Friday, November 30, 2007

The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

The Sirens of Titan
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I've finally found another Vonnegut novel that tells a single story in a more-or-less linear fashion. The Sirens of Titan is an interesting tale about a man spread out in both time and space, and what he does to specific individuals and mankind itself as a result. It was fun to read, though I could pretty easily put it down whenever needed. There's an element of black humor to it that I enjoyed. The moral - if there is one - is a lot less clear, however. The last few pages kind of confused that for me, but that seems to be a Vonnegut thing. He'd bash you over the head with an obvious point for a long time and then - wham! - change points of view abruptly and leave you wondering what he really thought.

I liked this one a lot more than Breakfast of Champions, and I'd put it fairly close to Cat's Cradle though that one has held up better over time and was a tiny bit more realistic, which works for me in the case of Vonnegut.

Check out The Sirens of Titan if you can. It's not a masterpiece, but it's alright.

The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester

Title: The Professor and the Madman
Author: Simon Winchester
Rating: Good

The Professor and the Madman documents the relationship between Sir James Murray - one of the major editors of the original Oxford English Dictionary - and Dr. William Chester Minor - a retired US Army surgeon, and - without doubt - a madman.

Dr. Minor made significant contributions to the OED, and did it all from his abode in... well... I'll leave that for you to read.

This is an interesting story, both for the history behind the OED and that behind Minor. But that said, the treatment feels a bit long. Winchester goes to great lengths to draw out certain points when they could be stated more concisely. it's still a good read, though.

If you've ever stared at the OED in its printed form and wondered how it was originally created, this book will answer that question. And it throws in a sad story of madness besides.

The End Of Faith, Sam Harris

Title: The End Of Faith
Author: Sam Harris
Rating: Great!

This is a powerful book. It is closely argued, well researched, deeply thought out, troubling, and necessary. Sam Harris has done the world a huge service.

To be honest, though, I don't know if I agree with everything he writes. In fact, I rather doubt it in certain cases, but he's a thorough and persuasive writer, so even where I may not agree with him entirely, I have a lot of thinking to do.

The central premise of The End of Faith is that we must see the end of irrational beliefs - those without supporting evidence - of all kinds. Religious faith is far and away the most significant such belief in the world today, but there are other examples.

The first 170 pages cover this argument in depth, showing numerous issues with religious faith, both internally - as inconsistencies in beliefs that must remain unrecognized or be actively ignored - and externally - where faith leads to behaviors destructive to oneself and others. He calls out Islam, in particular, for deep examination and criticism.

That faith itself is a serious problem (and even a threat) was picked up by Dawkins as one argument among many in The God Delusion, but Harris goes beyond that point as well. The last 50 pages of The End of Faith discuss ethics that don't rely on religion, the war on drugs, pacifism, torture, and even spirituality in the absence of religion. Harris walks a mine field here, coming to places I would never have expected, and to conclusions that are quite probably correct and yet unsettling.

Some have accused Harris of being too strident in his presentation, but I don't see that problem. In the very real light of 9/11, suicide bombers, and those who would legislate against the private lives of so many in the name of their faith, a few sentences that drive home religion's awful effects on the world are trivia. I admit that some of his ethical conclusions are challenging, but if you can find the error in his logic I want to know it.

For me, this book will require at least two readings. The first was quick. I gulped it down in three sittings or so, and didn't read many of the end notes so I'd get the gist of his argument without being too distracted. The next pass will be slower, and I will read every one of the 60 pages of end notes in the process.

If I have a problem with The End of Faith it's not with the book itself, but rather that the world is unchanged from when it was originally published in 2004. As I write this, an English school teacher is going to jail for 15 days in Sudan for letting her students name a teddy bear "Mohammed". But that isn't the worst of it: her sentence is actually light. She could have received 40 lashes. It's disgusting but true that in 2007 people are still punished in the hideous ways set out by the Koran. But it doesn't even end there. Shortly after her sentence was announced a mob of over 1,000 protested in Khartoum. Whipped into a frenzy by their religious leaders, and following the dictates of Islam, they demanded execution - execution! - for the "offense" of naming a teddy bear after a supposed prophet. That's what faith leads to, and it sickens me.

