Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mr. China, by Tim Clissold

Mr. China: A Memoir, by Tim Clissold

This book brought back a lot of memories for me. Clissold’s first trip to China was in the summer of 1988 and so was mine. Several years later he was unhappy at his job, so he quit and started learning to speak Mandarin; one of my closest friends did the same. Clissold becomes the main investor in the Five Star Brewery and while traveling there I drank a lot of their beer. Reading about his experiences was like talking to an old friend.

Mr. China is the story of one of the first multi-national investment groups to invest in domestic businesses in China. We get a look at how the research was conducted, where the money was invested, how the companies conducted business (surprisingly unethical), and how success didn’t arrive until they stopped trying to force European values on Chinese industries. I found this to be a fascinating read that told two basic tales: one of the government handing more and more control to individual businesses, and another of a foreigner becoming more and more Chinese in his thinking. At the conclusion these intertwine with the lesson that you can’t affect a culture without immersing yourself in it.

One of the things I liked the most was the optimism about China that the author espouses. “Since the Open Door policy in 1979, China has lifted two hundred and fifty million people out of absolute poverty, probably the greatest improvement in the human condition ever achieved. ... The lives of millions of ordinary Chinese have been improved beyond recognition as the effects slowly trickle down to street level. Chinese citizens now have choices that we take completely for granted but that would have been unimaginable two decades ago; choices in clothing, in housing, schooling for their kids, maybe the chance to buy a car or take a vacation abroad.” While this doesn’t excuse the country’s stance on human rights or the fact that they have 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, it does show that progress is being made and China is taking steps towards being a leader on the world stage.

First Sentence:
For anyone whose mood is affected by the weather, Hong Kong in October is heaven.

Game Night, by Jonny Nexus

Game Night: Six Gods Sit Down to Spend an Evening Roleplaying. Really Badly. By Jonny Nexus

Ever played Dungeons and Dragons with a self-important game master, a headstrong player that messed up the plot, or a stickler for every last rule? This story follows just such a group, with the fun twist that they are all gods and actually controlling real people instead of imaginary characters. (The fact that these are gods leads to throwaway jokes such as, “He remembers something Mr Six Days once boasted about that involved a cat, an experiment, and some terribly clever aspect of his realm.”) The opening chapter sets the tempo well, with one guy refusing to wait for the entire scene to unfold and killing a character before he is able to help the adventurers. Truly hilarious!

In one of my favorite bits, the game master is trying to set the scene by describing a meal, but one player is having none of it.

“I didn’t say I was eating!” protests the Warrior angrily.
“You don’t want to eat breakfast?” the AllFather asks warily.
“It’s not about whether or not I breakfast!”
[Further discussion about the benefits of an early meal takes place...]
“Fine. Do you come to breakfast?”
“Thank you. As I was saying, after breakfasting on honeyed bread and exotic fruits-”
“I did not want fruit!”
The Jester holds his head in his hands. “In the name of everything that ever was and ever shall be, can we please, please, just get past breakfast?”
While this is supposed to be a parody of role playing games, this scene was entirely too familiar from my past. Humor that hits close to home is some of the best! If you like the work of Pratchett, Foglio, Asprin, or DeChancie then this book is for you.

First Sentence:
The Riddle was old, for it was as old as the Gate, and the Fate had guarded the head of the Valley since men first walked upon the World.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Crooked Little Vein, by Warren Ellis

Crooked Little Vein: A Novel, by Warren Ellis

This is quite possibly the strangest novel I’ve ever read. The book introduces loser detective Mike McGill who is hired by the President’s chief of staff to find the secret second Constitution of the United States (to be used only in case of emergency) which has been lost for decades. As strange as this sounds, it is only a framing story for a trip through the seedy underbelly of society. We meet a group that uses reptiles as erotica, another that injects saline into their testicles for a thrill, and still another that holds sex parties where a form of Russian Roulette is played with an HIV positive person instead of a bullet. The individuals are just as twisted: a crazy oilman with mounted dolphins, kittens, and seals on the wall instead of the usual deer and bear heads, a burned out paranoid private investigator having a nervous breakdown, and of course, a serial killer. On top of all this, Ellis also gives us a handful of colorful facts, such as “the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man was actually a CIA blind created specifically to cover a possible breach of security over astronauts with extensive bioelectronic modification escaping the system and going public.” I couldn’t put this book down!

