10.31.2008

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, Part II

I meant to share this quote in my review of Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, just to show that the book is not as dry as you might think.
"Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs," I said. "We have a protractor." "Okay, I'll go home and see if I can scrounge up a ruler and a piece of string." "That'd be great." (320)

Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin

Born Standing Up
Born Standing Up
I saw Steve Martin on The Daily Show earlier this week, where they were promoting the paperback copy of Born Standing Up. As I watched Martin on the show, I was reminded of home much I enjoyed listening to my copy of Let's Get Small, one of his comedy albums. My library fortunately had a copy, so I grabbed it. Plus, who can resist a man in bunny ears?

As the subtitle suggests, this is a memoir of Martin's stand up years and early life. Part of the reason that I picked this book up is because I knew that Martin had studied philosophy and language in college, and I knew that this had influenced his comedy. I wanted to see how it all came together.The people who know me know that I sometimes have a pretty surreal sense of humor. I love Steve Martin's stand up; it's silly and it's bizarre and it's smart.

As I read this book, I learned some of what I wanted to learn. But this book is really more of a reminiscence, a journey through Martin's memories and mementos. This is about a 200 page book, but images of Martin's early days take up a lot of page space. Perhaps the most valuable thing I learned in this book was why Martin gave up his stand up. You have to admire someone who has such artistic integrity that he can let it go when it's no longer relevant, when it doesn't grow and evolve any more, and when you're ready to move on to the next thing.

10.29.2008

X-Rated Bloodsuckers, by Mario Acevedo

X-Rated Bloodsuckers
X-Rated Bloodsuckers
I read X-Rated Bloodsuckers because I needed to read something that I didn't have to think about too hard, since I had spent the previous week reading Anathem. Avecedo's book is his second novel to feature soldier turned vampire turned PI, Felix Gomex. And, in spite of the title, this book was not packed with sex. (Nor was the last book, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats.)

Not much to say about this book actually. What I like about them, though, is that Acevedo does different things with the vampire legend, while staying true to the old myths. Vampires can go out in the day, but they have to wear a lot of sun block. They can hypnotize people with their gaze, but they wear contacts to hide the tapetum lucidum in their eyes. (Tapetum lucidum is the name for the reflection you see in the eyes of predators, like cats and wolves.)

I think what I liked best about this book was a new character, a mestizo named Coyote. Just like the trickster, Coyote is irreverant, exasperating, and hilarious. He claims to be the son of La Malinche, and attempts to make rat chorizo among other things. The scenes with him were dazzlingly funny and interesting, and I wished that Acevedo featured him more.

10.28.2008

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Anathem
Anathem
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, is the kind of book that makes me glad to have had a college education. If I hadn't taken all those philosophy and history classes, I think I would have been a lot more at sea than I was. It seems like every chapter in this book references some major idea or event in astronomy, physics, Platonic philosophy, or world history. The physics was particularly challenging, because it seemed to run the entire course of history, from Aristotle to Plato to Planck and beyond.

I'm actually kind of impressed that I managed to read this book in a week.

The plot revolves around a young monastic type named Erasmus and his friends as they figure out how to deal with invaders from other dimensions. In Erasmus' world, there are a series of monasteries (concents) where people choose to live their lives contemplating, not God, but science. They spend decades, centuries, and millenia solving seriously advanced problems in mathematics, astronomy, physics, communication, biology, and so on. After Erasmus' mentor, Orolo, discovers what appears to be an alien ship orbiting their planet, the monastery system gets thrown into chaos when the outside world starts calling on experts from all different disciplines to solve the problem.

While the plot of this story is fascinating (I liked it even though I don't like stories with aliens), the history of this world is even more interesting and, at times, more richly described than the plot or the characters. Some details are missing, but you learn just about the entire history of this Earth-like world. And it's clear that Stephenson must have spent years conjuring it all up. Not only are there wars and religions, but there are important scientists, military leaders, books, cults, and scientific concepts and models.

