Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Beekeeper's Lament

The Beekeeper's Lament is a book primarily based on one specific beekeeper, John Miller. If you're as clueless as I was when I read this book, you might think of a beekeeper as someone who has a few hives in his backyard to make some honey that he can give to his friends and neighbors. Or maybe he has enough to run a small farmer's market type store, selling produce from his fields as well.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Like every other agricultural product in this country, the production of honey is big, big business, albeit in this case not very profitable. The trials and tribulations of a professional beekeeper and his bees made for a fascinating and sympathetic tale.

Miller's family has been involved in bees for generations. As such, Miller has the science of beekeeping down to a science. It's hard even to know where to start when talking about the beekeeping business as it is one big cycle. Miller is headquartered in North Dakota. Why there? Because people don't live in North Dakota and he (and other beekeepers) can keep their bees somewhere where there is lots of alfalfa and such grown so that the bees can collect pollen and nectar for honey.

Seems simple enough. But it isn't. The lament of the beekeeper is actually many laments. First is the care of the bees. There are mites and fungi and the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder where the bees just up and abandon the hive. There are bee thieves. There are pesticides used on fields that affect the bees. Mostly, though, there is the lack of money.

When the weather gets cold in North Dakota, Miller and his brethren load the hives onto tractor trailers and move their bees to warmer climates. They could stay and just let the bees winter over, losing some of them to cold temperatures but their is money to be made pollinating crops - citrus and almonds.

Who knew almonds were such big business? It's so big that almond growers can't take chances in letting nature do the pollinating of their trees for them so they hire beekeepers like Miller to bring their masses of bees to pollinate their acres of almonds. The problem is that almond honey tastes horrible. The beekeepers only do this for the money and goodwill to the almond growers.

Speaking of money, there's also the problem of imports of foreign honey, particularly from China. The quality isn't as good, is often watered down or corn syruped down and then there's the shenanigans on top of that. For instance, when it was discovered that Chinese honey contained chemicals (I believe from pesticides), the U.S. banned honey imports from China. Suddenly countries such as Singapore and other Pacific Rim countries that had never exported honey before became enormous sources of honey. Hmmmmm....

Following up on foreign honey, there are also foreign bees and the diseases and mites that may or may not come from them. On the one hand, beekeepers and use foreign bees to try and breed resistance to mites and fungi and such. On the other hand, bees such as the more aggressive African types can take over and wipe out existing bee colonies when accidentally introduced.

All in all, it's a royal pain in the butt to keep bees but those who love bees as Miller does do it well. The choice of Miller is inspired because he's an entertaining fellow and respected in the beekeeping community. His passion and quirkiness shine in the book and make for an entertaining read.

I didn't like it enough to make it two stars, though, because I felt at times Nordhaus dragged things on or reiterated points needlessly. It was minor - I never felt like the book bogged down - but it was frequent enough where it noticeably reduced my enjoyment. It's well worth the read to learn about a hidden side of agriculture and the challenges beekeepers face.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Reading Promise

One of our patrons had requested this from another library and seeing the subtitle "My Father and the Books We Shared", I had to take a look at it. It looked interesting and when the patron returned it, I proceeded to sign it out.

This is the story of the author, Alice Ozma, and her father, Jim. Jim, an elementary school librarian, always read to Alice as she was growing up. Around the age of nine the two of them decide that Jim will try to read to Alice for one hundred consecutive evenings. Upon successfully doing so, they decide that they will keep the streak alive and continue as long as they can. Jim reads to Alice every night of her life up until the day she leaves for college.

I enjoyed this story a lot because I could relate on many levels. First, I love to read to people. I read to my sons when they were younger (and my oldest son still reads to my youngest even though they are almost 17 and 12 years old, respectively. My youngest just likes his brother reading to him). I've read to girlfriends, my ex-wife. A friend of mine who lives in another state has gone through many illnesses and I have recorded myself, first on cassette and later digitally, so she can hear me read to her. I even looked into trying to get a gig reading for audiobooks once but found that the companies who produce them like people with vocal training and acting background and all that stuff. Oh well. So there was the whole reading aspect that I enjoyed.

I also could relate to Jim a lot. He raises Alice and her older sister on his own as a single parent. They struggle financially on his librarian salary. Jim doesn't like cats. He's friends with spiders. I liked Jim and I especially liked the foreword he wrote for this book, which should be required reading for all parents. They're also from the Philly area and visit places near where I grew up (Brandywine River Museum, Hank's Place (which I heard was submerged to the windows from Hurricane Irene)).

As for Alice, her writing is very simple and concise. The chapters are very short (about nine pages each) and talk about some aspect of her life with her father. Not all the chapters relate to reading and the streak. They all do have something to do with the father-daughter relationship.

