Saturday, February 27, 2010

Opening Atlantis. by Harry Turtledove

Opening Atlantis. by Harry Turtledove

Alternate history is one of my favorite genres, and Harry Turtledove is undeniably one of the masters of this oeuvre. Sadly, Opening Atlantis didn't meet my considerable expectations. The idea is interesting: millions of years ago the eastern coast of North America from Florida to Nova Scotia broke away from the mainland and is located much further east than in our world, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Being closer to Europe this eighth continent is discovered earlier, although the British and the French still both manage to become dominant. A rich milieu in which to tell stories, but I had a difficult time staying interested here. There is a brief exploration of the island during the initial colonization, but Turtledove jumps altogether too quickly into war; he has a wealth of experience with this topic, but with such a rich backdrop it feels almost like a cop-out to devolve into a pastiche of the French and Indian War. Not a terrible book, but far below Turtledove's usual effort.

First Sentence:
Edward Radcliffe steered the St. George toward Le Croisic.

Tales of the American West, edited by Richard S. Wheeler

Tales of the American West: The Best of Spur Award-Winning Authors, edited by Richard S. Wheeler

While I adore movie westerns (“Unforgiven” and “The Shootist” are my favorites) my love hasn’t translated to the written word. I’ve read the odd Zane Grey and a handful of others, but the genre never had the same hold on me as sci-fi or mystery novels do. For this reason when I unwrapped Tales of the American West at Christmas my first thought was this would take forever to complete, but once opening it I found myself very pleasantly surprised.

My favorite story was Continuity by Elmer Kelton, a poetic portrayal of why youth innovates yet age brings a resistance to change. Charity by Sandra Whiting was a close second, describing a touching relationship between a white woman and an Indian spanning decades. The single line in the anthology that I found most impressive, though, came from Jory Sherman’s Comes the Hunter: “He loved so many things about her that they all became tangled up in his mind until he felt his mind could not breathe nor sort through them for explanation.” Beautiful.

First Sentence (from the Introduction):
The Spur Awards, given out annually by the Western Writers of America, have been the hallmark of excellence in the field of western literature for almost half a century.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Just One More Thing, by Peter Falk

Just One More Thing: Stories From My Life, by Peter Falk

Between Columbo, The Princess Bride, and Robin and the 7 Hoods, Peter Falk is one of my favorite actors. This book is an autobiography of a sort, but with less a narrative and more a collection of stories. In Falk’s own words, the book contains “stories that supply a chuckle, that are designed for people like me, who pick up a book when they get into bed, read for 12 minutes, and doze off, hopefully with a smile on their lips.” While I read a lot more than 12 minutes a day, I certainly had a smile on my lips every time I opened it!

The tales shared range from Falk’s tortured path to acting—via accounting—to his six arrests to his glass eye to working with John Cassavetes. Falk’s sense of humor is dry and sarcastic, and his self-deprecating approach comes off as genuine, not the false modesty that many Hollywood types project. One of my favorite anecdotes was about Columbo’s famous raincoat; the Smithsonian believes they have it, but Falk has it in his closet at home! At one point he writes, “It’s a known fact that most actors starve to death.” Considering he was nominated for an Oscar for his first major role, it has been a long time since he has worried about starving. Now with a successful memoir under his belt, it will be that much longer.

First Sentence:
It was 1955.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

The decadence of the French aristocracy is legendary, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses is an excellent illustration of this. The two main characters take delight in destroying people and reputations using the timeless tool of seduction. There is no remorse or hesitation expressed by the villains; in fact, their behavior is justified in their minds, as in this defense of adultery: “Either you have a rival or you have not. If you have one, you must please, in order to be preferred to him; if you have not, you must still please, in order to avoid having one. In both cases the same conduct is to be observed: why, therefore, torment yourself?”

French is said to be the language of love, though, and that reputation is well-deserved if this book is a typical example. “It was when I saw you that I saw light; soon I understood that the charm of love sprang from the qualities of the soul; that they alone could cause its excess, and justify it. I felt, in short, that it was equally impossible for me not to love you, or to love any other than you.” Finding such a poetic depiction of love being issued by a debauched aristocrat brought home how duplicitous these characters truly are. The ending is a bit abrupt but the lesson is clear: immoral behavior is punished in this world and not the afterlife; or in a more colloquial way, what goes around comes around.

