10.18.2009

Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett

Unseen Academicals
Unseen Academicals
I always look forward to book by Terry Pratchett, especially the Discworld books, because I know I'm going to have a good time. The books are not only entertaining satires in and of themselves, but I also get to try and chase down the references. In Unseen Academicals, not only is Pratchett lampooning soccer and soccer fans, but he also takes shots at psychoanalysis, Romeo and Juliet, and fashion. It's kind of a messy book, because these lesser targets sometimes steal the stage.

The book starts when the wizards of Unseen University (nunc id vides, nunc non vides*) find out that their funding is in trouble if they don't field a soccer team. One of their bequests had that annoying clause stuck into it. But by this time, soccer has devolved into a street fighting matches between nearly tribal groups in the city. Fans of one team don't mix with the other. And this is where the sadly underused allusion to Romeo and Juliet comes in, when a Dimwell fan falls in love with a Dolly Sisters fan (and vice versa). Parts of the book has the characters trying to come up with rules that mean that they don't have to worry about keeping their teeth or, possibly, death, on the field. This was so well done that I'm closer to understanding the off-side rule than I've ever been. Now if only Pratchett would go after cricket.

The psychology comes into play with another character, an over-educated orc from the hinterlands who has the uncomfortable ability to instantly psychoanalyse people or speculate on the philosophical dimensions of soccer. (The best part of this plot, I think, is when he is forced to analyse himself, complete with Dr. Ruth accent.) I speak some German, but unfortunately not enough to understand the jokes that I know are embedded in the names of the books Nutt cites. The English ones, like The Doors of Deception, is good enough it itself. The fashion satire really just seems tacked on to the whole. It's a little distracting, even though it turned out to be necessary.

Other reviews of this book have pointed out that Pratchett also goes after racism. He does, but he's gone after that in all the rest of his recent books. Some reviewers have seen it as an interruption, but I thought it was incidental. Anytime you get a new "race" in Ankh-Morpork, there's some stereotyping, but people get over it. And the population has been getting over it so much in their recent history that's not such a big deal anymore. One of Pratchett's other books, Thud!, is much more about racism than this one. I read the reviews before I read the book, but as I read, I just didn't see what the critics are making such a fuss about. I just wish that Pratchett had played around more with the Romeo and Juliet motif.

Still, I really enjoyed this books. Everyone is precious, given the author's condition. It will be an unutterably sad day when Pratchett retires his pen (or keyboard or whatever).

* Now you see it, now you don't.

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell

The Wordy Shipmates
The Wordy Shipmates
I wish I could have experienced this as an audio book. Not just because Sarah Vowell is a very entertaining and erudite speaker, but because the book is written in such a way that it feels like you're having a long conversation with the author. The Wordy Shipmates is an informal history of the Puritans who arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630s and 1640s, after the Pilgrims and the Jamestown colonists. Vowell's history revolves around John Winthrop, on the first governors of the Massachusetts colony, and his struggles with trying to create a "city on a hill" while dealing with rightfully angry natives, fanatical and not so fanatical Puritans, and the harshness of the climate.

Vowell makes repeated allusions to how little we Americans know about our history and how erroneous our view of the Puritans is. Years of movies and books about the Salem Witch Trials would give anyone a dim view of that bunch of immigrants. What surprised me was the evidence that the Puritans were highly educated (about Christianity and its theology) and that one of the first things they did after their got their farms and towns up and running was to found a university, Harvard, in 1636. They weren't a grim bunch of nutters living in the paranoid fear that someone, somewhere, was having a good time. Sure, they probably wouldn't have been the funnest bunch of people to hang out with, but they weren't superstitious morons either.

And boy, did they like to argue! A big chunk of the book has to do with the ongoing arguments between Roger Williams (who, after his big mouth got him banished, founded the colony of Rhode Island) and Winthrop.  For Williams, the colony wasn't radical enough. Williams was a separatist and so religious that, in Jon Stewart's words (more or less), the other Puritans thought he should cool it. But at the same time, Williams also believed in religious freedom and a strong division between the Church and the State. If he hadn't been such a jerk, I would probably have admired him for those ideas. Anne Hutchinson, for other reasons, got into similar trouble with the colony's leaders. Her problem, however, was that she believed that women ought to have the right to opine on religious matters and that, in a nutshell, people could have a personal relationship with God and that they could achieve salvation. This may not seem like a big deal unless you know about the Puritans' soul-gnawing belief in predestination (and maybe not even then). If you're not religious, it's hard to see what people get so worked up about. Hutchinson eventually got kicked out and headed to Rhode Island, as well.