The negative aspects of the book come from Alice just being a little too truthful. Reading to your child throughout their teenage years, almost into adulthood, isn't what most people would consider "normal". This isn't the only quirk the family shows. Some of the stories made me feel uncomfortable in a "too much information" kind of way. While I liked Jim and admired him, I also had to question some of the things he did.

All in all, though, this was a terribly sweet book and biases aside, I think it's one well worth reading.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Johannes Cabal the Detective

My oldest son and I both were looking forward to this book with much anticipation. We both loved Howard's first effort, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer. My son is a fan of Lovecraftian horror tales and the character of Johannes Cabal was first developed by Howard for stories printed in a magazine devoted to H.P. Lovecraft so his enjoyment makes sense. For me, I thought it was a unique tale with a surprise ending, well-written and entertaining.

When I brought home JC the Detective from the library my son snagged it up and started reading it. He was not immediately impressed and he soon dropped it to return to readings in preparation for the school year. I grabbed it back and also was unimpressed early on.

Howard takes a long time to set up the premise of the story and he really tries hard to make Cabal out to be a bad guy (which, as I told my son when we were discussing the story, I don't think he is. I think he's a good guy who does bad things). In this case, Cabal has snuck into a foreign country to steal a rare book on necromancy. He gets caught but manages to escape, boarding an aerocraft of some sort (this has a steampunk feel to it) on its way to another country by pretending to be an agricultural official.

A murder occurs on the flight and Cabal's curiosity gets the better of him. In his efforts to learn more about what happened, an attempt is made on his life. The aerocraft lands and Cabal tries to make his way back home when another murder takes place. Cabal finally figures things out and pieces the puzzle together.

Through most of the story a character from Howard's first book, Leonie Barrow, accompanies Cabal. There's not a lot of background given about the relations between the twain which, coupled with Howard's desire to paint Cabal a certain (incomplete) way, really made me feel like reading JC the Necromancer was a prerequisite for this book.

As a continuation of JC the Necromancer, this is really good. The writing style is the same. Entertaining, albeit with a lot of forced attempts at humor and redundant wisecracks. Once the story gets underway after the slow, murky beginning, it is hard to put down. But then it has a bizarre ending. The story ends in fine fashion. Cabal finds his way home safely. But then Howard says that, oh, by the way, Cabal did have another adventure on his way home and if you want you can read it. He then proceeds to give this short story, told from the standpoint of a fellow at a social club who ran into Cabal during this adventure and is relating the story to his compatriots at the club. Odd. But still good.

I'd recommend you read both Johannes Cabal books together. The second isn't quite as good as the first (which I also rated one star when I read it a couple of years ago) but if you're like my son and I, after you read the first, you'll want to read more about Cabal.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Prone Gunman

Audrey Niffenegger had to be looking over her shoulder with this book. About a third of the way through I really thought about putting it down. Picture some hack writing a bad screenplay for a Jason Statham flick (we're talking a typical non-Guy Ritchie Jason Statham movie where Statham is a driver/killer/disc jockey for hire). And I'm talking a hack, maybe some college kid who is a big Jason Statham fan and who really has no idea what makes a good story, good dialogue, good characters, because it doesn't matter since Jason Statham is in it and he's the bomb. Perhaps the founder of a Jason Statham fan fiction blog. Now picture Jason Statham being a Frenchman in this movie and the inherent drop off in coolness that this suggests. That's the starting point for The Prone Gunman.

I really should have stopped when I thought of stopping because somehow, this book got worse. I honestly laughed out loud in some sections it got so bad. Like this sentence:

"His haggard face at first registered great perplexity; then it registered worry, thoughtfulness, or whatever other movements of consciousness that might cause his face to look as it did."

The problem is that this is a French novel and at times, like with the above sentence, I thought that maybe the translator was being a practical joker. For instance, there tends to be a pattern in paragraphs talking about a character (which are frequent). A paragraph will begin with the character being named (usually the main character Martin Terrier). Then the second time the character is referenced, he will be referred to as "The man". Lower case "m", not upper case cool slang "The Man". Third mention will get the pronoun "he". Mad Guru should have put the book down. The man knew it sucked. He couldn't resist.

So that gnawed at me a bit. Maybe it's not the author but the translator's fault. But the story is just awful so no, I'm blaming Manchette.

Martin Terrier as a youth is a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. His mother left him and his dad for a truck driver soon after Martin was born. Martin, as an eighteen year old, falls in love with a hot chick two years younger who comes from a well-to-do family. Martin vows to win the All-Valley Karate Tournament....wait a minute, that was Ralph Macchio. My bad. Martin vows to make his fortune and return for her. Will she wait for him ten years while he goes and earns his bundle? Why sure, says the smitten sixteen year old. Not a problem.