Because of the way Stephenson chose to tell his story, it's not too hard to absorb all the information he's trying to convey. The plot enfolds slowly, and the characters spend a lot of their time "in Dialog." Just like Socrates and his students, the characters ask big questions and talk their way through thought experiments, referencing prior authorities on the matter just like scholars in our world do. Sometimes when they're nattering on about some detail about polar orbits or semantics, you get really tempted to skip ahead a few pages. Bit of it read like something you'd read in one of Plato's works. But once the characters make their way out of the monastery (or concent), the plot really picks up the pace.

One of the things that make this book hard to read (apart from all the science), is the invented language. Some readers, myself included, can find invented langauges (especially when you're meant to recognize the English origin of the word) very irritating, and a barrier to not only enjoyment, but comprehension. At first, I was afraid that this was going to be another Stephenson book that would kick my ass before page 100. I actually had to make the conscious decision to just let stuff like the invented vocabulary go, and not try to puzzle everything out before I could really get into the book. After that, I could speed through 150 pages at a go.

I did like this book, and I can totally see myself reading it again. But for others who want to get through it, you might want to read it near a computer, so that you can Google the science and read up on certain scientists and philosophers in Wikipedia. While you read it, you can just feel yourself dredging up things you learned as an undergraduate.

10.18.2008

The Reapers, by John Connolly

The Reapers
The Reapers
I hardly ever do this, but I skipped a book in a series. I didn't read the latest novel in the Charlie Parker series, The Unquiet. It's sitting on my shelves waiting for me to get around to picking it up. The last John Connolly book I read was Bad Men. But I was trolling one of the local public libraries, and found a copy of The Reapers on the new book shelf. It's not really a Parker novel, but he makes an appearance. Instead, this is about a couple of Parker's friends, Louis (a former hitman) and Angel (a former thief). But I always like Louis and Angel, so I figured what the hell.

While the novel is nominally about Louis and Angel, it's narrated for the most part by Willie Brew, a mechanic that Louis bailed out of debt many years ago. While Willie is a pretty good narrator, it made me feel like I was getting the story second-hand. And I didn't really like it. It took away some of the tension that I look for from mysteries and thrillers. I think that's a big part of why I didn't like this book as much as I liked the earliest Parker novels. The other reason is that a lot of the characters spend their time being introspective rather than acting. I probably came to this book with the wrong expectations. I think what Connolly is trying to do (and has been trying to do) is use his characters to explore the effect that a life of violence has on your soul (or anima or whatever you care to call it). Consequently, it feels like the whole dramatis personae needs a good dose of prozac or something.

What I liked the most about this book was the character descriptions when a new character would come on the scene, like this one of a pair of enforcers:
Unfortunately, there are individuals whose physical appearance comdemns them to a certain path in life. The Fulcis looked liked criminals, and it seemed inevitable that criminals they would become. The possibility of their cheating fate was further hampered by their emotional and psychological makeup, which might charitably be described as combustible. The Fulcis had fuses so short they barely existed. As time went on, a great many medical professionals...attempted unsuccessfully, to balance the Fulcis' moods by pharmaceutical intervention. What they discovered in the process was quite fascinating, and interesting papers for professional and academic study might well have resulted hand the Fulcis been willing to stay still long enough to cooperate in their formulation. (257)
Connolly still has his magic when it comes to the noir-ish passages. His language is elegant and unusual. And the book was really good in places where he let his inner noir take over. But looking back at the foreshadowing in the first Parker novels, I can see why Connolly has turned introspective in these later books. I'm not sure if I'll keep reading the series, though. I want more plot in my books, more action, more suspense.

10.12.2008

Vicious Circle, by Mike Carey

Vicious Circle
Vicious Circle
I am so glad that Carey wrote another book in this series! And that it came out so soon after I got my hands on the first book. The first book, which I reviewed earlier, was The Devil You Know. Vicious Circle picks up a couple of months after the events of the first. This one was a little less violent than The Devil You Know, but it was just as interesting and, possibly more disturbing than that debut novel.

As in The Devil You Know, our hero starts out with two cases that, at first glance, don't look like they have anything to do with each other. Castor is asked to find the ghost of a young girl by her parents. Then, he is asked to consult on a case for a demon who apprenticed under him until she could get certified as an exorcist. Plus, there are a couple of loup-garous on his tail, inexplicably trying to keep him from finding the girl's ghost.

