7.29.2009

The Defector, by Daniel Silva

The Defector
The Defector
I meant to write about this last week after I finished the book, but I got busy re-reading the Harry Potter series.

The Defector, the ninth book to feature Gabriel Allon, picked up almost immediately after the events of Moscow Rules and features the same antagonist, Ivan Kharkov. Even though Kharkov was nearly ruined in the last book, he still has enough money and influence to kidnap a Russian defector (hence the title) who helped Allon bring Kharkov down. The plot revolves around a promise Allon made to Grigory Bulganov not to let him be buried in an unmarked grave. When Bulganov is kidnapped and taken back to Russia, Gabriel calls in favors and reunites with his old team from the Office--Israeli Intelligence.

The plan hums along until Gabriel's new wife is kidnapped by Kharkov. The book really takes off at this point, and I had a hard time putting it down so that I could get some sleep.

Earlier in the series, Silva wrote three books that deal with the "unfinished business of the Holocaust." These are still my favorite books. And the way that Silva starts to mine Russia's past in this book makes me wonder if another such trilogy is currently unfolding, especially when Kharkov's obsession with Stalin and Stalinism makes a reappearance. In Moscow Rules, Silva's plot centered around Russia's ruthless Wild West-like days after the fall of communism when former state officials and business men scrambled to get their hands on wealth and resources. This book does pick up on that thread, but adds some historical depth. As always when I read a work of fiction about Russia, I always end up feeling sorry for the poor, mixed-up country.

Since this is a thriller and much of the appeal rests on not knowing what comes next, I won't say any more about the plot. I am curious to see what comes next, though. Will Gabriel face off against Kharkov and, possibly, finish him off? Will he go back to work for the Office? Will a new enemy come out of the woodwork? Such possibilities.

7.16.2009

Bonk, by Mary Roach

Bonk
Bonk
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach, is a history of the scientific study of sex. Mostly the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are covered, but Aristotle makes an appearance or two. Roach mostly focuses on the physiology of sex and the difficulty of researchers in getting funding. She takes great delight in quoting the tortured euphemisms that they have to use in order to disguise what they're up to. In the end though, you realize just how much we don't know about sex.

The problem, according to Roach, is that no matter how objective the researchers are, no matter how pure their motives, the people who hold their purse strings and the public tend to think those naughty sex researchers are up to something. And, to be honest, you have to wonder about some of the researchers methods, especially Alfred Kinsey.

The problem with this book is that it seems like a collection of facts cherry-picked from what sounds like a couple of years worth of research. It's not organized very systematically, though it is entertaining to read. The thread of the book just wanders as Roach writes about things that interest her. It's rather fitting in a way, given how piecemeal sexology's history is. The last chapter, though, just has a concluding paragraph tacked on to a discussion of Masters and Johnson's studies about homosexuals. It just ends and that's more than a little irritating. Still, no other science writer has been about to make research so entertaining. She's only the second non-fiction writer to make me laugh out loud. On the other hand, I have to give Roach kudos for following in the fine tradition of sex researchers and volunteers for a study or two.

Bonk is not everything you ever wanted to know. But it's sure a fun read.

7.11.2009

The Strain, by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

The Strain
The Strain
I've been a fan of del Toro for a long time. Yes, I like the Hellboy movies. Pan's Labyrinth was amazing. He has a strong and original imagination, like an even more demented version of Grimms' fairy tales, but I was curious to find out if it would translate into a non-visual medium. Sure, books can contain powerful descriptions and the best writers can make a reader see the story in their mind as they read. But it's not the same as a movie. I'm not sure how much of The Strain is Chuck Hogan, since I haven't read any of his other books, but I could definitely see del Toro's imagination at work here. While The Strain is not as startling as del Toro's movies, it is still a great read.

The Strain takes the idea of vampires and viruses and runs with it. Much like the vampires in the Buffyverse were animated by demons, the vampires of this book are animated by a virus that spreads through the body like a cancer and adapts the body into a killing machine. The vampires in this book are not the sexy, cool creatures we've been seeing in movies and books currently (I'm looking at you, True Blood). They're throwbacks to Nosferatu--pale, bald beasts with talons and mostly unable to think about anything apart from sucking the blood out of people. They're a bit like zombies, and the virus is just as contagious.