You're not going to believe this....she doesn't wait for him! If you can't trust the word of a sixteen year old girl on matters of love, who can you trust? She married some snooty rich French guy (being French and all herself). You did what?!?!?! says the dejected Martin. But I've been saving up my money from doing contract killing for the last decade! And now that ten years have passed I'm ready for you. I quit my job! And even though I was banging this other chick who liked my cat more than me, I was really thinking about you. I did all this for you!

And it's not like Martin can go back to the other chick and his cat because the family of a guy he killed is after Martin and they killed the woman and her feline friend to send a message. I think. It wasn't really clear. The cat was gutted, placed in an aquarium filled with water, sealed, and shipped to Martin's hotel (where he was traveling incognito). I think it was a message.

Lo and behold, this same family shows up at the house of Martin's love and (good fortune!) kills her husband. Martin manages to kill the family and he and his babe go on the lam.

But, oh noes, that darn family killed Martin's financial adviser and took all the benjamins he had saved. Good fortune strikes again! His former employer will gladly pay him a bundle if he does this one last hit. Sigh. I'll do it. For love. I have my babe, now I just need the money.

Only Martin can't get it up for his babe. He blames the immense concentration required in preparing for this kill. This even though the kill is two weeks away and his employer has put him and his woman up in a nice place out in the woods. With three days until the scheduled kill, the caretaker of the place/Martin's driver on the kill/representative from the employer finally sits down with him to go over choice of weapons. No, we can't get the gun you want in just three days. You'll have to use this crummy gun. What?!?! If I can't have the gun I want, I'm going to go tell on you. Martin goes and calls his employer who says, sure, we can get you whatever gun you need. Whew. Thank goodness. Martin heads back to the place in the woods. He goes up to the bedroom and there's his woman banging the caretaker/driver. Does Martin the trained assassin shoot them both? Torture them? No. The trauma of seeing his woman going at with another guy causes Martin to go mute. No joke.

First she can't wait for him ten years, then she can't wait for him ten days. But Martin still loves her. Martin heads for the kill, realizes he is being setup, escapes, then kidnaps a guy working for those setting him up. He's still mute. When he kidnaps the guy, he grabs him by the ear and rips the guy (Sammy Chen)'s ear off.
Two of Sammy's associates come along and subdue Martin. The one sees Sammy's ear on the floor of the car and picks it up:

"I must be dreaming!" he exclaimed as he examined the red auricle. "Shit!" he added respectfully.

"This guy is really violent," said Sammy Chen with conviction.

Those last two lines are straight from the book. I'm really glad Sammy said that with conviction. I know I tend not to believe people whose ears have been ripped off when they say the person that did it to them is really violent.

There's a standoff. The whole reason why Martin is set up is really vague and goofy. The man gets shot in the head. He can talk again. He gets his babe but suffers from more performance issues. We get this stunning bit of text a couple pages from the end:

"But she soon tired of an existence entirely lacking in adventure-not to mention money, for Martin Terrier, under his new identity and with his current abilities, could find work only in the restaurant business: he was now a waiter in a brasserie. She also grew tired of three-minute coitus, or so we may surmise. In any case, she left suddenly and without explanation. And she has not reappeared in Nauzac, although she owns property there. May we surmise that she is running around the world and leading a passionate and adventurous life? We may; it's no skin off our nose."

Words fail me. And apparently the author, too. Well, I could write about what happened, or I could just say that we may surmise something. And even though until this point I have refrained from acknowledging that there are readers and I am the narrator, I think I'll make mention of it with two pages to go. No skin off my nose.

What else? A lack of detail except for brand names. Every make of vehicle and weapon is identified. Defining characteristics of people, not so much. Except for the black man. We know he's black. We're told that a lot about him. Citroen's are the vehicle of choice although other makes make appearances.

This was just awful. It is really short (thankfully!) and is so bad it does become entertaining. Because of that, Audrey is safe. I think Stephen Carter's New England White also falls below this just because of the length of his book and the blatant racism by the author, a Yale professor. But this passes The Museum Guard for putridity. I think I have to say this is the third worst book I have ever read. And to think that this guy is considered one of the best noir writers in France. Yikes.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Final Solution

I had just about caught up with my reviews but then held up because I wanted to research this one a little more. It is a review of a book written by one of my favorite authors, Michael Chabon.

Chabon's place in my stable of fantastic authors has been knocked down a few notches over the years with some books I just didn't enjoy very much. I'm reminded of a TED talk with Elizabeth Gilbert where she expresses that she has come to grips with the fact that she will likely never match the success she has had with Eat, Pray, Love and that her writing career is all downhill from here.

I had been feeling that Chabon was in the same boat. What do you do after you win a Pulizter Prize (for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay)? Chabon has branched out into other genres writing movie screenplays, comics, a children's book (Summerland, which I enjoyed), and now has a picture book coming out next month. And it's not like his writing has become bad. He is still as marvelous with words as ever. I just haven't liked his stories much.

