Sunday, August 11, 2013

Book Reviews: Various Summer Reading

I've been on a roll with reading this summer. It's variety of a sort. Some of these books you might like, some might make you ask, "Why the heck is he reading that?" To which I answer, "Because I wish to." Onward!

The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

Imagine what might happen if an alien star empire decided to visit Earth in 1345 for the purposes of evaluating our homeworld for conquest. Imagine what might happen if their ship landed near a town of crusading Englishmen. Well, you need not imagine further: Poul Anderson has done it for you. This is a fun adventure, but not as deep-thinking or thought-provoking as some Anderson books I've read. My biggest mental block about this book is the notion that medieval humans would have to couth or sense to counter alien hardware, but Anderson makes the case plausibly enough to make the story fun, if not entirely believable.

Ice by Anna Kavan

I probably shouldn't review this book since I did not finish it. But then again, perhaps that feeling of dismay deserves to be shared. I encountered this title because it was included in Brian Aldiss's gargantuan book of science fiction criticism, The Trillion Year Spree (which is worth reading, by the way). The problem with Ice? Several. Leave aside the dystopian future it depicts. SF is full of plenty of those, and some are quite good. The style, however, is vaguely stream-of-consciousness--lots of rambling, and random depictions of events which the viewpoint narrator sometimes experiences, sometimes imagines. The reader faces the ultimate "unreliable narrator," made worse somehow by knowing that the late author was a drug addict who succumbed to heroin soon after writing this book. It's a frightening look into the mind of a drug addict, then, but I cannot say it's particularly good fiction, as the meandering "events" and blahblahblah prose do not encourage the reader to pay much attention to either. I'm sorry I waited so long to purchase this--I read Trillion Year Spree sometime in the '80s--my expectations were too high and the quality of the writing too low.

The Player of Games and Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

These books are not listed in the order they were written but in the order I read them. I'd heard that Mr. Banks had passed on recently and a friend or two had recommended his works. This would not be the first time I started reading an author this way (I didn't start reading Robert A. Heinlein until his passing), but one day I need to learn to enjoy living SF authors. Be that as it may, I'm glad I read these books in the order that I did, or I might not have read both books. So what are we looking at here?

Banks has created a high-tech future called "The Culture," in which human beings have created a wide variety of technological marvels, from ringworlds to city-sized starships to genetically advanced people who have glands that can secrete any type of mood or mental state imaginable. It's not quite a "singularity" type future, but it is very advanced, on the level of space opera with an Arthur C. Clarke realism. The Player of Games follows the adventure of a man named Gurgeh, a professional player of strategy games. The best in his line of work, Gurgeh gets an offer he can't refuse--a strategy game where the stakes are life-and-death, political success or triumph. The intricacies of this world come across nicely in the story, and Gurgeh, while flawed, is a sympathetic character.

Consider Phlebas was the first book in the Culture series, and it was not nearly as enjoyable. It is written from the point of view of a genetically advanced warrior who is at odds with the Culture civilization and lives more or less like a Han Solo/Malcolm Reynolds sort of amoral space pirate--without the likeability. Again we find large vehicles, massive manufactured worlds, and high-tech weaponry. However, the lead character, Horza, is hostile to the Culture (a traitor, in fact), and tries to stay outside of its territory, so we only get a hint of how it operates. There is conflict, success, and failure in this book, but the tone is rather downbeat. I'm hoping to get into other Culture novels to better appreciate what Banks has created. These books are not short, though--each well over 500 pages. Don't editors edit anymore?

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

This is one of the few Bradbury books I haven't read. I picked it up because my mother, since retiring, has been taking a lot of short courses at her local community college, and one of them was on this book. It's rare that she and I will read the same author willingly, so I thought it would give us an opportunity to talk about something different. The book itself is Bradbury's rose-colored-glasses view of his boyhood in northern Illinois (Waukegan, renamed Green Town) in the late 1920s. It forced me to really think about how I have written and thought about my childhood in Lombard, Illinois, because I have not been nearly as warm and fuzzy toward the place. Bradbury describes a life almost Tom Sawyer-like in its simple pleasures and festive innocence: the joys of new sneakers, visiting carnivals, exploring the neighborhood, listening to family talk on broad front porches. And yes, I suppose I experienced some of that while growing up in Lombard. Life certainly was simpler then (1970s-80s) if not necessarily better. The book itself is a series of vignettes rather than a full novel in the pure sense. It's soft, poetical, and magical, like most of Bradbury's work. It's a nice place to visit, but it reads like fantasy for me because, as I said, I had a much different experience.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

