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September 2004 Archives

September 27, 2004

Chazin - Fourth Angel

Suzanne Chazin
The Fourth Angel

This is Chazin's first book, and I liked it enought that I went out and chased down her second one.

Chazin is married to an official in FDNY and uses her connections and friendships to give a plausible tale of the workings of one of the more interesting civic institutions. Our heroine is a woman firefighter, a single mom, in her seventh year on the job, first year as a fire marshal investigating fires. As Chazin works us through a sequence of fires set by someone with a knowledge of high temperature accellerants and a grudge against the department, she is really telling two tales. It is a procedural, after all, and all procedurals tell two tales at least. The first is the plot, the folks chasing after the McGuffin, or solving the crime, or otherwise engaging in some moment of crisis and, in this genre, thrills. The second is the love story. The third, and the thing that gives much of the interest to a good procedural, is the biography of the institution, with its habits and personalities, customs and rules, and the inner workings of a job that, like all jobs, has its own inherent interest.

Chazin is very good at evoking the position of a woman in a male institution, starting at the very beginning when we see our heroine appearing at the sight of a fire right after drinking a large coffee, and once again facing the fact that there is never anyplace for a woman to pee. Her love story is a good back and forth showing two strong personalities, each lying to the other for purposes of the plot, each enjoying the other for their quirks, and each disliking the other for many of those same quirks. It sounds goofy, but it works. The major premise of the story, the plot, suffers from the usual problem of the rich criminal industrialist (whoops, I gave it away!) - but given the genre anytime you meet a rich philanthropist you can save time by assuming he is a criminal.

I wonder sometimes about the populism of the thriller, a realm populated by violent conspiracies led by rich men who want to get richer, or cover up the crimes that led them to wealth, but where virtue always lies with the guy, gal in this case, who lives off overtime pay. It has become a cliche.

That said, Chazin handles her cliche well enough that we are not quite sure what is going on until late in the book - either that or I read it while tired and forgot to cherchez le millionaire.

Good stuff, good fire procedural, good strong female lead, written shortly before 9/11.

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Card - First Meetings

Orson Scott Card
First Meetings in the Enderverse

This is a collection of four short stories, including the classic novella "Enders' Game." Everything Card writes is competant, but only some of it sings. Enders' Game sings. So too does the first third of his short story "The Polish Boy." The rest is, well, competant and fills in some of the gaps in his Enderverse.

I have to admit that much as I like the novella Enders' Game, I did not like the longer novel Enders' Game and was unable to read the three followup works. I know they are important. But, Card is at his best in the shorter formats. Somehow when he has to compress his tales down to their core, his gift for words and characters, morals and language, comes to the forefront. His longer works have too many words. And unlike a Mozart opera, this is not a good thing.

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September 24, 2004

Stirling - Dies the Fire

S. M. Stirling
Dies the Fire
New York : New American Library, 2004.

There is a genre of science fiction and fantasy that I refer to as the "re-enactors revenge": because of some plot device our characters are left in a situation where high tech does not work, but low tech does, and a few geeks who study the low tech life as a hobby suddenly become world-changing heros. It is a fine variant of the geeks' revenge that lies behind a lot of alternative fiction. And, like any genre and sub-genre, what matters for any particular book is not that it is geeks' revenge but that it is done well or done poorly; Eric Flint's 1632 was done very well and is one of the first books I recommend to new readers. An aside, some folks file Flint into alternate history, time travel, or Lord Kalvin, all of which sub-genres it also fits into. Any worthwhile piece of writing can be classified several different ways.

One recent set of changes on the geeks' revenge is one that I call The Technology Goes Away, a variant on The Magic Goes Away. Larry Niven's short story of the same name, and his subsequent fiction in the same world, discuss a well thought out society built around working magic which discovers that mana, the source of magic, is a limited resource that is being consumed, and as it is consumed the magical technology that drives their society fails. In The Technology Goes Away, a plot device alters the basic laws of physics in a technological world, society collapses, no high energy devices work, and people re-create the medieval world, but with modern political science and modern low-energy technology.

The earliest example of The Technology Goes Away that I am aware of is John Ringo's There Will be Dragons in which he takes a future nanotech society that does indeed feel like magic, breaks it, and creates a world that looks distressingly like Gary Gygax's work from the 1980s. I found Dragons to be pretty good, his followup The Emerals Sea was a distressingly stupid book. The only other example of The Technology Goes Away that I have found is S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire which I finished reading the other night.