The Final Solution came out seven years ago, a year after it first appeared in The Paris Review. I avoided reading it for a number of reasons, the biggest one being I hate people who write Sherlock Holmes stories who aren't named Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It bothers me to no end. You have a brain, come up with your own character, and don't leech off a legend. Sheesh. And for one of my favorite authors to do so? The mind boggles at my moral dilemma.

The thing is, for all the talk about this novella being about Sherlock Holmes, I cannot find any suggestion that it actually is. The sleuthing hero in the story, an old man who was once a respected, legendary crime investigator in England is only referred to as "The old man". Heck, Chabon might have been ripping off Hemingway. The old man has excellent powers of observation and deduction. The story takes place in the early 1940's which makes the age right but I found no reference that said "Hey, the old man is Sherlock Holmes". I have read every Sherlock Holmes story that Doyle wrote. And while I don't have a photographic memory, I would think something would register in my brain as being from some Holmes tale. Even more so, I would think if you're going to make it a Sherlock Holmes story, you make the obvious reference. You reference the stories everyone knows; A Study in Scarlet, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Valley of Fear...something. Nothing.

So I applaud Chabon for the incredible act of writing a story that most people think is a Sherlock Holmes story but isn't. That's talent. I think.

What is this story then? Well, there's a young mute lad with a parrot that speaks German and rattles off sequences of numbers from time to time. The boy lives in a boarding house with some motley characters. One night the parrot vanishes and one of the household members is found murdered. The inspector on the scene is baffled and enlists the old man's assistance. The old man realizes that the parrot is the key to the mystery and so they search for the bird instead of the killer. Both are found but the importance of the parrot (if there is any importance to be attached to the parrot) is left as a mystery.

All in all I liked it. It was a nice breezy book which is hard to say about a Chabon work given his predilection for gargantuan words. It also has a handful of nice illustrations. I initially wanted to give it two stars but the more I thought about it, the more I felt I was doing so because it was written by Chabon. Anyone else and it's a nice story. So I'll be honest with myself and give it one-star.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Not being a good zealot

DeVotchKa came out with a new album and I have been enjoying it as much as I have their other albums. I came across SoundCloud and thought I would create a nice little DeVotchKa compilation for my readers to expose them to the wonderful sounds of my favorite group. I picked two songs off of each of their six albums. Unfortunately, one of them could not be uploaded because it is infringing on copyright (it is a cover of a Siouxsie and the Banshees song). So we'll do a YouTube workaround below the player.

DeVotchKa by Mad Guru

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Two wrongs don't make a right

At work on Friday, I tried to read a James Patterson book on a Kindle. My thoughts on both remained unchanged.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever

There was nothing about this book that was even really good, let alone the best ever. It's a collection of short stories that I found completely unmoving and forgettable. The characters, like the stories are sort of aimless.

I like to think I don't require a connection to the characters in order for me to like them or the book. Maybe if I were a twenty-something hipster, I would have been able to relate more to the drug use and the pansexual experiences. I couldn't, though, and couldn't care less about the characters or what happened to them. There's no doubt Justin Taylor can write, though, and being short stories, it was a quick read and not a waste of my life. Not an awful book but not one I would recommend.


Eleven has become my most favorite fictional book I have read this year. What a terrific book. I finished it and really wanted to just go right back to the beginning and start again. I have recommended it to several people, a couple whom have read it and enjoyed it as well (the others haven't read it yet to my knowledge).

Eleven is about the unusually named Xavier Ireland, nee Chris Cotswold, a native Australian living in London where he works as a late night radio talk show host with his co-host, the stammering Murray. Xavier lives a quiet, lonely life outside of work, indulging in a traditional weekend Scrabble tournament, and tries to steer clear of deep involvement with people's personal lives, even as he dispenses advice on his talk show.

The title Eleven comes from the eleven lives that are influenced by a non-decision Xavier makes early in the book. A young child is being bullied by a bunch of schoolmates. Xavier makes a half-hearted attempt to break it up but ultimately leaves the kid to his own fate. This starts a chain of events that concludes with a very unexpected yet appropriate and moving ending.

This concept could easily be done in a very ham-handed way with "fate" being forced down the reader's throats and coincidences that are just too far-fetched to swallow. Mark Watson, though, does it with a tremendous elegance, creating a literary "butterfly effect". If you're not familiar with the theory, it is the idea that the breeze that a butterfly stirs with its wings in one part of the world, has an influence on the air currents and weather patterns in other parts of the world in ways we cannot fathom. So it is with this novel.

The story can really be summed up by one line in it, a line that seems like a throwaway line about two-thirds of the way through the book:

Everything has a chance of mattering.

