Sunday, December 28, 2008

Where's My Jetpack by Daniel H. Wilson

I don't remember whether I saw this randomly in the catalog or had it recommended to me, but the whole concept just seemed amazing. A book about stuff we've been reading about since H.G. Wells? I'm totally there.

The results didn't disappoint.

Written by a CMU alumni in a style that's both entertaining and factual (think Mythbusters, for instance), Wilson takes us down the road of all the things we've ever wanted: Flying cars, X-ray glasses, food pills, living on the moon, and, of course, jet packs. Where are we at in terms of their development? How much might it cost? Is there even a prayer of such a thing existing?

Written as a straight book, this would have been interesting. I had no idea, for instance, that we could theoretically have a space elevator, but that the cost (about a billion) combined with the danger (one small rock could send you on the stairway to heaven) are still too high. But what makes this one work so well is the fact that Wilson writes with a sarcastic flair worthy of a good parody film. Take this section on Zeppelins:

"Blimpin' ain't easy, but the ostentatious airship of yesteryear was one sweet ride."

Or perhaps this, from the X-Ray glasses: "gawking at naked people is always good fun, but what about using your abilities for the forces of good?"

One more, so you can feel the tone of the text: "Why transport when you can teleport? In the classic Star Trek television series teleportation was commonplace from the deck of the USS Enterprise. The only danger was to nonessential actors, who were fated to be torn limb from limb by a paper-mache moon beast upon being 'beamed' to the surface. Now, brace yourself for a total brain meltdown: Teleportation is a real area of research and scientists are making solid progress with microscopic, inanimate objects."

Yes folks, you, too, can soon be getting to work much faster--so long as you don't wear a red shirt on your daily commute.

Now lest you think this book is a big joke, I would note that Wilson goes into great layman-style detail of things. The teleportation article noted above is a particularly good example, as he tries to explain how the matter is moved. Turns out, by the way, that it can be done. Just not for humans---yet.

The book itself is divided into five sections: Advanced Transportation, Future-tainment, Superhuman Abilities, The Home of the Future, and Humans...In Space! The entries themselves are short, generally running about five pages each. They start with a brief and witty remark about where we got the idea, then move into the attempts to bring the dream into reality. The verdict seems to be about 50% fairly practical, 50% not likely, depending on how you look at things. Some are already here but not in the way we'd hoped, such as (not quite) universal translators or the titular jet pack.

One thing I found particularly interesting was just how much of the items were being developed or are being worked on by the US Military, from jet packs to diet pills to being able to imitate Susan Richards. I tend to think of the Armed Forces as being anything but cutting edge or imaginative, but apparently they're reading Analog in the Pentagon or something, because it seems a fair piece of the defense budget over the years has gone to some really wacky ideas. (Think about that next time you protest military spending, huh? Maybe you're keeping us from living on the moon, ya damned hippie!)

As times change and the economy gets worse, one wonders how long it will be before someone out there decides that the time is ripe to create a few thousand jobs trying to make Philip K. Dick look like Benjamin Franklin. If they do, this book would serve as a good reference point on what can be done, and what likely can't. (Sorry, but we won't be seeing any space-age Bart Simpsons on hoverboards anytime soon, possibly anytime ever.) As Wilson notes, "Wherever a dangerous new technology exists, there is a guy with cool goggles and streaky blonde hair waiting to shatter his fibula. Totally." In the meantime, totally read this book. You'll be glad you did.

Twilight at Little Round Top by Glenn W. LaFantasie

There are a ton of Civil War books out there, and of those books, tomes written about Gettysburg are probably the most numerous. Lord knows, I have at least a whole shelf of them, with more to come with each trip to the Battlefield.

As a result, the quality tends to vary rather wildly. Authors take different tacks, type in differing styles, utilize differing facts, and so on, to make sure their book has a hook or angle that makes people want to read it.

"Twilight" is no different, except that in this case, at least for me, the authorial voice was ham-handed and trying at every turn to be a book that emphasized sound bites and minimized historical detail. Perfect for your uncle who only wants to read maybe five Civil War books in his life, let alone five in a month preparing for a trip to Gettysburg. Not so perfect for a reader who's expecting a more serious treatment, especially when the book itself is so specialized.

And that, if I may be pardoned for starting a sentence with and, is why the book failed utterly for me. I don't expect a general Civil War book to read like a clinical text or a scholarly essay. I don't even expect an overview of a large battle, such as Gettysburg or Vicksburg or even Manassas to get into too much minutia.

However, when your book is about not just a specific day of a specific battle, but of a particular *part* of that specific day, I expect something along the lines of a research essay expanded to the level of a book. I suspect that's also what most people would think, so when you're reading a book geared more to the "hey, I just saw something on TV about the Civil War" set inside the cover of a detailed title, there's a disconnect you can't get over.

