Wednesday, December 29, 2010

23 new book reviews added!

Now off to New Orleans for NYE!


Agents, Editors, and You by Michelle Howry

A useful, if somewhat dated introduction to the world of literary agents, publishing houses and the like. I need to get up to speed on the business side of publishing. While I’ve one published book, my understanding is that the non-fiction side of things works a little different. And from what various people who might be in-the-know tell me, having been published on the non-fiction side isn’t likely to help me any.

Editors, Agents, and You consists of ten chapters. Do you need an Agent? (Yes.) How do I find the right Agent? (Internet, go to conferences, write them.) How do I approach an Agent? (With a well crafted query letter.) What does an agent actually do? (Contact publishers on your behalf, help with negotiations, take part of the money.) And so on.

First, I need to find another book on the topic written after the advent of the internet age. Second, I need to generally read a few more books, blogs, etc. on the topic.

But mostly I think I just need to reach out to a bunch of agents to see if anyone is interested in representing me for my newest book: The Arc!

Coldheart Canyon by Clive Barker

Eternal novel; vintage Barker. A fun look at old Hollywood’s romance with itself. Should have (and could have) ended five times before it did.

What happens is: In an old and evil monastery in Transylvania in the nineteen twenties, the rich consort of a Hollywood starlet purchases a tile fresco which has been driving monks mad for centuries. Because, see, the devil’s wife inspired the fresco (or something like that.) The starlet installs the fresco in her mansion in the Hollywood Canyons, and then throws orgies for the who’s-who of Hollywood, in which they are allowed to taste the immortality offered by the world within the fresco.

Cut to the modern day, in which a soulless Tom Cruise type gets bad (and unnecessary) plastic surjury to appease his vanity. He then moves into Coldheart Canyon to recover, and awakens the ghosts within. Evil and naughtyness ensue.

This is classic Barker stuff – good if you like his brand of brutality and depravity, but certainly not as good as many of his other works. If you are even slightly squeamish about sexual perversion, you might want to steer clear.

Just After Sunset by Stephen King

Short story collection in which a number of tales feature aging and sickness as themes. There are a few good stories here, a few stinkers-- the one about the port-a-potty comes to mind—and a few that are standard King fare. I always enjoy his readability and the straightforwardness with which he approaches storytelling.

The World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes

Written in 1989, The World in 10½ Chapters is a fun little bit of intellectualized masturbation from a bygone era. Far too clever for its own good and erratically unpredictable, the book cavorts between various musings on the tale of Noah’s Arc, some tongue in cheek legal satire dealing /with the trial of a woodworm in sixteenth century France, and some authorially intrusive diatribes on love and heaven. It all adds up to… a playful romp without a lot of real coherence.

Zero History by William Gibson

Following in the same footsteps as Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, Gibson tells us of the modern brand elite and their machinations. An ex-addict, Milgrim, and Hollis, the former lead singer of the band Cerfew, get caught up in another of Big End/Blue Ant’s schemes in London and Paris. As with most of Gibson’s books, he presents us with a power struggle which takes place in the pantheon above normal mortals, and in which the main characters play a role they don’t understand in bringing about a power shift that changes a world one order of magnitude above the one they live in. (Case frees Wintermute from the bonds of Turing, loosing a new godhead upon the Matrix; Count Zero frees the Loa into the Matrix, changing the power from one AI god to a pantheon, and in this case, Bigend ascends to a new level of financial moguldom through the unwitting, confused efforts of Milgrim and Hollis.)

It’s another fascinating look at our-world-as-cyberpunk. Ono-Sendais are replaced by iPhones, but otherwise the prose and the song remain much the same, albeit with the violent and sexy juicy bits at far greater remove. (Remember when Case spreads Molly’s labia? Here a veiled reference to a shower scene is the closest we get to sex. Remember when “someone made wet sounds in the alley and died” during the show for 3Jane? Here at a climatic moment an AK appears (but is never used.)) It’s a conscious choice to focus instead on brand intrigue, the texture of consumerism, and the stately mechinations of a media elite rather than the low-level heat of sex and violence on the streets of Chiba City. But unfortunately the story loses some animal pleasure as a result.

The style works for the most part. Occasionally Gibson’s tangled sentence construction, layered clauses, and aggressive disregard for basic subject verb relationships gets tedious. Likewise the so-hip-its-incomprehensible dialog which serves as narrative most of the time sometimes just isn’t worth untangling in order to figure out WTF these folks are talking about. But as a general rule the language still reads as Gibson, and helps serve up the world of today as a fresh cyberpunk utopia that lives in each of our pockets.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

First book I read in digital format. (Kindle app for iPhone.) First book I’ve ever read by a celebrity chef. Quite an engaging look at the back rooms of New York’s high (and low) end kitchens. Bourdain knows and loves food, and is a far more literate writer than I’d have expected. He makes his crew, and kitchen staffs in general seem like a bunch of salty pirates. While a bit self-aggrandizing at times, I also find that I generally believe most of what he’s telling me.

