Archive for May, 2010

Review: The Big Sleep

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Raymond Chandler is one of those authors who you often hear transcends his genre; he writes mysteries, but is (today)well regarded by most readers.  I’m a man who likes genre fiction, so the genre thing isn’t really off-putting to me.  And yet, it’s taken me this long to read any Chandler.

That’s a mistake I regret.  It’s sad to have lived this long without meeting Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in the flesh before.

The Big Sleep is an impressive display of writing on many levels.  First is Chandler’s unique prose style.  Even if you’ve never read Chandler, you’ve heard echos of this; everyone writing a tough-guy spoof or a noir mystery has taken a swing at it.  Reading the original tells you why this voice has become so universally recognized.  Descriptions are minimal and impressionistic, and filled out with colloquialisms and apt but unexpected similies.  Anyone who’s ever read a mystery that’s vaguely noir recognizes the formula, but watching Chandler execute it is the difference between seeing U2 in a club and hearing a tribute band on the radio.

His prose is so minimalist and powerful that even with the concentrated text, all the images necessary to follow the story are tattooed into your mind’s eye.  With each word condensed to its most potent form, it would be easy to lose important detail, but I never needed to fill in any blanks here.

The use of the 1930’s slang could be distracting and confusing, but  the clear storytelling somehow makes the specific meaning of any slang unimportant.  Again, it shows how well constructed the prose is – the bits of verisimilitude don’t interfere with the meaning.  This frees the reader to enjoy the slang of a bygone era without reservation, and it is a source of great joy.  I hope that people really did talk that way in the 30’s.

There’s plenty of what modern readers would call period detail that’s just part of the story here.  I particularly enjoyed how Marlowe often comments about tough guys arranging themselves the same way as gangsters in the movies do.

Finally, people tend to think of noir dramas as taking place in generic dark cities – again the influence of the movies.  The Big Sleep is set in Los Angeles – west LA and Hollywood, really – and there’s never any doubt about it.  That’s where I live these days, and following Marlowe around my environs time-shifted 80 years gives the story a ghostly undercurrent.  I recognize settings despite the maze of time between me and Marlowe.  Even if you’ve never been to LA, that feeling of place comes through clearly.

There’s a mystery in here, too, if that’s your thing, and from what I can tell, a good one.  I won’t remember the details of the clues or when Marlowe figured what out for very long, but I’ll always remember The Big Sleep.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Eclipse

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

And so I find myself in Forks, again.

Eclipse is the third book of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, and she continues to write well.  Part of the success in sustaining the quality is that she does seem to be telling one story with several arcs to it.

Here in the third book, the consequences of Bella’s decisions and mistakes begin to catch up with her.  Edward and Jacob the werewolf are fleshed out some more, and the plot moves forward in both drama and melodrama. We also get some interesting lessons in the history of vampirism and learn the secret origins of more of the Cullen family.  Everyone’s world is changing as they see their prejudices challenged, and feel the future coming to meet them.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of plot, and the writing style is the same.  If you like Twilight, you’ll enjoy this.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

There’s a whole lotta vampires around here lately.  (Not to mention the alternate history.)

Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a pastiche of Lincoln biographies (practically a genre of history unto themselves) and horror films, in the vein of the same author’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It works better than it has a right to, really, and as long as one doesn’t think about it too hard, it’s a good time.

Grahame-Smith writes a gripping yarn well, and is adept at aping the genre conventions of both sides of his literary coin. Several chapter transitions seem taken directly from recent Lincoln bios, and the action is all fun and cinematic.  If you know who these historical figures are, it’s fun to see how Grahame-Smith recasts them.  If you’ve never heard of them, you still get a good story of war against vampires.

In this world, vampires are allied with the South for the access to food that slavery brings them.  Lincoln’s prosecution of the Civil War is not so much to preserve the Union as to stamp out the vampires. And therein lies the part of the book that’s problematical.

Certainly the nation’s motivations in the Civil War were complex and not always on the high road; more to the point, Lincoln’s own motivations were never cut and dried.  However, making actual inhuman monsters into the cause of Civil War cheapens the conflict a little more than I’d like for such a light book.  Furthermore, with the introduction of a national conspiracy of “good” vampires (called “the Union”), humans in general are made bit players in the struggle.

Now, there is something conceptually nice about tying slavery to vampirism.  It’s difficult to take an apologist for actual, actual, actual vampires seriously and one should consider slavery apologists in the same vein.  And yet, I still think it simplifies the struggle more than it should.

Now, I have a bad tendency to over analyze, well, everything.  I honestly don’t think that Vampire Hunter stands up to such scrutiny, but I don’t think it’s intended to.  Read as a rip-roaring vampire yarn with occasional winks and nods to our history, it’s a very good time, so I encourage you to read it that way.