I know there was a counter demonstration in the UK in which Muslims protested the sentence handed down in Sudan, but read Harris's work. The Koran is very, very explicit in its stipulated punishments for every transgression, and anyone saying "Islam is a religion of peace" is plainly incorrect.

And don't think that it's only Islam that wants the world returned to the fourteenth century. Christianity and Judaism come in for similar criticism, and their holy books are equally harsh on those of other faiths. It's just that more Christians and Jews ignore the ugly parts of their religion than is the case with Muslims. But for true believers of nearly any religion, the holy book is simply right, and those with differing points of view must die.

Having read The End of Faith I am happy to have Sam Harris out there, writing things that others - myself included - have been afraid to say. But I'm also deeply saddened that it's necessary, and I am terrified that we will see only continuing violence and hatred - inspired or required by religion in many cases - for the rest of our time on this planet. And I note with Harris that when madmen control weapons of mass destruction any hopes for a brighter future fade substantially. And as if to confirm what I read, just two days ago there was news about Russian uranium being seized by Slovak police. It was destined to go into a so called "dirty bomb", and had the sellers found the proper buyer, some city would have suffered an awful fate.

After all, why would anyone who has faith in the afterlife - and his or her eternal happiness therein - avoid using WMD when the cause of his or her religion will be advanced? There are people of every religion that would happily kill millions in the name of their faith, even (and sometimes especially) if they die in the process. None of us is safe from such insanity.

Read The End of Faith. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Then the work begins. We have to find ways to act on what it says. We must stop granting religious faith exemption from criticism, and we must find ways to keep those whose faith runs deep and who cannot be swayed from violence, from imposing their choices on the rest of us.

Sadly, I am not optimistic.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt

Title: On Bullshit
Author: Harry G. Frankfurt
Rating: Poor

For a while this book was all the rage. I, personally, thought it was... well... bullshit.

Sorry. Couldn't resist. But that is really what I think.

There's no interesting content here, and not much content at all, really. The back of many cereal boxes is more satisfying.

Read something else - I don't care what it is. You'll probably be better off and have learned more than you will by reading this thing.

Whiskey Appreciation and Tasting Guide, Derek Cooper

Title: Whisky Appreciation and Tasting Guide
Author: Derek Cooper
Rating: OK

A while back - maybe three years ago now - some friends who live near us did an evil thing: they introduced us to whisky. And this wasn't an introduction to just any whisky. Oh no. We were hit with single malts, and in particular, the single malts of Islay, Scotland.

This hasn't become an obsession or anything, but it has lead to some interesting purchases, and when we took a trip to the UK a while back we spent some time in Scotland - on Islay - and learned a bit more about the thing that is whisky. Islay - by the way - is the southernmost of the inner Hebrides islands.

While there I picked up this tiny little book on the theory that it might provide some useful information. And there are 20 pages or so of very general overview about whisky and related things, but it's all pretty simplistic. Of course, getting to know it better probably requires a master's degree in something like organic chemistry, a second degree in something related to the hospitality field, and then 20 years of practical experience working in and around a distillery (or three) to really know what the heck is going on.

This book won't give you even the tiniest portion of that background, but if you have no idea what a single malt is or why it's different from a blended whisky, it can answer some of those questions.

Instead of reading this (or any other) book, though, you're probably better off finding a friend who already has some background and asking for help. An introduction to whisky can be a very interesting evening, and once you start down that path, well, it's a bit like the dark side of the force.

For the record, my favorite single malt to date is Lagavulin's 16 year old standard issue, which I can sometimes find at my local Costco. It's wonderful, but you have to like the smell and odor (and taste!) of a peat bog to truly appreciate it. You can learn a bit more about it from the Lagavulin wikipedia page. From there, the sky's the limit.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Hot And Sweaty Rex, Eric Garcia

Hot And Sweaty Rex
Eric Garcia

The third in a series dinosaur detective books. As with the others, there are dinosaurs living among us. They're in disguise, and they're all over society.