Gave Mike a copy to see what he thinks. So far he says it’s a fairly accurate description of the many kitchens he’s worked in over the last decade.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Rothfuss has done a fine job of writing a kickass book in a genre so mired in cliché that it usually struggles really hard to do anything fresh. The Name of the Wind deals with the story of Kvothe, a young phenom who is cast adrift in the world and becomes a hero of sorts. The story is told as a retrospective; a legend related by the legend himself around the table at a tavern in a troubled land…

The writing is smooth, clever, and engaging. Rothfuss refrains from the leaden sentences and archaic diction that pollute so many fantasy novels. Kvothe is a likeable character in a cast full of likeable characters. And while we’ve seen many of these places before (the gypsies here are reminiscent of Robert Jordan’s gypsies, the University here has shades of Hogwarts, etc.) they all feel fresh here and tie together into a mostly believable world.

I wish the novel had been longer, which is as high praise as a book can get I suppose. I started and finished over the course of a few days surrounding the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle. The sequel, A Wise Man’s Fear, comes out in March of next year. I look forward to reading it.

Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory

Finished this one last night on the plane to Penny-Arcade. It’s a fun premise, executed with plenty of sloppy cleverness and pop culture razzmatazz. “What if demonic possession were real?” What if we’d become almost blasé about it? In this short first novel Gregory gives us a look at modern America, complete with Starbucks, Google, etc. that has just learned to deal with the occasional bout of possession; as when the Demon Truth started shot OJ Simpson dead in the midst of his trial, or when the Kamakazee Demon flew a plane into Ike, setting the stage for Nixon’s presidency. It’s a cute premise, though it gets lost in its own cleverness and a lot of rabbit trail homage to Phillip K. Dick periodically. Not a bad first novel, though about as filling as Crunch n’ Munch.

The Death and Life of Bobby Z by Don Winslow

Because I enjoyed his book Power of the Dog, I figured I’d try another Winslow product. Turns out, Bobby Z is a bit of a stinker. The tale is good enough I suppose: a self-proclaimed three-time loser gets offered the chance to impersonate the famous SoCal criminal dobe dealer and surfer, Bobby Z. He does, and gets pulled into a world of Mexican drug lords and double crosses. Luckily, he was a trained marine badass before becoming a petty criminal loser. Eventually, he gets the kid, the girl, the money, and sails off (literally) into the sunset.

No, it wasn’t the clichéd plot of Bobby Z that bothered me. It was, like, the language, man. When the narrator is like, hip as a motherfuck to the SoCal scene, man, it’s like, hard to, you know, take the prose seriously. If it were like restrained to like the goddamn dialog or some shit like that it would be, like, a bit easier to take, man. But since the prose itself is supposed to sound like it was like narrated by like some Hells Angel reject acid casualty, man, it was just a little, like tres fucking ridiculous, you dig?

When Lebowski talks like this, he’s a parody of the Southern California burnout scene. When the prose itself is written in this fashion it’s just tedious and obscures the cool.

Luckily, Winslow got a lot better by Power of the Dog. So if you’re going to read something by him, I’d recommend that instead of Bobby Z.

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Good collection of horror shorts by the author of Heart Shaped Box. A few of these stories are actually quite good. I particularly enjoyed the poignancy of “Pop Art”, which reminded me of the best of George Saunders. “The Cape” had some good writing in it. “The Black Phone” was tightly wound, if a little obvious. And “Bobby Conroe Comes Back from the Dead” was a piece with a lot of emotional nuance. Overall, I give this one an A. Nice work, Mr. Hill. I’ll certainly read the next thing you publish.

Under the Dome by Stephen King
A massive, sprawling tale in which King does what he does best: Introduce us to a cast of small town characters, then put them in a “Monsters Are Coming to Maple Street” setting in which the shit hits the fan and social order dissolves. In this case, the “What if…” scenario involves a giant impermeable dome being dropped over the town, and the resulting social politics of the residents.

King’s characterization is fun, his heroes and villains obediently huddle on either side of the line of scrimmage, then play their roles nicely. The ultimate conclusion is a bit stupid, but the ride along the way is lots of fun if you like King.

