Sunday, March 17, 2013

Redshirts, by John Scalzi

Redshirts, by John Scalzi

I loved, loved, loved this book! It starts as a parody of Star Trek, then starts making fun of the development process of a TV show, and then it gets weird. The plot follows a group of people that the readers immediately recognize as being crew members on a starship 400 years in the future that is a dead ringer for the Enterprise. These characters start to recognize that something about the ship isn't quite right, with an abnormally high mortality rate for those not on the bridge crew and a mysterious device that solves any problem just in the nick of time. Eventually they come to believe that the strangeness is being caused because their lives are actually being controlled by a 20th century TV series. "It's messed up that the most rational explanation for what does go on in this ship is that a television show intrudes on our reality and warps it. But that's not the worst thing about it. ... That as far as I can tell, it's not actually a very good show."

Three codas wrap up the story, but not before Scalzi shows his wicked humor by first telling us the ship is vaporized six months later killing everyone, then writing chapter 24: "No, no, I'm just fucking with you. They all lived happily ever after. Seriously." The codas are where the book gets truly meta; the first is written in first person, the second in second person, and the third in third person—each following a different set of characters from our century and providing a satisfying conclusion on several fronts. What started as a simple skewering of Star Trek ends as creative, well-written, and surprisingly emotional novel. A great read.

First Sentence:
From the top of the large boulder he sat on, Ensign Tom Davis looked across the expanse of the cave toward Captain Lucius Abernathy, Science Officer Q'eeng and Chief Engineer Paul West perched on a second, larger boulder, and thought, Well, this sucks.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

John Dies at the End, by David Wong

John Dies at the End: A Novel, by David Wong

This is easily one of the stranger books I've ever read. Imagine an H.P. Lovecraft novel adapted to the screen by W.D. Richter, directed by Tarantino, and starring Bruce Campbell: that representation still doesn't reach the level of weirdness this book does. The plot follows two twenty-something friends that accidentally ingest a powerful drug that opens a door to another universe and forces them to fight off alien invaders. Along the way we are introduced to wig monsters, penis doorknobs, lamp-humping jellyfish, and a mysterious dog named Molly. A typical sentence reads, "I once saw a man's kidney grow tentacles, tear itself out of a ragged hole in his back and go slapping across my kitchen floor." And this occurs in the first 25 pages during a simple introduction; the happenings during the novel itself are much more bizarre. I found it to be both creepy and hilarious at the same time—I'm a sucker for deadpan delivery of lines like, "There is no possible combination of English words that would form a dumber plan than that."—but it does feel at times like it drags a bit and the story could be tightened up. John Dies at the End is outrageous enough that I suspect there are very few ambivalent reactions to it, but I for one loved it.

First Sentence:
Solving the following riddle will reveal the awful secret behind the universe, assuming you do not go utterly mad in the attempt.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler

Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler

I like anthologies. Not being one of the many e-book enthusiasts, I usually have a book of short stories stashed in my truck so I have something to read when unexpectedly stuck somewhere. Agents of Treachery appealed to me because of both the subject matter (I love spy thrillers) and one of the authors is one of my favorites: Lee Child. Overall, this was a solid set of stories well worth my time.

While Child's name on the cover was a draw, his story Section 7(A) (Operational) was the weakest of the bunch. It concerned the formation of a black ops team, but came off as simply eight pages of character introductions. James Grady's Destiny City was better, showing how a terrorist cell is tracked in today's world. Andrew Klavan's Sleeping with My Assassin and David Morrell's The Interrogator were other highlights, but Joseph Finder's Neighbors was my favorite with an Arlington Road vibe. Good stuff.

First Sentence (from the Introduction):
The international thriller is one of the most successful literary genres in the world, its primary oractitioners becoming household names, insofar as any author's level of fame can compete with an entertainer, sports figure, or world-class criminal.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Presidents Club, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The President's Club must be the most elite organization on the planet: to be a member you must have served as the President of the United States. Established at Eisenhower's inauguration by Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover its membership ebbs and flows over time; when Clinton took office the first Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Nixon were all in the club, but towards the end of Nixon's presidency the club was on hiatus when LBJ died. Gibbs and Duffy do an amazing job of examining the importance the President's Club plays in being everything from a simple sounding board to political ambassadors.