Action or an absence of action has impacts in ways we cannot possibly fathom as Watson shows how the smallest things can escalate then ebb. A minor irritation makes us grumpy and our snappish comment to a stranger may in turn set off other events.

Beyond the study of fate and the influence of one person on another, this book is great because of Watson's characters. They are charmingly flawed starting with Xavier Ireland. We eventually find why Ireland has left Australia and changed his name and why he seems so set on being uninvolved. There's Murray (whoever heard of a stammering radio DJ?). The love interest, Pippa, who Xavier meets at a speed dating event and initially hires to clean his apartment. She is a former Olympic caliber athlete who now struggles to care for her recently impregnated sister. There's the neighbors; an upstairs couple who endlessly quarrel and seem abusive, and the downstairs single mother with the ultra-hyperactive toddler. The folks from Ireland's past. The depressed regular caller to Ireland's show. The restaurant reviewer who is the mother of the aforementioned bullied child. The realtor with bad breath.

The book is primarily about Ireland but these other characters flit in and out of the story, each with their own lives that don't seem to have anything to do with Xavier's but each doing or not doing something that impacts someone else.

I loved this book. I found it inspirational in an odd way. I think it is exquisitely crafted and well thought out. Even the ending, which is shocking and emotional, is perfect. The characters are human and modern. I honestly cannot think of a single negative thing to say about this book. Please read it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The War Magician

Not too long ago I came across an interview with Michael Chabon's (one of my favorite writers) wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman, in which she mentioned that the two of them are working on a show for HBO called Hobgoblin which will be about a group of magicians and con men in World War II. That in itself sounded cool to me. Chabon has written comics and has done the screenplays for some superhero movies so I expect that this show will be entertaining.

However, the most intriguing item in the interview came when Waldman was asked if the show would be based on Jasper Maskelyne. "Who on earth is Jasper Maskelyne?", I wondered. Waldman denied it would be based on any particular person but I still wanted to find out more about this Maskelyne fellow.

He was a British magician, one of a long line of magicians in his family, who, when World War II came about, felt that he could apply his skills in deception and misdirection to military problems. It took some time to convince the military brass that this was true but once he did, it appears he made quite an impact, at least on the war effort against Rommel in Northern Africa.

Along the way in my research I discovered that a book had been written on Maskelyne, the one I'm reviewing here. I requested it via Interlibrary Loan. It was pretty fascinating, highly entertaining, but, despite the dustjacket claim that it was "exhaustively researched", I really had my doubts on that regard.

One of the main reasons I had my doubts was because of the sheer number of conversations between people that were re-created in the book. If you're going to have an abundance of quotes, let me know where they're from; reconstituted journal entries, interviews, creative non-fiction. There's nothing, though. Not a footnote to be found in this exhaustively researched book.

I'm not the only one with concerns about the accuracy of the book. There is a website about Maskelyne which breaks down War Magician and Maskelyne's ghosted biography.

Even the author's webpage at MacMillan publishing (and some of you might recognize Fisher's name from his sport books, particularly his co-writing Ron Luciano's books) now calls War Magician a novel. So, questioning the level of factual information in this book seems valid. And it makes sense. I think if Maskelyne really pulled off as much as the book claims, he'd be much more recognized than he is.

War Magician is entertaining. Maskelyne leads a group of ragtag soldiers who are in charge of coming up with ideas to deceive the Germans. The most successful of these efforts are the creation of wooden shells designed to make tanks look like trucks. A lot of ingenuity is shown. When a bunch of green tanks are shipped to Africa for desert warfare and no paint can be found to camoflauge them, Maskelyne and his gang make their own paint out of spoiled Worcestershire sauce and camel dung.

Ultimately, the book is too long and too filled with meaningless discussions and efforts to flesh out the players in the story for me to recommend it. That, plus it not being what it initially purported itself to be, a well-researched biography of Maskelyne. But if you have an interest in World War II and want to learn something unusual, at least check out the Maskelyne website I linked to. Learning about Maskelyne makes me even more interested in Chabon's Hobgoblins.

This is a riot

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Even working at a library, you can't always get the books you want when you want them. Take our library system. There are seventeen libraries in the system, ranging from some really large ones to some really small ones. But would think that most books that get reviewed places would end up being purchased by one or more of them.

I had read a review of Savages and it sounded like it was a fast-paced, oddly written book, much like the much-loved-by-me Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow. I wanted to read it. Only one library in the system had it. Libraries in the system won't ship new books to the patrons of other libraries. You can either drive to the owning library, hope the book is on the shelf, and sign it out, or you can wait for the six month restricted period for new books to end and then request it be shipped.

I opted for the wait. And on the exact day it came off, I requested it.

Worth the wait. I knew the book was going to be different when I started the book. You know how you always hear the advice to writers that your first line should be powerful, drawing the reader into the book? Well, the first line of Savages is the first chapter of Savages. It reads, in it's entirety, "Fuck you".