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
The Power of the Dog is a look at the cartel wars along the Mexican border. It is a hip, nasty little tale of betrayls, double-crosses, and small-arms skirmishes. There are a few clichés here (hooker with a heart of gold, for example), but generally, it’s a fast paced, savage look at border intrigue and politics from the early nineties. Quite cool.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Dr. Cronin is a professor of creative writing at Rice University here in Houston. His sprawling tale, The Passage, is rumored to be the beginning of a mighty trilogy, and the advances he received for his first horror novel are rumored to have been impressive.

The Passage tells us of the decline and fall of North American civilization under a plague of vampirism brought about by a Miltary/CDC experiment gone wrong. We get a long buildup to the catastrophe, then jump forward about 100 years to a post-apocalpytic world in which a band of survivors tries in vain to keep the lights on to protect themselves from the hordes of night-stalkers. Eventually, a small band of misfits must undertake a journey across the blighted land for some reason. They encounter other civilizations (shades of Watership Down here), and have some cool skirmishes. (Vamped out Vegas is pretty cool.) Some of the characters are really memorable. Some of the action scenes are excellent (others, like the runaway train-car bit feel too much like someone was trying to create a movie…) The resolutions to some of relationship drama is touching. Other times, deus-ex-machina rears its ugly head in a way that is frustrating.

Overall, it’s a cool setup to what could be a much longer tale, and despite being almost 900 pages, this book itself could have been longer.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Subtitled “Men Who Hate Women”, The Girl… series has ended up being an international sensation, based mostly on the appealing strength of the heroine, Lisbeth Salander.

She’s cool, and Blomkist is an interesting foil to the villains (he’s the man who loves women.) Since pretty much everyone has read these, or seen the movies by now, I’m not sure there is too much else to say.

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Steig Larsson
Lisbeth Salander moves into Jason Bourne territory in this second installment of the most popular thing to come out of Sweden since… ever. We learn more about her mysterious past and end on a cliffhanger that will send you out to buy the third book in the middle of the night…. But what’s with the opening sequence in the hurricane? Seems to have nothing to do with anything else.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Steig Larsson
By now the tale of Lisbeth Salander has become silly and a bit tedious. Mostly a police-procedural at this point, things wrap up as we’d hope. Mostly. Too many new characters introduced, too many irrelevant subplots, some of which seem to have just been dropped.

Still, these were a fun romp through the life of a Jason Bourne-esque Swedish hacker girl and the men who surround her.

Licensed to Kill by Robert Young Pelton

Subtitled “Hired Guns in the War on Terror.” Pelton is an travel-adventure-journalist better known for his series on “The World’s Most Dangerous Places.” In this illuminating bit of journalism on the rise of private mercenary armies, like Blackwater, Executive Outcomes, or Triple Canopy, Pelton explores the world of the private military contractor, from Baghdad to Central Africa.

Some fascinating details: Contractors, primarily made up of former special forces, SAS, or police officers, are usually hired by private firms to provide security in guarding fixed position installations (offices, etc.) or security for transporting goods. These guys are armed to the teeth, paid well, and subject to virtually no governmental oversight. As a result, there are likely as many as 100,000 private mercenary soldiers at large in the world, who report only to the highest bidder. Some companies, like Eric Prince’s Blackwater, operate hand-in-hand with the US Federal Government. Others, like Sandline or Executive Outcomes can be employed for far more nefarious purposes, like overthrowing governments in Equatorial Guinea, or seizing diamond mines in Sierra Leone. In this shadowy world, civilian deaths are common (particularly in Africa and Iraq) and contractors are held to no legal standards, and no moral standards but whatever they bring in with them. It’s a fascinating brave-new-world of steroid monkies and ex-cops toting automatic weapons, armored vehicles, and private gunships in some of the world’s least stable places for fantastic sums of money.

Pelton does a good job of keeping relatively neutral on the topic, neither condemning nor deifying the cowboy contractors. He poses thoughtful questions about the role of such large corporate armies in nation building. Interesting book.

The Little Black Book of Violence by Laurence Kane and Kris Wilder

Wilder and Kris are martial artists. Their book is subtitled “What Every Young Man Needs to Know About Fighting.” It was recommended by Sgt. Rory Miller and a couple of my krav instructors. I picked it up in order to round out (and likely conclude) my readings on violent encounters in the US. (Rory Miller, Gavin deBecker, Marc MacYoung). The book is written for someone fifteen years younger than I—a lifetime ago. It is interesting, though likely most effective as a sort of “scared straight” book to be given to a young man in your life who is just beginning to get involved in a lifestyle or peer group which are encouraging him to think violence and fighting is cool. This book is a three hundred page reminder that violence and fighting are dangerous and have very high costs.

