I have no recollection of how this book ended up on my to-be-read short list. I suspect my interest in all things San Francisco found it for me —I lov...moreI have no recollection of how this book ended up on my to-be-read short list. I suspect my interest in all things San Francisco found it for me — I love the city I call home.
I picked up the book because it was on my list. I thought at the time, very vaguely, that Fritz Leiber might have been the author of that famous science fiction classic about the jewish engineer who is sainted after World War III. Hah! No, that was Leibowitz, and he was the titular character, not the author.
Our Lady of Darkness is nominally a horror story, but since there isn’t even a hint of gore, it is much more tame than I imagine the horror genre to be (which I assiduously avoid, otherwise).
While poking around on the webs, I found local science blogger Annalee Newitz (of io9.com fame) is a fanatic for the book, which might also be how I heard of it. I’m going to quote her blurb on the book:
I’ll admit it: I’m obsessed with Fritz Leiber’s novel Our Lady of Darkness. It’s pretty much the best book I’ve ever read about my hometown, San Francisco — but it’s also just a great work of urban fantasy that seamlessly blends sexually liberated 1970s California with ancient forces of darkness drawn from pulp fiction.
Since I’m not usually a fan of horror, I can’t tell anyone specifically seeking that whether this book is good or great, although the overall rating is quite good. Some of the appeal might be similar to that a science fiction fan feels going back to Asimov or early Heinlein (before he became a creepy old man), and indulging in an exploration of the roots of the genre.
I can say that this is a hoot for a San Franciscan. I arrived in the city less than a decade after this was written, and reading it I was pleased and even enchanted at recognizing how much the city had changed beneath my feet, but still has the same romantic appeal. I can look out my kitchen window and see the same Sutro Tower the protagonist finds captivating, and the only reason I can see Corona Heights is because there’s a big hospital in the way. When a scene in the story takes place in the public library, I know that is the old library, which is now the Asian Art Museum (which itself at the time was in Golden Gate Park, in a building that would later be doomed by the 1989 earthquake), and that the “new” library is now almost twenty years old. Urp. But to paraphrase something I just read about contemporary London, "Compared with when I first came here, San Francisco is so wonderfully unbuttoned and all the better for it," and of course San Francisco has always been a bit more unbuttoned than the rest of the United States, and all the better for it.
The story doesn’t overly concern itself with San Francisco, but the city as a backdrop sets the mood in important ways. The hippie era had ended (on a sour note, vide), but eclectic ways of dressing were still prevalent, and of course the city was far ahead of the rest of the country with respect to drug use and, er, nontraditional sexuality.
If you have any interest in paranormal / weird fiction, this is a quick and respected classic. If you have any interest in San Francisco, this is a piquant treat.(less)
This is mildly amusing, but sadly informative. I finished Matt Richtel's "Devil's Plaything" recently and just came here to Goodreads to review it, an...moreThis is mildly amusing, but sadly informative. I finished Matt Richtel's "Devil's Plaything" recently and just came here to Goodreads to review it, and was somewhat surprised to see I'd previously given three stars to the author's The Cloud.
The reason I find my surprise informative is that both stories are set in San Francisco, both feature the same protagonist, and I read the other book less than a year ago, but I simply couldn't recall it until I'd read enough other reviews that I rebuilt a sense of what the book was about (I'd been overly sensitive to spoilers, and left my own review too ambiguous).
So I'll 'fess up. The third star is generous, and I guess mostly because the author sets the stories in real San Francisco, not the tourist version thereof. But the protagonist isn't very inspiring, and the plot reaches farther than its grasp. Some folks give this author five stars, so YMMV, but I don't plan on returning to the scene of the crime.(less)
The Sisters Brothers, Charlie and Eli, are notorious gunmen and assassins in the gold-rush era wild west. The narrator is younger brother Eli, and it...moreThe Sisters Brothers, Charlie and Eli, are notorious gunmen and assassins in the gold-rush era wild west. The narrator is younger brother Eli, and it seems he is feeling increasingly reluctant towards job.
Matt Richtel, a technology writer for the New York Times, also writes thrilling and provocative science fiction. The Cloud is set in — where else? —S...moreMatt Richtel, a technology writer for the New York Times, also writes thrilling and provocative science fiction. The Cloud is set in — where else? — San Francisco and Silicon Valley in the present day, and follows Nat Idle, an investigative reporter, as he painfully uncovers a story that questions the safety of some emerging technology (any more details than that would qualify as spoilers).
