Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Serenity: Better Days, Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Will Conrad

Title:
Serenity: Better Days
Authors:
Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Will Conrad
Rating:
Good

This is my last review in 2008. Several things wiped out my time at the end of the year and slowed me way down. But I'm still trying to read, even if things keep getting in the way.

Serenity: Better Days is a short comic book about the crew of the space ship Firefly, who were featured on the TV show of the same name. If you don't know the setting, this review isn't going to help much, I'm afraid.

As usually happens with tales of this crew, it's the story of a "job" gone wrong. Our heroes are minor criminals, living on the edge of a corrupt society. We applaud their willingness to go it alone and do the right thing in the face of adversity, even if it violates the law, simply because that law is so obviously overbearing and unjust. (You know, simply writing that sentence makes me stop and think about the state of America in a new way, but I digress.)

Amusingly, this story actually starts with a job going well, but then things turn. I won't give away any more than that.

What I can say is that it was a bit disjoint. There were a few places - in a very short book - that I had to back up and reread to try and figure out what had happened. I suspect the authors actually had more material but lacked the page space to include it, so it was cut to fit. The result is OK, but not as easy to follow as I'd like.

I enjoy the Serenity series, and I hope it continues. But I also hope the next one is a bit better edited than this one, so the story flows a bit better.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

All Things Wise and Wonderful, James Herriot

Title:
All Things Wise and Wonderful
Author:
James Herriot
Rating:
Good

I finished All Things Wise and Wonderful some weeks back, but I've been too busy with winter preparation and getting ready to go back to work to write up even a simple review. Things are finally settling down, though. I go back to work on Monday, and since it's started raining and will continue to do so for some time, those projects are coming to a close. As a result, I finally get to write this up.

I greatly enjoyed All Things Wise and Wonderful, as I have enjoyed the other books in the series. Herriot - a pseudonym, I know - writes with obvious love of his home, family, and job. Most of the stories have are positive in nature, but a few are sad. I know some don't like his works but I find them quite nice.

This book details some of the author's war experience. He trained as a pilot for the RAF but just as his training finished it was then found he had a medical condition and he wasn't allowed to fly. I can relate to his tales of the bureaucracy in several ways now that I'm in a volunteer fire department and going back to work. Somehow, red tape is in our blood.

If you're looking for some light reading that will leave you feeling good about people, any of the books by James Herriot will do the trick. You can read a chapter or two at a time or consume an entire book in a few hours. Either way you won't do yourself any wrong. Recommended.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Six Degrees, Duncan J. Watts

Title:
Six Degrees
Author:
Duncan J. Watts
Rating:
Good

Six Degrees is subtitled "The Science of a Connected Age". It discusses the emerging science of networks, and does so with some flair, though I found the first half more interesting than the second half.

In the first half, Watts actually discusses the science of networks in some detail, with charts & graphs. He explains how he and others worked out some interesting results in network science, and even shows where they made assumptions that others overturned. For me, this portion of the book was fascinating, and fun reading.

The second half loses that level of detail and instead becomes more of a survey of ongoing work in networks and how it can apply in the real world. There are some interesting stories here, but nothing quite grabbed me the way the first half did.

In any event, if you're interested in the Small World Problem, or (more colloquially) whether or not everyone really is only six degrees of separation apart, this is an interesting read.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Blink, Malcolm Gladwell

Title:
Blink
Author:
Malcolm Gladwell
Rating:
Neutral

What can I say about Blink aside from the obvious jokes?

Well, I started out being really interested in it, but that's an oddity of my personal nature. The opening vignette is about an ancient Greek sculpture that a museum bought. It that turned out to be a modern fake, and the story of how the mistake was made and uncovered was presented. As a sculptor, it resonated with me, but that's probably just me.

After that it goes down hill. While the research Gladwell summarizes is interesting, there is nothing really useful presented here. His underlying thesis - that we all make snap judgements based on very little information, and that sometimes those judgements are good ones - seems obvious on the face of it. But the repetitive nature of his assertions gets old, and the fact that he never once indicates how to change one's skill at "thin-slicing" is irritating in the end.

Yes, he does indicate that experts are better at thin-slicing in their domains, but "Become an expert" is a useless answer to the question "How do I get better at thin-slicing?"

And he fails to explain certain things. For example, the museum that bought the stature hired experts to authenticate it. Why did those people fail to note the problems that others noted later? Why didn't they thin-slice the problem as well? Clearly becoming and expert isn't enough, and there are no other answers given in here.

This would have been better in a much shorter format. As it was, I feel like I wasted a lot of time with it.

Gladwell's earlier big work was The Tipping Point and I thought I might read it, but after reading this I'm not so sure. There's more PR than substance in Blink and the reviews on amazon.com make me think that could be the case there too. Oh well.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood

Title:
The Handmaid's Tale
Author:
Margaret Atwood
Rating:
Great!

This is only the second thing I've read by Margaret Atwood, and I found it pretty powerful stuff. As far as I can tell Atwood writes dystopian fiction from a woman's point of view. I don't think she's generally classed as a science fiction writer, but there is some element of extrapolation about the future in the works I've read so far.

The Handmaid's Tale takes place in a near future society in North America. The US government was violently overthrown, the constitution suspended, and most women's rights revoked. Within the very strict regime that took power (in what is now called The Republic of Gilead) women are essentially property. And here we meet Offred, the heroine of the story, and a handmaid to her Commander, one of the people in power.

The term "handmaid", though, doesn't convey the nature of the relationship. It's a euphemism. As it happens, the Caucasian birthrate has dropped severely. Many or most of those still in Gilead are infertile for various reasons having to do with pollution, nuclear leakage, etc. But it isn't acceptable for a leader to have no children, so if someone important is in that situation it is assumed his wife is infertile (it must be the woman, of course; men can't be infertile) and he is given a handmaid to bear his children. A bit of the Bible (Genesis 30: 1-3) is cited to justify this.

Amusingly, when I did a google search on "Genesis 30: 1-3" the first hit that came up was Study Guide to Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale (1986).

Atwood discusses the history that brought about this challenging culture, and the personal events that got Offred into her current situation in flashbacks. It's a dark and difficult story, with enough possibility in it to scare any sensible reader.

Highly recommended. I'll be reading more of Atwood's work.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Radio On, Sarah Vowell

Title:
Radio On
Author:
Sarah Vowell
Rating:
Lousy

I've liked other work by Sarah Vowell, and I enjoy her pieces on NPR, but this book hits all kinds of hot buttons for me.

Let's start with the premise. The author spends a year listening to the radio - a lot - and keeping a journal about the experience. Those journal entries are the contents of the book, listed by date, station frequency and call letters. There are a few other things scattered in there too, but mostly it's journal entries. As such, it's not all that coherent. There isn't a story line, plot, history, or even a guiding theme to hold them together.

Actually, I suppose it could be argued there is a theme of sorts: Vowell's hatred of just about everything she mentions. But if vitriol is all that's supposed to hold this collection of paragraphs together, it didn't work for me.

Vowell's not shy about letting her opinions out. She has nothing but scorn for Rush Limbaugh. (That, at least, I can agree with.) Her taste in music is critical to her existence, and those who disagree with her are entirely in the wrong. With the exception of a few bits of ancient history (Elvis, for example) she mentions almost exclusively bands and artists that I've never heard of or never listen to. (For the record, I don't listen to Elvis either, but at least I've heard of him.) Kurt Cobain figures heavily into her rock god pantheon, as does Courtney Love. You're clearly a waste of skin if you can't name every song these people have been involved with.

Sadly I can see myself in her rant to a degree. My own musical preferences were completely different, but there was a time when I thought the "right" music was all important. Thankfully I got over that phase shortly after leaving college. Vowell is (or was) still stuck there over ten years after she graduated. Looking back, I was an ass about things like this on far too many occasions, but at this point I can admit it and move on. It's not clear that Vowell can do so.

Yet more things are wrong with this diatribe. Vowell has absolutely nothing good to say about any radio station except KGLT, the college station she worked for. She does like Ira Glass - famous for his NPR program This American Life - but everything on WBEZ except his show is terrible. The DJs on the myriad of other stations she mentions are all held up as examples of stupidity, or - at the very least - cluelessness. You can get a sense of the depth of her disgust from this quote, taken from the back cover, where you'd normally expect to find some blurb recommending the book in question:
"Vowell's touch is about as delicate as Teddy Kennedy's after a pitcher of martinis."
-- Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times
In reality, though, I could set all of those issues aside. At some level I can even relate to it, as I have my own inner grouch who wants to complain about everything and everyone. Admittedly I don't usually let him out long enough to write a 230 page trade paperback, but I can identify with at least some of what she's whining, grousing, and bitching about. But what bothered me most is that Vowell holds everyone up to a higher standard than herself, fails to admit the purpose of things, or both.

