Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina
I'm reading Anna Karenina (Wikipedia entry) for two reasons. First, I have to read it for our book group. Second, I'm reading it because I've always wanted to tackle one of the big Russian classics.

So, what's it like so far? Surprisingly, almost no one is seriously depressed and there's not that much snow. Actually, the first character we meet is the wonderfully cheerful Stiva Arkadyevitch Oblonsky, Anna's brother. Granted, his wife just figured out that he was having an affair with the children's nanny and he's in serious trouble at home, but nothing seems to get this man down much for long. Then we met Konstantin Levin, who's more serious and has some of the common sense problems of many nineteenth century characters but who is still pretty level-headed. We actually don't see the famous Anna Karenina until about 50 pages or so into my edition of the book. Vronsky, the dashing "hero," shows up a bit sooner.

The way that Anna Karenina starts reminds me a bit of the start of War and Peace, which I attempted to read earlier in the year. The reader is introduced to a huge cast of characters, from all walks of life, who all have something to tell you about the way that life was in Tolstoy's Russia. The characters are all fully realized, I think. But Tolstoy does it all so skillfully that you aren't bogged down in exposition and explanations, and the pace just hums along. I am really enjoying this book.

There is a ton of detail, and the characters and their settings are all very carefully drawn. As in other wonderful nineteenth century opuses (Dickens comes to mind here), you get drawn into the story and can really visualize what's going on. It shouldn't have surprised me, but I am astounded at the level of detail, especially when Tolstoy writes about what people look like. When Kitty Shcherbatsky attends a ball, Tolstoy not only writes about the color and design of her dress, but also mentions the blonde braids she added to her coiffure to make it look like she has even more hair.

I almost feel sorry for Tolstoy's writing hand, since it had to write this sucker out long hand. I wonder if he had arthritis?

Progress: 121 pages read. 696 pages remain.

The Demon and the City, by Liz Williams

The Demon and the City
The Demon and
the City
The Demon and the City is the sequel to Snake Agent, a book I picked up a while ago and enjoyed very much. Liz Williams' The Demon and the City, unfortunately I think, takes the story away from Inspector Chen and gives it to Chen's partner, Zhu Irzh--who is the eponymous demon. While I like Zhu Irzh, he just doesn't appeal to me as much as Chen did. I like him much better in small doses, like in the last book.

This book is divided into two halves. In one plot thread, Zhu Irzh is trying to solve the murder of a prominent local citizen. In the other thread, a woman named Robin and an escaped experiment try and find out what an increasingly evil corporation is up to. Of course, the murder and the corporation's plans are linked, but it takes a while to find out not only how the two are linked, but also who the good guys and the bad guys are. As I read it, I found Robin's story the more interesting of the two. Perhaps because it seemed like Zhu Irzh was just a placeholder for Chen, who's on vacation for almost two-thirds of the book and shows up just in time for all hell (or rather, all heaven) to break loose.

Towards the end of the book, you start to realize that heaven is having a very polite civil war and that there are three factions. (Here's a link to Wikipedia's article on Chinese mythology. Williams takes liberties, but the article helps.) The Emperor of Heaven wants to withdraw all contact from the human world because fewer and fewer people are able to meet the exacting entrance requirements. Kuan Yin (Guan Yin) disagrees but, being the goddess of mercy and compassion, you'd expect that. And then there's the feng shui goddess, who wants to restore her former glory. She's the one who hatches the plot that Robin is trying to uncover. Zhu Irzh's investigation gets him involved with the head of the company, the woman who made the bargain with the feng shui goddess.

It's all starting to sound rather tangled, isn't it?

Until the last third of the book, the pace dragged, but I think the very exciting ending more than made up for the lack of progress in the first parts. Perhaps what interests me most about these books is the way that Williams plays with Asian mythologies and beliefs. Contemporary fantasy, up until now, mostly takes creatures and ideas from European mythologies and folklores and gives them new life (or un-life in the case of the vampire stories.) Even though a lot of this is unfamiliar territory for me, I'm really enjoying getting to see a reimagining of Asian gods, goddesses, creatures, and cosmologies.


Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, Part III

Okay, let's see if I can get through the rest of the cast of characters today. The reading group is meeting on Sunday, and I've read three books since I finished Wuthering Heights.

Edgar Linton: I just discovered that poor Edgar didn't even rate his own entry in Wikipedia. Edgar is the young man who lives down (or over) the hill from Wuthering Heights who married Catherine Earnshaw, Heathcliff's great love (apparently). Catherine plans to use Edgar's position and wealth to elevate Heathcliff. For a lot of the beginning of the book, Catherine had him pretty snookered. He only gets to see the genteel version, at least until there's an ugly incident involving Hareton Earnshaw (Hindley's son) and Edgar gets to see just how fast Catherine's moods can change and he sees just how spiteful and uncaring she is. And then he marries her anyway. I know that people didn't marry for love when they were in a certain social position, but surely a man wouldn't marry a woman who was as unstable as Catherine was?

Unlike most of the rest of the cast, Edgar has a hard time standing up for himself. Beyond marrying Catherine, he doesn't get his way for the rest of the book. After fighting Heathcliff over visiting privileges, he just retreats into his intellectual pursuits. He doesn't even come out much after his daughter's birth. Plus, he's another sickly character who seems to die of a general malaise.

Isabella Linton: At first, I thought Isabella was an idiot. She fell in love with Heathcliff. He doesn't encourage her feelings and is, in fact, very rude and cruel to her. Heathcliff marries her as part of his elaborate revenge on...well, everyone. And she just goes along with it, though she knows that Heathcliff despises her. I changed my mind about Isabella when she ran away with their son and lived in hiding for ten or twelve years. I had hopes for Isabella after that, but then she up and died, too. It's like there's an epidemic in this book that only targets featured characters.

Catherine Linton (the younger Catherine): I think the younger Catherine was meant to be a redeeming character. She gets Edgar out of his shell a little, she brings out the best in Linton Heathcliff until Heathcliff totally poisons the little guy's personality, and she gets Hareton Earnshaw to improve himself. Plus, her love for Hareton gets Heathcliff to call off his feud with...well, everyone. 'Course by that time, most of the original cast has shuffled off their mortal coils.


Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, Part II

I meant to get to this earlier, but I've been sick with a bad cold. So, here is another post on the characters of Wuthering Heights.

Heathcliff: He's the second most aggravating character in the book for me. He doesn't bother me as much as Catherine Earnshaw, because I can understand why he turned out the way he did. He was an orphan, probably a beggar, who was taken in by old Mr. Earnshaw--who liked him as much or more than his children. Hindley, Mr. Earnshaw's son, treated him terribly. But Heathcliff wasn't sympathetic to me, like other Gothic orphans (viz. Jane Eyre). And he had such a capacity for revenge, really devious revenge. I think he might be one of the first to try to torture people psychologically. And he absolutely warped Hareton Earnshaw (Hindley's son).

