve found, however, is that the stars are already occupied. Alien races of varying stripes have already colonized most of the galaxy, and there’s really nowhere for humanity to go. Except Astra, a small planet that has the peculiar distinction of having have absolutely no metals, at all. Humanity is offered the planet, and after some politicking and discussion, the United States decides to colonize it.

Yes, the United States. One of the interesting things about Spinneret is that Zahn completely dodges the old saw that mankind has become united under one peaceful world government before developing space travel. The various nation-states of the world still exist (albeit in somewhat altered form), and the tension between the United States and the United Nations is one of the focal problems of the book. Then, of course, there’s the half-a-dozen other alien races out there.

Of course, none of them care about Astra initially, until the colonists discover exactly why there are no metals on the planet; the Spinneret, an enormous alien machine which leeches metal right out of the planet’s surface and processes it, creating enormous, super-strong, lightweight, metal rods that are launched into orbit around the planet. No one is sure exactly what the machine is for, or who built it, but everyone wants in on the action. What follows is a combination of political and military intrigue, as various factions among the colonists, the humans, and the aliens all try to figure out how to work things to their best advantage. And of course, the mystery of who built the Spinneret, and why, overshadows all of the political maneuvering.

I was pretty well pleased with this one, overall. The book is fun, fast-paced, and interesting. Some of the characters are a bit two-dimensional, like Perez, who is a radical taken to ludicrous extremes, but overall, it’s well done. The various alien races, while only touched upon, are all fairly unique—I particularly enjoyed the glimpses we got of the M’Zarch, a warrior culture that actually has jobs like “Cowards Advocate” (whose role seems to be offering suggestions that don’t involve killing things), and the Pom, a water-bound race of Dolphin/Octopoids. The mystery of the Spinneret does get answered, and if the answer is not entirely satisfying, it’s enough to satisfy the needs of the plot. In the end, this book is less about the Spinneret, and more about people’s reactions to it, and to each other. Good stuff.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Mote in God's Eye

The Mote in God's Eye
Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle
Publisher: Pocket (March 1, 1991)
ISBN: 0671741926

Like so many books I’ve read, The Mote in G-d’s Eye was recommended to me by father, many years ago.

The Mote in G-d’s eye is a story about first contact, set in the year 3016. Mankind has seeded the stars, thanks to the faster-than-light Alderson Drive, and has also reverted to living under an Imperial Monarchy, thanks to the clichés of science fiction (to be fair, this book probably helped establish those clichés, so I can’t take it to task too much). In the aftermath of an uprising on some outer rim worlds, Commander Roderick Blaine discovers an alien probe approaching the system that his ship is in. While the pilot of the ship is deceased, it still proves the basic point: humanity is not alone in the universe.

Blaine and his ship are quickly drafted as part of the mission that sets out to find the alien home world and make first contact between the human empire and the Moties (nicknamed such because their home planet is located in a star system referred to as the Mote in G-d’s Eye). As one would expect, the first contact is fraught with a variety of questions and problems, which quickly result in everything from complicated political intrigue to outright violence.

First contact stories are always tricky, for one simple reason. Creating a believably alien race is tough enough (witness Star Trek for a number of failures, among others), but anticipating the assorted problems that might occur from that first contact is even harder. Niven and Pournelle do a bang-up job, however. The Moties seem very plausible, yet totally alien; indeed, in a clever twist, the Moties bodies are not symmetrical (they have a single large arm on one side, and two smaller arms on the other), which helps to remind the reader just how inhuman these creatures are. 

Unlike some science fiction novels, however, this book contains more than an interesting idea. The story itself is well-executed and interesting to follow, as various factions on both sides try to make sense out of their new situation, and figure out how to exploit it to their own advantage. The pace is just slow enough to maintain a feeling of mystery, without being so slow as to be completely boring. And, in a wonderful twist, most of the mysteries are answered by the end of the book. There’s certainly further that the story COULD go, but there’s no reason that it needs to go any further. It’s fine the way it is.

Robert Heinlein apparently said that this was “possibly the finest science fiction novel [he had] ever read.” There might be points I’d argue with Heinlein on, but this isn’t one of them. This is a damn fine book.

Thursday, November 2, 2006

Chiefs

Chiefs
Stuart Woods
Publisher: W. W. Norton; 25th Annv. edition (March 6, 2006)
ISBN: 0393014614

Chiefs was a very interesting read for me. It was recommended to me by CP, the assistant manager of the Waldenbooks I used to work at, and a voracious reader of mystery fiction (and romance novels, but you won’t catch me reading one of those any time soon). When I left, she put four mystery novels in my hands; this is the second one I’ve gotten to (the first was Black Echo). This is a much better novel, but not necessarily as good a mystery, depending on what it is you’re looking for.

Chiefs is the story of town of Delano, Georgia, beginning in the early 1920’s and running up through the 1950’s, focusing primarily on three men who hold the office of chief of police in Delano. The three chiefs are not related in any way, but they share a common bond in that they each stumble across a series of unsolved murders that have been occurring near the town for generations. Each chief must take up the case, and try to solve it where his predecessors failed, while dealing with the changes that overtake Delano during the Depression, the Second World War, and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s a terrific novel. Woods paints a marvelously well-developed picture of a small southern town without crossing over the line into either ludicrous nostalgia or hyperbolic stereotyping. He creates a wonderful sense of atmosphere and history, so that the town itself becomes a character into itself. The inhabitants of the town are equally well-developed, and while some naturally receive more attention than others, every one of them feels like a real living, breathing person.

There’s also much more to this novel than just a simple murder mystery; the chiefs, and the town as a whole, deal with not just murders, or even crime, but the intricate politics of the South as Delano grows in power and influence. Most of the significant characters in the novel are politicians, not cops, and there’s as much devotion to the intricacies of backroom negotiations and cultural upheaval as there is to dead bodies and criminal investigations. The stories all flow together to create a single coherent, but very multifaceted tale that draws the reader in, and keeps pulling him along.

I have very little bad to say about this novel, but I will say that it’s really not much of a murder mystery, in the conventional sense. Who the murderer is becomes obvious fairly quickly; the question is not who or what is committing the murders, but hwy, and how they’ll be solved (if they ever will at all). If you are the sort of reader who reads mysteries to see how fast you can solve them, this novel may disappoint you. In addition, the ending is not entirely satisfying; the resolution itself works, but the way it’s actually set up had a little bit of a deus ex machina feel to it that doesn’t entirely work, especially given how well the novel is constructed overall.

Still, it’s a great novel despite it’s flaws; the story is rich, the characters are engaging, and Woods’ writing flows wonderfully. Definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of mystery, or just like a good book.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Viking Variations (Eaters of the Dead & Grendel)

I've been on a serious Beowulf kick lately. So I decided to check out some books that offer a slightly different perspective on that great epic. One gives a different perspective by changing time, the other by changing focal character.