One of the most fascinating aspects about the club is that once people leave office, in a lot of ways politics seem to lessen in importance. Hoover and Truman became close friends and allies despite being on opposite sides of the political aisle, as did both Bushes with Clinton. Conversely but proving the same point, although Obama is not yet a member he and Clinton have a chilly relationship if not an outright rivalry. Regardless, though, only a handful of people truly understand the pressure of being the Leader of the Free World and being able to lean on that understanding often trumps political ideology. "[P]residents do not just compare themselves to one another; they weigh their leadership against what might have been. A president knows, each day, that if he makes the wrong call on fiscal policy a million more people could lose their jobs, or the wrong judgement about an enemy means thousands lose their lives." I can't imagine a job where even my wife would have difficulty appreciating what I do each day at work.

The authors do a wonderful job humanizing the people in the office. "Nixon preferred the nearby Lincoln Sitting Room as a smoker; he'd go in, build a fire in the fireplace, and then crank up the air conditioner. Reagan installed a weight room in the White House living quarters and worked out every day. Nixon had the trails at Camp David paved over so that his golf carts could scoot along faster; Reagan had them torn up and taken out so he could use them as horseback-riding trails." It is easy for me to see the presidency as a cipher, as a robotic entity far removed from everyday life. Anecdotes such as the passage above or about George W. Bush hitting golf balls at cars as a kid helps remind me that there are actual people sitting in the Oval Office, not just the caricatures we read about in history books and newspapers.

We all know how Nixon's administration ended in disgrace. Interestingly, he wasn't the first President to record what happened in the Oval Office—Kennedy and Johnson did the same. But their tape systems were manually controlled rather than voice activated, leading to the inability to select what was saved and the collapse of a presidency. The existence of the President's Club, though, eventually allowed Nixon back in the game. Reagan quietly sent Nixon to Moscow on a "private, fact finding" mission and to meet with Gorbachev. The positive results from this meeting allowed Nixon to begin taking steps towards a public rehabilitation. Eventually he largely overcame the specter of Watergate and died a respected elder statesman. All because of the Club.

Former presidents want to remain relevant and assist their predecessors while simultaneously competing for time and favorable mention in the history books. Truman once said, "time must pass before anyone, even an ex-president, can evaluate the performance of a man in the White House." This willingness to let go of judgement is one of the reasons the organization works, and frankly is a good lesson for all of us. Bush 43 is widely disliked and without even completing his term Obama seems to be in the same boat. Of course, because these people served so recently it is difficult to separate the political rhetoric from factual evaluation. So while history's jury may still be out on Carter as a president, it is clear that at the least he was a very difficult ex-president; without approval from Clinton he once cut a deal with North Korea about their nuclear program and then announced it on CNN without clearing it with the Oval Office or the State Department. Other club members at times behaved in similar manners, but Carter went rogue for multiple presidents putting him in a class by himself.

I am politically independent; I believe both the Republican and Democratic parties are morally bankrupt. This look inside the world's most exclusive fraternity is largely ideologically neutral which tipped my opinion from excellent to superb; reading about anecdotes like Reagan teaching Clinton how to salute is much more entertaining without having to deal with political spin. If you are any kind of student of history, this book should be on your nightstand.

First Sentence:
The modern Presidents Club was founded by two men who by all rights should have loathed each other.

Friday, March 01, 2013

The Shadow Patrol, by Alex Berenson

The Shadow Patrol, by Alex Berenson

Spies, drugs, and terrorists in a war torn Afghanistan. Not exactly original, and Berenson does nothing to make this his own. A plodding plot and uninspired characters makes this an extremely average book—more of a cartoon than a thriller. I found this book in the pocket of an airliner; it made for a passable read on the plane but I'm very glad I didn't pay for it.

First Sentence:
Growing up in the scrubland of west Texas, Ricky Fowler had done some stupid things.

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