And then there's his love for Catherine-I understand why he left. But I don't understand why he loved her. To me, she's an idiot who had no empathy or concern for the feelings and happiness of others. But when he returned, and found out that Cathy really loved him, why didn't they just leave? Why did he insist on playing his games with Hindley, Edgar Linton, and their children? Perhaps my lack of understanding and sympathy for these characters comes from Emily Brontë's choice of narrator. Brontë' gave the story to the housekeeper, Nelly Dean, for the most part. If she had let us get into Cathy or Heathcliff's head, maybe I would have enjoyed the story more. Because I just don't get the love affair between the two leads, the story just doesn't work for me.

I don't understand the appeal of Heathcliff, either. He's called one of the great figures of Romantic literature. But he reminds me of an old joke: if lithium had been used as a medication, there wouldn't have been a Romantic movement.


Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights @ Barnes and Noble
Wuthering Heights
My brother's fiancé wants to start a books club, and our first pick was Wuthering Heights--mostly because I hadn't read it before and I wanted to see what the other Brontë was like. (I'm a big fan of Jane Eyre.) The other reason is that I wanted to better understand the jokes about the book in The Well of Lost Plots, by Jasper Fforde. In WOLP, Fforde reveals that all the main characters are required to attend anger management sessions between chapters.

I'm still not sure if I like this book or not. It has a lot of plots and character elements that drive me up the wall. At certain times while I read it, I really wanted to climb into the book and start smacking some sense into people, especially Catherine Earnshaw. Until the last third of the book, I don't know if there were any admirable characters in it apart from Nelly Dean, the housekeeper and narrator of most of the story. I'd never met such a large number of bullheaded and selfish characters crammed into one book. Plus, they kept dropping dead. By two thirds of the way into the book, we'd lost most of the characters we'd started with.

While I can't say that I liked the book, it did give me a lot to think about. (One of those thoughts was, 'Man, I miss studying literature.') So, I think I'll go character by character, given that this book is completely character driven. I'd like to start with the character that pissed me off the most: Catherine Earnshaw.

I never understood the love she had for Heathcliff, first of all. Though Cathy and Heathcliff grew up together, the abusive and competitive nature of their environment would have, I'd have thought, made them hate each other--not become soul mates. Maybe it's because I don't understand (still) what made Heathcliff so special. But the part where I really started to dislike her is when she told Nelly Dean her reasons for marrying Edgar Linton. I lost any sympathy I might have had for Cathy when she said she was marrying Linton so that she could use Edgar's wealth and position to elevate Heathcliff. A lot of Heights' plot is her fault, I think. If she had been less selfish, this would have been a very different book. But I don't think there was much goodness in her. I shudder to think how the younger Catherine would have turned out if her mother had lived.

Also, the way that Catherine died bothers me. The way I read it, it really seemed like she drove herself crazy. I think a certain element of her death was suicide. I've noticed that it's hard to pin down actual causes of death in nineteenth-century novels because 1) germ theory was new at the time, and 2) it's fiction and the author can do whatever the hell they want. ;) On top of the mystery of her death, I had lost all sympathy for her by the time she died and it was hard to muster any feeling for her.


The Kenzie and Gennaro Series, by Dennis Lehane

Before he wrote Mystic River, Dennis Lehane wrote a five book series of gritty detective mysteries set in Boston. These books feature Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, two private investigators who get involved in some pretty twisted and dark novels. Over the last week, I felt the need to re-read these books--probably because Ben Affleck just filmed the fourth book, Gone Baby Gone.

A Drink Before the War: This novel introduces our heroes. Like a lot of noir detectives, Kenzie and Gennaro are a wise-cracking pair. The mystery is, after a few twists and turns, fairly straight forward. We know who dun it and why. But what makes this novel interesting is the way that it deals with racism in its twenty-first century incarnation. In Lehane's world, racism is far from gone. And I'm sure that a lot of people would say that he's right. Lehane uses his characters to show how how tense things are from the white and African-American experience and, at times, it's hard to take because I don't see how the characters can get past their hate and distrust of another race.

Darkness Take My Hand: In this book, Kenzie and Gennaro uncover a very dark and violent secret, one that has its roots in their past. This is also a book that explores the human capacity for violence, and how fairly innocent people can be twisted by evil. Most mysteries that I've read, the motives are understandable: greed, lust, the rest of the seven. But in this book, there's no reason for what the villains do except that their own inexplicable pathologies tell them to. Sacred: I think this might be my least favorite of the series. It's a good book, and it's a necessary read if you want to move on, but I don't feel like Lehane used this book to explore the deep issues that came up in the first two books. Although, he does create a pair of extremely greedy and clever villains in this one. I wonder if Lehane was giving Kenzie and Gennaro a bit of a break after the last book.

Gone Baby Gone: This one is the hardest book of all, even more than Darkness Take My Hand, because it brings up a lot of hard to answer questions about justice and the responsibilities of a parent. One the one hand, Kenzie and Gennaro were hired to return a child to her mother, and the law makes it very hard for a natural parent's rights to be taken care away. But on the other hand--and I hate to ruin the book for people--the mother is extremely neglectful of her child and will probably ruin her. I am very curious to see how the movie treats these subjects. There are a lot of ugly things that happen in this book.

Prayers for Rain: In this book, Kenzie and Gennaro have to take on most twisted psyches. This book isn't so violent as Darkness Take My Hand, but the baddies destroy lives by making people's worlds crumble.

After Prayers for Rain, Lehane put out a couple more books, but I miss his presence in literature. He hasn't put anything out for several years, and I really wish he'd write more. He's a very talented man, and his books are much more profound than the stuff you'll find in many mystery novels. According to what I read in his Wikipedia article, he's got a book going--and it sounds damned interesting*--about the Boston Police strike in 1919. I am really looking forward to this one, and I hope it comes out sometime soon.

*XKCD was right when he put out this cartoon about how addictive Wikipedia is. After reading about the police strike, I ending up looking at articles about Boston history and I found this gem about the 1919 Molasses Disaster. Fascinating reading.


Lamb, by Christopher Moore

I was feeling a little down at the beginning of this week, so I pulled out a book that I knew would cheer me up. I've read it at least five times before, but it never fails to make me laugh out loud. Also, every time that I read Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore I get something new out of it.

This time, I was really struck by the way that Moore incorporated Buddhism and Taoism into the book in a way that was both highly entertaining and very educational. I only ever took one class in Asian philosophies, but I remember having a hard time wrapping my mind around how Buddhists and Taoists see the world. I've often joked about that fact that I'm not relaxed enough to be Buddhist, even though I see the value it in. But having read the descriptions of Buddhism and Taoism, I wish I could see things as clearly as the monks in this book.