The writing style was just as eccentric, with some chapters not even a page long. Chapter 3 was probably my favorite:

An hour later, I walked into some freak bar on Bleecker Street and yelled, “I’m buying a hundred drinks—for me!”
Oh, they beat the shit out of me.
Chapter 6 was even shorter, but not quite as funny:
I wish I still had that photo.
The sardonic humor kept me laughing, the unexpected style kept me surprised, and the plot kept me turning pages. I highly recommend this to anyone looking for something unusual.

First Sentence:
I opened my eyes to see the rat taking a piss in my coffee mug.

Swine Not? by Jimmy Buffett

Swine Not? A Novel Pig Tale, by Jimmy Buffett

This is an imaginative little tale about a pig secretly living in a hotel in New York City. The story is told using first-person narrative, alternating between Barley, a young boy, and his soccer-playing pot-bellied pig Rumpy. The rest of the cast includes Barley’s twin sister and his eccentric mother. The group finds themselves living in the big apple in a hotel whose rules change to not allow pets. So, they do what any other family would do: they disguise the pig as a dog and go on with their lives. Fashion designers, famous athletes, top-flight chefs, and of course, the mayor all figure in to the story, which builds to a ridiculous but highly entertaining conclusion. Unlike Buffet’s other works this is really more of a kid’s fairy tale than an adult novel, but still a lot of fun.

First Sentence:
I think there comes a time in everyone’s life when the werewolf-like winds of misdirection and the beasts of bad timing put us in an impossible situation.

Wait Till Next Year, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I’ll admit I had no idea who Doris Kearns Goodwin was when I bought this off a clearance shelf, but the picture of Ebbets Field poking through the clouds caught my attention. Turns out the author is a writer who has won several awards for books that look to be largely unappealing to me. Luckily, this memoir is about her childhood as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. The battles between the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers in the 1950’s are the stuff of legend. Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, the “shot heard round the world,” and the Dodgers first World Series championship—these are topics that are still oft discussed today, and Goodwin was right there for all of it. Mix in McCarthyism, polio scares, Catholicism, Elvis, and the Rosenberg trial and we get an excellent picture of life in this decade. There isn’t much depth to the story, but the vignettes make for good entertainment.

First Sentence:
When I was six, my father game me a bright-red scorebook that opened my heart to the game of baseball.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Alternate Tyrants, edited by Mike Resnick

Alternate Tyrants, edited by Mike Resnick

This collection of short stories took an alternate history look at prominent figures and paths they might have taken. Mandela establishing white homelands, MacArthur as Emperor of Japan, Pierre Elliott Trudeau restricting Canadian civil rights instead of advancing them, and in separate stories both Capone and Elvis as tyrannical presidents. A Stable Relationship by Lawrence Schimel was the strangest of the bunch, depicting Mike Resnick (the editor) as a despotic father-in-law. My favorite was The Sword in the Stone by Michelle Sagara; it is set in the near future where Prince William takes the throne and restores power to the monarchy in England. Good stuff.

First Sentence (From the introduction):
Welcome to the fifth book in our Alternate anthology series.

Wizards, Inc., edited by Greenberg and Coleman

Wizards, Inc., edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Loren L. Coleman

This anthology contains a group of stories focused on people folks that practice magic for a living. I thought this was an above average collection, rare in the happenstance that I liked every story. KidPro by Laura Anne Gilman, about an organization that takes advantage of child magic users, was probably the worst of the bunch, but still pretty good. Jamaica by Orson Scott Card was an excellent mystery and Stocks and Bondage by Esther M. Friesner was the funniest tale in the volume. My favorite episode was easily Disaster Relief by Kristine Katheryn Rusch. Set right after Hurricane Katrina, it dealt with wizards that were displaced by the disaster. I thought it did an excellent job of both showing the humanity of refugees and in recognizing that New Orleans wasn't the only community affected: folks from Gulfport, Biloxi, and Moss Point, Mississippi were featured. Even if the national media ignored Mississippi it is nice to see that not every writer did. All in all, an excellent anthology.