In Hot And Sweaty Rex our hero - private investigator Vincent Rubio - gets involved with two different mob organizations and lives to tell about it.

As with the previous novels in the series, the writing pretty much lets you get past the obviously ridiculous premise and concentrate on the story. But this time it all seemed just a bit too contrived to me. The willing suspension of disbelief didn't come quite so easily.

Perhaps the dino formula is wearing thin by this point - and it may be - but I actually suspect a different issue: the plot. I guess I held back in believing some of the major plot points in some way, and that held up the full enjoyment of the book. it's still good, but wasn't quite as satisfying somehow.

There might be other reasons for that as well. This book takes a bit more serious tone - particularly the last few chapters - than the previous two. There's less outright humor and more discussion of just how mammals have messed things up - or are messed up themselves. There's also more use of the dino world as a looking glass for our own - causing introspection on several topics if you let it.

Garcia's first two Rex books were a bit more fun than this one, in all. Hot And Sweaty Rex is still worth reading, but not quite up to the standard set by the others.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Rating: Great!
Alt Review Link: forum review

I've read several reviews of books by Neil Gaiman, but I had no idea who he is or what he wrote. Not a clue. Someone - I'm not sure who, but I suspect it was Terry from the stone carving class I teach - said I might like American Gods though. When I asked, I got a vague description that sounded interesting enough to cause me to request a copy via I thought I might like it, but I wasn't ready to buy the book just yet.

The book arrived some time later and for various reasons - mostly having to do with which books were on top of the pile - I started in on it pretty quickly. I quote the dedication that I read first:

For absent friends - Kathy Acker and Roger Zelazny, and all points between

Interesting, I said to myself. I like Zelazny. Maybe this will be a good read. So I turned the page.

Several hours later I came up for air. I was about a third of the way into it and clearly was going to finish it quickly. So much for worrying about whether or not the book was any good.

I'm not going to write a spoiler review here, but I can tell you that the hero is named Shadow, and that he's employed by Mr. Wednesday - also known as Wotan or Odin. We're dealing with gods here, but we're dealing with the American versions thereof. The writing is good, the story is intriguing, and the characters are well developed. All in all, this is a winner.

Interestingly, American Gods is basically an updated Roger Zelazny novel, or it might be viewed as an homage to Zelazny. Either way, it's got his finger prints all over it. And that explains at least some of why I enjoyed it so much. Gaiman gets a lot of points from me for writing this tale, and for crediting Zelazny with getting to similar ground first (along with a couple of other authors) in his acknowledgments. Talent and honesty. Nice.

I'd call this a great modern fantasy, but you don't have to take my word for it. It won a bunch of awards, including the 2002 Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novel, among others. It also places very highly on the Internet Speculative fiction Data Base top 100 lists, which you can learn about here:

More importantly (to me, at least) is that if you miss Roger Zelazny, this is definitely a book that will make you smile. Gaiman's other work may be different - I don't know yet - but I do know that American Gods was a fun, fast, and wonderful read. Give it a try!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Casual Rex, Eric Garcia

Title: Casual Rex
Author: Eric Garcia
Rating: Good
Alt Review Link: forum review

This is the second in a series (of three, so far) dinosaur detective books. Dinosaurs live among us - disguised as humans - and our hero is one of them. In fact he - Vincent Rubio - is an herb addicted raptor. (Herbs are intoxicants to dinos - even mundane stuff like basil and cumin.)

In this case, Rubio and his partner Ernie set off to find the brother of Ernie's ex-wife who's been drawn into a dino cult. It gets more complex from there, of course.

Garcia writes well, and most of the time it just works. I occasionally had to choke back an "Oh yeah? The humans never note that, eh?" thought, but not all that often.

For me the most amusing thing about the entire book is the idea that dinosaurs have their own equivalent of the Human Empowerment movement - call it Dino Empowerment - but in the book it's called Progress. It's a great mirror for our society in a way.

The final confrontation is funny for who some of the combatants are (or appear to be) and was clearly written from a visual perspective. I wonder if the movie rights are already purchased? Someone in Hollywood is probably trying to figure out if these books can be filmed or not.