First Sentence:
You see, my dear friend, that I keep my word to you, and that bonnets and frills do not take up all my time; there will always be some left for you.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Grey, by Jon Armstrong

Grey, by Jon Armstrong

This is one of the strangest mystery/adventure books I’ve read in a long time. Set in a dystopian future driven by public relations, the world is recognizable as ours and yet entirely different as well. A focus on style is pervasive, from the popular sport of competitive ironing to ties made “from the bras of one hundred alcoholic teenage girls.” The title comes from a trend of people that have cosmetic surgery to see the world in black and white. “While I lay sedated, a microscopic sodium laser destroyed all the cones in my right retina. When I healed and the bandages were removed, my right eye, with only its rods intact, perceived nothing but the creamiest black, white and grey.”

As can be seen from the quotes I’ve shared here, the descriptions are fascinating and horrifying at the same time. A typical crowd scene: “A man, who looked my age, had no arms but fingers like plumes of feathers on his shoulders, stepped forward and stared at me intently as if he wanted something. A young woman, dressed in a tight silver bodysuit, had a tongue so long it hung to her knees. A clear, steady stream of saliva dripped from it. A boy had huge eyeballs that bulged from his head like a koi. A shorter, stout young man had another smaller head growing upside down from the top of his. Two men were dressed in red costumes with yellow pointed hats. One was holding what looked to be the enormous, gold spandex-covered genitals of the other. A bare-chested boy of maybe sixteen had a metal and glass contraption attached to his chest. Inside were tubes filled with blood, a spinning motor, and odd, glowing blue lights.” Unique and memorable, to say the least!

Unfortunately the plot gets lost a bit lost in all this; the narrative is simply too mundane to stand out in all the bizarre surroundings. A man survives an assassination attempt during his engagement party, causing his family and his fiancée’s family to become hated rivals. The mystery becomes who arranged the attempt and the adventure is the lovers trying to reunite despite the families. Romeo and Juliet meets the Kennedy’s; eh. Reminiscent of Gaiman’s writing, the book is compelling, but very, very odd.

First Sentence:
Nora and I finished our fried whale and plum sandwiches, our cream coffees, and the cocoa and coca pastries, and sat in a comfortable silence as landscapes of buildings and millions of well-wishers whirred past the windows at six hundred kilometers per hour.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Sway, by Ori and Rom Brafman

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, by Ori and Rom Brafman

At times, we act all irrationally. Sometimes we hold on to a crashing stock hoping it will regain its value, or stay in a bad relationship because it is easier than saying, “Good bye.” The authors examine why we ignore logic and rely more on instinct when making decisions. This isn’t a study on bipolar disorder or addictive behaviors, but instead on how a normal individual’s view on the world and society affects the way he thinks.

One of the most interesting sections deal with labels. Simple words when applied to something or someone can dramatically affect how it is viewed: labels cause us to take mental shortcuts. A great example is found in sports (well, basketball anyway): low draft picks in the NBA consistently play fewer minutes that higher ones regardless of the level of their play. “Score points, catch a lot of rebounds, block shots, and make steals, and it still won’t affect your playing time as much as your draft order does, even years down the road.” Other well researched anecdotes show this phenomenon applies to virtually everything. I suppose that explains why Titanic was so popular...

Another interesting section was a discussion about which areas of our mind can operate in parallel and which can’t. “Unlike, say, the parts of our brain that control movement and speech, the pleasure center and the altruism center cannot both function at the same time: either one or the other is in control.” So, we can be selfish or charitable, but not both at the same time. Interesting.

This book reminded me of Predicably Irrational, although I liked it more. Initial observation affects later behavior, and even knowing this fact doesn’t alter anything. Easy to read and not overly long, this makes a good book for an afternoon of relaxation.

First Sentence:
The passengers aboard KLM Flight 4805 didn’t know it, but they were in the hands of one of the most experienced and accomplished pilots in the world.

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