By way of example, she excoriates NPR (National Public Radio) in many, many places. As far as I can tell, only Ira Glass's work there has any value. She calls out the various programs by name, trashing them repeatedly, and does the same for the various people who work there. It matters not what your race, gender, or vocal characteristics are, if you work on All Things Considered or Morning Edition it is quite obvious that Vowell finds you repulsive. Not quite as repulsive as Rush Limbaugh, but damn close.

With that as a background, it comes as no surprise that she complains bitterly - and mentions it again later - that one of the NPR announcers working on Morning Edition or All Things Considered (sorry, I didn't mark the pages where I saw this, and I can't bring myself to read it all again just to find the exact quotes) worries about screwing things up. She complains that this is an attitude she never saw back in the good old days working at KGLT. They were happy to screw up. They clowned around all the time.

Excuse me? You're trying to compare some Podunk college radio station staff with those of a major national news program, and because they differ in how much they worry about screwing things up you're bothered? To the point of rage?

But it doesn't end there. Elsewhere in these pages Vowell admits to being a teacher at an art school. Guess what? She found herself nervous early on because people were listening to her and writing down what she said.

Surely I'm not the only one to see the irony there? She rants that the people at NPR are afraid of screwing up, but can't see that she, herself, has the same issue in front of her class? To be afraid of making an error in public is only natural. Surely she knows that. And yet she can't acknowledge the difference between Bob Edwards messing up on Morning Edition and Tom the two-bit DJ doing so on the local college station. Given her other writings, I honestly thought she was smarter than that.

And then, as mentioned above, there's her unwillingness to acknowledge the purpose of things. The NPR programs she hates with so much passion for their their "boring" presentation and "snooty" announcers are actually doing the right thing. They're serious news programs. They tell people about the important events of the day; they do not air artsy, experimental radio pieces that no one will understand. They address a much larger audience - millions, not hundreds - and while a few whoopee cushions and some rambling, selected news headlines for college kids might be amusing, it doesn't (and cannot) do the same job as All Things Considered. Vowell can't see this, and aims a huge barrage of insults at quite a few excellent programs and people as a result. They do not deserve such treatment.

I can be an opinionated SOB, and I'd guess that some things I've written have or will offend some. But I hope I'm a bit less hysterical in my presentation than Vowell, and more willing to see others in the light of reason.

Radio On was published in 1996, and Vowell suffered through some nasty political times given her particular views on the world - Newt Gingrich, for example. Perhaps that added to her misery and lead her to be more harsh than she should have been. And obviously she was younger then, about 28, I believe. Maybe she has (or will) mellow with age. But none of those things excuses the gross mistreatment of others I found in this book. I'd skip it.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, Lynn Varley

Title:
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Authors:
Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, Lynn Varley
Rating:
Great!

This is only the third graphic novel I've reviewed here, but I really like it. It's isn't great literature in the classic sense, but it tells a good story, and it kept me interested and entertained.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is a set of four stories, originally published separately, I believe. Collectively they tell of an older Batman, one who had retired but has to come back to defend Gotham City, a Batman driven by his inner demon.

This follows the real point of Batman in my mind: he's dark, tormented, and borders on doing evil while fighting evil. His history is revisited here again: the street corner where Bruce Wayne's parents were killed is present, and a couple of the classic villains make their appearance too. But here Batman also faces a new kind of evil, one with less restraint and more random in nature than he's faced before. He thinks of them as the decedents of the one that murdered his parents. "These are his children. A purer breed... and this world is theirs."

Originally published in 1986 - before the fall of the Soviet Union - these stories tell of a superhero coming out of retirement with a different twist than the much latter movie The Incredibles. Why Batman retired - vanished actually - isn't made clear. Perhaps I'd know that if I followed comic books, but I don't, and it adds a layer of mystery I actually like.

Also present is a long standing conflict between Batman and at least one of the other famous superheros. I won't say who - no need to spoil it for you if you don't already know - but that conflict is built right into the psyche of the two characters in question. If Batman represents the dark side of doing good, you can probably guess who's on the opposite side of things, so good he's hard to stomach for someone like Bruce Wayne.

The art here is well done, stylized but not so much as to be silly. And the story is more interesting than someone who doesn't read comic books might expect. Batman is always conflicted over what he does - what he has to do - and the philosophical issues there are deep. Not that this is a textbook from a college class on ethics, but you will ponder the limits of power, the role of vengeance vs. justice, and even simple aging. As I grow older these things all get to be more interesting to me, and they are well presented here.

This is highly recommended. I got my copy through paperbackswap.com, but I won't be passing it on. This one I'll keep and reread every so often. This Batman deserves no less.

Thanks to Patguy for recommending this one. It's definitely worth it.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain

Title:
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Author:
Mark Twain
Rating:
OK

I moved around a lot when I was a kid. In fact we moved so often I am still regularly asked if my father was in the military whenever my childhood comes up in conversation.

Moving a lot has any number of repercussions, one of which is that the regular changes in school district mean you see no one system's complete education plan from start to finish, and often wind up suffering overlap or missing things in the process. I'll never forget my move from Kansas to Illinois, where - halfway through my sophomore year of high school - I was stuck into a freshman biology class and bored out of my mind.

In my Kansas school, biology had been a difficult class, taught very well. But in the Illinois school it was taught to younger students and didn't cover nearly as much material. I sat in the back of that new classroom and waited for the teacher to call on me. "Does anyone know the answer to the question? I'll bet Jeff does. Jeff?" And sure enough I did. Every stinking time. In half a year in Kansas we'd covered everything that class was ever going to cover, and in spite of the fact that the teacher tried, I really hated being there.

I had similar experiences with English classes. The first day of the 9th grade English we were given a test just to see what we did and didn't know. I was working along answering questions and came to the statement: "Diagram this sentence." Some (now forgotten) sentence followed that, and then a large, blank space on the page. I had no idea what was being asked of me. I'd never seen nor even heard of diagramming sentences at the time. I wandered up to the teacher's desk and asked what this meant. She told me not to worry about it and go on.

And the oddities don't stop there. Literature is another place where my education got out of whack. I know I read Julius Caesar at least three times in various schools. Correspondingly there are all kinds of things I never managed to read, and that list includes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Well, now I have read it, and I'm wondering what all the fuss is (or was) about.

Perhaps if I'd read it when I was twelve it would have made more of an impact, but at the age of 42, it seems rather pointless. What happens is fairly predictable, and yet it's not really all that believable. Tom winds up in too many situations that just don't ring true to me, and they certainly happen far too quickly. Amusingly, the most famous scene - in which Tom tricks the neighborhood kids into painting a fence for him - is near the beginning of the book, raising the question of just how many people actually read the entire thing.

I'll give it a pass for it's treatment of native Americans and blacks. It is a product of it's time, as was Samuel Clemens. I'll also forgive the use if dialect, which I generally find only obscures the author's intent. And I'll ignore the author's word choice. It was probably just fine for the time it was written, but a number of those words have dropped out of the dictionary since 1876.

More problematic, in my mind, is the apparent anti-intellectualism I see here. Sawyer and his friends are the most superstitious lot imaginable, and few in the town are any better. It's easy to see the American nation turning its collective back on the enlightenment if you read this in the right way.

In addition, while I've read that Twain wasn't a friend to Christianity in his later years, he mentions religion quite regularly here. Perhaps he was only chronicling how people really lived and believed at the time. Perhaps he's poking fun at it in some places, but in others he seems sincere, and I found it a bit distracting.

I know this book is a classic, but I've had my battles over classics before. I remember coming home one day from school and telling my mother we were reading Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I hated every single word of that book, and I told her so. Knowing me, I was probably quite loud in my presentation of that opinion. She responded in kind - I come from a loud family - and told me that I had to like it because "it's a classic!"

I've been a bit leery of classics ever since, but as the irregularly spaced interruptions of my education continued, I didn't have to read many of them. By reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I've now moved one of those missed classics on the list of things I've actually read.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Gaudeamus, John Barnes

Title:
Gaudeamus
Author:
John Barnes
Rating:
Good

Gaudeamus was reviewed back in 2006 by Malabar, another of Doug's book review forum participants. Her review was short & sweet. I liked the sound of it, so I eventually got a copy.