Eaters of the Dead
Michael Crichton
Publisher: Avon (August 29, 2006)
ISBN:
0060891564
My father mentioned this book to me once, years ago. I think I may have even started it, but somehow, I just didn’t get hooked in. Which seems strange, but I think I may have just gotten impatient with the opening of the story and given up. Years later, this book would be made into one of my favorite movies of all time, the 13th Warrior. Despite that, it has taken me several more years to finally get around to reading this. But I’m glad I did.
For those who have seen the 13th Warrior, the premise is more or less the same; an Arab courtier, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, is sent on a diplomatic mission away from the Caliphate and into barbarian lands. He ends up in a Viking hall, where he is press-ganged into a Viking war party lead by a warrior named Buliwyf. Buliwyf, Ibn Fadlan, and the rest of their war band, travel back to the Vikings homeland to fight an invasion by the “monsters from the mists,” aka the Wendol, a primitive people that have been attacking the hall of one king Rothgar. Buliwyf and his men, along with Ibn Fadlan, get caught up in the war between Rothgar and the mist monsters, eventually resolving it when Buliwyf  leads a daring raid into their caves, where he slays the “mother” of the Wendol, and helps fend of their final attack before dying of poison. Basically, it’s a pseudo-historical retelling of Beowulf, with a tribe of Neanderthals substituting for Grendel and his mother.

The book does have some basis in fact; the first few chapters are more or less a translation of an actual manuscript, written by the historic Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, who really did get exiled from Baghdad and go meet some barbarian peoples. Crichton simply continues the narrative with his own ideas, and does a credible job of maintaining a tone that is consistent with that of the initial writings. He even includes some faux footnotes and other little tidbits, to further help confuse the issue about what is fact and what is fiction. Crichton does say in his afterward, however, that the entire thing should be taken as fiction, thereby preventing anyone from having a Da Vinci Code sort of confusion.

Like many of Crichton’s stories, this one is engaging, interesting, and moves fairly quickly. While the first half of the book is mostly an almost anthropological look at Viking culture, once the Wendol attacks begin in earnest, events happen very quickly. 

Ibn Fadlan is an interesting narrator; his own voice comes through very clearly, as does the voice of Herger, his primary guide and companion. Buliwyf comes through fairly well also, though some of the other characters are less well-defined. The only other member of the war band who I can clearly remember is Ecgtheow, but the rest are mostly just vague shapes that flit in and out. Still, the characters that do receive attention are well-fleshed out enough to remain engaging throughout the novel.

I have no idea how historically feasible this story is, but the truth is, I don’t care. It’s a neat concept, and well executed. Definitely worth reading.

Grendel
John Gardner
Publisher: Vintage; Reissue edition (May 14, 1989)
ISBN: 0679723110
This one I became aware of as a result of my work at the Berklee Writing Center, since it seems to get assigned to in beginning composition courses on a regular basis. It piqued my curiosity, and since I’ve been on a Beowulf/epic poem kick anyway, I figured I’d give it a shot.
Grendel is part of the recent genre of novels that take the villain’s side (or at least, present the villain’s point of view); it’s a rather interesting conceit, that the bad guy has a psyche and reason worth exploring, or that maybe the hero of the tale isn’t so heroic after all. In Grendel, Gardner attempts to do just that with one of the oldest villains of all; Grendel, one of the three villains of Beowulf (though probably the most well-remembered).

In Beowulf, Grendel is an important, but not terribly deep character. He kills some Danes for a while, until Beowulf shows up and rips his arm off. After which Grendel stumbles off to die. It’s good adventure, but not terribly insightful.

Gardner approaches things from the opposite direction; the entirety of Grendel is told from Grendel’s point of view, and it’s Beowulf who doesn’t show up until the last chapter. Prior to that, we’re witness to Grendel’s thoughts and struggles as he tries to make sense of the world, and his role in it. Grendel turns out to be quite the philosopher, and over the course of the book, muses on everything from the truth about G-d and religion, to governmental systems, to the various ways in which humans treat each other. At least one review I paged over suggested that there is a bit of existential philosophy in here, but I’m not really well-versed enough in philosophy to verify or deny that claim.

What I can verify is that this is a good book. I might not go so far as to say it’s a great book, despite many reviews to the contrary. Sometimes Grendel’s angst and philosophizing get to be a bit overmuch, and I wished he would hurry it up. Grendel (not surprisingly) doesn’t get a lot of social interaction, so the book is primarily made up of internal monologue. This occasionally gets a bit tedious, especially in the middle. There is one long conversation between Grendel and the Dragon, which helps break up the monologue for a bit, and makes the whole thing more bearable.

That conversation also establishes an interesting connection between two of the villains in Beowulf, with the Dragon imparting some of his own philosophy to Grendel, which does nothing good for Grendel’s psyche. The Dragon is also the one who grants Grendel his immunity to the weapons of man, providing a further connection between the two villains and the events of the original epic. We also get Grendel’s perceptions of some of the other characters from Beowulf, which provides a neat spin on the tale. Beowulf in this tale appears to be vaguely insane, in an almost psychotic way, despite having enough strength to back it up. Unferth, the cowardly son of the king, is given a bit more depth (he confronts Grendel early on, and Grendel mocks him and lets him live), as is the Queen Wealhtheow. A nephew of Hrothgar, Hrothulf is also introduced, though it’s not clear to me why. Apparently he does show up in Beowulf, but I have little recollection of him doing anything in that poem. He doesn’t do much here either, except scheme a bit, and give Gardner a chance to engage in some philosophy about government.

Overall, I found Grendel a mixed bag. Some parts of it were fascinating, while others just dragged on too long. Still, it’s worth a look, particularly if you’re a Beowulf fan.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Bury Me Standing

This book was a great example of book design/ marketing at work. I came upon it wandering through Barnes and Noble (I think), and the cover just jumped out at me. Combined with a very catchy title, it was pretty hard to resist. It helped that I knew absolutely nothing about the subject matter, so there was some added interest there.

Bury Me Standing is a combination of an anthropological study and a history, weighted more heavily towards the former. The bulk of the text is a chronicle of Fonseca’s experiences traveling in Eastern Europe, where she lives and talks with Gypsies in Albania, Romania, Poland, and parts of Germany. She also attends an international conference of Gypsies organized by some prominent Gypsy academics (not to be confused with academics specializing in Gypsies). Part of her investigations also take her into the bureaucracies of these countries, where she spends a fair amount of time speaking with government officials and law enforcement officers about the Gypsies, and how they are treated (usually badly).

Interspersed throughout the anthropological text is some material on the history of Gypsies. Unfortunately, the history of the Gypsies is a bit difficult to trace; the Gypsies themselves keep no written records, and many historical accounts are severely biased, where they exist at all. Still, Fonseca does a decent job of constructing at least a skeleton of the history of this nomadic people. And she does an excellent job of painting a picture of their modern culture.

Fonesca’s in-person observations of Gypsy life and culture are what make this book really worthwhile. It helps that she’s a good writer; her descriptions of the people, and their surroundings, are well-rendered, and help give the reader a good sense of the lives that many Gypsies lead (usually ones of abject poverty).

My only complaint about the book is that occasionally, Fonseca assumes knowledge that the reader may not have. For instances, she makes numerous references to British Travelers, who I presume are British Gypsies (and not British guys who help Wesley Crusher achieve godhood), but she never really explains what they are. In fact, while she makes mention of American Gypsies, British Travelers, and so on, she’s mostly focused on Gypsies in Eastern Europe. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but I would have loved to have gotten a more general picture.

