Monday, May 30, 2005

It's a fine and lazy holiday here. I've been relaxing, reading, talking to the family.

I also took the time last night to finally update the booklist on the rhs, and properly link each title to it's corresponding review.

Vancouver & Victoria 2004 by Frommer's
While a travelogue isn’t quite in my usual reading list, this one was a well timed Christmas present. I read it all the way through in the week surrounding our exmigration to Canadia.

This book is a well written treasure trove of information on Vancouver and Victoria. The scattergun approach it takes to describing something as complex as a city of this size is largely effective. I knew a lot more about the city after reading it than I did beforehand. What else can you ask?

These travel books, especially when supplemented with a solid diet of web browsing, are a great way to get a primer on an area before you visit for a while. Regardless of the length of your stay, a week or a year, there’s little better way to get a sampling of what a city is about than reading a travelguide.

Not much else to say about this one.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

Galapagos is a fun romp, recommended to be by the esteemed PWatt. It’s a cool look at evolution told with Vonnegut’s usual tongue in cheek humor and mobid cynicism.

“Thanks a lot, big brain,” is the phrase that sticks in my head the most.

This is a fast and fun ride with all the usual Vonnegut trappings. Well worth the time; a good plane trip novel, only barely dated by it’s thirty year history.
Lots of updates today, beacuse it's a lazy overcast Sunday out here in Burnaby. While the order in which these entries are complicated because they are posted from bottom to top (like most blogs), these are even more achrononistic because I'm still playing catch up. In an effort to maintain the order in which I read these books, I sometimes sit on a writeup for some period of time until I'm caught up on past entries. The below entry on Crazy Horse is one of these, read in January, written up in February, and posted now in May.

Crazy Horse by Larry McMurtry

And there it was! Another LMM book I hadn't read! Imagine my excitement!

I started Crazy Horse a few days before New Years back in Austin, then
got distracted and it fell into a coat pocket. I finished it this
afternoon in a coffee shop in Vancouver while waiting for The
Professor to check her email.

One of the things I regret about leaving Texas was that Vic & I never
found the time to go up to Archer City and visit McMurtry in his
bookstore there. He will likely be dead before I return to the Lone
Star State, and I will have missed the chance to meet the only living
Texas man of letters whom I have studied or of whom I am aware.

Crazy Horse is a biography. It is a work of non-fiction which is so
speculative as to resemble fiction. McMurtry is upfront about this,
criticizing those scholars who have come before for inventing much of
the so-called history upon which he draws. The simple truth seems to
be that little is known about the life of Crazy Horse, a warrior of
the Ogallala & Sioux, and a symbol of the final years of the plains

Crazy Horse was not an Indian chief like Sitting Bull. He was not a
butcher like Geranamo. He really wasn't a particularly influential
figure in the so called Indian Wars. He seems to have been more
notable as a martyr, whose betrayal and death at the hands of Little
Big Man and a white general (whose name escapes me, between the Buffy,
the sounds of sirens, and the constant but pleasant interruptions from
the Professor) turned him into something of a legend and a resistance

More later… too distracting here…

One of the characteristics of the narrative in this book that casts
some doubt in my mind on it's historical accuracy is how closely it
tracks to a number of McMurtry's lifelong themes. Consider, for
example the lifelong love triangle between the stoic Crazy Horse, the
more socially adept No Water and Black Buffalo woman. The parallels
with the love triangle in Leaving Cheyenne, in The Last Picture Show,
and other LMM works can't be missed. The lifelong friendship between
Crazy Horse and his best friend has shades of the Lonesome Dove
sequence (as well as LPS and LC), and some of the tales LMM tells are
reflected elsewhere in his works, from the Gus-like personification of
Lt. Crook to Geronomo's headfirst dive out of a jailhouse window, sure
to remind any reader of the final flight of Blue Duck. Were McMurtry's
fictional events in his last 30 years of novel writing influenced by
these historical events? Certainly. Is his historical scholarship
tainted by his years of yarn spinning? Assuredly. Does he recognize
this? Without a doubt.

On balance, Crazy Horse is an engaging, short look at a man who is
more legend than a meaningful historical figure. As a work of
scholarship it is likely lacking (not saying any of the other scholars
who have approached this have done better, just that there is precious
little real data to draw from when trying to describe these events)
but LMM is acutely aware of the tension between imagination and
description of the facts. This book is fun, a must for any LMM
scholar, and a fun diversion for any Western fan or anyone with
interest in the Plains Indians. I should mention that while KM in
Houston things highly of the Penguin Lives series, I found the editing
in this book to be lacking; it was rife with mild errors, both
typographic and otherwise.

As an aside, I'd like to apologize for the poor quality of writing in
this entry. City Confidential and other murder shows have been
screaming at me from the television a few feet away, and I'm having a
hard time regaining the level of concentration I'd come to enjoy while
writing in my private study at Kingfisher Creek. This is an obvious
downside to the tiny condo downtown living we are enjoying so much in
other ways….

