Books of 2014, #8: Pump Six and Other Stories, by Paolo Bacigalupi

I can say two things right off the bat about Paolo Bacigalupi.

First, he’s a solid writer with a great imagination. Unlike lots of science fiction, his stories are well-crafted and well-written for the most part. I enjoy his prose.

Second, Jesus FUCK what a downer this guy must be at parties. I kid; I have no actual idea. What I do know, though, is the bleak vision he has for the near-ish future. Bacigalupi’s stories take place generally in a world not far removed from our own, and extrapolate from current trends to produce a vision that’s disturbingly viable. A few of them in this collection take place in the world he created for his 2009 novel The Windup Girl; therein fossil fuels are exhausted or otherwise nonviable. Food energy and genetic engineering created the fallback position where springs and gene-hacked elephants are used to run machines. The world is dominated by the big “Calorie Companies” — ie, the agribusiness concerns that control the food supply with sterile GMO seeds and bio-engineered plagues created to destroy the naturally occurring foodstocks.

It’s not a happy place, to say the least, but it’s not his only disturbingly plausible future scenario. Pump Six comes with several other futures, and none of them are optimistic in the least (the title story posits a future that makes Idiocracy look upbeat, for example). This is not to say that you shouldn’t read the book (or Windup for that matter); they’re really well done. But you might need a unicorn chaser afterwards.

Books of 2014, #7: A Wanted Man, by Lee Child (Jack Reacher #17)

Yep, running out of Reacher. There is only one more in print. Another is schedule for publication in September.

This one’s not as much fun as either of the last couple. It starts out inventively enough by placing a hitchhiking Reacher in a car he quickly realizes contains two bad guys and an abducted woman despite their best attempts to conceal this fact — but, unfortunately, we end up in a sort of bog-standard one-man-vs-army-of-baddies endgame relatively quickly as Child wraps it up in a very by the numbers manner.

The most interesting aspect to this installment is probably Child’s continued experiments with interbook continuity. Like all such series, it usually helps to know what sort of adventures the protagonist has had before (and some are even explicit callbacks), but you could read them out of order without missing much — up to a point. Since 61 Hours (the 14th installment), though, Child has carried some aspects of Reacher’s own larger context through each story. This book-to-book story is its own narrative at this point.

For example, 61 Hours actually ends in one of those non-cliffhanger cliffhangers wherein his survival is nominally in question. Obviously, he’ll live; the only real mystery is how. We find out how in the next book, Worth Dying For (#15), wherein he carries a short-term injury earned in that escape that affects the way he handles the inevitable Deeply Corrupt Criminal Family Dominating Small Town. During his inevitable triumph, though, he has his nose broken.

The sixteenth book (The Affair) is a prequel, and tells the story of Reacher’s last case as an Army cop, and how he came to leave the service. However, when we rejoin the main continuity in A Wanted Man, his recently broken nose is a plot point, and he’s still headed to the destination he picked out during the final chapters of 61 Hours (after, of course, handling the situation with the abducted woman and the inevitable terrorists).

This sort of book-to-book continuity is new for Child; I’m choosing to see it as a positive development, though it remains to be seen if it’ll be more than window-dressing.

Books of 2014, #6: A Feast of Snakes, by Harry Crews

Harry Crews has been on my radar for a long time, but for some reason I never actually took the plunge. I was shocked this was still the case when he died last year, but it still took me until this month to read one of his books. I picked this one because, honestly, it was for sale in a local bookshop when David MacLean was in town reading from The Answer to the Riddle is Me. I felt bad about the fact that I’d pre-ordered MacLean’s book from Amazon, so I spent about $80 on other books while I was there for the reading, and so Crews found his way into my bag.

I can’t speak to Crews’ entire output, but Feast is something I might call “Faulknerian Modern.” If you read books like As I Lay Dying, or generally other books that touch on the Snopeses, it’s hard to miss the utter disdain and disgust Faulkner holds for most of his characters. Anse Bundren is a horrible, ignorant jackass of a man; of that there can be no question. It’s impossible not to read it and see a harsh critique of the South Faulkner knew well.

When I read Faulkner, that South is, temporally at least, far from me. I don’t react viscerally to the ignorance and general embrace of brutality, because I live in a more modern world, and his people don’t. I see them as awful, but they don’t make me HATE.

With Crews, though, it’s different. He’s doing much of the same thing here in Mystic, Georgia with Feast, except it’s set in 1975, and consequently resonates a great deal more. Frankly, I hate every one of these ignorant fucks, and by the end of the book sort of wished for a massive cataclysm to wipe Mystic off the map.

I”m not sure that Crews has the same sneering contempt for his characters that we see in some of Faulkner’s work, but it seems likely. Writers, like any other kind of intellectual, are generally unwelcome in the poor, rural south, and I’m sure Crews had some of the same scars that Faulkner had. At the same time, Crews includes a single learned character — the new boyfriend of a local girl come home from the University of Georgia — and treats him just as poorly, so there’s something in the rural south’s ignorant brutality that Crews seems to think as justified, too.

All that said, the book is solid. Despite my feelings about Joe Lon Mackey himself, I followed his story with the same horrified attention you’d give a train wreck (and, in that sense, was not disappointed). He’s the sort of person we have all seen: ignorant as fuck, but a star football player in a rural high school, so worshiped as a god until he graduated. College was never going to happen, so he is stuck in his backwater shithole town forever, endlessly revisiting his past while a profoundly shitty future stretches before him. No one we encounter is any less fucked up, or any less hopeless.

Should you read it? That, I’m not sure of. It’s harsh and brutal. There is endless violence. There is a brutal dogfighting subplot, the details of which make it clear Crews has been exposed to it in some detail. There is sexual assault. My takeaway was really just to be thankful that I do not have to live in a shithole like Mystic, or be around ignorant, ruined people like Joe Lon.

So that’s something.

Update: Apparently you don’t have to go all the way to Georgia for a ridiculous snake festival.

Books of 2014, #5: The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers

There’s not really much to say here other than that Nic Pizzolatto and HBO have done more interesting things with the material than the original author.

I only heard about this because it turns out to be part of the mythos, if you will, for HBO’s True Detective; Amazon jumped on the bandwagon and made the Kindle edition of The King in Yellow free a few weeks back, and so I snagged it to read on vacation. (It’s still free, if you want to sample it.)

Honestly, it’s kind of bland, and not really worth your time. Only the first few stories even reference the titular King, and in those it’s generally in a very Lovecraftian thing-you-should-not-know sense. My advice: skip it.

Books of 2014, #4: Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks (19 Feb)

Well, darn.

The first Culture book I read was the the awful Consider Phlebas a couple years ago. Honestly, it’s such crap that it nearly put me off the whole series. It wasn’t until last year that I bothered with the next volume of the series, Player of Games, largely due to the number of people I found who agreed that Phlebas was crap and that a better place to start was Games.

Ok, fine. Turns out, they were right; Games was a fun book. With Banks inconveniently promoted to the choir invisible, though, I didn’t want to run right into another Culture book, so I paced myself, and didn’t start the third book until this month. And now, having finished it, I think I’m done with Culture.

Weapons is a mess. Banks is trying an ambitious interleaved structure here, but it didn’t really work for me — largely because I never really gave a shit what happened, or had happened, to the protagonist. This is further reflected by the enormous gap between the last book and this one; by the end I was really finding this a slog.

It’s entirely possible Banks just isn’t for me.

More on Tartt’s *The Goldfinch*

This review is really, really spot-on. In particular:

I’m no more privy to what went on behind the scenes in The Goldfinch’s journey from draft to publication than I am aware of the ins and outs of similar processes for Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot or Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. But I know that all three of these novels (and there are many other examples) read as though their editor had been afraid to touch them, and had left early, baggy drafts unchanged.

Telegraph Avenue is one of the few books I’ve simply given up on, which was really sad at the time given how much I’d loved Chabon’s other work.

Books of 2014, #3: The Answer to the Riddle is Me, by David Stuart MacLean (30 Jan)

So, here’s one for you.

Imagine suddenly “coming to,” standing in a train station — in India! — with no idea who you are, where you’re going, or why you’re there. You don’t know your name, where you’re from, who your parents or friends are, or even what your job is or why you’re in India.

I dunno about you, gentle Heathen folk, but that would freak me right the hell out. It’s horrifying and scary, but it’s the situation in which Fulbright scholar David MacLean found himself back in October of 2002. Local authorities initially took him for a shattered junkie, but the actual culprit turned out to be a then-commonly-prescribed antimalarial drug called Lariam.