Also, I am always affected by the ending of Lamb. Even though the first parts of the book are just packed with hilarity, the ending is so wonderfully bittersweet. It's incredibly moving for a book that's billed as comedy.

The Sunrise Lands, by S.M. Stirling

The Sunrise Lands
The Sunrise Lands
The Sunrise Lands is the fourth book in Stirling's disturbing series, set in an alternate reality were electricity and explosives no longer work. In this book, the descendants of the characters from the first three books travel across what used to be the United States. Having read this book, I have to agree with some of the reader comments that I saw on Amazon.com. For me, the most interesting parts of this book was seeing what happened outside of the Willamette Valley after the Change. And it looks like Stirling has really outdone himself creating the baddie in this book. The guy only exists on paper, but he really gives me the willies. The only problem I had with this book is that it is clearly the first book in a second trilogy, and so it ends feeling unfinished. It's a 450 page book, but I still felt like there ought to be more to the plot--especially give than at least the first half or more of the book is just set up for the journey east. This book only really gets exciting in the last third.


Getting Stoned with Savages, by J. Maarten Troost

Getting Stoned with Savages
Getting Stoned with
I must have a highly developed sense of schadenfreude because I love travel books written by the accident prone and the naive. Which is why I've enjoyed J. Maarten Troost's books about his life in the South Pacific so much. Troost also has a gift that I've noticed with certain British writers. The man can turn a phrase and he's wonderfully sardonic. Getting Stoned with Savages is Troost's follow-up to his first book, The Sex Lives of Cannibals Cannibals documented the two years he spent on Kiribas. Savages is about his life on Vanuatu and Fiji with his wife and first son. In it, he encounters some wonderful intoxicants, foot long centipedes, a cyclone,  the aftermath of a coup on Fiji, and parenthood.

Unlike a lot of travel books, Troost shows you the non-tourist side of these islands. In fact, he tends to shun the touristy spots. Instead, he tries to find people who either were cannibals or witness cannibalism and spends a lot (a lot) of time drinking kava with his neighbors and becoming one with the dirt.

Troost spends some time at the beginning and end of this book reflecting on escapism and his need to escape the American way of life or, more specifically, escaping the American work life. It makes him itchy, apparently, and long to be somewhere where happiness is easier to achieve--probably because you're knocking yourself back down a few rungs on Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Making Money, by Terry Pratchett

Making Money
Making Money
I have been eagerly awaiting this book since the moment I finished Going Postal. Well, truth to tell, I would have eagerly awaited any Terry Pratchett novel. No one else I have ever read has his gift for combining satire with mayhem.

Making Money is the second book to feature the unfortunately named Moist von Lipwig.  This time, he's put in charge of the Royal Bank and the Mint and told to whip them into shape. And von Lipwig uses the opportunity to introduce paper currency. Meanwhile, a rich man with an identity disorder is trying to kill him.

I've read the review of this book over at the Guardian, and I have to agree.  This book just didn't have the sparkle or the bite of Going Postal. Some of the most entertaining characters--Stanley, Adora Belle Dearheart, the golems--barely registered in the book. Also, von Lipwig, who has the ability to talk anyone into anything, seems to be off his stride. Ah, well, I've learned that when you read Pratchett, you take a risk. Either you'll get a book that is fantastically funny, or you'll get one that will provide a chuckle or two wile you wait for the next fantastically funny one.


The Stand, by Stephen King, Part II

I never noticed this before, but Randall Flagg has some similarities to one of my favorite villains: Richard III (as Shakespeare wrote his story). In Richard III, the eponymous Richard can talk anyone into anything. In The Stand, Flagg has a similar ability—though his persuasion is aided by the fact that he can scare the bejeezus out of anyone. But the big similarity I see is that it all starts to go wrong once these characters loose their abilities to control other people’s behavior.

I was also surprised to learn, from reading his entry in Wikipedia, that Flagg appears in other King books. It’s sort of being in on an inside joke, being able to spot characters from other books. And it’s probably why I like Jasper Fforde’s books so much. From what I understand, though, King’s books are very intertextual. There are frequent references to other villains, other towns, other heroes. After a while, it starts to look like King’s books are all part of one big, scary-as-hell story. I know I’ll never read every thing he’s written (because I like a good night’s sleep), but it would be interesting to see how it all works together.


The Stand, by Stephen King

The Stand cover
The Stand
I’ve read The Stand before. The first time I read it, I had to stop every 60 pages or so and read something light and frivolous, simply because the story was really creeping me out. This time though, I was really paid attention to the sociology of the whole thing. The first time I read it, I remember being irritated by Glen Bateman’s dissertations on society. This time, I was fascinated by them. Perhaps I’m more of an armchair sociologist that I used to be, but I find it fascinating to watch how humans build their societies—especially when they set about putting together governments from scratch. I’ve always thought that, besides their entertainment value, books are also thought experiments. You can throw characters and situations together and see what happens. (If you read Laurell K. Hamilton’s blog, you’ll realize that authors are not always in control of their creations. Hamilton frequently writes about how her characters simply won’t do what she wants them to, and decide to go off in another direction.)

Right after I finished reading The Stand, I read Dies the Fire (S.M Stirling). It’s a fantasy that explores what might happen if something altered the way the world worked and electricity, explosives, and steam power stopped working and people were reduced—mostly—to medieval technology. As I read these books, I was reminded about how removed most of us are from the basics of life. I know a few people who grow some of their own food, as a hobby. But you have to go a long way to find someone who can provide for themselves from what they can grow and hunt. When we need food, we go to a grocery store. The store gets the food from warehouses, and the warehouses are supplied by farms from around the world. If you look closely, you can see that your bananas might come from Ecuador, some of your spices may come from Asia. Both The Stand and Dies the Fire look at what might happen if the whole system grinds to a halt. And it’s pretty scary.

The Well of Ascension, by Brandon Sanderson

The Well of Ascension
The Well of
I sincerely hope that Sanderson keeps writing. Even though he writes fantasy novels, his books are a lot different than I’ve come to expect from fantasy. The Well of Ascension is the sequel to Mistborn, and is basically the story of what happens after the revolution, after the evil dictator/emperor/whatever is killed and the survivors have to work out how things will be run. Unfortunately, a lot of the heavy-hitters from the previous regime have managed to scare up armies and are now fighting each other and our heroes from Mistborn. Meanwhile, there is a deeper, mystical problem brewing and our hero, Vin, has to figure out what is going on before she can solve the problem.

I really enjoy books where you get to see what happens after the heroes triumph. I’ve always been a fan of the epilogue. Probably because I’ve get really attached to good characters. I think the next book in the series is going to be fantastic. Not only do our heroes have to contend with politics, but there’s the issue with the Deepness. I don’t want to spoil the ending of The Well, but I was really surprised at the twist at the end. For those of you who have read this book and Good Omens (Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman), it reminded me of the end of the introduction, when Crowley (a demon) wonders to Aziraphale (an angel) if he did the right thing by talking Eve into eating that apple and the angel had done the wrong thing by giving his flaming sword to the first couple when they got kicked out of Eden.