Ringo spends the first quarter of Dragons introducing characters, setting up his war between good and evil, and producing a series of plot devices that will give him his world made of: technological magic; elves, dwarves and dragons; Roman legionaries fighting the orc hordes; and so on. In contrast, Stirling introduces us to the two main characters in the moment where the technology goes away. This is a plot device, and he does not try to give an explanation. Instead we know what the characters know, and all they figure out is that there was a flash of light, high energy explosions don't work - including gunpowder and gasoline - high energy steam becomes low energy steam, and electricity fails utterly. They speculate on the why, but they don't know and Stirling does not tell us.

Stirling wrote some mindless dreck during the 1980s - The High Lifters and David's Sling come to mind - but Over the last decade Stirling has matured as an author, going from someone to avoid to someone to seek out. This is a smart book - like David's Sling - and it is also a well composed and well written book. His characters are uncommon folks - a former Force Recon Marine who became a bush pilot in the Northwest, a folk singer who is high priestess of a high-church Wiccan coven "think of us as Anglicans," and as crucial sidekicks a black Texas rodeo cowboy turned horse trainer and blacksmith and a former British marine turned avid bowhunter who manages to get into a predicament and then be saved by the Wiccan priestess. But, only uncommon folks in a somewhat rural environment are likely to survive the human catastrophe that Stirling posits as communication and food distribution break down, food production breaks down as the farm tractors and powered water pumps all fail, law and order breaks down, and the cities burn.

He places these folks on the edges of the Williamette valley in Oregon, arguing that only on the truck-farming fringes between urban density and rural factory farms are people likely to find enough old infrastructure to make the transition from modern technology to bastard technology: swords beaten out of car springs, horses pulling wagons made out of fiberglass, and so on.

Stirling goes from there, and by about partway through it is clear that he has chosen the classic fantasy structure of the evil overlord expanding his evil empire, blocked by a loose coalition of free states. The interesting thing in all this is that all of the roles are played by modern people who are adapting skills and hobbies that they once knew to modern situations, and who are combining their knowledge of medieval history with modern political science, sociology, and low energy technology. And so we see the Marine leading a group of knights - chainmail, horsebow, sabre, and a support system. The singer leads a Scottish clan - bagpipes, plaids, and a lot of Wiccans following the threefold rule. Other minor groups are the loose coalition of ranchers to the east of the Williamette valley, a university town that organizes itself like, well, a medieval free city or university complete to the town council and militia, and various strongmen who set themselves up as barons or warlords.

What I found impressive was that, even after I figured out that Stirling was moving towards the evil overlord v. the coalition of the free, each of the individual decisions and actions was relatively plausible.

What I also found impressive was that magic works - or psychology works and the people find that it feels like magic. Lets just say that the Wiccan singer is very lucky, that when she loses her temper and calls up a battle frenzy people get a battle frenzy, and when she leads a religious ritual we see it from her perspective and she experiences something. Stirling is making a point - he has some control over the characters after all - but he does so in the same manner that, say, Richard Bushman discusses the visions of Joseph Smith or that David D. Hall discusses the visions
seen by seventeenth-century Puritans. We have no idea whether this person was contacted by the Divine, but we can be pretty sure that they "thought" they had been contacted by the divine, and that they changed their actions after this moment of contact. The rest is speculation and can be resolved at a later date, as Franklin said of life after death.

It was a good book, although I was ready for it to end 50 pages before it ended. It was a smart book, smarter than Ringo's The Emerald Sea. It was written with an eye to a sequel - branding and series are the way to go these days - and I do hope that it sells well enough that we will see the rest of them.

Good stuff.

EDIT - Spelling and grammar, corrected misattributions, added links to Bushman and Hall. 10/2/04

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September 21, 2004

Heinlein - To Sail Beyond Sunset

Robert A. Heinlein
To Sail Beyond Sunset

This is one of RAH's old age books. And, like a lot of his later work, it has a distinctive set of flaws that make it very different from his earlier work. The best way to describe this thing is that it is three books in one.