Richtel's strong suit is the relentless energy of the plot and, with caveats, the likeability of his characters. On the other side is the over-likeability of those some characters — far too many of them are super-sized and exaggerated to the point of being superheroes. Probably the weakest element of the story is that Richtel throws in too much: there are so many elements to keep track of that it almost becomes necessary to keep notes, and this burden undoubtedly is enough to turn off some readers. The abundance left a few aspects and some characters half-baked. Richtel either needs a longer, more carefully paced book, or he needs to exercise a bit more discipline and get rid of some weeds.
The ultimate answer found in the reporter's quest won't surprise anyone that closely follows criticism of technology, although the danger is elevated here for dramatic emphasis. The only other place where current technology steps over the line into fiction is holography, which has been teasing technophiles for decades now.
The Cloud is a quick read and a quite enjoyable fast-paced adventure. Don't expect too much more and you'll enjoy it. (less)
This is a mostly delightful tour of geology, earthquakes and plate tectonics, with an emphasis on California's infamous San Andreas Fault and the 1906...moreThis is a mostly delightful tour of geology, earthquakes and plate tectonics, with an emphasis on California's infamous San Andreas Fault and the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco. I can highly recommend it.
Much to the delight of info gluttons, Winchester as always ranges widely from the nominal focus of the book. Any reader looking for an in-depth history of the whys and wherefores of the earthquake and fire will be more than satisfied, as well anyone wondering about the broader surrounding topics.
Of course, if you want your author to go straight to the heart of the matter, this isn't your book and, furthermore, you really should forego any of Winchester's books.
By the way, this book was more personal to me than to most of you out there: I've lived in San Francisco for almost my entire adult life, and I'm a third-generation Californian (and almost a third-generation San Franciscan). I've backpacked for many years in the Sierras, thrown up millions of years ago by the mechanisms he describes in the book, and I felt connected to every scene he describes in the city.
Still, my reaction to this book isn't unalloyed praise. I think there were several false notes. The more obvious one was the connection to Pentecostalism. I agree it was an important phenomena of the time — actually, I wouldn't be here if my mother's parents hadn't found each other while attending a Pentecostal church during the depression. But the movement almost certainly would have taken off with or without San Francisco's earthquake; that kind of exuberant religiosity seems to be a fundamental part of U.S. culture. Despite the specific anecdotes that tie the two stories together, I felt it was really a post hoc, ergo propter hoc kind of connection, and detrimental to the book's focus.
The other significant annoyance was that several times the author referred to San Francisco and other places in close proximity to the fault as "very dangerous". Now, maybe when the Big One hits I'll change my tune, but substantially fewer than 1000 Californians have died in earthquakes in the past century. As I'm writing this at the end of April 2013, and the New York Times just reminded me that three years after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (which killed 63 in the region), Los Angeles lived through the Rodney King riots, which killed 54. And, of course, at least 15 (and possibly many more) have just died in the explosion of a fertilizer company in Texas. Frankly, life is dangerous; everyone dies in the end.
Living in an earthquake zone does slightly raise the likelihood of dying prematurely (or being seriously injured), but there are many, many other factors that affect mortality rates even more. Coastal California — right along the San Andeas Fault — has a famously benign climate, for example. I suspect the overall health of the locals is higher because of it, and probably lengthens their life expectancy more than the earthquake risk shortens it. Winchester even makes fun of the residents of Portola Valley, a town that lies directly upon the fault line — amused at how they argue endlessly about whether and where to move this building or that, only to go back to sipping their sauvignon blanc. He agrees that their "way of life [is] quite unrivaled in its quality anywhere in the world", yet still thinks that there can be "no greater monument to hubris" that the choose to live there.
I suppose he really thinks they'd be better off somewhere else, but I think there's a lot of hubris in his assertion that he is right and several million residents of the San Francisco Bay Area are being irrational. Perhaps he should have asked the scientists at the Menlo Park's USGS — the same folks he thanks for helping in his studies. After all, their office is on alluvial soil about eight miles from Portola Valley, and they undoubtedly live in the area. It apparently did not occur to Winchester to ask them what they feel about that risk.
I'll take the certitude of a quake and its consequent increase in my mortality over living elsewhere, thank you.
This is a sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes ecstatic narrative of the dramatic era that brought San Francisco through some incredible times and...moreThis is a sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes ecstatic narrative of the dramatic era that brought San Francisco through some incredible times and changes.