I'm glad I did. This was a fun read. Not all that serious - almost a farce - but it was a good time.

The narrator is John Barnes himself, SF author of some note. In here he encounters a story about industrial espionage, unusual machines taking advantage of weird properties of physics, aliens, a strange new drug, intergalactic law, flying saucers, a really bad band, and a few other oddities. The author doesn't actually tell the story, though. Instead it is mostly told to him by another character, Travis Bismark, private investigator and college buddy of the author.

That odd story structure worked for me. I found the story fun and light hearted in ways that held it together. Some reviews on amazon.com haven't been as positive, saying it has essentially no plot, or that the entire thing is just too silly. I disagree, but I can see their point to some level. This is science fiction humor. If you take it that way, it's fine. If you're looking for something deeper, it's probably not going to interest you.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Knockout Mouse, James Calder

Title:
Knockout Mouse
Author:
James Calder
Rating:
Good

I know I've confessed to not being a mystery reader several times now. And yet, here I go again, reviewing another murder mystery. Why do I do this to myself?

In this case there are extenuating circumstances. Knockout Mouse takes place in the Bay Area, my home turf. For that reason I thought it might be more interesting than some random mystery novel.

And to some degree I was right. This was more interesting than most mysteries I've read. Partly that was setting. Partly it was that the characters were interacting with high tech in some ways, and I've lived in that stuff here in Silicon Valley. And partly it was just a reasonably well written story.

But there are still problems with these things that I don't like, the single biggest of which is that the person who winds up doing all the investigating inevitably has to have some convoluted reason for being unable to go to the cops. In the real world, at the first hint of something strange going on, I'm going straight to the police and dumping it in their hands. And if something else happens after that, I'll go straight back to them and dump that in their hands too. And so on until they lock me into a cell to keep me out of trouble. No way will Joe Streetperson ever get access to all the information needed to solve a murder before the cops do, and if he gets some juicy tidbit he'd bloody well better take it all to the cops straight off.

And beyond that, I just don't buy the whole "lay investigator out does professionals" thing as a premise. I'm not smart enough to out-do a professional in that field, and while I don't mean to toot my own horn, I'm not exactly stupid.

Anyway, if you can swallow a couple of things like that - and most mystery readers seem to do so quite willingly - then this may be a book you'll enjoy. It's fairly realistic in it's presentation of post dot-bomb Silicon Valley. It's portrayal of the biotech field is a bit harder for me to assess, but it's probably not too bad. I don't buy that every person running a company out here is a piece of slime, but some are, and maybe I've got my rose colored glasses on by accident.

So, if you read mysteries, you might enjoy it. I probably won't race out and get another book by Calder simply because I have better things to do than read yet another mystery by another author I've never met.

Intelligent Thought, John Brockman

Title:
Intelligent Thought
Author:
John Brockman
Rating:
OK

This is the second book edited by Brockman that I've read, and they both follow the same general pattern: ask a group of "great minds" to write essays about some topic and put them all together. In this case the topic is "science versus the intelligent design movement".

As with the previous book - What We Believe But Cannot Prove - the result isn't as interesting as I'd have hoped. There are a lot of great names here, but some of the resulting essays are less than well thought out, and others are simply boring or obvious. One I greatly disagreed with and only a couple hit anything like new ground for me. (It appears there may be some very interesting things happening in deep physics, but it will be years before it gets digested to the level where I'll easily understand it, if it even pans out at all.)

Intelligent Design is a crock of you-know-what. I knew that going in, but I'd hoped to get some new arguments against it. That didn't happen.

Oh well. Someone else on paperbackswap.com wants a copy of this, so I'll send it off and get a credit for it.

Unless you don't know much about the so-called Intelligent Design debate and/or your understanding of evolution isn't as good as it could be, I'd probably skip this. If you're well read it won't teach you much.

Love And Other Near-Death Experiences, Mil Millington

Title:
Love And Other Near-Death Experiences
Author:
Mil Millington
Rating:
Great!

I love reading Mill Millington. If you haven't already done so, go check out his website: Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About. While there be sure to move your cursor over the picture of Margret in the upper left corner and read the caption.

Love And Other Near-Death Experiences is Millington's third book, and it's a great read. Quite funny, and yet there's a hint of seriousness to it that may cause you to pause and consider the meaning of life.

Without giving anything important away, the main character - Rob - is a radio presenter who was nearly killed in an explosion at a pub. Actually, he wasn't injured at all, as he'd been late for a meeting at the pub thanks to having to return some towels he'd purchased. For Rob, that was a turning point, and now he's got a problem deciding on how to proceed - or what choice to make - when a question appears trivial. Should one get out of the shower with the left or right foot first, for example. Call it a mental block, but he can't get past it, and it's wrecking both his life and his impending marriage.

Eventually he goes on a quest to figure out what his problem is and get it resolved. In the process he meets others who are like him in various ways, and they accompany him to...

Just go read the book. Mil will get a buck or two from your purchase, and you'll enjoy it. I'm keeping my copy to read again in the future, if that gives you any sense of how much I liked it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What's The Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank

Title:
What's The Matter With Kansas?
Author:
Thomas Frank
Rating:
OK

This was an interesting book to read in an election year. But before I review the book, let's start with the confessions of bias on my side. Note that these thoughts are those of an engineer, not a politician, so they may not be all that well thought out. Read on at your own risk.

I'm mostly a small 'l' libertarian, though I have some leftist leanings. Generally I favor less government intrusion into people's private lives and a reasonable social safety net. I think that governments provide useful services: schools, courts, roads, international relations, and so on. I'm not averse to paying my share of taxes to see those things happen. Social issues bring out my "leftmost" leanings. Gay marriage? I'm in favor, and why would anyone want to stop them from marrying? Where's the threat? I support abortion rights, but I'd really rather we had a world where it wasn't necessary. Church and state should be two separate and distinct entities in all case. And so on.

On the other hand, I don't really trust labor unions. There may be times and places when they are needed, but they look to me like any other group of people in power. As a result they need checks and balances on their actions. In addition it is my belief that no one should ever be forced to join a union if he or she doesn't want to do so.

I also don't think that government debt is something we can ignore. Deficit spending might be reasonable under rare conditions, war for example, or possibly some sort of stimulus to get out of recession. But adding to our nation's national debt on an annual basis looks patently stupid to me, though I recognize the great difficulty of reducing spending in any specific place or program.

With that set of beliefs - and others I didn't bother to list - I don't feel I am well represented by any political party. By my own definition I'm a moderate, but everyone probably feels they are a moderate in comparison to others.

Regardless of what I am, the current political environment has left me feeling a lot more threatened by the Republicans than the Democrats. Their combination of rampant religious zealotry, intrusive (in the extreme) social policies, and their complete disregard for fiscal sanity have lead me to the conclusion that they must be removed from power before they destroy the nation. That's not to say that everything they stand for is bad, but I really dislike most of it as it has been implemented, at least since Reagan took office.

So what's all that got to do with this book? Well, the subtitle of the book is "How Conservatives Won the Heart of America." It's a diatribe about why the "red states" - like Kansas - vote Republican despite the fact that Republican policies have been a disaster for them. The book was published in 2004. George Bush was at the height of his powers and, well, I hope you remember it.

Frank describes some of the history of Kansas along the way. At various points in the past it was home to all kinds of left leaning leaders and movements. He documents some of the reasons behind the shift to conservative politics - as he sees them - and he carries on about the inanities of the situation.

One of his points is that the most conservative Republicans use wedge issues - like abortion, teaching evolution in the schools, or gay rights - to wind up their core base, but they never actually do anything about those issues. Instead, once in power, they work for conservative economic principles and avoid the social causes. He claims those who are motivated by social (wedge) issues will work for free and drag all kinds of like minded folks in with them to overwhelm the ballot boxes, while those who are less affected (or less concerned) don't turn out in nearly the same numbers at election time.

My problems with the book are mild but real. Despite it's well researched nature - there are 40 pages of detailed end notes, for example - it's still a political rant. At times the author sides with groups like labor unions without even pondering if they are always in the right. At other times it can be hard to tell truth from the author's opinion. That's pretty normal in a political text of this type, but it still annoys me to some degree.