Kane and Wilder describe ways to avoid violent encounters, ways to de-escalate an encounter which is on the brink of erupting into violence, a few techniques for resolving violent conflict quickly. These topics constitute approximately one-third of the book. The rest deals with a lengthy and elliptical enumeration of all the reasons that you don’t want to get involved in a violent conflict. They discuss the legal implications and costs (jail time, lawyers fees, prison sentences, effect on future employment, etc.) as well as the risks of injury and death. (No shortage of gruesome photos of stab wounds, etc.) They also cover (less convincingly) the moral costs of violence and the long term impact it can have on a person’s psyche.

Overall, the book works well as a tool for convincing young men that they should not fight, and that the costs of ANY violent altercation are likely to be far, far higher than they may seem when the testosterone and tequila are both flowing freely. Useful and interesting, if not necessarily intended for me.

The Negotiation Toolkit by Roger J. Volkema

Volkema’s book, subtitled “How to Get Exactly What You Want in Any Business or Personal Situation” was published in 1999 by the American Management Association. I picked it up after reading an excerpt from the book on the internet. Volkema seemed as if he had sufficient experience in the topic to be a valid source, and who couldn’t stand to be a better negotiater? The book is useful. In two hundred easy-to-follow pages it covers common negotiation strategies, how and when to best employ them, and how to counter them when used against you. Most of what’s here will already be familiar to veteran businesspeople or anyone who negotiates deals for a living. But formalizing some of these hard won lessons is definitely useful. I found myself remembering specific events or occasions in the past when I’d first learned whatever lesson Volkema was attempting to teach; suggesting that reading this book when it was first published might have given me a head start.

The book is well organized and useful, though much of the actual text of the “negotiation exercises” seems like filler. Still, as a foundation for a course in Business Basics or similar, this book would be quite valuable. And there are many folks I know who operate on a fairly high level who would benefit from reading through Volkema’s thoughts and practicing some of what’s contained herein.

2666 by Roberto Bolano

2666 by Roberto Bolano
Fascinating, unsettling, depraved, and strange are just a few of the words it would take to accurately describe Bolano’s final work. It’s a a masterful and twisted labyrinth of violence, creation, and madness. (To use a few other words that seem appropriate.)

2666 is a novel in five parts. In the first, several European scholars who are experts in the work of an unknown novelist visit, worry, fuck, and ultimately, plan their travel to Mexico in an effort to find the artist. In the second part, a professor at a school near Ciudad Juarez (here called Santa Teresa) goes slowly crazy. (The geometry book he hangs hung on a closeline so the wind and elements can teach its abstractions a thing or two about real life is one of the novel’s more enduring images.) In the third section an American sports writer travels to Juarez to investigate a prize fighter and gets caught up with the narcos who run the place. In the chilling fourth section we get a journalistic enumeration of the hundreds and hundreds of women who have disappeared near Ciudad Juarez in the last decade. In the fourth section we meet the mysterious German writer, Archimboldi, and learn his strange tale, and a lot of complicated byplay about the relationship between creations and their creators.

All of this complexity adds up to a very disturbing and complex work that… I wish I had read twice (despite being almost 900 pages translated from dense Spanish), and wish I had a friend or class to discuss it with. Make no mistake, Bolano was a brilliant writer who tackled an important topic in his final years. It is unclear to me what his real intent with 2666 might have been, and I’d love to ask him if he realized it.

Death Interrupted by Jose Saramago
Death Inturrupted was a silly tale, by a master writer who just didn’t seem up to his game in this one. What if Death took a holiday and just stopped killing anyone on the Iberian Pennisula for a few weeks? Imagine the social upheaval. Imagine the response of the mafia!

Now, what if death herself fell in love with a cellist? Yeah… They do it.

It’s been almost a year since I read this one, and it didn’t really do that much for me, unfortunately. Short and silly, without much lasting value in my humble opinion.

Song of Kali by Dan Simmons

One of Dan Simmon’s earliest works, if not his first, Song of Kali takes place in a vibrant, filthy, deplorable Calcutta. A journalist and his wife and infant daughter travel there to research a missing poet. They get caught up in the city’s magic and corruption. Their lives are pretty much ruined, though I’ll not spoil how.

As a setting piece Song of Kali works well. Calcultta here is reminiscent of Thomas Mann’s Venice or China Meville’s New Cruzoban. The setting itself is a character of sorts.

Otherwise, this wasn’t a particularly memorable novel, but I do like Simons and enjoyed reading some of his horror.

The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker
Gavin De Becker approaches the subject of violence as a scholar. He is considered an expert on providing security and threat analysis to high profile individuals. His basic assessment is that almost no incident of personal violence is unpredictable. People give off warning signs when they are contemplating a violent act. If we are able to read these signs correctly, using our innate “Gift of Fear” then we’ll be able to better protect ourselves and our loved ones.