The first, the best, and the most interesting, is the fictional narrative of Maureen Johnson Smith - familiar to RAH fans as the mother of Woodrow Wilson Smith aka Lazarus Long. Heinlein tells her tale of growing up in the 1880s, marrying, and raising a family in St. Louis Missouri in the early 20th century - a tale close in time and place to RAH's own biography, and so it shares some of the wonder and exploration of the era.

The second, and the most jarring, is Maureen's channelling of Heinlein's particular package of cranky complaints about the modern world. Some of these will be familiar - Heinlein does not care for the Dr. Spock approach to child care, thinks that the baby boomers and their ilk destroyed the republic through permissiveness and lax laws, and wishes for a world with a higher level of personal responsibility and interpersonal respect. While riding this hobby horse he says some things that are powerful and true - respect for others and for one's self - and some things that are just silly - historians must both tell the truth, stick to the facts, and tell their audience that what their nation does is always good. (More on that on the main blog soon.)

The third, and least interesting part of the pastiche, is Maureen's second career in cloud-cuckoo-land. During the 1980s Heinlein took his future society from the worlds of Lazarus Long, combined it with some time-travel notions, and then used this to meld together all of his various time-lines, all of his various characters, and a few things stolen from Frank L. Baum. He created some sort of a future where everyone is rejuvenated, married, has sex and makes babies, engages in complex lineal marriages, has long conversations in which I really can not tell the various speakers and personalities apart, and sometimes goes back in time to adjust one or another of the various time-lines in his alternate histories of the Earth. Of course, at this point the characters become interchangeable, the plot a bit of wish fulfillment, and we are left with a pretty good guess of what Heinlein's notion of heaven is, and a weak story. Paradise is always less compelling than Hell, and while Heinlein's paradise was reasonably interesting the first time I read it, it quickly became tedious after appearing in most of his later work.

And yet, I turned the pages and finished the book. Maureen is a compelling, if sometimes frustratingly self-righteous character.

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September 17, 2004



It was a slight and entertaining comic book action movie. Just a couple of thoughts really:
- Nazis make such wonderful villains.
- Rasputin makes a fine name to conjure with, but their villain of that name has NOTHING in common with the illiterate Russian peasant who brought down the Romanovs.
- Why is it that the bad guys get HUGE underground complexes filled with complicated and violent clockwork? Who maintains this stuff? Who dug those tunnels? Why can't I afford a proper basement in my little house?
- Americans really do prefer free will to predestination, and this movie was yet another chance to have the media tell us that free will beats predestination.
- H.P. Lovecraft is influential; gotta love devils and dark gods who are basically very big squid with too many eyes.

That is all. It was a slight, but vaguely entertaining movie. It only challenged my disbelief every other scene - how do you have a secret organization when demons from Hell are trashing subway trains and rampaging through street festivals? At least Men in Black had the memory flash devices. This movie just tells the audience that a talking head on TV can deny it ever happened. Then again, look at what Dick Cheney has been able to say about Iraq. I might be a bit idealistic.

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Scottoline - Legal Tender

Scottoline, Lisa.
Legal tender
New York : HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.

This is a perfectly readable thriller. Our heroine is a tall, athletic, lawyer in Philadelphia. Her ex-boyfriend and current law partner is murdered, she is framed for his murder, and she goes on the run while trying to figure out who really did it.

The plot is a fairly straightrforward running detective. The fun part, for me, was the local color and her picture of life in a big legal firm. Scottoline worked in Philadelphia for a while and has written a mess of Grisham-lite novels set in her home town. I think I have found a new source of light reading.

As for this one - it kept me reading. I read late night, while working with insomnia, and I think I need to check the conclusion because I have forgotten exactly what motive she gave the final killer - I think I was distracted by the improbable final confrontation. Other than the conclusion, which was silly, the body of the book is a perfectly reasonable light read. I had a fun hour or so flipping pages.

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Card - Tales of Alvin Maker

Orson Scott Card
Seventh Son - 1987
Red Prophet - 1988
Prentice Alvin - 1989
Journeyman Alvin - 1995
Heartfire - 1998
The Crystal City - 2003
TBA - future publication

Card has started an extensive series of stories about an alternate Joseph Smith living in an alternate United States. I don't normally like to read fiction set within my time period - the nagging inconsistencies bother me. I liked these, both because it is sufficiently fantasy-based to be different, and because Card is relying on a good set of historical sources as he draws his characters and personalities.