The Stand by Stephen King

Ahhh, apocalypse, it’s post-note, and horror. Now this is the intersection of 3 streets which I enjoy visiting in fiction! It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’ve an apocalypse fetish. Particularly for disease based holocausts like those described by George Stewart, and King.

I’d read the Stand before, many years ago, but after reading On Writing, wanted to go back and refresh myself with how King deals w/ his characters over such a bloated novel.

I’m not going to bother with recording plot details of the book here, except in very brief: A biological agent is released from a US military lab, 99% mortality rate is realized, and the survivors are polarized into two camps, who do battle.

King creates several memorable characters here, and the book is never dull. I don’t ultimately buy his message, just as I don’t ultimately buy the neo-puritanical moral chasm that divides his techo-hedonists from his more socially minded goody-two shoes. But then, I’m probably a lot closer to one camp than the other, so…

This isn’t the best SK book, but it’s loving descriptions of social collapse by way of global pandemic are fun, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Unknown Man #89 by Elmore Leonard

I was delighted to read that Will Saffire addresses Leonard in his NYT column, On Language, which I read religiously. Saffire gives an entire section to the so called “Hot Kid” of American fiction. While the cynic in me can’t help but wonder if ole Billy Saffire wasn’t contractually obligated by E.L’s PR agent to give his new book & movie a mention, the reader in me is pleased to see Leonard get some attention from the popular linguist corps.

Based on King’s advice in On Writing, I read two of Leonard’s books back in the winter in order to listen to his use of dialog. Many writers, Gibson for one, have credited Leonard with having the best dialog currently in use, and I was curious to see what all the talk was about.

Unknown Man #89 was written almost twenty years ago now, and while the content feels dated, the style does not. The novel concerns itself with the double crosses and murderous activities of a bunch of Detroit low-lifes. It’s the type of book that gave root to a hundred seventies era crime shows. It’s portrayal of down and out dope pushers, junkies, drunks, cops, and other small time grifters feels authentic and dirty.

The premise is pure Chandler: A man-hunter is paid to find a guy. Murders ensue. The style is economic, the dialog sizzles, the characters are caricatures. The plot is complex, and already I’ve forgotten most of it. But it doesn’t matter. The dialog is the point here, and Leonard delivers exactly what was promised: street lingo that rings true, and characters who come off sounding legit when they mouth it.

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

Get Shorty, which I’m told was made into a film starring Danny Devito, was not nearly as interesting to me as was UM#89. First, it deals with Hollywood, and Hollywood’s obsession with itself has never been very interesting to me. Second, the complex double dealing and backstabbing present here read a bit more like an attempt at postmodern something or other, what with all the folks trying to turn this story of their lives into a movie about their stories. Chili Palmer, loan shark enforcer and general cool guy goes to Hollywood, beds an aging actress, pushes a movie script, gets involved with coke dealers, and chases down a guy who conned some money out of an airline.

Again, cool dialog, complicated plot, cardboard characters.

The Elements of Style by Wm Strunk & EB White

I took King’s advice.

The Elements of Style is the best book on language usage I’ve ever read. It is precise, economic, and relevant.

If you ever plan or hope to write anything professionally, you should memorize this book as should I.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Yes., I will eventually update the links on the right. I know they need to link into each review. Yes, I know all the books discussed aren't listed there. Luckily, since I don't think anyone reads this, that's okay. Just out of curiousity, I'd like to know if I'm wrong. This blog is at least quasi-anonymous, but here's an email address you can write to that I will check:

On Writing by Stephen King

More copies in print than the bible. Where else to start? Even JK Rowling can’t compare with King for sheer sustained commercial success. And I enjoy his stories a great deal. In fact, I’m not sure there is a living author I admire more, at least in some ways. The man knows how to spin a yarn, never takes himself any more seriously than does grandpa, sitting ‘round the campfire telling ghost stories.

So what does Mr. King have to say about writing fiction? Quite a bit. While this book (his second on the craft) also concerns itself with a winding autobiography, it’s filled with solid advice on mechanics, characters, plot, dialog, and many other toys in the writer’s toolchest.

King’s style here is his usual, just plain folksy prose. It’s fun and fast to read, as any reader’s of his regular author’s notes will attest.

The first thing Mr. King recommended (demanded really) was that the reader buy and read a copy of Strunk & White’s style guide. So I did.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

If there is a finer vampire story ever written (the laborious Bram Stoker included) I’d love to read it. This is young Stephen King at his best.

The novel asks the question, “What if vampires took over a small new England town?” King heeds the call of Callus and answers, “they would kill everyone.”