If you love San Francisco — or you're interested in rock 'n' roll, gay history, traumatic 70s racial politics, or even the 49ers football team, you'll probably find this book riveting.
If you're a San Franciscan, the public library has 52 copies to share out, although as of Christmas 2012, there are 206 requests outstanding, so you still might have to wait a while. Update, 27 April 2013: the public library has declared this a "On the Same Page" book, which means they want as many people reading it as possible at the same time to foster discussion. So there are now 120 holds on the first copy returned of 472 copies.(less)
Sloan nails the zeitgeist with this one — overflowing with geekery in many domains, it will cause spontaneous chortling in those that consider any of the following central to their existence:
• Books — actual material hunks of mostly paper. • Bookstores — the mystery and romance thereof, quickly sliding towards the tragic (and not just the fragrance of old books). • Fantasy — epic tales of magic and adventure, especially its impact on the juvenile. A hint of D&D. • Fonts — especially the majesty of letterpress typefaces. (Sadly, the hot lead variation is not invoked). • San Francisco — the library of which has bought something like 85 copies of this book. • Technonerdisms — Google plays a major role in this book. There is as well a general affection for nerd-oriented startups and their culture. Oh, and codebreaking, and distributed computing. And XKCD, of course. And the singularity. The first book I've ever found that references Hadoop and the second (after Doctorow) to use the Mechanical Turk. Oh, and this was a Kickstarter project.
Of course, none of this would matter if the plot and characters were subpar, but this author astonishes with his first novel. Each character is perhaps too archetypal, but this is light fiction, so not really a problem.
If you're over thirty, and not really very nerdish (Do you use Internet Explorer? Sorry. Move on.), then this book might not be your cuppa chai. The rest of you: yeah, read it.(less)
Many folks might enjoy this book, but I'm not one of 'em.
There are two principle reasons for this, one of which is forgivable, the other is not.
The fi...moreMany folks might enjoy this book, but I'm not one of 'em.
There are two principle reasons for this, one of which is forgivable, the other is not.
The first is that this is a very personal book. No, it isn't TMI about the author, but her opinions and biases are evident throughout the story. When I see a title like this, I'm expecting something like what Simon Winchester has done numerous times (for example, this or this or especially this, or this one that turns out wasn't by him). Even this topic has been more-or-less done the way I expected. See, for example, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why. Those are pretty straightforward examples of the genre I thought Solnit was diving into.
But she delivered the Oprah version. That's okay, I guess. Some folks want the human side of things to get more time in the spotlight. And Solnit is strongest in the portions of this book where she is describing the actions and reactions of the folks involved in these disasters. Those segments were very absorbing, even if I had been hoping for more of the cognitive psychology and sociology about why living in the midst of a disaster is so invigorating and uplifting (I remember this phenomena from living through the '89 San Francisco earthquake).
Where Solnit's effort here loses my respect is when she blithely tosses in her political and ideological biases into the mix. Although her political affiliations aren't made explicit, her attitude reminds me of some friends that call themselves socio-anarchists. Not exactly uncommon in San Francisco.
For example, Apparently in her view, the police and the military are the tools of the bourgeoisie. Except for when one or two is portrayed as a member of a family (as seen in the stories of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake early in the book). There's a lot to be said regarding the ties between wealth and power and the degree to which the state's authority might be used too often and too casually in the service of private property. Actually, there's not just a lot to be said, there are volumes — nay, oceans to be said. A wise author would refrain from scattering opinions based on their own simplistic viewpoint in a book where it adds little or nothing. Solnit isn't that wise, so her ideology leaves a taint here that is likely to be unpleasant to anyone with more nuanced or different beliefs.
Of course, it could be said that an artist should be true to themselves, and she certainly has the right to create her book as she desires. But she might suffer for her integrity, cutting down the size of her readership.
Want a much better book written in a similar vein? Try Zeitoun by Dave Eggers' portrayal of one man's horror story during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
• • • • • • •
San Francisco Public Library Announcement—
SF Library Announces 2012 Citywide Book Club Pick On Wednesday morning, city officials and other early risers attended a 5 a.m. ceremony at Lotta's Fountain to commemorate the 106th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake. (The earthquake struck on April 18th at 5:12 in the morning.) The Market Street landmark served as a meeting point for citizens in the aftermath of the massive quake. As part of the ceremony, the San Francisco Public Library also announced this year's choice for the citywide book club, "One City, One Book": Rebecca Solnit's "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster."