My other issue is a bit more serious, at least in my opinion. I think I disagree with Frank about the actions of conservative Republicans in power. He thinks they don't work towards change on the social issues and instead work on conservative economic issues. Perhaps I have been successfully brainwashed by one side or the other, but I worry that the Republicans do make changes in places that matter, and they have an affect on those social issues.

The appointment of supreme court justices, for example, is one place where a conservative nut-case like George Bush can make a long lasting impact on issues, both social and economic. The infamous "faith based initiative" is another place where things can go wrong quickly, and where government and religion can get entwined with long lasting results.

In a general way, conservatives in power have changed the tone of the discussion about those wedge issues, and are definitely trying to move things in their direction. It probably wasn't possible, for example, to outlaw abortion when Bush took office. But the day when it can be outlawed is definitely closer now than it was before. I think Frank makes light of this very real issue, and thus underestimates the depth and nature of the Republican threat.

As we go into the 2008 election, things are somewhat different than they were when the book was written. It's interesting to compare and contrast.

The Iraq war is extremely unpopular - even among Republicans - and Bush is grossly out of step with the country on that. Afghanistan is slowly slipping back into chaos, which is definitely not good, but it hasn't made the news all that much yet.

On the election side, John McCain is the Republican nominee, but he has the problem of not being pious enough for the Republican base. They may vote for him anyway, but I suspect they will be holding their noses while they do so. Thus far it doesn't look like he's a strong uniter of those who are involved mostly because of those wedge issues, but I could be wrong. He's also a strong supporter of the Iraq war, which could be a big negative for him as well.

The Democrats have finally settled on Obama, a man with some serious leadership potential. But he comes loaded with his own set of questions. The big one in my mind is just how racist is this nation? How many whites will vote for him?

The social scene in America is still murky. The whole "red state/blue state" divide is a crock, of course, and always has been. At the state level, we were basically evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats back in 2000, and I don't think it's changed all that much since. But what is happening in the trenches is less clear.

Are enough religious voters sick of the claptrap put out by the religious right? Are they willing to stand up and vote to put some sanity back into the system? Will the Democrats unite behind Obama after a bruising primary, or will they fall back to squabbling over petty details and lose sight of the big picture?

I am not sanguine about the future of America. I think the changes that the Bush administration has put in place will last far too many years, and that's even if the electorate throws them all out in 2008 and puts the Democrats in charge of both the White House and Congress. In addition, though, I don't trust the Democrats all that much either. What we're dealing with here is human nature, and the reality is that people in power tend to want to stay in power, and they want to do things that help themselves and their friends.

Politics in America is a game for the very rich these days. The rest of us get the dregs and we make our decisions about who we want to "represent" us based on the contents of 30 second television commercials.

Frank's book isn't exactly upbeat about the future, but it was written four years ago. I suspect he'll be happy if the Democrats take the White House in 2008, and he might be optimistic about the future as a result. I see it a bit differently.

Some Bush policies will be overturned or rolled back quickly, I admit. But others won't (or can't) be changed that rapidly, and the nation's overall stance on social issues has moved to the right for so long now that moving it back towards the center will take many years, much longer than Obama could be in office.

But even worse is the fact that corruption will set in. On that issue it doesn't matter who wins the White House or Congress. Obama or McCain, it doesn't matter. We'll be hearing about back room deals and corruption soon after someone takes over, and a few years later the tell-all books will be coming out.

Read What's The Matter With Kansas? if politics interests you. Note the history of change in the way the Midwest has voted and why, but also keep a jaundiced eye out and note those places where you think truth and opinion aren't clearly delineated. Nothing discussed in politics is simple, of course - if it was we'd have done it or fixed it and moved on to other things - but if Frank is guilty of anything here it may be that he's oversimplifying some very complex issues.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

Title:
Oryx and Crake
Author:
Margaret Atwood
Rating:
Good

At last another good book. Oryx and Crake is a well written novel documenting the fall of humanity as a result of our own actions and foibles. This is another book recommended by el dogo, but this time his taste and mine agree.

Atwood creates a believable world - well, all except for the product and company names, which seemed too cute to me. But then again, I've seen some of the names they use in Japan, so maybe she's right. In any event, in this future bioengineering is commonplace, entirely unregulated, and totally under the control of large corporations. In fact, I don't think the government is ever mentioned or invoked, so I have to guess it doesn't exist or is impotent.

The protagonist is Jimmy, one of the last survivors of a bioengineered global catastrophe. Jimmy is watching over a group of heavily engineered "humans" who were designed to survive the disaster. Saying too much more on that topic would be a spoiler, so I'll stop there.

There are other characters as well, particularly Oryx - Jimmy's girlfriend with a "difficult past" - and Crake, a genius Jimmy went to school with.

The story is told in flashbacks, gradually exposing the history of the disaster and those who made it happen. The characters are believable, though sometimes disturbing.

And there we hit another aspect of this novel: Atwood's dark vision of the future. If you have a sensitive stomach this is not a novel for you. Just about every form of degrading human behavior is discussed somewhere, and most of it is presented as entertainment in various ways, even for the young. Executions, sex in any form, torture, rape, it's all just "out there" on the net for anyone to watch or participate in. If this work represents Atwood's real outlook for humanity, it's bleak, even setting aside the projected effects of genetic engineering.

There is a lot to recommend this work, and a lot to think about. Read it if you can.

Last And First Men, Olaf Stapledon

Title:
Last And First Men
Author:
Olaf Stapledon
Rating:
Lousy

Last And First Men is an SF novel by Olaf Stapledon, first published in 1931. I didn't finish it. In fact, I barely started it. I read about 30 pages over the course of several weeks, hating every moment of it, and decided that I had better things to do.

"Why were you I trying to read it?" I hear you ask. Well, that's el dogo's fault. As you'll see if you chase that link, in 2007 he reviewed a different book by Stapledon titled Star Maker. Based on his review, it sounded interesting and I thought I'd try it. Then I did some research and got a copy of this volume that contains both novels Last And First Men and Star Maker. According to a tiny blurb I read on paperbackswap.com, these two novels are related, with Star Maker being "in a sense" a sequel to Last And First Men.

OK, I thought, I'll start at the beginning and read them both. Ha!

What I should have picked up on from el dogo's review was this: "Stapledon is one of those guys who's more admired than read, and there are reasons for that. His prose style is rather dry and stuffy, almost Victorian."

Now I can't really make any claims about Star Maker. When I gave up on Last And First Men I read a few paragraphs from random pages of Star Maker to see if it differed in any useful way from what I'd been reading. It didn't seem to, so I didn't even bother trying it.

What I can say is that Last And First Men is one long, boring, inaccurate, pedantic, rub-your-nose-in-bad-smelling-stuff, diatribe. It's full of racial and nationalistic stereotypes, bad science, and fluffy thinking, and that's just in the first 30 pages.

El dogo called the writing style a "long dispassionate observation" in his review, which sounds so much nicer than my description, but he actually liked what he read, so I'll acknowledge the validity of his point of view. My impression is obviously somewhat different, so I will continue to use my more colorful terms to describe what I read when needed.

In any event, I found what I read of Last And First Men to be dry as dust, and offensive to boot. It may be that Stapledon is one of the greats of early SF, but for me he's entirely unreadable. I note that someone else on paperbackswap.com wants this book when I'm done with it, and I'll be happy to let it go.

The Scorpion's Gate, Richard A. Clarke

Title:
The Scorpion's Gate
Author:
Richard A. Clarke
Rating:
Poor

I think I heard an interview with Clarke on NPR at some point and thought this book sounded interesting. Clarke, if you'll recall, was the counter-terrorism advisor to Bill Clinton who then carried over to work for President George Bush. Clarke was very critical of the Bush administration in a number of areas and wasn't afraid to say so publicly. There was a lot of controversy over what he said that can still be found in Clarke's Wikipedia entry, or at least in the discussion page related to the entry.

The tag line (if you want to call it that) on The Scorpion's Gate is "Sometimes you can tell more truth through fiction." I'm not so sure - at least in this case - but he tried, and clearly he tried hard. So hard, in fact, that it appears he may have been dragged along by his publisher who saw a good thing if they made the right market window.

The story is set in the not-too-distant future and follows the activities of several groups in the middle east. There are two significant points of difference from the current situation:
  1. The Saudis have been overthrown and their kingdom replaced with an Islamic republic.
  2. The US was "asked to leave" Iraq sometime after the Iraq war ended.
  3. As a result of the above, the US has less power in the region, and most of it is in the form of naval vessels.
From there Clarke spins a tale of intrigue where the bad guys are in positions of power in the US, and where catastrophe (in the form of a significant war) is narrowly avoided by a small group of renegade intelligence and military people working on their own.