What I like about Sanderson is that he can write novels where the plot just hums along, and still have some profound character development going on at the same time. I’ve said it before, but I really think it’s the characters that keep me coming back to books. And if I can get a book were the plot winds me up and I can’t put it down even though I know I really ought to go to bed, well, that’s heaven for me.

One interesting idea that Sanderson brought up in the first book, and that’s carried through into this book is what the Keepers do. Essentially, they remember cultures, histories, and religions from before the hegemony of the Final Empire wiped them out. The problem with the Keepers is that it’s been so long since there was independent culture, that nobody seems to want to know about the way things were in the past anymore. One the one hand, I think that people need to know about their heritage. On the other hand, why try to resurrect dead languages, customs, and religions if the world has moved on? Something to think about.


The List, 2006-2007

This blog is now two years old. Last year I posted a list of books I'd read in the past year, and because I'm curious about how graduate school has affected my reading, I'm going to do it again.
  1. The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield
  2. In the Merde for Love, by Stephen Clarke
  3. The Beekeeper's Apprentice, by Laurie R. King
  4. A Monstrous Regiment of Women, by Laurie R. King
  5. A Letter of Mary, by Laurie R. King
  6. The Moor, by Laurie R. King
  7. O Jerusalem, by Laurie R. King
  8. Three Days to Never, by Tim Powers
  9. World War Z, by Max Brooks
  10. The Complete Zombie Survival Guide, by Max Brooks
  11. The Lost Cosmonaut, by Daniel Kalder
  12. Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde
  13. First Among Sequels, by Jasper Fforde
  14. Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol
  15. Well of Lost Plots, by Jasper Fforde
  16. Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde
  17. The Prestige, by Christopher Priest
  18. If on a winter's night a traveler, by Italo Calvino
  19. Hannibal Rising, by Thomas Harris
  20. Eragon, by Christopher Paolini
  21. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
  22. Armageddon Rag, by George R. R. Martin
  23. Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett
  24. Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett
  25. Thud!, by Terry Pratchett
  26. Feet of Clay, by Terry Pratchett
  27. The Truth, by Terry Pratchett
  28. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
  29. Declare, by Tim Powers
  30. Possession, by A. S. Byatt
  31. Mistral's Kiss, by Laurell K. Hamilton
  32. You Suck, by Christopher Moore
  33. Sourcery, by Terry Pratchett
  34. Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett
  35. Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett
  36. For a Few Demons More, by Kim Harrison
  37. The Burning Road, by Ann Benson
  38. The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson
  39. Phoenix and Ashes, by Mercedes Lackey
  40. The Serpent's Shadow, by Mercedes Lackey
  41. Poison Study, by Maria V. Snyder
  42. Magic Study, by Maria V. Snyder
  43. Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer
  44. Bad Luck and Trouble, by Lee Child
  45. The Killing Floor, by Lee Child
  46. Die Trying, by Lee Child
  47. Tripwire, by Lee Child
  48. Rainbow's End, by Vernor Vinge
  49. Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain
  50. Forty Signs of Rain, by Kim Stanley Robinson
  51. Fifty Degrees Below, by Kim Stanley Robinson
  52. Lean Mean Thirteen, by Janet Evanovich
  53. These is My Words, by Nancy Turner
  54. Florence of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley
  55. Still Life with Crows, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
  56. Watchmen, by Alan Moore
  57. Dream Country, by Neil Gaiman
  58. All Together Dead, by Charlaine Harris
  59. Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman
  60. Daywatch, by Sergei Lukyanenko
  61. The Secret Servant, by Daniel Silva
  62. Dawn, by Octavia Butler
  63. Kushiel's Justice, by Jacqueline Carey
  64. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
  65. The Harlequin, by Laurell K. Hamilton
  66. Across the Nightingale Floor, by Lian Hearn
  67. Grass for His Pillow, by Lian Hearn
  68. The Well of Ascension, by Brandon Sanderson
That's all I can remember. I really need to keep better track in this coming year.


These is My Words, by Nancy Turner

These is My Words
These is My Words
I love this novel. These is My Words is a novel written as the diary of a young woman in 1880s and 90s Arizona who, after much tragedy, finds love, and who must survive and thrive in a very harsh environment.

Sarah Prine is one of the toughest female characters I have come across. And I am constantly amazed at her ability to soldier on. But what really makes me love this book is the relationship between Sarah and Captain Elliot. It's such a beautiful love story that, when I reread this book, I am glued to the pages for however many hours it takes me to finish it and I have a really hard time putting to down.

I recently found out that Nancy Turner has written two more books that feature Sarah and her family. At first, I was excited to read more about Sarah, but now, I'm wondering if I read this books, the experience of reading These is My Words might be ruined. In my mind, These is My Words is perfect just as a single book.


Florence of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley

Florence of Arabia
Florence of Arabia
I don't know how I feel about Christopher Buckley's Florence of Arabia. I really enjoyed it as a piece of satire, but I have a hard time with the message of the book. The satire focuses on a couple of different topics: American dependence on oil, Islamic fundamentalism. It chiefly focuses on women's rights in strict, Taliban-style sharia countries. One the one hand, I firmly believe that women should be treated equally--socially, economically, and legally--with men. But on the other hand, I don't think I (or the Western world) has the right to tell other people how they should live. As a relativist and a liberal, I have never been able to reconcile this.

Buckley takes pains to have his characters point out ever now and then that not all Arab (meaning Muslim) women want to be "liberated." It occurs to me, though, that everyone should be able to expect basic human rights. (Which begs the question, what are basic human rights? Well, the UN drafted and passed a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.) Even though Buckley was trying to be humorous, and even though I really enjoyed this book, it makes me think unhappy thoughts, thoughts that are hard to put into words. Why are there places in the world where women are oppressed, abused, and not allowed to change their situation? Why are religions interpreted to create cultures like the Taliban?

I don't know how he does it, but Buckley creates satires that work like they are supposed to: first you laugh, then you think. For days. And days. And days.


Books that have thwarted me

I'm sure this happens to any reader, but I seem to have some books that, no matter how many times I try to read them, they keep on defeating me and I never finish them. Here is my list:

Mila 18, by Leon Uris (I actually did finish this, eventually. 8/9/2012)

I have started to read this book about three times, but I can never seem to get past the first few chapters. I think my problem is that I want to read the story of the Warsaw Uprising, but Uris started his novel at such a remove from the ghetto that I have a hard time seeing how they will intersect.

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

Someday, I will finish this book. I actually started it last summer, and was doing quite well, until I noticed all the books that were coming out that I wanted to read. I did the math on how long it would take to finish the book at my current rate, and I gave up.