Still, definitely a solid and enjoyable book. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, it’s worth looking into.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Beowulf

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation
Seamus Heaney (Editor)
Publisher: W. W. Norton; Company; Reprint edition (February 2001)
ISBN: 0393320979

I’m not going to do a full on review here for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s Beowulf. It’s an epic poem that’s survived for a thousand years, and will probably survive a thousand more. If you like epic poems (and I do), it’s good. If you don’t, then you won’t like Beowulf either. That’s about all I have to say on that.

            The version of Beowulf, specifically, is new translation done by Seamus Heaney. It’s a nice translation. It reads well. I can’t read Old English, so I have no idea if it’s a good translation or not. Poeghostal tells me that a different version is more faithful to the original wording. So be it. This one reads fine. The book actually gives you the original Old English side-by-side with the translation, so if you could compare them, if you know the language. Even if you don’t, it’s neat to be able to make the comparisons, and see if you can pick out certain words.

            Me? I love epic poems. Iliad, Odyssey, Aenid, Beowulf, Paradise Lost…I love ‘em. I love epic heroes, I love the language, the style, the whole bit. And Beowulf taps into my generic Viking love, so I love it even more. It’s a great story, and Heaney’s version, while it might not be completely accurate, is a pleasure to read. Definitely worth the look.
           
And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.


Time Machine


The Time Machine
H.G. Wells
Publisher:
Ace Science Fiction (April 1988)
IBSN:
0-0441-08263-X

Note: The publisher and ISBN for this one are for my version of the book. There are certainly many others available. As far as I know, the text is the same in all of them.

The Basics: For those who somehow missed it, the Time Machine is H.G. Wells’s classic story of a man who invents a time machine, and uses it to travel far into the future. He discovers a world that is completely alien two him, populated by two strange races that are descendents of humanity: the beautiful, child-like Eloi, who live a life of comfort and ignorance on the surface of the world, and the ugly, malevolent Morlocks, who live in underground tunnels and prey upon the Eloi for sustenance. The Time Traveler’s plans are complicated when they Morlocks steal his Time Machine, trapping him the future with no way home.

This was not my first reading of this book by any means. I started rereading it for a variety of reasons I won’t bore anyone with here (the short version: it was portable), and loved it just as much as I loved it the last time. The Time Machine is possibly one of my all time favorite novels, and might even pass the “stranded on a desert island” test (if I was stuck on a desert island with a limited supply of books, I would take this one with me).

The Good: Damn near everything. The writing is spectacular, and Wells does a marvelous job of painting a picture of the future that feels odd and alien, yet completely believable. His characterization of the Time Traveler is likewise well-done.

The plot itself is pretty straightforward, but it moves along at a reasonable speed. There’s enough time to savor mysteries when they need to be savored, but the story doesn’t ever come close to dragging. Once the Time Traveler gets to the future, it’s non-stop events all the way. I hesitate to use the word “action”, because it’s not just fighting and harrowing escapes, though there certainly are plenty of those.

The Bad: This was written in the late 1800’s, and it shows. To me, that’s not a bad thing, but people offended by Victorian sensibilities and views of the world might find some of Wells’s attitudes insensitive. Personally, it doesn’t both me one bit; I like older novels, and I’m perfectly willing to overlook alterations in views over time. That said, if it bothers you, this might too.

The Ugly: The scariest part of this book is not the Morlocks; it’s after the Morlocks, when the Time Traveler goes even further into the future, where the world is overrun by nothing but strange crab-like creatures, and the sun is turning into a red giant. Creeped the hell out of me as a kid, and it still creeps me out now.


Monday, July 31, 2006

Changing Planes


Changing Planes
Ursula K. LeGuin
Publisher: Harcourt
ISBN: 0151009716

The Basics: I’ve loved LeGuin’s writing ever since my father introduced me to the Wizard of Earthsea trilogy when I was a child. I even named one of my dogs after the main character in that trilogy (though, as my father was fond of pointing out, the dog was no wizard). I’ve yet to read a story of hers that I really disliked; some are, of course, better than others, but I love ‘em all.


Changing Planes is a collection of sixteen short stories grouped around a single conceit; in a world very much like ours, it is possible to travel to other dimensions, but only if you’re stuck in an airport for long enough to become sufficiently frustrated, bored, and irritated to simply will yourself into another dimension. It’s a neat little idea, and mostly just serves as an excuse for LeGuin to shunt her narrator to a bunch of different planes where she can play with different ideas. As is her wont, most of the stories involve her playing with ideas about alternative social structures, or ordinary people thrust into strange circumstances. It’s social-science fiction, essentially.


The Good: I love Leguin’s writing style; it’s simple, but evocative. She paints beautiful pictures with words, and it all just flows. There are very few writers who can keep me distracted enough to nearly miss a T stop. LeGuin is one of them.


The stories themselves are all fairly interesting. I particularly enjoyed “Porridge on Islac”, more for the atmosphere than for the bits about genetic engineering; “Woeful Tales from Mahigul” does some interesting story-within-a-story things, “The Building” tells a weird and sort of haunting story about a race of people who keep constructing an enormous building for no apparent purpose, and “The Fliers of Gy” posits an society where some people get wings, and it often kills them.


Really, all the stories are excellent. I can’t think of any I didn’t enjoy.


The Bad: Not much, though some readers might be turned off by the political/moral messages in some of the stories. “Porridge on Islac”, for example, is pretty clearly a parable about the dangers of playing with genetics. I enjoy LeGuin enough that I tend to just enjoy her stories regardless of whether or not I agree with her politics (and I don’t, always), but those more firmly entrenched in their politics might not enjoy it so much.


The Ugly: “The Immortals” is kind of gruesome, in a subtle sort of way.


Overall, I liked this collection a fair amount. It’s not my favorite LeGuin collection ever (I think that goes to Birthday of the World), but it’s definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Black Echo

Black Echo
Michael Connelly
Publisher: Warner Books
ISBN: 0446612731

This book was one of four that was put into my hands by a former co-worker of mine from Wbooks; a very nice woman with a tremendous passion for books in general, and mysteries in particular.

The Basics:
The central character of Black Echo is Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch, a former Vietnam soldier turned LA Cop. In fact, he's turned Beverly Hills cop, after departmental politics exiled him from his beat in LA proper. A routine murder investigation takes a turn for the personal when the body discovered in a drainage ditch turns out to be a fellow "Tunnel Rat" from the war; after that, Harry is drawn into a strange mystery that takes him back to the tunnels of Vietnam, while trying to negotiate with the FBI, police department politics, and, of course, the bad guys.

The Good:
The mystery itself is pretty well-done. It's not the sort that you can figure out at the beginning (the reader doesn't have the information needed), but it makes sense as it's revealed, and I never ran into a "but that doesn't make any sense!" sort of moment.

Connelly's characterizations are solid—not particularly original, mind you, but solid. Harry is a pretty stereotypical hard-boiled, maverick detective. His eventual side-kick/love interest, Agent Eleanor Wish, is likewise well-rendered, if a bit of a stock character (the tough lady cop, this one). While many of the characters are a bit stereotyped, they are rendered well.

Connelly has an excellent knowledge of his subjects, and the information is presented well. Police procedure and acronyms flow throughout the text, but in a way that doesn't make it seem forced or misplaced. Likewise, his knowledge of the Vietnamese war, so far as it pertains to this story, seems fairly complete and accurate. It usually only shows up in background discussions, but it is well done.

