A huge improvement upon the first book in the series, Monster Island. This second book is set during the initial zombie outbreak and deals with humani...moreA huge improvement upon the first book in the series, Monster Island. This second book is set during the initial zombie outbreak and deals with humanity's first attempts to combat the ravenous hordes- which far more my type of zombie tale. The reason for the rising of the dead wasn't as large a part of this book as it was before, which allowed me to just relax and enjoy the blood. Bonus points for the zombie vs. bear scene, I quite enjoyed it. (less)
After reading yesterday's post about the role that Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor played in the birth of steampu...moreFrom BoingBoing.net:
After reading yesterday's post about the role that Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor played in the birth of steampunk, William Gibson wrote in to add:
"I've never actually read Mayhew, but feel I've long had him, through brilliant osmosis, with Kellow Chesney's Victorian Underworld, which is easily one of my favorite books ever. People assume, when I tell them that, that Chesney would mainly have influenced The Difference Engine, but actually this was very consciously the basis of the criminal society of Neuromancer, et al. It was a Victorian model, as I saw what's since come to be called neoconservatism producing a neo-Victorian world. Not a bad call, either!
I literally had The Victorian Underworld on my desk constantly, throughout the writing of Neuromancer, and for years after."(less)
Just as cute, just as witty, just as charming as the first book in the series, Dead Until Dark. Harris' second book in the Sookie Stackhouse series ha...moreJust as cute, just as witty, just as charming as the first book in the series, Dead Until Dark. Harris' second book in the Sookie Stackhouse series has Sookie and her vampire lover, Bill, traveling to Dallas to help solve a mystery involving a disappearing vampire. Harris provides a bit more insight into the back-channel dealings of the vampires but still manages not to neglect her cast of motley residents of Bon Temps.
Quick and easy reads that are perfect for a flight or simply an afternoon of escapist fancy. Fans of vampire fiction will not be let down by this imaginative and whimsical series. I'm definitely in for the long haul. Now on to book three, Club Dead.(less)
I am now completely convinced that Bruce Sterling should not write novels. His short stories are so much better than any long-form writing that he's e...moreI am now completely convinced that Bruce Sterling should not write novels. His short stories are so much better than any long-form writing that he's ever published that I don't understand why he doesn't write more. Compiling seven stories written during the tumultuous nineties, Sterling offers his strongest work to date. Clear visions of probable futures that are far more concise and far less meandering than his normal work
The collection opens with "Maneki Neko", in which Sterling unfolds a future world where life is aided by a vast computer network of anonymous members who provide little pick-me-ups when needed, from baby clothes for an expectant mother to advice on where to get your hair cut. But woe unto anyone who tries to sabotage the network.
Then there's "Big Jelly", a piece co-written with Rudy Rucker. Probably the weakest story in the bunch about a pair of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs set to make a killing with organic underground slime and computer models of jellyfish. "The Littlest Jackal" introduces a familiar Sterling character, Leggy Starlitz of Zeitgeist, as he attempts to set up a money laundering operation on a chain of Finnish islands that are about to erupt in revolutionary bloodshed. Likewise, "Deep Eddy" introduces us to a world where Hakim Bey's theoretical Temporary Autonomous Zones run wild in Dusseldorf.
Quick reading for anyone interested in seeing where we're going, and where we've been. Even a decade since this collection was put together it still seems visionary, even though the concepts put forth seem closer to reality than ever.(less)
Note for completists: This is the third of the Smiley books, preceded by first Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and then by The Honourable Schoolboy. Whil...moreNote for completists: This is the third of the Smiley books, preceded by first Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and then by The Honourable Schoolboy. While it is possible to read these books out of order and still enjoy them, the later books are informed by the events that come before and definitely spoil salient plot points of those novels.
Life has not been overly kind to George Smiley. Devoted husband to a faithless wife, dedicated servant to a government that does not admit he exists, archnemesis to his Soviet doppelganger, betrayed by his closest friend- Smiley has been through much in his years of service. Smiley's People finds the former spymaster once more cast out of the Circus of British intelligence, yet another sacrifice to the twisting winds of political favoritism. Prematurely aged and tired from a life lived in the shadows, Smiley doesn't quite know how to go about existing without subterfuge.