What I can't figure is the thinking behind the book. Surely this is too detailed an account for those who watched and enjoyed "Gettysburg" but don't plan on joining the Civil War Preservation Trust, yet it reads just that way.

Here are a few sample quotes to give you an idea:

"Too often we forget that the Civil War transformed America into a bloody carnival of death."

WHAT? I'd expect that as part of a tour program, but a serious Civil War study? I find it hard to believe that anyone reading this book is out there going, "eh, it was only several hundred thousand lives so I could bore the wife and kids on vacation." The only thing forgotten here is the audience!

"Long after the war, Longstreet tried self-servingly to free himself of blame for the defeat at Gettysburg and earned instead the vilification of his former Confederate comrades in the Army of Northern Virginia..."

Umm, first of all, Longstreet was right. Secondly, he became an ally of the Union Reconstruction, never having been all that keen on secession in the first place, even joining the Government after the Civil War in aid of his old friend, President Grant. The sentence above is a woeful oversimplification that might be excused in a more general text but is out of place here.

"Beneith the mettle of a young professional soldier was a romantic heart that could croon a ballad before wielding the sword."

Do I even need to comment on this one?

I feel like it's a little unfair to pull such smal quotes out like this, but I could not think of any better way to explain my problem with the writing style. At every opportunity, LaFantasie throws in some melodramic text, either about how awful it was to be a soldier, how desperate things were, or how no one knew if they were going to see the dawn.

That might be what appeals to a certain type of reader, but that certain type of reader isn't me.

In addition, a lot of the early part of the book is taken up by setting the stage for the events on Little Round Top. It's not something that needs to go on for nearly 100 pages of a specialized book. About 25 pages of scene-setting would have been plenty for a book with a narrow topic. It would be like talking about 20 years of elections for nearly half of a book called "2008: The Debates."

This is really getting negative, which is a shame because I did like some of this book. I didn't really know the details of Warren's desperate attemps to get troops up the hill without a prior road--here's a General who got down in the muck and personally assisted in getting an artillary piece on to Little Round Top--for example. I also like the idea of showing how chaotic the battle could be, how certain players moved about, and so forth. I feel like I had a better idea of what took place after reading the book.

The trouble is that I would have been even better informed had the author took a little less time to personalize the account--there are first-person diaries aplenty for that, and are a better read (they often lack the "drama" factor that is in high gear here)--and more time to ground the reader in plain english. In other words, more "Sgt. So-and-So tried hard to rally his troops around a rock outcropping you can still see today" and less "Sgt. So-and-So kept thinking about his brother on the other side of the battlefield."

Does this make me a heartless person that doesn't care about the Carnival of Death? Perhaps from the author's perspective. I admit I'm more interested in the military details than in the life stories of every person who ever wore blue or butternut and grey. But I think in his attempt to humanize the struggle, LaFantasie went too far, and turned dramatic tension into a set of stereotypical soap opera cliches. In addition, the book takes too much time to get to its real subject, overdoing the oversiplifications along the way. That dooms the book to failure, at least in my eyes.

The blurbs call this a "face of battle" account. I guess that's just not something I much care for. However, if you really like the human side of things and want to read more about Gettysburg than in the Park Guide or a Bruce Catton trilogy, then you might like this one better than I did. If you're a serious Civil War scholar, however, you should let this one hang back with the 6th Corps in reserve of better titles.

Bells in Winter by Czeslaw Milosz

I first discovered Mr. Milosz in a book of polish poets and quickly fell in love with his style. I admire his ability to look at the world around him and describe it poetically, in a translation, no less.

Bells in Winter is from 1978, 2 years before he would win the Nobel Prize. The collection consists mostly of shorter works, which are my favorite style of poems and where he shines best. The longer works towards the end are rather rambling and don't hold my interest as much as the poems at the beginning, but that is true for just about every poet I've ever read--for me, the longer the poem, the more likely it is to lose its poetic qualities that drew me to it in the first place.

However, there are still flashes even within the longer poems, such as this start to the third section of "From the Rising of the Sun":

"If I am responsible
It is not for everything.
I didn't support the theses of Copernicus.
I was neither for nor against Galileo's case.
My ships have never left the pond to sail the seas.
When I was born, locomotives ran on rails
Moving in a jumble of wheels and pistons,
And the echo of an express train rang wide
Through forest no longer primeval.
The district was inhabited by folk, Jews and gentlemen.
You went by horse cart to buy kerosene, herring, and salt,
But in the towns they were using electricity.
It was said that someone had invented the wireless telegraph.
Books were already written. Ideas thoroughly discussed.
The ax was put to the tree."