First Sentence (from the introduction):
There are two types of people in this world...

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Enemy, by Lee Child

The Enemy, by Lee Child

New Year's Eve, 1989 going on 1990. The Cold War is over and the U.S. Military is in limbo, not sure of its role in the new world order. Against this backdrop, a general is found dead in a sleazy no-tell motel 300 miles away from where he was supposed to be. From there we discover the general's wife also murdered and hints at a much, much larger conspiracy. My second Jack Reacher novel, this one was even better than the first. In that novel Reacher was a recently discharged MP; this one is set in his past when he was still at the top of his game. With a breakneck pace and a reasonably believable finish, this was a fun read.

First Sentence:
As serious as a heart attack.

Ignited, by Vince Thompson

Ignited: Managers! Light Up Your Company and Career for More Power More Purpose and More Success, by Vince Thompson

Blah blah blah. This book just didn't do much for me. There were some solid nuggets scattered throughout, but in general I was quite disappointed. Aimed at middle managers, Thompson spends a lot of time on how to improve your ability to "lead in a limited space." It opens with a quiz designed to help the reader decide to what extent he is an effective and empowered manager. The remainder of the book is divided into three sections, the first concentrating on the individual, the second on networking, and the third on sphere of influence. The first two I found more useful, discussing concepts such as the idea you will improve your own credibility if you're seen as a contributor to your manager's success. The third was more about salesmanship and personal goal setting which came across as a bit too much rah-rah for me.

Ignited is a book that I expected to enjoy and appreciate, but didn't. The writing appears aimed at middle school readers, but that isn't unique among business books. It offers practical information, common sense, and good examples and is squarely aimed at managers like myself. Honestly, I can't quite figure out why I didn't like it. My book club read it and while we had an interesting discussion, nobody there was overwhelmed with excitement about it either. In summary, this is an uninspiring book that has a lot of good advice.

First Sentence:
The time: Almost 25 years ago.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Love and Sex with Robots, by David Levy

Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, by David Levy

Can we fall in love with a robot? The first half of this book attempts to answer this question. The author spends a long time defining love (I could have done without this excruciatingly wordy definition) and shows that a machine could emulate these attributes with surprisingly solid examples. People love their cars, love their pets, and fall in love over the internet; is a “virtual person” so far-fetched? I don’t know if I buy Levy’s arguments, but he makes a compelling case. The most interesting question the author raises (yet doesn’t answer) is where will we draw the line between life and technology? Consider that we can currently replace arms and legs with increasingly lifelike prosthetics. Artificial hearts and pacemakers routinely keep us alive, and cochlear implants give us back our hearing. Mechanical replacements for our eyes, lungs, and liver aren’t that far off. With all these advances, at what point does a person become more robot than human?

The second half discusses the practicality of sex with robots. He claims in many ways society has already embraced the most important components needed: erotic machinery and a lack of personal attachment. Levy goes into great detail about vibrators and sex toys here, making an effective observation that a full robot versus simply mechanical parts is not a huge distinction. Lack of personal attachment is embodied by prostitution. Levy goes on to predict that once technology can adequately develop a believable robotic woman, prostitution as we know it will cease. (We also in this half get a brief biography of Magnus Hirschfeld, a sexologist and sexual reformer in the early 1900’s; could my friend Rob be a descendant? Makes me wonder what else he might be building... :))

A funny story about reading this book: I’m a regular blood donor and took this with me while donating platelets one afternoon. As I read I discover that the second half of the book (the half detailing the history of sex toys) is populated with a large number of graphic illustrations! The phlebotomists (almost all women) would come by to see how I was doing and I found myself awkwardly hiding the pages like a kid caught reading a comic inside his textbook in class. Embarrassing.

First Sentence:
Why on earth should people fall in love with robots?

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