Yet when his old acquaintance Lacon shows up requesting Smiley's help investigating the murder of a friend and former asset, Smiley laboriously pulls himself from his over-stuffed easy chair, smoothes rumpled clothes over his mammoth stomach, puts on his horse blanket of a jacket, and tromps dutifully back into the world of intrigue that is his life. At stake is the opportunity to finally take down Karla, the Soviet spymaster who has bedevilled Smiley for decades in the great and secret chess game they have played against one another. Working unofficially, completely off the books and deniable, Smiley must piece together Karla's plan before more of his friends end up dead on a rainy night.
Fortunately, Smiley has built up all the resources he would need over a lifetime of intelligence work. In the spy game, all the fancy gadgets and gizmos in the world will never compare to a solid piece of human intel, and Smiley knows just who to ask to get the information he requires. Visiting retired Circus personnel, from the senile research assistant who helped compile nearly all of the known data on Karla to the disgraced lamplighter Toby Esterhase, who can still muster more than a few surveillance teams if there's the chance for personal glory and a return to the game, Smiley pieces together the bits of story he needs in order to weave a trap of his own and conclusively win in the battle of wills that he and Karla have fought for nearly their whole lives.
This is what le Carre excels at: the slow and methodical piecing together of events, some decades old, into a coherent conspiracy that has a very real effect on the present. Field work doesn't play too large of a part in Smiley's methodology. He already has most of the puzzle pieces in his hands, it just takes a careful review for Smiley to uncover the importance of each nugget of knowledge. Some readers deride this as moving too slowly, but to them I recommend the works of Robert Ludlum. Smiley is British, and if Monty Python taught us anything it's that the Brits love their dry subtlety. The reader is left even more in the dark than Smiley himself and half the fun of the book is trying to trace those connections between events and characters and (possibly) beat Smiley to his final showdown with Karla.
A fantastic end to this trilogy, Smiley stands out as one of my favorite spies ever (above Valerie Plame but below the Wen Ho Lee). Le Carre proves once again why he is the grandmaster of this genre with this carefully crafted, delicately paced thriller that delivers the perfect conclusion to a rivalry that is far more interesting than any battle between Bond and SPECTRE ever was.(less)
When it comes to the spy novel, John le Carre is the undisputed master. The man can fill a typically unexciting scene, say of a character reading lett...moreWhen it comes to the spy novel, John le Carre is the undisputed master. The man can fill a typically unexciting scene, say of a character reading letters, with enough suspense and tension to leave the reader tight-lipped and breathless as they hurriedly flip to the next page. His spies are not the supermen of Hollywood like Bond and Bourne, but instead are unathletic, unassuming people who tend to either resemble washed-up pugilists or sallow-cheeked bank clerks.
Le Carre's George Smiley is the epitome of this type. Where Bond is fit, brash, headstrong, charismatic and possesses pheromones that render women powerless to resist him, Smiley is short, dumpy, highly analytic and methodical, and has just been left by his wife again after sleeping with one of his oldest friends, just the latest in her long line of conquests. To top it off he has been summarily fired from his career as number two of Britain's intelligence service, disavowed by most of his former colleagues and has now been assigned the very difficult task of uprooting a mole that the Russians have placed near the very top of the British spy agency.
This is the point in the movie where Bond would grab his assault rifle, rough up some hoods, bed a minx and have a climactic battle atop Mt. Kilamanjaro. Not good old George Smiley, though. He hunts his quarry with all of the patience and tenacity of a komodo dragon following prey it has bitten, certain that the bacteria in the wound will bring it down soon enough. There are no high-speed chases, bombs or last minute escapes. Rather every move is calculated to the nth degree, every possible outcome weighed and judged, like grandmasters staring over their chess pieces. When the climax comes it is not with a furious bang but with the plodding inevitability of the tortoise crossing the finish line.
I have a massive soft spot for books of this sort, that rely on its protagonist slowly piecing together bits of information to form a coherent story. Le Carre is a master of keeping his readers in the dark. I have made some comments in other places about sometimes being unsure whether le Carre was being deliberately obscure so as to heighten the sense of mystery or whether I was reading the book out of order with the rest of the series and he was just referring to events from prior books. While at times this was frustrating, it also gave me the urge to speed through the book and see what answers would finally be revealed.