So, yeah, that grabbed me. Especially since that was the whole chapter.

The book is about two young guys who are marijuana dealers in sunny California. Chon is a former Navy SEAL who brought back some high quality marijuana seeds when he was fighting overseas. His buddy Ben is a botanist who figures out how to create some nice blends with these seeds to create highly desired designer marijuana. The two share a girlfriend named Ophelia.

A Mexican drug cartel decides that they want to expand their operations into So-Cal and they go tell Ben and Chon that they are taking over their business. Naturally, the two are opposed to the idea. The cartel kidnaps Ophelia. A drug war begins.

This is another book with some really nicely developed characters with multiple points of views. Chapters (which are mostly really short and brisk) move from perspective to perspective.

But profanity, drug wars, seedy folks, violence. Not a big chance for a happy ending and no one really to root for (gee, I hope that Chon and Ben get Ophelia back so they can have another threesome and then sell some more weed! By the way, fuck you!). That keeps this from being a two star book for me. It's well-written, powerful, with a driving style that I liked. I'd put it more James Ellary than Toby Barlow in terms of style, which isn't bad. Well worth it if you don't mind amoral characters in your novels.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Cross-Time Engineer

You know one of the reasons I love books? Real books, those made of paper and glue or stitching. Maybe with a dustjacket or maybe an old battered paperback. Not a downloaded file or something on a computer screen. A real, live, honest-to-goodness book. Want to know why?

Because they can be passed along from person to person. The Cross-Time Engineer is a case in point. I first started this series as a kid, probably in high school if memory serves. The book is about a fellow named Conrad Schwartz who is an engineer in Poland. He is on vacation, hiking through the mountains of his home country, and stops by some fancy schmancy place that cultivates seeds. The saleswoman is a hot redhead who leads Conrad to believe that she will meet him at a nearby inn later. Conrad buys lots of seeds. Conrad gets stood up, gets drunk, stumbles his way to the bathroom and passes out on the way back.

Turns out where Conrad passed out is used as a portal for time travel. He wakes up in the Middle Ages where he meets a friar who befriends him. Conrad takes the last name Stargard, the town of his birthplace, because of fear of his German sounding last name being held against him. Conrad is a big man, well over six foot, good looking and bright, too. He catches the fancy of a Count Lambert and proceeds to lead Poland into a technological revolution.

The series continues (I believe five or six books in all) with Conrad eventually developing Poland into a superpower and taking on the Mongols. It's a really fun series. Right up there with Darryl Brock's If I Never Get Back as far as good time travel story (and Audrey Niffenegger's Time Traveler's Wife would be below last on the list (don't ask me how. If we can travel through time, we can put things after last)).

Getting back to the physical book itself, I encouraged my mother, a former science teacher, to read them, once I went to college. She enjoyed them and they stayed at her house for a long time. When I moved back to the area and was visiting, I reclaimed them. Then, when my oldest son was looking for stuff to read a few years back, I gave them to him to read. He absconded with them and they have been in his bedroom.

He grabbed The Cross-Time Engineer to re-read it and I think to encourage his younger brother to read it (don't think he's quite there yet as there are some adult topics). Nonetheless, the book found its way to the living room where I, one night upon crashing into a recliner, picked it up and re-read it myself.

How would you do that with an e-book? Maybe if it was a pdf on a thumb drive you could finagle it. But would I have had a pdf of this book, or a thumb drive, some twenty years ago? Of course not. At best it might have been written as a FORTRAN program on a series of 5.25 inch floppy disks.

Books are where it's at. And if you can find this series of books by Leo Frankowski, you should check them out. They're a lot of fun and are quick reads.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Imperfectionists

I wanted to read The Imperfectionists from the moment I heard about it yet I never got around to doing so. Finally, someone returned a copy belonging to another library at my library and so I thought it was time.

Well worth the wait. I enjoyed this book immensely. This is another one of those books (it's almost becoming gimmicky) told by a multitude of characters with each chapter being told by one of the characters. It ends up being a collection of short stories in a sense but unlike in, say, A Visit From the Goon Squad, the stories are much more interrelated.

The story is about a dying, once great, European newspaper. Each chapter is from someone having to do with the paper ranging from editors, writers, human resources, to a reader. Interspersed between the chapters is a page or three about the history of the paper.

Rachman does a great job developing the personalities of the characters. Beyond that, he also showed how certain characters were misjudged by those who interacted with them. You see how certain characters view others but then you reach that characters' story and you see that there is more than meets the eye. So even though you only get a character's perspective for one chapter, they continue to be fleshed out in ensuing chapters (or are hinted at before their chapter is reached).