That's the story of a person who cannot believe the changes of the past century--it sounds like your grandparent talking. It's the poetry of the everyday, given the artistic touches of a master poet. That is the style I like best, and Milosz has it in abundance.

Here's another example, "Calling to Order":

"You could scream
Because mankind is mad.
But you, of all people, should not.

Out of what thin sand
And mud and slime
Out of what dogged splinters
Did you fashion your castle against the test of the sea,
And now it is touched by a wave.

What chaos
received bounds, from here to there.
What abyss
Was seen and passed over in silence.
What fear
Of what you are.

It shows itself
But that is not it.
It is named
Yet remains nameless.
It is coming to be
But has not begun.

Your castle will topple
Into the wine-colored
Funeral sea,
She will assuage your pride.

Yet you knew how
To use next to nothing.
It is not a matter of wisdom
Or Virtue.

So how can you condemn
The unreason of others."

Note that the last sentence is a statement, not a question. You can almost see Milosz and another, phantom person--Milosz's internal self, perhaps?--arguing about the state of the world and this poem being the result.

In fact, argument and doubt is at play in most of the works I've read by Milosz so far. It seems he wrestled with his faith after conversion and poems like "How it Was", "Readings", and "Temptation":

"Under a starry sky I was taking a walk,
On a ridge overlooking neon cities,
With my companion, the spirit of desolation,
Who was running around and sermonizing,
Saying that I was not necessary, for if not I, then someone else
Would be walking here, trying to understand his age.
Had I died long ago nothing would have changed.
The same stars, cities and countries
Would have been seen with other eyes.
The world and its labors would go on as they do.

For Christ's sake, get away from me.
You've tormented me enough, I said.
It's not ip to me to judge the calling of men.
And my merits, if any, I won't know anyway."

Those are the same sorts of questions I have wrestled with since I was a teenager. While Milosz and I came to different conclusions--I left the church he opted to join--the journey is a similar one.

It seems almost silly to tell people they should read a Nobel-winning poet, but I'm going to do it anyway. Find a book of Milosz's poetry and read it. You'll be glad you did.

Admin: Year of Readers

So this year, I will be doing The Year of Readers, a site that encourages you to pick a reading-related charity to donate money to based on the amount you read this coming year.

I will be personally hitting myself up for 10 cents for every book and trade I finish this year, which should work out to about 100 books and 200 or so comics, based on past years of reading.

I've always loved books from a very young age, and am looking forward to helping others share in the fun I've always had by helping out Reader to Reader.

If you are interested in sponsoring me, please let me know. It doesn't have to be much, but it would be a nice gesture, I think, for this coming year of change. Also, if you want to participate, there is still time to do so!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Dead in the West by Joe R. Lansdale

I didn't realize that I've actually read a few short stories by Mr. Lansdale, but it turns out he's done a little comics adaptation work that I read way back in high school. Even if I had remembered, I wouldn't have grabbed this one based on that. There was no need.

After all, when a book claims to be "A Zombie Western" there's really nothing else you need to know. You grab the book and run with it. (Well, actually, you patiently check it out from the library. Running away with the book is not a smart way to be allowed to take out other library books.)

Dead in the West is basically a short story that's been expanded out into a novella. The pre-story notes indicate it was a tribute to the pulps, and that's very easy to see, in the sectioning of the story into "i, ii, iii, and so on, even though such a short work really doesn't require quite so much partitioning. The writing also has a strong pulp feel, with characters being told what they think by the omniscient narrator and no one falling too far from the stock character tree.

If that sounds horrific to you, just go ahead and get out of Dodge on the next stage coach, because even if you like zombies, you aren't going to like this story. It's written in a throwback style that appeals to me (I have decided to call this "pre writing workshop style" for lack of a better term.) because it does not feel quite as polished as a "new" story would. But if you like your fiction written to be "perfect" then you aren't going to dig this at all.

Short version: Like Stephen King? You're in.

Mud Creek is your typical pulp western town, with a cast of drunks and n'er do wells who try to frisk anyone who blows through their town. When the Reverend Jeb Mercer walks in, faith as tattered as his bible, he plans on doing some preaching, getting some cash, and getting out of town fast. But there's an ill wind brewing, and the Lord seeks out someone who can help stem the tide of (perhaps deserved, as the reader soon learns) Evil which threatens to use the living dead to exact a fearful revenge.

The Reverend, whether he likes it or not, is nominated to be the Pistol of God. But he can't work alone. As strange doings abound, he meets with a well-read doctor and his lovely daughter, along with a mistreated boy with a desire to learn. Can they fight the putrid flesh of the townsfolk out for human steak tartar?