Quite frankly, the plot was OK at best. He does his best to drive the action hard - probably on the orders of his publisher as mentioned above - but as a result the characters are basically cardboard cutouts. And there's an off stage sex scene in here that may well have been added as an afterthought, again possibly at the request of the publisher. Gotta get the racy stuff in or no one will read it, right?

The writing is uneven, sometimes sounding a bit like those old radio news broadcasts. "FLASH! Something interesting just happened in Iran!" But again, the entire work feels rushed, just as if the publisher said "you've got two weeks to write a book so we can make a lot of money." Then when he handed them the book they said "OK, we don't have time get you an editor, but add a sex scene somewhere and we'll shove it through the presses." I have no proof that sort of thing happened, of course, but it feels like it did.

One of the more amusing things appears in the acknowledgments section. It says, in part: "Some may think, as they read this volume, that they see themselves or others portrayed. They do not. This is a work of fiction, in which all characters are fictional." If I hadn't read those lines I might not have seen various Bush administration people in these roles. But having read that blurb first, it was impossible not to see at least one or two of them represented here. I suspect that was deliberate. An amazon.com review suggests that the book is allegory for the US invasion of Iraq. Perhaps, but that may be a bit deep for Clarke given what I see here.

Overall I think the book is far from great. Clarke's got a newer novel out in 2007, but based on this I have no desire to read it. Perhaps his time in the national spotlight is coming to an end. I don't see his career as a fiction writer taking off all that well, but I have the predictive powers of a gnat, so even I don't give that thought much credence.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, Alan Alda

Title: Never Have Your Dog Stuffed
Author: Alan Alda
Rating: Good

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed is the autobiography of Alan Alda, aka Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H. Over the years I've heard a few interviews with Alda and he's always sounded interesting, with a childhood spent backstage at burlesque shows and other unusual history. His biography confirms that, along with his mother's mental illness and the difficult relationship he had with his parents in general.

It's a light read. He approaches some serious topics, but does so fairly obliquely, stating what happened to him or what he was thinking, but not making a big deal out of anything or expecting the reader to follow in his footsteps.

If you've wondered what life is like for the kid who was born into a performing family, went into acting early, landed a starring role in M*A*S*H, went on to host Scientific American Frontiers, and then did things like The West Wing, you'll get the gist of it here.

Note that the book was published in 2005, before his roles in The West Wing and a few recent movies. He's got a newer book out now titled Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself that may cover that more recent history.

He's an interesting character, and M*A*S*H was some of the best television ever made as far as I am concerned. While this book isn't going to make anyone's ten best list, it's worth reading if you're a fan.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin

Title: The Dispossessed
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Rating: Great!

A while back I reviewed The Left Hand of Darkness by Le Guin, and wasn't that impressed. It was good, but I had some issues with it. With this review I get write something more positive. I found The Dispossessed a very good book, with a lot to recommend it. It's complex and thought provoking, with a deliberately ambiguous point of view about some very difficult subjects. And, surprisingly, it's set in the same universe as The Left Hand of Darkness. It's a prequel of sorts, though no characters are common, and the time frames don't overlap at all. Looking at the Wikipedia entry on Le Guin I see that she's written eight novels and thirteen short stories set in this universe. I had no idea.

In The Dispossessed, Le Guin takes a long look at what we would call both communism and capitalism, pulling no punches, and showing the good and bad sides of each. Initially I was afraid it was just a diatribe, but she steered well clear of that and instead gives the reader a well thought out encounter between two very different cultures that happen to share a common past.

I found the characters believable and the settings interesting. The writing is crisp and well paced, with the exception of one point, early on, where I briefly got confused. Then I realized we were in a flashback and it sorted itself out. Most of the book alternates chapters between the past and present of the main character, Shevek, a brilliant physicist. He leads an interesting life, and challenges all kinds of simplistic thinking along the way.

I don't want to spoil it for anyone because I want you to read it, so I'll stop the description there.

The Dispossessed is an excellent book, well worth your time and effort. Read it if you can.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Serenity: Those Left Behind, Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Will Conrad

Title:
Serenity: Those Left Behind
Authors:
Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Will Conrad
Rating:
Good

Get out your email clients and send me all the "you're a total fanboy" messages you want, but I will contend it isn't entirely true. Yes, I like Firefly and Serenity, and yes I've purchased some of the related extra material available. But that doesn't make me a total dweeb. Or so I will continue to claim.

Here's a way to divide people into four groups:
  1. People who don't know about Firefly and Serenity. If you're a part of this group and like science fiction at all, you owe it to yourself to borrow or Netflix the Firefly and Serenity DVDs (in that order) and catch up.
  2. People who don't 't like Firefly and Serenity. I can't help you. Sorry.
  3. People who caught on early and saw Firefly when it was being broadcast.
  4. People (like me) who found out about these things too late, when the show had been canceled. In my case it was even after the movie had come and gone. But I live under a very large rock that keeps out most of the popular media.
If you were in group 3 and never saw the DVD release of the TV show for some reason, you might have seen the movie and said something like: "Wait a minute. Why are Inara and Book not on the crew anymore? What happened to them?"

Those of you who've seen the DVDs of Firefly will know the beginning of the answer to that question, but not all of it. This short, graphic novel provides more of the answer, and goes beyond that to introduce the opponent that features so strongly in the movie Serenity.

It amounts to another episode of Firefly in comic book form. And it's nice, with good art and a typical story line that could never have happened in Star Trek. We see Badger again, and former agent Dobson. (Yes, I thought he was dead too. Apparently not, as you'll see if you read it.)

If I have a gripe it's that there's not enough here. I can't compare this format to a TV script, so I don't know if what's here could have made another hour long episode of the show, but it's probably close. And that's part of what made Firefly so much fun. It's well written and believable (within the world it creates), so an episode never lasts long enough. I always finish an episode wanting more. (I feel the same way about Red Dwarf and Monty Python's Flying Circus, by the way.)

I won't call this great literature. It's science fiction, and it's fun, but it's not likely to change someone's life in any particularly critical way. If the genre appeals to you, particularly if you've seen the TV show or the movie and wanted more, then this book needs to get added to your collection. It won't end world hunger. It won't even explain all the loose ends in the series, but it will give you another dose of Firefly and that's a good thing.

Casino Royale, Ian Fleming

Title:
Casino Royale
Author:
Ian Fleming
Rating:
OK

So, I hear you wonder, what the heck is Jeff doing reading a James Bond book? Consider it research. I wanted to understand how different the original book (first published in 1953) is from the relatively recent movie of the same name. Someday I want to do some serious writing, and this was a chance to consider the script writer's art in a particular way.

I enjoyed the movie. In my opinion it is the best Bond flick created so far, but I have a taste for realism, and most of them are so far over the top that all I can do is laugh. Don't get me wrong, this one was over the top as well, but it didn't ever get so crazy that my willing suspension of disbelief shut down all on it's own. The rest of the Bond flicks I've seen have that effect on me.

For its time, the book is reasonable, but as you can guess from that statement, it's also pretty dated. The enemy is communism and the Soviet Union, for example, and some of it just sounds silly to my ears, 55 years later. It's a quick read, but it suffers from a couple of plot holes, an odd slowness to the pacing, and a division into two parts that keeps the story from flowing well in my opinion. It was his first novel, though, and Fleming was probably still getting the writing business figured out. I'll cut him some slack. After all, he's published and I'm not.

For those who are curious about the differences between the novel and the movie, they are pretty significant, but it's not like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner. The entire opening sequence in the movie where Bond earns his double-zero status is not in the novel, nor is the chase scene where he eventually catches the bomber in the embassy. Obviously there's nothing about cellular phones in the book either.

The setting has changed - the book is set in France - and as previously mentioned the bad guys are Soviet instead of more modern money suppliers, guerrilla leaders, and thugs. Even the high stakes game is changed, from Baccarat in the novel to some flavor of poker in the movie. (Doug can no doubt tell me exactly what flavor of poker was used in the movie. That's not one of my specialties.)

But moving to what is the same, there is a symmetry to the overall plot that is still present. The character names are all there. The leading lady is reasonably independent for a woman in the 1950's, though she's a bit of a wall flower in some ways as well. The relationship between her and Bond is still complicated, and yes, she's still a double agent. Oh, and the torture sequence is still there as well. (Are all of the men reading this now doubled over, protectively? Smile. )

In all, the book and movie clearly are related. It's an interesting exercise to note the similarities and differences, however.