Salem’s Lot is a wonderfully paced roller coaster. The first half is all slow description and character introspection, punctuated by brief hints at the malicious actions occurring behind the scenes. Just about the moment you reach the top, the whole thing gives a great lurch and hurls you downward in directions you didn’t expect to go. The conclusion is awash in blood, gunfire, false leads, starts, and some genuinely scary scenes, then you get a few minutes to calm down and exhale before the ride is done.

Classic modern horror.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Fury by Salman Rushdie

Fury by Salman Rushdie

I didn’t enjoy Fury nearly so much as Midnight’s Children, with which, as all present know, I was enchanted. Fury is the tale of a Professor, more or less Rushdie himself, who leaves his wife and child in England and goes to NYC. Set sometime during the dot com bubble of the so-called new millennium, Fury is the fantasized account of Prof. Solonick’s womanizing and emotional outbursts. There’s a murder mystery, and a lot of semi-interesting discussion surrounding the relationship between creators and their creations. There’s a cool story-within-a-story which tells a fantastic tale of the inventor Chronos, whose puppets turn against him. There’s a farcical ending which dissolves into a military junta, and some other fairly incomprehensible unraveling plot threads.

Seeing Rushdie turn his mind, eye, and formidable abilities with language towards (almost) modern America is fascinating. All of the writing here is top quality, the type of prose that most authors will only dream of ever getting near. But the overall package is largely forgettable. The passion with which Rushdie writes about his homeland in earlier works, when alchemically transmuted into the rage and fury he feels for the new world in this book loses a lot of it’s power.

I’d love to give more time to this book, because Rushdie deserves more than a few tossed off sentences. Unfortunately, I’m now officially 14 books behind, half a world away from where I was when I read this, and six months older, so any brilliant observations I might have once had are gone. Out of respect, however, I will at least quote some of the passages that I made notations on in the back of my copy.

17 Reference Stew describing one of the Prof. S’s early creations:

“Little Brain, his hip, fashion-conscious, but still idealistic Candide, his Valiant-for-Truth in urban guerrilla threads, his spiky-haired girl-Basho journeying, mendicant bowl in hand, far into the Deep North of Japan. Little Brain was smart, sassy, unafraid, genuinely interested in the deep information… For example, the favorite fiction writer of the seventeenth-century heretic Baruch Spinoza turned out to be PG Wodehouse, an astonishing coincidence, because of course the favorite philosopher of the immortal shimmying butler Reginald Jeeves was Spinoza. (Spinoza who cut our strings, who allowed God to retire from the post of divine marionettist, and believed that revelation was an event not above human history but inside it.) The Great Minds for Little Brain could be time-hoppers too. The Iberian Arab thinker Averroes, like his Jewish counterpart Maimonides, was a Yankees fan.”

(Note Rushdie’s typical amazing command of history & philosophy. Note too him weaving creator/created relationships into each section.)

86 A description of modern US urban life:

“Things appeared to proceed by logic, according to the laws of psychological verisimilitude and the deep inner coherences of metropolitan life, but in fact all was mystery. But perhaps his was not the only identity to be coming apart at the seams. Behind the façade of this age of gold, this time of plenty, the contradictions and impoverishment of the Western human individual, or let’s say the human self in America, were deepening and widening. Perhaps that wider disintegration was also to be made visible in this city of fiery, jeweled garments and secret ash, in this time of public hedonism and private fear.”

137 Ever wanted to know Rushdie’s take on oral sex re Clinton?

“…Professor Solanka’s as-yet-unpublished theory on the differening attitudes towards oral sex in the United States and England— this aria being prompted by the president’s inane decision to start apologizing yet again for what he should always have crisply said was nobody else’s business— got a sympathetic hearing from the young woman snuggled down in his lap. “In England,” he explained in his most straightlaced style, “The heterosexual b.j. is almost never offered or received before full, penetrative coitus has taken place, and sometimes not even then. It’s considered a sign of deep intimacy. Also a sexual reward for good behavior. It’s rare. Whereas in America, with all your well established tradition of teenage, ah, ‘makeouts’ in the backs of various iconic automobiles, ‘giving head’ to use the technical term, precedes ‘full’ missionary-position sex more often than not; indeed, it’s the most common way for young girls to preserve their virginity while keeping their sweethearts satisfied.”

150 Or finally, who could pass up quoting his take on W?

“…’there’s no difference between the candidates. That Gush-and-Bore stuff is getting so old. It makes me hopping mad.’

‘No difference?’ she cried. ‘How about, for example, geography? How about, for example, knowing where my poor little homeland is on a map of the world?’ Solanka remembers that George W. Bush has been ambushed by a journalist’s crafty question during a foreign policy Q-and-A one month before the Republican convention. ‘Could you indicate that nation to us on the map? And what was the name of it’s capital city again?’ Two curve balls, two strikes.” Obviously, Rushdie thinks as highly as our erstwhile prez. as I do…

So, if you are looking for this sort of thing, read Fury. But if you haven’t already, run, don’t walk and buy a copy of Midnight’s Children instead.