Rachman is a former journalist and he seems to have covered all the bases in this novel from the highest supervisor down to a guy trying to catch on with the paper as a stringer. I thought it was a well done book from beginning to end and one I could see myself re-reading some day.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Although I hate the phrase, you know how various industries like to have their "rock-stars"? Those men or women who maybe work in an industry that normally doesn't receive much attention but gains some notoriety because of an individual being gregarious and engaging as well as creating brilliant work? Like a Jacques Cousteau or a Carl Sagan, for instance. Even now, you think of underwater exploring, you think of ole Jacques.

I think the field of neuroscience has that guy right now. He is David Eagleman, the author of this book. He has a book out on the brain called Incognito which is receiving some press and as far as being gregarious and engaging, I'll let you make the call:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
David Eagleman
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

This aired after I had read Sum. Sum is a collection of....visions? They are too short to label them essays or stories. Each is about three (small) pages in length, Forty in all. Each one depicts the possibility of what the afterlife looks like. What happens at the end of life depends, in part, on how life came to be so there's some ideas as well as to how we came to exist as human beings and what it might mean.

Eagleman's imagination is mind-boggling. How many possibilities of an afterlife can you come up with? Forty? They are well thought out and described and it really makes one wonder about organized religion and religious belief systems.

Want some examples? How about the possibility that "God" is a married couple? Or that he is the size of a bacteria making us so small as to be completely insignificant to him.

Science, religion, neuroscience - all tied together in a tidy, entertaining bundle. And even though the idea of reading a book about the brain doesn't interest me, I expect I will end up reading Incognito.

Update: The answer to my "Who's that Astromon" question should be obvious now. David Eagleman, while he might be capable of posting a better OPS than some of the guys on the Astros, is a neuroscientist and not a AAA baseball player.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Stolen World

You would expect from the title of the post that this would be a review of another book on art crime. Fooled you! It's about reptile crime.

Who knew there was such a thing? Apparently in the sixties and seventies, before governments started cracking down on it, there were a number of guys who made fairly decent livings smuggling reptiles for private collections and zoos. In a way, very similar to art crime (minus the forgeries and replace zoos with museums). The big difference is that the guys who dealt with smuggling reptiles also had an obsession with reptiles themselves. Reptile smuggling isn't exactly a field you get into for the money.

Jennie Smith's book is primarily about two dealers who continue in the reptile trade into the 2000's. I didn't much care for them and the book is based mostly on interviews with them. As such it is one-sided and being as I didn't like the fellows, I didn't really care much about the outcome of the story/their lives.

I also disliked Smith's writing. It was as boring as her name. I was surprised to find that she makes a living writing. Yeah, I disliked it that much. I think in part because it reminded me of my own writing (which I really don't like). Dry, a lack of description.

I signed this book out, in part, because it had sat on our new book shelf for four months without anyone signing it out before me. I kind of felt bad for the book. Having read it, I don't feel bad anymore if it sits untouched.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Personal Days

I had a feeling before I read this that it would be similar to Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End. Life working in an office. Funny stories a la something you might see in a Dilbert comic or the movie Office Space (I've never seen the show The Office but I imagine it might be similar). The book started that way. Some witty situations, most of them written in such brief segments I at one point thought that perhaps this novel could be serialized on Twitter as a series of Tweets.

But then it stopped.

There are layoffs and things get weird and the text reads more like your typical novel. Stuff stops being funny or interesting and the last half of the book was a chore to read.

The only other thing of note is the attempt to have the story told in the third person plural. The narrator is "we", a group of co-workers. But so many of the individuals encompassed by the collective are mentioned individually, it really didn't seem like there was much reason for having the narrator be plural rather than singular other than as a forced literary device.

I could recommend the book for its first half, but to be honest, after the passing of a few weeks, I hardly remember enough of it to do so. It's a pretty forgettable book.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Barn in New England

In my review of Andorra I mentioned that there is another book I turn to when I am feeling the effects of summer and wanting to be somewhere else. That book is Joseph Monninger's A Barn in New England.

Monninger is a professor who decides to move with his girlfriend, Wendy, and her son, Pie, to a barn in Warren, New Hampshire. The word barn means different things to different people. I refer to the building behind my house where I work out as a barn even though it is only about sixteen feet square and a couple of floors high. It's not a barn where I'm going to keep cattle. It is a wooden building with beams that resembles, well, a barn, albeit a small one.

Similarly, Monninger's barn is a bit hard to picture as a barn because of its enormity. It once housed animals so you know it is pretty big. The only thing about this book I don't like is that there are no pictures of the barn. You have to imagine it. Or be a decent researcher. From things mentioned in the book, I tracked down an old postcard that had a picture of the barn. Here it is:

That's the barn on the left. Mammoth, huh? It is four stories high. So the book is about their move to the barn, their first year in it, the town and townfolk, the renovations they make to the barn, and the lives of a couple in love/family. I love it. It's one of my favorite books of all time.

