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« May, 2003 »

The State of Stony Lonesome   book icon  
by Jessamyn West (1984)

read: 29 May 2003
rating: [+]
category: uncategorized

This book was published the year that Jessamyn West died, and it appears that it was printed posthumously. As a result, a bittersweet tale of life in rural California becomes even more bittersweet because there are no Jessamyn West books after this one. There may be one or two I haven’t completely finished, and some stories I haven’t ferreted out, But I think this was the last JW novel I hadn’t yet even started

The story reads a bit like South of the Angels -- a small rural farming town, a bunch of interesting characters, not all good, not all bad -- and some thigns that happen to them. it all sounds quite prosaic and perhaps in a lesser writer’s hands it would be but West manages to really wring depth and character out of even the most dull-seeming individuals: the postmistress, the local toughs, the little brother character. Some of these people seem modelled on West’s own family and seem more like archetypes from many of her stories instead of just single characters in a single story.

Darwin’s Children   book icon  
by Greg Bear (2003)

read: 27 May 2003
rating: [+]
category: uncategorized

This book is a sequel to Darwin’s Radio the semi-dystopian novel that imagines a future in which evolution isn’t gradual, it’s sudden and a new species of human is born that are sort of human, but not quite. The US government, predictably, freaks out and these new children become outcasts and their parents become criminals. In this book, it’s ten years later, there are camps for the children set up all over the US and the remaining ones are being hunted by bounty hunters. The US is in a state of emergency because no one quite understands what is causing these children to be born or whether they are in some way harmful or dangerous. Of course, they also have new “features” such as communicating via scent and patterns of colored freckles on their faces.

Bear is a capable enough storyteller so this doesn’t just turn into a bad government versus the good families tale. It’s also now a brave new world where people all get along utopian piece either. All the characters, save a few, have nuances of personality that make them not all good and not all bad. While this book is readable without reading the first one, it’s a quick enough read that it’s worth the extra context you get from reading the first one first.

The RE/search Guide to Bodily Fluids   book icon  
by Paul Spinrad (1999)

read: 20 May 2003
rating: [+]
category: uncategorized

It goes without saying that if you are squeamish, do not read this book. That said, I am not grossed out by discussions of toilet habits, menstrual rituals, farting or snot. In fact, it’s interesting to get to read a book about the things that it’s tough to converse about in polite company. Spinrad approaches the topic of the things that come out of our bodies with a detached yet not clinical approach. He is clearly interested in the topic, so his discussions are germane and his commentary is detailed and researched. On the other hand, he is not fetishistic so while the book spends a fair amount of time on people’s wiping habits when they take a dump, it does not venture into coprophilia, at least not that I remembered.

Spinrad collected much of the data for his book from usenet queries and as a result his sample set may be skewed towards the online crowd, but I really wonder if they wipe their butts differently from anyone else. While the book’s design and layout were less nifty than I have come to expect from REsearch books [the sidebars were just black and white images of what I must assume were intestines, colons and rectums] the text was compelling and I learned a lot from this book.

The King in the Tree   book icon  
by Steven Millhauser (2003)

read: 19 May 2003
rating: [+]
category: uncategorized

I would read his laundry list. Millhauser has some of those excellent qualities you hope you find in a writer whose work you really enjoy: recurring themes, likable characters, and fresh material. After reading Martin Dressler, I was a little worried that all of Millhauser’s books would include a whimsical multi-layered and yet ultimately hopeless theme park. This book -- which is actually a collection of three novellas only loosely thematically linked -- revisits that theme but in a completely new way, bringing in some of the automaton history that I was delighted with in some of Kurzweil’s works.

All of Millhauser’s plots contain very straighforward and easily stated plots: jilted wife shows house to dead husband’s lover, Don Juan actually falls in love, King suspects and does not suspect Queen of cheating, over and over. This leaves him more time for description, which is his forte, and subtlety, which is his secret skill. All these novellas stand alone equally well and yet gain a certain amount of depth by being juxtaposed with one another. If you have been waiting for this nwe book, you will not be disappointed.

The Basque History of the World   book icon  
by Mark Kurlansky (1999)

read: 19 May 2003
rating: [+]
category: uncategorized

Kurlansky has a strange niche for himself as the chronicler of the underdog. He writes about Jews, fishermen, salt farmers and, in this book, the Basque people. Strangely, all of these stories intersect in odd ways which you only discover once you have read them all. This book is likemany of his others, he describes the thing by writing short, readable chapters about its composite parts and somehow winds up describing a whole. This is a difficult task in this book because the Basque people can be described so many ways and have such a rich and complicated history. Their culture predates the nations in which they live and while they have lent much of their business and industrial talents, they seem to have gotten very little in return.