Fatherland, by Robert Harris

You'd think I'd have gotten through this one. It's an alternate history. It's about World War II. But I've started it four times and haven't made it beyond chapter five yet. I'm interested at first, but I think the premise of the book bothers me so much that I can't read on.

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

I've started this book twice, and I got about halfway through the last time I attempted to read it. I'm not sure why I couldn't get through this one either because it also had a lot of things in it that interest me: World War II (again), enigma machines, cryptography, advanced computer science, etc. But I guess I didn't have the stamina for this book. I quit when I found my self skipping sections that didn't interest me as much as the Waterhouse plot line.

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

I've also tried to read Foucault's Pendulum and had to give that one up to. I've tried to read these books twice and have failed. I think it might be because they are so densely written that I have a hard time remembering all the details that I think I need to in order to understand what the book is trying to tell me. It's a bit like taking a class in college, when there's the possibility of a lot of the material is going to be on the final. The only way I found out how The Name of the Rose ended was that I listened to an abridged audiobook--and that doesn't count. (I don't think audiobooks are cheating. I think reading or listening to an abridged version is.)

Still Life With Crows, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Still Life with Crows
Still Life With Crows
I haven't read a serial killer novel in a long time, but I've been intrigued by what I've read about the main character, Agent Pendergast, that I've been wanting to read these books. And I really enjoyed The Cabinet of Curiosities, which I read, I think, last year or the year before. Still Life with Crows was the first book in the series that I happened to have in my collection, so I decided to start with it. Judging by what I read in the Wikipedia entry for Pendergast, I didn't really want to read the first two anyway.

When I started reading Still Life, I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to make it through. At first, it seemed to me that Pendergast was just a collection of eccentricities, rather than an actual personality. At first, he really got on my nerves in the way that old style detectives like Holmes and Poirot get on my nerves. But after a while, Pendergast grew on me, possibly because a lot of the other characters were jerks.

The other thing I liked about this book was the plot. Considering how many mysteries Ive read, it's gotten kind of easy for me to predict where the book is going to go. I may not know who done it, but I can usually figure out how the book is going to resolve itself. With Still Life, I had no clue what was going on 'till almost the very end of the book. Child and Preston were very good in this book about setting up the possibility of a supernatural killer that it stayed on my mental set of solutions, instead of being dismissed early on. And this helped make the book a very creepy read.

Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

I think Stardust is going to go on my list of books where I actually enjoyed the movie more. I know better than to expect a movie to duplicate a book, but there are a lot of differences between the book and the movie, lots of new characters, and the ending is completely different.

I know that both the book and the movie are supposed to be fairy tales for adults, so I really shouldn't be surprised by the way the book turned out. It had a surprising number of what I think of as Dickensian moments, when something happens that resolves the plot and you can't help but think, "Man, that was convenient." (Think of Abel Magwitch from Great Expectations.)  Plus, I hate to say it, but the ending of the book just fizzled out. I don't want to ruin the ending for anyone, but I just don't believe that the baddie, who has pursued our heroes so viciously, would just give up like that.

This book was a very unusual book for Gaiman, considering what I've read by him before. Stardust had it's dark moments, but it's nothing compared to the Sandman series, or even American Gods. Of course, it could be that I'm just not a big fan of traditional fairy tales.


Across the Nightingale Floor, by Lian Hearn

Across the Nightingale Floor
Across the
Nightingale Floor
I've been meaning to read this series for a while, but I only managed to get my hands on a copy last week. Across the Nightingale Floor is a fantasy novel set in a world that is very closely modeled on Shogunate Japan. But there's magic. You figure out the genre. Every time I try to classify this sort of book, I'm reminded of Polonius's speech about how good the actors are*.

The book has the standard fantasy genre plot of trying to defeat the evil warlord. There is a lot of journeying around from place to place and maidens in need of rescue. But this book does turn some of the fantasy conventions on its head. Some of the women in this book are not so helpless as they seem. (I'd say more about this but it would give away important plot points.) And, just when it seems like the characters are going to get their happily ever after, after the warlord is dead, things get even more complicated. I really like fantasy books like this. I like books that take the reader past happily ever after and show you what the heroes have to do once they're in charge. I think it was Che Guevara who said something to the effect of "A revolution is easy, getting the trains to run on time is hard." (If someone has the original quote, please let me know.)

* Hamlet, II, ii:

Polonius: The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light.

Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman

Soon I Will Be Invincible
Soon I Will Be
After reading The Secret Servant, I need to read something totally frivolous. Soon I Will Be Invincible absolutely fit the bill. SIWBI is basically a spoof of comic book superheros and super villains. One plot follows a super villain as he escapes from prison and starts work on his Doomsday Device Mark V. (The previous four doomsday machines failed.) The other plot follows a cyborg who recently became a new member of the Champions, analogous to the Justice League of America and other superhero teams.

While Grossman really gets into the psychology of heroes and villains, I found that the best parts of Grossman were the small jokes and oddities of this super world. If you know a bit about the comic book world, there are lot of things in here that will make you laugh. One of the things that I found amusing was the disconnect between the characters' inner monologues, and the cliches that came out of their mouth when superheros spoke to super villains and vice versa.

This isn't a really a deep book, psychology notwithstanding, but it's excellent brain candy.

The Secret Servant, by Daniel Silva

The Secret Servant
The Secret Servant
Another long awaited sequel came out this summer: The Secret Servant, by Daniel Silva. This series follows part of the career of art restorer-Israeli assassin, Gabriel Allon, and is another book I recommend that you start at the beginning. There are two sort of trilogies in this series. Books 1 and 5 to the most recent deal with fighting Islamist terrorists. Books 2-4 are about what Silva called "the unfinished business of the Holocaust."

The Secret Servant finds Gabriel again fighting Islamist terrorist seek to attack Israel and the United States. And, truth to tell, I find these books harder to read than the Holocaust novels. Maybe it's because the Holocaust ended so many years ago and we're currently engaged in fighting terrorism. More likely, though, it's the way the terrorists are portrayed in the novels. While Silva gives a couple of sentences to saying that not all Muslims are terrorists, he spends an awful lot of time showing how ruthless, bloodthirsty, and uncompromising Islamists are. I'm not going to argue with anyone. I know there are groups in the Islamic world that want to kill Americans and Jews, and impose sharia on significant portions of the world. But I keep finding myself asking, where did all this hate come from?

I've been thinking about this question on and off in the week since I read this book and every time I find something to point to as a root cause, I think of something that happened earlier. It's an endless cycle of violence all the way back to the Palestinian Mandate and there's no end in site. Silva is very good about pointing out that the current cycle of violence is actually breeding a more violent generation of terrorists. And thoughts like this make me despair of there ever being peace, because it seems like there's no way to make it stop.