What follows is MacLean’s harrowing and fascinating road to something like recovery. He doesn’t shirk the hard questions, either; much of our identity and sense of self is tied up with what we’ve done, and how we remember what we’ve done — but MacLean was robbed of this. On his trip home to Ohio to recuperate, he met his girlfriend, who was of course a stranger to him. He develops the ability to fake recollection, but all the while he’s really completely adrift and unconnected; he knows no one, and is vaguely threatened and alarmed that all these people seem to know him.

I’ve spoken to MacLean here in Houston, at a reading a few years ago. At that time, he had recovered much of his memory — but not all of it. He had no memory of his sister’s wedding, for example. But regaining what he did regain was a long road, and it begs the question of whether or not post-Lariam MacLean is the same person as pre-Lariam MacLean, and of what that sort of person-hood means. There’s no easy answer here.

It’s a fascinating read; I devoured it in a couple days, and would’ve read faster if I hadn’t been so busy with other things. You oughta read this book, for sure.

By the way, despite a series of these episodes, including suicides among US Special Forces, the drug is still widely available. However, the US military kept giving it to SF troops until last September. Worse, the military used mega-doses of it on all incoming detainees at Gitmo in an attempt to trigger psychological distress. (That’s not on the Wiki page, but it’s documented in MacLean’s book.)

Remember this drug, and make sure you don’t ever take it. The trade name (from Roche) is Lariam, but it’s also available as a generic under the name mefloquine. DANGER DANGER DANGER.

Books of 2014, #2: Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser (27 Jan)

So, gentle Heathen, gather round, and let me give you a decades-delayed case of the nightmarish heebie jeebies.

My sense is that most of you are cold war kids, like Mrs Heathen and I. Our impressionable teen years coincided with a period of time when nuclear war was taken as almost a given; we were all fucked, but we just tried not to think about it.

Or, rather, we sort of WANTED to think about it, but then regretted doing so, which is the only way to explain the existence of such destructo porn as Threads and The Day After. Even lighter fare during the 80s, like Wargames, hinged on the obviously-imminent thread of nuclear armageddon. The sky is blue. Ice is cold. We’re all going to die. Inshallah.

Somehow, it didn’t happen. We’d like to tell ourselves a fairy tale at this late date that it never could’ve happened, or that the Russians were too afraid, and our leaders too wise, to ever let it happen, and that the collapse of the USSR was foretold and inevitable and all we had to do was wait out the clock, but none of those dogs will hunt. We stared oblivion in the face for the very best part of 40 years, and somehow lived to tell the tale.

And here’s the kicker, gentle heathen: we only made it out by the skin of our goddamn teeth, and with a heaping ton of good luck. If you thought nukes were scary when you were 16 and knew little about them, well, you got another thing coming: once you know how they work, how poorly they were secured and made safe, and how political tomfoolery kept them that way, they get a shitton more frightening.

Read on, if you dare.

Eric Schlosser‘s exhaustively researched new book Command and Control explores some hugely significant but generally neglected aspects of the nuclear weapons age: the fundamental safety (or lack thereof) of the American nuclear arsenal, and the development of nuclear strategy during that same period of time. The book tells these two stories interspersed with the actual story of a massive accident around a Titan II missile in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980.

What he finds — all of which is more or less indisputable, as it’s mostly matters of public record — is horrifying.

Start with this: There were hundreds and hundreds of accidents, big and small, involving live nuclear bombs. They were dropped on runways, set afire, accidentally blown up (but not detonated), and thrown into the sky by exploding missile fuel. Crashing bombers disgorged their world-ending payloads over American farms and Spanish villages. Entire missile systems were considered unreliable and downright dangerous by experts, but kept in service as bargaining chips with the Soviets. The Titan II, which was to carry our most destructive payload (the 9 megaton W-53 warhead, i.e. 400 times the yield of the Nagasaki bomb), was plagued by maintenance issues and a criminally dangerous propellant mix, but was kept in service for years even after an accident that could have easily obliterated Arkansas.

Despite what you may have been told, every single one of these accidents, in fact, could have resulted in what the experts refer to as a “criticality event.” Nuclear weapons hinge on a primary explosion that compresses a nuclear core. They’re packed with conventional explosives that must be triggered in a precise manner to produce the desired nuclear or thermonuclear explosion. However, exploding part of the conventional payload COULD very well set of a partial reaction.

Since most modern weapons have absurdly high yields, even less-than-optimum nuclear detonations would far exceed the power of any conventional weapon, and would come with the added extra bonus of lethal radioactive fallout — and, given our paranoia for most of the nuclear period, a very real chance that the accident would be interpreted as a strike or launch by one side or the other. Boom.

The complexity of the weapons themselves, and the limits of the command and control infrastructure, created a system where an accidental detonation of a thermonuclear device was not just possible but entirely likely. As analyst, Joint Chiefs advisor, and Stanford professor Scott Sagan put it, the fact that we never had an accidental detonation of a nuke is explained less by “good design than good fortune.”

Let that sink in.

Here’s the other punch line: because organizations like the Strategic Air Command were routinely flying around with live bombs (no, really; for a huge chunk of the pre-missile era, the SAC kept armed bombers in the air ready to go, carrying live nukes, just in case), and because live missiles were armed at all times during the Cold War, instances of heightened alert were actually MORE likely to produce an accident than more placid periods. It is profoundly easy to envision a world where the 30 days of tension during the Cuban Missile Crisis included an accidental detonation somewhere, or an accidental launch of forward-deployed tactical missiles from Turkey, and then where would we be?

Sagan again: “Nuclear weapons may well have made deliberate war less likely, but the complex and tightly coupled nuclear arsenal we have constructed has simultaneously made accidental war more likely.”

Yeah. It’s like that. Freaking out yet?

And, in fact, it’s even worse. Safety problems were routinely hidden from civilian officials, or even from top brass, by commanders in charge of weapon systems to avoid difficult questions, and to protect jobs and commands.

The policies and practices, especially in the early days of the arms race, were built on a freakish and naive faith in giant, monolithic control systems, and assumed many such systems would mesh with each other flawlessly. But it’s also inevitably true that such monolithic systems could not possibly survive what theorists referred to as a decapitation attack; we more or less assumed that the Soviets, in a surprise launch, could probably kill the President, most of the Cabinet, and most of the top military leadership. Where’s the central control then?

The Soviets, for their part, actually had an answer to this: they built a “doomsday” system, designed to fire their missiles automatically and without human intervention if it detected a nuclear detonation on Soviet soil. But they didn’t tell anyone about it, which sort of defeats the purpose.

The gamesmanship of nuclear strategy is also a huge part of the book, and it’s fascinating. Nuclear parity between the superpowers was “healthier” for everyone than an imbalance. If you think the other guy can wipe you off the map and leave you with nothing, you also think there’s nothing to stop him from doing so, so the idea of a sneak attack to even things up becomes more appealing. On the other hand, if you’re sure you could still wipe him out even if he hit you first, everybody is thought to be more polite.

This is a horrifying sort of mental calculus, but it was a huge part of our strategic thinking for more or less the entire missile age. Especially during the nontrivial portions of the arms race when we had a giant advantage, and both sides knew it.

(That’s another thing: the arms race was, for most of its run, a giant money and power grab by the military-industrial complex. There was no “bomber gap” in the 1960s, and the Soviets were NEVER really able to keep up with us in the missile age. They had a brief moment of public superiority with Sputnik, but after that it was all Yanks, all the time. Of course, when both sides have enough to kill everyone, keeping up is sort of pointless, and despite a missile gap in our favor the Soviets would have been able to turn most of Europe to glass in any exchange.)

But that’s all in the past now, right? WE don’t need to worry anymore, and we can sleep well again. Whew.

Well, not so much. Despite all our best efforts, nuclear nonproliferation is a dead letter. It turns out tech is easy to export, which is how countries in the emerging world have joined the nuclear club. What’s not easy to export, though, is an organizational culture that includes deep engineering know-how and safety controls.

The arms race between the US and the Soviets was, in nationalistic terms, largely abstract. I didn’t meet a Russian until after the Wall fell. I had no personal, familial, tribal, or regional beef with Russia; they were just the Other. This kept rhetoric and emotionalism largely out of the picture during our long period of detent. This isn’t the case, though, for at least one pair of new nuclear adversaries: India and Pakistan. The South Asian states have their missiles aimed at each other over Kashmir, and both are poster children for the “plenty of tech, but no engineering safety culture” problem I mentioned above.

Sleep well.

Books of 2014, #1: Something More Than Night, by Ian Tregillis (8 Jan)

Here we go again. Plus, I’m not even a month in, and I’m behind on the blogging.