Monninger somehow creates a sense of idyllic realism. Living in a place like that isn't easy. Insulating, heating, restoring rotted wood including support beams. It takes effort and money. It's not easy and Monninger doesn't pretend it is. Yet the writing is never whiny, never defeatist. The trio are, if anything, resilient. They plug away and turn what was once a barn into a home.

Monninger's writing is exquisite with great details. And always just the right ones in the right amount. I always find it difficult (I have read this several times) not to feel inspired by reading this. A search for home has always been a struggle for me and while where I live now is as close as I have been, that summer heat still makes me want to move further north.

But beyond the building, the love Monninger feels for Wendy and Pie is also inspirational. A building isn't really a home without people and there is a lot of love in this story without it becoming sappy.

Whether or not I become Monninger's neighbor remains to be seen. In the long run, I have a feeling I'll likely stop short of New England, say, oh, I don't know, somewhere in rural New York. Until then, I'll keep plugging away at my own old house and barn and be inspired by Monninger.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Who's that Astromon?

One of these players was not in the Astros starting lineup last night. Do you know who it was?

Jose Altuve
Brian Bogusevic
Carlos Corporan
Luis Durango
David Eagleman

Is it the guy whose last name ends in A,B,C,D or E?

Born to Run

Amidst all my other activities, I continue to try and work out, lose weight and get in shape. One of the things I have been trying to do is run more. The idea of lugging my carcass around for any distance is a little concerning because of the amount of force being put on my joints, particularly my knees. How to run without putting strain on my knees?

After looking around a bit, I decided I'd give barefoot running a shot. There are some folks out there who think that the footwear that Nike et al provide us actually do more harm than good - that we didn't have to worry about overpronation and crap like that until the shoe companies started making shoes for it. The idea is that running is natural and our foot is meant to move a given way (more ball of the foot oriented) and less the way shoes force us to (heel to toe). So I gave it a shot. And I found that running barefoot is a lot less jarring.

When I do run, I run on pavement and so the recent heat tsunami has made me a little too toasty for getting out and running barefoot. Nonetheless, I was pretty jazzed to find that I might be able to get back into running (I ran track and cross country in high school and was a biathlete in college. Of course that was tens of years and pounds ago).

In my excitement, one of my co-workers suggested that I read the book Born to Run. It was a very popular book in this area about a year or two ago and I knew that the fleet of women runners that work out at the local Y had all read it (it may have been a book club book). Another co-worker overheard our conversation and she recommended it. Our copy was out so I drove to a nearby library and grabbed their copy. The librarian there told me that she wasn't a runner, wasn't interested in running, and she loved it. I don't think it could have come any more recommended.

All the recommendations were right. I loved it.

Right off the bat I knew I would I enjoy it. The author, Christopher McDougall, is my size, lives in rural, Amish Pennsylvania and the book opens with him trying to get himself into shape by running. Just like me! When he suffers an injury while running, he begins to explore alternatives. McDougall discovers a reclusive tribe of Indians in Mexico called the Taramuhara who are considered by many to be the best long-distance runners in the world. He begins to research them and finds that not only are they great runners, they love running, tend to be injury free, run in the barest of footwear and have a mostly vegetarian diet.

Along the way, McDougall encounters a bunch of interesting folk, ranging from drug dealers to ultra-marathoners to an American who picked up and moved to Mexico to live near the Taramuhara. In the end, a race is arranged between the Taramuhara and some of the top ultra-marathoners in the world with McDougall, big carcass and all, joining them and completing it.

It's a great book and a great story. Like the one librarian said, even if you aren't interested in running, it is fascinating and entertaining. If you are interested in running, it will help you look at and question some of the beliefs you may have held to be true.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Way Through Doors

This was an interesting piece of meta-fiction. The main character, Selah Morse, is a struggling pamphleteer who is hired by his uncle to work in some sort of odd secret governmental organization. One day he is out in the street walking and a beautiful woman races out of a building into a street where she is struck by a taxicab. Morse accompanies her to the hospital where he claims to be the woman's boyfriend. The woman has amnesia and cannot remember anything of her life. Morse takes her back to his place and begins to try and recreate her memories by telling her a story.

As his story progresses, characters within his story begin telling stories of their own and then characters in those stories tell their own stories. Some of those stories reference people from the previous stories but not always in ways that were expected. One story, for example, is an almost identical recreation of the first pages of the novel but with some minor twists. Along the way there are a number of interesting characters, the most prevalent being a Coney Island boardwalk mindreader who is wrong more often than he is right.

All in all, I liked it. There didn't seem to be much of a point to it all outside of the oddball style but it was fun. The author barely constrains himself when it comes to realism but although it is imaginative, it is not outlandishly so. I could see a re-read being beneficial to try and catch more details and such and the book is short enough to do so. Worth checking out if you want something different.