Overall I'd have to say that the book hasn't aged all that well. It's OK, but I wouldn't go out of your way to read it, and you probably won't see me review another Bond book. If, however, you're researching something specific that's different. I'm not all that serious about script writing, but my wife has this unpublished novel that I keep seeing pictures for in my head. I may have to adapt her unfinished work into a script for the heck of it one of these days. Who knows.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn

Title:
Ella Minnow Pea
Author:
Mark Dunn
Rating:
Great!

Back in 2007 I read Doug's review of Ella Minnow Pea and thought it sounded fun. I was right, and I thank Doug for pointing it out.

This little gem of a book will keep you reading from start to finish, probably without stopping. It's light hearted fun with a serious message as well, about authority and conformity.

In more detail, Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolic book - one written as a series of letters between the characters - about the island nation of Nollop, just off the eastern coast of he US. The citizens there owe a debt to Nevin Nollop, who created the sentence "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." And you know what that's famous for, right?

In the main town (named Nollopton, naturally) a statue of Nevin Nollop and his famous sentence begins to drop letters on the ground, and as it does so, the governing council decrees that those letters may no longer be used. At all. Anywhere. Those who do are punished severely.

The inhabitants of Nollop are a literate bunch, but they suffer from normal, human foibles. Some support the new order while others oppose it. Some of those work against it quietly, others go out in a blaze of linguistic glory. The novel is entirely composed of their correspondence, and it gets progressively funnier as letters continue to be deleted from the language. By the end I was sounding out words out loud to figure out what was going on, and I loved it!

This book made me laugh out loud many times. I read it in just a few hours, on a day that I also spent time at the DMV, something we all love so much. It's sweet reading after the horror that was The Satanic Verses. I will hand it off to my wife next, and I have a couple of friends who need to read it as well. Maybe my mom too.

Read it if you can. Highly recommended!

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie

Title:
The Satanic Verses
Author:
Salman Rushdie
Rating:
Terrible!

For weeks now I've been clawing my way through The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. For those only interested in the short and sweet, summary review, here it is:
I don't know nearly enough about India or Islam to have a clue about this book. I found it almost entirely unintelligible and nearly unreadable. At some level I'm sorry I took the time to finish it. I'm sure, however, that this says a lot more about me than it does about the book itself or its author.
With that out of the way, I'll give it the longer review it deserves.

For starters, I'd always wondered what caused the fatwa against Rushdie. Why all the fuss? And I'd heard glowing reviews of the book itself. That combination put it on my list of things to read "someday". Then, two reviews appeared in Doug's book review site:
  • Eisworth's review from December 2005, which increased my interest.
  • galactic_dev's review from February 2008, in which he says he didn't finish it. That didn't change my interest, but by then I already owned a copy of the book and was planning on reading it soon.
Well I've read it now. All 547 pages.

I should have known I was in trouble when the copy of the book I got came from someone I know who told me she couldn't finish it. She reads the way fish swim, so her statement should have set off alarm bells in my head. Live and learn, I guess.

Doug has some wonderful reviews of painful books in his Top 100 Novels review page. (This isn't that far off topic. Just bear with me for a moment.) You might enjoy his review of Ulysses, for example. His review of The Ambassadors is also relevant, as is his review of The Adventures of Augie March. These reviews give some insight into what it is like to read, from cover to cover, including every stinking word, a book you despise. I have not read Ulysses, The Ambassadors, or The Adventures of Augie March, so I can't really compare The Satanic Verses with them in any way, but I can say I feel Doug's pain much, much more clearly now that I've read it.

So what's it actually about? Well, two guys are in an airplane flying from London to India when it is blown up. However, instead of dying like everyone else, they are saved by some supernatural entity. In the process they are changed. One takes on the persona of an angel, the other a devil. Eventually there's a confrontation of sorts. Oh, and there are some dream sequences as well, that are probably in the mind of the angelic character. There are also some brief points where the author (I think) speaks to the reader directly. Very odd.

But that's a lousy description because it makes it sound like things actually happen. It's true, we do get a plane exploding in flight and the characters are saved. But after that, we have a LOT of pages of nothing going on. 500 pages - give or take - of nothing, that don't advance the plot (such as it is) in any way. Sentences - if you can call them that - sometimes go on for an entire page without saying anything useful or meaningful. I regularly had to back up - searching, possibly through several paragraph shaped objects - for the start of a sentence to see if I could figure out what it was about again.

And I'm sad to say the prose itself - even those bits that weren't formed of absurdly long sentences - wasn't that good. It really did border on unintelligible at times, and even when it wasn't quite that bad it was florid and meandering. Rushdie needed a visit from John Belushi as the Samurai editor in the worst possible way.

I did some additional research after finishing the book. I read a few reviews on amazon.com and googled it as well, finding some good articles (or at least, I think they're good) on Wikipedia and elsewhere. I did this because despite the fact that I read every single sleep-inducing word on every single wasted page, I still didn't understand what was going on. Some of the dream sequences were hard to place in time, and their contents didn't mean much to me as a non-Indian, non-Muslim. I was, frankly, lost in a sea of text. And nothing explained the fatwa either.

It was only from that external reading that I learned some small bit about why some Muslims are so offended by the book. (Mind you, I think the fatwa is wrong on any number of levels, but I'm an atheist with little tolerance for religious zealotry, so that's not exactly a surprise.) The Wikipedia article about The Satanic Verses controversy is quite good, actually, and helped a lot.

But even though thirty minutes of outside reading had clarified what four weeks of banging my head against the brick wall that is this book left obscure, I'd still like to have the last month's reading time back. At various points I seriously considered dropping this thing and reading something - anything! - else, but then I'd fall back on my odd native optimism. I'd keep hoping something would give me an "aha!" moment. Just maybe something would leap out at me and I'd understand why Muslims hated it, or why critics liked it, or just what was going on. Alas, the book left me without any of that knowledge, as if I'd never read it at all, and it was Wikipedia that eventually explained it. I should have started there.

In conclusion, I must admit to being a poorly read buffoon. I lack the literary and cultural background to understand much of "Great Literature" - including The Satanic Verses - and my criticisms thereof are worth exactly nothing. Slogging through - and reviewing - this book has only reinforced that point, even for me. Oh well. If The Satanic Verses is an example of Great Literature - with or without the capital letters - then I'll happily keep on reading my lowbrow trash instead.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman

Title:
His Dark Materials
Author:
Philip Pullman
Rating:
OK

It's been a while since my last review was posted. I've been sick and busy and reading a trilogy that I'm going to review all at once, rather than one at a time.

The His Dark Materials trilogy is targeted at young adult readers with a taste for fantasy. It's set in a multiverse that includes our world and many others, some of which are similar to our own. The first volume, The Golden Compass, takes place in one of those worlds that's similar to ours, and introduces Lyra, a child growing up in her version of Oxford.

Through a series of events we learn that Lyra figures at the heart of a prophecy, and that there is something she must do to save everything. Not just in her own world, but in them all. We are introduced to her parents, and to the complexities of the world around her, as she learns of her task and gets started. During her quest she meets a cast of fantasy characters including armored polar bears, witches, villains, and so on. Oh, and Pullman introduces something he calls daemons; speaking, animal shaped companions that every human has (at least in Lyra's world) and they're a close and constant part of your life.

Volume two, The Subtle Knife, begins in our world and introduces two more main characters: Will Parry and Dr. Mary Malone. Will's another child of about Lyra's age with the entire multiverse counting on him to do the right thing. Mary's a dark matter researcher drawn into the story by Lyra's appearance in our world. Here we follow the heroes as they continue their quest to save the multiverse from something awful but not all that clearly explained. It turns out that Will needs to acquire a particular knife in order to perform his part in saving everything from total destruction.

The Amber Spyglass, the last volume in the trilogy, follows the various characters through to the conclusion. I'm sad to say I found the conclusion - the actual resolution to the problems facing the multiverse - entirely unsatisfactory. It was too simple and yet too unexplained.

And now we're getting to the heart of the review, and (to some degree) the heart of my problem with these books. They aren't terrible, but I found them disjoint and obtuse. Some of it is the writing, which varies in style so that some sections were fine while others were condescending. Beyond that, I found the motivations for the characters didn't hold up, and in some cases major changes in behavior were totally unexplained. Lyra's parents, for example, seemed to be entirely arbitrary in their behavior, with no rhyme or reason for much of it ever being presented.