When I started to read The Devil You Know, I had some doubts about an author who had gotten his start writing graphic novels. But Vicious Circle in particular is packed with mood- and scene-setting language, and details that make the whole story richer. I really believe that Carey did his homework, because there are scraps of Latin and a lot of Greek, details about magic and history, and a general plausibility that helped keep me in the story. I love it when authors use facts and scraps of the truth to make their stories believable. It hooks me every time.

I started reading this book yesterday, and I had a hard time putting it down. I was totally hooked from the first chapter and didn't manage to put it down until 2:00 in the morning. Good job I started the book on a Saturday. I'm also glad that I managed to pick this book up after I had read the first, because I would have been pretty lost. Carey is very good at explaining things without sounding like he's explaining (one of my pet peeves in books is when a character or a narrator starts discoursing about history or philosophy or sociology and brings the plot to a screeching halt). But you need to start at the beginning in order to get the whole story.

10.11.2008

The Living Dead, by John Joseph Adams

The Living Dead
The Living Dead
I usually end up reading something scary in October. This year, it was an anthology of zombie stories collected and edited by John Joseph Adams titled The Living Dead. I'd read a review about it on the Publisher's Weekly web site about a month ago, and it sounded really good. When I got my hands on a copy, and saw that some of my favorite authors had contributed, I got even more excited to read it.

Some of my favorite stories included:

"Malthusian's Zombie" by Jeffrey Ford. This is a government-created zombie story and what I really liked about it was how Ford used psychology and medical science to explain how you could make a zombie.

"How the Day Runs Down" by John Langan. This may be my favorite story in the whole thing. Langan tells the story of how a town managed to survive an outbreak as a play, with some elements of Sherwood Anderson. You get characters standing up on stage to tell their part of the story. The narrator is, I think, the angel of Death (and he doesn't know much more than the regular people about why people wouldn't stay dead).

"The Almost Last Story by the Almost Last Man" by Scott Edelman. This story features Romero-type zombies, and it's about a writer who manages to hole up in a library during an outbreak. He keeps starting stories (but not finishing them) in order to try and make sense of what's going on. As Edelman's story progresses, the writer starts to wonder who he's writing these stories for and if there's any point to writing them if there's no one alive to read them.

"Sparks Fly Upwards" by Lisa Morton. This is a post-zombie outbreak story about survivor's who have given up a lot of their rights in order to live in a safe community run by an ecological nut. They've even give up the right to reproduce without asking permission. This story is about a couple who find themselves with child, but without permission to keep it. This is one of the stories that I really wish had been expanded into a novella or even a full length novel. There is a lot of interesting stuff going on here, and I really would have liked to see Morton spin it out. I wonder if the characters in the story would have put up with their leader much longer.

Normally, I don't read short stories. For me, it always seems like the story ends just when I was really getting into it. I like long stories. Just a few years ago, I didn't even like to buy novels that were less than an inch thick. But I discovered while reading The Living Dead that there was no reason I had to read every story. The stories in here were so diverse that I didn't have to worry about losing the overall point of the book by just reading the stories that interested me.

There was a lot of variety in this book. You get the usual Romero-type zombies, government-created zombies, space zombies, far-future zombies, fantasy zombies, and on and on. There were even a couple of stories in here that didn't actually have any zombies in them. There really is something here for any type of zombie fan.

As I read, and picked and chose stories, I kept wondering what it was that drew me to these stories. I think what interests me is not so much the zombies themselves, but how people react to them. I really liked the stories that involved some kind of survival element. The stories with non-violent zombies didn't interest me at all, and I skipped a lot of those. And I think what interests me about these stories is that all the bullshit of modern life--bills, taxes, the DMV, etc.--goes away and we get knocked several rungs back down the civilization ladder. When that sort of organization goes away, it's like we have to start over and re-learn how to live and work with each other and survive. I don't know what other people get out of zombie stories, but for me it's always more about the political science and sociological stuff than trying to scare the crap out of myself.