Archive for November, 2011

Review: Chicago Lightning

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

I’ve been aware of Max Allan Collins’s love of PIs and skill at writing them since following Ms Tree in the 1980’s.  While I don’t follow mystery writing closely, I see he’s earned a bunch of honors in the field.  Ms Tree was some good stuff, so when I ran across Chicago Lightning: The Collected Nathan Heller Stories for cheap on Amazon, I had to give it a look.

In his introduction, Collins claims to be more novelist than short story writer, and these stories bear that out.  They’re all solid pieces of genre fiction, told with a bit of panache, but none of them blows me away.  However, these stories are presented chronologically from Heller’s perspective but were written decades apart.  There is a clear, interesting character evolution going on in the background – that is, in the Heller novels – that is reflected in these stories.  That kind of organization and attention to detail makes me think that Collins has characterized his writing strengths clearly.

Lightning does have its pleasures, one of which is the meticulous research Collins brings to each story.  Most of these stories are historical fiction, with Heller interacting with real people and events of the day.  Historical detective fiction is a nice trick, and Collins breathes life and credibility into a setting that is often mythologized. The short stories don’t give him quite enough space to completely make the time his own; the veneer of fiction over the true crime reports is visible in some.  Still, as with the continuity and changes between time periods, there’s enough here to whet my appetite for a novel.

Overall this is a tantalizing introduction to an author and a character I will certainly seek out again.


Review: Fifteen Minutes Including Q&A

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

Fifteen Minutes Including Q&A is a short discussion on how to give better short presentations, written by Joey Asher.  It is full of good advice about sticking to the point, engaging your audience and using interaction to maintain interest and tailor material.  For the sorts of short presentations it targets, it is great advice.

Not all presentations are the short, business-oriented ones Asher has in mind, but his advice is generally reasonable.  There are plenty of ideas in here I’ll be using in future presentations.


Review: A History of the World in Six Glasses

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

In A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage has taken an interesting idea and run with it pretty well.  The idea is that a surprisingly small number of beverages have played a large role in human history, starting with beer changing us from hunter/gatherers to soft drinks driving 21st century capitalism.  It is an interesting idea, and it works as long as you squint a little.

Standage has a nice touch with the big picture viewed through a high-concept lens.  He did a similar, though less ambitious, trick with The Victorian Internet. In both cases, he has an eye for the telling anecdote and a skill at fitting the historical record into his thesis.  He does an excellent job describing the forces and trends of history with a few key incidents.

He picks six drinks that are evocative of times and ideas – itself support for the prominence of drink in the human consciousness.  He dedicares a couple chapters to each one’s properties and place in history.  They are covered pretty much chronologically from beer to cola.  It is interesting that each can, to some extent represent a philosophical and historical trend, but the parts don’t completely mesh.  The history of beer and wine is mostly lost to and influential in antiquity, while coffee, spirits, and tea become prevalent in the West within a century.  Still, history is a messy collision of ideas, and tying the ideas to beverage technologies works pretty well.

For me, it works pretty well until we get to Coca-Cola in the 20th century.  Standage rightly ties Coke philosophically to globalization and the US.  These are presented as overwhelmingly positive developments where I was expecting more nuance.  Admittedly, Standage has a lot of ground to cover, and broad brushstrokes are a necessity, but I didn’t expect to see no line drawn between globalization and expansionism.

Still, overall Six Glasses in interesting and informative.  It’s a great start to looking at an era.


Grap update

Saturday, November 26th, 2011

For those of you using my implementation of grap, I’ve released an update.  The new version is 1.44 and supports simple date parsing.  Enjoy.  That page also describes grap briefly, if you’re curious.

While I was fooling around, I made the images on the html examples bigger.

Review: Elmer Gantry

Friday, November 11th, 2011

Sinclair Lewis has a real knack for creating characters without redeeming qualities that readers cannot look away from.  Elmer Gantry is one of these, cut from the same cloth as George Babbit, who has a brief cameo.  Babbit is a realistic and depressing Middle American businessman, and Elmer Gantry is a realistic and depressing Middle American Evangelist.  Gantry is, if anything, less introspective than Babbit, but Lewis compensates by making Elmer Gantry‘s plot more exciting.

At their core, the two books – and Main Street for that matter – are very similar.  They’re looks at singularly American people (and places) with a clear eye.  Lewis isn’t a schoolmarm about this, though.  While he clearly doesn’t approve of what his characters get up to, he’s got a sense of humor about it.  And that sense of humor expresses itself in word play, the occasional joke, and some wicked backhanded irony.  As deadpan ironist, Lewis has few peers.

Lewis’s artistry and ironic distance make Gantry palatable, even entertaining, but his critique of American evangelism is the central theme.  The unique amalgam of marketing, showmanship, and politics that makes up Gantry’s world will be familiar to anyone watching evangelists in the 21st century.  Though Gantry is set almost a century ago, the fundamental tenets of American Evangelism remain largely unchanged. Lewis vividly depicts the cynicism and outright hypocrisy that seem to be prerequisites for success in this world.

A satirical expose of unscrupulous clergy is interesting, but Gantry is stronger than that.  Despite all his larger-than-life transgressions, Gantry remains recognizably human.  In fact, I easily identified with Gantry’s ambivalence that leads him to compromise after compromise until he has become something pretty awful.  It is easy to see the lure of that road, even as I hope I’m not on it.  And it is easy to see that Gantry can’t tell how far down the road to perdition he’s gone. He’s not self-aware enough to see where the sum of his decisions have taken him.  I think he’s got plenty of company.

While Lewis is a scathing critic of the hypocrites who seem to be the most successful, he does not ignore the good done by many of the cloth.  In fact, even the worst clergy depicted have  moments of decency and benevolence.  He also draws out the range of belief in and out of the clergy itself.  There is a lot to think about here.

Strongly recommended.