I actually blame this book for the blogging part of that, because it was disheartening to start the year with something so disappointing and I kept putting off writing this entry as a consequence. Tregillis has taken a whole bunch of ideas and mixed them up here, and the result just doesn’t work. He’s got a Chandleresque narrator (for no discernable purpose, and boy HOWDY does that ever get tired) in a noir-ish mystery tale set among the angels in a near-future world where massive yet unexplored ecological changes have happened (but never mind those, because neither those changes nor the near-future setting matter at all to the plot).

Our other narrator — there are two — is more clear, and blessedly free of schtick, but she’s also so clearly the author/reader proxy that she struggles to be anything else. Her persona also tends to collapse under the weight of the info-dumps Tregillis imposes on her chapters, so as to bring us up to speed.

Tregillis is a bit too in love with his voice, I think. This can work for a writer and reader when the voice is consistent and confident; entire careers can be sustained by voice. (Some would say this describes Scalzi, but there’s more to his work by my lights, and being a voice-y writer isn’t a bad thing regardaless.) But Tregillis doesn’t have one of those voices; he comes off like a geek trying to impress with phrases and jokes that fall kind of flat. Sure, he gets some good bits in there — the phrase “like the offspring of an octopus and a Klein bottle” is nice, for example, but even it presupposes a level of geekery that will drive off readers outside the tribe. (Seriously, how many Heathen even know what a Klein bottle is?)

He also does that thing that prose writers do when they’re working in the truly fantastic (or what they think of as the truly fantastic) where they avoid direct physical descriptions because it’s all too far beyond human comprehension or whatever, and instead drop hints designed to shake you up without actually giving you anything substantive, like implying an angel has a variety of liplike things with which he could play a trumpet. It’s lazy writing, really, and annoys more than entertains. (Last year’s The Incrementalists was also guilty of this.)

Skip it.

Books of 2013: Stats Themselves

So, 53 in a year. Here’s how it broke down:

The Kindle vs. Paper Smackdown

I read 24 on paper, leaving 29 to be consumed on Kindle and/or iPad. I admit I’m surprised by this, though only a little.

The fiction/nonfiction/sci-fi & fantasy split

It was surprisingly even! 19 were fiction. 16 were nonfiction. 18 were science fiction/fantasy of some time. (Yes, the line between the first and last category is arbitrary and capricious. Deal with it.)

Hey Chief Heathen! What’s the best nonfiction book you read last year?

I pick two: Going Clear, Lawrence Wright’s expose of Scientology, and David Foster Wallace’s epic collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

Hey Chief Heathen! I wanna read the best literary fiction you read last year!

Great idea! It’s Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead by a mile.

Hey Chief Heathen! I’m a nerd like you! Hook me up with some great sci fi or fantasy!

You can’t go wrong with The Gone-Away World; also, pick up on Joe Hill. Horns is out in paperback, and will be a movie soon with Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple. There’s still time for you to get in ahead of the curve!

Hey Chief Heathen! What book, regardless of other praise, shoud I avoid like the goddamn plague?

The fucking mess that is Gone Girl. As I said in April, it’s a dumb person’s idea about what smart person’s mystery might be.

That’s a wrap. We start over tomorrow.

Books of 2013: Juking the Stats

I decided, late in 2012, that it might be interesting or fun to track what I read in a year. I did this partly because I knew doing it “in public” like this would drive me to read more books — I had, in years past, let my novel consumption falter while I read more from the net and from periodicals or whatever — and partly because I knew I’d find it rewarding and memorable to take the time to write at least a little about each book as I finished it.

The goal I set was 50, and I made it with 53. In books, at least, I am apparently good at budgeting and forecasting.

What I didn’t realize was how often I’d find myself game-ifying the process and sort of “juking the stats” by avoiding bigger books in favor of slimmer works in order to keep my rate up. Partway through the year I added a column to the spreadsheet (because of course there’s a spreadsheet) that tracked whether my read rate was increasing or decreasing; obviously, I wanted that to show a positive rate, not a negative one.

The curve over the year, expressed in “projected books per year at current rate”, looks like this:

Screen Shot 2013 12 31 at 3 13 29 PM

Obviously, it starts high and then settles down. The real story is that for all my chatter about juking it up with Reacher books or whatever, the actual rate variance after the first quarter is relatively stable, as you can see.

Part of that is compression based on the graph, but if we skip the books finished in January through March, it looks like this:

Screen Shot 2013 12 31 at 3 16 53 PM

Pursuit of the goal had me shove aside some books I really want to read, though, like Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control and the ever-popular House of Leaves, both of which languish on my to-read shelf.

So for 2014, there is no goal. Or, rather, there IS a goal: read the books I want to read, and keep writing about them. Which I think is probably one I can easily meet.

Books of 2013, #53: The Affair, by Lee Child (Jack Reacher #16)

There was Christmas travel. Whaddayou want from me?

It took Child years to get there, but this one’s actually a prequel: It takes place a few months before Killing Floor, and tells the story of how Reacher came to leave the Army in the first place back in 1997.

Child’s gotten good at this, which is more or less what you expect with any series. If you look at the early books here, and compare with the early entries in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey books or Robert Parker’s Spenser books, you see commonalities: brisker, less fleshed out plots and characters, generally less interesting stories. Fast forward a few years, and the stories get some meat on their bones. (Hell, it even happened with the Potter books.)

The troublesome note is that there are only two more books currently available, though a 19th entry is scheduled for release next October.

Books of 2013, #52: Double Feature, by Owen King

“In which Chief Heathen accomplishes the King Trifecta”

Some time ago, I suggested that it might be fun to read books by Stephen King and his two novelist sons as part of this little experiment in documented bibliomania, and I’m happy to say I followed through — and then some, actually. From Joe Hill, I read Horns and NOS4A2; from the paterfamilias I read not just 11/22/63 but also The Shining; and, earlier this month, I finished Owen King’s debut novel, Double Feature.

Unlike his brother and father, King is working far afield from horror at all. His work is straight fiction with a literary bent, with no creepy-crawlies or dark forces at all. And while it’s easy to hear the elder King’s rhythms when reading one of Hill’s books, Owen’s language is his own. This is not to say there weren’t places where I felt like I was anticipating something weird happening, but it’s really hard to say if I’d have felt that way had I not known who wrote the book.

With all that said, I’ll also say it’s a good book. It’s not a great book, but it’s a good one, and it shows immense promise. There are some things that need tightening here, and the plot itself seems to meander and lose steam towards the end. There’s a clanger of an ending scene, too. All these bits are forgivable, though, for some of the language and scenes King assembles.

Central to the work is the relationship, however troubled, between our protagonist (young Sam Dolan) and his B-movie actor father, Booth. Booth hasn’t really been there for Sam, or for Sam’s mother. Booth isn’t without charm, and isn’t abusive, but his need to chase his own dreams left him ill-equipped to live a more conventional life when it was asked of him. Such is their rift that when, in college, Sam assembles the funds to produce his own independent movie, Booth isn’t even consulted.

The New York Times review of Double Feature is fair and kind, and is probably worth reading if only for this paragraph — which contains the only reference to King’s famous father, however oblique, to be found in the review:

The young Sam says he can’t stand his father, when the real problem is just dealing with him. It’s the great success of this novel that as Booth unwinds and slows just a little, we feel Sam becoming appreciative of the ham and the fraud. Booth is Wellesian, to be sure, but there are dashes of Falstaff, Micawber, Sterne’s Uncle Toby and the father in Geoffrey Wolff’s masterly memoir, “The Duke of Deception.” He has set-piece speeches and a collection of false noses. His talk is as heady as home brew. “Factually, we’re all dying,” he says, “all the time. From the moment of conception, we are dying.” Is that rhetoric or “King Lear” (a question that recalls Welles’s ability to improvise Shakespeare that neither the Bard nor anyone else had ever written)? You groan at the flights of fancy, but you want those wings for yourself, while seeing that a son would hardly dare to speak in the aftermath of so many grandiloquent speeches. If Owen King has a father (and he might), that man should be fit to burst with pride, and alarm, at this endearing monster.

(Emphasis added.)

There’s a lot to be happy about in this book, especially as a debut novel. It bounces around, timewise, and has some set pieces that don’t quite work, but more often than not it feels true. That’s as much as we can ask, and better than most work from more seasoned hands than the young Mr King. Let’s see what he does next.

Books of 2013, #51: The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway

The Gone-Away World is, hands down, one of the most inventive and well-written and occasionally hilarious books this year — absolutely top ten if not top five. It’s a real gem of a book, full of absolutely hysterical turns of phrase (and bursts of satire worthy of Heller), but not at the expense of telling a pretty amazing story. Harkaway has built a hell of a world here — one that, at first, you don’t even recognize as being based on our own. I’ll absolutely be sampling more of his work in 2014.