I'm sure you know the answer, but I'm not telling anyway.

Nothing about this story is earth shattering. It's a tale of good and evil, a tarnished hero who makes good when the time is right, flanked by the only good people in a town gone bad. If you ever read any westerns, and I read/listened to quite a few growing up, you'll know the basic concept.

The fun, however, is in how Lansdale writes out the details. Even though you know what's going to happen--the church is a former weapons supply depot, for instance, with obvious results--the writer finds a way to make the story entertaining for those looking for a 150 page romp that can be finished in one day. The blending of elements of other horror stories works well, and Lansdale even manages to make it so you don't hate the villain so that the troublesome side of the pulps (blatent racism at times) is mitigated. I was particularly impressed that while he did not shy away from the bluntness of pulp characters, he also found a way to keep it from hurting a story for a modern audience.

If there's one thing I'd change, it's that the book stoops to the crude a little too much. I could have done without some of the dialog and imagry, but again, your best guide here is King, who also does that too much for my taste at times. Must be in the "How to Write Good Horror Handbook" or something. There's also just a bit of "girl in the refridgerator" going on (that's shorthand for gratuitous violence towards women in comics speak) here and there, but I don't think it's enough to dis-recommend this otherwise great read.

Dead in the West is not out to win any literary awards, and that's fine with me. It's a tribute to the days when writers just found good variations on a theme and used their talent to bring their own personal style to make the story shine. Lansdale does that here, and gives us a western take on the undead. This book, though set in the darkest night, is a nifty ray of sunlight that can be appreciated in about as long as the sun shines on a winter afternoon. Definitely worth the read.

Have a Bowl of the Book Stew

Welcome to The Book Stew, a place for my reviews about books that don't contain pictures and word balloons. (That's Panel Patter, if you're interested!) I read a lot of books of all shapes, sizes, and genres, ranging from mysteries to histories, dense biographies to pulp fare.

Most review sites I've seen specialize in a particular type of book--sci fi, westerns, non-fiction, poetry, and so on. Well, that's great if you only read those types of books. But I read a little bit of damned near everything--just like how a good stew contains damned near everything left over in your kitchen.

So you're likely to see a review of classic 19th century poetry butting heads with my take on the latest Monk adaptation, followed closely by a study of Civil War medicine.

If that's not your bag, I understand. But if, like me, you like to peruse the New York Times Book Review for good books on things you've never explored before--this is the place for you.

You may not like every helping, but I guarantee there's something for everyone at The Book Stew. Now sit down and grab a virtual spoon!

Friday, December 12, 2008

2009 Reading List

2009 was not a good year for me, reading-wise. At a certain point, I feel like I kinda gave up on reading books. I'm pretty sure it was my lowest "book book" reading year in quite a while. It just felt like I rarely sat down and read for pleasure. These are not in order, and show the tail end of my poetry reading phase and a lot of history books, relatively speaking.

2009 Reading List Grand Total: 29

Fiction (8)

  1. Best American Mysteries 2008 edited by George P. Pelecanos
  2. Best American Short Stories 2008 edited by Salman Rushdie
  3. Poe's Children, edited by Peter Straub
  4. Dick Tracy The Secret Files edited by Max Allan Collins and Martin H. Greenberg
  5. Star Trek 1 by James Blish
  6. Star Trek 2 by James Blish
  7. Star Trek 3 by James Blish
  8. The Trials of Rumpole by James Mortimer
Non-Fiction (14)
  1. Gettysburg Day Three by Jeffry D. Wert
  2. Steel Drivin' Man by Scott Reynolds Nelson
  3. Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War by Larry J. Daniel
  4. Amerigo The Man Who Gave Birth To America by Felipe Fernando-Armesto
  5. Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War by Tom Wheeler
  6. Supernatural Horror in Literature by HP Lovecraft
  7. Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
  8. Dewey The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter
  9. Lincoln's Youth by Lewis A. Warren
  10. Benny King of Swing designed by Lawrence Edwards
  11. The Battle of New Market by William C. Davis
  12. The Witness of Poetry by Czeslaw Milosz
  13. Chickamagua and Chattanooga: The Battles that Doomed the Confederacy by John Bowers
  14. Ghosts of Chicago by John McNally
Poetry (7)
  1. Domestic Interior by Stephanie Brown
  2. Olson's Penny Arcade by Elder Olson
  3. A Lume Spento by Ezra Pound
  4. Fire to Fire by Mark Doty
  5. My Alexandria by Mark Doty
  6. Other Fugitives and Other Strangers by Rigoberto Gonzales
  7. Side by Side edited by Jan Greenberg