The Bad:
This is one of Connelly's first books, and it shows. The writing is gorgeous in some parts, but at other points, it's horrifically choppy. Connelly occasionally suffers from strange need to explain things that are perfectly obvious to the alert reader, which I find baffling. I would assume that anyone who reads mysteries is likely to pick up on subtle, or, more to the point, not so subtle, clues. Black Echo has the occasional X-Men III-like moment where the writer turns to the audience and says "in case you were so dumb that you missed that, let me make it REALLY CLEAR for you." Blah.

The Ugly:
As I said, the book is populated by...well, clichés, I guess. They aren't really stereotypes, but they are definitely standard issue cop drama molds (the Maverick Cop, the Tough Lady, the Bumbling/Obnoxious Internal Affairs Guys, the Loud Chief, etc.). None of these are bad enough to be offensive, and they are rendered well, but man...original, they are not.

Overall, it was decent. I had a hard time getting into the book, but once I got going, I found that I rather enjoyed it. It's not high literature, but if you like this sort of hard-boiled cop drama/mystery, it's probably worth checking out.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Lost World

Lost World
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Publisher: Modern Library (Random House)
ISBN: 0812972139

As part of my continuing quest to get myself up-to-date on the classics of pulp fiction, I picked up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries) classic foray into adventure/science fiction, Lost World.


The Basics:
Professor Challenger returns to England, claiming to have discovered a lost world in the Amazon rainforest, where dinosaurs and other, stranger creatures still exist. Mocked and ridiculed for his claims, he eventually accepts a challenge from some of his colleagues, and assembles a second expedition to explore the plateau. The adventuring party (and really, that’s exactly what they are), includes Edward Malone, a newspaper man, and the narrator of the tale; Professor Summerlee, a noted zoologist who disbelieves Challenger’s wild claims; Lord John Roxton, a hunter and outdoorsman of considerable skill; and some random flunkies, who either get killed or wander off, and are no particularly notable consequence.

The group, of course, does find Challenger’s lost world, and sets about exploring it/become trapped on it. Once trapped, their mission of exploration of turns into one of survival, as they try to cope with ravenous dinosaurs, poisons snakes, and a kingdom of evil ape-men. They do eventually escape, after many trials, tribulations, and adventures.

The Good:
I believe I covered this with the dinosaurs, snakes, and ape-men, but in case it was unclear:
Dinosaurs! Ape-Men! Snakes! HIGH ADVENTURE!

Seriously, this is pulp sci-fi at its finest: fast-paced, exciting, full of (mostly) likeable, memorable characters, and all around sheer pulp wackiness. Something is always HAPPENING in this book; even the conversations carry an air of constant action and energy (Sometimes caused by Professor Challenger’s notorious willingness to resort to violence in the face of those who mock him). The four main characters are all fairly distinct and enjoyable. It’s tempting to paint them as archetypes, but honestly, this is where some of the archetypes come from.

The lost world itself is great; while I’m sure Conan Doyle’s paleontology is a bit off, his descriptions of the various dinosaurs, fish, and other strangeness that the adventurers encounter are all wonderfully evocative. It might not be good science, but it’s great writing.

The Bad:
The build up to getting to the plateau takes a little while. I would have liked less “getting there” and more “stuff on the plateau” itself. Still, the getting there is more interesting and enjoyable than say, PJ’s King Kong.

The Ugly:
If Darwinian racism or British Imperialism is likely to offend you, this book will.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Boxer Rebellion : The Dramatic Story of China's War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900

Boxer Rebellion : The Dramatic Story of China's War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900
Diana Preston
Publisher: Berkley Trade
ISBN: 0425180840


I should begin this review with an explanation; it took me forever to finish this book. I honestly have no idea why. It’s well-written, interesting, but not notably difficult reading. It doesn’t seem like the sort of book that should have taken me a long time to read. Admittedly, it is four hundred some-odd pages, but that’s no excuse. Whatever slowed me down, it wasn’t lack of enjoyment, I assure you. And there’s nothing like having to spend twenty hours on planes to help you catch up on your reading.

Also, I’m abandoning the “good, bad, ugly” format for this review. I simply don’t have enough “bad” or “ugly” to make it worthwhile.

Boxer Rebellion is a history of, well, the Boxer Rebellion, a popular anti-Western revolt that occurred in China at the end of the 19th century. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the rebellion. I knew that it was a reaction to Japanese and Western encroachment into China; that the “Boxers” were actually the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, and that they gained their nickname because of the martial arts routines they practiced; that the Boxers, like the Ghost Dancers in America believed (falsely) that they had mystical powers that would protect them from bullets. And that was kind of it.

It turns out that the rebellion was a lot larger, stronger, and more dangerous than I had been lead to believe. During the rebellion, the diplomatic legations in Peking came under siege for several weeks, as did several church complexes in China. A large number of Western missionaries and their Chinese followers were slaughtered trying to reach safety, and the Chinese government actually supported the Boxers in their efforts to drive foreigners from China (at least, some of the time).

Boxer Rebellion tells the story of the revolt primarily from the perspective of the besieged, as well as the military forces that were deployed to try and rescue them. Using a large variety of primary source documents, Preston traces the days leading up to the rebellion, the rebellion itself, and the aftermath. The extensive use of primary sources allows Preston to give the reader an intimate feel for what the experience of surviving this rebellion was like. There are several characters who left extensive journals, and it is through their eyes that the reader can really experience the horror of these events for themselves. It is certainly much less clinical and detached than reading a simple narrative or descriptive history, and makes the whole book much more riveting.

Unfortunately, there are almost no surviving documents detailing the Chinese experience of this revolt; Preston is very upfront about this fact, and how it limits the manuscript (though at four hundred plus pages, it’s not that limited). While Preston does provide some general descriptions of events that occurred in China at various stages of the revolt, it’s impossible for her to get into the heads of the Chinese in the same way that she does the European and American citizens. Which is sad; I suspect she’d do a great job.

 Preston’s writing is excellent. It flows, it’s engaging, and she integrates quotes from the primary sources exceedingly well. I wouldn’t normally comment on the last, save that it is very important to this particular book, given the great emphasis on primary source material.

My only point of confusion about this book is that the experiences described in it are so far removed from the previous descriptions of the Boxer Rebellion that I had heard that I’m forced to wonder where the hell those ideas came from. While Preston makes a passing reference to Imperial Chinese soldiers shooting Boxers to “test” their powers, most of the siege is conducted with guns, cannons, and other modern technology. While that in some part is due to the participation of the Imperial Chinese soldiers at certain points in the siege, it seems that the Boxers did not wholly rely on their powers to defeat their enemies. More investigation is clearly warranted.

Overall, an excellent, well-researched, and thoroughly enjoyable book. Definitely worth the read, if the subject at all interests you.
     

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Freakonomics

Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
Publisher: William Morrow (April 12, 2005)
ISBN: 006073132X

The Basics:
Freakonomics isn’t really about any one thing, which makes it a bit hard to summarize. In essence, it’s economist Steven Levitt playing around with economic principles and basic statistical analysis to examine various cultural trends and phenomena. He tackles a variety of questions, from whether or not sumo wrestlers cheat (they do) to whether or not a child’s name determines his success (it doesn’t). He does this all through examining statistics and data, trying to find facts to back up various assertions rather than relying on conventional wisdom.

