Sunday, January 30, 2011

devil's punchbowl

I've never read anything by Greg Iles, myself. After reading The Devil's Punchbowl, my wife went out and bought two or three of his other books, so something must be happening here, right? I don't know much about Iles, or his other books, but it seems like some of the characters in this story might have appeared in some of his others. At least they could have.

The main protagonist, Penn Cage, seems like the kind of guy who was developed in a first or second novel, and keeps coming back because the author likes him so much. As is often the case, its probably because Penn Cage is the author's alter ego. I know, 'here he goes, on some psycho-babble rant', but I think we can agree on this: author's put a lot of themselves into stories, and sometimes it shows. I don't know Greg Iles, but come on. Here are the stats; you can decide for yourself.

Penn Cage is a 6'-2", fit, handsome, mid-forties ex-lawyer, ex- Assistant DA, ex-writer (novels, and quite successful, thank you very much), who is now the mayor... the Mayor... of his beloved hometown, overlooking the Mississip.* He's got a smart, pretty young daughter, who's helping him come to grips with the tragic loss of his wife, and the mother of said daughter.

Penn Cage also has a super-fine girlfriend who is smart, sexy, understanding, dedicated to work and family, beloved by his own family, and can handle a gun. She also doesn't mind too terribly if she has to go naked now and again in order to get things done, and says things like, 'Are we going to be friends with benefits?'

Oh, and both his first and last name have four letters. And they sound cool. But, I know, that's just being picky, I'm crazy, whatever.

Alter ego or not, I'm not saying that this is a crummy book, I kind of liked it, I just didn't love it. The story was well written, and the characters were pretty well fleshed out. The plot line developed nicely throughout, and I was surprised a little along the way. What I didn't like was the brutality. If this was a movie it would be Rated-R, for strong, pervasive violence. It wasn't the whole way through, but when it got to violent parts, there wasn't any fooling around. I'm not talking about using a shotgun when a pistol would do it, I'm talking about things that people do that are just deplorable. As in, 'Oh he's not gonna... oh yuck, that's disgusting; who would do something like that.'

I'm sure people do, I'd just rather not read about it.

*I made up this nickname for the Mississippi River. I'm sure no one actually says that, that's me freestyling.

Friday, January 21, 2011

anathem ii

Anathem is a big book with big ideas. My Dad gave me this book and tells me he's a fan of Neal Stephenson's novels. (That's him on the left. Stephenson, not my Dad.) I guess I'll have to check out some others. Stephenson hasn't just invented a world for this SF story to take place, but politics, topography, society, history, technology and vocabulary to go along with it. No small feat, and certainly others have done it as well, but I think what makes Anathem stand apart from some of the others I've read, is the way that all of these things are woven together with philosophy and quantum mechanics.

And its not just some single philosophy that Stephenson wants to foist onto the rest of us--although there are some ideas which are presented as having a stronger case than others--there are a lot of them. Whole philosophical movements (and religions), along with their individual histories, faiths, doctrines, theories, and tenets. Oftentimes conflicting, and with well-thought-out arguments and counter arguments, each with their own histories.

The protagonist, and many of the people around him, live according to these various modes of thought, and the thought processes they go through figure large in the story. Just how they arrive at the decisions they make, and solve scientific and technological problems, and the care that goes into being thoughtful, for its own sake, is a way of life for these people. And it sets them apart from the people in their world who don't practice the same discipline; those video watching, sugar-water swilling, sæcular masses.

I really enjoyed this one. It was smart, expansive, and carefully written. The characters think with clarity and open mindedness, they weigh things carefully, and then they act without animosity or prejudice, which was refreshing to read.

Read this book.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

anathem i

I just past the halfway point of Anathem, by Neal Stephenson (509/937). I'm sure I've read some similar things--when I was younger I read a lot more fantasy and sci fi--but I don't recall anything quite like this. Speculative Fiction is probably the best description I can come up with and 500+ pages in, I'm still not sure what exactly is going on. Anathem is built around a mystery, of sorts, and surrounded by more mystery. Sounds complex, but it isn't really. Stephenson takes the time to allow the story to unfold, and allow his readers to catch up.

This idea of allowing the reader to catch up is actually an integral part of the story arc, and the writer-reader relationship in this book; maybe dialog is a better word. The frontmatter includes a note to the reader, along with a timeline. The backmatter includes a glossary, and an appendix which I thought was helpful. The chapters, and many of the scene changes in the text are punctuated by glossary entries that either explain a term that was just used, or, more often, explains a term the reader will need in the coming scene, which acts as a foreshadowing tool, and fortunately, is not as clunky as it seems.

Anathem seems to take place on a world very much like Earth. So similar that we could be related to its inhabitants somehow. Are they descendants? A parallel universe? I'm not sure, but a lot of their habits, and lifestyles are similar to ours, if only exaggerated or simplified. As is there language. Many of the terms included in the glossary entries are very similar to English words, and seems as though they could have evolved from a common root language. I love the language related stuff: etymology, definition drift. But what does it all mean?

Not sure, yet.

By the way, aren't these cover images weirdly similar? Thanks for the book Dad!

Monday, January 3, 2011


I've never read Beowulf, and I didn't see the recent animated/CGI movie from a year or two ago, so I was pleasantly surprised, by not only the story, but by what it has inspired in other stories. In fact, the Beowulf movie was probably inspired by this new translation--from Old English--by Seamus Heaney. Because I haven't read another translation, I can't tell you how this one stacks up, but I can tell you it reads well.

Beowulf is a must read for all J.R.R. Tolkien fans. In the introduction, Heaney notes that Tolkien wrote one of the pivotal paper's on Beowulf, titled, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, which changed the way that scholars saw the poem and its unknown poet. Tolkien studied the poem extensively it seems, and I was delighted to see inspiration for Tolkien's own work right there in the poem, and not just a little bit... giagunda bits!

Tolkien uses some very old imagery and icons in his writing, as well as a deep knowledge of myths and legends, from the very origins of writing in English, and other Germanic languages. His development of the elvish languages helped to cement all these ideas together into the whole that became Middle-earth. It seems to me that what makes Tolkien's saga so powerful is the the amazingly full and rich backstory, and I think that richness comes from the fact that the backstory came first, developing slowly over time, until the stories emerged from that history, almost on their own. It is because the Middle-earth backstory is based so much in our own, collective history and mythology, that the stories that arise out of Middle-earth seem so solid; anchored in our own hazy past.

Golden rings are an example of one of those old icons, and they figure in Beowulf, albeit, not critically, as they figure in many other stories that inspired Tolkien, such as Wagner's Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen). This is just one example, and there are others. Lots of others to be found in Beowulf, but I try to avoid spoilers, so I won't go into them here.

This review didn't really start out to be an analysis of the poem, purely as inspiration for Tolkien, but the parallels are amazing. However, Beowulf is much more than what others have made of it in their own writing. The poem is striking in its readability, and I'm sure this owes a great debt to Heaney's translation. The poem is also like a time machine, in that it gives this glimpse of what life was like in that early part of the world (mid-seventh to the late-tenth century, in England and Sweden). Its the quintessential hero story in English. Every bit as big and bodacious as any of the Greek and Roman hero stories.

Read this book.