First Among Sequels, by Jasper Fforde

First Among Sequels cover
First Among Sequels
At last! Two weeks ago, the latest book in the Thursday Next series First Among Sequels came out and I was clearly running low on wackiness in my life. If you're not familiar with the series, I highly recommend him. His books take place half inside other books, like Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, and so on. It's a bit hard to explain, because an awful lot has happened in the last five books.

In this book, Thursday has to deal with problems in fiction, including training her fictional counterparts to work for Jurisfiction, and get her son to start his apparently fantastic career with the Chronoguard. (Do you see now why you need to start at the beginning?)

I have to say though, considering the originality of the first four books, this one was a bit of a let down. There wasn't a lot that was new here, compared to these books. Instead, there seemed be a lot of rehashing of old ideas. I did like the Chronoguard plot, but it wasn't enough to sustain the book. I also didn't like the ending. You can end a chapter on a cliffhanger, but to end a book on a cliffhanger is just irritating. It smacks of a ploy to make you buy the next book.


World War Z (Again)

World War Z
World War Z
I've read and written about this book before, but since I listened to the abridged audiobook this weekend and wanted to reread the whole thing. This time as I read it, I started to realized that when you've earned a degree in English, it gets kind of hard to stop looking for hidden meaning. (The Onion has a funny article about a grad student who deconstructed his take out menu.) As I read World War Z this time, I found myself seeing satire all over the place.

As I read about the politicians, I was trying to guess which current politicians Brooks was hinting at. Plus, even though I think this is a fantastically terrifying book, I think that Brooks gets in a lot of digs on the way Americans live right now, our celebrity culture, what we eat, our materialism. I know that Brooks did this on purpose, but who expects subtle satire in a book about a zombie take over of the world?


Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain

Kitchen Confidential cover
Kitchen Confidential
I want to cook again. No, that's not entirely accurate. I want to eat well and if I get to cook, bonus. Even though Kitchen Confidential is not a cookbook, or even a book about eating, Bourdain really makes me want to be adventurous about my food. (His show on the Travel Channel, No Reservations, makes me want to be adventurous about food in as many different places as I can manage.) Plus, he writes about what's really going on behind those swinging doors as the cooks and garde-mangers and sauciers and all the rest try and get dinners into stomachs.

It's highly entertaining, if you have my kind of warped sense of humor. If you expect restaurant kitchens to be like the ones on the Food Channel, you're in for a surprise.

In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain writes about his life in the anarchic world of cooking in New York, how he went from dishwasher, to prep cook, to line cook, to chef, to celebrity chef. He makes the world of professional cooking seem as hard as army life, but with less job security considering the failure rate of new restaurants. One could see Kitchen Confidential as an expose, but I saw it more as a book about a philosophy of food. Bourdain, as he's declared in his books and on TV, really believes in the pleasures of eating good food.

What I enjoyed most about this book, though, were the descriptions of what the kitchen staff were doing and their camaraderie that developed among the staff. A lot of his stories remind me of some of my dad's stories from his time in the Navy. There is an us v. them mentality, a hierarchy, hazing of new recruits, in-jokes, and profanity that might grace the dressing downs of a linguistically-gifted sergeant. Also, I think my hick's awe of eating in an upscale restaurant has been blown and I'm not half-afraid of it anymore. (I used to be more afraid of exotic/unfamiliar food before now, and I don't like snobs.)

The only problem I had with the book was that Bourdain uses so many kitchen and recipe names that I didn't know. I understood a few words here and there but, after a couple of chapters, I thought about try to talk one my local librarians into letting me take home their Reference copy of the Larousse Gastronomique.


It's inevitable that, when you buy a lot of books, someday, you have to start weeding them and getting rid of the ones you thought you'd read but never got 'round to, the ones you read once and didn't like, the series you really liked when you were a teenager but are now kind of embarrassed to have on your shelves still, and all the rest. Recently, Doppelganger over on 50 Books wrote about her attempts to get her family's book collection under control: Unbookening and Going, Going, Going...and Gone. Sort of. Her writing reminds me of my attempts to bring my 700+ book collection back to heel earlier this year.

When I started weeding my books, it was hard. I'd set a book in the discard pile, and then change my mind, thinking, "This sounds interesting to me again. I might read this." Or I'd remember really liking the book and start thinking I might want to reread it. I know better of course. So, I told myself to get ruthless—after all, I live in a town with three libraries and I have interlibrary loan priveledges at two of them. I ended up donating about six copier paper boxes of books to my local library after a two week blitz through my collection. (And my LibraryThing Catalog is totally out of date now. Still.)

Weeding books is hard. Those books appealed to me when I bought them. They say something about how my tastes in reading have grown up and changed over the years. Plus, they're great to have around when you have no clue what you want to read next.

Another factor that made it hard for me to part with my book is the fact that I've been buying books since I had my first job—before even. I've invested a lot of time reading book reviews, asking for recommendations and, when all else fails, climbing through piles of forgotten books in used book stores looking for books I might like. Some people are reflected by their art collections, or their music collections. I think I am really represented by the books I choose to surround myself with.

Towards the end of the blitz, I sardonically comforted myself by telling myself, "Look how much room you have for new books now!"


Lean Mean Thirteen, by Janet Evanovich

Lean Mean Thirteen cover
Lean Mean
Lean Mean Thirteen is the latest in the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich. Many members of my family have been eagerly awaiting this book, and I am so glad that Evanovich can churn out a book a year. And, more importantly, she can turn out a good book a year. Even more importantly, a good funny book. I don't know how she does it.

If you're not familiar with the series, the Stephanie Plum books are a series about a New Jersey woman who becomes a bounty hunter in a desperate attempt to make some money and gets involved in a series of mysteries. High jinks always ensue. In the last few books, Evanovich has always come up with something so unexpectedly hilarious that I laugh out loud several times during the book. I hate to ruin it for people, but I have to say that I really enjoyed the exploding rodents and the running joke about the cable company. (Those fuckers.)

By book thirteen, in my experience, a lot of writers are running out of steam and are struggling to 1) take the series new places, and 2) keep the fans happy who have come to expect from the series. And, unlike some other writers, Evanovich isn't getting bogged down in holdover plot from previous books. She writes great brain candy.


Fifty Degrees Below, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Fifty Degrees Below cover
Fifty Degrees Below
Fifty Degrees Below is the sequel to Forty Signs of Rain, and continues Robinson's story of abrupt climate change in the near future. In Fifty Degrees Below, we're facing the first couple of winters of a slide into a new ice age (like the Younger Dryas--see my post on Forty Signs of Rain for links to more information about abrupt climate change).