He has written six of his seven books so far. I have read Richard Bushman's very good biography of Joseph Smith, so I know what will happen in the seventh volume.

What I found fun about these was the twists and turns that Card makes with the historical record. What I found impressive, especially for a historical fiction, was that Card's versions of the founders and the second generation are pretty close to my take on the guys. Card introduces Franklin, William Blake (exported from England for this tale), John Adams, Andrew Jackson and others to his alternate history. Each of these is reasonably recognizable as the historical figure. They appear in cameos, so we don't expect much depth, and Card takes one aspect or facet of this historical person's character and presents it fairy clearly. His John Adams is stubborn, principled, and difficult. His Abe Lincoln is an idealized verion of the affable (failed) storekeeper, before he starts his second career as a railroad lawyer. His Calhoun, who lives in the Stuart kingdom that occupies what would be the Chesapeake and the Carolinas, is cranky because he wants to be king but never will be.

The other neat thing about these books is his notion of a knack. Magic works in this world. White men organize their natural talent into knacks - the ability to do something easily, effectively, and with little effort. Some knacks involve other people - a knack for seeing who is lying, a knack for showing people the side of themselves they like to see - other knacks involve the physical world - a knack for fitting things together, or finding water with a dowsing stick, or handling horses. Indians, in Card's vision, organize themselves around a greenway of communion with nature, blacks build fetishes and dolls, but all have the same innate magical talents. In fact, Indians in his Iroquois Confederacy, who take over early industrialization from his New England, are all bound up in iron and steam, and have knacks like the white men.

I liked this in part because his notion of a knack matches up with the early 19th century notion of a genius. These days we think of genius as a state of general brilliance. Folks at the time thought of genius as a particular talent for acting or thinking. John Quincy Adams spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was the nature of his genius - he never quite figured it out. It also matches with the avocation, that which we like to do, and reminds us that one secret to success and happines is to find your avocation and make it your vocation - work at what you like and at what you do well. (An aside, I like history but am not all that good at doing it. Am I following my avocation?)

These are a nice read. I am writing them up as a block because I read them as a block. They are all parts of a single long tale. And, I suspect that the telling will be far more interesting than the conclusoin. By the end of Crystal City we can see Card already setting up his version of Nauvoo, complete with violation of state and national laws, aggressive local militia, and angry neighbors.

If you like these novels, read Bushman's biography.

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Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin
2 DVD disk of concert footage.

Historians sometimes refer to "gutting" a book - skimming the introduction and conclusion to get the gist of the argument, then reading only those chapters or sections that bear directly on your particular research problem, then discarding the rest of the book unread or barely skimmed.

I gutted this DVD - I had neither time nor ears to sit through that much concert footage. I did, however, want to see some examples of the things that Stephen Davis had described in Hammer of the Gods. So I watched Dazed and Confused to see and hear for myself what the bowed guitar sounded like in live performance; the toddler (who loves drums) and I watched Moby Dick and Bonham's drum solo; I watched the Immigrant Song from an 1972 LA performance, four guys and a LOT of noise and that was more than enough.

I was once again amazed at both the amount and the thickness of the sound that a good power trio can produce. And, I was reminded that Led Zep, like The Who and The Stones, may have had its flamboyant front men, but the core of the band's sound was the rhythm section. As a former Bass player, I like to listen to the rhythm section.

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Davis - Hammer of the Gods

Stephen Davis
Hammer of the Gods
New York : Boulevard Books, 1997.

As long as I was on a Led Zep kick, I decided to read Stephen Davis's biography of the band.

Davis tells two, perhaps three intertwined stories.

The first is the tale of two music industry professionals (Page and Jones) who got together with two talented kids from Northern England (Plant and Bonham) to play hard blues. The band then evolved to include Crowleyite mysticism, English traditional music, psychedelic drones, and a LOT of noise. Along the way they retained a structure of hard rock music with extensive dynamic shifts, tempo changes, and thick overlaid textures within a dense pudding of guitar, bass, and drums.