Kurlanky goes to Basque country and meets people and describes what he finds. He goes back in time to many of the turning points in Basque history, from the early whalers in the 1500’s to Guernica during World War Two. He descibes rituals and politics and while it is clear which side he is usually on -- as the champoin of the underdog, natch -- he manages to give the appearance of a balanced presentation. The facts are rich, the citations varied and the overall effect is one of actually getting to know a people, not simply reading a history book about them.

Solaris   book icon  
by Stanislaw Lem (1987)

read: 15 May 2003
rating: [+]
category: fiction

Even though this book was written in 1961, the English translation didn’t show up until the seventies. It got major distribution in the eighties and was finally made into a “major motion picture” last year. The cover of my book has George Clooney on it, guh.

I haven’t read any Lem since college when I read many of the books in his Pirx the Pilot series. Each of these involved a sort of everyman space traveller and the strange worlds he would encounter. It was more like Calvino than Star Trek, this spaceman was no conqueror. This book seems like a more fleshed out version of one of those stories: an astronaut/scientist comes to a space station to continue some research on a planet that consists almost entirely of a sentient ocean being and finds that things have gone wrong. Really wrong.

Lem can be vague to the point of sometimes beign obscure and I always feel a little dumb reading his books as if I were supposed to infer more about the plot than I actually did. This does tend to up the creep factor of his books a lot, since you never quite know what is happening, you also have no way of knowing what is going to happen next. In this book I also felt that I did not know quite what had happened when I got to the last page, so I put it down feeling a little confused. Lem is sci fo for people who love literature. Skip the movie and read the book.

Distraction   book icon  
by Bruce Sterling (1998)

read: 10 May 2003
rating: [+]
category: uncategorized

Political spin is the central character of this novel, even though the ostensible main character is a political spin-meister named Oscar. Oscar seems just a little bit quicker and sharper than nearly everyone around him -- this may be the fault of his odd, even transhuman genetics. He constanly uses this to his advantage, and usually that of others, by manipulating situations, running candidates for office, choosing his mates based on their political relevance, and almost never sleeping. He seems like he would be tiring to be around and yet in Sterling’s capable hands he becomes the man to watch. The book gains depth because the reader is aware earlier than the other characters, just how much of Oscar’s character is made up of controlling his environment and manipulating to advantage.

The book is set in the not-too-distant future where the US has become a much less imposing player in the world arena and seems to spend a lot of its time trying to assuage emergency after emergency situation as the 12 major political parties vie for strength and position. With food nearly free thanks to industry and no one minding the store due to rampant chaos, a culture of nomads has arisen who eat pre-fab food and manufacture laptops and cell phones from the detritus of industrialized society and the junk culture of technology. They’re fun to watch but ultimately as crazy as everyone else within the bounds of the continental US. This book is no more deep than any of Sterling’s others, and fans of his more cyber books may regret not seeing more nomads and less political wonks, but the book does deliver and keep you moving through it wondering who is going to outsmart who next.

Stuck Rubber Baby   book icon  
by Howard Cruse (2000)

read: 7 May 2003
rating: [+]
category: uncategorized

This graphic novel is a combination coming of age in the south and coming out story. Told as an extensive flashback, it traces the fight for integration in a fictional town in the South while it also explores the narrator’s sexual and political awakening. Cruse is a well known and respected illustrator and storyteller and the way he interweaves both threads of the narration make this a capitvating read.

The story is full of all kinds of intrique, both political and sexual. While it rarely ventures into super-graphic territory [it’s strictly a PG tale except for some language, and maybe a breast or two] it does manage to highlight an entire culture’s worth of stumbling points and conflicts both inside and outside of the movement. No one is perfect, and some people deal with this better than others. Some of the characters, most notably the most “out” white male in the story -- the starting role model for the narrator -- undergo rapid and not always understandable personality changes. the story, like many political fables, can be heavy-handed at times, but Cruses' knack for keeping the plot central to everything keeps it flowing smoothly. The sheer number of supporting characters that this novel has and their complex interrelationships help you understand why Stuck Rubber Baby was four years in the making.

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