To explain much of the plot is, I fear, to rob you of the experience of working it out on your own, so I’ll say little in that regard. It’s not a puzzle book, but it takes you a few chapters to get the gist, and the journey is worth it, so my advice it that you don’t even read the Wikipedia page.

What I can tell you about, again, is Harkaway’s glorious language. Here’s a few samples, just to taste:

Old Man Lubitsch holds up a single gloved hand, a sinner lost to apiarism, requesting indulgence.


[T]he tree of nonsense is watered with error, and from its branches swing the pumpkins of disaster.


We cruise along the main street, and it’s reasonably clear how the good folk here spend their time. The female half dances nude for the male half (with a statistical variation to account for less common orientations) or wrestles in a variety of convenience foodstuffs or performs in cinematic fantasies with simple, pithy titles. Some of the inhabitants engage in unmediated physical commerce of an ancient and simple sort. The porn shops of Matchingham observe a strict progression of obscenity, beginning with an almost fluffy eroticorium (catering either to tourists, if Matchingham ever had such a thing, or to the two or three women here who think of sex as a leisure activity), and moving from the modest HARD CORE! to the more self-aggrandising X-TREME HARD CORE!!! to various delights identified by jargon at least as impenetrable as Isaac Newton’s Second Law. The pale, as it were, beyond which one may not go, is a small shop with a faded handwritten sign and quite a lot of dust in the window. It stands just past an emporium sporting a neon outline of a woman swallowing the head of a Sucuri anaconda (the distinctive markings are surprisingly well rendered in lilac tubing) while being beaten by attendant cowboys with what appear to be starfish. It seems that the people of Matchingham have attained, with their limited resources, a jaded expertise in perversity I had assumed was found only in wealthy university towns. Even for this population of mining-town Caligulas, the little boutique to the left has gone too far with its simple sign: EXPLICIT EROTIC MOVIES—WITH A STORY!!!!

and, my personal favorite:

Unfucking is considerably more difficult than fucking. The Second Law of ther-mo-dynamics—because if you were thinking even for a minute that you are better educated than I am and therefore superior, Bumhole, you were mistaken—does not look with kindness upon unfucking. The level of fuckedness in a system always increases unless something acts on it from the outside. Worse yet, Bumhole, you do not own your own fuckedness. You do not appreciate the fullness of the fucking which has happened to you.

Books of 2013, #50: Worth Dying For, by Lee Child

Another business trip, and another Jack Reacher book. In this one, the 15th in the series, Child has his unstoppable former MP take on yet another in a series of isolated towns dominated by a local criminal clan. Frankly, it’s a testament to how (reasonably) fresh Child keeps his formula that I was actually shocked when this one turned out to hinge on human trafficking.

This one’s also of note because it picks up almost immediately after the conclusion of the prior book, which ended in something of a cliffhanger. I’m a little disappointed with how lightly Child treated that bit of information, but it was fun anyway.

Also amusing to me (and no one else) is it was an excerpt from Worth Dying For in an ad in the New Yorker (of all places) that started me on this series in 2010; I was at the Bethesda North Marriott in suburban DC at the time, attending an industry conference.

In an odd bit of synchronicity, I read most of Worth Dying For in the same hotel, attending the 2013 edition of the same conference.

When I started this series of posts in January, what I left unsaid was my actual reading goal. When I finished this book a month ago, I hit my mark: 50. The holidays have slowed me down, but I’ve read two more since then, and will probably bag at least one or two more before New Year’s Eve. Neat.

Books of 2013, #49: The Shining, by Stephen King

Yeah, I went there.

A friend of mine has been hosting a movie night in his new home since he moved in this summer; on one mid-November Monday, his choice was Kubrick’s now-iconic adaptation of King’s story of isolation, madness, and malevolent mountain hotels.

It is indeed a fine film; it’s aged well. At this point, we can really only ding it for the same thing that drove King himself to make his own film version some seventeen years later: Nobody was surprised when Jack Nicholson went homicidally nuts, which mutes what King has long said was the central horror of the book.

The film, inasmuch as it has a viewpoint character, focuses on Danny (and to a lesser extent, on Wendy). Jack is an external force, and one they fear due to his rage issues and his alcoholism. The family presents as one dominated by an abuser, not as one trying to escape its demons and start fresh. That Nicholson is sort of expected to be menacing and crazy drives the point home, which is why King went for someone decidedly more likable and normal in his “vanity” adaptation in 1997.

Remembering all this from articles in years past, I realized I’d never read King’s source novel as an adult, and as the movie night came right as I finished the aforementioned Goldfinch, I dove right in.

King is, fundamentally, correct. Kubrick made a great film, but King’s novel really is better. The novel switches perspective over the course of the story, giving us glimpses of life at the Overlook from Danny, from Wendy, from Hallorann (the Scatman character), and, crucially, from Jack himself. It’s Jack whose perspective is missing from the film, and it’s that perspective that helps make the book more horrifying than the film.

Jack is a broken person. His father was an alcoholic rage monster, and all his life he’s fought to keep those aspects of himself in check, with varying degrees of success. At the same time, his predicament — jobless, and therefore forced by economics to take the gig at the Overlook arranged for him by a wealthy friend — is not entirely his fault for reasons beyond the scope of this post. Sure, he contributed, but he’s a man both sinned against and sinning.

Key to the literary Torrence is his desire to be a good man to Wendy, and a good father to Danny. Danny is his world and his opportunity to do a better job than his old man did. (The portions told from Wendy’s point of view show her suffering from a parallel fear of becoming her mother, a domineering and nagging character in her life whose aid they cannot bring themselves to accept.)

As in the film, when we meet the Torrence family, Jack’s been sober for months. He’s doing well, but for their financial situation. He’s on a good track, personally, and would probably have been fine except for the Overlook itself, which sees the special capabilities present in Danny and wants them for itself. If it can push Jack into killing Danny in the hotel, it believes it can add Danny’s “shine” to the dangerous mix already present. The Overlook magnifies all their fears, pushing them to and then across the breaking point. (The idea that the Overlook is a sentient entity with real motivations, as opposed to just a haunted place, is something else Kubrick kind of glosses over.)

It’s worth noting that King has had his own well-documented battles with drugs and alcohol and anger. Jack wrestles with the demon that King himself was fighting, and the horror King ends up writing of is, once divorced from the supernatural forces of the hotel, the one that he feared most: losing control and harming his family. Turn that up to 11, add evil ghosts and an isolated hotel, and simmer.

The horror of the film is being trapped in a haunted hotel with a lunatic. The horror of the book is becoming the lunatic, which is much more personal, internal and, to me, horrifying.

Bonus Bit: James Bond at the Overlook

(The following is taken from an email I wrote my host after watching the film, because I am an obsessive bastard.)

The character Ullman, the hotel’s manager who hires Jack Torrence, was played by an actor named Barry Nelson. Nelson is of interest in Heathen circles (sadly) for his status as a 400-level Bond trivia answer: Nelson was the first man to play James Bond on film.

It’s widely believed that the Bond franchise got pretty weak sometime in Roger Moore’s tenure, and an obvious reason is that they were out of source material (the other big reason is that Bond was getting old; Moore was actually 3 years older than Connery, but never mind that). Nothing after Live and Let Die looks much like a Fleming book at all, because Eon Productions (the family concern who did all the Bond films) had already used them all.

Except one.

The literary Bond makes his debut in Casino Royale, but Eon didn’t adapt Casino until 2006; they began with an adaptation of Dr. No instead, which was the sixth of Fleming’s novels. Why did they wait 40+ years to adapt the first one while making blatantly subpar films like Die Another Day? One answer might be that Eon wasn’t first the party on Bond; prior the Eon’s Dr No in 1962, an American TV show called Climax! adapted Casino Royale, way back in 1954.

In this American TV version, our iconic British agent was reimagined as the American spy “Jimmy” Bond, played by Barry Nelson. Le Chiffre, now world famous as embodied by Mads Mikkelsen, was played by Peter Lorre.

But Wait There’s More!

As if that weren’t enough to put Eon off the book, Peter Sellers and David Niven would do a satirical adaptation of Casino Royale in 1967, as a spoof of the by-then enormously successful Eon productions. This presumably pushed a straight film of the book off the table until the pseudo-reboot in 2006 (though it seems weird that they didn’t try it with Brosnan).