Another thing that Vowell meditates on is what it really means to be a Puritan country. She rightly states that most people use that phrase to say that Americans are prudish or pigheaded about their opinions or think they are superior to other countries. Vowell traces the idea of American exceptionalism back to some of the things that the Puritans believed. First, Winthrop and others believed that they were headed over to "help" the native population. Second, Winthrop wanted to create a "city on a hill" that would be a beacon to other countries. Their colonies and, later, America, were special. They weren't about making money or politics (according to the Puritans if not the king who signed the charter or the merchants who no doubt bankrolled the project), but it was about creating a haven for fellow believers. It was a way to escape the dominion of Archbishop William Laud so that they could practice in their own way.

When I first learnt my American history, this was where I started to get the idea that the colonies (with the exceptions of Virginia and Georgia) were founded for religious freedom. When I got older and into the more advanced and nuanced interpretations of history, I learned that this meant religious freedom only for members of the original faith and no one else. Just like other nations, we look to our past (sometimes) to find inspiration and a mission. But unlike other nations, America was created on purpose and didn't just evolve on its own. We had blueprints that are filled with high-minded ideals that we strive to live up to. It's no small wonder that we think we're special. The Wordy Shipmates is a great lesson in history, but also an opportunity to examine the origin of those ideals.

10.10.2009

Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim
Sandman Slim
I think this book is what Jim Butcher's books are trying to be: urban fantasy noir. At least in my mind. I couldn't get through the first Harry Dresden book no matter what I tried. It's got more in common with Mike Carey's novels than anyone else I've seen it compared to so far. This book is dark in the ways that the best Raymond Chandler stories are, but with the added bonus of magic and angels and demons and other fantastical weirdness. And the dames are anything but helpless. Plus, it's set in Los Angeles. Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey, is about revenge. Our anti-hero escapes from Hell (yup, that Hell), and goes after the people who put him there.

Stark, our anti-hero, is the first human to survive Hell. Anytime anyone tries to kill him, Stark just gets harder to kill. Before he leaves Hell, Stark becomes Sandman Slim, "the monster the other monsters are afraid of." Back on Earth, Stark starts his quest for revenge by finding the weakest member of his old magic Circle and uses the guy's head as a source of information on the other members of the Circle and, for the readers, unintentional comic relief. But as Stark starts trying to pick off the members of the Circle, they start dying before he can get his hands on them. Before he realizes it, Stark is caught up in a war between the angels and a previously unknown (to Stark) race of supernatural beings who are addicted to chaos.

This twist in the plot is, as far as I know, original in fiction. It takes some of its inspiration from the idea of divine sparks (nitzotzot, if I'm being pedantic) and the Breaking of the Vessels out of Jewish mysticism, but goes somewhere I've never seen before. I love it when a plot does something that I can't work out in advance. Stark, like the anti-hero he is, pursues his revenge and his plans to rescue his few friends in spite of a conspiracy that could mean not only the end of the world as we know it, but also Heaven and Hell. Along the way, Kadrey introduces us to all sorts of fascinating characters: an immortal French alchemist, a vampire-like creature who's trying to stop eating humans, a branch of Homeland Security that's helping Heaven fight its seventy thousand year war against chaos. I am so looking forward to what Kadrey comes up with in his next endeavors.

Sandman Slim was a hell of a lot of fun to read. It kept surprising me and entertaining me, all at the same time. I had such a good time that I just kept reading it this morning until I finished it. I didn't even bother getting out of my PJs until I was done, it was that good. The only reason I stopped reading last night was because I couldn't keep my eyes open. The last two hundred pages just grabbed my attention and didn't let go until I was finished.