The Cold War may be long over (has it really been nearly 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell?), the Russians now our titular allies, but le Carre's books act like snapshots for this time period they are so grittily real. When his grim-faced agents meet on a wind-scoured hill overlooking a small city, haunted by a lifetime of having to make the least-evil choice, you can fairly smell the cigarette smoke waft off the page, mingling with the scent of whiskey and burned coal and utterly transporting you into his world. I didn't think I was going to be in the mood for a thriller of this sort, but now I've half a mind to dive into one or two of the other le Carre's stacked alongside my shelves next.(less)
One of the most interesting and important books that I have ever read. This should be required reading for every eater and food lover everywhere. I da...moreOne of the most interesting and important books that I have ever read. This should be required reading for every eater and food lover everywhere. I dare you to read this and look at a supermarket the same again. Not just this century's The Jungle, though it is a loud call of alarm against our increasingly industrial way of life, but also a fantastic look at another way of producing food that embodies an appreciation for the complexities of nature and the sacred nature of our relationship with the Earth and its inhabitants.
Pollan is a fantastically talented author whose gentle approach to contentious topics serves not to bash the reader's mind against the brick wall of Truth, but rather to illustrate three different ways of producing food and ask the reader to take from each what they will according to their own personal values system. Of course, he also asks the reader to challenge that value system to see if it is worthwhile, but every good author should do that.
I've already passed my copy on to another friend and (if it is ever returned to me) know of a dozen more that I want to have read it.(less)
If I take anything away from this book, it should be the opening into understanding Hemingway's style that was written as clearly as anything else he'...moreIf I take anything away from this book, it should be the opening into understanding Hemingway's style that was written as clearly as anything else he's ever written:
"Be careful, he said to himself, it is all very well for you to write simply and the simpler the better. But do not start to think so damned simply. Know how complicated it is and then state it simply. Do you suppose the Grau du Roi time was all simple because you could write a little of it simply?"
I'm sure I'll have more to say later, but for the time being that's the most valuable thing I learned from this read.(less)
Hemingway has never been a close friend of mine. We've had some dalliances, to be sure, but he's never been the sort of author that I call long distan...moreHemingway has never been a close friend of mine. We've had some dalliances, to be sure, but he's never been the sort of author that I call long distance on a rainy night just to be reassured by the sound of their voice. It's not that we don't get along. It is just that our relationship has always been more like that of friends-of-a-friend. We just hadn't had the opportunity to get falling down drunk with one another and confess the trials and tribulations of life to each other. Fortunately The Sun Also Rises has more than enough libations to break down those interpersonal barriers and allow for some serious bonding.
Alternating between 1920s Paris and Pamplona, The Sun Also Rises strikes me as nothing so much as a novel suffering from extreme amounts of post-traumatic stress. For the world-weary 21st century reader, it may be difficult to wrap our minds around the sheer historic enormity of the so-called Great War that Europe was still recovering from in the 1920s. It's an understandable alienation. Since the Treaty of Versailles we have seen villainy and barbarism on a scale that would be unthinkable to the genteel soldiers of WWI: Auschwitz, Hiroshima, My Lai, the Contras, September 11, precision-guided missiles, Pearl Harbor. From WWII forward the world has been engulfed in a near-constant state of warfare, both hot and cold, beamed straight into our living rooms thanks to CNN. These are images that we are very familiar with.
To the writers of the Lost Generation, however, World War One came out of nowhere and completely altered the way in which the world could be viewed. The advances of industry had made it possible for humans to be exterminated on a scale that boggled the mind. Remember, this is only a few decades after Alfred Nobel claimed that his invention of dynamite would so shock soldiers and politicians that it would usher in an era of world peace. Oh to be so innocent! Instead we got a continent-wide conflict that threw away the gentlemanly rules of combat and revealed clearly the brute animal lurking beneath the veneer of civilization.
Is it any wonder, then, that bullfighting forms the centerpiece behind this fantastic novel of alienation? A custom steeped in tradition and history, where every movement is perfectly scripted and unalterable. A beautifully brutal balet between beast and men, violence as performance art. What could be further from the barbarity of the Great War? This conflict between codified behavior and brute force plays out very obviously in the bullfighting scenes, yet plays out a bit more subtlely in other sections of the book. Of particular interest to me were the conflicts over Lady Brett Ashley, the promiscuous paramour of nearly every male character in the short novel.
After having a brief affair with Robert Cohn, an American Jew with a crippling inferiority complex due to the rampant anti-semitism with which he is constantly confronted, Brett takes up with Pedro Romero, the young bullfighter who is the star of the fiesta. Cohn finds himself obsessed, however, unable to let go of Brett or see her with another man. His behavior becomes increasingly eratic and ends up with Cohn bursting into Romero's hotel room where he finds the object of his obsession entwined in the young matador's sheets.