In the book, Solnit, who lives in San Francisco, documents the sometimes positive outcomes that arise from disastrous situations that force communities to unite in the face of hardship. In addition to other manmade and natural disasters, she discusses the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. This is the 8th annual "One City, One Book" event, and this year the library is partnering with California Reads, an initiative started by the nonprofit Cal Humanities, which is hosting a series of reading and discussion programs around the theme of democracy in 2012. The library will also offer films, preparedness workshops, and an author talk in October.
Everyone in San Francisco, native or visitor, knows the Ferry Building and the Transamerica Pyramid and the city's other iconic structures. In Cityscapes: San Francisco and its Buildings, a collection of his columns in the San Francisco Chronicle, John King explores other, less well known but decidedly noteworthy buildings.
Cityscapes is a guide book of sorts. It discusses buildings that you don't find in regular guides and it shows how, in San Francisco, the past integrates with the present and allows for the changes of the future. It opens our eyes and make us appreciate the vibrant, architectural kaleidoscope that is San Francisco.
Good points I recall: the author presents an intriguing list of social, economic, environmental and technological changes tha...moreRead this soooo long ago.
Good points I recall: the author presents an intriguing list of social, economic, environmental and technological changes that add up to, more or less, a progressive liberal fantasyland.
Bad points I recall: the political upheaval that made the forgoing possible was implausible at the time, but worse was that the same inventory, above — which was the raison d'etre for the novel — also became tiresome. Think of it as a staged tour of a Potemkin village. Time after time, everything has somehow worked out exactly as the revolutionaries [author] wanted it to, showing how wonderful life would be if only people would share and follow through on the vision! Interfering details such compromises, radical changes that didn't work out so well, or even just the messiness of quotidian existence: none of these are permitted.
I might be mis-remembering. The downside of the revolution might have gotten more airplay than I recall, but that certainly wasn't what has stuck with me after twenty-five or thirty years. I also have no recollection of a plot, so I suspect it was mostly there in service to the guide tour of the author's vision.
One detail I do remember is that San Francisco's Market Street was torn up and the (supposedly) ancient stream that used to lie along that path was brought back to life. In the intervening years while on a congested and chaotic Market Street, I've often tried to imagine a stream and a garden path there instead.
Nice fantasy, but not really plausible enough to be an important book. (less)
Excellent albeit bizarre and often disturbing poems by a chap that used to do open mike poetry readings I often attended back when the world was much...moreExcellent albeit bizarre and often disturbing poems by a chap that used to do open mike poetry readings I often attended back when the world was much younger.(less)
Amusing — comically inept. Published in 1994, but quite a few of the pictures are obviously from the mid-seventies. Anyone alive then would recognize...moreAmusing — comically inept. Published in 1994, but quite a few of the pictures are obviously from the mid-seventies. Anyone alive then would recognize the era from the number of people wearing polyester in red-white-and-blue (the bicentennial, of course) and sporting feathered haircuts. But more astonishingly several of the pictures are just wrong: » The most amusing: a backwards picture (swapped left-for-right) of the Bay Bridge is labeled as being the Golden Gate Bridge, despite obviously not even being the correct color. » P. 27: the upscale waterfront Point Richmond is captioned "A suburb with a difference — Richmond"; Richmond is a notoriously violent and troubled suburb, probably with few houses with yachts docked in the back yard. » P. 33: A rural mission (San Juan Batista?) is confusingly included as if in San Francisco. » P. 38: Saint Peters and Paul in North Beach is described as being Mission Dolores. » P. 50: A shot of the famous casino on Catalina Island, hundreds miles south, is captioned as a charming view in San Francisco. » P. 59: Dolores Park is mis-captioned as Buena Vista Park. The book was printed in Italy by a publisher from Connecticut, which was probably why it was being remaindered. (less)
I thought this was pretty sweet. A pretty taut hard-boiled detective novel set in my home town, but quite a few centuries in the future.
Biggest innova...moreI thought this was pretty sweet. A pretty taut hard-boiled detective novel set in my home town, but quite a few centuries in the future.
Biggest innovation: the ability to make backups of humans (a la Cory Doctorow'sDown and Out in the Magic Kingdom) and to install them into other bodies, which have been demoted to mere "sleeves". Humans can also be "run" in virtual mode, in faster than real time.
The punishment of criminals is most often to put their digital copies into storage for the term of incarceration. Curiously, this is the same form of punishment used in Gun, with Occasional Music, written by Jonathan Lethem in 1994 — also a hard-boiled scifi story, and also set in the San Francisco bay area, albeit in Oakland.