In Fifty Degrees Below, Washington, D.C. is hit by no-fooling Arctic temperatures, temperatures that few people outside of northern Canada, Siberia, or Antarctica know how to deal with, and that stick around for months. The winter seems to have finally convinced people that now is the time to try and reverse the effects of mass industrialization and consumerism, and try and get a grip on abrupt climate change. (I would have said global warming, but apparently, in the world of fiction, global warming is going to lead to an ice age. I am not sure of the science because I am not a climatologist, meteorologist, or hydrologist.)

At this point, I think I've given up trying to impose a traditional plot structure on this series. It's starting to seem like Robinson is trying to model this story on the way things happen in real life. What I mean is that there are a lot of characters, each of whom have a piece of the narrative, who may or may not be working together or even towards the same goal. It's reminding me a lot of when I read Robinson's Mars Trilogy. There were unifying elements, but it was very hard to summarize the plot.

In a way, you could say that everything that has happened in these books is peripheral. And I'm really enjoying that. There have been a lot of times when I've read a book, and the hints about what is going on in the background are as interesting or are more interesting than what's happening to the plot. This might be a further sign of my Wikification, because I want to pursue all the tangential plot elements, back stories, and histories that the narrative introduces.


Forty Signs of Rain, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Forty Signs of Rain coverKim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain is the first in a trilogy (for now) about abrupt climate change. It's the stuff of disaster movies, but it has enough grains of truth in it that it started to freak me out as I read it, because I could definitely see some of the events of the book actually happening. Forty Signs of Rain follows several scientists as they identify the necessity of scientists becoming actors rather than just being advocates. By actor, I mean taking an active role in policy changes.

When I  first started reading the book, I though maybe a wrong signature from another book got stuck in my copy because I couldn't see how the beginning had anything to do with the plot I was expecting.

Forty Signs of Rain really sets up a dire scenario. Years of pollution and interfering with the environment have caused the planet to heat up, the polar ice caps to start to melt, caused droughts and altered weather patterns, and is starting to shut down the North Atlantic current. (The shutdown of this current was the probable cause of the Younger Dryas ice age.)

I wasn't happy with the abrupt end of the book. It felt more like a chapter ending than the ending of a book. But I am definitely hooked on this series.

Books that freak me out

Every now and then, I read a book that freaks me out. It takes a certain kind of book to weird me out. It has to been plausible, and make me think that the reality of the book could happen to us. This why I can't read true crime, but I can read very gory mysteries. I think it's because I can distance myself when I read fiction. If it gets to be too much, I can always tell myself, "This didn't/couldn't happen."

So, here's my list of books that freaked me out to the point that I either wanted to put them in the freezer, or had to take breaks and read something silly in order to get though:
  1. 1984 by George Orwell
  2. The Stand by Stephen King
  3. Rainbows' End by Vernor Vinge
  4. Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson
  5. Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson
  6. Maus by Art Spiegelman


The Harlequin, by Laurell K. Hamilton

The Harlequin cover
The Harlequin
I won't say that The Harlequin is a return to form for Laurell K. Hamilton, but I will say that this book is the best of maybe the last five or so books she's out out in either one of current series. At last! Plot! More plot than sex! Hurrah!

I actually enjoyed this book, rather than feeling like I was slogging through just to find out what happens next like I have been doing for the last few titles in the series. Even though, chronologically, things moved forward only a few hours in real time, this book was very satisfying in that it wrapped up some loose ends that have been dragging on for many books.

There were a few points in the book where I thought there was too much standing around and taking, some really foolish standing around and talking given that the baddies were in the room at the time waiting for an opening. :) And that's always been a flaw in Hamilton's books--too much talking. And it's kind of bizarre given that these books were really action-driven in the first half of the series.

When I picked up my copy of this book, I was surprised. The increasing size of the last few books made me expect another tome. The Harlequin, though, was good enough that I wish it had been more than an inch wide. Plus, Hamilton is getting into some really interesting back story with her vampire mythos and I really want to know more about the Mother of All Darkness and the vampire council.

One of the things I really like about contemporary fantasies are the histories that the author's get to build. In Hamilton's case, I wonder how much she makes up as she goes along because these little bits and pieces keep popping up and she rarely just lays everything out. I think I like this way, too. Given the slow pace of the plot to date, I don't think I could handle extensive worldbuilding.

So, kudos to Laurell on this one. Write more like this!

A couple of days ago, Hamilton put this funny excuse note on her blog. I wonder if J.K. Rowling will do something similar when Potter hits the shelves


Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

Okay, so this is a young adult book, but at the time I read it, I was at the end of a very long semester and needed some brain candy. It was recommended to me by some classmates who read the same vampire novels as I do. So, what the hell.

Twilight cover
As I started to read Twilight, I knew it was going to be kind of a struggle for me to believe it. First, it's set in an area of the country that I know pretty well, the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. Second, it's a vampire novel set in a high school. Yes, you read that right. So I had to do some serious suspension-of-disbelief work as I read it.

While I did like the overall story, and really liked the originality that Meyers displayed, I had some problems. First, I think Meyer could have left off a lot of the emotional signals that peppered every exchange of dialog between the characters. This got very annoying, given that most of the character seem to be having a lot of mood changes. One line they're smiling or grinning, the next they're glowering and pensive. This is one of my pet peeves in reading. Writers, don't be afraid to leave some of the details to our imagination. We can handle it.

Second, I just had a hard time believing that hundred year old vampires would bother to go to high school. Granted, Meyer is playing around with the idea of the vampire here, but honestly, high school? Never could quite buy that.

I have the second book sitting on my bedside table, but I'm not sure if I really want to read it. I think I'd rather re-read the Reacher novels, or maybe tackle the books I brought home from the library earlier.

Bad Luck and Trouble, by Lee Child

I've been enjoying the Jack Reacher novels for years now. There are few other mysteries writers that I've been able to enjoy for more than five years or so. Given that mysteries often follow formulae, it's incredibly hard to be original, to do something new. While I can't exactly say that Lee Child does something new every time, he always manages to come up with a mystery that I can't solve until the main characters does. Child even usually manages to get me to bark up the same wrong trees as Reacher.

The other thing I really like about this books is that the character is a modern day Sherlock Holmes, in some senses. He observes and he has a lot of experience drawing conclusions from his observations. But, unlike the great Holmes, he never gives me the sense that it's all elementary and that you're a moron if you can't see what's going on.

Bad Luck and Trouble cover
Bad Luck
and Trouble
Bad Luck and Trouble is the latest Reacher book, and finds this character still wandering around the country, being a tourist in the United States. Child pulls the plot out of Reacher's growing back story, and comes up with a pretty good mystery. I enjoyed it so much, that I've gone back to the first book and I have to say that Reacher has matured a lot over the last eleven books. He was downright boyish in Killing Floor. I'm not sure how long Child can keep spinning Reacher's story out until he hits a Jessica Fletcher-like wall, where it starts to seem really weird that every where he goes, someone dies and he has to find out why. Hopefully, Child keeps Reacher a dynamic, evolving character. There are so few detective characters out there who use little more than their brains and their eyes to solve crimes.