DeBecker is bright and his subject is interesting. Take home lesson: Trust your instincts. Cross the street to avoid sketchy looking characters. Don’t open the door to strangers. If someone creeps you out, tell someone, and avoid that person. Your instincts are honed through millions of years of evolution. Don’t ignore them.
First, let's get the apology out of the way... No updates since March???! Terrible. Undisciplined! Shameful!

Luckily, I've read lots of books since then, and am committed to posting them all this afternoon!

In the days since March 2010:

We moved from our Midtown condo into a great townhome in the Heights. The Professor has become acclimated to her new job. I've continued bouncing between ATX and The Third Coast. I wrote a new novel called The Arc, for which I'm now seeking publication. My book, Distributed Game Development, was released by Focal Press. Various family dramas have unfolded, but none to a tragical conclusion, for which we can be thankful. And we've learned that we more or less love living down here; lots of good friends, etc. We're off tomorrow for a NYE vacation in The Big Easy.

But first, the books!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

How to Survive the End of the World As We Know It by James Wesley, Rawles

What a fascinating book! In three hundred clearly written pages Rawles (no, I don’t know why the comma appears in his name, but he’s consistent about it) tells us how to survive and thrive after a total social collapse. He covers water, fuel, transportation, food, medical necessities, communications, security, and so on. Depending on how likely you believe social collapse to be Rawles is either a prescient sage or a paranoid wack-job.

For example, he advises everyone to move out of the cities and live in secrecy in armed, fortified compounds with hundreds or thousands of pounds of foodstuffs, batteries, supplies, ammunition, etc. Now, if most of us were to follow this advice society would cease to function, and we’d all be considered to have gone off the deep end. On the other hand, if widespread EMP devastation suddenly killed the power grid and social order dissolved, those who had taken Rawles’s advice would suddenly be the smart ones. All a matter of your perspective.

I learned a lot from this book, almost none of which I expect to ever need. So, Rawles, I hope you’re wrong, but I appreciate you arming me with a little knowledge that just might come in handy some terrible day WTSHTF.
Ending Violence Quickly: A Professional’s Guide to Ending Violence Quickly by Marc MacYoung

Mark “Animal” McYoung. “On how bouncers, bodyguards, and other security professionals handle ugly situations.” Probably not wrong, but so badly written as to be ridiculous. The guy quotes Robert Jordan, in a section on tactics, for Chrissakes. This book is two-hundred and fifty pages of bravado and juvenile writing with a few useful diagrams on how various take down principles.

Unfortunately, so much of what Mr. MacYoung is trying to explain is marred by poor illustration and prose so tangled that it regularly loses track of whatever point it was trying to make that the book as a whole is not all that informative. If I were to try to summarize:

1. Best to neutralize the situation before it escalates into the realm of physical violence.
2. If it gets to violence, you need to end a fight in three moves or less.
3. Break the threat’s attitude using pain to shock them out of their aggressive posture.
4. Drop them to the ground.
5. Make it clear that further resistance or aggression will result in far worse pain or injury.

These principles probably work pretty well for most bouncers. So in the immortal words of The Dude, “You’re not wrong, Marc. You just come across as an illiterate asshole.”

I’ve got a couple more books on the topic to get through, but so far the genre seems to be mightily short on capable writers.

Distributed Game Development: Harnessing Global Talent to Create Winning Games by Tim Fields

Is this a shameless plug for my own work? Not sure. But I just got the first copy of my book on Game Development from the publisher and read through it last night and this morning.

It is now available on Amazon...
Or you can check out my website on the topic here: –

It had been three or four months or so since I’d read any of what I’d written. After about the fifth draft you can get pretty tired of a topic. But in looking at it now, I’m pretty happy with the book as a whole. It seems skinnier than it did when working on it; barely more than a pamphlet. But when I compare it in girth to some of the other software books on my shelf, Peopleware, or Dynamics of Software Development, for example, it holds up pretty well. I’m happy with the writing; the tone succeeds at being conversational and still serious, informational without being (I hope) too pedantic.

The contributors all deserve a huge thanks, especially Robyn Wallace and Phil Wattenbarger, whose interviews come across as being mightily insightful.

Overall, I’m happy with the way the book turned out. In rereading sections, I still agree with what I had to say about the topics, and I DO believe that the book would be quite helpful to a number of producers, EPs, and junior BizDev people out there. So I hope in some small way I’ve contributed something to the industry.

But the next book will be fiction. 