The second is the tale of excess. What happens if you take four young men, couple them with a crew of people devoted to keeping them happy and productive, send them out on the road for months on end, get them drunk, and tell them that no matter what they want to do, they can do it. Almost unlimited money and a crew of people devoted to protecting you from the consequences of your actions is a heady brew at any age, especially for a 20-something rocker with a fondness for alcohol and drugs. Aleister Crowley wrote "do what thou wilt, is the whole of the law" - without the modern Wiccan provision "an it harm none" - and the boys followed Crowley's advice.

This sort of release was liberating for many. One of the most telling anecdotes in Davis' long book of anecdotes was one morning as the band was checking out of their hotel. As usual, they and their roadies and groupies had trashed the place the night before, taking especial pleasure in flinging large TV sets off the 10th-floor balcony to watch them shatter in the parking long below. As the band manager was digging into his bag of cash - the band travelled with thousands in cash just to pay their bills - the hotel manager commented that he had himself often been tempted to chuck a TV off the balcony. The band manager grinned, peeled off another $500 bill, and said "'ere, 'ave one on us." The hotel manager thanked him and went upstairs. A few minutes later there was a huge crash from the parking lot and broken glass once again bounced off the cars and tour busses. The manager came down with a great big grin on his face and thanked the band for the pleasure they had just given him.

Davis organizes a lot of his narrative around the Jeckyl and Hyde nature of the band, using John Bonham as his metaphor for the entire crew of musicians, managers, and roadies. Bonham was a fairly gentle young man, kind and generous. But only while sober. Once he got drunk he turned into a sort of hair-trigger trap. He got more effusive and more generous until something - anything - went wrong, at which point he turned into a raving, screaming, cursing lunatic, raging around breaking anything and anyone that came to hand. They called this aspect of his personality The Beast. The odd thing was that not only did the Beast only come out when Bonham was drunk, he mostly only drank when on tour or when hanging around with other musicians. At home he was reasonable enough that by the late 1970s his neighbors approached him about serving as local Justice of the Peace - he declined. Musicians who destroy themselves and their talent through excess and debauchery are a cliche - no episode of VH1's various musical biographies would be complete without a segment on hard times and self destruction - but Davis reminds us that just as Led Zeppelin took the music that everyone else was playing and played it harder, faster, and with more dynamic changes, so too did they take their excess to striking and unusual levels.

It is a sad story in many ways. It is sad to read of someone who will walk into a bar, order 20 black russians, pound 10 of them, then turn around and try to pick a fight. It is sad to read of a perfectionist geek who gets caught first in cocaine and then in heroin. Finally, it is sad to read about the post Zep careers of Plant and Page. Davis argues that of the four, Jones was the only survivor. And he survived because, in large part, he steered clear of the flying circus that formed the rest of the band, often travelling alone, living elsewhere, and only appearing for showtime.

After the band formally broke up, Page and Plant sometimes got together for benefits or other performances. On some of these occasions, Jones was invited and joined them. At least once Jason Bonham, Bonzo's son who had jammed with the band as a teenager, sat in on drums. Davis points out that Page and Plant together produced a sound that was thin and forced, a parody of their earlier collaberation. When Jones sat in, they sounded like Led Zeppelin again. But, just as Jones had snubbed the rest of the band during their party frenzy, Plant and Page snubbed Jones after the band broke up, and so they all went their separate ways, none of them as creative or effective as they had been as a coherent unit.

I think I need to chase down some of Jason Bonham's music.

There is a lot of prurient material in the book. There are a lot of sad stories in the book. There are some wonderful anecdotes about the origins and evolution of the music. I am glad I read it. As I write this brief commentary, I have Led Zep's first 8 albums running in an iTunes party shuffle.

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September 15, 2004

Kent Haruf - Plainsong

Kent Haruf.
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Recorded Books Performance by Tom Stechschulte.

This is another book that reads like it wanted to be one of Oprah's picks. There is nothing wrong with that - I finished the book after all - but it is most definitely chick lit despite being written by a guy.

Haruf tells an interwoven story of Tom Guthrie, a high school teacher who is separating from his wife, his two boys, Victoria Rubedoux (spelling - audiobooks you know) a pregnant high school student, and the McFerrin brothers, two old ranchers who are friends of Tom and who take in Victoria to live on their cattle farm.

I liked the book because I did like most of the characters, because I was curious to see what would happen, and because I liked Haruf's little vignettes of rural life. I disliked it for two reasons, one the fault of Haruf and the other the fault of Stechschulte who did the reading.