The ensuing fight between Cohn and Romero very skillfully turns the bullfighting metaphor on its head as Cohn takes up the role of the matador, very capably fending off Romero's headstrong attacks and dancing around him with the same skill that the young Spaniard uses in the ring. Likewise, outside of the rules of the ring, Romero is revealed to be just as stubborn as the bulls he dispatches, taking punch after punch from Cohn yet refusing to even acknowledge his pain, let alone his defeat. I think it was in this scene where my nascent love for Hemingway was kindled.
Some readers may be thrown off by the scenes describing the bullfights (I find it strange that violence against animals often evokes more of an outcry than violence against humans (perhaps a product of an ingrained cultural misanthropy?) but that is a topic for a whole other argument) yet these are short and serve to better set the stage for the character drama that unfolds in the streets around Pamplona. Hemingway's distinctive austerity is on full display here, he never uses five words when four will do. Yet rather than distracting me, as it did in Garden of Eden, I found it compelling. Plain-speaking should never be confused with simplicity, as Hemingway very aptly demonstrates here. Now that I've finally had a chance to get to know Papa Hemingway, I can tell that we are going to get along quite well in subsequent literary adventures. Now the only question is which of his works to pick up next.(less)
Sometimes I start to tell people about my experiences in high school and they look at me as though I'm from another planet. Every day for four years I...moreSometimes I start to tell people about my experiences in high school and they look at me as though I'm from another planet. Every day for four years I would wake up at 5:30, deliver papers around my neighborhood, defrost my toes, and head to school by 6:30 for zero hour chamber choir rehearsals. I typically would not leave the building again until 8 or 9 in the evening, having eaten very little but sustained on a near constant drip of Mountain Dew and the occasional banana or apple. I had the security deactivation code for several teachers, keys to the teacher's lounge, complete unfettered access to the photocopier, could walk the halls with impunity during class time, and keys to more than a few classrooms.
"What sort of odd utopian high school did I go to?", you may wonder. Was I the child of some overworked teacher or administrator? Not at all. I was a member of the Debate Team. Every year, starting in July and continuing until the National Qualifying Tournament, we would research the assigned topic, write our cases, continue to research, cram ourselves and our tubs full of evidence onto buses that vented exhaust directly into the interior and flee travel from North Idaho over to whichever University or high school was hosting this particular weekend's tournament. Along the way we would miss a lot of class time, meet extremely interesting people from all over the nation, and get to argue about whether the United States Government's support of the International Space Station would trigger a nuclear conflict with Russia or whether the use of gender specific language in the debate round served to reentrench patriarchal systems of behavior.
Without putting too melodramatic of a point on it, debate saved my life. At a time when I had no interest in compulsory education, it provided an outlet for me to advance my own studies and, later, provided the means (a much coveted scholarship) by which I could flee Idaho. It was with great excitement then that I picked up Joe Miller's Cross-X, a recounting of the 2002-2003 debate season for Central Kansas City High School. An inner city school that has been the focus of national attention time and again for its academic defficiency and struggles with desegregation, Central doesn't really have a lot going for it other than its nationally-ranked debate team.
Miller follows two teams of debaters, a varsity team that ranked in the top 75 teams in the country and a novice team just getting their first taste of the weird and hyper-specialized world of cross-x, or policy-style, debate. This book could have easily become another example of the "struggling inner city youth makes good" cliche if Miller had maintained his journalistic integrity. Fortunately, as he gets to know these debaters, watch their rounds, fight against the recalcitrant Missouri HS activities association trying to bar them from national-level competitions, and confront the structural racism of both the education system as a whole and the debate community in particular, Miller himself gets drawn into the story. It's little things at first (writing letters to the school board to draw their attention to problems, convincing a debater that an upcoming tournament is more important than a computer game) but soon enough he is helping chaperone, cutting cards as a new Assistant Coach and, finally, setting up his own debate program at another urban Kansas City high school.
A lot of this read as old hat for a while, anyone who has been involved in the activity for long is well aware that there is a very serious dearth of female or minority debaters. It's also clear that, on the national level, it is dominated by just a few very well-funded public schools and private academies. The book really begins to take off when Miller's debaters begin to question these underlying truths of the debate world using Paulo Freire's seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed and flip the traditional structure of the debate round on its head. It was incredibly nostalgic to hear about the case they write using UN peacekeepers in the Third World as a metaphor for the rich/poor (privileged/put down?) dichotomy that splits the Nationally-ranked elite from the struggling inner city teams.