Meditations on Violence by Sgt. Rory Miller

Sgt. Miller is a martial arts expert and a former prison guard. He’s both trained and experienced in the application of personal violence in real world context. (At least, to the degree that prison is part of the real world.) In this short memoir and instructional guide, he focuses on some of the deltas between the idealized training that many martial artists receive and the realities of violent interpersonal conflict. The book is about two hundred pages long and covers a lot of practical ground (where violence occurs, what it’s like when it does, what types of people commit violent crimes, how you can deal with the threat, etc.)

Mr. Miller is convincing in some areas, and comes across as a self-aggrandizing blowhard in a few others. The writing is uneven. (No suprise from a prison guard rather than a professional writer) and Mr. Miller comes across as either arrogant or flaky on some occasions (I suppose his profession might engender a certain stance of arrogance in order to succeed, and a lifelong devotion to martial arts has certainly made some people flaky before). The book also is in desperate need of a good editor; much of this feels like a first draft that went straight to print.

Some of his observations are quite interesting. A chapter of the different types of hostage situations that occur and how to deal with them (as one of the hostages) was quite interesting. A section on "places where violence occurs" was equally interesting, and probably right on. Then he went on to describe in 4 broad categories the types of violent criminals that populate jails. His chapter on "predators & process predators" was chilling. Made me get up and check the alarm twice last night. Lots of it is common sense stuff, but lots of it is also analysis of crime statistics and reports which is interesting. Makes me think that I should pick up a used textbook from a basic course on criminology, and I’ve already ordered a few additional books on violence and its resolution. We’ll see how others who have explored this topic compare.

I'm going to train with Sgt. Miller next weekend, so it'll be interesting to see what he's like in person.

As a followup: In person, I found Rory Miller to be an engaging speaker with a down-to-earth demeanor. His lecture covered much of the material in this book, and provided a preview of his next book, which I'll certainly read.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Still awesome.

On Writing by Stephen King
Still a great refresher on what matters about writing.

My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler

Chelsea is a ho. She does everyone. She’s proud of it. And that’s cool. In this book, she chronicles her bedroom adventures and one night stands with a surprising lack of lurid detail, instead choosing to focus on the comedic antics to which her promiscuous lifestyle lends itself.

A friend of the Professor’s sent her this one (eyebrow raised), and I picked it up while on a phone call recently to see what it was about. Read through it in a couple of days. Chelsea entertains with her foolishness, her alcoholism, and her quasi-dysfunctional family. But it’s not smart or really that funny. Sex & The City explored these waters with far more ability, insight, and wit years ago.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

PS: I cannot believe that this is in the top 10 of the NYT Best Seller’s List.

The Curmedgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law by Mark Herrmann

The Professor’s new employers gave her this book when she started. I picked it up off the kitchen table and ended up reading it this weekend. Herrmann, a self styled curmudgeon is an veteran lawyer. He gives practical advice to new initiates at major law firms in how to build their careers, impress their bosses, not piss off their clients, and so on. The slim volume is a collection of twelve chapters. It’s quick to read and gives some good insight into the real life problems and trials of being a young associate.
Time for more updates!

This time it's from a sunny afternoon in Houston, Texas!


Saturday, January 09, 2010

The American Red Cross First Aid & Safety Handbook by Kathleen A. Handal

I’ve spent so much time learning how to dismantle people with krav these days that it seemed I should spend a little time working on skills on the other side of the fence. I needed to gain a point or two of First Aid Skill, and this book seemed like just the way to do it!

This is an imminently practical guide to the very lowest level of First Aid and care in critical situations. The book serves as a reference to be consulted in case of different types of emergencies, from Amputation to some emergency that starts with a Z.

It’s handy, and is better than nothing, but even if one had memorized all of the knowledge herein it wouldn’t be good enough in the case of a real emergency. Makes me think that I need to find and take a few classes in EMT or basic combat medicine.

Shadow Country (Killing Mr. Watson) by Peter Matthiessen
Killing Mr. Watson is the first book of a trilogy which are collected in this version as Shadow Country. Matthiessen has rendered a compelling vision of the landscape of the lawless Florida Everglades at the turn of the century. Almost every detail of the hard lives of the settlers, seminole, and the criminals who make up the region’s cane farms and villages feels authentic. The narritave is brooding and piecemeal. Each chapter is written from the perspective of someone who had a personal relationship with the Watson family, or was present on the day of the lynch mob execution of Edgar J. Watson. This collection of voices creates a patina of tales which taken together give a shadowed, murky picture of Watson’s life and his ultimate death. The language is precise is a bit florid when describing the natural beauty of the region. Matthiessen’s ear for dialect is superb. He tackles themes of mythmaking, the American deification of the outlaw, mob justice, and the lawlessness of a frontier which is very different than the dusty west, but still unquestionably American.

The first book of Shadow Country is compelling, and surprisingly easy to read given its daunting heft.