Haruf jumps and skips across time: each chapter is a brief look at a few hours in the day of one of his focus characters, and we cover most of a year by skipping like a rock over a pond. Towards the end I got quite frustrated because I wanted to see more of the space between rock bounces, and instead Haruf left that space, and the ripples spread by each contact, as an exercise for the reader. Perhaps I have gotten used to non-fiction writing that goes out of its way to spell out why each chapter matters, but I found it frustrating to have to speculate about what happened in and around Haruf's little vignettes.

Stechschulte has a wonderful gravelly bass-baritone. He did a fine job with the laconic Tom Guthrie, with the McFerrin brothers, with the two boys, with Maggie Jones - another teacher and the Fifth Business in the plot - and with scene setting. His other women were all weak, plaintive and passive. And, while Victoria is supposed to be a passive character, he over-emphasized that aspect of her nature. Worse, he used the same voice for Guthrie's estranged and clinically depressed wife. Stechschulte has a similar problem with angry voices. He has one voice for angry, and he used it for the violent high school boy, for the boy's nasty parents, for Victoria's boyfriend when he lost his temper, for a simply testy shopkeeper explaining to Victoria how to do a job, for some minor characters who lose their tempers at various points, in short, every scene that was not flat description or dialogue involving one of the main characters was in just a couple of voices, and the one angry voice Stechschulte uses can not display the varieties and meanings of all the characters who are other than perfectly polite. It distracted me from the book and almost made me halt before finishing - I was listening to the book despite the narrator rather than because of the narrator.

Finally, I discovered that I had to stop the book every time someone got angry, because Haruf has all of his angry characters use potty language. There is nothing wrong with that, people tend to curse when expressing strong emotions, but it meant that if I had the kids with me I had to stop the tape. The toddler is old enough to repeat words, but not old enough to understand the discussion about potty language. I can't insist that the world be made g-rated for my convenience, but just as I lose respect for people who can not express themselves without using potty language, I also have less respect for writers who can only display an angry character by having them speak potty language.

It was an adequate book - good enough that I finished it, not so good that I will be looking for more by the same author.

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Andrea Tone - Devices & Desires

Andrea Tone
Devices & Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America
New York: Hill & Wang, 2001

This book got a lot of press last year when the New York Museum of Sex opened. I finally got around to reading it last weekend.

Tone's subtitle is misleading: this is a book about contraception in the United States from 1873 to the 1990s. She opens her tale with the Comstock Act of 1873 which made it a federal crime to transmit birth control information through the U.S. Mails, and continues the tale from the subsequent period of illegal and semi-legal birth control through the invention of The Pill and the subsequent failed search for better alternatives to the pill.

She is strongest on the early parts of the book, telling of Comstock and people like Julius Schmidt, the crippled German immigrant who figured out how to adopt sausage-making machinery to condom production, and in her final chapter where she looks at the search for a better alternative to the pill, the consequences of the medicalization of birth control in the United States, and the lingering misogyny in reproductive management. Elsewhere, her writing suffers from several of the same faults I find in my own work: paragraphs that trail off into nowhere, a narrative that gets sidetracked and distracted, and a tendency to get so caught up in describing the "what" that she forgets to keep a focus on the "so what." In short, it is an adequately-written book about an important subject in which she introduces a lot of new material and convincingly describes the shift from a commercial to a medical model of birth control.

I should say more, but I have class prep and this is a blog not a formal book review. Good book, glad I read it, others should read it.

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September 08, 2004



A year or so ago Bravo ran a series profiling struggling young actors as they auditioned and tried to make the big time. J and I watched it - a break from Food TV - and liked one of the guys, Jeremy Renner. At the end of that series, he got a big break and was offered a 6-figure contract to do the movie S.W.A.T. We never saw it in theaters, but this weekend the movie followed me home from the library.

So, what was this movie? It was a perfectly reasonable action movie. It raised some suspense as the SWAT team hunted down the bad guy; there were the appropriate moments of impending doom; the loud bits were loud; the quiet bits were quiet; it was a genre piece and a perfectly acceptable genre piece.