10.08.2009

The Devil's Food Dictionary, by Barry Foy

Devils Food Dictionary
The Devil's Food
Dictionary
This book is a must read for foodies with a sense of humor. Hell, if you're a foodie without a sense of humor, you need to read Barry Foy's The Devil's Food Dictionary anyway. It's a collection definitions of food and cooking terms with hilariously satirical definitions. Plus, there are great running gags about chick peas, barbecue, and crispy, fried things in a bag.

I enjoyed it so much that I read this book in three sittings, and was really tempted to stay up on Monday just to finish it. (But I learned my lesson on Sunday when I stayed up reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) As I read, I was glad that I watched all those hours of the Food Network. A lot of the humor derives from what the terms actually mean or from culinary history. A few times, I admit, I had to go to Wikipedia to check things, because this book is subtitled A Pioneering Culinary Reference Work Consisting Entirely of Lies.

People who talked to me earlier this week got treated to recitations of some of my favorite definitions, like:
Beer...The ancient Egyptians, too, were fond of beer, and the beers of the Nile region were famous for their potency. A batch served at a going-away party for the Hebrews left that venerable people wandering helplessly around a smallish patch of desert for some forty years (20).

Marinade...Marinating can last anywhere from less than an hour, as in some Asian dishes, to decades, as was the case with the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (134).

Second Coming, The The sell-by date on a can of spam (195).
Oh, and there's a great health food to normal food conversion chart on page 87 that's just priceless.

This is one of the most entertaining books I've read this year.

10.05.2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larrson

Girl with the dragon Tattoo
The Girl with the
Dragon Tattoo
Well, now I understand what all the hubbub was about. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, quite simply, amazing. There are no less than three endings in this book, and I was up until 1:00 in the morning reading until I found out how it all played out. This is a book that rewards patient readers. It did take a little bit of effort to get through the first hundred pages or so, and I had to trust that Larsson would eventually get around to the action. The wait was absolutely worth it, and I spent more than four hours glued to this book as I read the second two thirds of the book. It was amazing, and the tiredness this morning was worth it.

The novel opens with Mikael Blomqvist having his sentence for libel handed down: a fine and some jail time. His crime was to run a story without the sources to back it up, accusing a heap big CEO of using taxpayer money to run a scheme. In order to save his magazine, Millennium, Blomqvist quits (at least publicly). He is approached by a lawyer for a former CEO of a dying company to write a family biography but also to, secretly, find out what happened to the CEO's niece in the summer of 1966. On the promise of a couple million kroner and proof that the libeled CEO really was a crook are enough to persuade Blomqvist to stick around and investigate. As the evidence starts to play out and new evidence comes to light, the story really starts to get going.

In the meantime, Larsson introduces us to an utterly remarkable character: Lisbeth Salander. Reading through the first hundred pages of set up was worth it for the glimpses we got of Salander. In most mysteries, the main investigator is a law enforcement official, a cop, a PI, a lawyer. But Blomqvist is an investigative financial journalist. Salandar is a freelance investigator for a private security company and a hacker. Blomqvist has professional ethics guiding his actions. But Salander has her own rules of right and wrong. Watching her execute her brand of justice at the end of the book (twice!) was incredible. This book does not end like a regular mystery, and I relished the originality of it.

Not only is this book a cracking read because of the action, the chases, the near escapes, and the twisted crimes that come to light, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about ethics and justice and misogyny. The sections of the book are punctuated by statistics about crimes against women in Sweden. Salander's private dramas and revenges act like bold face and italics on that point. On the one hand, you're glad that Salandar's situation works out and that the wrongdoer was punished, but you also wish that the crime had never happened to her in the first place.

Meanwhile, Blomqvist has to wrestle with what he's going to do with the information that he and Salander uncovered. Publishing would destroy a family and a victim, but is it right to conceal what he knows? Was there justice for the victims? Was it enough? The ending to that plot thread is a little unsatisfying in that there is probably nothing that the legal system can do to make up for the crimes of the guilty parties. Maybe vigilante justice was the only way to go. This book will leave any reader with questions that are probably unanswerable for a long time. (My favorite kind of book.) As for ending number two, when both Salander and Blomqvist take their revenges on the libeled CEO, that was completely satisfying, even if big parts of it were illegal. And ending number three is heartbreakingly sad and made me wish that there was a 24 hour library or bookstore around, because I really want to read the next book the series.