Rainbows End, part II, and Double Fold, by Nicholson Baker

It's a very disconcerting experience to be reading a work of science fiction, and then to read a nonfiction book that confirms one of the more outlandish plot points of the novel. In Rainbows End, Vinge writes that the company that digitized the contents of the UCSD Library will have a monopoly on the information for a certain amount of time simply because they changed the format and control the access to the reformated information.

In Double Fold, Nicholson Baker reveals that something similar happened to American newspapers. Libraries often preserve newspaper by having it filmed. But then, if a library wants a copy of an older newspaper, they have to pay a company like Heritage Microfilm to send them a copy. Very few libraries have the wherewithal to preserve their own newspapers in their original format. Plus, a lot of libraries that did have copies got rid of the paper in favor of the film because it's thought that the film will last longer. For a lot of titles, I'm sure that the microfilm companies have a monopoly on the information.

I've had to read Double Fold for a preservation class I'm taking this summer and, I have to say, it's probably the most vehement work I've ever read about libraries. Baker gets really hot under the collar about certain things, and I don't think I've ever seen name calling in a book about libraries either.


Strange Coincidences

How bizarre is it that a journal about death and bereavement is published by a company based in Amityville, New York?

And people think that scholarly journals are boring. Tcha.


Am I getting Wikified?

The other night I was taking a look at some of the new reference books that have come into the library. One was the Encyclopedia of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. The other one was the Supernatural fiction writers : contemporary fantasy and horror. As I flipped through the Intelligence book, which was published in 2005, my fingers kind of itched to update some of the information, especially the dates. And for the Supernatural writers, I kept wanting to flip around in the text and read about the authors mentioned in the articles about writers I've already read. When I you spent a lot of time just reading things on Wikipedia, you start to miss your instant cross references. I bounce from topic to topic so much that I have to admire people like A.J. Jacobs, who can resist the temptation to skip around and just read an encyclopedia through in order.

Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge

Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge, is definitely going to join the short list of books that freaked me out when I read them, along with The Stand and 1984. Rainbows End is a novel set in the not-too-distant future and, while I don't buy how all the technology has developed--in this world, the Internet and multimedia technology are ubiquitous and most people spend most of their day plugged in--I don't think Vinge is all that far off.

As I read this, I felt that that plot was less interesting than seeing this alternate future play out. The plot involves an odd assortment of characters trying to thwart the development of mind-control technology. The puppet master characters, who were pulling all the strings, did their job in such a way that it was hard to see how everything was going to come together or even what was going on.

But what really interested me was the plot elements that involved the Geisel Library at the University of California at San Diego. Having been employed at libraries for many years, I've seen the growing demand for digital materials, for journals to go online, for old books to get scanned and posted online, and so on. In Vinge's future, the digitization projects have gone farther. But the way that books are digitized here causes the destruction of the books themselves. That was a disturbing chapter for me, given that I geek out at book exhibits and tear up at the sight of book burnings.

I can envision a world where the libraries are totally online, but I don't know if me and the other book lovers could ever give up our tangible texts.

The Physician's Tale, by Ann Benson

I've finished the series (as far as it's written), and about all I have to say about the series is, "Huh." Even though I finished all three books, I feel pretty underwhelmed. This last book, The Physician's Tale, finishes up all the loss ends from the previous books. Kate reunites with her son and adopted father. Janie and her family built a new life in a decimated former United States. I get the feeling, though, that Benson is setting the stage for future books.

Unfortunately, the excellent plot mirroring Benson set up in The Plague Tales is almost completely gone now. And that was one of the things I really enjoyed about this series. Plus, it seems to me that Benson is squandering her set ups. As I've said before, Benson sets up a lot of fascinating catastrophes that almost never happen. And, now that I know that, it's hard to get worked up about anything.

I think that if Benson writes another book in this series, I might just let it go without reading it.


Ink and Blood

The Museum of Idaho is hosting a traveling exhibit called Ink and Blood, which is sort of a combination history of printing and history of the Bible. And I hate to say it, but I totally geeked out at the Museum. I couldn't help myself, I was surrounded by very old books--some of them very famous books. I spent most of my two hours there trying to control myself from boring my mother silly by nattering on about how alphabets evolved, how the English language has evolved, St. Helena's tour of the Holy Land, Chinese printing techniques contrasted with Gutenberg's methods, misprinted Bibles and what happened to the printers, and reading out loud from the various books on display.

I am truly a terrible museum geek.

Some of the artifacts that awed me:

  • Dead Sea Scroll fragments--these were particularly awing. They're in special darkened cases, and you can see the fragments by pushing a button that'll turn a light on for 10 seconds.
  • A copy of a Tyndale Bible
  • A copy of the Wicked Bible and the Breeches Bible: I spent several minutes in front of these cases trying to snicker discretely.
  • A copy of Foxe's Book of Martyr's
  • Erasmus' parallel New Testament
  • Three Books of Hours, beautifully illuminated
  • Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into German
Check out the Exhibit Artifacts page to see some of the books and text fragments that they have on display.

A lot of exhibit was dedicated to attempts to translate the Bible into the vernacular. Today, Bibles are produced in just about every language that has a written version. But 650 some odd years ago, people like William Tyndale were violently put to death for daring to translate the Bible into their own language.

I also got to see a replica of a Gutenberg press in action. There was a short, fifteen minute talk about the invention of movable type and then a volunteer got to turn the screw and print a couple of pages (lucky guy!).

This exhibit is moving on in May. If you haven't gone and you're in the area, I really recommend it.


Burning Road, by Ann Benson

When you read a fantasy series, you can often expect plot arcs that span across books. I wasn't expecting that when I picked up Benson's historical and medical series, but it's starting to look like this series has multi-book plot arcs. When I wrote about The Plague Tales, I wrote that I was disappointed that I didn't get the disaster I was expecting. It looks like that disaster is finally happening in book two, Burning Road.

In Burning Road, the historical plot jumps about ten years and takes place during the Jacquerie Rebellion of 1358. The current plot seems like it's taking place only a few months after the events of The Plague Tales. Instead of the plots mirroring each other, with both doctors trying to fight outbreaks of bubonic plague, these plots don't mesh nearly as well in this book. The historical plot follows Alejandro and his adopted daughter's struggles to survive in the extremely volatile political climate of post-plague France. The modern plot is frankly bizarre, with Janie Crowe trying to uncover a very disturbing cover-up involving some illegal genetics work and then running into a second epidemic of drug resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

It's kind of strange to have gotten two books into a series and still have no real idea where it's all going. I'm wondering if Benson is one of those authors who sits down to write without an outline, in spite of the amount of structure these books have in terms of plot mirroring.