Shadow Country (Bony By Bone) by Peter Matthiessen
The second novel in Matthiessen’s epic saga of Ed Watson and the Florida Keys is more personal and self aware than the first. It tells the tale of poor lost Lucius Watson, son of the notorious, now legendary “Bloody Watson.” After his father’s Lucius goes to war, goes to the university of Florida and nearly gets his doctoral degree in the history of Florida. He drops out ABD (as many do!) and sinks deep into drink and an obsession with the past. He tries to dig up the “truth” of what happened to his father and learns a Faulknarian lesson about how shallow a grave the past lies in.

The writing is better than in Killing Mr. Watson and the tale is sadder. Lucius is never able to live a life of his own, giving up everything in a misguided attempt to seek out a truth that is mired in local legend, loss and sorrow.

Shadow Country (Lost Man’s River) by Peter Matthiessen
The third book of Watson’s saga and Matthiessen’s opus is an incredible payoff for the six hundred or so dense pages of slog that it took to get here. In this final installation we get to learn what really happened or at least what Ed Watson tells us happened. From his tragic boyhood in the deep south during the worst days of Jim Crow down to his fateful final day on the banks of Lost Man’s Key, Watson tells us of his life, his drive for the American notion of “progress” and his peculiar and violent moral code.

The echoes of Shadow Country and the tale of Bloody Watson linger with you for weeks after finishing the novel. This sequence is a powerful journey though the transformation of America between the Civil War and the First World War. It’s a meditation on violence, progress, history, race relations, and cultural moral evolution. Fantastic work.

The Box by Richard Mattheson
Yep, now I know there is a Cameron Diaz movie of this released just in time for Halloween. Lots of people told me this when they saw me reading the book. Hopefully the movie is better than this retread collection of old short stories that were all published several decades ago. Mattheson is a decent storyteller, and I’ve enjoyed a few of his nuggets in other places, as I’ve mentioned here before. Unfortunately, most of these are just plain bad. This is a collection of eight or so short tales that have either been widely published elsewhere, or should have been left in a bottom drawer. Sentient organs, jazz encounters told in verse, walking suits of clothing, etc. Moving on.

Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris

The weres go public and local bigots get evil. Jason is suspected of something, and the FBI is nosing around asking about Sookie. This one ends about one hundred pages short of where it should have, feeling a bit rushed.

From Dead to Worse by Charlaine Harris

Gosh, let’s see… There is upset in the vampire kingdom following the incident in Chicago. Sookie is trying to lay low in Bon Temps, but Mrs. Harris has other things in mind! Good surprise ending.

All Together Dead by Charlaine Harris
Sookie goes to Chicago as a servant of the vampire queen. I won’t tell you what happens there, cause it’s soooo awesome!

Definitely Dead by Charlaine Harris

In Definitely Dead we meet Quinn the Weretiger! He’s pretty cool! But this novel is a little weird because there is a missing chunk of time between the previous novel and this one. And for Mrs. Harris, who has almost nothing happen offscreen ever, this is puzzling. Add this to the lack of numbering on the books, and I found myself wondering if I’d somehow skipped one.

But no indeed, apparently a few of Sookie’s adventures just fell on the cutting room floor, to later be included in a book of short stories. But Charlaine didn’t both to rewrite any of this to make it any more clear. And it didn’t really matter. By this point in the series, the books are all so far from stand-alone fictions that you wouldn’t be here unless you’d already read the rest and were hooked.

Dead as a Doornail by Charlaine Harris

Just when you thought the naming of the novels couldn’t get much worse, you realize that Mrs. Harris is just grabbing for any phrase with the word “Dead” in it! But that doesn’t much matter, because by this time you are hooked on the wacky world of Bon Temps, Sookie, and all her supernatural friends. Now Jason gets involved with a werebitch, and I think we meet faries and demons for the first time.

Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris

Sookie’s involvement with Alcide gets her wrapped up in werewolf pack-succession politics. There’s also a sniper in Bon Temps blasting non-humans!

Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

Club Dead flags a bit, because nothing much happens. Sookie goes down to New Orleans
and we get a deeper understanding of the were community. She gets involved with Alcide H., a wearwolf contractor. (Oh yeah, the books really are that steeped in the PWT culture of the south.) A few people (and nonhumans end up dead.)

I should mention that it’s irritating that while the books are definitely meant to be read in chronological order, there is no system of numbering on them. (Sookie Stackhouse #3, for example.)

Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris

Sookie goes to Dallas to help out Erik and gets involved with the vampires there. She causes trouble for the Fellowship of the Sun. Every bit as much fun as Dead Until Dark.