A light hearted and fun book, though if you're squeamish about drug use and/or sex (between dinosaurs) then it might not be for you.

A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney, Andrew A. Rooney

Title: A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney
Author: Andrew A. Rooney
Rating: Good

Back when I was younger - and the earth was still cooling - 60 Minutes was a highly rated TV news show. (It may still be for all I know. I gave up TV about 15 years ago now, and I have no plans to go back to it, but I digress.) On that show there was usually a segment titled "A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney".

These segments were usually humorous, and they often discussed something so mundane that it's hard to imagine writing anything about it at all. Chairs, for example. In retrospect I wonder if Seinfeld didn't learn something from Rooney. Regardless, Rooney has a way with words and and his pieces both charm and disarm the viewer/listener/reader.

This book is a collection of some of his essays. Many were written for 60 Minutes but others were written for other venues. Some don't work as well on the page as they did with his voice telling the tale, but even those are still quite good. Some are very moving, and some are just funny.

I enjoyed this book. It's not going to change anyone's life, but it will cause amusement and thought, and those are things the world needs more of.

Sluggy Freelance: Little Evils, Pete Abrams

Sluggy Freelance: Little Evils
Pete Abrams

I've reviewed a Sluggy Freelance book before. From that and the fact that I'm reviewing another one here you can probably guess that I love the strip, and that I'm going to review this one positively as well. You'd be right if you guessed that sort of thing.

For those living under an Internet rock, Sluggy Freelance is the name of an ongoing comic strip. It's one of the biggest and most popular comic strips on the web, and its author - Pete Abrams - has the unique distinction of being one of a very few people who can earn a living producing a web comic.

There are - I believe - 10 years of Sluggy available online. You can read them all for free at, and you should do so. Just be prepared to be sucked into reading for a long, long time. There are something like a ten major characters, with a half dozen or so figuring most prominently. The subjects range from single strips with a gag at the end to story arcs that go on for months. There are even movie parodies - my favorite being the parody of The Matrix. The stories range from the positively silly to the semi-serious and include The Dimension of Pain, alternate dimensions, demons of various sorts, aliens, talking animals, vampires, and... well... you get the idea.

Little Evils is a compilation of (roughly) years four, five, and six of the online strip, and as such it reprints the contents of three earlier books. But that's OK with me - you can't buy at least some of those earlier books anymore anyway, and the new format is much nicer. Besides, whatever money Pete gets from these books helps keep him working on the strip, and that's worth it.

This volume includes The Storm Breaker Saga, more about Oasis (a mentally unstable gymnastic assassin in love with Torg - one of the main characters), Kitten (a great horror tale), more of Bun-bun's ongoing war with Santa, The Quatrix, and (my personal favorite here) The Bug, The Witch, and The Robot. That last is an amazingly well developed story about possession, evil, courage and friendship, with a healthy dose of silliness on the side.

If you've never read Sluggy Freelance - and if the above sounds at all interesting - now is definitely the time to start. And once you're hooked you can buy the books - and become a Defender Of The Nifty - to help support Pete's amazing creation.

As Pete would say, this one's Pretty Darn Nifty!

Shopgirl, Steve Martin

Title: Shopgirl
Author: Steve Martin
Rating: Poor

I picked up Shopgirl some time back - on a whim - via I was ordering several books from someone else and found this on their list. Martin's films are hit or miss for me, but when they work they're very funny. I figured it couldn't hurt to try his prose.

I was right - it didn't hurt - but it wasn't all that enjoyable either. In fact, I think Shopgirl qualifies as "chick-lit" written by a male. It wasn't all that interesting, the major plot points were predictable, and I didn't buy the development of at least one of the three main characters. The other two main characters really don't undergo much development at all, leaving me wondering what the point of the story is.

The cover claims the book is "Now A Major Motion Picture" like that's some sort of recommendation. It wasn't for me. I had no clue that was the case when I requested the book, and I have no desire to see it now.

All in all this was mostly a waste of time and paper.