My senior year of high school, when the topic was increasing education, my partner and I ran a very similar case using Sr. Freire's powerful philosophy, eschewing the traditional format of writing a plan to do so and advocating the adoption of a critical consciousness in the debate community itself. It made people incredibly upset when they first heard it (just as the case Miller's debaters create offended) because it attacked the very foundations of the sport that we all very much loved, but as the year went on and opposing teams kept losing to it, it gained a grudging respect in the North-West. To read of another team attempting the same thing, and succeeding on a level that we could only dream of (there is only one possible tournament that teams from the NW can compete in to gain a TOC bid and that's all the way down in Berkeley. Kansas City may have been stuck because of bureaucratic waffling but we were stuck due to budget constraints- who can afford to go to Texas to compete?) was an utter delight.
While those outside the debate community may not find this book too interesting, it deserves to be read by anyone who has ever stacked their debate tubs atop one another, given a roadmap and then proceeded to speed-read several dozen pages of evidence in a five minute rebuttal. It's a niche market, to be sure, but an important one that Miller clearly loves yet remains unafraid of criticizing. It's definitely reawakened a side of myself I thought long dead and has me contemplating getting involved in the activity once more.(less)
Replay is a book that had been lingering on my to-read stack for well-nigh three years before I finally got up the gumption to actually crack the cove...moreReplay is a book that had been lingering on my to-read stack for well-nigh three years before I finally got up the gumption to actually crack the cover. Once again I find myself a victim of the too-many-books-too-little-time syndrome which seems to plague all of us various Goodreaders and am kicking myself for waiting so long before reading this eminently enjoyable time travel romp.
I think that one of the reasons I avoided reading this for so long is that it is saddled under the unfortunate umbrella of time travel fiction. Often this means a lot of obtuse descriptions of quantum mechanics and the paradoxes of accidentally meeting yourself in the past; Time Travel 101, if you will. Fortunately, Grimwood plays upon the well-worn theme with a unique twist.
Rather than jumping in a machine and galivanting into the future to romp with the Eloi, Grimwood has his hero Jeff die one chill October evening in 1988. Yet, instead of pearly gates and St. Peter, Jeff awakens to find himself in his college dorm in 1963 with full knowledge of the future to come, from the fall of Saigon to the horse that will win the Kentucky Derby. With this premise Grimwood has tapped into one of the most fundamental wishes of humankind: the desire to do things differently now that you know how it will play out.
It's thrilling to watch as Jeff relives his life, testing out various professions or challenges, finally having the children that he longed for in his first life, attempting to stop the Kennedy Assassination, investing in Apple when Jobs and Wozniak were still tinkering in their garage, reveling in the reckless hedonism of early 60s Paris. As he plays through each iteration, though, Jeff realizes what a lonely existence he lives as the only one who seems to realize that everything that happens has already happened before, until he sees a film that he had never heard of before and stumbles across a woman who is also trapped in a historic loop.
This was an incredibly fun read that I never wanted to put down. Jeff isn't perfect, which makes him more fun. He wastes several of his lives and inadvertantly ends up with much blood on his hands when he tries to alter the course of history, but it is this that makes him relatable. He may be forewarned, but that does not always equate to being forearmed and I would often find myself agreeing with several well-intentioned decisions he makes that inevitably blow up in his face. From a fantastic premise through a great follow-through, Ken Grimwood has crafted a story that will stand the test of time, even if it's on repeat.(less)
There are very few books these days that I find so gripping that I put everything to the side so that I can fully enjoy them more. Steven Hall's The R...moreThere are very few books these days that I find so gripping that I put everything to the side so that I can fully enjoy them more. Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts has changed all of that. Hall has a very original style and plays with the idea of literature in ways previously left to the purview of Mark Z. Danielewski. The use of letters and words to create drawings of conceptual creatures, the fifty-plus pages used solely for a flipbook, not to mention a highly inventive code combining Morse and a QWERTY keyboard- all these serve to show Hall as one of the most innovative new authors in a field overflowing with talent.
Aside from a tendency to borrow a little too much from Spielberg's epic, Jaws, the only other fault I can find with Hall as an author is that he wears his influences on his sleeve. Quotes from Murakami, characters reading Paul Auster- these tongue-in-cheek homages to Hall's favorite writers tends to wear a little too thin by the end of the book. Still, as a debut novel, The Raw Shark Texts marks Hall as an author to watch in the years to come.(less)