I knew this book primarily through the movie, which brought together many of the same actors who starred in Casablanca, including Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Sidney Greenstreet. The film is delightful, and sparks with much of the same energetic dialogue. The problem with seeing the movie first, which is usually something I do not do, is that there aren't a lot of surprises once you start the reading experience. The screen writers did a commendable job converting most of the book to the screen, eliminating only a few sidesteps or characters who would have taken too long to explain. Hammett's prose is heavy on dialogue, and therefore much of what you read on the page you also hear in the film. I actually preferred The Thin Man, which is a lot more humorous and entertaining tale about a high society husband-and-wife team who solve a murder. But if you haven't seen or read The Maltese Falcon, you're in for a treat: a street-smart private investigator is dragged into an increasingly complex set of characters and circumstances surrounding the aforementioned Falcon. To elaborate would be to spoil the fun.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Unlike The Maltese Falcon, I have not seen The Big Sleep or any other Raymond Chandler-book-based movie. Imagine my surprise (or, perhaps not) that Chandler's tough-guy detective Phillip Marlowe is also portrayed by Humphrey Bogart. In this story, we've got a hard-bitten detective in 1930s Los Angeles who's hired to sort out a blackmail problem for a rich family and faces a lot of harsh bad guys and twisted behavior along the way. Marlowe appears to be a model for Mickey Spillane's tough guy, Mike Hammer. Given Chandler's description of the character, I had the 1980s Mike Hammer, Stacy Keach, in my mind when I imagined Marlowe. Anyhow, Chandler's got a different way of going about things than Dashiell Hammett. Where Hammett advances his stories primarily through dialogue, Chandler throws in a lot more narrator asides. It's easier to "see" Chandler's world, which he lavishes with details of climate, clothing, architecture, and character descriptions. I'm tempted to pick up more Philip Marlowe books because there's a certain elegance and style to the prose--and the characters. You can imagine Marlowe, who's a bit more cultured than Mike Hammer, getting hired by a millionaire. Mickey Spillane's tough-guy stance carries over to his prose, almost as if the author is trying too hard. Chandler created a fun book here, and I look forward to catching up on others--and maybe, eventually, the movies.

...And yes, I found time for some nonfiction, too...

The Influence Game by Stephanie Vance

I got this book because I'm finding that it helps to know a bit about the lobbying business (welcome the world of the government contractor). The subtitle of this book is 50 Insider Tactics from the Washington, D.C., Lobbying World that Will Get You to Yes. The idea behind the book is that while the tips are derived from the lobbying world, the logic of them could apply to anyone or any situation. I might differ with that assessment a bit, but you can find politics everywhere, so an understanding of how American politics works can give you some insight into the American business culture. As a set of tactics for actual lobbying, though, I found this book very helpful and directly applicable to the knowledge I needed to acquire. A tip of the fedora to my friend The Deastroyer for this recommendation!

The Civil War by Geoffrey Ward, Ric Burns, and Ken Burns

 A couple weeks ago, I visited Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, a 2,000-foot ridge that overlooks Chattanooga. It was one of several battlegrounds that were decisive in capturing the city during the Civil War. While I was there, I wandered the gift shop and found this book, which is the basis/companion text for the PBS miniseries that was made several years ago. It occurred to me awhile back that my knowledge of Civil War history is a little scanty, as I was more interested in World War II as a boy. Now, living in the South, I suppose some familiarity with the War is unavoidable, especially when I came to realize how close some of the battlefields were to places I live or visit on a regular basis (a Union army set up camp on the south side of Huntsville, in the general area where the hospital district is now).  

The Civil War provides a high-level narrative of the conflict and manages to capture, if only in brief sketches, the viewpoints of the Yankees and Confederates. I found the book worth reading, and interesting enough to consider renting or buying the miniseries. The book also provided me some insight into how and why the war was fought so savagely for so long. There are other things I might want to read along these lines to get a better, more detailed perspective (I also read the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant a few months back). I guess, as much as Americans might like to think otherwise, much of our history derives from this single conflict, and its lessons must be learned and understood, however painful the questions it makes us ask.

I think that's all for now. If any of these reviewlets intrigued you enough to make a purchase, please click on one of the links posted here--I get some (not a lot of) credit from if you make the purchase through my site.

Keep your brain busy!

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