But that's no surprise because many of the major plot points were inexplicable too. Things just change. Minor characters just happen to reappear at critical points with no explanation. Many things seem to be going on between some of the minor characters, particularly Lyra's parents, that we don't learn about except by virtue of their unexplained actions. And there are too many connections between these characters for things to be plausible. For example, Will's father being who and where he is just didn't seem right to me.

Lastly, I'd have to say that Pullman is trying to do something very, very large. The story is trying to explain all of human development and much of why and how the universe acts as it does in a kid's book. Think of it as a fictional version of a unified field theory. In my opinion, however, he's not quite successful.

Some aspects of the story are fine, but his cosmology is a bit muddled. In fact, I found quite a few things muddled, and things that I thought should have been very important weren't treated as such. And the opposite is also true. The major act by Lyra, the one that saves everything from total destruction, is unconnected in any significant way to the multiverse. Or at least, that's how it appears to me.

From what I can tell, Pullman has a reputation as an anti-clerical writer, and the fact that these books are as popular as they are is interesting in that light. They're definitely anti-church in their take on the world, which probably helps explain why they aren't as popular in the US as they are in Europe. Given my own views on religion, I had high expectations. I wish they'd been met.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore

Title: The Meme Machine
Author: Susan Blackmore
Rating: Good

This one was a slog up until the last couple of chapters, but that has nothing to do with the book itself. I don't read textbooks well - never have - and this amounts to a textbook, though it is written in a more engaging style than, say, the calculus textbooks I used in college.

The Meme Machine is Blackmore's discussion of memes and her theories on how they have developed in - and changed the development of - humans. In large measure, this book is an overview of memetic thinking and theorizing up through 1999 (when it was published) but Blackmore expands on that by adding her own twists and turns.

What is a meme? According to Blackmore, a meme is an idea or concept or set of instructions that can be passed on by imitation. The concept was originally put forward by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene as an example of a replicator that could undergo evolutionary changes, much like genes in the case of our bodies. Since Dawkins first proposed the idea it has taken on a life of its own, and many people have worked with it. Blackmore spends a lot of time - and bibliography space - discussing the work of others in the field.

In my opinion, most of the book discusses fairly down to earth concepts, since I happen to think much of what is written here is correct. If I understand it properly, evolution is the only natural process we know of that can create a body of information from random events. As such it appears - after the fact - to be driven by a desire to attain an end goal, though in reality there is no end goal, and nothing intelligent drives the process. Memes go through a very similar evolutionary process in which they respond to (and change) their environment in ways similar to those that genes do. Blackmore describes how memes and genes can evolve and change separately, and also cases of meme/gene co-evolution, where one can drive changes in the other. As an example, Blackmore proposes that memetically driven change drove the genetic changes that lead to large brains in humans. An interesting idea that she supports pretty well.

Towards the end of the book, things get even more interesting, if a bit more philosophical and/or a theoretical. Blackmore proposes a set of memes that she calls the "selfplex". These memes survive better together, and one of the things they do is give us the illusion of the self. Here we enter into an area of science that I find fascinating but don't understand all that well. Experiments into consciousness and how the brain and body interact are full of unexpected twists and turns. The selfplex may be part of the explanation for these things.

Here's a thought experiment that Blackmore describes. It's been done in real life with people wired up so their brain waves can be monitored as it happens. Extend your arm in front of you and, whenever you want, flex your wrist so your hand moves in some direction. That's it. As you did it, you (and I, and everyone) thinks they made a conscious decision about when to flex their wrist, and then they did so. However, that isn't what really happens. The actual order is that your brain is ready to cause the action about half a second before it happens, but your decision to flex your wrist happens about one fifth of a second before it happens. In other words, the "decision" you made to flex your wrist wasn't the cause of the action. In fact, it may be part of an elaborate cover story that we constantly tell ourselves to give us the illusion that we control our actions, and the selfplex is the proposed set of memes that would create that cover story.

Taken to the logical conclusion, there is no such thing as free will. We're all living a fantasy of sorts, and we really don't control our actions. Blackmore goes on to discuss altered states of perception - particularly those achieved through meditation, where time and individuality seem to disappear - and suggests that such states may be the result of simply getting the selfplex out of the picture for a while. In effect, she suggests an entirely non-spiritual mechanism for some things that many argue are supernatural in nature. It's an interesting argument, and while I'm not sure I understand it fully, I like it on face value. Trying to figure out what it means, however, that's a challenge for me. If the "me" that is doing things like writing this book review is only an illusion created by a set of selfish memetic replicators running in my brain, what does that imply?

As an aside, a while back I read somewhere that Sam Harris - author of The End Of Faith - is going back to his research roots and will eventually publish something claiming there is no such thing as free will. I hope to read that when it comes out.

There are probably many new books on memetics since Blackmore wrote this one, and perhaps some of what is here is now out of date. But it's still an interesting read, and there are some challenging ideas here. If you have any interest in these things, I recommend it.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Gilded Chain, Dave Duncan

Title:
The Gilded Chain
Author:
Dave Duncan
Rating:
OK

The Gilded Chain by Dave Duncan is the first (I think) in a set of related fantasy novels following a group of people called Blades. Blades are supremely gifted swordsmen who are magically bound to defend one individual when they graduate from their order. They are trained from childhood to be the best fighters possible, and many go on to guard their king.

As far as I can tell, each book (there are at least six so far) stands alone but tells a tale set in the same universe. I think some books even discuss the same characters at different times, or (possibly) from different points of view. I'm a bit hazy on this, but I have talked with someone who has read several books in the series. In fact, she recommended them to me.

As fantasy, The Gilded Chain is reasonable. It doesn't compare to Tolkien or Donaldson in my mind, but it's OK. It's far better than the early Shanara books by Brooks, for example, and much, much better than the Lost Swords books by Saberhagen, which are just terrible.

But that being said, there is still something here that's not quite right, something just didn't flow for me. Perhaps part of it is the writing, which I found to be serviceable but not great. There were several places where I just didn't like the author's word selections for example, and even when that wasn't bothering me the text still didn't sing, if you will.

The story was interesting in some ways and oddly disjoint in others. It follows one person from the time he joins the guild through the end of his life. But it skips over huge chunks of that life, and occasionally presents events out of order in a way that briefly confused (and irritated) me. And though the author does tie a couple of the sub-stories together in the end, the overall picture remains disjoint and less than satisfying.

I'm not sure I'll read another of these books. Perhaps Duncan gets better with practice, but he's churning these out at a frantic rate (one a year or so, along with other writing, it appears) which leads me to believe that quality is not his primary goal. I'd love to be wrong about that, however, so if you think the more recent tales are better, please let me know.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

DK2, Frank Miller and Lynn Varley

Title: DK2
Authors: Frank Miller and Lynn Varley
Rating: OK

I'm slogging through something else and had to take a break. That break consisted of this and at least one other book, so there will be additional reviews before I get to the thing I'm supposed to be reading for real.

Now, what the heck is DK2? I suspect that some of those reading Doug's book review forum will know. The rest of us, well...

I found DK2 via paperbackswap.com and ordered it on a lark. It's a comic book, or perhaps - more technically - a graphic novel, albeit a short one. And since "DK" stands for Dark Knight, those in the know will figure out it's a Batman story.

OK. I have to admit right now that by reading this I was way out of my depth. I've never read comic books on a regular basis. And starting now - in my 40's - seems unlikely. But that being said, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Batman. I've always felt that superheroes who start out as normal people are better than those born with mysterious - and possibly unexplained - powers. But that's just me. I'm told there is a major argument over that very thing in the comic world, with some fans preferring their heroes born with powers while others prefer them self made, or something like that.

Anyway, don't ask me how, but despite growing up watching reruns of the old, campy Adam West Batman, I've known for years that it's supposed to be dark and serious. I also know that Batman / Bruce Wayne is tormented and has trouble with not crossing the line into crime (or at least simple vigilante justice) himself. The movie Batman Begins was pretty close to the way I think it's supposed to feel, and it seemed visually right to me as well.

So when I saw DK2 wander past on a list of recently posted books on paperbackswap.com I added it to my wish list and waited. Eventually, it arrived.