Anyway: Barry Nelson was the first Bond. He made his screen debut in 1941’s Shadow of the Thin Man, and worked (85 credits worth!) until 1990. He died in ’07, at the age of 89.

This has been “Obsessive Chet’s Film Footnotes.” Enjoy your day, and Merry Christmas.

Books of 2013, #48: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I would be substantially less annoyed by Donna Tartt‘s writing pace — at one novel per decade, Tartt makes George R. R. Martin look like Stephen King — if The Goldfinch hadn’t fallen so completely flat in its final third. Seriously, it just sort of comes to pieces.

It’s hard to explain or discuss much about this book without engaging in spoilers, but it’s probably okay to set the stage: our hero is a Theo Decker, and he’s a child when the book opens. He and his mother — his father has taken a powder — live in New York.

One day, his mother takes him to the museum, where he is thundersturck by the sight of a young girl being shepherded through the museum by an older relative. The museum, shockingly, becomes the target of a terrorist bomb. Separated at the time of the blast, our hero survives only to encounter a mortally wounded man — the same man who’d been escorting the young girl, who is nowhere to be seen. The dying man presses Theo to rescue the titular painting (a real one, by the 17th century painter Carel Fabritius), and so Theo becomes the guardian of a lost treasure — one presumed lost in the museum bombing. (Yes, real-world art losses are name-checked, so you get to feel clever if you know what happened to Rembrandt’s only seascape.)

What follows is a positively Dickensian Bildungsroman, at least for about 2/3 of the book. Who will care for Theo? Will it be his wealthy friend Andy’s family? Where is is his father, and will he turn up? What’s the story of the girl and the dying man? Where will all this go?

It’s the resolution of the last question, I’m sad to say, that Tartt kind of whiffs. We stay with Theo into adulthood, and the book holds together pretty well most of the way there, but the final sequence of events — which consume most of the last third of the book — aren’t quite right by my lights. There’s a weird shift in tone, and a strange sense of both too much and not enough. We reach an end, but it’s not really an end that feels right for the book. (I’m not alone in my reservations, as it turns out.)

So here I am. I loved The Secret History in 1992, and The Little Friend ten years later. Her sensibility agrees with me. I suppose I’ll buy her 2023 book at publication, too.

But disappointments are easier to weather when there’s more work to enjoy. Write like the wind, Ms Tartt.

Books of 2013, #47: The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust & Skyler White

First, let me say it’s goddamn amazing I didn’t see more jokes about Brust’s co-author’s name here, especially considering that The Incrementalists dropped right about the time Breaking Bad was wrapping up. Maybe it was just too obvious.

Anyway, this one’s short: I think, despite enjoying his own output as well as his public persona at talks, readings, and whatnot, that John Scalzi and I must have different tastes in SF. Scalzi loved this book, and even blurbed it, and so I figured it might be fun despite having read and been underwhelmed by the similarly-blurbed Ancillary Justice last month. The Incrementalists at least sounds interesting, given the premise: a secret cabal of sorta-immortals are dedicated to improving human society via tiny nudges here and there.

Unfortunately, instead of telling a story about how this happens, and what they’ve accomplished, what we get here is a weird sort of backstage, inside-baseball we’re-in-love-with-our-idea mess that I found to be a complete slog. There’s no accounting for taste, but I really thought the “big idea” (to steal a phrase) deserved a better story than we get in this book. Is there an existential threat to the group? Maybe, but since we don’t really know what they’ve done, or how, why should we care?

Anyway. This would not be the only book to disappoint me this fall, sadly.

Goddammit, Neil

That didn’t take long.

Fans of the original run of Sandman will remember how frequently issues were delayed, especially in the last third of the run. Comics are nominally monthly publications, but Sandman absolutely did not hew to this plan after a certain point; its 75 issues were spread over 84 months, with most of the disruption coming in 1994 and 1995.

Gaiman’s much-anticipated prequel, Sandman Overtures premiered last month. Issue 2 has already been pushed back until February for reasons undisclosed.

Books of 2013, #46: Mo Meta Blues, by Questlove


?uestlove‘s book Mo Meta Blues was already on my radar before Mike wrote about it a few weeks ago, but I’ll admit that having dinner with him (Mike, not Questlove) last week is what made me pick it up on the way out of Raleigh last Friday.

The Roots are a really intriguing act, but this book is fun even if you don’t dig hip-hop, or don’t dig the sort of hip-hop that the Roots do. Ahmir (Questlove’s given name) has had an interesting life so far — he’s the son of successful but not famous musicians — and has a quick wit and a great way with a story that’s often missing in celebrity or musician memoirs. Sure, it starts with the bog-standard growing-up stories, but there’s a depth here that gives it resonance, and not just because much of the music of his youth is also the music of mine. This book’s very self-aware, as is Questlove, and that helps keep the book from getting too full of itself.

There’s really not much I can say more about this, except to note that Quest’s level of fame is sufficient that he has access to his idols, but not so enormous as to really diminish his enthusiasm for these people and their work. That enthusiasm comes through, for example, when he gets to go rollerskating with Prince, among other things.

Yeah, that’s right. Rollerskating with Prince. Now that you this story’s in the book, how can you NOT want to read it?

Books of 2013, #45: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

I had better luck here.

Ancillary Justice is Leckie’s first novel, which is sometimes trouble, but didn’t get in the way here at all. AJ is a wide-ranging space opera sort of thing, but with some genuinely inventive worldbuilding that I can’t say much about without being spoilery. It’s a bit of a mystery, and a bit of a quest, and a bit of an exploration of some admittedly well-explored SF ideas (“what is human?”), but the mix is right; Leckie in particular doesn’t let her enthusiasm for her world completely drown the story, which is nice.

This is not to say there aren’t issues here. AJ is getting lots of attention for the way it deals with gender in language. Our narrator spends lots of time conversing in a language not his own, and a key difference between his tongue and the one he frequently speaks is that his own is vastly less gendered. Couple this with the facts that gender in the world(s) of the book is (a) not obvious in most cultures and (b) varies in presentation when it is and (c) not an indicator of position, and Leckie has set the stage for a novel that also tweaks expectations about gender in the reader, or at least that’s what it feels like she’s trying to do.

In my experience, though, shifting between “he” and “she” when referring to the same character is just jarring, and makes it pointlessly more difficult to track the actual story. I said Leckie didn’t let her ideas get in the way, and this is mostly true, but the gender thing here is (while well intentioned) enough of an “aren’t I cute” move that I’d dock her a letter grade even though I’m generally sympathetic to the notion that gender expectations are troublesome, and that gendered language can contribute to that, and all that comes with those ideas.

The politics of Radch space (the dominant human empire, which is quasi-feudal and very corrupt) are also a little twee and precious, but they don’t get in the way of the story here nearly as much as the pronoun trope does.

All that said, I enjoyed it mostly, and was sad to see it end, but not, I think, sad enough to pursue other works in the same universe (online references make it sound like Leckie plans more Radch works).

(Avoid online discussion of this book, even in places like IO9 or Goodreads, if you want to avoid any spoilers at all.)

Books of 2013, #44: Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold

I’ll just come right out and say it: holy CRAP was I disappointed in this one. In the decade since it hit the streets, Carter has gotten nearly universally good reviews. Everyone loves it. It’s been on my “I should read that” list for a long, long time, so when geek-celeb Wil Wheaton wrote about loving it on his blog a month ago, I finally got around to ordering it from Amazon.

Carter Beats the Devil is one of those “fictional story told with real-life character” books, which sometimes works but usually ends up too clever by half. This one starts well enough, but Gold really kinda runs out of steam about halfway through. It went from a page-turner to a slog, and then stayed there; I found it a chore to finish. Even the “big reveals” towards the end didn’t really pay off for me, anyway.

Anyway, onward.

Books of 2013 #43: 61 Hours, by Lee Child

(SO behind, still.)

Yeah, I know, but I was traveling again. Reacher books just go down easy, which is troublesome as now I’ve only got 4 left. Write like the wind, Lee!

61 Hours is an odd one in that it’s framed, constantly by the titular countdown that we only slowly grow to understand. Reacher, of course, is drawn into a web of intrigue in an isolated small town — which is by no means new for him — but by this point in the series Child’s gotten good enough with characters that they’re a bit better than stock, which is nice for pulp.

Mark this one, as always, for fans only, but I enjoyed it, if for no other reason than the consistently hilarious visual provided by the generally-offscreen antagonist.


In the 70s and 80s, it was routine to see one-page ads in comic books for snack cakes; they’d take the form of mini-stories usually featuring the hero on the cover of the book, so you’d end up with Spiderman shilling for Hostess, for example.