The Good:
As a person who is sick of the inability of most people to have a rational discourse on any even vaguely politicized topic, and a self-proclaimed skeptic, it’s nice to read anyone who endorses looking at hard data to make judgments about possibly controversial issues. Levitt does a nice job of not only proclaiming the advantages of this sort of rational outlook, but also of showing that when you actually examine the data, you sometimes get surprising results. Furthermore, he takes the time to point out that there is a difference between correlation and causation, and that many people mistake one for the other. Again, a nice touch.
The actual questions that Levitt asks are all fairly interesting, though some will appeal to certain readers more than others. In addition to cheating sumotori and strange names, Levitt also examines cheating teachers, the economics of crack dealers, and the effect of abortion on crime. Crime, in point of fact, seems to be Levitt’s greatest interest, and I wonder if he might not have been better served by writing an entire book on the relationship between economics and crime, as opposed to trying to touch on a number of different subjects that are all largely unrelated. It might have made for a tighter, more focused book.

The writing is solid; simple and easy, but solid. Despite being a book about economics, it’s not a terribly dense read, as witnessed by the fact that I finished it off in about two days. Granted, it was two days of heavy reading, but it was still two days.

The Bad:
For a book that’s so gung ho about statistics, there aren’t many statistics in here. Levitt claims that the numbers back up his research, but he rarely provides the data itself, which makes it difficult to tell how much he might be manipulating statistics to serve his own ends. It makes the book seem like it’s been dumbed down for the plebeian masses, which will be very frustrating to any intelligent reader who wants to look at Levitt’s data themselves. Any reader who doesn’t feel like reading the numbers can do what most of us did in undergrad—skip the numbers sections. It’s just sloppy; I can’t imagine Levitt would do this in a formal economics paper.

The book also lacks much in the way of an unifying theme, a problem that is acknowledged within the text itself; that isn’t only sad, it’s sloppy. I doubt that a writer of Dubner’s skill and an economist of Levitt’s apparent genius (more on that below) are totally incapable of thinking of and describing some kind of unifying theme throughout this work. It just smacks of laziness, even more so when there’s a half-hearted “well, I guess you could say it’s this…” sort of thing in the epilogue. Again, I have trouble imagining that Levitt would submit a paper that was this disjointed to a serious economic publication; why should the general public be treated less seriously?

The Ugly:
The self-aggrandizement. Oh, the self-aggrandizement.

Every chapter is preceded by excerpts from an article about Levitt, which all tell us what a brilliant and unconventional economist this man is. In the introduction, we’re told that he really wasn’t that interested in writing a book, unless he got to work with this wonderful journalist who had written an article about him earlier. The cover promises that we will be “dazzled” by a “rogue economist” who explains “the hidden side of everything.”

For all of this talk of brilliance and dazzling explanations, the book doesn’t seem that brilliant. It seems like a transcript of some interesting dinner conversation with a smart guy, the sort that makes you go home and think, “hey, this stuff is interesting, I ought to go pick up a book about it.” Of course, the problem here is that you’ve already picked up the book.

The fact that Levitt wasn’t that interested in writing a book in the first place is telling; this book feels like something written by a person who needed to get the work done, but really wasn’t engaged in what he was doing. Maybe he should have waited until he was a little more motivated.

Monday, May 1, 2006

Dragon and Slave


Dragon and Slave: The Third Dragonback Adventure

Timothy Zahn

Publisher: Starscape (June 1, 2005)

ISBN: 0765301261


The Basics:

Dragon and Slave is the latest addition to Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback series. It’s a young adult science fiction series that follows the adventures of Jack Morgan, a young thief/con man, and Draycos, the lone K’da survivor of an expeditionary force that Jack encounters at the beginning of the series. The K’da are symbiotic beings that require a host to survive, and Draycos ends up teaming up with Jack because, well, there’s no one else available; ever since then, Jack and Draycos have been trying to figure out who ambushed Draycos’s people, and how to stop them from ambushing the main refugee fleet that’s coming towards human space. They are aided by Uncle Virge, an artificial intelligence created by Jack’s deceased Uncle Virgil, who somehow uploaded himself into their ship’s computer core. Uncle Virge is also an unrepentant con man, thief, and general ne’er do well, who feels that Draycos’s poet-warrior philosophies are lunacy at best, and certainly not the sort of thing that Jack needs in his life. Naturally, Draycos disagrees.

In Dragon and Slave, Jack and Draycos’s quest for information takes them into the slave compound of the Chookoock family, which they believe is connected to the plot against Draycos’s people. Jack gets a taste of slavery, and discovers that there are things a lot worse than being a solider.

The Good:

This is good, fun, fast-paced space opera. Jack’s plan to get information from the Chookoock compound is an act of lunacy that is rivaled only by the sort of plans concocted by the average gaming group; there’s plenty of action, intrigue, danger, and narrow escapes. It’s a good time all around.

The relationship between Jack and Draycos continues to develop in an interesting way; it’s nice that they both seem to be rubbing off on each other, rather than Draycos simply transforming Jack into a good and noble warrior. Draycos’s interaction with Uncle Virge is interesting as well, though Virge doesn’t really get very much “screen time” compared to the other two.

The Bad:

Not much, really. The writing is a bit simplistic, but that’s to be expected—the book is aimed at a younger audience.

My only real complaint is that Zahn seems to have a very fleshed out universe behind these books, and we really only get the barest hints of what it’s like. This isn’t entirely a bad thing—it gives the series the nice, pulpy sort of flavor that makes it so much fun. But all the same, I wouldn’t mind getting just a few more details; Robert E. Howard’s writing is about as tight and pulpy as you can get, and he still gets some great world-building/explaining done in his stories.

The Ugly:

The Brummga: they’re basically space orcs. Did we really need space orcs? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with space orcs, I guess, but they aren’t even INTERESTING space orcs. Which is kind of sad, because I know Zahn can make some really interesting aliens when he puts his mind to it. Oh well. They aren’t awful, just…space orcs.

If you’re searching for deep, thoughtful, provocative science fiction, read something else. But if you like space opera, pulpy sci-fi, and a general good time, this is definitely worth the read.



Saturday, April 22, 2006

Ultramarathon Man

Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner
Dean Karnazes
Publisher: Tarcher; Reprint edition (March 2, 2006)
ISBN: 1585424803

Yes, I finished this fast. I finished it fast because I enjoyed it (and the semester is ending, which is giving me a bit more free time). It’s good, interesting, and admittedly quick read that’s given me a lot to think about (some of which may go into a locked post).

The Basics:

In 490 BCE, a Greek messenger ran from the Battle of Marathon to the city of Athens to carry news of the Greek victory. After arriving and delivering his message, he promptly dropped dead. A few centuries later, someone decided that this sort of thing would make a good sport, and thus, the marathon was born.

There are a few, however, who find the idea of running a paltry 26 miles to be not nearly enough of a challenge. Dean Karnazes is one of those select few who choose to pursue ultramarathons, running distances of over 100 miles in a single outing. These rare athletes push themselves to the limits of human endurance, and prove that those limits are a lot further than people think.

Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner is Karnazes memoir/chronicle of his love of running, his eventual transition into the ultramarthonning maniac that he is today, and some of the more interesting/amazing experiences he’s had (running a marathon at the South Pole, running 226 miles…non-stop, and a few others).