The characters Altered Carbon were well composed, with a piquant blend of likable and distasteful attributes. There were definitely some villains, but they had all-too-human motivations, not just the old hackneyed evil-for-the-sake-of-evil.
Central to any detective story is the mystery that is being investigated, and this was a nicely convoluted one. I figured out the mystery long before the climax, but not the actual form it would take.
I was just a bit disappointed that the author saw fit to rename my city — why on earth would anyone ever see fit to replace a nice romantic name with something so banal is beyond me, though. Still, he did a fairly tolerable job with the locales considering he lives in Scotland. At least he didn't put a space port in the Marin headlands.
This is a fun and quick read. But in the days after I finished it, I found that my impression took a bit of a dip as I pondered it, and it lost its fo...moreThis is a fun and quick read. But in the days after I finished it, I found that my impression took a bit of a dip as I pondered it, and it lost its four-star rating in the process.
But first, a curiosity: this is the second off-beat mystery novel set in Oakland that I've read recently. The other one, Swing: A Mystery by Rupert Holmes, isn't SciFi at all, but also involves a musical theme which is even more central to the plot.
As the blurb and other reviews have remarked, Gun, with Occasional Music has a fantastic element. Definitely not magical realism: the tone of the novel is pure big-fisted Raymond Chandler noir. But both animals and babies have undergone "forced evolution" which means guns, sneers and snide language are often aimed at our protagonist by sheep, monkeys, kangaroos and toddlers. This does lend a surrealistic feel, but is more like Who Censored Roger Rabbit? (the source material for the 1988 film). And Philip K. Dick is best known for confronting questions of identity and existence, which Lethem never taps into here. (But see postscript, below.)
What we have here is a basic noir detective story set in an uncertain time with some scifi elements. Lethem channels the attitude of Raymond Chandler/Dashiel Hammett well enough, and the amalgam of genres is handled pretty well. In fact, he does the detective story better than Philip K. Dick did in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
But it doesn't take too much thought to realize that Lethem didn't put too much effort into this. He doesn't have to, of course, but without the extra push he doesn't earn the extra stars, either.
This is definitely taking place within a dystopia. The general population is kept numbed with mind-control drugs and heavy censorship. But who is doing the controlling, and why? The only authorities shown are the local cops ("inquisitors"), and they have their own petty political battles and succession crises, and they clearly aren't at the top of the pyramid, but we never get a hint of who or what is in charge of the big picture. What is so feared that so much control is desired?
With evolved animals taking most menial jobs, should there be massive problems with underemployment of humans? Where are all those people, and how do they feel about this? There are hints that the animals are resented, and that killing them isn't considered murder... Something happened before this story took place that re-branded police investigators are "inquisitors", eliminated written journalism, and conditioned the population to feel uncomfortable about asking questions? Not a hint about what took place, and in many ways such traumas have left disturbingly few collateral changes.
The time and place also feel anachronistic. The general technology (cars, no cell phones) recalls the publication date of 1995 and keeps things from feeling too futuristic, but then those animals and "babyheads" (the forced-growth toddlers) are absurdly out of place. And within the first few pages our hero is complaining about bleeding gums and I'm thinking "they've figured out how to turn sheep into sentient beings (albeit still dim-bulb sex toys) but haven't advanced dental care?"
Lethem has given us a minor delight of an adventure story, but things simply aren't thought out well. Put this story in the hands of Ridley Scott and you might get a miracle of a movie, but don't expect too much from the book.
Postscript: amended a month after reading.
I just returned to a reading a bit of Philip K. Dick after an absence of decades, and I can definitely see the similarity to Lethem's book. But it wasn't where I had thought it might be. PKD's signature, in my mind, is in presenting questions of identity and existence, which are absent here. It is the existential mires his protagonists run into that makes him so interesting to movie makers and new audiences so many years after his death.
But PKD also used the Chandler/Hammett hard-boiled writing style, which Lethem did replicate quite accurately. Characters are socially isolated, with no friends in which they can place heartfelt trust. Caution, even paranoia, is so pervasive it has become boring. Authority is corrupt and inefficient, using arbitrariness and barbarism to instill fear and fealty. Drug use is casual. Violence is frequent and indifferently meted out, sometimes in the most curiously impersonal way: the fellow standing in front of you with the baseball bat isn't your enemy, just another peon doing his job, and he might chat with you in sympathy before breaking your nose and ribs, then help you up and express concern over whether you'll be able to make it home.