Don’t you think this is an idea that needs to return? Yeah, me too. So does Brendan Tobin. Turns out, he’s a Breaking Bad fan, too. Enjoy.

Books of 2013, #42: The Revolution was Televised, by Alan Sepinwall

(I’m still catching up.)

If you think about for any amount of time at all, you’ll notice something about TV’s evolution since we GenX types were kids: the broad market has gotten worse (Honey Boo Boo anyone?), and shows in general define success with vastly smaller chunks of a larger market, but there are at any given moment a few shows on the air (now there’s an anachronistic phrase) that push the boundaries of the medium and eschew trite 42-minute stories that return all the pieces, unchanged, to their starting positions before the credits roll.

Look at it this way: In 1978, the Emmy winner for best drama was The Rockford Files, which was a completely legitimate choice. However, Rockford was pretty simplistic, and employed the usual tropes — chief among them was that Jim and his pals were always more or less in exactly the same position at the end of the hour that they were at the start. Continuity was for soap operas, not so-called “serious” TV.

Then something interesting happened: Hill Street Blues. it was the vanguard for a whole new kind of TV show for adults, one that featured solid acting, good writing, real direction, and tossed out the whole idea of the continuity-free world. Episodic TV could — and should! — exploit the sheer expanse of the form; after all, every season had 22 hours to fill. Why not try some longer stories?

Hill Street and St Elsewhere and LA Law and Wiseguy and other shows in the 1980s pushed these boundaries probably as far as they could go on network TV, and then 1990s shows like NYPD Blue pushed them a bit more. . . and then HBO noticed, and let David Chase to The Sopranos, and then the change was mainstream.

Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised, which is compulsively readable if distinctly flawed by a somewhat limited vision, is a study of these changes in quality TV. It takes the form of a chapter-by-chapter analysis of several key programs in the evolution of the modern TV drama, including Hill Street, but with a decided emphasis on the more recent examples. If you find media criticism and analysis at all interesting, this is a great book to pick up. I was disappointed that he didn’t go farther with the idea — Sepinwall mostly ignores broad trends in the medium, one of which is the implied subject of the recently published Difficult Men (why ARE so many of these elite shows centered on horrible people, like Tony Soprano or Walter White or Don Draper or Vic Mackey?). But what’s here is good, and is worth your time.

Books of 2013, #41: The Human Division, by John Scalzi

I’m super behind. Forgive the brevity.

This one’s easy: If you love the Old Man’s War universe, then The Human Division makes a tasty read, but I wouldn’t jump in here as a first venture. This time the shenanigans are mostly political instead of military, but our hero is still one of the genetically enhanced soldier types like those that staffed OMW itself. Lots of wry dialog, plenty of nerdy sarcasm, and a generally rollickin’ good yarn if you like this sort of thing.

My sense is that Scalzi is capable of much more “serious” writing, given his resume (and his work at Whatever). I think I’d like to see him stretch his chops and venture out of this witty-SF category and into a different world, just to see what he could do with a less completely genre work. My guess is that he’d do just fine, which is more than I can say for lots of SF types.

Anyway, a fun book. Enjoy.

Books of 2013, # 40: Kill City Blues, by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim is back for more in book 5 of Kadrey’s reliably entertaining urban fantasy series. He’s not the devil anymore, so it’s back to LA to work at thwarting the arrival of some pesky old gods; you know, the usual sort of thing.

Plenty of authors are playing in this space, but for my money Kadrey is doing the best job. He’s clearly a student of the noir/hardboiled tradition, and that shows through; our hero — his actual name is James Stark — has much in common with the gumshoes written by Chandler and Hammett and Crumley, to say nothing of the character’s namesake. If angels, devils, supernatural mysteries, and tales of revenge aren’t interesting, this isn’t the series for you, but if you’re into both noir and modern fantasy, you might want to look into the first book — you absolutely don’t want to read them out of order.

Books of 2013, #39: The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley

After discussing The Big Sleep at a friend’s house not long ago, I was enthusiastically loaned a copy of The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley. I’d never heard of either book or author, but Mrs Heathen — an alum of a mystery bookstore — nodded sagely as John handed me the book. It’s a good one; neither John nor Erin steered me wrong here.

I’m apparently the last one to know this, but Crumley was a great inheritor of the noir/hardboiled tradition. I’m just sorry I didn’t read him sooner (had I read his 2008 obituary in the Times, I’m sure I would have; therein he’s described as the literary offspring of Chandler and Heathen patron saint Hunter Thompson). His books are placed later (Kiss is in the 1970s), but still honor the form pioneered by Hammett and Chandler. He was never hugely successful, but he’s on the short list of “favorite writers” for a whole host of more modern American crime novelists, including folks like Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. It’s for good reason; Kiss is a hell of a yarn, and carries itself with such poise and style that I really didn’t mind the somewhat abrupt ending.

This one’s worth picking up if the world of hard(ish) boiled detectives appeals to you at all. Here’s how it begins:

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

Beat that.

Books of 2013, #38: Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography, by Rob Lowe

Let me get this right out of the way: HOLY CRAP I CAN’T BELIEVE I READ AND LOVED A CELEB BIO.

There. I said it.

Mrs Heathen read this a year or more ago, when it came out, and was laughing out loud and reading bits to me so often that I eventually agreed I’d have to read it. I’m not sorry. Lowe — who did not have a ghostwriter here, I should note — has written a surprisingly warm and self-aware (and, in places, unflinching) book about going from nowhere, Ohio, to California, and about getting his fondest dream granted when he became a a no-shit movie star at a terribly young age (in The Outsiders). Madcap hilarity, at least in hindsight, ensues with remarkable regularity.

Lowe is both aware of and cautious of his profound luck and privilege, but at the same time manages to let us into his own perspective as an insecure actor auditioning with other folks just starting out at the time (recall a guy named Tom Cruise was also in The Outsiders). His California neighborhood was also home to a couple sets of brothers of some note — the Crazy Dad in the area was Martin Sheen, fresh off Apocalypse Now and a long way from Bartletian gravitas. The Estevez and Lowe brothers ran around with Sean, Matthew, and Chris Penn, which must’ve made for some very odd pick-up baseball.

This wasn’t the first bit of right time/right place Lowe had; his early career intertwined with many others, and afforded him a wealth of hilarious stories (some with absolute Hollywood royalty) I won’t spoil here. It’s enough to say that Stories is really just about the ultimate summer read, and that, if you’re bashful, in this age of miracles and wonders you can load it on your Kindle if you don’t want anyone to think you’re “slumming.” Recommended.

Books of 2013, #37: Zealot, by Reza Aslan

This is the guy who won the publicity lottery a while ago when some numbskull Fox commentator (who is, unaccountably, their religion correspondent) couldn’t get past the fact that Aslan, a Muslim, wrote a book about the historical Jesus. Fox followed by stirring up all manner of bullshit controversy around the book, and sales skyrocketed. Fox probably doesn’t care either way, and just saw an opportunity to shout “LOOKOUT! MUSLIMS!” at its sadly credulous base again, so I guess everyone’s a winner here.

Anyway, Aslan’s book is actually pretty NON-controversial outside of rabid fundie circles. His entire point, which is made abundantly clear several times, is that he’s seeking evidence and analysis about the historical Jesus only. He’s not interested at all in matters of faith, in Jesus’ divinity, or in the religious implications of his research; he’s just gathering together what scholars generally agree on regarding this particular exceedingly influential resident of first century Palestine.

The resulting book is a treasure, and one that I think nearly anyone with more than a passing interest in Christianity should probably read — believer, agnostic, and atheist alike, because it’s fascinating. Aslan places the events of Jesus’ life in the historical context that is typically missing from Sunday School. What were the geopolitics like in Palestine 2,000 years ago? How did Rome treat the area? Who had power and influence? We know Jesus was crucified; what did that mean, in the world of that era? And when the gospels and other New Testament books get written — and by whom? That the gospels were likely not written by their titular apostles is no longer an even remotely controversial statement, but what may surprise many readers is the sort of “doctrinal drift” that occurs as one moves from the earlier gospels to the later ones — possibly, in Aslan’s view, to render a revolutionary movement into something more palatable to Rome.

Also covered in detail is the ascension of the former Saul of Tarsus — better known by his post-conversion name Paul — as the effective head of the faith. How’d that happen, when those who actually traveled with Jesus were still around?

Aslan provides the missing backdrop, and does it in a compulsively readable style. I can’t overstate this, but most people in churches learn in a silo; I certainly did. There’s “Christian” publishing, and then there’s everything else, and never the twain shall meet. Additional historical texts and sources are almost never introduced in religious instruction, at least not in the mainline Southern Baptist church of my youth; it’s sola scriptura all the way down. Aslan’s book provides more context in a few hundred pages than I got in 20 years of church instruction.