The Good:

A lot, really.

Karnazes has a very breezy, easy writing style, that makes the reader feel as though he’s sitting around listening to some incredible stories over dinner. It would be very easy for him to present himself as some sort of inhuman tough guy, who never feels pain or fear, but Karnazes makes it quite clear that he experiences all of those feelings and emotions as he runs. In doing so, he makes it clear that the man behind the feats that he’s accomplished is, well, a man, subject to all the faults and foibles there in.

Karnazes also does a good job of getting in the psychology of how and why he runs, as best as he’s able to. He freely admits that it’s not an easy thing to describe or rationalize, but he does make a good effort at it, and ends up with some interesting insights into the mindset of the serious athlete.

And if you need something to kick you in the pants and get you motivated to go get a workout, this book will do it. It’s definitely having that effect on me.

The Bad:

I can’t really say I had any complaints. Reader’s looking for a deep, difficult, and contemplative read won’t necessarily get what they want here; Karnazes’s style, as I said, is pretty breezy—the language itself won’t challenge a serious reader. But there’s still an awful lot to think about, and I didn’t pick this up expecting Tolstoy.

The Ugly:

Near total dehydration, excruciating muscle cramps, projectile vomiting, crawling bloody handed towards a finish line; pushing the human body to it’s limits sometimes results in nasty sensations. If you don’t want to read about them, don’t read this book.

Overall, I really enjoy this. As I said—its served as a great kick in the pants for me, and forced me to think about some issues in my own life I might not have thought of otherwise. Definitely worth checking out.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

Foreigner

Foreigner
by C. J. Cherryh
Publisher: DAW; 10th Anniversary edition (December 7, 2004)
ISBN: 0756402514

The basics:
When the human starship Phoenix goes wildly off course, the survivors are forced into a desperate search for a new home. Wandering an unknown region of space, they locate a habitable planet, and send down a team of colonists who make a startling discovery; the planet is already inhabited.

Five centuries later, the humans have found a way to maintain a small colony through a treaty with the Atevi, the race of black-skinned giants who rule most of the world. In exchange for their technology, the humans have been granted control of a single island, where no Atevi can go. A single human, the padhi, serves as a translator and advisor within Atevi society. When the current padhi is targeted for by an unregistered assassin, the delicate balance of Human/Atevi relations is placed in jeopardy.

The Good:
There’s a whole lot of good in this book, beginning with the Atevi themselves. Cherryh manages to create an alien society that truly feels inhuman. The Atevi do not, as near as any human can tell, experience the same kinds of emotions that humans do. Their culture one in which assassination is considered a perfectly legitimate and respectable means of settling disagreements, and assassins are licensed, registered, and employed on a regular basis. They have fourteen words for betrayal (including one that means “take the obvious course of action”), but no concept of trust or love. It’s a culture so steeped in numerology that it has trouble adapting to computers, which use numbers that they consider unlucky or bad in some fashion.

I may be making it sound cheezier than it really is. The truth is, Cherryh makes the Atevi seem like a real, legitimate, but on some level, totally incomprehensible culture. This is frequently re-emphasized through the experiences of the main character, Bren; despite being padhi to the Atevi, frequently misunderstands or misinterprets Atevi interactions, especially as events begin to spiral out of his control.

The plot is interesting, and moves along fairly quickly. Bren is well fleshed out as a character, and many of the principle Atevi are as well, though they always remain a bit mysterious. Cherryh has clearly put a lot of thought into this world, and the effort shows.

The Bad:
The main character, Bren, is somewhat indecisive and unsure of himself. While it’s understandable to a degree, sometimes he gets a little too self-introspective, and seems to get dragged around by the Atevi a little too much. While I understand that he’s supposed to be out of his element, sometimes his indecisiveness gets annoying or repetitive.

The Ugly:
The book starts with the crew of the Phoenix itself, and the malfunction that takes it off course; there’s also a chapter or two devoted to the first contact with the Atevi. It’s interesting, and well-written, but I couldn’t help thinking it didn’t need to be there. The reader doesn’t learn anything from these chapters that couldn’t have been learned from a quick summary over a few paragraphs. Not bad, per se, but not strictly necessary either.
The ending is sort of a cliffhanger; Foreigner is the beginning of a trilogy, and while the plot mostly wraps up, there’s a lot of dangling questions left unanswered. It’s not so huge that you couldn’t stop reading here, but it’s not as neatly tied up as some books (even those that are part of a trilogy).

Overall, it’s an interesting, fun, sci-fi/political thriller. If that’s your gig, Foreigner is worth checking out.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The White Rose


The White Rose
Glen Cook
Publisher:
Tor Fantasy
ISBN:
0812508440

The Basics:

The White Rose is the third book of Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company, and the end of the first trilogy of books. I reviewed the second book, Shadows Linger, about a year ago. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get to the third one.

The Chronicles of the Black Company follows a group of mercenaries (the Black Company) as they become embroiled in a centuries-long war between the Lady, who rules the world, the Dominator (her ex-husband, who wants to come back and, well, rule the world) and the White Rose, who wants to stop her.

The White Rose is the climax of that storyline; the Black Company has switched sides, and is aiding the White Rose in her quest to overthrow the Lady. Of course, there are complications, mostly in the form of the Dominator, who is not nearly as well imprisoned as everyone thought, and is coming back. Something that no one on either side of the war wants.

The Good:

The plot is interesting and engaging. Cook provides enough details to move things along, without getting bogged down in absurdly long explanations about the physics of his world, or something similar. His characters are unique and memorable, and he manages to bring a great touch of humanity to the Lady, making her a fully fleshed out character instead of a villain.

Likewise, Cook’s locations are well described, and appropriately fantastic. The Plain of Fear, with it’s windwhales and menhirs (sentient rocks) is appropriately bizarre and creepy, as is the Barrowland where the Dominator is buried.

Cook ties things up pretty well. That may not sound like much, but for something that’s ending a trilogy, it’s nice to get to a point where everything is more or less set. Sure, there’s possibilities for the future, but it’s possibilities, not unanswered questions.

The Bad:

Sometimes, Cook’s sparse details are a little TOO sparse. I couldn’t draw a map of this world if I tried (and there isn’t one). I know there’s a place called the Plain of Fear, the cities of Juniper and Oar, and the Great Barrowland. There’s probably one or two other locations I’m forgetting, but I think my point is clear—Cook just jumps from location to location without filling in even the barest details. It sometimes makes the story a bit confusing, and makes it hard to get a sense of scale.

Also, while the Lady isn’t a caricature of a villain, the Dominator kind of is. Though that’s really his role.

The Ugly:

I was disappointed to see one character come back, since he had ostensibly died in the second book. Cook seems above that sort of thing to me, and his return is only marginally important anyway.

Toadkiller Dog and Tracker, while having a great pair of names, confuse me. I’m still not entirely clear what was up with either of them.