For those of you not terminally stupid (like I am) it should be obvious that with a name like DK2 there is a previous volume. I've never seen it. Yes, I am that dumb, but I thought that it would be a separate graphic novel and this would be an entirely new story. Reading the back cover of DK2 I learned that the previous volume was called The Dark Knight Returns, and that Batman apparently died in that story. DK2 is the follow on, written 15 years later and taking place 3 years after the events in The Dark Knight Returns.

So what's the story here? Well, it's... hmmm... Unfortunately, if I start telling you about the plot, I'll give it away. And that would be bad because there isn't much of it here. This is a really quick read, and there isn't a lot of depth to it. I found that a bit problematic. But I can tell you that Batman isn't dead, but you can pretty much assume that from the name, right? I can also tell you that it features aging superheroes and a disagreement between a couple of factions thereof. It's also serious in tone, and tries to discuss a major social/political issue as well. There. That's the best I can do.

I've already said I thought it too short. My other issue is that the art was not appealing. I know (or at least I assume, which may be a mistake) that various comic books go for different artistic styles. That may be driven by the material or by the artist, I suppose. What I found here was a much-less-than realistic style that didn't resonate with me. Not that comic book art needs to be realistic, but this particular implementation just didn't grab me.

Still, it's not a total failure. I read it all and it was amusing trying to figure out how the various characters had wound up in their current predicaments. And if this were just one or two chapters out of a larger story I'd be very interested in the whole thing. And maybe that is the case. Someday I might go looking for more.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The War Of Art, Steven Pressfield

Title:
The War Of Art
Author:
Steven Pressfield
Rating:
OK

This is an odd little book. If it wasn't for one thing, I'd quite like it, but as I get older that one thing is grating on my nerves more and more.

Generally, this is a book about getting past whatever is keeping you from pursuing your calling. If you're a writer, that'd be writer's block, for example. Pressfield takes art to be a very general concept, however, and he's quite happy to let your true calling be anything from painter to entrepreneurial plumber. His intent is to kick you in the butt and get you moving.

And the first two sections of the book do an OK job of that. He details what he calls "resistance" and then pounds you over the head with ways to avoid it and reasons to get back to work. That part of the book is interesting, quickly read, and motivational. It may actually be useful.

The third section, though - and even a bit of the earlier sections - hits a personal hot button. Pressfield is religious, and he inserts that into this book. He's actually not as awful about it as he might have been, though. If you don't agree with his perspective he's quite happy to have you think of it in different - not necessarily spiritual - terms. But overall it's still religious, and most of the last section trails off into mystical, mushy, gibberish.

Why do people have to inject religion into things like this? If you're writing about religion, that's fine. If you're writing a history and religion figures in, that's also fine. If you're writing fiction and one or more of your characters espouses some religious point of view - even if it's the singularly most important point of the main character's life - that's also fine. But why inject religion into books that don't need it, like a lot of non-fiction?

I've encountered it before, and it really irritates me. As a programmer I use the Perl programming language a bit. It's quite powerful and useful, but the main book documenting Perl - Programming Perl by Larry Wall - has a couple of religious comments within it that make me think he and I might not get along in person. But maybe we would. If I didn't bring up my atheism and he didn't bring up his Christianity, we might get on famously. But he has to throw his religion into my face as part of his book - something that wasn't needed at all. Another example is What Color Is Your Parachute, which is ostensibly about career changing and job hunting, but into which the author injects all kinds of religious claptrap.

Sorry. I digress. But it bugs me.

Anyway, if you can sidestep the religious muck - or if that sort of thing doesn't bother you - The War Of Art is a good kick in the rear end. It might help you get moving on something you've wanted to do but have been putting off.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Revenge of the Wrought-Iron Flamingos, Donna Andrews

Title:
Revenge of the Wrought-Iron Flamingos
Author:
Donna Andrews
Rating:
OK

So there's this flamingo thing in my life. I have to write up the story at some point, but suffice it to say that there is a flamingo collection that follows me around. It's not that big - perhaps 30 specimens, mostly of the plush toy variety - and most of the time it's in a box to keep it out of the way, but it's real and various people know about it. In fact, I bought only two members of the collection. The rest were given to me by others, mostly co-workers at various jobs.

In any event, through an odd set of circumstances that I inflicted upon myself, some good friends in the neighborhood learned about my flamingo collection and gave me this book, based purely on the title, I assume.

Now that I've read it I can tell you a bit about it. It's a murder mystery (and those who've read my reviews here before will note that isn't my favorite genre) set at a craft fair and historic battle reenactment in Virginia. I guess it's also supposed to be a comedy, though to be honest I don't recall laughing much while I read it.

The main character - Meg Langslow - winds up as both a suspect in and the solver of a murder. There is the usual cast of characters - many of whom are suspects - and the incompetent cop who needs help solving the case.

Frankly it seemed a bit formulaic, and clearly the author has a pattern going. Her book titles in this series (at least those featuring Meg Langslow) include: "The Penguin Who Knew Too Much", "Cockatiels at Seven", "Murder With Puffins", and so on. There are more, but I'm sure you get the idea.

Of more interest to me was the craft fair scene. I've done shows like that, and I know a couple of iron workers as well. Not only that but some of the other things relating to the plot revolved around software in one way or another. I'm afraid I don't have any interest in the reenactment thing, but other than that I'm a pretty good stand in for Meg in terms of background and experience.

In the end, I think she got much of the fair right. She did mangle a couple of details, but that's minor. I don't think her understanding of the software issues is all that good, alas. And I'm even less sure about her descriptions of the police work at the scene, but there we're outside my area of expertise.

Still, if you take it as a light hearted read, it's OK. Maybe someone like Ed would know more about the murder mystery side of it and could tell me if it's any good or not. Her books get pretty high marks in amazon.com's reviews.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Title: Freakonomics
Authors: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Rating: Good

Yes, I finally got around to Freakonomics. I know, I know. I'm way, way, way late in doing so. It seems as if everyone has already read this book. What can I say... I'm slow.

The best brief description of Freakonomics I can give would be be something like: "A book of short narratives discussing human behavior in interesting and possibly controversial ways, and that manages to aggrandize the authors while simultaneously claiming that they aren't seeking aggrandizement."

Let me be a bit more specific. Levitt is a highly respected economist with an interest in human behavior. He's won all kinds of awards and so on. Dubner is a writer working for (among others) the New York Times. He wrote a piece about Levitt that eventually lead to their collaboration on this book. Somehow, despite the text indicating that the authors are very modest and self effacing, that isn't what comes across. You can only read that someone is quiet and reserved so many times before you start wondering if the writer isn't trying a bit too hard.

As for the discussion of economics, it's interesting, though it's pretty brief in reality. The major items are discussions of how information is used by some to their advantage, how much money one branch of one Chicago street gang made selling drugs, the possible connection between legalized abortion and the drop in crime rates in the 1990's, and a few items on parenting, like nature vs. nurture, risk assessment and name selection.

Most of that content is just fine and not too controversial as far as I can tell. Note, however, that I'm not an economist (nor a mathematician), and even if I was qualified in some way, the backing data supporting the conclusions isn't given here. (Though, apparently, it is available somewhere else. Read on.)

On the controversial side there is a discussion about the relative safety of children around guns and swimming pools that some who want to limit gun access don't like. And then there's the biggie: the question of whether or not one impact of Roe v. Wade was a reduction in crime 20 years later.

I cannot answer that question. I think it is possible - I buy the arguments as presented in the book - but I've also done a tiny bit of web research and there is (or was) a serious argument over this. It turns out Levitt made some sort of error in his analysis and admitted it publicly. He claims that it doesn't substantially change his conclusions. His detractors - who may or may not have an ax to grind or be staunch abortion foes, I really don't know - seem to disagree.

I suspect I could do many hours of research trying to resolve the dispute to my satisfaction. I note, however, that Levitt did the right thing by letting others examine his methodology and data, and by admitting the error that was found. He gets points for that as far as I am concerned.

A major point of the book is that there are always unintended consequences of any economic action. If you provide an incentive to do (or not do) something, you will almost certainly cause other effects that you did not predict. That is a truism, of course, but it's nice to see some concrete examples laid out for review.

Levitt and Dubner are apparently writing a blog for the NYT now, capitalizing on the fame that came with Freakonomics. Maybe some of the articles there are as interesting as those in the book. If they cause some to question things a bit more - rather than just accepting the "obvious" answer - that'd be just fine with me.

In the unlikely event that you haven't read Freakonomics I can suggest you do so. But get it used. I think Levitt and Dubner have made a lot of money off the concept, and while I usually don't care about that, the possibility of false modesty here bugs me a bit.