Moreover, the latter third of the book is given over to notes and sources, lest ye think this “dangerous mooslim” is simply trying to tear down Christianity with his book and interpretations (he’s absolutely NOT doing that, I assure you). I’m sure some folks at very conservative seminaries and “bible colleges” may take issue with some of what he says, but the broad academic response to the book has been (mostly) “yeah, that’s pretty much what we’ve been saying for years.” Aslan just puts it in an accessible format.

I don’t mean to say it’s all settled fact, obviously, or that Aslan’s sources and analysis are the only ones possible. Obviously, there’s little we know to be absolutely true, in a historical sense, about the life of Jesus, beyond his crucifixion (which, according to Aslan, tells us quite a lot). Much is extrapolation and conjecture, or is based on accounts written long after the fact (e.g., the gospels themselves). But Aslan’s book does provide an excellent opportunity to start a conversation about that context both within and outside communities of faith, and that’s a very good thing.

Books of 2013, #36: As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

Oh, mercy.

I hadn’t read this since high school; it’s lost none of its delight, really, but I get that it’s a sort of delight not everyone understands or enjoys. My own re-read was triggered largely by the news that James Franco has adapted it for the screen, which is an odd thing to consider — AILD is infamous for its constantly switching points of view and stream-of-consciousness technique (typically from Vardaman); it’s not at all clear how either idea will translate to the screen. I had similar reservations about adapting Watchmen, and had them largely vindicated. In general, when a work lives so fully in the medium that birthed it, translating it to some other medium is an undertaking fraught with peril.

But I’m sure I’ll still go see it, because Faulkner.

(By the way, it turns out there’s a band — working in the previously unknown to me genre of “Christian metalcore” — using the title as its name. Said band (who I’m sad to say own the domain name “”) are in the midst of some difficulties at present, as it appears that, back in May, their lead singer was arrested in a Barnes and Noble for trying to hire an undercover policeman to kill his estranged wife.

The gentleman in question — Tim Lambesis — also has a sideband/solo project called “Austrian Death Machine,” which I think we can all agree is several steps down the band-name-quality ladder from his day job. It is, of course, an Arnold Schwarzenegger tribute project.

I am not making (any of) this up. We learn odd things from time to time via Heathen, don’t we?)

Books of 2013, #35: How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

This has been on my to-read list for a long time, so when I happened upon it in a shop recently I snagged it and dove in.

Sadly — and this may be the most damning thing I’ve said about any book so far this year — in the 19 days since I finished it, I seem to have almost completely forgotten any charm it held. Critics called it “playful” and experimental, but after a lifetime of reading just that sort of thing, I think it failed to register as novel at all. I read a similarly playful take on “trope” fiction, Soon I Will Be Invincible, back in April, and found it much more entertaining.

You can skip this one.

Books of 2013, #34: Gone Tomorrow, by Lee Child (Jack Reacher #13)

Lucky #13, for sure. Child was off his game in the prior one, but back to a much better form here. This time around the enemy is a bit more au courant, but not clangingly so; Reacher has been in a post-9/11 world for a few books now, and given his lifestyle it was inevitable he’d have to battle terrorists and well-meaning but dimwitted fascist pseudocops.

Anyway, it’s a return of compulsively readable form for Child, which is refreshing after the train wreck of Nothing to Lose.

Alarmingly, I will note that there are only five more books in the series at this point, counting the one that won’t be out in hardback until the fall. I’m not sure what my junk food of choice will be when I run out of these. Nominations? (I think I’m safe through the end of calendar 2014 at least, so no hurry.)

Books of 2013, #33: vN, by Madeline Ashby

This one is one of those “big idea” science fiction books. What if, Ashby wonders, we had self-aware synthetic humans in today’s world? Take it further; wonder about love and marriage and kids. Take it one more step, and build your story around the “child” of a mixed couple: human father, “vN” (for Von Neumann) mother. In the world of the book, the child is really only the offspring of the mother; the synthetics are technological, not biological, and so an actual hybrid is impossible. Toss in a sprinklings of Asimov and set the ball rolling, and you’ve got most of Ashby’s novel.

It’s mostly fun, but begins to collapse under the weight of its own ideas well before the end. I find this is an issue in lots of SF: the writer’s “what if” engine goes into overdrive, and more and more ideas get grafted on, and before long the narrative is stuck in a bog of individually interesting notions that, taken together, create a mess.

Still, vN is a debut. Flawed as it is, it still suggests more interesting work to come form her pen. I doubt I’ll bother with the sequel, but I really would like to read what she comes up with next, once she’s done with this world.

Books of 2013, #32: Countdown City: The Last Policeman Book II

You may or may not recall that my first 2013 book was Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman, which I read in one sitting on January first. It’s the tale of a fairly green police detective chasing an apparent suicide that doesn’t look quite right — and set in a world with an expiration date. An asteroid is bearing down on the Earth; the expectation is that virtually no one will live past the following October. This sets in motion a number of events and changes in society, and it’s teasing out these effects where Winters does his best work, at least in the first volume. It’s not that the story is substandard; it’s just that he does such a good job with the worldbuilding that you get a little distracted.

The balance is better with book 2, Countdown City. The clock’s kept moving; by now, we’re inside 3 months. The asteroid is now set to impact the far side of the world, so we’ve added refugee issues to the challenges being faced by the people in Winters’ world. The plot this time is less obvious, and plugs into the impending doom a bit more directly even if it starts with a conventional missing-persons case (which, in this world, are never “conventional” — people run away or commit suicide with alarming regularity). As before, though, I sort of feel like Winters whiffs the ending. Not so much that it ruins the book, and no so much that I don’t want to read the final book (due next summer), but enough to be annoying.

Also annoying: Winters and his editor made some seriously rookie mistakes here when it comes to firearms. In 2013, that’s just silly; gun people are one of the original nerd tribes, and will happily set you straight about any number of concepts. For example, it should’ve been easy for them to find out that SIG Sauer doesn’t even make a revolver — and that, to be honest, nobody the age of Winters’ cop would be using a wheel gun anyway.

Winters compounds the problem by invoking a sniper rifle with a military designation (M140) that’s either made up or so obscure as to be a poor choice. Since there IS a Marine sniper rifle called the M40, plus a couple others based on the M14, it’s easy to see where the error came from, but that doesn’t completely excuse it. if you’re going to be specific, get it right. Being less specific to finesse your lack of knowledge on a given subject is no sin, as long as you don’t destabilize your plot; in both cases, Winters would’ve been safe avoiding the specific reference.

Books of 2013, #31: Bourbon, Straight by Charles Cowdery

Cowdery is a well-regarded bourbon blogger and writer; as I’m a fan of the spirit, I sought out his book, which I think he self-published. It’s a bunch of solid articles, but it lacks the editing polish and overall coherence we associate with big-publisher books. That’s a nit, though; Cowdery’s book is a compulsively readable survey of the history of bourbon — which is a pretty fascinating tale. Aging, for example, comes late to the party; 18th century American corn whiskey was, typically, unaged and therefore clear. (Why bourbon is typically aged much less than Scottish whiskys is also an interesting tale, by the way.)

Cowdery also gives us a great survey of who, actually, is making bourbon today. It’s fewer people than you’d think — there’s no end of contract distilling and label opaqueness. The bourbon boom that happened after this book went to press have just made those problems worse. (Seriously, look at a bottle and see if you can really and truly tell where the whiskey was made. Odds are, you can’t, but for a very small number of brands.)

Anyway, it’s a good and quick read, but it might be worth waiting to see if Cowdery plans to update it in light of the modern developments in the whiskey market. Even if he doesn’t, though, it’s worth your time.

Books of 2013, #29: The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

I’m mildly embarrassed to admit this, but I’d actually never read this before — or, actually, any Chandler (or Hammett, for that matter). I’m really sorry I waited this long. The Big Sleep is an early giant of this genre — and while Dashiell Hammett came earlier, it’s arguably the ur-text of the whole realm.

Reading it, you get a weird little cognitive dissonance here and there as you run across events or dialog that seems like cliches — but then you realize it wasn’t a cliche in 1933. It’s like watching Stagecoach and noting the “tired” Western tropes — they weren’t tried when John Ford used them. Phillip Marlowe is the hard-boiled private eye, refined from Hammett’s Sam Spade: he’s full of whisky and wisecracks, isn’t afraid of violence, and follows an uncompromising personal moral code. Spade and Marlowe’s children are legion — most notably Robert Parker‘s Spenser, but there are countless others ranging widely through genre (for example, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, and Richard Kadrey’s Stark within the world of urban fantasy).