Overall, this is a solid-ending to a solid series. It’s much grimmer and nastier than some traditional fantasy, and the main characters aren’t the movers and shakers of the world as much as they are the people who work for them, but that’s the charm of the series. It’s neat to watch events from the ground.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

Masters of Chaos

Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces
Linda Robinson
Publisher:
PublicAffairs
ISBN:
1586483528


Masters of Chaos is, as the subtitle suggests, a history of the US Army Special Forces, sometimes known as the “Green Berets.” It’s important to understand that this is a specific, specialized, branch of the military, not to be confused with the more general term “Special Operations”, which covers not only the Army Special Forces, but also groups like Navy SEALS, Delta Force, and other groups made popular by eighties action stars. For the rest of this review, I’ll refer to the US Army Special Forces simply as “Special Forces”, because it’s easier, and because I understand they prefer that term to “Green Berets.”

I’m trying a new format for this review. Comments on it are welcome (as are comments on the review itself, of course.).

The Good:

This is a very comprehensive history. Robinson’s background is in journalism, and she’s done an impressive amount of research in addition to spending time interviewing a large number of Special Forces operators. She does an excellent job of describing what it is that the Special Forces do, what makes them special, and how they’re different from other Special Operations groups. She covers their operations from Vietnam up through the current Iraqi conflict (or as far as that conflict had gone at the time of the books publication). The book weighs in at an impressive 388 pages of fairly small type—there is a ton of information here.

Robinson does a fairly good job of characterizing the various soldiers, not at all an easy task. One of the great difficulties in any kind of military writing (or film making, for that matter) is capturing the differences between a bunch of guys who all dress the same, have the same haircut, etc. The Special Forces tend to have looser uniform regulations, but still, it can be easy to make them all end up sounding the same. Robinson doesn’t, by and large. I had some moments of confusion, but for the most part, I could keep track of the various characters, even the unnamed ones.

Yes, there are some unnamed characters; some members of the Special Forces asked to have their names kept out of the book, and Robinson respected that. So there are few characters like the sergeant who keeps trying to finish the deck on his house, that never get named. But still, they’re mostly easy enough to keep track of.

There is a fair amount of technical information, and again, it’s all presented in a fairly clear and easily understandable fashion.

Robinson does a nice job of staying focused on the history that she’s telling without drifting to the politics that surround the deployment of the Special Forces. While there’s certainly a place for evaluating that sort of thing, I appreciated that she mostly stuck to the story of what the Special Forces did on their various assignments. It helps keep the story focused, and lets the reader focus on the characters, and what they do. Which isn’t to say that she paints a rosy picture; Special Forces operators are human, and humans make mistakes, have accidents, and die just like everyone else. Robinson doesn’t shy away from the fact that the operators do sometimes make errors or have problems, but she keeps her focus to the operators themselves, not the larger structures that they’re involved in (except when it’s particularly relevant).

What they do, incidentally, is extremely interesting. If you think that the Special Forces are just a bunch of steroid-abusing Rambo-style thugs, this book is worth a look just to dispel that belief. These guys are warriors, but they’re also scholars and diplomats. They have a great deal of latitude in their mission, which generally require a lot of creative thinking, and not necessarily a lot of firepower.

Of course, firepower is occasionally required. These guys are in the military, after all.

Finally, Robinson makes a convincing case for the need to expand and invest further in the US Special Forces. These are the people who specialize in dealing with asymmetric or unconventional warfare, terrorism, and similar kinds of threats—in short, the types of conflicts that the US is likely to have to deal with in the next several decades.

The Bad:

Robinson’s writing is very direct and straightforward, but sometimes, it’s less than inspiring. She has a tendency to resort to ridiculous clichés far too often for my taste, and some of her characters verge on becoming caricatures. It’s the sort of writing that’s fine for a newspaper column (as I mentioned, she is a journalist), but for a nearly four-hundred page book, it can get a little tiresome.

The Ugly:

The title. It’s also a chapter title in the book, but it sounds much more “macho” and “bad-ass” than this book or the men it portrays really deserve. Also, the cover photo on the paperback edition is less than ideal.

There’s a picture section embedded in the middle of the book, which is ok, except that I didn’t realize it was there until I reached it, and the pictures reference things that happened all over the book. I wish they had just placed the pictures with the relevant chapters.

Overall:

If you like military history, this book is definitely worth checking out. If you want to know what the US Army Special Forces are really about, it’s definitely worth checking out. But it isn’t a light read, and I wouldn’t go for it unless there’s something about the subject that really interests you.

Monday, March 13, 2006

After Long Silence

After Long Silence
Helen Fremont
Publisher: Delta (January 11, 2000)
ISBN: 0385333706

Imagine being raised as Mid-western, pseudo-religious Catholic, only to learn that your parents are in fact, Polish Jews, and survivors of the Holocaust to boot. Imagine that, and you'll have some idea of what Helen Fremont went through.

After Long Silence is a memoir in several parts, jumping between Fremont's childhood, where she wondered about her father's experiences in a gulag that left him with a permanently damaged arm, and learned to say "Hail Mary" in six different languages from her mother as a "a means of survival : proof of my Catholicism to anyone in a dozen countries.", to her experiences as an adult, slowly discovering the truth about her family and her heritage, and even back in time, chronicling the major events of her parents lives as they struggled to stay alive, and ultimate come back together after the devastation of the Second World War.

It's a very powerful, very interesting book, and Fremont tells her story well. She weaves together different time periods and events in a fairly seamless way, and her depictions of her parent's lives in Poland during the war all ring very true. And her own confusion and soul searching at discovering that her parents were not who she thought they were manages to be poignant, without being overbearing.

I wish I had more to say about this book, honestly. Maybe I will after class tonight, or after I've had more sleep. For now, I'll just say that I really enjoyed it, and would recommend it to anyone interested in memoir, the Holocaust, or just a very interesting familial mystery.

The Gift of Fear

The Gift of Fear
Gavin De Becker
Publisher: Dell; Reprint edition (May 1998)
ISBN:0440226198

This book was recommended to me years ago by Tony Blauer and Van Canna Sensei, a very high ranking (and very skilled) Uechi-Ryu instructor. I've read it several times since then, and recently re-read it as prep for a project for my book publicity class. It's a great book, so I thought I'd throw a review of it up here.

The Gift of Fear is a book about violence. Specifically, it's about predicting violence, and how most modern people ignore the signals that their intuition and their body give them about violent, or potentially violent situations. De Becker takes the conceit that violence is random, unpredictable, and unavoidable, and thoroughly debunks it through a combination of research, psychology, and a lot of illustrative stories.

The book begins with a general overview of some of De Becker's main ideas, describes his work in some detail (he runs an agency that provides protective services to a wide variety of clients), and a few stories to help get those ideas across. Later chapters move into more specific types of threats, including stalkers, domestic violence, workplace violence, and eventually culminating with an interesting discussion of assassins. In each chapter, De Becker gives examples of common predictors of certain types of violence, and breaks down a few myths about how to deal with potentially violent predators.

I should be clear—this book is focused almost entirely on verbal and psychological strategies. You won't find diagrams of how to elbow someone in the head or kick someone in the groin here. but the information presented here can help you predict and avoid the situations where you might need to elbow and kick someone, which, to my mind, is the best form of self-defense you can practice.

There's a great deal of really valuable information presented here, and it's presented very well. You don't need to be a practicing martial artist to get a tremendous amount out of this—if you have ever worried about being the victim of violence, read this book. It's worth it.

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Half The House: A Memoir

Half The House: A Memoir
Richard Hoffman
Publisher: Harvest Books
ISBN: 0156004674

I read this book somewhat randomly.