Review: Tesla: Man Out Of Time

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Nikola Tesla is an interesting character and a brilliant guy who made significant contributions to early electrical engineering.  A brilliant showman, capable of dramatic demonstrations of the principles he discovered, he was also eccentric to the point of compulsion and naive in business to the point of incompetence.  This is a fellow who deserves a compelling biography.  Sadly, Margaret Cheney’s Man Out Of Time isn’t it.

To be fair, it seems that objective information about Tesla is thin on the ground.  He spent a fair amount of his life in obscurity and without close friends or relatives, which makes first hand accounts difficult to come by.  Piecing together the life of such a unique individual under those constraints certainly seems daunting.

Even given the problems, Cheney comes off much more as a cheerleader than a scholar.  She leans heavily on the collections of the Tesla museum and one other biographer.  More distressingly, the technical assessments of Tesla’s work seem to come primarily from folks who are willing to give him every benefit of the doubt.  Tesla is one of those people who have been overlooked by the scientific community and have attracted a cult of true believers who are vocal in trying to get his legacy restored.  One often gets the feeling that they’re overcorrecting.

Now, I may be biased toward underselling Tesla’s achievements, but one way or another he is certainly someone who polarizes (ha, ha) opinion among technical people. To write a biography and not mention the strong differences of opinion seems disingenuous.

Overall this did more to pique my curiosity about Tesla than to enlighten me.

Review: New Moon

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

I don’t have a whole lot to say about New Moon, the second book in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, that I didn’t say about Twilight.

New Moon explores the world of Twilight more. We find out more about the balance of power in the town where the main characters live and we learn a little more about other vampires.  We get to know the third member of the saga’s love triangle, Jacob the werewolf.

And we get to suffer with Bella as she deals with the stresses being in love with an immortal seventeen year old.

Meyer does a good job balancing it all out, and keeping the pages turning, but it’s a hard ride for Bella. Meyer makes the reader sympathize with her, which is to say you relive all the times you broke up with a vampire.  The whole thing was draining for me, but in a good way.

If you liked Twilight, and I did, New Moon has a lot of the same things going for it, without anything getting stale.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Twilight

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Everyone’s got an opinion about Twilight, whether they’ve read it or not.  I’ve read it, and I liked it.

If you’ve somehow managed to avoid hearing about this series, Twilight is the first book in Stephenie Meyer’s series about a young woman (Bella)  who falls in love with a vampire (Edward)  (and a later a werewolf (Jacob)) and the melodrama and derring-do that ensues.  There is a lot of both in Twilight and the rest of the series.

Twilight deserves its popularity.  Meyer writes well with a clear voice, and she’s very good at building suspense.  She draws characters and places distinctly in a few strokes, and when they get filled in more deeply they hold their shape.  She’s particularly adept at giving the impression of someone without describing them superficially.  I can’t recall the first description of any of her characters, but they’re all clear in my mind.

The story itself is fast moving and engaging enough to encourage readers to suspend their disbelief willingly.  There’s a lot of plot in here.  In fact, that’s what really drew me into the books.  There are details about how the local vampire clan interacts with the locals, other vampires, and other monsters.  And there’s something about Bella that doesn’t quite add up.  It’s all carefully consistent and one gets the impression that the truth is out there.  After I saw the first two movies with my niece I found myself trying to tie all the plot strings together, and I realized I was going to have to read the books to figure it all out. The Twilight world isn’t ours – it’s much more exciting –  but it makes sense, and that explains a lot about why people enjoy reading about it.  The world is fleshed out enough to inhabit.

The other ingredient is the characters.  Like the situations, the characters walk the line between realism and iconography, and honestly I think this is the real trick of the book. Everyone’s a little bit a person and a little bit a point-of-view.  Despite that artifice, the reader always has the feeling that if they could get Bella’s or Edward’s attention for just a minute one could talk this whole thing out with them.  At the same time, they’re all on stage with all the exaggerated gestures and feelings that implies. That’s OK by me.  I remember making a few theatrical gestures when I was that age myself, though I didn’t have much luck with the whole immortal creature of the night thing.

Each book in the series makes strong allusions to the classics as well, and that’s one of my favorite things about them.  It’s not that Twilight makes one see Wuthering Heights in a new way, but it does explicitly assume that one is familiar with it.  Reading literature is just part of the background of being Bella or Edward, and in a book aimed at young adults, that kind of assumption is pretty awesome.

I’ve tried to make some sense of why I liked Twilight, but I don’t want to lose track of the fact that it’s just a good read.  It’s a page turner, and a lot of fun.

Strongly recommended.

Killing the Ivy

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

If you’ve met me in real life, you’ve probably heard me complain about the ivy that’s been overgrowing my house for a while.  I let it go long enough that killing it was going to be a major undertaking.  This week Brenda and I found someone to undertake it.  Here are some pictures of the piles of ivy after most of it was pulled.

We’re really happy to be taking this first step to relandscaping the place.