It’s not a long book, but it’s a rich one. You’ll find yourself reading some portions aloud to yourself, even slipping into a snappy patter as you do it, just for the sheer pleasure of saying the words:

“Tell me about yourself, Mr Marlowe. I suppose I have a right to ask?”

“Sure, but there’s very little to tell. I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s any demand for it. There isn’t much in my trade. […] I’m unmarried because I don’t like policemen’s wives.”


I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-lounge with her slippers off, so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings. They seemed to be arranged to stare at. […] The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim and with enough melodic line for a tone poem. […]

She had a drink. She took a swallow from it and gave me a cool level stare over the rim of the glass.

“So you’re a private detective,” she said. “I didn’t know they really existed, except in books. Or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotels.”

There was nothing in that for me, so I let it drift with the current.

A bit later:

I grinned at her with my head on one side. She flushed. Her hot black eyes looked mad. “I don’t see what there is to be cagey about,” she snapped. “And I don’t like your manners.”

“I’m not crazy about yours,” I said. “I didn’t ask to see you. You sent for me. I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a Scotch bottle. I don’t mind you showing me your legs. They’re swell legs, and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”

You can hear those rhythms far and wide now, but in 1933, they were new.

Go. Read. Seriously, even if “detective fiction” isn’t really your thing. Chandler was way, way more than a genre writer. His works are well worth your time.

Books of 2013, #28: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Dude. Gaiman. Done.

Seriously, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a brilliant and delightful meditation on childhood, a vein Gaiman seems fascinated with lately (cf. Coraline), but that’s fine by me. Ocean is a modern fable or fairy tale, with supernatural menaces and allies obviously perceived only by our young protagonist, but it’s in no way tired or old hat; it’s a great story, and worth your time.

Books of 2013, #27: The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks

I probably wouldn’t have bothered with any of Banks’ non-SF works, except, well, he died, and then my friend and longtime Heathen Lindsey X passed her copy of this on to me. I dove in.

The Wasp Factory a slim thing, and there’s not much I could say about it that hasn’t been said by deeper thinkers than I. It’s somewhat bleak, and certainly violent and sometimes disturbing — the more sadistic passages of Consider Phlebas have nothing on this. I felt Banks’ voice for sure, despite the age of the work (it’s his first novel), but I missed the wide-ranging inventiveness of his Culture books. I found myself somewhat surprised by the nearly universal accolades this book got; it’s a fine work, sure, but I didn’t feel the need to shout it from the rooftops. It’s still worth your time, though — as I noted, it’s short, so it won’t take much of it.

Books of 2013, #26 & #30: Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey

I’ve never bothered combining two posts before, but it seems fair with these books — the last two of a trilogy I started a year or two ago with Leviathan Wakes.

Corey — the pen name of collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck — has created here a pretty solid little hard-SF space opera. The initial scene is set with the first book (seriously, start there if this appeals to you): in the not-too-far future, mankind has settled the moon, Mars, parts of the asteroid belt, and some of the gas giant moons. Our story involves a somewhat disgraced pilot (Jim Holden), tension between the Belters, Mars, and Earth, a hard-boiled-ish detective, a missing girl, mysterious alien tech, political intrigue, and a pace that’ll keep you up nights. There’s lots to like here.

The second book, Caliban’s War (which I finished over a month ago; I am so VERY behind on these posts), is perhaps a bit better, though it relies more on stock characters than the first, and the recurrence of a central theme (“missing girl”) is only mostly excused by the starkly different environment in which the pursuit happens. The mysterious alien tech is better understood, and bad things are happening because we meddled with it. (Who saw THAT coming, right?) The best part here is that a new main character is a irascible and bluntly charming Indian woman (Chrisjen Avasarala) who works political angles within Earth’s government with an aplomb that wouldn’t be out of place from Frank Underwood.

The final book, which I read partly because “vacation” and partly because of the momentum I felt after reading the second, is more of a let down. They move the pieces around, and we return to our ersatz Han Solo as a main character while adding a few new ones who are nowhere nearly as much fun as Avasarala. There’s a clumsy plot that calls back to the first book, and a sort of on-rails experience regarding the “big reveal” about the alien technology, where it came from, and what it’s ultimately for.

Still, none of these books take more than a day or two to read, so you don’t expect them to be plotted like Swiss watches. They were fun, and I’d probably give something from Corey another go, but I’m pretty sure I’d skip anything else in this particular universe; it’s clear they love it, but it’s equally clear they hold on to some elements book to book more than perhaps they should.

The Weird, the pro, and the dead

On this day in 1937, Hunter Stockton Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky. His suicide in 2005 remains a goddamn shame, because I’d love to hear what Hunter would write about PRISM or Trayvon Martin or Obama or Romney or Ted Cruz or even Tim Tebow. But we won’t get that.

Thompson wrote about politics, about sports, about counterculture, and most famously about drugs, but my favorite passage of his remains this, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, about the failed promise of broad societal change in the sixties:

It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era — the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…

And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.

Of course, it’s earlier in the book that we hear his most famous words (“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert…”). By the way, this is the picture from the first edition’s back cover:


(That’s Oscar Zeta Acosta on the right, the inspiration for Raoul’s friend and attorney Dr Gonzo. Acosta disappeared in Mexico in 1974; in 1977, Thompson described him as “One of God’s on prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and to rare to die.”)

Thompson’s culinary advice is also solid, as shown here in his description of a nutricious breakfast:

The food factor should always be massive: four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crepes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned beef hash with diced chiles, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of Key lime pie, two margaritas and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert… Right, and there should also be two or three newspapers, all mail and messages, a telephone, a notebook for planning the next twenty-four hours and at least one source of good music…

All of which should be dealt with outside, in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked.

Modulo the Bolivian marching powder, we see no reason why this shouldn’t become a national standard.

Godspeed, Hunter. We miss you.

Dept. of Comic & Music History

Neil Gaiman shared this link on Twitter yesterday; it covers interesting backstory about how a then mostly unknown Tori Amos came to write “Tear in Your Hand” after reading a borrowed copy of “Calliope” (Sandman #17) in 1990, and how complementary shout-outs ended up in subsequent issues of Sandman (most notably the fact that “Tear” is playing in the background a few years later, in issue, #41).

Rantz tells the story well. Go read it.

Books of 2013: Revisiting #10

Back in March, I talked to you about THAT IS ALL, John Hodgman’s final volume of complete world knowledge. If you’re interested in that book, it might be worth your while to check out the audiobook instead, because it is brilliant.

The link there goes to a review that goes into detail about the evolution of Hodgman’s voice, which is something I had intended to do in my blurb but ended up leaving off, largely because I wasn’t sure how much of what I thought I was seeing was in the text, and how much was colored by casual interaction with Hodgman on JCCC3 (where, obviously, he wasn’t “in character” all the time).

This is spot on, though:

Without giving too much away, you should know that That is All makes its crucial Turn when Hodgman stops writing as a familiar character, and begins writing as what we might guess is “himself,” whatever that means for a writer who is so aware of his changing status and thus his changing voice. Taking on a new voice, one that is so unselfconscious, is surely a vulnerable place to be after so many years occupying jokey versions of himself — we’ve heard Hodgman as a Former Professional Literary Agent, Resident Expert, Famous Minor Television Celebrity, and finally Deranged Millionaire (if you aren’t familiar with these, read your history). Now we are hearing from the post-post Hodgman — in other words, beyond the narrator-in-character writer there is a Hodgman voice we’ve been waiting to hear from again (I remember this voice from before his first book), and boy does it hit home. The book’s brilliant conclusion, telling the story of the metafictional Anne Darling Egan, serves as a transition not just in the book, but in Hodgman’s career — it suggests what Hodgman will do next, after the end of this series of postmodern characters. I have no inside information, but listening to the long segment preceding the closing song, I couldn’t help but think — Hodgman has a novel in him.

What I conclude from That is All is that Hodgman’s Deranged Millionaire character was gaslighting us the entire time. The truth, of course, is that Hodgman himself is a genuinely kind person who uses character as a way to express himself with a kind of wry, safe detachment. His recent Derangement is a fun side-note in the arc of his career, but careers aren’t what matter. What matters is that we do what we love, that we are with the people we love, and that we do our work surrounded by friends — that is what Hodgman has been doing by bringing in Paul Rudd and Jonathan Coulton and running gags that span dozens of hours of audio and years of work — he’s demonstrating to us what is most meaningful isn’t the jokes, it’s that those jokes are shared.