Richard Hoffman, among his many hats, is a professor at the school where I’m doing my MA. In point of fact, I’m in one of his memoir writing workshops right now. A friend and fellow classmate lent me this book a few weeks ago, which lead me into the odd position of reading the memoir of a guy who’s teaching me how to write memoir. Very odd. Especially since the memoir came out a long time ago (close to 10 years ago), which means I’m getting two entirely different perspectives of the same man at the same time. It’s sort of like the first time I met Tony Blauer (www.tonyblauer.com), after watching him on tape for close to a year.
Like I said, very odd.

On with the show.

Half the House
covers many of the topics that have come to be stereotypically associated with memoirs; Hoffman’s relationship with his father, who terrorizes young Hoffman in ways he doesn’t even realize; the death of two of Hoffman’s younger brothers to muscular dystrophy; the sexual abuse Hoffman experienced at the hands of his little league baseball coach; Hoffman’s battle with alcoholism (this last one gets mentioned only obliquely. Details are scarce, but we know it happens). If I was going to make a list of stereotypical features of a memoir, Hoffman would have hit just about every button.

Which is not, I should be clear, to say that this is a bad thing, or a bad book. It’s a great book, though it’s quite far from being cheerful, uplifting, or any of the other Oprah-riffic words that get appended to memoir (it’s also true, which also apparently distinguishes it from certain Oprah-riffic memoirs). Hoffman strikes a nice balance between placing the reader in the moments of his childhood self, and also being able to reflect back on the events as an adult. This is something I’ve been struggling with like crazy in my own attempts at memoir, and it’s nice to see it done well here.

Hoffman’s prose is very nice. It’s got a quiet, sort of reflective quality; I felt like it carried his voice well, but I’ve also heard him speak, so it was easy for me to impose his speaking onto the words. I’m not sure how it would affect a reader who hasn’t met him, but I imagine it would still carry the quality of his voice well.

Half the House
covers a lot of unpleasant material, and it hits hard, but it’s also not excessive. Hoffman doesn’t flinch from telling about what happened, but he doesn’t beat the reader with excessive details either. Perhaps the only exception to this is his struggles with alcohol, which are mentioned only somewhat tangentially, and given very little detail. That said, those struggles aren’t really the point of the book; it’s much more about Hoffman dealing with the abuses of his childhood, and coming to terms with them.

Overall, good book. Not the most uplifting, but not a total downer either. As I said, the writing is wonderful…it’s worth reading just of the quality of the prose alone.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

Outbound Flight

Outbound Flight (Star Wars)
Timothy Zahn
Publisher: Del Rey (January 31, 2006)
ISBN: 0345456831

My usual caveat: I am a Timothy Zahn fanboy. I have yet to read a work of his I didn’t like. Some, of course, are better than others, but I’ve loved ‘em all. So read this review understanding that.

For those not in the know; a number of years ago, Timothy Zahn effectively re-launched the Star Wars novels with his Heir to the Empire trilogy. It was a smash hit, and rightly so. Zahn managed to capture the SW universe perfectly, while introducing plots and threats that were actually interesting, instead of just throwing our heroes up against another version of the Death Star (Kevin Anderson, I’m looking at you!). Zahn eventually followed that series up with a duology, and finally, a stand-alone book that serves as a bit of a prequel to the New Jedi Order series, which I have not read, though I own the first book of it. I can’t decide if I should read it or not.

But I digress.

Somewhere in the course of his novels, Zahn introduced the Outbound Flight—an Old Republic expeditionary force that had been sent to try and explore another galaxy. It was launched during the midst of the Clone Wars, and eventually disappeared into history. Years later, Luke & co. would eventually find out about it, and…well, read Zahn’s other SW books if you want the full story on that.

Outbound Flight is (surprise) the story of Outbound Flight itself. It begins with the last minute negotiations of the set-up, the flights launch, and its ultimate destruction. The story moves along at an appropriate clip, and as always, Zahn does a nice job of setting up some intriguing politics, mysteries, and manipulations along the way. We also finally get to see the original Jorus C’baoth, and the return of (or prelude to) Mitth'raw'nuruodo, aka Grand Admiral Thrawn, the greatest non-movie villain in Star Wars canon.

Outbound Flight has its downsides too. There’s a little too much Republic politicking that goes on, in part because of what seems to be a very forced cameo by Obi-Wan and Anakin. This takes up a part of the book that really could have been spent doing more interesting things with the Outbound Flight itself, or with Thrawn’s activities. It also ends up distracting from Zahn's characters, who are frankly, way more interesting than Obi-Wan and Darth Child. Besides, we already have a bunch of movies about them. I want to see other characters now! I have the distinct impression that this was editorial decision-making getting in the way of good storytelling, though I have no proof of that.

Also, there’s a twist/big reveal concerning Darth Sideous/Chancellor Palpatine/The Emperor that I really didn’t like. I GET why it’s there (it serves to tie ALL the SW stuff together) but it feels wrong to me. It also serves to make Palpatine vaguely sympathetic, which, in my opinion, he should not be (I love Palpatine, but sympathetic he ain’t).

In the end, I enjoyed Outbound Flight quite a bit, and any Star Wars fan, or Zahn fan, ought to read it (fans of both, doubly so). While Zahn is somewhat hampered by what I think are bad editorial decisions, he still manages to tell a fun and interesting Star Wars style romp, and answer some questions about Zahn-specific plots that have come up before.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Born to Kvetch

Born to Kvetch :Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods
Michael Wex
Publisher: St. Martin'sPress (September 1, 2005)
ISBN: 0312307411

I borrowed this one from a little while ago, after seeing it in the store and being somewhat curious about it.
Born to Kvetch is about Yiddish. Specifically, it’s a combination history and cultural study,filtered through the study of a language. Wex does a very nice job of explicating not only how Yiddish evolved, but how the very character of the language is uniquely Jewish, and indeed, uniquely Diaspora Jewish. Along the way, he also traces the development of the language, including how it split into various sub-types, where certain words and phrase came from, and how the language and culture deal with topics like birth, sex, and death.

There’s some very interesting stuff in here, most of it having to do with Jewish culture in general. Little things, like the fact that Orthodox Jews love…Paul, I think…one of the saints, for making sure that there was a very clear delineation between Judaism and Christianity. Or how the very nature of Yiddish is intricately tied to Jewish ghetto culture, and trying to separate the two is like trying to separate…I don’t know. Two things very hard to separate.You get my point.

Unfortunately, there’s some stuff in here that I found deliriously boring, most of it consisting of sections that are just little descriptions of a Yiddish phrase, followed by it’s meaning, and then it’s real meaning. One chapter, devoted entirely to explaining the differences between two diverse branches of Yiddish, is particularly hard to follow, especially if you don’t speak any version of Yiddish at all.

Which really is the problem with this book; Wex is clearly a native Yiddish speaker, and there’s a fair amount of material in here that will only make sense, or be interesting, if you have some familiarity with Yiddish.The less you know, the harder it is to follow. Since my Yiddish is limited to Oy, Kanahore (which I now know the meaning of, thanks to this book), Schmuk, and few other curses, it was fairly tough.

The book is well-written, and interesting, but linguistic evolution isn’t my big thing. If this sort of thing interests you, it’s worth the read. If you’re looking for just a random, fun, non-fiction book to read, I’dlook elsewhere.