One of the conventions of the genre is that a committed parent working a dangerous job will have a family tragedy. Two of the SWAT team were parents; I was nervous to see where and how the inevitable tragedy would occur; I won't tell you what it was or who it happened to.

As expected, Renner did a nice job playing the villain of the piece. Colin Farrel is a fun actor who did a nice job with an adequate script - Top Gun in a SWAT uniform, with the tough chick from Aliens II riding shotgun. I was watching late night while folding laundry, with the volume turned down to nothing, so I was reading the dialogue on subtitles more than I was listening to people delivering their lines, but it worked well enough.

For what the movie is, it did it well enough. It is not art, but it was entertainment.

I have also been reading some, but am behind on blogging my reading.

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September 02, 2004

Waugh - Vile Bodies

Evelyn Waugh
Vile Bodies

One of the weblogs I frequent was praising this as Waugh's funniest book - it might be the basis for a forthcoming moving picture.

So, I summoned it and tried it.

This is social satire aimed at a people and a society. It failed, at least for me. I see no reason to read a book in which all of the characters are detestable and the world they live in is both banal and brutal. Waugh did make fun of his characters, and he projected his world into a near future dystopie, but I got no pleasure in reading about people I did not like being made fun of. It was an exercise in being mean. And mean for its own sake is boring. So I stopped reading it.

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Francis - Hot Money

Dick Francis
Hot Money
Audiobook performed by Simon Prebble

Dick Francis is the perfect middlebrow author. That might be why I like his stuff so much. His characters are all essentially capable people, a mark of popular fiction, but they are also flawed, aware of their flaws, and working within the realm of human strengths and weaknesses, a mark of literature. He writes like a duck: the prose moves along so smoothly that you don't realize how hard he must have paddled to create the illusion of effortless motion. He is not a swan, it is not elegant prose, but it is clear and at times quite powerful, and that is enough. More than enough at times.

Hot Money is a novel about dysfunctional families and the corrosive and yet healing roles of memory. Our hero is a middle son of a rich, effective father who has had 5 wives and a great pack of kids. Three were divorced, one died in a car crash, the 5th was murdered before the book begins. The book is about our hero's attempts to save his father from a series of murder attempts while deducing which of the people in this great big unhappy family is trying to do in the pater familias for the hunks and hunks of inheritance.

It might be that I am exploring my own midlife crisis, but I found the most compelling parts of the book to be those where Ian, our narrator, speculates on paths taken and not taken, on how easy it is to become a drone, and how rare it is to find something that one really loves to do. His ethos is that of the striving middling class - happiness consists in finding an avocation and working at it. Again, this is part of why he is a comforting novelist for someone like myself who is hopelessly middle class, and who is struggling to achieve an avocation against my own inner drone.

Finally, in this as in his other works, Francis has a pure joy in finding things out and sharing them with his readers. People who comment about what makes a blog fly generally mention that the thing that makes a blog compelling is that the author cares about her subject. The same is true in class, I will come to some aspect of history that I care about and I can feel the intensity in my voice rise, my body language shift, my speech tempo increase, and the kids respond - they sit up, the eyes open, and they perceive that this is something that matters to me. They may ignore me, that happens, but just like the a dance floor will give a collective shimmy when the bagpipes kick in, so too do the students react when I get onto one of my rolls.

Dick Francis shares an excitement about the world, that is his most attractive trait as a novelist. In his early novels this excitement was the joy of horse racing, or of flying, and his books are procedurals explaining what people do in these exotic occupations and sharing with the reader why Francis had so much fun when he was riding or flying. In his later novels, Francis turns this joy in life to a joy of finding about other things and sharing those with his readers. It might be the alcohol industry (Proof) or finance (Banker) or anything. In Hot Money it is not so much high finance as the basic procedurals. At one point Ian lectures his father on how to file a will with the English national registry so as to avoid probate difficulties, and while Dick Francis is using his fiction to impart a lesson in using the machinery of the state he is also sharing a certain fascination with the people and procedures that make a civil society work. Francis writes procedurals; he is fascinated with all the little things that people do when making their lives and their jobs work; and that fascination comes through the printed page.

It is why I like his novels.

Oh, and Francis' plain style and Prebble's very good reading combine to make this a very good audiobook indeed. I have read all of Dick Francis in paper; I think I shall start dropping his audiobooks into the car rotation.

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Red Ted
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