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

Wow was I not ready to read anymore pulp vampire crap. But I picked it up after The Professor’s recommendation that it “really wasn’t like Twilight.” And sure enough, it isn’t.

Dead Until Dark is the first of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, named after their heroine, a telepathic waitress living in Bon Temps, Lousiana. It also forms the basis for the (fairly divergent) HBO television series True Blood.

Sookie is a great heroine, grandly entertaining and likable. Bon Temps and the supernatural dirty south around it are brought to life with a smile, a dirty joke or ten, and a lot of sly humor by Mrs. Charlaine Harris, whose picture on the back of each book make her seem like someone who would be great fun to share a drink with.

Dead Until Dark is barely a novel at all, weighing in at barely two hundred pages. It introduces us to Bill, Sookie, Erik, Jason, Sam, Tara, and the rest of the Bon Temps regulars at Merlotte’s Bar, epicenter of the Sookie Universe. We also meet drainers, the Fellowship of the Sun, and at least a few weres. The written is silly, the plot is silly, but the sex and violence are high and the characters are exceedingly likeable. The murder mystery component of the first few books make for a fun whodunit, and the books tie together nicely.

Possible Side Effects by Augusten Burroughs

Mr. Burroughs is clever, if deeply unlikeable. He’s a snotty gay Manhattenite who embodies a slew of traits that represent the worst neurotic self-indulgences of his generation of Americans.

Possible Side Effects is a series of comedic essays on Burroughs awkwardness in social situations and times when he has been mildly inconvienced. A former advertising agent from a shitty childhood, Burroughs turned into a drunk, which gave him the type of lowbrow James Freyesque “life story” that sells books like Running With Scissors, his previous bestseller.

Now, all of this may make it sound like I don’t much like Mr. Burroughs, and that would be accurate. But his book was funny, diverting, and occasionally insightful and not badly written.

I read this one in Stillwater Minnesota during a weekend long wedding. Stillwater was a beautiful town on the St. Croix river. This book wasn’t the most memorable part of the weekend.

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
An honest man falls for the wrong woman, and they end up killing her husband for the insurance money. He’s an insurance man, an expert in sleuthing out insurance fraud. She’s a manipulative bitch who seduces him and cynically manipulates everyone in the novel. No one wins.

Double Indemnity is fast paced and fun to read through. Again, like the rest of Cain’s work, it’s not a crime novel in the way Chandler or Hammett prepared us for. This is more psychosocial drama than anything else.

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce is a housewife and a baker. When she kicks her husband out for infidelity her life begins. This novel is fabulously successful as a period piece and a look at feminism and class in the nineteen thirties.

Mildred takes a job as a waitress to support her family, including the petulant Vera, one of the least likeable children in literature. We get sex, love, betrayl, crime and a lot of knowledge about how to cook the books (hehe) of a diner.

Of the three James M. Cain novels I read in 2009, this was my favorite, because the texture of the piece and the tragedy of the deal were the best conveyed. Don’t expect gat wielding gangsters here; this is crime of a different sort, and social drama of a more realistic nature.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

I picked up a handbound volume of James M. Cain’s three most famous novellas in the dog-days of August in Austin.

James M. Cain didn’t write what I expected. From this legendary name in crime, with a title like this (no, I’d never seen the movie) I was expecting a tale of a criminal stalker and real mur-der. There is murder and death does come to call, but not in the way I expected.

Cain writes in a cropped style here which makes the whole sleazy Southern California Diner scene every bit as unambitious and lowbrow as he intends. This is a crime novel in a very literal sense, not in the stylized noir mode of Pulp Fiction.

Friday, January 08, 2010

New Year, new posts!

It's been far too long!

Since my last post, we've moved twice. First into a treehouse apartment in the Austin Arboretum, now into a three story tower in Houston Midtown. Still working with CA, and RS starts a new job with FBJ next week. I finished a book of my own, Distributed Game Development, and it will be on store shelves (likely very few of them) by late March.

Of course, I've been reading lots, and for the first time have violated my rule about getting a year's books all posted before the end of the year!

I need to post on:
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
Possible Side Effects by Augusten Burroughs
Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris
Club Dead by Charlaine Harris
Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris
Dead as a Doornail by Charlaine Harris
Definitely Dead by Charlaine Harris
All Together Dead by Charlaine Harris
From Dead to Worse by Charlaine Harris
Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris
The Box by Richard Mattheson
Shadow Country (Killing Mr. Watson) by Peter Matthiessen
Shadow Country (Bone By Bone) by Peter Matthiessen
Shadow Country (Lost Man’s River) by Peter Matthiessen
The Red Cross Guide to First Aid by The Red Cross
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahari

Stay tuned! The posts will be coming soon, I promise!