And of course, the main characters don't have much going for them. Ephriam Goodweather is a doctor who works for the CDC. Abraham Setrakian is a lot like van Helsing, a creepy old man who knows what's going on. There are other incidental characters that I believe will play bigger roles in the other two books in the series. Setrakian has be preparing to face the Master--the bid bad vampire--since the Second World War and has to work hard to convince the scientist Goodweather what exactly is going on. Setrakian's case is helped when a couple of the infected attack Goodweather in the hospital. Del Toro and Hogan, however, have played with the myth so much that this virus seems unstoppable. The only thing keeping the vampires from infecting everyone are the rivers surrounding the island of Manhattan; these vampires can't cross running water without help.

I will say that this book is kind of cinematic. It's told in short chapters that read like scenes in a movie. The pace is fast and if I had had the time, I would have read it in a single sitting. I am looking forward to the next two books.

7.06.2009

Flood, by Stephen Baxter

Flood
Flood
Stephen Baxter's Flood is the most disturbing book I've read in a long time. I actually had to take a break for a couple of days last week just to shake off the heebie jeebies. Like the title hints, this book is about a global flood. It's based on what might happen if all the glaciers and ice caps melt and the earth starts to flood. On top of all this (and this is where the science fiction starts), three reservoirs of water buried underneath the earth's crust and release enough water to drown even the Andes and the Himalayas. Unbelievable, but Baxter made it so real that when I drove through part of the Wasatch mountains this weekend, I couldn't help but imagine them covered in salty water and people living in tents and shacks along the ridges.

I guess that's the point of the book.

Flood begins a few years from now, in 2012, with a group of hostages from the United States and the UK are being held in Barcelona. After their release, the captives promise to keep in touch. This promise gives Baxter the premise he needs to hops around the globe to watch the progress of the flood. While the Americans' dialog is not all that accurate, the rest of the book just sweeps you along. The book is divided into sections, and the story jumps along by five or ten year increments. It eventually covers three generations.

In the first section, we get to follow the characters around during a massive flood in London. The Thames Barrier gets over topped and the water never goes down. Londoners and other Britons living in low lying areas relocate to higher ground. By halfway through the book, England gets wiped out by a tsunami. Apart from the tsunamis and the London event, it just seems like the waters just keep rising. The characters constantly remark that people are tired of packing up and moving every couple of years. Governments relocate, but after a couple of decades the only one left standing is the American Government, holed up in the Rockies. The Himalayas are the setting for a three way war between Russia, China, and India and there are rumors of cannibalism. The Andes have been colonized by a rich Briton who is building an ark based on the Queen Mary and using local labor with the intent of abandoning them when the waters rise.

The first generation--the hostages' generation--study the floods and try to preserve as much of their way of old way of life as possible. The second generation don't know anything but moving and hunger and thirst and desperation. The third generation are used to the water and don't care about the science. Sic transit gloria mundi, huh? One of the last scenes in this book shows one of those third generation kids watching the top of Mount Everest get covered and not understanding what the big deal is. Baxter puts such detail and pathos into his novel that it's hard not to imagine yourself standing on one of the rafts floating around in the global sea watching the last bit of solid earth drown. (On a related note, this imagery led me to look up the terrible Waterworld on Wikipedia. Course an hour later, I was reading about the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and Tuvan throat singing, further proving Randall Munroe correct.)

But I think the most heartbreaking thing about Flood was what happened to the birds and the terrestrial animals. As the humans fight to save themselves, there's no one to look out for the animals. One of the second generation characters keeps a scrapbook of news about the flood and notes that there's a web site named Toodle Pip that posts video of animals going extinct. She then describes what happens to the last polar bear. (I think that's when I had to take my break.)

While I know that the extent of global flooding would never get as bad as Baxter describes in Flood, but if the polar ice caps go, it will get pretty bad. There will be extinctions and refugees, but at least there will always be somewhere to live.